Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Slaves of New York" @ 30

To read Tama Janowitz's acclaimed short story collection Slaves of New York is to gaze upon a world both familiar and distant.

Published thirty years ago this summer, the book was prescient about the exigencies of life in NYC: the spiraling rents, the ruthless ambition, the preening narcissism of the successful, the desperation of those who aren't -- and the way that people and their relationships are warped by this existential maelstrom. The book is set mainly in the world of artists, where creativity clashes with reality, where love clashes with money. According to the book, a "slave" is someone in NYC who lives with someone they don't really like (or even loathe) but are forced to by economic circumstances; the "slaves" are the focus of Janowitz's funny and moving book.

Today, when so New Yorkers can barely afford to live here, there are probably more "slaves" here than ever before. Ms. Janowitz was on to something way back when. 

And yet ... Slaves of New York is about a time and place gone by. In 1986, when the book was published, the "downtown art scene" still existed, even thrived. Sure, crime was a lot higher, the city was in rough shape, and people were fleeing. But the NYC art world seemed more like a community, a world unto itself that defied the city's decay, a defiant flower blooming in the tundra. Today, the downtown art scene doesn't really exist in NYC anymore. Sure, there are still big fancy galleries downtown but most of the struggling and innovative artists have been banished to the outer boroughs or out of the city altogether. The creativity, for the most part, has gone elsewhere. Go to downtown today and it's mostly fancy clothing stores and restaurants and glass buildings. The NYC art scene is much more diffuse today, less of a community and more of an abstract idea.

That's why, in many ways, Slaves of New York is more relevant today than ever. It saw where the NYC art scene and NYC itself was headed: into a world of concentrated wealth and mass economic disparities, into a world where art wasn't valued except for how much it could be sold for, where relationships were transactional and fungible, where NYC is a place so many live in but few believe really belongs to them. In many ways, this world existed then but in a somewhat more primitive form; today, it is institutionalized, absolute.

I wrote about Slaves of New York several years ago when I did a blog post about the NYC art scene in the movies. In 1989, the book was turned into a movie by the Merchant-Ivory team, better known for adaptation of classic British novels. The movie is, in a word, funky. It stars the always fabulous Bernadette Peters as Eleanor, an aspiring hat designer who lives with her awful boyfriend artist Stash in his downtown loft (she is his "slave"). The story concerns how Eleanor liberates herself from the her "slavedom" and re-starts her life as a single woman and an artist in her own right. (Some might call the story a feminist statement but, if so, it's not very a preachy one.) The movie, like the book, also concentrates on an artist named Marley Montello, a rather absurd character who intersects with Eleanor at various points.

What I love about the book and the movie is how the story is both so New York and so rooted in the 1980s art world yet also universal, timeless. It's about struggle, it's about love, it's about the complexity of all sorts of relationships, it's about wanting to become something and facing so many immovable obstacles to achieve it, it's about confronting your fears. And it's also a wonderful snapshot of NYC at a time when it was no longer a place where people really could afford to starve but where it was still possible, with very little money, to eke out an existence. Without knowing it, it was a swan song. Without knowing it, it was about the mythic downtown NYC art world -- just before the deaths of such icons as Andy Warhol and Basquiat, who ruled and defined it -- came to an end.

I remember discovering Slaves of New York and Tama Janowitz many years after the book was published and the movie came out. It was the summer after I had graduated from college, and I was working in a miserable job in a sterile corporate environment, dreaming of a life that was more artistic, more fulfilling, more ... funky. The Bravo Channel (then a great arts and independent film channel and not a reality TV grindhouse) was showing Slaves of New York endlessly. The movie and then the book inspired me. It felt like Tama Janowitz had created this story just for me. She seemed to get me -- get my anxiety, my fears, my hopes and dreams, and my romantic yearnings about the possibilities of life and NYC. No, I wasn't an artist and didn't aspire to be one (except, maybe, a writer). But Slaves of New York, Eleanor's story, seemed to be the only thing understanding me at a time when no one else seemed to. Eleanor, c'est moi (even though I'm a dude).

Slaves of New York has a proud legacy. It's a real NYC story and a poignant encapsulation of an era. But its the pure delight of the writing and the story's universal message that makes it great. And that's why, three decades after it's publication, people still read and remember it. And when my kids are old enough to read Slaves of New York, and I want them to learn more about the NYC I grew up in, it will be one of the first books I'll give them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Making it in NYC

"If I can make it there ..."

As NYC falls further into the abyss of gentrification, "making it" in NYC is harder than ever before.

Now "making it" is an abstract term -- does it mean becoming rich and famous or just being able to "make" a living? Maybe it means eking out a minimal existence while doing something you love? Or maybe it has nothing to do with money or success -- maybe it just means being happy? It can mean anything you want it to! "Make" of that what you will ...

Still, the idea of "making" in NYC is an irresistible one, subject of many a romantic song and film. Make it here and "you can make it anywhere."

WNYC radio has a good series this week called Making It in NYC. The series mostly interviews artists about how they are making it (or not) in the world's greatest metropolis and the various challenges they face. Since this is a subject that will forever obsess almost all New Yorkers, it's worth listening to.

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Taxi Driver" @ 40

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."  

No, this wasn't something said by a Donald Trump supporter. It was a line memorably uttered by the great actor Robert De Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver which turns 40 years old this year. If you've never seen it, Taxi Driver is about a mysterious cabbie named Travis Bickle who roams a nightmarish NYC, lonely, detached, adrift in a chaotic world that he doesn't understand and hates. Eventually he becomes a gun-totting vigilante and unleashes his fury. It's a horrifying and amazing film to watch. 

Taxi Driver was a quintessential example of the 1970s New Hollywood ethos: brutal, profane, centering on an "anti-hero," and totally unsentimental. It's also, in many ways, a document about NYC in the mid-1970s: dirty, crime-ridden, and failing. The film was directed by Martin Scorsese, right after his earlier films "Mean Streets" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", and it rocketed him into the leagues of major American directors, paving his way to legendary status. The cast is also notable: besides De Niro, the film stars a pre-"Moonlighting" Cybil Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, a very young Jodie Foster, and, of all people, a frizzy haired Albert Brooks providing some much needed comic relief. Like all Scorsese films, it's brilliantly directed and has first-rate performances.

Looking at Taxi Driver today, it seems both very dated and totally relevant. Dated, because it's about an NYC that doesn't exist anymore. Watching the film, in an NYC where broom closets cost millions of dollars, is like looking at a world that is both familiar and distant, recognizable and unrecognizable, a friend from the past who has aged and whose body has changed (either really well or really badly). Yet, it's more relevant than ever because it's about rage, alienation, mistrust, a world gone mad, and the temporary but very real allure of senseless violence. Look at our current political climate. Can anyone possibly argue that this atmosphere of anger isn't even more real and toxic today? Is rage not a constant in American life today? Taxi Driver was prophetic.  

This fascinating oral history tells the story of how Taxi Driver was made and about the impact it left on America and American film culture. Forty years on, and so much and so little has changed.

Clinton and Sanders: The Batte of Brooklyn

Plus: Who's the best or worst  New Yorker

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"This is Not an Exit": American Psycho @ 25

Twenty-five years ago this month a novel was published -- and it drove people crazy.

It's probably appropriate that it was called American Psycho.

You may have heard of it. The term has, quite appropriately, entered the American vernacular. Looking at this presidential race, the GOP is on the verge of nominating one. But the novel was not about politics -- its about America's soul. It centers on a young, handsome, very masculine Wall Street banker named Patrick Bateman who enjoys, in his off hours, clothes shopping, renting video tapes, going to fancy restaurants, and committing horrendous acts of murder.

Written by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho was a strong indictment of the 1980s "greed-is-good" consumerist ethic. But the novel also has a clear fascination with it. The book itself is a bit of a slog to read. It has no real story, no discernible plot -- it just drags along, scene after scene, nothing really interesting happening, until your brain goes numb. In between graphic descriptions of Bateman's murders and scenes of him hanging out with his atrociously shallow friends, there are lengthy descriptions of beauty products, electronics, work out routines, and hilarious dissections of forgotten 1980s pop songs like "Hip To Be Square."

The numbing affect of all this is quite intentional. It's what makes American Psycho a strangely brilliant novel. The book wants you to hate it! It wants to dull your brain to the point that the murders are yet just another thing in the banal life of Patrick Bateman. It makes us, the readers, feel almost indifferent to them and it also makes us, in a way, complicit in his crimes as we are in creating a society that nurtures the evil likes of him.

Read it ... if you dare.

Before American Psycho was even published in March, 1991, it had become a scandal. Apparently the book's original publisher dropped it after Ellis delivered the manuscript and the publisher saw what a violent, disturbing "story" it was. Many employees at the publisher refused to work on the book and it was eventually published elsewhere in a first-edition paperback (I happen to own one of these copies). Much of the violence, it should be said, is of a sexual nature -- it graphically describes the mutilation of women and the violence visited upon them makes rape seem almost like a quaint, preferable alternative (it's that vile). This caused various feminists groups to call for boycotts of the novel. Many public intellectuals (like Norman Mailer) and reviewers condemned the book for existing at all and Ellis for writing it. It was hard to imagine, even back then, that a novel -- a work of fiction, after all, mere words on a page, the oldest of old school media, describing things that had never happened to people who had never existed  -- could create such a raucous. But it did. And, naturally, the novel became a bestseller.

In the years since, American Psycho has never fully gone away. There was a movie of it in the year 2000 and now, believe it or not, a Broadway musical, soon to open. Both retellings are not quite as horrendous as the original source material, a perfect example of how something is changed and diluted when it goes mainstream.

As for Bret Easton Ellis, he had written a couple of books prior to this one (most notably Less Than Zero), and several since, but American Psycho is the book that defines him and will probably be his greatest literary legacy.

Why does American Psycho endure? Because it's more relevant than ever. Ultimately this book is not about murder but about the insanity within America, within all of us, about how we live our lives, and about how the ways we try to define our identity in this materialistic culture actually thwart our common humanity. It exposes something within us. And we cannot look away no matter how much we wish we could.

Again, just look at the current presidential race. Can anyone argue that our society is more sane than ever? American Psycho was prescient.

Read on. 

NYC is Thriving

As the great comedian Stephen Colbert once told us, reality has a well-known liberal bias. 

Ever since liberal Democrat Bil De Blasio became the Mayor of New York City two years ago, the media and special interests in this town have pilloried him. They've been trying to make the public believe that the city has descended into chaos and poverty, that crime is rampant, that businesses are evaporating, that the "bad old days" are here again. Oh, no, heavens to Betsy, the sky is falling! The sky is falling!

And, of course, what they hope is that all of this fear mongering will force De Blasio's defeat in the 2017 election. They hope that a Republican or at least a non-liberal Democratic will be elected in his place.

They better not get their hopes up. Not yet anyway. 

As this New York Times article indicates, NYC is thriving like never before. Private sector job growth is flourishing. Crime continues to fall. Public school graduation rates are increasing. The quality of life is great. And De Blasio? He's more popular than ever.

Oops. Looks like that well-known thing called reality is really messing up the haters' plans! It was supposed to be like this! Oh no, they were gonna keep telling us how awful De Blasio was, how the city would fall apart, and they'd be proven correct. Sadly (for them, not us), the haters have been proven wrong (again and again and again). Remember, these are the same people who thought we should invade Iraq).

Naturally, NYC still suffers from one big problem: the lack of affordable housing. This is and should be De Blasio's main focus over the next two years. More people than ever want to be New Yorkers. Which sort of contradicts the idea that this city has become a hell hole that people want to flee. No, the problem is that too many people want to live here. And that won't be an easy problem for De Blasio or any mayor to solve ... ever.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Interview: Victator from "Living and Lovin' in NYC"

It’s embarrassing to admit but yours truly has only recently discovered the wonderful world of podcasts. (In case you’re unawares, podcasts are digital audio files that you download from the Internet. The best ones are like listening in through a keyhole to a casual conversation). I’m a huge fan of the mother of all podcasts, WTF with Marc Maron, which is so huge that last year President Obama appeared on it. 

But I recently came upon a relatively new NYC-located podcast called Living and Lovin’ in NYC, a humorous roundtable of New Yorkers talking about, you guessed it, the wonders and travails of life, love, and sex in this most massive of urban jungles. The hosts are amusingly named Victator and NuBritt (currently on leave but sending in updates from a road trip) and the newest host is a trans fellow named Issac. They also have lots of guests who make the show even more entertaining. 

I was lucky enough recently to interview Victator, a native New Yorker who identifies as queer and is the ringleader of Living and Lovin’ in NYC. In this interview, she tells us about the origins of the show, her thoughts about living and “boning” in NYC, how these things are changing – and about how to have a really good “slutty summer” (you might want to take notes, she gives great advice!). 

How did Living and Lovin' in NYC come into existence? 

Every time I hung out with NuBritt I'd repeat our conversations about dating and fucking in my head because I thought they were so spot on and hilarious. I listen to a lot of podcasts and one sunny day I was on my way to therapy listening to one, and thought, wait, NuBritt and I need to do this. I immediately sent her a text and said you and I should do a podcast about dating and fucking. I know there are a lot out there but ours would be better. She enthusiastically agreed and we soon recorded from her kitchen table while drinking bourbon. (We now record and steam live at Radio station, and drinking during recording has become a mandatory tradition). 

What's a feminist shock jock and where did you get the funky nicknames Victator and NuBritt? 

When we were listening to our first episode, I immediately thought of the shock jocks I used to listen to growing up. You know, Howard Stern, Jaggar from Love Phones. They're dirty, crass, and say what they want and what they mean. We are feminists, but we often sound like bros who've had too much to drink and won't shut up. Hence the term "feminist shock" jock was born. Our nicknames just happened to be what we called each other. My best friend's name is Britt. And when I met Laura Jean I told Britt how great she was and Britt cutely replied "is she my replacement?" As a joke (cuz bros tease each other), my friend Katy started calling LJ NuBritt and we've never stopped. I'm the Victator because whenever I'd hang out with LJ I'd seem to make all the decisions about what we would do and where we would go. But I'm a benevolent Victator so everyone always had a good time. 

Side note: Love Phones was a nightly call in show on radio station Z100 back in the 1990s. If you were a horny teenager in NYC back then, like Victator and me, then you might remember it. Naturally I never called in. You normally needed to have a sex life in order to do so. 

What makes for a great show? 

Well I can't speak to great shows in general, but I think ours is great because we're honest as fuck. There's no pretense. We're completely ourselves ... Maybe a little too much sometimes. But I think that's what people identify with. I've had listeners tell me they've shared some of our experiences but would never consider talking about them out loud. So when they hear someone else do that, perhaps it makes them feel like less of a freak for a moment. We're also never preachy and keep an open mind about topics that are sometimes hard to discuss.

You guys talk seamlessly about gay and straight sex and relationships. Now that gay marriage is legal and gay rights are overwhelmingly supported by the public, do you think the way people (certainly New Yorkers) talk about sex and love is changing?

This is actually a hard one for me to answer. I think the reason is that for a long time now most of my friends have been queer or passionately queer friendly. So I don't know what straight people say about sex and love behind my back. I'm a native New Yorker like you and I went to elementary school in the Village, where we had out gay teachers. So for my little bubble, I've felt pretty comfortable my whole life (and I'm endlessly grateful for that). It hasn't been that long since marriage equality has existed, so I don't see an immediate stark cultural shift. I do think that some straight people (especially if they're from here) might be unaware that there are still a lot of struggles for the LGBT+ community. I met a married lesbian couple from Florida the other day that said they're not comfortable holding hands in their home town. Also, while I've found that while more people seem to be "down" with being a homo, the way they try to relate to me can still be problematic. I've met plenty of cis straight dudes who try to relate to me by objectifying women in unsavory ways. I guess they think that since we like to fuck the same gender, and because I'm perceived as pretty masculine, I'm not going to identify with the women and join the dousche parade. 

Are trans rights the new frontier in the fight for gender equality? 

If Isaac wants to weigh in into this, he should feel free. I don't want to cissplain on this one. 

What makes for a good "slutty summer" and what advice would you give people who want to pursue one, male or female, straight or gay? Also, are fall, winter, and spring decent slutty seasons? 

Well a good slutty summer consists of multiple partners, good booze, and a consistent approach to not getting emotionally attached. I don't know how to tell straight people to go about it, but I think solid advice to anyone would be, make your intentions and limitations clear. This might seem controversial, but for ladies seeking ladies, I'd recommend finding a hot queer lady with a boyfriend who wants some lady sex on the side. There are a lot out there, and I had a great experience with them. And, Hey, I say be slutty all year long if you can. The summer worked well for me because I was especially horny and wasn't really feeling the serious dating thing. Also, if you're into public sex, there's no better time than that of warm weather.  

You said on one episode that it's actually easier for gay men to get laid than gay women. REALLY? 

This is also a little difficult to answer, because I really can't answer on behalf of gay men and I want to avoid perpetuating the stereotype that gay men are naturally more promiscuous. On the contrary, my queer lady friends have all been horny as fuck and looking to bang, but just seemed to have a more difficult time finding partners. For one, strict lesbians are the smallest part of the LGB population - - there just aren't that many of us. So if you're a gay lady who only wants to fuck gay ladies, you're maybe in for a tough time. But I have no problem dating or fucking bisexuals and other women who bang women, so it's a little easier for me on that front. 

As NYC becomes ever more expensive to live in, is this still a great city to get laid and fall in love in or is it getting ... harder? 

I've never thought about how the cost of living here affected my heart or vagina. I mean, I'm in my 30s and have roommates. And most people I've dated and banged have roommates, so that's always a little tricky to navigate. But I say if you live with someone, you've gotta be down to hear them bone once and a while. That said, it's just standard manners to not be screaming "you fuck me like a pickle in peanut butter!" at 3 a.m. 

What do you guys love most about NYC? And sex! 

I love that I will never run out of people to meet. For friends, enemies, and lovers. There's a lot of people! What do I love most about sex? Peanut butter and pickles. Kidding. Probably. 

Tell us something about yourselves and your podcast that we might not know.

Kindergarten Cop had made me cry on more than one occasion.  

What is the future for Living and Lovin' in NYC? 

I don't know. We were recently listed as one of the best podcasts about sex, so hopefully we can keep being fucking awesome. 

Thanks Victator!

Livin' and Lovin' in NYC is available on iTunes,, and wherever podcasts are found. It was also recently listed as one of the 11 Best Sex Podasts by Thrillist at

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Trump Files

The files here on Mr NYC about The Donald, the man who might (shudder) be president, are (mercifully) thin. However, over the years, I have occasionally blogged about the spray-tanned one and the complete (mercifully) thin files are here if you care to peruse. Or don't. It's probably better if you don't. Who needs the agita? But it's there if you can't get enough.