Bonnie Fox Interview Transcript

  MATT JACOBSON: OK. So just as a start would you please just say and spell your name so it's at the head of this record? BONNIE FOX: OK. Bonnie Fox. B-O-N-N-I-E F-O-X. MJ: And as a start, if you could just give me a thumbnail sketch of kind of who you are, where you're from, just the short version of what your life story has been. BF: OK. I'm 60 years old, Jewish, white, female. Grew up in lower Westchester. Lived in an apartment. My father did public relations, public information in the nonprofit field. My mother basically stayed at home although she was very creative. But didn't somehow really have a career in any of the areas in which she was creative. I'm the oldest of three. I've had an interesting life. My work has usually been the jobs that I do as opposed to where I really live, which is more inside of my-- not necessarily inside of myself but more with my personal life, my social life, other commitments including the temple for the last few years. MJ: Can you say just a little bit more about that last piece the kind of division between your work life and what your calling your real life? BF: Yeah my real life. Well, I guess I was one of those people. I've always been one of those people who's had interest in many different areas but never necessarily pursued any of those areas in terms of a career. So I actually went back to school to get my bachelors degree when I was already a working adult. I was working at Cornell Medical Center. And I was doing businessy things there. You know buildings and collections and so on. And insurance. And I was going to school at night and I eventually got my bachelor's degree in History. And I've always loved history and English and drama. When I was a kid I used to dream about becoming an actress. Never did that. Never became a journalist. Never-- There were a lot of parts of my life that I sort of fulfilled in certain ways but not in terms of a career or a profession. And the reasons for that are probably would take too long to probably go into in any depth right now. But I've had a very fulfilling life in other ways. In terms of friendship. In terms of relationships that I've had. So, you know, my life has been my life. MJ: And it's been in the New York area the whole time? BF: Well, for the last thirty years I've actually lived in the city. MJ: OK. But the city and its environs? BF: And its environs. MJ: For your whole life? BF: No. Well no. No, actually not. We lived in Maryland. In suburban Maryland for about three years because my dad actually went to work for the government in the later '60s. And so I had that experience, which was quite fascinating. In fact, I remember going on one of the early peace marches in the spring of 1966, which is when we moved down there and with a new friend. And we didn't originally intend to go on the march. But we ended up kind of walking with all the people. And it was incredible. It was an experience. Not just the energy from all the people who were there, and people who we heard speak, including the late Norman Thomas. It was one of his last public appearances. Benjamin Spock. All of the luminaries of the time. But it was just meeting those people from all around the United States who were protesting what was really the beginning of the escalation of the war in Vietnam. And then the really unbelievable part about all of that was taking the bus back to Maryland where my dad picked us up. And going up and passing Walter Reed hospital. And we saw boys there who were maybe a year older than we were at the time. We were seventeen. And they were on the lawn. And some of them were in wheelchairs. And some of them were missing legs and arms and stuff. And I thought something's wrong in this picture that boys who are my age are already dying and losing legs and stuff in another country. So-- MJ: You said that you hadn't intended to. How did it happen that ended up? BF: What? That we went on the march? Well, it was really interesting because we had sort I've met each other because her mother and my dad were working in the same division of the government. Which is no longer in existence. In the Children's Bureau which used to be part of Health Education and Welfare and so on. And we were the same age. And so we just started to get to know each other. And we were just going to go into Washington to go into Washington. Because it certainly was a lot more interesting than where we were living in suburban Maryland. MJ: Which is which town? BF: Well I lived in Wheaton and I think she lived in Silver Spring but it was all the same difference. It was to me excruciatingly homogeneous, and incredibly boring. And being used to a place like New Rochelle, which was so much influenced by the city, and being able to go into the city, and then suddenly being down in this sort of shopping mall, every house looked alike part of Maryland was kind of boring. And so she's and I agreed on that. So we went into Washington for the day to explore Washington. And go into Georgetown. And lo and behold-- MJ: There was a march. BF: There was the march. Which of course we hadn't initially realized. And so we just kind of followed the people. It was incredible. MJ: So it sounds like in retrospect you identified that as a kind of formative moment in kind of coming to political consciousness. Did you experience it that way at the time? Or did that come to you more gradually? How did that happen? BF: It was a little more gradual. Because my parents it's interesting-- my father had really been raised as your sort of good Democrat. Born and raised in the Bronx. Parents were involved in the Democratic party, blah, blah, blah and would do that kind of work. But my mother was actually, my mother is a red diaper baby. MJ: Oh really? BF: Yeah. So when my mother and my aunt were little, they would go to the-- my mother my aunt were born and raised in New Jersey. And so when she was a little girl they would go to those the young pioneer camps. MJ: The camps. BF: And all of that stuff. And so that was her upbringing. So it was almost like when I was growing up. Even though she you know had long ago kind of put that's one to one side. MJ: So that wasn't part of your world growing up? BF: No. Other than the stories. And others than my grandfather who subsequently fell in love with F.D.R. and became a good Democrat. And also because of the pact between Stalin and Hitler. And when that happened my grandpa said the heck with the Communist party. But my mother did recall when she was the child that apparently some of the really well known communists-- according to my mother, my mother's prone to exaggeration --but these people were actually fed by my grandmother in their kitchen. So she tells me that she met Myra Hess the famous pianist. She met Corliss Lamont who was head of the Amer-- But she was a little girl at that time. But she said I saw all of these people in our kitchen in Newark, New Jersey. And I thought wow that's pretty-- She also said she met just once Mike Gold who wrote Jews without Money. MJ: Yeah. Yeah. BF: And in fact when I got that book and I was reading it, which of course I was already in I think my twenties at that point. And my mother just started to laugh. And she said you know that I met Mike Gold when I was a little, little girl. And I said how did you meet? Because I was always used to her stories. Because my grandfather loved to do deep sea fishing. And so he would go down to the New Jersey shore and take my mother with him. And Mike Gold loved to do that. And they were already buddies and lawnsmen. And so my mother actually met him when she was a little girl. And I thought well that's pretty nifty. So I did have kind of that dual influence. And had a sort of natural mistrust for things that were too kind of establishment, middle of the road kind of stuff. MJ: Right. So you end up at this march in 1966. How much longer did you live in D.C.? BF: We lived there for about three years all together. MJ: OK, so those were three pretty amazing years? BF: Oh yeah. I remember the riots in Washington. I remember we were renting this house in Wheaton and a black family moved in next door. Bought the house next door. Which was like a very big deal for that neighborhood. And of course we became very close friends with them, much to the consternation some of the other people on the block. And it was sort of like ok we're Jewish, they're black, and across the street was a Catholic family. And you know down south Catholics have a hard time too with the Protestant community. So we were like we called ourselves the triumvirate. And it was a very interesting phenomenon. Yeah I mean I remember that. I remember of course assassination of first Martin Luther King Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy in '68. And all that stuff happening. And the riots in Washington. And all of it. And I also remember I started college at a small state college in Maryland called Frostburg. And if I went home for the weekend I remember taking a bus. And on the bus would be these young boys from the small towns in Maryland who were heading out to Vietnam. I mean you knew the guys who were doing it. Because I would sit and chat with them, and they'd say I'm in such and such an infantry unit. I'm this, I'm that. I'm shipping out next week. And I used to think I wonder how many of these boys are going to come home? So-- MJ: So did you remain politically active from that point on? Or has it been and ebb and flow over the years? How would you describe that? BF: It's been an ebb and flow. It's been an ebb and flow. There are times when I have felt very much disconnected and disaffected for a variety of reasons. I don't like the confrontational approach to the political spectrum, which has been more and more in evidence. It sort of precludes having any kind of dialogue about everything. Because if you're convinced you're right and the other side is right therefore there's no conversation. There's no dialogue. There's nothing. It's just: I hate you. You're stupid. You're wrong. Or you're a maniac. Or you're going to lead ud down the path of-- You know the epithets And I hated all of that. I hated it. So it was very hard for me at times to really be active. Because if you took a position on something. If you were a feminist. Or if you were this or if you were that. Then it's sort of there was no way to kind of negotiate that and still be open to other things. It was either like you're with us or you're against us. You had to accept that the party line, whatever the party line was. I mean, I was thrown out of a rap group, a women's rap group, in the like mid '70s because they accused me of being elitist, and not being centered enough in the feminist movement to be acceptable to them. So they just threw me out of the rap group. MJ: Really? BF: Yeah. So even there I was a bit of a renegade. MJ: Well we can fill in, maybe later on kind of fill in the gaps in between But lets jump ahead now to more recent political times. Because I know that you were, at least emotionally engaged, if not actively engaged, in the run up to the Obama election. And so could you just tell me from your vantage point what the political life of the country has looked like over these extraordinary 15, 18, 20 months? BF: That's sort of-- That's very, very hard to sum up because as you know in the New York primary actually voted for Hillary Clinton. And as a woman of a certain age, I was very excited and very proud that there was actually a woman who was a viable candidate. And who was running for that office to become the candidate for that office. And I found it very exciting. At the same time I always, on a very personal level, I had responded to Barack Obama. I had read his first book, and not just enjoyed it but found it moving, very stirring. I also like the fact that he had a kind of a spiritual approach to certain things. That politics for him was really a calling in a sense. And I know a lot of people say that we have to completely a separate these two things and so on and so forth. And I understand that. But it was almost like a moral imperative to him to do this. It wasn't just about the power. Or the office. Or the-- There was something that emanated from him that was very stirring for me. That he wasn't just using the office as a way to sort of showcase himself. I mean obviously you have to have enough ego to do that. I don't know very many people who would want to stand up to that kind of scrutiny and all the political attacks. And the personal attacks. And somehow he had that capacity to do that. And at the same time come to it from a very spiritual and a very compassionate-- He's a very-- He's very human in a way. And caring. And I liked that about him. I mean Hillary, God bless her, she's tough as nails. She is just one tough woman. And I respect that in her. I think it's incredible. But Obama has a kind of a gentleness that I find extraordinary, coupled with this really brilliant mind. And this very eloquent speaker. And so on. And-- MJ: So it sounds like it wasn't difficult for you to throw your allegiance over to Obama after the primary? BF: No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. And the other thing that it brought home for me, is that when my father was working for the National Federation of settlements. That was the summer of the 1963 Civil Rights march. And my father and all the members of his office flew down to Washington to participate. And interestingly enough he was actually sitting next to Burt Lancaster on the plane. There were a lot of actors and actresses and show business people on that same plane. Maybe just coincidence all flying down from New York to march. I had wanted to go. But I was fourteen and my father didn't quite know what would be like. And he was being a protective father. But I was so sorry that I had actually missed that. And I remember when he came home. And he was just telling us about it I remember how he was-- and my father was a pretty pragmatic kind of a guy --but he was so moved by what he had seen. And what he had heard. And being part of all of that. And when he talked about people like Martin Luther King Jr. And some of the other people who he had seen and heard at that march, he was very emotional. He was very emotional about that. And so when Barack Obama came on the scene, and then it really looked like everything was picking up momentum, it just seemed as though all of that was finally, in the most amazing way, coming together. And those of us well who had believed in that for all of our lives had been raised to believe in all of that. Had been raised to think that. You don't pick a friend or mate or a partner based on their the color of their skin or their religion or their this or their that, but it's just the human being. And suddenly that was all happening. And people were rallying around this guy. Who is biracial. And brilliant. And wonderful. And caring. And all of a sudden people were saying wow we can do this. We can actually do this. We can elect somebody who is like this. Which is far more representative of who we are now as a country. MJ: Well, I wanted to get to that. But let me just back up one second. I never yet I have spoken to anybody, of any age who says that they thought they would see this in their lifetime. BF: I never did. I never did. MJ: So can you just, in a little bit maybe more detail? Or maybe there are certain moments that kind of encapsulate the feeling for you? But can you talk about what it felt like to realize that you were going to see this in your lifetime? BF: It made me feel as though everything that had proceeded that moment, or those moments, that everything somehow was worthwhile. That the people who had died to make this happen. The people who were still alive and never believed it would happen. The younger people who didn't have the experience that those of us who are now 60 years old have had. It just made me think: Wow, we're actually capable. We actually have that within us as people, as human beings. To reach out. To make something better happen. That we're not just going let ourselves sort of just descend into some kind of mediocre, uncaring, selfish nation. That we are capable of something beyond that. And of course on a personal level, you know, I wish that my father had lived to see it. I wished that my grandparents had lived to see it. I mean there were people who had been in my life. Who were no longer there, who I had so wished were still alive to have somebody like Barak Obama become the president of this country. And for me personally, I thought, wow things will change. Things have changed. And things will continue to change. MJ: Yeah. So let's talk about that. I mean for you was the moment of epiphany about what this meant, or what this might mean? Was it election night? Was it earlier than that? Was it inauguration day? Do you remember the moment remember when it really hit you that we were electing an African American president? BF: I think it was I was watching the election results with some friends. And when they came on and declared Obama the winner. And then they went to the park in Chicago. Which also brought up a lot of memories. Chicago being my age in the summer of '68, and the convention, and everything that happened out there. And all of a sudden I saw-- you know, I still feel emotion about this --when the camera was just panning around. Even before he came out with Michelle, Sasha and Malia. And they came out on the stage. But when they were just going around. And they were just talking to people. Not just the well known people. But talking to people in the audience. People were hugging and crying. And I thought, oh my God. This happened. This actually happened. I'm looking at this. I'm witnessing this. I am a witness to this. As are millions of other people. And this finally happened. So thank you, Martin Luther King wherever you are. Thank you, Bobby Kennedy. Thank you, just go down-- Thank you Mahatma Ghandi. Thank you all in people who said this thing can prevail. That human beings-- that we can win over this, the darkness or whatever that is that prevents people from being good and doing right. And it made that all possible. MJ: So we've seen nonetheless-- I agree with everything you have said --that we've seen our share of darkness in recent months. And so can you talk a little bit about that? And what it's been like? And what's your sense of? I mean it sounds like you either have or at least were on the verge of almost redefining the nation in your own mind? How's that going? BF: It's more difficult now. And it's more difficult because of a lot of the things that I'm experiencing personally. You know, being out of work. It changes ones perspective. And when you're constantly worrying. And constantly afraid that you're not going to get a job. And having to get financial assistance from a family member. My aunt has been helping me. It kind of, you know, your vision somehow becomes more self engrossed because you're always worrying all the time. You're always fretting about what your own life will be. But I think it goes beyond that. I think that we all have had and continue to have probably unrealistic expectations of what this one man can do. Because he has constraints not just personally, but in terms of what he's allowed to do. People forget we have a triple branched government. And that our legislators have tremendous amount of power. The Supreme Court has power to adjudicate things. So it's not so simple to say, well I'm the president. I'm going to make everything OK. And I'm going to wave my magic wand. But even having said all of that there are areas where I do feel disappointment. I feel disappointment that there hasn't been enough done to put working people, working middle class people, to create enough jobs. Even on an emergency basis the way F.D.R. who obviously was one of the Obama's great heroes. We have not done a Civilian Conservation Corps. We haven't done a Works Progress Administration for our artists and musicians and other people who are struggling. So people are not going back to work. And the employers are doing-- it's not the same as a bank run --but it's a sort of employers equivalent of a bank run. In that they're not hiring people. Or they're hiring people for temp jobs. Or part time jobs. Or they are not paying benefits. Or whatever. So that isn't happening. So you can't end a recession unless you put able bodied men and women back to work in no matter what the field is. You have to start getting people back to work again. Because until you do that, I don't care what the banks say or with people down on Wall Street, if you don't put people back to work it's all just a ruse. And the other thing-- MJ: Right which is-- It's so perverse that people watch the market as the kind of main barometer of the economy. BF: Exactly. Exactly. And I've become-- I have to say I've become somewhat obsessed. It's like what do they call them? The Monday morning quarterbacks and stuff? So like I get the Economist now. Because I-- And I read these books. Or try to understand all these books about economics. And the science. And how you can actually calculate the amount of unemployment you need to have in order to maintain a healthy economy. And all this kind of stuff. And I try to understand it. Probably a good deal of it I don't. But I'm still fascinated by it. But yeah, I mean, the fact that the banks, the big banks-- although a lot of smaller banks are failing. People are not paying attention to that. The big banks are doing fine. But the little ones. And it's just like everything. MJ: Some of the big banks not even. BF: Yeah, you're right. MJ: I mean it's a little scary. They are closer to the edge than-- BF: Than we then we probably know about. So that's part of it. And then there are other personal issues I have. In my life I've also done a very personal-- how shall I say it --journey on the sexual spectrum. And I started out when I was young. Assuming that like everybody, or not like everybody, but most other people that I was heterosexual. I had boyfriends had relationships with men. And then slowly by slowly I started to go over to a different side of the aisle. And eventually I ended up for many years, I lived with a woman for over 15 years. That relationship ended more than 14 years ago, you know, amicably. But at any rate so I have my own personal issues. I'm happy-- happy, that's a ridiculous word to use. I feel gratified that the hate crimes bill that was recently passed includes crimes against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, et cetera. I applaud that. I think it's a very important measure, very necessary measure. But what about Don't Ask Don't Tell? That has been one of the worst policies. By everybody's admission. Including the people who were for it at the time. The generals. The people like-- what's his name? Sam Nunn, who, oh no, we can't do this in the military. But Don't Ask Don't Tell. It's been a nightmare. It's been an absolute nightmare. So as I was talking to a friend of mine, a gay man. And he said you know they want us when they want us. They want us when they want our money and our time. And we get on the phone. And we say please vote for Obama. Or please do this. Or please pass this legislation. But then once somebody gets in office and there's all of this important stuff that has to be addressed. Like gays and lesbians in the military. Like same sex marriage. Like equal-- yo know, the same rights for gay or lesbian partners as you have for hetero-- I mean I was with a woman for fifteen years. And I had to file, as she did, an individual income tax return. And it's not-- We were like off the charts. It was like two single-- And she was divorced so she could at least put that. But the point is we had to file individual returns. There was no acknowledgement of the relationship legally. And I remember reading an amazing letter or article in the Times, right after I decided to end the relationship, written by a lesbian saying this is so terrible. At least straight people can get a divorce. And there is a closure. There's something healthy about that. And cathartic. With two lesbians or two gay men. It's just like, OK goodbye. I'll take these books. I'll take these CDs. Have a good life. It's not the same thing. So I feel little disappointed about that. And about the job situation. And other things. As I said I know that he's not the only one responsible for that. Quite clearly. But if there's going to be change then it has to affect other communities that have been disenfranchised and ignored and treated as though they're not important. And that includes the gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender, you know, that whole community has been very much shunted to one side. It only when it's an election that suddenly everybody marches in parades. And everybody's ah you know we agree with this. And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Right and then. And then. And nobody believed by the way in California that they would be able to rescind that thing. But the Mormons and the other evangelical Christians were very well organized, very well structured. And they got it overturned. Much to the dismay of people living in California. Like my sister and her partner. You know, so these issues have to be addressed. And we can't just float along on a pink cloud. And say well you know it's not as important as whatever. Because that's what people have been doing for years now. This isn't as important as that. MJ: There's always something more important. BF: That's right. Yeah. And the thing about the military thing. Is that when we first went into Iraq ironically most of the translators. The people in the military who actually were fluent in Arabic and could go in there and could go into the villages with our combat troops and translate, and really know what the heck was going on. Ironically most of those men were actually homosexual. So what did the military do? They discharged them from the military. So here's this huge country. where we're at war with people whose culture and language and nothing we don't have a clue. And the very translators who would at least would have been able to understand some of what was going on. Especially once you got out of the big cities. They discharged something like 90% of them. So for all of our troops there were, maybe who knows, a handful, less than a handful, of translators to work with them when they went into these little villages and stuff. To be able to understand what was going on. And why were they discharged? For no other reason than they were gay. End of discussion. That was it. That is worse than pathetic. It is actually stupid. I don't like to use that word but that's just stupid. Why would you do something like that? Then what are you going to do when you go into a village and you have nobody to translate for you? Trust a local person to do that? How do you even know if he or she is translating correctly? So you know. And that could actually be reversed by, I think, executive order. That's my understanding of it. MJ: Aside from the kind of the legal policy and legal layer of this, like the Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and those kinds of things. Can you talk about over the last 30, 40 years just in terms of the lived experience of being a lesbian in this culture. Can you just describe some of the changes that you have seen just in the kind of day to day life? BF: Well I have to say that I was very lucky. Because for me things were actually relatively easy, you know. First of all, living in a city like New York number one. Number two, the woman who I choose to live with for many, many years had actually been married and had a family. So even though we were living together and had this relationship, to the outside world, even though they knew, but we were sort of kind of socially acceptable. We weren't on the edge. We dressed a certain way. We lived a certain way. It was very middle class. It was very bourgeois. So I didn't experience a lot of the things that people have experienced, who lived in a way 30 or 40 years ago. MJ: Or in less cosmopolitan areas. BF: Or in less cosmopolitan areas. Or were more visibly lesbian or gay or something like that. And I was very lucky. Although I do remember when I was first sort of exploring those waters. And way back when, around the time of Stonewall and even a little bit after that, the bars in New York, the gay and lesbian bars, were all basically controlled by the mafia. The mafia provided them with protection. And I remember as like a 21, 22 year old young woman. Going for the first time to like these lesbian bars. And I remember the first one I ever went to. And it was very exciting for me. And really eye opening in a lot of ways. But I remember that the bouncer at the door was the quintessential, I mean he could've come out of The Godfather. You know, he had the gold chain and they the hairy chest, and the big arms. And his name was Vinny or Vonnie or Frankie or something like that. Hey, ah, hey you know like that. And I walk in and it was like this amazing transitional time because there were still the sort of older lesbians with the absolute dividing line between the butches and the femmes. The butches were very butch with the short hair cuts and the v-neck sweaters. And kind talk like this and you know-- And the femmes were all very flirty. And they would sit up on the bar stools. And they would smoke cigarettes. And they would wear lipstick. And have long pretty hair. And stuff like that. And that was the way it had been for a long, long time. And then on the other side of it, here we're coming in. And we're young. We're like 20, 21, 22 whatever we are. And we're wearing bell bottoms with big belts and pretty blouses or pretty tee shirts and stuff. And we were lesbian or bisexual but there was that whole kind of-- In fact I think the only thing that protected me in those years was the fact that I just sort of acted like an idiot. But people sort of took pity on me. Because I would go up and I would flirt with these women who I found attractive. And then of course their partners, their lovers-- we called them lovers in those years --would come over and say like, you know, what the are you doing? And I'd be like huh? You know, what? I didn't know. I was a complete idiot. I didn't know what the protocol was and stuff. And some of my friends were constantly like grabbing me going no Bonnie. No. She's with somebody. You don't flirt with her. And I'd be like, oh OK. Because I didn't know. I had no, I didn't have any bellwether. I didn't know what the heck I was doing. It was actually kind of amusing in a way because I was like such an idiot. But it took a long time for me kind of find my way around all of that. And figure out where I was. But the lines of demarcation really started to change. And our generation said and wait a minute you don't have to have like really short hair. Or walk around in combat boots. You know, this is ridiculous. It's making like a uniform for someone. And it doesn't apply. And there were plenty of women who came into that world who had been married or living with men or something. Because it was, we were all products of the 1960s generation. So the rules had to change. Everything had to change. And it subsequently did. Because there were more and more women who said I'm not going to do that. That's ridiculous. I'm not going to talk that way. I'm not going to dress that way. And then because the people who were really radical were alienating people, a lot of folks kind of pulled back from that. I know I did because I think that way I didn't want to go live on a commune and you know change my name to Dirt. Say like this to men and stuff. I knew women who did stuff like that. I said that's ridiculous. I have a brother. I've got male cousins. I had former boyfriends. I'm not going to turnaround and say I don't want to be around men anymore. That's-- I didn't want any part of any of that stuff. MJ: So this is all about 30 years ago -ish? BF: Yeah. MJ: Do you now, in 2009, do you spend anytime at all in spaces that are kind of culturally-- like segregated spaces by sexual orientation? BF: You know it's interesting. Not really because New York, or I should say the friends who I have in the city, there seems to be a lot more mixing of those cultures. And I think always had been. And so if I go to dinner, like at a close friend's house whether the friends are gay or straight or whatever, there just seems to be more of a mix with friends and stuff. There isn't that thing about only being with gay people. Or only being with straight people. At least that hasn't been my experience. Which I think is kind of nice. There are times when I've been-- Like I remember marching in some of the parades along the way that it was very interesting to actually be out there with thousands of other people who were also gay or lesbian or bisexual. And all of what went on there was quite thrilling in a way. And meeting people from other countries. Who were brave enough to do things like that in their own country given that the culture often was different. And all of that. I don't think there's as much, at least not in New York, I mean I've been out on the west coast. And there seems to me, there seems to be more of a visible separation sometimes. Like when you're in a certain community, you're really in that community. So if you're lesbian, you're really in the lesbian community. MJ: In someplace like San Francisco? BF: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Or in the whole Bay Area. It's more like oh all the lesbians get together. All the gay men get together. All the-- And it's not to say people don't have friendships with other people. But it's much more like you sort of hang out with your tribe. MJ: Well it's a whole culture. BF: Yeah exactly. Exactly. Whereas in New York, New York is not really like that. For good or for bad. And I also think that the gay community in New York, other than the people who are more radical, is very much, it's sort of assimilated into the general culture of the city. Similar to being like a reform or even a non practicing Jew is completely assimilated into the culture of the city. So I think that people kind of choose their friends in New York more about where they are age wise. And what their interests are and stuff. As opposed to you're my friend because you're a lesbian. Or you're my friend because you're Jewish. Or you're my friend because whatever the circumstances are. I think it's much more of a free flowing kind of heterogeneous situation. So I haven't had the same experience as many women I know have had in the lesbian arena where it's been a real trial. I mean I met a woman years ago who had to undergo shock treatment because her family was so upset. When it turned out she was a lesbian that they made her go to a psychiatrist. And they actually gave her shock treatments to try to turn her straight. Which is pretty horrible when you think about it. MJ: Unbelievable. BF: And unbelievable. MJ: And unbelievable that it was recent enough that there are people walking around on the planet who have that experience. BF: That's right. MJ: Yeah, that's amazing. Do you mind going back? You were talking earlier about the economy. Can you talk a little about what it's like in 2009 to be out on the job market? BF: Sometimes it feels like you'll never get a job again. I mean it's just-- And I know that that maybe sounds a little exaggerated. But you just, everyday you get up, go online. You look-- MJ: What kind of work were you doing most recently? BF: Basically for the last 20 odd years, I've been working in the healthcare field. But I've been doing what they call the business, the non-clinical end of it. So I started out doing billing, insurance, follow up, collections and so on. Then eventually became a real expert on all the different insurances, managed care. Then I also learned enough to be a good office manager and administrator. So that essentially was my field or has been my field for about more than 20 years now. And I've worked in faculty practices. I was actually at Cornell for over 10 years in various faculty practices. And then I went out into the private arena. And it's not only a rough field but when you get to be a certain age, the age works against you. And also in the last few years, unfortunately, I've sort been either bouncing from job to job. Or been bounced from job to job. So that also works against me. And some people say well other than all the years you were at Cornell, it looks like you were only here for a year. Or here for two years. Or whatever. Can you explain that? So you're constantly explaining and almost going in apologetically. And saying Oh I'm so sorry. I had all these different jobs. I mean it sounds like a sitcom except that it's happening to me. And I'm not George Costanza on Seinfeld. Trying to convince people that I'm really terrific. But all these things happened in my life. So there's a part of it, it's very demoralizing. Because you figure, Wow I know I still have things to offer, so why won't anybody hire me? Or if they hire you then they tell you well it's something temporary or it's not working out or whatever. And you never really find out why. It's just like good bye. We don't need you anymore. MJ: And the search itself is mostly online these days? BF: Yeah. It's a good deal-- It's online. MJ: So you're actually never coming contact with other people who are looking? BF: Very little. I mean than the other people I know who are looking. Like my younger brother has been out of work for a while. And he and my sister in law actually live in Florida, although he's up here right now visiting. He's been out of work for a while. And I do know other people who have been out of work. But other than when you sort of get together with these people, or talk to them. Or let's say when you go to an employment agency to actually establish a relationship there. But other than that-- MJ: Have you been to agencies? BF: Well, there are a couple that I've been to. A couple where because I've known them from like years ago, basically I will update my resume with them. And then talk to them periodically. But the last few jobs that I've actually had I really got through my own hard work. Because the agencies are basically less and less able, I think, to place people. Other than the real top drawer. You know, the people who place executives and folks like that. But the agencies who would help people like me, I've been more successful just putting my resume online. And either responding to an ad or putting it on Monster or something. And then people call me and say, oh I saw your resume. Or blah blah blah. Why don't you come in for an interview? MJ: It's interesting because I mean I feel like-- You know, you go back and you look at the '30s, and you hear kind of testimony about what that economic collapse was like. And how it was experienced. And people were also demoralized in a really personalized way. But nonetheless, I end up wondering, if it's more brutal or less in that you don't see the signs of the structural devastation? Like you don't see the bread lines. BF: That's right. MJ: You don't see the masses of people unemployed. You see the statistics in the newspaper. But if you're out-- And I've talked to a lot of people in different fields out kind of in the world looking for work. And it is this really interior kind of personalized lonely-- BF: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Well, I mean I think part of the reason for that obviously is the computer. Because in the old days at least you would actually see people when you went down to an agency. Or even unemployment-- it's all online now. You file your claim. They verify-- I mean initially they may send a sheet to then send onto your employer. Or sometimes they just do that themselves. You put in all the stuff and then they contact the employer, and the employer either fills something out or does whatever. But everything-- Every week, you know, you go-- And now I'm on that special emergency extension thing. But it's all completely impersonal. It's all you go on the computer for this. You put your resume on Monster. You send your resume with a cover letter via email to a potential employer. You talk to somebody on the phone. But it's all very, very impersonal. I mean until you actually get to the point where you're sitting and interviewing with someone. But other than that-- MJ: You're on your own. BF: You're on your own. It's sort of like, OK were all sitting in our little space stations with our computers. And there's an add that I see for, OK they want to medical collector. They want an office manager. They want this. They want that. OK and I'll send. And the big websites, like for Mount Sinai and all that stuff, it's like I feel like I'm just sort of casting it into the wind because I will apply for something that looks more than doable. And you get that automatic reply about, oh thank you we received your resume. And if decide to call you, we'll get in touch with you. And you know it's just going into wherever that collective sort of empty space is that they fill up with thousands of resumes that probably will never even be looked at. And so you get more and more a sense of being alone and isolated and all of that stuff. And it's just, it's a terrible feeling. And even walking around the Upper East Side now. And I've spoken to other people. It's really spooky because it's affecting people who never thought that they would be affected by this. MJ: So how do you see that? I mean what are the manifestations of that? BF: You know the East Side used to, the Upper East Side used to have for better or for worse a kind of-- it was subtle but it was-- a swagger. It's like, OK the rest of the city is the rest of the city, but this is the Upper East Side. And even if you live in a walkup, which I do. But it's just, hey, you know, we're fine. You know, everybody else may be going to hell. But we're fine because this is the Upper East Side. So that's that whole sort of illusion of protection. And so even if you don't live over on, you should pardon me, Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue. But you know, it's just that whole thing. So from like the 60s all the way up to even the low 90s now it's all just. Well this is the Upper East Side. And now all of a sudden-- And it's not because of the Second Avenue subway and all the construction that is going on about that --but I walk up and down: First Avenue, Second Avenue and Third Avenue and Lexington Avenue, and everywhere I look businesses are closing. All kinds businesses. And I think, this is really frightening. And they're not re opening. Nobody's taking over the space. And I see people walking around in the middle of the day and I'm thinking-- And these are not elderly people. And they're not mothers or nannies with little kids. It's not like, I mean these are people who look like they're my age or younger. And they look well healed. And yet, what are they doing walking around at the same time that I'm walking around that's-- Like are they out of work? Or do they work in the neighborhood? Or you know, it's hard to know sometimes. But you can pretty much tell. I mean I live very close to Cornell New York Hospital and Sloan Kettering and all those places. And I know the people who work over there because they usually walk around with their little name tags. And they're walking very purposely in the middle of the day. And I'm talking about people who were walking along the way I'm walking along, like oh, la la li la. Get the Times, I'll go to the library. I'll make some things to do because it's the middle of the day and I have to look like I'm doing something. So it really is not a good feeling by any stretch of the imagination. MJ: You have a couple of resources, inner resources that not everybody has. One is your Jewishness, or your spiritual life. And one is, which I didn't know about, your kind of deep history in the Communist Party, and that kind of old lefty, you know, which is a kind of ballast that can be important in times like these. Can you talk a little bit about how those two things figure in your recent experience? BF: Well, you know, the stories that my mother told, for example, about her parents. And I remember both of my mother's parents although I was fairly young when they when they died. They died at different points. MJ: They were immigrants? Or was your mom an immigrant? BF: They were immigrants. MJ: OK. BF: And my grandfather, my mother's father who was the card carrying communist, had actually come here by himself when he was 14 years old. He had one cousin who lived in Boston. And he walked and got rides to Boston. And eventually learned how to be a furrier. Eventually learned English. Eventually became a citizen. Eventually had and lost fur shops. And then eventually went and did become a communist, I think for a variety of reasons. He had actually been raised by two older sisters in Russia. His parents were killed in a pogrom. He was four or five years old. He heard them being killed. And the older sisters raised him until he got to be a teenager and came here. MJ: How did he get out? BF: I think-- That's a very good-- I don't know. I don't know because it would seem to me although my understanding is that it was sort of easy at one point to like forge travel papers to get out of Russia. MJ: Do you know what town are we talking about? BF: Where my where my grandfather was raised? MJ: Where the pogrom must have taken place? BF: It was the little tiny town which was I guess part of the Jewish Pale. And the Jewish Pale I think was mostly in the Ukraine. That's my understanding of kind of where it was. MJ: Although it did, I mean it stretched pretty far west at some points. BF: Yeah it stretched pretty far west. But anyway the older sisters raised him until he got to that point. They were, I think they were considerably older. Like one was maybe five years older, one was like maybe seven or eight years older but. You know they were also little girls. And they kind of raised I guess with the help of some of the other people in the village. And then he decided he wanted to come to the states. And he did. And he got on a ship. And he came over and did all these amazing things. But I think for him the idea of communism almost had a religious connotation. Because he saw it as a way out. He saw it as a way to make better lives for lots of people. He saw the way people were treated in a factory situation in whatever, of different backgrounds, especially immigrant people. And it was worth your life to be a union organizer in those years. In fact one of his best friends was killed by car bomb. I mean my mother remembers all of these things. But the thing about it is, and even with my other set of grandparents, you know, the Democrats, they found a way to live through things. They found a way to kind of band together. And do things. And there was a lot of like trading. You know, I'll cook you this if you do that for me. There was a lot of bartering that went on back in the Depression. Which again helped people to survive because there was that sense of community. I think what makes this more difficult is that there is less of that sense of community with people kind of banding together and doing for each other. But they were very tough, hardy people. And they lived through unbelievable things. And also, you know, my mother to this day still sort of has this attitude where it's like, well what do you expect from capitalists? What you expect from landlords? Or what do you expect from people down on Wall Street. After all, all they're interested in is money and greed and stuff like that. And they're not interested in all these wonderful utopian concepts of everybody living together in peace. And everybody working. And blah blah blah. So it's kind of funny to me. I laugh because she will, all of a sudden that starts to come up again. And I hear my grandfather in my mother. And she'll, you know, "Remember what Jake said capitalist pigs on Wall Street." And I laugh about that. I just-- But it kind of lifts my spirits. When I think about all of it, it lifts my spirits. MJ: I just have two more questions. One, I was intrigued by what you were saying about how privatized and hidden away this economic crisis is. Or how individualized. And everyone is kind of alone with their computer. As you've walked around and looked at the world, if you have a camera and were going to take a couple of pictures to really try to capture what's going on in this country what would you take pictures of? BF: Well, that's a very good question. It's a very good question because some of the obvious things I think people have already taken photos of. I think it would be more of the subtle things. I think it would be more of the people who sort of look a little lost, in the middle of the day it's like they're just kind of wandering. I mean it's sort of like very Edward Hopper sometimes to kind of see them just sort of sitting some place, and maybe working on their laptop or reading the paper or something. And you just of wonder what are they doing here now? It's one o'clock in the afternoon. And they look like they're about 45 years old. And they're nicely dressed. So why are they just hanging out here? Are they here for the same reason that I'm hanging out here? I mean is this a similar thing? So that's part of it. And I think also, I think you probably would see it in a more obvious way if you will into some of the smaller towns or smaller cities. I think it's very easy to sort of, to become invisible in New York. Or to become invisible in a larger city. Because there are so many people. And if you walk into a coffee shop and it's twelve o'clock in the afternoon, somebody's not going to necessarily know if you're out of work, or you're worried, or you're scared. Or something like that. But if you're in a smaller town and you're walking around. And other people are working. And you're just kind of hanging out with Joe in the diner, I think it's a much more visible kind of thing. But I think everything becomes kind of impersonal and invisible now. I mean starting with the caskets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. And now ostensibly we're not supposed to be hiding those away anymore. And yet-- MJ: But where are they? BF: But where are they? Where are they? Where are those caskets? Where are the photos of those families? And this all just brings the whole Vietnam thing back to me. But where are the pictures of the families going to those bases sometimes to greet those caskets? Where is all of this? Where is evidence of the Fepression? Where-- I mean you can take a photo of a closed factory. But what about the thousands and thousands of people in the Midwest, who haven't worked not just for months or for a year but for years. For years. Look at Pittsburgh. The whole complexion of Pittsburgh changed many years ago. They closed all the steel mills. Got great air down there now, but everything shifted. And so families where for generations the men had worked in the mills. No mills. Where do those people work now? Where do their sons or grandsons work now? Have they converted to another industry? What are they doing? And the same thing is true when you go into the Midwest. When you go into Ohio. When you go to Indiana. They are all these towns that were based on the automobile industry. On whatever they were doing. There are thousands of people who aren't working. What are they doing? How are they surviving? Is anybody paying any attention to those people? Or is it just something like, well we'll go out there when we're in an election. We'll talk to those people. And then after that everybody leaves. And what happens? What is happening to all of those people? The people who've lost their homes. The people who have lost their jobs. The people who have no medical insurance and have to use an emergency room. I have no medical insurance. God forbid if anything happens to me. Good luck Bonnie. What are we doing? It's out there but nobody really sees it. Nobody's really aware of it. It's not like seeing those bread lines back in the-- I can tell you this that the number of homeless in this city we know has grown enormously. Because when I do work at the TUJ kitchen I see, anybody working there can see, how the numbers have grown. If you talk to Miriam Garron, she will tell you that when we first started doing that program along with the other churches who do it you would get maybe 90, maybe a 100 people there on a given Saturday. The number has at least doubled. And we're serving those people seconds, thirds. And it's getting worse. And it's getting worse. And sometimes you see actually very, very well dressed people. Or elderly people who come there. And people as they say who have to make a choice between medicine and food. What are we doing about this? There's no housing being built in the city for low income, for middle income people. Does anybody care about any of these people anymore? This is what I want to know. Does anybody care? Is there anybody out there who is really doing anything about that? Do we have a mayor who's doing anything about that? Do we have a governor? Do we have a president? Do we have anybody who says there are millions of people who are unemployed, who have lost their homes, who have lost their jobs, who have lost their medical insurance, who don't have enough food. What are we doing about this? I know what we did for the banks. And I know what we did for Wall Street. What do we doing for all these people? I don't see a whole heck of a lot. And I honestly I don't know what's going to become of most of those people. Especially the ones you don't have a safety net. I have a safety net. Because I have some family and friends who've been there for me. So I have people to turn to. But they are plenty of people out there who have no one to turn to. Not family. Not friends. Not anybody. And we have not built up enough of a structure in our communities and our cities to handle what's going on out there. And there are a lot of people who are too proud to say I don't have food. I need some stamps. Or I need to place to stay that's safe for me or for my family. Because it's affecting the middle class. We're not just talking about a poor, black woman who's a single parent and is used to surviving in this crazy country and world. We're talking about middle class working people who are totally flipped out. And they don't really know what to do. And I don't see that changing. MJ: Is there anything that you wished we had talked about that we haven't? BF: That's a good question. Maybe just where we see ourselves going for the next few years. What direction do we think this is all going to take. MJ: Yeah, well, so I guess. Well, so optimism, pessimism. Where do you end up? BF: Somewhere in the middle to be very honest with you. I mean I am optimistic that very clearly something quite extraordinary happened in electing someone like Barack Obama. I mean that's extraordinary. That is historic. That is deeply, deeply remarkable. And so I applaud him and I applaud the sort of collective thinking and emotions and whatever that pushed us forward to do something like that. Because that was-- is-- a very good thing. At the same time, I'm very deeply concerned about a lot of other things that I don't see being addressed. And I'm at a point in my life now where I don't have as much time really realistically speaking as I once had. If this was happening and I was 25, or 30 or 35 or 40 years old I could kind of go with that flow. And say ok it's a rough time but I'm lucky. I've got family. I've got friends. Whatever so I'm OK. I'm OK. But I'm 60 years old now. And I don't like to be pessimistic about it. Hopefully I'll live a nice long, life but it's not the same being 60 and experiencing this as being 35 or 40 and experiencing this. So it's a very different situation. And so I think I'm sort of somewhere in the middle. And depending upon what's going on at a particular day maybe I may kind of swing back and forth between the two. I mean I think essentially my nature is to believe that we will survive. And that things will get better. And we'll find a way to deal with all of this. So I think that's sort of my nature. But at the same time I do have moments of great anger, and frustration, and sadness. Because I want it to be better. And not just for me. I mean, I want somehow to sort of, kind of shake us out of whatever this is lethargy that we've sort of descended into again. You know, we had this incredible kind of revelatory and wonderful thing about Obama. And he's elected. The inauguration was absolutely extraordinary. Beyond anybody's expectations. But now here we are-- what is it, how many months later? --10 months later or something? Things are not good. Things are not good. Except for a few people. For the few people where things are good, they're good. But for the vast majority of people in this country and probably in this world now because of the economic depression. And I call it depression. I think this recession business is just sugar coating it. Things are really hard. So it's hard here. It's hard in Europe. It's hard. The developing nations-- My God, I can't even begin to imagine what it's like for them if it's as hard as it is for us. So we gotta figure a way out of all of this. MJ: Thank you. BF: Thank you.

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