Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

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

Read Full Post »

Poutine on a plate

We met at T-Poutine, a narrow hole-in-the-wall on Ludlow Street. Forty Canadians, a couple of Americans, there for that curiously popular French-Canadian specialty, poutine. French fries with cheese curds, covered in gravy. T-Poutine is run by an ex-Quebecer, Thierry Pepin, and they serve poutine in all kinds of flavors, from smoked meat to ‘tree-hugger’ (sliced mushrooms). In Montreal you always had poutine plain, so that’s how I had it. And it was the real thing, as close to the Montreal version as you’ll have in New York – or anywhere.

Memories of Montreal Pool Room in the early 90’s at the bottom of St. Laurent, just below rue St. Catherine, the long, long avenue that bisects Montreal east to west, English side to French. An area dominated by strip bars, and tavernes where they played hardcore porn on the overhead TV’s inside and everyone from the bikers (or would be bikers) and their women, to the old men who probably came in every day to the waitresses, totally ignored it. The once-great punk club, Foufounes Electrique, just around the corner, and after hanging out until two or three or four am, you’d drop into the Montreal Pool Room and join the line up of just out of the bar aficianados for poutine, hot dogs, or just the best fries in the city with the best cuisine in North America, hoping it would take off the worst of the hangover the next day. Which of course it didn’t.

Memories too of my first journeys to New York and America in the late 1980’s, riding the night train down the Eastern Seaboard. Drinking in a lounge car full of raucous, mostly blue-collar Americans from Vermont or Massachusetts,  knocking back one dollar cans of bud with shots of Jack Daniels, and some big black dude with an afro playing Jimi Hendrix medleys on a farfisa organ in the corner. Arriving with the Bronx dawn spilling out the train window, those magnificent power station chimneys rising up beside the Hudson. Stumbling out into Penn Station with two hours sleep, still drunk.

I hung out on the Lower East Side in those days, drank just up the street. The Lower East Side was still mostly Puerto Rican, the dealers lined Rivington, the bars that cover the area just starting to make inroads on upper Ludlow. I had a friend down on Clinton and I’d stay at his loft space overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge. The doorbell didn’t work so you had to shout up and hope he heard you over the traffic noise from Delancey so he could open the window and throw down the key four stories down to the street, the key insulated with a felt glove so it wouldn’t fall on anyone and maim them. I don’t recall the LES being heavy exactly, but when you stepped outside, you were aware of being somewhere not quite America, with the Spanish on the streets, the stores with the religious icons, the music, the food. And the energy – so much energy and tension in those narrow streets. Going back to Montreal always felt like odd, like a deflation, and it would take me days to find myself again.Front of T-Poutine, Lower East Side, New York

After the poutine, we drank vodka supplied by the good folks at the restaurant, then stepped onto a Ludlow I hardly recognized. Some of the old bars still there, Katz’s Deli still there, but I never imagined that the Lower East Side, like (to a much lesser degree), the neighborhood I hung out in up in Montreal, would become a hangout for the affluent. In this case, the very affluent. The same crappy streets, same wine-dark tenement buildings with the iron fire escapes – and a whole lot of bars, restaurants and very fancy cafes, the kind I would never have imagined down here even ten years ago. Even five years ago.

And on a day when the rest of New York was deserted with the holidays and the heat, the LES was packed. It had this strange gloss, like the gloss of a movie set, and I kept thinking of They Live!, John Carpenter’s godawful yet increasingly prescient portrayal of a world run by alien yuppies, because watching these folks, you’d never know there was a recession on, and I had to wonder, as I often do when I’m certain part of Manhattan or Brooklyn: who the fuck are these people?

Read Full Post »

Blurred shot of Manhattan at night Image: Jefft

Hanging outside my lower Manhattan local with D., who has lived in Soho since the 1980’s . . .

A guy came up to us, holding what looked like a $20 dollar bill. He had the usual NY homeless look, with bundles of clothes wrapped around his body and his head so only his craggy, bearded face was visible. The glazed look of days and nights on the street, booze and who knows. The guy showed D the bill, the laughed and pulled it apart to reveal that it was fake.

“Not bad huh? They’re gettin’ better at these things.”

His voice was hoarse, like he didn’t use it much anymore. D laughed as well, and gave him a cigarette and they examined the bill and I gathered they knew each other. Then the guy said he was going to try and pass the bill at the Koreans up the street. When he was gone D said:

“I’ve known that guy siince I first came to the city. He used to deal weed in Washington Square. The Jamaican dealers in the park kicked the shit out of him ’cause they didn’t want the competition. You know, like a turf thing. I saw him afterward – he had one of those wire things around his jaw.
“He lost his place after that and ended up on the street. The amazing thing is he stayed clean – once he came up to me with a big bag of coke, all rolled up, he’d found on the street somewhere and wanted to know if I wanted it. I had no interest at the time so I didn’t take it, but it says something about where he was at then.

“Once he got to that place where he was down, he couldn’t get up again. I’ve never forgotten that. You slip through the cracks and you can’t come back. He started going downhill a few years ago. All those years on the street. People give me grief for giving these guys money. ‘They’ll just blow it on drugs!’ they say. But hey, I’m glad they blow it on drugs! Wouldn’t you blow everything you got on drugs if you were living on the street?”

D claimed a good panhandler in NY can make 20 grand a year. “You know, the ones that are personable, have the patter down, know where to go. But I don’t think our friend’s at that point anymore, if he ever was. The Koreans won’t pass that one, they’re open 24 hours, they see everything . . .”

I wonder how many people slip through the cracks, even as I”m writing this.

Read Full Post »

This morning at my morning cafe . . .

Two guys chased another guy down the street  – waving hammers. I didn’t see it but the cafe owner, a long-time Bed-Stuy resident, did.

“He ran into the welfare office. Guess he’ll be alright there. But just read the news after the first real hot day of the year. You gonna see people gettin’ shot, people gettin’ beaten up. You gonna see all kinds of things come out when people see each other again. All the stuff goin’ on now, all the unemployment . . .”

It’s true. Just last week all kinds of resentments and suppressed tensions came out with the warm weather. A woman at the rooming house across the street, out at seven in the morning shouting someone’s name over and over and over, then a half-dozen people out on the steps and the woman walking down the street yelling at one of the men while two women sat on the steps yelling into their cellphones then one of the women forgetting about her cellphone to yell at another man on the steps, jumping from the street to the steps as she’s yelling, making great theatrical gestures, then the other woman yelling at her and into her phone at the same time . . .

The night before a woman out on the street rapping out: ‘B-I-T-C-H – that spells BITCH!’ over and over and over while another guy stumbled up and down the street yelling out what sounded like some kind of spiritual, sung dreadfully out of tune, but which turned out to be the Beatles ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ . .. .

When we were riding in the back of a gypsy cab going out for dinner, we passed a street in Clinton Hill blocked off by yellow police tape and cordon of police cars and ambulances. Cops stood on the street, bystanders looking shocked, angry, wary. And on the ground, just visible through the legs of some ambulance workers, the body of a man, a dark pool spreading out slowly beneath him. We didn’t find out if he was dead, or what had happened. Our driver clucked once, and our cab moved on  (as it turns out two men were shot in a drive-by shooting, believed to be drug related. The bullet was intended for the 30 year old. The 70 year old was innocent bystander. Thankfully, neither man was seriously hurt).

Then a couple days later, it all calmed down again . . .we’ll see what happens when it gets warm for real . . . sometimes I wonder what the hard times are stirring up below the surface . . .

Sunset off Brooklyn rooftop

Read Full Post »

Mickey Mouse in Times Square

Note: this post is from a couple of months ago. I just didn’t get around to putting it up until now.

I went down through Times Square last week. I haven’t been through the Square in a few years and I was curious what it was like now.
I admit that i’ve never been a fan. To me, when it was just down and sleazy, it was, well, down and sleazy. I used to go to a great Brazilian place, gone now, on I think 45th where a plate of more food than you could eat cost 6 or 7$, and a caparinia which would knock you out, cost about 3.I found the place through a friend when I first came to New York in the early 90’s and ten years later, the prices were much the same.

Times Square was very anonymous in those days. A few dive bars, peep shows – even thinking about it now, I can’t remember much. it was just sort of blank, dingy, the haunt of drug dealers, the homeless and kids getting drunk. I knew about it’s storied history of course – I’d read my Buroughs. But perhaps because I’d  given up drugs by the time I moved to New York, that part of city life no longer interested me.

Roxy Sign on Times Square

I do remember the YBY people, the strange semi-cult led by Yaweh Ben Yaweh, a blue-eyed black guy from Florida who preached extreme hatred of white people. In the evening, they’d set up in front of the Army recruiting station. They looked like Sikhs, with turbans around their heads, fake swords, beards, and long white or black robes, but they claimed to be the real Jews, descended from the Israelistes of the Old Testament. They would put up signs showing the other lost tribes of Israel, a shifting cast that usually included Puerto Ricans, Native Indians, Jamaicans, and sometimes Brazilians (or just plain ‘South Americans’). To reinforce their claims to Jewishness, they’d put up a picture of an old Hasidic man, his face crossed out and a line in big black text underneath reading: ‘This is not a Jew!”
They were a fun bunch. One night, this guy went on: “White people, we’re going to enslave you, we’re going to rape your women . . . ” while a half dozen others stood guard, arms folded, staring straight ahead. I watched, transfixed by their naked hatred, for maybe fifteen minutes then finally broke away. I guess I’d been more unnerved than I thought because when a black guy – a local hustler – gave me that appraising look that was common currency in the New York of the day, I flinched. He laughed and grabbed me on the shoulder “Don’t worry, man, I ain’t gonna hurt you,” and I laughed as well. But almost every time I went down after that for the next couple of years, the YBY people were around, part of the Times Square circus.

American Apparel Ad on Times Square
After the Guiliani clean-up, I never went down unless I had to. It was just too frenzied, too much of a mall. I used to think of Times Square as the world citadel of global capitalism, a kind of high-neon, over-touristed, capitalist Vatican, replete with the Hardrock Cafes and other chain restaurants that seemed absurd in the context of New York.  If I went to the Brazilian place, I made sure to enter around 6th. The YBY people were gone at that point. I guess the authorities cleared them out.
But on that afternoon a few weeks ago, it seemed a little less frenzied, if not less capitalist and geared up for the tourists. Instead of the YBY people. there was the Naked Cowboy, that quixotic figure who is a reminder both of pre-gentrification New York’s quirkiness, and its extreme narcissism. He was a big hit, posing for a stream of lady tourists, hugging them for pictures from the front, then turning around, sticking his butt in the air while each lucky lady put her hand on his derriere and he gave his best sexy Naked Cowboy look. In five minutes, he went through a half-dozen women, keeping up the pose and his character with a sort of jovial stoicism, just as he does, day in, day out, year round. Judging from his press, it’s not a bad living. I guess.
I have to say though I didn’t hate  Times Square in it’s present incarnation, not like I did a few years ago. I wouldn’t go out of my way to be there, but with the open spaces, and a very good lady musician playing a half-block down from the Naked Cowboy, it wasn’t a bad place to hang out for half an hour.
Times Square is representative of a basic dilemna New York (and many other cities) faced with de-industrialization – namely, what do you do after you stop making things? I’m no fan of Guiliani, but he did realize one basic thing: if New York was going to have an industry outside of Wall Street, it was going to be tourism, and if New York was going to attract tourists, it was going to have to be safe, in every way. And if that meant diminishing what gave New York it’s distinctive personality, then that, to Guiliani and his heirs, was a price worth paying.

Naked Cowboy with friends on Times Square

Read Full Post »

Sunshine morning, 9 am . . .

A dozen Mexican guys gathered around a pavillion. We say ‘Mexican’, but they could have come from Mexic0 or central America, or even Ecuador or Peru. Down the boardwalk, Russians, middle-aged and older, clustered around the benches, taking in the bright morning sun.

Two of the Mexicans on the sand, shadowboxing, while the others looked on. At first it looked they were playfighting, but one started yelling ‘Puta! Puta!’ at the other guy, taunting him and finally the first guy moved towards him, whipping off his belt with a heavy buckle and swinging it over his head as he chased the other guy who was still taunting him, down the boardwalk, the pair of them weaving between the groups of Russians. Who paid them no attention, until an older Hispanic guy, who had been sitting with a bunch of other older Hispanic guys grabbed the guy with the belt buckle and held him back. The guy with the belt buckle kept searching for his tormentor, trying to get at him while the older man admonished him, scolded him, and dragged him to a bench and sat him down. It was now obvious that the guy with the belt was very drunk, his eyes dulled by liquor and rage.

The other guy came back, swinging what looked like a walking cane. He seemed relaxed, laughing and joking with the others. The others welcomed him and I had the sense that this fight, or fights like it, went on all day.

A parks guy drove up. He was a tall, thin black guy, elegant and efficient in his movements like some black guys can be. He walked up to the Mexicans and they waved when they saw him: “You keepin’ good now,” he said, laughing. Reaching over to a guy sitting on a bench and pulling up his crutch. “Hey Juan, you had this thing three years now! Ain’t you ever going to walk again” Then, pointing to a guy weaving between the benches and holding a can in a paper bag. “Hey, a beer! You know there’s no drinking beer on the beach . . . ”

He didn’t take the guy’s beer but slipped between the Mexicans, sweeping up the trash around the men’s feet. “How come you guys come here every day? Don’t you go to work? What do you mean, there’s no work? You just got to LOOK!” Then, spotting a bunch of cans on the sand. “C’mon now. We gotta get this cleaned up.”

He did all this with authority and I guess all he had to do to get rid of the Mexicans was radio the cops. Nonetheless, the Mexican guys picked up around them, helping him put stuff in the trash can and one guy went around to the sand to pick up the bottles and even went up and down by the boardwalk, picking up random trash. Up close, he looked not only drunk, but worn down by disappointment, intense fatigue, cold nights on the beach and a lot of cheap booze. I wondered how those guys had ended up there  – these guys were only the latest of a lot of Mexican-looking guys I’ve seen drinking or crashed out in parks and derelict areas around the city of late – maybe they’d been working on construction sites or restaurant kitchens before the recession kicked them onto the street, and they couldn’t go back to Mexico or wherever they were from, and found themselves stranded here on the Coney Island boardwalk . . .

I left and came back. The guy with the belt buckled still hadn’t come back. The guy with the walking stick ambled by. His ‘walking stick’ was a metal rod and his face was tough and hard and blank. An old Russian man in a blue cap was sitting at a table next to the Mexicans, staring out to sea. The Mexicans had broken into what sounded like a melancholy love ballad, singing in Spanish.  I wondered what the Russians thought of these drunk Mexican guys singing on the boardwalk first thing in the mornings then realized that in the old country this would likely be nothing out of the ordinary . . .

Space Mermaid Mural across from Coney Island Subway Stop

Read Full Post »

Carnegie Library - Braddock PA

Carnegie Library - Braddock PA

Perhaps. But likely not anytime soon.

I first became aware of Braddock, PA last summer, through an article in my Google news alert from the People’s Weekly World (‘We take sides – Yours! Working class opinions and views since 1924’) entitled:

‘Future for the Mons Valley: “Hell doesn’t have to last forever”‘.

At first what amazed me was not Braddock – but that an old time leftie journal like People’s Weekly World still existed in today’s America. Or today’s anywhere, since our political conversation has shifted so rightward that what would have been centrist in the 70’s is now ‘radical’ left. But then I got interested in Braddock.

Braddock, Pennsylvania, sits just outside Pittsburgh, and has a population of 2800, down from 200,000 in the 50”s. The mayor, John Fetterman, has become a celebrity of sorts. Most recently, he was profiled in the Atlantic’s ‘Brave Thinkers’ series, but many papers have profiled him from the Guardian: America’s coolest mayor? to the New York Times: Rock Bottom For Decades but Showing Signs of Life. Fetterman makes great cop: a 6’8”, 300 pound, heavily tattooed white Harvard grad with a shaved head who wants to revive a dying steel town where the remaining population is mostly black. He seems a dedicated man, has built a website dedicated to the town braddoc; ‘destruction breeds creation – create amidst destruction’ (‘braddoc’ was the local Crips’ spelling of the town’s name).

Having grown up in a town surrounded by ghost towns and abandoned mines, a town that is itself almost now completely abandoned, I’ve always been fascinated by abandonment: what it means, what places become after they’ve been abandoned. But the story of Braddock and Mayor Fetterman’s attempts to revive it, struck other chords.

Abandoned Street, Braddock PA

Abandoned Street, Braddock PA

In an excellent article from ReadyMade Magazine( ‘One Man’s Mission to Save Braddock, Pennsylvania’), the writers illustrate not only how black people were left behind by the GI Bill, by a lack of seniority in the workplace, but how Braddock is in the absurd position of possessing the last operating steel mill in the Valley, yet how almost no one works at the mill actually lives in Braddock. As Mayor Fetterman says, “the mill’s only contribution to the community is pollution – one of the main reasons white workers, when they could, moved out.”

The mayor would like to see the white folks come back. Not the white working class – no one expects that – but the only white folks who re-inhabit depressed urban areas their parents or grandparents fled – artists, urban frontierists, chasing cheap living spaces, an off-the-grid community, freedom, or sometimes just escape.

I’ve lived in some (albeit much tamer) version of Braddock since my teens – depopulated or recently de-industrialized neighborhoods occupied by the artists and misfits Fetterman wants to attract. Since about the mid-90’s, when it became apparent that cities like New York and London would have less and less space for people on the margins, I’ve thought real artistic renewal would come from smaller centres – like grunge came from Seattle. That hasn’t happened on any meaningful level, and cities seem to be separating into two types – gentrified and depressed (or semi-abandoned). The question remains – can any kind of real cultural movement form in places like Braddock (or Detroit, Buffalo . . .). And if they can, can they revive not just the city but the fortunes of the people who already live there, or resist the uber-gentrification (a little gentrification, like a little poison, can be a good thing) that seems to follow any cultural flowering?

Abandoned Department Store, Braddock PA

Abandoned Department Store, Braddock PA

The Lower East Side is a half hour’s walk from the power centres of mid-town and Wall Street – even at its most abandoned and depraved, when drug lines circled around blocks of abandoned tenements, the separation was more psychological or cultural than physical. In many respects, New York was a more egalitarian place in those days, and drugs, art, thrills, formed the nexus where the powerful and the marginal rubbed shoulders. All those spaces I inhabited (or squatted), were in the heart of the city, in properties that are in some cases now worth millions.

It takes a certain kind of person to live off the grid, and the communities that formed were often riven by drugs, conflict, or an extreme (and crippling) marginalization. Isolation, drugs, blightend landscapes, crime – these aren’t easy to take day after day, especially as you get older.

Another street - Braddock, PA

Another street - Braddock, PA

What else are communities like Braddock to do? Unless the West re-industrializes (and there seems to be a growing awareness that this might be a good idea), there isn’t much that can be done. The solution that is proposed again and again for depressed communities seems to be big box malls, gambling or a prison – Fetterman’s opponent in the last election wanted to bring in a gas station. The homesteaders provide population, new ideas, energy. Maybe, as our economy changes, the inevitability of gentrification for successful cultural communities will change as well. Maybe new industries will one day come back to Braddock . . .

In the meantime, Braddock remains an experiment worth watching. Even if it doesn’t become the next Lower East Side. And if it is successful, perhaps my little town will attract people in like fashion one day . . .

Uranium City, Saskatchewan Uranium City, Saskatchewan, where I grew up. Empty buildings stretch for three or four miles

More articles:

former steeltown

From the Monthly Review: Braddock, Pennsylvania – Out of the Furnace, Into the Fire

Thread in city-data.com about Braddock, mostly from people from neighboring areas

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »