24 March 2007

Welcome To The Bronx

So declaimed Grath McGrath, lead singer and guitarist for the Steinways, midway through their set at the Bruckner Bar and Grill, tucked away under the Willis Avenue Bridge in an obscure (well, to me, anyway, and to most of the people with me) corner of the Bronx.

I didn't get the impression - though I could be wrong; it has been known to happen - that Grath himself was a habitué of the Bronx, so I'm assuming his "Welcome to the Bronx" crack as meant to be ironic, spoken as it was to an almost entirely white and middle-class crowd of pop-punkers. But then it's always dangerous to assume, so I'll just say, "Thanks, Grath, it's good to be here in the Bronx tonight," even though it's now a few hours later and I'm not anymore.

The show was put on by one Dan Crafty, of Crafty Records, himself a Bronx boy, though of the City Island variety, i.e., not the Bronx of incinerated housing projects and feral crack gangs, if indeed that Bronx exists anymore. I wouldn't know; I'm a bit ashamed to admit that my entire experience in the Bronx, apart from driving through it once on my way down from New England, has consisted of one flying visit almost 40 years ago, where I got off the subway at the Grand Concourse station, jumping back on the train before the doors closed, just so that I'd be able to say that I'd set foot in all five boroughs.

Taking advantage of our ignorance, Crafty Dan put out what could be construed as a slightly misleading flyer, claiming that the Bruckner Bar and Grill, a lone outpost of gentrification in a neighborhood that could probably do with a fair bit more gentrification before anyone noticed it had happened, was practically within sight of the "first subway stop in the Bronx." In other words, it was hardly like going to the Bronx at all, more like a neat little corner of Manhattan North that had by some accident of geography been left on the wrong side of the Bronx divide.

Well, Mr. Crafty was indeed being economical with the truth; the bar was nowhere in sight from the subway, and we (I started out alone, but accumulated Bill Moon and Jim Jersey Beat at various points on the 6 train; nothing to make a guy feel at home in the big city like friends randomly getting on the same train he's on) wandered the streets in a befuddled fog, at one point soliciting directions from a genial policemen, and when even that didn't deliver results, from a local girl who gave us the once-over and said, "Oh, you looking for the bar?" as though there were nowhere else in the neighborhood that a pack of clueless-looking gringos would be going.

So it turned out to be more like five blocks than one from the subway; as Crafty Man freely admitted afterward, nobody would have come if he'd put the actual directions. Never mind; we were there now, and got to watch Project 27's Weaselcore, the Steinways' punk rock classics in the making, Phrank Martian's Nancy, down from Binghamton (I always want to remind him that Binghamton is the place where our van broke down on the way to Woodstock in 1969, but that veers rather precipitously into old codger territory, nay, old hippie codger territory, which is far worse), and finally, playing their second show of the evening, the Unlovables, who were celebrating the release of their new album and who were in top form.

The night was supposed to be a battle between New York and New Jersey bands to mark the release on Crafty Records of a new CD based on that theme, but none of the Jersey bands showed up (unless you count Mikey Erg as a one-man band, which probably wouldn't be inaccurate, but tonight he was playing for the New York-based Unlovables and not the mighty Ergs, the other two of whom, I understand, were off bowling or something. On one level it was nothing out of the ordinary, just a good, all-round pop-punk show, but on the other hand, it was interesting and gratifying to see how many more people were turning out than would have for a similar show a year or two ago, even though it took place slightly outside the bounds and comfort zone of the usual pop-punk scene.

I remember haranguing Jonnie Whoa Oh a few years back about how the then-dire state of the New York scene was entirely down to him: if he and a couple of his friends didn't take things in hand and make them happen, it would just shrivel up and disappear. Not to take a thing away from Mr. Whoa Oh; he's done a great deal first to keep things alive and later to keep them growing, but it was significant in a way that Jonnie wasn't even there tonight - due to illness, apparently - and the show was still a whopping success. There was a time, not so long ago, when if Jonnie Whoa Oh wasn't there, not only would the party be missing much of its life, it would also be missing about 10% of its audience.

Things have changed, if not enormously, at least significantly for the better. Now for the first time since the glory days of the late 70s, people are starting to look at New York as the place where great punk rock and pop-punk comes from. People are even moving here to be near and/or part of the scene. I remember being amazed when kids started showing up in Berkeley back in the late 80s, attracted by the whole Gilman thing, and now I get the feeling it's happening here. Tonight the pop-punk revolution raised its flag, however tentatively, over one small corner of the Bronx; a rush and a push into Staten Island and it will be proudly unfurled over all the five boroughs, and once that's happened, what distant outposts will be left to conquer? On to Yonkers and Poughkeepsie!

Back To Brooklyn

I apologize for leaving you all in the lurch this past week, assuming, that is, that there are at least some of you out there who are actually intrigued or at least mildly interested by the latest twists and turns taken by my topsy-turvy life.

When we last met, I was about to board a plane in Sydney, which I subsequently did, at the cost of missing out on another week of what looks to have been splendid beach weather, and of winding up in San Francisco/Berkeley where the weather was not, shall we say, quite up to beach standards.

In fact, it was diabolically cold for most of the time I was there, with the exception of a couple afternoons when it was warm and sunny enough to stroll around jacket-less. I saw the doctor who operated on my big toe last year and he assured me that it looked in remarkably good shape, and I saw the dentist, who told me that much to his surprise, my teeth didn't appear to be falling out quite as rapidly as they had been. But mostly I was engaged in taking things out of boxes and putting them back into other boxes, sorting out which of my belongings - some of which had been shipped over from England, others of which had been stored in California - would make the cut and be shipped on again to my new home on the East Coast.

It was remarkably upsetting, especially since I thought I was used to this sort of thing, having emptied out two different houses in recent years with the knowledge that I wouldn't be coming back. And considering that I've had little to say about Berkeley apart from bitching and moaning for some years now, you'd think that the faster I got the job done and got the hell out of there, the happier I'd be.

But such wasn't the case; in fact I was seized by such an overwhelming fit of melancholy that for several days I could barely do anything. But then I had six whole days to get ready, I told myself, practically an eternity when it comes to spending time in the black hole Dementor-nest that is downtown Berkeley. So my first night I went to Gilman, missing all but half of the last band, of course, and the second night I went to Kendra K's Cancerous Vegan Donut Party in the wilds of Emeryville and/or Oakland. Kendra, who many of you will know as one of my favorite bloggers and people, has been diagnosed with cancer and is going on for surgery and chemo next week, so to commemorate the occasion, she and her musical partner Elbert, backed by all-round indie kid Aaron, staged a performance of Hello, It's a Lumberjack Again, the Brent's TV/Sweet Baby/MTX tribute band that very nicely, though without excessive verisimilitude, captures the spirit of the originals.

The party went on till 1:30 or 2, and combined with my already excessive jet lag (as you may know, flying from Sydney to Frisco entails leaving in the afternoon and arriving the morning before you left, albeit after 14 hours in the air, thanks to the international date line. In the past I'd been able to sleep or at least relax on this flight, but not this time; I was wide awake the entire time, and would remain that way for the next several nights, catching up (partially) on sleep only in the mornings.

That, combined with my worse than usual procrastination, ate up most of the week, leaving me with only a couple days to pack and prepare everything for what's intended to be a permanent move to New York City. And at several points in the wee small hours, I'd find myself blearily staring at a couple of half-full (or half-empty?) boxes, a couple items of clothing or bric-a-brac in my hands, and wonder, "Was I putting this in the box or taking it out?"

And on a couple occasions I was wracked with an involuntary sigh, or maybe even spasm, one that asked, "What the hell are you doing? Moving off to a whole new city at your age? You should be settling down in old familiar places and getting ready for senility and death, not rushing off to the biggest city in the world with some vague idea of making a new start and having the kinds of adventures all the 20-somethings come flocking to New York for."

In short, I was thinking, why not just stay in California? Sure, I hate it, sure, it depresses the hell out of me, but hey, it's cheap, unchallenging, and besides, I get free internet there, whereas in New York I'll have to pay through the nose for it. And suddenly I got nostalgic, almost painfully so, for the good old days when I did love California, when it seemed like the only place to be, and when New York was this cold, distant, frenetic and mercenary madhouse where only fast-talking hustlers, swindlers and conmen could hope to thrive.

I fought off these dark thoughts, and some not-so-dark ones as well, the ones that were saying, "But wouldn't it be nicer to be near your mother and your brothers and your niece and nephew as they grow up? And what about your friends, Joe and Kendra, Patrick and Erika, wouldn't you like to see them more than a couple times a year?"

And yes, I would, but just as there was a time was California was the only place for me to be, this is surely not that time. I don't fully know why I'm so hell-bent on putting myself to the enormous expense and inconvenience of relocating myself to New York - well, apart from it being the greatest, most exciting, most creative and amazing city on earth, there is that - but it feels as though that's where I'm being called, and so, as of this morning, here I am.

In keeping with my theme of sleepless nights, I left Frisco at 10pm yesterday, arrived at Newark at 6:30 in the morning, and three train rides left me practically at the door of the Brooklyn apartment I left last September 1. The street looks a lot grayer and more barren now, with all the summer leaves gone and a few piles of dirty snow left over from last week's storm. And my gym, the one that was so conveniently situated and was open 24 hours, has shut its doors and apparently vanished, which was seriously depressing, as I was dying to get in there and work off some of the inertia and fat that must have built up during my brooding-filled week in Berkeley.

And it doesn't feel quite like home yet, and although the temperature is still only in the 50s outdoors, there doesn't seem to be any heat to warm the apartment significantly above that level, and most of my belongings are still stuck in a UPS office somewhere on the West Coast instead of barreling across the country as I had expected them to be, which means I've got to live out of one poorly packed suitcase for another week or more. Never mind, though; whether it feels like it or not, it is home now, and it's up to me to make the most and the best out of it.

The one thing that's always put me off moving to New York City is kind of an inverse of that, "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere" syndrome. It's along the lines of, "If New York is the greatest city in the world and it still leaves you unsatisfied and wanting more, where else is left for you to go?" For years I mouldered along in London telling myself, "Well, of course you're not completely happy here because London is only a sort of runner-up to New York in the World's Most Important City sweepstakes. If you were in New York, things would be different."

Well, now I am. And are things different? I suspect not all that greatly. What really matters, I've come to learn, is whether I'm different, and for that, I suspect, we shall have to stay tuned.

15 March 2007

The Last Day Of Summer

I see from the internet that spring, or at least a foretaste thereof, has arrived in New York, which was good news, considering that I'll be there in little more than a week's time, but for me, today was all about saying goodbye to summer.

And what a day for it, too, with blazing sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, and temperatures in the upper 20s/mid 80s. I made my way out to the beach for one last time, and everything about it was stupendous, from the colour to water to the size and power of the waves, something you don't normally see in this sheltered and secluded corner of Botany Bay. I suspect it might have something to do with this giant eddy, aka "The Cyclone of the Deep," that's suddenly appeared just off the coast, and which is also making the water a bit chillier, all the way down to 21C/70F, whereas at this time last year it was more like 24C/75F. Which means you can only swim and splash around in it for an hour or two instead of all day, but I wasn't staying in too long anyway, as it occurred to me that it would be most inconvenient to be the victim of a savage shark attack the day before I'm meant to leave Sydney. I think the airlines have policies about passengers with great gouges leaking blood all over the place.

Not that there were any sharks to be seen, although a big glop of seaweed swirling around just beneath the surface had me worried for a bit. This time tomorrow I'll be somewhere over the Pacific Ocean rather than in it (well, hopefully, anyway), and not too much after that, touching down for a brief visit in California before moving on to my new East Coast home. Am I nervous about all these changes? You bet. Not that I haven't moved around before; in fact I've barely stopped. But this seems more serious, because this time I'm meaning to stay.

Maybe I'll change my tune after a few months, or when the New York winter starts to kick in and I'll be wondering what I'm doing slogging through the ice and snow when I could be lying on a sunlit Sydney beach. But I don't think so. This feels like the real thing, and as those of you who've attempted to do real things will know, that can be scary. Or so I've been told.

So it's goodbye to Sydney, goodbye to summer, it's really been grand, and even if I have little more than a suntan and lots of memories to show for it, that's plenty for now. And in a few days it will be hello to Brooklyn and, I expect, a very different sort of adventures. Less sharks, sting rays and sunburn, more... well, I don't want to jinx anything, so I think I'll just wait and see. In the meantime, let me say one last time, so long, Sydney, despite all my griping, you've really been fabulous.

14 March 2007

A Good Walk Spoiled

You know what it's like when you get righteously indignant, outraged even, and in the midst of your fuming, mentally compose a scathing blog entry that bitterly denounces all the idiots responsible for your frustration, which cheers you up almost to the point of the inconvenience/insult/injury seeming worthwhile? Only to find that you were totally mistaken, and the whole mess was actually your own stupid fault?

Well, maybe you don't, but I do. Today I did the Manly to Spit walk, which is about 10km/6mi of mostly harbourside paths and trails through a variety of terrains and bioregions and which is absolutely stunning, easily the best walk I've taken in Greater Sydney ever, only to come out at the Spit Bridge with hopes of hopping on a bus back into the city in time for dinner and a movie.

Instead, I found a road that was more like a freeway and, while there were buses galore zooming past me, no bus stop. I walked across the bridge, carried on for another 500m or so before the road turned into a real freeway with no pedestrians allowed. I tramped back across the bridge, assuming the bus stop must be on the other side, but no, not only was there no bus stop, that side of the road also turned into a no-pedestrians motorway.

The only remedy seemed to be to take a bus going in the wrong direction, i.e., back to Manly, which was exactly where I didn't want to go, or at least far enough in that direction so as to be able to find a bus stop going in the right direction. So, cursing all the while, I stood at the Manly-bound stop while five, count 'em, five buses zoomed by me without stopping. They were all express buses, which apparently didn't consider the Spit Bridge a worthwhile stopping point.

Back across the bridge again, seriously considering hiking up the side of the semi-mountain where the road led, pedestrian ban or no pedestrian ban, and thinking of all the exquisite tortures I would inflict on Transport Minister John Watkins if I ever caught him outside of his chauffeured limo when, tucked away among some parked cars, I discovered the bus stop I'd somehow overlooked my first and second time around. So, not only had I wasted the better part of an hour, but my blog topic for the evening had been demolished as well. Oh, yeah, and I'd revealed myself once more as an idiot. Well, a doofus, anyway.

But thankfully, Sydney Transport or whatever those yo-yos are calling themselves this week, still had more insults and injuries in store for me, so I got my topic back. First the bus got stuck in a gargantuan traffic jam to the point where I might as well have been walking, then when I got off to do just that, I discovered I was in the wrong suburb (okay, that's not really Sydney Transport's fault). It was then that I discovered that the entire North Shore railway system (which I was planning on using to get across the bridge) was shut down because a train was stuck on the track. In a sane city, they would have moved the broken-down train. Might have taken a half hour or so, but that was fine with me, since I wanted to get dinner first anyway. But no, it was shut down for the night, and after already walking the 10k through forests and rocky cliffs and across the tiny hidden beaches where I really should have stopped to go swimming, plus 2 or 3k more looking for the bus stop, plus 1k more from North Sydney to Milson's Point, I also had to walk across the Harbour Bridge into downtown Sydney.

Which, come to think of it, isn't such a terrible fate after all. It was completely dark by now, the breeze was gentle and warm, and the lights spread out across the city and the harbour were absolutely spectacular. I forgave everything and everybody, but my feet still hurt. Even still, despite all my bitching, the walk wasn't spoiled at all, just extended far beyond expectations. That doesn't mean I'm going to give up a good blog title, however, so, with apologies to Mark Twain and the game of golf, there you are.

13 March 2007

Blood In The Streets

I came out my front door onto the street to find a) the sun shining for the first time all day; and b) our building's handyman/cleaner/jack of all trades standing idly, apparently gaping off into space.

Normally when he sees me he launches into a harangue about either a) how hard he works for so little money; or b) George Bush and/or "the Jews" (he's a Lebanese Muslim, not that all Lebanese Muslims rant about that subject, but this one does), so having caught him unawares, I greeted him with, "Aha, goofing off again!" Not that I particularly care about his work habits, but in hopes of sidetracking him onto another subject.

But he quickly shushed me and pointed across the street. "Look, they stabbed that woman. See the blood all over the street?" An ambulance was just closing up its doors and driving away while several policemen stood around desultorily questioning a knot of onlookers.

I didn't have to ask who "they" were; we both knew he was talking about the random collection of junkies, drunkards, pimps, prostitutes and other assorted ne'er-do-wells who seem to have adopted our little street corner as their semi-permanent home. I didn't personally know the woman who'd been stabbed, but the cleaner did: "She's a hell of a thief, always robbing everything, I got her on film breaking into cars in the garage under the other building where I work."

I had a feeling I'd seen her, and probably her attacker as well, last night when I got home around 2 am from a blogging mission. There was a godawful uproar underneath my window, consisting of three or four hookers and a couple of what could have been pimps or just hangers-on. One of the men looked about 70, and not more than about five feet tall, but boy did he have a mouth on him. The guy didn't stop shouting - about God knows what; even with my window wide open I could barely understand a word he was saying - for the next hour. When the cops arrived at around 2:30 he just just switched his shouting to them while his hooker waited patiently off to the side for him to get back to her.

Both of the cops were smaller than me, and the one who was taking the brunt of the yelling looked like a little girl. In fact, I'm pretty sure she was a little girl. In any event, she barely said a word, just stood there patiently listening to this cranky old clown yelling his head off at her about what I presumed was some hideous injustice like not collecting his full 90% of the hooker's take for the evening.

I'm not sure I'd ever seen anything like it. In most other cities where I've lived, even traffic wardens or meter maids wouldn't put up with this kind of abuse, and in many American cities the meat wagons would have been pulling up to collect the corpses if anyone showed that little respect for the cops, but they do things differently in Sydney, which is why, I suppose, nobody is all that surprised when a woman gets stabbed in the middle of the afternoon on what is supposedly a very nice street in a very nice neighbourhood.

Although this part of town has been moving steadily upmarket for a few years now, it has a history of prostitution and petty (and not so petty) crime that seems to linger on even as property prices have rocketed into the stratosphere. Some of the would-be bohemian millionaires who've moved into the mid-19th century Victorian terraces that are among some of Sydney's oldest habitable buildings actually like the idea of prostitutes continuing to work the streets and back lanes. "It keeps the neighbourhood real, you know, stops it being too bourgeois." I'm reminded of an unholy brawl I witnessed a few years ago in New York City, between residents of one of the wealthier stretches of Greenwich Village and advocates for the prostitutes who were in the habit of plying their trade there.

"The prostitutes (excuse me, I think the correct term is 'sex workers') were here first. They shouldn't have to move just because a bunch of rich assholes moved in and bought all the houses," was the gist of the argument being posed by one side, whereas the local residents pleaded, "How would you like it if you couldn't get in or out of your own door because people are having sex in front of it?"

One of the prostitute advocates, whose group also provided the working girls (and trannies) with condoms, hot coffee, and a place to warm up and kick back between tricks, had brought me along to witness this hearing, and while she was used to my typically tactless way of putting things, her friends, fervent NYU activists all, were rather shocked to hear my cat analogy.

"Theres was this lady downstairs where I used to live in Berkeley, and she felt it was her duty to look after all the stray cats in the neighbourhood, so she'd put out buckets of food and leave her window open all the time, summer or winter, so the cats could get in. And sure enough, word got around the cat community that there was this place to hang out with unlimited free food, so pretty soon there were cats coming from blocks if not miles around. It was like, them more generous she was in trying to save the stray cats, the more stray cats there were. And then when she wasn't home and the food ran out, they'd all sit around under her window and yowl and wake up the whole neighbourhood. But if anyone complained to her, she'd get all indignant and say, 'Well, somebody has to look after the poor cats. I don't see how you can all sit in your nice warm houses and be so selfish.'"

Okay, a bit drawn out of an analogy at that, but my point was that in catering to the street prostitutes, my friend and her pals were encouraging them to continue to hang around the streets where the residents had made it clear they didn't want them, and maybe even making it likely that more prostitutes from other parts of town would gather there, even after the NYU activists had all graduated and moved on to their prostitute-free enclaves in suburbia or Williamsburg.

"These are women (or transexuals), not cats," someone hissed at me, to which I agreed while insisting that the principle was still more or less the same. Which is all neither here nor there, except that often on these past summer nights, my street has sounded an awful lot like the playground for a boatload of especially vocal alley cats, as the girls call back and forth to each other from under their various streetlights. Sometimes when business is slow - as you would expect it to be at 7 in the morning when the sun's already up but the bedraggled girls, makeup running, faces drooping, and clothes hanging despondently off their emaciated frames, still hang on in hopes of one last trick and/or fix - it's almost like a scene from Les Miserables out there, though hardly as tuneful.

Where am I going with this? Oh, I don't know; I guess the gist of what I'm wondering is whether prostitution, at least the unregulated, street hustling kind (brothels, i.e., licenced whorehouses, are legal here, but that doesn't seem to have cut into the street trade; if anything, there's more of it here than most places I've been) is as victimless a crime as some people make it out to be. I mean, the neighbourhood suffers, not just from the noise and the mess and the constant string of kerb-crawlers, but even more so from the pimps, muggers, and drug dealers the trade seems to attract. But most of all, the girls suffer, and if you've ever looked into one of those completely weary and beaten-down faces in the cruel light of dawn - or watched one of them get hauled away in an ambulance, possibly for the last time - it's hard to believe some of that feminist rhetoric about sex work being an "empowering" choice that women make for themselves.

Hell, I don't know the answer, and I certainly don't think there's much of a chance that any laws will ever succeed in eliminating prostitution. I don't even know if there's any point in trying to regulate it, but it does seem that the laisser-faire attitudes that have replaced the old repressive ones haven't done anyone any favours. Unless, of course, you see the "right" to be an abused, pimped-out street junkie and whore to be one of those inalienable freedoms that woman (and trannies) just can't live without.

12 March 2007

The Dead Leaves

We've been suffering a cockroach infestation in the apartment, to the point where I've had to endure the nasty little creatures darting out of places like my shoe (as I was about to put it on) and my (thankfully unused at the time) toothbrush holder. So when I saw what looked like it could be a dead rat (or perhaps a baby wombat) sprawled in front of the door downstairs in the lobby, I was no more than slightly disturbed.

It turned out to have been a trick of the light, however, or of my failing vision, because as I drew near, I realised that it was only a large and crumpled leaf that had drifted in from off the street. Not entirely prepared to trust my senses, I stepped on it to make sure it was a) definitely a leaf and b) definitely dead, and it disintegrated into a pile of dull brown fragments. As I walked out the door, I thought, "Now where did that come from?"

The answer was there at my feet: the pavement was, well, not exactly littered, but definitely sprinkled with similarly dead leaves, and as if to emphasise the point, another one came drifting down in response to an ever-so-slight breeze and hit me in the face. But things still didn't compute. Why were the leaves falling off the trees? Sydney just doesn't seem like the kind of place that does autumn. Besides, it was 86 degrees (30C) and I was headed for the beach.

Eventually, on more careful reflection, I had to accept that yes, very possibly autumn did exist here and was actually starting to happen. Come to think of it, I've been here once when it was winter, so it's a fairly safe bet that autumn at some point intervened. But regardless, it doesn't seem as though it should be happening now.

In fact, it's officially been autumn for a couple weeks already. The Australians have this strange custom where they ignore the equinoxes and solstices and start their seasons on the first of the month. So autumn begins on March 1, winter on June 1, spring on September 1, etc. I've tried explaining how ridiculous and out of sync with nature that is, but they mostly seem to think that's how it's done everywhere else. And of course they're still flocking to the beach in March and even April, when it's definitely autumn (and in October, when it's still early spring), so I guess it's understandable if the lines get a little blurred.

But for me personally, summer ends on the 16th of March, when I'll be bidding goodbye to the beach and heading back to the still rather chilly USA. Up until about a week ago, I was fine with that, and was looking forward to settling back into Brooklyn, even if it'll be a few months yet before I get to enjoy my second summer of 2007. But this week, I'm suddenly conscious of everything I didn't get round to doing, and of just how pleasant it can be to live in a town where two of the most strenuous activities are going to the beach and going to the cafe, and where even on a lousy, cold, windy and drizzly day like today, it's still nicer than the average summer day in London or Frisco.

Never mind, though, I'll accept my fate gladly, as New York has its charms, too, even if the weather is only occasionally one of them. For one thing, I'll be glad to get back to a sensible subway system. I know it's not often that you hear a New Yorker or anyone else waxing nostalgic over that city's subways, but after enduring three months of Sydney's ridiculous Toonerville Trolley that moves along - when it shows up at all - at a pace only slightly greater than that of a fast trot, and still charges 50% more than New York does, it'll be a while before I complain about the L train. At least two or three days, if past experience is any indicator.

My latest adventure in mass transit: my Travelpass (the local version of a Metrocard) stopped working in the fare gates a couple weeks ago. In any marginally competent city, that's no big deal; you take your defective ticket to the ticket agent and he issues you a new one. But not Sydney. "Well, it'll take about two weeks to send that into the city and have it replaced, and since it's only good for another two weeks, there's no point. You'll just have to find show it to the guard and have him let you in."

"But what if there's no guard around?" (Which is generally the case.)

"Well, he'll be around somewhere. You'll just have to find him."

"So how come you can't just issue another ticket? I know you've got a machine in there that can issue electronic tickets, because that's how I got this one in the first place."

"That's not the way we do it. I've got to mail it downtown. Takes a couple weeks."

"But we're downtown now."

"Different office, mate."

And so forth. I don't know why I'm so touchy about the whole thing; half the population of Sydney doesn't pay to ride the railway anyhow, and on any given day you can see dozens of people pushing their way past the ticket inspectors without even bothering to show them a fake ticket. In the interest of "avoiding trouble," ticket inspectors have now been told not to challenge fare dodgers, and they've responded by simply leaving many of the gates open to make it easier for them. So even though I've got a legitimate ticket (and a very expensive one, too, I might point out), there I am among the mobs of disreputable Sydneysiders strolling blithely past the ticket barriers and contributing to the general decline in civility and public morals.

Speaking of which, I knew that the bus I regularly rode to the beach travelled through some fairly disreputable territory, judging from the graffiti, boarded or bricked-up windows, and the high proportion of youthful gangbangers who barged their way onto the bus without paying and proceeded to entertain the rest of us with their hiphop boom boxes, but I had no idea it got this bad. I can't remember if the story specified this or not, but the police are not actually trying to catch the brick-throwers in most cases, again probably for the sake of "avoiding trouble."

I first discovered the beach at La Perouse when I was out hiking, a trek that took me right through the middle of Maroubra, a slightly down-at-the-heels suburb that put me a bit in mind of the banlieue slums that ring much of Paris. It's also the home of the Bra Boys, not, as the name might lead you to believe, a bunch of breast-centric transvestites, but a rather violent and unpleasant surf gang that has branched out into drug dealing. After beating what should have been an ironclad murder rap, the Abberton brothers have managed to turn themselves into celebrities with help from the film that launches here this week and from genial dupe (and himself part-time thug and bully) Russell Crowe.

People here in Sydney often look at me strangely when I say that one reason I'll be glad to get back to New York is that it feels a lot safer there. I'm exaggerating a little for the sake of making a point, but not by that much. Sydney has the feel of a city that's beginning to come apart at the seams. It reminds me of New York back in the 60s or 70s, when the politicians and citizens alike were beginning to give up on it, to believe it was simply ungovernable. As if to underline that point, policing in New South Wales (Sydney, a city of 4.5 million, doesn't even have its own police department, which is a big problem in itself) is handled by John Watkins, the same government minister who's in charge of the collapsing transport system.

Not everybody agrees, of course, that sky-high crime rates and failing public transport are a bad thing, whether in New York or Sydney. Those of you who are or were MRR readers will remember that magazine's Mykel Board. He was here in town this past weekend promoting his book I, A Me-ist, and holding forth on his theory that high crime is "a good thing" because "it keeps rents down." I half-heartedly tried countering his argument by pointing out that this method of rent control might be fine for the young, strong and fleet of foot, but for poor old grannies (or even gentlemen of a certain age like, for instance him and myself), it could be disastrous or even fatal.

But I've known Mykel long enough (20 years!) to know that reason or logic were not likely to carry the day when they stood in the way of a good sound byte, so I let him carry on with his theorising, and we adjourned to a nearby bar where even the voluble Mr Board was cowed into semi-submission by what may easily have been the world's biggest band and record nerd.

This guy was a bottomless fount of information, facts and trivia, all of it, as near as I could tell, true, and about 90% of it, except to other band and record nerds, useless. Okay, maybe I'm being too harsh, no, really, I am. The guy could easily write an encylopaedia of 70s, 80s and 90s punk rock bands (with separate sections for England, New York, Washington, Texas, SoCal, SF-East Bay, and probably a lot more) and the minutiae surrounding them, and it would come in handy for decades of resolving barroom and internet message board arguments. But in person, it's just a little exhausting, especially when it takes the nonstop form of, "Hey, let me ask you about [obscure 1979 SoCal band]" and before you can answer, being interrupted with, "Let's talk about [even more obscure deceased members of Austin TX punk band circa 1982" followed up with "Don't you think that [completely unknown founder of completely unknown UK band] should have put [completely unknown re-recording of completely unknown in the first place song] on the B-side of his second single on [completely unknown indie record label]? Hey, what's up with you guys anyway, I thought you were into punk rock?"
Anyway, time to wrap this up before my run-on posts become as maddening as the run-on dialogue of TWBBARN (what's that you say, it already happened at least a year ago?). I just wanted to point out that "The Dead Leaves" is not the name of yet another justly obscure punk rock band (well, actually, I don't know that; it very well could be), but in my case it's meant more as a tribute to one of my favourite songs for this time of the year, "The Autumn Leaves" (drift by the window, etc, etc.), which has been coursing through my memory, and which the French, with characteristic mordancy and/or to-the-pointness, render as "Les Feuilles Mortes." With that, I'm just about of here, "here" meaning both blogland for today and Sydney for this summer. I'll probably have a couple more things to say before I board that big old jet airliner and set out for the north, but if not, I guess I'll catch you on the flip-flop.

02 March 2007

The Sedition Barbershop Cabaret

You'll no doubt remember hearing about The World's Grumpiest Barber, who I think for future purposes I'm going to refer to as simply Mike The Barber, as he seemed a little hurt when I told him how I'd described him on the World Wide Interweb. He's still grumpy, true, but considering all that the man does for the arts and culture here in Sydney, I don't want to stereotype him as a one-dimensional ball of rage and frustration because, well, he's not.

In fact, I've been spending considerable time down at his Sedition Barbershop Cabaret, and although Mike disclaims any responsibility for the flourishing little scene that is developing there ("Hey, I don't do anything man, it just happens"), the place is developing an edge and a centre that seems wildly out of place in complacent old Sydney town, but is also exactly what's needed around here.

I hate even mentioning that much-maligned (and understandably so) decade, the 60s, but something about Sedition reminds me of the early, pre-hippie days when people used to stage "happenings," which meant basically that anyone could show up and express themselves in any way that suited their fancy, without, in most cases, getting laughed at or having pies thrown at them. Poetry, weird music, not-so-weird music, whatever: the point was more to create a free space in which ideas could flourish and people with something to say or questions to ask could get together and bounce off each other or the walls as the occasion might indicate.

Anyway, that's exactly what's been happening lately at Mike's place, and whereas he started out with just poetry/spoken word events on Tuesday nights, he's not got things going on several days a week. Tuesday I wandered in for the poetry gig and found a collection of people even older than myself sitting around listening to each other read. It looked kind of like an outing from the Old Hippies' Retirement Home, though as Mike informed me after they'd gone, it turned out to be the Old Gay Hippies' Retirement Home, and they'd all been reading poems about how great it was to be gay and/or old and/or a hippie. I didn't catch that bit, so when I jumped up to read my hastily composed thing about what an asshole I was when I was a gay hippie LSD dealer, I didn't get, shall we say, the most receptive of responses. Polite but tepid applause was all. Very tepid, actually.

Of course it also confirmed my long-held prejudice that it's never a good idea to write about drugs, and apparently it's an even worse idea to write about drugs in an uncomplimentary fashion when your audience thinks drugs are just peachy-keen. Or maybe there just wasn't enough gay stuff, but never mind; I came back again on Thursday for experimental music night, and this time the barbershop was packed out with youngish hipsters, the sort who would be equally at home in the Mission or Williamsburg, but because I'm so open-minded these days, I didn't even hold that against them.

There were two performers, both of which were a little deep and/or avant-garde for my fusty old self to grasp the full implications of, but who I nonetheless liked and enjoyed. The first fellow, one Matthew Philip Hopkins, reminded me a bit of the SF combo I Am Spoonbender, albeit in a way more low-tech way, with lots of bleeps and echoes. He told me he'd post a link to his Myspace via his blog, but as of now, nothing but blog there. Check it out anyway, if you're interested. The next guy, whose given name is Alex but who performs as "Always," did nothing but voices and echoes, sort of chanting himself into a ritual frenzy. Apparently there is a deeply gay sub or supertext to his work that I missed completely until I looked at his Myspace, but because these guys are so almost painfully hip, I have no idea whether it was gay or "gay." This being Gay Mardi Gras Weekend here in Sydney made it all the more confusing. Bear in mind that this is all taking place in what normally functions as very manly (and I mean manly in the sense of not particularly gay manly) barbershop.

A good crowd turned out, enough to pretty much fill the shop, even after the two barber chairs had been dragged off to the side and all available boxes, speaker cabinets, rubbish bins, etc., had been converted into seating. In between sets, Mike played DJ, and I had that very privileged feeling you get when you know beyond a doubt that whatever else might be going on in town or in the world at that moment, you're right where it's at and don't need to be anywhere else. Another night or two like that and I might be pegging my own trousers and declaring myself a full-on hipster. Not actually.

As a result, I missed going to see Ian Mackaye and his own experimental music duo, the Evens, who were performing across town, but though I would have really liked to see Ian, I'm not a huge Evens fan. Okay, enough of a fan to pay the $15, but just barely, and Mike's Sedition Barbershop Cabaret admission fee of $0 was a lot closer to my liking. So I reckon I'll be back there again Sunday for more experimental music, this time apparently played on more conventional instruments, though, and at Mike's urging, may make it a multi-media event by reading some story I have yet to write about being a pinhead. Remind me to tell you about it sometime. But right now internet-land is closing down and I'm being kicked out into the sultry Sydney streets. Oh, and hey, I'll be back in the USA soon: two weeks from today, in fact.

Aaron Cometbus Interview

A few years ago I did a lengthy interview with Aaron Cometbus, about two thirds of which was published in Punk Planet. Someone recently went to the trouble of transcribing and posting it online, so if you missed the interview the first time around or are interested in re-reading it, you can find it here.

01 March 2007

Black Enough?

I first ran across an article exploring this particular brand of idiocy right where I would have expected it, in the San Francisco Chronicle, but now the paper of idiotic record has inflated it into a Serious Issue. I'm referring, of course, to the Guardian's take on "Is Obama Black Enough?"

While I don't think they ever get around to specifying just how black is "enough," what I found fascinating was the article's implication - nay, assumption - that having an Ivy League education, being well-spoken, and actually liking America makes him somehow not "authentically" black. The author goes on to list further strikes against Obama's blackness: he's "articulate" and "clean." You'd think such an assessment was compiled by an unrepentant redneck, but this being Guardian-land, of course it's not; the writer is the newspaper's American correspondent and resident race-baiter, Garry Younge, who himself is black.

Well, not quite black; like Obama, Younge is actually half-white, and, if I'm not mistaken, suffers the further embarrassment of having some American roots, but he's made a valiant effort to overcome these liabilities by becoming a strident proponent of black identity politics and a default America-basher. You get the idea from his article that he actually would like to support Obama, but feels the need to apologise to his "genuinely" black readership for doing so. Life would be so much easier for Garry if racist America would only embrace a "real" black candidate, i.e., a fast-talking, lying, cheating hustler of the Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson ilk. Ah well, life's full of difficult choices, isn't it.

P.S. As someone who's more or less inclined to support Obama myself, I was saddened to learn that he's "a vocal supporter of affirmative action." That, coupled with his lack of a realistic solution to the Iraqi debacle (apart from recycling a Vietnam-era "Bring The Boys Home Now" mantra) makes me a lot less inclined in his direction. I'll still choose him in a heartbeat over the odious Hillary Clinton when it comes to primary time, but it might be a bit harder to pull the lever for him when the national election comes around.