Monday, April 30, 2018

Michelle Wolf @ WHCD = Brilliant


Friday, April 27, 2018

"Leaving New York" @ Year One

A year ago this week I published my first novel, an eBook called Leaving New York. It's fun wild road trip about life in 2011, another time of innocence that we didn't know we were living through. 

I published several excerpts from the novel that you can read here

It's now priced at $0.99 so you have no excuse not to click on the picture of the cover to right and buy and enjoy your copy today!

Studio 54: Myths, Memories, and Manhattan(s)

I've blogged a lot about Studio 54, the legendary late '70s nightclub. For just a few short years, from 1977-1980 (basically the Carter Administration), it ruled nightlife in NYC and -- and the world -- in a way that no other place has before or since. It has a cultural hold on the popular imagination that defies time and memory.

Why is Studio 54 remembered so long after it's short reign and sharp demise?

Mainly: the stories. Lots and lots of stories about the wildness and debauchery that seemed to go on there night after night. Many of these stories (okay, all) involved celebrities -- and sex, drugs,  boogieing, big hair, and everything else you can imagine.  

But it's also a "last gasp" story about a time and place that was pre-AIDS, pre-Reagan, pre-gentrification, pre-just about everything we know today. It was a time of innocence (that wasn't) that was just about to be lost -- and it led us, for better or worst, to where we all today.

The ironic thing about Studio 54 is that it was actually a failure. It blazed bright for a very short time before the owners went to jail for tax fraud and the party ended.

To paraphrase Donald Trump, I like things that last. Things that endure because they're based on a solid foundation, on something of substance. Something like the Manhattan Cocktail, which I'm sure they served up at Studio 54 and that people still drink today. For me, that's something worth celebrating.  

Thursday, April 26, 2018

April 24, 2018

The day of Tuesday, April 24th, in this year of our Lord 2018 anno domini, was not a day of earth-shaking history. But let it be recorded here that, in New York at least, some history was made.

First, a disclosure: for the time ever, your truly attended the taping of a late night show, specifically The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

It was a fun time, with the warm-up act Paul Mercurio doing some very funny stand-up, including having fun with some British tourists and a very impressive older married couple from New Hampshire (one of whom was ex-military) who both happened to be women.

When Mr. Colbert took the stage he, as always, "killed." I was in the balcony and saw the great man himself do his monologue right in my elevated site-line. Then he brought on his first guest: Hank Azaria, the talented actor who has done, according to his estimate, up to 30 voices on The Simpsons during his multi-decade run on the air. Lately there has been much controversy over the character of Apu, the lovable Indian convenience store clerk who Mr. Azaria has voiced for the shows entire run. Many people feel Apu is an offensive stereotype and that the non-Mr. Azaria shouldn't be doing the voice. And Colbert, fearless as he is funny, asked Azaria about this.

Little did I know when I got my tickets a while back that I'd see history being made: Hank Azaria, before my very eyes, before the rest of the world learned about it, said that he'd be willing to step aside from doing the voice of Apu. I've been watching The Simpsons since I was a little kid so to see him say this made it feel like a part of my childhood, and American culture, was ending and changing before my eyes. It was an amazing moment and Hank Azaria was very heartfelt. It's worth watching here because it's something I'll never forget.

And then, a few hours later, more history!

A bunch of special elections were held in New York state yesterday, including here in NYC, and they resulted in the first out-right Democratic majority in this state in years. It's should be an amazing moment, a moment of true Resistance to the horror of the Trump presidency but ... but ... an awful State Senator named Simcha Felder says that he'll keep sitting with the GOP because they've done the most to bribe. Felder is a revolted opportunist so this isn't surprising but, still, these elections send a signal that New York is fighting the Trump agenda tooth and nail.

Rarely is history, the right side of history, made on an otherwise normal night. 




Grateful Dead@Columbia U. Protests in 1968


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Interview: Natalia Singer on New York, Work, and Optimism

Natalia Singer doesn’t just write about the 1980s. As an English professor at St. Lawrence University, she combines her love of literature and writing with her passion for travel and the beauties of the world, both literal and otherwise.

In this final part of our interview, Natalia tells us more about her work as well as her love for NYC, upstate New York, and other great places. Also, she tells us why, despite the ugliness of the daily headlines, she’s feels good about the future. 

You work in upstate New York and edited a book of essays about the region. Can you tell us a little about this book and what inspired it? 

Living North Country: Essays on Life and Landscapes in Northern New York was the assignment I gave myself when I came up to St. Lawrence University to give a job talk in the '90s—which led to my moving here. I drove up from Western Massachusetts (I’d just gotten my MFA in creative writing at U-Mass/Amherst) on a cold February day, which was the first time I saw the Adirondack Mountains. By the time I hit Blue Mountain Lake, where people were ice fishing under a brilliant blue sky, I was intrigued. Where was I going? How far north was this place? (Very far, it turned out. I now live near the Canadian border.) I promised myself that if I got the job I’d do my homework and find out more about the region, and I did. I teamed up with a talented writer and editor from this area that we call The North Country, Neal Burdick, and we put together the collection. We wanted the anthology to be partly an act of community-building so we solicited essays from writers both experienced and well-known (like Bill McKibben) and others who had never written literary nonfiction before, and we held a writing retreat with the first-time authors. It was a project by and about community.

Tell us a little more about your work in general and what you're working on today. 

I write fiction (including flash fiction), literary nonfiction (essays, books, lyric essays, and political journalism) and I teach creative writing and environmental literature.

For the past decade I’ve worked on a novel set in France. It opens in 1989 and ends in 2015, just after the Paris Attacks. My agent is sending it out in early May. Fingers crossed! It’s been a labor of love and has brought me back to France about a dozen times for research and creative exploration.

In that time period I’ve also drafted a new memoir, which I plan to return to after I send the novel to my agent. It’s about losing my dog to cancer, about our long walks on the river, about learning how to meditate, and about grief and mortality, as well as mindfulness and nature. I’m hoping to finish the fourth draft of it this year and send it out early next year. Then I have some other projects that have been in the back burner for a while, both fiction and nonfiction.

Since this blog is mostly about NYC, how do you compare life in upstate New York to the city?

There is no comparison. We might as well not be in the same state. And I love them both so much. NYC is one of my favorite cities on earth. If I had to list my top five, I’d say it’s NYC, Paris, London, Seattle, and Rome. I also love New Delhi. I’ve never had a bad day in NYC. Even if it’s pouring rain, and I’m waiting in line for hours on a crowded pavement to do something unpleasant, like get a visa in an office where someone will be mean to me and tell me I have the wrong documentation, I still feel more alive in New York City than I do almost everywhere else. I love walking down a crowded street and feeling the mass of humanity all around me, the smells of street food, the found art in everything. When I’m in NYC I always feel like I’m eighteen years old again on my first visit, where I discovered sushi and Star Wars movies and off-off-off-Broadway and got stung by a jelly fish on Long Island all in the same weekend. The sewer steam puffs and the sight of messenger bicyclists and yellow cabs and dog-walkers with six very different breeds, from Dalmatian to Shih Tzu, and Madison Avenue stores and bodegas and bookstores and graffiti and political pamphlets and kiosks and cumin-infused sweat on the subway: I love all of it.

On April mornings like this one I wake up in my home in the North Country to the sounds of the geese coming back. The geese are confused. They thought it was spring but then we had the same Nor’easters you had in the city, and this week we had an ice storm and lost power, twice. I pass my days attuned to small changes: sunset coming later each day and dropping a red fireball on someone’s barn when I drive to dinner with a visiting writer. The trillium that blooms in the woods in early May, along with fiddlehead ferns that we eat with pasta and pesto. The river that flows past our house still carries ice chunks away now; in warm weather my husband and I will get into that river in our canoe with our dog. Our big excitement for the summer ahead: dinners on our new screened in porch—bug-free bliss.

I feel very lucky to have the job I do, where I teach undergraduates literature and writing, but I also get to take them places. Locally we’ll go to farms and the students will help with the harvest. And I have had the good fortune to take students to France (twice), India (twice), and I have taught a writing course to students who spend the semester in the Adirondacks living in yurts, hauling their own water, splitting wood, and learning woodworking. Fitting all these very different locations and activities into one career and one life feels like living multiple lives at once.

Any final thoughts or something you'd like to share?

So I’ve just bombarded you with doom and gloom in all my answers. The '80s was a warm-up act that paved the way to the nightmare we’re living through now under Trump, our new normal in which every value so many of us hold dear—the right to have a good public education, clean water and air, shelter, health care, safety from violence—is being demolished with savage cruelty and indifference. It might not be evident that I’m also a humorist in a lot of my writing. I come from a people that laugh a lot—sometimes, just to keep from crying. And because I’m a professor and spend most of my time with people 18-22 years of age, I’m not a pessimist, despite all the doom and gloom I’ve lived through. I have great faith in the millennials and post millennials whom I teach. They’re smart, sensitive, kind, nuanced in their thinking, and they’re not going to let the recent tax scam and other heinous policies rob them and the planet of a future. When they’re in charge, we may very well achieve that “Great Society” that President Johnson saw as the ultimate fulfillment of The New Deal. But until then, we all have our work cut out for us. It starts with voting. And in active resistance: calling our representatives, writing op eds, and taking to the streets—a lot.

Thanks Natalia!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Interview: Natalia Singer on visiting the infamous Rajneeshpuram in 1982 and “Wild Wild Country”

This spring the hottest cultural event besides Black Panther is the six-part Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. It tells the bizarre story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian “guru” whose cult took over a vast area of central Oregon from 1981-1985. Almost overnight, the “Rajneeshees” built a city called Rajneeshpuram, flooding this quiet, conservative place populated by retirees with wild, young, “far-out” men and women draped in purple robes. Instantly the two worlds came into conflict and it soon became political – and violent. 

In 1982, Natalia Singer visited Rajneeshpuram and came back amazed at what she saw – a full 35 years before the rest of us learned all about it. 

In this second part of our interview, Natalia tells us her thoughts about the Rajneeshees and Wild Wild Country – and about what this cult and its paradoxical values tells us about that time and this country. 

I just finished the documentary Wild Wild Country about the Indian cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and the commune he established in the Oregon countryside in the early 1980s. It's a frightening but very compelling documentary, and it's become a big hit. You visited this commune during its heyday. Can you tell us about your visit and what it was like?

I first heard about the Rajneesh movement a few weeks before I decided to go down to Rajneeshpuram as a freelance reporter. I was living in Seattle and I saw the disturbing movie, Ashram, about the violence that had erupted in some of the dynamic meditation and therapy sessions in Poona. At that time I was (as I still am) a yoga practitioner, and although I had yet to go to India, and had not yet studied Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, I knew that there was something about the story of Rajneesh and his followers that didn’t add up. Weren’t gurus supposed to have sat at the feet of other gurus through a centuries old lineage? Rajneesh declared himself enlightened (in his words, “awake”) at the age of 21, and his blend of East and West, his desire to create a “new man” that was the perfect synergy of the two—everything about him, especially the unapologetic over-the-top materialism, seemed so much like a story of the moment.

His [Rajneesh’s] ability to quote Western thinkers and to attract Westerners to a hedonistic, guilt-free spirituality was apparently so seductive that if he hadn’t been there to lead this movement, someone else would have. It was like we were watching history unfold and his story and that of his followers would soon serve as an emblematic narrative of East-Meets-West during the last gasp of the Cold War. Even from the onset it was like the plot from a dystopian novel, almost too formulaic to be believed that they would move to the ranch where John Wayne had filmed one of his Westerns while we were in the throes of a hard dose of cowboy capitalism in the U.S. under the hands of the newly elected Ronald Reagan. And what happened can only be studied, I think, in the context of this history, and as a cautionary tale.

On the personal note, during the time of my visit I was a very young woman whose best friend had died only a couple months before I set out to write this story. My mother was seriously ill, and my family was in crisis. I was heartbroken and raw, and everything going in the world at that time left me feeling increasingly vulnerable. I had a new boyfriend who was interested in the Rajneesh community and it scared the hell out of me that he could be so gullible, as I saw it. (That experience alone, with the boyfriend, gave me some compassion for the families of people whose loved ones left to join this community). From what I had read and what I saw in Ashram, I believed Rajneesh to be a con man. I hoped that if I went down there with this boyfriend and he saw the situation for himself, he’d think again. So the two of us set out on this ill-fated trip—one of us a seeker and the other a freelance reporter who was fearful and distrustful of the entire enterprise.

At the same time, I felt, under Reagan, like an expatriate in my own country. And as a vegetarian, liberal feminist interested in contemplative practices, I was sympathetic to anyone trying to create an alternative community, especially one, as I witnessed in Rajneeshpuram, with alternative sources of energy, and cutting edge methods of sustainable farming. The fact that they wanted to feed their own people was laudable. I have spent much of my adult life thinking about ways to live sustainably in close-knit communities, so I was interested to see what they were building there and to write about it, and I had nothing but praise for what they had accomplished in such a short time.

But oh, the Rolex and the Rolls fleet: those were nonstarters for me!

So I went to Rajneeshpuram with this boyfriend in a borrowed car in May of 1982, before things really got crazy there. We were there for maybe three days, but we didn’t stay there—we were at a motel several miles away in The Dulles. We took photos and I took pages and pages of notes. 

Have you seen the documentary and what did you think of the Rajneshee movement at the time and today?

I did see [it] and I thought they were very even-handed, which I appreciated. What I admire most about the film is that it’s a kind of dialogue project that allowed the principal actors and stakeholders in this story to tell their stories and explain their motives. In the end we may judge them ourselves, but we are given a chance to understand them.

When I arrived there in May of 1982 I spoke to some of the people featured in the film—Ma Anand Sheela and Ma Ananda Sunshine. I especially liked Ma Ananda Sunshine—Sunny, as she was nicknamed. I ate at Zorba the Greek cafĂ© and I saw the farm fields. I also witnessed the daily drive-by of Rajneesh in one of his Rolls and I was relieved that the people I was standing near (the farming crew) didn’t swoon in ecstasy or fall prostrate in devotion. One of them made an irreverent comment about how the “old man” was looking pretty dapper that day.

The people I met at Rajneeshpurum were articulate and did not seem brainwashed or scary. My favorite interviewee was the man who ran the school. He was a New Yorker, a sociologist who had taught, I believe, at NYU. I had majored in Sociology and English at Northwestern, and this man could have been one of my old professors. He talked about how academia had begun to feel stifling to him, and how as a leftist academic, a Marxist cultural critic, it felt like everything he’d ever produced or thought was informed by orthodoxy, but now, in this community, he finally felt free of totalizing systems of thought. This was, of course, the exact opposite of what anyone on the outside believed. Everyone was expecting Jonestown. And I, having been a college student when Jonestown happened, harbored many of these same prejudices.

In my very brief time there, I talked to people who were nuanced and smart and funny, not zombie-like as one would expect if they were expecting a cult. But I had absolutely zero attraction to their lifestyle. Why? For one, I didn’t believe Rajneesh was a true guru in the Hindu sacred traditions. He was self-invented, and he had figured out a way to get rich people to devote their resources to his cause. A con man, like I said. What made him any different than the televangelists of the time, in the U.S., who touted prosperity? I couldn’t get past the Rolls Royces and the diamond Rolex, at a time when Ronald Reagan had just signed the 1981 Economic Recovery Act into law, the greatest transfer of wealth since the Gilded Age in terms of taking money from the lower and middle classes and putting it in the hands of the richest Americans. (The recent tax bill is the second act to that audacious transfer of wealth.). In Seattle at the time, under Reaganomics, whole families were suddenly homeless. Just one of those cars would have housed and fed a family for three years—I couldn’t get past that.

And apart from anything else, living at Rajneeshpurum looked like so much work! At that time they were feverishly building and putting in 18-hour days, seven days a week. They had some of the most talented engineers and city planners and architects and designers of their generation creating this utopia. (My spacey boyfriend soon realized he had nothing to offer them, no talents they could profit from!). All I wanted to do with myself then was to lie on the couch and cry and read novels and try to write some decent sentences. I couldn’t imagine working so hard at anything as they were doing at Rajneeshpuruam. (Not even, yet, at my own craft as a writer). I was a lazy girl who was grief-stricken and unfocused, and what those people were doing was beyond hard-core.

I think the film series accurately captures their idealism and their work fervor, and their arrogance and narcissism and indifference to the suffering of the disenfranchised. In the film, their scorn for the working class retirees living down the road from them was breathtaking to behold.

I also like the cautionary note Ma Anand Sunshine provides in the first episode—it’s the perfect foreshadowing. I am paraphrasing it, but I think she says something about how if we use the same weapons as our oppressors, we become them. That’s ones of the film’s big takeaways. At first they were trying to use participatory democracy to outsmart the law and get their way. Then they were exploiting the new class of homeless people that had been created under Reaganomics as a way to get more people to vote their way. And then they resorted to large-scale bioterrorism! So the revolutionaries arm themselves, and the utopia becomes a military dictatorship. We have certainly heard this story before.

The government overreached and persecuted them, yes. Those bussed in homeless people should have been permitted to register to vote; they had followed Oregon’s voting laws at the time. The government went after Rajneesh in a way that they’ve never gone after Mormons or the Amish, etc., etc.

But when you arm yourself against Da Man, you become Da Man, or worse. The fact that the ashram began in India and that they had no time for Gandhi’s satyagraha methods—no truth-force, no nonviolent resistance—that is what led their downfall. So in my view, they were doomed before they ever got on the plane. The fact that they had no time for Jesus’s “turn the other cheek” or Gandhi’s Salt March: that was a warning from the get-go.

At the same time, the townspeople in Antelope (whom I think are also sympathetically portrayed) were caught up in a fundamentalist Christian worldview that cast the Rajneeshees as Satanic. And there’s a bit of Cold War lingo in there when they talk about how the Rajneeshees are going to “turn the whole state red.” I can’t imagine two more fundamentally incompatible groups of people having to share space at this same time on earth. Especially during this heightened time of hard-right politics and Armageddon-baiting. I think it’s important that viewers interpret these events within the context of history, the political-cultural forces that were at work then, in India and the U.S. India, the world’s largest democracy, was in turmoil during the Rajneesh era under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. You just have to look into her corrupt practices that led to her ducking investigation by calling a national emergency, and then the horrific acts she committed—the clearance of the slums, the forced sterilization of impoverished people, the Indian Army’s raid on the Golden Temple (which led to her assassination in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguard) to understand why, if the community was seeking a setting to form the perfect community, India was problematic then. (I would have liked the film to have explored, as well, what kind of hot water the ashram had gotten into in India—which was suggested but not developed.)

At the same time, Ronald Reagan was waging covert wars in Central America, was shutting down unions, was dramatically exasperating inequality and creating homelessness with his disastrous economic policies, and was baiting the Russians with the threat of first-strike nuclear capability. There were communities all over the U.S building bomb shelters and fearing the worst. Robert Scheer’s 1983 book, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War should be required reading of anyone wanting the big picture to understand why people were so paranoid and militaristic in that era. As an L.A. Times reporter Scheer found out that Reagan was privately talking about a winnable nuclear war. We would each be issued our own shovel, to dig our own shelter (and thus, our grave). The militaristic fervor and paranoia that you see in Wild, Wild Country was in the air and it was inescapable. America itself was a wild, wild country.

In other words, the Rajneesh story isn’t just some bizarro freak show. It’s the kind of story that grows directly from the soil of a troubled world, and those larger forces—these very flawed democracies in India and the U.S.—were the breeding ground for such insanity. But I also go back to the larger, less time-specific view, which is that utopias turn into fascistic dictatorships when the revolutionaries in charge arm themselves.

Imagine if the Rajneeshees had moved into the Big Muddy Ranch, walked into Antelope, knocked on people’s doors and said, “Hi, we’re your new neighbors. We’re a bunch of weirdos who wear orange and red, and we sing and dance, and we know you’re going to think we’re strange. But we want to be good neighbors. We came to the States because your Constitution believes in the freedom of religion. Please come over for dinner. Can we help you with anything? Please call on us if you need help on your ranch, or anything at all.” And imagine if the so-called Christians in Antelope had said, “Yep, you do look like a bunch of big red weirdos. But we believe that you should love thy neighbor as thyself. Welcome.”

I ended up not selling the freelance story, the boyfriend and I crashed the car, and a few weeks later I ran away to another kind of community via a writer’s conference in another town (and not long later, academia), but I did end up using this story in my memoir, Scraping by in the Big Eighties

Wow! Natalia’s experience and story about the Rajneeshees prove that one person’s weirdo is another person’s savior – and that people are hopelessly more complex than they seem. 

If you haven’t seen Wild Wild Country, you must! It’ll blow your mind. 

In our next and final interview, Natalia shares her thought about New York, her life, and the future.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Interview: Natalia Singer on the 1980s

It’s shocking at how popular the 1980s remain. After all, Roseanne is back on TV and a big ‘80s icon, Donald Trump, is now president (unfortunately). Sure, since the ‘80s we’ve had lots of changes: 9/11, two Iraq Wars, the fall of the Soviet Union, a black president (after two Bush presidents), the Internet, the IPhone, the OJ trial, the Great Recession, marriage equality, social media -- but, if you look at all the 1980s nostalgia around us, it’s clearly the decade that won’t die.

We still love the ‘80s … for reasons I can’t quite comprehend.

Natalia Singer has a few thoughts about that decade – and many more. She literally wrote a book about it, a memoir about her life as a young woman in the Reagan era. Now an English professor at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, Natalia’s personal journey through that time was intertwined with its political and social changes. In the first of three amazing interviews, Natalia tells us about her book and her 1980s experiences, her life now, her thoughts about New York, and her visit to Rajnesheepuram, subject of the fascinating new documentary Wild Wild Country.

You wrote a memoir, Scraping By in the Big Eighties, about your life as a young woman in the 1980s. What inspired you to write a book that's personal but also sociological?

Thank you for this excellent question. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to tell this very personal, raw, intimate, and sometimes harrowing tale within this larger political and sociological context because I saw the two as inextricable. I was inspired by the work of George Orwell, James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Virginia Woolf, and Susan Griffin—writers who saw their lives within the larger context of history informed by a lens of race, class, and gender, and who provided a rich template for how to make the personal political, and vice versa. I read their work while I was telling my own story because my story is not only about what happened to me at various key moments in the 1980s but about what happened to us as a nation as the social safety net I had relied on as a child began to unravel under Reaganomics.

As the daughter of a single mother who was disabled, I would probably not be alive were it not for the social safety net. Lyndon B. Johnson’s dream of a Great Society “where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled” had yet to be fully realized when I was growing up in a working class neighborhood on the West Side of Cleveland, but my family of three was able to rely on Medicaid, food stamps, Aid to Dependent Children, and a thriving public school system in which my honors track classmates and I went on to study at topnotch universities. I was able to get free legal aid during a family crisis, 3% student loans, fee waivers on college boards and applications, and, as a student and then a young adult, affordable rent.

And then Ronald Reagan happened. Watching him hasten inequality, exasperate America’s racial divide, roll back reproductive rights for women, kill the ERA, declare war on America’s unions, poison our air and water, all during a militaristic buildup that was frankly terrifying: I wanted to tell that story too and how it affected me personally. I wanted this book to dig deep to the marrow, to hit bedrock emotionally, but also to reach out to engage with others as a literature of witness.

I am a very political writer and I always look to find common cause with my readers. Writing for me is a form of resistance, and it’s also a way of building communities. I also teach the memoir, and I have always been really irritated with the way the American memoir relies on the conversion narrative (dating back to The Confessions of St. Augustine) married to the Horatio Pulled-myself-up-by-my-Bootstraps Alger myth. In other words, in hard capitalism, we like stories about people who suffer and fall and then rise—through self-determination alone. I wanted to write about what happens when you don’t rise because someone else’s boot (and presumably, bootstrap) is being held against your neck. I wanted to critique the mentality that says that we, as individuals, can do and be anything—an ideology that became very popular in the eighties as Ronald Reagan did everything in his power to hasten inequality and systemic racism and sexism.

But I also wanted to write a book that would bring all our disparate struggles for justice together—to unite us, not divide us. A quote I go back to repeatedly from Susan Griffin to inspire both my writing and my teaching is this one: “Any healing will require us to witness all our histories where they converge, the history of empires and emancipation's, of slave ships as well as underground railroads; it requires us to listen back into the muted cries of the beaten, burned, forgotten and also to hear the ring of speech among us, meeting the miracle of that.” Susan Griffin, The Eros of Everyday Life.

It seems like Eighties nostalgia never ends. I remember Eighties nostalgia starting in the 1990s! GLOW and Stranger Things are the most recent examples, and now Roseanne is back (it first premiered in 1988). You might even call Donald Trump's presidency (both the man and his reactionary agenda) a piece of ‘80s nostalgia. Why do you think this decade seems to hold so much power over the common imagination – and has it become almost self-destructive?

Donald Trump was a big joke in the Eighties. He was The Donald, a symbol of 80s-style materialism on steroids, and, for the people who had to run into him in the city and at all the clubs where he groped women, a shallow icon of male white privilege. He is and always has been a vulgar con man.

I am mystified as to why people are nostalgic about that decade. I spent most of those years in terror that we’d all be killed in a nuclear war—that we started. When I think of the Eighties, this is my montage: Jimmy Carter putting up solar panels on the White House and Ronald Reagan taking them down; Reagan’s myth of the Welfare Queen; first-strike nuclear capability; AIDS spreading unchecked because of our president’s neglect and homophobia; televangelism and Tammy Faye Baker’s mascara clumps; “Just say no;” $10,000 gold-plated nuclear sub toilet seats; the HUD scandal, the Savings & Loan Scandal; the Stock Market Crash of 1987; Iran-Contra; U.S. sanctioned torture and human rights violations in Central America; the Valdez oil spill in Alaska; the rise of the prison system and disproportional incarceration of people of color; I’m just getting started. Trump represents a continuation of this mass destruction.

But, I will say this: the Eighties had excellent music! The Pretenders, the B-52s, The Clash, some of Madonna, Sting, The Smiths, Cowboy Junkies, 10,000 Maniacs, U-2, Radiohead, The Talking Heads, Roxy Music, The Cure, Blondie. Who wouldn’t want to have an Eighties dance party and rock out to these songs again?

Talking nostalgia, what are your favorite memories of the 1980s (both personal and otherwise) – and your worst?

Before housing costs were insane it was possible to live in a gorgeous place, pay very little rent, and sort of eke out a life working part time and making art the rest of the time. This ended before the decade was over, but I still remember my $170 apartment in Ballard in Seattle, and my friends, Cindy and Dawn, who had a Thompson Street apartment in the Village where I stayed when I came to NYC and slept semi-comfortably on the floor (even if my head was in the bathroom and my body in the little hall in front)! Until 1985 I lived in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, and then Port Townsend) and it was easy to scrape by on restaurant work, a little writing and editing, and to spend long, rapturous weekends hiking the Hoh River Valley or camping at Third Beach near La Push of bicycling and whale-watching in the San Juan Islands for very little money. Those memories are imprinted on me for life. Up on the coast, I met people who lived in trees—literally—and they functioned in a post-capitalist economy by bartering, foraging, and just hanging out. And in NYC and in LA, in those years, I met many people who got by just fine because of rent controlled apartments, free clinics, community gardens, and luck.

Low points—too many to count but I did list a few under 4. This is the decade in which we see the rise of homelessness and food banks, the backlash against feminism, increased police brutality, and the hard core resurgence of a kind of militaristic masculinity that seemed already passĂ© in the seventies but came back with a fervor then—a harbinger for Trumpism. The ecological disasters—Valdez and Chernobyl. Industrial farming: get big or get out. Basically, it was a nonstop nightmare. 

What are some of your favorite music, movies and TV shows from that decade?

I didn’t watch TV in the eighties at all. I watched a ton of TV as a child, then stopped in college and didn’t really start again until the late '90s. I gave you a list of my favorite music from that era above (should have read all the questions first!) In the Eighties I watched a lot of foreign films by Werner Herzog and Peter Weir. I also liked Hannah and Her Sisters, A Year of Living Dangerously, and of course, The Big Chill

Thanks Natalia! In our next interview, Natalia tells us about her 1982 visit to the now mythical Rajneeshpuram, the Oregon site of the Rajneeshee cult, the subject of the hugely popular and controversial Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Capital of Crime? It ain't NYC

"Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away! It's just a shot away!"

So begins the Rolling Stones' epic song "Gimme Shelter" from their 1969 album Let It Bleed. You've only heard it in every Martin Scorsese movie ever made, including probably Kundun

Anyway, if you listen to boring old men like Donald Trump or others, they'll try to convince you that America is more violent and crime ridden than ever -- when the truth is actually the opposite. Remember when Trump said of immigrants, "They're bringing crime. They're bringing drugs. They're rapists" -- turns out, the only ones importing crime to America these days are members of the Trump Administration. 

In NYC, the crime rate is at historic lows. In fact, this is how low it's gotten: this year, so far, there have been more murders in London than NYC. That's either an historic first or an historic first in a really, really, really long time (London is nearly 2000 years old, NYC only about 400). After all, there are lots more guns floating around the streets of NYC than London so what gives? Why has it become more violent now?

The answer: gangs. Violent, bloody, skinhead street gangs.

They've plagued Good Ol' London town for decades and now the mayhem they cause is worse than ever. Oh, but they're white. That's right, it's WHITE PEOPLE that are making London more crime ridden than ever. That sorta goes against the paranoid American grain of brown people being the root of all crime, here and everywhere. 

One thing that skinheads and violent people also love to do in England is "glassing" -- slamming a glass of beer over someone's head so that it shatters, the person is all bloody, and mayhem ensues. You saw it in the movie Trainspotting and it's apparently a favorite past-time of London pub culture. In fact, people who do it don't even go to jail! Imagine that in NYC -- you'd be in the pokey in no time.

Here are the lessons from the spike in crime in London vs. the historic lows in NYC: crime is not the sole province of brown people, poverty and cultural alienation of any stripe creates breeding grounds for crime anywhere and everywhere, and crime can be brought down anywhere and everywhere. Let's hope that happens in London too -- and stays true for NYC.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Memo from NYC

Today is Hitler's birthday. 

Don't worry, we're not wishing him a happy 129th or whatever. 

But this clip from legendary conspiracy theorist Mae Brussell is fascinating. On her radio show in 1981, she talks about why she thinks that Hitler is (or was) still alive. 

Okay, so that's crazy. But then she also talks about how and why Hitler appealed to so many Germans back in the 1930s -- and her observations, her theories about that, are chillingly accurate. If you consider our current political environment, everything she says about Hitler could be equally applied to ... you know who. That's the most scary thing: no matter whether it was the 1930s, or 1981, or 2018, some things about people and the world at large don't change. 

Some things stay the same -- and sometimes crazy people are brilliantly sane. 

No More Cars in Central Park

This June there will be no more cars in Central Park.

This is both a huge and minor announcement. 

Practically speaking, this means that the various "loops" below 72nd street, where cars are allowed for certain times of day, will be closed. That means no more cars anywhere in the park -- because cars have already been banned above 72nd street.

But it is a huge announcement since it means that, wherever you are in the great park, you won't ever have to look out for an automobile (except, probably, for ones from the parks or police departments).

It's always been surprising that it was above 72nd street where cars were previously banned. The vast majority of visitors (tourists, day trippers, etc.) flooded the lower part of Central Park. Having huge numbers of people compete with automobiles always seemed crazy to me. Fortunately, now, that'll no longer be the case.

A big win for sanity! 


Thursday, April 19, 2018

More Staten Island Stuff

Right now there's a "humdinger" of a Republican Congressional primary going on in Staten Island. Current Representative Dan Donovan is being strongly challenged by his predecessor, Michael Grimm, who held the seat from 2011-2014 until he went to jail for tax fraud.

In normal times, in a normal place, in a normal political party, a disgraced former elected official -- a convicted felon! -- trying to get his old job back would be laughed out of politics. 

Democrats Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner tried it 2013 and lost badly. But in today's Republican party, in a wacky place like Staten Island, Grimm has a real shot. He's allied himself strongly with Trump and Donovan is running scared. There's a very good chance that he'll lose to Grimm on June 26th. If he does, it'll tell you everything you about the moral rot in the GOP and, if Grimm, wins the general election and returns to Congress, on Staten Island. 

Let's hope neither comes to pass. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Howard Stern Inducts Bon Jovi into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame


Howard Stern has made many outrageous public appearances over the decades -- and here's his most recent one. 

Links 1901

Okay, so the title of this post makes no sense until you consider:

1. This is the 1,901 post on this blog -- that means we're 99 posts away from a clean 2000. (I got 99 posts but a ... oh, never mind). Anyway, I will work diligently on crafting those remaining 99 posts. Also, once I do another 117, we can then have a blog post for every year of the millennia AD. How cool is dat? 

2. I found a bunch of interesting links that have nothing to do with each other except that they cover the life of this town: we got subways, we got books, we got late-night podcasts. We got it all!

Onwards! Except if you're on the subway. Then listen to a podcast. Or read a book. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

So What's the Deal with Staten Island?

When you look at a map of the five boroughs that create the archipelligo of NYC, it makes sense that four of them go together: the lower part of the Bronx and western coastlines of Brooklyn and Queens are hugged together around the island of Manhattan -- the borough that ties them all together.

But what about Staten Island?

This borough, the so-called "forgotten borough, lies well south of its NYC brethren. It doesn't "hug" any part of NYC -- instead, it hugs the Jersey Shore. So why isn't it part of New Jersey? Why does it belong to NYC?

Long story short: politics. In the early 19th century, both New Jersey and New York claimed ownership to Staten Island that, at the time, was known as Richmond County (it wasn't part of NYC since NYC at that time only consisted of Manhattan the Bronx). Basically, NY wanted the island and NJ wanted access to NY harbor so, under the guidance of President Martin van Buren, they worked out a deal. Then, when NYC consolidated in 1898, Staten Island became part of NYC because, well, it was already part of New York State and had nowhere else to go.

Apparently there are some urban legends about how Staten Island wound up in NYC including how it was part of a bet on a boat race -- but it's untrue. It's a more dreary story -- like so much else in life. And, some might joke, like Staten Island itself.

#HerToo


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Memo from NYC

Working in the White House, working for the President of the United States, should be the greatest honor of anyone's life. Best of all, after you leave, you can write your meal ticket: you can spend the remaining years or decades cashing in as a lobbyist or a "consultant", writing your memoirs, appearing on panels, giving interviews, being a pundit. You are a desirable asset. That's one of the great things about America -- this is the land of the lucrative Has Beens. 

But if you work in the Trump White House ... your career is basically over. You are marked for life.

No one wants to hire anyone who has worked for this flaming garbage dump of a president. People leave this White House infected with what you might call Trump Cooties. Seriously, people who went to jail or did porn seem to be more employable than ex-Trumpsters! In fact, they might have been better off going to jail (which they might still do!) or doing porn (which certainly would've been more enjoyable although I don't think even pornographers want to hire ex-Trumpsters -- ask Stormy Daniels). Trump talks a lot about "draining the swamp", whatever that means, but it looks like the swamp is quite happy to drain itself of Trump people. 

 Call it revenge. Call it logic. Call it, dare I say, a victory for decency.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Interview: Paul Krassner, Legendary Satirist and Founder of "The Realist"

If your life encompassed most of the 20th and all of the 21st centuries (so far) – and you knew and worked with people like Ken Kesey, Lenny Bruce, Kurt Vonnegut, Groucho Marx, John Lennon and Yoko Ono (amongst others) – you might think you’ve lived an interesting, even exciting life. 

But what if you changed the culture? What if you changed history? Then you’ve had more than an exciting life – you’re a flat-out legend.

And that moniker certainly applies to Paul Krassner.

A native of NYC, Paul was a child music prodigy who, as a young man in 1958, switched to journalism and founded the The Realist, the first truly great satirical magazine. A generational cousin to Mad magazine (where Paul used to work), The Realist went even further in mocking the hypocrisies of American social mores. Extreme and unflinching, it published things like the "Disneyland Memorial Orgy" poster and "The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book", a vicious mocking of the Warren Report. Long before provocateurs like Frank Zappa and Howard Stern were shocking the culture, long before Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show were showing America its hypocrisies, Paul Krassner and The Realist were leading the charge and showing them how it's done.

Paul’s work, however, went far beyond satire. Thanks to Paul, almost three years before Roe v. Wade, Paul helped changed the New York state laws against abortion, ensuring a woman of her full reproductive rights. He was also a founding member of the Yippees and the Merry Pranksters which would have alone sealed his legendary fate.

These days, truth is stranger than fiction, and satire seems to be reality. That’s why it was so great for Paul Krassner to answer a few of Mr NYC’s questions about his life, his career, NYC, and the crazy culture that he exposed and shaped.

You were a child musical prodigy, playing the violin on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1939 at the age of six. Tell us a little bit about your upbringing in NYC, and how you made the leap from music to satirical journalism? 

Actually, the birth of such morphing occurred during that event in the middle of the “Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor.” I had been performing by rote until my left leg started itching. Balancing on that foot, I scratched the leg with my right foot without missing a note. I woke up to the sound of the audience laughing, and I opened my eyes. I could play the violin with technique, but I had a passion for making people laugh. It was to become the path of my life, starting in Astoria. I went to Long Island High School where I played on the baseball team, elected president of the Student Court — my first official act was to subpoena the new principal — and I wrote, produced, directed and acted in the senior play. In City College, I performed stand-up comedy, using my violin as a prop. I hadn’t touched it for several years, but now I took it out of the closet. 

The satirical magazine you founded in 1958, The Realist, was far ahead of its time. It was brash, rude, irreverent, and held nothing that was precious. Did you view the magazine and yourself as free speech crusaders, as speaking truth to power -- or were you just trying to be funny and outrageous?

I had been writing freelance scripts for Mad magazine, and the editor assigned their artists, though he rejected a few of my submissions because they were “too adult.” I complained to the publisher, Bill Gaines. He told me that since Mad’s circulation had reached over a million, he intended to keep aiming the magazine at teenagers. I said, “I guess you don’t want to change horses in midstream.” He replied, “Not when the horse has a rocket up its ass.” That was the precise moment I decided to publish a satirical magazine for grown-ups. There were none in America. I had no role models, and no competition, just an open field mined with taboos waiting to be exploded.

We seem to be living in surreal times that go beyond satire. What do you feel the legacy of The Realist is and what is the place of satire in the 21st century?

The more control by government, religion, propaganda, the more truth in satire is needed. My credo of The Realist was to communicate without compromise. The slogan was “Irreverence is our only sacred cow.” There were no labels of journalism or satire in order not to alert the readers from discerning their own pleasure.

In an intellectual property class I took several years ago, we discussed the infamous 1967 "Disneyland Memorial Orgy" poster (showing Disney characters in explicit sexual situations) that the Disney company then sued over and suppressed on intellectual property grounds. Can you tell us a little more about the background of this poster, this historic case, and your thoughts on "intellectual property?" Is it just another form of censorship and corporate greed?

When Walt Disney died, the libido of his characters were freed. The Disney attorneys considered suing me but didn’t because they knew that parody wasn’t against the law. I assigned Wally Wood, a Mad magazine artist, to draw a black-and-white two-page spread in The Realist, and then I published it as a poster. In 2005, an anonymous Disney employee painted a larger poster in authentic colors. You can see it on my website, paulkrassner.com.

You knew or were friends with a number of legendary cultural figures, among them Lenny Bruce, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Lennon. Telling us about them briefly is impossible but can you, briefly, tell us how you got to know each of these guys and how they impacted your life?

Steve Allen was the first subscriber to The Realist. He sent several gift subscriptions to friends including Lenny Bruce, who then sent several gift subs to his friends. Malthusian approach that peaked with 100,000 circulation in 1967. Playboy hired me to edit Lenny’s autobiography. He advised me to drop the violin prop. He wrote some things for The Realist. So did Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrote an introduction to one of my books. Realist readers John Lennon and Yoko Ono visited me. Lennon was absentmindedly holding on to a joint. I asked, “Do the British use the expression, to bogart a joint, or is that only an American term — you know, derived from the image of a cigarette dangling from Humphrey Bogart’s lip?” He replied, "In England, if you remind somebody else to pass a joint, you lose your own turn."

Are there any other famous or interesting people you knew who you'd like to tell us about?

Groucho Marx. On a visit to L.A. in 1968, I was invited to a comedic pro-acid movie, “Skidoo,” in production by director Otto Preminger, who had been turned on by Tim Leary. Groucho played a Mafia chief named God. Having read The Realist, he asked if I could get some that’s pure LSD, and also would I accompany on his first such trip. And we did. At one point he told me about one of his favorite contestants on the show: “He was an elderly gentleman with white hair, but quite a chipper fellow. I asked him what he did to retain his sunny disposition. 'Well, I'll tell you, Groucho,’ he says, 'every morning I get up and I make a choice to be happy that day.'” You were always a crusader for personal freedoms and the joys of pot smoking. Today, gay marriage is legal and recreational marijuana is becoming legal everywhere. Do you feel that the culture is finally catching up to you -- and do you feel you deserve credit for making the culture more tolerant? I didn’t think in my lifetime that legalized-pot, same-sex marriage, African-American president – they wouldn’t happen, yet they did – although the Trump administration tries to make a U-turn back in my lifetime to those reactionary taboos. My favorite bizarre claim was Attorney Jeff Sessions’ utterance that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He also stated about the Ku Klux Klan, “I thought those guys were okay until I learned they smoked pot.” Yikes!

This is a blog about New York City. What was the NYC of your childhood like and how do you feel about the city today?

Well, I loved living in New York, walking around growing up and never learning to drive, being innumerable times on WBAI — a guest of three different programs hosted by Bob Fass, Steve Post, and Larry Josephson — but in 1971, after my first marriage broke up, I moved to San Francisco invited by Stewart Brand to co-edit with Ken Kesey, “The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog.” I continued publishing The Realist and got my own talk show on ABC-FM. I would visit New York two or three times a year to perform at the Village Gate, see old Yippie friends, writers, artists, my parents, ex-wife and our daughter. The latter stayed with me each summer, eventually all the time.

Tell us something about Paul Krassner that we might not know?

In the ‘60s when abortion was illegal, I published an anonymous interview with Dr. Robert Spencer, a humane abortionist, promising that I would go to prison sooner than reveal his identity. I became an underground abortion referral service. When Dr. Spencer retired, he gave me another such physician to refer. In 1969 Bronx DA (later judge) Burton Roberts told me that his staff found that abortionist’s financial records showing all the money I received but he offered to grant me immunity from prosecution if I cooperated with the grand jury. He extended his and as a gesture of trust. “That’s not true,” I said, refusing to shake hands. If I had ever accepted any money, I'd have no way of knowing that he was bluffing. The DA was angry, but he finally had to let me go.

Attorney Gerald Lefcourt (later president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers) filed a suit on my behalf, challenging the constitutionality of the abortion law. He pointed out that the DA had no power to investigate the violation of an unconstitutional law, and he couldn't force me to testify. In 1970, I became the only plaintiff in the first lawsuit to declare the abortion laws unconstitutional in New York State “Later, various women’s groups joined the suit,” Lefcourt recalls, “and ultimately the New York legislature repealed the criminal sanctions against abortion, prior to the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.” I had morphed from a satirist to an activist. 

Finally, how do you want your life and work to be remembered?

Laughter from the satire I felt urged to share on Earth.

Thanks Paul! You’ll be remembered for that and lots more!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

BEST HEADLINE I EVER READ!

Certain headlines long outlive their newsworthiness. In fact, they become as famous as the stories they're about:

"Ford to City: Drop Dead"
"Headless Body in Topless Bar"
"Sid Vicious is Dead"

Those NYC tabloid headlines -- screaming from newsstands back when people actually had to buy newspapers from them -- didn't just report history but made history. They neatly summed up events in a few verbs and nouns and stuck in people's brains for years, decades afterwards. I wasn't old enough (or even alive) when they first ran but, NYC history junkie that I am, I learned all about them.

There is one infamous headline, however, I clearly remember seeing. 

Just as we had entered a new decade, the 1990s, and just as yours truly had entered his tumultuous teens years, I recall walking past a newsstand where the ugly mug of a man who would one day terrorize this country through social media from the White House (social media even exist yet; heck, neither did the Internet). 

The headline proudly declared: "Best Sex I Ever Had." 

Seeing that nauseating headline, for me, was the beginning of the end of my childhood. What was this all about? Why was this on the front page? Why is this in our lives?

How that infamous headline was created -- and how informs so much of what we're living with today -- is the subject of this article by the person who wrote it. It'll make you either laugh or cry or wonder ... what has this country done to itself?

And who knew then that it was just forerunner to what is possibly the greatest political scandal since Watergate?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

NYC's Ray Donovan

Remember The Wolf in Pulp Fiction

"I solve problems," he proudly declares.

This type of person is more commonly known as a "fixer", the person called in to solve difficult, embarrassing, expensive, potentially life-shattering messes that people, usually wealthy people, stupidly get themselves into. 

In movies like Pulp Fiction or Michael Clayton, and TV shows like Ray Donovan, fixers are usually asked to dispose of dead bodies, intimidate people, engage in blackmail (or get blackmailers to back off), launder money, and destroy or hide incriminating evidence. Fixers are usually smart, skilled, stealthy, shadowy -- they operate behind the scenes, undercover, quickly and efficiently. They keep the appearance of law abiding respectability intact for their clients -- even when it couldn't be further from the truth. 

Michael Cohen, the Trump's lawyer whose home and offices were just raided, fancies himself the president's fixer. The problem is that he's an idiot who loves the limelight and actually makes his client's problems worse!   

But not all fixers are sleazy accomplices. Some are, in fact, just good public servants.


He's an eighty-year old lifetime public servant who has worked in and out of city government for decades. He was a deputy mayor under Koch and has held a variety of jobs where he has usually fixed agencies under duress. De Blasio has called on Stanley's services multiple times since taking office.

Stanley's latest assignment: fixing NYCHA, the public housing authority that has fallen into dysfunction. Stanley is coming in to turn around he troubled agency and will hopefully improve the lives of its 400,000 residents. 

He's basically the fixer of NYC, our own Ray Donovan, and it's great that, even at his age, he feels the call to serve. 

Or, as De Blasio probably said when he found out that Stanley would help, "Well s!@t yeah, n$gro, that's all you had to say!"