Friday, April 30, 2010

Streep and Tucci

We went to see "The Aliens" on Wednesday night, a critically praised play now showing at the West Village's very modest Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. "The Aliens" is a new play by Annie Baker, who also wrote "Circle Mirror Transformation." I loved Circle Mirror, so was excited to get a glimpse of Aliens. The new play is about two slackers living somewhere in Vermont who hang out all day behind a local coffeehouse, whiling away the day silently musing and occasionally voicing superficially wise observations. They think of themselves as geniuses. One is writing the great American novel, the other is a mathematician with a philosophical bent. Baker has called it a "white dude" play, because, you know, it's about a couple of white dudes who say "man" all the time and speak in mellow, subdued tones to each other. The only other character is a geeky teenager who works at the coffeehouse, is befriended by the two dudes, and transformed by their generosity.

As we soon learn, they are all pretty troubled "white dudes" in ways that aren't immediately obvious, but that have the effect of uniting them with each other, and, to a certain extent, with us - the audience. And, of course, this is the secret to Baker's work. She writes about people who seem different, marginalized, alien, but she also has a way of tapping into those things that we all have in common - in particular, that unyielding search for meaning, love, and, perhaps most of all, belonging.

It was good play, but also a bit disappointing. A few too many long pauses, a little too much reality, I guess you could say. If art is life with the boring parts taken out, this could have been a little more artful, with a few more boring parts deleted.

The most exciting part of the evening was sitting at the Rattlestick, up in the tenth row or so, and while waiting for the play to start, spotting the greatest actress in the world stroll down the aisle to take her seat accompanied by none other than Stanley Tucci, a pretty good actor and director in his own right. Mind you, this is a tiny theater, maybe 100 seats, so to have Meryl Streep there changed the whole feel of the place, and, I have to admit, during a lot of the play I was wondering what Streep and Tucci thought, straining to hear their characteristic laughs and wondering which parts made them cross their arms across their chests and which parts made them smile with glee or frown in serious thought. Tucci looked EXACTLY as you would expect him to, as did Streep, but that long blonde hair of hers does sort of stun you. She's 60, after all, but still glamorous and winning and young. It was fun to spend time with them, even if it was from afar.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Brooklyn Lager

Hey, one of the best beers in the world is made right here in New York City, in that most iconic of boroughs - Brooklyn - Williamsburg, no less. The beer is Brooklyn Lager and to my amazement it has been produced in Brooklyn for well over 20 years. Making the most of the Vienna style of beer making, Brooklyn Lager is "amber-gold in color, and displays a firm malt center supported by a fine bitterness and floral hop aroma." That bitterness combined with an attractive and surprising but not cloying sweetness really does make for the perfect beer to complement almost any meal. Although the company says it goes best with BBQ, burgers, and steak, we love it with cheese, pizza, Mexican food, or jalapeno hummus. Its cold, lip-smacking freshness has a way of cutting any really spicy food and making you enjoy both the food and the beer all the more. And what do you think of this? Brooklyn Lager is brewed in an old matzo ball factory. How many beer companies can lay claim to such a wonderful and intriguing fact? I can't think of any, so whenever I want to reach for a cold, tall one, I reach for a Brooklyn Lager. It's the matzo ball of beers!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Icarus at the edge of time

Another impressive event took place at the Guggenheim's Works and Process Series last Sunday night. It featured the physicist Brian Greene, the playwright David Hwang, best known for M. Butterfly, Al and Al, two conceptual artists from England, and our moderator, none other than Alan Alda, lover of all things scientific. Why was this august group gathered at the Guggenheim? To promote a new film that is the brainchild of Professor Greene, based on his earlier children's book called "Icarus to the edge of time." I'm not sure what to make of the story and film that this group has put together. It seems like a fairly conventional science fiction story about a boy who, while traveling on a mission with his father and other family members to a distant star, escapes the mother ship in a small spacecraft to explore a nearby black hole and is sucked towards this hole at the speed of light. Because, as Einstein proved, time slows drastically as we approach light speed, the boy reemerges from the black hole eager to share with his father what he has experienced, only to learn that 10,000 years have elapsed and everything he ever knew about his family and their world has long since vanished.

What I loved about this evening, much more than the film, was a brief display of Brian Greene's ability to teach with clarity, enthusiasm and humor. He really showed himself to be a master teacher, as he strained to explain to us the transformative consequences of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity of 1916. And when you add in Alan Alda's exuberance and out and out funniness, you can't help but be entertained. Further take into account the wine and cookies that were served afterward, and you have a very memorable evening, indeed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Paintings to Save?

We were at the MET the other day and just happened to be strolling by Brueghel's "The Harvesters," a monumental picture that seems to capture in one breathtaking view the entire sweep of the late medieval economy, and it suddenly hit me that perhaps some works at the MET are so valuable that there is a contingency plan for saving these priceless works during a fire, a flood, or some other emergency. I became so fascinated with this idea that I couldn't resist approaching one of the guards at the MET to learn if there is such a plan. He had a fairly thick Italian accent and had been an employee at the MET for three years. When Karen and I asked him about this, he joked that he couldn't possibly tell us which paintings were the most valuable, because then we would know which paintings to abscond with if such an emergency should occur. I wondered about the Brueghel, but he rightly answered that the canvas is far too large to pull down from the wall and walk away with. He then volunteered his own candidate - "the Duccio" he said. "I would seize the Duccio." He was referring to Duccio Buoninsegna's "Mother and Child" from about 1300 AD, which also hangs in the MET and is reportedly worth well over 50 million dollars. It is also worth noting that the guard's previous boss, Philippe de Montebello, former Director of the MET, has referred to this painting as "one of the great single acquisitions of the last half century."

Consider your own favorite museum. Of all the works displayed there, which one would you want to make sure was saved from flames, water, or earthquake?

Monday, April 26, 2010


There is a new exhibit at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art that brings together into just a few rooms all of the works by Picasso that the Museum holds. It is a powerful reminder of the many faces of Picasso. There are a few things from as early as 1900 (when Picasso would have been about 18 or 19), then a few samplings of the work from the so-called Blue Period circa 1901-1904, when Picasso really begins to hit his stride as an artist. There are also a handful of pictures from the Rose Period around 1904-06, and then many more works from his fairly lengthy Cubist period - both analytic and synthetic - which continues until the end of World War I. It also includes work that shows him returning to a highly representative approach that has been called his Neo-classical period, and then on to a complex mix of neo-cubist work that incorporates some very appealing still lifes with a variety of other abstract compositions. As the MET is quick to point out, though, these works hardly capture the range of Picasso's genius. They are merely the pictures that are in the MET's possession, and since the MET got started quite late collecting Picasso and receiving donations (the source of most of the art), there are many gaps in the show.

So let's just talk about a few of the early works for now. As indicated above, there are a few from the Blue Period here, all of which are impressive works. These pictures are, on the whole, sad, lugubrious works, yet wholly unique, perhaps best represented by "The Blind Man's Meal." As Picasso himself said, with striking simplicity, regarding this painting entirely covered in an icy shade of blue: "I am painting a blind man at the table. He holds some bread in his left hand and gropes with his right hand for a jug of wine." It is that direct and by virtue of its directness, that much more powerful.

The paintings from the much lighter and more optimistic "Rose Period" are also nicely represented. One rather clever one from this time shows Picasso himself in the foreground at the Lapin Agile, a well known gathering place for drink, conversation, and sexual rendezvous. Picasso is dressed as a harlequin, as he often portrayed himself, and can be seen standing at the bar with his lover at the time, and with the proprietor of the bar in the background.

Best of all of these early works is his portrait of Gertrude Stein from 1906. As one commentator has said, Stein's body, which is in a seated position in this work, harks back to the Rose period, but the head, painted later, with its jutting angles and lopsided contours, looks ahead to cubism. Interestingly, Stein owned the work for many years and was a major booster of it, often saying it was a painting composed by a genius portraying a genius. After World War II, she wanted it to go to a museum that was worthy of this work's greatness and so chose the MET at a time when they had no modern art department at all and no Picassos. Stein's bequest would begin a Picasso collection that while continuing to fall far short of what MoMA has accumulated, remains one of the best collections of Picassos in the United States.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Central Park at Night

Karen and I have gotten into a pleasant habit this spring of strolling through Central Park after dark. At night, the Park has a beauty all its own. The twists and turns of its many pathways can be seen up ahead, illuminated by the streetlamps that dot the Park, but with various sections shrouded in darkness as well. There is something both serene and mysterious about the Park at this time. It is hardly deserted, yet much less crowded than during the day, and there is a hush in the Park, though not completely free of that ever-present urban hum, that both caresses and calms its nocturnal denizens.

The most spectacular thing about the Park at night are the views of the City seen from its picturesque bridges or reflected in the Park's many placid, silvery ponds. To view the urban towers that encircle the Park from its dark and hushed confines offers a perspective on the City that excites the imagination. The darkening sky, too, with its strange violet hues draws your eyes upward, as does the moon, with its saffron coloring and pock-marked surface, casting a dim light that somehow dominates the whole experience.

Ambling through the Park on a cool spring evening feels at times like walking through a story book. It is all too perfect to be real, all too well planned and aesthetically pleasing to be part of everyday life, but there it is almost every night available to anyone. It is free and easily accessible, and although a few parts are closed off after dark, most of this vast urban playground is there for the asking. It is one of the great joys of New York City. Ineffable. Incomparable. Inexhaustible.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Staten Island 350

In 2011 Staten Island will celebrate the 350th anniversary of its founding. It will be a year devoted to historical investigation and cultural appreciation, to community boosting and neighborhood boasting, to visiting dozens of Staten Island's historical sites, and scaling new heights of understanding about New York's Fifth Borough.

Already there is a website devoted to this celebration that is chock full of activities, games, lessons, maps, and many other exciting features. At the heart of this celebration is the designation of Staten Island's top 350 historical sites divided into a dozen themes that correspond to 12 specially marked history trails that are still under development. These trails will include information about the military, education, transportation, business, food, entertainment, sports, architecture, and other such topics. Teachers will be encouraged to make these sites and trails the subject of many of their lessons and ordinary citizens will have opportunities to explore the Island through these trails in exciting new ways.

Next year is going to be an amazing one for Staten Island because of a terrific group of people who have come together to transform this anniversary into something more than a simple celebration. Thanks to their careful planning and impressive expertise, 2011 will prove to be a year of close study and rich exploration, a time to rediscover Staten Island's surprising history and endless diversity. It should turn out to be a whole lot of fun as well.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Anticipating a New Play

Today reviews of two new shows appeared on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. One is the much talked about "Sondheim on Sondheim" for which we already have tickets and is now showing at the Studio 54 Theater on Broadway. The other is a simple and obscure play by Annie Baker called "The Aliens" which has opened at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the West Village. Although I am excited about the Sondheim because it's Sondheim and because its creative multi-media approach sounds diverting, with Sondheim himself appearing periodically on video screens, it is "The Aliens" that has especially captured my attention.

This is attributable, in fact, to Annie Baker's reputation for masterfully using ordinary, everyday speech to tell a story. Annie Baker is also the author of "Circle Mirror Transformation," another "small" play that appeared not long ago which totally captivated us. Annie Baker's genius is in her ability to transfer colloquial speech, with all its halting pauses, hesitations, and silences, to the stage and then using this ongoing struggle to communicate with one another to tell a moving and even transforming tale. This is the promise of "The Aliens," which we are scheduled to see next Wednesday, so the jury is still out. Still, we have good reason to have high hopes for "The Aliens." Here is how the usually reliable Charles Isherwood opens his review: "Watching 'The Aliens,' a gentle and extraordinarily beautiful new play by Annie Baker that opened Thursday night at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is a bit like standing in front of an unshowy work by a less-heralded old master. You wouldn't absorb much from a Chardin painting, say, if you sped past it during an hourlong drive-by of art's greatest hits at the Louvre of the Met. Its magic is too subtle for that. But the longer you look, the more you see and the more you feel."

As with "Circle Mirror Transformation," we look forward to being transformed, in the ways that only live theater can accomplish, to another time and place that may look eerily familiar but that in the hands of a master playwright helps us see ourselves and each other in a wholly new light.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"The Unheralded Seventh"

The New York Times reports that the great but unsung civil rights and women's rights leader Dorothy Height died on Tuesday at the age of 98. According to the Times, historians have referred often to the "Big Six" of the Civil Rights Movement, all male. They were: Dr. King, John Lewis, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Whitney Young. Dorothy Height, in many people's eyes, was the Movement's "unheralded Seventh," because she worked so closely with all of these leaders on projects of national importance but rarely received anything like the credit they enjoyed. Like so many women in the Civil Rights Movement, she was encouraged to stay behind the scenes while charismatic and domineering males got all the accolades, but those who knew her, both male and female, understood her influence. Interestingly, she was also an ardent feminist who took an early lead role in that movement as well, but was often marginalized, not for her sex but for her race. Yet, as the Times reports, her lasting contribution to both movements was her drive to approach them as one united, integrated campaign for human freedom.

She claimed not to mind the lack of attention she received. She gladly ceded the limelight to her black colleagues and to her white sisters, not because they were more deserving or more eloquent or more persuasive, but because her goal was to struggle collectively for some future common good. If she could help people to get there by working tirelessly in the background, she would do so. She was freedom bound and she favored supporting any leader or any strategy that would expedite that all-important journey.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

No Strike!

An impending strike by the union that represents the 30,000 doormen, porters, janitors, and building superintendents in New York City has been averted. On average, these union members will make about $40,000 a year plus benefits. All in all, seems pretty fair to me. Just as important, this agreement means I am now free to receive and return communications of all kinds. In fact, I am going to have time on my hands. I had anticipated being very busy with garbage disposal and taking my turn at the front desk. In fact, I had secretly looked forward to this opportunity to be a New York City doorman, if only for a day or two. Perhaps I should make a request to apprentice to one of the nice doormen in our building. I could learn all about being a doorman and then if my own day job fell through, I could always take my place proudly and competently at the front desk. And if this should occur, you can be sure I would be an especially caring doorman, going the extra mile to help the elderly with their packages, and making sure to smile broadly and genuinely at every one who passes me by.

Of course, occasionally you run into these residents who are negative and grouchy no matter what you do. You smile at them, wish them a good morning or a good afternoon, and they scowl back, and tell you why it's another lousy day. They demand better service from you and insist that you are favoring some residents over them. They're the ones who want to know why you didn't tell them more promptly that they have packages waiting for them or dry cleaning to pick up. They're also the ones who criticize you for not keeping the lobby tidier or for failing to greet them with an umbrella as they get out of a taxi in a nasty New York City rain storm. They also can't got over how high the management fees have gotten and remind you that you are overpaid and underworked. They threaten to report you to the co-op board for failing to do your job well and they also can't resist hassling you about your chronically crooked tie. There is no end to their carping, their criticisms, their personal attacks. Ah, the job of a doorman. I'm going to do all I can to hold onto my day job.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Life

Here it is, my life in New York City, in no particular order of importance:

The Street
The Subway
The Theater
The College
The Concert Hall
The Movie House
The Book Store
The Park
The Ferry
The Museum
The Apartment

Monday, April 19, 2010


Red is a color that stands for passion, romance, and rage, for danger, sin, as in satan, and is, at least in some sense, the color of life. Is it also, in some sense, too, the color of death? These associations and quite a few others figure prominently in the new Broadway play simply called "Red," which captures something of the fierceness and intensity of the late abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko.

In fact, this is one of the most focused and one-note plays I have ever seen. But I mean that in a good sense. It is a journey inside the mind of an artist who is obsessed with his art, to the exclusion of just about everything else. Indeed, we are alerted to this fact near the end of the play when Rothko's young assistant Ken reminds his boss that Rothko has never bothered to learn anything about Ken, nothing about his family, his likes and dislikes, even what he himself is trying to paint when he isn't assisting Rothko. But Rothko simply doesn't care about Ken as a person. All Rothko demands is that Ken help him to get his own work done, to realize his artistic vision on canvas. Which really helps to make this an exhilarating show. It's just about the art and the thinking that makes the art possible. Rothko at one point in the play says that painting is only 10% of being an artist. The rest is thinking. And, of course, since this is a play, a lot of this thinking happens out loud in the exchanges between the two men. But it's thinking that is at turns riveting, outrageous, and even absurd that has the effect of provoking the spectator to think, too. Which seems good and certainly makes for an enjoyable and memorable show.

The story takes place in the late 1950s when Rothko is working on a record-setting commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. He is to receive $35,000 for nine panels and begins the project eager to do something unprecedented and to make a lot of money at the same time. The work goes well but his fear that he may end up pandering to popular taste causes him to withdraw the panels and to return the money. They are eventually contributed to the Tate Gallery in London. The important part of this context, though, is how uncompromising Rothko is about his art. Money means relatively little. How the art will be viewed and whether it will be regarded seriously as art matters most.

Finally, let me just say that the two actors who play Rothko and Ken are Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Both are stupendous. And it is they, even more than the very good play by John Logan, that makes you want to see it again.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

That Urban Hum

Have you noticed how hard it is to escape that urban hum? I, for one, don't mind it, but those looking for a kind of perfect, unsullied stillness, will find it difficult to achieve peace and harmony in big cities. For that hum is always there. Occasionally, if you do locate a really quiet place, like, say, the middle of Central Park, you may think you have found it. But if you just take a moment to listen for the hum of traffic and construction noise and general hustle and bustle, you will recognize it, and it just might drive you crazy.

That's what happened to Larry. He had grown up in Iowa around some pretty good sized cities, like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, but he had never encountered anything like New York. In fact, he loved it at first, couldn't get enough of it really. But then his obsession with the urban hum got to him. After a while, all he thought about was finding a way to get away from that hum once and for all. But no matter where he went, that hum seemed to follow him. Oh, sure, occasionally, he could duck into a movie theater or a museum and escape the hum for a short while, but as soon as he stepped outside he would be confronted with that urban hum once again and that sense of never being able to escape it nearly drove him mad.

One day Larry tried to take the commuter train toward Pennsylvania where he thought he would finally be free of the hum. But just minutes before he boarded the train, a strike was called and all the trains were cancelled. He returned to Manhattan utterly obsessed with the hum. Desperate for relief, Larry submitted to a rare operation in which the equivalent of cotton was permanently placed in his ears so that he would no longer be able to hear most noise. The hum was still there, but Larry couldn't hear it any longer. He remains at peace living in Washington Heights and occasionally even visiting Midtown when he gets the itch for culture. He now enjoys the best of both worlds, living in one of the world's great cities but no longer haunted by that urban hum.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Street Walking

My main exercise right now is brisk walking, and I do my brisk walking charging up and down the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side, specifically, between Riverside Drive and Central Park West and 72nd and 90th Streets. This is a beautiful, historic, and quite diverse area, and although it tends to attract the upper middle classes today, there was a time when it was primarily the home of working class and lower middle class folks.

Like many neighborhoods, it is a part of the city that has gone through cycles. Originally, it did attract upper middle class residents who wanted to be in Manhattan, away from Midtown and the Financial District, but near Central Park and able to take advantage of the newly excavated subway system. This was roughly the period between the turn of the century and the Crash of 1929. Then it want through an economic downturn, like so many other parts of the City, became a very solid area for working class and middle class families after World War II and well into the 1950s, and then fairly quickly became seen as an area in need of renewal. Crime was up, drugs were rampant. I ran into a guy last summer whose parents bought a place at Central Park West in the early 1970s and heard that you were taking your life in your hands if you ventured just a bit West of Central Park.

Today, of course, the Upper West Side has become one of the more popular areas of the city, and it's really hard to imagine why it shouldn't stay this way. Its proximity to Central Park alone makes it prime real estate, but having Lincoln Center (constructed supposedly to eliminate urban blight) is also a huge plus, as are museums like Natural History and the New York Historical Society. The restaurants are definitely not the best in the city, and, as New York Magazine has recently reported, Street life on the Upper West Side is sometimes pretty scarce. This, by the way, is not my impression, but maybe compared to Park Slope in Brooklyn (their choice for #1 neighborhood) the West Side is too staid. But given all of its other virtues, including walking distance to the theater district (I mean aren't these the primary reasons why we stay in the city?), it can't help but remain a much loved and appreciated place. I, for one, am counting on this, because I hope to be walking these streets and enjoying them for many years to come.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Meeting a Tea Partier

I met a proud supporter of the Tea Party Movement the other day on his way from Long Island to Midtown. He was white, of course, about 65, and retired from his job as an insurance salesman. He told me how excited he was to be part of the political process for the first time in his life, and how much the policies of the Obama Administration worried him. He indicated that he is sure Obama is both a socialist and a Muslim and that Obama is not now and never has been an American citizen. I looked at him with wide eyes as he spoke, for it was hard to accept that he believed these things with such conviction. He saw my reaction and volunteered: "You probably think I'm an extremist when I say these things, but the people I run into are all convinced that Obama is an untrustworthy liar."

I asked about his major news source and he answered predictably that it was Fox News. But I also asked him what worried him most about Obama and the current direction of the administration. He mentioned that the deficit was out of control and that a situation had been created in which people have come to expect a bailout, even when they get into just a little economic trouble. "It's all out of control," he added. "And it needs to be swept clean!"

I said that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fueling the deficit as much as anything, but he just shook his head, exclaiming once again, "we need a clean sweep, a whole new way of governing that isn't beholden to the special interests but also doesn't bailout everybody and his uncle."

So, if you want a clean sweep, I asked him with perfect seriousness, do you want to sweep away Social Security and Medicare, too?

He smiled and said of course not. "I paid into these systems, my tax dollars supported them, I want the same privileges that everyone else enjoys."

Sure, I answered, but it is government, really big government, that keeps all this going. Do you think it should be funded privately or invested in the stock market to help keep it in the black?

"I don't know," he responded doubtfully, "after all that has happened to the economy, it could all go up in smoke and there wouldn't be anything left for anyone."

"Exactly," I countered, "which is why we look to government to maintain these things. Some essential things can't be funded privately and cost a whale of a lot of money, but it is in our public interest to be assured that they will be there when we need them."

"Well, I don't disagree with that," he ventured. "But I know that big government has been more of a problem than a solution."

"But," I added, "you have to admit that the group that is probably the most prosperous on average is the elderly because of these entitlement programs that have worked out pretty well for them."

"True, I'm glad to be a beneficiary of them. Medicare has helped our family out more than once in some pretty big ways." He paused and looked rather, well, thoughtful. "I know what you're saying, government isn't the whole problem, sometimes it really has been the solution. But that's the thing, if government is going to take on this much responsibility, we must make sure it is run well by responsible people."

"Okay. So Bush or Obama. Whom would you rather have running these important agencies?"

"Bush was awful, it's true. We almost lost the whole ballgame under him. But is Obama really any better? If he is, it's only by a small margin."

"But the economy is clearly getting better. There is real economic growth now. You can't give Bush any credit for that."

"No, no, you can't. You really can't..." His voice trailed off and his eyes became a bit dazed. "Excuse me, I have some thinking to do. I'm just not sure where I stand after all."

I watched him leave the train for his Midtown stop. He seemed distracted, unable to focus, as if he were going through some sort of identity crisis. Who could blame him, right? Change is hard and sometimes it's really difficult to figure out where you stand. I hope he figures it out, not just for his own sake, but for my sake and yours, too.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Celebrity sighting

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry on the Manhattan side early Wednesday morning, I was stopped by the man who raises and lowers the platform that people use to get on and off the ferry. In a thick New York accent, he politely stopped me in the middle of the platform as other passengers streamed by to inquire whether I had ever been on television or anything like that.

I began to shake my head from side to side as memories of my past TV appearances flashed through my mind. There was, of course, the six weeks as co-host of a local cable access program focusing on classic films. And who could forget the interview I did with Stephen Brookfield for PBS Adult Learning? Or the many times my mug showed up on Albuquerque's educational cable station as the result of a closed circuit class I taught on leadership ethics for the University of New Mexico. Finally, there was always the possibility he had caught me on YouTube, where my debut performance can now be seen, thanks to York College's decision to air a recent workshop I did for them on Discussion as a Way of Teaching.

I looked up at the ferry worker, again shaking my head, and for emphasis added, "you must be confusing me with someone else."

He answered doubtfully, "well, you sure look familiar, you really do look so very familiar."

I walked on and then heard him shout as a question, "American Idol?!" I turned in mid-stride, smiled and announced, walking backwards now, "No, definitely not American Idol." This caused me to run into the guy walking in front of me who looked me over and added, "Funny, you do look like someone famous."

Who knows? Maybe last night as these two guys settled down to dinner with their loved ones they mentioned spotting some kind of a celebrity on the Staten Island Ferry. And who am I, despite being both ordinary and inconsequential, to deny them?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


There may be a strike of the security and custodial staffs that serve our building - The Building Service Employees Union to be exact. I'm not sure we have ever been so directly affected by a potential strike before. Here are some of the things that will happen if the strike takes place.

1. All recycling must be stored in our apartment for the duration of the strike.
2. Emergency repairs only.
3. UPS and other deliveries will occur only if those delivering the packages are willing to cross the picket line.
4. Compactors and garbage areas will be closed. We'll be responsible for disposing of our own garbage.
5. Use of the laundry area must be kept to a minimum.
6. Security will be handled by volunteer residents. Monitoring of the front door will be handled by volunteers in 2-hour shifts.

The upshot is please don't send us anything in the next few weeks and don't expect to be able to get in touch with me. I'll be too busy lugging our clothes to the laundromat, searching for a place to dispose of our garbage, and dutifully taking my 2-hour shift at the front door.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Where the Plays Are

This weekend we saw three fascinating plays. On Saturday night, we took in "I never sang for my father" along so-called Theater Row, where a tremendous number of small but beautifully done plays are being consistently produced. I can't even begin to recall all the terrific things we have seen in this area, but among the recent ones that stand out are "Next Fall" and "Circle Mirror Transformation." We also saw a very remarkable production of T.S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" along Theater Row this weekend as well. Finally, we enjoyed "Collected Stories," a new play by Donald Margulies and starring Linda Lavin. This one actually qualifies as a Broadway show and used a particularly elaborate and interesting set, but still felt like one of the small plays that are springing up everywhere along Theater Row.

This short post, however, isn't about the particulars of the plays; it's about the richness of off-Broadway theater. Until you live in New York, you just don't realize how much terrific, life-changing theater is to be found in the most unlikely places. This is the miracle of New York theater; it's not primarily on Broadway, at least not any more. It is virtually everywhere. And even the smallest, least expensive production is likely to do something that stays with you for a very long time.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Supreme Court

The New York Times puts the following Orrin Hatch quote about the upcoming Supreme Court nomination in large, bold type in its Week in Review section on Sunday, referring to it as one of the quotes of the week: "There's going to be a whale of a fight if he appoints an activist to the court. That's not good for him, it's not good for the Senate, it's not good for the country." Why is that the quote of the week? And how is it that this upcoming nomination has been reframed, so that only a moderate or a conservative is somehow generally acceptable? Finally, and most shamefully, why has the NY Times coverage been simplified to such an extent that we are reduced to only three possible nominees who are pretty much caricatured as Garland: Moderate and Acceptable (especially to Orrin Hatch); Kagan: Friendly to conservatives, Former Dean of Harvard Law, Opinions unknown; Wood: Dangerous liberal who actually supports abortion rights. What especially appalls me is the Times' failure, at least so far, to tell us anything about their effectiveness as lawyers and jurists. Or has that stopped mattering as criteria for these appointments? How good are Garland and Wood as judges? Is anybody willing to say? Does Kagan have any kind of track record in, say, scholarly articles with respect to her judicial opinions? Most important of all, are these three really the only qualified nominees? You can't tell me there aren't a number of folks out there, perhaps even people of color, who aren't as qualified. Why aren't we hearing about these others? In the end, I guess, I'm just very disappointed in the way this whole story is being reported. I look forward to this changing very soon.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Addams Family Clueless

I am clueless about the appeal and humor of the Addams Family. Occasionally one of the original New Yorker cartoons elicits a chuckle, but that's pretty much the extent of it for me. Many clever actors have played the various characters quite skillfully, with John Astin as Gomez on the old TV program perhaps being the most artful and therefore the funniest. But this is not saying all that much in such a barren field of competitors.

Last night the latest manifestation of America's love for this strange and morbid clan was on view as the Addams Family characters opened in a new musical on Broadway, starring the truly remarkable talents of Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. According to Ben Brantley, anyway, their performances stand out from the rest of the cast, but the overall production is so bad it is likely they just want to forget they ever agreed to appear in such a mind numbing show. To get a taste of just how bad he thought it was, here is the opening to Brantley's review:

"Imagine, if you dare, the agonies of the talented people trapped inside the collapsing tomb called “The Addams Family.” Being in this genuinely ghastly musical — which opened Thursday night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater and stars a shamefully squandered Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth — must feel like going to a Halloween party in a strait-jacket or a suit of armor. Sure, you make a flashy (if obvious) first impression. But then you’re stuck in the darn thing for the rest of the night, and it’s really, really uncomfortable. Why, you can barely move, and a strangled voice inside you keeps gasping, “He-e-e-lp! Get me out of here!”

This show really does allow Mr. Brantley to take the theatrical tradition of panning a play to a whole new level. But should we be surprised? And how did these people find the funding for such a project in the first place? Did they really think this story which was already worn out when it first aired on TV and then was, at best, moderately successful, would result in a raving success now? Perhaps the producers believed the old adage that "no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Something tells me that this time they will.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Long Rush Hour

I think New York City may have one of the longer rush hours in the world. Today was Friday and I happened to be heading into work rather early, a little before 7 AM. I actually could not get a seat on the subway initially when I got on at 72nd Street, and when it was time for everyone to board the 7:30 Staten Island Ferry, I was genuinely surprised to see the pretty significant swarm of people who huddled together at the ferry's narrow entrance.

Now, the reason I mention my experience today is that other times when I head into work at, say, 8 or 9 or even 10, I not only can't get a seat on the subway, I'm lucky if I can find standing room, and occasionally I have to let at least one packed train go by before I can even take my privileged place as a proud but exceedingly cramped standee. Similarly, as the day goes on, the ferry increasingly bulges with the people who want to get to the other side. Admittedly, this is complicated by the tourists who just want to ride the ferry for free, especially on a nice day, but you can pretty well differentiate between the commuters and the joyriders, and take it from me, the number of commuters, especially coming from the Staten Island side to Manhattan. goes well in to the many hundreds as the morning progresses.

So do the math. The trains and roadways and ferries are pretty busy by 7, jammed by 8, bursting at the seams by 9, and still jammed at 10 or 10:30. That's a three and a half hour rush hour, and who knows, maybe if I got my butt out the door by 6:30 occasionally, I'd learn that all this insanity starts well before 7. I don't plan to test this out any time soon, but it is intriguing to observe how our so-called rush has expanded over the years from a literal hour to two or three hours and even more. Hardly surprising in a country that is now well over 300 million people but still a bit disconcerting to consider that what was once a rush hour has become much closer to a way of life that simply never lets up.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Coots is Dead

Remember how Woody Allen as Alvy Singer spoke directly to the audience at the beginning of the film "Annie Hall" and disclosed that the signature joke of his life is the one about two overweight women sitting in the giant cafeteria at one of those big resorts in Upstate New York where the first woman says, "the food here is just terrible," and the second women replies, "yes and such small portions, too!" Alvy goes on to explain that this represents his attitude toward life - that it's full of pain, misery and suffering and's over all too soon.

Similarly, the signature joke of Coot Mathews' life, a lifelong resident of Houston, Texas, who recently died at the age of 86 after decades of fame as one of the most fearless oilfield firefighters in America goes like this: A Texan is touring heaven with St. Peter as his guide and everything the Texan sees he claims is better in Texas. After a while, St. Peter gets tired of this routine and shows the Texan the raging fires of hell. Impressed, the Texan has to admit he has never seen anything like this but then adds: "There are a couple of good old boys in Houston who can put that out for you." As everyone who knows anything about Houstonians and hellfire, at least one of the guys in the story, and probably both of them, had to be Coots Mathews.

Although christened Edward Owen Mathews, he became known as Coots when only a child and the name stuck his whole life. His claim to fame was the strategic use of explosives, learned in the army during World War II, to put out oilfield fires. Although incredibly dangerous, Coots became the go-to person when oilfield fires were raging out of control. Most of the time he knew what to do to tame them. His closest call during a long career of close calls occurred when his leg was pinned down by a giant crane as a shattered oil well spewed poison gas. His close associate, Red Adair, raised an ax to chop off Coots' leg to ensure his escape, but just as Adair began to lower his ax to deal the life changing blow, Coots found the strength to pull his leg out from under the crane and walked away without injury.

Years later when Red Adair was asked if he really would have severed the leg of his friend, he said definitively: "A one-legged Coots is better than no Coots at all."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Some Like It Hot!

It is unseasonably warm (as the Meteorologists say) in New York City. I just call it hot. Some people like it that way, but most don't. New Yorkers probably like the heat even less than the cold, especially when it gets into the high 80s or higher and their light, spring clothing starts sticking to their skin. They don't like being in the sweltering subways when it's hot and they don't like taking those long walks when it's hot. They don't like being stuck with twenty other sweaty people in an elevator when it's hot and they don't like climbing all those steps to get to their walk-up perches when it's hot. They also don't like sitting outside for dinner when it's hot (even though they adore alfresco dining) and they definitely don't care for standing on all those famous New York lines when it's hot. Hot makes life in New York just a bit more frustrating, just a tad more irritating. It can make our mildly frazzled nerves unravel and it can turn us from quietly annoyed commuters into raging urban monsters. Some like it hot, as you well know, but if you ask New Yorkers, most don't.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Riding the Subway for Fun

I met a man today who rides the subway pretty much all day long just for fun. He's homeless, I think, so stationing himself at the back of one of the subway cars, propped up in the corner with all his stuff gathered around him works out well for him. But when you ask him about the fact that he more or less resides on the subway, he speaks very enthusiastically about the advantages the subway provides.

"First of all," he explains with great expression, "consider all the people from so many different walks of life that I get to meet. Why, just the other day I met a whole family that is visiting New York from New Delhi, India. They were on their way to Times Square and I was giving them directions to this great little place I know where the food is good and very cheap." He paused for just a moment and then continued, "But the best part really is getting to meet all these different people who live here right in New York. Each day I talk to stock brokers and custodians, to journalists and bike messengers. The whole world comes right through this car every day."

"Second," he went on, "I get to see all parts of the city. Sometimes I get off in Brooklyn, others times way up in Washington Heights, still other times I take the train to the Bronx. Every place is so, well, unique, you know what I mean, so unusual, and so interesting. What a great life it is to ride the subway like this. The whole world really is, like I said, right here at my doorstep, in a manner of speaking."

As I got off my at my stop at Chambers Street, I waved at my new friend as the train began to pull away. He didn't see me, though, primarily because he was already talking up a new passenger, enjoying the opportunity to tell his story to still another commuting New Yorker.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spring Accelerated

Warm weather has come to New York and it is so warm so suddenly that all of the signs of spring are appearing abruptly out of nowhere. This also means that spring will be passing us by in such a rush that we'll be into summer before we have gotten even a brief opportunity to savor the new warmth. Doesn't seem right, does it? But that is often the way people experience spring around here. The excitement of seeing the leaves bloom on the trees and the flowers emerge from the ground fades so quickly that it is like one of those speeded-up, time lapse films in which all the new growth appears over night and then is gone again the very next day. Some of the flowering trees are already dropping their petals and a few of the early daffodils are already brown at the edges. The gentle mildness of a nice long spring just doesn't go along with New York living, I guess. More fitting to go from one extreme to the other, from a day of freezing rain or heavy, moist snow to the kind of weather that makes you ache to doff that extra layer of clothing or to head out for a walk in bare feet. Ah, spring in New York. If you don't keep a close eye on it, you could miss it altogether and find yourself trapped all of a sudden in a steamy, fetid subway that just days before was chilling you to the bone.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Dr. King and Resisting the Madness

As Bob Herbert notes in his column on Saturday, it was on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke publicly for the first time in opposition to the Vietnam War. He chose to make this speech at New York City's Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It took great courage for Dr. King to make this declaration of opposition to a war that was wreaking such carnage on a very restricted segment of the American public - the poor, people of color, the marginally educated - with surprisingly little sacrifice from the rest of Americans. Of course, the criticism that King expected from this speech came down on him in torrents of condemnation, including from the New York Times which heaped opprobrium on King for supposedly speaking outside his area of expertise.

Today, we think of King in this speech, like so many others, as a wise prophet of the folly of far too many such interventions supporting a government which more often than not has proved to be "singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support." As Herbert points out, that's pretty much where we are once again in our deepening support for the government of Hamid Karzai, a man who leads the ruling government in Afghanistan that is said to be one of the "most corrupt and inept on the planet."

When do we learn our lesson that the the vast, vast majority of these wars solve nothing and only bring more untold suffering, often experienced silently by returning veterans and with shockingly little help from the US government? I have come to the conclusion that if this government is going to go to war and in the process put so many thousands on both sides in harm's way that we must demand a full and candid accounting of the reasons. And it better be convincing, because if it isn't, I think a lot of us, who have become embittered and cynical witnesses to this repeated madness, are going to be hitting the streets, perhaps as never before, strongly protesting the actions of the duly elected government of the United States, regardless of who who happens to be in charge.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Time Out Jokes of the Week

Here are some Jokes of the Week from fairly recent issues of Time Out New York:

"I totally support the troops. I buy those cookies every year."
-Amy Schumer

"Peekaboo is a good excuse to not look at unattractive children."
-Jena Friedman

"Robots are getting better every year, which means in 30 years, if you’re at a party and start doing the robot dance, every robot in the room will be like, 'What the hell? Are you making fun of the retarded robots?'"
-Harrison Greenbaum

"The cost of living in this city is ridiculous; I used Craigslist to find an apartment, typed in my minimum and maximum for rent, and a picture of my parents’ basement popped up."
-Colin Kane

I want to remind you these aren't just any jokes; these ARE the jokes of the week. Either someone isn't digging deeply enough for the jokes of the week, or the Great Recession hasn't just made it hard to get a good loan, it's put a damper on good laugh lines as well.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, just a little over 99 years ago, the worst workplace disaster in New York City history occurred when the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire and hundreds of mostly female garment workers were trapped inside the building because the managers of the factory kept the exit doors locked during working hours and because the exit doors opened inward instead of outward so that when the workers crowded toward the exit, the doors could not be opened to free them from the flames and smoke. Many of the women died when they leaped from the 9th or 10th floor to flee this holocaust. In all, 146 workers died and 70 more were badly injured.

These sad statistics cannot begin to capture the horror of that day however. By the time firefighters arrived, the street was already littered with fallen corpses, making it difficult to position the ladders properly. Once they were properly fixed, however, the ladders were too short to reach the screaming workers. Even the water hoses lacked sufficient pressure to reach the 8th floor. Some rescues were made with elevators that held only 10 passengers at a time. A human chain was used to transfer some of the workers to a window where the fire was not raging, but within minutes those forming the chain had also fallen to their death. When firefighters finally reached the burning floors, groups of women were found dead huddled together in horror, while others were unrecognizable, as their bodies were melted against the locked doors. There was horror even in the aftermath, as only 65 coffins were available, even though at least a 100 were needed.

Considerable good did come out of this horrible tragedy. In fact, it has been said that the progressive movement in New York City can be dated from the impact of the Triangle Factory Fire. Public officials such as Al Smith, Robert Wagner, and Frances Perkins worked with a coalition of labor organizations and other officials to pass worker safety and worker compensation regulations, which, in turn, led to a whole series of additional regulations to protect the public safety and promote the public good. Indeed, it is said that the Triangle Fire transformed New York, leading to the dismantling of the worst tenements and ushering in the era of New Deal-type legislation that continues to this day, helping to turn New York from an uncaring urban behemoth into one of the most caring and humane municipalities in the world.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Changing the World

You have got to admire Nicholas Kristof, the tireless crusading columnist for the New York Times. He really does want to change the world and he's pretty sure we know how to do it. Recently, he did a column on the interventions needed to help this country finally eliminate or at least greatly reduce poverty. The two themes were better and more intensive early education programs and jobs programs that both train workers and give them special incentives to stay employed. Now, these programs are expensive so they are a tough sell. But if it can be shown that they really do make a difference in significantly addressing poverty (and in the case of early education, the proof is already pretty strong), isn't it self-evident that we need to find the money to launch such programs? As Kristof says, "I hope we consider schooling and jobs every bit as important as our multibillion-dollar surge in Afghanistan."

Well, what about that? Do we have the sense and the will to recognize that these programs, which most likely cost considerably less than these ill-advised military adventures, can have tremendous, even untold social and economic benefit? What is stopping us from moving ahead with some version of these programs? I fear it has nothing to do with their long-term effectiveness. Even if it could be shown without question that these programs do result in the good that has been claimed for them, they would lack the support they need. Why? Because we truly are stuck in an era in which ideology trumps effectiveness. If it smacks of government intervention or control, it has to be bad. That's a tragedy, because just about the opposite is the case historically. Without government, we would be a much less caring and humane and prosperous country. We still have a long way to go on these scores, but it truly is government that has helped us to become better. Until more of us come to understand that, we can never come close to conquering poverty. Moreover, it's not even clear to me that we want to. Until the will is there not just to use government benevolently but also to make a difference for this most neglected segment of our population, we can never realize our full potential as a country or as a people.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April 1, 2010

Today Random House called to ask me to collect my best posts into a book to be called "The Third New York." Also, The New York Times plans to run a piece about the book on the front page of their book review.

Wagner College has named me Professor of the Year. I will receive a $25,000 stipend and must promise to stay away from Wagner for the next six months to work on a new book. I have a choice to spent this six-month period in either Paris or Rome all expenses paid.

Philip Roth has not only dropped his lawsuit against me; he has asked me to accept a lifetime pass to Lincoln Center which was given to him when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book "American Pastoral." This pass entitles me to excellent seats at any Lincoln Center concert at any time completely free of charge.

An older man whom I befriended on the subway recently died. It turns out he was very rich and has generously left me his 3-bedroom apartment located on Central Park West and 72nd Street. It has recently been renovated and includes a state of the art screening room. Karen and I move in at the end of June.

Happy April Fools' Day!