Thanksgiving came and went with still much to be thankful for in New York, at least for my family. While a second or third Coronavirus raged through the city, our immediate family remains healthy and those in our larger family circle that have been ill have recovered.
Everyone in our family has food in their stomach and a roof over their head. Even before COVID-19 rampaged through the world there were billions of people who could not say that much, and that’s getting worse now. I am gainfully employed and have not been sick and have more than enough food; I am thankful.
New York perseveres, but suffers a crisis of confidence. While we were the first place in the U.S. to see widespread COVID infection and death, we were the first to “flatten the curve” with social distancing and masks. Now we’re having a critical relapse with a spike of infections. Schools closed, now are reopening again in a swift reversal of policy. Crime continues to surge.
And all the while, we see thousands of our fellow New Yorkers not taking their own lives seriously. A Hasidic group worked secretly to arrange a large indoor wedding, sans facemasks, and was given a slap-on-the-wrist fine. I go food shopping and see people who can’t wear a facemask properly going about their business in blissful, entitled ignorance.
Yes, we’re not supposed to be judgmental during these difficult times, but this pandemic has revealed just how many of our fellow human beings are unfit to breath the same air.
Having children in a city apartment can be trying during good times; it has been especially trying during this extended pandemic. What we have though is a place we call the secret playground. It’s not really a secret playground, but a little-used playground in a neighboring co-op that we’re not really supposed to use. The old fogeys that run the board where we live did away with the playground for our building years ago, so to use a local playground is to be an automatic scofflaw.
But I take my girls to the secret playground as often as I can. There are rarely other children playing there, so I can let my kids take down their facemasks, if our family is alone. Usually a few residents will walk through on their way to and from their homes, and we’ll put our masks back up as they come through; they are still almost always more than six feet away. It is an oasis that the unseasonably warmer November weather has given us access to and I don’t want to let a single good weather day go to waste as we endure another lockdown.
Sometime next year, we will hopefully begin adapting to a post-COVID world, and some things we will want to stay the same. I’m not alone in hoping that the world remains one where we’re given more personal space and take extra steps to reduce indoor crowds and make spaces safer, with better ventilation and more protections. These are good ideas outside of pandemics.
And therein lies the appeal of the secret playground: it is a respite from the current world and a model for how to best rebuild when we emerge from our currently dismal state. We cannot live in a bubble world, but we can look at our better adaptations of today to keep our joy and our priorities in line with where we need to be.
There are signs hanging in my apartment building that have been there since March. They read: ’15 Days to Flatten the Curve’ and they are a cruel reminder of our country’s failures in the months since. It’s not clear if COVID-19 will be under control at the 15-month mark from this past March. Broadway shows announced they will be closed through May 2021.
New York City was the center of the Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Our country’s most vibrant and the cultural capital of the planet, its shutdown has been an albatross around the neck of America. If our greatest city can’t get its shit together, what hope has the rest of the U.S.? Whereas New York has proudly led the country in decades past, we are instead forecasting its tragic bungling of a global pandemic.
Evidence of that tragedy has extended to our own family’s approach to public schools.
The New York City public schools have had no bigger advocate than my wife Emily. Raised in Queens and a product of New York’s public school system, she often mentions our good local schools as a major selling point when we discuss the future as parents. She believes whole-heartedly in public education and the ability of public schools to make a difference in people’s lives. This school year she is home schooling our kids.
My wife’s belief in the power of good public schools has not changed. New York City public schools had a ham-handed approach to school reopening that left us unconvinced that our kids would be returning to a safe environment or in a way that was manageable.
When the COVID-19 lockdown started in March, few if anyone thought that we would still be struggling with it by the start of the next school year. So the kind of planning for a socially distant learning scenario didn’t get started on time. The schools in New York provide a lot of vital social services, which is why city officials were slow to close them in March and which motivated them to put too much emphasis on making in-person learning part of the reopening plans.
The plans that the city came up with were haphazard and half-assed. It was a convoluted combination of in-person and remote learning, neither part of which the city was adequately prepared for. Kids were supposed to report to school for three days and then do remote learning from home two days, alternating days by weeks. People like us with multiple children in the same school faced the prospect of juggling different childcare schedules in addition to navigating multiple remote learning systems. Days before scheduled schools were set to reopen, teachers asked the city to delay; the promised safety equipment and extra hand-sanitizing stations that were supposed to be in place were not.
Seeing this chaos in the wake of the poorly and dangerously executed school closings from earlier this year and the worsening situation in the reopening, our family chose to home school for a year. So far it’s not perfect but it is going well. My wife keeps the girls busy every day with some kind of learning, much of it hands-on in parks or nature centers. We can supplement the home learning with limited classes offered by local institutions; my wife is finding a way to get it done.
The city’s approach hasn’t worked, up to 150 public schools have had to close since reopening due to staff and students testing positive for COVID-19. The schools have not handled the increased numbers of homeschooling well either. My wife gave the school adequate notice that we were homeschooling this year, but weeks into the school year we got a call from the school asking why our children were not logged on remotely.
This virus is still wreaking havoc on the country and people want to blithely act like it is not happening. The city, like much of the country, is still struggling with lockdowns and virus containment. We had all hoped to be getting “back to normal” months ago; whatever version of normal returns looks to be well into 2021.
In the meantime, we’ll be teaching our kids at home.
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.
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.
Earlier this summer, I arrived home late on a Friday night—late these days meaning after 8 p.m.—and was taking things out of my pockets after a long day. When I reached into my right front picket, I came to the realization that I did not have my wallet. My stomach tied in knots and I cried out in frustrated desperation. I knew it had been in my pocket; there would be no deus ex machina miracle of finding it in my bag or in another pair of shorts.
I knew that it most likely fell out of my pocket on my commute home. I had just gotten off the express bus—this bus was still on the road and someone could radio the driver! I immediately picked up my smart phone and dialed 311 for citywide information. The 311 operator would be able to connect me to the right person. The 311 operator transferred me to 511, which is the information number for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
After a few more transfers, I spoke with someone I was told could help me. I gave them all the information I had. I was on a QM20 bus and was picked up from 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan at approximately 8:40 p.m. and was dropped off at Union Street and 26th Avenue in Flushing, Queens at approximately 9:30 p.m. This driver was probably still on their route and with the information I had given them someone should be able to get in touch with the driver ASAP!
But no such luck. The person on the other end of the line said they could not do anything unless I had the bus number. Without the bus number, they could not contact the driver. Seems a bit ridiculous. If this had been a more serious situation and people’s lives depended on finding the bus, there would have been a catastrophe.
I was asked to call back the next day after the bus had gone back to the depot and the driver may have turned in the wallet. It was a small wallet, one that held only cards. I was not out any cash, unless someone was going to town with my debit card.
I started to call credit card companies and my bank to have holds put on cards.
The next day I called the depot. Nothing.
I called back the next day, and called back later in the day again. Nothing still.
I went through with canceling and replacing my credit cards and ATM card and replacing my driver’s license.
By Monday, there was no funny business on my cards and new ones were on the way. I printed out a temporary driver’s license and ordered a new card wallet that came with a money clip. My card wallet needed replacing anyway, and this was a chance to pare down the stuff I carried with me everywhere.
A few weeks later, the same day my new driver’s license arrived in the mail, a notice from the MTA Lost & Found arrived in the mail.
“An article which contains your name and/or contact information was found and turned in to the MTA NYC Transit Lost Property Unit,” the notice began. It instructed me to report to the unit’s office at the 34th Street subway station at 8th Avenue in Manhattan. If I did not claim my property by Nov. 3, “it will be deemed to have been abandoned and you will have forfeited your right to claim it.”
The next day I brought that notice and my newly replaced driver’s license to a hidden-in-plan-sight pocket of the 34th Street subway station in Manhattan. It took some searching and asking to find the lost and found office, which is beneath the tracks of the A, C, E subway lines and without any signs leading you there except in the immediate vicinity. It’s within the subway system, so if you arrive by some other means or exit the subway before you find it, you’ll have to spend another subway fare to reach it or get a helpful MTA worker to let you in.
A small sign points the way to a set of double doors painted in celebration of the many objects found in our transit system. The office is open odd hours—and completely closed weekends and holidays, a travesty in a system that runs 24 hours—but luckily is open until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursdays.
Inside is a small room with a very low ceiling. I’m five feet eleven inches with my shoes on, and if I had extended my arm fully above my head I would have punched a hole in the drop-down ceiling. There is a metal bench to sit on, a small counter to stand and fill out paperwork on, two old-looking computer terminals, and a thick window above a pass-through door through which one may conduct business with the MTA workers on duty.
I arrived as a worker emerged from another set of doors to hand someone some paperwork, and she took my notice and ID and disappeared in to the bowels of the lost and found. The woman who was there spoke to someone at the window and was told to check back about her property later. She left and another woman arrived to ask if a book she lost on the subway was found. She was told no and to check back later; she left. Another man arrived and looked through his paperwork to check on a claim, and while he was speaking with someone another woman arrived to check on some property she had reported missing.
A worker arrived at the thick window with my wallet. It was a different worker than I had given my notice to; it was a rotating staff of workers answering questions and handling forms. He told me to sign my name on another form and write my address the same way it appeared on the notice in the mail. He opened the door to the silver box under the window and placed a clip board inside, and when he closed his door I opened mine and filled out the form.
A minute later, the same exchange reunited me with my wallet. It looked a little worse for wear, but nothing was missing. Everything was there: my license, my ATM card, my MTA MetroCard, even the coupon for a t-shirt at the zoo. I excitedly took an inventory of my wallet while my fellow transit visitors looked on amazed.
“You give me hope,” said the young woman sitting on the bench, hoping her property would be returned.
I thanked the worker and wished the other people in the office good luck, and went back out into the bustling station. For me, lost and found had worked out well.
Thank you to the Good Samaritan on the bus who turned in my wallet, and the series of honest MTA workers that made it possible for me to get my property back. For me the stars aligned this time.
A few weeks ago, my band was fortunate enough to be asked to play music in Tompkins Square Park. The four of us arrived punctually (an impressive feat for an old-school punk rock band like ours).
The sun was blazing but standing in the shade brought sound respite. Having consumed copious caffeinated beverages in transit, I headed for where I knew the public restrooms were located.
The men’s room was locked. A nearby restroom was marked for use only by children. It was also locked. Park workers admonished men looking to use the boys’ restroom, and referred people to the closed men’s room even after being told it was locked. A Parks Department employee told me to use bathrooms at a nearby Starbucks or 7 Eleven, and acted as if she were doing me a favor.
Nearby on Ave. A and 9th Street, there was not a Starbucks or 7 Eleven in sight. Doc Holliday’s was open though.
Even though I long ago left the drinking life, I had the good fortune to drink at many of New York’s most excellent bars before I did. Doc Holiday’s is one of the East Village’s surviving dive bars that did not sell out or lose its character, and has stayed the same quality dive bar that it was meant to be.
As the name implies, Doc Holliday’s could be called a country bar. While by that measure it could easily be lumped in with other “country” bars such as the now-defunct Hogs & Heifers, it’s a bit more subdued and nowhere near the same kind of tourist mecca. It may be a far cry from where David Allen Coe would drink (if anyone knows where David Allen Coe goes to drink when he’s in New York, please tell me), but it’s the closest thing to a country dive bar surviving in the city today.
When a cheesy movie came out about rival bar Coyote Ugly in 2000, Doc Holliday’s celebrated the fact that its name was not associated with such a flop. They had several drink specials and posted scathing movie reviews of Coyote Ugly on the walls of the bar.
For a while when I worked in SoHo, I would bring coworkers to Doc Holliday’s for beer—after the after-work beers we had at work, of course, and it never disappointed me then. I would be one of the last of my party to depart, stepping strongly buzzed into the bright twilight of a New York Friday night, ready to conquer the world some more.
About 10 years later, when I decided to leave the bogus “secret restaurant” located in Crif Dogs rather than take off my hat, I went to Doc Holliday’s where friends were waiting. Three boroughs and many, many drinks later, I made it through that night with few memories but few regrets.
But now I was returning to Doc Holliday’s as someone gone from the drinking life nearly a decade, a frustrated park goer unable to find a decent bathroom. Would I be welcome back to this hallowed place where I had spent so much quality time in the past?
The bartender was chatting with three people at the bar and the place was otherwise empty. There was no crowd to blend into if I pretended to be a customer. She looked to me, expecting me to order a drink. I decided to come clean and admit I was there just to go to the bathroom. I explained my situation to the bartender. Could I use their bathroom?
The bartender told me yes and thanked me for asking. I walked back to where the bathrooms were to find that Doc’s had done some remodeling and the restrooms were not in a state of filthy disrepair. By dive bar standards the new men’s room was pretty luxurious. I left a five-dollar bill on the bar in my way out and got a friendly smile.
I returned throughout the day and was warmly greeted. It was good to be welcome and enjoy the dive bar scene again. Even removed from the drinking life, our bars are cultural markers that can offer a guide to the state of society. Doc Holliday’s confirms there are some pockets of righteous goodness left in our city.
Despite the popularity of some parts of Brooklyn, our collective dialogue around New York City remains excessively Manhattan-centric. New Yorkers will still say “the city” when they mean Manhattan, even though the five borough boundaries of our city have been in place since 1898.
And New York City is so large that telling people what borough you are from will not cut it. No one actually from Manhattan would introduce themselves as being from Manhattan unless they were in a very borough-specific conversation. Each of New York City’s boroughs is a tapestry of neighborhoods, and it is these neighborhoods that are the lifeblood of life in NYC.
Queens is New York City’s largest borough and among its most well-known neighborhoods is Flushing. This weekend, local residents are showing off the neighborhood’s many attractions Saturday at FNO 2019: Flushing Fantastic.
FNO stands for “Flushing Night Out” as past events have been held at night, but this festival is going to run from 12 noon until 6 p.m. and is going to be at historic St. George’s Episcopal Church, right in the center of downtown Main Street a short walk from both the 7 train and the LIRR.
Flushing is known as a destination for Chinese cuisine, and people will come from all over to sample some of the great restaurants, food carts, or food court stalls that make this neighborhood unique. But there is much more than Chinese food, and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce is promoting the neighborhood as an international melting pot, though admittedly one that is heavily Asian. I often point out to people that among the best dining attractions in Flushing are 24-hour Korean restaurants such as Kum Gang San and Noodle Flower, where you can barbecue an awesome assortment of meat right at your table at two o’clock in the morning if you are so inclined.
The Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce also notes that the event is designed to give a boost to local businesses and entrepreneurs that are competing with large franchises. Downtown Flushing has seen a boom in construction of high-rise condominiums and the rising price of real estate has made life harder for small businesses throughout Queens and five boroughs.
“Flushing, NY is the crossroads of the world — where you can find amazing culture and people from around the globe,” the chamber says in its event notice online. “We want to celebrate the unique food, fashion, and music found here as well as help the small businesses and entrepreneurs who are struggling to make ends meet. Over the past decade, rising rents and major development projects have threatened to displace the small mom-and-pop stores who invested their blood, sweat, and tears into making our neighborhood prosperous.”
Flushing Night Out has been held at various locations, centered on the downtown area. The first one I attended was on the campus of Flushing High School, and it was a memorable event, even for cynics like me that hate crowds.
It was at my first Flushing Night Out that I was introduced to Karl’s Balls, a food stand of traditional Japanese takoyaki balls—those are octopus balls inside a doughy sphere that are cooked on an egg-shell like grill. Go to Karl’s Balls because it’s an ingenious name and you may never stop joking about wanting to put Karl’s Balls in your mouth. But all joking aside, the takoyaki balls are extraordinarily delicious and Karl himself—Karl Palma—is a celebrated chef who has been featured on the Cooking Channel among other accomplishments.
While Karl’s Balls may not be at this FNO event, there is going to be a smorgasbord of amazing food, from Ecuadorian cuisine to Japanese ramen to craft beer and gourmet ice cream. You have no excuse to leave hungry. The organizers require all the vendors there to have items that start at $5 or less.
FNO also features live music, crafts, and other cultural interests. This Saturday will feature Harmonyc Movement, a city-based dance troupe steeped in K-pop and Korean culture.
And at the Flushing Queens Macaroni Kid booth, they will be giving away protein bars for free (full disclosure, my wife Emily Griffin Sheahan runs our local Macaroni Kid web site and will be manning the booth at the event – tell her I sent you!).
This coming weekend two free punk rock shows will be held in Tompkins Square Park in New York City’s East Village.
The shows commemorate the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988, when police clashed with squatters, homeless and others that had been camping out in the park. Accounts of that night very but few dispute it involved widespread police brutality. Police lined up on the street for an extended period of time before moving into the park, and they were subject to sustained abuse by activists that did not want them there and saw them as agents of a landlord-controlled city that (to this day) lets property go abandoned rather than occupied while working people struggle to pay rent.
The riots were one of the first instances of widely-publicized videos of reported police misconduct thanks to the efforts of East Village video archivist and neighborhood stalwart Clayton Patterson. His videos showed police covering their badge numbers and chasing down protesters and beating them without arresting them. “Little brother is watching big brother,” he told Oprah Winfrey.
The 30-plus years have done a lot to change the East Village. Tompkins Square Park is no longer a homeless encampment or open-air drug market; it is now a safe place you can bring children. The abandoned buildings and art spaces that were abundant in the late 1980s have been replaced by high-end restaurants and expensive homes. The story is the same throughout the city.
It would be useless to pretend the East Village is the same, but it would be a disservice not to commemorate a scene that produced great art. Even if the crucible that created an esteemed body of art is long gone, the art does not get thrown away. I’m happy that feudal Italian city states no longer wage war on the Italian peninsula, but the art that survives from this period is among the finest in the civilized world.
The scene may be over, but the art endures. So let it be with punk rock. Though please don’t think that punk rock is over or that new generations don’t have the same legitimacy as the old-timers that were there when New York was a shithole. There are excellent bands playing in the city today, comprised of young people who were not born yet in 1988, and they are as punk rock as anyone else.
And the East Village is still a home for punk rock. The Bowery Electric, located a short distance away from where CBGB once stood on the Bowery, still hosts great punk rock shows. Niagara, which his located where punk rock club A7 once stood, has started booking hardcore punk concerts there regularly again.
And free punk rock still reigns in the park. Full disclosure: my band Blackout Shoppers is scheduled to play the free punk rock show in Tompkins Square Park this Sunday, Aug. 4, with The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Hammerbrain, Porno Dracula (one of the greatest band names ever, but please don’t Google them at work), Jennifer Blowdryer Soul Band, Ruckus Interruptus, and Young Headlight. Saturday the 3rd hosts the first of the two-part series with Disassociate, the Nihilistics, Rapid Deployment Force and more.
Blackout Shoppers have been rehearsing and sounding good, even judging by my overly critical, curmudgeonly ears. We don’t play as often as we used to and it’s a blast when we can get together and play a show. It was touching when people came out to see us last year when we bid farewell to Philthy Phill of World War IX. We don’t want to wear out our welcome, but we are playing more shows this year than we’ve played more recently and it feels good to be out there being loud.
See you in the park this weekend.
This past Saturday I noticed a friend posting on social media from the dark interior of one of Hell’s Kitchen’s finer dive bars, Rudy’s.
“Uh-oh. Power’s out. Better drink all the beer before it gets warm.” That was the caption accompanying a photo of business as usual on a busy Saturday night at Rudy’s. There was never a lot of interior light there to begin with, so one had to take her word for it that there was a blackout.
A little while later, a message from work indicating a “Code Red” situation—the company’s building in Times Square was without power and this was a problem. I scrambled to join the emergency communications line, only to be told there were enough people working on this already, I could drop.
News reported that the West Side of Manhattan and a significant portion of midtown were dark. This was a major event though it was small potatoes compared to previous New York City blackouts. It was short-lived as well. By 10 p.m. power had been restored to much of the affected areas, and my employers’ building in midtown had power again but was still waiting for electricians to arrive to make sure everything was up and running.
The cause was not immediately known and Con Edison does not have a great track record of accountability when these things do happen. Several years ago, a significant portion of Astoria, Queens was out of power for an extended period of time. Sadly, an outage in Manhattan generates greater news coverage and more intense scrutiny.
New York City suffered a blackout exactly 42 years ago to the day of the one this past Saturday. On July 13, 1977 a blackout hit New York City and was the scene of widespread looting and arson.
Seventeen years ago this August marks the anniversary of the 2003 blackout that darkened a significant swath of the Northeastern United States. I was downtown getting ready for a late night of editing at work and wound up taking a 12-mile walk home over almost the entire length of Manhattan. Although incidents of looting were underreported, they were indeed rare and the peaceful evening rush hour and dark night was a testament to the transformation that had happened in the years since 1977.
Even after walking 12 miles to get home in crumbling shoes that blistered my feet, I walked around my neighborhood of Inwood in Manhattan, amazed at the peacefulness of the city at such a time. People played dominoes in the moonlight near the Dyckman Farmhouse, and the sound of steel drums and street parties filtered up from blocks away.
Power outages serve as a barometer of where New York resides along the lawlessness spectrum. Are we close to widespread chaos or will the line hold during a night in the total dark? The Manhattan blackout of July 2019 showed we are holding the line for now.
It was a relief to find that New York has not regressed to the point of making our blackouts more of the 1977 variety. But that question will always linger in the back of New Yorkers’ minds, and maybe we should get to a point that it shouldn’t be there at all. How much has to be done to create that city, that country, that world, and will we ever get there? And what is being done to make sure that we don’t lose power during critical summer months?
A relieved city needs those answers.
For about a year and a half, I have commuted to and from my job in Manhattan using an express bus, a more expensive but comfortable coach bus run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Most of the bus drivers who drive these buses hustle to get us through traffic and make good time getting into Manhattan from the Eastern reaches of Queens. A meek or extremely defensive driver is going to fail at driving and express bus, and fail hard.
And that’s been happening recently in the early morning on the QM20 line. One driver I have not seen but only heard about, an older gentlemen, is a slow-paced driver that is content to hang in the slow lane of early rush-hour traffic while his passengers fret about reaching work on time. I have spoken with people who have stopped riding the 6:45 bus because they cannot get to work on time if they ride it. In fact, the 7 a.m. bus routinely reaches Manhattan sooner.
Because the driver of the 6:45 a.m. bus is such a pathetic slowpoke, passengers that used to take that bus now flood to the 6:30 bus. There are now at least three times as many passengers waiting at the bus stop for the bus I take, which means the other stops are all more crowded as well. I used to be able to find a seat all to myself with regularity, now it’s nearly impossible.
Yet still people insist on putting their bags on seats, even knowing that they’ll have to move them at some point. It’s a gamble on their part, they’ll possibly get the seats to themselves if enough passengers decide not to ask them to move. I usually make it a point to make these rude people move their bags, though if they are an exceedingly large person then I will often pass them by because I’m a large person also and then we’re both crammed into our seats seething and miserable. There is one rude fat bastard on my bus line who does this without fail and sits in corpulent luxury every day.
Sometimes I’ll choose people who are polite and thin because I’ll have more room. There’s a man who uses his time on the bus to sketch drawings and I feel camaraderie sitting next to someone interested in the arts, even if I never talk to him.
This past Monday however, there was a mystery man and I felt I had to sit next to him. By mystery man I mean someone who had a black wool hat pulled down all the way over his face. This was not a ski mask (aka balaclava), but just a hat that normally sits on top of the head and over the ears. He had it pulled down all the way over his face, so that his head was just one monolithic orb of woolen darkness.
I was appreciative of the aesthetic and felt a kinship to it. I often wear a ski mask when I perform in bands, and have enough ski masks at home to clothe a paramilitary battalion for a decade. So I sat next to this man. He was a bit spread out but I managed to get comfortable enough and read the news on my work phone. I didn’t want to see the man’s face, wanting his mystery to be kept for all eternity or at least until the weather was warmer and one would have to be psychotic to wear a winter cap. But no, soon after we rolled into Manhattan the man woke up and pulled up his hat revealing the countenance of a middle-aged commuter.
I don’t know where the man departed the bus. I got off at my usual stop at Herald’s Square and made my way downtown, hoping to engage with more of life’s mysteries as the day wore on.
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 weekend the East Village commemorated the three decade anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park Riots with two days of concerts and speeches in the once-notorious East Village park.
Protests over a 1 a.m. curfew of the park and eviction of homeless encampments there ended with multiple clashes with police and multiple instances of police brutality. It was among the first widely documented instances of police brutality caught on video and broadcast on the news. Angry protesters shouted dire warnings about gentrification, yelled “Die Yuppie Scum,” and vandalized a new apartment building. Police chased people down and clubbed them with night sticks. It was a low point in New York’s history but things would soon change.
I was an angry suburban punk rock high school kid in the late 1980s and I made it a point to go to New York and walk to Tompkins Square Park after the riot. While I made it there, I did not stay very long. The park was still a homeless encampment and drug-invested village of skels and squatters, even with the 1 a.m. curfew. I would walk along 8th Street and St. Mark’s after visiting a great record store called It’s Only Rock & Roll that did not survive to the late 1990s.
This year’s commemorative concerts included a reunion of Team Spider, a group I have long admired and followed that embody the best of the East Village punk rock ethos. For about a decade they had an elderly songwriter ZAK, join them for most of their performances. ZAK passed away in 2006. So I made it an imperative to get to the park to see Team Spider.
The fact that I felt safe enough to drive to the East Village in a minivan with my wife and three small children is testament to the radical changes that have affected the East Village in the interceding 30 years. Amazingly, I found a parking spot right alongside Avenue B. I parked right across the street from St. Brigid’s Church. The church has a storied history, including being used as a center for activists during the 1988 park protests. There is personal history there too. I was arrested for taping a flyer to a light post right on the corner outside the church in 2005.
We walked into the park between bands, and someone was on stage making a long-winded political speech. They had been there during the riots in 1988 and now the spirit of resistance was needed even more because Trump is a racist and in league with the Nazis and no borders and die yuppie scum and …I tuned out most of the rambling speech and instead said hello to friends that I saw there. Some of my friends that I know through music have not yet met my children, so it was good to introduce some of my punk rock family to may actual nuclear family.
Team Spider took the stage and rocked. Their brand of ska-infused, politically conscious punk rock is as relevant today as it was when they were performing regularly, and they even updated some of the lyrics to mention Donald Trump instead of George W. Bush. The concert was well attended – Choking Victim closed out the show after Team Spider – and evidence that the spirit of political protest has not been cleansed from our city streets entirely.
But by any measure of anti-gentrification politics, the yuppies have won in the East Village. There are only a few squatters left among the increasingly expensive real estate that have driven out much of the radical politics that fueled the protests. The 1 a.m. curfew on the park is still in effect and there’s a Starbucks where there was once a pizza place not long ago.
After we listed to Team Spider play, we brought our girls to a playground. I took a small detour to meet with old friends at the show, but soon it was time to go for ice cream. I am happy to report that Ray’s Candy Store is still on Avenue A and I and the family got to eat ice cream cones served by Ray himself. We found a bench in the park that was away from some of the homeless congregations that still take up a lot of space there and quickly ate the ice cream, though the summer heat made us all a mess. Soon it was time for home.
New York City has changed dramatically in the last three decades, and it wouldn’t be New York if it was any other way. We won’t always have the same punk rock bands to listen to in the decades ahead, but New York City will always be home to what is interesting.
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, which borders the Bronx, the fourth of July was always a time for fireworks and fun. I would stay up as late as I could watching people light up firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and other fare. I’d jump at the fearsome boom of M-80s. On the fifth of July I’d go outside to ride my bike and step into what looked to me like a war zone. Paper from expended fire crackers lined the gutters, leftover powder from unexploded ordnance glinted in the sun. One time I saw a metal garbage can that had been split in half and turned upside down by a blast of something, looking like a sad metallic banana peel.
When I first moved to New York City as an adult, I lived on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. A few blocks down the street was famed Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti’s old local headquarters, the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. Gotti had been in prison for several years by that point, and the Mafia was a shadow of what it once was, but the Teflon Don had thrown big parties in Ozone Park every Independence Day and his presence was still looming large enough to draw a large police presence. I could not look out the window of my small studio on July 4th of that year without seeing the NYPD.
When my brother was visiting the next year, we managed to get onto the roof of the building I lived in. While we could see the fireworks off in the distance happening over the East River, it was much more fun to see the illicit explosions spreading it spider light over the skies of Ozone Park. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game of the firework lighters and the police added to the intrigue.
Years later, when I lived in Inwood in Northern Manhattan, I walked down to where Dyckman Street met the Hudson River, hoping to see fireworks of some capacity over the water. I was too far away from the official celebrations to get a good view of anything and I went home. But the volume of illegal fireworks being launched in Inwood was enormous, and I got a better show from my living room window than I could have had anywhere else.
I have been back in Queens for almost seven years now, this time in Northern Queens on the Flushing-Whitestone border.
Our co-op apartment building houses two addresses that do not connect except in the basement and on the roof. The roof is normally not accessible, but one of the buildings is without its elevator, so residents can take the elevator to the top floor of our side and cross over the roof.
On the fourth of July the skies over New York City were lit with legal and illegal fireworks alike. With one girls falling asleep early, my wife and I took turns bringing our other daughters up to see what there was to see. We knew there was a lot going on in our neighborhood as the evenings leading up to the fourth had at least one or two substantial barrages of fireworks audible and in close range.
From all sides of the roof we saw fireworks in the distance. A string of lights on the roof added to the festive air. The official Macy’s show over the East River started up at 9 p.m., and other legal displays could be seen over some of the country clubs of Douglaston and other well-to-do neighborhoods. But the most compelling sights were the ones going on right over the tidy homes of Whitestone.
The fireworks would burst into a glowing flower of streaking fire and fade almost as quickly. “Where go?” asked my youngest daughter, pointing to where the colorful display had just been. Another family from the other side if the building was on the roof as well. “Happy Birthday America!” one little boy called out as the colorful bombs burst in air.
The Saturday after July 4th, our family visited friends for a celebratory party. There my older girls got to experience sparklers for the first time. They enjoyed holding the fizzing light, aware it could burn them but marveling at how pretty it was. It was what the older people and the big kids were doing, and they were glad to be involved in the tradition. I didn’t get to hold sparklers until I was in fifth or sixth grade, and my parents would not have allowed me to partake if I had asked them. I was at a neighbor’s house and the grown-ups were lighting off the bigger stuff, using a candle on the ground to help light things. When police sirens could be heard in the distance, someone would blow the candle out and we’d retreat to the dark shadows of trees near the house until the danger of being caught had passed.
Of course there are dangers to fireworks, and no shortage of stupid people who set them off dangerously and without regard to safety or consideration for others. But we can’t let stupid people ruin our good time. Just as we shouldn’t stop loving our country because stupidity is on the ascent in our leadership and public discourse, we shouldn’t stop loving the celebration because morons are in the mix. The idiots will be there until common sense or well-placed fireworks weed them out.
Colonists won their freedom with blatant opposition to oppressive laws and plenty of gunpowder. It’s that heritage of the outlaw patriot we celebrate with fireworks at this time of year. It’s a tip of the hat to our revolutionary history. May it never die.