Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

What can I say about a book that has already been widely acclaimed—that, in fact, has already won the 2009 National Book Award in fiction—that hasn’t already been proclaimed from the rooftops?

The book I’m talking about is Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I picked it up based on its title and cover design (yes, you sometimes can judge a book by its cover)—oh, and the fact that it was included in the top-10 lists of quite a few reviewers.

In case you haven’t read it, the novel centers on an actual event: the August 7, 1974 tightrope walk by Philippe Petit, who strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and captivated New York City with his aerial skills that summer morning. That tightrope walk is the veritable pivot point of the novel (as is the World Trade Center, and the reader’s knowledge of its fate colors the story), around which revolve the lives of the 7 million or so people who inhabited the city at the time. McCann zooms in on a dozen of those lives. In what Frank McCourt rightly called “a heartbreaking symphony of a novel,” McCann renders the salient details of each life so tenderly and vividly that you end up convinced they originated with you—that there is no middleman (McCann) between you and the characters.

Like several of the characters, I am a transplant to the city, having lived here almost three decades now. And by the time I picked up the book, I must confess, I had already decided to move away to a quieter life someplace else. I was—what’s the word?—jaded. But the novel reminded me why I came to the Big Apple and why I have stayed as long as I have. In McCann’s own words: “It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.”

Here’s a larger piece of the portrait McCann paints of the great city:

The theater began shortly after lunch. His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city. One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn’t care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.

New York kept going forward precisely because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it had left behind. It was like the city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder.

Yesterday, as I shoveled my car out from under two feet of heavy snow, having just finished the novel, I experienced residual effects. Every person who drove or walked past seemed larger than life. I found myself looking directly into their gaze, as though I suddenly recognized them after a long period of amnesia, and realized I was connected to them, and they to me. Six degrees of separation, if you will. Or two or one. Even the snow seemed to shine with a special intensity. In short, I found that I was inhabiting my life again—the present, city life—rather than the future.

McCann is not just a fiction writer—he’s a poet, too. So much of the language transcends the prosaic. Some paragraphs are masterpieces in and of themselves:

Little else to distract attention from the evening, just a clock, in a time not too distant from the present time, yet a time not too distant from the past, the unaccountable unfolding of consequence into tomorrow’s time, the simple things, the grain of bedwood alive in light, the slight argument of dark still left in the old woman’s hair….

Possibly the greatest compliment I could pay this book is that it reminded me of the necessity and transformative power of literature, and made me want to work at it myself. Not that I could come close to rivaling this beautiful cacophony. Only that my life will be fuller if I try.

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Autumn 2009 has been like no other I’ve experienced, with another round of layoffs in my company and the supposed sale of one division (of which I am a member). It’s difficult to feel good about having a job when so many around you are losing theirs. This year’s layoffs come, as usual, right before the holidays, but rather than happen in one fell swoop, they’ve been executed in dribs and drabs. One day you think you’re safe, the next you get the axe.

The past few weeks have darkened my view of the world and turned me off to many aspects of the American way of business. Here are 5 hard facts I’d like to see changed in this country.

1: Employers feel little impetus for full disclosure (aka honesty)

In 2009, employees at my company had our salaries cut approximately 5% and saw employer contributions to 401K plans dry up completely. Then an email from the CEO went round in October informing us that this would be the case again in 2010, but that, otherwise, the company was in “good shape.” One month later, we learned that our division was being sold, that a number of employees would be laid off in the process, and that another two dozen employees of the midsized company would also lose their jobs, including several top execs.

So what was the rationale, exactly, for that “reassuring” email? With the benefit of hindsight, I would have to say that its purpose was to keep people on the job, producing the company’s products, until such time as it became expedient to let them go. If that happened to fall right before the holidays, when it is virtually impossible to find a job, so be it. That’s business!

2: There is a two-tiered system of compensation

The people who “bring in the money” get rewarded much more handsomely than the people who actually produce the product that is being sold. Because I work in publishing, that product is a magazine. The journalists, editors, and artists who gather information, reformulate it in a style appropriate for our audience, and package it so that it is easy to read get paid a regular salary. The people who sell the ads that support the magazine, if they are at all successful, get paid much more handsomely, earning a portion of the profits and, in many cases, contracts that protect them in the case of a downturn.

Supposedly, they get paid more because they make it possible for us to continue doing our jobs. But if you take away the basic product—envisioned, created, and polished by others—just what do they have to offer?

In the sale of my division, the two top sales people were excluded from the deal. That was the end of their jobs. But both had lucrative contracts that buffered them from that loss and bought them plenty of time to line up a new position. In contrast, the salaried folks who were laid off in the sale received only a basic severance package (one week’s pay for every year of service to the company).

Is that really fair? Maybe not, but that’s how it goes in business!

3: The high cost of health insurance encourages employers to lay off older workers

The younger a company’s work force, the less likely it is to develop serious illness. So, naturally, it’s cheaper to insure younger employees. Older workers tend to develop chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension—or more acute health problems such as cancer—and the cost of insuring them goes up as a result.

With the skyrocketing cost of health care, employers are motivated—more than ever before—to lay off workers “of a certain age” in order to make insurance costs more manageable. After these workers are let go, they can keep their health coverage in effect for an additional 18–24 months through COBRA. But COBRA coverage requires the worker to pay the portion of his or her premium that was previously picked up by the employer. In many cases, this extra cost renders health coverage so expensive that the worker cannot afford to keep it going.

The solution: A new job, right? Then the worker will have insurance again.

Not so fast. Prospective employers are likely to bypass older job applicants—again because of age—in favor of younger, supposedly healthier prospects. They are also continuously downsizing the overall health insurance package they offer their workers, and increasing the employee’s portion of the premium.

4: Employers feel no loyalty to their workers

It is widely accepted business practice to base hiring decisions on a company’s profitability. No profits, no new jobs. Makes sense, n’est-ce pas?

But what about the people already employed by the company? When the overall profit line flattens, does the employer have any responsibility to maintain its current workforce? In this country, the answer to that question is a resounding “No!”

I’m not talking about a loss of operating revenue, only a decline in profits. In a time of serious recession, when jobs are quickly evaporating, is it ethical to lay off workers just because profits aren’t following an ever-increasing trajectory? When an employee invests the better part of his or her creative energy in the company’s bottom line over the long term, shouldn’t the employer exhibit some loyalty in return?

In a vibrant economy, when jobs are plentiful, both employer and employed rightly act as free agents. But when a downturn hits, don’t the rules need to change? Or is the motto of the American business world best expressed as “every man [and woman] for himself”?

5: Unemployment insurances is inadequate

Let’s say that, before you were laid off, you earned $50,000 a year, with health insurance. If you live in New York City, as I do, and are single, as I am, then my first question is: How have you survived financially?

My second question: Are you ready to see your compensation more than cut in half?

The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in New York State is $405—or $21,060 a year. On top of that, the benefit is subject to federal tax. And you’ll have to pay the full premium for your health insurance through COBRA, easily several hundred dollars a month. Try to survive according to this formula. (Hint: You can’t.)

New York lags behind neighboring states in its maximum allotment, which is $584 in New Jersey, $576 in Connecticut, and $628 in Massachusetts. Even at $628 a week—or just over $32,000 a year—survival is iffy. Compare that to the annual salary of a US Congress person (most of whom supplement their income in other ways), which is $174,000.

Clearly, unemployment insurance is largely a symbolic measure—meant to make you think there is a safety net, when what really awaits you is a concrete floor.

Its overall effect: to make you snap up the first job offer that comes along, whether the position makes full use of your talents, compensates you fairly, or offers health benefits or not. The game is rigged in the employer’s favor. Wonder why wages and other compensation are eroding?

It’s just business as usual.