This post is dedicated to my dad. Also: Thanks to Matt W. for editing.
On the midsummer night I witnessed Jay Z and Justin Timberlake electrify Yankee Stadium, more than 50,000 city residents slept on the streets, in the subways, or elsewhere without a home. I know this because in recent weeks and months media outlets like The New Yorker and The New York Times shined a light on the city’s shameful homeless record. I met one such man – a self-described Iraq vet suffering from PTSD – on my walk from the working-class Dominican community of Washington Heights to Yankee Stadium under a full moon on July 20. Ironically, four months after our brief encounter, I still think about the man – and what he represents – more so than I do the concert of the year.
Walk New York City’s streets or ride the city’s subways long enough and you will encounter several homeless people requesting food and/or change. This particular man refused to take my initial no for an answer, which in my experience is not the norm in NYC. He looked haggard, disheveled, like he had been outside for several days with little sleep. Without prompting, he named outfits he had served with during the war and detailed how his trials with PTSD limited his job prospects. He pleaded. Yet after I denied him a second and third time he turned his back and walked toward Washington Heights. The man disappeared but thoughts of his plight did not.
I paid $95 apiece for tickets to Legends of the Summer. In doing so I rubber-stamped the prevailing messages espoused at the show – those of greed, materialism, and lust. I am conflicted about this. On one hand, the show kicked ass because it featured two larger than life performers delivering their greatest hits in front of tens of thousands. On the other hand, the “suit and tie” lifestyle the performers promoted, not to mention never-ending odes to luxury art, fashion, and automobiles, felt immaterial given the homeless man I witnessed earlier. It also illustrated, to me at least, the growing chasm between New Yorkers, and how New Yorkers with less (i.e., me) buy into the message presented by those with more (i.e., Jay Z acting as a mouthpiece for the Wall Street set). 1*
A friend asked me while I wrote this if I would have struggled with the same emotions had I seen Bruce Springsteen or U2 perform at Yankee Stadium. Their tickets would have been as expensive as the Legends of the Summer Tour, if not more, and both acts feature mega millionaires. The answer comes down to message. Springsteen portrays underdogs in many of his songs while U2 at its best searches for answers amid deep societal and philosophical questions. This is much different than Brooklyn-raised Jay Z lifelessly chanting a fashion designer’s name in a chorus or Timberlake crooning about the latest object of his lust.
As great as Jay Z once was it’s hard not to see him as Jordan in a Wizards jersey at this point, cashing paychecks and coasting on his reputation. Jay Z’s words on Watch The Throne and Magna Carta Holy Grail are so obsessed with possessions 99.9 percent of his audience will never have that it is apparent he is suffering from a bankruptcy of ideas. Here is a man who grew up in the Marcy Projects, and as a result knows how difficult it can be for the city’s poor regardless of race, and yet he seems no longer interested in their stories because A) he long since left those projects and B) the market seems to want tales of sociopathic greed rather than tales of struggle and uplift. He is a corporate shell of himself yet he does not (seem to) recognize it. “Nothing exceeds like excess” is a typical throwaway line from Jay Z on “Suit and Tie.” Try telling that to a man or woman on the street asking for a sandwich. Or better yet, don’t. 2*
In recent weeks the tree branches across the street from my apartment have become naked, my breath is now visible as I crisscross Spanish Harlem, and I have resigned myself to the next five to six months being long, if not unpleasant. I see homeless people on a daily basis still, even as the conditions become more brutal, and more often than not I tell them no when they ask for help. I don’t feel good about refusing others in need, but in the concrete jungle where dreams are made those asking for a helping hand grow more numerous each day. Hopefully the man I met on the road to the Legends of the Summer Tour is no longer one.
1.* The previous sentence is not meant to suggest there was once a time when lower Manhattan residents and Bronx or Queens residents were on equal financial footing; just that their circumstances are growing farther apart.
2.* I am not giving Timberlake a pass here because he’s white and Jay Z is black. Timberlake has always existed in the corporate realm from his childhood at Disney to his teeny bop days in boy band N’Sync to his present. He’s a song and dance man who makes people happy, and he’s extremely good at it. His message has never delved deeper into societal issues.