Tag Archive | New York

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.

Testifying to some good news, …and fear of a second wave

Life during this pandemic has taken on a negative pattern. I wake up, I work 12+ hours at home, I have dinner, put the kids to bed, watch an hour of TV (usually Ozark now), and then go to bed. I’m too tired and demoralized to do much productive, and maybe that’s OK right now. My goal is to get through the pandemic without me or any of my family getting sick and remain gainfully employed during the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

On a weekly family Zoom call, we were going around discussing the extremely negative state of affairs in the world, when one of my cousins interjected, requesting that we share at least one piece of good news.

Good news is:

I have a job. I know too many people out of work to complain about my job. I’m gainfully employed, and layoffs are not on the horizon for me any time soon. And sometimes you must remember that any night you can go to bed with a roof over your head and food in your stomach, you are ahead of the game.

My family is healthy. Every sniffle and sneeze make me fearful that we may be stricken with the Coronavirus, and right now one of my daughters has a fever and I am terrified, but we’ve been doing everything right. We have been disinfecting, washing our hands, and staying inside.

There is still plenty of food. While the lack of cleaning products in the stores is alarming, there is still plenty of food despite panic-buying that has set in. Food distribution is being disrupted by the outbreak, and that is getting worse in some cases, but there is no reason for anyone in the U.S. to go hungry, there never is.

This causes us to think. I was on a call with people at work and one of the participants mentioned that he had had dinner with his family every night for three weeks and remarked at how rare and unusual this is. He didn’t seem to realize how seriously wrong this painted the previous status-quo. The Coronavirus pandemic has pulled back the curtain on just how unacceptable “normal” had become.

This will end. We’ll look back on this time and be glad we got through it. This won’t be forever, though hopefully some lessons from it will be.

Fear of a second wave

We are better off staying indoors on lockdown weeks longer than we need rather than risk opening up too early. There is a quest to “go back to normal” because of the economic and psychological impact of this isolation. But reopening things too early without enough available tests and before we’ve gotten through the pandemic means risking a dangerous second wave of the pandemic, which would make things worse.

The closest historical guide we have to what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is the Spanish Flu of more than 100 years ago. The deadliest time of that flu was the second wave of the pandemic in the fall of 1918.

Small protests to reopen in the midst of this crisis earned rightful derision, especially as some protests appeared to circle and block hospitals. The image of medical professionals counter-protesting in traffic in Denver will be a lasting one to remind us that even as much of the world has come together, there were a small minority of pandemic flat-Earthers who pathetically strutted around with weapons and exposed themselves and others to disease.

Too many people are not taking this crisis seriously. The Spanish Flu of 1918 had its naysayers as well, and they felt morally justified in endangering public health. History consistently condemns people who think they know better than the leading scientists of their day; you can’t eliminate these people because hubris and stupidity cannot be killed.

I plan to live long enough to remind my grandchildren how we had such fools in these times too, and how we survived and thrived.

 

 

Priorities in the time of pandemic

In New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., life is slowly adjusting to a new, temporary normal that is at once both dreadful and mundane.

What is cruelest about this epidemic is that it keeps us from one another in times of great need and hardship, when the embrace of a loved one is needed most. This past week our family lost a cousin, Greg O’Rourke, to cancer. His brothers and sisters had to take turns visiting him, as visitors are restricted due to this outbreak. One sibling had to wait outside the hospital while the other went in to spend time with him; he passed away during one of these transitions. They will have to take turns visiting his graveside at his burial, and the family will hold a mass and visitation sometime later this year.

Today my wife went to a virtual Shiva using Zoom. Her friend’s husband quickly succumbed to COVID-19; he was hospitalized on Sunday and died Thursday. Doctors were so busy treating his illness it took them a while to notice he had broken his hip when he collapsed at home.

As a family we have not been outside for nearly a month, and I am going out only late at night to buy groceries when we need them. I spoke with a friend of mine who is a history professor. He has spent his career studying biological warfare and pandemics. He said I was doing the right thing, that one can’t be too careful or too paranoid at a time like this. I take some comfort in this, also in that if we had left the city, we may have been going from the frying pan to the fire.

The way to prevent illness is very basic: Stay home, only leave home if you need to, stay six feet away from people when you do, wash your hands, and don’t touch your face.

We’ve all become painfully aware of how often we touch our faces. It’s an awareness that will stay with us when this is over.

This pandemic is of an historic magnitude on par with the Great Depression—some experts predict unemployment could rise as high as 20%, levels not seen since that time. Also, the Depression ushered in a new alignment of a more active government. The U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak runs the gamut from bumbled and patchwork to murderously incompetent. There needs to be a reckoning for this, both here and abroad.

And this crisis comes with a reordering of priorities. We’re talking to friends more, staying in touch with family over the phone or through online chat services because we don’t know when we’ll get the chance to meet again in person. We want to check in with people to make sure they are not forgotten, if there is a way to help. People are getting together to hold benefits, help friends in need; it’s what is most important now.

Some of us are working from home but would rather be doing something that really helps the world; and business as usual, while paying the bills, seems ludicrously clueless and shallow right now.

It’s absurd to get stressed out about work at a time when people are dying of disease outside your door, but I manage to do it somehow. I find myself getting angry over stupid stuff at work. I’ll judge myself harshly for that later.

My family now has a regularly scheduled Zoom conference call on Saturday night, and I use my corporate Zoom account. Will I get fired for that? I don’t care.

New York’s death toll is down, but we’re still in the thick of infection.  We’ll keep making plans of all the things we’ll get to do again once this passes. In the meantime, we put our heads down and forge ahead, getting through another day, another week…

Stay healthy.

 

Lockdowns, line cutters and other viral lunacy

This is a drastic time we’re in right now, and things may get worse before they get better. Living in New York City means a densely populated area where disease and panic can spread quickly, but it also means being near more hospitals, doctors, and in our case, family and friends.

Drastic measures aren’t a panic when it’s warranted, and the COVID-19 virus warrants it. It spread extremely fast globally and has killed thousands. New York State has three confirmed deaths but there are 3,000 people known to be infected in the United States now and that number will likely go up significantly.

China was able to lock down millions of people at a moment’s notice because it’s a totalitarian state. The government of mainland China values its economic power above any other concerns and sees it as tantamount to its grip on power, so when it was willing to cut off global supply chains of goods, that was a sign that this was a very serious public health problem that warranted similar extreme measures. Of course, they did this after first ignoring and suppressing dire warnings from their own doctors. The extreme measures China put in place worked.

The measures the U.S. is taking now should have been done a month ago and under federal authority. When we first had cases on both coasts, that was a dire warning to public health officials to kick our plans into high gear. Somewhere we have good plans for this, but we don’t have effective leadership that can put the plans we need in place in short order.

I see people online boasting about not panicking and taking part in public gatherings and while many of these are good people who want to act boldly in times of trouble. There is often a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and a global pandemic is no time to play Russian roulette with your health. Yes, you can save lives by staying at home. It’s OK not to see your friend’s band—see your friend’s band a few months from now. This is especially hard on bartenders and people that work with the public; we understand. Unemployment and poverty are terrible; I’ve been there—but you can come back from that, you can’t come back from death.

The scene at grocery stores and wholesale clubs was ugly. People had to wait in the parking lot as shoppers emptied their carts so they could have one to go shopping with. Inside, whole sections sat empty; carts sat abandoned full of groceries as some people gave up waiting on lines that stretched to backs of even the largest stores. Experts tell us that there is plenty of food and U.S. supply chains are strong but people have been panic-buying everything, especially toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

You can still count the worst among us to not change their stripes in times of stress. I went grocery shopping at my local BJ’s Wholesale Club and a rude man cut in front of me and about 100 other people. I called him out on it—I can’t not do that anymore—and he sneered at everyone and hid behind his wife. New lines opened and because I had 15 items or less, I could use the express self-checkout and the line cutter was still waiting on line when I left the store. It’s a bad sign that people are still so smug and entitled during these times but a good sign that this person was not set upon by an angry mob. We’re still holding together as law-abiding.

But just as the virus is on us wreaking havoc with our routines and spreading fear, New Yorkers are adapting. Friends are throwing virtual cocktail parties online. Everyone who can is working from home. My wife is planning to give lessons to the kinds while we wait for the NYC public schools to put online learning in place; we’re taking them outside to places where there are not crowds – our building courtyard; not a populated playground. People are getting by.

Bands that have had their concerts canceled live streamed from more remote locations. Chesty Malone & The Slice ‘Em Ups and the Cro-Mags were among those doing virtual, “quarantine concerts” from rehearsal spaces or closed venues for their fans online. The music doesn’t have to stop. Life will go on – we just need to live the hermetic life for a while as best we can.

New Yorkers have been through worse; the 1918 Influenza epidemic killed 30,000 people in New York City alone and 50 million people worldwide, more than were killed in World War I.

The next few weeks and months won’t be fun, but New York and the U.S. will emerge stronger and more determined than ever.

 

Skynet at the Stop & Shop

“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.

The courage to chase dreams

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.

 

Trump to New York: Drop Dead

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 gritty oasis of Liberty Place

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.

Year of the Pig

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.

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.

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