Monday, October 29, 2018

A Different World

In the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed the murder of a Saudi journalist who was living in the United States, a man who sent bombs to various critics of President Trump (including George Soros) and a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
I feel like all of these events have their roots in the culture of violence that has been promoted by President Trump and the Republican Party. Trump has frequently referred to the press as “the enemy of the people” and “fake news.” He has dehumanized Democrats like Hillary Clinton with chants of “lock her up” (even though she hasn’t committed any crimes). And Republicans were still showing a TV ad claiming that George Soros was behind the so-called “migrant caravan” on the same day that bombing suspect Cesar Sayoc was arrested. (The George Soros claim—which, like much of  Trump’s and Republicans’ claims, has no basis in fact—is an anti-Semitic dog whistle.)
But we no longer say, “Oh my God, there’s been a mass shooting!”, we say “Oh my God, there’s been another mass shooting” because it’s now a monthly event. Before we even have time to digest one tragedy, another tragedy knocks it off the front page. We’ve lost our capacity to be shocked. And the daily lies and degradations of the Trump administration have made us numb.
As I was riding a packed subway this morning, I thought, “the quality of life in the city has really deteriorated to Third World country levels and people just accept it as normal.” But everyone was hooked up to their electronic devices, so they’ve just chosen to anaesthetize themselves. People are numbing themselves with electronic devices, drugs, alcohol, sex, food, shopping, TV, social media—you name it.
And, while we’re on the subject of social media, can I just say that social media is bullshit? It creates the illusion that you’re doing something by pushing a button (although some people can’t even be bothered to push a button). It creates the illusion of social interaction but, when push comes to shove, in an actual crisis, would any of your Facebook friends actually be there for you?
Social media is nothing more than an outrage machine. It makes people feel better, but it accomplishes nothing.
But I understand why people turn to social media. It’s because the institutions we depend upon to help us (i.e., the government) are no longer working. And the reason they’re no longer working is because they no longer represent us. The system really is rigged.
The Senate is rigged because small states get the same number of senators as large states. The electoral college means that whoever wins the popular vote doesn’t necessarily win the election. And the Citizens United decision means that political action committees can contribute an unlimited amount of money to candidates.
All three of these things need to be abolished.
I was so upset by events in my both personal life and in the country and world at large that on Sunday morning I called a mental health hotline. I told the woman who answered the phone that I don’t feel like the quality of my life is getting better and I don’t feel like the quality of life in this country and in the world are getting better. I feel like this country is a more dangerous and violent place since Trump took office. (There’s statistical information to back this up. The number of hate crimes has gone up since Trump took office. The number of mass shootings has also gone up since Trump took office, but has actually been increasing since 1994, when the assault weapons ban ended. Gee! I wonder why?)
I also mentioned that in the last few weeks, there have been a number of stories in the news about men my age who have either committed suicide or killed other people. Granted, each of them may have had mental health issues (one thing we can be proud of in this country is the lack of access to health care of any kind and mental health care in particular), and the easy availability of guns (and assault weapons in particular) is certainly a factor. But we never look at the social factors that cause someone who may already be at risk to “crack.”
In each of these cases, loss of a job or financial problems were a factor (two issues I tried to address in my recent one-man show, Take My Job, Please! Confessions of a Stand-up Doorman).
In the case of mass shooters, the tendency is for the shooters to scapegoat certain groups of people (Jews, immigrants, etc.) that they believe are the cause of their problems rather than the structural/economic issues (i.e., giving tax cuts to the rich while weakening the social safety net for the poor) that rig the system against them.
For these people, authoritarian figures like Donald Trump are often looked to as the answer to their problems. (Certainly that was the case with Mr. Sayoc.)
On Saturday, after performing my one-man show, I was speaking to two audience members. I said, “I feel like we’re living in a different world. It’s like there was Life Before Trump and Life After Trump.”
That’s why next Tuesday, we need to vote Democrat as if our lives and the future of our country and planet depended on it.
Because they do.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Welcome to the Shitshow

What a shitshow this city has become!
Between the street fairs, the construction and the broken-beyond-repair subway system, it’s 24-7-365 gridlock.
This city’s entire infrastructure is falling apart! This is no doubt due to a) the fact that it’s over 100 years old and b) the unprecedented number of luxury high-rises being built, with their exorbitant electrical and plumbing requirements. (That infinity pool won’t fill itself!)
These were just my casual thoughts while running an errand in Chelsea today.
But then I walked a few blocks south to the West Village and people were blissfully and obliviously eating their $25 brunches, with their overpriced mimosas (bargain basement champagne and frozen orange juice) and avocado toast: a piece of bread with a schmear of avocado on it—millennials’ great contribution to civilization. (By the way, you should read what Anthony Bourdain has to say about brunch, and you’ll never eat brunch again!)
I keep thinking of that speech in Network (a cinematic masterpiece that’s coming to Broadway—I hope they don’t fuck it up): “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. [You can substitute “brunch spot” for living rooms.] Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”
Of course, the flip side of this “great economy” is the cratering and hollowing out of every city, suburb and rural area in this country that isn’t on one of the prosperous coasts. Or the hidden poverty that exists in those coastal cities themselves. Just look at all the empty storefronts in New York City. On the flip side of that, you have the multitude of empty luxury apartments bought by LLCs (read “money-laundering operations”). I think those apartments should be converted to housing for the homeless!
I’d recommend watching the Frontline documentary Left Behind America1 (about Dayton, Ohio) for a good reality check. Or maybe just take a subway above 96th Street.
Wages have been flat or decreasing for the last 40 years. Where is all this money coming from? Have we become a city of inherited wealth, trust fund babies and Russian mobsters? (OK, that was a rhetorical question.) After all, former mayor of New York City (and possible future presidential candidate) Michael Bloomberg famously said, “If we could get every billionaire from around the world to move here, it would be a godsend.”
I just finished reading several books about Donald Trump’s scary rise to power and the truly scary thing is that some of the things he said and campaigned on actually make sense! I should be a Trump voter! After all, I’m a poor, middle-aged white guy! He and Bernie Sanders both ran as “populists.” The difference is that once Trump took office, he proceeded to do the exact opposite of what he said he was going to do (i.e., giving a $1 trillion tax cut to the rich), as opposed to Sanders, who has continued to rail against the “1%.”
So, we just keep going, pretending that everything is great, while an accused rapist is up for a seat on the Supreme Court—a court that has already had one seat stolen and is about to have another seat stolen because of a president who himself stole an election (to cite just the latest example in the daily litany of Trump disasters—a word I can’t even use anymore because Trump ruined it.)
But, hey, at least I have my avocado toast.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Post-Gentrification Stress Disorder

Memory is a terrible thing.
I’ve lived in New York for so long, I can’t walk down a single street without some memory sending me into a nostalgia K-hole.
The most recent incident was yesterday.
A friend of mine was going to a meeting at 110 Greene Street. I explained to him that there used to be a great restaurant across the street called Greene Street Café (where I worked very briefly as a busboy in the early ’80s) that was also a comedy/jazz club where people like Mario Cantone got their start.
I went back in the afternoon to look at the space (which is now a Sonos high-end audio store) and the skylight from Greene Street Café was still there. I also gave the poor salesman who was there a half-hour history lecture.
I talked about how SoHo used to be a fun neighborhood, filled with restaurants and nightclubs, unlike the sterile high-end shopping mall it is now. There’s not a single restaurant in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District now, except for the below-ground Lure Fishbar. You see, the real estate powers-that-be discovered that they could get more money for their apartments if there weren’t any restaurants on the ground floor. (The preferred tenants are luxury boutiques.) This is why, when the boutiques close at 8 o’clock, SoHo is a virtual (and dangerous) ghost town. But as soon as you cross to the west side of West Broadway, you’re basically in a different neighborhood, with restaurants, delis and, God help me, actual people on the street!
It’s increasingly hard to even find any information on the Internet about this former SoHo, but I did come across this article in The New York Times from 1981 about all the restaurants in SoHo.1
I also came across a video of an HBO comedy special that was filmed at Green Street Café in 1983 with John Candy, Bill Maher, Paula Poundstone and Carol Leifer.2 You can see the high-tech industrial lighting that was popular in the ’80s3 but, more importantly, you can see people having a good time!
Any stray piece of information can send me on a similar Internet search. Seeing a TV interview with Sandra Bullock, who used to be a waitress at Canastel’s, can send me on an Internet search for when Park Avenue South was the new Restaurant Row (late ’80s. See also: Café Society, America). Even though I could never afford to go to those restaurants, it was nice to know they existed.
I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the early 2000s, when West Chelsea was the last gasp of New York nightlife, but there you go. I remember my weekly jaunts to The Eagle, having to brave the hordes of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes going to Marquee or the various discos on West 28th Street (or going to the previous Eagle in the ’90s and having the brave the hordes of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes going to Lot 61), but there you have it. Now The Eagle is the sole survivor on West 28th Street (for God knows how much longer), surrounded by super-luxury apartments. (An apartment by the High Line recently sold for $60 million5, breaking a downtown record.)
It turns out that the High Line was the biggest real estate giveaway in New York City’s history.
Except now, even that is being surpassed by Hudson Yards, whose looming behemoths I can see rising from as far south as the West Village.
Jeremiah Moss has already written the definitive book about New York’s gentrification, Vanishing New York6, which should be required reading for anyone who moves here now, and I’ve written about it many times on this blog myself, but that doesn’t stop the feelings from recurring, like a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I now watch Seinfeld as an exercise in nostalgia, because authentic New York characters like Kramer (who, of course, was based on the real Kenny Kramer) could never afford to live here now. (Even back then, it wasn’t clear what he did for a living!)
The sad thing is that people who move here now think New York was always this boring, expensive suburban shopping mall. They’ve never known anything different. Indeed, that’s why most of them moved here in the first place!
And that’s a shame.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Who Is Luke Evans?

Since my Joe Tippett/Billy Magnuson post was so popular1, I’m going to take a page out of my friend Kenneth Walsh’s2 book. I was watching an Emily Blunt movie called The Girl on the Train last night, and there was this scorchingly hot actor I’d never seen before named Luke Evans. In one scene, you even got to see his naked body through a steamy shower door! Who is this man and why have I never seen him before (and where can I see more of him)?
Oh, yeah, Emily Blunt was good, too. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Boys Keep Swinging

Jake Shears overcame tremendous obstacles to become a rock star. That is both inspiring and depressing. It makes me think that the only people who succeed in show business are those who literally can’t do anything else.
I’m still trying to unpack my emotional and very personal reaction to Jake Shears’ memoir, Boys Keep Swinging.
For those of you who don’t know, Shears is the lead singer of the band Scissor Sisters (and he happens to be starring in Kinky Boots on Broadway right now). Scissor Sisters didn’t make much of a mark in the U.S., but their self-titled debut album was the U.K.’s bestselling album of 2004. I was only familiar with their music because I used to listen to an internet radio station based in London.
It’s a very bizarre feeling to be reading a book about someone famous and come across the names of people and places you know. It makes you feel like something important and exciting was happening right under your nose and you somehow missed it.
As it happens, Shears and I both went to Crunch gym on Lafayette Street at the same time. (I remember seeing flyers for the Scissor Sisters there.) But whereas I had basically stopped going to clubs by the early 2000s, Shears was immersed in the burgeoning “electroclash” scene emerging at clubs like Berliniamsburg in Brooklyn.
Shears says he doesn’t believe in luck, but there are numerous of instances of serendipity in this book. The story of him meeting the head of a record company while working as a waiter at East Village diner Leshko’s and then running back to his apartment to retrieve his record so he could give it to him is right up there with Madonna giving Mark Kamins her demo at Danceteria. (How many people would even know what a record company executive looks like?)
Shears starts out as a bookish creative writing major at The New School and his bouts with insecurity are refreshing—it makes him seem more human. Yet he has no trouble picking up some of the most handsome men in the city (Anderson Cooper and a bartender at The Hangar, among others), or meeting guys at the gym. (I’ve never met someone at the gym in my life!) I’m not being judgmental—I was a slut too in my twenties—I’m just jealous!
There’s another story of him spending a debauched night at the gay bar The Slide the night of New York City’s 2003 blackout and picking up yet another handsome guy. I remember walking out to Christopher Street Pier (and seeing Calvin Klein there) and then going home because I had to work the next day (sigh). Meanwhile, candlelit orgies were going on all over the city!
Reading this book is like reading about people’s carefully curated lives on Facebook, only worse. Because, when he’s not backpacking through Europe (or, later, performing in clubs there), Shears is hanging out in hot tubs on penthouse terraces in New York. (OK, so I went to Europe in my twenties, too—but still. I wasn’t hobnobbing with Elton John, George Michael and Kylie Minogue!)
I’m always fascinated by what makes creative people tick and Shears is no exception. Is it because his siblings were so much older than him or because he got bullied in high school for being gay? Whatever it is, how does someone co-write an album that goes nine times platinum in the U.K.?
After reading this book, I went back and listened to the Scissor Sisters’ first album, and it’s undeniably brilliant. Not only are the songs catchy, but the production, arrangements and vocals are outstanding. And the first track on their second album, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” (co-written with Elton John), is ridiculously good. (I lost track of them after their second album.)
All of which is to say that I found this book incredibly fascinating and entertaining.
But I’m still jealous.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Goodbye, Bette!

I did it. I waited until the last weekend, but I did it. I saw Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!
Since she’s leaving the show tomorrow, this is more of a post-mortem than a review.
Of course, there’s been a ton of hype about this show, so the question is, “Was it worth it?” The short answer is, “Yes.”
I’ve never been a fan of the show Hello, Dolly! (I only saw the movie a few weeks go). I plunked down my $243 for orchestra seats to see Bette. I thought, “She’s 72. This might be my last chance!” (even though I’ve now seen her on Broadway three times and at Madison Square Garden once).
You see, Bette and I have a history.
The first time I saw Bette Midler on Broadway was 1979. She was doing a concert that was filmed and later released as the movie Divine Madness. But there was more drama involved in my seeing the show than what transpired onstage.
I had bought a standing room ticket (the first and only time I’ve ever stood to see a Broadway show) since that was the only ticket I could afford. But, being the culture vulture that I am, I had also gone to see the movie All That Jazz beforehand. In between the movie and the show, I stopped off at a Beefsteak Charlie’s on East 59th Street and had a steak sandwich. I got so deathly ill from the sandwich (don’t ask), I had to be hospitalized.
But I was determined to see Bette!
So the following weekend I took my standing room ticket and went back to the theater. Fortunately, no one checked my ticket (there are assigned places even for standing room) and I was able to see Bette’s show.
I’ve been in love with her ever since.
My biggest fear upon seeing Hello, Dolly! this late in the run (apart from living up to the hype) was that the actors would be tired of doing the show and/or they wouldn’t have any voices left.
I have to tell you, every time I’ve gone to see a Broadway show, I’ve been amazed at the ability of these people to do eight shows a week. These are professionals and they did not disappoint.
One of the things I liked about Bette’s performance was her ability to poke fun at herself. She’s well aware of the hype surrounding this show and is secure enough in her talent to have a laugh at her (and the show’s) expense. She’s no diva!
There’s one scene where she spends about ten minutes just wordlessly eating a turkey dinner and gets more laughs than she would from ten minutes of dialogue.
She and David Hyde Pierce have, at this point, turned their mugging into an art. Together, they turn scenery chewing into an Olympic sport!
Of course, Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin are also great and in fine voice as the young lovers at the center of the story.
And that’s another thing that’s always impressed me about Bette (and David Hyde Pierce, for that matter). While she may not have the strongest voice, she knows how to make the best of what she has and she’s also a great actor of lyrics. She has an uncanny ability to take even the best-known song and make it her own.
So goodbye, Bette. You’ve got nothing left to prove.
And good luck, Bernadette Peters.