Wednesday, October 31, 2007

While Men Walked On The Moon

Personal confession: For 2 years, over 35 years ago, I was a flack for a slum landlord. I got a job as a clerk at a motel on Aurora. For $50 per week I worked weeknights, got Saturdays off, then pulled a straight 22-hour Sunday shift .

If the job were just about the motel I wouldn't mention it here. But besides the motel, there was also slum housing. It was a bunch of dilapidated wooden structures behind the motel all painted lead-pink with anywhere from two to five or six small apartments per building. I don't recall the total number of units but it was somewhere in the 50-100 range.

The walls housed rats and occasionally cats who sometimes got lost in them, died, and reeked. In some of the rooms floorboards were broken and you had to avoid walk around them. Some buildings were built in the way of drainage and were constantly at risk of flooding, so there had to be sump pumps in crawl spaces under them. The pumps regularly failed, but were never replaced. All repairs were done by an old part-time worker who was never given the funds to do them right. The central steam heater was on a timer, so there was no heat from midnight to dawn every night.

The landlord was one of the cheapest, meanest people I have ever met. Apart from that she was a nice old Norwegian lady. She had a charming Norwegian accent and was somebody's beloved great-grandmother. I'll call her Mrs. Skyldig. After a childhood of abject poverty in Norway she came to the United States with her Norwegian husband. Her husband had built the apartments and motel back in the 20s and 30s and made a good enough living from them to buy a nice house in Ballard. Then he died in the 60s, leaving it all to her. Rather than sell the business she decided to continue it. She needed to develop managerial skills, but they never came. Because, however good a wife she had been, she was basically a mean, rotten, petty, selfish human being.

Now, as a general rule the sort of people who live in slums are the poorer people. Although Mrs. Skyldig grew up poor, she was convinced that the reason she was not poor by then was because of her superior character, and could not be persuaded that it was because she exploited people for profit. So she despised her own tenants and would evict people for the slightest infractions.

One tenant though was her example for all the others. "Why can't you be like Mr. Jones?" she would say, "He's such a good man." Jones had lived there trouble-free for a decade.

Then, Mrs. Skyldig found out Mr. Jones had long ago served time for a felony. She said, "I can't believe it! He has been all this time a criminal! People always betray me! There's no one I can trust!" She padlocked him out. Then she went home for the weekend.

That Sunday the remaining tenants came demanding that I join them in revolt. They presented me with a letter to sign that was addressed to Mrs. Skyldig and told her how wrong she was.

None of the tenants had signed the letter. I was willing to quit my job for them, but not if all that could come of it was my unemployment. I urged them to all sign it, and I promised I'd be the second signer. But no one stepped forward to be the first. They were all afraid to be the next one evicted, and wanted me to take all the heat. I said, "Well then, you don't really care as much as you say you do."

About 4 in 5 of them moved out within a month. They proved me wrong.

Now, I'm saying the supporters of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness don't care whether it really ends homelessness or not. Let's see them risk speaking out about the plan's failings, and prove me wrong.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Let's Make The Best Of It!

Well, it's been a slow week here in Lake Weerooldewurld. All that happened was our Vice President said this weekend that another sovereign country would NOT get a bomb such as ones we've waved about for 62 years. We wonder how he could be so sure, given that our army is stretched to the breaking point, Iran has an ally next door (north of it) whose army isn't currently stretched, and who has bigger bunker busters than we do and easier targets (a stretched army conveniently nearby).

The important thing is, if Dick Cheney says Iran won't get nukes, then Iran won't get nukes, because Dick Cheney is the new Caesar. He's bigger than Caesar. Just like every successor to Caesar had to be a Caesar, every successor to Dick Cheney will have to be a Dick. Whether it's Hillary Dick, Barack Dick, Mitt Dick, or Rudy Dick, the one sure thing is it'll be a Dick. Just like the ancient Romans knew they'd always be Caesared in the end, we can be sure that we'll always be Dicked.

But I won't dwell on parallels between our current empire and that of the ancient Romans. That's ancient history. Instead, I'll dwell on the Fifties.

Recently I was reminiscing and remembered a cute thing that happened right here in 1955, when I was 6. I was at 3rd and Pine on the corner that now has the city's most interesting McDonald's (in the sense that bloody highway wrecks are interesting) waiting to cross to the Bon. A man in a blue and green flannel shirt stepped off the curb onto the street while the light was still red. Immediately a voice boomed out, "You! In the blue and green flannel shirt! Yes, you! Please get back on the curb so I don't have to send my two friends over there!" Or, words to that effect.

It was a plainclothes Seattle Police Officer (also wearing a flannel shirt by the way!) watching pedestrians in that intersection from a perch above the Bon Marché's awning. He had a bullhorn and two "friends" -- beat cops on the ground.

You may be thinking, "Wow, and I thought cops today made too much of jaywalking! They were REALLY medieval back in the Fifties! I'm glad I'm not old enough to remember that! Poor Dr. Wes! He's so old!"

If that's what you're thinking, we are not on the same "wavelength." Here's the important thing to note about the incident I just related: The man in the flannel shirt did NOT get a ticket.

Whereas, today, there wouldn't be a cop with a bullhorn warning him to get back on the curb. A motorcycle cop in full storm-trooper gear would sweep down on him, then push him back on the sidewalk, then pin him to the wall, then write him a ticket.

I'm putting all this together. Apparently, as a nation, we are entering into a long period of decline. If we are lucky enough to survive so long, we will be ruled by Dicks for as long as Rome was ruled by Caesars. Like the Caesars, our Dicks will maintain themselves in power by delivering spoils of endless wars to the powerful rich who will in turn be increasingly allowed to bypass our republican institutions, consolidating their own power as well.

It's not for nothing that the symbol of Mussolini's party was taken to be fasces. A bundle of sticks IS stronger than one. It's a great metaphor for the collaboration between corporate interests and the administration: the government is the ax, the corporations the sticks bound together. When the corporations own the government, our turn to fascism will be complete.

But it doesn't have to be all bad. The cop over the awning in 1955 shows you can have fun-loving repression! The guy DIDN'T get a ticket, only a cheerful warning.

Let's make sure our next Dick can say Iran won't get nukes with a real smile on his face, instead of that nasty smirk!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Just Plain Mater

When I graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor's of Science in 1971, my parents wanted to give me a Lifetime Membership in the Alumni Society as a graduation present. They were too cheap to pay the whole $100, but they chipped in $50 and I paid the rest. I'm an official card-carrying U Dub Alumnus! I get mail from the Alumni Society all the time! I get a glossy magazine! They want me to give the University more money, to make it a greater University than it already is!

Let me explain why I won't.

First, there was this little dispute that arose in the 80s when I was painfully homeless. Getting over the worst of an onset of PTSD, I tried to get back into my math career by using the Math Research Library at Padelford Hall. No, not to sleep there. I went in just to look for books and check them out. Then, I returned them on time! Those days I still respected libraries, and returned books. I'm wiser now.

The librarian didn't respect me. She said, "The books are for people who need them." I said I needed them. The librarian indicated my need didn't count. I flashed the Lifetime Membership card. My need still didn't count. I asked one of my former professors to intervene on my behalf, a guy who had given me a glowing recommendation that helped me get into a graduate school. He denied ever having known me before even one cock crowed. He probably thought, "Did I have any homeless in my classes? Let's see, I had an Armenian. I had a Nigerian. I had a Hoosier. But no, no homeless."

OK. That sort of thing can leave a bad taste. But I'm an easy-going, forgiving, SOB. Yes I am. I have been willing to forgive and forget that slight. I don't know, maybe that librarian was acting out of line. Maybe I didn't complain to the right person, the one who would have set her straight.

Recently the University pressured Gregoire to go along with booting rehabilitating sex offenders out of the fraternity neighborhood, ostensibly to protect students from possibly in the future feeling uncomfortable about them being there. Turns out the University really wants to expand into the property the sex offenders were housed in.

The University should now be barred from doing so for a generation, until the stench of its corruption has had time to dissipate. But if that were the worst of the University's crimes I'd be saving every penny I found in the gutters and every dime I find under every vending machine for my beloved college.

There is one unforgivable injustice.

In 1967 I paid $345 per year for state-resident tuition. Since then, average tuitions for residents have gone to around $6,500 per year. In 40 years we've had six-fold inflation overall, but over 18-fold inflation of UW tuition!

At the same time there has been only a little more than a nominal 4-fold increase in workers' pay, two-thirds the inflation increase. Consequently the economic burden on low-income working residents is 4 and a half times what it was when I was a student.

Poor people are being gouged on a steady ongoing basis. They may get loans, but they are having to spend lifetimes paying them back. It's the new slavery. An indentured servitude of decades instead of the traditional seven years. And what do the Board of Regents and the President talk to Gregoire about? Getting sex offenders out of a building they want.

I'll give them the same deal my parents gave me. If the University's governors make a good faith effort to get the state to bring tuitions down to around $2000 a year, I'll think that they really do care about their mission after all, and I'll make an effort to scrounge up $50 for them.

Until then, the University of Washington will get from me what I got from them when I was homeless.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Learn What's Real

[Above:Children have been useless ever since child labor was outlawed. Here we see useless children engaging in useless behavior over fifty years ago.]

I don't often talk about children. There are many reasons for this. For example, children are all too human. Too much of anything is ugly. I prefer 25-year olds, who are human in moderation. Also, children are incompetents. They can't vote. They can't drive. They can't buy their own health insurance. What good are they?

George Bush agrees with me for once. Rather than arrange for poor children (the worst kind of children there are, always wanting what they can't buy) to have health care, he wants the market to handle it. In other words he wants the poor children to pay for their own health care, or go without. If that means there are fewer poor children around by next fiscal quarter, well, that's what we call a demand side adjustment.

I say it's time we did away with health insurance altogether. I don't think there are many people who realize that health insurance is a communist plot to "re-educate" the public to accept communist ideals and practices. I am in a unique position to alert the public to this plot, because as a mathematician I almost allowed myself to be recruited among the ranks of the "aktuariik" myself!

The original idea of insurance was to make everyone pay equally for all the health care! Everyone would pay the same amount every month, which would be called a premium, as though it were a good thing. Then only the sick would get the money back in the form of payments for health care. Healthy people would get nothing! That's communism!

Now, the communists want to go a step further. As if the ordinary idea of health insurance isn't red enough, they want to say, "Oh yes, and if you are unfortunate enough to be too poor at the outset of the whole program, never mind, no premiums for you, we'll let the rich pay for you to get well!"

[Below: Children love Communism! Here, some children sing a favorite commie song they learned on the playground.]

As always, the communists and the children push their common unholy agenda, "From each according to her/his ability, to each according to her/his need."

Fortunately George Bush is President and he knows how to stop communists and children dead in their tracks. He knows that in order for Americans to continue to be the most productive people in the world we must have a healthy citizenry, and that means we must have healthy productive children. And we're not going to have healthy productive children if we waste health care on the sick unproductive ones.

It reminds me of that other communist plot that was popular here in Seattle not that long ago, to let poor people wash themselves and their clothes for free at accessible communist sites scattered throughout the city. The trouble was that if you did that, not only did that mean the rest of us had to pay for all that soap and electricity and real estate, but worse, poor people wouldn't look poor anymore.

When you can't tell non-consumers from consumers you don't have any way to weed the non-consumers from your retail centers. The people wandering your stores might look clean, as if they were potential buyers, but be incapable of adding to your profit. You might as well scrub a herd of caribou, sprinkle them with cologne and let them wander the aisles of your stores, for all the money you'd make.

[Above: No money; no admittance.]

Whether the communists like it or not, this is a capitalist country. If you aren't part of the profit, you're part of the problem.

I think it was in 1988 that I finally saw the light. I was homeless at the time and I was sitting in a sandwich shop drinking coffee and scribbling equations on a napkin. A businessman sitting next to me asked me what the equations were good for. I said they could potentially have some value in the future, but I didn't know what. He said, "You don't know what's real. Potentialities aren't real. Money is real."

That's the trouble with children. They're not money; they're not real.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Let Them Eat Editors

I've avoided talking about the flap over Capehart. I thought I had nothing new to add to the topic.

I was thinking this week I would instead talk about brain-eating amoeba. There are few concerns I have that are more pressing to me than my concern that brain-eating amoeba not invade my nostrils and eat my brain, starting with my olfactory nerve.

Ordinarily what I write here at most mildly amuses a few people for four or five minutes and then gets forgotten and ignored. For example, if I say the Iraq War is illegal, unjust, and immoral, no one notices. I could get more action out of people if I reproduced a page from Silas Marner than if I told you all what causes homelessness and the simple steps that would end it. But I am sure if I told you how to avoid having your brains eaten by mutant brain-eating amoeba from Australia, you would listen up.

[Above right: Some brain-eaters save the brains for dessert.]

But evidently I was wrong to think that I had nothing new to say about Capehart. Last week the P-I ran an editorial in which they wrote, "We did have some concerns, however, about access to shops and transportation. For example, the nearest bus stop we could find was close to a mile away and basic drugstore supplies required a trip of more than two miles." Members of the city council said basically the same thing, that the housing was inappropriate for housing the homeless, so the plan to demolish it should therefore go forward.

I have two things to say about the inappropriateness of that "therefore."

First of all, homeless activists were never saying that the Capehart housing should be used for housing people who are currently homeless or at immediate risk of it. What we were saying was that the loss of middle class housing, in the current market, would force people who could have afforded it, and who had their own transportation, to compete for less expensive housing that could have gone to people with lower incomes, and that a loss of 66 units of housing at the lower middle class range, such as at Capehart, would ultimately either subtract 66 units from very low income housing, or those with cars would move away from Seattle altogether, and you could kiss their tax dollars goodbye.

If you really think that demolishing middle class housing doesn't hurt the homeless, try this thought experiment: Get rid of all of it. Bulldoze all the single family dwellings in all the nearly 100 neighborhoods of Seattle. Now picture where those people are all going to live if they are to stay in Seattle. When you finally see how that would put a few hundred thousand more people on the street who weren't there before, next visualize what would happen if instead of sticking around all the middle class people whose homes were bulldozed moved to Phoenix. Answer: Phoenix is the new Seattle, and Seattle is the new New Orleans.

OK, so that wasn't anything that hasn't already been said. Other homeless activists have said the same thing essentially, minus the thought experiment. [Above left: Our hero, Mr. Thought Experiment himself.]

I am now going to astonish you by saying something utterly original about the Capehart housing. Something that no one else has said and that even the brilliant editors of the intelligent Seattle Post-Intelligencer were incapable of thinking of.

Yes. The nearest bus stop to Capehart is almost a mile away. But: Metro has bus stop signs to spare!

You have to be utterly brain dead already not to be able to think that if people lacking cars and legs were living in Capehart that Metro could not be induced to extend Route 33 that far.

Have all of you forgotten that bus companies are run by human beings and do the bidding of human beings?

This country has lost its imagination and its humanity with it.

We can save ourselves from the brain-eating amoebas. Feed them P-I editorialists, and they'll all die of starvation.

[Above: In case you wondered why investors aren't much interested in a property bordering a big beautiful park.]