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Hi folks,

At long last I have the self-hosted site up and running. You can now find me at: City of Strangers.

I will keep this site up for archive purposes.

This blog is temporarily out of service due to necessary renovations. In the meantime, please feel free to visit the archives

City of Strangers will return soon.

Neighborhood gathered on the stoop for NY Times Group Photo

At eleven am last week my neighbors and I gathered for a group shot on a stoop in the sun to pose for the New York Times’ wonderful ‘Monent In Time’ series, photographs captured at exactly 15:00 U.T.C.

Though of course the photographs are heavily weighted to the West, pretty much every region of the world is represented.

I canceled our New York Times subscription this weekend. Not because we.ve turned away from print media – that we stuck with the Times this long is a testament to our enjoyment of print media and our desire to see it stay alive. No, I canceled it because the Times delivery, in this corner of Bed-Stuy at least, had to be some of the most incompetent service I’ve ever seen.

First they kept forgetting to deliver the Saturday paper. We called, still no delivery. We called again. One weekend of papers, then another weekend of no paper. Another call, another stretch of appalling delivery, this time in the form of on off papers, weekdays and weekends. Then, no Saturday paper, no Sunday paper, then no paper at all. We called again.

You get the picture.

This went on for most of last year. Yet we kept at it. Reading the news on the screen still can’t replicate the pleasure of a real newspaper, the chance disclosure of the unfolded page, the feel of paper beneath the fingers. As we all know, print media is an endangered beast. We like to do our part.

After we’d called for the ninth time, we got a whole month of nearly uninterrupted service. Sometimes, when I woke up early, I’d hear our paper boy. I wouldn’t realize it was him at first – usually there was just a blast of music, sometimes 80’s dance music, sometimes hip-hop, but loud enough to fill out the dawn street. Then he’d appear, tossing the blue-wrapped newspaper out his window. I think he had a helper.

Of course it didn’t last. Hey, I’m sure delivery the newspaper is not a great job. I’ve had to get up at four, five am to go to some shitty job and it sucks. But I delivered the newspaper as a kid and it’s not that freakin’ hard. Especially when someone’s called ten times. When our paper didn’t come three weekends in a row, I was incredulous. Who wants a service that doesn’t come more often than it does? I called the subscription office and a nice woman with a southern accent answered. She didn’t seem surprised that I wanted to cancel. “But if you do decide to renew with us, please call us when you don’t receive your newspaper . . . “

I don’t know if the Times just doesn’t care about our corner of Bed-Stuy, or if they want to be rid of their print division altogether. If this is common, they’re doing a good job.

Steve CannonSteve Cannon turned 75 the week before last. His birthday party was held at the Tribes gallery, his home since the 70’s, with readings by Karl Watson, Michael Carter, Shalom Naumen, and the ‘Unbearable’s book release party.

I got there late, after both the readings were over. The food trays picked clean, though half a box of wine remained. Steve was sitting on his living room couch in front of the apartment doorway, the same place I’ve found him almost every time I’ve gone to see him over the last 20 years. Drinking wine, smoking, and hanging out with the dozens of people pressed in around him.On the walls were the striking photographs of the GirlEye show curated by the gallery. Everyone was drunk. It was just like old times.

Steve comes from New Orleans originally, but he’s been in New York since the 70;s. He is a poet, playwright, and novelist, and was a long-time professor at CUNY until he retired in the early 90’s. In the 70’s, he had a bestselling novel: “Groove Jive & Bang Around”, which gave him the money to buy the building he lives in now. He is almost fully blind, and has been so for the last dozen years, the end result of glaucoma. He has people read his books and newspapers and emails to him, but still gets out to shows and readings. He has plenty of help around the studio, and many people drop by.  I doubt he’s alone much.

When I first started going down in the early 90’s, the gallery was just starting up and Steve could still see, though he wore dark glasses, even at night. On warm days, he hung out on his stoop, and everyone he knew from in and around the neighborhood would drop by. Some days, you could get a reasonable cross-section of the Lower East Side of the time – young white bohemians like myself, old black poets Photo display from the Girleye Show
and writers who’d known Steve for decades, local Puerto Ricans, drug addicts. Many of the people around him were stalwarts of the 80’s Lower East Side writing music art drug scene. Some, like the poet John Ferris, had hung out in the political and writing scene in 60’s and 70’s Harlem.

I liked Steve and John and the other guys, and liked the connection to black NY history and art. Most of all, I liked to listen to them talk politics. They really knew their stuff, and in the self-referential, curiously parochial New York of the day, it was refreshing to talk with people who knew what was happening in what was left of the Soviet Union, Iraq, or Africa, unfiltered by the lens of the New York Times or CNN.

I had another connection with Steve: we’d both squatted in London, in roughly the same neighborhood, though 20 years apart – me in the late 80’s, Steve in the 60’s. I’d been in Westbourne Park, then virtually abandoned, Steve in Kilburn, the then Irish neighborhood in the north of the city. “We thought we were broke,” Steve said, “but there was a bunch of motherfuckers across the street – they had nothing at all! We were rich compared to them!”

Steve Cannon with Michael BlloombergBy the mid-90’s, the Tribes gallery was becoming something of a local institution. Despite the glaucoma, Steve was involved in the rebirth of the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, in the Living Theatre, and Bullet Space. His stoop, and his gallery became a popular hangout for a lot of kids arriving in town from Europe, Japan, across America. Bit by bit, I stopped going down.

But in a Lower East Side I hardly recognize, it’s good to see Steve, and his piece of history, still providing the conduit to the past.

The Violinist

Notes from the G train . . .

Couple with two kids. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans – and very fat, not flabby fat like white people from small towns or the burbs, but ghetto fat, people who don’t drive but consume very bad food. Tough-looking, not unkind but dulled.

The kids were maybe five or six and keep acting up. First the mother tried to control them, then the father intervened, growing more exasperated as the boy talked back and finally the father who I guessed was actually just a boyfriend of the woman gets up and grabs the kid’s ear and gives it a twist. Not a hard twist, but just enough for the kid to yell, then cry with no tears, yelling at the boyfriend who sits down and yells back, “don’t you be yelling at me like that in front of people, don’t be making a fool out of me!”

The white people on the train glance over uneasily, wondering if they should intervene as the kid yells some more at the boyfriend and the boyfriend looks more and more angry and exasperated, everyone wondering if he is going to attack the boy, if it is right to twist a little boy’s ear. But even if I grew up with violence in the home, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the boyfriend since the boy is out of control, jumping up on his seat, hitting his sister and making her cry, ignoring his mother. I thought, what could the guy do?

The guy looked around wearily, but the tension had dropped and everyone went back to staring at the ground. Even with the warm weather, white, black, Hispanic, whatever looked tired, drawn – even defeated – I didn’t think I’d ever seen New Yorkers as beat down as this winter and the whole scene, the family, the train, depressed me.

Then, on the upper platform of Bedford-Nostrand, I heard a violinist. I didn’t register him at first. After everyone had walked ahead of me off the train, the station was almost empty and I almost walked by, closed off in that way you get in New York. I noticed the sound, ringing off the station walls, filling the dank space of the station, and one guy standing alone, his head covered with a hood, his violin case half full of bills. I gave him a dollar and leaned against the wall to listen. He was playing something that sounded like Bach, and the sound was as full as a violin playing in a concert hall, so full and loud I could feel it all around me like a vibration or a liquid, feel it trailing down into the platforms, through the metal bars into the halls and up onto the street.

When he’d finished I went up and thanked him. He had an accent and looked like he came from southern Europe. I asked him if he played in the station all the time and he said no, he’d been on the subway and stopped at random then been amazed by the acoustics so he’d stayed.

I didn’t get his name. He said he’d be back but I never saw him again.

interior of bedord nostrand subway

motorcycle shop in Tribeca, 1970's.

Photo: Allen Tannenbaum

I’ve been busy with out of town guests and this curious (and lately very rare) thing called paid work so haven’t posted for a week. I’ll be getting back in the swing soon, but in the meantime a blurb courtesy of The Selvedge Yards.

An essay and photo gallery by Allen Tannenbaum:

New York in the 70’s.

Exciting, edgy times, especially if you were young. And had a thick hide.

More anon.

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