Meeting New York’s First Guardian Angel

Traveling to Washington, D.C. for work means taking the Amtrak Accela train from Penn Station. Penn Station was once a gleaming monument to New York’s greatness, but decades ago it was leveled, reduced to a subterranean maze of misery by the powers of commerce without conscience and New York’s Philistine tradition of tearing down some of its most beautiful historical landmarks in the name of progress.

Getting ready for the three-hour train ride to Washington meant stopping by one of the independent delis that still survive there amid the chain concessions. As I approached I saw a man in a red Guardian Angels jacket and red beret, and thought it was probably Curtis Sliwa. It was.

Curtis Sliwa was a night manager at a McDonald’s on Fordham Road in the Bronx when he decided to do something about New York’s Crime problem. He founded the Guardian Angels, an unarmed, unformed crime fighting group that started patrolling New York’s dangerous subways and streets. He didn’t ask permission or get political approval for what he was doing, he just did it. This was at a time when landlords were burning down their old buildings because the insurance money was worth more than the property was valued. The 1970s saw crime explode in every borough as a bankrupt New York City appealed to the federal government for help that never came and was forced to lay off police officers.

The Guardian Angels were the vanguard of resistance to the hopelessness that gripped New York. They didn’t have police approval and politicians dubbed them “vigilantes;” they didn’t care. The unarmed volunteers in their trademark red berets were a sign that people still cared about the city and were willing to put their lives on the line to make a difference.

It was not all straight shooting, though. Sliwa admitted that some of the early stories he told about Guardian Angel heroism were fabrications. Still, Sliwa was an anti-crime crusader before it was cool, a strong voice that cut through the blather of polite talk and gave the criminal class the harsh language it deserved. Even as New York started to turn around, Sliwa’s crime-fighting ways led to an attempt to kill him by the Gambino Crime Family.

Sliwa’s career as a broadcaster has almost always paired him with someone left-of-center to discuss and debate the issues of the day. His pairing with Ron Kuby on MSNBC was a highlight of the network’s earlier days before all of cable television spun into hyper-partisan outposts; they later reunited on AM radio.

I said hello and Curtis Sliwa shook my hand and give me his business card, asking me where I was from. I gave him my business card and told him I was from where I worked.

“No, where are you from? Born and raised?”

“I’m from the city originally and grew up mostly in Yonkers.” I didn’t want to give him my last two decades of history being a city resident, as we were waiting in line at the deli. Our wait was shortly over, and he bid me farewell.

The politicians who once spurned the Guardian Angels later embraced them, and they now operate in more than 130 cities in 13 countries. And Sliwa remains an outspoken personality in New York politics. He’s even vowed to run for New York City mayor next year.

Similar to Ed Koch, Curtis Sliwa is a personification of New York City and will always remain one of the defining personalities of our chaotic metropolis. My encounter with a legit New York City celebrity was brief, but it brightened my day.

Shakedown at the warehouse club

There was shopping to do and we had to get the kids out of the house.

If you have a car in New York City you are one of a privileged few. You can blaze a trail of adventure and wanderlust across the land. Or, you can simply drive someplace where it is a little less crowded to do your shopping, avoiding the hordes that clog your local stores for the slightly less overstuffed shopping experiences of the suburbs.

Pro tip for current and future parents: IKEA stores have a free indoor play area called “Småland” where they will babysit your kids for free if you are in their store.

This past Sunday we headed to Hicksville for the chance to look again at a couch we may want to buy from IKEA and to do our bulk shopping where it was slightly less aggravating.

The drive had put our children to sleep and my wife and I enjoyed listening to Joan Jett’s greatest hits and catching up on adult conversation while our three blessed hellions slumped in their child seats. We decided to get some of our shopping done while they napped. I headed to BJs.

BJ’s is not as fun as it sounds. It’s not an emporium of fellatio but rather a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club. Showing your BJ’s card only wins you the pleasure of buying in bulk.

The BJs in Westbury, Long Island, was a lot less crowded than the one we usually visit in College Point, Queens. I found the things I needed easily. I got in line at one of the self-checkout lanes as going to one of the other lines means an incredibly long wait behind people whose shopping carts are filled to the brim with bulk items.

The woman is taking too long looking over everyone’s cart and there is a line forming just to get out of the store.

The only question I’ve ever had facing this security check in the past is if one of my daughters asks me if this person is going to draw a Mickey Mouse on our receipt.

The woman looks at my cart for what seems like an extended period and then circles the number of items on my receipt. She says there is a problem, something about me having too many items in my cart. Her English is poor, and I ask what is the item that wasn’t scanned. She points to the checkout area, and I think she wants me to go back there but I want to understand this problem and solve it quickly. I’m not going to scan every item again or stand on another line if the store is bringing up the issue. I keep asking what the problem is and what’s not right, and I get no answer. The woman leaves me there and starts checking other customers’ receipts. A chubby woman mumbles something under her breath at me as she walks by, but not loud enough to hear.

The receipt women with broken English calls someone else over. He checks my receipt. He counts the items in my cart. He checks the receipt again; he counts the items in my cart again. People keep passing by and looking at me. I stay stoic.

The young man now checks the UPC numbers on every item against my receipt. He’s moving more things around in the cart and checking off each item on the receipt.

“The tomato sauce,” he says before scurrying off. “The tomato sauce.”

The receipt checking lady has forgotten about me. Her backup left me standing there with my marked-up receipt and no recommendations. I don’t bother to check his work; I just want out of there. I put the tomato sauce aside and walk out the door. No one stops me. I’m free but without the tomato sauce we wanted to buy and with precious time wasted.

Westbury BJ’s: 1, Polite New Yorker: 0.

I had traded the aggravation of weaving your way through crowds of clueless shoppers to being shaken down by store security and singled out as a potential shoplifter. While this was annoying it could have been so much worse. People who forget to scan the groceries on the bottom shelf of their shopping cart have been accused of shoplifting and had their careers ruined. The store employees could have called the police.

I made it back to my van without further delay. The children were awake. We moved on to our next adventure.

NYC’s transit mess to spread above ground

The lives of New York City residents are filled with transit fatigue and the endless negotiation of a failing subway system. Our city subways are in such a sorry state that real lives get interrupted and sidetracked. People miss their college graduations, arrive late for job interviews, or don’t get to say a final good-bye to loved ones.

With the resignation of MTA chief Andy Byford in a dispute with Governor Andrew Cuomo, there is a sense that the situation will get much worse before it gets better.

Queens is poorly served by the New York City subway system and does not have the more comprehensive service that you find in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The subways are so Manhattan-centric that Queens lacks a basic north-south subway route. If you want to get from Ozone Park to the Queens Center Mall it can take you as little as 25 minutes by bus. It would require at least three different subways to get there and it’s only four and a half miles.

Where I live is more than a mile to the nearest subway, which would add 25 minutes to my commute were it not for buses. More recently I’ve learned to take the express bus, which is more expensive but is much better—more comfortable seats and direct service to midtown Manhattan.

The express buses are not a panacea though. Just this past week, as I stood directly next to a bus stop sign on 6th Ave. and 42nd Street, a QM20 bus drove right by as if I wasn’t there, even though I was trying to wave down the driver. So even the express bus system, which is the best experience the MTA has to offer, is still rife with problems.

But not content to serve up sub-par subway service on a good day, the MTA has proposed a plan to slash bus service throughout New York City’s largest borough, Queens. Neighborhood after neighborhood in the borough are organizing to try to stop service cuts that will do things such as: consolidate bus stops, denying service to some areas of the city already lacking for subway access; and stop service earlier in the evening, leaving people stranded in Manhattan if they go to a play or concert.

We need more bus service in the city, not less. Especially at a time when the subways are running so poorly.

Here is a goal for any and all mass transit systems. No one should ever have to wait more than 15 minutes for any bus or train at any time of day or night at any bus stop or train station.

Is that not realistic? Under our current system, yes, that’s a pipe dream, but why should we expect anything less than the best in our city. This is New York. Were it not for our transit system, we would not have experienced the tremendous growth over the last century.

Mass transit will pay for itself in a stronger economy and more productive workforce. Think about all the things you don’t do or places you don’t visit because the travel would be too difficult. Seriously, things only a few miles away are considered out of reach right now because our transit system is so underperforming and unreliable. I know I avoid going to cultural events because getting there and back in a reasonable amount of time is not possible under our current system.

A reliable transit system will have people going more places and doing more things, spending money that keeps our economy going.

Take the MTA out of the hands of political appointees and officeholders who have the power to raid its coffers. Our taxes should support an independent entity governed by a board of directors selected from a population of accomplished people who are transit users.

New York City transit is still way too far away from where it needs to be. There’s no quick fix. Creating a fully functioning transit system is going to take years of political struggle. Let’s start now.

The New York Times’ clueless narcissism reaches new depths

The New York Times announced that it would endorse a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States, the first time in its 169-year history that the newspaper would do such a thing. The Times’ editorial board interviewed nine candidates in extensive interviews at its New York headquarters in December and announced its endorsement for the Democratic nomination this past weekend.

The Times feels it’s important to get its voice into people’s deliberations now, though its coverage has laid out clearly that it does not want former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders or Mayor Pete Buttigieg to be the nominee. It will at least lay its slant bare for all to see earlier on, though it was shamelessly shilling for Hillary Clinton long before the first ballot was cast in 2016.

So, the Times invited those candidates it judged viable to come in and interview completely on the record with its pompous editorial board to be part of “The Choice,” as if it were some drama people were going to follow like “Game of Thrones.” To their credit, Michael Bloomberg, Julian Castro and Tulsi Gabbard declined to kiss the ring of the Times and sit for the chance to be the window dressing on the editorial board’s tribute to itself.

The weekend edition pullout of printed excerpts had an entire page dedicated to profile photos and titles of the editorial board, even noting with an asterisk someone special who is not normally a member but joined the board just for the important task of endorsing a Democrat before anyone even votes.

We’re supposed to be wowed at the brilliance of these professionals, who spent hours mugging for the cameras they invited into their boardroom because they think the American voters give a rat’s ass about what they think. And with all their brilliance and well-publicized rumination over this important endorsement, they couldn’t even decide on a single candidate to endorse!

They Gray Lady was too busy looking at herself in the mirror to choose only one candidate, endorsing both Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“In a break with convention, the editorial board has chosen to endorse two separate Democratic candidates for president,” the Times tells us in its blacked-out opinion page heading made somber for this special occasion.

The Times should have done the extra work and picked one of the candidates. They did do voters a service by giving Senator Klobuchar recognition; her campaign has so far failed to attract support that her accomplishments merit. And the Times is right to credit Warren with being policy-focused and experienced in multiple levels of Washington leadership.

Both Senators Klobuchar and Warren are serious candidates with real ideas and qualifications. The Times insults both with its overwrought half-endorsement that will serve to alienate them from the voters the need to reach most.

New York, like the rest of the country, is in for a long slog through a partisan election year. We can do without the self-congratulatory fluff the Times has subjected us to.

Skynet at the Stop & Shop

“Can we see the robot?” one of our daughters asked.

“Sure,” my wife answered.

We were finishing up lunch and I had mentioned I wanted to briefly visit the Stop & Shop to look for something. I had no idea this outlet near our home employed one of those grocery store robots I had seen mentioned online ubiquitously. These slim, monolith grey towers on wheels are outfitted with large googly-eyes as one would a child’s craft. I had heard they were being installed in more and more stores; friends had posted photos of them at their local supermarkets. I had yet to see one in action.

The shopping center at Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway in Flushing is a zone of cluttered chaos and the logical effluvium of the overcrowded eyesore of the streets nearby. Forgotten New York rightfully calls this part of Flushing “Queens’ Crappiest” for its lack of aesthetics, complete disrespect of historic buildings, and utter incompetence of the design of residential buildings. The shopping center was not long ago filled with crater-like potholes. It has a check cashing establishment and was for a time frequented prostitutes that served truck drivers. I try to avoid this shopping center because of the traffic alone—it’s either accessed by a busy highway service road or a two-lane street that is often busy. My kids love the McDonald’s that is there for some reason; perhaps I have already failed as a father.

The Stop & Shop there is a last refuge of desperation when we are looking for groceries that aren’t found elsewhere. Now I also wanted to see the grocery store robot. These robots are named “Marty.” Stop & Shop supermarkets have deployed them in more them in more than 200 stores to look for spills and hazards. According to Mashable, each robots costs $35,000 and weighs 140 pounds. Also, these robots don’t clean up anything, but just alert people nearby to the fact that there is a mess.

I went looking for the one item I hoped they had: a specific popular baby food pouch that serves as a healthy snack for our youngest daughter. I headed for the baby food aisle while the rest of my family made a bee line for the back of the store where they spotted the robot.

The baby food section was the same mess it was at my last visit and was without the food pouch I was looking for. I scoured again and looked behind every box and envelope to no avail. The robot had not spent enough time in this aisle.

My excited daughters came to get me to show me the robot, which was making its way across the back of the store from where they had first met it near the deli. They ran after it and my wife and I followed.

When my children ran up on the robot again, it seemed to pause to allow us all to gawk at it. Bored shoppers accustomed to the googly-eyed rolling cyborg went about their shopping.

“Hi Marty!” my children thought this thing was great. Maybe you could put googly eyes on a giant steaming people of crap and children will find it convincingly anthropomorphized into a cute friend and want to take it home. The robot slowly moved away from us, not interacting with anyone other than moving out of our way and appearing to look at us with its false, plastic, and unblinking eyes.

New York City seems like a poor choice to send Marty. Our supermarkets are too crowded, and our people in need of work is always plentiful. Also, New Yorkers are more skeptical of gimmicks like this. While little kids got a kick out of Marty the robot, most adults are put off by it.

The supermarket robot is not the coming incarnation of Skynet, the computer system that becomes self-aware and plunges the world into a nuclear holocaust in the Terminator films. It’s pretty underwhelming by itself.

The truly troubling issue with the increasing use of robots is not that technology is marching forward and machines are doing jobs people want to do. It’s that people no longer want to act like people as much anymore.

If society functioned well, customers would report a spill to an accessible employee, who would easily see to it that the spill was cleaned up, or the store would employ enough cleaning staff to make it a pleasurable experience. Instead we’ll gawk at a machine and be on our way.

We are spurning human contact in favor of technology-driven convenience because our human interactions have plunged in quality. That’s not the fault of the machines, that’s our fault.

A decade without alcohol

January 4, 2010 is the day I mark has having had my last drink of alcohol. It might have been a day or two earlier than but four is a lucky number for me and I decided to set that as the date. This past Jan. 4 marks a decade since I’ve had a drink.

The time went by quickly. Since 2010 a lot has happened. I got married and had children. I left journalism and “went over to the dark side” of public relations. Could I have done those things if I had still been drinking? I don’t know.

I am confident that stopping drinking was the right thing for me, but quitting drinking was not some massive and sudden wonderful change. There’s no magic transformation that turns someone instantaneously from a pathetic drunk to a charming success. All of life’s frustrations are still there, and the warm confidence that comes with drinking is now gone.

And while it’s worked for me, the non-drinking life is not for everyone. I think even people who have problems with drugs or alcohol don’t necessarily have to quit completely. There’s a middle ground that most of the world can navigate. One of the signs that I needed to stop drinking was when I was bowled over at my ability to have only one single beer at a punk rock show I went to. I caught myself as I was glowing in a self-congratulatory mood on the walk to the subway from Trash Bar—uh, actually, this is what most of the world is able to pull off every day!

Quitting drinking wasn’t something I did on a whim or at the spur of the moment. I had been thinking about it for a long time. I had taken long breaks from drinking, sometimes as long as three months at a time, to show myself that I could do it. When I first quit, I only gave myself the goal of stopping drinking for one year. Only after one year without alcohol did I decide to officially bid goodbye to the drinking life.

The drinking life had been a fun one. I’d be the worst kind of hypocrite to rage against drinking since I was an absolute maniac with booze for the better part of two decades. I have good memories from those times and made many great friends over rounds of drinks, I can’t just throw all of that away. I can still be around people who drink; I just don’t. I won’t create a new identity or try to reconfigure my entire life because I don’t drink any more – that would truly be giving alcohol power that it doesn’t deserve.

But it got to the point of not being fun anymore. I would ponder and plan out how I was going to approach a night of drinking and then all my well-intentioned plans of moderation would go right out the window. I was tired of waking up with long gaps in my memory, incredibly hung over, and realizing I had spent twice the amount of money I wanted to. I had no one to be angry at but myself, and my weekend mornings regularly began with waking up to this miserable, impotent rage.

There were some moments that stand out in my decision but thankfully no major disasters. I miraculously never got arrested for drunk driving while in college, no major bar fights or major accidents litter my beer-fueled past. But slowly the magic of the alcohol began to wear thin and not work as well anymore. And all the things I felt I need to drink to enjoy—dating women, going to concerts, playing music, reveling in the creative act that drives us to joyful madness—these were all things I was supposed to be enjoying anyway, and if I needed to be drunk to enjoy them, maybe I was on the wrong path.

So I went ahead and quit drinking on my own, though I did read a book that was helpful in my first year of not drinking. Drinking, A Love Story by Caroline Knapp is an impressive memoir and I highly recommend it if you are questioning your drinking. A lot of what she described as signs of having real drinking problems was very recognizable, and it provided the well-researched bulwark that helped me decide that I was on the right path in putting booze aside.

In her book, Knapp quits drinking after joining Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Alcoholics Anonymous route is one I decided to avoid at all costs. Alcoholics Anonymous wallows in pathetic victimology and peddles its soft-core religion incessantly. Furthermore, many people I know who joined AA have come back to drinking. If AA is the only alternative to drinking yourself to death, have at it, but the success rate is low and its philosophy teaches weakness.

The past 10 years have been filled with a lot of ups and downs, and I’m glad that I experienced them without the hazy filter of alcohol, which for me had become a sad crutch. If the magic dies, don’t be afraid to move on. If I can do it, so can you.

A grateful New York City bids farewell to Two Toms

Two Toms Restaurant in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn announced in October that after more than 70 years in business, it is going to close its doors at the end of this year.

Founded in 1948, Two Toms is an institution unlike any other restaurant that is open to the public. It’s a modest and understated very simple dining room in a relatively narrow space, with a street-facing entrance in the front and a kitchen in the back. The food is outstanding and often served family style in large groups, at least that is their specialty. I’ve seen regular tables order off a menu there. But every time I’ve been there it’s been a large meal with several courses.

An Italian restaurant with great pasta and shrimp parmesan among other dishes, it’s most famous for its pork chops, that are enormously thick and juicy and will count as one of the most memorable meals you ever have. I rarely take photos of food, but I had to stop and take a photo of my meal while I was working on one of the pork chops there last year.

I became aware of Two Toms after meeting a group of friends for dinner there several years ago. The restaurant then was known mostly to locals and has a distinct following among law enforcement. My friend Poppy knew of Two Toms from his time working in Brooklyn with the NYPD and it became a regular spot for people we worked with at JFK Airport to hold meet up.

The several courses are conducive to long dinner conversations, the perfect setting for families and old friends. Its unassuming décor adds to its appeal. You are at home there. You can help yourself to beer or soda or bottled water from the refrigerator that is there in the dining room. You knew there was going to be another amazing course coming soon. You didn’t have to worry. Everyone was going to have a good time, and no one was leaving hungry.

When Two Toms owner announced in October that the restaurant would be shutting its doors at the end of the year, its many fans were in shock and jumped into action. Loyal customers flooded the restaurant with so many reservations they began opening extra days and even still they were quickly booked through the end of the year.

My group of friends that took to meeting at Two Toms worked to get a gathering together, but by the time I called to make a reservation, all bookings were gone. I asked the woman I spoke with on the phone to please let me know if any openings at any time for any number of people would be available—if the usual group couldn’t make it at least a few of us would be able to give a final farewell to the place. Social media is alight with tributes pouring in, and legions of New Yorkers who managed to get a reservation are paying their respects.

Two Toms achieved a devoted following because it does what it does best simply and without pretention. It doesn’t boast a celebrity chef or change its menu to some trendy fusion to match the hip flavor of the month. It also refuses rest on its laurels and scream to the world about how long it has been around either. It has stayed true to its roots and has never let up.

New Yorkers will continue to search for the kind of honest authenticity embodied by Two Toms and we owe the legendary eatery a debt of gratitude.

Thank you, Two Toms!

The courage to chase dreams

A high school friend of mine worked as a successful lawyer for roughly the past two decades. He won a great ROTC scholarship in high school. While in the U.S. Army, he went to law school. After serving in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, he worked as an attorney for the Department of Defense before going into private practice law.

But change has come. My friend gave up the life of an attorney to chase his dream of being a radio D.J.

“Because terrestrial radio is such a big thing now,” he joked.

Today commercial radio is a ghost of its former self while music streaming services dominate music landscape. But people still do make a living as radio D.J.s, why shouldn’t he? He took classes at a local broadcasting school and has managed to cobble together an income from various sources—a few nights hosting a lotto drawing here, running a bar trivia night there, he’s not homeless or starving.

Another friend also took a similar plunge, working in comedy and going for broke. Show business is a brutal and heart-rendering business that leaves some its most earnest and talented people out in the cold. My buddies have no illusions they face an uphill battle, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.

I yearn for the courage that my friends have shown.

I moved back to New York for several reasons, but one of them was to seek fame and fortune and become a great American writer. We writers are a hopeless romantic lot, even those of us that like to paint ourselves as curmudgeons. Even the most anti-social hermit scribbling away in obscurity harbors dreams of being the stuff of book covers and bookstore postcards someday. Any writer that tells you they do not dream of somehow writing themselves into immortality is a liar. Like all artists, we hope our work will live after us and testify to the improbable infinity that we lived.

One of the problems with creative people is that many of us spend more time dreaming and pondering than working at our craft in a way that is productive. We have overly romanticized notions of what our craft is, that it somehow exists in a sphere outside of the normal marketplaces and human conditions. Crash landing into the realities of business and the arts is a hard thing, but the worthwhile things are always hard.

I am in the same boat with so many hopeful others. My dreams have tempered a bit. I will settle for not being the next Jack Kerouac or William Faulkner, but I still hope to make a living creatively, by doing work that is creative, artistic in nature or at least taps into my talents to write about things that I find legitimately interesting.

I am very lucky in the life that I have. I have a great family and group of friends; my health is good; I can say with confidence I will go to bed tonight with food in my stomach and a roof over my head. And yet, there is the dream I must still chase. I’m not low on ambition, but on direction and focus.

Despite all the reasons to be jaded and negative, I live with the confidence in my own creativity and the ability of New York to feed our greatest ambitions. Wish me luck and hard work.

 

Latest subway brouhaha misses the point

Citizens voiced criticism of the police when a woman selling churros was handcuffed by NYPD officers at the Broadway Junction station in Brooklyn.

The police said the vendor had been issued several citations and had refused officers’ orders to move. Also, the vendor was not officially arrested, but briefly handcuffed and issued a citation. Whichever way you cut it, “the optics” as we say in the public relations world, were bad.

In the scale of subway scofflaws and annoyances, the Spanish-speaking women selling churros don’t register at all. The churro ladies usually stay out of the way of foot traffic and sell delicious homemade treats at a good price. They don’t loudly beg for money from strangers or drag their carts through crowded subway cars at rush hour.

Why aren’t the police clearing out the homeless who can render entire subway cars unusable? Why aren’t we seeing more photos of the brain-addled aggressive panhandlers being put in handcuffs, or the people bringing bicycles or in some cases, motorcycles onto the subways being given the heave-ho by New York’s finest?

I get why the MTA wants to crack down on subway fare beaters, but they are avoiding the bigger, harder issues that makes a bigger difference in the deteriorating level of subway service that arouses the ire of straphangers.

Subway riders are furious because the subways are terrible. There are frequent delays and overcrowding on the subways, trains and buses that never show up, and service that is sub-par even when going according to plan. Almost all of the lines have outdated signaling systems that frequently stall trains and the MTA is decades behind replacing them. People have missed job interviews, meetings with loved ones, and even their own college graduations because the MTA’s inexcusable performances.

The transit system has singled out the people who jump the turnstiles and don’t pay their fare as a major issue to be addressed. Indeed the agency reported that these freeloaders could cost the system more than $300 million this year. Its approach to fixing this problem has been typically ham-handed. It spent money on signs and stickers telling people not to use the exit-only emergency exits to leave the subway, as it enables people to run in through the open door to avoid paying. Such a campaign could only be designed by people who don’t actually ride the subway. The subways need more exit-only gates. Taking up turnstile space to leave only stalls people who are rushing to get on a train. People who leave by the exit only gates and the emergency exits while people are trying to get in are doing the right thing. All these stupid stickers and signs do is flush money down the toilet that could be used for upgrading the system.

While fare beaters certainly do account for a major shortfall in the MTA’s budget, but it is small potatoes compared to the larger underfunding issues that require a political solution. It will be a hard-fought battle between the city and state governments, and will take years to make right. It will include unpopular tax increases.

No doubt there should be cost cutting. Why does track construction cost many times more in New York than anywhere else? Why are there thousands of no-show jobs on the books every time we want to build some new track in New York? Solving these issues of construction corruption and graft will go a long way to improving our transit situation, but it still can’t entirely address the funding gap.

This central funding question is the one the MTA needs to tackle first. Without adequate funding from New York State, all the other ideas are impotent half-measures that will drive more outrage than revenue.

Trump to New York: Drop Dead

Among the political headlines that screamed from the shameless ramparts of social media over the past few weeks, one news story that added to the four-year hate on Donald Trump was his switching his address to Florida from New York. It was a minor note that was lost in the partisan volleys regarding impeachment, with Trump complaining via Twitter that he has been treated unfairly by New York City and State leaders.

Donald Trump became a household name in the U.S. with his television show, “The Apprentice.” But New York has been familiar with Donald Trump much longer than the rest of America. For most of my adult life he’s been a tabloid figure, a willing mouthpiece for morning radio and other fodder for the endless chatter and ego jousting that hangs thick in the atmosphere of the city.

New York politicians were happy to take jabs at Trump’s repudiation of his home state. “Good riddance,’ said Governor Andrew Cuomo.

There are three reasons driving the move and Trump’s timing of it.

Distracts from the latest circus. Trump made the move during the week when several career, nonpartisan government officials were telling Congress about Trump’s conduct related to the Ukraine, the impetus for the current impeachment effort. Trump found an alternative instance to claim that Democrats were treating him unfairly, helping him construct the conspiratorial framework he’s hanging his entire anti-impeachment platform on: that the system is corrupt and everything is being driven by political machinations on the part of Democrats.

Helps with reelection in Florida. Trump did not win New York State and has little hope of doing so, but Florida is up for grabs and is a much needed piece of his reelection puzzle. His move aligns himself with the large population of transplants who fled to Florida from the Northeast.

Saves him money on taxes. This is probably the most important factor driving Trump to the Sunshine State. He’ll save significant money on taxes. New York State has a much higher tax rate than Florida, and if you can pick an official residence between the two, New York will lose out every time on tax considerations.

New Yorkers who don’t like Trump would like to disown him, and act as if he is some rare aberration who does not reflect at all on the five boroughs, but we can’t.

We can’t act like we’re the trendsetter and the capital of the world and then pretend that the leader of the free world, a native of our city, is somehow not a part of us. Yes, New York is more diverse and the focal point of a lot of worldly art and culture, but human nature doesn’t change, and New York is every bit as tribal and parochial as the rest of America. The partisan divide that creates ugly scenes across the country is present here also.

Landlords like Trump are slightly less revered than rats and muggers in New York. Trump’s rise in presidential politics is an indication of the complete dysfunction and utter detestability of our political class, not from any sheer genius on his part.

Atop of all the other controversies surrounding the Trump administration at the time, his moving his official residence to Florida is small potatoes. It was in the media for a day or two and wasn’t even the lead story those days; then it was gone. There are more important stories to chase during this absolutely bonkers administration, and political griping and standard tax dodging would just don’t fit the bill in these strange times.

No one can honestly say Trump is not a New Yorker. He’s one of us, and we can’t brush him off like yesterday’s news. The city helped create him; it was our tabloids that made him a celebrity and grew his name recognition for decades. It was our political leaders that constantly sought his donations and took their picture with him.

President Trump is thoroughly ‘Florida Man’ now, but he’ll always come stamped with the “Made in New York” label.

 

Early voting comes to New York City

The old adage of “vote early and often” is at least half true now in New York City, as the city has instituted early voting this year. This past Saturday the 26th was the start of an early voting period leading up to the Tuesday, Nov. 5 election day.

The last few election cycles have shown us that no corner of the country is immune from serious voting issues. The mid-term election of 2018 was the first time I saw this voting chaos first-hand in the five boroughs. I voted early in the morning, when there are usually fewer people around and voting should be smoother, and there were already difficulties handling the moderate numbers at the polling station. That only got worse as the day wore on, and reports of long line and other logistical issues were crossing the wires by midday.

The mess of the 2018 election caused a series of reforms in New York City around voting, one of them being instituting early voting.

Early voting has been a solution adopted by other states. It encourages participation as many people who work (just about every single voter) often find it hard to take time off during a busy workday to vote, and this has become increasingly difficult as larger turnouts have overloaded polling places across the country. It’s an idea that is long overdue in being implemented, and many states began making this change in the wake of the 2000 presidential election difficulties. Early voting is friendlier to working families and make it more difficult for voter suppression tactics to rule the day. It also helps reduce some of the voting chaos by alleviating some of the crowding of Election Day.

It is wise to start early voting this year. Whatever goes wrong can be corrected in time for next year, an election year that promises a very large turnout. This is not a big election year in New York – there are no Congressional seats up for a vote, a special election for one City Council seat, and only one city-wide election for public office (for Public Advocate), as well as a smattering of ballot initiatives that rarely generate significant turnout or excitement.

So far there have been two major kinks in the city’s early voting: 1. In many cases the early voting place is not in the same place as the regular polling stations, and this has not been widely explained. 2. Some early voting locations that are located in schools gave those schools very short notice that their gyms or cafeterias were going to be off limits for a few days.

Another shortcoming of the early voting so far is the notices sent to voters. Usually the city sends a document that includes a detachable card that has all the relevant voter information on it: where to vote, what district you are in etc. The card sent before early voting has none of this, but does have a scan-able bar code on one side.

In a democracy, voting is a serious obligation for people who wish to remain free. The ballot box is our first defense against tyranny, our first step in making change, and the ultimate check and balance for people in power to be held accountable. By giving us more time to do it, this important duty is easier to execute. Whatever the faults of the city’s first attempt, it is a noble attempt and deserves our support.

Vote early.

Horror Business is good

Madison Square Garden has hosted countless concerts over the past decades, and this past weekend it featured a sold out punk rock show.

The Misfits held what is supposed to be the last of the shows billed as the “Original Misfits” even though only two original members are playing. The difference being original lead singer Glenn Danzig has returned to sing these old songs.

Few musical figures are as universally admired and detested by their own fans as Glenn Danzig. So much of what’s been publicized about him over the last few decades has painted him as an egotistical jackass. Shoving the singer of an opening band and deservedly getting knocked out for his trouble; going after photographers at shows, screwing over fans—take your pick of “Danzig is an Asshole” moments.

But no matter how much of a jerk Danzig may be, there is no denying the power and durability of Misfits songs. Only the Ramones harnessed more influence with three-chords. And while the Ramones helped launch the punk genre, the Misfits and Glenn Danzig’s subsequent bands have held tremendous sway over both punk and heavy metal. I had not seen the Misfits until this past weekend and I’ve played in Misfits cover bands for the past 15 years because the songs are great, easy to learn and very fun to play.

The “Original” Misfits held several shows throughout the U.S., including a sold-out show in Newark, New Jersey last year that required attendees to lock up their mobile phones during the show (plenty of photos and videos of the show made their way online).

Tickets to the Madison Square Garden show cost upwards of $250 in some instances. I managed to get a ticket the day of the show in an upper tier seating level for under $100 (listed as $61 on StubHub and came to $85 after fees). The bill also featured two very prominent punk rock bands: The Damned, one of the first-generation punk rock bands from the U.K., and Rancid, a very popular ska-punk band from California.

I found time to meet up with my friends Joey Bones from Green Hell, his friend Paul, and Xris from Team Spider and it was great to see them and talk music while we filled up on food and drink.

By the time we got into the Garden, The Damned were already playing. We went our separate ways as our tickets dictated and readied ourselves for an evening of punk rock.

The Damned were excellent and played all the songs people wanted to hear. Their set was tight and they were a lot of fun. They have been around, absent a few years hiatus, since the mid-1970s. “Not bad for a bunch of old cunts,” said lead singer Dave Vanian. “And we’re pretty good too!”

Rancid played next and ripped through a tight set of fan favorites. Tim Armstrong looks like the kind of Bowery drunk that never learned how to groom his beard, and lumbered around like he was about to fall flat on his face, but then he would play some sweet lead riffs and hit every note. Lars Frederiksen gave a nice shout out to some of his favorite New York hardcore bands, and watching Rancid’s bass player Matt Freeman play is almost worth the price of admission alone.

Punk rock wasn’t created in large venues. It was born from seedy clubs in New York and London at a time when the rock and roll featured in stadiums had become a bloated parody of itself. The kind of loud, in-your-face sound that punk perfected is difficult to reproduce in a venue as large as Madison Square Garden. The Misfits didn’t have the big sound I expected. The songs were tight enough (and much tighter than any old footage you find of them in the 1980s when they were generally sloppy live).

If I had not gone to see the Misfits, I would have regretted not making the effort. They played well enough that I left not feeling ripped off. We may not get a chance to see this lineup again, and the songs are as excellent now as they were when I first heard them.

Remember that almost every musician you see gloating onstage in a large venue has at some point hauled their own equipment into a shitty club to play for five people. Every aging rock star jackass in leather pants riding in a limousine at some point sat on the floor of a van for hours only to be stiffed by a shitty promoter in a city they didn’t know.

At some point the Misfits were nobodies from New Jersey playing loud and sloppy shows to few fans. No matter what lawsuit-driven stupidity brought us these Misfits shows, none of this would matter if the songs they created were not amazing.

All the skulls and spooky theatrics can’t carry you if your songs aren’t good, and Misfits songs are excellent and have stood the test of time. While the “Original” Misfits are an imperfect echo of a past time, Misfits songs are a loud jolt of energy and fun for a world that needs it.

 

Finding Father Mychal F. Judge Street

In early March of 2000, I found my way from Ozone Park to Sunnyside, Queens, for the inaugural St. Pat’s for All Parade. The parade was unique because it welcomed LGBT groups to participate. Most other St. Patrick’s parades at the time did not.

It was the first St. Patrick’s parade I marched in, representing a human rights group that monitored the contentious marching season in the North of Ireland. The parade included many of the standard Irish groups and local politicians but also featured an LGBT marching band, a traditional Korean dance troupe, and other organizations that are not strange in Queens but do stand out in a St Patrick’s Day parade. The parade gathered news coverage (Hillary Clinton was there, running for Senate) and a few religious protesters upset that St. Patrick’s name was being use to make friendly with the gays.

During the march, I noticed a Catholic priest in a brown robe shaking hands with people aside the parade route. Oh no, I thought to myself, what litany of lies did the parade organizers tell this poor priest to get him here? He’s going to have a heart attack when he sees the gay marching band.

But that priest did not have a heart attack upon seeing the gay marching band. The priest was Father Mychal Judge.

Father Judge is most famous for being the New York Fire Department chaplain who perished in the September 11 attacks; he is listed as the first official casualty of that day. But long before his untimely death, Father Judge was a bridge between the multitudes of New York communities. At a time of increasing hostility between the Catholic Church’s leadership and LGBT groups, he made it part of his mission to minister to gays and lesbians and people with AIDS. He was dedicated to helping the homeless and people suffering drug and alcohol addiction, and he led a peace mission in Ireland. Few others would have been able to shake hands with cross-wielding protesters and break bread with a gay marching band on that same morning in Queens.

In his last homily, delivered the day before he was killed at the World Trade Center, he spoke to firefighters in The Bronx. He spoke about the unpredictable nature of life and how everyone has their part to play, that each one of us has a place.

“That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job – which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.” 

September is freshly ended and with it, most of the commemorations of the September 11 attacks. One of the best traditions, the Stephen Siller Foundation Tunnel to Towers 5k, is held the last Sunday in September.

On a rainy October evening, I was making my way home from midtown after a long workday. A fire engine was driving down the street and was stuck at an intersection of 6th Ave. and 31st Street. Despite having the right of way, the firefighter at the wheel waved pedestrians across.

I discovered I was crossing Father Mychal F. Judge Street, a segment of West 31st that runs past his church, St. Francis of Assisi. It was named in his honor in 2002. FDNY Engine 1/Ladder 24 station is nearby. It would have been disrespectful to ignore the sign and continue on with the regular rush of the afternoon commute. I stepped out of people’s way and took a photo of the sign.

There are few New Yorkers who represent the resiliency and humanity of our city the way Father Mychal Judge did. His sacrifice has special meaning for firefighters and those who lost loved ones in the September 11th attacks, but the life he lived symbolizes the best of us and serves as an inspiration the world over. It always will.

Old punks don’t die, they just do more cocaine

Capturing the New York punk scene better than anyone since the death of Lester Bangs is The New York Waste, and picking up the Waste is a must. When I first started reading it almost two decades ago, it introduced me to the best punk rock bands on the scene at the time. It featured cool photos of the Lunachicks and the Toilet Boys and the Bullys, awesome mention of The Spunk Lads and others. Paging a little farther, what did I find but ‘Last in Line for the Gang Bang, a comic biography of G.G. Allin.’

For those unaware, G.G. Allin was a punk rock musician infamous for his violent and obscene performances. He may be better known today as his legend has grown with retellings of his stories and the admiration of musicians who have broken into the mainstream. But in the early 2000s, only a select and disturbed few were allied in their admiration of the late self-described “scumfuck.” (Insider’s note: despite his violent habits, G.G. Allin was a gifted songwriter who left a prolific legacy of excellent punk rock and country music before his untimely end at age 36 in 1993.)

So the fact that someone was producing a comic strip serial biography of G.G. Allin bowled me over. That such an awesome artistic endeavor was underway and had an audience getting it free through the New York Waste made me realize I had found a great home in the punk scene of New York. The Big Apple became a little less lonely knowing that there were other sickos out there.

Discreetly inked into the margins of every comic strip was a web site address for a local punk rock band, World War IX. The band’s guitar player, Justin Melkmann, was the talented cartoonist documenting G.G. Allin’s life.

At the same time, I began looking to start my own punk rock band, and was soon working on original songs with, as the luck of the Internet would have it, Bruce Steinert from the band Buzzkill. We needed a singer.

“I’m friends with a guy who our band would play with back in the day in New Jersey. He used to do things like take bloody meat out of his pants and throw it at the audience,” Bruce mentioned at rehearsal, speaking of the New Jersey band Daisycutter.

“That sounds like our guy,” I said. “Call that guy.”

Soon afterwards, Seth Amphetamines entered the picture and became the singer of what would be Blackout Shoppers. There are not too many people who can command a stage and make the entire venue the center of punk rock chaos in the way that Seth can, and that’s a good thing. It’s an acquired skill to engage with the audience in a mosh pit with great passion without creating lasting hostility or becoming one of the bogus tough-guy copycats that have created so many boring hardcore bands over the last few decades.

Seth is the only singer I’ve seen who has gotten members of the audience angry enough to throw beer cans at him only to have them share beers afterwards. Whatever violence he dishes out is in without hate or malice, and in sincere appreciation of old school hardcore punk.

I went to see World War IX at CB’s basement, which was part of a still-existent CBGBs at the time (where Blackout Shoppers would play its first show in a complete fluke later that year), and introduced myself to Justin. He was glad to meet someone who enjoyed his comic and we vowed to stay in touch.

Not soon afterwards, World War IX and Blackout Shoppers played the first of many shows together. It’s an alliance that has lasted about a decade and a half. We’ve put out a split seven-inch record together. Blackout Shoppers’ guitar player Mike Moosehead now plays in World War IX, and World War IX’s drummer Johnny Special K has filled in on drums for Blackout Shoppers. Blackout Shoppers came back from an official hiatus at a show where World War IX bid farewell to its singer Philthy Phill. It’s an incestuous bouillabaisse that only works in punk rock or among inbred Mormon fanatics, and we love it.

This month, both Justin and Seth turn 50, and the bands are celebrating with a show together at Otto’s Shrunken Head, one of our favorite places to play. It will be an evening filled with alcohol, music and good times. Please join us.

 

 

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