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.