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Doing our part to save The Strand

There are some places wherever you live that you take to represent an important part of your life. Maybe a restaurant where you always go or a movie theater where you saw your favorite movie for the first time. Whatever the reason, these are places that you sentimentalize, maybe sometimes to a fault, because you identify them so closely with good memories.

One of those places for me is The Strand Bookstore. It was one of the first places I frequented when I began living in New York City as an adult.

At some point on just about every weekend I had off (I had to work most weekends), I would make a visit to The Strand a part of my routine. I would never fail to come home with a big bag full of books, sometimes two big bags. Wow, Crime and Punishment for only $3.99—how can I not buy that?? At some point I ended up with two different paperback copies of Anna Karena and gave one copy to a friend.

The Strand would be buzzing with people and I would spend hours wandering its cramped isles. I had a routine of starting with browsing the outside cheap bins (books for as little as 48 cents; it would be a crime not to rifle through every row of books) and making my way through the store, spending most of my time in the fiction section. Years later, I got to meet my guitar hero, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, when he did a book signing event for his memoir ‘Lonely Boy.

But like many parts of my early life back in the city as an adult; I frequented The Strand less and less. At the time of the pandemic lockdown in mid-March, my time in Manhattan mostly consisted of sitting at a desk in the financial district or midtown and then getting home to Queens as quick as I could. I would occasionally go to a concert or local punk rock show, but those got fewer and farther between. The Strand has a kiosk in Times Square close to my job’s offices there, so I would get a chance to buy some books and a ‘Make America Read Again’ refrigerator magnet. But I ceased being a regular customer.

With the pandemic comes rafts of closures of institutions we thought would continue to be with us, at least through the duration of the virus. This was supposed to be over by now, but we can’t get our shit together enough to contain COVID-19, so things are still ground to a halt.

Recently the owner of The Strand bookstore issued a plea for help from the public to save it from closing. People responded, lining up around the block to buy books at the fabled institution or ordering books online from its web site. 

The Strand is a landmark, but being a landmark is not enough. Many friends point out that other important cultural institutions, such as CBGB’s, did not survive to see the pandemic. Other places with deep histories have also not survived.

And The Strand’s ownership has not been entirely forthright. Earlier this year the owner accepted $1 million in in loans and still laid off workers while buying millions in stock, including more than $100,000 worth of Amazon shares. The Strand made a public show of its support to progressive causes while turning a blind eye to the plight of its own workers, so an important part of the store’s natural constituency is either indifferent or hostile to its future.

But an institution can be more than the sum of its owner’s conduct. I have loathed how the New York Yankees’ ownership tore down the House the Ruth Built and treats its fans like absolute garbage, yet I cannot bring myself to disavow the Bronx Bombers. We can detest the people who run our country and still be patriotic Americans. Do we owe The Strand loyalty for all that it has given us, despite the lack of principles by its current owner? I feel a loyalty to this great bookstore, though I understand those that don’t. 

I yearn to lose hours of time in a bookstore again; to get the warm ego boost of a Strand cashier complimenting my choices, to amble to the subway laden with more tomes that will add to the ever-expanding walls of books in my home. Those days cannot come soon enough. In the meantime, I will do what I can to help keep the miles of books going.

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.

Meeting New York’s First Guardian Angel

Traveling to Washington, D.C. for work means taking the Amtrak Accela train from Penn Station. Penn Station was once a gleaming monument to New York’s greatness, but decades ago it was leveled, reduced to a subterranean maze of misery by the powers of commerce without conscience and New York’s Philistine tradition of tearing down some of its most beautiful historical landmarks in the name of progress.

Getting ready for the three-hour train ride to Washington meant stopping by one of the independent delis that still survive there amid the chain concessions. As I approached I saw a man in a red Guardian Angels jacket and red beret, and thought it was probably Curtis Sliwa. It was.

Curtis Sliwa was a night manager at a McDonald’s on Fordham Road in the Bronx when he decided to do something about New York’s Crime problem. He founded the Guardian Angels, an unarmed, unformed crime fighting group that started patrolling New York’s dangerous subways and streets. He didn’t ask permission or get political approval for what he was doing, he just did it. This was at a time when landlords were burning down their old buildings because the insurance money was worth more than the property was valued. The 1970s saw crime explode in every borough as a bankrupt New York City appealed to the federal government for help that never came and was forced to lay off police officers.

The Guardian Angels were the vanguard of resistance to the hopelessness that gripped New York. They didn’t have police approval and politicians dubbed them “vigilantes;” they didn’t care. The unarmed volunteers in their trademark red berets were a sign that people still cared about the city and were willing to put their lives on the line to make a difference.

It was not all straight shooting, though. Sliwa admitted that some of the early stories he told about Guardian Angel heroism were fabrications. Still, Sliwa was an anti-crime crusader before it was cool, a strong voice that cut through the blather of polite talk and gave the criminal class the harsh language it deserved. Even as New York started to turn around, Sliwa’s crime-fighting ways led to an attempt to kill him by the Gambino Crime Family.

Sliwa’s career as a broadcaster has almost always paired him with someone left-of-center to discuss and debate the issues of the day. His pairing with Ron Kuby on MSNBC was a highlight of the network’s earlier days before all of cable television spun into hyper-partisan outposts; they later reunited on AM radio.

I said hello and Curtis Sliwa shook my hand and give me his business card, asking me where I was from. I gave him my business card and told him I was from where I worked.

“No, where are you from? Born and raised?”

“I’m from the city originally and grew up mostly in Yonkers.” I didn’t want to give him my last two decades of history being a city resident, as we were waiting in line at the deli. Our wait was shortly over, and he bid me farewell.

The politicians who once spurned the Guardian Angels later embraced them, and they now operate in more than 130 cities in 13 countries. And Sliwa remains an outspoken personality in New York politics. He’s even vowed to run for New York City mayor next year.

Similar to Ed Koch, Curtis Sliwa is a personification of New York City and will always remain one of the defining personalities of our chaotic metropolis. My encounter with a legit New York City celebrity was brief, but it brightened my day.

A grateful New York City bids farewell to Two Toms

Two Toms Restaurant in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn announced in October that after more than 70 years in business, it is going to close its doors at the end of this year.

Founded in 1948, Two Toms is an institution unlike any other restaurant that is open to the public. It’s a modest and understated very simple dining room in a relatively narrow space, with a street-facing entrance in the front and a kitchen in the back. The food is outstanding and often served family style in large groups, at least that is their specialty. I’ve seen regular tables order off a menu there. But every time I’ve been there it’s been a large meal with several courses.

An Italian restaurant with great pasta and shrimp parmesan among other dishes, it’s most famous for its pork chops, that are enormously thick and juicy and will count as one of the most memorable meals you ever have. I rarely take photos of food, but I had to stop and take a photo of my meal while I was working on one of the pork chops there last year.

I became aware of Two Toms after meeting a group of friends for dinner there several years ago. The restaurant then was known mostly to locals and has a distinct following among law enforcement. My friend Poppy knew of Two Toms from his time working in Brooklyn with the NYPD and it became a regular spot for people we worked with at JFK Airport to hold meet up.

The several courses are conducive to long dinner conversations, the perfect setting for families and old friends. Its unassuming décor adds to its appeal. You are at home there. You can help yourself to beer or soda or bottled water from the refrigerator that is there in the dining room. You knew there was going to be another amazing course coming soon. You didn’t have to worry. Everyone was going to have a good time, and no one was leaving hungry.

When Two Toms owner announced in October that the restaurant would be shutting its doors at the end of the year, its many fans were in shock and jumped into action. Loyal customers flooded the restaurant with so many reservations they began opening extra days and even still they were quickly booked through the end of the year.

My group of friends that took to meeting at Two Toms worked to get a gathering together, but by the time I called to make a reservation, all bookings were gone. I asked the woman I spoke with on the phone to please let me know if any openings at any time for any number of people would be available—if the usual group couldn’t make it at least a few of us would be able to give a final farewell to the place. Social media is alight with tributes pouring in, and legions of New Yorkers who managed to get a reservation are paying their respects.

Two Toms achieved a devoted following because it does what it does best simply and without pretention. It doesn’t boast a celebrity chef or change its menu to some trendy fusion to match the hip flavor of the month. It also refuses rest on its laurels and scream to the world about how long it has been around either. It has stayed true to its roots and has never let up.

New Yorkers will continue to search for the kind of honest authenticity embodied by Two Toms and we owe the legendary eatery a debt of gratitude.

Thank you, Two Toms!

Finding Father Mychal F. Judge Street

In early March of 2000, I found my way from Ozone Park to Sunnyside, Queens, for the inaugural St. Pat’s for All Parade. The parade was unique because it welcomed LGBT groups to participate. Most other St. Patrick’s parades at the time did not.

It was the first St. Patrick’s parade I marched in, representing a human rights group that monitored the contentious marching season in the North of Ireland. The parade included many of the standard Irish groups and local politicians but also featured an LGBT marching band, a traditional Korean dance troupe, and other organizations that are not strange in Queens but do stand out in a St Patrick’s Day parade. The parade gathered news coverage (Hillary Clinton was there, running for Senate) and a few religious protesters upset that St. Patrick’s name was being use to make friendly with the gays.

During the march, I noticed a Catholic priest in a brown robe shaking hands with people aside the parade route. Oh no, I thought to myself, what litany of lies did the parade organizers tell this poor priest to get him here? He’s going to have a heart attack when he sees the gay marching band.

But that priest did not have a heart attack upon seeing the gay marching band. The priest was Father Mychal Judge.

Father Judge is most famous for being the New York Fire Department chaplain who perished in the September 11 attacks; he is listed as the first official casualty of that day. But long before his untimely death, Father Judge was a bridge between the multitudes of New York communities. At a time of increasing hostility between the Catholic Church’s leadership and LGBT groups, he made it part of his mission to minister to gays and lesbians and people with AIDS. He was dedicated to helping the homeless and people suffering drug and alcohol addiction, and he led a peace mission in Ireland. Few others would have been able to shake hands with cross-wielding protesters and break bread with a gay marching band on that same morning in Queens.

In his last homily, delivered the day before he was killed at the World Trade Center, he spoke to firefighters in The Bronx. He spoke about the unpredictable nature of life and how everyone has their part to play, that each one of us has a place.

“That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job – which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.” 

September is freshly ended and with it, most of the commemorations of the September 11 attacks. One of the best traditions, the Stephen Siller Foundation Tunnel to Towers 5k, is held the last Sunday in September.

On a rainy October evening, I was making my way home from midtown after a long workday. A fire engine was driving down the street and was stuck at an intersection of 6th Ave. and 31st Street. Despite having the right of way, the firefighter at the wheel waved pedestrians across.

I discovered I was crossing Father Mychal F. Judge Street, a segment of West 31st that runs past his church, St. Francis of Assisi. It was named in his honor in 2002. FDNY Engine 1/Ladder 24 station is nearby. It would have been disrespectful to ignore the sign and continue on with the regular rush of the afternoon commute. I stepped out of people’s way and took a photo of the sign.

There are few New Yorkers who represent the resiliency and humanity of our city the way Father Mychal Judge did. His sacrifice has special meaning for firefighters and those who lost loved ones in the September 11th attacks, but the life he lived symbolizes the best of us and serves as an inspiration the world over. It always will.

Old punks don’t die, they just do more cocaine

Capturing the New York punk scene better than anyone since the death of Lester Bangs is The New York Waste, and picking up the Waste is a must. When I first started reading it almost two decades ago, it introduced me to the best punk rock bands on the scene at the time. It featured cool photos of the Lunachicks and the Toilet Boys and the Bullys, awesome mention of The Spunk Lads and others. Paging a little farther, what did I find but ‘Last in Line for the Gang Bang, a comic biography of G.G. Allin.’

For those unaware, G.G. Allin was a punk rock musician infamous for his violent and obscene performances. He may be better known today as his legend has grown with retellings of his stories and the admiration of musicians who have broken into the mainstream. But in the early 2000s, only a select and disturbed few were allied in their admiration of the late self-described “scumfuck.” (Insider’s note: despite his violent habits, G.G. Allin was a gifted songwriter who left a prolific legacy of excellent punk rock and country music before his untimely end at age 36 in 1993.)

So the fact that someone was producing a comic strip serial biography of G.G. Allin bowled me over. That such an awesome artistic endeavor was underway and had an audience getting it free through the New York Waste made me realize I had found a great home in the punk scene of New York. The Big Apple became a little less lonely knowing that there were other sickos out there.

Discreetly inked into the margins of every comic strip was a web site address for a local punk rock band, World War IX. The band’s guitar player, Justin Melkmann, was the talented cartoonist documenting G.G. Allin’s life.

At the same time, I began looking to start my own punk rock band, and was soon working on original songs with, as the luck of the Internet would have it, Bruce Steinert from the band Buzzkill. We needed a singer.

“I’m friends with a guy who our band would play with back in the day in New Jersey. He used to do things like take bloody meat out of his pants and throw it at the audience,” Bruce mentioned at rehearsal, speaking of the New Jersey band Daisycutter.

“That sounds like our guy,” I said. “Call that guy.”

Soon afterwards, Seth Amphetamines entered the picture and became the singer of what would be Blackout Shoppers. There are not too many people who can command a stage and make the entire venue the center of punk rock chaos in the way that Seth can, and that’s a good thing. It’s an acquired skill to engage with the audience in a mosh pit with great passion without creating lasting hostility or becoming one of the bogus tough-guy copycats that have created so many boring hardcore bands over the last few decades.

Seth is the only singer I’ve seen who has gotten members of the audience angry enough to throw beer cans at him only to have them share beers afterwards. Whatever violence he dishes out is in without hate or malice, and in sincere appreciation of old school hardcore punk.

I went to see World War IX at CB’s basement, which was part of a still-existent CBGBs at the time (where Blackout Shoppers would play its first show in a complete fluke later that year), and introduced myself to Justin. He was glad to meet someone who enjoyed his comic and we vowed to stay in touch.

Not soon afterwards, World War IX and Blackout Shoppers played the first of many shows together. It’s an alliance that has lasted about a decade and a half. We’ve put out a split seven-inch record together. Blackout Shoppers’ guitar player Mike Moosehead now plays in World War IX, and World War IX’s drummer Johnny Special K has filled in on drums for Blackout Shoppers. Blackout Shoppers came back from an official hiatus at a show where World War IX bid farewell to its singer Philthy Phill. It’s an incestuous bouillabaisse that only works in punk rock or among inbred Mormon fanatics, and we love it.

This month, both Justin and Seth turn 50, and the bands are celebrating with a show together at Otto’s Shrunken Head, one of our favorite places to play. It will be an evening filled with alcohol, music and good times. Please join us.

 

 

The importance of city sunsets

This weekend was a typical blur for a person with an office job and small children. There was per usual a mountain of house chores to do, events to take the children to, and hours of each day dedicated to the day job, as our day jobs spread their tentacles into every aspect of our lives. On top of that add grocery shopping.

Sunday I took one of my daughters with me while we went grocery shopping. She helped me find things in the store and took pride in helping me load things into the cart. We navigated the crowded aisles and found everything on our list (with some extra popcorn and coffee thrown in for good measure).

We were running down the clock toward dinner time and I knew I had a full wagon of groceries to get upstairs and away before either I or my wife had to make dinner.

We made good time and were parked outside our building a few minutes after I had returned our shopping cart. I sat at the driver’s seat for a few minutes, trying to calculate in my head the things I needed to accomplish in the next few minutes: getting my daughter out of her car seat, loading up the groceries, cleaning out part of the car quickly between those two steps, getting the groceries away, making dinner, getting logged back in at work—

“Daddy, look at the sunset,” my daughter told me.

Through the trees and the power lines and shadows of nearby buildings, a patch of brilliant dusk sunset filled the sky with its pastel vision. It had been there the whole time, going unappreciated by me.

It was a testament to the excellence of children. They have not had years to become jaded or distracted with the compounded stresses of the mundane. It was a reminder of how grateful I ought to be for my family and my life.

When we think of New York’s beauty we usually picture its stunning skyline, its aged paving stones and its tributes to achievement wrought in stone or glass; the urban landscape is beautiful but almost always bears the mark of a human hand. Even the most gorgeous parts of our most popular parks were put there by design.

This outlook often neglects the natural beauty that surrounds, us, and the fiery sky of an autumn sunset has few rivals of natural scale in our Gotham’s vision.

And so often in the execution of our ambitious dreams, the wonder of life itself gets lost in the shuffle. Having kids won’t bring the same reward if we can’t pass on an appreciation of beautiful things. Without the ability to stop and look at the greatness around you, are we succeeding in life at all?

I opened the passenger door so my daughter could get a better look at the brilliant sky, and took a photo so I could remember this and show her later. I made a silent vow to remember our sunsets, and make the time to take in the natural beauty that surrounds us, even in the densest cityscape.

 

A journey through the MTA’s lost and found

Earlier this summer, I arrived home late on a Friday night—late these days meaning after 8 p.m.—and was taking things out of my pockets after a long day. When I reached into my right front picket, I came to the realization that I did not have my wallet. My stomach tied in knots and I cried out in frustrated desperation. I knew it had been in my pocket; there would be no deus ex machina miracle of finding it in my bag or in another pair of shorts.

I knew that it most likely fell out of my pocket on my commute home. I had just gotten off the express bus—this bus was still on the road and someone could radio the driver! I immediately picked up my smart phone and dialed 311 for citywide information. The 311 operator would be able to connect me to the right person. The 311 operator transferred me to 511, which is the information number for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

After a few more transfers, I spoke with someone I was told could help me. I gave them all the information I had. I was on a QM20 bus and was picked up from 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan at approximately 8:40 p.m. and was dropped off at Union Street and 26th Avenue in Flushing, Queens at approximately 9:30 p.m. This driver was probably still on their route and with the information I had given them someone should be able to get in touch with the driver ASAP!

But no such luck. The person on the other end of the line said they could not do anything unless I had the bus number. Without the bus number, they could not contact the driver. Seems a bit ridiculous. If this had been a more serious situation and people’s lives depended on finding the bus, there would have been a catastrophe.

I was asked to call back the next day after the bus had gone back to the depot and the driver may have turned in the wallet. It was a small wallet, one that held only cards. I was not out any cash, unless someone was going to town with my debit card.

I started to call credit card companies and my bank to have holds put on cards.

The next day I called the depot. Nothing.

I called back the next day, and called back later in the day again. Nothing still.

I went through with canceling and replacing my credit cards and ATM card and replacing my driver’s license.

By Monday, there was no funny business on my cards and new ones were on the way. I printed out a temporary driver’s license and ordered a new card wallet that came with a money clip. My card wallet needed replacing anyway, and this was a chance to pare down the stuff I carried with me everywhere.

A few weeks later, the same day my new driver’s license arrived in the mail, a notice from the MTA Lost & Found arrived in the mail.

“An article which contains your name and/or contact information was found and turned in to the MTA NYC Transit Lost Property Unit,” the notice began. It instructed me to report to the unit’s office at the 34th Street subway station at 8th Avenue in Manhattan. If I did not claim my property by Nov. 3, “it will be deemed to have been abandoned and you will have forfeited your right to claim it.”

The next day I brought that notice and my newly replaced driver’s license to a hidden-in-plan-sight pocket of the 34th Street subway station in Manhattan. It took some searching and asking to find the lost and found office, which is beneath the tracks of the A, C, E subway lines and without any signs leading you there except in the immediate vicinity. It’s within the subway system, so if you arrive by some other means or exit the subway before you find it, you’ll have to spend another subway fare to reach it or get a helpful MTA worker to let you in.

A small sign points the way to a set of double doors painted in celebration of the many objects found in our transit system. The office is open odd hours—and completely closed weekends and holidays, a travesty in a system that runs 24 hours—but luckily is open until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursdays.

Inside is a small room with a very low ceiling. I’m five feet eleven inches with my shoes on, and if I had extended my arm fully above my head I would have punched a hole in the drop-down ceiling. There is a metal bench to sit on, a small counter to stand and fill out paperwork on, two old-looking computer terminals, and a thick window above a pass-through door through which one may conduct business with the MTA workers on duty.

I arrived as a worker emerged from another set of doors to hand someone some paperwork, and she took my notice and ID and disappeared in to the bowels of the lost and found. The woman who was there spoke to someone at the window and was told to check back about her property later. She left and another woman arrived to ask if a book she lost on the subway was found. She was told no and to check back later; she left. Another man arrived and looked through his paperwork to check on a claim, and while he was speaking with someone another woman arrived to check on some property she had reported missing.

A worker arrived at the thick window with my wallet. It was a different worker than I had given my notice to; it was a rotating staff of workers answering questions and handling forms. He told me to sign my name on another form and write my address the same way it appeared on the notice in the mail. He opened the door to the silver box under the window and placed a clip board inside, and when he closed his door I opened mine and filled out the form.

A minute later, the same exchange reunited me with my wallet. It looked a little worse for wear, but nothing was missing. Everything was there: my license, my ATM card, my MTA MetroCard, even the coupon for a t-shirt at the zoo. I excitedly took an inventory of my wallet while my fellow transit visitors looked on amazed.

“You give me hope,” said the young woman sitting on the bench, hoping her property would be returned.

I thanked the worker and wished the other people in the office good luck, and went back out into the bustling station. For me, lost and found had worked out well.

Thank you to the Good Samaritan on the bus who turned in my wallet, and the series of honest MTA workers that made it possible for me to get my property back. For me the stars aligned this time.

The proud refuge of Doc Holliday’s

A few weeks ago, my band was fortunate enough to be asked to play music in Tompkins Square Park. The four of us arrived punctually (an impressive feat for an old-school punk rock band like ours).

The sun was blazing but standing in the shade brought sound respite. Having consumed copious caffeinated beverages in transit, I headed for where I knew the public restrooms were located.

The men’s room was locked. A nearby restroom was marked for use only by children. It was also locked. Park workers admonished men looking to use the boys’ restroom, and referred people to the closed men’s room even after being told it was locked. A Parks Department employee told me to use bathrooms at a nearby Starbucks or 7 Eleven, and acted as if she were doing me a favor.

Nearby on Ave. A and 9th Street, there was not a Starbucks or 7 Eleven in sight. Doc Holliday’s was open though.

Even though I long ago left the drinking life, I had the good fortune to drink at many of New York’s most excellent bars before I did. Doc Holiday’s is one of the East Village’s surviving dive bars that did not sell out or lose its character, and has stayed the same quality dive bar that it was meant to be.

As the name implies, Doc Holliday’s could be called a country bar. While by that measure it could easily be lumped in with other “country” bars such as the now-defunct Hogs & Heifers, it’s a bit more subdued and nowhere near the same kind of tourist mecca. It may be a far cry from where David Allen Coe would drink (if anyone knows where David Allen Coe goes to drink when he’s in New York, please tell me), but it’s the closest thing to a country dive bar surviving in the city today.

When a cheesy movie came out about rival bar Coyote Ugly in 2000, Doc Holliday’s celebrated the fact that its name was not associated with such a flop. They had several drink specials and posted scathing movie reviews of Coyote Ugly on the walls of the bar.

For a while when I worked in SoHo, I would bring coworkers to Doc Holliday’s for beer—after the after-work beers we had at work, of course, and it never disappointed me then. I would be one of the last of my party to depart, stepping strongly buzzed into the bright twilight of a New York Friday night, ready to conquer the world some more.

About 10 years later, when I decided to leave the bogus “secret restaurant” located in Crif Dogs rather than take off my hat, I went to Doc Holliday’s where friends were waiting. Three boroughs and many, many drinks later, I made it through that night with few memories but few regrets.

But now I was returning to Doc Holliday’s as someone gone from the drinking life nearly a decade, a frustrated park goer unable to find a decent bathroom. Would I be welcome back to this hallowed place where I had spent so much quality time in the past?

The bartender was chatting with three people at the bar and the place was otherwise empty. There was no crowd to blend into if I pretended to be a customer. She looked to me, expecting me to order a drink. I decided to come clean and admit I was there just to go to the bathroom. I explained my situation to the bartender. Could I use their bathroom?

The bartender told me yes and thanked me for asking. I walked back to where the bathrooms were to find that Doc’s had done some remodeling and the restrooms were not in a state of filthy disrepair. By dive bar standards the new men’s room was pretty luxurious. I left a five-dollar bill on the bar in my way out and got a friendly smile.

I returned throughout the day and was warmly greeted. It was good to be welcome and enjoy the dive bar scene again. Even removed from the drinking life, our bars are cultural markers that can offer a guide to the state of society. Doc Holliday’s confirms there are some pockets of righteous goodness left in our city.

FNO Flushing Fantastic, daytime festival edition

Despite the popularity of some parts of Brooklyn, our collective dialogue around New York City remains excessively Manhattan-centric. New Yorkers will still say “the city” when they mean Manhattan, even though the five borough boundaries of our city have been in place since 1898.

And New York City is so large that telling people what borough you are from will not cut it. No one actually from Manhattan would introduce themselves as being from Manhattan unless they were in a very borough-specific conversation. Each of New York City’s boroughs is a tapestry of neighborhoods, and it is these neighborhoods that are the lifeblood of life in NYC.

Queens is New York City’s largest borough and among its most well-known neighborhoods is Flushing. This weekend, local residents are showing off the neighborhood’s many attractions Saturday at FNO 2019: Flushing Fantastic.

FNO stands for “Flushing Night Out” as past events have been held at night, but this festival is going to run from 12 noon until 6 p.m. and is going to be at historic St. George’s Episcopal Church, right in the center of downtown Main Street a short walk from both the 7 train and the LIRR.

Flushing is known as a destination for Chinese cuisine, and people will come from all over to sample some of the great restaurants, food carts, or food court stalls that make this neighborhood unique. But there is much more than Chinese food, and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce is promoting the neighborhood as an international melting pot, though admittedly one that is heavily Asian. I often point out to people that among the best dining attractions in Flushing are 24-hour Korean restaurants such as Kum Gang San and Noodle Flower, where you can barbecue an awesome assortment of meat right at your table at two o’clock in the morning if you are so inclined.

The Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce also notes that the event is designed to give a boost to local businesses and entrepreneurs that are competing with large franchises. Downtown Flushing has seen a boom in construction of high-rise condominiums and the rising price of real estate has made life harder for small businesses throughout Queens and five boroughs.

“Flushing, NY is the crossroads of the world — where you can find amazing culture and people from around the globe,” the chamber says in its event notice online. “We want to celebrate the unique food, fashion, and music found here as well as help the small businesses and entrepreneurs who are struggling to make ends meet. Over the past decade, rising rents and major development projects have threatened to displace the small mom-and-pop stores who invested their blood, sweat, and tears into making our neighborhood prosperous.”

Flushing Night Out has been held at various locations, centered on the downtown area. The first one I attended was on the campus of Flushing High School, and it was a memorable event, even for cynics like me that hate crowds.

It was at my first Flushing Night Out that I was introduced to Karl’s Balls, a food stand of traditional Japanese takoyaki balls—those are octopus balls inside a doughy sphere that are cooked on an egg-shell like grill. Go to Karl’s Balls because it’s an ingenious name and you may never stop joking about wanting to put Karl’s Balls in your mouth. But all joking aside, the takoyaki balls are extraordinarily delicious and Karl himself—Karl Palma—is a celebrated chef who has been featured on the Cooking Channel among other accomplishments.

While Karl’s Balls may not be at this FNO event, there is going to be a smorgasbord of amazing food, from Ecuadorian cuisine to Japanese ramen to craft beer and gourmet ice cream. You have no excuse to leave hungry. The organizers require all the vendors there to have items that start at $5 or less.

FNO also features live music, crafts, and other cultural interests. This Saturday will feature Harmonyc Movement, a city-based dance troupe steeped in K-pop and Korean culture.

And at the Flushing Queens Macaroni Kid booth, they will be giving away protein bars for free (full disclosure, my wife Emily Griffin Sheahan runs our local Macaroni Kid web site and will be manning the booth at the event – tell her I sent you!).

 

Punk rock in Tompkins Square Park

This coming weekend two free punk rock shows will be held in Tompkins Square Park in New York City’s East Village.

The shows commemorate the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988, when police clashed with squatters, homeless and others that had been camping out in the park. Accounts of that night very but few dispute it involved widespread police brutality. Police lined up on the street for an extended period of time before moving into the park, and they were subject to sustained abuse by activists that did not want them there and saw them as agents of a landlord-controlled city that (to this day) lets property go abandoned rather than occupied while working people struggle to pay rent.

The riots were one of the first instances of widely-publicized videos of reported police misconduct thanks to the efforts of East Village video archivist and neighborhood stalwart Clayton Patterson. His videos showed police covering their badge numbers and chasing down protesters and beating them without arresting them. “Little brother is watching big brother,” he told Oprah Winfrey.

The 30-plus years have done a lot to change the East Village. Tompkins Square Park is no longer a homeless encampment or open-air drug market; it is now a safe place you can bring children. The abandoned buildings and art spaces that were abundant in the late 1980s have been replaced by high-end restaurants and expensive homes. The story is the same throughout the city.

It would be useless to pretend the East Village is the same, but it would be a disservice not to commemorate a scene that produced great art. Even if the crucible that created an esteemed body of art is long gone, the art does not get thrown away. I’m happy that feudal Italian city states no longer wage war on the Italian peninsula, but the art that survives from this period is among the finest in the civilized world.

The scene may be over, but the art endures. So let it be with punk rock. Though please don’t think that punk rock is over or that new generations don’t have the same legitimacy as the old-timers that were there when New York was a shithole. There are excellent bands playing in the city today, comprised of young people who were not born yet in 1988, and they are as punk rock as anyone else.

And the East Village is still a home for punk rock. The Bowery Electric, located a short distance away from where CBGB once stood on the Bowery, still hosts great punk rock shows. Niagara, which his located where punk rock club A7 once stood, has started booking hardcore punk concerts there regularly again.

And free punk rock still reigns in the park. Full disclosure: my band Blackout Shoppers is scheduled to play the free punk rock show in Tompkins Square Park this Sunday, Aug. 4, with The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Hammerbrain, Porno Dracula (one of the greatest band names ever, but please don’t Google them at work), Jennifer Blowdryer Soul Band, Ruckus Interruptus, and Young Headlight. Saturday the 3rd hosts the first of the two-part series with Disassociate, the Nihilistics, Rapid Deployment Force and more.

Blackout Shoppers have been rehearsing and sounding good, even judging by my overly critical, curmudgeonly ears. We don’t play as often as we used to and it’s a blast when we can get together and play a show. It was touching when people came out to see us last year when we bid farewell to Philthy Phill of World War IX. We don’t want to wear out our welcome, but we are playing more shows this year than we’ve played more recently and it feels good to be out there being loud.

See you in the park this weekend.

Fireworks and the American life

Last Wednesday thousands gathered in Fort Totten Park in Bayside, Queens for a fireworks display. The event had all the makings of potential disaster by modern metrics. Thousands of diverse people crammed into a limited area and jockeying for space to get a good view. A little league soccer team was wrapping up practice as people took their places in the expanse of green field between portable toilets and a row of food trucks. Bounce castles entertained children before the fireworks started and people took what they thought were the best positions to view the show as they waited for the sky to get dark enough.

The fireworks started promptly and a roaring whoop went up from the crowd as fireworks lit up the sky. New Yorkers cheered enthusiastically for this celebration of our War of Independence. When it was over, the crowd made its way out of Fort Totten without incident, or at least any major ones.

From parts of Fort Totten you can see the glitter of the Manhattan skyline and be inspired by the nighttime majesty of the Throgs Neck Bridge lit up. It is a marvel how New York holds itself together while the country seemingly tears itself apart. Gotham is as rife with division as everywhere else: New York City gave us both Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The greatness of New York serves as a microcosm of America. We see all the same issues in New York first, and the city, rightly or wrongly, serves as a template for how the rest of the country can navigate its problems.

The Fourth of July brings us down to Earth, reminds us of how American we are. It is popular to look upon outward signs of patriotism as right-wing or quaint, but if you believe America is for everyone and that patriotism is expansive and great, then join the celebration. The freedom we have was purchased in a bloody war, several actually.

The land we are on we do not claim by divine right. Every inch of America was fought over. We waged war on France, Great Britain (twice), Mexico (twice), Spain and countless Native American nations to get the current borders of the United States. July 4th celebrates the birth of our nation, a hard-fought war for Independence that was in effect our first civil war. When the war started it was not a foregone conclusion that we would win. The patriots who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence knew that the document would serve as their death warrant if the war didn’t go their way.

The Battle of Brooklyn was one of the bloodiest fights in the history of the American Revolution, and the war would have ended had Washington not been able to retreat to Manhattan. The British held New York for most of the war, but the city has signs of the American Revolution everywhere. The first woman who took up arms for America, Margaret Corbin, fought at the Battle of Fort Washington in Manhattan.

Some are fatalistic and see America as it is headed now as intrinsically doomed. There is no cultural coherence to sustain us through these times, they say, and new communities and nations will rise out of what is now a crumbling empire. But New Yorkers have bridged these divides in the crucibles of ambition and creativity. We are strong when we demand truth and strength, and turn to leaders not afraid to speak honestly and make the right enemies. We can do that in America as a whole if we are willing.

Let the American Revolution be our call to action today.

Come to the Flushing Eco-Fest

Sustainability and the environment are not just for hippies anymore.

Although when you think about it, hippies were late to the game on wanting save the Earth. The greatest environmentalists in American history is most likely the 26th President of the United States and great New Yorker, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt used the power of his Presidency to create national parks and other public lands. And when you think about it, accomplished hunters like Roosevelt are among the best environmentalists.

Ask yourself what would Theodore Roosevelt do? If he were still with us today, he would probably be bold enough to bicycle from Oyster Bay to the Flushing Quaker Meeting House (a trip of only 25 miles, an easy two hours for T.R.) and find common cause with the many diverse people working for the preservation of our natural world at the Flushing Eco-Fest on Saturday, March 23.

The festival is being organized by Flushing C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), a local farm share group (full disclosure: our family is a member of the Flushing C.S.A. and my wife is a core member and Eco-Fest organizer) and being cohosted by the Flushing Chamber of Commerce.

The Eco-Fest is free and offers free workshops, eco-friendly kids’ crafts sponsored by Macaroni Kid, and a host of vendors with locally grown and organic goods. There will be well over a dozen vendors and groups there, each one is in some way working towards making things on the planet more sustainable.

There is guaranteed to be something to appeal to everyone. My personal favorites are some of the local food businesses such as Spice Tree Organics and Astor Apiaries. You will be doing something good for the environment when you attend, even if you just stick around to learn something about watersheds or how to compost or get a few cycling or energy-saving tips. There will also be environmentally-friendly soaps, home décor, seedlings, and baked goods for sale. And a raffle. Nothing is too small to do to make a difference.

You will also meet an interesting group of people there. Events like this can give you a great cross-section of this part of Queens. The Flushing Quaker Meeting House is the oldest, continually-used house of worship in New York City, and Flushing has several important landmarks in the cause of religious freedom in the U.S. Inside the Meeting House, you will be surrounded by history older than the United States. And whatever you think of the current trajectory of the U.S. or its politics, there is no disputing that this is an interesting time to be alive.

And it is a perfect time to increase your civic and conservationist involvement. Don’t let cultural stereotypes about environmentalists dissuade you from joining with those who want to keep our nation’s land strong. Everyone has a part to play.

Teddy Roosevelt promoted national greatness, and he understood that a nation that depleted its natural resources and did not invest time in strengthening its land and future could not sustain itself. In Flushing, people will gather and, consciously or not, help build on Roosevelt’s vision of a great America that treasures its natural resources and strives to be a unified community.

 

A tribute to Burns Night and the Brooklyn of Old

Fifteen years ago, it was a cold night in an apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn where maybe two dozen people gathered for a Burns Night party. Burns Night is January 25 and celebrates the birthday of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet who lived in the late 1700s.

Several of us had brought our volumes of Robert Burns’ poetry, and at any point during the party, a partygoer would shout “Poem!” and silence the festivities for a reading of Burns poem.

The host had traveled to a meat distributor in New Jersey to obtain authentic haggis, a traditional Scottish dish comprised of a sheep’s offal and other ingredients served inside an animal’s stomach. A central ritual of the Burns Night party consisted of our host cutting open the haggis while someone read the Burns poem ‘Address to a Haggis.’

These Burns Night parties were a testament to the greatness of New York City and to the promise and meaning of Brooklyn to so many people. These were eclectic gatherings that showed the power of art to transcend time and place. Here were people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds celebrating a Scottish poet. The host, Roger, is a Peruvian Jew who grew up in Detroit. There was at least one real Scotsman at these parties, or at least he looked the party with a kilt. Maybe none of us had a drop of Scottish blood. Who cares? The power of Burns’ poetry transcends.

Among the guests at Roger’s parties were his frequent music collaborator Scott and Scott’s wife Diane. I once got to dog sit for Scott and Diane’s amazing dog Connolly (full name: Satchel Connolly X) – I picked up their house keys at a local diner where they knew the owners, walked their dog and explored Prospect Heights, which was a real neighborhood.

They were among the most active voices opposing the Atlantic Yards Project, a corrupt boondoggle that forced people out of their homes and businesses to construct luxury housing and a sports stadium. That fight was lost and the Barclays Center now sits on what used to be the part of the vibrant and eclectic Prospect Heights neighborhood. To this day I have not set foot inside the Barclays Center.

Roger returned to Detroit and Scott left Brooklyn and ended up in New Orleans. Diane remained in Brooklyn for a while after their breakup but she later moved to Westchester. All these people are doing well. Roger continues to write brilliantly, Scott has had his photos exhibited and Diane is a Fordham professor who recently published a book.

Those parties and those three people in particular represented Brooklyn to me like nothing else. They had each had come to New York and conquered it on their own, leaving great music and art in their wake. When those three people left Brooklyn, it was a sure sign that the things that made Brooklyn special were gone forever. If the people who embodied the spirit of Brooklyn more than anyone I knew were had left, then Brooklyn had outlived its usefulness.

That’s not to say there is nothing good about Brooklyn. I still go to Coney Island and Prospect Park and there are still music venues in Brooklyn worth your while. But for the most part when I think of Brooklyn I think of overpriced real estate and the hordes of well-off people who are driving up the price of everything.

But people who attended Roger’s Burns Night parties years ago have not forgotten them. A friend recently spent Burns Night at Peter Luger’s Steak House and recited some Burns poems to his family and friends. Diane mentioned Burns night in a school lesson about ethnic foods and culture; sadly her students had not heard of Burns Night.

Roger posted his memories of Burns Night online, noting how he first came across a reading of Burns poetry inside a pub in New Jersey, and woke up the next day in New York determined to be one of the people who would recite Burns poetry.

I stayed up late with my volume of Burns poetry, and read The Bonnie Wee Thing to my wife while holding her hand. It was not the happening party of years ago, but I could not go to bed on Burns Night without reading a Burns poem.

The Burns Night parties in Brooklyn of long ago are gone, but as long as I live I will keep them alive in spirit, and I am not alone.

Aye.

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