Sunday, August 29, 2010

Armory and The Man

What do I know from art? Not much, apparently, but I still had a good time.

I went to the Park Avenue Armory on Friday for the last day of a 5-day “Open Studio” featuring the work of Yoshitomo Nara, a Japanese artist who is having a show at the Asia Society.

The armory’s website said that the artist and his collaborative team, YNG, “will undertake rebuilding the structure of the installation work, Home, and Nara will establish a temporary studio to create new drawings and other works that will be included in Asia Society Museum’s exhibition Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool.”

According to WNYC, “Nara's appearance at the installation on Monday elicited sobs from one of his young Japanese fans; they just managed to drown out the sound of drills and hammers.” Sounds like quite a guy.

The site also carried this advisory—which I heard on WNYC as well—“All visitors must wear closed-toed shoes with a hard sole and shirts that cover their shoulders. Hard hats will be provided.”

Hard hats? This must be one hell of exhibit. I promised myself I'd go because every week I read about some off-the-wall exhibit or performance, I plan to go, but end up sitting at home watching TV. This is New York, damn it. You've go to do weird stuff like this.

So as soon as I got finished at work, I hopped on the IRT and headed up to the armory at 66th Street. The ride turned out to be a minor detour down Memory Lane when I got off at the Hunter College stop.

I graduated from Hunter in 1980 and I’ve only been by the place a handful of times since then. The school looks completely different now; they have an entire building there now that was nothing but a hole in the ground back in my day.

I have no real feeling for the place. My college years weren’t a particularly happy time for me and since it was a commuter school, I didn’t actually live there; I just visited. It was like going to the office.

I walked down Park Avenue expecting a huge crowd lined up outside the Armory for the exhibition, especially given that it was the last day, it was free, and it had this funky hard hat rule.

But the place was nearly empty. I wasn’t complaining, of course, I just walked right in, got my hard hat, and headed into the massive drill hall.

The place is huge—55,000 square feet--like an indoor football stadium. And there were all sorts of cranes and other types of construction equipment beeping, honking and moving around the place. It was crazy.

As I watched the construction crew work, I suddenly remembered that I had been in this very hall more than 30 years ago, while a student at Hunter.

Cartier had sponsored an event there featuring several World War I era airplanes. It seems that Louis Cartier had designed the first wristwatch for an aviator who complained that pocket watches were unreliable pocket during long flights.

The wristwatch became popular and eventually pushed out the pocket watch as the way to tell time.

The exhibit was rather impressive, as I recall, and they even had a guy walking around in a pilot’s getup complete with a white scarf, aviator's cap and boots.

Cranes Are Flying

I was shocked at how small and rickety the biplanes were. I wouldn’t roll down a hill in one of those things, let alone fly in one. A hard hat wouldn’t help much if you crashed in one of these planes.

Now I was back here three decades later, more time than you could ever measure on a watch. And wristwatches themselves are on the endangered devices list as they are slowly being rendered obsolete by the cell phone, Blackberry, and similar gadgets.

Most of the area was roped off on Friday and there was a small office area where there were drawings hanging on the walls.

Yoshitomo Nara is heavily influenced by anime and manga and that certainly shows in his work. But what was all this heavy equipment doing here? While I was watching the cranes dismantling something, a woman approached me.

“Are they taking it down?” she asked me.

“It looks that way,” I said. “I thought it was going to stay up until tonight.”

As I was leaving I noticed a young woman apparently telling another visitor what was going on. I couldn’t hear what she was saying over all the noise so I approached her as soon as the guy walked away.

“I’m sorry to make you repeat yourself,” I said, “but what does all this equipment have to do with the exhibit?”

“Oh, they’re just doing some renovations in the hall,” she said. “It’s not related to the exhibit at all.”

Say what? I walked in here expecting some massive modern art spectacular and you’re telling me its building renovations. Bring back the biplanes.

I was about to go home, but thankfully I took a tour around the Armory and I have to say it is a fabulous building.

The armory’s website says it was built by New York State’s Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, the first volunteer militia to respond to President Lincoln’s call for troops in 1861. The “Silk Stocking” Regiment included such big time Gilded Age families as the Vanderbilts, Van Rensselaers, and Roosevelts.

The place has one fabulous room after another, demonstrating quite clearly why they called it the “Gilded Age.” This Armory itself is a work of art.

I later learned that the office housing the drawings was part of the exhibit and been built earlier in the week.

Maybe I’ll check out the exhibit at the Asia Society. I wonder if they'll let me bring my own hard hat.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Came to Cordoba

All I wanted to do was buy some turkey.

I walked into a butcher shop in Bay Ridge yesterday and found myself in the middle of the Ground Zero Mosque debate.

Now, of course, it isn’t a mosque and it isn’t located at Ground Zero, and there already two mosques located in the neighborhood—along with a topless bar. And the politically motivated lies, distortions, and blatant fear mongering being spewed on the airwaves and the Internet bear absolutely no resemblance to a debate. Now back to the butcher shop...

I was buying some cold cuts and pasta when the cashier—we’ll call her Maggie—rang up my order and then promptly whipped out a newspaper to show me a story about the first Muslim Miss USA who happens to believe that the Islamic cultural center should move from its planned location on Park Place.

"You see," she said. "This woman's a Muslim and she thinks they shouldn't build it there."

What this has to do with the price of eggs—or sliced turkey in this case—I have no idea. I didn’t ask Maggie for her opinion, I didn’t offer mine; in fact I didn’t say a word about the cultural center or anything else. I just went in there to get some food—a common occurrence at butcher shops.

I have a lot of laughs with Maggie most days when I go in there, but I have a little rule: if you subject me to your political views, well, chuckles, you’re going to hear mine.

“They have right to be there,” I said.

“No, they don’t!”

“Oh, yes, they do.”

“It shouldn’t be at Ground Zero.”

“It’s not at Ground Zero.”

And it went downhill from there. Every time I tried to speak, Maggie would interrupt me or just say the opposite. It was rather frustrating.

Now let’s get a few things clear. I stood across the street from the World Trade Center on September 11. I saw the towers come down and I walked over the Manhattan Bridge with thousands of other stranded people while the rubble smoldered behind us and fighter jets flew overhead.

It was the most horrible day of my life, so if you plan on giving me a lecture about the evils of radical Islamic terrorists, save your breath. I had a front row seat.

I work near the site of proposed center and walked over to 51Park, formerly Cordoba House, on Thursday to see what this latest ersatz controversy is about.

That’s all we seem to have lately—furious screaming and hand-wringing about counterfeit “issues.” It’s a good thing we don’t have any real problems—you know, like unemployment, oil spills, or wars without end, amen. No, we’ve got plenty of time for this horse manure.

There was a small group of people milling around the place—the former Burlington Coat Factory--including a police officer who was apparently on hand if trouble broke out. There’s a nice waste of taxpayer money.

I saw a reporter from WNYC, my favorite radio station, standing outside the building. I was walking away when I stopped to look at some chalk writing on the sidewalk.

“Excuse me, sir,” someone said behind me. “I’m a reporter with WNYC…”

I turned around there he was—microphone in hand, headphones covering his ears. I’ve been a reporter for 20 very odd years, so I know what it’s like to interview people at the scene of some big news event. Sometimes they curse you out, sometimes they walk away, and sometimes they won’t stop talking.

So now it was my turn to be interviewed. The guy wanted to know what I thought of the cultural center and I told him the same thing I told Maggie the cashier.

“These people have a right to be here…” I began.

This was my third media interview of the year, following the New York Times, story about the Cyclone and CNN—the fourth, really, since I was featured on both CNN’s website and TV for a story about my father's poem. I’m such a popular guy.

Mad Man on The Street

I’m not sure what I told the reporter—I was babbling pretty seriously. And I don't know if they even used it. But at least the guy didn't interrupt me.

This whole business infuriates me because once again it uses the victims of 9/11 and the fear of all things Muslim as political pawns.

Apparently a large number of Americans have forgotten how George “Mission Accomplished” Bush and Dick “Draft Dodger” Cheney swaggered this country into the war in Iraq by conflating the nightmare of 9/11 with Saddam Hussein.

Now if you’ve been paying attention, then you know that there were never any weapons of mass destruction, no connection between bin Laden and Hussein, and, oh, by the way, how’s that hunt for Osama going?

The war was, of course, a shameless bid to take over the Iraqi oil fields that had been put together by a group of oilmen. You would have thought that Americans would have gotten a better handle on the anti-Muslim fever after that fiasco, but it’s worse than ever.

And for those of you who hate Muslims so much, you may want to ask little Georgie Bush about his family’s close ties to the Saudi royal family. You know Saudi Arabia—that country that won’t allow churches and synagogues? You may remember that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Or you could ask Rupert Murdoch, CEO of the “fair and balanced” News Corp, which has been fanning the flames of hatred, about Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family who is the second largest owner of News Corp. stock, valued at about $2.3 billion.

This fellow has deep funding ties to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the “principal planner” of the Islamic community center. Instead of protesting at Park51 today, the anti-mosque crowd should have gone up to Fox News.

Oh, by the way, did you hear how Fox mouthpiece Glenn Beck used 911 to push one of his sponsors. Talk about disrespecting the memory of the victims...

Some people are angry with Barack Obama for speaking about this cultural center, but I’m furious that he pulled back on his words the next day.

The President of the United States is supposed to bring us together, not drive us apart. I know that may be hard to believe after the Bush Administration, but, really, that’s what good presidents do.

That raging imbecile Sarah Palin felt free to stick her “refudiating” nose into controversy. And speaking of presidents minding their own business, am I the only one who remembers the Terry Schiavo debacle, when George Bush flew up from Texas to sign legislation “saving” a woman who had been declared brain dead?

It’s interesting that Bush received a memo prior to 911 saying that bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States. He didn’t fly up from Texas for that, did he? But when it comes to appeasing radical Christian fundamentalists, Georgie was right there front and center.

Then there’s the survey that shows even more Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. You can almost hear those dueling banjos.

I continued arguing with Maggie as I got my change and walked out the door. This was ridiculous. I don’t care what the subject is, I will not be harangued and I will not be shouted down. It never ceases to amaze me how those who bellow so loudly about “our freedoms” are the first ones to stifle dissent.

I think we have a chance to show our greatness here, to demonstrate how we’re not like the Islamic radicals.

I'm thinking of going to another butcher shop, but perhaps I'll return to my regular place. They've got some nice ready-cooked meals that are come in handy when I don't feel making dinner myself.

I think I can handle Maggie, but if I run into Miss USA, I'm going to pelt her with cold cuts.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Once in a Lullaby

Today is my late mother’s birthday and I decided to a little research to see what happened on the day and in the year she was born.

I think the most striking thing I learned was that The Wizard of Oz was released on August 15, 1939.

This was one of my mother’s favorite movies—she was a huge Judy Garland fan—and it seems fitting that she and this classic film that she loved so much would share a birthday.

Apocalypse Now was released on this date 40 years later, but I can’t say my mom was a big fan of this flick. I don’t even know if she ever saw it. Edna Ferber, who wrote Show Boat, was born on this day in 1887.

Ben Affleck, Ethel Barrymore, Julia Child, Vernon Jordan, Jimmy Webb, Sir Walter Scott, and Huntz Hall—the guy who played Satch in all those Bowery Boys movies—were all born on Aug. 15.

My mother lived through the Depression and on August 15, 1930, Herbert Hoover held a press conference in which he offered plans for relief of people and businesses affected by a series of devastating droughts.

On this day in 1899, Henry Ford resigned as chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company's main plant so he could concentrate on automobile production. The Panama Canal was opened to traffic on this day in 1914, while construction on the Berlin Wall began in 1961.

Woodstock kicked off on this day in 1969 at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in upstate New York. In 1945, Emperor Hirohito broadcast the news of Japan's surrender to the Japanese people.

In 1924, the year my mother was born, Judy Garland—billed as “Baby Frances” made her show business debut at age two.

Thomas Watson founded IBM in that year. Johnny Weissmuller set the 100-yard freestyle record at 52.4 seconds. Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock premiered in Dublin and "Happy Birthday To You" published by Claydon Sunny.

WJZ in New York City broadcast the first foreign language course broadcast on U.S. radio. Mass Investors Trust became the first mutual fund set up in U.S.

The Ford Motor Company--Henry Ford again--manufactured its 10 millionth Model T automobile in 1924.

Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer merged to form MGM. Jelly Roll Morton recorded "Jelly-Roll Blues" and—leapin’ lizards!-Harold Gray’s comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" made its debut.

J. Edgar Hoover was appointed head of FBI in 1924, the same year Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped Robert Franks in Chicago.

Boston opened its airport and Malcolm Campbell set the world auto speed record at 146.16 MPH.

As 1924 drew to a close, Edwin Hubble announced the existence of distant galaxies.

It was a very good year.

Monday, August 09, 2010

And Now the Silent Spot…

Listen my children and you shall hear…nothing. Isn’t it wonderful?

I’m back in New York after a week at my aunt’s farmhouse in the Berkshires and I’m having a hard time adjusting to the urban noise levels.

My aunt and her husband bought their house outside of Northampton, MA when I was a sophomore in high school and I’ve been going up there for years.

Their property is beautiful, secluded, and, most importantly, it’s so quiet you can’t believe your ears.

On most days all you’ll hear is the wind blowing through the trees. No blaring car stereos, no roaring motorcycles, no honking horns, no idiots hog-calling into cell phones or holding “conversations” with the person right next to them that can be heard from three blocks away. It's just quiet.

And at night you have a live star show that makes your troubles seem small and your heart feel huge.

I hadn’t been to the place in about three years now and after the usual bus hell ride out of the Port Authority, I returned to my second home.

I had a flashback on my first day there when I walked to the backyard. I recalled a family gathering we had there shortly after my niece, Victoria, had been born.

It was about 15 years ago and my brother and his wife had come in from California with their new daughter. My parents, my siblings, my aunt and her husband—we were all there to see the newest addition to our family.

It was so strange—I felt like I was actually traveling back in time, visiting with our younger selves.

Now my parents are gone, my aunt is a widow, and there’s a much smaller cast for the latest family gathering.

The beauty of this area is that there is plenty to do—hiking, theater, museums, concerts, independent and foreign movies, shopping.

We saw the play “Art” at the theater in Pittsfield, the Degas-Picasso exhibit at the Clark Museum, the bridge of flowers at Shelburne Falls, and the famous Book Mill in Montague, which proudly offers “books you don’t need at a place you can’t find.”

But you don’t have to do any of that. On a nice day, you can be quite happy just sitting in the backyard and enjoying the sun and the sweet silence.

“We don’t gotta do nothin’,” as my aunt put it on several occasions.

You can also get back to nature—or vice versa. Prior to my arrival, my aunt had a visitor in the form of a rather large bear.

She didn’t actually see him—though she saw one outside her house a few years back—but this fellow did a leave a rather large pile of evidence to let us know he had stopped by.

Bear Facts

He seems fond of a cherry tree on my aunt’s property, so fond in fact, that he bent the thing over so he could load up.

We met up with a woman walking her dog in the area who told us she had an encounter with a bear on a trail near my aunt’s farm.

The woman said she didn’t actually see the animal, but heard him let out a heavy gust of air, which, I’m told, is a very serious warning in bear speak.

“But you know,” the woman added, “they’re a lot more frightened of us than we are of them.”

Oh, I don't know about that. I suspect I would be a little upset if I ran into a bear--so upset I might even leave a large pile of evidence of my own. I’m happy to say this didn't happen, but my aunt said she heard something in the woods while on a walk that sounded decidedly ursine.

But the damn week flew by so quickly. It seems like my aunt was just greeting me at the Northampton bus station and then she was seeing me off. I headed back to my empty house and she went back to hers.

I had another flashback on the way home. The bus went down I-84 and passed through Waterbury, Conn., where I worked for several years and where I was extremely unhappy.

I saw the exit for my old apartment building, the clock tower that marked the spot of my old employer and I prayed, please, Dear God, don’t let this bus break down here. Someone might try and pull me back into my old life.

We kept going, thankfully, and our bus driver, a rather heavy set gentleman named Jerome, joked around as he told us the dos and don’ts of bus travel.

“We have a bathroom on this bus,” he said, “but don’t flush the toilet while you’re sitting on it or otherwise you’ll have to explain to your family why you have a big blue ring around your butt.”

As we arrived at the Port Authority terminal, Jerome warned us about the crackheads who will offer to help people with their luggage.

“You’ll want to be nice and help the crackhead out,” he said, “but trust me, the second you hand over your bag, the crackhead and your luggage will disappear into the five boroughs of New York.”

So now I’m back home. As usual with vacations, I try to clean up my act when I return—catch up on those promises I’ve made to myself.

I’ve got a nice tan and I feel a little less stressed. It's a shame I couldn’t bring any of that silence with me, but at least it’ll be waiting for me the next time I go.