Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron: Farewell to a Legend

The world of Letters and Cinema became poorer yesterday with the death of Nora Ephron.

A writer/director, Ephron was a blazing talent. She began her career in the 1960s as a reporter and essayist and then, in the 1980s, she became an acclaimed screenwriter for films like Silkwood, Heartburn, and her most beloved work, the classic When Harry Met Sally ... Later on she became a director of such big hits like Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, and Julie and Julia.

And as woman, forging a career in a more sexist time and in male-dominated industries, Ephron was not only a talent but a trailblazer. 

Nora Ephron was also a real New Yorker. Although she grew up in California, she made her career here. Many of her films are set here and even the ones that aren't have a real cosmopolitan edge. She epitomized the city and it epitomized her. 

You should read this tribute from When Harry Met Sally ... director Rob Reiner. Together, they made movie gold. 

So farewell, Nora. I know that I'll be showing my little daughter your films one day. Thank you for your unique, funny voice. 

Federal NYC Primary Roundup

Last night was a first in the history of New York politics: the city and state held primaries for its congressional seats in June, a break from the past of usually holding them in the first week or two of September. There were a batch of competitive Democratic primaries in NYC that will result in some new and familiar facing going to Congress in 2013. 

Congressional veteran Charles Rangel won his primary for a 22nd term in the House. His district was redrawn to make it majority Hispanic and he faced a tough Dominican opponent. But Charlie is a fighter and he survived -- and, at age 81, he now has the chance to wind down his career with dignity.
In Queens, a young Assemblywoman named Grace Meng won a competitive primary to run for the congressional seat in Bayside. If elected in November, she will be the first Asian American representative from New York State in Congress. However, she faces a tough race from crazy Republican Dan Halloran -- let's hope she beats him like a drum.

Finally, Assemblyman Hakeen Jeffries overwhelmed City Councilman Charles Barron to represent a congressional district in Brooklyn. This is one race where not only New Yorkers but Democrats nationwide are breathing a huge sigh of relief. Barron was (presumably still is) a noxious person, best known for spouting anti-Semitic nonsense and for calling various African dictators heroes. Sending him to Congress would have been a disaster for Democrats and a huge boon to Republicans. However, he's finished, and Jeffries seems like a strong candidate to win in the fall and do a good job. 

Also, Senator Gillibrand now has a Republican opponent for the fall: Wendy Long, a lawyer with no political experience. I think this is a first: two women from different political parties fighting it out for a Senate seat in New York State. It won't be a close race, however. Gillibrand has been a very good senator, doing great work for 9/11 victims families and cracking down on insider trading in Congress. She has high approval ratings and tons of cash. Long, on the other hand, is a non-entity: no record, no experience, no ideas. Long is, however, a hard right-wing ideologue who said that not only would she not vote for gay marriage but she wouldn't even go to a gay wedding. Ms. Long (and she will remain Ms. Long, not Senator Long) would probably be a formidable candidate in Alabama. However, this is New York and Wendy's political career will probably end up in Never Never Land. 

Onto November!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A New Yorker in the French Parliament

Yes, you read that headline right.

France recently had its parliamentary elections a couple of months after the country's presidential election that brought Socialist Francoise Hollande to power, displacing the eccentric conservative Nicholas Sarkozy. These French parliamentary elections were historic, however, since it was the first time when French people living abroad could vote for their own representative in parliament. It would be the equivalent of Americans abroad having their own member of congress. 

And the winner?

A 37-year old French citizen who has lived in NYC for the last thirteen years. Her name is Corinne Narassiguin and she is a member of President Hollande's party and the new Socialist majority in the French parliament. She sounds like a most interesting lady and she certainly has an important job ahead of her. What makes this even cooler is that she found out about her victory while at a restaurant in Greenwich Village! (How appropriate.)

So congrats to our New Yorker in the French parliament! Hopefully Ms. Narassiguin will bring a bit of city grit to the rarefied halls of the French old boys network. 

Vive la France! Vive le NYC!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sexy NYC

The sexual underworld of NYC has always held a certain intrigue. In this huge, dynamic, crazy town, there have always been sex clubs and swingers parties, orgies held in hotels and apartments, as well as good old fashioned prostitution rings (remember the Mayflower Madam?) and people hooking up in bars. Any proclivity was catered to. There used to be legendary bath houses like Plato's Retreat, plus gay bars like Stonewall and dance halls like the Roxy -- and there were also places like S&M "dungeons" and other creepy places where you could lie under glass and have people ... well, let's go no further down that road.

You can't have 8 million+ citizens and not have some kinky people in it.

But the composition of sexy NYC is changing. No, it's not that New Yorkers are any less horny than today, but the sexual life is the city is getting less, well, seamy. The gay clubs and dance halls are vanishing. Now gay New Yorkers are hooking up online. Sex clubs are getting busted. Gentrification and "niche" has also played a part.

In short, the sexual life in NYC is getting more introverted, less extroverted. And, as the 21st century grinds on, this will probably continue. 

Empire State Building Lightning Strike, June 22, 2012

Saturday, June 16, 2012

New York Jews: The Next Generation

NYC has always had a big Jewish population. 

Over the last hundred years, our city became a welcoming refuge for Jews from Europe escaping persecution. In many ways, the history of NYC in the 20th century is the story of the rise of the Jewish community. Poor Jews from Europe came to NYC and used their smarts and strong work ethic to create businesses and achieve monumental professional success: doctors, lawyers, accountants, college professors, etc. They built and shaped the city we live in today. They came with nothing and gained everything.

Including power. Our current mayor is Jewish. Two of our city's previous four mayors were Jewish. One of our US Senators is Jewish. Many of our city's members of congress are Jewish.

NYC is a place where Jews from around the world became Americans and achieved the American dream.

No one probably personified the greatness of the Jewish experience in NYC better than Dr. Jonas Salk. Born in 1914 in NYC to Russian immigrant parents, he graduated from City College in 1934 and, after medical school at NYU, went on to create the polio vaccine that has saved hundreds of millions of lives around the world.

In the last several years, the "typical New York Jew" (if there is such a thing) has been defined as followed: highly educated, professionally successful, socially liberal, financially independent, and religiously observant if not devout. They are, in a word, highly cosmopolitan. 

But that's changing

In the last decade, the population of the New York Jewish community has both grown and changed dramatically. It has become less educated, less professional, more socially conservative, more dependent on government services, and much more religious. It has became, in a word, more Orthodox.

This has happened for two main reasons. First, the population of the "typical New York Jew" has stagnated. Like most cosmopolitan people, they have had few children and many have had no children at all. Second, since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, there has been a huge influx of Russian Jews into NYC. They are highly religious, very insular in their communities, and they are having lots and lots of children. 

The Orthodox Jews are rising while the cosmopolitan Jews are declining.

This has potentially huge implications for our city. In future decades, Jewish New Yorkers may not dominate the city's establishment and institutions in the same way they did. Or they might -- but they will be more conservative and more religious and the establishment and those institutions will then change.

And our city's politics will change too. Increasingly, NYC will have its own version of the religious right -- a strong, politically forceful constituency that demands that their religious views be respected and even enshrined into law. In the past, cosmopolitan New York Jews were reliable Democratic voters (except in Mayoral elections where Republicans Giuliani and Bloomberg only won over cosmopolitan Jews because they didn't consider either Giuliani or Bloomberg to be "real Republicans"; otherwise, in all other elections, New York Jews vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers). But not Orthodox Jews. Sometimes they vote Democratic but they are open to voting Republican -- particularly if those Republicans are socially conservative but willing to spend more on government services. In many ways, Orthodox Jewish Republicans are the inverse of cosmopolitan Jewish Democrats who are socially liberal but don't need government services. They are, in many ways, mirror opposites. And in future years, the nature of New York Jews may be the opposite of what we have come to know it to be.

Like NYC itself, the New York Jewish community remains dynamic.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Broadway Bucks

This past Sunday was the Tony Awards, the big awards show of the Broadway theater. Like all industry awards, the Tonys is a chance for Broadway to celebrate its achievements, advertise itself, and, most importantly, drum up business for shows currently running. Sometimes shows that win Tonys go on to long runs (A Chorus Line, Rent, The Book of Mormon). For other shows, a loss at the Tonys means closure (too many to count). Other times, even shows that win big close (like ... Titanic: The Musical) and other shows that win nothing continue on (like Spiderman). Broadway is a business and the Tonys, ultimately, are about business.

What isn't these days?

One of the problems with Broadway today, however, is that it's so damn expensive. The average ticket price for average seats at an average show is over $100. Sometimes you can get discount tickets in the $50-$60 range but that's usually for shows that, well, suck, or that are just too esoteric to appeal to big audiences that don't run long. Otherwise, if you want to see a great show (like The Book of Mormon) you have to pay a huge, huge amount. Why?

Blame it on the 1% percent economy.

In the last decade, something bizarre happened. The very rich in NYC decided that they loved theater and were willing to pay ungodly sums for tickets. This really started in 2001-2002 with the show The Producers where, all of a sudden, people were willing to pay $200, $300, upwards of a thousand dollars for one performance. Now, not everyone will pay or has paid that, but it started a trend. The average price for seats has skyrocketed in the last several years and the revenues for Broadways shows have effectively doubled since the end of the 20th century.

Naturally, not everyone agrees that the 1% economy is totally to blame.

Obviously Broadway shows are expensive to produce. The actors and crews of even a modest show cost lots of money. And Broadway is heavily unionized. Also, Broadway is a huge tourist magnet and, for many tourists who rarely ever get to see a Broadway show, they are willing to splurge. So there are many reasons.

But its an inescapable result of capitalism: if a select few are willing to pay huge sums for something, that something becomes more expensive for everyone else. And then it becomes hard for everyone else to have access to, in this case, the best theater in the world.

I'm sure Mitt Romney would fully approve. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Horace Mann Horrors

The world of elite NYC prep schools really is a strange, rarefied place. As a product of one of them (albeit, at one of them a couple rungs down on the snooty ladder), I can attest to how bizarre the environment in them is. The students are, for the most part, children of wealthy families whose arrogance and sense of entitlement is hard to fathom -- particularly in people so young. They view prep school simply as a way station to a great college and then a life of wealth and privilege. Their behavior if often bad and goes unpunished. Their cruelty is often brazen. And yet they always seem to get away with it.

Then there are people like yours truly -- middle class kids who were lucky to get in and who appreciate everything these schools can do for them. But we go through these schools knowing that many of our classmates look down on us. It's something you never quite get over.

The teachers are a strange lot too. In many ways, they mirror the students in a way. Teachers at these elite schools fall into two categories. There are The Legends, the teachers who have taught there for decades, who are admired by their peers, and who have even managed to garner the respect of their students. These teachers are, in many ways, the most powerful people in the school. Students obey them and administrators fear them. And they can get away with anything. Then there is the other category of teachers, the Newbies, young men and women recently out of college or grad school who were super lucky to get these teaching jobs and are desperately afraid of getting fired. The students view them (mostly) with contempt and the administrators consider them nothing more than the help.

So as I read the long, bombshell article in this week's Times, about stories of sexual abuse at Horace Mann, I couldn't but remember what it was like to exit in this odd world. 

Now, if you don't know about Horace Mann, let me catch you up to speed. It is the elite prep school in NYC. In fact, it's so elite that it has something most schools don't have in this town -- a campus. It's so elite, it's practically impossible to find. It's nestled in the gorgeous Riverdale section of the Bronx on a leafy 18 acre campus. The children of the very rich go there and it's very hard to get in. But, if this article is true, apparently back in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, there were several teachers who abused their students. And it was either tolerated or hushed up by the administrators.

You should read this article yourself and draw your own conclusions. I can certainly attest, that at my time at private schools in NYC, nothing like this ever happened nor did I ever hear about anything like this. But this story did remind me of the weird social world that exists at these private schools. Students of wealth co-existing with middle class kids -- and it becoming very clear, at a young age, about who belongs where in the pecking order. And for the teachers too -- those who can do no wrong and those, who when they do wrong, are easily disposed of. Perhaps this kind of unique environment breads this kind of behavior. Perhaps it's just a classic case of some bad apples.

Who knows?

Yet, whatever the reason, it's a tragedy none the less.