Tag Archive | New York

Alternative New York Holiday Traditions

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.

 

The rewarding solitude of night driving

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.

An evening at Keens Steakhouse

I got a call at work from a Maryland number. The company I work for has offices in Rockville, Maryland, not far from Washington D.C. I expected it to be one of the people I speak with regularly, simply calling from someone else’s desk phone.

It was the finance head of the division. Our division’s management meeting was coming up. It was my turn to pick the evening activity after the first day of the meeting.

These activities usually involve alcohol and something competitive. At my first suck management meeting, when I had been on the job only a few weeks, I played shuffleboard at The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Brooklyn and managed to avoid being noticed as a non-drinker. I did miserably at shuffleboard but it was all in good fun. The DJ there was playing some B-52s, which can make even the most down outcast feel at home.

I missed a few good dinners and an ‘Escape the Room’ evening because of crazy stuff happening at work, but managed to enjoy some ax throwing in Atlanta earlier in the year.

Some of the people I work with are very competitive with these kinds of things. Do I really care if someone can golf better than me? No. Golf is boring. Life is already overheated and frustrating enough without making yourself that way on purpose.

But, our boss thought gold would be a good idea, and I do enjoy trying new things and trying to better myself at different skills, so an evening at the Chelsea Piers Driving Range was one of my ideas. But the night we needed was all booked up.

More than some kind of activity, what people need after a long day of work is a fun meal, and I wanted to finally get back to Chumley’s, but with the large group we had it would have meant renting out the whole place, so I went with Keens Steakhouse.

I should have known about Keens before I learned of it years ago. I had lunch there at my old job and it was a revelation, a place of great history and ambiance that is increasingly endangered with each successive regeneration of our city.

The striking theme of the restaurant you can’t avoid is that it is decorated with clay pipes. Clay pipes line the ceilings and the pipes of some of its most famous patrons are displayed in glass cases by the entrance. Regulars would keep their pipe there so they could smoke while they waited for their steaks.

By the front door you can see the pipes that belonged to General Douglas MacArthur, famous comedian and TV actor Redd Foxx, basketball legend Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, former New York Governor George Pataki, and novelist Joseph Heller. If that’s not a motley clientele, I don’t know what is. And that is part of what New York is all about. People of divergent walks of life united by their ambitious pursuits. In this case, the pursuit of fine steak and pipe-smoking among the eccentric personalities of the theater.

As it was once part of the Lamb’s Club in the theater district, it continued to host theater clientele. In 1905 the actress Lillie Langtry sued Keens to be admitted when it was still a men’s only establishment. There is now a dining room named for her there.

Our crew was a large and ambitious one and I sat near people who have worked there nearly 20 years. I was equally ambitious about enjoying some of the fine food and ordered their famous mutton chop. It was enormous but I still ate most of it. Some of our group ordered only small steaks, but some got steaks almost bigger than their plates; they all did amazingly well. We are an ambitious bunch and will not cower before fine food.

The dinner lasted a while but eventually people had to get on their way. My coworkers shook my hands to thank me for the fine selection and we all went our separate ways. I stepped in the rainy, New York night and on to the next adventure.

Sharknado: the stupid fun America needs

Sharknado: the stupid fun America needs

One day downtown several years ago, while going for a walk on my lunch break, I came upon a movie set on Broadway at Bowling Green Park.

“What are you filming here?” I asked one of the crew.

Sharnado 2,” he said.

This was good news. The original Sharknado had already become a code word for ridiculously self-aware comedy. The very concept of a tornado that contained sharks was a doubling down on the disaster film genre: half-admitting the action film world was out of real ideas, half not caring and going for broke. If we’ve run out of road on action or horror, why not go for broke and create something so outrageous people will have to watch just to see what it is.

I hung around a bit and saw them film several women pedaling Citibikes for a half a block while screaming and looking at pretend approaching Sharknado. They quickly moved over to another block to film something there.

I made it a point to see this Sharknado sequel, which centers on New York City. I had issues with some of the film’s handling of New York transit and geography. But if you can believe Sharknado’s exist, you can believe that the 7 train goes to 96th Street in Manhattan.

So when I learned that Sharknado 6—aka The Last Sharknado (It’s About Time)—was premiering this month, I made a note of it and planned to watch the latest chapter in the absurdist epic.

While one wouldn’t think there is much more you could do with the Sharknado plot, the writers have just taken things farther down the rabbit hole of the insane. Within the first few minutes of the latest Sharknado, we see the severed robot head of Tara Reid shoot lasers out of her eyes in order to battle an alternate version of herself that has come from a shark-ruled future and is on the side of the sharks. The crew that has fought the sharks for five previous films is now traveling through time to try to eliminate the Sharknado threat once and for all.

Is that not hilarious enough for you? Neil Degrasse Tyson plays Merlin the Magician who is a medieval king and fights sharks while riding a flying dinosaur. I can’t make this stuff up, but wholeheartedly salute the team of writers that has. Dee Snider from Twisted Sister plays a sheriff in the Wild West. Half of the fun of watching the Sharknado films is seeing what odd cameos are filled by celebrities of the day. Marc Cuban and Anne Coulter as the President and Vice President in Sharknado 3, Al Roker in Sharknado 4, the list goes on.

Sharknado is part of a B-movie genre that feels relatively new: the purposely bad and cheesy movie that is firmly tongue-in-cheek and more of an absurdist comedy than action or horror. ‘Snakes on a Plane’ was the first theatrical release with a top-billing actor that purposely promoted its B-movie status and made its cheesiness central to its marketing. From the poisoned chemtrails of this snake-invested plane, Sharknado emerged years later to pick up the torch.

The world outside out virtual one has serious problems, and we do a disservice to ourselves and our children if we do not tend to them. But occasionally it pays to enjoy some mindless humor. Sharknado may not be the catastrophe we deserve, but it is the stupid fun we sometimes need.

 

Bidding a hellacious farewell to SLAYER

Big Bertha the pickup truck was not herself. My vehicle was over-revving, lurching, and I smelled something burning. I was afraid she wasn’t going to make the trip to Jones Beach. I picked up my friend Javier from downtown Flushing and headed back home, where we were able to use the minivan. Javier helped me take out the car seats to make room for Beast and Sid, and we headed back to downtown Flushing to pick them up. We got a late start, but we weren’t going to miss a minute of SLAYER.

Slayer has embodied the best of thrash metal for nearly four decades. Coming to the world in the early 1980s California, it mixes the rapid-fire, unrelenting aggression of hardcore punk with the guitar virtuosity of more traditional heavy metal.

Over the years, Slayer has become easy shorthand for aggressive music that rejects any and all self-indulgent niceties or attempts to soften its image. Years ago I was dating a woman who was destined to soon break up with me. Even though I was coming off a long period of unemployment I shelled out to treat her to a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Carnegie Hall. One of my biggest regrets of that time was not screaming “SLAYER!!!” in the famous venue between movements. I would have enjoyed the performance much better and it would have brought that relationship to a quicker and more merciful end.

I’ve had the good fortune to see Slayer several times, including with the definitive lineup that included Jeff Hanneman before his untimely death in 2013 and drummer Dave Lombardo. “No Jeff, no Dave, no thanks,” was a refrain that some Slayer fans abided by in these later years, and I hadn’t seen them since Lombardo was fired in 2013 after disputes over money.

For whatever reason—and maybe being in the same band for nearly 40 years is reason enough—Slayer is calling it quits. If you needed another reason to pay to see Slayer again, this was it. They even patched things up with Dave Lombardo.

So on we rolled out to Long Island to see Slayer’s final show in the New York City area. Opening for these godfathers of metal were other excellent thrash metal veterans Anthrax and Testament along with Napalm Death and Lamb of God. The name of the concert venue there changes every few years to that of a different corporate sponsor, but everyone just calls it “Jones Beach.”

Jones Beach can be lacking as a concert venue. Even though I quit the drinking life long ago, it is an outrage that the amphitheater only allows alcohol in one restricted area with no view of the stage unless you pay even bigger bucks as a VIP. And the prices on concessions are ridiculously inflated. While I had enough cash in my pocket, I was not going to pay $5.50 for a bottle of soda that costs $2 elsewhere. Six dollars for a hot dog? No thanks.

But Jones Beach gets good shows. A lot of the big concert tours don’t come to the five boroughs. I asked the peanut gallery of social media why this is. The two biggest concert venues within the five boroughs—Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn—share space with sports teams for much of the year, so there are fewer concert dates available. Also, the city is more expensive and so much of a logistical nightmare it is easier to go elsewhere.

Forest Hills Stadium is a great place to see a concert. I saw The Who there a few years ago and it was a great show. It’s intimate for a stadium and it has the kind of food and craft beers that both younger and older crowds enjoy. That venue tends to more mellow acts (Van Morrison, The B-52s with Culture Club, Imagine Dragons) because it’s in a residential area and the people who own homes in Forest Hills probably aren’t very interested in listening to live thrash metal at 9 p.m.—their loss.

Whatever the drawbacks of Jones Beach, the Slayer show rocked. All the opening bands were good; no one disappointed. And Slayer played the best kind of farewell show they could have played. They closed with ‘Reign in Blood’ and ‘Angel of Death’ and then thanked the crowd for supporting them.

Someday we can hopefully make it easier for bands like Slayer to play within the city limits of our beloved Gotham more frequently. Music, and New York City, deserve it.

The dark allure of the carnival

Two years ago, when our youngest was a newborn still in the hospital, I had a Father’s Day with our older daughters and decided to take them to a carnival that was being held out on Long Island.

The drive out there gave the girls some nap time and allowed me to treat myself to some drive-through White Castle in an indulgent celebration of my continuing my bloodlines.

It was on the grounds of a community college not too far into Suffolk County (the part of Long Island farther away from New York City—technically both Brooklyn and Queens are on the Island of Long Island but whenever a New Yorker says “Long Island” they mean Nassau or Suffolk County, which constitute the larger mass of land outside of the New York City borders).

Because it was Father’s Day and extremely hot, or for whatever reason, the carnival was not well attended. There were a few rides where my girls were the only ones on at the time. One ride that was empty had a height requirement, and I told one of the twins to step up to the height measurement board by the entrance to see if she was tall enough. She misunderstood my instructions and began stepping up on the bottom run of the fence around the ride, which had the effect of both immediately proving she was not tall enough to ride the ride but making it look like I was telling my daughter to cheat. As I was trying to correct this, the man running the ride, who was wearing the requisite carny uniform of sun-leathered skin emblazoned with tattoos, quickly waved my girls onto the ride.

More recently, my wife and I took our girls to a local carnival held on the grounds of a Catholic school nearby. It was fairly well attended but our kids were only eligible to ride a few of the rides. Most of the rides were for older kids and grownups and some of them looked rickety and unsafe. The same carny types were running the rides, and the ones who were running the kids’ rides were happy to have the business. From a trailer-born midway, the typical games of change were running with giant stuffed animals to lure impressionable youth to beg for their parents’ money.

A few weeks later, another similar carnival, a larger one in Astoria, had a ride malfunction and injure a passenger who fell out of an open car on a rickety amusement park ride.

We hold the carnival folk in envy in some ways also: they travel and see the country in ways most of us wish we had the freedom to do. And we see their itinerant ways and employment in leisure as hinting at some greater, more liberated life, even though it is a much harder life that consists of working while other people have fun, for long hours in the hot sun for little pay.

Eight years ago, a Wisconsin writer traveled as a carny and wrote about it for the publication Isthmus in an article ‘My life as a carny.’ He summarized it this way:

“[W]here I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.”

One counterintuitive point that the article makes is that traveling carnival rides have a better chance of being safe than those at established amusement parks, because they are inspected more frequently.

From the interactions I’ve had, I have some away with the impression that because my wife and I have raised our girls to treat people with respect and be polite, especially to the people who work for a living and serve us, that the carnival workers pick up on that and treat us well in return.

We come away from these carnivals a little poorer financially, I like to think that our family is richer in experience. Carnies are part of the brilliant milieu of New York City; we appreciate the dark allure of the carnival, as it is illuminating when you approach it with the right attitude.

A Punk Rock Anniversary

Mike Moosehead is the hardest working man in punk rock, and this weekend he’s playing shows with five different bands. Four of those bands are playing a special show to commemorate his and his wife Xtene Moosehead’s 10th wedding anniversary. The two are both punk rock bass players, though Mike plays guitar quite a bit also.

The Cobra Club in Brooklyn is the venue where the show will be. It is in a now-trendy area of Brooklyn where the remnant industrialization means a greater chance to find parking if you are driving there.

Full disclosure: I’m playing guitar in Beer Drinking Fools, the opening band of the night that features Mike on bass. The name of the band pretty much gives you the story: songs about beer. But there are some really great songs not directly related to beer that make me love Beer Drinking Fools long after I left the drinking life. Songs like ‘Work Sucks’ and ‘Let’s Get on Welfare’ offer common anthems for anyone frustrated by the standard dirge of working life. And even if you don’t drink, ‘Drinking 40s on the Subway’ is a great homage to the spirit of freedom that makes life worth living.

The second band playing that night is a special guest, and the name of the band will not be announced in advance. I happen to know what band this is and I can say first-hand that they will be in keeping with the spirit of local New York punk and hardcore with a sense of humor and chaotic stage performance.

Skum City features Mike on guitar and Xtene on bass. They started this band in 2007 and played their first show in 2008. Some former members are going to be coming back to play, and it will be a great time. Skum City blends old school punk rock with West Coast style early era hardcore. If you are looking for down-tuned grunge music to fall asleep to, look elsewhere.

Mike is also a guitar player for World War IX. World War IX was a band I learned about from reading their founding guitar player Justin Melkmann’s biographical comic strip of G.G. Allin in the New York Waste. They have been friends and comrades for years and they made my punk rock dreams come true when the inspiring Renaissance man Philthy Phill became their lead singer. I have had the honor to play some villainous characters in a few of their music videos. Who will they proclaim to be the King of the King of the King of Beers? I’ll have to find out (will not be me).

Headlining the night is Philadelphia’s Loafass, a band I have loved since I saw them open for Murphy’s Law on St. Patrick’s Day in 2003. Their lead singer, Fish, was the officiant at my wedding. Few bands are able to harness the sense of humor that punk music requires as well as Loafass. If a ramshackle jalopy with Pennsylvania license plates careens across the highway in front of you in a blaze of marijuana smoke and empty beer cans, the band playing on that car’s stereo is Loafass.

The show is only $5 dollars and requires you have an ID that says you are 21 or older. Mike and Xtene have put together a great show and the longevity of their band and marriage is a testament to the notion that making great music together can make a lot of people happy. I hope to see you there.

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