Category Archives: New York life

NY Winter Term Trip: We Were Directed by Julie Taymor Today

Back in NY, this time with 13 DePauw students and my DePauw faculty colleague Christopher Lynch for our New York City Arts and Culture Winter Term trip.

Winter Term takes most of January, and is a time when students focus on one subject, often in an experiential learning format. I just love it, because I’ve been able to lead off-campus trips like this one, do “Drum Circle Spirit” in which we explored leadership and community using a community drum circle as our laboratory, and even do discussion courses on LGBT rights and, another time, the US Constitution. Because WT doesn’t currently have academic credit, it’s a time when faculty can teach classes outside their official area of expertise.

We are seeing Broadway shows, concerts, going to museums, etc. This morning, the entire class attended a filming of a scene from Julie Taymor’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s visually dazzling; we were there as children dressed in white carried branches, the tips of which lit up like fireflies, and also for the filming of a fight scene in which the well-built Demitrius and Lysander, for some happy reason, stripped down to their boxer shorts (several times, too; multiple takes). Hermia and Helena were already in their underclothes. The four of them were whacking each other with pillows, thrown down from the balcony by the children, and then an enormous pillow fight burst forth, with all the kids.

Amazing. And fascinating to watch the video director, Taymor, and the cast and crew work so professionally and efficiently.

At one point, Taymor asked us in the audience to loosen up and laugh, as if we had been at the entire show. One of the actors looked at us and announced with a smile, “You’ve now been directed by Julie Taymor! You’ll be able to tell your grandchildren.”

No grandchildren of my own yet, so I thought I’d tell you.


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Filed under New York life, WT 2014

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


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.


Filed under and everything, life in NY, New York life

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

“New York State of Mind” and “Union Square Pillow Fight” (James Bernal videos)

I discovered young photographer/filmmaker James Bernal through Andrew Sullivan’s posting of the “New York State of Mind” video below. James must have moved to NY  about the same time I did (I’m here temporarily and will be back in Indiana this summer). This video made me realize how deeply in love I’ve fallen with NYC.  And, along with the Bill Cunningham New York documentary (which is such an inspiring look at a man who is the joy that is his work), how much I love taking photos and videos–albeit on a much more amateur level than what James does.  But it’s still fun.  So now when I’m bored during the day I realize I can go out and explore what’s going on.  Camera in hand, it feels like a project rather than just goofing off or avoiding harder work.   I’m especially fascinated by all the music going on in parks, on streets, and in the subway.

Definitely click on the icon between “hd” and “vimeo” to watch in full screen mode.

This one is great, too.  My daughter and I showed up in Union Square just about an hour after the pillow fight was over.  Oh, well.

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Filed under Bill Cunningham, Filmmakers/Videographers/Photographers, New York life, sabbatical journal, videos

Only in New York: Break Dancing in the Subway

My daughter and I were taking the Q train to Times Square Sunday Saturday evening.  Between Union Square and 34th St., things were anything but boring:

Glad I had my iPone with me!

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