Sunday, November 7, 2021

Curb Your Enthusiasm Is Why Red America Hates Us

I’m going to say something that’s probably going to get me into a lot of trouble with the circles in which I travel (comedians, New Yorkers, Jews): I’m struggling to like Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Now mind you, I’m one of the biggest Seinfeld fans on the planet. I’ve seen every episode at least five times and continue to watch it. I can recite many episodes verbatim.

So why am I struggling with Curb, which was created by and stars Seinfeld’s co-creator, Larry David? I think it comes down to this:

Larry David made $250M* from selling Seinfeld’s syndication rights and I just keep asking myself, What problems could someone with $250M possibly have?

But maybe that’s the point of Curb: Even if you have $250M, you still can’t escape the minor nuisances of everyday life (but they are minor).

There’s a certain tone-deafness about the show that I think the creators aren’t aware of, especially in these woke times.

For example, what was the big problem on last week’s episode? Larry spilled a glass of wine on someone’s couch. Without even thinking, he offered to pay to have the couch cleaned, whereas I would be horrified by the prospect of having to pay for something like that. (That’s the thing when you have money: you can almost always buy yourself out of any problem.)

Even something as seemingly innocuous as Larry watching a concert from a private box at the Greek Theatre with a bottle of wine and his celebrity friend, Albert Brooks, kind of rubs me the wrong way.

Compare this to Seinfeld, where you have four more or less middle-class characters and an assortment of quirky New York types (none of whom could exist in post-’90s, gentrified New York). I think this is more relatable to most people than Larry David’s cushy existence (although I’m still surprised people outside of New York City even watch Seinfeld).

I’m experiencing my own “wokelash” in light of last week’s election. Even I have become more concerned lately about quality of life issues and voted for Eric Adams precisely because he's a former policeman.

What this last election demonstrated is that the so-called “elites” are out of touch with middle America. The whole country has become siloed in their own information bubbles, so we’re frequently not aware of what people outside our bubble are thinking.

So that’s my woke analysis of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Don’t even get me started on Succession!

* The syndication of Seinfeld earned David an estimated $250 million in 1998 alone. This amount has been steadily decreasing each year, but payments will continue until the full $1.7 billion from the original syndication deal has been paid. (from Wikipedia)

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Dancer from the Dance: Gay Period Piece or Gay Classic?

It’s hard to believe that it’s taken me this long to get around to reading Andrew Holleran’s landmark gay novel, Dancer from the Dance, more than 40 years after it was originally published. It’s only because I saw someone reading it outside a coffee shop in the West Village and I was shocked that it was still in print, and even more shocked that the person reading it was at least 30 years younger than me. When I first moved to New York City 40 years ago, the world that Holleran writes about—the world of gay “clones” who went to gay discos like The Saint—was already starting to disappear.

At that time, there were two distinct gay subcultures: the aforementioned clones, who generally were in their 30s or older and lived in the West Village, and new wavers/punks (like I was shortly after this book was published), who were generally in their 20s and lived in the East Village. (Gay artist Keith Haring even used to spray paint walls and sidewalks in the East Village with the phrase “Clones Go Home.”)

You may wonder, then, why I read a novel like Dancer and why I think it’s so important. It’s because many of the gay men from the generation that Holleran is writing about died of AIDS, so this is like a historical record.

I’m disappointed that Holleran didn’t use the names of real people and places more frequently, like Martin Belk did in his book about New York’s gay scene in the 1990s, Pretty Broken Punks (but that was more of a memoir). It’s only because of books like Tim Lawrence’s Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor: 1980–1983 that I’m familiar with early New York discos like Flamingo and 12 West. (Is Dancer’s “Twelfth Floor” disco based on 12 West?)

Normally, the previous generation of gay men would have passed this information on to the next generation (along with other important cultural information, like which movies you should see and which books you should read), but because of AIDS, many of these men died before they even reached middle age.

So thank God for novels like Dancer that preserve this history. The fact that one may not recognize the names of certain people and places may, in fact, make it even more universal. (Certainly, that was my hope when I changed the names of people and places in my gay coming-of-age novel, New York Trilogy. That and the fact that I thought that that was what you were supposed to do in a novel.)

Much like Larry Kramer’s Faggots (another important novel of this period), Dancer is about a gay man, Malone, looking for love in a gay subculture defined by promiscuity. What makes his search even more poignant is that he’s described as being impossibly beautiful, as well as a perfect gentleman. (Indeed, beauty may be the real subject of Dancer.)

However, as was common in many gay works of this era, the story is ultimately tragic. (If you’ve seen the excellent documentary, The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo's book, I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers here.)

What makes the book worth reading, apart from its historical value, is that it’s beautifully written and its characters are unforgettable. The gay beauty, Malone, is a Gatsby-like figure, an unattainable object of desire. (The scene describing his clothing reminds me of a similar scene in The Great Gatsby describing Gatsby’s shirts.)

Equally memorable is his tour guide to the gay scene, Sutherland, a classic jaded queen. (Think Harold in The Boys in the Band or Richard E. Grant’s character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

In spite of all this, I found Dancer to be profoundly depressing because, ultimately, it’s about aging and death.

It is also, however, a masterpiece.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Petrosino Park Is Out of Control

Yesterday I spoke to Christopher Marte, the man I hope will be my City Council member, about the deteriorating quality of life around Petrosino Park, a small, triangular park in Nolita that is bordered by Lafayette Street, Kenmare Street and Cleveland Place.

Despite numerous complaints to the Fifth Preinct and 311 from my neighbors and I, the situation has not only not improved, it has actually gotten worse.

There’s a general atmosphere of lawlessness in the neighborhood which the police say they’re powerless to do anything about. (I actually stopped a patrol car today to talk to them about it and they said that, while they agree with me, they can’t do anything about it.)

I seem to recall that it’s illegal to even play a radio in New York City parks, much less set up a microphone and amplifier that could fill a nightclub. But there seems to be a general lack of enforcement of “quality of life” crimes these days, as anyone who rides the subway can attest.

But amplified music is just one (albeit the most egregious) example of the deteriorating quality of life in my neighborhood. On the west side of the park, Lafayette Street has been converted into a de facto skateboard park with skateboarders shouting and banging their skateboards at all hours of the day.

The space that used to be Spring Street Natural Restaurant (it’s vacant now) is covered with graffiti. The non-profit Storefront for Art and Architecture was also covered with graffiti and had to be repainted several times. Perhaps the worst offenders are the restaurants themselves, particularly 19 Cleveland and La Esquina. 19 Cleveland has been operating past legal hours, has been doing construction at 23 Cleveland Place without a permit (at least none that I can see) and throwing rooftop parties late at night. They’re also expanding into the garden behind 23 Cleveland Place, again, without any permit or neighborhood input.

La Esquina has also been a horrible neighbor pretty much from the day they opened. I can always tell when they’re closing (2am) because their clientele seems to be incapable of leaving without waking up the entire neighborhood.

This whole outdoor dining phenomenon, which was supposed to be a temporary measure to help restaurants make up for income lost during the pandemic, has turned our streets and neighborhoods into all-day nightclubs, complete with loud music (and customers) and crowded sidewalks. I’m hoping that when they (hopefully) take office, Christopher Marte and Eric Adams can put an end to all this, because it’s clear that the Fifth Precinct and Mayor de Blasio have no intention of doing so.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Bob Gruen Ruined My Life

I just finished reading rock photographer Bob Gruen’s aptly titled memoir, Right Place, Right Time and it’s thrown me into an existential crisis.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Gruen’s immensely entertaining autobiography about how a kid from Great Neck, Long Island wound up hanging out with the coolest people on the planet. (In fact, I tore through it in four days.) It’s that his very existence has me questioning my life choices.

Gruen’s book touches on three things that have been a major theme of this blog lately: 1) that I was born too late/born at the wrong time, 2) that New York City’s best days are long behind it, and 3) that rock music itself is now a matter of history.

As an avid reader of the biographies of creative people, it often seems in retrospect that they led charmed lives. (Actually, that also could have been the title of Gruen’s book: Charmed Life.)

To recount just one example from Gruen’s book, he talks about how one time he was working on the West Coast and he had to fly back to New York in order to do his taxes. If he hadn’t flown back to New York for those few days (remember, this was in the days before cell phones and personal computers), he wouldn’t have had an important meeting with John Lennon (who also happened to be his neighbor), resulting in a lifelong friendship and business relationship.

These kinds of chance occurrences happen throughout the book, whether it’s a childhood connection to musician Todd Rundgren or finding the Westbeth apartment that made his entire life possible.

This has caused me to question my own super-regimented life where I read The New York Times every day and know what I’m going to eat for every meal. A life, I might add, that’s completely antithetical to the kind of artistic life I’m trying to lead.

Or is it?

It’s hard to imagine Gruen ever having time to read a newspaper or watch television with his peripatetic lifestyle. Hell, it’s surprising to learn he even owns a TV set! (He does, but as far as I can tell, he just uses it to watch the videos he’s filmed.)

So while I go from one soul-destroying job to another in order to support my artistic endeavors, Gruen seemingly glides from success to success—although he strenuously argues otherwise. Yes, Gruen may have had a few soul-destroying jobs at the beginning of his career, but not his entire life!

The result is that Gruen’s work is now exhibited in museums and galleries, and he’s widely recognized as probably the most renowned rock photographer in the world. (I’m sure you’ve all seen his photo of John Lennon wearing a New York City T-shirt, among many others.)

And I’ve got a blog into which I can pour my musings on his accomplishments.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Arrivederci, San Gennaro

Nowhere is the collision of nouveau riche and street trash more obvious than at the San Gennaro Feast. Around the corner from where a new Zegna store (home of the $6,000 suit) is opening, there are open vats of boiling oil and fried everything you can think of (not to mention literal street trash).

Of course, the San Gennaro Feast is a shadow of its former self. It’s no longer the crowded free-for-all that opened Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

In fact, Little Italy (or Nolita, as it’s now called in real estate parlance) is a shadow of its former self. I sometimes joke that Little Italy is now just two old Italian ladies holding hands.

Even the Italian American Museum, which stood on the corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets, was torn down to make way for luxury apartments. Fortunately, it will occupy a space in the new building. (Every organization has learned that its most valuable asset is real estate.)

The neighborhood is clearly in flux.

When I first moved here 34 years ago, nobody even knew where Nolita (or Little Italy, as it was then known) was. It was basically a neighborhood of truck stop diners. I had a diner on every corner, two Korean delis, a newsstand and a laundromat—everything a good neighborhood needs—all practically on the same block.

Now are no diners, one deli, and the newsstand and laundromat have relocated a few blocks away. They’ve been replaced by expensive restaurants and boutiques which come and go faster than one can keep track. At one point there was a high-end kitchen and bathroom store around the corner from my apartment, but they soon went out of business. I guess there wasn’t a strong enough market for designer shower heads.

Spring Street Natural Restaurant, which had been in the neighborhood since the ’70s, tried to relocate several years ago and then closed. Their former space then had a rotating series of restaurants, none of which caught on. It’s now covered with graffiti. The street in front of where it stood has become a de facto skateboard park, with young men skateboarding at all hours of the day and night.

Another beloved restaurant, Mexican Radio, (which I’ve written about on this blog*) also closed a few years ago and was replaced by an Israeli restaurant that has basically commandeered all of Cleveland Place, blasting their music for an endless stream of millennials.

It's hard not to sound like an old fart (and maybe that’s what I am), but I don’t remember behaving so badly when I was in my twenties. I don’t remember screaming every time I got into a cab, or having loud fights every time I left a bar.

It’s hard to cheer for New York’s comeback when it seems to be simultaneously self-destructing. The long-foretold (by Republicans) “return of the ’70s” (aided and abetted by our do-nothing police department) seems to be happening at the same time as ever-more-luxurious high-rises are sprouting on every corner.

Bloomingdale’s windows are celebrating the return of Broadway even as theater owners are holding their breath to see if they sell any tickets.

I guess it really is a tale of two cities.

I just haven’t decided which one I live in yet.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Born Too Late

I’ve often written on this blog about how I’ve sometimes felt like I was born too late. Usually, it’s been about missing out on New York’s punk rock/new wave music scene in the ‘80s. This feeling was reinforced last week when I went to see an excellent show at the Museum of the City of New York: New York, New Music: 1980-1986.

In reality, I caught the tail end of this scene, as I moved to New York permanently in 1981 and also lived here during the summer of 1980, but I sometimes feel like I was either too young or too broke (or both) to truly enjoy it.

I was particularly struck by how many live music venues there were in Manhattan in the ‘80s and how, on any given night, you might be able to see acts like Madonna, Kid Creole and the Coconuts or Madness, sometimes all on the same night (or even in the same venue).

I wouldn’t even know where to see live music in Manhattan nowadays!

I was struck by a similar feeling about the comedy world yesterday when I met a woman and she told me her husband was a stand-up comedian in the ’80s and, in fact, that they’d met at a comedy club.

She said that he was part of a group of comedians that included people like Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano who made the circuit of clubs like The Comic Strip, Catch a Rising Star, The Improv and Dangerfield’s and then moved to Los Angeles, where they were all offered sitcoms! (Well, not exactly, but you get my drift…)

Back then, she told me, it was possible to make a decent living as a comedian performing at gigs around New York City, making maybe $100 a spot. (Granted, the cost of living was a lot cheaper then, too.)

She told me about how Pat Benatar and Patty Smyth were waitresses at comedy clubs back in those days. (They both went on to become rock stars, of course.)

And that makes perfect sense. Because comedians in the ’80s were like rock stars. The country was in the midst of a comedy boom, which eventually led to hundreds of comedy clubs across the country. That boom eventually went bust, when cable TV arrived on the scene and people suddenly realized they didn’t have to leave home to see a comedy show. (And it didn’t help that club owners were booking everyone who thought he or she could be a comedian.)

Back in those days, this woman told me, there were maybe 100 comedians in the entire country and they all knew each other. I replied that I personally knew 1,000 comedians just in New York City and that, not only were none of us getting paid, but we had to pay in order to perform. (Either that or do “bringer shows.”)

But I shouldn’t feel too sorry for myself.

Tonight I’m going to see a comedian who’s celebrating his 87th birthday and didn’t start doing comedy until he was 80. He’s going to be performing at The Comic Strip, where people like Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano started out (and I recently started performing myself).

And we’re going to try to recreate that feeling of camaraderie that existed in the ’80s.

Even if it’s just us comedians.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

America’s Lottery-based Economy

The coronavirus pandemic has really laid bare the gaping economic inequality in our country. We’ve seen how “essential workers” have had to put their lives at risk because they couldn’t afford to not work and didn’t have jobs that enabled them to work from home.

That economic inequality was recently further underscored by Hurricane Ida, when these same “essential workers” had their homes destroyed (and, in some cases, died) because they’re forced to live in substandard (and illegal) basement apartments.

And yet we persist in believing in the “American dream,” the idea that if you just get an education and work hard you will be afforded a middle-class life.

My own experience illustrates that this is not the case. I’ve spent my entire life struggling just to stay in place.

While I wouldn’t compare my circumstances to those of the immigrants who keep this country fed, I have often found myself in the same precarious economic situation as them. As a white male, you would think I’d have it relatively easy, and perhaps I have had it easier than some people because of this fact. But in other ways, I’m at a disadvantage.

The fact that I’m older means I’m a victim of age discrimination, an epidemic that is raging unchecked in this country.

I’ve also lost probably tens of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings because I wasn’t able to finish my college degree. I was the valedictorian of my high school class and I had a full academic scholarship. But because I had used up my student loan money, I was forced to drop out.

It’s been shown that an academically inferior student from a wealthy family has a better chance of graduating college than an academically superior student from a poor family. (I believe it’s not so much the educational opportunities that have caused this loss of income as the networking opportunities.) And that crucial fact at a critical time in my life has probably left me permanently poorer.

It’s only because companies are now having a relatively hard time finding workers that they are beginning to re-examine their hiring practices regarding requiring a college degree for jobs that clearly shouldn’t require them.

So, as we celebrate Labor Day, I just want to point out the glaring inconsistencies between what we think America is and what it really is. Our so-called social safety net is among the worst in the civilized world.

We’re still the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t have public healthcare.

Our unemployment system was woefully unprepared to deal with this epidemic. From not getting people their benefits on time to not even being able to answer a question (because you couldn’t reach them by phone), our various Departments of Labor were overwhelmed.

And many Americans (including me) won’t be able to afford to retire, assuming Social Security even has any money left.

That’s why I say we have a “lottery-based” economy. Because for millions of Americans, the only possibility of improving their economic circumstances is, literally, winning the lottery.

Happy Labor Day.