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Goings On About Town: On About Town Goings-On (Ongoing)

Had a press club today at work. This is one of the many things our ambitious little nonprofit does: arrange for speakers to come and talk to reporters from the minority, immigrant, and community newspapers in the city (we say “ethnic,” but I’m getting exceedingly tired of how clumsy that word is. There are over 275 publications in this category, at present count, and we find more every day).

Sometimes the speakers are public figures who are eager to give their pet project or personal image a higher profile in these communities; the State Attorney General, representatives from the September 11th Fund, and Mark Green fell into this category. Sometimes, because the IPA has a mandate to promote social justice, we put together panels of experts who can put a fine point on big pressing issues. That’s what we did today: got a bunch of local welfare and hunger experts together and had them talk to reporters about how seniors in their communities would lose Meals on Wheels programs, ESL classes, and senior centers as the Mayor cuts the budget for the elderly (it’s among the only funds in the city budget which are at his discretion) and as Congress monkeys around with welfare, continuing to exclude immigrants — who do, at the very least, pay sales taxes like everyone else, so don’t tell me they’re receiving without contributing — from receiving benefits.

It was sort of a comical scene, as we ended up once again with more experts than reporters in the room. It’s fantastically difficult to interest journalists, who tend to be middle-class, in the subject of welfare; it’s doubly hard when you’re trying to reach groups with “model-minority” complexes, like Asians, in a subject whose importance to their community you would rather not acknowledge. In light of this I’m not doing to criticize the turnout; I did some extra legwork, and we ended up with reporters from three major Chinese dailies and a very solid reporter from a prominent Indian paper.

Anyway, all of this is just background to clear up what I actually do all day, for those of you who keep asking (I get the space rented, put together a flyer, mail the flyer to the editors, fax the editors, email the editors, CALL the editors and make it clear that yes, this issue does in fact have DIRECT and IMMEDIATE bearing on residents of the Uzbeki Sephardic Jewish community and would they PLEASE send a reporter from their 2,000-circulation newspaper); all of this is just a frame for today’s winning anecdote. In the course of the briefing, the director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger alluded a few times to the stigma on seeking assistance from food pantries in a way that really struck me.

“Enron wasn’t ashamed to receive assistance from the government,” he barked, at one point. And, later, when fielding a question about faith-based assistance centers stepping in to help: “When the airlines were in trouble after September 11th, the government didn’t say, ‘Let the churches do it.'”

You hear lefties talk about “corporate welfare” all the time, and it’s a good way to underline the differences in our attitudes about the government giving money to the rich and to the poor. After a while, though, it becomes just another buzzword. Mr. Berg’s example does more to unpack our presumptions about assistance. And I’m really tickled by the idea of the Jesuits bailing out American Airlines. Not only does it recall that people once took it as a given that the government was supposed to help those in need; it also alludes to the absurdity of the moral presumptuousness of faith-based initiatives. I just wanted to add these tools to everyone’s rhetorical arsenals.

* * *

Three stops before mine on the 3 train on the way back, I was smacked by a wave of nostalgia as a man in a suit sat down next to me, smelling like something which I couldn’t identify but which was certainly related to Southern California. I was in a more talkative mood than usual, so I asked him if he could explain why he smelled like the San Gabriel Mountains. Bay tree, or sage, or mustard, I said. Or honeysuckle. He laughed uncomfortably and said his chiropractor had rubbed him down with some kind of salve.

He had some kind of Germanic accent, so he probably knew even less about the San Gabriels than I had calculated. Oh well. At least I talked to a stranger today.

* * *

I applied for a credit card today. An application for a Yale University Platinum Visa came in the mail, and it had a $100,000 line of credit and frequent-flier miles, so I had these visions of playing up Ivy League connections to get better service from staff at some ritzy hotel while racking up astronomical bills for grapefruits or mescaline or Underwood typewriters in some fly-by-night Hunter S. Thompsonesque orgy… The woman in the phone bank on the other end of the line said the card came in two different designs, the Harkness Tower Platinum or the Woolsey Hall Platinum… “Which one of them two designs would you like?,” she said, and I came thudding back to earth with this emphasized indication that of course neither of them two buildings meant anything to her or to me… this woman on the other end, who might have been in Massachusetts, or maybe Maine, plodded with great deliberation through her script, herding her words back into line when they strayed from it… and of course, in the end it turned out the $100,000 line of credit was not meant for us, either.

* * *

Did you know that if you want to look for antique typewriters, all you have to search for on Google is “typewriters”?

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