The blinding allure of technology

This past weekend my wife and I got new smart phones. It’s a ritual we are accustomed to doing every two years, and it was hastened by our one-year-old daughter putting my wife’s phone in a cup of coffee.

We took our brood on a shopping adventure to our local wireless store and purchased the latest Android phone. We picked out our phones and accessories and I remained at the store while my wife took our three daughters to visit stores with less expensive breakables.

By the time the store closed an hour and a half later, my phone was not done transferring so I had to keep my old phone close to it as I searched for the rest of my family. We hadn’t arranged to meet at any specific location but I’d simply start walking around the Bay Terrace Shopping Center and hope to see them. I couldn’t text my wife to find out where they were, I had her phone stuffed in a shopping bag along with extra charging cables and other accessories.

While I may have once taken pride in being somewhat of a Luddite, there is no stopping the increasing use of technology. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I was the last person among my circles of friends to get a cell phone and one of the last to get a smart phone. I’m not as technologically connected as my younger peers at work. I have come to embrace technology even if I use it more sparingly than others. It’s a matter not only of etiquette (sending a text message if you are going to be late) but increasingly of safety (knowing who can see our children’s photos on social media).

I refuse to be one of the zombies I see slowing down foot traffic in the city, and those slothful grown children are not the product of technology but rather bad character and upbringing. If mobile phone technology had never been invented, no doubt these self-centered techno rubes would be finding other ways to make our lives more difficult.

The people who are abusing smart phones and gaming technology are inheritors of the slack-jawed mindlessness of those who abused television and less advanced video games years ago.

Technology does not cause any moral rot any more than it creates virtue. Throughout the centuries there have been two schools of thought that have reacted to technology that have been totally wrong: those who think that it will bring about the downfall of mankind and those that thought that it would bring a new era of virtue and help create a more equitable society.

As I searched for my family, I came across a man who was standing idle on the sidewalk. He looked at me as I looked across the parking lot and struck up a conversation, asking me if I was bored and commenting that this part of Queens is boring and Manhattan is where it’s at. I made polite conversation, but noted we were not far from interesting nightlife closer to Northern Boulevard and that the shopping center had a movie theater.

The man was odd and too eager to speak with strangers. He was not threatening at all, just awkward and sad. I did not ask him if he had a smart phone with him but if he did I did not see it. Such a device would have helped him find something to do. Queens does not have the same social scene as Manhattan, but that’s no matter. No one in the five boroughs has any reason to be bored.

And someone by themselves at a shopping center on a Saturday night striking up a conversation with me has social issues holding them back more than geographical challenges.

But no matter, a few minutes later I found my family at a frozen yogurt shop, and we enjoyed some brain-freezing treats before heading back home. My wife and I had to feed our kids and get them to bed before spending time with our phones getting them set up properly. We’re almost done.

Work from home during our latest transit hell

New York City is entering a deeper level of transit hell this week.

That transit officials are already saying how bad our commute is going to be and begging companies to let their employees work from home wherever possible is significant and should strike fear in the heart of every New Yorker. Our transit authorities are normally presenting a falsely rosy view of how their systems operate. I have no doubt that the official numbers they give for on-time arrivals and such are soundly bogus, cooked up with some noxious bureaucratic justification and presented with a straight face.

Things on our subways have been getting significantly worse. Commuters trapped hours underground on un-air-conditioned subways, a young man stuck in a train so long he missed his entire college graduation ceremony, trains that are more crowded, the list of grievances goes on. Add to this some new Amtrak and N.J. Transit derailments and you’ve got a strong brew of grade-A clusterfuck ready to be served.

So those advisories to let people work from home whenever possible should be taken seriously. For a lot of commuters in today’s working world, the daily commute is an unnecessary exercise in frustration and lost time. Having the ability to work from home takes a lot of worry off your plate and improves morale.

In this day and age, more companies would save a lot more money by letting more of their employees work from home more often. We hold devices in our hand with more computing power than it took to put men on the moon (really). Anyone with a home computer or a work laptop should be able to work from home easily. If I can figure out how to work from home effectively, any desk jockey can pull it off.

One day earlier this year, when the city was threatened with a large snowstorm and the transit systems were closed in advance, our entire office worked from home. It was one of the most productive days any of us have ever had. Without the horrendous commute to take into account, the vast majority of us had an additional two hours of time to dedicate to actually doing work rather than suffering through getting to work.

At a company where I used to work, they have consolidated so much office space that there will not be enough desks for everyone who works there. So people will always be working from home. A former coworker who lives in New Jersey and is still in journalism (I “crossed over to the dark side” of public relations a few years ago), works from home two or three days a week. He’s running a financial magazine all by himself and he holds down a part-time job two days a week, but he’s getting it done.

There is definitely a benefit to a common work area and having face-to-face meetings that can’t be duplicated over the phone and email. But much of what many of us do at work each day can be done just as easily at home. Technology is only going to keep making that easier.

New York’s transit woes will not improve anytime soon. Everyone should work from home if they can. Ask your boss about it if you haven’t already.

Celebrating independence with friends and explosives

The Fourth of July every year brings with it many great traditions: hot dogs, fireworks, partying to excess with friends and family. And every year I have partied with high school friends in a way that embraces all of these observances.

My high school friend Steve and his wife Paige put on a great 4th of July party that brings in friends from far and wide.

Steve is the center of our social circle among most of my Connecticut friends. When we were in high school, his mother’s house was our central meeting place, and Mrs. Q was a second mother to a lot of us. She is missed. Steve and Paige’s house has become a second home to many. They have helped many friends and relatives who have needed places to stay. Even friends with perfectly good homes of their own nearby wind up spending a lot of time at Steve and Paige’s house.

The day of the party, circumstances delayed our departure until after 2 p.m. Driving on I-95 in Connecticut is its own special hell, and a Saturday on a holiday weekend it was an infernal misery of traffic. A two-hour drive became a three-hour drive, and since our kids had already napped at home, they screamed and cried for much of that three-hour drive. When we finally pulled onto our friends’ property, it was after 5 p.m.

I didn’t have time to make the stop for fireworks like I normally do. The forecast called for rain.

Once we got there, it was great to be among friends again.

Steve is a very handy person. He turned his one-story house into a two-story home and constructed his own out-buildings to keep farm animals on his property. He got me into hunting, gave me good advice on how to move about the woods, and helped me field dress my first deer. He also introduced me to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and we’ve debated both the immutably dark nature of human existence until the wee hours of the morning.

Steve and I were both financial journalists for a while. After being laid off and being without a regular job for a long time, Steve began working in shipbuilding by helping to renovate the historic Amistad. He has since began working on boats in Newport, Rhode Island. More than a year ago, he told me he could not go back to working behind a desk. At the party he said he hated having to be away from his family for so long for his job, but that he loves his job. He wakes up every morning and looks forward to going to work. It was something I had heard about but didn’t think I’d see.

A man who loves his job today is rare. I expected to see Bigfoot or get kidnapped by a UFO before one of my friends told me they loved going to work every day. Even though he loves to play the part of a curmudgeon, he looked sincerely happier than he’s been in the past. It was great to see and I can’t think of someone who deserves that more than Steve. He brings a lot of good thoughts and much-needed perspective to a lot of his friends. I know I’ve been better for having had long conversations with him and I’m far from alone.

He’s been writing a lot of good poetry lately as well and posting his poems online. He’s getting to see new things, and be inspired by his work with ships. “In so many ways, sailing is freedom like most of us can’t even understand.” He messaged me at one point.

A while into our time at the party, I found Steve sitting on a lawn chair in the back of his pickup truck. With him was our friend Jay. The two were perfectly content to sit with their beer there and observe the party from their perch. But they soon began to attract a crowd. Everyone wanted to stop by and enjoy the conversation. In between searching for and wrangling my children and stuffing my face with food, I discussed poetry with Steve.

We agreed that two men sitting in the back of a pickup truck was good fodder for a poem and we decided to each write a poem with this as the theme.

The party continued and despite my not being able to contribute to the supply of ordnance, there were still plenty of fireworks. My twin girls asked to be brought inside and skip the rest of the barrage after getting a bit too close to the pyrotechnics. Inside Jay was making his outstanding jambalaya, and we got a peek at the culinary genius at work.

We stayed late and got on the road for home after 11:30 p.m. Someday we’ll stay overnight in a tent on our friends’ lawn like my wife and I did before we had children.

It was a great way to celebrate Independence Day. The national politics evolves and devolves, and no matter your perspective, it’s easy to become discouraged. The strength of our country lies in the bonds we form with friends and neighbors, and at Steve and Paige’s house, a strong community thrives on its own.

Seafaring adventures for city folk

One of the benefits of living in a non-trendy part of New York City is that you can benefit from a lot of cultural enrichment without crowds of five-borough tourists that flock to the city’s more fashionable haunts. Everything in the Flushing-Whitestone area where I live is a long train ride plus a bus ride away from where the ‘in’ crowd frequents in Brooklyn and Western Queens.

We recently took a journey to Little Bay Park, a slice of land between the Cross Island Expressway and Flushing Bay. It is directly adjacent to Fort Totten, an old U.S. Army base that is now a public park but still houses military and other agencies such as the police and fire departments and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

The larger family fun day that had been scheduled for Fort Totten was canceled, as recent rain made their fields too muddy for any public events. Instead a smaller event was taking place on a small strip of land right along a walking and bike path that lead from Fort Totten into Little Bay Park. The main attraction being free kayaking for families.

Here is where a semi-suburban city Dad gets to experience some of the monotony associated with being a hipster festivalgoer. We stood in line in the hot sun for quite a while waiting for our turn to have a free kayaking experience. The start was delayed because the kayak operators found they had only a small sliver of beach to work with and it was covered in garbage. Vest-wearing volunteers using rakes and shovels filled six large garbage bags with garbage while would-be boaters and other park visitors gawked at them while also enjoying the sights of the bay.

This was going to be a killer father-daughter experience that would instill a love of nature and the seafaring life upon my two older girls. My wife had no interest in boating and was happy to wait on land with the baby and the stroller. I have good upper body strength and have paddled canoes before through swamps and on lakes. How difficult could kayaking be?

After a long wait we were finally given life vests and lead to the kayaks. The launch area was filled with empty kayaks and there wasn’t really enough room to both load and unload boaters at the same time. Once we managed to get around the empty kayaks and other boaters, we found that our vessel was already taking on water. That’s normal, the people told us. Water just gets in there. So I sat down in a puddle of water on the seat after having to step into water in my sneakers and socks (you had to keep your shoes on so I thought they had a system where we wouldn’t get our feet wet).

With the girls loaded into the boat, we were ready to launch, but it was a lot harder to do than I thought. I couldn’t hold the big oar steady in front of me without hitting one of my girls in the head, and it felt like we were sinking since I weigh so much more. I managed to paddle us out a little ways, but the wind began blowing us back pretty steadily, and I narrowly avoided getting blown into a rocky jetty.

Now I had something else in common with the hipster festivalgoers of Brooklyn: a general ineptitude and overall disappointment in the performance of manly duties. I’m not stupid and I’m strong enough to lift and move heavy things. But a plastic kayak with a payload of two 40-pound little girls had me stymied. After just a few minutes, not happy with sitting in water and feeling insecure in the shaky boat, they asked me to paddle back ashore. I happily obliged.

An essential part of living life and embracing adventure is the knowledge that not every adventure is going to go so well. This was one of those adventures that didn’t go so well. Not to fear though, the promise of a picnic and some delicious food was enough to motivate our girls to move on to the next thing. Soon we were enjoying a delicious lunch in the shade of a small tree in Little Bay Park.

After our meal we returned to the event area and acquiesced to the demands of ice cream at one of the city’s ubiquitous Mr. Softee trucks, we visited more of the event.

The highlight of the day was singing along to pirate and seafaring songs with Scuttlebutt Stu, who regaled everyone with great sing-a-long songs about pirates and sailors. His songs came with a lot of interesting history. I learned that the term “son of a gun” came from times when sailors would be allowed conjugal visits with their wives aboard their ships, with private beds being made between ships’ cannons. I knew that the term “groggy” came from grog, a mixture of rum and water, but did not know it got its name from Admiral Edward Vernon, known as “Old Grog” from his wearing of grogram jackets. Each song that Scuttlebutt Stu sang came with an interesting lesson that increased our fascination with the sea and demonstrated just how much of our modern culture has been shaped by the ages of the explorers and privateers.

Scuttlebutt Stu was dressed like a pirate with a heavy vest, long-sleeve shirt and tri-corner hat in 86-degree heat and no shade. He was a trooper like I’ve never seen. The breeze and briny smell of the bay lent a great aura of authenticity to the experience of learning about the pirate life through song. Stu is part of a duo called The Royal Yard that performs frequently in the New York area both together and individually.

I’m not a great singer but it was great fun to sing along, the wife and kids sang along as well and soon others joined in. It was perilously close to the kids’ nap time, and it’s always somewhat of a race to get home so they can sleep a little longer and get some more rest. But we stayed around for a few more songs and then headed home.

We made it back in time to let the kids nap in their own beds, another day’s adventure behind them. We were all the richer for it.

Sherlock Brett Saves America

More than 20 years ago, when I was still in college, I started writing short stories for my stepbrothers. My stepbrothers Brett and Lyle wanted to be hero detectives, and so the first short story, “Sherlock Brett and the Case of the Missing Clowny” featured them searching for our younger sister’s favorite stuffed toy (spoiler alert: I had the stuffed toy; I was such a poor college student that I was trying to barter it for groceries).

These stories were silly fun for young kids, though I snuck some adult jokes in there in case my father or stepmother happened to read one of them. I began making a habit of writing these stories for Brett and Lyle’s birthdays and for Christmas.

The adventures of Sherlock Brett, his trusted brother and sidekick Watson Lyle, and our sister Georgia, have evolved over the years. My younger brothers and sisters are all adults now. I still send stories, but they have much more adult subject matter and explicit sex and violence.

Four years ago, I got a call that Brett had taken ill in Miami—he had moved there to work for Univision—and that the illness might soon prove fatal. My father and stepmother flew down there immediately. Brett was in a coma and his prognosis was grim, but he pulled through. He’s still recovering from the effects of being sick and in a coma, and it has been a steady but slow road to recovery for him.

Brett has stayed sharp and I’ve continued writing stories for him. He hasn’t let his long recovery process put a stop to his life and he married his wife Samantha, who now has a bigger role in the Sherlock Brett stories.

While I am glad that these stories have a small and appreciative audience among family, I thought that they could help form a vital part of my literary canon and be published for the general public. I put a few short stories online for sale through Amazon, but you had to have an Amazon Kindle or have the (free) Kindle app on your smart phone.

For Christmas last year, I wanted to have a physical book to send Brett as a gift. I began collecting some of what I thought were the better and more recent Sherlock Brett stories and compiling them in a book. I pulled them together and began editing them for publication. This took longer than I expected and I learned I know little to nothing about book design.

But slowly things came together. I got the very excellent Justin Melkmann to do the cover art and help with editing from my wife Emily got the book in top shape.

Last year, Brett was the first person I called after our youngest daughter was born to give him the news and tell him his new niece’s name. I told him I was sorry he had to share a birthday with another family member, but the doctors had determined the time was right for our offspring to be from her mother’s womb untimely ripped.

I managed to get Brett copies of Sherlock Brett Saves America, a collection of Sherlock Brett stories that will humor and inspire. He said he was very happy with it, and that made my day.

So if you’d like to read the adventures of a detective who not only ran for president but also handed Islamic terrorists their worse defeat ever, took the world’ largest bowel movement while helping fight a band of White Castle bandits, and helped fight an unfair bathroom law in North Carolina, then buy this book.

I plan to continue writing the Sherlock Brett as well as stories about my other brothers and sister until they ask me to stop or until I die. These are fun to write and I have license to bring some much-needed levity and satire to our world.

Being the oddball in the East Village

The greatest rock & roll band that’s ever existed, The Dwarves, were scheduled to play at Bowery Electric, and it had been too long since I’ve seen them. I bought a ticket online and made plans to travel to Manhattan on a weekend, something I rarely do anymore. But this show would be worth it, I was certain.

I made my way to Bowery Electric, which is on the Bowery a short block uptown from where CBGB used to be.

The Bowery has not been itself for a long time now. It was known the world over as a place for bums. It was the Skid Row before Skid Row existed, and served as the template for the down and out sections of town in art, literature, and life.

I would travel to Manhattan when I could as a suburban teenager in the 1980s and 1990s, and going to the East Village was a harrowing experience. The Bowery was full of homeless people selling trinkets and other junk on blankets. Some of the bums were mental patients on medication that just stared into space. Drunks slept in doorways, crack heads begged for money or cigarettes or robbed you. If there was a Bum Olympics in 1989, it would have been held on the Bowery.

Today there are few homeless charities and even fewer flop houses on the Bowery. Fancy hotels and restaurants dot the Bowery now, and apartments that used to rent for a few hundred dollars a month in my lifetime now rent for upwards of $5,000 a month, if they’re available for rent at all.

That the Bowery Electric still exists is short of a miracle. So many music venues fled Manhattan that had Joey Ramone lived he would barely recognize the street that bears his name. Standing outside the venue, I was mistaken for a bouncer as a young woman began handing me her I.D. I waved her inside, telling her I didn’t work there. Maybe I should have asked her for a $5 cover and then treated myself to something at 7 Eleven up the street.

The venue’s Web site said that the show would start at 7 p.m. and seemed to indicate another show was scheduled to start at 10. I hustled and made good time and got to the show to learn that the first band of the night had canceled and that The Dwarves would not be starting to play until 10 p.m., when the Web site had said the show would end. Even in these modern times, the best shows still run on Punk Rock Time.

I set out for a brief walkabout of the East Village and found myself on St. Mark’s Place, where everything is now geared towards tourists or college students. The Papaya King proved a good find; I was one of two customers there at the time and I enjoyed some hot dogs while watching people walk by, most of them much younger and none of them looking like fellow travelers in the neighborhood for a punk rock show.

Across from Papaya King, the building that once housed the iconic fashion store Trash and Vaudeville is shuttered and under renovation. I would go there all the time years ago, not to buy things, but to put up flyers for upcoming shows that Blackout Shoppers would be playing. The store is still in business nearby on East 7th Street, but seeing it pass from its longtime location on St. Mark’s was another illustration of how change has rapidly come to this part of the city.

On 2nd Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets there is still a vacant lot where three buildings were destroyed in a gas explosion in 2015. There were a few curiosity seekers milling about the sidewalk where a chain-link fence keeps people from the lot. The lot is covered in gravel and there were two bouquets of flowers there for the two people killed in the explosion.

I made my way back to Bowery Electric and started running into people I knew. I am not as active on the music scene as I used to be, but I have a lot of friends I made over those years and meeting up with them at shows is always fun. I made my way downstairs where the main stage is set and found a good spot on a low balcony to see the show.

The Dwarves did not disappoint. They played their entire The Dwarves Are Young And Good Looking Album straight through and then played a lot their most beloved songs. Original guitar player HeWhoCannotBeNamed joined them and with Nick Oliveri on bass they can branch out into some of their more aggressive stalwarts. The Fresh Prince of Darkness shreds on lead guitar. Lead singer Blag Dahlia is a sinister master of ceremonies who wears a shit-eating grin. A Dwarves show is a celebration of the nihilistic aggression that made punk rock so phenomenal, but with a humorous twist that prevents anyone from trying to take things too seriously.

At the end of the show I met some more good music friends and made my way upstairs to use the bathroom before I headed home.

When I got upstairs, there was a different scene. The well-dressed hipsters and well-to-do young people with good jobs where in command of this part of the venue. As I stood in line to use one of the single-use restrooms, I decided to stretch my back since I had been on my feet so long. I bent over a bit to put my hands on my knees to straighten by back and the sharply-dressed guy who was next in line took a few steps back, thinking I was getting ready to throw up all over the floor. I thought about making some gesture to assuage his fears, and let him know that I am only a sober middle-aged punk rock fan with a bad back, but why bother? If you’re in the habit of wearing pressed slacks and dress shoes to a bar on the Bowery, maybe you should live in fear of being vomited on.

On my way out, I stopped to shake Blag Dahlia’s hand and congratulate him on a great show. He thanked me and I left into the glittery night of the East Village for the long trip home.

An indictment in the Bronx is an indictment of our city

A few weeks ago I saw a man get arrested at the 23rd St. N/R Station. As two NYPD officers tried to cuff him he broke free of them, and shoved them, shouting ridiculous blather about being treated unfairly and fearing the police. One of the officers pulled his Taser and I thought the man, who looked significantly larger than both of the cops, was going to get Tasered. Instead one of the officers talked him down and he soon put his hands behind his back and allowed the cops to cuff him. A witness told me he was being arrested because he was mentally disturbed and had been on the train tracks.

The cops had every right to Taser the guy, and if I was in their shoes I can honestly say that would have been my inclination. I was impressed with the cops’ ability to avoid violence in the situation. Police don’t always have that option.

Lost among the media coverage of two terror attacks in England and the U.S. President’s declaration about withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, a New York Police Department Sergeant was charged with murder in the Bronx.

Sgt. Hugh Barry responded to a call last October to find a mentally ill woman threatening officers with a pair of scissors. He managed to talk her down and she dropped the scissors, but she then retrieved a baseball bat and swung at the sergeant, who shot her twice. That’s a very clear case of an officer being threatened with deadly force and responding appropriately.

But soon after the incident New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner James O’Neill condemned the officer, claiming he violated department procedure by not calling for the Emergency Service Unit or using his Taser. Last week, the Bronx District Attorney filed murder charges against the sergeant.

It’s a travesty that should be inciting outrage nationwide. And not because we adhere to some warped notion that all cops are heroes and we should get behind anyone with a badge. This indictment should elicit outrage because Hugh Barry is a human being who has a right to stop someone trying to murder him. This indictment is an affront to decency because #FactsMatter.

New York police are rightfully angry.

The indictment of Sergeant Barry is not the action of a truthful or serious people. It’s the action of an ignorant and myopic ruling class that by sacrificing the right innocent people, they can somehow forge a tenuous peace in a volatile society. We’ve seen this before. Many of the most well-known cases in recent years that spurred large-scale protests and questionable prosecutions were manufactured controversies that didn’t stand up to a desultory examination of the facts. In places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, grand juries correctly rejected politically-motivated criminal charges against police.

But a large segment of the body politic insists that any death at the hands of police fit a certain narrative, a narrative that’s been undercut by the facts at almost every turn. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill bought into this narrative despite very clear evidence to the contrary. They would rather appease an extremist activist movement than work to protect our citizens.

If our city still has any respect for the truth, Sgt. Barry will be back on the job by this time next year and Bill de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill will be looking for work.

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