Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fonzia: The "Born Too Late" Syndrome

Growing up in the 70s, I was constantly made aware by people who had grown up in the 60s that I had been born too late … and missed out on being a hippie, I guess. Being raised where I was, I probably missed out on going to Vietnam.

The few hippies in our small town were pretty tame. I recall the girl who played church organ wearing a gigantic peace-sign necklace – the size of a car’s steering wheel. That was about as hippie as kids got around there. I do recall the Protestant minister’s son being a bit out there. We once spied him, naked on the hill in the cemetery, lounging with his similarly naked girlfriend in the mid-day sun, probably stoned out of his mind, too. Caused quite a stir. The point being kids like that were not the norm – they were considered unusual in our small town.

A phenomenon that’s been lost with instant media is the very slow path that trends used to move on in America. In other words, it took forever, literally a few years, for cultural trends to be acceptable in rural areas that were probably commonplace in more urban areas years before. You open a yearbook from my high school from 1969, and you will see unironic crew cuts and bouffant hairdos. Open one up from 1974, and it will look like Woodstock. The kids from 1969 were certainly listening to all that great music and well aware of hippie culture. It was just a huge leap of faith to dress and act that way in a rural area, where sizable numbers of young guys were going off to fight in Vietnam. Hippies were by and large the product of the middle- and upper-middle-class – these people weren’t around so much in our rural area. You’d find occasional small-town hippies, but they would be greatly out-numbered by, well, for lack of a better word, normal people.

I can even recall vestiges of this in the 90s. In New York, white kids decked out in hiphop gear with many going the full “wigger” route and pretending they were ghetto gangstas. It’s one of America’s greatest mysteries, to me, that this whole time period and way of being has pretty much been glossed over and ignored in pop culture. I thought these kids were creepy and offensive -- ultimately racist, too, in that I grasped they’d never accept black culture to the extent of actually living in or genuinely respecting it, and that they’d abandon this morbid fa├žade by their mid-20s, if not long before then. I think I’ve stated before that their lack of sincerity regarding an issue as serious as race relations was something I found offensive and misleading. You want to paint a star on your face and wear platform shoes in 1974, that’s one thing. Pretending you were not just black, but a deeply offensive, buffoonish caricature of black circa 1994, struck me as total insanity … and I felt pretty much alone in that belief as no one ever seemed to discuss the issue, especially in a way that would question the white kids’ motives or genuine understanding of race.

But I do recall, circa 1993 or so, walking in a mall back home, where the whole hiphop thing had yet to sink in there, and seeing some kid decked out in full fashion, which meant he looked like he was wearing a particularly gaudy pair of pajamas, shuffling through the mall, and you could tell how deeply self-conscious this kid was in that no one was dressed like him, and people were “looking at him funny.” He was way ahead of the curve, and I was mildly let down when I went to a high-school football game a few years later, probably 1996, and saw more than a few kids doing their dumb gangsta-hoody thing with the size 52 pants and untied, over-sized sneakers, the creepy Limp Bizkit, backward baseball hat and vestiges of bad facial hair, god, what a morose time that was for kids – basically indulging in flash cards of an empty culture that had nothing to do with them. I think that’s my problem with a lot of teen trends, and that one in particular: kids are coerced into favoring a temporary culture that has nothing to do with them or their ways of life, when they should be creating their own cultures based on these two things. It’s the culture of marketing as opposed to the culture of humanity, and it sucks the life out of America, not to mention every other country it touches. It’s as bad or worse than fast food and is just as corporate in its intent.

But getting back to the concept of being “born too late” – that was the whole point of 60s kids laying their trip on us 70s kids. Our culture was junk in comparison. Never mind that there was plenty of junk culture in the 60s, too. I usually find people crowing over superiority of culture based on the decade they were kids generally have nothing to do with the creation of any sort of culture: they blindly followed whatever was put in front of them at 15 and decided that was that. The cries of superiority sound more like insecurity, which is exactly what they are. There was a lot of great music in the 60s. A lot! More than in the 70s. But there was a lot of great music from that decade, too. Frankly, I thought the 50s were even more revolutionary, and in terms of folk and the blues, at a minimum, were the basis and roots of most of what has followed since. If I had to choose a decade to revisit to see the first signs of these cultural shifts, I’d surely choose the 50s and see the flowering of electric blues and then rock and roll. In my mind, that’s a few thousand times more exciting than the 60s.

But the whole “born late” ruse seems like something aimed at the young – directed at them by older generations and always meant as a negative critique of the younger one. And you’ll find some kids who play along, claiming they were born too late. (And thus missed out on some great trend, which probably was great fun at the time, but came and went, and woe unto anyone who clings to those memories as opposed to leaving them comfortably in the rear view mirror.) These kids are really trying to say they can’t stand the current teen culture foisted on them, and I can’t blame them for that. When you’re in your 40s, or probably even your 30s, you’re thinking more about dying one day, not being born too late. You’ve swam out to the deep end, where you’re a lot closer to other people drowning. Teens and 20s, that’s the time of insecurity, to wonder why you couldn’t have been born in 1954 instead of 1984. If it makes you feel any better, you probably would have been an asshole in either decade.

I came across a single the other day on youtube that struck me as being a bit odd: “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (with Flowers in My Hair)” by Sandi Thom. Apparently, t
his song was a huge hit in the UK and a few other parts of the world, but not here just yet. I actually like the way the song sounds – it’s pretty novel for someone in the music industry today to make such a bare-boned song and have a hit with it. But the lyrics gave me angina. More of that mildly self-loathing “weren’t things better before I was born” mentality.

I came up with a word for that a few years ago: Fonzia. Taken from the name “Fonzie” --the cool greaser character played by Henry Winkler from the hit 70s TV series Happy Days. This show was 50s nostalgia, roughly 20 years after the fact, aimed largely at a teenage audience that wasn’t even born in the 50s. Ergo, people being made to feel nostalgic for an era that they hadn’t even been alive in. Thus, Fonzia, a sort of baseless nostalgia lacking roots in any real emotions or memories.

I think Sandi Thom has Fonzia in spades. I checked her website to see she was born in a small fishing village in Scotland and is now 26 years old, meaning she was born in 1982 (the year I graduated from high school). If she has any childhood nostalgia to ponder, it’s people with symmetrical haircuts and gigantic white t-shirts emblazoned with “Frankie Says Relax,” white-people dancing to bad synth pop.

Thus, I can’t blame her for feeling nostalgic for cultures of an earlier era. Which she gets all wrong, but who’s keeping score. I’ll print out the lyrics to “I Wish I was a Punk Rocker” below and give you my running interpretation:

Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair
In 77 and 69 revolution was in the air

Of course, punk rockers didn’t have flowers in their hair. Punks hated hippies, or at least claimed to. And I am certain that hippies hated punks – most people did. Punk didn’t happen en masse in America, although you started seeing many more punk-rock kids by the early 80s when punk had become an established sub-culture around urban areas. It was a rare kid who dressed punk, or even liked punk music, in my rural area in 1982. I was one of the few kids in my high school who had Clash albums and the Sex Pistols album – most of my friends didn’t know what the hell I was talking about when it came to punk, nor did they care. Most punk music, I didn’t know myself, and could sense that stuff like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello wasn’t punk music. (They were too good and had real talent.) The situation was different in the UK in 1977, but even then, I suspect people are now pretending there were punks all over the place when they were much more of an anomaly in the overall culture – the same way every British artist of any sort you meet carries on about “bloody Thatcher,” yet the woman was routinely re-elected for years on end. Who were those invisible millions who kept voting her in?

Revolution surely was in the air of 1969, but it came to naught. It came to even less in 1977. This was a passing fashion for most people. Not meant to disparage them or their beliefs. Simply stated, revolutions did not occur. The mildly wealthy kids who shucked their nice lots in life temporarily … eventually eased back into them and became what they were meant to be – reasonably wealthy people looking to stay reasonably wealthy. If that sounds cynical, it isn’t meant to be. It’s the way of the world! Most people become what their parents were, or make serious efforts to raise themselves even higher financially. Nothing wrong with that. Just doesn’t jibe with this whole “revolutionary” stance. Which most people quietly put away in a trunk in the attic some time in their 20s. Like watching a girl go from nose and eyebrow piercings, to a nose ring, to a tasteful diamond stud in her nose, just to a plain, unadorned nose, once she realizes there aren’t many 32-year-olds wearing face jewelry.

I was born too late and to a world that doesn't care
Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair

The world would have cared no more or less in 1969, 1977 or 2007.

When the head of state didn't play guitar

I guess this is a swipe at Tony Blair for being a musician. Is the implication that life was better in that pre-rock era when heads of state had nothing to do with art or music? It probably wasn’t.

Not everybody drove a car

In 1969 and 1974, most people in the UK who could drive were driving cars. Not sure what that’s supposed to mean? You have to go back another 50 years or so to find a time when a recognizable number of people didn’t get around in cars.

When music really mattered and when radio was king

Music really matters now – no more or less than it did in 1969 or 1974. (The question is does it really matter to you, and the answer, unfortunately, is "no" for many people as they age, which is a shame.) Radio was king, but by the 70s, it was pre-programmed lists determined more by marketing strategies than taste or natural appeal. There was a very small window in the late 60s into the early 70s where some DJs on the FM dial in America (and I guess people like John Peel in the U.K.) had influence enough to make or break songs, and taste enough to be excellent at their jobs and have tremendous reach for playing new music. The bulk of the industry has almost always been pre-programmed, heavily-marketed music that large record companies want to succeed. That’s still true today, as much as I wish it wasn’t. And you could argue that for a time in the mid-60s, AM radio was such that just by playing what was popular, they featured a beautiful cross section of pop music that’s still being played today. That was a great time for music. I was in diapers. Much like I don’t miss shitting them, I don’t miss those days. Live long enough, and you see diaper-shitting on the horizon again.

When accountants didn't have control

OK, so I can agree with this one! In her view of musical history, there was a time when music was more controlled by tasteful people who nurtured talent. This is very true, but again, by 1977, with the industry growing exponentially since 1969, it was growing less true by the day. If punk caught on at all, it was thanks to billionaires like Richard Branson and his record label pushing it. The accountants were gaining control in 1969 and surely had it by 1977. Good-to-great music still managed to get made, just like today.

And the media couldn't buy your soul

They still can’t, but I appreciate the gesture she puts forth. At least her heart’s in the right place.

And computers were still scary and we didn’t know everything

I never found computers scary. I found Computer Science classes scary, although I wish now I would have taken a few and added that to my list of talents. But computers, man, once it was clear how to use them, I embraced them completely. Most people did. I take it she’s being sarcastic with the “we didn’t know everything” line – good for her.

When popstars still remained a myth

Probably the best point she makes. Pop stars appeared more in magazines and on album covers than the blanket coverage they now get thanks to MTV and then the internet. There was a mythology around pop and rock music that made physically seeing stars perform, even on TV, much more exciting back then.

And ignorance could still be bliss

Again, one of those weird lines that makes no sense. Ignorance could always be bliss, even in 1469.

And when God Saved the Queen she turned a whiter shade of pale

Nifty use of Sex Pistols and Procol Harum lyrics. A word on invoking The Sex Pistols. I suspect if Johnny Rotten heard this song, he’d break into a sarcastic, loose-limbed hippie/sufi dance, waving peace signs and rolling his eyes before stalking out of the room in a profane rage. The song’s sunny pop sense is more Bay City Rollers than Sex Pistols, and I mean that as a compliment. Watching her video, if you put a can of Coke or Pepsi in her hand, the look and feel of the video would perfectly mimic your average soft-drink commercial.

When my mom and dad were in their teens

She was born in 1982, the year I graduated from high school. Meaning her parents, unless they were banging straight out of the gate, were probably born in the late 50s, maybe early 60s at the latest. I’d wager they were too young to be full-on hippies, and too old to be punks – and probably would have been neither in a small Scottish fishing village. I’d wager her parents were into glitter rock if I had to take direct aim at the timing of their youth. They might have been Bowie and Roxy Music fans, assuming they grew up liking pop music, maybe even into prog rock like Yes and Genesis. Plenty of great British rock was made in the early 70s: The Faces! Her mother was probably a Bay City Rollers fan, which I wouldn’t hold against her. (I would be in heaven if her parents had totally neglected pop music and sat around in musty kitchens playing Scottish reels on bagpipes and violins while watching the rain fall sideways.)

and anarchy was still a dream

Anarchy is just about always a dream, and meant to stay that way. Generally speaking, if you’re in a situation where anarchy rules these days, bad shit is happening. Not the utopia of intelligent, compassionate people fulfilling their individual destinies with no governmental control. If that period of history has existed anywhere in any culture in the history of mankind, I’d like to know about it. Johnny Rotten sang, “I want to be anarchy,” but you know he was full of shit – in a good way, of course. But full of shit, nonetheless.

and the only way to stay in touch was a letter in the mail

Yeah. Phones didn’t exist in 1969 or 1977. We used smoke signals and carrier pigeons.

When record shops were on top
and vinyl was all that they stocked

Record shops sure were on top for a very long time, probably up until the mid 1980s or so. But they always stocked much more than vinyl. When I was a kid in the 70s, there were eight-track tapes, and then cassette tapes, which people gravitated towards when portable and car stereos came into being. Vinyl had a nice long run, probably about three or four decades of being the main physical product in the music industry. But time marches on. I’ll never go back to vinyl and don’t miss it. Maybe the art work associated with albums, but that’s it. I’m extremely wary of vinyl enthusiasts who weren’t around when vinyl was the main game in town.

and the super info highway was still drifting out in space

I’m not sure how long the internet has been around, but I gather it goes back in some form back to the 70s. Still, the idea of mild negativity being associated with the creation of the internet is just a bad, misleading concept in my book. It’s much more beneficial than it is negative.

kids were wearing hand me downs

I’m assuming poor kids still do.

and playing games meant kick arounds

I’m sure you’ll still find kids playing football/soccer in the UK of their own free volition. Granted, I get her point about the age of video-game zombies, but let’s give credit to kids who still don’t zone out with an X Box for four hours a night.

and footballers still had long hair and dirt across their face

Every time I watch a soccer match, I’m always seeing a few players on the pitch who look like hippies.

I was born too late to a world that doesn't care
Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair

You weren’t born too late, Sandi, but in light of this song, I strongly suggest you cover “Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goal Posts of Life” by Bobby Bare. Country music. Loved by people who think hippies and punks always have been assholes. Gives you a whole new demographic to tap into, and seeing as how pretty you are, an opportunity to float a video to CMT. And you’d be better off feeling Fonzia over Hank Williams songs that are better written and more lasting than much of what went down in the 60s and 70s. Look at the big picture, lassie!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Fred's Manhattan Adventures

Fred and I went to Penn State together back in the mid-80s. (Not his real name – all names have been changed to protect the guilty.) Upon graduation, I putzed around the home county for a few months, then had an ill-fated detour to Venice, California that wouldn’t pan out for me. Fred immediately moved to Manhattan upon graduation and got a low-level editing job at a major women’s magazine.

I’ve lived in New York City for over 20 years now, and am willing to call my living experience “New York City.” I spent just shy of 10 years in the Bronx, and have now surpassed that time in Astoria (Queens). Have gone to work every week day in Manhattan. I know my way around, even in parts of Brooklyn, where I’ve never lived. Some Manhattanites get peeved when 718 folks refer to themselves as New Yorkers, or living in New York City. I’ve lived in New York City; that’s how the five boroughs are defined. Frankly, my living experiences in “off” neighborhoods has greatly enhanced my view of the city in ways not possible in higher-end Manhattan neighborhoods. (By the same token, I have no experience of higher-end Manhattan life, and feel fine not having it.)

My point here? Manhattin living is not what most people think it is. A lot of people move there because they feel outcast where they were living. In some cases, that's legitimate. In others, those people cast themselves out because, frankly, they don't belong anywhere, and I don't mean that as a backhand compliment. I often refer to Manhattan as The Island of Broken Toys, copping a reference to that forsaken land in the Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer TV special, filled with broken Jack in the Boxes and such.

People move there and adopt a new set of values based on every conceivable stereotype you could have about “city folk.” The worst is the mildly antagonistic attitude. People who will put forth like they’re going to hit you, but if you actually cut to the chase and hit them, you’ve just entered the pantheon of Hitler and Genghis Kahn in their world view. I don’t find that half-assed intimidation novel or endearing – it grates on me. I’ve had the pleasant experience of meeting native Manhattanites who are very down-to-earth, rational people. But something about transplants, particularly from the immediate suburbs, and their dire need to impress upon everyone how deeply “New York” they are, has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Fred wasn’t like that, and I’m guessing he still isn’t. He married a woman from Staten Island back in the early/mid 90s (can’t recall the exact year), and they moved to the Washington DC area to continue their careers in journalism and start a family. Via Fred, I got some crucial insights into both the world of journalism and life in Manhattan, as he lived there for a few years, save the brief stint where he moved out to Staten Island. The world of journalism looked like burning hell to me. The world of Manhattan looked a little better, but still wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

I believe Fred used The Village Voice to get himself into some strange roommate situations when he first moved there circa late 1986. Living with total strangers was a very collegiate endeavor, so I guess doing so with a new job in a major city wasn’t much of a stretch. All I can remember of this time period is him telling me he lived with some snotty vegetarians down near the Holland Tunnel and didn’t get along with them. It’s troubling to think that in Manhattan, you have people living for decades, sometimes their entire adult lives, in these morose roommate situations, where they live with people they don’t know, or even like, for years on end, simply because their rent is so heinous that they have no choice but to rent out a room, generally in a small two-bedroom apartment, or more often, a one bedroom, where they’ll maintain the bedroom and rent out the living room to a stranger.

All just to live in this magical place! Yeah, I know it’s bullshit. You do, too. But that’s how people live here. Or you’ll get the six girls fresh out of college living in a three-bedroom, each paying four figures to have no privacy. You encounter living situations like this constantly in Manhattan where the quality of life for the people involved must be near zero.

I visited Fred a few times just before moving here myself in the fall of 1987. And those trips were invigorating. New York at that time still had vestiges of that punk/new wave vibe, particularly in the East Village. You could feel it – there was an excitement to being there. If you want good cultural reference points, watch Something Wild by Jonathan Demme, or put on a Ramones album. That’s how it felt. We’d wander around the Village at night, drinking cans of beers from paper bags, just seeing what would develop as we walked. I still recall wandering into Dan Lynch’s blues bar just off 14th Street, and being shocked to find the lead guitarist that night playing in a closet just off the stage.

But looking back … I don’t know how he or his roommates handled all that. The main apartment I recall Fred living in was a small two bedroom in a newer building in Hell’s Kitchen, which was still very much a shithole neighborhood at the time. (It still has rough edges near the public housing areas, but is nowhere near as ragged as it once was.) We’re talking lower 40s, west of 9th Avenue. He had two roommates: Dana, a woman who had worked with us on the college paper, and Lydia, a wealthy girl from Puerto Rico who knew Dana. They got the bedrooms. Fred slept on a futon in the living room. They had one bathroom. I recall visiting with Brother J while there were two other friends visiting Dana. It was insane. Of course, we spent nearly all our time out walking around the streets and didn’t have much time to cohabitate – we only slept on the living-room floor that night and left the next day.

Those kind of temporary living situations seem normal when you’re fresh out of college. I can’t imagine tolerating them now! But when you first move to a city, in my case I was thinking about moving there, you’re in love with it. You see the good in it, feel the excitement of simply being there. It’s enough just to walk around at night. While I don’t think that vibe has left New York, it just isn’t the same anymore. Manhattan is overflowing with the wealthy now. The music venues, at least the best ones, have funneled out to various parts of Brooklyn. That wonderful, punky vibe … gone. Gone as CBGB’s. A lot of the East Village has been bought out by NYU, to create student housing and such. You can’t be working or middle-classed and live in white Manhattan unless you luck into a very sweet deal. It didn’t happen much then – it happens even less now. The place is much more dull as a result. Critics often focus on the "disneyfication" of Midtown, but it holds true all over white Manhattan.

Fred’s apartment was just a generic, no-frills place, like many college-town apartments, that happened to be in midtown Manhattan, therefore the rent was grossly inflated. The neighbors were either like them or just weird. Some nights, Fred would be woken up by a clanking/whirring/moaning sound coming from the ceiling. It sounded like people were having sex with a vacuum cleaner while they lifted weights. It was the kind of sound that had you thinking, “Forget about two in the morning: when on earth could anyone make that kind of obnoxious racket and think it was normal?!”

I moved to New York around this time, finding a place in the Bronx very quickly and staying there for a long time due to the cheap rent. I recall Fred being one of the few white people who would visit me up there and not be freaked out by the distinct lack of other white faces. He was good like that – that sort of informality and acceptance served him well, as it has me. You have to be that low key if you want to survive in a rough neighborhood: keep a low profile, not get rattled, act like you belong, and you will belong in some strange sense. I caught bigoted verbal abuse on occasion in the Bronx, but that’s as bad as it got for me.

All the while, Fred worked at his crappy editorial assistant job at the women’s magazine. His bosses tended to be neurotic and often crazed. He worked 10-12 hour days routinely. As anyone who has worked for a major monthly magazine can tell you, closing week is a monthly hell they all go through. He told me he slept on his boss’ office sofa many a night, as it made no sense to go home for two hours and come back. Understand, he was being paid a pittance to begin with. If you factored in the hours he worked, he was probably making minimum wage.

It seemed like a thankless, shitty grind he was putting himself through, but I see now he had to go through this editorial boot camp to push himself to the next level. And in my eyes, the next levels didn’t look so hot either. Most editorial staffs of any publication are run like absolute shit: people working insane hours, generally for editors who have no business being editors, who usually get the positions due to nepotism or returned favors. Even if you get good editors by chance, the departments are often structured so that you will often get screwed with serious, unpaid overtime, as it’s considered a grand privilege to make a living by writing stuff you really don’t want to write. I don’t mean to single out or disparage Fred and his experience – I saw this happening with everyone who worked editorial in Manhattan. It made no sense to me why these people had to make their lives so miserable just to have a “creative” job, usually in places that had routine, inexplicable lay-offs.

So you had Fred going through this insane “sorority house run amok” vibe at work all day, then coming back to a living space where had no privacy, and not even a door he could close on the world and have his own little area. I don’t know how he did it. But I do know he got along well with Dana and Lydia, which helped a great deal. Some of Dana’s friends were annoying. I recall one girl, from Ohio, who was the nicest person when I first met her, but a year later, was Ms. “fuck this/fuck that/ayy/whassa matter for you” type phony-ass New Yorker that I didn't want to be around.

Another was a blonde floozy, the most insincere person I’ve met, who was always on the hunt for a Manhattan stud boyfriend. Think she worked with Fred at the harpy gulag. I still recall her purposely bending over at a party to show off her ass to a group of guys in a way that was missing only a spotlight on her. For some strange reason, I also distinctly recall her, Fred and I going to an NYU party, and when we approached (we were all about 24-25 years old), some smokers loitering in the lobby blurting, “Oh, man, here comes some old people.” Old people at 25! I recall feeling “old” at the time when those NYU twerps offered up their sage appraisals. There was a band playing that night who really, truly sucked – a situation we ran into whenever musical acquaintances extended an invite. The hardest part was being non-committal when they asked you how they were; the truth was they sucked donkey dicks and should have been banned from even handling small appliances, much less musical instruments.

Fred had some odd friends, too. We all did. When you’re in your 20s and fresh out of college in a new city, you tend to band together with whoever will have you, and that’s generally like-minded individuals and their friends, a floating web of old college friends and their new friends. I can’t even recall their real names, so I won’t use fake ones, but there were two guys who lived down in Alphabet City in a crappy building … that probably now is a luxury apartment. But back then, man, what a dive, in a part of town that felt like Mars to any sane person, and one of the guys was a painter from suburban Philly. Great guy in general, but had a large blind spot about his art, still recall him going into some soliloquy about “Icarus, flying too close to the sun, his wings, melting” over some painting that looked like Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song record label on the side of a van. Fred and I just gave each other a “what the fuck” look and let it go. We were all over-estimating our talents back then.

The guy’s roommate was a very sweet Buddhist. Religion warning: when you meet white Americans who claim to Buddhist, you can assume they’ve been to college. May well be vegans, too. Probably from the suburbs. I never met any Buddhists in rural Pennsylvania. Would probably meet them in rural Oregon. I’m leery of Buddhists as a result – tend to pick up on a patina of bullshit around their beliefs, the same way I would around many Born Again Christians. You live in an urban area, it gets mildly tiresome to run into what amount to Born Again Buddhists, people who weren’t raised in that culture or with that belief, but came to it later in the life, generally after reading Kerouac or having a revelation at a campus beans-and-rice social. I recall this guy being a fellow volunteer coach in Fred’s gritty Chinatown Little League baseball group (they played on an over-crowded asphalt playground often covered in broken glass), and chanting when his team got ahead, because he didn’t want to openly express a desire for his team to win. (Buddhists should not be coaches.)

Another friend of Fred’s was Nancy, a mousey girl who had the lease on a huge apartment on 96th and Broadway and was also famous for playing some odd instrument, something like the contrabassoon. She was always having a breakdown over her lot in life, or errant boyfriends, or insert twentysomething girl problem here. She encapsulated the archetypal Manhattanite to me. Someone who had the lease on an incredibly cheap, huge apartment, probably on the wrong side of Broadway at that time, but still a great piece of real estate, and she was about as in control as a dog chasing its tail. I can’t recall how she got that place, inheritance or what. But what I recall most is Fred telling me of various tear-filled lunches and phone calls where this woman was on the verge of falling apart or pondering suicide. She was basically a nice person – I remember humming a Paul Simon song to her, her grabbing my arm and breathlessly exclaiming, “you have perfect pitch” – but she seemed as fragile as an egg in the middle of Broadway.

Then there was the troubled gay anarchist who drove like a maniac and seemed like “axe murderer” might be a viable career option. Next. (If I implied Buddhists are full of shit, don’t even get me going on Anarchists. Let’s just say the association of belief systems like these with college is never wrong. You won’t find anarchists and Buddhists in a factory, unless we’re talking Ben & Jerry’s.)

When Fred, Dana and Lydia moved out of that place in Hell’s Kitchen, they teamed up with one of Dana’s friends, Arthur, and got a small two-bedroom place in Chelsea, right on 23rd Street if I remember correctly. Arthur was a strange guy – sorry to be oxymoronic when describing any Manhattan male. Apparently, he was openly gay, with his friends and family, but still was incredibly uptight. He’d always be in some bitchy mood that seemed to be unrelated to any form of reality – just the way he was.

And horrible taste in music. I recall one party, trying to slip on a mix tape Fred and I had put together, we’re talking 2-3 hours into a party, everybody flying. Within seconds of hearing a note of music that wasn’t programmed by him, Arthur flew over to the cassette deck in a rage, pulled out our cassette and jammed his own back in. I can’t recall his exact tastes, but he might have been the only gay Huey Lewis fan in America. His taste was pedestrian, at best. (I don't recall Arthur liking or disliking me -- he probably thought I was a bland straight white guy. As I may have noted in the past -- I am more than comfortable being portrayed this way by people I don't like!)

The guy was constantly depressed. I have no idea what was wrong with him – would be novel to pin it all on his sexuality, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. All Fred knew was he had to be in the same room with him constantly; they had bunk beds, with Arthur taking the top bunk.

The last time I told Fred about this, he claimed not to have remembered. But I distinctly remember him telling me of an incident where he woke up in the middle of the night, only to see Fred’s doleful face gazing at him, leaned over the edge of the top bunk, apparently staring at him for what must have been hours. It wasn’t a gay thing – it was more likely a “locate best spot in Fred’s skull for drill bit” thing. Fred asked him if anything was wrong, and got a monotone “no” in response. It has to be an unnerving experience to know a deeply troubled person is staring at you in your sleep.

Fred’s life with Arthur and crew at the 23rd Street location was filled with moments like that. It’s one thing to live in Manhattan with relative strangers, but to live with one who turns into a huge pain in the ass has to be another circle of hell. I can’t recall how long they lived there – not long. I think after that Fred did a brief stint at a dumpy, very small two bedroom apartment in the East Village with a stranger, and then he moved out to Staten Island to work, and thus met his future wife.

I do recall both of us seeing Arthur one time after that. He and Dana had moved into a small one bedroom on Sullivan Street (West Village) with a bathtub in the kitchen. That’s something you see a good bit in older Manhattan apartments – former tenement buildings with the bathroom in what would later become the kitchen. Guess the old adage “don’t shit where you eat” didn’t apply to Manhattan real-estate mavens.

Anyway, one New Year’s Eve, Fred and I were at loose ends and took up an invitation for a party at Dana and Arthur’s place. We must have been 28 at the time – on the cusp of leaving our 20s, literally and figuratively. New Year’s Eve, we figured, look out, big party, lots of people, here we come!

It was one of the more miserable experiences of my 20s, and one of the key reasons I rarely go to New Year’s Eve parties anymore. Fred and I showed up. I think three other people did. Just a flop of a party, that wouldn’t have mattered if we all could have admitted it, broke open a bottle of wine, and just had fun hanging out. But that seemed like a physical impossibility with Arthur, who stalked around in a blank, dark mood denoting the failure of the event. Arthur was blasting some crappy 90s dance music that made everything feel even more hollow. I recall one of the women who showed up turning on the TV for some reason, and Arthur flipped out on her that she’d do something like that at one of his parties. I recall getting the fuck out of there before midnight, which was a huge insult, but at that point, man, I didn’t care. A subway ride back to the Bronx on the 1 Train was preferable to the vibe in that apartment. I recall a hispanic woman vomiting on that train ride, and her two male companions laughing at her as she struggled to wipe down her pants and shoes. It was that kind of night.

I don’t know what that was. Whether it was an ugly demarcation point where previously partying people suddenly had it shoved in their faces that they weren’t quite that popular anymore. Or a bad night to attempt gathering the tribes as most people had previous plans. All I know is it was the last time I saw Arthur. Not to mention Dana and Lydia. But whatever New Year that was, must have been 1992 or 1993, it rang in a change, a sort of kiss-off to that “must hang out in Manhattan all the time” routine I had going for the past six years.

Since then, I’ve really ditched the “circle of friends” thing. That’s something that will hold true through your 20s and into your early 30s. But right around then, people start splitting up, either naturally or forcefully. Some get married, or have kids, or move, or all three. Some just check themselves out of your life, either a slow fade or a geronimo-jump from your plane. And you do the same in return. The people who have kids scarcely have time for themselves, much less that sort of extended hang-loose time that was a staple of our 20s.

Hell, I’m single, and I choose not to have that kind of spare time. Weekends, I’d much rather do the requisite yard work around the landlord’s property, my laundry, groceries, gym each day, big Sunday meal that will feed me through the next few days. In olden times circa 1990, Saturday or Sunday would be spent oozing ever so slowly out of a mild-to-terrible hangover. I never could stand that feeling of a wasted day to get over the previous night’s drunken revelry – it just never seemed worth the trouble. I surely don’t mind going out for a few drinks. But the concept of being on a 2:30 am subway train, on one hand drunk off my ass, on the other wary and cautious as I know I’m a prime target to get robbed, just doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve done it enough times to know there’s nothing out there at 3:00 am. I used to think there was some magical, late-night world that would open up and show me all its charms, but there never was.

So, life goes on in New York City, those strange days of my first few years here seem like a very distant memory. I often have the same disconnect with my Penn State days, but with college, it's mostly because I'm never physically there, haven't been there in years. With New York City, I'm still there, and it's still there, but the city changes so fast, and sometimes slowly over the course of years and shifting real-estate sands, that you can live here the whole time and quietly lose that sense of physical connection to memories. It's a strange phenomenon, but I surely feel it now. All I know is I had a hell of a time recalling some of the above people and episodes.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Secret Millionaire

Just got back from a Christmas visit to Pennsylvania, where one of the hot topics was a recent episode of the Fox reality TV series Secret Millionaire which featured the town of Shenandoah, just up the road from us. The concept behind the series is to take a millionaire and place that person in an impoverished environment so he can “see how the other half lives."

I hadn’t seen the episode, and the concept sounded disgusting to me. You can wikipedia Shenandoah to get their demographics
-- unfortunately, they don’t have crime rates listed. You’d see something very odd, actually with that part of Pennsylvania in comparison to urban areas with similar (or higher) per-capita incomes. You’d find the crime rates to be radically lower than what you’d find in urban America. People think the sky is falling when felony crimes occur back there, but in reality, crime is much less of an issue than you’ll find in most places in America.

Shenandoah has always had the image of being a rough town. My father told me the story of his father going to a banquet at the best hotel in Pottsville, the county seat, honoring World War I vets – this must have been in the late 1940s or so. The big controversy was a table full of Shenandoah vets stole all their silverware and had to give it back. Like many people back there, I’ve always referred to the place as Chendo for short, and 462 for the area code. The natives take a perverse pride in the hard image. But in reality, you pass through neighboring towns like Girardville, Mahanoy City, Tamaqua, Ashland and such, and those towns are a little rough around the edges, too. This happened to most small towns in Pennsylvania once shopping malls rolled in throughout the 1970s: the downtown areas fell apart as business centers.

I suspect the producers of the show picked Shenandoah because it made the papers this summer when a bunch of kids beat an illegal Mexican immigrant to death one night, and there was some controversy in the amount of time it took the local police to arrest the kids – which may have been the problem of determining prosecutable charges for X number of kids or may have been incompetence and racism – I don’t know. Whatever the case, they’ll go to trial soon, and the media machine will kick into high gear again over this issue. Shenandoah is less than half an hour south of Hazleton, the town that’s attempted to ban illegal immigrants and received much press and scrutiny as a result. A much better Secret Millionaire episode would have been to drop a hispanic millionaire into Hazleton, publicize that he came from Ecuador and spoke no English, and see how that panned out.

(Sidenote: I've since learned this episode was filmed last spring, i.e., before the murder took place. So I'm even more curious as to why the producers chose Shenandoah.)

But they picked Shenandoah which, in my opinion on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of rank poverty and unlivability, is about a 3, with 10 being unlivable. It gets a lot worse than Shenandoah, or any town in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania. The general reaction in the paper was outrage, particularly regarding how the montages showing the “poverty” of the region focused on the absolute worst the place has to offer: an infamous huge abandoned coal mine, some burned-out houses that haven’t been knocked down (which are eye sores all over the region …) minor displays of graffiti (graffiti in rural Pennsylvania is practically non-existent in comparison the mounds of graffiti I see routinely in the New York area) …

… and a few households that need some work, to say the least. I got news for you – I know people with homes in similar disarray. It’s rarely a money issue – it’s a personal lifestyle choice. One that I don’t make for myself – I like keeping my place in order – but I’ve been in more than a few homes that would give Sanford and Son a run for their money. The apartment this episode’s millionaire moved into in Shenandoah, all I could think was I would kill to have a similar living space in New York. Cruddy wallpaper? Mold? Dirty floors? I got news for you – a weekend of cleaning and house repair eradicates these issues. Bugs are easily taken care of. Anyone with minimal effort could have refurbished that place into a nice little apartment.

What’s more, a few months ago, I was in the apartment of a coworker who makes over a quarter million dollars per year – in a Manhattan luxury building with a doorman. I got news for you: his living space wasn’t much bigger than mine, and mine was cleaner and more homey. Of course, his location in Manhattan leaves him with a monthly nut that’s about 5-6 times the size of mine. But that’s how people are in Manhattan – they live in tiny little boxes of apartments that are a joke most places in America, but have convinced themselves that “everyone wants to live here” when reality is most people don’t. (And I am fearful that this previously working-class neighborhood I’m in now in Queens is going down the same shit road in terms of phony, over-priced exclusivity and “location, location, location” issues, thanks to twentysomething suburban WASPs moving here in droves, and local real-estate scumbags perpetuating this strange sort of acceptable racism related to grossly inflated property values due to the new landed white gentry.)

As for the locals’ sense of outrage, christ, give it a break. That area has suffered from a strange, totally unnecessary inferiority complex for decades now. You can’t say anything critical about the place without locals crawling all over you, as if you don’t recognize heaven when it’s right in front of you. The Coal Region isn’t heaven. I love being from there, love going back there on a regular basis, but the reality is I’d have a hell of a time finding good work back there. Granted, doing so with a job that paid anywhere over the mid-50s would be living like a reasonably wealthy New Yorker, as real estate and taxes are much, much cheaper back there.

But gainful employment, or lack thereof, has always been a major issue with the region, and probably the main reason why I moved out in my 20s. Frankly, I like the lifestyles of most people back there: laid back, no-nonsense, friendly in a good, genuine way. If other people don’t like it, or look down on it … who gives a fuck? Does it matter? Of course, it doesn’t. Take my word for it, these people should be elated that moneyed douchebags are looking down on them. Because, as I’m finding in Queens, if those moneyed douchebags take a sudden shine to your neighborhood, it will be a matter of time before they move in and force you and every other sane person out in favor of their exclusionary lifestyle that requires a much higher income.

But I digress. I just watched that episode of Secret Millionaire on the Fox website (it's Episode 5) and found myself strangely touched by it. Sure, the producers played a bad trump card with the montages of feigned poverty and destitution – the area is nowhere near that bad or hard. But the overall tone of the show was to focus on locals doing good, and they found some genuinely good people who could use a few thousand dollars to move forward with their charitable causes, which was fine by me.

The millionaire was a cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens who, as my brother sagely surmised, might have sucked the right dick and won the lottery: she married a rich guy. (And I wonder if this guy saw her strutting her wares on the sideline of a Ravens home game and made his move, no doubt making it clear how much money he had straight out of the gate. Aint that America ... Big Pink Houses for you!) The show didn’t touch enough on this, but there was minor friction between her and her mother, who came from a humbler background in western Pennsylvania. (Her mother joined her on this odyssey to live in Shenandoah for a week.) Basically, this woman came from a town that probably wasn’t much different than Shenandoah, especially with its Slavic background, and you could tell by how she dealt with the locals that she felt at-home with them. Her mother could have passed for any random fiftysomething Potato Bomb (Coal Region slang for a woman of Slavic or Irish lineage who puts on double-digit poundage after the birth of her first child and children thereafter) with her short hair cut, mall glasses and sweaters. (I should also point out her mother had that look of rural kindness and understanding I know well from back there.)

The odd part of all this, of course, is the cheerleader could have left her suburban Maryland town and, within 15 minutes, been in living conditions that would have made Shenandoah seem like Shangri-La. Of course, those wouldn’t have been white people, the neighborhood would have had an astronomical crime rate in comparison, and I think if you watch a few episodes of The Wire, you’ll get the drift of the kind of neighborhoods that exist a stone’s throw from her wealthy suburb. I think that’s also why the locals back in PA resent the show – this woman could have encountered much worse poverty and hard times a few miles from her home as opposed to hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania.

What made the show worthwhile was a few of the locals this woman decided to help with big checks. In particular was the woman in Frackville operating what looks like a dog grooming place, who took it upon herself to buy groceries routinely for people having a hard time financially. I don’t know her personally, but her grooming shop is one door down from a nice Italian place, the OIP (Original Italian Pizza), where I’ll often have dinner with two old high-school friends when I go back. What this show doesn’t touch on is that I gather the owner of the OIP is probably making a fortune, as are a lot of business owners back there. The friends I have dinner with? One is making six figures as a plant manager in Harrisburg (he drives an hour south every morning on Route 81), the other making a good salary as a draftsman and a three-figure-per-hour figure in her spare time as a caricature artist. One of my brothers is making a great salary at a hardware warehouse after being there for about 10 years. Two guys in my small hometown are lawyers making six figures. More than few of my high-school classmates I met at the last reunion are well into six-figure territory with their jobs. Shenandoah? My friend who lives there, the plant manager, has a kid going to near-by Bloomsburg University … for almost no charge if he maintains a 3.0 GPA. The town has an endowment set up so that any kid who wants to can get a practically free college education if he really wants it.

In the Frackville portion of the show, the kind-hearted woman who buys groceries drops them off at what might be the only “bad” block in all of Frackville. (A friend of a friend just moved there and has been outraged at the town’s comparatively enormous tax base to other towns in the region.) I know that stretch of houses, right next to Boyer’s supermarket. One of my high-school English teachers, and his wife who taught in another school district, live just down the block, literally 20 yards away, in what looks more like an average suburban neighborhood. He was making around $70,000/year before he retired (remember, with summers off), as was his wife, and living in a house that probably had a property value of about $80,000, which they had paid off years ago on a mortgage that was half that current value.

This is poverty? Christ’s sake, if only that were true, and this was as bad as it gets in America! The cheerleader got a job in a supermarket in Mahanoy City – this used to be a stop on the line on my bus’ local route, but has since been bypassed it because it's on a hard-to-navigate side street. It’s a nice little market – clean, probably selling the same products this woman uses in her Maryland mansion. She could just as easily have gotten a McJob at the Walmart in St. Clair or Shamokin, or even better, Redner’s employee-owned supermarket on the edge of Shenandoah which, I guarantee you, is virtually identical to any supermarket she uses in her high-end suburban paradise. It was a bit disingenuous of the producers not to acknowledge or film things like this in an effort to make the area seem as down-trodden as possible. The truth is if you have a nice house and a good job in that part of Pennsylvania, you can have a lifestyle that will be virtually identical, even in terms of consumerism and all its products, to this woman’s life in Maryland.

What should they have done differently? For one thing, there are small coal patch towns around Shenandoah that appear much more ragged. I’m thinking Shaft, William Penn, Lost Creek, etc. You’ll find normal houses there, and series of crooked row houses, houses that literally lean like the Tower of Pisa and have coal banks in the backyard. What’s even more bizarre: these houses probably have a property value of less than $20,000. In front of some of these houses, you’ll see new SUVs of the type the cheerleader and her millionaire husband probably own. The car costs more than the house. And some of the shanty houses will have a satellite DISHes attached to them and 42-inch widescreen TVs in the living room.

This is how America rolls these days: even poor people can pretend they’re wealthy with these sort of bizarre product placements, most likely purchased unwisely on credit. Or, maybe some of the guys in those houses are pulling in $60K a year at some higher-end manual labor job they’ve stuck with for decades, and they just don’t feel like moving, or upgrading their homes in any recognizable way.

It’s always a different story – sometimes sad, sometimes just as I’ve described. All I know is Shenandoah – or any town in the Coal Region – isn’t that bad a place to live. You can see this in the show when the cheerleader and her mother drive around. The streets are clean. You look out their car window as they move, and you see well-kept lawns and homes. I recall things being much more basic and gritty from my childhood there in the 1960s and 70s. Now? I go back there and sometimes feel like I’m visiting a suburb, missing that deeply rural vibe that was so strong in my childhood. Of course, that’s still there, too. I’ve just traveled more since then and can see the vestiges of suburbanism creeping up ever so slowly on the place. And I’d rather not see it at all, as I know what it implies (a lifestyle requiring greed, which is the antithesis of my life these days, ergo why I often feel alien in urban environments, where money just walks around, as the saying goes).

Part of my routine when I visit back there is to drive my mom around on Saturdays to do her afternoon errands: bank, dollar store, drug store, gas station, and always end with pizza at the Pizza Place in Frackville. Almost every time, she’ll drag along a garbage bag filled with empty soda cans. Why? Because there’s a woman who lives at the top of town in Ashland who works for a local animal shelter, one that depends on donations to survive and also has an ongoing aluminum drive wherein they encourage people to give them their cans so they can trade them in for money. So Mom collects all the family’s empty soda cans and delivers them every Saturday. Doesn’t sound like much? It probably keeps at least a few stray dogs and cats in their pens alive in terms of food and services provided for directly by this. I'm just glad the producers of the show didn't see her in her windbreaker and funny hat, dragging those cans out to the car, otherwise they might have portrayed her as a bag lady. When reality is she's living comfortably off Dad's pension and her Social Security, in a clean, good-sized house with a nice backyard. The producers of the show did a great job of masking that far greater reality of the Coal Region.