Archive | Our Mostly Awesome City RSS for this section

20 Years Back in New York

Twenty years ago this past week, I started the drive to move to New York City. I hadn’t lived here since I was a baby though I grew up visiting frequently. Both my parents were raised in the five boroughs and I felt that my life’s dreams were big and grandiose enough that it justified entering the crucible of the Big Apple.

My friend Matt helped me pack all of my worldly possessions into a small rental truck and I began the 900 mile journey from suburban Atlanta back to the city of my birth. I stopped in the Washington D.C. area that night at the home of my friends Ryan and Scott and set out early the next day to finish the trip. I remember being shocked at having to pay $8 for the honor of crossing the George Washington Bridge (a moving truck crossing the GWB today would pay a $34 toll off-peak) and drove up to Westchester to my mother’s house. The fall leaves were gorgeous and I felt like I was home.

My directions were mailed to me by AAA and included maps with highlighted sections on it. The moving truck didn’t have a tape deck so I brought along a boom box and listened to lots of cassette tapes on my way. I got off the highway in a rural part of North Carolina to tell my friends how far away I was and to get the score of the Georgia – Florida game (Georgia won in 1997: a promising omen).

I arrived here with dreams of being a famous writer. I have not achieved the literary fame and fortune I set out to make here in the city but I’m still here, still keeping that dream alive in some way. With this column I have one thing that every writer needs the most: a deadline.

I’ve had the honor to indulge other creative urges as well: I took up music and went farther with it than I ever thought I could and miss playing punk rock regularly. I’ve also had a hand in some comedy that has been well received. I can lead somewhat of a double or triple life sometimes. One hour of the day I may be laying out a media plan for promoting a financial product, hours later I may be playing bass while people careen into one another in an orgy of music, sweat and beer; it’s amazing.

I can honestly look back on the last two decades and be proud of where I am in life. I’ve got a great wife and children and lots of excellent friends. The biggest lie I could tell you would be that I got here completely on my own. If it weren’t for family and friends, I would not have anywhere near the good life I have today. I’m sure there are people in this city who arrived completely broke and alone and pulled themselves up with no one’s help; I’m not one of them.

The city and the world are much different places than when I came back to New York in 1997. Two decades from now they will be different still. We’re at a very volatile time in our history relative to where we were 20 years ago.

One thing that is also different is that I still have a tremendous amount to be thankful for. Moving to New York was a homecoming of a sort but also a very new beginning in a city that I had never known as a resident.

Thank you all for being part of this great adventure with me. I promise the next 20 years will be just as great.

Following the footsteps…

 

I was in California on September 11, 2001. I was there for work in a hotel room getting ready to go to a conference the company I worked for was putting on. I heard someone pass by my hotel room door talking on a cell phone saying someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. By the time I turned on the television, the South Tower had already collapsed and a plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. I knew right away that our country was under attack and I felt helpless and angry. I watched the North Tower collapse in my boxer shorts with shaving cream all over my face.

My story is not unique. I’m among the millions of New Yorkers who watched savages destroy thousands of innocent lives and remake our skyline. But hand-in-hand with the horror and anger is the unrivaled admiration for the first responders that gave their lives and showed that people could be at their best when things were at their worst.

One of those first responders was Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn – Battery Tunnel to get to the Trade Center on the day of the attacks and perished in the South Tower collapse.

This past Sunday I was among the more than 30,000 people who followed Siller’s footsteps in the Tunnel to Towers 5k.

The event loses none of its effect if you’ve done it before and if you haven’t done it, you should.

The run begins with a lot of waiting around. For an event this large, it is well-organized but it still means large, slow-moving crowds. The run ceremony began at 9 and the run officially starts at 9:30 a.m. I was in Wave C, the third wave of runners, and I didn’t cross the START line until 10 a.m.

First responder groups, corporate groups, school groups, teams of family members paying tribute to their fallen loved ones, college students there for fun and adventure—almost every kind of city denizen is present at the 5k. Firefighters come from all over the world to run in homage to Siller, many of them doing it in their heavy firefighting gear. This is no easy task in the Indian summer heat.

Standing around waiting in the hot sun will get you tired before the race begins, and then the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is very hot and crowded. People who had every intention of running may find themselves on the sidelines walking, with others trying to get around them. It’s a bad jostle but a jovial one, with chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! breaking out spontaneously throughout the passage.

The Tunnel to Towers run and walk is perhaps the largest gathering in the city that can still generate massive amounts of goodwill and cooperation. Runners and first responders thanked one another. There were high fives and handshakes all around. Despite tens of thousands of people constantly bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s feet, I heard no harsh words uttered and saw no arguments; try finding that on your average subway commute.

The sacrifices of those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 cannot be sullied by contemporary political strife or bent to serve a narrow purpose. These sacrifices are heroism in their truest and purest form, and the solemn honors we pay to those heroes help give our city a form of peace.

A friend who lost two cousins in the Trade Center attacks did the run today – and raised $10,000 for the Stephen Siller Foundation this year alone—had this to say afterward:

“Today I saw love and beauty, respect and pride, camaraderie and patriotism. I saw love. Everywhere. I didn’t see dissent. Hatred. Anger. I saw love. And for that, I’m truly grateful.”

The U.S. Open is a cancer on New York City

I drove to the New York Hall of Science with my children and found the usual driveway to the parking lot barricaded. A woman wearing the uniform of a U.S. Open worker stood there. There was no reason for her to be there. The Hall of Science has no tennis courts.

She quickly waved through a hotel shuttle bus but then blocked our van.

“Do you have a membership here, sir?” she asked me. I informed her that I did.

“Then you’re technically behind this guy,” she motioned to a man with car by the curb. “We’re waiting for spaces to open up. We only have 25 spots today.” I’m not sure who the ‘we’ was in this equation. “You can wait behind this gentleman or you can try street parking.” She offered to hold my place in line if I wanted to try driving around to find street parking first. Knowing the area, I could tell that was a lost cause.

The woman was exceedingly polite, as polite as one can be while telling someone that you’re getting paid to help screw people out of a trip to the science museum so pampered jerks can pay to watch tennis. I told her we would be moving on and drove away, having to explain to my kids that the U.S. Open had just cost us a trip to the science museum.

I sent an inquiry to the Hall of Science asking how this could happen, but have so far received no response. The administration there may not have had a choice and had its hand forced by the city. Last year we discovered the city using public park land as paid parking lots for the tournament.

No New Yorker who comes in contact with the U.S. Open or its fans needs another reason to hate the U.S. open. Sure, it brings in lots of money to the city, but so does selling heroin. At least heroin eventually kills the people stupid enough to use it; U.S. Open fans don’t die off at a fast enough rate.

For 7 train commuters or neighbors of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, the Open is the most miserable time of the year. The train is filled with tennis fans that are clueless, without any sense of their being among others. Oblivious to the basic courtesies required of city dwellers, the subway is a big joke to them, other passengers who need the train to get home from work are lucky to be witness to their charming afternoon of slumming.

The tennis fans that clog our city are Exhibit A of the decline of Western civilization, the well-heeled and soft-minded excreta of a decadent and depraved society. These obnoxious Eloi offer nothing redeeming beyond commerce, and exude only ignorance and weakness in everything that they do.

Perhaps I am painting the Open and its fans with too broad a brush. I know several people who are great human beings who are true tennis fans and make it a tradition to attend the Open. The tennis center’s centerpiece stadium is named for Arthur Ashe, who set the gold standard for how professional athletes ought to be.

But most of the tennis fans who come to the open are not like the few good eggs that I know. It’s a time of year where rich jerks come to town and the city is more than happy to extend a big middle finger to the working people who actually live here. In short: the U.S. Open represents the antithesis of all that is good about our city and is potent refinement of the worst contemporary society has to offer.

Perhaps the answer is some good old fashion capitalism, such as selling tennis fans tickets to the VIP 7 train cars that don’t exist. I would like to adopt a temperamental Rottweiler so I can name it “Serena Williams” and charge people $100 dollars for a special VIP lounge meet and greet (the VIP lounge will be a cardboard box behind a White Castle—I shall feast like a king).

If the powers that be want to flood our city with the dregs of the pampered class, the rest of us can make a quick buck sheering these sheep. Improvise, adapt, and overcome. Either way, it will be over soon, but not soon enough.

 

Work from home during our latest transit hell

New York City is entering a deeper level of transit hell this week.

That transit officials are already saying how bad our commute is going to be and begging companies to let their employees work from home wherever possible is significant and should strike fear in the heart of every New Yorker. Our transit authorities are normally presenting a falsely rosy view of how their systems operate. I have no doubt that the official numbers they give for on-time arrivals and such are soundly bogus, cooked up with some noxious bureaucratic justification and presented with a straight face.

Things on our subways have been getting significantly worse. Commuters trapped hours underground on un-air-conditioned subways, a young man stuck in a train so long he missed his entire college graduation ceremony, trains that are more crowded, the list of grievances goes on. Add to this some new Amtrak and N.J. Transit derailments and you’ve got a strong brew of grade-A clusterfuck ready to be served.

So those advisories to let people work from home whenever possible should be taken seriously. For a lot of commuters in today’s working world, the daily commute is an unnecessary exercise in frustration and lost time. Having the ability to work from home takes a lot of worry off your plate and improves morale.

In this day and age, more companies would save a lot more money by letting more of their employees work from home more often. We hold devices in our hand with more computing power than it took to put men on the moon (really). Anyone with a home computer or a work laptop should be able to work from home easily. If I can figure out how to work from home effectively, any desk jockey can pull it off.

One day earlier this year, when the city was threatened with a large snowstorm and the transit systems were closed in advance, our entire office worked from home. It was one of the most productive days any of us have ever had. Without the horrendous commute to take into account, the vast majority of us had an additional two hours of time to dedicate to actually doing work rather than suffering through getting to work.

At a company where I used to work, they have consolidated so much office space that there will not be enough desks for everyone who works there. So people will always be working from home. A former coworker who lives in New Jersey and is still in journalism (I “crossed over to the dark side” of public relations a few years ago), works from home two or three days a week. He’s running a financial magazine all by himself and he holds down a part-time job two days a week, but he’s getting it done.

There is definitely a benefit to a common work area and having face-to-face meetings that can’t be duplicated over the phone and email. But much of what many of us do at work each day can be done just as easily at home. Technology is only going to keep making that easier.

New York’s transit woes will not improve anytime soon. Everyone should work from home if they can. Ask your boss about it if you haven’t already.

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.

%d bloggers like this: