There are some places wherever you live that you take to represent an important part of your life. Maybe a restaurant where you always go or a movie theater where you saw your favorite movie for the first time. Whatever the reason, these are places that you sentimentalize, maybe sometimes to a fault, because you identify them so closely with good memories.
One of those places for me is The Strand Bookstore. It was one of the first places I frequented when I began living in New York City as an adult.
At some point on just about every weekend I had off (I had to work most weekends), I would make a visit to The Strand a part of my routine. I would never fail to come home with a big bag full of books, sometimes two big bags. Wow, Crime and Punishment for only $3.99—how can I not buy that?? At some point I ended up with two different paperback copies of Anna Karena and gave one copy to a friend.
The Strand would be buzzing with people and I would spend hours wandering its cramped isles. I had a routine of starting with browsing the outside cheap bins (books for as little as 48 cents; it would be a crime not to rifle through every row of books) and making my way through the store, spending most of my time in the fiction section. Years later, I got to meet my guitar hero, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, when he did a book signing event for his memoir ‘Lonely Boy.’
But like many parts of my early life back in the city as an adult; I frequented The Strand less and less. At the time of the pandemic lockdown in mid-March, my time in Manhattan mostly consisted of sitting at a desk in the financial district or midtown and then getting home to Queens as quick as I could. I would occasionally go to a concert or local punk rock show, but those got fewer and farther between. The Strand has a kiosk in Times Square close to my job’s offices there, so I would get a chance to buy some books and a ‘Make America Read Again’ refrigerator magnet. But I ceased being a regular customer.
With the pandemic comes rafts of closures of institutions we thought would continue to be with us, at least through the duration of the virus. This was supposed to be over by now, but we can’t get our shit together enough to contain COVID-19, so things are still ground to a halt.
Recently the owner of The Strand bookstore issued a plea for help from the public to save it from closing. People responded, lining up around the block to buy books at the fabled institution or ordering books online from its web site.
The Strand is a landmark, but being a landmark is not enough. Many friends point out that other important cultural institutions, such as CBGB’s, did not survive to see the pandemic. Other places with deep histories have also not survived.
And The Strand’s ownership has not been entirely forthright. Earlier this year the owner accepted $1 million in in loans and still laid off workers while buying millions in stock, including more than $100,000 worth of Amazon shares. The Strand made a public show of its support to progressive causes while turning a blind eye to the plight of its own workers, so an important part of the store’s natural constituency is either indifferent or hostile to its future.
But an institution can be more than the sum of its owner’s conduct. I have loathed how the New York Yankees’ ownership tore down the House the Ruth Built and treats its fans like absolute garbage, yet I cannot bring myself to disavow the Bronx Bombers. We can detest the people who run our country and still be patriotic Americans. Do we owe The Strand loyalty for all that it has given us, despite the lack of principles by its current owner? I feel a loyalty to this great bookstore, though I understand those that don’t.
I yearn to lose hours of time in a bookstore again; to get the warm ego boost of a Strand cashier complimenting my choices, to amble to the subway laden with more tomes that will add to the ever-expanding walls of books in my home. Those days cannot come soon enough. In the meantime, I will do what I can to help keep the miles of books going.
“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”
“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
― John Waters
When I first moved back to New York City as an adult, I made it a point to make regular pilgrimages to The Strand to stock up on books. There was no way I could manage to leave there without several bags of books.
My small studio in Queens had two windows that looked out over a bus stop on 101st. Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard. One of those windows was home to my air conditioner, the other window became my extended library. I already had a hutch bookcase filled with books but as my trips to The Strand and other bookstores multiplied, I needed more space for my books. Soon I was picking up plastic milk crates I found on the street to use as bookshelves. Then I acquired more milk crates, and soon had to double-stack books in them. More than once I found a great deal on a classic book at The Strand and bought it only to find that I already had that book at home.
When I moved to new apartment a few years later, I had space for actual bookshelves and bought four of them. They were quickly filled.
No longer single and free to binge at bookstores, my wife and I are now in the process of trying to make more space in our apartment for our family of five. That includes making more space in our living room, which currently houses most of our books. It is not an easy task.
It is not easy to part with books, nor should it be. Each book is an adventure waiting to happen, to give away a book without having read it is to deny a future possibility, a potential new thrill or idea. To turn away from books is to turn away from inspiration, from moving dreams and a new way of looking at life. Books are the lifeblood of the soul, and the building blocks of a civilized society.
Some purists may not forgive me for trying to adapt to the confines of space in our urban environment and using a Kindle. I know, I know: there is no substitute for the printed page, and the satisfying heft of a hardcover tome cannot be replicated by any electronic device. I agree. But as a commuter it is helpful to be able to read things with one hand, and while I would love to fill every spare inch of wall space in my apartment with shelves full of books, my kids need space to sleep and play. The Kindle has been a great evolution in the reading life if you can adapt to it. Some die-hards will not have it and I understand. If space and convenience were not factors, I’d be there.
But I have not given up printed books altogether. I will buy printed books when I can and use the Kindle as much as possible as well.
My collection of printed books will continue to grow, albeit a bit slower than in my bachelor days. My children are growing up in a home with plentiful books. They already love reading and if I fail in every other aspect of life, I have already achieved great success there.
Taking a road trip sometimes happens on a whim on a random weekend day, not because I’m suddenly inspired with the desire to know the American road, but because our toddlers have fallen asleep in their car seats and the wife and I want them to nap for a while. So began our latest sojourn on the great American road, which kept us mostly around our borough of Queens, but that’s OK because as you might have surmised, Queens is secretly New York City’s greatest borough.
We left the Queens Botanical Garden in our neighborhood of Flushing and our twin girls were asleep before we reached the nearby highway. We headed to the Rockaways because it was the anniversary of the Easter Uprising in Ireland and the Rockaways have been a home to hardscrabble Irish for a long time, including one Queens native who wound up fighting in the Easter Uprising of 1916.
Our navigation system took us into Nassau County and we passed by Valley Stream State Park before getting off of the highway and driving through the villages of East Rockaway, Malvern, and Lawrence.
We didn’t end up in the Irish part of the Rockaways, and the housing projects that tower over the bungalow houses are not filled with Irish immigrants. We decided to start our journey home going through Broad Channel and my old neighborhood of Ozone Park.
We took Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge and cruised over Jamaica Bay. On one side of the bridge the skyline of Manhattan was prominent through the haze of sun and clouds. On our right and north was JFK Airport. Broad Channel is a small community that sits on the waterfront of Jamaica Bay. It’s a rare example of small town life within the five boroughs of New York City.
Cross Bay Boulevard brought us farther north, past the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge on both sides of the road and into Howard Beach and Ozone Park.
When I first came back to New York City, I worked at JFK Airport and lived in Ozone Park. I was very happy to learn that Jack Kerouac lived in Ozone Park for 12 years. He’s celebrated a lot in Massachusetts where he is originally from and buried, and in Manhattan where he would give readings and where he wrote On the Road. But Kerouac wrote his first novel, The Town and the City, while living in Ozone Park.
There is a historic marker outside the house where Kerouac once lived. When I lived nearby, it was good to go to Glen Patrick’s Pub and gulp down drinks, hoping some literary magic might have survived and would rub off on me. That kind of sentimentality is crap, really, but it was good at the time to know that the inheritors of America’s great literary traditions came from working-class enclaves like Ozone Park and Howard Beach.
It was good to see reinforced the knowledge that real literary grit and work takes place not in the posh hipster enclaves and trendy bars or bookstores of Manhattan or (nowadays) Brooklyn. Kerouac didn’t haul his typewriter to a coffee shop so people could gawk at him write. He got his writing done in a cramped apartment a few feet away from Cross Bay Boulevard.
We took our girls into the Cross Bay Diner and had a late lunch while watching boats and seagulls come by on Hewett Creek. Fishing boats, a police boat, and even a large fishing boat called The Capt. Mike, came by and served as a great distraction for the kids.
Howard Beach and Ozone Park have changed quite a bit since Kerouac lived there, and they’ve changed a lot since I moved away in the summer of 2001, but their working-class character survive and they remain great neighborhoods to live in. They will continue to inspire and bring more great artists to the world.
This short story is now for sale on Amazon, so buy it. It will be the best 99 cents you ever spend. This story was inspired by my year working as a bank teller right after graduating college. I hated that job. I hated dealing with the awful customers who wanted their egos stroked. I hated the provincial attitudes of many of the people I worked with. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was still a bit immature and I could have been better at my job. Luckily I left before going crazy. I thought up a plan to rob the bank, not because I intended to ever rob a bank, but because it would have made for an interesting novel. I still have a lot of notes from my bank robbing novel that I intendeded to write, and maybe I’ll come back to it. It would be a perverse, crime-ridden On The Road (what great American novel since 1957 doesn’t aspire to be the next On The Road?).
But here is ‘Big Plans.’ It’s a funny short story that you will enjoy. If you’ve ever worked a job you hate (and who hasn’t?), you will be able to relate. It also has excellent artwork by Sergio Zuniga.
Supernova Black Hole Butthole is now published. I am still new at the Amazon publishing game. I would like it if there were an option for people who buy things from Amazon’s kindle store to get them in printed book form as well, even if that means a smaller payout to the author.
But that doesn’t matter, because I have more fiction for sale on Amazon, out there and ready for the world to see, for a small fee.
This story was the first one I read at the Cash Prize Literary Open Mic at The Cobra Club in Brooklyn earlier this year. I didn’t win the prize at that open mic but the story was very well received and someone asked me after the reading if this was available online for purchase anywhere. Now it is.
So enjoy and thank the very talented Justin Melkmann for his awesome illustration.
The Borough of Queens is taking applications for its poet laureate, and I’m going to throw my sweaty hat into the ring. I think my chances of being accepted are low, but fuck it. I’m as good as anyone else and I like this borough very much.
Queens was where I lived when I moved back to New York. I had been away from the Northeast for several years and hadn’t lived in the five boroughs since I was an infant in the Bronx. I grew up mostly in Yonkers and while I came to the city frequently growing up, I am by and large a child of New York’s suburbs.
In college I decided I wanted to be a great American writer in the same way that thousands of other English majors do. I was determined to get myself back to New York City as if that would somehow magically bestow some great inspiration power and let me live a charmed literary life.
I got a job at JFK airport that helped me move back here and I went looking for apartments that were a reasonable commuting distance to JFK. I found a small studio in Ozone Park at $500 per month (it soon went up to $525). It was on 101st Avenue and John Gotti’s old Bergin Hunt & Fish Club was still there and only a few blocks away. That was a selling point that the realtor mentioned. “People know not to mess around in this neighborhood,” he said. Gotti had been locked up for several years by then but the neighborhood still had some old wise guys hanging around.
I enjoyed living in Ozone Park a lot. I would walk around the neighborhood as much as I could and enjoyed how quickly neighborhoods could transition from one to another. Not far from where John Gotti plotted his takeover of the Gambino Crime Family a store sold cricket supplies to the Indian and West Indian immigrants who were moving into Richmond Hill. I was not too far from Forest Park and I could also walk to the small apartment where Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel.
While immediate literary success proved elusive, I managed to publish my first poetry collection while I was living in Ozone Park. ‘Five Borough Blues’ was a small broadsheet of poems published by New Jersey-based Lucid Moon Poetry (RIP Ralph Haselmann Jr.).
Years later, after living in Inwood for a decade, I moved in with the woman who is now my wife and that brought me to Flushing. I got to learn Northern Queens whereas Ozone Park is in Southern Queens.
The greatest borough continues to impress me. I do miss Inwood a good bit, I can’t lie. But Queens has many more great neighborhoods that are still real neighborhoods and not overpriced tourist zones.
Queens has both the greatest number of interesting neighborhoods, real residential neighborhoods with character, as well as cultural institutions and a variety of environments that the other boroughs don’t have. Do you have the beachfront and harbor areas like Broad Channel and the Rockaways in Manhattan? No. Can you find 24-hour Korean barbeque in Staten Island? Good luck.
And without fail, Queens continues to inspire me to write poetry. The entire city does, to be sure, but Queens is my home and it’s where I believe you find the most New York part of New York. It has the widest array of cultural offerings and the largest sampling of interesting people anywhere in the world. It stands between the city and its suburbs. It has all manner of terrain. It even has its own zoo.
I will gladly accept the (unpaid) responsibilities of the Queens Poet Laureate. I will let no excellent verse about this borough go unwritten. Applications are due April 24th (April is national poetry month).
But whether or not I am poet laureate of Queens, I will continue to let the city inspire to create good written works. It deserves no less.
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.
It’s been a while since I’ve had some fiction published, so it’s long overdue that I managed to get a short story published by Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers.
The story is Grandpa The Clown and is about the kind of clown we should have been educated by while we were children, but were instead in short supply. Clowns are usually in cahoots with parents and authority figures. This is a story about a clown that isn’t.
The great green retardation is upon us once again. St. Patrick’s Day should be a sad day for Irish people. The day has been reduced to an excuse to get drunk. Getting drunk is fine, but drinking to celebrate Irish culture is like smoking crack to celebrate Black History Month. The Irish Americans, for all the good they have done this country, are quick to embrace the worst in themselves. No other ethnic group I can think of so joyously trumpets its own most negative stereotype.
Celebrate April 24 or June 20 instead. St. Patrick’s Day is a Catholic saint’s feast day. Catholicism has had a tremendous influence on Ireland and I’m sure some of it has been good. But for the most part Catholicism has helped keep Ireland divided and promoted poverty and child molestation. The Catholic influence is such that in the Republic of Ireland divorce wasn’t legalized until 1996 and abortion wasn’t legalized until 2013. It will be a tremendous help to divorce Irish identity from Catholicism. And if you are the religious sort, I don’t think too many people left in the world have a holy or religious association with St. Patrick’s Day anymore. If you let the day be just a saint’s feast day once again, Irish Americans can join with everyone else in puking their guts out on Cinco de Mayo.
Since we celebrate America’s Independence on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, let’s celebrate Irish heritage with the anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, which is April 24. It took longer before most of Ireland was free from British rule (we’re still waiting), but that was the beginning of the end of most of Ireland leaving the U.K., even though the rebellion was quickly crushed and most of its leaders executed.
If you’d prefer a summer Irish celebration, June 20 is the birthday of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the leader of the 1798 United Irishman Rebellion. The United Irishman Rebellion failed miserably (it would have worked if the French had gotten to Ireland in time to help), but Wolfe Tone (who happened to be Protestant) is considered the founder of Irish republicanism.
Read some Irish literature. Ireland has produced more poets and playwrights than you can shake a shillelagh at. Go try to wade your way through the more problematic James Joyce, but read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners first. In fact, June 16 or Bloomsday would be another great Irish national holiday in place of St. Patrick’s Day.
So read Brendan Behan’s plays and Yeats’ poems. Did you know that Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, was Irish? Did you know Irish playwright Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant to school? It’s true. Go see a Beckett play or a Martin McDonagh play. Impress your lady friends with some witty Oscar Wilde quotes. You will be a better person for it.
Learn some Irish (aka Gaelic). Like most Americans, I am not fluent in the indigenous language of my ancestors. The Irish language had been called Gaelic for a long time, but since there are other forms of Gaelic, such as Scots Gaelic in Scotland and Ulster Scots, a form of Scots Gaelic spoken in parts of the North of Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language is now just called Irish. There are classes at the Irish Arts Center in New York and in many cities around the U.S. It’s a beautiful language and learning to speak Irish will do your brain more favors than downing a fifth of Jameson.
Revive Irish nationalism. Padraig Pearse famously said, “Ireland unfree will never be at peace.” Ireland is still divided and while the paramilitary violence that plagued it over the past several decades is over, there is still residual sectarian violence and breakaway paramilitaries fighting for their causes. If Irish Americans were as united in pursuing a united Ireland as Jewish Americans are in advocating for Israel, we could have united Ireland next week. What will happen in two years from now when it is 2016, 100 years after the Easter Uprising, and we still have a divided Ireland? Also, self-proclaimed Irish nationalist groups in Ireland have failed to address and in fact have supported large-scale immigration to Ireland. Ireland has seen massive immigration of similar scale that has already had very dangerous effects in places such as England and France. Irish Americans, who were instrumental in supporting the struggle for Irish freedom for centuries, should help revive Irish nationalism in Ireland once again.
I have not visited San Francisco without visiting City Lights Books; I’d feel guilty not visiting if I’m there. It’s a great rite of passage for any lover of the written word.
So it was with usual enthusiasm that I entered again on my most recent trip to California and the great city of sourdough.
City Lights is well known for its fiction and poetry. It is of historic note as a center of the Beat writers and it is owned by the still-living beat writer and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (his book of poems A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the best ever by the beat generation).
Looking at the political books near the register, there was no attempt at balance. There was the latest from an aging academic and Soviet apologist, a diatribe from a racism hustler gloating over the demographic changes in the U.S., and the usual suspects. I bear no grudge against my many leftist friends and there are many left-wing causes I agree with, but a good bookstore will try to provide some balance, and you couldn’t balance this bookshelf if you put Mein Kampf on it. A bookstore has a right to stock whatever it wants on its shelves and I’m sure most of City Light’s customers gladly drink what passes for the “progressive” Kool-Aid today. But would it hurt to stock some opposing viewpoints? Politically speaking, our literary world has become an echo chamber of self-hating marshmallows.
The upstairs room is dedicated to poetry and to the Beat writers. A chair by one of the bookshelves had a sign on it that read ‘Sit Down and Read a Book.’ The larger rocking chair next to it had ‘Poet’s Chair’ painted on it. I decided to sit there, since I do indeed write poetry. I picked up a book of poetry from a nearby table that looked interesting. It was a large but not thick book that had an interesting cover with what looked like a bloody doll or puppet on it. I don’t remember the poet’s name. I sat down and read some poetry and realized the stuff I write is better. I turned the book over and read the brief blurb about the author: someone with a predictable pedigree of the literary establishment and not the poetry power to match it.
But a good literary scene happens when people go off on their own and take inspiration from the real world around them. Flocking to a bookstore because Allen Ginsberg once took a shit there doesn’t promote good writing.
I was no longer in the magical place of wanderlust young poets. I was in a retail store that helped suck the life out of literature by cashing in on long-dead celebrities and following the same institutional claptrap that would have made Jack Kerouac puke in his backpack.
There is a fine line between inspiration and commoditized hero worship. My latest trip to City Lights made me believe the venerated bookstore had crossed the line. But then again, it’s a business. It knows we’ll keep buying books there. I’m guilty as charged. I bought a large R. Crumb coffee table book and Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil.
City Lights Books inspired me once again, but differently than in years past. I left with a determination that the current guardians of our culture’s literary estate need to have their throats cut. Let the call go out in America today for a ninja army of a new vanguard who will make poetry and literature real to people again, and not the province of the sad sacks of coffee shops and admissions offices. Great writers don’t eat tofu. Great writers eat sausage, spinach and pussy.
American once found its writers among its strongmen, housewives, sailors and hardscrabble journalists. It will once again.
The goal of the blog is to kick me in the ass to write more poetry and fiction, it’s also to declare a kind of populist war against the powers that be in the literary world. The literary world is in large part comprised of snooty academics that are too busy scratching each other’s backs to promote the cause of literature or even acknowledge much of the good writing that’s out there. A handful of professors judge poetry contests and award decisive publishing prizes to students, lovers, or other effete snobs they owe favors to. Impolite Literature says fuck all of that.
Enjoy the literature.