Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Geek Rock

When I don’t travel on a long holiday weekend, I tend to construct a humongous collection of songs for my MP3 player. This Memorial Day weekend was no exception. I got burned out on war movies by Saturday morning, and there was plenty of down time between my weekend routines. This was the first summer weekend I cleaned my landlord's back patio and sidewalk, which was rotten with leaves and other debris. I strongly recommend two hours of hard sweeping in 85-degree heat to get in touch with one’s inner janitor.

This new collection was somehow appropriate with the whole process: Geek Rock. Because grown men monkeying around with dozens of CDs to make an MP3 collection is geeky. It’s one of those intensely private functions guys do – sort of the aural equivalent of masturbation. But it makes me happy, and it’s much better than other private functions grown men can do in their spare time, like turning alcoholic or attacking loved ones.

The word “geek” is borrowed from the short-lived TV series, Freaks and Geeks, which was a great show nailing high-school years circa the late 1970s. Unlike The Wonder Years, there were no hammy voice-overs, overblown sentimentality or sage morality lessons. The freaks got stoned, the geeks got picked on, and this is pretty much how I remember things.

I don’t know how I classified myself at the time. Take a look at the picture. You can see my headphone hair. Slight acne. Freak’s standard issue flannel shirt. I got good grades. I was good at sports, but didn’t like the social hierarchy attached to the high-school version, and thus skipped out on that stuff. My friends were all guys in the same boat, a motley collection of eggheads, mild outcasts, the occasional jock and such. The one thing we had in common: we never got laid. I suspect a lot of people were in that boat in high school, but generally you get a bunch of vaguely nerdy guys spending all their time together, you may as well brand a large red “V” on their foreheads. I wouldn’t say “L” for “loser” – plenty of losers got laid in high school.

But when it came to music, I can safely say I was in the “geek” camp by worshipping both Queen and the Electric Light Orchestra. When I watch Queen videos from that time period now, the main thing I see, of course, is how flaming, out-of-the-closet gay Freddie Mercury was. Believe me, this was not clear to teenage rock fans at the time – or if it was, we were simply in denial or so impressed by how hard the band could rock that this counter-balanced those “what the fuck” feelings generated by hearing songs like “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” and “Seaside Rendezvous.”

ELO was music meant for masturbators. It was grandiose orchestral pop, often with the theme of yearning for things one couldn’t have (“Eldorado,” “Telephone Line,” “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”). Believe me, their music made perfect sense to sensitive teenage guys not getting laid (pardon the oxymoronic nature of this statement). The good thing about Queen and ELO was that both bands understood the appeal of pop music, yet had these orchestral or vaguely prog-rock leanings that made them seem cool on that bullshit level. Most of their songs were four or five minutes long and aimed at being pop hits, which they were. Jeff Lynne was a white guy with a huge afro who constantly wore sunglasses – he wasn’t cool, nor was the rest of the band. I distinctly recall the keyboard player, Richard Tandy, getting his ass kicked hard by Rod Stewart in a one-on-one soccer match on Battle of the Network Stars. These guys weren’t cool.

Nor was I, and I’m still not now! When I decided to throw this collection together, the game plan was to connect this music of the 70s with bands they influenced from the 90s, like Grandaddy, the Flaming Lips and East River Pipe – all of whom remind me of that Queen/ELO vibe. I’d say the difference is Queen and ELO had much more talented vocalists and producers (Roy Thomas Baker and Jeff Lynne himself), and both bands had unlimited amounts of studio time to pull their signature sounds together. The 90s bands started out as punk or DIY outfits, and thus didn’t have the same benefits, although the Flaming Lips have surely come a long way, studio-wise.

The thing is, once I got rolling with the 70s stuff, I realized this was a mammoth undertaking, and the 90s stuff was out. I had forgotten about Genesis, Peter Gabriel’s first two solo albums, Klaatu, the occasional Styx/Journey/REO Speedwagon songs, and the coup de grace: Supertramp. I loved those gentle hippies who knew how to write Top 40 smashes; any band with a clarinetist surely classifies as Geek Rock. Where is today's Supertramp, for christ's sake?

Long story short, I ended up with about 200 Geek Rock songs from the 70s, which I put on my player last night and started listening to this morning. What occurs to me now with a lot of 70s stuff that I listened to religiously at the time is that unless I pull it out of my collection now, I never hear this stuff again, as I'm constantly pushing forward with new music and new genres. Aside from a handful of songs that get picked up by movies or commercials, this stuff has disappeared from the cultural landscape – unless satellite stations like XM and Sirius have dedicated a special station to 70s Schlock.

It’s a blast to hear this music again, especially with that distance from the 70s to now, all the musical trends I’ve picked up since: country, blues, celtic, soul, big band, etc. The emotional connection isn’t what it was, but I can hear that a lot of this stuff was great pop music made by bands who really had their craft down and were much more talented than most bands of today. I suggest anyone laughing at an ELO record get into a studio and try to get anywhere near the sound Jeff Lynne got on a regular basis.

I'm still sitting on a fence over whether or not to include Neil Diamond. One of my gayest teenage memories is walking in rhythm through the local mall on a Saturday night to his his hit single, "Forever in Blue Jeans," which was playing over the mall's PA system. At the time, I thought I was cool, but good lord, if I could see film footage of this now, I think my head would blow off my neck. I know I was wearing earth shoes and had my feather hair cut in full bloom. I may have even been singing along: "Maybe tonight/You and I/All alone by the fie-yuh ..."

If I could narrow this collection down to an 80-minute CD, the cover would be me sitting on my bed, wearing a pair of Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones, and gazing out the window on a rainy day. There's a slight irony now in a grown man listening to the same music on a crowded subway train, hoping to will away at least the sound of his immediate environment, wishing he could be alone as that kid on the bed was.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Excuse Me, Ladies and Gentlemen ...

Just had one of those annoying NYC subway train experiences: a supposedly homeless guy with a very bad sales pitch. Anyone who’s lived here any appreciable length of time (I’ve been here since November of 1987) knows the drill – although you had to live here in the late 80s, the golden days of crack – to truly grasp the full experience.

This was a young, twentyish Latino, stocky and in good shape, who appeared very clean, didn’t stink, and if he was nuts or stoned, didn’t project that image. When he got on the train, I simply thought, “That guy looks a little weird, a little too wired.” Any time someone with a fucked-up agenda steps on a subway train, if you have the right eyes, you can see them. They’re either too nervous or too aggressive, and 99% of the time, they’re guys, and guys who immediately stand in a weird place no one would choose to stand on the train, like someone getting ready to make a speech.

Here’s his sales pitch, not verbatim, but close enough, all delivered while this guy paced menacingly up and down a length of the subway car. For the veterans, you know the first five words:

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Luis, and I just got out of prison. I’m hungry. I don’t want your money. I want your food because I’m hungry. I can’t work right now. I’m in a program that won’t let me work. This is embarrassing. I got a four-year college degree before going into prison. I’m a licensed painter and carpenter. I can work, and want to, but they won’t let me in this program. So I have to get on this train and beg for food. If you could give me food or money, I’d appreciate it. God forbid if anything happens to you or your family. If you are ever made victims. I would hate to see that happen. You’re all just one paycheck away from being in my shoes. Look, I got my painter’s and carpenter’s union certificates right here. I want to work, but they won’t let me. So I got to be here. Sorry to disturb your commute. I would hate to see any harm come to you or your family, believe me. I choose to do this instead of harming people, which I can do ...”

Please understand that while he was yelling this spiel – about five times – he was glaring at everyone who would make eye contact with him. I positioned my legs in a defensive position where I sat – left leg a little forward, right foot set to pivot, body turned slightly to my right so if I had to stand up and belt this guy, I’d be ready.

You could feel every body on the subway train tense up, the main reasons being the vague threats the guy was making – just got out of prison, god forbid if something happened to you – and the way he was carrying himself, like he was getting ready to haul off and clock anyone who didn’t give him money. He was taking way too long, too, working the car for a good five minutes, going through his sales pitch repeatedly.

New York City subway commuters take enough shit in the course of using the system without having to take this sort of shit. I rarely give these pricks a dime, mainly because they’re liars for the most part, and if they’re not, they should be institutionalized. Call it cold, but when you’ve sat through one of these scenarios, literally, over a thousand times, you know the drill, and the drill sucks. If it’s your gig to help the guy temporarily by feeding his habit (and it’s always a habit of some sort), one human being showing a hip sort of compassion, that’s fine. But it’s my gig not to prolong his bullshit trip – the sooner the guy hits bottom and gets real help, the better. Bottom line, anyone giving him a dollar to get drunk or high isn’t going to make his life better.

The guy’s line of bullshit was off. What kind of program for guys who just got out of prison: a. doesn’t allow them to seek gainful employment, and b. even if that was true, wouldn’t then compensate them with living/eating arrangements? If he’s in some sort of rehab or halfway house, he’s being taken care of, and he’s being encouraged to find gainful employment – fuck, if he has a four-year-college degree and union experience, he should be able to finding something, even with a felony crime on his record.

As for being “one paycheck away from being in my shoes” – buddy, guess again. I’m about 50 paychecks from being in your fucked-up shoes, and I’m far from wealthy, just good at saving money and making it last, and not fucking my life up with drugs. It’s always a bad deal to insult people you want to get money from. Not just insult them, but offer the vague threat of physical violence. You could cut the tension with a knife in the subway car. It’s pretty rare that you get a homeless guy this bad, but it does happen every now and then.

Besides which, I’m not even sure he was homeless. If he was in some sort of post-prison program as he stated, he was not homeless. He was well-fed – the guy was clearly in very good shape and not going hungry. He didn’t stink, and his clothes were clean, which is very unusual for a person on the train asking for money.

All in all, a bad trip. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief when he got off three very long subway stops later.

Still, it brought back memories of the late 80s in New York, a time in which I’d step over at least half a dozen slumbering homeless people either in subway stations or on the sidewalk. Literally step over because there’d be five or six of them sacked out in a row. One of my most vivid memories that first fall in New York is taking the 1 Train to work from the Bronx, pulling into 168th Street station in Manhattan, glancing out as the subway door opened, and long, unbroken line of sleeping homeless people in the back of station, probably about 50 people. The smell was unbelievable.

Most morning train rides to work at that time, whether it was the 1 or the 4 in the Bronx, no matter what subway car you got on, there’d be at least a handful of sleeping homeless people, some of them laid out over four seats, often causing fights when some pissed-off commuter on a jam-packed train would simply push them away, usually barking something profound like “get off the fucking train, you piece of shit.” The way I saw it, these people had enough problems without me making them feel even worse. But it was a daily, in-your-face experience, basically until Giuliani took over, and these people slowly disappeared. (Guess again if you’re thinking I disapproved – these people belong in shelters and institutions, not heavily-used public transportation hubs and vehicles. And if the shelters are fucked up, that’s a separate issue that needs to be addressed.)

The 1 Train on the weekend, going to the Bronx? Fuck. It was what I call the Homeless Follies of 1989. Literally a nonstop line of homeless people coming through the train, looking for money. Some deranged. Some sincere. Some just sticking out their hand. There was that crazy-looking black guy with multi-colored dreads and wraparound shades who’d blurt on a broken saxophone and demand money to make him stop. (He did very well.) On a trip from say, 14th Street to 225th Street, it was not unusual on a Friday night to see 20 homeless people walk through my subway car making their pitch.

Recently, a friend visited, and while I was hustling to get her to the subway train, I noticed she was pausing at the corner. What’s wrong, I asked. “Didn’t you see those homeless guys in the middle of the block? Picking food out of the garbage? Isn’t that horrible?”

In all honesty, I hadn’t noticed them, probably because I’m conditioned, after seeing such scenarios, again, thousands of times, that they don’t even register now. Are we all supposed to stop and ponder inhumanity every time we see this? I tried that the first few hundred times … it didn’t get me or the homeless people anywhere. Should I give them money? Again, you would think doing this, the person receiving the money would hustle off to the nearest deli and get food. That never happened when I tried. I’ve seen homeless people turn food away, because they want money for drugs, and food is a secondary concern. Is the whole gist to provide good karma for yourself and the world by simply giving another human in need whatever he needs to get by? If it is, again, by the 1,586th time, you’ve had it. And that’s when you turn up your collar and keep moving.

My answer to her: “Yeah, I saw them. But we need to get you on this subway train to get you to your show on time, and that’s more a priority right now than pondering the darkness of life.”

It’s one of those New York things, dealing in whatever way you choose to deal with the homeless. There’s a guy I constantly see on the N Train, this large black guy who obviously has some sort of drug or alcohol problem, but manages to function like a normal human being. I say this with certainty, because I’ve been seeing him for the past three years or so regularly, usually on the rush-hour trains in the evening. His story is that he’s a basketball coach who needs money for his kids’ team. That’s it, same story every time, whether or not basketball is in season – no sobbing, no weirdness. He’s smiling, and he always says, “If you can’t give me any money, please, just give me a smile.” And he walks through the train, generally pocketing a good bit of change, but otherwise pointing at people smiling and saying, “There it is! Thank you.”

And that’s about as good as it gets with homeless people on the train.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dixie Chicks, Protest Music, Blah, Blah, Blah

I’m not quite sure who’s managing the Dixie Chicks these days, or if they’ve slipped into some strange vacuum where they’ve taken total control of their image, which is generally a bad idea for any recording artist. But the hype leading up to the release of their new album on Tuesday has a very strange ring to it that doesn’t bode well for them.

A few quotes pulled from recent articles:

Natalie Maines, in an article from the Sunday New York Times (5/21/06), addressing country radio: “Do you really think we're going to make an album for you and trust the future of our career to people who turned on us in a day?”

Martie Maguire, in Time magazine article (5/29/06 issue): “"I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do."

Even the way the Time article begins is combative: “Natalie Maines is one of those people born middle finger first.”

Every article I’ve read, and that’s about five or six in the past two weeks, follows the same party line. They’re “not ready to make nice” – just like the title of the lead-off single from the upcoming album. The accompanying video is all pancake make-up, wind machines and frowns. The album is stocked with meaningful topical songs about women’s issues, the occasional back-handed political swipe and hopefully some basic good country pop of the kind that made them huge stars.

Either this media approach is a stroke of genius that I’m not quite appreciating, or the band and the people handling them really need their heads examined. But with quotes along the lines of “a smaller following of really cool people,” all I can think is BULLSHIT. I’m sure everyone at Sony is banking on this album being a huge hit, despite this, “Let’s downsize our fan base even before the album comes out” line of logic employed by various band members.

Maguire should be grateful for every country fan out there who has any of their CDs in a five-disc changer with Toby Keith or Reba McEntire. Frankly, wouldn’t a fan doing that these days signify someone who got over Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush statement on a London stage on the eve of the Iraq invasion? Someone who is reasonably open-minded and simply likes their music, whatever their politics?

Frankly, it seems like the girls are going out of their way to pre-judge such fans, who may want to give them a chance again, but are basically being portrayed as gun-toting hayseeds by the band in every interview. In other words, you can’t disagree with them if you’re a sane, well-adjusted American. You’re either with them or against them … which is a condition they seem to want for themselves as opposed to the more realistic proposition that people are willing to forgive/forget/whatever and just move on. Does it occur to the band that maybe these folks might have been “ready to make nice” – but upon reading shit like this and hearing the implicit message of the lead-off single, are no doubt thinking, “You know what? Fuck them.”

If the band thinks there’s going to be some ready-made audience of left-leaning folk who are going to sweep right in and replace those millions of country fans who bought all their albums, they might want to think again. If the new Neil Young album (Living with the War, in which each song has a strong political message, along the lines of the subtle ditty “Let’s Impeach the President”) is any indication, this won’t happen. The Young album didn’t break the Top 10 in its first week and has thus far sold no more or less than his last few albums, which is to say his usual fan base ran out and bought it … not this ghost audience of people who buy albums simply because they hate the president. I suspect this "ghost audience" is middle-aged people blowing wind on the internet, who might account for sales of a few thousand at tops, not this unremitting wave of righteous zealots for the American Way.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album of Pete Seeger-themed tunes fared a little better, but dropped out of the Top 10 after two weeks. Part of this is due to the fact that many Springsteen fans don’t want to hear cover versions of folk tunes, no matter how much the Boss has tarted them up to appeal to his traditional rock audience. And The Boss is slipping uncomfortably into some weird boho Tom Waits image, complete with soul patch, funny hats and leather jackets, which look asinine on a 50+ year-old guy from Freehold. (Had he done an album of Bob Seger covers, no joke, I would have bought it!)

With the Chicks, it should be interesting to see how well they fare, not to mention their upcoming tour, which is booked into large arenas as opposed to mid-sized theaters. What I’m trying to say is there’s a mixed message being sent here between the record label and the band. The label is following the usual M.O. – a press blitz, high hopes for blockbuster sales and a tour booked into the largest venues possible for what has traditionally been one of their biggest recording acts. Meanwhile, the band itself is burning down every bridge possible in interviews, with an audience they’ve already assumed has abandoned them, probably based on country radio’s predictably luke-warm reception to the first single. I can imagine the sour, private reaction of label heads to Maguire's statement on "a smaller following of cool people": try running a massive corporation on that.

Will I buy the album? Probably not, mainly because each review stresses how they’ve abandoned their “country roots” for a sound more akin to The Eagles. Fuck the fucking Eagles, man! The only Eagles I want to hear these days are The Eagles of Death Metal, who rock.

So, they’re making a retro 70s country-rock record? It just doesn’t sound like a good idea, although I get the gist what they’ve done is probably make a more traditional adult-oriented pop record with country shadings. The charity single they put out for a Katrina benefit (“I Hope”) was fantastic, like some long-lost Bonnie Raitt song that sounded just right. I’ll have to sample the rest before passing judgment, but the “Not Ready to Make Nice” single is pretty bland stuff, like Shania Twain in a bad mood. It might be good to bring Shania up, because she’s essentially been making pop/rock records with country leanings, which sounds like what the Chicks are now shooting for, save they have a lot of issues they have to enlighten us on. I'd say country folk don't mind being preached to, but not outside of church, and not by people who don't like them.

I’m curious as hell to see how this album does. But if it does tank, or simply under-perform as compared to their previous albums, it will be a matter of weeks before you’ll start reading articles about unforgiving, close-minded country fans who can’t pull their heads out of the sand. The reality may be the band dumped on these fans before they even had a chance to decide for themselves, and the ensuing anti-country fan articles will be the sort of the thing the media enjoys dishing. In effect, nobody wins.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Before and After: 70s Hair Redux

Just got my hair cut on Saturday, at a nice barbershop I spied along Steinway Street just north of my gym on 30th Avenue in Astoria. Three guys, obviously an old Greek father and his two sons, charged me $11.00.

Which is great, as I’ve been going to a similar father/son barbershop set-up on 23rd Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, which I got turned onto by attending boxing classes on Saturdays with Kid Avila, at the gayest gym I’ve ever been in (on the same corner). One of my friends once tried to use the sauna there, and walked in on two guys jerking each other off. They glared at him as if he was making a faux pas, and he just walked out, making sure to tell the gym manager later. One of those ominous “Closed by Order of the New York City Health Department” signs was taped over the closed sauna door for the next few weeks, which happens periodically at every gym I’ve ever been in here. Life in New York City. That class dissolved a few years ago, due to the fact that all the guys in that part of town evacuate to Fire Island on summer weekends, thus leaving the gym empty, but I tend to go there once every 8-10 weeks when I get my hair cut. (And have never had an episode remotely like my friend had!)

But $11.00 is better than $16.00, which is what those guys have been charging. The old father cut my hair, he was a nice man, and I may keep going there as he did a good job. Before that barbershop on 23rd Street, I had been going to a guy running a shop in the subway on 57th and 8th, mainly for the novelty of it, but his prices were good. I stopped going when some asshole kid dropped his hat on the floor while getting into the barber chair. The barber glared at me and barked, “Pick it up,” pointing at the hat. “Buddy, that’s not my hat, and I don’t work here.” His eyes grow wide. “I don’t care! Pick it up!” Well, that was all the incentive I needed to pick my ass up and walk the hell out of there for good. All these old barbers in New York seem volatile, which is fine, but never, and I mean never, give a repeat customer shit like that. I don’t know what he was thinking.

At this point in my life, I’m glad to have hair. Believe me, some guys aren’t that lucky, and I guess when that happens, you just adjust your life to that new state and work with it. My hair doesn’t get long – it gets wide, much like Dad’s did. Dad had wiry hair that would have grown into dreadlocks if he hadn’t kept it closely cropped. Me, I just get shaggy – wiry enough that the hair stands up on its own, but not so much that I veer into jewfro territory.

Since my hair never grows long, I’ve always made it a point to get sheered like a sheep when I go to the barber. Here’s a photo comparison of what my hair would like any time in the 70s before I had it cut. Unkempt, pointing at weird angles. Just plain old bad 70s hair. If I wore headphones, which I did all the time, the hair would conform to the shape of them, so I would look like I was wearing hair headphones. It was a pretty bad look, but I was far from alone, as most kids had these shaggy, combed-straight-down hair cuts, most of them much longer, usually supported by awful-looking peach-fuzz mustaches and sideburns. It got worse!

And here’s the after picture. It occurs to me now that people probably thought I was talking to Jesus in the form of a burning bush or family dog, and had symbolically chopped all my hair off to spiritually cleanse myself. This is how DeNiro had his hair in Taxi Driver before he got the mohawk. It was a pretty heavy departure – I usually only got my hair cut three times a year (I do it around six now and tend to keep my hair short all the time).

I would take a lot of crap at school. But not as much as I’d give to my friend Tony, who would follow the same hair pattern, only receiving a Prince Valiant/Moe Howard-style bowl cut every few months. I used to drive him to the point of kicking my ass by running Three Stooges riffs on him all day – like making that Curly “woob-woob-woob” sound, or singing “The Alphabet Song” (Bah-Ay-Bay, Bay-Ee-Bee, Bay-Aye-Bippie-Bye, Bippie-Bye-Bo-Boo), or doing that freaky snapping fingers/hand waving thing Curly would to Moe before getting poked in the eyes.

Old and Young Leo were our barbers back then. From what I understand, Young Leo is still doing it, although Young Leo is now in his late 60s and working only a few days a week. Both of them were classic barbers who would give crying little boys lollipops and have copies of the Policeman’s Gazette, The American Legion magazine and comic books as reading material.

It never mattered what you told either of them – they’d always give the same high-and-tight crew cut. I had one infamous cut in my teens where Old Leo actually shaved spots into the side of my head, inadvertently giving me a very cool punk cut. I couldn’t believe it. While all my friends were laughing and calling me Johnny Rotten, I was a bit mortified that he had gone beyond the normal military cut and must have accidentally pressed the electric clipper all the way through to the skin. Kids would often playfully taunt someone about “getting their ears moved” or “getting run over by a lawn mower.” But usually one of Leo’s cuts would have kids asking me when I was shipping out to Paris Island.

Still, no matter how box-headed I looked afterwards, I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to go back again for months. Besides, after a week or two, the hair would grow back enough that it wasn’t such an ordeal. I have the same values now, not going so far as a crew cut, but always getting a noticeably short cut. I don’t quite understand how guys don’t do this, how some go to a hairdresser and barely receive any sort of hair cut. I like a little more variety as opposed to looking the same all the time, although I pull up well short of hair dying, as I learned well enough early on that constantly fucking with one’s hair color could lead to thinning hair or baldness.

A shaved head? Hell, no. Most white guys look like total idiots with shaved heads – it must be something about the facial features that just don’t mesh. My brother J tried this once, and people kept asking him if the brain surgery was successful – it really did look as if he had been operated on. If he stuck a light bulb in his mouth, he could have worked a pretty funny Uncle Fester riff. Besides, it's a pretty rare guy who doesn't shave his head to cover some form of male pattern baldness. (If my hair ever falls out on top, I'll go with the closely-cropped on the sides look. And never, repeat NEVER, give into the short pony-tail-in-the-back-where-my-hair-is-still-long look favored by bikers and lawyers. This looks has "asshole of the universe" written all over it, the absolute worst hairstyle anyone can have.)

Ditto facial hair. Tried growing a beard once, and my face felt like it had a permanent rash after two weeks, just couldn’t take the constant itching. Some guys do look better with beards, just don’t think I’d be one of them. And it’s a rare guy who looks good with just a mustache. Most guys with mustaches look like off-duty cops or simply like half-assed weirdoes. As for soul patches, goatees and sideburns without mustaches, I suspect guys sporting these looks simply couldn’t afford or don’t want tattoos and think these “unconventional” facial hair styles are going to intimidate people. Guess again. Only way some guy is going to intimidate me is by shaving his head AND having mutton chop side burns. That look says “leave me alone” – and I would leave you very much alone, and in fact, may leave the immediate environment around you, never to return.

I don’t really fret too much about my hair. So long as I have it, and can get it righteously cut every few months, I feel all right. Even if that wasn’t the case, I suspect I’d just pick up the ball and run with it, whatever the look. Plenty of bald guys do all right with what they got, figuring out a look that suits them. Ditto gray-haired guys, which we’ll all be one day. As for now, I feel much lighter and liberated every time I climb out of that barber chair with a ton of hair on the floor for one of the sons to sweep up. No tears or lollipops necessary. Nothing like a good hair cut to feel some sort of minor rebirth.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Astoria Chicken

Well, some strange shit happens every now and then in the city. The strangest to me will always be those things containing vestiges of small-town life transplanted to the city, as in my earlier story about the family of the raccoons in the Bronx. Frankly, the stereotypically strange stuff – random violence, bad manners, etc. – gets to be like ugly, peeling wallpaper after awhile, and not something I dwell on.

On Thursday night, I came home from work feeling pretty beat. The previous night, I helped out with a museum party that ran until 9:00 pm, and I’d been feeling lackluster ever since. I opened the gate on my landlord’s property, only to see a handful of kids, probably between the ages of eight to 12, congregated along the ledge of the wall running along the sidewalk. The house is right next to a small playground, so it’s not unusual during baseball season to see kids there looking for balls hit into her yard. Certainly not a daily or weekly experience, but every now and then.

Naturally, I don’t like seeing anyone on her property. She’s had problems in the past with shithead kids from the neighboring public school getting on to her property, simply for the sake of being devious. (There’s now a very imposing, shaved-headed teacher stationed on that side of the school to prevent this at the bustling arrival and departure times.) Last July, during the few weeks of summer school, I kept seeing this morose, improbably gigantic white kid sitting on her steps before school started. He apologized the first time he saw me coming out for work in the morning. The kid looked so hang dog, so demoralized to be there, that I just said, don’t worry about it. Mistake. By the last week of summer school, there was a small gaggle of douche bags hanging out on her steps, which I promise will not happen again this summer.

So, I see these kids, who immediately freeze when they see me coming, and call out, “You guys looking for a ball?”

“Nah, man,” one of the kids says, “yo, you got a chicken in your backyard, mister.”

“Get out.”

“Look! There it is!”

Sure enough, there was a god-damned chicken crouching in this strange branch-laden crawl space between my landlord’s back patio and the adjacent wall running along the sidewalk (she uses this to dump branches and any other sort of mulch-material from trees). The kids were freaking out as if the chicken were poisonous and trying to bite them. I figured it must be an escaped chicken from the poultry processing plant located about half a mile down the adjacent avenue, well past the Steinway Piano factory and supermarket. (That same plant, which closes down periodically due to sanitary issues, also does cows, and one of them famously broke loose a few years back and wandered the streets of Astoria before being lassooed by an off-duty cop.) How the chicken got this far away, I have no idea. But here it was, trying in vain to hide from these weird kids.

After a few minutes, it became obvious that the kids didn’t know what to do and were looking to me for guidance. I may be from the country, but I don’t know shit about chickens, save that they taste good. I do know that unless you’re dealing with a rooster, you can more than likely just pick the thing up and put it in some type of cage. One of the kids suggested I call 311 and get in touch with Animal Control Services. Which I did … only to have them inform me that it was too late to send out a team, and apparently for him to take down my information, so I should safely entrap the chicken and call back the next morning, at which time a team would be sent out to take the chicken and do god knows what.

At this point, also, my landlord hangs her head out the door by her back kitchen, and yells out, “Ah-Billy, just ah-kill that crazy chicken and get those kids out of here.” She ducked back in, which was unusual – she usually takes a perverse pleasure in being a mean old lady to neighborhood kids. Most times, she’s right on, as so many of the kids around here are total pricks, but these kids were actually pretty cool – two white kids, two Latinos, all of them friendly. They got my name, I got theirs, and one of them started crying over the thought that I might kill the chicken.

“Please don’t kill the chicken, Billy, I want it to live!”

Even without the water works, I wanted the chicken to live, too. Why the fuck not? It’s such a rare occurrence for me to have a positive experience with city kids, and I was so glad to see these kids had heart, that I set about saving that god-damned chicken.

Which took all of five minutes. I simply put on some work gloves, ran up into that little area of tree branches, grabbed it and put it into a large blue trash container. The kids were amazed at this, as if I had just stormed the beach at Normandy. I guess for the past half hour, they had been chasing the chicken around and running away any time it got within five feet of them. I brought the chicken in the container back into the yard. The best course seemed to be leave it in there, but put the landlord’s wire laundry/grocery cart over the top of it so it wouldn’t jump out. Also, the closing touch, put the blue trashcan lid over the top of the wire cart – we were due for some hard rain Thursday night and all-day Friday. I didn’t want the damn thing to drown, and the cart being over the container's top would allow enough air to get in.

As I did this, these kids were simply amazed that this was happening. It’s pretty rare for me to have these adult/authority moments with kids – and I kind of like them. Because it’s at times like this I can see kids for what they are – essentially blank slates that need some sort of positive guidance. And it seemed to me that saving the life of a stray chicken was an adventure these guys would most likely remember for a few years and feel good about.

I told them I’d call Animal Control the next morning and get the chicken picked up by them, hopefully on Friday. If not, we’d get the chicken when I got home from work on Friday, say our farewells, and walk it down to the poultry processing plant. None of us were equipped to take care of a chicken, plain and simple. To set it loose would most likely result in the thing being run over by a car or killed by some jackass for no good reason. So, I told the kids to go on their way, and I’d take care of it. They all waved goodbye, and I felt touched that I actually dealt with some relatively normal kids. (If they were completely normal, they wouldn’t have been on my landlord’s property without permission – but kids will be kids.)

The landlord freaked out when I got back into the house.

“Ah-Billy, I know those crazy kids put that chicken there on purpose!”

“No. Those kids were scared to death of that chicken. Maybe the chased it onto your property, but I know for fact they didn’t put it there on purpose. All of them ran away when that chicken got within five feet of any of them.”

“We should kill that chicken!”

“No. I’ll call Animal Control in the morning. They’ll take care of it.”

I couldn’t vouch for that. Most city services are for shit, and everybody knows it. But what choice did I have? It was call these pricks in the morning and hope they came, or take the damn bird to the last roundup at the plant. My landlord probably had visions of doing up the bird with a hatchet like in the old country, but that wasn’t going to happen.

At about 10:00 that night, I went out with a bowl of water and another bowl of pretzels I had crushed into a near-powder. The bird looked fine when I came out, seemed to be sleeping, but was calm, after clearly being scared to death when they kids were chasing it around.

I got up this morning and went out around 7:45 to check on the bird. Still fine – and it had eaten all the pretzels! So I went back in, refilled the water, crushed up some more pretzels, put them back, and left the bird to its own devices. School was just loading in, but I didn’t see any of the kids around. Besides which, even if I had, the bald-headed teacher would have busted their asses for coming over to our side of the street.

I got to work, called up 311, got put through to Animal Control, was put on hold for 15 minutes and finally got through to a guy who had the IQ of a bowling ball.

The first thing he says after I explain my situation: “Look if you want me to help you, you’ll have to tell me your name and address.”


“You know, you have to tell me your name and address.”

“Great. My name is …”

“What’s your name. I’ll need your address, too. You’ll have to tell me these things.”

“Buddy, I’ll tell you everything you need to know. What do you need to know?”

"Your name and address. Why won't you tell me these things?"

It was like a scene from Waiting for Godot. I had a hell of a time explaining that I don’t know my landlord’s phone number or last name – according to her bills, she has about five different last names. The guy was on the verge of blowing me off, but I made it crystal clear to him that this was no joke, sorry, we’re dealing with mysterious Greeks here who only take cash, but I can assure you, this address is right, my landlord will be there all day, she’ll know you guys are coming to get the chicken, she’ll be glad to help you get it off her property, please call this cellphone number I'm calling you on if there is any trouble at all. It finally registered, and he said he’d send a team out later that day. It took about 20 minutes to disseminate about 45 seconds of information. My hopes weren’t too high that they’d be picking up the chicken.

I got home around 6:30 tonight. Walked back to the patio … and the chicken was gone. The bowls were gone, the landlord’s wire cart was back in her storage shed, and everything was in place. When I got back in the house, the landlord was in a joyous mood – she was elated that the chicken was gone. Her only question: “Ah-Billy, how much will this cost me?”

“Not a dime. It’s a city service.”

“That’s ah-good. Here, have some white chocolate rabbits.”

She gave me about six white-chocolate rabbits she had been saving up for her one set of grandkids, but I imagine she’s still fighting with that particular daughter. (I know her other set of grandkids showed up for Easter, which is good.) She’s always siphoning off food to me that’s meant for these kids, so when she's rumbling with either of her daughters and they don’t show up, I get the goods. And this is fine by me!

About half an hour later, the kids rolled by. Again, they made the vital error of not getting my landlord’s permission before going onto her property. This time, she burst out her door, going full throttle, shrieking: “You ah-kids, get off my land! Get off! You no live here! Go away! Lousy bums!”

(I’m still not sure how this didn’t happen the night before, as those kids were on her property a good half hour before I showed up, and she was in her house.)

As the kids were slinking away, I got up the stairs in time to yell out, “Hey, kids, the chicken’s gone. Animal Services picked it up today at noon.”

That’s about all I could get out before she shooed them away. But the kid who had been crying said “thanks, Billy,” one of them clapped and the others smiled.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they spray-paint “suck my dick” or something like that on her outer sidewalk wall tonight – kids tend not to take kindly to getting kicked off property. Who knows, I’m hoping those kids are smart enough to see that something good and worthwhile happened here, no matter what happens to that chicken. And I have no idea what would happen to a stray chicken taken in like that by the city.

But it helped me out in terms of seeing that there are some good, if flawed, kids living in this weird neighborhood, and I was glad to actually have a real interaction with them. I could talk to them like normal human beings, not lay any fatherly/adult bullshit trips on them, and simply communicate the shared idea that saving a chicken, for no other reason than it was a good deed, mattered.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Redneck Mystique, #3

Yesterday afternoon, one of the cable channels showed the movie Deliverance, with very little editing done on the infamous Ned Beatty rape scene. While the movie is an excellent statement on how the most lawless places on earth, especially in our modern world, will be in the deep country, it will always be remembered for this still-horrifying scene. And that weird, deeply-inbred looking kid with the banjo.

Gay rednecks with shotguns: your worst nightmare. Especially if they have you caught defenseless in the woods, with the choice of either getting shot at point-blank range or “squealing like a pig.” Kudos go to the character actor Bill McKinney, who was shockingly believable as the morose, gay redneck who got very strange with Beatty’s character and eventually took a well-deserved, fatal arrow through the back from the bow of Burt Reynolds’ hyper-macho character.

The image of the anti-social, possibly homicidal, redneck is one that is used quite often and effectively in movies and books. In reality? In terms of “homicidal” rednecks, I’ve honestly met two or three in my time – guys who eventually committed crimes along the lines of murder – and the less said about that, the better.

And I have met a few deeply anti-social, unfriendly rednecks – usually associated with local bars. I can still recall back when all of us were drinking in our 20s, any time we headed into a bar we weren’t familiar with, it was always an awkward moment deciding who would be the first through the door … as if a shotgun blast awaited that unlucky individual. Usually, it was one of those E.F. Hutton moments: whatever song was playing on the jukebox would scratch to a stop, everyone would stop talking and look at us. Then the record would start again, and everyone would go back to his business. I can't recall taking shit in any of those bars for not being a local -- that initial uneasiness just seems to be a hallmark of local bars in the country.

I can still recall one of my college professors back at the Penn State branch campus, Charlie, taking me along to a local bar near the campus he wasn’t familiar with. He walks in the door, surveys the scene, which really wasn’t all that bad in terms of redneck quotient, and loudly announces, “Well, looks like Ray isn’t here, let’s go.” I’m willing to bet banjo music was playing in his head, visions of him getting anally probed on the pinball machine by guys in CAT hats, and he didn’t want to offend the patrons by just turning around walking straight out without a logical explanation.

But every now and then, I would (and still do) come across rednecks who put out that uncomfortable Ted Kaczynski vibe. When I’m back home, I take a long morning run along the back roads around my hometown – which used to be farms and wood lands, but over the past 20 years have filled up with McMansions. Still, there are patches of lower-income housing which have been there for decades and will always be there.

And running by one of those houses, I came across one of those rednecks. Usually in small towns, especially along a back road, if I walk by someone, I say or nod hello – just a given, what people do. As I was running by one of those houses – broken kid’s Big Wheels and wagons in the front yard, beat-up cars along the side of the house – there was a guy staring at me – very lean, bearded, angry-looking, shirtless and greasy-looking. I called out hello, and he just stared back, turning to stare as I passed.

What was that all about, I wondered. Did he think I was one of the new McMansion owners, and he had an attitude about them? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t have been untoward of me to say, “What the fuck is your problem?” and get into it with him. Then again, one of life’s golden rules: avoid meaningless confrontation. And some angry redneck in my rear-view mirror, much like his urban equivalents, is a sweet sight.

Please understand that my home area, Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania, is hardly deep-woods Appalachia. Frankly, it’s starting to feel more like a far-flung suburb of Scranton, Reading and Harrisburg, as the place has built up in ways I don’t like over the past few decades. Most people you’ll meet back there are nowhere near that far gone, are well connected to the world, and aside from hallmarks like hunting, fishing, country music and NASCAR, probably lead lives that aren’t much different from anyone else’s in the country.

Still, every now and then, you come across some strange bastard throwing out the Deliverance vibe. From what I’ve seen, it’s a familial thing – some families just pass from one generation to another in deep redneck mode. Often farmers, or I hate to say it, just plain stupid people, who don’t “marry up” in terms of intelligence and keep putting out insular, vaguely-angry rednecks. And for every one of those kind of people, you’ll find dozens of basically friendly, approachable folks who display all the trappings of the culture, but are simply good people trying to get by like anyone else.

This is hard to explain to city folk, who often don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground when confronted by anyone who looks like a redneck. The immediate reaction is like Charlie’s: fear masked by an uneasy desire not to offend. In Deliverance, Ned Beatty’s character is this feeling personified. He first tries to be friendly to the rednecks. Then realizes they aren’t friendly. When the McKinney character untowardly touches his face, he’s visibly frightened. And it all goes downhill from there.

Frankly, the way city folk deal with rednecks isn’t that much different from the way I see many white folks in the city deal with black and hispanic thugs. Which is to say kiss as much ass as possible in hopes that these angry, potentially-violent thugs will leave them alone. If I had a dime for every instance where I’ve seen white people turn into lambs when confronted like this … and the thugs instinctively grasp that they’ve been given the upper hand and lay their “scare whitey” routine on even thicker. Often in situations where the white (usually) guy could pulverize the little turd he’s dealing with … if he wasn’t such a wimp.

The best tack to take is always to confront people like this head-on. Kissing a moron’s ass never leads anywhere good: never. If somebody’s looking to take a chunk out of you, make them take a chunk out of you – because chances are, they’re not up for it and only looking to satisfy some primordial urge to dominate what they perceive to be a lesser being. I don’t care if you’re talking black thugs on a subway or white rednecks in a country bar: it’s the same difference. If you show fear, like a dog, they will act on it. And most situations like this are easily avoided by simply walking away from the offending party.

That connection between black and white is a good one to make, because I think the underlying fear is of being confronted by someone, whatever his color, who is in some way rejecting the values of our society. Oh, my, doesn’t this person know wearing cowboy boots with shorts and sporting a swastika tattoo on his adam’s apple is in very bad form. That seems to be the vibe. And I think what that person is really trying to tell you is, “I’m a tasteless asshole who doesn’t know how to act.” He may not admit to that. In his mind, it will be, “I’m a rebel.” There are very few true rebels in our society. Surly rednecks are identifiable enough that they fall more into acceptable subculture than truly rebellious. Our country is crawling with mewling bozos who think they are true rebels, but are in reality acceptable subcultures who are contained well within our societal constraints. Next time there’s a biker rally anywhere near you, pop on by and notice all the t-shirt and leather goods vendors, hotels, bars and such making a fortune off these (often well-paid) people.

Still, after seeing Deliverance, I decided that if I ever went camping again, I’d bring along an Uzi, just in case. Because sometimes you do come across those weird backwoods folk who aren’t playing head games. Honestly, I can count on one hand the times I’ve come up against a redneck and felt any sense of impending danger. Ditto thugs in the city – most are just imbecile kids and adults who have a problem with the world, and I make it a point not to make myself some symbolic lightning rod to them and their idiotic anger. I’ve never come across any gay rednecks with shotguns looking to make me squeal like a pig. Has this ever happened to anyone? Hats off to James Dickey for creating such a compelling, nightmarish character. Because a gay redneck with a shotgun manages the near-impossible in our society: he scares everyone.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Point Pleasant

Any time I hear the song “Can We Still Be Friends” by Todd Rundgren, I have two reactions. The first is a mild sort of revulsion. Not at the song itself, which is a pretty good pop song, but at the song’s message. I’m far more in the “We Can’t Be Friends” camp after a relationship tanks.

The second reaction, more a memory, is to recall summers visiting my Uncle B. in Point Pleasant, New Jersey: our annual trip to the Jersey shore. The reason this song sparks the memory is because the summer Todd Rundgren put out his Hermit of Mink Hollow album, my brother M. was playing the eight track of it to death in his car. Thus, everywhere we drove the summer of 1978, that album, and that song in particular, was playing. And the song sounds like a faded summer memory. I also get the same Point Pleasant vibe from “Down by the Seaside” by Led Zeppelin –M. was dogging Physical Graffiti, too, on his car’s eight track, and that song naturally stuck.

Coming down from the Coal Region of Pennsylvania, the Jersey shore was like another world – one that made us feel inferior. My brother J. and I had deep baseball and lawn-mowing tans. Meaning we spent so much time playing baseball and mowing lawns (for what was then a nice teenage profit) that you could see the distinct tan lines on our mid-biceps where our t-shirts ended – turkey-meat white above the line and bronze below it. Ditto our legs in terms of wearing shorts. We looked like dicks, at least compared to the completely-bronzed, always-blonde surfer dudes who were all over the beach. It seemed like all the kids were extras out of some Beach Boys video. And I envied those kids that all they seemed to do all summer long was surf, while we played ball and mowed lawns in the mountains.

I still get excited every time I lay eyes on the ocean, after not seeing it for months or years at a time. You’d be surprised how little you see it in New York City, unless you work on the southern tip of Manhattan or the far edge of Brooklyn. I walk over the 59th Street Bridge most Sundays and see the East River flowing into the sea, but it’s not the same. There’s just something about approaching a sandy beach head, walking up the wooden planks, then finally coming over the brim to see the ocean spread out infinitely in front of you, the waves rolling into shore, the sound of their crashing, the wind.

Seeing this every summer in my teenage years, it always felt like the first time. The only comparable vision I can recall is walking into Yankee Stadium for the first time in 1988, seeing the green of the field peeking out from the entrance rise, walking up it and seeing the entire stadium, complete with the gap in the right-center wall where the subway periodically crashes by.

At Point Pleasant, we’d immediately find a spot to put our towels then get into the water ASAP. Body surfing was the thing – not hard to do, and exciting when you got the knack. Many times, we got tumbled, swallowing that shitty-tasting salt water, getting bruised, losing our trunks and standing up dazed with our dicks hanging out. It was fun as hell and never got old. The surfers were usually down at the other end of the beach, and as noted, they had an attitude to boot. This was their turf, and they knew we were tourists. I don’t recall ever taking any shit from these kids, but they kept to themselves and vice-versa.

Dad always stayed back home in Pennsylvania. He never seemed comfortable anywhere past the county line, and I can only recall him coming down to Point Pleasant once. (I think this was because Dad had done so much traveling with the armed forces, including a decade after the close of World War II, that he was burned out on traveling anywhere by the time he was honorably discharged in the mid-1950s.) Mom would take us, although we didn’t feel really cool until M. was old enough to drive, and we could tool around playing Prog Rock on the eight track with our Cousin J., who was a rare friendly surfer. (For the record, he was heavily into KISS, Yes and Jethro Tull at the time, which seemed kind of silly then, but now seems cool as everyone and his brother was dogging Springsteen to death. I once asked J. how he felt about Springsteen, and he flat-out called him a dick.)

Mom burned easy, so she covered herself a lot, sat under an umbrella, and was content just to watch us having fun. I can see now that this is a parent’s right, and she must have been in heaven watching us cut loose like that. What really grated on me, then and now, is that while Mom was watching us, there was always a gaggle of middle-aged women disapprovingly watching Mom. They were the color of lobsters, and it occurs to me now that these were snobby New York City-area housewives who had beach houses in Point Pleasant, and thus got bronzed every summer. Doing nothing lying in the sun. While my Mom busted her ass taking care of four kids and was grateful to have a few days off. Even then, I knew enough that these women were looking down on Mom, Mom clearly sensed it, too, and I despised them. For some reason, it always seemed like the same four or five women, and may very well have been as we were using my Uncle B.’s pass to the private beach he worked during the summer.

For all my memories of beach insecurity, we always had a blast down there. Hitting the beach in the morning, coming back to Uncle B.’s place for lunch, heading out again for the afternoon, then coming back and using his cool outdoor shower to get clean for dinner – the smell of the sea in the air all the while. It seemed like our finger and toe nails grew exponentially while were down there, and we invariably got sunburned some time during the trip. There was constantly sand in our sneakers. You have to realize how cool this felt to a bunch of redneck kids who lived a good hundred miles from the ocean.

I haven’t been down there in years, although I know a few people who live in near-by towns: J. in Asbury Park and D. in Belmar, both just north of Point Pleasant. J. had a party last year to celebrate he and his wife E. getting a great new apartment in Asbury Park. That town is a story unto itself with its history of race riots and ruin. But throughout the 90’s, the north side of town became a haven for gay couples, many of whom set about refurbishing grand old seaside homes that had fallen into disrepair. That part of town now is gorgeous, like the quaint seaside town it no doubt once was, and it’s clear that the place is on the cusp of a serious come-back, after years of misfires and shoddy urban planning. And this is good, because everyone has the same reaction walking up and down the still gritty and under-developed boardwalk, and that’s: what the fuck happened here? Walking around that town now is like being in a John Sayles movie, where a large part of the town is still run-down, but turn the corner and there are signs everywhere of a big change about to occur.

J. walked a few of us down to the beach during his party, which was only about a 10 minutes away, and I got that feeling all over again, even though it was a cloudy day. That night, we could feel the sea breezes as we sat out on J’s patio listening to old country and cajun music. The sea is like home back in Pennsylvania in some ways to me now. I don’t spend enough time there, but when I do, I appreciate it and hold on to the good far more than the bad. Maybe it’s bullshit, but sometimes you need to bullshit yourself, especially living in a place like New York. Nothing wrong with open spaces, clean air and less assholes.