New York Stories

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Cozy Fragments

It was still muggy out, even this late. Though indoors, I could roughly tell the temps outside by the flushed faces and necks of people coming into the bar. They looked a little frayed, some of them had probably been dancing over at the Pyramid Club a block away; many were NYU students. I could tell the last by the preppie clothes, all the giggling cliquishness and the similar ages. Yup, NYU. They looked happy.

I was sitting with my friends, Larry, Susan and Rob, glancing at them occasionally to check in on the conversation. But I paid more attention to the NYU students, watching with vague envy. Those guys really had it made. They must have had a lot of money to not only go to that school, but especially to live in Manhattan. I mean, wow. I had moved to Brooklyn only about 8 weeks before this night, worked temp jobs and rented a little share right on Atlantic Avenue. I had to take the 4 Train every time I wanted to find a cool place to hang out. But NYU kids had their pick; they could walk over to McSorley’s, then choose from a bunch of bars and restaurants I had never been to. I mean shit, they had it made, at least in my mind. Read more

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Myrtle Avenue, Plus Thirty

I was feeling a bit nostalgic the other day, so I did what I usually do when the pang strikes. I looked up Google Street View’s visuals of the modern versions of my nostalgic targets. Sometimes it really helps when I do this; it helps me remember more detail, especially when (as in this case) there have not been too many changes. But please don’t tell that to the people who live around 21st Century Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, they think everything is different, particularly between Clinton and Classon Avenues, the part of the Avenue that borders Pratt Institute. It seems people who’ve lived adjacent to Myrtle and would know have always tended to move along after a while but the news sites and blogs say there is a new Brooklyn. I looked at Google to see how much I could remember. Read more

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Glad to be Getting Old – Tom’s Story

When do you get to the point where you say, “Oh shit, I’m getting old!”? I mean, not the facetious attention grabbing commentary that some (like myself) have been guilty of running since the ’90’s. No, I mean the knowing deep down, the kind where maybe you don’t utter the statement so flippantly. I know now it happens during times like when you realize you don’t know what came after “Generation X”; or maybe when you reflect back that those grey hairs of yours now have a history of their own. As if the grey hairs themselves are getting old and looking back. OK I’ve got it, it’s when you start doing relativistic math, like “from the ’30’s to the ’70’s is like from the ’70s to the ’10s” and then kind of shudder at the ability to remember entire eras. Or how about this, when the people you knew start dying.

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Um Frum Brooklyn

Every year I try to visit New York City, my old “home.”  I’m there today in fact, preparing to retreat in typical forlorn fashion tomorrow back to my Atlanta “home.”  Quotation marks are there; for what is home for someone who’s moved around as much as I have?

I’ve always maintained such personal issues of self-identity are completely up to the individual, but honestly, I’ve usually tailored my responses to the tastes of the questioner, shifting my responses like a geographic chameleon. In the South, where I currently live, the response to this query is often “Tulsa.”  This is because, in testing out responses in recent years, “Seattle” was greeted by a kind of blank stare while “New York” earned me some weird cocktail mixing mockery and mistrust.

When I lived in Seattle it was easy to answer.  I had just moved from New York.  And though I hadn’t really learned to miss it yet (I sure would soon), I immediately noticed the fascinated responses I garnered, especially when I narrowed it down to “Brooklyn.”  It was like I was a gangster or something, Seattlites wanted to know all about it.  It made me feel important.

If I’m talking about movies I tell people I’m from Hollywood.  I mean, I am from there but I’m also from other places.  I started MOH in part to convince myself I am from Hollywood.  Which I am.  I’m pretty sure.

Occasionally I’m from Miami, which I definitely really am.  I went to high school and junior college there.  I could still tell you not only how to get around but what are the best beaches.

My wife has advised me to pick a city and stick with it, that it would show I was being true to myself. My brother says I have to say “Tulsa” or at least “Oklahoma,” because that’s where our family is from, and where we started out our lives.  He even sees it as a kind of betrayal that I would consider answering anything else.  Sometimes I wasn’t sure myself, but I did always know it was up to me.

Is it as simple as this- is home where you were born or where you most recently moved from?  Well,  I was born in Kansas but was only there six months so that response seems kind of disingenuous. As for the last place lived- what about all the others?

Don’t pin me down, I can’t decide!

I was talking to my sister and law’s mother yesterday, and as a writer she told me her lifelong theme is one of attemping to unify the broken pieces, the elements (both personal and ‘of place’) of home; for to bring them together is to finally give them their meaning, at least to her.

I talk to people all the time who have thought about this idea of “what is home,.” It’s a big topic, because as Americans we are sometimes hopelessly mobile, yet befuddled travelers.  Moving around hither and to, a lot of times not even sure why.

Maybe today I should come up with some criteria that will help me decide.  After all, it’s kind of pathetic to be 48 years old and to still not be sure of where you are from.

How about this….. home is where you agonize over every departure, no matter how short the visit.  I’ve always felt that way about New York, where every time I visit, the buildings are still straight, the subway still works (though in fits and starts), and the hot glazed nuts sold by street vendors still smell as sweet as when I arrived here in 1987.

I see Chinatown, with their $1 keychains and their “Um Frum Brooklyn” shirts. I see the green of Central Park (with its barely detectable patina of city soot).  I always notice the new construction, as well as the season’s fashions worn by straphangers on the 6 train.

I see the City crawling with yellow refector clad workers, fixing cobblestones around NYU or changing lamp lights in the passageways of Grand Central.  They’re everywhere, always doing something different but always working the urban hive.  When I see this I always have the feeling they are making my city better; I am gratefully aware that the structure of NYC would collapse without their diligent efforts.

I appreciate, yet today I am sad, because soon I will have to go.  The energy that the City infused in me almost 30 years ago flicks back on again as soon as I arrive for a visit yet is so hard to flick off after I leave.  My energy has to dumb itself down again when I leave, hence the melancholy.  That energy is really the feeling of home, where (though I may not live there anymore) in some ways I always belong.

I may still vacillate about my origins, for I love to tell stories.  But I think now I know now where I’m really from, where my home is.  It’s directly proportional to how much I DON’T want to leave.  I guess everybody knows that, if not, they should.

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Ominous Signs

For many college students, summer is the time to hunker down and get a job, save some money for books and clothes and a new school year.  For me it was a time to leave New York (where I was going to school) for a while and head back to Miami (where I used to live); to maybe get a job, to maybe save some money.  Maybe.

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Innovative Audio

I was just minding my own business at work one busy night in the late summer of 1993; renting New Release VHS tapes to the weekend hordes of customers at my video store, Screen Memory. Well, it wasn’t mine exactly, the place was owned by the rarely seen, enigmatic and Horta-like owner Maureen. But I was the shift supervisor most evenings and that night I was standing at the counter, with video clerks Cynthia to my left and Beau to my right. Read more

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The Actor’s Riot

I love to uncover incidental history.  There’s a big piece of it at the intersection of Lafayette, East 8th and Astor in New York City.  I’ve always known it for the Starbucks I frequented, where I’d sit with my coffee at an outward facing window, gently mocking south-bound commuters as they hurriedly/exhaustedly exited the Astor Place Station right in front of me.  Sitting behind that glass always gave me an irrational and unwarranted feeling of security, as if I could see out but nobody could see in.

The building that still houses the Starbucks was built in 1890.  But what came before?  What came before was the Astor Place Opera House, site of one of the most infamous events in NYC history.  It was the site of what is now known as the Actor’s Riot.  The name sounds amusing but a lot of people died right there in front of my present day gazing field, by the on-its-edge cube artwork called The Alamo.

It all had to do with immigrants, nativists, anti-British sentiment and the overreaction of local militia; the latter of which helped engender the formation of a permanent police force for New York.  A quick glance at NYC’s historical record shows that though there was a subsequent development of the NYPD, and the leaving behind of scarcely trained militias, the sometimes fearful reactions of a jumpy and outnumbered police force are still not a thing of the past.  In a city as crowded as New York, there are many reasons for tensions to be high.

The 1840’s in the US was a time of anti-immigrant and especially anti-British feeling.  America had a real “younger sibling” thing going with England and wanted to show it could do all imagined endeavors just as well as the English.  In this case, that desire extended to acting – acting in the plays of William Shakespeare.  America’s most famous stage actor of the day, Edwin Forrest, had performed Hamlet in London and was met by not only the articulated jeers of the press but also hurled rotten produce from angry theater goers.

In 1849 England’s foremost actor, William Macready, bravely visited New York to perform Macbeth at the Astor Opera House.  And as this visit followed on the heels of that of his bitter rival (Forrest), Macready was eager to prove himself the superior thespian.  For New Yorkers it was just payback time.  In the weeks leading up, handbills and newspapers circulated with the news of the visit and New York’s working class population mobilized.

The Opera House sort of straddled both upper and working class New York, situated as it was right between Broadway and The Bowery.  The non-“Ten Percent,” notably the Irish, were resentful that a snooty opera house was doing business right on their doorstep; while white-gloved wealthy theater attendees furtively snuck in and out of their carriages for theater performances.  It had been this way for a few years.

Enough people with an anti-English bent acquired tickets for the May 7th, 1849 performance however, and pelted Macready and his supporting players with rotten tomatoes until they were all driven from the stage.  Macready wanted to flee to Britain but was talked out of doing so by several people, including Nathaniel Hawthorne.  They set another performance for May 10th.

This provided 3 days for tempers to flare on both sides.  Scurrilous handbills circulated on both sides, the working people who opposed England versus the naturally Anglophilic upper classes.  100 local police were sent to the area that night, along with militia, who were hurriedly called up by an antsy city government.  Hundreds of less-privileged New Yorkers massed behind barricades on Lafayette, Broadway and 8th Streets.

When the performance began around 9pm the riot started, first with the throwing of vegetables (that ubiquitous 19th century munition) and then cobblestones.  The stones did some damage and seriously freaked out the militia, who opened fire, killing around 30 people and wounding 48 or so (nobody knows the exact figure).  Scores of police and militia were injured.  It was the worst overreaction by a police force in New York history.

Obviously the performance of Macbeth was interrupted, this time with no postponement.  Macready beat feet back to England and the Opera House donned the mantle of “cursed building,”  never recovering its former renown.  The building hung on for years until its derelict shell was razed in 1890, making room for what would house my future Starbucks roost.

It’s strange to think those things went on in such an unassuming place, that banal intersection of commuters and Frappacinos.  Though not usually in such broad form (the exception being the 1863 Draft Riots), all over New York the struggle between what is generally perceived as “the authority and the powerless” raged on long after, including today.  Just think of Amadou Diallo, who was standing in his apartment building doorway (when some say he reached for his wallet) and police fired at him 41 times, killing him back in 1999.  Cobblestones are a bad enough excuse to provoke withering musket fire, but a thrown wallet can do no damage at all.

Until recently I thought the intersection’s claim to fame was its appearance in a car chase scene in 1974’s “The Taking of Pelham 123,” where a car crashes right at the as-yet unrestored Astor Place subway entrance.  Other than the subway the place looked just the same in the movie as I remembered in the ‘90’s…..well maybe it was a little less polished in the 1970’s.

There are no plaques anywhere in the intersection that I know of; so no reference to the Actor’s Riot.  I have an idea though, a remedy.  Instead of installing just a plaque maybe the black manually-revolvable cube that is The Alamo art work can be replaced by a giant revolving cobblestone.  Then maybe a plaque could be placed beneath it when people wonder, “What’s with the giant brick?”  It could be a reminder of the kind of events that went on right there, that unfortunately still goes on all around us.

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3 Days in October

My brother Luis and his friend Jerry decided to go on a camping trip in late 1997.  Luis had been camping several times and could be considered somewhat experienced, especially among the non-hardcore outdoorsy types (and especially for a New Yorker).  He and Jerry planned it all through September leading up to October.  I wouldn’t have really remembered or cared about all this except for the fact that Luis really wanted me to go with them. Read more

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Atlantic’s Antics

I love those websites that show a picture of an intersection, maybe on a street that’s familiar, from a long time ago and then one of now. It reminds me of those drawings I used to look at in magazines, 2 identical cartoon images side by side, the same but with a few differences.  The trick was to pick 10 or 15 or 20 things different from the one image to the other.  Nowadays I especially love these photos if they are of New York, the New York I used to know, and then the one now.

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Minor Con Men

Brooklyn is known nowadays for its growing population of Indie Label elitists and baby stroller pushing moms and nannies.  It used to have more of an edge, even as recently as when I lived there in the ‘90’s.  Ask any old timer and you’ll hear that Brooklyn was the home of New York’s schemers and scammers, its minor league flimflammers.  I met just such a character back in 1997.

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watertowerpower

As this week is National Self Indulgence Awareness Week, I thought I’d take the time to switch gears and talk about a good cause.  The Water Tank Project (hey they’re really called Water Towers, but to each his own) kicks off at the beginning of August to raise awareness about many of our worlds regions’ inability to get access to fresh water.  It’s the first ever initiative by a New York City non-profit organization called Word Above the Street.

Dozens of well known and lesser known artists will take to New York’s rooftops to adorn (in some cases gaudily) New York’s watertowers (yes, spell-check, to me it’s one word).  They will perch themselves up there with my watertower buddies 5 to 15 stories up.  Hopefully they will treat them well and make them pretty as they are also my own symbolic artistic  inspirations.

Why are they doing this?  I mean, Bloomberg’s gone, I thought there weren’t going to be any more public art projects!   I’ll paint you a little picture of my own but you should also go here:

http://www.thewatertankproject.org/

Next time you’re walking through Chelsea and you’ve only half emptied the nearly frozen $1 Poland Spring bottle you bought from the water guy (and now he thinks you’re a tourist); look up and see a beautifully adorned watertower.  Then think about the millions of people in the world struggling to get access to the fresh water we take for granted every day.  Maybe you won’t pitch the remainder in a non-recycling trash bin.  Just finish it and find a recycling bin.  And a bathroom.

Also, that iced coffee you just threw out had water in it too.

I wish I was in New York next month because I not only love fresh water, I love New York’s watertowers, they’re like my babies.  Grudgingly (not really), I approve of this project because it’s for a good cause.

But, hey artists,  you’d best put them back the way they were when you’re all done.  Like your fellow artist Christo says, “If you pack it in you gotta pack it out.”

I’ve taken a kind of ownership of New York’s watertowers, they’re all mine.  It just….makes me kind of uncomfortable to have so many people’s attention focused on them.  Because of that I’m going to need them back by September.  OK?   Thank you.  Well, maybe Andy Goldsworthy can leave his up there.

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Memories of Hollywood

It was good to be back on the train, it always has been. I started off in the morning with all the other rush hour people. Another good thing; I knew my way around so I automatically fit in.  It’s important to me to fit in in a place where I used to live. And I lived in New York a long time. I mean, who wants to come off like a tourist?  But I wasn’t going to work, technically I was being a tourist.  When I’m in my old homes I guess appearances are everything; it was just a minor example of my recasting myself, if only for that day.

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NY Ephemera #2

Sometimes when you’re sitting on the subway train there’s nothing to do but stare at the ads.  Remember these ubiquitous ones from the 80’s, glossy yellow squares that said “Pregnant?  We can help!”?  I was an art student then and I collected them for kicks.  You used to be able to pry ads out of the subway cars, even the 24”X36” ones at shoulder level.  I’d find myself on the D or N Train about 1 o’clock in the morning, alone, and take what I could.  The only things that were secured were system maps.

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6 Train Turnaround

During all of my visits the last dozen years or so, there was something I just had to see in New York, but for various reasons, couldn’t.  One thing that always held me back was the sight of NYPD officers in the subway; wearing Kevlar and toting automatic weapons in those queasy years after 9/11.  Another hold back was from fear of detection and a possible fine by Transit Authority officials.

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NY Ephemera #1

In New York now it’s easier than ever to find out about things you’d been curious about for years.  Intrigued by palimpsests, I’ve always wondered about those old F.M. Ring painted ads about a dozen stories up on several old buildings in the Twenties.  I assumed they were many decades old but failed to notice until my last visit that there was no telephone exchange name, like CH5-4565.  The ads must be no older than the Sixties, probably late Sixties because there are 7-digit numbers painted there.

Faded a bit, but how old?

Faded a bit, but how old?

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