Testifying to some good news, …and fear of a second wave
Life during this pandemic has taken on a negative pattern. I wake up, I work 12+ hours at home, I have dinner, put the kids to bed, watch an hour of TV (usually Ozark now), and then go to bed. I’m too tired and demoralized to do much productive, and maybe that’s OK right now. My goal is to get through the pandemic without me or any of my family getting sick and remain gainfully employed during the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
On a weekly family Zoom call, we were going around discussing the extremely negative state of affairs in the world, when one of my cousins interjected, requesting that we share at least one piece of good news.
Good news is:
I have a job. I know too many people out of work to complain about my job. I’m gainfully employed, and layoffs are not on the horizon for me any time soon. And sometimes you must remember that any night you can go to bed with a roof over your head and food in your stomach, you are ahead of the game.
My family is healthy. Every sniffle and sneeze make me fearful that we may be stricken with the Coronavirus, and right now one of my daughters has a fever and I am terrified, but we’ve been doing everything right. We have been disinfecting, washing our hands, and staying inside.
There is still plenty of food. While the lack of cleaning products in the stores is alarming, there is still plenty of food despite panic-buying that has set in. Food distribution is being disrupted by the outbreak, and that is getting worse in some cases, but there is no reason for anyone in the U.S. to go hungry, there never is.
This causes us to think. I was on a call with people at work and one of the participants mentioned that he had had dinner with his family every night for three weeks and remarked at how rare and unusual this is. He didn’t seem to realize how seriously wrong this painted the previous status-quo. The Coronavirus pandemic has pulled back the curtain on just how unacceptable “normal” had become.
This will end. We’ll look back on this time and be glad we got through it. This won’t be forever, though hopefully some lessons from it will be.
Fear of a second wave
We are better off staying indoors on lockdown weeks longer than we need rather than risk opening up too early. There is a quest to “go back to normal” because of the economic and psychological impact of this isolation. But reopening things too early without enough available tests and before we’ve gotten through the pandemic means risking a dangerous second wave of the pandemic, which would make things worse.
The closest historical guide we have to what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is the Spanish Flu of more than 100 years ago. The deadliest time of that flu was the second wave of the pandemic in the fall of 1918.
Small protests to reopen in the midst of this crisis earned rightful derision, especially as some protests appeared to circle and block hospitals. The image of medical professionals counter-protesting in traffic in Denver will be a lasting one to remind us that even as much of the world has come together, there were a small minority of pandemic flat-Earthers who pathetically strutted around with weapons and exposed themselves and others to disease.
Too many people are not taking this crisis seriously. The Spanish Flu of 1918 had its naysayers as well, and they felt morally justified in endangering public health. History consistently condemns people who think they know better than the leading scientists of their day; you can’t eliminate these people because hubris and stupidity cannot be killed.
I plan to live long enough to remind my grandchildren how we had such fools in these times too, and how we survived and thrived.
Priorities in the time of pandemic
In New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., life is slowly adjusting to a new, temporary normal that is at once both dreadful and mundane.
What is cruelest about this epidemic is that it keeps us from one another in times of great need and hardship, when the embrace of a loved one is needed most. This past week our family lost a cousin, Greg O’Rourke, to cancer. His brothers and sisters had to take turns visiting him, as visitors are restricted due to this outbreak. One sibling had to wait outside the hospital while the other went in to spend time with him; he passed away during one of these transitions. They will have to take turns visiting his graveside at his burial, and the family will hold a mass and visitation sometime later this year.
Today my wife went to a virtual Shiva using Zoom. Her friend’s husband quickly succumbed to COVID-19; he was hospitalized on Sunday and died Thursday. Doctors were so busy treating his illness it took them a while to notice he had broken his hip when he collapsed at home.
As a family we have not been outside for nearly a month, and I am going out only late at night to buy groceries when we need them. I spoke with a friend of mine who is a history professor. He has spent his career studying biological warfare and pandemics. He said I was doing the right thing, that one can’t be too careful or too paranoid at a time like this. I take some comfort in this, also in that if we had left the city, we may have been going from the frying pan to the fire.
The way to prevent illness is very basic: Stay home, only leave home if you need to, stay six feet away from people when you do, wash your hands, and don’t touch your face.
We’ve all become painfully aware of how often we touch our faces. It’s an awareness that will stay with us when this is over.
This pandemic is of an historic magnitude on par with the Great Depression—some experts predict unemployment could rise as high as 20%, levels not seen since that time. Also, the Depression ushered in a new alignment of a more active government. The U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak runs the gamut from bumbled and patchwork to murderously incompetent. There needs to be a reckoning for this, both here and abroad.
And this crisis comes with a reordering of priorities. We’re talking to friends more, staying in touch with family over the phone or through online chat services because we don’t know when we’ll get the chance to meet again in person. We want to check in with people to make sure they are not forgotten, if there is a way to help. People are getting together to hold benefits, help friends in need; it’s what is most important now.
Some of us are working from home but would rather be doing something that really helps the world; and business as usual, while paying the bills, seems ludicrously clueless and shallow right now.
It’s absurd to get stressed out about work at a time when people are dying of disease outside your door, but I manage to do it somehow. I find myself getting angry over stupid stuff at work. I’ll judge myself harshly for that later.
My family now has a regularly scheduled Zoom conference call on Saturday night, and I use my corporate Zoom account. Will I get fired for that? I don’t care.
New York’s death toll is down, but we’re still in the thick of infection. We’ll keep making plans of all the things we’ll get to do again once this passes. In the meantime, we put our heads down and forge ahead, getting through another day, another week…
Lockdowns, line cutters and other viral lunacy
This is a drastic time we’re in right now, and things may get worse before they get better. Living in New York City means a densely populated area where disease and panic can spread quickly, but it also means being near more hospitals, doctors, and in our case, family and friends.
Drastic measures aren’t a panic when it’s warranted, and the COVID-19 virus warrants it. It spread extremely fast globally and has killed thousands. New York State has three confirmed deaths but there are 3,000 people known to be infected in the United States now and that number will likely go up significantly.
China was able to lock down millions of people at a moment’s notice because it’s a totalitarian state. The government of mainland China values its economic power above any other concerns and sees it as tantamount to its grip on power, so when it was willing to cut off global supply chains of goods, that was a sign that this was a very serious public health problem that warranted similar extreme measures. Of course, they did this after first ignoring and suppressing dire warnings from their own doctors. The extreme measures China put in place worked.
The measures the U.S. is taking now should have been done a month ago and under federal authority. When we first had cases on both coasts, that was a dire warning to public health officials to kick our plans into high gear. Somewhere we have good plans for this, but we don’t have effective leadership that can put the plans we need in place in short order.
I see people online boasting about not panicking and taking part in public gatherings and while many of these are good people who want to act boldly in times of trouble. There is often a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and a global pandemic is no time to play Russian roulette with your health. Yes, you can save lives by staying at home. It’s OK not to see your friend’s band—see your friend’s band a few months from now. This is especially hard on bartenders and people that work with the public; we understand. Unemployment and poverty are terrible; I’ve been there—but you can come back from that, you can’t come back from death.
The scene at grocery stores and wholesale clubs was ugly. People had to wait in the parking lot as shoppers emptied their carts so they could have one to go shopping with. Inside, whole sections sat empty; carts sat abandoned full of groceries as some people gave up waiting on lines that stretched to backs of even the largest stores. Experts tell us that there is plenty of food and U.S. supply chains are strong but people have been panic-buying everything, especially toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
You can still count the worst among us to not change their stripes in times of stress. I went grocery shopping at my local BJ’s Wholesale Club and a rude man cut in front of me and about 100 other people. I called him out on it—I can’t not do that anymore—and he sneered at everyone and hid behind his wife. New lines opened and because I had 15 items or less, I could use the express self-checkout and the line cutter was still waiting on line when I left the store. It’s a bad sign that people are still so smug and entitled during these times but a good sign that this person was not set upon by an angry mob. We’re still holding together as law-abiding.
But just as the virus is on us wreaking havoc with our routines and spreading fear, New Yorkers are adapting. Friends are throwing virtual cocktail parties online. Everyone who can is working from home. My wife is planning to give lessons to the kinds while we wait for the NYC public schools to put online learning in place; we’re taking them outside to places where there are not crowds – our building courtyard; not a populated playground. People are getting by.
Bands that have had their concerts canceled live streamed from more remote locations. Chesty Malone & The Slice ‘Em Ups and the Cro-Mags were among those doing virtual, “quarantine concerts” from rehearsal spaces or closed venues for their fans online. The music doesn’t have to stop. Life will go on – we just need to live the hermetic life for a while as best we can.
New Yorkers have been through worse; the 1918 Influenza epidemic killed 30,000 people in New York City alone and 50 million people worldwide, more than were killed in World War I.
The next few weeks and months won’t be fun, but New York and the U.S. will emerge stronger and more determined than ever.
Bounce Castles and Bratwurst
The July event our family looks forward to ever year is a party held in Connecticut by Evil Jesus, the guitar player for Premature Strangulation. Premature Strangulation hasn’t played since their record breaking* world tour in 2015, but this annual gathering predates the concert series that served as a featured element.
After making a modest batch of Double Satanic Deviled Eggs and packing our children and other necessary accoutrements, we set out to make the journey from Queens to Killingworth. Despite typical heavy I-95 traffic, one children’s bathroom emergency and monsoon-like rains on I-91, we made pretty good time.
The Double Satanic Deviled Eggs were a hit, and others inspired by their long-standing success brought their own delicious but less Satanic versions.
It was a family-friendly event where children were so well occupied that attempts to check on them were met with a mix of perturbation and disgust. Older girls were magnets for young children and were incredibly gracious in minding toddlers. There was even a piñata that yielded great treats for the gathered children, and it was miraculous that no one was rendered unconscious with multiple youths swinging aggressively to break open the treat.
There was plentiful food and drink, but the real attraction is catching up with old friends. Our host, Evil Jesus, has known some of us since high school and others from college. Like his mother’s house was when we were in high school, his home is a center of an expansive social scene, a community. The guests at the party included includes Republicans, Democrats, Christians, atheists, lawyers, housewives, and other derivations of the human condition.
I met a young man who did extensive work in North Korea working to help reunite people with families in South Korea and has a grandmother north of the DMZ who has not seen family for decades. I learned another good high school friend is pursuing his dream of being a radio DJ, and heard about our host family’s recent trip to Paris.
The members of Premature Strangulation were not all there. The band has as many as nine members at any one time, like a more intoxicated and less-well-rehearsed Allman Brothers. Those members who were present discussed the possibility of getting together to play songs again. Maybe next year will be the reunion world tour that their adoring public is waiting for**.
The drive back was along less-crowded highways and under a clouded sky. Buzzing as best one can on diet Pepsi and Five Hour Energy, I was the only one awake for part of the drive. A slender golden moon haunted the night sky with a sense of beauty and adventure yet to come. Fireworks silently illuminated the sky from the far side of the highway.
Evil Jesus did it again. Another great gathering is in the books, and it produced good memories and good times, and a true sense of community. The human race needs more of this.
*largest concert attendance by a cover band in Killingworth Connecticut in the first-half of July on a non-leap year, according to the Evil Jesus Research Institute for Beer and Cynicism
**adoring public may be limited to sympathetic spouses, children, and pets
Camping in the Catskills: Chipmunks, Trout and Bear
Two years ago my wife and I packed our small children into our van and drove to the Catskills for a camping adventure. Based on the success of that year, we chose to head to the mountains again for another vacation spent in the wild.
We chose the Beaverkill Campground, which is outside Roscoe, New York, about two hours’ drive north of New York City. It runs along the Beaverkill River, which is known as one of the country’s greatest trout streams. After turning off the highway, it’s maybe a twenty minute drive through some winding one-lane roads before you reach the Beaverkill campground.
One of the principal attractions of the campground is a one-lane wooden covered bridge that dates to 1865. It sits over the Beaverkill River at one of the most prime fishing spots, and the calm pools beneath the bridge are occupied during the day by fly fishers looking to hook a trout.
Because the bridge is one lane but serves cars in both directions, the proper etiquette is to honk your horn as you head into the bridge. A car coming the opposite direction should honk back to avoid a head-on collision.
Although rain was expected, we managed to arrive at the campsite when it was sunny, and owning to my wife’s expert organizational and general DIY skills, we had our tent up pretty quickly. That night we had our first s’mores of the season.
With small children, we are not in the market for deep-woods camping and gravitate towards campsites with bathrooms and access to showers. That doesn’t mean this was not a wildlife-filled week for us and the kids though. Our campsite had two chipmunks that were bold enough to jump up on our picnic table when we were a safe distance away and got closer to us than chipmunks are normally wont to do. They know campers can be messy and bring a lot of food and these cute rodents were well fed.
The restrooms had lots of bugs, and large beetles found themselves trapped in the sinks and urinals of the men’s room. I took pity on one beetle in the sink and scooped him out before thoroughly washing my hands, but did not attempt to rescue any of the insects trapped in the porcelain hell of the urinal, preferring to let the murderous indifference of nature take its course there.
Because there are bears in the area, there are strict rules regarding leaving food or garbage out overnight. The campgrounds has a garbage bin that it locks up after 8:30 p.m. and any food or garbage you have after that point has to be locked in your vehicle (tough luck if you backpacked in there I guess).
On our third night, I was making my evening journey to the designated garbage/recycling area when I saw a large animal coming down the road that runs between the check-in office and the campgrounds. At first I thought it was a large dog—we met several campers who had large dogs with them—but soon realized that this was in fact A BEAR!!!! It was walking at a slow pace with the mundane expression of easy existence in its (pun intended) bearing.
I thought maybe my eyes deceived me and I quickly deposited my garbage and recycling and started back towards our campsite.
The bear was still walking in my direction.
For a moment it looked as if it was two bears close together, in which case I may between a mother and her cubs, and that is bad news.
I remember reading somewhere that if you come across a mother and her cubs, you are to remain facing them and walk backwards calmly. I did that.
The bear—it was only one after all—saw me and our eyes met for a moment. It turned off the road and headed down a wooded hill. I moved quickly back to our campsite. “I don’t mean to be alarmist,” I told my wife, “but I am pretty sure I just saw a B-E-A-R.”
I sped packing up our campsite for the night, getting all of our food in the van and shut tight. There was no sight of the bear beyond that. I reported the sighting the next day to campground officials. We continued our camping as planned.
We were completely unplugged when we were camping. We had no mobile phone reception and no computers or laptops available. No television, no video games on tablets or anything else. It was good for a change like that, to spend time with family and nothing else. Our kids found adventure in going to the river’s edge and creating their own secret hideout on glacial rocks.
We had mobile phone reception on the few visits to the town or Roscoe, which consists of a few blocks of buildings with only one main street. The dichotomy of the Catskills is evident there. We bought fishing equipment across the street from a guns and ammo store before going to a farmer’s market to buy local honey. There is a railroad museum and several bed and breakfasts there, as well as a grocery store that was our lifeline for ice, batteries, and other necessities.
The real attraction in the Catskills is nature and the abundance of greenery. Being a city dweller, we become accustomed to concrete and glass as our natural environment, and there’s something inherently unhealthy in that. We should be spending more time close to grass and trees, or the green ferns that sprout ubiquitously in the country. I understand why New Yorkers escape to the Catskills and I am not ashamed to be among their number.
We plan to be back north as soon and as often as possible. See you there.
Losing our matriarch
At the start of April, some of my aunts and uncles mentioned to my Grandmother, Mary Sheahan, that her birthday was coming up, reminding her that her birthday is April 10.
“Oh,” she said as casually as if she were discussing the bus schedule. “I’m not going to make that.”
She passed away less than a week shy of her 95th birthday. Her death was not a shock, and we were as prepared, at least bureaucratically, as a family can be.
My Grandmother was born Mary Fogarty in 1924 in Roscrea, Tipperary, in what was then the Irish Free State. There were only 48 United States at that time, and Calvin Coolidge was President. Prohibition would last another nine years in America.
Her father had been in the British Army, enlisting in the early 20th century when all of Ireland was under British control. He had spent time in India and had fought in the First World War, including the fierce Battle of the Marne. When he came to the U.S. he worked as a janitor and had fought for the right to organize a union, winning a court battle to form a union. This sense of right and wrong, and fighting for your principles is one that runs strongly in our family to this day.
My Grandmother married my grandfather, John Sheahan, in 1948 and their first child was born in 1949. At one family barbecue, her oldest son, my uncle Tim, pointed out to her that his birthday was exactly nine months and one day past her wedding date. She giggled and, noticing me observing this conversation, instructed me not to comment. Tim smiled and said, “It was Bear Mountain,” referring to where my grandparents had honeymooned.
I doubt I will ever know anyone who embodies unconditional love and the joy of living the way my grandmother did. Her world centered around her family and with seven children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren, she had a lot of love to share and names to keep straight. Hers was always the voice of kindness and love, and her generosity of spirit never waned. Whether it was caring for my Grandfather through decades of debilitating health problems or facing her own mortality years later, she was always an example of great strength. It was she who went about my Grandfather’s wake comforting others who were weeping, even though it was her moment to mourn more than anyone’s. We would have easily forgiven her a moment or two of self pity, having lost a husband, a daughter, and son-in-law along the way and dealing with difficult health issues in her final years. But she was a rock of strength, sustained by a strong religious faith and a dedication to her family that went beyond what anyone could ever ask.
My Grandmother’s life was her family, and she showed us that the greatest joys are often the ones of simply being present and investing time and care into the lives of the people around you. Her power stretched far beyond her blood relatives and her wake and funeral saw visitors from every part of her life, including people she had worked with decades ago or knew her as a neighbor for only the last few years.
If there is any available measure of the amount of love my Grandmother brought into the world, it was reflected in the care and hard work her own children did during her final months and years. My Father and aunts and uncles worked around the clock taking care of her and navigating through our Byzantine and often inept healthcare system. When her final course was set, relatives flew to New York from all over the country to be with my Grandmother at the end.
When my Grandmother passed, our family became a team effort yet again. My Aunt Patty’s house became a central gathering place, my cousins gave readings at the funeral or served alongside me as pallbearers. My Aunt Peggy arranged for the Ridgefield Chorale to sing at church and they did beautifully. My Father delivered a beautiful eulogy that left not a dry eye in the house and had both humor and inspiration.
One thing that my older relatives taught me is that the work you have to do during a wake and funeral is helpful, in that it keeps your mind occupied on something else other than the loss of your loved one. I was honored to be a pall bearer, and focused on making sure things went smoothly at what is the most heart-wrenching part of the funeral.
In the years after my Grandfather died, my Grandmother described a dream she had. She sees my Grandfather, appearing as he had when younger, dressed sharply in a suit and hat. He strides through the lobby of a building and gets into an elevator. She goes to follow him in but he puts his hand up, signaling this was not her time. The elevator doors close and the car begins its climb without her. I hope this dream replayed again for my Grandmother, and she joins my Grandfather on the elevator this time. The doors now close on the rest of us.
We are without our matriarch, but she has left us with loving instructions in the way of her example. If we live our lives with a fraction of the love, dignity and grace that Mary Sheahan had, we will have earned our rest.
Five years a parent
It is five o’clock on a January morning in 2014 and I’m driving a pickup truck on the Grand Central Parkway. My pregnant wife is in the passenger’s seat. It’s dark and the roads are nearly deserted.
“In a few hours we’re going to be parents,” I tell her. “Isn’t that crazy?” She agrees.
This week our older girls, fraternal twins, will turn five. That’s a half decade of parenting in the can. We have three now, the youngest will be three in June, sharing a birthday with one of her uncles.
Having kids is a definite turning point in everyone’s life, and it brings a kind of happiness that is hard to achieve in other places. But it’s not panacea where unicorns and rainbows to replace the regular sturm und drang of life. All the same stresses and difficulties are there, and now they are there with new mouths to feed and diapers to change. Kids won’t turn you into a better person. You’ll still be an angry curmudgeon if you were one before their birth. But as miserable as your life may get from that point onward, your children will be a consistent reason to be happy, even when they are throwing up on you.
I am extremely fortunate that I went into parenthood with a very wide support network, a steady paycheck and a happy marriage. Not everyone has that. When I was born my parents were half the age I was when I had kids. Neither one had a college degree at the time. I started out way ahead; I have no excuses if my kids become serial killers.
Luckily, our kids are great and continue to inspire us to be better people. I see how bright they are and how they enjoy learning and I want them to never stop loving life or the pursuit of knowledge. Despite the many stresses and strains; my wife and I enjoy our molding, shaping and unconditionally loving these impressionable young lives. It’s an awesome responsibility but also one of unlimited potential.
I vowed not to be the kind of parent that gauged someone’s worth by whether or not they reproduced – I faced enough of that before I had children.
“So do you have a family?” someone asked me at a business reception years before I met my wife. They meant to ask if I was married and had kids, but the question seemed like they were checking to see if I had hatched out of an egg. Well I was raised by wolves and since I’m not biologically wolf I can’t track down the pack that raised me by my sense of smell, so no I guess. —was how I should have answered, but I mumbled a simple ‘no’ and noted I wasn’t married and changed the subject.
And while my kids are crushing life, we must refuse to put their accomplishments in place of our own. No one outside a tight circle of family and friends care how awesome your kids are, and having children is no excuse to fall on your face in every other aspect of life. No slacking.
This weekend we’ll be hosting a kids’ birthday party for the twins with pizza, cake and animals. It will be a big, tiring, stressful day but one that will have a happy ending because we get to spend it with our children.
Five years have gone by fast. Wish us luck on the next fifteen.
Late Christmas trees are the best Christmas trees
My family puts up a traditional Christmas tree. Well, not that traditional. A truly traditional Christmas tree would be paraded through town and then set on fire.
But Christmas is a festive time of year, a time when our shared pagan heritage is proudly on display, albeit via the yoke of Christianity. And, godless as I am, I always put up a Christmas tree, a real tree. I can’t abide plastic shrubbery when the sweet green smell of the forest is so desperately needed by city dwellers.
I have friends who put up their trees before the month of December, and for me this is much too early. And we prefer to wait until at least the 15th in our family, as our girls’ maternal grandfather’s birthday is the 14th, and we do not want to cloud that celebration any more than it already is by holiday circumstance.
Right after Thanksgiving, temporary outdoor Christmas tree shops set up on sidewalks in parking lots, and shopping areas throughout the city. In Inwood, Broadway near 207th Street was my place of choice and the people who often manned that shop had come down from Canada. Some come from Pennsylvania or Vermont or New Hampshire. Last year we bought our tree in the shopping center on Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway Service Road—not the most picturesque place to buy a tree but it got the job done and we went home with a nice tree.
Years ago when I was living alone in Ozone Park, I didn’t get around to getting a tree until Christmas Eve or the day before, and managed to get a $5 tree for $3. I tipped generously but never had that kind of luck again.
My three daughters and I set out on a mission to buy a tree this past Saturday, 10 days before Christmas. We drove to Douglaston, Queens, where a length of sidewalk beside a high church yard wall along Northern Boulevard was an impromptu Christmas tree store. We found parking down a side street and arrived at the tree stand to the sounds of Charlie Brown’s theme song being played over a PA system. The man who helped us with our tree gave candy canes to the girls. Within a few minutes I paid cash for the tree ($58, which is pricy for a tree but by New York City standards that’s a good deal), tipped the guy who helped us, and we were on our way back home.
Our Christmas tree has punk rock ornaments from awesome bands like The Spunk Lads, The Bullys, World War IX, Skum City, and (self-promotional plug here) Blackout Shoppers. And almost all of these come from Superfan Heather, New York’s best and possibly most prolific punk rock band photographer (her boyfriend, Admiral Yammomoto, would be a close second). These ornaments go on the tree every year, as do ornaments made my wife and her brother as children that date back to the 1970s.
Since three young children worked on decorating the tree, my wife had the foresight to separate the non-breakable ornaments and focus on using them to decorate the tree. We’ll have plenty of time to use the fragile ornaments when our girls are older.
With lights and a bit of silver garland, and a healthy heap of ornaments, our tree was ready pretty quickly. We’ll remember to water it and work to be worthy of its pagan heritage.
Dreams of the Mega life
One dark weekday morning and I am standing in my spot at the bus stop, waiting for my bus to work. A car pulls up near the bus stop and a laughing passenger gets out. He’s carrying a plastic bag of clinking beer bottles and wearing a Knights of Columbus satin jacket with a large back patch. He turns and shouts something to the passenger before laughing and starting to walk away.
The sees me standing there in my glum workday “business casual” finery and offers me a beer from his plastic bag. “No thank you,” I tell the man, being appreciative of his generosity. He puts the beer back in his bag and offers me a bottle of hard cider instead. I politely decline again.
He sees I’m going to work and he jokes that he is just getting home from work. He smells of alcohol and emits drunken joviality. Though I left the drinking life nearly a decade ago, I am familiar with this stumbling generosity and the allure of unending good times. Had I followed a different path—different not necessarily meaning better—I could easily be the one drinking until 6:30 in the morning.
I didn’t envy the man being drunk at the crack of dawn, but I envied the ease and appreciation he had for his working life, whatever it is or was. When I get home from work, I am not a bundle of generosity towards strangers but a tired commuter eager to spend some time with my kids before I go to bed, fearful for what work emergencies might consume the rest of my waking day.
This came to mind later that same week when I purchased some tickets for the Mega Millions drawing for a prize that has since ballooned past $1 billion. By any stretch of logic lottery tickets are a waste of time and prey on the poor and working classes. It is people who can often least afford it who spent their money on these dreams printed out on small slips of paper.
The millions of tickets sold for a chance at that prize money was purchased by people dreaming of riches but not necessarily because they want to be rich. People spend their money on lottery tickets because they want to escape the present workday lives that consume much of their time.
A few weeks ago I was able to work from home on a Tuesday and I took my older children to their Pre-K classes. It was one of the best weekdays I’ve had in a long time. The 40-odd minutes I had with my older girls is time I rarely get outside of the rushed weekends. It’s time you can’t get back, and time burns faster than money.
If I had the choice of doubling the money I make at work currently or cutting that in half and not having to go to work every day, no question I would take the latter. And so would a lot of the people who stand on line for lottery tickets. It’s not big mansions or luxury cars we fancy, it’s buying more of our time back for ourselves.
Good luck everyone.
Punk rock’s champion leaves NYC
I knew it was a possibility; he had told me about the idea. But when I got word from Philthy Phill that he was leaving town I was still shocked.
Phill Lentz, better known to the New York punk rock world as Philthy Phill, is the singer for World War IX. He’s much more than that though. Over the 13 years he’s been in New York he’s excelled at stand-up comedy, writing, podcasting, concert organizing, and being a creative jack-of-all-trades that would be the envy of most Big Apple newcomers. He’s conquered New York City without losing the Midwestern disarming charm and good humor that drew some of this town’s finest musicians, artists, and comedians into his orbit.
I first got to know Phill when he was the lead singer in a band called Sexual Suicide. His singing style captured the necessary aggression of the genre while also displaying a keen sense of humor; a you-are-being-subjected-to-our-noise-but-we’re-in-on-this-together vibe. Bands with no sense of humor are miserable to watch. If you had any doubts about Phill’s take on things, the highlight of any Sexual Suicide show was when Phill would put on a Spider Man mask and sing a song about performing cunnilingus on Mary Jane Watson.
He came to New York City from the suburbs North of Chicago in 2003, following a girlfriend who had moved here. Three years later they broke up and he considered moving out of town at that point but decided to stay and drown his sorrows in punk rock.
Phill not only sings but also plays guitar and drums. Over the years he has served as the drummer for Joey Steel and the Attitude Adjusters, the Misanthropes, and toured Canada and Europe with the Scream’n Rebel Angels. I was fortunate to play with him in New Damage.
Phill wrote a book, a long-form short story, written from the point of view of a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who made a living as a Spider Man character for kid’s parties. It was a great read because it celebrated, among other things, the joy of the creative act. Read Self Poor Trait if you are down and feel jaded as a creative person, you won’t be sorry.
To top that all off, Phill worked the stand-up comedy circuit and played some of the top clubs like Caroline’s. And he co-founded the Dispatches from the Underground podcast.
Earlier on in my time in New York, I discovered the comics of Justin Melkmann through the New York Waste. I was so impressed that someone was doing a comic strip about the life of GG Allin, that I made it a point to go see the artist’s band, which was subtly advertised in each strip with a discreetly inked URL. Catching my first World War IX show at CB’s Lounge and meeting Justin was a turning point in my punk rock life. Blackout Shoppers have played numerous shows with World War IX and there’s nothing we like better.
A few years after I got to play my first show with World War IX, they were looking for a singer, and I and I’m sure a whole bunch of others called and told them to get Philthy Phill.
Having Philthy Phill join World War IX was like Beethoven coming back from the dead to conduct the London Philharmonic – it’s the supreme punk rock combination that had to happen. And it did.
World War IX entered a new period of productivity and creativity and produced some of my favorite songs over the past several years. I had the honor of playing a villain in a few of their videos, including the video for my favorite World War IX song, Cutlass Supreme. Phill’s acting chops earned him roles in other punk rock videos as well.
“Without a doubt, I will miss my World War IX and the friends I made playing with that band,” Phill told me. “We’ve toured many times, put out an envious number of high-quality music videos and some outstanding music to boot. Anyone who has partied with us at a show can tell how well we all get along because it comes across in what we did. Unrelated fun fact: everyone in the band has wanted to fight me at some point.”
Phill also met his wife among the punk rock fans that came to his shows. He and Erin married in 2012 and last year they had twin boys. While they excelled at making a family of their own, they have no other family in the area, at all. That, coupled with the high cost of living and the need for more space, was the deciding factor in making the move to Indianapolis.
Sometimes, the people who best embody the humor, creativity, and egalitarian grit of New York City find it is best to leave New York City.
There’s also a trap that New Yorkers fall in to easily, thinking that the world revolves around what happens in the five boroughs and believing that residing in the New York City area counts as an artistic achievement in and of itself. While surviving in New York is an accomplishment, we’d be kidding ourselves to think that any work of art is somehow automatically superior if it originates from an NYC zip code.
This Saturday, Philthy Phill will sing with World War IX for one last time at Otto’s Shrunken Head. My band, Blackout Shoppers, will be joining them, along with Controlled Substance. It will be a packed house and there will be lots of music, loudness and alcohol.
Phill hasn’t stopped being creative, and he’s already working on his next project, which he’s keeping under wraps for now.
While people will forever come from all over the world to pursue their creative dreams in New York City, the point is to keep being creative and live a good life while doing so. Great art, music, and literature can be found wherever there are people great enough to do great work, wherever the creative spirit ignites a spark that leads to more ideas, wherever there are people like Philthy Phill.
Dispatch from the Jersey Shore
A family tradition that began soon after we started our own family was to vacation with our in-laws on Long Beach Island. Traditionally we have gone after Labor Day when the crowds were smaller, but our kids starting pre-K in early September meant we had to brave the more crowded island during the height of the summer season.
Human beings have a need to feel the power of nature around them. Living in a big city has many advantages that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and I don’t regret making New York City my home for a minute. Where else in the world can you see Renoir’s By the Seashore, the New York Yankees, and No Redeeming Social Value all in the same day?
But a large city requires the conquest of nature on a large scale. Skyscrapers are their own majestic entity, they cannot compete for space with California Redwoods or the cresting waves of the Atlantic Ocean—my friends in the Rockaways do manage to surf in the Atlantic Ocean, miles away from these skyscrapers.
We lose something when we commit to living in a city, our awe is taken up by what mankind has achieved, and we lost the much-needed perspective of the power of the Earth itself. I believe that human beings need regular contact with nature in order to keep our minds right and in the general order of things. Being close to nature is the way human beings are supposed to be. We did not evolve from glass towers or produced in a sterile, state-of-the-art lab. We were born from the savages that evolved from organisms born of mud, shaped by our ancestors need to know and respect the murderously indifferent natural world around them. If we do not keep in contact with this primal truth in some consistent way, we lose our bearings and don’t function well. Though I have worked in Manhattan consistently for nearly two decades, I have always tried to walk through a park at least once a day in order to enjoy some greenery.
Long Beach Island is a tourist destination that does not put on airs of being otherwise. There are people who live there all year, but most of the people you seen between late May and mid-September aren’t from here. The island understands that it is a great destination that attracts people for its natural beauty and the accessibility of its beaches. There is a respectability that locals and tourists alike embrace their roles. There is a goodness and truth in that honesty. While you are here you can enjoy the arts at the Surflight Theatre and then enjoy singing waiters and waitresses at the Show Place Ice Cream Parlor.
But the miles of beach are what bring people here, and a trip here is not a success unless you spend some time on the beach.
While I try to stay out of the sun, I have learned to appreciate sitting on Long Beach Island and doing as little as possible. A few walks into the ocean though will give you an appreciation of the greatness and vastness of the ocean in front of you. An expanse of blue (that appears green when you’re up close) that stretches to the horizon.
Going deeper into the ocean, the current was more powerful and the water cooler. The power of this ocean, even at this calm period, was immense. You can’t help but be pushed and tossed around by the waves. A sting ray darted into my sight, close to a young boy on a body board but turned and was just as quickly out of sight. A tidal pool left behind dozens of tiny fish, numerous shells, and even a small live crab for children to marvel at.
Even when the heat is at its most punishing, the breeze from the ocean offers a cooling respite. Time moves quickly when you are away from the churning world of commerce and asphalt, and I must soon return to that savage expanse. I am grateful for the time I have here where the ocean calls the shots and people are united in their efforts to get away for a little while.
30 years after the Tompkins Square Park Riots
This weekend the East Village commemorated the three decade anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park Riots with two days of concerts and speeches in the once-notorious East Village park.
Protests over a 1 a.m. curfew of the park and eviction of homeless encampments there ended with multiple clashes with police and multiple instances of police brutality. It was among the first widely documented instances of police brutality caught on video and broadcast on the news. Angry protesters shouted dire warnings about gentrification, yelled “Die Yuppie Scum,” and vandalized a new apartment building. Police chased people down and clubbed them with night sticks. It was a low point in New York’s history but things would soon change.
I was an angry suburban punk rock high school kid in the late 1980s and I made it a point to go to New York and walk to Tompkins Square Park after the riot. While I made it there, I did not stay very long. The park was still a homeless encampment and drug-invested village of skels and squatters, even with the 1 a.m. curfew. I would walk along 8th Street and St. Mark’s after visiting a great record store called It’s Only Rock & Roll that did not survive to the late 1990s.
This year’s commemorative concerts included a reunion of Team Spider, a group I have long admired and followed that embody the best of the East Village punk rock ethos. For about a decade they had an elderly songwriter ZAK, join them for most of their performances. ZAK passed away in 2006. So I made it an imperative to get to the park to see Team Spider.
The fact that I felt safe enough to drive to the East Village in a minivan with my wife and three small children is testament to the radical changes that have affected the East Village in the interceding 30 years. Amazingly, I found a parking spot right alongside Avenue B. I parked right across the street from St. Brigid’s Church. The church has a storied history, including being used as a center for activists during the 1988 park protests. There is personal history there too. I was arrested for taping a flyer to a light post right on the corner outside the church in 2005.
We walked into the park between bands, and someone was on stage making a long-winded political speech. They had been there during the riots in 1988 and now the spirit of resistance was needed even more because Trump is a racist and in league with the Nazis and no borders and die yuppie scum and …I tuned out most of the rambling speech and instead said hello to friends that I saw there. Some of my friends that I know through music have not yet met my children, so it was good to introduce some of my punk rock family to may actual nuclear family.
Team Spider took the stage and rocked. Their brand of ska-infused, politically conscious punk rock is as relevant today as it was when they were performing regularly, and they even updated some of the lyrics to mention Donald Trump instead of George W. Bush. The concert was well attended – Choking Victim closed out the show after Team Spider – and evidence that the spirit of political protest has not been cleansed from our city streets entirely.
But by any measure of anti-gentrification politics, the yuppies have won in the East Village. There are only a few squatters left among the increasingly expensive real estate that have driven out much of the radical politics that fueled the protests. The 1 a.m. curfew on the park is still in effect and there’s a Starbucks where there was once a pizza place not long ago.
After we listed to Team Spider play, we brought our girls to a playground. I took a small detour to meet with old friends at the show, but soon it was time to go for ice cream. I am happy to report that Ray’s Candy Store is still on Avenue A and I and the family got to eat ice cream cones served by Ray himself. We found a bench in the park that was away from some of the homeless congregations that still take up a lot of space there and quickly ate the ice cream, though the summer heat made us all a mess. Soon it was time for home.
New York City has changed dramatically in the last three decades, and it wouldn’t be New York if it was any other way. We won’t always have the same punk rock bands to listen to in the decades ahead, but New York City will always be home to what is interesting.
A family trip to Coney Island
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 dark allure of the carnival
Two years ago, when our youngest was a newborn still in the hospital, I had a Father’s Day with our older daughters and decided to take them to a carnival that was being held out on Long Island.
The drive out there gave the girls some nap time and allowed me to treat myself to some drive-through White Castle in an indulgent celebration of my continuing my bloodlines.
It was on the grounds of a community college not too far into Suffolk County (the part of Long Island farther away from New York City—technically both Brooklyn and Queens are on the Island of Long Island but whenever a New Yorker says “Long Island” they mean Nassau or Suffolk County, which constitute the larger mass of land outside of the New York City borders).
Because it was Father’s Day and extremely hot, or for whatever reason, the carnival was not well attended. There were a few rides where my girls were the only ones on at the time. One ride that was empty had a height requirement, and I told one of the twins to step up to the height measurement board by the entrance to see if she was tall enough. She misunderstood my instructions and began stepping up on the bottom run of the fence around the ride, which had the effect of both immediately proving she was not tall enough to ride the ride but making it look like I was telling my daughter to cheat. As I was trying to correct this, the man running the ride, who was wearing the requisite carny uniform of sun-leathered skin emblazoned with tattoos, quickly waved my girls onto the ride.
More recently, my wife and I took our girls to a local carnival held on the grounds of a Catholic school nearby. It was fairly well attended but our kids were only eligible to ride a few of the rides. Most of the rides were for older kids and grownups and some of them looked rickety and unsafe. The same carny types were running the rides, and the ones who were running the kids’ rides were happy to have the business. From a trailer-born midway, the typical games of change were running with giant stuffed animals to lure impressionable youth to beg for their parents’ money.
A few weeks later, another similar carnival, a larger one in Astoria, had a ride malfunction and injure a passenger who fell out of an open car on a rickety amusement park ride.
We hold the carnival folk in envy in some ways also: they travel and see the country in ways most of us wish we had the freedom to do. And we see their itinerant ways and employment in leisure as hinting at some greater, more liberated life, even though it is a much harder life that consists of working while other people have fun, for long hours in the hot sun for little pay.
Eight years ago, a Wisconsin writer traveled as a carny and wrote about it for the publication Isthmus in an article ‘My life as a carny.’ He summarized it this way:
“[W]here I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.”
One counterintuitive point that the article makes is that traveling carnival rides have a better chance of being safe than those at established amusement parks, because they are inspected more frequently.
From the interactions I’ve had, I have some away with the impression that because my wife and I have raised our girls to treat people with respect and be polite, especially to the people who work for a living and serve us, that the carnival workers pick up on that and treat us well in return.
We come away from these carnivals a little poorer financially, I like to think that our family is richer in experience. Carnies are part of the brilliant milieu of New York City; we appreciate the dark allure of the carnival, as it is illuminating when you approach it with the right attitude.