A Deli & Skyscrapers

November 30, 2010

Brooklyn waterfront skyline, Bush Terminal, 1920Brookyln used to be known as “The City of Homes,” the first suburb of the United States,  a seminal and horizontal stretch where hundreds of thousands people lived and worked.

Then Junior’s Cheesecake was founded in the 1950s, offering Skyscraper Ice Cream Sodas, in a borough that has no skyscrapers, because the foundation of this part of Long Island is sand, as evidenced by the number of old indigenous names for parts of Brooklyn that indicate the island’s rockless base.  Clusters of tall buildings would sink like candles into a slice of Junior’s cheesecake.

Now, in the “Borough of Churches,” hi-rises abound that are advertised to be “luxury,” but are not situated in close proximiBrooklyn waterfront skyline, Bush Terminal, 1920ty to a day-to-day streetlife.  The uniform glass towers on the coast of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, or the “Toren” and “Avalon” in Fort Greene, at the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge, offer scant opportunities for the livelihood of immediate communal foot traffic.

The tallest building in Brooklyn since 1927 was the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, standing lonely and classy, in a non-office district but situated just above an LIRR terminal.  It mostly leased its offices to dentists before converting to residential space last year, now using its high-arched Deco jazz-age bank lobby for weekend flea markets.

“The Brooklyner” is the new tallest building in Kings County, naturally residential, but unnaturally featuring amenities like a dog shower (for those whose New York fantasy is not complete without a dog left leashed to the parking meter while having lunch for an hour and a half at the gastropub); and Skee Ball machines, for those adults whose egos are padded like an actor’s fatsuit with the scraps of other kids’ nostalgia.  Skee Ball was popular in Coney Island when that boardwalk amusement land first budded in the last decades of the 19th century. Then Brooklyn was its own city, the third most populated in the U.S.  “The Brooklyner” postures the borough as an abstract lifestyle action, and maybe a TV camera is watching your every move and everyone watches.

The deli options in the Madison Square Park / Flower District area of Manhattan are generally of a low caliber. I found my favorite, Cherry Deli, on 28th and Broadway, under the scaffolding, the size of a shoeshine stall in Penn Station, and run like a whipsnap by the Korean owner and his wife.  The Latino guys behind the counter are fast and do five things at once, and they don’t put up with any of the weisenheimers who come in and bust chops, the Africans and Mediterraneans and Eastern Europeans that hang out around the cheap perfume and low budg electronics stores and whistle at chicks and smoke weed and conduct some kind of hand-off 28th Street and Broadway, New York, 2010entrepreneurial business.  I go to Cherry Deli not so much because the sandwiches are great or that they have great bagels, but because the personality of the deli is like the daredevil Philippe Petit walking between the Twin Towers on a tightrope.  Your identity shares appetite with the clientele of the place you regularly get lunch in New York.

Often the city forces its people to reckon things as if against the adversary of something worse: so to say that the pizza at Joe’s Pizza is good, is to say that the pizza at John’s Pizza is not.  The movie was amazing, because that movie sucked.  NYC is a big sports town, the home of Wall Street, and where 20th century popular entertainment in the United States was born.  It is a struggle then, this antagonized disengagement from the city, and if you give up on staking claims, you give up on the city, your home.  Get judgmental about things and at least you say you lived.


November 20, 2010

As a result of my Archives classes, it happens more and more that I find links and references and connections and suggestions to this field, no matter the subject, no matter the angle.  It would probably be the same if I studied medicine or business, or stenography.  In movies (from the B-movie docu-melodrama The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) or the David Mamet short internet video Lost Masterpieces of Pornography), in books, conversation, the newspaper, on TV.  When I moved this past summer, I viewed all my crap as an absolute organic archive that needed to be organized, indexed in boxes, and partly de-accessioned.  I am not so much an obsessive person, and didn’t grow up in an obsessive household, but I try make nods of justice to the things I spend time being interested in.

Couple weeks ago there was a big story in the NY Times about WikiLeaks, a rogue primary source website, which released over 300,000 classified documents about the Iraq War.  WikiLeaks is run by Julian Assange, who is posed in the news as a maverick, paranoid information scientist from Australia.  He looks like a character in the movie Inception.  The US government has condemned the leak, but claims the documents don’t report anything previously undisclosed.   Three months earlier, WikiLeaks let out 77,000 secret documents on the Afghan War.  As an archive student, this is about as close to the TV show 24 as the profession gets.  Julian Assange may not be Jack Baeur, but is he an archivist?

Assange has a certain amount of control over these documents, which he obtained through alleged contacts in the military and elsewhere, and then entered into an agreement with the Times, Der Spiegel and the London Guardian to publish the papers.  Assange had nothing to do with their original creation, but now claims them with a supreme authority, against the will of the U.S.

Assange recently spoke in Sweden with Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 outed 1,000 pages of  Pentagon documents with secret information about the Vietnam War. But Daniel Ellsberg was a political insider, an analyst for the RAND Corporation.  He was hired to do research on the war, collecting a body of documents, and make a report, the conclusions of which Congress ignored.  Julian Assange is a civilian with the pedigree of a computer hacker; he is a laymen agitator.  But he got the info before the news media did.  The Fourth Estate does not need yet another reminder of its decomposition, even in New York, the biggest newspaper city in the country.  History makes cataclysms, then repeats itself, like the river in the movie Deliverance.

Julian Assange is not without precedent, as neither are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Wars are conducted on grand scales by secret information, and the 20th century has been witness to both a geyser of awareness of human civil rights, and a staggering commitment of atrocities typically documented with painstaking archival detail. All in all, the average American is not so easily ticked off by the higher order of things, unless personal livelihood is going to be affected, either when the President goes “Socialist” on health care, or one’s relative is fighting in the war overseas.

. . . . New York, a port city, at the forward guard of civilization, urbane and smug, fiercely multi-ethnic, super-crowded, spewing wealth, is at an advancing stage of acting as its own curator.  San Francisco might have followed this sort of juncture of metropolitan self-awareness, but the technology industry has kept San Fran’s attention on the future, rather than the past. In The Social Network, that new Facebook movie, the money and the action is in Northern California, not New York, where old business paradigms are a stifle.

NYC, in the guise of curating its past, which thinks ahead to the uses of the future, also destroys it.  NYC established the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the late 1960s: it took 300 years for the city to recognize itself as a work of art, which is strange for a town so vainglorious.   And still, as social theorist and New York Intellectual Nathan Glazer says in From A Cause to a Style, “New York is not – not yet – a museum city,” that despite its low manufacturing base and high cost of living, its population increases each year (as does its volume of sightseeing tourists).

Every New Yorker has a moment when a favorite place closes for good. Sometimes I wish, as Chumley’s, McHale’s Pub, Carmine’s and Gino have lately disappeared, so would “Saturday Night Live.”

Gino, Lexington Avenue

Gino, Lexington Avenue, crowd, two days before closing

Charlie Sheen on the rampage at the Plaza isn’t exactly F. Scott and Zelda jumping into the Pomona fountain. And when people like Dick Miles, the table tennis champion, pass away, a piece of the city dies too.  And so I have been a tour guide for the last 6 years and am studying for work in Archives.

Dick Miles

Vet Day

November 17, 2010

Air Force Jet, Veteran's Day Parade, NYC, 2010The Army bands in the Veteran’s Day parade, marching past the office building on Fifth Ave, sound peculiarly like a mix of Korean folk music, the sweater-vest patriotism of Charles Ives, and the theme score for The Terminator movies.  Guys dressed up in desert fatigues standing around Humvee tanks; men in green dress raiment and berets with trumpets, getting ready to march, flaunt and flex the art and muscle of the Armed Forces.  A big banner with a Skull, Sword & Wings: “Kill ’em all, and let God sort ’em out!”

But student life is not Army life.  Still, a couple of things that might have provoked a quick stark derangement of self-reflection occurred last week in class.  The class broke up into small groups, to create our own finding aid based on a fictional archive.  We chose David Bowie.  A fellow student, who later admitted her birth year as 1988, said she had never heard of David Bowie.  I usually find it an anti-social and offputting reaction to say to people, “You’ve never heard of that, really?”  It is often a person’s way of masking smugness with incredulity.  “I guess no one should expect anyone to have heard of anyone,” I said.  But David Bowie?  The Diamond Dog? Ziggy Stardust? The White Duke? Blue Jean? The All the Young American Modern Love Changes Dudes Jean Jeanie Man Who Sold the 1984 World?

Then the other day, again broken into groups, having to pretend to arrange a mock archive, and given an 331/3 RPM vinyl record from 1966, one guy asked, “What’s 331/3?”  He is a musician, though I should not take for granted he should know that.  And it wasn’t exactly generational.  If I had assumed he didn’t know, and tried to exAir Force Jet, Veteran's Day Parade, NYC, 2010plain it to him, I’d have felt like kinda of a jerko anyway, because he might have already known in the first place, and it’d be a needley condescension.  All in all, my David Bowie vinyl records gained value for the archives.

This week, George W. Bush broke ground on his Presidential Library, located at Southern Methodist University.  Bush hopes his papers will shed new light on the bad decisions he made while leading the nation into two wars and the collapse of the economy.  Bush now puts his trust in the power of history to vindicate his actions and preserve his legacy, but surely Bush’s papers will be the archival proof that he was never a man who put his trust in history.

North Jersey

November 9, 2010

I watched the movie Big Fan (2009) on Netflix “Watch It Now.”  I rarely use this offer from Netflix, since I have to watch the movie on my computer, which is in my studio work space, the man cave, and the old rustic wood floor is a tad slanted, so my wheeled desk chair sometimes rolls off toward the other side of the room when I am not diligent about staking a good angle towards the desk.

Big Fan takes place in the physical and psychological cross-hatches of Staten Island and Jersey.  This is your author’s childhood homeland territory, aside from the fact that I have not spent much time in Staten Island, except for a few deliveries of janitorial supplies I made when I drove the van for my father’s company in high school.   Staten Island does not have as bad a stereotype as does New Jersey, which makes it stand out much less in character than the Garden State.  Even MTV canceled their Staten Island reality show.  “City Island” is roughly the Dutch translation, ironic for the least urban of boroughs, known for Republican politicians, Mafia McMansions and where Madonna’s 1980s video for “Papa Don’t Preach” was filmed.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, where Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Aaron Burr and Jack Nicholson are from.  The only place on the planet with better pizza and bagels than New York, is New Jersey.  Thomas Edison, Kinetoscope, New JerseyBecause of bad reality TV, and the 20th-century industrial outlands of Hudson and Essex Counties, where chemical plants, beer factories, and stacks of supercontainers sprawl for miles en route from Newark Airport towards the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels into Manhattan, New Jersey has garnered a bad rep for lack of grace, charm, fresh air or good manners.  But the worse the rep, the better the mystique, the guts, the potential for sublimation.  In 1903 the first movie Western was shot on South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, New Jersey, the same town where I went to prep school, and Thomas Edison concocted the Kinetoscope.  Solar panels were invented in NJ, ironic for a state unfairly bullied as the armpit of the U.S. – anyhows c’mon that’s Long Island.

The “big fan” in Big Fan is Paul Aufiero, played by stand-up performance artist, character actor, and Tom Scharpling radio call-in personality Patton Oswalt. Paul is a parking lot attendant who lives with his mother in Staten Island.  He is a football fanatic and his team is the New York Giants.  Paul and his buddy Sal drive over the Goethals Bridge along Rt 21 through Newark out to East Rutherford, Big Fan, Patton OswaltNJ to tailgate at Giants Stadium.  They never buy tickets, but watch the game from a TV they power through their car battery in the parking lot (the same parking lot my friends hung out at Grateful Dead shows in the early 1990s, before Jerry died).  Paul and Sal are blue collar dudes in their late 30s, zealots of the Giants franchise but priced-out of the stadium.

Every week Paul calls in to his favorite sports radio show, Sports Dog, and unleashes a jeremiad of pro-Giants, anti-Phillie Eagles pontification.  Paul prepares his remarks solemnly and monkishly in his parking lot ticket booth, scrawling in the pages of his spiral notebook.  When Sports Dog gives the cue, Paul is on fire.   Big Fan tightly and evocatively conveys the evangelical AM airwave cadence of Mid-Atlantic sports buffs, with a fierce flair for the beer-battered technocratic verbiage of football and the buffalo-wing braggadocio of gridiron shit-talk.

During the week Paul works at a parking lot, and on the weekend hangs out in a parking lot, a visual rhyme with the mentally-imbalanced stagnancy of which his family accuses him.  Paul may not have a girlfriend, but he is not a deviant or hard-up.  His mother castigates him for not being normal, like his goombah brother, a personal-injury lawyer, and plastic-lipped, bobinkus boobed sister-in-law.  The whole family gathers around the TV for the premiere of his brother’s cheapo commercial, but they have no respect for Paul’s artistic act of nighttime orations on the radio (his mother instead bangs on the wall for him to shut up).  Paul is a true outcast, but never is it believed that Paul is unhappy, and when he stomps about in defiance of his mother’s wish for him to be other than he is, “I don’t want what they have! I don’t want it! I don’t want!” he is not being lazy or unfocused or a slacker, but asserting the viability of his alienated convictions.

Not only does Paul debunk society by living with his mother – the epitome of a loser – but defies authority by refusing to press charges against Quantrell Bishop, the Giants superstar quarterback and Paul’s diehard hero, who stomps the crap out of Paul in a paranoid, coke-induced, midtown nightclub thrashing.  Paul’s lax, evasive and disaffected response to this incident triggers an onslaught of oppressive needling by his family, the media and the cops.  Like Buddha in a Giants hoodie, Paul’s interests are selfless and serve a higher purpose, and he’d rather Quantrall play than sue the quarterback and ruin the team’s record.

Bret Schundler, eating a hot dogThe backdrop exurban environs of Big Fan work on a tri-state axis of NY – NJ – PA.  Paul lives in NY, the team plays in Jersey, and his arch-enemy is “Philadelphia Phil,” an orotund “cheesesteak bozo” who calls in Sports Dog with inflected diatribes against the Giants. It is fall football season but no leaves are shown changing to mahogany, hunter, or gold. The sky is slate gray, and the most vivid hues are the team colors painted on fans’ faces. Taken as a metaphor, Big Fan portrays a sort of American common denominator interpretation of reality as a growling, binary-obsessed face-off, like 21st century game shows or political elections.  Paul’s individuated moral sense submits to such tension.  But after he is smacked down by Quantrell Bishop, Paul is forced to act upon a sequence of decisions which both transcend and subvert his estranged, creative American self, against the dreadnought of cultural expectations in which he floats a livelihood.

Paul is familiar, either first hand or second hand, or I sat next to him at Sharkey’s in Clifton, NJ eating garlic wings; or taylor ham and egg sandwiches at The Short Stop, a greasyspoon trucker diner in Bloomfield; or stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the mens room urinal at a bar in the Ironbound section of Newark where stewardesses hang out.  Sometimes it’s a good movie that stupendously, mysteriously, musty and steep, greenlights your faith in the ways of your own world and that beyond it….

Can’t Get No

November 5, 2010

On the way to work the other day, in the rain, glancing at the covers of the papers on the newstands – the NY Post, Daily News, AM New York – the headlines showed a bombastic and smartass and altogether manufactured corral of attitude against Obama, in reaction to the Republican “shellacking” of the Dems in the midterms the other day.  It serves politicians very well that America is a country that often never employs history to activate the future, but is instead a fanatical masochist for the making of the same mistakes over and over and over again.  “It would be hard to argue that we’re going backwards,” said President Obama after the polls closed. “I think what you can argue is we’re stuck in neutral.”

Republicans are bullies, and Democrats are pushovers. George W. Bush’s dimwitted high noon sheriff boosterism unleashed super opposition on the left, but he also alienated the far Christian right – the creationists and such types – which in turn instigated both Obama’s 2008 win and the Tea Party’s reactionary mutant gonzo rallying.  A wave of victory for one party is yet just a set-up for the next wave of victory for the opposite party.  As if things will change…  Obama, the first black president, pushed through health care and Wall Street reform, while announcing the “end of combat operations” in Iraq, and jacking up the War on Terror in Afghanistan.  His panache, smooth elocution, oratorical confidence and comportment of physical and intellectual command, constitute a supreme threat to Americans who find it more comforting to be fear-mongered than treated like a thinking adult.  Still, Obama is a politician, and we can only hope is more staunch a man than when Gore wussed-out in 2000 and conceded to Bush after the recount showdown in West Palm Beach, Florida. Benjamin Linus, Lost Someday voters will realize that there are in fact more than two parties listed on the ballot with an empty circle next to it.  If, from the TV show Lost, The Man in Black and Jacob ran for governor, I’d go and vote for the third party: trickster survivalist megalomaniac Benjamin Linus.  I mean, in New York City, Rent is Too Damn High!

And is it a coincidence that George Bush has released his presidential memoir, Decision Points, just as this rehashed threshold of right-wing fever is sweeping the polls?  Here at Campus Whits, I will make a decision point to read the new Keith Richards autobiography, which should prove a wild and cerebral ride….

Meanwhile, the below pic is allegedly the earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken of Young Lincoln on a visit to Louisville, Kentucky.  The authenticity was determined by Biometrica, a company that applies identity recognition technology to help gambling casinos nab con-artists on the gaming floor….

The Costume Vote

November 1, 2010

Halloween and Election Season arrive when Autumn is at its peak, a good time for the city. And there is something a Halloween costume store has in common with a local campaign headquarters. For a few weeks, each of these places rent space and anticipate a day of climax, after which they close down, to pop up next year. Halloween stores are cramped, unorganized, stuffy, staffed by temp clerks dressed in fangs, wigs and makeup, a “sexy” devil, “The Crow,” or the vampire man.

At campaign headquarters, perhaps for the State Senatorial District, the cheapest commercial space is rented, above a hair salon in a two-floor storefront, a few computers on tables found on the roof of the building, maybe a back room with concrete walls. Staticky carpet and musty fake wood paneling, and a flight of steps that might seem to lead to the offices of a 1940s bounty hunter. The campaign workers are stressed and make impulsive decisions in the creative effort to get votes – as people in a Halloween store pick out costumes at the last minute.Vote Today Pepsi billboard Times Square 2010

Both spaces are transient and sloppy and the mood is manic. The day nears, and campaigners recruit canvassers, and cheap-ass Jack Sparrow outfits are bought, and fake beards and sexy bloody nurse numbers. After the election, and the holiday, the abandoned stores and HQs are left like Times Square on New Year’s morning, a mess of monsters and politics. The outcome on Election Day may prove much scarier than anyone dressed as Jigsaw the cancer man, or Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies. Or Hiram Monserrate.

I moved into my Brooklyn neighborhood, Clinton Hill, in June. Each Hallow’s Eve, outside a few of the carriage houses and old 1880s mansions from when Brooklyn was a suburb, theatrical entertainments are staged by neighbors for the kids and passersby. At five o’clock the area was swarming with kids trick-or-treating. The best costume I saw was a little kid dressed as Colonel Sanders. He had a good goatee and the curly white hair. I have been to Colonel Sanders’ grave at Cave Hill National Cemetery in Louisville, KY, a famous and evocatively landscaped graveyard, where also is buried Harry Leon Collins, an old-time magician whose gravesite had an occult effect.

My ladyfriend and I dressed up as 1920s aviators. She wore the vintage goggles and cap, I wore an eyepatch and fedora, the story being that my eye was injured in a crash when flying over the Sudan in 1921, or some such tale. I bought the pants I wore for $5.99 in the womens section at the cheapo store in my neighborhood. They were Gloria Vanderbilt, and fit well as the legwear of a 1920s pilot adventurer.  My brother was visiting from Redondo Beach, CA. this week, with his gal pal. She dressed as a sacrificial goat, and Fud was the goatherder.

We walked around the neighborhood. The architecture reflects the flush of 19th century shipping wealth, the Brooklyn Navy Yard not far. It was a vintage autumn evening.  Brisk and windy, leaves like sandcrabs crackling across the asphalt and the rows of Italianate townhouses and brick apartments trimmed in Gothic are dim and infinite in the fall dusk.

The house at 313 Clinton Ave performed a “Vampire Opera” with pre-recorded audio, dance numbers to parodies of songs from Phantom, creature shop masks and a Nosferatu protagonist obsessed with candy. It was mainly for kids, though I didn’t see a whole lot of kids standing on the sidewalk and street for the 8:30 show. Most of the crowd were local couples not in costume. Some teenagers passed by, Batman was being chased by Urkel from Family Matters.

The highlight of the neighborhood spectacle was a carriage house on Waverly Ave, where the garage was turned into a dungeon cast by props of old movie monsters.Exorcist show, Waverly Avenue, Clinton Hill 2010 In the center, strapped to a bed, writhed Regan MacNeil, from The Exorcist.  The actress thrashed and gargled and mimicked along to a profound audio mashup of sound clips from the movie, satanic backwards-playing LPs, and a psychedelic bad-trip collage of primal snarls and inhuman whinnies.  If this show might have been for kids – to maybe fuck them up a little – it was definitely geared to adults.

I didn’t know what to expect from this local street theater – I had heard that the neighborhood was known for making such spectacles a tradition. Earlier that day I was talking with a tour guide about the scariest movies of all-time. My pick was The Exorcist – only to discover that the little girl possessed by Pazuzu the demon was right up my block.