Day 24 of 31 (Thoughts On New York)

I’ve been trying to write a “New York” song for a while now. In fact I did write one, but I’m not quite sure about it for reasons I will explain later — perhaps tomorrow. New York has crept into my songs here and there. In “Messed Up Everywhere Blues,” where I’m afraid I stole a line (or more) from Billy Joel. This is so embarrassing I won’t repeat those lines here.

Also in the song “Snowstorm,” where I say:

“Snowstorm is a simple word first used in 1771
it must have been a frightful storm the day it was spoken
its a compound, like “skyscraper,” looming up so high
baby its cold out wherever you’re holed up i hope that you’re all right.”

I wrote that song in New York City, where skyscrapers do loom.

Also, from “Out in the Fields”:

“Here in the city harder than iron
Lost children gather like bottles in bars.
There is a pain that awaits us, unchanging.
It hangs in our breasts and our stars.”

I wrote that in New York City also. I spent a lot of time drinking in New York City bars, and in my minds eye I can see the bottles shining behind the bars. I haven’t had a drink in over 4 years, and it’s very possible I will never have a drink in a bar, or anywhere, again. Will I miss it, do I miss it? Yes, very much. But I will never regret not drinking. I very often regretted drinking.

There’s this from “Outposts”:

“You made a bad joke, sounded just like my dad
but looked like a kid in a big winter hat
and waited, impatient, for traffic to pass
said goodbye and stepped into the road.”

That’s a New York City scene.

Lastly, there is this verse I added to my version of “This Land is Your Land”:

“Oh pretty baby won’t you come with me?
leave all your worries here in the city
up to the mountains and out to the sea
this land was made for you and me.”

Those are pretty much all of the New York City references in my songs. It’s not made explicit in the songs that the references are specifically about New York City, because they just mention “the city.” Of course that’s the way New Yorkers talk about the city: “The City,” as if there is only one. Even when I lived near Boston, if people mentioned “The City,” chances are they meant not Boston but New York.

New Yorkers are very proud to live in what they consider to be the greatest city in the world but they don’t talk about it. They’re more likely to complain about it than to praise it. Their pride is in their bearing, their walk, their speech, their posture, that they live in a place where just existing is an accomplishment.

New York is a place I am always glad to leave and never sorry to come back to. It’s massive, sprawling, a vast expanse of habitation. It weighs on you and wears on you. If you haven’t been out of town for awhile people will so get on what you think is your last nerve that you become desperate to escape. If you leave town and then come back, it feels like magic. Like you’re in an Audrey Hepburn movie. Everyone’s so beautiful and cool, and you are beautiful and cool. There’s nothing you can’t do.

New York is provincial. I know New Yorkers who have never been west of New Jersey — never learned to drive, never been in a plane. I know born-and-bred Manhattanites for whom Brooklyn is a foreign land they only visit on very rare occasions, and bumble around hapless as tourists, though they grew up half a mile away.

I have a friend whose great-grandparents had a farm, yes a farm, at Broadway and 22nd street, but who left the city in the great scare of 1837. I have no idea what the great scare of 1837 was, but he told that to me as if I would know. My friend drops names like Astor and Whitney, and Hearst. As in Patty. “Patty Hearst? I thought she was dead,” I said. “Oh no, she’s very much alive. I had her over here for a party a few months ago,” my friend said. I told my friend that that reminded me, I needed to read the Jeffrey Toobin book on her. And I still do.

New Yorkers are snobs about living here. I am, even though I’m not a “real” New Yorker. I know people who have lived here 40, 50, 60 years. I know people who will never leave this place. They are real New Yorkers. I’ve only been here 10 years, and I talk of leaving all the time, and one day I will leave. I can’t stay forever. I’m not a “lifer.” It’s not in me. The people who are lifers have my very real respect, and a certain amount of my envy.

I’m never sorry to leave. But to really leave? To leave for good, when that happens? I will be real sorry for that.

Manhattan Skyline, view from Queens.

The Librarian (Day 6)

I go to the library sometimes on Saturdays to print chord charts out for Sunday, if I’m playing in the church worship band (“Leading Worship.”) A few times I have gone without my library card, which means I have to enter my library card info in manually. I have to ask the librarian for my card number. She asks my name and then does a search. She has a cool and dispassionate manner, verging on curt. The librarian asks my address, and I tell her, but it’s not the same address with which I signed up for the card, years ago. She looks up and slowly shakes her head. “That’s not it,” she says. “Try again.” So I think, with my eyes closed. “Is it Keap Street?” I ask. Her head shakes. “22nd Street?” No. Finally I run through a few til I get to an address I thought I had forgotten, but pulled it up somehow. “That’s it,” she says, and starts to write my library card number down in neat script. She hands me the slip of paper with the number on it, wordlessly. Some might think that librarian is unfriendly, and in fact I read an online review of the Library branchthat suggested she was (I believe the review was referring to her). It was in fact a hateful review, and when I read it it made me sad for humanity. Not to hard to be sad for humanity these days. And I wanted to say to that reviewer that he didn’t get her, for lurking under the stoic face, is the mere hint of the beginning of the idea a smile. The detached manner belies a warm heart. A lot warmer than I might have if I were in charge of a busy library on a Saturday afternoon. It’s full of kids. I didn’t mention the kids. Anyway, How do I know the librarian has a warm heart? Well, I have secret knowledge, and the librarian knows that i have secret knowledge. We have a secret.

ONe day there was a book fair and a bake sale to raise money for the library. I came on a Saturday to print off my stuff, and instead of manning her table inside, the librarian was stationed outside at a folding card table selling brownies. She had on a bright teal shirt with the Library Branch name and the Brooklyn Public Library logo on it. All of the staff and volunteers were wearing a shirt with this design.

“Nice shirt,” I said.
“Uh huh,” The Librarian said. “You like it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Come on,” she said, and got up from her table.

I followed her into the library. The Librarian then got out some keys from a pocket in her skirt and opened the door to a staff room, holding her finger to her lips. She went inside for a second then re-emerged, holding something rolled into a tight cylinder. “Put this in your bag” she said. “And don’t tell anybody I gave it to you. It’s supposed to be staff only.” I took it. It was one of the teal book fair shirts. “For me? Wow. Thank you,” I said. The Librarian put her finger to her lips one more time. “Shhh!” she said, then walked away.

Day 5

I’m reading an old issue of Poetry magazine. clicking on it. Click. Is there an audible click? No, even my click is virtual. My machine has done away with clicks and now I tap and swipe silently. Clicks are so yesterday. but the poem I’m reading is even more yesterday. from 1981. James Wright, I might as well say. I don’t know a lot about him but he’s writing about chocolate penguins in italy sitting on a dusty sunlit table, and the page from old issue of poetry magazine has been photographed so it looks like an actual page and not just pixels on glass or plastic. I feel like I’m in 1981 in Italy. James Wright from Ohio. He drank too much. Tragically much. I used to drink too much too. “I still do, but I used to, too” said Mitch Hedberg. Except I don’t anymore. I’m tapping my finger on a button which brings up a new poem, a new poet.

I like these scans. These photographs of actual pages, which are kinder and warmer than run-of-the-mill pixels on a screen. I know, I’m repeating myself. It’s worth saying again. Poetry Magazine at Archived issues of old poetry. An abundance of riches.

I’m reading a poem about birds and remembering bird in my neighborhood, sparrows in September. They all converged on one tree, this was the tree that they decided was the one. You can walk down the street and not hear a sparrow and then from a distance hear so many of them and then come upon the tree where they decided to converge, cacophonous, deafening, chattering, trilling, making the top of the tree quiver with activity. And there are some humans too. We humans in my neighborhood. Who pass each other silently.

I listened to a podcast about bird migration. There’s a lot we don’t understand about bird migration. I mean collectively. Personally, I don’t know anything about bird migration. Collectively we know a lot more, but there are still many mysteries. How do the birds know when to go, and why do they go, and how do they all get the bird memo at the same time that it’s time to go. On the podcast scientists were conjecturing and I was glad there are still some things we don’t know.

Birds like to go. They don’t like to stay. I mean, if I could fly, personally I wouldn’t want to stay either.

October Writing, Day 3 of 31.

I took a bike ride. On the bike I call mine, which I think is mine. My friend Jay Datema gave it to me, or lent it to me, but I don’t think he expects it back. Jay has, or had, a job in Manhattan, and rode the bike, a rusty brown Schwinn, over the bridge. I don’t know which bridge. Brooklyn, Manhattan or Williamsburgh. The bike has a wimpy bell, and Jay bought a more sturdy bike with a more commanding bell. So he gave me the old Schwinn, which I love. Jay’s a librarian. He loves books and music, and owns a Brownstone in Park Slope along with his wife, Jessica. I’ve known both of them since college. In fact, Jay lived next door to me in Saint Dorm, named after Missionary and Jungle Aviator Nate Saint, who was killed while trying to evangelize the Huaroni people in Ecuador. I had a Christian Comic book about Nate Saint, Jim Elliot and the rest of the crew who were killed. They are evangelical royalty.

Anyway, Jay loved music and was always listening to obscure British bands from the 4AD label. He smoked Dunhills and was a literature major. My taste in music was less cool. I liked old bands from the 60s and 70s. Well, I liked a few new bands/musicians like U2, the Samples, the Judybats, Bob Mould, Vic Chesnutt. I was just getting into songwriting then. Just discovering myself, starting to write good songs. I was listening to a lot of Bruce Cockburn. I had a Bruce Cockburn songbook with tablature and studied the way he played guitar. His right thumb was — is — like a jackhammer. All fingerpickers use their thumb, but Cockburn’s is especially forceful and dynamic. I studied his lyrics too. I’m sure I stole a few lyrics from him. I love Cockburn’s images. The way he is so generous with them — he just throws beautiful images around with lavish abandon.

I didn’t like going out, and was probably depressed. I didn’t do so well at Wheaton College. I slept in the day and went out at night. I smoked. We weren’t allowed to smoke at Wheaton. But I had friends, and girlfriends, and made music with my friend Brian Funck, with whom I went on to form a music partnership. It was so full of magic then. Life was so full of discovery and feeling. I just felt everything so deeply. And yet. And yet I was paralyzed in strange ways. I didn’t know how to be an adult. How do do things like wake up and go to class and do what you’re supposed to to. I learned that much much later.

About a year later, my friend Diane, who is a writer, wrote an acrostic poem based on my name, which I treasure. I don’t remember the whole thing. The “A” was “Awed and open as a babe,” and the “O” was “On a journey coaxed from dream.” Phew. On a journey indeed. Oh Diane.

So my bike ride. On Jay’s Schwinn, I went down my street to Prospect Park. There is a dedicated bike lane, but vehicles don’t really pay attention. It’s common to encounter 3 or 4 vehicles idling in the bike lane on the way to the park. I have a bit of a cold so I was sucking on zinc lozenges. Something was stuck in my wheel and I had to pull over and turn the bike upside down to figure out what it was. A man walked over to look at it with me. He was dark-skinned, wearing glasses and a ball cap. I think he was Dominican, but I’m not sure. “That’s your problem, right there,” he said, pointing to a bungee cord which had gotten tangled in the gears. “Thanks, I said,” and he walked away. It took me a minute or so to yank the thing out and I was on my way. I saw the man again a 100 yards away or so and nodded at him, but I don’t know if he recognized me. He didn’t react. I rode on to the Park.

Jay’s Bike.

October Writing, Day 2 of 31.

I live on the top floor of a house in the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. I’ve written about it before. They (they being my landlady and her sons, of which there are four) tell me I have the best room in the house. I think they are right. I can see the subway on winter days, through the trees, rushing down the track toward Manhattan. I can hear it now, as I type. It sounds a little like running water. A faucet not turned off. I hear it intermittently. It is not loud or clattering, it’s a calming rush. I have a skylight. I don’t thank the Lord for that skylight but I should. I will now. I did. I can see the tops of trees from it, chimneys, residual sunset glow, a couple of tenacious stars. If I open my window I hear crickets, yowling cats, children, the neighbors in their sukkah, my landlady’s son in the garage, smoking and working, tinkering, occasionally blasting Pink Floyd.

I should be happy. Can I be? Yes. I can. I thanked God for the skylight before. What else can I thank him for? I just had a carrot. It was frankly a little tasteless. I had a tuna sub before that, with lots of jalapenos on it. I am a latecomer to jalapenos, not having had them much as a child. I can thank God for my late Jalapeno discovery. Shelter. Gifts without, gifts within.

A piano waiting for me. I want to play it, to learn it, to even master it. I’m far away from these goals and currently my piano has a heap of clothes on it. I’m thankful for the piano. It was a gift and I’m thankful for the friend who bought it.

I made a list this evening and on it was to write, and to to some back exercises, and to play some piano. I didn’t feel like writing, in fact I told myself it was the last thing I wanted to do, and yet here I am, writing and it feels good.

I have coffee made for tomorrow. Sometimes I do that: make coffee for the next day ahead of time. It’s not fresh and it’s not hot, but it’s ready, the instant I roll out of bed. I buy the vacuum packed 10 oz packages, which are perpetually on sale at the grocery store I frequent, called “C-Town.” In New York the supermarkets are small and have strange names. There’s one I used to go to called “Western Beef.” It had a cactus logo. Very out of place in NY. Anyway, I used to buy these huge slabs of cheddar cheese that were on sale at western beef. At C town I buy the coffee. Cafe Bustelo, in the oh so bright blocks. $2.99. Is that cheap? Around here that’s cheap. I saw a woman buying Cafe Bustelo at Rite Aid for almost $5.00 a block and I told her she could buy it for $2.99 at C-town. “Really?” She asked. “Yep,” I said. “Thanks,” she said. She told her friend who was with her. They bustled out.

I think of all the things I will miss when and if I leave New York. It’s strange that I even live here. Aaron, a friend said. “Brooklyn isn’t your thing but you’ve made it your thing.” That’s very true. There goes the subway again. A faint rush. The Q/B. Used to be an excursion line to Coney Island. Goes through an open cut. (An open cut subway is one that is below ground, but exposed to air).

I’m winding down. The will, the rush I feel from writing, is dwindling. I wish it were inexorable. I wish I were inexorable. Maybe I am.



Last Night at the Owl

I played a show last night. Well, a set, at the Owl Music Parlor, a quaint and cute listening room in Brooklyn, lovingly run by Oren Bloedow. Oren’s in a terrific dreamy band called Elysian Fields. I suppose every folk/rock listening room is run as a labor of love, but this one seems particularly love-infused. For instance, while the music’s going on they curtain off the music room and the people in the bar are shushed while the music is playing. They don’t serve drinks in the room where the music is playing. You can go get a drink and bring it back, but they won’t bring it to you. The whole night, Oren’s going back and forth, making drinks, washing dishes, running sound, passing the tip jar, and playing music with the performers. You can tell his soul is in it.

Larry Gallagher, who invited me to share the show with him, played after I did. I love Larry’s music. I’ll post one of his songs at the end. Larry’s as good a songwriter and musician as I have heard. He’s originally from NY but has lived in San Francisco for a long time.

I had a really good time last night and woke up in a haze of gratitude and longing: Gratitude for the warm community I experienced last night, and longing for more of it. I didn’t feel that I necessarily performed that well (although friends say I did), but I just felt. good. Good seeing people, being with people, being part of a community, no matter how tenuous that connection may be. Some college friends came I hadn’t seen in a while. I was part of a really special community of friends in college, and it brought back, good warm feelings seeing some of them again. It was good sitting at a bar talking with good people in a warm, well lit room, walking home in the crunching snow carrying my guitar. Just feeling grateful to be alive. Not because I played so well or wowed the crowd. I didn’t. I mean, I don’t think I did. But my fear and anxiety about how well I performed were subsumed in feelings of gratitude. It’s 10 to midnight and I have to finish this post quickly if I’m to stick to my plan of posting something every day. I’m very tempted to not post this because I like to edit stuff. But I’ll post this unedited. Good night! (whoops it’s 12:06 now because I had to go back and fix a couple of things. ah well. missed it by that much, chief).

Larry Gallagher at the Owl

Here’s a song in which Larry’s mordant wit is on full display. A song called “TV is Your Friend,” written from the perspective of TV.

“TV is Your Friend

Don’t think this I don’t see you eyeing me
After everyone has gone?
Behind that pout I know you’re dying
To cross the room and turn me on
Within an hour you’ll have fallen
Why do you sit there and pretend
That you have found some higher calling?
TV is your friend

It makes me sad to watch you churning
Still you treat me with disdain
Do I not take away the burning
Do I not numb you to the pain?
You know you love the way I flicker
My pull you’ll never comprehend
Not as strong as heroin, but quicker
TV is your friend

You’ve stopped your kicking and your screaming
I knew you’d tire of saying ‘”no”
Settle back into the evening
Settle back into the glow
It’s the gift that keeps on giving
It’s a love that never ends
If you are sick to death of living
TV is your friend”

Flatbush-Ditmas Park

I live in Brooklyn.  Ditmas Park, West Flatbush (or Midwood; more on that below), Brooklyn, to be more exact.  I’ve been in the greater NYC for over 8 years and have lived in Greenwich Village (in Manhattan), Williamsburg (Brooklyn), Greenpoint (Brooklyn), Chelsea (Manhattan), Middle Village (Queens), Jersey City (New Jersey), and now, for the past 2 years or so, Ditmas Park, a neighborhood noted for its high concentration of Victorian houses and towering London Plane trees (as I’ve mentioned on this blog before). A  New York Times article called it a “bustling area with a touch of country,” and indeed as I walk around looking at big houses with high turrets, wide porches with porch swings, elms, willows, magnolias, cherry trees, rhododendrons, and giant bushes-I-should-know-the-name-of-but-don’t which explode in the Spring into all kinds of bright colors, I can fool myself into thinking I’m not only back in my native North Carolina, but back in North Carolina 100 years ago.  I half-expect my grandmother to walk out of one of these front doors clutching a banjo on her way to a church dance. It’s that quaint and beautiful. But then I reach one of the bustling streets – Coney Island Ave or Ocean Parkway, for example, and I flash-forward to a world my grandmother would never have recognized, and which I barely recognize myself.  People from all different parts of the world bustle by me as if I don’t exist. I’m a stone they stream around on their way to somewhere else. There are multiple churches, synagogues, and mosques, and signs in Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Arabic, and Urdu.  The street itself is a deadly plain full of roaring cars blasting hip-hop or merengue or the latest pop music, which rush by deafeningly, then fade.  If you push the “walk” button to cross the street, you’d better be ready to run, because there is barely time to get across before the light changes and 4 lanes of traffic lurch forward.  I live less than 2 blocks from the BMT Brighton line of the NYC Subway. Since my windows are usually open, I can hear the faint rush of the B and Q trains clacking up down the tracks intermittently, all day and all night.

I like to go walking at night when things are a little less hectic.  This is my time to soak it all in, to explore.  And to eat. My go-to deli, the whimsically-named “Dream,” is owned by stone-faced Russians who either can’t or choose not to speak English or smile. I point to what I want and they dish it up stoically. Maybe a mass of soft pale bologna that tastes a lot better than it looks, and a bright purple cabbage-and walnut salad.  My favorite sit-down restaurant is a Pakistani place open 24 hours.  There, men in robes and taqiyahs crowd around a table and talk animatedly while a flat screened television above them plays pop music videos featuring young people doing elaborately choreographed dances in bright costumes. I stand in front of the hot pans.  What do I want?  I point again.  A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Curried chicken or goat, A dozen different kinds of spicy lentils, nan.  What do you recommend? I ask the man behind the counter. Please, sit, I make a plate, he says.   I go and read my book, trying not to be distracted by the talking men and the music videos, and he brings me a styrofoam plate full of steaming delicious dishes, and a pewter picture of water.  There’s also a salad of ice berg lettuce and chickpeas, which I don’t like because there’s too much dressing on it.  Sometimes they give me a little dessert on the way out the door.

When I first moved here, I got off the subway and asked an old-timer where we were.  “Flatbush,” he said.  I asked a younger person and he said “Ditmas Park.”  Still others said “Midwood.”  A realty company has the area listed as “Fiske Terrace.”   Google maps apparently thinks Flatbush and Ditmas Park are the same thing, and in fact uses the cumbersome designation “Flatbush-Ditmas Park.” If you do a Google Search for “Midwood or Flatbush” you can find different people calling the same neighborhoods different things for different reasons. There’s a lot of history here. Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers used to play, was close by (it was razed and replaced Apartment buildings). Edward Murrow was from here, and Mel Blanc used to say Bugs Bunny had a Flatbush accent (but I’m a little skeptical of this as Blanc was from San Francisco. Could he really distinguish the different accents of the different NY boroughs?), and indeed you might find an old-timer around who says “Dese” and “dose” and sounds like he’d be at home in a Jimmy Cagney gangster flick, but there aren’t too many of those accents to be heard day to day. Philip J. Fry of “Futurama” fame is from here (one of the writers on the show did grow up here and wrote his old neighborhood into the show). My landlady has been here for decades and has 4 sons. They all have dark curly hair, and occasionally an old timer out walking his dog will squint at me and say “now which one are you?” and I’ll smile and say “None of them. I’m Jason, I just rent a room.” “Ahh you fooled me,” the old-timer will say. “I thought you were Dimitri.” The sons tell of a time growing up in the 70s and 80s back when crime was high and it wasn’t as safe to be here. They speak of it with a certain nostalgia and pride. “You shoulda been here in the old days, back when shit was real,” they’ll say, drawing on a cigarette with a far away look in their eyes. This is common with my friends who grew up here. They exhibit a certain pride, an authority rooted in experience and mystique. They knew NYC when it was seedier, grittier, realer. Back before people like me moved in from other places. On the other hand, New York is of course is the story of people who moved here from other places. Some of them stay for awhile and settle in, most of them move on.