Saturday, February 22, 2014

At Least It Didn’t Happen to Me

In my Manhattan neighborhood, even the high-end boutiques are starting to close.
Etiqueta Negra, a store that sold $8,000 leather jackets is empty. A shoe store on Spring Street that sold $500 shoes sits vacant. Has conspicuous consumption finally reached its peak in Soho? Or is it just that the top .01 percent is pulling as far away from the top 1 percent as the top 1 percent is pulling away from the other 99 percent (not that I feel sorry for the bottom 9/10ths of the top 1 percent)? So now, mere luxury stores are giving way to super-luxury stores, the same way mere luxury apartments are giving way to super-luxury apartments. No longer is the average, $1 million dollar Manhattan apartment enough. Now Rupert Murdoch has to buy the top four floors of the former Met Life building for $57 million. At least his ex-wife gets to keep the former Rockefeller apartment on Fifth Avenue.
All around me, it seems, people are walking around in denial. The common feeling seems to be, “Well, at least it didn’t happen to me.”
I just heard about a man I know, one of those only-in-New York characters who was just kicked out of his apartment after 40 years. He was the building’s super and the building’s landlord decided to renovate his apartment because God forbid someone shouldn’t monetize every square inch of space available.
After the last Senate vote on extending unemployment insurance failed to pass for the third time, the issue JUST DISAPPEARED FROM THE HEADLINES. People JUST STOPPED TALKING ABOUT IT. Even though President Obama said it was “urgent” and “important” and even though 69% of the American people wanted it to pass, IT JUST WENT AWAY. Like it never happened. 1.7 million long-term unemployed people JUST DISAPPEARED.
Because that’s what happens. Out of sight, out of mind. At least it didn’t happen to me.
Sometimes I look at the protests happening in Ukraine and Venezuela and Syria and ask myself, “Why isn’t that happening here?” Do people not know or do they just not care? Or are they just too tired from working 80 hours a week to think about it?
At least it didn’t happen to me.
So we go on about our lives and watch The Real Housewives and Honey Boo Boo while our infrastructure is literally crumbling around us, the world is warming, the oceans are rising, and we continue shopping and eating and having sex and drinking and doing drugs, anything to prevent us from having to think about what’s really going on, holed up in our tiny apartments with our cell phones and our computers and our large, flat-screen televisions, hoping that real life won’t encroach upon us and our cozy little world.
At least it didn’t happen to me.

Monday, February 17, 2014

U.S. No Longer a Democracy, Part 2: Comcast

 I hate to repeat the obvious (especially after the Senate just voted once again to not extend unemployment benefits despite the fact that 69% of Americans want them to do so1), but the U.S. is no longer a democracy. The latest example of this is Comcast’s proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable.
Now why, you may ask, should I worry that one cable TV company is taking over another? Good question. The answer is that a democracy is dependent upon the free flow of ideas and when one company (or, to be generous, let’s say six companies) control all (or, to be conservative, 90%) of those ideas, that is not good for democracy.
I’m shocked that, thus far, there has been nary a peep about this proposed takeover from our government. But I should not be surprised because, as The New York Times reported, “Mr. Roberts [chief executive of Comcast] has golfed with the president and hosted him at his residence on Martha’s Vineyard.
“David L. Cohen, who oversees the company’s relationship with regulators in Washington, has been a big bundler of donations for the president and staged a fund-raiser for him at his home in Philadelphia that raised $1.2 million. In recognition of those close ties, Mr. Cohen was one of the guests at a state dinner at the White House for the French president, François Hollande, last week.”2
Remember when monopolies were illegal? Now, as I mentioned earlier, six companies—Comcast, News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS—control 90% of the media in America.3 (That's consolidated from 50 companies back in 1983.)
Just like the banks that were “too big to fail” in the financial crisis got even bigger, the media companies that control 90% of the media in this country have become even more consolidated. And our government institutions are so bad at regulating them that the chief executive of Comcast is already presenting this deal as a fait accompli.
And why is that? Because the people who are supposed to be regulating these industries become lobbyists for the very industries they’re supposed to be regulating. Again, to quote the New York Times, “… one of the Federal Communications Commission regulators who approved the NBCUniversal deal, Meredith Attwell Baker, now works for Comcast as a lobbyist. Since that deal, there has been a change in leadership at the commission, and it is now run by Tom Wheeler, who was previously a chief lobbyist for the cable industry. (Comcast is among the biggest spenders on lobbying, having written checks for $18 million in 2013 alone.)”4
So when your cable bills goes up yet again after this takeover goes through and there aren’t any competing cable companies you can take your business to, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
But this is about more than just a higher cable bill. It’s about the very foundation of our country. If you really want to get angry (or just be more informed), I suggest you read The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz (, so you can learn in detail about all the myriad ways our economy and political system is rigged in favor of the 1%, and how that’s destroying our democracy.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Burlesque to Broadway

There’s been something of a mini burlesque trend going on in New York theater lately. A few weeks ago, I went to see something called La Soirée, which is a sort of combination of burlesque and circus show. And recently a new high-end burlesque show opened at the Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in the Paramount Hotel.
The most recent incarnation of this phenomenon is a show called Burlesque to Broadway at the Gramercy Theater, featuring Quinn Lemley. Miss Lemley is a beautiful, Rita Hayworth-like redhead with a fine singing voice who has been a fixture of New York’s cabaret scene for some time. Her new show loosely ties together some songs tangentially related to burlesque (as well as some other songs not so tangentially related), along with some corny jokes of the Sophie Tucker variety, some back-up dancers in glittering costumes, and a live band, into a two-hour theatrical presentation. But it’s really more of a standard cabaret show meets Las Vegas revue that would be more suited for a cabaret space like The Rainbow Room (which no longer exists) or Joe’s Pub (which does).
The problem that I have with cabaret shows in general (and it’s the same problem I have with such TV shows as American Idol and The Voice) is this: Why should I go see someone sing a bunch of songs that have been more memorably sung by someone else? So, for example, when Miss Lemley performs “Hey, Big Spender,” we immediately compare it to the version we’ve heard in either the film or stage production of Sweet Charity. Or when she performs not one, but two, of Barbra Streisand’s signature numbers from Funny Girl (“My Man” and “”Don’t Rain on My Parade”), it’s inevitable that we’ll measure it against Ms. Streisand’s version. The trick to producing a good cabaret show, therefore, is finding songs that no one’s heard of (hopefully) and introducing them to a new audience.
And can we have a moratorium on shows that call audience members up on stage? The only New York theater trend more annoying than the Obligatory Standing Ovation is the Obligatory Audience Participation.
There are some things to recommend this show, such as the live band (particularly the drummer) and the sparkly costumes. But given the garden-variety patter and stale jokes, it doesn’t rise to the standard of a true theatrical experience. In a more intimate space, however, such transgressions might be more easily overlooked.