Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Thing and the Ring

When I went back to Greenpoint in August, I visited The Thing, the local second-hand store whose industrious staff create assemblages of furniture, luggage, old machines, books, records, and curios on the sidewalk every day. Sometime in 2017, those miniature bazaars started to include leftover stock from a cycling shop that had closed. I had just moved to Washington Heights to be closer to work, and a high-end Fuji, marked down from $2060 to $480, had recently caught my eye. Twice, the guys had offered to take $30 off the price.

As I neared the store, I saw a former neighbor walk out. Tall and stout, with wispy blond hair, Bruce was wearing a blue Obama/Biden t-shirt with the sunrise logo flecking off. I had once seen Bruce in front of me at the post office wearing a Ramones jacket with their self-descriptive term "Cretin Hop" on the back, and in true Ramones style, the political tee just reached the bottom of his belly. It was neat to see such a rocker show love for Obama, whose enlightened pragmatism seemed, in the first summer of Trump, like a phenomenon that disappeared after a brief emergence.

Bruce was at The Thing to drop off copies of his band’s new album. Well, not so new: 14 tracks off Ring 13’s Nothing New, Nothing Learned were recorded in 1984, when Bruce and his bandmates lived in the Midwest. Five songs, including a cover of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right,” were new recordings, and the album came out on 180-gram vinyl, Spotify, and iTunes. Bruce wanted the shop to charge $12 a copy, and he didn’t plan to leave any at Record Grouch, the trove of new and used vinyl across Manhattan Avenue, because he didn’t think they would sell there.

I told Bruce I had moved to Inwood, a statement that felt like it whooshed out of my mouth. It was like all of a sudden I lived in Iowa, or I had become a ghost. But then I explained that I'm a teacher, I got a job in Harlem, and the morning commute is better from up there. Like everyone else I had told in Greenpoint, Bruce had my back. 

“Makes sense,” he said. “Can’t be late for the kids.”

We kept chatting. A store employee with long black hair who usually wears a blue Mets cap and a customer who looked like Sammy Hagar were outside, too, rappin’ about Bruce’s record and the various detritus the shop had for sale.

“I had a teacher named Angela Dust,” Bruce said.

“That’s like a punk rock girl’s name!” I replied.

“The kids called her Angel,” he said.

I wonder where Ms. Dust is today. Bruce also said that Beer City Records, Ring 13's label, pressed 1,000 copies of the album, and you had to buy the vinyl to hear the Joel cover, which the label feared would cause legal trouble if released online.

But if the album sold, he said, the label might change its mind. As of today, you still can't hear a Midwestern garage-rock take on one of Joel's peppier songs unless you visit Beer City's website, or, depending on inventory, bring 12 bucks to The Thing. If you wear a Mets cap, you'll fit right in.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Love you 'Til Tuesday

Through dozens of cursory listens, I always thought ‘Til Tuesday’s “Everything’s Different Now,” the title track from the Boston band’s last album, was a bummer trip. Maybe that’s because Aimee Mann, who once had the best pop star hair this side of Robert Smith, consistently sings about failed relationships on the band’s three LPs, so I assumed that everything that was different had to be worse. But lo and behold, the song’s lyrics are actually about discovering that things are different because two people are in love. A-ha. But Mann doesn’t sound happy, or free from apprehension, at least.

Which, I have learned, makes sense.

Two people in love: that’s wicked special, as we from Beantown might say, and wicked hard, too. To get a grip (two Aerosmith points, please), I’ve been reading Dr. Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want, a book about what we look for when we look for life partners, and how we can make living with them work. The thing that rocked my world is Hendrix’s claim that we’re looking for partners who will help us meet childhood needs that our caregivers did not. For that to occur, we need partners who possess our caregivers’ (most often our parents’) positive and negative traits, which makes for a fackin’ (c’mon, try it: faaackin) challenging situation, or, simulation of some of our early life experiences.

Back to the song. In “Everything’s Different Now,” Mann conveys the disorientation that comes with love:

Well, soon I’ll say your name
and then I’ll go insane
I won’t understand what I’m thinking

And then the fear of love’s exit:

I’ll look down at my shoes
I’ll wonder what I’ll lose
If I feel this consciousness sinking
And we both know what that means
Returning to what we knew before

Those last two lines are important. In chapter four of his book, Hendrix mentions Plato’s idea that we’re half-beings searching for our other halves. He writes about the feeling of wholeness that results from finding a complementary person, a feeling he calls the “phenomenon of reunification” that’s expressed in the sentiment “I love you so much, I can’t live without you.” And he writes about what happens when we contemplate the loss of our complements, our other halves:

On a deeper level, this sentence [I love you so much, I can’t live without you] reveals the fear that, if the lovers were to part, they would....once again be fractured, half-whole creatures, separated from the fullness of existence. Loneliness and anxiety would well up inside them, and they would no longer feel connected to the world around them. Ultimately, to lose each other would be to lose their new sense of self. (53)

The loneliness and anxiety I always got, but the fear of regression was something I never understood. Hendrix prefaces the above with this sentence:

By attending to their unmet childhood needs, their partners...become allies in their struggle for survival. (52)

And he also explains that it can feel like you’re going to lose that struggle after a break-up. Which is why no one ever really wants to go through one. Mann, it turns out, didn’t write “Everything’s Different Now”: Jules Shear, her boyfriend at the time, and Matthew Sweet wrote the music, and Shear wrote the lyrics. But like Cyndi Lauper’s cri de coeur, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” the tonal opposite of Mann’s almost lavishly disappointed sound, you’d never know.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Cider Press in Greenpoint

Let's start with a simple question, in the category of sights from your kitchen window: can you get more perfect than a man standing in a pear tree, holding up a painter’s pole with a tin can tied to the end, enclosing and pulling pears off the branches like a fisherman pulling catch out of a stream?
Not when it’s sunny, and the tree stands within a verdant Greenpoint backyard, surrounded by more backyards, weathered wooden fences, and old brick and stucco walls. Not a chance.
As the fruit fisher plucked away, the tree’s burden was incrementally relieved. Lots of pears hung out of his reach near my fire escape, where I watched the operation. My neighbor, Joe, passed me the pole to remove a few.

“I’m just so happy for the tree,” he said. “It can relax.”
The harvesting was a revelation, because we in the neighborhood are wary of the soil. In 1979, an oil spill along the nearby Newtown Creek contaminated the ground, and toxic ash from a waste treatment facility also poisoned locally grown fruits and vegetables.

But Joe and Elissa, who own the yard where the tree stands, hired an expert to test the dirt. Nothing wrong, the man said. Eat away.

And soon, drink. The couple's friends, Chris and Marty—Chris stood in the tree, and Marty fished from the ground—spent part of the following weekend in their own backyard on Java Street, grinding and pressing the brown and green fruit with some friends to make cider.
On the morning of the People’s Climate March, Chris invited me into his basement and showed me three glass bottles, or carboys, filled with yellow-green liquid. Tiny bubbles floated to the tops of each, the carbon dioxide excretions of cider yeast eating the sugar in the juice, he explained.
And then he showed me a fruit grinder with a screw-studded wheel, powered by a washing machine motor.
“It’s medieval, isn’t it?” he asked.

The press itself was partially disassembled, but Chris shared the funky name of its intended object, a stack of rectangular, cloth parcels of ground fruit pulp called a cheese. The hybrid brew--Concord grapes from Chris and Marty's backyard also tasted the screws--will be ready in spring, “when the first cuckoo sings,” Chris told me.

A bottle for a blogger and cuckoo, please.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Gallery-going at the Terminal Market

The Greenpoint Terminal Market, that is. Just around the corner from where I live, the building at 67 West Street houses a warren of smoothed wood floors and various spaces where artists and makers of all kinds do their work. Even Phin and Phebes, ice-cream makers whose pints are available at The Meat Hook, have a room there. I wonder how many artists knock on their door for free samples.

I walked to 67 West last night to attend an opening at Calico, a small gallery that just moved into a larger space on the second floor. Owner, artist, and woodworker Scott Chasse, an ex-Boston guy, stood behind a backroom bar and served tall boys of Narragansett beer. In the gallery, pieces of sculpture in play-doh-like colors resembled miniature kegs, which dispensed pink ooze. (That's the word artist Adams Puryear used to describe the stuff, and it's accurate.) Vincent Stracquadanio's paintings of organic, funny forms hung on opposite walls, and Claire Typaldos' array of small gray and watery dark blue slabs of gypsum cement stood atop a platform in a corner.

After leaving Calico, I walked to another opening at Dose Projects Space, a tiny gallery-within-a-studio just up the hall and around a few corners. Claire Falkenberg's work consisted of pieces of thin, crinkled glassine--almost like flattened plastic bags--that covered cardboard backings. One piece roughly evoked the shape of a large country on a pull-down schoolroom map. It had a sky blue tint, and a similar-sized piece across the room had a pink one. This pairing was effective: sunset, childhood, and nascent impressions came to mind.

One floor up, Brian Willmont's show met the challenge of his boldly named space, Greenpoint Terminal Gallery. Groups of pieces in different styles worked as individual blocs and as good neighbors. I was drawn to a rectangular wood canvas with a--surprise--pink and blue border surrounding what looked like a blown-up image of a cell, or perhaps brain tissue. It seemed characteristic of art-making in North Brooklyn: the effort to express the interior amidst vivid pop ephemera. 

There's that pink and blue border at left. In the larger image, the rods alter the impression of the gray matter.
Willmont wore a black Carharrt vest and a pair of throwback, white-soled work boots to his opening. (I probably would have noticed anyway, but reading this Bedford + Bowery piece about Greenpoint Gallery Night may have helped.) Two women sold beer outside the gallery, as well as booklets of black-and-white reproductions of past shows. On the first page of one called "Tip Top," a Charles Bukowski quote reads as follows:

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or fame,
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody else,
forget about it.

I don't know if I agree with Bukowski's advice about rewriting. Maybe it depends on the spirit with which we rewrite. But his ending, with the formal version of the classic NYC colloquialism, sounds great.

Monday, January 21, 2013

John Cale: rocker, classicist, smoothie

In the words of Neil Young, John Cale walks like a giant on the land. For me, Saturday night's show at BAM, during which Cale played his classic 1972 album Paris 1919 in its entirety with a small but impressive orchestra--plus a bitchin' rock band--established him as an art rock colossus. Who can marry the classical and rock worlds as well as Cale? And who can overlay both with sensitive, literate lyrics? Plus, more than 40 years after Paris 1919 came out, Cale's voice is undiminished. Same thing with Patti Smith, whom I heard opening for Neil late last year: "Gloria" was glorious in 1976 and in 2012.

It struck me during the show that Cale is an artist who's willing to put forth ideas that may be distasteful and outré. That vocoder he sang through during one song? It sounded too buzzy. His hair? In recent press photos, it's partially pink. And how about the title of his new album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood? "Nookie"? Who, other than rap-metal historians, uses this word in 2013? Fashionable or not though, Cale is often sublime. Paris 1919, if you haven't heard it, is a quiet masterpiece, and 1970's Vintage Violence and 75's Slow Dazzle are great and good records, respectively. When the artist strapped on a red and white Fender to play the new album's title track, the song took about 90 seconds to shift from a dull rumble into a varicolored, metal mosaic. Who uses "nookie" in 2013? The mighty John Cale does. I wouldn't laugh at him.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wake-up call

As I wait for the election results--the last thing I saw onscreen was Sarah Silverman's act of labial genius on Conan O'Brien--I am thinking about a few things. Here's what I want to say:

The first thing, just to get it out of the way, is that I did not lift a finger in this election. But for the preceding blog post, which commented on going door-to-door for votes as though I was at the head of an army, and a few donations to the Dems and Obama, I didn't do a goddamn thing. So feel free to take anything I write with a chunk of salt.

The second thing, if you can handle all that sodium, is that I think this election, for those of us who support President Barack Obama, is about winning the right to go to sleep, get a few winks, and wake up in the morning and go right back to work. BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT GOING TO STOP FIGHTING US. By THEY, I mean people who think that laissez-faire economics works, and who oppose equal rights for gays and the right to choose for women. But I'm not going to lie to you here: I'm really thinking about economics tonight, or, how we view making money in this country.

Rick Perry, when he was running for president, said that Americans should want to get rich. John McCain, when he was getting buddy-buddy with Joe the Plumber in the 2008 election, looked into the camera during the second or third debate and said, setting up a hypothetical situation, "Joe, you're rich. Congratulations," while smiling. I'm going to guess that any conservatives reading this post will check out at this citation, but so be it: about 10 years ago, a French teacher of mine said that there isn't an equivalent of the phrase "making money" in his language. But making money, we know, is supposed to be a praiseworthy activity in the U.S.A.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with making a profit from your work. And I don't think that a political system that pretends that making money is an unacceptable human activity has a chance of being humane. But, as we embark, maybe, on the second term of a beleaguered president, as we continue in a present in which we are in great debt, and in which our everyday practices, our lifestyles, insure that we will accrue debt, and in which natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy may become more frequent, we need to band together so badly; we need to work together so well; we need to value building and sustaining community more than making money.

I'm not saying we frown on private wealth creation. I'm just saying that we can't pretend, as Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren (haven't lifted a finger; just asked my parents back in Boston if they think she'll beat Scott Brown) have articulated, that private wealth creation exists in a vacuum in which our very lives, our very futures, aren't at stake. And I'm also not saying we shoot for some kind of utopia in which every factory is carbon neutral, in which every product is recyclable or biodegradable, although wouldn't that be something. I'm saying that we do the best we can, and that we evaluate our actions in light of our supreme value: building and sustaining community.

Because shit, the shit going on in the Rockaways and Staten Island and Red Hook and all down the Jersey Shore is horrible. People are freezing, they need homes, they need jobs. I know that some Republicans, pro-choice and pro-gay rights, really do believe that their economic policies are better for job creation, and, in an imperfect world, getting people jobs is worth more than all of the progressive goals of responsible Democrats put together. But their party's policies ignore the deterioration of the environment. They ignore the need to educate young people so that they are inclined to engage the peoples of other nations, not clash with them. They ignore the fact that without an active federal government, African-Americans may never have gained civil rights.

And they're wrong about economics, too. An underregulated free market isn't just bad for our planet and our minds, but it's ultimately bad for job creation. From what I'm learning, laissez-faire economics tends to lead to financial collapse. And with the planet acting the way it is, and with natural resources dwindling the way they are, WE CAN'T AFFORD TO COLLAPSE ANYMORE. Although we probably will, because we don't learn very quickly.

Eduardo Porter, who writes for the New York Times, authored an excellent piece on what a sustainable economic policy might look like. Wanna know what it looks like? Higher taxes for everyone. Middle class, upper class, and perhaps even the working class. Yes, it's more European, and yes, it's hard to swallow if you like spending disposable income--if you like disposable income, period. But whether you sympathize with Porter or not, his articles are worth reading for the notion that we've got to do some paradigm-shifting if we're going to create a livable future for all of us.

Republicans? Tea-Party fans? We're losing our planet here. We're losing our union. What we want does look different from what you want, but what we want is people working together for a better common future. And for people--all people--to work together, they need good educations, a good shot at entering the middle class, good health care, and full respect of their freedom and dignity by their government. So that's why we vote for Obama. That's why we fight for marriage equality, which I can't say I recognized as important as recently as 10 years ago but I sure do now, reproductive rights and equal pay for women, investments in education, and higher taxes on the wealthy, who will still have a lot even if they're paying more. Hey, if you listen to Porter, we're all going to need to be paying more in the future. I sure hope it doesn't take any more disasters for us to get there.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Game plan

In the aftermath of Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate, I feel like a member of a good football team that has just been handed the ball at midfield. My team is down, and the opposing defense is ferocious, but we know what we're doing, we've been here before. Although I doubt that the other team will hold itself to the same standard, I don't want to win by playing dirty; instead, I want to win with superior play-calling and superior execution (yes, I follow the New England Patriots, and yes, congratulations to the New York Giants). When all is said and done, I want everyone watching to know which is the sounder team.  

And I think the game is now ours to win or lose.

I feel this way because I think that Ryan's ideas, which include reshaping Medicare and privatizing Social Security, are rigid and unrealistic, not to mention destructive. Once examined, I don't think they'll appeal to enough of the undecided voters whom Romney needs to win. But that's only if we do a good job of talking about those ideas, as well as talking about the presidential candidate who brought them back into the spotlight, in the next 85 days.

To do so, we need to educate ourselves. What were the broad outlines and fine points of Congressman Ryan's proposed budget? Why isn't a budget that features cuts of astounding severity a good response to our country's fiscal problems? If a voter protests that Democrats seek to spend at a time when the country is in greater debt than ever, how can we respond? Effective door-to-door canvassing requires knowledge, energy, and empathy. If we bring these qualities to our work, I think we can make headway with voters who think that Romney and Ryan's endorsed policies might improve the economy and empower our pursuit of happiness, but still aren't sure, and who have heard that Obama and the Democrats want to create a socialist state.

First, the big S. In the coming months, the nitty-gritty of policy debate may replace a lot of the name-calling we have heard almost since the inauguration, but if not, we can push back against the idea that progressivism is socialism in a number of ways. We can cite unusually persuasive sources who know better: Milos Forman, the Czech-American filmmaker, who wrote in the New York Times about episodes of censorship and brutality in his native country; Ruben Navarette, a syndicated columnist WNYC host Brian Lehrer introduced as "conservative-leaning," who said that his conservative friends "hate" it when he tells them that the President has governed as if he is "one of them." We can create metaphors and analogies that show the error in inflating Obama's social orientation (a crappy first draft: enjoying a drink a few nights a week doesn't make me an alcoholic, and instituting particular social programs doesn't make our government a malfunctioning ATM). And we can be forthright about and proud of that orientation, and of our own: we think that progressive social investment befits a democracy that seeks to equip its citizens with the tools they need to succeed.

Some people are not going to agree with us. (Remember Anthony Rapp's character in Adventures in Babysitting, the kinda rad Elisabeth Shue movie from 1987? "Ya think?") If, however, they're still willing to listen to you, then go for it: talk about the Republican weaknesses and Democratic strengths that appeal to you most. It's really important to me that President Obama has worked to end the war in Iraq, and I think there's a reason that his term has coincided with the Arab Spring, a movement that is resulting in a world in which more people are living in democracies that they have risked their lives to establish. Some voters may fear the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or what might transpire in a post-Assad Syria, but they might also feel that people who have more opportunities to pursue happiness are less threatening than people who must live with less.

In terms of the economy, well, stay tuned--that's what I've got to learn more about. I do know, as I think the majority of Americans do, that trickle-down policies (especially in combination with deregulation and a lack of oversight of the financial industry) don't work, and that they most recently haven't worked under the, ahem, watch of a Republican administration. Let's talk about how many gears Pres. Obama has shifted to help us emerge from the Great Recession, even if it feels like we're stuck in the mud sometimes. Let's talk about how his policies will give more Americans a chance to stay afloat.

During a recent WNYC segment on New Yorkers' experiences hosting visitors from abroad, Lehrer responded to a caller's story by commenting that "people are people on planet Earth." Horrible acts of violence notwithstanding, I agree. I think that all of us want better lives for ourselves and our families, and in this era, with this President, we've got a better chance of persuading unconvinced Americans that they stand to do and feel better if more of their fellow citizens stand the same. We have reason and compassion and energy on our side. And we've been here before. So let's go.

That football metaphor? It's simple: We're the Patriots, and we're about to run the two-minute drill. Romney and Ryan? They're the Jets. Sorry, New York, you can't have it all.