Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: My Best Reads

In March, I had a month long calamity. The apartment above mine had a flood, which severely damaged my abode. The repairs, clean up, dealing with the subcontractor to compensate my losses, basically meant I wasn’t able to read books for a few weeks. But I had some interesting reading experiences so as a first, thought I would try a best of list. These books are worth noting. These are the books that come to mind when I ask myself, what were the best books I read in the, rather arbitrary, period of 356 days. It’s not quite a third of the books I encountered 2011. 

My favorite new book of 2011 was Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. It was one of the few “new” books I read this year. One of the greatest living American writers, I’ve been following his work since Angels, his first novel. Train Dreams is a novella, a gnarly tall tale of America and an individual. He works for a time as a railroad man in the upper Midwest, marries and has a son, but soon die and he lives out his life mostly as a recluse. With sensitivity, intelligence and a sense of wonder, he explores American individuality it a way that makes you feel that it is a new discovery. What a fine writer.

In a review I read of Train Dreams, Seek, Johnson’s collection of reportage and nonfiction pieces, was heavily praised. I had a read a couple things in Esquire or was it GQ, and wasn’t impressed for whatever reason and never picked up this work. Train Dreams was short, I read it twice through first time. I have a collection of his poetry, which was good but the collected poems – and apparently all his collections – are now out of print so I did pick up Seek as well as Shoppers, which is a play, actually two plays. Anyway, the plays were seriously, barely readable yet Seek was also one of the best books I read last year. He reports on the wars in Liberia and a Rainbow Tribes festival where he tries to revive some of his druggy hippie day; a series of essay looks at different deserts. All brilliant writing, as brilliant in their own way as Jesus’s Son. An obvious antecedent might be Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer, but this novelist nonfiction dabbling I think is superior. Word for word, he’s a better writer than Mailer – I love Mailer – also the pieces are more eclectic; who the heck wasn’t writing about the anti-war pieces in the 60s; when was the last time you read an essay on Liberia? That’s what I’m talking about. Well, as far as I can tell, except for one collection of poems, I’ve read all of Denis Johnson. Poetry gets no respect and as far as a serious readership of literary poetry goes – the very phrase and its apparent redundancy, literary poetry makes me sick but in our Spoken Word era what is one to say? – There are too few of us to count. It makes me sad.

Speaking of Mailer, I finally read Tough Guys Don’t Dance and loved it. It’s out of print and wasn’t really trying very had to find a copy, but in the library at my mom’s assisted living facility, which are just donated books, I found a copy. I dug it, better than the weird movie with Ryan O’Neil. Mailer adapted his style to the demands of noir as aptly as McCarthy did in No Country for Old Men, although Mailer was giving props to Raymond Chandler yet Mailer’s weird obsessions with Freud and sex and the failures of the American dream would not be tamed. Best noir, perhaps my favorite genre, I read all year. It’s more than 20 years, that’s sad. Underrated in Norman’s oeuvre, probably his best short novel, and made me want to read the rest of the oeuvre. I miss having Mailer around.

I haven’t read Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, where he lays out his main literary theory, which looks at literature as a whole with Shakespeare at the center, but I picked up his latest, Anatomy of Influence, where he furthers his theories. I’ve read enough of Bloom, particularly the Western Canon, so I’m hip to his jive. This may be his last major book; he hints as much, the man is in his 8os. The chapter on the poetry of D. H. Lawrence was illuminating, I used to love his poetry in high school but he has fallen out of favor and is known primarily for the novels. Bloom loves Hart Crane and the Montaigne. I soon picked up Hart Crane again; I was mainly familiar with The Bridge, now I went for his collected works – introduction by H.B. himself. I’m not sure, he’s a difficult read. Am I too far gone for poetry? I still read Whitman, not much else though and while I’ve written some rough things, I haven’t been encouraged to flesh out and make a poem again. I don’t know. Montaigne though, I had never read and I got a collection of his essays and found them quite brilliant and familiar, mainly because his influence is so dominant, the guy invented the essay practically, that nearly everyone in his wake owes a debt.

Bloom mainly led to my central reading experience of the year and also perhaps, my life. Shakespeare, perhaps you heard of him. I loved Shakespeare in High school and one of my most memorable College Courses was a Shakespeare class. I have always tried to include classics in my reading and would read a Shakespeare here and there, and figured I would get through them all, eventually. I recommend the Folgers editions, which feature definitions for all the words and phrases that need definitions – yes, just about every other line – as well as brief scene by scene synopsis and an interesting essay about the specific play. They are also cheap, five bucks and easy to carry, small, reasonably plump paperbacks. Perfect reading for the PATH and NYC subway. Huh? You say. Subway reading is filled with distractions and at best, you only get a 10-15 minute batch, the thing with Shakespeare is that the language which is beautiful but inverted, archaic – he anticipates Melville and Joyce, who are probably harder to read – so to really absorb what he has written, small but consecutive doses work best. Reading the plays in clusters – and aside from newspapers, magazines, websites and BLOGS! Shakespeare was my reading. It was my Summer Shakespeare, more than six weeks I reckon. Shakespeare wrote 38 plays and prior to my Shakespeare, I had only read or seen 20. Once I got rolling, I found that I could read about three per week, reading them back to back made the reading faster and easier. Whether reading or see a stage or film production, there is always an initiation period with Shakespeare, your mind has to adapt to not just the language but the way of thinking. With Shakespeare, anything could mean everything. It’s not really a double entendre or taking things more than one way, but everything about the human experience is taken into consideration.
The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Two Gentlemen of Verona are rubbish, but Titus Andronicus was a phantasmagoric nightmare. Anthony & Cleopatra, probably the only major play I had yet to read, seems to anticipate the femme fatale in Cleopatra, more so than Lady Macbeth, a woman the desire for whom drives men to extreme yet is not without love. Pericles had a real yarn about it. The Noble Kinsmen was a thoroughly, unabashed entertaining read. Richard II, the man ill suited to be king, was quite moving. What was really funny that about a week after reading Timon of Athens, I saw it performed in Van Vorst Park. I was able to talk to young actors and their not so young director, in depth, about the play.  

Reading the plays in a cluster of about two months was an exercise I recommend. As a guide, I read Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom, where he analyzes each play, enabling me to get the most of out each reading. Also, he gives history of the criticism of each play, so you get an idea of how it was interpreted and where it might stand in the Western Canon. But where does it stand within Shakespeare? This is a fun question. I remember my college Shakespeare teacher saying how Titus was a bad play; it was one we didn’t read. There was always an acceptance that not all of Shakespeare is good. Yet, beyond a core (Hamlet, Lear, etc.) what is the best. It is an open question, one that has to do with trends of fads of any era. Bloom doesn’t like Titus, but admits that he might be wrong, yet I consider Titus, well maybe not Hamlet or Lear but as interesting, entertaining and well written as Macbeth, better even. Bloom says that 12 to 15 of the plays are great, so even he admits to an inconclusive answer. My Shakespeare summer not only was about the plays I read, but, with the help of Bloom, I thought about the plays that I have had previously read as well. The idea of bad Shakespeare started to bug me, Merry Wives not withstanding. Bloom and my College professor were wrong about Titus. I’m not sure what to think of the term Minor Shakespeare, except that it is misleading. Hamlet and Lear are simply incomparable works of genius. Those aside, I guess I would put it, there is a lot more major Shakespeare than is generally agreed upon. Lastly, Bloom writes about how Shakespeare reads us. He talks about the categories of Tragedy, Comedy and History and how Shakespeare actually evades them. So true, all the plays have elements of Drama and Humor, they are a complete experience. Humanity is a funny thing, a mix of comedy and tragedy as we all, together and individually struggle with our fate – we can never chose our parents, the decisions we make within the context of our fate and endure the defining component of humanity – the burden of mortality. As the summer wore on, Shakespeare was reading me.
Looking back now, I realize, it was weeks, probably a month, before I read anything that recall as of value. A prejudice lingered. I did not want to give up that world.

Anyway, for the record, these were the plays in my Summer Shakespeare Festival: Love's Labour's Lost, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsmen, Richard II, Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus , Timon of Athens , Troilus and Cressida, and Cymbeline.

 William Trevor is a contemporary Irish writer, known mainly for his short stories. Love and Summer was one of the better novels I read this year, it’s a few years old, and while it takes place in Ireland it has a real universal flavor. Takes place in a rural setting, a farmer’s wife has an affair with a man who has returned to the town to pack up his dead father’s house. Just a superbly sensitive portrayal of desire, how we cope with loss and how happiness is not just out of reach, but more complex than we realize, especially when we don’t want to admit we have it.
Just Kids by Patti Smith. This literary memoir will move you regardless of how you feel about Patti Smith. She’s a major hero to me, I’m a huge fan and this book filled in a lot of gaps about her life. She’s a true believer in literature too. Mainly it’s about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer. There have been friendships and relationships between artists before, both within the same medium or in different mediums. Patti Smith redefined music and Mapplethorpe redefined photography. They were both major and game changers in their individual mediums. I don’t think there is another example of such a close relationship between two artists of such comparable stature. But it’s not about their celebrity, or really their work, it’s about a deep, loyal relationship, against a backdrop of the 60s became the 70s until Mapplethorpe became another victim of the AIDS pandemic of the 80s. Really accomplished writing too. Right on sister!

 Cheri by Collette. I had read her short stories, which did not move me. I like French literature (in translation) a lot, but mainly 19th century. A recent film was made of this novel, I haven’t seen it but I read the book instead. Cheri is a young man who is kept by a courtesan twice his age. Early 20th century French society was filled with contradictions, Lea while a kept woman for her youth and unmarried, is accepted to a degree by society. Cheri is pampered and a narcissist. Everything is just below the surface in this novel. The two fulfill each other sexually but they make the fatal mistake of falling in love, the man being the one admired – the descriptions of his body are feverish – the woman being the one who keeps him reverses the more typical man/woman dynamic. They must part because he must marry for money, a woman his own age and because love, true love, is the biggest threat to society. The edition I had included the sequel, the Return of Cheri, takes place after World War I and there is an uncomfortable reunion between Lea and Cheri. The world has changed – more so than Collette cared to admit I think – and love remains, insistent yet neither former lover dare not speak its name.
 The Way We Live Now. England is a very odd country, I sort of like Trollope, I mean, I’ve read him, he’s sort of fluffy and while not as gnarly as Dickens or Hardy– who are not as gnarly as Zola or Melville – there’s something honest and infectious about him. He seems to celebrate the Victorian era he lived in more than he criticizes it. I only read this book because it is one of the few classics I still had left of the bucket list, but I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. An undercurrent in the book – the instigating event that sets the plot in motion is an American coming to London to solicit investment in a railroad company that soon goes bust and wreaks havoc in the lives of some brits yearning to remain, at least in appearance, aristocratic – struck a contemporary chord. Europe’s current crisis can reasonably be blamed on the corruption under the Bush administration of our financial system. I don’t know how much I like Trollope, but I enjoyed reading this plump 19th century tale. The realism was more in the story than the writing, which is not always the case, especially as realism became more the standard in literature post-Trollope.
 Grand Oaks Books, which I think is a publisher on demand with a deal with Amazon came out with The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola, which may be the first translation of this novel, the first in the Rougon-MacQuart Cycle, which they are calling Zola’s great 20 works of fiction that follow members of a French family in the 19th century. I love Zola, he is one of my favorite writers, although I always thought Theresa Raquin started the series. I’ve read all I can find in English, which is about 17 or 18, as well as some of the ones he wrote after this, his life’s work. The action takes in Plassans, where the peasantry rise up against the forces of Napoleon III; a young peasant couple, Miette and Silvere meet and fall in love and join in the uprising. Dr. Pascal makes a cameo, his story is the last novel in the series where he sums up the previous 19 or so books and their characters. Trains, Farms, Restaurants, Department Stores, Banking, Artists, Mining, Prostitution, Clergy, just about every facet of 19th century French life, falls under Zola’s scrutiny. This lively translation was seamless, the book itself well made, a large photograph adorns the simple cover, large typeface that fills the page, it’s a beautiful paperback. The company claims they are going to publish, for the first time in order, new translations of the Zola cycle. I couldn’t be more excited. They said four a year for five years, but I haven’t seen another edition since this debut, so who knows. Finding a new Zola to read is pure pleasure.
The Age of Reagan by Sean Wilentz, first and foremost, is a great read. I could not put it down. In 2010, I read his book, Dylan in America, which is the best book on Dylan, which isn’t saying all that much because all the biographies stink. He’s a historian and places Dylan within the context of America, really original and insightful work. This book came out the year before, and is essentially a political history of the 80s and 90s, even though he illuminates the strain of conservative politics as it emerged mid-20th century. It’s non-polemical, to such an extent that it may be a flaw; it’s an objective look with telling details, such as Clarence Thomas, never a judge before his objectionable appointment to the Supreme Court, who was an Education Department official in the Reagan administration, gaining popularity by blocking any educational initiative. Another insight I think about was the white flight in the cities and those WWII and Baby Boomer folks who lost allegiance to the City Machine Politics. They voted Reagan in for sure, but a lot of them different vote. Barely 60 percent of the country voted in 1980. The Age of Reagan is marked by drastic drops in voting. Scary and illuminating, this is a well written book entirely about politics in America during basically the era where I grew up. It was published in 2008, I bought it was a cheap remainder at Barnes & Nobles cause it isn’t out in paperback, wasn’t in the J.C. library and I refuse the Kindle. Reading this book the same year the Occupy Wall Street movement began gave me nearly as much new perspective as the immortal Bard.

Best Re-Read of the year: As I lay Dying. It’s been more than 20 years since I did a college paper on this Faulkner. I love Faulkner, I estimate between the college Faulkner class and the reading since; I’m about 80 percent through. Spotted Horses is still my go to, but his multiple narrator work in a stream of consciousness style was fun to revisit. I read Intruder in the Dust right after cause I didn’t want to let ole Bill go so fast. I hadn’t read it before, it was fun, the writing seemed a tad forces, I got impatient. A black man is falsely accused of murder and a lawyer, Gavin, who appears in the stories in Knight’s Gambit, Faulkner’s brand of who dunnits, proves his innocence. Faulkner had progressive views of Civil Rights for his milieu, but could never imagine a world different than Jim Crow south. Unlike To Kill a Mocking Bird, where the black man’s innocence is incidental to his fate under the apartheid system of the American South through most of the 20th century, I didn’t believe it for a second. Yet, it was a full explanation of Southern Mentality of the era, unvarnished and without apology.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in the Heart

I love Christmas music, but only just before Christmas. I do not want to hear it before Halloween, before thanksgiving even and if you play it on December 26th, I might be forced to commit an act of violence we’ll both regret. But today. Christmas Eve, I love it and it is really the only thing I’ll be listening to as I wrap presents and get  ready to joyfully fulfill my holiday obligations.
We always hear Christmas songs, hymns and carols long before the holiday. More and more radio stations go all Christmas all the time and going that way earlier and earlier. I heard one or two before Halloween; just like I saw Christmas ornaments and related housewares, albeit a small display, Labor Day weekend at Kohls. After Thanksgiving, Christmas music gradually pervades, until around the third week of Advent that’s all you hear. Christmas music creeps in like a vapor as Fall comes upon us and by the time of Winter, December 21, it’s more than half of the songs you hear.
I can do without Last Christmas, otherwise I don’t mind any Christmas song. I love most of them. I don’t play holiday songs at home until Christmas Eve’s Eve, as we called it when we were kids, actually a day or two before, like the first day of winter. Happy Solstice.
Sometimes you hear holiday songs and they can only annoy, intrude upon your reverie; another harsh reminder of the holidays: spend money, think of gifts, organize and/or attend events with family and friends. The office and job related stuff. End of year madness, everything winding down, lots of reflection, long dark nights, snow and you have to bundle up and trudge day in and day out, everywhere you go; wet socks, cold feet. Who needs it?
I don’t have the time or the money! you scream to deaf ears.
We all feel a little like Scrooge at first, not a full blown bah humbug, but we postpone the hassle and the music initially only reminds us of the inevitable. Eventually you give in, especially after homes, store fronts, and municipal fixtures get all decked with lights and other yuletide imagery, both secular and sacred, mangers and menorahs. You start going to parties and other get-togethers. I learned long ago it takes too much effort to be a professional crank. I am never sorry to see the Christmas Holidays go, but I enjoy them while they’re here.

Yesterday, after leaving work early, I took a break from errands and such, sat in an Argo Tea, my new favorite place, having a Yerba Matte with steamed soy milk and hazelnut flavoring (my new favorite drink), and a version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town came on the sound system. I noticed a woman softly singing along, absent mindedly and outside young people walked by, one in a red santa art, the other wearing reindeer antlers. I realized I hummed the song as well, wiggling my head back and forth. There is a simple joy, a shared joy, holiday music invokes and encourages. Soon or later, it overcomes your cynicism.

I heard just that morning. I play music in the morning, usually as I shower, shave and dress for work, after getting a blast of NPR news. I always play Christmas music from say 12-20 – 12-25, and only then. Even Last Christmas no longer makes me cringe by then, I no longer roll my eyes at Feliz Navidad or Santa Claus is Coming To Town by Bruce and E Street, which gained a special poignancy this year because of the loss of Clarence. But that's part of Christmas too, the tinge of sadness; as remember the childhood joy of Christmas morning, you now remember people who were with you then who aren't with you this Christmas

I play the Elvis Christmas Album, of course. I like the John Jacob Niles album of hymns and carols, The Band's Christmas Must be Tonight Gets a whirl, and this cheap R&B compilation with the likes of Jerry Butler probably gets a play. But, being a hard core Dylan freak, it’s not the holidays now until I put on Christmas in the Heart, Dylan’s Christmas album.

If you don’t like Dylan, if you are unable appreciate the phlegmatic rasp his aged voice has become, you’re not going to like this clever collection of mainly standards. Bob Dylan has a truly awe inspiring knowledge of music, particular American music; it’s not just the eclectic mix he plays on his radio show, but he has made landmark albums in a range of styles: Folk, Country, Gospel, Rock & Roll, Blues; you can even see splashes of reggae, klezmar (Street Legal), and more recently, jazz and crooning. Christmas albums are essentially novelty records and so this is Dylan’s novelty record, among other things. The album features choral singers, and Dylan intermixes with this choir. It is the first time he sang with a choir since he toured with gospel singers, the last time with Tom Petty & The Heart Breakers (he referred to these singers as his heartbreakers) in 1986. Dylan first worked with background singers and choirs on Self Portrait in 1968. The singers here have an oddly 50s incandescent to them, like the Rooftop Singers, even more so than All the Tired Horses or the intro to Days of 49 from Self Portrait. It’s freaky, yet in keeping with the novelty record feel and damned if it doesn’t sound Christmassy. Christmas is about warmth and coziness, glad tidings and peace on earth; it’s one of the few times were mawkishness and schmaltz is expressed without irony or apology. What would Christmas be without a little kitsch and corn? This may be Bob's most fun album, fun all the way through at least.

The only new song, new to my ears I mean, is It Must Be Santa, a rare polka ditty. The song was made into a viral video. I never cared for or about Rock Videos and never will. When I heard this I thought, now I understand where Lily, Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts comes from. Western Swing only tells part of the musical history of that song. The other song that is rare is Christmas Island, but I was familiar with the version by good ole Leon Redbone, whose voice Dylan’s now resembles.

Otherwise, Dylan does the known standards, from Blue Christmas to Silent Nights, even doing a verse in Latin of O Come All YE Faithful. My sister says that Dylan’s voice has gotten so harsh that I’ll Be Home For Christmas sounds like a threat, not a promise. There are times where I burst out laugh. He’s long since shot out his voice. The last time I saw him in concert, I had never heard his range of notes being so limited; he used the rasp effectively on his most recent collection of new songs, Together Through Life, him going through these well known, time honored classics, songs everybody knows, really reveals his vocal uniqueness. Yet, Dylan’s unique phrasing may be tarnished, it’s still there and he puts genuine feeling into these songs.

From Blowin in the Wind up to the present, Dylan songs always echo an awareness of the divine presence. The sacred songs, such as Silent Night seem to resonate with me here, because they echo so many other themes and ideas in Dylan’s vast catalog, hundreds of songs – I’ve been listening to his music literally my entire life. Whatever your beliefs, and I am not one to preach and proselytize, one reason Christmas so permeates the western world is not so much the belief in Jesus Christ, the son of God, but the idea that how clever, how appropriate, that if there is a God who created human beings in His own image, that when he sent his son to save mankind, that son would be born in a manager, in “low estate,” wrapped in swaddling clothes, recognized at the messiah only by local shepherds, three wise men from far off lands, and perhaps a kid with a drum. The Nativity is perfect as story, be it turth or myth or both.

Another rarity is The Christmas Blues, a nice jazzy romp that bemoans, “Santa only brought me the brightly packaged, tinsel covered Christmas Blues”, which features a harmonica riff. Harmonica playing has been rare for America’s bard during this, his late period phase. More importantly, he touches on the melancholy feelings (he also sings I'll Be Home For Christmas) that the holidays also bring and as blues music teaches, humor is the best way to survive sorrow.

Well soon it will be Christmas day. I might be listening to Bob, maybe you go to Frank or Phil Spector (We should all go to Elvis), but basically we are listening to the same collection of songs, give or take. Amazing how we can listen to the same songs, regardless of whom is singing, again and again, especially as we approach the actual holiday.

Today I love Christmas music and so do you. I wish you all the best. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.

By The Nose

This, that or the other, nary a week passes without going to Union Square Park. This elephant has been balancing on his trunk since September, on one of those cement islands off to the side, the west side if I recall now, of the park. But for whatever reason I rarely am in that particular corner of this world, so I haven’t noticed until the other day. It’s Gran Elefanret by Miquel Barcel√≥ I like the size, it seems about as large as a small elephant, which conveys the intended feeling of mass being self-controlled on what is gravity defying impossible. But maybe in the world of this sculpture it is only seemingly impossible, check out the two back legs there in the air, how they’re unaligned, asymetrical in a realistic position as if the pachyderm is indeed shifting its body so he can be suspended by the nose.

Vertical Exposure

Pipes make you think subterranean but sometimes pipes must be laid exposed and standing up. Drainage is so important to our system of rooftop gutters. This particular pipe was quite lengthy, yet actually light weight, the two guys in the cherry picker, if that is indeed what they are called, nimbly attaching it to the side of building. New piping all around.

Water Main Maintenance

Water main breaks are commonplace (here and here) here in Jersey City, which is why this truck caught my eye. National Water Main Cleaning Company sounds good to me. Does this have anything to do with the custom of handing out fliers and similar notices warning against drinking Jersey City Water without first boiling whenever there is a water main break? United Water is to blame my landlord claims. Is this truck a preventative measure? Some fat hose ran from the truck into the manhole, even wider coiled hose was scattered about, probably used prior to my coming onto the scene; how does one clean a water main pipe I wondered although one imagines some sort of flushing out the system must be involved. The truck sort of quivered, rocked back and forth, a lid on the steam pipe like contraption by the cab moved up and down. It was shiny black, never saw a vehicle quite like this before but then, I’ve only seen water main disruption and not water main maintenance before.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Steel Santa

Santa lost a little weight, but now he’s a real man of steel. How can you not help but smile at this clever bit of Christmas decoration? It’s a real neighborhood thing; I mean who the heck else walks on Cole Street except us locals. His name is Louie, which is not well known but your intrepidblogger found out the true story in July right here. Talking to Peter, welder in chief was truly loads of fun. A really good guy. Christmas decorations like any holiday decorations are temporary in nature. By that same token, they are meant to inspire, well joy. Maybe part of that inspiration is by the simple fact that the routine is suddenly altered. Oh, look, blinking lights in a window, garland on a tree in the living room, where no tree is until it’s this time of year. Dress up the metal man in a Santa suit. How can you help but smile? Dig the beard. My favorite accent is the black tape around the ankles. Attention to detail. Happy Christmas Coles Street!

Spreading Scaping

Two years ago, in December, the Tree Planters appeared on the eastern sections of Newark Avenue. They make great trash bins and ash trays, atleast until they are filled with dirt and trees. I guess it’s a winter thing, the optimum time or maybe it’s just a coincidence.  Street-Scaping, that’s what’s going on. I love that on the notification posters of “Emergency No Parking” specifically state: Street Scaping. The planters, as well as the nifty iron-like benches are the finishing touches. Nice touches. That sort of touch was expected nearer the PATH station, our shovel ready project that started with the dawn of the Obama administration. Heading west, up Newark. I didn’t quite expect that, it’s sort of gets no man land-ish or at least used to be but that’s no longer the case. The planters and benches, aligning sidewalks near one of the few gas stations in town, the splendid “Big House” Fire Station, baseball fields, freight trains, cemetery, but like much of Jersey City, disparate. The street scaping creates more of thematic link, it’s nice to see it spread, it unifies. Newark is our boulevard, now more of it is starting to look it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Used To Be Here

Remodeling going on, new business opening, maybe that recovery in the economy everyone hopes for is finally happening. I saw this and thought, but what used to be there. That’s one of the mental games you are constantly playing when you live in a city because the urban lanscape is one of constant if often minor modification. Now, some places you visit often and when they’re gone, you really notice. That is where the Woolworths used to be, by CH Martin, you remember that although even that recollection has faded so far another year or two you won’t remember. But there are other places that the visits are far more infrequent, often non existent. The Vietnamese bodega on the right I’ve been into occasionally; the video store, I believe the last in the neighborhood, I’ve never used. Funny how you can pass a block just about daily, which is  true for here, and never know anything about the shops or businesses there even though they are right next to other establishments that are must visits on any given week, or on roads well traveled during your routine. I think there was a nail salon of some kind, but maybe I’m thinking of another nail salon on the next block. There’s certainly no dearth of those around these parts so maybe it was something else. That’s the game. What used to be here? I’m not asking you; I'm asking me. You may remember and I just happen not to remember and even if you told me I probably won’t remember what you said in a couple of days. Some places you have total recall of, other places like here, for me, nothing comes to mind. Nothing will be missed, but that’s just for me. I’m sure somebody is missing this place that is no more, even though they were not enough to keep it open. A business for whatever reason is no more; somewhere somebody has given up some hope. Now it’s just another construction project, a temporary phase. The next business here you hope will be better, worth spending more time on this block, worth remembering if it goes.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Postcards In & From a Laundromat

A buddy popped me an email: I saw you on a postcard at the Lucky Laundromat, which is on Jersey Ave. Not something you hear every day, that’s for sure.
Indeed, there is a postcard stand in the Laundromat, something else that is uncommon. While they can be mailed, the cards don’t say Greetings from Downtown J.C. The postcards and stand are the latest manifestation of an art project that I blogged about in September, see here.

I was interviewed, one of dozens by KarinaAguilera Skvirsky for her Laundromat Project, Ask Me: Tell Me. Apparently there’s a video she’s editing of the compiled interviews. She asked how the neighborhood and city has changed. She is interested in community and history, and the contention is that Laundromats are a place that remains as economies and developments rise and fall and populations move in and out. From her website: “My work combines a commitment or interest in aesthetics with an engagement with politics and history. I am interested in low-tech art making strategies that involve the public in the production of my work in order to engage the community about their own histories and memories and to introduce or re-introduce the idea of art making and its value into their lives.”
I suppose the postcards are just one manifestation of the project, which is one of the most original in Jersey City. Postcards are certainly low-tech enough. Turning such an incidental yet widely recognizable item into art has a multi-level effect. From vacation greeting into social commentary art makes the everyday more apparent. Postcard stands in a Laundromat, immediately the context changes for the postcard, thus elevating into a higher aesthetic realm.
Why would postcards be in a Laundromat? Why would art be there?
One goes there to complete a chore; clothes get dirty, need to be cleaned. It’s a universal. Why shouldn’t art be part of this ordinary part of everyone’s life? And, why shouldn’t that art somehow comment on your immediate surroundings? If art becomes associated with this menial task, the task takes on more meaning, then one also must assume, does the art.
I also love the fact the postcard stands are referred to on the project blog as an art installation.
Anyway, I’ve never been on a postcard before. Sort of startling. The light in the Laundromat is so unflattering, but still. I could mail mine out. I may not be on vacation but I’m still thinking of you. But looking through the postcards was a fascinating experience. The images are random – high heels on the sidewalk with C-Town in the background, a woman dressed like everyone dresses when they do laundry, basically something that is clean. A stop sign with stickers. Part of the project included Karina giving disposable cameras to people, who walked around the blocks of Lucky’s and snapped pictures, which I assume account for some of the images. Obviously, they are not typical postcards. Destination Jersey Avenue: See the C-Town! Greetings from a red building.
Why a Laundromat? Why not? Memories, history, community, a shared sense of place, it’s as universal as washing, drying and folding your cloths, in other words, it does what art does best, informs us about our shared experience of being human

Monday, December 5, 2011

Zuccotti Park Revisited

Two weeks, has it been two weeks since the New York Police cleared Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zuccotti Park? More you say?

Under cover of darkness, at 1:00 AM in the morning, with the press sequestered “for their protection” a block away, following direct orders from Mayor Bloomberg, cleared the park in a military-style raid. It was an appalling display of political power that belongs in a fascist nation, not in our democracy. Hundreds were arrested for acting on their constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Police destroyed lap tops and other personal property as well as threw out hundreds of books (the OWS had set up a library). The park was renamed Liberty Park, had a Burning Man cooperative feel and in and of itself, was a statement against the system the current form of capitalism economy has metastasized into where the middle class is destroyed and the nation’s wealth and power is concentrated into an ever shrinking percent of the population (Bloomberg is proudly part of the 1 percent).

Similar evictions occurred in other cities throughout our land. Evidence indicates that it was a coordinated effort. Other police departments were more brutal, sending scores of protestors to the hospital. One wonders when the last time these officers took a look at their pension funds.

Yet, the movement is still in the news; I encountered two protests this week in Manhattan. Issues raised so far, concentration of wealth, student loan forgiveness, taxing the wealthy, universal healthcare, as some examples, seem actually being discussed where as before, they weren’t even on the radar.

I was in that neck of the woods on Friday. You want to know what it looks like to live in a police state, take a gander. Remembering the hope and joy I saw earlier in the autumn compared to the antiseptic lock-down atmosphere now was like a punch in the stomach. Barricades – two barricades thick – align the entire perimeter of the park. Cops are everywhere along the perimeter line; several vehicles are parked in spaces on one side of the park. The obvious goal is to intimated. You feel like you no longer live in America, it’s a nightmare vision, a dystopian police state only even more horrifying because it is real. It is here, this is now us.

From the Times: “New York City is the city where you can come and express yourself,” the mayor said. “What was happening in Zuccotti Park was not that.” He said the protesters had taken over the park, “making it unavailable to anyone else.”

What a load of crap. He cited health and safety conditions for evicting the peaceful protestors, yet he did so under cover of darkness with the press, under threat of arrest, were sequestered far away from the action. Remember in 2004, this mayor who invited the republican party to NYC for their death star construction celebration, cited the rights of central park grass for not issuing a permit for a rally, offering instead, Queens! I remember that August, I walked over to MSG to take a look, was not allowed to get within two blocks of the public space, and was not even allowed to stand still and try to see some republicans. Keep moving, you cannot stand here, barked a cop.

What happened in ’04 was a lock down; this martial law approach is now in place at Zuccotti. The state of seige has begun. So much for the park now being unavailable to anyone else because of protestors. The park seemed empty and clean, now hardly anyone is there. The barricades and heavy police presence (these protestors were and are peaceful and non violent) means nobody else is in the park, unlike what the movement started.

About a hundred or so protestors were huddled in groups inside, I was told there was going to be a meeting to plan an Occupy Broadway protest. A few straglers were along the perimieters, holding up protest signs. They seemed mostly to be yelling at the cops; a few torusits lingered. The absurdly disporportionate police presence and precautions in response to the tiny number of protestor was shocking; those in power indeed are freakign out. The park is now a containment camp without the camping or other pedestrians prior to the eviction.

This intense monitoring by the personal army of Bloomberg and Wall Street, paid for of course by our tax dollars, is the largest police action I’ve ever witnessed or heard about – certainly more intensive than anything to stop drug trafficaking or other widespread crimes. There seemed to be as many cops patrolling and watching as there were protestors.

 You can’t evict an idea was the response to the evictions. At Zuccotti you realize the truth of that statement. The ideas and issues they address are bigger than a park and have spread throughout the land. But you also see the real result of the eviction: a militarized police force protecting those with wealth and power by suppression of inalienable rights.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Welcome to Jersey City, New Jersey

Welcome to Jersey City, New Jersey. This week the Atlantic declared Jersey City as the 10th most artistic city in the U.S. I wonder if they saw this view of our welcome signage. The John Deere Capital of East Hudson County! I love the rust on the plow. It’s from under an an overpass, somewhere north of the Mall near the strip mall, I mean superstore center shopping, Staples, etc. These highway retailers litter most of the highways and even many byways in the land I love the best, undermining the regionalism that took so many decades to develop. But shoot, with national media and the death of independent retailers, homogeneity has been the order of the day within the memory of most of those still alive. No more mason dixon line; all of us are immigrants and pioneers.  Doesn’t mean we’re not bland, unique of individuals. What makes the strip mall section of our fair city is that it is so condensed, squeezed into the carbon monoxide land of Holland Tunnel entrances, the ones and the nines. Welcome, indeed.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


On 32nd, heading towards PATH, teachers were being handed blue wool caps and signs. They were joining an OWS rally. The teacher’s union – United Federation of Teachers – was out in force; I saw more than a hundred of the blue skull caps heading towards 6th avenue, making an identifiable statement, becoming the tail end of the march, heading south towards Union Square, Zuccotti and the subconscious of the 1 percent. The pictures are lousy; I was in a rush. I had a prior commitment in J.C. so I couldn’t march. But the second protest in as many days.   Right on!  Their message was clear: tax cuts for the wealthy come at the expense of our children, thus our future. The other message is that the progressives may not have a Fox News, but they and the issues they’re raising, are no longer ignored. We’re more unified now than at any other time since the 1930s. This is what the Occupation Wall Street movement has accomplished… so far.