In John Carpenter’s 1984 film “Starman,” Jeff Bridges stars as an alien who is stranded on Earth, and goes on the run from U.S. government agents with the widow of a deceased housepainter, whose body he has cloned as a disguise. They have misadventures while eluding the authorities and the widow (Karen Allen) falls in love with this alien in the body of her dead husband.
In retrospect the plot summary makes this sound like a ludicrous B-film, but it works. One scene and one line from the film has stuck with me since I watched it in a movie theater as a 12-year-old.
The couple are finally cornered in a restaurant by the authorities and the federal agent who has been leading the hunt for them comes to confront them. He asks the alien about his journey and learns he is here to study Earthlings.
“You are a strange species, not like any other, and you would be surprised how many there are, intelligent but savage,” the Jeff Bridges/alien tells his pursuer. “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?”
The federal agent nods yes.
“You are at your very best when things are worst.”
That line has been etched in my mind for more than three decades now, and it’s a fitting mantra for the times we are in.
“You are at your very best when things are worst.”
It can be hard to imagine things getting worse. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has hit the U.S. harder than any other country, followed by widespread civil unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, poisonous politics in an election year and unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.
These are times that try our patience and our resolve. It is easy to want to withdraw and bunker down, to tune out the outside world and lapse into a fatalistic nihilism, a hopeless sloth of withdrawal.
The pandemic reminded us that contact with others is an essential part of life. Human contact is something we took for granted, or even came to resent in New York City, where everything is too crowded and the inconsideration of others is amplified by proximity.
But the need to interact with others is more important now than ever, and despite the myriad conflagrations boiling over in our society, we can still find common ground with decent people of differing ideas.
Human life is inherently tribal, and America has forged tribes along lines of culture and character in ways other societies cannot fathom. These cultures appear to be irreconcilable, but basic human decency and goodness can transcend even our deepest chasms. The past few weeks have shown the extent of our divisions but also the depth of our decency and resolve.
“You are at your very best when things are worst.”
It is time to be the best person you can be and play some part in making our world a better one. You may be at odds with your friends and family, you may be subjected to hatefulness from smaller minds, but the things most worth doing are often most difficult. Keep going.
We can look back at this time and be proud we were at our very best.
This is a drastic time we’re in right now, and things may get worse before they get better. Living in New York City means a densely populated area where disease and panic can spread quickly, but it also means being near more hospitals, doctors, and in our case, family and friends.
Drastic measures aren’t a panic when it’s warranted, and the COVID-19 virus warrants it. It spread extremely fast globally and has killed thousands. New York State has three confirmed deaths but there are 3,000 people known to be infected in the United States now and that number will likely go up significantly.
China was able to lock down millions of people at a moment’s notice because it’s a totalitarian state. The government of mainland China values its economic power above any other concerns and sees it as tantamount to its grip on power, so when it was willing to cut off global supply chains of goods, that was a sign that this was a very serious public health problem that warranted similar extreme measures. Of course, they did this after first ignoring and suppressing dire warnings from their own doctors. The extreme measures China put in place worked.
The measures the U.S. is taking now should have been done a month ago and under federal authority. When we first had cases on both coasts, that was a dire warning to public health officials to kick our plans into high gear. Somewhere we have good plans for this, but we don’t have effective leadership that can put the plans we need in place in short order.
I see people online boasting about not panicking and taking part in public gatherings and while many of these are good people who want to act boldly in times of trouble. There is often a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and a global pandemic is no time to play Russian roulette with your health. Yes, you can save lives by staying at home. It’s OK not to see your friend’s band—see your friend’s band a few months from now. This is especially hard on bartenders and people that work with the public; we understand. Unemployment and poverty are terrible; I’ve been there—but you can come back from that, you can’t come back from death.
The scene at grocery stores and wholesale clubs was ugly. People had to wait in the parking lot as shoppers emptied their carts so they could have one to go shopping with. Inside, whole sections sat empty; carts sat abandoned full of groceries as some people gave up waiting on lines that stretched to backs of even the largest stores. Experts tell us that there is plenty of food and U.S. supply chains are strong but people have been panic-buying everything, especially toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
You can still count the worst among us to not change their stripes in times of stress. I went grocery shopping at my local BJ’s Wholesale Club and a rude man cut in front of me and about 100 other people. I called him out on it—I can’t not do that anymore—and he sneered at everyone and hid behind his wife. New lines opened and because I had 15 items or less, I could use the express self-checkout and the line cutter was still waiting on line when I left the store. It’s a bad sign that people are still so smug and entitled during these times but a good sign that this person was not set upon by an angry mob. We’re still holding together as law-abiding.
But just as the virus is on us wreaking havoc with our routines and spreading fear, New Yorkers are adapting. Friends are throwing virtual cocktail parties online. Everyone who can is working from home. My wife is planning to give lessons to the kinds while we wait for the NYC public schools to put online learning in place; we’re taking them outside to places where there are not crowds – our building courtyard; not a populated playground. People are getting by.
Bands that have had their concerts canceled live streamed from more remote locations. Chesty Malone & The Slice ‘Em Ups and the Cro-Mags were among those doing virtual, “quarantine concerts” from rehearsal spaces or closed venues for their fans online. The music doesn’t have to stop. Life will go on – we just need to live the hermetic life for a while as best we can.
New Yorkers have been through worse; the 1918 Influenza epidemic killed 30,000 people in New York City alone and 50 million people worldwide, more than were killed in World War I.
The next few weeks and months won’t be fun, but New York and the U.S. will emerge stronger and more determined than ever.
Despite the popularity of some parts of Brooklyn, our collective dialogue around New York City remains excessively Manhattan-centric. New Yorkers will still say “the city” when they mean Manhattan, even though the five borough boundaries of our city have been in place since 1898.
And New York City is so large that telling people what borough you are from will not cut it. No one actually from Manhattan would introduce themselves as being from Manhattan unless they were in a very borough-specific conversation. Each of New York City’s boroughs is a tapestry of neighborhoods, and it is these neighborhoods that are the lifeblood of life in NYC.
Queens is New York City’s largest borough and among its most well-known neighborhoods is Flushing. This weekend, local residents are showing off the neighborhood’s many attractions Saturday at FNO 2019: Flushing Fantastic.
FNO stands for “Flushing Night Out” as past events have been held at night, but this festival is going to run from 12 noon until 6 p.m. and is going to be at historic St. George’s Episcopal Church, right in the center of downtown Main Street a short walk from both the 7 train and the LIRR.
Flushing is known as a destination for Chinese cuisine, and people will come from all over to sample some of the great restaurants, food carts, or food court stalls that make this neighborhood unique. But there is much more than Chinese food, and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce is promoting the neighborhood as an international melting pot, though admittedly one that is heavily Asian. I often point out to people that among the best dining attractions in Flushing are 24-hour Korean restaurants such as Kum Gang San and Noodle Flower, where you can barbecue an awesome assortment of meat right at your table at two o’clock in the morning if you are so inclined.
The Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce also notes that the event is designed to give a boost to local businesses and entrepreneurs that are competing with large franchises. Downtown Flushing has seen a boom in construction of high-rise condominiums and the rising price of real estate has made life harder for small businesses throughout Queens and five boroughs.
“Flushing, NY is the crossroads of the world — where you can find amazing culture and people from around the globe,” the chamber says in its event notice online. “We want to celebrate the unique food, fashion, and music found here as well as help the small businesses and entrepreneurs who are struggling to make ends meet. Over the past decade, rising rents and major development projects have threatened to displace the small mom-and-pop stores who invested their blood, sweat, and tears into making our neighborhood prosperous.”
Flushing Night Out has been held at various locations, centered on the downtown area. The first one I attended was on the campus of Flushing High School, and it was a memorable event, even for cynics like me that hate crowds.
It was at my first Flushing Night Out that I was introduced to Karl’s Balls, a food stand of traditional Japanese takoyaki balls—those are octopus balls inside a doughy sphere that are cooked on an egg-shell like grill. Go to Karl’s Balls because it’s an ingenious name and you may never stop joking about wanting to put Karl’s Balls in your mouth. But all joking aside, the takoyaki balls are extraordinarily delicious and Karl himself—Karl Palma—is a celebrated chef who has been featured on the Cooking Channel among other accomplishments.
While Karl’s Balls may not be at this FNO event, there is going to be a smorgasbord of amazing food, from Ecuadorian cuisine to Japanese ramen to craft beer and gourmet ice cream. You have no excuse to leave hungry. The organizers require all the vendors there to have items that start at $5 or less.
FNO also features live music, crafts, and other cultural interests. This Saturday will feature Harmonyc Movement, a city-based dance troupe steeped in K-pop and Korean culture.
And at the Flushing Queens Macaroni Kid booth, they will be giving away protein bars for free (full disclosure, my wife Emily Griffin Sheahan runs our local Macaroni Kid web site and will be manning the booth at the event – tell her I sent you!).
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.
“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”
“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
― John Waters
When I first moved back to New York City as an adult, I made it a point to make regular pilgrimages to The Strand to stock up on books. There was no way I could manage to leave there without several bags of books.
My small studio in Queens had two windows that looked out over a bus stop on 101st. Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard. One of those windows was home to my air conditioner, the other window became my extended library. I already had a hutch bookcase filled with books but as my trips to The Strand and other bookstores multiplied, I needed more space for my books. Soon I was picking up plastic milk crates I found on the street to use as bookshelves. Then I acquired more milk crates, and soon had to double-stack books in them. More than once I found a great deal on a classic book at The Strand and bought it only to find that I already had that book at home.
When I moved to new apartment a few years later, I had space for actual bookshelves and bought four of them. They were quickly filled.
No longer single and free to binge at bookstores, my wife and I are now in the process of trying to make more space in our apartment for our family of five. That includes making more space in our living room, which currently houses most of our books. It is not an easy task.
It is not easy to part with books, nor should it be. Each book is an adventure waiting to happen, to give away a book without having read it is to deny a future possibility, a potential new thrill or idea. To turn away from books is to turn away from inspiration, from moving dreams and a new way of looking at life. Books are the lifeblood of the soul, and the building blocks of a civilized society.
Some purists may not forgive me for trying to adapt to the confines of space in our urban environment and using a Kindle. I know, I know: there is no substitute for the printed page, and the satisfying heft of a hardcover tome cannot be replicated by any electronic device. I agree. But as a commuter it is helpful to be able to read things with one hand, and while I would love to fill every spare inch of wall space in my apartment with shelves full of books, my kids need space to sleep and play. The Kindle has been a great evolution in the reading life if you can adapt to it. Some die-hards will not have it and I understand. If space and convenience were not factors, I’d be there.
But I have not given up printed books altogether. I will buy printed books when I can and use the Kindle as much as possible as well.
My collection of printed books will continue to grow, albeit a bit slower than in my bachelor days. My children are growing up in a home with plentiful books. They already love reading and if I fail in every other aspect of life, I have already achieved great success there.
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.
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.”
This weekend our family attended an event called the Queens SOUP that was hosted by the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce. The event raises money for a worthwhile community group and participants vote for a winning group from among four that make presentations for projects. My wife was one of the presenters for the Flushing C.S.A.
The winning group was the Lewis H. Latimer House’s Summer Tinker Lab. Lewis Latimer was a prominent African-American scientist who contributed greatly to the invention of the light bulb and was instrumental in the spreading use of electricity. His former home is a preserved historic site in Flushing. The Latimer House’s presentation consisted of a music demonstration that allowed children to use a circuit and a laptop to make music with basic household items.
Our twins love music and it was great to watch them thrill at the discovery of the circuit concept and to have that associated with music. We want our girls to join the Tinker Lab program when they are old enough. The relatively small grant that the Latimer House received was nonetheless a victory for science.
Earlier that same day, thousands of people marched around the country in a “March for Science,” protesting the current White House’s policies that labels climate change theory as either a hoax or exaggerated. The march also looked to show disgust with the general anti-intellectual attitude that many conservative establishment politicians have tended to embrace in recent decades. Science is great and is certainly worth of the reverence, but let’s take a look at what adhering to science means.
“Science” to me means the skilled application of learning through the empirical method of observation, experimentation, and theorization. It usually results in a consensus view among those who practice the scientific method.
Science does not abide by any values other than those used by those conducting those experiments. Dr. Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, was a scientist. So was Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted cruel experiments on victims at Auschwitz. They each made discoveries that advanced the causes of medicine, but they are rightfully not held in the same esteem by our civilization.
Science cannot be claimed as a mantle by any partisan cause. The people who “Marched for Science” this past weekend were embracing those scientific findings that supported their ideas. We may agree with those ideas, but we can’t ignore that these are values-driven at their core.
Science will ultimately thwart attempts to make it the show horse of any political movement. If the mastery of science is by itself our only measure, then J. Robert Oppenheimer should be on as many t-shirts as Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not. And like our politics, scientific consensus is subject to change. What passes for common sense today might be considered foolhardy balderdash in a few years’ time.
So let us embrace science at every turn and let our children know it is fun. But let’s not pretend that science is always our friend. It’s going to prove us wrong at some point and leave us with very uncomfortable conclusions. But living life means facing those awkward moments and making sure your kids are prepared to face them too.
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.
In 1895 anti-Semitic German politician Hermann Ahlwardt came to speak in New York City. Local Jews were very upset and there was political pressure on the police department not to provide Ahlwardt any protection. The police commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, made sure to provide the visiting speaker with an adequate police escort; he also made sure that every officer in that security detail was Jewish. There was no better response than what Roosevelt did, and his gesture symbolized New York’s and America’s commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
This President’s Day, it is worth our time to look at who we consider our favorite president. For me there is no question: Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived and was one of our greatest presidents.
There’s something for people of all political persuasions to like in Teddy Roosevelt. He believed in a just and fair America that respected the environment and he believed in a united country not beset by the kinds of divisions lesser leaders have allowed to fester. He supported women’s suffrage and also wanted America to be a forceful leader in the world with a very strong military He fought against monopolies, passed important laws keeping our food and medicines safe, and created national parks that protect millions of acres of land to this day.
Theodore Roosevelt came back from great tragedy that stalled his political career—his wife and mother died on the same day—and was the youngest person ever to become president. While most former presidents today cash in on their notoriety with lucrative book deals and speaking engagements, Theodore Roosevelt went on a South American safari that nearly killed him after losing the election of 1912. He was a war hero who braved Spanish cannon fire on San Juan Hill. He also once delivered a lengthy speech after being shot!
Few people in public office today could pass the character test and compare favorably to Roosevelt. He held to a code of honor that is unknown among most people we know in public life. Though he was born in to wealth and privilege that could have shielded him from hardship, he purposely strove to make himself strong and do things that were difficult. He lived his life for constant adventure and self-improvement. He was an avid reader and martial arts practitioner.
Truth, character, loyalty to the country above your immediate or self-serving interests: these are concepts that may seem quaint or get a lot of lip service, but Theodore Roosevelt lived them and expected America’s leadership to. Have our leaders lived up to the ideals Roosevelt set? How many of us can claim the levels of character and boldness that Roosevelt had? In my dreams I’m half as bold.
Though he is more closely associated with Oyster Bay on Long Island, Teddy Roosevelt was born in New York City. A few blocks from where I work in Manhattan is Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace. Sometime soon I will take time to visit and contemplate on American greatness and how we might improve upon it. In this and all matters of life, it pays to ask: What would Theodore Roosevelt do?
New York City generates billions of dollars in tourist revenue every year. Seeing and experiencing New York City should be on everyone’s to-do list and if you haven’t been here, you’re missing out.
Arguing about New York City is also its own industry. There are books and websites dedicated to letting you know what you should know about our city and all vie for authority and authenticity. People want to eat a real New York bagel and have a quintessential New York slice of pizza when they are here. People who live here want to keep things real as well. No one who lives in Manhattan dares dine in the tourist trap chain restaurants of Times Square if they can help it—that’s not the New York thing to do.
I was born in New York City, so I am a native New Yorker. I happen to have lived a good bit of time outside of the city though. I’ve been back a long time – almost 20 years now. But between the ages of 11 and 25 I lived outside of the New York City area. I drove back to New York in November of 1997 and have lived within the five boroughs since March of 1998.
While I’m proud to be have been born here and being a native New Yorker is a source of pride, I’d be kidding myself if I thought that being born here made you more of a real New Yorker than not. Our current and most recent former mayor are not native New Yorkers. In fact both Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio are originally from the Boston area (yuck!). But if you can get elected mayor of New York, no one can deny you are a real New Yorker.
For the record, the mayor who most embodied New York City during his tenure and beyond is the late Ed Koch. It’s a personal prejudice because I grew up during his time in office, but if there is one single person who embodied our city over the last half century it is Koch. Koch was a native New Yorker, but his definition of being a New Yorker was six months. He noted that more than half the people who live in the city are from somewhere else, so if you move here and at the end of your first six months here you find yourself walking, talking and thinking a little faster, you’re a New Yorker.
People have been arguing over what makes someone a real New Yorker since our metropolis became New York in 1664 (anyone calling our city New Amsterdam is a poseur). It’s something that will always be argued and debated. Like all debates about culture it will rage on forever and never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
But having lived in New York your whole life certainly gives you a good perspective. The Gothamist Web site has a column called Ask A Native New Yorker written by its publisher and cofounder Jake Dobkin. People write in anonymously with questions like: Is It OK To Smoke Weed With Other Parents During A Playdate? and Is It Wrong To Scream At Ivanka Trump If We See Her In Public? While the title of the column gives credence to the fraudulent idea that those born here are somehow more authentically New York, the column’s advice is very sound.
There are unconfirmed rumors that Gothamist is working to trademark the phrase “Ask a Native New Yorker” and that this goliath media entity will turn its legal hounds upon the modest upstart Ask A New Yorker. We say: bring it. We have no issue with what Gothamist is doing, but we were here before that column. Gothamist even interviewed our chief, Kennedy Moore.
Being an underdog and an upstart is also a very New York move. We don’t think anyone would ever mistake Ask A New Yorker for Gothamist. We couldn’t care less what overpriced food festivals are going to take hipsters to the cleaners this weekend or what shady faux dive bar “Still Got It.”
And bring on the debate over who gets to speak for New York City. I am proud to have been born within the five boroughs, but that’s not what makes me a real New Yorker. Enjoying the life of the city despite its many difficulties and compromises, embracing the chaos and the bustle that simultaneously energizes and exhausts you, and loving to share this city with others makes you a real New Yorker.
Last week, a mob descended on New York University and effectively cut short a talk by Gavin McInnes, an author and commentator who was a co-founder of VICE. The day before, rioters caused a talk by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley to be canceled.
Around the same time, a series of photos made the rounds of social media showing subway riders getting together to wash swastika graffiti from their subway car that some sad troll had scribbled there. It’s an example of the true New York. Some real Nazi thought they would get a rise out of someone and instead people rolled up their sleeves and did the right thing. People getting together to clean up some nasty vandalism makes New York, and America, a little bit greater.
There’s a reason Nazis are bad, and it’s not just because they sometimes graffito the subways. Nazis are awful because they believe they are entitled to step on the rights of others, to use political violence to silence their critics, and that they are self-righteous enough to sanction murder to further their ideas.
Censorship by mob violence is something we thought we had taken out of American life, and that in large, self-proclaimed “progressive” cities like Berkeley, California and New York would be treated as a sacred part of the social fabric. Indeed most New Yorkers who can read above a 12th grade level abide by the maxim often attributed to Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.
But many factions of the progressive left do not see the threat to free speech when street thugs, or the spoiled Trustafarian versions most likely to join the “black block,” decide to be arbiters of who gets to exercise the universal human right of free expression. To them, the speakers at Berkeley and N.Y.U. were “Nazis” who lost their human rights when they embraced the dark side of the ideological divide.
Neither of these people being touted as Nazis really are. Milo Yiannopoulos is gay and part Jewish; he would have been made into a lampshade during the Third Reich. Gavin McInnes is a libertarian whose views would have gotten him thrown in the nearest labor camp in post-1933 Deutschland as well (full disclosure: I have had articles published on McInnes’ Web site Street Carnage and once met him at a party).
What the Milo Yiannopoulos’ of the world are is a threat to the tired identity politics that has become the Gospel of a detached and sanctimonious activist left. If the “alt right” is an evil empire of straight white males that will shove everyone who voted for Hillary into a new Auschwitz, then a gay Jewish immigrant as their poster boy belies all the boogeyman hype.
The people burning things and rioting to stop Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes from speaking are bigger fascists than any real “alt right” figure could ever dream of being.
There are real Nazis in America today. Most of them are keyboard commandos who like to dress in ridiculous uniforms. Some of them are dangerous criminals, but most couldn’t putsch their way out of their mother’s basement. These people feel emboldened, thinking that the breakdown of political orthodoxy signaled by Donald Trump’s victory means there is a market for extreme ideas. There isn’t.
New Yorkers have always reveled in their ability to get along with others despite the tribal nature of human life. If we’ve made a go of it here in New York, we figure, we’re a cut above the normal social mores that are taken for granted elsewhere. We put them aside though we know they are never completely gone. With millions of people crammed into the five boroughs like rats, we have a lot of hate for each other, but we’re pragmatic enough to get through our days frustrated but not hell-bent on murder.
“Hate speech” or “Free speech is not consequence-free speech” are calling card phrases of a dogmatic and intolerant left. This faction isn’t new but is newly. It is neither progressive nor just. When you judge them by their actions “antifa” is pretty damn “fa.”
New Yorkers aren’t fooled by self-proclaimed saviors who see a Nazi under every rock. Our city respects free speech, it is part of what makes us the most American of cities. The next time Gavin McInnes or Milo Yiannopoulos makes a public appearance in our Gotham, I plan to go see them.
I am convinced that living in areas not immediately within walking distance from a subway may save them from gentrification and cultural death. I am fortunate enough to live in one of those thankfully un-hip areas of the five boroughs. But while my neighborhood is still overpriced and overcrowded, it still retains some of its old-world New York charm and character.
But I rely on buses to get me to the 7 train that gets me to the 6 train that gets me to work. The 7 train and the 4-5-6 line in Manhattan are two of the most miserable and overcrowded subway lines in the entire system, which is quite an accomplishment.
But I’m lucky. I’m lucky I have a job that I can safely commute to. I’ve also learned some of the tricks of the trade that can at least alleviate my daily aggravation somewhat. One of them is catching a ride on the Q34 bus when I can.
The Q34 is my preferred bus. I can get on early enough to have a place to sit in the morning and if I take it home in the evening I can usually get a set as well. Because it’s a smaller line and its riders are usually from a middle-and-working class part of Queens, there is a greater degree of civility than on the other buses I could take. The Q44 goes from the Bronx all the way to Jamaica, Queens and is almost always crowded. The Q20 is a local version of the Q44 when it passes by my home, so it picks up all the angry people who couldn’t fit or who would otherwise be miserably stewing on the Q44. After you’ve been on the Q44, the Q34 feels like a VIP lounge with diesel fumes; it’s the Rolls Royce of regular-fare bus rides when it’s working properly.
But here is the catch: the Q34 is a rogue ghost ship during the evening commute. Somewhere in a dark alleyway in downtown Flushing there must be a gaggle of Q34 drivers spending their evenings gambling or drinking themselves into a stupor while what seems like one lone bus drives the entire route by itself, and slowly. If you get to Main Street and see no line for the Q34, forget it. Then again, I’ve done that only to see a near-empty one drive by minutes later.
Normally I know to jump on the line for the Q34 when I see that there is one at Main Street. If there are people waiting in any significant numbers, it means enough time has elapsed since the last bus arrived that the next one cannot be too far off. This bus stop is at the corner of Roosevelt Ave. and Main St. in Flushing, Queens, which makes it one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the city if not the world. It’s also right outside a busy Duane Reade convenience store. The stop is on a stretch of street that hosts several other bus stops.
The line for the Q34 got so long that it doubles up upon itself like a large snake folding itself in half. Pedestrians bump into people waiting on line even when they try not to. Multitudes of buses roll down that section of Main Street, very few of them are Q34s.
And last week I achieved something that is rare even in the miserable world of Queens bus transit: I stood on line for the Q34 longer than it would normally take to drive the entire length of the Q34 route.
One reaches a point oftentimes of waiting for public transit that you want to give up in disgust and find another means to get going to where you have to be, but you’ve invested so much time in waiting that you refuse to budge. Damn it, I’m going to get my money’s worth and the MTA isn’t going to win this round! I found myself standing in the cold among the other miserable people waiting for the Q34 with this same mentality. I would enjoy a seat on the Q34 this evening if it was the last thing I ever did.
I have no right to complain, as I have other options for getting home in the evening. But many of the people who ride the Q34 do not have that option, and the underserved but route is all that stands between them and a pricy cab ride or a long walk home.
The Borough of Queens is taking applications for its poet laureate, and I’m going to throw my sweaty hat into the ring. I think my chances of being accepted are low, but fuck it. I’m as good as anyone else and I like this borough very much.
Queens was where I lived when I moved back to New York. I had been away from the Northeast for several years and hadn’t lived in the five boroughs since I was an infant in the Bronx. I grew up mostly in Yonkers and while I came to the city frequently growing up, I am by and large a child of New York’s suburbs.
In college I decided I wanted to be a great American writer in the same way that thousands of other English majors do. I was determined to get myself back to New York City as if that would somehow magically bestow some great inspiration power and let me live a charmed literary life.
I got a job at JFK airport that helped me move back here and I went looking for apartments that were a reasonable commuting distance to JFK. I found a small studio in Ozone Park at $500 per month (it soon went up to $525). It was on 101st Avenue and John Gotti’s old Bergin Hunt & Fish Club was still there and only a few blocks away. That was a selling point that the realtor mentioned. “People know not to mess around in this neighborhood,” he said. Gotti had been locked up for several years by then but the neighborhood still had some old wise guys hanging around.
I enjoyed living in Ozone Park a lot. I would walk around the neighborhood as much as I could and enjoyed how quickly neighborhoods could transition from one to another. Not far from where John Gotti plotted his takeover of the Gambino Crime Family a store sold cricket supplies to the Indian and West Indian immigrants who were moving into Richmond Hill. I was not too far from Forest Park and I could also walk to the small apartment where Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel.
While immediate literary success proved elusive, I managed to publish my first poetry collection while I was living in Ozone Park. ‘Five Borough Blues’ was a small broadsheet of poems published by New Jersey-based Lucid Moon Poetry (RIP Ralph Haselmann Jr.).
Years later, after living in Inwood for a decade, I moved in with the woman who is now my wife and that brought me to Flushing. I got to learn Northern Queens whereas Ozone Park is in Southern Queens.
The greatest borough continues to impress me. I do miss Inwood a good bit, I can’t lie. But Queens has many more great neighborhoods that are still real neighborhoods and not overpriced tourist zones.
Queens has both the greatest number of interesting neighborhoods, real residential neighborhoods with character, as well as cultural institutions and a variety of environments that the other boroughs don’t have. Do you have the beachfront and harbor areas like Broad Channel and the Rockaways in Manhattan? No. Can you find 24-hour Korean barbeque in Staten Island? Good luck.
And without fail, Queens continues to inspire me to write poetry. The entire city does, to be sure, but Queens is my home and it’s where I believe you find the most New York part of New York. It has the widest array of cultural offerings and the largest sampling of interesting people anywhere in the world. It stands between the city and its suburbs. It has all manner of terrain. It even has its own zoo.
I will gladly accept the (unpaid) responsibilities of the Queens Poet Laureate. I will let no excellent verse about this borough go unwritten. Applications are due April 24th (April is national poetry month).
But whether or not I am poet laureate of Queens, I will continue to let the city inspire to create good written works. It deserves no less.