In the midst of a brutally chaotic and violent week, we lost one of our fiercest and funniest voices with the death of Kathy Shaidle in Ontario on January 9.
Kathy Shaidle was an opinion writer, poet, film, and cultural critic and unrelenting defender of free speech. She was a conservative Catholic who made enemies on both the left and the right. The biography in her memoir Confessions of a Failed Slut reads “I’ve been called one of the nation’s worst racists by the head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and a tool of the Zionist conspiracy by Stormfront.”
Oftentimes, more conservative commentators discuss the arts and modern contemporary culture as a kind of alien civilization so foreign and depraved as to escape all comprehension. Part of what made Shaidle so effective an advocate for conservative ideas is that she wrote about contemporary culture fearlessly and with authority. Her time in the punk rock world gave her familiarity with counterculture and informed her arguments in favor of tradition and faith. She had been there, done that, and had the t-shirt.
Few conservative columnists could discuss “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with deft expertise or delve into the memoir of Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones with a knowing eye, but Shaidle could do all of that and make you laugh out loud. Even if she did not convince you, she would present a great argument with logic and, most importantly, a sense of humor that never quit.
She titled her blog “Five Feet of Fury” in reference to her short stature. Whether you agreed or disagreed with her views, she was always fun to read. She had a poet’s eye for language—she published several volumes of poetry—and became a devout Catholic later in life. While religious, she did not preach, and modern secular sanctimony was her most common foil.
I exchanged emails with her once, six years ago, after she linked to one of my articles in her column. The article was in a now-defunct Web site, and she mentioned she was a fan of the site and was jealous I wrote for them. Getting a link and compliment on opinion writing from Kathy Shaidle was like having Michael Jordan admire your jump shot or seeing Lenny Bruce laugh at your jokes. It was a boost of morale that has stayed with me years later.
A year ago, Shaidle revealed she had Stage 3 ovarian cancer with a piece titled By the Time You Read This, I Will Be Bald. She wrote, “After more than 50 years, I finally got my hair to look just the way I wanted. So of course I got cancer.”
Over the past year, her spirit and humor did not waiver and she informed her readers of her journey through ovarian cancer. She neither wallowed in self-pity nor attempted to give her readers a rose-colored view of this journey. Earlier this month she posted a note that she would soon be in hospice. A few days later, a self-penned obituary appeared online:
Kathy Shaidle 1964 – 2021
Following a tedious rendezvous with ovarian cancer, Kathy Shaidle has died, wishing she’d spent more time at the office.
Her tombstone reads: GET OFF MY LAWN!
She is relieved she won’t have to update her LinkedIn profile, shave her legs, or hear “Creep” by Radiohead ever again. Some may even be jealous that she’s getting out of enduring a Biden presidency.
Kathy was a writer, author, columnist and blogging pioneer, as proud of her first book’s Governor General’s Award nomination as of her stint as “Ed Anger” for the Weekly World News. A target for “cancel” culture before the term was coined, she was denounced by all the best people, sometimes for contradictory reasons. …
It was exactly the kind of sendoff one would expect. Kathy Shaidle was a fearless writer who defended free speech with unshaking certainty. She faced death with the kind of grace and humor that her readers admired. She will be greatly missed.
Happy New Year from New York City, where neither the Coronavirus, incompetent leadership, nor burgeoning crime can kill us. We have been through a lot over the past year and will go through much more before our current pandemic is over. Things may never return to pre-pandemic “normal” again and that’s not all bad.
We will not let the stressful state of our world stop us from listing some priorities for the New Year. Here are what I see as our guiding principles for 2021:
Stay frosty. I am fortunate that I live in a region where facemasks and social distancing are both the law and the social norm. That is fragile even here and even more difficult in areas where anti-maskers/science deniers have a greater dominance. There is no such thing as being too careful about your health when there is a once-in-a-century pandemic happening. Seriously, no matter your political proclivities, do you really feel the urge to be closer to your fellow man right now? I hope not. Keep your distance and wash your hands. Here is your chance to mouth a hearty “fuck you” to half the people you meet behind your fashionable mask. Stick to it because this is not over yet.
Read more poetry. This oft-ignored form of literature is much more diverse than it gets its due. We need poetry and the madness of literary dreamers now more than ever. You could do worse than perusing Impolite Literature or Outlaw Poetry.
Pursue the things you miss most. This pandemic has left us hungry for things that we miss. It’s has shone a big spotlight on things we love and hate. Remember the things you miss the most and chase them with dedicated abandon. I plan on spending more time making music than I have in recent years. I could never tear myself away but having played only two shows in 2020 has left me with a fever for being back playing shows, no matter how small the stage or the crowd. Some people need to be loud. Maybe you rediscovered a passion for painting pumpkins or making weird videos or trying to grow ghost peppers in your garden. Go for it all.
Chasing normal for normal’s sake won’t work. I miss the benefits of the non-pandemic life but working 12-hour days without seeing your family is bullshit, no matter how much money you make. Just because it bears that pre-pandemic shine does not mean it’s Shinola. Some of the stuff that COVID kicked to the curb belongs there. Leave it.
Don’t wait for the pandemic to be over to reach out to family and friends. You do not have to do a Zoom call or a Skype call for everything. Use your telephone the old-fashioned way and call people. You will find it be a refreshing exercise. Convert the tiresome Zoom calls into regular visits; we can build better rituals in the flesh when that becomes possible again.
Order as much takeout as you can eat without becoming obese. Our favorite local diner cannot let us sit inside, so I brought my girls there this morning and we ordered takeout and had a car picnic in our mini van before driving to an aquarium. Those restaurants that are able to stay open are hanging on for dear life. If you can afford to give them your business, please do, and tip generously.
Time is getting shorter for everyone; and we have put enough of our lives on ice. Grab the New Year by the lapels and make it dance with you.
Thanksgiving came and went with still much to be thankful for in New York, at least for my family. While a second or third Coronavirus raged through the city, our immediate family remains healthy and those in our larger family circle that have been ill have recovered.
Everyone in our family has food in their stomach and a roof over their head. Even before COVID-19 rampaged through the world there were billions of people who could not say that much, and that’s getting worse now. I am gainfully employed and have not been sick and have more than enough food; I am thankful.
New York perseveres, but suffers a crisis of confidence. While we were the first place in the U.S. to see widespread COVID infection and death, we were the first to “flatten the curve” with social distancing and masks. Now we’re having a critical relapse with a spike of infections. Schools closed, now are reopening again in a swift reversal of policy. Crime continues to surge.
And all the while, we see thousands of our fellow New Yorkers not taking their own lives seriously. A Hasidic group worked secretly to arrange a large indoor wedding, sans facemasks, and was given a slap-on-the-wrist fine. I go food shopping and see people who can’t wear a facemask properly going about their business in blissful, entitled ignorance.
Yes, we’re not supposed to be judgmental during these difficult times, but this pandemic has revealed just how many of our fellow human beings are unfit to breath the same air.
Having children in a city apartment can be trying during good times; it has been especially trying during this extended pandemic. What we have though is a place we call the secret playground. It’s not really a secret playground, but a little-used playground in a neighboring co-op that we’re not really supposed to use. The old fogeys that run the board where we live did away with the playground for our building years ago, so to use a local playground is to be an automatic scofflaw.
But I take my girls to the secret playground as often as I can. There are rarely other children playing there, so I can let my kids take down their facemasks, if our family is alone. Usually a few residents will walk through on their way to and from their homes, and we’ll put our masks back up as they come through; they are still almost always more than six feet away. It is an oasis that the unseasonably warmer November weather has given us access to and I don’t want to let a single good weather day go to waste as we endure another lockdown.
Sometime next year, we will hopefully begin adapting to a post-COVID world, and some things we will want to stay the same. I’m not alone in hoping that the world remains one where we’re given more personal space and take extra steps to reduce indoor crowds and make spaces safer, with better ventilation and more protections. These are good ideas outside of pandemics.
And therein lies the appeal of the secret playground: it is a respite from the current world and a model for how to best rebuild when we emerge from our currently dismal state. We cannot live in a bubble world, but we can look at our better adaptations of today to keep our joy and our priorities in line with where we need to be.
I will spare you the regular gibberish about this being the most important election ever and the dire warnings that we will descend into civil war. I think all Americans of voting age should vote because it is our patriotic duty no matter who is on the ballot.
I endorse Joe Biden for President and hope you vote for him. But even if you support Trump or a third-party candidate: go vote. This is your country, and you owe it to yourself to be counted.
My history of picking winners is pitiful. I volunteered for the Bill Bradley campaign in 2000 with zero regrets. Bill Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar who became a basketball superstar and served as a U.S. Senator from New Jersey for three terms. He was the kind of intellect we need in public office but also had a breadth of life experience that made him rise above the pack of regular career machine politicians. He opposed the establishment favorite: Vice President Al Gore.
At his campaign event on the night of Super Tuesday, I noticed none of the big screens in the hotel ballroom were showing any primary results. The party swelled and Bill Bradley came through the crowd toward the stage. Bradley towered above everyone else. He gave a brief speech where he mentioned that he would assess the future of his campaign over the next several days but also made us proud to have been part of the campaign and focused on important issues facing the country. The party wound down and I saw various political and intellectual celebrities there. Professor Cornel West was on the stage close to Bradley and I was glad to see former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (who for me is the one person in the world who will always embody New York City) giving interviews in support of the former Senator.
It wasn’t until I got home and clicked on the TV news did I see the actual results and Holy shit, we got killed! Al Gore’s political machine had made quick work of the Bradley campaign, and Super Tuesday was the coup de grace. Bradley dropped out of the race a few days later. I cast my vote for Al Gore that November with no enthusiasm for Gore but with the indignity that someone as much of a vapid empty suit as George W. Bush had no business getting the nomination of a major political party. I couldn’t believe Republicans could be so gullible to pick Bush over Sen. John McCain, who would have wiped the floor with Al Gore in the general election.
In 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was the one who seemed to get it the most, who told Democrats that the people who drove around in pickup trucks with Confederate flags on them needed to be voting for Democrats too, because they needed healthcare and their kids needed an education. He was promising to take Democrats off the dangerous course of our own culture war. That promise evaporated with Dean’s campaign; I sent in my absentee ballot for John Kerry because he wasn’t George. W. Bush.
Both political parties are now broken. With Trump, we have the same incredulity that came with George W. Bush’s nomination: How could a major political party elevate such a fraud to the highest office of the land? With Biden, we have an establishment politician who had to embrace the excesses of the Democratic Party’s activist wing to secure the nomination.
But the disaster of the Trump presidency, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, makes this election a no-brainer. Biden was not my first choice, but he is the best choice of the two main political parties, and we stand to lose too much ground as a country with another four years of Trump.
All I ask my Trump supporter friends is that they judge the President by his record of the past four years. Would you have forgiven a Democrat who talked big and delivered little on patriotic immigration reform? Would Barak Obama have been able to shrug off reports of Russians paying bounties for American troops killed in Afghanistan? Would even George W. Bush have had the delusional gall to tell the nation that we’ve turned the corner on the Coronavirus pandemic as the U.S. breaks its daily record of new cases?
There are some places wherever you live that you take to represent an important part of your life. Maybe a restaurant where you always go or a movie theater where you saw your favorite movie for the first time. Whatever the reason, these are places that you sentimentalize, maybe sometimes to a fault, because you identify them so closely with good memories.
One of those places for me is The Strand Bookstore. It was one of the first places I frequented when I began living in New York City as an adult.
At some point on just about every weekend I had off (I had to work most weekends), I would make a visit to The Strand a part of my routine. I would never fail to come home with a big bag full of books, sometimes two big bags. Wow, Crime and Punishment for only $3.99—how can I not buy that?? At some point I ended up with two different paperback copies of Anna Karena and gave one copy to a friend.
The Strand would be buzzing with people and I would spend hours wandering its cramped isles. I had a routine of starting with browsing the outside cheap bins (books for as little as 48 cents; it would be a crime not to rifle through every row of books) and making my way through the store, spending most of my time in the fiction section. Years later, I got to meet my guitar hero, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, when he did a book signing event for his memoir ‘Lonely Boy.’
But like many parts of my early life back in the city as an adult; I frequented The Strand less and less. At the time of the pandemic lockdown in mid-March, my time in Manhattan mostly consisted of sitting at a desk in the financial district or midtown and then getting home to Queens as quick as I could. I would occasionally go to a concert or local punk rock show, but those got fewer and farther between. The Strand has a kiosk in Times Square close to my job’s offices there, so I would get a chance to buy some books and a ‘Make America Read Again’ refrigerator magnet. But I ceased being a regular customer.
With the pandemic comes rafts of closures of institutions we thought would continue to be with us, at least through the duration of the virus. This was supposed to be over by now, but we can’t get our shit together enough to contain COVID-19, so things are still ground to a halt.
Recently the owner of The Strand bookstore issued a plea for help from the public to save it from closing. People responded, lining up around the block to buy books at the fabled institution or ordering books online from its web site.
The Strand is a landmark, but being a landmark is not enough. Many friends point out that other important cultural institutions, such as CBGB’s, did not survive to see the pandemic. Other places with deep histories have also not survived.
And The Strand’s ownership has not been entirely forthright. Earlier this year the owner accepted $1 million in in loans and still laid off workers while buying millions in stock, including more than $100,000 worth of Amazon shares. The Strand made a public show of its support to progressive causes while turning a blind eye to the plight of its own workers, so an important part of the store’s natural constituency is either indifferent or hostile to its future.
But an institution can be more than the sum of its owner’s conduct. I have loathed how the New York Yankees’ ownership tore down the House the Ruth Built and treats its fans like absolute garbage, yet I cannot bring myself to disavow the Bronx Bombers. We can detest the people who run our country and still be patriotic Americans. Do we owe The Strand loyalty for all that it has given us, despite the lack of principles by its current owner? I feel a loyalty to this great bookstore, though I understand those that don’t.
I yearn to lose hours of time in a bookstore again; to get the warm ego boost of a Strand cashier complimenting my choices, to amble to the subway laden with more tomes that will add to the ever-expanding walls of books in my home. Those days cannot come soon enough. In the meantime, I will do what I can to help keep the miles of books going.
There are signs hanging in my apartment building that have been there since March. They read: ’15 Days to Flatten the Curve’ and they are a cruel reminder of our country’s failures in the months since. It’s not clear if COVID-19 will be under control at the 15-month mark from this past March. Broadway shows announced they will be closed through May 2021.
New York City was the center of the Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Our country’s most vibrant and the cultural capital of the planet, its shutdown has been an albatross around the neck of America. If our greatest city can’t get its shit together, what hope has the rest of the U.S.? Whereas New York has proudly led the country in decades past, we are instead forecasting its tragic bungling of a global pandemic.
Evidence of that tragedy has extended to our own family’s approach to public schools.
The New York City public schools have had no bigger advocate than my wife Emily. Raised in Queens and a product of New York’s public school system, she often mentions our good local schools as a major selling point when we discuss the future as parents. She believes whole-heartedly in public education and the ability of public schools to make a difference in people’s lives. This school year she is home schooling our kids.
My wife’s belief in the power of good public schools has not changed. New York City public schools had a ham-handed approach to school reopening that left us unconvinced that our kids would be returning to a safe environment or in a way that was manageable.
When the COVID-19 lockdown started in March, few if anyone thought that we would still be struggling with it by the start of the next school year. So the kind of planning for a socially distant learning scenario didn’t get started on time. The schools in New York provide a lot of vital social services, which is why city officials were slow to close them in March and which motivated them to put too much emphasis on making in-person learning part of the reopening plans.
The plans that the city came up with were haphazard and half-assed. It was a convoluted combination of in-person and remote learning, neither part of which the city was adequately prepared for. Kids were supposed to report to school for three days and then do remote learning from home two days, alternating days by weeks. People like us with multiple children in the same school faced the prospect of juggling different childcare schedules in addition to navigating multiple remote learning systems. Days before scheduled schools were set to reopen, teachers asked the city to delay; the promised safety equipment and extra hand-sanitizing stations that were supposed to be in place were not.
Seeing this chaos in the wake of the poorly and dangerously executed school closings from earlier this year and the worsening situation in the reopening, our family chose to home school for a year. So far it’s not perfect but it is going well. My wife keeps the girls busy every day with some kind of learning, much of it hands-on in parks or nature centers. We can supplement the home learning with limited classes offered by local institutions; my wife is finding a way to get it done.
The city’s approach hasn’t worked, up to 150 public schools have had to close since reopening due to staff and students testing positive for COVID-19. The schools have not handled the increased numbers of homeschooling well either. My wife gave the school adequate notice that we were homeschooling this year, but weeks into the school year we got a call from the school asking why our children were not logged on remotely.
This virus is still wreaking havoc on the country and people want to blithely act like it is not happening. The city, like much of the country, is still struggling with lockdowns and virus containment. We had all hoped to be getting “back to normal” months ago; whatever version of normal returns looks to be well into 2021.
In the meantime, we’ll be teaching our kids at home.
New York City’s obituary has been written many times. The latest declarations of Gotham’s demise harp on the current crop of problems but ignore New York’s ability to survive even the worst the world has to offer.
The current issues confronting NYC are for certain no joke. Our city was the epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic and its expansive economic impact and slow recovery continues to force businesses to close. Our vibrant nightlife and renowned theater district have been shuttered for months with no recovery in the near term. On top of that, we’ve seen a resurgence of crime and “quality of life” issues that harken back to the dark times of the 1970s and 1980s, replete with threats to lay off city workers including law enforcement.
It’s gotten to the point where a group of business leaders wrote a letter to New York City’s mayor pleading with him to begin addressing the crime problem and other issues of urban decay. Mayor Bill de Blasio began his first term promising to put a progressive spin on the successes of his predecessors; he will leave office an object of ridicule and a case study in how activist mayors consistently fail New York.
But as bad as New York’s problems are, they pale in comparison to problems that we’ve seen only a few short decades ago.
I first lived in New York City when I was born, and as a baby I lived on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx near Fordham Road. Not far from where I was living with my parents, landlords were routinely setting fire to their own buildings; cashing in the insurance money was more lucrative than renting apartments and the buildings were insured for more than they would have fetched on the real estate market. A few years later, New York’s Mayor Abe Beam famously appealed to President Gerald Ford for a federal bailout, as New York City was broke. ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’ was the famous NY Daily News headline documenting his refusal to help.
A little over a century earlier, Union troops were drawn away from the battlefield of Gettysburg by the Draft Riots of 1863, which saw rampaging Irish mobs attack and murder Blacks, even setting fire to an orphanage. Even the most anarchic rioters of the current crime wave have not reached these levels of depravity.
I’ve been mugged and pickpocketed and gone through a year of unemployment to the point of having only a few dollars to my name. I have also played music on a stage that the Ramones made famous, had my family on cable television ringing the stock market’s opening bell, and seen some of the best concerts, plays and movies available to our civilization. New York is where I met my wife and where we raise our children and can show them the cultures of half the world by only traveling a few miles.
While the thought occurs to me to leave New York sometimes, the urge to stay is greater.
After the September 11 attacks, it became unpatriotic to flee the five boroughs in my opinion. It still breaks my heart that we have allowed religious lunatics to remake our skyline. But these failures of leadership do not make New York City less great, only more resilient.
The Roman Empire fell long ago, but Rome is still majestic and magical. New York was a force for the world before America became a reality. New York will survive the current malaise gripping America; it will survive until humanity dies out. New York City will be here forever.
This year has seen the departure of some great musicians: Little Richard, Charlie Daniels, Neil Peart from Rush, Frankie Banali of Quiet Riot and W.A.S.P., Fleetwood Mac cofounder Peter Green, Power Trip lead singer Riley Gale, the list goes on.
Walter Lure’s passing is a loss that hits home for music fans, especially punk rock fans. Lure was one of the founders of The Heartbreakers, the band led by former New York Dolls Guitarist Johnny Thunders. The Heartbreakers were immensely influential in shaping punk rock. Lure helped write many of the band’s most famous songs and was part of the vanguard that brought punk rock to the world. After the Heartbreakers, he continued to play and record music with his own band, The Waldos. His musical virtuosity extended beyond his own groups as well. If you ever hear a guitar solo on a Ramones record, chances are Walter Lure is playing it. He was the one holding things down and singing lead vocals oftentimes when Johnny Thunders, addled by drug use, would nod off on stage.
Lure struggled with his own addiction, and recounted in an interview that an arrest for buying drugs on his lunch break and almost losing his job was what finally drove him to beat his habit. He worked in the financial world, running large clearing operations, and eventually retiring in 2015 from Neuberger Berman.
“The funny bit was that back in the 90s when I was in charge of all those people on the job, a lot of them would come to my shows and laugh at the fact that their boss was playing punk rock music onstage. My clothes closet had all my work suits and ties on one side and the other side had all the beat-up stage clothes. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here you are!”
And here is another way in which Walter Lure continues to inspire so many musicians. The rock stars you see on the covers of magazines are an exceedingly small percentage of the people who are out there playing music every night. Most musicians who make music don’t make money at it and have to hold down day jobs to keep a roof over their head. Walter Lure was a big enough musician that if this were a just world, he would have had mansions all over the world, but he held down a day job and continued to make great music.
My band Blackout Shoppers got to play with The Waldos in the basement of CBGB’s 13, which was part of CBGB’s but not the more famous main stage. Walter Lure had played that main stage plenty of times and would later be one of the last acts to play when CB’s shut down a few years later.
He would have had every right to carry a massive rock star ego or bristle at the idea playing on a small stage in a basement with a bunch of unknown bands, but there was none of that from him. He showed up with his band and rocked, playing lots of the famous punk rock songs he helped write. He gladly took pictures with people who wanted to and hung around and chatted with everyone afterwards. He stayed true to the punk ethos to his dying day.
One of my friends whose band was on that same show commented, “We all got to play with Walter Lure, how lucky were we all??”
The world was lucky to have Walter Lure making music for so long. RIP and thank you Waldo.
We are less than a month away from annual tributes to the September 11 attacks, and for a few tense days it looked like one of the most enduring traditions around the commemoration, the Tribute in Light—two columns of light projected from lower Manhattan close to where the Twin Towers were located—may not go on.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which puts on the display, said it would have to cancel it over concerns for worker safety around the Coronavirus. The museum stated it didn’t have the financial support it needed to ensure the safety of the workers who would assemble and maintain the lights, and had made a contingency plan that replaced the traditional Twin Tower lights with other skyline observances on the night of September 11. There was a typical tabloid and internet-fueled outrage, and after securing funding promises from New York State, the museum reversed course and announced that the tribute will go on as planned.
It is a moving tribute that can be seen from the farthest reaches of the five boroughs and beyond: the night sky aglow with the ghostly shadow of our city’s loss. It is a sign of New York City’s resolve to create something beautiful out of tragic beginnings, and not forget the tremendous loss of that day even as we keep going.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks; the largest loss of life in a single day since the General Slocum ship disaster of 1904. This past April, the death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City exceeded 4,000, surpassing the deaths from the September 11 attacks.
The Tribute in Light though, is additionally tragic because it also shines a light on our failure to rebuild properly. We have allowed Islamic fundamentalists to remake our greatest city. Every time we look at New York’s skyline, we see the work of murderous savages who thought Allah was commanding them to kill children and babies. I’m sure the new World Trade Center is a fine building; it certainly looks grand. But it’s not two Twin Towers. The Tribute in Light highlights our failures to stand up for ourselves.
When the towers fell, I thought for certain that our country would stand for nothing less than two new Twin Towers, maybe a few feet taller than the originals. That was the only proper rebuilding response to the terror attacks, and we made a hash of it.
The towers of light are what we have left, and the thought of not even having that was too much for some people. We cannot get people to wear masks and now we can’t pay tribute to September 11 victims because we cannot muster the resources to keep workers safe. If we can’t even shine lights into the sky, what has become of us?
New Yorkers have been living with the Coronavirus pandemic longer than anywhere outside of China. There’s a deep hunger for anything that is remotely normal. Any time we can safely do the normal human things we used to do; we’ll do it.
The Tribute in Light will be back this year; please think of those who we lost nearly two decades ago and the sacrifices so many made that day. It will be a moment of beauty in the midst of a lot of ugly.
Long Beach Island, New Jersey
How does an area centered on catering to crowds of tourists manage to keep people safe during the heavy tourist season? Long Beach Island is coping in the time of the pandemic. It has been a family tradition to come to Long Beach Island for about a week every summer and we hoped since March that this year would be no exception.
Early in the pandemic my in-laws, who invite us down ever year, mentioned that there would be new social distancing guidelines for the beaches and restaurants, that LBI had moved quickly to adapt.
The beach is still too crowded on some days. While being outdoors is a help; it’s still not safe enough during the heavy morning hours to go there. I went to bring my kids to the beach and quickly turned around when we saw the size and density of the crowd.
One of the key tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is that things that were once routine now require serious decision making. Can my kids play with that little girl in the pool? Can I take my girls to the beach to build a sandcastle? Those were no-brainers in the past; not anymore. There won’t be easy answers for a while.
Whether or not people wore facemasks on Long Beach Island is random. Being from New York City, we feel naked without them, but people from this part of New Jersey have not had the same level of virus infection to make mask-wearing second nature and it’s not as real to them. Shortly before coming down to Beach Haven, we saw that lifeguards in nearby towns had an outbreak of the Coronavirus, not from their time on the beach as lifeguards but from partying together after hours.
You can hear people partying into the night and see them moving unmasked and in irresponsibly large groups everywhere. The island is full of visiting young people and people old enough to know better traipsing around as if there is not a global pandemic still raging across the country.
If you tried to lecture everyone acting foolish about how to wear a mask or distance, you would do nothing else. Calling people out or trying to deliver street justice would quickly evolve into fistfights or some other unproductive screaming match ripe for the viral internet montages of hostility that are already plentiful. Instead you do your best to lead by example; keep the mask on if you are near people, keep six feet apart.
There is not much you can do but do the right thing and keep away from people who don’t. It is easier to do here than in New York, so this still counts as a vacation. Things are not going to be back to normal soon and it would be a rancid lie to pretend otherwise.
Life in this vacation spot goes on; those businesses that have survived on Long Beach Island have adapted well. The Chicken or the Egg is still in high demand and they offer only outdoor seating and to-go orders; the Jersey Devil sandwich still provides a terrific serving of pork roll and I was able to feast on their Buffalo shrimp again. My wife and I had a date night at the excellent Artisan Café that made an amazing Italian mac & cheese and moved its dining outdoors as well. Buckalew’s created an outdoor beer garden and has very on-time pickup service.
The Surflight Theatre survives not only from the Coronavirus but from Tropical Storm Isaias that knocked over its outdoor tent. We were still able to enjoy a Frozen musical with the kids and a comedy night featuring Mike Marino and Sheba Mason—outstanding.
This past Saturday I walked the beach at night. There were a few other people walking about in the darkness, some with cell phone flashlights, and a patrol vehicle that drove back and forth. Only a few yards away from masses of humanity, I took comfort in seeing two shooting stars and a blood orange moon that looked like a nighttime sun.
I stood in awe of the moon, which was sitting low in the sky and casting its bright colorful light over the sea. The thunder of the Atlantic Ocean drones on, its waves crashing to shore in a powerful chorus When our world appears cracked, nature has a way of putting human civilization in perspective.
Years ago, when I lived in Inwood, I walked to the public pier at Dyckman Street on the Hudson River to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. The sightings were disappointing. Through clouds in the distance I could see the faint glow of a few shows over New Jersey and could see none of the official Macy’s fireworks happening farther downtown.
I returned to my apartment disappointed but was soon treated to shows of illegal fireworks that more than compensated. The barrage of ordnance that filled the northern Manhattan sky was a welcome sight that took me back to my childhood in Yonkers. I would emerge from our apartment in Yonkers on July 5th to a scene that resembled a war zone. The curbs and corners were filled with the spent paper from reams of firecrackers, and one time I saw a metal garbage can that had been exploded and overturned, looking like a giant metallic banana peel.
When I first returned to the city to live as an adult, I lived in Ozone Park, once the home to professional-grade illegal fireworks shows and street festivals paid for by the Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti. Gotti had been in prison several years at that point, and the authorities worked hard to prevent the return of a large-scale illegal fireworks display. Police were all over 101st Ave. and the surrounding streets, but it made little difference. Managing to get on the roof of my building, I could see the official fireworks far away in Manhattan, but the cat-and-mouse game of cops and illicit fireworks was more entertaining.
Illegal fireworks have been a New York City staple for decades. When I was in fifth grade in the New York suburbs, I went to a neighbor’s yard where a friend’s father let me light sparklers off some candles set on the ground. I felt like the greatest outlaw on Earth. Kids waved around sparklers while adults set off bottle rockets and M-80s. When we heard police sirens in the distance, adults blew the candles out and we ran to the backyard until the danger had passed.
More recently, we have enjoyed the sights of fireworks over Whitestone and College Point. Early morning jogs through Flushing Memorial Field has found launch sites of the previous evenings fireworks displays, the tubes still smelling of gunpowder in the cool dawn, like a mortar position of a recently passed battle.
The allure of illicit explosives dates to the birth of the American nation. The first battles of the American Revolution were fought over the British Army’s attempt to seize illegal weapons.
New York, which was under the yoke of British rule for the bulk of the Revolution, was no less fervent in its commitment to the cause. One of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought in Brooklyn; the Battle of Long Island almost ended the Revolution—Washington barely escaped to regroup. The first woman known to take up arms for the United States did so in Manhattan at the Battle of Fort Washington; Americans lost that battle too and Fort Tryon park still bears the name of the British governor of New York at the time.
Our founding fathers would have been hanged as traitors to the crown had we not won. No matter our heritage, Americans are proudly descended from outlaws and outcasts. People setting off fireworks today are not would-be revolutionaries, but they are tapping into the same antiauthoritarian sentiment that is alive in spades in America today.
The city has seen an increase in setting off illegal fireworks. We hear them in every neighborhood and in some cases too late (true fireworks enthusiasts know to stop between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m., July Fourth excepted). There is a need now for people to celebrate and sending exploding stars into the night sky is best done while remaining safely distant from fellow citizens. Many bars and restaurants remain closed, large parts of the city are effectively locked down by massive protests. Fireworks are a needed respite, a needed release of our energies to celebrate something, whether that be the birth pangs of a better America or a fiery exegesis of an abiding patriotism.
Illegal fireworks are a proud New York tradition, a proud American tradition. Let it never die.
In John Carpenter’s 1984 film “Starman,” Jeff Bridges stars as an alien who is stranded on Earth, and goes on the run from U.S. government agents with the widow of a deceased housepainter, whose body he has cloned as a disguise. They have misadventures while eluding the authorities and the widow (Karen Allen) falls in love with this alien in the body of her dead husband.
In retrospect the plot summary makes this sound like a ludicrous B-film, but it works. One scene and one line from the film has stuck with me since I watched it in a movie theater as a 12-year-old.
The couple are finally cornered in a restaurant by the authorities and the federal agent who has been leading the hunt for them comes to confront them. He asks the alien about his journey and learns he is here to study Earthlings.
“You are a strange species, not like any other, and you would be surprised how many there are, intelligent but savage,” the Jeff Bridges/alien tells his pursuer. “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?”
The federal agent nods yes.
“You are at your very best when things are worst.”
That line has been etched in my mind for more than three decades now, and it’s a fitting mantra for the times we are in.
“You are at your very best when things are worst.”
It can be hard to imagine things getting worse. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has hit the U.S. harder than any other country, followed by widespread civil unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, poisonous politics in an election year and unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.
These are times that try our patience and our resolve. It is easy to want to withdraw and bunker down, to tune out the outside world and lapse into a fatalistic nihilism, a hopeless sloth of withdrawal.
The pandemic reminded us that contact with others is an essential part of life. Human contact is something we took for granted, or even came to resent in New York City, where everything is too crowded and the inconsideration of others is amplified by proximity.
But the need to interact with others is more important now than ever, and despite the myriad conflagrations boiling over in our society, we can still find common ground with decent people of differing ideas.
Human life is inherently tribal, and America has forged tribes along lines of culture and character in ways other societies cannot fathom. These cultures appear to be irreconcilable, but basic human decency and goodness can transcend even our deepest chasms. The past few weeks have shown the extent of our divisions but also the depth of our decency and resolve.
“You are at your very best when things are worst.”
It is time to be the best person you can be and play some part in making our world a better one. You may be at odds with your friends and family, you may be subjected to hatefulness from smaller minds, but the things most worth doing are often most difficult. Keep going.
We can look back at this time and be proud we were at our very best.