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Being the oddball in the East Village

The greatest rock & roll band that’s ever existed, The Dwarves, were scheduled to play at Bowery Electric, and it had been too long since I’ve seen them. I bought a ticket online and made plans to travel to Manhattan on a weekend, something I rarely do anymore. But this show would be worth it, I was certain.

I made my way to Bowery Electric, which is on the Bowery a short block uptown from where CBGB used to be.

The Bowery has not been itself for a long time now. It was known the world over as a place for bums. It was the Skid Row before Skid Row existed, and served as the template for the down and out sections of town in art, literature, and life.

I would travel to Manhattan when I could as a suburban teenager in the 1980s and 1990s, and going to the East Village was a harrowing experience. The Bowery was full of homeless people selling trinkets and other junk on blankets. Some of the bums were mental patients on medication that just stared into space. Drunks slept in doorways, crack heads begged for money or cigarettes or robbed you. If there was a Bum Olympics in 1989, it would have been held on the Bowery.

Today there are few homeless charities and even fewer flop houses on the Bowery. Fancy hotels and restaurants dot the Bowery now, and apartments that used to rent for a few hundred dollars a month in my lifetime now rent for upwards of $5,000 a month, if they’re available for rent at all.

That the Bowery Electric still exists is short of a miracle. So many music venues fled Manhattan that had Joey Ramone lived he would barely recognize the street that bears his name. Standing outside the venue, I was mistaken for a bouncer as a young woman began handing me her I.D. I waved her inside, telling her I didn’t work there. Maybe I should have asked her for a $5 cover and then treated myself to something at 7 Eleven up the street.

The venue’s Web site said that the show would start at 7 p.m. and seemed to indicate another show was scheduled to start at 10. I hustled and made good time and got to the show to learn that the first band of the night had canceled and that The Dwarves would not be starting to play until 10 p.m., when the Web site had said the show would end. Even in these modern times, the best shows still run on Punk Rock Time.

I set out for a brief walkabout of the East Village and found myself on St. Mark’s Place, where everything is now geared towards tourists or college students. The Papaya King proved a good find; I was one of two customers there at the time and I enjoyed some hot dogs while watching people walk by, most of them much younger and none of them looking like fellow travelers in the neighborhood for a punk rock show.

Across from Papaya King, the building that once housed the iconic fashion store Trash and Vaudeville is shuttered and under renovation. I would go there all the time years ago, not to buy things, but to put up flyers for upcoming shows that Blackout Shoppers would be playing. The store is still in business nearby on East 7th Street, but seeing it pass from its longtime location on St. Mark’s was another illustration of how change has rapidly come to this part of the city.

On 2nd Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets there is still a vacant lot where three buildings were destroyed in a gas explosion in 2015. There were a few curiosity seekers milling about the sidewalk where a chain-link fence keeps people from the lot. The lot is covered in gravel and there were two bouquets of flowers there for the two people killed in the explosion.

I made my way back to Bowery Electric and started running into people I knew. I am not as active on the music scene as I used to be, but I have a lot of friends I made over those years and meeting up with them at shows is always fun. I made my way downstairs where the main stage is set and found a good spot on a low balcony to see the show.

The Dwarves did not disappoint. They played their entire The Dwarves Are Young And Good Looking Album straight through and then played a lot their most beloved songs. Original guitar player HeWhoCannotBeNamed joined them and with Nick Oliveri on bass they can branch out into some of their more aggressive stalwarts. The Fresh Prince of Darkness shreds on lead guitar. Lead singer Blag Dahlia is a sinister master of ceremonies who wears a shit-eating grin. A Dwarves show is a celebration of the nihilistic aggression that made punk rock so phenomenal, but with a humorous twist that prevents anyone from trying to take things too seriously.

At the end of the show I met some more good music friends and made my way upstairs to use the bathroom before I headed home.

When I got upstairs, there was a different scene. The well-dressed hipsters and well-to-do young people with good jobs where in command of this part of the venue. As I stood in line to use one of the single-use restrooms, I decided to stretch my back since I had been on my feet so long. I bent over a bit to put my hands on my knees to straighten by back and the sharply-dressed guy who was next in line took a few steps back, thinking I was getting ready to throw up all over the floor. I thought about making some gesture to assuage his fears, and let him know that I am only a sober middle-aged punk rock fan with a bad back, but why bother? If you’re in the habit of wearing pressed slacks and dress shoes to a bar on the Bowery, maybe you should live in fear of being vomited on.

On my way out, I stopped to shake Blag Dahlia’s hand and congratulate him on a great show. He thanked me and I left into the glittery night of the East Village for the long trip home.

An indictment in the Bronx is an indictment of our city

A few weeks ago I saw a man get arrested at the 23rd St. N/R Station. As two NYPD officers tried to cuff him he broke free of them, and shoved them, shouting ridiculous blather about being treated unfairly and fearing the police. One of the officers pulled his Taser and I thought the man, who looked significantly larger than both of the cops, was going to get Tasered. Instead one of the officers talked him down and he soon put his hands behind his back and allowed the cops to cuff him. A witness told me he was being arrested because he was mentally disturbed and had been on the train tracks.

The cops had every right to Taser the guy, and if I was in their shoes I can honestly say that would have been my inclination. I was impressed with the cops’ ability to avoid violence in the situation. Police don’t always have that option.

Lost among the media coverage of two terror attacks in England and the U.S. President’s declaration about withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, a New York Police Department Sergeant was charged with murder in the Bronx.

Sgt. Hugh Barry responded to a call last October to find a mentally ill woman threatening officers with a pair of scissors. He managed to talk her down and she dropped the scissors, but she then retrieved a baseball bat and swung at the sergeant, who shot her twice. That’s a very clear case of an officer being threatened with deadly force and responding appropriately.

But soon after the incident New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner James O’Neill condemned the officer, claiming he violated department procedure by not calling for the Emergency Service Unit or using his Taser. Last week, the Bronx District Attorney filed murder charges against the sergeant.

It’s a travesty that should be inciting outrage nationwide. And not because we adhere to some warped notion that all cops are heroes and we should get behind anyone with a badge. This indictment should elicit outrage because Hugh Barry is a human being who has a right to stop someone trying to murder him. This indictment is an affront to decency because #FactsMatter.

New York police are rightfully angry.

The indictment of Sergeant Barry is not the action of a truthful or serious people. It’s the action of an ignorant and myopic ruling class that by sacrificing the right innocent people, they can somehow forge a tenuous peace in a volatile society. We’ve seen this before. Many of the most well-known cases in recent years that spurred large-scale protests and questionable prosecutions were manufactured controversies that didn’t stand up to a desultory examination of the facts. In places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, grand juries correctly rejected politically-motivated criminal charges against police.

But a large segment of the body politic insists that any death at the hands of police fit a certain narrative, a narrative that’s been undercut by the facts at almost every turn. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill bought into this narrative despite very clear evidence to the contrary. They would rather appease an extremist activist movement than work to protect our citizens.

If our city still has any respect for the truth, Sgt. Barry will be back on the job by this time next year and Bill de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill will be looking for work.

Times Square Before and After Terror

Last week I found myself having to go to Times Square and I actually looked forward to doing so. It was for work—I work in public relations and there was a conference I needed to attend. I hustled through half the workday to get enough done since I’d be away from the office.

Times Square is where tourists go to drink in the grandeur of New York. It’s where our city wears its gaudy commerce on its sleeve without apology, where someone with a silly gimmick can strike it rich and inspire many imitators. It is in some ways the central square of Western Civilization today, as sad as that may seem at times.

I’m old enough to remember when Times Square was a foreboding place, though I always found it more alluring than scary. The pornographic theaters were what thrilled me when I would walk through as a kid, trying to look like I wasn’t gawking at the barely-censored photos of women in acts of glorious carnality. I would be entranced at the spectacle of what Times Square as I was feasting my eyes on this delightful glimpse into the ribald adult world. It did not appear to be the war zone that I had been led to believe. Its name carried more ominous insinuation than realized malice.

When I moved back to New York, nearly 20 years ago now, things were different and it became an embodiment of all that was wrong with a vastly improved yet quickly gentrifying city. It was where people would feed at the trough of major chain restaurants when they could dine on authentic culinary delights only a short journey away. It was where ignorant tourists got taken to the cleaners with overpriced goods. For many years I avoided Times Square, and with good reason. It was in a transitional period where it had become safe and was attracting lots of tourists but had not yet been renovated to include the wide pedestrian plazas it enjoys today. The sidewalks were nearly impassable and traffic still zoomed around.

In the years since, I’ve come to have a begrudging appreciation for visiting there. On a date with my wife several years ago, I wanted to avoid Times Square, but my wife insisted we walk through it. “You need to learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city,” she told me. And she was right.

Last week I wasn’t there long and spent most of my time at a conference in the Thomson Reuters Building. I marveled at the view, and got the closest you can get to the large Times Square New Year’s Eve ball without being one of the workers in charge of its upkeep.

As night descended, I took breaks from the work conference to steal looks and take photos of the avenues leading from Times Square. As the sky darkened, the lights of the city came to life and the twilight glowed with a ready anticipation of what night would bring.

Stepping out into the night, I stopped for a minute to take a video of the scene before me. Two mounted policemen trotted by as I got my phone out so I only captured them from a distance as they passed, but even on a relatively uneventful weeknight, the scene in Times Square is both maddening and encouraging. It is a slice of Walt Whitman’s bustling and beautiful New York writ for modern times, coursing with strangers, each with a story we’ll never have time to learn or decipher.

Two days after my visit, a car drove onto the sidewalk and killed an 18-year-old woman, a visitor to the city there to take in the vibrancy of life. The police say the driver was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t stop until his car was upended by a stanchion. If there’s any functioning justice system in our city this killer will never be a free man again.

Another week later, and terror is rearing its head in another part of the world. But in New York we have known fear and breezed past it, the way New York commuters breeze past slower-moving tourists. We don’t respect fear in this city because it contributes nothing, it doesn’t earn its keep.

Even in the face of fear of death, Times Square will be full of life. It may be foolish and squalid life, but it glows with the unstoppable light of New York, and it will never be extinguished.

Calls for civility in a savage system

New York City’s transit authority is going to be spending money trying to make our subways more civilized towards pregnant women. A button reading Baby on Board’ is being made available to women who are pregnant, in hopes this will encourage more people on public transit to give them their seats. Another button reading ‘Please Offer Me a Seat’ is available free online also.

Our trains and buses are not kind places. My wife would go entire journeys without being offered a place to sit when she was visibly pregnant. A friend’s wife who is an expert photographer created a running series of shaming photos when she was carrying their first son, posting snapshots she had taken of men who had seen her very obviously with child and declined to offer her a seat.

I’m a firm believer in adhering to traditional etiquette. I’m one of the few people my age that knows to walk closest to the street when walking with a woman on the sidewalk. That made for some awkward dating moments but I’m a stickler for the rules of proper etiquette, at least if I can remember then.

I don’t even attempt to get a seat on the subway anymore. When I lived at the end of the A train in Inwood and knew I’d get a seat and be able to sleep most of my commute, I did that. But now I ride the 7 train and the 6 train, two of the most crowded and miserable lines in the city. I don’t want to fight with people at the Main Street-Flushing stop when I can be close to the door that’s going to open at Grand Central for my hurried dash to the 6 platform. And what would we be fighting for? The privilege of sitting on a hard plastic seat where a homeless guy jerked off a few hours before? I have more room to breathe if I stand anyway. Besides, I’m a sedentary office worker for more than 10 hours a day, why add to that sloth during my commute, where it pays dividends to be on your feet? But if I do happen to be sitting in a seat and I see a pregnant woman or elderly person, I’ll offer them my seat.

There are a myriad of reasons the subways and buses are not models of civility. One of them is the fact that a large city is impersonal and New York in particular is designed for only the most aggressive and determined people to succeed at anything.

But a leading reason that transit riders are not civil towards one another is that the subways and buses are cauldrons of misery plagued with inadequate services and rising fares for decades. Why, in one of the most forward-thinking and progressive cities in the world, is anyone anywhere in the five boroughs waiting more than 10 or 15 minutes for a subway or bus? Why are we trying to run a 21st century subway system with 19th century era signal systems?

How about fixing our failing system so that those deserving have a better chance of getting a seat without asking someone to move? How about better handicapped access at all stations so it doesn’t take a guy in a wheelchair five hours to buy a bagel? These things are a lot harder to do than hand out free buttons, but they need doing.

I hope that there is some benefit to the button campaign. But subway and bus service is so sub-standard for a major, industrialized world city that any resources not directed at a needed upgrade is putting lipstick on a pig. If by some chance this campaign succeeds and more pregnant women and sick and elderly people have seats, this only means they will be more comfortable when getting screwed over by the MTA.

Running for Flushing Bay

New York City has a myriad of opportunities to go running. Every weekend somewhere in the five boroughs you can find a race or a fun run to suit your needs.

Being an out-of-shape middle-aged office worker with more aspiration than perspiration on my calendar, I like these organized events because it means I’m going to get out the door on time and get a nice bit of exercise as I am striving to get myself into better shape.

So it was fortuitous that I learned of the Guardians of Flushing Bay 5k this past weekend. It is close to home and for a good cause, raising money to help the organization work for a cleaner and more accessible Flushing Bay.

Flushing Bay is a piece of waterfront that needs the cleanup help and is underutilized. It’s got a paved running path, benches to sit on, and even a boat launch and a pier, but not that many people use it and it’s not easily accessible. There is a marina there where people have their boats, but there is not a thriving waterfront that could be there.

There are a lot of improvements that could be made for cleanliness and accessibility, so it’s great to see the Guardians of Flushing Bay group start to organize. They took photos of all the runners gathered there to show support to local politicians and the run raised money to support their efforts. There’s no reason Northeast Queens can’t have an excellent waterfront as well.

My wife is a member of the Flushing C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), a local farm share chapter that lets members order food directly from local farms. She set up an information table and sat our 10-month-old daughter there with her. She had a good number of people coming over and joining the mailing list. “Babies and puppies can sell anything,” she explained.

The run was well-attended but not a large gathering like you would find at one of the large Roadrunners events. It maintained a very helpful community spirit throughout. A large number of the participants were members of dragon boat racing teams that frequently practice in Flushing Bay.

My wife’s cousin, who runs 5k races frequently and has run the New York City Marathon and other marathons, joined us. She had a later start time than I did and fell and hurt her thumb, but still breezed past me.

I normally like to listen to music when I go running both to inspire me and drown out the sounds of my own wheezy breathing. I forgot to bring it this time. But the sights and sounds of Flushing Bay, of Queens waking up on a Saturday morning, were inspiration enough. There were also volunteers along the way offering encouraging words to fast runners and slow-pokes alike.

When I run a 5k, I make it a point to run the whole thing and not walk part of it. I may be slow but I want to be consistent and until I get in better shape I need to push myself to keep going.

It was a good day for the race as the weather was sunny but not too hot. During the run you could smell the briny essence of the Bay and see the pollution that washes up at high tide. You could also see the great promise of making better use of the esplanade and marina. The run took us from where Flushing Creek branches inland from the bay to within a few hundred yards of LaGuardia Airport’s Delta terminal and back.

When I approached the end of the run, a small crowd of volunteers and runners cheered me on. As tired as I was, the cheers and the sight of my two older girls standing just beyond the line encouraged me to pick up the pace a bit. I wheezed my way over the finish line and scooped up our three-year-olds and carried them back to my wife’s C.S.A. table.

As more runners finished and took advantage of the water, oranges, and bagels, some dragon boats appeared in the bay near the run and began racing one another. It was a pleasant end to a good event. We hope that the Guardians of Flushing Bay do this every year.

How to be a pedestrian in New York City

New York is a very walkable city. We have horrible traffic that makes driving regularly in the more densely populated parts of the city nearly impossible and a grossly imperfect but extensive mass transit system that makes owning a car in the city unnecessary.

Walking the streets of Gotham is mostly a joy. But there are also a lot of frustrations in getting about on foot, as not everyone is up on their pedestrian etiquette.

I think we can safely exempt tourists from some of the walking rules, because we need their money to keep the city’s economy afloat and many tourists are from far-away places that don’t have the same customs or don’t have the same walking-friendly infrastructure. Lots of American suburbs, for instance, don’t have sidewalks in their residential area (something that threw me for a loop when I moved from Yonkers to Yorktown Heights).

Here are five essential rules for how to be a pedestrian in New York City:

Keep to the right of the sidewalk or stairs. In most countries people drive to the right. The same applies to pedestrian traffic just as it would automobile traffic. Walk to the right and you don’t have weave around a million people going the opposite direction. It’s a very simple concept and usually works well for motorized traffic.

Stay focused on walking. You may be a master multi-tasker when you are behind your desk at work or in the kitchen of your home. The sidewalks of New York are a different place. Do not look read a book or mobile phone while walking. You don’t look like a deep literary soul when you try to read a book while walking, you look just as stupid as a smart phone zombie but twice as pretentious.

Keep your eyes ahead of you and avoid gawking. There a millions of dazzling sights and no city in the world makes for better people watching than our bustling Gotham. It’s tempting to soak in all that’s around you and give in to the wanderlust and marvel at the vibrant life of our city, but some of us are trying to get to work or catch a bus or subway. If you keep your eyes straight ahead and let the foot traffic ebb and flow around you easily, you’ll get to where you are going with much less of a hassle. The bearded strangers trying to make eye contact with you are likely panhandlers and not the next Walt Whitman.

Remain considerate of others. Walking three abreast is OK in some places, but we have limited sidewalk space and if you are traveling in a group, others are going to be moving quicker and need to move around you. Our sidewalk cut-ins are often limited and not as easily maneuvered by people in wheelchairs and the elderly, so go ahead and step upon the curb like the healthy person you are.

Remember when cars and other vehicles have the right of way. Pedestrians have the right of way, except when they don’t. It’s OK to cross against the light when there are no cars coming, but if there are, stay out of their way. Pedestrians who blindly walk into traffic like they haven’t a care in the world are the ones I prefer to see smooshed.

So please be alert. Everything in New York requires thought and mastery, even walking from place to place. Life is too short to stumble through it cluelessly. If you focus on where you’re going you’ll be a happier person when you get there.

Five people you should be allowed to beat senseless on public transit

Recently a mother was charged with beating a 71-year-old woman who criticized her rude manners and child rearing and a man was arrested for kicking a pregnant woman in the belly on a 4 train. Such savage assaults are not surprising, sorry to say. While people join in the moral hate of these accused, it begs the question: who does deserve to be beaten on our subways and busses? We agree that the pregnant and the elderly should be spared violence except under extremely rare circumstances. But there are certainly many for whom swift and destructive violence is richly deserved.

Below are modest descriptions of the five people who are worthy of vigilante justice.

People who bring bicycles onto trains. Does anyone have any excuse to bring a bicycle on a train, ever? This is your method of transportation. If you got caught in the rain, too bad. Read the weather forecast before you bring your two-wheeled throne of entitled ineptitude onto our train car. The worse I’ve seen was a guy with a motorized scooter on the train. A motorized scooter! This also applies to people who bring awkwardly large objects onto the subway. I’ve seen people bring all manner of inappropriately large items onto public transit during rush hour. Baby strollers are the most tolerable item since some mothers don’t have a choice as to when they travel. But a bicycle on the subway? With the exception of the rare bike race in town, there should be no such thing.

People who stand in front of doors or enter the subway before everyone leaves. I have often dreamt of investing in some sort of spinning blades on a stick that one can set on fire while pulling into the station. I feel with the right tools we could eliminate much of the population in my neighborhood of Flushing. No subway seat is so precious that you should surrender your dignity.

Rush hour panhandlers and performers. One should never give money to panhandlers at all as a general rule. Even the most sympathetic advocates for the homeless will tell you that the majority of cash you hand over to beggars is used for drugs or alcohol (giving food is another issue). But if someone is trying to walk through a packed subway car to collect money, then they deserve a knuckle sandwich and should appeal to their bleeding-heart suckers during a less-crowded time. I usually go out of my way to give money to performers. Musicians and other people who make our lives richer with their art deserve our support. The sensible performers would not walk through a crowded subway car at rush hour. They know to avoid crowded trains because they are considerate and good at what they do.

People who wear backpacks on trains and buses. If you wear a backpack onto a subway or bus, you are a jackass. Not only are you taking up too much space and making it difficult for people to move around you, you are putting your own personal belongings out of your view and at greater risk of theft. True justice would be to slice open these backpacks and allow the contents thereof to spill onto the floor. This may end up causing a stamped to grab these items, creating a greater disorder and inconveniencing law-abiding commuters. Also the authorities may take issue with a knife being used in this way. A good public prank would be to glue very large and garish dildos to these backpacks. According to the police, such acts are not vandalism and they’ll have no reason to report you to the authorities if you are caught in the act (note: not all police may take the same view as the slacker cops I encountered in Flushing).

Pole hogs and seat hogs. Unless you are a stripper performing in a strip club, you have no business putting any part of your body other than your hand on the subway pole. If you weigh 800 pounds and take up more than one seat, then OK, you’re doing us a favor not trying to stand on the subway and you’ll die of a heart attack soon enough. If you are a more regularly-proportioned individual and you are taking up more than one seat, then you deserve a boot to the face. Your luggage didn’t pay $2.75 to ride the bus or train.

Honorable mentions for New York street justice in transit: people who neglect to wear headphones while listening to music or watching videos, those clipping their nails on the bus or train, and anyone who stands on the left side of an escalator.

Our public transit will never be a cocoon of luxury and good tidings. We don’t need that. But some common decency and courtesy would go a long way. There’s nothing morally wrong with a little bit of “the old ultraviolence” on some of our fellow Big Apple denizens who weren’t raised with the same manners, I realize that these are but fleeting dreams. We cannot visit such extreme justice on all who deserve it. If we did so we would do nothing else. But let us join together in these sweet day dreams and get through our day the better for it.

Happy commuting everyone.

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