Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Escaping the room, or not


My wife and I recently celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary by being locked in a room with strangers and working for an hour to escape. The ‘Escape the Room’ and other similar franchises are popular but we had never done one. A holiday gift from a relative gave us the chance to try it.

We went not knowing what to expect, though we had heard good things. For the time slots that worked for us and had openings, we chose the “home” theme. “Office” had been our other choice but I spend most of my weekdays trying to escape an office, so for weekend activities that was a no-go.

We arrived a few minutes early as instructed in the Flatiron district on a Saturday night. The Escape the Room – Midtown is a few doors down from New York’s 40/40 Club, which is famous for being owned by Jay-Z. Beyond that club I don’t think that area is a particularly popular party and nightlife area at the moment, at least judging by how quiet things seemed. The streets were still. Then again, the night was relatively young at that point.

We took an elevator to the eighth floor of a nondescript building and found ourselves in the small waiting area of Escape the Room NYC, where our four teammates, consisting of two younger couples, were already waiting. A receptionist welcomed us and said our host would soon be with it.

Our host for the evening was Junior, a vibrant presence dressed head to toe in pink and wearing a large afro. Junior led us to our room and gave us some basic rules and pointers. “You will never need to break anything or punch through a wall or ceiling. You won’t have to exert any more effort than a five-year-old would.” Junior said we would receive clues through a screen that would also show our time. We had one hour to escape the room.

With that information, the six of us were locked in the room. This isn’t a tortuous process—there’s an escape button if you have to go to the bathroom or want a break—but the six of us wanted to dedicate our efforts to learning to escape. Basically the room is full of clues that will eventually give you a key to turn and escape the room.

The room was a sparely-furnished office with a non-working fireplace, a few dressers, a bookshelf and desk. Several of the dressers had combination locks on certain drawers and in those drawers are more clues. Other clues such as notes written in book margins or numbers written on walls or on a piece of paper in a typewriter will get us combinations to other locks and more clues will lead to more clues.

There were some high points in the evening as the six of us found some clues and cracked some nice codes. We managed to open a door, only to find another room that we had to escape. I had heard that some people got out of these rooms in nine minutes or 20 minutes. One coworker had told me she hadn’t been able to escape her room.
And that’s what happened to us. We were on the right track and came very close to escaping the room. Junior was feeding us more and more clues as time ran out, but in the end time counted down and we had spent an hour in the room with no heroic escape to show for it.

Junior came to retrieve us and was an incredibly gracious host, nothing that we did very well and that we worked together marvelously and made great progress. “I’ve seen couples break up. I’ve seen children get shoved around…” The room we were meant to escape had a 20% success rate, which is low. Most participants required many more clues from their hosts.

Junior led us back to the waiting area for a group photo, offering us some signs and props for the occasion. My wife and I held a sign that said “#fail” and some of our team members wore some deerstalker hats (the kind of hat Sherlock Holmes is known to wear). We posed for our photo, thanked Junior, and took the elevator back down to the street. My wife and I bid farewell to our teammates, walked through Madison Square Park, and got on the subway for the ride home.

While we failed to escape the room, it’s a worthy New York adventure we’d do again. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The view from the express bus


Changing jobs means figuring out new benefits and pay scales, learning new things and figuring out how to get your email to work correctly at your new job. In New York we have the additional calculus of our daily commute.

My old job was in the Flatiron District, which from Flushing meant a bus to the 7 train at Main Street, the 7 train to Grand Central Terminal, and the 6 train from Grand Central to 23rd St. When things went well, this commute could be as little as an hour. When things went wrong, this commute could be grueling. The 7 train is a deceptive beast that is almost always overcrowded and miserable and picks the absolutely worse times to crap out on commuters. During my last week at my old job, the geniuses at the MTA decided to have our 7 train boot out all of its Manhattan-bound passengers out at the Hunter’s Point stop – a stop with no other connecting trains. The 6 train was often overcrowded or late, and construction on Main Street meant that taking a bus home took longer.

I decided to go with a completely different route to downtown Manhattan, where my new job is. At the recommendation of my wife, I began taking the express bus into Manhattan. The express bus is a like a coach bus, but it operates within the city on very specific routes. The QM20 picks up passengers right across the street from my building; it and the QM2 can take me home via 6th Avenue near 34th. An R or W train (which are still too slow) can take me downtown from there.

The express bus is more expensive—$6.50 each way—but if you’re able to do it you won’t look back. If you catch it early enough you will avoid the worst of rush hour traffic (not always though) and even though you’re in the thick of rush hour on the ride home, it’s a more pleasant ride where you see an interesting cross-section of the city.

There is still your average public transit douchery on the express bus. You can see riders put their belongings on the seat or put their seats back as if they are in business class on an airline. But these are pretty minor when compared to some of what you can see on the subways. I have yet to hear the telltale clicking of someone clipping their nails like I would hear on the subway or regular bus. I have never seen anyone forced to stand for a lack of seats.

The express bus engenders its own solemn fraternity. Like the rest of the city it is an odd cross-section of workers and even a few retirees. A few people greet each other as old regulars – they take the same bus and see each other frequently. I already recognize a few regular faces, which is not something that happened very often on the 7 train.

I find it hard to read on the bus because I’m still enjoying the new view. Going into Manhattan gives riders a long view of the skyline but then the bus winds its way through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and across 34th Street. It is interesting to have an above-ground view of Manhattan waking up in the morning and a Herald Square not quite buzzing to life, with homeless people camped out not too far from Macy’s. The ride home takes us up 6th Avenue which gives a view of Radio City Music Hall and across 59th Street past the Plaza Hotel. Then it goes over the 59th Street Bridge where a fleeting view of Manhattan is starting to glow with the approaching night, and the light of dusk overhead usually contrasts with the brackish hue of the East River. Then it spends most of the ride through Queens on Northern Boulevard, where the car dealerships of Long Island City and Astoria melt away to the Spanish-speaking businesses of Corona.

The new job is a new adventure and so far I haven’t been fired yet. I’ll continue to take the express bus to and from work, taking in the city in a new way. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse Experience


I’ve recently changed jobs and on the last week of work my office had a social outing to wish me well. I had never been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse and asked to go there.

Yes, it is shameful that I had lived this long and not gone to Sammy’s, being a New Yorker through and through. Sammy’s is a quintessential New York institution and a landmark for Jewish New York culture.

Our office took cabs to arrive on Christie Street while it was still light out. It looked like we were the first to arrive for the evening dinner rush (sadly Sammy’s is only open for dinner). The place is below street and adheres to its famous basement aesthetic except that finished basements usually have carpeting; Sammy’s looks dingier than your average suburban basement. There are photos and business cards stuck everywhere and the place is eerie when it’s a bit empty. That changed quickly though.

There is schmaltz (a viscous spread) in small maple syrup style pitchers on the tables rather than butter as Sammy’s is a kosher-style restaurant; the food is classic Jewish-American cuisine. I made sure to taste the schmaltz—it tasted like chicken fat, which is essentially what it is. A giant bowl of chopped chicken liver with onions was irresistible and I had as much of that as I could.

The place is also famous for its vodka. The first thing our table ordered was a bottle of vodka that is served inside a frozen block of ice (appearing to have been frozen in a milk container).

I knew that there was an entertainer who sang and played music at Sammy’s. I did not know the extent that DaniLuv was a dominant force who could turn a weekday work night into an evening of ribald fun. He really dominates the room and infuses it with an energy that defines the atmosphere and turns up the charm on the minimalist décor. He stands or sits on a stool behind a modest keyboard in the corner, a large tip jar and small disco ball nearby. A NewYork Times profile from 2013 notes that his name is Dani Lubnitzki and he is Israeli. The impact he has on the evening can’t be understated. If Joan Rivers had been in a three-way with Don Rickles and “Weird” Al Yankovic, she would have given birth to Dani Luv.

By the time Dani got started, another larger group occupied a nearby table and he asked both groups how many Jews there were among us. Invariably several people at each table raised their hands. “How about you, the ISIS guy,” he said, referring to a dark-skinned man who looked Middle Eastern and had a beard, “you’re not Jewish, are you?” The guy laughed and shook his head, ‘no.’ “Of course not…”

“Why are you guys here?” he asked our table.

“This guy is leaving the company,” our boss answered, pointing at me.

“That guy’s leaving the company because he doesn’t want to work with Jews anymore!” Dani joked. Our table had another good laugh.  

The food is big. We had the family style meal and there was so much food that three of us took a lot home. I had the schmaltz on the rye bread, and the chicken liver, and the latkes, and something they called “Jewish ravioli” that was very dense and delicious, and chicken and even some salad. I couldn’t say no to the large steaks either. If you go to a place that is famous as a steak house, it feels somewhat like a crime to not have the steak. There was also stuffed cabbage and pickles and pickled peppers (not an entire peck of pickled peppers but enough for everyone).

The evening wound down quickly as people had long commutes home from Manhattan. Dani Luv begged a few to stay- at least our female coworkers anyway, but before the night got too late it was me and my boss.

My boss finished off the vodka and bought me a Sammy’s t-shirt. I gave Dani Luv a generous tip and took my photo with him. Soon after we headed home.

Sammy’s is a great New York tradition and I vow to make visiting there a tradition of my own. I was very fortunate to work with a great bunch of people and it was difficult to leave. Saying goodbye at such a fun place put a more cheerful lining on a sad event.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Following the footsteps…


I was in California on September 11, 2001. I was there for work in a hotel room getting ready to go to a conference the company I worked for was putting on. I heard someone pass by my hotel room door talking on a cell phone saying someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. By the time I turned on the television, the South Tower had already collapsed and a plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. I knew right away that our country was under attack and I felt helpless and angry. I watched the North Tower collapse in my boxer shorts with shaving cream all over my face.

My story is not unique. I’m among the millions of New Yorkers who watched savages destroy thousands of innocent lives and remake our skyline. But hand-in-hand with the horror and anger is the unrivaled admiration for the first responders that gave their lives and showed that people could be at their best when things were at their worst.

One of those first responders was Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn – Battery Tunnel to get to the Trade Center on the day of the attacks and perished in the South Tower collapse.

This past Sunday I was among the more than 30,000 people who followed Siller’s footsteps in the Tunnel to Towers 5k.

The event loses none of its effect if you’ve done it before and if you haven’t done it, you should.

The run begins with a lot of waiting around. For an event this large, it is well-organized but it still means large, slow-moving crowds. The run ceremony began at 9 and the run officially starts at 9:30 a.m. I was in Wave C, the third wave of runners, and I didn’t cross the START line until 10 a.m.

First responder groups, corporate groups, school groups, teams of family members paying tribute to their fallen loved ones, college students there for fun and adventure—almost every kind of city denizen is present at the 5k. Firefighters come from all over the world to run in homage to Siller, many of them doing it in their heavy firefighting gear. This is no easy task in the Indian summer heat.

Standing around waiting in the hot sun will get you tired before the race begins, and then the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is very hot and crowded. People who had every intention of running may find themselves on the sidelines walking, with others trying to get around them. It’s a bad jostle but a jovial one, with chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! breaking out spontaneously throughout the passage.

The Tunnel to Towers run and walk is perhaps the largest gathering in the city that can still generate massive amounts of goodwill and cooperation. Runners and first responders thanked one another. There were high fives and handshakes all around. Despite tens of thousands of people constantly bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s feet, I heard no harsh words uttered and saw no arguments; try finding that on your average subway commute.

The sacrifices of those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 cannot be sullied by contemporary political strife or bent to serve a narrow purpose. These sacrifices are heroism in their truest and purest form, and the solemn honors we pay to those heroes help give our city a form of peace.

A friend who lost two cousins in the Trade Center attacks did the run today – and raised $10,000 for the Stephen Siller Foundation this year alone—had this to say afterward:

“Today I saw love and beauty, respect and pride, camaraderie and patriotism. I saw love. Everywhere. I didn't see dissent. Hatred. Anger. I saw love. And for that, I'm truly grateful.”


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A dispatch from the New Jersey shore


New York City is such an intense and captivating force that New Yorkers must all leave their beloved Gotham from time to time for areas more peaceful and serene, places where the air is cooler and the pace of things slower. City life is an immense trade-off. We have the greatest art and culture in the world but must endure great hardships, annoyances, and inconveniences. It’s this crucible that makes our standards so high and our quest for excellence so unforgiving.

These past few days have found me on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a beautiful beach community that is best visited after Labor Day, when the summer season is considered officially over. Plenty of other people have had this idea also. So the island is not a ghost town but can look that way at times if you turn down one of the quieter streets. The restaurants are starting to board up for the fall and winter or have at least cut down their summer hours.

Long Beach Island is one long excuse to sit and marvel at the beach and ocean. It is a thin, string-bean like island that is geared towards renting to or selling to people coming here for the summer. It floods easily and the oncoming series of hurricanes that are lined up to punch the United States now are on the top of everyone’s mind.  

While this end-of-summer escape is welcome, the travails of life remain. This time of year especially, the days around September 11, are times when we are reminded about the fleeting nature of our very existence and the fact that life commands us to enjoy every moment.

This awareness does not all have to come in tragic form. I formed a habit of quickly taking photos of the sand castles I help my children build, because before long one of my daughters will crush them quickly without hesitation. She is not yet four years old yet she is a destroyer of worlds. She has not yet grasped the value of leaving something behind that is beautiful in part because of its vulnerability. It is more fun for her to feel that collapse of the cool, wet sand under her feet.

Long Beach Island is a place where you will miss out if you don’t take the time to walk along the beach at night and enjoy the light of the moon reflecting on the ocean. It is where the best thing to do is to sit on the sand under an umbrella and attempt to clear your mind of everything. The beauty of the landscape belies the chaotic, violent, and tragic nature of our lives, which is why we seek to surround ourselves with beauty as much as possible. The world will hand us enough ugly all our lives.

In a few days my family will return to New York City, which has now been rebuilding for more than 16 years since the September 11 attacks. A whole new generation of New Yorkers are alive who did not know life before that day. Our responsibility, among many, is to give this generation an appreciation of all that we have given them as family and all that we have built as a people, because it could very easily not be here tomorrow. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The U.S. Open is a cancer on New York City


I drove to the New York Hall of Science with my children and found the usual driveway to the parking lot barricaded. A woman wearing the uniform of a U.S. Open worker stood there. There was no reason for her to be there. The Hall of Science has no tennis courts.

She quickly waved through a hotel shuttle bus but then blocked our van.

“Do you have a membership here, sir?” she asked me. I informed her that I did.

“Then you’re technically behind this guy,” she motioned to a man with car by the curb. “We’re waiting for spaces to open up. We only have 25 spots today.” I’m not sure who the ‘we’ was in this equation. “You can wait behind this gentleman or you can try street parking.” She offered to hold my place in line if I wanted to try driving around to find street parking first. Knowing the area, I could tell that was a lost cause.

The woman was exceedingly polite, as polite as one can be while telling someone that you’re getting paid to help screw people out of a trip to the science museum so pampered jerks can pay to watch tennis. I told her we would be moving on and drove away, having to explain to my kids that the U.S. Open had just cost us a trip to the science museum.

I sent an inquiry to the Hall of Science asking how this could happen, but have so far received no response. The administration there may not have had a choice and had its hand forced by the city. Last year we discovered the city using public park land as paid parking lots for the tournament.

No New Yorker who comes in contact with the U.S. Open or its fans needs another reason to hate the U.S. open. Sure, it brings in lots of money to the city, but so does selling heroin. At least heroin eventually kills the people stupid enough to use it; U.S. Open fans don’t die off at a fast enough rate.

For 7 train commuters or neighbors of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, the Open is the most miserable time of the year. The train is filled with tennis fans that are clueless, without any sense of their being among others. Oblivious to the basic courtesies required of city dwellers, the subway is a big joke to them, other passengers who need the train to get home from work are lucky to be witness to their charming afternoon of slumming.

The tennis fans that clog our city are Exhibit A of the decline of Western civilization, the well-heeled and soft-minded excreta of a decadent and depraved society. These obnoxious Eloi offer nothing redeeming beyond commerce, and exude only ignorance and weakness in everything that they do.  

Perhaps I am painting the Open and its fans with too broad a brush. I know several people who are great human beings who are true tennis fans and make it a tradition to attend the Open. The tennis center’s centerpiece stadium is named for Arthur Ashe, who set the gold standard for how professional athletes ought to be.

But most of the tennis fans who come to the open are not like the few good eggs that I know. It’s a time of year where rich jerks come to town and the city is more than happy to extend a big middle finger to the working people who actually live here. In short: the U.S. Open represents the antithesis of all that is good about our city and is potent refinement of the worst contemporary society has to offer.

Perhaps the answer is some good old fashion capitalism, such as selling tennis fans tickets to the VIP 7 train cars that don’t exist. I would like to adopt a temperamental Rottweiler so I can name it “Serena Williams” and charge people $100 dollars for a special VIP lounge meet and greet (the VIP lounge will be a cardboard box behind a White Castle—I shall feast like a king).

If the powers that be want to flood our city with the dregs of the pampered class, the rest of us can make a quick buck sheering these sheep. Improvise, adapt, and overcome. Either way, it will be over soon, but not soon enough.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Both sides in America’s great divide


I had promised myself I wasn’t going to spend money to see the Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor fight. McGregor is a great mixed martial arts fighter and proud Irishman but a perpetual shit-talker who took the low road in promoting this fight. Floyd Mayweather is one of the best boxers the sport has ever produced but is a wife-beating jerk no sane person wants to make richer.

But some friends invited me to meet them for the fight and I enjoyed seeing Conor McGregor’s last fight with them, so I met up with them at Hooters of Farmingdale on Long Island.

There is no charming way you can tell your wife you are going to Hooters. I have disliked Hooters because I think if you want to go to a strip club you should man up and go to a strip club. Hooters wants to treat its waitresses like strippers but not pay them like strippers. But I wasn’t going to argue against a night out.

The great racial divide in America was easy to divine looking at the dining room of Hooters, which is a better place to take the pulse of the nation than The Palm Court at the Plaza. I think I saw two tables that were not racially homogenous. There was no bad blood that I saw. No one had any harsh words for anyone else, but the essential tribal nature of human life was on full display. Some of the white customers had t-shirts that read ‘Fook Mayweather,’ poking fun at McGregor’s Irish brogue while insulting the experienced boxer. When Mayweather won the fight, a black customer at a neighboring table stood on his chair to gloat.

America’s house is definitely divided, even the Hooters on Long Island. I was expecting there to be more quality fights in the parking lot than on the pay-per-view screen; likewise with the crowd at the fight in Las Vegas. It didn’t play out that way. There was no violence at the Hooters at the end of the night, just people settling their bills and going their separate ways.

We all like to think that we’re the open-minded exception to the pervasive divides of our time, but we all have an intrinsic need to draw our lines and take an accounting of our allies and enemies. You are forced to choose sides in life once fists start to fly, even if you are disgusted with the whole sham.

I certainly wanted McGregor to win. No self-respecting Irishman would root against him, no matter how obnoxious his pre-fight conduct was. But wanting him to win and expecting him to win are two different things, and the odds were such that I would happy if he lasted more than a few rounds.

After a long undercard and several helpings of wings and appetizers, it was time for the fight. McGregor went 10 rounds in his first ever professional boxing match with a fighter who is arguably one of the best ever. Mayweather came out of years of retirement to fight one of the best combat sports starts of today who is more than a decade younger. They both walked out of the ring with their heads held high, and rightfully so.

After the bout, both fighters were gracious and respectful. It was heartening to see these men be civil after spending months insulting one another. Then again, they had exploited America’s great racial divide to make millions of dollars on a fight that had no business taking place.

The crowd dispersed to either curse or celebrate the fortunes of their proxy combatants, but those fighters came away the big winners. And therein lies the more telling divide: the millionaires in that fight have more in common with each other than they do with anyone who shelled out for the pay-per-view. A foreigner who was on welfare five years ago and a black man who can barely read rode this race-baiting shit show all the way to the bank and had the last laugh on the rest of us. That’s the American way. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Being outside civilization is good for you


This August is a perfect time to be outside of civilization. I recently experienced this when I went camping with my family in the Catskill Mountains, about 100 miles north of New York City.

City dwellers take pride in being in the center of it all, in being connected to what is happening here and now. Our ability to navigate our asphalt jungle is another source of pride, the result of finding our way, learning the ins and outs of each place and its peculiarities, being able to surf upon this insider knowledge smoothly.

But it was vacation time and I took pains to be ready to unplug. My boss told me to enjoy my vacation, and that he didn’t want to hear from me unless I had video me wrestling a bear into submission or something equally sensationally bear-related.

On the way up to the mountains though, real life interfered and I got some work-related calls. I felt they could wait and I kept driving, vowing to look at my phone again only when we managed to get our tent set up and hot dogs on the grill.

It was raining when we pulled into the Woodland Valley Campground, which has plastered bear warnings on almost every single surface imaginable. It even has wooden bear silhouettes attached to its fence by the road as you enter; there is no missing these warnings unless you are blind. Even then, the woman at the campsite office reminded me to lock up all of our food in our car, noting that a young male black bear, recently made to live on his own by his mother, was known to frequent the area.

The heavy tree canopy allowed us to set up our tent and get a fire going before things got soaked. Once things were settled, I looked at my phone again, and realized that the emails and calls I had received could not wait. I tried to respond only to find that we had no signal. None. We were less than 100 miles away from the greatest metropolis in the history of the Earth and we could not connect to that great civilization.

I went to the campsite office to see if there was any information on getting a Wi-Fi connection. I’d even pay a little extra for it. They must have that, surely. ‘Need Wi-Fi?’ read a sign, it was followed by the address and the infrequent hours of operation of the Phoenicia,New York public library, which was about six miles away.

“I have to respond to these emails,” I told my wife. They were the result of a lot of work on my part and not doing so would let down a good friend I have known personally and professionally for a long time. I prepared an email on my phone asking people to email me back and schedule a call for a few days later, so I could drive back into town the next day to retrieve whatever emails they had sent me. A few hours later, after we had feasted on hot dogs and s’mores and put the children to bed, I made the drive into town through the dark mountain roads in the rain. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to go very far before I got reception, and kept my phone within sight.

I wound up driving all the way into town and parking at a gas station in Phoenicia that was across the street from several bars and restaurants and an antique store called TheMystery Spot. It was night and I didn’t even know if the gas station was open. I tried to get signal, and then tried again. Finally, after several tries, I had signal long enough to send my email. I was joyous. I celebrated by walking into the convenience store and buying some diet Pepsi and two cigarillos.

I drove back to the campsite and was the last one awake in our tent when the rain became a deluge. Moisture on the inside of the tent would occasionally rain down on my face, and I examined every sound outside the tent for its likeliness of being a black bear.

The next afternoon, I drove back into town and parked near the same gas station in order to get mobile phone reception. I got the emails I needed and learned I had a call scheduled in two days. I collected whatever other messages would register on my and my wife’s phones and then bought some supplies at the gas station convenience store.

Two days later it was time for my important work phone call and I had to drive to several different locations in town to get reception, even then the call dropped three times and I begged forgiveness of the person I was speaking with and his secretary.

I got through the call and after buying more ice at the gas station, drove back to the camp site, stopping here and there to take some photos along the way. We left later that day, as rain was forecast for our final day and we didn’t want to pack up during another downpour.

So in total my vacation saw me with only one full day completely unplugged. That’s not good. The trip was a success in every other way. My family got to experience nature, see interesting (non-bear) wildlife and get fresh air. My children spent four days with no television or tablet games, only family and books, and the weather was much cooler than in the city. I got to spend time playing with our children and take them to wade in the Esopus Creek. We hiked the trails of the campgrounds and ate lots of hot dogs, even for breakfast.

Arriving back, we found civilization had not improved much. Civic life continues to become more vile and violent, and to comment on events of the day has become a futile exercise.

Being outside civilization is a good thing. We cannot escape it but in short bursts, and we must learn to savor these. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A ride home from Sea Breeze


The longest part-time job I held down during high school was at Sea Breeze, a seafood restaurant in Guilford, Connecticut, one town over from where I lived. A friend connected me with a job there and I started as a dishwasher and eventually became a line cook.

I learned how to make fantastic onion rings, tuna melts, fried shrimp, and stuffed cod. I was schooled in the art of killing, cleaning, and stuffing lobster. I was also introduced to the hellish stress of being buried in work and under pressure. I was a young and angry teenage punk rocker working with a few fellow teenagers but was mostly among adults who really needed their jobs and didn’t have time for my nonsense.

The owner was Bobby DeLucca and he and I didn’t talk much, seeing as he was the owner and I was mostly a dishwasher. He was there a lot and usually wound up working several jobs in some capacity, often in the kitchen. He would jump on the sauté station and give out the orders to the line cooks, only to move to the other side of the service window and help deliver these orders to tables.

The restaurant business is brutal and I got to see that first-hand in the two years I worked at Sea Breeze. Sometimes people walked off the job in the middle of a busy weekend night and everyone had to scramble to keep up. One night after the restaurant closed someone broke in and drilled open the safe in Bobby’s office. Dishes shatter, supplies run low, the trash collection gets delayed, the mixer breaks. It’s a stressful business to work in even when it’s not all on your shoulders, when the hard-earned bucks don’t stop with you. 

Bobby’s son Rob worked in the kitchen and his daughter Darlene worked as a hostess and bartender. One time the two of them got into an argument and Darlene confronted her father about having to work with her brother. “When you were little your mother and I came to you and said ‘How would you like a little brother?’ and you said ‘Yes, Daddy, yes!’ and here we are.” The entire kitchen staff cracked up over that and whatever situation that had arisen was quickly diffused. There isn’t time to argue when there are orders to be served and people waiting for tables.

One Sunday night, the few coworkers that would normally give me a ride home were gone, things at the time weren’t great with my family, and this left me stranded at work after my shift. Bobby said he could give me a ride home, but he had to close up the restaurant first and the bar stayed open later than the kitchen. I waited in the bar, hearing snippets of conversations here or there. I hit on some of the waitresses who were much older and out of my league, which gave Bobby a laugh. “This kid’s got brass balls,” he said.

At the time I worked at Sea Breeze I was squeezing rebellious commentary into everything. There’s only so much of a rebel you can be when you are a high school student and still live at home with your family on the Connecticut shoreline, but I was angry at everything and everyone all the time and wanted it known. This didn’t faze my boss.

“You remind me of myself when I was your age,” he told me as we drove over the dark back roads towards North Madison. “I was crazy. I remember running for student council and banging my shoe on the desk like Khrushchev.”

“Haha! Really?”

“Oh yeah, I was something else.”

I was surprised to find this kinship with my boss, who I didn’t think had much in common with me. It was good to speak to an adult who had gone through his own turbulent teen years and could look back on them with a sense of humor, even with nostalgia. I had a new appreciation for Bobby, moved by his seeing a bit of himself in all my craziness.  

Inspired by our conversation, I ran for class president in the next school year on an anti-establishment platform that had the school administration tear down my posters and call me out of Latin class in a failed attempt to scare me out of running. I might have actually won (it was the only year they decided to cancel any debates or speeches for the student elections and I never got to see the vote count despite my request). In the hallway the day after the vote, a girl who was part of the popular crowd whispered to me, “I voted for you, don’t tell anybody.” Years later, people told me how it was one of the coolest things anyone had ever done in high school.

Robert “Bobby” Gary DeLucca passed away July 30 after a brief illness, leaving behind a grieving family that includes two grandchildren. Remembrances from people who had worked for him poured in, some from decades ago. Family and friends gathered in Guilford to remember him.

I thanked Bobby for the ride home that night, but never got the chance to thank him for inspiring me to run for office, or for permission to go ahead and be a crazy young person, or for letting me know that the rebellious streak runs through all of us, even our bosses. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

How to be a fellow parent, or not, in New York


This past weekend, my wife upheld an 18-year tradition she has of working at the Super Saturday charity event to benefit ovarian cancer research. That left me to look after our three small children by myself.

The weather forecast called for rain, so I took my three girls to the NewYork Hall of Science, which is a great place to take children. It has a dedicated indoor play area along with tons of other hands-on educational fun throughout.

“Wow, you’ve got three kids. Respect,” said a guy in the bathroom as I was shepherding my girls to the sinks to wash their hands.

“Thank you,” I said, not knowing what else to say. A few hours later, as I and the kids were finishing up our lunch, another Dad come over and offered to give me some beverages from his cooler, saying we looked low on drinks (we weren’t). I thanked him but declined the offer.

There seems to be a common thread among any comments that strangers make to me when I’m out on my own with my kids that since I am a Dad it’s a miracle that my children are not dead from disease or living as feral savages five minutes after leaving the house. I have no cause to think that I can do this job better than my wife, but keeping children alive is not a rarified art form.

It wasn’t that long ago that people less education and lower-paying jobs had many more kids. My father is one of seven. There are people in New York today with giant families. When I worked at JFK Airport, I met an immigrant who was bringing his 13 children into the U.S. on immigrant visas. His wife was in a wheelchair and looked very tired.

My wife gets a different comment: “I see you got your hands full,” is what people say to her. It doesn’t matter if they are male or female, old or young. That’s what everyone says to her that feels the need to comment on her managing our superior offspring.

I got that comment only once, at the supermarket, after one of our toddlers threw a temper tantrum that must have been heard by all of College Point, Queens. It was an older woman, her voice filled with schadenfreude, and cigarette smoke, and the sickening crackle of base stupidity. I ignored her and went about my grocery shopping.

Tantrums elicit the most unwelcome attention from armchair parents or bad parents who need to feel superior. On the 7 train recently a woman was struggling to contain her young son who was in the middle of throwing a blood-curdling tantrum when I got on at Grand Central Terminal. By the time they got off the train many stops later, the kid had calmed down, but not before a dozen people spent an inordinate amount of time staring at her. One of the slack-jawed gawkers was a father who had kids with him. He had the chutzpah to bring a double-wide stroller onto a crowded 7 train, plowed into several passengers trying to squeeze out of the train, and then cursed us from the platform for not helping enough. A loser Dad to beat all loser Dads.

If you see a child throwing a temper tantrum and a parent is handling it, let them handle it. Don’t stare at them or made sarcastic comments. If there was a cure for the terrible twos (and threes and fours...) someone would have had a vaccine for that long ago. The kid’s screaming is nowhere near as annoying to you as it is draining and mortifying for the parent or parents involved. If you sincerely have something positive to contribute or do to help, then thank you tenfold. You are the rare gem among a sea of self-satisfied and smug breeders that love to torment their fellow parents.

And unless your comment is actually helpful and important, like “Excuse me, I think your daughter in the pink dress just pooped on a street corner,” or “Your baby just picked up a large knife,” then no one needs to hear your comments about our (relatively) large brood. Thank you for noticing our amazing virility and the ability to keep all of our children alive.  Please leave us alone. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Looking to snap out of a slumber


It wasn’t too hot when I had a few minutes to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a year. We brought our kids to Francis Lewis Park, where there is a playground with a sprinkler and a view of Flushing Bay and the Whitestone Bridge.

“I don’t know how you own three of these things,” he said as my two older girls played with his son. Our youngest is only a year old and he and his wife have a three-year-old son.

“I don’t either.”

Having children is something that everyone is terrified of but no one regrets. Spending time with your kids is a great thing and you’ll regret not getting in every minute with them. But when they are as young as ours are, it leaves you too tired to do anything else. Many a night began with great plans and ended with me falling asleep on the couch at 10:15 p.m.

At the park our children go different ways in the playground. I don’t mind staying back and sitting down and watching the kids from a distance. You can’t be hovering over them all the time. But the world being the way it is, you don’t want to let your kids out of your sight for too long. A few times I lose sight of one of the girls and I start to get worried looking for her and just before I break out into a fearful disaster sweat she’ll come into view. This happens a few times and it wears you down a bit further.

My friend and I talk music, mutual friends, and the itch to be creative and make music. His son wants to go down to the water, to where there’s a great view of the Whitestone Bridge and a miniscule beach at the end of a small boat launch. I and my two older girls accompany them. We are disappointed by the amount of garbage on the beach and in the water but the view of the bay and the bridge, makes up for this.

One of my girls isn’t wearing any shoes since she was running through the sprinkler in the playground and I don’t think anything of it until we get to the boat launch and see some broken glass there. I curse myself for letting her come down here with no shoes on. On further inspection this turns out to be sea glass—glass that’s been in the water long enough that it’s been made smooth. Sea glass makes for a nice collectible and I tell the girls I will take this home for them to enjoy later. New York City will disappoint you and impress you in quick succession.

A lot of my friends also have kids but I also have many friends who are smart, creative people, the kind of people who should be doing more reproducing, but aren’t. I highly recommend having kids, though I realize it’s not for everyone.

My friend and I talk a bit more, discuss doing music again, what our schedules will look like later this year, and how we have the itch.

The itch, the need to produce art in some form, it never goes away and is a call that has to be answered. Children, jobs, the multitude of tasks one has to perform just to keep a roof over one’s head and the bills paid on time, these will slow you down, but they can’t kill whatever fire drives you to create. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The blinding allure of technology


This past weekend my wife and I got new smart phones. It’s a ritual we are accustomed to doing every two years, and it was hastened by our one-year-old daughter putting my wife’s phone in a cup of coffee.

We took our brood on a shopping adventure to our local wireless store and purchased the latest Android phone. We picked out our phones and accessories and I remained at the store while my wife took our three daughters to visit stores with less expensive breakables.

By the time the store closed an hour and a half later, my phone was not done transferring so I had to keep my old phone close to it as I searched for the rest of my family. We hadn’t arranged to meet at any specific location but I’d simply start walking around the Bay Terrace Shopping Center and hope to see them. I couldn’t text my wife to find out where they were, I had her phone stuffed in a shopping bag along with extra charging cables and other accessories.

While I may have once taken pride in being somewhat of a Luddite, there is no stopping the increasing use of technology. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I was the last person among my circles of friends to get a cell phone and one of the last to get a smart phone. I’m not as technologically connected as my younger peers at work. I have come to embrace technology even if I use it more sparingly than others. It’s a matter not only of etiquette (sending a text message if you are going to be late) but increasingly of safety (knowing who can see our children’s photos on social media).

I refuse to be one of the zombies I see slowing down foot traffic in the city, and those slothful grown children are not the product of technology but rather bad character and upbringing. If mobile phone technology had never been invented, no doubt these self-centered techno rubes would be finding other ways to make our lives more difficult.
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The people who are abusing smart phones and gaming technology are inheritors of the slack-jawed mindlessness of those who abused television and less advanced video games years ago.

Technology does not cause any moral rot any more than it creates virtue. Throughout the centuries there have been two schools of thought that have reacted to technology that have been totally wrong: those who think that it will bring about the downfall of mankind and those that thought that it would bring a new era of virtue and help create a more equitable society.

As I searched for my family, I came across a man who was standing idle on the sidewalk. He looked at me as I looked across the parking lot and struck up a conversation, asking me if I was bored and commenting that this part of Queens is boring and Manhattan is where it’s at. I made polite conversation, but noted we were not far from interesting nightlife closer to NorthernBoulevard and that the shopping center had a movie theater.

The man was odd and too eager to speak with strangers. He was not threatening at all, just awkward and sad. I did not ask him if he had a smart phone with him but if he did I did not see it. Such a device would have helped him find something to do. Queens does not have the same social scene as Manhattan, but that’s no matter. No one in the five boroughs has any reason to be bored.

And someone by themselves at a shopping center on a Saturday night striking up a conversation with me has social issues holding them back more than geographical challenges.

But no matter, a few minutes later I found my family at a frozen yogurt shop, and we enjoyed some brain-freezing treats before heading back home. My wife and I had to feed our kids and get them to bed before spending time with our phones getting them set up properly. We’re almost done. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Work from home during our latest transit hell


New York City is entering a deeper level of transit hell this week.

That transit officials are already saying how bad our commute is going to be and begging companies to let their employees work from home wherever possible is significant and should strike fear in the heart of every New Yorker. Our transit authorities are normally presenting a falsely rosy view of how their systems operate. I have no doubt that the official numbers they give for on-time arrivals and such are soundly bogus, cooked up with some noxious bureaucratic justification and presented with a straight face.

Things on our subways have been getting significantly worse. Commuters trapped hours underground on un-air-conditioned subways, a young man stuck in a train so long he missed his entire college graduation ceremony, trains that are more crowded, the list of grievances goes on. Add to this some new Amtrak and N.J. Transit derailments and you’ve got a strong brew of grade-A clusterfuck ready to be served.

So those advisories to let people work from home whenever possible should be taken seriously. For a lot of commuters in today’s working world, the daily commute is an unnecessary exercise in frustration and lost time. Having the ability to work from home takes a lot of worry off your plate and improves morale.

In this day and age, more companies would save a lot more money by letting more of their employees work from home more often. We hold devices in our hand with more computing power than it took to put men on the moon (really). Anyone with a home computer or a work laptop should be able to work from home easily. If I can figure out how to work from home effectively, any desk jockey can pull it off.

One day earlier this year, when the city was threatened with a large snowstorm and the transit systems were closed in advance, our entire office worked from home. It was one of the most productive days any of us have ever had. Without the horrendous commute to take into account, the vast majority of us had an additional two hours of time to dedicate to actually doing work rather than suffering through getting to work.

At a company where I used to work, they have consolidated so much office space that there will not be enough desks for everyone who works there. So people will always be working from home. A former coworker who lives in New Jersey and is still in journalism (I “crossed over to the dark side” of public relations a few years ago), works from home two or three days a week. He’s running a financial magazine all by himself and he holds down a part-time job two days a week, but he’s getting it done.

There is definitely a benefit to a common work area and having face-to-face meetings that can’t be duplicated over the phone and email. But much of what many of us do at work each day can be done just as easily at home. Technology is only going to keep making that easier.

New York’s transit woes will not improve anytime soon. Everyone should work from home if they can. Ask your boss about it if you haven’t already.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Celebrating independence with friends and explosives


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. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Seafaring adventures for city folk


One of the benefits of living in a non-trendy part of New York City is that you can benefit from a lot of cultural enrichment without crowds of five-borough tourists that flock to the city’s more fashionable haunts. Everything in the Flushing-Whitestone area where I live is a long train ride plus a bus ride away from where the ‘in’ crowd frequents in Brooklyn and Western Queens.

We recently took a journey to Little Bay Park, a slice of land between the Cross Island Expressway and Flushing Bay. It is directly adjacent to Fort Totten, an old U.S. Army base that is now a public park but still houses military and other agencies such as the police and fire departments and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

The larger family fun day that had been scheduled for Fort Totten was canceled, as recent rain made their fields too muddy for any public events. Instead a smaller event was taking place on a small strip of land right along a walking and bike path that lead from Fort Totten into Little Bay Park. The main attraction being free kayaking for families.

Here is where a semi-suburban city Dad gets to experience some of the monotony associated with being a hipster festivalgoer. We stood in line in the hot sun for quite a while waiting for our turn to have a free kayaking experience. The start was delayed because the kayak operators found they had only a small sliver of beach to work with and it was covered in garbage. Vest-wearing volunteers using rakes and shovels filled six large garbage bags with garbage while would-be boaters and other park visitors gawked at them while also enjoying the sights of the bay.

This was going to be a killer father-daughter experience that would instill a love of nature and the seafaring life upon my two older girls. My wife had no interest in boating and was happy to wait on land with the baby and the stroller. I have good upper body strength and have paddled canoes before through swamps and on lakes. How difficult could kayaking be?

After a long wait we were finally given life vests and lead to the kayaks. The launch area was filled with empty kayaks and there wasn’t really enough room to both load and unload boaters at the same time. Once we managed to get around the empty kayaks and other boaters, we found that our vessel was already taking on water. That’s normal, the people told us. Water just gets in there. So I sat down in a puddle of water on the seat after having to step into water in my sneakers and socks (you had to keep your shoes on so I thought they had a system where we wouldn’t get our feet wet).

With the girls loaded into the boat, we were ready to launch, but it was a lot harder to do than I thought. I couldn’t hold the big oar steady in front of me without hitting one of my girls in the head, and it felt like we were sinking since I weigh so much more. I managed to paddle us out a little ways, but the wind began blowing us back pretty steadily, and I narrowly avoided getting blown into a rocky jetty.

Now I had something else in common with the hipster festivalgoers of Brooklyn: a general ineptitude and overall disappointment in the performance of manly duties. I’m not stupid and I’m strong enough to lift and move heavy things. But a plastic kayak with a payload of two 40-pound little girls had me stymied. After just a few minutes, not happy with sitting in water and feeling insecure in the shaky boat, they asked me to paddle back ashore. I happily obliged.

An essential part of living life and embracing adventure is the knowledge that not every adventure is going to go so well. This was one of those adventures that didn’t go so well. Not to fear though, the promise of a picnic and some delicious food was enough to motivate our girls to move on to the next thing. Soon we were enjoying a delicious lunch in the shade of a small tree in Little Bay Park.

After our meal we returned to the event area and acquiesced to the demands of ice cream at one of the city’s ubiquitous Mr. Softee trucks, we visited more of the event.

The highlight of the day was singing along to pirate and seafaring songs with Scuttlebutt Stu, who regaled everyone with great sing-a-long songs about pirates and sailors. His songs came with a lot of interesting history. I learned that the term “son of a gun” came from times when sailors would be allowed conjugal visits with their wives aboard their ships, with private beds being made between ships’ cannons. I knew that the term “groggy” came from grog, a mixture of rum and water, but did not know it got its name from Admiral Edward Vernon, known as “Old Grog” from his wearing of grogram jackets. Each song that Scuttlebutt Stu sang came with an interesting lesson that increased our fascination with the sea and demonstrated just how much of our modern culture has been shaped by the ages of the explorers and privateers.

Scuttlebutt Stu was dressed like a pirate with a heavy vest, long-sleeve shirt and tri-corner hat in 86-degree heat and no shade. He was a trooper like I’ve never seen. The breeze and briny smell of the bay lent a great aura of authenticity to the experience of learning about the pirate life through song. Stu is part of a duo called The Royal Yard that performs frequently in the New York area both together and individually.

I’m not a great singer but it was great fun to sing along, the wife and kids sang along as well and soon others joined in. It was perilously close to the kids’ nap time, and it’s always somewhat of a race to get home so they can sleep a little longer and get some more rest. But we stayed around for a few more songs and then headed home.

We made it back in time to let the kids nap in their own beds, another day’s adventure behind them. We were all the richer for it. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sherlock Brett Saves America


More than 20 years ago, when I was still in college, I started writing short stories for my stepbrothers. My stepbrothers Brett and Lyle wanted to be hero detectives, and so the first short story, “Sherlock Brett and the Case of the Missing Clowny” featured them searching for our younger sister’s favorite stuffed toy (spoiler alert: I had the stuffed toy; I was such a poor college student that I was trying to barter it for groceries).

These stories were silly fun for young kids, though I snuck some adult jokes in there in case my father or stepmother happened to read one of them. I began making a habit of writing these stories for Brett and Lyle’s birthdays and for Christmas.

The adventures of Sherlock Brett, his trusted brother and sidekick Watson Lyle, and our sister Georgia, have evolved over the years. My younger brothers and sisters are all adults now. I still send stories, but they have much more adult subject matter and explicit sex and violence.

Four years ago, I got a call that Brett had taken ill in Miami—he had moved there to work for Univision—and that the illness might soon prove fatal. My father and stepmother flew down there immediately. Brett was in a coma and his prognosis was grim, but he pulled through. He’s still recovering from the effects of being sick and in a coma, and it has been a steady but slow road to recovery for him.

Brett has stayed sharp and I’ve continued writing stories for him. He hasn’t let his long recovery process put a stop to his life and he married his wife Samantha, who now has a bigger role in the Sherlock Brett stories.

While I am glad that these stories have a small and appreciative audience among family, I thought that they could help form a vital part of my literary canon and be published for the general public. I put a few short stories online for sale through Amazon, but you had to have an Amazon Kindle or have the (free) Kindle app on your smart phone.

For Christmas last year, I wanted to have a physical book to send Brett as a gift. I began collecting some of what I thought were the better and more recent Sherlock Brett stories and compiling them in a book. I pulled them together and began editing them for publication. This took longer than I expected and I learned I know little to nothing about book design.

But slowly things came together. I got the very excellent JustinMelkmann to do the cover art and help with editing from my wife Emily got the book in top shape.

Last year, Brett was the first person I called after our youngest daughter was born to give him the news and tell him his new niece’s name. I told him I was sorry he had to share a birthday with another family member, but the doctors had determined the time was right for our offspring to be from her mother’s womb untimely ripped.  

I managed to get Brett copies of SherlockBrett Saves America, a collection of Sherlock Brett stories that will humor and inspire. He said he was very happy with it, and that made my day.

So if you’d like to read the adventures of a detective who not only ran for president but also handed Islamic terrorists their worse defeat ever, took the world’ largest bowel movement while helping fight a band of White Castle bandits, and helped fight an unfair bathroom law in North Carolina, then buy this book. 

I plan to continue writing the Sherlock Brett as well as stories about my other brothers and sister until they ask me to stop or until I die. These are fun to write and I have license to bring some much-needed levity and satire to our world. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Being the oddball in the East Village


The greatest rock & roll band that’s ever existed, TheDwarves, were scheduled to play at Bowery Electric, and it had been too long since I’ve seen them. I bought a ticket online and made plans to travel to Manhattan on a weekend, something I rarely do anymore. But this show would be worth it, I was certain.

I made my way to Bowery Electric, which is on the Bowery a short block uptown from where CBGB used to be.

The Bowery has not been itself for a long time now. It was known the world over as a place for bums. It was the Skid Row before Skid Row existed, and served as the template for the down and out sections of town in art, literature, and life.

I would travel to Manhattan when I could as a suburban teenager in the 1980s and 1990s, and going to the East Village was a harrowing experience. The Bowery was full of homeless people selling trinkets and other junk on blankets. Some of the bums were mental patients on medication that just stared into space. Drunks slept in doorways, crack heads begged for money or cigarettes or robbed you. If there was a Bum Olympics in 1989, it would have been held on the Bowery.

Today there are few homeless charities and even fewer flop houses on the Bowery. Fancy hotels and restaurants dot the Bowery now, and apartments that used to rent for a few hundred dollars a month in my lifetime now rent for upwards of $5,000 a month, if they’re available for rent at all.

That the Bowery Electric still exists is short of a miracle. So many music venues fled Manhattan that had Joey Ramone lived he would barely recognize the street that bears his name. Standing outside the venue, I was mistaken for a bouncer as a young woman began handing me her I.D. I waved her inside, telling her I didn’t work there. Maybe I should have asked her for a $5 cover and then treated myself to something at 7 Eleven up the street.

The venue’s Web site said that the show would start at 7 p.m. and seemed to indicate another show was scheduled to start at 10. I hustled and made good time and got to the show to learn that the first band of the night had canceled and that The Dwarves would not be starting to play until 10 p.m., when the Web site had said the show would end. Even in these modern times, the best shows still run on Punk Rock Time.

I set out for a brief walkabout of the East Village and found myself on St. Mark’s Place, where everything is now geared towards tourists or college students. The Papaya King proved a good find; I was one of two customers there at the time and I enjoyed some hot dogs while watching people walk by, most of them much younger and none of them looking like fellow travelers in the neighborhood for a punk rock show.  

Across from Papaya King, the building that once housed the iconic fashion store Trash and Vaudeville is shuttered and under renovation. I would go there all the time years ago, not to buy things, but to put up flyers for upcoming shows that Blackout Shoppers would be playing. The store is still in business nearby on East 7th Street, but seeing it pass from its longtime location on St. Mark’s was another illustration of how change has rapidly come to this part of the city.

On 2nd Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets there is still a vacant lot where three buildings were destroyed in a gas explosion in 2015. There were a few curiosity seekers milling about the sidewalk where a chain-link fence keeps people from the lot. The lot is covered in gravel and there were two bouquets of flowers there for the two people killed in the explosion.

I made my way back to Bowery Electric and started running into people I knew. I am not as active on the music scene as I used to be, but I have a lot of friends I made over those years and meeting up with them at shows is always fun. I made my way downstairs where the main stage is set and found a good spot on a low balcony to see the show.

The Dwarves did not disappoint. They played their entire The Dwarves Are Young And Good Looking Album straight through and then played a lot their most beloved songs. Original guitar player HeWhoCannotBeNamed joined them and with Nick Oliveri on bass they can branch out into some of their more aggressive stalwarts. The Fresh Prince of Darkness shreds on lead guitar. Lead singer Blag Dahlia is a sinister master of ceremonies who wears a shit-eating grin. A Dwarves show is a celebration of the nihilistic aggression that made punk rock so phenomenal, but with a humorous twist that prevents anyone from trying to take things too seriously.

At the end of the show I met some more good music friends and made my way upstairs to use the bathroom before I headed home.

When I got upstairs, there was a different scene. The well-dressed hipsters and well-to-do young people with good jobs where in command of this part of the venue. As I stood in line to use one of the single-use restrooms, I decided to stretch my back since I had been on my feet so long. I bent over a bit to put my hands on my knees to straighten by back and the sharply-dressed guy who was next in line took a few steps back, thinking I was getting ready to throw up all over the floor. I thought about making some gesture to assuage his fears, and let him know that I am only a sober middle-aged punk rock fan with a bad back, but why bother? If you’re in the habit of wearing pressed slacks and dress shoes to a bar on the Bowery, maybe you should live in fear of being vomited on.

On my way out, I stopped to shake Blag Dahlia’s hand and congratulate him on a great show. He thanked me and I left into the glittery night of the East Village for the long trip home.