Hurricane Halftime: Stuck in NYC, trying to talk politics

YO! Youth Outlook, Commentary, Published: August 24, 2004

I should be writing this on a train from New York to Miami, but a hurricane named Charley skipped through Cuba, over the west coast of Florida on up the seaboard and the people at Amtrak decided not to run a train through it. (What did they think was going to happen: the train gets swooped off the tracks and dropped in a Technicolor fantasy land with candy-toting dwarves and armies of sinister flying monkeys? It’s a hurricane, not a tornado, guys. Get it together.)

So instead of umbrella drinks and Dominican rub-downs in a pastel palace on Miami Beach, I’m in industrial Brooklyn dodging raindrops on my way to cover Beat Bush block parties and protest planning sessions, none of which are really worth the time.

My cell phone is not much more than a paper weight with flashing lights I’d have more reliable telecommunications with Styrofoam cups and a string so my process for developing contacts is throwing rocks at Manhattan windowpanes, hoping for people to poke their heads out and offer some insight into this election.

It’s just a week until the Republican convention. Admittedly, I have no clearer picture of where this thing is heading than I did a year ago, when Howard Dean was still using techno music to hypnotize college kids into making donations on his web site. I’m still talking to people, trying to figure it out.

The sliding scale terror alerts have done a lot to determine the tone in New York this week. One person I talked to, a 19-year-old Queens resident named Ameer whose parents are from India, told me, “All the orange alert means to me is that I gotta worry about cops everywhere.”

I met Ameer at Times Square, where he was selling anti-Bush T-Shirts to raise money for concerts to attract and register young voters. Ameer found the organization, Music for America, while looking for a summer job on Craigslist. He says he’ll be voting for
Kerry and mentioned two campaign staples as his reasoning — health care and jobs.

“I care about health care because my grandmother is a diabetic and she had both of her legs amputated. We’ve a hard time getting things paid for, like her prosthetic legs and things like that. We have to run around a lot and make sure this is covered or that’s paid for. Also, I think Kerry being elected will definitely boost the economy. Right now, I’m going to college and the outlook for getting a job when you get out of college is not really that good. People at my college will tell me people used to come to the school and recruit students for jobs, but nobody comes to my school anymore,” Ameer lamented.

Kimberly, a 16-year-old from East New York, says she’s not a political person, but she’s got an issue with the president. She’s watched the quality of schools in New York tumble since the implementation of his “No Child Left Behind” Act.

“It’s bad for a lot of reasons. He’s taking a lot of kids out of their schools, which are good schools that they like, and putting them in worse schools. My friend worked to go to a school that is very hard to get into and now they‘re taking people from other schools and throwing them in there without testing them or anything. Now these good schools have kids that don’t care. My friend says it’s impossible to learn anything and the teachers are giving up. I’ve watched the schools in New York go from good to horrible,” says Kim.

Kimberly said her school hasn’t been affected yet, but says it might only be a matter of time.

Last week, a poll came out that said 55 percent of high school students believe the draft is coming back. But the study didn’t say anything about what they’d do if they actually got a letter in the mail.

Ameer told me, “If I was drafted, I don’t know, I guess I’d have to go, right? I’d rather do that than go to jail.”

The same day I asked Daniel, a 15-year-old from Canarsie in Brooklyn, what he’d do and he told me, “I hear Rikers Island has some rooms available. I’d rather go to jail than to war.”

Last week, an 18-year-old former foster kid in Queens shot himself in the head while playing Russian Roulette with his girlfriend. I’m not sure what level of desperation you have to be at to play Russian Roulette, but I would imagine that living in the same world as Ameer and Daniel, where your options might be limited to war or jail, could be enough to put you there.

Friday night I was tricked into attending a meeting of young Socialists. The event was billed as a “Students and Youth Dump Bush Planning Session,” which is ambiguous enough that I guess I can’t say I was really tricked, but I didn’t know I was going to a room full of trust fund communists talking about the nobility of the working man.

I’m familiar with this group because they’re the ones who chase me around San Francisco State trying to argue the merits of socialism with Rage Against the Machine lyrics. On this night, they were strategizing how to bring their message to the poor uneducated fools who really need it. I left early.

Outside on Times Square, I passed by a young couple on their Friday night date. The guy, in striped shirt and khakis, pointed to a giant neon shrimp and bragged to his streaky-haired girlfriend, “My company wrote up the terrorist attack insurance for Bubba Gump restaurant. We were actually reluctant because it’s in Times Square, but it seems like its working out.”

I’m not sure quite what that means, but if it’s still safe enough to eat bad seafood at a Forrest Gump themed restaurant, the terrorists haven’t won yet.