Archive | October 2013

Standing Strong on Pier 17

Pier 17 Simply SeafoodFried food is the last thing I need to eat, but I needed to eat at a seafood restaurant at the South Street Seaport just to give them my business.

As I approached the Pier 17 mall, I found it surrounded by barricades with the only entrance guarded by a security guard turning people away. He admits that the restaurant is open, but calls it a “café” when it clearly is not.

“I understand there’s one restaurant still open inside,” I said to the guard, who was discouraging someone from entering.

“Well it’s not a restaurant, it’s a café. If you want to check it out it’s on the third floor.”

The restaurant that remains open among dozens of empty storefronts is called ‘Simply Seafood’ and it’s clearly a restaurant like any other food court restaurant in any food court, only this one is the only business left in a large three-level mall at the South Street Seaport.

The restaurant is the lone holdout in a large mall that a developer is trying to tear down. They have a lease and expect it to be honored. The landlord has used illegal and very underhanded tactics to try to remove them, such as locking the doors to the mall and reporting that the restaurant had closed, and is still using dirty tricks today. With shady developers normally getting away with their violations of private property rights in the name of economic development and the city normally either turning a blind eye or helping out in with corrupt deals, the urge to score one for the little guy is immense and well worth the price of fried shrimp.

Howard Hughes Corp. owns the property and wants to build another, fancier mall there. I would hope that if Howard Hughes were alive today he’d throw a jar of his collected urine at the people running this namesake corporation. Howard Hughes didn’t need to harass small business owners; he flew airplanes and banged Katherine Hepburn.

Security guards pace the otherwise empty mall eyeing customers suspiciously. There are bathrooms open on the second floor, but otherwise the mall is a ghost town of abandoned stores, makeshift barricades, ‘No Trespassing’ signs and caution tape.

Pier 17 empty mall

Despite the best efforts of the rent-a-cops, people continued to come for seafood. The restaurant’s struggle with the landlord generated publicity that has brought some people; it’s why I was there. The allure of touring a mostly-abandoned place brings more, and hopefully the chance to stick it to a real estate Goliath will bring more. New Yorkers can’t help but respect and admire the people who fight for their rights even against overwhelming force.

New York landlords are notorious for their unscrupulous behavior. The price of real estate is so high and both the expenses and potential profits so huge, a hold-out tenant can cost an owner lots of money. In the case of a prime commercial real estate in New York’s tourist-heavy downtown, developers stand to lose millions of dollars if they have to maintain a mostly abandoned building for the next seven years.

A small group of tourists asked the men working why they were the only business still open at the mall.

“We’ve got a lease,” said one of the men. “We’ve have a lease until 2020.”

I had a lunch of friend shrimp and fries. What made it such a delicious meal was helping a determined small business stick to their guns.

As I left the mall, the security guard at the entrance was turning away another group of potential customers, wrongly calling the restaurant a café. But not everyone was turned away, many continued through and moved on to give the restaurant their business, and I hope Simply Seafood is there for a very long time.

Pier 17 view of Brooklyn

Pier 17 guard outside

Atheist Church: A Most Unholy Dumb Idea

jesus-gunI don’t remember the exact time I converted to atheism, but the September 11 attacks were the nail in the coffin of religious faith for me. The deadliest faith-based initiative in New York’s history, the attacks illustrated religious fundamentalism and proved that human decency and religious faith were two very separate and unequal things.

For years I had tread that line in the middle of the road as an agnostic, but that’s long over. I don’t believe there is a God or any gods. Of course I could be convinced if presented with evidence of the Devine, but so far none has been forthcoming. It’s not something I like to argue about or point out in conversation; most of my family and friends follow some sort of religion or another. But I left religion behind and never looked back. I gave up church for Lent years ago and my life has been improved.

So it’s with a church scold’s dismay that I have learned that the “atheist church” that was started in London as a joke has become a real mega church with branches in several cities including New York.

These gatherings, known as The Sunday Assembly, feature some interesting speakers at times, at least according to their web site, but otherwise seem to promise all the obnoxious kumbaya of hippie-poisoned religion with the self-congratulating zeal of evangelical nonbelievers.

The atheist church is an illustration of the spineless nature of our times. People want the comforts of religious faith while being able to look down their nose at people with religious faith. They want to revel in the label of atheist while cocooned in a congregation of followers.

Atheists don’t go to church and that’s one of its greatest benefits. We don’t have to sing hymns or put money into collection plates. Atheism is turning away from the comfort of religious faith because intellectual honesty and cold hard facts make it impossible to accept.

Be above the constant navel-gazing identity affirmation that gums up so much of the current discourse. Not believing in God is a fine thing, but replacing faith in a mythical creator with an obnoxious need to belong just makes you another weak drone.

These atheist groups are either a smug mocking of people who are religious or a sad admission that people can’t live without religion. When atheists flock to church, or some sad excuse for a church, they’re trying to have it both ways.

The whole point of being an atheist is that you can’t be a follower like that. And this whole free-form meeting to read and discuss whatever you want, that’s been done already. The Society of Friends (a Christian denomination) beat you to this racket by almost 400 years, so congratulations: you’re Quakers.

This is the same garbage attitude that sends people to new age religions. People want the transcendence of spirituality but don’t have the stuffing to make up their minds about the tenets of a religious faith.

So please, if you’re an atheist, be an atheist. Atheists don’t go to church.

Beavers, Vultures and Lemmings in East New York

banksy_beaver.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeFamous street artist Banksy is currently in New York City leaving works of art here and there, and spectators are flocking to see these pieces.

Recently he painted a picture of a Beaver on a wall in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood bordering Queens that is known for being dangerous. Art gawkers dutifully went there to view the piece, and local East New York residents promptly went about robbing these art tourists, blocking the view of the graffiti art meant to be public and charging people $20 to view it.

It’s to be expected that street criminals will look to make a quick buck off of less-than-streetwise tourists, what makes this latest hustle more bothersome is that it’s won approval from the very class of victims most likely to be taken by the scam. The Gothamist blog called the street thugs “savvy” and many commentators thought that since white people dared to go there to view some art, then they were serving some worthy cause to be ripped off by the locals. I disagree.

Robbery is robbery, and feeling you have a right to rip people off because they’re not from your neighborhood or they don’t look like you is no reason at all. What’s more reprehensible is the multitude of self-hating “enlightened” white people thinking this is a good thing or that local East New York residents have a right to a life of petty crime because of their race or their station in life.

Let the local residents capitalize on the Banksy art legitimately. Set up a food cart there or make picture postcards of the art. There are real ways to make money that don’t involve thuggery and intimidation.

And as for the sorry state of East New York, it wasn’t street artists from England or art enthusiasts from Manhattan who made East New York the way it is today. There are people there who can do better; let them. But treat street hustlers like the low vultures they are.

A Night at White Castle

White Castle burger boxSometimes when I am in Manhattan late, either for a work function or some other reason, I will treat myself to a meal at White Castle and a more luxurious ride home to Flushing, Queens on the Long Island Railroad. Last night was one such night.

White Castle holds a unique place in the sphere of American fast food. It is a small chain that is not widely franchised like McDonald’s or Burger King, and so enjoyed a cult status among greasy food enthusiasts long before the Harold & Kumar films brought the restaurant wider notice. It popularized “sliders” or miniature burgers that many restaurants have emulated.

The low cost of the small burgers brings lots of poor people there, and because of this and the fact that many or most White Castles are open 24 hours a day, there’s often an element of danger associated with the chain. My father grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s and 1960s and said when he was a teenager, his friends would dare one another to eat at one of the local White Castles on Fordham Road.

White Castles are mostly in the Midwest and the Northeast. New York City has at least a dozen spread throughout its boroughs, but only two listed in Manhattan. The more centrally-located one is the one on 8th Avenue between 36th Street and 37th Street. This is very close to Penn Station and a moderate walking distance from Times Square by current American standards. And this part of the city is where many of the seedier elements that were once comfortable in Times Square have been chased. I had come from a fancy restaurant where I had gone for an event for work, and after chatting pleasantly over fine finger foods for a few hours I needed some balance. So there I was.

Entering this White Castle, I saw that there was a man in a wheelchair who was slumped over one of the side counters, passed out. He had the dirty appearance and slumped look of a vagrant, but luckily didn’t smell as bad as he looked. A few people stood near the counter waiting for their food, and a few diners sat in the small booths.

I placed my order and noticed a couple by the soda machines having an animated conversation. After several attempts, the man finally extricated himself from the conversation and bid the woman a hopeful farewell. With the man gone, the women kept up her end of the conversation with no one and everyone. She noted that she had warned people about other people and made good on her commitments to things, as much as I could gather.

While I was waiting for my food, the staff at White Castle decided that the man in the wheelchair had been passed out on the side counter long enough and that it was time for him to go. Staff at the White Castle are usually friendlier and more competent than their counterparts at other fast food places. Maybe they pay better or maybe they have better or more interesting clients. Anyway, the White Castle worker very gently started to move the man in the wheelchair, who woke up and started making noise.

“Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!” The guy in the wheelchair was making noises like a truck backing up as his wheelchair was moved back. “Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!”

Once he saw he was headed for the door and out of the restaurant. He began to protest. “Hey! Hey! Hello!? Hello!?”

At this point, we heard from the disembodied voice of White Castle’s remote security. They monitor White Castles through security cameras at remote locations and will sometimes remind you that they are watching and recording all proceedings. One time at this White Castle a man was there with Wendy’s food and the voice told him to leave and threatened to call the police. He didn’t leave.

Now though, the voice wanted to remind the wheelchair guy that they were there. “This is White Castle security monitoring, recording all proceedings at this location,” said the voice over the public address system. “All proceedings are being recorded by White Castle security.”

A helpful customer ran ahead and opened the door for the man in the wheelchair, who mumbled and complained until he was outside on the sidewalk. He later recruited a departing customer to push him around and I saw them going up and down 8th Avenue.

After a wait I got my food and sat watching people walk by outside. Every once in a while someone will do the White Castle Peek, the act of carefully looking inside the White Castle to see if it’s safe enough to go inside. One nervous woman doing this decided to come in and order food, but she never lost her nervous demeanor. She moved around frequently as if to throw off the chances of some unseen assassin ready to shoot at her from somewhere outside.

I sat in a small booth, methodically making my way through my too-large order of burgers. I had an outside soda on the seat next to me, lest the disembodied voice of White Castle security call me out on it and tell me to leave or buy a soda from White Castle (White Castle offers Diet Coke, which tastes like ass; I smuggle in some Diet Pepsi for taste and sanity).

I finished my meal, threw away my garbage, and headed out the door. On my way out a staff member wished me a good night and I wished her the same, a rare moment of fast food camaraderie not available most places. I walked on into the New York night, sated and satisfied.

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