Archive | March 2015

I Want To Be Poet Laureate of Queens

The Borough of Queens is taking applications for its poet laureate, and I’m going to throw my sweaty hat into the ring. I think my chances of being accepted are low, but fuck it. I’m as good as anyone else and I like this borough very much.

Queens was where I lived when I moved back to New York. I had been away from the Northeast for several years and hadn’t lived in the five boroughs since I was an infant in the Bronx. I grew up mostly in Yonkers and while I came to the city frequently growing up, I am by and large a child of New York’s suburbs.

In college I decided I wanted to be a great American writer in the same way that thousands of other English majors do. I was determined to get myself back to New York City as if that would somehow magically bestow some great inspiration power and let me live a charmed literary life.

I got a job at JFK airport that helped me move back here and I went looking for apartments that were a reasonable commuting distance to JFK. I found a small studio in Ozone Park at $500 per month (it soon went up to $525). It was on 101st Avenue and John Gotti’s old Bergin Hunt & Fish Club was still there and only a few blocks away. That was a selling point that the realtor mentioned. “People know not to mess around in this neighborhood,” he said. Gotti had been locked up for several years by then but the neighborhood still had some old wise guys hanging around.

I enjoyed living in Ozone Park a lot. I would walk around the neighborhood as much as I could and enjoyed how quickly neighborhoods could transition from one to another. Not far from where John Gotti plotted his takeover of the Gambino Crime Family a store sold cricket supplies to the Indian and West Indian immigrants who were moving into Richmond Hill. I was not too far from Forest Park and I could also walk to the small apartment where Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel.

While immediate literary success proved elusive, I managed to publish my first poetry collection while I was living in Ozone Park. ‘Five Borough Blues’ was a small broadsheet of poems published by New Jersey-based Lucid Moon Poetry (RIP Ralph Haselmann Jr.).

Years later, after living in Inwood for a decade, I moved in with the woman who is now my wife and that brought me to Flushing. I got to learn Northern Queens whereas Ozone Park is in Southern Queens.

The greatest borough continues to impress me. I do miss Inwood a good bit, I can’t lie. But Queens has many more great neighborhoods that are still real neighborhoods and not overpriced tourist zones.

Queens has both the greatest number of interesting neighborhoods, real residential neighborhoods with character, as well as cultural institutions and a variety of environments that the other boroughs don’t have. Do you have the beachfront and harbor areas like Broad Channel and the Rockaways in Manhattan? No. Can you find 24-hour Korean barbeque in Staten Island? Good luck.

And without fail, Queens continues to inspire me to write poetry. The entire city does, to be sure, but Queens is my home and it’s where I believe you find the most New York part of New York. It has the widest array of cultural offerings and the largest sampling of interesting people anywhere in the world. It stands between the city and its suburbs. It has all manner of terrain. It even has its own zoo.

I will gladly accept the (unpaid) responsibilities of the Queens Poet Laureate. I will let no excellent verse about this borough go unwritten. Applications are due April 24th (April is national poetry month).

But whether or not I am poet laureate of Queens, I will continue to let the city inspire to create good written works. It deserves no less.

Brooklyn Isn’t Safe for Rock & Roll

Last Friday, my band Blackout Shoppers was fortunate enough to be one of several bands to play for the last time at The Trash Bar. A great music venue, The Trash Bar has been a great place to see a show. They have a great sound system and manage to bring a wide array of music there.

Trash Bar is the kind of live music venue that used to thrive in Manhattan, and now it’s found itself priced out of Williamsburg. It’s the latest victim of the city’s own success and Brooklyn’s transformation from downtrodden borough to one of the most expensive places in the world to live.

The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn used to be a bad place. Frank Serpico was shot not far from the Williamsburg Bridge. Apartments in that building are now listed for sale at up to $1 million.

Williamsburg is where young artistic types began moving to at the end of the last century because space was cheap and the area was close to Manhattan. But creative young people can’t afford to live in the popular parts of Brooklyn anymore. The kind of people more likely to move to these areas now are wealthy people who had traditionally occupied the more upscale parts of Manhattan. A recent episode from the TV show Broad City captured this perfectly. One of the show’s main characters is chatting with three high-priced lawyers. They all tell her that they currently live in Murray Hill (a high-priced part of Manhattan) but that they are all moving to Williamsburg.

It follows a familiar pattern, a pattern we saw in the East Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan: A run-down area attracts enthusiastic artists and musicians because living is cheap. Those artists make the area desirable, which raises property values. Those property values drive away the artists and their venues that began the rejuvenation.

While it was the place that music venues fled to when Manhattan became too overpriced, Williamsburg is losing the art and music that made it attractive.

Bushwick has become the new Williamsburg, although the pace of gentrification seems to speed up in some respects. Prices on apartments start to rise in advance of the vanguard of gentrification that makes a neighborhood safe. Williamsburg has been relatively safe for a while now, but Bushwick is still more dangerous with higher crime.

This kind of gentrification has been going in the city for years. Since the time of the Dutch settlers, this has been a city in flux. Nothing stays for too long. The churn of commerce and change is constant. The city wouldn’t thrive otherwise.

It’s true that the city is losing some of its trademark characteristics and grit. No doubt part of Big Apple lore is lost forever. It’s not all bad though. I’m glad I can walk down the Bowery without being afraid for my life, though I’m sad that there aren’t as many music venues there.

Williamsburg been overpriced for years, but I didn’t think that Trash Bar would get priced out of existence in a decade. It brought in big crowds and even catered to the obnoxious yuppies and hipsters with some of its live music and its karaoke. The show we played Friday night was well attended. The bands played great and it sounded excellent. Everyone left it all on stage and we walked out with our heads held high.

And that’s all you can do as a New Yorker. Change is never going to stop, so don’t let it stop you. There will be new places to make and see music. The pioneer spirit that brought the Dutch to the New World and brought rock clubs to formerly desolate and dangerous parts of the city can’t be killed off, it’s just moving to a new neighborhood.

The Iceman Cometh to Brooklyn

New York is the best place in the world to see theater in the English speaking world. You’d have to go to London to come close to what New York has to offer in terms of plays being produced. Chicago has a thriving theater scene, but it still doesn’t compare to New York’s.

The one problem with New York’s theatrical offerings is that there is so much good stuff to see that it’s impossible to see even a fraction of the worthwhile productions, and inevitably stuff gets lost in the shuffle.

I had no idea that a well-renowned production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was coming to New York until I read a review of it in The New York Times. The production was brought over from Chicago and stars Nathan Lane in the lead role of Hickey and Brian Dennehy as Larry. The play was scheduled for a very limited run, from Feb. 5 to March 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I scrambled to get tickets online and managed to get a couple for last Thursday night.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is located in downtown Brooklyn, an area that straddles the line between old-school ghetto and clueless gentrification. There are check cashing storefronts and other run-down areas not far from these stages. And BAM is not one theater but several and it’s easy to go to the wrong place (or in my case two wrong places) if you haven’t been there before.

But once I found the theater everything went smoothly. The BAM Harvey Theater lacks the upscale decorative charm of many of the Broadway theaters but it is otherwise audience friendly. Unlike your average Broadway show, the BAM audience is mostly New York City residents who know basic theater etiquette (I counted only one cell phone going off during the production).

And this production of The Iceman Cometh lives up to the hype. Nathan Lane, who is more of a well-known comic actor, makes a great Hickey. Because the characters he often plays on TV and in movies are so jovial, it puts an added barb to the soul-crushing dialogue and dark personality of his character.

Brian Dennehy’s Larry Slade broods over each act perfectly as well. And the rest of the cast, especially Stephen Ouimette as Harry Hope and James Harms as Jimmy Tomorrow, bring O’Neill’s words to life with gut-wrenching performances.

The play is about five hours long and has three intermissions, but the time passed by easily. When you’re watching a play done that well, you can lose yourself and don’t mind.

The Iceman Cometh resonates very well with audiences because everyone has some part of themselves that’s doubtful, unfulfilled and wanting. No one escapes self-doubt and no one has avoided procrastination and self-pity, though we’d like to think we do. Everyone has a problem facing harsh truths about their own lives, no matter how good your life may be.

Iceman works so well because just about every one of us has been that drunk at the bar, high on liquid courage and doubtless in dreams that we would never see through. Everyone has engaged in self-delusion at some point in their lives, everyone has something in their past that they’re ashamed of. O’Neill’s Hickey knocks the wind out of our sails with his quest to bring us peace by giving up our pipe dreams.

Art this good is always worth the investment of time. If you have a chance to see The Iceman Cometh, go see it.

Staying Proudly Beardless

As much as I’d like to pretend I’m somehow immune from popular culture, it would be a lie to say so. I enjoy rooting for my favorite sports teams. I watch popular television shows.

But one popular trend I refuse to indulge in is growing a beard. It’s becoming more popular for men to grow beards now, and I am proud to be avoiding this. I am going to stay clean shaven.

Beards used to be a sign of virile manhood, they are now as common on mindless hipsters as on real men. The waxed moustache fad is even more obnoxious. I met one person with a waxed moustache who was the real deal, and he was an older Sikh in a three-piece suit who wore a pince-nez when he had to sign some papers.

Usually anyone dressed like this is a young bullshit artist. And beards and waxed moustaches are a sign of a society that is only interested in the shallow trappings of manhood and not actually being a man. Being a man means no bullshit; it means being as much of an independent thinker as possible and looking critically at popular culture.

I indulged in popular grooming for a while when I shaved my head and wore a goatee. Women at the time liked the look and it looked good on me. I had a nice, full reddish-brown goatee that suavely showed off my Irish heritage and gave balance to my face. But too much grey started coming in. My hope was that going bald at a young age would spare me from a premature greying, but I was out of luck. The grey didn’t even show up in a nice salt-and-pepper look, but in a weird pattern that made me look like I was trying to grow a bizarre soul patch.

I refuse to use any products to color the grey out of my beard. That’s cheating unless you color it something flamboyant and strange so that it’s obvious and artistically sound.

Please don’t confuse this as a condemnation of all men with beards. I know plenty of bearded men who walk the walk or who had beards long before they were cool. My father and uncles had beards years before it was cool; they’re the farthest thing from trendy hipsters. My brother has a beard and is even into using fancy grooming products on it. But he was in the Marines, rides motorcycles and owns more guns than I do. These men have earned to right to wear their beards.

And the good news in all of this is that the propensity for beards illustrates a nascent movement to revive traditional manhood in some respect. We live in times when much of polite Western society finds it appealing to emasculate its men. The progressive groupthink classifies anything categorically male as an element of an enemy patriarchy, and that philosophy is intellectually bankrupt. The beards are the start of men wanting to be men again.

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