Wednesday, September 19, 2018

An evening at Keens Steakhouse

I got a call at work from a Maryland number. The company I work for has offices in Rockville, Maryland, not far from Washington D.C. I expected it to be one of the people I speak with regularly, simply calling from someone else’s desk phone.

 It was the finance head of the division. Our division’s management meeting was coming up. It was my turn to pick the evening activity after the first day of the meeting.

These activities usually involve alcohol and something competitive. At my first suck management meeting, when I had been on the job only a few weeks, I played shuffleboard at The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Brooklyn and managed to avoid being noticed as a non-drinker. I did miserably at shuffleboard but it was all in good fun. The DJ there was playing some B-52s, which can make even the most down outcast feel at home.

I missed a few good dinners and an ‘Escape the Room’ evening because of crazy stuff happening at work, but managed to enjoy some ax throwing in Atlanta earlier in the year.

Some of the people I work with are very competitive with these kinds of things. Do I really care if someone can golf better than me? No. Golf is boring. Life is already overheated and frustrating enough without making yourself that way on purpose.

But, our boss thought gold would be a good idea, and I do enjoy trying new things and trying to better myself at different skills, so an evening at the Chelsea Piers Driving Range was one of my ideas. But the night we needed was all booked up.

More than some kind of activity, what people need after a long day of work is a fun meal, and I wanted to finally get back to Chumley’s, but with the large group we had it would have meant renting out the whole place, so I went with Keens Steakhouse.

I should have known about Keens before I learned of it years ago. I had lunch there at my old job and it was a revelation, a place of great history and ambiance that is increasingly endangered with each successive regeneration of our city.

The striking theme of the restaurant you can’t avoid is that it is decorated with clay pipes. Clay pipes line the ceilings and the pipes of some of its most famous patrons are displayed in glass cases by the entrance. Regulars would keep their pipe there so they could smoke while they waited for their steaks.

By the front door you can see the pipes that belonged to General Douglas MacArthur, famous comedian and TV actor Redd Foxx, basketball legend Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, former New York Governor George Pataki, and novelist Joseph Heller. If that’s not a motley clientele, I don’t know what is. And that is part of what New York is all about. People of divergent walks of life united by their ambitious pursuits. In this case, the pursuit of fine steak and pipe-smoking among the eccentric personalities of the theater.

As it was once part of the Lamb’s Club in the theater district, it continued to host theater clientele. In 1905 the actress Lillie Langtry sued Keens to be admitted when it was still a men’s only establishment. There is now a diningroom named for her there.

Our crew was a large and ambitious one and I sat near people who have worked there nearly 20 years. I was equally ambitious about enjoying some of the fine food and ordered their famous mutton chop. It was enormous but I still ate most of it. Some of our group ordered only small steaks, but some got steaks almost bigger than their plates; they all did amazingly well. We are an ambitious bunch and will not cower before fine food.

The dinner lasted a while but eventually people had to get on their way. My coworkers shook my hands to thank me for the fine selection and we all went our separate ways. I stepped in the rainy, New York night and on to the next adventure. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Punk rock’s champion leaves NYC



I knew it was a possibility; he had told me about the idea. But when I got word from Philthy Phill that he wasleaving town I was still shocked.

Phill Lentz, better known to the New York punk rock world as Philthy Phill, is the singer for World War IX. He’s much more than that though. Over the 13 years he’s been in New York he’s excelled at stand-up comedy, writing, podcasting, concert organizing, and being a creative jack-of-all-trades that would be the envy of most Big Apple newcomers. He’s conquered New York City without losing the Midwestern disarming charm and good humor that drew some of this town’s finest musicians, artists, and comedians into his orbit.

I first got to know Phill when he was the lead singer in a band called Sexual Suicide. His singing style captured the necessary aggression of the genre while also displaying a keen sense of humor; a you-are-being-subjected-to-our-noise-but-we’re-in-on-this-together vibe. Bands with no sense of humor are miserable to watch. If you had any doubts about Phill’s take on things, the highlight of any Sexual Suicide show was when Phill would put on a Spider Man mask and sing a song about performing cunnilingus on Mary Jane Watson.

He came to New York City from the suburbs North of Chicago in 2003, following a girlfriend who had moved here. Three years later they broke up and he considered moving out of town at that point but decided to stay and drown his sorrows in punk rock.

Phill not only sings but also plays guitar and drums. Over the years he has served as the drummer for Joey Steel and the Attitude Adjusters, the Misanthropes, and toured Canada and Europe with the Scream'n Rebel Angels. I was fortunate to play with him in New Damage.

Phill wrote a book, a long-form short story, written from the point of view of a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who made a living as a Spider Man character for kid’s parties. It was a great read because it celebrated, among other things, the joy of the creative act. Read Self Poor Trait if you are down and feel jaded as a creative person, you won’t be sorry.

To top that all off, Phill worked the stand-up comedy circuit and played some of the top clubs like Caroline’s. And he co-founded the Dispatches from theUnderground podcast.

Earlier on in my time in New York, I discovered the comics of Justin Melkmann through the New York Waste. I was so impressed that someone was doing a comic strip about the life of GG Allin, that I made it a point to go see the artist’s band, which was subtly advertised in each strip with a discreetly inked URL. Catching my first World War IX show at CB’s Lounge and meeting Justin was a turning point in my punk rock life. Blackout Shoppers have played numerous shows with World War IX and there’s nothing we like better.

A few years after I got to play my first show with World War IX, they were looking for a singer, and I and I’m sure a whole bunch of others called and told them to get Philthy Phill.  

Having Philthy Phill join World War IX was like Beethoven coming back from the dead to conduct the London Philharmonic – it’s the supreme punk rock combination that had to happen. And it did.

World War IX entered a new period of productivity and creativity and produced some of my favorite songs over the past several years. I had the honor of playing a villain in a few of their videos, including the video for my favorite World War IX song, Cutlass Supreme. Phill’s acting chops earned him roles in other punk rock videos as well.

“Without a doubt, I will miss my World War IX and the friends I made playing with that band,” Phill told me. “We've toured many times, put out an envious number of high-quality music videos and some outstanding music to boot. Anyone who has partied with us at a show can tell how well we all get along because it comes across in what we did. Unrelated fun fact: everyone in the band has wanted to fight me at some point.” 

Phill also met his wife among the punk rock fans that came to his shows. He and Erin married in 2012 and last year they had twin boys. While they excelled at making a family of their own, they have no other family in the area, at all. That, coupled with the high cost of living and the need for more space, was the deciding factor in making the move to Indianapolis.

Sometimes, the people who best embody the humor, creativity, and egalitarian grit of New York City find it is best to leave New York City.

There’s also a trap that New Yorkers fall in to easily, thinking that the world revolves around what happens in the five boroughs and believing that residing in the New York City area counts as an artistic achievement in and of itself. While surviving in New York is an accomplishment, we’d be kidding ourselves to think that any work of art is somehow automatically superior if it originates from an NYC zip code.  

This Saturday, Philthy Phill will sing with World War IX for one last time at Otto’sShrunken Head. My band, Blackout Shoppers, will be joining them, along with Controlled Substance. It will be a packed house and there will be lots of music, loudness and alcohol.

Phill hasn’t stopped being creative, and he’s already working on his next project, which he’s keeping under wraps for now.

While people will forever come from all over the world to pursue their creative dreams in New York City, the point is to keep being creative and live a good life while doing so. Great art, music, and literature can be found wherever there are people great enough to do great work, wherever the creative spirit ignites a spark that leads to more ideas, wherever there are people like Philthy Phill.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

RIP Big Bertha, New York City’s punk rock pickup truck


When I moved to New York City to live as an adult more than 20 years ago now, one of the things I most looked forward to was being able to live without a car. The 10 years of being a car owner had been miserable. My first car broke down a lot and was finally consumed by flames in an engine fire. I replaced it with a 15-seat passenger van I purchased from an inebriated redneck in the back woods of Northeast Georgia. The van also broke down a lot. The drive shaft fell off on Highway 285 in Atlanta and I give it to charity in hopes of getting a tax write-off rather than try to sell it.

But time and life circumstances change, and six years ago my then fiancĂ© and I decided to get a vehicle together as we were building our new life. I was playing a lot of punk rock shows at the time and we needed something affordable but that would carry a lot of musical equipment as well as be suitable for camping and hunting. We couldn’t afford much, but we managed to find something that fit the bill and was reliable at an affordable price: a full-length pickup truck that we named Big Bertha.

The name was an homage to my then-finance-now-wife’s great grandmother Bertha. It was also an alliterative reference to BlueBetty, an ill-fated blue van that I came to possess for several months and was able to use for only one punk rock show. Driving a barely-functioning van from Suffolk County to Brooklyn while having to shift into neutral at every stop to keep it from stalling out is a harrowing experience that builds character. How that van made it as far as it did is a miracle. We were never able to get it working and eventually sold it for scrap metal and got $300 for it, which didn’t fully cover what I had spent to insure it.

Big Bertha performed flawlessly for every punk rock show, every camping trip. When my wife and I went on our honeymoon, we drove Big Bertha to Maine. A missed highway exit took us through Lowell, Massachusetts, where we stopped by to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave (“You don’t look like typical Kerouacers,” the woman at the cemetery office told us, which we took as a compliment). When my wife was pregnant with twins, she found it convenient to use the truck. When our twins were born, Big Bertha enabled us to take our offspring home from the hospital safely.

Perhaps the greatest immediate benefit was ease of getting to shows with equipment when playing music. When my band Blackout Shoppers came home from playing Philadelphia and needed to blast some classic Whitesnake to the hipster-infested Lower East Side, Big Bertha had the power. When we did a short tour with TwoMan Advantage, Big Bertha took us through the bitter cold. I somehow managed to park the nearly 20-foot truck in the East Village when we opened for Joe Coffee and 45 Adapters at Bowery Electric.

Driving and parking in New York City is not easy. It is especially difficult to do with a large vehicle. Where we live in Queens makes owning a car a bit easier, as street parking is possible and there are residential streets with more available parking than other places. Owning a vehicle as large as Big Bertha would be impossible in Manhattan and more popular parts of Brooklyn.

Our punk rock pickup truck persevered, until it didn’t. Its transmission, which was never 100%, began to decline rapidly over these last months. When I attempted to drive it to see SLAYER at Jones Beach, I had to quickly change plans and use the family minivan for the trip.

We had Big Bertha towed to our mechanic and the prognosis was not good. Bertha’s transmission was gone and it would be costly to replace. She had taken her last ride and it was on the back of a flatbed pickup truck.

Luckily, our friend Amy Jackson happened to be looking for a buyer for her Jeep Grand Cherokee, and we could not find a better person to help replace our truck. Amy is a photographer and adventurer. When a friend of hers was seriously ill a few years ago, she quickly organized and produced the Gentlemen of Punk Rock calendar to raise money.  She accepted our offer and will be using the money to fund her trip to Antarctica. Amy Jr. will be part of our family and while she will never have the enormous presence of Big Bertha, she will be a lot easier to park.

Like many aspects of city living, owning a car is tougher here than elsewhere, but we find our ways to make it work. A decade ago I never thought I would own a vehicle again, and now I have two vehicles registered in my name. Wish us, Amy, and Amy Jr. good luck and smooth travels. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sharknado: the stupid fun America needs


One day downtown several years ago, while going for a walk on my lunch break, I came upon a movie set on Broadway at Bowling Green Park.

“What are you filming here?” I asked one of the crew.

Sharnado 2,” he said.

This was good news. The original Sharknado had already become a code word for ridiculously self-aware comedy. The very concept of a tornado that contained sharks was a doubling down on the disaster film genre: half-admitting the action film world was out of real ideas, half not caring and going for broke. If we’ve run out of road on action or horror, why not go for broke and create something so outrageous people will have to watch just to see what it is.

I hung around a bit and saw them film several women pedaling Citibikes for a half a block while screaming and looking at pretend approaching Sharknado. They quickly moved over to another block to film something there.

I made it a point to see this Sharknado sequel, which centers on New York City. I had issues with some of the film’s handling of New York transit and geography. But if you can believe Sharknado’s exist, you can believe that the 7 train goes to 96th Street in Manhattan.

So when I learned that Sharknado6—aka The Last Sharknado (It’s About Time)—was premiering this month, I made a note of it and planned to watch the latest chapter in the absurdist epic.

While one wouldn’t think there is much more you could do with the Sharknado plot, the writers have just taken things farther down the rabbit hole of the insane. Within the first few minutes of the latest Sharknado, we see the severed robot head of Tara Reid shoot lasers out of her eyes in order to battle an alternate version of herself that has come from a shark-ruled future and is on the side of the sharks. The crew that has fought the sharks for five previous films is now traveling through time to try to eliminate the Sharknado threat once and for all.

Is that not hilarious enough for you? Neil Degrasse Tyson plays Merlin the Magician who is a medieval king and fights sharks while riding a flying dinosaur. I can’t make this stuff up, but wholeheartedly salute the team of writers that has. Dee Snider from Twisted Sister plays a sheriff in the Wild West. Half of the fun of watching the Sharknado films is seeing what odd cameos are filled by celebrities of the day. Marc Cuban and Anne Coulter as the President and Vice President in Sharknado 3, Al Roker in Sharknado 4, the list goes on.

Sharknado is part of a B-movie genre that feels relatively new: the purposely bad and cheesy movie that is firmly tongue-in-cheek and more of an absurdist comedy than action or horror. ‘Snakes on a Plane’ was the first theatrical release with a top-billing actor that purposely promoted its B-movie status and made its cheesiness central to its marketing. From the poisoned chemtrails of this snake-invested plane, Sharknado emerged years later to pick up the torch.  

The world outside out virtual one has serious problems, and we do a disservice to ourselves and our children if we do not tend to them. But occasionally it pays to enjoy some mindless humor. Sharknado may not be the catastrophe we deserve, but it is the stupid fun we sometimes need.



Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Dispatch from the Jersey Shore



A family tradition that began soon after we started our own family was to vacation with our in-laws on Long Beach Island. Traditionally we have gone after Labor Day when the crowds were smaller, but our kids starting pre-K in early September meant we had to brave the more crowded island during the height of the summer season.

Human beings have a need to feel the power of nature around them. Living in a big city has many advantages that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and I don’t regret making New York City my home for a minute. Where else in the world can you see Renoir’s By the Seashore, the New York Yankees, and NoRedeeming Social Value all in the same day?

But a large city requires the conquest of nature on a large scale. Skyscrapers are their own majestic entity, they cannot compete for space with California Redwoods or the cresting waves of the Atlantic Ocean—my friends in the Rockaways do manage to surf in the Atlantic Ocean, miles away from these skyscrapers.

We lose something when we commit to living in a city, our awe is taken up by what mankind has achieved, and we lost the much-needed perspective of the power of the Earth itself. I believe that human beings need regular contact with nature in order to keep our minds right and in the general order of things. Being close to nature is the way human beings are supposed to be. We did not evolve from glass towers or produced in a sterile, state-of-the-art lab. We were born from the savages that evolved from organisms born of mud, shaped by our ancestors need to know and respect the murderously indifferent natural world around them. If we do not keep in contact with this primal truth in some consistent way, we lose our bearings and don’t function well. Though I have worked in Manhattan consistently for nearly two decades, I have always tried to walk through a park at least once a day in order to enjoy some greenery.

Long Beach Island is a tourist destination that does not put on airs of being otherwise. There are people who live there all year, but most of the people you seen between late May and mid-September aren’t from here. The island understands that it is a great destination that attracts people for its natural beauty and the accessibility of its beaches. There is a respectability that locals and tourists alike embrace their roles. There is a goodness and truth in that honesty. While you are here you can enjoy the arts at the SurflightTheatre and then enjoy singing waiters and waitresses at the Show Place Ice Cream Parlor.

But the miles of beach are what bring people here, and a trip here is not a success unless you spend some time on the beach.

While I try to stay out of the sun, I have learned to appreciate sitting on Long Beach Island and doing as little as possible. A few walks into the ocean though will give you an appreciation of the greatness and vastness of the ocean in front of you. An expanse of blue (that appears green when you’re up close) that stretches to the horizon.

Going deeper into the ocean, the current was more powerful and the water cooler. The power of this ocean, even at this calm period, was immense. You can’t help but be pushed and tossed around by the waves. A sting ray darted into my sight, close to a young boy on a body board but turned and was just as quickly out of sight. A tidal pool left behind dozens of tiny fish, numerous shells, and even a small live crab for children to marvel at.

Even when the heat is at its most punishing, the breeze from the ocean offers a cooling respite. Time moves quickly when you are away from the churning world of commerce and asphalt, and I must soon return to that savage expanse. I am grateful for the time I have here where the ocean calls the shots and people are united in their efforts to get away for a little while.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

30 years after the Tompkins Square Park Riots


This past weekend the East Village commemorated the three decade anniversary of the Tomkins 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’sOnly 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 interest

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Bidding a hellacious farewell to SLAYER


Big Bertha the pickup truck was not herself. My vehicle was over-revving, lurching, and I smelled something burning. I was afraid she wasn’t going to make the trip to Jones Beach. I picked up my friend Javier from downtown Flushing and headed back home, where we were able to use the minivan. Javier helped me take out the car seats to make room for Beast and Sid, and we headed back to downtown Flushing to pick them up. We got a late start, but we weren’t going to miss a minute of SLAYER.

Slayer has embodied the best of thrash metal for nearly four decades. Coming to the world in the early 1980s California, it mixes the rapid-fire, unrelenting aggression of hardcore punk with the guitar virtuosity of more traditional heavy metal.

Over the years, Slayer has become easy shorthand for aggressive music that rejects any and all self-indulgent niceties or attempts to soften its image. Years ago I was dating a woman who was destined to soon break up with me. Even though I was coming off a long period of unemployment I shelled out to treat her to a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Carnegie Hall. One of my biggest regrets of that time was not screaming “SLAYER!!!” in the famous venue between movements. I would have enjoyed the performance much better and it would have brought that relationship to a quicker and more merciful end.     

I’ve had the good fortune to see Slayer several times, including with the definitive lineup that included JeffHanneman before his untimely death in 2013 and drummer Dave Lombardo. “No Jeff, no Dave, no thanks,” was a refrain that some Slayer fans abided by in these later years, and I hadn’t seen them since Lombardo was fired in 2013 after disputes over money.                                                                     
For whatever reason—and maybe being in the same band for nearly 40 years is reason enough—Slayer is calling it quits. If you needed another reason to pay to see Slayer again, this was it. They even patched things up with Dave Lombardo.

So on we rolled out to Long Island to see Slayer’s final show in the New York City area. Opening for these godfathers of metal were other excellent thrash metal veterans Anthrax and Testament along with Napalm Death and Lamb of God. The name of the concert venue there changes every few years to that of a different corporate sponsor, but everyone just calls it “Jones Beach.”

Jones Beach can be lacking as a concert venue. Even though I quit the drinking life long ago, it is an outrage that the amphitheater only allows alcohol in one restricted area with no view of the stage unless you pay even bigger bucks as a VIP. And the prices on concessions are ridiculously inflated. While I had enough cash in my pocket, I was not going to pay $5.50 for a bottle of soda that costs $2 elsewhere. Six dollars for a hot dog? No thanks.

But Jones Beach gets good shows. A lot of the big concert tours don’t come to the five boroughs. I asked the peanut gallery of social media why this is. The two biggest concert venues within the five boroughs—Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn—share space with sports teams for much of the year, so there are fewer concert dates available. Also, the city is more expensive and so much of a logistical nightmare it is easier to go elsewhere.

Forest Hills Stadium is a great place to see a concert. I saw The Who there a few years ago and it was a great show. It’s intimate for a stadium and it has the kind of food and craft beers that both younger and older crowds enjoy. That venue tends to more mellow acts (Van Morrison, The B-52s with Culture Club, Imagine Dragons) because it’s in a residential area and the people who own homes in Forest Hills probably aren’t very interested in listening to live thrash metal at 9 p.m.—their loss.  

Whatever the drawbacks of Jones Beach, the Slayer show rocked. All the opening bands were good; no one disappointed. And Slayer played the best kind of farewell show they could have played. They closed with ‘Reign in Blood’ and ‘Angel of Death’ and then thanked the crowd for supporting them.

Someday we can hopefully make it easier for bands like Slayer to play within the city limits of our beloved Gotham more frequently. Music, and New York City, deserve it. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Free speech is for the brave and the hated (and everyone else)



Last week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for saying he would not automatically censor Holocaust deniers from Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg is not expressing sympathy with Holocaust deniers when he says he won’t automatically remove them from the Facebook news feed. His convoluted way of saying so may have missed the mark, but defending the right of people to post controversial or objectionable ideas on a free social media service should be a no-brainer. It’s a sad sign that anyone in America today should have to “walk back” any comment that defends the right of free expression.

Facebook has the right to censor content, as it’s a media platform that can operate by whatever standards it deems fit. And indeed it has censored content, putting dollars before principles and obediently obeyed repressive laws overseas in order to gain traction outside the U.S. It follows speech codes set by the Chinese government and governments in Europe that would never pass muster in the U.S. if they were applied by a government agency.

But the demands that Facebook censor content show the diminished respect for the concept of free speech and expression. Facebook enables users to block content they find objectionable and even block other users from their news feed if they are not to your liking. That people clamor for Facebook to go further and eliminate whole blocks of content simply because many people object flies in the face of what we Americans embrace as a concept of free expression.

Free speech is an end unto itself, it is a moral absolute. Freedom of expression is a basic human right that universal and inviolate. It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights as well as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19).

Social media is not obligated to the same concepts of free expression that are guaranteed human rights. When you sign up for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever comes next, you are agreeing to terms of conditions that enable the service provider to regulate how they wish. But our sense of fair play in allowing free expression in these realms is an important one.

Americans have rightfully embraced the saying that is often attributed to Voltaire (though it actually comes from biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who summarized his idea), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

And to stand up for free speech is to undoubtedly join questionable company. You’re going to be standing up for Klansmen, pornographers, Holocaust deniers, pedophiles, and religious extremists. You will defend the rights of people who want to see you diminished, or maybe even dead. Sadly, the distinction of supporting someone’s right to say something as opposed to supporting what they say is being stripped away. Even long-standing organizations that have famously jumped to the defense of free speech—specifically the once-reliable A.C.L.U.—are now hedging and making exceptions in the toxic partisan atmosphere of our contemporary era.

Much of the speculation today surrounding the ascent of alternative right elements in our national politics is whether or not we are heading down the slippery slope to a fascist state. If the American far right is excelling in bringing us closer to fascism, its greatest victory so far has been in getting its opposition to embrace fascist elements wholesale while waving the flag of anti-fascist virtue. Every “punch a Nazi” post you see on social media, every embrace of the very concept of “hate speech” is a steep step down that terrible slippery slope.

Please remember: there is a reason that fascists are rightly reviled, it’s because they do things such as… restricting freedom of speech under the guise of protecting the populace from harmful ideas, advocating violence against those they disagree with, or claiming some higher moral right to speech than others. “That’s not free speech, that’s hate speech,” is among the most fascistic mantras in common use today.

Let’s all sides agree to let others have their say. You don’t have to listen or agree, but recognize that free speech is a human right that no one should be able to infringe. Defending the right of someone to express their ideas is not the equivalent of endorsing those ideas: teach that in schools and put up ads around town about it.

There can be no equivocation. There is no other speech but free speech. People have died for it in America and around the world. Don’t accept any substitutes.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Celebrating Suffragettes at Washington Irving’s Sunnyside



While I would be content to sit in an air-conditioned space from late May through the end of September, I know people can’t live that way and remain productive members of society. The world is already positioned to encourage my children to be mind-numbed couch potatoes glued to electronic devices; we’ve got to counter that as best we can while we still wield some influence over them.

My wife found out about an event happening at Sunnyside, the estate of Washington Irving in Tarrytown, New York, which is not too far a drive up from Queens. We decided to go. We have three girls and with women’s political activism in its ascendency we must strike while the iron is hot to give them a sense of empowerment.

Vote Like a Girl was hosted by HistoricHudson Valley at Washington Irving’s Sunnyside. The author, best known for short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” lived in Tarrytown and his home is preserved as a historic site.

The event included a staged debate between a man who advocated for suffrage and a woman who denounced the suffragette movement, a parade of suffragettes marching from the visitor’s center to Irving’s cottage, and a reading from Susan Hood, author of Shaking Things Up: Fourteen Young Women Who Changed the World.  

The event was not only a celebration of the suffragette movement, but an encouraging look at a future with things that were encouraging to young girls. They had a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) room at the event that allowed girls to play in ways that helped develop scientific concepts, and an arts and crafts room that had some projects that spoke to the theme of the day, such as cross-stitching political messages and making Statue of Liberty-like crowns.

There were also fashion demonstrations, allowing women and girls to see what they would have likely worn had they grown up in the 1800s or early 1900s. And our girls tried their hand at kids’ games from that era—attempting to walk on wooden stilts or keep a barrel loop moving with a short stick both look a lot easier than they actually are.

Sunnyside is a great place to visit and was a winning trip with small children in tow. It is on the bank of the Hudson River and has sunny lawns and shady spots for picnicking.

Years ago I attended a holiday candle light tour there and it was excellent, showing visitors how Irving’s house would have been decorated during the Christmas season (e.g., lots of wreathes but no Christmas tree). In mentioning the candle light holiday tour to one of the employees there, she said that while they had been discontinued, they were very popular and that there was hope that they could be brought back.

While the cause of women’s suffrage is not exactly up for debate any longer in the U.S., the role of women in government and society continues to evolve. There are more female candidates running for public office than at times in the past and the revulsion of President Trump and the potential shift in the Supreme Court further right means that women’s issues are going to be central in our political dialogues over the next several years.

And if you are trying to raise girls, it is hard to cut through the constant noise of our common culture, where women’s place in society is not highly valued. Women who are given the largest platform are often not there for productive achievements that are desired or realistic for our daughters (the nine “most Googled” women of 2018 turned up zero scientists, elected officials, or Supreme Court Justices; all were entertainers or reality television personalities). So let us glory in the history of women’s suffrage and use that as a springboard to greater ends.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

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.


Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The crucible of summer in New York

If hell exists, it borrows heavily from New York City in the summertime. The unescapable humid heat that is magnified on the sidewalks and amplified in the subways, the crowded aggravation of our crumbling infrastructure, and the general unrest that foments rage where there might normally be annoyance or resignation, are the central ingredients of our sulphuric summer stew.

New York goes into its Independence Day holiday in the midst of one of its heat waves. The general state of the country only adds to the humid misery, with half the country protesting and demonizing the other half at light-speed intervals, new Internet outrages generated almost by the hour. It’s a dizzying spiral downward in civil discourse that fuels a blanket disgust made more maddening by temperatures that bake an already exhausted brain.

This work week is interrupted by our Independence Day holiday on July 4. Imagine putting up with all the outrages of national politics today but without air conditioning and in wool clothes, and you’ll see why the colonies revolted. In New York City today, our country’s divided politics are writ large across the city. People who once enjoyed vibrant conversation on the state of affairs skip such conversations; it doesn’t pay to engage in civil discourse, even on a personal level.

This week we will get through our work week, hoping it will be easier with so many people using the holiday for vacation. The trains will be a little less crowded, the traffic a little lighter and the sidewalks will be blazing hot but not quite as mobbed. Tourists will walk downtown past where George Washington was inaugurated (New York City was America’s first capital).

Sometimes, even though I appreciate air conditioning, I have a moment when I leave a heavily air conditioned building and feel a sense of relief and satisfaction at feeling the blanket of humid heat cover me when I step outside. It is good to feel the real world on your skin, to embrace reality no matter how unpleasant, because that’s what we are destined to do.

That is part of our story. New York gives its residents all four seasons at full blast. You will be hot, you will be cold, you will feel the full force of nature’s fury and blessings, sometimes within the same month. On the first day of Spring, New York City had a snowstorm. I would have gladly endured many more if it meant we would be spared the stifling heat of the summer months, but I knew better than to think we’d have such a lucky trade.

The crucible of summer in New York makes for stronger New Yorkers and spurs our innovation, our creativity, and our own more quiet revolution. Some of us will “embrace the suck” as the military puts it, and barrel through the overheated times with a gimlet eye towards the future.

Our destiny means we move through this overheated season with a desire to embrace the heat, to dive into the fevered truth that others work hard to avoid or shout down. The hot weather will pass, and we cannot huddle in the air conditioning forever. We have nothing to do but have pride in ourselves as New Yorkers and live summer to the fullest.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A family trip to Coney Island


Coney Island is an endless summer draw for New York. It has a large beach, world-famous amusement park rides, and a seedy underbelly that gives it character. Coney Island has kept its lowbrow edge despite waves of gentrification and upscaling happening throughout New York but with particular intensity in Brooklyn. Williamsburg used to be a dangerous place to be. Now it’s only dangerous if you live in a rent-controlled apartment.

One of the attractions that has been added over the last two decades of revitalization is MCU Park, which opened as KeySpan Park in 2001. The field hosts the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.

My wife, who is much more adept at sourcing and planning family outings, discovered a good value in theFlock, a children’s club that includes tickets to several games for the entire family.

We got to Coney Island and found an expensive pay lot close to the stadium. With low clouds rolling in, fogging the tops of the nearby apartment buildings, we decided to get something to eat before submitting to the amoral monopoly of stadium snacks. In the short distance between MCU Park and the original Nathan’s, we started feeling raindrops. Nathan’s was mobbed, but close by was Pete’s Clam Stop, which had large plastic bench-style picnic tables in a small dining area. We ducked in, found a seat, and ordered food.

Pete’s Clam Stop was a good discovery. Its hot dogs were just as good as Nathan’s with the same traditional snappy flavor and they also had large fries that were a bit big and unwieldly but were in the crinkle-cut tradition (they even served them with a small French fry fork.) Pete’s also has fresh clams and oysters on ice, and hand-painted signs encouraging customers to eat clams to help to have a child and to eat oysters if one wanted to have twins. I had not heard this bit of old wives’ tale wisdom, and since we already have twins plus one, we did not feel the need to sample the oysters or clams.

The rain picked up heavily as we ate our food, watched World Cup Soccer on TV, and enjoyed the camaraderie of other Coney Island visitors making a lunch stop to duck out of the rain. The picnic tables became filled with people sharing the space. A woman with her kids at the table with us remarked on two of our daughters’ red hair.

Before long the rain was gone and the sun was out by the time we headed back to the ball park.

We got to meet two of the players and got them to sign our daughters’ t-shirts. They all became too shy to get their photo taken with the players. The highlight of the Flock benefits was getting to go on the field near second base for the national anthem. Unfortunately, the field at MCU Park is artificial turf, so it feels as if you are walking on a cheap shag carpet with some extra padding underneath.

With three small kids, I spent more time herding them and trying to quell their tantrums than I did actually watching baseball. If I were a baseball aficionado or cared about seeing a future baseball superstar in action I might be disappointed, but I don’t really follow baseball and I’m a Yankees fan anyway (the Brooklyn Cyclones are a Mets farm team), and time is better spent with family. It is more enjoyable to share ice cream with a four-year-old than to watch someone throw a fastball. The Cyclones won the game 1-0, beating the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team.

While our seats were in the last row of the stands, they were still field-level seats and comparable seats at a major-league ballpark would have been unaffordable for a family of five. Snacks were still overpriced, but the ticket deal that my wife found included some snack vouchers, so that allowed me to actually not spend money on overpriced stadium snacks.

Our seats were shaded so we escaped the worst of the sun. Still, it was an exhausting day. We drove home, buzzed from weariness, but also excited about having more Coney Island adventures.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The dark allure of the carnival



Two years ago, when our youngest was a newborn still in the hospital, I had a Father’s Day with our older daughters and decided to take them to a carnival that was being held out on Long Island.

The drive out there gave the girls some nap time and allowed me to treat myself to some drive-through White Castle in an indulgent celebration of my continuing my bloodlines.

It was on the grounds of a community college not too far into Suffolk County (the part of Long Island farther away from New York City—technically both Brooklyn and Queens are on the Island of Long Island but whenever a New Yorker says “Long Island” they mean Nassau or Suffolk County, which constitute the larger mass of land outside of the New York City borders).

Because it was Father’s Day and extremely hot, or for whatever reason, the carnival was not well attended. There were a few rides where my girls were the only ones on at the time. One ride that was empty had a height requirement, and I told one of the twins to step up to the height measurement board by the entrance to see if she was tall enough. She misunderstood my instructions and began stepping up on the bottom run of the fence around the ride, which had the effect of both immediately proving she was not tall enough to ride the ride but making it look like I was telling my daughter to cheat. As I was trying to correct this, the man running the ride, who was wearing the requisite carny uniform of sun-leathered skin emblazoned with tattoos, quickly waved my girls onto the ride.

More recently, my wife and I took our girls to a local carnival held on the grounds of a Catholic school nearby. It was fairly well attended but our kids were only eligible to ride a few of the rides. Most of the rides were for older kids and grownups and some of them looked rickety and unsafe. The same carny types were running the rides, and the ones who were running the kids’ rides were happy to have the business. From a trailer-born midway, the typical games of change were running with giant stuffed animals to lure impressionable youth to beg for their parents’ money.

A few weeks later, another similar carnival, a larger one in Astoria, had a ride malfunction and injure a passenger who fell out of an open car on a rickety amusement park ride.

We hold the carnival folk in envy in some ways also: they travel and see the country in ways most of us wish we had the freedom to do. And we see their itinerant ways and employment in leisure as hinting at some greater, more liberated life, even though it is a much harder life that consists of working while other people have fun, for long hours in the hot sun for little pay.

Eight years ago, a Wisconsin writer traveled as a carny and wrote about it for the publication Isthmus in an article ‘My life as a carny.’ He summarized it this way:

“[W]here I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.”

One counterintuitive point that the article makes is that traveling carnival rides have a better chance of being safe than those at established amusement parks, because they are inspected more frequently.

From the interactions I’ve had, I have some away with the impression that because my wife and I have raised our girls to treat people with respect and be polite, especially to the people who work for a living and serve us, that the carnival workers pick up on that and treat us well in return.

We come away from these carnivals a little poorer financially, I like to think that our family is richer in experience. Carnies are part of the brilliant milieu of New York City; we appreciate the dark allure of the carnival, as it is illuminating when you approach it with the right attitude.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Fatherly adventures of being your children’s +1



This past weekend I had several hours alone with my three children. Normally we have full family outings on the weekend but it helps keep our family healthy if my wife gets a break from being around children for at least a few hours each week.

There was a Twist & Sprout festival at the QueensBotanical Garden and I decided this would be a good place to take our three daughters. We had been there last year and it was a good time with plenty to offer the kids.

After getting my girls out of the van and dropping off some compost, we set off to explore the festival. Arriving at the Queens Botanical Garden with my daughters is like being a celebrity’s date at an award’s ceremony. Because they are there at least twice a week for the Forest Explorers program, my girls know a lot of the people who work there. One of the teachers at the program recently graduated college and gave my girls big hugs. Other employees waved hello to us from their zooming golf carts or from arts & crafts tables.

There was a puppet show and the puppeteer was the mother of another one of the students at the Forest Explorers program. Other parents stopped to chat with me; they recognized my daughters and asked where my wife was. It was all very friendly, but I was definitely a stranger among them. I was appreciated for bringing my girls there. No doubt they are the better life of the party.

While I pride myself on being a good Dad, the point was driven home that for most hours in the week, I am largely absent from my daughters’ lives. I am out the door to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus in the morning and with afternoon rush-hour traffic I am usually not home before 7 p.m. It is dinner time soon after I arrive home and time for bed soon after that. The weekends are when I try to catch up and cram a lot of living into two days before the cycle starts up again, at least on most weekends (sometimes I have to work on the weekends).

Since 2014 I have been my children’s +1. In theory I could show up at a family gathering without them, but I’d face an extremely disappointed crowd. There’s no substitute for adorable young children.

Case in point: my reception at the Queens Botanical Garden was warm and embracing, which would not have been the case if I had shown up on my own. No one would have treated me poorly, but no one would have known who I was or given me a second glance. When fantastic little girls are your posse, you are a 100% winner wherever you go.

Our children are better versions of ourselves, bright and new to the world with endless possibilities in front of them. When we’re well received based on being with them, it reflects their position in the world and how they’re being raised.

We’re doing something right.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

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, FlushingC.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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Oncoming Starbucks Conundrum



Life in New York City includes being on frequent scouting missions for public restrooms. Most subway stations did have some at one time, but those are now closed or off limits to actual paying passengers. If you live and have a social life in New York City, you will also likely become adept at public urination at a certain level.
Clean public restrooms are a sought-after commodity for people in the city. There are even mobile applications for smart phones that help people find the nearest public restroom. This phenomenon is not exclusive to New York, of course, but like everything else, it is more of an intense challenge here. There are too many people vying for comfort and ease in our Gotham, and breakneck competition for the good life means someone has to lose.
Starbucks was the subject of good-guy America’s two-minute hate a few months back when two African American men were arrested a Philadelphia location after using the bathroom and refusing to order anything. The Seattle-based coffee chain closed 8,000 of its stores in the U.S. this past Tuesday for “a conversation and learning session on race, bias and building of a diverse welcoming company.” One note: while it closed all of its “company operated” stores, its 7,000 “licensed stores” at airports, hotels, major grocery stores, and universities, remained open.
Maybe the whole mess could have been avoided if some of the people who objected to the arrests had bought the two men some coffee, but apparently the fight for justice is worth shooting video with your smart phone but isn’t worth springing for an $8 latte.
Outrage quickly spread and there were calls for boycotts of the ubiquitous coffee chain.  I was way ahead of the curve before it became uncool to get coffee there. Starbucks injects unneeded pretention into buying coffee. I refuse to use its bogus jargon that calls a small coffee a “tall.” Just let me order a large coffee (which I never see on their menu; you have to know to order the “coffee of the day” if you want to get anything resembling a regular cup of coffee—please spare me that nonsense). I prefer to drink the free coffee they have at the office where I work. If I’m going to get coffee from a store, I’ll go to 7 Eleven or to any local corner deli or bodega, which usually have decent coffee and will be happy to take your money without putting on airs.
Just about everyone agrees that arresting people for loitering in a coffee shop is excessive. If police arrested everyone who went into a Starbucks just to use the bathroom there would be more Americans in jail than out of jail.
Starbucks’ continuing mea culpa included a public announcement that anyone can use any Starbucks bathroom at any time without making a purchase.
That’s both good and bad news. The good news is: If you are starting to get desperate for a restroom you know you can walk into a Starbucks and stand on the (now likely longer) line to access a legal toilet. The bad news is: Now everyone knows that. The company is going out of its way to welcome people who are not customers. When people can’t be turned away, the kind of people who show up are people who would normally get turned away.
This will make everything more crowded, and will also bring in more homeless people. This will get worse in the winter time, and if homeless people can’t be dissuaded from camping out there, customers will start turning away.
A few months ago, I met a friend for coffee at Grand Central Terminal, where they have tables and several coffee shops. The MTA has let the homeless problem at Grand Central get out of hand again, and while I was able to find a place to sit and have coffee with a friend, the presence of the homeless was everywhere.
Another issue that arises with unlimited bathroom access is that of drugs. We are in the midst of a drug use crisis that few have seen in their lifetimes involving opiates. Will Starbucks be the new injection site for addicts? The bathroom lines will be even longer when more people start overdosing in them.
One issue that’s become lost in this discussion is the welfare of Starbucks employees. Their jobs are tough enough, especially in light of this recent publicity, and they now have to clean up after a bigger swath of the general public, including more homeless and drug addicts. All official hand-washing aside, do you want someone who just cleaned a horrendous restroom to be handling your iced coffee and banana bread? Me neither.
If Starbucks becomes an overcrowded mess as America’s new homeless shelter or heroin shooting gallery, it will no longer be America’s preferred “third place.” Why shouldn’t people bring a bagged lunch when they visit the city and take advantage of the space, bathrooms, and free Wi-Fi at Starbuck’s? So what is the plan to counter the potential deluge of homeless and drug addicts?
I wish the chain the best of luck in navigating this. I will add them to my own mental list of available public restrooms, but only to be sought in desperate times, and I’ll try to buy something.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

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.