Fifteen years ago, it was a cold night in an apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn where maybe two dozen people gathered for a Burns Night party. Burns Night is January 25 and celebrates the birthday of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet who lived in the late 1700s.
Several of us had brought our volumes of Robert Burns’ poetry, and at any point during the party, a partygoer would shout “Poem!” and silence the festivities for a reading of Burns poem.
The host had traveled to a meat distributor in New Jersey to obtain authentic haggis, a traditional Scottish dish comprised of a sheep’s offal and other ingredients served inside an animal’s stomach. A central ritual of the Burns Night party consisted of our host cutting open the haggis while someone read the Burns poem ‘Address to a Haggis.’
These Burns Night parties were a testament to the greatness of New York City and to the promise and meaning of Brooklyn to so many people. These were eclectic gatherings that showed the power of art to transcend time and place. Here were people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds celebrating a Scottish poet. The host, Roger, is a Peruvian Jew who grew up in Detroit. There was at least one real Scotsman at these parties, or at least he looked the party with a kilt. Maybe none of us had a drop of Scottish blood. Who cares? The power of Burns’ poetry transcends.
Among the guests at Roger’s parties were his frequent music collaborator Scott and Scott’s wife Diane. I once got to dog sit for Scott and Diane’s amazing dog Connolly (full name: Satchel Connolly X) – I picked up their house keys at a local diner where they knew the owners, walked their dog and explored Prospect Heights, which was a real neighborhood.
They were among the most active voices opposing the Atlantic Yards Project, a corrupt boondoggle that forced people out of their homes and businesses to construct luxury housing and a sports stadium. That fight was lost and the Barclays Center now sits on what used to be the part of the vibrant and eclectic Prospect Heights neighborhood. To this day I have not set foot inside the Barclays Center.
Roger returned to Detroit and Scott left Brooklyn and ended up in New Orleans. Diane remained in Brooklyn for a while after their breakup but she later moved to Westchester. All these people are doing well. Roger continues to write brilliantly, Scott has had his photos exhibited and Diane is a Fordham professor who recently published a book.
Those parties and those three people in particular represented Brooklyn to me like nothing else. They had each had come to New York and conquered it on their own, leaving great music and art in their wake. When those three people left Brooklyn, it was a sure sign that the things that made Brooklyn special were gone forever. If the people who embodied the spirit of Brooklyn more than anyone I knew were had left, then Brooklyn had outlived its usefulness.
That’s not to say there is nothing good about Brooklyn. I still go to Coney Island and Prospect Park and there are still music venues in Brooklyn worth your while. But for the most part when I think of Brooklyn I think of overpriced real estate and the hordes of well-off people who are driving up the price of everything.
But people who attended Roger’s Burns Night parties years ago have not forgotten them. A friend recently spent Burns Night at Peter Luger’s Steak House and recited some Burns poems to his family and friends. Diane mentioned Burns night in a school lesson about ethnic foods and culture; sadly her students had not heard of Burns Night.
Roger posted his memories of Burns Night online, noting how he first came across a reading of Burns poetry inside a pub in New Jersey, and woke up the next day in New York determined to be one of the people who would recite Burns poetry.
I stayed up late with my volume of Burns poetry, and read The Bonnie Wee Thing to my wife while holding her hand. It was not the happening party of years ago, but I could not go to bed on Burns Night without reading a Burns poem.
The Burns Night parties in Brooklyn of long ago are gone, but as long as I live I will keep them alive in spirit, and I am not alone.
I entered a haiku writing contest and was judged one of three winners. The haiku had to be about the World Cup.
Here is my winning haiku:
The American Way
We are new at this
Chant U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
But don’t know the rules
I am originally from The Bronx and I was raised a Yankee fan. My father went to high school not far from Yankee Stadium and I stood by the team even when they had the worst record in baseball. I quit watching the 1996 World Series after the Bronx Bombers dropped the first two games to the Atlanta Braves. They won the next four games and began their late 1990’s dynasty.
I had been to the new Yankee Stadium only twice before. Once for a game and another time for a Big 4 concert. The new stadium had not impressed me. From the cheap seats you could not see the entire field (Stadium Building 101: one must be able to see the entire field of play from every seat. They had the technology to do this in 1923). From where I was a few years ago at a game, I couldn’t see all the way to the right field wall even when I stood up.
There are numerous other reasons to hate the new Yankee Stadium. The upper deck is two decks, there’s a moat keeping people from getting close to the field unless they have expensive tickets. The Yankees, one of the richest sports franchises in the world, got a sweetheart deal from a broke city to build a luxury stadium on city park land. And it’s a leaky concrete slab with no soul.
So the chance to experience how the well-to-do take in a baseball game was something I wasn’t going to pass up. I would likely not have the chance to take in a baseball game from such a seat of luxury again. I made sure I could make the game and gladly accepted my prize.
I got to the stadium more than an hour before game time and met an attorney from the firm that hosted the contest. We chatted until the other two prize winners arrived. One was a media attorney and the other was a corporate restructuring specialist.
Once we were all there we entered the stadium through the special ‘Legends Suites’ entrance. We got special wristbands and were shown to a very nice restaurant area where waiters brought drinks to your table and there were several food stations for all-you-can-eat food. There was a special guest chef serving his take on a lobster roll (they were on small toasted hamburger buns and had a plastic Yankees flag in them). I got an obscene amount of food, even enjoying a big plate of sushi. I couldn’t finish my dessert. Overhead, TVs broadcast the pregame show, though one large row of televisions was broadcasting the current World Cup game (of the U.S. losing to Belgium). All the food and drink was free unless you wanted alcohol. Towards the exits to the seating area, there was a wall of shelves with baskets of candies and other snacks for the taking.
We got to our seats, which were amazing. We were the second row behind home plate. My family and friends saw me on television. I got to see the game from a perspective I never have before and I could see the entire field.
Baseball great Bill Veeck once said that a fan’s knowledge of the game is usually inversely proportional to the price of their ticket. My few visits to the box seats at Yankee Stadium have shown this to be accurate. I’m sure there are some knowledgeable baseball people among the well-off denizens of the luxury sections, but they would probably get their asses handed to them in sports trivia by your average Bleacher Creature with a bad hangover.
Of all the talk overheard among the other luxury seat occupants, there was a lot of talk about business and vacations and other facets of life, but there was not a lot of talk about baseball. There was only one person nearby who was acting like a real baseball fan, yelling criticisms at the home plate umpire with bellowing gruff wit, and he was looked upon askance by people sitting around him.
A group of four women arrived late and sat in front of us. The ushers seemed to know them, or know at least one of the women, an attractive blonde. One of them, the one sitting directly in front of me, appeared to be some kind of model. She was very young and unusually tall and thin. I saw others looking over at the group so one or more of them may have been celebrities. The blonde that the ushers seemed to know was friendly and told me where I could find complimentary hot dogs in the luxury dining area. While I had feasted on high-quality seafood, the thought of not having a hot dog or two at a baseball game was sacrilege.
These supermodel women actually tried to get the rest of our section into the spirit of the game and stood up at the very end. It was two outs and two strikes with the tying run on base for the Yankees. This is a traditionally a time when the crowd stands to applaud to help rally the team. The supermodels stood up and I stood with them (I also would not have been able to see the game otherwise). An usher came along and told us to sit down.
One of the more depressing aspects of following the Yankees in recent years was the press decrying the “aging” Yankee lineup, made of players who are my age and younger.
Shortstop Derek Jeter, the captain of the Yankee team and a fan favorite for a long time, is retiring after this season and is considered over the hill by many sports standards. He’s a year younger than I am.
While I was at the game, I got to see Jeter tie Lou Gehrig’s record for most doubles hit by a Yankee. I also got to see a great play by center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who is now my new favorite Yankee player. Ellsbury was caught in a rundown between first and second base, and let himself get hit by the ball—when a player is hit by the ball during play he automatically advances to the next base—turning what looked like a sure out into a stolen base.
Derek Jeter looked over in my direction several times during the game. I’m guessing someone told him about my awesome haiku and he was hoping I’d stick around to give him an autograph after the game. But because I left as soon as the game ended he probably had to make due with hanging out with the supermodels in the first row.
The game itself didn’t go like I wanted. The Yankees lost to the Tampa Bay Rays 2-1. Continuing on the theme of luxury, I treated myself to a cab ride home, enjoying the sight of the New York skyline at night capped off a nice evening.
The first poem of the year has been posted on the Impolite Literature blog. The poem is entitled “The Greatest Borough” and it’s an homage to Queens, which I contend is the city’s greatest borough. You may disagree.