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Punk rock’s champion leaves NYC

I knew it was a possibility; he had told me about the idea. But when I got word from Philthy Phill that he was leaving town I was still shocked.

Phill Lentz, better known to the New York punk rock world as Philthy Phill, is the singer for World War IX. He’s much more than that though. Over the 13 years he’s been in New York he’s excelled at stand-up comedy, writing, podcasting, concert organizing, and being a creative jack-of-all-trades that would be the envy of most Big Apple newcomers. He’s conquered New York City without losing the Midwestern disarming charm and good humor that drew some of this town’s finest musicians, artists, and comedians into his orbit.

I first got to know Phill when he was the lead singer in a band called Sexual Suicide. His singing style captured the necessary aggression of the genre while also displaying a keen sense of humor; a you-are-being-subjected-to-our-noise-but-we’re-in-on-this-together vibe. Bands with no sense of humor are miserable to watch. If you had any doubts about Phill’s take on things, the highlight of any Sexual Suicide show was when Phill would put on a Spider Man mask and sing a song about performing cunnilingus on Mary Jane Watson.

He came to New York City from the suburbs North of Chicago in 2003, following a girlfriend who had moved here. Three years later they broke up and he considered moving out of town at that point but decided to stay and drown his sorrows in punk rock.

Phill not only sings but also plays guitar and drums. Over the years he has served as the drummer for Joey Steel and the Attitude Adjusters, the Misanthropes, and toured Canada and Europe with the Scream’n Rebel Angels. I was fortunate to play with him in New Damage.

Phill wrote a book, a long-form short story, written from the point of view of a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who made a living as a Spider Man character for kid’s parties. It was a great read because it celebrated, among other things, the joy of the creative act. Read Self Poor Trait if you are down and feel jaded as a creative person, you won’t be sorry.

To top that all off, Phill worked the stand-up comedy circuit and played some of the top clubs like Caroline’s. And he co-founded the Dispatches from the Underground podcast.

Earlier on in my time in New York, I discovered the comics of Justin Melkmann through the New York Waste. I was so impressed that someone was doing a comic strip about the life of GG Allin, that I made it a point to go see the artist’s band, which was subtly advertised in each strip with a discreetly inked URL. Catching my first World War IX show at CB’s Lounge and meeting Justin was a turning point in my punk rock life. Blackout Shoppers have played numerous shows with World War IX and there’s nothing we like better.

A few years after I got to play my first show with World War IX, they were looking for a singer, and I and I’m sure a whole bunch of others called and told them to get Philthy Phill.

Having Philthy Phill join World War IX was like Beethoven coming back from the dead to conduct the London Philharmonic – it’s the supreme punk rock combination that had to happen. And it did.

World War IX entered a new period of productivity and creativity and produced some of my favorite songs over the past several years. I had the honor of playing a villain in a few of their videos, including the video for my favorite World War IX song, Cutlass Supreme. Phill’s acting chops earned him roles in other punk rock videos as well.

“Without a doubt, I will miss my World War IX and the friends I made playing with that band,” Phill told me. “We’ve toured many times, put out an envious number of high-quality music videos and some outstanding music to boot. Anyone who has partied with us at a show can tell how well we all get along because it comes across in what we did. Unrelated fun fact: everyone in the band has wanted to fight me at some point.”

Phill also met his wife among the punk rock fans that came to his shows. He and Erin married in 2012 and last year they had twin boys. While they excelled at making a family of their own, they have no other family in the area, at all. That, coupled with the high cost of living and the need for more space, was the deciding factor in making the move to Indianapolis.

Sometimes, the people who best embody the humor, creativity, and egalitarian grit of New York City find it is best to leave New York City.

There’s also a trap that New Yorkers fall in to easily, thinking that the world revolves around what happens in the five boroughs and believing that residing in the New York City area counts as an artistic achievement in and of itself. While surviving in New York is an accomplishment, we’d be kidding ourselves to think that any work of art is somehow automatically superior if it originates from an NYC zip code.

This Saturday, Philthy Phill will sing with World War IX for one last time at Otto’s Shrunken Head. My band, Blackout Shoppers, will be joining them, along with Controlled Substance. It will be a packed house and there will be lots of music, loudness and alcohol.

Phill hasn’t stopped being creative, and he’s already working on his next project, which he’s keeping under wraps for now.

While people will forever come from all over the world to pursue their creative dreams in New York City, the point is to keep being creative and live a good life while doing so. Great art, music, and literature can be found wherever there are people great enough to do great work, wherever the creative spirit ignites a spark that leads to more ideas, wherever there are people like Philthy Phill.

30 years after the Tompkins Square Park Riots

This weekend the East Village commemorated the three decade anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park Riots with two days of concerts and speeches in the once-notorious East Village park.

Protests over a 1 a.m. curfew of the park and eviction of homeless encampments there ended with multiple clashes with police and multiple instances of police brutality. It was among the first widely documented instances of police brutality caught on video and broadcast on the news. Angry protesters shouted dire warnings about gentrification, yelled “Die Yuppie Scum,” and vandalized a new apartment building. Police chased people down and clubbed them with night sticks. It was a low point in New York’s history but things would soon change.

I was an angry suburban punk rock high school kid in the late 1980s and I made it a point to go to New York and walk to Tompkins Square Park after the riot. While I made it there, I did not stay very long. The park was still a homeless encampment and drug-invested village of skels and squatters, even with the 1 a.m. curfew. I would walk along 8th Street and St. Mark’s after visiting a great record store called It’s Only Rock & Roll that did not survive to the late 1990s.

This year’s commemorative concerts included a reunion of Team Spider, a group I have long admired and followed that embody the best of the East Village punk rock ethos. For about a decade they had an elderly songwriter ZAK, join them for most of their performances. ZAK passed away in 2006. So I made it an imperative to get to the park to see Team Spider.

The fact that I felt safe enough to drive to the East Village in a minivan with my wife and three small children is testament to the radical changes that have affected the East Village in the interceding 30 years. Amazingly, I found a parking spot right alongside Avenue B. I parked right across the street from St. Brigid’s Church. The church has a storied history, including being used as a center for activists during the 1988 park protests. There is personal history there too. I was arrested for taping a flyer to a light post right on the corner outside the church in 2005.

We walked into the park between bands, and someone was on stage making a long-winded political speech. They had been there during the riots in 1988 and now the spirit of resistance was needed even more because Trump is a racist and in league with the Nazis and no borders and die yuppie scum and …I tuned out most of the rambling speech and instead said hello to friends that I saw there. Some of my friends that I know through music have not yet met my children, so it was good to introduce some of my punk rock family to may actual nuclear family.

Team Spider took the stage and rocked. Their brand of ska-infused, politically conscious punk rock is as relevant today as it was when they were performing regularly, and they even updated some of the lyrics to mention Donald Trump instead of George W. Bush. The concert was well attended – Choking Victim closed out the show after Team Spider – and evidence that the spirit of political protest has not been cleansed from our city streets entirely.

But by any measure of anti-gentrification politics, the yuppies have won in the East Village. There are only a few squatters left among the increasingly expensive real estate that have driven out much of the radical politics that fueled the protests. The 1 a.m. curfew on the park is still in effect and there’s a Starbucks where there was once a pizza place not long ago.

After we listed to Team Spider play, we brought our girls to a playground. I took a small detour to meet with old friends at the show, but soon it was time to go for ice cream. I am happy to report that Ray’s Candy Store is still on Avenue A and I and the family got to eat ice cream cones served by Ray himself. We found a bench in the park that was away from some of the homeless congregations that still take up a lot of space there and quickly ate the ice cream, though the summer heat made us all a mess. Soon it was time for home.

New York City has changed dramatically in the last three decades, and it wouldn’t be New York if it was any other way. We won’t always have the same punk rock bands to listen to in the decades ahead, but New York City will always be home to what is interesting.

The crucible of summer in New York

If hell exists, it borrows heavily from New York City in the summertime. The unescapable humid heat that is magnified on the sidewalks and amplified in the subways, the crowded aggravation of our crumbling infrastructure, and the general unrest that foments rage where there might normally be annoyance or resignation, are the central ingredients of our sulphuric summer stew.

New York goes into its Independence Day holiday in the midst of one of its heat waves. The general state of the country only adds to the humid misery, with half the country protesting and demonizing the other half at light-speed intervals, new Internet outrages generated almost by the hour. It’s a dizzying spiral downward in civil discourse that fuels a blanket disgust made more maddening by temperatures that bake an already exhausted brain.

This work week is interrupted by our Independence Day holiday on July 4. Imagine putting up with all the outrages of national politics today but without air conditioning and in wool clothes, and you’ll see why the colonies revolted. In New York City today, our country’s divided politics are writ large across the city. People who once enjoyed vibrant conversation on the state of affairs skip such conversations; it doesn’t pay to engage in civil discourse, even on a personal level.

This week we will get through our work week, hoping it will be easier with so many people using the holiday for vacation. The trains will be a little less crowded, the traffic a little lighter and the sidewalks will be blazing hot but not quite as mobbed. Tourists will walk downtown past where George Washington was inaugurated (New York City was America’s first capital).

Sometimes, even though I appreciate air conditioning, I have a moment when I leave a heavily air conditioned building and feel a sense of relief and satisfaction at feeling the blanket of humid heat cover me when I step outside. It is good to feel the real world on your skin, to embrace reality no matter how unpleasant, because that’s what we are destined to do.

That is part of our story. New York gives its residents all four seasons at full blast. You will be hot, you will be cold, you will feel the full force of nature’s fury and blessings, sometimes within the same month. On the first day of Spring, New York City had a snowstorm. I would have gladly endured many more if it meant we would be spared the stifling heat of the summer months, but I knew better than to think we’d have such a lucky trade.

The crucible of summer in New York makes for stronger New Yorkers and spurs our innovation, our creativity, and our own more quiet revolution. Some of us will “embrace the suck” as the military puts it, and barrel through the overheated times with a gimlet eye towards the future.

Our destiny means we move through this overheated season with a desire to embrace the heat, to dive into the fevered truth that others work hard to avoid or shout down. The hot weather will pass, and we cannot huddle in the air conditioning forever. We have nothing to do but have pride in ourselves as New Yorkers and live summer to the fullest.

Brown Bin Follies, and Why Composting is Not Just for Hippies Anymore

One of the odors that comprises the urban bouquet is that of garbage. The smell can be ubiquitous and is unmistakable, and the air of the hot summer months amplifies the oppressive stench when it sits uncollected for too long.

New York City has had recycling laws on the books for some time now, and while the success of the city’s recycling program is mixed—plenty of trash goes in recycling still, and the most ardent recyclers are homeless people who collect aluminum cans for the deposit money—recycling has wound its way into the everyday bustle of city life. It’s accepted as part of our routine.

The new frontier in responsible trash processing today is in composting: separating out the organic matter that can be used to create rich soil and put back into agricultural use. To this end the New York Department of Sanitation began a program that collects food scraps and yard waste to both promote composing and to help cut down on rats and roaches. The more edible food that’s in the garbage, the more vermin there will be to feast upon it.

But recently the Department of Sanitation halted the expansion of the program, saying it would focus on increasing adoption in those areas that were already in the program before expanding it. I can see why they did this. One could easily confuse these smaller brown bins for medical waste receptacles or for regular small garbage cans. No doubt people are adding their own manner of organic matter to these bins and probably making a mess of it.

Whatever the merits of the city’s program, you don’t need the Department of Sanitation to begin composting on your own. You can do it yourself and there are several organizations that will help you do it.

Among the enthusiastic composters in the city is my wife, who grew up in Eastern Queens and her family had a house with a yard when she was a youngster, and her family had a composting pile in their garden. She is one of the leaders of our local community supported agriculture program, Flushing C.S.A., and brings compost to a drop-off location at Queens Botanical Garden.

I was very skeptical of my wife’s plan to keep rotting food in our kitchen on purpose, but the composing has worked out so far and is easier to do than you might think. You can buy an inexpensive (about $20) countertop composting bin with charcoal filters to contain the odors. And the odor doesn’t get that bad, it actually smells like someone is trying to make pruno in your kitchen for a few seconds after you open and close the bin.

We have healthy jalapeno plants growing on our windowsill in containers filled with compost we got back from Queens Botanical Garden. Our basil plans, which make half our kitchen smell like a fancy Italian restaurant, are also growing in soil that is partly compost.

Why is this kind of thing important? Because we are running out of places to dump our garbage, with China recently refusing to handle more trash and recycling from other parts of the world. New York City ships much of its garbage out of state, but that is getting more expensive and it’s only a matter of time until that becomes unfeasible.

This kind of thing is smart to do. It’s for survival and the fittest people that are going to survive are the ones who can do more with less and organize to consume resources in a reasonable and sustainable way.

It would be easy to brush off composting as tree-hugging hippie nonsense, but it is not. Hippies are slackers who only want the trappings of conservation so they can feel good about themselves. Real conservationists and survivors are willing to do the hard work and build real systems to have the confidence in their future.

So embrace the rot and death of life to cut down on the rats and roaches and add more nutritious soil to our land. It is the smart thing to do.

The Oncoming Starbucks Conundrum

Life in New York City includes being on frequent scouting missions for public restrooms. Most subway stations did have some at one time, but those are now closed or off limits to actual paying passengers. If you live and have a social life in New York City, you will also likely become adept at public urination at a certain level.

Clean public restrooms are a sought-after commodity for people in the city. There are even mobile applications for smart phones that help people find the nearest public restroom. This phenomenon is not exclusive to New York, of course, but like everything else, it is more of an intense challenge here. There are too many people vying for comfort and ease in our Gotham, and breakneck competition for the good life means someone has to lose.

Starbucks was the subject of good-guy America’s two-minute hate a few months back when two African American men were arrested a Philadelphia location after using the bathroom and refusing to order anything. The Seattle-based coffee chain closed 8,000 of its stores in the U.S. this past Tuesday for “a conversation and learning session on race, bias and building of a diverse welcoming company.” One note: while it closed all of its “company operated” stores, its 7,000 “licensed stores” at airports, hotels, major grocery stores, and universities, remained open.

Maybe the whole mess could have been avoided if some of the people who objected to the arrests had bought the two men some coffee, but apparently the fight for justice is worth shooting video with your smart phone but isn’t worth springing for an $8 latte.

Outrage quickly spread and there were calls for boycotts of the ubiquitous coffee chain.  I was way ahead of the curve before it became uncool to get coffee there. Starbucks injects unneeded pretention into buying coffee. I refuse to use its bogus jargon that calls a small coffee a “tall.” Just let me order a large coffee (which I never see on their menu; you have to know to order the “coffee of the day” if you want to get anything resembling a regular cup of coffee—please spare me that nonsense). I prefer to drink the free coffee they have at the office where I work. If I’m going to get coffee from a store, I’ll go to 7 Eleven or to any local corner deli or bodega, which usually have decent coffee and will be happy to take your money without putting on airs.

Just about everyone agrees that arresting people for loitering in a coffee shop is excessive. If police arrested everyone who went into a Starbucks just to use the bathroom there would be more Americans in jail than out of jail.

Starbucks’ continuing mea culpa included a public announcement that anyone can use any Starbucks bathroom at any time without making a purchase.

That’s both good and bad news. The good news is: If you are starting to get desperate for a restroom you know you can walk into a Starbucks and stand on the (now likely longer) line to access a legal toilet. The bad news is: Now everyone knows that. The company is going out of its way to welcome people who are not customers. When people can’t be turned away, the kind of people who show up are people who would normally get turned away.

This will make everything more crowded, and will also bring in more homeless people. This will get worse in the winter time, and if homeless people can’t be dissuaded from camping out there, customers will start turning away.

A few months ago, I met a friend for coffee at Grand Central Terminal, where they have tables and several coffee shops. The MTA has let the homeless problem at Grand Central get out of hand again, and while I was able to find a place to sit and have coffee with a friend, the presence of the homeless was everywhere.

Another issue that arises with unlimited bathroom access is that of drugs. We are in the midst of a drug use crisis that few have seen in their lifetimes involving opiates. Will Starbucks be the new injection site for addicts? The bathroom lines will be even longer when more people start overdosing in them.

One issue that’s become lost in this discussion is the welfare of Starbucks employees. Their jobs are tough enough, especially in light of this recent publicity, and they now have to clean up after a bigger swath of the general public, including more homeless and drug addicts. All official hand-washing aside, do you want someone who just cleaned a horrendous restroom to be handling your iced coffee and banana bread? Me neither.

If Starbucks becomes an overcrowded mess as America’s new homeless shelter or heroin shooting gallery, it will no longer be America’s preferred “third place.” Why shouldn’t people bring a bagged lunch when they visit the city and take advantage of the space, bathrooms, and free Wi-Fi at Starbuck’s? So what is the plan to counter the potential deluge of homeless and drug addicts?

I wish the chain the best of luck in navigating this. I will add them to my own mental list of available public restrooms, but only to be sought in desperate times, and I’ll try to buy something.

The Benefits and Dangers of Being in a Forgotten Zone

It’s frustrating when you live someplace that’s not on the map. It is doubly frustrating when you live in one of the largest metropolises in the history of human civilization and you find your neighborhood has been dropped from the map.

This phenomenon is well-known to anyone who lives far enough out of the popular centers of New York City. Manhattan maps might end mysteriously somewhere above or below 125th Street, and many tourist-centered maps of Queens don’t venture much farther than Astoria or Long Island City—not including the airports, mapped separately. Staten Island may have this the worst, as the most popular destination of their borough for tourists is the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Staten Island wears its “forgotten borough” hat with pride; respect.

Even the “Not For Tourists” map guide that includes Flushing for Queens stops a few blocks away from the building where I live. That’s too bad for the not-tourists, since there are delicious 24-hour Korean barbecue restaurants not even half a block from where the map ends.

Living in a lesser-known area of the city has a lot of benefits. One is cost of living and small rentals, not necessarily home prices. People pay a lot of extra money to live in a neighborhood that is popular or sounds impressive or hip. That’s why realtors have developed bogus neighborhood names that reference more popular areas. A few years ago, “East Williamsburg” was realtor shorthand for Bushwick, but now even Bushwick has become a popular destination for gentrifying newcomers. Maybe East New York (a higher-crime area not blessed with any in-crowd interest thus far) will be called “South Bushwick” or “Jamaica Bay Coast” or something ridiculous.

If you’re not in easy walking distance to a subway, consider yourself in a forgotten zone. The prices will be lower but the commuting to work in Manhattan will be long and miserable unless you’re able to take an express bus or railroad and pay the extra money for the honor.

Also, being in a neighborhood that is a best kept secret is a bit thrilling. I lived in Inwood for a little more than a decade, and while it was frustrating to have to explain where I lived for that long, it was nice to experience all that the far north end of Manhattan had to offer before people found out about it. Now Inwood has all the trappings of an “up and coming” neighborhood including overpriced rents.

One drawback to living in a lesser-known neighborhood is the fight for resources. The political calculus that determines how money is allocated is determined by political power and opportunity, and if your neighborhood doesn’t have the cache to woo the powers that be in City Hall, you may be out of luck.

Local Flushing and Whitestone parents are trying to rally support to keep a Parks Department children’s program located nearby – the Parks Department wants to relocate the program to Kissena Park, about three miles south. A group has organized Families for Bowne Park and sought the help of local elected officials and is even planning a Kids Rally for Bowne Park on June 1st.

Bowne Park is definitely off the radar. It has a nice playground and pond, even some bocce courts. While in the past this may have helped the park stay a quiet gem in a local neighborhood, its success may have led enough of the wrong people to take notice and decide to move the Parks Department children’s program.

I wish this group all the success in the world, and while we may not always want to struggle for neighborhood recognition, we’ll go to the mattresses to make sure our area gets respect.

The savage madness of New York City Pre-Kindergarten

Having children in New York City means a life of deadlines and bureaucratic navigation. While every child is guaranteed a public education, it takes immersion into byzantine administration in order to ensure your offspring can access the best schools available, and the grapevine is full of horror stories and cautionary tales of kids being sent far from home to sub-par schools.

My wife and I are waiting to hear where our older girls will attend preschool. Universal Pre-K started several years ago and it’s free to all kids the year they turn four years old. We are lucky in that we live in an area that has good local schools. A lot of younger couples have kids and then find themselves racing a clock to get to a better neighborhood in or out of the five boroughs that has suitable education choices.

I am blessed with a great asset in making sure my kids get into a decent Pre-K: my wife. She was the one who did the research and learned how to traverse the absurdist labyrinth of rules and applications (e.g.: applying to only one or two schools won’t work, if you do that, the system will automatically fill in the other choices for you, so your attempt to limit the choices may backfire big time). She figured out which ones were closest and had good ratings, and came up with a list of preferences that will mean our older girls are likely to be in a good place.

The schools we applied to include both public and private schools close to where we live that run public Pre-K programs.

One of those public/private Pre-K schools is a place called Holy Mountain. This school does not have any religious affiliation that we can discern. It has a mostly Asian student population, but so do most schools in our area (we live in Flushing, Queens, an area known for its large Chinese immigrant population; it has a large Korean population as well).

But the name Holy Mountain will always first make me think of the 1973 Alejandro Jodorowski film, The Holy Mountain, which I first saw projected onto a wall during a punk rock show many years ago. It is an art film filled with strange and bizarre images, even watching the trailer many years later is to step away from reality for a few minutes.  One of the most well-known and memorable images of the film include a parade of crucified dogs that have been skinned and disemboweled.

So now whenever my wife and I discuss Pre-K for our kids and we note that Holy Mountain was one of our top choices (it’s nearby and it has high ratings with a Montessori-based teaching style, so what if it has a weird name), all I can think about is my older girls parading down 31st Road in gas masks while carrying crucified dogs.

This week, the results came in: and our girls will be headed to Holy Mountain in September. Mutilated canine parade, here we come! I now need to watch that film again. I’ll have to find a time when the rest of my family is asleep, as I am the only one in my household who has this big a taste for eccentric cinema.

We are lucky to live in an area where such services are available within walking distance. For the value it returns, no investment in public education can be too big.

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