Saturday, July 21, 2012

Becoming a New Yorker, one moment at a time

Last night, I had dinner at my friends Steve and Naama's apartment off Park Avenue in Manhattan. I arrived when they were still getting ready, and asked to use the bathroom just after Steve had gotten out of the shower. "It's pretty hot in there," Naama said. "That's okay, I'm from Brooklyn," I responded. This after a week that saw temperatures in the upper 90s, with the mysterious RealFeel hitting 100 on the day I cleaned my apartment, mostly sans A/C.

Right after dismissing Naama's concern, I paused. I'm from Boston, and I have consistently wavered in my mental migration to Gotham since moving here in 2005. I'm a Celtics fan who loves Lou Reed's "NYC Man," and I think it's Reed's literary, Jewish sensibility, both as a solo artist and with the Velvets, that has drawn me here, like an antique phonogram  that sucks up its listeners. I'd like to think that coming here made me part of the ever-evolving soundtrack of New York, but being here, I know that it takes constant work to get into the groove, as Madonna sang, and I agree with this quote from Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that appeared at the top of the April/May 2011 issue of the Williamsburg Greenpoint News and Arts: "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." I feel like New York gives when it gets.

The last time I made a transformative step towards a New York identity was, ironically, in Penn Station, before boarding a train to visit family in Boston. This was last winter, when Linsanity had infected the city.  My friend Larry, who went to high school in the Bronx, told me that New York was crazy for the Knicks during the Patrick Ewing / John Starks era, and his history lesson helped me feel the excitement when Lin's subtle, persistent style was confounding opponents in the Garden. For some of my friends and me, Lin's Harvard education validated the tweedy, Woody Allenish side of our fandom, and that didn't hurt, either.

In the station, near the escalators underneath the information board, a heavyish, middle-aged guy wearing a blue No. 17 jersey walked towards me. "Nice jersey!" I said. "Thanks," he replied, not pausing as he passed. I texted my friends in triumph.

While brightening at the sight of Lin's jersey was an initiation into the big, whooshy spirit of the city--think the montage before each episode of SNL--claiming Brooklyn as my home while walking into my friends' steamy bathroom was an identification with the Sweathogs of Welcome Back Kotter, a dip into the second city blues, a reference to a mundanity that, as a recent transplant to a gentrifying part of a culturally burgeoning borough, I haven't often experienced. I guess sweeping and mopping in the RealFelt heat will inspire all sorts of delusions. But the city's best point guard is now a G train ride away. Anything can happen.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Not so pretty in the Citi

While walking to the E train underneath Court Square last Wednesday morning, I saw three people spreading the word about an Occupy protest at the enormous Citigroup building in Long Island City. One man handed out handbills claiming that the bank made 4 billion dollars and paid no taxes (presumably in 2011), and someone else held up a sign advertising free bagels. I was impressed by the confidence and carriage of the organizers: they spoke up into the teeth of the commute, and they dressed as if they were headed for office jobs. I later found out that one of the three, Jolie Terrazas, is a doctoral student in Industrial Organizational Psychology at CUNY, as well as a part-time researcher in its office of Institutional Research and Assessment. I didn’t see it, but she told me that she brandished another sign asserting that the Occupiers had jobs.

When I got to the protest around 5:30—the action lasted from 8am-8pm, and took place near the birch trees where Thompson Avenue meets Jackson—I saw about 20 attendees. A saxophonist played “I Wish I Were a Rich Man,” two people wore cardboard houses that may have been in states of foreclosure, and others spoke with journalists and each other. Ken Gale, a solar power advocate and co-host of Eco-Logic, an environmental show on WBAI that airs every other Tuesday at 8pm, noticed my notebook and soon started telling me about the fight to implement commercial net-metering in New York. Approved by then-Governor David Patterson in 2008, commercial net-metering allows businesses that install solar panels on their buildings to profit from the excess energy those panels generate, energy that goes back into the grid for everyone’s use. According to Gale, “old school” employees at ConEd and other utility companies opposed the policy, and there remains an anti-solar bias at ConEd. But he also reports that young employees are changing the culture of the company.

Reflecting on our conversation, I remembered that Occupy is like a human library. Within the context of protesting—or even just questioning—the latitude and largesse afforded the financial industry and the ways it exploits the less powerful, anyone can learn about a host of important issues.

Terrazas said that the 10 or so people who came out of the Citigroup building to speak with protesters were "generally receptive," and that interactions with police, of whom I counted nine, were "friendly." She also told me that Alexis Goldstein, a former employee of Morgan Stanley who gave a speech earlier in the evening, noted that she heard her colleagues in finance encourage one another to “rip your client’s face off,” i.e., tell them that a particular investment is great when it is actually “crap.” For her part, Terrazas thinks it’s wrong that banks receive zero interest loans and then lend money to consumers at high rates.

Occupy Astoria LIC has been meeting weekly since December and focuses on outreach and education. According to member Nick Levis, the organization has about 100 members and includes several working groups. “Look, we’re not monsters, we’re employed,” Levis said. “This is what people want to hear. I wish we didn’t have jobs, [because] we could do this each day.” Levis went on to compare the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s, which he claims resulted in prison time for 1,000 executives, with the financial collapse that began in 2008. Instead of “sweetheart settlements,” he proposes “law enforcement.” Doesn’t sound so monstrous to me.

Throughout July, Occupy Astoria LIC is hosting a free Tuesday night documentary series at the Church of the Redeemer on Crescent St, with Food, Inc. scheduled on the 10th,  Wikirebels—The Story of WikiLeaks on the 17th, and The American Ruling Class on the 24th. Visit for more information.