Friday, July 31, 2009

Walking in the Rain

As I walked up the picturesque streets of West Tribeca and Lower Soho last Sunday, I was aware that a thunderstorm was imminent. You didn’t have to be a meteorologist to figure this out. You could smell it in the air and you could hear the rumbling in the distance, more or less, coming your way. I kept walking anyway, because these streets, which contain everything from unrenovated warehouses to beautifully restored period buildings, are irresistible, and because when you walk in New York some sort of protection from the rain usually turns up. Whether it’s a simple overhang from an old building or an elaborate awning extending from a fashionable hotel or a Starbuck’s with a few tables and only one barista, you never lack for ports in a storm, so to speak.

Still, I did have a tough moment of decision as the impending cloudburst seemed to build. There I was sort of stranded at Broadway and Canal, in the middle of this sea of people that is always milling around among the tiny stores that sell everything from perfume to fishing tackle, and I could tell that there weren’t many coverings within easy reach if the downpour should commence. Was I better off heading down into the beckoning subway, or should I take my chances and push past this human swarm so that I could continue to enjoy my sidewalk spree? As a loud clap of thunder reverberated down a nearby block, I took to the stairs, finding myself in somewhat unfamiliar subterranean territory. I figured I should return home at this point but by what route. Should I take the R or W, knowing that I would still have a pretty good walk before returning home, or should I try for the J or the M, unsure whether it stopped at Fulton on weekends? I opted for the J, but, of course, it didn’t stop at Fulton after all. In fact, the last stop was Chambers, still a half mile from my home base at 85 John.

I climbed slowly up the stairs to ground level, unsure what I would find, showers or clear skies. As I ascended, I forgot about the weather for a moment and realized I was exiting amid the great arch of New York’s 1914 Municipal Building. There is something about the colonnade of that building with all its majestic, overpowering columns that invariably distracts and inspires me. Makes for a grand shelter from the rain, too, though at that point unnecessary, for when I looked up, the clouds had disappeared. I couldn’t help appreciating how brilliantly the wet streets glistened in the sun as I splashed back to my apartment, glad to be finishing my excursion on those narrow, mostly traffic-free city avenues that make the Financial District still another great New York neighborhood to explore.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Life of a Doorman

Simply put, New York City cannot get along without doormen. Although doormen can be found in all cities, most people would agree with Peter Bearman, the author of the only academic study on this subject, that doormen are “quintessentially New York.” There is a strong demand for doorman buildings in New York and something like 3000 people, almost all of them male, make their living as doormen here. Any blog claiming to be an appreciation of New York life therefore has to cover doormen at some point.

Full disclosure: I live in a doorman building and interviewed one of our doormen for this blog. Just about everything I have to say about them comes from this interview.

According to my source, the first responsibility of doormen is to maintain security. Closely monitoring who enters the building and ensuring that they are either residents or authorized visitors is, without question, job one. Second, is what my interviewee referred to as the concierge aspect, alerting residents when they have special deliveries, dry cleaning, or other unusual items and turning them over to residents in a timely, efficient manner. Third, but also important, is being a friendly, smiling, agreeable presence in the lives of residents. This includes greeting them warmly in the morning or evening, becoming acquainted with them, without being intrusive, and when appropriate, engaging them in conversations and maintaining a lighthearted repartee.

Discerning doormen can size up tenants very quickly to determine if playfulness will be positively received. My source indicated his favorite part of the job is chatting with people, and even occasionally teasing them. His most noteworthy characteristic is probably his sense of humor and any chance he gets to use it gives him pleasure. At one point, he even considered a career as a comedian, though he eventually worked as an offset printer for many years until computers put him out of work and a doorman job came his way. He has been a doorman for fifteen years now, but thinks that like comedians he makes a living, at least in part, by making people laugh. Although he can tell a good joke, most of his fun comes from kidding people, whom he knows will take it well, about almost anything – whether it is the color combinations of their clothing, always being in a hurry, resorting to take-out night after night, living with a rambunctious dog - whatever.

As for what’s disagreeable about the job, the doorman I spoke to told me a long story about a tenant from another building where he served as the doorman who was always writing up complaints about him. None of these complaints ever had any merit, though he recalled one letter with particular relish that negatively characterized him as “excessively happy.” To that, my doorman announced gladly, “I plead guilty, without hesitation or regret.” He did also report that in this other building (definitely not the one he’s in now), the superintendent was one of those screamers who doesn’t hesitate to humiliate you in front of others. Not atypical as these situations go, but also not something you want to put up with for too long.

In this current assignment, such incidents are rare, and the good parts far outweigh the bad. After all, what’s so terrible about a steady job in a well managed building and getting to work with mostly kind, well meaning people? It doesn’t lack for laughs either, and although it may not be adventurous or glamorous, you do get to work in a fashionable, air-conditioned building filled with people who depend on you every day. Kind of like being a benevolent dictator in a very small, highly advanced society. There aren’t many of us who get to do that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MoMA Over Met

Two of the truly great art museums in New York are the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course, in many ways the Met is the greater museum by virtue of its enormous collection that ranges across the whole history of art, whereas MoMA covers just a tiny portion of modern Western art. Still, for the person actually experiencing a visit to each of these museums, especially if you’re a member, MoMA wins every time.

So first of all there is the difference when you enter. If you have a membership card with you, the MoMA people just beep you through and you’re in. But at the Met you have to wait in line to get your rather awkward admission button from the rather slow moving volunteers. And even though both museums are almost always crowded, the Met always feels, well, more chaotic. Second, getting around MoMA is easy, the directions are clear and each floor’s exhibits are well marked. The Met, admittedly huge, seems almost willfully confusing. The poor signage makes it impossible to navigate it alone, forcing you to rely on the many rather bored but well placed guides who also double as guards (or is it the other way around). Third, suppose you want to do an audio tour. If you’re a member at MoMA, it’s always free. At the Met, maybe you get a one dollar discount on a five or six dollar tour. In fact, except for the 10% bookstore and restaurant discounts, that one dollar off for the audio tour is the only other perk that comes with your Met membership. At MoMA, they invite you to receptions with wine and snacks. At the Met, you have to be a big, and I mean big, donor before you get to go to anything like that. At MoMA, all the movies are free with membership! At the Met, they still want you to pay $12 for an old Cary Grant flick. And don’t get me started about the differences in the bathrooms! At MoMA they’re on every floor and entirely in keeping with the design of the rest of the museum. I mean it’s actually fun to go to the bathroom at MoMA, it’s part of the aesthetic experience. At the Met, there might be 10 stalls in the whole joint, and if you happen to be in the wrong gallery, it can be a very long walk before you can find a bathroom without a wait, especially if you’re a woman.

Finally, there’s the difference between the two institutions when it comes to closing time rituals. At the Met, they start herding everybody toward the exit fifteen minutes early and pretty much have you out the door with at least ten minutes to spare. At MoMA, they let you hang out indefinitely. Of course, I must be exaggerating, but that’s how it feels. Nobody is telling you to hurry up and leave. I swear I have clocked this and even when the museum closes at 6:00, you are sometimes still catching a glimpse of your favorite Matisse at 6:10. How endearing!

So the next time you go to these venerable New York institutions, and especially if you see someone casting an overly critical eye on the design of the new MoMA, remind them that the Met may be great, but if you’re looking for a pleasant, unhurried, transparent visit, with plenty of extras, MoMA is where it’s at.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

High Time on the High Line

There is a narrow stretch of park, less than a mile long, built on top of an old elevated railway that hovers 30 feet above the streets of West Chelsea that is getting a lot of attention lately from New Yorkers. It is called the High Line and since it opened just a few weeks ago has already become a favorite destination for pleasure-seeking Manhattanites. The appeal is a combination of the novelty of strolling through one of Manhattan’s most fashionable neighborhoods from such a lofty perch and the fact that its landscaping and design are the result of a lot of creative thought.

The High Line is almost exactly three building storeys above the city. I know this because you can look directly into the many third-floor windows that are built into its route. This perspective on the city is strangely thrilling. Being three floors up doesn’t seem like much, but somehow you see things that otherwise elude you. And when you add in the ingenious design features and the landscape of wildflowers and exotic grasses, unique is the only way to describe it.

The ingenious design features I refer to include a comfortable, attractively paved walking path that follows a sort of meandering, river-like pattern, complete with intriguing tributaries. This path is never less than about eight feet wide and often considerably more, though given the heavy foot traffic, the going can be slow when you hit these narrow passages. Surrounding this main walking path and its offshoots are landscaped plots that seem wild and indigenous, though as one commentator has noted, such naturalness is actually the result of elaborate planning. Each turn in the walkway offers a little surprise, either in how it connects to an adjoining walk-up or skyscraper, or with respect to the view you get of Chelsea’s best known structures, particularly the recently completed Frank Gehry building along the Hudson, whose geometric richness benefits from the constantly shifting perspective the meandering High Line affords.

One of the uniformed observers who is keeping a headcount of users told me that last Saturday some 1500 people an hour were entering and exiting at the West Village end of the High Line. That is a whole lot of people, especially when you consider that the High Line’s only attraction is a lovely, cleverly landscaped walking space with a unique perspective on the city. No moving pictures, no funny people, no classic sculptures, virtually no food other than a gelato cart or two. Just the High Line, pure and simple, offering a high time you really can’t get anywhere else.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Film Forum

Susan Ray, the widow of the late Nicholas Ray, the film director who died some years ago and is best known for making the film “A Rebel Without a Cause,” spoke at Film Forum the other night to introduce a new 35mm print of Ray’s semi-classic 1950 Humphrey Bogart film, “A Lonely Place.” I say semi-classic, because I really don’t think it’s all that good, but what fascinated me is the power Ms. Ray granted to Film Forum as an institution. You see, Film Forum is by far the premier site in New York City for classic motion pictures. No theatre offers more variety or a finer, more satisfying collection of repertory films to choose from, pretty much all year round. I have a number of memberships to New York museums and theatres, but there are only two that I can’t imagine ever giving up. One is an annual membership to the Museum of Modern Art, which entitles you, without an entrance fee, to view their amazing art collection, and to feast on the second best program of classic films in New York. The other is, of course, Film Forum’s annual membership, which admits you to all their films (and they show some really good contemporary ones, too) for half price.

So how did Susan Ray acknowledge the power of Film Forum? Simply by thanking Bruce Goldstein so profusely, Film Forum’s famous retrospective programmer, for deciding to single out “In a Lonely Place.” All by itself, Film Forum’s decision to run this and other Ray films was regarded by Ms. Ray as an artistic approbation of such importance that it automatically gave her husband’s work an upward nudge in the annals of film history. While, I, myself, didn’t agree with awarding Nicholas Ray with such acclaim, I was still excited to be witnessing a shift in critical opinion coaxed along by one of my favorite New York cultural institutions. I couldn’t help wondering if this was how it felt to be present in New York in the early 1960s when the city’s countless repertory film houses, now mostly gone, experienced a critical reawakening, provoked by the French New Wave, and fueling a new appreciation of movies as an art form that led to the public certification of such auteurs as Welles, Hawks, Keaton, and Hitchcock. Being there in the presence of such shifts lent the lovely illusion that somehow I was a part of it all, even partially responsible. Just one of many tiny thrills, even when hollow and artificial, that New York can provide.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Third New York Again

Regular readers will recall that this blog is named for a quotation from E.B. White included in his little book Here is New York. This blog’s first entry included this quote: "There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. […] Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion."

I thought it would be interesting to return to this quote to pick up where it left off. Of The Third New York, White continues: “It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements…And whether it is a farmer arriving from Italy to set up a small grocery store in a slum, or a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.”

And except perhaps for the farmer arriving from Italy to establish the small grocery store, now he’s probably from Korea or Vietnam, much of this still holds true.

As for what drew me to this greatest of cities, it is the same passion and energy that so many settlers before me helped to make possible. Of course, I love the plays, the music, the museums, and the movies, but it has so much more to do with a vitality in the city streets, a liveliness on the subways, a largeness in the public spiritedness of thousands of New Yorkers that speaks to the city’s infinite possibilities and its responsibility to something beyond the individual self.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Jessica Alba is Hot!

Jessica Alba has been shooting a new movie at Wagner College, the place where I work. It turns out that many movies have been filmed on Wagner’s picturesque campus that sits on a hill in Staten Island and is thus situated just perfectly to offer some pretty spectacular views of Manhattan. The best known films that used Wagner as a setting are probably School of Rock and The Visitor, but there have been many others.

Of course, the thing about Jessica Alba is that she’s “hot.” I know this second-hand from Wikipedia, which has her scaling the heights of every recent poll of sexy women, and, most relevantly, from the young people who travel with me on the shuttle from the Staten Island Ferry to Wagner.

One young man who is a senior at Wagner and appeared to have spent his whole day at Wagner watching the movie they were making, gushed: “She’s just so hot, I couldn’t tear myself away. My girlfriend kept calling me, but it felt like a betrayal to speak to her while I’m gawking at Jessica, so I just let it ring. I let that phone ring for hours.” A young woman of about the same age, perhaps slightly younger, was also present throughout the shoot and enthused about Jessica: “She is just so perfect. She’s my feminine ideal, beautiful, but also very smart and very collected and well put together. She really knows who she is and where she’s going.” Finally, a Wagner technie who was assigned the job of keeping Jessica’s laptop in working order was perhaps the most smitten of all: “She has a Mac, of course, which goes right to her home page every time you click her browser, but she was having trouble connecting to the internet, so I was helping her. Every time I did something for her she looked at me with those gorgeous eyes and those white teeth and thanked me with such sincerity that it made me stiffen like a board, do you know what I mean, so that I couldn’t move or speak or even really smile. I was frozen in time by Jessica Alba.”

To paraphrase the Bard,To be Frozen in Time by Jessica Alba, Ah, “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

No Ordinary Street Food

The other night we emerged from The Museum of Modern Art a bit before Midnight, rather bleary eyed after viewing three hours of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (included in that three hours ware at least 30 minutes of head snapping dozing). As we wobbled down 53rd Street, there was this line of about 100 people on the southwest corner of 53rd and sixth that seemed to lead to nowhere. It turns out they were lined up, as they apparently always are, day or night, to be served a helping of chicken and lamb over rice, usually smothered in a special white sauce, from one of New York’s best known Halal street carts, one of many such carts in the city. Halal is a kind of Muslim kosher food, which means simply that the meat is the result of a special slaughtering process. Whatever it is, the cart on 53rd and 6th is one of New York’s most famous street food venues, serving thousands of customers a day. Tourists and natives come from far and wide to stand in line, inhale the fragrance of greasy, overcooked sauces, and to pay as little as $6.00 for a full plate of this Middle Eastern staple. I still haven’t actually had the unique experience of waiting for an hour in anticipation of this special treat, perhaps because Midnight is not my best time of day. Oh, but how the people swear by it! Reprinted here is one customer’s reaction whose words stand in for the opinion of many, many others:

“How can one little cart serve up so much glory? Contemplate THAT while you stand in the line that runs down the block. But it’s worth the wait, esp. if you’re a street food junky. Cheap,filling eats and a colorful cast of characters to entertain you while you wait. And it tastes delicious whether you hit it up at 8 before you head out, or at 4 am before you head to bed.” Geetika A. of New York.

Editor’s Note: Apparently, the authentic and best food is strictly available between the hours of 8 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. So don’t be fooled and settle for the second-rate stuff that can be found on the same corner but during normal working hours. Thank you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The surfboard

The other day at the 28th street stop in Manhattan a guy got on the Number 1 subway with a 7-foot long surfboard. Although it was wrapped in some kind of protective covering, the little point of the surfboard was peeking out, which confirmed he wasn’t carrying a bass violin or a new leaf for his dining room table, neither being uncommon sights on the subway. But a surfboard is a rarity. You could tell that even this guy wasn’t used to towing it around, as he almost rammed it into the ceiling of the car he entered while searching just a little too desperately for a trio of empty seats. I eyed him like he was a refugee from some tropical island and wondered where he could possibly be going with it. Perhaps emboldened by the writing of this blog, I strolled over to him and asked about his destination. Who knew, maybe this was the one day of the year where the waves really rolled in along the Hudson. He told me he was going to Ocean Beach, Long Island. I thought fast and wrinkled my forehead, puzzling how he would get there via subway from Lower Manhattan. I wanted to know more, though, and so asked if the surfing was good out there. Without looking up and with no apparent desire to continue our conversation, he said, “no.” I waited for some sort of elaboration but when none was forthcoming, I thanked him and returned to my seat with a smile. Ah, I thought, another New York moment.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Crucible of Creativity

Living in New York City both limits and liberates. The limitations
occur at the ground level of a skyscrapered metropolis that dwarfs
you, restricts your vision, and impedes your forward progress. As you
move through the city, you usually can glimpse only a tiny piece of
the sky and are often caught in a circle of towering structures that
prevent you from peering more than a few feet ahead. Contrast this
with, say, New Mexico, where the vistas seem endless and your eye
follows mountain slopes and sunlit horizons for many miles. If you are
walking in the New York, you are stalled constantly by traffic lights,
slow moving and stationary pedestrians, and by the countless
construction projects that detour you on to makeshift sidewalks.
Everything feels closed in, tight, hunkered down, constrained.

But New York City also liberates by virtue of its unstoppable energy,
soaring ambition, and breathtaking vision. Maya Lin, the architect
who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as well as many
other remarkable projects, has lived for years in New York. She
has said there is something about the city’s pulsating rhythms,
its constant activity, that pushes her to do better, more original
work. Of course, Lin is hardly alone in this assessment, as it is
probably the artists, more than any other group, that give
New York its distinctiveness and its drive. And in some cases,
the very thing that seems to constrain also unleashes. Those
buildings that tie us down also raise us up, offering, at their best,
an awe inspiring view of what is possible both functionally and
aesthetically. The aptly named New York School – that
remarkable group of painters, poets, dancers, musicians,
architects, designers, novelists and essayists who shaped
American culture in the 1950s and 60s – embodies the
freedom that Gotham’s creative artists felt to experiment
with bold new subjects, themes, materials, and methods. Frank
O’Hara, a quintessential New York School poet, captures here
something of that experimental spirit, the energy, the humor,
and the juxtaposing of unexpected things that is New York
City at its best.

By Frank O’Hara

I'm going to New York!
(what a lark! what a song!)
where the tough Rocky's eaves
hit the sea. Where th'Acro-
polis is functional, the trains
that run and shout! the books
that have trousers and sleeves!

I'm going to New York!
(quel voyage! jamais plus!)
far from Ypsilanti and Flint!
where Goodman rules the Empire
and the sunlight's eschato-
logy upon the wizard's bridges
and the galleries of print!

I'm going to New York!
(to my friends! mes semblables!)
I suppose I'll walk back West.
But for now I'm gone forever!
the city's hung with flashlights!
the Ferry's unbuttoning its vest!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Willie, Barack, and New York

Okay, truth be told, I do have access to cable television when I workout in the little exercise room our apartment building provides. I happened to see (no sound – just subtitles) the wonderful exchange between President Obama and Willie Mays (spelled Mayes by the subtitlist) as they rode together recently on Air Force One after the All-Star Game. The Say Hey Kid was, of course, overwhelmed by this opportunity to travel with the President on his executive aircraft and quietly expressed his admiration to the President for what he had already accomplished and how much his administration meant to the country. But what I loved was the way the President turned the tables on Mays by telling this baseball legend how much HE meant to the country and how important his courage and persistence had been in helping to make the Obama Presidency possible. And, you know, as they say, the President wasn’t just blowing smoke either.

When Willie Mays first joined the New York Giants as their new center fielder in late May of 1951 he struggled, failing to reach base in his initial twelve tries before breaking this hitless string with a homerun. Willie pretty much flourished after that (going on to be the Rookie of the Year), though the Giants themselves didn’t catch fire until mid-August, finally winning the pennant in that famous playoff game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Imagine for a minute, from a New York perspective, what it must have been like, especially if you were a baseball fan, to live in the Big Apple back then. All the really exciting baseball action was happening almost exclusively in New York, between the Giants, the Bums, and the Yanks. And if you were Black or cared a lot about integrating baseball, the teams especially worth rooting for were the Dodgers, with players like Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe, and the Giants, with Mays and Monte Irvin, (the Yankees didn’t include an African American on their roster until much later). But even on those teams, four years after Jackie Robinson first broke “the color line,” the number of Whites far outnumbered Blacks, and the level of prejudice and discrimination remained oppressive. Mays, more than anyone even during that hateful time, represented the sheer exuberance of going all out, of playing with joy and verve and never letting up on your opponent, despite the often terrible adversity he faced off (and occasionally on) the field.

The way he covered the outfield was magnificent, matched only by an arm that was often compared in power and accuracy to artillery. There was something, too, very New York and very daring about the way he batted. Mantle and others were known for their bat speed, but Willie swung with a kind of uninhibited abandon that was new at that time. He always seemed to finish up with only one hand on his bat and whether he connected or missed, his body seemed to twist gymnastically into a human pretzel. In his prime, he was a sensation not only in the Polo Grounds (where the Giants played) but in the streets of New York as well, playing stickball with the neighborhood kids late into the night. In 1958, when the Giants moved to San Francisco, something about New York baseball as a symbol for the sheer joy of playing and excelling died with his leaving.

And in the years after his retirement and as the Civil Rights Movement began to lead to a somewhat more equitable society, even the seemingly imperturbable Willie Mays divulged how painful those early years of integration had been and how beleaguered he had felt by the name calling, the segregated hotels, and the occasional death threats. In those days, though, most of the public seemed oblivious to all this. We only knew that no one had ever played baseball so beautifully or had done so much to entertain fans. He sustained many psychic hurts and withstood terrible bigotry, but with a huge smile on his face and with an ability to rise above this insistent suffering, he turned in an outstanding performance again and again. In that way, he set an example from which all of us can take heart.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Denying the Moon Landing

Forty years ago today people landed on the moon. I remember watching it on television and being utterly fascinating by what was happening. It is mildly amusing, by the way, to look back at how the New York Times reported the story in their headline the following day – “MEN WALK ON MOON – ASTRONAUTS LAND ON PLAIN; COLLECT ROCKS, PLANT FLAG.” Somehow, there’s something missing in terms of momentousness; I mean they could have done all that by landing in, say, Des Moines, Iowa, right? Still, as we watched the astronauts lumber around the moon in those big spacesuits, there was this sense not just of wonderment but also of fear and menace, too. Fine, they’re up there but what will it take to get those guys safely back to earth? That part of it, the precision and planning necessary to leave the moon on the lunar module and reunite with the mother ship, still seems almost incomprehensible to me even now. But I never doubted that it actually happened. Which means that I am not part of the 6% of the American public that continues to believe we never did get there, that it was all a hoax. This figure, by the way, is confirmed by both the New York Times and Wikipedia. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry on the “moon landing hoax” is both illuminating and extremely lengthy (126 footnotes!) suggesting, at least, that the level of interest in this subject is shockingly high. Particularly dismaying is the survey data that indicates 28% of Russian respondents do not believe that an American moon landing ever occurred.

One of the reasons I find the Wikipedia entry sort of intriguing is because it reminds me of creationist and intelligent design arguments against natural selection. Like the creationists and the intelligent design advocates, the moon landing hoax people do not offer any kind of complete or consistent argument against the moon landing. Their strategy is to reveal what they regard as little inconsistencies - pictures that don’t match properly, quotes from prominent people that suggest a cover-up, factual claims that seem to conflict. Like the creationists who cling to the argument that because the “fossil record” is incomplete, intelligent design must be a better explanation than natural selection for human origins, the moon landing deniers will seize on even the smallest piece of evidence to “prove” that something didn’t happen, when, in fact, it is undeniable, according to all existing evidence, that it did. Perhaps that will remind you of another little controversy often referred to as Holocaust Denial (135 footnotes in Wikipedia!), but let’s not get into that right now. In fact, in the Times article about this phenomenon, sociologist Ted Goertzel is quoted as saying that conspiracy theories in general are united by a penchant for accumulating facts that don’t prove anything new but seek to put little dents into the arguments of mainstream theorists. “They feel if they’re got more facts than the other side,” Goertzel concludes, “that proves they’re right.”

So is there any reason why we should care about these claims of a moon landing fraud? Probably not. But there are a couple of points worth making. First, I find it hard to believe that we can chalk up this little phenomenon to a faulty education system. That’s basically what Harrison Schmitt, the Ph.D. astronaut who was part of the last moon landing team, has suggested. A lot of the people who try to make the case the moon landing was a hoax are highly verbal, whom you would regard as well informed if you sat down and had a chat with them. They can cite a lot of studies and explain their arguments in coherent, measured ways. Actually, I doubt that any amount of education could change the minds of these people, because it is their passionate intensity about these beliefs, bordering on religious fanaticism, that comes much closer to explaining what they are about.

More interesting, to me anyway, are the folks who by virtue of years under totalitarian rule no longer trust anything, no matter what it is, that governments assert. Quite a few of these hoax advocates, it turns out, have spent years living under dictatorships (which, in part, may explain the high percentage of Russians who deny the moon landing) and have pretty much stopped believing in anything they are told “officially.” Could it be that at the root of many of these conspiracy theories is the need to deny any authority that has proved itself to be unreliable again and again? And could it be that the more we learn about the secretive and illegal practices of the Bush Administration, which constitutes one of the most appalling abuses of authority in American history, that conspiracy theories can be expected to proliferate as never before?

Who knows? In the meantime, while the vast majority of us celebrate the anniversary of one of humankind's most remarkable achievements, there will be some 18 million Americans who may spend part of their day acknowledging those who masterminded a hoax that in its audacity and sheer totality is beyond belief.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Uncable Life

Living without cable television would be unimaginable to me almost anywhere but in New York City. Here I’m not sure how I’d find the time for it. Even if nothing else is going on - and usually there is a museum to visit, a play to take in, a lecture to attend, an old movie to see again - Central Park is always open and the city streets, unendingly intriguing, never close down. Cable TV seems, well, superfluous. Now let me quickly add that I do own a TV and enjoy using it to view DVDs, both owned and rented. But that seems to be a far cry from cable television’s incessant commercial badgering. Even more, one of cable's chief enticements, the promise of nearly endless choice which often leads to aimless channel surfing in search of the perfect program, almost invariably leaves me feeling disappointed.

There are, however, at least three minor problems associated with lacking access to cable. One is the fact that you are cut off from special events like the Presidential Election, the Oscars, or the World Series. Trying to find a bar that isn’t too noisy and is willing to play the show you want to see is not always easy. Second is how quickly you become ignorant of the most basic aspects of popular culture. You go to a party and you don’t even know what Gray’s Anatomy is or who took third place on American Idol. It’s a little like being with a bunch of macho guys and not even having a clue as to who is playing in the Super Bowl. Let me add that not being able to see The Daily Show does feel like a serious omission in my life, but not quite important enough to make it worthwhile to pay the extra cable fees of about $50 a month. Finally, if you don’t keep up with the political commentators on MSNBC or CNN or (heaven help us) Fox, and read, say, only the New York Times, you get a very slanted view of what is going on in America. This has a definite upside, of course, but you really do lose track of how much Obama is hated by a certain segment of the population, or the verbal gymnastics certain pundits must resort to in order to make Sarah Palin look good. All in all, though, I’m going to continue to get along without cable. It’s not so much what I’m missing that matters but what I get to do in this great city when I’m not feeling tied down by the tube.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sports Radio

It turns out that a few New Yorkers spend all of their waking hours (I am not exaggerating) listening to radio talk shows about sports. I know this because the guys who drive the shuttle from the Staten Island Ferry to Wagner College (where I work) and back again listen to these shows incessantly. Which means that I can’t help but hear them occasionally as well. And what is especially striking about what comes through the airways is that all the radio hosts know the callers intimately, not just their names, but all their relatives and most of their personal habits, too. That’s because these guys call in all the time; they seem to have nothing else to do. They don’t just inquire about why the Yankees or the Mets or the Giants or the Knicks or the Rangers aren’t winning, but they make comments about their wives and their drinking habits and their hunting trips, and actually want to know from the hosts, who don’t do anything but follow sports, what movie should win the academy award, and whether they should continue to see a girlfriend who never has a nice word to say about them. These sports guys love one thing more than sports it turns out, and that is the sound of their own voices. Given a chance to talk, they will talk, and it doesn’t matter if it’s something they know a lot about or something about which they are utterly ignorant. Like so many on the radio today these hosts and many of their callers, too, are eagerly practicing the new cogito: I spout therefore I am. It gives them an identity and a sense of community both at the same time, which, when you think about it, isn’t such a bad way to use the media. In fact, maybe this could be part of a new movement to replace all the right wing radio nuts with sports jockeys who talk all day long about their favorite sports teams instead of how to defeat the Obama agenda.Yeah! More sports radio shows now! More sports radio shows now!

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Truly Needy (2)

First of all, let me say I am acutely aware that sandwiched between my first and second blogs on the Truly Needy is one on Trader Joe’s. It is both ironic and absurd, but may I venture to add somehow very American, too. I also want to thank Felisa and DB for their responses to that first blog. Their perspectives have definitely influenced me to think and write more about this.

In any case, I was cruising a great New York City Bookstore yesterday, the Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center, where I picked up a book called The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer, the philosopher who is probably best known for his animal rights advocacy. Singer now devotes himself primarily to the ethics of world poverty and in this particular volume he has two main goals: 1) to convince readers that doing something to help those most in need is a moral obligation, part of what it means to live an ethical life; 2) to persuade people to give at least 5% of their income to help end poverty. By the way, just as a gauge of my own selfishness or at least initial resistance to this second goal, I found myself immediately wondering whether Singer meant 5% of gross income or after-tax income. It turns out he means 5% of gross income.

In one of his chapters, Singer explores the reasons typically offered for not giving more to reduce poverty. A lot of these have to do with the claim that there is no general obligation to help others in need, or that Americans, as a whole, are already doing enough. A couple of arguments, coming more from the left, say that giving creates dependency (especially when the giving is direct and piecemeal), and, more seriously, allows governments to evade the responsibility of, say, restructuring the economy or instituting laws to mandate greater equity. With respect to this last point, Singer does not disagree, but adds there is no reason why philanthropy should not be coupled with advocacy and the active pursuit of institutional change. In the end, Professor Singer, a well trained philosopher, puts forward what he regards as an unassailable syllogism regarding our individual obligations, AT MINIMUM, to reduce poverty. I reproduce it below and will end this blog, with plans to return to this topic in the near future, with these words of Singer from pages 15-16 of his 2009 book, published by Random House:

First Premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.

Second Premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.

Third Premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Union Square Trader Joe's

Just about everyone who has ever been to a Trader Joe’s knows how great they are. The food is fresh and delicious, the values are amazing, the help is efficient and friendly. But do you know what it’s like to visit a Trader Joe’s in Manhattan? I mean specifically the Trader Joe’s just off Union Square? Frankly, I don’t think you can quite imagine it. You see, everyday this Trader Joe’s violates all the fire safety rules about room capacity. They consistently squeeze in to this relatively small space more people than should be allowed, in fact, more than is humanly possible, at least that’s how it feels. No matter when you go, it is impossible to move a cart through the aisles, which means you must never go alone. You need one person to gather up the food by hand and the other person to position the cart in the queue, which is already snaking its way throughout the store and, in some shocking cases, right back out the front door. It does move fairly quickly, though. But you have to learn to steer your cart artfully, just enough to let the customers retrieve their groceries off the shelves you’re standing in the way of, but not so much that you lose your place in line, condemning you to spend a good part of the rest of your morning trapped in the produce section, leaning listlessly on your cart, and trying without success to fight back the tears.

When you finally do make it to the cashier, you can’t help but feel triumphant, like the guys who first scaled Mt. Everest or the other ones who figured out how to make authentic looking counterfeit money. With both hands carrying reusable bags filled with lots of cheap food (and wine), you descend into the subway knowing that you can handle any challenge or overcome any difficulty. It’s a great New York feeling.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Truly Needy

You see a lot of beggars in New York City but you try not to think too much about them, and most of the time you assume they’re really not that needy. On the subway, you have the theatrical beggars who go through a whole speech presented in impressive stentorian tone about how they don’t want to bother anyone but they haven’t eaten properly in a long time and are just looking for a few cents to keep them going. They make their way through the train and usually gather up a few bucks. But not one seems genuinely hungry.

Then the other day we ran into a fellow who didn’t launch into a well prepared speech or strut ostentatiously through the middle aisle, but was sort of doubled over, mumbling toward the floor that he was really hungry and needed something to eat. We handed him a banana and were stunned to see him grab it and literally smash it into his mouth, quickly gulping it down his throat. This man wasn’t posing but was truly hungry! Frozen in my thoughts and with my own eyes averted to the floor from embarrassment, I wondered again about the laws discouraging the giving of money on the street. Better it should go to a homeless shelter or an organized charity designed to do some good rather than directly to someone who only appears to be needy and may end up using it for drugs or alcohol. Was this person the exception and should he be given a handout after all? But when I looked up he had moved on to the next coach in search of anything he could find, maybe a real payoff that would allow him to stop thinking about food just for a short while.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Chrysler Building

I love the Chrysler Building, I really do. It is one of the most irresistible buildings I know. I suppose the Empire State Building is better known and I think the Woolworth Building is terrific, too, though I’m quite upset that they won’t even let you peak through the windows. It’s true. You not only can’t go into the lobby of the Woolworth, you can’t even stand within ten feet of the front door! Terrible shame. Ah, but the Chrysler, they love it when you walk into the lobby and look around. They’re proud of it, want to show it off. That’s how it should be with the Woolworth, too, you know. Boy, I’ll bet if the Woolworth family had anything to say about it, they’d want people to come in and take a really good look at their “Cathedral to Commerce.” But, of course, the Woolworth building is now controlled by some conglomerate that doesn’t care about art or architecture or cathedrals, just commerce.

Okay, back to the Chrysler. It’s lovable because, like the Empire State, it seems ubiquitous, but, at the same time so much more distinctive. You’ll be walking down the street, literally miles from Midtown and there it will be looming ahead, all shiny and rounded and jagged. Tallest building in the world for 11 months, before the Empire State was finished. What a time in New York, huh? That 1929-31 era. All these buildings going up that were around 1000 feet high. There’s one down in the Financial district at 40 Wall Street that was built in 1930 and was the tallest building in the world for about an hour, because the Chrysler was finished at almost the same time and they had secretly hidden the fact that a tall spire would be added to make IT the highest yet. And then 11 months later the Empire State, and then…well, you know, the depression hit and they didn’t start constructing tall buildings again until the late 60s with the John Hancock in Chicago. We Chicagoans have fond memories of the time when the tallest building in the Second City was the 42 storey Prudential. How long will it be, I wonder, before we have to wait for the next round of towering urban structures?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Heckler at Leonard Bernstein Event - ME!

A while back I attended what would prove to be, on the whole, a moving appreciation of Leonard Bernstein’s life and work. The 90th anniversary of his birth recently passed and New York had pulled out all the stops in recalling his many contributions to the life of the city, especially as conductor of the Philharmonic, but, of course, also as composer and educator. There were events at Carnegie Hall, the Paley Center, Lincoln Center, and many other places celebrating him as person and artist. One small part of this celebration included a panel presentation of people who knew him personally, all of whom gathered at Lincoln Center before a large audience. Each member of the panel recounted experiences with Bernstein offering lively anecdotes and warm remembrances. The sole exception was the final speaker, whose name I cannot recall, who spoke for 20 minutes without once mentioning the person being honored; he talked only of himself. As the audience became increasingly restless, I could feel an unwelcome but irresistible impulse rising up inside me. Another three minutes went by without even a casual mention of LB, and so inevitably from my fourth row center seat I called out in a clear and resonant voice: “Don’t forget Mr. Bernstein!” Our self-centered speaker stopped in mid-sentence and said something like “Oh, I was just getting to him. Shall I continue or…” From the back came, “Stop now!” Then another voice, “We’ve heard enough.” The flustered moderator insisted that the speaker be allowed to finish, but somehow the poor fellow had lost his way and could only think of more things to say about himself, still volunteering nothing about Bernstein. I then went too far and announced, “I think you’d do us all a favor by concluding your remarks immediately.” A kind of spectator revolt resulted with some audience members declaring “enough,” and still others shouting “let him finish.” It all became rather embarrassing and our poor, egocentric panel member was never able to bring his remarks to a proper conclusion.

At the intermission, that would precede a beautiful and uneventful set of remembrances from Bernstein’s children, a woman came up to me and thanked me profusely for putting that “windbag” in his place. I was feeling very proud of myself when I turned around and was accosted by an irate audience member who told me I had no right to speak for the audience, particularly with my second remark. I began to defend myself, but I had to admit even as I feigned righteous indignation, that, of course, it had been ridiculous for me to say aloud that this guy would be doing everyone a favor by clamming up. How did I know that?

What a wild afternoon! In a way, it was fun and certainly unique, but I couldn’t stop think about how uncivil I had been as well. What would Lenny have thought? Even though he was a man of strong and sometimes radical opinions, I think he would have been disappointed in me. All the testimony we heard that day reinforced the idea that he loved just about everybody, even the windbags. Maybe I’ll learn yet how to conduct myself properly in a public setting, but there are people who just rub you the wrong way. For instance, there was the time William Kristol, the arch conservative, spoke a few weeks before the Presidential election at the 92nd Street Y and I was in the second row…But I’ll reserve that story for another blog.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Not Seeing Shakespeare in the Park

Another summer of Shakespeare in Central Park has come and gone unseen by me. Alas, the only way to get in is to begin standing in line as early as 6 a.m. for same day tickets that are not distributed until 1 p.m. I am a bit intimidated by this procedure. I have fantasized about lugging my folding chair and book bag onto the subway, heading up to Central Park at about 8 a.m. (okay, so I'll never be first in line), and then sitting and reading patiently in the shade (with luck!) until the box office is open and I can snare my highly coveted entrance to another star-studded interpretation of the Bard. But I have never actually followed through. This year they did Twelfth Night with Anne Hathaway (Rachel's Getting Married, among many other films) as Viola/Casario, Audra McDonald (the great singer and actress) as Olivia, and Raul Esparza as Orsino (who was so good in Company, the Homecoming and most recently Speed the Plow). It received quite strong reviews overall.

Actually, today is the last day it will be shown, but who can afford to spend most of Sunday standing in line? Last night, we happened to be in Central Park, walking by the Delacorte Theatre, where the plays are done, just before the production began. There was a rush line of people, the first few of whom actually got tickets, and a lot of excitement in the air as things were readied to get the play underway. We wondered - could we situate ourselves close enough to the outdoor theatre to hear or even see the play? We scurried up a bluff above the stage where a handful of others were gathered, but it turned out we could neither see nor hear the piece. We ran back down to a railing about 50 yards away and could actually hear some words being spoken. But as we stood there straining to absorb the poetry, much of which was gobbled up by the light winds and incidental noise all around the park, it dawned on us that this just wouldn't do. We left, not unhappily, for after all we were strolling through one of the most beautiful parks in the world, but still lacking one of those iconic experiences of being a New Yorker.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Wright Stuff

Today began with a trip to the Guggenheim museum - a members only early opening - so the atmosphere inside was calm and unhurried. The current exhibit is all about Frank Lloyd Wright, culminating in his designs for the Guggenheim itself. To review his many plans for public buildings of all kinds, which is the emphasis of this exhibition, is to revisit how staggeringly visionary his architecture was. He was so far ahead of his time, so unlike his colleagues, that many regarded him as a dangerous radical who must be marginalized. Apparently, he was banned from exhibiting at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933, owing to this reputation for going too far, and was often prevented from following through on projects, as so many conventional designers doubted his plans could be realized. In fact, because so much of his most inventive work never materialized, the word that best sums up the Guggenheim show is "unbuilt," displayed again and again in parentheses alongside his designs. This includes, by the way, his plans for a mile-high skyscraper, a building that would have had something like 550 storeys! Not sure if it's good or bad that it went unbuilt, but it does boggle the mind just to think about the daring of a man who would seriously propose such a thing. Let me add with oceans of self-importance that without Wright the house of the cartoon characters The Jetsons is simply unimaginable.

And, fortunately, we do have the Guggenheim, this glorious structure completely restored, looking as fresh and unscathed as it did back in 1959, when it was first opened. As many people visit the Guggenheim, I assume, to see what Wright so ingeniously designed as they do to view the art that is shown there. And now, especially as a result of this restoration, they do not go away disappointed. Every curve in the walls, every extension of the overhangs, every turn in the seating areas on the ground level, even every light fixture seems to be carefully thought out to create this integrated, incredibly welcoming space. Interestingly, the Guggenheim has become a popular nightspot for young people (and an occasional oldster) on Friday evenings. Part of the appeal, of course, is the cash bar and the live music, but there is something about that enormous, perfectly proportioned atrium that draws people in and, well, makes them feel good. In any case, it is a great building and it is wonderful to know that it will be around for a very long time to come.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Car Ownership in the City

I am always surprised when someone living and working in Manhattan or Brooklyn also possesses a car. To me, one of the chief reasons to live in these places is to enjoy the privilege afforded by good public transportation of getting around the city without the burdens of car ownership. It is, after all, incredibly inefficient to deal with a car in New York. It’s much too expensive to keep your car in a garage and far too onerous to park it on the street. But don’t take my word for it. Here is the official word from New York’s Department of Transportation (DOT): "Parking in New York City is difficult. Finding a legal space on the street can be time-consuming and parking in a garage is often very expensive, especially in Manhattan. How do you resolve the parking problem? Take public transportation whenever possible, but if you must drive, make sure you allow plenty of time to find a parking space or be prepared to pay a garage as much as $20 per hour in Midtown." People with cars who rely on street parking have to build their entire week around alternate side of the street parking regulations, and on some occasions have been known to keep hourly vigils that allow them to get the jump on their neighbors competing for prime parking locations. But even if parking weren’t such a nightmare, the challenge of getting from here to there in a car would still remain. Most times of the day you can’t get anywhere without becoming hopelessly entangled in traffic jams, and there really doesn’t seem to be any hour, night or day, that is predictably sane. The chance of running into a construction zone or being slowed by an accident is quite high. And don’t get me started about those famous New York City parades and special events!

Last May I had to drive a rental truck from Manhattan’s Financial District to the Chelsea area within an hour in order to avoid paying a penalty. Even by New York standards this is ordinarily quite easy to do. But as I drove along the various routes toward uptown, I was turned away by police officers again and again. Finally, I asked someone what was going on and was told the City was preparing for the Pope’s official visit to Ground Zero! (something that wouldn’t be occurring, by the way, for about 5 hours). I finally convinced one kindly officer to allow me to make my innocent way through the police barrier, but it was touch and go for about 45 minutes and I just barely made my deadline.

So why drive in New York City? First of all, I work on Staten Island, a place shockingly bereft of good public transportation, so I am sympathetic toward those who must travel to places like Staten Island or New Jersey for work. In most cases, a car is a necessity if you live in the City but work elsewhere. But for those who live and work in, say, Manhattan, I am less understanding. Oh, sure, it’s nice to drive to Connecticut on a whim, and I’m certain it would be difficult to access your favorite golf course without an automobile. But aren’t these a few of the concessions we make to live in such a great but congested place? According to at least one estimate, 12% of the cars entering Midtown everyday are registered in Manhattan. That seems crazy to me and doesn’t appear to serve anyone’s interests. In the end, I suppose, the American attachment to the automobile is just too strong, even if it means ridiculous parking fees, constant worries about finding a place to leave your car, and traffic that usually moves at an infuriating crawl.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Riding the Staten Island Ferry (1)

This will surely be the first of many blogs about the Staten Island Ferry as I ride it just about every weekday. It was early when I got on the ferry today, about 7:30 a.m. The weather was perfect, low sixties, light breeze, plenty of sun. I have now taken the ferry about 200 times, but I always get a slight thrill as I board. Most of the time the ride is the same, smooth, quiet, with the pleasant fragrance of the sea in the air. And since I travel the opposite way of all the traffic there is always plenty of room. I rarely sit anywhere near anyone else. I take my place in the middle section of the middle level, put my bag on the seat beside me and then remove my reading material for the day. I have been finishing the New York Times early, so I pull out a magazine like the New Yorker to catch up on or I study a poem I've been meaning to learn. Most of my time of late has been consumed memorizing poems. So far I have learned eight by heart, but my pace has greatly slowed. For a while I was learning one every few days. For those who wonder about such things. The poems are: The Second Coming, To Autumn, Ozymandias, Those Winter Sundays, Frederick Douglass, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Lake Isle at Innisfree, and Musee des Beaux Arts. The ferry is a great place to learn poems. You can stay seated and practice speaking them aloud without anyone even noticing. Or if you need to, as I sometimes do, you can get up and circle the deck while reciting the words of some of the greatest wordsmiths of all time. Not a bad way to be.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dr. Zizmor and the "compensated spokesperson"

One of the unique pleasures of riding the subway is reading the advertisements that line the upper reaches of most of the cars. There are countless ads promoting New York’s many institutions of higher education, frequent appeals to visit some nearby pleasure spot, and sometimes entire coaches devoted to hawking a single product such as sugarless gum or the virtues of shopping at Target.

My favorites, though, without question, are the lawyer and doctor ads. One physician in particular, a dermatologist named Jonathan Zizmor, is a fixture on the subway walls. Aging, but naturally possessing excellent skin, Dr. Zizmor’s benign, almost beatific smile graces most of these promotions, accompanied by the reminder that if you should be so wise as to select Dr. Zizmor as your “complexion analyst,” you will depart his office smiling broadly, free of blackheads, and proclaiming in a loud, colorful, and almost musical voice – “THANK YOU, DR. ZIZMOR, FOR MAKING MY SKIN BEAUTIFUL AND CLEAR.”

Best of all is the law firm that pledges to represent you against any eventuality: reckless drivers, immigration officials, bankruptcy, flood, surgery gone wrong, a vengeful spouse. Plastered across all of these billboards is a rather ordinary but vaguely familiar looking man who has a concerned, mildly wary look on his face. Beside his picture is the name John Roland, and underneath his name are the words, “compensated spokesperson.” Compensated spokesperson? For what? Looking wary? And since when does he speak? Of course, it turns out that John Roland is a former news anchor who has done numerous TV ads in which he does actually talk. But for those unaware of his television fame it is wryly amusing to see him listed as a compensated spokesperson for a print ad that gratefully cannot speak.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

2929 Broadway

I made a pilgrimage to 2929 Broadway yesterday. I stood on the sidewalk just staring at this nondescript five-storey building that currently houses a Starbuck’s and a hair stylist and sits across the boulevard from Columbia University’s Roone Arledge Auditorium. Back in the 1940’s, however, it was the site for the American headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the leading pacifist organization of the time that did more than any other group to transform the struggle for civil rights into a nonviolent protest movement. Led by A.J. Muste and such prime movers of nonviolent resistance as Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Glenn Smiley, and James Lawson, the FOR not only taught civil rights leaders like King and Abernathy how to employ nonviolence as a strategy, but also how to embrace nonviolence as a way of life. There was nothing passive or retiring about the FOR’s approach; its leaders favored bold, direct, immediate action to secure every person’s full rights. At heart, though, their quest for change was fueled by an overflowing love of humanity, a lesson Dr. King learned so surpassingly that he practiced it without let-up until his own untimely and violent death. A.J. Muste, FOR’s Executive Secretary from 1940-1953, exemplified this notion that nonviolence must become a lifelong practice. Committed, hard working, horrified by injustice, Muste was also humble, plain-spoken and generous. Respectful of everyone, even those whose behavior he despised, he always listened first before expressing his own opinion and invariably did so in a cogent but completely non-threatening manner. He despised all forms of prejudice and oppression, spoke out often against imperialism and international aggression, but assumed that relentless nonviolent action was the only worthy response.

Slowly sipping my grande red eye coffee, I headed south on Broadway, pondering the idealism of people like King and Muste and the others who led the FOR. Some would say their nonviolent efforts were largely in vain as our society is probably even more violent and only a little less unjust than the one the FOR faced in the 1940’s. Still, their commitment to humane change is inspiring, as is their certainty that while violence may seem to do some good in the short run, it invariably leads to more bloodshed over the long haul. Surely, our most recent experiences as a country have vindicated the FOR leaders and demonstrated to us that nonviolence, with only the rarest of exceptions, must prevail, both to stem unnecessary suffering and to begin to make good on the claim that we are a decent society.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Subway

For me riding the subway is an intense experience. Somehow all my senses are heightened when I'm traveling underground. For one thing I can't get over the fact that all this is possible - being able to move about the city without concern for traffic or weather and pretty much knowing (unlike taxis) that you will get to your destination on time (weekends are admittedly an exception to this). There is something absolutely irresistible about riding the subway for ten minutes and then reemerging on the street in a completely different neighborhood, as if waking from a dream.

But then there is also the prodigiousness of the subway itself - the years it took to build, the huge sums of money that were poured into it, the millions of work-hours - most of them enormously trying - that dedicated laborers contributed to these projects. Okay, so maybe the Brooklyn Bridge was even more miraculous, but the subway is a close second. If it weren't for the fact that a whole new subway line is being built along Second Avenue right now, I would say that such a project is unattainable today (and may yet turn out to be given the fact that it was begun prior to the Great Recession).

As anyone who has take the subway knows, it amounts to an incredibly complex subterranean labyrinth that in many ways reproduces the city above. Of course, the subway city is, for the most part, dirtier, darker and a lot less interesting than the one above, but still at least as impressive and diverting as, say, Columbus, Ohio.

And the people down there! They aren't just a microcosm of New York. They are New York! Dressed in everything from well pressed business suits to literal rags, they can be seen carrying shoeboxes, groceries, dry cleaning, bedding, fold-up scooters, and even an occasional lawnmower. And their reading choices range from every imaginable foreign language newspaper to the latest comic book to the complete works of Marcel Proust. Their variety is breathtaking and their ability to travel together everyday without incident in cars that are packed so tightly people must stand indecently close to each other is, for me, nothing short of amazing.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

An American in New York

Today is the day after Independence Day, a warm and sunny Sunday in New York City. Whenever the weather is good, it seems that New Yorkers can't get enough of the outdoors. But because there has been so much rain here, it seemed that people were almost desperate to bask in the sunshine. Central Park was teeming with people, standing, walking, strolling, skating, running, biking, dancing, skipping, sitting or just staring. And it's no wonder, as Central Park is, as so many others have noted, a kind of miracle, a beautiful and satisfying oasis of nature in the middle of a great city. It never fails to impress and even inspire awe. Like the city itself, it is inexhaustible in its variety, in its ability to reveal something new even to the most steadfast denizen.

I absorbed this scene while crossing the Park en route to the Film Society of Lincoln Center to view a special showing of the film "An American in Paris." Originally released in 1951, it won that year's Academy Award for Best Film. Many of the musical numbers are still wonderful and all of Gene Kelly's dances are marvelous, but it suffers from an unconvincing love story between Kelly and Leslie Caron and the decision to film the story almost entirely on Hollywood soundstages instead of actual Paris locations. A film that is supposed to celebrate life in bohemian Paris just doesn't work very well without the real Paris as a backdrop. Ironically, when Kelly made "On the Town" (only two years earlier), which takes place in New York City, he had to fight MGM just to let him film the opening scenes in actual New York locations. Of course, as it turns out, those scenes, which are part of the opening "New York, New York" number, are the best ones in the movie. In fact, for those of us who love New York, it is thrilling to see these scenes, however fleetingly, circa 1951 all included in that opening sequence accompanied by that incomparable Leonard Bernstein music: Brooklyn Bridge, Wall Street, China Town, the Statue of Liberty, Washington Square, Grant's Tomb, Central Park, Fifth Avenue, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center. Incredibly, any film trying to catch the spirit of New York today would almost certainly include footage of most, if not all, of these same places.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Introducing The Third New York

"There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. […] Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion." -E.B. White

I have been living in New York City for a little over a year now and this is my first entry for a blog dedicated to appreciating New York, as E.B. White suggests, with a settler's passion. I landed here in May of 2008 and although I have lived in many interesting places, nothing quite prepared me for New York's rich diversity, its amazing aesthetic variety, its utter craziness. I love everything about it. No matter how packed the subways are, I can't get enough of the people I see there. As I walk through the city, I am startled constantly by its unexpected architectural marvels. Just today, looking south on William Street from Nassau, I was moved by the gentle curve of the buildings that turned in sync with this old, meandering byway. It is the first place I have ever lived where boredom seems to have no place; there is just too much to do. Even when there is no good theatre to take in, no old movie to view, no museum exhibit to catch up with, no lecture to attend, there is always the City itself to explore, with all its delicious surprises. It is a great city, but also a metaphor for life's endless possibilities. This blog is an exploration of a tiny portion of those possibilities, always written from an upbeat, appreciative slant. I love New York and I want to show how I love it everyday.