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The rewarding solitude of night driving

This past weekend I went to run some errands and found that our family minivan’s battery had died. Add it to the ‘last thing I needed’ list. We are lucky enough to be a two car family, and while I thought we had jumper cables in our other car, it turns out we did not. I was spared the opportunity to make myself look extra useful or electrocute myself.

I had to wait until after our older children were in bed before I could call AAA and have our car’s battery tended to. That took longer than I thought, and I wound up paying cash for a new battery. We needed it and I know my wife would not have time to go to a garage this week.

I set out on a drive to get cash from the ATM after using all that I had on me to pay for the new car battery. Some of us have become so accustomed to using credit cards or debit cards for just about any purchase over $20, that our trips to our bank’s ATM are infrequent.

Sunday night after 10 p.m. is a quiet time in the Western world. My part of Queens, New York, is a residential area where people are enjoying their last hours of family and freedom before the grind of the workweek picks up again.

Driving alone at night is one of life’s pleasures I used to enjoy more frequently. I had a car in the latter part of high school and through college, and taking long drives was a time I could enjoy solitude and productive daydreaming (even at night) and listen to music. Long walks and runs fulfill this need in city life, but the lure of the open road can’t be duplicated on foot so easily.

It is interesting to see who else is also on the road, what other strangers are enjoying the quiet time to be out and about while most of the nearby world is cloistered in their homes for the night. Drivers are not rushing to get everywhere as much and there’s a modicum of civility that you don’t find during daylight hours.

Sunday nights in particular, are fun times to get out. You can see this with drinking too. With Monday morning looming, not too many people are at the bars, and Sunday night at the bar was a great guilty pleasure during my drinking years.

Cruising down Willets Point Boulevard, few other drivers were on the road. I had a few errands to run and made some lucky green lights, with few others taking up lane space around me.

I got to my bank and went to use the ATM—the machine was giving out only $1, $5, and $100 bills because our financial institutions are losing their basic competencies. No mind, I set out again to drive to the next closest branch, just a mile or so away. Francis Lewis Boulevard is in the middle of repaving, and a big stretch of road has been milled down to a rough, striated surface. It was rough driving where normally it would be smooth; each manhole felt like driving over a pitcher’s mound.

I reached the next branch of the bank, only to find it was no longer there. Banks are closing branches as more people do all their banking online.  I made an illegal U-turn and headed back towards home, stopping at a gas station to feed quarters to an air pump to refill two of our van’s tires. This gas station was a full service gas station, and the attendant stood in his booth, waiting for someone who needed gas. Good for them for being open late on a Sunday,

My business done, I returned home, listening to music and enjoying the quiet streets of Queens before the deluge of the workweek arrived.

Democracy is in the details

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill is famously quoted as saying, “All politics are local.” He was right. What’s more, so much of what gets decided in our republic doesn’t happen on the televised stage but in the mind-numbing minutia of committees and boards you’ve never heard of unless you are willing to delve into the morass of local politics. But I’m telling you: delve into that morass.

This universe of local community boards and party committees have more sway and control over our politics than one might think, and they are a way to have an outsized influence on your community without having to run for public office. Depending on what you do, you might only need a few hours a month.

And no matter what your politics, you likely agree that the political establishment is decrepit and in need of new blood. Case in point: here in New York, the Democratic Party bosses were nominating candidates for party positions who were not even aware they were running. There were actually people interested in some of these party positions, but the people in charge filed the names of candidates they drew from old lists, thinking they could fudge the paperwork and appoint their own candidates later. The bosses had become accustomed to few showing interest in these party positions. With more people engaged in the political process on the local party level, this kind of rusty machine can’t continue run like that. Why shouldn’t there be a contest for these positions every step of the way—picking candidates who are actually running would be a good first step.

And in addition to the usual local and state races on the ballot Tuesday, there are three ballot initiatives specific to New York City that can shape the future of local politics and open the door for more involvement. The first would mean stricter limits on individual campaign contributions candidates could collect but increase public funding for candidates. The second would create a Civic Engagement Commission under control of the mayor (please vote against this if you live in New York City). And the third would put term limits of a sort on people serving on community boards (they could serve for eight years but then must step down for two years with the ability to reapply). I think a better solution to create more responsive community boards would to make them elected positions—members are currently appointed by borough presidents.

Whatever your position on these or other issues, you won’t change a thing by throwing rocks at someone you hate, marching on Trump Tower, or trolling normies with dank memes. Go vote.

Clearly there is a populist political wave that is cresting with Democrats now after Donald Trump surfed it to victory two years ago. There’s no reason it should stop for either party. In both cases it has widened the debate.

Five years ago, Democrats were scared to call for socialized medicine and Republicans would not have dared question birthright citizenship. Both these topics are rightfully in the mainstream now. There is no reason that ideas should be kept out of the public sphere by old and uninspired machine politics.

Don’t like it? Get out there and do something about it.

In the wake of the latest bloodbath

I saw the headlines on my mobile phone and thought little of it, because grotesque acts of violence are normal now, and actually always have been. A crazed anti-Semite shot 11 people to death in a Jewish temple in Pittsburgh over the weekend.

Here are three ideas that might help:

  1. Mandate more effective surveillance of potentially violent extremists by law enforcement
  2. Create a federal database of people not allowed to own firearms
  3. Increase armed security until you can make progress on 1 and 2.

If someone who survived the Holocaust can’t survive going to a religious service in Pittsburgh, something is seriously wrong with this country. No part of how to fix this should be off the table. And as per usual the country’s reaction to this latest horror show follow predictable partisan scripts.

I shouldn’t be surprised. I thought that the September 11 attacks were so bad that people wouldn’t get away with resorting to the same tired old tropes and I was wrong then. If the horrific deaths of thousands of people on live TV didn’t shake us from unbecoming hackery, why should the massacre of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh make us change our ways?

When an Islamic terrorist massacred 49 people in Orlando two years ago, leading Democrats lectured us on Islamophobia and xenophobia. When a Christian terrorist killed three people at an abortion clinic that same year, leading Republicans mumbled platitudes about treating the mentally ill. When a mentally ill teenager slaughtered 17 fellow students at a high school earlier this year, the President said the solution was to arm teachers. After this latest shooting in Pittsburgh, the President said more armed guards were the answer. We have an abject failure of leadership throughout our government.

Something has got to be done about too many of the wrong people getting their hands on guns. That is a focus that enjoys broad support. Guns are another divisive issue in this country, but ask the most unwavering N.R.A. member if the people involved in any of these terror attacks/mass shootings should have been able to get a firearm, and they will tell you ‘no.’ Fellow Second Amendment supporters: if we don’t come up with a viable solution, less sympathetic voices will control this issue. Years ago I came up with a proposal to create one federal system that would screen out people deemed too dangerous to own firearms but also overrule the patchwork of often unconstitutional state and local laws that have gun owners rightfully angry.

Part of that is also being able to find dangerous extremists before they become violent. Our First Amendment allows people to believe and advocate anything they want, but most violent extremists leave other clues to violent intent beyond online musings.

It’s very common to see an increased police presence in New York outside of Jewish houses of worship, especially around Jewish holidays. The idea of increased security at synagogues and temples is not out of line. Only calling for more armed guards or armed teachers or clergy is a crap answer to addressing our problem with violence. But increased security will have to do in the meantime. We have to deal with the world as it is now, not as it should be.

 

Dreams of the Mega life

One dark weekday morning and I am standing in my spot at the bus stop, waiting for my bus to work. A car pulls up near the bus stop and a laughing passenger gets out. He’s carrying a plastic bag of clinking beer bottles and wearing a Knights of Columbus satin jacket with a large back patch. He turns and shouts something to the passenger before laughing and starting to walk away.

The sees me standing there in my glum workday “business casual” finery and offers me a beer from his plastic bag. “No thank you,” I tell the man, being appreciative of his generosity. He puts the beer back in his bag and offers me a bottle of hard cider instead. I politely decline again.

He sees I’m going to work and he jokes that he is just getting home from work. He smells of alcohol and emits drunken joviality. Though I left the drinking life nearly a decade ago, I am familiar with this stumbling generosity and the allure of unending good times. Had I followed a different path—different not necessarily meaning better—I could easily be the one drinking until 6:30 in the morning.

I didn’t envy the man being drunk at the crack of dawn, but I envied the ease and appreciation he had for his working life, whatever it is or was. When I get home from work, I am not a bundle of generosity towards strangers but a tired commuter eager to spend some time with my kids before I go to bed, fearful for what work emergencies might consume the rest of my waking day.

This came to mind later that same week when I purchased some tickets for the Mega Millions drawing for a prize that has since ballooned past $1 billion. By any stretch of logic lottery tickets are a waste of time and prey on the poor and working classes. It is people who can often least afford it who spent their money on these dreams printed out on small slips of paper.

The millions of tickets sold for a chance at that prize money was purchased by people dreaming of riches but not necessarily because they want to be rich. People spend their money on lottery tickets because they want to escape the present workday lives that consume much of their time.

A few weeks ago I was able to work from home on a Tuesday and I took my older children to their Pre-K classes. It was one of the best weekdays I’ve had in a long time. The 40-odd minutes I had with my older girls is time I rarely get outside of the rushed weekends. It’s time you can’t get back, and time burns faster than money.

If I had the choice of doubling the money I make at work currently or cutting that in half and not having to go to work every day, no question I would take the latter. And so would a lot of the people who stand on line for lottery tickets. It’s not big mansions or luxury cars we fancy, it’s buying more of our time back for ourselves.

Good luck everyone.

An afternoon in the pumpkin patch

It finally feels like fall. After having days that topped 80 degrees in October, it was a relief to have days where temperatures stayed mostly in the 50s. This past weekend it was time to get out and enjoy the weather somehow, and I was on a mission to keep my children entertained while my wife prepared our home for more entertaining.

A Pumpkin Patch and other attractions were available at the Queens Botanical Garden. After a late morning I managed to herd my children into a van and off we went.

After paying for parking and Garden admission and finding parking, we made a bee line for the pumpkin patch. My girls wanted pumpkins.

The attendant was a young woman in glasses whose high smiles and uplifted voice was thick with dramatic artifice, faux-professional and failing to mask the relish in every new financial kick in the teeth and bureaucratic inconvenienced layered on.

“I’m sorry, this receipt is for entering the Garden. There is a separate charge for entering the pumpkin patch…. And do you want to keep your pumpkins…. There is no re-entry… stroller parking is over there…. Please turn in your ticket to keep your pumpkin.”

In the end, I paid $17 to enter Queens Botanical Garden and another $42 to let three little girls pick up three small pumpkins. To be fair, advanced registration for the pumpkin patch was available online and I could have saved a few dollars; the attended gushed over the woman ahead of me in line who had done so. I refused to grumble or grouse and give the attendant the satisfaction of seeing me mad. I smiled my own high smile and ushered my children into the fenced-off area filled with pumpkins.

Inside the sanctioned patch area, lines of pumpkins made walking lanes and pumpkins were massed into different shapes and groupings. Bales of hay and other decorative displays were spread throughout as well. Volunteers in neon vests offered to take my picture with my kids, and we managed to pose for a decent photo.

A young man adorned in platform shoes and an outfit of leaves greeted us also. He had freckles painted on his face and an umbrella that was also lined with leaves. He took his photo with some of the other visitors there and one of our twins saw this and wanted her photo taken with the spritely personality as well. We patiently awaited our turn. While one of our kids was too shy, two of them posed for a photo on some bales of hay.

“Smile for Professor Pumpkin,” I told the girls, assigning this autumnal eccentric young man a name. “Is that OK to call you that?” I asked him, realizing he hadn’t given us a name and maybe I should check to see if he offered another.

“I’ll take that,” he said.

Professor Pumpkin showed the patience of a saint, as my daughter asked to pose for more and more photos. I thanked the young man for his time and we finally moved one.

While the pumpkins in the patch were relatively small, my kids were enthralled with the choices they had, and eventually, after they each chose one they found best, we left the pumpkin patch with our choices.

It would be easy to call this day a rip-off, and paying $42 for three small pumpkins is by most standard measures a massive overpayment. But what going to the pumpkin patch gave me was time with my children, and that is priceless. I leave for work when it is still dark and my kids are still asleep. I see them for dinner and then help put them to bed, and I ask them about their day while we are trying to eat and get them into pajamas. Most of my waking hours during the week are spent on things that take my mind off of the things that matter the most.

The pumpkin patch is a time to enjoy the season and time with family, and in the end that is time and money well spent.

Ready for a Comeback

The occasion of one’s birthday is always a time, however brief, for reflection and taking stock of where you are. This past weekend saw the start of my 46th year on this Earth, and I have a lot to be happy about and celebrate but it’s also the start of a comeback.

There is always room to improve and make better. If you’re not striving for something better at all times, then things fall into disrepair and a sad, atrophying stasis. The search, the striving is the goal and the state of being everyone needs. Merely getting by doesn’t cut it.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy some time to relax and be grateful for what you have, but if you’re not happy about something, then change is a must.

And like everyone else, there are things I am not happy about. I am very lucky in that I have my health and a lucid mind and can get a start on turning things around. But things have been in a bit of a rut: I go to work, I come home and eat and put kids to bed, I answer more work emails and fall asleep trying to get something done. I wake up early the next day and do it again.

One glimmer of light in all this is creativity. If I can get something creative done, I can have some peace of mind, and right now I am preparing for a show at the end of October.

Having young children and seeing how quick life can move can be both terrifying and encouraging. It seems like just yesterday I was welcoming the first of our children into the world; the older of our kids will be five in January and they are well versed in navigating the parental politics of our household for their own advantage.

But seeing how fast life moves doesn’t just mean that our youthful days are left in the dust, it means we can create new things for ourselves quickly as well. Less than a decade ago I was living alone with not many prospects for career advancement or a family life. Now I have three children and a well-established career in public relations. In a few years, I can be in a different place; the pace of change is fast, which means we can put ourselves on a better path quickly.

So often we look back on things with regret, and I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone. We will always, and I can tell you million times of how true this is: we will always regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do.

So no matter where you are or how bad things seem or how off the rails the life you imaged is, don’t worry or spend too much time looking back on past mistakes. Start doing things to set things right again. You won’t be sorry. It’s never too late.

 

Go for it.

College Point discovery: The Poppenhusen Institute

It was a Saturday and we were looking for something family friendly to do with the kids.

For a long time, I studiously avoided anything deemed “family friendly” as it was either specifically for children like ‘Sesame Street’ or something that was toned down and devoid of any of the reality-driven spice of life. But my time as a parent has changed my view and definition.

For us, “family friendly” doesn’t mean for something sanitized or dumbed-down, it means we want to be able to find a place to change a diaper. We are not afraid of adult content corrupting our children except in extreme examples; we’re afraid of adult content boring the crap out of our children.

Case in point: we looked up local events on our local Macaroni Kid and found an Oktoberfest nearby. You wouldn’t normally think that an Oktoberfest celebration would be a place to take children, that it would be nothing but loud, beer-soaked hipsters being dramatically unaware. And maybe in Brooklyn that would be the case, but the Poppenhusen Institute of College Point, Queens proved that wrong. We live not too far from this institution, which is 150 years old now. A center for German culture, it’s evolved to become a lot more without losing sight of its original cultural mission.

College Point is somewhat of an out-of-the-way place by New York City standards. There’s almost a small community village feeling to it as its small businesses have thrived. Driving down 14th Street, where the Institute is, the businesses of College Point Avenue recede and the street is a bit narrower and more residential, until you get closer to the water, where more industrial businesses are. The Poppenhusen Institute is bordered by businesses but in an area which is still largely residential. It’s got a fenced-in property (another bonus for bringing small children) and is a magnificent building that dates to 1868.

Being the day of the fall equinox, the weather was perfect for the outdoor event, which was held in the shaded back yard of the Institute. Decorated with blue and white balloons, we paid $18 admission and that included a lot of free entertainment and an area of games for kids. There was free face painting for children and prizes as well.

On site was an award-winning artist, Brian Lipperd, painting portraits. He produced a great portrait of your youngest daughter and touched it up when she smeared it. This artist formerly worked as a portrait artist in Florence, Italy and has had other prestigious residences around the world and will be teaching art classes at the Poppenhusen Institute. You think they have awesome portrait artists at Chuck E Cheese? Think again.

The Institute was once a village community center for College Point, it even served as a local sheriff’s station and still has two small jail cells that housed town drunks or other minor miscreants. It was the site of the first free public kindergarten in the United States. It has a magnificent performance space as well as an exhibit of early Native American life of the area.

The food was affordable and we bought hot dogs for the kids and my wife and I enjoyed some bratwurst, as it was an Oktoberfest and that felt like the right thing to do. There was traditional German music and men in lederhosen and women in traditional German dresses performed dances. My wife came in second place in a beer stein holding contest, winning a nice beer stein filled with beer.

The Poppenhusen Institute holds painting classes for children and has numerous performances and things worth doing. It is well worth the trip to College Point to visit this cultural treasure.

 

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