Monday, September 27, 2010

An Apartment Is A Home, But It Is Not A House

Recent news revealed that the average American yearly income is $49,500.00.  In order to be "middle class" in Manhattan, one has to earn twice that.  At least.  For a single person.  I am no longer middle class, I am comfortable.  I have few complaints, no debt, and a roof over my head.  I am a single woman with two small dogs.  I live in a rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment on the Upper Westside of Manhattan.  According to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board:  New York City has a system of rent regulation known as "rent stabilization." The system was enacted in 1969 when rents were rising sharply in many post-war buildings. The system has been extended and amended frequently, and now about 1 million apartments in the City are covered by rent stabilization. Rent stabilized tenants are protected from sharp increases in rent and have the right to renew their leases. The Rent Guidelines Board sets the allowable percentage increase for renewal leases each year. This has been my home since January 1991, nearly 20 years. While I realize how very fortunate I am to have this apartment, still I do pine for a few amenities which "normal" American households --or wealthy New Yorkers--have. 

First, there are desk attendants in the lobby.  They do not open the door for me, but I have security, and packages can be delivered to them while I'm out.  Visitors are announced.  There are elevators, so I do not have to climb floors of stairs, the old "walk-up."  When you enter my apartment, there is a "galley" kitchen, in which I often feel like a galley slave.  There are plenty of cabinets, but only one drawer in which I keep my flatware.  There is only one countertop, and half of that is occupied by my microwave oven.  I purchased a wood-block-topped cart in order to have one more drawer, and room to prepare meals.  The stove is vintage.  There is a four-burner electric range but only the front right burner is large enough on which to cook.  The oven is a fairly good size, meaning I can roast a chicken but not a turkey.  "Self-cleaning oven" means I, myself, clean the oven.  The kitchen sink is deep enough, but the water pressure isn't very strong.  I know this because I wash all the dishes.  How I long a kitchen faucet hose!  There is no dishwasher; where would there be room for one?  When I prepare, cook and clean up after a meal, I am doing as much work as my grandmothers did in their homes fifty years ago.  Oh, "poor you!"  No, not poor me.  I simply find it amusing, as I rub cream on my dishpan hands, that my housework is so "retro."

The building has a laundry room in the basement.  You need to purchase a laundry card, and I like clean clothes and linens, so I spend a lot of money on laundry.  I'm grateful I don't have to haul a cart of dirty clothes to a laundry mat and sit and wait while the clothes are in the washers, and then the dryers.  I can set a timer and run back up to my apartment while the machines do their work.  Other tenants usually aren't thoughtful about removing laundry from machines in a timely manner.  Or they arrive ten seconds before I do, and pull my clean laundry out and place it on the dusty, too short folding table.  Most don't empty the lint from the catchers.  It's an inconvenience not a hardship.  I do dream of the day when I have my own laundry room with a washer and dryer which are large enough that I can fit enough clothes in to be economical with water.  I would have to have a long folding table because I "hand iron," pressing the clothes into shape with my nimble .  You see--and my Irish grandmothers are rolling over in their graves at this admission--I don't iron.

The bathroom is fine but small and basic.  It features a bathtub/shower enclosed by frosted glass doors.  The tub is so deep that it is hard for me to take a bath for fear of  doing serious injury to myself while climbing out.  Thank goodness the shower pressure is powerful.  The bathroom sink basin is not deep, and water ends up everywhere whenever I wash my face.  I believe the medicine cabinet was found at a flea market featuring home fixtures from the 1964 World's Fair.

Both the living room and the bedroom are large and roomy, with high ceilings.  This is excellent because the living room must double as a dining room, and my home office takes up about a third of the bedroom.  The apartment has fine wood floors which are the worse for wear after two decades, but they are wood floors.  

Every morning I wake up and go sit on the "veranda" (my radiator cover) by one of the two large windows in the living room.  The apartment faces the street, and faces north, so the morning sunlight streams in and lights up the place.  I sip my tea, look down on my street, and count my blessings.  I do live in a lovely neighborhood and in Manhattan.  I have a home; it's just not a house.  Central Park is my garden. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The More Things Change, The More They Don't For Women

When I began my last semester at Wesleyan University in January 1984, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated.  My friends had created these "resumes," and many classmates had spent summers working at unpaid internships.  I had worked during my college summers at paid jobs so that I could continue my student standard of living, i.e. eat and, of course, buy beer.  In despair, I phoned my loving, supportive mother, and wailed about these resumes and internships.  "How am I supposed to write a RESUME!?"  I expected her usual kind maternal advice.  She shocked me, and pre-dated Madison Avenue, by saying quite firmly, "JUST DO IT!"  So I began to create a resume, and, having been to shortsighted to gain an entree in the editorial internship at Wesleyan University Press, I took another tact.  I went to the Editor of this distinguished small publishing house, and begged for some other type of internship.  I believe my plea was, "I'll do ANYTHING!  Please!"  She granted me an independent study assisting the Sales and Marketing Director with the semester goal of putting together a cooperative university press catalog.  My immediate supervisor Steve was a recent Wesleyan grad, Class of 1982, and he was a great guy.  We were to reach out to other university presses and combine all of our efforts and reading lists to create a catalog.  When I say "our efforts," I mean my supervisor and me.

Let me explain that in the 1980's, Wesleyan was all about embracing diversity, and the campus was extremely conscious, aware and politically correct about gender roles and sexual-orientation.  The Feminist House printed flyers inviting folks to vegetarian potlucks for "womyn."  My boss Steve treated me with respect, and expected me to perform well because I was a Wesleyan student, regardless of my gender.  He did not put extra pressure on me nor did he take advantage of me because he was a man and I was a woman.  We were teammates in the race to get other university presses to advertise in our cooperative compendium.  My initial cold calls to the other university presses now make me blush as I can still hear my fearful, quavering voice.  However, I learned from experience, and became quite good at phoning strangers, being direct yet charming, and cajoling them into joining our cooperative university press catalog.  My attention to detail in English and American literature served me well as I assisted Steve in making sure we had all the necessary ads from the other presses.  My once anal-retentive trait of making sure assignments were handed in early, not just on time, helped me to get our materials together so we could have our catalog published.  Occasionally I checked in with a friend who was taking the editorial internship.  We would compare our internship experiences, and she was admittedly envious at all the skills I was learning doing sales and marketing.

I worked extremely hard at my internship, and, when we had reached our goal and the semester was wrapping up, Steve rewarded me by taking me to the legendary Middletown hamburger joint O'Rourke's.  He was flabbergasted that I had nearly graduated without sampling their cheeseburger, a crime against student hedonism in his book.  Steve was more shocked that I took the option of doing my independent study as a "Pass/Fail" grade.  "If you had taken this as a graded course, you would have received an A+!"  I wasn't bothered because I had learned so much about the beginnings of being a businesswoman.  I felt cocky, and confident.  I was a third-wave feminist.  I was 21-years-old, and didn't realize the historical significance that women had only been admitted to Wesleyan's all-male elite class in 1970, just ten years before I arrived on the campus.  I had no idea what the "real" world was like, but I soon found out.

Thanks to a close friend who actually helped me create my resume, and then secretly submitted it to the university career resource center, I landed an interview with two New York trade book publishers during my spring break.  One week after graduation, I was being interviewed by the Director of Subsidiary Rights at St. Martin's Press, and she hired me.  (I believe one reason she hired me was I spilled my coffee, took out a tissue, cleaned up the mess, all while I continued to answer her questions.  Never underestimate the power of poise!)  I was so excited about landing a job in book publishing that I didn't quite grasp that I only would be earning $10,400.00 a year (well, to be fair, the salary would be bumped up to $11,400.00 after 6 months, and $12, 400.00 if I lasted a year).  You see, the publisher, a wonderful man, had been in publishing since the early 60's.  He thought that young women who came to work at St. Martin's actually were socialites from the Upper Eastside who wore white gloves and were driven to the Flatiron Building by chauffeurs.  [For a cultural reference, see fellow Wesleyan alum Matt Weiner's Mad Men, only 20-odd years later.]  Most older male colleagues were gentlemen, and some even mentored me, but many dismissed  me as "that young girl who works for Sally."  I was shocked when some men felt threatened by my confidence and competence.  These men spoke  nasty, oh-so-politically incorrect words to me with the intention of cutting me down to size, and keeping my place.  As a woman.

I continued to work hard, behaved like the lady my parents raised, and faced sexual discrimiation well into the mid-1990's, when I left the corporate world.  As my career progressed, I made sure that I was paid very well by my employers based on my performance, not based on what a man would earn.  I actually ended up making more than my male peers doing the same job--but doing it better, not because I am a woman, but because I am me.  Sadly, now I speak to young women friends who are at the beginning of their careers, and am heartsick for them when I learn that they too are subjected to managers, men and women, who want to make sure these "girls" know their place.  I recently met a 20-something woman working in book publishing and was horrified to learn that her base salary when she began working in 2005 was $18,500.00.  While that may be an increase of 56.5% from my base salary, I do not think that $18,500.00 can take any young person very far!  While the laws against sexual harassment are on the books, and the nightmare for every HR department should a woman come to them and seek legal action, there are very few options for women to take when the insidious sly sexit comment or unnecessary disciplinary action or "honest" review occur.  The world has not banished gender discrimination.  We women have not come as far as we should for today's  fourth-wave feminists.  Yet, now is not the time to give up.  I want the fifth-wave feminists to have a better, fairer world, and I want us older third-wave feminists to lead the fight for the right to it.

 Fair Pay Isn't Always Equal Pay