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.
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.
The holidays, as we collectively call them, start in earnest while we are still recovering from Halloween and preparing for Thanksgiving. Once Thanksgiving is over, all bets are off and we are surrounded by the Christmas season until we crawl back to work on January 2nd to the grim realities of our winter lives.
Holiday traditions are fine things, and for many years I took pride in my annual Bad Santa Party, which celebrated the greatest Christmas movie ever made, Bad Santa. Someday I will revive that tradition with a vengeance, but until that time it pays to find other holiday traditions that will celebrate the season without going to church or being part of a slack-jawed mob.
Of course, there are plenty of things to do that are not holiday related, but if you want to enjoy some yuletide spirit but not be surrounded by entitled ignoramuses or enormous crowds, here are some ways to observe the holiday season without losing your sanity or your edge.
Tree lightings abound. Mobs crowd Rockefeller Center and their tree is the most well-known in the city, but lots of other trees and menorahs have ceremonial lightings. Different parks, zoos and public gardens hold a host of lighting events and they are often a lot of fun. Go to one of those and you’ll get just as much craic as you would from going to some massive retail tree lighting and have a better time with smaller crowds as well.
Santa Claus for a better cause. You could certainly wait on a long line at a department store or shopping mall to put your sloppy toddler on that stranger’s lap, or you could explore an alternative venue where there won’t be as many elves or predatory photographers but the money will be going to a good cause. In my area, both the Queens Botanical Garden and the Lewis Latimer House have events where kids get to meet Santa Claus.
Anti SantaCon Pub Crawl. One of the more obnoxious holiday traditions in the city is SantaCon, a prolonged drunken stumble by perpetually unaware hollow men and their fawning female enablers. Sadly, SantaCon was once a fun and inspiring artistic event that became too popular and is now the corrupt antithesis of its founding ideals. But where there is a need for change, New Yorkers will step into the breech, and so bar owners in Brooklyn have started the Anti-SantaCon Gowanus Pub Crawl on Sunday, Dec. 9. You still get to dress up and drink in the holiday spirit, but absent the feeble stupidity that passes for holiday spirit among the current SantaCon crowd.
Literary birthday celebrations. Did you know that December 3 is Joseph Conrad’s birthday? Or that December 7 is the anniversary of Willa Cather’s birth? Shirley Jackson, Stanley Crouch, Edna O’Brien, Jane Austen, George Santayana, John Milton, and Mary Higgins Clark, among other literary lights, have birthdays in December. Why not have a party where you read their works?
Visit the New York Hall of Science. I have a tradition of visiting the New York Hall of Science on Christmas Eve with my daughters. It’s usually not crowded and our girls love science. It gives their mother a break from watching them for a while and she has time to wrap their gifts while they are away. It allows us to enjoy this popular public space in a bit of solitude and quiet.
There is no more New York thing to do than to carve out your own new tradition and celebration. The holidays give us these opportunities. Seize the day.
My plans to take time off from work were squelched by too many year-end goings on at work. So I drove up to Connecticut last Friday night to get one full day of hunting in this past Saturday.
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the highways were regularly quiet. I-95 in Connecticut is normally a slow-lurching snake of chrome and misery, so to breeze north was a rare treat. I made good time in getting to my friend Steve’s house. Steve is an accomplished hunter and he is generous enough to let me stay at his house when I go hunting.
I was up before 5:30 a.m. the next day. Hunting or running the Tunnel to Towers 5k are the only reasons a anyone should be willingly awake before 6 a.m. on a weekend. I was ready and out the door without too much problem. Unfortunately I accidentally set off my car’s car alarm in the driveway of my friend’s house, waking him and at least one member of his family.
I was the only one pulling into the small area for cars at the unmarked entrance to the Cockaponset State Forest on Little City Road in Killingworth, Connecticut. I didn’t see any other human beings for the next 10 hours and that was a good thing. I saw and heard evidence of people, but all the time outside in the daylight it was just me and my quest to take a deer home.
Spending time in and around the natural world is a basic human need. The science is in, and there are significant health benefits to spending time around more trees and fewer people. Human beings are not meant to live without experiencing some part of the natural world on a regular basis.
I made my way into the woods. It was still dark, but a bright moon provided good light. Once it was past the legal hunting time I loaded up and kept making my way quietly to my chosen hunting spot.
I got very lucky the first time I staked out this area and it and it has the natural attributes that would make it a good location to begin with. It is a natural overlook with greenery for deer to eat and water for them to drink.
But nothing doing. While I heard gunshots going off in the distance frequently and thought maybe some deer would get chased my way, nothing doing. At midday, I decided to search out someplace different. I started by making my way to my old spot, at another overlook that is an even higher perch. It was there where I took my first deer several years ago.
The area has improved, in that the stream that was dried up a few years ago is back and flowing nicely. But it has attracted other, less ethical hunters. Someone left a camping chair and their garbage on this natural overlook, a major faux pas in the hunting world. I thought it would be justified to take this chair out of the woods, as punishment to whatever entitled rube left it there along with their refuse. Instead I moved on, making my way deeper into the forest.
And as I marched through an overgrown passage between trees, I finally saw a deer. He or she was not far away, but had seen or heard me first and was on the move, picking up the pace and getting out of good range before I could even raise my shotgun and get in my sights.
I paused, hoping some other deer may come along on its heels, but no luck. I hiked a bit more and found a new spot that looked over the growth where the deer I saw would have exited into a more open area, and if any deer had some along I would be in a good position.
The last two hours of the day passed by slowly. Someone in the distance fired off a lot of rounds; they were either target shooting or had come upon some prehistoric giant mega deer that took ten shotgun slugs to bring down.
I started to make my way out of the woods towards the end of the day, hoping to maybe get lucky on the way. When legal hunting ended, I unloaded and found my way back to my car.
Another hunting trip without some game to take home, but time in the woods is always time well spent.
The dire warnings swarmed throughout the media ahead of last week’s snowfall. A “Bomb Cyclone,” was going to smash the East Coast and wreak havoc on our lives. I left work on Wednesday prepared to work from home on Thursday amid a cataclysmic blizzard.
Early the next morning, I checked my work email on my work phone and looked out the window repeatedly for an indication that the ice age apocalypse was upon us and that I should stay home and enjoy a work-from-home day. It looked underwhelming. There was not even any snow sticking to the street and the collection of snow on the parked cars in my neighborhood looked relatively mild. I decided that the “Bomb Cyclone” had fizzled and that not showing up to work in person would be bad.
When I got outside, the snow was coming down at a healthy clip, and I regretted not bringing my umbrella. There were not as many commuters on the morning bus, as people saner than I were in their warm homes getting some extra sleep. The commute to work was uneventful, and I was at my desk at my normal time.
Things were uneasy though. The snow kept coming down at a faster pace. From a high floor of a high office building, where normally one can see all the way to Eastern Queens, the nearby buildings were barely visible through the snowy haze. Sure enough, this Bomb Cyclone was for real, at least in that it was dumping a ton of snow on our city at great speed. Snow was being blown sideways and windy updrafts made it appear that it was snowing from the ground up like some kind of winter flurry from the upside down.
Few people had made it into work. Most of them not even bothering with the commute in. There were so few of us in the office that one of the administrative assistants had lunch brought in for everyone. While enjoying my free sandwich, I started wondering how I would get home. My boss sent me a photo of Han Solo on a Tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back.
The snow kept going into the afternoon, and I decided I would try to leave work early in order to get a head start on the commute home, which I assumed would be a journey of misery and anger lasing hours.
By the time I left work at 4 p.m., snow had stopped falling in downtown Manhattan and visibility had resumed. The streets did not look great but what little traffic there was appeared to be moving. Arriving in Herald Square for my commuter bus, 6th Avenue had been plowed during the day but not recently enough and several inches of snow had been pulverized into sickly slush by hours of traffic.
I stood on the sidewalk with the cold wind punching me in the face as some of my fellow commuters huddled for cover. Being cooped up on an office all day, it felt good to feel the real world, even when it feels like Old Man Winter is hitting you in the face with a cinderblock.
The ultimate irony of the Bomb Cyclone: it took me less time to get home from work than it normally does. This was because enough people had been scared away from the city and because I left a little bit before normal rush hour.
As our commuter bus headed over the 59th Street Bridge, I saw a line of inactive snowplows parked along the street on 1st or 2nd Avenue. The avenues of Flushing had been plowed but our bus struggled a bit up some sloping streets. By the next morning though, the streets were clear.
A hard, biting cold has gripped the East Coast recently, and New York City has taken its share of the brunt of it. But it is part of life here. We get all four seasons in the Big Apple, and we get all of them in a big way.
The Fourth of July every year brings with it many great traditions: hot dogs, fireworks, partying to excess with friends and family. And every year I have partied with high school friends in a way that embraces all of these observances.
My high school friend Steve and his wife Paige put on a great 4th of July party that brings in friends from far and wide.
Steve is the center of our social circle among most of my Connecticut friends. When we were in high school, his mother’s house was our central meeting place, and Mrs. Q was a second mother to a lot of us. She is missed. Steve and Paige’s house has become a second home to many. They have helped many friends and relatives who have needed places to stay. Even friends with perfectly good homes of their own nearby wind up spending a lot of time at Steve and Paige’s house.
The day of the party, circumstances delayed our departure until after 2 p.m. Driving on I-95 in Connecticut is its own special hell, and a Saturday on a holiday weekend it was an infernal misery of traffic. A two-hour drive became a three-hour drive, and since our kids had already napped at home, they screamed and cried for much of that three-hour drive. When we finally pulled onto our friends’ property, it was after 5 p.m.
I didn’t have time to make the stop for fireworks like I normally do. The forecast called for rain.
Once we got there, it was great to be among friends again.
Steve is a very handy person. He turned his one-story house into a two-story home and constructed his own out-buildings to keep farm animals on his property. He got me into hunting, gave me good advice on how to move about the woods, and helped me field dress my first deer. He also introduced me to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and we’ve debated both the immutably dark nature of human existence until the wee hours of the morning.
Steve and I were both financial journalists for a while. After being laid off and being without a regular job for a long time, Steve began working in shipbuilding by helping to renovate the historic Amistad. He has since began working on boats in Newport, Rhode Island. More than a year ago, he told me he could not go back to working behind a desk. At the party he said he hated having to be away from his family for so long for his job, but that he loves his job. He wakes up every morning and looks forward to going to work. It was something I had heard about but didn’t think I’d see.
A man who loves his job today is rare. I expected to see Bigfoot or get kidnapped by a UFO before one of my friends told me they loved going to work every day. Even though he loves to play the part of a curmudgeon, he looked sincerely happier than he’s been in the past. It was great to see and I can’t think of someone who deserves that more than Steve. He brings a lot of good thoughts and much-needed perspective to a lot of his friends. I know I’ve been better for having had long conversations with him and I’m far from alone.
He’s been writing a lot of good poetry lately as well and posting his poems online. He’s getting to see new things, and be inspired by his work with ships. “In so many ways, sailing is freedom like most of us can’t even understand.” He messaged me at one point.
A while into our time at the party, I found Steve sitting on a lawn chair in the back of his pickup truck. With him was our friend Jay. The two were perfectly content to sit with their beer there and observe the party from their perch. But they soon began to attract a crowd. Everyone wanted to stop by and enjoy the conversation. In between searching for and wrangling my children and stuffing my face with food, I discussed poetry with Steve.
We agreed that two men sitting in the back of a pickup truck was good fodder for a poem and we decided to each write a poem with this as the theme.
The party continued and despite my not being able to contribute to the supply of ordnance, there were still plenty of fireworks. My twin girls asked to be brought inside and skip the rest of the barrage after getting a bit too close to the pyrotechnics. Inside Jay was making his outstanding jambalaya, and we got a peek at the culinary genius at work.
We stayed late and got on the road for home after 11:30 p.m. Someday we’ll stay overnight in a tent on our friends’ lawn like my wife and I did before we had children.
It was a great way to celebrate Independence Day. The national politics evolves and devolves, and no matter your perspective, it’s easy to become discouraged. The strength of our country lies in the bonds we form with friends and neighbors, and at Steve and Paige’s house, a strong community thrives on its own.
I moved back to New York City nearly 20 years ago. I packed all of my belongings into a small rented moving truck and drove north from the sprawl of suburban Atlanta to the sprawl of New York City. It was early November when I arrived at my mother’s house in suburban Briarcliff. The trees rained yellow leaves like gold vermillion onto the damp, black streets.
I came to New York to find literary fame and fortune and I’m still fighting the good fight. My enemies are my own laziness and self-doubt and the regular pressures of needing to make a living and feed a family. I have friends who no longer write and are comfortable in their day jobs. I have friends who have found great success as writers and published books. They make me green with envy sometimes but I can’t scream that things are unfair: they worked hard and have been more on the ball than I’ve been when it comes to managing a career.
I sometimes doubt my abilities to put words to the ideas coursing through our lives that will move people and help them see themselves in greater things. I sometimes doubt my odds in gaining success in the creative field and rising to the esteemed literary heights so widely celebrated.
What I do not doubt is my love of creativity and burning need to produce good work. I am confident in my connection to the orgiastic madness that powers the human animal and makes our Gotham such a powerful crucible. I will never question my love of truth and the embrace of human kind’s true carnal nature. I will never surrender my ability to be a black flame helping fellow travelers navigate the cold dark realities of an indifferent world.
Art and creativity make life worth living; it’s how we express the truth of human existence as we struggle to understand it and find our place in the world. I have been very fortunate to have friends who have helped me indulge in reading James Dickey on whiskey-soaked nights in the sultry summer night of Georgia, friends who have written poems that have been turned into songs and that can still bring tears to my eyes to this day, and friends who held Burns Night parties complete with haggis where the party would come to a dead stop to read from the Bard of Scotland.
As I struggled to get a handle on writing fiction, I continued to write and publish poems, and my earliest successes have been with publishing poetry. I have come to the realization that I may be better at writing poems than writing fiction or non-fiction and that I at least owe the form more time and attention than I have been giving it. Poems can be written quickly and can express an idea in its rawest form. It can inspire by telling a narrative story or not. Either way it echoes in the hearts of the reader who feels inspired to do great things. I lapsed in recent years in writing them but I have recently redoubled my efforts to write poetry every night. Last year I also starting finishing and publishing one poem per week through Impolite Literature’s Web site.
This national poetry month, join me in reading poetry, in understanding that poetry is the testament of our civilization. The future will judge the worthiness of our times by our art and literature as much as by our wars and monuments.
I hope to raise an army of warrior poets, to make poetry part of the life of blood and iron that defines our existence on Earth. Join me in making our world great by insisting poetry be a part of it. I stand with sword-pen in hand.