(Temporary) Escape from New York
It is time to escape New York for a week as our beloved city continues to bake in the summer heat. We are headed to Cape Ann, Massachusetts to attend a friend’s wedding and then enjoy the New England coast.
Summers in New York City are marked in part by our efforts to go elsewhere as weekend getaways snarl traffic on Friday and Sunday nights and holiday weekends can send people away from the five boroughs in droves.
I find it more enjoyable to stay in the city during some of the more popular times to leave. Going around the city on Labor Day can make New York feel like a ghost town in parts.
But New Yorkers need to leave the city for long periods of time over the summer in order to maintain our sanity. New York is an intense and crowded place. It can get even more crowded and oppressive in the summertime as our transit system and the areas near where we work are flooded with slow-moving tourists who are often clueless about the way to behave in a big city and slow things down. We don’t hate tourists; we like and need tourists, but their increased presence intensifies an already strained existence.
And the often unrelenting humid heat of New York helps bring our regular misery stew to a high boil. The city traps the heat with its high buildings, blacktop and concrete, jacks it up a notch with the captured exhaust of car and bus traffic and tops it off with some extra hot blasts from air conditioning units. Too many weeks and months of New York City heat can drive you insane and long for someplace, anyplace, where you can enjoy looking at trees or relax with cool grass under your feet.
When I was growing up my family made Lake George in upstate New York our regular vacation spot. Lake George is far enough north that it is cool at night and not obscenely hot during the day. You can see lots of stars in the sky and the place is enough of a popular tourist destination that they have large amusement parks. There are also historic forts you can visit that are rich in history of the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars.
This is the first year my wife and I are taking our daughters on a vacation. We had a brief visit in Maine with family but we are about to embark on our first vacation of the four of us as a unit and we are heading to Cape Ann, Massachusetts.
My father’s family vacationed in Cape Ann when my Dad was growing up and he and my aunts and uncles were photographed in front of the Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester. We plan to recreate these photos as best we can with our girls. Rockport is also going to be having its annual Lobster Fest while we are there and I have promised to attend.
I plan on eating seafood, visiting with friends and otherwise doing as little as possible. It’s not too late to plan your own summer escape from New York. Be sure it’s temporary.
Penn & Teller Are Back in New York
Penn & Teller are back in New York City you should go see them if you can. Penn & Teller on Broadway runs through August 16 at the Marquis Theatre.
I don’t know when exactly I became a die-hard Penn & Teller fan but it was at some point in the 1980s when they appeared on television often and were always funny a way that was smarter and with more of an edge than any other act around. Maybe when they appeared on the first Comic Relief show and they did a juggling act that involved them smoking at a time when the anti-smoking movement was getting stronger. “We don’t endorse smoking unless you want to look cool,” Penn said.
What’s more, they were a magic act that allegedly earned the hatred of most magic acts. They showed you how they did their tricks, until doing it in a way that forced you rethink everything. They don’t claim to have magic powers and they don’t use melodramatic music or ridiculous flourishes. They say they are going to fool you and then that’s what they do. While a lot of magic acts try to play up attachments to the supernatural, Penn & Teller are brutally honest with their audience. They also have a great sense of humor and even when you get fooled in a big way, it’s a thrill to see how they work and manipulate an audience. They are marvelously irreverent in ways that will make you happy to be a curmudgeon.
Before they moved to Las Vegas where they have their long-term residency, the duo was in New York. Penn Jillette would meet at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square with anyone who wanted to have dinner and a movie with him.
I first saw them live in New York during a rare series of shows in the early summer of 2000. It was at the Beacon Theater and I sat in front of Al Goldstein and felt like a high roller for it. Andy Richter was in the audience too. New York City’s absurd and unfairly restrictive gun laws meant that they couldn’t do their famous bullet-catching trick, so they did a freedom-themed trick where they made it look like they were burning an American flag, only to have it appear unscathed on a flag pole on stage.
I saw them in New York again in 2009 at the Gramercy Theater in a special event called “35 Years of Magic and Bullshit.” It was the only time I’ve ever seen Teller speak on stage as himself as part of the show. The two performed a few tricks, including testing out a few new ones, but mostly were interviewed by a fellow magician and took questions from the audience.
At one point the host asked, “If you didn’t succeed with Penn & Teller, where would you be today?”
“I would still be a Latin teacher,” said Teller.
“I would be in prison,” said Penn.
I got to see them in Las Vegas when I went in 2011—I made sure to get my tickets to their show as soon as I had the flight booked. Vegas without seeing Penn & Teller would have been a big waste. The show rocked.
Penn & Teller meet after the show with anyone who wants a photo or autograph. Teller does talk when you meet him in person. It is rare to see them perform in New York City. Don’t miss out.
Creeping Death in Sunny Summer
Hauling musical gear on the back roads of the Connecticut countryside was satisfying. I followed my friend Steve past some interesting houses in the woods of Killingworth: one giant massive estate that was under construction was already completely out of place with the houses around it. Another house was built in a strange dome-shape, eccentric to the last.
We were done loading the gear for my friend’s big July 4th party. I invited Steve to join me for some pizza, but he couldn’t. He had to make a phone call to a friend’s mother. The friend was in Texas and had committed suicide. It was an online gaming friend; they had never met in person, but the loss was hard to fathom. The guy was young and had a lot to live for if he had only been able to see that. Now it was up to my friend Steve to try to console his friend’s mother. Steve has a lot of friends and cares deeply about people despite his cynical and jaded exterior. He’s a person people are drawn to and for good reason, but this also means he spends a lot of time facing life’s tragedies. He’s seen more than his fair share.
The day after July 4 my father flew into town and rented a car at LaGuardia airport. He came to our apartment in Queens and visited briefly with me and my wife and our two little girls. My Dad lives in Georgia and doesn’t get to see his granddaughters much.
Then we headed to Poughkeepsie for a wake.
Mickey Murphy was my father’s best friend. They had been friends since they were 13-year-old freshman at All Hallows High School in The Bronx.
Mickey and his wife Denise are my godparents and were a very good influence. They were adults that spared me the drama of regular hectoring and criticism required of parents. There are times in every person’s life when they hate their parents; but I could never think a bad thought about the Murphys Mickey was always a friendly face, a calm voice even amid the sturm and drang of adolescence. His wife Denise is the liveliest and friendliest person of every place she goes.
Mickey had diabetes and had not had an easy time of it. He had experienced heart surgery, kidney dialysis and a lot of other non-fun things. He’d be permitted a measure of self-pity about it but that was unthinkable. He was a constant doer of good and could keep his head up even through very bad times.
My father and I drove to Poughkeepsie talking about things to keep our minds off of our destination. We gabbed about the sorry state of politics, the health and well-being of our own family, how his granddaughters are growing and his difficult travel schedule.
At the wake the significance of the loss was evident. Whether people knew Mickey for 15 years or 50, they considered him their best friend.
I owe Mickey a lot, because he was always giving my father interesting books to read and helped shape him as a voracious reader in high school. Not too many 16-year-olds can tackle Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness but Mickey Murphy and my Dad did.
My father was asked to say a few words and he came with prepared remarks prepared. As per usual he made me very proud to be his son.
Here is what he said:
“I met Mickey in freshman year high school now more than 50 years ago. In the past few days many of our classmates have been exchanging reminiscences and nearly all of them recall his amazing abilities. One of us wrote that, given what Mickey could do on the basketball court as well as in the classroom, he was a kind of superhero to the rest of us. And that was true. I remember describing Mickey to someone once who said, ‘Really, a guy who can do everything really well, sounds pretty hateful.’ But in Mickey it wasn’t. He was a gracious man and there wasn’t an ounce of swagger in him anytime, ever. In fact, if there was a flaw to point to at all, it was that he seldom paused long enough to even take in the great thing he had just done before he went on to the next.
“Mick had a successful career at IBM before illness cut it short. He had a series of important positions in our Human Resources function and ended up as Director of HR for the company’s corporate headquarters division where he had responsibility for the global headquarters site in Armonk. When I asked him about his executive responsibilities he said, ‘It’s simple, it’s just the stuff you already know. ’ Mickey had a welcome sign placed at the desk in the headquarters lobby. So yes, that’s simple and it was certainly something that Mickey knew to do, but no one had thought to do that before. He carried a reflexive graciousness with him throughout his life and applied it everywhere.
“Thirteen years ago Mickey and I visited Ireland. The trip was a Christmas present from our wives. Neither of us had ever been and it was a pilgrimage of sorts. We visited our mothers’ birthplaces. Mickey’s mom’s in Charleville and my mother’s hometown of Roscrea. We also hit all the sites that would draw any self-respecting brooding romantic Irishman. We went to Kilmainham prison and saw the yard where the leaders of the 1916 uprising had been executed. We traced the bullet holes in the walls of the post office on O’Connell Street in Dublin. I remember joking that if we had to have all of the darkness of this heritage couldn’t we at least have some of the light? I get the brooding intensity and sense of injustice unpunished and all that but what about the mirth and the magic? Isn’t there supposed to be a pot of gold here someplace, Murphy? So I got him to go to the Art Museum. It’s really convenient being right here next to the prison. I insisted we go to the Abbey Theater in Dublin to see a play. True, it was a brooding tragedy about a dying young man, but it was the theater.
“This struggle between the darkness and the light – not letting one overtake the other – is something all of us of Irish descent inherit. We don’t always achieve a manageable balance and it can be a life’s work. There is one thing this week that gives me comfort. Today Mickey is with Our Lord of whom Scripture says, “In Him there is no darkness only light.” So we know that for Mick a perfect balance is now achieved and all the physical challenges he bore so graciously throughout his life are resolved. Because we understand the truth of the Resurrection, we know that Mickey is restored to the fullness of his abilities and all the great gifts God gave him just as he was when I first met him. This is a promise made to all of us and in the sadness we feel at having to say goodbye to our great friend, this gives us legitimate cause to celebrate.”
Brooklyn’s Rapid Cultural Death Claims Two More
It has taken Brooklyn less than a decade to achieve the kind of overpriced cultural rot that normally takes a generation in other places.
There have been some very large events that illustrate this: the demolition of the beautiful Prospect Heights neighborhood to build the ugly Barclays Center being a landmark event that marks a shameful chapter in city history.
Brooklyn wears its shame again as two very excellent music venues have found it necessary to close their doors. The Trash Bar and The Lake are two places where I’ve seen and played some of the best shows ever. Their closing demonstrates how lousy, overrated and overpriced Brooklyn has gotten.
With the rapid rise of real estate in Manhattan, the outer boroughs became a refuge for the arts, and many music venues moved or set up in Brooklyn.
The Trash Bar quickly became Brooklyn’s home for punk rock shows that were chased out of Manhattan. Many of the great traditional punk shows that had made their place in Manhattan were now at the Trash Bar: Murphy’s Law’s St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and New Year’s Eve shows were held at The Trash Bar. When our band, Blackout Shoppers, had its 10th Anniversary show, it was at The Trash Bar. Some of our best shows were there. We were honored to play a tribute show to Norman Bates and the Showerheads’ J. Garino there that included a reunion of The Six and Violence. The Bullys held their Johnny Heff tribute shows there after they lost their regular spot in Manhattan. For many years a picture of Johnny Heff, the Bully’s guitar player who was a New York Firefighter who lost his life in the September 11 attacks, looked over the stage.
Also in Brooklyn, at an address the owners prefer not to publish, is The Swamp, formerly known as The Lake, formerly known only by its street address. Not far from the Montrose stop of the L train, The Swamp is just a few blocks away from a major Brooklyn thoroughfare but in a quiet-looking, industrial area. It serves as a great example of how punk rock has been kept alive by DIY spaces. The Swamp was basically a very large apartment that was run as a venue by people who lived there. They built a stage and bleacher seating in a room that served as a performance space. It was a great punk rock venue like no other. When my wife and I got married, we threw a wedding celebration there that featured some of our favorite bands. Less than a year later, Blackout Shoppers held an album release concert there to mark the long overdue completion of our second album. The Swamp also hosted reggae and other shows and it hosted combined punk and reggae shows that packed them in. It was an honor to play shows there and it will be sorely missed.
Brooklyn stopped being an “up and coming” borough nearly 10 years ago. It’s now an overrated playground for the wealthy and clueless. There are a few artists and enclaves still fighting the good fight, but it’s a losing battle against the tides of money and history.
We will welcome you all to Queens and the Bronx.