Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why the East Village Matters to Me

I may live in Nolita now (and have lived there for the last 28 years), but it was my first seven years in New York City, living in the East Village, that formed my identity as a New Yorker.
Between 1980 and 1987, I lived in eight different apartments in the East Village and Lower East Side. (Yes, I had to move, on average, once a year. Which is why I’ve been in my current apartment for 28 years. That and the fact that it’s rent stabilized.)
My first apartment in the summer of 1980 was on 14th Street between Second and Third Avenue, next to the Metropolitan, a notorious porno theater. At that time 14th Street was so dangerous, I used to take the subway to Astor Place and walk to 14th Street.
Then I lived on East 4th Street between First and Second Avenue, directly across from the basketball court (where I used to watch John Lurie play basketball) and the Ninth Precinct (as seen on Kojak).
Next up was East 10th Street (between First and A). I lived in Steve Buscemi’s old apartment (I used to get his mail) next to the Fun Gallery. I wound up subletting that apartment to finance a trip to London (I was young and stupid) and was never able to move back in.
Hence my brief stays on 13th Street (between First and A), where I was mugged for the first time, and East Third Street (between B and C), where I was followed down the street by a drug dealer who tried to start a fight with me. Let’s just say I didn’t stick around long enough for him to succeed!
Fourteenth Street (between Second and Third, again!) was next. I lived in an abandoned building that was turned into an artists’ squat. One day I came down the stairs to see that my landlord had decided to renovate. I could see the first floor storefront through the floorboards of my living room!
That led to East Seventh Street (between B and C), where I lived in a de facto sex club and didn’t come out of my room for an entire year. (I used to eat all my meals at 7A.)
Last, but not least, was Norfolk Street (between Houston and Stanton) where my upstairs neighbor used to blast his stereo and have orgasms that sounded like he was laughing. (I could hear him through the vents in my bathroom.)
But there were good times, too!
The East Village is where I went to my first gay bar (The Bar, on Second Avenue and East Fourth Street).
The East Village is where I had enough Polish food to last a lifetime. Kiev, Veselka, Odessa, Leshko, Christina, Teresa, Lillian (the three sisters!), Orchidia, Baltyk, I went to them all. I ate at the Kiev so often when I first moved here (particularly their challah French toast), I once got a phone call there. (Their cashier at the time, who now lives in my neighborhood, is one of my oldest acquaintances.)
The East Village is where I went to the Pyramid and saw RuPaul before he became “RuPaul.”
It was where I went to Wigstock every Labor Day until it got too big for Tompkins Square Park (and eventually too big for New York City).
It was where I went to LaMama and Theater for the New City and P.S. 122.
So it should come as no surprise that when I heard there was a fire in the East Village that took two lives, injured 22, and destroyed three buildings, I was devastated.
Unlike those selfie-taking idiots on the front page of the New York Post, I studiously avoided going to Second Avenue and Seventh Street, not only because I didn’t want to get in the way of emergency responders, but because I was afraid of how emotional I might get.
Nowadways, my connection to the East Village is as a comedian doing open mics at places like Klimat, the Phoenix, and Otto’s Shrunken Head.
You can take the boy out of the East Village, but you can’t take the East Village out of the boy.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

An Open Letter to Bill Maher

Dear Bill,
I’ve been a faithful viewer of your show for the last few years and I usually agree with what you have to say. However, during last night’s show you mentioned (yet again) how well the economy is doing and, as evidence, pointed to the following facts: the unemployment rate is down, the stock market is up, GDP is up, and the deficit is down. These facts may be true but these facts don’t tell the whole story.
Yes, the unemployment rate is down but that’s because a large number of people have stopped looking for work and have dropped out of the labor market. These people are not counted by unemployment statistics.
Furthermore, what kinds of jobs are being created? They are mostly low-wage jobs, part-time jobs and/or temporary/contract/freelance jobs without benefits. They are mostly in the service sector (i.e., low-wage jobs), as this article in The New York Times points out (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/07/business/economy/jobs-report-unemployment-february.html?_r=0). The same article also points out that wages only went up 0.1% last month, continuing a pattern in which real wages haven’t budged for decades.1
The GDP has also been discredited as a measure of economic well-being in a number of articles, including this one (http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/30/alternatives-to-the-gdp/).
As I write this, New York City’s subway system is scheduled to raise their fare yet again (despite the fact that service has deteriorated to an all-time low2), dealing yet another blow to the middle class. But how would you know that? You live in Los Angeles and probably haven’t used public transportation in decades.
I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see you constantly defending Obama’s economic policies and to see Republicans arguing (however disingenuously) on behalf of the middle class.
I’d be happy to go on your program any time to give the point of view of real people dealing with real struggles, rather than these professional pundits who “live inside the bubble” (as you’re so fond of saying).
Paul Hallasy

Friday, March 13, 2015

An Open Letter to Elizabeth Warren and/or Bernie Sanders: Part 2

 Last week I wrote a post in which I urged Elizabeth Warren and/or Bernie Sanders to run for president because I had just paid my rent and barely had enough money left over to make it to my next paycheck, even though I work full time.
Well, I made it to my next paycheck (on less than $20 a day, I might add), paid my utility bills and a few credit cards, and was left with barely enough money to get through the week again!
When someone working full time has to worry about how he’s going to survive until his next paycheck, there’s something seriously wrong with this country. And I’m not even talking about fast food or retail workers, here. I’m talking about someone with a white collar position, something that used to be known as a good job.
This past weekend I had a one-hour phone conversation with my brother. Even though we come from opposite ends of the political spectrum—I’m a liberal Democrat and my brother is an Independent (although his views tend to skew Republican)—we both agreed that the middle class is getting screwed.
Thing didn’t get this way by accident, they were legislated by rich people and organizations in order to maintain their positions of power.
What do you think Obamacare is? A law written by the healthcare industry for its own benefit.
Similarly, in perhaps an even more egregious example, Citibank wrote the Wall Street giveaway that was approved by Congress as part of the budget last year.1
And, of course, it’s not just the healthcare industry and banks that write their own laws. Every industry has lobbyists on Capitol Hill who write laws and then submit them to Congress for approval.
Meanwhile, unions—the only organizations working on behalf of the other 99% of Americans—have become nearly nonexistent.
Just recently, Wisconsin became the 25th state to pass a “right to work law,” a piece of legislation that weakens unions.2
Additionally, whatever’s left of the so-called “safety net” we have in this country—from unemployment insurance to food stamps—has been decimated by Republicans.
This is why we need Elizabeth Warren and/or Bernie Sanders to run for president. Because the American middle class is becoming the American poor.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

An Open Letter to Elizabeth Warren and/or Bernie Sanders: Please Run for President

I’m sitting here in my rent-stabilized apartment on a winter Saturday reading the newspaper and surfing the Internet because I can’t afford to do anything else.
Despite the fact that I’m working full time (35 hours a week), despite the fact that I’m bringing lunch to work every day and cooking all my meals at home, I can’t afford to do anything because I just paid my rent and I’m literally counting the days until my next paycheck.
I should perhaps add that my current salary is the same as it was in 2008, despite the fact that the rate of inflation alone in the last seven years has been 15.3%1. Despite the fact that, in the last seven years, my rent has gone up 21%, my phone bill has gone up about 500% (because you now need a smart phone in order to function in modern society), my cable bill has gone up about 50% (because you also need a high-speed Internet connection), and the MTA is about the raise their subway fare yet again.
Despite all that, my salary has stayed the same.
And that’s assuming I’m lucky enough to even have a job, because (as I’ve gone from one temporary job to another) I’ve been unemployed for half of the last two years and may soon be unemployed again.
And yet, everywhere you look, people say the economy is doing great.
On the front page of today’s New York Times2 is the headline “After a Bounce, Wage Growth Slumps to 0.1%.” But all you ever hear about from President Obama (and even liberal commentators like Bill Maher, who should know better but doesn’t, because even he’s a millionaire) is that the economy is going gangbusters.
While “employers may have increased their payrolls by 295,000 workers in February,… job growth…was heavily concentrated in the service sector” (read low-paying jobs). And wage growth rose “only 0.1 percent.”
But the only debate you hear about in Washington is whether or not Janet Yellen, the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, should raise interest rates.
How is that even a debate? And why aren’t we debating how we can create more jobs and raise wages?
The only people in Washington who have addressed this issue in even the slightest way are Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
We, the struggling middle-class of America, who have seen our standard of living decline for the last 30 years (at least since President Reagan took office and created the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the American people: “trickle-down-economics”), desperately need one or both of you to run for president, to reverse the downward slide that has been our reality since 1981.
And, while you’re at it, you might want to do something about the disastrous Citizens United decision that has sent our country hurtling towards plutocracy. Because, also in today’s New York Times, is an editorial about how Jeb Bush’s “fundraisers have reportedly been instructed not to ask megadonors to give more than $1 million each this quarter.”3
I could go on, but other people have written at great length and better than I have about how rising inequality in this country is a threat to our democracy. I would start by making Joseph Stieglitz’s The Price of Inequality4, Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth5, George Packer’s The Unwinding6, Barbara Garson’s Down the Up Escalator7 and Matt Taibbi’s The Divide8 required reading for every American. (I could throw in Thomas Piketty’s Capital9, for good measure, but it’s unreadable.)
But how are Americans even supposed to know how fucked over they’re getting when they’re working overtime or several jobs just to pay their bills?
Because, of all the great injustices inflicted upon this country by the Koch Brothers and their ilk, perhaps the greatest is this: the fact that in today’s America, there’s no time or energy left over for anything except survival.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Russell Tovey and the Plight of the “Straight-Acting” Gay

 This past Sunday, actor Russell Tovey, who plays the role of Kevin on the gay-themed show Looking on HBO, gave an interview to the British newspaper The Guardian in which he said,
 “I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to. Where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path. Because it’s probably given me the unique quality that people think I have.”1
Predictably, gay men who identify as effeminate seized on this quote as evidence of Tovey’s “femme-bashing.”
But, wait!
In today’s PC world, there’s lots of love and support for “sissy” boys. TV is full of them! (Ross the Intern, Brad Goreski, Chris Colfer’s character on Glee, Carson Kressley, Jack from Will & Grace, just to name a few.)
But where is the love for the “straight-acting” gay?
Shunned by his gay brothers for not being camp/bitchy enough, yet not accepted by straight society either because he doesn’t like sports, pleated Dockers or “bro”-ish behavior in general.
Where’s the love for them?
I remember the first time I tried to get a gig as a comedian on Fire Island and was explicitly told by the club’s booker: “We only book drag queens.”
Is there no justice?!
It seems to me that the vast majority of gay men are, like myself, neither camp/bitchy enough to be drag queens nor muscular/handsome enough to be go-go dancers. Yet those are the only two alternatives offered to us.
Rather than attack Tovey for owning up to the circumstances that made him who he is (an unsympathetic father, being attacked by two men with a knife when he was a teenager), we should feel sympathy for him.
After all, it must be difficult not to do that Take That dance routine2 (like his character Kevin does on Looking), when you know you’re dying to.