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The coming crypto reckoning

The lure of being lucky and striking it rich is a powerful opiate in America. From our very foundation as a place of refuge for the unluckiest of Europe, the self-made millionaire has a place of reverence in American lore. Very few attain that status, but millions have exhausted that dream and put themselves in an early grave working to attain it.

The chase for American riches has taken many forms, from the California Gold Rush to endless swindles, and the latest destination is cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is digital currency that can be exchanged for other currencies. Bitcoin is the most famous but there are more of them than I care to count.

There is absolutely a place in the world for a digital currency, but many of the current crop of these currencies defy what a currency needs to be: a stable unit of value measurement. If Bitcoin can lose 22% of its value in the matter of days, or drop precipitously in the course of a morning based on the whims of Chinese regulators, it is missing an essential element of being a usable currency.

And there will be a time when crypto currencies are real and have real value and usefulness. It’s important to note that in some totalitarian countries like China, the use of crypto currencies have been a force for good, enabling people to do business without oppressive government interference. But we are in such early days of the cryptocurrency world that the safe and regular use of cryptocurrencies is still years away.

There are cryptocurrencies pegged to regular currencies—such as Tether, which tracks the U.S. dollar—known as Stablecoins. In the future, some kind of Stablecoin may be used globally that would enable secure, anonymous use with the kind of stability that a currency needs.

But that kind of legitimate use is a long way away from the rampant speculation that is captivating the imaginations of get-rich-quick investors. What’s worse, the same kind of faux populism that gave us the GameStop rush of a year ago has been de rigueur in the crypto world.

And this rampant, pure speculative increase in value is based on hopeful dreams and nothing more. Even stocks that are widely overvalued are supported by an understandable business model. With crypto, you can lose your shirt in the course of an afternoon and have no one to blame but yourself. Most world currencies – U.S. Dollars, French or Swiss Francs, Euros, British Pounds—are backed by powerful governments that have a vested interest in maintaining a stable currency. You can argue that U.S. Dollars are propped up by the Federal Reserve Bank or even an Illuminati conspiracy, but they are doing a better job than they keyboard commandos, Russian bots and other shady characters running the crypto world.

What is so shameful about the current state of crypto is that people are being drawn in who otherwise would invest in something more constructive. Hard-working people who find it hard to get ahead and save for their kids’ college tuition are plowing money into the latest online toy money when they could be investing in something real. At this point I’d be happier with these people stuffing money into mattresses rather than putting it into the latest cryptocurrency that’s being talked up by social media shysters.

But like major speculative rushes of the past, the crypto world will experience a “shakeout,” where those that don’t have real values drop quickly and investors lose money. It could be quick and violent. There will be stories of people losing their life savings because they were told they could double their money in months.

Crypto currency speculation is going to be one of those things future generations read about and ask why people of our generation didn’t do something about this global boondoggle. The reckoning is coming; please don’t get burned.

Strength and creativity in 2022

We entered 2022 in a state of sickness but also with a determination to reenter life with meaning and determination.

I sat on a couch with a plastic cup full of soda and a non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice as the giant Waterford crystal ball dropped in Times Square on television. The children that wouldn’t to go sleep were there, getting to see the real ball drop and real New Year’s Eve countdown despite our efforts to get them to bed at a decent hour.

What would have normally (is there even a proper normal anymore) been an easy, low-key get together took several rounds of COVID testing across three or four households to make happen. So many events were canceled and postponed I didn’t think our small gathering was going to happen until we were on the road to upstate New York (update New York as defined anywhere north of the Bronx-Westchester border).

Good food and good conversation made for a fitting end to 2021. Everyone’s other plans were canceled, and this was what we could do, but we pulled it off anyway. All of my Double Satanic Deviled Eggs were eaten, and everyone survived the night.

Having left the drinking life many years ago, I missed out on some of the revelry but also missed out on all of the danger and hangovers. But the next day, the first day of the year, was spent eating, driving home, and unpacking from a brief overnight stay.

The year may see things get worse before they get better, and with so many false ends-in-sight to the global COVID pandemic, anyone who ventures a guess is foolish. But…

Between fatigue at the length of this pandemic and disgust at the lacking leadership in fighting the Coronavirus plague, people are determined to live again in 2022.

This year will be one of continued challenges and changes. No one knows what the dawn of 2023 will look like, but the next 360+ days are going to be busy getting things settled and starting new chapters.

There is new music to be made, new books to be written, new lives to rebuild.

The holiday lights are still shining throughout New York City; we will let them burn as long as we can. We need reason to celebrate, and we’ve been cheated out of a second holiday season.

And so, we are ready to get living again and forge into whatever new normal we can shape. There is no time to waste; we’ve lost too much time already.

Let’s start.

Quarantined for Christmas

New York is aglow in holiday glory. Within walking distance of my home are houses and apartment buildings adorned in beautiful lights and holiday displays. Midtown Manhattan is deluged with the stunning accoutrements of the holiday season, and parts of the outer boroughs and the suburbs have homes that take yuletide cheer to new heights.

And New York and the world are in the throes of another pandemic surge. Despite being vaccinated and still generally cautious, I’m quarantined in the bedroom of my apartment as Christmas approaches, testing positive for COVID-19 for the second time this year. The whole family had it in February, luckily the rest have tested negative. I’m sequestered in my bedroom and my 10-day Coronavirus quarantine ends two days before Christmas.

This is the second holiday season in a row, at least here in the Northeast, that has been disrupted by this global pandemic, and I share in the fatigue of constant waves of variants, surges, and arguments over masks and vaccines. The COVID pandemic has become a pathetic Greek alphabet soup with everyone going through the motions until the next surge or the next new variant.

For most of the country, COVID doesn’t impact daily life until it does. A few months ago, hospitals in Georgia were so flooded with unvaccinated COVID patients that one of my stepbrothers had a tough time getting non-COVID-related hospital care he needed. The Delta variant surge failed to convince the population that won’t get vaccinated to get vaccinated. Much of the U.S.A. is already mentally past the pandemic, and rightly or wrongly, looks at our continued precautious and inoculations as a form of cultural snobbery.

Getting COVID a second time is frustrated, as I’m doing things by the (often changing and hastily re-written) book. I am fully vaccinated and have been going to places in the city that require full vaccination. I had a few cold symptoms and some general weariness, nothing I thought could not be knocked out with more rest and vitamin C. Then a coworker I had seen recently informed me he tested positive for COVID, so I took a home test that came back positive. The rest of the family got COVID tests at a clinic and tested negative.

I went online and scheduled a COVID test at a local clinic.

Arriving early to check in for my 1 p.m. appointment, I waited behind a woman boasting of her position as a pharmacist and carrying on an extra-long and unnecessary conversation with the desk attendant at the clinic; she kept asking the same questions and laughing and looking at the growing line behind her for some kind of validation and camaraderie. “I fill Z-Pack prescriptions all the time…”

The desk clerk was very patient and kept telling her they couldn’t register any more walk-in patients; there were people who had been waiting there since 10 a.m.

Once the verbose pharmacist moved on, I gave my name and my insurance card and ID, and signed my scribble on an electronic pad without seeing any version of what I was signing—the clerk told me what it was and to be honest, I rarely read these documents anyway—and I was told I would be called when my time comes.

I waited in my car for 45 minutes before I had to go back inside to use the restroom. While I was waiting for the restroom, more people showed up, looking for COVID tests. One man said he had driven in from Long Island, that this was the fourth clinic he had visited today, and that one clinic had told him to arrive at 4 a.m. He was going to travel soon for the holidays and needed travel clearance.

My call finally came, and I got my test in the forms of swabs up the nose; not as intrusive as the one I had in February, we’ll count that as progress. The doctor came in a few minutes later with my results. He was thorough but harried; he had seen about 50 patients before I got there and would see at least that many more before he left for the day. He confirmed my home test and gave the information I needed. I was soon on my way home, walking through a small crowd of people who had arrived at 3 p.m. to try to put their names on the new walk-in waiting list.

This isn’t the holiday season we wanted; we were supposed to be through this by now. When the initial outbreak happened in early 2020, we thought the upcoming spring and summer would spell an end to the lockdowns. After all, this wasn’t 1918, we have advanced technologically very much since then. But human nature does not change, and a deadly combination of partisan theatrics, bureaucratic ineptitude, and general boorish ignorance have kept this going.

I’m not sure what relief 2022 will bring. I have lost count of the number of times that I thought we were on our way to being done with the Coronavirus pandemic. I’ll remember to be thankful for the good health that I have—my symptoms are mild, and I will be through it before Christmas.

I’ll look ahead to the New Year with hope and the resolve to keep living life, no matter what the world puts in the way. See you there.

Happy holidays.

Clawing our back to a “new normal”

Early in May, I returned to a company office to work for the first time since March 2020. The company I worked for at the time is headquartered in Times Square.

The earliest express bus that comes through my neighborhood arrived at 6 a.m. and it was at about half capacity—pre pandemic this bus would often be close to full capacity, even at that early hour.

Times Square is never empty, but the crowds did not meet the massive levels that were typical in the time before COVID-19. That will likely start to change as NYC declares a larger reopening. In the few weeks I’ve been working a few days in the office, the crowds in the streets have been getting larger.

New York’s reopening is picking up steam, there’s still a lot of damage assessment going on in real time. The go-to salad place across Broadway in Times Square I was hoping to visit shut down; luckily, the Times Deli on 44th near Broadway survived, as have several halal carts. But some places are gone and not coming back for a while, and those places that are open are in some cases struggling to find workers.   

I switched jobs in mid-June and the company I work for is smaller and not pushing people back to the office. I usually go into the new office once per week, and that’s because I have band rehearsal in midtown Manhattan. This past week, I ventured into Manhattan after hours because someone at my new job is leaving, and there was a farewell party for him at a bar. It was the first-time meeting some of the coworkers I had been working with for three weeks.

Connolly’s Pub on 47th Street near Madison Ave. was doing good business on a Wednesday night. They were short-staffed but their harried waiters were working hard to keep up. I saw few customers wearing masks. More than two decades ago, I went to Connolly’s to see Black 47 ring in the Year 2000. If the Y2K threat—a threat that seems trivial and quaint compared to the problems of today—was going to wipe out civilization as we knew it, I was going to out with a pint in my hand and rocking Irish rebel tunes ringing in my ears.

And it may be many more months before I work in an office with any regularity with my new coworkers. The “hybrid” working model of combining home and office work should become the “new normal” of the post pandemic world. Things were headed in that direction before Wuhan bat stew threw the globe into a tizzy, and the model was proven during the past year and a half of lockdowns. Especially now as people see opportunity to leave their current jobs, companies are going to compete for workers and those trying to push people back to the office will   be on the losing side when other things appear equal.

It was interesting from a corporate perspective to see how different companies handled the “back to work” question. More modern tech companies like Facebook quickly gave employees the option of working from home for as long as they wanted. It was more old-school companies like JPMorgan that have been pushing for people to come back to the office.

As before, cultural life is the vanguard of New York’s general wellbeing. If people feel safe enough to cram themselves into Broadway theater seats, we’ve entered the post-pandemic world. Broadway is reopening slowly, with different productions coming back at different times.

Free Shakespeare in the parks has returned to the Delacorte in Central Park and in Queens the Hip to Hip Theatre Company announced they have approval for in-person performances from Actors’ Equity and will be performing productions of Twelfth Night and Antony & Cleopatra. That’s good news for a city that needs it.

Live music is coming back as well. In May I went to the first live music show in nearly a year and a half at the Shillelagh Tavern in Astoria. The bands were great, and it was a catharsis to feel the blast of the music and see people I hadn’t seen in person in so long. I’m happy to report that Blackout Shoppers already have two shows booked for August. Every week it feels great to rehearse and make music. We were able to take our girls roller skating at an outdoor rink on Father’s Day at the TWA Hotel, where I actually used to go to work some days when it was still an airport terminal. One more outing in the emerging world.

There’s not going to be a sudden flip of the switch to reset our world back to normal; we’re going to have to work and scrape and put it back together ourselves. Our work is cut out for us, but it is underway.

Vaxxed to the max

We’re approaching the end of the biggest global pandemic in more than a century, and New York is ready to dive into Spring and Summer with renewed fervor.

Much of America is reopening prematurely, with some states flouting mask mandates and common sense the way they have for the past year and a half.

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio declared we would be fully reopen on July 1, which is about eight weeks from now. Not to let a deadly pandemic stand in the way of a pointless pissing contest between awful lame-duck officials, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is hoping for a full state reopening before July 1.

People can’t wait to do normal things again and I can’t blame them. Recently, a large free concert was held in Tompkins Square Park featuring popular New York Hardcore bands Madball and Murphy’s Law. It was a crowded and largely mask-less affair, with the usual mosh pit and stage diving and a crowd that would not have been able to socially distance within the confines of Tompkins Square Park and still see the stage. Videos of the concert were shared widely online and there was a lot of heavy criticism of the event. No way were any reasonable COVID protocols observed, and in a group of that size at this stage its unlikely that there was a 100% vaccination rate among participants.

The Parks Department gave a permit for this event, and then declared it was investigating it and pulled permits from upcoming shows. I’m not sure who the Parks Department would investigate besides itself—it gave a permit for the event and then was shocked that people actually showed up for it after a year devoid of public concerts. The most rudimentary Google search would have informed the powers that be that these are popular bands, and this was likely to have a large turnout.

And worse, the upcoming concerts that the Parks Department canceled are likely to be smaller events with greater likelihood of social distancing.

But despite this malarkey, this is a good sign. It means we’re in a transitional period and moving back to a time when having public gatherings and concerts will be commonplace again. People are aching to make music again, yearning for the New York City Spring and Summer of outdoor drinking and music and fun.

Living in Eastern Queens and having a car made things easier to schedule, and my wife used the TurboVax Twitter feed to learn of openings at SUNY Old Westbury, and she let me know. Within a few minutes of her telling me, I had my appointment, though the time slots all near hers had been filled and I had to go hour later. Still, I grabbed it.

The early days of the vaccine rollout were rough, but by early April things were running very smoothly in New York. I was seated and ready for my shot within a few short minutes of arriving at the mass vaccination site. When I returned for my second shot three weeks later, I was given the dose even faster.

 It’s been two weeks since my last shot, and I’m vaxxed to the max and ready to rock and roll. I’m still making up indoors and keeping one ready if I get close to people outdoors. And honestly, I’d like to stay six feet away from everyone else forever.

But life won’t stop and clawing our way out of the pandemic means getting vaccinated and keeping with some of the habits we developed during the past year. It’s gotten easier to do.

Get vaccinated, you filthy animals.

Truth and civilization

More than 30 years ago now, I was selected as my high school’s intern for our local Congressman. I spent a week working from the Capitol Hill office of Representative Bruce Morrison, a Democrat who represented the third district of Connecticut.

Though he was running for Governor of Connecticut that year, he still kept a very full schedule, and as Chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee he was working on a bill that has instrumental, for better or worse, for bringing in tech workers from outside the U.S.

Bruce Morrison did not win his contest for governor, though I turned 18 that year and I am proud to say that the very first vote I ever cast that year was for him. The winner, Independent Lowell Weicker, instituted a deeply unpopular state income tax, was hanged in effigy in Hartford and did not run again; the Republican candidate, John Rowland, later became governor and wound up serving time in federal prison for bribery and campaign fraud, so Connecticut judged extremely poorly that November. Rep. Morrison did not run for political office again but left a lasting legacy. Among his many credits is that he was instrumental in helping bring about the Irish Peace accords by normalizing relations between the U.S. government and Ireland’s Sinn Fein.

I was only working in Congress for one week, but it was thrilling to be at the center of our country’s government, being part of what was making the news and seeing the workings of government up close. I helped write a letter to a woman in Mystic about the Women Infants and Children program, sent faxes to other Congressional offices, and did tasks that were menial office tasks but felt like they carried the gravitas of democracy nonetheless.

I would spend hours after work in the visitors’ galleries of the House and Senate, watching the debates. It was thrilling to see Senators and Representatives argue their positions with eloquence and mutual respect. The formality of how they addressed one another, as “Senator” on the Senate and “Gentleman” or “Gentlewoman” in the House, lent grace and dignity to the proceedings, even amid what counted as partisan rancor in 1990.

Among the tasks was going around to various offices collecting signatures on a letter to the Secretary of State in the wake of army killings of students in Zaire, which later resulted in Congress cutting military aid to that country (their dictator would be overthrown in a coup seven years later). I walked the halls of the House office buildings, finding my way to the various offices and sometimes meeting the different Representatives along the way—I usually only handed the letter to a staff member who would go into the inner sanctum of the office and return with the signature of the Congressperson, but chatted with a few in person. At one point while gathering these signatures, I ran into my sophomore year English teacher, Mr. Degenhardt, and my high school’s former Principal, Gilbert Cass, and showed them to our Congressman’s office.

At another point, a Congressman who pledged to sign the letter was on the floor of the House. I was not allowed to go there. Only Representatives, pages, and certain other staff were allowed. Luckily, someone—I think it was another Congressman—ran the letter to the floor and back for me.

The floor of the House of Representatives was a kind of sacred ground; it was for people who got elected, who entered by the will of the people. It is not another part of the office, or a fancy perk Congress gave itself. People died to keep it free. In fact, the British burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House during the War of 1812.

So last month when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, it took on the same kind of unfathomable horror that the September 11th terror attacks did. Though it was of an entirely different scale and purpose, there was an element of watching something we didn’t think could happen here. Even in the most depraved days of Trump’s two presidential campaigns, I had a higher level of faith in his rank-and-file supporters than to think they could be led so far astray from reality.

The past several years have shown us that the fringe elements of our politics have gained traction among the mainstream and have no allegiance beyond their own ideas. The history and honor of our country mean nothing to them, as they see themselves as elite warriors correcting injustices rather than as citizens with obligations and responsibilities. Whatever destruction they or their allies cause is considered justified by the morality of their cause.  

What the last four years have laid bare is that both political parties are broken, with great swaths of voters and activists that will be led to violence based on misinformation and propaganda.

Overwrought self-styled patriots, who thought Donald Trump was the last bastion of defense of law and order and America itself, stood with crowds that murdered a police officer in an attempt to thwart a democratic election. Self-indulgent social justice advocates, who looked the other way as mobs burned down police stations and created “autonomous zones” in major cities, posted tributes to fallen Capitol police offers and talk of meting out punishment for sedition.

The partisans stuck with extremists in their midst want to blame someone else. Trump supporters claim these were really Antifa activists in the Capitol on Jan. 6, and Black Lives Matter supporters would have us believe it was secret Trump “Boogaloo” militia burning and looting U.S. cities last summer.

Two central tenets can guide us forward out of this decades-long quagmire:

  1. There must be an absolute and unwavering respect for and obedience to the truth.
  2. American institutions deserve our utmost care and protection, not because they are perfect but because they are ours.

The truth knows no political allegiances and always disappoints dogmatic partisan politicians. Our institutions were created in different times by different people than comprise America today, but they were made to last and have survived multiple wars and upheavals. If we respect them, they can thrive again.

Dispatches from the Secret Playground

Thanksgiving came and went with still much to be thankful for in New York, at least for my family. While a second or third Coronavirus raged through the city, our immediate family remains healthy and those in our larger family circle that have been ill have recovered.

Everyone in our family has food in their stomach and a roof over their head. Even before COVID-19 rampaged through the world there were billions of people who could not say that much, and that’s getting worse now. I am gainfully employed and have not been sick and have more than enough food; I am thankful.

New York perseveres, but suffers a crisis of confidence. While we were the first place in the U.S. to see widespread COVID infection and death, we were the first to “flatten the curve” with social distancing and masks. Now we’re having a critical relapse with a spike of infections. Schools closed, now are reopening again in a swift reversal of policy. Crime continues to surge.

And all the while, we see thousands of our fellow New Yorkers not taking their own lives seriously. A Hasidic group worked secretly to arrange a large indoor wedding, sans facemasks, and was given a slap-on-the-wrist fine. I go food shopping and see people who can’t wear a facemask properly going about their business in blissful, entitled ignorance.

Yes, we’re not supposed to be judgmental during these difficult times, but this pandemic has revealed just how many of our fellow human beings are unfit to breath the same air.   

Having children in a city apartment can be trying during good times; it has been especially trying during this extended pandemic. What we have though is a place we call the secret playground. It’s not really a secret playground, but a little-used playground in a neighboring co-op that we’re not really supposed to use. The old fogeys that run the board where we live did away with the playground for our building years ago, so to use a local playground is to be an automatic scofflaw.

But I take my girls to the secret playground as often as I can. There are rarely other children playing there, so I can let my kids take down their facemasks, if our family is alone. Usually a few residents will walk through on their way to and from their homes, and we’ll put our masks back up as they come through; they are still almost always more than six feet away. It is an oasis that the unseasonably warmer November weather has given us access to and I don’t want to let a single good weather day go to waste as we endure another lockdown.

Sometime next year, we will hopefully begin adapting to a post-COVID world, and some things we will want to stay the same. I’m not alone in hoping that the world remains one where we’re given more personal space and take extra steps to reduce indoor crowds and make spaces safer, with better ventilation and more protections. These are good ideas outside of pandemics.

And therein lies the appeal of the secret playground: it is a respite from the current world and a model for how to best rebuild when we emerge from our currently dismal state. We cannot live in a bubble world, but we can look at our better adaptations of today to keep our joy and our priorities in line with where we need to be.

Vote

I will spare you the regular gibberish about this being the most important election ever and the dire warnings that we will descend into civil war. I think all Americans of voting age should vote because it is our patriotic duty no matter who is on the ballot.

I endorse Joe Biden for President and hope you vote for him. But even if you support Trump or a third-party candidate: go vote. This is your country, and you owe it to yourself to be counted.   

My history of picking winners is pitiful. I volunteered for the Bill Bradley campaign in 2000 with zero regrets. Bill Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar who became a basketball superstar and served as a U.S. Senator from New Jersey for three terms. He was the kind of intellect we need in public office but also had a breadth of life experience that made him rise above the pack of regular career machine politicians. He opposed the establishment favorite: Vice President Al Gore.

At his campaign event on the night of Super Tuesday, I noticed none of the big screens in the hotel ballroom were showing any primary results. The party swelled and Bill Bradley came through the crowd toward the stage. Bradley towered above everyone else. He gave a brief speech where he mentioned that he would assess the future of his campaign over the next several days but also made us proud to have been part of the campaign and focused on important issues facing the country. The party wound down and I saw various political and intellectual celebrities there. Professor Cornel West was on the stage close to Bradley and I was glad to see former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (who for me is the one person in the world who will always embody New York City) giving interviews in support of the former Senator.

It wasn’t until I got home and clicked on the TV news did I see the actual results and Holy shit, we got killed! Al Gore’s political machine had made quick work of the Bradley campaign, and Super Tuesday was the coup de grace. Bradley dropped out of the race a few days later. I cast my vote for Al Gore that November with no enthusiasm for Gore but with the indignity that someone as much of a vapid empty suit as George W. Bush had no business getting the nomination of a major political party. I couldn’t believe Republicans could be so gullible to pick Bush over Sen. John McCain, who would have wiped the floor with Al Gore in the general election.

In 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was the one who seemed to get it the most, who told Democrats that the people who drove around in pickup trucks with Confederate flags on them needed to be voting for Democrats too, because they needed healthcare and their kids needed an education. He was promising to take Democrats off the dangerous course of our own culture war. That promise evaporated with Dean’s campaign; I sent in my absentee ballot for John Kerry because he wasn’t George. W. Bush.

Both political parties are now broken. With Trump, we have the same incredulity that came with George W. Bush’s nomination: How could a major political party elevate such a fraud to the highest office of the land? With Biden, we have an establishment politician who had to embrace the excesses of the Democratic Party’s activist wing to secure the nomination.

But the disaster of the Trump presidency, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, makes this election a no-brainer. Biden was not my first choice, but he is the best choice of the two main political parties, and we stand to lose too much ground as a country with another four years of Trump.

All I ask my Trump supporter friends is that they judge the President by his record of the past four years. Would you have forgiven a Democrat who talked big and delivered little on patriotic immigration reform? Would Barak Obama have been able to shrug off reports of Russians paying bounties for American troops killed in Afghanistan? Would even George W. Bush have had the delusional gall to tell the nation that we’ve turned the corner on the Coronavirus pandemic as the U.S. breaks its daily record of new cases?

Please vote.

The reports of New York City’s death are greatly exaggerated

New York City’s obituary has been written many times. The latest declarations of Gotham’s demise harp on the current crop of problems but ignore New York’s ability to survive even the worst the world has to offer.

The current issues confronting NYC are for certain no joke. Our city was the epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic and its expansive economic impact and slow recovery continues to force businesses to close. Our vibrant nightlife and renowned theater district have been shuttered for months with no recovery in the near term. On top of that, we’ve seen a resurgence of crime and “quality of life” issues that harken back to the dark times of the 1970s and 1980s, replete with threats to lay off city workers including law enforcement.

It’s gotten to the point where a group of business leaders wrote a letter to New York City’s mayor pleading with him to begin addressing the crime problem and other issues of urban decay. Mayor Bill de Blasio began his first term promising to put a progressive spin on the successes of his predecessors; he will leave office an object of ridicule and a case study in how activist mayors consistently fail New York.

But as bad as New York’s problems are, they pale in comparison to problems that we’ve seen only a few short decades ago.

I first lived in New York City when I was born, and as a baby I lived on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx near Fordham Road. Not far from where I was living with my parents, landlords were routinely setting fire to their own buildings; cashing in the insurance money was more lucrative than renting apartments and the buildings were insured for more than they would have fetched on the real estate market. A few years later, New York’s Mayor Abe Beam famously appealed to President Gerald Ford for a federal bailout, as New York City was broke. ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’ was the famous NY Daily News headline documenting his refusal to help.

A little over a century earlier, Union troops were drawn away from the battlefield of Gettysburg by the Draft Riots of 1863, which saw rampaging Irish mobs attack and murder Blacks, even setting fire to an orphanage. Even the most anarchic rioters of the current crime wave have not reached these levels of depravity.

I’ve been mugged and pickpocketed and gone through a year of unemployment to the point of having only a few dollars to my name. I have also played music on a stage that the Ramones made famous, had my family on cable television ringing the stock market’s opening bell, and seen some of the best concerts, plays and movies available to our civilization. New York is where I met my wife and where we raise our children and can show them the cultures of half the world by only traveling a few miles.

While the thought occurs to me to leave New York sometimes, the urge to stay is greater.

After the September 11 attacks, it became unpatriotic to flee the five boroughs in my opinion. It still breaks my heart that we have allowed religious lunatics to remake our skyline. But these failures of leadership do not make New York City less great, only more resilient.

The Roman Empire fell long ago, but Rome is still majestic and magical. New York was a force for the world before America became a reality. New York will survive the current malaise gripping America; it will survive until humanity dies out. New York City will be here forever.

Tribute in Light and the quest for normalcy

We are less than a month away from annual tributes to the September 11 attacks, and for a few tense days it looked like one of the most enduring traditions around the commemoration, the Tribute in Light—two columns of light projected from lower Manhattan close to where the Twin Towers were located—may not go on.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which puts on the display, said it would have to cancel it over concerns for worker safety around the Coronavirus. The museum stated it didn’t have the financial support it needed to ensure the safety of the workers who would assemble and maintain the lights, and had made a contingency plan that replaced the traditional Twin Tower lights with other skyline observances on the night of September 11. There was a typical tabloid and internet-fueled outrage, and after securing funding promises from New York State, the museum reversed course and announced that the tribute will go on as planned.

It is a moving tribute that can be seen from the farthest reaches of the five boroughs and beyond: the night sky aglow with the ghostly shadow of our city’s loss. It is a sign of New York City’s resolve to create something beautiful out of tragic beginnings, and not forget the tremendous loss of that day even as we keep going.

Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks; the largest loss of life in a single day since the General Slocum ship disaster of 1904. This past April, the death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City exceeded 4,000, surpassing the deaths from the September 11 attacks.

The Tribute in Light though, is additionally tragic because it also shines a light on our failure to rebuild properly. We have allowed Islamic fundamentalists to remake our greatest city. Every time we look at New York’s skyline, we see the work of murderous savages who thought Allah was commanding them to kill children and babies. I’m sure the new World Trade Center is a fine building; it certainly looks grand. But it’s not two Twin Towers. The Tribute in Light highlights our failures to stand up for ourselves.

When the towers fell, I thought for certain that our country would stand for nothing less than two new Twin Towers, maybe a few feet taller than the originals. That was the only proper rebuilding response to the terror attacks, and we made a hash of it.

The towers of light are what we have left, and the thought of not even having that was too much for some people. We cannot get people to wear masks and now we can’t pay tribute to September 11 victims because we cannot muster the resources to keep workers safe.  If we can’t even shine lights into the sky, what has become of us?

New Yorkers have been living with the Coronavirus pandemic longer than anywhere outside of China. There’s a deep hunger for anything that is remotely normal. Any time we can safely do the normal human things we used to do; we’ll do it.

The Tribute in Light will be back this year; please think of those who we lost nearly two decades ago and the sacrifices so many made that day. It will be a moment of beauty in the midst of a lot of ugly.

 

Dispatch from an American vacationland

Long Beach Island, New Jersey

How does an area centered on catering to crowds of tourists manage to keep people safe during the heavy tourist season? Long Beach Island is coping in the time of the pandemic. It has been a family tradition to come to Long Beach Island for about a week every summer and we hoped since March that this year would be no exception.

Early in the pandemic my in-laws, who invite us down ever year, mentioned that there would be new social distancing guidelines for the beaches and restaurants, that LBI had moved quickly to adapt.

The beach is still too crowded on some days. While being outdoors is a help; it’s still not safe enough during the heavy morning hours to go there. I went to bring my kids to the beach and quickly turned around when we saw the size and density of the crowd.

One of the key tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is that things that were once routine now require serious decision making. Can my kids play with that little girl in the pool? Can I take my girls to the beach to build a sandcastle? Those were no-brainers in the past; not anymore. There won’t be easy answers for a while.

Whether or not people wore facemasks on Long Beach Island is random. Being from New York City, we feel naked without them, but people from this part of New Jersey have not had the same level of virus infection to make mask-wearing second nature and it’s not as real to them. Shortly before coming down to Beach Haven, we saw that lifeguards in nearby towns had an outbreak of the Coronavirus, not from their time on the beach as lifeguards but from partying together after hours.

You can hear people partying into the night and see them moving unmasked and in irresponsibly large groups everywhere. The island is full of visiting young people and people old enough to know better traipsing around as if there is not a global pandemic still raging across the country.

If you tried to lecture everyone acting foolish about how to wear a mask or distance, you would do nothing else. Calling people out or trying to deliver street justice would quickly evolve into fistfights or some other unproductive screaming match ripe for the viral internet montages of hostility that are already plentiful. Instead you do your best to lead by example; keep the mask on if you are near people, keep six feet apart.

There is not much you can do but do the right thing and keep away from people who don’t. It is easier to do here than in New York, so this still counts as a vacation. Things are not going to be back to normal soon and it would be a rancid lie to pretend otherwise.

Life in this vacation spot goes on; those businesses that have survived on Long Beach Island have adapted well. The Chicken or the Egg is still in high demand and they offer only outdoor seating and to-go orders; the Jersey Devil sandwich still provides a terrific serving of pork roll and I was able to feast on their Buffalo shrimp again. My wife and I had a date night at the excellent Artisan Café that made an amazing Italian mac & cheese and moved its dining outdoors as well. Buckalew’s created an outdoor beer garden and has very on-time pickup service.

The Surflight Theatre survives not only from the Coronavirus but from Tropical Storm Isaias that knocked over its outdoor tent. We were still able to enjoy a Frozen musical with the kids and a comedy night featuring Mike Marino and Sheba Mason—outstanding.

This past Saturday I walked the beach at night. There were a few other people walking about in the darkness, some with cell phone flashlights, and a patrol vehicle that drove back and forth. Only a few yards away from masses of humanity, I took comfort in seeing two shooting stars and a blood orange moon that looked like a nighttime sun.

I stood in awe of the moon, which was sitting low in the sky and casting its bright colorful light over the sea. The thunder of the Atlantic Ocean drones on, its waves crashing to shore in a powerful chorus When our world appears cracked, nature has a way of putting human civilization in perspective.

 

 

Ars longa, vita brevis

What grinds us down most is not the presence of stress, but the absence of joy.

Even during the darkest times in human history. People survived not just on food, water, and medicine but on jokes, songs, and stories. It’s not a coincidence that in addition to our stockpiling cleaning supplies and toilet paper, the COVID-19 pandemic launched binge-watching of entertaining shows. I’m not sure I would have been as riveted by Tiger King if the insanity of private tiger parks was more cheerful than the insanity of the outside world at the time.

The present and resurgent health pandemic that has made havoc on our world, we remind ourselves that this too shall pass, and most of us will survive and be able to learn from this time to create a better tomorrow. I also must remind myself how lucky I am: I and my family are healthy, I have a job, our building has been safe from looting, arson, and teargas.

I live most of my days now in front of my work laptop at home. Even when the work-from-home life does its worst to my day, I’ll manage to feel some immense relief if I can scratch out the draft of a poem, or poorly play a few Misfits tunes on my guitar.

Creating something, even if it’s something small that no one else will see, is good for your health. The theory of cognition holds that creativity is a central aspect of human. It improves our brain function and therefore our health. So even when I’m dead tired from working all day and then move from the desk to the dinner table to putting the kids to bed; I know I can salvage what remaining time I have left before I fall asleep if I do something creative.

I’m working on getting better at playing guitar because I had the privilege of playing the six strings on stage earlier this year with Beer Drinking Fools. Now I’ve been bitten by the six-string bug and want to subject innocent eardrums to blistering crossover hardcore punk and thrash metal that will sound like S.O.D. having a blood orgy with Bad Brains and The Lunachicks.

Our current crises are beset with ignorance and villainy on all sides. History will condemn civilized societies that let their people die needlessly and found it virtuous to let their cities fall to ruin. It is difficult to feel hopeful, but even amid hopelessness, one can find solace in creativity.

A surge of creativity is not a cure-all for what ails our society. While the current politics and pandemic are new, it was a long time getting to where we are now, and it will take a long time to get to something better. But the seriousness of our times doesn’t negate the need for creative joy; it makes such creativity more necessary than ever.

During these times of pandemic, our creativity will sustain us and endure. Amid so much destruction and despair, creativity is a revolutionary act.

 

Illegal fireworks are as New York as bagels

Years ago, when I lived in Inwood, I walked to the public pier at Dyckman Street on the Hudson River to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. The sightings were disappointing. Through clouds in the distance I could see the faint glow of a few shows over New Jersey and could see none of the official Macy’s fireworks happening farther downtown.

I returned to my apartment disappointed but was soon treated to shows of illegal fireworks that more than compensated. The barrage of ordnance that filled the northern Manhattan sky was a welcome sight that took me back to my childhood in Yonkers. I would emerge from our apartment in Yonkers on July 5th to a scene that resembled a war zone. The curbs and corners were filled with the spent paper from reams of firecrackers, and one time I saw a metal garbage can that had been exploded and overturned, looking like a giant metallic banana peel.

When I first returned to the city to live as an adult, I lived in Ozone Park, once the home to professional-grade illegal fireworks shows and street festivals paid for by the Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti. Gotti had been in prison several years at that point, and the authorities worked hard to prevent the return of a large-scale illegal fireworks display. Police were all over 101st Ave. and the surrounding streets, but it made little difference. Managing to get on the roof of my building, I could see the official fireworks far away in Manhattan, but the cat-and-mouse game of cops and illicit fireworks was more entertaining.

Illegal fireworks have been a New York City staple for decades. When I was in fifth grade in the New York suburbs, I went to a neighbor’s yard where a friend’s father let me light sparklers off some candles set on the ground. I felt like the greatest outlaw on Earth. Kids waved around sparklers while adults set off bottle rockets and M-80s. When we heard police sirens in the distance, adults blew the candles out and we ran to the backyard until the danger had passed.

More recently, we have enjoyed the sights of fireworks over Whitestone and College Point. Early morning jogs through Flushing Memorial Field has found launch sites of the previous evenings fireworks displays, the tubes still smelling of gunpowder in the cool dawn, like a mortar position of a recently passed battle.

The allure of illicit explosives dates to the birth of the American nation. The first battles of the American Revolution were fought over the British Army’s attempt to seize illegal weapons.

New York, which was under the yoke of British rule for the bulk of the Revolution, was no less fervent in its commitment to the cause. One of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought in Brooklyn; the Battle of Long Island almost ended the Revolution—Washington barely escaped to regroup. The first woman known to take up arms for the United States did so in Manhattan at the Battle of Fort Washington; Americans lost that battle too and Fort Tryon park still bears the name of the British governor of New York at the time.

Our founding fathers would have been hanged as traitors to the crown had we not won. No matter our heritage, Americans are proudly descended from outlaws and outcasts. People setting off fireworks today are not would-be revolutionaries, but they are tapping into the same antiauthoritarian sentiment that is alive in spades in America today.

The city has seen an increase in setting off illegal fireworks. We hear them in every neighborhood and in some cases too late (true fireworks enthusiasts know to stop between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m., July Fourth excepted). There is a need now for people to celebrate and sending exploding stars into the night sky is best done while remaining safely distant from fellow citizens. Many bars and restaurants remain closed, large parts of the city are effectively locked down by massive protests. Fireworks are a needed respite, a needed release of our energies to celebrate something, whether that be the birth pangs of a better America or a fiery exegesis of an abiding patriotism.

Illegal fireworks are a proud New York tradition, a proud American tradition. Let it never die.

 

What is still beautiful about us…

In John Carpenter’s 1984 film “Starman,” Jeff Bridges stars as an alien who is stranded on Earth, and goes on the run from U.S. government agents with the widow of a deceased housepainter, whose body he has cloned as a disguise. They have misadventures while eluding the authorities and the widow (Karen Allen) falls in love with this alien in the body of her dead husband.

In retrospect the plot summary makes this sound like a ludicrous B-film, but it works. One scene and one line from the film has stuck with me since I watched it in a movie theater as a 12-year-old.

The couple are finally cornered in a restaurant by the authorities and the federal agent who has been leading the hunt for them comes to confront them. He asks the alien about his journey and learns he is here to study Earthlings.

“You are a strange species, not like any other, and you would be surprised how many there are, intelligent but savage,” the Jeff Bridges/alien tells his pursuer. “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?”

The federal agent nods yes.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

That line has been etched in my mind for more than three decades now, and it’s a fitting mantra for the times we are in.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

It can be hard to imagine things getting worse. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has hit the U.S. harder than any other country, followed by widespread civil unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, poisonous politics in an election year and unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.

These are times that try our patience and our resolve. It is easy to want to withdraw and bunker down, to tune out the outside world and lapse into a fatalistic nihilism, a hopeless sloth of withdrawal.

The pandemic reminded us that contact with others is an essential part of life. Human contact is something we took for granted, or even came to resent in New York City, where everything is too crowded and the inconsideration of others is amplified by proximity.

But the need to interact with others is more important now than ever, and despite the myriad conflagrations boiling over in our society, we can still find common ground with decent people of differing ideas.

Human life is inherently tribal, and America has forged tribes along lines of culture and character in ways other societies cannot fathom. These cultures appear to be irreconcilable, but basic human decency and goodness can transcend even our deepest chasms. The past few weeks have shown the extent of our divisions but also the depth of our decency and resolve.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

It is time to be the best person you can be and play some part in making our world a better one. You may be at odds with your friends and family, you may be subjected to hatefulness from smaller minds, but the things most worth doing are often most difficult. Keep going.

We can look back at this time and be proud we were at our very best.

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