“Can we see the robot?” one of our daughters asked.
“Sure,” my wife answered.
We were finishing up lunch and I had mentioned I wanted to briefly visit the Stop & Shop to look for something. I had no idea this outlet near our home employed one of those grocery store robots I had seen mentioned online ubiquitously. These slim, monolith grey towers on wheels are outfitted with large googly-eyes as one would a child’s craft. I had heard they were being installed in more and more stores; friends had posted photos of them at their local supermarkets. I had yet to see one in action.
The shopping center at Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway in Flushing is a zone of cluttered chaos and the logical effluvium of the overcrowded eyesore of the streets nearby. Forgotten New York rightfully calls this part of Flushing “Queens’ Crappiest” for its lack of aesthetics, complete disrespect of historic buildings, and utter incompetence of the design of residential buildings. The shopping center was not long ago filled with crater-like potholes. It has a check cashing establishment and was for a time frequented prostitutes that served truck drivers. I try to avoid this shopping center because of the traffic alone—it’s either accessed by a busy highway service road or a two-lane street that is often busy. My kids love the McDonald’s that is there for some reason; perhaps I have already failed as a father.
The Stop & Shop there is a last refuge of desperation when we are looking for groceries that aren’t found elsewhere. Now I also wanted to see the grocery store robot. These robots are named “Marty.” Stop & Shop supermarkets have deployed them in more them in more than 200 stores to look for spills and hazards. According to Mashable, each robots costs $35,000 and weighs 140 pounds. Also, these robots don’t clean up anything, but just alert people nearby to the fact that there is a mess.
I went looking for the one item I hoped they had: a specific popular baby food pouch that serves as a healthy snack for our youngest daughter. I headed for the baby food aisle while the rest of my family made a bee line for the back of the store where they spotted the robot.
The baby food section was the same mess it was at my last visit and was without the food pouch I was looking for. I scoured again and looked behind every box and envelope to no avail. The robot had not spent enough time in this aisle.
My excited daughters came to get me to show me the robot, which was making its way across the back of the store from where they had first met it near the deli. They ran after it and my wife and I followed.
When my children ran up on the robot again, it seemed to pause to allow us all to gawk at it. Bored shoppers accustomed to the googly-eyed rolling cyborg went about their shopping.
“Hi Marty!” my children thought this thing was great. Maybe you could put googly eyes on a giant steaming people of crap and children will find it convincingly anthropomorphized into a cute friend and want to take it home. The robot slowly moved away from us, not interacting with anyone other than moving out of our way and appearing to look at us with its false, plastic, and unblinking eyes.
New York City seems like a poor choice to send Marty. Our supermarkets are too crowded, and our people in need of work is always plentiful. Also, New Yorkers are more skeptical of gimmicks like this. While little kids got a kick out of Marty the robot, most adults are put off by it.
The supermarket robot is not the coming incarnation of Skynet, the computer system that becomes self-aware and plunges the world into a nuclear holocaust in the Terminator films. It’s pretty underwhelming by itself.
The truly troubling issue with the increasing use of robots is not that technology is marching forward and machines are doing jobs people want to do. It’s that people no longer want to act like people as much anymore.
If society functioned well, customers would report a spill to an accessible employee, who would easily see to it that the spill was cleaned up, or the store would employ enough cleaning staff to make it a pleasurable experience. Instead we’ll gawk at a machine and be on our way.
We are spurning human contact in favor of technology-driven convenience because our human interactions have plunged in quality. That’s not the fault of the machines, that’s our fault.
A high school friend of mine worked as a successful lawyer for roughly the past two decades. He won a great ROTC scholarship in high school. While in the U.S. Army, he went to law school. After serving in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, he worked as an attorney for the Department of Defense before going into private practice law.
But change has come. My friend gave up the life of an attorney to chase his dream of being a radio D.J.
“Because terrestrial radio is such a big thing now,” he joked.
Today commercial radio is a ghost of its former self while music streaming services dominate music landscape. But people still do make a living as radio D.J.s, why shouldn’t he? He took classes at a local broadcasting school and has managed to cobble together an income from various sources—a few nights hosting a lotto drawing here, running a bar trivia night there, he’s not homeless or starving.
Another friend also took a similar plunge, working in comedy and going for broke. Show business is a brutal and heart-rendering business that leaves some its most earnest and talented people out in the cold. My buddies have no illusions they face an uphill battle, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.
I yearn for the courage that my friends have shown.
I moved back to New York for several reasons, but one of them was to seek fame and fortune and become a great American writer. We writers are a hopeless romantic lot, even those of us that like to paint ourselves as curmudgeons. Even the most anti-social hermit scribbling away in obscurity harbors dreams of being the stuff of book covers and bookstore postcards someday. Any writer that tells you they do not dream of somehow writing themselves into immortality is a liar. Like all artists, we hope our work will live after us and testify to the improbable infinity that we lived.
One of the problems with creative people is that many of us spend more time dreaming and pondering than working at our craft in a way that is productive. We have overly romanticized notions of what our craft is, that it somehow exists in a sphere outside of the normal marketplaces and human conditions. Crash landing into the realities of business and the arts is a hard thing, but the worthwhile things are always hard.
I am in the same boat with so many hopeful others. My dreams have tempered a bit. I will settle for not being the next Jack Kerouac or William Faulkner, but I still hope to make a living creatively, by doing work that is creative, artistic in nature or at least taps into my talents to write about things that I find legitimately interesting.
I am very lucky in the life that I have. I have a great family and group of friends; my health is good; I can say with confidence I will go to bed tonight with food in my stomach and a roof over my head. And yet, there is the dream I must still chase. I’m not low on ambition, but on direction and focus.
Despite all the reasons to be jaded and negative, I live with the confidence in my own creativity and the ability of New York to feed our greatest ambitions. Wish me luck and hard work.
Among the political headlines that screamed from the shameless ramparts of social media over the past few weeks, one news story that added to the four-year hate on Donald Trump was his switching his address to Florida from New York. It was a minor note that was lost in the partisan volleys regarding impeachment, with Trump complaining via Twitter that he has been treated unfairly by New York City and State leaders.
Donald Trump became a household name in the U.S. with his television show, “The Apprentice.” But New York has been familiar with Donald Trump much longer than the rest of America. For most of my adult life he’s been a tabloid figure, a willing mouthpiece for morning radio and other fodder for the endless chatter and ego jousting that hangs thick in the atmosphere of the city.
New York politicians were happy to take jabs at Trump’s repudiation of his home state. “Good riddance,’ said Governor Andrew Cuomo.
There are three reasons driving the move and Trump’s timing of it.
Distracts from the latest circus. Trump made the move during the week when several career, nonpartisan government officials were telling Congress about Trump’s conduct related to the Ukraine, the impetus for the current impeachment effort. Trump found an alternative instance to claim that Democrats were treating him unfairly, helping him construct the conspiratorial framework he’s hanging his entire anti-impeachment platform on: that the system is corrupt and everything is being driven by political machinations on the part of Democrats.
Helps with reelection in Florida. Trump did not win New York State and has little hope of doing so, but Florida is up for grabs and is a much needed piece of his reelection puzzle. His move aligns himself with the large population of transplants who fled to Florida from the Northeast.
Saves him money on taxes. This is probably the most important factor driving Trump to the Sunshine State. He’ll save significant money on taxes. New York State has a much higher tax rate than Florida, and if you can pick an official residence between the two, New York will lose out every time on tax considerations.
New Yorkers who don’t like Trump would like to disown him, and act as if he is some rare aberration who does not reflect at all on the five boroughs, but we can’t.
We can’t act like we’re the trendsetter and the capital of the world and then pretend that the leader of the free world, a native of our city, is somehow not a part of us. Yes, New York is more diverse and the focal point of a lot of worldly art and culture, but human nature doesn’t change, and New York is every bit as tribal and parochial as the rest of America. The partisan divide that creates ugly scenes across the country is present here also.
Landlords like Trump are slightly less revered than rats and muggers in New York. Trump’s rise in presidential politics is an indication of the complete dysfunction and utter detestability of our political class, not from any sheer genius on his part.
Atop of all the other controversies surrounding the Trump administration at the time, his moving his official residence to Florida is small potatoes. It was in the media for a day or two and wasn’t even the lead story those days; then it was gone. There are more important stories to chase during this absolutely bonkers administration, and political griping and standard tax dodging would just don’t fit the bill in these strange times.
No one can honestly say Trump is not a New Yorker. He’s one of us, and we can’t brush him off like yesterday’s news. The city helped create him; it was our tabloids that made him a celebrity and grew his name recognition for decades. It was our political leaders that constantly sought his donations and took their picture with him.
President Trump is thoroughly ‘Florida Man’ now, but he’ll always come stamped with the “Made in New York” label.
The Financial District in New York is known for large office towers of glass and marble facades of old buildings. It is considered the epicenter of the financial world.
Many of the large banking institutions that comprise the symbolic “Wall Street” are located in midtown now. And very little actual stock trading happens on Wall Street itself. Most actual stock trading happens on giant data servers in New Jersey. But the name is going to stay and new banks will move in to replace the old ones.
There is a charm to lower Manhattan that is missing from midtown and other parts of the island. The streets retain the narrow dimensions of the early Dutch settlers, and now they are lined with tall buildings instead of brick homes. The chaos of the streets is part of what makes it different. You have to know where you are going, and the logical numerical grid of midtown is choked off for good farther uptown at Houston Street. South of there, you have to know where you are going.
Lower Manhattan retains some of the old world charm of the early settlers, even though Manhattan today looks nothing like it did when it was New Amsterdam. You can still see remnants of Revolutionary War history and the days of our nation’s founding. If you are close enough to Battery Park, you can wander away from some of the tourists to the Korean War Memorial or one of the gardens that are quieter, or see working bee hives.
An additional charm to lower Manhattan generally and the Financial District in particular is the scattered network of small alleyways. When I first started working downtown, I had more time to take walks on my lunch hour and whenever I came across a small alley I had not experienced before, I had to walk down that alley. It still seems a sin not to.
Near where I work now is one such alleyway: Liberty Place. It’s among the alleys that populate lower Manhattan and serve as secluded getaways that are enticing for midday walks.
Forgotten NY points out that Liberty Place used to be called Little Green Street and dates to the era of the early Dutch settlers. People who walk or drive on the extremely narrow, one-way street are traveling where there once was a graveyard and Quaker meeting house.
I make a point to walk down Liberty Place whenever I can. It’s an oasis of old New York City grit in a scrubbed land of tourists and high finances. I often smell skunk weed and see people taking a break from work. The people who linger there are sharing a joint, drinking discreetly, or making a phone call away from the usual noise and bustle of the New York workday.
And even though I don’t drink or smoke weed I walk down this alleyway feeling I am among my people. I also would rather loaf and feel at ease and spend my days enjoying the random beautiful madness of our city streets rather than sit at a desk and answer emails for hours. I too should have stayed a rambling, impoverished poet looking for eternity in the eyes of strangers.
Liberty Place is just that, a place we can seek a breath of liberty even within a shadowy alleyway. I try to make it part of my daily routine, another way to get through the everyday and be a tourist in your own city.
This week begins the Year of the Pig according to the Chinese zodiac calendar. All New York City public schools are closed for the celebration. There will be a big parade in downtown Flushing this weekend and there is no shortage of family-friendly events in the city to celebrate.
We commonly called this Chinese New Year but that has dropped out of fashion and Chinese New Year is now called Lunar New Year. Koreans and other Asian cultures celebrate this as the New Year, not just the Chinese. But the Chinese originated this festival. Sure, it’s set by the lunar cycle, but so are Jewish holidays. If Chinese New Year is Lunar New Year, then so is Rosh Hashanah.
Chinese New Year is a holiday that’s quickly moving out of its original ethnic boundaries, like St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo. Chinese New Year is an opportunity to sample some compelling Chinese cuisine and light of firecrackers if you have them.
It’s a shame that celebrants in New York City cannot legally set of fireworks for the Chinese New Year. The Chinese invented gunpowder, damn it, they’ve earned the right.
In our house, the upcoming holiday was a reason to feast. My wife made delicious Coca-Cola Pulled Pork sandwiches on the eve of the Lunar New Year. They have the day off from classes and received some decorative paper lanterns from their school.
People born in the Year of the Pig are said to be intelligent, well-behaved, and artistic. They are among the calmer signs of the Chinese zodiac. It’s the sign we need for the world we have now. Some enlightened refinement and well-mannered artistry would go a long way to improve the state of things.
The pig is the last of the 12-part cycle of the Chinese zodiac, owing to legend that it was the last animal to arrive at a gathering summoned by the Chinese emperor, or by Buddha, according to a different legend. It is a stout animal known for its intelligence. In the United States, feral pigs that have escaped from pig farms are amazingly adept at surviving in the wild and can grow to enormous sizes.
There are five different versions of the Year of the Pig, based on the different elements (metal, water, wood, fire, earth). This is the year of the Earth Pig. It is the least fanciful and most real of the elements – our planet in its rawest form, the pure soil that is the basis for our lives here. It’s where we grow our food and the patch of land we seek to keep and defend.
So take whatever pleasures you can in this Year of the Pig. Survive and thrive no matter what slop is thrown your way. You owe it to yourself.
Happy Chinese New Year.
The holidays, as we collectively call them, start in earnest while we are still recovering from Halloween and preparing for Thanksgiving. Once Thanksgiving is over, all bets are off and we are surrounded by the Christmas season until we crawl back to work on January 2nd to the grim realities of our winter lives.
Holiday traditions are fine things, and for many years I took pride in my annual Bad Santa Party, which celebrated the greatest Christmas movie ever made, Bad Santa. Someday I will revive that tradition with a vengeance, but until that time it pays to find other holiday traditions that will celebrate the season without going to church or being part of a slack-jawed mob.
Of course, there are plenty of things to do that are not holiday related, but if you want to enjoy some yuletide spirit but not be surrounded by entitled ignoramuses or enormous crowds, here are some ways to observe the holiday season without losing your sanity or your edge.
Tree lightings abound. Mobs crowd Rockefeller Center and their tree is the most well-known in the city, but lots of other trees and menorahs have ceremonial lightings. Different parks, zoos and public gardens hold a host of lighting events and they are often a lot of fun. Go to one of those and you’ll get just as much craic as you would from going to some massive retail tree lighting and have a better time with smaller crowds as well.
Santa Claus for a better cause. You could certainly wait on a long line at a department store or shopping mall to put your sloppy toddler on that stranger’s lap, or you could explore an alternative venue where there won’t be as many elves or predatory photographers but the money will be going to a good cause. In my area, both the Queens Botanical Garden and the Lewis Latimer House have events where kids get to meet Santa Claus.
Anti SantaCon Pub Crawl. One of the more obnoxious holiday traditions in the city is SantaCon, a prolonged drunken stumble by perpetually unaware hollow men and their fawning female enablers. Sadly, SantaCon was once a fun and inspiring artistic event that became too popular and is now the corrupt antithesis of its founding ideals. But where there is a need for change, New Yorkers will step into the breech, and so bar owners in Brooklyn have started the Anti-SantaCon Gowanus Pub Crawl on Sunday, Dec. 9. You still get to dress up and drink in the holiday spirit, but absent the feeble stupidity that passes for holiday spirit among the current SantaCon crowd.
Literary birthday celebrations. Did you know that December 3 is Joseph Conrad’s birthday? Or that December 7 is the anniversary of Willa Cather’s birth? Shirley Jackson, Stanley Crouch, Edna O’Brien, Jane Austen, George Santayana, John Milton, and Mary Higgins Clark, among other literary lights, have birthdays in December. Why not have a party where you read their works?
Visit the New York Hall of Science. I have a tradition of visiting the New York Hall of Science on Christmas Eve with my daughters. It’s usually not crowded and our girls love science. It gives their mother a break from watching them for a while and she has time to wrap their gifts while they are away. It allows us to enjoy this popular public space in a bit of solitude and quiet.
There is no more New York thing to do than to carve out your own new tradition and celebration. The holidays give us these opportunities. Seize the day.
This past weekend I went to run some errands and found that our family minivan’s battery had died. Add it to the ‘last thing I needed’ list. We are lucky enough to be a two car family, and while I thought we had jumper cables in our other car, it turns out we did not. I was spared the opportunity to make myself look extra useful or electrocute myself.
I had to wait until after our older children were in bed before I could call AAA and have our car’s battery tended to. That took longer than I thought, and I wound up paying cash for a new battery. We needed it and I know my wife would not have time to go to a garage this week.
I set out on a drive to get cash from the ATM after using all that I had on me to pay for the new car battery. Some of us have become so accustomed to using credit cards or debit cards for just about any purchase over $20, that our trips to our bank’s ATM are infrequent.
Sunday night after 10 p.m. is a quiet time in the Western world. My part of Queens, New York, is a residential area where people are enjoying their last hours of family and freedom before the grind of the workweek picks up again.
Driving alone at night is one of life’s pleasures I used to enjoy more frequently. I had a car in the latter part of high school and through college, and taking long drives was a time I could enjoy solitude and productive daydreaming (even at night) and listen to music. Long walks and runs fulfill this need in city life, but the lure of the open road can’t be duplicated on foot so easily.
It is interesting to see who else is also on the road, what other strangers are enjoying the quiet time to be out and about while most of the nearby world is cloistered in their homes for the night. Drivers are not rushing to get everywhere as much and there’s a modicum of civility that you don’t find during daylight hours.
Sunday nights in particular, are fun times to get out. You can see this with drinking too. With Monday morning looming, not too many people are at the bars, and Sunday night at the bar was a great guilty pleasure during my drinking years.
Cruising down Willets Point Boulevard, few other drivers were on the road. I had a few errands to run and made some lucky green lights, with few others taking up lane space around me.
I got to my bank and went to use the ATM—the machine was giving out only $1, $5, and $100 bills because our financial institutions are losing their basic competencies. No mind, I set out again to drive to the next closest branch, just a mile or so away. Francis Lewis Boulevard is in the middle of repaving, and a big stretch of road has been milled down to a rough, striated surface. It was rough driving where normally it would be smooth; each manhole felt like driving over a pitcher’s mound.
I reached the next branch of the bank, only to find it was no longer there. Banks are closing branches as more people do all their banking online. I made an illegal U-turn and headed back towards home, stopping at a gas station to feed quarters to an air pump to refill two of our van’s tires. This gas station was a full service gas station, and the attendant stood in his booth, waiting for someone who needed gas. Good for them for being open late on a Sunday,
My business done, I returned home, listening to music and enjoying the quiet streets of Queens before the deluge of the workweek arrived.