Tag Archive | New York City

Strength and creativity in 2022

We entered 2022 in a state of sickness but also with a determination to reenter life with meaning and determination.

I sat on a couch with a plastic cup full of soda and a non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice as the giant Waterford crystal ball dropped in Times Square on television. The children that wouldn’t to go sleep were there, getting to see the real ball drop and real New Year’s Eve countdown despite our efforts to get them to bed at a decent hour.

What would have normally (is there even a proper normal anymore) been an easy, low-key get together took several rounds of COVID testing across three or four households to make happen. So many events were canceled and postponed I didn’t think our small gathering was going to happen until we were on the road to upstate New York (update New York as defined anywhere north of the Bronx-Westchester border).

Good food and good conversation made for a fitting end to 2021. Everyone’s other plans were canceled, and this was what we could do, but we pulled it off anyway. All of my Double Satanic Deviled Eggs were eaten, and everyone survived the night.

Having left the drinking life many years ago, I missed out on some of the revelry but also missed out on all of the danger and hangovers. But the next day, the first day of the year, was spent eating, driving home, and unpacking from a brief overnight stay.

The year may see things get worse before they get better, and with so many false ends-in-sight to the global COVID pandemic, anyone who ventures a guess is foolish. But…

Between fatigue at the length of this pandemic and disgust at the lacking leadership in fighting the Coronavirus plague, people are determined to live again in 2022.

This year will be one of continued challenges and changes. No one knows what the dawn of 2023 will look like, but the next 360+ days are going to be busy getting things settled and starting new chapters.

There is new music to be made, new books to be written, new lives to rebuild.

The holiday lights are still shining throughout New York City; we will let them burn as long as we can. We need reason to celebrate, and we’ve been cheated out of a second holiday season.

And so, we are ready to get living again and forge into whatever new normal we can shape. There is no time to waste; we’ve lost too much time already.

Let’s start.

Quarantined for Christmas

New York is aglow in holiday glory. Within walking distance of my home are houses and apartment buildings adorned in beautiful lights and holiday displays. Midtown Manhattan is deluged with the stunning accoutrements of the holiday season, and parts of the outer boroughs and the suburbs have homes that take yuletide cheer to new heights.

And New York and the world are in the throes of another pandemic surge. Despite being vaccinated and still generally cautious, I’m quarantined in the bedroom of my apartment as Christmas approaches, testing positive for COVID-19 for the second time this year. The whole family had it in February, luckily the rest have tested negative. I’m sequestered in my bedroom and my 10-day Coronavirus quarantine ends two days before Christmas.

This is the second holiday season in a row, at least here in the Northeast, that has been disrupted by this global pandemic, and I share in the fatigue of constant waves of variants, surges, and arguments over masks and vaccines. The COVID pandemic has become a pathetic Greek alphabet soup with everyone going through the motions until the next surge or the next new variant.

For most of the country, COVID doesn’t impact daily life until it does. A few months ago, hospitals in Georgia were so flooded with unvaccinated COVID patients that one of my stepbrothers had a tough time getting non-COVID-related hospital care he needed. The Delta variant surge failed to convince the population that won’t get vaccinated to get vaccinated. Much of the U.S.A. is already mentally past the pandemic, and rightly or wrongly, looks at our continued precautious and inoculations as a form of cultural snobbery.

Getting COVID a second time is frustrated, as I’m doing things by the (often changing and hastily re-written) book. I am fully vaccinated and have been going to places in the city that require full vaccination. I had a few cold symptoms and some general weariness, nothing I thought could not be knocked out with more rest and vitamin C. Then a coworker I had seen recently informed me he tested positive for COVID, so I took a home test that came back positive. The rest of the family got COVID tests at a clinic and tested negative.

I went online and scheduled a COVID test at a local clinic.

Arriving early to check in for my 1 p.m. appointment, I waited behind a woman boasting of her position as a pharmacist and carrying on an extra-long and unnecessary conversation with the desk attendant at the clinic; she kept asking the same questions and laughing and looking at the growing line behind her for some kind of validation and camaraderie. “I fill Z-Pack prescriptions all the time…”

The desk clerk was very patient and kept telling her they couldn’t register any more walk-in patients; there were people who had been waiting there since 10 a.m.

Once the verbose pharmacist moved on, I gave my name and my insurance card and ID, and signed my scribble on an electronic pad without seeing any version of what I was signing—the clerk told me what it was and to be honest, I rarely read these documents anyway—and I was told I would be called when my time comes.

I waited in my car for 45 minutes before I had to go back inside to use the restroom. While I was waiting for the restroom, more people showed up, looking for COVID tests. One man said he had driven in from Long Island, that this was the fourth clinic he had visited today, and that one clinic had told him to arrive at 4 a.m. He was going to travel soon for the holidays and needed travel clearance.

My call finally came, and I got my test in the forms of swabs up the nose; not as intrusive as the one I had in February, we’ll count that as progress. The doctor came in a few minutes later with my results. He was thorough but harried; he had seen about 50 patients before I got there and would see at least that many more before he left for the day. He confirmed my home test and gave the information I needed. I was soon on my way home, walking through a small crowd of people who had arrived at 3 p.m. to try to put their names on the new walk-in waiting list.

This isn’t the holiday season we wanted; we were supposed to be through this by now. When the initial outbreak happened in early 2020, we thought the upcoming spring and summer would spell an end to the lockdowns. After all, this wasn’t 1918, we have advanced technologically very much since then. But human nature does not change, and a deadly combination of partisan theatrics, bureaucratic ineptitude, and general boorish ignorance have kept this going.

I’m not sure what relief 2022 will bring. I have lost count of the number of times that I thought we were on our way to being done with the Coronavirus pandemic. I’ll remember to be thankful for the good health that I have—my symptoms are mild, and I will be through it before Christmas.

I’ll look ahead to the New Year with hope and the resolve to keep living life, no matter what the world puts in the way. See you there.

Happy holidays.

Hellish punk anthems for a decidedly sinful New York

This Halloween season finds New York City in a state of awkward transition to whatever post-pandemic world will eventually be shaped by the COVID outbreak, which continues to strut and fret its prolonged hours on the world stage.

Our city, the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak, is setting a template for recovery and establishing post-pandemic standards that make sense. It’s still a struggle in a lot of ways. Companies are struggling to hire enough workers to keep business going, while also struggling with return-to-office plans for a workforce that does not want to work in an office five days a week. “The Great Resignation” continues to churn as companies compete for workers at all levels and even entry-level positions can become bidding wars.

Public transit is far from being able to handle a return to normal. Our transit system was falling on its face before the pandemic, now bus and train routes are regularly canceled for lack of drivers and train operators. Crime and quality of life continue to be a persistent problem.

New York has always been a place where sin is welcomed and the need for law and order is informed, if not restrained, with the libertine permissiveness that has characterized our Gotham since Dutch times. But there is a need for balance. A law-abiding person should be able to walk down the street with an open can of beer, they shouldn’t be stepping over piles of homeless people and their rancid detritus on every corner, or robbed or worse on their way home from a night out.

New York has reached an imbalance; the tolerance for the night life and marijuana has been accompanied by a very real and dangerous rise in real crime. People find themselves being robbed by criminals that a few years ago would not have been back out on the streets from their previous arrest.

But amid this tumult, New York is working to return. While people are understandably in no hurry to return to offices, people want music, and theater, and art, and even want to watch sports teams like the New York Jets. These regular joys have been forcibly dormant by a historic pandemic, and should return with a historic vengeance.

So good news comes this Halloween season with the return of Green Hell, New York City’s Misfits cover band that has entertained dozens of people since 2004 (full disclosure: I have served as Green Hell’s bass player since their second show in 2004, giving me more rights to claim “Original” membership than Doyle of the Misfits). Green Hell has two shows lined up on Halloween weekend: one at Manhattan’s excellent Otto’s Shrunken Head and the other at The Shillelagh Tavern in Astoria Queens.

Misfits songs are fantastic anthems for any Halloween, and it feels very fitting that our modest band of middle-aged punk rockers get the band back together as the Coronavirus is (hopefully, for real this time) on its way out. They are fun to sing along to and not difficult to learn how to play. And no matter what nonsense the “Original” Misfits get into, these songs have stood the test of time.

Green Hell was last seen in 2016, and two members who live far out of town are braving the skies to fly back to New York for two shows. In true Green Hell tradition, we will have time for only one rehearsal, and in true Green Hell tradition I can guarantee that absent of someone’s on-stage death, we will play a tighter set than the Misfits.

We’ll be in excellent company both nights with some of the best bands one could hope to share the stage with, and I will not be satisfied until Green Hell singer Marc Sucks shouts “Fuck the MTA” with Shillelagh owner Russ.

New York continues to suffer the effects of a global pandemic and domestic neglect. This Halloween, as it resists both the death dirge of disease and the growing savagery of its streets, it will have the sounds of raucous horror punk rock to voice its orgiastic rage against an uncaring world.

Whoa!

Doing our part to save The Strand

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 reports of New York City’s death are greatly exaggerated

New York City’s obituary has been written many times. The latest declarations of Gotham’s demise harp on the current crop of problems but ignore New York’s ability to survive even the worst the world has to offer.

The current issues confronting NYC are for certain no joke. Our city was the epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic and its expansive economic impact and slow recovery continues to force businesses to close. Our vibrant nightlife and renowned theater district have been shuttered for months with no recovery in the near term. On top of that, we’ve seen a resurgence of crime and “quality of life” issues that harken back to the dark times of the 1970s and 1980s, replete with threats to lay off city workers including law enforcement.

It’s gotten to the point where a group of business leaders wrote a letter to New York City’s mayor pleading with him to begin addressing the crime problem and other issues of urban decay. Mayor Bill de Blasio began his first term promising to put a progressive spin on the successes of his predecessors; he will leave office an object of ridicule and a case study in how activist mayors consistently fail New York.

But as bad as New York’s problems are, they pale in comparison to problems that we’ve seen only a few short decades ago.

I first lived in New York City when I was born, and as a baby I lived on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx near Fordham Road. Not far from where I was living with my parents, landlords were routinely setting fire to their own buildings; cashing in the insurance money was more lucrative than renting apartments and the buildings were insured for more than they would have fetched on the real estate market. A few years later, New York’s Mayor Abe Beam famously appealed to President Gerald Ford for a federal bailout, as New York City was broke. ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’ was the famous NY Daily News headline documenting his refusal to help.

A little over a century earlier, Union troops were drawn away from the battlefield of Gettysburg by the Draft Riots of 1863, which saw rampaging Irish mobs attack and murder Blacks, even setting fire to an orphanage. Even the most anarchic rioters of the current crime wave have not reached these levels of depravity.

I’ve been mugged and pickpocketed and gone through a year of unemployment to the point of having only a few dollars to my name. I have also played music on a stage that the Ramones made famous, had my family on cable television ringing the stock market’s opening bell, and seen some of the best concerts, plays and movies available to our civilization. New York is where I met my wife and where we raise our children and can show them the cultures of half the world by only traveling a few miles.

While the thought occurs to me to leave New York sometimes, the urge to stay is greater.

After the September 11 attacks, it became unpatriotic to flee the five boroughs in my opinion. It still breaks my heart that we have allowed religious lunatics to remake our skyline. But these failures of leadership do not make New York City less great, only more resilient.

The Roman Empire fell long ago, but Rome is still majestic and magical. New York was a force for the world before America became a reality. New York will survive the current malaise gripping America; it will survive until humanity dies out. New York City will be here forever.

RIP Walter Lure

This year has seen the departure of some great musicians: Little Richard, Charlie Daniels, Neil Peart from Rush, Frankie Banali of Quiet Riot and W.A.S.P., Fleetwood Mac cofounder Peter Green, Power Trip lead singer Riley Gale, the list goes on.

Walter Lure’s passing is a loss that hits home for music fans, especially punk rock fans. Lure was one of the founders of The Heartbreakers, the band led by former New York Dolls Guitarist Johnny Thunders. The Heartbreakers were immensely influential in shaping punk rock. Lure helped write many of the band’s most famous songs and was part of the vanguard that brought punk rock to the world. After the Heartbreakers, he continued to play and record music with his own band, The Waldos. His musical virtuosity extended beyond his own groups as well. If you ever hear a guitar solo on a Ramones record, chances are Walter Lure is playing it. He was the one holding things down and singing lead vocals oftentimes when Johnny Thunders, addled by drug use, would nod off on stage.

Lure struggled with his own addiction, and recounted in an interview that an arrest for buying drugs on his lunch break and almost losing his job was what finally drove him to beat his habit. He worked in the financial world, running large clearing operations, and eventually retiring in 2015 from Neuberger Berman.

“The funny bit was that back in the 90s when I was in charge of all those people on the job, a lot of them would come to my shows and laugh at the fact that their boss was playing punk rock music onstage. My clothes closet had all my work suits and ties on one side and the other side had all the beat-up stage clothes. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here you are!”

And here is another way in which Walter Lure continues to inspire so many musicians. The rock stars you see on the covers of magazines are an exceedingly small percentage of the people who are out there playing music every night. Most musicians who make music don’t make money at it and have to hold down day jobs to keep a roof over their head. Walter Lure was a big enough musician that if this were a just world, he would have had mansions all over the world, but he held down a day job and continued to make great music.

My band Blackout Shoppers got to play with The Waldos in the basement of CBGB’s 13, which was part of CBGB’s but not the more famous main stage. Walter Lure had played that main stage plenty of times and would later be one of the last acts to play when CB’s shut down a few years later.

He would have had every right to carry a massive rock star ego or bristle at the idea playing on a small stage in a basement with a bunch of unknown bands, but there was none of that from him. He showed up with his band and rocked, playing lots of the famous punk rock songs he helped write. He gladly took pictures with people who wanted to and hung around and chatted with everyone afterwards. He stayed true to the punk ethos to his dying day.

One of my friends whose band was on that same show commented, “We all got to play with Walter Lure, how lucky were we all??”

The world was lucky to have Walter Lure making music for so long. RIP and thank you Waldo.

Tribute in Light and the quest for normalcy

We are less than a month away from annual tributes to the September 11 attacks, and for a few tense days it looked like one of the most enduring traditions around the commemoration, the Tribute in Light—two columns of light projected from lower Manhattan close to where the Twin Towers were located—may not go on.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which puts on the display, said it would have to cancel it over concerns for worker safety around the Coronavirus. The museum stated it didn’t have the financial support it needed to ensure the safety of the workers who would assemble and maintain the lights, and had made a contingency plan that replaced the traditional Twin Tower lights with other skyline observances on the night of September 11. There was a typical tabloid and internet-fueled outrage, and after securing funding promises from New York State, the museum reversed course and announced that the tribute will go on as planned.

It is a moving tribute that can be seen from the farthest reaches of the five boroughs and beyond: the night sky aglow with the ghostly shadow of our city’s loss. It is a sign of New York City’s resolve to create something beautiful out of tragic beginnings, and not forget the tremendous loss of that day even as we keep going.

Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks; the largest loss of life in a single day since the General Slocum ship disaster of 1904. This past April, the death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City exceeded 4,000, surpassing the deaths from the September 11 attacks.

The Tribute in Light though, is additionally tragic because it also shines a light on our failure to rebuild properly. We have allowed Islamic fundamentalists to remake our greatest city. Every time we look at New York’s skyline, we see the work of murderous savages who thought Allah was commanding them to kill children and babies. I’m sure the new World Trade Center is a fine building; it certainly looks grand. But it’s not two Twin Towers. The Tribute in Light highlights our failures to stand up for ourselves.

When the towers fell, I thought for certain that our country would stand for nothing less than two new Twin Towers, maybe a few feet taller than the originals. That was the only proper rebuilding response to the terror attacks, and we made a hash of it.

The towers of light are what we have left, and the thought of not even having that was too much for some people. We cannot get people to wear masks and now we can’t pay tribute to September 11 victims because we cannot muster the resources to keep workers safe.  If we can’t even shine lights into the sky, what has become of us?

New Yorkers have been living with the Coronavirus pandemic longer than anywhere outside of China. There’s a deep hunger for anything that is remotely normal. Any time we can safely do the normal human things we used to do; we’ll do it.

The Tribute in Light will be back this year; please think of those who we lost nearly two decades ago and the sacrifices so many made that day. It will be a moment of beauty in the midst of a lot of ugly.

 

Illegal fireworks are as New York as bagels

Years ago, when I lived in Inwood, I walked to the public pier at Dyckman Street on the Hudson River to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. The sightings were disappointing. Through clouds in the distance I could see the faint glow of a few shows over New Jersey and could see none of the official Macy’s fireworks happening farther downtown.

I returned to my apartment disappointed but was soon treated to shows of illegal fireworks that more than compensated. The barrage of ordnance that filled the northern Manhattan sky was a welcome sight that took me back to my childhood in Yonkers. I would emerge from our apartment in Yonkers on July 5th to a scene that resembled a war zone. The curbs and corners were filled with the spent paper from reams of firecrackers, and one time I saw a metal garbage can that had been exploded and overturned, looking like a giant metallic banana peel.

When I first returned to the city to live as an adult, I lived in Ozone Park, once the home to professional-grade illegal fireworks shows and street festivals paid for by the Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti. Gotti had been in prison several years at that point, and the authorities worked hard to prevent the return of a large-scale illegal fireworks display. Police were all over 101st Ave. and the surrounding streets, but it made little difference. Managing to get on the roof of my building, I could see the official fireworks far away in Manhattan, but the cat-and-mouse game of cops and illicit fireworks was more entertaining.

Illegal fireworks have been a New York City staple for decades. When I was in fifth grade in the New York suburbs, I went to a neighbor’s yard where a friend’s father let me light sparklers off some candles set on the ground. I felt like the greatest outlaw on Earth. Kids waved around sparklers while adults set off bottle rockets and M-80s. When we heard police sirens in the distance, adults blew the candles out and we ran to the backyard until the danger had passed.

More recently, we have enjoyed the sights of fireworks over Whitestone and College Point. Early morning jogs through Flushing Memorial Field has found launch sites of the previous evenings fireworks displays, the tubes still smelling of gunpowder in the cool dawn, like a mortar position of a recently passed battle.

The allure of illicit explosives dates to the birth of the American nation. The first battles of the American Revolution were fought over the British Army’s attempt to seize illegal weapons.

New York, which was under the yoke of British rule for the bulk of the Revolution, was no less fervent in its commitment to the cause. One of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought in Brooklyn; the Battle of Long Island almost ended the Revolution—Washington barely escaped to regroup. The first woman known to take up arms for the United States did so in Manhattan at the Battle of Fort Washington; Americans lost that battle too and Fort Tryon park still bears the name of the British governor of New York at the time.

Our founding fathers would have been hanged as traitors to the crown had we not won. No matter our heritage, Americans are proudly descended from outlaws and outcasts. People setting off fireworks today are not would-be revolutionaries, but they are tapping into the same antiauthoritarian sentiment that is alive in spades in America today.

The city has seen an increase in setting off illegal fireworks. We hear them in every neighborhood and in some cases too late (true fireworks enthusiasts know to stop between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m., July Fourth excepted). There is a need now for people to celebrate and sending exploding stars into the night sky is best done while remaining safely distant from fellow citizens. Many bars and restaurants remain closed, large parts of the city are effectively locked down by massive protests. Fireworks are a needed respite, a needed release of our energies to celebrate something, whether that be the birth pangs of a better America or a fiery exegesis of an abiding patriotism.

Illegal fireworks are a proud New York tradition, a proud American tradition. Let it never die.

 

What is still beautiful about us…

In John Carpenter’s 1984 film “Starman,” Jeff Bridges stars as an alien who is stranded on Earth, and goes on the run from U.S. government agents with the widow of a deceased housepainter, whose body he has cloned as a disguise. They have misadventures while eluding the authorities and the widow (Karen Allen) falls in love with this alien in the body of her dead husband.

In retrospect the plot summary makes this sound like a ludicrous B-film, but it works. One scene and one line from the film has stuck with me since I watched it in a movie theater as a 12-year-old.

The couple are finally cornered in a restaurant by the authorities and the federal agent who has been leading the hunt for them comes to confront them. He asks the alien about his journey and learns he is here to study Earthlings.

“You are a strange species, not like any other, and you would be surprised how many there are, intelligent but savage,” the Jeff Bridges/alien tells his pursuer. “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?”

The federal agent nods yes.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

That line has been etched in my mind for more than three decades now, and it’s a fitting mantra for the times we are in.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

It can be hard to imagine things getting worse. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has hit the U.S. harder than any other country, followed by widespread civil unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, poisonous politics in an election year and unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.

These are times that try our patience and our resolve. It is easy to want to withdraw and bunker down, to tune out the outside world and lapse into a fatalistic nihilism, a hopeless sloth of withdrawal.

The pandemic reminded us that contact with others is an essential part of life. Human contact is something we took for granted, or even came to resent in New York City, where everything is too crowded and the inconsideration of others is amplified by proximity.

But the need to interact with others is more important now than ever, and despite the myriad conflagrations boiling over in our society, we can still find common ground with decent people of differing ideas.

Human life is inherently tribal, and America has forged tribes along lines of culture and character in ways other societies cannot fathom. These cultures appear to be irreconcilable, but basic human decency and goodness can transcend even our deepest chasms. The past few weeks have shown the extent of our divisions but also the depth of our decency and resolve.

“You are at your very best when things are worst.”

It is time to be the best person you can be and play some part in making our world a better one. You may be at odds with your friends and family, you may be subjected to hatefulness from smaller minds, but the things most worth doing are often most difficult. Keep going.

We can look back at this time and be proud we were at our very best.

The need for strength and refusal of misplaced tolerance

A few years ago, I was crossing Madison Avenue at 23rd Street in Manhattan and had the ‘Walk’ signal. A car made an illegal left turn from 23rd Street onto Madison, coming inches from people who had the right of way in the crosswalk, and the driver had the chutzpah to honk his horn at the pedestrians he was nearly running over. I gave his car a nice kick as he passed only a few feet away from me, and the car stopped a few yards away. I stopped to see if the driver wanted any more deserved kicks, and he drove away.

The gall of this driver, to honk his horn at those whose lives he was endangering with his blatant lawbreaking, comes to mind when we look at how a sizeable portion of the public is reacting to the global COVID-19 pandemic, especially here in New York City where the outbreak is the most intense worldwide.

New York must abide by these rules longer than elsewhere, because the infection rate here is so high and we are such a densely populated place. It is not easy staying six feet away from people, but a lot of people are not even trying.

I want the pandemic to be over but declaring victory too early can be deadly and lead to a terrible second wave that could do more damage than the first. Reopening New York is going to be difficult and we cannot jump the gun.

And here in Queens, of all places, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the known universe, many of my neighbors have shown themselves to be severely lacking in basic common sense, feeling entitled to run roughshod over public health. My wife and I took our three young daughters for a walk to a park, this past week, hoping to bring them to a field where they could have some free time outside without violating basic social distancing standards. The park was closed, but people had hopped the fence to sit on picnic tables or play handball as if this were an ordinary spring day. There was even a couple riding bicycles on the sidewalk (that by itself is dangerous, dumb, and illegal) without masks on.

This was infuriating and discouraging. If people were acting this way in Queens, New York, where the problem is most acute, will we be able to contain this virus at all?

Wearing a mask in public not virtue signaling; it is basic common decency during an extraordinary time. Being asked to wear a mask in public and keep away from others is not akin to slavery or the Holocaust (yes, people are really making those comparisons) any more than upholding basic law and order is  modern day slavery or Nazism. If anyone questioned whether the American right could impotently cling to victimhood like the American left, COVID-19 erased all doubts.

My sister gave birth to a baby girl earlier this month. She went through labor wearing a mask. My father and stepmother have only visited their new granddaughter from a safe distance; they don’t know when they are going to get to hold her for the first time, it could easily be months from now. They do not like things being this way but protecting the health of others is not a tough choice for them. It shouldn’t be a tough choice for anyone.

Intelligence is not weakness; refusal to listen to informed experts is not rugged individualism. It’s not outrageous to be concerned about government power and to look skeptically at public panics, but the experts weighed in on this long ago and the danger is real. Do not follow these COVID-19 precautions out of an unthinking obedience to the government, but out of an obligation to your friends and neighbors.

Part of being all in this together means we adhere to basic community standards, and those include the supremacy of truth and obedience to the basic social contract. It means acting as if you are responsible for the well-being of a larger community, even if many in that community think their convenience is more important than their own lives or the lives of others. If you really want to defend freedom, you first must act like a responsible adult.

We are not lost when such people appear, we are lost if we acquiesce to them. Letting science deniers or “Covidiots” as they are being called, dictate the terms of our dealing with disease is like letting children run the schools.

In his novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein describes the breaking point when lawlessness and irresponsibility triggered groups of veterans to start taking the law into their own hands; their emergency measures eventually become the rule of law. If our hasty re-opening triggers a deadlier and more economically disastrous second wave, we will need to keep in mind this essential passage from Heinlein’s work: “Moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level.”

It is time for the grown-ups to step in. There may not be a swift, satisfying kick we can deliver to the “Covidiots” dotting our landscape today like we can with a car that sails through a crosswalk against the light, but it is past time to stop tolerating the intolerable. Allowing the public health to be subverted by reckless fools is not freedom, it’s suicide.

Notes from a much-needed lockdown

New York and surrounding states are under orders to stay at home unless performing essential tasks, such as grocery shopping or seeking medical attention, and while things are crowded in our apartment, we are happy to comply.

America is late to these measures, but most people in New York City are adhering to them. Normally bustling and crowded streets and sidewalks were mostly empty. Buses still roll by our building on Union Street in Flushing, Queens, but they are mostly empty. Even the Q44 bus, which is normally packed with commuters at all hours of the day and night, is deserted.

Our youngest daughter agreed to go for a walk through the woods in Cunningham Park with me a few weeks ago, and we stayed beyond the standard six-foot “social distancing” distance from everyone we saw. As the virus is expected to peak in New York over the next two weeks, I’m planning to stay locked down and not leave our apartment at all unless we absolutely must.

I ventured out to do food shopping this past Thursday, waiting until later at night to go. There were few people about, but it was encouraging to see there was plenty of food—they even had toilet paper—and people were mostly good about keeping their distance. When I got home my wife wiped everything down with bleach water. I sprayed myself with disinfectant and then put all the clothes I was wearing in the laundry before washing my hands like I was scrubbing down to perform surgery.

I am extremely fortunate that I have a job that enables me to work from home. I have friends and family who depend on the real human world for their livelihood, and many of them do not know what they are going to do. The aid being offered by the government is late and promises to be inefficient. People are looking for light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not there yet; as a nation we’re still debating measures we should have all taken months ago.

My family is extremely lucky that my wife is talented and resourceful enough to sew our own medical masks. Hospitals are running in such short supply that they are releasing patterns to the general public and asking people to make their own and donate some if they are able. My wife made some for friends who are nurses and who are being told they must reuse their disposable mask and are not allowed to leave the hospital with it. Such shortages of basic medical supplies are inexcusable in a first-world country.

Americans and New Yorkers are adapting to the coronavirus in amazing ways, but there are still too many unknowns for a comfortable confidence to take root. There are shortages of medical supplies and doctors fear that hospitals may be overwhelmed with virus patients in the coming weeks and months.

One night this week, after reading some of the news stories about how this is unfolding in our city, I was unable to sleep. What if one of my kids gets stick and there are no beds in the hospitals, no medicine or medical supplies to treat them? Have I failed my family by not getting them out of the city?

Keeping up with people on social media, we’re seeing the toll of those infected rise in the city. A friend of a friend has passed away, another friend is waiting in the ER. A married couple we’re friends with both had bad fevers a few weeks back that got bad enough they wanted to be tested for the coronavirus; they recovered and still haven’t gotten a call back.

I’m confident that my immediate family and I will survive, and that people will be sick and tired enough to make real changes we need in our society. I’m going to celebrate with picnics, music, a new tattoo or two, and feasts and parties with friends.

Stay safe and stay inside unless you absolutely must go out. Keep away from people. Be the cold, distant New Yorker you were always meant to be. Lives depend on it.

 

Meeting New York’s First Guardian Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NYC’s transit mess to spread above ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A grateful New York City bids farewell to Two Toms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Two Toms!

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