Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

Of Semi-Hidden Places

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We stood on the Q35 bus, along an adventure wholly of our making and wholly suited to us. He was getting over the recent separation with his lover, who had left for good to the Netherlands and had already rekindled prior affairs, prompting an emotional spiral swooning on the inconstancy of man. For my part, I was mulling over the parallels to an innocent love that had wrought me a year ago and from whence my mourning had yet to cease.

We patted ourselves on the back, remarking how we had become responsible adults over the past decade, where even our drinking to excess had attained a gloss of class. He entertained and distracted from the underlying topic by explaining the various stops along the way: Only yuppies would get off at Fort Tilden. Minorities and ghetto types would get off at the first Jacob Riis stop, and even more ghetto types and gays got off at the second. This was our celebration to ourselves: Him, a sea of well-wrought yet fey men, me, a buffet of topless women.

Jacob Riis is beyond the pale, situated as far from the metropole as possible yet remaining within city borders, just too far from the prying eyes of both city officials and roving police for them to bother much. It’s a no-man’s land, which suits it just fine: Coney Island is Brooklyn: The Theme Park, Jacob Riis is a relief from the city altogether. And we were taking public transit. As it turns out, the best things in life are free, but it takes two hours to get there.

It was a place you could put your hair down, which was the point. The women were there because the gay men were there, and the gay men were there because it was inconvenient to get there. It was a true retreat: Sunbathers in speedos and even less lounging and drinking rum to the sounds of Willie Colon and Mon Rivera, couples of all flavors and families basking in the laissez-faire openness that had been fostered by such.

It was a bittersweet affair; an ephemeral circumstance by nature, one that had been lucky to survive so long but ultimately doomed if examined, just like our romantic relationships. Such was obvious amidst banter with a particularly flaming hipster, fresh from Austin and allergic to pants, who – after hazing me for not recognizing a Steel Magnolias reference, thereby proving my outsider status concerning gay culture – suggested that the abandoned buildings near the beach should be bought and developed by an enterprising gay entrepreneur into a hotel/nightclub. I replied that such would kill the vibe, and he instantly demurred and retracted: Nothing more needed to be explained.

Time flows differently upon exit from standardized society. Soon I found myself playing referee in a water-wrestling match between two gay men and two lesbian women, an altercation that started when the men interrupted the women’s conversation about a mastectomy (or, in the vernacular, “I respect how you chopped your tits off” – implying if nothing else that the procedure may not have been for purely medical reasons) to criticize the Boston Red Sox hat one of them was wearing. The match, consequently, was a draw: The Atlantic Ocean trumped everybody.

The rampant peacocking and the loving displays of affection served much entertainment and ease but emphasized our own singleton statuses. This was a day to dispel such thoughts and while it was largely effective, perhaps such cannot be totally dismissed: No act of throwing yourself at the sea and being tossed back can save you permanently from your own mind. He kept one eye on his phone, fantasizing in some portion of his mind of a thirteenth-hour reprieve, a return to lucidity, on his lover’s part, despite the Atlantic between them. His despair made me linger on the yet-unfounded causes of my own loss, in my case the Pacific being the literal divider to the vague emotional one: She wished me well and did so in a heartfelt, poignant manner, but did not explain her departure, fostering fruitless and pointless speculation.

I suspect I write best when overwrought; usually with anger. There is, of course, an endless supply of fodder to distract oneself with for the purposes of anger – Israeli helicopter gunships raining collective punishment on the world’s largest open-air prison, willfully ignorant industry purveyors of the glass ceiling, a limousine liberal mayor whose stint in Nicaragua may yet substantively parallel Mitt Romney’s evangelist “mission” in Paris as a superficial and ineffective resume-builder – which can then be directed into a flame that licks and stings with an honesty that provides a harshness under all the lyrical flourish. The flourish can be copied, the burn cannot.

This was on my mind, spying a wan smile on my compatriot’s face. Man is inconstant, irrational, prone to hurtful flits wantonly rendered. Integrity and loyalty are perfections to strive towards and man is often found wanting. “Do they not want to be happy,” he asked. It is the result not of thinking but of not-thinking. My own ill-fated relationship was one drowned in positive emotions I cannot imagine forgetting, but ultimately one not destined to exist: Simple circumstance did it away, the particulars don’t matter. Yet I was reveling in this thought with a good friend I had met due to a serious mistake I had made about my future well over a decade ago, with deep ramifications as to my life forever more.

A more logical person would have set up his life in a more proper manner, to not pine after the impossible or even improbable, but such a standard is unattainable because it doesn’t exist; life isn’t a concept but a necessarily flawed reality, and even the wrongs are worth living. In that stead, Jacob Riis is a place very well suited to be vainly, poetically wrong.

Stuck In the Middle

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If I didn’t know better, I’d think July was Police Brutality Month.

Hot summers tend to make New Yorkers crazy, and while today hasn’t been the hottest, it’s up there, and thanks to the prevalence of smartphones and security cameras, the city gets front row seats to every time some hood pulls a gun on some other hood in the street in broad daylight – and we’ve had our fair share of that thus far this summer. However, those same cameras appear to be pulling the duty of the oft-suggested lapel cameras suggested during de Blasio’s mayoral campaign.

Aside from the choking death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner for the egregious offense of selling untaxed loosies (which, to the unversed, are single cigarettes, ie: not in a pack), instantly reminding all New Yorkers of Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing, there have been close to a dozen taped accounts of police brutality coming to light in the past month. To name a(n un)healthy cross-section, Ronald John was punched in the face and held in an illegal chokehold for jumping a turnstile, Javier Payne was sent through a hookah store window on a stop-and-frisk altercation, Jahmiel Cuffee was stomped on the face while restrained for a stop that began when he was spotted rolling a joint, Denise Stewart was forcibly dragged naked out of her apartment by a cadre of cops for a child abuse claim that Child Protective Services determined was unfounded, Stefon Luckey was arrested on no charges and pepper-sprayed while handcuffed after complying with police orders not to interfere with their traffic summons on his brother, Ehud Halevy was struck more than fifty times by police on a false arrest, and an un-named Black man was beaten on the head with a baton for being belligerent after being cited for sleeping on an empty F train.

In addition, Richard Gonzalez was denied insulin while in custody for a false arrest to the point where he had to go to the hospital and EMTs had to intervene after cops beat a man handcuffed and strapped to a gurney for spitting on them. This regular occurrence of police overreach in the media has fulminated into a strong public interest, for which studies have come out pointing to over a thousand complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board about illegal chokeholds over the last five years, on stops that have largely been minor “quality of life” violations. This has prompted Police Commissioner Bratton to give a full-throated defense of the “Broken Windows” theory, which has put former Sandinista and current Mayor de Blasio in a tight spot. Can this ostensibly liberal mayor who is still learning on the job put a stopper on his Law-and-Order appointee?

As if to illustrate this conundrum, and to provide quite a bit  of political theatre, de Blasio found himself literally sitting between Bratton and Al Sharpton, who pointedly remarked that his son Dante would be a primary target for the NYPD were he not related to the mayor. Further raising the stakes are the NYPD’s efforts to arrest Ramsey Orta, the man who taped Eric Garner’s death, on suspicious charges, as well as his wife Chrissie Ortiz, on successive days after Garner’s death was deemed a homicide. Orta and Ortiz claim harassment – that the police were giving them undue scrutiny as punishment for their centrality to the case against their own – and this claim is bolstered by the speed at which the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association spokesman Patrick Lynch sought to use their arrests to exonerate the policemen.

If all this wasn’t enough, the general mistrust of the law enforcement and justice system has extended to the prison system as well, with Riker’s Island due for another riot, and questions as to the treatment of prisoners which are mostly minorities on non-violent drug offenses. The narrative that all this brings is that of a culture of repression against minorities and the poor, which is precisely the issue that de Blasio ran and won his position on. To say the least, de Blasio has his plate full.

That said, he may end up showing just how quickly he has learned: Officials have deemed Garner’s death a homicide, and while a homicide alone does not necessarily mean a murder, the implications are clear: If policemen are to be charged for the strangling death of this man, such an autopsy result would be both a first step and a signal as to political intent. As such, the public announcement was likely made with the knowledge of the next steps involved. An indictment and a jury trial of the offending officers would do much to balance the mayor’s choice of police commissioner with his responsibility to prove to the citizens of New York that, ultimately, he is in charge, not Bratton. This was, indeed, a vaunted issue during de Blasio’s first weeks in office – whether or not he could bring Bratton to heel – and now would be a particularly timely moment for him to prove it.

Papers, Please

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A TSA agent lives on my street.

She was walking home from a shift with that gait of the neighborhood’s version of the 99% of us that are working stiffs – the local permutation is that the remaining 1% are Highly Visible Layabouts, aka hoods, for there are no rich people here – in that purposefully unflattering sweater-and-slacks combo that is designed to be dowdy in a way that dehumanizes its wearer, distills them into sewn shoulder patches and cheap epaulets.

Akin to most uniformed public servants, she’s forming the beginning of one of those truly impressive rear ends appropriate to somebody whose job it is to sit down for ten hours a day. That’s not to say her job is easy: She has to exude a form of malevolence while holding just short of actual aggression, a true front-line soldier of our Security Theater – that paramilitary arm of our Political Theater with all pomp and little to show for it besides the cowing of those obedients who long only to be cowed.

It is a fitting juxtaposition that she herself lives in a neighborhood that has only a tenuous grasp of the rule of law; a ‘hood one step removed from the base tribalism that the city aldermen keep tabs on through an occupying police army. They do so, of course, from their offices downtown; “may the lord bless and keep the czar… far away from us!” She is, however, necessarily separate from such an army: When those cops are off-duty, they decamp to their own cop-friendly neighborhoods – the kind with POW/MIA flags and VFW clubs. They drink in cop bars. They don’t cease being cops on a cultural level. She, on the other hand, appears to hang one hat at shift’s end and put on another. It’s just as well: Without the uniform, her skin color would probably mark her for random search anyway.

To think such agencies require working stiffs such as these! It’s clearly just a job, and a much needed one at that, for even the President has realized the inherent rot in our current jobless economic recovery, but it requires a compartmentalization of one’s public life. What goes on in uniform becomes unreal, like manning a phone-sex hotline: Furtive and anonymous and just a little illicit, under the guise of an authority that has it on good, well, authority that such roles are needed, but rather unconvincing in their explanation of just how they are needed.

Her Security Theater is not comforting to the locals, but then it isn’t meant for the locals. It’s meant for the folks downtown and their constituents. Were the political lines drawn up a bit different, it’d be like working as a border guard under the employ of your neighbor. Uptown, that foreign nation, full of malcontents looking to steal good downtown jobs from the correct folks. Why, they should require passports past 96th Street! And who would check them?

Multiple Choice Culture

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A seagull drops an orange rind into the saltwater and dives to retrieve it from a briny froth that includes plastic bottles, a variety of wrappers and several dozen fishing lines in anticipation of unusually mercury-heavy catches. In the distance a container ship breaks up the horizon on its way to a traffic jam currently stalled under the Verrazano Bridge. This is a suitably debased pleasure ground for a suitably populist clientele. Welcome to Coney Island.

At the terminus of half of Brooklyn’s elevated subways (and other self-contradictory titles), Coney Island has always been a true People’s Park, a fact that local purveyors do not hesitate to exploit in their not-quite-but-approaching-twee populist kitsch: There is hardly a venue that is not plastered with former Steeplechase Park owner George Tilyou’s rather creepy clown face or a sepia-toned landscape of turn-of-the-last-century working-class crowds.

Okay, maybe a little twee

Yesterday’s working-class crowds have, with a few hiccups, thankfully turned into today’s working-class crowds; a welcome respite when many parts of Brooklyn have followed Manhattan’s lead and turned into theme park versions of themselves. Funny enough, the actual theme park, or rather the amalgam of three former theme parks that were very almost turned into a shopping mall, remains true to itself, renewed but not mere tinsel-laden bourgeois fakery.

Perhaps Coney Island is still below the dividing line: On the far side of the South/North Brooklyn barrier of gentrification, still too far for yuppies to commute. Perhaps it’s the public housing projects that surround it, and which have been bolstered by one thousand new affordable units as part of the city’s “revitalization” effort that keep such urban pioneers at bay. Either way, this one part of New York remains a place in which to people-watch the character of the new masses yearning to be free.

It does not disappoint. Harlem kids with matching t-shirts advertising the summer camp whose purpose it is to get them out of Harlem by any means possible enjoy the three-year-old Steeplechase, a rollercoaster that takes the name of a former ride in its former eponymous park, and the brand-new Thunderbolt, a rollercoaster that also takes the name of a former ride. In doing so they take part in rides whose death-defying thrills come from their design, as contrasted to the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel, whose death-defying thrills have seemingly come from the fear that they may fall apart directly under their riders. Those rides harken back to an era that brings to mind scenes from The Warriors more than the intensely-curated experiences of Disneyland.

Coney Island has successfully de-hoodified, it can be argued; eliminating drug dealers from its image much as the newly-rechristened Action Park in New Jersey hopes to do with lawsuit-friendly personal injury. It’s in this venue that these Harlem teenagers share the grounds, the boardwalk and the beach with a particularly Asiatic milieu – unsurprising considering our latest immigration patterns – of South Asians clad in colorful saris, Near Asians cloaked in hijabs and, if they’re to get wet, outfits that can only be described as burqinis – which are something like underwater wetsuits with skirts – East Asians who seem to eschew swimsuits altogether in favor of getting their street clothes wet, and semi-Asian Russians, who are, on the whole, gleefully anti-fashionable: Their dayglow wifebeaters and flouncy camouflage pants defy, or more accurately, transcend convention.

A woman calls out to her two sons, Ivan and Raul, not to get too far out from the shore. A Puerto Rican woman in bikini top and unzipped Daisy Dukes (her flag – because why not – leaving the mystery of her provenance not up to question) saunters by a middle-eastern family, her general lack of attire rendering their religious mores rather superfluous. They ignore her. She ignores them. Everybody ignores everybody. The Ukrainian man so sunburned as to be near purple, rubbing his prodigious beer belly while downing seemingly endless Coronas, is oblivious to the Latino man across from him, also with prodigious beer belly, holding a 90’s-vintage boombox as if it were the source of his tan, and he is in turn oblivious to the trio of Japanese women who find him to be an attraction much in the same way that the defunct Parachute Drop ride is an attraction.

It is a brilliant melange of racial harmony in the New York style. It is not a salad bowl. It’s practically atomized: Wild rice. Soon it will be tossed and turned even further into a curry: Stretching the definition of actual separation through ever-finer granules. This is also a welcome, if odd, counterpoint to the ossified stews that much of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods have settled into. In Bay Ridge, the Italians are still king: Pro-cop, anti-immigrant and the source of a great deal of anti-Muslim grief that’s currently winding its way through the city’s metaphorical back alleys. In Coney Island, they sit behind the counter and serve Muslim immigrants overpriced pub food as they do everybody else.

It’s a superfluous melting pot. Interaction is little though physical proximity is high. It is, however, an authentic one: Everybody shares the same goals and assumed socioeconomic class, separate from the usual grievances. It’s not the prettiest of beaches – flanked by housing projects, under the eaves of the subway, and as trash-strewn as the rest of the city – but in it can be seen the future of New York, and it is not so dissimilar to the past of New York, all told.

The Convenient Other

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The New York Times has, for the past week at least, offered a steady drumbeat of editorial and opinion articles on two on-again-off-again wars: The War on Gaza and the War on Drugs. The Times is ostensibly known for generally taking the liberal point of view, but their coverage on these two topics rather highlights particular liberal hangups. As it stands, for however the Times has become the poster child to conservatives of the liberal bias of the mainstream media, it comes as little surprise that the Times’ opinion on marijuana decriminalization had only been scooped on this point of view by the National Review by only eighteen years.

The common conceit is that Democrats argue only in terms of fairness and not how to make things work, and that Republicans are required to make the cold, hard decisions that governance requires. However, it tends to be the topics that Democrats agree with Republicans on that espouse the most irrational rationales and taboo subjects of the Democrat party. Both Israel and marijuana exist prominently among those subjects, and for similar reasons.

The greatest obstacle in the way of legalization of marijuana is that it eliminates the convenient prodding of ready-made boogeymen: Black people. Indeed, the Times’ latest missive on their ongoing series highlights this aspect of the legislative history on marijuana. The War on Drugs is fought on the image of violent, gang-affiliated minority street dealers. It’s no surprise that the places that have been most successful at decriminalizing pot also happen to be where local citizens are both liberal and overwhelmingly white, for that drug dealer image is not as thoroughly pervasive there.

Similarly, the greatest obstacle to peace in Israel and Palestine is it removes the convenient justifications for Israeli expansion: The Palestinian leadership. The ever-present threat of destruction at the hands of Hamas (or Fatah or Hezbollah or the PLO) is necessary for the continuance of right-wing politics and policies, for it silences the liberals. None of these organizations, however, represent a true existential threat; they simply don’t have the firepower. Nor are they meant to be true threats, just obstacles: Even when democratically elected, they’re represented as little more than Kalashnikov-wielding suicide-bombers.

In both cases is the opposing point of view marginalized. Direct statements from such are often-times omitted entirely. To depict the side in support of the Gaza incursion, the Times has offered an Israeli Defense Force attache and has quoted Israel’s US ambassador at length. To depict the side coming out against the incursion, the Times has offered a Jewish Israeli author and a Jewish American columnist. Most of the news on the matter comes from Ben Hubbard and Judi Rudoren. Hubbard also writes for the Times of Israel and Rudoren follows a Times tradition of placing a Jewish reporter in charge of the Jerusalem bureau. The dozens of news and opinion articles by such writers overwhelms the sole published statement by a Palestinian journalist and a Turkish professor. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opinions grace the paper on a daily basis, but only speculation on the opinions of either Hamas leader Khaled Mashal or Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas are given, and generally through the lens of Israeli columnists.

The Times’ opinion generally tends to boil down to “Israel has a right to defend itself, but…” and its two editorials on the subject rest on the opinion that the status quo is preferable to open warfare. Its coverage of John Kerry’s attempts at enforcing cease-fires and truces points out that the Hamas leadership views that the status quo is untenable, for it means the continued running of Gaza as an ersatz concentration camp. The Times editorial board generally agrees on this notion, but doesn’t provide a peaceable means to reach a more amenable conclusion except to surrender unconditionally to Israel.

This has direct parallels to the law-and-order coverage that the War on Drugs has long received: Run-down minority ghettos are starved for decent education, health care, jobs and social services, but the media speaks overwhelmingly of drugs and violence, both in straight number of news reports as well as proportional coverage. The Times has offered a retrospective its “evolving” view on marijuana, though not its coverage of minority neighborhoods such as Crown Heights and Brownsville. If the Palestinian question is framed primarily in terms of having terrorists rule the roost – with much ado on the fears of Israelis – so too has ‘hood’ Brooklyn been spoken of primarily in terms of having gangs rule the roost – with much ado on the fears of yuppies – with public outcry and public monies being funneled with that impression in mind.

The New York Times has generally viewed such neighborhoods like empires have viewed their colonies: Entities to be civilized whether their denizens like it or not. The point of view is invariably that of the gentrifiers, not the gentrifiees. They herald low crime and “livable spaces” while simultaneously lamenting the ousting of local populations under gentrification. “Stop and Frisk” was an annoyance, but not as much an annoyance as the perceived threat of crime. If their coverage of the hood continues along the path of their coverage of the strip, we’re likely to expect more lukewarm reservations on the abuses of power while tacitly sanctioning the inevitable crackdowns.

The New New York

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He walks down a Midtown street, not too far from Bryant Park, holding up the optimistic side of the conversation with his companion. No, New York’s economy is on the up and up, he said; just look at the new construction everywhere – while pointing at one of those new cheap hotels with rooms like pods and stalk-like architecture, twisted between outdated 1961 setback laws and local M1-6 zoning ordinances. He certainly looks like a striver: Unflattering slacks, starched pale blue button-down shirt over the beginnings of a beer paunch: Not highfalutin, merely upper-middlefalutin, the sort of guy who goes golfing on the weekends but on a public course.

He’s not altogether wrong, of course. New York is on the up and up: One need but look at the new skyline under construction to realize that. The world’s tallest residential tower is slated to be built on 57th Street, to match all the other thousand-foot luxury condos there already underway. The two grand projects of the Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center add enough office space in New York to build a second Los Angeles. The city is even building new subway lines (or, rather, stubway lines) for the first time in more than half a century, although none of them have opened yet. A bright new glass-clad dawn for a city naysayers had written off back in the Bad Old Days.

This man, in a sense, represents that New New York. Gathering from his loud complaints about his workload, his job is to cover for his business’ practices by any who would threaten them. His workload is a case load, and his successes can be determined solely by dollar value. His existence is one at odds with convention: He is a supplicant and a working man, but he is also conveniently and effortlessly devoid of ethics. He does not share the heartlander’s conceit that law and morality are in accordance, but he does not hew his own morality to replace law, and is thus freed of obligation. He can and has found success, and indeed sees the city as one which engenders success.

Old New York appears to be invisible to him. It doesn’t give him the information he needs, so he tunes it out. In that way he represents another dichotomy, one indeed that he shares with his environs: He works within a cold, blank edifice, and is himself largely the same. His information is funneled to him via his handheld device, in his eyes the new public world, but cavalierly invisible to the old public world. A public world that can become unseen at will. A semi-public world, much like the semi-public plazas common to this section of town. He sits at the bar and chats with the bartender about his handicap on some course out in Long Island while his companion plays with his handheld device, and when the bartender turns away, he, too, plays with his handheld device exclusively.

People like him have existed in New York before; coming into Grand Central from places like Scarsdale. Suburbanites. But he’s not a suburbanite: He lives on the Upper East Side in a fresh new condo – no word, though, on if it has poor doors. He’s been there for two years. It’s convenient for him. He doesn’t need his companion at the bar. He doesn’t need anyone at the bar. He’s holding a running conversation on his handheld device. The bar doesn’t matter; not its tin ceiling, not its oak panels, not its jukebox. It’s merely a vessel to convert money for liquor, another convenience. He’s drinking bud light from the bottle. What a combination: First-class budget and dime-store taste buds.

Huxley’s book referenced Shakespeare’s punchline and in so doing telegraphed its own joke. So in form does this man embody his. It isn’t so much the glass boxes he walks through or the iProduct in his hand but the social construct such represent and which he is a part: One that courageously presses forward towards a strongly envisioned future but with one eye constantly vigilant for the authorities to come around and realize just what exactly is going on and put a stop to it. A circumstance best spoken of in terms of ironic pastiche for at heart it’s a surprise one has managed to get away with it for so long, like ditching your friend at a gas station while he takes a piss and never receiving the expected angry call. Reality has yet to catch up.

Speaking of reality, half of the city can’t afford to live there, but do anyway at great expense (by hook or crook) because that’s where the jobs are. Crime is still down but police brutality is up. A sixth of the MTA’s budget is just paying the minimum on loans and most of its infrastructure is actively crumbling. A new Hudson River crossing was deep-sixed by Jersey three years ago and the new East River crossing for which construction had resumed eight years ago has become the city’s albatross. The city is building a bridge of steel on a foundation of wood, but such information is not coming through on this man’s handheld device. It’s just not pertinent to him, so he doesn’t see it. Reality, after all, is now opt-in. The New New Yorker exists on a more sublime plane, and who can blame him?

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