New York City is the city that never sleeps and never shuts down. It take events of epic proportions to knock us off of our game, and even then nothing is ever completely deserted. This is, after all, where the world takes its pulse and sets the pace for Western Civilization, and we take that task seriously.
New York is digging itself out from a winter storm that hit us on Jan. 23. It was as if we got all our winter weather in the span of about 24 hours. When winter started this past December, we had spring-like weather. Seventy degrees on Christmas? That’s bullshit. Old Man Winter got his revenge in a big way and buried much of the East Coast in a blanket of snow. For New York City, it was the second-largest snowstorm on record in the city’s history with more than two feet of snowfall recorded in Central Park.
Preparations started in earnest with people watching the weather reports and making jokes about stocking up on bread and milk as they made sure to stock up on bread and milk. Anyone who had plans for the weekend canceled them if they could, but it was heartening to see from social media that some things didn’t stop.
It was also heartening to see worthy displays of “New York Values” in dealing with the severe weather. The term “New York Values” has recently become an issue the 2016 presidential campaign, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz using the phrase as a smear against Donald Trump. I’m as cynical and jaded as any other long-time New York resident, but there was enough cooperation and good will on display during the storm to shame any friendly Texan. In the parking lot of our apartment building, one of our neighbors helped shovel out part of our truck. We returned the favor by helping shovel out the car parked on the other side of us, with a shovel lent to us by another neighbor.
My social media feed was littered with stories of neighbors helping neighbors with shovel and snow blower alike. A photo of a team of good Samaritans pushing a stranded ambulance out of a snowbank in Manhattan was enough to warm the heart even as your fingers and toes became numb.
City living makes people into blazing assholes, but it also makes people into cooperative souls out of point-blank necessity. When you are surrounded my millions of people, living life isn’t possible without some measure of cooperation. It may take a while to understand the ebb and flow of city life and plug yourself into it in a way that both preserves your sanity and allows you the boldness and hustle to get things done. New York rewards a certain level of aggression, but even the strongest of the strong cannot get by without a certain degree of give and take, there’s just too massive a crush of humanity to fight everyone to the death over every trivial slight.
Now as we look to get our work week underway, we all expect some of this city camaraderie to sublime like idle snow as we navigate an already overtaxed and incompetently run transit system in an attempt to get to work on time. Wish us luck.
Sid Yiddish is a Chicago performance artist who is running for president as a write-in candidate. He describes himself as a “Lincoln Republican” though his politics are more in line with the Democrats, but you are welcome to write him in on whatever ballot you choose; he’s not picky. He is the only candidate promising to invade Denmark.
Why Denmark? “Because it’s there and because I can,” he said. He has performed in Denmark but did his first show with Danish musicians over Skype for the Chicago Calling Festival in 2009. He travels the U.S. frequently. This Friday, Jan. 22 (2016) will find him in Kansas City, Missouri at the Poetry & Absinthe Open Mic at the Uptown Arts Bar.
Sid Yiddish usually dresses like a kind of mischievous cantor, as if The Rocky Horror Picture show took place in a Catskills summer camp or if Fiddler on the Roof was an avant-garde punk rock opera instead of a Broadway musical. With a prayer shawl and Kittel – a traditional garment worn by orthodox Jewish men and a face mask, he both pays homage to and satirizes Jewish heritage with his appearance. When he appeared on America’s Got Talent, Howie Mandel called him a “Hasidic Lone Ranger.”
A Sid Yiddish performance is always an eclectic ensemble of songs, poems, comedy and compelling noise. Each performance will usually involve some form of Tuvan throat singing, which sounds like it is painful to do and can rattle the uninitiated. He often performs with a band, the Candy Store Henchmen. With connections in various cities, his auxiliary of Candy Store Henchman can be summoned to perform on short notice and very little rehearsal.
[Full disclosure: I have known Sid Yiddish for several years and have performed in the New York City version of his Candy Store Henchmen. I met him through Mykel Board, who had the wisdom to write about Sid much sooner.]
His presidential campaign is his latest effort in reaching out to the world. His platform includes heavy support of the arts. “I believe schools should cut sports from schools and give all their money to the arts.” He would also buy everyone a new pair of shoes and hand out bubble gum with good comics in them, not the shabby comics that have become the standard today.
He has extended his reach through some small acting roles. He appears briefly in a Ludacris video and recently had a bit part in the Showtime show Shameless, which stars William H. Macy. There’s an online petition to make Sid a recurring character on the series.
While he revels in his outsider status, he makes an effort to make each show as interesting and participatory as possible, inviting audience members to join his band and play instruments if they choose, even if that instrumentation consists of banging on a table top or tapping a beer glass.
He’s devised a series of hand signals that instructs the band on what to play. One gesture means to stop, another gesture means a free-for-all, other gestures mean other things. If you play the wrong thing, he doesn’t ask you to change, he just may be a bit more emphatic with his gestures. No two Sid Yiddish shows will ever be the same and he likes it that way.
Sid Yiddish describes himself as a late bloomer and suffers from depression. His past is littered with sad memories of where clinical depression can lead. He hopes his work can reach people and help encourage those who also suffer from the disorder. To him, being a performance artist is a redeeming experience that puts him on a good path and colors his worldview. “It feels like I take LSD without taking LSD,” he notes.
His music and acting takes up a lot of his time and he is interested in going to another audition for America’s Got Talent. “I’m a renaissance man, a Jack and Jill of all trades. No one can put me in a category; you can’t pin me down. But sometimes I’ve felt that I’m spreading myself too thin.”
The world has given up a good bit of the civility and thoughtfulness that was more commonplace when Sid Yiddish was growing up, and he offers himself as a one-man protest against that. Instead of waving his fist at the world, his hand gestures conducts a motley crew making avant-garde punk rock symphony. He can take your rejection; he’s faced it all before and just keeps coming back, serving as a reminder that the act of creation and expression is sometimes all that matters and all you have left.
I recently went to a friend’s art opening at Q.E.D., a small art space in Astoria. Going to a friend’s art opening made me feel like I entered a proper adult sphere of being a creative person. Luckily Q.E.D. is as unpretentious as an art space can get without being a punk rock venue or a squat of some kind.
My artist friend, Michael Harper, is a former drummer for my band Blackout Shoppers and has played with Furious George and other punk groups. He is a far cry from the obnoxious snob you would expect to find having their work displayed on the walls of an art space in New York City.
But that is one of the good things that is happening in the city right now. While the high price of real estate had driven many good art and music venues out of Manhattan and the established art world is horrendously pretentious and completely out of touch with aesthetics and real value, the outer boroughs have responded by adapting and setting up their own respective art, literature and music scenes. Astoria’s Q.E.D. has comedy shows, open mic for poetry, music and storytelling. It hosts performances as well as classes—it is even hosting a Burns Night lecture—all days of the week.
More and more space like this are starting to open up in all of the outer boroughs. The kind of art spaces that used to proliferate our central borough can no longer generate the money they need to stay afloat. There are a few notable exceptions, such as the Lower East Side’s ABC No Rio, that have been around for a long time and manage to stay afloat with government grants, smart fundraising and a thrifty, DIY spirit. But these venues are very rare now. Those kinds of places are now in the other four boroughs.
One caveat to this is that Brooklyn has become so popular and overpriced that it is an outer borough in geography only – it long ago took on the same level of pretension and established demand that has long plagued Manhattan. This wasn’t always the case, of course. Before Williamsburg was the shit show of hipsterdom it is notorious for being today, it was a bad neighborhood where artists and writers fled to after being priced out of Manhattan. Parts of Brooklyn remain a haven for artists today, though time is running out for them even in the farthest reaches of the borough.
And New York’s outer boroughs have always been epicenters for the arts. Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel in Ozone Park, Queens. Louis Armstrong lived in Corona. Stanley Kubrick and Ace Frehley are from The Bronx. Matthew Brady, The Wu-Tang Clan and Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. hail from Staten Island. New York both attracts millions of creative people and produces great creativity among its natives that there is no neighborhood in the city that has not seen a glimmer of artistic greatness in some decade.
We can do nothing to roll back the clock and stop development and real estate price inflation, but like the good people of Astoria and elsewhere, a great art space is wherever you can make one. The outer boroughs are carving out space for the future of the arts in New York City.
We can argue about the direction that the city is going and what our fortunes are as a city. That argument has been raging since the 1600s and won’t ever end. But whatever you think about the direction that New York is going, there are things to look forward to in this New Year.
Here are some of them:
Giant dinosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. The Natural History Museum is one of the best places in New York to visit. The Hall of Marine Life alone is a full-bore Yankee assault on the senses guaranteed to tattoo good memories into your brain. Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is a place you will be at peace wandering for hours. You will discover great things and expand your mind. But if you can handle the crush of tourists that will be at the new dinosaur exhibit, it’s coming this month. At the center of the new permanent dinosaur exhibit is a 122-foot cast of a Titanosaur, a giant herbivore that would have weighed up to 22 tons when it was alive.
The 100th Anniversary of the Irish Easter Uprising. As a long-time epicenter of support for Irish independence and Irish republicanism, New York will no doubt see commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, when a few dedicated Irishmen and Irishwomen pledged their lives and honor on the cause of an independent Irish nation. Many of them paid with their lives. A century later, the dream of a united Irish republic is still unrealized, though the violence in the North of Ireland has for all purposes ended. But just because the Troubles are over doesn’t mean there is real peace or a viable political solution. The Irish have invested in peace for nearly two decades now and Ireland is no closer to unity than it was in 1969. What now? Look to places like Rocky Sullivan’s in Red Hook, Brooklyn to host some interesting events.
Bombastic U.S. political theater. If you can forget that the presidential race might be important to the future of our country and the world at large, then this year’s presidential contest makes for stunning political theater. As of now the campaigns of the two presidential candidates leading in the polls, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are based in New York, and if they each get the nomination of their respective parties, the Big Apple will be a political circus like never before. I would love to see both of them lose their nominations, but at it looks to me like Hilary Clinton will have a lock on the nomination (don’t take my word for it though, I thought she was going to get the nomination in 2008 and lose to McCain). Although we won’t see much actual campaigning in New York City—our state is usually a safe bet for Democrats—that one or both campaigns may be based in the five boroughs makes our city a player in the national race.
An extra day. This year is a leap year, which means February will have 29 days instead of 28 days. That gives you another day to enjoy New York and make the most of your life. Don’t waste it.