Thou Shalt Not.

“I wonder if I shall ever be happy enough to have real lace on my clothes and bows on my caps? said Meg impatiently.

You said the other day that you’d be perfectly happy if you could only go to Annie Moffat’s, observed Beth in her quiet way.

So I did! Well, I am happy, and I won’t fret, but it does seem as if the more one gets the more one wants, doesn’t it?” –Louisa May Alcott, Little Women 

I bought a sandwich the other day in the deli that I used to frequent when I first moved to Philadelphia, seven years ago. I added a slice of American cheese (.30) and extra pickles (.20) to a chicken salad sandwich (chicken salad is, of course, 60 cents more expensive than veggie or egg).

I didn’t think twice about it. Took out my debit card from my wallet, paid, smiled, and left. And then later remembered how seven years ago I would budget meticulously for those rare days when I wouldn’t bring lunch from home, allowing myself the luxury of buying the sandwich. How I would eat half for lunch, wrap the other half up and leave it in the fridge for dinner, even though I knew I would be working a fourteen-hour day, how I was always tired and starving by the end of the night.

And how I would feel such self-pity sometimes, thinking about how hard I worked and how hungry I was, while walking past the homeless guys wrapped in newspaper in the park on the square. On my way back to my apartment, with heat and with air conditioning, with soft blankets and pillows, with a cell phone that, if it came down to it, I could use to call my parents if I ever really needed help.

Being so ashamed when I caught myself feeling irritated by the people who would beg on the corners along my walk home, their hands outstretched, me trudging through the snow, shaking my head no. Thinking “Can’t you see I am also exhausted, I am tired, I am also poor, I have nothing to give?”

(Even though I knew even then that my thoughts were bullshit, that I work hard but have never been exhausted in the way that the homeless are exhausted; that I am tired but not tired the way that daily drudgery can permeate your bones and muscles and soul; that I am also poor, but not so poor that I go without food or water or shelter…  just health insurance and nice dinners out and cable TV).

Even still, I do that. There are so many outstretched hands, and so often, I just keep walking. Because I think, I can’t afford that right now. I have my own bills. I work in the arts; I make just enough to scrape by. Ticket prices increase, but my designer fees haven’t gone up; I’m booked less this year and it costs the same amount to heat my house and run my car. My blog’s ad revenue is decreasing lately, donations to the site are down; my freelance writing hasn’t been on track lately. So I keep walking. I keep walking.

Even though sometimes I’m walking out of a Starbucks. I feel terrible. And still. I keep walking.

The New York Times profiled a homeless child named Dasani in 2013. Dasani is an eleven-year-old girl growing up in Fort Greene, where “mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm,” where “feces and vomit plug communal toilets.”

Fort Greene, I read recently, is also the site of a mom n’ pop startup creating and bottling artisanal probiotic hot sauce. 

There are twenty-two thousand homeless children in New York City today, the highest number since the Great Depression. That’s almost the entire population of the small town where I grew up, a town large enough to sustain a shopping mall and several grocery stores, restaurants, coffeeshops, Wal-Mart and Target. Twenty-two thousand children. Living in mold and roaches and feces and vomit, in one city. Conditions I can’t even begin to imagine.

If I was living in that Fort Greene project, guarding shower doors from predators, walking to my overcrowded and underfunded school, I have a feeling that I would hate that artisanal hot sauce guy.

I’m thinking about Dasani’s story today because I am thinking about the cover story of the New York Times.

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I am thinking about the headline “Drug Goes From $13.50 a Tablet to $750, Overnight.” I am thinking about the shocking display of greed and avarice, the astonishing lack of empathy that it might take to ruin the financial lives of anyone unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with toxoplasmosis and require this drug as treatment (specifically: babies born to infected women, and those with compromised immune systems such as AIDS or HIV).

I am thinking about this because Martin Shkrelli has stated that he isn’t a “greedy drug company trying to gouge patients, we’re just trying to stay in business.”

I am thinking about this headline because it is so very easy to hate Martin Shkrelli.

I am thinking about this because truthfully, the hot sauce guy is a convenient scapegoat, but not the problem.

I am thinking about this because I can see the connection between me, walking down the street, just barely keeping my financial head above water, and deciding that even though I could probably spare the dollar to give away, I didn’t. I earned it, and I kept it. It’s not that I didn’t see that the homeless man was in need. It’s just that I weighed my own needs in the equation, and my own needs won.

As did the needs of Martin Shkrelli. Not the AIDS patients whose medicines are now 500% more expensive.

And that’s when I get angry.

Because I’m not angry that Martin Shkrelli figured out a way to generate large profits at the expense of the sick and the vulnerable. I am angry that it’s 100% legal for him to do so. 

And I wondering how it is possible that in a city where, since 1978, CEO pay has increased 997% — yes, you read that correctly — the CEO of JP Morgan made a billion dollars last year, all the while claiming that cutting CEO pay wouldn’t really make a dent in the country’s wage gap. I am wondering how that man can exist in the same city with twenty-two thousand homeless kids.

And I am angry that this is legal.

Look, we all want the same stuff, right? No one likes that homelessness and poverty and racism and STDs and AIDS and crime and abortions and teen pregnancy are a thing. We all want a better world for everybody. I believe that much to be true. I do. I don’t think there are many downright villains out there, just human beings. Flawed, imperfect, human beings, who all disagree on the best way to address the problems. And that’s not rocket science. I don’t win some kind of humanitarian award for pointing this out.

But what I can’t understand is how the same justification that would allow me to pass by the homeless guy — on my $25,000 freelance income, before taxes — what I can’t understand is how that same justification seems to exist when people make $50,000. Or $150,000. Or 5 million dollars.

What I can sort of understand — because it’s human nature, because these problems are bigger than just the simple mathematics of it all  — is how the guy with 5 million dollars can look at the world in front of them and think, “I’m sorry, but this is not my problem.” What I can’t understand is how we can elect officials to serve and to protect us, who have sworn to act in the interests of their constituents, who make it legal for them to do so.

What I can’t understand is how we’ve put people in control who have never had to survive on minimum wage, who have never had to submit to a drug test, who have never been stopped and frisked by a police officer, who have never relied upon Planned Parenthood for a pap smear or a cancer screening — or seem unmoved by any of those stories. Who seem unable to imagine, to relate, to empathize. What I can’t understand is how the gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps widening.

What I can’t understand is how we have created a system in which the voices of the people feel so very small, and perhaps it is simply because we are.

What I can do is hand over the dollar the next time. It’s the equivalent of some pickles and extra cheese.

What I can’t understand is what to do about it all next.

**

 

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