Shithouse rat

I'm a bipolar writer in the Naked City. I'm not playing with a full deck. I don't have all my dots on the dice. My cheese is sliding off my cracker. I don't have both oars in the water. I'm a bubble off plum. In other words, I'm crazier than a shithouse rat. These are my stories. Comments--short or long, nasty or nice--always welcome!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Passport Purgatory!

Originally uploaded by gravitywave
With all the terrorist threats from within and without, it is somewhat ironic to me that I, a taxpaying citizen born in the United States with no criminal record or even a traffic ticket to my name, would encounter significant snafus when trying to get a passport to travel to Amsterdam this month for a vacation.

I’d planned the trip several months before, but shortly after submitting my passport application on April 17, I decided to postpone my May 14 trip indefinitely since I’d just spent a bundle moving to my new coop — plus which my boyfriend had balked at going in the first place. It turned out to be a wise move on my part.

Granted, I should have applied earlier, but supposedly if one paid extra for rush service, one could obtain a passport in about two weeks' time. I had an old passport which I’d received without incident years ago for my first and, thus far, last trip abroad to England, but it was still packed away somewhere — who knows where — and was likely expired in any case. So I went to the post office, submitted the required forms and documents, and waited for my passport to arrive via prepaid express mail within about two weeks.

A fortnight later, on May 1, I received a call from the National Passport Center in New Hampshire which was processing my application. A woman informed me that the ID I’d submitted was not sufficient to establish my identity. I’d provided a New York State non-driver’s ID, which I thought was identical for all intents and purposes to a regular driver’s license. I’d certainly gone through hell to procure it a few years ago — having been compelled to do so after my bank insisted that it was now needed to open an account or withdraw funds — due, of course, to post-9/11 precautions. It had served me well since I’d obtained it, and I assumed it was as good as gold as far as establishing that I was, indeed, who I purported to be. Granted, the photo was horrible, but better mortified than stuck at the bank with no cash with a dumb look on my non-identifiable face.

The postal worker who processed my form two weeks before had enclosed a photocopy of my New York State ID along with an original copy of my birth certificate (which she assured me would be returned when I received my new passport) and sent my application out via express mail.

In any case, the woman on the phone this fine May morning informed me that I needed to submit five more forms of ID with my signature or photo, and rattled off many possible examples of same. When I asked why my ID was not sufficient, she said she didn’t know — that was something the passport analyst determined. She said that a letter with full details would be sent out to me, but had no more information as to why I’d been “singled out” for this special scrutiny.

Later that day, I began to get a funny feeling that maybe this had been a phony call. It just didn’t make any sense to me, since I’d heard and read nothing about extra ID being required for a passport. When I checked the US Department of State’s website, I could find nothing to that effect. Furthermore, many of the links which were provided for more information did not work — at least not on my computer on that evening. I suspected that many other fellow citizens anxious to finalize their vacation plans abroad had been jamming up the site; perhaps, I thought, it was simply overloaded with inquiries.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A day at Fordham University, Bronx NY

On Tuesday, I attended a forum on shrinking housing affordability in the Bronx at Fordham University's Bronx/Rose Hill campus. It was a perfect spring day, so I took my camera and after the conference took some shots of the campus and the students. Here's one.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Should the "N" word be banned? Part 2

When I posted my original “N” word article on Blogcritics some two weeks ago, I didn’t anticipate that it would merit a sequel. As it was, the gist of the original premise seemed preposterous if taken literally. Of course, no one could “ban” a word here — this is America, and that kind of thing just isn’t done.

Indeed, though a few who perhaps didn’t read further than the title didn’t realize that the question was, in essence, a rhetorical one, the piece did generate hundreds of comments. Some of these, along with my replies, were longer than the original piece itself.

But most of what was discussed veered from the original question and onto other related concerns such as the state of bigotry — both black and white — in 21st century America. One of my “theories” was that some young African-Americans who bandy this word around so freely and publicly are akin to disenfranchised Muslim youth who both despise the country they live in but are perfectly free to criticize it. Unlike other Americans (with the exception of Native Americans, who of course used to call our country home), African-Americans were originally brought here against their will as slaves. Other Americans originally arrived as immigrants who came here eagerly and voluntarily in search of better opportunities for themselves and their children. As such, they tended to embrace the “American dream” with fervor, and many flourished and gave their children the best that their new country could offer in terms of education and opportunity.

American-born children of immigrants are generally very well assimilated from the get-go, and many, in fact, can’t wait to emerge from their parents’ “ghettos,” eschew the old ways, and embrace their status as full fledged Americans on a par with their peers.

However, there are some — and only some — young blacks who are, in essence, not fully “assimilated” and still reside, both physically and mentally, in a ghetto which they voluntarily embrace, at least to some extent. Those who eschew education as the purview of the “white man” and relish bandying about a word which has such horrible connotations for all Americans has resulted in a tragic, self-defeating cycle. Moreover, the fervently held belief of some African-Americans that there is no such thing as black racism and that they are still left wholly out of the socioeconomic loop is, in my opinion, a strictly 20th century concept. Elders who still pass this self-destructive, counterproductive belief system on to their children are, in essence, harming them grievously and compromising what could otherwise be a bright future, albeit a future with some struggles and challenges along the way.(READ MORE HERE)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Should the "N" word be banned?

On February 1, the first day of Black history Month was ushered in with a bit of local media brouhaha here in New York when Queens Councilman Leroy Comrie, hip-hop artist Kurtis Blow Walker, and other community leaders headed a press conference calling for a symbolic, non-binding resolution urging New Yorkers to stop using the "n" word. Though no one could possibly imagine this could be made into a real law (just for starters, the First Amendment implications would be huge) it did give people of all races ample food for thought.

Black spokesmen such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have spoken out for decades about racism in America. Bill Cosby has been very open about the willful rejection by many black youths of education as a way out of poverty and the peer pressure faced by those who study hard and are mocked by their peers for “acting white.”

The point we are at now in America, Jackson and Sharpton claim, is that most whites feel that racism is now a non-issue, while many blacks know it’s just been pushed under the “PC” surface. The frustrating thing about this underlying, even unconscious, racism is that it’s so insidious that white people don’t even realize they are still bigoted.

So if Black History month is to live up to its name, it seems logical to assume that the implications of the “n” word, its role in racism, and the black struggle for equal opportunity are vital issues to explore. Bringing this topic into the light of day has considerable merit to it, especially since young people who use the word as a term of affection seem unaware of the negative historical connotations. They didn’t live through the civil rights movement and may be unaware that some dedicated people, black and white, died for this noble cause.

They may have little clue as to the horrible and shameful history of discrimination, segregation, lynchings, redlining, and slavery that decimated the black family unit and perpetuated a tragic cycle of multi-generational poverty. The repercussions of this appalling American legacy are still being felt today.

Save for the equally-oppressed Native American, all Americans' roots lie elsewhere. Our ancestors fled oppression and lack of opportunity in the old country and braved the journey to the new land with its siren song of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free.” The crucial difference between African Americans and other "immigrants" is that blacks were brought here against their will in the service of oppression rather than liberation. Conversely, the vast waves of European immigrants who began to arrive in earnest at the turn of the twentieth century personified the typical road to assimilation taken by those from other countries and cultures who come here.

My grandparents, for instance, came from Eastern Europe and settled, like so many others, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan early in the last century. My grandfather worked hard to support his wife and five children, but died at a very young age, leaving my non-English speaking grandmother to care for her American-born children in a cramped walk-up tenement.

In order to survive, my mother and her older brother had to complete their high school degrees at night so they could work during the day. My grandmother insisted that everyone finish high school, as she knew this was necessary in order to move ahead and succeed in America. Like many children of new immigrants, my mother, aunts, and uncles wasted no time in trying to escape the ghetto life they had been born into. As fully assimilated Americans, they wanted to move out of the old neighborhood at all costs.

My mother and her youngest sister were especially adamant about this. When they double dated, they didn’t want their dates to pick them up from home. They broke from their Orthodox Jewish religious traditions, spoke perfect English, and succeeded in fulfilling the American dream in earnest. Only one of my aunts — an Orthodox Jew — still lives in the old neighborhood (what my other aunt also refers to as the “schtetl”). Like some others of her generation, she chose to stay in a working class co-op development that had been designed by Jewish union leaders early in the century to provide the working and middle class with decent, affordable housing and an escape from the cramped tenements a block or two away. For decades — until a discrimination lawsuit changed all that — the massive high rise co-ops up and down Grand Street on the East Side were, indeed, virtual Jewish enclaves.

In this safe haven, American-born Orthodox Jews could escape the pressures of full assimilation and retain their essential “Jewishness” without shame or apology. As a result, it is quite easy to tell at first sight (and sound) that my aunt is Jewish. She talks and looks like a stereotypical Jew, though she worked for years in a mostly Chinese school district as a secretary and got along with everyone. But until recently, time really did stand still — at least culturally — on Grand Street. READ MORE HERE

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Adventures in real estate, part 2: the lawyer who "phoned it in"

Originally uploaded by splorp.
Selling and/or buying a home can be an aggravating, time consuming, and expensive endeavor which typically involves working with a team of “professionals,” all with their hands out for their cut. There’s real estate brokers, mortgage brokers, and real estate lawyers just for starters. As in all professions, some are good, some are bad, and some are just plain evil, greedy bastards.

For at least the past 7 years or so, I knew where I wanted to move as soon as my ex-boyfriend and I could finally agree to sell our old place. It’s a great coop complex in the Bronx near my current boyfriend BG. I’d first seen it advertised when I picked up one of those free “real estate books” they had in a kiosk on Fordham Road. The two page ad blew me away right then and there.

A few years passed, and I became manic and almost bought a place there—even put down a hefty deposit and signed a contract. But I realized that paying a mortgage as well as maintenance, though do-able, would be more of a stretch than I’d feel comfortable about, and I was able to get my deposit back.

But S, the guy I dealt with at the coop’s management company, remembered me when I called him again after we’d finally put our Manhattan coop on the market last fall. He told me to call back when we went into contract, and call I did.

Soon enough S showed me the home of my dreams. I got all my paperwork in order. I was paying cash, so no mortgage hassle was involved. He did a credit check, and informed me that I had an A-plus score.

S had a list of several lawyers he worked with on contracts and closings, and gave me two names to choose from. I called B and we got down to business, or so I thought.

B’s fee was relatively modest, especially compared to the lawyer we retained for the closing of our place downtown. But that lawyer met with us in his office and sat down with us for at least an hour and went over the contract line by line. He was friendly, courteous, and a pleasure to work with.

No so with B. He, too, was pleasant enough at first, but seemed to need to justify his fees by exaggerating the importance of his role. In any case, I expected contracts to be sent to me in short order.

Unlike our lawyer for the sale of our place, B did not meet with clients for contract review. Rather, he would messenger me my copy, I would review it, we would discuss any questions I had by phone, and I would messenger it back to him.

Nevertheless, quite a bit of time went by with no contract in sight. When I told S a few days ago that I hadn’t received it as yet, he was, and I quote—“shocked.” Though B had told me that the seller’s lawyer hadn’t sent him anything yet, according to S he just hadn’t bothered to send a messenger to pick the papers up from the seller’s lawyer.READ MORE HERE

Monday, February 12, 2007

Adventures in real estate, part 1: the broker from hell

"Yonkers, NY. One bedroom, 900 sq. ft, 139 K. Lg. unit in luxury highrise; updated kitchen, 20 foot terrace, doorman, security, pool, parking, express bus. Deli and dry cleaners on site. Near shops, restaurants; 25 minutes from Grand Central."

My ex-boyfriend G and I have co-owned a one bedroom coop in lower Manhattan for the past 15 years. At long last, we put the place up on the market this past fall. Despite all the talk of a bursting "real estate bubble," after a few nail-biting months we found a buyer who came reaasonably close to our asking price, and we're all set to close on March 1st.

Though I've already chosen my new dream home in the Bronx near my current boyfriend and will go into contract this week, G-d willing, G is still searching. Time is of the essence--if he's not secured in a new place pronto, he'll have to hang at his sister's house in New Jersey while he continues looking.

This past year, G was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy — a rare, congenital form of adult muscular dystrophy. His doctor told him he might not live past 65 and would probably need a wheelchair down the line. His condition is already starting to deteriorate — his manual dexterity is very bad and he has fallen many times because the disease affects his gait. He's now on social security disability, so his income is modest though sufficient to buy a place between 100K and 140K, tops. Maintenance has to be reasonable too, and the apartment must be wheelchair accessible, close to shopping and buses, and at least as roomy as our 800 square foot place in case he has to maneuver with a wheelchair down the line.

One would think that with the potential 5 or 6 percent commission to be made in a now-slower market that real estate brokers would be jumping at the chance to show G places, but some have been bewilderingly slow toeven return calls. So it was a refreshing change of pace when I responded to an ad for a place in Yonkers--just north of the Bronx and the city line--and the broker responded promptly and proactively to my inquiry. The
looked promising, and the photos looked good, so we scheduled an appointment to see the place last Sunday through the broker, Debby Frank of Century 21.

Debby told me that since at least one offer was already in the works, we'd best see the place or another like it ASAP since units, though somewhat plentiful, went fast. But when I explained the wheelchair access requirement, she said it wouldn't be suitable t for G since it was on a hill. (Later, looking again at the ad, I saw no evidence of any stairs, obstructions, or hills --and with a power chair, G would probably be able to maneuver just fine. Plus, the fact that the alternate URL for the ad included the word "teasers" might have meant something fishy was up, though perhaps I'm just being too jaded.)

Nevertheless, she assured me she had lots of other nearby units similar in size and price range to show
us. Although she seemed very proactive and responsive—good signs in a profession where some brokers are deadbeats just sitting back and waiting for the commissions to roll in, which plenty did during the recent real-estate boom — I soon found she was rather condescending and more than a little ditzy.READ MORE HERE

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Come on over to the DARK side!

Originally uploaded by LarimdaME.
My New York City/real estate obsessed doppelganger Elvira Dark has just launched a companion blog to Shithouse rat called All things New York--devoted exclusively to everything and anything about the city--real estate, neighborhoods, safety, 9/11 issues, things to avoid, must-see and off the beaten path attractions, one day and weekend getaways, insider tips, local news and politics, and more.

Generally, there will be several different categories of posts:

Detailed information about all aspects of New York City living, with plenty of features covering all five boroughs and points beyond with directions on how to get there, plus lots of useful links for further information.

Invaluable info from a born and bred New Yorker you won't find in the guidebooks--or probably anywhere else.

Culled from Elvira Black's "New York Stories," a regular feature column that can also be found at Blogcritics Magazine, along with plenty of fresh new posts for good measure.

Got a question about New York? Just ask and I'll give you the lowdown.

Suggestions for topics you'd like to see covered are welcome.

Comments, both naughty and nice, are warmly encouraged. So lay it on me, I can take it!