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How to be a pedestrian in New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll always be friends with someone you hate

“Say it’s not so, Matt,” my friend’s message read, accompanied by a photo of a public figure that I don’t know personally but follow on social media. I explained that I follow/befriend people on social media that I often disagree with, and that while I find some of this person’s views extreme, they were not the murderous villain popularly portrayed in the mainstream press.

My explanation was lost and I found myself “blocked.” It’s a real shame. This is someone I’ve been friends with since college that is generally open-minded and intellectually strong. I know this person from a college debate society, the whole purpose of which is to listen to people you disagree with and debate them peaceably without tantrums or emotional self-immolation.

Maybe this person will find it in their heart to befriend me on social media again, but if not, so be it. I can’t please everyone and I can’t apologize for the opinions of others.

No matter who you are or what your politics, you are going to find I am friends with someone you hate. I can guarantee that to everyone: someone on my list of friends is going to piss you off.

I won’t have it any other way. I refuse to live in an echo chamber only occupied by people who share my view of the world. No matter how right you think you are, no one is above having their opinions and perceptions challenged and there is absolutely nothing virtuous about a closed mind.

In our era of divided politics, trolls on both sides of the spectrum feel morally justified in becoming increasingly uncivil. I’ve had a few people block me or “unfriend” me. One even called me names and blocked me so I couldn’t see or respond, a cowardly low. People engage in this kind of behavior when they have no real ideas or don’t have the wherewithal to defend their beliefs.

But I also have lots of friends that don’t block me. The friends with more substantial progressive activist bona fides – the people who’ve actually been in the streets and done battle with the cops, who’ve been to jail for their activism or actually rumbled with real Nazis in the real world – don’t find the need to block me on social media or prove their online virtue through their computer keyboards. I have friends who are law enforcement officers and military veterans who have been shot at in the line of duty at home and abroad; none of them have expressed horror that I’m friends with people that are communists or anarchists. They don’t need to wear their patriotism or their toughness on their sleeves, they live it every day.

Fortunately, the majority of my friends are confident enough in who they are to listen to other’s people’s views. That doesn’t mean they agree with me or like that I’m online friends with people they deplore, but they have strong enough wits to disagree without name calling.

I can’t judge people based on their ideology alone. Some of the people considered most virtuous in public life have been some of the most miserable human beings; egos rendering them incapable of treating others with dignity and respect. How you treat the waiter or waitress at a restaurant tells me much more about you than whatever politician you voted for last November. So many people who check all the right virtue boxes can’t be bothered to act like a decent human being in real life.

I hope my friend comes back online. I won’t block or unfriend someone just because they hold opinions we may despise. There’s something about my collection of friends that everyone can hate. But I have a great group of friends nonetheless. I’ll never apologize for keeping an open mind to different ideas, no matter how offensive they might seem to others. If that makes enemies out of some friends, then that’s too bad.

If you’re not making enemies, you’re not living life.

What Would Theodore Roosevelt Do?

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?

 

Ask a New Yorker vs. Ask A Native New Yorker

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.

Nazi trolls and fascists in black

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.

Deep shame in the Queens bus game

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.

I Want To Be Poet Laureate of Queens

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.

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