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These Are the Crazies in Your Neighborhood

17 Dec

Back in my old neighborhood, there was a guy who lived in a private junkyard right next to an industrial launderer a few blocks from my house. He put together a makeshift shelter out of the body of an old Volkswagen Beetle and some dirty blue tarps. No one would have known he was there except that he had to make regular forays into the non-junkyard world to buy himself forty ounce bottles of Budweiser beer. Pass by the junkyard around ten o’clock in the morning, you’d hear the clanging of shifted metal as this guy hauled himself out of a scrap heap to panhandle. Pass by again around three in the afternoon, you might catch him shuffling back home through a hole in the fence, hauling a grocery bag laden with brown bottles of beer. I considered him a whacked-out wino, part of the natural scenery. He was only one of maybe two dozen drunken adults wandering thoroughfares from Main Street to Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens. You’d see them with their Army-issued field jackets and free t-shirts from various cigarette promotions, begging for change and openly drinking right next to the very bodegas that sold the brew.

And it wasn’t just my neighborhood, but every neighborhood I visited growing up. Times Square was littered with as many as a hundred stumbling, disheveled people, often sleeping openly right on the sidewalks. Friends’ suburban neighborhoods in Long Island each had their special crazies, often lurking around the local strip mall or panhandling at highway exit ramps. I called them bums, I called them drunks. I called them winos and homeless people and crazies. I paid them no more mind than a lamp post or a mailbox, these people were everywhere and I took it for granted that this is what society looks like. Where did they come from? How did they end up living in a small junkyard in Flushing? These were the kinds of questions I never asked. They may as well have been birthed right there in the gutter, weaned on cheap beer and raised by greasy rats.

Things are no better today. The homeless Vietnam Vets of my era have largely died off, to be replaced by homeless veterans from more recent conflicts. You’ve got junkies and schizos and people having loud conversations with antagonists visible only to them. There’s a guy who sits outside of my office and beats a stick against the bottom of a soup pot for hours at a time. You get used to them, let loose a little change here and there, but for the most part you blow by these people, since to stop and help everyone in need seems an insurmountable task. You might feel sympathetic, you might feel annoyed, but one thing people rarely think is that these people might be dangerous. What danger could a malnourished looney pose to a well-fed guy that’s got all his marbles? So we allow ourselves to become complacent.

Part of this complacency is borne, I think, of despair. What should we do for the mentally infirm? What can we do? We can lock them up and pump them full of Thorazine until their medical insurance runs out, then they’re back out in the wild. There are no miracle cures, no way to reason with someone who is perpetually hallucinating. We can intervene on our obsessive friends and family, we can commit our suicidal children, but there’s not a lot of help forthcoming for the strange dude lurking on the street. It’s assumed that there’s some dreary procedure in place to handle these outlying integers of society, but the fact is that there’s nothing satisfactory. Prisons end up picking up as much mental health slack as they can, and then only after someone has been convicted of a crime. Very often, that’s too late.

We live in a time that we can mitigate our anxieties with medication and indulge our narcissism in a therapist’s office. Many of us seem to accept the fact that modern life will drive you at least a little crazy. But why does this have to be the norm? Isn’t a society that drives you insane a failed society? And what about those without health insurance, do we accept them as regrettable casualties in the war to figure out what the hell we want to do with ourselves? Sadly, I have no answers, only more and more questions. Because the truth of the matter is that we’ve always had crazy people, and we’ve never known quite what to do with them. Maybe we should privatize mental health hospitals, make a business out of incarcerating the insane. But then I’d worry that I might ultimately be given a rubber room right next to yours.

We’re All in the Same Cult

12 Nov

I never get approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s one of my life’s sad truths. I see them often enough, standing outside of my local subway station, clutching copies of Watchtower and Alive! magazine. I’ve noticed them strolling around the neighborhood in pairs, ringing doorbells and attempting to spread the gospel. But somehow, I always get overlooked by these well-meaning weirdos, and honestly I can’t help but feel like I’ve been snubbed. Am I that obviously doomed to eternal damnation that I’m not worth their time? Or perhaps they don’t want me in their exclusive little club because I look like I’d be too difficult to shame. I know I dress like I’ve got nothing left to lose, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear the Good Word. Because honestly, that shit cracks me up.

There’s a tendency among smug assholes like myself to view the devout as a bunch of brainwashed rubes. It seems like the more fanatically followers adhere to non-secular rules, the more bizarre those rules are. It makes sense, I suppose: you can’t exactly half-ass snake handling or self-mutilation to please your ethereal alien masters. Spaced-out diatribes by Moonies and Hare Krishnas lead us to believe that behind the barricades of your average religious compound are a bunch of vapid airheads who have completely lost touch with reality. But that’s not necessarily true, as I learned from Kyria Abrahams’ memoir I’m Perect, You’re Doomed, which describes her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness in late twentieth-century Rhode Island. You can be a wackadoo who believes that Jesus Christ is fascinated by your masturbatory habits and be really into The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

I learned a lot about Jehovah’s Witnesses from this lively and hilarious book, and the culture of shame that keeps meat in the Kingdom Hall seats. But I was more interested to learn of the familiar dysfunctional aspects of the author’s upbringing. She had a lot of the same stupid thoughts and feelings that any kid has, but all couched in this belief that these were the trappings of the mortal, and therefore inconsequential world. Where one kid might anxiously worry about their grades because they wanted to secure a good future, the author felt that it didn’t matter since she’d inherit the earth eventually anyway. However, she still experienced anxiety over the stuff she didn’t have, the friendships that were at once tenuous and vital, and the inability to actualize. These are things that all kids feel, whether they think that a hundred and forty-four thousand chosen people will sit at God’s right hand in Heaven or not.

And maybe that’s why I haven’t been approached by any Jehovah’s Witnesses, because I come across as an unapproachable jerk who will probably make trouble. Which, incidentally, I would. I mean, these people believe that they’ll inherit the earth and live in peace with lions and bears, for crying out loud. How awesome is that? One of my favorite parts of I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed is when the author was cruising around the neighborhood, looking for homeowners to pester with the True Word, fantasizing about which homes they’d occupy once all of the non-Jehovah’s Witnesses vanished after the Apocalypse. So essentially, after the Rapture, they can traipse into my apartment and see the copy of Answer Me! and various morally stumbling influences that would have made me a poor candidate for eternal life in the first place. Your sins always find you out.

Besides writing a worthwhile book, Kyria Abrahams also writes for and tweets hilarity from @KyriaAbrahams. Check her out!

Here’s Why the World Owes Me a Living, Part Two

8 Nov

Here’s why the world owes me a living: I never got to play in a plastic ball pit.

I think that our tendency to perceive successive generations of children as having is easier than we did is an invention of the twentieth century, because prior to that time American children were treated largely as small adults. There were no board games, no playgrounds, no mass-produced toys or even very much kid-friendly literature. Except for offspring of the wealthy, kids were expected to work as soon as they were potty-trained, often some of the most dangerous jobs to which their small sizes were best-suited. Then the new century dawned, and things changed–for a lot of reasons, really. Advances in hygiene and education happening simultaneously with the Industrial Revolution meant more healthy children and fewer job opportunities. Labor laws changed so that they couldn’t work anyway, and mandatory public education kept them off the streets during daylight hours. Children, in the 1900s, were beginning to be treated like children, and all manner of industries sprouted up that catered specifically to them.

By the time I became cognizant in the early 1980s, my parents’ generation must have thought that bratty fucking kids were running the world. Relatively speaking, we were. In 1880, the average family would bring in just enough money to cover rent, food, and some needle and thread to mend worn hand-me-down clothing. In 1982, I’m sure my parents spent a full third of their income in Transformers toys that I broke within hours of pulling it from the box–sometimes as I pulled it from the box. I was being so consistently entertained by cartoons and kids’ shows and movies that I became almost completely inured to it, watching hours upon hours of television and absorbing nothing but the nagging need to get more Transformers. The world was my oyster, and still I would not know what it was truly like to be obscenely coddled because I never got to play in a plastic ball pit.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: those little pools of hollow plastic spheres that you see in McDonald’s playgrounds and Discovery Zones. It’s important to note that McDonald’s PlayLands were not always foam-covered jungle gyms and ball pits. When I was younger, these recreational spaces were made of porcelain and stainless steel, and consisted of various tooth-chipping devices dressed in the McDonald’s commercial characters of the day. There was an Officer Big Mac climber, which was entered via a claustrophobic, entubed ladder that led to the interior of his head, a Mayor McCheese merry-go-round, which was one of those self-propelled turntables that my family referred to as “the throw up machine,” a Hamburgular swing set where you swung from his outstretched, criminal arms, and a few other implements of whimsy and torture. Around 1987, at least in my area of Queens, these PlayLands changed, partly to suit McDonald’s new commercial campaign that didn’t include this colorful cast of retards. It was also a softer, gentler playground, all colorful and plush and safely contained by waxed rope nets. Of greatest interest to me was the plastic ball pit, which I believe to be the best simulation of swimming in a pool without needing to get wet. I believe this to be true, but have never experienced it myself, for when the ball pit arrived at the local McDonald’s where I grew up, I already surpassed the height requirement that would allow me entry to the damned thing.

Indeed, I was too tall for ball pits everywhere, from Chuck E. Cheese to Action Park. Should I get rich, I intend to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool with hollow plastic balls so I can capture this missed experience. But really, I will never be able to fully capture the experience of being a kid in the generation after mine, all stuffed with Fruit By the Foot and Sunny Delight, staying indoors and watching hours upon hours of original kids’ programming on Nickelodeon because my mom found out how many registered sex offenders lived on my block, being shielded from any instance where a woman’s naked breast or the implication of sex might pass my circumference, and shucking my shoes to play in plastic ball pits with other favored children. It’s made me a harder, colder person than those from the generations following mine, and perhaps that’s for the best. When the zombie apocalypse happens, I’ll know to contact Inspector Gadget and won’t waste time trying to get service on my smart phone.

Bully For You

10 Oct

I wasn’t the victim of a prolonged bullying campaign as a youngster, indeed I doled out far more than I got. Sure, I was taunted at times, mainly for being a nerd, but these were occasional epithets shouted from passing cars or from positions of safety across the street. In high school, there were a few objects of my own derision–slighter kids that I perceived as being more nerdy than I–but even that was little more than an occasional sarcastic comment or humiliation. I don’t know that any of the kids I poked fun at harbor dreams of vengeance against me today, but I’d hope that they don’t. If the best revenge is living well, then they may savor their victory over me because my life is a fucking mess.

I saw plenty of peers bullied more ardently, of course. There were more than a few children who gave up their lunch money on a daily basis to a kid one or two heads taller than they. Some girls couldn’t traverse certain hallways for fear of having their hair pulled and clothing ripped clean off their bodies by other females. And yes, I can remember some kids getting the shit beaten out of them for no reason other than being different. These aren’t pleasant memories, and in my adult state I wonder why I didn’t take some kind of stand and renounce these oversized teenagers and their bullying ways. Then I remember that, at the time, I was a teenager myself, and it was all I could do to maintain the status quo. It’s not like I was glad to see these poor saps get punched in the stomach and their jackets thrown into trees where they could not be retrieved, I was simply glad that it wasn’t happening to me.

There’s no great excuse for bullying, and far more intelligent people than I have written founded words as to why it happens. But there’s one thing about the bullying that happened when I was young versus bullying today: it ended after school. Maybe this is more of a New York thing, where we leave school by hopping on various city buses and subways, returning to densely-packed apartment buildings containing tenants of every strata. I suppose if your school enrollment is the sum total of the few hundred kids in your small town, you might get shit after three o’clock. But when school ended, behind front doors and before an afternoon of shitty cartoons, the bullied could have their respite. Today, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Kids are connected to each other 24/7 via a plethora of electronic means, and the ability to humiliate another has increased tenfold. I recall a story where a girl’s love poem was xeroxed and posted all around the school for everyone to jeer at. She was embarrassed and spent an entire day scouring the campus to eradicate all traces of her creativity. Nowadays, one can set up a multimedia website dedicated to dishonoring another person’s whole existence. That site can be forwarded around the world, until your shame is global.

I think that my generation and even older farts than I need to realize that bullying today is different than when we were younger. We have a collective tendency to dismiss bullying, to regard it as character-building and largely inconsequential. That was true in my school daze, but no longer. Certainly, I entertained dark fantasies in youth of murdering my every antagonist and exacting satisfying revenge on those I perceived as enemies. But I also had fantasies of looking up particular teachers’ skirts, or becoming the most popular kid in school by performing some undefined heroic act. They were fantasies, ones which I wouldn’t and couldn’t act upon in my frenetic state of hyper awareness. Today, it seems every school has its “freak out,” where some kind of violent act by a bully’s target or targets is ferreted out and sometimes enacted on the student body. The idea of committing violence at school is nothing new, but the reality of its occurrence once or more per semester certainly is.

I don’t have any suggestions on how to stop bullying, to be sure I don’t even know what are the exact causes. Surely bullies pass their own self-loathing down the line to kids, who then turn around and bully others. But one thing we should not do is dismiss it, to suggest that bullying can be dealt with through talking or that our kids should “pop ‘im one” to stop an assault. Because bullying is not the same as it was when we were younger. Kids are dying over this shit, now tell me what kind of character is built from that experience? The only lesson learned there is that life is cheap.

I Knew I Should Have Started Up that Suicidal Doomsday Cult When I Had the Chance

13 Jun

Just finished reading Seductive Poison by Deborah Layton, one of the few survivors of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978. She actually defected from the group, named the People’s Temple, some months before, and was instrumental in sending Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate matters in Jonestown, Guyana. His visit triggered the events that would ultimately lead to the mass suicide of almost a thousand people at the behest of charismatic and mentally bonkers leader Reverend Jim Jones. That much I knew before reading the book, and many more irrelevant particulars besides (like Jim Jones selling pet monkeys door-to-door early in his ministering), but I had never read a first-hand account of what went down inside Jones’ jungle compound. It actually makes me realize that I haven’t read that many consequential memoirs. While I am drawn to clunky history books in general, I don’t often learn about events from the people who actually experienced them.

Anyway, it was a pretty gripping book and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it, even if they consider themselves experts on Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre. Delving this deeply into the mindset of someone who actually a resident of Jonestown is a chilling and humbling experience. I’ve always lumped this tragedy in with other wacky cult activity, and assumed that the people involved were either very stupid or very, very stupid, and so were separated from their basic civil rights quite easily. If they weren’t being fleeced by some huckster, they’d be blowing their money on the lottery or hoarding shit from the Home Shopping Network or otherwise get tricked by any of society’s many legitimate and illegal confidence games. In a world populated mostly by Larrys and a few Moes, these are the Curlys. Fodder for P.T. Barnum in one era, for David Koresh in another.

I see how closed-minded that thinking was, and how I’ve never really given serious consideration to people that get involved with these groups. It’s not a matter of being naive or stupid, but of wanting structure and guidance. Folks ensnared within cults, within paranoid militias, within terrorist cells don’t make the transition overnight. They start by looking for answers, some kind of frame for an otherwise meaningless existence. Someone might attend a lecture where they are exhorted to face and overcome their greatest fears. They might pursue that line of thinking and attend more lectures and workshops. A year later, these people are Scientologists and they’ve cleared their bank accounts to discover that our mental anguish was caused by Darkseid and his diabolical Omega Sanction. Or something like that.

It should come as no surprise to my trillions and perhaps quadrillions of loyal readers that I was no shrinking violet in high school. Yes, the unabashed nerd over whose words you lovingly pore was flush with pals in my teen years, owing mainly to our shared drug abuse but also due partly to my winning personality. I was somewhat of a leader to various high school outcasts, a distinction I neither sought nor disabused, and because I was well-read and articulate several chums sought my counsel (my standard advice: let’s get more pot). When I left for college, I largely sloughed off these would-be friends, in part because I was tired of maintaining the aloof image that masked my lack of self-confidence, but also because I didn’t know what to do with these kids. We had a lot of ideas regarding how to expend our youthful energy and idealism, but none of them panned out because we were so stoned all the time. I wish I had started up a pothead doomsday cult with that gang of weirdos. Our mantra could have been: “We will all commit revolutionary suicide to protest bourgeois oppression…tomorrow.

Doing the Right Thing is For Morons

2 Jun

We humans always do the right thing. It’s true! “Right” and “wrong” are subjective principles by which we guide our lives. Everyone can justify their actions, even if they are colloquially wrong we will convince ourselves we deserve the small pleasures derived from being bad. “I’ve had a rotten day, I can eat this entire carton of ice cream,” we might mutter to ourselves while filling shopping carts with crinkly packages of carbohydrates. “I lost ten bucks last week, so getting back too much change at the corner store evens things out.” Perhaps in a cosmic sense it does. But in a cosmic sense, money is a pointless construct that exists in our minds and nowhere else.

Even serial killers believe they are doing the right thing, as prescribed by the voices in their heads and their strange sexual urges. Many in the secular world seem to hold on to this belief that karma exists, that good things happen to good people and deviants always get theirs in the end. That simply isn’t true. Life is pointless and brutal, and there is no ethereal reward for making nice just like there are no punishments for being an asshole. Perhaps you are a member of some religion that has promised an eternal reward for a lifetime of servitude. If that’s the case, then your mind is already so warped that other people’s potential motives are as foreign to you as Martian wine. Your versions of “right” and “wrong” are all written down in some ancient tome full of subtext and hidden reasoning and you don’t apply critical thinking to anything but liberal politics.

There is no inherent equity in the world, and that can be proven. There is no justice for the deer whose fawn is eaten by wolves, there is no justice for the guy who careens off the road because he was cut off by some asshole in traffic. Existence is a string of meaningless and disparate events that are not tailored for or against your favor in any way. Rich people continue to get more wealthy while entire nations starve. Child abusers are exonerated by the Pope while child daycare becomes less and less affordable. There is no balance, there is no yin and no yang. There is no justice in the world, it’s just us. And most of us are repressed balls of rage, just biding our time until we can vent on those weaker than we are. That’s human nature.

How do I know that there is no justice in the world? I learned today that Gary Carter, Hall of Fame catcher and one-time player for the New York Mets, has brain cancer. Gary Carter was a central figure on the 1986 Mets team that won the World Series, not just for his skill behind the plate but because he was the only clean-cut gentleman in a baseball club full of philandering goons. Keith Hernandez would give locker room interviews while smoking cigarettes, Lenny Dykstra showed up drunk to most practices, Darryl Strawberry couldn’t stop touching the nose candy. But Gary Carter was always out there signing baseballs for the kids, promoting clean living and good behavior, flashing his bright Canadian smile from beneath the shadow of his brim, displaying thumbs up to everyone facing his direction. The Nationals didn’t respect his Expos Hall of Fame number and still, he kept smiling. He’s an active philanthropist who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to public schools. He has over three-hundred home runs for crying out loud! So what part of the cosmic plan is Gary’s brain cancer? What is the universe trying to tell us? Doing the right thing is for suckers. Be sure to kick a puppy on your way home from work today.

You Would Be the First to Get Vicked

26 May

Nostalgia is big business. The biggest concert tours in the world are, for the most part, fueled by people’s nostalgia for their youth, when they gave a shit about music. eBay exists primarily to supply upwardly-mobile adults with rescued and rehabilitated toys from their childhoods. I think that the business of nostalgia was invented by Joe Franklin, who used to have a late night talk show on WWOR TV that ran for something like ten billion years. People have always gotten wistful for the good ol’ days, but it was Joe Franklin who dusted off those relics of the good ol’ days and stuck them under harsh studio lights for people to fawn over. Stories of yesteryear no longer need to be passed down from generation to generation, you can now record and relay the actual artifact for future historians and pop culture junkies to puzzle over for all eternity. So you have many lenses through which to view history, be it through the land disputes and wars which have created the world’s borders we know today, or through a subtle progression of the Coca-Cola logo.

There’s so much media reference for the twentieth century that it’s difficult to know which memories are our own and which have been created by nostalgic reverie. I remember when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, I was in the sixth grade and a special assembly had to be hastily arranged to inform students and allow teachers a space to cry. In my mind’s eye, I can recall sitting in a classroom with a bunch of students, watching the space shuttle lift off and soar towards the clouds, then suddenly vanish in a bright puff that spewed two other smoke trails to either side of the craft. I can recall everyone gasping and holding their hands up to their mouths, my teacher wide-eyed in shock at the occurrence. The thing is that I didn’t watch the Challenger lift off live on television, my sixth grade teacher didn’t arrange for us to watch it during class like some other teachers had. However, I saw repeats of the disaster after school and for many days afterward, viewed footage of classrooms around America watching the horror unfold on television sets rolled in by maintenance. So my actual memory of the event, which should include that I knew nothing of the space shuttle’s planned takeoff or that it had civilian passengers until after the fact, is faulty.

Despite my not actually being aware of its scope, I was alive and cognizant for Challenger’s fatal flight. But I can’t remember a thing about the 1970s. In fact, one of my earliest memories is watching President Ronald Reagan speak on television, Jimmy Carter a forgotten footnote already by the time I was five years old. I grew up on the Northeastern end of Queens, and if my parents took me to Manhattan before I was in kindergarten, I don’t remember it. I recall going into “the city” with my parents during the 80s, terrified of the rocking subway with its windows and maps darkened by spraypaint and indelible ink, the lights flickering off for minutes at a time, conductor announcements crackling loudly through distended speakers that rendered them completely inaudible. I remember a lot of filthy winos and fat cops who lazily watched people drinking and smoking dope outdoors from behind inscrutable mustaches. It all scared the shit out of me and made me want to rush back to my native Flushing with its endearing neighborhood drunks and white trash weirdos. These were the last vestiges of 1970s New York, though I couldn’t comprehend that at the time. And it looked fucking awful.

It’s easy to romanticize New York City of the 1970s, what with all of the books, movies and music that make it seem like a hedonistic utopia. Sure, flicks like Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham 123 ain’t all sweet. There’s a lot of anger and tension in the works of The Last Poets. But the ideal is that 1970s New York was a place where you could get away with shit, where you could drink a beer while walking outdoors past peep shows, savoring the aroma of unwashed junkies. The subways were glittering canvases of color, punk rock an urgent expression of malaise. One gets the impression that budding artistic geniuses populated every block in Manhattan, each of them coiled and ready to splatter game-changing mindfucks on a street smart populace thoroughly jaded by repeated mindfucks. This was a time before AIDS, a time before crack cocaine, when potential rewards appeared to outstrip their respective risks.

I love it when some goatee-having hipster dressed like Sammy Davis, Jr. on vacation complains about the current state of New York City and whines that he wishes it were more like it was in the 1970s. What the fuck do you know about it, dude? You like the Talking Heads and you watched The Warriors and thought you had it all figured out. Buddy, you would be the first to get robbed. The very same cop who might look the other way while you smoked a doobie in Lincoln Center would likewise ignore the four teenagers digging through your pockets while holding a box cutter to your throat. Is not being able to read any signage or see out of subway windows worth bringing back graffiti on trains? Because from my experience in the 80s, for every spectacularly-painted train car there were twenty that looked like they’d been through a war. Yeah, you’d like to have seen Blondie’s inaugural performance at CBGB’s but you probably aren’t willing to be on the receiving end of a Doc Marten steel tip to the mouth. Your version of 1970s New York City mercifully dismisses the homicides, the disenfranchised non-white people living on blocks of burning buildings, the squalor. Your favorite bagel joint on Bushwick Avenue. was once a looted storefront when the neighborhood was held under siege for two weeks in 1977. And if you resided in that neighborhood then, you would be dead.

Today New York City is homogenized, pasteurized, fortified with vitamin D. Its teeth have been capped, its nails have been tastefully filed, and you can enjoy a shopping mall experience like you might in almost any other major American city on the map. What made New York interesting has all but been eradicated. But what made the place interesting was never the danger, it was not the filth and grime. It was the people who challenged the status quo, who refused unjust and pointless laws and who knew the value of minding your own business. I know you like running around Bedford Avenue with your can of Montana spray paint, scrawling inanity on the sides of buildings and on lamp posts. But you should know that if you tried that thirty-five years ago, you could have gotten your meat lumped. Not by picky residents on a coalition for neighborhood beautification, but by other writers who wanted to steal your shit. And that would have been a blessing, because if the Savage Nomads caught you out there, it would be over.

Let’s Dispel Some New York Myths

18 Apr

New York: The City that Never Sweeps. Amid the piles of refuse and swarms of man-eating rats, there are enduring myths that have carried from one generation to the next like old wives’ tales. Not necessarily myths like the origin of the word “knickerbocker” or how the Dutch fleeced local Indians with a trunk of beads and some pelts, I’m talking about the lies we tell ourselves which make living in a city of nine million people remotely palatable. We don’t have to live with the lies any longer, only the soul-crushing misery of being anonymous yet surrounded at all times.

Living in New York City, I don’t need to have a car.

You hear this one mainly from young professionals who live in crowded neighborhoods where discovering a secure parking spot is less probable than finding a winning lottery ticket. Let’s be real now: living in New York City, it isn’t reasonable to have a car, whether you want one or not. And while it is relatively easy to travel around the city on mass transit, it is goddamned near impossible to get any further than Yonkers or Jersey City without some planning. So let’s not act like New York has done you some kind of favor by making it prohibitive for you to own a car. Whether it’s via sky-high insurance rates or draconian alternate side of the street parking rules, the choice has been taken away from you, and your exuberance over this fact is reminiscent of Stockholm Syndrome.

Only in New York City.

This is often uttered by passers-by having witnessed something abominable, like a homeless guy shitting into a coffee can at a crowded intersection or some lunatic being hog-tied by cops after sexually assaulting random women on Forty-Second Street. These things don’t happen only in New York City, in fact you can see incidences like these happening in rural America all the time on television shows like COPS and World’s Wildest Sexually Assaulting Lunatics. But the real issue here isn’t that it’s erroneous to claim certain sickening events as being indigenous to New York, but that we really shouldn’t accept this kind of shit anywhere. The attitude is that the city is too crowded, we’re too busy, there’s too much visual stimulation to worry about some guy having a stroke with his eyes bugging out in Washington Square Park. The full phrase should go, “Only in New York City would we watch some toothless, piss-soaked maniac heckle grade school girls and do absolutely nothing about it.”

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.

Okay, so this is actually a song lyric, but it does also appear to be a popular delusion among New York City dwellers. The idea of New York being a boundless city of endless opportunity is a pervasive one that goes back almost to its very inception. And perhaps it was true, at one time. Now, there may be just as many opportunities as there were in 1911, but there are about fifty times as many people competing for them. And lord help you if you want to make it in the arts in New York City, you’ve never seen more disaffected live crowds or dismissive art patrons in your life. You’ll be breaking your neck to churn out high-quality canvases and meanwhile some undergrad art student will become the local darling for spray painting bird stencils on old blocks of wood or something. If you enjoy being a small fish in a big pond, then New York City is for you. Not just for the dearth of opportunity but because it will really excite your masochistic side.

My apartment is very cozy.

No, your apartment is not very cozy. It’s very small. You’ve stuffed it with high-end electronics and expensive cooking utensils that you’ve no idea how to use, but it hasn’t made the space any larger. If anything, you’re just whittling away at the little real estate you’ve got with kitschy throw pillows and oversized, shitty paintings your friends did. There are people in third world countries who’ve got more living space than you do, and despite the fact that they have to poop in a hole in the ground, at least that doesn’t unexpectedly back up and splash toilet water everywhere once a week. If you weren’t captivated by the encompassing New York lie that makes you eat shit and like it, you’d probably rebel. But as it is, you’re so shell shocked from having to stand elbow to elbow with smelly people during your commute home every evening, the two-hundred square feet of space you’re renting for an exorbitant sum seems like a relief. Just imagine what kind of car you could get with the rent that you pay.

When Fortune Cookies Actually Contained Fortunes

7 Apr

Once upon a time in America, Chinese food was considered exotic. It was served on porcelain dishes with metal flatware in opulently-decorated restaurants. Golden dragons, keyhole doorways, and ornate tapestries could be seen in these Chinese restaurants, which were staffed by attentive waiters in gold and red waistcoats, the runners with a bleached white towel draped over their forearms. The restaurant owner would stop by your table and broadly smile as he asked how everyone was enjoying their meal. If you ordered Moo Shu, a waiter would expertly make the first serving for you at table side, using only two spoons and a slathering of plum sauce.

And fortune cookies did, at one time, contain fortunes. Not meaningless platitudes like, “Your joy is infectious,” or “Dream big, act bigger,” but actual, honest-to-goodness fortunes like, “You will come into money,” or “The one you love will return your affections.” I never did see a negative fortune. I never saw a fortune cookie where the slip inside read, “You will soon be diagnosed with a fatal illness.” I think I might have placed more stock in them as a device for knowing the future if they’d ever dispensed an unpleasant prognosis. “Your adopted mother is sleeping with your boyfriend.” If you fold that into one in five cookies, eventually you’re bound to hit paydirt.

Last night, my girlfriend and I had the extreme pleasure to visit New Ruan’s Restuarant in Bensonhurst with our friends Joe G. and the Radical Donna Fran. They know of my penchant for classic Chinese restaurants and mentioned this place to me last year when they spent a short while living in the area. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint, not in decor or service or sickly-sweet American-Chinese food which is a different taste altogether from what I call “chicken feet Chinese food.” It’s like McDonald’s: if you want McDonald’s, you don’t want a hamburger, you want that gummy, lukewarm patty churned out in the back room from McDonald’s own Play-Doh machine. Same goes for Chinese food: if you want the real deal dim sum and a broiled fish with the eyes still in it, then go to Chinatown. But if you want bright red spare ribs that make your fingers sticky and a wonton soup with bok choy in it, then you must check out New Ruan’s.

It isn’t very big, but New Ruan’s makes good on every foot of available space by hanging red paper lanterns from the ceiling and displaying an awesome faux brass mural of some berserk ancient Chinese whatsitz that looks kind of like a bunch of children swarming another child in a rickshaw. Or something. When the dapper Chinese waiter with pomade in his hair strolled up and started filling empty glasses with ice-choked water from a metal pitcher, I knew I was in the right place. I ordered the most vital dish to test when gauging American-Chinese food: shrimp toast. In a decent neighborhood with a large Reformed Jew contingent, the shrimp toast will be made of actual shrimp; in a take out dive, it will be made of shrimp paste. I am glad to say that New Ruan’s did not disappoint, ladies and gentlemen: the toast is shrimped.

Everything I had was good in context of the restaurant and the price was exactly as expected for an authentically inauthentic experience of that caliber. I’d recommend it to anyone of a similar bent who misses a time when eating Chinese food was a special experience, and not something churned out in a space the size of a broom closet with no regard for style. The waving porcelain cat on the counter is cool, but it’s not fucking with a golden dragon beckoning customers to taste the secrets of the Orient. Bring back the days of bow tied waiters and pu pu platters!

Must Have Been a White Guy Who Started All That

25 Mar

As the weather gets warmer with trepidation in the northeast, my thoughts turn to baseball. I grew up in Flushing, Queens, home of the New York Mets. When I was very young, I thought the Mets were the only baseball team in existence, their opponents merely random contestants who happened to organize enough to get uniforms together. On rare occasions when I would see someone wearing a Yankees cap in my neighborhood, I assumed the “NY” logo was a rip off of the Mets’ serifed logo. I could see the annual Fourth of July fireworks display at Shea Stadium from my bedroom window. However, despite the fact that I was surrounded by the Mets and even owned my own mesh-back Mets cap with a foam rubber front, when I was very little, I didn’t give a fuck about baseball.

Sports weren’t really watched in my house. My dad and brother liked professional wrestling (though my dad was always clear to note that it was “entertainment” and not an actual “sport”) and my brother watched football starting around 1987 when the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl (as a result, he was a lifelong Redskins fan). However, my brother didn’t watch football regularly and I suspect he didn’t know all the rules. Sports in my house were mainly relegated to my NES, where I would put a clinic on motherfuckers in Double Dribble and Nintendo Ice Hockey. I did make an attempt to be a fair-weather fan of the Rangers when they won the Stanley Cup in the early 1990s, but it was a half-hearted attempt, at best. I don’t think there’s many things more lame than a half-hearted fair-weather fan.

I didn’t really get into baseball until I moved away from my neighborhood of origin into then uncharted areas of Queens. I wanted everyone to know that I was from Flushing, no fooling around, and wearing the logo of the baseball team which claimed that town as its home was my birthright. Around this time, in 1998 or so, the Mets were a pretty good team and would contend against the Yankees for the first time in post-season play for the 2000 World Series (Mets got destroyed, four games to one). Oddly, my need to identify as being from Flushing spurred on my love of baseball, not the other way around. In my typical fashion, I voraciously consumed every scrap of information I could about the sport, until I became an overbearing stats-quoter in hardly any time at all.

Of course, one of the things I like best about baseball is its rich history. I’m a few pages away from being done with Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues by William Brashler, and it’s a pretty solid book. That the historical record of the Negro Leagues is less than substantial is a crying shame: there’s a dearth of statistics, and therefore literature about these teams, and a lot of misinformation is touted as fact in order to spice up the legends of this time period. There can be no doubt that many black baseball players could have contended well in the white-only Leagues, however the way some of these narratives of the Negro Leagues tell it, games consisted of spindly black player after spindly black player stepping up to the plate with a bat in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, slapping walk off, five-hundred foot home runs without looking at the ball and lazily strolling around the bases while dancing soft shoe for the fans. And of course, the black pitcher would throw 100 mph heat unflinchingly for eleven straight innings without any signs of tiring. And the outfield caught every fly ball, except for home runs, of which there were three to a player.

William Brashler helps dispel many of these ridiculous myths, having spoken to Negro Leagues legend “Cool Papa” Bell when researching his popular 1972 novel, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Brashler is able to shed light on some erroneous claims, but the substantiated hits that remain are still staggering. The author also potentially corrects a long-held misconception about Josh Gibson: later in his career, when Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers and ended segregation in baseball, Josh was a heavy drinker, prone to dementia and violent outbursts. The romantic, bittersweet reason has always been that Gibson was depressed over missing his chance to play in the Major Leagues and let himself go to pot, but Brashler shows that Josh’s decline began before Robinson was signed to the Dodgers. It is even implied that he may have had a brain tumor.

Josh Gibson is a pretty well-written book that isn’t given to a lot of hyperbole and speculation. It’s also not incredibly stats-heavy like a lot of baseball books. However, it’s not such a rollicking read that casual fans of baseball, or people interested in the time period of segregation and Jim Crow laws should pick it up. It’s a baseball book, not a social study of the politics behind racism. I mean, if you’re reading a book about the Negro Leagues, then it should be inferred that you understand the systemic reasons behind why such a league existed in the first place. If you’ve never heard of Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues, or the game of baseball, or if you can’t read, then this book is not for you.

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