Friday, March 31, 2006

Alt 80s

Very few people have had more fun with the advent of MP3 files than I have. Being a music fanatic from the age of 14 onwards, I’ve bought hundreds of albums and cassettes, about six eight-tracks and thousands of CDs – literally over 3,000. When MP3s came along, I immediately sensed a revolution, took up my pitchfork and joined the surly mob of downloaders. As I’ve noted to friends in the past, thanks to MP3s, I now have the attention span of a five-year-old on crack.

And I can now create these massive music trend overviews: Country, Blues, 50s Rock, 70s Soul. Whenever I get an urge to delve into a music trend, I simply wade through my drawers of CDs, pick out the right tracks, transfer them to MP3 files, usually get help from a few friends who want in on the project and, last step, either legally or illegally download a few missing pieces to round it out. Some of these collections run over 500 songs. The concept of doing a 78-minute CD is now old hat – but I’ll do that on occasion to remind myself how most adults still listen to music.

The most recent collection I pulled together is Alt 80s, clocking in at roughly 550 songs, still growing and will continue to do so as I feed off CD-R copies to various other fanatics and they offer input. Giving these collections to friends is always a kick. The 1978 equivalent would be walking up to someone with 50 albums and saying, here, have a listen. It’s that much music – simply overwhelming.

Listening to Alt 80s helps me reclaim a strange part of life I’ve almost abandoned: my college years, 1982-86. And those were exciting times music-wise, with the birth and full flowering of the alternative music scene, British new wave, ska revival, the birth of alt. country, etc. All kinds of shit was going on, most of it good. But a few impressions:

Early REM is wildly over-rated. Before this project, I was of a mind that every REM album up to Document was gold, that they got weird and too big/dull after that. But listening to them again, I realized what a pompous dick Michael Stipe was, even when he was shy and had hair. Mumbled, artsy lyrics, berets, the winsome stance – it hasn’t aged well. Musically, the band was tight – hats off to Peter Buck. But Stipe, in his own quiet way, was suffering from Lead Singer Syndrome as badly then as he is now. I can’t believe I worshipped these guys. Then again, I was a pompous dick college student, and this was part of the deal. Lest we forget the trip from State College, PA to Bucknell to see them play the field house on a mini pre-tour for Fables of the Reconstruction. And we got to hang out late at night after the show with Michael Stipe in the graveyard on campus, man! How cool was that? In retrospect, not very. Just glad he didn’t hit on me.

The song of the 80s: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2. Simply put, the band’s signature song. Unlike most of their songs, it has a recognizable Irish beat, the Edge’s tingly guitar sound and manages to overcome Bono’s pretentious lyrics. I remember hearing this song playing on radios while walking around Venice Beach, California in the late 80s, in my very doomed/very short stab at West Coast life and thinking, “I need to get out of here.” For all the shit U2 takes for being too over the top – which is well deserved – every now and then you listen to a song like this (or “Bad”) and realize they hit it out of the park enough times to merit superstardom.

Lost 80s Band Most in Need of a Comeback: Big Audio Dynamite. Forget about The Clash. While Joe Strummer fumbled around for a few years (eventually growing into a very cool world music/vaguely punk sound before his passing), Mick Jones immediately got it right with a strange electro-pop/found sound/dance hybrid band that sounds fresher than most of what’s going on now. I’d say the same for INXS, but, uh, they’ve ruined it via their reality TV search for a new singer – their stuff from the 80s still sounds good. I always thought Michael Hutchence was cheesey, the kind of guy who would lick a woman's face in public, but, again, Lead Singer Syndrome should not be held against an otherwise good band. These days, the entire band looks lame trying to pull off that “48-year-old guys with $200 hair cuts and leather pants who were once rock stars” look. Give it up already, you vampires.

The good thing about the 80s, for me, is the good thing about college – since I never go back to State College, PA, I rarely over-indulge in any nostalgia trips to that time. I had a great time in college, but because I can’t picture the place in mind, not having been there in a very long time and not going back very much after graduating, I don’t dwell on it the same way I would with high school or my hometown (which I see on a regular basis). There is no past to live in for those places. Most of my friends from Penn State are scattered all over the country – still friends, but not hanging out on that stoop on College Avenue on a sunny day, checking out chicks and planning that night’s debacle. Great fun while it lasted, but I don't miss it.

Similarly, the music of that time still feels fresh to me – partially because it was so good, but also because I can’t seem to tie in too many memories with the songs. I’ve realized that much of music’s allure is that it allows you to hold on to certain parts of your life – the song reminds you of a person, a place, things, emotions, whatever was going in your life when that song first struck you. Maybe it’s because I tie in this 80s stuff with early adulthood, and leaving behind childhood, that I still hear it as fresh in my mind.

Who knows. What I’d like to do here, if possible, would be to post MP3s to this site, of anything that strikes me, but also a lot of these lost 80s bands and songs that would be great to get out there again. Is that possible on a freebie site like Blogger? If so, how would I do it? Can anybody out there help me with this? I know I'd have to put up a copyright disclaimer basically asking that if an artist or band had problems with my posting, I would immediately remove the MP3. But I'm just wondering how I'd technically do something like this -- because it would be a real kick, believe me.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The 718s

I’ve been having some interesting conversations with people about life in the 718s. For the uninitiated, 718 is the phone area code for the outer boroughs of New York City (Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island). I should point out that, thanks to cellphones, there are a few other area codes in the mix, but life in the 718s implies a less glamorous, more, uh, utilitarian way of life than you’ll find in Manhattan.

At my boxing class last night, Gene, the hairy orange beast from the Bronx, got on my case about living in Astoria, strongly suggesting I should move back to the Bronx (where I lived for nearly a decade). He now lives in Bronxville, an upscale suburb just north of the Bronx. I don’t think he has anything against Astoria – he just likes getting on my case. He’s one of these high-strung financial guys, and he gets a kick out of verbally sparring with people.

After a few minutes of his routine, I just said, “Look, man, I’m never going to live in the Bronx again.” At which point, he went ballistic, running off a litany of insults: you’re just a rube, you don’t know anything about New York, my old neighborhood in Woodlawn (an Irish enclave in the northern Bronx) is better than Astoria, you must be an idiot, you ought to go back home to Pennsylvania, etc.

It got weird. Normally, Gene will razz someone for a few minutes, then let it go and become a nice guy again. (Even after all this crap, he let me use his jump rope and was fine when we did our bag work.) But for a few minutes, he got red-faced angry in a way that spooked me. If you’ve ever seen the horror movie The Leprechaun, he was like a 280-lb. version of that little psycho bastard.

I think I know why he flared up. Every time he’d take a jab at me over not knowing particular streets in Woodlawn (I’ve been there a handful of times, not since 1990 or so), he’d say something to the effect of, “I know what you’re getting at about people like me.” Meaning he’s assuming I’m indirectly calling him a racist, i.e., just another white guy who fled his 718 home for the suburbs. Were I to confront him directly about this, I know his answer would be, “No, you redneck, it’s because you don’t know shit about Woodlawn, and you’re a moron.”

But I could feel it. Frankly, I got nothing against white folk, or anyone else, fleeing the 718s. People make a little more money, they have families, they want a slightly safer/more quiet way of life. It’s hardly a white thing anymore – plenty of black and hispanic folks have done the same. But I’ve noticed this strain of nostalgia with many white 718 expatriates. They’ll express this burning love for their home borough … yet, you better believe they will never move back there again. I would have let Gene off the hook, but I kept hammering away with, “Buddy, the only way I’m going to eat my words is if you physically move back to Woodlawn – until then, fuck you!”

I no longer have an attitude about living in the 718s. I used to – hitching a free ride on the tough image they project. Until I realized that I don’t particularly like the lack of manners and rudeness that are so often a trademark here. I love the quality of toughness in people, but in the 718s a lot of exterior bluster will be heaped on top of that no-nonsense approach to life, and it doesn’t so much ring false as grow tiresome. Which makes it all the sweeter when I manage to meet decent people from here, and they’re surely here, albeit less obvious.

The truth is, it’s not a bad existence, especially when I stop to ponder rents and property values in Manhattan, which are beyond impossible these days. Shit, if I had to leave my apartment in Astoria now, I may not be able to go on living here – and this neighborhood is far from paradise. I’m hoping local folk aren’t looking at me as one of those ill-willed, well-off white kids who moved here for a $1,000-a-month studio apartment, because I moved here a few years before the rents sky-rocketed, and unless I scored a good word-of-mouth apartment, I’d be as screwed and angry as they are in terms of the cost of living around here. And I refuse to hold spoiled white kids accountable for real-estate agencies’ avarice and greed. College-educated white folk started moving in, and brokers jacked up the rents, extortionately so -- hardly front-page news.

As for Gene’s strangely hostile vibe, I recognize it as pure nostalgia, and he took umbrage when I shit-canned Woodlawn, a place neither he or I will live in. The next time he spends real time there will be in a coffin – getting buried in his family plot in the huge Woodlawn cemetery. I have a deeper appreciation for expatriate 718ers who tell the truth: they have fond memories of their childhood there, still feel very warm about the place, may even still have family living there, but they would suck Satan’s fiery red cock before ever moving back there again. For me as an out-of-towner (still, almost 20 years on), it’s about my only living option, unless I want to start doing whatever it takes to make big bucks. And when I say I don’t understand the suburbs, what I really mean to say is I don’t understand an existence geared towards doing whatever it takes to make huge sums of money simply to live a certain way in a certain place. It goes against my working-class nature, and the older I get, the more I see how we’re all getting sucked into this mega-money way of life, like a flock of birds getting sucked into a jet engine. In its own warped way, 718 life, however hard it may be, negates that way of seeing the world, which is why I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the place.

Speaking of Satan’s fiery red cock, the other 718 tidbit involves a bar called the Albatross in Astoria. Earlier this week, a few Manhattan-based websites ran an item about Scarlett Johansson’s brother visiting the Astoria bar and using this pick-up line on women: “I’m Scarlett Johansson’s brother.” The weird part: the Albatross is a gay bar. And to truly understand the weirdness, you have to live in Astoria and have seen the Albatross. It’s a non-descript little corner bar just off the Grand Central Parkway – conveniently located for closeted Long Island folk to pull off the road for a few minutes to indulge. I hadn’t known it was a gay bar until my pal J.H. pointed this out to me. I pass by the bar only during daylight hours on the way back from the gym, at which time the place is shuttered.

J.H. has a great story about meeting a friend (name rhymes with Muckster) there for drinks, because the bar was equidistant between their apartments, and both of them getting repeatedly hit on by a very drunk, very short, most likely very depressed guy who, it turns out, lived only a block or so away from J.H. The guy was laying it on thick, calling J.H. a bear, which I guess he is – a vast majority of straight guys would be “bears” in gay parlance, unless we all lasered the hair from our torsos and had 32-inch waists. The guy was spouting insane shit like, “You never had a real blow job until you’ve felt a man's stubble on your balls.”

No great revelations occurred that night, but the guy was so dangerously, falling-down drunk that J.H. made sure to walk the guy home, which was a good 10-minute walk north. While his story was meant for the comic effect of two straight guys getting hit on hard in a gay bar, J.H. may have unwittingly touched on the heart of 718 life – simply doing what had to be done, however weird, to make sure a fellow human got home safe. Did a similar thing once in the Bronx, walking home a a guy with a wooden leg from the 4 Train who looked like he was in The Four Tops and had clearly pissed his sky-blue tux. Live here long enough, and these sort of things happen. You do what must be done.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Disco 2000

The other day in the gym, I was listening to the song “Disco 2000” by Pulp on my MP3 player. It’s about a working-class kid in the 1970s pining for the most beautiful girl in his neighborhood, while she treated him like a well-meaning eunuch. Fast forward to 2000, he meets her again, she now is divorced with a kid, with all the mystery and allure gone – in a good way. I did a quick Youtube search and found the video for “Disco 2000” in a flash – worth checking out if you have a cable connection.

I strongly relate to that song, and the Different Class and This Is Hardcore albums by Pulp – they’re about the only albums in my adulthood that thunderstruck me emotionally the way new music did when I was a teenager. This is because Jarvis Cocker is a great songwriter who handles British working-class issues in subtle, funny ways that escape American working-class songwriters like Springsteen, who often get too dramatic for their own good. Ray Davies once did the same – the British just seem better at this. They’re not trying to glorify their characters so we can all worship them – they’re just quietly noting what they see and letting us figure out how we want to feel about them.

“Disco 2000” reminds me of conversations I’d have with my own friends in high school circa the late 1970s, about what life would be like for all of us in the year 2000, which seemed impossibly far away, although we’d only be in our mid-30s. Kids don’t understand time and how it works. And it works by simply passing, without pause, regret or happiness. It’s not our friend or enemy. If we choose to stop and pity ourselves over our place in life, or feel good about it, it’s not so much irrelevant as gone in a very short while. I’m finding it best to move with time, not get attached to any age, or miss any part of life that has passed. This is hard to do in a culture that worships youth, where we’re all encouraged to look and act like teenagers, and keep craning our necks to look back.

Back then, we were looking forward, and pictured ourselves dressed like spacemen, driving hovercrafts to work. (Instead, we’re driving veritable tanks that get worse gas mileage than cars from the 70s … and surrounded by kids and hipsters dressing like we did back then.) At the last high-school class reunion, my 20th, one woman asked if I was still writing, I said yeah, and she seemed extremely happy to hear this. I told her, “I’m not all that over-joyed about it. It’s not like I thought it would be. I can’t make a living at it. There’s nothing romantic about it. I feel like an overgrown child even trying to do this stuff anymore.” It didn’t matter to her – she still thought this was great.

It occurred to me afterwards this is probably because she knew this is what I wanted to do back then, and I was still doing it in some sense. Whereas she had become a successful doctor, had two kids and another on the way. And I can guarantee the life she imagined for herself in 2000 back in 1979 bore no resemblance to the one she had now. It was probably better and worse in some respects, and much more crazy than she could have imagined as a kid. That’s the quality I notice most in our lives: absolute insanity. Not enough time. Or too much. Money issues. Work stress. These are things you don’t imagine when you’re a teenager – because you have yourself convinced it can’t get any worse than what you’re going through. You don’t see all the shit your parents go through just so you can have a relatively normal childhood with few real worries.

It’s strange how we attached so much to 2000, as if the world was going to end that year, which, if you remember correctly, was being predicted all 1999 long with the Y2K issues and various terrorist theories. Of course, a year later, serious shit did go down, but here we are, five years after that, and the world keeps turning. I think in that hopeful way kids have of looking at the world, we all pictured ourselves doing somehow better in 2000 – being better people, all grown up, mature, making our way in the world. These things may have happened in some sense, but I also have a sense of there being a straight unbroken line throughout my whole life, and all I’m doing is pulling my way along it. It’s not so much that I don’t believe in change as that I’ve met people I haven’t met in decades, and essentially our natures haven't changed all that much, whatever we’re doing, wherever we are in the world.

Strangely enough, I even had a situation much like in the song “Disco 2000.” Back in high school, A.J. was the one girl all the guys were afraid to approach because of her looks. Two of my friends (Tony and John) and I would longingly refer to her as some unobtainable icon of female beauty – we weren’t the only ones, all the guys we knew had that same reference point. Well, the 20th reunion rolled around, and A.J. was responsible for organizing it, getting in touch with everyone via email. And we hit it off really well in email, which left Tony and John flabbergasted – how could this happen, all these years later? Bill, who we both know is a dick, is talking to Venus, and he’s doing all right.

As it turned out, A.J. was divorced, had a teenage son, and was living with a guy who would eventually become her new husband. She was a pretty normal person. Been through a lot of ups and downs, was smarter as a result. When I told her about this aura of inapproachability all the guys in our school had built up around her, she just laughed. Back then, she was too shy and introverted, so she kept to herself. She had no idea we all felt this way. These days, when I go back to Pennsylvania, I’ll often have dinner with Tony and A.J., and we’ll laugh about shit like this, how strange we all were back then, and how little it means now. They’ll both probably read this, and I think they’ll know exactly what I’m writing about here. It’s a shame we didn’t have this sort of familiarity back then – it would have done wonders for Tony and my nonexistent teenage popularity.

My only qualm with "Disco 2000" is it sounds too much like Laura Brannigan's 80s dance hit "Gloria." But I somehow think Jarvis Cocker knew this when the band recorded the song and immediately recognized even the way it sounded played into his theme. Smart stuff from a guy who probably would have driven a Pacer if they'd had them in England back then.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Paying My Dues

You might find it hard to believe, but there are places in downtown Manhattan where I can drink beer for prices that may be less than 50 cents higher per pint that anyplace else in America. The catch? The drinking must be done between the hours of 5:00 and 8:00 pm on a weekday. By 8:01, cheap bastards like me turn into pumpkins or go the hell home.

My latest favorite, thanks to Erik B., is Drop Off Service -- a fine bar to sit down for an hour or two with a friend, and get caught up/mildly hammered. The place has over a dozen taps of great import stuff, all for $3.00 per imperial pint (20 oz. as opposed to 16). Over the past few years, dozens of bars in the Village have resorted to happy-hour drink specials to drum up business in those dead hours. I can drink cheaper there than I could in any midtown bar geared towards suburban office workers catching a quick one before hitting the train (these places never have drink specials). Besides which, there is nothing worse than drinking with men in ties – bars like this should have Xerox machines for these guys to photocopy their faces when they get too drunk.

In terms of bars, I’ve always been like a retired postal worker, with a blind chihuahua and rheumatoid arthritis, who prefers a nice quiet bar. No gimmicks, or scenes, or pick-up joints, or blaring, shitty music. Just a place to sit, throw a few down and relax. I’ll go out and get a mild buzz once every week or two, and that’s good enough. Maybe once a year, like a wild stag rutting in the woods, I’ll get puking drunk and spend a night facing the bowl, but I’ve found that to be a pretty worthless experience, especially the next day.

The Brits have it right – pile into pubs after work, do your business and go home for dinner. The concept of being dead drunk on a subway train at 2:30 in the morning just isn’t making it for me anymore. It didn’t back then either. Subway trains to the 718s are normally a gritty experience – at that time in the morning, they’re a dice roll. You could run into packs of kids acting like total assholes, fellow drunks carrying on like crack babies, homeless people sacked out all over the place – and all this after waiting upwards of 20 minutes on a subway platform with a bursting bladder. Granted, plenty of nights went without a hitch – save I’d spend a few subway stops trying to read a book I was holding upside down.

What was I looking for at 2:30 in the morning? What do all of us look for at that time? I’ve often asked myself that. Sooner or later, we all learn that nothing is there. There is no great revelation that gallons of alcohol and passing time make apparent. It was like riding a wave. On any wave, there’s a crest, where we feel the power pushing us forward. And we’ve all experienced that on nights out – either having a great time with friends or flirting with new and attractive people. This will last an hour or two. The wave goes down, which is still not a bad feeling – the night wears on, we’re all feeling a little raw, a little talked out, and most likely very drunk. And then the wave expires on the beach. At which point, we realize we’ve been had, victims of hope. Alcohol kills hope – makes you feel nice for a little while, great for an even shorter while, and then it’s all blurred vision, slurred words and bad, bad decisions. We stagger. We fall down. We puke. If god is with us, we don't shit our pants. Amen.

I’m not even willing to lay some pedestrian line on you, like “moderation is the key.” There’s something to be said for burning down the house every now and then. But do it for years, and it just wears off after awhile. I’m in favor of a good buzz, which three or four pints will always provide. Any more and I’m drunk. I’m leery of anyone who has good barroom stories to tell, the same way people who “really lived the 60s” can’t remember them.

I do have one story that perfectly underlines the haze. I was out with some friends back in Pennsylvania, at the now-defunct Lil’s Valley Tavern, and it was getting late, all of us fairly ploughed. I was with my old high-school friends Tony and George, having a fun time, as the bar was packed. (Lil’s was hard to predict – one Saturday it would be crowded, the next it would be empty, with some lonely 80s person playing air guitar on a pool cue to Night Ranger’s Greatest Hits on the jukebox.) I was with Tony as he was wasting money on one of those bar gambling machines, when I heard some screaming and immediately noticed two guys rolling around the floor in a classic bar fight. Which is to say, both guys were wasted and not doing much real damage to each other, despite the drama. Eventually, they rolled over to my feet, with the entire bar forming a circle. At this point, Glenn, another guy from our old school who was there, looked at me, nodded, and we both reached down to pull the guys apart, both of whom immediately drifted off into the crowd, cursing each other. It all blew over in the span of about 30 seconds.

A few minutes later, George came around – his hair was messed up and he looked weird. “George,” I said, “you just missed it. Two guys were fighting on the floor.” He fixed me with an incredulous look and said, “You dumb fuck! That was me!”

It was around that time I seriously curtailed my alcohol consumption. Which was good timing, as Pennsylvania adopted an extremely strict DUI program, complete with nazi-like roadside checkpoints with cops flashing lights in drivers’ faces and asking way too personal questions (simply to hear if the driver is slurring his speech). It worked out nicely with my internal gears shifting.

So, I’m now a lot like Dad was. He never drank in the house – a practice I find myself keeping, although I’ll sometimes buy a four-pack of Guinness in cans and let it sit in the fridge for months (next to my mason jar of strawberry moonshine, again, courtesy of Erik B.). Dad was a member of the American Legion, and every other month he had to “pay his dues.” I never knew what this meant. What I saw was Dad putting on a clean, collared shirt and dress pants, which blew my mind, as he rarely put on the dog like this. The American Legion post he belonged to was in Mount Carmel, about a five-mile ride away. I later learned that “paying his dues” must have meant going there to pay some semi-annual membership fee … and having a few beers with the guys, maybe sharing old war stories and such. (Dad never talked about World War II -- I've since found that many people with fathers in that war maintained the same silence.)

I’m at that age now he was at then, and I don’t have any war stories. But the vibe is the same. I’m paying my dues! Dad always came back from his dues-paying a little soused. Not noticeably so – just enough to be tipsy, a little more animated, his eyes looked funny. I can’t even say if he was drunk. I later learned that, like me, or most any other guy, he burned a few bridges sobriety-wise in his 20s, and came to this place where a few drinks were more than enough. So, if you want to update your membership fee sometime, drop me a line, and I’ll break out the clean shirt and Haband slacks for the occasion.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Redneck Mystique, #1

A few years ago, I was struck by this uneasy realization: the movie Easy Rider has a happy ending. It was not positioned as such by the makers of the movie. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, the drug-smuggling hippies roaming the countryside on their hogs, are mercilessly gunned down on a rural road down South by a redneck hanging a shotgun out of the passenger-side window of a pick-up truck.

For some reason, I felt like standing up and cheering as the last sweeping camera shot caught both bikes burning in a field, the riders presumably dead. At that time, I think it was because I understood that the film makers were wrong. Throughout the movie, they had the Fonda character putting forth that the reason all these rednecks and regular folk hated them so much was because they were afraid of what he and Hopper represented: freedom. But riding around the country on bikes, and financing it by selling drugs, is not freedom – it’s basically a pair of traveling salesmen, selling a product that often enslaves people.

The truth is, Fonda and Hopper were more afraid of the regular folk and what they represented: normality. Some semblance of security and stability. This theme was touched on in the scene where they come upon the old white farmer with a Mexican wife and family, simply living off the land. Fonda thought he was cool – I can’t recall the trippy phrasing he used to note this. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the gap-toothed redneck who shot him in the end might have been a farmer, too, living the exact same life, save he didn’t like hippies, and I mean really didn't like them. The real outlaw in that movie is that gap-toothed redneck – he killed two innocent people for fun. Like the guy in Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” who shot a man just to watch him die. Scared dogs might be that aggressive, but it’s been my experience that scared people run away. That redneck was a psychopath … which I found far more “outlaw” than a pair of hippies on Harleys.

From that point forward, I noticed this feeling every time I saw these strange “up with hippies” type movies from the 60s and 70s, mostly biker movies, but Billy Jack was another perfect example. While I dug Billy – how can you not dig a morally ambiguous Vietnam Vet into American Indian mysticism, who takes his shoes off to kicks ass – “Jean and the kids,” i.e., a bunch of hippies operating a “progressive” school on the edge of town, made me want to vomit with their teenage arrogance and sanctimony. I agreed with the townfolk who wanted them gone. This happens every time I see a movie like this now -- I root with those who once carried pitchforks and torches in the old country.

By the same token, I am not a redneck. Coming from a small-town, or even living in one, does not make one a redneck. I think to be a redneck, you have to make a conscious choice early on in life to be that way. Reject higher education. Accept a harder way-of-life that focuses on manual labor. It’s basically an act of closing ranks in a rural area, and a stubborn refusal to ever change. It’s also romanticizing American ideals and attaching them to physical things in your life: motorcycles, guns, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. You can easily have a conversation with a redneck where he’ll talk your ear off over “anti-smoking Nazis” enforcing public-smoking bans, yet he’ll have no problem with the Patriot Act. Pennsylvania now has a law allowing motorcyclists to ride without helmets. A strike for personal freedom, or just another sleazy special-interest group manipulating corrupt politicians?

Most rednecks will tell you it’s all about the same thing Fonda and Hopper wanted: freedom. In this case, simply freedom to be what they are, not freedom to roam. (These days, you’re more than likely to find rednecks who look much more like Fonda and Hopper in Easy Rider than the town-folk who wanted those two dead.)

I’m getting into all this because of the ongoing red state/blue state nonsense that’s been consuming our society, in which the red states (the rednecks) basically won the last election, an unforgivable act which has blue-state people not just peeved, but carrying on like mental patients. (Hint: any time you see someone unironically carrying on about red states/blue states, or not attempting to analyze the phenomenon, you know you’re dealing with an asshole, and in this case a left-leaning one. Without fail, what’s really being said is “I hate working-class white people.” And that’s fine, but just fucking say it instead of dancing around the issue. When’s the last time you read a thinly-veiled insult against “blue states”?)

This stuff makes no sense. Pennsylvania is a blue state? Buddy, you get yourself away from Pittsburgh or Philly, and I beg to differ. And once you find yourself in all those red-state counties, guess what, there are “blue state” people living there, too – most likely in a county that broke 60-40 for Bush. There are plenty of “red state” people in New York, not just upstate, but even in the city – talk to police or firemen sometime for a different take on things. My point being that some total idiot came up with this red state/blue state nonsense – then again I take that back. Someone very wealthy and intelligent came up with the idea, and he’s simply doing what the wealthy have always done: pitting relatively powerless people against each other so that neither side notices the real divide will always be a few people who have a lot of money and a vast majority of those who don’t. And we’ll all spend the rest of our days in this psychotic, meaningless push-pull of false power that serves no purpose other than to keep things the way they are.

Getting back to rednecks, it’s also occurred to me recently that “blue state people” don’t really understand them – which is probably why this country is going to skew Republican for a few more major elections, at a minimum. In all honesty, a lot of times I don’t understand rednecks. But I’d like to think I’m close enough to try. Or, a strange phenomenon, once I moved away from small-town life to a major city, I somehow found myself seeing small-town life more clearly, certainly in ways I didn’t while I was there. I never rejected small-town life in any way – to this day, I have no problem with it, see its many benefits and could easily see myself going back to it. The age-old issue of finding good employment is a hard nut to crack for me in favor of small-town life, but I think we all hit a certain point in our lives when nightlife loses its luster, and we’re just as satisfied coming home from work and taking it easy in a clean, quiet place – I’m clearly there now. I love/hate the city the same way I loved/hated living in a small-town. I think about the only place I would be desperately unhappy would be a suburb, because I don’t understand those people no-how!

Every now and then, I'm going to put out a numbered Redneck Mystique post (this is #1) to get into these issues. For all those blue-state people who get it wrong, or need another perspective they’re not hearing on Air America, or from friends who agree with them on everything, which is nature's way of telling you it's time for an oil change. Sometimes I’ll be asking about the redneck mystique, because there are plenty of times where I’ll shake my head and wonder, too. (Like the time one of my brother’s coworkers was so tired of a toothache he stuck a cordless power drill in his mouth to get at it.) Bottom line, I think these folks are getting a raw deal P.R. wise in our society, and in my own little way, I’d like to offer a dissenting point of view when I can. So, I'll be sitting here in my sleeveless "Live Free or Die" t-shirt -- the one with the screaming eagle on it -- sipping from a can of Old Milwaukee, in my orange acid-wash bermuda shorts, watching Ultimate Fighting on Spike TV ... who the hell am I kidding, that's not me. Just pretend I know what I'm talking about, and I'll go along with it.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Those Animals in New York

There’s a cool story this week about a coyote caught in Central Park. It seems like most non-New Yorkers are mildly surprised by stories like this, but I’m surprised they don’t happen more often. Yes, you’ll find plenty of rats, squirrels, pigeons and other birds, but New York is hardly an isolated slab of concrete. There are parks everywhere, trees on every block and plenty of woodlands surrounding, especially along major highways that lead far upstate. The bridges leading into Manhattan from the Bronx, i.e., the mainland, aren't that long.

I’ve had some strange experiences with unexpected animals – let’s leave the human variety out for now. The strangest was getting attacked by a wild turkey one Earth Day back in the mid-90s. I was riding my bike in Fort Tryon Park, on the northern tip of Manhattan, along those unpopulated trails that offer amazing views of the Hudson River. (I’d recommend doing this with other people, as bad shit occasionally happens in that park, and you’ll often come across ornery gangs of kids in those woods, maybe just getting high or away, but you never know.) I was stopped along one of those trails when I heard a rustling in the bush, that rapidly became something charging towards me, not big enough to be human. Seconds later, a wild turkey emerged on the trail and rammed itself into the front wheel of my bike before gobbling and taking off in a flash in the other direction.

For a few years, I worked for management consultants with a midtown office on the 35th floor. The office has a large bay window facing south that offers an unimpeded view of Manhattan; the Empire State Building looms just to the east. 9/11 … we all had front-row seats to the carnage, although we missed the first plane, only seeing a gaping, inexplicable hole in one of the towers, but watched the second fly in. The images I saw that day from the window, during and after, are burned in my memory. The worst was that when the buildings fell, from that point of view a few miles north, there were these hazy gray columns where the buildings once were – we literally couldn’t tell if they had fully collapsed without checking the TV in the breakroom. But we could guess from the huge mushroom clouds of smoke that went up both times.

But in happier times, I sat on the northern side of the office, with one of my bosses, L, in his corner office facing Grand Central Station. L was a strange guy, a consultant specializing in SEC issues, who was a millionaire, along with his wife, a Manhattan attorney. Every day, he’d fish my 50¢ copy of the Daily News from my garbage can – and that’s where I learned the secret of how the rich stay rich. But he was a good person, and a bird enthusiast.

Many times, I’d walk into his cluttered office and find him leaning back in his chair, gazing through a pair of binoculars. Most money men would be bird-dogging hot chicks in near-by offices. L was watching the MetLife falcons. I’m not even sure what that large skyscraper in midtown is now called. But on the very top floors, in those concrete recesses that exist on all these buildings, there was a nest of falcons. You’ll find falcons all over Manhattan. With all the pigeons, they have a steady food source, and the upper reaches of skyscrapers tend to rarely see humans, save for occasional building personnel and window washers.

L loved to watched the falcons swooping in circles around the building, dive bombing prey in mid-air or coming to land on their concrete perches. There was a period of a week or two where he had us all hooked on watching a baby falcon learn how to fly. The small bird would walk to the ledge, flap its wings furiously for a few minutes, then back away. We never got to see that inevitable moment where it jumped from the ledge and took wing – but it was always a nice break from office drudgery to take a few moments with the binoculars and watch the falcons. Albeit not as fun as catching the occasional topless sunbathers on rooftop decks of luxury apartment buildings just to the south.

The most personal animal story I have concerns raccoons. Namely, a family of them that had taken up residence in what must have been a hole above the rain spout in my neighbor’s house in the Bronx (where I lived for close to a decade). My neighbor was a cab driver who looked like Bo Diddley – not a bad guy, kept to himself, and if you're familiar with the Bronx, you know how rare that is.

One night while sitting at my desk by the window facing his house, I heard something heavy thump twice against my window. This being the Bronx, I half expected to open the blinds and find some hollow-eyed crackhead clawing at my second-story window. But instead, I saw a very large raccoon, hanging upside-down by its hind legs from the neighbor’s rain spout, looking straight at me, separated by the window glass, but no more than a foot away. We stared at each other for a few minutes as he swung slightly back-and-forth. He barked at me in that strange, clipped tones raccoons have. I’d seen raccoons before in the Bronx – there are plenty of large parks in the Bronx, and they can live easily on garbage.

Stranger still, I heard higher-pitched barking sounds, looked up and saw three little raccoon heads poking out of the hole in my neighbor’s house. A family of raccoons. At this point, I figured, what the hell, I’ve seen it all, and this upside-down raccoon is probably the mother and getting ready to square off with me. So I shut the blinds. But it became a nightly occurrence to see them, with the mother first emerging, her claws clacking across the roof of my neighbor’s porch, then shimmying down the drainpipe to the ground, followed by her three scampering babies.

My landlord, a retired park worker who lived on the first floor, saw this, too, and he advised Bo Diddley to call the SPCA and have them removed – for sanitary issues and simply because the Bronx was bound to kill these animals. None of us had an urge to live out a Disney fantasy and befriend them. They weren’t going to start talking to us, or save us from drowning in the Harlem River (or some other such shit Lassie or Gentle Ben would do weekly on TV). But Bo didn’t seem to mind or care.

Sure enough, they started dying of unnatural causes. My morning run would take me along the street behind the house, Bailey Avenue, which was an unpopulated hill lined with small wooded areas on each side. A perfect place for bad people to be naughty. Empty crack vials and broken beer bottles glittered along the sidewalks. Every so often, a stolen car, semi-stripped, would turn up there, sometimes on fire; if not, civic-minded citizens would pick away at the car as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey in the fridge, leavings just a wheel-less chasis in a few days. I was always catching prostitutes screwing johns in their cars in the early-morning hours. One by one over the course of the next two weeks, I saw the baby raccoons on Baily Avenue, flattened by cars. The mother raccoon eventually fled, hopefully to whatever strange place raccoons find solace in the city. But it wasn’t so much sadness I felt as the inevitability of things, which is to say most of the times when you see the potential for something bad to happen, something bad will happen.

So I’m glad some cop dropped that fox with a tranquilizer dart and got him the hell out of Central Park, before some Indian cabbie doing 65 on that cross-park expressway turned him into roadkill. Point being, if you’re not a bird, you can’t fly away from this shit, and the city may very well get you in the end. Then again, I learned something valuable while helping my brother tear out our old sidewalk back home in Pennsylvania last summer to put in a new one. And that is once you take a pick to concrete, you don't have to go very far, maybe a foot or two, before you reach soil, and often soil crawling with life: ants, worms and maggots. That's something to keep in mind while walking around the concrete jungle; the real one isn't buried far beneath.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

We Can't Be Heroes

Maybe this is just to get some practice in uploading pictures, but I may also try to regularly feature pictures from my collection with a short story behind them. (Probably just pictures of me or places/things, as I don't want to overly embarrass anyone else in my life.)

This picture is of me, taken some time in the winter of 1983. I know it's winter because I'm wearing my cut-up sweatshirt. Please note that I was doing this way before the movie Flashdance made the trend popular. I borrowed the style from Dad, who had a habit of taking sweatshirts and cutting off the sleeves and collars, putatively because when he worked on the family cars in the spring or fall, he could be wearing something ratty, in case he got oil or grease on his clothes, yet have his arms free to move around. (Of course, he got into the habit of dressing like this most of the time ...)

(Sidenote: Dad's penchant for working on cars was the bane of my youthful existence. He did this constantly, and purposely bought used AMC bombs, probably because the cars themselves were cheap and parts were easy to find in local junkyards. In my time, I've driven a Pacer and a yellow Hornet station wagon, and there was a Gremlin somewhere in there - in case you're wondering why I never got laid. But Dad had an irritating habit on the weekend of dragging one of us out to help him work on the cars, rain or shine, freezing or sweltering. I didn't get it as bad as my brother J, but I got my fair share. I'd be sitting there, just settled in with a nice bowl of cereal, maybe with the latest issue of Creem magazine, when Dad would bust in and demand help. "Motherfuck," I'd think to myself, "doesn't this guy ever hunt or go bowling, like normal dads so?" Play this scene out a few hundred times, and it's no wonder that not until the past few years have I had any sort of mechanical inclination.)

While I comb my hair like this now (and keep it much shorter), at the time, this was a goof, as, like most small-town guys, I combed my hair straight down. (And wore flannel shirts, jeans and sneakers to school every day.) It's not obvious by looking at the picture, but I was trying to imitate David Bowie on his Heroes album cover.

There were a few things that occurred to me once we got the pictures back from the supermarket. One, I would have had to borrow Mom's make-up kit to get anywhere near that look. And two, I'd have had to lose another 30 lbs. to get anywhere near the emaciated rock star look Bowie had going. At that time, I was probably about 5' 11" and weighed 160 lbs. - the thinnest I've ever been. I was running about four miles a day, lifting weights in the basement and in pretty solid physical condition. It was a bit unnerving to think I'd have to go on a Bobby Sands type hunger strike to get rock-star thin.

And, in tandem with my failure at learning how to play guitar, this is pretty much where I decided listening to music was better for me than playing it. My brother had bought a cheap acoustic guitar, probably at a pawn shop, a few years earlier. He tried to play it, and gave up. I tried, using some instructional book with a cowboy on the cover, and never learned more than rudimentary chords - I didn't even know if the damn thing was in tune. I actually had better luck taking my sister's sheet music for flute (she played in the high-school marching band) and transferring the notes into numbers, thus being able to play a bunch of stuff on the play-by-number organ in my Dad's bedroom. About the only genuine music coming from our house was my sister practicing her flute - which meant endless performances of the theme from Star Wars and Chicago's "Colour My World."

But this picture reminds me of that weird teenage phase when you slick your hair back, strike a new pose and ask yourself where it all may lead, even if you are messing around. Well, the answer is jackshitville, but I had a fun time getting there!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Record Store Angst

Recently, I was attacked by a bunch of vultures, who mistook me for a corpse, in the Rock/Pop “G” section of Tower Records on 4th Street in the Village.

All right, this didn’t happen. The only strange animals to be found in that store are the hired help: the usual assortment of lackadaisical, know-nothing hipsters who are good at ignoring everyone and raising self involvement to an art form. Glad to see that some things never change.

But every time I walk into a record store (let’s call them that for old time’s sake), I do get the feeling of vultures circling overhead. These places are empty. Even at peak times, after work or weekend afternoons, they are seriously under-populated: Tower, Borders, J&R Music World. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen at least a dozen major Manhattan music outlets close shop – HMV, which had about five stores at one time, has disappeared all together.

Smaller indie stores have not picked up the slack – they’re being vaporized, too. NYCD, which held down the fort on the Upper West Side for a long time, closed up shop recently, the owners complaining of their customer base abandoning them. (This probably wasn’t helped by them moving from a store-front shop on Amsterdam Avenue to a basement area on a side street just off the avenue.)

There’s no point in asking what’s going on – downloading, legal and illegal, has reached the point where it’s on the verge of nullifying physical stores. Sure, as consumers, we’re sick of the high prices. I recently tried to buy The Gourds new album in Manhattan. They’ve always been on indie labels without a major distributor, i.e., when a new album of theirs come out, it will not be sitting in a “New Release” bin at the front of the store for $11.99; it will be buried in the “G” section in Country or Pop/Rock. I found the album at Virgin and Tower – for $18.99 and $19.99 respectively. There’s just no way I’m going to spend that much for any domestic release. I found it at Borders for $15.99 – which still sucks, but next time, I’m abandoning the old habit of buying “special” albums on CD and downloading them instead.

It does seem strange that an industry that has been sucking the tailpipe for the last few years doesn’t do a damn thing to alter their pricings to win back consumers. Then again, as I’ve told friends before, I’ve always felt like a piece of dogshit on the bottom of the music industry’s shoe. Whether it’s been crazy pricings, desperately uncomfortable live venues or the sickly focus on teenagers as their financial engine, it’s an industry that predicates itself on a fair amount of self loathing in the consumer. They’ll treat you like shit because they know they can get away with it.

On one hand, I’ll encourage folks to illegally download as much as they want, but on the other, I can now see, literally every time I’m in a record store, that the end is near for these places. And that’s a bag of mixed emotions. I’ve never been much for warm/fuzzy record store communities. High Fidelity? Never mind the fact that I loathe John Cusack and Jack Black. There comes a time when you should stop trying to be “hip” – whatever that means, since we’ve lived in a society for years now in which everyone has a different definition of that word. What’s hip to a 15-year-old doesn’t mean shit to me – and woe unto anyone over the age of 18 who subscribes to that teenage version of hip. (I don’t hate kids. I just recognize that they’re kids, and not cultural arbiters of taste. For the most part, they’re tasteless, which is why it’s so easy to foist bullshit trends on them.)

I started buying records at mall stores in Pennsylvania, simply because there was no other option – Listening Booth and Record Town were the big ones when I was a kid. And believe me, once I fell in love with music, I was in there constantly, buying at least two albums a week for years on end, often more, as there was so much for me to learn. The workers were indifferent for the most part. I’ll never forget making my only return: The Fine Art of Surfacing by The Boomtown Rats. Not a bad album. But there must have been some malfunction at the record plant as there was a long, straight line burned into Side A – literally a ridged line across the face of the vinyl. When I took it back, the guy at the counter who had been seeing me constantly for the past decade, rolled his eyes and said, “How do I know you didn’t do this yourself?” “With what, you asshole, a red-hot metal rod? How in the hell would I do that?” I eventually got a new copy, but was incensed over the lousy customer service.

College record stores (at least in State College, PA) were great. This is the one time in your life when you should be hanging out at record stores and taking it all in. The guys who worked there were in local bands, had great taste in music, and a surprisingly good knack for customer service, too. As this was the mid-80s, it was also the golden years of the 80s Alternative scene, and every week brought mind-blowing new albums well worth owning. It’s always sunny in my memory regarding Penn State. This is probably why I never go back.

Coming to New York a few years later was like moving to Xanadu – record stores galore, big and small. Christ, back in the late 80s, there must been a few dozen stores all over the Village, along with the big-name behemoths that are now dying off. Sounds on St. Marks Place was the first one I walked into, and aside from switching from vinyl to CD, hasn’t changed all that much. Again, save that the few times I go in now, the place is almost empty.

Aside from some very cool, informed people (like the guys who owned NYCD), it’s been the usual “humor the hipster” dance with a lot of these folks. Even if they like what you’re buying, there’ll be some smug comment at the counter. Remember that kid Mikey from the Life cereal commercial, the one who hated everything? He found his calling as a record-store clerk. I’m basically a happy person – don’t try to be, or need miracle drugs to feel normal, just have the disposition of seeing things clearly in life and recognizing there are always better and worse scenarios, so why worry. It was a bit of an off-putting shock to me to find that so many people who were into music as much as I was were malcontents and manic depressives. I like Lou Reed. That doesn’t mean I have to pattern my life to be as fucked-up as he is. Whether it was posing or people with real mental problems, I eventually caught on that just because I shared musical tastes with a person didn't mean we had anything else in common. (There's another story to be told here about late 80s dating scenarios with women who owned every Cure and Smiths album, lots of black clothes and at least one cat ... but another time.)

In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not record-store folk are warm, caring individuals with a great sense of customer service or standard-issue hipster bozos. Because downloading is coming on like a giant tidal wave and about to wipe all of them out. I got my first taste of downloading while working at NYU in 1999. All the interns were having the problem of their computers freezing up because of full hard drives. When one of them mentioned it was because they were downloading MP3s, I asked what they were, and that’s when the door opened. It was simply the start of a revolution, and you better believe I reaped my share of free downloads on Napster and Audio Galaxy in the early days – it was simply an exhilarating experience to download not just any song, but in a lot of cases, music that was no longer commercially available or only found on expensive imports.

And I still do that to this day, along with legally downloading through Emusic. In 2000, I interviewed the owner of Emusic about the future of downloading for a story in the NYPress and predicted that Emusic could one day service every major indie label in the U.S. Sure enough, that’s the fantastic position they’re in today – I have no idea how lucrative it is. (Apparently, iMusic operates as a loss leader that exists mainly to get folks to buy iPods, which are extremely profitable.) There are also a few Russian websites that position themselves as legitimate online stores with incredible selections that offer music (entire albums for about $1.50) and claim to honor copyrights. They clearly don't in America, at least artists aren't making a dime from these places, but I gather Russian copyright laws favor some guy named Yuriy who could get you toilet paper at a deep discount and anyone you want dead.

I’m careful with illegal downloading, trying to focus on out-of-print material that hasn’t been reissued and import albums (which always cost far too much). The RIAA has been quietly suing downloaders for the past few years, so I avoid major-label releases, especially ones that you can download before an album’s official release date (this happens constantly). It would be extremely embarrassing for me now to get sued by the RIAA when I’ve contributed a fortune to the recording industry over the past 30 years – but perfectly in synch with the traditional screwing consumers receive from the industry.

We’re in a strange place right now, a changing of the guard, where you can walk into just about any record store, and feel the future in the empty aisles. It is a little depressing, when I consider that going to Tower on a Saturday in 1990 was like going to a crowded bar – annoying, but you had the sense that this was somehow a place to be. That’s probably the big difference now – I go to a record store and feel like an asshole, a relic. I don’t miss records. Seeing as how I don’t smoke pot, I don’t miss gate-fold covers on which one could easily separate stems and seeds. I don’t miss the “warmth of vinyl” – meaning pops and hisses. CDs, by necessity, will hang around a few more years, but I won’t miss them when they go either.

Pretty soon, there’ll be nothing but the music. And that seems like a pretty fair proposition, even if it means abandoning cultural touchstones we all associate with music. We’re on the verge of some sweeping changes. I don’t know what they are yet, but I can feel them coming.

Monday, March 20, 2006


My boxing workout remains a mystery to most people in my life, save those in my classes, which I take three times a week, all with the same instructor, Kid Avila, at various locations of the New York Sports Club. I’ve been doing this now for close to a decade. I should be turning pro by now, but the truth is I’m happy just to get in the workouts every week.

This goes back to my teen years, when I can recall asking my parents if I could get a speed-bag one Christmas. They said no, sensing what I didn’t, that the noise level would be hideous, and the constant vibrations would most likely tear down a wall or a post over time. I do remember getting those assholic gravity boots that became such a hit after Richard Gere was shown using them in American Gigolo. Actually, those boots were a great workout, but I must have looked like a total putz hanging upside down like a bat in the basement.

In gyms, I tend not to understand weightlifters, i.e., about 90% of the guys in the gym. Throughout history, weightlifting has been a part of other workouts – not the sole workout. Some time in the 70s, weightlifting really caught on, and gyms geared themselves almost completely to this sport. There’s just a dingus mentality that goes along with too many hard-core lifters. Some sort of misguided machismo where large muscles are associated with male toughness. Never mind that most of the greatest athletes in history have not been muscle-bound and vein-popping. There’s a reason for all the mirrors in gyms: so these guys can admire themselves. It’s over-blown vanity, hijacking what is essentially a good, healthy practice. (For the record, I lift weights twice a week, simply going through the circuit machines, which is the equivalent of miming to a Liza Minelli record to true lifters.)

I always wanted to try boxing, and one day I noticed a poster in the New York Sports Club for a boxing camp that would run six weeks, where gym members could learn how to box. I signed up, took the camp, run by a hard-assed little Puerto Rican lady with a military background who had won her division of the NY State Golden Gloves twice, and I loved it. I went down to G&S Sporting Goods on the Lower East Side, bought my first pair of bag gloves and hand wraps, and had that same giddy feeling Little Leaguers have putting on their new uniforms.

Shortly after the camp ended, while I was using the now-defunct Madison and 46th branch of the Sports Club (where I twice got athlete’s foot), I saw a boxing class going on Tuesday nights at 5:30. The first thing I noticed was the class was mostly women, and they were beautiful – all of them in great shape. I kept watching the class out of the corner of my eye while using the adjacent stairmasters. Half checking out the ass, half interested to see that a boxing class was going on. It looked good all around, so the next week, I joined.

And that’s where I met Kid Avila, another former Golden Gloves winner who was still fighting professionally (since retired). He’s maybe the best athlete I’ve ever known – in top shape, weighs around 150 lbs., tireless and strong as an ox. The key though was his friendliness – just a nice guy with a calm demeanor. (I’ve since learned that many boxing instructors favor a strange boot-camp drill instructor mentality with their classes, which sucks. I don’t need to be yelled at – that stuff stops working after a certain age. I’m not a masochist, or a steer/queer from Texas.)

I learned fast that the keys to boxing were speed and stamina, before strength. It was no accident that all these women in great shape were taking boxing classes – the work-out is more aerobic than a test of strength. In every class, there’d be big guys who’d come in and slap at the heavy bag. They hit hard – usually pushing the bag, too, which is the mark of a novice. And would be gasping through the randomly-placed bouts of push-ups and other calisthenics, designed to wear us all down as quickly as possible.

Naturally, I was no different at first. There comes a point with boxing classes where the student learns how to “pop” the bag as opposed to “pushing” it. You can hear it – when he hits the bag, it pops. A pleasing sound, especially to the person throwing the punch. And it’s simply a matter of speed and coordination growing over time. The student learns the basic combinations, builds up his stamina with the insane number of push-ups and stomach exercises, and after a few months, the door opens.

I’ve seen this breakthrough a few times with other classmates, and that’s always fun. I’d say for every person like that over the past decade, I’ve seen a few hundred people take the class once or a handful of times and never come back. Physically, it’s just hard. Like any other instructor, the Kid’s goal is to wear down everyone in the class, in effect building up strength and stamina over time. Some people take it as a personal affront and get discouraged. In effect, we all face our physical limitations, and fail in some sense. There have been times when I’ve almost shit myself due to exhaustion. And I’ve found it’s a humbling and worthwhile experience to know just how far you can go before your body stops.

After a few years, I know the faces of those who stay. Like Gene, this big, hairy Irish bastard from the Bronx who has the hardest punch that Kid has ever felt. The guy’s an animal, grunting and moaning, his weird orange pelt dripping in sweat as he pops the bag. He played college football for a Division I-A school, so he knows what it means to be in extraordinary physical condition. If I ever had to box him, the logic would be wear him down by moving and don’t let him hit me. Because if he ever connected the way I’ve felt him do on a bag countless times, I’d curl up in a ball on the floor and start crying.

Most of those who stay are women – in a class of 10, roughly seven will be women, three will be men. And the women will be hard asses. In any given class, there’ll be all-male weightlifters peering into the gym while we box, leering or smirking, thinking this is just a glorified aerobics class. The few times these great gods have descended from Olympus to take the class, they’ve either left early due to physical exhaustion or thrown fat, lazy roundhouse punches that a blind man could duck. They never come back.

Simply put, it’s the best workout I’ve ever had. I’ve never felt a release of pent-up frustration like I have by hitting a heavy bag. The real fun comes when Kid puts on the hand mitts and lets the class work on combinations. This is where coordination and speed are built. You could blind-fold me, and I could tell you who the best boxers in the room are by the sound of the punches hitting the mitts.

Do I have any urge to fight, in or out of a ring? Hell, no. At this point in my life, I want to get paid if I’m going to get my ass kicked. A small handful of Kid’s students have taken the next step, joining a boxing gym and getting into sparring. Which looks good on paper, but sparring is a gray area where the mentality of your partner comes into play, which is to say you may end up brawling with someone who has serious issues. Getting my nose broken by an angry 19-year-old doesn’t seem like a good proposition. I could understand if I was in my mid-20s and looking to compete, as an amateur or professional, but not anymore. Some cursory reading on how easy it is to get a concussion, and the long-term effects from just one, was enough to convince me to draw the line.

As for out of the ring, forget it. How would I fare in a street fight? Unless I was facing a professional, pretty good. I can hit fast and hard, and I know how to move. But there are all these X factors that go along with informal fights that wouldn’t occur in a boxing ring, like getting hit after falling down, wrestling, biting, weapons of varying sorts, etc. Or simply coming up against a psychopath who enjoys pain: check out Ultimate Fighting matches on TV for reference. Lord only knows how many deranged, extremely hard guys like that there are in the world. And I hope to hell to avoid them like the plague. Besides, life isn’t like the movies. You kick somebody’s ass in public, if there’s a witness, chances are good that you may get an aggravated assault charge.

Ultimately, there’s just as much posturing with boxing as there is with weightlifting. But it makes more sense to me to acquire a usable skill than to bench press X hundreds of pounds. I’ve found that with weightlifting, the relationship with the real world is tenuous, which is to say you take a guy out of his rigidly-defined exercises, and he’s often not all that strong. You’ll find many pot-bellied mechanics with no muscle tone heaving engine blocks, and I’ve always had respect for that sort of informal strength. And I think there’s something of that informality in boxing. Because if you saw Kid Avila walking down the street, you’d think, look at that scrawny little runt. And I can tell you right now, if he ever squared off against me, I’d start running.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Getting Back on the Horse Again

Well, I guess it’s time to start writing again. It’s been awhile – two or three years – since I’ve written on any regular basis. I’ve made money at it. Surely not enough to live on, but I’ve learned that very few people, including successful authors, do. While I always thought the mark of a true writer was to simply make money at the craft, I’ve since realized that there are plenty of talentless ass clowns making a fortune at it, and a whole bunch of vaguely disappointed people like me who are good at it, but get disgusted after awhile and let it go. (And there are good writers who get paid well, but let’s ignore them.)

There’s no point in letting it go, because if you write well, it’s something that stays with you the rest of your days, like religion or weird shit that happened in grade school. Why did I stop? I think for two reasons. One, the paper I was working for, the NYPress, was sold, and the editor in chief, maybe the best I’ve ever had, was let go (on Christmas Eve while he was on vacation). I hung in there for the next regime, but wasn’t feeling it, and there’s since been another regime change, and all those guys quit over the Danish Islam cartoon flap a few weeks ago.

Two, my father passed away during the Christmas season of 2004. It’s hard to explain what happens when a parent dies – if you’ve experienced it, you know this is one of those dividing lines in life. You’re not the same afterwards. It’s not some dramatic emotional experience. It’s more like driving a car through the woods on a snowy night. A lot of silence. A lot of darkness. And you find your way slowly by following the lines on the road.

The harsh reality sinks in that you’re going to bury your parents (or, less likely, they’re going to bury you). And the first time you do it is just some of the most awful shit you’ll ever go through. Once you get through the worst of it, it’s like having a shadow. Some days barely there, others there all day. But always there, and not necessarily a bad thing. You carry around the thought of them the same way they once carried you.

Since then, it’s been more a case of seeing the world in a very stark, black-and-white way. And I wouldn’t define it as clarity. Dad was raised during the Depression, fought on the tail end of World War II, came back home to small-town Pennsylvania, tried his hand at a few jobs, got married, started having kids, then found a job at the factory that would take him through the next few decades to his retirement. He was a no-bullshit person, very reserved, got things done. I always respected that about him and didn’t fully grasp the concept until hitting my early 30s. Millions of people quietly do this with their lives, and no one understands but their immediate families. I wouldn’t call it “heroic” so much as people becoming adults, recognizing what must be done and just doing it. Those who view that as heroic are trying to sell you something or must have been raised by wolves.

People who don’t know me well tend to see me this stoic way, and that’s fine. But the truth is that whole way of seeing the world, while not the exact antithesis of a writer’s life, doesn’t bear much in common with it. (The act of writing is solitary and workmanlike, but once the story is done, it must be sold.) When I was younger, I had a real axe to grind as a writer, wanted to be famous, and rich, and all the other perks that go along with the dream. And you get this way by putting yourself out there for public consumption, by hustling, by making shit happen. It’s an abnormal way of life to sane, well-adjusted people; it’s exhibitionism of a sort.

If there’s one thing I’ve grown thoroughly disgusted with in terms of writing, it’s the level of blatant self promotion that goes with it. You need to hype yourself to make it on any level. In New York, you’re surrounded by people like this, which is good in some senses and annoying as hell in others. I’ve come to realize it just isn’t me. I’m a writer – not a hustler. It’s no coincidence that this realization grew stronger with Dad’s passing, and maybe my unconscious desire to be more like him in that quiet sense.

Somewhere along the line, I lost the urge to have strangers love or respect me for my writing skills. (Actually, I was just as comfortable with strangers hating me – attention was the ultimate motive.) Yet I also recognized I simply enjoy writing and want to keep on doing it. For money? Whenever possible. But I look at the handful of people I know making money through nothing but writing, and it looks like a 24-7 hustle, a mixed bag of late-arriving checks, tight living budgets and frightening lulls in work. In other words, not that pretty picture we all had of getting up late, writing a few hours, hitting the gym, having brunch with limitless and wonderful friends, staying out late on school nights and always having enough money and free time to live well in a nice part of a major city.

The truth is it’s just writing, nothing romantic about it, whether or not you make a living at it. Say what the hell, and just do it. I’ve met stand-up people who happen to be writers and plenty of snake-oil salesmen. Sooner or later, you just have to ignore the mind fucks and do what you want to do, however it pans out in the real world. And that’s a thought that takes me straight back to my bedroom, age 14, sitting on my bed with a spiral notebook, ELO album on the Soundesign portable stereo, learning how to turn it loose on a blank page. It’s time to go back to that place in terms of intention, if not style, unless you want some very bad William Burroughs and Hunter Thompson imitations.

What to expect here? Nothing spectacular – just observations, less navel gazing, more of a venue to keep in touch. I’ll try to get material up here regularly and hope you’ll read along.