Monday, December 15, 2008

Rappers vs. 19th century Business Tycoons


It seems likely that rappers pursue careers in music to escape not only a tough upbringing or life on the streets but also the stunning reality of their awkward, terrible names. From Snoop Dogg (Cordozar Broadus) to DMX (Earl Simmons) to Master P (Percy Miller) these guys just can't catch a break. See if you can distinguish between the given names of rappers and 19th century business tycoons on the following list (answers are in the comments section, don't cheat)

Algernod Lanier Washington
Carlton Douglas Ridenhour
Henry Morrison Flagler
Christopher Charles Lloyd
Edward Henry Harriman
Elbert H. Gary
Shadrach Gregory Moss
Amasa Leland Stanford
John Warne Gates
Collis Huntington
Thomas DeCarlo Callaway
Warren Griffin III
James Buchanan Duke
James Tod Smith
Nathaniel Dwayne Hale

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Question

Has it occurred to anyone else that walking down the street rapping to yourself is the 21st century equivalent of whistling?


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Whole Foods in Union Square is Awful

The Whole Foods in Union Square is awful because no one there understands how to shop. No, this is not entirely true, more accurately; no one is there to shop. They are there to do the following things: text message in front of the escalator, read the ingredients of organic brownie mix to someone standing twenty feet away, talk about the economy, calculate saturated fat levels on their fingers, drink coffee while leaning against the olive display, talk about Obama, talk about the tragedy of David Foster Wallace, worry if they should put back the pound of chanterelle mushrooms they’re carrying, talk about Damien Hirst while forgetting his name.

They are not there to shop. Not in the sense that a mother of four who works as a receptionist in your dentist’s office enters her local C-Town with a carefully penciled list and a small bag of coupons and goes to work with efficiency and purpose. A person like that knows how to shop, and so when you go to your local C-Town the aisles are not strewn with distracted mopes in silly, ironic winter hats who stand listlessly in front of the dairy display talking to their companions about the freak-folk side project they’re working on with Devon and fiddling with their Iphones.

These people have their minds on a million different things and sour cream is very low on the list. Unfortunately I need to get to the sour cream. This is why the Whole Foods in Union Square is awful. It has wonderful amenities and a beautiful store environment but is not as much a supermarket as a circus. It is the supermarket equivalent of the Max from “Saved by the Bell”, with people filtering in to hang out and eat and sit on their chairs backwards and whatever other pointless nonsense is constantly going on in either of these places.

All of this occurs in aisles, by those barrels of nuts and of course, in front of the sour cream. This is fine if you’re not interested in buying a set list of things and just want to wander around a brightly lit, fresh-smelling atmosphere and dream. Sometimes I do feel that way. Does that make it any less insignificantly annoying? No. It's the same kind of mundanely hellish experience as trying to walk near Penn Station or Times Square at 5:30 on a Friday. The aim of “shopping” has entirely been replaced by “browsing”, which is shopping without any sense of purpose. This means that when I want to get a really high-grade chocolate chip cookie or pay too much for cheese I have to go all the way to the Whole Foods on Bowery, which is a first-world tragedy of the highest order.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ice Cream Wars

Now that it’s freezing outside the last thing anyway wants to talk about is ice cream, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do, because for obvious reasons not wanting to talk about ice cream reminds me of a story about ice cream.

Back during the summer, when all anyone wanted to do was talk about ice cream, I was having a discussion about things over which the mafia possibly had control. This is a fun topic because since the mafia seems to have a tendency to specialize in the most boring possible areas (trash, construction, off-track betting) you can easily imagine all kinds of obscure, mundane stuff (Tupperware parties, the button industry, singing telegrams) as being part of the racket, which not only invests it with that whole mythology but gives you hypothetical situations where a guy in a Members Only jacket ends up with a whole truckload of stolen pencil sharpeners or novelty ties and starts to wonder if the whole thing is really worth it.

This conversation, however, centered on the ice cream truck business. I feel like ice cream trucks are perfect for the mafia – they’re unregulated, locally managed and low-key enough that no one is paying much attention. If you shake down the ice cream truck guy at the end of the week for 25% of his profits no one is going to notice because really, who knows an ice cream truck guy? If this is not something the mafia is already involved in then I encourage them to explore this business opportunity.

So this conversation came and went, and of course I never expected any real-life follow-up, but due to a serendipitous occurrence I discovered that the world of ice cream trucks is as rough and tumble as in my wildest fantasies. This is what happened. I had just left a show at South Street Seaport and was in line for ice cream. This is out of character for me but I was with some stupid friends so even though ice cream cones make me more nervous than just about anything I was ready to take the plunge. Then, in a moment out of Charlie Brown or something (I feel like this is where most mundanely terrible things occur), just as I was next in line, another ice cream truck pulled up behind the one from which I was ordering.

Someone made a comment about the newly arrived ice cream man looking pissed off but no one took this seriously, because when you are getting ice cream you never imagine a world where anger thrives and ice cream men hate each other. However, this was not just the case, it was an understatement. The new ice cream man was furious. He jumped out of his truck and started screaming at the original ice cream man, making it clear that a) this was not the first time this had occurred b) we were dealing with a turf war.

The immediate issue of why this guy thought he could just roll over to one of the busiest tourist spots in Manhattan and take command of the area because it was his spot is fascinating in itself but it needs to be pushed aside for now, because this situation is good enough on its own without overanalyzing it. Screaming was apparently not enough for this ice cream man, he started kicking the other guy’s truck with a ferocity usually reserved for movies about white supremacists. He was screaming and kicking and the other guy was lurching his truck forward a few feet every few seconds but not totally escaping and suddenly I was a man without a line to stand in or an ice cream truck to buy from.

At this point no one knows what to do and most of the crowd responds by dispersing. This, of course, is the last thing I’m going to do in any situation involving screaming. My friend Lisa, who has the mind of a five-year-old in the body of a fifteen-year old (this sounds mean but it isn’t, really), responded to this by screaming “you’re a mean man” and sticking out her tongue at the enraged ice cream man, to which he responded “get out of here little girl,” ratcheting up the exchange to a level of absurdity unmatched by any other ice-cream related situation I’ve encountered. Then he told the first guy that he was going to “cut his neck” in a loud enough voice that he was probably serious.

This scared off the first ice cream man to a considerable distance, although he did not flee entirely. Then the police came. The first ice cream man drove off, leaving the angry one alone at the site, free to claim any customers who had stuck around long enough to hear him threaten to cut someone’s neck (this somehow sounds worse than “cut your throat”). Worst of all I had to eat this man’s ice cream. It was delicious, but there was a bitter taste in my mouth I could not get rid of. It was guilt. Guilt from having eaten the tarnished product of a very angry ice cream man.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Talkin' Baseball

So I took in a ball game the other night, which is nice enough to say in itself, but was even better because I had box seats right behind home plate. This means yes, great seats, but also a bonus: a pulsing level of meathead idiocy rarely found outside of a junior varsity locker room or the comments section on the Maxim website. This is the rabble that I'm talking about. The seething mob which absorbs a good portion of the stadium crowd, which spews flat insults and stupid comments at the other team, taking the heads of ballplayers and chewing on them for two and a half hours.

The best thing about baseball is that the pace is really relaxed, which means you can not just focus on the game but also on laying down a healthy blanket of peanut shells on the ground and reading the Post's 25 tips for being a man in the city (at the center of Wednesday's paper, read it, its as amazing as you would guess). It also gives people a lot of time to think up to think up really creative insults for the opposing players, which they don't use, instead wiling away the hours by chanting "asshole" over and over.

The mob mentality here can be kind of scary if you take it seriously, but really its just kind of a harmless, neutered form of lashing out which is pretty hilarious if you approach it the right way. Looking at it evenly I decided there are three main groups inside of the rabble.

The first is the guys you'd expect, guys with fat hands and sloshy Queens accents who spend their Sundays screaming at the television like it was murdering their children. Guys named Bruno, who name their kids Bruno and their dogs Bruno (or Spike or something), who come from long-lines of garbage men and eat pastrami sandwiches every day of their lives. And no, garbage men is not intended as pejorative, I have a lot of respect for guys who wake up before dawn to do back-breaking, society-cleaning work and accordingly, this part of the rabble is the only one that's bearable. Sometimes they even get creative and when they do its amazing. A guy behind me was shooting out gems for the majority of the game and at one point roared "ZIMMERMAN, YOU'LL NEVER MAKE IT OUT OF DAVID WRIGHT'S SHADOW", and I still can't comprehend how he managed this entire sentence in a single, unwavering bellow.

With these guys their rage is sort of playful and more about invoking the tradition of proud, intense booing than anything else. There's also the barely concealed anger that grows from watching grown men play games for exorbitant salaries and the feeling that comes with watching those men disappoint you a good portion of the time. They (rightly) feel a certain level of entitlement because they're also basically paying these guys salaries.

If this the entire rabble was like everything would be fine and we could all rush off to some tavern afterward and spill beer all over the place, but this being the prime seats the dainty upper crust of the rabble was there in full force. Of course these are the worst people, because they are patently out of touch with the rest of the crowd and stretch so mightily to reunite themselves with their brothers in heckling that you start to feel sore from the strain. This results in a lot of embarrassing noise. There are two sections here. The first is people who have a passing knowledge of the game and allow this knowledge to convince them that they fully understand what's going on. They don't. They are amateurs who played little league for two years and have been to three Yankees games in the last fifteen years. Which is fine, until they start shouting things that don't make sense and questioning the fundamental rules of the game like they are some staggering genius who has just discovered the loophole to a 160 year old problem.

The guy next to me was a prime example - a pony-tailed, cargo-shorted douche who'd just gotten back from South America (I learned a lot about him) and wouldn't stop talking about Israel and Israelis and his booming sense of Jewish self. He sounded like he had wandered in from the Sociology department at Queens college, the kind of guy who uses the phrase "my philosophy on life." His understanding of what was going on was shaky at best and at one point he stood up and shouted "hit him in the head" about a batter on the other team, like this wasn't something a third grader with no sense of bodily harm would say. Seriously dude? Is your inability to perceive the line between a sporting event and reality so complete that you have to act like you're watching professional wrestling?

Even worse is the businessman, who comes to the game with clients that he's trying to impress and thus has to impress them by acting like a total buffoon, which is of course what people do at baseball games and so he has to do it twice as hard. The businessman understands baseball because he played on the intramural squad at community college and describes the color of his blood as being the same as that of his favorite team. He uses this knowledge for evil however, or more accurately he doesn' t use it at all (notice this theme) because all his time is spent yelling the most boring insults imaginable at the opposing players. This is made exponentially worse by the fact that we were close enough for them to be in hearing range, and resulted in exchanges like the following:

Drunken Hedge Fund Manager: Hey [player]. Turn around
Player in the On-deck circle: [stands facing the field]
Drunken Hedge Fund Manager: Turn around.
Player: [stands facing the field]
Drunken Hedge Fund Manager - (long, exaggerated pronunciation of player's name) turn around
Player: [stands facing the field]
Drunken Hedge Fund Manager - YOU SUCK!

Their need to prove their undying support for the team ranges on desperation because its directly connected with their need to convince the client that they are a regular guy and know about regular guy things and approach them in a regular guy way (read: shouting, drinking $8.50 aluminum bottles of Bud Light and cackling like a hyena).

The basic lesson I've learned from all this is that heckling is just another thing that could be great with a little effort but instead cruises along endlessly on a tide of facile mediocrity. Like TV sitcoms, or America. So I started to think up some taunts that would be more effective in unhinging players in the on-deck circle. I use Elijah Dukes of the Washington Nationals as an example because he got the crowd riled up and everyone seemed to be picking on him:


This would be something I would have done if I wasn't a poltroonish weakling who writes his thoughts on the internet. I also considered doing the opposite: being nice. Why can't we be nice to the other team, especially since they're our guests. I mean, we can't, because that ruins the spirit of competition, but if we could, I might yell:


This is something I would genuinely like to do and I will consider adding it to my list of 100 things to do before I die, the creation of which is on my list of 25 things to do before I'm 30.

Friday, August 15, 2008


A few weeks ago I got caught barefoot in Prospect Park with a pineapple, two Asian pears and a carving knife. It was pretty embarrassing. Luckily the cops didn't check the bag I was holding and I only got a summons for being in the park after closing.

Recently I got another summons for once again flouting society's conventions in a freewheeling yet laid-back fashion (think the Fonz with better hair), which brought to mind the first summons, causing me to realize I had missed the court date. I called the courts system. The woman there warned me SIR report to court right away THERE IS A WARRANT OUR FOR YOUR ARREST and I floated along the rest of the day on the kind of whimsical jetstream that only comes with being a fugitive from justice.

I was to report to the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Besides housing the Justice Center and some very large stores Red Hook is famous for :

a) existing as a total void of subway transportation
b) smelling kind of weird
c) being the last place murder victims stop before being dumped in the East River.

Also there's an IKEA there now if you're interested in buying a couch and carrying it on a special shuttle bus and then onto the subway and then back to your shitty apartment.

Since I don't clean bathrooms for a living I don't take the bus which means I had to walk a mile through Red Hook to the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Here I sat on a hard bench, commingling with the dregs of society and learning curse words in various inferior languages. You woulnd't believe some of the crimes these guys were here for. Trespassing in a park. Being in a park past closing time. Failure to show ID when asked by an officer (pretty sure this also happened in a park). Seriously, from what I glimpsed here about 90% of the city's crime is people hanging out in the park after dark, just havin' a time. The other 10% is traffic violations and Chinese women creating disturbances.
Eventually I had my five seconds with the judge where my summons was immediately dismissed and I realized that the real punishment was having to walk to the court. I hope they have realized this and put the court here (there's another court in Downtown Brooklyn which is a lot easier to get to, so I assume that one is reserved for actual crimes) as a tricky means of easily punishing people rather than another grand municipal failure (have you ever been to the Brooklyn Navy Yard? Sheesh).

Finally, on the way home I wrote a blues song about having to walk to court so in the end it was all kind of worth it. Here it is:


*sung to the tune of every other blues song ever written*

Oh lawd i've been cursed with unrest and strife
caught in tha park wit' a pineapple and a knife

Policeman said now what you doin' hea'
found myself a'trembalin' with fea'

The Parks Commission dey put me ahn trial
Gotta fold my slip and walk that lonely mile

I combed mah hair put on mah sunday shoes
Lawd you know me I got them po' boy blues.

The sun so hot, citations on mah mind
Ask mahself why this city so unkind

The judge he say "boy that park done close at nine"
He say 'you understand this now?' and I say fine

Oh no fines lawd and I'm free at last
Get into work at eleven and thirty past

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Last Guy on the Elevator

There is a man who stands with you on the elevator every so often. He's indistinguishable at first but it's not long before manages to show his true potential. When the elevator reaches the lobby he stays behind, making sure that everyone gets out safely, placing one steady arm in front of the doors to shield his fragile colleagues from these doors that may close like an alligator's jaws but it's ok, he would rather lose his arm than see anyone clipped on the shoulder by the door as they walk out. He treats getting off the elevator like he is evacuating a schoolbus that has just plunged into the ocean.

Last Guy on the Elevator makes a habit of doing this and of course everyone feels obligated to thank him for his kindness. He is, after all, doing a nice thing for everyone. Last Guy on the Elevator thrives on these thank-yous and probably feels a little sick in the morning when he rides the elevator and has to stand in the back like a normal person. Probably the same way Superman feels when he's at work.

But despite what he wants you think Last Guy on the Elevator is not a saint. He is not even doing a good deed. No, because his entire act of kindess is degraded by its awful, painfully artificial self-awareness. Last Guy on the Elevator is a pillar of the community that no one has asked for. He is about as useful and necessary as a series of Doric columns holding up your kitchen ceiling.

Today at my office there were two Last Guys on the Elevator, and as this sentence shows such a thing is a mathematical impossibillity. There can be only one Last Guy on the Elevator. I cannot imagine what went through the heads of either of these men when their supremacy was threatened, whether it was anger or fear or a teeth-gritting 'I always knew this day would come' scenario, but I really don't want to know. I prefer to think of this as a scene out of a nature documentary and when it comes down to it lions fighting for control of the pride don't think they just tear each other to pieces because that is the way of the world. So these two bastions of civic responsibility engaged in a grand battle of wills, one that although lasting only a little over three seconds had me stretching my neck around to an impossible angle to see who would be the victor. Imagine two guys trying to hold the door for each other. Imagine an automatic door trying to close on another automatic door. Imagine two warriors grappling atop Mount Olympus with the fate of the very world at stake.

I cannot tell you who won this battle because honestly I don't remember what either of these guys looked like, but I can tell you a little about the rest of the Last Guy on the Elevator's day. He will help an old lady across the street, even though she is only 65 and still very active. He will get on the subway and give a crisp dollar bill to the homeless man who forgets half the words to “Dream Weaver," holding it out long enough so this man looks him in the eye and remembers his unwavering generosity. He will go home to his aparment building where he will hold the door for an attractive young woman even though she's far away enough that it's inappropriate to do so and they share two or three awkward looks into each other's eyes where he keeps up a steady, satisfied smile and she keeps looking down at the floor realizing that this man is really taking this much pride in his measly accomplishment, like he is her father shielding her from the fact that Santa Claus does not exist and there is suffering in the world while beating off a pack of rabid wolves with a broken chair leg and his broad shoulder pressed against the cabin door. Then he will sleep. Enjoying the sleep of the Last Guy on the Elevator.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ode: Intimations of Awesomeness

Living in a city I see some pretty amazing things on a day-to-day basis. I'm sure you do too - its endemic to a place so full of people that you will be constantly experiencing wonderful outbursts of wonderful human expression - but after a while it just becomes so much that you kind of become inured to the whole magic of it and when a group of 14-year-old break dancers on the F find their first performance quashed by a rush hour crowd you forget how exact and poignant of a moment this is and end up getting annoyed. What I'm trying to do here is take a step back and take a smaller view, to not get irritated when I'm in a rush and get held up getting down to the subway because some guy with a shopping cart is selling pinwheels at the bottom of the stairway. Because if you really think about it, being late to work is probably worth the experience.
And of course, I don't want to forget about this stuff. I want to remember sitting next to some girl on the subway bragging about being punched in the face by her thug boyfriend and feeling the air thicken with the collective disapproval of an entire subway car. Or seeing a serene looking Asian guy wearing a store-bought t-shirt that says "Hate Rock" in swirly yellow letters. This is the kind of stuff I want to keep tucked in my head forever. Also I don't think I have enough blogs.

The main impetus comes from this: about a month ago I'm sitting on a bench in the Delancey Street station, nursing an inevitable hangover and the realization that I've just played a dozen games of flip-cup with some bizarre quasi-athletic events league, where people wear matching t-shirts and apparently reminisce about the great times they had in college playing drinking games and reminiscing about being in high school, when something AMAZING happens. By some blessed convergence four hispanic youths decide to save my night by recreating West Side Story for a new generation.

This may sound like the typical story of wild kids making a pointless scene on a subway platform while everyone tries to ignore the whole situation by staring intensely into their folded New York Times and copies of the Kite Runner but it isn't. This is no less than an apocalpytic dance explosion wherin a gang of rowdy teens enter the station like their lives are a perpetual Michael Jackson video (probably Beat It in this case) and proceed to realize the dreams of every immigrant who has ever landed in this country. These guys appear out of nowhere; they are loud and energetic and fully intent on getting everyone's attention, which in most cases is annoying but here has magical results - judging by the size of their swagger they have just come from the world championships of walking around like you own the place.

To start, one of them clear LEAPS over a garbage can. How? I don't know, kid has ups. The rest of the gang immediately bursts into a chorus of OHHHHHs and its clear that these are the guys who hang outside of the bodega drinking those little jug juices, eating Cheetos and hitting on your little sister and you let it continue just because you're amazed by the suicidal tenacity of their game. On their own a group of guys like this would be nestled somewhere between mildly irritating and slightly amusing, but seeing as this is America they are soon met with competition, and this is where things get really beautiful. Across the platform a group of five or six black girls take issue with these guys presumed supremacy of the station and just start dancing. So there's no music? They make their own. They are beatboxing and swinging their arms around and basically matching these guys intensity step for step with a furious stampede of feet.

Of course these boys will not be outdone. They band together and are pulling coordinated moves and using the benches and beams as props and there's this spirit of friendly rivalry and it's great. They are taunting each other and laughing and behaving with that total sense of guileless, bold-faced flirting disguised as some boys versus girls contest and it would make you wish you were a kid again if that wasn't already some embarrassingly hackneyed notion. It feels like being at your friend's family reunion and the food is amazing and there's this beautiful sunset and then you find out their little cousins have memorized the words and dance steps to "My Girl" and they put on a show for everyone.

I'd like to go on describing this contest and the things these kids did and how it ended with one girl asking one of the guys "Yo, what's your name?" but at some point the whole thing became too epic to fully digest and I would end up either exaggerating or leaving out the small details that really matter.

Since I've digressed enough I'll wrap things up here. I remember hearing a story about Haruki Murakami and about he decided to become a writer after seeing a really well-hit double at a baseball game, just how the small, perfect beauty of this thing was enough to make him realize that he needed to tell stories and share this kind of feeling with other people. I felt the same way, especially because even this amazing burst of vivacious expression wasn't enough to stop the Bowery crowd from toying with their IPhones and somehow continuing their conversations about free-range eggs versus oganic or whatever. I, however, have faith that the world is full of people who can appreciate these moments where tiny fragments drip down to earth in the form of people doing completely inexplicable things, so I started this to keep these moments from slipping through the cracks. I will try to update as often as I see this kind of craziness and considering that I just witnessed a turf war between two ice cream trucks (more on this later) this shouldn't be a problem.

Some other recent sights that have inspired me:

Batman Boy: Batman Boy is just like a regular boy except a crippling sadness has piled itself so heavy on his back that he is walking like Charlie Brown after whatever it is that he always screws up. Also he is dressed as Batman. I saw this kid on Van Brunt street in Red Hook a few weeks ago. He was holding his mother's hand and wearing a denim jacket over his costume and I kind of wanted to crash my car just out of the hope that it might make him laugh. His sadness was some deep pool of grief that I cannot begin to comprehend although I imagine it may have something to do with an ice cream cone and a storm drain or a cancelled birthday party.

Earth Angel: This guy holds a sign that says Earth Angel and has what may be the worst hair on earth. Seriously, this hair could inspire a docotoral thesis with twenty-five pages of end notes but let me try to sum it up in two sentences. It begins like a pompadour, this wild mass of thick black hair, but while pompadours mercifully end at some point this thing just bursts backward from his forehead a couple of inches and then descends to his mid-back like a waterfall flowing with barber-shop floor residue. It may be a wig but if it is he must have made it himself.

Anyway, I don't know if he is searching for Earth Angel or is the Earth Angel himself but he holds the sign like he's waiting for someone at the airport. I saw him again outside my office recently and he was holding an orange sign with three crosses and some writing that I could not read, kind of tenatively lifting it above his head every so often like he lacked the confidence to really be totally crazy. This man is a mystery that I would rather not solve.

Gays : Waiting for the F train at 34th street on Memorial Day I saw two fagged-out black dudes with the deepest, lispiest voices I have ever heard. They sounded like Paul Robeson working at a shoppe in Chelsea that sells antique playbills from '50s musicals. This alone was enough to get me giggling to myself but then God smiled upon me and put a giant rat on the platform nearby, which caused these two to flee up the stairs screaming at the top of their lungs. I slept the whole train ride home with the feeling that everything was right with the world.