Archive | August 2016

The never ending “Tetris” of city life

This past weekend my wife and I went to an obnoxious Scandinavian furniture store and purchased some sensible furniture we will need for our recently expanded brood. The heavy boxes of yet-to-be-assembled furniture is still sitting in the back of our van, not because we lack for strength or willpower to haul them up to our apartment, but because we have yet to make the necessary logistical calculations and plans needed to move furniture in a New York City apartment.

Perhaps I should call Mike Moosehead, a bandmate and New York City hardcore punk musical Renaissance man among whose many talents includes the ability to “Tetris” large amounts of musical equipment into seemingly impossible spaces. He can figure out how to fit an entire backline of drum kit parts, amplifiers and instruments into the back of a taxi cab and narrow storage areas.

In New York City, space is such a premium that every move has to be calculated and every inch must be justified. Few can afford spacious living. And even in Northern Queens where we live, where things are not as crowded as other parts of the city (grocery stores in our neighborhood have parking lots – a rare luxury if you are accustomed to Manhattan life), space is still a precious commodity.

In the furniture store we found dressers and book cases that would have been much better without the very common decorative overhangs and trimmings. We had to go to the store with very exact measurements of our daughters’ bedroom and then sit down and do a lot of math after collecting all the dimensions of the furniture we were considering buying. No doubt every homeowner has to do that, but New York City living means getting right down to the half inch.

At the office where I work, there was a pay parking lot next to our building when I first started working there two years ago. It is now a construction site for a hotel that is being built. Even in this age of Airbnb, hotels are being built in spaces that would normally seem too small. Every square foot of this city can be made into a money-making venture. If you aren’t getting the maximum use of your space, you are losing money somehow.

At home, we have a nice two-bedroom apartment that was spacious when it was only two of us. But we began creating new human beings and now our apartment shelters five. Three of those are under three but they grow fast and our space is already crowded. It is going to be a months-long effort to make our space more comfortable to live in, and we have to plan everything out meticulously.

All things considered, we are lucky to have the problems we have. There are plenty of people who are living in more crowded conditions and we have a stable living situation in a safe neighborhood and a roof over our heads. But the maddening “Tetris” of city life continues unabated and won’t slow down.

New York Taxis: no English required

Years ago, I was helping someone move apartments and we took a cab. We were calling for gypsy cabs as this was in uptown Manhattan where it was difficult to hail a cab. The driver had zero English. Even when my friend wrote the address on a piece of paper and handed it to him, he thought he was going to 124th Street because the number of the building address was 124. He called his dispatcher on his cell phone and him interpret this address.

We don’t expect everyone to speak the King’s English in New York—what native New Yorkers speak is far from the King’s English—but driving a cab or working with the public in this town in any official capacity should require English and until recently that was the case for having a license to drive a cab (colloquially known as a “hack license.”)

New York City taxi drivers are no longer required to pass an English language proficiency test. This regulation had been on the books for a while but not stringently enforced. Ask any New Yorker who has taken cabs in the city regularly and they have had drivers with little or no English. Now it’s just official.

And it’s a bad idea. We don’t have a lot of things that hold us together here in New York or America anymore for that matter. If we’re going to perish in a suicidal cultural bouillabaisse, then I guess descending into a hellish Babel is part of the deal. But the interest of public safety can’t be abandoned so quickly and recklessly.

What’s motivating this in New York is not a lack of drivers who are willing to learn English, but the medallion cab companies losing drivers to startup hailing app companies like Uber and Lyft. It’s not a matter of public policy or politicians’ hearts breaking for destitute non-English speakers, but the cold hard cash that fuels what remains of our “democracy.”

It’s amazing that you can get a driver’s license in the U.S.A. without knowing English, but at least let make sure that those who drive other people professionally know the language. New Yorkers come from every part of the globe and whatever your opinions of our current immigration question, most people agree that people who live and work together need to know the same language.

Technology that’s shaking up the taxi industry will enable drivers who are restricted in language to only deal with clientele they can communicate with. Since you can order any kind of vehicle to pick you up with a ride-sharing mobile application, you can also specify that language proficiency of your driver. Thus the balkanization of the U.S. is advanced further, and all in the name of helping and fairness.

I have never been a frequent user of cabs but in my days of hard drinking and late nights that became early mornings, I would take a cab. Since most cab drivers in New York are from other countries, I enjoyed speaking to them about where they were from and learning about what was going on in the world from people who had a closer connection to it.

New York has survived for hundreds of years in part because people have learned to work with one another despite enormous differences. A common language makes that possible.

Finding some Olympic spirit

Though I normally don’t follow the Olympics or sports in general outside of watching the Georgia Bulldogs every fall, this summer’s games have proven a pleasing distraction.

There was a lot of negative news going into this year’s Olympic Games. Rio was woefully under prepared and is internationally known as a haven of high crime (it still is). A significant portion of the Russian team was disqualified due to doping charges. This had all the makings of a miserable time.

But the achievements of the athletes have given us here in the U.S.A. a welcome distraction from the bad news of the world that has been flooding us for the past several months. American Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time and won a gold medal at what will likely be his very last Olympic Games as an athlete.

I have been enjoying watching many of the women’s sports at home. My three young daughters can be inspired by the female athletes, I can ogle the young Olympians without looking like an obvious pervert in front of my wife, and we bring support to women’s athletics when we watch at home on television, or at least I tell myself that.

I’m determined to show my daughters popular female role models because most of what our culture serves us is pure garbage. That’s not feminism, that’s just trying to be a good parent. Female athletics have advanced enough that we now have stars that are trash-talking sore losers. It took male Olympic athletes nearly 100 years to become that obnoxious.

Like the World Cup, New York is a place where you can find any international population that exists in the world watching and cheering on their compatriots. I have one friend who is setting out on a mission to tour as many bars as possible and watch as many games with different international crowds as his Metrocard and his ability to walk straight will allow. If that’s not the Olympic spirit, nothing is.

Of course we have to endure the over-politicization of the games as the media wants to make everything an emotional epic of one sort or another. But most of us are content to enjoy the games as a chance to see a mastery of craft and hard work rewarded. Competitive sports are a great dose of reality that flies in the face of much of the increasingly infantile culture of the Western world. There is no medal for participation in the Olympics. Everyone competing is an amazing athlete and most of them will go home empty-handed.

Seeing people who excel with hard work and discipline achieve excellence in a difficult challenge is something we ought to see and admire. To see people from around the world compete and leave the politics and strife from the world outside the games for the most part, is a welcome sight in these contentious times.

Even when they are rife with controversy and disappointment, the Olympics still provide plenty of positive inspiration. Take the time to enjoy it while you can.

Preserving your sanity, New York City summer edition

This year is already going down in history as a bitterly unpleasant one. America and the world are in varying states of conflict with no easy resolutions being offered. While the U.S. humiliates itself with the buffoonery of its current political climate, many parts of the world have it much worse. Conflict-rich New York City appears as a calm oasis in the midst of this storm, which speaks volumes about the unfortunate state of our world.

New York City is its own universe at war with itself in so many ways already, it’s hard to get caught up in the Sturm Und Drang of a political season that will be here again in four years anyway. Admittedly, this election has added some excitement and unpredictability, but whatever revolutions were alive in the primaries are over.

This year’s Presidential election is likely the most contentious once since 1968, which saw widespread race riots and the assassination of the leading Democratic candidate. We’ve had nothing of that scale here, at least not yet. And this is the first time since 1944 that both major-party candidates are from New York. We’d have every reason to feel like this is New York’s moment to play an outsized role in the national dialogue. But New York already views itself as the center of human civilization, and the overall disaffection with the choices in this year’s election is felt here as elsewhere. New Yorkers were weary of these candidates long before this year’s election.

So the average New York City resident does little but shake their head at the politics being played out on our televisions and news feeds. We already have things to hate each other for. The city is full of despicable people who come from all ends of the political spectrum. We don’t need to pass judgement on one another’s politics; we’re already judging each other by a myriad of other criteria. People who are not activists are largely, and for their own benefit, disengaged from the process. We’ll hold our noses and vote for someone in November, but until then leave us alone.

The summer is a time when one needs to leave the city in order to preserve one’s sanity. Everything is worse when drenched in heat and humidity, and this summer has been exceedingly hot, with 90+ degree heat for days and weeks at a time. We can’t seem to catch a break. New York magnifies the worst of the oppressive weather, and the dense population make city life a sojourn to Hades in these months.

Lots of people head north at some point. It’s cooler the farther north you get. I dream of living somewhere in the mountains or the woods in reaches hours north of New York by car. I envision a family compound with room for many guests, enough land to hunt on, and a writing office stocked with hunting trophies and miles of books. Then I snap out of this and realize I’ve been dozing off on my feet on the 7 train crammed next to other sullen commuters.

New Yorkers follow the edict that’s used often in the military: “embrace the suck.” We are going to be hot and miserable for several months, so just accept that level of misery for what it is and wait for the fall when New York is much more pleasant.

The kindness of strangers on a bus in Queens

Living in New York City for a long time can leave you jaded and expecting the worst of humanity. Actually, living anywhere on Earth for a long time can leave you with a pretty dismal view of the world. Sometimes there are times in city life that surprise you and give you some hope for humanity.

My wife was away all day this past Saturday, leaving me alone for the first extended period of time with our three children, all of whom are under three years of age. “Three under three” is apparently a very difficult thing to do. Having three kids in this day and age, especially for employed city dwellers, is a rarity. I have a lot of friends with kids and can only think of three of them that have three. Most have one or two. Raising kids is not easy but I’ll be damned if I don’t do my part. I’m going to keep trying until I get a son or until my wife kills me in my sleep.

Anyway, I could not sit inside with my children all day. It’s important to get kids out and about to see and experience the world lest they become agoraphobic sociopaths who play video games or spend all day on social media. So I bought tickets online to see The Cat Came Back: Stories and Songs with A Jazzy Twist at Flushing Town Hall, which is about a half mile from our home.

Too far to make toddlers walk and not blessed with a large enough parking lot to make driving an option, the best method of getting there was by bus.

In New York City, bus travel is at the lowest end of the social totem pole. It’s a deal breaker for many residents, which is why apartments are still somewhat affordable in our neighborhood and why our slice of the city hasn’t been hit with the same level of gentrification as those closer to the subway. Bus travel gives you all the crowded unpleasantness of a packed subway with the lurching frustration of sitting in city traffic.

But my two two-year-olds don’t mind the bus. My older (by one minute) daughter enjoys taking the bus and is downright disappointed and angry if we drive by car. The bus is an adventure and seeing new people and things. It means not being strapped into a car seat and being able to turn around in her set and look out the window. While to most adults it’s a confining mode of transit that makes you feel like a loser, to a little kid used to the constraints of our safety-conscious society, the public bus is a respite from the constricted life.

So I put our infant daughter in a baby carrier and walked across the street from our building to wait for the bus to take us to Flushing Town Hall. After waiting a while, a Q20 arrived. We were first in line but were waiting for a Q34. I mentioned this as I waived people ahead of us, and a fellow passenger told me that the Q34 doesn’t run on the weekends.

We got on the bus and people were very deferential and offered me their seat so I could sit next to our two twin girls, who are two and a half. I preferred to stand anyway, and tried to join the girls in “The Wheels on the Bus,” but they were too interested in looking at the world outside the bus to join me in much singing.

The bus driver was very nice to us, and made sure I didn’t miss my stop. At one point he left the back door open and said, “That door is for you!” but he wasn’t talking to me, but rather a fare beater who had snuck in the back at the stop. Anyway, people on the bus moved to let me sit even though I told them I didn’t want to. As long as the girls have a place to sit I’m fine. I prefer to stand on public transportation anyway.

The concert at Flushing Town Hall was good and the girls were patient for most of the show. By the time they got really restless and needed to be taken home, the show was winding down. It was a nice time and even though a lot of the folk tales were over the girls’ heads, it’s always good to expose children to culture and the arts.

On the bus back home, people were again very generous and helpful. Even though one old lady was crabby and told a man he didn’t belong in the elderly/handicapped seat next to her, people were nice to the guy herding three kids around. I emerged from what is usually a transit hell with a sense that human beings can be decent once in a while, at least towards small children.

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