Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Demonstrating America

Occupy Wall Street occupied Madison Square Park Monday night, I believe that President Obama was in town for a fund raiser nearby and this was a protest in his honor.
Flags were waved, hand printed signs, ubiquitous and provocative, a few drummers backing up a rousing: “Stop the War, Tax the Rich, we don’t need no deficit.”
This demonstration had more of anti-war emphasis than general OWS actions. I prefer the economic messages but cutting military spending I’m all for. I haven’t been down to Zucotti park in a few weeks. Bloomberg ordered his police force, under cover of darkness, in the wee wee hours, to remove the tents. Basically he took away their constitutional rights to free assembly. It was a shameful act.

A few dozen protestors, cross section of ages. The movement is changing the debate. These issues simply weren’t being discussed before and they are now, not to the extent that is needed, not to the extent that will result in policy. But the start is here. A friend of mine a couple of months ago talked about how consciousness has to change then the politics will follow suit. He’s from the 60s; I am not. I thought it was just recycled 60s leftism, inapplicable to our current state of affairs. I think I may be wrong. Consciousness is changing. We are so comfortable with expecting instant gratification; we live with perpetual impatience. But sweeping change is needed and I’m beginning to feel that more than a single election will be required. Yes, I fear a Republican president because Mitt & Company are scary, incompetent monsters, but even a second term Obama will not be enough.
The last day of November, OWS is not going away. Everybody passing through the park at the moment was thinking abut the issues and thinking about differently, or at least thinking about thinking about them differently, than simply hearing them discussed on the news. They were waving flags. This movement is indeed, America.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mural Melting

Okay, there is an irony. The idealized city scape captured by this mural has been blighted just like real cities in decades past were inflicted with urban decay. The truth though is tragic, this wonderful mural, on Marin & Bay, which was painted by Thomas John Carlson, head of the JerseyCity Art School, is slowly rotting away.

I love this mural, written an analysis here and some progress reports here and here. Besides the remarkable composition – Carlson has an extraordinary knack for symetry and balance – of the images as well as the subtle use of muted tones and light, what I like most about this large painting is the prism effect. Outdoor murals tend to be invocative; e.g., invoking a memory of how things used to look, thus reminding those living in a city of our connection with the past, or they invoke a fantastic piece of imagination, the juxtaposition surpises. Carlson’s mural reflects the immediate environs of this building, which is the Power House Lounge and the environs of course is the Power House District, the transition neighborhood where Downtown  becomes Newport. The cobble stones streets, the warehouse and factories, the light rail, are all in this diorama, but the more you look the more see, gradually realizing it is as much a reproduction of place as it is a perception of place. If I am nearby I make a point to pass this lot so I can look at this mural; I am sure I'm not alone. It's a brilliant piece.
Well, might want to go by there soon because it is literally falling to pieces, slowly disappearing before our eyes. A significantly large patch, I reckon about 20 percent of the painting is now gone. The building's exterior has fallen off, it’s not just the painting chipping away, but the surface of the structure. In parts of the painting still there, very visible cracks are spreading like thick spider webs.
I asked some folks working in the lounge about the mural’s decay. They were real nice, I spoke with the owner or manager, and he honestly felt bad. He told me that it was either the weather or the vibrations of the music, the thick bass, or a combination of both. When I was there bass-heavy techno type music was on the sound system, although it wasn’t too loud where you couldn’t hold a conversation but it is constant when the club is opened. Of course, another vibration could be coming from the even more constant traffic, which includes trucks, down Manila. It could also be a combination of the climate and the noise.

Anyway, he isn’t sure what will happen. No one knows if the damaged area can be repaired then repainted,or if the entire exterior must be replaced and a whole new painting done. At least he wants to make sure the side of the building features art. It will not be cost effective to do anything until after the winter, he said. You could tell he felt bad, he appreciates what a special work of art Thomas accomplished here.

It’s heart breaking. Maybe it’s time our art friendly town starts paying some attention to preserving these fantastic and unique pieces of urban art. Look at the north side of Columbus twixt Barrow & Grove, the splendid diorama of Jersey City icons (Statue of Liberty, Colgate Clock) has become an eyesore, paint chipping away, construction projects removing entire panels of the painting. Of course it didn’t help one of the buildings burned down.

These murals are part of the community. These images should not be abandoned like chalk marks in the rain; they’re part of the architecture. They enhance the scenery of our daily lives. Art elevates. There simply seems to be no thought given to preserving the work. I’m not saying Power House is at fault; the folks there couldn’t feel worse and what is happening on Marin & Bay was unexpected. Not only is it sad, but frustrating: we have to wait and see how bad it gets before something can be done.
One hopes at least parts of the Carlson Mural can somehow be saved. One hopes our art friendly town takes it as a warning and learns a lesson. Art needs to be preserved as well as made.

Something that used to be

Twilight:Breaking Dawn I

I have a confession. I have seen every Twilight film the weekend of its release, more often than not, on the Friday. Yes, in the theaters. Yes, Newport cineplex, which in spite of encroaching gentrification, still glistens with an unmistakable ghetto-fabulous sheen that is, in equal parts, both refreshing and annoying.
I was in a sold-out theater filled with pre & post pubescent girls last Friday for Twilight Breaking Dawn I. Unlike other horror films, often packed with teenagers on opening day, there was no rowdiness, talking or texting etc. during the movie. At Twilight the quiet devotion and mesmerized attention these girls displayed resembled morning vespers at a cloistered convent, interrupted by loud sighs and titters when the vampire or the wolf-boy took off their shirts. Want to see well behaved teenage and pre-teen girls at the cinema? Go to opening day of a Twilight movie.  
I love Vampire films. It’s a genre I’ve followed and studied. The best recent Vampire film is Let the Right One In, whose American re-make, The Right One was nothalf bad. A recent addition to the genre that should have gotten a better audience was 30 Days of Night.
Son of Dracula, a Universal Horror that was a quasi sequel to Todd Browning’s Dracula is one of my favorites. Starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as the count, the film takes place in a Louisiana planation. Dracula moves to the new world under the name of Count Alucard (read it backwards) because he has fallen in love and turned into a vampire the southern belle who has inherited the swampy estate. The woman turns the tables on the Count; she wants to turn into a vampire her long term boyfriend, so they can live together forever and never grow old. The boyfriend winds up slaying both the count and the girlfriend. Why? Because vampirism is EVIL!!!
In the original Dracula, the Count turns Lucy, a friend of his real target, Mina into a vampire who wanders London sucking the blood of Children before Van Helsing  slays her. Two vampires exist at the same time, creating in a sense, a nosferatu community, at least a coven (he also has three undead wives he abandoned in Translyvannia).  
In Son, turning the love interest of the count into a femme fatale solidifies the concept of a world of vampires. Vampires no longer were bound by conflicts with mortals; they could have conflicts among themselves. This idea further evolved in the Hammer films, where one bite from Christopher Lee was enough – the concept was so rich there was a non-Lee Hammer entry into the vampire genre called Brides of Dracula, not the plural. The novels of Anne Rice, the Blade Trilogy, the truly awesome After Dark to proto-Twilight flicks like the Lost boys or more recently, Underworld (I saw a trailer for another sequel to the action-packed, relentlessly incoherent vamp vs. werewolf saga). 
Vampires live and die by rules, which change for each story teller. The need for blood, the not-dying, the stake in the heart, crucifixes, all the various details shift.  As religion became less popular, seems the cross as kryptonite weakness has gone the way of Limbo, but still there are rules to the universe and with rules become social mores thus the community of vampires often have cliques and rivalries. What started as clever pulpy twist on Dracula, made by that most pulpy of genre film studios, Universal, has expanded into a world in and of itself, with little to no relation to the real world. Since the struggle of competing groups for power always resembles High School, why not put the beings who never age in an actual high school where they can meet a precocious, wise beyond her years teen starlet?  

As vampire films they’re terrible. As vampire rules go, the ability to walk in the sunlight and have your skin glitters is really ludicrous. I’m not an Anne Rice fan and while I like the idea a vampire can sustain themselves on non-human blood, I do not like the idea of vampires who are not monsters. But we live in different times. What I do like about the Twilight films is the high school part, they take being a teenager seriously. I wish I was happier when I was a teenager. But I remember when so many things were new, important, when the world revolved around me and my problems, my friend’s problems, and my problems with my friend’s problems. The strength of the Twilight films is the teenager experience is not dismissed or made into camp, turned into laughs. There is no condescension about the experience. I find this enriching, if forgettable entertainment – the opposite impact that being a teenager has on life.
Forgettable, yes. Very. I don’t quite remember these movies. I have seen all of them, there are four now, but I can’t tell you the specifics of each. Oh, the first one had that great scene where the vamps enter the high school cafeteria and its love at first sight for this 21st century Juliet & Romeo. And the establishment of the relationships between the vampires and the Native American werewolves (see MGM’s Return of the Vampire, where Bela as Dracula in everything but name (copyright laws) has a werewolf accomplice). The details of each film blur.  Bella, the twilight girl, dated Jacob and hung out with the Native Americans for a while; another one had a trip to Europe where Dakota Fanning was a vampire queen. Teenage rumbles were in a few. These movies are cotton candy. You eat cotton candy at the fair. You remember the fair and since you eat cotton candy at the fair you remember eating cotton candy. Sugary and fun to eat – what else is there to remember about cotton candy, besides the fair?

Vampire films are not typical horror films; while the monster can be horrifying, they are more often merely macabre than actually scary. When successful they also create an unnerving, creepy atmosphere. The Todd Browning Dracula and Marnu’s Nosferatu create that atmosphere successfully, as did Let The Right One In, both original and remake. The Lost Boys, probably the most apparent antecedent to the Twilight tetralogy, barely had anything unnerving or creepy, suspense of any kind was absent. Of course, the director, the guy who killed Batman in the late 90s and made one of the worst films ever made, Falling Down (the one where Michael Douglas, in a performance that calls for pineapples and cloves, spreads havoc because he can’t breakfast at a faux McDonalds), so you can’t really expect a suitable Vampire film from this hack. But Lost Boys was memorable and had a great publicity campaign – sleep all day, party all night, never grow old.
The Twilight films are not overly creepy; it’s all about teen drama and re-enactments of Sharks versus Jets scenarios, between the werewolves and the pallid blood suckers, or the good vamps against the bad vamps. But they are subconsciously creepy because of the way the material addresses sex. Vampirism has always a metaphor for sex.
In the original Dracula, vampirism was the threat against Victorian society (read Dracula Year Ano, which brilliantly develops this idea into a freak-out, way too much fun for a vampire novel, novel)). Who can forget Stoker’s brilliant scene where Dracula, with his grotesquely long fingernails, slices a wound into his chest, which Mina in his thrall, drinks from – drinking nosferatu blood is how you become a vampire – while her fiancé hypnotized watches. Rice most often used Vampirism for homoerotic metaphors. Twilight it is sex and the loss of virginity.  Bella is a virgin and wants to become a vampire, but her beloved doesn’t want to go all the way in either way. The compassionate conservative family are actually self-hating vampires, because the writer believes sex is dirty and dangerous. Family values over sexual desire, seen here as self indulgent; they live these values, forever, with the sin on their faces – their skin glitters in the sunlight. There’s no pleasure in living forever and being young. They don’t party all night or sleep all day.
This obsession reaches the literal and figurative climax in the latest film; at her truly bizarre wedding, her now just friend’s Native American werewolf is appalled she is going to have sex before becoming a vampire. She wants to experience losing her virginity as a human. Apparently vampires can’t help but like it rough. The deflowering leaves the bed in shambles and bruises all over Bella. Unlike real-life piercing of the hymen, she achieves an orgasm, mind-blowing but still within PG-13 parameters. But Edward refuses to hurt her. We’ll never have sex again, he declares.
Again, only in the movies, not only was the first the best it was also the last and she’s preggers!

His demon seed has been planted. One night of bliss and vampire baby is on the way. Sexual pleasure must be punished. The gestation is sped up because the plot needed story telling technicalities and it is killing Bella; Like Mia in Rosemary’s baby, she gets thinner, which actually is horrifying. She becomes near-skeleton like, until she learns to drink blood. Bella is given blood shakes, which she drinks from a straw. Then there’s an emergency caesarian, where her new husband must cut the child out of her, something they don’t teach in Lamaze. The only way to save her now is to turn her into a vampire, but one bite won’t do it and her new husband must bite her repeatedly up and down her entire body. In the original Dracula, then expounded on by Anne Rice, is the process of vampirism begins with sucking all the blood out of the body, then having the victim drink vampire blood, and is thus “turned.” In Hammer and other films, one bite does it, unless the victim’s body is destroyed. I suppose this is the turning scenario in Twilight. I suspect the author of the novels was more intent on anti-sex propaganda than specifying the rules of her universe. I prefer pulp to culture war polemics!
Is the baby human or vampire? Stay after the credits because those bad European vamps from the previous films, who actually take pleasure in their monster status and all its privileges, are informed the hybrid baby is born (is there a spy among the good vamps?) and want this result of deflowering by demon seed. Before the credits, Bella wakes up, alive with red eyes. She’s undead.
As cliff hangers go, the set up was well done. We live in an era of sequels, why fight it. These films were made with the idea in mind, and what is fascinating about these films of how they are all of a piece. The first Twilight was directed by the director of Thirteen, contrived but compelling piece of realism in the Cassavettes style and Nativity Story, a satisfying sword and sandal bible retelling; the latest Twilight is by the director of Gods & Monsters,  the James Whale bio flick and exploration of subconscious homoeroticism, a remarkable film. I forget the middle film’s directors. Each one had a different director and Thirteen and Gods & Monsters are very different films. The material is bigger than the director; this kind of corporate production, the rule of television is becoming less and less the exception in American cinema. Movies aren’t films, they’re franchises.
I’m not sure this is always bad; although I am positive it is not always good.
The Twilight films touch on the teenage experience with an honesty that other films often fall short in achieving and they have a pop culture at the moment feel to them. They may be ludicrous and forgettable, but they provide insights into the two things I go to the movies for – Subtext and Context.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn I

Scary *
Creepy *****
Jolts **
Suspense *
Believability *
Total: ** (above average? I might have to revise my ratign system, but the reason is that the creepy has to do with subtext not action, a sort of unfair analysis. Vampires are metaphors for sexaulity, here the author’s view of sexuality is creepy. As a horror film, it is way below average. Dang, this rating system just hit a snag! How to rate a horror movie for being creepy for all the wrong reasons?)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How Green Was My Valley

Of me was the valley and the valley was of me, and every blade of grass, and every stone, and every leaf of every tree, and every knob of coal or drop of water, or stick or branch or flower or grain of pollen, or creature living, or dust in the ground, all were of me as my blood, my bones, or the notions from my mind. My Valley, O my Valley, within me, I will live in you, eternally.
      Let Death or worse strike this mind and blindness eat these eyes if thought or sight forget you. Valley of the Shadow of Death, now, for some, but not for me, for part of me is the memory of you in your greens and browns ,with everything of life happy in your deeps and shades, when you gave sweet scents to us, and sent forth spices for the pot, and flowers, and birds sang out of pleasure to be with you.

How Green Was My Valley by Richard LLewellyn

Baby Bumps

Baby Bump. When it comes to slang and English, no nation is more compulsively inventive than the land of the free and the home of the brave; this predilection has been turned up a ba-zillion notches by our current crop of texting Americans.
Think of how demur we used to be – You’re showing. Lucy & Ricky couldn’t even say Pregnant, back in the day when toilets couldn’t be shown on screens big or small. The base side of being human, the inescapability of nature on our lives, somehow got intertwined with sin and guilt in Judeo-Christian, Western culture and it’s taken several centuries, not to mention Ginsberg & Kerouac, Heffner & Flint and Howard Stern, so that now we can finally dare to speak the names of the our various calls of nature.
Maybe the culture can go a little too much the other way, glorification in the crass, but for the most part this honesty and lack of embarrassment over universal facts of life is positive, a vast improvement over repression. We cannot not only say pregnant without second thought, we can coin a new phrase for the today’s mommies-to-be. Baby Bump. Bling of Flesh. Motherhood is in. 
Last summer or the summer before, a real hot day, I saw a pregnant woman on the subway wearing a midriff blouse, her womb and enormous navel swelling in the open air. It was shocking and beautiful at the same time. I can hear the old guard bemoan the lack of decency but in fact, decency when it comes to social mores has been redefined, for the better. Social custom used to force women to disguise their “condition,” during the Victorian era a woman with child rarely left the house. Now Baby Bumps are flaunted. In Your Face Fertility!   

This Baby Bump Series were by Laura Dejean, a co-founder and regular vendor and organizer of Creative Grove, our fair city’s Friday Art Mart & Flea Market, where these pieces were exhibited and on sale. Some were self-sculptures of her trimester body. The obvious comparison is to the Death Masks, where plaster was placed over the face of the deceased at the moment they became deceased, creating a sculpture of their face of death. This is the face of life. But the Death Mask was just about the surface, the facial expression. This is about what’s beneath the bump. The Womb, the fetus, the source of all life. Nature devastates and nurtures, it is logical and a contradiction, the mystery and miracle of life. Science, Medicine, biology, they really only tell us so much.
The sculpture with the Got Bump, a funny take on Got Milk and bump always comes before milk is filled with foam and you put it on to feel what it is like to be pregnant. But who can feel the inexplicable? That one had fun with the Baby Bump current coining of phrase, but the others echoed other motherhood themes – fruits of harvest, mother earth and one with men’s hands embracing from behind the bearer of his children.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Two Towed

You don’t see this everyday, two cop cars being towed; but how often do you see one being towed, or three. I had the camera out so I took a picture. There’s no meaning; I don’t really have something clever to caption. Sometimes something is just obvious. Celebrate the apparent. Two cop cars being towed. The cab of the truck had a Jersey City municipal seal on the door. Maintenance most likely, or something akin to it. You see this, you know this, the whole story; certainly enough info to construct the causes leading up to this effect. Two cop cars being towed at once. How many reasons can there be? Sometimes things just are what you see, worth a hmm, or a huh, a minor occurrence. Not shock, not surprise, but even its obviousness does not detract from the fact it is less than commonplace, two cop cars on one tow truck.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Municipal Snowflakes


Thanksgiving may be just around the proverbial corner but the on the literal corner the Snowflakes are hung on poles with care. A truck with a cherry picker, the guy put them on the telephone pole – I noticed some are also on the faux 19th century light poles – but on Grove Street where I documented the actual affixing of the flakes it was on a telephone pole. The holders were already in place, an outlet available. The lights went on, the one that did not shine was immediately replaced. Then, on to the next pole.

Every year they do this, Municipal, non-denominational holiday decorations. The season always creeps up on you. The holidays always seem to be starting earlier and earlier. I noticed Christmas decorations on sale at Kohls Labor Day Weekend, that ain’t no lie!Some years you resist the season longer than other years; the first Christmas carols can cause cringing. But sooner or later, by December 15th or so, you’re in the mood. Christmas is fun, cozy, saturated with nostalgia and memories and merriment. We all have our rituals, the holiday specials, movies, music. Thanksgiving through Advent. Christmas occurs gradually, incrementally. The ending is abrupt. New Years. Boom! Then Winter then more winter. Baseball seems so far away when January is ending and your socks are perpetually damp from trudging through slush day and night.

Still, focus on the now. Today may be too early to start enjoying the holidays; but sooner or later, enjoy them you will. You have to; Christmas is bigger than you.

I always thought elves came in and put up the Jersey City snowflakes, but no. And unlike real snowflakes were every one is geometrically unique, not only are these identical our municipal flakes are the exactly the same as in other cities.

About an hour after I saw the snowflake hanging I wandered through Grove Street Plaza. The same guys were lighting up the tree. I talked to them. They do this for dozens of cities and towns in the area, as well as shopping malls. They start right after Halloween.

It’s not even thanksgiving and you’re putting up Christmas decorations, we get that all the time,” he said

">How many flakes went up in our fair city?

“We came with 59 and we are leaving with 7, we put them up all the way up Newark, Grove Street and Jersey.”

I didn’t inquire further, about flakes in other J.C. hoods or why only a few blocks (the most gentrified, near the PATH streets) and not others.

People were hanging around the open-air plaza, waiting for buses. The night was warm. It was nice to see the lights achieve illumination on the artificial tree.

Some bulbs remained dark and had to be replaced. It was balmy out, unseasonably warm – two weeks ago we had snow and ice, a real-life nightmare before Christmas. A couple wandered to the tree, holding an infant, his first Christmas. They pointed at the lights. I felt merry for a moment. It was nice

ArtFest/Art House

Art met commerce long ago. They continue to collaborate. ArtFest, an event held at Art House, which is near Hamilton Park, added a heavy dose of urban community to the equation.
The event was sponsored by Rising Tide Capital, a non-profit organization that encourages entrepreneurship among minority and under-privileged population. Jersey City art events are often multi-ethnic and kid-friendly, but this event was especially fun. There were vendors aplenty, mainly artists and artisans selling hand-made crafts. On one end on the room was a six-inch high stage were musicians and rappers performed. To the side of the stage face painting was going on and by the time I got there, late in the afternoon, seemed all the children already resembled a pre-school production of Cats.
A genuinely enjoyable urban vibe. I noticed that a lot of the contemporary African-American arts and crafts for sale had a Soul Power, replete with psychedelic influences, feel. Very groovy (I mean that sincerely and ironically). I remembered seeing that stuff when I was the age of these kids. Back then it scared mainstream society (i.e., my parents), but now IT IS MAINSTREAM! Well, as mainstream as the Hamilton Park neighborhood gets and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s more mainstream every day. Does mainstream really have the same meaning in our media-drenched, fragmented society. What used to be underground culture is now the culture or a good part of that culture. Let’s welcome that
I guess rap and hip-hop can be considered the same way: an underground phenomena that is now acceptable. I’m not a hater of rap, but I’m not a fan. I have nothing against it, I usually find it very interesting, but a little goes a long way. It’s just not part of mypersonal soundtrack.

At ArtFest my opinion was deeply challenged, and I bought my first “hip hop” CD (that ain’t no lie) Busy is My Best Friend, by Silent Knight who performed with Soul Q’Lock. Seriously, these cats were fun to hear, fun to watch. They reminded me of Jay and Silent Bob as they shimmied and wobbled and did the hand gesture thing. At one point Q’Clock wiggled his fingers in front of his face and S.K. waved both hands I love those hand gestures, I guess they are derived from gang signs. What an affable duo. Peace Out! Representing. It’s fun and infectious no matter who you are. The perfomance entertained on a mulitude of levels.

The song that caught my attention though was Stayin’ Busy. Mostly, rap songs, even the classic ones, often sound to my ears like run on sentences in search of a rhyme. Entertaining, sure but all too often at the expense of craft. Sometimes the cussing, sexism and homophobia can be a distraction. These guys did not dabble in that sort of thing – there were kids present!

Stayin’ Busy is about a guy determined to make his art, regardless of how his friends feel. He’s “straining to sustain” sleeping on couches, staying up all night at the computer.

The narrator is cognizant of the potential and ever-present threat of his urban, working class environment:
“One check away from being on the streets/Or my peeps who are there one check ago.”

What a great couplet, brilliant alliteration. I love the internal rhymes of Street and Peeps. It’s a great song or rap or, well what it is closest to is Spoken Word, even with the beats and musical effects. But those are just classifications to make it easier to write about. I listened to the CD, this song especially. It’s like a mini-opera, a personal tale of struggling to express an artistic vision, not just against the odds but also of personal sacrifice. The rap begins with a phone call where he explains that he is too busy, at another point he dreams of his girl “in those jeans.”

The finale is a call and response with the chorus line:

When you’re trying to see your vision through the final extant
Busy is your best friend
When you’re hoping whatever you’re going through would just end
Busy is your best friend

Throughout a woman sings: There’s a limit to your love.

A haunting reminder of the price artists often must pay. Inspiration is a cruel mistress. There’s an ambiguity too: is the narrator escaping the tribulations of life by staying busy or is him staying busy the real cause of the problems? It can go either way; what a provocative song, rap, poem, whatever! (I’m making a hand gesture to emphasize my point).

Anyway. I’m not getting on the hip-hop/rap band wagon, but this was well-crafted writing, an attention to iambic pentameter which is just a fancy way of saying deliberate amount of syllables within the lines, which were long-breath lines, to enhance the rhythm of the writing. It wasn’t just the pre-recorded samples giving this material rhythm, it was the writing itself, attention to the sound of words as well as their meaning. The dude has something to say and an original way of saying it. His CD was worth spending some time with; my player isn’t sick of it yet!

Check out his website.
My favorite Art Fest contribution to the Jersey City art scene. Tea! I’m a devout tea drinker and there was an honest to God tea vendor, “Taking Tea In Style.” They were selling by cups and bag a quite good Coconut Chai.

Do you drink Chai, asked Sharon Levy, the owner.

Only every morning, I said.

I never drink coffee. I drink many cups of tea a day; I’ve gotten a bit particular and brew it fresh. I am a tea head.

You can get booze, water and coffee at Art Events. But heretofore never tea, especially the high quality tea which I have come to prefer. Apparently Tea In Style is based in Princeton; It’s all fancy tea stuff, but also a selection of gourmet teas. Anyway, I know my chai and this was quite delicious.

Check out the website

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The New Order: 7-11 Opens on Madison

Happened the other day, in New York City, near the day job’s office, on Madison Avenue, a grand opening of a 7-11.  During my youth in Bergen County then Atlantic County then Bergen County again I worked plenty of night shifts, filing stories by Midnight and before then, crappy jobs in warehouses and other alienating shit-holes, even once was a cashier at a Parkway rest stop, graveyard shift. The only place still open after 2:00 AM were a handful of diners and 7-11s or their equivalent, Wa-Wa and Cumberland Farm. 

In the suburbs and the ex-burbs, here and across the land that I love best, 7-11s were often trading posts at the edges of the frontier, barely embryonic civilization formed by highways and strip malls and jobs that used to be there in factories and mills, later office parks and technical support call centers.

Individuals were unable to invest or unwilling to dream that the service road to the Interstate could someday a well travelled path to employment where workers would stop for a coffee, bear claw and pack of Luckies. Many places a convenient store might be an unfeasible enterprise – an individual store owner would not be able to garner sufficient revenue to make it work, but a chain intent on building a national brand could run a few stores at less than desirable profitability because more locations not just build a brand, but makes it easier to absorb losses due to under-performing stores. Of course as soon as the inability of the independent store to compete on price, selection or hours drives that retailer out of business, that 7-11 location will improve its profitability.

We consumers soon ask ourselves, why not go to the certainity of a 7-11 instead of risking your time at a local general store because you remembered how great the energy drink selection was at that 7-11 on that highway that one time where nothing was opened and you were driving all night and the future was only tomorrow and apprehension filled the horizon. Things turned out all right then, it could today.

I have nothing against 7-11s stores or national chains. Like McDonalds and Star Bucks, 7-11s provide security – no matter where you are in our hyper mobile country, you can be in a place that you know. But New York City (and the NYC area which also means J.C.) is not in the middle of nowhere with nothing else; the city that never sleeps has a plethora of 24 bodegas with beverages and cigarettes and lottery machines. I remember thinking how cool it was that I could get Jolt Cola or a Red Stripe Beer and a pack of Goullaise at 3:00 AM; And they had weird things you never saw anywhere, like this vanilla coconut soda I drank before I had to restrict my sugar intake. An awesome beverage, whose name I can’t remember, that I haven’t seen in 20 years.

I didn’t miss the 7-11s when I went urban, and even though my night owl ways gradually waned I took comfort in knowing that if I ever need weird sodas and french cigarettes during the desperate netherworld twixt midnight and dawn they were there for me.  It wasn’t just the convenience of the national branded convenience store that I discovered in the 24-hour bodega and deli republic; it was the individuality of the stores, the personable clerks, often the owners or the family members of the owner.

The 7-11 has a personality too, but it is a corporate personality; the comfort it provides intentionally lacks a knowable individual stamp; in an unfamiliar time or place they are the bastion of familiarity. When it’s the only place opened after all the bars are closed and you are the only one you know awake, you’re thankful for that bland familiarity. But why would anyone need or want that when you have the sea or diversity that is Manhattan’s Bodega and Deli republic?

I recently blogged about a local J.C. store, 24-7, that received a cease and desist order from 7-11 because their awning blatantly mimicked the more famous brand.  I realize now why they went for that recognition. Our society no longer values the individual shop owner and his or her personal retail vision. We want stores to be like Subway or McDonalds and a convenient store is no different than a Target or Wal-Mart. Except for the 99 cents, many of which are now chains, how many other independent department stores do you know of, or stores of any real size, except for a few shops specializing in over-priced designer wares. C.H. Martin?

I now realize why 7-11 made such an effort to attack this local business owner; they’re invading inner-cities, that’s the new growth opportunity for national chains. There’s a 7-11 in Journal Square. Bodegas and Delis have proven that there is a huge market here and in other cities for convenient stores; opportunities that no longer exist in our nation’s ex-urbs, where the farms are all shut down and the industrial and tech jobs that replaced them during the last century are now performed in other nations.

New York City used to be a place filled with stores that could only be found there. Exceptions remain but for the most part, Manhattan is now the STRIP MALL ON THE HUDSON.

Another more nefarious cause resulted in this 7-11 on Madison Avenue. It’s the chains that have the investment power. An entrepreneur getting a loan to start a store versus a known brand opening up an outlet, which is the better risk, Mr. Banker? Which loan do Government policies or New York zoning and business licensing regulations encourage?

Regional distinctiveness is an endangered species. The New Order arrives one 7-11 at a time and a city becomes a consolidated Ex-urb.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Memory Mural

This wonderful, I am assuming new, mural is on Brunswick Street, somewhere north of First Street.

Murals are blooming everywhere in Jersey City and I make note when I feel the urge. This mural is a growing trend of Storefront Gate pictorials, ranging from a clever advertisement for the business, the gate is securing to an art for art sake picture, such as this dramatic gargoyle.

Maybe mural is not the right word but I can’t think of a more appropriate term for this large canvas diorama. The colors seem muted, yet they have a vibrancy without any brightness. The style seems like Edgar Degas meets Edward Hopper, impressionistic, yet illustrative, a little lonely but human, touching, wistful.

A friend of mine, born and bred J.C. person also noticed this painting and clued me in – that’s the old neighborhood. I have no idea what business this gate is in front of now – I took the picture early this morning, most businesses were still closed – but the store fronts depicted -- Todiscos, Lipari Barbershop, Difeo's Pastry – were the actual stores lining Brunswick street back in the mid-to-late 20th century. Even the giant Pepsis bottle cap – which can still be seen on this street – is accurate to the bygone era. Notice how the real door is used as a faux corner and the mural on the right hand sided gate changes its perspective, creating a sense of distance, objects getting smaller, recreating the look of a street corner, bringing the viewer into if not the painting itself, the idea of this depiction. Notice also the tan portions near the top, how the shade mimics the actual beige façade of the building, resulting in a momentary illusion that this work emerges out of the building and is not really a paneled security gate. The ridges of the gate seem also to enhance the shimmering effect, of the colors, the soft-focus impressionism of the style and the fading nostalgia of the internal narration of the actual depiction.

Blurred on the edges, colors fading with every blink of your eye… that’s the way memories look in our mind. Like one of those dreams where you are in a place that used to be, everything is familiar, but as you recognize identifiable landmarks from your past, you also are waking and soon the whole era evaporates. The mural may be of the past, but the sweet if melancholic emotions invoked by the high-level of art here is undeniable 21st Century Jersey City. Memories can inspire our imaginations and feed our dreams. On Brunswick Street, they don’t have to be yours. This beautiful, highly imaginative work of art expands on the past that is collected in our collective memory.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Newport Station Rotting

Newport Path Station, above ground may look like a sleek, modern transport hub, an illusion sustained with the new turn styles, down the shiny escalators and tunnels lined with tiles and decorative art but once you get to the stairs down to the platform, it’s moldy and decayed. This path station is rotting away. I wrote about Newport Corroding here, a year ago. It hasn’t improved since, quite the opposite. Now the rust, mold and disrepair is spreading from the platform up to the stairwells. It’s gross, unsightly and more than likely a health and safety hazard. It’s more cave than subway station now, the Hudson river leaking through.

New Colors 24/7

Anybody remember this blog from about two years ago? A new bodega opened with an awning whose green and orange colors seemed familiar and the name 24/7… him seven… what would rhyme with it, hmmm… what says convenience store that never closes and sells everything you can think of plus the widest selection of sugar-laden beverages known to mankind?

Well, no more. Oh the name stays the same but the colors were repainted a couple of weeks ago.

"Why," I asked the owner.

"It’s 7-11," he said.

Apparently there were cease and desist letters, court hearings. The owner told me his lawyer told him that he would win, eventually but he decided to give in and change the colors so it would not appear to look like that famous convenience store.

"I got sick of fighting it, I could have taken it further and won, but what's the use?"

We don’t need a chains or local bodegas that mimic chains. Be a local bodega. You may not be able to get a slurpee but they have a fine selection and a nice deli. The guys who run it are friendly. You want a 7-11 go to Journal Square!

Oh, the memories: A freshly painted awning and an awning-less façade. Nothing survives time or trademark infringement laws.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Puddle Reflects

I have taken if not a lot, some pictures in this lot or the general vicinity. Maybe I’m in a blogging frame of mind when I cross the paved emptiness; it’s on a habitual wander for yours truly. Puddles (and litter) are not exactly “uncommon” in Jersey City, but maybe the sun was in the right place and who knows what other optics of fate and the universe aligned to provide a near perfect mirror reflecting the building and sky. Notice the snow in the background. Could our October ice storm have enhanced the optics necessary for this effect?

Tree Splits Across First

While walking east on Newark Avenue on Sunday Morning, I make a right on Monmouth. I’m talking to my sister who lives in Nutley. She is telling me that she still has power, but Paramus where our mother and her children live was hit real bad, power outage, fallen tees

I don’t think we got anything like that in Jersey City. More inland is bad she says, even the Governor is without power. I think I heard something about that on the radio. I wasn’t paying close attention to the news this morning

I guess Jersey City is in a bubble by the River, I say with inappropriate jocularity. I reach the corner of First Street and just as I am saying how Jersey City was spared I see this. Holy crap, Suzanne. There’s a fallen tree across a street. Just like we were talking about, here it is.

 I was wrong, Jersey City was not spared.

Holy crap. Holy crap.

The irony of encountering a fallen tree moments after I testified to no such thing was not as shocking as the catastrophe itself. This was no mere downed branch, no loose limb. Practically half the tree, a large tributary of wood and leaves split off at the trunk, had toppled, probably been whole, growing there and lining our streets since WWII or Korea. It had fallen over cars but the branches seemed to prop up the long limb so it didn’t seem to cause any visible automobile damage.

The firemen had arrived, they were assessing the situation. They had chainsaws ready. I had been out for a while, walking around finding snow on pumpkin photo ops, I heard sirens all morning but I didn’t really pay them any mind. The leaves on the tree were still green. We are only a month into fall.

I seem to remember a brief flurry the day after the Mets lost the World Series to the Yankees in 2001, but nothing like this. I don’t remember any snow in October, says my sister, who is older than I. Later I would talk to mom. She was without power, depressed and frustrated about it. She has seen 91 Octobers, does not remember one with an ice storm. News reports called it a rare October snowstorm. Rare? How about first time ever! The leaves hadn’t even turned color, much less fallen. They’re as green as they were in August! It was 80 degrees two weeks ago! From 80 to below freezing in a fortnight.

Rare? No, not rare. The new order is here! We are experiencing the extreme weather events Al Gore warned us of in his excellent documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Weather patterns are not like they were when we were kids, not like they were even 10 years ago and 10 years ago they were more similar to when we were kids than they are to our post-Katrina atmosphere (and us with a Repulican controlling Trenton, Yikes! The poor and middle class are on our own!).

I passed by 24 hours later, the tree was still down (by nightfall it had been removed). I guess the firemen didn’t cut anything. The power lines were intertwined with the branches; dismantling the tree would have to be a painstaking operation. Maybe this was job for PSE&G. Nobody seems to have gotten hurt, the cars too seem oddly undamaged. How many times have we seen a tree, technically half a tree, split at the trunk, here in our fair city? Never up till now. Holy Crap!