Friday, October 10, 2014

Jan Hooks RIP

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a kid and started watching "Saturday Night Live", Jan Hooks was part of the cast. It was, in retrospect, one of the great periods for SNL. Along with Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Mike Meyers, and Victoria Jackson, this was the time of such memorable recurring sketches as "Wayne's World", "Sprockets", "Church Lady", the first President Bush, Caveman Lawyers, and lots more. Hooks and Nora Dunn had a recurring sketch, the Sweeney Sisters, about two over-the-hill, over-the-top lounge singers which was very funny.

But Jan Hooks stood out as the best female impersonator in the history of SNL. There simply wasn't one female person of note that she didn't impersonate and totally nail: Tammy Faye Bakker, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Sinead O'Connor, Diane Sawyer and, as you can see here, Kathie Lee Gifford. Jan Hooks just dissolved into whoever she was imitating and, sometimes, she seemed more real and believable than the real people. You never got the sense that Jan Hooks was trying to be funny -- she just was funny, naturally, and made it seem totally effortless. She was amazingly talented.

Jan Hooks never had a huge career after SNL -- she was on some sitcoms and did guest roles here and there. It's too bad, because she was as good as any man who came out of that show. It was harder, then, for female comedians to brake out but she paved the way for people like Kristen Wiig and Sarah Silverman who came afterwards. But Jan Hooks was a memorable talent and her death at age 57 is very sad.

But I'll always remember the laughter she gave me as a kid back on those dark Saturday nights in front of the TV. Thank you, Jan.    

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Climate March in NYC

Is Airbnb Good for NYC?

Yes! Yes it is! Airbnb is wonderful! It's the best thing ever to happen to NYC! Everyone loves it! It's the greatest thing ever! Oh my god, I love Airbnb so much! It's so awesome! I want to marry it and have 10 million of its babies!

No, not really. I'm kidding. Hope you could tell.

Airbnb, the "sharing" website that lets people rent our their apartments, has been on an aggressive PR campaign to try to convince New Yorkers that not only is this business great for NYC but that New Yorkers love it and think it's a wonderful thing. I've written about Airbnb before and lots of electronic ink has been spilled over its merits and drawbacks but it all comes down to this: it's illegal. 

Airbnb is a crime syndicate. It is illegal for people to rent our their apartment if they are in a rental building or co-op. The renters are not paying hotel taxes. The buildings are not zoned to be hotels. And very often Airbnbers are using these temporary rentals to engage in drugs or prostitution or other illegal stuff. It's been leading to disturbing things like total strangers roaming the halls of buildings, young people having parties in the middle of then night in sleepy buildings, and all sorts of other unintended consequences -- like landlords not renting out apartments and turning them into permanent Airbnb hotels. This is illegal! 

And yet ... Airbnb will try to tell us otherwise. And man, they are out in force! This company is flooding the airways with ads, you can't go into the subway without an Airbnb poster getting in your face. They're more aggressive than panhandlers! And this article about Airbnb is fascinating -- not only for the article itself but also for the comments section. At first, all of the comments are anti-Airbnb, people who guinealy have a problem with the company, and then ... a little while later ... but then quite suddenly ... a stream of pro-Airbnb comments! Hmmmm ... wonder why? Clearly, Airbnb is paying these people to search the Internet and flood comments sections and chat rooms with the company line. It's Astroturfing at its finest.

I've seen this before. I wrote a few anti-Walmart blog posts in the past and they always resulted in pro-Walmart comments being instantely fired back at me. I wondered who in NYC loves Walmart so much that they would take the time to write corporate propaganda messages to me, a nobody blogger? Then I realized that I was being Astroturfed, that people on the Walmart payroll were doing it as part of their PR campaign. I'm waiting, waiting quite patiently, for the first Airbnb Astroturfing comment to be flung my way. Quite frankly, I'll be a lil' sad if they don't.

So no, Airbnb is not good for NYC. In fact, it's really, really bad. Like, really, really, really bad. 

NYC in 101 Objects

When we study history in school, generally it comes to down to "so-and-so did such-and-such on this-that-or-the-other date and it lead to this other thing happening and so on and so forth."
Pretty boring. 
It's easy to think of history as just a litany of interspersed dates and facts and figures. Occasionally you'll learn about some interesting historical figure -- Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, George Washington, Winston Churchill, etc. -- but mostly they are just color commentary for the boring reportage that passes for the study of history these days.
No, history isn't just something published in book or tested in an exam. It's not a subject to suffer through. History is what forms us, it's our present as well as our past. Real history is the legacy of our ancestors, a legacy we grapple with daily, something to be either continued or reformed. And history is something that we're always creating.
Literally. Think of the IPhone. In the present day, it's a popular piece of technology that just about everyone wants and has (including yours truly). To understand modern day America, you need to understand the IPhone and how people use it, how it connects us, and what it says about American society in 2014. In years to come, when something else has come along to replace it (possibly microchips in our brains that make all computer hardware obsolete), the IPhone will be a museum piece, an artifact of another age. Heck, when I was a kid, everyone had Walkmen and VCRs -- and they're museum pieces now! 
The history of NYC has been the subject of numerous books and documentaries and movies. But that's only part of the story. Our city's history can be found in the literal things that shaped it, that its people used over the years, that tell us everything about our past. This great segment from WNYC gives us 101 objects that tell the NYC story. For example, burial beads, the sewing machine, public school door knobs, AIDS buttons. They are emblems of our history and how our city got from there to here, from the 17th century to the 21st century and beyond.

P.S. My grandfather fought in WWI, the 100th anniversary of which is being commemorated this year. He fought in the Brooklyn regiment that, along with the Tennessee regiment, was one of the first to fight in the "Great War" (although there was nothing great about it). It was commanded under the British Expeditionary Force and my grandfather was given a BEF medal that my family still has to this day. That's real history. Actually being to hold something linked to that time is powerful. And that's the best way to appreciate it.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"The Power Broker" @ 40

Several years ago I wrote about Robert Caro's 1974 classic book "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York."

Clocking in at around 1,200 pages, "The Power Broker" won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction and is generally considered the greatest book ever written about NYC. It tells the story of the long, complicated, and fascinating career of Robert Moses, the "master builder" who constructed roads, bridges, highways, parks, beaches, playgrounds, public housing, and huge structures like Lincoln Center and the United Nations. From the mid-1920s until the late 1960s, he was the most powerful man in New York City and New York State, a more consequential figure than any mayor or governor during that time -- or since. Because of Moses, the city's waterfront was cut off from the people, islands were bolted together, neighborhoods were destroyed, public transportation wasn't built, and over half-a-million people were evicted from their homes. The city was, as Caro writes, "flooded with cars" due to Moses' works, and our city's physical landscape changed forever. 

Most shockingly, even though Moses wielded more power and had a greater effect on this city than anyone else in the 20th century, he was never elected to anything.

The story behind "The Power Broker" is equally fascinating: how the young reporter Robert Caro wrote a series of stories about Suffolk County and how it got him a grant to write a book about Moses -- a project that Caro thought would only last a year. How, instead, Caro spent seven years chronicling this incredible story and he and his wife almost went broke, living a total hand-to-mouth existence. How Caro interviewed Moses several times before the great man cut off communication with him. How interest for the book, prior to publication, was generated by serialization in The New Yorker. And how, today, on the 40th anniversary of its publication, "The Power Broker" stands as a classic that has never gone out of print. This article tells the story of how "The Power Broker" came into existence and is a must read like the book itself. 

P.S. This article uses the word "archipelago" i.e. a group of islands, to describe NYC. That is, obviously, an apt description, and I feel deep shame that I have never, in almost a decade of blogging about NYC, never referred to this city as an archipelago. After all, not only is that a neat and proper word to call our fair city, but it's a really cool one. So expect me to throw around the word "archipelago" a lot on this blog going forward. I'll start now: archipelago, archipelago, archipelago, archipelago, archipelago ... archipelago.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Joan Rivers RIP

Joan Rivers died last week at the age of 81. I refuse to believe it. Someone like Joan Rivers can never die.

But, if it's true, it's a tragedy that anyone would pass that young.

Joan was a brilliant, shocking comic who's career spanned more than half a century. She started on the The Ed Sullivan Show back in the 1960s and ended her run on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon this year. Now that's longevity. She taught people like Howard Stern everything they know. Only Lenny Bruce stood as her peer.

A simple Jewish girl from Brooklyn born in 1933, Joan's parents wanted nothing more than from their daughter to marry a nice "doctah" and be good housewife and live a quiet respectable life. Instead, she took the harder route -- becoming a stand-up comic, a woman comedian -- at a time when women weren't supposed to be funny. But Joan persevered.

She did everything. Nothing was beneath her. Stand-up. Acting. Talk show host. Red carpet interviewer. Seller of awful jewelry on TV. Game show contestant. A worker. A very hard worker. 

And she worked herself into being a legend.

Joan Rivers was also a great New Yorker. Her voice, her shtick was the epitome of the city. She was the outer-borough striver, the kid from the neighborhood, who had a dream to become big -- and did. She was what this town was all about. Believe it or not, Joan was a landmark. Yes, the New York Landmarks Conservancy named her a living landmark many years ago and she'll always be one. We'll always remember her.

After all, Joan wouldn't let us forget!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Cabs Are For Kissing

There are cabs -- and there are New York City cabs. 

They are a world unto their own. These yellow automobiles have a certain romance to them, a certain ambiance, a certain je ne sais quoi that people love. It's not that people enjoy paying a fortune to be stuck in traffic -- no. Instead, it's about being a part of the New York City experience. It's about remembering uniquely New York moments. 

Think about being transported, as if by magic, from one part of the city to another. 

Think about being out late at night, then relaxing and getting home (relatively) quickly.  

Think about dashing out of the rain with a loved one, into a cab, escaping to warmth and shelter. 

Think about being in the back seat with a girl and ... never mind. 

Think about going down Park Avenue, late at night, seeing the famed boulevard ablaze in lights.
Think about coming back the airport in a cab, seeing the city for the first time in days, weeks, even months, and feeling at home. 

Think about traveling back to your apartment with your wife and newborn baby in the backseat.

Yes, these are just some of my taxi memories. My daughter's first car ride was in a NYC cab just like mine had been, 34-years earlier (sans the car seat). Cabs are a vital part of the New York life.

That's why I love this blog, Cabs Are For Kissing, created by a NYC taxi driver who's been on the job since 1977. This blog as been in existence since 2006 and it's a wonderful, uplifting continueing story of the a cab driver and this city. You must check it out.   

Monday, August 11, 2014

Myths and Legends

During his 12 years in office, the general consensus about Mayor Michael Bloomberg was that, sure, he might be a heartless technocrat but ... he was competent; sure, the cost of living in NYC might be exploding but ... he was competent; sure, the police might be using aggressive, possibly illegal tactics but ... he was competent; sure, he might be trying to destroy the public school system and teachers unions and turn education all over to for-profit charter schools but ... he was competent. Yes, he might be overseeing the destruction of middle class NYC, turning us into a city of haves and have-nots but ... he was competent!

And what was the basis for this competency claim?

Well, he loved technology. Loved, loved, loved it. Under Bloomberg's watch, Google opened an office in NYC and, in conjunction with Cornell University, built a tech campus on Roosevelt Island. The media loves technology, the powers-that-be love technology, so if Bloomberg loved technology and wanted to apply it to government, that must make him great ... and therefore competent. He vetoed living wage laws and did other heartless things with the budget so he was viewed as "fiscally responsible." He instituted  "bike share" and other such fancy programs. Most of all, his background as a Fortune 500 CEO gave him the reputation of the ultimate skilled manager. Bloomberg was competent because, well, he had to be!

Mayor Mike also benefited from a very compliant City Council, lead for most of his time in office by the obsequious Christine Quinn, as well the contrast of the gubmint' in Washington, DC which, no matter who is president or which party is in control, seems incapable for governing. This made it possible for Bloomberg to boast about how he "got things done", "got results," etc. etc. etc. He regularly made the Time 100.

When Bill De Blasio was elected to replace Bloomberg as mayor, the media and "centrist" intelligentsia bemoaned the loss of this super competent technocrat executive at the city's helm, believing that he had bequeathed a wonderful, paradisiacal city that his class warrior successor would inevitably screw up. Et in arcadia ego.  

But it was all a lie. In fact, Bloomberg left behind a mess. Bloomberg was not the mythically competent mayor that his media allies and sycophants proclaimed. Bike share is going broke. The policing at Riker's Island is criminal disaster. The city's emergency response has been dysfunctional for years. Mayor Bloomberg left behind more than a 100 city contracts unsigned with the public workers unions, forcing De Blasio negotiate all of them. And these are just some of the problems the great Mike left for his successor.

The argument for heartless, mean-spirited governing ala Bloomberg style is that, well, you know, leaders have to make tough choices and can't give in to every do-gooder's Utopian wish list which will ultimately bankrupt the government. In this view, competency = cruelty. But what if, like Mayor Bloomberg, you're both cruel and incompetent? Well, then you are the ultimate failure. Because at least the do-gooders have good intentions, competency or not. The cruel don't have even that.

Meanwhile, the New York of our hearts increasingly slips away, from reality to legend. Thanks to Bloomberg's "competency", soon we won't recognize it.