Reflections on Inconvenience in New York

This week, New York was hit with a blizzard. All told, I’d guess we had about a foot of snow [Editor’s note: 20 inches is the official number] – nothing major, really. What was remarkable about this particular blizzard was the response by the city government.

Normally, when we have a storm that dumps a foot of snow on the city – which happens relatively frequently, as I personally remember us getting a foot or more at least every couple of years, sometimes more than once in a single year – an army of trucks roll out and plow every street in the city and salt every street in the city pretty much as the snow falls. Generally, within a few hours of the blizzard being over, every street in all of New York City is passable and salted. We as New Yorkers have come to expect this, but when you think about the pure logistics of this effort, it’s actually a minor miracle. New York is huge, and to have snowplows and salt trucks run down every street in the city, every few hours, requires resources that I can’t even guess at.

Normally, the above-ground trains are the hardest hit in the city transit network. You can usually hop on a city bus after a big storm, and it will slowly but surely get you where you are going. Elevated trains tend to go out of service during a blizzard and take a few hours to dig themselves out and get running again. Highways are plowed and passable and reasonably safe almost without interruption. And normally, New Yorkers mock cities like Washington D.C., that are unprepared for storms, that shut down for two or three days after a snowfall that New York City would laugh off without even noticing.

I’m about to tell you what all this has to do with Georgia.

Everyone knows that we’ve had a huge financial crisis, leading to an economic recession and a lot of overall money and resource problems. In the US, we’ve met this crisis with “stimulus” packages and “bailouts” – basically a combination of enormous business loans, entitlement extensions, tax cuts, and direct spending designed to generate enough economic activity to push us through the recession. This is the classic Keynesian approach of attempting to control an economy through government-administered economic “shocks.” In Europe, we’ve heard about “austerity” measures – in other words, governments are cutting spending on things like services and entitlements in an attempt to remain solvent. My analysis of the difference in approach can be boiled down to the fact that the US government is more willing to keep running on debt due to cultural predispositions and better at running on debt because its global military dominance guarantees access to a nearly unlimited amount of resources and markets and credit.

This bears upon our snow situation because the lack of response to this week’s blizzard is basically an austerity measure. Unlike the federal government, the New York City government cannot access an indefinite line of credit and cannot arbitrarily generate money at will. New York City has to run on a balanced budget, and tax revenues are down because of the recession, which means that New York City has to cut services. Predictably, people are blaming New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, for his budget cuts in the sanitation department. There are allegations that the sanitation department deliberately sabotaged the city’s snow response over a labor dispute related to the budget cuts, although I have to emphasize that the New York Post is the city’s least reputable newspaper, so take that with a grain of salt. Either way, you can trace the snow response to budget cuts, and New Yorkers that I have spoken to, or that populate my facebook news feed, seem to think that Bloomberg should not have cut the sanitation budget or should have made some sort of better provision for snow.

I won’t say too much about the economic and political shortsightedness of these complaints. New York City had to make budget cuts or increase taxes. Any cuts or tax increases would be met with protests and annoyance. Bloomberg had to make hard choices – choices that none of us would want to be responsible for, despite the fact that we live in a democracy, so technically we are all responsible for them. We’re all responsible for electing a government that allowed Wall Street to drive our economy into the ground by reducing the once healthy middle class to debt-ridden, property-less wage slaves. We’re all responsible for electing a government that allowed countless New York City hospitals to close or reduce services because our country is politically incapable of implementing a rational health care system that does not bankrupt emergency rooms, which means that ambulances have farther to go in blizzards which increases their chances of getting stuck. We’re all responsible for the city’s decreased tax revenues in a year where the city’s richest companies have turned record-breaking profits. And yet as soon as a single thing goes wrong, we all want to scapegoat the mayor, or the governor, or the president – not the electorate who votes these people in, not the legislature that actually makes the laws and passes the budgets that we complain about, but the guy who’s put in charge of executing the policy that our society has democratically voted to enact. Yes, democracy is an irrational system for irrational people, and it leads to irrational outcomes. There’s my rant for the day.

Getting back to the point, if something needed to be cut, why not snow response? On the hierarchy of importance, where does snow response actually fit? It’s something that only affects people a few times a year, for a few days. For the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, having a bunch of snow all over the place is at most a minor inconvenience. Yeah, it takes people longer to get around. Yeah, you might miss a day of work if you work far from your home. Yeah, walking through snow is slow and cold and annoying. But really? Big fucking deal.

Let me tell you about the inconveniences that we have in Tbilisi.

In Saburtalo, water is on for an average of 18 hours per day. There are usually two scheduled, three-hour water outages – one in the morning, one in the evening. In Gldani, we only lose water about once a week, and usually only for an hour or two, although we’ve lost water overnight once or twice too. I hear that in Varketili the water is highly intermittent, sometimes is only on for six hours a day, and sometimes not at all. This is all in the capital city of Georgia. In Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city, the water situation is even worse.

We have regular power outages in Gldani. A few times a week, power goes out for an hour or two. Once in a while power goes out for longer. Again, I hear it’s much worse in Varketili. I hear it’s better in Vake, where the really rich people live.

I live on a paved street, but I have to walk down unpaved streets to get to work. Walking down Razmadze street in Gldani, which I affectionately refer to as “Cow Shit Alley” due to the frequency of cow pies that I encounter on my daily walk, is a challenge. Aside from weaving around piles of cow poop, there are also guard dogs that are not necessarily always fenced in, there are giant perennial puddles, there is mud, there are loose rocks all over the place, and let’s just say that by the time I get to work every day, the bottoms of my pant legs have acquired streaks or splatters of dirt or mud and my shoes are basically filthy. This doesn’t really bother me – or else I’d take the detour, which is longer, but paved – but my point is that I imagine that when and if Tbilisi is hit with a foot of snow, Cow Shit Alley will be covered in a foot of snow. It will be more or less impassable, because under the snow will be the aforementioned shit and mud and puddles, and being unable to see them will mean stepping in them frequently, which in turn means that I will be taking the long way to work if we get a blizzard.

I’ve heard things about Georgian hospitals that make me afraid to even go near one, let alone get emergency treatment there. Even so, I’m very lucky to live in Tbilisi, where there are hospitals in the area. There are plenty of people in Georgia who live hours away from the nearest hospital, who live in mountainous areas that will become impassable during and after a significant snowfall, which means that there are people in Georgia who are effectively cut off from emergency medical care for weeks or months out of the year.

Don’t even get me started on traffic injuries and deaths in Georgia. The roads in Georgia aren’t great, overall, and the traffic laws are minimal, and there aren’t all that many crosswalks or traffic lights, and basically getting around is a challenge that can be death-defying.

I’m not trying to get into a “my troubles are worse than your troubles” contest with New Yorkers. On the contrary – I much prefer living in Tbilisi to living in New York. It’s just that there’s an interesting contrast. Georgia is called a “developing” country, but the point is, the infrastructure there is old and decaying and there’s currently not really enough economic activity to get it up to speed at the moment, although Georgia’s economy is growing steadily and I’ve heard that things are way better now than they were five or ten years ago. The point is, there’s all this stuff that the Georgian economy can’t sustain – like a consistent supply of water and power for the urban populace – and I’m not saying that people don’t complain, because they do, but they just seem more willing to accept the realities of scarcity and inconvenience and to understand that these things are an inevitable part of life. In New York, if you take away one single convenience for even a day or two, there is all this rage and incomprehension and people start looking for someone to string up for it. People don’t get the concept of having to make sacrifices because of a poor economy, and don’t seem to understand that their quality of life is contingent upon the overall level of wealth enjoyed by the US.

I think that since I’ve been in Georgia I’ve personally gotten better at accepting inconvenience into my life. Georgian culture doesn’t seem to value time as much as American culture does, and as a result, inconveniences that amount to nothing more than a delay in time are scarcely considered inconvenient. Yesterday I was thirty-five minutes late to meet a friend for lunch because the blizzard had shut down streets near my house and a bus stalled on the main road, causing it to become a parking lot for about two miles in both directions – and instead of totally losing it, which I probably would have done six months ago, I just kind of let it go. Waiting around for thirty-five minutes for no reason? That’s nothing in Georgia. I once sat in the office at the Academy waiting for almost four and a half hours, for what turned out to be literally no reason.

So, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s because in Georgia things are getting better, while in New York things are getting worse. I don’t know if it’s because New Yorkers are spoiled. I don’t know if it’s because my outlook is happier in Georgia and so I view New York through a filter of negativity. What I do know is that this blizzard has been pretty inconvenient (as has the city’s lack of response), but it hasn’t bothered me for a single second, because weather and the economy are two chaotic systems that are currently beyond human control, so getting angry or trying to blame someone seems like a waste of time to me.

**********************************************

This, on the other hand, can easily be blamed on someone:

Idiots.

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6 Responses to Reflections on Inconvenience in New York

  1. Kris says:

    Minor correction – it was 20 inches of snow.

  2. Eric says:

    It’s all about us being spoiled and the sense of entitlement. Oh I pay taxes blah blah blah and I should get non-stop services that I always used more than my share of.
    Oh and mentality that ‘we can do it better because this is easy’ irritates to me too. Because chances are, we can’t do it better because it isn’t easy.

    When I was delayed in Warsaw, where a 3 hour layover turned into 8 hours, a person lost it when there was one staff member handing out sandwiches and water. He was and I quote: “ONLY ONE PERSON IS HANDING OUT FOOD?! RIDICULOUS! UNBELIEVABLE!!”

    Honestly, people need to just STFU and deal.

  3. Ilyk Eyaj says:

    I can’t comment on NYC, never lived there.
    About the water in Georgia:
    Here in Kutaisi, we had 5 days without water then we had water for 3 weeks then we had another 5 days without water. It also depends on what side of the city you live. Apparently the side that my apartment is on gets the least amount of water since it stops running regularly Friday-Monday morning which is why I leave town every weekend. But hey, at least the water is on Monday afternoon- Friday morning. I just keep 12 large (crystal geyser) water bottles around and bathe with those during the 5 day water outages.

    Recently someone told me that Georgia has the 3rd or 4th largest untapped pure water source in the whole world. I hope that is just false information or just someone’s errant speculation…..maybe? If it is the truth, then all I can say is; Priorities..infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.
    I also saw a flyer when I was last in Tbilisi, 10 days ago, that stated that 30% of Georgians now have access to running water.

    I do know from talking to many Georgians who vividly remember when the Soviet Union collapsed and the aftermath that there wasn’t water or lights (electricity) in most or all of the country until 2003. I’ve gone through the trouble of asking approximately a hundred people about this. I’ve heard some awful stories about life here in the 90’s, things were rough. Georgians are resiliant people.
    So the water situation, as it is in 2011, has improved vastly here!

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