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Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

View of snowstorm through my window View from the window in the eye of the storm.

New York survived the blizzard. Schools closed, businesses closed, New Jersey closed – it was a big deal!  From my perspective, the worst thing was all the ice this morning, and the expectation of days of slush to come (a few years ago, when I was here for a big snowstorm, huge snowbanks blocked off streets in Manhattan and weary New Yorkers had to climb up down jump across the slush, then climb up and down again, repeating the cycle at the corner of each street).

As a Canadian, I am of course used to snowstorms. What amazes me, however, is how New Yorkers respond. In Toronto, people clear their sidewalks grudgingly. In Montreal, where block long convoys of snowploughs and dumptrucks have most streets clear by dawn in even the heaviest of blizzards, the ice can remain on the sidewalks for weeks, even months. On my Brooklyn street, my mostly black American and West Indian neighbors are out almost as soon as the snow starts falling, and will come out repeatedly through the night and into the morning. You can hear them at three am, shovels scraping steps and sidewalks, like there is some sort of competition over who can get their steps and patch of sidewalk clean first. By morning, everyone is out on the street, shouting over the street, commiserating, even going over to help people stuck in deeper than the others.

It’s really one of the few times people on this street openly greet each other, a reminder that New Yorkers like to connect through calamities, big and small . . .

Brooklyn in the eye of the storm

Nice slideshow of reader photos in New York Times

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Old Time Coffee Klatch Back when coffee was just coffee

I’ve been sick off and on all freakin’ month so haven’t had the energy to gather material for this freakin’ blog . . .

On better days, to get out of the house, I’ve been making it out to those strange hybirds of our increasingly strange culture, the coffee shop.

I have, however, been in the habit of going in the mornings for some time. I had a bad injury ten or so years ago and during the long, long period of convalescence, it was a relief to go to a public place and scribble in a notebook for half an hour to an hour. ‘Morning writing’. It didn’t have to be serious, or even make sense. The act of writing, forcing my brain to form words and get them on the page at a time when I was often in the worst shape, set the tone for the rest of the day. I had to find the right place. enough people to make it interesting, but with enough space to remove yourself, have the space to write. An aural background to shut out the higher pitched distractions.

Not easy to find. The steady encroachment of the cellphone hasn’t made it easier. Starbucks, oddly enough, often provides the necessary mix . . .

Outside of the mornings, I’ve never really been into the whole cafe thing. Even when I lived in Montreal.  Italian coffee places, great. Cafes in Paris, wonderful. But North America never really got the concept. Even if I’m not drinking, I’d rather go to a bar. I’ve especially never been down with those hip little cafes that  with the funky art on the walls, the hipster barristas, the range of muffins, cupcakes, and  the thousand coffee blends – the places that sweep in just ahead of any serious wave of gentrification.

We got a half-dozen of them in my neighborhood now.

This weekend an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail (‘Where Did Cafe Culture go?,  more or less a rewrite of WSJ’s No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users) talked about the spread of laptops in cafes, how people are increasingly coming in for one coffee, opening their laptops and staying for hours (or even all day) so many owners are pulling the plug on wifi because they can’t make any money. I wrote before about the electronic galley slaves that have taken over many cafes now.

It seems that many cafes have become surrogate offices now. I know a lot of people, in this area at least, who go to cafes in the daytime are freelancers or students, or unemployed. A lot them probably live packed into cramped apartments where it’s easier to work in a cafe, even a crowded one. But you rarely see anyone using pen and paper anymore. In the last few years, I’ve come to feel like some kind of anachronism, writing with a pen, in a notebook.

I could understand all that – hey, times change – but what I really don’t get is people who pull out their cellphones and start yapping haut voix so their voice dominates their entire space (especially when the cafe is practically empty). I really don’t get people who can spend hours gaping into their laptops when they could be outside, walking around. The recession, gentrification – all have played their part in the decline of New York’s famous open-ness – but the spread of these cafes with their electronic hives have done their share as well. I mean hey, I love computers, but this is still, even in winter, one of the most entertaining cities in the Western World. Why would you want to spend hours in some dumb-ass cafe talking checking updates on facebook?

Paris Cafe outside Paris, some time ago. They still do it better.

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Cell Phone Landfill

Food court level, Citicorp building, midtown . . .

Homeland security cops patrol outside with heavy machine guns, bulletproof vests, and helmets . .

Inside, the tables are all taken. Next to me a dozen women critique each other’s CVs, discuss job search/ interview strategies. I get the sense they meet every couple of weeks to help each other through the recession . . .

A blonde woman is across the concourse, sitting alone.  Young, maybe early 20’s, with long blond hair, grey pinstripe pant suit. Pretty, in a generic way. Leaning over what looks like a book or newspaper, reading intently, with earphones in her ears. I thought of how unusual it was to see a young woman like that actually reading something on paper as opposed to staring into a laptoop or texting on her cell . . .

Cell Phone boxThen she is talking, with the earplugs still in. Quietly at first, a little nervous, then growing more animated. She has a flat accent, maybe Southwestern. As she is talking, she expresses herself with her hands, nodding aggressively as the other party makes a point, then laughing, flashing her eyes, touching her hair. Flirting with the person on the other end of the line. Putting her hands on her hips, threading her hair through her fingers through it so it falls back, then putting her hands together and rubbing them as she makes a point. Her voice getting louder and louder, as she reads from the papers spread in front of her.

Ordinarily, I am irritated by people yapping on their cells like this, forcing their one-side and intrusive conversation into my space. But I found this woman fascinating. Her gaze seemed to be focused just a few inches in front of her face. Except for her voice, she seemed like she had been surrounded by some sort of vacuum tube and pulled from the room, and she wasn’t a person at all, but some sort of hologram with this flat Southwestern voice. Like she’d been beamed right into the medium of the phone.

Such, such is the world we live in now . . .

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Trolley tracks at the Santee Mall, Santee Town centre (San Diego).

Back in the city, back in the cold . . .

Spent the holidays in sunny San Diego, which is sort of an anti-New York, though a city of strangers in its own right.

I’d never been out to California before, though I’m familiar with the urban model from growing up in western Canada. But for a few blocks downtown, San Diego is built almost entirely around the car. This isn’t news of course, but since I don’t drive, and have managed to live in cities where a car isn’t a necessity since my late teens, it’s always a bit of a culture shock to go back to the car world . . .

Big box malls abound. They are so numerous, so uniform, that one night we got lost getting back to the suburb where we were staying and literally had no idea where we were, since every mall was identical – same Target, Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut, Bed, Bath and Beyond (and so on). Even the houses seem built around the car – self-enclosed (often gated – they love their gated communities in San D.) The only neighboring stores or, God forbid, bars, in a strip mall built on a feeder road to a main highway. The sky, the colours are amazing – I saw colours I’d never seen before – and this entirely created, functional environment seemed an odd counterpart to the fantastic landscape. As I do whenever I go back to Western Canada, I thought that this was how space colonies will look like – functional adjuncts to the landscape around them.

Yet I got used to it. Even if you have to get into a car to get to them, the country, the beaches, are spectacular. Perhaps this sis a key to Western cities – they aren’t so much a suburb to a downtown, as suburbs to the land around them. Even the malls have a certain prosaic easiness. My local Starbucks – a half-hour bike ride down a busy semi-highway – was a quiet and cordial place to have coffee and write in the morning. Same people every morning, carving out their little bit of community. Hardly an cell phones – a lot more pleasant than the average ‘independent’ cafe in Brooklyn for example . . .

One afternoon when I caught the trolley right down to Tijuana. The trolley runs from the northern edge of the city to the border, curving through the highways, the valleys, skirting the ocean into downtown and beyond. Just off the pleasant colonial buildings, the twin streets lined with generic sports bars and ‘Irish’ pubs, comes streets of ragged, homeless men, white, black, Hispanic hanging out in front of vacant lots and boarded up storefronts. One guy stood up in full view of the trolley, pulling up his pants after crapping in a doorway.

Then beyond city centre, the navy base with lines of docked aircraft carriers, as tall as a Manhattan skyscraper, serviced by even taller cranes, lit up in the brilliant San Diego sunset by even more brilliant floodlights.

Then a bridge, curving up fifty, sixty stories, like a bridge into space.

Homeless encampment under bridge at Santee, just outside San Diego.

On past an ocean of trailer parks, non-descript main streets of motels, fast-food joints, auto-body shops, until the city of Tijuana appears, sprawling across a hillside and from a distance looking like any American city. A ferris wheel rises from a spot near the bottom of the packed-in buildings. A bridge extends over what I realized after a moment is a river seperating the two. Hundreds of Mexicans, looking reasonably well-dressed in jeans, embroidered work shirts or more generic ball caps and runners, streamed over the bridge, giving what seemed like a festive mood and at the bottom of the streetcar tracks is customs and immigration, the door yawning open as if changing countries was as easy as walking into a mall. American immigration officers on a break strolled back and forth, relaxed, joking with each other.

Odd to think then that 80 murders had taken place in Tijuana in December as rival drug gangs battle over turf, part of a narco-war engulfing and corrupting the entire country, giving Mexico, a local bartender told me later, a higher murder rate than Afghanistan.

Next post: Return to New York . . .

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Riding the G train, the cross-Brooklyn local, on a Saturday afternoon . . .

A big guy was sitting by the door with a little kid. The kid was maybe five or six, of indeterminate sex, except for a set of pink rubber boots. Probably a girl. The guy had a big head and thick, almost coke-bottle glasses with thick rims. He looked almost exactly like a friend of mine, a painter who lives off the G in Williamsburg, except that his neck and wrists and even his hands were covered in tattoos, fiery metalhead tattoos, with letters tattooed across the knuckles of each hand, which at first I thought read GODS W111. Yet he looked far too mild-mannered to be a hardcore metalhead and from the way he sat with the little girl he appeared to be her father.

Tehy had a book, a trade paperback with a black cover and big yellow letters on the front. The little girl spelled out the title: “O, W, O . . .”

“That’s an ‘I’,” the guy corrected her a little sternly. Then: “Do you want to read it?”

“No!” The little girl giggled. “Its boring!”

“Boring! Maybe if I read it to you . . . ”

“Okay!” The little girl wriggled close to him, starting in the middle of the book, and reading over her shoulder so she could see the page. He read in a soft, flat voice and I could barely hear him over the clattering of the train. “The theoretical . . . backlash of the administrative mindset . . . multiplicity of identities . . . ”

From what little I heard it sounded like a combination of Derrida, a political pamphlet, and an office memo. He read slowly, deliberately, turning the page while the little girl squirmed in her seat, laughing at first then looking confused then laughing again and I couldn’t tell if the guy was being ironic and this was a recurring game with them, or if he was serious and she was laughing at him because he did that kind of thing all the time . . .

When I got off the train, I realized his knuckles read ‘God’s Will’. When I got home I googled the phrase, wondering if it was a band. But no band came out and I wondered if he hadn’t been some sort of Christian metalhead, like those Christian hardcore kids I’d read about somewhere, out thrashing for Jesus . . .

Christ-core band Norma Jean

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