Archive | July 2016

RAMONES and the quest for Queens’ artistic respect

The Queens Museum is a site of pilgrimage for punk rock fans from all over the area thanks to its Ramones exhibit, which is open until July 31.

I made it there not long ago one weekend after seeing friends posting photos of their visits there over social media for the last several months. It is a fine exhibit, one long overdue in the borough that gave the pioneering punk rock band to the world. I made a point to wear my Norman Bates & The Showerheads t-shirt when I visited, because one great Queens punk band deserves another.

The exhibit is colorful and brief. It’s only two modest-sized rooms and a screening room. I went there with my family, which means that a good deal of our time was spent stopping our two and half year old twin girls from banging Tommy Ramone’s snare drum. We didn’t have time to really take all of it in, maybe we should have gotten a sitter.

But as rushed as our walk through the exhibit was, it was important to be there. Queens is often overlooked in the pantheon of New York City artistic greatness. But Queens has given the world not only the Ramones but Johnny Thunders, Run-DMC, Simon & Garfunkel and more. Queens doesn’t get the respect it deserves – all the outer boroughs carry with it that basic desire to poke their finger in the eye of the city being defined as Manhattan.

One thing that the contemporary adoration of the Ramones tends to obscure is that they were grossly underappreciated when they were a functioning group, at least here in the U.S. I remember going to see them in 1989 in Connecticut and they were playing at Toad’s Place in New Haven, an admirable music club but a small venue (it was a 21+ show and I had no fake I.D.). When I finally saw them in late 1995, they were playing a larger venue, but as part of a shitty alternative radio show, headlining but sharing the bill with the unworthy likes of Better than Ezra and Silverchair (the oft-hated Silverchair were actually very good to be honest).

Queens is fully embracing its Ramones fame. Murals of the Ramones now grace Forest Hills. There are plans to rename the intersection next to Forest Hills High School Ramones Way.

The Ramones who moved to the East Village in the 1970s could not afford to live there today. While the Joey Ramone Place street sign is the most stolen in the city, the area looks nothing like it did when the Ramones first played CBGB in 1974. The refrain is a familiar one: New York is no longer affordable to the artists who made New York’s art scene famous. The artists I know don’t talk about New York, they speak of Philadelphia, Buffalo, or Berlin. New York’s East Village is a victim of its own success in a lot of ways. I’m not ready to give up on New York just yet, but it’s easy for me to say that from Flushing.

To be a punk rock fan in New York City means to constantly wrestle with nostalgia. There is a rich history to celebrate, but nostalgia can be a trap as much as a motivator.

New York continues to produce great punk bands. You may have to travel farther away from Manhattan and the trendy parts of Brooklyn to see them, but great local bands, the Ramones of tomorrow, are playing somewhere in Queens today.

Battle of the Queens Night Markets

Not too long ago, Friday nights were when I wanted to rage in abominable weekend warrior style and get home in the early hours of dawn after partying harder than Robert Downey Jr. with a 40-pound crack rock. Not so anymore. I’ve become mellowed with age and exhausted by child wrangling and by Friday evening I want nothing more than to sit at home and try to catch up on sleep.

So this past Friday I was reluctant to leave home with our brood to attend Flushing Night Out that was held on the campus of Flushing High School, not far from where we live. I did not want to deal with a large crowd and trying to supervise two active toddlers amid a mob of festivalgoers. But my wife insisted we go support this thing.

The five of us plus my mother-in-law took a bus less than a mile to the corner of Northern Boulevard and Union Street.

Flushing High School is the oldest high school in the city and unlike most city high schools, it sits on a large piece of land that has a nice lawn. That’s where the Flushing Night Out was held.

The event was well attended but not horribly crowded, a welcome relief. It was an overwhelmingly Asian crowd, which was no surprise since it was Flushing, and it was largely Flushing High School students and people active in community events. The mobs of ill-mannered drunks, arrogant thugs, and hipster abominations I feared never materialized, and while the DJ music that was there was aimed at a younger audience and therefore pretty shitty, it wasn’t hard to get away from it. Things sounded much better once the live music started.

The food offerings were impressive and things are usually $5 or less. I had some excellent classic mac and cheese as well as fried mac and cheese from House of Mac, ate a tasty scallion pancake from Seoul Pancake, a seafood and pasta mix that had an Asian name I can’t remember from Teinei Ya and an amazing banana-flavored homemade pastry from Jai NYC Eats. The food booth that caught my attention the easiest was Karl’s Balls. Karl’s balls are delicious octopus balls. Meticulously tended to by the chef, the balls lived up to the hype. I can’t wait to have Karl’s Balls in my mouth again.

There was a $1 dollar All You Can Craft table that allowed us to keep our small children occupied and allowed them to leave with some hand-made jewelry. They also enjoyed painting their own and their grandmother’s arms with paint. Helpful volunteers were incredibly good-natured and patient with rambunctious toddlers who wielded paint brushes like machetes.  Not far away, a vendor used a real machete to slice coconuts for special drinks.

There were also a lot of different vendors selling various inexpensive crafts. There was some seating available and space for people to bring picnic blankets. It was an all-around pleasant evening.

Flushing Night Out will be held several more Fridays this summer: July 29, August 12 and August 26. They run from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. It is a good way to experience Flushing and family friendly too. It’s organized by the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce.

There is also a Queens International Night Market that is held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, on Saturdays. Our family tried to go there once but we drove and there was no parking available. My wife got out and walked through and found that the lines were incredibly long because there were not enough vendors. However, it has improved and my mother-in-law attended a more recent night market there and reported that there were many more vendors and that the crowd situation has improved.

The Brooklyn Night Bazaar was very popular and featured a lot of food vendors, beer, and music. It closed though it appears to be on its way back as its web site says it will be revived this September. Queens doesn’t need to duplicate Brooklyn to prove its worth, but these night markets can be a lot of fun if done right, and the Queens night markets are proving to be successful.

Queens has the most to offer of any borough in the city as far as food and different crafts. If something exists in the world, you can bet someone in Queens can cook it, get it for you, or show you how to make it. Night markets like Flushing Night Out are a good way to discover new foods, restaurants, or other fun things that may already be close by.


My friend Poppy, a better New Yorker

This past weekend, my wife and I took our three girls to the Cradle of Aviation Museum not far outside the New York City border in Nassau County, Long Island, New York. The museum is located on the spot where Charles Lindbergh took off on his historic first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.

The museum is a nice one and wasn’t too crowded even though it was a Saturday. There is a play room for children that our older girls enjoyed as well as plenty of airplane and helicopter cockpits they enjoyed climbing into and pretending to fly.

As we were busy wrangling our children and enjoying the exhibits, I saw people I recognized. I saw my friend Poppy and his son Mike there at the museum. It was a great coincidence.

I worked with Poppy years ago when I first moved back to New York City and worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport. Even though I was only on the job for about two years and left it more than sixteen years ago, it remains the most interesting paying job I’ve ever held.

The immigration service attracted an interesting mix of people, and most of my fellow immigration inspectors were excellent people. Some of them, particularly some of the supervisors, liked to put on airs even though they did little but order people around and make things easy for the airlines. Some people like to inflate themselves or wear needless tactical gear and pull power trips on passengers or other inspectors.

Poppy didn’t have to yell at people or strut around pretending to be tough. He’s a decorated veteran of both the U.S. Army and the New York Police Department. He saw combat in Vietnam and on the streets of New York as a housing cop during some of the most violent times of the city’s history. Rank-and-file inspectors like me respected the retired cops like Poppy because they had real and more impressive law enforcement experience and had no use for the petty politics of the federal bureaucracy. There was nothing that a paper-pushing supervisor could threaten him with that was going to scare him. He’s fought off Vietcong and hardened criminals. He’s seen humanity at its worst, repeatedly, and retained the ability to laugh at it.

His ability to laugh at bullshit that would otherwise drive a normal person insane is one of the qualities makes him so valued. After I left the airport to work in journalism, I worked with Poppy to write a book of funny stories about his time as a police officer. He gave me some recordings of conversations he had with fellow retired officers so I could write them up. I decided to listen to a few minutes one day before heading out, but these stories were so funny that I couldn’t stop listening and sat in my apartment listening to these stories and laughing out loud.

Among all the people I am in touch with from the airport, Poppy is the central figure in our network of friends. He is the one we will plan to meet for dinner months in advance, the one we’ll call when we make our one pilgrimage to a wrestling show for the year, the one we want to go to opening day at Yankee Stadium with. Some of the most memorable dinners I’ve had were with Poppy and other JFK friends at Two Toms Restaurant in Brooklyn.

Poppy has faced his share of troubles. He has faced health problems, his house burned down, and the useless airport bureaucrats held up his retirement paperwork. But despite that he has lost none of his humor or his ability to make you feel like you are one of his crew. My discussion with him and at the museum lasted only a few minutes, but it brightened my entire weekend.

We live in troubling times and we’ve seen New York and America enter difficult times that strain our concept of survival. But I take comfort that our country produces men like my friend Poppy, who is strong enough to face any danger and help you laugh at the absurdities of life.

Giving a lesson in how to live

Nine years ago, I met some of my family at the airport and took to the skies to get to Madison, Wisconsin. The occasion was my aunt Alice’s wedding to Dave Siewert. The wedding was outdoors in the summer. Despite it being one of the hottest days of the year, it was a breezy and pleasant afternoon and everyone had a great time.

Because they lived far away, we didn’t get to see Alice and Dave very often, so whenever they were in town it was a special event. When they were visiting for the holidays, a group of us met in midtown Manhattan the day after Christmas so Alice could take Dave to a Broadway show. Normally I avoid the heavily tourist parts of midtown like the plague, and even more so around the holidays, but my Aunt Alice is no ordinary visitor, and this is where she wanted to take Dave.

A few years ago Dave was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and not given more than a few months to live. It was a raw deal by any measure. He and Alice had already had their share of medical woes together including heart disease and a previous bout with cancer.

He lived years longer than his doctors expected, and he didn’t waste a minute of time. Dave refused to let his diagnosis define his life other than to spur him on to live more of it. He and Alice headed west and went on some epic road adventures.

Family and friends followed Alice and Dave’s adventures through social media. They posted their amazing photos of the places they visited and Alice wrote wonderful accounts of their time together. The last time I saw him, which was, sadly, at a family funeral, he appeared in good spirits. He had grown his hair out long. Doctors had told him his hair would fall out from the chemotherapy but it hadn’t yet.

The medical news didn’t get better. There were multiple setbacks with treatments that didn’t work or that had to be stopped. But Alice and Dave continued to travel and enjoy the beauty of the American West. They would take a weeklong trip and then be back for treatment before hitting the road again.

This past weekend, family scrambled to get flights to Madison, Wisconsin for Dave’s memorial service. The family tracked his health through Alice and when it looked like things were nearing an end, some of my aunts caught the first flights they could to be there.

While he had been in deteriorating health, Dave never stopped living. He was getting out and about and riding his bike whenever he could. He faced death with a grace, dignity and determination that serves as a great example to the rest of us.

It is easy to talk about death and the brave ways you want to face it. We often think of it in terms of facing a violent threat or hurtling headlong to a dramatic end. It’s impossible to know how we’re going to really face death, because it usually confronts us in a quiet doctor’s office or in front of people who know us and all our faults and frailties.

Dave showed us that even though we can’t control when and how we will die, our end can be one of our own making if we have the courage to do so.

I count among my many good fortunes having a strong family that is fast to mobilize for one another in times of need. Dave has kept us to a very high standard and demonstrated how to live life with unlimited strength. With his love of life and ability to face death with unimaginable courage, Dave Siewert made my family better, and we owe him a debt of gratitude.

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