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Confessions from the Welfare State: Lessons learned, and offered, along the American way

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By Frank Pulaski

We sat in the restaurant, Huck Finn’s, almost every morning sitting in the restaurant from nine till noon, my father Frank and his friends, George the Greek and Jimmy Figgs, and my uncle Tom, mocking the idea that the world’s highest ideal was work. That work was the gold standard of virtue in society. It was as if you were with escaped convicts, runaways from the labor force. Their eyes were always bloodshot and tearful. Woeful may be a better word. They’d sneak little hits of whiskey into black coffee, watching workers cross the bridge on the way to their jobs. Sometimes, when the restaurant phone rang for a long time, the Greek enacted a little drama. He pretended to answer the phone. Then like magic we were supposed to imagine that we were on break, sitting in the basement of Ford Motor Company, playing cards and drinking whiskey. If you used your imagination, you could almost hear the assembly line roaring overhead, spitting out cars and profits.

The Greek: Hello, yeah, George, right…Hey Frank it’s for you…
Frank: Who is it?
The Greek: It’s Mr. Ford.
Frank: Tell Ford I’m busy. What’s he want?
The Greek: Mr. Ford, Frank says he’s busy, no, Figgs is taking a shit… Can I take a message? Yeah… right… yeah…. Frank, Mr. Ford says he needs more cars… He wants us to get upstairs and crank up the assembly line…
Frank: Yeah, well you tell Ford that if he wants more cars that he can come down here and build them his fucking self.
The Greek: Mr. Ford, Frank says he ain’t gonna do it. If you want more cars, you gotta come down here and build them your fucking self!

Boom! The Greek always hung up the dream phone. Next came the laughs. The three of them never tired of this little scenario. Regulars in the restaurant, the fry cooks and the waitresses, had heard it all before, yet always seemed to enjoy it. We sat in that restaurant until it was time to go to the bar.

I didn’t realize then but what was being dramatized was a Beat Generation mentality, a very negative, dystopian frame of mind, a mentality at complete odds with anything that ever came out of the Woodstock generation. Comparing utopian hippies with dystopian Beats is a cultural distortion, a media lie. Beats were basically disenfranchised working-class guys, World War ll and Korean War veterans, guys who enjoyed smacking hippies upside the head. In fact, Beat Generation icons Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac are on record for holding hippies in contempt. Media distorted what Beats were about through caricature, casting them as beatniks, linking them, again, to hippies, real “cool man” hipster types rather than guys that were into the cult of down, down like in “I’m beat, man, beat,” a phrase I heard my father and his friends repeat many times. The New Yorker writer Louis Menand, in an article, “Drive, He Wrote: What the Beats Were About,” likened them more to Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack than to any hippie culture. Most interpretations of the Beat Generation miss the mark; nothing ever written has ever captured its malcontent and illogical soul. But what it meant to be Beat was best captured in the words of a Peggy Lee song: “Is That All There Is?”

However strange, a Beat Generation mentality could never move beyond, what was for them, one very sad fact: That all the world ever had to offer them, could ever offer them, “was a stinking fucking job.” The idea that mankind had marched through six thousand years of civilization and yet could not advance beyond the concept of Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief really beat them down. Thus the song: “Is That All There Is?” And then to make matters worse, they felt, there was the humiliation of auditioning for a job, what my uncle Tom likened to dancing. Dancing meant that you were kissing ass, in essence telling your prospective boss that you’d be his bitch. So to protect themselves from what they perceived as humiliation—working—they either worked for themselves or gambled, or they went out stealing at night, and sometimes all three. It was exploit or be exploited, game or be gamed. Society, and especially the nine-to-five working man, was held in complete contempt. Though uneducated, they read Sartre and Dostoevsky to highlight their contempt for mankind. And the welfare and disability rolls were neither acts of shame, charity or subjugation, but rather ways of gaming the system, ways of getting revenge on the men that created the jobs system. They wouldn’t apply themselves, but have their women do it for them. When they got their free money it was always racetrack week. They pooled their money, took out racing forms and suddenly turned into Greek sages, like Plato and Socrates, seeking freedom and the meaning of life in the sport of kings. Jimmy Figgs would always say, “They haven’t beaten us yet.” So for them, the loser was the worker. And you were a double loser when you wanted a lot of things out of life, things like cars, houses and just plain stuff. Want and wanting was defined as a character flaw, as a weakness, as a moral liability, a liability that demonstrated a lack of common sense and intelligence. After all, what man in his right mind would make himself a slave before objects? Except for my uncle Tom, my father and his friends all landed in Stateville Penitentiary.

I was born into the bosom of the welfare state, the era of the literal free lunch. My mother Irene, an Italian woman raised in Chinatown, Chicago, now deceased, was a welfare queen. At one time, she collected checks under three different names: her married name, her previous married name and her maiden name. She supplemented this income playing poker. In 1960, Irene owned a brand new Ford, and in 1964 she traded it in for a Chevy Super Sport Impala, with red bucket seats. Irene hated cooking. We ate the majority of our meals out. Once a week, she hired a cleaning lady. She even had a full-time gofer-chauffeur, another welfare recipient, Pauli S, a broken-down horseplayer who hung around Irene for free lunches and gratuities. He drove her around in her new car and ran all her errands. My mother was literally a woman who paid someone to mail a letter for her, and the mailbox was right outside our front door. She was a bribe artist, always bribing me and my brother to do something or other: “If I give you this, will you do that.” Irene died as she lived, in the bosom of the welfare state. She had five grand left over, stuffed in an old shoebox, Illinois politician style. Irene’s great joke, her great moral injunction was always, “Remember Frankie, we’re poor capitalists.”

From the age of 16 until the age of 30, for almost fifteen solid years, right up to the time I went into business for myself, I virtually lived on unemployment compensation. You’d work two months out of a year so that you could collect benefits for one year. You could virtually quit your job or kick the shit out of your boss and still collect benefits. The system was not on the side of the employer. And although I never graduated from grammar school, I attended the University of Illinois, gratis. The state picked up the entire tab. I even managed to get an extra $400 a quarter for spending money. In my youth, I likened all forms of public aid to a large mouthful of vodka, holding it in your mouth and savoring, for as long as you can, letting it get good and hot, and then swallowing, ahhhhhhhhh. It was like being swept up in a soft, feminine wave. At the university, I studied poetry, art and theater, joined writers groups, visited museums and art galleries. The welfare state had given me the freedom to think and to create; no longer were these activities exclusively the provenance of the rich. But more than any of this, the welfare state had preserved my youth. I was all mine. It did not get eaten up, burned in some stinking, dirty factory. Instead, I would take this humanities education and bring it to the streets, a place called the Whiskey Café, my very own welfare bar. There, using my down-and-outers as stars, I put on plays, weird absurdist sort of things, what one writer said, “Are more like medieval mystery plays than anything that you’d see downtown.” Imagine John Milton and Robert Browning on the corner of Archer and Kedzie? At the time, I imagined that I was a Polack Samuel Beckett.

Before I started my own bar, I hung out at the bars of others. There was this crazy kid, Ray Cook, the Hot Dog. His real name was Ray Kendzierski. He looked like Fu Manchu, tall and skinny with long sideburns and a sharp goatee. Ray was part of the drinking group. He stuttered badly, except when he was drunk. And on the day Richie Kaminski, the owner of Kaminski’s Tap on the corner of 31st and Halsted, kicked the shit out of him, the Hot Dog wasn’t stuttering at all. Rather with each blast to his face, he was defiantly shouting, “By what right, like, by what fucking right!” Bam! Boom! Pow! And over and over again, “By what right, like, by what fucking right!”

Richie Kaminski had forearms like Popeye the sailor and was the spiritual father of G.I. Joe. He chomped on cigars all day and didn’t like guys who didn’t work, especially guys that cashed their welfare checks in his bar and sat there drinking all day. And the Hot Dog had one particular toast that drove Richie out of his mind and eventually made him snap. Richie had heard it all before, time and time again, over and over again, especially on check-cashing days. It wasn’t so much the toast perhaps but the Hot Dog’s oratory address before it:

“Like, if a man, like wants to be a stockbroker, well, then like, why the fuck not. Who’s to stop him, like it’s a free country. But like when this same man tells me how I should live my life, that I can’t stand here and drink all day then like by what fucking right can he like say that, like by what fucking right! Then like I say that this man’s ass sucks buttermilk! SO LIKE LET’S ALL TOAST TO THE FUTURE OF OUR COUNTRY AND THE ROLES WE SHALL PLAY!”  Bam! Boom! Pow! (I can’t prove it but I believe that the toast is out of a Dostoevsky novel.) I want to point out that the Hot Dog also ended up in prison. He was a man born beyond his time, born to the Woodstock era but with a Beat Generation mentality nonetheless.

INTERMISSION

There are two things you should know before you proceed with your life: “It is not a sin to go to the whorehouse; the sin is not wanting to come out.” Yussell Banook, an old-time Yiddish Maxwell Street merchant. And two, “Today, lots of people got money, but that’s all they got.” Teddy Zabawa, an old-time Polish used-car salesman.

THE WHISKEY CAFÉ

I met George Kwak in City Hall. At that time, he was the former alderman of Chicago’s 12th Ward, the Brighton Park area on the Southwest Side. Kwak had connections with the Swinarski family, in those days a potent political force in the city. I wanted to open a bar on the North Side and Kwak was going to help me get my liquor license. But he stopped me dead in my tracks. “North Side,” he said, “they’re all phonies up there. Why do you want to go there?” I explained that I wanted to do plays and that the North Side was more receptive to this sort of thing. “Bullshit,” Kwak answered. He explained that Brighton Park, a white working-class neighborhood with lots of Polish, Mexican and Arab immigrants, had an unusually high distribution of pubic aid: welfare, veteran disability, unemployment compensation, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income and so on. “Just cash their checks and get them liquored-up on the cheap,” Kwak said, “and you’ll be rolling in dough. Those phonies on the North Side can’t rub two nickels together.” Had he said this to anyone else, I think they would have bolted, clung to the status-oriented North Side. But to me, a man with a welfare mentality, it made perfect sense. Besides, I wanted money not status, and I really liked money. Trust me, welfare spending made many a merchant rich.

As sure as there is a god in heaven and corporate fathers in Washington D.C., on the first of every month, for more than seventy-five years, like clockwork, an epic drama takes place all across America, a drama of Biblical proportions that can only be likened to the story of “The Fishes and the Loaves,” when Christ takes a fish and a loaf of bread and feeds, well, a whole lot of people. On the first of every month, when the government puts out the checks, whether welfare, disability, Social Security, entitlements, whatever, business spikes upward across the entire nation. Businesses feed like starving vampires, sucking up the dole like hungry jackals. This payola cycle is an example of bottom-up spending at its best. Better put, this ain’t your Uncle Ronnie’s trickle-down economics.

At my bar, on the first of the month, the liquor flowed and business spiked upward by fifty percent during the first week of welfare payments and held steady at twenty-five percent during the second. I had to put on extra bartenders. I had a group of Irish-American drinkers that I’ll call the O’Reily’s. Mom Marge O’Reily was the ring leader, our resident welfare expert. She knew the inside and out of getting on the dole, especially for young expectant mothers. Marge was a blue-eyed, full-figured blonde who drew younger men to her like flies to honey. She had four daughters, a retinue of female cousins and various lady friends. On welfare days, Marge held court in my bar. When her entourage hit the door, it was party time. A few of the women were always in various stages of pregnancy. This is when I learned that many men like pregnant woman because they can’t get them pregnant. Literally, The Whiskey Café was the Club Med of the welfare set. It was all service with a smile, and the customer is always right. Unlike Richie Kaminski of Kaminski’s Tap, I appreciated welfare business. I treated them right. They were my kind of people. I cashed their checks, free, and the first drink was always on the house. I paid them, cash, twenty-five cents on the dollar for their food stamps. The stamps I redeemed later for fifty-cents on the dollar in under-the-table liquor purchases. I had this hotdog machine, you know, the kind that rotates with the light in it. I fed them free hotdogs with potato chips, and always had free candy and Coke for their kids. Yes, they brought the kids along too. It was a family bar. I had this parking lot out back that the kids used as a playground. Imagine, all this began at nine in the morning and continued sometimes until midnight, kids running and screaming, jukebox booming, men and woman kissing. This was what was meant by letting the good times roll.

When you cut public welfare, in reality, you’re also cutting funding for the arts. I’m not talking city-funded crap, but individual artistic development, creative inner development, something that can stand on its own independent of universities and insider-art inner circles. For an example, from the primal soup of the Whiskey Café emerged two very unique plays: “The Devil’s Play,” based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” where hell was set in the Chicago City Council; and “The God of Caliban,” based on the Robert Browning poem “Caliban Upon Setebos.” And the actors and audience for the plays were the patrons of the Whiskey Café, let’s say the scions of welfare society. My female lead for both works was the articulate Huck Finn waitress Delores Dousias, wife of the famous fry cook Dimitri Dousias. The throaty sound of whiskey rang in all their voices, a Shakespearean city streets flavor—let’s say a tone unique to the Southwest Side of Chicago. And folks who were not supposed to like such things, that is, plays—laborers, immigrants, welfare moms, Mexican fry cooks, Harley Davidson bikers, an unbelievable mish-mash of humanity—were suddenly watching Milton and Browning. (Audiences from the North Side, especially from other theater companies, never watched the plays. Instead, they came to watch the audience.)

Beginning in the Reagan era, the corporate fathers and the Republican Party, slowly and steadily, began a campaign of cultural genocide against grass-roots intellectuals, those not born to university but to street wisdom. Outsider artists and writers, barroom poets, public philosophers, street-corner pundits and American free-spirit Romantics: All these different types would be lumped together and called bums, stigmatized and denigrated, “re-branded” as losers. And so began an invidious public relations campaign to gut and disable the public welfare system, the main income source of public intellectuals, and to privatize it, ultimately transferring it to the corporate fathers. In fact, the cuts today in art education, and the general erosion of the humanities at all levels in education, are nothing more than the final culmination of the cultural genocide that began during this period. From then on began the slow but steady transference of welfare wealth away from the public sector into private pockets, better know as privatization. Remember, PRIVATIZATION MEANS CORPORATE WELFARE, nothing more, nothing less. The recent bank bailouts are nothing more than the final culmination of this decades-old system, or the coming out of the closet of the corporate powers.

Years ago, when I was drunk at Kaminski’s Tap, if you would have told me that I was setting the economic template, that is, me and a bunch of welfare moms, of the twenty-first century, I would have said that you lie like a French whore. To think that I could possibly have so much in common with, say, a Jamie Dimon of the powerhouse JP Morgan Chase, that a man like this could possibly emulate a guy like me. Yet, it‘s preposterous but true. The welfare state of my mother gave birth to the corporate welfare system of today. American corporations realized early on that they were unable to compete on a global level, and thus to survive turned to privatized welfare. But as Ray Cook, the Hot Dog, would say, “By what right, like by what fucking right,” do corporate fathers stigmatize public welfare recipients when they themselves are welfare recipients? I ask you, are we blind? Jamie Dimon, your ass sucks buttermilk!

Oh where have you gone Stanley Kowalski, fled on your streetcar of desire, just when our nation turns its sorry-assed eyes upon you, boo-who-who. In fact, now that I think of it, maybe the best example I can give you of a Beat Generation mentality is old Stanley Kowalski. The ability to just say screw all this shit. I’m not trying to nostalgia you here. What I’m saying is that if you want to survive in the twenty-first century, you had better adopt a Beat mentality, which is a welfare mentality, which is a corporate mentality. Know that the only people that will go down in the twenty-first century are the believers, the same people who went down in the market crash of 2008. In the twenty-first century, only negative thinkers will make the money. Remember it’s game or be gamed.

Oh my dear mother, Irene, I tried to tell them here, as you once told me, “Remember, Frankie, welfare is a right and not a privilege; whereas working is a privilege and not a right.” But I don’t think that they will believe me. And as the corporate fathers take over the world, that is, privatize it, the former world of welfare slowly fades into the sunset, taking with it the last vestiges of true public prosperity, leaving only a death on the installment plan of sorts. I too finally left the life subsidized by the dole when the Whiskey Café fell to the hands of eminent domain in 1993. This new form of privatization, eminent domain, stalked me through the years and took yet another business from me in 2003, a humble mumbo-jumbo shop just off the corner of 31st and Halsted.

Now, the only growth sector open to a welfare-minded man is bankruptcy. Really.

Read more from Frank Pulaski, a.k.a. Chinatown Frankie P, at his website: gangsterlit.com

One Response to “Confessions from the Welfare State: Lessons learned, and offered, along the American way”

  1. FayPax Says:

    Thanks so much for this insightful and well-written article. I really enjoyed reading it. Since I’m from Chicago, I could intimately relate to a lot you said. You made me homesick.:)

    I recently wrote my take on welfare in an article I called “Confessions of a Welfare Recipient”. I hope you’ll give me a read.

    http://hubpages.com/hub/ConfessionsofaWelfareRecipient

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