Sunday, August 26, 2007


In the back left corner of my refrigerator, top shelf, sits a mason jar of strawberry moonshine, which I purchased back in 2003 from a Virginian friend. If you’re not aware, Franklin County, Virginia is the moonshine capital of the world, although I’m sure you can find this stuff all over the South, provided you know the secret handshake. I take it having a brother-in-law grease monkey at a local garage, with one lazy eye and a Skoal ring outline on the breast pocket of bib overalls, comes in handy.

The jar is still pretty full. What once seemed like a novel idea, slamming down shots of moonshine once a week or so, became a not-so-good idea once it dawned on me that outside of a public place with wine and beer openly flowing, this stuff is a hard go, smells vaguely like paint thinner, that “hard liquor” smell amplified about 10 times. Even from a shot glass, you’d be wise to sip it. The jar has strawberries floating in it. I’m not quite sure what the expiration date on this stuff is. All I know is that about once every six months, I have a go at a shot glass and have a hard time finishing one. It’s potent stuff.

My introduction to moonshine came via that Virginian friend and a few parties/social events held at the Brooklyn Brewery, where he worked. A strange place to work, too, from what I’ve gathered. (This was before a majority of the company was let go when the Brewery sold off it's distribution division.) Seemed like half the staff were low-level drug dealers (pot, mushrooms, psychedelics, etc.). They got their employees through ads place in the Village Voice, so it had to be an interesting work place. (It seems like working in a brewery could be a pretty cool gig, so long as it stays small and local.)

I haven’t been out there in a few years, but every Friday, they open the Brewery, or at least the main space on the first floor, to the public, putting out picnic and folding tables, and simply tapping some of their product on one end of the room, while allowing customers to buy wooden chips on the other to purchase the beer with. Since the whole brewery operation was right there, stacks of yeast and grain were piled on wood pallets in the huge cinderblock room. It was like drinking in a K Mart Garden Center. I like Brooklyn Brewery product – it has a distinct taste, goes down pretty easy, and some of their higher-end product is very good. With my friend working there, I could often get those wooden chips at $1.00 a pop (as opposed to $3.00 the public pays), so you better believe I got hammered more than a few Friday nights out there.

But as time went on, the place became over-run with slumming Manhattanites and bozo kids fresh out of college, with that sickening frat-boy/beer pong take on life. I saw the transformation from leisurely, fun local hang out for aging hipsters and Brooklyn locals to horribly over-crowded, no-fun place that got too popular with the kind of people who, once you understand urban life, ruin everything they come in contact with via their money and arrogance. Same thing has happened to the Bohemia Beer Garden here in Astoria, where once upon a time you could casually drink Czech pilsner and eat sausages, sitting at a picnic table in an outdoor courtyard at night. Now, it’s that same slobbering crowd of spoiled brats who always spell bad news to me, roughly the same people who are moving out here in droves and driving up the rents. There’s a constant line to get in and security guards: two things a local pub/bar should never have in the 718s.

Every now and then, the Brewery would have a special event or allow the workers to rent the place for private parties. The biggest special event was always the Monster Ale night in late winter, when they rolled out that barley-wine malt ale (which had an alcohol content of well over 10%), served in special brandy glasses. You could always tell a neophyte: when he got his brandy glass, he’d blanche and say, “Why such a small glass?” Believe me, after two Monster ales, your average drinker would be hammered. The only times I have ever seen double in my adult life were Monster Ale nights – I didn’t think such a thing was possible until it happened to me. One night, I distinctly recall a series of girls being carried out of the place over the shoulders of some large men, like sacks of grain, when they could no longer move their legs, and their mouths would only say “ga-ga-ga-phlew.”

For some of these events, my friend would invite up his hometown friends from central Virginia. I don’t know what it is about Virginians, but from what I’ve seen, they’re some of the nicest people on earth: well-mannered, friendly, open. I’m sure it’s like any place else, that there must be pricks galore if you spend enough time there. But in general, every Virginian I’ve ever known has been a good soul. These guys were no exception – the kind of people you want to hang with in a bar.

Sure enough, those guys would bring some moonshine with them every time. Understand that just going to one of these events, most people there, me included, would be getting hammered just drinking the brewery product, which was often the best seasonal product on tap. I remember the first time I tried it – just straight moonshine. The turpentine/gasoline quality was in full effect. I blanched. I can’t drink straight moonshine – it’s too brutal. I don’t know what the proof is on that stuff, but there’s a good reason why it’s illegal. The stories of people going blind drinking it probably aren’t bullshit.

The strawberry variety went down much easier – something about adding fruit to it diluted the smell and took off that extremely hard grain alcohol edge in the taste. Still, again, you don’t want to be throwing down a shot glass of moonshine – doing so provides one of those gasping, heart-grabbing episodes. I didn’t learn the hard way – I saw a few people try it before me, convinced they could handle anything via their drug usage and alcohol abuse, and the look of surprise on their faces as they ran into that brick wall was something to behold. I sipped mine. And I can tell you after two or three shot glasses of moonshine, I was totally in the bag, barely able to stand up straight. (Understand, I’m factoring in about 3-4 beers leading up to this.)

I should have known when I offered shots to two girls from Virginia who had moved to New York. They took the shot glasses with perplexed looks on their faces, mumbling thanks, but not really meaning it. They knew about moonshine, and I guess not wanting to get falling down drunk, a few minutes later, each sheepishly came up to me and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I didn’t get puking, falling-down drunk on moonshine, probably because I stopped after two or three. For some reason, I recall the taste of strawberry moonshine those few times being very nice: sweet and while not as hard to digest as straight moonshine, at least cut enough to go down without coming straight back up again. (I’ve had very negative experiences with whiskey. Just ask Ian Lamb in Scotland. On whose guest-room carpet I vomited a big lamb and potato dinner one night after he tried to break me in on various types of Scottish whisky. I never developed a taste for that stuff, and never will.)

A few years later, I tried to get my friend to pick me up a jar of strawberry moonshine next time he visited Virginia. It took awhile. For a few years, there seemed to be a major crackdown on the industry. Understand that moonshine is treated by the government like any other illegal drug – probably not as harsh as cocaine or heroine, but you better believe there are major bucks poured into shutting down any illegal alcohol trade. From what I understand, it’s a shadow industry, with stills, much like crystal meth labs, run in the deep woods on private property, so agents would somehow have to infiltrate a line of trade and trace the product back to its source, which must be hard as hell. On top of that, anyone with a few crock pots and some corn can make moonshine. Poke around the web, and you will find “do it yourself” still pages that, frankly, I’d be afraid to try in terms of explosions and burning down the house.

But, finally, one of those times, he came back with a good-sized Mason jar of moonshine, for which I paid $30. And there she sits in the fridge in late summer 2007, four years on. Still about three quarters full. You know what? I’m going to try some now to see what happens …

… I’m still alive. What strikes me most, being totally sober and at home, is the alcohol smell that comes off the shot glass in waves. Again, sipping this stuff, I would never dream of downing a shot glass of moonshine. You can feel it go down, like reverse heart burn. The taste still isn’t bad. I don’t know how moonshine ages, whether it’s like beer and gets skunky after time, or like fine wine that gets better in time. I must have been crazy to be drinking this shit on top of a few beers – just not a good idea.

I’ll keep it back there in the corner, but will have to get in the habit of pawning the stuff off on curious visitors and guests. I once bought a case of Monster Ale from my friend at a great price, and that shit sat in my apartment for close to a year before I pawned the remainder of the case (i.e., all but three bottles) off on a New Zealand nanny I knew from the local bar. (She and the Irish bartender would often go on benders that would begin at 9:00 on a Saturday night and not end until 9:00 on a Sunday morning. I’ve never drank like that, but some folks somehow pull it off, no doubt wasting an entire weekend on recovery.) She loved the stuff, but I felt weird drinking it alone in my apartment, like I should be wearing a raincoat while doing so and sniffling. Moonshine is no different. It’s the stuff of dumb public displays, not contemplative pints or glasses of red wine after a hard day in the office.

Still, I’ll keep it there. My connection to a bubbling crock pot in a shed somewhere in a far-off corner of Appalachia. A very relaxed guy sitting next to it. Shotgun on the floor as he slumps in a ratty, abused recliner. Watching reruns of American Gladiators on ESPN Classic with no pants on. The same way I am now, worlds away in New York. Although, as noted above, I’m about 2/3rds through this shot glass, and there’s no way on earth I’m going to finish it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Slow Fade from Liberalism

I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, in the shadow of the Vietnam War, by working-class Democrat parents. A strange mix of stuff was going on there. Long hair on kids didn’t become the norm in our area until 1973 or so, long after the 60s; things moved a lot slower back then without cable TV or the internet. Most people openly supported the war, as they had sons fighting in it. (It’s also fair to say I was raised in the shadow of World War II, as that aspect of American culture was still very strong in rural America; I was raised watching a constant stream of WW II movies on the TV, playing army with my friends, and talking with G.I. Joes.) The combination of “working class” and “Democrat” implies a pragmatic take on politics: people who are getting the shit end of the stick, but maintaining belief in some form of LBJ/Depression era liberalism that was a lot harder and bore little resemblance to the wilder strain of liberalism that broke out of the late 60s.

When I look at my life and recognize I have faded far away from identifying myself as a liberal, in a lot of respects, I think I’m simply hearkening back to how I was raised. Because I remember that type of liberalism being more to my liking, and having lived in one of the world’s epicenters of liberalism for nearly 20 years now, I’ve pretty much had a belly full of the left, who strike me as being just as dogmatic, off-putting and wrong-headed as the right.

I think a lot of this can be attributed to simple naiveté on my part. Being raised with Vietnam, especially as the situation soured and waned in the 70s, I took a hard swing left in my youth. It was easy with the music and movies of the 60s and 70s, which were great, along with regularly reading Rolling Stone in its prime, being exposed to beat writers, folks like Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe: an overwhelmingly positive experience. The 70s were a pretty hang-loose time for kids. Adults from that time remember it as an awful decade: Vietnam petering out, oil crises, inflation, recessions, Nixon, Ford, Carter, the beginning of terrorism, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the drug trade growing exponentially, etc. Sixties people got a bit older and found themselves growing up and realizing “come the revolution” was an empty catch phrase.

But kids had a ball in the 70s! I was about as spoiled as you could be on my factory-working father’s “$20K a year to support seven people” budget. When I see myself as being a spoiled kid, understand that I’m comparing myself to my dad’s childhood during the Depression, where he got a baked-bean sandwich for breakfast, and that was it until dinner, at which time it was some similarly non-descript, small-portioned meal. I understand my grandfather would usually get to work one week a month at the coal mines, making just enough money to put a meager amount of food on the table. (He and my grandmother had five kids.)

Compare and contrast to a kid having the ability to make money by mowing lawns, buying books, magazines, records, clothes, eating junk food constantly. My father would look at us and recognize that just the opportunity to work for money was something he never had as a kid, much less all this material shit we piled on top of that ability. The sense of liberalism he had was forever tied in with the Depression, and all those programs LBJ launched at the time to combat it, followed by World War II, which pushed the country into a better economy by sheer force. It was a liberalism related to basic survival and whatever sense of politics flowed from that. As opposed to the full-on cultural wars the 60s brought.

I still understand and respect that sense of liberalism as it relates to the basic right to work, put food on a table and roof over head. For better or worse, I’ve always lived around and understood working-class people, be it in the city or country. In the city, it’s been a necessity as I refuse to pay extortionate rents. (And now that real-estate values in my neighborhood have gone through the roof, you better believe I’m sweating it.) But all the other political stuff that somehow gets packaged with this, I’m not so sure about. Or more accurately, like most human beings, I have mixed thoughts on a lot of issues. I don’t vote party line. (These days, I don’t even vote – I’ve lost the urge with the professional wrestling style, good guy/bad guy dynamics of the two-party system that now seem worse than ever.) I don’t identify myself as a liberal because I’m not. I don’t identify myself as a conservative because I’m not. (What am I? I’m a little bit country. I’m a little bit rock and roll. I'm a little bit of Memphis and Nashville. With a little bit of Motown in my soul.)

Because I came up in a time where so many kids leaned left, in my mind, at least at first, I felt like I was losing something by veering away from liberalism in those first few years after college. A pivotal experience for me was moving to the Bronx and living there just shy of 10 years. My take on race relations before that was very liberal. Afterwards, you’d call me a pragmatist. After the 10,000th time some black or hispanic kid spit as I passed or muttered “cracker” as an informal invitation to stupidity, it pretty much sunk in that these weren’t Magic Negroes Who Save the Day, as so often portrayed in movies and TV. They were just people, many of them fucked-up and blinded by their hatred as much as any white racist. (If you can give me one good reason why inner-city kids were filled with racial hatred beyond cultural inundation, as they had virtually no personal experience with white people, I’d love to hear it.) Many more people there were just like me: struggling to get by and not interested in getting dragged down in any kind of racial horseshit. I saw it all and learned from it. When I’m around white people who don’t have that sort of racial experience, I know it – because they tend to be spouting laughable feel-good/whitey’s-fault excuses or hateful racist swill that has nothing to do with reality.

While all this was going on, I’d occasionally notice news stories about conservative speakers on campuses being routinely shouted down by liberal audiences (as if there’d be any other kind at all but a handful of universities). The newscasters would interview the shouters, and they’d shout down the newscasters! I graduated from Penn State in 1986; if there were people this far gone on campus, I didn’t know them. Sure, I knew a few kids, from wealthy backgrounds it always seemed, who identified themselves as socialists or anarchists, and I’d sure love to see if they’re still toeing that moral line from college. (I doubt it, I’m not even toeing my own line, but who knows.) That was the age of college kids building and “living” in ramshackle shanty towns on campus to protest universities investing in the South African diamond industry while the country practiced apartheid. It seemed like the age of kids screaming down any form of dissent to their point of view came directly afterwards. To judge by the stifling, vaguely fascist wave of political correctness that swept college campuses in the 90s, I suspect this liberal dogmatism just got worse as it went along.

Even without those news stories, living in New York, I was surrounded by shrill liberalism all day, every day. I tried reading The Village Voice, but gave up after a few years, as even fucking recipes and sports stories would carry pointless leftist barbs. What struck me most about so many New Yorkers was the arrogance, people who assumed everyone they spoke to was on the same liberal wavelength, the sort of sickening cultural strong-arming I’ve often seen racists employ in casual conversation, where if you don’t openly disagree with them, they assume you somehow agree with them. I’ve never felt that culturally comfortable, or manipulative, to operate like that.

It feels like we’ve reached a point now, with 9/11, the specter of radical Islam, war in Iraq, the last few elections and such, that the people who want to be polarized, left or right, have pretty much decided that’s all there is to America, and if you’re not on either side, party line on every issue, then you don’t exist. This is marketing! People have somehow tied in aspects of target marketing with politics, to the extent where if you’re not buying a certain product, and buying similar products that enhance the overall value of the product line via synergy, then you’re either stupid or just not grasping how the world operates. Think Grr Animals shirt/pants combinations for kids. Macs, iPods and now iPhones, along with the carrying cases. American politics have become much the same stable of products, with all the attendant lifestyle implications.

Gay marriage feels like one of those hip products that I see all the time now. (Global warming, too, but I got into that a few posts back, as far as I’m willing to go.) The left has set up conditions where if you don’t openly and fully accept gay marriage, then you are against it, and are somehow less humane. You are incapable of disagreeing with the issue without being morally inept at best, and bankrupt at worst. You must be a right-wing zealot!

I’ve never been right wing, nor a zealot, save for various pop-rock and country bands. I have no major beefs with gay marriage, as I’m not an overly religious person. But I don’t see it as some huge civil rights struggle either, that must occur lest we remain mired in out-of-date, so-called traditional values. (I'm never quite sure what those are supposed to be.) Frankly, if it got voted down in every state, I’d be perfectly comfortable with this; if it got voted in for every state, ditto.

It’s just not an issue I care all that much about … probably because I’m not gay! And if I was, I can tell you now, at least from the aspect of a straight guy looking in from the outside, one of the most attractive aspects of being gay appears to be that you’re able to reject traditional values simply by dint of who you are. Our culture is filled with people who adopt affectations to show what they believe to be some type of rebellion (anything related to the music industry, tattoos, drug use, etc.), but homosexuality is one of those issues that will always be controversial, no matter how much anyone tries to normalize it. So why would I want to not just accept, but celebrate one of the most hallowed traditional values that is fraught with all sorts of issues (infidelity, desperation, boredom, etc.)? If I was gay, I’d be glad as hell that I didn’t have to get married, or feel any pressure from anyone to get married. And get into the whole kids/mortgage/in-laws quagmire that most adult Americans call every-day life. (Going on 43 years as a bachelor, you better believe I know of where I speak. If I had a dime for every mind-blowing conversation I’ve had with “gadar” men and [usually] women who, when the subject of my being single was broached, had thought balloons pop up over the heads with me sucking a great big cock …)

Am I allowed to oppose gay marriage simply because if I was gay, I wouldn’t want to get married, and would, in fact, reject this sort of rhetoric as something totally meaningless to who I was and how I wanted to live my life? I am allowed to have that belief. I suspect there are plenty of gay people who agree with me, too, although it would be hard to hear them above the din of those who have made this a make-or-break civil rights issue. (It isn’t. It’s another soup bone for the left and right to chew on.) You are allowed to agree or disagree, mildly or vehemently. By the tenets of the left, this is not possible. You’re with us, or against us. Ditto, the right, too, of course. But I’m approaching this as a former liberal who abandoned liberalism once he realized what appeared to be a majority of people who identified themselves as such were just as dogmatic as their supposedly far more dogmatic conservative opponents.

Maybe that’s the problem: “appeared to be a majority.” For all I know most people who identify themselves as liberals are open-minded enough to understand you can oppose gay marriage, whatever your orientation, and still be no more or less humane than someone who doesn’t. But from what I read, in newspapers and all over the web, I’m not seeing this at all. And I would love to! But, again, with liberalism, it feels like a rigid uniform one must wear, and god forbid saying you might have second thoughts on a given issue. That’s not true liberalism, which should be the ability for a person to choose any mode of thought, feeling or expression, without regard to how anyone else perceives it. That shit doesn’t fly with people holding agendas, whatever side they see themselves on. Liberalism has been turned into a political agenda by the left, as opposed to a free-standing value system that allows for change and all types of dissension, especially within the ranks.

If we could go back to that LBJ form of liberalism, strip away a lot of the baggage the 60s hefted onto the concept, I might be willing to call myself that again. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. I think above all else, I’ve ditched politics and resent how they’ve crept into people’s value systems to the extent that they’ll out-of-hand reject someone for having different political values than they do. That’s just sick. Not liberal at all. And I see it all the time in New York, with people who spout stuff like “I don’t know any Republicans” as if that’s a badge of pride, as opposed to a badge of provincialism, the sort of thing a wealthy housewife in, say, Fargo, might say, save the pride would be in not knowing any Democrats. Things have grown that fucked up, and I don’t know why. The world feels a lot more constricted now than when I was a kid. I’m willing to write a large part of that down to growing up and having to deal with the attendant realities and responsibilities of adulthood. But some of it isn’t.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Subway Train Pet Peeves

As I type this on Wednesday afternoon (will probably add to it later), I’m a nice air-conditioned office, after spending a hellish morning riding the subway to work, the result of a freak morning thunderstorm that lasted from 6:00 to 7:30. Perfect timing to wreak havoc on NYC transportation: flooded highways and subway stations. Dozens of people didn’t make it in this morning or came hours late. My train was sardine city all the way, uncomfortably packed. People not from here think that’s normal – it’s rarely that crowded. There are varying levels of discomfort on a subway – today was 10 on a scale of 10.

It got me thinking about the grating things people do on subways, the sort of things for which, if I had carte blanche, I would love to take a swing at these people for indulging. I’ll list these things by subject matter and expound a bit on each. Suffice to say, if you’ve ever ridden on a subway, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you indulge in any of these practices, fuck you. Our society tends to kiss too much ass when it comes to bad manners in public – it’s only fear of incarceration that keeps me from alleviating the situation.

The “Outside L Seat” Pig. Some subway cars, the benches are not laid out straight against the side of the car. Some have an L shape, with three seats against the wall and two seats perpendicular to them, one of them a window seat, one of them aisle. Both seats have their benefits. The window seat makes for a good ride, especially above ground. Since my stop is the last on the N Train, I consider that the prime seat to get when I step on a Queens-bound train. The aisle seat, you can turn sideways a little and let your legs loosen up. You can also get up and out pretty easily.

The “Outside L Seat” Pig is a person who purposely sits on that outside seat for no obvious reason, and will not move for anyone, especially when the train gets crowded, and that inside window seat will often remain empty while this pig sits there, totally oblivious of the wall of people around him/her. The usual M.O. of this person is he’s getting off at a near-by major stop and wants to be able to get out in a hurry – in his paranoid mind, if he sits in the inner window seat, he’ll never make it to the door. (After 20 years of subway riding, I think I’ve only seen two situations where someone didn’t make it to the door in time, both concerning small children pitching fits and grabbing onto hand rails.)

I’ve also heard people say they do this for medical reasons – they have bad knees or legs. To which I say, if you’re that far gone that you can’t sit comfortably with your knees bent for half an hour, you shouldn’t be on a subway train, crowded or otherwise. You should probably be in a wheelchair. I’ve heard tall people say they get that outside seat because their legs are too long to fit comfortably in the more cramped inside seat. Could be. But I’ve seen guys who are easily 6’ 4” sit comfortably in those inside seats. So try again.

It’s just a prickly, selfish thing to do, and I see this literally every day on the train. My only pleasure in this scenario is to stand right over the person, stare down at him, too, with a look that says, “Buddy, I would stick a shiv in you if I could get away with it.” And god forbid if you actually say “excuse me” and make them move so you can take the window seat. The person will heave a sigh as if to say, “OK, you pussy, I’ll shift my legs so you can have your precious window seat.” Again, in a more correct society, it would be totally kosher to pick up someone like this by the ears and chuck him off the train.

The Door Jammers. Similar to the “Outside L Seat” Pigs, the Door Jammers are deeply neurotic people who believe they will never make it off the train unless they position themselves right by the subway car door. Doesn’t matter if there is 10 feet of open space on either side of them. Or if packs of people will come through the door at a major stop. These people will cling to the pole like they were on a heaving fishing boat in the North Atlantic. New York is crammed with this sort of obvious, low-level neurosis. Again, with the excuses: “But I’m too short to reach up to the top rail, I need to hang on to a pole.” In most cars, there are two poles in the middle of a car numerous people can hang onto. Again, you’ll hear all sorts of excuses, when for once I’d just like to hear, “I’m a deeply neurotic person who feels an over-powering need to stand by the door, no matter how rude or inconsiderate this becomes when the train gets crowded.”

The Rail Sitters. When you enter a subway car, there are four rails, on each side of the doors, so that people who pile in but can’t get a seat will have something to hold onto when the train starts moving. That’s the only purpose of these rails. Yet, you will constantly see pigs trying to use those rails as informal seats: The Rail Sitters. Never mind that they’re hanging their generally bloated asses in the faces of the person in the seat. You’ll get a lot of Rail Leaners, too, who will lean their entire body against that rail, uncomfortably close to the person sitting, basically invading that person’s space. If you don’t grasp how inherently rude the act is, try it, and if you have even a morsel of shame, you’ll immediately sense how wrong this is.

For years, I’d do nothing when this happened, and I was that person getting leaned on. I’ve toyed with the idea of carrying a lighter, giving it a little flick and heating up the offending arse. These days, I just lean my body out so the person can feel the pressure of my body pressing against his, making sure I’m staring straight at the person, and if he wants to get stupid, let’s get stupid. I cut slack when a train is crowded, but wouldn’t you know it, I usually encounter this problem when the train isn’t anywhere near crowded enough to justify that sort of behavior. I’ve got a real problem with people who do something incredibly rude, you somehow demonstrate to them that it’s incredibly rude, and they’re so fucking stupid that they think they’ve done nothing wrong, and you’re the one instigating the situation. Welcome to New York, in other words! (That’s a nice summation of the 718 prick mentality I so often reference, right there.)

The Café Car People. Without fail, this is the one I see most on trains: people eating or drinking despite the fact that they are in tight quarters. And it’s against the rules to have an open container of liquid on the train, something I’ve never seen enforced. Sometimes eating isn’t so bad, just someone nibbling on a bagel. But far more often than not, it’s someone eating hot, aromatic food, or crunchy food like chips or other bagged junk food, while they have a person on either side of them. I don’t know what kind of slob you have to be not to recognize how off this is. I don’t know what sensual pleasure can be divined eating while you have two people crammed in against you, and one or more standing over you. The tight physical quarters alone would dissuade me from eating.

Much worse are the drinkers. Not the fact that they’re drinking – the fact that everyone around them is on spill alert, and I have been spilled on once, by a dingus who left his full coffee cup on a seat while the train lurched into motion. Many times I will step on a subway car with sticky coffee and soda stains on the floor, spread out like dried blood puddles after a shooting. Even worse, is the garbage: empty coffee containers, cans, plastic soda and water bottles. That’s another thing with Café Car People: they tend to litter like crazy. Again, why schlubbs like this are openly tolerated in our society when they should be catching a beating, I don’t know. Every time I see someone eating or drinking on a subway, crowded or not, I visualize a giant red X over that person.

The “I’m Littering to Keep a Blue-Collar Worker Employed” People. Along with the café car people are those who will purposely litter, under the guise that if they don’t litter, one of those guys who picks up garbage on trains for a living will be out of work. This is one of those ghetto NYC mind fucks I’ve been seeing since I set foot in the place. How dumb you have to be to believe in and practice this … it scares me too much to acknowledge. This truly is a ghetto thing – I’ve actually heard people expound on their theory a number of times over the years, and you can bet over-hearing this was like being privy to a conversation between Einstein and Galileo. One of the most annoying aspects of train riding is the constant litter, the worst being food wrappers, empty drink containers and those fucking awful free newspapers that get handed out at every train station. Those free papers are the mark of a douche bag – every time I see someone reading one of those things, I think “asshole.” Their main purpose in society is to create subway litter; the writing is negligible and much better covered in daily newspapers that cost anywhere from a whopping 25 cents to a dollar.

Suffice to say, if I had a dime for every time I saw some douche throw down garbage on the floor or street as if it were second nature, I’d be a few thousand dollars richer. And you can forget a confrontation on this one, because I’ll most likely be dealing with someone who has tied in racial and ethnic components to their slovenliness and will take my disgust with their awful habit as a racist attack. It aint. I just don’t like slobs who drag down everyone else with their ass-backwards bullshit. You take care of what should be easily remedied situations like litter and graffiti, then you’d see how little difference there could be between ritzy neighborhoods and ghettos in the city. (Frankly, I’ve been in a few ghetto ‘hoods in the Bronx that would put any wealthy Manhattan neighborhood to shame in terms of physical beauty … save too many people who live there don’t give a shit about anything, and this has somehow been deemed cool in their Addams Family world.)

The Little Big Men. Another old-time favorite: small men who take up more space on a subway seat than guys two or three times their size. Usually small Hispanic or Asian guys, but I’ve almost as often seen white and black guys do the same. Since their shoulders and upper bodies are small, they spread their legs out as if they were expecting a bull moose to mount them. Whereas someone like me will keep his legs together and pull his arms in so there’s room enough for other people to sit (I’m cognizant of this as I’m bigger than your average person), these guys expand their (always) little chickenshit bodies to take up as much room as possible. And you’ll get the straight-ahead “I don’t care about anybody or anything” stare from them as a wall of standing, tired people will not ask him to move, because the guy always puts out little psychopath vibes.

(I’ve heard guys say they have to spread their legs out because they have balls and a penis. Right. Unless you have softball-size gonads and a perpetually erect 10-inch dick, I aint buying it. And if that were true, you should be riding around in limos as you’ll be a porn star.)

Even worse, is when one of the Little Big Men will wedge himself in a tight-squeeze seat next to me. (I opt for those outside rail seats, so I can hang a bit or my body over the rail and make enough room so someone can sit next to me. Yeah, I’m that big. Which isn’t saying much – subway seats are designed so that if you’re bigger than about 5’ 8” and 165 pounds, you’re taking up more than one seat. Thank god for those bench seats even though, again, pricks like Little Big Men will take up too much space and make it a hard sit or stand for people around them.)

Understand that as a man, you should know never to wedge yourself into a seat. It’s a chickenshit thing for a guy to do, unless he’s aged or infirmed. I don’t mind women doing this, because often their frames are such that they can squeeze in comfortably under the frames of two larger guys, and everybody’s happy. But every now and then, and this is often the curse of the college-educated white male subway rider (who doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground in terms of city etiquette), a guy will try to wedge himself into one of those seats, and thus make himself and those on each side of him desperately uncomfortable. Big women are pretty bad on this front, too – they seem to think they’re thinner than they are. Bottom line, if it looks like a tight squeeze, don’t sit down. I’ve forgone sitting thousands of times at this point in my life because I recognized doing so would be less comfortable than standing.

But the Little Big Man bodies are so petite that they can fit into those tight squeezes. And what’s the first thing they do? Spread out their boyish chicken legs so that they’re wedged uncomfortably close to the legs of the two much larger guys on either side of him. This is the kind of move I’d pull on a woman if I was crass and wanted to come on to her, sliding my leg uncomfortably close to hers and leaving it there so she could feel the force of it against her leg. Believe it or not, it’s a fairly intimate thing to do, especially in public. Why the Little Big Men do this all the time to other guys, I don’t know, and I’d like to say it’s latent homosexuality that they publicly seek this kind of physical contact with other men, but I honestly think it’s that these guys are so senseless that they think this is normal. (I abhor physical contact on a subway train; every sane person does. People like the Little Big Men are not sane.)

My gut reaction to this is to spread my leg out about 1/10th as wide as Little Big Man has his, to demonstrate just how fucking stupid he’s acting. Sometimes I do that. Usually, I just will my leg to be rock solid – I place all my weight on, so this little prick can feel that I’m not budging. Little Big Men will also often take the opportunity of any lurch in the subway car’s motion to increase their leg space – again, this aint happening when I place my leg as if I were setting a pick in basketball.

I know what’s wrong with Little Big Men – they have attitudes about being short and physically unsubstantial beings. I don’t know how they think being a childish slob on a subway train will enhance their machismo. If you’re a real man, you make room. Sometimes (pregnant ladies, the aged, the infirmed), you get up. To not have this attitude is to not understand the essence of city life: shared space requires consideration. You learn that, you’ll do fine in the city with very few stories regarding “dealing with wackos” (although we all have those stories). Don’t, and chances are you’re going to get sucked into dozens of meaningless confrontations that one day could turn from unpleasant to lethal.

(As a sidenote, I don’t understand why people in seats freak out every time a blind person gets on, offering up their seats as if a pregnant 85-year-old nun on crutches has just entered the train. Blind people have bad eyes. Usually, it looks like their legs are working just fine. Nothing wrong with their legs! Why do they need to sit? They’re blind. Their entire world is blurred or darkness. Looks the same whether you’re sitting or standing. I don’t get it. Ditto women pushing baby carriages. The baby has a seat. The woman isn’t carrying that extra 30 lbs. she had when carrying the kid.)


The list goes on. You got to love those little pricks who scratch senseless tags into the windows, thus ruining the view for anyone with a window seat. Why is this tolerated? Why is it in any way considered culturally acceptable? It proves or signifies nothing but a person who wants everyone else to feel as bad about life as he does. And I think if you peel away the layers of self deception, that’s the root of all these subway issues: people want to share their god-awful neuroses with everyone around them and put forth some form of territoriality. We all do in a sense, but when your territoriality affects the person next to you, you’re lacking some key form of empathy. Again, the key to city life is empathy, although you’ll rarely hear anyone admit that, or even understand why it is.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Death of a Book and Other Items

About an hour ago, I woke up from a nap to find a telltale churning in my gut: I needed to shit, like, now. So I did. I was still a little groggy from my nap. As I moved to flush the toilet, I inadvertently bumped the top book from a pile of them I have sitting on the back of the toilet. As if by design, the book plummeted straight into the shit- and piss-filled water. Not quite sure what to do, I fished it out gingerly with two fingers and dumped it into a black plastic shopping bag. This book is dead.

The title? Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. The reason it was sitting on top of the book pile, despite the fact that I’ve read it at least three times over, is that along with doing this massive “Alt 70s” collection of MP3s, I got a yen to go back and re-read certain parts of the book, mainly the death of Johnny Thunders in New Orleans, years of heroin abuse finally nailing him in a lonely hotel room. It’s a perfect book that uses the slapdash effect of dozens of oral recollections to mimic the fractured and frenetic pace of that whole 70s punk/new wave scene.

It’s somehow appropriate that this is how the book dies. If I were younger, I’d dry the thing out, and recall this ignoble moment via the shit stains and vague piss odor on the book. But these days, it just makes more sense to throw it out. If I see a cheap used copy going around, I’ll surely snag it again.

(Note to Sheryl Crow: I used a lot more than one square of toilet paper to wipe my ass. Woman, you must take different shits than I do. Or is it just that celebrities shit ice cream, while the rest of us make do with filthy excrement?)


This time of year, August, is such a strange time. It’s still in my head that school starts soon, that feeling of summer slipping away. On one hand, I’m sick of summer and tend to be more of a cold-weather person. I enjoy wearing sweatshirts and such, perfect day to me is about 55 degrees, sunny and brisk.

On the other, August feels like the mid-20s in life: the sensing of a departure point, in this case the sense of youth one had as a child and teenager giving way to true adulthood. Most people mourn that (again, the moronic concept of a 25-year-old “feeling old” that I’ve heard dozens of short-sighted buffoons parrot over the years), whereas I’ve come to see you don’t have any context of a full life until you ditch that sense of childhood, or at least place it in the rear-view mirror. A properly aimed rear-view mirror is a worthwhile tool in life. Without one, you tend to think everything is much closer to you, when the reality is its miles behind you. And you understand that you’re always moving at whatever chosen speed, and sometimes you need to glance back to know where you’re going. I remember when Meat Loaf came out with the song “Object in the Rear View Mirror Appear Closer Than They Are” … and I was jealous because every time I saw that loaded message stenciled into the glass of a rear-view mirror, I thought that would make a great song title. Save I had a country song in mind more than bombastic Air Supply rock.


Headed back home to PA in a few days. Again, this time of year: on my morning run, I pass by the high school, which is a good quarter mile off in the distance, but I can hear two things: the sounds of padded hits and whistles as the football team goes through its grueling “two-a-day” August workouts, and the marching band practicing on an adjacent field, wheezing through a rancid version of “25 or 6 to 4.”

From my own life, and it’s hard to admit, this was also preseason golf practice! (I should have went out for football. I was coordinated enough, some of the guys in the neighborhood went, some didn’t, I held the social hierarchy against the sport, which I shouldn’t have.) The golf team … we were such a bunch of losers. But I can tell you that when you get losers like that together, they always have great fun. We got to golf about 36 holes a day for free at a local course, so our August was spent doing this all day, then afterwards driving/horsing around until we all went home for dinner around 4:00 or so. I can still recall Neck (nicknamed so because of his long neck) driving us around in his dad’s car with “Candy-O” by the Cars, “We Are the Robots” and “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk blasting from the Sparkomatic. Strange music choices, but it was pretty cool stuff for a bunch of teenage rednecks in the middle of Pennsylvania to be listening to circa 1981.

When I think of pure youth, that’s one of those things I recall: driving around aimlessly in a car with some very cool shit playing on the sound system, as a world which made very little sense to any of us passed by on the roadside. I love the few moments of adulthood where that sense of adventure and camaraderie is somehow captured once again – it doesn’t happen a lot, and I miss it.


Been watching a show on the History channel called Human Weapon. It’s two guys, one an ex pro football player, another an ultimate fighter, going around the world to learn different types of traditional self defense, and ending each show with one of them fighting a master in each art they learn.

There are very few drawbacks to the show. The football player is a good-sized guy, and you can tell he’s a good-hearted person. Unfortunately, he’s shaved his head and has a goatee. If you’re not already aware, this is a bullshit look favored by balding guys who try to intimidate others with their “tough” vaguely biker look. It’s an awful look that I generally see right through. But, every now and then, you will run into a genuinely tough guy sporting it – thankfully, this guy doesn’t have tattoos.

The other guy is smaller, more wiry. I get the impression he spends a lot of time practicing karate moves in a mirror, shirtless, while “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins plays on a sound system. He has that way about him. Overall, though, he does seem like a respectful guy – the two together make a good combination, sort of like an ass-kicking version of Lennie and George in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Aside from that, the shows are great because they show the simple mechanics of some truly brutal moves, all sorts of nasty stuff that look really hurtful on paper. The most interesting part of the show is when they demonstrate the moves with computer-generated models, and you can see the basic physics that are the heart of these nasty, age-old practices. The thing is, you’d have to be dealing with someone standing still or totally oblivioius to get him in a position where you could pull these moves – the success is based on little resistance and a perfect combination of surprise and your strength completely over-powering that of an opponent. Which is rare.

What I love about the show: it strips the phony senses of bluster and machismo that we attach to self defense. Our whole culture is swallowing that deranged stance whole, via professional wrestling and ultimate fighting. There’s no real art: there’s kicking someone’s ass, dude! These guys find that in other countries, a lot of these martial arts are just as much religion or cultural history as they are self defense. You learn them the same way we’d study The Bible or learn history in school. We really don’t have any indigenous form of self defense in America, whereas these Pan-Asian cultures have these martial arts built into their cultural background for centuries. And it looks like there are some guys who somehow train for a living, in rice fields and dojos in the countryside ... it's very appealing for me to imagine that sort of pure, unfettered existence while typing this in New York!

They reduce it to an art form, one that you can use to bring genuine physical damage to another human being, if necessary. They also impart that sense of responsibility that goes along with learning such things. That you don’t learn it so much to hurt others as you do to perfect a skill and take some minor place in the history and maintenance of the art. Make no mistake, I’m sure any master in these martial arts will tell you how fatal some of these practices are. They had a karate master this week who broke three boards placed together with two fingers, and a baseball bat with a forearm blow. A guy with that sort of physical knowledge is not someone you want to mess with in any sense! And in our bozo culture, this meek-looking 70-year-old man would appear to be cannon fodder for some muscle-head creep looking to push someone around -- what a bad, bad surprise he would get with this guy.

It’s refreshing to see two guys, who I’m willing to wager are badasses in their own right, take this sort of approach to learning self defense. I get the impression these guys are having the time of their lives being paid to travel the world and dabble in martial arts they either know or are curious about. And I love the idea of both of them having balls enough to go up against a master of each art, knowing the best they’re going to do is not get knocked out. This show would be a disaster with the wrong approach, which is to say two blustery guys trying to prove how big their dicks are via martial arts: American flag do-rags and riding choppers through third-world streets while George Thorogood-style blues play on the soundtrack. But they’ve picked two low-key guys who are willing to start from scratch each time and have their asses kicked each week. That’s the right attitude.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Brief Summer Update

Sorry for the lag in posting -- been a sludgy few weeks here. Caught a vicious summer cold that dragged on for two weeks, first cold I've had since about 2000, first time I've missed any work (five hours one day) due to any sort illness, which I don't take lightly. (Pride myself on never getting sick, just won't allow it, because I can see that one day, unless we die violently, we'll all "get sick" and pass on. From what I've seen, that's not a physical state one should ever invite, humor or tolerate in his life. Something for people who take sick days at the drop of a hat, and who are always getting sick, should ponder.)

Immediately after that, spent a week pulling together a humongous "Alt 70s" MP3 collection (coming up on 800 songs) from my stuff and various other, cough, sources. Great stuff. I tend to forget that the 70s were much more wild than the 80s musically, although the 80s will be forever known as the "new wave" decade. There was plenty of that stuff in the 70s, and it was/is much more shocking and inventive than what went on in the 80s, where the concept of "alternative" music having it's own genre came into being. (In the 70s, it was just weird shit that didn't sell too well and you had to be "hip" to in some sense to purchase in a record store.) Decades from now, these gigantic MP3 collections I've been making should make a lot more sense. For me, it's an unprecedented way to gather music, and I don't think I've quite grasped what it all means to pull together hundreds of songs into one folder of identifiable music. I haven't quite grasped what it means to have a device in my pocket that not just touches upon, but delves into every type of music I've ever listened to in my life, thousands of songs, which are like a portable collection of my much larger physical collection. It's fucking incredible. You need to have plugged an eight track into a shitty Soundesign stereo to fully grasp how incredible.

And now, we're into the dog days of summer, temperatures into the 90s the past week, with some more ahead. City gets weird like this. On one hand, you're so irritable you feel like attacking people for their usual minor manner infractions. On the other, you just want to be left alone because it's so damn hot. Best idea is to float through the haze and come out the other end in the low 80s, noticing how the sun's going down a little earlier every night. It's football practice season. Hey, guys, leave that piccolo player alone, get back with the group so we can walk back to the gym and hit the weights. Still got one more practice at 3:00, full contact. Football's coming soon -- I can feel it. For now, just feel that think trickle of sweat on my lower back in the oven-like subway station and tough it out.

Will have more in the next few days, before I clip out to Pennsylvania for a quick visit to mow some lawns and run though the woods. Good time of year to do that. Even the tourists swarming over Midtown look vaguely angry.