Archive for May, 2020

Dumont

May 13, 2020

RIP JoeyKid*

dumont sign

 

Like so many of us, Joseph began shaping my life before I ever met him. Most Fridays in the springs and summers of 2001 and 2002, my cousin Greg and I would have dinner at the charming neighborhood restaurant near Greg’s place on Powers Street in Williamsburg. I’d emerge from the Lorimer stop on the G, my eyes automatically scanning for Dumont’s vertical green neon sign – a new landmark quickly internalized as part of my city map.  Neither an upstart, nor a striver, Dumont seemed simply to have quietly arrived, only announcing itself in contrast to the glare of Kellogg’s Diner across Union Ave. And then in contrast to the scores of new bars and restaurants mushrooming around it in the years that followed. It was my go-to, especially for close friends visiting from out of town, whom I wanted to take to the parts of the city that were an extension of my home. It even had different rooms I could choose from depending on the occasion, or the company, and when I did meet Joseph a few years later, I told him I could never forgive him for redesigning the middle room and taking it away. A small nook with a bar, in the hallway between the front main dining room and the large garden in back, time seemed to stop in that small space. One day I arrived and it was “paved over” – refitted with a few rows of more seating. Through the years I also witnessed the garden grow from an informal gravel-floored back yard with fairy lights, to a beautifully landscaped and highly designed outdoor area that rivaled the front room as the heart of the place.  I can’t remember my last meal there, but I do remember convincing my dad and his sister Debbie to have a family brunch at Dressler, Joseph’s new creation. On Broadway, not far from Diner and Peter Luger’s, it also happened to be around the corner from where my grandma Ethel grew up and where the Blum family candy store once stood. I was very excited to share our experience with Joseph.

 

Joseph and I only hung out in person a handful of times over the years. But both because of the intimacy and immediacy of social media, and his personality – present, immediate, generous – he was a large presence. He shared himself and told great stories, which included his own bio – an Irish-Italian kid growing up in Williamsburg in the 70’s and 80’s, in a building on Grand Street that most of his extended Italian family eventually left – his dad reluctant to follow because of his beloved pigeons. Ultimately, this brilliant and energetic artist and visionary realized the potential he saw around him, and helped catalyzed the transformation of the borough of Brooklyn. I’m sure he had mixed feelings about that, and did eventually decamp to his place upstate, but we never completely got into it, perhaps a pact native New Yorker’s have with each other (at least for me, why ruin a nice moment).

I last saw Joseph at the new beautiful world he cultivated for himself near Woodstock. His voracious appetite for reading, for riding (motorcycles), for people, for the world, and his energy to take it all on, continued (and continue) to inspire. I feel so lucky to have crossed paths with him and can’t completely believe that a life force like his was human and extinguishable.

 

*Joseph Foglia passed away last month. I had’t seen him in a couple of years and we didn’t speak often, but his personality did not allow you to feel anything but close. And he had a  huge impact on my life and my experience of New York, as he did on pretty much anyone who’s lived in NYC over the last 20+ years, whether they are aware of it or not. His restaurant designs and visions for the potential for his borough, even (especially) during the rough and tumble of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, have had an impact that is almost impossible to measure. And he was more personally central to so many lives, whether through art, design, cycling, motorcycling, or just being an irrepressibly curious and caring person. Such a loss, still hard to believe. (Just a note: his personal bio is based on my memories of his stories from years ago, if I have gotten anything wrong, please let me know).

 

Pandemic Pangs: May 1, 2020

May 1, 2020

Sorry We Missed You, American Factory, and the ever-elusive dignity of work and a living wage in America

 

sorrywemissed youboxes

 

In February, in that land before time, a friend and I attended a New America Foundation Social Cinema event, at Betaworks Studios, around the corner from the Whitney Museum. A warm and sleek open space, Betaworks was both a perfect and slightly off-putting venue for the screening and panel that followed. It is a start-up incubator, a place for innovation and disruption – two words now almost completely perverted by the unintended consequences of a tech gold rush that has enabled so much of our current broken labor model (and the belief that solutions are best left to the private sector).

 

That night, a hundred or so gathered for a preview screening of Ken Loach’s most recent production, “Sorry We Missed You” (now available as a rental from Film Forum) about a family in Newcastle caught in the purgatory of “independent contractor,” gig economy, struggles. Loach, one of the more strident Cassandras of socially engaged narrative cinema, has, since the 1960’s, been producing unflinching portraits of the economically, politically, and socially disenfranchised. He sends up broken systems through the lives of the individuals navigating them. Thankfully there’s ( just enough) intimacy and charm to make these unrelenting stories engaging  (But I really don’t recommend watching more than one Ken Loach film at a time – they are so bleak that they either paralyze you completely or have the opposite of their intended effect, where you just shut off because you are being barraged with a “message”).  This great Guardian list ranks all of his 37 movies, for a quick snapshot of his prolific output. He does not like to leave many stones unturned.

 

In “Sorry We Missed You,” we find Ricky and Abby Turner, parents of two, still recovering from the 2008 crash, in which they lost their house and incurred unbearable debt. Critically,  many of those laid off in 2008 and its aftermath, were never hired back full time. Instead, they returned as independent contractors, allowing businesses to avoid having to pay for health insurance and other basic benefits. Gig work filled this vacuum without any attendant government protections. The Freelancers Union did arise to meet some of these needs but its umbrella could not cover many classes of workers.

Grasping for work in this new landscape, Abby and Ricky turned to the new economy’s promise of autonomy and entrepreneurship. They decide to sell Abby’s car so that Ricky can buy a van to become an independent warehouse delivery worker (not unlike an Amazon warehouse – an order fulfillment center where workers are essentially held hostage by scanner guns recording their every move). The eventual reward would be outright ownership of a delivery franchise. In the meantime, he gets paid per delivery. Abby, who works as a home health aide, paid per visit, has to trust that the added difficulty of traveling to her patients on public transportation will eventually pay off.

We soon see that as independent contractors they seem to have none of the autonomy and all of the risk; none of the security afforded by having an employer, such as sick days, set hours, or a minimum wage, but all of the obligations of being beholden to quotas and others’ schedules. And in Abby’s case, not only does this structure degrade her, but her patients as well – the independent contractor structure provides very little incentive for home health aides to spend ay significant amount of time with them before rushing off to their next paid visit. This degrades Abby further. She refuses to treat her clients as anything less than human, and it is at her own and her family’s expense.

 

A warm and loving family, we watch as the stress and unrelenting schedules fray the Turner family unit. The physical and emotional exhaustion is palpable, and the toll it takes easy to foresee. In his patronizing review in the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that the dramatic device in “Sorry We Missed You” seems to be Murphy’s Law. But of course, as we now all plainly see, so many are just one small crisis away from having it all go completely wrong – there is no room for error. And the irony for American audiences watching this bleak downward spiral is that at least the Turners wouldn’t go bankrupt from any medical issues (the drama of Ricky’s injury in the film is that he does not have the time to tend to it properly, leaving the hospital before being seen; an American worker would envy that Ricky had a choice at all).

The film illustrates one of the gig economy’s central issues: misclassification. By incorrectly classifying workers as “independent contractors,” individuals don’t receive the protections afforded “employees.” In the U.S. (UK experts can chime in), minimum wage does not apply to those classified as independent contractors, and the NLRA — National Labor Relations Act — specifically excludes them. However, some states have made headway in addressing misclassification. California has already passed a law — AB5 — that sets a new standard: a three factor “ABC Test” that places the burden on the corporation to give the worker certain conditions in order to allow him or her to be classified an independent contractor. If they do not meet these then the worker is considered an employee. The NY Direct Coalition is trying to achieve the same here. And of course, the ripple effect of misclassification is that those classified correctly have less leverage. It is a completely unsustainable model for any that want a society based on more than mere survival. The hard-won workers’ rights that so many fought for, for so long, seemed institutionalized and taken for granted.

americanfactory

We see this plainly in “American Factory” (now streaming on Netflix), this year’s well-deserved documentary Oscar winner. The desperation of the American worker – and whom he or she should look to for any solutions – is beautifully and tragically portrayed. Reinventing the rustbelt, and America’s languishing manufacturing base, are for many the poster child for America’s labor and economic woes (they are certainly the face of the Midwest voter being fought over).

When a Chinese company reopens a shuttered GM plant near Dayton, Ohio, it seems one answer to the devastation of America’s industrial base. However, along with broader culture clashes, some quite hilarious, early optimism gives way to resignation and defeat. While incredibly grateful that they have a job again, the workers have to contend with much lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and punishing work schedules and expectations. A non-union shop, the American managers and Chairman Cao (the factory owner) are extremely displeased when Senator Sherrod Brown – invited for the grand opening – encourages the workers to organize if they need to.

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert tell the story masterfully – with the nuance and context it requires.  Living outside Dayton, they have been observing and living in this post-industrial landscape for years. This film revisits their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” Few are better positioned, committed, and talented enough to capture this portrait of American labor. We should be incredibly grateful for their work.

The pitfalls of the gig economy, and “share price above all” corporate dictates, have been crystal clear to many, but the coronavirus and quarantine have helped ensure the rest can no longer pretend or look away. The American apparatus that ensures basic workers’ (and basic human) rights is broken. A living wage, health insurance, and reasonable working conditions are just no longer part of the social contract. And strangely, as government oversight and protection have eroded, the market and private interests have not filled the breach.