Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nietzsche Sez

Life is worth living, says art, the beautiful temptress.
- F.N.

Friday, October 24, 2008


So I started getting flamed on my blog with really nasty, rather personal comments along the lines of, 'My friend read your book and said it was junk. I played college football for year and I sucked, but I didn't go out and write a book about it.' And 'So what are you, in your mid-40s now [not quite], but still living in Williamsburg banging that 30-year old pussy. Who do you think you are, Che, or Hemingway?' Pretty rude stuff, and somewhat creepy as I realized that I must have met this guy as he kept referencing my height (Hey, I’m short. But fierce).

Then I got this comment.

"btw, sorry about the recent assaults. Had a rather rough time with you some day. No fighting. Just something that ailed my liking of you. I get wild too much so. I'm the first to admit it. Get carried away w. my drinking & writing. And i apologize. I'm sure you're a descent fellow.......Keep those gloves raised high, Rob."

It started me thinking about what the ‘rough time’ had been, and when I combed over the previous few weeks of my life I realized that it could have easily been a half dozen incidents. I’d gotten into a fight on the soccer field; I’d had words with a jerk who almost hit me riding his bike the wrong way up Bedford Avenue; a neighbor had gone crazy and started shrieking at me on the street. The conflicts were due to my obstreperous nature, but also to city living with all its tensions and proximities. The flaming made me feel vulnerable, to know that some brief disagreement'outside' could so easily follow me back home.

I finally decided on the most likely conflict. I was sitting in my café catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in over a decade when I noticed a guy sitting at the next table eavesdropping. Every time I looked up, he was looking right at me – and I was pretty sure he wasn’t cruising me. He was a burly guy, late 30s, kind of professional looking, very tense. So as we were getting ready to leave, I said something, loudly, about people who listened to other people’s conversations. He took offense, we had a loud exchange then and there, and then and I left.

Obviously, I thought, he had been eavesdropping, since I was filling in my old friend on my life and career and he’d picked up enough details to track me down.

Our exchange on our blog continued. This after I was conciliatory (because I've been a drunken lunatic once or twice myself):

'thanks man. Very noble of you. And, believe me, it's definitely a two way street. I can be an utter nightmare given the time of day (especially when it's drinking time). Truly, no harm meant, although i know i come across as crazy vicious, throwing as many low blows as i can manage. That's just me. I fire off a lot of blanks at a wide array of targets when i'm exploring one of my glamorous 75 beer weekends. You could say i'm a rather self loathing dick head way too much of the time. And, believe it or not, i'm also working on being more respectful. Mr. Hyde on the other hand.....Funny thing is, is that you seem to lead a very cool lifestyle & i admire the boxing you did. Growing up i always wanted to box & play hockey, but given my limited options in the sticks, football was what i had to work with. So, long story short, i'm a pretty easy read; obviously jealousy rears it's head a lot with me. Maybe i'll drop you another line, some day. For now, i gotta' get the fuck back on course. Truly sorry to have tossed some refuse in your direction during my most recent storm. Gotta' a lot more apologizing to do...later dude.’

We had another friendly exchange in the following week.

What made it all interesting, I think, was how it resolved. It was a very old-fashioned masculine sense of disrespect transferred to a new medium. As soon as my enemy felt he’d been acknowledged, he backed off. We had recognized each other has people.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Agon

It occurs to me on the occasion of Red Sox's loss in the ALCS that losing has its beauty. Our culture only cares about the winners but has little to say about losers who fight until the end. Winning isn't even interesting if you don't beat someone good but we treat losers, even when luck plays a role, like pariahs.

The struggle has its own beauty. I lost my last fight as a boxer - to a pretty good kid who turned pro - but I felt satisfied afterward. I'd left it all in the ring, I just happened to be matched against someone who was more experienced. I learned more losing that fight than I did from my victories.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

No Country for Old Men?

Who had B-Hop beating Kelly 'The Ghost' Pavlik? Not me.

Yet not only did the old man take the decision, he dominated, winning almost every round and nearly knocking out a celebrated fighter seventeen years younger than him and the heavy favorite (Hopkins is forty-three which is like eighty-four in boxing years).

As I sit here nursing my strained oblique, my fractured wrist, my torn MCL, I lift a pain-killing glass of bourbon to an old warrior who can still thump the kids.

Thank you, Mr. Hopkins.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Civilization Don't Come Cheap

"I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization."
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Airhead

We all know the the airhead, that girl who forgets what you told her five minutes, who is oblivious to all chaos around her - fistfights, hurricanes, head on collisions. In fact, we've dated her.

All things being equal, there should be male airheads. But while there are plenty of male idiots, the male airhead almost doesn't exist (except for some dudes I went to high school with who took several hundred hits of LSD).

What I never considered though, was how being an airhead was a defense mechanism, passive resistance. Young women are taught to be nice, not to say 'no', to agree with group, while men are allowed to be surly, obnoxious and poorly groomed.

Faced with these obstacles to expressing her feelings, the young woman turns to the 'airhead' defense. She's smiling, polite, agrees and then proceeds to do exactly what she wanted to do. If you get angry at her, she smiles, apologizes, shrugs. She's young, she's charming, ninety percent of the time she gets away with it.

As woman get older and more assured, they tend drop the airhead defense. After all, the downside of being an airhead is that nobody takes you seriously.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Few Thoughts on Raging Bull

Scorcese doesn't use a lot of close-ups on DeNiro, except during the fight scenes. It seems to help maintain the distance from the character. We're watching this character from a certain remove.

When DeNiro gets angry or is fighting, Scorcese goes to slow-mo, to show the speed of adrenaline through its opposite (because adrenaline slows time). You think that adrenaline and pain speed things up but it just speeds you up, so that you're moving faster than the world around you.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Land That Time Forgot

What I need to know, says the handsome teenager, Is if you’ll marry me.
He's proposing to a short, round woman who’s about twenty years older than him. She can’t believe what’s she hearing. We can’t believe it either and start laughing. The woman buries her hands in the pockets of her MTA jacket and stares at the ground. But Handsome isn’t finished yet.
Listen, he says and takes her by the shoulders, then starts to sing in a wavering falsetto:

When the visions around you
Bring tears to your eyes
And all that surrounds you
Are secrets and lies
I'll be your strength
I'll give you hope
Keeping your faith when it's gone
The one you should call
When standing here all alone

We’re in the shadow of elevated train-tracks and Handsome is wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt. The visuals, along with the doo-wop crooning, make me feel like I’m watching an old movie – The Lords of Flatbush, maybe, or West Side Story or something about Dead-End Kids. Except that everything here is in color.
When you get off the subway at the Myrtle/Wyckoff stop you’re in the heart of modern New York City: bodegas, Chinese-Spanish restaurants, beauty shops. Walk east though and you start going back in time. At first the neighborhood is racially mixed – black, Latino and some Asian – but the further east you go the lighter it becomes until, after about ten blocks, you’re in a mostly white world. The strange thing about finding all those Caucasians on the borough border is that they’re not all immigrants, like, say, the Poles in Greenpoint or members of insular religious sects like the Hasidim. No. A lot of the white folks in Ridgewood, maybe most of them, were born there. It’s like discovering a lost tribe of stone-age hunter-gatherers in the rain forest. You keep telling yourself, ‘I thought these people became extinct a long time ago.’
The little round woman tells Handsome she has to get back to work and heads for the bus depot under the M tracks. Handsome isn’t discouraged; the show must go on. He flexes a lean bicep for our edification and then walks down the street striking body-builder poses in store windows. Handsome’s older, quieter brother shakes his head. Out on Fresh Ponds Road the time shift is almost complete. The storefronts on the street are of the mom & pop variety and all the signs are in English: Krystal European Bakery, Alan Discount, Rainbow Gift shop, Henry’s Department Store. Ice coffee costs a buck, a loaf of bread, sixty cents. Most of the lettering over the shops is in archaic fonts and dingy with age. The signs are decades old and missing letters.
The two brothers don’t exactly fit the Ridgewood motif. They’re extras from more modern movies – Boyz in the Hood, Colors and Dead Presidents, movies from the era of the crack wars. My friend Joe has just introduced us. He met them a few years back while driving the B56 bus through Bushwick. When they told him they wanted to box, he brought them to meet his boxing trainer. The interview didn’t go well: the trainer made fun of their boxing skills and the brothers threatened to shoot him (To this day Joe believes that only his intervention saved his trainer from death). The brothers never did start boxing but they remained on good terms with Joe.
The boys want ice cream and Joe leads us to a Carvel where we take seats in the back. Within seconds the manager is on top of us, saying that we have to buy something if we want to stay. Joe gets up and treats us all to cones. I wonder why the manager is so uptight and decide it might be due to the quieter brother’s t-shirt, which reads Murder in big letters. The manager has seen the movies too and the TV cop shows and the nightly news and to him these Puerto-Rican brothers are advance guard for a nightmare, a nightmare spreading up from Bushwick to swamp his store.
On its border point between Bushwick and Glendale, Ridgewood is a divided neighborhood: half in Brooklyn, half in Queens; half urban, half suburban; half in the 30th congressional district, half in the 34th; half Democrat; half Republican; half white half…‘other’. Like all contested borders, it’s been a flashpoint for controversy. When she was a state senator in early 80s, Geraldine Ferraro pledged to change Ridgewood’s zip code from one in Bushwick to one in Glenwood (property owners in Ridgewood claimed the Bushwick code raised their insurance rates). More recently, a redistricting plan to move the southern, heavily-Latino section of Ridgewood into the Bushwick congressional district brought protests and local headlines.
So the Caravel manager can’t tear his eyes away from the nightmare sitting on his benches, the Ridgewood that could come to pass. We take our ice cream and leave. I ask Quiet about the T-shirt. He tells me that it represents his gang, ‘The Murder Posse.’ His gang name, he says, is ‘Optimus Prime’ leader of the Transformer ‘Megabots.’ I tell him I know some Cripps up in the Bronx. ‘We don’t like Cripps,’ he says, ‘We run with Bloods. We’re not violent though. Only when we have to protect ourselves.’
Handsome butts in.
‘We run with Bloods sometimes,’ he says, ‘But a few weeks ago a Blood cut one of our guys with a razor. Gave him a buck ten [he meant stitches]. Cut him here to here.’
He drew a line from the top of his cheek down under his chin.
‘So we caught the Blood,’ Handsome continued, Held him down and did the same thing. ‘See what you did? See how you like it.’ Gave him a buck fifty.’
Joe tries to lead us on a tour of the bus depot. The MTA security guard has other ideas and Joe can’t sweet-talk him into changing his mind. Security, Joe tells us, has been a lot tighter since 9/11. I try to imagine Al Qaeda swooping down on Fresh Ponds Road.
‘Terrorists wouldn’t care about this place,’ I say.
‘Oh no?’ Joe says, ‘With all buses and diesel fuel? Those guys would love to get in here.’
Joe shakes his head fiercely. ‘They would love it,’ he says.
My girlfriend wants to go to a restaurant a few blocks away so we start walking. Well-made, six family row houses of tan brick line the street in every direction. They give the neighborhood a strange but pleasing Old World appearance. I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else in the city (In 1983, 2980 of these buildings were designated the largest historical district in the country). The owners live in about half of the buildings and they take care of their investments. The sidewalks are clean; trees shade the sidewalks and flowers fill yards and boxes. Of course, resident-owners have an easy time keeping out the ‘bad element.’
On the stoop of one of the buildings a fat woman is talking to a kid. ‘Well, when you decide, she says, ‘We can talk.’ Except that ‘decide’ sounds like ‘de-soid’ and ‘talk’ is ‘tawk.’ It’s Brooklynese, something I didn’t know existed anymore until my girlfriend moved to the neighborhood. Ridgewood is the last living link to old Brooklyn, a Brooklyn I’ve sensed the wreckage of in my own neighborhood of Williamsburg when seniors tell me how it was before the factories closed. The past is alive in Ridgewood; the neighborhood built up by German and Italian immigration in the 20s and 30s. Some churches still have Sunday mass in those languages. We walk by a restaurant called ‘Hans Gasthaus’ with a ski-lodge façade and a menu that includes weisswurst and schnitzel. Old Brooklyn has endured out here, decades after people stopped paying attention it, stopped representing it on television and in films (as the people who make television and films don’t grow up in places like this anymore).
It’s an insular world: Archie Bunker land. One my girlfriend’s neighbors has an army of cats that swarm through the backyards. The neighbor told me that two of her cats had disappeared. She pointed across the yard to a new development, all Chinese. ‘I think they ate them,’ she said, stone serious, ‘They do that you know.’ Other long-time residents show the same suspicion. There have been screaming matches in the street over the shoveling of snow and an old man who has lived here all his life watches a Chinese woman walk by and whispers: ‘None of us like them.’
Yet the future of Ridgewood belongs to the immigrants, to kids like Quiet and Handsome. The old-timers in Ridgewood are just that, old, and while some of their children stay, the majority move further into Queens or out to the suburbs. Every few months on my girlfriend’s block someone dies after fifty years in the same apartment and the debris of a lifetime is cast into a dumpster (how old would Archie Bunker be now?). There are shuttered businesses on every street. We pass the Ridgewood Democratic Club. It’s in a pretty corner brownstone with stained-glass windows but some of the panes are broken and plywood backs the glass.
On our way to the restaurant, we pass a school complex just as the day is ending – big brick building, blocks of blacktop playgrounds and basketball courts. There are hundreds of kids, most Latino and black. They head toward Bushwick while the handful of white kids go deeper into Ridgewood.
We end up at a burger joint under the train tracks. The Bosnian owner talks about hamburger in rough tones.
‘I tried to buy meat in American grocery store but is disgusting, brown and grey. I would not feed to rat. I go to special butcher shop.’ He takes one of his beef patties and presents it like a newborn baby. The disc is the size of Frisbee, blood red and speckled with fat.
‘This,’ he says, ‘Is real meat.’
His tiny restaurant stands in an Eastern European enclave: there’s a Polish butcher, an Albanian café, a Montenegrin social club. These are the immigrants that old Ridgewood prefers.
Boxing photos fill the restaurant walls. This excites the brothers and Joe tells the owner he used to fight. ‘My son is boxer,’ says the Bosnian. A few minutes later the son walks in, a cruiserweight with a blonde crew cut and a square head. Everyone starts talking about boxing and that too seems like a scene from an old movie. Quiet asks my girlfriend if she has a rubber band. The one he was using for his red ponytail has broken. She gives him a scrunchie and explains that they’re better for hair. ‘I didn’t know that,’ he says, wrapping his ponytail. Looking at Quiet I realize that my perception makes the biggest difference between the teen gangsters of the 1950s and those of 2003; that one person’s urban predator is another’s troubled youth, what matters is the lens you look at them through (and whose kids they are). Of course things have changed since the 50s: Handsome points to the long scratches on his neck and tells us that his mother’s lesbian lover put them there. ‘She and I don’t get along,’ he says, ‘She’s jealous of us. I don’t like to hit women but she hit me first.’
Handsome notices some teenage girls across the street and runs up to the window to stare. He tells Joe to go get his car – a 1982 Cadillac Caprice – so we can cruise by and impress them. Joe is amenable and we head back toward the depot.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Writers and Cats

Sometimes I wake up thinking that my cat, Scratchy, is walking on my bed. But she's in Brooklyn, far away. This poem by an early Irish monk brought her to mind.

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

-- Anon., (Irish, 8th century)

- Written by a student of the monastery of Carinthia on a copy of St
Paul's Epistles, 8th Century. Tr. by Robin Flower.