1989 - New York City. I was attending NYU’s Dramatic Writing program for the one semester I would attend, before dropping out because my student loan from a previous city college had defaulted and I couldn’t get a new one. But for one semester I got to be an NYU student. I was not smart enough to realize that, along with my tuition, I also got free meals. I assumed I didn’t. So I watched my friends eat their meals in the university kitchen while I starved. I don’t know why I didn’t simply ask someone. It was the same reason I played fast and loose on the financial aid papers, not paying close enough attention to realize I’d be stuck without a way to pay for the second semester.
I don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself more as a young single adult in my life than I did that brief semester in Greenwich Village, attending the university of my dreams, wandering the alive streets of New York, taking a painting class and pretending to be a painter. Taking a writing class and pretending to be a writer. Everything was pretend - being an adult, being a student. There is nothing wrong with pretending, however, as it is a manageable way to make dreams come true.
I had gotten a job at a jazz club in the village. The building had been there forever. I can’t remember the name of it and I believe it closed shortly thereafter. When you are young and you don’t have many skills you take any job that will have you. I’ve had so many in my life, from a smoothie maker to a phone sex dispatch operator, to a janitor, to a clerk at a health food store, to a box office manager at a theater. But this job, I was to be a waitress or cocktail waitress. They couldn’t decide and it didn’t matter. It was my favorite kind of place to work - completely disorganized, wholly corrupt in its business dealings, barely hanging on as a business.
They made piles of cash by having big names in Jazz play live shows. They made so much money that they somehow managed to pay the rent on the place, and pay staff to work there and give the impression that it was, indeed, a reputable establishment. It was run by Haitians who had come here with big dreams to have the most lively Jazz spot in New York. It was a top-liner because of the people who played there. My dad, who was a lifelong bebop Jazz drummer would call me every weekend to find out who was playing. I was just a dumb young girl and despite being the daughter of a Jazz drummer, had no idea who any of them were.
They were a big family and those of us who worked there were part of it. The only two white people who worked there was me and my friend Eric who had the dry running commentary like George Sanders in All About Eve. I would do whatever job I was asked to do, which was sometimes a cocktail waitress and other times a hostess and other times a manager. Eric, of course, was the bartender. The rest of the staff worked in the kitchen, all two of them.
No one knew what happened to the money they made because it certainly didn’t go into the kitchen menu. They would cook one meal and serve it up to the customers no matter what they ordered. Since it was all written in Haitian they assumed the diners would never figure it out, and honestly, 99% of them either never did or pretended they never did. They where there to hear the music, after all, nothing else mattered.
As their waitress, I had to go along with it, and pretend like everything was fine and they received what they actually ordered, instead of whatever it was Raff (the main chef) had cooked up that day - maybe fish stew or some kind of cassoulet. Raff was wildly charismatic and made fun of my haircut but told long stories that would require I often stood at the door with two hot plates of food in my hand while he finished, then he would say, “what are you waiting for? That food will get cold!”
Mostly this scam went along just fine. Good music, great atmosphere - the only problem was the high priced menu that promised a variety of delicious meals but in reality came from the same pot cooked every night. They won’t know the difference, was the idea. One night, after the band had played and left the stage, one of the diners stood up, his face twisted into outrage and said very loudly, “Why are all pretending like what’s happening isn’t really happening!” The room fell into stunned silence. But no one wanted the burden of the awkwardness so they just looked down, rummaged through their bags or occupied themselves. Finally he sat back down miserably, since no one else would join him in confronting the staff.
He looked ridiculous doing it too — he was hoping everyone would stand up and register their protest but no one did. He might have even said something like, “Come on, people! What are they serving us! We have a right to know!” But he was a privileged white man screaming at the mostly Haitian staff, and no one in New York City attending that Jazz club that night wanted to be that guy. He was right in that they were pulling a fast one on the customers. There was no doubt they (we) were doing that. There was no doubt that it was wrong. There was no doubt he had courage in the face of public shame.
But what has stuck with me all these years is how inclined we are as a species to not say anything, to not make a fuss, to not be that one person standing up to something that isn’t right knowing it will wreck our reputations, alienate us from our friends maybe, and demote our status in our tribe. Had it been an all-white club owned by rich people he would have been hailed as a hero. But here, he was regarded as an entitled idiot by everyone in that room.
Most people want to be thought of as good people. But that goodness is defined by which group they belong to. In that restaurant, I wanted to be thought of as good towards the staff, not the clients - so I would never have said anything against them. Maybe to that one guy who stood up he belongs to a group of people who admire those who stand up and make themselves a target for public shame as long as what they are doing, they believe, is morally right.
Right now, in this country, since the rise of Obama in 2008 and even before that, our dividing line has been “good” vs. “bad.” When I was younger, in the 1980s, the left was coming off the long decline of the counter culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s where we were proudly “bad” and the Republicans, or the conservatives, were “good.” By that I mean they were a party gripped by Christianity, primarily, and thus, they led with the idea that they were “good.” By contrast, we on the left found our identities in subversion. We pushed back on the notion of goodness in art, music, literature, film - we challenged the status quo by exposing the darker side of humanity and let me tell you, that was a far more satisfying pathway for art than we see now on the left, where the need to be “good” has snuffed out the freedom to tell the truth.
The “Good Liberal” is everywhere. Their viciousness is justified by their own identification of being “good.” They recycle. They live sustainably. They drive a Prius. They are ANTIRACIST. They put BLM and pronouns in their profiles on social media to quickly identify themselves as “good.” They “heart” Jill Biden’s Instagram posts but they savagely, viciously attack Melania’s. Melania is “bad” because she once wore an “I Don’t Care” jacket which mocked the left’s treatment of her. Jill Biden is “good” because she wears a jacket that says “love” on the back. Joe Biden, once deemed “bad” by the same people who now see him as “good” has risen to a god-like status in the tribe, as the left tries to hold onto Obama’s America, to get back all that has been lost in the past four years. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that it isn’t coming back. Those days are gone and culture is ever-evolving.
The need to be “good” informs everything we do on the left, from the way we review films to always be mindful of women and people of color, the way we decide who gets to stay and who must be cancelled. You better not have ever done, thought, said anything “bad” or you will be ejected. It doesn’t matter how funny you are or how talented you are or even how beautiful you are. If you are not “good,” defined by how we see ourselves, then you’re OUT. Not only are you out but you will be called a Nazi, you will be screamed at, threatened, shamed and humiliated because you are “bad” and we are “good.”
I don’t fit so well in the new order of goodness. I used to. I would watch Rachel Maddow, herself a reflection of the Obama presidency - a man and a family that was defined by goodness. I would read the New York Times, as they are also strongly committed to goodness that they will FIRE ANYONE who breaks the code of personal conduct that might reveal themselves as “bad.” YOU ARE BAD BECAUSE YOU SAID SOMETHING ONCE THAT WAS OFFENSIVE AND YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER SO YOU’RE FIRED AND TWITTER AGREES.
We are good because we give over our money to super pacs and billionaires who are ridding our country of bad people. We are good because we police all social media to find the bad people and PURGE THEM from our utopia.
What this inevitably means is that we’re giving over the necessary freedom to tell the truth to the right. Or rather, to the Trump movement. Anyone who can’t stand this New World Order, of which there are many, are going to be seeking any leader who will not just appease the puritans but attack them directly to destroy the currently acceptable way we are all living our lives.
Right now, that is being given over almost completely to Trump who has found his fight late in the game. His America First agenda is no longer against foreign leaders or immigrants or anything else - it is aimed squarely at the massive movement on the left right now that is shaping America’s past, present and future. Trump is “bad” so America is “bad.” Here is what Trump wrote in his statement after his acquittal:
The Democrats are far too weak to take any of it on. They are afraid of Twitter. The media is afraid of Twitter. Twitter is afraid of Twitter. If the way they can be controlled is by shame then that makes them easier to control. Trump, of course, can’t be, which is why he did well in a climate ruled by shame.
Why are we pretending like what is happening isn’t happening?
This will be the fight in 2022 and 2024. Democrats can spend the next four years hunting down the “bad” Trump people (they will, guaranteed) or they could spend the next four years reconciling the insanity that has overtaken the party. To do that, they have to abandon the need to be “good” - to let go of the America Obama created. This is a new America and the party that wins in 2024 will decide what that America will be.
I had to leave New York quickly once I found out I had no loans to keep me there. Eric and I were best friends during that time but I have not seen him nor contacted him since. I do not know what happened to that restaurant but I can’t imagine they stayed open for long. All of these years later, my daughter graduated NYU and now lives in New York.
Happy Valentine’s Day dear readers.