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.