The Romance of the Street: Open Access?

Recently, I wrote on a New Yorker cartoon that poked fun at a young Millennial working weekends to pay her student debt (her day job, see, was just for rent). (Scroll down on the link; it’s the April 1, 2014 cartoon.) Not really funny, right? Today, I want to write about a very related recent story–another type of serve-the-people-food-and-drinks and persevere narrative, this one written by a young barista who moved on to work at a fledgling magazine. (Read her story here.)

Despite the relative rarity of a barista telling us her experience, this article fits within a classic narrative that a professor of mine once called “roman de la rue”—the romance of the street. Poor artists and students live in garrets both literal and figurative (and in marginal, bohemian neighborhoods). This model underlies everything from the opera La Bohème to its more modern incarnation in Rent. It underlies a lot of the romance of living in the big city and being an artist or student.

An implicit part of this romance in the U.S. is that starving-in-the-garret doesn’t last, usually. The one-time bohemians morph. They 1) achieve some kind of middle-class success in a chosen field; 2) turn to a more viable living, maybe not in chosen field; 3) marry and depend on the partner’s income; or 4) hit it big.

The barista’s narrative, in which she becomes a writer, illustrates path #1. Poverty is overcome by time and hard work. For another nicely articulated contemporary rendition, see Meghan Daum’s several meditations on her trajectory from Columbia MFA student (starving in a shoe-box-sized apartment) to journalist in Nebraska (large porch, great house, nice NPR station). Her essays on this, in My Misspent Youth and Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, and the fictionalized incarnation, The Quality of Life Report, are great and creative takes on moving on, not only in time but in space.

Both narratives show that the roman de la rue is not dead, and that mobility is still possible. If Manhattan isn’t possible, there are the artistic neighborhoods further out. If rents in San Francisco are prohibitive, there are other near-by cities. If a medium-sized apartment is prohibitive, ingenious architects are developing 300-foot apartments–the size of two parking spaces.

I realize that the changing faces of neighborhoods and flexible living arrangements are a testimony to creativity and mobility. Still, what concerns me, as in my last post, is that social mobility is becoming much harder. Meghan Daum is a second-generation artist; her father is a composer and she literally has a parental abode not far from Manhattan to fall back on, if necessary. What if you don’t have that social capital? And, once you live in a apartment not much larger than a car, how much more whittling down is possible?

Doesn’t it do something to us as a culture to have certain cities that are simply no longer possible for the artist/student class?

When I graduated from college, I moved from Berkeley to San Francisco. (Again, remember, I’m a midlife PhD, so this was several decades ago.) Moving to a large city with a writer’s tradition (Ferlinghetti! Jack London! Ken Kesey!) meant a great deal to me in terms of seeing myself as an inheritor of American narratives. Moving to the East Coast, which I did a couple years later, meant inheriting, at least figuratively, an even larger tradition (Edith Wharton!  Walt Whitman!). I felt authorized to join and articulate my contribution to these narratives.

And I’m certainly not the only one. A friend from that time agrees, feeling that each successive move was a step in a type of artistic citizenship. To be a Californian meant you belonged to a region; but to be a New Yorker or Bostonian meant you were national. Moving to a large city to be an artist, or to work in an artistic field, is staking a claim to telling narratives in some kind of larger field, and is an important symbolic move. If it’s become an onerous economic scramble only, or not feasible at all, there is a kind of impoverishment of both social capital and the warp and weft of the larger social narrative.

The recent San Francisco riots against the buses that take workers to Silicon Valley reflect this tension. Part of me wants to tell the rioters that moving out of a city is not the end of the world. Moving to where the rents are lower is, after all, a viable option. I did it; Meghan Daum’s story exemplifies it. But the rioters illustrate, I think, a fear that some social spaces are being marked out for the rich only.  That movement in time and space are becoming far less possible.

A possibly apocryphal story has a bus rider telling picketers that San Francisco is “a special place for special people”—ie, not for them. An old folk song used to tell of 12 gates into the city. It seemed like a metaphor about access and many options for entry. In the current climate, there don’t seem to be 12 gates to the city. For some, there might not be any.


No, No, New Yorker

Several weeks ago, a cartoon ran in the New Yorker that really set me aback. You can see it, the daily cartoon of April 1, here. It seems an especially significant symbol of increasingly blitheness that the rest of the world displays about the financial burdens of graduate school—and the increasing inequality between haves and have-nots in the US.

In it, a young woman is working behind the counter in a donut shop. It’s not an elegant one—it’s called “Metro Donut,” and ever so slightly down at the heels despite the two chairs and table in front for al fresco dining. She is turned in profile to a co-worker, telling him, “From Monday to Friday, I work in an office to pay rent. This is my student-debt job.”

Funn-ee, right?

Having no discretionary income to pay a debt isn’t really side-splitting in real life. Having to give up leisure time to pay debts isn’t amusing at all. And realizing that this story is considered amusing for the middle to upper middle class, educated audience of the New Yorker is maybe the ultimate non har-de-har.

Yet the cartoon obviates indignation at someone having to work weekends for repayments on crushing student debt. Why? I think we are expected to read in the kind of cultural and social capital that Pierre Bourdieu talks about. She has social and cultural capital, if not (much) of the economic kind. The audience might infer social and cultural capital by the facts supplied: that she has student debt means a certain level of education. That she is working in New York implies she is sophisticated and ambitious. We might be expected to read in a typical young-woman-come-to-the-big-city narrative: boyfriends, multiple roommates, and supportive parents somewhere. The latter have an extra room in case life gets really rocky.

Added to that scenario is the style of the drawing itself. Her hair is in a bun—symbol of competence—and she looks trim and together, if somewhat tired. We are expected to see her as typical of the Millennial generation, shouldering her Saturday afternoons (and maybe Sundays, too) at the donut kiosk (cart, truck, whatever). We are expected, I think, to see her as someone with foreknowledge that she’ll get out of student debt and high rent with pluck and hard work.

We are not expected to read in economic desperation.

Except. As a young woman, I put in time in New York City. (I’m a midlife PhD, remember, so this was a couple of decades ago.) At that time, I worked a fairly low wage job. And I spent 60% of my income on rent. I can still remember the anxiety of that era vividly. Once over half goes, and you haven’t bought groceries yet, the rest evaporates on necessities as well. Every book I have from the period has columns of figures in the back, as I tallied up whether I could afford a movie, a trip, or even chocolate chip cookies to allay the anxiety.

And, the rent I paid then would be considered dirt cheap today.

So in a way, I’m calling attention to this cartoon because it illustrates a significant creep in the actual financial strain over the years. I could pay my rent and live in Manhattan, if briefly. So could young women several decades before me. Now, that’s almost an impossible dream for the young liberal arts middle class; it’s one of the reasons that “Greenpoint” has cachet as a destination for the recently graduated hip. I didn’t have significant student debt. But in this cartoon, we see someone who can’t afford much beyond rent and loan repayment. My financial life was impaired my Manhattan. So, very likely, will hers be.

More importantly, though, what of upward strivers who don’t have the cultural or social capital that this young woman putatively does? Maybe that’s the worst of this economic era. I was the first in my family to go to college, aided by not much beyond general cultural expectation, relatively low tuition, and my own desire to read everything in the library.

Making a generational leap is increasingly difficult, and it’s increasingly onerous just because of student debt and high metropolitan rents. The young with college-educated parents walk across economic strain with social capital for a tightrope. The tightrope may break for people who don’t have that social capital. It either plunges them in the gulf or puts them in a place where social mobility, long a part of the American dream, is increasingly hard to put into reality.

Next:  more on upward mobility and young strivers in food service.

Growing Up with the Muppets: The Medium and the Message

Yesterday, I discussed why audiences accepted the blend of fantasy and reality in Sesame Street from the beginning, despite 1960s psychologists warning its creator, Joan Ganz Cooney, that children would be harmed by blending fantasy and reality. (For a look at the Pioneers of Thirteen documentary in which she says this, see

Their belief is puzzling, since many children’s narratives blend fantasy and reality—presumably, the experts were concerned with television and its verisimilitude in representing reality; to contain fantasy characters as part of the brownstone, street world of early Sesame Street would be to blend genre boundaries in an unsettling way.  Yet certainly Muppets with brownstoneone of the charms of Sesame Street is the blend of fantasy and reality: Kermit and friends aren’t real, but their charm suspends belief easily, for children and adults alike. All the Muppets interact with children and adults easily. They’re, hey, part of the neighborhood.

In cogitating on this, though, I have to admit that the experts are right to some extent. Isn’t the pairing of fantasy and reality characters kind of a clunker in some notable media forays? The cartoon Jessica Rabbit talking to the real actor Bob Hoskins in the film Who Killed Roger Rabbit? seems more a director’s whimsy than a vital part of the film. The comedy stemmed from the audience’s familiarity with genre conventions: Cartoons over here (usually); live actors over there. Genre rules were being bent and broken, by people who were hyperaware of them—that was what we were asked to applaud.

But watching the Muppets, we never feel that we are being asked to respond primarily to the fact that Kermit talking to people bends some boundaries–that he and his ilk ought to exist only in the studio talking to other puppets. Kermit and wolf blitzerWhy didn’t they look arch? And why were kids (and parents, and nearly every form of media from mainstream through alternative) charmed by them?

I think because their placement in the evolving medium of television mirrored the placement of their audience—kids getting their arms around the mysteries of the adult world. The Muppets in the world—whether the stoop or the garbage can—seemed gleeful and surprised at their actions. Like they were surprised that they could do the actions, but doing them all the same. Just like kids moving into the world: gleeful and surprised that they can, from a 2-year-old realizing that they can locomote down a strip of carpet to a 5-year-old realizing that, well, that word with the one s and the two ee’s after it is pronounced “see.”

Indeed, the Children’s Television Workshop, the organization behind Sesame Street, published Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs (written by David Borgenicht), in which the psychological age of some of the Muppets is discussed, and they are children. (Big Bird, for example, is six.) But even without that background knowledge, the Muppets read easily as stand-ins for children in their glee and curiosity.

So Cooney and company—maybe knowingly, maybe inadvertently—fused the media and the message. It seems like a children’s genre whose conventions in previous generations might have held the Muppets bound in a studio had developed technology that actually did change the conventions of the genre. The rise of the hand-held camera? The contemporary fascination with cinéma vérité? The technology of the Muppets, driven by Jim Henson’s syncretism in creating puppets who seemed to stand-alone? The rise of child-centered parenting? What is clear is that those conventions actually did bend, or expand enough, that, for first time, puppets were paired with the cityscape and the backyard. For a child audience that had been cocooned in relatively small spaces—the bedroom, the living room—and was, well, starting to look at a bigger world, the Muppets represented them, and the glee and joy to be found in that larger world. Why was Sesame Street a runaway success? And why is it now an institution? A lot of the answer is in the fusion of the development of a medium and its audience.

The Muppets and the Street: Children, Fantasy, and Reality

Hi, readers, and welcome to April!

Today, I want to get my meta on by examining television as a text. Plus, this post will be examining one of the elements dear to the heart of PhDs in English:  genre and its uses. The text for today’s post is the Muppets; the genre is children’s television, those with puppets specifically.

Viewers within a 60-mile or-so radius of New York City were treated last year to a documentary on the first half-century of their local public television station, called Pioneers of Thirteen. It contained a lot of great footage from NYC’s WNET (known colloquially as Channel 13). The first hour and a half is a kind of magical mystery tour, from the austere, black and white filmed master class with cellist Pablo Pablo-Casals to useCasals (the kind of high culture for the masses that typified early 1960s public television), to  the pop, colorful world of the later 1960s, in which Big Bird and Cookie Monster reign supreme. (The one on the 1960s can be seen here, and as you gaze upon the picture, remember that Big Bird started life in an advanced stage of molt.) Bigbird1969 to use

Channel 13 takes justifiable pride in its gestation of Sesame Street. The award-winning program is certainly a signal achievement of public television by anyone’s yardstick. It’s interesting, though, to see how contested the development actually was.

Children’s Television Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney tells a great story about an initial dinner party in which an (unconvinced) Carnegie Foundation executive asked if children could really learn from the relatively new medium of television—at the time, so affiliated with mind rot and wasteland metaphors that the emphasis seems to have been keeping the tykes away from it entirely. Cooney felt they could certainly learn to sing along with advertising jingles. So why not replace ad puffery, her thinking went, with abc’s?

The documentary skips what was apparently at least a year-long research assignment finding out pedagogical opinion on how, indeed, children can learn from television. But Joan Ganz Cooney scoffs at one key finding: don’t, the experts said, mix fantasy and reality. It will confuse children, and it will never work.

Whoa! That observation sent me to write this blog post. I was initially puzzled, because humans and puppets had certainly been paired before. Shari Lewis and her puppets were one of the most popular children’s programs on 1960s television. (For an example, see below.)

In Shari Lewis’s television programs, though, she functions as a type of “mom” figure—overseeing the action of a child-like Lamb Chop (the little girl) and Charlie Horse (the little boy). The puppetry was clearly orchestrated by her, just as the actions of small children are often orchestrated by their parents. (And even if you were a small child and unaware of Lewis as puppet master, she clearly oversaw the proceedings, just like a mom.) In that way, fantasy and reality are clearly demarcated. There is a real person, telling a story with cloth and movement.

The Muppets, by contrast, seem to be in charge of themselves. They are fantasy, telling a story by themselves (often) and interacting with people (reality) not as appendages, but as stand-alone characters. From the beginning, we see Kermit as a reasonably debonair sports announcer. He is by himself, and not only conducting the action but commenting on it. The Muppets are alone or only with other puppets (sometimes), in charge of themselves (seemingly), and on the street, often conversing with people who are kindly, but who do not control them. This seems to be the direct result of Cooney defying the dicta of experts, by commanding her troops to “get Muppets on the street!”

In the next post, I’ll explore my second fascination: why audiences accepted the fantasy of stand-alone puppets (fantasy) talking to people (reality).