28 October 2007

20 Minutes Is The New Half Hour

Because of the insane number of bands scheduled to play the Fest (I'm guessing about 180 offhand, though I gave up trying to count) and the limited amount of space and time in which they can do their playing, many, if not the majority of the bands have been limited to 20-minute sets.

I'm here to testify that this is a very good set length, perhaps the ideal set length, and one that should become an all-purpose benchmark, rather like the three minute song (two to two and a half for pop punk) or the 90 minute movie. There are exceptions, of course, mostly for the bands who have been around forever and have a whole host of classic songs that everyone (or at least someone) just has to hear, but the way I'm thinking tonight, any band that can't say what it came to say in 20 minutes needs to rethink it message and/or MO.

Day two of the Fest ended a bit anticlimactically for me, with the Sidebar, where Dear Landlord were playing and where I'd expected to spend the waning minutes of my 50s, so overcrowded that people were lined up down the block in the vain hope of getting in. I'd laughed at my friends for going in an hour earlier, but they had the last laugh, as I was left cooling my heels out on the sidewalk and finally deciding to call it an early night after a long and strenuous day. No birthday cake being in evidence, I stopped at the 24 hour Krispy Kreme for some donuts and decaf, and while I'm not all that familiar with Krispy Kreme establishments, being more of a Dunkin' Donuts man myself, I feel I have to share the news that the Gainesville Krispy Kreme is very possibly the worst smelling retail food establishment in the entire United States of America, if not the the entire Western Hemisphere. The stench, something like rotting lard mingled with rancid butter and decomposing body parts, hits you the minute you walk in the door, and leaves me completely bewildered as to how anyone manages to stand it long enough to order some donuts (which, surprisingly if not shockingly, are very tasty).

Tonight was a real party at the Krispy Kreme, in fact, with an exuberant white lady who'd just come back from the Florida Gators game drowning her sorrows over the Gators' loss by buying donuts for half a dozen adults and children who happened to wander in from an African-American church outing. "Hallelujah, we've been blessed!" one lady kept telling everyone, including yours truly, and I thought of putting a bid in for a free birthday donut or two, then thought instead of paying for the donuts of the person in line behind me, but ultimately rejected both notions.

Or perhaps I was distracted by the counter lady, an elderly African-American, unleashing a stentorian barrage of abuse at her white boss who'd been foolish or careless enough to get her in way while she was trying to get donuts out of the display cabinet. "How many times I gots to tell you stay in yo back room? You gettin' all underfoot, how the hell I supposed to do my job!" I almost thought she was going to give him a clip around the ear as he went scurrying back to his lair. It would appear as though race relations in the Deep South have undergone a bit of a revolution, at least insofar as the local Krispy Kreme is concerned.

Anyway, to recap the day: made it down onto University Avenue, the Fest's main drag, a little before two, just in time to be too late for the much-anticipated Max Levine Ensemble. They were just carrying out drums and mopping up sweat as I strolled in. Stayed for a some of Environmental Youth Crunch before stepping next door to Chez Subway for my breakfast sub, then back into the club for The Dauntless Elite, who put on with the best and liveliest sets thus far, and further enlivened it by speaking in charming and endearing Yorkshire accents (they're from Leeds), which filled me with nostalgia for my time in London, where a northern accent of any kind, but especially a Yorkshire one, is often the cause of instant merriment, functioning much a Southern accent in the United States.

Then it was time for Delay, the Columbus, Ohio identical twin-fronted power punk trio that is one of the most exciting live bands in existence today. In order to see them, I had to miss the Copyrights, also one of my favorite bands, but choices had to be made, and I think I made the right one. I think I've now been a Delay fan long enough that I can actually tell the twins apart, or maybe it's that Ryan has started drinking beer, leaving him with a more raffish and ruffled look than Austin, who has retained the edge. Just a theory, folks.

Caught a bit of Hot New Mexicans before joining up with the PPMB posse for a scenic tour of University Avenue, then back to 1982 (the club, not the year) for one of the best shows of the Fest (there have been several of these already) from Mississippi's One Reason. I'd never heard them, and had always assumed from the name they were some sort of youth crew posicore outfit, but not at all: they're a straight-ahead punk band with powerful, anthemic female/male vocals and a crowd that obviously adores them. Way intense.

Then it was time for American Steel, who I last saw nine or ten years ago at Gilman, when they were in their first heyday as the darlings of all the Gilman kids who were too young to have seen Operation Ivy and Crimpshrine. Now, having apparently decided that Communiqué, their Interpol tribute band, wasn't working out, they're back to what they do best, and the crowd absolutely loved it.

I did, too, but not so much that I didn't cut out a bit early to see Boston's Witches With Dicks play some frantic melodic hardcore to a packed house at the Sidebar. They're nowhere near as slick as American Steel, but every bit as exciting.

On my way out of the American Steel show, I ran into my old friend Beau Beau from Avail, who I barely recognized at first, because his beard had gotten so long (not to mention his Davy Crockett coonskin cap, which I hadn't seen him sporting before). He told me Avail were going to sing Happy Birthday to me from the stage, which they ended up not doing (probably a blessing for all concerned), but Tim, their lead singer, did dedicate not just a song, but the entire set to me, which was, to say the least, rather touching.

I was watching from the back at that point (Avail crowds can get, shall we say, quite lively), but after receiving that dedication, there was no way I could stay there, and went charging up to the front of the stage, where I spent the better part of an hour fending off lumpy bearded stagedivers who seemed determined to land on me, and got a big sweaty hug from Tim in the midst of it all. Things really went off during the last song, sort of they way they do during the last few minutes of a fireworks display, and at one climactic moment, three stagedivers simultaneously crashed into my head and shoulders, causing me momentarily to think I'd dislocated or broken my neck.

This is going to sound great in the emergency ward, I thought: "Um, sir, you're 60 years old and you broke your neck in the pit at a punk rock show?" But I guess the years of t'ai chi and my new gym regimen have paid off, because the old neck stood up under the onslaught and I walked away sweaty but unbowed.

Things tailed off after that; I watched part of Dillinger Four, who if possible elicited an even more insane crowd response than Avail had, but who left a bad taste in my mouth when Paddy gave a shout-out to "Brooklyn cocaine." Ironically (though I'm not sure he would have seen the irony), just a few between-songs diatribes earlier, he'd been slagging off the 70s, which of course was the last time rock stars helped create cocaine chic (as well as launching a thousand lucrative rehab centers).

What else? Had an outstanding Cuban sandwich (it's a specific type of sandwich, not an ethnic classification), ran into Toby Jeg from Red Scare Records, who despite his ferocious and belligerent online personality, turned out to be jolly and friendly as can be, and had a few minutes to reflect on how lucky I am to be here at the Fest. Just before I left New York, Aaron Cometbus said, "Don't you think it's kind of risky spending your birthday there? It just seems like there are that many more things with the potential to go wrong."

And I thought maybe he had a point, but decided to do it anyway, and it's been nothing but awesome, beards, drunks and all. Most if not all people are totally friendly, there's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to good music, and even though it's not sunny, it's warm enough to stroll around in shirtsleeves all through the day and night.

I was telling somebody that ten years or so ago, I might have been afraid to come to an event of this type because there were so many punks who claimed to be mad at me for "ruining" or "selling out" the punk scene. I often did encounter hostility from complete strangers when they found out who I was, even at places like Gilman, that had been more or less my second home.

But not only has all of that faded away - or perhaps it's just that most punks no longer know or care who I am - but also, looking around at the numbers and the enthusiasm of the people here, any attempts to "ruin" or "sell out" punk would have been pointless anyway, because it's bigger and stronger and better than ever. And I just thought, wow, all these years and all these people, all this crazy, life-giving and life-enhancing energy and I'm still here, right in the middle of it. Someday, sooner or (hopefully) later, I won't be able to do this any longer, but right now, in this moment, I can't think of another place on earth I'd rather be.

27 October 2007

The Fest So Far

New York seems so far away at the moment, especially because my trip down here was not the straightforward affair it might have been. Knowing I was going to miss my old friends Pansy Division and the Avengers, who will be playing at New York's Knitting Factory on Saturday night, I made a side trip to Baltimore to catch them on Wednesday.

Baltimore looked better than I remembered it, perhaps helped by the fact that Matt from Dead Mechanical and the Sick, Sick Birds took me in hand and guided me to not one but two fine dining establishments, the first where we had an excellent Afghani meal. My review, apart from the very good food: "This place has tablecloths. I usually can't afford to eat at New York restaurants that have tablecloths."

We then had a second dinner with members of the bands (actually, just dessert for us) at the charmingly bizarre Zodiac Cafe and Bar, very close to the Lo-Fi Social Club, where the gig actually took place. It was a long and leisurely meal, full of scandalous sex and tour stories (I had none of my own to offer, but it was fun to listen) before we had to dash through the now-pouring rain for the show itself.

Which was good, but I'm in a hurry to finish this Fest post so I can get back to the Fest, so let's just cut to the following morning, when I caught a train to Washington DC's very impressive Union Station (never been there before; it puts New York's Penn Station to shame), where I had a few minutes to step outside and marvel at a few fancy buildings before hopping on the similarly impressive Washington Metro, which is just like San Francisco's BART (same builders, I believe) except that it's cheap and it works. Anybody connected with BART should be ashamed (if those vampires of public transit were capable of such an emotion) to see how much better Washington has done with its system. It took me to National Airport in 23 minutes for (I think) $1.45 (compared with 65 minutes, three separate trains, and almost $6 to get to SFO), and I got a plane to Tampa.

Tampa was the home of the much ballyhooed pre-Fest show, which turned out to be about a thousand drunken beardos, some of whom were actually quite nice, and about a hundred regular people milling around inside and outside a skate park on the edge of, if not right in the middle of one of Tampa's, shall we say, less affluent neighborhoods. All the bands sounded like Crimpshrine with beards, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending, but I couldn't stick around too late (apparently the show went on till 4 am), so I left around 11 and drove to Gainesville, rested up, and on Friday afternoon met up with PPMB luminaries Chris Grivet, Chadd Derkins, Carla Monoxide and Chelsea Short Attention for an alligator hunt which proved fruitless, though we did turn up a whole slew of giant snapping turtles.

After that I explored a bit of Gainesville before the shows actually started, featuring yet more bearded Crimpshrines, but also the poppier sound of the Methadones and the now almost legendary SoCal veterans Toys That Kill. We stopped in for about 45 seconds of Naked Raygun before Grivet proclaimed, "Okay, it's history and I've seen it, let's go." I will say that the NR singer looked as though he hadn't aged a bit since I last saw them sometime in the 80s. That was impressive. The music, not so much.

Apart from that, most of the time was spent hanging out on the sidewalks of University Avenue, watching the freak and beard parade stroll and stumble by. Oh, and at the very first show of the night I found myself standing behind my onetime business partner and co-founder of Lookout Records, David Hayes, whom I hadn't seen or spoken to (apart from a couple email/internet exchanges) in at least 10 years, probably more. He was sporting - what else? - a beard, and seemed rather startled to see me at the Fest, as well he might be, since up until a year or so ago, I would have been startled to see myself here as well. Unfortunately he left before anyone turned up with a camera, but maybe today or tomorrow.

Okay, I'm off to see the Max Levine Ensemble, Delay, Vagina Sore, Jr., the Ringers, possibly Avail and American Steel, and about 10,000 other bands. Next time you hear from me it will probably be my birthday, which starts at midnight tonight and, thanks to the end of Daylight Savings Time, carries on for 25 rather than the usual 24 hours. Wish me well or not as the case may be; the fact remains that I'm at the Fest and you're not! Well, except for you sad Festgoers reading this on your Blackberries, of course...

15 October 2007

A Plague Of Musos

It's old news now, because my life is so disorganized and chaotic that I can never manage to blog about things when they're going on, but last week was CMJ week in New York City, CMJ standing for, oh, I don't know, College Music Journalism or something like that? It's an annual dealie where thousands of writers, PR flacks, label honchos, scam artists and quite a few musicians convene in lower Manhattan for purposes of getting off their faces and running deals past, through and around each other.

I never participated in it during my years in the "industry" (perhaps you can infer why from the comments above, and it was a source of some chagrin when my successors at Lookout Records started laying out the big bucks not only to attend, but to put on major showcases. To be fair, though, many of the kids growing up in New York during that time (late 90s/early 00s) have very fond memories of those CMJ shows, and frankly, if I hadn't been such a grumpy puss, I probably could have come along and enjoyed them,too.

But as it was, I never attended a CMJ event until this year, and then only because various friends of mine were in attendance, in certain cases friends that I wouldn't be likely to see again until, well, at least next year. Foremost among them was Mr. Grant Lawrence, former (and perhaps future; there's increasing talk of a reunion) frontman for Vancouver's mighty Smugglers and present CBC radio personality. Grant was in outstanding form as he regaled anyone within earshot with amazing tales of people, places and the music business, all of which had at least some elements of truth to them, but which were equally well seasoned with a rather substantial dollop of fanciful invention. As they should be, Grant being a firm adherent to the "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story" school of thought.

Celebrity has clearly been doing Grant some good. Once the oldest-looking 25 year old in Western Canada or at least from Vancouver to the Sunshine Coast, Grant has somehow magically been transformed into one of the youngest looking 30-whatever-he-is-nows you're likely to meet. How exactly this has been accomplished remains a mystery to me, though I hope it doesn't involve the CBC's rather generous surgical benefits program.

Anyway, it was great to see Grant once more and be inspired by close communion with someone who lives so close to the beating, throbbing heart of rock and roll. I also found time to call in at the Weston acoustic show, where three members (sans drummer) dragged bales of hay, cowboy hats, chimes and a rain stick up onto the Mercury Lounge stage for an hour and a half of campfire-style singalongs and coruscating comedy, much of it courtesy of Dave Weston and the inadvertent humor of a rather intoxicated (or just plain loony) female audience member.

This was on Day 1 of CMJ; two days later I met up with Grant again at the Mint Records showcase, and by then I was all CMJ'd out. Anyway, if you noticed an unusual increase in the number of dark-clad hipsters and their limo-driven paymasters on the streets of New York City last week, now you know what was up. And you can safely forget all about it, until next year at the very least


The Marxist "Punk"

I don't usually have much time for Terry Eagleton, though I did appreciate his demolition job on Richard Dawkins's ridiculous The God Delusion. For the most part, however, Eagleton is one of a hopefully dying breed of obfuscatory lit-crits who helped turn muddled pedantry and sophism into an academic benchmark that did untold damage to the reasoning abilities of a generation of liberal arts and humanities undergrads.

Now that his brand of bafflegab is fading from fashion, Eagleton, naturally casting about for ways to sustain interest (and, more importantly, book sales), seems to have hit upon a winner by launching a feud with the family and heirs of Kingsley Amis. So far Martin Amis, Kingsley's son and an author of some renown in his own right (not a patch on his father, though, I think most would agree) has stayed largely above the fray, but other members of the Amis clan have weighed in, ensuring that this one should run for a while.

The fact that the Daily Mail, aka the Voice of Middle England, has dived into this brouhaha with such alacrity (three articles in less than a week) should indicate that Eagleton's strategy is working, though it's hard to imagine most readers accustomed to the punchy and pithy (well, short, anyway) sentences of the Mail would react to the tortuous and opaque prose favored by Eagleton.

And for all the invective Eagleton has hurled at Amis père and fils, it seems as though no response would be necessary beyond pointing out that Eagleton is a self-described Marxist. Doesn't his subscription to such a completely discredited ideology pretty much negate any credentials, academic, intellectual or moral, he may have acquired along the way? It's like an astrophysicist expecting to be taken seriously after informing us he's a member of the Flat Earth Society, or a human rights activist who's still touting the virtues of National Socialism.

Just Like Old Times

When I was living/squatting/hiding out from the East Village in 1968, it was not unusual for young hippies like myself to be approached by black panhandlers and/or scam artists who would try to guilt trip us into parting with our cash as, you know, our way of apologizing for slavery and segregation and all that sort of stuff.

Sometimes this would involve the good cop-bad cop approach, where one guy would be all menacing and threatening and then the other would be like, "Hey, don't be messing with him, he's not like most of them white people, I can tell he's cool, ain't that right, brother?" This particular approach once worked well enough (granted, I was very high on LSD at the time) to persuade me to accompany three unsavory characters down E. 11th Street past Avenue B, then generally considered the point at which all hope should be abandoned (and also, not coincidentally, where I lived) to get my head smashed in with the barrel of a gun.

Usually things didn't turn out that badly, though; more often a result satisfactory to all parties was reached with the handing over of a buck or two, sometimes but not always in exchange for some oregano or similar marijuana substitute. Even when they realized they'd been hustled, many white kids who'd only recently arrived in the city from more affluent suburbs felt a certain glow of accomplishment, thinking that they'd assumed their proper position in the urban food chain.

The knock on the head, resulting in my coming close to bleeding to death, disabused me rather more quickly of such romantic notions, and soon - it happened just as often in San Francisco and Berkeley - I could see what was coming before most hustlers could get a "Yo, brother" out of their mouths.

There were times - not often, but occasionally - where I'd hand over some cash, either because the guy's story was exceptionally good or because it seemed like the better part of valor, but even when I did, I rarely pretended to believe what I heard. And gradually people stopped asking. I don't know if that sort of appeal went out of fashion or if it just didn't look like something that would work on me, but until tonight it had been years - decades, more like - since someone tried the race card on me as a means of extracting cash.

It didn't start out that way. The guy followed me into Ray's ice cream and fries shop on Avenue A where I was getting my ritual black and white cone (Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder may have ebony and ivory; the black and white cone is my bit for racial harmony) before heading home for the night.

He was rattling a cup with a few coins in it and asked for some more "so I can get something to eat." The cloud of alcohol fumes enveloping him told a different story and I pointed that out. A lively discussion ensued for quite some time while Ray was refilling the ice cream machine, during which Ray would occasionally shout from the back, "Get a job, panhandling is no good!" Eventually I was almost willing to believe that the guy genuinely wanted something to eat, and though I wasn't going to give him money, offered to buy him some food.

Then things went downhill, when Mr. Beggar started spouting off about how Ray was "rich" and how his daddy must have given him the money to buy his shop, when in fact Ray had worked over 20 years as a dishwasher to earn the money. Then, perhaps even more unwisely, he claimed to be making more money than either Ray or myself and that he begged only "for something to do, to get out of the house."

At this point he whipped out a bottle of vodka and took a large swig, claiming that "I can drink if I want to," which had never been under dispute, only the matter of who was going to pay for it. I said that I wasn't going to, and perhaps unfairly withdrew my offer to buy him some food.

That's when it turned ugly. "I never got my 40 acres and a mule, either. You people enslaved me, you owe me now."

The appropriate reaction to this would have been uproarious laughter, but instead I got mad, pointing out that though he did look the worse for wear, I was pretty sure all the slaves had been freed at least 100 years before he was born and that neither I nor my ancestors were anywhere near this country when that whole slavery thing was going on.

By now the discussion had moved out onto Avenue A, and got uglier. "I don't need to ask for no money," he snarled, "I could just take it, you know." At that point I blew a fuse and started shouting that I was calling the police and for him to get the fuck away from me. This got quite a reaction from the peanut gallery of drunks and occasional spare changers who usually congregate outside the bodega.

At first they laughed at me, thinking I was being way too paranoid. Street robberies are not exactly common on that stretch of Avenue A; in fact, I can't remember the last time I heard of one. So I half yelled at, half reasoned with them, explaining just why the guy had set me off like that, and so impassioned was I that they ended up more or less agreeing with me. Or at least giving a pretty fair impression thereof.

Meanwhile the original beggar had slunk off into the darkness and I headed off for the subway, now only mad at myself for being such a doofus. As messed up as the guy was, I felt I was in the wrong for first promising to buy him food and then going back on the promise, and resolved to apologize to him if/when I see him again. At the same time, that whole reparations/"you owe us" scam really does set me off, whether being worked by street hustlers or professionals of the Sharpton-Jackson ilk.

But trying to reason with a drunk guy about the finer points of racial history or socio-economic theory? That's the kind of thing only other drunk guys have even a shred of an excuse for doing, and I haven't been drunk in over six years. In fact, one of the last times I got into a confrontation of this sort was when I was drunk, sometime in 2000 or 2001, and found myself wrestling with a crackhead on the rain-slicked pavement of Oxford Street over a lighter he'd borrowed and refused to give back.

It was a definite clue that something wasn't quite right with the way I was going about life, and I'm generally pleased to say that since I stopped drinking, voilà, no more wrestling with crackheads. But I found tonight's encounter disturbing for much the same reason: although I wasn't drunk, I was acting and (not) thinking dangerously close to the way a drunk guy acts and thinks. Perhaps it's time to take a hard look at my ice cream cone habit.

14 October 2007

"Moral Reasons" Or Just Plain Nuts?

I must admit that while I often lose patience with aging baby boomers (myself included), the ones that most stoke my ire are those who not only seem to have learned nothing from the decade-long plunge into drug-fueled nihilism that tried to pass itself off as a "revolution," but who continue to this day to fuel the flames of ignorance and misinformation by insisting that there was actually something noble and admirable about the 60s generation's flirtation with totalitarianism and violence.

The worst offenders tend to be those who weren't actually there at the height of the "revolution," who for one reason or another didn't make it onto the scene until it was becoming obvious to most sentient observers that as bad at the US government may or may not have been at the time, a bunch of fantasy-driven young terrorists drawing upon the likes of mass murder Mao Zedong for inspiration, were not likely to represent an improvement. Like most kids who show up on the scene when the scene has already evaporated or moved on, they tried desperately to be even more radical, even more outrageous than their big brothers and sisters.

Ward Churchill, the phony Indian who managed to lie his way into a lucrative professorship, was one such; 30 years after the scales had fallen from most people's eyes, he was still lauding mad bombers and bank robbers from the 60s and early 70s as American heroes, and calling for the sort of violent revolution that, in the unlikely event it ever materialized, would spell disaster and death for the people - especially genuine Native Americans - he claimed to be advocating on behalf of.

Another, considerably less well known, but similarly befuddled, is Ron Jacobs, who when not reminiscing wistfully about taking drugs at bad early 70s rock concerts, waxes equally nostalgic about the bomb-planting young fascists and mental cases of the Weather Underground. He's written an entire book extolling their alleged virtues, and regularly submits articles to Counterpunch pushing a similar theme.

In his latest piece, Jacobs muses over why young people who come to hear him speak about the 60s radicals "seem to be looking for some kind of psychological flaw in the members of those movements." Um, possibly because they're not on the same kind of drugs you were, Ron? I mean, we are talking (in this piece, Jacobs cites with some admiration convicted Weather terrorist Cathy Wilkerson, who hosted the Greenwich Village bomb making party that blew three young radicals to smithereens in 1970) about people who, by most accounts, were constructing anti-personnel bombs of the sort that routinely go off in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the West Bank.

Can't kids these days see, Jacobs wonders, that yesterday's terror bombers (does he feel similarly about today's?) were motivated by "moral reasons" and "conscience?" The fact that most of them can't cheers me immensely, and the only reason that I bother writing on this subject is that there are still young people - sometimes, like their 60s counterparts, motivated by the best of intentions - who still idealize or glorify the solipsistic megalomaniacs of the 60s "underground."

As I've noted here before, I knew and was quite fond of one of the Weatherpeople who blew herself up that day in 1970. A couple different forks in the road, a slightly different combination of mind-altering drugs, and it's quite possible I could have come to a similar end. But once the drugs wore off, it was painfully obvious just how tragically stupid the whole business was, and how fortunate I and many other 60s survivors were to have gotten out before the insanity reached a point of no return.

Of course for pampered scions of the ruling class like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn, there was no such thing as a point of no return; Daddy's money was able to buy their way back into polite society when the "revolution" didn't work out, but working class radicals - yours truly, for example - didn't usually do so well. Considering how much money my dad could have spared for my defense out of his Post Office salary, I might, if I was lucky, be getting out of prison right about now.

Oh, but there I go stirring up class warfare again, so perhaps I'd better cool it before someone mistakes me for a commie.

11 October 2007

Frisco Bloody Frisco

I'm in receipt of an email from the legendary Dallas Denery of the even more legendary band Sweet Baby, in which he admonishes me, "Please stop bashing the Bay Area in your blog. I love it and would live there in a heart beat. THE WEST IS THE BEST BABY!"

Well, I don't know if I can completely go along with that sentiment, though it was one I wholeheartedly shared for many years, say from 1968 until at least the early 90s. But since Dallas puts it that way, I do have to acknowledge that perhaps I've been a bit hard on the Bay Area, especially Berkeley and San Francisco. I've often explained that my feelings are not ones of actual loathing or even dislike, but rather more of disappointment that what I once unhesitatingly thought of as the best place on earth to live had become, well, not so much the kind of place I'd want to live at all.

But still, like Dallas, I would live there "in a heartbeat," the only difference being that in my case certain conditions would have to be met, most of them having to do with Baghdad By The Bay becoming a little less like, well, Baghdad. For instance, getting its crime rate down to at least something like New York levels (not too much to ask from what is essentially a small town, is it?) and putting an end to the practice of allowing its main streets to be used as an open-air asylum (and toilet, and shooting gallery) for the desperate and deranged.

Perhaps I gave up on Frisco just a minute too soon, for it seems as though the worm is finally turning and local residents reaching the end of their tethers with regard to the loony fetishization of feral behavior that has gradually transformed the City of Saint Francis from a welcoming bohemian haven to North America's most overpriced (albeit beautiful) slum.

The Chronicle has been running a series of articles on the problem of the "homeless" (the real problem of course being dysfunctional and antisocial people who in many cases do have homes, or could if they chose to). Nothing new there, but what has changed is the volume and vitriol of reader comments, such as these and these. It kind of reminds me of the way New Yorkers were feeling when, after 20 years of spiraling crime rates and a collapsing quality of life, they finally laid aside their traditional ultra-liberalism and tolerance and turned to Rudy Giuliani to sort out the disaster their city had become.

San Francisco's Gavin Newsom is as far from being a Giuliani as Frisco is from Manhattan, though you wouldn't know it from the squawks of the city's dwindling band of far leftists who see every attempt to maintain even the most minimal standards of civil behavior as jackbooted assaults against "the poor" and/or "people of color."

Never mind that it is only in their ideologically skewed world that a shortage of cash or a surfeit of melanin are inextricably linked with criminal and antisocial behavior, and that most poor people don't find it necessary to crap in doorways or roll around in their own drug or alcohol-induced vomit. The far left needs victims to act as poster children for its indictment of capitalism, and if that requires keeping thousands of damaged individuals on the streets and in turn destroying the social fabric that makes community possible, so be it.

My guess, though, is that the nihilists and Guardianistas (I refer, of course, to the SF Bay Guardian, whose scabrous rabble rousers make those of London's traditional left-wing paper look like pillars of the establishment) have finally had their day. Unable even to mount an opposition candidate to Gavin Newsom's re-election bid (whereas four years ago their boy Matt Gonzalez very nearly became mayor), they're swimming against the tide of prevailing political currents and now, it seems, popular opinion as well. I see big changes in store for Frisco in the next couple years, most but not all for the better.

On the downside, I might never be able to afford to live there again, though that might be an upside for certain San Franciscans who were glad to see the back of me. More importantly, I'm cautiously optimistic that sanity is finally returning to the city I once loved so much and - yes, I'll admit it - in my heart of hearts, still do.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

My trepidations about incipient senility notwithstanding, Sunday saw me put in a solid 12 hours of rocking and rolling, first at Day Two of the aforementioned Carlapalooza, latterly at the Lost And Found Saloon over in Greenpoint.

I didn't see all the bands at the Cake Shop, but of those I did see, my two favorites were, well, my perennial two favorites, the Leftovers and the Steinways. I know you may suspect me of being a one-man hype machine for these two bands, but I don't hesitate to mention when either of them is on less than top form, and have done so at times this past year.

However, this Sunday was not one of those times. Just off a several-week US tour (and having been kept up past 4 am by man-about-town Frank Unlovable), the Leftovers tore into their set at a whole new level of power and professionalism (the good kind of professionalism; i.e., their instruments were in tune, they didn't waste time in between songs, every song was tightly honed and fit into the set like jewels in a flawless Swiss watch). It's almost frightening to see music played at that level in - with all respect to the Cake Shop - what resembles little more than a basement practice space. I imagine it must have been a bit like this to see the Beatles in their Cavern Club days or the Rolling Stones at Richmond's Crawdaddy Club.

But as sensational as they were, the Leftovers didn't even take top honors on this Sunday. That distinction would have to go to the Steinways, who after a lull earlier this year while they developed new material, have re-entered the fray as - in my decidedly none too humble opinion - the best band in the USA today. Yes, I know the Ergs are far better musicians technically speaking - so are the Leftovers, for that matter - and certainly the Ergs have a bigger following, but as simple and unaffected as the Steinways are, there's something that ineffably sets them apart from and on a different plane from all other bands. Think Ramones in 1975 or Screeching Weasel in 1988: almost nobody grasped the full amazing-ness of those bands at the time, or foresaw the impact they were going to have on pop music and culture.

Am I predicting similar greatness for the Steinways? No, because they've already got similar greatness. Are they going to have a similar impact? Too soon to tell, but barring a breakup or one or more members developing a serious drug problem, there's no reason they shouldn't.

Sunday's show, which got underway when singer/guitarist Grath McGrath made a perfectly timed entry after spending much of the afternoon watching football back in Queens, turned out to be one of those magic moments when everybody simultaneously realized, "Hey, these guys aren't just our friends, they're also like this totally awesome band that I'd love even if I'd never met or heard of them before."

I'd seen something similar happen at the 2006 Baltimore Fest, but now there were new songs, new people, and a new level of ecstasy and excitement as virtually everyone sang along and all but threw themselves onto the stage to smother the Steinways in a great big puppy pile of mutual love and affection. Being in the slightly mopey mood that I described in the previous post, I was standing off to the side of the stage facing the crowd, and it looked exactly like one of those photos you see in books about some classic music scene from the past, be it CBGBs in the late 70s or DC in the early 80s, or Gilman Street later on in that decade. It made me feel pretty cool, too, that I knew about 90% of the people in that crowd. Not only are the Steinways a great band; they have the best fans, too.

A sensible person would have gone home after that, but remember who's talking here. Actually, I did go home, but only to grab my bike and ride over to Greenpoint, where the Modern Machines (yes, named after the song by SoCal's The Crowd) were playing along with three or four other bands (lineups and schedules at this rather louche drinking establishment are nearly always subject to great variation).

I'd already seen the MoMacs at the Cake Shop, but they'd mentioned that they'd be playing again that night with a band they highly recommended, who turned out to be the Thomas Function from Alabama, who with their slippery-slidey organ riffs reminded me of a kudzu-and-Spanish moss-encrusted Del Shannon if he'd had Ray Manzarek playing keyboards for him. The singer was so drunk he could barely stand up (at least that was the case when I talked to him afterward), but it was good jolly fun, even if by now it had gotten on toward one thirty in the morning. I thought surely that the party had to be over now, but yet another band, this one from über-punk Crown Heights, leisurely started setting up.

If I were them, I would have got up and started playing as quickly as possible, before what was left of the audience drifted away, but that's apparently not how things work at the Lost And Found. Just when their equipment seemed to be nearly ready, a couple band members nonchalantly wandered outside to smoke. I'd resolved to stay long enough to catch at least a couple of their songs, but this was getting ridiculous, so I hopped aboard my ragged bicycle and made my wobbly way home.

09 October 2007

Too Old To Rock And Roll?

Sunday was pretty much the first time ever that I felt too old to be at a punk rock show.

Now I don't really know what "too old" is supposed to mean. I've had people as young as 20 tell me they felt the same way, but for some reason I never did, even though I didn't attend my first punk rock show (either the Avengers/Nuns or Ramones/Dictators) until I was almost 30, and didn't play in my first punk rock band until I was 37. Hell, by the time most of that Gilman/Lookout/East Bay stuff happened, I was into my 40s.

And yet through all of that, it seldom if ever occurred to me to wonder whether I belonged there at the club or on stage, rocking out with people half my age (or less). Why should I start worrying about it now? One possible explanation is that now that i don't drink, I'm capable of observing social situations more dispassionately and objectively, but while that could be part of it, I've been off the booze for more than six years now, whereas these feelings of being out of place at the punk rock show have only just come up.

Another explanation is that I look (and sometimes feel) older now. Not that I was ever going to pass for one of the teen or twenty-something types who populate most punk rock shows, but until a few years ago, people generally figured me for at least 10 or 15 years younger than my true age. Hell, I was frequently getting asked for ID right up until around the time I turned 50.

No longer the case, however; I've grown used to people calling me "sir," and when I was crossing the country last week, one motel desk clerk asked if I was going to be claiming an AARP discount. And if that's not enough to make a guy feel over the hill, imagine my chagrin on discovering that most of my friends in the New York pop-punk crew have parents who are younger than me.

But there's the crux of the issues: some of these parents come to shows when their kids' - my friends' - bands are playing. They stand there politely, maybe looking a little uncomfortable, grimace slightly when the music gets too loud, and tell their kids, "That was very, um... interesting," before scurrying the hell out of there to do more age-appropriate things.

Whereas I know the music, and love it, find it more enjoyable than almost any other kind of music, and have little or no interest in age-appropriate things,l whatever they might be. STILL... at one point Sunday I caught myself whining about how the in-between-sets music was too loud and abrasive. (Well, it WAS; not only was it turned up to the level where normal conversation was impossible, it was also some kind of awful - albeit trendy - garage music that consisted of pretty much all high-end distortion.)

My complaining got the desired result: out went the garage music, replaced by pop-punk tracks played at a more intelligent volume, but despite this small victory, I felt even more like an old fart. It didn't help that I was wearing my new Ergs shirt, purchased only the day before and therefore not yet washed and not yet shrunk to the appropriate size. Even that wasn't the worst of it: as I should have known (would have known if I weren't too busy being an old fart - oh, and not having any other clean shirts), there were at least three or four other people there wearing the exact same shirt.

What's the big deal, you ask? After all, pop-punkers are renowned for wearing what amounts to a virtual uniform: band shirt, jeans, Converse All-Stars. The one thing they don't wear, though, is matching t-shirts. In fact, although few of them will admit to this, considerable thought goes into coming up with the shirt that will be most obscure and esoteric, and if nothing else, certain to be the only one of its kind at the show.

And while the Ergs, probably Greater New York's most popular band at present, have reached the point where practically everyone has one of the shirts, actually wearing one to a show kind of falls under the heading of the old Yogi Berra-ism about a popular restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's always too crowded."

But having the wrong shirt (only for this particular show; it's a beautiful shirt and suitable for wear almost anywhere else) can't have been enough to set me off into this self-pitying morass of "I'm so old" and "I don't belong here." If that were the case, and considering some of the more unfortunate shirts I've sported over the years, I probably wouldn't have left the house after 1987.

No, I think it's more a matter of realizing that as much as I love the New York pop punk scene, my role in it is and always will be somewhat delimited by the age difference. Most of us choose our social scene - or at least try to - because it offers us at least the possibility of meeting ideally not just one, but several of our basic needs in terms of human relationships. We don't go there exclusively in hopes of finding romance or friendship or intellectual stimulation or career opportunities, but the more of these possibilities that we find there, the more appealing a specific social scene is likely to be.

Most of the local pop-punkers are now at the stage (mid to late 20s into the early 30s) where they're settling down into long-term relationships or marriages, in some cases having kids, something I seem to have neglected to do when I was that age (or any other age, for that matter). People of my own generation are more likely to spend Sunday afternoon hanging out with the grandkids than rumbling around in the pit at a punk rock show, but while on some levels I envy them for that, I still don't feel ready to be a granddad, either literally (highly unlikely anyway) or figuratively.

In other words, I seem to be at an awkward age, which is really nothing new, since I seem to have been at one for as long as I can remember, i.e, back to when I was 3 or 4 years old. Too old to hang with the kids; too young (or at least too immature) to run with the grownups. I was trying to explain this to Aaron Cometbus, someone who I've known for more than half his life but who still seems at least partly like a kid to me, and he pooh-poohed the whole notion (to be fair, he does this with many of my notions). I told him I was probably the oldest punk rocker still functioning in North America; he laughed and claimed he could provide me with a list of at least "a thousand" who were older, some of whom would make me look like a snotty-nosed young brat. He could only name three such individuals on the spur of the moment, but promised to have a much longer list next time I see him.

Not that it matters; the way I see it, I can't quit the scene even if I want to. There's just nowhere else to go, at least not anywhere that both would have me and where I'd want to be. And if things go to plan, in a few weeks time I'll be celebrating my 60th birthday in Gainesville, Florida at American's biggest and craziest punk rock fest, surrounded by people half and a third my age. Weird? Kind of, I guess, but it sure beats a Metamucil-laced cake down at the retirement home. Oh, and for those of you who were hoping for an invitation to the big blowout birthday bash featuring Op Ivy, Green Day, Screeching Weasel and a host of other bands who've played a major role in my life, sorry, I guess you're going to have to wait for my 70th.

Let's Hear It For Global Warming

Truth in labeling: I didn't actually take this picture today, but I could have had I thought to bring my camera to Brighton Beach with me. If anything, there were even more people than you see here taking advantage of what might turn out to be the last day of summer. It may be the second week of October, but today the temperature hit 88 degrees (31C), and even now, at 1 o'clock in the morning, it's still 80 (26.5).

It's been like this all week, although today was the hottest day yet. Even out at the beach, where it's generally 10 degrees cooler than in town, even sitting just feet away from the water, it was just plain hot. The weather is supposed to start returning to normal tomorrow, but they've been saying that for days now. Today was supposed to barely hit 80, in fact, when it turned out to be an all-time record breaker, so if they're wrong about tomorrow as well, I'll be straight back to the beach come morning.

But as I went for one last swim this afternoon, I did it with the assumption that it would be many months before my next one, unless of course I manage to slip off to Florida or Hawaii sometime over the winter. And that made it exceptionally hard to drag myself out of the water, even though I was already late and getting later for an appointment in town.

There's something incredibly melancholy about the last swim of the season, and I find this ever more so as I get older. No longer is it just a matter of waving goodbye to the joys of another summer; there's also a growing consciousness of the dwindling supply of summers still remaining, a growing sense that while beach weather will always come around again, one of these years it will do so in my absence.

Of course I've been especially blessed of late by having two summers per year to wax melancholy over. It was only last March that I was saying goodbye to the Southern Hemisphere summer with a last swim at La Perouse outside of Sydney. But this looks like being the first time in four years that I won't get to Australia for some or all of their summer, and the first time in a lot more years that I'll face the full wrath of a North American winter. With that in mind, you won't hear me complaining if these 80 degree temperatures last right into November or December.

I know, it's terrible and selfish and unpatriotic of me to cheer for global warming when the polar ice caps are melting and the sea levels are rising. Rather stupid, too, considering that I live on a low-lying island. But hey, if you don't tell Al Gore, I won't mention it either. In any event, another day or two at the beach sure would be nice.

07 October 2007


Long one of the mainstays of New York City's burgeoning pop punk scene, Chadd Derkins is also one of its most loved denizens. His slightly more than passing resemblance to Seinfeld's George Costanza may have something to do with it, but his childlike enthusiasm for all things fun and/or funny is no doubt a bigger factor. But first and foremost on the list of Chadd Derkins' most endearing qualities has to be a heart as big as all outdoors, no, bigger than that, as big as all of New York City!

A couple of years ago the lovely Ms. Carla Monoxide, Chadd's longtime companion and sweetheart, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Serious illness can often put a strain on even the strongest of relationships, but while Carla was busy working on getting her health back (she's doing great now, thanks for asking), Chadd was getting busy as well: organizing Carlapalooza, a day-long concert in her honor, with all proceeds benefiting the National MS Society.

The first Carlapalooza took place on Carla's birthday, September 29, 2006; this year it's been pushed back a week so it wouldn't conflict with another local benefit show, and expanded to two days and two states. Today was the first show, and I made the supreme sacrifice of traveling not just out of New York City, but into the wilds of New Jersey for it. Thanks to the generosity of Matt Lame, who's up from Maryland for the weekend, I got a ride right from my doorstep to the front of the American Legion hall in sleepy little Secaucus, and as we pulled up, I kept saying, "You must have the wrong address, this can't be it."

The reason for my doubts was that I'd pictured some kind of cement block warehouse-type structure on some godforsaken industrial backstreets; this American Legion hall looked more like somebody's cute little red brick house, and was set in a nice all-American neighborhood, half-urban/half-suburban, with kids playing and houses decorated for Halloween. "There's no way the neighbors are going to put up with an eight-hour punk rock concert," I said, but as often happens these days, I was dead wrong. There was nary a complaint, the show went off smoothly, starting late but ending right on time, raised - by preliminary count, $1,230, and as we left the geezers (and I say this in the affectionate British sense) from the American Legion smiled, waved and called out, "Thanks for coming, come back any time!"

When I think of all the VFW and American Legion halls I saw wrecked by punk rockers back in the old days, I have to marvel at what punk rock - at least the pop-punk variety thereof - has morphed into today. At one point I was outside having what might be called a spirited discussion with a very nice girl called Melissa who was visiting New York City for the first time and who I'd just found out was not only a card-carrying member, but an active employee of the ACLU.

Okay, so I shouldn't have called her a commie, and I know perfectly well that she's not a commie (she admitted to socialist tendencies, but those are hardly uncommon hereabouts), but it did liven things up a bit. But in mid-argument, er, discussion, it came to light that she had a master's degree in - what else? - social work, which at least in principle meant that she was smarter than me and that I should shut up and listen rather than try to pick fights. But while I was momentarily being taken aback, I glanced around and noticed that I was almost completely surrounded by people with postgraduate degrees. A couple of doctors - chemical engineering and materials engineering, respectively - and several more masters, including - count 'em - three schoolteachers. My puny little bachelor's degree suddenly was looking even tinier, and I more or less had to fall back on the really shabby defense of, "Well, at least my university was better than yours..."

No, I didn't really sink to that level - I was tempted - but I was feeling a little intimidated. Not enough to make me shut up about my opinions, but almost. Anyway, what I'm trying to get at was how it flew in the face of all the assiduously cultivated stereotypes about dumb and nihilistic punk rockers. And to point out that if you want to hang out with some of these high-toned and high-minded people (yes, I'll be there, too, but I'm easily enough avoided), there's still another day of Carlapalooza to come. And this day, Sunday the 7th, offers not only the advantage of what might be arguably a stronger lineup than Saturday's show, but it's also accessible by subway, always a plus in the minds of New Yorkers.

Sunday's (today's) festivities get underway just past noon at the lovely Cake Shop on Manhattan's Lower East Side. It's only a tenner, you can meet some of the smartest and nicest people in New York City, hear some of the best and liveliest music being made today, help the fight against multiple sclerosis, AND still be home tucked up in front of the TV not too much after the street lights come on.

Weasel Radio

You'll need to have at least a passing interest in sports to get the full effect, but even if you don't know your Bears from your Cubs or your Packers from your Brewers, you should still tune into Ben Weasel's new radio show. As I noted before when Ben appeared as a guest on a local sports talk show, the man is a natural. I'm reluctant to wish him too much success in the world of radio for fear that he'll lose interest in at least occasionally coming out to play music for his fans (Insubordination Fest 2008: we're counting on you, Ben!), but it doesn't really matter what I think; Ben's got the perfect personality and presentation to go as far as he chooses as a radio star. And even if the sports angle puts you off, there's plenty of talk about music as well, and even a few tunes thrown in. Check it out.

04 October 2007

"Kafkaesque" Is A Greatly Overused Term, But Still...

A few months ago I accompanied my friend Brian, who'd recently lost his wallet, as he dropped into the DMV's "License X-Press" and walked out with a new driver's license in no more than ten minutes.

Seeking to emulate him, I'd turned up with my own paperwork: a California license to be turned in for a New York one, a passport to buttress claims to my identity, and my Social Security card. Well, half my Social Security card, actually; when I got it in 1963 it came stapled to a government pamphlet extolling the wonders of Social Security, and the idea was that you could detach one half the card to show to prospective employers and keep the other half in a safe place so you'd always have a record of your number.

Well, apparently it's the wrong half when it comes to the DMV: although it clearly displays my number and my signature (albeit in the painful chickenscratchings of 16 year old me), which are the two items the DMV claims it needs, they insisted on having the other half. Which, evidently, disappeared from my possession along with almost everything else I owned at one time or another in the 60s or 70s.

No problem, the cheery examiner assured me: you can simply nip up to 48th Street and get yourself a new Social Security card and probably be back here before we close at 4 pm (it was now about 1:30). Fine, I said; I'd already earmarked the day for dealing with bureaucracy, so might as well take a tour of the federal as well as the state branch thereof.

The entrance to the building on 48th Street was unremarkable, as was the elevator trip to the designated floor. It was only when I exited the elevator and strolled down the corridor that I realized I had blithely wandered into the anteroom of hell.

About 100 people sat disconsolately, some much more so than others, on rows of seats that all faced forward, much like the economy section of a jumbo airliner, only far less comfortable. I figured I'd stand instead, at least for a while, but quickly found that wasn't allowed. The guards were especially insistent that no one loiter near a window, possibly because they were concerned about people throwing themselves out in despair.

Although we were in midtown Manhattan, less than a block from the glitz, glamor, bustle and squalor of Times Square, I wouldn't say my fellow sufferers represented a cross section of New Yorkers. About 90% of the people present were black and/or foreign born, which led me to ponder whether there was some parallel Social Security system located elsewhere for white middle-class people, or whether the aforementioned WMC people are just so together that they never lose their Social Security cards or have a question about their benefits or are simply so rich and carefree that they don't even bother with Social Security.

Such was not the case with the people in attendance today. A few of them, like me, merely needed to replace their cards, usually for the same reason, i.e., the DMV, but almost everyone else had some Major Problem which needed to be talked about at great length, often at considerable volume as well. Bulletproof glass separated all the clerks from the clients, and I can't say that I blame anyone for thinking that necessary. In the two and a half hours or so that I waited, I'm sure at least a couple of clerks would have been strangled, bludgeoned, or otherwise damaged if anybody had been able to get their hands on them.

Not that they deserved it; in fact, considering what they had to deal with, the clerks were remarkably patient and obliging, putting up, for example, with one apparently retarded woman who repeated, "Can I ax you a question?" at least 100 times in the space of a half hour, every question being some variation of, "Can you give me some money right now?""

She was far from the only one trying, against all odds, for a quick loan or advance against their disability checks. It was kind of like watching a horde of dysfunctional children hitting their not especially sympathetic dad up for a boost in their allowances. The other main theme was people trying to get Social Security cards or benefits for their immigrant or convict husbands. It was, as the alternatively tearful and angry women insisted, tremendously important that this be done, but this begged the question of why the husbands themselves couldn't be bothered to come in. One woman, asked to explain this anomaly, indignantly responded, "He's with our dog."

At about hour two, I overheard some bad news: the guy who'd been sitting nearby and was, like me, there for a replacement card, was told that he'd be receiving it in the mail in "about two weeks." So much for rushing back to the DMV today, which by now was about to close anyway. Oh well, I'd waited this long; might as well at least get what I came for. Right about then, a pretty blonde Eastern European girl managed to miss her number being called while she was outside smoking or eating or something, which led to a screaming, crying, cursing contretemps with both security guards as she demanded to be let back into line. All to no avail, to the quiet satisfaction of the 50 or so clients still waiting to be seen, and at least she didn't get tasered, though it looked touch and go there for a bit.

That drama occupied most of the final half hour before I was finally called for my turn. "ID please," I was told, and handed it over; she typed a few vigorous keystrokes before saying, "Oh, you're from Brooklyn. You can't get a card at this office. You've got to go to the Brooklyn office."

I'd seen a sign downstairs cheerily advising, "Hey, Brooklyn, we've opened a brand new Social Security office just for YOU!" But nowhere on it had it said that we had to go to that office, just letting us know in the most friendly of ways, that we could if we wanted to. It wasn't until I was getting on the elevator to leave that I noticed some new signs on this floor that did in fact say, "You MUST go to Brooklyn." Hmm.

Oh well, one day shot; tomorrow I'd go to the Brooklyn office and that would be that. I went to the Social Security website, clicked on "Find your local office," and was directed to a relatively nearby facility not far off Bedford Avenue in the heart of Hipsterville.

Marched in, showed my paperwork and said what I wanted, only to be told, "Oh, for a new card, you've got to go to downtown Brooklyn." Resisting any temptations to ask just what they did do at this office apart from filing their nails while the usual clients sat in mute awful despair, I headed for downtown, only to find that I couldn't get there in time, bringing me to Day Three of my Big Social Security Adventure, today.

I showed up early this time, with not one but two books, prepared to wait as long as it took, only to discover that downtown Brooklyn had a different setup. No chairs, comfortable or uncomfortable, to sit and read while I waited my turn; here I was greeted by a long line of very unhappy people standing behind a metal detector and X-ray machine. Bad enough that it was a long line; it was also a line that wasn't moving. At all. Two guards stood there, apparently waiting for someone or several someones to exit before anyone else would be allowed in.

Assuming that once we got in, we'd then have several hours to wait, just as in Manhattan, I very nearly left, with the intention of coming back even earlier the next day, but before I could, a young man borrowed my pen to fill out his application, which was taking him a very long time, since he showed every sign of being unable to read. I didn't want to leave without my pen, so I stuck around while he got into a lengthy conversation with the guy behind me, who he'd recognized from their recent stay in the Brooklyn House of Detention.

Their chat about charges, outstanding warrants, and "those two crazy niggas" who'd apparently almost killed each other and/or some guards dragged on for so long that our group actually got called to go through the X-ray machine. "Get your belts off, jackets off, everything out of your pockets," the guards barked, leading someone else in line to comment, "Man, this is just like prison." A number of heads nodded in agreement. This was clearly a crowd who knew whereof he spoke.

After that ordeal, it was quite a shock to arrive on the sixth floor to find a nicely carpeted, clean and brightly lighted room where far fewer people waited to be seen than had been lined up behind the security checkpoint downstairs. We still had to wait in line for a while longer, but the man next to me helped the time pass quickly with a lively discussion about which types of weapons would be most effective in shattering the bulletproof glass in the event a guy wanted to take out a few of the clerks.

Bottom line: I've got a piece of paper that says I "should" be getting my new Social Security card in about two weeks, which means I can then go through the whole driver's license rigamarole again, and maybe, just maybe, I'll have a new driver's license in time for my planned trip to Florida at the end of the month. No driver's license, no trip, as my old one expires halfway through the trip, and unfortunately, the subway doesn't go to Gainesville. However, it's out of my hands now, and into the hands of those who may or may not make the right things happen. At least I've got a more comfortable chair to do the rest of my waiting in.

And I don't have to go through a metal detector to get to it.

All Across The USA: Coast To Coast In 4.5 Days

The plan was to blog my way across America, but unreliable internet access, unexpectedly long drive times, and a lack of sleep put paid to that.

The only entry I even got started on was titled The Streets Of Laramie, and recounted how I discovered that I'd never actually set foot in Laramie, Wyoming, despite having crisscrossed that state numerous times over the years.

In fact, there were a couple times that I fully planned on stopping there, and once where I even put on my blinker for the exit before changing my mind at the last minute and pushing on to the next town, but ultimately I passed the place by so many times that I forgot it was even on Interstate 80 (the semi-boring coast-to-coast freeway that passes through what has got to be one of the least picturesque sectors of what is otherwise an extremely picturesque state).

I'd somehow got it into my head that Laramie was off somewhere to the north, probably up in the vicinity of where Casper actually is. I'm fairly sure I've never visited Casper, either, but I could be wrong about that. Many of my Wyoming crossings were done in the rather bleary and drug-imbued 1970s.

But this was definitely my first time in Laramie, and it's my new favorite town in Wyoming, not that there was a profusion of contenders for that crown. I used to think it was Cheyenne, but on reflection, realized that I didn't care very much for Cheyenne after all, being infatuated mainly with the name and the fact that it was the closest thing to a genuine urban agglomeration between Salt Lake City and Omaha (okay, maybe Lincoln).

Maybe it's just that I once bought a pair of cowboy boots in Cheyenne that hurt my feet for several years afterward, and if you ask why I didn't simply stop wearing them, it's just that I figured that people from Cheyenne were sure to know more about cowboy boots than I did, that it was most likely my feet that were the problem rather than the boots, and that eventually they (my feet, that is) would adjust themselves.

Didn't happen, however, nor did my appreciation for Cheyenne ever increase, so even though I was running behind schedule on my cross-country hejira, I opted to stop in Laramie this time, mindful, too, of the time when I resisted all portents, including dire warnings from the I Ching, and pushed on past Laramie into the teeth of a winter gale and ended up nose down in a snowdrift at the bottom of a 30-foot cliff.

No snowdrifts this time (though there had been a light dusting a day or two earlier on the higher peaks), but there had been, I found the following morning, some horrendous wind gusts over the 8,640 foot pass that separates Cheyenne from Laramie, and considering how susceptible my rented 12 foot Penske truck was to wind - especially since I'd managed to ignore instructions and pack most of the heavy stuff on one side - chances are I would have ended up over another cliff only this time without the soft snow landing.

So downtown Laramie had a lot of bars, none of which I ventured near, but it also had Grounds, an excellent little cafe catering to hipsters, students, and the occasional punk rocker, offering wireless internet access and staying open till midnight, something you don't that often find in such allegedly cosmopolitan centers as London or SF/Berkeley. Not having arrived in town until after 11 pm, however, I didn't have time to finish a blog post, but I did manage to get a pretty decent meal, again something hard to find at that hour in those aforementioned faux-cities.

I'd hoped to have six days to cross America, allowing me plenty of time for sightseeing and visiting folks along the way, but the packing and - especially - the throwing out of many years' worth of accumulated junk took much longer than expected, so by the time I pulled out of Berkeley, I was a day and a half late, and a visit to my mother's house and the recycling center in El Cerrito (two separate locations, let it be noted) lopped another couple hours off my first day's travel.

So I only made it as far as Elko, Nevada when I'd been hoping for the Utah state line, and from then on it was a game of catch-up all the way. I considered skipping my visit to Hanny, my internet buddy in Lincoln, Nebraska, but fortunately I decided not to, and we had a pleasant walk through downtown and the state capitol, topped off by a pretty darn good Mexican dinner. Yeah, it put me another couple hours behind, but was well worth it.

And just what was the hurry? Well, I'd recruited a posse of van unloaders - Oliver, P Smith and JoeIII - who were expecting to meet me at 10 am Saturday morning, and if I missed that time slot, they'd all be off to the afternoon Steinways show at the mall - yes, at the mall, in Urban Outfitters, if you must know - and I'd be faced with trying to carry things that weighed considerably more than me up three flights of narrow, sagging stairs, and, face it, it wasn't going to happen. Half my furniture would have ended up on the street.

I fully expected that posse or no posse, my ridiculously big desk was never going to make the stairway cut, but with the aid of three strong men and an inch to spare (after I took the drawers out and removed the apartment door), it practically glided into place. In fact, I'm typing on it now. Whether it will ever leave this apartment again is rather another question. The wood matches the floors quite nicely in terms of color, though not in terms of sagginess: in the entire apartment there's hardly more than a few feet of level flooring, and given the number of creaks and other strange noises I keep hearing, I wouldn't be at all surprised if this whole house collapses at some point. It shakes just like a California earthquake whenever a large truck passes by or someone slams the door downstairs. At least I'm on the top floor, so there's not quite so much of it to fall on me.

I had another pleasant rendezvous en route, with Pete Repellent and his lovely partner Simple (formerly Simple81), outside a mini-mall Starbucks in Portage, Indiana, where Pete also insisted on buying me not only a coffee, but my dinner as well. The two of them, the punk rock counterparts to George Burns and Gracie Allen or Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, then provided me with a full-on cavalcade of comic bickering as I dined. Only two people who are truly devoted to each other can be that hilariously vicious.

Then it was back in the Penske saddle for one last marathon day that took me from the Indiana-Ohio state line back home to Brooklyn in about 13 or 14 hours. Northern Ohio looked far prettier than I ever remembered it being (it's still no Michigan, however), and Pennsylvania looked to be even more spectacular, especially at the higher altitudes, where the autumn leaves were approaching their peak. Unfortunately, a rather fearsome storm - the first hint of rain or even clouds all the way across - blew in on me, followed closely by a dramatically sudden nightfall, and I spent the rest of the way - and a rather long way it is, too - across Pennsylvania trying to navigate curves and dodge speeding semis. At one point we reached "the highest point on Interstate 80 east of the Mississippi," some 2800 feet, I believe it was, and were warned of a steep descent ahead. What they didn't tell me was that we'd be going downhill for the next 280 miles, something which I suspect is a physical impossibility, but which nonetheless seemed very much like reality.

The road didn't flatten out until halfway across New Jersey, but now I could see the lights of New York City ahead, and though I'd originally planned to stay outside of town and drive in early in the morning, I thought why waste the money on a motel when I was no more than an hour or two from home?

In principle, anyway; as it turned out I took the wrong exit in Newark and spent a nervous half hour or two blundering through ghetto streets at midnight with pretty much everything I owned metaphorically strapped across my back. After bouncing over some of the worst back roads and collapsing bridges this side of the Third World, I finally made it to the Holland Tunnel - thankfully there was no three-mile-long line like the last time I used the tunnel - only to be told by less than welcoming tolltaker: "No trucks!"

I tried protesting that I'd checked on the internet and that trucks were supposed to be allowed now, though they had indeed been banned for several years after 9/11. I was told to go to the Lincoln Tunnel, without being offered an explanation about why - assuming I was a terrorist with an enormous bomb rather than a bemused middle aged man with a truckload of household goods - it would be preferable for me to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel instead of the Holland.

Oh well; at least the Lincoln Tunnel wasn't far off, and there were signs clearly delineating the route to it. Signs which promptly disappeared, leaving me driving aimlessly but ever more frustratedly through the streets of downtown Hoboken, at one point getting caught up in the proliferation of drunken 20-something car and foot traffic in what is apparently a rather happening nightlife scene, and at another point getting stuck on some long drive along the river that offered no exits and took me nearly as far north as the George Washington Bridge, which I would have crossed except that the radio was warning of one to two hour delays going into the city.

So, finally found the Lincoln Tunnel, got charged double toll even though my (relatively) small truck had been paying the equivalent of auto tolls all across the country, and quickly found myself tied up in the jampacked streets of Chelsea and then the Village. At one point, owing to some spectacularly bad luck and/or judgment, I found myself trying to navigate through what was barely one lane of traffic on Bleecker at MacDougal, which, trust me, is not the most ideal route at 1:30 in the morning when the frat boys, rappers, drunken NYUers, and every other yahoo within 50 miles of the five boroughs is staggering and/or attempting to drive, albeit to no particular destination.

Enough complaining; I eventually made it to Brooklyn, found a parking place right outside my building, and the rest is history. I haven't even unpacked half my stuff, and I still haven't found a way to stop some of my furniture from sliding into the middle of the room, but the cable TV and the internet are working, my desk is in operation and looking every bit as messy as it did in its last home, and one of these days I might even plug in the refrigerator and go grocery shopping. I'm already thinking of moving again, maybe - if necessary - out of the immediate neighborhood this time, but for now I'm home, and quite happy and content to be so.