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McDonalds on 96th Street, NYC

November 21, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

McDonalds on 96th St.”    Blog by B Nimri Aziz                         Nov 21, 2015  

Not to be outdone by the Eastsiders’ “92nd Street Y”, Manhattan’s Westside has its own popular cultural center:-- McDonalds at 96th Street. (No website.)

A sunny autumn day in New York City, perfect for a stroll along Upper Broadway.  Before noon restaurant staffs are arranging lunch tables on the wide sunlit sidewalk. It’s a school holiday too; so 5 and 6-year-olds dressed in brand-name casuals skip beside parents, mingling with infants strapped in strollers overseen by their Filipino or Nepalese nannies. All signs of our stratified but celebrated multi-cultured New York.

I pass bargain-seekers browsing through stalls of used books set up outside Symphony Space (formerly Thalia film theater) whose broad window posters announce evening concerts and poetry readings.

A bulky, balding man in running shorts steps out of NYSportsClub wiping sweat from his neck and hurries southwards. Strolling singles’ are bejeweled with ipod buds; people perched at the Starbucks window, likewise muffled, focus on computer faces, coffee at their elbows. Fixed on the pavement is the fruit wagon stacked with trays of blue, purple, red, and black berries, pyramids of green papaya, a terrace of apples and heaps of unripe avocados; the vendor needs an assistant to handle waiting customers.

This is the New York which its residents proudly cling to and where tourists arrive from their own suburban institutions to observe us from an open tour bus-- as on a safari. Two squat white vehicles, currently empty, are parked at the curb. I recognize them; they’re designed to transport wheelchair-bound commuters and handicapped youths, ferrying them from their suburban institutions for day- excursions into these poly-peopled streets.

Determinedly focused on my target at Broadway and 96th, I pass laptop gazers in Starbucks and breakfasters at Filicori Zuchein Café likewise absorbed scrolling a screen or resolutely hunched over their morning crossword puzzle. Cafes are interspersed among three commercial banks; a manicure shop advertises holiday specials. Then my destination: the most visited store along this promenade. I step inside, not for McDs new all-day-breakfast menu but for an ethnographic check in.

I’ve been into several of New York City’s 354 McDonalds restaurants, but I’m returning to this 96th Street outlet with a specific goal, namely to test my earlier assessment, and then to share its culture with you. I’ll linger in order to revisit the tenderness and tolerance I’ve glimpsed nowhere else that serves a Big Mac. Please suspend your hostility towards McDonalds’ fast food empire and its fattening menu and step inside with me.

The counter, manned by young, underpaid yet smiling waiters is at the back of the high-ceilinged room. I amble slowly forward. As I pass 8 or 9 tables en route I imbibe the mood I experience every time I drop by here.

The store is small, perhaps 15 feet wide with hardly 30 chairs, only few of which are empty. Both window tables, one on either side of the door, are occupied. At the table to my left sit three women, two elderly ladies in wheelchairs, and the third, younger, who’s probably their caregiver. They seem like young girls, huddling close to one another—intimate and unreserved.

The table on the other side of the entrance is monopolized by one customer with shopping bags, papers, and two briefcases consuming the floor space around him and the tabletop as well. Not even a cup of coffee. He’s alone, absorbed with his cell phones, one in each hand. It’s unclear if he’s speaking with anyone. I keep my gaze on him, but he avoids any eye contact. He’s dark skinned with African features except for his long, straight hair pulled untidily somewhere behind his ears. I note the fringe of a prayer shawl in his lap and when he turns I see he’s wearing a yarmulke, the Judaic head cover for men. Could he be on lunch break from the Hassidic-owned B&H electronic outlet downtown? Doubtful. Moreover, I learn he’s here every day; same table.

“Yep,” says my interlocutor. “And you just missed Frank; he’s 90 and never misses a day; yep, every morning.” Joe Wilson (that’s the name embossed on his shield) is a policeman who I interrupt speaking to a customer with a spread of CDs and papers covering his table. “Are you here to remove people if….?” (I anticipate Wilson’s reply but I needed an opener) “Nooooo Mam”, Joe assures me, turning so I can read his shoulder badge–NYC Traffic Police; “That’s up to management; I’m here for my pancakes.”

I explain my purpose and Officer Joe willingly responds. “Yep, I know most of these folks.” He nods toward the Hassidic guy with the phones: “That’s his spot; never eats anything.” I look over my shoulder towards the well-dressed couple at a third table. I’d already noticed how animated the woman is and how purposefully she speaks. The man, younger, nods as he listens. Three Christian bibles lay open at their elbows (no coffee cups here), also a copy of Awake, the magazine distributed by Jehovah Witnesses. (This makes sense; these evangelists often work travelers at the 96th Street express station; this stop is a common venue for them.) I overhear “…and now the world was created”, and, “when somebody goes to church…” . They’re regulars too, says Joe Wilson. “Yep, a regular meeting hall this here place is.”

The two washrooms further along the passageway are in constant use. A young couple arrives, tennis rackets under their arms. The man sits and checks his phone while the woman heads into the ladies room. They both exit without purchasing even a cookie. Throughout all this traffic, a woman, her shirt printed with All-Day-Breakfast, gently moves among the tables with a wet mop, sweeping up crumbs, adjusting chairs, and frequently checking the toilets.

Although almost every seat in this McDonalds is occupied and people are constantly arriving and leaving, the place is quiet. A man (bus driver?) wearing an MTA uniform sits down across from me absorbed in calculations with his electronic meter. Many of these McD patrons sit alone; others are in pairs. No one’s hurrying through their fast-food here.

When I return in the afternoon, I find the scene unchanged. Except the chairs around the table where I sat this morning are now occupied by a group of 6 people, adults who appear like children because of one disorder or another. They sit silently, smiling, neither talking nor eating. Some gaze at the ceiling, some at their nurse. Their day outing has ended and they’re awaiting their bus.

Can these customers purchase enough McPancakes and McBurgers to pay operating costs here? Given soaring property values, it’s remarkable that this small shop survives in a city being converted to serve only the rich. Would that out-of-city home for handicapped youths lobby Ronald McDonald to keep it open? Or, in the interests of public health, would wealthy citizens moving into this neighborhood in order to lounge in another $6./cup organic Starbucks mobilize to eject an unwholesome ‘greasy spoon’? Or will they know here is really a community center? 

[ McDonalds on 96th Street, NYC ]

Universities Are the Right Place to Demand Change

November 15, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Finally, events have converged to mobilize our new leaders—young Americans. Who are students but the very women and men who will lead this country spiritually, economically, politically? We press them into college to imbibe progressive ideals, to hone their communication skills, to learn about justice (and injustice), to build enduring personal networks—i.e. to prepare for active participation in society. Hopefully while bettering themselves they enhance our culture, our government, and our values?

Yet look at what this generation is facing:--years of student debt, weary-part-time-underpaid adjunct lecturers, increasing dormitory fees, skyrocketing book prices, administrations that protect campus rapists, brutish fraternity practices, and racial bias overseen my presidents with million dollar salaries.

Some say the current uprisings on campuses beginning at University of Missouri were aroused in part by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the Black Lives Matter movement in cities across the nation.Thankfully. Who better to have led this revolt than Black football heroes who for too long have been compromised by glory and monetary rewards for athletic achievements? (“Our star basketball team is multi-racial; that should be sufficient.”) Whatever the inspiration, voices of students in the forefront of political demands for change are overdue. When can we remember the last campus-based revolt? (It was another generation when it probably focused on overseas wars that overshadow daily injustices at home.)

$1.2 trillion is said to be the total accumulated student debt in the USA today. Without this staggering statistic, we live personal stories and conditions in our own family, our students and classmates, our co-workers and their children. On the one hand we learn about abuse on campus and wild student behavior on spring-break; on the other side, there’s the single mother holding down a job while she pursues her degree. This is American university culture! So is the common practice of underpaid college workers--adjunct teachers and other employees. Many professors who enjoy abundant privileges ignore staff inequalities around them just as they overlook racist practices that today’s students are bringing to public attention due to their raised intolerance of innuendo which, like gender and religious insults, is simply unacceptable.Thus their multiple demands.

The case of Steven Salaita who was denied his appointment at U. Illinois ended in success with a substantial financial settlement. It’s a new victory in an American community of scholars who stood by as many more colleagues saw contracts cancelled because their political beliefs were seen as a threat to university vested interests and the status quo.  The current campus uprisings are significant because these youths are exercising nascent leadership, also because the university had perhaps lost its place in American society as the arena where ideals of equality and free speech are held most sacred. Where else do we expect vigorous debate if not here; where else do we expect parity if not here; where can we challenge the status quo if not here? Where else should social media be an effective political tool? Where can we expect hopes to be planted and nourished if not here?

Finally, although it’s not been cited as factoring into these revolts, there’s the current national election campaign underway. Surely that ‘circus’ disturbs many would-be first time voters anticipating next November. Either they are watching in disgust or cynicism and thinking: “None of these guys is going to stop police violence, cancel our debts or assure us jobs. Let’s move it ourselves”. The November 12 nationwide march is well timed.

[ Universities Are the Right Place to Demand Change ]

Pity the Democracy

November 08, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

In the Interest of Media.     

Sit back and enjoy the ride. US media runs our proud American democracy. It’s in their interests to keep Trump in the forefront, then shift to Carson, maybe move to Fiorina—just for a day-- with interludes into the cozy nest of Democratic contenders.  

We are being toyed with by our news outlets—print, radio and TV, national and local. With every day the American presidential campaign moves on (if not forward), I become more dismayed. Take one major contestant for the White House, The Donald—I love media’s moniker for this political celebrity. Trump is a blustering, inarticulate, egoistic, maybe smart fellow who makes outrageous claims and calls people nasty names. Somehow, he has popular appeal. Thus he’s newsworthy.

Whether it’s Trump’s declaration that he’s not beholden to donors or his false statements on world history, he ought to be seriously challenged. He’s not; neither by his opponents nor by journalists. The men and women questioning Trump—everyone’s getting in on the act, like how, before the invasion of Iraq, every international correspondent dreamed of bagging an interview with Saddam Hussein-- do not really confront his outrages. They discuss Trump’s rudeness; they gossip about him with their political commentators; they fact-check Trump’s statements; they compare his poll numbers; they play clips from his rallies. The result:—more airtime for The Donald.  And we read reports like “The most stupid things said on the campaign trail”. That’s helpful?

Journalists can only push so far, they claim. “We can’t be advocates and we should not appear partisan”, we argue. Really?

Which candidate shines on any particular day varies as we move through the week, theoretically in response to shifting popularity polls. If we don’t learn much from a candidate’s declarations, we still follow them, eager to quote their latest outrage to friends. We eat it up. As Mr. Trump declared at the opening of one speech: “We’re killing them; we’re killing them.”

Audiences of 24 million and 15 million tuning into televised debates don’t reflect how popular Trump and his co-debaters are; those numbers demonstrate the cunning of our media producers. A lot of money is rolling into media coffers from companies blasting their commercials at us 24 million enchanted viewers. Later, ad revenue will be augmented by paid-for promotions from candidates’ coffers. All those $25. donations and the million dollars checks to your favorite candidate will end up in the accounts of media outlets too.

Today, Trump’s lead seems to be waning. Although it’s only by a fraction less than the margin of error, media are quick to exploit this and they shift to the soft-spoken surgeon. Carson’s statements on Muslim citizens and on gun violence seem to have done his popularity no harm; in fact they may have earned him more support. This week is Ben Carson’s week. So we’re treated to vignettes from his youth, his family, his medical career.

I watch. Am I waiting for Carson to make some blunder that drops him back to second place, or will Rubio shout some wisdom that will bump the good doctor off his perch? Both Trump and Carson have written books, I see. So if there’s no new news, we can watch book reviews. And maybe if something in these memoirs is questionable— as just happened -- guess what? More coverage.

Surely the entertainment power of these campaigns is confirmed by their imaginative reach into hit TV comedy shows—Kimmel, the View, SNL, The Late Show with Colbert. We need some lightness; we need to get away from awful subjects like military budgets, crony-capitalism, police violence, or the future of social security. Laughing candidates remind us we real human beings are running for the nation’s highest office. Look, they can take a poke.

You’re thinking of emigrating to the more civic-minded Europe, you say?  According to Serge Halimi’s survey of recent elections across the Atlantic, big media is in control there too. I admit I’m hooked on the US show. I’ll worry about democracy later. 

[ Pity the Democracy ]

What’s A Regular Voter Like Me to Do?

November 02, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I wonder how many Americans find themselves in the same predicament as I do:—there’s an election next week and we have little idea about the issues being debated there and whom we might vote for. Yes, elections are happening all across this country now. But would we know about it from our mass media? No.

In my upstate New York district, it’s not always apparent which candidate is Democrat and which is Republican. Some places have legislative elections; some don’t; my county has a state senate seat up for election, but I don’t vote there. Elsewhere (in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi) important races for governorships and some US senate seats are being contested. If it weren’t for Rachel Maddow’s discussion on national TV, out-of-staters wouldn’t know about them at all.

Meanwhile, through this bizarre American system of early party primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire, both small states, seem to dominate and skew our current democratic process. Ignoring local races which affect our daily lives (this mythical middle-American family beloved by all politicians), tens of millions of Americans obsessively watch, debate and quote statements by presidential candidates, men and women whose success down the road will have little to do with this week’s nationwide elections.

Who are those residents of Iowa and New Hampshire who get so much attention from the big parties and our media and the political analysts? Why do two low population (IA with 3,100,000 and NH with barely 1,300,000)  arguably marginal states, define our presidential nominees? If they really do. Outside of these presidential campaigns every four years, one hears little from them. How could their views of presidential contenders be as critical to the rest of us as the fierce competition underway suggests they are? And why can’t the major parties assign some of the tens of millions in their campaign coffers to local contests?

Two weeks ago, lawn signs appeared on roadsides in my neighborhood; they were announcing candidates for local judgeships, and for town mayors, councilmen and road supervisors. Thus I learn an election is imminent.

I normally vote by party, but none of those candidates’ flyers specify party affiliation. What about information from a local paper? I find only personal ads in this week’s edition. So I turn to my county Board of Elections webpage; on its home page appear the names of a bunch of committee heads. I click the link to my town but information is sparse. On the ballot I’ll mark next Tuesday are 12 candidates running for 9 posts. Six of these candidates, all on the Republican ticket, are unopposed. Hardly a Democrat anywhere on the ballot. And I’ve found no resume of any candidate.

A neighboring county held a public candidates’ night with the local radio station airing contestants’ statements and Q&As from the public. Some of those candidates are running for seats in the county legislature. Hmmm, I consider jealously: what about my county legislature? There is none, I learn. We have what’s called a Board of Supervisors. So are those seats up for election this week? It’s uncertain.

Can you blame me for turning to the national scene? I’ve been watching the Republican presidential debates (the Democratic too) for the past 2 months--it seems like longer-- followed by hours comparing my responses to the endless musings of our multitude of talk show pundits. (They keep themselves gainfully employed through this process.) The candidates --we all know the handful of four or so who stand out-- are certainly entertaining and at times infuriating, even frightening, to any non-Republican. And if they can’t provide the level of comedy we need, corporate media will find a way to arouse us. And however outrageous, limp or impoverished these candidates may be, it’s our income-generating media that will keep this circus spinning for another year, all 365 days of it. 

In case I become excited over someone to cast my vote for, from among the finalists who survive through to next autumn, I’ll be told that the outcome for the post of the “most powerful person in the world” will be in the hands of residents of the “swing states”-Florida, Pennsylvania and perhaps Colorado or Virginia--where competition is always close. We in the remaining 46 states will not count much. So, our costly, time-consuming election process comes down to media offerings. It’s good entertainment, I give our democracy that.   END

[ What’s A Regular Voter Like Me to Do? ]

Nepal Update with Radio Station Phoolwari

October 30, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Manju is a Nepali activist working in a village near the Indian border in the densely populated fertile band across the length of Nepal called Terai or Madhes. She’s found herself in a community in revolt that poses a serious challenge to the new republic only weeks after it finalized a constitution. I hope the crisis I wrote about last week in CounterPunch will be resolved soon. Because, if Nepal doesn’t have leaders who can urgently unite the country and repel India’s suzerainty, the republic could be in serious jeopardy. 

I am reminded of my visit to the Terai to see Manju. I’d spent most of my career in the higher regions of Nepal and compared to what I’d known of those areas, I found the Terai so much like India. Still, I saw no hint of the tension that’s recently surfaced there; indeed the people I met expressed strong Nepali nationalist ideals and were proud of their infant democracy, particularly a new local radio station.

Unlike many compatriots, Manju did not take a job in the US after completing her PhD; she returned to her country to address some of its needs. Moreover she chose to do this in her ancestral village near Basantpur, beyond Janakpur, and far from the modern facilities of the capital.

Manju is a committed Nepali nationalist like others in her family. And she’s a sociologist and a feminist. But she didn’t choose the route we expected:-- join some foreign- funded NGO for women’s services where she’d command a good salary.  

When Manju returned to Nepal ten years ago, media was recognized as indispensable to the new democracy. Radio production could be done on a modest scale and idealistic young people were eager to join new media opportunities. Combining her interests in journalism and women Manju decided to establish a radio station and did so in a rural area where listeners would be local farmers and shopkeepers, teachers and school children.

Phoolwari Radio became one of more than 300 private, commercial micro radio stations that sprang up across the country. Phoolwari, under Manju’s direction, is the only one run entirely by women.

Manju was keen for me to meet her fellow producers so on a visit to Nepal in 2013 I flew to Janakpur and made my way from the airstrip first by rickshaw, then bus, then another rickshaw, to meet them. Facilities at Phoolwari Radio are modest but adequate, with sufficient power to reach villages in a radius of 20-25 miles. The seven women working (part-time) alongside Manju produce stories on a range of issues; they interview studio guests and also go into ‘the field’ to report on real conditions. Phoolwari is required to carry two 30-minute daily news bulletins from Kathmandu; the rest of the programs are their own productions. Besides production work, the team has to secure advertisements to pay operating expenses, and they have to compete with larger stations that reach their locality from farther afield. It was good to see my friend’s pride in a project that combines her commitment to women and to democracy through media.

Today Madhesi leaders across Terai are in a fierce confrontation with the central government. I expect that Manju, her co-workers at Phoolwari Radio and her neighbors in Basantpur are debating the controversial clauses in the new constitution. Negotiating this will be a real challenge for the radio station. END

[ Nepal Update with Radio Station Phoolwari ]

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