The mystery commuter on the QM20 bus
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 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.
30 years after the Tompkins Square Park Riots
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.
The joy of illegal fireworks
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.
Brown Bin Follies, and Why Composting is Not Just for Hippies Anymore
One of the odors that comprises the urban bouquet is that of garbage. The smell can be ubiquitous and is unmistakable, and the air of the hot summer months amplifies the oppressive stench when it sits uncollected for too long.
New York City has had recycling laws on the books for some time now, and while the success of the city’s recycling program is mixed—plenty of trash goes in recycling still, and the most ardent recyclers are homeless people who collect aluminum cans for the deposit money—recycling has wound its way into the everyday bustle of city life. It’s accepted as part of our routine.
The new frontier in responsible trash processing today is in composting: separating out the organic matter that can be used to create rich soil and put back into agricultural use. To this end the New York Department of Sanitation began a program that collects food scraps and yard waste to both promote composing and to help cut down on rats and roaches. The more edible food that’s in the garbage, the more vermin there will be to feast upon it.
But recently the Department of Sanitation halted the expansion of the program, saying it would focus on increasing adoption in those areas that were already in the program before expanding it. I can see why they did this. One could easily confuse these smaller brown bins for medical waste receptacles or for regular small garbage cans. No doubt people are adding their own manner of organic matter to these bins and probably making a mess of it.
Whatever the merits of the city’s program, you don’t need the Department of Sanitation to begin composting on your own. You can do it yourself and there are several organizations that will help you do it.
Among the enthusiastic composters in the city is my wife, who grew up in Eastern Queens and her family had a house with a yard when she was a youngster, and her family had a composting pile in their garden. She is one of the leaders of our local community supported agriculture program, Flushing C.S.A., and brings compost to a drop-off location at Queens Botanical Garden.
I was very skeptical of my wife’s plan to keep rotting food in our kitchen on purpose, but the composing has worked out so far and is easier to do than you might think. You can buy an inexpensive (about $20) countertop composting bin with charcoal filters to contain the odors. And the odor doesn’t get that bad, it actually smells like someone is trying to make pruno in your kitchen for a few seconds after you open and close the bin.
We have healthy jalapeno plants growing on our windowsill in containers filled with compost we got back from Queens Botanical Garden. Our basil plans, which make half our kitchen smell like a fancy Italian restaurant, are also growing in soil that is partly compost.
Why is this kind of thing important? Because we are running out of places to dump our garbage, with China recently refusing to handle more trash and recycling from other parts of the world. New York City ships much of its garbage out of state, but that is getting more expensive and it’s only a matter of time until that becomes unfeasible.
This kind of thing is smart to do. It’s for survival and the fittest people that are going to survive are the ones who can do more with less and organize to consume resources in a reasonable and sustainable way.
It would be easy to brush off composting as tree-hugging hippie nonsense, but it is not. Hippies are slackers who only want the trappings of conservation so they can feel good about themselves. Real conservationists and survivors are willing to do the hard work and build real systems to have the confidence in their future.
So embrace the rot and death of life to cut down on the rats and roaches and add more nutritious soil to our land. It is the smart thing to do.
The Benefits and Dangers of Being in a Forgotten Zone
It’s frustrating when you live someplace that’s not on the map. It is doubly frustrating when you live in one of the largest metropolises in the history of human civilization and you find your neighborhood has been dropped from the map.
This phenomenon is well-known to anyone who lives far enough out of the popular centers of New York City. Manhattan maps might end mysteriously somewhere above or below 125th Street, and many tourist-centered maps of Queens don’t venture much farther than Astoria or Long Island City—not including the airports, mapped separately. Staten Island may have this the worst, as the most popular destination of their borough for tourists is the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Staten Island wears its “forgotten borough” hat with pride; respect.
Even the “Not For Tourists” map guide that includes Flushing for Queens stops a few blocks away from the building where I live. That’s too bad for the not-tourists, since there are delicious 24-hour Korean barbecue restaurants not even half a block from where the map ends.
Living in a lesser-known area of the city has a lot of benefits. One is cost of living and small rentals, not necessarily home prices. People pay a lot of extra money to live in a neighborhood that is popular or sounds impressive or hip. That’s why realtors have developed bogus neighborhood names that reference more popular areas. A few years ago, “East Williamsburg” was realtor shorthand for Bushwick, but now even Bushwick has become a popular destination for gentrifying newcomers. Maybe East New York (a higher-crime area not blessed with any in-crowd interest thus far) will be called “South Bushwick” or “Jamaica Bay Coast” or something ridiculous.
If you’re not in easy walking distance to a subway, consider yourself in a forgotten zone. The prices will be lower but the commuting to work in Manhattan will be long and miserable unless you’re able to take an express bus or railroad and pay the extra money for the honor.
Also, being in a neighborhood that is a best kept secret is a bit thrilling. I lived in Inwood for a little more than a decade, and while it was frustrating to have to explain where I lived for that long, it was nice to experience all that the far north end of Manhattan had to offer before people found out about it. Now Inwood has all the trappings of an “up and coming” neighborhood including overpriced rents.
One drawback to living in a lesser-known neighborhood is the fight for resources. The political calculus that determines how money is allocated is determined by political power and opportunity, and if your neighborhood doesn’t have the cache to woo the powers that be in City Hall, you may be out of luck.
Local Flushing and Whitestone parents are trying to rally support to keep a Parks Department children’s program located nearby – the Parks Department wants to relocate the program to Kissena Park, about three miles south. A group has organized Families for Bowne Park and sought the help of local elected officials and is even planning a Kids Rally for Bowne Park on June 1st.
Bowne Park is definitely off the radar. It has a nice playground and pond, even some bocce courts. While in the past this may have helped the park stay a quiet gem in a local neighborhood, its success may have led enough of the wrong people to take notice and decide to move the Parks Department children’s program.
I wish this group all the success in the world, and while we may not always want to struggle for neighborhood recognition, we’ll go to the mattresses to make sure our area gets respect.
Doktor Kaboom Drops Science on the Queens Theatre
Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Corona Park is not one of the park’s better-known attractions. The iconic Unisphere gets much more attention, and the Queens Zoo probably sees a lot more foot traffic, but the Queens Theatre is a lesser-known gem in the large park.
This past weekend it was the sight of a recent performance by Doktor Kaboom, a comedic science performer who has a family-friendly show that targets impressionable young children and works to give them a love of science.
The good Doktor, with his spiky blond hair and thick faux-German accent, looks and sounds like the love child of Guy Fieri and Angela Merkel (who has a PhD in Physics), but he’s actually a native of North Carolina who lives in Seattle and found a way to combine his love of comedy and science.
The whole family went and we were lucky enough to have extra tickets for a friend and his daughter. The Queens Theatre mainstage theater seats 472 and the rows are on a gradient generous enough to provide decent viewing from all angles.
After a brief introduction, Doktor Kaboom took the stage and we were on our way. The entire show is geared towards children, working to spark an interest in science and there’s no better way to do that than to show them that science allows you to make a mess. Using a catapult to try to help a young volunteer from the audience catch a piece of banana in his mouth, the bit had the stage littered with banana pretty quickly and it was good fun. I vowed to never feed my children bananas the same way again, but I’m not sure I am going to be able to build a catapult fast enough to realize this dream.
One of the best parts of the show was when the good Doktor implored the kids there to have confidence and faith in themselves. He said that at a previous show a 10-year-old kid said that he was a failure, even though he was a bright young man who could speak three languages. That base level of self respect is sadly missing from a lot in our society.
Unfortunately, some basic theater manners are also lacking. The Doktor had to remind the audience to refrain from using mobile phones, which is Theater Manners 101. Lack of civility as well as a dropping aptitude in the sciences are general signs of societal rot and sad to see, but at least there’s one guy out there fighting the good fight. That guy wears old-fashioned goggles, a bright orange lab coat, and shoes with flames painted on them.
But that didn’t slow down the show. There is a lot of safety instruction in the Doktor Kaboom show, even though the worst you may be exposed to is high-velocity banana and some soapy residue. He manages to use some optical illusions to trick your mind in ways that even jaded adults will find fascinating, and he takes time to explain what is happening in terms that children can understand. There are also plenty of under-the-radar jokes for adults as well.
There were no loud explosions as the Doktor Kaboom name might imply, but fear not. The show is well worth the time and has a big impact.
The Anti-Wanderlust of Wintertime New York
There is a habit of New Yorkers to head South for the winter once they’ve reached a certain age or level of financial security. I can understand why but will fight to stay north for the winter as long as I can.
The deep chill of a January and February in New York can be no fun. The outdoors is windblown and desolate, and the normal stroll through the city that is normally a joy is an appointment with wincing pain. The chill combined with the dry air of the indoor heat stresses and fractures the skin, our eyes tear with windy cold, and we fumble for our gloves and try to find the way to both be agile of hand and not feel frostbitten.
But give me the most frozen winter on record and it will still be preferable to the constantly warmer climate of regions south. I can say this with certainty as I’ve had to go to Florida twice in the past three weeks for work and don’t wish to live in a perpetual spring and summer all year.
My first trip to the Fort Lauderdale area earlier in January was a suitable introduction to the tourist-fueled aquamarine madness of South Florida. Just because your company sends you someplace nice for work doesn’t mean that the real word stops, and it’s hard to enjoy the seaside camaraderie when you know a thousand emails are piling up on your laptop.
One of the more interesting parts of the trip was talking to the Uber drivers that ferried me about. In one evening I met a woman from Costa Rica who was an animal rights activist and got caught up in some controversy in her home country around money she raised for abused animals. Later on that night I had a driver whose full-time job was inspecting airplanes that were manufactured; he had been burned in a recent divorce settlement but was working his way back to fiscal and emotional health and had no problem telling a perfect stranger that (well, Uber passengers aren’t perfect strangers – the drivers arrive knowing your first name and have the right to charge your credit card; this may count as intimacy in this day and age).
My second trip to Florida was to attend a financial conference, the biggest of its kind for the investing niche it represents. It was so popular that I could not get a room at the hotel where the conference was held, and instead found shelter a few minutes’ drive away at the Margaritaville of Hollywood Florida.
As it sounds the Margaritaville is a hotel chain based on Jimmy Buffet’s tropical music. And despite this it’s actually a nice place. The room I had was nice with a balcony that had an ocean view. When I arrived, I thought the woman ahead of me at the check-in desk was wearing a pair of beige pants that made her look crudely exposed. But I was mistaken: my fellow hotel guest was speaking to the hotel clerk wearing nothing below the waist except a flimsy G-string bikini bottom and a pair of flip flops. This is what Floridians refer to as “business casual.”
Again, it was the cab drivers that wind up giving you a better flavor for the place. On my final day in Florida, I got to speak with a driver who had moved to Florida from New Jersey in 1973 (you meet very few native-born Floridians in Florida) and had seen it change tremendously. He liked it when it was less populated and he was younger. He had the easygoing manner of someone who had escaped the rat race years ago and could enjoy whatever life threw at him. He was a moderate liberal Yankee who was at ease with the easygoing ways of South Florida and could drink all afternoon with more right-wing friends and still go home friends. He maneuvered around the traffic islands and stoplights with an ease that escapes many of the ride-share drivers of today’s generation. It was a good way to begin my final day in the Sunshine State.
As the conference wound down, people were finishing up their business and making arrangements to get out of town. I managed to book an earlier flight and quickly caught a cab to the airport.
It was 75 degrees when I flew out of Fort Lauderdale and 39 degrees when I landed in New York. It was a strong slap in the face of cold air, but it felt like home.
The Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse Experience
I’ve recently changed jobs and on the last week of work my office had a social outing to wish me well. I had never been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse and asked to go there.
Yes, it is shameful that I had lived this long and not gone to Sammy’s, being a New Yorker through and through. Sammy’s is a quintessential New York institution and a landmark for Jewish New York culture.
Our office took cabs to arrive on Christie Street while it was still light out. It looked like we were the first to arrive for the evening dinner rush (sadly Sammy’s is only open for dinner). The place is below street and adheres to its famous basement aesthetic except that finished basements usually have carpeting; Sammy’s looks dingier than your average suburban basement. There are photos and business cards stuck everywhere and the place is eerie when it’s a bit empty. That changed quickly though.
There is schmaltz (a viscous spread) in small maple syrup style pitchers on the tables rather than butter as Sammy’s is a kosher-style restaurant; the food is classic Jewish-American cuisine. I made sure to taste the schmaltz—it tasted like chicken fat, which is essentially what it is. A giant bowl of chopped chicken liver with onions was irresistible and I had as much of that as I could.
The place is also famous for its vodka. The first thing our table ordered was a bottle of vodka that is served inside a frozen block of ice (appearing to have been frozen in a milk container).
I knew that there was an entertainer who sang and played music at Sammy’s. I did not know the extent that Dani Luv was a dominant force who could turn a weekday work night into an evening of ribald fun. He really dominates the room and infuses it with an energy that defines the atmosphere and turns up the charm on the minimalist décor. He stands or sits on a stool behind a modest keyboard in the corner, a large tip jar and small disco ball nearby. A New York Times profile from 2013 notes that his name is Dani Lubnitzki and he is Israeli. The impact he has on the evening can’t be understated. If Joan Rivers had been in a three-way with Don Rickles and “Weird” Al Yankovic, she would have given birth to Dani Luv.
By the time Dani got started, another larger group occupied a nearby table and he asked both groups how many Jews there were among us. Invariably several people at each table raised their hands. “How about you, the ISIS guy,” he said, referring to a dark-skinned man who looked Middle Eastern and had a beard, “you’re not Jewish, are you?” The guy laughed and shook his head, ‘no.’ “Of course not…”
“Why are you guys here?” he asked our table.
“This guy is leaving the company,” our boss answered, pointing at me.
“That guy’s leaving the company because he doesn’t want to work with Jews anymore!” Dani joked. Our table had another good laugh.
The food is big. We had the family style meal and there was so much food that three of us took a lot home. I had the schmaltz on the rye bread, and the chicken liver, and the latkes, and something they called “Jewish ravioli” that was very dense and delicious, and chicken and even some salad. I couldn’t say no to the large steaks either. If you go to a place that is famous as a steak house, it feels somewhat like a crime to not have the steak. There was also stuffed cabbage and pickles and pickled peppers (not an entire peck of pickled peppers but enough for everyone).
The evening wound down quickly as people had long commutes home from Manhattan. Dani Luv begged a few to stay- at least our female coworkers anyway, but before the night got too late it was me and my boss.
My boss finished off the vodka and bought me a Sammy’s t-shirt. I gave Dani Luv a generous tip and took my photo with him. Soon after we headed home.
Sammy’s is a great New York tradition and I vow to make visiting there a tradition of my own. I was very fortunate to work with a great bunch of people and it was difficult to leave. Saying goodbye at such a fun place put a more cheerful lining on a sad event.
The U.S. Open is a cancer on New York City
I drove to the New York Hall of Science with my children and found the usual driveway to the parking lot barricaded. A woman wearing the uniform of a U.S. Open worker stood there. There was no reason for her to be there. The Hall of Science has no tennis courts.
She quickly waved through a hotel shuttle bus but then blocked our van.
“Do you have a membership here, sir?” she asked me. I informed her that I did.
“Then you’re technically behind this guy,” she motioned to a man with car by the curb. “We’re waiting for spaces to open up. We only have 25 spots today.” I’m not sure who the ‘we’ was in this equation. “You can wait behind this gentleman or you can try street parking.” She offered to hold my place in line if I wanted to try driving around to find street parking first. Knowing the area, I could tell that was a lost cause.
The woman was exceedingly polite, as polite as one can be while telling someone that you’re getting paid to help screw people out of a trip to the science museum so pampered jerks can pay to watch tennis. I told her we would be moving on and drove away, having to explain to my kids that the U.S. Open had just cost us a trip to the science museum.
I sent an inquiry to the Hall of Science asking how this could happen, but have so far received no response. The administration there may not have had a choice and had its hand forced by the city. Last year we discovered the city using public park land as paid parking lots for the tournament.
No New Yorker who comes in contact with the U.S. Open or its fans needs another reason to hate the U.S. open. Sure, it brings in lots of money to the city, but so does selling heroin. At least heroin eventually kills the people stupid enough to use it; U.S. Open fans don’t die off at a fast enough rate.
For 7 train commuters or neighbors of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, the Open is the most miserable time of the year. The train is filled with tennis fans that are clueless, without any sense of their being among others. Oblivious to the basic courtesies required of city dwellers, the subway is a big joke to them, other passengers who need the train to get home from work are lucky to be witness to their charming afternoon of slumming.
The tennis fans that clog our city are Exhibit A of the decline of Western civilization, the well-heeled and soft-minded excreta of a decadent and depraved society. These obnoxious Eloi offer nothing redeeming beyond commerce, and exude only ignorance and weakness in everything that they do.
Perhaps I am painting the Open and its fans with too broad a brush. I know several people who are great human beings who are true tennis fans and make it a tradition to attend the Open. The tennis center’s centerpiece stadium is named for Arthur Ashe, who set the gold standard for how professional athletes ought to be.
But most of the tennis fans who come to the open are not like the few good eggs that I know. It’s a time of year where rich jerks come to town and the city is more than happy to extend a big middle finger to the working people who actually live here. In short: the U.S. Open represents the antithesis of all that is good about our city and is potent refinement of the worst contemporary society has to offer.
Perhaps the answer is some good old fashion capitalism, such as selling tennis fans tickets to the VIP 7 train cars that don’t exist. I would like to adopt a temperamental Rottweiler so I can name it “Serena Williams” and charge people $100 dollars for a special VIP lounge meet and greet (the VIP lounge will be a cardboard box behind a White Castle—I shall feast like a king).
If the powers that be want to flood our city with the dregs of the pampered class, the rest of us can make a quick buck sheering these sheep. Improvise, adapt, and overcome. Either way, it will be over soon, but not soon enough.
Being the oddball in the East Village
The greatest rock & roll band that’s ever existed, The Dwarves, were scheduled to play at Bowery Electric, and it had been too long since I’ve seen them. I bought a ticket online and made plans to travel to Manhattan on a weekend, something I rarely do anymore. But this show would be worth it, I was certain.
I made my way to Bowery Electric, which is on the Bowery a short block uptown from where CBGB used to be.
The Bowery has not been itself for a long time now. It was known the world over as a place for bums. It was the Skid Row before Skid Row existed, and served as the template for the down and out sections of town in art, literature, and life.
I would travel to Manhattan when I could as a suburban teenager in the 1980s and 1990s, and going to the East Village was a harrowing experience. The Bowery was full of homeless people selling trinkets and other junk on blankets. Some of the bums were mental patients on medication that just stared into space. Drunks slept in doorways, crack heads begged for money or cigarettes or robbed you. If there was a Bum Olympics in 1989, it would have been held on the Bowery.
Today there are few homeless charities and even fewer flop houses on the Bowery. Fancy hotels and restaurants dot the Bowery now, and apartments that used to rent for a few hundred dollars a month in my lifetime now rent for upwards of $5,000 a month, if they’re available for rent at all.
That the Bowery Electric still exists is short of a miracle. So many music venues fled Manhattan that had Joey Ramone lived he would barely recognize the street that bears his name. Standing outside the venue, I was mistaken for a bouncer as a young woman began handing me her I.D. I waved her inside, telling her I didn’t work there. Maybe I should have asked her for a $5 cover and then treated myself to something at 7 Eleven up the street.
The venue’s Web site said that the show would start at 7 p.m. and seemed to indicate another show was scheduled to start at 10. I hustled and made good time and got to the show to learn that the first band of the night had canceled and that The Dwarves would not be starting to play until 10 p.m., when the Web site had said the show would end. Even in these modern times, the best shows still run on Punk Rock Time.
I set out for a brief walkabout of the East Village and found myself on St. Mark’s Place, where everything is now geared towards tourists or college students. The Papaya King proved a good find; I was one of two customers there at the time and I enjoyed some hot dogs while watching people walk by, most of them much younger and none of them looking like fellow travelers in the neighborhood for a punk rock show.
Across from Papaya King, the building that once housed the iconic fashion store Trash and Vaudeville is shuttered and under renovation. I would go there all the time years ago, not to buy things, but to put up flyers for upcoming shows that Blackout Shoppers would be playing. The store is still in business nearby on East 7th Street, but seeing it pass from its longtime location on St. Mark’s was another illustration of how change has rapidly come to this part of the city.
On 2nd Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets there is still a vacant lot where three buildings were destroyed in a gas explosion in 2015. There were a few curiosity seekers milling about the sidewalk where a chain-link fence keeps people from the lot. The lot is covered in gravel and there were two bouquets of flowers there for the two people killed in the explosion.
I made my way back to Bowery Electric and started running into people I knew. I am not as active on the music scene as I used to be, but I have a lot of friends I made over those years and meeting up with them at shows is always fun. I made my way downstairs where the main stage is set and found a good spot on a low balcony to see the show.
The Dwarves did not disappoint. They played their entire The Dwarves Are Young And Good Looking Album straight through and then played a lot their most beloved songs. Original guitar player HeWhoCannotBeNamed joined them and with Nick Oliveri on bass they can branch out into some of their more aggressive stalwarts. The Fresh Prince of Darkness shreds on lead guitar. Lead singer Blag Dahlia is a sinister master of ceremonies who wears a shit-eating grin. A Dwarves show is a celebration of the nihilistic aggression that made punk rock so phenomenal, but with a humorous twist that prevents anyone from trying to take things too seriously.
At the end of the show I met some more good music friends and made my way upstairs to use the bathroom before I headed home.
When I got upstairs, there was a different scene. The well-dressed hipsters and well-to-do young people with good jobs where in command of this part of the venue. As I stood in line to use one of the single-use restrooms, I decided to stretch my back since I had been on my feet so long. I bent over a bit to put my hands on my knees to straighten by back and the sharply-dressed guy who was next in line took a few steps back, thinking I was getting ready to throw up all over the floor. I thought about making some gesture to assuage his fears, and let him know that I am only a sober middle-aged punk rock fan with a bad back, but why bother? If you’re in the habit of wearing pressed slacks and dress shoes to a bar on the Bowery, maybe you should live in fear of being vomited on.
On my way out, I stopped to shake Blag Dahlia’s hand and congratulate him on a great show. He thanked me and I left into the glittery night of the East Village for the long trip home.
An indictment in the Bronx is an indictment of our city
A few weeks ago I saw a man get arrested at the 23rd St. N/R Station. As two NYPD officers tried to cuff him he broke free of them, and shoved them, shouting ridiculous blather about being treated unfairly and fearing the police. One of the officers pulled his Taser and I thought the man, who looked significantly larger than both of the cops, was going to get Tasered. Instead one of the officers talked him down and he soon put his hands behind his back and allowed the cops to cuff him. A witness told me he was being arrested because he was mentally disturbed and had been on the train tracks.
The cops had every right to Taser the guy, and if I was in their shoes I can honestly say that would have been my inclination. I was impressed with the cops’ ability to avoid violence in the situation. Police don’t always have that option.
Lost among the media coverage of two terror attacks in England and the U.S. President’s declaration about withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, a New York Police Department Sergeant was charged with murder in the Bronx.
Sgt. Hugh Barry responded to a call last October to find a mentally ill woman threatening officers with a pair of scissors. He managed to talk her down and she dropped the scissors, but she then retrieved a baseball bat and swung at the sergeant, who shot her twice. That’s a very clear case of an officer being threatened with deadly force and responding appropriately.
But soon after the incident New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner James O’Neill condemned the officer, claiming he violated department procedure by not calling for the Emergency Service Unit or using his Taser. Last week, the Bronx District Attorney filed murder charges against the sergeant.
It’s a travesty that should be inciting outrage nationwide. And not because we adhere to some warped notion that all cops are heroes and we should get behind anyone with a badge. This indictment should elicit outrage because Hugh Barry is a human being who has a right to stop someone trying to murder him. This indictment is an affront to decency because #FactsMatter.
New York police are rightfully angry.
The indictment of Sergeant Barry is not the action of a truthful or serious people. It’s the action of an ignorant and myopic ruling class that by sacrificing the right innocent people, they can somehow forge a tenuous peace in a volatile society. We’ve seen this before. Many of the most well-known cases in recent years that spurred large-scale protests and questionable prosecutions were manufactured controversies that didn’t stand up to a desultory examination of the facts. In places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, grand juries correctly rejected politically-motivated criminal charges against police.
But a large segment of the body politic insists that any death at the hands of police fit a certain narrative, a narrative that’s been undercut by the facts at almost every turn. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill bought into this narrative despite very clear evidence to the contrary. They would rather appease an extremist activist movement than work to protect our citizens.
If our city still has any respect for the truth, Sgt. Barry will be back on the job by this time next year and Bill de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill will be looking for work.
Times Square Before and After Terror
Last week I found myself having to go to Times Square and I actually looked forward to doing so. It was for work—I work in public relations and there was a conference I needed to attend. I hustled through half the workday to get enough done since I’d be away from the office.
Times Square is where tourists go to drink in the grandeur of New York. It’s where our city wears its gaudy commerce on its sleeve without apology, where someone with a silly gimmick can strike it rich and inspire many imitators. It is in some ways the central square of Western Civilization today, as sad as that may seem at times.
I’m old enough to remember when Times Square was a foreboding place, though I always found it more alluring than scary. The pornographic theaters were what thrilled me when I would walk through as a kid, trying to look like I wasn’t gawking at the barely-censored photos of women in acts of glorious carnality. I would be entranced at the spectacle of what Times Square as I was feasting my eyes on this delightful glimpse into the ribald adult world. It did not appear to be the war zone that I had been led to believe. Its name carried more ominous insinuation than realized malice.
When I moved back to New York, nearly 20 years ago now, things were different and it became an embodiment of all that was wrong with a vastly improved yet quickly gentrifying city. It was where people would feed at the trough of major chain restaurants when they could dine on authentic culinary delights only a short journey away. It was where ignorant tourists got taken to the cleaners with overpriced goods. For many years I avoided Times Square, and with good reason. It was in a transitional period where it had become safe and was attracting lots of tourists but had not yet been renovated to include the wide pedestrian plazas it enjoys today. The sidewalks were nearly impassable and traffic still zoomed around.
In the years since, I’ve come to have a begrudging appreciation for visiting there. On a date with my wife several years ago, I wanted to avoid Times Square, but my wife insisted we walk through it. “You need to learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city,” she told me. And she was right.
Last week I wasn’t there long and spent most of my time at a conference in the Thomson Reuters Building. I marveled at the view, and got the closest you can get to the large Times Square New Year’s Eve ball without being one of the workers in charge of its upkeep.
As night descended, I took breaks from the work conference to steal looks and take photos of the avenues leading from Times Square. As the sky darkened, the lights of the city came to life and the twilight glowed with a ready anticipation of what night would bring.
Stepping out into the night, I stopped for a minute to take a video of the scene before me. Two mounted policemen trotted by as I got my phone out so I only captured them from a distance as they passed, but even on a relatively uneventful weeknight, the scene in Times Square is both maddening and encouraging. It is a slice of Walt Whitman’s bustling and beautiful New York writ for modern times, coursing with strangers, each with a story we’ll never have time to learn or decipher.
Two days after my visit, a car drove onto the sidewalk and killed an 18-year-old woman, a visitor to the city there to take in the vibrancy of life. The police say the driver was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t stop until his car was upended by a stanchion. If there’s any functioning justice system in our city this killer will never be a free man again.
Another week later, and terror is rearing its head in another part of the world. But in New York we have known fear and breezed past it, the way New York commuters breeze past slower-moving tourists. We don’t respect fear in this city because it contributes nothing, it doesn’t earn its keep.
Even in the face of fear of death, Times Square will be full of life. It may be foolish and squalid life, but it glows with the unstoppable light of New York, and it will never be extinguished.
Calls for civility in a savage system
New York City’s transit authority is going to be spending money trying to make our subways more civilized towards pregnant women. A button reading ‘Baby on Board’ is being made available to women who are pregnant, in hopes this will encourage more people on public transit to give them their seats. Another button reading ‘Please Offer Me a Seat’ is available free online also.
Our trains and buses are not kind places. My wife would go entire journeys without being offered a place to sit when she was visibly pregnant. A friend’s wife who is an expert photographer created a running series of shaming photos when she was carrying their first son, posting snapshots she had taken of men who had seen her very obviously with child and declined to offer her a seat.
I’m a firm believer in adhering to traditional etiquette. I’m one of the few people my age that knows to walk closest to the street when walking with a woman on the sidewalk. That made for some awkward dating moments but I’m a stickler for the rules of proper etiquette, at least if I can remember then.
I don’t even attempt to get a seat on the subway anymore. When I lived at the end of the A train in Inwood and knew I’d get a seat and be able to sleep most of my commute, I did that. But now I ride the 7 train and the 6 train, two of the most crowded and miserable lines in the city. I don’t want to fight with people at the Main Street-Flushing stop when I can be close to the door that’s going to open at Grand Central for my hurried dash to the 6 platform. And what would we be fighting for? The privilege of sitting on a hard plastic seat where a homeless guy jerked off a few hours before? I have more room to breathe if I stand anyway. Besides, I’m a sedentary office worker for more than 10 hours a day, why add to that sloth during my commute, where it pays dividends to be on your feet? But if I do happen to be sitting in a seat and I see a pregnant woman or elderly person, I’ll offer them my seat.
There are a myriad of reasons the subways and buses are not models of civility. One of them is the fact that a large city is impersonal and New York in particular is designed for only the most aggressive and determined people to succeed at anything.
But a leading reason that transit riders are not civil towards one another is that the subways and buses are cauldrons of misery plagued with inadequate services and rising fares for decades. Why, in one of the most forward-thinking and progressive cities in the world, is anyone anywhere in the five boroughs waiting more than 10 or 15 minutes for a subway or bus? Why are we trying to run a 21st century subway system with 19th century era signal systems?
How about fixing our failing system so that those deserving have a better chance of getting a seat without asking someone to move? How about better handicapped access at all stations so it doesn’t take a guy in a wheelchair five hours to buy a bagel? These things are a lot harder to do than hand out free buttons, but they need doing.
I hope that there is some benefit to the button campaign. But subway and bus service is so sub-standard for a major, industrialized world city that any resources not directed at a needed upgrade is putting lipstick on a pig. If by some chance this campaign succeeds and more pregnant women and sick and elderly people have seats, this only means they will be more comfortable when getting screwed over by the MTA.