Friday, September 16, 2016

Crazy Eddie RIP

The genius has died. All New Yorkers who remember the 1980s mourn.  I wrote about him in 2008. Read it here.

Friday, September 9, 2016

How to Live in NYC

Living in NYC - it's oh so hard. And yes, it is, that's not mere hyperbole. (I'm sure I need not count the ways.) But there are a couple of counterfactuals, things that go against the popular grain of the exigencies of life in NYC.  

First, paid sick leave -- it's a roaring success! Several years ago there was much debate in this city about whether or not requiring companies to provide paid sick leave would hurt the economy and cost it jobs. (Oh yes, 'twas very controversial.) Turns out -- it doesn't! In fact, ever since paid sick leave was mandated, the city's economy has boomed and more jobs have been created. So in NYC today there more jobs and they provide paid sick leave. Ain't that grand?

Okay, great, I got a job with paid sick leave. So where am I gonna live? Where can I find a place I can afford?

Staten Island might be the place. There is a boom in apartment construction there, it is becoming an increasingly desirable place to live. No longer is it a Guido Alabama, the black sheep of NYC. Staten Island is becoming a housing magnet, a place where you can still be middle class (sorta) in NYC. 

So yes, life in NYC is hard but not, always, impossible.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Future Always Wins

We've been at war a lot for the last few decades -- and I'm not talking about literal shooting wars like Vietnam or Iraq. No, I'm talking about the various wars that we've declared on poverty, cancer, drugs, crime, terrorism -- you name it -- on any number of nouns and tactics. As George Carlin once said of Americans: "We like war! We're a warlike people!"

Indeed. And this year of 2016 might be the year that we declared war on something else -- the future.

You see it in our politics, both right and left. Donald Trump declares that he'll make America great "again" -- we were great once, in the past, you see, but no longer, so he'll bring that great past back if elected president. And yet another person named Clinton aims to occupy the Oval Office, with all the perils and benefits that a President Clinton can offer. Both candidates promise to take the world's greatest superpower into the future by appealing to our feelings about its past.

Our popular culture has been an even bigger dredger-upper of yore: look at the reboots of movies like Ghostbusters and TV shows like Full House. Even new stuff is old: the most popular new pop culture event of the summer was a Netflix series called Stranger Things, a creepy show that takes places in a creepily believable 1983. Nostalgia is all the rage.

More ominously, this strong desire to resurrect that which is gone has taken the form of terrorism, specifically those terrorists who think that if they kill enough people or blow up enough stuff that it will somehow resurrect a 7th Century Caliphate. Less bloodily, but in many ways more consequentially, the United Kingdom decided that it loved its past so much that it voted to shatter the post-World War II European economic consensus and chuck its membership in the European Union, thus becoming a true island nation once again -- the so called "Brexit."

The allure of the past is so great that the world seems ready to muddy its present and compromise its future in pursuit of a time that is well and truly gone -- forever.

Why? Why this overactive drive to revivify previous eons?

Well, the easy answer is that the present sucks. Wars, recessions, gentrification, growing student debt, decreasing worker wages, the spiraling cost of living and the stalling creation of jobs, technology that becomes obsolete the moment you buy it, is making people mushuggina. Things are changing, things are always changing, but more and more things seem to be changing faster and faster -- and for no good reason except that it benefits a wealthy, elitist few. More and more people feel that they have less and less control over their lives, that there are fewer paths to prosperity and security for them and their families, and that the future is a bleak, unsparing, hopeless place. So we want to retreat. We want to go back. We wish to return to a "safe space" where we are in total control, where we already know the ending to the story, where the worries of the present and the threats of the future are nought.

As the great English author Evelyn Waugh famously wrote: "We possess nothing certainly except the past."

Certainly, here in NYC, the past is something that people cherish. In a dynamic world, NYC is probably the most dynamic place in it, so attempts to remember, mourn, and, yes, even recreate its past abound. Just look:
  • The Stork Club, the place where Walter Winchell once ruled, making and unmaking reputations with his powerful newspaper column, is fondly remembered.
  • Television, specifically local television, which used to set the agenda for the city in a way it rarely does today, is also being recalled. Back in the day, a TV anchor named Bill Boggs was one of the most important people in town and these days he's reminiscing about it.
  • Local businesses, stores that served the community while also making a profit, are vanishing. This article is about TekServe, the Chelsea Mac service store, that I used to go to many times back in the day and that was a staple of NYC life, has closed down. This one really hurts because, as the writer of this article notes, this closure is another "downside to the city’s real estate boom. It’s driving away the unique, friendly places that make living in the city worth the effort ... [a] rapid deterioration of the city’s street-level fabric."
  • Here's one counterfactual: Chumley's is coming back. The old speakeasy that closed in 2007 after an industrial accident is set to re-open soon. I remember going there many years ago and loving it -- but this resurrected saloon just won't be the same, it simply can't be. Times may heal wounds but it doesn't fully obliterate them.
Then there are those who make it their business to give old NYC a voice:
  • The Bowery Boys are a couple of guys with a long-running, very successful podcast about the history of NYC. Now they have a book out, about "adventures in old New York."
  • Even porn is getting in on the act! Yes, pornography is now a nostalgic reference point for NYC. Check out the Rialto Report, a comprehensive website, blog, and archive about the adult scene in NYC back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. For a subject matter that is so naughty, this is an incredible elegant and beautifully presented site that makes art and history out of something lots of people consider simply obscene. And it's history alright -- an incredible history that you won't learn about in school or museums.
What the aforementioned demonstrate, I think, are what is good and bad about nostalgia and our changing city and world. It is painful, awful, and ultimately detrimental for local businesses to close and even local television stations to become irrelevant. It lessens the vitality of life in NYC. And I do understand -- oh man, do I ever! -- at how frustrating and scary the rate of change in our world today is, at how fast things vanish only to be replaced by something unrecognizable and nowhere near as good. It's not something that anyone, I think, under the age of 25 will ever get used to. At the same time, how wonderful is it, thanks to the Internet, that blogs and websites can exist that remember the past, that preserve it, that give it context and meaning in a way that, otherwise, would elude it? And how wonderful it is that new things are being invented that will improve our lives and (perhaps, just perhaps) give us all better futures.

Loving the past and trying to remember it should never be the same as hating the future and seeking its destruction. Trump/Clinton, Brexit, terrorists, pointless TV show and movie reboots, etc. etc. do nothing, ultimately, to make us feel better. They don't bring the past back. They can't! They are, to varying degrees, acts of desperation, a metaphorical lashing out at our present (obviously TV/movie reboots are not as awful as Donald Trump nor are either as awful as terrorists but I hope you get the drift). The brilliant comedian Marc Maron recently said on his podcast, specifically about the 2016 election but also, I think, about this larger issue of fearing the future:

"It’s a tragedy that there’s so much desperation ... How do you relieve that desperation, that anger, that hopelessness? ... Here’s why people vote for Trump: ‘Fuck It!’ ‘Fuck It All!’ That’s got to be the rationale ... It's the possible annihilation of all progress with no real plan."

And that's ultimately the problem: people want to "annihilate progress" that they feel has hurt them but, for the most part, people have no idea what to replace it with except with some gauzy nostalgia. The Trump candidacy is a perfect, almost frightening example of this: he promises to "make America great again" and "bring the jobs back" and "restore law and order" -- but how? How will we be great again in way that we aren't now? What jobs are coming back? Law and order -- believe it or not but our country has never been this safe! Again, he plays on our anxieties about the present and our fears about the future by invoking a past that will never return. And here's the rub - that past was never that great to begin with.

Do you want to go back to a world where gays were closeted? Where minorities were openly discriminated against? Where smoking was tolerated everywhere? Where women were raped and the men who did it got away? Where there was no Internet? Where people who were born into poverty stayed there. Do you really truly want to return to that world? Not me.

But at the same time part of me does. Part of me wants to go back and relive those supposedly simpler times. Part of me, a big part of me, fears the future. But the future is coming, it's always coming. The future always wins even as we strive to beat it. So let's get ready for it and work to make it better. Not destroy it -- or think we can replace it with the past.

As the great American author Scott Fitzergerald wrote: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessy into the past."

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lou Reed Forever

Do you believe in ghosts?

I do. Not literally, of course. I don't believe in white-clad spirits rushing around to and fro, haunting houses and terrorizing people. I don't believe our deceased ancestors spy on us from "the great beyond". I don't believe in anything mystical or spooky or weird. I'm not into any of that kind of stuff.

But I do believe that certain places can still capture the spirit of a person -- or people -- who inhabited them long after he or she or they have physically left it, especially after they have died. If you ever go to Rome and visit the Colosseum or the Forum or any of the great sites of Roman antiquity, it's impossible not to feel the eternal presence of Julius Caesar and the other great Romans who built it. (Rome is, after all, the eternal city). Go to Philadelphia and Constitution Hall -- it's impossible not to feel the lingering shadow of the Founder Father as they hammered out the Constitution. 

You get the idea. When people make a profound impact on a place, the spirit of that impact endures on it, even after they have passed on.

Such is the case of Lou Reed and New York City. The self-proclaimed New York City man wrote extensively about his hometown, naming a whole album after it and penning numerous songs about this place: "Coney Island Baby", "Coney Island Steeplechase", "NYC Man", "Sally Can't Dance", "Rock'n'Roll", "Dirty Boulevard", "Walk on the Wild Side", and on and on. I don't think I can ever travel to 125th street, especially Lexington Avenue, without the lyric from "I'm Waiting for My Man": 

Up to Lexington, 125
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive

Lou Reed died almost three years ago but his music and spirit still live in NYC. He may be dead but he never left. As this article explains, New York Is Still Lou Reed's Town (You Just Live in It).

This past weekend, as Lincoln Center, there was an all-day tribute to the music of Lou Reed. People performed his songs and read his lyrics. People kept his spirit alive -- not that they needed to since it never died. 

In NYC, Lou Reed will always linger on ... 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Postscript: Howard Stern Supports Hillary Clinton

Even Howard Stern doesn't want Trump to be President!

Please go on the show Hillary, please! You will literally win millions more votes! 

Donald Trump will Steal Your Girlfriend

Donald Trump is a horrible human being. Either you agree with that -- or you're a horrible human being too.

As this freak-show of a presidential election winds its way to a miserable conclusion, it's fitting to go back to look at the man who might be Commander-in-Chief and Leader of the Free World.

In the early 2000s, long before he ran for president, Donald Trump called into Howard Stern's radio show to boast about how he had stolen away the girlfriend of gossip columnist AJ Benza. Trump utters such presidential turns of phrase as "I was very successful with your girlfriend" and "Any girl you have, I can take from you" and "You're a loser." 

Lovely stuff. Such a great role model for our nation's children. If you want to listen to it, you can go here:

Oh yes, we know. He's "politically incorrect." He "tells it like it is." He's gonna "shake up the system." He's such a hero, such a badass, and, as he told us in his convention speech, he "alone" can fix the nation.

Among certain kinds of people, being a bully, a racist, and sexual predator is considered something to be proud of. Clearly Donald Trump is one of those people. And the people who support him? They want to be like him even though they never will be. 

It's scary. But hopefully Trump and the kind of mentality he represents will be resounding rejected this November. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

NYC on TV in the 2000s

This blog harps (perhaps too much) about the changing nature of NYC -- the gentrification and evolution of funky town into sterile city -- so I need not belabor that point ad infinitum. Yet as NYC has changed and evolved over the decades, popular TV shows have reflected this upheaval in numerous ways: think of the working class worlds of All in the Family and Night Court in the 1970s and 80s, to the more middle-class worlds of Seinfeld and Friends in the 1990s, to the luxe worlds of 30 Rock and Gossip Girl in the 2000s. Yes, TV has reflected the changing image of NYC back to ourselves for years and years, and we can't get enough of it.

And here is where I dare to be the contrarian to my usual feelings what's happening to NYC: TV shows about NYC have never been better. Certainly, they've never been this numerous (thanks generous tax credits!). Dare I sound a little too sanguine, just check out this list from Esquire magazine about the 20 best NYC shows from the aughts.

It's a pretty amazing bevy of quality (not that I've seen them all): think Mad Men, think Louie, think Girls, think the aforementioned 30 Rock, even think How I Met Your Mother (or, as New Yorkers might have said in the past, "Your Muddah'). Pretty great shows. And shows that bring to life the struggle and the promise of living and working in NYC, the glamour and the indignities, the valleys and the peaks. This list has some of my personal favorites, like Bored to Death and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. They keep a little funk alive.

If you haven't caught up this any of these shows, and you love NYC, you must watch them. They prove that while NYC might not quite be the town it used to be, the creativity and vitality of NYC is still very much alive.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Michael Cimino, RIP

When did you last get excited by a movie? When was the last time a movie came out that made you want to see it - again and again and again?

I remember in the 1990s when Pulp Fiction hit theaters - it was so exciting, such daring filmmaking, such thrilling storytelling, that I went to see it four times in the theaters. Back then, movies seem to matter to people, personally, and they seemed to be important cultural touchstones as well. Movies were, dare I say it, important. They mattered. They lived.

Today? Movies suck - or mostly suck. These days, TV shows have the cultural edge that movies once enjoyed. For the most part, movies now are either one of two things: huge, cynical, money-hungry enterprises (think of the proliferation of "franchises" and the unending number of sequels) or calculated "Oscar-bait", movies designed to win awards and make some money but are otherwise forgettable. Movies don't excite anymore. They don't live inside us or the culture. The artistry of film making isn't moving forward, taking strides. It's stuck. And that's sad.

So how did we get here? It took a long time. While movies were burning up the culture in the 1970s through the 1990s, the seeds of their downfall were being planting at the same time, namely the era of blockbusters and sequels, along with the upwards spiral of production costs. But most of all came the huge costs of failure. When movies fail, they not only lose money but can destroy careers.

In 1978, a director named Michael Cimino made a movie called The Deer Hunter, about working class men and women who's lives are shattered by the Vietnam war. The movie was a huge success - it made lots of money and won several Oscars, including Best Picture. Two years later, Cimino produced his follow-up, Heaven's Gate, about 19th century land wars in the American West. This movie failed catastrophically, so much so that the studio that financed it went under.
It was the first time that a movie's failure actually did something so devastating. Needless to say, the studios reacted accordingly. In the decades that followed, movies became increasingly "safer" so as not to offend audiences and critics. That's not to say, in the ensuing decades, that there still haven't been other huge failures as well as other exciting movies (like Pulp Fiction). But over time, safeness won over daring. The deary cinematic landscape we live in today is largely due to the failure of Heaven's Gate -- a movie that tried every bit to be as good as The Deer Hunter but wasn't.

Michael Cimino died last week, and his professional trajectory tells us a lot about the culture we live in today. After his once promising career was derailed, Cimino only directed a small number of movies, most of which critics and audiences ignored. This was, and is, a shame. A daring director was largely sidelined because of this (certainly huge) failure and the art of film, I think, suffered as a result.

Movies matter less now because directors are increasingly not the voices of their own films. When was the last time you saw a movie and really felt like you saw art being created? Yes, such film "auteurs" like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen Brothers are still making movies - but for how much longer? And when they're gone, who will replace them? I have no idea. There seem to be no young auteurs on the horizon.

When you watch both The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, putting aside both movies' virtues and flaws, what strikes you about them is that these are stories being told by a great directorial voice; that you are watching someone's singular vision spring to life; that these are movies that do what only movies can do best: tell a story through moving images, the director as storyteller. Like a painter using paints and brushes, like a writer using words and a pen, like a sculptor using stones and chisel, this is a director using camera and film to tell a story and imprint an artistic style on your consciousness. Cimino didn't need special effects, he didn't need clever dialogue, he didn't need fancy editing, he didn't need any visual or storytelling tricks - he was amazingly confident in the way that he simply pointed and moved the camera, coreographing his scenes with such skill, that his vision came across so strongly that you were left with an impression that lasted long after these movies were over. 

Having seen both films, I remember them - the storytelling is unconventional, the performances are bold, the camera work is thrilling and confident, a master clearly at work. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw movie where you felt like this? Probably a long time.

And as good as television is these days, it will never have the cinematic visual power of the movies. Television is still mostly a writer's medium with the director serving as the writer's handmaiden. That's fine! But movies are first and last a director's medium, and they are at their most powerful when the director's voice rings loudly.

In many ways, Cimino both exemplified everything that used to be great about movie making and was also indirectly responsible for its decline. His ego, apparently, got in the way of his work. But now that he has passed on, it's important to remember that filmmakers like him used to reign supreme in our culture and that hopefully, one day, movies will live again.

PS. You must read Final Cut by Steven Bach, generally considered the best book ever written about the movie business, which chronicles the turbulent history of Heaven's Gate. It paints Cimino in a very unflattering light but, after reading it, you'll understand how movies are what they are today. You can find the documentary based on the book at

PPS. Cimino was a New Yorker, originally from Long Island, but he got his start working in advertising in NYC in the Mad Men era of the 1960s.