Sunday, July 4, 2021

On Grief

Yesterday I came out of the closet. I ran into a friend of mine on the Upper East Side and I confessed that I was still grieving for my partner who passed away from cancer last year. I was a little bit embarrassed. You’d think I’d be “over it” by now. But I thought he might understand because he had lost his partner, too.

I mentioned how, because of my real estate job, I now found myself in neighborhoods that reminded me of my partner. When I was in Hell’s Kitchen, it reminded me of his apartment. When I was on the Upper East Side it reminded me of New York Hospital, where he got chemotherapy. When I was on the Upper West Side, it reminded me of Mt. Sinai, where he was also a patient. And wherever I went, it reminded me of all the restaurants we used to go to. Even typing these words brought me to tears.

I guess the reason I haven’t thought about it is because I’ve been too busy. Too busy working or doing Zoom comedy shows even on my day off.

Humans are the only creatures who are aware that they’re going to die and yet we somehow continue to live. Partly it’s through a denial of death (as in the book of the same title) and partly it’s through the fact that it’s taboo to even talking about death or dying.

When you think about it, we’re all in a constant denial of death, whether it’s the death of people, animals, things or even ideas.

The most famous death of a thing was the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. (Of course, 3,000 people were also killed when the building was destroyed.) I remember how, for weeks if not months after it happened, I couldn’t even look in the direction of where the Twin Towers stood. And I experienced a similar grief as if I were grieving the loss of a human being, even though I didn’t know anyone who died in the attacks. I felt like this was an attack on me personally, on my city. I was as angry as I was sad.

But I think part of all of our reaction was shock. How could a building that was supposed to last forever, one of the tallest buildings in the world, be brought down in a matter of hours?

I experience a similar feeling every day as I walk around the city. Just the other day, I noticed that the building that used to house Bleecker Bob’s and Reminiscence, two landmarks of my early adulthood, had been razed to make way for who knows what. The fact that some people reading this may not even know what Bleecker Bob’s and Reminiscence are underscores the impermanence (irrelevance?) of things.

Then there are the more random acts of destruction that occur on a daily basis. A taxi crashes into the Japanese restaurant where I had dinner the other night. A fire destroys my favorite Chinese restaurant. An actress is struck and killed by a man on a scooter. A condo building near Miami collapses. And these things happened in just the last few weeks!

And, of course, we’ve all just witnessed the death of 600,000 Americans and millions more around the world from a pandemic that seemingly came out of nowhere.

And now we may be witnessing the death of an idea, of democracy itself, as Republicans pass laws around the country restricting voting rights.

You may think it’s absurd to connect the death of an idea to the death of a person or wonder why I’m even bringing it up. Is it an act of what I call “performative grief,” to show that I’m a good person? Or is it just to raise awareness?

And how do we deal with such grief? Do we talk about it, even though it’s taboo? Do we take action (in the case of voting rights or gentrification)? Or do we try to block it out with work, drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, TV, working out, etc.?

Some people, when finding out I’m a comedian, say, “How can you be a comedian? You’re so serious.”

And I always respond, “Comedians are some of the most serious people I know.”

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Tina Turner and the Twilight of the ’80s Rock Gods

Last night I watched Tina, an HBO documentary about Tina Turner I had been eagerly anticipating (and they had been eagerly promoting) for weeks. But instead of coming away from the show reveling in the awesomeness that is Tina Turner, I came away profoundly sad. The Tina that was interviewed in the documentary, surrounded by clips of her earlier performances and enormous success, didn’t look like Tina Turner. The huge wig was there but her face seemed somehow swollen and her eyes sunken into it. Her voice was the same, but I didn’t recognize the woman it was coming out of. I know she’s in her early ‘80s now, but I still had the 1984 image of Turner stuck in my head.

Just a week or two earlier, I had watched her triumphant farewell concert, filmed at London’s Wembley Arena, on PBS. There was the Tina I remembered: confidently strutting across the stage as thousands of fans cheered her every move. (Indeed, I had seen that tour myself in New York and also cheered her every move.) I came away from that program so inspired that I bought her book on Buddhism and quickly read it. (I still don’t understand the chanting thing but, hey, whatever works.)

Why was I so sad now?

1984 was a remarkable year in pop music history. MTV had just started three years earlier and was now hitting its stride, and a number of artists were having their most successful year ever, largely thanks to MTV. In addition to Turner, there were Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, George Michael, and Cyndi Lauper. Where are those people now? Several of them (Prince, Michael, Whitney, George) are dead—and they weren’t that old! The ones who didn’t actually die are either a pale imitation of their ’80s selves or have become elder statesmen. Springsteen and Lauper have discovered Broadway (where ’80s rock stars, including Tina, apparently go to reinvent themselves or resuscitate their careers) and Madonna’s been eclipsed by Lady Gaga.

Meanwhile, ’80s songs are now being used on retirement commercials!

So what are the options here?

One can either die tragically ahead of one’s time or survive into irrelevance (or, worse, pity). This is the human condition writ large.

I’m not knocking Tina. God knows, I love her. I’m somewhat sad she’s chosen to retire, but I can certainly understand her decision, at the same time I’m thinking of some of her contemporaries (Cher, Barbra Streisand) who never seem to age and are still (sort of) working.

Maybe I should adopt her Buddhist philosophy—life is suffering—and leave it at that.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Binge-watching Sex and the City During a Pandemic

I have a confession to make. For the last few nights, I’ve been binge-watching Sex and the City. And I’m absolutely loving it. God, I sound like Carrie confessing, “I’m having an affair with Big.”

But I digress.

While the show could sometimes be annoying (the voice-overs, the puns, Sarah Jessica Parker), watching it during this pandemic, when the entire city is shut down, has made me look at it in a new light.

For one thing, it’s reminded me of all the places in New York City that are no longer here: Jerry’s, Florent, the Art Greenwich movie theater, and, of course, the iconic Twin Towers that open the show. The list of clubs and restaurants that are name-checked (Moomba, Chaos) can send me into a nostalgia K-hole.

Of course, the reason a lot of those places are no longer here (apart from a terrorist attack) is because SATC helped gentrify the city to death, turning the Meatpacking District from, well, a meatpacking district, to a nightclub district, to a luxury co-op district.

SATC launched a thousand Carrie wannabes who came to the city thinking they too could live in Manhattan on a writer’s salary.

SATC ruined everything that was good about downtown, from Magnolia Bakery to the Perry Street townhouse that was supposed to be Carrie’s Upper East Side apartment to the aforementioned Meatpacking District. They all became stops on the SATC bus tour.

Because of that, it’s easy to overlook a lot of really good writing.

One good episode I just saw for the first time had Carrie and the gang going to Los Angeles. The episode starts out with the girls skeptical about going to LA, subscribing to all the usual New York vs. LA stereotypes, but then they find themselves unexpectedly liking LA, before finally hating LA again, all expressed through the metaphor of a fake Fendi baguette bag (“it’s what’s on the inside that counts”). SATC could make these great, clever points and do it while Carrie wears an absolutely stunning sequined caftan.

There’s been talk of an SATC reboot (without Kim Catrall—boo!), but I don’t know if they could recapture the magic they had in the late ’90s/early 2000s. What would an SATC reboot even look like? Four (I mean three) New York City women going through menopause in a hollowed-out, post-Covid New York? No thanks!

Or you could be like me and binge-watch classic SATC.

And, just like that, fall in love with it all over again.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Eating an Orange Is a Religious Experience

Eating an orange is a religious experience.
First of all, eating an orange is a sensual experience.
You bite into it and that juice comes squirting out.
Then you look at it and you think, How does an orange know how to grow into these perfect slices?
And from there you extrapolate to everything on Earth and the Earth itself: humans, animals, plants and insects.
How does a dog know how to do that scratching thing with its hind legs after it takes a shit (regardless of whether or not there’s any dirt there)?
And that is why eating an orange is a religious experience.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Day Democracy Died

This is the Republican Party under Trump. We all watched this on live television and these images have been broadcast around the world. Is this still “fake news”?

We should have known this going to happen from the moment Trump came down the escalator in Trump Tower and called Mexicans rapists and criminals.

The lives of the politicians who promoted Trump’s lies were themselves put at risk. One person was shot and killed. But for Trump it was all just collateral damage. Just like the 360,000 Americans who have died from Covid because Trump said the virus was a “hoax” and told people not to wear masks.

He would have done this just to own the news cycle. Because normally, we’d be talking about the historic victory of two Democrats in Georgia.

But such is the extent of Trump’s pathological narcissism that he’s literally willing to kill people in order to hold onto power.

Voting to overturn the results of a free and fair election would seem to be the definition of treason (just like withholding military aid from a foreign country in exchange for dirt on a political opponent would seem to be the definition of bribery). But we seem to lack the political will to impeach presidents or try people for treason.

Therefore, our goal should be to change the law to prevent someone like Donald Trump from ever holding office again. The guardrails of our democracy, our so-called “norms and ethics” aren’t strong enough to withstand someone as ruthless as Donald Trump.

For example, all presidential candidates should be required to provide their tax returns in order to run for office. That alone would prevent Trump (and probably any of his family members) from running for president in the future.

But we also need to examine why people would be so angry that they would storm the capital.

Sure, there are tons of conspiracy theories out there, and these theories have been exacerbated by Trump and the right-wing media. But these theories wouldn’t take root unless people felt disenfranchised in the first place.

For a long time, we haven’t had majority rule in this country. Our institutions themselves are undemocratic.

The Senate is undemocratic. Rhode Island, a state with one million people, has the same number of senators as California, a state with 40 million people. That’s not democratic.

Furthermore, most states have been gerrymandered to death. Why else would 147 Republicans feel like they could vote to overturn the results of a free and fair election and think they could get away with it? Because they know that Republican districts will stay Republican. And if they’re not sufficiently batshit crazy, they’ll be primaried by someone who’s even more batshit crazy.

Secondly, Democrats have come to be seen—rightly or wrongly—as the party of “coastal elites.” (It should be noted, of course, that there are people struggling on the coasts, too.) Democrats used to be the party of the working class.

How is it that Republicans—who have always been the party of giving tax cuts to the rich—came to be seen as the champions of working people? Yes, there may be an element of racism among “working class whites,” but we should remember (and the Democrats should be reminded) that the “working class” cuts across all racial lines.

The Democrats need to get back to their roots.

Maybe if we helped these people who stormed the Capitol—misguided as they are—they wouldn’t be so angry. (This is what I call the “Max Brooks” theory because I saw him make this suggestion on Real Time with Bill Maher.)

Maybe then we might be able to save our democracy.

But it’s going to take years—if not decades—to undo the damage Trump has caused.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

We Are Failing to Protect LGBT People

My neighbor, John Palmieri, has been harassing me with homophobic hate speech for 33 years. I’ve reported this harassment to numerous government (and other) agencies (New York Commission on Human Rights, New York City District Attorney, NYPD, Anti-Violence Project) and they haven’t done anything about it. I’ve also contacted my State Assemblymember and State Senator. I have video and audio documentation of this harassment, which I’ve shared with them. I’ve filed a police complaint and met in person with the District Attorney.

They’ve all basically said that unless he physically attacks me, there’s nothing they can do.

I believe that his actions constitute criminal harassment. I also think he’s mentally ill and, therefore, I don’t know what he’s capable of doing in terms of physically harming me.

This comes at a time when anti-LGBT violence and mental illness are both at an all-time high.

Here are links to two videos I’ve posted on my Facebook page which document Mr. Palmieri’s harassment and threats against me.

In the first one, you can hear him saying (about me) “this motherfucker,” “faggot motherfucker” and “gay motherfucking asshole.”

In the second one, he says “I’ll knock him out, kick him in the face.”

This is a violent threat.

The reality is that the way the law is currently written, it actually protects people like John Palmieri and endangers people like me. If you spoke to any of these agencies, they’d say that Mr. Palmieri is protected by the First Amendment.

However, the First Amendment does not protect hate speech and this is clearly hate speech.

We’ve seen what hate speech can do, because for the last four years we’ve had a president who engages in it frequently. People have died and been seriously injured because of hate speech and will continue to die and be seriously injured unless we do something about it.

But we can’t do anything about it unless and until the people whose job it is to protect us do their job.

That is why I’m sharing the contact information for these people. If you’re as angry about anti-LGBT violence and hate speech as I am (and/or are angry because I’ve been the victim of such hate speech), please feel free to share your feelings with the people below.

Melissa Melo
Human Rights Specialist - Law Enforcement Bureau
New York Commission on Human Rights
22 Reade St. New York, NY 10007
T: 2124160216
Pronouns: She/her/hers

Ana Sophia Radolinksy
Assistant District Attorney
(212) 335-3667
(917) 239-3114

NYPD Fifth Precinct

Anti-Violence Project

State Aseemblymember Yuh-Line Niou

State Senator Brian Kavanagh

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

I’ve been thinking about (and listening to) the Bee Gees a lot in the last few days, after watching their HBO documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. Although I found the documentary utterly entertaining and thought it was extremely well done, I also found it profoundly sad. Lead singer Barry Gibbs’ three younger brothers (Robin, Maurice and Andy) are now all deceased (as Barry says at one point, he’d rather have his brothers back and no hit records), and his once mighty head of brown hair is now limp, gray wisps. It was like watching my life flash before my eyes, because the Bee Gees’ career coincided with key periods of my life, from their early ’60s hits (“I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” “Run to Me”), to their early ’70s rebirth (“Lonely Days,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”), to their spectacular success in the late ’70s (Saturday Night Fever, Spirits Having Flown).

I’ve been thinking about music in general and what you might call the circle of life, to borrow another musician’s phrase. Coldplay’s Chris Martin put it well in the documentary when he talked about the backlash the Bee Gees faced after Saturday Night Fever. He said that younger bands like his can now anticipate the rising and falling of musical careers, but bands in the first wave of international stardom didn’t know how to react.

I thought about the careers of white-hot musicians I myself have seen rise and fall (like Madonna and Lady Gaga, to mention only two of the most recent examples).

By now it’s become a cliché to say that the Bee Gees were more than just a “disco” band, and this documentary makes that abundantly clear by showcasing their decades-long career and enormous music catalogue. (I myself have known this for a long time, but I guess it’s news for people who only know them from Saturday Night Fever.)

Personally, my own music collection runs the gamut from Abba to the Sex Pistols. After several musical purges, where I got rid of records either because I didn’t think were “cool” enough (I still regret not saving my childhood and adolescent record collection), or because for the first six years I lived in New York City I moved an average of once a year (and records are heavy), I’ve finally reached the age of “I don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks.”

It’s important to remember, too, that the Bee Gees were sex symbols (at least Barry was) and a cultural phenomenon. It wasn’t just their music, it was their skin-tight white suits unbuttoned to the navel, their hairy chests, their gold medallions. (And, when I saw that rear shot of them performing onstage at the Spirits Having Flown tour, my first thought was of six Parker House rolls.)

There’s been a slew of rock documentaries lately on HBO and Showtime. They fall into either what I call the career-resuscitating documentary (of which this might be one, along with the recent career-spanning documentary of the Eagles) and what I call “grief porn”—documentaries about those artists who died either tragically young or in tragic circumstances (or both): Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse. I guess people my age are no longer buying music, so the idea is to catch us where we live—on cable TV! (The last “new” artist I bought was Lady Gaga. And who can blame me? The charts are now dominated by hip-hop and 19-year-old divas.)

The documentary ends on a hopeful note, with Barry singing his new country-tinged single, “Butterfly,” along with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (and it’s great to hear Barry singing three-part harmony again), and a scene of Barry performing at the Glastonbury Festival, with the stagehands performing disco dance moves.

When faced with the question of, to use the title of a Bee Gees song, immortality (or, as Queen sang “Who wants to live forever?”), maybe I should ask myself, “What would Barry do?”