Friday, December 23, 2005

Speaking of unions...

Early last month, at a co-op shareholders' meeting discussing building finances, we learned our superintendent's salary. After all this transit strike stuff, I worry that my tax-happy liberal ways, as well as my own union loyalty (as irrelevant as that may be to actual blue-collar jobs) are slipping. Because my first reaction was, "Can't we switch to non-union labor?"

Our very nice but not very bright, skilled, motivated or fluent-in-English super, in addition to his apartment in our building, makes in a year almost twice as much as I do. Not counting the various bits of cash he extorts out of residents for doing work on their apartments off the clock.

So I'm faced with a dilemma this holiday season: Armed with this knowledge, do we tip him? Because it really seems like he should be getting me a gift.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

War on Christmas? War on TASTE!

Yay! The strike's over! No subways until tomorrow morning, probably, and since my early-morning commitment is over now, I'd planned to go home tonight no matter what anyway, so that might be a bit of an adventure, but at least the end is in sight, and it hasn't been all that bad for me personally.

My walk to my mom's last night took my past Lincoln Center and their beautiful tree. I took a picture with my phone and it's all blurry but I like it anyway:
lincoln center

I like the blue, and the way they have matching decorations on the trees around the reflecting pool in the distance.

In the lobby of the building where I'm working (a multi-use building of which the theater is only one part) there's a lovely Christmas tree. It's only about 5 feet tall, and decorated simply with white lights and some red and blue balls and apples (small ornaments, not real apples). It's very pretty and understated and suits the small lobby perfectly.

Next to it, set on a black wood box, is a fantastically ugly, tacky, white plastic menorah. You know the kind, with the orange "candle" light bulbs. It's hideous, and it mars the whole space and detracts from the tree. And since it's not Chanukah yet, it's not even lit, which might make it look a teensy bit better.

Let's go over this again, people. Chanukah is NOT "the Jewish Christmas." Just because you put a Christmas tree in your lobby, it does not mean you're obligated to put a menorah there as well. And really, if you're going to throw the Jews a bone, why must you make it the tackiest, ugliest bone possible? I'm all about the inclusiveness, the "Happy Holidays" and all that, but if I see another one of these or these, I'm gonna hurl.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Link and Quotes

Here's a good article airing both sides of the strike. I especially like this quote from the mayor...

“These are not people who are making $50-$60,000 a year. These are people making $10, $20, $30,000 a year, and they're the ones who are really suffering,” said Bloomberg. “What fraud this really is, if you think about it - claiming to be the champion of working families, when the illegal actions they are taking are costing New Yorkers their livelihood. I don't think there is any other way to describe it."


...and this one from the TWU president...

“The thugs are not on this side of the podium. We are not thugs, we are not selfish, we are not greedy,” said Toussaint. “We are hard-working New Yorkers, dignified men and women who have put in decades of service to keep this city moving 24/7. We wake up at 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning to move trains and buses in this town, and we will continue to do that. That’s not the behavior of thugs and selfish people.”


And then there's this one, from Overheard in New York:

Man #1: ...Shit! Why did they have to strike during the winter? Right before the holidays, no less.
Man #2: Well, the transit guys need to get paid more and they need other things that I'm not too clear about.
Man #3: Fuck 'em! I don't give a shit what their problems are! Everybody has problems, not just them! They want more money? Well, then they should have thought about that before dropping out of high school! Bunch of lazy fucking losers!
Man #4: Hey, I work for the MTA.
Man #3: Well, then: fuck you, too!

--Brooklyn Bridge


And so it continues...

A Less Perfect Union

In regards to yesterday's post, I should mention that my views on unions are mostly informed (and skewed) by my own membership in a notoriously weak union...of freelance actors and stage managers. About all we have in common with the TWU is that we're both in the AFL-CIO. I don't have any statistics on this, but I'm quite confident that the demographic breakdown of our members is very different. We've chosen to work in theater instead of more stable careers, and our jobs are freelance by nature. A show can close on one week's notice for any number of reasons. The MTA isn't suddenly going to close Brooklyn due to poor ticket sales. Those jobs are secure, as is the company, which can hardly just shut down. However there's nothing forcing people to produce theater, and in some cases nothing forcing them to do so under a union contract if they do.

If the MTA gets screwed financially, they'll have to find the money somewhere. If producers get screwed financially, they'll stop producing, or they'll raise ticket prices so much that audiences stop coming and then they'll stop producing. So if Equity "wins" too much financially, we negotiate ourselves right out of jobs. They simply won't exist.

Equity has fought hard recently to protect those union jobs (especially in touring productions, which aren't regulated the same way Broadway and the major non-profits are), and they do a great deal to make sure we have safe and clean work environments, and don't get overworked or exploited. But the pay raises? Not so much. Which is not to say that many of us don't make a good living (not talking about stars here). Broadway actors and stage managers get paid quite well, as do those in larger off-Broadway or regional theaters. Some contracts, though, pay less than unemployment or minimum wage. It's a very wide range. And of course that whole pesky freelance thing.

As grateful as I am to have the union behind me most of the time, it can be difficult to impose labor rules on the creation of art (or even of entertainment). Some of the more arcane rules meant to protect me actually get in my way. While some situations are "us vs. them," in many cases (and fortunately for me, most of the work I've done lately) my employers are also my friends and collaborators. We're all in it together, and all want what's best for the success of the show. The inherent (and generally necessary) inflexibility of most of our contracts can even result in shows closing instead of allowing producers to find creative solutions to keeping everyone employed through a slump. It's especially tricky for stage managers, because we're in the same union as the people we're managing, so we have to play both sides. (There's been much debate about this in recent years, but there's little to be done at this point. There aren't really enough of us to form our own union, and we don't quite fit into any of the existing ones.)

Because of the freelance nature of the business, Equity is the one constant in our employment (and even that's not entirely true for actors who also work in TV, film, etc., and are therefore in those unions as well). The union takes on many roles traditionally filled by employers, such as the pension and health plans (your actual employer puts money into the funds on your behalf each week that you work for them, and your eligibility to receive benefits is determined by how many total weeks you work in a year), 401(k), and even a credit union.

And of course, many of us spend a great deal of time NOT working under Equity contracts. This doesn't necessarily mean we're unemployed – we could be working "survival jobs," going back to school, working in a different medium with a different union, or simply taking time off from the business, but keeping our membership active just in case.

Anyway, this has gone on longer than I intended, but the point is that my union – and my professional life in general – and the transit workers' are like apples and orangutans. My opinions on the strike and on many of the TWU's demands remain the same (summary: Aaaarrrrgghh!), but I thought it fair to fully disclose some of these things that inform my point of view.

Damn, I hope something funny happens to me tomorrow. This blog has been much too heavy lately.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Well, this SUCKS!

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I really thought the transit strike wouldn't happen. Oops. When I went to bed it hadn't happened yet, but we live near an elevated line, and when I woke up early I was immediately aware that the distant rumble that I hardly ever notice normally wasn't there. When we left the house we saw a train on the tracks down our block, squarely between stops. Since I'm sure they didn't leave passengers there like that, I figure the transit workers must have moved the trains there purely for dramatic effect, which I sort of love.

Fortunately, we live fairly near the last Long Island Rail Road stop before Manhattan (one of the handful in Queens), and they're not on strike, so Boy and I walked about a mile in the beautiful winter morning, portable breakfast in hand (sausage egg and cheese and coffee for him, bagel and Diet Coke for me), unconcerned that we'd be late for work since everyone else would be too. We are pragmatic New Yorkers and everything was fine.

Then we saw the line. It wrapped around two square blocks. This line, we were told, was to buy tickets. People who had tickets or passes were allowed right in, but since we were in the city proper and actually at a subway stop as well, folks prepared for the commuter rail were few and far between.

We spent three hours on line.

In typical NYC-in-crisis fashion, it was friendly, orderly, and civil. It was also COLD. Walking was fine, but standing still, often in the shade, my toes literally went numb. Still, there was a "what can you do?" attitude among everyone, and fortunately I had Boy to keep me company.

Three hours later (did I mention it was three hours?) we were led upstairs to the station, where there were two short lines at the ticket booth and two more at the vending machines. (They had set up two out-house type booths on the street too.) The station was nearly empty, and while I appreciated the cautious crowd control I couldn't help thinking they had been a little too cautious. Of course, since nearly everyone ahead of us on the vending machine line seemed utterly baffled by how to use the very simple interface, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.

We got our tickets just as a train was pulling in. It was blessedly warm, and not very crowded. We got seats and zipped towards Manhattan in speed and comfort.

Now, this is me, and this is Judgment Call, so you know there has to be a twist to this story. They didn't take our tickets on the train. You know, it's a commuter train where the conductor walks through and takes your ticket along the way. I've never really understood how that system can be effective, since they're bound to miss some people, but it's been that way for decades. Normally I'd be all "Hey, free ticket!" but WE WAITED THREE HOURS IN SUB-FREEZING TEMPERATURES FOR TICKETS WE DIDN'T EVEN NEED!!!

Aaaaanyway. I walked 16 blocks – a perfectly casual walk for me – from Penn Station to rehearsal, where I spent a fairly normal afternoon in a theater closed off from the outside world. Then I walked down to another theater for my evening show, which apparently must go on (but hey, that means I get paid). I'll stay in Manhattan tonight, which means more walking but at least that's predictable and often even enjoyable. I haven't thought beyond tomorrow, hoping this all just ends.

I've been finding it really hard to support the workers in all this. Aside from the fact that this strike is illegal for damn good reason (when my union goes on strike it doesn't affect the entire city's economy and well-being!), the more I learn the more I find myself siding with the MTA – which is unusual because they're a notoriously poorly-run agency with highly shifty practices and a huge surplus. But I'm appalled that transit workers are paid more than cops, fire fighters and teachers. It's a thankless and important job, yes, but no one's shooting at them. And while many positions are highly skilled, just as many are not. Then there's the retirement age, which the union wanted lowered to 50. They've given that one up but I can't believe they even asked. And since my contract was just up and I got a measly 1.4% raise, I'm finding the demand for 8% for people who make more than I do awfully hard to swallow.

Of course it is the labor union's job to protect its members. But I believe that that protection includes the responsibility to negotiate fairly and realistically, so that you can actually get a contract done. Protection does not include putting your members on a strike in which they will be docked two days' pay for each day off work – and without the support of their parent union.

On the other hand, the sticking point right now is over pension. The MTA wants some sort of tiered scheme (I don't really understand this) that would somehow grandfather in older workers, but hurt newer ones. The TWU says it won't sell out its new members, and this seems to me like exactly the right response. It's certainly what I'd want my union (which, incidentally, supports the TWU) to say if they had a spine. The TWU claims the MTA has known since day one that this pension plan was a dealbreaker, so why did they let it get this far? The TWU president is accusing the MTA and the mayor of basically provoking a strike.

Sigh. It's complicated, it's late, and I walked a lot today. Time to sign off, I think. I leave you with some pictures I took of the line at the LIRR today. They're not great 'cause I took them with the RAZR's crappy little camera (the one above was with my real camera, but then that went in my backpack and it wasn't worth the hassle to dig it out again), but I'm glad I took them. Piece of NYC history and all that. Good night and good luck!

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Monday, December 19, 2005

No Peace

So I was in Pax, and I ordered an oatmeal raisin cookie. The man behind the counter reached into the pastry case and brought out a Rice Krispy treat.

I corrected him, being sure to enunciate carefully, as if "oatmeal raisin" and "Rice Krispy" were anywhere near homophones, and when he bent down to the case again I made a face.

Those of you who know me in person know this face well – it's a nose scrunch, forehead wrinkle and eye roll all in one.

The girl behind me on line said, cheerfully but clearly reprimanding, "People make mistakes, man."

"Yeah," I said, trying to sound as breezy as possible, "but those two things sound nothing alike." She just looked at me, smiling a smug, perky smile. "I'm not angry, just confused."

"Uh huh," she said, as the man behind the counter reappeared with my cookie and I was forced to move on.

I got out of there as fast as I could. Did this chipper little blonde girl actually judge me? For making a face? Behind someone's back?? And the thing of it is, I wasn't angry! I was just confused!

I wanted to buy the Rice Krispy treat and shove it down her superior, chirpy little throat. That wouldn't have been a mistake.

Friday, December 16, 2005

sleepycranky

If there had simply been a transit strike, I'd have the day off. And thanks to my union, I'd even get paid a little (they have to pay us for the first cancelled performance in such circumstances, and then they're off the hook if it keeps going).

But no, they're still negotiating but also still threatening, and that just fucks everything up. I realize the point of all this is to be inconvenient, but it's not really the MTA or the city government who suffers. People aren't buying tickets to shows, for example, because they don't know if they'll be able to get to them or not. The show I'm working on is struggling, and just spent a small fortune on ads, which was basically money thrown out the window because the weekend is now shot.

This, of course, is why it's illegal in New York state for public workers (transit, cops, teachers, etc.) to strike. Which doesn't matter apparently since they're saying they'll do it anyway.

All of this is really an elaborate and not very articulate way of saying I wish I were still in bed. On the bright side, there was only one guy working on that elevator this morning, and he seemed very hard at work. I don't understand how anything works anymore.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Good Old-Fashioned Rant

Tax-happy liberal that I am, I'm very pro-union (I oughta be, I'm in one), but on the eve of a possible NYC transit strike, I couldn't help noticing the men doing some sort of repair work on an elevator in my station this morning. There were three men in the bottom of the shaft. Two of them were hard at work with tools and things, and the third was watching them. He had a clipboard in his hand, and no toolbelt, so this seemed to be his primary task. A couple of feet above them on the subway platform stood three more men, all simply standing there. Two of them appeared to be holding the elevator doors open (a function that surely could have been achieved by a well-placed sawhorse), and the third just stood between them talking. These men all had hardhats and toolbelts, so maybe their technical skills would be needed later, but this is what I saw.

On the radio last night they said that one of the sticking points in the negotiations was that the MTA wants pay raises to be "tied to discipline," and the TWU called that "completely unacceptable." There was no specific explanation of this, so I can't speak about it in too educated a way, but if it means what I think it does, is it so much to ask that sizeable pay increases only be given to people who actually, y'know, show up and do a good job? Or be taken away from those who don't? I mean, I'm all for people who do thankless jobs for agencies that have surpluses getting raises, and I'm all for unions protecting their members, but seriously? Disciplining people is unacceptable? It's not like such things can be done arbitrarily or unfairly on a union contract. The employer has to have just cause, and if there's a dispute the union gets involved and there's a mediator and blah blah blah. So why the hell not?? I'm kind of appalled.


Switching topics, but as long as I'm talking like a Republican, It's called a fucking Christmas tree. I touched on this last year, and for a far more intelligent take on the subject I encourage you to read Salon.com article about how the whole "War on Christmas" thing has more to do with right wing propaganda and paranoia than the ACLU. But anyway, I say "happy holidays," generally, because it's easy and inclusive and I'm not Christian. In truth, I don't say it much at all, unless I'm writing a professional letter around this time of year, in which case I generally conclude with "Best wishes for the holiday season and the new year," which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. To whatever good wishes anyone gives me, I say "Thanks, you too," and that's that.

But seriously, a holiday tree?? It's not a holiday tree. It's a Christmas tradition. Rooted in pagan traditions, yes, but in this day and age and country, it's all about the Christmas. There is no such thing as a Chanukah bush or New Year's topiary. It's a goddamn Christmas tree. And it's not a religious symbol, so put it anywhere you damn well please. If someone put a 10-story crucifix in Rockefeller Center I'd be a little upset (plus, woah, creepy) but a tree with a star on top? Get over yourself.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Hello, Moto

While I'm pretty prone to impulse shopping, when it comes to expensive electronics, I tend to research and deliberate. And did I not just say I don't need a new cell phone? In fact, with my old one working just fine, it could almost be considered irresponsible to take a chance with a new brand, since I use my cell constantly for business. At the very least, I should be trying out the phones in the store, making sure the volume is loud and the signal is clear, and looking for the best rebates.

OR, I could be so smitten with the new Verizon version of the sexy, tiny, product-placed-on-Alias Motorola Razr that I buy one on the first day it's available in stores, with no regard for practicality or price.

Um, not that I just did that or anything....

Thursday, December 08, 2005

With friends like these...

I've managed to rather suddenly become horribly overcommitted. Well, not horribly, as all the commitments actually manage to fit in around one another, and because it's all good work and some extra cash for the holidays, but it leaves me with little time at home awake and even less for things like spending that holiday cash. I've got my play eight times a week (soon to be on a thoroughly wacky schedule for Christmas and New Year's weeks), a reading of a new musical during the day this week, and a workshop of yet another show the next two weeks. Oh, and last Monday I worked on a benefit.

Today was the first really bad day of it for me. I was determined to accomplish things when I got home from work last night, so I went to bed far too late for having to be back at work relatively early in the morning. Though, since this schedule eliminates any possibility of the gym, one of the things I made sure to accomplish last night was to buy groceries and pack meals, so I'll stop spending so much money and start sticking to my diet (Boy and I are both sort of trying The Abs Diet, but more on that later).

Unfortunately for me, Faustus, the composer of this week's musical, bakes when he's stressed, and the skinny bitch brought an enormous tray of brownies to rehearsal. Sleepy and desperate for sugar, I ate at least three. It all has the makings of an elaborate plot. Why must even my friends be out to get me?

O Christmas Treo

I'm due for a new phone. I don't strictly need a new phone, I'm quite happy with my old phone, but Verizon gives you $100 off a new one every 2 years, and I can never resist a new toy.

Gadget freak that I am, it stands to reason that I would want a Treo. In fact, I don't. I like the idea of carrying one less gadget by combining two, and the little keyboard makes me happy. But I use my Palm quite a bit and five minutes of trying to read on the Treo screen gives me a headache because it's too small. Yet the thing is so big by phone standards that it feels silly talking, essentially, into a Palm Pilot. My current Palm is less than a year old, and wasn't exactly cheap, so it's hard to justify the sizeable chunk of change, even with rebates, a Treo (not to mention software and cool cases) would cost versus the $50 or less for a new phone that's compatible with my existing accessories, extra batteries, etc. And I just know that a week after I buy one a new model will come out.

But I want one anyway. Boy just got one. At least three coworkers have them and another is planning to get one and asked if I could help him set it up with his Mac. There's a huge ad campaign in the subways. I have major Treo envy. It's actually not a practical choice for me, since it has far less memory than my T3, which I've filled up quite nicely. And because I use both my Palm and my cell so much, if anything happened to it I'd be doubly fucked. But I want one. Everyone else has them. I want to be the kid with the coolest, hippest toys!

Dammit, being a geek is hard sometimes.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

iCheer

Until a couple of days ago, I'd been in a very Scroogalicious mood. I know it seems early to be sick of the holidays, but everything about this holiday season seems early, so why not that too? I'm not sure if the decorations actually went up extra prematurely this year, or if my hectic work schedule conspired with the unseasonably warm weather to help the whole thing sneak up on me, but I'm definitely not ready for Chrismukah. My mom was bugging me about my wish list in November, and I hadn't even begun to think about it – and that's usually my favorite part! I barely even registered when Thanksgiving happened (just a snarky blog post to mark the holiday).

Last weekend I had to run some errands between shows, which forced me not only to face the hordes of idiots on 34th Street, but also to endure some of the worst Christmas music imaginable. No "Christmas Shoes" yet, but there was a reggae "Jingle Bells" that will haunt me to the grave. In fact, it seems like everywhere I go (including the basement of my own building, where the super has the radio tuned to, apparently, an all-holiday station) all of the season's most horrific music is playing, as if to say "Give up now! Resistance is futile!"

Then the other day, just as it was starting to get cold, and just after I had endured the sacrilege of bad holiday music in the Most Holy Church of the Container Store, my shuffling iPod decided to play John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," one of my most favorite holiday songs. Sure it's cheesy - with its overly simple worldview ("war is over if you want it"), vague sense of recrimination ("And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?"), racism ("the yellow and red man"), and of course the backing chorus of undoubtedly snotty and precocious English children and Yoko – but I love it anyway. It put me right in the mood, with a little spring in my step and an urge to spend money and update my Amazon Wish List.

In fact, my iPod has been playing quite a bit of John Lennon lately, as if it knows tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of his death. Do you think that's possible? Steve Jobs swears that Shuffle is completely random (hence the new feature in iTunes to make it seem more random by actually making it less random ensuring that songs from the same artist or album aren't grouped together), but I wouldn't put it past him to have programmed in things so that, say, from December 1 to December 8 it looks for John Lennon or the Beatles, or "Christmas." Around Valentine's Day it might pull out titles containing the word "love." For all I know it's playing subliminal messages convincing me my iPod is too big and I'm a loser if I don't watch Lost on the subway on a 2" screen. I certainly know that if I were in Steve Jobs' shoes, I'd do stuff like that just to creep people out.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

As if we needed further proof that dogs – and my neighbors – are stupid, when I opened the door to take out the trash yesterday, the dog from across the hall ran into my apartment and went after Radish.

Now, before anyone panics, this dog is considerably smaller than my cat. He's cuter than a Chihuahua, but still basically a glorified rat. And Radish is a Fearsome Jungle Cat. The dog did not know who he was messing with.

Or maybe he did. Because as pointy as Radish is, he has never encountered another animal before in his life, except for his sister, who I doubt he remembers, and the other pets in cages and carriers when he went to get tutored. While I'm sure he could have kicked the dog's ass in a fight, he wisely chose to run. He got cornered once, hissed and wailed his way out of it, then fled towards the back of the apartment and, after another brief tussle, jumped onto the windowsill in the office and continued to hiss at the dog, who couldn't get up there on his stubby little legs. I've never before heard Radish make the noises he was making. The hissing was one thing, but the screaming was new to me, and sounded more like a sound that would be dubbed into a movie to indicate "cat" than one that would actually come out of my kitten.

I, meanwhile, ineffectually yelled "Hey!" over and over again, as if that would scare the dog more than Radish's claws. My instinct was to grab the cat to keep him safe, but that surely would have left me bloody. In retrospect I suppose going for the dog would have been wiser. I was barefoot, so kicking the tiny beast was out. I just followed them around yelling "Hey."

I have no idea where the owner of the rat was at this point, as I'd followed the pair into the other room. Finally, as the dog was deciding to leave Radish alone and explore the rest of the apartment, I heard a questioning response from the other room. "Get your dog out of my apartment!" I yelled back. I closed the office door on Radish and headed out to find the dog exploring the kitchen, and an older man I'd never seen before standing in the entryway making useless little kissing sounds at it. "Pick it up and take it out," I growled. He did, though with little apparent sense of why I was so upset.

I'd love to say that Radish was unfazed by the whole thing, but for our take-it-in-stride boy he was pretty riled up. I returned to the office to find him on top of the hutch on my desk, hissing and making a low growling noise. He also let me pet him, which was an odd contradiction. I put wet food (a sporadic treat) out for him and he didn't come running immediately. Still, I think it's safe to say that I was far more shaken by the whole thing than the cat.

When I'd calmed down, I went to the dog's apartment. A woman I quite like answered the door, and I reminded her that the building has a strict policy on dogs being leashed in public areas. She seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. "Your dog just ran into my apartment and attacked my cat." "Oh!" She explained that her father was visiting and must have let the dog out when he took out the trash. She was so nice that I began to feel a little silly, and changed my approach: "The cat's actually bigger than the dog, and I don't want your dog to get hurt." She laughed and said thank you and I went on my way.

Putting the pieces together later, I realize that the visiting father must have gone down the hall to the trash chute, leaving the dog in the hall (perhaps not even knowing it had gotten out) sniffing at my door. This explains his delay in arriving on the scene, and his calm befuddlement – he had actually missed the entire fight. He then clearly hadn't told his daughter, not realizing it had been such a dramatic incident (though cat or no cat, I don't necessarily want other people's rat dogs in my apartment!), so she had no idea what I was talking about.

Ah, city living. By the time I got home from work, Radish seemed to have forgotten the whole thing...though he does seem a little warier of the door than he used to be, and that's not a bad thing. He was also very affectionate last night, so maybe we should traumatize him more often.