Friday, May 29, 2009


About four years ago, a friend of mine told me the story of a Yorkie named Rocco. He was made to live in a bathtub with his food and wee wee pad, was rarely taken outside, and although a little girl in the household loved him he had never been to see a veterinarian. The little girl could not protect him from her drug addict mom's less loving friends - one had kicked little Roc in the teeth so that his whole mouth was infected. His first week home as a puppy, someone had dropped him and his leg was broken. I made my friend tell me the story again and again until I could convince her to steal Rocco from his family. I promised I would find him a good home.

It was March 4, 2006. I remember the day because it was my dog Maggie's 15th birthday. A Yorkie bitch of the first order, there was nothing cuddly about this dog whom I had inherited from my mother; but I admired her tenacity and willfulness, the way she barked when dinner was not on the floor at 5:30 sharp and how she bit the ankles of any man who came near me. Good girl, Maggie.

So it was March 4. I had made Mags a hamburger birthday dinner and I knew my friend was bringing Rocco over any minute so I would be able to find him his new home. What I was doing taking in an un-neutered male dog when my girl was so old, I do not know; I only know from the minute I heard his story - and heard it and heard it - that I had to help this little guy. The doorbell rang; I told my doorman to let them up. I left the front door open as I ran to the kitchen to get Rocco a welcome dog biscuit, and when I came back out this tiny guy dog, head down as if in submission, was sauntering - really sauntering - right towards me off the leash. He sat down at my feet and looked up at me, a dog obviously wanting to please. I gave him the biscuit but it was too big for his sore mouth. So we sat on the couch, I broke it into pieces, and watched him struggle through the treat. I wanted to kill his (former) owners.

Rocco, of course, was home. He didn't go to a shelter or a new family; with Mags, he and I became a pack. I had 15 of his teeth removed the first week he lived here; I also had him neutered, for his own good and so he would stop bugging poor Maggie who nipped at him in vain as he kept trying to mount her. He gained 3 lbs (he weighed 4 when he got here) and learned to love sitting on pillows looking out a window, car rides and adventures to the bank and Bed, Bath & Beyond. He is so cute he got scouted by an assistant director of Law & Order. Mags succumbed to old age in 2007; I thanked the universe for Rocco's presence and always felt she had waited to go until I was taken care of.

You might wonder what all this has to do with my poverty journal. Well, Rocco has not had a good week. He is straining at the haunches to relieve himself, he has stopped eating, and he has been in obvious discomfort. So off we went this morning to the veterinarian -- who immediately said two awful words that will ring in my ears forever: BLADDER STONES. The x rays showed that Rocco has four of these crystalline beauties, each almost a half inch wide, rolling around in his tiny bladder and wreaking havoc. "They must come out," said the vet, a lovely young woman in her mid-30s. Yes, of course they must. To the tune of about $2,000 dollars.

The irony is that an old boyfriend, Miles (who I have spoken about here before) came through with a hefty loan just this week. It was my most beautiful surprise in ages. I had been looking forward to some breathing space, but the truth is I would stop eating if necessary to help this lovely little animal, my wolf spirit guide in miniature form, the closest living being to a prince I have ever known. So, through my tears, I worked out a plan of payment with the vet, put down half, and carried Rocco the four blocks home so he would not be in pain from walking. I am making him boiled chicken and have some baby food in case he won't eat that (he has not eaten anything in more than a day) and hope I can get some pain meds into him so he is at least comfortable until his Monday surgery. I am worried; hell, I am scared to death. The idea of the anesthesia alone makes me cringe with trepidation. And he can't come home until the next day. But I have to keep the faith that some higher power brought me and Roc together, and that we are meant to stay that way. Now, finally, he is asleep and his breathing has evened out. Mine, of course, has not. Isn't that always the way it is. I'll let you know what happens.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rich Girl Finds Solace - in Video Games

I went to a funeral service this morning; the mother of an office assistant died at much too young an age, leaving her daughter - much too young to lose a mother - distraught and lost. I was going to stay for a few minutes, but I actually lasted an hour. The funeral home was on Bleecker Street in an old Italian quarter. There were the requisite photographs of weddings, proms, first steps, a cremation urn and enough flowers to snuff out the smell of mourning. Death can make you think of all sorts of things, not the least of which is how good it is to be alive. I hugged the office assistant before leaving until I almost smothered her, as though I was trying to infuse her with something she could live for, perhaps one could call it hope.

On my walk home, I realized it was I who needed the hope. I lost a listing this week and 10 million in business. The first was a relief - the poetess I spoke of in an earlier blog had become too crazy to handle; the second was due to a high up Wall Streeter's distrust of the future of all market(s), something I could not argue against with the present value of anything. I also realized that my self esteem is inextricably connected to what I am doing and how successful I am. Right now, with my apartment up in the air, bills to pay, no health insurance and no real lifelines, well, my self esteem has disappeared somewhere into the molten core of the earth where it is being summarily incinerated.

Late at night, I have tried to remedy this in a way I would call ridiculous if anyone else told me they were doing it. I play video games. Not just ANY video games, but two in particular: Bejeweled 2, where you line up 3 or more of the same brightly colored gem and get points for each line and Farm Town, where you are actually building a virtual world. While I have actually won money with Bejeweled 2 (a whole five dollars), it's Farm Town that obssesses me. In it, you build your own farm universe. You plant crops, harvest them, earn coins with which you can buy a zillion things in the farm stores, from upgrading your plot of land to hedges, fences, silos and wells. Every 500 coins you reach a new level and the right to purchase or send as gifts new things. You can go to the marketplace and hire other avatars (you as a farmer are an avatar, complete with chosen name and physical characteristics) to harvest your crops, earning 25% more than if you did it yourself. Right now I'm at Level 14, which is called Specialist. I am ahead of my two nieces, who also play, and my friend A., who is a top real estate broker in a neighboring state. I am saving up to buy a bigger farm; I am very very close to being able to do so. Every time I plow a seed lot or buy a new fruit bearing tree, I feel I'm getting richer and richer. Here, in Farm Town, I am a winner.

Sometimes it is hard to turn Farm Town off and get back to real moneymaking ventures. The placement of the crops, their harvesting, moving the sheep and cows around, building fences, starts to haunt your dreams. I wake up in the middle of the night: are all the chickens in their pen? Did Avatar Joe finish harvesting the strawberries? Why doesn't anyone like to harvest trees? My Avatar's name is, astonishingly, Deborah. Other people have names like Old McDonald, Fifi, Princess Manurea, Farmer Apple, etc. My avatar Deborah has light blue hair and exotic green eyes. If she goes to find work in the marketplace, she is almost always picked. I tried a number of different looks until I found which worked best. In terms of cost, changing my avatar's appearance sure beats plastic surgery hands down.

So when you are sitting around late at night sipping your wine or something stronger, I am in front of a computer creating a parallel universe where I feel good, if only for a while, and if only in my head. I watch the crops grow tall and green, I harvest and re-plant, and I have crates and carts and a citrus grove and several pigs, chickens and cows, and have almost saved enough coins for a small farm house. Of course, I have my eye on the gigantic farm MANSION, many harvests away. And in this fecund virtual world of soil and sweat, I can be positive that, sooner or later, I'll certainly get there.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rich Girl Gets Courted - in Housing Court

Tonight, I am tired. I am listening to Charlie Rose interview architects Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano. They are talking about important buildings (theirs) in faraway places. I remember meeting Gehry years ago in Venice, and thinking he looked exactly like my father's uncle Lou. Lou, the bootlegger who ran bathtub gin from Philly to Baltimore and was turned into the authorities by his wife. Gehry was building the Guggenheim in Bilbao; he explained his drawings, his hands running across the lines as if they were alive. Now, I am sitting alone and my dog is snoring. The computer keyboard is hot. I had a panic attack yesterday which I lived through. Work is moving, if slowly. And, hopefully, when I surface from this odd torpor, I'll still have a place to live. Speaking of buildings.....

Last week, it arrived: a knock at my door, a young black man who said "from the landlord" as he shoved a paper into my hand. I am being sued for back rent in civil court. I told the young man I was happy he was gainfully employed. However, while I'm a big fan of watching all the Law & Order franchises, I would rather not live them. But down to housing court I had to go, to "answer" the suit.

Frankly, I have no answers. At any moment I could have all the money I need to pay off every single debt; or I could be on the street tomorrow with many months to wait until I am paid. I worry every day where I might go, what will happen to Rocco, what will I do with all the stuff I've accumulated over 19 years in one place. Sometimes I think I should just throw everything I own out the window, like someone in a 1960s film might have done to "simplify" their lives. And it would really irritate my landlord. But holding even one coffee cup over the edge of the sill, remembering where it was bought, who I was with, where its specific space is on a kitchen shelf, I just do not have it in me to let (it) go.

So -- 111 Centre Street is the home of Manhattan's civil court. You walk in and they put all your junk on a conveyor belt through a metal detector, just like in an airport. I've always wondered who would be stupid enough to bring knives or guns to a courthouse, but I'm told there have been incidents. I do not want these people to think for one minute I will be creating one of THOSE, so I smile and practically give a volleyball push to my handbag, right into the chest of the woman working the belt, leaving it wide open so she can see there is no glint of metal, no trace of firearm. I smile; The woman gives me a blank look. I get past the machine and a happily chubby guy tells me what floor housing court is on. I go to the elevator; I am on my way up.

Through two nondescript doors on the 4th floor is Housing Court. There are lines marked with the Latin phrase "pro se," which is where I have to go as I am doing this on my own, which is what "pro se" means. There is a row of people at windows talking to those in line - one such "teller" who looks like Jerry Garcia is sipping a diet Pepsi and assuring a woman she will not be kicked out. Behind these tellers are symptoms of city disorganization, what looks to me like mile after mile of stacked files, each one probably detailing some awful moment in someone's home situation here in the Big Apple.Then a cute guy in a nice suit and a magenta tie comes up to me, looks at my papers and says "you don't have to stand in line, come with me," which I do like a puppy who has been offered a snack or a long walk in the park.

He disappears; comes back. "I tried to get you a free lawyer,' he says, "but your debt is too high." Something tells me this is a phrase I will hear often and again while I am dealing with all aspects of my debt. The truth is I have not made a dime in 2009, although I have 12 million in real estate for sale. But there is a clubby atmophere here, a humanness to which one succumbs, a sense of camaraderie, however scared we all are. Ellen, sitting next to me, lost her paralegal job six months ago after asking for a raise, something she had not had in three years: I have to translate for Juan from Washington Heights when he doesn't understand the question "is this rent really due?" but hears something like "doe" or "does". Ellen likes to bake - she has taken to baking her own bread so she doesn't have to spend 4 dollars a loaf. She has lived in her apartment for 16 years. We are comrades in the about-to-be-homeless front lines, sisters bound by bricks and mortar, soldiers in the fight for fairness over a landlord's lust for filthy lucre.

The guy with the magenta tie comes back; he has our court dates. I have to come in again next week to get an adjournment; I am thinking of hiring an attorney, no matter the cost, as long as he can give me another three months here which I think is what I will need. Pro Se isn't all it's cracked up to be. I think about getting married which, i admit, I ONLY think about when I'm in financial trouble. That is, indeed, another blog entry.

I say goodbye to all, wish them good luck and swish through the department's double doors like Loretta Young on her TV show. On my way downstairs, everyone headed for the street is cheery, even buoyant; the weather has finally turned and it is spring. I walk out into the warm air, still with a bit of briskness in it. I am oddly comfortable that moment in my own skin. Perhaps that is, after all, what home is. Isn't it?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Once Upon A Long Time Ago

In the 70s, I had a hero (really a heroine) in the writing world. Let's call her G, for Good. G was wild, blond, ferociously opinionated, had a zing of an intellect, was passionate about helping the underrepresented, wrote beautiful poems and taught writing to inmates at a certain famous city prison. A few years older than I, she looked like the person I wanted to become. We visited Attica; we watched WATERMELON MAN with Godfrey Cambridge on TV; we taught jailed women with secret political activist lovers on the outside; we made fun of her ex boyfriend who happened to be running my writing program uptown; we ate Chinese food on the floor of her apartment. This was heaven; I was in deep like.

Fast forward 30 years. G. has been living in California with her actor husband who, only in his mid-50s, drops dead unceremoniously on a movie set. I have stayed in New York, with a brief period in Italy, and gone through numerous careers, most of which involved the written word, but have now landed in real estate. G's husband leaves her lots of money. She decides to recapture her youth in New York. Somehow, she finds me. We look for and discover the perfect apartment, a West Village beauty that the aforementioned ex tells her is a good address. But G is not the G I remember; she has switched places with another letter in the alphabet and has become S, for sad or perhaps M for (downright) mean. She has a daughter (children change everything) over whom she obsesses, and she has trouble concentrating and making decisions. The least little thing throws her off center. Since she buys a co-op, there is a board package and she actively attacks and curses at me through the whole process even if I ask for nothing more than a signature. I decide I must swallow it - her husband has died, she is recreating her life, she is angry that she was left like that, etc. etc. yadda yadda yadda. We get through it and she moves in. All seems well in the world of S.; there are welcome back parties in NYC, lots of old friends. She may even be moving back towards G.

A couple of years go by and G decides to sell the beloved downtown apartment. In the meantime, the adored daughter has developed her own heart problem and is having seizures and blacking out. I know what this is doing to G. It is making her feel like the planet is against her, that the people most important to her have delicate hearts, not strong enough for this world. I think I am being compassionate, and I am doing my best to sell her apartment in a market that has now fallen far from where she bought it. I do ask her for a loan since I am having the worst year ever financially. She comes up with the money, I am thankful. But somewhere along the line there are rumblings that all is not as it should be. If I say a prospective buyer feels renovations would be too expensive, she takes it personally as an attack on her taste. I cancel one appointment for family reasons, she stops trusting me. I ask if I can have a wine tasting in her apartment to draw brokers in, I am violating her inner sanctum. It goes on and on, reaching a fever pitch. Until one day, neither of us can take it anymore, right at the moment where I am getting to "critical mass" with her apartment, which means showings every day. I suggest we part ways; she concurs in an email that suggests we were never friends, I had only assumed it. Yes, I had been assuming this for 30 plus years. The next time she needs to be picked up at the plastic surgeon's office, taken home and stayed with until she feels better, I wonder who she will call.

Maybe G. was never the G I thought she was, which is something she actually said to me. Perhaps that brave young woman with the sizzling intellect was not her, but some version of myself, and I was not ready to claim who I really was. I have a temper, but I have to be pushed fairly hard for it to show, and I have managed to come through most crises (including my current financial crisis) with flying colors. I have bad moments but I do not back down. I even contacted Debtors Anonymous this week because I must have taken a wrong turn in not saving for this current monsoon of a day. I don't blame others for where I am; my life is my choices. After G and I had a horrendously clear flurry of emails where I also said my piece, I slept for almost a whole afternoon. I woke up feeling unimpeded.

And so, this afternoon, two people walked into my office, a lovely mom and daughter from La Jolla, California. What brought them in was G's listing, still glowing up in the window as we have not had time to take it down. They are looking for a one-bedroom on the same street as G's apartment to use as a pied a terre; a second daughter is coming here next year. The mother grew up in Philadelphia; the daughter is in cinema studies; we talked for an hour. I think I have some new buyers. Truly qualified ones, with a clear, uncomplicated agenda. So tonight I am now H, which stands for (of course) Happy. Life, however difficult, also forces you to go on, just at the right moment.

Friday, May 1, 2009

I'm Not Waving, I'm Drowning

The poet Stevie Smith wrote a wonderful piece with a line about a figure far out in the ocean, who seems to be waving at friends on the beach but is, in fact, drowning.

That seems to be me.

I get up every day, get dressed, take Rocco (my dog) outside, go to work, do more work, and then do more work, then I come home, do more work, watch some tv, work during commercials, and collapse sometime around midnight on my bed. Oh yes, in there somewhere I take Rocco out one or two more times. And in my dreams, I work.

I usually smile and wave at people I see down the hall, across the street, in the buildings where I am selling property, at my office. But a distance is opening up, and something is creeping into my lungs like water, slowly stealing my ability to breathe......oh yes, it's the bank account draining! An all too familiar sound these days. A friend of mine calls this separation from life - this distance or asphyxia - like living under water. I am oiling my wetsuit as we speak.

Today, I lost my health insurance. I expected it - my fabulous company has been carrying me for many months. Now I am not sick, and I can replace my current mood meds with LOTS of activity and, hopefully, more sunlight than rain, but it's always a gamble. My home looks like a warehouse as I am running an ebay business out of it; my desk is chaotic; my dog has almost become un-housetrained as he feels my pain and anxiety so I usually come home to a welcome back dog mess. I have been served with a rent demand, but no lawsuit yet - my attorney says it's imminent. And none of my listings are selling or renting. But lots of people are smiling at me. Or waving.

What's a girl to do?

Tomorrow I am taking a mental health day. No work, no real estate, a lot of dog (Rocco is wonderful), some art, some fun conversation, one great meal, and long long walks. I am going to take myself out of the medium that is drowning me and try to find new ways to breathe. So when you see me in the street, I may look a bit haggard, but it is me, and I assure you, the smile on my face is real. And I will NOT be drowning, but waving.