Being a jerk with two phones

I am now a jerk with two phones. My general disposition has not changed and I don’t behave differently towards people now that this has happened. I remain polite and respectful to everyone unless they prove themselves unworthy of respect.

But by definition if you have two phones you are a jerk. I never wanted to be a jerk with two phones. I make it a point not to become too attached to one phone, but now I am attached to two.

I began a new job about a month and a half ago and along with the job came an additional phone. This wasn’t a choice. At my old job we were able to check our work emails on our personal phones and the company paid us a stipend for that. But I joined a larger organization that has its own rules and doesn’t mind spending the money to give a lot of its employees their own phones.

Now I can walk around with one phone on each hip like the Sherriff of Douche Town. I can be on three phone calls at once if I sit at my desk at work and dial into separate calls on each phone.

I try to keep my work phone in my bag with my work laptop (which I also take home with me each night), but sometimes I know I’m going to have to look at it more than I want to. But at odd times the work life creeps into the home life and I have had to get a lot of work done on the weekends, which I often consider a sign of personal surrender.

I recently found myself text my wife with one phone, telling her that I was on the phone with my boss on my other phone so I wouldn’t be able to speak with her. While holding two phones in one hand and speaking on one of them, I walked around my neighborhood looking like a crazy person. Seriously, 10 years ago if you saw an adult walking down the street holding two phones in one hand and a jumble of charging wires and car keys in the other, you would have thought that person was insane; well today I was that insane person.

I am glad I am not an unemployed Luddite and don’t want to disconnect from the world. But there’s got to be a way to be a more balanced person and live life to the fullest while still putting food on the table for your family. I will hopefully find this balance before dropping dead of a heart attack while talking on my work phone.

20 Years Back in New York

Twenty years ago this past week, I started the drive to move to New York City. I hadn’t lived here since I was a baby though I grew up visiting frequently. Both my parents were raised in the five boroughs and I felt that my life’s dreams were big and grandiose enough that it justified entering the crucible of the Big Apple.

My friend Matt helped me pack all of my worldly possessions into a small rental truck and I began the 900 mile journey from suburban Atlanta back to the city of my birth. I stopped in the Washington D.C. area that night at the home of my friends Ryan and Scott and set out early the next day to finish the trip. I remember being shocked at having to pay $8 for the honor of crossing the George Washington Bridge (a moving truck crossing the GWB today would pay a $34 toll off-peak) and drove up to Westchester to my mother’s house. The fall leaves were gorgeous and I felt like I was home.

My directions were mailed to me by AAA and included maps with highlighted sections on it. The moving truck didn’t have a tape deck so I brought along a boom box and listened to lots of cassette tapes on my way. I got off the highway in a rural part of North Carolina to tell my friends how far away I was and to get the score of the Georgia – Florida game (Georgia won in 1997: a promising omen).

I arrived here with dreams of being a famous writer. I have not achieved the literary fame and fortune I set out to make here in the city but I’m still here, still keeping that dream alive in some way. With this column I have one thing that every writer needs the most: a deadline.

I’ve had the honor to indulge other creative urges as well: I took up music and went farther with it than I ever thought I could and miss playing punk rock regularly. I’ve also had a hand in some comedy that has been well received. I can lead somewhat of a double or triple life sometimes. One hour of the day I may be laying out a media plan for promoting a financial product, hours later I may be playing bass while people careen into one another in an orgy of music, sweat and beer; it’s amazing.

I can honestly look back on the last two decades and be proud of where I am in life. I’ve got a great wife and children and lots of excellent friends. The biggest lie I could tell you would be that I got here completely on my own. If it weren’t for family and friends, I would not have anywhere near the good life I have today. I’m sure there are people in this city who arrived completely broke and alone and pulled themselves up with no one’s help; I’m not one of them.

The city and the world are much different places than when I came back to New York in 1997. Two decades from now they will be different still. We’re at a very volatile time in our history relative to where we were 20 years ago.

One thing that is also different is that I still have a tremendous amount to be thankful for. Moving to New York was a homecoming of a sort but also a very new beginning in a city that I had never known as a resident.

Thank you all for being part of this great adventure with me. I promise the next 20 years will be just as great.

The Greatest Bastards on the Ice

On August 20th 2003 I went to a show at the Knitting Factory, which was then still located in Manhattan, to see a punk rock show. What drew me to the show was that a former Lunachick was playing with her current bands—Squid’s Team Squid—but I was interested to see what other bands were playing.

As Two Man Advantage took the stage, I was prepared to be disappointed. People who wear sports jerseys outside of sporting events tend not to have a lot to offer the world, and now the whole stage was custom-made hockey jerseys. I figured out they were hockey jerseys because one of the guitar players was wearing an old-style goalie’s face mask.

The music kicked in and it was really good, aggressive punk rock that the world needs more of. And by the time lead singer, with ‘Drunk Bastard’ on the back of his jersey—all are numbered ‘69’—hit the stage, I realized this was a band with a sense of humor. Hardcore bands with a good sense of humor are rare, so I settled in to enjoy the show. But I found that even though I had never seen this band before, I was drawn to get close to the stage and join in whatever way possible. I took a few lumps in the mosh pit at that performance if I remember correctly, and it would not be the last time. But I left the Knitting Factory a confirmed Two Man Advantage fan.

Their songs are almost all hockey themed and include “Zamboni Driving Maniac,” “I Got the Puck,” “Hockey Fight,” and “I Had a Dream About Hockey.” The band is so good that listening to Two Man helped get me into watching hockey; going to a Rangers-Red Wings game a few years ago sealed the deal.  Hailing from Long Island, most of the band are die-hard Islanders fans, though one of their guitar players, SK8 (“Skate”) is a Rangers fan, and drummer “Coach” supports the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the intervening years I’ve had the good fortune to not only share the stage with Two Man Advantage but to put out a split 7-inch record with them through my band Blackout Shoppers. We did a short weekend tour with them to promote the record a few years ago and it was a blast. I’ve had many good political and philosophical discussions with The Captain, who has forgotten more about math and music than most people will ever know. Two Man’s drummer, Coach, and lead singer, Spag, DJed my wedding. We visited Spag’s home to plan out the music and it had the most records I’ve ever seen in one place outside of a record store. Spag had the good sense to talk me out of blasting Iron Maiden’s “Aces High” at the reception.

Two Man Advantage began as a one-time performance as a joke at a Halloween party. The band was comprised of people who had played shows together in other bands writing a few songs about hockey.

This past weekend I drove out to Long Island to see one of two shows the band played to celebrate the two-decade mark. I got there just as the very excellent Refuse Resist, who recently celebrated their 10th anniversary as a band in their native Boston, was about to play.

True to keeping their sense of humor, the show began with a recording of the national anthem, to see who among the band members and audience would “take a knee.” A few band members and audience members did so, as Coach gave a preamble joking lamenting how politics had reared its ugly head at their show. Everyone enjoyed the levity of the moment, and no one got offended and left.

It was great to see the Two Man members again and I was at the front of the stage when the show started. I’m not as game for a mosh-pit bruising as I was in 2003, so I enjoyed most of the show from a safer distance, returning to the danger zone only once more later. It reminded me how much I enjoy music and miss making it.

Two Man Advantage played a lot of favorites and a few deep cuts, and did it all with ferocity and sincerity that the world needs more than ever.

Thank you, Two Man Advantage, for 20 awesome years.

Escaping the room, or not

My wife and I recently celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary by being locked in a room with strangers and working for an hour to escape. The ‘Escape the Room’ and other similar franchises are popular but we had never done one. A holiday gift from a relative gave us the chance to try it.

We went not knowing what to expect, though we had heard good things. For the time slots that worked for us and had openings, we chose the “home” theme. “Office” had been our other choice but I spend most of my weekdays trying to escape an office, so for weekend activities that was a no-go.

We arrived a few minutes early as instructed in the Flatiron district on a Saturday night. The Escape the Room – Midtown is a few doors down from New York’s 40/40 Club, which is famous for being owned by Jay-Z. Beyond that club I don’t think that area is a particularly popular party and nightlife area at the moment, at least judging by how quiet things seemed. The streets were still. Then again, the night was relatively young at that point.

We took an elevator to the eighth floor of a nondescript building and found ourselves in the small waiting area of Escape the Room NYC, where our four teammates, consisting of two younger couples, were already waiting. A receptionist welcomed us and said our host would soon be with it.

Our host for the evening was Junior, a vibrant presence dressed head to toe in pink and wearing a large afro. Junior led us to our room and gave us some basic rules and pointers. “You will never need to break anything or punch through a wall or ceiling. You won’t have to exert any more effort than a five-year-old would.” Junior said we would receive clues through a screen that would also show our time. We had one hour to escape the room.

With that information, the six of us were locked in the room. This isn’t a tortuous process—there’s an escape button if you have to go to the bathroom or want a break—but the six of us wanted to dedicate our efforts to learning to escape. Basically the room is full of clues that will eventually give you a key to turn and escape the room.

The room was a sparely-furnished office with a non-working fireplace, a few dressers, a bookshelf and desk. Several of the dressers had combination locks on certain drawers and in those drawers are more clues. Other clues such as notes written in book margins or numbers written on walls or on a piece of paper in a typewriter will get us combinations to other locks and more clues will lead to more clues.

There were some high points in the evening as the six of us found some clues and cracked some nice codes. We managed to open a door, only to find another room that we had to escape. I had heard that some people got out of these rooms in nine minutes or 20 minutes. One coworker had told me she hadn’t been able to escape her room.

And that’s what happened to us. We were on the right track and came very close to escaping the room. Junior was feeding us more and more clues as time ran out, but in the end time counted down and we had spent an hour in the room with no heroic escape to show for it.

Junior came to retrieve us and was an incredibly gracious host, nothing that we did very well and that we worked together marvelously and made great progress. “I’ve seen couples break up. I’ve seen children get shoved around…” The room we were meant to escape had a 20% success rate, which is low. Most participants required many more clues from their hosts.

Junior led us back to the waiting area for a group photo, offering us some signs and props for the occasion. My wife and I held a sign that said “#fail” and some of our team members wore some deerstalker hats (the kind of hat Sherlock Holmes is known to wear). We posed for our photo, thanked Junior, and took the elevator back down to the street. My wife and I bid farewell to our teammates, walked through Madison Square Park, and got on the subway for the ride home.

While we failed to escape the room, it’s a worthy New York adventure we’d do again.

The view from the express bus

Changing jobs means figuring out new benefits and pay scales, learning new things and figuring out how to get your email to work correctly at your new job. In New York we have the additional calculus of our daily commute.

My old job was in the Flatiron District, which from Flushing meant a bus to the 7 train at Main Street, the 7 train to Grand Central Terminal, and the 6 train from Grand Central to 23rd St. When things went well, this commute could be as little as an hour. When things went wrong, this commute could be grueling. The 7 train is a deceptive beast that is almost always overcrowded and miserable and picks the absolutely worse times to crap out on commuters. During my last week at my old job, the geniuses at the MTA decided to have our 7 train boot out all of its Manhattan-bound passengers out at the Hunter’s Point stop – a stop with no other connecting trains. The 6 train was often overcrowded or late, and construction on Main Street meant that taking a bus home took longer.

I decided to go with a completely different route to downtown Manhattan, where my new job is. At the recommendation of my wife, I began taking the express bus into Manhattan. The express bus is a like a coach bus, but it operates within the city on very specific routes. The QM20 picks up passengers right across the street from my building; it and the QM2 can take me home via 6th Avenue near 34th. An R or W train (which are still too slow) can take me downtown from there.

The express bus is more expensive—$6.50 each way—but if you’re able to do it you won’t look back. If you catch it early enough you will avoid the worst of rush hour traffic (not always though) and even though you’re in the thick of rush hour on the ride home, it’s a more pleasant ride where you see an interesting cross-section of the city.

There is still your average public transit douchery on the express bus. You can see riders put their belongings on the seat or put their seats back as if they are in business class on an airline. But these are pretty minor when compared to some of what you can see on the subways. I have yet to hear the telltale clicking of someone clipping their nails like I would hear on the subway or regular bus. I have never seen anyone forced to stand for a lack of seats.

The express bus engenders its own solemn fraternity. Like the rest of the city it is an odd cross-section of workers and even a few retirees. A few people greet each other as old regulars – they take the same bus and see each other frequently. I already recognize a few regular faces, which is not something that happened very often on the 7 train.

I find it hard to read on the bus because I’m still enjoying the new view. Going into Manhattan gives riders a long view of the skyline but then the bus winds its way through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and across 34th Street. It is interesting to have an above-ground view of Manhattan waking up in the morning and a Herald Square not quite buzzing to life, with homeless people camped out not too far from Macy’s. The ride home takes us up 6th Avenue which gives a view of Radio City Music Hall and across 59th Street past the Plaza Hotel. Then it goes over the 59th Street Bridge where a fleeting view of Manhattan is starting to glow with the approaching night, and the light of dusk overhead usually contrasts with the brackish hue of the East River. Then it spends most of the ride through Queens on Northern Boulevard, where the car dealerships of Long Island City and Astoria melt away to the Spanish-speaking businesses of Corona.

The new job is a new adventure and so far I haven’t been fired yet. I’ll continue to take the express bus to and from work, taking in the city in a new way.

The Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse Experience

I’ve recently changed jobs and on the last week of work my office had a social outing to wish me well. I had never been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse and asked to go there.

Yes, it is shameful that I had lived this long and not gone to Sammy’s, being a New Yorker through and through. Sammy’s is a quintessential New York institution and a landmark for Jewish New York culture.

Our office took cabs to arrive on Christie Street while it was still light out. It looked like we were the first to arrive for the evening dinner rush (sadly Sammy’s is only open for dinner). The place is below street and adheres to its famous basement aesthetic except that finished basements usually have carpeting; Sammy’s looks dingier than your average suburban basement. There are photos and business cards stuck everywhere and the place is eerie when it’s a bit empty. That changed quickly though.

There is schmaltz (a viscous spread) in small maple syrup style pitchers on the tables rather than butter as Sammy’s is a kosher-style restaurant; the food is classic Jewish-American cuisine. I made sure to taste the schmaltz—it tasted like chicken fat, which is essentially what it is. A giant bowl of chopped chicken liver with onions was irresistible and I had as much of that as I could.

The place is also famous for its vodka. The first thing our table ordered was a bottle of vodka that is served inside a frozen block of ice (appearing to have been frozen in a milk container).

I knew that there was an entertainer who sang and played music at Sammy’s. I did not know the extent that Dani Luv was a dominant force who could turn a weekday work night into an evening of ribald fun. He really dominates the room and infuses it with an energy that defines the atmosphere and turns up the charm on the minimalist décor. He stands or sits on a stool behind a modest keyboard in the corner, a large tip jar and small disco ball nearby. A New York Times profile from 2013 notes that his name is Dani Lubnitzki and he is Israeli. The impact he has on the evening can’t be understated. If Joan Rivers had been in a three-way with Don Rickles and “Weird” Al Yankovic, she would have given birth to Dani Luv.

By the time Dani got started, another larger group occupied a nearby table and he asked both groups how many Jews there were among us. Invariably several people at each table raised their hands. “How about you, the ISIS guy,” he said, referring to a dark-skinned man who looked Middle Eastern and had a beard, “you’re not Jewish, are you?” The guy laughed and shook his head, ‘no.’ “Of course not…”

“Why are you guys here?” he asked our table.

“This guy is leaving the company,” our boss answered, pointing at me.

“That guy’s leaving the company because he doesn’t want to work with Jews anymore!” Dani joked. Our table had another good laugh.

The food is big. We had the family style meal and there was so much food that three of us took a lot home. I had the schmaltz on the rye bread, and the chicken liver, and the latkes, and something they called “Jewish ravioli” that was very dense and delicious, and chicken and even some salad. I couldn’t say no to the large steaks either. If you go to a place that is famous as a steak house, it feels somewhat like a crime to not have the steak. There was also stuffed cabbage and pickles and pickled peppers (not an entire peck of pickled peppers but enough for everyone).

The evening wound down quickly as people had long commutes home from Manhattan. Dani Luv begged a few to stay- at least our female coworkers anyway, but before the night got too late it was me and my boss.

My boss finished off the vodka and bought me a Sammy’s t-shirt. I gave Dani Luv a generous tip and took my photo with him. Soon after we headed home.

Sammy’s is a great New York tradition and I vow to make visiting there a tradition of my own. I was very fortunate to work with a great bunch of people and it was difficult to leave. Saying goodbye at such a fun place put a more cheerful lining on a sad event.

 

Following the footsteps…

 

I was in California on September 11, 2001. I was there for work in a hotel room getting ready to go to a conference the company I worked for was putting on. I heard someone pass by my hotel room door talking on a cell phone saying someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. By the time I turned on the television, the South Tower had already collapsed and a plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. I knew right away that our country was under attack and I felt helpless and angry. I watched the North Tower collapse in my boxer shorts with shaving cream all over my face.

My story is not unique. I’m among the millions of New Yorkers who watched savages destroy thousands of innocent lives and remake our skyline. But hand-in-hand with the horror and anger is the unrivaled admiration for the first responders that gave their lives and showed that people could be at their best when things were at their worst.

One of those first responders was Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn – Battery Tunnel to get to the Trade Center on the day of the attacks and perished in the South Tower collapse.

This past Sunday I was among the more than 30,000 people who followed Siller’s footsteps in the Tunnel to Towers 5k.

The event loses none of its effect if you’ve done it before and if you haven’t done it, you should.

The run begins with a lot of waiting around. For an event this large, it is well-organized but it still means large, slow-moving crowds. The run ceremony began at 9 and the run officially starts at 9:30 a.m. I was in Wave C, the third wave of runners, and I didn’t cross the START line until 10 a.m.

First responder groups, corporate groups, school groups, teams of family members paying tribute to their fallen loved ones, college students there for fun and adventure—almost every kind of city denizen is present at the 5k. Firefighters come from all over the world to run in homage to Siller, many of them doing it in their heavy firefighting gear. This is no easy task in the Indian summer heat.

Standing around waiting in the hot sun will get you tired before the race begins, and then the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is very hot and crowded. People who had every intention of running may find themselves on the sidelines walking, with others trying to get around them. It’s a bad jostle but a jovial one, with chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! breaking out spontaneously throughout the passage.

The Tunnel to Towers run and walk is perhaps the largest gathering in the city that can still generate massive amounts of goodwill and cooperation. Runners and first responders thanked one another. There were high fives and handshakes all around. Despite tens of thousands of people constantly bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s feet, I heard no harsh words uttered and saw no arguments; try finding that on your average subway commute.

The sacrifices of those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 cannot be sullied by contemporary political strife or bent to serve a narrow purpose. These sacrifices are heroism in their truest and purest form, and the solemn honors we pay to those heroes help give our city a form of peace.

A friend who lost two cousins in the Trade Center attacks did the run today – and raised $10,000 for the Stephen Siller Foundation this year alone—had this to say afterward:

“Today I saw love and beauty, respect and pride, camaraderie and patriotism. I saw love. Everywhere. I didn’t see dissent. Hatred. Anger. I saw love. And for that, I’m truly grateful.”

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