Showing posts with label new york city. Show all posts
Showing posts with label new york city. Show all posts


two days in new york city

This is one of those posts I write only for myself. This blog functions as my travel diary, and I like that diary to be complete. So here I am. Feel free to ignore. Which of course you always are, and you don't need me to tell you that.

I was supposed to go to New York by myself to see Springsteen on Broadway. (Review to follow in separate post.) I had been trying to get a ticket since they first went on sale more than a year ago, and somehow Allan managed to get me one. And not just a ticket -- an affordable ticket! Factoring in air fare and hotel, I couldn't spend a huge amount on a ticket, and Allan snagged one for $75. Amazing!

When some of my NYC plans got cancelled, I persuaded Allan to come with me. He wasn't interested in the Springsteen show, but why pass up two days in New York?

Day one: sweat, lunch, pod, bistro

We flew down on Porter, and it's super easy to take NJ Transit into the city and hop on a subway. However, it was 45 degrees on the street with swamplike humidity, so goddess only knows what the mercury hit on the subway platforms. It didn't help that we got on a wrong train and had to backtrack. By the time we got to the hotel, we were little more than puddles of whining sweat.

I had a room booked at Pod 51. Have you heard of the Pod Hotels? They are budget hotels with a fresh, hip look. There have always been budget hotels, even in the most expensive cities, but they can be scary and gross. A couple of times -- Seattle and Amman come to mind -- after getting in late, we stayed one night, then promptly found another room in the morning. Nothing like that in the Pods. Tiny, clean rooms, some with even tinier bathrooms, others with shared bath, with several washrooms on each floor. A cafe and a rooftop bar and what else do you need? Book directly through the hotel's website, and they throw in two complimentary glasses of wine.

After showers and a rest, we went downstairs for lunch. On the way over, I noticed that Chopt, my favourite salad place, is still in business. I walked over and brought back an amazing salad, and Allan ordered a burger from the place next-door, and a server delivered it to the hotel cafe. Time for free wine!

After lunch, we re-arranged our plans a bit so we wouldn't see any more subway platforms that day. I went around the corner for a mani-pedi, which I often do when I'm away.

Earlier, in the Toronto airport, I had been looking online for a place for dinner. I was thinking French bistro, something we loved in New York and don't do anymore. And wouldn't you know it, one of the oldest and most established bistros is next door to Pod 51: Le Bateau Ivre. (One side burgers and craft beer, the other side oysters, steak frites, and red wine.)

Bateau Ivre is the kind of place that would be a serious three-star restaurant anywhere else, but in NYC is just a neighbourhood joint. The place was hopping. We sat at the bar and had an amazing meal. We're not really into spending huge amounts of money on restaurants anymore, and I'd forgotten the difference between the chain restaurants, which are good enough, and the real deal. It was pretty awesome.

Back at the room, we turned up the air-conditioning to an Arctic blast and followed another insane Red Sox game on Allan's phone.

Day two: shoes, Union Square Cafe, Bruce

We had breakfast amid the insanity of Ess-A-Bagel, an old and authentic bagel place around the corner from the hotel. I almost caused an international incident by ordering coffee while Allan was on the bagel-sandwich line.

Bagels. Real bagels. Ahhhh.

The only errand I wanted to do in New York was shoe shopping at Tip Top Shoes. I hate to shop and don't care about shoes. But I do need shoes that are classic looks, comfortable, and made well enough to last many years. Therefore, I need Tip Top, the shoe store that time forgot. Older gentlemen in shirts and ties give you their undivided attention, fitting your foot, making suggestions, and, obviously, living on your commission. It's the first time I've been there since we left New York in 2005, but it was exactly as I remembered it, and I got exactly what I needed.

I took buses between Pod 51 and Tip Top, and seeing New York for the first time in many years, I felt that rush of energy the City always gives me. I saw some new (to me) things: bike sharing, "LinkNYC" kiosks (there are thousands of them!), Metrocard machines at bus stops, and -- ta-da! -- the Second Avenue Subway. Or so they say. It only took 100 years to build and is three stops long! (Great story and pics here.) But seriously, it exists, and that's almost amazing enough. NYC seems to be making strides in trying to be more people-friendly. If only anyone could afford to live there.

I had just enough time to drop my new shoes at the hotel, change my clothes, and meet Allan at our favourite New York restaurant, Union Square Cafe. (Allan had been at NYPL for some research. He bought me these.) It was our first time at USC since it moved to its new location. The atmosphere, the service, and the food was exactly as we remembered. There are more inventive menus and more lavish food and decor, but there is only one Union Square. Perfect simplicity.

Allan went to The Strand while I went back to the Pod to shower and rest before the show. Later I hopped on the subway to the show -- had an incredible experience -- and walked across town back to the hotel. I'll fill in the blanks in a separate post. It was truly one of the greatest performances I have ever seen.

When I got back, Allan was following yet another insane Red Sox game. Is there anything this team cannot do?

Morning of day three: bagels and out

Now an old pro, on our second morning I did not create havoc in either Ess-A-Bagel or my caffeine-starved brain. I got up early, went around the corner to an old-school NYC coffee shop, got a very large coffee, and was well fueled before re-entering the insanity of Ess-A-Bagel, which that day was even more insane. On our way out, there was a line out the door and down the sidewalk.

Should you ever find yourself in a position to eat an authentic New York City bagel, may I recommend swiss cheese, nova, and tomato on an onion bagel?

From there, subway to NJ Transit to Newark Airport, Allan went to work, and I went to pick up Diego.


new york, bruce springsteen, and other things i love

We are here! Staying here. Going to this!  Also here, scene of many past celebrations.

Ah, New York. And Bruce!!

That is all.


kevin baker in harper's: "the death of a once great city -- the fall of new york and the urban crisis of affluence"

Everyone who cares about cities, about privatization, and frankly, about humans and our ability to live on our planet, should make time to read the July cover story in Harper's magazine. New York writer Kevin Baker unpacks "The Death of a Once Great City -- The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence".
As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.

This is not some new phenomenon but a cancer that’s been metastasizing on the city for decades now. And what’s happening to New York now—what’s already happened to most of Manhattan, its core—is happening in every affluent American city. San Francisco is overrun by tech conjurers who are rapidly annihilating its remarkable diversity; they swarm in and out of the metropolis in specially chartered buses to work in Silicon Valley, using the city itself as a gigantic bed-and-breakfast. Boston, which used to be a city of a thousand nooks and crannies, back-alley restaurants and shops, dive bars and ice cream parlors hidden under its elevated, is now one long, monotonous wall of modern skyscraper. In Washington, an army of cranes has transformed the city in recent years, smoothing out all that was real and organic into a town of mausoleums for the Trump crowd to revel in.

By trying to improve our cities, we have only succeeded in making them empty simulacra of what was. To bring this about we have signed on to political scams and mindless development schemes that are so exclusive they are more destructive than all they were supposed to improve. The urban crisis of affluence exemplifies our wider crisis: we now live in an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the systems we live under.
The article unpacks the trend I was lamenting in the 1990s, worsening each passing year, until it finally drove us out in 2005 -- the City paying diminishing returns on the "why live in NYC" equation, finally allowing me to defect from the whole mess of the United States. Since then, of course, it's only gotten worse. But no longer seeing the City on a day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground level, I had no idea how much worse.

This is not nostalgia. And it's not an inevitable act of nature. It's the result of deliberate choices by the ruling class. And it's happening all over North America.

I'm still reading the story. With every paragraph, my heart breaks a little more. It's a long, depressing, essential read.

If you can't access it through the Harper's website, try using your library card to get it through rbgdigital or hoopla.


welcome to the allan and laura new york city history reading club

The theme of this year's TD Summer Reading Club -- a national program (developed by Toronto Public Library) that more than 2,000 Canadian libraries participate in -- is Feed Your Passions, or as some are calling it, geeking out. Allan and I are going to join the fun with our own tremendously geeky reading, although it will take us considerably more than one summer.

For eons, we have had on our bookshelf Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, a massive 1,424 pages in very small print.

I've always wanted to read it, but it's a bit intimidating! And it's not like you can throw it in your backpack to read on the bus.

Then for my birthday this year, included among Allan's gifts and cards and general Celebration of Laura, was Wallace's follow-up: Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.

This volume -- all 1200 pages of it -- has got to be fascinating, but we can't read the second book without reading the first! And, geez, that's a lot to read!

I suggested a solution, following in the footsteps of Phil Gyford, to whom literature and history geeks the world over are indebted. Phil is the genius who put The Diary of Samuel Pepys online, one daily post at a time. (I read the entire thing, usually in weekly installments. It took 10 years.)

To tackle this Big Read, Allan and I are going to read one chapter each week -- with the understanding that sometimes we may have to take a week off. We'll still also read whatever else we're reading. That's the plan at least. Starting... now!

Bonus points if you know without Google why the year 1898 is an important marker in New York City history.


rip fred bass, who gave nyc a priceless gift

Is there a New Yorker alive who hasn't spend time in The Strand? A New York City tourist who didn't thrill to their first visit to The Strand? The man who gave NYC this unique gift died recently at the age of 89. Although his father founded the store, Fred Bass made it the book-lovers' mecca that it came to be.

Here you can see the
ever-present he outdoor shelves.
I won't recount my memories of the hours I've spent in The Strand, because I'm sure they're no different than anyone else's. After we moved to Canada, a wmtc reader told me the store had been ruined. I returned to find an elevator had been installed, and the public washrooms changed from nauseatingly dirty to liveable. There was a cafe, better lighting, and new books, at a discount. Not ruined. Just a bit modernized.

The Strand was always expanding. It was like the expanding universe of books. You might think The Strand contained every homeless book the store took in -- but you'd be wrong. In this obituary, Bass is quoted from 1977:
I get an attack, something like a panic, of book-buying. I simply must keep fresh used books flowing over my shelves. And every day the clerks weed out the unsalable stuff from the shelves and bins and we throw it out. Tons of dead books go out nightly. And I bought ’em. But I just have to make room for fresh stock to keep the shelves lively.
Book lovers, do yourself a favour: go to the New York Times obituary, read it, look at the photos, and say goodbye to the man who gave us this special place.


what i'm reading: city on fire

I finished City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg's astonishing debut novel, a few days ago, but stories from the book are still playing in mind. I initially didn't want to commit to reading a 900-page tome, but as I savoured the last scene, I was sorry to put it down.

City on Fire brings you to 1976-77 New York City, the summer of The Blackout, when the City famously went dark and infamously gave way to rioting and looting. It's the New York City of graffiti-covered subway cars, of brutal service cuts, unemployment, and street crime. It's also the New York City of the punk rock revolution, the birth of hip-hop, an exploding social scene of sex, drugs, and disco, of early gay liberation, of artistic flourishing. It's the New York City that lured young people who didn't conform to their small town's small-minded standards to stuff their belongings in a duffel bag and buy a one-way ticket on Greyhound. And it is -- as it always has been and always will be -- the New York City of stunning contrasts and great social divides, all thrown together and intersecting all the time.

Hallberg gives you all of it. The reader meets characters from vastly different experiences and social standings, each with their own present and past, each trying to find their way into a future. Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view. Not only does the point of view change with each chapter, but there are different timelines in play, too. As the characters' lives intersect (usually without their knowledge), a shape begins to form, a puzzle. There is a mystery, perhaps a few mysteries, that the reader can't solve until all the pieces fall into place.

Reading City on Fire, I was reminded -- strongly and often -- of the work of Charles Dickens: the sprawling ambition, the multiplicity of points of view, the intersecting lives, the City as almost a character in the book. It's a bold move for a contemporary author to make, and City on Fire is chock full of bold moves. Some of the timeline and character shifts left me mentally gasping. At times, a piece of mystery will resolve in one sentence; Hallberg trusts the reader to pay attention. The book is also subtly self-referential, as the City is described in ways that apply to the very book you're reading.

As I skimmed published reviews of the novel, I noticed that many reviewers thought the book was too long, that parts dragged, that it needed a good pruning. I strongly disagree: the length is essential to the book. How can you re-create the outsized City, with its millions of lives living in intersecting universes, in a mere 400 pages? The book is mammoth because the City is mammoth.

Hallberg's writing is richly descriptive and very precise. This, too, recalls a contemporary version of Dickens. While the reader is trying to solve the mystery of the plot, the characters are trying to resolve the mysteries of their lives -- their family secrets, their own pain, their contradictory and irascible love, their acceptance of themselves. These are complex matters that demand complex thought and writing. Perhaps some readers would tire of this, but I loved it.

This review in the New York Times mentions Don DeLillo's Underworld and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities as two antecedents of City on Fire. Well, there's New York, and there's a blackout, and there's great wealth and abject poverty. But Hallberg gives us something that neither of those works do, but that Dickens always did: humanity, hope, and a measure of redemption.

City on Fire joins E.B. White's Here Is New York, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York on my indispensable New York City booklist. Read it as soon as you can.


what i'm reading: the new jim crow by michelle alexander

When I first heard the incarceration of African Americans in the United States referred to as a "new Jim Crow," I thought it must be hyperbole. So did Michelle Alexander, a fact she discloses in the introduction to her book. As Alexander researched the concept, the more she learned, the more she changed her mind. She changed my mind, too.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander builds an unassailable case that mass incarceration through the (so-called) War on Drugs is the third large-scale caste system that holds Black Americans in a second-class status. This is true even in a society that includes Oprah Winfrey, Clarence Thomas, and, of course, Barack Obama.

The first caste system was slavery. The second was the laws and customs of segregation, discrimination, and terror known as Jim Crow. The third and current system is mass incarceration. This includes rules governing local policing, key court rulings, the court system itself, the parole and probation system, and laws that discriminate against former inmates.

* * * *

The numbers are staggering. More African Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. A greater percentage of African Americans are under correctional control now than black South Africans were during apartheid.

The US is 5% of the world population and has 25% of world's prisoners. Black and Latino Americans comprise one-quarter of the US population, but almost 60% of the prison population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white Americans.

In terms of the War on Drugs, one might think these disparities could be explained by differences in rates of illegal activity. One would be wrong. The data shows that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at very similar rates. When there is a difference by skin colour, the numbers skew towards whites.
Thus, the very same year Human Rights Watch was reporting that African Americans were being arrested and imprisoned at unprecedented rates, government data revealed that blacks were no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites and that white youth were actually the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to be guilty of illegal drug possession and sales.
The fact of incarceration alone is only one piece of the picture. Before incarceration, there is a series of court rulings that have gutted constitutional protections (especially the Fourth Amendment, the right to be free of unwarranted search and seizure), and make it impossible for citizens to argue racial bias in any criminal proceeding. There are draconian mandatory sentencing laws, which lead to the normalization of plea bargaining, in which people who have committed no crime plead guilty to some crime, in order to avoid a life sentence. There are huge financial incentives to municipalities to militarize their police forces, and to states for building -- and filling -- prisons.

After incarceration, the system prevents almost everyone who has been incarcerated from re-entering mainstream life. It is virtually impossible for anyone convicted of a felony to access housing, education loans, or jobs. In most states, formerly incarcerated people are stripped of voting rights and from jury rolls -- forever.

Former inmates, as Alexander writes, "will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Right now, about 30% of African American men are automatically banned from jury duty -- for life.

There is a terrible circular logic to the system. As a former US attorney general explained:
Law enforcement officials often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as a justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted. The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color was, in part, a product of racial profiling -- not a justification for it.

In the years following the release of the New Jersey and Maryland data, dozens of other studies of racial profiling have been conducted. A brief sampling:

• In Volusia County, Florida, a reporter obtained 148 hours of video footage documenting more than 1,000 highway stops conducted by state troopers. Only 5 percent of the drivers on the road were African American or Latino, but more than 80 percent of the people stopped and searched were minorities.

• In Illinois, the state police initiated a drug interdiction program known as Operation Valkyrie that targeted Latino motorists. While Latinos comprised less than 8 percent of the Illinois population and took fewer than 3 percent of the personal vehicle trips in Illinois, they comprised approximately 30 percent of the motorists stopped by drug interdiction officers for discretionary offenses, such as failure to signal a lane change. [These discretionary offenses are often an excuse to search vehicles or to arrest people for "resisting".] Latinos, however, were significantly less likely than whites to have illegal contraband in their vehicles.

• A racial profiling study in Oakland, California, in 2001 showed that African Americans were approximately twice as likely as whites to be stopped, and three times as likely to be searched.

Pedestrian stops, too, have been the subject of study and controversy. The New York Police Department released statistics in February 2007 showing that during the prior year its officers stopped an astounding 508,540 people -- an average of 1,393 per day -- who were walking down the street, perhaps on their way to the subway, grocery store, or bus stop. Often the stops included searches for illegal drugs or guns -- searches that frequently required people to lie face down on the pavement or stand spreadeagled against a wall while police officers aggressively groped all over their bodies while bystanders watched or walked by. The vast majority of those stopped and searched were racial minorities, and more than half were African American. . . . . 
Although the NYPD attempted to justify the stops on the grounds that they were designed to get guns off the street, stops by the Street Crime Unit -- the group of officers who supposedly are specially trained to identify gun-toting thugs -- yielded a weapon in only 2.5 percent of all stops. . . .

Rather than reducing reliance on stop-and-frisk tactics following the Diallo shooting* and the release of this disturbing data, the NYPD dramatically increased its number of pedestrian stops and continued to stop and frisk African Americans at grossly disproportionate rates. The NYPD stopped five times more people in 2005 than in 2002 -- the overwhelming majority of whom were African American or Latino.
Perhaps the most surprising portion of The New Jim Crow is Alexander's history of the War on Drugs. The "tough on crime" stance that began under President Nixon and intensified under Presidents Reagan and Clinton was born when rates of drug use and crime were low.

Today nearly one-third of African American men are likely to spend time in prison. Once released, they live in a state of permanent second-class citizenship. Alexander builds a case that the War on Drugs was not a response to higher crime rates, but a deliberate plan to dismantle the gains of the civil rights movement. If this sounds unlikely, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alexander has clearly done exhaustive research, but she doesn't exhaust the reader with statistics. Although the numbers are extremely convincing, they are woven into a compelling, readable narrative. It's a disturbing book, as it should be, and an excellent one.

* Amadou Diallo was an African immigrant living in New York City. In 1999, when stopped by the police and asked for identification, he reached for his wallet. Police later said they thought the wallet was a gun. The police shot 41 times. Diallo was 22 years old, and unarmed.

* The คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019Wikipedia article about the Diallo murder contains this:
On March 13, 2015, Capital New York and other news organizations reported that 50 of the 15,000 IP addresses belonging to the NYPD were associated with edits, dating back to 2006, to English Wikipedia articles, including this article on the Amadou Diallo shooting. These IP addresses geolocate to NYPD headquarters at 1 Police Plaza. Detective Cheryl Crispin, a NYPD spokeswoman, said that "the matter is under internal review."


in which the death of a rock legend makes me think about how our world has changed

When this came out, I hung the cover on my bedroom wall. 
Sharing memories of David Bowie, as so many of us were after his too-early death this week, led me to think a lot about the world I lived in when I was a big Bowie fan.

My world then

I saw Bowie in concert in 1976, after the "Station to Station" album came out. I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday.

I had a picture of him on my wall, a magazine cover with a green background. I had assumed it was the cover of Time, but a Google image search quickly revealed it was People. No one in my family read People, which means I bought the magazine for the Bowie story and photos.

Although I can't remember anything specific, I know I would have cut out, read, and saved anything about the new album and the tour from Rolling Stone (still an actual rock music magazine), The New York Times, and Time, because I subscribed to RS and my parents subscribed to the others.

In those days, we searched for images and stories about our musical loves, and when we found them, we pounced on and devoured them. They were very finite, and we hoarded everything we could find.

There were a few opportunities to see bands play on TV, and if you were into music, you never missed them. You stayed up for "Don Kirshner," as we called it, or woke up with Soul Train, if that was your music. (I did both.) When "Saturday Night Live" came on the scene, the best thing about it was another opportunity to see bands play.

Sometimes a concert would be broadcast on TV to promote a tour. I have a vivid memory of watching Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review on a small black-and-white set in my parents' bedroom, in self-imposed exile from the colour set that my parents were watching in the den, so I could drink in every detail of the show without annoying comments.

Even more exciting was footage of old concerts and TV appearances. We didn't call them videos: they were footage. I had an adult friend who had a stockpile of rock on film. My friends and I would plead with him to show us The Who smashing their instruments, or something rare like a clip from the Rolling Stones' "Cocksucker Blues".

Concerts were often broadcast on the radio. We would all tune in to the King Biscuit Flower Hour to hear past concerts, or even better, a live concert simulcast on the radio. Allan tells me that the Bowie show previous to the one I attended was broadcast live. Although I don't remember it, I'm certain I was listening.

It's difficult to explain what it felt like, compared to our present time, when a concert is uploaded for file-sharing an hour after it ends, and cell-phone videos are instantly posted to YouTube, and if you want to see what someone looks like, you simply type their name and hit enter. There was always a kind of hunger for more, and also a kind of mystery.

Another thing we have now: the almost instant ability to connect with other fans. In those days, fans of any given band were almost like a secret society. Members recognized each other by lyrics written on notebooks and t-shirts worn the day after the concert, something like a secret handshake.

This is not nostalgia! I don't think for one moment that life was better because I couldn't Google images of David Bowie. It was just very different.

The concert

It was 1976. A friend's parents bought her three tickets to the David Bowie concert for her 16th birthday, and I was a lucky tag-along.*

It was the second rock show I had ever attended, and the first that my parents knew about. I had to ask their permission to go, and - even though the friend's parents would be driving us there and picking us up - they weren't keen. My older sister intervened on my behalf, and got them to say yes.

In the lead-up to the show, we read, watched, and listened to everything about Bowie and the tour that we could get our hands on. We skipped school to see "The Man Who Fell to Earth" the day it opened, and saw it three times that week. We talked about the movie constantly. (I don't remember if the film was before or after the concert.)

The scene outside Madison Square Garden was our warm-up act. There were men in drag, people of every gender in Bowie-inspired makeup, and many people dressed in imitation of Bowie's current persona. In those days, a rock show was like an open-air market for illegal drugs. We had smuggled joints on our person, wondering if we'd be able to smoke at the show.

I believe there was no actual warm-up act, although I can't swear to it. Bowie designed and controlled his shows very tightly, so I doubt he would have a warm-up band sullying the spectacle. But opening acts - billed as "special guests" - were typical in those days, so perhaps there was.

The lights went out, and all of Madison Square Garden became a cloud of pot smoke. My friends and I looked at each other in joy and wonder.

A screen was lowered in front of the stage, and suddenly we were seeing silent, surreal, black-and-white images. It was - I later learned - "Un Chien Andalou", the famous short film by Luis Bu?uel and Salvador Dali. Chances are good that few people in the audience had seen the film before. Another vivid memory: the very audible gasp of a crowd of 20,000 when an eyeball appears to be sliced with a razor blade.

The film ended, the screen rose, a white spotlight appeared, and there he was: the Thin White Duke. He was beautiful. He was intense. He owned your attention. I was a mile away, and it felt as if he was singing to me. Yes, I was 14 years old, and not exactly a critical audience. But the audience was rapt. He was absolutely captivating.

Incidentally, I never asked permission to attend a concert again. I just went. At some point I must have needed permission to go only with friends, without an adult, but I don't remember this being controversial. I was the youngest in my family, and the only child still living home. My father's health (mental and physical) was poor, my parents' marriage was disintegrating, and they were too tired or distracted to police me. This was sad, but it had its advantages.

* I would go on to have a strange love-hate relationship with this person, who was also my partner in all of my illegal activity. But we were both still innocent of that tangled mess.


joseph mitchell, master writer of the master city

My desire is to get the reader, well, first of all to read it. That story [“The Bottom of the Harbor”] was hard to write because I had to wonder how long can I keep developing it before the reader’s going to get tired of this. Here and there, as I think a fiction writer would, I put things that I know—even the remark the tugboat men make, that you could bottle this water and sell it for poison—that are going to keep the reader going. I can lure him or her into the story I want to tell. I can’t tell the story I want to tell until I’ve got you into the pasture and down where the sheep are. Where the shepherd is. He’s going to tell the story, but I’ve got to get you past the ditch and through these bushes.

Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. 
. . . Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. . . .

Much has been made of the fact that after “Joe Gould’s Secret” Mitchell published nothing in The New Yorker, though he came to the office regularly, and colleagues passing his door could hear him typing. I was a colleague and friend, and I always assumed that the reason he wasn’t publishing was because he wasn’t satisfied with what he was writing: he had been producing work of increasing beauty and profundity, and now the standard he had set for himself was too high. Mitchell spoke of James Joyce, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ivan Turgenev, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot as writers he read and reread. This was the company he was in behind his closed door. We should respect his inhibiting reverence for literary transcendence and be grateful for the work that got past his censor.
If you share my love and reference for the work of Joseph Mitchell, you'll want to read Janet Malcolm's long-form review of a new biography of Mitchell, from which this is excerpted, published in The New York Review of Books.

If you haven't read Joseph Mitchell, and if you love great writing, you can now find all of his work lovingly reprinted. Start with McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and go from there.


subway tokens, greek coffee cups, and me: missing nyc

This week I received email from my friend Alan, formerly known in this blog as Alan with one L, or AW1L.
Subject line: Re: 34th Street/Penn Station Just Now

Out-of-Towner [leaning into packed Uptown Express [2 or 3] train]: "Does anybody know if this goes to Times Square?"

About 10 Passengers [as one--all with exactly the same *annoyed* tone]: "Yes!"

It was *excellent*! [I *love* this town!!]
I loved this little story! I loved that AW1L thought of me when this happened. It also made me feel homesick and wistful for my old hometown. I replied, in part, "Sometimes I miss my old life. No one I know now would even understand what's so great about this!" I don't know if that's true, but sometimes I'm astonished by how much my life has changed since moving to Canada.

Now I'll use this email and those wistful feelings as an excuse to post these NYC items. One has been sitting in Blogger drafts for five years!

From 2010: A History of New York in 50 Objects, worth a click, including some comments. Coffee cups, sewing machine, an oyster. But... a Metropass and no token??

From 1904 to 1948 subway riders paid their fare with ordinary coins. But since its introduction in 1953, the token has been an absolutely iconic feature of the City. It was phased out when the Metropass was introduced in 2003. Thumbs down for Metropass-but-no-token on this list!

An enduring piece of New York City through the ages can be seen here, documenting the subway tiles and mosaics found on each line and in each station: NY Train Project.

Also from The New York Times, although much more recently, some features on NYC time travel. If the New York Times is writing about it, you can be sure it's on its way out, but they're good stories just the same: Regilding the Gilded Age in New York, and Five Ways to Time Travel (and Party) in New York.

Here's another bit of New York City time travel, something once iconic, and now seldom seen.

See also: leslie buck, we are happy you served us and, further back, we are happy to serve you.


tommy ramone, and how can it be the ramones are gone from this world?

Back-to-back obituaries again. Obits are taking up a large percentage of wmtc real estate these days, yet another indication of how little I'm writing.

The passing of Thomas Erdelyi this week, better known as Tommy Ramone, brings an uncomfortable reminder of mortality for people my age and younger: the last surviving original Ramone.

Like a lot of people, I discovered the Ramones in a kind of backwards fashion, through the Clash and other great British punk and new wave bands. No matter how many times I've read and heard that these guys from Queens were a heavy influence on British punk, to me it always seemed the other way around.

The Ramones, perhaps more than any other band, embodied the true spirit of punk. So strange that they are gone.

Tommy Ramone, 1949-2014


ruby dee, 1922-2014

Ruby Dee was a towering figure in the American theatre. She was a great actor, a poet, playwright, and screenwriter, and a steadfast voice for equality. Along with the actor Ossie Davis, her husband of nearly 60 years, Dee never stopped campaigning for full civil rights for all people.

Dee and Davis' marriage was something to marvel at and to emulate, a partnership, as the New York Times obit puts it, that was "romantic, familial, professional, artistic and political".

Dee grew up in Harlem, performed in many Broadway plays, and was a quintessential New Yorker. On Friday, the marquee lights on Broadway theatres were darkened for one minute in her honour.


memo to porter airlines passenger who needs lessons in new york city

Dear suburban GTA resident flying on Porter Airlines from Newark to Toronto:

Since you were not talking to me, I was unable to respond to your erroneous statements. But since you were speaking loud enough for the entire plane to hear, I was easily able to determine that you have no idea what you are talking about.

Here are some facts of which you clearly are not aware.

1. I'm glad you enjoyed your stay near the airport in Elizabeth, New Jersey. However, since you did not venture into New York City, you have no idea how the area near your hotel compares to any part of New York City. Elizabeth, NJ is Elizabeth, NJ. New York is New York. Proximity does not imply similarity.

2. Park Slope, where your friend lives, is not "a suburb of Manhattan". It is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Brooklyn and Manhattan have been part of the same city since 1898.

3. Park Slope is not a "typical suburb". It is not a suburb at all. It is an affluent urban neighbourhood, served by multiple subway lines.

4. Park Slope is not "a neighbourhood where nice families are beginning to move". Nice families have lived in Park Slope for hundreds of years. Wealthy white families thoroughly colonized Park Slope in the mid-1980s. In the 21st Century, "nice families" can buy a Park Slope brownstone only if two adults are each six-figure earners.

5. Your Park Slope friend does not live in a "townhome". She lives in a brownstone. Brownstones are historic, 19th Century structures characterized by artistic masonry, 20-foot ceilings, intricate wood mouldings, and other architectural details that make them some of the most desired dwellings in many US cities.

6. Your friend's brownstone is not "attached" housing. Your wealthy friend is not forced to live in a house "that is not even detached". I highly doubt that she shares your disgust for this shameful condition.

7. You were horrified, not so much as the high housing costs that your wealthy friend takes in stride, but that she pays so much money for an attached townhome. Your central question - "What do they get for it?" - is not asked or answered the way it is where you live, in suburban Markham. What do they get for it? They get to live in New York City, in a brownstone.

I hope this helps.


A former New Yorker, Park Slope nanny, and third-generation Brooklynite


what i'm reading: just kids by patti smith

Just Kids is a memoir by the artist and musician Patti Smith, about her life and relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is a memoir of both Smith's and Mapplethorpe's coming of age as artists, and of the path of their relationships, both with each other and with other people who were formative in their young lives. Just Kids is also a memoir of New York City in the 1970s, especially of certain slices of the art and music scenes.

Although Smith met and hung out with many famous musicians, artists, and writers during the time she writes about, Just Kids doesn't have a gossipy, name-dropping feel. Smith isn't saying, "Look at all the famous people I've known"; she shares interesting interactions she's had with noteworthy people. For example, when Smith takes 55 cents to the Horn & Hardart automat with a craving for a cheese-and-lettuce sandwich, only to find the price has gone up, the person who offers her the missing dime is the poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, who thought Smith was a boy that he might chat up, asks Smith if she's male or female. We see the scene with sweetness and warmth. When Ginsberg asks, "What will you say about how we met?" Smith answers, "That I was hungry and you fed me."

That is typical of Just Kids. Smith writes with warmth, respect, and love for almost everyone. Even if a relationship went awry or ended badly, Smith finds the positive, not in a strained, Pollyanna-ish way, but out of a genuine appreciation for the many experiences that helped her learn and grow. Smith's voice is modest, sober, respectful, and often innocent, almost naive. The book is intimate, but not explicit, focusing on love rather than sex.

Through most of the book, Smith is not a rock musician, and has no dreams of becoming one. She makes visual art, writes poetry, and doesn't even think about performing. Mapplethorpe creates jewelry and art installations. The man who would become a world-famous photographer cuts photos from magazines and re-purposes them in his own art. Together, Smith and Mapplethorpe support each other as each discovers their true artistic path. This is the story of a joined voyage of self-discovery; as Smith puts it, they were artist and muse, with both playing both roles.

Reading Just Kids, you would never know that Smith was a bold, brash, hyperkenetic rocker, that she was compared to a young Mick Jagger for her stage presence and frenetic energy. For most of the book, Smith is shy and socially awkward; she describes herself as a "skinny wallflower". She frequently mentions The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as her two primary rock influences, along with the poet Arthur Rimbaud and a host of other artists, such as Freda Kahlo and Edith Piaf. Early on, Smith mentions seeing The Doors' Jim Morrison perform, and thinking, "I could do that." Indeed, she could, and she did. Morrison and Smith, although they never met, are forever linked as the performers who brought spoken-word poetry to hard-edged rock-and-roll.

The stories from Smith's early life are poignant and illuminating. Working in a New Jersey factory, pregnant at 19 years old and surrendering the child to adoption, Smith hungered for a fresh start. She packed her few belongings in a plaid suitcase and boarded a bus for New York City, planning to stay with some friends who had moved to Brooklyn. But the friends had moved, and Smith was all alone. She slept in doorways and in Washington Square Park, scrounging for change, and hungry all the time. She searched for work that would sustain and not degrade her, eventually finding a job in Brentano's, a famous New York bookstore. She learned how to scour New York's many used bookstores for treasures that she could sell to private collectors for a small profit that would pay for food or rent.

Smith and Mapplethorpe meet by happenstance, and become the most important people in each other's lives. They live at the legendary Chelsea Hotel in a tiny room with their art, their dreams, and their hungers, and very little money.

Mapplethorpe was later and famously gay, and some readers might hope for some salacious details of Smith and Mapplethorpe's relationship; they'll be disappointed. There's no explicit sex. Smith refers to "romantic involvements" only obliquely, and keeps her most private life private. She refers to the "dual nature" of Mapplethorpe's sexuality and, later, to the S&M imagery in his work that she accepted but didn't understand.

In an afterward, Smith writes that Mapplethorpe asked her to write their story. She compares the pair to Hansel and Gretel, venturing into the dark and scary woods together, with "temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of" and "splendor we only partially imagined".

Smith's writing is sometimes clear and precise, sometimes poetic, sometimes a bit mystical. She has the songwriter's knack for unusual phrases, describing someone with "a cowboy mouth" or saying, "He had that human saxophone thing" (whatever that means!).

I was a teen when punk was born, and saw Smith perform several times. I had a poster of the famous cover of Horses on my wall wherever I lived; I was fascinated with Smith, even idolized her for a time. I didn't follow her career as a poet or a visual artist, but she remained an iconic figure to me, especially in her deep connection to New York City, the New York City of my youth. So naturally, Just Kids was very compelling to me. Would this book be interesting to someone who doesn't already know Smith, who isn't familiar with the New York City art scene? Although I can't say for sure, I doubt it. In fact, for readers who aren't familiar with some of the references - if you don't know what the Chelsea Hotel or CBGB is, or who Sam Shepherd is - it might not even make sense.

This is not a book about Patti Smith, rock musician. In a 288-page book, Smith doesn't meet Lenny Kaye, the man who would become her rock partner, until page 179.  (Kaye was working in a record store on Bleecker Street. That's what I mean: if that doesn't strike you as a romantic and beautiful image, this book may not be for you.) When Patti Smith and Fred "Sonic" Smith leave New York City to launch their rock career, the book ends. It is all innocence and awakening and self-discovery, without the harsh realities of compromise and commerce and all that follows.

Smith does give you a glimpse into the birth of the punk movement, in this beautiful passage.
We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music that had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone.
Just Kids has something in common with that greatest of personal essays, the one I seem destined to blog about every few years, Joan Didion's "Goodbye To All That". (Thank you to Julia Allison for putting the essay online, a much better link than I've used previously.) One passage in particular reminded me of the famous line that breaks my heart: "Was anyone ever so young?". Smith writes:
Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed.

It leads to each other. We become ourselves.
Just Kids is a quintessential New York story, and there's a subtext that, as a former New Yorker, I find inexpressibly sad. Throughout New York's history, there have always been pockets of cheap housing which enabled artists to live cheaply and focus on their work. The city was a magnet for young artists of all stripes; that was part of what gave New York its energy and edge. Artists would move into a low-income, dangerous neighbourhood, taking advantage of low rents, and they'd revitalize it. Then the neighbourhood would gentrify, eventually becoming too expensive for the people who had put it on the map. Artists would be pushed out, and another part of town would become an art mecca, and the cycle would begin again.

But the cycle sped up. Instead of taking several generations, it began to take only a matter of years. Then it sped up even more, neighbourhoods going almost directly from unsafe to pricey with barely an art scene in between. At the same time, fewer and fewer affordable neighbourhoods remained. Eventually the profit-seeking machine that is New York City cut its own throat. Although pockets of art and music scenes survive, they are tiny shadows of their thriving ancestors. David Byrne writes about it here. Smith and Mapplethorpe's story couldn't happen in today's New York. They would need a much higher income to survive, and that changes the entire equation.

There are some wonderful stories in Just Kids, about Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and Smith's pilgrimage to Paris in search of the ghost of Rimbaud, and how Sam Shepherd bought Patti Smith her first guitar, and taught her the secret of improvisation. I'll end this post with one especially illuminating story. Smith has accompanied Mapplethorpe to the club Max's Kansas City many times, but she is not comfortable socially, and no one pays much attention to her. Someone makes a snide remark about Smith's hair, which she always wore long, straight, and parted in the middle, like a folk singer. Although Smith tries to shake it off, and although she feels silly for caring, the comment stings. In frustration, she looks at photos of The Rolling Stones and takes a scissors to her locks, trying to cut her hair like Keith Richards'. She shows up at Max's sporting her new haircut, and suddenly, Smith is the talk of the club. Everyone wants to hang out with her. Everyone wants to see her work. Everyone suddenly pays attention. Because she cut her hair. The haircut was not Smith's "big break," but it showed her a lot about the way things work.

* * * * *

Note: My nonfiction book reviews from wmtc will now be cross-posted at this Nonfiction Book Club blog, written by four Mississauga Library System staff members. I'm scouring the wmtc archives for reviews of nonfiction books that are in the Mississauga Library catalogue... in case you want to catch up.


before the onion, before the yes men, there was the post new york post

One day, as I was getting off the subway on my way from Brooklyn to my workplace on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, people were handing out these tabloids. I never learned who made them, where they came from, or where they went. But I'm so glad I saved my copy all these years.

It's a whole newspaper - news, sports, weather, ads for fake movies, personal ads. Brilliant. In case you can't read the date, it was 1984.

And special bonus from one decade later, The National OJ.

I had to scan them in two parts, but they are each tabloid size.


you know her life was saved by rock and roll: lou reed, 1942-2013

Lou Reed, 1942-2013
Songwriter, Musician, New Yorker

"One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz." - Lou Reed

"The first Velvet Underground album only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought it started a band." - possibly Brian Eno

I was shocked and very saddened to learn of the death of Lou Reed at the not-old age of 71. Lou Reed made a lot of really worthwhile music, much of it after VU. I'm grateful that I saw him perform a few times, for his music, and for his politics. I'm really sorry he's gone.


what i'm reading, children's books edition # 9: wonderstruck

Over the summer, I wrote about The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a children's book with a suspenseful, convoluted story, lavishly illustrated with Selznick's beautiful pencil drawings. (I scanned several of those images into my earlier post.)

I've just finished Selznick's most recent book, Wonderstruck. Wonderstruck is filled with drawings in the same distinctive pencil style, but it is even better than Hugo Cabret.

The central story of Wonderstruck is more linear, so it's easier to follow. But Selznick employs a brilliant device that adds mystery and suspense to a straightforward story.

The reader follows the story of Ben, a boy from Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, who dreams of wolves, and misses his mother, and travels by himself to New York City. Interrupting Ben's story at intervals is another story, told in wordless pictures, of a girl from a different time and place - a girl who also travels to New York City on her own.

The two stories, one written in text and one illustrated, unfold independently of each other. The reader knows there must be a connection between them, but can we piece the mystery together? The two stories intersect in marvelous, poignant, and satisfying ways. The use of dual plot lines told in different formats is a gutsy choice that really respects the intelligence of the young reader.

I must admit I have an extra attachment to this book, as so many of its elements have been fascinations - or obsessions - of mine at various times in my life: wolves, New York City, Deaf culture, sign language, the American Museum of Natural History, even - amazingly - the New York City Panorama in the Queens Museum of Art, which I frequently recommend to exploring New York-ophiles. The book also pays homage to a classic children's book of an earlier era, E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Like Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck is about the search for our authentic selves, our need to belong, and the creation of families, both biological and chosen. I highly recommend this book. As I tell our young customers at the library, it looks huge, but flip through it - half of it is pictures, and it's a really fast read, because you won't want to put it down.

Postscript: On the Wonderstruck website, there are wonderful essays that provide more context for the many threads of the book. Great stuff: go here.


this thursday, august 29: national strike of low-wage workers

If you are a fast-food worker, go here for more information on the national strike to say: Low Pay Is Not OK.

For the rest of us, on August 29, visit a picket line, send an email, sign a petition. In New York City, join rallying low-wage workers at Union Square at 2:30. All our communities will be stronger we all earn a living wage!


nyc action alert: join striking fast-food workers on monday, july 29

If you live in New York City, you have an opportunity to stand beside working people in their struggle for a better life and healthier communities.
84% of New York fast food workers reported experiencing wage theft at some point in the past year and the New York Attorney General and New York City Council have taken note of the rampant wage theft in the industry.

McDonald’s workers, forced to work in a hot kitchen without air conditioning in the middle of a heat wave, walked off the job until their safety was ensured.

And on top of all of this, living on $7.25 in New York City isn’t getting any easier. The Economic Policy Institute recently release a family budget calculator that demonstrated a single parent with one child needs to make $67,153 a year to make it in New York City--far more than the $10,000 to $18,000 average annual salary of fast food workers.

On July 24th, fast food workers from across New York City bravely announced that they are going on strike for the third time and asked the community to have their backs.

Since publicly launching their campaign, workers report winning a series of workplace victories, including raises, more hours, and most recently, a repaired air conditioner on the hottest day of the year. But despite these victories, workers are still facing unlawful practices in response to their organizing, including terminations, reduction of hours, threats of retaliation and many other unlawful actions intended to discourage employees from organizing but workers aren't giving up the fight.
Fast-food chains are owned by some of the most lucrative corporations on the planet. The people who toil in their kitchens deserve a living wage. Join the Fight For 15. If you live in New York City, come out to support your neighbours in their struggle. Times and locations here.


hundreds of nyc fast-food workers walk off the job, demand a living wage (plus: don't fly porter)

Hundreds of fast-food workers in New York City walked off the job this week, demanding a living wage. This is their second walkout in six months, as this exciting labour movement continues to grow.

The workers, who have organized themselves as Fast Food Forward, are a model for people throughout the US who are employed but live in poverty.

Low-wage workers in Chicago are involved in the same fight, under the banner of Worker Organizing Committee of Chicago. Both groups are calling for a $15/hour minimum wage.

The National Restaurant Association says its industry "provides more than 13 million jobs — jobs that could be jeopardized if the minimum wage goes up". So that's what they do: "provide" jobs. But workers provide the labour that keep that industry running.

And that industry has it pretty good. In non-fast-food restaurants, customers subsidize the cost of labour in the form of tips. (In the US, restaurant workers earn well below minimum wage before tips.) In the multi-billion-dollar fast-food industry, workers are expected to survive on minimum wage. In the US, that's $7.25/hour. Try living in New York or Chicago on $7.25/hour. It can't be done. Shareholders love it. As do military recruiters.

If you haven't yet signed the petitions from Fast Food Forward and WOCC, please do. Show these courageous workers you support their struggle, and tell their employers to cough up a $15/hour minimum wage.

Fast Food Forward (New York)

Fight for 15 (Chicago)

If you live or work in New York City, why not visit a picket line? You can buy a striking worker a cup of coffee, or make a donation, or just say hi and tell them you support their efforts. I'll be in town in a couple of days and I hope to report back on the strike.

Speaking of which, I was originally flying Porter, but as 22 fuellers are on strike against that airline, I cancelled my flights. If you tell Porter you stand in solidarity with the striking workers and you will not cross a picket line, they will waive the "change fee," normally $75 per person per flight (meaning the change fee for one round-trip flight is $150). If you do this, please let Porter know here.

I rebooked on Air Canada. I paid a little more, but some bargains are not worth making. Porter's credit is good for one year, so I sure hope the fuellers win their strike soon. More information: Don't Fly Porter.