Times Square Before and After Terror

Last week I found myself having to go to Times Square and I actually looked forward to doing so. It was for work—I work in public relations and there was a conference I needed to attend. I hustled through half the workday to get enough done since I’d be away from the office.

Times Square is where tourists go to drink in the grandeur of New York. It’s where our city wears its gaudy commerce on its sleeve without apology, where someone with a silly gimmick can strike it rich and inspire many imitators. It is in some ways the central square of Western Civilization today, as sad as that may seem at times.

I’m old enough to remember when Times Square was a foreboding place, though I always found it more alluring than scary. The pornographic theaters were what thrilled me when I would walk through as a kid, trying to look like I wasn’t gawking at the barely-censored photos of women in acts of glorious carnality. I would be entranced at the spectacle of what Times Square as I was feasting my eyes on this delightful glimpse into the ribald adult world. It did not appear to be the war zone that I had been led to believe. Its name carried more ominous insinuation than realized malice.

When I moved back to New York, nearly 20 years ago now, things were different and it became an embodiment of all that was wrong with a vastly improved yet quickly gentrifying city. It was where people would feed at the trough of major chain restaurants when they could dine on authentic culinary delights only a short journey away. It was where ignorant tourists got taken to the cleaners with overpriced goods. For many years I avoided Times Square, and with good reason. It was in a transitional period where it had become safe and was attracting lots of tourists but had not yet been renovated to include the wide pedestrian plazas it enjoys today. The sidewalks were nearly impassable and traffic still zoomed around.

In the years since, I’ve come to have a begrudging appreciation for visiting there. On a date with my wife several years ago, I wanted to avoid Times Square, but my wife insisted we walk through it. “You need to learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city,” she told me. And she was right.

Last week I wasn’t there long and spent most of my time at a conference in the Thomson Reuters Building. I marveled at the view, and got the closest you can get to the large Times Square New Year’s Eve ball without being one of the workers in charge of its upkeep.

As night descended, I took breaks from the work conference to steal looks and take photos of the avenues leading from Times Square. As the sky darkened, the lights of the city came to life and the twilight glowed with a ready anticipation of what night would bring.

Stepping out into the night, I stopped for a minute to take a video of the scene before me. Two mounted policemen trotted by as I got my phone out so I only captured them from a distance as they passed, but even on a relatively uneventful weeknight, the scene in Times Square is both maddening and encouraging. It is a slice of Walt Whitman’s bustling and beautiful New York writ for modern times, coursing with strangers, each with a story we’ll never have time to learn or decipher.

Two days after my visit, a car drove onto the sidewalk and killed an 18-year-old woman, a visitor to the city there to take in the vibrancy of life. The police say the driver was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t stop until his car was upended by a stanchion. If there’s any functioning justice system in our city this killer will never be a free man again.

Another week later, and terror is rearing its head in another part of the world. But in New York we have known fear and breezed past it, the way New York commuters breeze past slower-moving tourists. We don’t respect fear in this city because it contributes nothing, it doesn’t earn its keep.

Even in the face of fear of death, Times Square will be full of life. It may be foolish and squalid life, but it glows with the unstoppable light of New York, and it will never be extinguished.

Calls for civility in a savage system

New York City’s transit authority is going to be spending money trying to make our subways more civilized towards pregnant women. A button reading Baby on Board’ is being made available to women who are pregnant, in hopes this will encourage more people on public transit to give them their seats. Another button reading ‘Please Offer Me a Seat’ is available free online also.

Our trains and buses are not kind places. My wife would go entire journeys without being offered a place to sit when she was visibly pregnant. A friend’s wife who is an expert photographer created a running series of shaming photos when she was carrying their first son, posting snapshots she had taken of men who had seen her very obviously with child and declined to offer her a seat.

I’m a firm believer in adhering to traditional etiquette. I’m one of the few people my age that knows to walk closest to the street when walking with a woman on the sidewalk. That made for some awkward dating moments but I’m a stickler for the rules of proper etiquette, at least if I can remember then.

I don’t even attempt to get a seat on the subway anymore. When I lived at the end of the A train in Inwood and knew I’d get a seat and be able to sleep most of my commute, I did that. But now I ride the 7 train and the 6 train, two of the most crowded and miserable lines in the city. I don’t want to fight with people at the Main Street-Flushing stop when I can be close to the door that’s going to open at Grand Central for my hurried dash to the 6 platform. And what would we be fighting for? The privilege of sitting on a hard plastic seat where a homeless guy jerked off a few hours before? I have more room to breathe if I stand anyway. Besides, I’m a sedentary office worker for more than 10 hours a day, why add to that sloth during my commute, where it pays dividends to be on your feet? But if I do happen to be sitting in a seat and I see a pregnant woman or elderly person, I’ll offer them my seat.

There are a myriad of reasons the subways and buses are not models of civility. One of them is the fact that a large city is impersonal and New York in particular is designed for only the most aggressive and determined people to succeed at anything.

But a leading reason that transit riders are not civil towards one another is that the subways and buses are cauldrons of misery plagued with inadequate services and rising fares for decades. Why, in one of the most forward-thinking and progressive cities in the world, is anyone anywhere in the five boroughs waiting more than 10 or 15 minutes for a subway or bus? Why are we trying to run a 21st century subway system with 19th century era signal systems?

How about fixing our failing system so that those deserving have a better chance of getting a seat without asking someone to move? How about better handicapped access at all stations so it doesn’t take a guy in a wheelchair five hours to buy a bagel? These things are a lot harder to do than hand out free buttons, but they need doing.

I hope that there is some benefit to the button campaign. But subway and bus service is so sub-standard for a major, industrialized world city that any resources not directed at a needed upgrade is putting lipstick on a pig. If by some chance this campaign succeeds and more pregnant women and sick and elderly people have seats, this only means they will be more comfortable when getting screwed over by the MTA.

Drive time solitude amid the slumber

I was put in the terrifying position of watching over all three of my young children on my own for several hours. My wife does this every day as I commute to work in Manhattan and back. But she was doing food demonstrations for Flushing C.S.A. at an event at the historic John Bowne House recently and I was on my own with our three girls.

I had not planned what to do but my wife convinced me that taking them to the New York Hall of Science would be good. She was spot on. If you have young children and if it’s convenient to get to, the New York Hall of Science is a great place.

We stayed as long as we could but after about four and a half hours there, our three-year-olds had clothes that were wet from one of the water exhibits and it was time to start heading home. We had arrived before it was open but we left around 2:15 p.m. and I made a bee line straight for home and kept up conversation with the kids as best I could, hoping the motion of driving would not put the girls to sleep, but it did.

Kids napping in the car is a double-edged sword. On one hand the kids are guaranteed to take a nap at the same time. On the other hand that nap will not be that long and you will be stuck in your vehicle for an hour. Sometimes that’s fine but sometimes that doesn’t work at all. You can’t go on a long trip because the kids could wake up at any time and start crying and you’ll need to take them home quickly. If you have to go to the bathroom, you are out of luck and may have to improvise.

I realized less than a mile from home that I was now going to be spending at least the next hour or more in the minivan. I was at peace with that.

Drive time can be a time of much-appreciated solitude. Quiet solitude is remarkably achievable even when you’re living in a city of millions of people. The size of New York gives its citizens a certain degree of anonymity. During my drive I passed by thousands of people, had close encounters with maybe half dozen drivers down narrow two-way streets, and did business with one fast food worker. I could give you the basic pedigree information about the fast food worker but nothing else, and I doubt anyone I encountered during that hour and a half could tell you anything about me.

When you spend most of your days without any peace and quiet, you learn to appreciate any small moments of quiet solitude you can get, and these drive times with napping children can be very valuable. They are something that takes the edge off of the frantic pace of the city, that gives us a moment to enjoy the sights and sounds of our own corner of this metropolis without interruption. The same can be said of walks in the park or even walking anonymously down city streets.

Our teeming Gotham demands much of us and part of the thrill of living here is to embrace the breakneck pace of life. But when you get a chance for an hour of respite, no matter how diluted, grasp onto it and enjoy every minute.

Being a hunter on a vegan farm sanctuary

This past weekend I went to a wedding that was held on a vegan farm animal sanctuary. The farm sanctuary is near Woodstock in upstate New York (“upstate” is technically anywhere in New York that is north of the five boroughs though people who live in Rochester or Niagara Falls might beg to differ—Albany might be a more suitable line of demarcation). This was not in the suburbs, but in a rural area where the crowded noise of the city does not reach until we bring it with us.

The bride in the wedding is an earnest young woman whose love of animals knows almost no bounds. I was bound to respect her wishes, though I’m not sure my belt and shoes were not leather. I thought it best to tread close to violating the sanctity of veganism rather than risk dressing like a hippie at a friend’s wedding. The groom was Joey Steel, one of the hardest working and intense men the punk rock scene has ever known. His progressive politics make Jello Biafra look like Ted Nugent.

A friend and former coworker who is a vegan was delighted that I was going. She sponsors a pig there named Julia and asked me to send her a photo.

We arrived a bit on the late side, as driving there meant contending with traffic and a hotel that said we could check in early and then said we couldn’t. As we pulled into the farm sanctuary, a woman came out of a small guard house to greet us. We told her we were going to the wedding and she told us where to go, asking us to drive slowly and be careful of children or animals that might wander onto the dirt road.

I did not mention to the woman that I would every gladly kill and eat every animal on the sanctuary or that she was missing out because chickens, cows, and pigs are all very delicious. That would be rude to say, but I could not help thinking it as we rolled past tasty-looking animals. My wife learned from speaking to some of the staff that the eggs that the chickens produce on the farm sanctuary are cooked and fed back to the chickens, in a strange horror show of avian cannibalism.

After the ceremony, the bride and groom invited guests to take a tour of the facility, which resembled a farm in many ways. The animals there have come from various farms and people can often go into their enclosures and pet them. I got to feed a very large cow named Elvis.

When the tour reached the pigs, I asked the tour guide which pig was Julia the pig. The tour guide said she did not know of a pig named Julia there, that perhaps I was confusing their animal sanctuary with another one. Apparently this place has not cornered the market on hippie vegan farm sanctuaries where people pay for farm animals they can’t eat. Who knew? I was sure that this was the place though and sent my friend a photo of several of the pigs to ask if one of them was her Julia.

I hope no bad fate has befallen this pig. I hope that she really exists and is not just a scam to wring money out of kind-hearted vegans.

It is a sign of comfort and stability that people in our society can not only be vegans but invest in livestock that will never be eaten. In many parts of the world, people cannot afford to not eat their animals or the milk or eggs they produce. An abundance of food and reliability of agricultural yield are great benefits of the First World no one wants to give up. Even at my lowest points of unemployment and poverty, I never thought starvation was a remote possibility.

One of the reasons I got into hunting was because I believe that if you eat meat, you should be willing to hunt. You should know first-hand about the spilling of blood that puts food on your plate. Death is part of life; to sanitize our experience with death is to provide a false version of life. Vegans and hunters are similar in this way: they both acknowledge that the central defining act of eating meat happens not in the presentation on the plate, but on the floor of the forest or the slaughter house.

The Catskills are inspiring and my wife and I are grateful to have been invited to such a great wedding in such a beautiful place. And as much as I enjoy hunting, I can be a vegan for a few hours for my friends.

Science is usually our friend

This weekend our family attended an event called the Queens SOUP that was hosted by the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce. The event raises money for a worthwhile community group and participants vote for a winning group from among four that make presentations for projects. My wife was one of the presenters for the Flushing C.S.A.

The winning group was the Lewis H. Latimer House’s Summer Tinker Lab. Lewis Latimer was a prominent African-American scientist who contributed greatly to the invention of the light bulb and was instrumental in the spreading use of electricity. His former home is a preserved historic site in Flushing. The Latimer House’s presentation consisted of a music demonstration that allowed children to use a circuit and a laptop to make music with basic household items.

Our twins love music and it was great to watch them thrill at the discovery of the circuit concept and to have that associated with music. We want our girls to join the Tinker Lab program when they are old enough. The relatively small grant that the Latimer House received was nonetheless a victory for science.

Earlier that same day, thousands of people marched around the country in a “March for Science,” protesting the current White House’s policies that labels climate change theory as either a hoax or exaggerated. The march also looked to show disgust with the general anti-intellectual attitude that many conservative establishment politicians have tended to embrace in recent decades.  Science is great and is certainly worth of the reverence, but let’s take a look at what adhering to science means.

“Science” to me means the skilled application of learning through the empirical method of observation, experimentation, and theorization. It usually results in a consensus view among those who practice the scientific method.

Science does not abide by any values other than those used by those conducting those experiments. Dr. Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, was a scientist. So was Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted cruel experiments on victims at Auschwitz. They each made discoveries that advanced the causes of medicine, but they are rightfully not held in the same esteem by our civilization.

Science cannot be claimed as a mantle by any partisan cause. The people who “Marched for Science” this past weekend were embracing those scientific findings that supported their ideas. We may agree with those ideas, but we can’t ignore that these are values-driven at their core.

Science will ultimately thwart attempts to make it the show horse of any political movement. If the mastery of science is by itself our only measure, then J. Robert Oppenheimer should be on as many t-shirts as Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not. And like our politics, scientific consensus is subject to change. What passes for common sense today might be considered foolhardy balderdash in a few years’ time.

So let us embrace science at every turn and let our children know it is fun. But let’s not pretend that science is always our friend. It’s going to prove us wrong at some point and leave us with very uncomfortable conclusions. But living life means facing those awkward moments and making sure your kids are prepared to face them too.

For science!

Running for Flushing Bay

New York City has a myriad of opportunities to go running. Every weekend somewhere in the five boroughs you can find a race or a fun run to suit your needs.

Being an out-of-shape middle-aged office worker with more aspiration than perspiration on my calendar, I like these organized events because it means I’m going to get out the door on time and get a nice bit of exercise as I am striving to get myself into better shape.

So it was fortuitous that I learned of the Guardians of Flushing Bay 5k this past weekend. It is close to home and for a good cause, raising money to help the organization work for a cleaner and more accessible Flushing Bay.

Flushing Bay is a piece of waterfront that needs the cleanup help and is underutilized. It’s got a paved running path, benches to sit on, and even a boat launch and a pier, but not that many people use it and it’s not easily accessible. There is a marina there where people have their boats, but there is not a thriving waterfront that could be there.

There are a lot of improvements that could be made for cleanliness and accessibility, so it’s great to see the Guardians of Flushing Bay group start to organize. They took photos of all the runners gathered there to show support to local politicians and the run raised money to support their efforts. There’s no reason Northeast Queens can’t have an excellent waterfront as well.

My wife is a member of the Flushing C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), a local farm share chapter that lets members order food directly from local farms. She set up an information table and sat our 10-month-old daughter there with her. She had a good number of people coming over and joining the mailing list. “Babies and puppies can sell anything,” she explained.

The run was well-attended but not a large gathering like you would find at one of the large Roadrunners events. It maintained a very helpful community spirit throughout. A large number of the participants were members of dragon boat racing teams that frequently practice in Flushing Bay.

My wife’s cousin, who runs 5k races frequently and has run the New York City Marathon and other marathons, joined us. She had a later start time than I did and fell and hurt her thumb, but still breezed past me.

I normally like to listen to music when I go running both to inspire me and drown out the sounds of my own wheezy breathing. I forgot to bring it this time. But the sights and sounds of Flushing Bay, of Queens waking up on a Saturday morning, were inspiration enough. There were also volunteers along the way offering encouraging words to fast runners and slow-pokes alike.

When I run a 5k, I make it a point to run the whole thing and not walk part of it. I may be slow but I want to be consistent and until I get in better shape I need to push myself to keep going.

It was a good day for the race as the weather was sunny but not too hot. During the run you could smell the briny essence of the Bay and see the pollution that washes up at high tide. You could also see the great promise of making better use of the esplanade and marina. The run took us from where Flushing Creek branches inland from the bay to within a few hundred yards of LaGuardia Airport’s Delta terminal and back.

When I approached the end of the run, a small crowd of volunteers and runners cheered me on. As tired as I was, the cheers and the sight of my two older girls standing just beyond the line encouraged me to pick up the pace a bit. I wheezed my way over the finish line and scooped up our three-year-olds and carried them back to my wife’s C.S.A. table.

As more runners finished and took advantage of the water, oranges, and bagels, some dragon boats appeared in the bay near the run and began racing one another. It was a pleasant end to a good event. We hope that the Guardians of Flushing Bay do this every year.

Join my army of warrior poets

I moved back to New York City nearly 20 years ago. I packed all of my belongings into a small rented moving truck and drove north from the sprawl of suburban Atlanta to the sprawl of New York City. It was early November when I arrived at my mother’s house in suburban Briarcliff. The trees rained yellow leaves like gold vermillion onto the damp, black streets.

I came to New York to find literary fame and fortune and I’m still fighting the good fight. My enemies are my own laziness and self-doubt and the regular pressures of needing to make a living and feed a family. I have friends who no longer write and are comfortable in their day jobs. I have friends who have found great success as writers and published books. They make me green with envy sometimes but I can’t scream that things are unfair: they worked hard and have been more on the ball than I’ve been when it comes to managing a career.

I sometimes doubt my abilities to put words to the ideas coursing through our lives that will move people and help them see themselves in greater things. I sometimes doubt my odds in gaining success in the creative field and rising to the esteemed literary heights so widely celebrated.

What I do not doubt is my love of creativity and burning need to produce good work. I am confident in my connection to the orgiastic madness that powers the human animal and makes our Gotham such a powerful crucible. I will never question my love of truth and the embrace of human kind’s true carnal nature. I will never surrender my ability to be a black flame helping fellow travelers navigate the cold dark realities of an indifferent world.

Art and creativity make life worth living; it’s how we express the truth of human existence as we struggle to understand it and find our place in the world. I have been very fortunate to have friends who have helped me indulge in reading James Dickey on whiskey-soaked nights in the sultry summer night of Georgia, friends who have written poems that have been turned into songs and that can still bring tears to my eyes to this day, and friends who held Burns Night parties complete with haggis where the party would come to a dead stop to read from the Bard of Scotland.

As I struggled to get a handle on writing fiction, I continued to write and publish poems, and my earliest successes have been with publishing poetry. I have come to the realization that I may be better at writing poems than writing fiction or non-fiction and that I at least owe the form more time and attention than I have been giving it. Poems can be written quickly and can express an idea in its rawest form. It can inspire by telling a narrative story or not. Either way it echoes in the hearts of the reader who feels inspired to do great things. I lapsed in recent years in writing them but I have recently redoubled my efforts to write poetry every night. Last year I also starting finishing and publishing one poem per week through Impolite Literature’s Web site.

This national poetry month, join me in reading poetry, in understanding that poetry is the testament of our civilization. The future will judge the worthiness of our times by our art and literature as much as by our wars and monuments.

I hope to raise an army of warrior poets, to make poetry part of the life of blood and iron that defines our existence on Earth. Join me in making our world great by insisting poetry be a part of it. I stand with sword-pen in hand.

%d bloggers like this: