27 August 2006

The Wedding Party

We here in North Brooklyn have been virtually marooned this weekend, cut off from the island of Manhattan by yet another shutdown of the L(oser) line. Yes, it's still possible to get to the city; if you're desperate enough you can always walk across the Williamsburg Bridge, which only takes about an hour, i.e., about as long as you might wait for an L train late at night even when the accursed thing is "running."

But I exaggerate, as usual, and in reality I appreciate the New York subway and both the L and G lines that serve my neighborhood, and if you think I'm only saying that because I want to stay on good terms with the subway gods, you wouldn't be far from wrong. Actually, I've come to believe that the subways are animate beings of a high order, with senses so finely attuned that they can hear any disparaging remarks I make, pick up on any less than positive thoughts, and punish me accordingly. It's kind of like the time many years ago when I was sitting in a restaurant near the beach in Santa Monica, dining on a filet of shark, when I stopped in mid-mouthful and thought, "In another hour or two I'll be swimming in the same ocean that this shark came out of. And no doubt he's got brothers and uncles and cousins and friends and loyal members of the shark species who just might happen to get wind of what or who I was having for dinner."

I stopped then and there, and have never taken a bite of shark meat ever since, on the very sound (I think) principle that I should not eat anything that is capable of eating me. And so far, so good. Does the same principle apply to subways, which don't so much eat people, but devour the hours and days ane weeks and months of their lives? I don't know, but it's not the kind of thing I want to risk, so let's hear it for the subways, okay? I hear they're just great!

All that to point out that I've had to take a lot of strange detours these past few days, mostly by way of Queens, but I've still managed to get into town to see Rancid a couple more times and got a chance to have lunch with Tim A. as well, which was the first time we'd been able to sit down and talk in a couple years. I mentioned how exciting it was to see the reaction to the Operation Ivy songs - here's a band that put only one album and that's been broken up for 17 years, and yet people who weren't even born when that record came out were singing along with every word. Tonight they did "Knowledge" and followed it up with an electric version of "Sound System" that was just incredible. I took along a couple of 50 year olds who hadn't been to a punk show in 10 or 15 years and they were like, "Whoa, this stuff is still going on?" But they were both seriously impressed with the quality of the music and the intensity of the crowd.

Saturday I took the night off from Rancid and instead went to Desmond's Tavern on Park Avenue for one of Chadd Derkins' periodic punk rock shows. "Are you here for the bands?" the doorman asked. "Yeah," I said. "Which one did you come to see?" "Um, I don't know. All of them, I guess." Which wasn't true; I couldn't even remember who any of the bands were. I just like to support Chadd's shows.

But something seemed strange. I practically had to fight my way in the door, the place was so crowded. I was pleased for Chadd's (and the bands') sake, but it didn't make sense. Desmond's shows are usually attended by the inner circle of New York's Pop Punk Clique and a few friends, hangers-on, and random drunks. 50 people would be a very good turnout. Yet there had to be 200 people in the place. Was one of the bands (for the record: the NoLoves, the Groucho Marxists, Project 27 and Bazooka Falcon, only two of whom I was even vaguely familar with) much more famous than I suspected?

Another weird thing: the crowd seemed exceedingly well dressed for a punk rock show. No band shirts, and lots of jackets and ties. They also seemed a little old (of course, look who's talking) for this kind of music. The mystery was solved when I finally made it to the back of room, where Chadd, Carla, and about five musicians sat, looking bemused and/or disconsolate.

"They double-booked the place," explained Chadd. "There's a wedding party that's supposed to be over at 9:30, but they don't seem in any hurry to leave." I suggested that having the bands start playing would clear out the wedding guests in a hurry, but Chadd is a kinder and more sensitive person than I am, and confined himself to pacing the floor and running his fingers through his hair with increasing ferocity. "You can tell how stressed Chadd is by how far his hair is sticking up," confided Carla.

The bands finally started playing around 10, by which time most of the wedding guests were drunk enough that they barely seemed to notice. But gradually they migrated to the front room; unfortunately, so did many of the punks. This wasn't a comment on the music, but on the fact that the overhead air conditioners were sending arctic blasts down on those of us who sat or stood huddling and shivering near the stage. I put on my jacket - the first time I'd worn one since early June - and was still freezing. The reason I even had a jacket with me? Well, I'd brought it along because it was only about 65 degrees outside.

"Chadd," I said, "go tell the bartender he can save a lot of money by turning the air conditioning off, and also on the lawsuits by frostbitten customers." Chadd did, and came back to report, "He says he can't because it'll get too hot in the front room." I made disparaging remarks about the bartender being either drunk, insane, or not having set foot outdoors in three days, and threw in a few more rude suppositions about Irishmen being congenitally thick (it's all right, I said, I'm part Irish too). But eventually I gave in and retreated to the front room myself, where I found Chris A and P Smith in a corner making even ruder Irish jokes (again, it's all right; a quick calculation revealed that the three of us added up to 5/4 of a pureblooded Irishman).

Referring to Chris A's Mel Gibson-like protestation that he never would have said, "White people can't dance" had he been sober, P Smith claimed that Chris was now arguing that the Potato Famine had never happened, that it was just a lie perpetrated by the liberal Irish media I admittedly found this hilarious, but surrounded as we were by Irish bartenders and Irish bar patrons, couldn't see it going in a positive direction, so I said so long and headed out into the night.

Out on the street, the temperature was still about 65, maybe a bit less, and it felt positively tropical. I walked up to Grand Central, marveling all the way at what an astounding piece of classical architecture the station is (and how close it came to being torn down a few years ago by the reigning philistines who did succeeed in demolishing Pennsylvania Station), and caught the 7 to the G to make my circuitous way home on the still-lovely New York City subway system (at least they'd turned their air conditioning down).

My last weekend in New York, by the way, at least for a while, and it rained pretty much all the way through. Tonight the humidity is literally 100%. I don't care. I like it here, and will miss it terribly.

25 August 2006

Fresh Meat

One of the many nice things about my street is that it is lined with trees. Lately people seem to have been trying to outdo each other by building ever nicer wooden borders around the tree in front of their house, and someone down at the end of the block recently completed the poshest tree box yet, involving numerous pieces of quality lumber and rising at least a couple feet above the sidewalk.

Possibly someone didn't appreciate his efforts, though, or perhaps there is a stranger or more morbid explanation, but when I walked past today, two hind quarters of some indeterminate animal were sitting there atop the box. Had they come from a butcher shop, or did they belong to a neighborhood dog that had gotten on somebody's nerves one too many times? It was impossible to tell, though it did look like good enough quality meat that I was halfway surprised no one had picked it up, washed it off, and served it to their family for dinner.

I was even more surprised that it didn't appear to have been touched by any of the neighborhood's four-legged creatures, including dogs, rats, or the half dozen cats that appear to live in the front garden of the library. Maybe it hadn't been sitting there that long, I reasoned, but then on the other hand, it had clearly been there long enough for someone to leave a yellow Post-it note next to it saying, "You dropped something."

Journey To The End

Uptown tonight to Times Square, a place that doesn’t normally hold much interest for me, but Rancid were playing the first of four shows at B.B. King’s on 42nd Street. Not a bad joint for what it is, though seeing the “B.B. King” emblazoned on the wall behind the stage kept making me think of the time I saw the real B.B. King (no, he was nowhere in evidence tonight) at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969, and how, when the festival got shut down by the curfew police, he simply packed up his guitar and his side musicians and moved the session over into an unoccupied building on the U of M campus and played on for most of the night. For free, too, I might add.

Anyway, this was the first time I’d seen Rancid in a venue this small (no more than 1,000 capacity, I’d guess, maybe not even that much) since the early 90s. The last two times I’d seen theme were at Roseland up the street, which holds several thousand, and at the Reading Festival, in front of more like 50,000. In a setting like the latter, the spectacle of it all often supersedes the music, so tonight was a twofold revelation, or maybe just reminder of what I probably knew all along: just how great the guys are as musicians and showmen, and what an amazing catalog of songs they’ve compiled over the last – what is it? – 14 or 15 years.

They even threw in an Operation Ivy song, as apparently they’ve been doing at various points during this tour. Tonight it was “Unity,” which sent the crowd absolutely wild, and brought up some intense emotions on the part of yours truly. I mean, I try to act all blasé about having seen Op Ivy however times, about playing with them up at Arcata and at their very last show at Gilman (their last official show, I should point out; not so many people know they played one more show in Eggplant’s backyard the following day for 50 or 100 of their friends), but sometimes it’s kind of exciting to think about. And never so much so as when Rancid blasts into “Journey To The End Of The East Bay,” the musical autobiography of Operation Ivy and the whole amazing, exhilarating, heartbreaking epoch that was (actually, still is) Gilman Street. A thousand people punching the air and singing along with every word, Tim talking about how it was "sacred ground for me," and then socking you with the punch line: “What you gonna do when everybody goes on without you?”

That one hit me hard tonight. Sometimes I feel exactly that way, that everyone else I ever knew has gone on with their lives while I’m stuck in some nostalgic time capsule reminiscing about the good old days or hoping that some new thing will come along that’s sort of enough like the good old days than I can kind of fuzz over the discrepancies and the absences.

But that’s just a feeling, and like all feelings, it passes. Yeah, maybe my life isn’t as glamorous or exciting or as rich or as sensational as I might like to think it should be, but it’s a pretty good life nonetheless. Maybe things seem a little quiet these days, but remembering the chaos I’ve dwelt in for so much of my life, I should be grateful for that. And also remind myself that through all the best and the worst times, the memorable and the eminently forgettable, I seldom had more than the vaguest clue of what was happening or where I was going until it was past and I was somewhere well down the road. No reason things should be any different today. Anyway, good show, Rancid. And when Lars introduced Matt as “the greatest fucking bass player in the world,” I was like, oh yeah, I’d almost forgotten, but yeah, he is.

Great Kills

In England, it’s standard practice for hundreds of thousands of people to spend their free time by taking a train somewhere out into the country and then walking five or ten or fifteen miles to the next town before catching the next train back. As you’ll know, of course, if you’ve been following my past blog posts about the West Country Walking Society.

That sort of activity seems a lot less common, if not downright eccentric here in the USA, but yesterday I was able to pull off an English-style expedition to the country, even if it did require taking three trains and one boat, and several miles of walking. All, I might add, without ever leaving New York City.

I spotted Great Kills Park, part of the Gateway National Park, on the map, and it looked reasonably close to the Great Kills train station. It also looked as though it had some nice beaches, so I got out my trusty mini-backpack and hopped the L and the W to the Staten Island Ferry and then on to the somewhat grandiosely named Staten Island Railway. What it is in reality is a sort of clapped-out version of a New York subway line – I think it’s where they send trains to die when they’re too old and decrepit to use on regular lines anymore.

People often say the G line, running between Queens and Brooklyn, gets no respect because it is the sole line that never touches Manhattan, but they’re wrong. The Staten Island line also never touches Manhattan (or any other borough of note), and gets far less respect. It’s dirty, only runs once every half hour, and is the only New York train line I’ve seen in more than a decade with significant amounts of graffiti.

But never mind that; it still gets you where you want to go, even if when you get there, it turns out not to be where you wanted to go at all. I mean, not to keep harping on England, but as bad as the trains can be there, it’s pretty typical for them to drop you off close to major destinations like castles or national parks or other tourist attractions, and also pretty typical for them to have a station named after or at least related to the attraction in question.

Not so with Great Kills (a kill, by the way, is a creek or a stream; sorry to disappoint you if you thought that Fresh Kills, also on Staten Island was a giant open-air abattoir or buzzard feeding ground); apparently it’s just the name of the town or district, and there were no signs pointing the way to the park, no sign, in fact that it even existed.

Luckily meandering around the English countryside has endowed me with a certain sense of direction, plus Staten Island is small enough that if you keep walking you’re bound to hit water sooner or later, which is what I did. Unfortunately, although it was the right ocean (bay, whatever), I was nowhere near the park, but I found it eventually by cutting across fields, through a whole row of private yacht clubs, and at one point into a swamp with cattails towering over my head.

So was it worth it? Well, I was definitely out in the country, the air was fresh and sweet, and apart from the moron who parked his motorcycle nearby and kept it idling so that he would have to shout louder during his half-hour conversation with another moron, awfully quiet and peaceful. The beach wasn’t bad, either, apart from a couple flaws. For one, it seemed like you had to walk out about half a mile to get in over your head. Fine for children and short people, but not so great for me. It might be all right at high tide.

The other thing, which actually made it unbearable to sit on the beach for more than a few minutes, is the horde of biting black flies that zooms in on you the minute you stop moving. I noticed other people lounging around – not many, though; at points it looked like one of those deserted tropical beaches you see in a travel agent poster, minus the palm trees, of course – so maybe they were immune to the flies, or oblivious, or maybe they had some kind of bug repellent. When I got home that night, I bought some, but will have to wait till my next beach visit to see if it works.

So I had only a brief swim before I had to flee inland, and then I started hiking the length of the park, mostly along the seashore, though stupendous amounts of trash which I assume has floated in on the tide from other environs, because I can’t imagine people going to the trouble of hauling it all to a national park and dumping it there. There were also some amazing peat bogs which I thought I might sink into and be lost forever, but didn’t, and the shells of some enormous sea creatures with fearsome-looking claws.

Eventually I was out of the park altogether without really noticing it had ended until the beach and the peat bogs sort of dissolved into impenetrable swamps, at which point I was able to clamber over huge piles of rocks and bricks and then a decaying wooden retaining wall and finally came to a gravel road that led me out through a forest and deposited me right back in the middle of suburbia. Following the advice of a fisherman, I found my way – after another couple miles – back to the railway station I probably should have gotten off at in the first place, and was on my way back to Brooklyn with aching feet and a little bit of a suntan.

At The Gym

The gym I go to is not one of the posh uptown gyms, or even one of the posh downtown gyms. It's not even a posh Brooklyn gym; it's a little grimy, machines are always breaking down, and the customers... Well, let's just say you won't be spotting too many celebrities there.

But it's cheap and relatively cheerful, and does pretty much what a gym is supposed to do. And most of the time if I go early enough, I practically have the place to myself, which is nice. But starting about 9:30 am, the place gets taken over by a gang, er, group of youngish men, maybe in their late 20s, early 30s, max. You can tell the minute they hit the front door, long before you've seen them: somebody yells, "Turn that shit UP!" and suddenly the background music switches from gym disco to hardcore rap and quadruples in volume. If you happen to be listening to you iPod, might as well switch it off and save the batttery, because you're won't be able to hear it anyway.

Then these guys – there’s usually five or six of them – spread out and pretty much take over the gym, monopolizing most of the machines and the free weights, even though they do more standing around talking and flexing their muscles than actual exercising. There’s one guy in particular who seems to be the ringleader. He’s sort of a cross between Tony Manero and Tony Danza, only less good-looking and with a bigger mouth. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy at all, but he’s one of those people who has to make a lot of noise just to let you (and maybe himself) know he’s alive.

Instead of just lifting weights, he slams them together, and then slams them into the ground when he’s finished, letting loose at the same time with an ear-piercing “YOW!” or “What it is, what it is!” before shouting at one of his buddies across the room, “You gonna lift that shit or you gonna sit there staring at it?”

His buddies are mostly Italian or Puerto Rican, though a couple of them are dark enough to have some African in them, and the other morning, one of the darker ones was standing next to Tony, who in turn was on a bench right next to me. I was concentrating on my weights and not looking at them, but I couldn’t help hearing the buddy let loose with something to the effect of, “So, I’m like, nigger, don’t tell me that shit, and the nigger’s like, I ain’t telling you no shit, so I told the motherfucking nigger to keep his nigger-ass shit out my motherfucking way” – you get the picture.

I found this kind of bemusing; here’s an African-American talking to an Italian and using the word “nigger” on an average of every three seconds, and then when Tony gets a chance to get a word in edgewise, he’s saying “nigger” right back with similar frequency. Times have definitely changed, I thought, and was reminded of the Italian guy who was recently sentenced to 15 years for beating up a car thief while calling him a nigger. The use of the racial epithet made it a hate crime, you see, even though the Italian guy tried unsuccessfully to defend himself by claiming there was nothing racist about his use of the word; that was just how “everybody” talked.

So did he have a point, I wondered? Just then I got up and noticed that the guy I’d thought was African-American probably wasn’t at all, but instead was just another Italian with a very dark suntan. That put things in a different light, I guess, even though both guys were chattering away with not just the slang but the intonation of anybody you might hear hanging out down in the ghetto. With your eyes closed, you’d never have a clue they were anything but black.

Still, my philosophy has generally been that if black people want to use the word “nigger,” that’s their right, but I’d just as soon white people avoid it. It may be common parlance these days, but I think there’s still too many people to whom that word is just plain painful. So my opinion of Tony and his buddies turned downward a notch or two.

Then minutes later a song came on the radio featuring a Donna Summer sample, and Tony literally shrieked. “Yo girl,” he shouted up at the front desk, “that’s my song, girl,” and sang along in an ear-piercing falsetto. The thing was, the “girl” he was addressing at the front desk was actually a guy, an enormous body builder guy, actually, who is as black as the ace of spades, as camp as Christmas, and gay as the Fourth of July.

So what’s up with that? I’d figured Tony as 100% hetero, and maybe at least a residual racist, yet here he is singing along with Donna Summer and dishing the “girl” dirt with Mr. Big Black Gay Bodybuilder. And nobody apart from me seems to think this is the slightest bit unusual. Actually, I’ve been in Brooklyn long enough now that I shouldn’t either.

21 August 2006

Little Russia By The Sea

I actually saw Matthew Broderick in the lead role of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoir, exactly where, why or how, I can't quite remember, but it was when Matthew was just beginning to look too old for teenage roles. It was probably in San Francisco in the 1970s, which is the last time I did any serious theater-going, but never mind; I only mention it because today I visited the real Brighton Beach, way out there at the end of the B and Q lines.

Which in turn put me in mind of England, because there's a chain of DIY (home improvement) stores called B&Q, sort of along the lines of Home Depot, and their advertising slogan is, "You can do it if you B&Q it." Another even more obvious thing that reminded me of England was going to Brighton Beach; the main difference being that the train to Brighton from London costs £16 ($30) return while the fare in New York is a mere $4 (£2.20), or nothing at all if you already have a Metrocard. Either way the trip takes about an hour. Another difference is that New York's Brighton Beach consists of about a quarter-mile wide strip of whitish sand mingled with cigarette butts and broken glass while Brighton's Brighton Beach is nothing but rocks with little broken glass in evidence.

Which brings up the question: since it's obviously a great deal harder to break a bottle on sand than on rocks, how did all the glass get on New York's beach? Did someone go to the trouble of breaking bottles back in the parking lot, then sweep up the pieces and carry them hundreds of yards to scatter them on the beach, all for the sake of keeping up New York's hard-ass image? Anyway, it made walking barefoot a great adventure which I probably won't repeat next time, even though I made it with the soles of my feet intact.

Still another difference or two: the water here was reasonably warm. Not tropical, but comfortable. Maybe in the mid-70s (low to mid-20s C), whereas in England it never gets out of the teens (50s to low 60s F). On the other hand, the water seemed cleaner in England, but that may only be because it's so chilly that few people stay in it long enough to scatter their litter about.

In any event, it was nice to get to the beach again; I think it was my first time this summer, whereas last summer (which was actually last January, February and March, because I was in Australia) I went to the beach almost every day. But let's face it; New York City's beach scene, pleasant enough as it is, doesn't exactly compare to Sydney's. Still, I'm going to go back, maybe tomorrow, and this time I'm going to walk from Brighton Beach to Coney Island. I would have done it today, once I saw the inspiring sight of the Coney Island Parachute Jump, aka "The Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn," off in the distance, but it was getting too late in the day and I had to hop on the old B train back to Manhattan.

Oh yeah, Brighton Beach also advertises itself as "Little Russia By The Sea" for obvious reasons: practically everything on the main drag is in Russian, and it's also what most of the people are speaking. Walking along under the elevated train tracks thus comes across as both a time and culture warp. It's kind of reminiscent of New York in the 1950s or 60s, if New York had been relocated to the Black Sea and communism never existed, but I think I'm stretching now.

Also noted: very cheap house prices and rents, at least as compared to anywhere else in New York, which may spell the beginning of the end of Russian hegemony, because quite a few Mexicans seemed to be moving in. On a couple blocks the music and the homeboys hanging out made it feel more like the Mission than little Volgograd. Anyway, a good day out, and now I'm exhausted (lying around in the sun takes a lot out of a guy) and going straight to bed.

20 August 2006

Snakes Over Astoria

Would I have rushed out to see Snakes On A Plane the first weekend - or at all - if it hadn't been the focal point of Oliver's birthday celebration? Probably not, but I'm glad I did. Even still, I wasn't expecting to see it twice, especially not in the same day, but that too was part of the program, which I will crudely attempt to summarize as: go to afternoon showing of SoaP and memorize all the dumb/smart bits, figure out when to throw plastic snakes and planes into the air and when to shout and cheer, then go to the Astoria Beer Garden to get drunk, then return to the cinema for the late night showing during which we would make obnoxious asses of ourselves as apparently is being done all over the country in what is either a stunning, grass-roots phenomenon or one of the most clever and insidious bits of media manipulation in our times. Probably both, come to think of it.

Since I don't drink, I wasn't expecting to enjoy the Beer Garden all that much, and had no intention at all of going along for the late night repeat visit to the cinema. I figured I hang out for an hour or two, then make a graceful (well, that part's unlikely, knowing me) exit and head into the city or back home. And since it started raining shortly after we got to the Beer Garden, things looked even less promising, even though we (my half of the table, anyway) was safely sequestered under a tarp which dripped water onto the luckless other side. Rain or not, the place was packed with enthusiastic revelers, including one braying and shrieking female just behind us who could barely contain her enthusiasm, especially when the cover band launched into "I Want You To Want Me," prompting a Footloose-style frenzy on the dance floor, something which apparently almost never happens at the Beer Garden.

The quality of both the music and the dancing diminished as the evening went on, prompting an increasingly sozzled Chris A to grumble, "White people can't dance." "Quit being racist," I demanded, to which he responded, "How is that racist?" he said, "Just look at those people."

True, there were some egregious examples of the terpsichorean arts being exhibited by the 99% white crowd, but I still maintained he was being racist, no matter how white he himself is. "Okay, what if I say, 'Black people can't go to college'?" There were several sharp intakes of breath in the vicinity, and a bit of head-swiveling to see if I'd inadvertently offended anyone, but Chris, sporting fellow that he is, was willing to concede that I had a point.

Chris, like myself, was not planning on going to the late-night showing of SoaP, but as the evening wore on, there seemed less and less reason not to (apart from the $10.50 ticket price, of course). I don't know what finally persuaded him, but in my own case, I didn't want to miss the excitement when a wildly enthusiastic Chadd Derkins let loose with the bagful of plastic snakes he (okay, a number of us) had been playing with all afternoon to the delight and/or consternation of the crowd around us.

It turned out to be pretty low-key after all; the theater wasn't as crowded as we'd anticipated, and our nearest neighbors didn't look all that into the burlesque or Rocky Horror elements we'd planned. I was especially bemused by the Hispanic family next to me, who'd brought not only their two year-old daughter, but a nursing infant with them. One of the afternoon's arguments had been over whether the filmmakers had wussed out by not having the on-screen baby bitten or eaten by the giant anaconda, but considering the six or nine month old child at my elbow - who actually sat up, watched, and seemed to enjoy much of the film - it didn't seem like a good argument to revisit.

Anyway, to summarize: 10 hours, $21 on two theater admissions, $0 spent at the Beer Garden, and six separate train rides (G, 7, N x2 each) to get from Brooklyn to Queens and back again, all add up to a successful outing and suitable celebration of Oliver's birthday, even if I did just find out by reading his blog that the birthday was almost a month ago instead of the day before yesterday as I'd thought. Now I don't feel nearly so bad about not bringing his ass a present.

19 August 2006

Snakes On A Cometbus

Surely it's a heretical mingling of the sublime and profane to juxtapose one of America's longest-runing and most fiercely independent fanzines with the mass-media viral marketing hysteria which will succeed in dragging me and millions of my fellow Americans into the movie theaters this weekend.

But there you go. With nothing special to look forward to this weekend except Oliver's Snakes On A Birthday party (which promises to be very special indeed), I was lurking around the cave, er, apartment tonight when a phone call came from the elusive Mr. Cometbus, saying he was off to Manhattan to distribute copies of his new issue (Cometbus #50, the 25th anniversary edition), and did I want to come along?

Certainly, I said, and volunteered to meet him nearby so I could help him carry boxes, but with typical Cometbus vagueness and inscrutability, he insisted I meet him on a seemingly obscure street corner on the Upper West Side. It turned out to be across the street from the Seinfeld restaurant, which I found mildly enthralling, but left Aaron, not someone you would call a keen TV watcher, distinctly underwhelmed. We dropped copies off at a couple bookshops, then retreated to a cafe near Columbia where I could have sworn I'd seen Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in The Way We Were. Possibly not, but it looked very familiar even though I'm pretty sure I've never been there before.

Then we set off to walk "a little way" along the river, according to Aaron's plan. Now there's something you need to know about traveling with Aaron, or at least something you used to need to know. Let's say, for example, you were driving up California's Central Valley from LA and saw a road sign with two arrows, one that pointed west to Berkeley, the other east to Reno. Now which way would you go, assuming that your intention was to arrive in Berkeley sometime in the near future?

If you'd ever ridden in a car or, better yet, a tour van, with A. Cometbus, you'd know, of course, that the answer would be "Reno." Not because he had any desire to go to Reno, but because following the road to Reno would, in his judgment, provide a more "interesting" way of getting to Berkeley. Of course if you had a third option available, a sign pointing straight ahead and labeled, "Trackless Infernal Wastes From Which Few If Any Have Ever Returned," well, you don't need to ask...

The point is that any trip with Aaron was likely to turn into an unpredictable adventure, something which he usually seemed to enjoy much more than whoever else got dragged along with him. But times have changed. After a beautiful walk through Riverside Park, Aaron started edging toward the subway at 79th Street. There were still more copies of Cometbus to deliver in Williamsburg. "Let's stick by the river for a while, it looks like it's going to be a beautiful sunset. Maybe we can catch the train at 59th street," I said. "Or Times Square," I muttered under my breath. It was too nice a night to be hopping right back on a train.

Then, once we'd got down by the river again, I said, "Why don't we just walk all the way down to 14th Street and catch the L to Williamsburg there?" We'd walked about an hour when Aaron said, "Wait, we've totally changed places. It used to always be me trying to lead everyone astray, and now I'm the one trying to get things done and take care of business while you're the one fucking up the program." Interesting, I thought. And true.

Anyway, we finally got to Williamsburg after a couple more adventures on stupid subway trains (the B and the D, in case you're interested) that stopped at every podunk station down the West Side and then skipped the one station that any sensible train would stop at, 14th Street, and were of course too late to drop off the magazines because the store had already closed. After standing around for about 15 minutes in hopes that it would magically open again, and arguing whether walking from South Williamsburg to North Williamsburg meant you were going "up" or "down" the street (the answer is "up," of course; just look at your globe and see whether the North Pole is up at the top or down at the bottom), actually did walk up (or down, as Aaron would have it) to North Williamsbug, where we met a kid from Long Island.

For some reason Aaron told him about my plan to start a scene war between Brooklyn and Queens, and he said, "You mean the Queens pop-punk kids? Chadd Derkins and Grivet and Grath and all those guys?" It was the first time I realized knowledge of the Pop Punk Clique had penetrated so deep into the heart of Williamsburg, and while I marveled over this, Aaron took the opportunity to slip off into the night, as is his wont. I was left holding the bag of Cometbuses, which I guess it's going to be my responsibility to deliver tomorrow en route to Snakes On A... that movie. Then I went and curled up in a booth at the diner and read about half of the new issue. It's a classic, I reckon.

That #*^$@&%#@ Cube

Many of my New York friends get a kick out of my near-irrational antipathy for the piece of abstract art, generally known as "The Cube," that has been rather pointlessly hanging about in Astor Place since my own days as an annoying, stoned-out, St. Mark's Place hippie scrounger back in 1968.

To be fair, The Cube is not completely pointless; it's provided endless hours of amusement to several generations of stoned and drunk hippies and punks who've sat at its base, gaped upward at it, and in their more energetic intervals, spun it around on its axis. Alternatively, on those occasions when the axis jammed and The Cube would turn no more, they could ponder whether it had actually ever turned, or if they had merely hallucinated the experience.

But just what when I had begun once more to make my peace with The Cube, I chanced upon a plaque installed at its base. The thing, it turns out, is not called The Cube after all, but The Alamo. The Alamo? What the hell does the Alamo have to do with a pretentious, pointless piece of "sculpture" that somebody hornswoggled the City into acccepting as a "donation?" I donate pieces of junk to the City every week via my trash can, but nobody feels compelled to set them up in the middle of a heavily traveled intersection. When I think of the Alamo, I think of Mexicans and massacres and Davy Crockett, not big black steel boxes. And speaking of which, before it was renamed "Alamo" (by the artist's wife, moved by its "imposing size and impenetrable strength;" unfortunately for the Texans slaughtered there by Santa Ana, the original Alamo was slightly less impenetrable than the #*^$@&%#@ Cube), the Astor Place Monstrosity was called "Sculpture In Environment."

You want to know how lame it is to have to name your alleged sculpture "Sculpture"? It's like painting a picture and titling it "Art." Obviously you're concerned that if you don't tell somebody that it's supposed to be sculpture, some untutored doofus will leap to the obvious conclusion that it's nothing but a big black box.

But no sense stewing about it now. The City has just splashed out $37,000 on restoring The Cube to its original non-existent glory, and it will probably be with us for centuries to come. The best we can hope for is that more people like these folks will periodically apply themselves to redecorating it. Ideally with Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak.

And Tell Me What Street...

I almost forgot to note that my new internet shoes are also waterproof, which came in very handy on my walk around Lower Manhattan with Chris A and P Smith. Not for walking through puddles, as we've had very little rain lately, but for navigating the more-flooded-than-usual bathroom floor in Ray's Pizza on 3rd Avenue.

That was our next-to-last stop on a peripatetic ramble that took us from Union Square, down along the East River nearly to Wall Street, and, via a series of seemingly aimless zigzags past Chinatown, through Little Italy, Soho, the Bowery and the East Village, back to Union Square. I'm not too keen on Union Square myself, though it's popular with the Astoria crew; I finally concluded that there was no rational explanation for this devotion apart from the fact that it's the first thing they see when they get off the subway from Queens. I, on the other hand, usually get off a the corner of 1st Avenue and 14th Street, but as have yet have formed no unnatural attachment to that intersection.

I've also realized that the reason Union Square leaves me cold, or at least cool, is not just that it functions as an open-air makeout chamber for NYU students with uncooperative roommates, but that it's on the wrong side of 14th Street. It may seem like a small detail (probably because it is), but 14th Street is the line of demarcation between Downtown and Everything Else. Manhattan is a wondrous isle, all right, but the farther north one goes, the more stretched and vapid it risks becoming. Yes, it is replete with marvels, but many of these marvels are separated from one another by block after block of colorless, anonymous megaliths and their similarly colorless, anonymous occupants. Would I live there nonetheless if I could afford it? Yes, maybe if you twisted my arm, but since that's unlikely to happen, I'll go on sneering.

I'm also disappointed to learn that "peripatetic" may not, as I was informed the other day, mean "wandering at great length only to arrive back where one began," because that takes a bit of the peripatetic-ness out of our ramble's having begun and ended at Union Square. But minor cavils aside, it was a brilliant night out, the weather was perfect (as it has been almost every day lately), and it was topped off by a black-and-white (chocolate and vanilla swirled) cone from my favorite ice cream emporium in the city, the Belgian Fries (they're hideous and smelly and repulsive, don't buy them) joint on Avenue A between 7th and 8th, across from Tompkins Square.

For Chris A, however, the highlight must have come earlier when a moderately dazzling blond model crossed paths with us on a Soho sidewalk just as some beefy besuited businessman type was trying to pick her up (well, that's how I interpreted it, anyway). Once she was out of earshot, Chris could barely contain his excitement as he told us that she was someone called Alison from the TV show Project Runway, of whom and which Chris is an avid fan. And, as P Smith somewhat waspishly observed, possibly the only straight male in existence about whom that could be said.

This reference to Chris A's flagrant metrosexuality must have tipped me over the edge, because I started singing - or trying to sing, as I couldn't quite remember the words - to Rodgers and Hart's "Manhattan." You know, "We'll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too..." etc., etc. The line that got me started was, "And tell me what street compares to Mott Street, in July? Sweet pushcarts gently gliding by," inspired by P Smith's more than slightly squeamish aversion to the various smells that have apparently been wafting forth from said street for a century or more.

But though my vocal efforts didn't meet with unanimous approbation - despite Chris A and P Smith being too well-bred to do more than grimace, they managed to make clear their utter lack of enthusiasm - I do suggest you click on the link to check out the full four verses of that classic tune. The couplet, "We'll go to Yonkers, where true love conquers," one of the 20th century's more strenuous lyrical stretches, is by itself worth the price of admission.

My Internet Shoes

Maybe it's only because the majority of my life unfolded before anyone had even heard of the internet, let alone understood what it might be good for, but it took me a long time to accept the idea of shopping online for shoes.

Airplane and concert tickets, sure, books, no problem. I even bought a laptop for myself and a DVD player for my brother over the internet. But shoes? That somehow seemed too personal, too intimate, almost. As a child, going to the shoe store to get my feet measured and the right pair of shoes fitted ("right" in my parents' minds; virtually never in mine) was almost akin to a visit to the doctor or the dentist, albeit slightly less painful.

This was mainly because I had to wear "special" shoes because of my flat feet. Or at least my father had been convinced I did, though he was always suspicious that he was being sold a bill of goods, and always bewildered me by muttering a string of anti-Semitic imprecations against that nice Mr. Cutler every time we left the shoe store, having just unloaded another $25 on a pair of oxblood clodhoppers that I'd no doubt outgrow in three or four months.

If $25 seems like nothing for a pair of shoes, bear in mind that a typical pair in those days cost four or five bucks, and a pair of Keds, which I was never allowed to wear, no matter how I pleaded, a mere two or three. My father once calculated that he had about a thousand bucks invested in my feet, so you can imagine how thrilled he was when I chucked out my expensive orthopedic shoes in favor of flimsy, support-less Converse All-Stars.

And for about 20 years I happily wore Converse or even cheaper, flimsier sneakers while doing no visible damage to my feet. If they'd ever been flat, they didn't seem to be now, and even if they were, I could easily walk ten or more miles without any discomfort. Then came that fateful night at Gilman, New Year's Eve, it was, when 1987 went into 1988. I was kneeling on the side of the stage watching either Operation Ivy or Isocracy when an enormous fat kid came flying out of the audience and landed on my back, bending my big toe backward and breaking it.

I refused to believe it was broken, which really meant I refused to go the emergency room to get it X-rayed because that would cost a few hundred bucks I didn't have. So I tried to walk off the pain, and continued to do so for the next fifteen years, still wearing those accursed Converse All-Stars, until I could no longer walk more than a half mile without experiencing excruciating agony. When I finally dragged myself to a doctor, he ordered me to throw out my Converse and never wear them again, prescribed expensive orthotic inserts, and gave me a very short list of acceptable footwear that I'd be allowed to wear henceforth.

So I'd gone full circle, back to wearing "special" (and expensive) shoes. Yeah, they mostly looked kind of lame, or at least kind of meh, but on the bright side, I could walk again. 15, even 20 miles, without much discomfort. But they're hard to find, and have been getting harder, so after six months of searching shoe stores in San Francisco, London and New York, I finally resorted to the internet, where it took me about 15 minutes to find these semi-stylish (well, I like them just fine) Asolo sneakers (trainers to you Brits) and another minute or two to order them.

They took a while to arrive, but when they did, I took them out of the box, slipped them on, and immediately went for a five or ten mile walk with Chris A and P Smith. Insane? Perhaps, but they fit perfectly, felt like I'd been wearing them all my life, and never caused me a moment's discomfort in all that walking. The closest thing to an awkward footwear moment was when the laces inadvertently came untied ("Better send them back," P Smith advised). In other words, I love my new internet shoes and may never set foot in a shoe store again.

15 August 2006

Defiance, Ohio

Back in the mid-1980s, around the time the Lookouts and I first crawled out of the Mendocino mountains, I was hyping the idea of a counterculture fusion that would draw on the best qualities of both hippie and punk. This of course was at a time when I still believed that hippies had some good qualities.

As usual, it turned out to be a case of being careful what you wish for. In the intervening couple decades, several sub-subcultures have sprung up on the punk scene that are barely distinguishable from hippies, although to be fair, most of the OG hippies were cleaner and smelled better. I'm especially thinking of the Plan-it X Punx ("If it ain't cheap, it ain't punk" appears to be the motto of the record label at the heart of their scene), also sometimes known as bike punks.

On the surface, they might appear to be what the Australians refer to as "ferals," determined to strip away the affectations and detritus of 2,000 years of Western civilization, a horde of New Visigoths on bikes instead of horseback. But apart from their crimes against fashion and sanitation (dreadlocks? still? the better part of a decade into the 21st century?), they're a rather peaceful and idealistic lot. Their rampant marijuana consumption no doubt has something to do with this, but so do their hippie-anarchist ideals. In his description of one of the Plan-it X bands, founder Chris rhapsodizes about "the anarchist anthems that hopefully our children will be singing on our communes in 30 years." If experience is any guide, those children will probably be wearing neckties and voting Republican as a way of sticking it to the old man, but it's a sweet thought anyway.

All this is a roundabout introduction to Defiance, Ohio, a band I saw twice tonight. Early in the evening played for free in Tompkins Square Park to a crowd that was equal parts charming and scary. The kids - and I use the term literally rather than ironically for once - were hopping around madly, doing syncopated handclaps, and singing along louder than the band, while the crusty dreadlocked 20 and 30-somethings smoked their spliffs and stumbled gracelessly around in what was otherwise a lighthearted and freeform pit. The truly scary sight was the 80 year-old hippies lurking around the edge, getting stoned and drunk with the dead-eyed élan of people who haven't done much but get older for the past 40 or 50 years. There were a couple I swear I'd seen during my own Tompkins Square days circa 1968, including one counterculture patriarch-cum-drunken stumblebum sporting a "Brigade Rossi" t-shirt, complete with star and Uzi as he sucked on a thumb-sized joint and gulped down a Foster's oil can. For the younger folks among you, Brigade Rossi refers to the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist organization in the 1970s and 80s, and wearing their t-shirt would be roughly equivalent to wearing an al Qaeda t-shirt today. That being said, I've just been reminded that in the film Rude Boy, the Clash's Joe Strummer is seen making his own Brigade Rossi t-shirt. Of course Strummer was also a major pothead, so maybe there's a common thread here.

End of digression; despite the less than charming aspects of some of their audience, despite the frightening awfulness of some of the opening bands (the klezmer-punk had Carla running for cover), Defiance, Ohio were absolutely brilliant. They're kind of more rootsy Crimpshrine, or, as I thought later, a cross between Crimpshrine and the Pogues, if the Pogues were from Appalachian America instead of Ireland. When I heard they were playing again later in my neighborhood, at an "art space" called Maiden Brooklyn (I don't mean to sneer at art, but it looked suspiciously like any number of back rooms, lofts and warehouses where I've been seeing underground shows for the past 20 or 30 years, i.e., trashed. Suitably enough, it was next door to the Trash Bar, and across the street from some other rather trendy nightspot featuring "keyboard karaoke."

One of the night's more touching scenes was when a miniskirt-clad tout (female) from the karaoke bar ventured over to our side of the street to try and drum up some business. "Hey, you look like some nice skinny hipsters," she said to a scruffy knot of punks standing near me, and proceeded to tell them about how cool it would be to show some love for the keyboard karaoke scene. "What's going on here, anyway? Some kind of party? A show?" She was clearly rattled and sad at the 200 or so kids standing about on what, from her point of view, was the wrong side of the street, while her bar stood nearly empty.

Realizing she wasn't going to get anywhere with this bunch (they probably weren't even old enough to legally enter her bar anyway), she moved on, leaving the punklets to wonder what she'd wanted. "Dude, she called us skinny hipsters, and I'm not even skinny," said one (he wasn't; in fact he was unusually chubby for a bike punk) (speaking of which, there were so many bikes lining the sidewalks of Grand Street that late arrivals had to look two blocks away to chain theirs up). This led to a discussion of why she would have mistaken them for hipsters, which in turn seguéd into the question of whether there was such a thing as fat goths. Two words, I said: Robert Smith and/or the singer of the Funeral Crashers, provided they can be shown not to be the same person. Okay, neither of them is actually fat, but neither of them could be said to be featuring the emaciated look this season, either.

Whoa, more digressions. I'd been lingering around on the sidewalk for the longest time in hopes someone I knew would come along, but no Aaron Cometbus, no Jonathan Tesnakis, not even JoeIII, who you'd think would be all over a gig like this. If it hadn't been for some kid who recognized me - don't know how, possibly from when I was on TV last year - I would have had no one to talk to at all. Which was no problem, really, what with all the entertaining conversations to listen in on.

The one drawback of the gig, as is usually the case with these anarchist-hippie-punk things, is that it took forever for anything to happen. They'd be playing at nine o'clock, Defiance, Ohio announced back in Tompkins Square; by ten o'clock neither of the opening bands had played a note. I was able to walk home, change my clothes (putting on my vintage-1988 Crimpshrine shirt on the theory that it might help conjure up A. Cometbus - he always gets annoyed or at least uncomfortable when he sees me in it), answer my e-mail, talk on the phone to Kendra and Dr. Frank who were co-hosting a show on KALX in Berkeley, walk back to the club via the scenic (i.e., I went the wrong way) route, and Defiance, Ohio still hadn't started playing. I stood around for almost another hour before they did, and they stood around for almost that long between each song. The Ramones they were not, but it didn't matter. The songs they did play were so great that I forgot all about the fact that I was standing in a superheated sweatbox with a horde of hyperactive adolescents, many of whom hadn't bathed all summer and some of whom may not have bathed since last summer. As much as I've loved the ultra-neat and clean pop punk shows I've seen lately, this had a charm all its own. If the Baltimore Fest was like early Gilman, this show was like one of the warehouse or garage shows where the Gilman kids went when they didn't feel like behaving. Or one of Eggplant's legendary backyard shows. Fun times. And good on you, Defiance, Ohio.

14 August 2006

Downtown, Further Downtown And All Around

Okay, Tuesday. Yes, almost a week ago. That was my big walking day, and it seems to have left me drained and enervated ever since.

I started out at the gym, where I did 4.2 miles on the cross trainers. I don't know how accurate those things are, because I've never run that far in real life, but it made me tired anyway. Then it was off to the city, where I was to meet Mr. Blackandgold, who I only know from the Pop Punk Message Board. I'm pretty sure his screen name comes from a fondness for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only team whose games were shown on the one channel that reached the tiny West Virginia mountain holler where he grew up, and I assume he also has a real name, but after spending a large part of the day with him and covering some ten or fifteen miles on foot, I still have no idea what it is.

After a little confusion in finding each other - "I've never been on a train before," he told me, which I thought was downright exotic and/or mind-boggling - we started out from Union Square and wandered through the Lower East Side and all the way down the East River till we got down near the Brooklyn Bridge, at which point we zigzagged back and forth across Manhattan until we wound up at Battery Park, where he tried to take a picture of one those ridiculous living statues - in this case a flag-draped Statue of Liberty - who indicated in no uncertain terms that he'd better cough up some bucks if he wanted a photo. That made me all the more determined that he should take a picture, whether by hook or crook, because if you dress up like a complete bozo and then stand around in a public place, how can you possibly say people don't have a right to photograph you? Even Madonna doesn't try to get away with that, does she?

But Blackandgold turned out to be far more moderate than his online persona, which is stroppy, right-wing, and borderline racist. If I hadn't sensed that most if not all of that was a put-on, I might have been afraid to meet him, but as it turned out, he was so pleasant and mild-mannered that I was almost - almost, I stress - disappointed. True, he had planned one really annoying prank for New York City: making a sign that read "Iraq Vet, Homeless, Please Help," with which he was planning on begging in front of the World Trade Center. Well, what was the World Trade Center.

I strongly advised against this, not just because of its obvious reprehensibility (need I state that B&G has never been in the military, let alone to Iraq?) but because of its potential consequences. In a city the size of New York, I asked, how long do you think it would be before a genuine Iraq vet came along and started quizzing you about what unit you were in and if yhou knew so-and-so? Or how about some tear-streaked old lady coming up and saying, "My boy died over there, God bless him, so please take this money, it's the last of my pension, but I've got nothing to live for now, so you might as well have it."

I don't know if Mr. B&G took my protests to heart - at the time he merely made jokes about them - but he didn't end up doing his begging stunt. Maybe he just forgot, or maybe by the time we'd taken a long, circuitous meander back uptown he was just too plain tired. Anyway, he was a good and erudite walking companion, and I only feel bad that many of the places I led him through weren't all that distinguished or historical as opposed to a lot of big buildings with traffic running between them. But then that's a big part of what people come to New York for anyway, isn't it?

I was on my way back home to rest when, wouldn't you know it, a call came from Aaron Cometbus inviting me to, what else, go for a long walk around Brooklyn. It's seldom enough that I see him, especially now that he's in the midst of producing the first new issue of his magazine in quite a while, so I didn't want to pass up the opportunity. It was a full moon, and a perfect night for walking, so we covered a lot of ground, finally ending up in McCarren Park as it was getting on toward midnight, only to find the place absolutely crammed with people running laps, playing games, or (mostly) just hanging out. I told him about how I'd been there the previous Sunday and discovered a disturbing (or perhaps charming, depending how you look at it) new trend: youngish Williamsburg hipsters taking up the sport of bocce ball, normally played by grumpy old Italian men. I couldn't even tell if they were being ironic or serious, and wouldn't be surprised if they couldn't either.

We still carried on for another mile or two after the park, as there were a lot of earth-shaking subjects to be discussed and settled, most of which ended up having to be postponed for another day or until new information comes in. But overall, a great conclusion to a great day, except, as I said, I've been tired ever since. Not a good sign, I would think; on top of that, I wore out my only pair of shoes, and have been sitting in the house all day waiting for UPS to deliver my new ones. It's now 5:03 pm and UPS can officially be declared unreliable flakes. That's all for now.

Flashes Of You Were Everywhere

It's been a very discombulated week, what with a bit of minor illness, sleeping very irregular hours, and watching much more TV than usual, so my blogging is all out of order, too. I still haven't gotten round to writing about last Tuesday, whereas I've already written about Saturday and whatever day that was that Degrassi: The Next Generation and Green Day's Bullet In A Bible were on, so now it's time to tell you about Friday, which is the day I did something especially daring and left New York City.

Not just New York City, either; I went clean out of state, though "clean" might be the wrong choice of words considering my destination, namely New Jersey. Sorry, Jersey-ites, I know that's an old joke around here, and as it turns out, the little corner of Jersey in which I wound up was very clean, almost enough so to make me nervous after a summer slogging around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

I'm talking, of course, about Hoboken, I've always known was over there somewhere across the Hudson, but had never quite got round to visiting. I'd even made a trip over to Jersey City a couple years back to see some bands - the Copyrights and Steinways, I think it was - but essentially went straight from the PATH station to the club and back again, so saw little of the city except for some big, anonymous-looking buildings and lots of snow.

But that was Jersey City, and Hoboken is a whole different story. It's famous for being the home of Maxwell's, which seems to be one of the country's most popular clubs among the musicians who actually play there, and for a while there was a lot of talk about musicians and artists moving there because it was so much cheaper than New York, yet within ridiculously easy commuting distance.

And that seems to be true, the part about commuting, anyway; I hopped on a train in the West Village and was in Hoboken ten minutes later. Even the fare was a bargain; only $1.50, compared with $2 for the New York subway. And even though Jim Jersey Beat had warned me that Hoboken's bargain real estate prices had been discovered so long ago that they were no longer much of a bargain, they were still about 60 to 70% lower than those in Manhattan, just across the river. In fact you can get some pretty good views of the storied isle as you meander along Frank Sinatra Drive and through Frank Sinatra Park, neither of which is much of anything to look at in itself.

But once you get away from the river and onto Washington Avenue, which seems to be the town's main drag, things get downright picturesque. Too picturesque, almost; the place is starting to seem like one of those time capsule toytowns where everything except the cars and the prices looks as though it hasn't changed in a hundred years. I don't think that's the case with Hoboken, though; I'd guess that it's been through a lot of changes, some of them probably not for better, and was only revived to its present state in the wake of the gentrification that washed over from post-Giuliani New York.

I could be wrong, and I'm sure vociferous Jersey-boosters reading this will let me know if I am (or even if I'm not), but the coats of paint are too fresh on the imposing rows of 19th century tenements-turned-luxury-housing, the flowerboxes and sidewalk cafés all a little too new to carry the full ring of authenticity. But minor cavils aside, it was a very pleasant place, and a look at rental and sale prices at a local real estate agent almost had me convinced I could happily live there. After all, it's closer to Manhattan than most parts of Brooklyn or Queens, one of which will probably end up being my permanent home.

But something didn't seem quite right. As much as I was enjoying walking around, as scenic and nostalgia-inducing as it was, I felt myself growing edgy as the afternoon rolled on. I had to get back to New York before it got much later, I kept telling myself. It wasn't that I felt unsafe, or that I was worried about gettting stranded there, since the trains run all night (but what if there's an earthquake and all the bridges and tunnels collapse, my inner voice nagged). I was reminded of my grandfather, who any time he was out driving, would fret that we'd better get started back before it got dark. But grandpa, we'd argue, it's only 3 o'clock in the afternoon! I know, I know, he'd respond, we don't want to take any chances.

So was I turning into a worrywart old grandpa, or (don't know if this is better or worse) a worrywart New Yorker who breaks out in hives anytime he's outside the city for more than a few hours? Whichever, I knew right then and there that no matter how pleasant or cheap it was in Hoboken, I couldn't live there. Because when it comes down to, it's still Jersey, fer crying out loud.

P.S. For any of you still wondering what the title of this piece has to do with Hoboken, check your Operation Ivy lyrics.

12 August 2006

TV Land

When I took on this apartment sublet I had the choice of whether to take over the cable TV bills or have the thing shut off. Although I haven't had cable since I lived in the Marin County suburbs in 1980, largely because I'm a cheapskate and thought it was too expensive, and although I still think it's way too expensive, I left it on anyway because there was no way I was going to miss the World Cup. Had I stayed in London I could have watched the whole thing for free on the BBC, but life is full of tradeoffs; a monthly Travelcard costs roughly $150 compared with $76 for a New York Metrocard, so right there I've already saved enough to pay the cable bill.

Once the World Cup ended, though, I began to wonder what the point of keeping the cable turned on was. I seldom looked at the TV except to check the weather on New York 1 and to watch the re-broadcast of last year's Premiership matches on the Fox Soccer Channel. I was seldom home in the evenings, and when I did get home I was usually too tired to sit up for long anyway. Plus when I did try flicking through the channels just to see what was on, I was doubly overwhelmed: first by the sheer number of choices - even if most of it was garbage, there's always bound to be something capable of sustaining my interest for a few minutes - and second because the constant commercial interruptions make it almost impossible to stick to a single program for a long (I've noticed, by the way, that the so-called "non-commercial" PBS stations are usually the worst offenders in this regard). I've become spoiled by the complete absence of commercials on the BBC, and even on ITV and Channel Four, where advertising is allowed, it's strictly regulated as to length and scheduling, so it's easy to avoid.

So when I do watch TV, as I've been doing this week since Tuesday's 20+ miles of walking left me feeling too lethargic to go out prowling the streets at night, I find myself trying to watch about five different things at once. I imagine this is what most Americans do, at least those who aren't semi-comatose and don't have the Tivo technology enabling them to skip the adverts, but I'm just guessing. What does bewilder me is how so many Americans I know manage to find time to watch dozens of shows that I have never seen, and watch them assiduously enough to discuss them in great detail. These are people with full-time jobs, mind you; as near as I can tell, one could devote all one's waking hours to watching TV and still not see anywhere near everything that's on offer.

Of course there are those hyperkinetic individuals like Kendra who download all their programs and then watch them at something like 140% of normal speed, while simultaneously playing video games, reading email and talking on the telephone, but I don't think most people operate like that. As for me, I've managed to while away most of tonight flipping back and forth between an evening-long Green Day marathon on Fuse and a weekend-long marathon of DeGrassi: The Next Generation on, um, some other channel nearby. It's the first time I've ever seen this version of DeGrassi, and I have only the vaguest memory of seeing a couple of the original episodes back in whenever it was; it's also the first time I've seen Green Day's Bullet In A Bible, which I'm thinking has to be one of the best concert films ever made. It was followed by interviews with a whole bunch of bands I've never heard of talking about how they listened to Dookie when they were in third grade which in turn caused them to grow up to be punk rockers. So they claim, anyway.

It's all a bit mind-boggling, this universe of unwatched TV at my beck and call. I've never been an anti-TV snob (well, except for brief intervals during my most militant hippie and punk years), but I never found much time to watch it. And not being in America for much of the last 10 years left me even more out of the loop when it comes to the sitcoms and dramas that "everyone" is familiar with. I find myself wondering whether I should set aside several months in which I familiarize myself with what must be hundreds of Seinfeld and Simpsons episodes that I've never seen. And if this would result in my feeling more a part of American society, or if it would turn my brain to complete and utter mush. Probably both, now that I think about it.

Funny Hair And Acting Bored

Although I've been living all summer in Williamsburg, which is pretty much synonymous with hipsterdom, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the times I've set more than a passing foot on Bedford Avenue, our local Champs d'Élysées of bad fashion and worse attitudes.

One of those occasions was this week, on the night of the full moon, which might have had something to do with it. En route to meet Aaron Cometbus (who eventually called and redirected me into the backstreets of South Williamsburg), I had to walk nearly half the length of the Hipster Strip and then stand around as inconspicuously as possible in front of the Verb in hopes that no one would think I belonged there or, worse, was trying to.

But you know, it wasn't as bad as I make it out to be. Most of the people on the street were just your typical angst-ridden 20-somethings going about their typically angst-ridden 20-something business of falling in or out of love and/or creating bad poetry/songs/paintings/dialogue about it. Certainly nothing I haven't been guilty in far more decades than my 20s.

In fact it was a very pleasant night, with just the mildest of breezes accompanying the dazzlingly rotund moon as it sauntered over the rooftops, turned the mostly empty side streets an unearthly silvery white, and sent my dyspeptic musings running for cover. It was then I remembered why I'd started brooding about hipsters in the first place: it was the first sight I'd witnessed as I'd turned into Bedford Avenue: a slightly - no, slightly more than slightly - pudgy girl, 25 going on 40, standing at the curbside in her slinky-slutty housewife's dress, her makeup and her face vying for supremacy in the hard-boiled egg contest, her hair unsure whether it wanted to defy good taste, gravity, or common sense, and the whole ensemble topped off with a bouquet of what could have been either funeral, wedding or Halloween flowers which she held at arm's length with enormous yet casual disdain.

Or do I embellish a bit? Probably. Viewed by anyone else, she would have probably attracted no more than a passing glance. Most would have paid her little mind, a few might have found her attractive in her own semi-unique way, and as for why I found her appearance so disturbing, well, I have no idea. Wait, I probably do: the high dudgeon into which hipsters are frequently capable of casting me has two components. On one hand, I get annoyed because they're playing teenage freakshow minus the uncertainty and self-deprecation that lets genuine teenagers get away with silly costumes and hairstyles; on the other hand, at least half the time they're getting away with it while I know I never could.

11 August 2006

Summer Becomes More Precious As It Fades

There's been a chilly - well, coolish, anyway - wind blowing through the streets these past few nights, whisking away the bouillabaisse of sweat, pollution and lethargy in which we've been marinating these past couple months. It speaks - well, whispers, anyway - of autumn, which many people agree is the best time of all to be in New York, but which also heralds an end to the languorous days and sultry nights of summer and a descent into fierce and implacable winter.

I mentioned that to the effervescent and upbeat Chadd Derkins today when I ran into him in Tompkins Square Park. "That's no way to think," he protested, and no doubt he's right; it is pretty silly to be brooding about the onset of winter when we're still not halfway through August. But silly or not, I find it hard not to think about it, partly because it's been so many years since I've endured a full-fledged East Coast winter, partly, perhaps even more so because I'm reminded that my own personal autumn and winter are no longer that far off.

In one of those lightning-quick, almost intuitive calculations that I curiously seem to excel at (curiously because I was generally lousy at math), I worked out that if I were to live to be 95 years old - not that unlikely given my family history - my current age would be almost the exact equivalent of mid-August. Not quite autumn yet, but with it certainly poking its nose around the bend. And as anyone past the age of 30 or 40 will tell you, time accelerates ever more rapidly once you pass the halfway mark of anything, whether it's your summer holidays or the totality of your life.

I don't mean that to sound morbid, but there is such a thing as facing facts. Some of the most exquisitely beautiful sights and sensations I've known were beautiful precisely because of their fleetingness, their ephemerality, their evanescence: sunsets, for example, or last, aching goodbyes to lovers who were or would be no more. I think of that year - 1981, I think it was - when summer lingered on into late October, and day after day we went to the beach because, well, it might be our final chance before the cold winter rains blew in. It was almost Halloween, and there we were, still baking in the sun and dashing into the ocean for yet another last swim. Finally one day it almost seemed like too much trouble to go to the beach yet again; perhaps this year would be the historic exception to the rule, the year that winter never came. But we dragged ourselves - halfheartedly, it's true - to the beach one more time.

It was lovely, as it had been all summer, but something had changed: far off on the horizon a sullen cloud bank hung about. Throughout the afternoon it grew more muscular, and about an hour before dark it made its move toward shore. By the time we got home a cold wind had sprung up, and without anything in the way of jackets or sweaters - it had been so many months since we'd even had to think about such things - we wrapped up in towels to keep warm. By morning the rain was thudding on our roof and stripping the leaves from the trees, and just like that we went straight from summer into winter. Later that year we moved up north into the mountains and never went back to that beach again.

07 August 2006

Life In The Big City

I don't want to become one of those lazy bloggers - not naming any names, but you know who you are - who leave their readers in the lurch by letting longer and longer intervals lapse in between posts. But being that I've been lazy all my life, I don't know why I'd think blogging would inspire a sudden change in character.

I was just catching up on 327words, written by an old - well, longstanding, anyway - friend, and while suitably entertained and inspired, was also discomfited to see that David was managing to post a gem-like essay virtually every day. True, each essay contains only 327 words - no more, no less - but as has often been observed, writing something brief and to the point usually involves much more work than rambling at great length about this, that and the other thing, as I'm prone to do. Well, I said I was lazy, didn't I?

So I've been back in New York for a few days now, and while I'm still wrestling with the dilemma of whether I want to make this my permanent home, I'm still about 80-90% sure I do. What, you ask (or maybe not), are the alternatives? I could return to London, but it feels kind of played out now. Compared with New York, it's like living in the country, or what the country would be like if you took urban ills like muggers, litter, pollution, ill-tempered people in a hurry, and malfunctioning public transport systems and transported them to Pooterville. Mostly I'm not sure I can ever again tolerate living in a city of 8 million people where most of the cafes close by 9 pm and restaurants have to stop serving food by 11 pm because "we don't have the proper license."

My other two alternatives to New York would be California or Sydney, Australia. California I've already done at great length, and am thoroughly sick of, but most of my family is there, and I'd love being nearby to hang out with my mother and see my niece and nephew grow up. But I'm not sure if I'd be very good company if I had to tolerate the provincialism and parochialism that's part and parcel of dwelling in Northern California. Not to mention paying New York-level rents to live in what is essentially a glorified hick town with a bad attitude and a crime rate double that of New York.

Sydney, on the other hand, would be ideal on many counts: it stays open all night, at least to a much greater extent than London or San Francisco, has superb weather, and is far more affordable than any of the above-named cities. Unfortunately, the Australians don't seem all that keen on my becoming a permanent resident. The government, that is; my friends there are enthusiastic about the prospect. So it still looks like it will have to be New York, and I guess I will have to accept that there are worse fates in life than to dwell in the greatest city in the world.

And what's been going here in TGCITW? It's been fairly quiet, with lots of people away on vacation, or hiding out in air-conditioned caves until the dog days of August subside, but a bunch of us made it out to the CBGB Gallery Saturday night to see half the Steinways (Grath and Ace), Kepi from the Groovie Ghoulies, and Kevin Seconds (of the legendary posicore band 7 Seconds) perform acoustic sets at a art show featuring original paintings by Kepi and Kevin. Oh yeah, Bobby Jordan, currently of the Mr. T Experience, opened the proceedings, but I arrived too late to see more than a couple of his songs.

The half-Steinways were great, of course; yes, it was strange hearing the songs without the usual amplification and percussive punch, but at the same time only served to emphasize what a great songwriter Grath is. I tried to tell him so, too, but you can't tell that guy much of anything, especially if it's complimentary. In fact my recommendation for anyone wishing to torment and torture Grath: follow him around telling him positive things about either himself or his band, preferably both.

Kepi is a born showman; he could have kept people entertained just by talking, so the songs were an extra special bonus. He's also one of the most relentlessly upbeat and enthusiastic people I've ever known. You have to wonder if he has some secret place, a dark, brooding storm cellar, perhaps, where he goes if or when a negative thought ever crosses his mind. He's also quite a good painter, and I think he sold a few of his paintings to astute patrons of/investors in the arts like Frank Unlovable.

Kevin Seconds is a painter, too, and I think his stuff is all right. But Kendra apparently didn't, triggering a mini-blog war last spring which I wisely stayed out of. Like her, though, I was a much bigger fan of early 7 Seconds than anything they or Kevin has done since. Okay, I don't think Kendra is that enormous fan even of the early 7 Seconds stuff, but I certainly was. I wish some of the early copies of Lookout magazine were online so I could link to some of the effusive praise I heaped on the band circa 1983-84. The first time I saw them was, ahem, 1980, i.e., 26 years ago, and even though I was in my utterly jaded new wave esthete phase at the time, I was completely blown away.

So like some other members of the audience Saturday night, I was a bit disappointed that Kevin refused to play any 7 Seconds songs, concentrating instead on fairly typical singer-songwriter fare. Decent enough stuff, I think, but he kind of spoiled it by talking at great length in between songs. A standup comedian he is not. My suggestion: get Kepi or Grath to help him with his spoken word material.

I know I risk getting under Kevin's skin by even mentioning these mild criticisms (I know because it's already happened before in the 1980s and 90s), and considering what an overall nice guy he seems to be, and how much of himself he's given to first the Reno and now the Sacramento music and arts scenes, I feel a little bad not being totally enthusiastic about everything he does. Alternatively, why don't I just say nothing at all if I can't say something nice, as my mom has been suggesting for most of my life? I don't know, I guess in addition to being congenitally lazy, I'm also fated to be one of those nattering nabobs of negativity that Spiro Agnew used to get so exercised about.

Speaking of negativity, don't let me forget to unleash a little on that bloated dinosaur corpse known as the CBGB empire. The hell with all the sentiment and crocodile tears, I will be very, very happy when the whole thing finally closes down and/or moves to Vegas where it belongs. Yes, it's historical and all that, but so are the La Brea Tar Pits, and the latter are probably a more enjoyable place to spend an evening.

What has got my ire particularly roused this time? Actually, the Gallery was a fairly pleasant place for an intimate little acoustic show apart, that is, from the deafening thud of one of the generically horrible bands featured in CBGB's main space next door. But waste money on soundproofing? What are you, stupid? And while we're on the subject of money, $10 for an acoustic show featuring - well, let's face it - some guys who aren't exactly international superstars? Plus they were charging another $10 to see the even more obscure unknowns performing in the basement. Ever wonder whatever happened to the tens of thousands of dollars raised by all those "Save CBGB'S" benefits? Or the millions raised by flogging those ubiquitous t-shirts, belt buckles, tampons, whatever? In the immortal words of John Lydon (and "immortal words" and "John Lydon" don't frequently occur in the same sentence, at least not if I'm writing it), "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

Never mind; roll on, Sunday night, where the action was downtown at the Knitting Factory, another of my less than favorite New York City venues. But at least this time I was on the guest list, which made me far more favorably inclined toward the good old Knitting Factory. Performing were Gravy Train, featuring my old friends Seth and Brontez. That's not to downplay the role played by the fine lady frontpersons, but while I think I've been introduced to them, I don't really know them, whereas I've known Seth for eight years and Brontez for four, going back to the halcyon days of Panty Raid and beyond.

They had a wildly enthusiastic, pansexual crowd of barely legal moshers and disco bunnies, and against my better judgment, I wound up in the center of the pit, much as I did for the Mopes at last June's Fest. But that room must have been better ventilated than the Knitting Factory, because last night I ended up more soaking wet than if I'd been on stage with the band (Brontez's annoying habit of dousing the crowd with water and beer didn't help). I walked all the way up to 14th and 1st on a (relatively) cool and breezy night before my clothes even began to dry out. Then I caught the subway home, only to bump into Brontez and Seth again outside the Metropolitan, which is my neighborhood gay bar, though I've never had occasion to visit it before.

But now I did, and it was all right. Maybe it was just the ancient disco they were playing, but it had a real 70s feel to it, and for once I don't mean that as an insult. Brontez carried on much as he had on stage, wearing only slightly more clothes, and it was all kind of glam-meets-disco with a patina of punk rock and indie-hipster, and I didn't end up getting home till after 2 am. At least my clothes were finally dry by then. Anyway, Gravy Train get the thumbs up. If they were a little bit more "serious" and "professional" they'd probably be superstars already. The fact that they're not makes them even better.

02 August 2006

The City Of Tiny Lights

The above header could refer to Patrick Neate's City Of Tiny Lights - a sort of Raymond Chandleresque pulp noir with a West London multi-culti twist - which I read earlier this week and greatly enjoyed. But it doesn't, actually; I was thinking more of the view from atop the London Eye, which I finally got around to ascending the other day at what I've always thought would be an ideal time: just past sunset, as London's millions of lights - and yes, from that height, they are indeed tiny - burst into incandescence at your feet and all the way to and beyond the horizons.

As it was, I sort of got dragged along for someone's birthday celebration, but I was quite happy to be. While we were milling around waiting for everyone to get organised and come back from the loo and get another coffee and gossip about the club they went to last night, I overheard an American couple walk by, the female half proclaiming (as Americans are notorious for doing), "26 dollars they want to ride that thing, and you only get to go around once!"

I repeated what I'd heard to the others, exaggerating the cowboy-nasality of the accent as Londoners generally do when imitating Americans, which kicked off a merry bout of American-bashing, during the course of which I acknowledged being a Yank myself. "You are?" said Julia, "But you don't have an accent at all."

This surprised me, especially since Julia's girlfriend is also an American who, even though she's been in England for many years, still retains strong traces of her southern-fried (she's from Georgia) manner of speaking. When I first came to Britain, I was very self-conscious about my own American accent and deliberately tried to modulate it for the sake of fitting in, which often left me sounding like a cross between Madonna and the egregious Loyd Grossman. But as the years went by I thought about it less and less, and while I didn't sound English to most of the natives, neither did I sound American. People most frequently guessed Irish or Canadian.

But lately, even though I've been spending more time in America, and even though my friend Paul complained that I'd pronounced his name as if I were "one of those loud-mouthed New Yorkers," it's not at all unusual for people to assume I'm English, as Julia had done. Why, I don't know; to myself, I sound more American than ever, especially when I talk fast, which I tend to do more often than I should. The irony of it, I guess, is that I've apparently become fully fluent in Britlish just as I'm contemplating leaving the country and returning to the USA for good.

If you'd asked me last week, I would have told you that it was about 95% certain I'd be abandoning London in favour of New York. But that was before my unexpected trip back here, and I must admit this place is going to be harder to leave than I thought. Not just London, either; yesterday I took the train out to Bristol to visit Danny (longtime readers of my Punk Planet columns may remember him as Danny the Anarchist who hedged his bets by speculating on the stock exchange just in case the revolution didn't work out as planned), who recently shattered his leg and kneecap in a paragliding accident. The English countryside was mind-bogglingly glorious, and at every turn I was reminded of places I haven't seen yet, villages I've always wanted to visit or re-visit, and I cursed all the days, months and years I spent moping around the house or mooching around the same old streets when I could have been out exploring England's generally green and more often than not pleasant land. It was a bit like being on one's deathbed and wondering where the hell the time had gone.

The downside of going to Bristol (apart from feeling as though I was on my deathbed) was that I missed out on the chance to get to Brighton last night to see The Leftovers on one of the last dates of their UK tour. I had worked out an ambitious plan where I'd leave London at 9 am, get to Bristol by 11, leave Bristol by 4 and be in Brighton by 7:30, but I didn't tear myself away from Danny and Bella in time, and by the time I left their house, got lost in the twisting, tortuous streets of Bristol ("Just keep going downhill and you'll find the railway station, no trouble," Bella assured me), missed a train by one minute and caught the next one an hour later, only to have it get stuck behind the Toonerville Trolley for the last 80 miles, it was nearly 11 when I got back to London.

I did, however, get to see the Weakerthans tonight at the Mean Fiddler (formerly the London Astoria 2). I was not in the best of moods when I arrived, partly because I'd misjudged the schedule and arrived while the opening act, some German fellow who talked more than he sang, not that I was partial to either, was still in mid-set, partly because I don't especially enjoy the Mean Fiddler. It's kind of like dining at McDonald's: on the plus side, you know exactly what you're going to get every time; on the not so plus side, you know it's going to be basically crap.

Granted, some of this must be because I'm getting old. The charms of being squashed into a cramped space with a thousand awkward, jabbering 20-somethings largely elude me these days, especially when that awkwardness is expressed through chain-smoking and shouting inanities. The clouds of carcinogenic smoke literally billowing up in front of the stage lights had me wondering whether any musical experience could be worth the several hours my life would probably be cut short by breathing that poisonous atmosphere, and railing against the barbarism and backwardness of an English culture that still allows, even romanticises wallowing in toxins as part of a night's entertainment.

Even leaving the smoking aside, I was unimpressed by the crowd. In my eight years of attending Weakerthans gigs, I've come to think of their fans as a cut or two above the average. A tad fey and cloying, true, but that's a hazard with any indie-type audience. But generally they're more considerate, more intelligent, even better looking than you'd find elsewhere. Not tonight, though (nor in New York a couple weeks ago); these largely looked like the sort of schlubs you'd find down the pub in some suburban high street on a random Friday night.

I suppose that goes with the territory of becoming popular, which the Weakerthans definitely seem to be doing. On their last visit to the Mean Fiddler two years ago they played to a small and desultory audience; tonight the place was packed and the fans were singing and shouting out the lyrics as though they were homegrown Winnipeggers one and all. It made me feel a bit more favourably disposed toward them, but looking around, I still couldn't spot a single one I'd want to take home with me, or even go for coffee with afterward. Luckily the band were on top form, and eventually made me forget all my complaints. The set list was virtually identical to what they'd played in New York, which normally might have bothered me, but instead I just marvelled at how much better they played it tonight (New York was good to excellent; tonight was excellent to outstanding). I especially enjoyed watching guitarist Stephen Carroll, not least because he reminds me of one of my other favourite guitar players, Patrick Hynes. Both of them have an understated manner, share a penchant for black shirts and neatly trimmed hair, and a matter-of-fact, seeming almost effortless way of wringing unspeakable magic from their instruments. John K. Samson gets most of the credit for the Weakerthans' greatness, and understandably so, as he's clearly one of the best, if not the very best, songwriters of our time. But what a band he's managed to assemble around him. That's got to be a stroke of genius in itself.

Now it's getting toward four in the morning, I haven't even started to pack my suitcase, and I'm due to leave for the airport at nine am. Pretty much par for the course. I went out to dump the rubbish a couple hours ago and it was damp and cool, with intermittent showers. It felt and even smelt like the North Coast of California, somewhere like Eureka or Arcata, and positively autumnal compared with the heat wave Britain's been enjoying (or enduring, depending on your point of view) these past two months. Apparently it's going to be about 1000 degrees, or at least 100, when I hit New York tomorrow. I can hardly wait.