Thursday, August 20, 2009

Seventy! I Can't Believe It

Happy Birthday to Me
I was born in St. Clare’s Hospital in Hell’s Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan on August 21,1939. It was a hot, back-to-work monday. Europe was a week away from war. On that sunday some poor devil named Frank Goesch died when a tree branch fell on the open top of the Fifth Avenue bus he was riding in. He was going as I was coming.
The snapshot above is dad and me on the roof circa 1940. I wonder what happened to that snazzy carriage?
I’ve seen amazing changes over my life. We used to have a phone that had to be plugged in all the time. Now I have a small one that I plug in only to charge the battery. And my car has an automatic transmission, meaning no clutch pedal. Society is also very different. Girls are a lot easier--or so younger men tell me. You can’t get Trommer’s Beer anymore. The Dodgers left town in 1957.
When I was born, the prevailing pols were:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the U.S.
Herbert Lehman, governor of New York
Robert F. Wagner, senior senator from New York
Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York City
I
f those guys were around and trying today what they did 70 years ago, they would be slagged as whacko socialists or even Canadians. They initiated things like Social Security, minimum wages, the right to join unions, unemployment insurance, and public housing. Roosevelt’s “stimulus” packages gave us countless bridges, highways, rural electrification, flood control and irrigation projects, and the Astoria pool, where we used to dunk girls and snap towels at each other all summer long. Good thing we already have those assets, because they would never pass nowadays.
When I was 12, President Harry Truman, another weird lefty, was ticked because Americans were paying as much as $12 a day for hospital rooms. He called for the equivalent of a single payer health system, such as most Dems disavow 60 years later as being too radical. Truman failed, beaten by the same corporate crowd now making countless billions a year off $1,000 a day hospital rooms and health insurance so expensive it makes you sick.
We had an empire even then, but at least presidents gave us reasons for going to war. Obama is plunging us into Pakistan, a nation of 170 million people who are said to be particularly anti-American (i.e., disobedient), without even bothering to shill it. Our wars don’t need rationales anymore; just no-bid contracts.
I brood on such things because I was a red diaper baby. My parents were part of the radical upsurge in the 30’s and paid for it big time in the 50’s (but that’s a story too complicated to tell here). I lived in a world of pinko political palaver and picket line protest. It primed me for the 60’s, when America--or at least me--enjoyed its last radical upsurge.
Back then, folks called me an extremist because I wanted to change the world. Now, when I’m willing to settle for the norms of the People’s Republic of Eisenhower, they still call me an extremist. The country keeps moving to the right faster than I can adjust to it. It won’t be long before they’re branding Ronald Reagan a red.
Seventy years on, there are lots of great gizmos in the world. I love the jets that let me depart Bradley in the morning and gobble swell seafood at Swan’s in San Fran at lunch. I love the computer that gives me access to almost everything I want to know and just about everyone I want to trade info, ideas and jokes with. I like not having to shift gears in traffic.
On the down side is that my compatriots have become stupider and ever more self-destructive. Older generations have been saying that about younger ones since Socrates. Obvioulsy, they weren’t always right because, despite plagues, pestilences, wars and Rush Limbaugh, civilization has advanced.
But we seem to be in a regressive phase. We Americans locked onto the notion that money cures everything. That as opposed to the French view that a month's paid vacation at the seashore and good food work even better. The pelf panacea was arguable when we actually had moolah but it’s moronic now that we’re in hock. Lately, we’re trying to see if debt solves everything, but that’s an even dumber idea.
Being a lefty in a righty culture is a downer. My government disappears people of my ilk in countries in which it has "vital interests." Let's hope they don't get interested in my vitals. The worst is that we lefties seem to have lost the optimism that made the 60’s a gas. History helps me stay sane. If you keep track of it, it reminds you that despite the fact there’s nothing new under the sun, the world somehow gets better--if you’ve got a couple of centuries to spare.
On the sunny side, I’ve got a great family, a fascinating world to wander, and a good health plan. What's more, my finances are as un-American as my politics: I don’t owe a dime to anyone. I guess I’ll try to hang around as long as I can. Atheists like me don’t have much choice.

4 comments:

Kristen said...

this was helluv fun to read. almost as enjoyable as hanging out with the Karmans, circa 2008.

Happy Birthday Pete!

Janet said...

Day One of the rest of your life kicking off on the right foot!

Keep on spewing - you have a fan club!

Bon Anniversaire!!!!
Janet

jb said...

Happy birthday Pete.
I only met you once, but would never have guessed you were 70.

Jacob said...

Happy birthday Pete.

The last time I looked...well, who would have imagined 70?

Jake Rosen