Pimp My “Arnine*”

Ah, the good old days.  Many NYC tourists, who are hardly Real New Yorkers,  regularly fantasize about a “kinder, gentler” city, when life here was fine and mellow, as Lady Day would say.  Today’s post offers good news for such out-of-town fantasists — every Saturday through December 24, old-time NYC buffs can indulge the desire to revisit the past, with a ride on one of the MTA’s Vintage Trains.

What better way to celebrate the holidays than to hop aboard one of the classic R 1/9 subway cars (nicknamed *”Arnines” by Real New Yorkers)? Imagine the thrill of boarding one of the “Nostalgia Shoppers’ Special Trains” enroute to Rock Center, Herald Square, Greenwich Village — even the Lower East Side!

These babies were introduced into the IND system back in the Depression years of     1932 – 39, making their return so totally apropos. Of course, we here at The Real New Yorkers think that the MTA could have amped up the old-time vibe to create a really memorable experience.  We therefore respectfully recommend the following features, designed to make this holiday season one that “Nostalgia Shoppers” will never, ever, forget.

  • Once safely in the station, the Nostalgia Shoppers Special Train (or NSST) conductor shall unintelligibly announce the next station, open any working doors, and allow passengers to push onto a subway car packed to full, 282-person, capacity.  And don’t worry about roving hands — it’s all part of the fun!
  • Inside the NSST, gaily costumed actors will perform a demonstration of switchblade knife skills and reinact the rumble scene from West Side Story.  That Riff was such a hot-head, n’est-ce pas?
  • Every platform along the route will be fitted with inoperable Chiclets machines that either steal kids’ pennies (Remember pennies?  Weren’t they cute?) or dispense rock-hard gum pellets that can be used at show-and-tell when the holiday vacation is over.  Watch your orthodonture work, Muffy!
  • Ladies, be sure to wear skirts and pantyhose, to get the most old-time “ouch-value” from each NSST’s carefully crafted, ripped rattan seating.
  • Fellas, and gals, wear your foul-weather gear, because each NSST and MTA platform actor has been trained to perform random acts of bodily function release.  Now that’s old-time entertainment!
  • Kids, be sure to hold mom and dad’s hands when the NSST conductors, in their best imitation of Denzel trying to sound “street”, croak over the malfunctioning PA system: “This train is goin’ outta service.  Move to the front of the train, exit and walk along the track to the nex’ station.” And, yep, those are real live rats, not pussycats — nothing bogus about this Nostalgia Special experience!
  • Cold?  Damp?  Feel a cold coming on? Once you’ve made it through the tunnel to the next station, be sure to enter the MTA’s Old-Time NYC Spitting Contest — yours could be the Lucky Lugy of the day! 

We think that, by making it a bit more interactive with just a few simple tweaks, the Nostalgia Shoppers’ Special Train experience will be greatly enhanced.  As a result, visitors to our fair city will share the previously unknown subway-riding realities encoded in the DNA of all Real New Yorkers.

ALL ABOARD AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!

SAY “NO” TO CUNY TUITION HIKES

What happened at Baruch yesterday infuriates every Real New Yorker.

The role of CUNY is to permit access to superior, higher education for those who otherwise could not afford it.  Continued and accelerated tuition increases limits this access.  The cost to society will outweigh any “savings.”

The enthusiasm of college “police” and municipal police departments from UC-Davis to CUNY is appalling, disgusting and criminal.  Peaceful protest is a right, and is what we are ostensibly fighting for overseas.  Thug-like police tactics here are no better than what we see in Cairo at this very moment.

Maybe the disenfranchised people of this country are finally waking up and showing some gumption.  Real New Yorkers  admire CUNY, its professors, its graduates and the grads of tomorrow.  Employers nationally reap the benefit of CUNY’s work. 

It’s time to enhance entry to higher education for deserving strivers — not constrict entry.  Note to school administrators: talk to your security forces about appropriate tactics in non-violent situations.  Now!!! Before a tragedy precipitates something far worse than what we’re currently seeing.

My Brooklyn Exodus

When last I wrote, dear reader, I noted that I had to flee Brooklyn because it was “on fire.”  This time, there was no arson involved.

This time, the economics in my Brooklyn neighborhood, Park Slope, had changed dramatically.  For the better — unlike my earlier experience in 1970’s-era New York, when my University Heights neighborhood was ravaged in a matter of years.

The Real New Yorker  knows that this city is ALL ABOUT change.  In this case, however, the influx of affluent young out-of-towners with seemingly unlimited funds, tilted the playing field to the point where I finally agreed with those who had spray painted construction sheds years earlier: “No Mas Yuppies!”

Consider the following behaviors from the new Park Slope elite:

  • (in reference to a building employee who asked for a $50 salary advance to pay for car repairs): “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to own cars.”
  • (in response to hard questions about the price of a capital improvement, after failing to get multiple bids): “Look, that’s what it costs.  If you can’t afford it, maybe you shouldn’t live here.”
  • (in response to being asked to remove their errant, running amok toddler from our booth at a local restaurant, at 8 p.m.): blank stare, followed by resumption of their conversation.

OK, maybe out of context, such remarks are no reason to move from a hot neighborhood.  But after 25 years, enough was enough.  Prospect Park was my backyard.  The Farmer’s Market was at the corner.  And, yet, I felt that I’d lose my mind one more day cheek-by-jowl with such self-important, inconsiderate, nabobs-in-training.

It proved to be a serious dislocation, but we moved, after 25 years, from the most fashionable neighborhood in NYC to arguably the sleepiest: Riverdale, tucked into the very northwest reaches of The Bronx.  Yes, the borough from whence I started my journey, decades earlier.

But, surprise: here is a hardy bastion of Real New Yorkers.  Here are people who have polite, well-mannered children who need not be lectured about staying seated in restaurants.  Here are elderly people getting out and striving, living with the middle-aged, and the young — three generations, sharing space in the city.  Here are people of affluence shopping for groceries elbow to elbow with those less fortunate.  Here is a vibrant college town environment (Fordham, Manhattan, Columbia, and Mount St. Vincent are all nearby).  Here is a nascent community theater culture…a hotbed of book reading and animated discussion…a home to now-graying old-school, hemp-and-Birkenstock liberals with ties to Sullivan County.  No hipsters.  Not a one.  You can go weeks before seeing a single Trilby.  Forget fixies: too many serious hills here for that affectation.

It has taken time to acclimate.  It is sleepy here.  Sometimes I get impatient with the glacial pace of life.  But, other times, I see the value in sharing an old-time bedroom community with — as in the early days of Park Slope — people who CHOOSE to live somewhere special, in quiet harmony, because they know they have something good going on.  That no one really knows about it here is absolutely the point.  They do not want a “scene.”   (And, if that’s what you want, Manhattan is 20 minutes away by car.)

They enjoy the peace of watching red tail hawks soaring over the trees that line the Hudson, a 6-iron shot away.  They revel in Saturday evenings around a big round table at Hunan Garden, kibitzing, laughing with old friends — and the devil should care if the tableau looks like it was cut from Broadway Danny Rose.

They gather — in the hundreds — at the Temple, some with walkers pimped out with tennis balls on the legs, to hear a YIVO lecture on the commonality of themes in fiction from Sholom Aleichem to Isaac Babel to Philip Roth.

It’s not a cool neighborhood.  It’s anything but.  

As previously mentioned, my son returned from Montana, got a job in Manhattan, and moved right back to his Brooklyn, in Greenpoint.  He loves it.  And yet, he is excited about visiting here on Thanksgiving, with our closest relatives.  He plans to sleep over Thursday night.

“I’m looking forward to coming home,” he said.  We’re only here a year, but our lovely but sleepy Riverdale apartment is “home” to him.  And the light bulb went on in my head.  To our Real New Yorker  “Riverdale” means: the place where his parents live and are comfortable, secure and happy.  Yes, Riverdale is far from Park Slope, in so many ways.  But it is home for us, now, at this stage of our lives, populated with, as Sholem Aleichem wrote, “People with glasses on their noses and autumn in their hearts.”

And, I’d add: with people who have human decency, respect and basic consideration for others.

Brooklyn, Pre-Exodus

 We moved to Brooklyn in 1985 and, two years later, our son was born.  We lived up the hill from the scene you see here.  From our living room window, we were surrounded by three church steeples clustered at the corner.

I’ll never forget the look on my grandma’s face when I told her we were headed to Brooklyn.  “Vhy?” she asked, in her heavily accented English.  To her, it was as if I said I was moving to hell.  Bear in mind, she had to flee the fires of persecution in Russia, chased by Cossacks, and became a Real New Yorker in 1913.  Then, 60 years later, my parents dragged her from her home in The Bronx, kicking and screaming all the way.  They, too, had to flee.  Between the fires and murders, it was not a lifestyle decision.  It was a matter of life or death.

Our Bronx neighborhood, once upon a time, was far from idyllic, but it was a real neighborhood.  Then the 70s came, and it went up in smoke, quite literally.  

After living in Manhattan and Queens for some years, it was finally time for my wife and me to “settle down.” We found a Brooklyn neighborhood where newcomers who loved city life, and actually chose it over the suburbs, were living in relative harmony alongside the “old-timers.”  It was like The Bronx used to be, but even better.

Back then, I was amazed by Brooklyn.  It was rough and tough, but the people had heart.  And it was so different looking from the hilly, dingy rows of University Heights walk-up apartment houses where I grew up.  From our windows on the top floor of our former rooming house in Brooklyn, from our rooftop, we saw, we smelled, we heard our harbor. New York was a seaport!  Gulls, ferries, barges, ocean liners – there they were!  There was the Statue of Liberty – so close!

There was no denying it, though.  Of all the sights in my new Brooklyn, the view of the World Trade Center captured my attention. 

The Towers were so majestic.  I’d look out the window and see them, just beyond the church, standing fast against the winds off the river, preening in the sun. 

On 9/11, I lost a neighbor.  He worked at Cantor.  That chaotic morning, soon after the Towers were struck, his wife and I passed each other on the street.  I was rushing back from school with my son.  She was rushing to the school to pick her two kids up.  At that very moment, she had to have known that her husband was gone.  We looked in each others eyes as we passed.  We spoke not a word.  We just knew.

In the ensuing days, a yellow cast hung over my Brooklyn neighborhood.  The air was foul with the smell of a massive electrical fire, but worse.  It was the smell of a crematorium.

One day, maybe it was the Thursday after that sunny Tuesday, while walking my dog, I sat on a park bench, deep in thought, so angry, confused.  Suddenly, someone I barely knew, a fellow dog owner I’d seen a few times in the park, stopped and asked if I was OK.

I put my face in my hands, embarrassed, but I just let go.  My neighbor sat down with me.  We talked a bit.  We talked about some dog-related thing.  I wiped my eyes.  My dog rolled on his back for a belly rub.  We laughed at the big dope.

Soon it was time to go.  We said our goodbyes.  I felt a little better. 

Brooklyn is known as the “borough of churches.”  After I’d lived there 20 years, I had a better understanding of what that really meant.  A place of worship is made of stone and glass.  But it is much more.  It is people, it is a community, with neighbors who understand and, when needed, reach out and help.  It’s about faith, and hope and heart.

My son was born there and, as sons do, he left to start the great adventure of his life.  I am convinced he was fortunate to have grown up in that Brooklyn crucible.  In the early life of this young man, he saw both cruel poverty and incredible wealth.  No wonder he is comfortable and secure no matter what the social context or circumstance.   He is a good, balanced kid with a head on his shoulders – and a wisecracking Brooklyn mouth. 

He is a Real New Yorker and, after his college days in a rural Red State town and a year out west in eastern Montana helping the less fortunate, for Americorps, he has returned to Brooklyn.  Greenpoint, to be precise.  He did not have to flee. 

But things changed in my part of Brooklyn.  And I did have to flee.  Once again, my neighborhood caught fire.  But not in terms of arson.  TO BE CONTINUED…

The Store

 There is a new boutique on a trendy block in a high-rent zip code in Brownstone Brooklyn.

The store sells designer clothing for dogs and cats.  You can bring in your dog, or cat, for a fitting.

Before that, the store was an art gallery owned by a local high school teacher with a great love of all things beautiful.  He sold paintings and sculpture crafted by local artists, and sometimes from ex-students of his who did exceptional work.  He put his heart into the store.  He put his heart into his teaching, too.  Many kids who otherwise wouldn’t have given a hoot about fine art really care about, and know about, art history, thanks to Mr. _______.  The rent on the store tripled, and the gallery closed.  Then, Mr. ________ got laid off.  Schools didn’t need art history teachers anymore, he was told.

Before that, the store was a bodega.  It had a bullet-proof plexiglass cage near the register to protect the owner.  There were numerous stickups.  The owner had a 12 gauge behind the counter.  The guys outside all day used to drink nips of Miller and sell little bags of white powder.  One day, there was a stickup, by two junkies who didn’t know the owner had a shotgun.  They pulled plastic toy guns on the owner, and demanded the money.  They were cut to pieces by the bodega owner.  His wife had a good long talk with him and convinced him it was time to move back to Ponce.  Which they did.

Before that, the store was an Irish grocery.  The owner and his daughter were at the store all day, selling Maxwell House cans and Ring Dings, bologna and cans of Reingold and Ballantine.  His son was in the Marines, in the Pacific Theater.  His wife had died.  In the summer, the Dodgers game was always on the radio.  The daughter had eczema and the local kids taunted her with names, such as Flakey.  The man and his daughter moved to Hallendale one day, because, he said, the neighborhood was getting rough.  Everyone knew that the real reason was that his heart just wasn’t in it for years, ever since he got the telegram about his son.

Before that, the store was a Chinese laundry.  A little old man and his little old wife ran the store.  A dirty white AM table radio with a wire hanger antenna played “The Make-Believe Ballroom” all day long.  Along the walls were stacks of folded shirts, with pistachio green and salmon pink tags, with Chinese letters on them.  One day, a man came in with a very old laundry ticket.  His package was on the very top shelf.  The owner, spry for a 70-year old, hopped up on the table and climbed up the shelves, reaching for the man’s package, on tippy toe.  But he slipped, and fell.  He cracked his head on the floor and died.  The little old wife closed the store and moved away. 

Before that, the store was a jeweler.  Isaac always wore a loupe and sat at a long wooden table, lined with various tiny tools.  He could rebuild any watch.  He could make a ring with any stone, in any type of setting you wanted.  He was an artisan.  He learned his craft in Vilna.  He came to this country in 1913, as a 10-year old, alone, with $10 dollars in his pocket and the clothes on his back.  He built his business from scratch and made it successful.  He owned a house on Eastern Parkway and drove a dark green Packard.  When his young nieces and nephews came to visit, he would take them to the toy store and point out the new dollies and toy trucks with his hand-carved cane, and buy the kids whatever they wanted.  Then he’d take them to Lewnes candy store and buy them egg creams and chocolate lollypops. One day, the store remained closed.  Isaac had died at his table, loupe still in place, a Bugler between his nicotine stained lips.

Before that, there was no store.  The lot that eventually would become lined with five-story apartment houses and corniced brownstones with ground-floor stores was, as that point, part of a hard-scrabble farm.  There was an old barn, some chickens, roosters and two pigs.  The owner also kept a dog and many feral cats.  The dog and cats slept in the yard and did not have designer clothing.  The cats yowled all night and would sometimes leave for weeks at a time, and the dog, named King, was the father of every pup in the neighborhood. He ran with a pack that would gallop down the unpaved street and scared the whee out of all the local little kids.  One day a man with spats came and made the owner, a Mr. Quinn, an offer for the property.  Then the five-story apartment buildings went up and the stores began.

Real New Yorkers need to know this.

My 9-11 Confession

I never told this to anyone.

The 10th anniversary of 9-11 was nearly two months ago so, yes, I blew the deadline.  It took time for me to relate this:

In the aftermath of 9-11, I would sit at my desk and replay that sunny Tuesday’s events over and over and over in my head, until I would simply convulse in sobs.  The air in Brooklyn, where I lived, hung heavy and yellow and smelled like an electrical fire inside a cremetorium.  Which is what it was.

One day, the daze lifted.  Sort of.  And I was determined to make my very own memorial for the fallen.  I had a brainstorm.  I would make a cassette tape.  Of music, in five parts.  Each part related to one of the Five Stages of Death.

So.  In my song cycle, I had:

I.  Denial and Isolation

  • E Lucevan le Stelle (Caruso version)
  • My Little Town (Simon & Garfunkel)
  • Small Blue Thing (Suzanne Vega)
  • Danny Boy (Chieftains)

II.  Anger

  • Star Spangled Banner (Hendrix)
  • We’re Not Gonna Take It (Twisted Sister)
  • Sunday Bloody Sunday (U2)
  • Ahab the Arab (Ray Stevens)
  • Ride of the Valkyries/Napalm (Apocalypse Now soundtrack)

III.  Bargaining

  • Broken Things (Buddy and Julie Miller)
  • If I Fall Behind (Springsteen)

IV.  Depression

  • Flying Shoes (Townes Van Zandt)
  • Come Down In Time (Elton John)
  • Ben McCullagh (Steve Earle)

V.  Acceptance

  • Tears in Heaven (Clapton)
  • The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel)
  • Tragedy (Emmylou Harris)

And I spent hours on the floor, in front of my old-technology analog two-channel stereo, mixing vinyl and CDs and cassettes onto my cassette deck, for this was well before I had access to a burner, or iTunes, or “clouds.”  And, many hours later, I was finished.  And I was mentally and physically exhausted and, for the first time in a long time, I actually felt “good.”

I made a little decoration for the cassette box and, later in the week, brought it down to my 1999 VW, which was equipped with a cassette deck.  The decoration was a print-out of the New York Times photo by Angel Franco of the heavy black lady resting on a mailbox near Ground Zero, crying, her eyeglasses askew.

For the debut of my 9-11 tape, I thought I’d take a ride and play it on the road.  Not the typical “road songs” tape but, hey, this is what I wanted. 

I opened the car door, got in, turned the key.  The car fired up.  I turned on the radio.  I put the cassette into the tape player.

AND IT ATE MY TAPE!!!

I did not laugh, I did not cry.  I just pulled the shards of plastic and ribbons of accordioned audio tape from inside the ruined bowels of the tape player.  The tape player never worked again.  The tape, of course, was broken and, it being my “master,” I had no way to create a dupe other than to re-record.

Which I never had the (nerve, gumption, fortitude, need — pick one) to do.

And I completely forgot about the entire episode until this very morning, nearly two months after the 10th anniversary of 9-11.

I never told it to anyone, dear reader, until I set it down now, for you, The Real New Yorkers.

The Beach Boys’ Smile

What could be farther from The Real New Yorker than the lifestyle captured by the songs of The Beach Boys?  On face value, not much.

My thoughts turn to Brian Wilson and the guys today for two reasons.  First, I hear tell that my son — a Real New Yorker if ever there was one — got himself the music of the Smile Sessions — the “Director’s Cut” of the long-awaited, post-Pet Sounds, “lost” album of Brian Wilson.

The second reason is today’s balmy, Indian summer weather.  The Real New Yorker never takes such days for granted.  Here, in the last throes of summer, before the temperatures dip, the winds whip off the Hudson, and the tragically unhip holiday decorations festoon our shopping streets, are a precious few days that are sadly beautiful.

Why sad?  The color of the fading summer sun has lost its mid-season’s yellow intensity and takes the tone of a burnt Sienna Crayola.  The soft breeze is gentle with the colored leaves that hold precariously to their trees.  In only days, the hard, cold rains will surely come, lashing down the leaves and clogging sewer drains, driving us to the “Cold Remedies” aisle of our Duane Reade’s, searching for syrupy potions to cure our stuffed noses and sore throats that come with the segue to the Winter Solstice.

Those of us who know enough to live in the moment recognize the aching melancholy of these last embers thrown by our dying summer’s life.  Wistful, we recognize, too, the fragility of our circumstance here on earth and bathe ourselves in the ochre light of early afternoon, perhaps optimistically wearing only shorts and a tee-shirt, in homage to summer, as it passes its torch to late Fall and, finally, the icy harshness of winter.    

On such days, I urge you to listen to the Smile Sessions, with its remastered Surf’s Up and Heroes and Villains.  The experience need not be chemically enhanced, as was certainly the process for Mr. Wilson.  Sit with headphones, eyes closed, pencil in hand, and write the words that come to mind.  What’s on your list?  Wistful.  Sad.  Melancholy.  Heavy-hearted.  Could not Wind Chimes be the perfect sountrack music for a day like today?  And, do you really believe our musical genius, Mr. Wilson, is truly getting “excitations” from the girl in Good Vibrations, from what you know of the author from his wrenching plea in Wouldn’t It Be Nice? 

Oh, dear readers, in my book, Brian Wilson might have hailed from southern California, but his angst is that of The Real New Yorker, through and through.