Response: Rachel Aviv’s “Netherland”

In 2009, an almost-eighteen-year-old lesbian from central Florida, having just graduated high school, decides to run away to Manhattan. Her plan — which is a terrible one, if you know anything about how expensive the city can be, and how unnecessary it is to live there if you’re looking to attend an affordable school — is “to live on the streets for several weeks, until her eighteenth birthday. Then she would begin the rest of her life: getting a job, finding an apartment, and saving for college.” Samantha is not depicted as a stupid girl, in fact she’s described as keeping meticulous notes in her purple spiral-bound notebooks: “the locations of soup kitchens, public libraries, bottle-return vending machines, thrift stores, and public sports clubs.” In fact, I’ll bet she was more street smart than I, a native New York City resident, ever was or will be. And yet the pursuit of such a Romantic and wrongheaded notion such at this makes it hard for me to empathize with what will eventually happen to her. Yes, unemployment for people ages 15-24 was hovering around 20% at the time of this article (I’d just been laid off myself; in fact, my entire department had), so why pursue a job in an unfamiliar city, especially when you’re banking on homelessness? Coming up with a unique college essay (“My Summer on the Streets”) wasn’t her issue; paying for college was.

Am I supposed to applaud the scrappy resourcefulness she shows in forging a street family with other homeless youths from the various shelters? (By that logic, shouldn’t I look down on her for not fully embracing the culture and resources of gay families and their ballroom events, ala Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!?) Should I celebrate her growing proficiency in shoplifting — her transgendered friend Ryan calls this “pulling a Duane Reade” — or the way in which she games the waiting-lists at popular shelters (and plants drug paraphernalia on her roommates) in order to live rent-free, a sentence which as I type makes me feel more and more conservative but yes, this is a person who, of their own intelligent actions, has chosen to be a burden on the system. (Intent, incidentally, is one of the deciding factors when it comes to prosecuting someone for a crime.)

I realize that perhaps I hate Samantha, or perhaps it’s just that I empathize a lot more with Ryan, who ends up cruising the pier down in the West Village looking for his sexual identity while also strolling (i.e., providing oral services) in order to come up with enough money to get off the streets for a few days. He dopes up on Triple C (i.e., Coricidin Cough & Cold) so that he can do this from a “comfortable distance.” On the other hand, Samantha drinks a combination of Delsym–a cough medicine–and Nyquil, so that she is “bold enough to look people in the eyes” while panhandling. Is it awful for me to say that at least Ryan–who will wind up HIV for his efforts–is at least providing a service, whereas Samantha is described as hanging out at the Apple Store, updating her Facebook profile? (Actually, this last bit is apparently something that many runaways and homeless children do, and in retrospect that makes a lot of sense, as it allows your network–whoever they may be–to know that you’re still alive.)

Of course, I don’t really hate Samantha, or at least it’s a lot harder to once you learn that she’d also contracted HIV, either after being knifed in one of the first shelters she stayed in or back in Florida, where she’d been raped by a family friend. But I can’t help but feel that personal responsibility and agency are ignored in Aviv’s piece, that the reasons for Samantha’s circumstances are not nearly as interesting to the author so much as the entree this provides into the world of those who are even more unfortunate than the supposed subject of the article. Moreover, not only are solutions not suggested by Aviv (or the still job-less Samantha, whose only glimmer of hope is that HIV can be managed, to a degree . . . though where the money to pay for that comes from when she already cannot afford her subsidized $216/month apartment, who knows), but problems aren’t even mentioned, except for the fact that the shelters are overburdened and that they do little to actually keep people out of the gutter, so much as bouncing between shelter and street. A lot of subjects are conflated, made unnecessarily sordid by situational context, and the whole article feels as if it’s appealing to some sort of White Jewish Guilt, which, admittedly, may describe the average New Yorker reader, but falls short of my expectations.

(To read Aviv’s article, which I’ve responded to here, check out The New Yorker, December 10, 2012.)

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