bike path down the Hudson the other evening

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A Giant Rat (from Plato’s cave)

Recently I rode my bike down the beautiful path from the northern end of Manhattan, along the Hudson River, to Sekhnetville, about 13 miles south.  I really must post some photos from these trips, it’s a very photogenic ride.  You can see how beautiful the island was before wealth-crazed developers began heedlessly exploiting virtually every inch of it.   

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 The ride on the bike path becomes magical around sunset when the sky and the river are constantly changing color.

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As I’m now older, 61, and aware of certain health concerns, I tend to take a couple of breaks along the way.  I generally find myself resting just past the sewage treatment plant the city built in Harlem decades back.   In the plaza in front of Fairway I get off the bike, sit on a bench, have some water, a snack, rest a few minutes, watch the river flow.   

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The other night, as I was about to get on my bike to continue on a particularly beautiful section of the path, I saw a giant black rat racing toward me.  It was impossibly huge, this rat, and coming straight at me as I began to stand, hands on the handlebars of my bike.  The mutant rat was illuminated by the headlights of a car.  When the car turned, and the light shifted, I saw in that instant that the immense black rat was actually a tiny, terrified mouse, scrambling for cover about ten feet away and to my left.  What I had seen was its monstrous shadow, created by the headlights of the car.   

Reminded me of Plato’s allegory about the cave.  

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The Shoelace

Bukowski’s great poem about the killing nature of the accumulated frustrations we are powerless against captures the accursed essence of our lives here.  It’s that constant swarm of trivialities, culminating in a shoelace that snaps with no time left, that finally breaks a man, sends him to the madhouse.  

“I will not be broken,” he said to nobody.  

Of course you won’t, nor die, either.  

Toilet doesn’t flush.  Call super.  See you between 6 and 7, he says.  At 9:30, after several chats with the lying super, his two underlings arrive.  One shows me how, by forcing the flush plunger inward toward the pipe while pushing it down, you can get the broken device to flush.  This works four or five times after they leave, then, kaput.  Meanwhile, new part ordered for your antique toilet, will take a week.   Super recommends improvising, try not to shit for a week or so, the toilet will eventually be fixed.  

New York City does not have an answer, besides take the landlord to Housing Court.  You look for on-line help.  The help number on their handy PDF on Housing Code Violations connects you to a wrong number.  

Doctor friend provides new information on best practices for treating your idiopathic (“cause unknown”) kidney disease.   The medical journal article she’s copied for me calls for watchful waiting before IV steroid therapy if daily proteinuria level (the amount of unfiltered protein your kidneys pathologically spill into your urine) is below 2 grams.  Doctors have no idea what my daily level is, that requires a 24 hour urine test to determine.   If you think the nephrologist who charged $860 for my first visit would have known to order such a test, you think wrong.  She urged me to have an unneeded, expensive, kidney biopsy instead.  

It’s been complicated hearing back from my primary care doctor on the 24 hour urine, how to get the jug that I will collect 24 hours of urine in.  Only two or three calls to his office so far.  Maybe the third or fourth call will be the charm.

You learn, too late to save the several thousands of wasted dollars, that the so-called Silver level health insurance plan you bought, hoping for better treatment than you had last year on the “Essential Plan”, the plan you are paying almost 900% more for (after the subsidy, restored only seven months after being erroneously removed), gives you coverage identical to what you had last year on pay-as-you-go Medicaid.   I must not think of the more than $4,200 flushed down the toilet– especially now that my toilet doesn’t flush.  

The best things I write these days, I have to pull teeth to get any feedback on. I write these things ’til my forearms ache, and read them aloud to Sekhnet.  She tells me some of the recent ones with the skeleton are excellent overviews of this ambitious, highly speculative project I embarked on almost twenty months ago.   I heard an interview with Aaron Copeland, late in his life, lamenting that so few people heard his new music, wondering how a composer goes on without an audience to hear his work.   I felt bad for him, even as I wondered where he got the temerity to whine about not being as famous as he used to be.

The list goes on and you begin to wonder about the futility of trying to persist.   How long a NYC landlord has to fix a broken toilet, under NYC law, should not be such a mystery.  It is.  You take a bucket and manually flush the toilet, it takes at most two or three buckets full.  The bathtub is right next to the toilet, easy to fill the bucket as many times as you like.

So, shut the fuck up and keep bailing.  You’re lucky you live in a place where there are flush toilets, bountiful running water, sanitation, a medical industry, a semi-functioning government.  You have fucking first world problems, white boy.

“Well, as I always said, Elie, you’d complain if you were hung with a new rope,” said the skeleton of my father.  “With your fertile imagination comes an ability to brood that is beyond the powers of most people.  Not that I envy you, I’m just sayin’.”   

Yeah.   Be careful when you bend over.

Death sneaks in again

It is sometimes tempting to call the workings of our corporate world evil.  A ninety year-old woman, until her recent broken hip fiercely independent, lives out her last days in a bare bones hospital ward where her needs are ignored, though she is kept miserably alive, her tab paid by Medicaid.   There may or may not be a government agency that can help her.  Sekhnet and I lack legal standing to advocate for her, though I got two numbers today that may allow Margaret to advocate for herself.    

The ACA, which right-wing zealots and “Birthers” are still bent on abolishing as an illegitimate “Negro” plan, mandates that low income citizens buy private insurance on their state’s health exchange.  New York State of Health Marketplace was designed by Kafka, during an LSD nightmare.  The agency is run by an unaccountable political appointee director (Donna Frescatore) who has made it her agency’s policy for no worker to divulge her name.   They have no effective method of correcting their many errors, the wait for an “appeal” is months’ long.  

A more vexing collection of useless, low-paid motherfuckers I have never encountered, and I am a veteran of Adult Protective Services, the New York Housing Authority and the Housing Court’s Guardian ad Litem program.  I have seen hideous bureaucracies.   The unaccountable agency entrusted with providing health care to low income citizens in New York State is by far the worst.  

Had a nice chat today with a guy from NYS of Health Marketplace Appeals, Patrick, very patient– though even he had his limits in that regard.   My appeal should be conducted over the phone in a month or two, after that, presumably, I should be allowed to pay only what the law requires and not twice what the law requires, as I have been paying since an erroneous denial in January.

While talking to a social worker at the Department for the Aging, who spoke on the QT since I lacked legal standing to have the conversation on behalf of a mere friend, I had a call from Sekhnet.   Sekhnet has been overwhelmed and tearful lately, in part due to the steroids she’s taking for her breathing troubles.   She has been worried about my potentially dangerous kidney disease, and the fact that virtually my entire vegetarian diet is composed of foods, I learned yesterday,  very bad for compromised kidneys.  She’s been crying because Skaynes, our beloved cat, had test results the other day that showed his one kidney is in trouble, this in addition to a flare up of pancreatitis.  

I broke away from the kind, long-winded social worker, put her on a brief hold, and took Sekhnet’s call.   She was sobbing.   “Liz is dead,” she told me.  I expressed my sorrow, told her who I was talking to and said I’d call her right back.

Liz was the long-time partner of Tony, a gregarious fellow we met while he stood smoking cigarettes in front of Sekhnet’s building.   It emerged that Tony lived on the second floor with a shy, agoraphobic woman named Liz, a lover of cats (they hosted two former strays, Sid and Gus), and that it would be great for us to get together some time.   Tony explained that he’d have to work on Liz, and his work seemed to be a success.  We had dinner, after researching what Liz, a diabetic, could safely eat.   I think it was garbanzo bean pasta we finally made.  (To be strictly accurate, this dinner occurred after we returned from our trip).

Shortly after we first chatted with Liz and Tony, Skaynes began vomiting frequently and rarely coming out of his bed.  We were scheduled to leave for a two week trip to Israel in a few days.   Liz, Tony and our old friends’ son Avram generously stepped in to take care of Skaynes.   They wrangled the cantankerous cat into his carrier and ferried him back and forth to the vet for treatments.   The treatments were daily for a week or more.  Skaynes recovered while we were in Israel, we got their medical updates by email.  Liz and Tony (and the indefatigable Avram) had saved his life, and enabled our long-planned trip to happen, and we felt very grateful.  

We got together with them another couple of times.  Then they were having troubles, Tony had resumed drinking, after years on the wagon and in AA.  Liz had a past that included drug addiction and she could not tolerate this relapse.  There was tension.  Tony moved out, moved back in, was on a job in New Jersey when he had a fatal heart attack.  

Liz affected an air of stoicism, but the tragedy made her no more zealous about checking her diabetes monitor.  She’d been found in a diabetic coma before.  Tony said the beeping of her monitor annoyed her and she’d often turn the machine off rather than do what the beeping was reminding her to do.

After Tony died, Liz lived alone with Sid and Gus, in the apartment owned by her mother.  Her mother lives in Florida and needs money, is in the process of selling Liz’s longtime home.  Packages sat outside Liz’s apartment door for days at a time.   I followed up with Sekhnet who contacted Liz.  She was reassured when Liz finally returned a call, sent her some adorable animal emails (Liz volunteered at a cat shelter) with a funny note and also inquired about Skaynes.     More packages outside her door the other day.  Sekhnet could get no answer from Liz lately.  She convinced a neighbor with the key to have a look today.

The neighbor discovered Liz’s dead body.  One of the cats was sitting next to her dead body.  The cats had not been fed for several days.  The last email from Liz, about a week ago, noted that a dog will sit sadly by their master’s dead body and starve, too depressed to eat.  A cat will do the same, until they get unbearably hungry and start eating the dead master’s face.   The neighbor fed the cats and called Sekhnet.  

When I got off the phone with the social worker I called Sekhnet back and did my best to soothe her, though there is not that much real soothing to be given under terrible circumstances like this.   The world can be a cold and cruel place and one must count oneself fortunate only to be fighting with corporate cocksuckers, while Death, smug and implacable, waits with the infinite patience of one who has never been denied, to snuff out your last breath.

Detention

New York State has a little known legal procedure called Article 78.  Article 78 allows you, once you’ve “exhausted all administrative remedies” with a government agency, to apply to the court for relief if you’ve been deprived of something without a good reason.   The government agency, like most private businesses, which are given tremendous latitude with the profit-based “business judgement rule”, can show virtually any reason for its actions.   As long as there is any reason at all, even a theoretical one, you lose again.   The burden is on you to show that the decision is based on nothing at all, is, in fact, “arbitrary and capricious,” in the words of Article 78.

Presumably if the ruling is simply arbitrary, too bad.  If the decision is capricious, without also being arbitrary, it is upheld and you are, once again, shit out of luck.  You must prove that no evidence to support the decision against you was submitted, that your evidence was ignored, that the agency didn’t follow its own policies, that your opportunity to be heard was utterly devoid of any of the niceties of due process.   Arbitrary and capricious is a low bar, in fact, it’s a bar painted on the ground, almost anything can drag itself over it.   Still, it’s surprising how many bureaucratic decisions are both arbitrary and capricious.  

The punchline, of course, and you know there has to be one in our puckish legal system, is that the statute of limitations to bring an Article 78 proceeding is arbitrarily and capriciously short, either 90 or 120 days, depending, and good luck figuring out which applies to which agency.  Once your SOL is up you are SOL*.  

There is also no requirement that decisions subject to Article 78 review inform you of the existence of Article 78.   That would give people who are arbitrarily and capriciously fucked an unfair advantage, obviously.   The best thing to do, if you know a lawyer who tells you about Article 78, is get your papers ready to file in court before the decision against you is made.   

I am thinking of Article 78 out of the blue, another example of the way our laws are set up, with every appearance of fairness and transparency, but written as compromises with the powerful to favor those powerful entities who like their sex with or without consent.   Many of the indignities suffered by masses of people are covered under the maxim de minimis non curat lex, “the law does not concern itself with trifles.”  I was in court today, on jury duty, and I was reminded of the whole hideous enterprise as I bided my time waiting to be dismissed from service.

At lunchtime I went over to Chinatown, passing under part of the Lower Manhattan Detention Center.   I recall it was still being built in 1991 or ’92 when I took my third grade class from Harlem to Chinatown on the A train.  The parent chaperones didn’t show up on the day of the trip, and against the advice of all of my colleagues, me and about eighteen little Harlemites made our way, on a very hot day,  to amaze the waiters at Hop Kee with the kids’ skill with chopsticks.  It was a great trip.  

On the way back to the A train we passed the Detention Center, then still under construction.   A worker was hosing down the wet cement.  Fatima, looking thirstily at the splashing water, asked me if the man would give them a drink.  I said I had no idea, suggested she go find out.  She asked him and he smiled and patiently held the hose as all the kids drank their fill.   Fatima was delighted with herself and told me happily, her face gleaming with water, “see, Mr. Widaen, it never hurts to ask!”

That detention center was at the time named for Bernie Kerik, a crony of Rudy Giuliani.  Giuliani, a glory seeking, autocratic, former federal prosecutor, was mayor of New York at the time.  He told his cops to take no shit from punks on the street.  Under his watch the city quietly paid millions in police brutality cases, and no doubt saved just as many millions in cases that were never brought, like the ones where all the punks/victims were deported.  Kerik was Giuliani’s friend and enforcer.  

The complex of holding cells by the criminal court was called the Bernard Kerik Detention Center while it was being built and for years, until, in fact, the very day Kerik was sentenced to prison time for being a flagrantly corrupt and lawless asshole.   I saw the next day that the sign had finally been changed.   I think it’s called the Lower Manhattan Detention Center now.  I passed it on the way to and from lunch today.  It got me thinking about detention.  

An abstraction to most Americans, the lock-up is  also brutal reality to millions of Americans.  We have more people locked up here than any nation in the civilized, or even uncivilized, world.  A chart I saw the other day, based on FBI statistics, shows that 46% of the current American federal prison population is locked up for nonviolent drug-related offenses.  This site has some good charts and articles, click through the charts midway down the first page to see some eye-popping statistics.  (“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic” — attributed to Stalin).

My point is, in America, for the crime of preferring one recreational drug over another, you can be locked up for a long time.   In 2017, under a law pushed through by Nixon to punish and incapacitate his hated enemies, hippies and blacks, to fuck them up in perpetuity, going on fifty years now.  It’s the law, so be assured there is nothing arbitrary and capricious about it.

The power of state violence is an awesome thing we are all grateful for when it is used to save us from violence, from predation.  Some people are violent criminals and need to be taken off the street.  Forcing a non-violent person, who threatens nobody, to lie on the ground at gunpoint, shackling them, shooting them, locking them down, are not things to be done lightly.  Except that here, increasingly, they are, by militarized police departments for offenses like disrespect and running to escape prison time for the illegal drugs in your pocket. 

I felt like a fish in a frying pan today during seven boring hours on jury duty– the full power of the state and its armed agents ready to slap me down if I did something stupid.   Imagine being locked in a cage, subjected to the violence of the state day after day after day, say the wrong thing and get a crack across the face.  Your word against mine, maggot.   Solitary confinement for you, asshole. Picture being locked up awaiting trial and sentencing to a long term in the slammer because you like to drink scotch rather than bourbon.   USA!  USA!!!!

 

*  Louis Armstrong recorded a tune called SOL Blues, Shit out of Luck Blues.  SOL is also a law student abbreviation for statute of limitations, the timeframe for bringing a legal action.

New York Minute

It was a Friday,  late afternoon.  I’d struck out signing up to get a tax transcript online for my eventual appeal of NY State of Health Marketplace’s mistake, which is currently costing me $220 a month.  “Incorrect phone number” the moronic IRS robot told me before shutting down the session for the fourth time.  I finally gave up and went out for a walk.

Heading up crowded Sixth Avenue in a foul mood it didn’t escape my notice that everyone was out of step.  Three or four across, staring at tiny screens, stopping suddenly, veering, lurching.  After a half mile of this I burst around a small crowd of lollygaggers, hit my foot on an uncommonly high curb cut, and fell loudly on to the sidewalk, on to my palms.   The sudden loud noise was exacerbated by my heavy coat, which I’d been carrying, slamming loudly next to me, books and metal phone chargers slapping the ground.

I was surprised, and embarrassed, but otherwise unhurt.  I saw the feet and legs of people who’d stopped to help.  “I’m OK, I just tripped, I’m fine,” I said calmly as I started to stand.  The woman who’d begun to scream as I went down kept screaming.  “I’m not hurt, I’m all right,” I continued, as the woman continued to scream. 

She screamed like a woman in a horror movie, screamed for all she was worth.  At the time I was thinking “what an asshole…” but now, a week or two later, I realize she was screaming for all of us.

Slice of New York City Life

A friendly guy often stood in front of Sekhnet’s building having a cigarette.  Sekhnet hates the smell of cigarette smoke, and noisily protests whenever a whiff of it rolls over her, but she and I became friendly with this guy who always had a big smile and small talk when we ran into him in the street.  He worked as a contractor of some kind, with only modest financial success, and his hours were odd.  You could run into him smoking out there during the day or at two a.m.  

His girlfriend lived in the building, he lived there too, in fact.  She wouldn’t let him smoke in the apartment, and fair enough, so he went down to the street, stood in front of the building, and cheerfully shot the shit with people coming in and out.   It emerged that his girlfriend, a fairly agoraphobic woman, was deeply involved in the rescue and fostering of unwanted cats.   They had two adopted strays, Sid and Gus.  When our cat, Skaynes, was suddenly very ill– on the eve of a two week trip we had planned— these two lovingly trundled him off to the vet for daily treatment of his newly diagnosed pancreatitis.  Along with the son of old friends, on hand in the apartment to otherwise take care of the cat’s needs, these three literally saved the Baron’s life.[1]

We had dinner with them a couple of times, I read the dark play the guy’s father had written about his life in prison, culminating in a smuggled razor blade, presumably to end his life, tucked somewhere safe as they transported him to another prison, or a death chamber.   Father and son had had a reconciliation before the old man died.  Actually, it was all good, it’s just that the older man had spent much of his life locked up for crimes he claimed he’d never committed.  Lived out the last years of his life a free man.

Now we fast forward a year or so, troubles in the relationship between these new friends of ours.  The man also had untreated heart issues, the occasional pains in the chest, shortness of breath.   He’d been told he had heart issues, but didn’t have insurance so had been reluctant to see a doctor.  He got a stern lecture about smoking every time Sekhnet passed him having a cigarette downstairs.  There was a self-destructive side to him, certainly.  

Then, a phone call.  The woman had been having problems with her phone, when they got fixed she heard the message from the man’s mother.  He was in the hospital in New Jersey.  He had signed a DNR.  They had taken him off life support. “He looked good,” she reported after visiting the young, healthy-looking man lying unresponsive in the hospital bed, disconnected from all life support.   A day or two later he was dead.

 

[1] Among his names is the title Baron Von Doghead