Thursday, September 24, 2020

NYC Ghosts Redux

Over the years of I've blogged about the ghosts of NYC, and how NYC is and always has been, in some ways, a ghost town.

Recently it's felt like a literal ghost town -- COVID-19 has emptied out the city's streets in ways that were previously unimaginable outside of a horror movie.

But in a city that's always being reborn, constantly changing, evolving, re-imagining itself, a perennial busy body, the relics, the parts of its past that still exist, still endure, are still here -- at least for a while -- reminds us of a previous time, an older city, a different world -- a city that, while mostly gone, isn't as completely gone as people might think. 

Two most additions to the Mr NYC Ghost Canon:

There's the story of a woman who lived in Soho for almost 50 years, supporting herself in odd jobs and selling amateur crafts. She was a regular lady, the kind of middle-class NYC denizen that used to be able to live in Soho no problem, now replaced by the gentrifiers, the uber-wealthy. In 1972 she bought her loft for $15,000 -- and just sold it for $2.4 million. Yes, she's rich now, her loft a goldmine that will fund her later years. But it's gone forever, and all that she has left are the memories of it -- the ghosts of her past and of the city's past. It's amazing that she held out for as long as she did! She's moved out -- but the ghosts will endure. 

Then, there's the Ottoman Empire. NYC is, of course, famous for its immigrant communities, many of which have come to define certain neighborhoods: Greeks and Egyptians in Astoria, Chinese and Italians in Lower Manhattan, Russians in Brighton Beach, Koreans in the East Thirties, Germans and Hungarians on the far Upper East Side, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in East Harlem and the South Bronx, Eastern Europeans in what is now the East Village, the Hasidim and Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg. Turkish immigrants have never had quite such a defined geographical presence in NYC but, as this article points out, the Turkish imprint in NYC is quite strong, the long gone Ottoman Empire still present in NYC -- you just have to know where to look for it and understand its history. 

The number of ghosts in NYC is forever unknowable. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Desus & Mero: Laying Their Bronx Smack Down for America

There are many late night shows on TV these days, but none is as blunt or as funny as these two cats from the Bronx, laying down smack for the America each night. 

Hey, even fancy people like New Yorker writers and CBS Sunday Morning (below) like them!

Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: "Apropos of Nothing" by Woody Allen

When I heard earlier this year that Woody Allen was publishing a memoir, believe it or not, even though I'm a major fan, I didn't feel inclined to read it. First, at the time, the world and my family were being enveloped by the COVID-19 nightmare and this seemed totally irrelevant. Second, I've read a lot about Woody Allen's career and somehow felt this book wouldn't tell me anything new. Third, I personally dislike the entire genre of autobiography, even by people I like -- autobiographies are inherently one-sided and sanitized -- and I find them either creepy or boring. So, I figured that, if I did ever read it, it would be years from now, after the man was deceased.

Then Hurricane Farrow happened.

It turned out that Woody Allen and his estranged son (?) Ronan Farrow had the same publisher -- so Ronan threatened to dump them. Then his family relaunched their smear campaign against Woody. Then a bunch of employees at the publisher staged a "walk out" in protest of this bookand got the publisher to cancel it. This was 21st century, "woke" social media censorship at its finest - and it failed. Another publisher picked up the book and published it. And, as a Woody fan and someone who detests censorship in all forms, I bought it -- and read it.

Oh yes, I read it -- the book that Ronan Farrow doesn't want you to read! The book that set the publishing world ablaze!

So ... what about the book itself?

Eh, it reminds me of why I'm not a huge fan of the genre of autobiography. Parts of it are very funny but most of it is boring. Woody spends a longgggg time at the start of the book writing about his childhood. He seems to alternatively venerate and loath his parents. He tells lots of stories about his upbringing that, while mildly amusing, aren't particularly interesting. It is amazing, however, to reflect that someone who came from such a humble, poor background, whose parents sound rather hopeless and less than nurturing, rose to the great heights that he did. It wasn't fate or genius -- it was just hard work and cultivated talent for joke telling that transformed his world.

What's rather amazing is that Woody writes about his momentous life and career -- from TV writer, to standup comedian, to movie actor, then director, in addition to his relationships and marriages -- in a strangely casual way, as though it's just a bunch of things that happened to him and who really cares? He seems genuinely unimpressed by himself and his achievements. You get the sense from reading all this that Woody would probably be no more or less happy, no more or less impressed with his life, just be exactly the same person he is, if he turned out to be the druggist his mother wanted him to be instead of the cultural icon he became.

There's also a lot of diversions in this book -- he'll be writing about something that happened fifty years ago, then divert to something that happened much more recently, then go back to his original memory. It gets rather annoying after a while, as do many of his not terribly amusing ripostes.

My biggest disappointment with the book is that he spends very little time actually writing about his movies. It's basically, "I made this movie, then this one, then this other one," like he was an assembly-line worker and not a cinematic visionary. Granted, he's made so many movies that a comprehensive account of each one would take up multiple volumes but there's a lazy quality to how he writes about most of them -- just a few sentences, maybe a few paragraphs, and that's it. And what he writes about them isn't particularly revealing. Bakers are more excited about their cakes.

And, yes, Woody goes deeply into "la scandale" that has, sadly, often overshadowed his work. I won't recount it here except that the amount of evidence and logic he presents to support his innocence is overwhelming. You can't argue with it. You can't deny it. You can't undermine it in anyway. What is amazing, both to Woody and most of us who believe in, you know, reality, is how many people are willing to believe lies because they make them feel good, and how willing people are to become part of another person's sick agenda. But then again, look at the state of our country and you begin understand how logic and reality or so often ... trumped ... by emotion and magical thinking.

My final verdict on this book: read it if you're a major Woody fan but don't if you're not. It confirms what I don't really like about autobiography but there's some stuff worth reading about -- just not as much as I'd hoped. 

P.S. Ronan is a real asshole -- and hypocrite. He abuses his power and clout to exact revenge on people he hates -- in this case, his estranged, maybe dad. Also, Ronan made his name not only by investigating other people's sex lives but also their abuses of power -- and then he turns around and abuses his own! Right now Ronan is the Golden Boy of the media, and criticisms of him don't stick. But I don't think anyone will look back on his efforts to censor this book as anything less than disgraceful. As Ronan himself has proven, golden halos don't shine over people forever. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020


Sad news for NYC. Sad news for America.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- child of Brooklyn, legal genius, feminist icon -- died on Friday, September 18th, aged 87.

Even if she hadn't spent more than a quarter century on the court (she was confirmed in 1993, after almost 13 years serving on the US Court of Appeals, so almost 40 years total as a federal judge), she would be a legend. Ginsburg blazed a trail as one of the few women graduates of Harvard Law of her era, then became one of the first female tenured law professors at Columbia. In the 1970s she advocated for gender equality in multiple cases before the Supreme Court, winning almost all of them. Then, as a Supreme herself, her votes and decisions on gender equality, gay rights, and other social justice cases helped to make America a somewhat better, somewhat fairer place. She dissented a lot -- such was the make up of the court -- but her voice was always heard. 

And she had a long, happy marriage to her husband Marty, a legal genius himself. I heard a story about Marty and Ross Perot -- after he and Ruth had moved to DC, he became a professor at Georgetown Law. Ol' Ross was have a legal problem and, during one lunch with Marty, Marty solved it for him -- saving the Texas billionaire a lot of money. Ross then endowed a chair for the man at Georgetown. But, in many ways, Marty built his life and career around Ruth, such was his love for her.

I found out about the death of RGB this past Friday evening as I was standing in a deli kiosk at Penn Station. I was holding a strawberry parfait thinking, "I guess I'll buy this and eat it on the train," when the TV above, tuned to CNN, showed "BREAKING NEWS." I've become a little cynical about "BREAKING NEWS" because so little of it is usually news but then I saw them say that RGB was dead -- and my heart dropped. I'll never forget it.

Rest in peace, Ruth. We didn't deserve you, and we were lucky to have you for as long as we did. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Gotta Love New Yorkers

As NYC went into COVID-19 lockdown, every life in the city changed. Some people started working from home (like yours truly) while others lost their jobs and began grappling with the misery of unemployment. Everyone with children had to make accommodations with schools closed. And we became extremely aware of the city's essential workers, especially those in hospitals, keeping NYC and its citizens literally alive.

One of the most overlooked among our essential worker heroes were the meal service workers in our public schools. While children and teachers and maintenance people went home, they stayed and made meals. These meals were then distributed at the schoolhouse doors each day to any New Yorker who wanted one. They literally fed our people every single day -- at 54 million meals and counting, the demand for their work is as essential as anything.

And they've kept at it not only through the virus but also through the brutally hot summer, working in close quarters in hot kitchens for long hours. Their physical and psychological stamina is truly amazing and humbling to behold. The city is lucky to have them.

They keep us alive.  

These meal service workers don't get the same praise or recognition as people who arrest criminals, fight fires, cure sick people, or the like. They don't make movies and TV shows about them, they don't wear cool uniforms, flash badges, or create great drama ("Hands up! Don't move!" "You're not going in there! Oh yes I am!" "Paddles! Stat!"). They just quietly and faithfully nourish and rejuvenate us.

And in filling our bellies, they also fill our souls.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: "Casino Royale" (1967)

One of the weirder things to have ever emerged in cinematic culture is the 1967 movie Casino Royale. Produced at the height of James Bond mania, Casino Royale was actually the first Bond novel published by Ian Fleming. However, the producer of the original Bond films, Cubby Broccoli, had lost out on the rights to an eccentric producer named Charles Feldman. Feldman decided to produce the movie as a comic parody, with multiple James Bonds and storylines. It has a huge cast, full of the biggest stars of its era: Peter Sellars! David Niven! Ursala Andress! William Holden! John Huston! Jean-Paul Belmondo! As the villian, Orson Welles!

And so many more!

This is one of those movies where the story behind its making is more interesting than the movie itself. It was made in London during the swinging sixites, and tons of money was spent on it. It took almost six months to shoot. Along with Cleopatra, it's one of the 1960s biggest cinematic boondoggles. Truth be told, it's a long, most unfunny movie, with lots of dumb gags and pointless scenes. Everything about the movie is a mess: the production design, the length (two-and-a-half hours!), six credited directors, nearly a dozen or so credited writers. It reeks of chaos.

So why am I even reviewing it all? 

Well, because Woody Allen is in it -- and he's the only funny thing in the movie. It's clear that he wrote his own dialogue because it's actually funny, unlike everything else in the flick. Believe it or not, he plays the real villian, the true evil mastermind that each Bond film has (the bad-guy-behind-the-bad-guy). In this case, evil mastermind Woody is developing a nefarious plot to kill every man on Earth above 4 foot 6, leaving him as the tallest man alive. This will make it easier, he assume, to get chicks. In fact, at one point, evil mastermind Woody gives an inspiring speech, a speech laying out his vision for the world he seeks to dominate. In this time of a presidential election, no speech is more inspiring than when evil mastermind Woody says:

Think of it! A world free of poverty and pestilence and war! A world where all men are created equal. Where a man, no matter how short, can score with a top broad. Where each man, regardless of race, creed, color, gets free dental work. And a chance, of subscription buying, of all the good things in life.

The last part is true -- through subscription i.e. internet shopping, you can get just about all of the good things in life delivered to you these days. Free dental work? We're ... working on it! Top broads, however, are and forever shall be in short supply as the demand for them is all out of proportion.

Woody Allen made this film right after his debut in What's New, Pussycat? in 1965 and before he began his remarkable directing career with Take the Money and Run in 1969, two years after Casino Royale. He was only about thirty years old in this movie and, had he decided not to make his own films, would probably have been stuck in junk like this forever. Woody said afterwards that he knew Casino Royale would be horrible when they were making it and that he never even bothered to see it. He got paid a lot of money and was at the start of his career. That's why it's interesting to see him in it, knowing how talented he was and is, knowing the great films he would later produce, hamming it up.

Oh, and the movie has one other virtue: the funky opening credits and theme by Mr. Burt Bacharach!

Friday, September 11, 2020

Classic Mr NYC

Thirty-years ago the brilliant show Northern Exposure debuted on American television. Set in the bizarre small town of Cicely, Alaska, it featured an ecclectic group of characters and their odd-ball behavior, centered around a Jewish New York doctor forced to live and work there to pay off his medical school debts.

Northern Exposure was a forerunner, along with a lot of other great shows of the era (Twin Peaks, thirtysomething, Quantum Leap), to the now Golden Age of Television. The writing was brilliant, the acting was first rate, and in tone and attitude and perspective this show was as NYC as it gets -- even though it took place far, far away from here. 

I blogged about this show on its 20th anniversary and now a young woman -- who only caught up with it two years ago and probably wasn't even alive when it was on TV -- writes about discovering and falling in love with this classic piece of Americana. 

We Remember


Thursday, September 10, 2020

NYC Resumes Indoor Dining -- Sorta

So the good news is that NYC restaurants may offer indoor dining again on September 30th. But it comes with all kinds of rules that almost make it pointless -- 25% capacity, temperture checks at the door, tables at least 6 feet apart, strict air-filtration requirements, at least one diner must leave contact tracing info with the management, masks on at all times except when at the table, no bar service. I don't know how any of these restaurants, with all this extra work and limited clientele, will be able to earn enough money each night to make this worth it. Also, these rules really show that re-starting indoor dining probably isn't safe and worth doing. But the desire for normality is strong -- even if the way to make "normal" possible is totally bizarre.