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!
Fifteen years ago, it was a cold night in an apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn where maybe two dozen people gathered for a Burns Night party. Burns Night is January 25 and celebrates the birthday of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet who lived in the late 1700s.
Several of us had brought our volumes of Robert Burns’ poetry, and at any point during the party, a partygoer would shout “Poem!” and silence the festivities for a reading of Burns poem.
The host had traveled to a meat distributor in New Jersey to obtain authentic haggis, a traditional Scottish dish comprised of a sheep’s offal and other ingredients served inside an animal’s stomach. A central ritual of the Burns Night party consisted of our host cutting open the haggis while someone read the Burns poem ‘Address to a Haggis.’
These Burns Night parties were a testament to the greatness of New York City and to the promise and meaning of Brooklyn to so many people. These were eclectic gatherings that showed the power of art to transcend time and place. Here were people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds celebrating a Scottish poet. The host, Roger, is a Peruvian Jew who grew up in Detroit. There was at least one real Scotsman at these parties, or at least he looked the party with a kilt. Maybe none of us had a drop of Scottish blood. Who cares? The power of Burns’ poetry transcends.
Among the guests at Roger’s parties were his frequent music collaborator Scott and Scott’s wife Diane. I once got to dog sit for Scott and Diane’s amazing dog Connolly (full name: Satchel Connolly X) – I picked up their house keys at a local diner where they knew the owners, walked their dog and explored Prospect Heights, which was a real neighborhood.
They were among the most active voices opposing the Atlantic Yards Project, a corrupt boondoggle that forced people out of their homes and businesses to construct luxury housing and a sports stadium. That fight was lost and the Barclays Center now sits on what used to be the part of the vibrant and eclectic Prospect Heights neighborhood. To this day I have not set foot inside the Barclays Center.
Roger returned to Detroit and Scott left Brooklyn and ended up in New Orleans. Diane remained in Brooklyn for a while after their breakup but she later moved to Westchester. All these people are doing well. Roger continues to write brilliantly, Scott has had his photos exhibited and Diane is a Fordham professor who recently published a book.
Those parties and those three people in particular represented Brooklyn to me like nothing else. They had each had come to New York and conquered it on their own, leaving great music and art in their wake. When those three people left Brooklyn, it was a sure sign that the things that made Brooklyn special were gone forever. If the people who embodied the spirit of Brooklyn more than anyone I knew were had left, then Brooklyn had outlived its usefulness.
That’s not to say there is nothing good about Brooklyn. I still go to Coney Island and Prospect Park and there are still music venues in Brooklyn worth your while. But for the most part when I think of Brooklyn I think of overpriced real estate and the hordes of well-off people who are driving up the price of everything.
But people who attended Roger’s Burns Night parties years ago have not forgotten them. A friend recently spent Burns Night at Peter Luger’s Steak House and recited some Burns poems to his family and friends. Diane mentioned Burns night in a school lesson about ethnic foods and culture; sadly her students had not heard of Burns Night.
Roger posted his memories of Burns Night online, noting how he first came across a reading of Burns poetry inside a pub in New Jersey, and woke up the next day in New York determined to be one of the people who would recite Burns poetry.
I stayed up late with my volume of Burns poetry, and read The Bonnie Wee Thing to my wife while holding her hand. It was not the happening party of years ago, but I could not go to bed on Burns Night without reading a Burns poem.
The Burns Night parties in Brooklyn of long ago are gone, but as long as I live I will keep them alive in spirit, and I am not alone.
Coney Island is an endless summer draw for New York. It has a large beach, world-famous amusement park rides, and a seedy underbelly that gives it character. Coney Island has kept its lowbrow edge despite waves of gentrification and upscaling happening throughout New York but with particular intensity in Brooklyn. Williamsburg used to be a dangerous place to be. Now it’s only dangerous if you live in a rent-controlled apartment.
One of the attractions that has been added over the last two decades of revitalization is MCU Park, which opened as KeySpan Park in 2001. The field hosts the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.
My wife, who is much more adept at sourcing and planning family outings, discovered a good value in the Flock, a children’s club that includes tickets to several games for the entire family.
We got to Coney Island and found an expensive pay lot close to the stadium. With low clouds rolling in, fogging the tops of the nearby apartment buildings, we decided to get something to eat before submitting to the amoral monopoly of stadium snacks. In the short distance between MCU Park and the original Nathan’s, we started feeling raindrops. Nathan’s was mobbed, but close by was Pete’s Clam Stop, which had large plastic bench-style picnic tables in a small dining area. We ducked in, found a seat, and ordered food.
Pete’s Clam Stop was a good discovery. Its hot dogs were just as good as Nathan’s with the same traditional snappy flavor and they also had large fries that were a bit big and unwieldly but were in the crinkle-cut tradition (they even served them with a small French fry fork.) Pete’s also has fresh clams and oysters on ice, and hand-painted signs encouraging customers to eat clams to help to have a child and to eat oysters if one wanted to have twins. I had not heard this bit of old wives’ tale wisdom, and since we already have twins plus one, we did not feel the need to sample the oysters or clams.
The rain picked up heavily as we ate our food, watched World Cup Soccer on TV, and enjoyed the camaraderie of other Coney Island visitors making a lunch stop to duck out of the rain. The picnic tables became filled with people sharing the space. A woman with her kids at the table with us remarked on two of our daughters’ red hair.
Before long the rain was gone and the sun was out by the time we headed back to the ball park.
We got to meet two of the players and got them to sign our daughters’ t-shirts. They all became too shy to get their photo taken with the players. The highlight of the Flock benefits was getting to go on the field near second base for the national anthem. Unfortunately, the field at MCU Park is artificial turf, so it feels as if you are walking on a cheap shag carpet with some extra padding underneath.
With three small kids, I spent more time herding them and trying to quell their tantrums than I did actually watching baseball. If I were a baseball aficionado or cared about seeing a future baseball superstar in action I might be disappointed, but I don’t really follow baseball and I’m a Yankees fan anyway (the Brooklyn Cyclones are a Mets farm team), and time is better spent with family. It is more enjoyable to share ice cream with a four-year-old than to watch someone throw a fastball. The Cyclones won the game 1-0, beating the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team.
While our seats were in the last row of the stands, they were still field-level seats and comparable seats at a major-league ballpark would have been unaffordable for a family of five. Snacks were still overpriced, but the ticket deal that my wife found included some snack vouchers, so that allowed me to actually not spend money on overpriced stadium snacks.
Our seats were shaded so we escaped the worst of the sun. Still, it was an exhausting day. We drove home, buzzed from weariness, but also excited about having more Coney Island adventures.
The stars were aligned the right way and we got the band back together. This past Saturday, the 2008 version of my band Blackout Shoppers played five songs at Hank’s Saloon. It was somewhat of a miracle that we managed to play a halfway-decent half set, given that we hadn’t played together in years and didn’t have time to rehearse.
It was good to be among friends again playing music. And it was fitting that we held this fleeting reunion at Hank’s Saloon.
Hank’s Saloon is a quintessential New York institution and it’s a miracle that it’s still standing. That being said, it will be closing down sometime after September, the latest music venue to close up shop.
Hank’s is both a dive bar, a music venue for every type of music imaginable, and a holdover from a past New York era that has managed to live on while its surrounding succumbed to the Brooklyn real estate juggernaut.
Characterized by the flames painted on the outside as well as the band stickers that some reckon are holding the building together, Hank’s is a small place with a concrete floor and a stage that is barely a foot off the ground. Tucked into the back, playing the Hank’s stage is a bit like playing in a cement box. It is hard to see the stage from most of the bar, and the sound can be wonky unless you are close to the stage, but some of the best shows I’ve ever seen or played have been at Hank’s. It is home to many genres of music and like any perfect dive bar, just about anyone can feel at home there.
But late last year the inevitable news came out: Hank’s will be closing after this September. It stands to reason: in today’s Brooklyn anything remotely soulful or authentic is strangled to death by the high cost of doing business. Someone can make more money putting up an absurdly expensive apartment building there, so why don’t they? Good music, which is priceless, can’t often pay the rent.
There was a time not long ago when I would have railed to the uncaring sky about the injustice of it all. I would have felt rage instead of pity towards the naïve hipsters spending their parents’ money on overpriced apartments in the slums their grandparents worked hard to avoid. Instead I am grateful for the good times I have had at Hank’s and other places. I am thankful I was able to play at Hank’s one last time, to enjoy the music and the moment and take a lot of photos.
Hank’s can go out proudly, having outlived most of its competitors in a part of the city that is gentrifying at a dizzying pace. It has a special place in the hearts of New York music fans.
I was in California on September 11, 2001. I was there for work in a hotel room getting ready to go to a conference the company I worked for was putting on. I heard someone pass by my hotel room door talking on a cell phone saying someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. By the time I turned on the television, the South Tower had already collapsed and a plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. I knew right away that our country was under attack and I felt helpless and angry. I watched the North Tower collapse in my boxer shorts with shaving cream all over my face.
My story is not unique. I’m among the millions of New Yorkers who watched savages destroy thousands of innocent lives and remake our skyline. But hand-in-hand with the horror and anger is the unrivaled admiration for the first responders that gave their lives and showed that people could be at their best when things were at their worst.
One of those first responders was Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn – Battery Tunnel to get to the Trade Center on the day of the attacks and perished in the South Tower collapse.
The event loses none of its effect if you’ve done it before and if you haven’t done it, you should.
The run begins with a lot of waiting around. For an event this large, it is well-organized but it still means large, slow-moving crowds. The run ceremony began at 9 and the run officially starts at 9:30 a.m. I was in Wave C, the third wave of runners, and I didn’t cross the START line until 10 a.m.
First responder groups, corporate groups, school groups, teams of family members paying tribute to their fallen loved ones, college students there for fun and adventure—almost every kind of city denizen is present at the 5k. Firefighters come from all over the world to run in homage to Siller, many of them doing it in their heavy firefighting gear. This is no easy task in the Indian summer heat.
Standing around waiting in the hot sun will get you tired before the race begins, and then the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is very hot and crowded. People who had every intention of running may find themselves on the sidelines walking, with others trying to get around them. It’s a bad jostle but a jovial one, with chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! breaking out spontaneously throughout the passage.
The Tunnel to Towers run and walk is perhaps the largest gathering in the city that can still generate massive amounts of goodwill and cooperation. Runners and first responders thanked one another. There were high fives and handshakes all around. Despite tens of thousands of people constantly bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s feet, I heard no harsh words uttered and saw no arguments; try finding that on your average subway commute.
The sacrifices of those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 cannot be sullied by contemporary political strife or bent to serve a narrow purpose. These sacrifices are heroism in their truest and purest form, and the solemn honors we pay to those heroes help give our city a form of peace.
A friend who lost two cousins in the Trade Center attacks did the run today – and raised $10,000 for the Stephen Siller Foundation this year alone—had this to say afterward:
“Today I saw love and beauty, respect and pride, camaraderie and patriotism. I saw love. Everywhere. I didn’t see dissent. Hatred. Anger. I saw love. And for that, I’m truly grateful.”
I’m standing outside of Hank’s Saloon on the corner of Third Avenue and Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn on the Saturday before Halloween. I’m there to play some punk rock songs as part of Green Hell, the Misfits cover band that has somehow managed to have a few reunion shows this year.
Hank’s Saloon is a ramshackle dive bar that still hosts live music. It’s a miracle that the place is still standing as Brooklyn’s booming real estate market has created an almost non-stop construction zone all around it. There was once a Walgreen’s across the street. Now there is a luxury high rise, The Hendrik, being constructed. A two-bedroom apartment in the Hendrik will cost you nearly $2 million dollars if you want to slum it; the four-bedroom penthouse will cost about $4 million. The developers had the sense to list it as being on Pacific Street since Atlantic Avenue, the larger thoroughfare, doesn’t have the sterling ring to it.
Farther up Atlantic Avenue is The Barclays Center where the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Islanders play. The Barclays Center was the death knell for Brooklyn culture for a lot of New Yorkers. Local artists and musicians were among those who fought tooth and nail against this stadium, which is a big ugly mark against the city and exhibit A in the corrupt influence of large developers on government. So far I’ve avoided setting foot in that place (I’m a Knicks and Rangers fan anyway).
Because it’s Halloween weekend, lots of people are coming by in costume. One such patron at Hank’s is a man dressed in brown with what look like several blond wig pelts hanging from his body and a face mask and head piece that look as if a giant tongue has replaces his head. As he enters Hanks, someone from a car stopped at the red light on Atlantic and Third shouts to him, “What is your costume?” He doesn’t answer because he’s not sure himself.
“You’re getting a lot of attention from motorists,” I tell him.
“Yes I know,” he says. “I took the subway here and people didn’t know what to do.”
“Are you a giant tongue?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I am. I don’t believe in being any existing character.”
He said he initially had some kind of Donald Trump costume in mind, thus his plentiful supply of artificial blond hair and emphasis on a large mouth. But he decided to do something completely unique instead. I ask him to pose for a photo outside of Hank’s and he obliges, crouching down and doing a strange dance like you’d expect a giant tongue-man to do.
There are still plenty of skels around to testify to the traditional low desirability of this area. Atlantic Avenue still houses several Islamic bookstores and places of worship. A few of these Mohammedans were in a heated discussion as I walked to get something to eat with Filthy Phill, lead singer of World War IX, one of New York’s finest punk bands. He used to live not far from the area in Park Slope, but hardly recognizes anything now. We were looking for a Halal cart for some dinner before the show, but didn’t find one and settled for Shake Shack; it was delicious.
We got back to Hank’s and the show started. People performed in costume and everything was fun. It was not a large gathering but a lot of longtime friends where there and the music was good. It was great to see many of my music friends.
Green Hell forgot to bring set lists but it was no matter. We figured out what to play and the crowd loved singing along to the Misfits covers. By the end of the night, people were happy to have seen us and we were glad to have played our two shows in the city for some appreciative friends and fans.
We loaded up my pickup truck with gear and brought it to Skum City’s rehearsal space on the Lower East Side. I dropped a truck full of friends on the Upper East Side before driving home. One of them asks me if I miss hauling people and equipment around the city at all hours of the morning. I do and I don’t. I can’t do this every weekend of course, but if I go a year without doing some music in some way I just don’t feel right. I told friends of mine on tour one time: The only thing worse than being in a thankless punk band is not being in a thankless punk band.
I got home at nearly four in the morning exhausted but extremely grateful that there are still places people can celebrate art and music, even among the construction of a future city we won’t recognize. We can go back to our regular lives a little better. As long as there is even some small critical mass of us, all is not lost.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his idea to put in a light rail that would connect Brooklyn and Queens. With the exception of Red Hook and Sunset Park, his light rail system would not be bringing public transit to places that need it but rather add additional tourist glut and uber-gentrifying cachet to areas already overpriced and tourist heavy.
The idea sounds great at first. The public transit system in New York is abysmal and the outer borough are woefully underserved. To get from Southern Brooklyn to Northern Queens would require a lengthy detour through Manhattan or an epic journey of Byzantine bus transfers that would see you grow old or give up on life before you were halfway there.
The proposed rail runs only along the East River waterfront of Brooklyn and Queens. Some of these areas, such as Astoria, Queens and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are already served by rail system and there are not too many people commuting between Sunset Park and Astoria.
With our subway dollar stretched thin and the MTA constantly cutting service while increasing fares, de Blasio says he’ll rake in the $2.5 billion he needs to build this light rail system from the increase in property tax that will result from the light rail being built. So he’ll wring money out of rich people who will somehow welcome this sorry trolley outside their homes and this will help the working class people of Red Hook and Sunset Park commute to Astoria where there are no good jobs waiting for them.
Whatever de Blasio’s motives or likelihood of the light rail system coming into being, the issue highlights two central problems of New York City transit: Our transit system is very Manhattan-centric to its own detriment and New York City does not have enough control over its own transit system.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, though it generally serves New York City, is controlled by New York State. Whatever we need to do here in the five boroughs has to pass through several gatekeepers in Albany. The bureaucracy is twice-removed from the systems it operates, and it shows in every step of the system’s operation. The New York City transit system is among the most extensive in the country and it runs 24 hours, but that’s more of a remark about how sad the state of public transit is in the U.S.A. rather than a statement about how good New York City’s transportation is.
Every weekday morning I give myself an hour and a half to travel 11 miles, and I’m sometimes late. My first day back at work this year after the holidays, it took me more than two hours to get to work, even after I left the subway in disgust in Jackson Heights and took a cab the rest of the way to work.
New York City is comprised of 304.6 square miles and Manhattan comprises only about 33 of them. I have nothing against Manhattan and it makes sense for it to have a large transit infrastructure to deal with commuters going to work every week, but this leaves the most of the city underserved. Even many parts of Manhattan are not well served by the subway system – the Second Avenue subway has been a running joke for decades. They expanded the terrible 7 line so that people can go to the Javitz Center with greater ease – well not with greater ease since it involves having to take the 7 train. That the 7 train is an overcrowded clusterfuck in every way imaginable doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar to fix.
This latest proposal from the mayor looks like it will go the way of so many well-intentioned and poorly planned transit fixes. When it gets built, if it gets built at all, it will be way over budget and of limited usefulness.
I wish I could be more hopeful, but the line as planned will not go into any of the parts of the outer boroughs that are not served by a rail system, so the people still not served by our subways will still be out in the cold, waiting for the bus.
New York City is largely spared the horrors of Black Friday shopping brawls. A security guard was trampled to death a few years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, right outside of Queens, but within the five boroughs we have a better history of crowd control. And few of our poor people have cars. There’s not a lot of motivation to try to haul a 60-inch plasma screen TV home on the subway.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not enough misery to go around. Last year I was trying to get to a restaurant in midtown the night of the Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center. Not only were the usual crowds heading to the tree lighting, but protesters objecting to a grand jury not indicting police offers in the Eric Garner case were headed that way also in an attempt to disrupt the ceremony or at least get on television. It was the only time in my life I walked towards Times Square to avoid worse crowds.
New York City has some great iconic holiday sights and experiences, all of which most New Yorkers avoid like the plague. The tree at Rockefeller Center, the windows of Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue, the laser light show at Grand Central Terminal are all great things that are mobbed with tourists to the point of not being truly enjoyable unless you are a tourist just happy to be there.
Here are some alternative and authentically New York holiday experiences you can consider to keep more money and sanity through the season.
For alternative shopping options, you should go visit The Kinda Punky Flea Market – Holiday Style is set to take place in Brooklyn at the Lucky 13 Saloon on December 20. I can’t think of a better place to shop for people with good taste. The Lucky 13 Saloon is a cool vestige of pre-insanity Brooklyn and attracts the interesting artists and musicians you thought had been run out of the borough entirely. There is also the Morbid Anatomy Flea Market at The Bell House in Brooklyn (there’s a high potential hipster factor at this one, but it might be worth it).
Plenty of people will buy expensive tickets to see Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall. I went there more than a decade ago and deeply regret not screaming “SLAYER!!!” at the quiet moment between the third and fourth movements. Radio City Music Hall’s holiday show is a by-the-numbers holiday show with the Rockettes and Santa Clause, but there are better shows that will give you an excuse to visit Radio City Music Hall. The Holiday Show in Astoria Queens will fill you to the brim with holiday punk rock goodness from some awesome bands. Astoria is not hard to get to and you’ll get a taste of real New York City punk. If you prefer more traditional holiday classical music, consider instead the holiday concert by the Queens Oratorio Society on December 20 in Queens.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx started on Nov. 21 but it runs into the New Year. I have gone on New Year’s Eve and the crowds were not that bad. You’ll be impressed with the models of New York City landmarks made from plants. The trains are interesting too.
And if you would just rather look at some pretty trees and other holiday decorations, then you can avoid the overcrowded Hades of Rockefeller Center and enjoy the Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History or the UNICEF Snowflakes near Central Park.
Walking towards Brooklyn Bridge Park this past weekend on a family outing, we came across the sight that represented everything not to like about Brooklyn. I even took a photo of it because it summed up so much of what is wrong with our city and world.
There was a long line in front of a brick oven pizza restaurant. People crowded into a dense rope line like cattle to the slaughter to pay handsomely for the honor, while a little ways up the street they could have gotten more food for less and eaten with real Brooklynites at the Park Plaza Restaurant. And worse than that, they were waiting to pay for brick oven pizza.
Brick oven pizza is a big scam. It should shame New Yorkers that some of our most heralded pizza restaurants are overpriced tourists traps offering crappy food. Somehow the powers that be have convinced millions of people that there is something authentic about eating poorly-made and overpriced pizza.
Take a good honest look at a brick oven pizza if you are ever roped into going to one of these insufferable establishments. You’ll notice that not only is the pizza weak and thin and the cheese coverage extremely spotty, but there will usually be bubbled and burned parts of the crust. You could take off some of these burnt pieces and use them to make a charcoal sketching if you wanted. Everyone pretends that this is good pizza, and brick oven pizza restaurants somehow get away with this even though there are hundreds of good pizza places that can make a delicious and authentic New York pizza.
If visitors to New York were willing to just travel a little farther away from the well-tread tourist areas, this con game could be put to an end faster. Sadly many New Yorkers themselves have fallen into this trap and gush on about some of these places.
Some of the celebrated brick oven pizza places boast that they offer a clam pizza, which really means they are failures in both pizza and seafood. There are too many good restaurants to get pizza and clams, don’t spend your money on the brick oven hype.
The brick oven pizza deception plays into the innate human trait to romanticize the past. While craft and tradition are certainly worth celebrating when they result in something positive, making sub-par pizza just because it’s old fashioned is stupid. Yes, they had brick oven pizza in the 1800s in New York. Do you know what else they had? Cholera and Yellow Fever. We shouldn’t be eating brick oven pizza any more than we should be commuting to work on horseback or leeching our children when they get colds. Let’s embrace those technologies that have improved our lives, including ovens that can cook pizza evenly.
Many people from outside the city are not aware that pizza making has a long history in New York and they wrongly believe that they must choose between the artisanal and brick oven swindlers and the legion of national chains that are sadly permeating New York neighborhoods. This is a false choice. The five boroughs and many surrounding areas are full of small, independent pizza parlors that can make you a delicious pizza.
Brick oven is a “brand” now. Just like you can charge extra money by calling something “artisanal” or “natural.” I have no doubt that bad pizza makers are baking their abominable pizzas in regular ovens and then just charging extra for it. They’re laughing at their self-satisfied marks who think they are somehow more “authentic” New Yorkers for being dumb enough to get taken by this racket.
It took years for this sham to get its hooks in the public and it may take longer to get people to open their eyes to the fact that they are paying more for less pizza.
So please, say no to the brick oven pizza hustle. There are still many independent pizza parlors that make real New York pizza.
It has taken Brooklyn less than a decade to achieve the kind of overpriced cultural rot that normally takes a generation in other places.
There have been some very large events that illustrate this: the demolition of the beautiful Prospect Heights neighborhood to build the ugly Barclays Center being a landmark event that marks a shameful chapter in city history.
Brooklyn wears its shame again as two very excellent music venues have found it necessary to close their doors. The Trash Bar and The Lake are two places where I’ve seen and played some of the best shows ever. Their closing demonstrates how lousy, overrated and overpriced Brooklyn has gotten.
With the rapid rise of real estate in Manhattan, the outer boroughs became a refuge for the arts, and many music venues moved or set up in Brooklyn.
The Trash Bar quickly became Brooklyn’s home for punk rock shows that were chased out of Manhattan. Many of the great traditional punk shows that had made their place in Manhattan were now at the Trash Bar: Murphy’s Law’s St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and New Year’s Eve shows were held at The Trash Bar. When our band, Blackout Shoppers, had its 10th Anniversary show, it was at The Trash Bar. Some of our best shows were there. We were honored to play a tribute show to Norman Bates and the Showerheads’ J. Garino there that included a reunion of The Six and Violence. The Bullys held their Johnny Heff tribute shows there after they lost their regular spot in Manhattan. For many years a picture of Johnny Heff, the Bully’s guitar player who was a New York Firefighter who lost his life in the September 11 attacks, looked over the stage.
Also in Brooklyn, at an address the owners prefer not to publish, is The Swamp, formerly known as The Lake, formerly known only by its street address. Not far from the Montrose stop of the L train, The Swamp is just a few blocks away from a major Brooklyn thoroughfare but in a quiet-looking, industrial area. It serves as a great example of how punk rock has been kept alive by DIY spaces. The Swamp was basically a very large apartment that was run as a venue by people who lived there. They built a stage and bleacher seating in a room that served as a performance space. It was a great punk rock venue like no other. When my wife and I got married, we threw a wedding celebration there that featured some of our favorite bands. Less than a year later, Blackout Shoppers held an album release concert there to mark the long overdue completion of our second album. The Swamp also hosted reggae and other shows and it hosted combined punk and reggae shows that packed them in. It was an honor to play shows there and it will be sorely missed.
Brooklyn stopped being an “up and coming” borough nearly 10 years ago. It’s now an overrated playground for the wealthy and clueless. There are a few artists and enclaves still fighting the good fight, but it’s a losing battle against the tides of money and history.
We will welcome you all to Queens and the Bronx.
Last Friday, my band Blackout Shoppers was fortunate enough to be one of several bands to play for the last time at The Trash Bar. A great music venue, The Trash Bar has been a great place to see a show. They have a great sound system and manage to bring a wide array of music there.
Trash Bar is the kind of live music venue that used to thrive in Manhattan, and now it’s found itself priced out of Williamsburg. It’s the latest victim of the city’s own success and Brooklyn’s transformation from downtrodden borough to one of the most expensive places in the world to live.
The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn used to be a bad place. Frank Serpico was shot not far from the Williamsburg Bridge. Apartments in that building are now listed for sale at up to $1 million.
Williamsburg is where young artistic types began moving to at the end of the last century because space was cheap and the area was close to Manhattan. But creative young people can’t afford to live in the popular parts of Brooklyn anymore. The kind of people more likely to move to these areas now are wealthy people who had traditionally occupied the more upscale parts of Manhattan. A recent episode from the TV show Broad City captured this perfectly. One of the show’s main characters is chatting with three high-priced lawyers. They all tell her that they currently live in Murray Hill (a high-priced part of Manhattan) but that they are all moving to Williamsburg.
It follows a familiar pattern, a pattern we saw in the East Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan: A run-down area attracts enthusiastic artists and musicians because living is cheap. Those artists make the area desirable, which raises property values. Those property values drive away the artists and their venues that began the rejuvenation.
While it was the place that music venues fled to when Manhattan became too overpriced, Williamsburg is losing the art and music that made it attractive.
Bushwick has become the new Williamsburg, although the pace of gentrification seems to speed up in some respects. Prices on apartments start to rise in advance of the vanguard of gentrification that makes a neighborhood safe. Williamsburg has been relatively safe for a while now, but Bushwick is still more dangerous with higher crime.
This kind of gentrification has been going in the city for years. Since the time of the Dutch settlers, this has been a city in flux. Nothing stays for too long. The churn of commerce and change is constant. The city wouldn’t thrive otherwise.
It’s true that the city is losing some of its trademark characteristics and grit. No doubt part of Big Apple lore is lost forever. It’s not all bad though. I’m glad I can walk down the Bowery without being afraid for my life, though I’m sad that there aren’t as many music venues there.
Williamsburg been overpriced for years, but I didn’t think that Trash Bar would get priced out of existence in a decade. It brought in big crowds and even catered to the obnoxious yuppies and hipsters with some of its live music and its karaoke. The show we played Friday night was well attended. The bands played great and it sounded excellent. Everyone left it all on stage and we walked out with our heads held high.
And that’s all you can do as a New Yorker. Change is never going to stop, so don’t let it stop you. There will be new places to make and see music. The pioneer spirit that brought the Dutch to the New World and brought rock clubs to formerly desolate and dangerous parts of the city can’t be killed off, it’s just moving to a new neighborhood.
New York is the best place in the world to see theater in the English speaking world. You’d have to go to London to come close to what New York has to offer in terms of plays being produced. Chicago has a thriving theater scene, but it still doesn’t compare to New York’s.
The one problem with New York’s theatrical offerings is that there is so much good stuff to see that it’s impossible to see even a fraction of the worthwhile productions, and inevitably stuff gets lost in the shuffle.
I had no idea that a well-renowned production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was coming to New York until I read a review of it in The New York Times. The production was brought over from Chicago and stars Nathan Lane in the lead role of Hickey and Brian Dennehy as Larry. The play was scheduled for a very limited run, from Feb. 5 to March 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
I scrambled to get tickets online and managed to get a couple for last Thursday night.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is located in downtown Brooklyn, an area that straddles the line between old-school ghetto and clueless gentrification. There are check cashing storefronts and other run-down areas not far from these stages. And BAM is not one theater but several and it’s easy to go to the wrong place (or in my case two wrong places) if you haven’t been there before.
But once I found the theater everything went smoothly. The BAM Harvey Theater lacks the upscale decorative charm of many of the Broadway theaters but it is otherwise audience friendly. Unlike your average Broadway show, the BAM audience is mostly New York City residents who know basic theater etiquette (I counted only one cell phone going off during the production).
And this production of The Iceman Cometh lives up to the hype. Nathan Lane, who is more of a well-known comic actor, makes a great Hickey. Because the characters he often plays on TV and in movies are so jovial, it puts an added barb to the soul-crushing dialogue and dark personality of his character.
Brian Dennehy’s Larry Slade broods over each act perfectly as well. And the rest of the cast, especially Stephen Ouimette as Harry Hope and James Harms as Jimmy Tomorrow, bring O’Neill’s words to life with gut-wrenching performances.
The play is about five hours long and has three intermissions, but the time passed by easily. When you’re watching a play done that well, you can lose yourself and don’t mind.
The Iceman Cometh resonates very well with audiences because everyone has some part of themselves that’s doubtful, unfulfilled and wanting. No one escapes self-doubt and no one has avoided procrastination and self-pity, though we’d like to think we do. Everyone has a problem facing harsh truths about their own lives, no matter how good your life may be.
Iceman works so well because just about every one of us has been that drunk at the bar, high on liquid courage and doubtless in dreams that we would never see through. Everyone has engaged in self-delusion at some point in their lives, everyone has something in their past that they’re ashamed of. O’Neill’s Hickey knocks the wind out of our sails with his quest to bring us peace by giving up our pipe dreams.
Art this good is always worth the investment of time. If you have a chance to see The Iceman Cometh, go see it.
But one popular trend I refuse to indulge in is growing a beard. It’s becoming more popular for men to grow beards now, and I am proud to be avoiding this. I am going to stay clean shaven.
Beards used to be a sign of virile manhood, they are now as common on mindless hipsters as on real men. The waxed moustache fad is even more obnoxious. I met one person with a waxed moustache who was the real deal, and he was an older Sikh in a three-piece suit who wore a pince-nez when he had to sign some papers.
Usually anyone dressed like this is a young bullshit artist. And beards and waxed moustaches are a sign of a society that is only interested in the shallow trappings of manhood and not actually being a man. Being a man means no bullshit; it means being as much of an independent thinker as possible and looking critically at popular culture.
I indulged in popular grooming for a while when I shaved my head and wore a goatee. Women at the time liked the look and it looked good on me. I had a nice, full reddish-brown goatee that suavely showed off my Irish heritage and gave balance to my face. But too much grey started coming in. My hope was that going bald at a young age would spare me from a premature greying, but I was out of luck. The grey didn’t even show up in a nice salt-and-pepper look, but in a weird pattern that made me look like I was trying to grow a bizarre soul patch.
I refuse to use any products to color the grey out of my beard. That’s cheating unless you color it something flamboyant and strange so that it’s obvious and artistically sound.
Please don’t confuse this as a condemnation of all men with beards. I know plenty of bearded men who walk the walk or who had beards long before they were cool. My father and uncles had beards years before it was cool; they’re the farthest thing from trendy hipsters. My brother has a beard and is even into using fancy grooming products on it. But he was in the Marines, rides motorcycles and owns more guns than I do. These men have earned to right to wear their beards.
And the good news in all of this is that the propensity for beards illustrates a nascent movement to revive traditional manhood in some respect. We live in times when much of polite Western society finds it appealing to emasculate its men. The progressive groupthink classifies anything categorically male as an element of an enemy patriarchy, and that philosophy is intellectually bankrupt. The beards are the start of men wanting to be men again.
Years ago, before I returned to New York, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I had no real plan and to be honest my ambitions have languished at various times. But it’s long overdue that I stepped up my efforts to make waves in the world of fiction as I have long planned, and my effort comes at a time when more writers than ever are fighting to reclaim literature for the real world.
Like other parts of the art world, what is considered literature is often the judgment of a well-heeled clique of self-dealing academics. They feed on the dreams of earnest young writers and take them to the cleaners after convincing them that they need a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to be considered a serious writer.
The MFA programs churn out many hopeful and aspiring writers, and many of them are excellent. But when I look back on the great writers that I admire, none of them made their bones in an academic program, but by scrapping out a living in the real world. The academic journals and programs have a choke-hold on what gets considered literature at the moment, though history will offer a different opinion.
Either way, the current system of academic literature has never been in greater need of a hard kick in its well-powdered derriere. And getting books published at all often requires knowing the right people and getting the right agent.
The Internet has helped writers working outside of this established universe to be heard and even make some money off of their writing. I am honored to know people like Darren Pillsbury, who has more courage than just about anyone I know and moved to California to pursue his dreams as a screenwriter. He wound up excelling in online publishing and is best known for his ‘Peter and the Vampire’ series. He gave me some great advice on how to publish things online. I probably violated plenty of his advice when I put a short story on Amazon and charged too much money for it, but I did it to figure out how to do it.
I’ve been too long avoiding pursuing literary ambitions in earnest because I’ve busied myself with other creative things. In some way they’ve all made me a better writer and a better person. Being in a punk rock band demonstrated that a key to any success is finding good creative people to join you. No one wants to listen to me play bass lines on my own, but I was lucky enough to have excellent collaborators in Blackout Shoppers. Doing comedy showed how not all audiences will respond the same way to the same material. A joke that kills at one gig bombs at another. The key is remembering you have the microphone and pressing on.
The right niche for success likely lies in the more comic short stories that I write. I love writing them and people enjoy reading them. I don’t know how marketable that is. Short fiction doesn’t make much money these days, but so what? I’ve mastered the art of excelling at art forms that are money losers at their core. As one of my excellent musician friends said, “We are middle-aged men with an expensive hobby.”
For a long time I attempted to write what I thought would be what literary types wanted to read, but in reality even moody literary types want to read something interesting. My stories feature people shitting themselves to death, loaning a family member’s corpse out to necrophiliacs, and taking part in operations to kill Islamic militants with Ebola on their toast. I have not done any of these things, but they are more compelling subject matter than most of what passes for literature today. I think I manage to make these stories into literature that will stand the test of time, but even if you don’t think it is art, at least it’s damn interesting.
Too many people, in art and in life, do what they think they are supposed to be doing instead of what is right for them to do. It’s not right for me to try to write weepy sensitive stories about people coming to terms with their emotions. I’d rather write about people saving White Castle from terrorists or punk rock bands doing battle with crack head zombies.
So Monday, Feb. 16 I will be reading a short story at the debut Short Story Open Mic at The Cobra Club in Brooklyn. It is hosted by my good friend Phill Lentz, who lives the mad literary life of music art, blood, sweat and tears. I am honored to be the featured reader.
The reading is a competition. Writers pay $5 and the winner gets the whole pot. The crowd gets to vote on their favorite writer, with drink tickets being used for votes. You could rig the whole thing if you bring enough hard-drinking friends, but it’s still a more fair literary competition than what the academic journals are offering.
So if you have a short story that you can read aloud in five minutes or less, join us at The Cobra Club and put your work out there on the line. You will be living a truly literary life. Be bold.