Category Archives: life in NY

Now I REALLY Love New York (But Greencastle Is Lovely today)

So all these people who know me, and my propensity for brooding-Swede depression, are worried about my emotional health, being back in sleepy, small Greencastle, Indiana, where there are about 8,000 adult residents, just a few restaurants, and a Wal-Mart.  I loved living in New York so much.  And developed some great friendships.  Went to all those concerts.  And classes.  And presentations.  And plays.

What  am I going to do in Greencastle this summer (besides running a weekly concert series, playing on some concerts, cleaning out my mother’s house–and mine–and what not), they want to know.  A difficult case of New-York-withdrawl, return-to-Greencastle syndrome is, obviously, widely predicted.

Today of course, is a day I would love to be in New York: the legislature passed the same-sex marriage bill last night, and Governor Cuomo signed it. Gay marriage has been affirmatively legalized.  “Gay marriage”–that’s really a kind of bullshit term.  Civil Unions–those are a kind of second-class things, gay marriage that really isn’t.

What got passed in New York isn’t gay marriage;  it’s really marriage for everyone.  It’s the government acknowledging we all count.

When you grow up being harassed, called a faggot, believing that you’re a “faggot” and not a fully-human, “normal” person–well, it takes a lot of work to recover from that.  Really, for some of us the emotional scars are always there, something you learn to live with but that never disappear.

So when something like this happens–when through the political process, even Republicans vote for equality–it’s not just a well, finally sort of reaction.  Somewhere, deep inside, it feels like the State of New York saying, “Eric, you are equal.  You are really one of us.  You’re not a less-than-fully-human other.”  Parts of me always know this.  But there are parts I keep discovering that don’t.  So it makes a difference.  Not just to the thousands of couples who want to get married.  But to all of us who are healing from centuries of being treated like shit.  It’s great to be treated like a full human being with a full set of rights.  And imagine the difference it makes for young people.

I would have loved to have been at Sheridan Square last night, with the anti-riot, celebratory crowd outside the Stonewall Inn.  In late June of 1969, the harassed patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against police oppression and an energy was unleashed that is culminating in the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the clearly inevitable establishment of equal marriage rights.  Last night, late June of 2011, a big party, not a riot, outside the same bar, to celebrate a major accomplishment.  That I would loved to have been part of, not just read about.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my front porch in Greencastle. It’s beautiful. Sunny day, not too hot, birds making a wonderful sound collage, with distant lawn mowers in the background.

My next-door neighbor and I made coffee for each other this morning: she with her relatively new espresso machine from Italy, me with my amazing Aeropress. Later, I walked to the courthouse square, bought food at the Farmer’s Market, and greeted old friends. Talked about how great the New York marriage news is with a (straight) colleague, who is excited as I am.  Got invited to go to a basketball game in Indianapolis tonight, and am going with old friends and my son.

There’s a lot that’s wonderful here. Friends.  Family.  Soon, in August, students and engaging work.

I’m definitely OK.

And, on this Gay Pride weekend in New York, I more than kinda wish I was there to celebrate it in person.

Because today, more than ever, as beautiful and embracing and pretty and calm as Greencastle is, I really love New York.

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Allen Ginsberg (Indirectly) Solved My New York Dilemma

I wrote a while back:

The thing I like least about New York is that you have to harden your heart to panhandlers.  I live near a “hotel” for very-low-income men.  There’s always several on the street, especially at night.  There’s a young woman who sits in a subway station, reading, with a sign, “unemployed and pregnant.”  I want to give money to each of them–but if I did, I’d go broke in an evening.  So I am doing that don’t-make-eye-contact thing, ignoring another human being as I pass him on the street.  I don’t like that.

David Spelman (whom I met when we were both sitting in on Greg Sandow’s Juilliard class), read that and sent me this:

My friend, the poet and Dean of the spoken word scene, Bob Holman, shared a Ginsberg story with me recently. . . walking down the street, Allen said something to the effect that:

“You may give money to a beggar, or not give money to a beggar.

“But don’t always give money and don’t always not give money.

 “What you always do is make eye contact and acknowledge your mutual humanity.”

That was just what I needed to hear.

So much of life is about human contact.  It’s very easy to be lonely in a city of millions of people, homeless or homed, employed or not.  Ignoring people on the street–people who approached me–gnawed at me. I’m such an all or nothing person. I can’t give money to everyone, so ignore them all (as so  many do).  And, to be honest, when you’re on your own in New York, sometimes the only people who talk to you are asking for money.

But I just didn’t know how to deal with it.

And then Allen to Bob to David to me: a practical, balanced, human way to handle these encounters. I found it liberating. The part of my heart that was closing off reopened.

While I was still living in New York this spring (I got back to Indiana Tuesday morning), some days I’d have some extra change, or a few singles, in my pocket, was prepared to give, and was happy to do so.  Giving away money is enjoyable for me (so is spending it, which may be related to the lowness of my savings and net worth).

When I didn’t have extra money, or my inner sense was this was the day or the moment to give, I’d follow Allen’s advice.

Make eye contact. “Sorry, man, I can’t help you tonight.”  (Sometimes I wanted to confess, “I’ve been in New York for five months and spent all my money and am living on credit cards!”)

Almost always, he (or, less often, it was a she) would . . . thank me. More than once, I got back a smile and a reassuring “that’s OK.”

Yep, the street guy reassuring me.  Acknowledge your mutual humanity.  It works both ways.

I gotta go read some Ginsberg.

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Welcomed Back to NY with Bach in the Subway

I got back to New York Tuesday night, after a long weekend away for my son’s college graduation, and fell in love with the city all over again. I just love it here.  What can I say?

To save money, I took a shuttle bus (instead of a cab) from LaGuardia to Times Square.  I stood on 42nd St. for a while, just looking at all the lights and people, and was happy.

Then I went down to the subway, and there, on the 1/2/3 platform, was Dale Henderson, the Bach in the Subways cellist, Baching in the subway.  Couldn’t think of a more perfect welcome “home” (as temporary as it may be).  We chatted a bit, in between movements, as I waited for my train. “Any requests?” Dale asked me.  At first I declined, but then I asked for a Gigue (essentially a jig; each of the six Bach Suites ends with one).  Dale played the powerful and stormy D minor, and then my favorite, the one from the D major suite. When Pete, my son, was born, I used to sing Bach Gigues to him in the hospital nursery.  As I was getting in the subway car, Pete was driving home from Grinnell. Dale playing a Gigue for me (and everyone else), right there, was a perfect way to celebrate Pete’s milestone and the start of my final weeks in New York.

I got back to my big corner room. It was a warm night.  I opened all the windows, and turned out the lights so that I could lie in bed without being on display, yet see the lights from the buildings surrounding mine. Very nice.

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Life in New York: When There’s No Lock on the “Men’s” Room Door

“Occupied!”

I flashed a smile at the horrified-looking middle-aged woman, who had flung open the door of the bathroom (labeled “Men”) in the Harlem McDonald’s. I was, well, wiping my ass.

“Sorry!” she said, as she made a quick exit.

The nice thing about being a blogger is that no matter what happens, the first thought is, “Well, this will make a good story for my blog.”

How’d this come to pass?  Yesterday (Monday) was a be-a-dad day.  Time to move my daughter out of her NYU dorm in the East Village.  Which meant that I needed to take the Mtro North train to Cold Spring, a lovely town on the eastern side of the Hudson River, where my car has been staying with relatives.  Then drive the car back to the city, pick up my daughter and her stuff, drive her and everything back to Cold Spring, where she and her things will spend the summer, and then take the train back to the city.  (“What a lot of schlepping!” a friend emailed me yesterday.)

During my sabbatical, I rent at room at 93rd St. and Broadway.  There’s a train station at 125th St. and Park Avenue, in Harlem. So I decided to take the subway up to 125th St. and walk over to the train station.  I missed the train I wanted by 30 seconds–it was just starting to pull out as I reached the track, having run the last two blocks.  OK, I hadn’t had breakfast, so I went off to find a place, in this yet-to-be-gentrified neighborhood.  (A friend said to me, despairingly, last week that the Albany Symphony’s Spiritual’s Project was supposed to be outreach to “people in Harlem.”  “They don’t even know that there are no black people left in Harlem!” he said.  Well, yes there are.)

Weren’t that many places to eat, especially ones that weren’t chains (Popeye’s, McDonald’s, etc.)  But I did find Jimmy’s Burgers (I think it was called that, but I’m not finding it on Google), a counter with a couple of booths, that had a full range of breakfast items, cooked to order on a grill.  Got a Western omelette and grits (a breakfast my dad would have loved).  I was the only white guy in the place.  20 or 30 years ago, that might have made me uncomfortable;  now that sort of discomfort just seemed like a bad memory.  It was interesting to overhear conversations that were definitely something from a subculture other than mine–liberal use of the “n word,” discussions of who was packing, etc.

The food was good.

The guy next to me just sat there the entire time I was there.  Didn’t eat anything.  Finally the man at the counter told him he had to leave.  I wasn’t sure what to do, as he sat there.  I had a hunch he didn’t have the money to buy something, and I wasn’t going to eat my toast.  Do I offer it to him?  Would that insult him?  Or upset the guy running the place, if I was encouraging a kind of panhandling?

The thing I like least about New York is that you have to harden your heart to panhandlers.  I live near a “hotel” for very-low-income men.  There’s always several on the street, especially at night.  There’s a young woman who sits in a subway station, reading, with a sign, “unemployed and pregnant.”  I want to give money to each of them–but if I did, I’d go broke in an evening.  So I am doing that don’t-make-eye-contact thing, ignoring another human being as I pass him on the street.  I don’t like that.

Anyway, as I finished breakfast, my bowels wanted to move, and there was–as is the case in so many NY places–no public restroom. But I was 99% sure that the McDonald’s I’d passed would have a men’s room.  McDonald’s and Starbuck’s (didn’t spot a Starbuck’s up there) are bathroom oases in Manhattan (although not every Starbuck’s has a bathroom).

“MUST SHOW PROOF OF PURCHASE TO USE RESTROOMS” proclaimed a large sign between the two bathrooms at McDonald’s.  I was going to buy a cup of coffee or something, but a woman was coming out of the one labeled “Men” and she just held the door for me.  I noticed there was no lock on the door.

Hmm.  Maybe it locked automatically from the outside, like the dressing rooms at Wal-Mart, where an attendant has to let you in.  (Once, after not being able to find an attendant at Wal-Mart, when I wanted to try jeans on, I just picked up the key on the counter and unlocked the door for myself.  I immediately heard security paging an attendant.  Cameras everywhere there.)

Or maybe someone would walk in on me.  It was one of those one-person bathrooms.  I’m not particularly shy or modest.  Noticing the lack of a lock, mentally prepared for a possible crappus interruptus.  So when it happened, it amused me more than anything else.

The lady who walked in on me?  She has to live with the mental image of me on the toilet, holding a napkin in my hand (there was no toilet paper, just a stack of napkins), looking to see what I’d just wiped off, for the rest of her life.  I could hear her outside the door, talking about how there are no locks.

I bet she knocks next time.

Me?  I’ve had a great time telling the story.  And, even though I used the restroom, I didn’t buy anything from that McDonald’s.

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Whose way?

“Would you please stop doing that?”

“Sure,” I said, kind of embarrassed. I put my iPhone back in my pocket.

It was about midnight.  The Grand Central 7 (subway) train platform.  He looked to be in his early sixties, ponytailed, jeans and long-sleeved shirt. Playing acoustic guitar, singing with a plaintive, gravelly voice that floated in the arched space, filling the silence, seeping into places in my body I hadn’t realized were there.

Some of the most affecting music in New York is in the subways.  Sure, some of it is awful.  But a surprising amount is incredible.  It can make you want to dance.  Or cry. It’s a miracle to me–the way music blossoms in unexpected places, like wild flowers.

I have this fantasy of making a short film, a montage of video clips, to remember it with when I go back to Indiana. So I usually carry around a small hi-def camera. When something’s great, I film it. That night all I had was my iPhone.

But he didn’t like that. Even though I’d sheepishly put it away, he didn’t resume the music.  He was pissed off.  Stood up, walked over to the tracks, and spit.  Mumbled something about “fucking assholes,” and went back to his seat.

I didn’t know what to do.  Apologize?  Tip him?  A dollar? Twenty?

All sorts of thoughts went through my head.  Hey!  He’s playing in a public space, why shouldn’t anyone be able to film him?  Why should I feel bad? But I know what it’s like to want your privacy, even in a public space. To feel violated, taken for granted.  To be turned into an object, something for a tourist’s Facebook page.

I weighed options, confused. What to do?

The train came.

I got in, and rode away from the dilemma.

Earlier that evening:

We met at, well, I’m not going to say.

It was one of the many bar/restaurant/clubs in New York that present music–jazz groups, pop singers, an occasional classical group, etc.  I hadn’t been there before, and was glad to experience another “alternative” venue.  Alice, I’ll call her, a friend of a friend, had suggested the place and the performance. A young singer. “He does Sinatra!”  So my friend–I’ll call her Jane–arranged for the three of us to go to this show.

But Jane had to work late and couldn’t make it.  Since Jane had bought non-refundable tickets, Alice and I, after almost backing out, both showed up and met there for the first time.  Dave–another friend of Jane, and one I already knew–eventually joined us to use the highly resourceful and well-networked Jane’s ticket. She was not letting that thing go to waste.

The “does Sinatra” guy isn’t an imitator.  He’s had a good career singing songs Frank made popular–kind of like Harry Connick, Jr. when he got his big When Harry Met Sally career bump.  Quite successful, tours a lot, but hasn’t cracked the big time, especially in the U.S.  He’s playing New York, but it’s a small-venue, mid-week early show. Not at a place like Feinstein’s, but a downtown club.

Nothing wrong with that, of course.

“I don’t understand why he’s not as big as Michael Buble!” Alice shared, perplexed.

She’s a fan. She met him after a show a few years ago, and he told her that Fienstein’s is his goal.  (It’s like playing Carnegie Hall for a classical musician.)

Why isn’t he there?

After the show, Dave, who works in the entertainment business, and I went for coffee (Alice got in the autograph line).  We had each had the same answer.

Not-Frank (as I’ll call the singer) is slick and polished,  a tremendously skilled performer.  But his music making felt artificial and calculated.  Raw emotional connection, a sense of human authenticity, those qualities so strong in Sinatra’s singing?  Not there.

And how do I put this?  Not-Frank, while energetic and “masculine” in many ways, also was a touch effeminate.  Perfectly coiffed hair, a pink tie and breast handkerchief.  My gaydar went off big time as soon as he took the stage.  At first I was excited–maybe I was encountering the Rufus Wainright of pop/jazz singers.  But then he made too many jokes and comments about women, including innuendo about the one who opened for him and joined him for duets mid-set.

“Straight guys don’t make that many jokes about doing it with women,” Dave (who is straight) said, putting down his coffee.  “He was trying way too hard.” Whoever Not Frank is, the man he played on stage didn’t hold our attention; each of us had ended up checking email and texts during the show. “Michael Buble is totally himself,” Dave told me.  “This guy is calculated.”

I don’t care who he sleeps with (Google says his girlfriend), or wishes he could sleep with, or who I wish he slept with. I don’t mean the effeminacy thing as a criticism, either–that can be really hot in a guy.

He finished his set with “My Way.”

You can’t sing “My Way,” especially if you’re in your early thirties, and come off as anything other than a kid trying to do it someone else’s way. It’s an old man’s song.  It’s Frank’s song.  “And now the end is near”? Give me a break. Might as well find a way to change the lyrics to “I’m not Frank.”

The coffee place where Dave and I did our post-performance analysis is just across from my daughter’s East Village dorm. She was feeling under the weather and didn’t join us. We finished our coffee.  He went to pick up his wife from a work event, and I went across the street to give a tired and slightly sick girl some daddy time.

We cuddled.  We watched a couple episodes of The Office on Hulu.  I sang her silly songs.  Put her to bed.

On the way home, I changed trains at Grand Central.

Walked down the steps to the 7 platform, and heard that voice and guitar.  There were no trains, few people. The sound gradually enveloped me as I descended.  The ceiling is arched.  When it’s quiet, there’s great reverberation there.  It’s actually a wonderful space for music.

It was everything that Not Frank hadn’t been at the expensive show. Right there in the subway. The miracle, again.

And this guy, this artist, who stopped singing and called me a fucking asshole?

He was doing it his way.

I love New York.

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Filed under alternative venues, and everything, gay issues, life in NY, music in subways, New York life

Office View

I wrote the other day about how moving operations to a coffee shop (from my NY bedroom) was helping productivity.  It was a Starbuck’s that day, right in my building.  Looked up from the laptop at one point and discovered this view:

I guess the moral of the story is that you never know when some asshole with an iPhone is going to take a picture of your, well . . . ass.  So keep it covered, unless you want it broadcast all over the Internet.

Stayed at home yesterday, which was enough to validate the thesis that renting “office space” for the price of a cup of coffee beats being stuck in my room .  So I’m at another Starbuck’s today (it’s true, in NY there seems to be one every other block).  I picked this one over a Cosi, which has more comfortable-looking chairs, because it had an open table near an outlet for my charger.

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Life, and everything . . . the allegory of the bench, and talking to strangers in NY

From Sunday through Thursday last week, I had attended six music performances: the Jack Quartet (Sunday), the Bobby Previte Ecstatic Music extravaganza (Monday), the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble (Tuesday), the John Zorn Masada Marathon (Wednesday), and then the New York Philharmonic followed by John and Lynn and the Giant Cicada (Thursday).

So Friday I just couldn’t do another concert, and I took my daughter to a movie. We wanted to see Bill Cunningham New York at the Film Forum, but it was sold out (I finally saw it yesterday [Thursday] afternoon and it is great) and we caught Le Quattro Volte instead.  It’s a beautiful film.  Amazing cinematography.  Touching stories.  Phenomenal direction and planning.

You know you’re in New York, I thought to myself as we watched it, when you pay $12.50 a ticket to see an 88-minute Italian art film, in which many of the protagonists are goats, and which has no dialogue or subtitles–and love it.

Oh, and you also know you’re in New York when you’re in the locker room at an Upper West Side gym and two other guys are chatting enthusiastically who is playing whom in upcoming Sondheim performances at the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center.  I’ve yet to hear anyone talk about sports in there.

Few guys talk to each other in the locker room, anyway. It’s a big city, we are mostly strangers to each other.  Making eye contact or small talk, especially at a gym where you know a big percentage of the clientele is gay (out or closeted), the slightest thing can be interpreted, correctly or incorrectly, as a sexual overture/inquiry. Actually, that’s probably true in most locker rooms anywhere. (At my gym, though, there’s a big sign up on the door of the steam room about keeping behavior “appropriate.”  I wonder if there’s one in the women’s locker room, too.  Somehow I doubt it’s needed.)

Not everyone who works out where I do suffers from social-contact phobia.  I went to open my locker the other day, and a guy about my age spontaneously moved his stuff that was on the bench right in front of my locker.  “Thanks,” I said.

“That’s OK, I’m not under 25.”  He then gave a mini-discourse on how guys in their early twenties tend to be totally oblivious and inconsiderate when it comes to other people, including things like not taking up half the locker room with their stuff.  “A friend of mine calls it the allegory of the bench,” he explained.  I suppose you can tell a lot about where a guy is in life by how he deals with his stuff in the locker room.  We then had fun exchanging amusing anecdotes about self-absorbed young people we are related to, have encountered, or in my case, work with. That was nice; no flirtation or sexual tension, just two guys talking. Turns out he’s a financial planner.  Hmm. Maybe he strikes up conversations with people as a way of networking for clients.  Or maybe he’s just a talkative guy who gets exasperated with Gen Y kids.  Anyway, I like “the allegory of the bench.”  (I think I told him I’d use it in a blog post, so here it it.)

Speaking of talking with strangers, the other night I was walking back from a concert at Lincoln Center and stopped in at Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint, because it has good burgers and low-carb buns (I’ve cut way back on bread and sugar, in addition to working out).  A woman about my age, from whom I was separated by an empty table or two, struck up a conversation with me.  Since I was alone and love to chat, I went along.  She more or less interviewed me, but I didn’t mind.  “I talk to people,” she had announced.  I think she likes being a character. So after awhile I asked how this works out for her, striking up conversations with strangers.  Well, she said. Some folks are happy to talk, others not. She’d started out asking me if it was still raining, then something about the newspaper I was looking at, and saw how it went.

She was nearly as reticent about sharing information about herself, though, as she was inquisitive and I was open. And I may have freaked her out just a touch when, since we finished at the same time, I waited for her to pay before leaving and, since we were both walking uptown, walked with her on Broadway a few until she turned down a street.  For me it was a way to continue the conversation and somewhere inside it seemed at least quasi-gentlemanly to kind of walk her home, at least part way, in the dark, late night.  But it certainly was pushing at her boundaries–chatting inside a restaurant is different than walking with that same stranger on a Manhattan street. Since she’d pushed mine bit, perhaps I was unconsciously pushing at hers.  It was only when she said she had to turn down whatever street it was that it dawned on me that it was at this moment she would discover I was either the nice guy I seemed to be or a creep it had been a mistake to start a conversation with. Life is uncertain in the big city.

Random marketing thought: a smart thing they do at Big Nick’s is little samples.  Twice I’ve gotten a burger there with the low-carb bun and no fries (since that would defeat the purpose of the low-carb bun).  Each time there was one cross-cut fry on the plate, just to let me know what I was missing. And when both the talk-to-people woman and I said we wouldn’t order dessert, the waiter (who looked like he could be a boxer but was named Karma) brought us little dessert samples (oh, temptation!).  Everything is a test, isn’t it?

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