Gimme Shelter From This Freezin’ Swelter



space

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.

— T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

space

Yes, begin here–at this witching hour of of 4 a.m.,  Florida’s deep dark dangerously hot summer breathing in the garden like the slurred speech of a highway hooker working the truck stop in Zellwood. The heaviness of this relentless summer breathes, even at this hour, with The Breath of Set, that pestilent, pustulent south wind in Egypt during the 72 hottest days of the years, expelled by the ass-eared Egyptian Sun god who is earnest to devour Horus, son of Isis. Everything swoons and swears beneath that hot breath, befuddled, spirit-besmirched, given to extreme measures from our brains and loins and blistered conscience.

It’s especially hot this year in Florida–unbelievably so. In a summer which usual tempers its daily ferocities of heat with storms, for three weeks now we’ve seen record high temps followed by late-afternoon storms which have been selective at best and almost entirely impotent of rainfall. In the past three weeks, we’ve seen probably half an inch of rain delivered by daily massed storms in the garden.

Today a heat advisory is in effect for the area; residents are advised to stay in air conditioning between the heat-advisory hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., drink plenty of fluids, avoid the sun and check up on elderly or sick relatives and neighbors. Air conditioners are giving up the ghost in ghastly slow exhalations as the units burn out; a transformer exploded in Cocoa Village, where the mercury cleared 100 yesterday; a bus carrying school-age children on I-95 from Ft. Lauderdale to a track meet in Virginia burst into flames near Rockledge. Last night over in St. Pete, a 51-year-old Orlando man on a beach vacation with his three grown sons and their families was returning from a movie with his sons when their Ford Fusion was broadsided by the speeding Chevy Impala of 20-year old man who had been drinking and smoking pot—savoring a wild summer’s night. The father and three sons were killed on impact while the young man survived and is in hospital care facing four felony DUI manslaughter charges.

Summer indeed burns the flesh away, revealing a moon-sized emptiness where the soul was once found …

space

space

* * *

space

As of the writing of this paragraph (inserted as I try to finesse this post into its own sort of Watkins Glen, a road course through the times with all the correct (if not quite pleasant turns), BP’s engineers are pumping mud into the busted Macando Well, 100 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and some 5 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. If all goes well (which would be a change, considering), the mud pack will stopper the entire well, allowing the relief well being dug nearby to fully divert the uprising pressure of oil from the Macando field some 28,000 feet under the surface of the Gulf. BP spokesmen are upbeat and so is the government, which announced today that only 26 percent of the leaked oil is still in the water or onshore, the rest having quickly broken down to the elements (if anyone noticed, it’s hot, too, in the Gulf), been collected, burned, skimmed, evaporated, or broken down chemically by dispersants.

All good news as we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s visit to the same Gulf coast. Five years later there signs of economic recovery–a lot of rebuilding, casino business in Biloxi returned, New Orleans half-rebuilt-—but the economy remained knocked back to 1980 levels until Deepwater Horizon came along to punch things back still further.

So shout the good news, vested interest, while Gulf shores shimmer in unnatural heat (110 degrees in some areas of coastal Mississippi yesterday), the breeze carrying whiffs of Katrina’s dead and that sinus-clearing scent of oil wafting in from everywhere.

All is well? For whom? For which entities? They do not include the view from this chair this morning …

space

* * *

spaced

A strange, strange lock on time, this heat wave, addling and merciless. And it’s everywhere you look. In Kansas City, the home-plate umpire in a Royals-Orioles baseball game had to leave in the sixth inning of a July 30 game suffering from heat exhaustion. A storm brewed up in that heat dumped hailstones the size of grapefruit in South Dakota (one was established as the largest hailstone on record, measuring – hours after it was collected, so it had shrunk some by then – some 8 inches across and weighing over two pounds). In New York City, the New York Times reports, “the summer showdown between individual fortitude and sticky heat saw the merciless elements win out again and again. Flower beds were forsaken, relationships were neglected, home offices were abandoned.” Wildfires rage outside of Los Angeles where high temperatures, dry air and blustery winds have spread the fires over 30 thousand  acres. Kansas burns as usual with massive numbers of cattle dying and the elderly in Kansas City beginning to succumb. The Vans tour in Kansas City had dozens of concert-goers getting treatment for heat fatigue and the Kansas City Chiefs training in near 100-degree heat. (Still, the Weather Channel lists the Chiefs as having only the ninth-hottest training camp, preceded by locations like Nashville- Titans, Tampa–Buccaneers, Metarie LA–Saints) and, topping the swelter list, Houston–Texans.) Fun stuff, eh boys? …

space

* * *

space

But heat is not news to any of you; maybe the intensity of it, its duration, the lengths of insanity it may inspire: Yet for all the sizzle and torment of this heat—or, perhaps, because of it–the real story I mean to divine using this overheated dowsing rod of a mind is about something creeping up from the opposite end of the thermometer. I’m talking about a strange shadow which does not trail from the sun but veils it, a shadow so thin and strange it’s hard to accept that it’s there. A shadow is now being cast by something more malevolent than the unzippered sun at full-tilt-rock-n-roll itself:

I’m talking about the ice age we entered into oh, some months ago—or maybe years ago, only now crossing the threshold of daily awareness; an age where glacial facts tower a high as the sun and continue to creep into our own back yards. The big freeze is everywhere though the signs of it are hard to see, masked not only by this malevolent summer heat but more deviously by its own complications which bind and double and doppleganger the eye.

space

spsace

For example: Recent revelations of the lengths NASCAR will go to protect its “brand” – muzzling drivers whose comments are deemed “detrimental to the sport” – is typical for corporations who’ll do anything to keep their profits plush. (E.g., British Petroleum and state and federal government officials who are desperate to hide all that oil.) NASCAR is sandbagging here, filling the speedways with “people dressed as empty seats,“ as Monte Dutton recently put it.

Try as they might, there’s nothing NASCAR can do about the retraction in the economy and its affect on its vulnerable, blue- and middle-class fan base. When Bristol fails to sell out and the Brickyard sees half-full attendance, there’s no hiding that the NASCAR franchise is contracting. Just like things everywhere else, but NASCAR only sees the world in terms of NASCAR, so it acts like it’s dealing with extraordinary circumstances.

Line forms at the back, pal. It’s a bit amusing to watch Brian France do what all corporate CEOs do when facing a tough market challenge – he takes it out on the employees (include the drivers here), terrified of chasing any more customers (fans) out the door. NASCAR can do the corporate game and cut itself to the bone (anyone else notice how many kids they work for them?), but it will never see again the obscene profits once made by the family-owned business. It’s gone, or going the way of fast-depleted oil fields. Now the question is how to prop up what’s left using tactics natural to a culture of dominance.

And if NASCAR’s season is passing with dream-like slowness, maybe it’s because NASCAR is wrecking in a self-induced catastrophe of proving just how willing it is to sell its soul to keep the big bucks rolling in, absolutely blithe to fans who simply just can’t afford the inflated expense of attending races any more. Believe me, stupid, it’s the economy. Put on the blackface and shuffle all you want, Big Racin’: No one’s even watching the show, not with that looming cold shadow creeping into everyone’s back yard …

space

space

* * *

space

As the horror of the Deepwater Horizon spill began to wash onto Gulf shores, residents dependent on tourism and fishing and working Gulf oil rigs got the creeping sense that a way of life was fast disappearing in the muck of oil. One homeowner in Grand Isle, Louisiana erected a mock graveyard in front of their home, giving a litany of RIPs to the all the things beloved of Gulf Coast life which were being lost.

space

Photo by Carbon Free Girl (Leilani Munter), perhaps the only ‘green” racer on the circuit. Thanks for permission to use the shot. To see other photos from Leilani’s recent Gulf trip, click here.

space

Such a gaggle of crosses, I think, is being slowly assembled in the shadows of the American landscape, each cross bearing a part of middle-class life being lost to the spreading economic freeze of the Torrid Summer of 2010. (I will nominate my list later in this post.)

To call the times a “freeze” is to invoke the potency of metaphor, because the image I want to explore here is the weird cold presence which is covering the continent of everyday life. It ingresses slowly, so slowly that the progression is visible only in hindsight, when you try to imagine how things were a month or year or decade ago.

space

* * *

space

Hints of this freeze—like spreading cracks in pond-ice—reveal themselves in the downward ley-lines of the macroeconomics. Despite proclamations that the U.S. economy is leaving its recession, economic growth slowed to 2.4 percent in the second quarter, indicated that consumer spending continues to ice. People are saving more – 6.2 percent of disposable income – which means they’re much more cautious about spending. Within the Fed, fears of Japanese-style deflation are beginning to spread. Deflation brought on by anemic growth is a sort of net which drags the economy down. With the federal funds rate at between 0 and .25 percent, there isn’t much lower that interest rates can go. In a deflated economy, money is worth more because businesses and people are less likely to spend it. Business aren’t adding to their payrolls, and people aren’t spending money because they don’t have jobs or fear the rising tide of unemployment will catch up with them, too. The result is stagnation – or stagflation –and a leaden, slow, incentive-proof recession.  Japan, which has one of the most robust economies in the world, has been stuck in a deflation-induced recession for two decades now.

On the microeconomic side-—the stuff about you and me, here and now—-the view is simpler and examples of this freeze more tangible. People don’t have much more available credit to buy anything. The home-equity ATM has tanked on crashing home values, and credit cards are maxed with fewer new ones being offered. Like many employers, my company hasn’t given wage increases in three years; at least we haven’t seen furloughs or layoffs yet, but everyone hears the clocks ticking.

space

space

A friend observed that back in the late 90’s all you saw on the roads of Orlando were new cars and SUV’s; now the roads are filled with clunkers. No one’s buying new vehicles, and one of the largest blights to fill the commercial landscape are empty lots once occupied by car dealerships. Who would have imagined such a thing? That’s the question which repeats again and again these days. The question mark of the unaskable is the vapor rising from ground surprisingly iced over, where you thought you stood on pavement so baked it was burning your soles through your shoes:

– Who would have thought that Wall Street greed could nearly bankrupt Main Street?

– Who would have thought ten years ago that so many solid industries would hover on the verge of extinction, while others would be obscenely profitable, mainly because they threw their workforces into unemployment and the government paid off their bills with taxpayer money?

– Who would have thought that so many middle-class neighborhoods would become ghost towns?

– Who would think that so many local and state and even the national government would tide so far into red ink that there may be no recovery, not without wading so far into the red that our collective infrastructure, our roads and schools and Social Security and Medicare, would simply, eventually go tits up, Greece-style, causing a default no one can bail us out from?

– Who would imagine that a new nation of the dispossessed and passed-over are now afoot, silently filling the wastelands of modern life—-trailer parks, overfilled homes of relatives, homeless shelters, freeway overpasses?

– And who would have thought that a single lousy corporate-goon-run oil rig – just one of 4,000 out there in the Gulf of Mexico – could dump 5 million barrels of oil into our subconscious, into a place no dispersant can reach?

Unthinkable, yet true: That’s what it means to look up into today’s sky and see, inside the sun’s own glaring, 100-degree blister of heat, the glacial face of a looming disaster.

space

sppace

* * *

space

British Petroleum recently announced they would not pay mental health claims by Gulf residents who have seen their livelihood and homes drenched in the stench of oil. Like all perps, BP is “moving on,” not “dwelling on the past” where all of their sins move about in ghostly plumes at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, down there where no one can see the toxic results of their criminal errors. (Remember, this is the company which already carries two felony convictions for putting profit over safety while clawing its way to the oil.)

Now the well is capped (though by no means safely sealed) and the visible traces of oil is disappearing in many places (though not all). It does look like bacteria will gobble up the oil in the Gulf at a fast clip, much faster than anyone expected, but no one knows how that sort of oxygen depletion will affect the deep ecologies, nor how those will billow upward into the rest of the ecostystem. We aren’t a species that’s good about taking the long view–for paying attention that long–but if we don’t keep our eyes trained on the Gulf, we won’t have anyone to blame when the effects of all those toxins play out in cancers and fish kills and other sorts of blight. And it’s not like scientists have a controlled environment to assess the damage, not with new storms brewing in the tropics and BP having such a vested interested in getting the heat off its a back as soon as possible.

The really sad part is that not any of this is new. Aaron Vines, campaign director of the The Gulf Restoration Network, says the Gulf has been “the nation’s sacrifice zone … for 50-plus years.” There are 4,000 offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf and thousands of miles of pipeline–a leaky infrastructure which has dumped more oil, collectively over the years, than Deepwater Horizon’s total spill. Fertilizer runoff and waste dumped into the Mississippi River has contributed to a dead zone the size of Lake Ontario just off the coast of Louisiana. The old, old abuses of American expansion continue to play out into our present and will be around for our children’s future. This thing of darkness is our own, but no one wants to own up to that, so instead the whole thing is shuffled to the background as it always has, continuing the slow kill of a complex ecosystem which also happens to be both breadbasket and livelihood for so many of us.

The media’s forgetfulness—leaving behind news which has a long tail for the instant hits—creates a bizarre sense of dislocation for ones who get left behind, like feeling the bite of glacial suffering in the middle of the hottest summer. A bit from a story posted on NOLA (the online site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune) on July 29:

Charter captain Mike Frenette has been wondering whether the news media are living in a parallel universe. The Internet and mainstream media this week are filled with reports that the BP oil disaster is over, that the Gulf is now devoid of the slicks and sheen, and the marshes are no longer being bathed in crude.

That’s not what he and his crew saw at the mouth of the Mississippi River and along the river’s delta this week.

“There was more oil at South Pass Tuesday than I’ve seen since this whole thing started; it was really discouraging,” Frenette said. “I don’t know where everyone else is looking, but if they think there’s no more oil out there, they should take a ride with me.

“I wish this thing was over so I could get back to fishing. But that’s just not the case. We’re a long way from finished with the oil.”

Scientists and oil spill experts agree with Frenette. They say the Gulf might look cleaner on the surface right now, but there is probably hundreds of millions of gallons of BP’s oil in tiny, hard-to-see droplets below the surface. And slicks like the one Frenette saw this week will still be floating to the surface for weeks and months to come.

For months a fleet of research vessels has been tracking clouds of diffused oil particles floating 3,300 to 4,300 feet below the surface, said Steve Murawski, NOAA’s chief scientist for fisheries. The microscopic droplets were formed when the dispersant Corexit was pumped into the geyser of oil and methane that for 84 days rocketed into the Gulf from the failed wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface.

“These are tiny droplets, between 20 and 60 microns, and with the concentrations we’re seeing (4 to 5 parts per million) when you put this in a beaker it looks like clear sea water,” Murawski said. “You can’t see it, but there’s definitely components (of the oil) in the water.”

It’s there, going about a dirty business just far enough out of sight to be out of our minds. For now. but like the long-term effects of recession, the long-term malaise of poisoned Gulf Waters is occurring almost invisibly, and if we don’t pay attention to them, the glacier will be upon us. The new ice age is the 90’s bubble, burst: Frostbit souls lose their feeling apparatus in chunks, falling off like dead toes.

space

space

*  *  *

space

A lot of wealthy people live in Florida. The first real settlement of the state by white people was the building of winter homes and resorts along the waterways of the state, accessed by steamboat. Then came the railroads and other areas of the state developed. Our town was founded in the late 19th-century with resorts along Lake Dora.

Folks who worked in the resorts and provided the support infrastructure built their more modest houses around these resorts. Our house was built in 1923 by a widow who lived upstairs and rented out the lower half to snowbirds. By Florida standards, our is an old house and is located in an old neighborhood. A solid, middle-class neighborhood where nothing changed for decades. We bought in 1996, paying a third less for the house than anything comparable in Orlando. That meant a longer commute for me, but it was a small sacrifice (until gas prices soared).

Then came the housing boom, which was mercurial in Central Florida. At one point a few years ago, Zillo, the online home valuation site, had listed our house well around $230 thousand—almost two and half times what we paid for the place in 1996. It wasn’t hard to get a home equity line of credit, allowing us to paint the house, renovate the downstairs bath, purchase some advanced sewing equipment for my wife’s bedding business and re-model our front living room. Typical stuff in middle-class life.

Amid the dense fog of speculative whimsy we saw immense developments go up around Central Florida with houses priced in the $300 to $600 thousand dollar range. My wife and I wondered were all these rich people were, who could afford such colossal mortgages. There just isn’t that big of a professional class in these parts, and the really wealthy are settled into established gated communities.

Then came the bust which ushered in our Great Recession. The impossible happened, at least in the eyes of the bubble-minded who saw only limitless expansion (PT Barnum knew never to underestimate the gullibility of the American populace for snake oil): housing prices began to plummet.

space

space

It turned out that most of these developments were founded on sub-prime mortgage deals that got people into houses they could never otherwise afford, paying only the interest and believing that the climb in housing prices would make it a cinch to turn their houses in a couple of years for huge profits. That enormous industry was stopped in its tracks. Houses went up for sale and into foreclosure. Large tracts that had been cleared and gotten roads and lots marked off sat stagnant through the seasons as the weed cover grew back over. Within a few years, the lost development of Central Florida will become like Mayan cities buried under canopies of forest.

space

* * *

space

I have a friend whose parents convinced him to buy the house he was renting in Orlando. He got a subprime deal with Countrywide Finance—remember those rogues? He now has a $240 thousand mortgage on a house which is worth in the $130s now. His mortgage payments now exceed his monthly earnings, and he hasn’t made a payment in eight or so months to Bank of America, (who bought Countrywide’s mortgage franchise after the lender went bankrupt)—partial payments, which is all he can afford to make, aren’t accepted. He has three options: re-negotiate the mortgagee, though even a 30 percent reduction in his payments would keep him over his head in debt for years; 2) get the bank to agree on a short sale and take a big loss on the house; or 3) walk away and let the bank deal with it, declaring bankruptcy and living without credit for five years or so. His best deal is the last one. That’s why so many people are doing the same things these days.

space

* * *

space

Zillo now lists our house in the $140s, and our house the second-highest valued house on a block where five houses has seen major renovations. We’re underwater in our mortgage and going nowhere, but treading water is the gold standard of 2010: survival is success. Unthinkable a few years ago, the norm today.

Our block is emptying out. Four houses are rentals. Two have been on the market for over a year. Absentee owners don’t’ come often. We have to call code enforcement several times a summer for houses whose yards go untended.

If I lose my job—which, a few years ago when newspapering was a career—we won’t be able to afford to stay. But we can’t afford to leave either, not with the housing market tanking. Better to figure out a way to hold on here and see if the market will ever turn—get two or three jobs, whatever. Whatever is the new fortune.

Extreme fantasies which would have caused alarm about clinical depression become operating parts of the mind and day. Talking with a friend last week, the both of us in our early 50’s, we bemoaned a dried-up job market with no apparent room for guys our age trying to rebuild on their careers. My friend said he found himself tying up details—getting work done on his condo, putting his affairs in order. It didn’t occur to him that it sounded like someone who was getting ready to put a gun in his mouth until I said so. He smiled and said, well, that beats taking up drinking again. I don’t think he’s suicidal, but there is that quiet sort of desperation everywhere in the air as options run out.

Of course, what will be will be and we will have to go however and wherever necessity dictates. Suicide aside (or other forms of mental breakdown including substance or prescription drug abuse and other nocturnal abandonments), the next step down, in these parts, is out to the mobile home parks. There are some 800,000 mobile homes in 5,600 mobile home parks, lodging and recreational vehicle parks, and recreational camps in Florida, more than any other state in the country. If you need a house on the cheap in Florida, go mobile. Mobile home parks are less visible but they’re everywhere. Drive on the state highways and entire towns, the ones between here and nowhere, are comprised of mobile homes.

There are some nice, well-maintained mobile parks around the state; we’d head there first, if we could. A nice double-wide, hopefully with enough air conditioning to fend off the effects of living in an overheated tin can. But mobile homes are terribly vulnerable to the wilder elements which come this way, hurricanes in the summer and fall and tornadoes in the early spring. When the big tornadoes ripped through this area in ’98, we awoke close to midnight to an amazing swelter of lightning-flashes in our darkened bedroom, a dizzying strafe of strobes which belied the malevolence of the storm. We were passed over – but 20 miles to the east in Sanford, the tornado struck down in a mobile home park, lifting this then that manufactured home like a bored Angel of Death plucking at petals of a flower, intoning “this one kills a family, this one spared, this one spared too; Next block, kill a fireman as he wakens flying through the air, skip that mobile home, pull a baby from a screaming mother in the next one and leave him in a tree while mother spirals up to heaven.”  Regulations have been passed since then to make sure that mobile homes at least have an anchor to their foundations, but on the whole they’re still death-traps to an F3 tornado or Category 4 hurricane. (Hurricane Andrew sawed across South Florida in 1990 at Category 5, its 200+-mph winds ripping apart the housing tracts in this lower-income suburb of Miami and leaving little behind. It’s since been re-developed, partially owing to the scarcity of available land in Miami-Dade County.)

Pride of ownership is part of what makes thinking about a move into a trailer home so difficult: We love our home, our old established neighborhood, our garden, the sanctuary we provide for cats, the elbow room of two bathrooms (such a gift for a relationship), space for all my books and my wife’s sewing gear, a guest room for visitors (though we rarely have them), screened-in porch in back and an upper deck on the second floor off the main bedroom – accessed through a French door): It isn’t luxury—we can barely afford to keep it maintained, to pay the power bill and pay for repairs to the aging A/C unit (and we can’t afford to paint the house though it’s a year overdue, or roof the garage, so leaky that I’ve covered it with blue tarp)—but it’s home, with room enough for one our parents if they become ailing enough, with enough space for two full lives to exist with some room between them, enough to make it feel right-sized. It’s losing all that that I fear with a chill that grows slowly and steadily as I look at my dwindling income potential and lack of anything else sufficient enough in the employment landscape.

So scary that I don’t like to think about it, or won’t until we’re absolutely forced to.

Still, I think of those trailers in this heat, some of them like biscuits in an oven, melting the brains and hearts and loins and resolve of those who live in them. With no resources to spend on going to the mall or just getting away. My peers are there, or are heading that way, as they lose their jobs and then exhaust their savings, their credit, their retirement trying to get by.

And then I drive to work on US-441—the Orange Blossom Trail—passing trailer parks where piles of possessions are dumped by the side of the road, obviously an evicted life, big mattress, chest of drawers, stained couches, boxes of stuff with rifled clothes in disarray, a tie looping out of one box like an expired tongue, a saggy red brassiere hanging from a dilapidated standing lap once used for readiing and writing things like this at hours once like this: And know that the falling is endless once there’s nothing left to hold on to.

space

space

* * *

space

A rigorous new analysis for the Rockefeller Foundation shows that Americans are more economically insecure now than they have been in 25 years, and the trend lines suggest that things will only get worse. The reason: high unemployment and skyrocketing medical costs. The study devised an economic security index which measured the number of Americans experiencing at least a 25 percent decrease in household earnings in one year without the means to make up for that loss with income (major medical expenses were counted as a loss of income). In 1985, when unemployment was around 7 percent, the number of American families who could be classified as economically insecure using this index as around 12 percent. In 2002, while the country was emerging from a mild recession, unemployment was at nearly six percent but the percentage of families classified by the index as economically insecure had jumped to seventeen percent. And though the data for 2009 is not yet complete, the study predicts that more than 20 percent of American families experienced a 25 percent loss in household income.

How hard is such a blow? The study suggest that it takes about eight years for income to return to its previous level.

And the average income loss for those falling into this category was not 25 percent, but 41—a precipitous drop indeed.

Only the extremely well-to-do – our top 5 percent of the population which has more than 40 percent of the country’s wealth – were unaffected by the trend. Everyone else–from the moderately well-to-do to the ranges of middle class (upper, middle, lower) down to the poor—were in the bull’s eye of this economic insecurity index.

The BP in this story are corporations who shed millions of jobs when the recession hit, allowing them to see corporate profits of $572 billion in the first quarter of 2010. And in the same period, wage and salary payments fell $122 billion. The bulk of the savings came from layoffs, but many other workers were told that they could keep their jobs only if they worked reduced hours, took unpaid furloughs or received no wage increases. As Bob Herbert writes,

In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Corporations are flush with cash – Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently reported that cash at non-financial corporations stood at $1.84 trillion, 27 percent higher than 2007 (before the recession hit). As a percentage of assets, there is more cash in corporate till than has been seen in 50 years.

Yet they refuse to re-hire worker or institute pay increases. How can there be any real economic recovery until those greedy sumbitches act like citizens and share the wealth with their workforce?

And what tells me that when greed like this gets into the corporate vein, it spreads like ice through the entire system?

Oh yeah: Morgan Stanley.

Bank of America.

NASCAR.

British Petroleum.

spacxe

* * *

spill

Icy similitudes. The long-term affects of the Great Recession we’ve been in since 2008 are creepily akin to the long-term affects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Some things are obvious: 12 percent unemployment nationwide, 5 million barrels of oil spewed into the gulf. Both facts have been with us long enough so that they’re not enough news for the daily blast on the 24-hour news cycle. They’re there, but who cares? Both events are big news, maybe the biggest stories of the year, but we forget, media attention turned elsewhere to sterner stuff, like, oh, Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, or just who Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky would deign, on the prelapsarian sands of Bora Bora, to love for the rest of her TV life. Fluff trumps truth every time where there’s money to be made from eyeballs glued on TV sets.

And the longer the recession and the Gulf spill are out there, the more things they affect.

space

* * *

space

space

Story in the New York Times the other day about a woman who was joining the ranks of “the 99-ers,” people whose extended unemployment benefits were now running out. Given as much rope as the government can afford, the economy has given them no more, and now they face homelessness. The woman in the story had lost her job a director of client services for New York City hi-tech company in March 2008. She was forced to quit graduate school and relocated to Tennessee where housing was cheaper, living on meager unemployment benefits which paid for rent and power and food and gas. Thousands of resumes and a two fruitless interviews later, the woman’s last unemployment check came and went in March of this year—she was among the first of the now 1.4 million Americans who have also exhausted their 99-week government unemployment insurance benefits), the rent went unpaid for several months and then she packed up what belongings she could in her car and drove out of town. A relative wired her $200 so she could stay in a motel for a few weeks. Her cellphone rings constantly with a collection agency after her for late car payments. She used to make $56,000 a year and vacationed in Mexico and the Gulf Coast.

If things continue to fall apart for her, where will she go, along with the other million-and-a-half Americans who are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits?

Out. Away. Out of sight somewhere, though it sure is getting hard to hide them. Like those giant plumes of oil wandering the bottom of the Gulf, the shadows of American dispossession are afoot, casting a web of ice crystals over a lens which only sees high summer.

space

space

* * *

Documents recently released by a congressional subcommittee say that BP, with the approval of the Coast Guard, used an excessive amount of chemical dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico to break up oil after the April 20 rig explosion that resulted in a massive outpouring of crude into the waters. Some 1.8 million gallons of Corexit have been dumped into the Gulf so far.

An EPA had restricted the use of chemicals, however, Rep. Edward J. Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee said the Coast Guard granted BP exemptions for their use.

“BP carpet bombed the ocean with these chemicals, and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it,” said Markey. “After we discovered how toxic these chemicals really are, they had no business being spread across the Gulf in this manner.”

Now—-of course well after the fact–scientists are finding that oil and Corexit are mixing to become a toxic additive to the foodchain.

Signs of an oil-and-dispersant mix are being found under the shells of tiny blue crab larvae in the Gulf of Mexico, the first clear indication that the unprecedented use of dispersants in the BP oil spill has broken up the oil into toxic droplets so tiny that they can easily enter the foodchain.

Marine biologists started finding orange blobs under the translucent shells of crab larvae in May, and have continued to find them “in almost all” of the larvae they collect, all the way from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Pensacola, Fla. — more than 300 miles of coastline — said Harriet Perry, a biologist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

And now, a team of researchers from Tulane University using infrared spectrometry to determine the chemical makeup of the blobs has detected the signature for Corexit, the dispersant BP used so widely in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Well, duh.

Louisiana wildlife regulators on July 30 reopened state-controlled waters east of the Mississippi to harvesting of shrimp and “fin fish” such as redfish, mullet and trout. Smell tests on dozens of specimens from the area revealed barely traceable amounts of toxins, the federal Food and Drug Administration said.

The government has devised a “smell test” for checking to see if fish caught on the coast of the Gulf are free enough of oil contamination to eat, but there is no such test for the presence of Corexit or the weird compound now forming between the problem and the solution. Corexit kill incubating sea life, experts say, though its long-term effects are unknown. In humans, long-term exposure can cause central nervous system problems or damage blood, kidneys or livers, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

One commercial fisherman who grew up fishing the marshes of St. Bernard put it this way: “If I put fish in a barrel of water and poured oil and Dove detergent over that, and mixed it up, would you eat that fish. I wouldn’t feed it to you or my family. I’m afraid someone’s going to get sick.”

space

* * *

space

It’s not that Florida isn’t getting any rain. Our house hasn’t seen a drop in three weeks, but when I drive into Orlando to work – like today – signs of heavy rainfall are everywhere. I can’t help feeling resentful of such blessings which do not also fall on my house. I can’t help feeling resentful of folks who drive new cars or who live in million-dollar subdivisions. I can’t help but seethe to watch celebs in their bubble of wealth and fame and good looks float about the frozen landscape of my present, smiling with an effervescence that makes my blood boil. I don’t feel much sympathy for down-on-their-luck drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. when I know he still will clear $30 million dollars while I will fret how to pay next month’s mortgage. The sense of bum fortune living next to good times is bitter and grinding, like glacial ice slowly devouring a continent. No rain for us again last night, but in town big puddles; no new opportunities flowing my way but Linday Lohan will live forever with that platinum smile and Hollywood carapace of floating gold.

space

* * *

space

It will take the creation of ten million new jobs to get the unemployment rate back to pre-Great Recession levels. In the current environment—with corporations so greedy to maximize their profits on the backs of their workplace—that isn’t likely to happen for a long, long time. Young workers are especially hard hit. If past experience proves true again (one study examined graduates of college between 1979 and 1989, and the ones who emerged in the teeth of the ’81-82 recession made 25 percent less than graduates who stepped into boom times), the generation of students now emerging into the job market may step onto their career ladders so low that they see a lifetime of diminished opportunities.

Such icing of opportunity has another lifetime effect on one’s health. Physical health tends to deteriorate during unemployment, due to fewer financial resources and a higher stress level. And when poor health is prevalent among the young, it tends to remain for a lifetime–and then cut it short.

space

* * *

space

space

Things I will miss should the waters of this strange flood of ice finally cover our own front door:

– Mornings in this chair, writing while the late night sleeps.

– Our cats looking out onto the garden through an opened window.

– Waking my wife in our bed every morning by gently stroking the soles of her feet.

– Working in the garden.

– Walking back up the driveway after finishing all the yardwork, admiring our house and yard beneath the wide blue summer sky.

– Sitting at the round iron table on the back screened porch eating Sunday brunch of waffles, bacon, scrambled eggs and fruit with my wife, watching birds flit about the spot where two of our cats are buried.

– Drinking cold Gatorade from the bottle out of the fridge.

– Eating watermelon chunks on the couch watching a race.

– All of my books and piles of writings overfilling shelves in the room where my wife has all of her sewing equipment.

– Napping on Saturday afternoon on the bed in the guest room with Belle our calico curled up against me.

– Sitting outside on the front stoop with Mamacita, our stray black cat, watching the early early morning or last of day as she eats her two daily meals.

– Watching “So You Think You Can Dance” on TV with my wife as we relax in the living room with the last of the summer’s day draining from the windows.

– Watching my wife exercise to a DVD in the living room or bent over her sewing.

– Cooking Cuban food in the kitchen with piano jazz on the stereo, rain falling from the eaves.

– Coming in from a long, long day outside on the second day of one of our many yard sales we held to help pay the bills, everything finally stashed back away in the garage, signs pulled down from around the neighborhood, boombox which played jazz from the 30’s and 40’s all weekend shelved, electrical cords stowed away, everything DONE, time to shower, eat a salad with the exhausted wife, then head upstairs to say night night holding my wife’s hand as we ride the bridge of the ship of a house we have voyaged in these past 14 years, for worse and then better, til we can afford to live there no more.

space

space

I’ve not lost these things yet – and hell, lack of mortality can change these things just as quickly as collapsed liquidity – but the freeze is close enough to my heart’s front door (my mind) to have me painting crosses with these epitaphs, these farewells to a middle class life I can’t see us sustaining much more, if things keep going their seemingly inexonorable way.

I’m reminded of a story from last year of flooding of the Red River near Fargo. Each day the river crested higher; each day frantic town-dwellers worked together, filling sandbags and laying them in along the disappearing banks. One exhausted townsperson was interviewed on National Public Radio, and he said something to the effect that all they could do was fill and place enough sandbags – just enough – for that day: and hope that tomorrow they would be able to do the same next just enough.

Implied in his words was the rising shadow of the cold Red River, which may or may not prove surmountable. It was—for that season, and Fargo was saved—but 100-year floods in Cedar Rapids (in which my father lost his Depression-era boyhood home) and Nashville show that isn’t always the case. And don’t forget the floating bodies in drowned New Orleans after Katrina blew through and busted the levees.

I saw a friend yesterday who had moved to Nashville a few years ago to be near his grandkids. He said he’d  lost everything in big flood there. Everything. A proud man, he hated accepting clothing and food. It proved a tide higher than his own, prized sobriety;  he drank after 15 years. He drank because there was no hope, or because too much of his God on the wrong side of the flood-tide of life, taking away more than he could rebuild.

Who could blame him? “There but for the grace of God”  is the prayer of gratitude for those who escape the worst of circumstances which, for those drunks who really shouldn’t drink any more, provides too much reason to drink. Likewise, survivor mode tells me that there is never a good enough reason to fully despair of losing middle-class life. There is perhaps more spiritual growth in losing than can be found in all the oil-barrels of success which enrich so undeserving a player like BP. (Inverse law of life on this earth, the least deserving — pro basketball players, celebrities, toxic CEOs–make all the money.)

Whatever comes, the task is one of acceptance that in all things, good and bad, there is sufficient shelter from the heat and the freezing shadow now being cast by the sun. That there are enough sandbags – label them “grace” and “acceptance,” “humility” and “serenity” – to turn any calamity or boredom or icy similitude into a day’s crest, where on balance what counts holds fast against all the freezing waters on Earth.

But still, I sure would hate to lose all this. To watch all this die. To have to leave with nothing ahead down the road and so much simple paradise disappearing behind.

space

space

Another hot one today. Another day on the job, furiously trying to sandbag against further losses. It’s 5 a.m. and time to get started heading that way: get my morning ablutions done and spend a few minutes back in bed with my wife, stroking her soles and telling her everything’s going to be OK. Glad that the last spluttering candle which burned out last night was not in our house but in one not far from here, over in a middle-class subdivision in Oviedo, where family and friends and neighbors held a vigil in the fading light of yesterday for the father and three grown sons killed by a drunk driver in St. Pete last Saturday night. Members of the family said they were grieving but not vengeful against the 20-year-old boy-man  who thought to drink with impunity and get behind the wheel of a fast car. “It means that understanding that life and God has meaning for everyone, and that you can’t live your life with hate in your heart because that puts you on hold,” one relative said at memorial service. “That allows the event to take over your life from this point forward.” How else can you go on?

Elsewhere around this failing suburb of a town, newly homeless, formerly middle-class folk who ended up on the wrong end of unemployment and foreclosure—their ranks grow every day–are getting up too, in motels and homes of parents or cousins or friends, or stirring in the back seat of their car or coming to realizing they’re in a shelter with the other souls passed over by fortune. They’re gathering their wits and determination to do better today, praying on their knees for some deliverance, a lucky break. Maybe some will coming the way they hope; maybe that deliverance has already arrived in the sum of their losses, freeing them to experience life in a wholly new context. (What an order.) If just depends how much gumption you have to keep filling the sandbags even after the water has covered your house.

There but for the grace of God go I, I whisper, still in this house, with this family intact in the way we intended 14 years ago when my wife and I vowed to love each other forever, through good times and bad. Violet, our Siamese, is curled it a chair across from me, without a clue of how much danger she’s in, even though she’s had nothing but safe harbor all her life. Those pelicans and Ripley’s sea turtles don’t know what they’re gobbling as they wend the poisoned waters of the Gulf, clean on the topside, filled with edible death below.

And NASCAR’s worried that my track-emptying distraction is due to all the whining in the press about bad times.

Nor is NASCAR happy with fans like me, standing on the shores of a frozen Gulf, crying over all that spilled milk.

space


space

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

— T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (finis)

space

space

space

space

space

space

space


space

space

space

space

space

space

space

space

space

space

space

space



One response to “Gimme Shelter From This Freezin’ Swelter

  1. You are a sleuth of analogous devices.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s