Reverend Katrina Foster's Twitter handle is: wife, Pastor, mama, lesbian, recovering redneck, activist, troublemaker. Listen to LGBTQ pastor's story of overcoming addiction, finding her true vocation as a Lutheran Pastor, and finding true love with another woman and a daughter.
“He said ‘If you have 100 friends — for me 98 of them are gone.’ It was hard not to cry, but how dare I cry? I haven’t been through this!”
When I heard that my friend and colleage was travelling to Greece to help the boatloads of mostly Syrian refugees that had been arriving, I was jealous — and impressed. Why wasn’t I going over to Greece to help the refugees? I gave myself all the usual excuses — I’m way too busy, I can’t just leave my life!
Watching the world go by on our computers and televison sets every minute there’s something worthy to give to, and after a while I feel like you just have to start shutting some of it out or else you cannot tend to your own life.
As I saw her posts on Facebook, and some of the photos that were coming back, I wanted to know what made her shut off her computer, get up off the couch in The Hamptons, and fly across the world to help people she didn’t know.
Why does one person take the leap?
In her case, she told me she jumped because it was time for a re-calibration of herself. She needed to feel gratitude for all that she has, and what better way.
Joanne told me that she feels “like it wasn’t a completely selfless act. I will admit that I had my own parallel thought process going into this that has to do with me as a human being.”
We both live in East Hampton and it has a reputation for being only for the wealthy. But she and I are both writers and we both struggle to make ends meet out here.
Joanne says, “Living in The Hamptons, there’s a big divide between the haves and the have-nots and I’m probably more on the have-not side. Part of the motivation for putting myself in that situation, giving to people who have lost everything, was a way of working through things in my own mind. It says ‘How dare I aspire to have any more than I have!’ What I have is incredible by any standards, and I am grateful.
She wondered how she could possibly help, but she learned to say “Welcome to Greece” in Arabic, and to smile as women handed their children to her across the water.
“You can’t even conceive of what these people are facing, where they’re coming from, and what happened to them. These are people like you and me.”
She told me she realized that although she didn’t have financial resources to help, she had other resources.
“It was a recalibration in some ways. I’m not getting any younger. At this point in my life — its time. I do have the opportunity to go give something — what little it was. Its a nice feeling to be that person who says ‘I’m here because you’re a human being and I care about you.’”
Here’s my interview with Joanne Pilgrim, Poet, Journalist & Associate Editor of The East Hampton Star:
Oral history narratives woven together to describe the town of Amagansett in the Hamptons. The locals refer to it as the Un-Hampton because of its sustained rural quality. These recordings are from mostly women who remember what life in the village was like when their parents and grandparents arrived on the East End of Long Island. Most of these people are of Italian descent so they chronicle a part of Italian history on Long island. Residents discuss the great hurricane of 1938, the building of the railroad, traditional Italian and Sicilian cooking, World War II, the German U-boat landing at the Amagansett lifesaving station.
Who can you call at 2:00 am if you need a raccoon driven across the Shinnecock Canal? Is your family of foxes mangy? Is a hedgehog eating you out of your zinnias? Do you have bats in your basement, swifts in your chimney, or have you seen an Osprey who has forgotten how to fly? If you can’t resort to killing your cousins, there is only one man for the job.
Dell Cullum is amazingly well, considering he was flat on his broken back only a couple of months ago; while trying to get a raccoon off a roof in the rain, his ladder slid out beneath him.
“It’s only when I got up on my hands and knees to get my phone that I knew I wasn’t paralyzed.”
Dell tells me that the last time he got hurt was when he fell out of a tree as a boy, but it didn’t have anything to do with rescuing wildlife, he laughs. When alot of boys were busy killing small creatures, he found a bird’s nest on the ground with tiny hatched birds that he figured out how to feed, nuture, and keep alive.
After a successful Gofundme campaign and a community fundraiser Dell is actually up and running his business again, but he is a man who is hard to catch. He is available for wildlife rescue calls at any hour, and for the past week has been waking at 5am to beat the summer traffic to Bridgehampton in order to trap a hedgehog that has obviously had some experience with traps and will not be tempted into Dell’s cage, even with a great delicacy like melon. “Why would he get in?” Dell asks, “He’s an herbivore — he has all the food he needs around him!”
The lady of the house doesn’t want him feeding off her cutting garden, but Dell doesn’t kill anything — and I mean anything — so if his humane trap won’t entice the hegdehog, she will have to call another pest control company that will “probably use other methods,” according to Dell
After a series of mis-timed rendevous with bats and osprey, we meet finally at his house in East Hampton Village, and Dell unhitchs the back of his pickup truck, which is covered with animal decals and his advertising slogans for his animal rescue service, and we hear the faint howling and growling of a trapped fox that sits crouching in one of the cages.
“That’s alright, sweetie. We’re going to get you taken care of. No-one’s going to hurt you,” Dell soothes the frightened animal. “This one has mange — see how bad it is?” The fox gets up, as if on command, and we see his raw hind legs, bald underbelly and ravaged tail.
This is the last of three siblings on their way to Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, where Dell takes most of his trapped and injured mammals, birds and reptiles. One of their legends is that Paul Macartney brought them a butterfly that he found injured by the side of the road. “I wouldn’t put anything past this place,” Dell says.
In his pick up truck he tells me the story of his Jackson Hole hat that sits on the dash with his other straw cowboy hats. A few years ago when Dell and his wife Dee lived at the foot of the Teeton mountains they met an old Mormon cattle rancher and fur trapper who took a liking to him and taught him everything he knows about trapping. “I’m proud to say that I’ve trapped in 7 states. Raccoons, for instance, are very different in every state.”
The raccoon is the only animal that NY State demands that trappers kill. It’s illeagal to release a raccoon from a trap, and must be killed within 5 feet of where it is captured.
“The state knows that if the trappers even drive out of the driveway with these animals alive, they are likely to let them go,” Dell tells me. “So, they drown them in large plastic garbage cans, even the babies.”
He’s seen guys tie ropes around the cages and throw them into the bay until the animals inside have drowned.
“Overpopulation,” Dell smirks sarcastically.
Dell usually drives the raccoons he’s trapped at least across the Shinnecock Canal in the hopes they will head toward the pine barrens. But the call of Hamptons lobster and steak is great. The beach at night is a “wildlife superhighway” he says, and raccoons and other wildlife use it to go form hamlet to hamlet, bonfire to bonfire, in search of delicacies.
The state has called him to task for refusing to kill any of the creatures he traps, but he stands firm. He doesn’t need the state license to run his business. He is run off his feet, literally, by repeat business from customers who care about what happens to their animal fellows.
When he runs across humans with absolutely no compassion or respect for the animals who interfere with “their way of life,” it obviously upsets him deeply. He tells me the story of an irate man who demanded that Dell bring him the head of the raccoon so he could verify that it was dead, and of a man who accused him of trying to charge him twice for trapping the same raccoon, so he spraypainted it’s fur blue to identify him.
I am fascinated by Dell and others who are called on to be the intermediaries in the ongoing struggle for space on an ever more populated Long Island, people who stand in between and do the translating from one species to another.
My question is why humans specifically resist entering the realms of other consciousnesses, or resist even the idea that other species have consciousness, let alone souls? Why does it always seem to be those of us who are most afraid of ourselves, or perhaps most afraid of being animals ourselves, are the people who sit and make distinctions about what and who has value, and what to eradicate?
So I ask Dell about the mindset of those humans who can’t percieve the personhod of animals — what is the deal? I suggest they might be called sociopaths, but he is as forgiving of his fellow humans as he is of animals. Dell believes that they are simply mis-informed about the way nature works, and how smart the animals are. It is his calling to educate humans about their cousins.
We pull up to the site the fox family Dell is trapping has chosen, a sublime location on a huge Georgica estate that has a view across acres of rolling lawn to Georgica Pond, and a perfect spot for their den behind a crop of boulders. They have been photographed sunning themselves on the rocks, or lying amongst the deep perennial flower beds beside the pool, waiting for moles and voles and drinking from the pool cover. Dell has already caught the three teen-aged siblings who are all together at the wildlife rescue center, but when we round the corner we can see that the trap he set for the mother is empty.
“But she’s been here!” Dell shows me that she has taken his offering of a raw chicken foot left the night before at the entrance to the trap. At the far end of the cage is a pile sitting and rotting nicely — fox love rotting meat and usually bury it until it gets tasty. “The only thing that can go wrong, is if a raccoon finds it before she does.”
Our next stop today is a friend of Dell’s, “A beautiful, beautiful, beautiful lady.” An elderly woman and local painter he has known most of his life. She has been sleepless for a couple of nights because of a squirrel in her attic, at least that’s what the pest removal company told her who gladly offered to remove the squirrel for $750. Dell has stepped in as a favor.
“My wife will have my head if she finds out I’m going into an attic, let alone climbing a ladder!” he tells me as we navigate his ladder and his flashlight and net and my recording equipment into the tiny old house and up the stairs to the attic passage in the ceiling. It is over 100 degrees inside and Dell has to walk on the rafters in order to get a closer look at whatever has made a bed in the attic vent screen. When he gets his flashlight focused, he yells out to me “It’s babies — lots of them!”
They are only a few days old and are not just squirrels, they are flying squirrels, which Dell tells me is an entirely different matter. He will have to change traps and tactics. But first he will have to convince his friend to wait until the little ones get old enough to be moved, until they have some fur on them at least.
The rescue business is a job and a passion for Dell, as is all of his work, his books, his photographs, his television show, his classes, his films, and his litter campaign. You can see all of his projects at his Imagination Nature website.
His documentary film Isabela, shot in the Galapagos is now available on Amazon.
When we pull back into his driveway we see the three-legged deer who has been with the Cullums for four and half years, has just calved her second set of twins, and resides happily in a clearing made for them behind the high brush in their backyard. Her fourth leg is perennially bent after an injury that dislocated her shoulder. He says it is painful to see her run on her knuckle, but she keeps up with other deer, resists bullying, mates, and has children, so he doesn’t see the point of interrupting her busy life with an operation that may not even work after all these years.
Dell and his wife have a menagerie of free-roaming wildlife on their property: rabbits, deer, songbirds, and four raccoons they raised in order to study their habits. To me it is a life of dreams.
Dell is on The East Hampton Town Deer Management Committee only because he thought there should be someone there who offered an opposing point of view to culling, sterilizing, tagging, and simply eradicating the deer. He now shares that honor with one other deer advocate from East Hampton Group For wildlife.
“They’ve only invited us on to make a show of evening things out. The town simply has no respect for the people in this community who value and love the deer. They’ve made a grave tactical error and they keep compounding it,” he tells me.
Dell tells me with shame about the huge numbered tags the deer wear on their ears, their only function to alert hunters of their tranquilization and sterilization dates for the safety of the meat. But since the chemicals leave their bodies after thirty days they are obsolete. The Deer also wear giant collars that abrade their necks, in which the batteries have died years ago. He is visibly upset that there wasn’t respect for the animals or foresight to use collars or tags that could disintergrate over time.
“This is about exterminating a species that has been here for millions of years. If all the deer are gone the ticks won't disappear, and it is such a simple system to build pass-through fences along adjacent property lines so that these animals can cross their land. You can absolutely protect your gardens, but wildlife can’t pass through if a property is fenced 12 feet high on 4 sides.”
As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Dell has organized a corps of volunteers who do beach clean up on Sunday mornings, and recently road cleanup on Cedar and Stephen Hands Path. Apparently the mowers weren’t being instructed to pick up large items, and were mowing them into tiny particles that blow off into wildlife areas.“That’s my other crusade — the garbage.”
It’s no small feat to imagine a world in which we share resources and protect each other’s values. The main engine under Dell is his undying curiosity, enthusiasm, and mostly imagination for the work he is involved in. He has a strong enough self to withstand the idea that all forms of life have consciousness and deserve respect. It seems to be all of a piece. It’s not just about human empathy or the lack of it I realize, but those of our species who don’t have the imagination to put themselves in another person’s shoes will not be able to imagine the fullness of an animal’s universe, or even further to imagine that this wild island and the earth need our protection and care.
How does a person with a modest income survive living year-round in The Hamptons?
In 1994 I had my first real full time job. The pay was $25 an hour. Aside from two weekly teaching gigs, I am still being paid $25 an hour today — and that is considered a good wage in The Hamptons— 23 years later without a raise. You can extrapolate the juggling that has to go on and the things that fall by the wayside, like health and dental care, housing, food, transportation. I grew up thinking I was Middle Class, my parents were certainly Upper Middle Class. It has taken me a long time to see that I was mistaken. I have been surviving on a poverty level income and a poverty mentality for a great portion of my life.
Those of us who chose not to follow lucrative paths, and who chose to follow their artistic or socially responsible leanings are totally in denial about being Middle Class. The Middle Class were able to thrive. We are only surviving. To call us elites because of our education and cultural savy is laughable.
Here are some stories you might never hear from the Hamptons, about the new nomads, people with oodles of education that are so close to falling between the cracks that their lives are lived in a state of near emergency. No-one seems to be talking much about this issue, except Neil Gabler in his piece for The Atlantic, The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans, in which he details the agonies of trying to keep all the trappings of his former life from vanishing. I thought someone should say something, about women specifically, trying to keep up this false front and falling $100,000 dollars short of their middle-class parents’ household earning.
Now place these women in the Hamptons without earning partners, saddled with education debt, and all the peer pressure to succeed in their careers, and have them try and find places to live. It is nearly impossible for us to compete for space with the new middle-class, those making upwards of $100,000 dollars per year.
This story is about four educated women who are managing to live with less than their parents had and who are not whining about it! We really love our lives out here…We are a new kind of nomad.
Every season in The Hamptons is a game of musical chairs, and those who get left without a roof in the summer are now literally living in single rooms, boats, sheds, and campers. In the past few years I moved all the time, from room to room, from apartment to apartment, at least every 9 months, in order to be able to have a place to live in a seasonal economy. Finding places to hang our hats at prices we can afford is only the first hurdle. There simply are no houses available to rent year round because the homeowners out here rent their houses out for 3–4 months every year to help pay their mortgages and then they move into the small rooms and apartments.
The Hamptons has always had a dual economy. The difference is that today most of the year-round residents cannot afford to live where they work.
Part of the housing crisis situation is the result of an extremely prohibitive town code that does at its best keep the community out here very beautiful, but at its worst leaves these huge houses empty for 9 months of the year while year round residents struggle and sometimes live in motel rooms.
Here’s the thing — this is where everyone wants to live. So of course it’s difficult! But it wasn’t always this difficult.
I set out to interview women who were experiencing this Hampton’s housing crush. The four women I chose to interview did not want their names used. One wanted her voice changed, and one refused to speak on tape. So there’s alot of shame involved in this.
I wanted to do a story about women falling through the cracks because I had been falling through the cracks and I couldn’t figure out whether it was me or the system I was attmepting to live in. I know this is a story about home, making a home, the changing views women have about what a home means. So, this is a story about all of these things and also about our worst fears. I live in a 10 by 10 foot room. I am 54 years old, and this story got really personal.
So, I’ve nailed down what my worst fear is. My worst fear is being that lady pushing the shopping cart with all of her stuff…
One woman living in the Hamptons has almost totally sidestepped my worst fear by embracing the transitory. She has made the decision to combat the housing shortage by staying mobile. She is an attractive blonde in her late 30's with an crazy infectious laugh, a vivacious style, and a determination to stay out of the crack. She has 3 degrees, ( ):
She introduced me to her new love, Homer, a 1992 Gulfstream camper with a Ford Econoline front. “He’s 27 feet long and flying Key West colors. He’s a good truck.” She bought Homer in an Ebay bidding war last year for $2,750. Her road cat has a luxury spread above the driver’s seat, and she showed me her mandatory rack of high heels hanging on her door in the bedroom. Her shower will become an aquaponics experiment, her solar panels and her composting toilet will allow her to park in parking lots if necessary. She explained her thought process in making him mobile. The Hamptons winters are brutally cold and work is scarce so she expects to take Homer on a southern road trip ending in Florida every winter in order to buy things for the nursery where she works. It’s an ingenious solution and one that is psychologically beneficial if I can judge by her laughter. She tells me this is a Tiny House revolution, every bit a revolution. “This is the new American dream, everybody’s doing it! I’m going to Florida this winter. I’m living the dream, Kara! I’m 39 and I’m Snowbirding!”
When I ask her about her reticence to share this experience with others she tells me it is two-fold, the first and obvious reason being the East Hampton town code, which is very strict. The beauty out here does come at a price. She says: “People are scared to death of the East Hampton Town code. I don’t know whether they cut your arms off, or lock you in jail, or tatoo sinner on your forehead…I don’t know what they do to you if you violate the East Hampton Town Code, but it’s serious.” The other reason she is reluctant to tell her story is becasue of scarcity. Scarcity, I ask? She tells me that if she revealed her identity and location soon everybody would want a cool spot. When I asked her how many people she thought would need a place for their RV, she whispered “Everybody…Everybody wants it.” And then of course she laughed her wonderful melodious laugh.
“I don’t object to having four stationary walls,” she tells me when our talk turns more introspective. Her father was in the military and she was raised on the road, never having had a rooted experience, a sense of a permanent home or an attachment to a place.
I wonder if my next question will offend her: “So being on the road is kind of nostalgic for you?” But she replies “I really have no other choice!” And laughs her thunderous laugh.
She tells me that she used to think she wasn’t getting the things in life that she wanted because she wasn’t looking in the right places. Even when she landed somewhat accidentally in this gorgeous place she told herself that she would give it a year, and then move on if things weren’t happening for her. But lately she’s realized that you have to stay somewhere. And her way of staying is paradoxically by being mobile. “When you move every 2–3 years there are things you just don't get, and I wasn’t getting these things and I couldn’t figure out why, and I thought it was me…Somethings just take time and I’m from the right now culture. Its now or never — oh, I’m not getting this thing now? Maybe it’s in California or Mexico? But that’s now how things work. You have to stay somehere.”
“Out here is magical. I don’t lock my doors!” It’s absolutely true that one of the major reasons all of us are choosing to live here is becasue of the beauty, natural and man-made, and the relative safety. The Hamptons are wonderfully tended, and still wonderfully wild in places. She and I share a love of swimming in the bays, although I haven’t tried it her way yet, swimming naked at night under a full moon.
Is it the choices you made or the circumstances, I ask her. She asks me what I came up with. I tell her I used to only blame myself. But now I can see that there are a whole lot of us barely able to keep afloat. I did make certain choices that have landed me in such a predicament, the choice to be an artist, the choice to mortgage and sell a perfectly good house to follow my dream of higher education.
“But,” she reminded me, “you didn’t make the choice that art should be done for fun and for free and that investment banking should pay more money than teaching? Those aren’t choices that you made.”
I tell her that I wanted to do a story about women falling through the cracks but…she wasn’t falling through the cracks! She seemed to be truthfully enjoying herself. She reminded me though that one false move and she would slide right down, that she has one foot on each side of the crack. We cackled together at our former ridiculous predicament of living in a house with each other, a couple who fought constantly, and four cats. And among us all we were still barely able to pay the rent and the heat. “We were falling through the cracks!” she tells me through peals of laughter, “We were falling in the same crack! We were sharing the same crack!”
My second ingenious woman is hopping from abode to abode every 6–9 months in order to afford to live in the place she loves. To her rootlessness goes hand in hand with being partner-less.
She is in her mid 30’s, lovely and soft-spoken, and Yale-graduate smart. She was so reluctant to share her feelings and thoughts on this housing problem — we all feel it is our fault! — that it took me months to get her to agree, and even then there were some tears involved when we got onto the subject of being single. We decide that the age old storyline about there being a dearth of men out here to form partnerships with, is just too much of a standard cliche. We stay clear.
“I have a decent income and I can’t find a house that I can afford,” she laughs, but it really isn’t a joke and we both know it. “After 15 years of renting out here, finally a friend and broker in my town tells me there is no year-round housing in your budget out here, period. I could take on a roomate or I could move, but there’s no-where to move to.” She tells me she thought she was building a career that would be able to financially sustain her, and allow her to live in a place she loved. “I want to set up a house. I just want to set up a house! I will live in a 30 by 12 foot box. I just want to be able to paint the walls and know that I’m not going to be displaced, that my landlord can’t come along in a year and break my lease and raise the rent by a thousand dollars a month! I just want a house. That’s all I want!”
She says that everybody is really in the same boat out here if you make less than $150–200 thousand income a year. And that is a very high income to alot of us. She has a Master’s Degree from Yale and sees herself as making a fairly decent income, but it just isn’t enough to compete with those friend’s of hers that she says started out in exactly the same place when they graduated from college. They followed their parents’ advice and went into real estate or the financial indusrty. “Their kids are at Ross. They’re making millions. We were in the same starting place 20 years ago. But I still don’t want their lives. They sound boring to me.”
She suggests we call this story: Whining in the Hamptons. “Poor little girl, she’s whining in The Hamptons!”
Real estate is a big part of the economy out here and most of us are ambivalent about it, even those of us making our living by selling it as homeowners or as real eastate agents.“Every bit of property out here seems to have been bought up as an investment by someone who wants to invest in real estate instead of the stock market, and all of the small houses are being torn down and turned into large houses. You used to be able to at least find fixer-uppers…”
She tells me that this is a multi-layered narrative and one of the main factors is a long story about displacement on a thin strip of finite land between the Atlantic Ocean and The Long Island Sound. “We’ve hit the end of Long Island. We can’t go any further East. This is what the local fishermen’s children said 20 years ago. Its the same old story, and now it’s my turn to be displaced. I will probably have to leave. And then I’ll go displace farmer’s children on the North Fork!”
Another reason she was so reluctant to talk to me about this is that we all watch the immigrants and locals out here who are struggling much more than we are, with much less income, living in crowded conditions or driving hours every day in the traffic to get to and from their jobs. “I have a friend who hasn’t seen his family in ten years. he hasn’t seen his son in ten years! And he’s an illeagal immigrant so he can’t just leave and go back and forth. He’s trying to make enough money so that he can have the house as well. So, I really don’t want to be whining about my situation. I’ve made the choice to be out here and there are sacrifices I am making. But I don’t have to drive 2 hours to get here, I can go swimming every day at 5:00 if I want to. I feel I have a very rich life out here, and I actually love my life out here!”
I understand her reluctance to whine, but this story is about this new class of nomads, and the stories you don’t hear. Nobody is talking about us, and especially the women in this class. I think its a valuable story that needs to be told. Most of the push-back we get when we complain is that we don’t have to live here if we don’t want to. We could live somewhere else. But does anyone really want to visit a place, even for vacation that is only peopled by the well to do? Do we not deserve to live, albeit modestly, in the place we work?
I must ask her about the nitty gritty, even though she is clearly embarrassed. This summer her landlady has moved upstairs with her? “Yes, this summer I am sleeping on an air mattress in my living room to make money.” I remind her that it’s a bit more extreme than that. Her landlady offered her free rent for the summer if her landlady could stay upstairs in the apartment with her, while she rented out her downstairs apartment to summer tenants, who would obviously pay a huge chunk of change. But her landlady failed to tell her that she was coming upstairs with her own winter tenant, and now there were three of them living in a one bedroom apartment and R was moved to an air matress on the floor. In the end her summer rent wasn’t altogether free and her 10% rent hike lease was broken because her landlady wanted to raise the rent by $1,100 per month going forward! “But I’m not going to go there with this friend, I’m not going to push it. She has to do what she has to do. I think everyone out here has to do something like this in the summer.” With friends like these…
I used to beat myself up, I told her, and now I see that I have landed in this tricky position at 54 years old, moving from rented room to rented room, in great part because of the choices I made, but it isn’t all me. Of course it’s partly the result of the way capitalism works. When I talked to other women who hadn’t decided to follow necessarily “normal” paths and had decided to forfeit some of life’s luxuries in exchange for careers that interested them I saw that it wasn’t just me who was barely making it. Housing really isn’t a luxury, nor is healthcare, or food- do we really have to forfeit these things in this economy in order to be artists?
Depite our earlier resolution we can’t escape from talking a bit about another luxury — marriage and babies. In this generation in this class of women, who are educated and who are mostly focused on careers, who didn’t choose or didn’t find a partner to marry — how can one of these women ever afford to have a child?
“Well said! I think there’s a statement to be made here about my generation of women and where we are in our careers…and the whole finding the husband situation, most women my age would be married and not in this situation. I wonder if this is something new to my generation — to my income level.”
This image of the shopping bag lady really started to haunt me in my late 40’s because life hadn’t worked out for me the way I perceived that it had for others. Before returning to East Hampton in 2012 I had spent the previous few years wandering and trying to find a more affordable and fitting place for myself. I had moved to Berlin in order to try and make a new life because I couldn’t manage to make one here. I can see now that what I had just gone through was not only a financial crisis, but a crisis of the soul.
In Berlin I started seeing my spectre on the streets there and she wasn’t much older than me — I think that’s what scared me so much. I would cross the street to avoid her . She was slim and quiet and she was really scaled down from the New York bag ladies. But the thing about her is that her eyes were dead. I imagined that this was a woman who had once been a risk-taker like me. I saw her in church soup lines in Savannah Georgia, which was my next stop.
I was in a state of financial emergency and my childhood friend had offered me some work in New York City. I was staying in a very old RR flat on the Upper West Side. It had just been vacated by a mutual friend. He had just died of cancer a few months previously and there were still post-it notes on his belongings so that friends could come and collect what they wanted. It was an odd and yet perfect place to be having a breakdown.
Jim’s change jars still had hundreds of quarters in them and I used these to take the city bus uptown to my best friend’s new apartment. She was moving her family from one apartment on the Upper West Side to another and she was paying me to pack and paint and organize. And then one day she wanted me to push an old shopping cart with loose ends from her old apartment to her new one. It was a distance of maybe five or six blocks and it would take maybe 4 or 5 trips, but I melted down on my first try. This shopping cart had a broken wheel and so I was in my mind, quadruply conspicuous pushing this thing, which could barely be pushed, down the street and up and down the curbs. I stopped in a little park and I had a really good cry.
It wasn’t just that I couldn’t do it — I didn’t know how to tell my friend that I couldn’t push her stuff across the city in a shopping cart because I felt so close to this. I felt so close to my spectre and I didn’t want to be tempting fate by impersonating her! How would she ever understand what it was like to live without any backup behind her? She never would.
I couldn’t convince my third ingenious woman to talk to me on tape. But she had no trouble explaining to me how my worst fear had actually turned out to be an advantage for her.
She is probably in her early 60’s. The first time we sat down to talk she confessed to me that she had lived in her car out here in The Hamptons in order to be near her grandson. She took a job cleaning some of the wealthy houses out here and would shower there, and then in the Spring, Summer and Fall lived in her car.
I had finally met somebody who was actually living my worst fear. I was fascinated. She had always been a visial artist and clothing designer. She was sitting next to me talking vivaciously and thoughtfully about her life’s various twists and turns with a lovely, clear detachment.
She doesn’t live in her car anymore, and she did have a ceratain amount of shame around the fact that she had done it, and really didn’t want people to know, but that was mostly because of her grandson.
What she said to me was astonishing, and she is an astonishing person, but she told me that living in her car is really the greatest freedom that she’s ever experienced. She didn’t owe anyone anything or have to put up with anything. suddenly she wasn’t involved in human transactions.
The shame that she felt was because of what others might think of her if they knew. And then she got lucky and her name came up for the elderly apartments at the local church. She was terrified she told me — how would she manage to live again within four stationary walls?
Well, she solved this problem by never really moving in. she has no real furniture and she couldn’t buy a bed. She told me she sleeps on a mat under the window so that she can be close to the sky, the air, the rain. So she doesn’t have to hear the low rumble of all the TV’s in the cubicles that surround her. It’s a noise that she finds absolutely terrifying.
I no longer live in a rented room! This is a huge development for me. It has taken an immense amount of personal work on myself to stop my habitual emergency mindset. I had been living in a very scary regime set up in my mind.
But that alone might not have changed my life radically if my external circumstances hadn’t also changed. I found part time work doing something I was good at and loved, and then a teaching job, and then a writing job. Staying put was essential because I finally met the love of my life. We now have a beautiful place to live and there is finally room for me!
Nothing ever seems to turn out the way you imagined. Poverty was not what I had imagined, nor was being a writer, or aging, or being a hairs-breadth close to homelessness. We are so defined by our worst fears, often without even knowing it. I was acting a age-old pattern of not having a place to call my own, and until I was up against it and confronted it I might never have moved forward.
I might have been that woman pushing the shopping cart.
"Ideology is stupid for those of us who have no power. It doesn’t matter what we would do if we did. We don’t. Seizing power, taking out the idiotic, incompetent, greedy, evil and stupid people who are ruining our lives is what matters.” The Anti-American Manifesto.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist, graphic novelist, journalist, proud Marxist, intellectual, and all around agitator, it is his mission to teeter on every edge, pushing the boundaries of what this culture, and other cultures, can bear to hear about themselves. He’s radicalized. Sometimes it gets him into trouble with the Alt-Right, the regular right, the soft Left, and of course Isis.
Few people, besides The Pope, dare to say the word revolution these days. Rall doesn’t mince words when he says that revolution is the quest for happiness and that it is worth throwing out the whole political system and starting from scratch. “A revolutionary war against exploitation is the only way we can begin to directly adress and solve most of our problems.” We need to define evil and then point to those doing it, “the politicians, beaureacrats, corporate executives, media power brokers and environmental exploiters who spend every waking minute thinking of new ways to fuck us over and rape the world we live in to make an extra buck.”
Ted is an amazingly astute political voice, and after his string of successful graphic biographies he longs to get back to his meatier books, like: The Anti-American Manifesto, which asks the question “Why is there the absence of a full-fledged revolution in America for over two centuries? What’s the explanation for the failure of Americans to revolt, even when they have a chance?”
The main feedback was his advocating the use of force to seize power.
His position is that we are already living in a system with a huge amount of violence. “We might not always be aware of it being ‘privileged white folks.’ Every time someone is evicted from their home — making people homeless is violence, depriving people of healthcare is violence — drones, bombings, police shootings — there’s violence throughout the system! I’m advocating an end to violence that may require some violence in order to effect.”
When I ask him how he moved this far left and became a Marxist, he told me that he’s been paying attention and that he cares about people, that it is “simply illogical and irrational to advocate an ideology that starts from the point of view that we are all created un-equal.” He explains that the metrics that capitalism uses to justify paying some people more than others don’t even make sense. “Some kids are just born smarter than others. Are the ones not lucky enough to be born smart — should they be condemned to a life of poverty and misery and cancer because of this accident of birth?”
When I remind him that not everyone agrees that we are entitled, just by being alive, to basic rights — shelter, health care, education — he fires back: “If you don’t believe that — THEN YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!”
"People who want revolutionary change and are totally against violence should think — how is that ever going to happen?! The rich and powerful are never going to give up power voluntarily!”
My favorite part of The Anti-American Manisfesto is Rall’s advice for those of us in the bourgoisie and the petit bourgoisie who want to know what we should do to begin to bring about radical change. Rall advises “taking posession of oneself.” He tells me its a mental shift - you just decide — I’m done with this system. I’m no longer vested in it.”
“You’re waiting for the day you see people out on the streets with red flags so that you can go join them — yeah! These are my people! I’m dropping everything — let’s go!”