31 October 2008

Freezing In Florida

All right, 64 degrees (18C) isn't exactly "freezing," but it's not quite as tropical as one would like to expect after traveling all the way down here from a rather chilly New York. But last night it was down in the 40s, and when I tried to put the heat on in my hotel room, all I got was a burning smell and a jarring blast from the smoke detector.

Things have improved this morning, though, with the sun even showing some signs that it might put it an appearance sometime soon, hopefully by the time I head into Beautiful Downtown Gainesville to collect my official Fest credentials and possibly even watch a band or three.

I hadn't intended to watch any bands last night, and succeeded in that goal, though I came perilously close to it while hunting through BDG for a food establishment other than Subway (not that there's anything wrong with Subway) that stayed open after about 9:30 pm and found myself caught up in a crowd in front of 1982, the place that hosted my favorite show last year.

I wasn't feeling in a particularly punk rock mood, but before I could finish pushing my way through the assembled masses, I ran into Angry Ryan from the PPMB, who I always enjoy chatting to, and by the time we'd finished dissecting everything from the latest band gossip to the Obama-McCain race, I was surrounded by a gang of kids, one of whom was wearing a vintage Lookout Records shirt and gleefully informed me that he "hadn't been born" when Green Day were making their debut album 39/Smooth. Speaking of which, I was checking out the "iQuiz" feature on my iPod and discovered that one of the music trivia questions referred to 1,039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, the title of the CD that compiled their first two EPs along with their first album.

It was an odd feeling, since it was (ahem) I who made up that title, the band having failed to provide me with any alternatives (they'd pulled a similar stunt with the artwork for both the album and the first EP). Then of course I had to spend the next few years hearing from others about how they hated the name, not that any actual members of the band ever told me about it. Apparently the same was true of the Laurie L. "My Adventure With Green Day" story that appeared on the Kerplunk insert, thought I note that it now appears on the band's official fan site, so perhaps they've had a change of heart.

In other news, shortly after arriving in Florida I was excited to hear my very first presidential campaign advertisement. New York having long been a foregone conclusion for the Obama camp, I've neither seen nor heard any advertising there at all, whereas rather the opposite is true here in Florida. I've now been here about 18 hours and have heard enough election adverts to send me screaming for the exits. I've also noted that for the first time I've begun to get a little agitated about the outcome. I'd prefer to simply trust in the good judgment of the American people, even if it should turn out to be different from my own, but there's something about the nonstop barrage of lies and distortions that constitutes the Republican campaign that makes me feel downright queasy at the prospect of them running the country for another four years.

I wouldn't go so far as to claim that the Obama campaign is without its own faults and lily-gilding, but they've been the picture of probity and forthrightness when compared with the brazen pandering and outright lying to which McCain and Palin have stooped. If I were Obama, I'd repeat over and over what he said once last summer, "They must think you're really stupid." It boggles the mind that the party that presided over the biggest spending and the biggest budget deficits in the history of the republic can get away with accusing the Democrats - who under Clinton produced the first balanced budgets and surpluses in decades - of being unable to run the economy.

But before I get carried away and write the whole campaign off as a battle between Reasonably Intelligent and Just Plain Stupid, I need to remind myself that I'm no guaranteed genius either, and that I've picked wrong policies and wrong candidates plenty of times myself. So let's just hope that the public turn out to be smarter than me.

Oh, but speaking of Really, Really Dumb, popping up like a particularly ghoulish Halloween goblin was the tiresome specter of Ralph Nader, back in Florida to try and do again for the nation what he did in 2000: hand the election to the party that stands for the opposite of nearly everything he claims to believe. Naderites still get all whiny and defensive when you point out that despite his claims to be raising issues that the other candidates won't touch, the only, and I repeat ONLY thing Ralph Nader has accomplished by his Stassen-like presidential campaigns is to saddle the nation and the planet with eight years of George Bush. Nobody took Nader at all seriously this year, he having done such a good job of discrediting himself, right?

Well, maybe not. He's polling at about 3% here in Florida. Just enough to possibly tip the state to McCain. If Nader genuinely believes that by doing so he'd be performing anything other than the gravest of disservices to the country and the people he claims to love, then he's ready for the loony bin. God bless him, I know he espouses many excellent positions, and has done some very valuable work in the past, but if his campaign "succeeds" by drawing enough votes to put John McCain (and ultimately, Sarah Palin) in the White House, it would more than negate everything worthwhile he might have done in the past. Please, somebody, put this old goat out to pasture. We have a far better chance of achieving the goals Nader claims to stand for under an Obama presidency, and virtually no chance at all if Ralph's quixotic ego trip helps elect his opposite number president.

29 October 2008

Lunching In The Tuileries

I would have posted an update sooner, but the wireless internet in my hotel first went wonky and then went missing altogether. I had an excellent birthday, and thanks very much for all your good wishes, even if you didn't quite get around to sending them. After a rainy night the day dawned bright and clear, but almost wintry cold. It warmed up to about 10C/50F by noon, though, and after meeting up with some friends near the Champs Élysées I wandered along said avenue gawking at the many gawkworthy people and things, and thence into the Tuileries, one of the lovelier public spaces on the planet, and one which, I just realized, I hadn't visited in 28 years.

By the time I'd stopped to gape at a rather excellent juxtaposition of the Eiffel Tower with the Obelisque in the Place de la Concorde and then walked about halfway through the gardens, some black billowing clouds had spilled in from the north, creating a dappled, chiaroscuro effect that was all the more dramatic when splayed across the white marble monuments and buildings that lined the horizons. The effect was breathtaking, but then Paris often has that effect even when the weather isn't providing a supplementary light show.

I remember being impressed on my first visits to Paris over how old everything seemed, but at the time I was a very impressionable 20-something who hadn't traveled much outside the United States. In actuality, most of the city, at least the parts the tourists normally see, isn't that old at all, as France's heavily centralized government was able, when the whim struck it, to demolish pretty much anything it wanted and rebuild the city in a fairly uniform 19th century design. Despite London's having been bombed, burned, and urban renewaled by Soviet bloc-inspired housing engineers, you can still see more genuinely ancient buildings than you're likely to run into on a random stroll through Paris.

The difference is that London is a crazy patchwork of the classic, the post-modern, the stately and the hideous, the banal and sublime, whereas Paris hews to one remarkably consistent design. A magnificent design, a feast for the senses sufficient to make the heart sing out practically every time one turns a corner, but a design nonetheless. Can you imagine someone trying to rebuild New York City along similar lines? No, of course you can't, because you'd have several battalions of lawyers suing you for even thinking such a thought.

But however undemocratically Paris may have gotten the way it did, there's no disputing or quarreling with its undeniable elegance, an elegance which I've become convinced has a beneficent and uplifting effect on nearly everyone fortunate enough to live or work there. I'm trying to remember why, like so many Americans and Brits, I've been scornful of France, and for the life of me, I can't. One minute I'm voting for Obama, the next I'm turning into a full-on sympathizer with the fromage-munching surrender monkeys!

My mood might also have been enhanced by the precipitous fall of the euro against the dollar. I booked this trip just before the stock market crash left me feeling a lot poorer, but since it was already paid for, I didn't see much sense in staying home. I was expecting the cost of living to be shocking, but because the euro dropped about 25 cents in value, it turned out to be no worse than New York, and in a couple cases, even cheaper.

The Métro, for example: I don't remember it being so awesome (or shiny or clean) on previous visits, but if it weren't for the regrettable fact that it still shuts down at midnight, it could easily replace the New York City subway as my favorite public transport system in the world. Not only are there signs telling you exactly how many minutes (or on a couple lines, even how many seconds!) you'll have to wait for your train, the wait is very seldom more than 2 or 3 minutes. In New York and London people run like crazy when they see a train coming because they're afraid if they miss it they might be stuck waiting for an unconscionably long time for another. In Paris people stroll toward the train, because they feel confident there'll be another one along any minute now. And somehow Paris manages to provide this level of service at a price half that of London's, and, provided you buy a carnet of 10 tickets or a weekly pass, cheaper than New York as well.

I had a birthday lunch in an outdoor cafe/restaurant in the middle of the Tuileries. It was a little pricey - the equivalent of maybe $16 or $17 - but a week ago it would have been more like $22, and while the food was fine, I was paying more for the location. Later that night I had an outstanding dinner with some friends near the Arc de Triomphe for less than the price of a diner meal in New York. Speaking of the Arc, I'm sure I've been there before some time in the past, but I never remembered it being so all-fired in-your-face. That is one impressive piece of monumentry, but then nobody ever accused the French of being understated in that department.

Other observations: coffee is quite expensive, but in many cases you're really paying rent on a table for what might turn out to be hours, so you can't blame them. But despite Paris having thousands upon thousands of the best cafés in the world, Starbucks has proven to be a huge success here, with queues of people right out the door waiting for the opportunity to spend five or six bucks on a pale imitation of the coffee that's available on any corner for a buck or two cheaper. McDonald's is very popular in France, too, so go figure.

Also, despite nobody believing it could ever happen, France now has smoking laws similar to those in New York City and California, i.e., no smoking indoors at all. However, they've turned most of the outdoor seating areas into nonstop smokefests and played kind of fast and loose with the law by enclosing them with plastic or other materials to the point where they might as well be indoors. And in those areas that can't be enclosed, café owners are doing their bit for global warming by installing sidewalk heaters every few feet, to the point where even passersby can be tempted to strip off their coats and bask in the artificial summer.

But that was yesterday, and today I'm back in New York for a few hours before - this wasn't the best planning, I'll concede - jetting off again to Gainesville for the No Idea Fest, another thing I booked last summer before realizing that right about now I'd almost rather be staying home and enjoying my new apartment. But somebody needs to go down there and tell you all about the 18 million bands that are playing, of which I'll probably see maybe five or six or ten. And before you get jealous of me for running around in the Florida sun, I just checked the weather and it's currently 38 degrees in Gainesville. Roughly the same, if not a bit cooler, as it is in New York City. So I'll dress warmly, and if any of you have recommendations for bands I should see (or avoid), feel free to send them along. Hopefully I'll be back tomorrow night with a report from the front.

27 October 2008

Je Tombe Pour Paris - Encore Une Fois

In the fall of 1980 my friend David won an airline ticket in some contest. Needing money far more than a holiday, he immediately set about trying to convince me to buy it from him.

I wasn't especially interested, having already had a very hectic year of both foreign and domestic misadventures, but he persisted, pointing out that the ticket was valid for any three destinations, and would allow me to stay away for up to a year. The latter point sounded appealing, or would have, except that my parents were making their first-ever visit to California in only three weeks time, and I of course was expected to be there to welcome them.

Somehow David persuaded me anyway, and I took the ticket off his hands and planned a quick trip that would give me one week each in Paris, Rome and Cairo. Why those three cities, especially when I'd already been to the first two? I have no idea, but that's not germane to the story anyway.

I arrived in Paris on the 22nd of October, and was introduced to the obdurate bureaucracy of the Arab world when I tried to obtain a visa for the Egyptian leg of my trip. It took me the better part of a week of traveling back and forth across town before I succeeded in persuading the Egyptian embassy to fill two pages of my passport with an elaborate montage of stamps and licenses, and by that time I'd already missed my flight to Rome. Well, not so much missed it as simply let it go.

I'd taken up lodging in some fifth or sixth-floor garret in St. Germain-des-Prés, and fallen in with some of the local hipsters and street urchins (I believe SGdP was a good deal less posh in those days). After a few nights of guzzling vin rouge and babbling about philosophy until dawn, I figured I might as well buy a beret and a goatee and stick around.

I never actually obtained either item, but a week later, on my birthday as it happened, I took a melancholy wander around the city on what turned out to be a preternaturally warm and beautiful day for so late in the season. I remember spending a long while in the Jardin du Luxembourg and watching a puppet show, and later in the day I found myself sitting across the river from the Eiffel Tower. But as it got dark and a chill set in, I began feeling sorry for myself, what with being alone on my birthday, and decided to treat myself to a full-fledged sit-down meal in a genuine French restaurant (up to this time I'd been mostly living on fast food and takeaways).

I ordered lapin au moutarde - the first, and I believe only time I've ever had rabbit - and a bottle of wine, among other things, realizing that the bill was going to come to something like $25, which at the time seemed like a phenomenal amount. But when I asked for it, I was told that it had already been paid "par les mademoiselles-là."

I looked in the direction indicated by le garçon and saw two giggling girls who were at most about 19 or 20 and did not at all look like they could afford to be splashing out $25 on a stranger's dinner. I tried to persuade them that I was in a better position to pay the bill than they were, but they wouldn't hear of it, and instead dragged me off to someplace called "Club Romeo," a working class disco in some part of Paris I'd never seen before. It was kind of a New Wave version of the place where John Travolta and his oikish mates hung out in Saturday Night Fever, albeit with distinctly French variations like floor-to-ceiling mirrors, in front of which one perfectly coiffed young dandy was intently grooving to, naturellement, Generation X's "Dancing With Myself."

That was the beginning of a 12-day séjour replete with random dashes across town at insensible hours to destinations unspecified, glances pregnant with import that was never specified, and an endless variety of sighs, most but not all inaudible, all played out at a herky-jerky pace and in dimly lit surroundings that made it feel as though our world had gone all black and white. In other words, very much those arty French films I'd spent much of the 70s watching but seldom understanding.

Of the two girls, one was sharp and angular and the other round and slightly squishy - someone less charitable or less under the spell of Paris than I was might have said she was verging on overripe. Sylvie was the name of the edgy one, and despite having barely entered her 20s, already had a careworn and beset look about her face that you felt would not age well. Maryse was the other one, and all these years I've thought of her as "joconde," as in a combination of jovial and rotund (that plus the fact that we saw the Mona Lisa together), only to discover today that except as a proper name, there is no such French word.

Although Maryse smiled frequently, it was most often wan and wistful, and she harbored a deep sadness that only became fully evident on the last night I spent with the girls before flying back to California. Against my vehemently stated wishes, I'd been dragged to see Bette Midler's The Rose, a ludicrous vanity pic in which the normally talented Ms. Midler doubly miscast herself, first as a rock star, then as a heroin addict. I continued to express my dissatisfaction all through the film by sardonic comments and snorts of barely suppressed laughter, and at the end Maryse, literally in tears, called me une bête méchante and informed me that her mother was a heroin addict.

This wasn't the first time emotional fireworks had flared up among the three of us - in fact they were a near-constant - but they were by far the worst, and though we had patched things up by the time I took my leave, the spell had been broken. I may have written to them once after arriving back in the US, but never heard from or of them again. I should mention that the entire time we were together it was never made clear which if either of them I was expected to be with, though it often seemed that they were both vying for my affections, and nearly all the blowups that happened had their origins in my paying too much or too little attention to one or the other.

The plan, as it often is for a young American besotted with Paris and its inhabitants, was for me to make a quick trip to California to see my parents and get my affairs in order, at which point I'd return to Paris, presumably forever. As you might have guessed, it never happened, though it easily could have. In the many years since, I've stopped by briefly on a couple occasions, but never found that sort of connection with the city again. During all the years I lived in London, I never once took the opportunity to hop over on the Eurostar, and even, to my shame, joined in some of the French-bashing that flared up in the US after 9/11 and which has been a constant in the UK since at least the War of the Roses.

Well, at last I've come back, and can't help wondering what would have happened if I had followed through on my plan to move here in 1980. Presumably my French would be a good deal better instead of having noticeably deteriorated, but on the other hand, most Parisians seem to have learned English, a skill they either lacked or refused to display on my earlier visits. It's a bit frustrating, in fact; because it's no longer necessary to speak French, it's that much harder to relearn even what little I did know of the language.

Apart from that, however, the city is as beautiful and wonderful as ever, perhaps even more so, and tomorrow, my birthday, I will retrace some of my steps of that day 28 years ago, beginning with the Jardin du Luxembourg and then on to the Tuileries. I'm not expecting - nor even am I particularly desiring - a strenuous aventure of the sort that befell me way back when, but perhaps I will, just for old time's sake, stop in at the restaurant on the Boulevard St. Michel and order the lapin au moutarde just to see what happens.

By the way, I quite literally fell for Paris last night when I walked into one of those chains that are sometimes stretched along sidewalks at an altitude of 12 inches or so for reasons I've never quite understood - it's not as though they're really going to stop you crossing there, though in my case, I suppose this one did, as I went flying and landed flat on some very hard pavement with a rather frightening thud (at least the couple walking in front of me looked terrified). It's kind of a miracle that nothing was broken; I didn't even do any damage to my clothes, though my dignity was certainly shaken. But it was the kind of fall that in the space of less than a second could change everything - a broken leg or hip or skull could just have easily been the result if there'd only been an inch or two difference in the angle at which I hit the pavement. But it didn't, and apart from some aches and pains in my hands that I used to break the fall, I'm about as close to good as new as I'm ever likely to be and ready to venture out once more into these beautiful autumn streets in search of the perfect batch of pommes frites de la liberté.

24 October 2008

Brighton Breakdown

Despite their having left the Copyrights stranded in France, we couldn't pass up another opportunity to see the Zatopeks, so Wes, Georgina and I piled into the behemoth American Jeep Cherokee that Wes unaccountably imported to the UK when he moved over here from Los Angeles and motored on down the A23 to London-on-Sea, otherwise known as Brighton, the town made famous by Graham Greene and inedible rock candy.

Why Wes was so attached to his Cherokee that he was willing to put up with a wrong-sided steering wheel and its gas-guzzling ways in the land of $8 a gallon petrol (now down to a mere $6, thanks to the collapse of the pound against the dollar) I never knew, and for the first few months urged him to sell it at a profit to one of London's many gangsta wannabees, but as time went on and El Jeepo transported us very comfortably, safely and warmly to many of our West Country walking destinations, any animus I might have held vanished. And, it has to be said, even with its exorbitant petrol consumption, it was still cheaper than British Rail.

Our trip down to the South Coast was as uneventful as it was pleasant, and we got there just in time to see most of the Blankheads (the band mistakenly spell it Blank Heads, but it's hoped that they will soon see the error of their ways), who are quite a lively little Crimpshrine-esque outfit, made yet more lively by the addition of bassist/sometime singer Pippa, who stands front and center and plays somewhat the same role as Michelle in the Steinways, only more loudly, brazenly, and with an ear-splitting Cockney/Sarf London accent. You'd think, given the surfeit of Crimpshrine-inspired bands (why, there's a whole festival in Florida next week featuring about 180 of them), there'd be nothing special about yet another, but somehow there is, even if I can't put my finger on it exactly. The shirtless drummer looked as though he'd accidentally wandered in from Dazed and Confused (the movie, not the magazine), the other (male) singer delivered a most impassioned Jeff Ott-style growl, and I can't remember much about the other guitarist except that he was good; somehow it added up to something fresh and energizing, and I hope to see them again. The Gainesville Fest 2009 would be a particularly good fit.

The Hotlines, Brighton locals, drew a big crowd and didn't fail to please, though I was kind of meh about them. Excellent musicians, but undistinguished songs. The Zatopeks then hopped onstage and showed once more why there are unquestionably the best band in Europe, and why they're not headlining Milton Keynes Bowl or Wembley Stadium remains a mystery to me. Then it was midnight and time to go back to London. We traipsed up the hill in the wind and rain to where El Jeepo was resting, only to discover that he was in no mood to continue to do anything else. A lot of strange dimmmings and flashings of lights led one to the inescapable conclusion that either the battery was flat or the entire electrical system had taken industrial action.

Fortunately - extremely fortunately - Georgina turned out to be a paid-up member of the AA (that's Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous, for my American readers) and after a mere 80 minutes on a dark and windy Brighton hillside, a gruff but competent fellow called Steve turned up and put us to rights. Back in London at 3:30 am, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed about more mechanical breakdowns that left me stranded it various sorts of mountain fastnesses with ravenous polar bears on the prowl, but all's well that ended well, and even El Jeepo stands forgiven; it was a good night out.

17 October 2008

Little Britain 1, Copyrights 0

I'd feel pretty bad if seeing the Zatopeks and the Copyrights playing together was the only reason I'd popped over to this side of the Atlantic. Thankfully, I'd rationalized that I needed a little trip as a birthday present to myself (this coming Tuesday, if any of you want to get in on the present-giving action), and it seemed like a good idea to time it so as to coincide with the Zatopeks-Copyrights tour. If I'd known it was going to turn out like this, maybe I would have waited till November and followed Delay around instead.

Well, I didn't do too much following anyway; originally I was hoping to see half a dozen shows in France, Belgium and the UK, but as the time approached, things got pared down to only three shows, one in Paris and one each in London and Brighton. The only one that worked out turned out not even to be in Paris, but in a suburb called Malakoff (not nearly as grim as it sounds; it was sort of the Gallic version of Secaucus if you're a New Yorker or Barnet if you're a Londoner). So I rode the Metro out nearly to the end of the line and saw the Zatopeks and Copyrights play for a smallish crowd in the back room of what resembled a French sports bar. The reception from the Frenchies was a bit desultory, but one got the impression that they were about as excited as they ever get, apart from when they're ripping up cobblestones and beheading kings, that is.

So far so good. I was really looking forward to the next night's gig, even if it was in Brixton, not exactly one of London's garden spots (more or less a cross between Crown Heights and Trenton NJ). But the Windmill pub is a decent enough place, if a bit grotty, and as it would be something of a homecoming for the 3/5 German-based Zatopeks, I anticipated a large and lively crowd.

Well, the crowd was there, but not the Copyrights. Seems they'd tried riding across the UK-French border in the van with the Zatopeks, along with all their merchandise, and were rather rudely shocked when the UK customs authorities proved none too keen on letting them into the country. So not keen, in fact, that they turned them around and sent them right back into France, where they sit at this moment in an F1 hotel by the side of a motorway waiting for the Zatopeks to return and pick them up for the final two gigs in Belgium and Holland.

Everyone seemed genuinely shocked by this turn of events, even though I'd raised the issue the night before in Paris. "I don't think it'll be a problem," declared Fletcher, "the Zatopeks said they go back and forth all the time and have never had a problem."

Yeah, but the Zatopeks are British, I pointed out, while you guys aren't. I don't expect to have trouble being allowed back into my own country, but that doesn't mean I can bring along a few Mexican friends and tell the border guard, "Hey, it's cool, they're with me." But there's no sense in blaming the Zatopeks either; after all, one would assume that since the UK is part of one big happy European Union and since people and goods are allowed to move freely all through said Union, bands allowed to play in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, etc., should be allowed to do likewise in Britain. And in fact traveling between most European countries these days is not much different from traveling between American states.

But Britain has never adjusted to this new reality. A significant body of British public opinion was very much against the Channel Tunnel, presumably in the belief that if you put a hole under the Channel, hordes of Frenchmen and even less salubrious foreigners would suddenly come popping out of it, and while you can now travel from London to Paris with minimal fuss, almost like taking an extended subway ride, the return trip continues to be the kind of hellish ordeal that only British Rail and British Customs could devise, with long queues and nosy border guards demanding to know the purpose of your coming to London (how about because it's there, one of the principal reasons people have been flocking to great cities since time immemorial?).

The ironic thing is that despite its almost obsessive paranoia about maintaining its own separate borders, the UK is probably more awash in guns, drugs and illegal immigrants than any country in Europe, and the authorities seem absolutely powerless to do anything about it. However, the timid burghers of little Britain can sleep comfortably tonight knowing that Johnny Foreigner has not been able to sneak his pernicious brand of American pop punk with an eye to debasing pristine British culture or undermining the fragile British economy by flogging half a dozen CDs and t-shirts.

God knows I love this country and its people just as much as the one I was born in, and I still have many regrets about leaving it when I did, but one thing I don't miss is the incredible bloody-mindedness that still reigns rampant in so many quarters. But before I ride any further on my high horse, I should bear in mind that by all accounts, American customs and immigration is, if anything, even worse. And if you've ever tried taking your band back and forth across the American-Canadian border, you'd know that while NAFTA allows oil tankers, logging trucks, and billions of dollars in goods and money to flow freely between the two countries, a band not big enough to afford a license (aka a work permit) is begging to be taken out and crucified if they're not good enough at dissembling their way across the border.

So, next time, Copyrights (or any other band hoping to enter Britain): get out of the van, pretend you're a tourist, and ride across as a foot passenger. "Even crusties have known that for ages," opined Sean Hard Skin, who stood disconsolately outside the Windmill, having come specifically to see the Copyrights. Well, as the Copyrights themselves put it, "Shit's fucked but what can you do?" The Zatopeks were still awesome, and will be again tomorrow night at the Prince Albert in Brighton.

14 October 2008

Back To Normalcy

It was actually the promise of "a return to normalcy" that swept that paragon of Presidential virtue, Warren G. Harding, into the Oval Office and set the stage for one of the most corrupt, exciting and disastrous decades in American history.

The disaster, of course, wouldn't become plain for all to see until some years after Harding abruptly left office, his death only slightly attenuating his claim as the worst President in US history, at least until George W. Bush came along. Apart from a phenomenal amount of corruption to which he may or may not have been a witting party, there was little to distinguish Harding apart from his mediocrity, but as Nebraska Senator Roman Hruska famously declared, mediocre people were "entitled to a little representation, too."

But what put me in mind of Harding's "normalcy" schtick was the collective sigh of relief on Monday when the Dow Jones soared nearly a thousand points and investors, like children emerging from a haunted house, began to allow that they'd never really been scared and how they'd known all along that it hadn't been a real stock market crash. Or, even if it had, we'd now hit bottom and were on our way back to, erm, normalcy.

The euphoria didn't last long, and by Wednesday we were Armageddon-bound all over again, something that might/should have added an extra fillip to the presidential debate, but probably didn't. I say probably only because I saw only bits and pieces of it shown after the fact, just enough to have it made more evident than ever before that John McCain is batshit crazy, and that's putting the most charitable spin on it. He's still trying to convince us that Obama is some kind of dangerous radical, but on present form, the only danger likely to emanate from a President Obama is that of his boring us into stupefaction.

Don't get me wrong; I've come to quite like the guy. But either he's holding a lot back for fear of alienating potential voters, or beneath his carefully cultivated surface there's nothing but more surface. Nevertheless, I'll happily vote for him, which marks the first presidential election I've been able to do that since... well, I don't remember when. George McGovern in 1972, maybe, but I was on 10 hits of acid at the time, and not just any old acid, either, but a dark blue version of Orange Sunshine marketed under the moniker of Midnight Sun.

At the time it didn't strike be as the slightest bit remarkable that someone whose brain waves compared unfavorably with that morning's scrambled eggs was being allowed to help choose the leader of the Free World. I was convinced that if I pulled the lever with sufficient élan while chanting the proper mantra, "the vibes" I'd thereby send out into the system would connect to the neural grid of America's collective conscience and guarantee a McGovern victory.

I walked out of the polling station and into a warm neon rain; back at the hippie house, we waited expectantly for the results to be announced, and I at least was genuinely shocked when it took the networks a minute or two to declare Richard Nixon the winner of one of the most lopsided landslides in history. I was absolutely staggered, gobsmacked, as I'd come to say in my as yet unforeseen English future. How could it be possible that tens of millions of Americans had somehow failed to tune in to my cosmic message? I was so involved in ruminations over this mystery that I completely forgot about the vow I'd made: that in the event of a Nixon victory I would fly to Washington, douse myself in gasoline, and incinerate myself Vietnamese-monk-style in front of the White House.

Well, that was then, and look how far we've come in only 36 years! Well, at least I'm not on acid anymore. And America looks poised to elect its first president since John F. Kennedy with more than two syllables in his name!

Back here in Planet Brooklyn, a couple of developments. Okay, this isn't Brooklyn news per se, but New Jersey's Ergs are breaking up for reasons too sad to recount here. However, they've planned one last weekend of shows which are shaping up to be, well, mega, at least by any standards that generally apply to sort of semi-famous band that's only barely been heard of outside of a very specific, relatively small, but rabidly fanatic scene. At any rate, people are flying in from all over for this, and it feels a bit like the last Operation Ivy show, where 1,000 people somehow crammed into a 250-capacity Gilman to mark the end of an era that hadn't really begun yet.

So too with the Ergs, who while enjoying the passionate, mad, unreasoning devotion of several hundred pop punk devotees in the greater New York-New Jersey area, have only just begun to achieve recognition on a broader scale. They may not go on to sell a million records after they break up, as Op Ivy did (their breakup show was also their record release show), but then again, they just might. At any rate, I'm taking every opportunity to see the Ergs during the next four weeks, and you should, too.

With that in mind, I went down to the rather grandiosely named Danbro Brewery Warehouse in East Williamsburg (aka Bushwick) to see the Ergs open for the Dillinger 4. I suppose it may have been a brewery at one time, but now it just smelled like one, with five hundred or a thousand punks, hipsters, and beardos stumbling, swaying, and barreling (see, there's that brewery theme again!) around. Unfortunately I got there too late to see the Ergs, whose set was rather violently truncated when the stage collapsed underneath them, and had no interest in seeing the Dillinger 4, especially after having endured Paddy's spectacularly unfunny rock star rant about "Brooklyn cocaine" at last year's Gainesville Fest.

I stuck around anyway, mostly for the sake of socializing with the PPMB crew, who were out in force, having braved the unspeakable journey from the nether realms of Queens, but also to take in the atmosphere. The warehouse felt like an old school punk rock venue in inverted commas, slightly contrived but with a genuine frisson of danger. Not so much from the neighborhood, which might have been risk 10 or 15 years ago but is inexorably being hipsterized now, but from teh warehouse itself, which, like the stage, looked as though parts of it could collapse at any moment.

A visit from the fire marshal and/or the police could have yielded enough violations to keep promoter Todd P tied up in court through the rest of the noughties, but this event seemed sufficiently on the DL to forestall that likelihood. Among the less salubrious aspects: liquored-up fatasses jumping off of amps and the lighting tower into the crowd from an altitude of 15 feet or more, porta-potties instead of plumbing, and wholesale violation of the smoking laws despite there being a perfectly wonderful outdoor balcony from which one could not only pollute the air to one's heart's content, but also admire the rugged brick structure of the warehouse and a spectacular full moon on an impossibly warm October night. Fly in the ointment, or perhaps quite a few flies: that's also where the porta-potties were sited.

Anyway, I watched a little bit of D4; they seemed to be playing better and spending a lot less time trying to be comedians than in Gainesville, but any advantage thus gained was more than nullified by the abysmal sound system, which despite possessing sufficient volume to blow the entire assemblage halfway to Canarsie, delivered little more than a massive booming echo chamber through which one got occasional hints of guitar and vocals, but not much more. By the time the show was over, half the people I knew were outside, but a fun night nonetheless.

The reason I was late and missed the Ergs was that I was moving. Yes, again; my third apartment in less than two years in Brooklyn, and all of them on the same block. The new place is a wonderful change from the attic hovel I've been infesting for the past 13 months, but getting from there to here involved carrying everything by hand down three flights of stairs, approximately 200 feet down the street, and up another flight of stairs. I had the much-appreciated help of Nato and Danny's moving services to get my ridiculously giant desk and some other large items out of there, but the following two days it was just me, one trip at a time, each round trip involving eight flights of stairs. I estimate that the move involved approximately 50 such trips, which means that in two days I've climbed the Empire State Building nearly four times. And here I was feeling bad that I didn't get to the gym.

So now I'm settled in, but not really; my desk is here and I'm sitting at it, and the internet is working, thanks to some generous neighbor's unrestricted wireless connection, but nearly every other tangible aspect of my life is scattered somewhere on the floor around me. I have two days to put it into some sort of order before taking off for my birthday trip; the thought of coming back to see multiple piles of rubble still adorning this otherwise splendid apartment is highly dispiriting. As I moved the last couple dozen boxes and milk crates, I found myself devoutly wishing I'd thrown most of this stuff out several moves ago, and wondering when or if it will ever prove fruitful to have held on to all this junk for so many years. Well, it's here now, and so am I, and maybe in the morning I can make some sense out of it. But right now, it's off to bed, perchance to dream of little elves who will come scampering in during the night to sort it all out for me. On the off chance that they don't turn up, however, I'm going to need some rest.

13 October 2008

The Lengthening Shadows

I suppose it's inconsiderate of me to disappear for a few weeks and then return with a pro forma political diatribe that offers not a word of explanation as to where I've been or why I seem to have deserted the world of electronic letters.

Yes, well, I have no explanation apart from alienation or sheer laziness or a crisis of the spirit or, erm, sheer laziness. Every day I think all sorts of thoughts, often taking the trouble to craft them into eloquent or at least elegant sentences that cause me to think, "Now that would be an excellent topic for a blog post," only to reflect further that, "Oh, but it's late, I'm tired, I have to get up early in the morning, and besides, what do I have to say that hasn't already been said and won't get me laughed at?"

Unfortunately, the answers that the cosmos (aka the space between my ears) most frequently hurls back at me are "Yes" and "Nothing." So then I stomp around in an inarticulate snit, perhaps run a few laps around the track in McCarren Park (I'm up to three miles on a regular basis now in the unlikely event that you cared), and curse the gathering darkness.

By which I don't mean the economic and political Armageddons looming on the horizon, though they're sufficiently gloom-inspiring all by themselves, but rather the inexorable retreat of the sun toward the southern hemisphere and the shorter days and chillier nights that trail behind it. The corner of the park where I do t'ai chi, a location bathed in sunshine from May until September, will spend the next six months swathed in shadows cast by nearby buildings. The running track still gets sun over all but the southern quadrant, but that won't last much longer either. And soon the feeble bits of sun that manage to work their way through the winter murk won't even put a dent in the frigid winds howling down from the north.

It seems kind of stupid to be whining about the onset of winter at the moment; apart from a coldish spell that fell upon us in the first week of October, we've been enjoying some of the most beautiful weather imaginable these past several days. Even now, after midnight, my windows are all open and I could comfortably stroll out into the street wearing no more than a t-shirt and jeans. And this is supposed to carry on for most of the week to come.

But I'm not fooled; this interval of what used to be called Indian Summer (perhaps it still is; I'm just guessing that some identity politics crackpot or other would have put a stop to that usage by now) makes it all the more clear what lies ahead: three, four, maybe even five months of bundling up in heavy clothes and dashing as quickly as possible from doorway to subway and back again. No more time for leisurely street corner chats or lolling about in the park until three in the morning on one of those summer nights when eternity doesn't seem like such a very long time after all.

Autumn used to be my favorite season and October my favorite month, and not merely because it's my birthday month (if anything, the contrary, since I've a long history of not particularly successful birthdays). But something has changed, and now it's all about summer. The whole rest of the year seems to be about wishing it was summer, anticipating summer, or grieving summer's passing. Probably not the best way to live for someone who insists on dwelling this far north. But then what would New York be like if it had Miami's (or Honolulu's) climate? Very different, I'm guessing, and not necessarily in a good way.

Anyway, I've chosen to live here and it seems as though I should at least make a stab at embracing the nine months of the year that aren't summer, especially considering that at my age, three-month years tend to spin by rather quickly. And life seems to be looking up, despite rampant disaster in the economic sphere. I'm cautiously optimistic about the election, I've just found a new apartment down the block which is about a zillion (well, half zillion, anyway) times better than my current hovel, and at the end of the week I'm off to Paris to see the Zatopeks and Copyrights and celebrate my birthday.

Of course I'm a little concerned that if things continue to deteriorate at the rate they've been, I could find myself overseas the day they close down all the banks and declare our currency worthless, and thus end my days as a vieux clochard in one of the less renowned arrondissements.

Last week my niece Gabrielle Bell and I went to see Alice Munro speak, and it filled me with dreams of Ontario, the flat, nondescript and superficially uninviting southwest corner thereof where many of my ancestors inexplicably chose to settle, and where Munro, who could at this point live anywhere she wished to, continues to dwell. There was something very comforting in her flat, slightly clipped tones that evoked memories of a dozen or more aunts and cousins who displayed that same matter-of-fact devotion to simply getting on with it, a quality I see in Gabrielle herself when she tackles her drawing, even if she's barely ever set foot in Ontario.

I think she and I will make a pilgrimage up there someday soon, the only question being whether to do it now and risk the early onset of a Canadian winter, or wait till spring, which can be a pretty fickle and unreliable commodity in those parts. For me personally, I'd prefer to ramble across Ontario in the bleakness of November than the perennially false dawn of April, but that's probably just me being moody. I should get to bed. Big day of moving tomorrow.

11 October 2008

We're All Socialists Now, Comrade

Given that he's writing for the Telegraph, it's not likely that Simon Heffer will see the above sentiment as a salubrious development. But like it or loathe it, it recognizes an ineluctable fact: the radical, ideologically driven devotion to the principles of "free" markets and enterprise that has reigned triumphant since the days of Ronald Reagan is now dead as the Wall Street cat that hasn't managed so much as a desultory bounce during these past ten days of Black October.

It's a bit edifying to see the Masters of the Universe scramble like so many squealing mice for their bailout of government cheese, in much the same that the class bully goes bawling to his parents the minute some upstart has the temerity to bloody his nose, but given that we're the ones expected to pay for this disaster - not to mention suffer its consequences - it's scant consolation.

Like many people of my generation, I grew up steeped in parental tales of the Great Depression, riddled with a gnawing guilt about wasting money or failing to either use or save every scrap of anything that might ever come in handy, and deeply suspicious of any person, corporation or institution that seemed to exhibit a cavalier or proprietary attitude toward the nation's wealth. My father did most of the griping - a clear case of horses for courses, as I'm sure you'd agree if you'd ever met the man - but as it turns out, most of his anti-capitalist bias, including his 1936 vote for Norman Thomas, was motivated by his loss of $300 in a 1932 bank failure. Apart from that, he had a relatively cushy Depression, even going off to study at art school for a couple years in the mid-30s.

My mother, on the other hand, was made homeless when her parents' house was repossessed, leaving her family to shelter in the unheated attic of acquaintances from church, something I never knew until more than 70 years later, when she almost tearfully described the shame she had felt over something she, as a bewildered and frightened 12 year old, had had absolutely no control over.

All the worst tales of the Depression seemed to revolve around the early 1930s, even though some of the most dire economic conditions were yet to come later in the decade. But it seemed as though once the do-nothing (or, perhaps more accurately, the do-all-the-wrong-things) Hoover administration had been turned out of office and replaced by Roosevelt and his New Deal, the spirits, if not the bank balances, of the people never sunk quite so low again.

So in at least one sense we're very fortunate that the Crash of '08 has come at a time when we're only three months rather than three years from an election that could and almost certainly will alter our future as dramatically as any in memory. Note that I didn't necessarily say whether this alteration will be for the better or worse: while I grow more convinced by the day that the election of John McCain - and his eventual replacement by a President Palin that would ensue with the grim certainty of a Greek tragedy - would be a disaster of greater than Hooverian proportions. I know I'm not alone in feeling that McCain has managed to squander the fundamental respect that he enjoyed from most Americans, even dyed-in-the-wool Democrats - by resorting to a mean-spirited McCarthyism and ill-considered opportunism that - I never thought I'd see the day - actually makes the present occupant of the White House look good - well, not so bad, anyway - by comparison.

I don't say this lightly; it was less than six months ago that I could have imagined myself possibly voting for McCain. Back then I thought Barack Obama, despite his rhetorical gifts and statesmanlike demeanor, was simply too far to the left on too many issues. Although he's managed to allay my suspicions in some areas, I still fear he might turn out to be more of a Carter than the Roosevelt (either one will do, but preferably FDR) we clearly need.

And yet, just as we were told - whether correctly or not - about the bank/Wall Street bailout, we don't have a lot of options in the matter. A McCain-Palin presidency would likely usher in a depression on a scale that even veterans of the 1930s might be unable to imagine. At the beginning of that depression, Americans were without virtually all the government assurances and insurances that we've come to take for granted in the intervening 70 years. The government was able to introduce ideas like Social Security, bank deposit insurance, stock and banking regulation, job and infrastructure programs, none of which brought immediate relief, but all of which began the absolutely necessary process of restoring people's hope and confidence that things were ultimately going to turn around.

Today we have all those programs and more, to the point where one of the only tools left to the government is to flood the market with newly minted - and thus increasingly less valuable - dollars, to the point where there exists a very real possibility of the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world doing an Iceland, i.e., collapsing into national bankruptcy. When that happened to New York City in the 1970s, the rest of the country could barely suppress its snickers and Schadenfreude over how the mighty had been brought low: can we expect any different from an international community that feels - rightly or wrongly - that it has been unjustly condemned to live in America's shadow during this past half century?

Right now it looks as though Obama, despite the contemptible depths to which McCain has shown himself willing to stoop, is likely to sweep into office in a landslide, much as FDR did in 1932. Will he be up to the task of uniting and inspiring a nation on the scale necessary, not to mention bringing in the sort of brain trust that will be needed to extricate ourselves from the calamity that unregulated and unconstrained avarice has brought us to? We can only hope, comrade, we can only hope. At this point we don't have a whole lot of other options.