Thursday, January 18, 2018

January 12, 2017 - Foggy Friday in Central Park

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Trash! I Love Trash! Gimme More Trash!!!!

"Oh, I love trash! Anything dirty or dingy or dusty! Anything ragged or rotten or rusty! Yes, I love trash!" -- Oscar the Grouch, Sesame Street

Oh, Oscar, you so crazy.

Perhaps it's fitting that NYC produced both Oscar the Grouch and Donald Trump, America's trashiest president ever. There's a symbiosis, a yin and yang, between NYC and trash. We're a city of 8.5 million people so we produce a lot it (our trash even makes it to the White House!). But there's something else, a deeper bond, between the world's greatest city and the world's grossest substance.

Trash, after all ... is us! 

We create it! Trash wouldn't exist but for us. It's the de trop of existence, the layer of our lives that we're forever producing and peeling away. To be human is to generate refuse and effluvia, to discharge those things that are no longer useful or wanted -- and how quickly things that are so precious and close to us become something to be shunned. That's what trash essentially is -- that which is shunned.

And I'm not just talking about the literal objects that we toss into cans. Trash is something more. We call stuff we just don't like or find offensive and gross "trash" or "trashy." How interesting, too, that things we so often compare to trash has to do with, you know, sex.

Is sex trashy? Dirty -- like trash? (As Woody Allen said, only if you're doing it right!) But what it comes down to is that sex is something society feels should be, for the most part, shunned. Not to be seen. Not to be talked about. Not to be promoted or encouraged. To be handled with care -- like a very full garbage can. "Behind closed doors," etc. -- another sort of garbage can.

That's why, back in 1974, when pornographer Al Goldstein premiered his cable show "Midnight Blue", he did something revolutionary. He put a show -- one that reveled in sex and everything tasteless -- onto the TV screens of the greatest city in the world. He said, loudly and unashamedly, "Look at it! Look at the trash! You'll love it!"

And love it New Yorkers did -- "Midnight Blue" stayed on the air until 2002, nearly 30 years, airing on Channel 35 (Channel J) every Friday night. It was weekly trash, brilliantly produced, and people couldn't stop watching. There was nothing like it before and, in this Internet age, nothing like it now. (Trash was so much smarter then.)

How did Goldstein do it? How did this man take the trashy underbelly of NYC, televise it, and make it (gulp) nearly respectable? This podcast from the Rialto Report tells the whole exhaustive story of Al Goldstein, his life and career, and the saga of "Midnight Blue." It's a fascinating, only in NYC, only of its time, story. (If you want to know more about the life of Goldstein, check out my short blog post from 2013 shortly after his death.) 

Trash takes talent. Goldstein's show wouldn't have lasted as long as it did if he didn't produce it well.

And handling the literal trash of NYC takes talent too. In fact, no less a person than Alec Baldwin (the more sane and sympathetic version of Donald Trump) is interested in the trash of NYC -- he devotes an entire podcast episode of his show Here's the Thing to the subject of how NYC's trash is produced and handled. We all know NYC has lots of trash but how it churns through our city is something almost none of us know about -- until now. Again, this podcast takes the subject of trash and forces us to look (or, in this case, listen to) it, because trash is, as always, part of who we are. 

Look at trash. Understand trash. Respect trash. Love trash. Love that which is shunned and discarded -- because trash is all of us. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Memo from NYC

Courtesy of my six-year old kid:

Monday, January 15, 2018

MLK at Riverside Church: Beyond Vietnam

This is a special Martin Luther King day: fifty years ago this March he was tragically assassinated. While King is remembered most as an activist who championed civil rights for fellow blacks, his remit was even bigger: a human rights and a peace activist, a man who wanted not only rights but also peace and human dignity for all. He saw the world with compassion mixed with clarity and logic.

In 1967, less than a year before he died, King gave this speech here in NYC called "Beyond Vietnam." A supporter of then President Lyndon Johnson (particularly in the 1964 election) who had been responsible for the Civil Rights Act, King broke with Johnson and support for the war. King saw, clearly as always, that this war a mistake and, as always, he had the courage to say so, even at the risk of alienating the president. This was one the most consequential speeches of King's career, and it turned out to be one of his last. On this MLK day, his vision and wisdom is more needed than ever.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview: Catherine Gigante-Brown & the NYC Writing Life

Writing and NYC go hand-in-hand. Not for nothing, this is the city that people move to in order to succeed as writers. Not for nothing, this is where the publishing business is centered. Not for nothing, tons of novels and short stories are set here. Not for nothing, many of our greatest writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and JD Salinger, are either from here or have lived here for a time.

There is an alchemy between this city and the written word, a frisson between life here and the desire to write about it. (See how I used just used some big fancy word? That means I'm a big fancy NYC writer!) That said, it's never been easy to actually make a living as a writer in NYC. 

And that's what makes Catherine Gigante-Brown such an interesting person: she's written everything! She is not only a successful writer who has lived her whole life in NYC but she is truly the consummate writer: novelist, interviewer, poet, speechwriter, scriptwriter, ghostwriter, copy editor/proofreader -- to be cliche, you name it, she's written it. She has worked in nearly every literary form. It's an amazing, versatile achievement. Cathy was kind enough to tell Mr NYC about her long career, how she made it as a freelancer writer -- and yes, about her work as an writer in the gone-but-not-forgetten glory days of the adult film business.

If you're an aspiring writer, either in NYC or anywhere, you'll want to read what Cathy has to say! 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you built a career as a freelance writer.

I’m a rarity these days—someone who was born and bred and still lives in Brooklyn. I grew up in Bay Ridge and have lived all over the borough … in Brighton Beach, Gravesend and now in Windsor Terrace with my husband and son. Probably the best advice my mom ever gave me was to learn how to type—she said no matter what, I could always get a job if I had solid typing skills. She was right. For a short time after college, I worked as an editor but the pay was low. I doubled my salary by becoming an administrative assistant and doing my own writing on the side—mostly poetry and short stories. When I was “terminated,” I took advantage of Unemployment and focused on freelancing full time. My pieces have appeared in publications like Essence, Time Out, New York, The New York Daily News and online at The Huffington Post and Ravishly. I have a bunch of short stories in collections and also have an essay in Riverdale Avenue Books’ anthology #Me Too—the ebook is free.

Correct me if I'm wrong but I think I read that, once upon a time, you wrote scripts for adult movies. If so, please tell us all (or something) about that!

Working in the adult film industry was a lot of fun. I found the people very upfront, brave and honest. Many of them are still close friends today. It all started with a nasty letter I wrote to Bob Rimmer in the late 1980s about the many inconsistencies in his adult video review books. He agreed and asked me to be his editor. This led to us collaborating on porn star Jerry Butler’s biography Raw Talent. By then, I had written a few erotic short stories and poems and even tried my hand at screenplays. Soon after Raw Talent came out, director Paul Thomas bought my script The Swap. PT and I worked together for several years, me writing “couples films” for Vivid Video. The softcore versions air on the Playboy Channel and other cable networks. As “Ariel Hart,” I loved the freedom of writing adult scripts. PT let me explore topics like the complexities of relationships and infertility. I think my favorite project was the four-part Passages series which followed two female college roommates. In many ways I miss the creativity and the camaraderie of the adult world. But the industry changed and didn’t use scripts like mine anymore. So, I prostituted myself and began working as a corporate communications consultant for a Fortune 500 company. 

As I said, you seem to be the consummate writer: fiction writer, journalist, scriptwriter, proofreader/copyeditor, speeches. What kind of writing do you enjoy the most and what is the most challenging?

I think to survive as a freelance journalist, you have to do all different kinds of writing. This way, you have a lot to offer and it doesn’t get boring for you—it exercises your creative muscles. I’ll write anything a client pays me to write. I’ve done speeches for CEOs and phone sex scripts for gay porn star Jeff Stryker. I most enjoy working on novels and writing profiles like the ones I’ve done for Industry. The most challenging is probably helping a client write a book. I’ve worked on about seven so far. You have to focus on capturing their “voice” and leave your ego at the door—it’s about them; not you. One of my clients calls my expertise in this area “that Cathy magic.” 

What advice would you give to a freelance writing trying to start a career today? Is it possible to make a living at it, particularly in NYC?

Don’t do it! Seriously, it’s difficult to make a living as a freelance writer today. One of the reasons is that so many people give it away for free on the Internet. Lots of online publications expect you to write for no pay or just for a byline. A byline is cool, but it doesn’t pay your Con Ed bill. Writing is a skill, a craft. You wouldn’t expect a plumber to fix your sink for free. Why would you expect someone to write for nothing? That being said, to be successful, it’s important to know things like HTML so you can post your work. I also suggest having a diverse skill set and writing about a variety of topics as well as specializing in one or two. My clients range from universities to attorneys, artists, real estate and digital marketing firms, and everything in between.

I see that you've also done interviews. Who are some of the most famous or interesting people you've interviewed and what did they reveal?

I was fortunate to do a lot of rap artist interviews for a men’s magazine called Portfolio. (Think Playboy, but in basic black.) I got to talk to people like Luke Campbell from 2 Live Crew, who was so bright and down to earth. I was surprised to learn how involved Luke was with the youth in Liberty City where he grew up and that he established a sports program for them. I also interviewed Naughty by Nature. Vin Rock was a dream but Treach spent the entire first half of the interview fishing around down the front of his pants, trying to intimidate me. It was only after I asked him about his Tupac Shakur tattoo that he got serious. He ended up giving me a really insightful interview about how much Tupac meant to him. Big Daddy Kane was also memorable, a big flirt.

I love interviewing people who personally fascinate me, “behind the scenes” people whose names might not ring a bell. Like Mark Stewart, who lives around the corner from me. Mark is a great guy, a talented musician and has been Paul Simon’s musical director for a couple of decades. Comedian Eugene Mirman was nice enough to give me a telephone interview when he was on a train from New York City to Boston.

You're a lifelong Brooklynite and wrote a novel about Depression-era Brooklyn, The El. Tell us a little bit about the book and how Brooklyn has changed over the years.

The El (Volossal Publishing) was born from the stories my dad told me about growing up in Borough Park in the 1930s. Many of my relatives inspired the characters. It’s about the challenges faced by a close-knit Italian American family and the ogre who threatens to destroy them. Readers loved the Paradisos so much that they encouraged me to write a sequel. I did. The Bells of Brooklyn was released in May 2017. It takes place about 10 years after The El, just after the end of World War II. It’s a story about rebirth,

forgiveness, hope and redemption. The Bells… has gotten a wonderful response so far. Vinnie Corbo, my publisher, tells me that trilogies do really well, so there might be third book in the series in a few years. In between those two books, Volossal came out with my novel Different Drummer, which is about a female singing drummer in 1979 New York City, desperately trying to “make it. I’m working with director Susan Einhorn and two composers to turn Different Drummer into a musical. It’s very exciting. My next book is a young adult novel set in mid-1970s Brooklyn. I just finished the first draft and it should be out in a year or so. So far, all of my novels have been set in Brooklyn. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Brooklyn evolved from being very working class to being gentrified. It’s weird that I have no desire to write about the present—you can just pick up the newspaper to see what’s going on—and I guess I do enough of that in my nonfiction work. But I’m really interested in looking at the past and exploring how it shapes the future. 

If the musical happens and when the next book comes out, let us know!  

Finally, please tell us something we might not know about writing, NYC or life in general.

Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s not so much about the writing but the rewriting. It’s important to get it out, to write it down. Don’t worry if it’s perfect or pretty. You can polish it in the rewrites. Also, it’s important to write the truth, even if it isn’t flattering. Jerry Butler taught me that—he wrote a lot of harsh things about himself in Raw Talent, and when I asked him why, he said, “Because it was true.” I think if you write honestly, people will respect you for it. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, I wrote about it to try and get my head around it. Ravishly published a lot of those essays. I was surprised that so many women related to them and thanked me for writing them. We’re all in this world together. Reaching out, sharing, grieving together, learning, can only help us grow. It’s almost a cliché but I truly believe the saying: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” As a breast cancer survivor, it’s all small stuff.  

We're glad you survived and are so happy you were able to share your experience with the world. 

Thanks Cathy! Keep on writing! 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mae Brussell: Son of Sam and the Birth of Conspiracy Theories

One of the truly scary things about President Trump -- besides him being racist, sexist, gross, and a liar -- is that he apparently believes in wild conspiracy theories. He believes in the "deep state" that is somehow trying to undermine his presidency; he believed, during the 2016 Republican primaries, that Senator Ted Cruz's father was somehow involved in the Kennedy Assassination; he believes that massive voter fraud cost him the popular vote in the election. Trump is a Black Helicopter/New World Order/Illuminati-type nut job who, simply put, believes things that just aren't true. He's nuts. And he's the most powerful man in the world!

How did we get here? 

Well, believing in crazy conspiracy theories is nothing new in American life. There are media people (Art Bell, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, the entirety of Fox News) who have for years peddled insane conspiracy theories to the public in order to goose up ratings and profits. What's horrifying about Trump is that he's the first to do so to win votes to the world's highest office. But literally the mother of all conspiracy theorist, the one who started it all, was a woman named Mae Brussell

An otherwise undistinguished housewife from Southern California, Brussell became unhinged by the JFK Assassination of November 22, 1963. She read over all 26 volumes of the Warren Commission and, by 1971, she was hosting a radio show in Southern California that was all about unwrapping government conspiracies.

Her timing, it goes without saying, was fortuitous. A few genuine conspiracies were about to hit. In 1971 the Pentagon Papers were released, shedding light on government lies about Vietnam. In 1972, the Watergate Scandal broke, leading to the first presidential resignation in history in 1974. In 1975 the Church Committee revealed decades of CIA "black bag jobs" and sordid operations that only heightened the people's distrust of their government. And, in this fetid environment, conspiracy fetishists like Brussell thrived.   

And it hit close to home. 

From 1976 to 1977, a serial killed dubbed Son of Sam terrorized NYC. He was eventually caught on August 10, 1977. Five days later Brussell offered her own conspiracies about what caused David Berkowitz aka Son of Sam to murder people: in short, Son of Sam was, in fact, part of a program of government assassinations, a "test tube baby out on the streets", who was practicing new and better ways to kill people for nefarious government ends. And she does the usual conspiracy theorist things: she talks about how many things attributed to Son of Sam were "impossible", how isn't it suspicious that there other slayings around the same time as Son of Sam, and on and on and on. You should listen to the whole thing here. It's off the wall! 

Interestingly, Brussell was a left-wing conspiracy theorist and, today, the most potent conspiracy theorists are on the right. I say, crazy and crazy. People like Brusell preyed on people's fears and made people (like the Son of Sam's victims) feel even more pain. And now this type of mindset is running the country! 

So, the more things change, the more they stay the same or, to put it simply, the crazier things get, the crazy stays the same.  

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Terry Gross & Alison Steele -- Radio Birds of a Feather

Perhaps my favorite radio show/podcast is NPR's Fresh Air, the daily hour-long interview show hosted by Terry Gross. It's been on the air almost as long as I've been alive (so a lonnnggg time) and is a radio institution. Gross is an amazing interviewer and she's interviewed nearly every famous and important person alive. 

It's also one of the longest running shows ever hosted by a woman and, in this #MeToo era, that's certainly significant. 

In this (also very long) interview with New York magazine, Terry Gross talks about her career, her show, and her interviewing style. But what I loved most of all is that she gives a shout-out to Mr NYC favorite, Alison Steele the Nightbird, the deceased legendary overnight DJ and subject of one one Mr NYC's most popular blog posts ever.

Gross says, about the early days of her career, ""... I'd only heard one woman on the radio, Alison Steele, the Nightbird." Gross doesn't say if Steele was inspiration (and the interviewer is probably too young even to know who Alison Steele was) but it's awesome to see Alison Steele (who's been dead for more than twenty-years) get this kind of tribute. Steele never had the fame or success of Gross but she was the forerunner, the inspiration, and, in this time, more important than ever before.   

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

David Bowie's Last Five Years in NYC

Rock icon David Bowie lived in NYC for the last twenty-something years of his life. Some of that time was spent in seclusion as he dealt with poor health. However, during the last five years of his life, he produced two albums and a musical and cemented his already considerable legacy. This HBO documentary is about the his final productive years in NYC and is a portrait of how an artist, even a very sick one, managed to create something memorable.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

Ta-Nehisi Coats on WTF

Listen to this great conversation between podcaster Marc Maron and acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

A brilliant essayist and social commentator, Coates give a unique and refreshing insight on how racial politics is a constant in the black American experience. 

Coates also talks about life in NYC and how coming here from Baltimore as an aspiring writer was a harrowing yet ultimately rewarding ordeal. He even gives hints as to where he (used to) write in NYC.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Winter Storm Grayson

You should read this ...

... touching tribute to the recently deceased Village Voice photographer Robin Holland.

What I like about it is that it's a simple appreciation of someone who was good at her job and contributed, through her work, to the culture of our city. She wasn't famous and didn't need to be -- her work spoke for itself and life was better for it.

These are the kinds of New Yorkers were should venerate more often -- the people who make it, in ways large and small, a better place. 

NYC: Forever Forward

When Bill De Blasio was sworn in for his second term as mayor this week, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Tish James were also sworn in for second terms -- and unofficially began (if their speeches were any indication) campaigns for mayor in 2021.

Never too early to start working towards the future. 

NYC is the greatest city in the world for many reasons but, one of them, is that we're forever thinking and planning for the future. And this, obviously, includes politicians. 

The future is always Over There, a horizon that's forever just out of reach but that also, paradoxically, falling behind us as a new horizon arrives in its place. 

It's always been this way. Think back to the year 1957. Why? Well, that's when a young lawyer named John Lindsay started planning his run for Congress, an election he'd later win on his way to becoming mayor in 1966. 

It's also the same year that two New York baseball teams, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, left NYC for the West Coast -- clearing the way for the establishment of the Mets and transforming the baseball culture of this city forever. 

It's also the year when a prominent black leader named Malcolm X held a rally against police violence, more than 60 years before Black Lives Matter. 

In the world outside NYC, it was the same year when 13 American soldiers were injured in a training exercise on the other side of the world -- in a country few people knew about called Vietnam.

To sum up: the seeds of NYC, America, and the world in the 1960s was created in the 1950s. The future, after all, is always being formed in the past. 

And in NYC, that's still the case -- today, and forever after. 

Just remember, you heard (or read) about it here first.