Archive | New York City RSS feed for this section

More Shitty Movies That Are Great

11 Oct

I shared some of my favorite movies once before, and if you’re so inclined you can check out my prior offerings. But just to recap: I’ve been watching crappy horror and sci-fi flicks for almost as long as I’ve been alive. It’s a venerated tradition, passed down from parent to child, and one I’d like to pass down to you since kids are assholes who can’t appreciate true cinema, or anything not fully-rendered in computer graphics that leaps off the screen like projectile vomit.

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, 1971

If you’ve never seen a Godzilla movie, this is not the one with which to start, because it is hands down the most tripped-out and darkest film in the series. It carries a strong ecological message thoroughly diluted by surreal cartoon segues and inexplicable scenes, like when the human protagonist goes to a night club and hallucinates that everyone’s got fish heads. I don’t mean that they’re holding fish heads, I mean that their human heads have been replaced with oversized heads of fish. Then, the Smog Monster–a gigantic, shuffling turd with eyes–steps up to a smokestack and pulls a righteous bong hit (which makes his eyes glow super-red…totally). Another unusual thing about this movie that isn’t canonical with the series is that a lot of people die after whiffing the Smog Monster’s smoky farts. That doesn’t stop the survivors from whooping it up on the slopes of Mount Fuji as an Armageddon Eve celebration. The DVD version allows for English and French subtitles, but I suggest you watch the dubbed version if only to hear the awesomeness that is the theme song.

18 Again!, 1988

There were few kids-as-adults type movies that hit theaters in 1988: Big, Vice Versa, Like Father, Like Son. But there’s one that gets overlooked…okay, so all of them get overlooked, besides Big because it was the only one that didn’t seem like a made-for-TV movie. But the most overlooked one is 18 Again!, starring Charles Slattery and that irascible, cigar-chomping vampire George Burns. George slips into a coma and is visited by his grandson, played by Charlie, and then through some sequence of events that I forget they trade spiritual places, so that George is an old man in a young man’s body and Charles is…I guess some old guy in a coma. The movie is worth seeing for Slattery’s crummy George Burns impersonation, but I’ve always been tickled by the fact that this was probably George Burns’ easiest job ever since he spends almost the entire movie lying in bed, feigning sleep. This is acting? I sleep at work all the time, no one has offered me any Academy Awards. I don’t recall a whole lot of the plot, but it’s an 80s comedy movie so you’re bound to see some tits.

Rappin’, 1985

The inclusion of hip-hop into mainstream American culture was not completely organic or seamless. There were a lot of attempts, both credulous and ludicrous, to bring rapping, deejaying, breakdancing and writing graffiti into places beyond American urban centers. It’s difficult to stand here, decades after the fact, and determine if these attempts actually aided hip-hop’s emergence into the spotlight, or if they were symptoms of a growing cultural awareness of what was going on in the South Bronx. It’s not difficult, however, to spot an impostor, as we do with the movie Rappin’ starring Mario Van Peebles and featuring Kadeem “Dwayne Wayne” Hardison of A Different World fame. The movie is about Mario’s character, newly-released from jail, seeking to rehabilitate his beleaguered neighborhood by winning a rap contest. He proceeds to succeed in his endeavor by delivering some of the shittiest, corniest rap lines this side of “Rappin’ Rodney.” It’s worth watching until the end credits, when the entire cast kicks verses about their roles in the movie, essentially reiterating what you’ve just watched. In fact, you can fast-forward to the end and spare yourself the pain of watching Mario Van Peebles try to act hard in a mesh tank top and sensuous Jheri curled hair.

Living Among the Shit

10 Oct

I am reminded of an old Dead Kennedys lyric: “anarchy sounds good to me, then someone says ‘Who’ll fix the sewers?'” This is a serious consideration, because as a people we produce a lot of waste. A lot. In my city of New York alone, we produce 1.3 billion gallons of waste water every day. You should really let that sink in. That would be almost half a trillion gallons of poop and pee every year. It’s really something to consider, especially if you’ve got a mind to change the status quo and shake things up a bit. If your social plan doesn’t include dealing with people’s shit, then you haven’t thought things through.

This is a problem that’s plagued all fauna since the beginning. Indeed, one of the reasons human beings led a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle for much of our early existence was to escape our own poop. We’d set up camp for a little while, spread our waste around willy-nilly, and then move along once hunting prospects thinned out and the place became too smelly. The issue of waste management became a dilemma once humans began collecting in larger and larger groups, until the nineteenth century when cities grew in populations exceeding their locality’s natural ability to deal with crap. It’s all detailed in the interesting but dryly-written book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, the true account of London’s cholera epidemic of 1854. It wasn’t the first or last of London’s cholera epidemics, but it was significant in that science began to suspect contaminated drinking water, and not “miasma” or “bad air,” for the plague. And what contaminated the drinking water, of course, was poops.

Johnson details the world of sanitation in pre-Victorian London, which involved people crawling into dank spaces with brushes and scrubbing away the shit. Implied by the fact that cholera kept breaking out, this method wasn’t exactly foolproof or entirely sanitary. There were rudimentary sewage lines, but these fed from the wealthiest homes and simply led straight to the Thames River, which was befouled beyond any use in short order. Most people crapped in outhouses, which sat above large holes in the ground. When the holes were full…well, someone had to crawl down there with a shovel and brush and clean it up. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Dealing with waste is still a tremendous problem for every major metropolitan center around the globe. If a city of nine million is cranking over a billion gallons of brown water every day, then imagine the vast quantities of stinky effusing from denser population centers in India and China. We are talking about a shit tsunami here, people. You can desire to dismantle the Federal Reserve, you can seek to abolish a corrupt political system. You can espouse socialism or anarchy or benevolent monarchy if you think that will get the job done. But if you haven’t considered who and how will we deal with our lemonade and fudge, then you haven’t figured out shit. Because all of the personal freedom in the world isn’t worth a hill of dung if we’ve got to wallow in our own filth.

I Got Rid Of My Old Television

12 Apr

We moved into a nice, affordable two-bedroom apartment at the beginning of 2003, coinciding with the departure of a downstairs neighbor about a month later. He was not vacating his studio apartment voluntarily, mind you, but at the firm, legal request of our mutual landlady. He hadn’t paid rent. In a while. Presumably cash-strapped, he offered to sell his lightly-used, practically brand new Samsung high-definition television–at less than half of its original price, to boot. This was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Though we, ourselves, were light on loot at the time, having just moved and all, we scraped together the five-hundred bucks our neighbor wanted for the television and a shitty TV stand that looked half put-together. We were satisfied in the feeling of having come out ahead in this particular transaction.

Until we tried to move the thing upstairs.

This television weighed four-hundred pounds, if it weighed an ounce. Why such a television would be made for the home consumer, considering it required a pair of professional weightlifters to move it, beggars explanation. Compounding the problem of relocating this appliance to our apartment was the fact that it had been designed by some Lovecraftian aficionado well-versed in non-Euclidean geometry, for though it seemed to have a number of corners and crevices, the television could not be accurately gripped or held by any being with an outstretched span less than that of an orangutan. We moved the television upstairs, step by step, taking frequent breaks to pant and curse. Several times, I considered giving up, leaving the television on the stairs, and navigating around it when entering or exiting the apartment. But we got the thing up to the second floor and somehow–I do not remember how–perched it atop its accompanying television stand.

A couple of years later, our pairing parted ways and we divvied up our belongings. I gave her my older television, a second-hand tube set with roughly a thirty-five inch screen. I took what I believed to be the better, newer television. And so began seven years of lugging this terrible behemoth from apartment to apartment, anxiously worrying whenever tasked to budge it, expelling deep relief once I’d secured it in a location from where it would not need to be shifted again, at least for a while. I actually moved only three times since 2004, which is relatively stable for dwelling in New York City. Twice, I hired movers, once I moved myself with the help of a very strong friend. Each time, the Samsung television needed to be moved, and each time it presented the biggest problems. The television became a proverbial elephant in the room, and weighed about as much by my estimation.

Over time, the television’s other limitations surfaced. For one, I had lost or had never received a remote control. More importantly, though this television claimed to have high-definition resolution, it simply did not. I don’t know if the meaning of high-definition changed from the early part of the century, or if it was a bold-faced lie, but the very year we got our massive television, I got a high-definition cable box and invited a bunch of people over to watch the Super Bowl. The total lack of a crystal clear picture was obvious and immediate, and we ultimately switched back to regular digital television before the second half started. More recently, since most newer programs are broadcast in widescreen, I was missing the extreme left and right of my picture. It was screwing up my Netflix and Hulu menus and generally soured my television addiction. Watching that Samsung television in recent years was probably akin to a junkie on methadone: it does the job, but it’s not quite the same as the uncut dope. So, I endeavored to get a new television.

Of course, the new TV is almost twice as large, screen-wise, but weighs one-fifth of the Samsung. I shoved the Samsung into a corner while setting up the new appliance, and it stayed there a week. “How are you going to get rid of it?” my knowledgeable friends and family asked. “When do you want to move the old TV?” my girlfriend gently prodded. I despaired. I didn’t know how to get rid of this television. People suggested I advertise it on craigslist, but since the thing could only be moved by two or more stalwart lumberjacks, I envisioned a stream of people trampling through my house to look at this pig in a poke, rightly decide that they couldn’t budge it, and exiting only to leave me with the monstrosity and the dirty feeling of having a stranger judge me for my Batman comics collection. I considered taking the television apart and disposing of it in pieces, but a friend advised against this as a substantial charge can remain within the recesses of older television sets. I worried, I fretted. I tried to ignore this gigantic television lying dormant right next to my seat on the couch. “Maybe I can pass it off as sculpture,” I pondered. I wondered how much trouble I’d get into for shoving the television off of my balcony, and even how I would shlep the thing four measly feet to do that much.

Then, in a fit of hopeless exuberance, my girlfriend and I got rid of it. How we did it is not important, and I don’t know that I could even describe it. The important thing is the extreme feeling of relief upon expelling the beast from my apartment, from my life. It was more than the weight and size of the physical thing, that Samsung television amounted to a quarter-ton badge of shame signifying my familiarity with shitty prime-time sitcoms and interminably boring sporting events. As with many such feelings, I wished I had gotten rid of the damned thing sooner. We all carry our impossible televisions through life, metaphorically and sometimes literally, feeling like these are our crosses to bear, the things we’re given with which we’ve got to make do. It isn’t true. I’ve got a new television, but it doesn’t carry with it the worry and discomfort of my old immovable, anxiety-laden set. Getting rid of that headache sooner would have been worth missing all of the episodes of Family Matters re-runs that I watched in the interim.

Mormons: Morons, or More “On?”

26 Jan

Growing up in New York City, I didn’t get the opportunity to interact with a lot of Mormons. In fact, until I was in my late twenties, I encountered exactly zero Mormons, at least to my knowledge. I was aware of Mormonism, however, through a series of awesome commercials that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would run on Saturday mornings during my cartoon time. When I was very young, I thought they were another of the morning’s public service announcements, like the one where a bunch of sock puppets warned you not to take your mother’s Sucrets. By the time I was nine years old, I realized that I was actually being pitched to by a religion, and a Christian one at that. It didn’t really bother me, except that religion was cutting into my personal Saturday time, when everyone knows that church and evangelical television programs belong on Sunday.

My first exposure to actual tenets of the Mormon religion–besides their famous and salacious allowance for polygamy–was from watching the movie Plan 10 From Outer Space. This remains on the list of weirdest movies I have ever seen, and I could spend this entire essay trying to explain the plot. Pertinent to this piece were some of the facts about Mormonism as presented in the movie: that God came from a planet called Kolob, and every Mormon gets his own planet in the afterlife. It was starting to sound more like science-fiction than spirituality. A couple of years later, I started dating someone who had a copy of the Book of Mormon, which I promptly borrowed and read and never returned.

I truly think that every literate person should read the Book of Mormon, because it is one of the funniest and most insane books ever written. If you’re like I was, you probably think the book is full of a bunch of new age baloney and pseudo-holy mumbo jumbo that isn’t worth your time. But you’d be wrong. The Book of Mormon is the unbelievable and ludicrous story about Jews living in America during biblical times, how they warred among themselves, and how a faction of the Jews named the Lamanites angered God were turned into red-skinned Native Americans as punishment. The book claims that, during the three days between Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection, he zipped over to what would become America and imparted some sage wisdom to its multitude. I mean, that just blows my mind. That means the Book of Mormon is partially an account of Jesus’ “lost weekend.”

In 2003, I read Jon Krakauer’s wonderful book Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s a compelling, well-written account of the history of Mormonism interspersed with a more current story about a Mormon woman murdered by her brothers. The book is really about a Mormon sect that is not part of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints–that would be the “official” Mormon church, but like any religion there are lots of splinter groups with their own ideas. Some of them still practice polygamy and engage in incest as proscribed by scripture, and Under the Banner of Heaven makes clear that these practitioners comprise the smallest portion of Mormons. In fact, they would not even resonate as Mormons as we know them. Turns out that the ones practicing incest and killing their wives were a far cry from the short-sleeved, starched shirt missionaries with precise haircuts and shit-eating grins that one would normally associate with Mormonism. I still came away with the notion that Mormons are a strange, backwards people, well worthy of my ridicule.

It was around this time that I actually met a guy who was Mormon, the idea of which tickled me to no end. Imagine my disappointment when he didn’t try to explain that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson, Missouri, didn’t tell me about Heavenly Father’s plan to give me my own, personal planet in the afterlife. He was, annoyingly, a very pleasant, polite person that liked a lot of the same comic books that I do. I plied him about his faith, and he pretty well pulled my card: “You’ve read the Book of Mormon,” he said, “you know what we’re about. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then fine. It doesn’t make me want to stop talking about Batman.” I was very embarrassed. Here I was, hoping to meet a kooky, wacky Mormon that would regale me with ridiculous stories about Jesus visiting America, all along I was the nut job hovering around, pressuring him to say something that I could laugh at. It occurred to me that practically every creed and belief sounds like complete bullshit when you voice it aloud: “I believe that the universe was spontaneously created and that the invisible air around us actually contains tiny particles whose structure and movement matches that of our solar system.” Weirdo. I lost touch with this Mormon friend a while ago–he lost touch with me, actually, probably because I was such a pain in the ass about his church. But I resolved from then on to judge people by the things they do, not by my regard for their beliefs.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway. I’m a fan of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and really enjoyed the episode of South Park which details a basic history of Mormonism. The musical was hilarious, too, and if you’re not shy of some seriously blue language, you should check it out. However, the play ends implying that working together and helping each other are the real major tenets of Mormonism, not the stuff about golden plates and multiple wives. The important things are the values that they espouse, because everyone believes in some retarded-sounding shit whether they know it or not. The episode of South Park dealing with Mormonism ends in much the same way. Many people I’ve known say that they respect religious scripture and spirituality, but reject churches as inherently corrupt. Mormonism kind of turns that idea on its ear, a religion based on scripture that sounds like a load of donkey loafs, but realized in a church that actually fosters community, family, and good works. You really can’t hate on that.

Double Letters and Subway Slugs

7 Dec

My brother showed me a small metal disc–a “slug,” he called it–when I was in the fifth grade. He’d begun traveling to Manhattan to sporadically attend Stuyvesant High School, and brought back to our little aluminum-sided house in Flushing all manner of illicit, strange materials. “You use this to get on the subway,” my brother explained, and in a rare gesture of kindness, he allowed me to briefly handle the strange object. It was flat and round and looked like gunmetal. The edges were a little ragged, as if it had been hastily cut from a longer cylinder of this alloy, which may very well have been true. The implications were fascinating: this meant that there was an effort by an unknown number of people in an undisclosed location to fabricate counterfeit subway tokens. Where were they dispensed? What did they cost? Or were they given out for free, a subversive attempt by some anarchist group to undermine the Transit Authority? How was it determined that this slug would work? I imagined hundreds of people arrested for slipping aluminum can tabs and Canadian nickels into the subway turnstiles, to ultimately arrive at the conclusion that this miraculous material would do the trick. While these thoughts turned over in my fifth grade brain, my brother snatched back the slug and retreated into his darkened bedroom. Any discussion I might have wanted to have about this counterfeit token was preemptively concluded.

Things have changed in the New York City subway over the last quarter century. For one thing, subway tokens do not exist. They were slowly phased out in the late 90s for the slimmer and less intriguing MetroCard, a payment system where you fill a card with money and then swipe it at turnstiles’ electronic readers until it is bankrupt. It is, by and large, a better system than the subway token, particularly since it has allowed for unlimited weekly and monthly passes. Yet the disappearance of the token is a social loss, another case where the need to interact with each other is replaced by automation and self-involvement. My MetroCard isn’t handled by hundreds and thousands of people before being slipped into my pocket, it’s die-cut by a machine and shrink-wrapped specially for the mechanical dispensers which issue each card individually through an exactly-measured slot. I can’t give someone else a fare off of it without screwing my own entrance into the subway, there’s no evidence of this MetroCard’s past users for me to examine. It’s a perfectly useful, sterile, disposable item, worth no more scrutiny than a movie ticket or instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle. It’s a symbol for the modern New York City subway: almost all stainless steel cars with their respective lines displayed in brilliant, red LED lights visible from the last station. A computer-generated female voice announces the station location and possible subway transfers, followed by a booming male voice admonishing you to STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS. Subway mezzanines are adorned with sanctioned sculptures and mosaic tile pieces of New Year’s Eve revelers and students and commuters and every kind of person or dream-thing that might wander into a subway station except for MTA employees. They’re a necessary evil, the men behind the curtain that keep the Wizard of Oz afloat.

The first time I made a foray into Manhattan without the guidance of my parents, I was ten years old. My friend Brian convinced me that riding the subway into the city would be a kick. Heavily into trains and roller coasters, Brian would draw elaborate track systems, complete with switches and crossings, in number two pencil on scratch paper. I agreed to go along for lack of anything better to do, and because we’d already successfully navigated an adult-free trip to the Bronx Zoo on the Q44 bus. We walked to Main Street and got on the 7 train to Times Square, where, Brian explained, we would transfer to an uptown train and check out the Museum of Natural History. I’ve mentioned before that riding the subway was a scary prospect when I was young, and scarier than the flickering lights and calamitous noise and track fires and stick-up kids was the fact that there was barely any way to tell what the fuck was going on. The maps and windows were covered in graffiti, the public address system unintelligible, and when you finally stepped out onto a train platform and into the station, proceeding onward was like solving a befuddling and very wordy mystery. The mezzanine where the 7 train met the West Side trains was a confluence of signage of every shape and color, in every font and style, each one seeming to describe a different subway system entirely. Interborough Rapid Transit? Downtown IND? Why was there an RR train but no R train? What was an NQ train? I am grateful to this day that Brian knew what train to get on, because had it been left to me, we’d probably still be wandering around those concrete, piss-soaked hallways. Though today, the piss has been largely scrubbed clean.

The New York subway was once a mysterious city within a city, a world with its own economy and social graces, a mash up of different rolling stock and maddening line designations. Part of my youthful perspective was undoubtedly owed to my own naivete; as I struggled to comprehend an adult world, I floundered in grasping the subway, a world which many adults themselves struggled to understand. But the subway was a lot dirtier, a lot less accommodating, it was thronged with confidence men and marks, performers and audiences, the world-weary and those brimming with optimism. The New York City subway is better now, overall, I don’t think anyone can deny that. It gets you where you need to go in a reasonably predictable amount of time (except on weekends, when the subway is a fucking mess), it’s relatively clean, well-lit, and most of the stations are in good repair. It’s a system that a tourist can navigate after getting lost once or twice. But the extinction of the subway token, and it’s counterfeit counterpart, was an intangible loss to the subway, a loss which can be sensed all over the island of Manhattan, at least to those who have lived in New York for the last thirty or so years. It’s a lack of personality, a deficit in secrecy, a utilitarian drive to make New York City the most visited city in the world. I can understand why that happened and continues to happen. I just wonder what will be worth visiting when every nuance is ultimately stripped away.

Hey, folks: I ripped off two of the pictures used in between the paragraphs of this essay from the NYC Vintage blog, which you should visit here: It hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s still a trove of great information and insight.

Fucking. Walk.

17 Aug

I don’t know how it is where you live, but here in New York City it’s fucking crowded. Stand still at any major thoroughfare for ten minutes and you might see ten to fifty thousand people pass by. It’s incredible to consider, really, that the quantity of people filtering in and out of Times Square on a weekday afternoon is around the same as the student body of Ohio State University, but on OSU’s campus there will be fewer Black Hebrew Israelites and shills trying to pull you in to see third-rate comedy acts. I have to assume that the sheer number of people in New York City is dumbfounding, because while there are plenty of people rushing about on the streets of the Big Apple, there are nearly as many just fucking standing around like retards looking for someone to tell them what to do.

I don’t remember it always being like this. In fact, I recall a time when folks in Manhattan moved around pretty quickly. That was back in the late 90s, when women wore all black and left their high heels at the workplace. Men were feeling relative comfort as offices everywhere abandoned necktie policies in an attempt to keep up with burgeoning dot-com businesses and their Free Beer Fridays and foosball tables. Back then, people barreled down the street with a kind of bitter, resolute purpose, unwilling or unable to step aside for anyone lest they lose a precious three seconds of life to traveling. Walking along the streets of New York was like slipping into the fast lane constantly, looking for any break in the stream to weave in and start stepping in rhythm. New York lunch hours were hurried affairs, people wasting as little time as possible in grabbing a pound of wilted lettuce and croutons from the local deli to scarf it down at their desks. Efficiency was the order of the day.

Then something changed: New York became nicer. It was already becoming nicer throughout the 1990s, but right after 9/11 it was a veritable gushy love fest. Women stopped wearing all black and those ridiculous goggle-eyed sunglasses, men’s work fashion became even more casual until today when many dudes look like they’re wearing pajamas to the office. And goddamn it, people started walking slower. Makes sense, really, that after facing death one would decide to take time to smell the roses. But there aren’t many roses on the streets of New York, and while you’re ambling along like a crippled penguin there are fucking five hundred people behind you that have some place to be. Fucking walk for crying out loud. If you don’t have anything to do today, then sit down. But get out of the pedestrian lane.

I wish I could blame it all on tourists, but the fact is that resident New Yorkers probably comprise most of the culprits shuffling around like space cadets. Thirty years ago, if you didn’t quicken your step you’d get your purse snatched. Now it’s safer: bicyclists have their own lanes to pedal along instead of vying for space with taxi cabs and city buses. Bloomberg’s plopped down a dozen or more open air plazas in the most congested areas of Manhattan for people to crowd into. It’s a nicer city, sure, but people still have shit to do. If you’re out and about and you notice yourself being passed by people on crutches and small insects, then hang up your fucking cell phone and walk or step the fuck aside. As a friend once put it: it’s just walking, you don’t need a degree. And if you’re one of those unconscionable people who stands on subway steps to finish your cell phone call at the expense of people streaming in and out of the station, then I hope that cell phone gives you brain cancer and I hope that the cancerous tumor contracts HIV. Fuck you.

I Am Not a Graffiti Artist. I’m a Graffiti Bomber.

10 Aug

The way Blade tells it, the early days of New York subway graffiti were a cake walk. You’d post up in the train yard or at a layup Friday and Saturday nights, drink beer, smoke weed, play the radio and paint the trains all evening with no fear of serious reprisals. Big productions were the norm in those days, growing quickly from crude tags to whole car masterpieces by 1975. Competition was thin, style was in the process of being invented, and while the meeting of two or more city teens is never without its prevailing tension, the New York graffiti scene was a collaborative effort, pursued by pubescent runaways and prep school students alike, mastered by young kids of every ethnicity and from nearly every corner of New York City. Lee spent entire weekends at layups, sleeping in darkened subway cars under a fine mist of spray paint. Skeme stole from his mom’s apartment in the dead of night to paint trains, then returned to tell her all about it. Graffiti was kid’s stuff, a rite of passage so insulated from working society that it seemed unassailable. A victimless crime, except for the rush hour victims who had to stand asses-to-elbows in marked train cars the next day.

Then graffiti blew up. There’s probably no other event or artifact that can be directly linked to graffiti’s mainstream exposure more than the seminal documentary Style Wars by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant. Around the same time, there were other efforts to show people what was happening to New York City’s subways: the book Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant practically dropped the graf scene in everyone’s laps, while SoHo art galleries clamored to show spray painted canvases in their cramped, hot spaces. Rap music gained exponential popularity in the early 80s and partially brought graffiti into the limelight as a matter of course. We can look back now and say this all culminated in 1983, with the big screen debut of Style Wars and its subsequent airings on public television. In an instant, everyone knew how these graffiti writers were getting over on the transit authority, and they wanted in on the fun. Suddenly, available space became severely limited.

The graffiti that followed, the last generation of subway writers whose work ran regularly on the lines, was the ethical foundation for my early understanding of graf. You pick yourself a name and then put it up as much as possible, as big and ubiquitously as you can, using as many different styles and media as you are able to comprehend. It was a given that you’d catch beef, that ultimately you would get fame the fastest by going over someone else, and that by doing this you could become more revered than if you’d painted one massive, colorful production that might run for five working days. Cap taught us that. Graffiti and violence were almost synonymous to me, and the writers in my generation (the early 90s) were more respected for their daring and visibility than their can control. While I was too young to ever effectively write on the subway, graf having been defeated by a new MTA policy and seeding of stainless steel subway cars that could be easily washed, I knew well about this tough aspect of graffiti’s history. It wasn’t enough to be a talented artist when I was in high school. You also had to know how to intimidate others and get physical if necessary.

Paul “CAVS” Cavalieri’s book From the Platform: Subway Graffiti, 1983-1989 is the best account of this final generation of New York subway graf that I’ve ever seen. Packed with dozens and dozens of photos of pieces, tags, and throw ups that ran during the era, it easily tells the story of a scene that grew in numbers by a factor of ten and resulted in everyone going over one another, jockeying for position as Kings of the Line. It shows how “retired” writers came back to reclaim their titles, and how even they had to eschew masterpiece productions that might take all night in favor of two-color bombs more suited to the fast pace of late 80s graffiti. Unconsciously and without apology, the book shows page after page of styles cribbed directly from Dez and Dondi and past masters of the rolling stock. It is the last gasp of a movement, and anyone interested in pursuing the history of graffiti cannot do without this book. For every writer today who thinks there should be unity, every person who thinks that Banksy stencils should be protected and Saber AWK should be allowed to redo his Guinness record-holding piece on the L.A. river banks, this book has the answer: you’re wrong. Any retard can pick up a marker and scrawl something on the wall, or a truck, or the outside of a subway train. You imposed a stylistic standard on the medium that most practitioners of the art don’t recognize, and that’s your bad.

Take My Legally Recognized Life Partner, Please

27 Jun

Since the passing of landmark legislation this past weekend, more than a few people have asked me what my thoughts are on New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo ratifying a bill to allow same sex marriages in the state. I’m curious to understand why people want to know my opinion, I don’t think I’ve ever come out staunchly for or against homosexual relationships in the past. The most I’ve written about it here was a quick mention at the end of this essay, essentially to say that I don’t care about homosexuality. Not against it, not for it, don’t really give a shit. That’s not me adopting a cool, disaffected attitude to mask some underlying anxiety about homosexuality, but the result of deep, soul-searching introspection which has turned up a complete and utter void where my personal opinion was supposed to be. I think I must have taken some of my opinion on this matter and used it to pad out my opinion on Saved By the Bell, about which I can go on for volumes. Don’t test me on that.

Now that the deed is done in New York State, let’s all be real here for a minute: by and large, the conservative attitude against gay marriage has not been about marriage between two women, but between two men. That double-standard where homosexuality among males is a sin but homosexuality among females is more innocent–a turn-on, even–is as pervasive as it was in Ancient Rome and underscores the entire anti-gay agenda. When a woman dresses like a man, it’s cute, but when a man dresses like a woman he’s a fruitcake. When women kiss each other hello, it’s accepted, yet if men kiss either hello many people are disgusted. I get disgusted by it, too, but not because I assume the two men kissing are gay. I assume the two men kissing are French. French people are gross.

So I’m not going to elucidate the point that it’s okay for two women to be married. I think only the shrillest, most fundamental Christians are opposed to that, and there’s a limit to the things a well-paid Republican will rail against. “I just got a blowjob in the bathroom from a Taiwanese runaway,” thinks a Republican senator, “how can I, in good conscience, not allow two women to have a legal partnership? Especially if they’re hot women. And Taiwanese.” No, the issue here is whether or not it’s okay for two men to get married. Matrimony is not part of the life cycle, it’s a social construct. It’s really two people signing their names to the same piece of paper so they can get tax breaks and lots of junk mail from Babies “R” Us. I know there’s a deep religious component for some people, but since our Bill of Rights guarantees a separation of church and state, who cares? Start up a new church called the Holy Cathedral of Not Letting Gays Marry Ever and deny homosexuals membership. From a purely bureaucratic standpoint, two gay people getting married as about as newsworthy as a gay person signing up for a fishing license, or a gay person filing for bankruptcy. It’s just paperwork.

I guess the foundation of my understanding of homosexuality lies in the belief that gay people are born, not made. Living in New York, I’ve probably encountered every gay stereotype around, plus met plenty of gay people who did not fit a stereotype. One of my mom’s first employers was a fat, belching dude who drank whiskey and smoked cigars and had a voice like James Earl Jones, since his throat was destroyed by whiskey and cigars. And my mom’s boss had a boyfriend. He wasn’t closeted, but he didn’t wear his homosexuality on his sleeve like “new gays” sometimes do. I’m reminded of a time that a newly-outed lesbian friend of mine suggested I read the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For because she knew I liked comics. I told her that the comic sucked, and she said I probably wasn’t into it because I’m not gay. “No,” I replied, “the comic sucks. That it involves the lives of several gay couples is the only interesting part about it, and that’s just not interesting enough by itself.”

So what the hell was my point again…oh right: my stance on gay marriage. What I’ve been asked to opine about is whether two men who are titillated by each other should be allowed to be wed. What I can’t wrap my head around is why I should care at all. People are enticed by so many disparate things, being aroused by another human being as opposed to some cartoon character or anthropomorphic deity makes more sense to me personally. Of course gay people should be allowed to legally marry, just like they should be allowed to get a driver’s license or register to vote. It’s a municipal designation where the law is concerned, nothing more. We’ve got a country of people who stay married for decades out of spite, partners who think of other people when they make love, couples that engage in shocking, dangerous stuff behind closed doors that would make the most avid Real Sex viewer puke. Two guys that appreciate each others’ penises should be allowed to get married, divorced, they should be allowed to open a limited liability corporation together and also have their names embroidered on hand towels. At least two men aren’t going to marry because they’re being pressured by parents or because one knocked the other up. No, gay people will marry, at least for the foreseeable future, out of love. And plus, every time a gay couple marries, it really pisses off an evangelist. That alone is reason enough to support gay marriage.

Genteel Days of Racism and Classism

26 Jun

Just finished reading Tales of Gaslight New York, which blended nicely with my bathroom perusal of The Flatiron by Alice Sparberg Alexiou. I wouldn’t recommend either book. The latter is a terribly boring story of an opportunistic real estate magnate and his dealings with labor leaders and shareholders–really, the author could have just published his company’s ledgers and saved the writing. Tales of Gaslight New York is a collection of magazine articles about New York from around the turn of the twentieth-century. If you like that sort of thing, it’s pretty cool, and has some fascinating photos and line drawings. It’s not a picture book, though, and the reproductions aren’t great. The book is very dense with words, so you’ll probably want to break up the monotony of reading article after article where the word “today” is hyphenated with something that’s less eye-straining: I chose The Flatiron and Batman: The Man Who Laughs.

Titling the book Tales of Gaslight New York is somewhat of a misnomer, since virtually all of the articles are from after 1902 when much of Manhattan was electrified. I enjoyed the writing within, authors with names like Clay Meredith Greene and Richard le Galliene, writing for periodicals with titles like Munsey’s Magazine and Everybody’s Magazine at what must have been a per word rate. There are a lot of topics covered by thirty-four articles, but they can largely be lumped into one or more of three groups: pleas for social reform, descriptions of buildings and locations (sometimes illustrated), and essays about New York City’s social elite, full of wry commentary about ingenues and robber barons, much of which is lost on me since I don’t know particulars about the intended targets. Still, I enjoyed these glimpses into a world over a century past, mostly to see what has changed (our collective vocabulary has worsened) and what has not (apparently we’ve always loved to build up celebrities only to watch them self-destruct).

I enjoyed one author’s description of “succeeding waves of Italiany children” near a cabby’s hack stand on the East side, which “broke and splashed at our feet.” I trudged through the scrutiny one author gave the building of the IRT subway, affording the reader a view as clear as if he’d been peeking at the construction from between plywood slats. Most moving was an article about the General Slocum disaster, written by Mr. Herbert N. Casson as “the exact facts of the most shocking and pitiful tragedy in the annals of the sea, with the damning evidence of criminal indifference and despicable dishonesty on the part of directors and inspectors.” Many of the articles in this book are or include indictments of penny-pinching landowners and unscrupulous corporation boards, missives that clamor for more official involvement, more laws, more restrictions in place ostensibly to protect the common man. The demand for this kind of institutional compassion is a hallmark of the twentieth century, and in the articles contained within this book show us some of the geneses of that demand.

The magazine sections in Tales of Gaslight New York were penned before the American labor union movement, before women’s suffrage. There was much talk about health and vigor but seemingly little knowledge in the way of how to achieve them. Desegregated water fountains and establishments were still half a century away when magazines published loving articles about the Human Need of Coney Island or an expose on the “white wives” of Chinatown in Slumming in New York’s Chinatown. It’s easy to sit here from the vantage point of the twenty-first century and chuckle, being that we’ve assuaged some of the public need since the time of these old writings. We provide more social services, afford more equity overall. Yet century-old calls for more corporate culpability and better living conditions seem to ring truer than ever. There may not be millions of immigrants swarming New York’s Five Points, among rats and refuse and firetrap wooden shanties, but hundreds of thousands if not a million people still live in substandard housing in New York City, in some of the most deplorable conditions you won’t see beyond an episode of Hoarders.

What I got from reading this book was that there are no limits on man’s inhumanity to man; the powerful will always exploit the weak as much as they are allowed. This is why we must always be vigilant and pursue our ideals, no matter how futile they might seem, because if you don’t fight then you’ll simply be taken advantage of. Compassion exists freely only among the have-nots, from those who give our lives its structure it must be forcefully extracted. Assume nothing, safeguard yourself, be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Moreso now than in 1900, there seems to be plenty of grease to go around, and yet the aggregation of wealth in the world is held by fewer people than it was a hundred years ago.

I’m So Sick of Your Goddamned Kids

14 Jun

My girlfriend and I visited Coney Island this past Friday afternoon. I wanted to see what all of the hubbub was about, being that the various theme parks (or, more likely, a commercial public relations collective of all the various theme parks) have spent a bundle of money to promote how happening the place is. It’s been two years since they tore down a lot of the shit that made the place fun, and I can say that some of the midway has started to come back. The new rides are mediocre–a little infantile–and the batting cages and go-kart track are still sorely missed. Where the bumper boats and go-karts were is now an open air flea market, with card table booths hawking irregular socks and knock off Power Rangers toys. Nothing has been done to fix the boardwalk, nothing has really changed except that there’s slightly more Coney Island fun than there was last year, but far less Coney Island fun than there was in 2008. I say: give it another year. Hopefully by then the empty lots will be filled, the midway restored (at least with games if not go-karts), and it will be a decent place to hang out again. For you and your fucking miserable goddamned family.

I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion about the “restoration” of Coney Island in 2007 or 2008, and I thought it was interesting. It was couched as a simple zoning conversion which would allow more freedom in construction, but as the members of the panel (which included one woman who claimed the 1939 World’s Fair was held at Coney Island [false] and one of Bloomberg’s deputy mayors who looked about as interested in Coney Island as I am in recalling his title) described their proposed changes I got a little worried. They wanted to build a ring of hi-rise hotels with commercial space on the ground level that would completely obscure the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel from Surf Avenue. The panel talked about demolishing the low-income housing that surrounds the Coney Island amusements and replacing it with luxury apartment buildings. I had to laugh at their contingency plan for the disenfranchised children in the neighborhood: a brand new community center twenty blocks West in a completely different neighborhood. You know, since kids don’t like rides and ice cream and shit like that. They’d rather toss the medicine ball around with Mr. Touches-A-Lot.

As the historically-incorrect woman assured the crowd that no views of the Life Savers Parachute Jump would be obscured–you know, the Parachute Jump, that rusted relic that actually is from the 1939 World’s Fair which hasn’t worked since before my parents were born–it occurred to me that what this panel aimed to do was make Coney Island palatable to families. And not just any families, but white families, hopefully with those out-of-town tourist dollars (I assume demure Asian families would also be encouraged). They wanted these project kids twenty blocks West, throwing deflated basketballs at a net-less hoop, so Minnesota Joe and his nuclear family could enjoy a turn on the bumper cars without hearing any of that blasted rap music. I scoffed at the idea: a New York City tourist might brave Lenox Avenue for some soul food or Avenue A for a dive bar, but they aren’t sitting for two-plus fucking hours on the subway to ride a Ferris wheel. At least, that’s what I thought.

When I first visited Coney Island as a teenager, it was a pretty hard scrabble place. Even then, it was a pale imitator of the 1970s Coney Island which was the home turf for the titular gang in The Warriors. I recall a lot of loud music, broken glass, hard-looking dudes with their shirts off mean mugging everyone in sight. It wasn’t even the kind of place you wanted to bring a date, much less your white bread family. Then, as the city improved, Coney Island improved with it, getting generally cleaner and safer and more enjoyable for a wide variety of people. Don’t misunderstand, Coney Island was a family destination even in 2008, but it was more for local families, for children reared in New York who know to keep their money in their sock and their senses alert at all times. Frankly, I thought it was a swell place to bring children of all ages, but then I am not a parent. I take it for granted that folks might have to brook a mugging or a random shooting sometimes. That’s life in the big city for you.

Having seen Coney Island in the process of being rebuilt, I get the distinct impression that they want to create more of a DisneyWorld effect, and not that of a local fairground. It’s like developers think that Coney Island will become a seaside resort: chromosome-deficient Midwestern kids happily splashing in a kiddie pool while mom sips margaritas behind a fence that obscures the Atlantic Ocean, five-hundred feed away. Starbucks and Pinkberry become the circled wagons that keep those noisy black folks at bay. “Anything for the children,” is the motto of the day, as we become more segregated and our culture more homogenized in order to restrict a child below the age of twelve from seeing an exposed nipple. I’ve had enough of this shit; kids, get on my level. Coney Island is fun as hell, and if you’re not wise then you could be parted from your cotton candy money in a minute. But the flip side of that is you’ll probably see some junkie with a parrot on his head juggling for quarters. That’s New York City, not motherfucking Abercrombie & Fitch.

%d bloggers like this: