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The pure Hell of New York Summer

A few years ago a friend who lives in Las Vegas posted a photo of his car’s dash board, which displayed a temperature reading of close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “Still nowhere near as bad as New York City subway in the summer,” was his photo caption.

New York City survived its first major heat wave of 2019 this past weekend and survived is as good as it gets.

Public pools were kept open an extra hour, though one pool had to close during the heat wave. Large numbers of homes lost power throughout Brooklyn and Queens during some of the hottest hours of Sunday. In Times Square, where the heat index got as high as 110 degrees, my colleagues from Ask A New Yorker began frying an egg on the sidewalk.

To endure a New York City summer is to taste the atmosphere of Hades if Hades had fewer redeeming qualities. It was Sunday and the heat was high early. I couldn’t avoid doing the grocery shopping and I’d be subjected to consistent air conditioning, at least while I was indoors.

At the local supermarket, I got to the crowded parking lot and found a space on the perimeter. The blacktop of the lot was a welcoming carpet of black lava. I saw containers of recycled glass sitting by the can and bottle redemption machines. Four large tubs were filled with the smashed remains of recycled bottles. The image summarized the weekend’s heat wave. There in all the gleaming punishment its jagged shards could dish out, penned in for all to see, the shards seemed to taunt us. This is my time, the broken glass could boast to passers-by. I was born of a blast furnace and your city’s asphalt is a cool breeze in the mountains to be. How fragile you must be…

I stopped to take a photo of the glass. It was so simple yet so brutal.

“What’s wrong with my glass?” a man asked me. I turned to see a man in a blue jumpsuit with ear protection headphones on. He was collecting the recycled glass and thought maybe I was taking a photo to establish some kind of complaint. I explained it was unusual to see all the glass out of the machines like that and made for a neat photo. This was true. I decided that a parking lot in 100-degree weather was not the place to have a discussion about the murderous indifference of nature and human kind’s being at the mercy of the Earth despite our collective ability to damage it, especially as this gentleman was spending his day working in the hot sun collecting the industrial chum of the recycling machines.

The supermarket requires shoppers use a quarter to unlock a shopping cart from another. It also employs a locking system that stops someone from wheeling a shopping cart off its premises. Because I parked on the edge of the parking lot, my shopping cart locked up once I got it to my van. I loaded my groceries but now the wheels on the cart couldn’t move.

I was enraged and determined that I would get this quarter back if it was the last thing I ever did. I dragged the shopping cart across the parking lot to one of the docking stations where you can return cars without walking all the way back to the store. All the carts at the station had been self-locked and I would not be able to get my quarter back there. I dragged the cart all the way back to the store where an army of locked carts stood silently as I strained and cursed my way to redemption.

I managed to lock my shopping cart to another and retrieve my quarter from its infernal lock. I celebrated this victory by taking a photo of the quarter held aloft before the shopping cart in victory.

If I had looked closer at the photo before driving home I would have noticed my glasses inside a case on the seat. I have not yet found these glasses. Heat wave: 1, Matthew Sheahan: 0.

The gritty oasis of Liberty Place

The Financial District in New York is known for large office towers of glass and marble facades of old buildings. It is considered the epicenter of the financial world.

Many of the large banking institutions that comprise the symbolic “Wall Street” are located in midtown now. And very little actual stock trading happens on Wall Street itself. Most actual stock trading happens on giant data servers in New Jersey. But the name is going to stay and new banks will move in to replace the old ones.

There is a charm to lower Manhattan that is missing from midtown and other parts of the island. The streets retain the narrow dimensions of the early Dutch settlers, and now they are lined with tall buildings instead of brick homes. The chaos of the streets is part of what makes it different. You have to know where you are going, and the logical numerical grid of midtown is choked off for good farther uptown at Houston Street. South of there, you have to know where you are going.

Lower Manhattan retains some of the old world charm of the early settlers, even though Manhattan today looks nothing like it did when it was New Amsterdam. You can still see remnants of Revolutionary War history and the days of our nation’s founding. If you are close enough to Battery Park, you can wander away from some of the tourists to the Korean War Memorial or one of the gardens that are quieter, or see working bee hives.

An additional charm to lower Manhattan generally and the Financial District in particular is the scattered network of small alleyways. When I first started working downtown, I had more time to take walks on my lunch hour and whenever I came across a small alley I had not experienced before, I had to walk down that alley. It still seems a sin not to.

Near where I work now is one such alleyway: Liberty Place. It’s among the alleys that populate lower Manhattan and serve as secluded getaways that are enticing for midday walks.

Forgotten NY points out that Liberty Place used to be called Little Green Street and dates to the era of the early Dutch settlers. People who walk or drive on the extremely narrow, one-way street are traveling where there once was a graveyard and Quaker meeting house.

I make a point to walk down Liberty Place whenever I can. It’s an oasis of old New York City grit in a scrubbed land of tourists and high finances. I often smell skunk weed and see people taking a break from work. The people who linger there are sharing a joint, drinking discreetly, or making a phone call away from the usual noise and bustle of the New York workday.

And even though I don’t drink or smoke weed I walk down this alleyway feeling I am among my people. I also would rather loaf and feel at ease and spend my days enjoying the random beautiful madness of our city streets rather than sit at a desk and answer emails for hours. I too should have stayed a rambling, impoverished poet looking for eternity in the eyes of strangers.

Liberty Place is just that, a place we can seek a breath of liberty even within a shadowy alleyway. I try to make it part of my daily routine, another way to get through the everyday and be a tourist in your own city.

Free speech is for the brave and the hated (and everyone else)

Last week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for saying he would not automatically censor Holocaust deniers from Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg is not expressing sympathy with Holocaust deniers when he says he won’t automatically remove them from the Facebook news feed. His convoluted way of saying so may have missed the mark, but defending the right of people to post controversial or objectionable ideas on a free social media service should be a no-brainer. It’s a sad sign that anyone in America today should have to “walk back” any comment that defends the right of free expression.

Facebook has the right to censor content, as it’s a media platform that can operate by whatever standards it deems fit. And indeed it has censored content, putting dollars before principles and obediently obeyed repressive laws overseas in order to gain traction outside the U.S. It follows speech codes set by the Chinese government and governments in Europe that would never pass muster in the U.S. if they were applied by a government agency.

But the demands that Facebook censor content show the diminished respect for the concept of free speech and expression. Facebook enables users to block content they find objectionable and even block other users from their news feed if they are not to your liking. That people clamor for Facebook to go further and eliminate whole blocks of content simply because many people object flies in the face of what we Americans embrace as a concept of free expression.

Free speech is an end unto itself, it is a moral absolute. Freedom of expression is a basic human right that universal and inviolate. It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights as well as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19).

Social media is not obligated to the same concepts of free expression that are guaranteed human rights. When you sign up for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever comes next, you are agreeing to terms of conditions that enable the service provider to regulate how they wish. But our sense of fair play in allowing free expression in these realms is an important one.

Americans have rightfully embraced the saying that is often attributed to Voltaire (though it actually comes from biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who summarized his idea), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

And to stand up for free speech is to undoubtedly join questionable company. You’re going to be standing up for Klansmen, pornographers, Holocaust deniers, pedophiles, and religious extremists. You will defend the rights of people who want to see you diminished, or maybe even dead. Sadly, the distinction of supporting someone’s right to say something as opposed to supporting what they say is being stripped away. Even long-standing organizations that have famously jumped to the defense of free speech—specifically the once-reliable A.C.L.U.—are now hedging and making exceptions in the toxic partisan atmosphere of our contemporary era.

Much of the speculation today surrounding the ascent of alternative right elements in our national politics is whether or not we are heading down the slippery slope to a fascist state. If the American far right is excelling in bringing us closer to fascism, its greatest victory so far has been in getting its opposition to embrace fascist elements wholesale while waving the flag of anti-fascist virtue. Every “punch a Nazi” post you see on social media, every embrace of the very concept of “hate speech” is a steep step down that terrible slippery slope.

Please remember: there is a reason that fascists are rightly reviled, it’s because they do things such as… restricting freedom of speech under the guise of protecting the populace from harmful ideas, advocating violence against those they disagree with, or claiming some higher moral right to speech than others. “That’s not free speech, that’s hate speech,” is among the most fascistic mantras in common use today.

Let’s all sides agree to let others have their say. You don’t have to listen or agree, but recognize that free speech is a human right that no one should be able to infringe. Defending the right of someone to express their ideas is not the equivalent of endorsing those ideas: teach that in schools and put up ads around town about it.

There can be no equivocation. There is no other speech but free speech. People have died for it in America and around the world. Don’t accept any substitutes.

Subway Dance Party of One

The platform at the Flushing Main Street subway stop is usually packed with commuters trying to get on or off one of the subway trains. There’s not room for much else on the platforms there. The 7 line is one of the most crowded lines in the entire subway system and the one benefit of this is that it is usually devoid of crazies, panhandlers and performers who don’t have the sense to stay off of rush hour trains.

But yesterday as I got to the station and boarded a train, a solitary dancer was on the platform. He appeared to be either mentally ill or high on crack. Perhaps he was both.

The entire time I was there, the man danced to music that was playing only in his head. He danced with a collapsible cane or walking stick. He even gesticulated with this stick at one point, incorporating his vulgar motions into his crack head choreography.

I was inspired to take a short video of his performance. He is blissfully unaware of how he appears to others. He hasn’t a care in the world. He’s amused by his own motion as others strive to avoid him.

The dancing crack head is a reject, one of society’s ultimate outsiders. He is an object of ridicule in the minds of the other people on the subway platform, who were not dancing, but paying money to take a miserable, crowded journey so they can spend time away from their families and work. Perhaps our crack head dancer was the only sane one in the station.

Taking Care of Business

Labor Day is a day when most American workers have a day off and spend it being thankful that we have a job, if we have one. Any power the day once held to fire up a meaningful organized labor movement in the U.S. has long been stripped away. For the vast majority of us, work is something we do because we have to do something that makes money.

I’d love to be able to say that I’m an independently wealthy writer who can generate income through the genius of every creative whim, but the truth is I work in an office doing work that doesn’t really interest me. I like being good at my job because I refuse to be a lazy slug and need to make a living. But I’m working for The Man like everyone else.

I find it to be a benefit to have worked many different jobs over the last two decades. I have been a grocery bagger, house painter, video store assistant manager, immigration inspector, security guard, line cook, telemarketer, retail sales clerk and financial journalist.

By far the job I hated the most was as the assistant manager of a video store. This was in suburban Atlanta in the late 1990s when I was living a miserable, impoverished life among the relative wealth and ease of the Atlanta suburbs. Even though I love watching films and getting to rent movies for free was a chief perk of the job, having to answer to the entitled whims of overfed suburbanites grated on my nerves unmercifully. There were a few very nice customers there, but I hated that job so much that when I saw a bug skitter across the floor one night, I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. If a bug can find happiness in this miserable place, then good for him.

Having worked a large variety of jobs has given me a lot of different perspectives I otherwise would not have had. I like to think it shows in my daily interactions with people. I was that awkward teenager pushing his Dad’s lawnmower. I was the pimply kid behind the counter at McDonald’s on Labor Day. I was the unlucky immigration inspector stamping passports on Christmas and getting stuck working overtime.

Sometimes, even among very intelligent and good-natured friends, it becomes startlingly clear those who haven’t worked many of these jobs. The way someone treats a waitress or a bartender will tell you more about their life and attitude than any online profile or paper trail.

There’s a missing value that hasn’t been instilled in much of the population: that there is dignity in work, all work. Just because you don’t like your job or don’t like the people you work with or have to serve doesn’t mean you should feel comfortable behaving without dignity or purpose. All working people have dignity and deserve respect. Working for a living is beneath no one. And when you think about it, we are all a lot closer to the unemployment line than we like to think we are.

It’s a wisdom I’ve come to more recently and wish that I had had when I was bagging groceries and fielding the nonsensical complaints from entitled suburbanites. I felt the anger and resentment that comes with being treated like a servant. I let the opinion of others get to me, and it reflected a low opinion I had of myself. But dignity is not anything that anyone can grant you. If you’re in the right state of mind, you’ll have as much dignity shining shoes as you will being a movie star.

This Labor Day, resolve to take dignity in whatever job you do, and remember that no matter what the job is, everyone working for a living deserves your respect.

Happy Labor Day.

The Horror That Is The 7 Train

Speaking in 1999, Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker said the following about New York City:

“Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing…”

Saturday Night Live’s Colin Quinn, doing the weekly news spot, said this about Rocker: “He might be a bigot, but he’s definitely been on the 7 train.”

Despite all the romantic notions you may have in your head about New York, there are some traditional New York experiences that are never pleasant no matter how much you romanticize them. Being mugged is never fun; neither is stepping in dog shit or having to smell a homeless person.

Another old New York tradition that is no fun is the 7 train. The 7 train is a human cattle car of endless misery and inconvenience. It perfectly combines all the incompetence of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority with the rancid overpopulation of our city that makes New York the cultural calling card of the dying American empire.

I live in Flushing, Queens and work in lower Manhattan. I have an hour-and-15-minute commute each way when things go well, but things rarely go well. I take a bus to downtown Main Street Flushing, which has a crowd density similar to that of Times Square, and board a 7 train that takes me to Grand Central, where I take either the 4 or 5 train (also no joy) to the Bowling Green station near where I work.

Today I managed to get down the overcrowded stairs to the train platform only to miss the closing doors of a not-very-crowded 7 train by seconds. The next express train arrived soon but sat on the platform for 10 minutes and didn’t leave the station until it was wall-to-wall people.

Sometimes the 7 train likes to quit on you and dump all of its passengers out a random stop. “This train is out of service! No passengers!” the conductor will announce. Sometimes the express 7 train decides to go local, sometimes without telling its passengers until they’re at a stop they didn’t plan on making. On the weekends, the 7 train doesn’t run any express trains at all and often will have large service gaps that will leave its passengers scrambling to shuttle busses or trying to find alternate trains to take.

In September, when the U.S. Open is happening at the U.S. Tennis Center, the 7 train is flooded with tennis fans who are clueless as to where they are going and completely unschooled in subway etiquette. Sometimes a perfect storm of passenger clusterfuck will happen and you’ll have Mets fans and U.S. Open fans cramming the same trains heading to the Willets Point station.

The 7 train will often stop service entirely or delay service torturously or decided it doesn’t want to run express trains at the height of rush hour. Often the reason the MTA gives passengers for this is “signal problems.” One winter I asked an MTA worker on the platform why express service was abruptly canceled and he answered, “It’s cold outside, sir.”

I don’t bother trying to get a seat on the 7 train. Those are the dominion of sharp-elbowed Asian women who push their way onto the trains before the unfortunate souls who have to commute to Flushing can exit. I actually prefer to stand. I’ll actually have more room standing and the ride isn’t that long. Besides, I sit on my ass for eight hours at work. I usually try to position myself directly between two car doors in the center of the car, where the crush of passengers will be slightly less.

It is often standing-room only before the trains leave its first stop, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to cram themselves on to the train at later stops.

The 7 train is one of the oldest lines in the city, so its rails are close together and the cars that fit on the tracks are narrow and without as much room as other trains. It is also the only subway serving some of the most densely populated parts of the city and it terminates (for now) in Times Square.

And the 7 train is about to get worse. The geniuses who run our transit system decided it would be a good idea to cram 15 pounds of ham into this 5-pound bag instead of 10, so the 7 line is being expanded all the way to 34th Street and 11th Avenue. This means more crowding on a subway line that can barely handle what its current ridership. Joy.

There are some upsides to the 7 train. Most of it is above ground, so you can see some beautiful views of Queens and Manhattan that you won’t see from any other train line. Also, while it is regularly packed to the gills, most of the riders are working New Yorkers who are not there to cause problems; you don’t have the thug element of the A train or the hipster abominations of the L line. Because the trains are so crowded all the time, you have fewer homeless and crazies. I have never seen a “Showtime!” subway dance troupe try to ply their obnoxious trade on the 7 train.

For all its faults, the 7 line has stood the test of time, and if overcrowding doesn’t bring it crumbling to the ground this year, someone will be bitching and moaning about it 100 years from now.

Read Poetry, It Is Good For You

Impolite Literature photoSo there is a new poem on another blog you should read. I wrote the poem, but don’t let that discourage you. Read the new poem and then peruse the rest of the Impolite Literature blog.

The goal of the blog is to kick me in the ass to write more poetry and fiction, it’s also to declare a kind of populist war against the powers that be in the literary world. The literary world is in large part comprised of snooty academics that are too busy scratching each other’s backs to promote the cause of literature or even acknowledge much of the good writing that’s out there. A handful of professors judge poetry contests and award decisive publishing prizes to students, lovers, or other effete snobs they owe favors to. Impolite Literature says fuck all of that.

Enjoy the literature.

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