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Monday, April 16, 2012

Sirens of Culture

One of the peculiar dilemmas of living in New York City is the compelling feeling that there is a world outside the city and simultaneously no desire to leave it. Often, particularly on a beautiful day, I have a strong desire to take a day trip and explore some rural hinterland to enjoy nature. Then, stepping out my door with a sincere intent to only briefly sample the city, I found myself shipwrecked again on the shores of Manhattan, having been lured by the Sirens of Culture. Often, I make it no further than steps from my home in Washington Square Park, a brewery of local and international talent.

I sit in cognitive dissonance, torn by the desire to broaden my horizons yet trapped by a menagerie of entertainers, the like of which is to be found nowhere else. Part of me feels that there must be more to life than this plot of 10 acres that landscape architect George Vellonakis referred to as America's Piazza. Not an exaggeration at all, the park is a meeting place for every imaginable type of individual from sociopaths, lunatics, misfits, geniuses, budding and established artists, painters, chess players, writers, photographers, intellects, local residents, and visitors. It is a place where the conversationalist can meet and engage in conversations on any subject imaginable, both privately or in forums.

Here, one can find snake charmers, hucksters, drug dealers, professors, political activists, and vendors of products and ideas. Some come to sell their philosophies, but this can come at a price, as when Mennonites meet topless body painted women or when Missionaries Meet Their Match.

However, the biggest draw here is the music, and with some luck, on a good day, one can find a virtual festival of professional talent. So it was that on Saturday and Sunday, I was lured in by the music of Jessy Carolina and the Hot Mess. I found myself listening for hours along with a large steady crowd who found themselves so engaged that many resorted to Dancing in the Streets. From their website:

Jessy Carolina & The Hot Mess is a New York City-based ensemble specializing in early American roots and jazz music from the late 1800's to the 1930's. The group features Jessy Carolina on vocals and washboard, Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton on piano, banjo, and vocals, Jordan Hyde on guitar, Jay Sanford on bass, Mario J. Maggio on clarinet and saxophone, and Satoru Ohashi on trumpet and trombone.

Jessy, who hails from Venezuela, grew up in North Dakota, and later moved to New York City, has a voice and singing style that ropes in passersby who find themselves entranced and engaged. The talent of all the members of the group is exceptional, and it comes as a huge treat to find such talent on the street - Jessy Carolina and the Hot Mess has performed in a variety of venues, both in and out of the city. Catch 'em when you can. I'll see you in the parks and streets of New York City, lured by the Sirens of Culture :)

Friday, April 13, 2012

White By Design 4

There are many things to love about the color WHITE. For some, use of the color in their homes and wardrobe borders obsession, like that of the good friend of mine whom I wrote about in White By Design. That story has raised my antenna, ever on the lookout for extreme displays of white. It has inspired a series of White By Design stories, this being the 4th.

In New York City, choosing white takes on a spirit of defiance. Analogous to She's Too Tough To Care, wearing white is like saying I don't care that white makes no sense in New York City. We have rats, graffiti, pollution, dirt, and grime, but I will wear white anyway.

I have a pair of white bucks, which I wrote about in One Size Too Small. I have always gotten a very strong reaction when wearing them in the city. Apart from being a style whose time is long gone and unfamiliar to many, white suede is perhaps the ultimate act of defiance in the selection of shoe color and material to be worn in New York. Wearing white also sends a message that a person is willing and able to go the extra mile in maintaining such a color choice in the city.  In White By Design, I said:

Used badly, white can be a horrific choice - everything is mercilessly revealed with white. It is also deliberately and conspicuously impractical, making a statement about luxury and the ability and willingness for maintenance. The decision to use white in an unforgiving city like New York makes a particularly strong statement.

Black has been fashionable for eons, particularly in New York, where it is the color of choice for the downtown hipster. It is not uncommon to see individuals who dress entirely in black, head to toe. Black is cool, and when in doubt, black is safe. Given that thinking, what is safer than to dress entirely in black?

However, I do not recall seeing the polar opposite until yesterday. While waiting to cross the intersection at Spring Street and Broadway, a woman's wardrobe screamed out at me, so much so that reaching for my camera was not even a conscious decision but rather a reflex action. She was dressed (perhaps overdressed with a down jacket) in white from head to toe, topped with gray/white hair.

It was reminiscent of an LP I have kept for its startling cover image - Edgar Winter (an Albino) with white hair and beard, wearing a white suit and fur on a beach with white clouds in the background, akin to the polar bear in his natural snowy environment. Edgar, my friend, and the woman on Spring Street all share that passion for a color that nature often gives us. Or, when in New York City, and man-made elements conspire against nature to offer such pristine beauty, then it must and will be White By Design...

My musings on the color white: White By Design 2, White by Desire, White by Design 3, The Perfect Gift, Off-White by Design

Thursday, April 12, 2012

As Usual

I did use a jackhammer once for a few days while working a summer job. It was one of the most unpleasant work experiences I have ever had, and I have done a number of unpleasant tasks. I am always so disturbed to see workers using this tool - I cannot fathom how anyone could use such a thing for hours at a time on a daily basis. Even with safety equipment, face masks, and hearing protectors, the impact and damage to the body must be tremendous.

New York City is an exciting and dynamic place. But dynamism means change, and that means construction. Sometimes it feels like construction at every turn.
Exacerbating the entire mess is that the city is so densely populated that construction must be done at inauspicious times and places while the city goes about its business. Subways are 24 hours, so service must often be rerouted and disrupted, much to the chagrin of daily commuters.

This is the city that never sleeps. And why would you try with a jackhammer outside your window? A train or subway is about 100 decibels. A jackhammer is 120 - 130 decibels. At least it is no louder than a jet plane at takeoff, which measures 130 decibels or greater.

Efforts have been made to develop a quieter jackhammer. In 2000, Brookhaven National Laboratory worked on a helium gas gun device called the Raptor, which was to be much quieter than any conventional diesel-powered compressor-styled device. The noise levels on the newer gun were claimed to be substantially less. However, the device was not as promised, the project appears to be stalled, and so for now, it's carpal tunnel syndrome, white finger, and bruises for the workers. For the rest of us, it's deafening noise, As Usual

Related Posts: Not ReallyToo Too New York, Deaf Jam, Men Making Noise

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An Exit Marked Memory Lane

Do you want to look like a hero and everybody wins? It's so easy. Just take a friend or two on a trip down THEIR memory lane, touring the special places of their youth. On January 11, 2012, I went on such a trip through East New York, Brooklyn, driven by an old friend. But now, I was to be the driver and guide.

This was my unplanned agenda for Easter Sunday (after the Easter Parade), when I accompanied a friend and her mother to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for Easter dinner. Before dinner, we decided to take advantage of the extraordinary weather in the mid-60s and see the places of my friend and her mother's where they were born and had grown up.

This type of mission is not about efficient driving, nor will it necessarily be a tour of the scenic or architectural wonders of New York City. It will be punctuated by stops that have deep meaning only for your guests being toured and for the small number of others who at one time shared the same addresses.

I accommodated every twist and turn, circling and back tracking, zigging and zagging, providing chauffeur services - convenient for them and enjoyable for me, since I was at one time a New York City taxi cab driver. Patience is required for such a mission, since often only foggy or partial memories are available as a guide to locating addresses. There were places which were of zero difficulty to locate, such as my friend's former grade school, P.S. 102, and the church where her parents married, Our Lady of Angels.

A special treat was Owl's Head Park, a place which I had heard about and driven by but never actually walked in. This was special for my company, too, since my friend's mother had taken her there as young as when she was one year old, their residence only one-half block away. The waterside park affords vistas of the bay of New York, the Verrazano Bridge, Staten Island, Memorial Pier, and the skyline of Manhattan. We took in the views while basking in the warm afternoon sun setting over the bay.

Other stops were the former homes of parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters - this is an Italian family with deep roots in this section of Brooklyn. Some exact addresses were known. For others, we became Big Game hunters, tracking our quarry. Details of buildings were examined, proximity to other buildings and shops, all with a singular goal - to identify with absolute certainty that, yes, THAT'S the place.

Like a modern African safari, our trip through the urban jungle was to see and shoot our game with eyes and cameras only. Once positively identified, we would sit and look as my guests would ooh, aah, and reminisce. And that is how I spent my Easter afternoon. Starting on the highways of New York City, I watched the sign posts, looking for An Exit Marked Memory Lane :)

Related Post: Wherever You Go, There You Are

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Love/Hate Thing

A mass-marketed candy such as Peeps is certainly not anything that is special to New York City. But, nonetheless, they can be found here, primarily in chain stores, such as Duane Reade.

Looking back on my first postings for this website is interesting. I was fascinated with Peeps, perplexed by the amazing durability of their appeal for nearly 60 years. After hunting for Peeps, not realizing that they were readily available at every Duane Reade, I found them at Dylan's Candy Bar on the Upper East Side and did a story, Peeps, on April 16, 2006.

What more appropriately named company, Just Born, Inc., and town, Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), for the manufacture of an Easter candy. However, Just Born, Inc. has its roots in New York City. The founder, Sam Born, was a candy maker from Russia who emigrated to the U.S. via Brooklyn in 1910. In 1923, Born opened a small candy-making and retail store in Brooklyn, New York. He marketed the freshness of his line of daily-made candy with a sign that declared, “Just Born.” In 1932, they moved operations to an empty printing factory in Bethlehem, PA, and in 1953, Just Born acquired the Rodda Candy Company of Lancaster, PA. Although Rodda was best known for its jelly beans, it also made a small line of marshmallow products, which included a popular Easter Peep that was made by laboriously hand-squeezing marshmallow through pastry tubes.

Inspired by David Letterman's nightly Top Ten lists, I have written two lists: the top ten reasons New Yorkers love and hate Peeps.

Top Ten Reasons New Yorkers Love Peeps

10. Even in New York City, where else will you find blue or pink food?

9. There's a diversity of skin colors

8. You can buy Peeps at Duane Reade

7. You don't need to cook Peeps

6. There are still inexpensive things to be found in New York City

5. Peeps are nonfat

4. Peeps are the perfect food to eat while walking

3. You can celebrate Easter without a trip to St. Patrick's

2. In New York City, we got the little stuff too

1. If left in your car, no one will break in to steal your Peeps

Top Ten Reasons New Yorkers Hate Peeps

10. Peeps are not vegan

9. Peeps are not edgy

8. You can't really serve Peeps in a $1.5 million dollar condo

7. You can buy Peeps at Duane Reade

6. New Yorkers don't eat food that comes in blue or pink

5. You don't have to wait in line for Peeps

4. Peeps are not kosher

3. Peeps are not artisanal

2. Peeps are not made "somewhere in Brooklyn"

1. Peeps don't come in black

Like New York City itself, Peeps are a Love/Hate thing :)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Mecca for the Misfits

Daily, there are still participants of Occupy Wall Street in Union Square. At night, you will find the last vestiges in what has become largely a circus with a cast of characters unseen anywhere else. It is the home of those with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.

At night, political rants, banners, and slogans recede into the darkness. Books sit unsold. Skateboarders skate as usual, navigating around standers and sitters. Girls with wild hair walk barefoot ala Woodstock. Police presence dwindles as the likelihood of serious problems nears zero. Most lack the ambition to stage or organize any significant protest. It is about community and fraternizing. It's fodder for some of the best photo ops of people and some of the wildest juxtapositions in New York City.

It's an inspiration and demonstration that here, polar opposites can coexist and befriend each other. Here, an orthodox Jew sits on the ground and mingles with the young, restless, nihilistic, and disenchanted. A few members of Hare Krishna dance entranced and encourage a handful of onlookers to join them. It's a place where everything is illuminated but nothing is clear.

And it's a Mecca for the Misfits :)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Very Awkward, Part 2

Going Fetal (see Part 1 here)

Everyone assumed that this was a magnanimous marriage proposal. However, what I learned by talking to one of their friends is that these were two NYU students who had been in a relationship and broken up. The boy wanted to rejoin with the girl and decided to surprise her with an extraordinary public proposal to reunite.

Things did not go well. The girl made no eye contact at all with her courter for much of the time and spoke to him very little. She never did accept the rose he held and offered her. He had a microphone which he offered, but she essentially refused to speak. She smiled some and cried some. But mostly she stood stoically or cowered silently. It was an embarrassment for all and, to me, an inappropriate attempt to strong-arm a woman via the pressure of public display and make rejection much more difficult. But she stood her ground. If she does not want him, then good for her. I don't see this kind of persuasion as an effective tactic for the success of a long-term relationship.

A large portion of my accompanying video for today's story was shot by Hellen Osgood. When initially viewing it, I was disappointed that the running commentary by her husband Harvey was audible through most of the footage. However, on reviewing it and listening to what he had to say, I found his insightful thinking to be the best part of the event and much more interesting than watching the courted stonewalling her courter. His commentary was unintentionally very funny, offering much needed comic relief to a rather tragic affair.  Below are some of Harvey's pithy remarks. Please be reminded that at the time he made them, we all thought this was a marriage proposal.

What's she going to do, have a nervous breakdown? Brilliant, brilliant. [sarcastically]

How do you say "no" in Japanese? This is nuts. You don't go through this. You say, "Give me five minutes." You gotta cut it short. How long can she stand there?

She can call a lifeline, can't ya? Can't you ask for help?
He doesn't understand, this is her life, her destiny, right? And they're playing music.

Nice. She's doing the right thing… she's going in the fetal position. That's what I would do under the circumstances, definitely. Go fetal on him. See what he can do about that. He he he he.

Oh nice, if she throws up, do you think he will get the hint? What if she just absolutely throws up, right there? That's considered to be a very passive-aggressive action when someone proposes marriage to you and you throw up.

Is this strictly being done for her benefit and nobody else, like a Bob Dylan concert?

This is heavy-duty stuff.

Don't shoot the piano player. He's just an innocent bystander.

Sadly, this embarrassing affair could have easily been avoided by heeding the age-old admonition which was simply stated and sung by the Beatles in 1964: (money) Can't Buy Me Love. But it sure can buy the Very Awkward :(

More on romance and couples: Big, Big Mistake (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), Happy Valentine's Day, Foolish World of the Fiscally Frivolous, The Perfect Gift, Get a Room, Be My Valentine, PDA, War...and Peace

Monday, April 02, 2012

Very Awkward, Part 1

As any experienced man knows, flowers are the way to a woman's heart. Experts have even done a number of studies corroborating what we knew all along. In my case, I had to relearn this lesson in the most painful way. I hope my lesson helped others avoid the mistake I made.

Yesterday, photographer friend Bill Shatto, always on the lookout for photo-worthy subjects, sent me a text with an image of a massive flower arrangement. When we spoke on the phone, he said that the whole affair might be blog-worthy. Bill is not one inclined to superlatives, and when he makes any kind of recommendation, it typically is a main event. So, reluctant to run out and shoot in the rain, nonetheless, I grabbed my camera and umbrella and made my way to Washington Square Arch.

The scene looked like the type of event requiring a permit. From a distance, I could make out a large truck standing by the arch. Someone was making a monumental statement. When I finally arrived, a small ensemble was playing music under the arch. A baby grand piano had been moved in, along with a full drum set. The centerpiece of the extravaganza was a huge number of roses clustered and arranged into a large heart. A small number of friends were on hand, as were a number of passersby. It appeared that someone was making a marriage proposal.

Coincidentally, on the scene were friends and neighborhood residents Hellen and Harvey Osgood, subjects of a previous story. Hellen had been filming the event, and the impression she had gathered was that things were not going as well as planned. I approached the couple involved, and the facts were somewhat different yet. Tomorrow, I will feature photos of the couple, video of the proposal, and why I believe the best phrase to describe the whole thing to be Very Awkward

Friday, March 30, 2012

Your Best Friend

I recently paid a business visit to Pulse Plastics in the Bronx. The dismal look of their windowless building along with that of Streamline Plastics prompted me to do a story on April 16, 2010, We Don't Do Windows, after my first visit there. So I was particularly stunned upon my recent arrival to see that one entire wall of the one-story building had been completely transformed by "graffiti."

I say "graffiti" because this type of painting, historically very controversial, has been going through a transition. I have written several stories on the phenomenon. From Unconditional Love on October 8, 2010:

Most see the problem as vandalism, pure and simple… What complicates the matter, however, is that like anything else, there is a spectrum of quality - some of the work is extraordinary. Some of the buildings are in industrial neighborhoods, have stood unoccupied for decades, and are dreadful looking - drab architecture, no exterior maintenance and a dismal setting. And often they are vastly improved by aerosol paint. But, nonetheless, these buildings are not "public" property.
However, many building owners permit the work to be done. This seems to be a growing trend. And, in Long Island City, 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, Inc., “The Institute of Higher Burnin’," is an outdoor art exhibit space which is considered to be the world’s premiere “graffiti Mecca,” where aerosol artists from around the globe paint colorful pieces on the walls of a 200,000-square-foot factory building. The founder says, however, that "Graffiti is a label for writers who vandalize. Aerosol art takes hours and days. It's a form of calligraphy."

Certainly cooperation is best for all, allowing more time for better work and even working with the owners for things like incorporation of company signage elements.

The major epicenter of this type of sanctioned aerosol art is the block-long, 200,000-square-foot (19,000 m2) factory building complex in Long Island City, Queens, known as 5 Pointz (includes a link to the photo gallery).

The mural done at Pulse Plastics shown in today's photo was the work of Tats Cru. The artists who form the group and their work are impressive. Some have been commissioned by major international corporations. You can read more about Tats Cru and see their work here.

The owner of Pulse Plastics, Alan Backleman, sanctioned the work on his building and is pleased with the result. He agreed with me that the building-long mural is an improvement and welcome facelift for the previously drab structure. Already, Alan told me that the building has been used as a backdrop for film and commercial work.

It is questionable, of course, whether covering every neglected structure in the five boroughs of New York City with aerosol art would be desirable. Without some sort of cooperation and coordination, the urban landscape could end up looking like a cacophony of circus posters. But we are a long way from that concern.

The Bronx's image has been troubled, however, the borough was not as blighted as it appears today. The period from 1920-1950 was documented in The Beautiful Bronx by historian Lloyd Ultan. The book came out in 1979 two years after President Carter visited the South Bronx, a visit that did much to project a negative image of the borough across the nation.

At one time, the borough used a wastebasket and the slogan "Don't Dump on the Bronx" for their anti-littering campaign. In 2001, the Bronx replaced the image with one of a Day Lily and the slogan "The Beautiful Bronx," inspired by Ultan's book title, as part of a beautification program and effort to improve the Bronx's image.

Unwanted graffiti was a large part of the visual blight that dominated most vistas in the borough. As everyone knows, however, tools can be used for good or bad, and when seen in this light, it is perhaps not so ironic that the aerosol spray demonstrates quite clearly that in times of need, your worst enemy can become Your Best Friend :)

More graffiti and aerosol art: Rattus rattus, Skame, Columbo, Monk and CSI, TMNK, Unguent, Unkindest Etch of All, Scrap Yard, 11 Spring Street, Dumbo Arts Festival, Mars Bar, Totem

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Fruits of Their Labor

One of the many benefits of living in New York City is the introduction of products from various ethnic groups. Often, these are the hard core, authentic foods and devices that are actually used by another culture transported by immigrants. The world of fruit is very exotic in the city, with things rarely seen outside the city, such as dragon fruit or Durian.

I first saw the type of orange peeling machine in the photo for the first time in the West Indies - simple, ingenious, and so much faster than hand peeling. Also, when peeled this way, removing only the outer peel and leaving the white portion of the rind (the pericarp or albedo), an orange can be eaten more conveniently, like an apple. It is said that the white portion of an orange contains as much vitamin C as the flesh. Perhaps the slightly bitter quality of the white and the American penchant for all things sweet prevents more people from eating oranges this way.

Recently, while in the Bronx returning from a business meeting, I found myself in slow moving traffic. In New York City, this means captive audience and opportunity. And where there is opportunity, there are always opportunists. Typically in this scenario you will find flower vendors, however, in this case I was hungry and lucky - a vendor on foot was selling machine peeled oranges. Two dollars for a bag of four. I was a happy camper with a snack that managed to ameliorate the drab crossing of the nondescript Third Avenue Bridge.  

Some may feel that our foot vendor is nothing but an opportunist, but perhaps he can also be seen as a necessary and central figure in the fantasmagorical world of New York City, where the Sirens of Convenience not only draw us in, but here, they also provide us with the Fruits of Their Labor :)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In a Fog

I have done numerous stories featuring nature's impact on the city. In some cases, more prominent, in some, less. But always that the city is juxtaposed against nature. How the manmade contrasts the natural, but rarely mother nature on her own. On July 20, 2010, I wrote Back to Our Main Feature with a lucky capture of a spectacular thunderstorm and lightning bolt. In it, I said:

Please understand that I, like most New Yorkers, do love Mother Nature, but the gifts nature bestows and the power she wields often feel secondary in a city like New York.

Last night there was a brief lightning storm dramatic enough to make many of us look up and say wow. But unlike our country brethren, who may spend a pleasant evening watching shooting stars, we rarely indulge these natural phenomenon for very long. Glancing up to the sky, seeing a spectacular display of lightning complemented by a waxing moon, we acknowledge when nature has spoken. Yes, like any great commercial, we hear you, but now, Back to Our Main Feature.

Even on a foggy night, a spectacular fog is often more obstacle or at best backdrop to the city's structures. Today's photos were taken in Union Square during the ongoing Occupy Wall Street, now a daily social phenomenon. As I marveled at the beautiful effect of the various illuminated buildings filtered by the misty air, I surveyed the hundreds of park occupants and could see no eyes drawn to nature's show. Surprising, because heavy fogs are rare and spectacular, the delight of many a filmmaker.

However, this is New York City, and from time to time, without knowing it, the average New Yorker will find himself or herself In a Fog...

More nature: Come Back for Jupiter, The Tide Pool, This Is Not New Mexico, We've Got Skiing Too, White Birch Canoe, Trapped in Paradise, Conflicted, Mother Nature, Brooding, Risk Not Living

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

You're Not in Nevis

In the early 1980s, I was obsessed with tropical islands and was visiting the Caribbean nearly every winter. Often, I would island hop, traveling to two islands in one trip on a 10-day vacation.
In December 1983, I was with my sister and brother-in-law, visiting both Nevis and Monsterrat. We arrived at the Nevis airport, and I proceeded to rent a car. I wrote about my experience in The Point of Impact on October 25, 2010: 

I was completely dumbfounded when, in renting a car at the tiny airport, I was only asked when I would return. There was no paperwork or contracts, the only requirement to show a drivers license. The owner of the vehicle confirmed our agreement as to the rate ($25 per day), asked when I would return the car, and just handed me the keys.

Upon arriving at my inn, the first question I had was to the inn owner about this car rental transaction - the most puzzling and lackadaisical I have ever seen in my life. He said to be assured, the owner would know my whereabouts at any given moment. I asked how that was possible. He told me that Nevis was a very small place (the island nation only has a population of 12,000), and everyone knew everything. I asked how any problems would be resolved. He assured me that everything would be fine, just don't have an accident. This was not comforting at all.

What I did not mention in this story is the larger issue of theft. Effectively there was none, for the same reasons the renter of the car was unconcerned about details of who I was. If everyone knows everyone in a small island, stealing will be difficult to accomplish without getting caught. If I steal your TV, how will I keep it a secret without living a cloistered life? Word travels like wildfire and learn of the theft immediately, all eyes will be on the lookout, and invariably, someone will learn of its new home.

This is not unlike the small rural town in an isolated area, where the Golden Rule is even a more powerful operative, perhaps more so than the threat of punishment in being found out. In New York City, however, we have the polar opposite situation. This is a place where thieves can easily mix without fear of discovery. Opportunity knocks at every turn, and every prudent New Yorker never lets their guard down completely. Rituals and habits become second nature - without conscious effort, we guard our handbags, lock our doors, and never leave anything in sight in an automobile. We rotate watch over belongings in restaurants as turns are taken to use the bathroom.

And we chain our bikes. However, chaining by one wheel will not do the job - a bike less one wheel is a worthy candidate for theft. Best to lock both wheels and the frame altogether, or the frame and one wheel, carrying the other wheel with you. Even a wheel alone may be stolen.
There are places, such B&H Photo, where you know You're Not in Kansas. In today's photo, we have a cluster of front and back bicycle wheels chained together. A bit of a mystery, but one thing for sure - one glimpse and you know You're Not in Nevis :)

Related Posts: Last to See the Future, With Impunity, One Screw, Street Cred, Orange You Glad

Monday, March 26, 2012

Not Just Meatballs

What's the formula for restaurant success? Get just about everything just about right. Do it well enough, and not only will they come, but they will also go out of their way. You will become a destination, allowing you to even dispense with one of the cliched elements of success: location.

Here at The Meatball Shop, the restaurant is abuzz. There are lines. Why? Take a unique concept, one of America's comfort foods, bring it to the next level, and spin it every way it can be spun. Provide an extensive menu so that there is something for everyone (there are numerous vegetarian options, including delicious vegan meatball dishes). Put thought into every offering, even including lemonade (we had rhubarb lemonade). Keep 'em coming back with numerous specials in every category every night (even the lemonade keeps changing).

Give 'em good pricing and value. Make it FUN (albeit a little noisy and with a menu selection check system resembling an SAT test). And don't forget a very well put together decor and homey ambiance that makes you want to relax. Tin ceilings, good lighting, antique photos, wainscoting - all working towards an old-timey atmosphere befitting comfort foods.  Even the bathroom had an equally nice decor and flowers. If you can, offer desserts so yummy you make 'em want to go for broke and throw diet to the wind for one night - here it is, homemade ice cream sandwiches like at Mud, but customized with six choices each of cookie and ice cream.

How do you do create such a successful place? For street cred, start with two New Yorkers who have credentials to spare and are clearly overqualified for the job. Apply these extraordinary talents and passion to a simple food item, and voila - you have what the co-owners, Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow, like to call "best place on earth." From their website:

Daniel Holzman's cooking career started at age 15 at LeBernardin in NYC. He attended the Culinary Institute of America with a full scholarship from the James Beard Foundation. Prior to graduation, Daniel accepted a position at the Paladin in New York City for Chef Jean Louis Paladin, working alongside such culinary notables as Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason. Six months later Jean Louis asked Daniel if he would be willing to fill a vacancy at his flagship restaurant Napa in the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. Accepting the offer, Daniel began a 10-year culinary journey through some of Los Angeles and San Francisco’s finest restaurants including The Campton Place, The Fifth Floor, Aqua and Jardinière.
In 2004 Daniel began his first management job as chef of the California organic bistro, Axe, in Venice, Los Angeles. After one year at Axe, Daniel became Executive Chef at the Inn of the Seventh Ray, a 250 seat restaurant in the Topanga hills known for its romantic outdoor setting and lavish weddings. Daniel remained at the Inn until 2007 when he moved to San Francisco to open SPQR, a rustic Roman Osteria, as Co-owner and Executive chef. Within 3 months of the opening SPQR received 3½ out of 4 stars from Michael Bauer in The San Francisco Chronicle, a rating usually reserved for far fancier restaurants.

Michael Chernow began his professional restaurant career in 1996 behind the bar of the popular nightclub, Life, on Bleecker Street in NewYork City. Learning from the ground up, Michael quickly worked his way through the ranks becoming the youngest bartender on staff. After 2 years working in both Life in New York and in its East Hampton sister club, The Tavern, Michael signed on to open Woo Lae Oak on Mercer St. in New York City.

In 2001 Michael made the move to Los Angeles where he worked at Woo Lae Oak’s original location on La Cienega Blvd. Returning to New York, he opened Punch and Judy, a wine bar on Clinton Street. In 2002 Frank Prizanzano offered Michael a position behind the bar of his eponymous flagship restaurant Frank on Second Avenue.For the past 7 years Michael has been managing the bar at Frank where he has a large, loyal following. In 2007 Michael enrolled in French Culinary Institute, graduated with honors, and was awarded an Associates Degree in both culinary arts and restaurant management in 2008.

It's another good example of a New York City establishment where, if you look beneath the veneer, you will find more than buzz, spin, and hype. This is a place where, under the skin, content is king and it's Not Just Meatballs :)

More West Village restaurants: French Roast (Heard It Through the Grapevine), Doma Café (Tangerine Dream), Cones, Magnolia Bakery, John's Pizzeria (Roots of Pizza), The Waverly Inn and Garden (Buzz and Bling), Le Gigot (Nuance), Lassi (Skinny), Tartine (Paris in New York), Chocolate Bar

Friday, March 23, 2012

Childhood Dream

She said she wanted to find the "mushroom house" she knew as a child, a very special place where her father often took her growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The memories of childhood are clouded and skewed, and I doubted that we would find such a house or, if we did, how long it would take. But her instincts were good, and what I truly anticipated to be a long and likely fruitless search mission turned out to be a very quick drive, almost like she was guided by a secret hand straight to our destination. 

But nothing would prepare either of us for what we saw. As I turned up 83rd Street and pointed out a "nice" house, she cried for joy, "That's it." It was much larger than her memory served her, and she was elated, to say the least. The home is extraordinary and, as I surmised, no secret at all. It was designated a historic landmark by New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission. It is known internationally and referred to variously as the Mushroom House, the Witch's House, the Hansel and Gretel House, and, most commonly, The Gingerbread House. The AIA Guide to New York City calls it:

A mansion disguised as a witch's hideaway. Black Forest Art Nouveau. Bumpety stone and pseudothatchery make this Arts and Crafts revival one of Brooklyn's greatest fantasies.

The mansion sports 6 bedrooms and 6 baths and is 5743 square feet and sits on 10 acres - unfathomable for New York City. It is constructed of uncut stone. The roof, with its rolled edges, is covered in special asphalt shingles the color of thatch, recalling the thatched roofs of English country manors. Inside, it exudes old world charm with beautiful woodwork, pictorials set into walls, enormous fireplaces, and decorative elements using medieval stained glass from Europe.

The home is located at 8220 Narrows Avenue and spans between 82nd and 83rd Street. It was built between 1916-17 for Howard E. and Jesse Jones House and designed by James Sarsfield Kennedy. Howard Jones was a shipping tycoon, president of James W. Elwell & Co. and also a director and later vice president of the Maritime Association Board of New York. The house has changed hands only a few times and made big news when it was put up for sale in 2009 for $12 million dollars by the owners, Jerry and Diane Fishman, who lived there for 25 years. From the New York Post:

But Jerry Fishman said it has held a fairy-tale-like spell over him his entire life growing up in the neighborhood, where he was born and raised. "My mother used to push me in my stroller past the house and one time I got out of the stroller and tried to get into the house," recalled Fishman, 62.

When he was a student at Fort Hamilton HS -- across the street from the Gingerbread House -- Fishman said he would sit in his English class staring out the window at the house as if in a trance. "My grades suffered," he recalled. And on his first date with Diane, Jerry remembers driving her by the home and telling her, "One day I'm going to own that house."

And he did. From the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Fishman, who grew up two blocks away from the house in the Bay Ridge neighborhood, had his eye on the house all his life. “As the legend goes,” he says, “I knew of this house when I was six months old, and I was attracted to it like it was candy.” As he got older, his fascination with the Arts and Crafts-style house only grew. “I would walk by it, drive by it on purpose just to look at it,” he says. His first date with his future wife, Diane, included a drive past the house and a vow. “I told her, ‘I’m going to own this house,” says Mr. Fishman, now 61.

Built around 1917 when Bay Ridge was, as the New York Post puts it, “an oceanfront getaway for the city’s rich and famous,”  the Gingerbread House has only changed hands a few times. In 1980, just after the Fishmans bought a home nearby, it came on the market. “We ran over here, and we looked at the house,” Mr. Fishman says, But he was disappointed. Two elderly women had lived in the home since the 1930s, Mr. Fishman says, and many sections of the home needed extensive work that he and his wife could not afford at that time.

When the home came on the market again in 1985, they pounced, even entering a bidding war. The day the Fishmans closed on the house, paying under $1 million, “was the most memorable day of my life,” Mr. Fishman says. “We had the Gingerbread House.”

The Fishmans sold the house in order to relocate near their parents in Florida. The fairy tale home that cast a spell on at least two people from childhood. For them, the chapter is finally closed - Jerry Fishman and my friend both found their Childhood Dream :)

More homes: Big Secret on Little StreetLove Is All Around, Part 1, Grisly Business, Todt Hill, The Feeling Passes, Head for the Hills, All the Way..., Affront to Dignity, Manhattan Beach, Itsy Bitsy, Bloomberg, Terrapin Chelsea Art Gallery

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Trayvon Martin

In New York City, it is often difficult to gauge the merit of an issue by those who are most vocal about it. Unfortunately, there are many who will seek any opportunity to rally, protest, demonstrate, or just be part of something. This was the case yesterday in Union Square, where the events surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin attracted a massive throng.

There were those who came out saddened by the murder of the 17-year-old teenager, civil rights activists inflamed by the details of this case, and those who will attend virtually anything - protests and parades alike. The event saw its fair share of the indigent, insolent, indolent, and indignant, along with others muttering to themselves, screaming inanities, on rants and diatribes, and even verbally hostile to police officers who maintained composure.

However, reading over the details of the Trayvon incident, it not only is a senseless tragedy but also does appear to be an incident which casts light on very serious issues of racism and justice. George Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic and crime watch volunteer in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, told police that he shot Trayvon in self-defense after an altercation. Martin was walking home from a convenience store, where he had purchased iced tea and Skittles. Apart from the fact that the boy was unarmed, the protestors are particularly enraged and outraged that Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, is still free and not charged. According to the New York Times:

Florida is among 21 states with a "Stand Your Ground Law," which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. The self-defense law helps explain why a neighborhood watch captain has not been arrested in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager.

The Million Hoodie March for Trayvon Martin was hosted by Occupy Wall Street. Aside from the Trayvon Martin protest, numerous Occupy Wall Street agendas were addressed as well. Union Square was congested and pure pandemonium - massive police presence, vehicular traffic on one of Manhattan's busiest thoroughfares, a major subway station closed, protestors, activists (Reverend Billy was on hand), pamphleteers, skateboarders, shoppers, police cars and emergency vehicles, buses, and chess players, undaunted, as they typically are.

Until justice is served, I am sure that this is not the last outcry to be heard surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin :(

More protests: General Malaise Part 2, Vigil, Eyes on the Signs, Free Laura and Euna, Unemployed, Fall Out Against the War, Picture New York

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

That Last Ball

I moved to New York City in 1969 to attend NYU as a mathematics major. It took very little time to realize that a career as a mathematician would be a high road, reserved for the crème de la crème and not for a boy from a small town in Connecticut who fancied himself to be a math whiz. I dabbled in other curricula, and in my third year, disillusioned, I dropped out.

I did various odd jobs, and by 1975, I was very underemployed. And bored. My Siamese cats were bored also. I purchased three small hollow plastic golf balls sold as cat toys. My cats, as they are prone to do, showed no interest in commercial cat toys, preferring to play with anything else, particularly things verboten.

Frustrated with my useless purchase, I decide to try and JUGGLE the three balls, but to no avail, reminiscent of my childhood, when I would occasionally try to juggle batteries taken out of a toy. But I was curious and decided to put closure to this childhood fascination. I purchased the only book in print on juggling at the time. In its pages, I was informed that a juggling ball needed proper size and weight and that, in a pinch, even the clichéd oranges would suffice. A trip to the refrigerator, and voila - my efforts at learning three were met with an immediate improvement.
Soon, I located the only juggler listing himself in the yellow pages: Jay Green, a jewelry engraver and professional juggler. I visited his studio in midtown Manhattan. There, he demonstrated his extraordinary juggling talents.  Right there, on that day, my love and romance for the art of juggling began.

Before leaving, he informed about an ongoing workshop in Wall Street. I attended the workshop regularly and discovered that there was a dearth of readily available equipment for juggling. I began making for myself, and soon a business was born. You can read the entire story here.
In a way however, I find that success stories, including my own, can be a bit boring; behind every success, there is always a story, and unless one comes from money, traced back far enough, behind every example of someone with more, there was a time with less, usually much less - Warren Buffett delivering newspapers, or Steve Jobs as an adopted child and college drop out.

In New York City, there are many failures, infinitely more than the successes. The city is built atop business failures. The plethora of retail store closings boggles the mind. Heartbreaking efforts, determination, and stamina against all odds with closures and bankruptcies nonetheless. Millions invested, millions lost. Beautiful retail spaces created, only to be ripped out months later. I see it every day. Often, the road to failure is as interesting and harrowing as that to success. But people need inspiration, not discouragement, and the details behind the failures, unless part of a longer road to success, largely remain untold.

Recently, rummaging through my desk at my office on lower Broadway, I found one of the original cat toy balls, shown in the photo. Sadly, it is the only one remaining of the original set of three, the other two lost or misplaced and not seen in years, a reminder that material success and personal good fortune are fragile and fleeting, as easily lost as gained. Perhaps a metaphor for tenacity and good luck in business, I have been hanging on tight to That Last Ball

More on my juggling business: Luck of the IrishSmile by Fire, Not Of Them, Please Rub Off on Me, Just Like Steve Mills, Think Big, On the Road, Really Smart Guys, Fish and Ponds, Kind Words, Signature, Spinning, Juggle This

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Catman

At one period in my life, I was on a virtual one-man crusade to promote cats. I had books on cats, frequented cat shows, had a number of cat sculptures, and subscribed to Cats magazine. And, of course, I had cats. Many over the years. My breeds of choice were Siamese, followed by Abyssinian, which, with its agouti ticking, is arguably the most feral looking of the domestic cat breeds.

I trained my cats, even getting a female Siamese to tightrope walk a narrow stick spanning two bookcases seven feet above the floor. I toilet trained two cats when there were no products for such. After my own success, I learned of a video on toilet training cats. Curious to compare notes, purchased it.
Subsequently, I was interviewed at my office. The writer told me that he had contacted the vendor of the video in order to make contact with someone in New York City who may have actually trained cats. In actuality, I was duped in the 1990s by a writer for the Wall Street Journal who purported to be researching for an article. He was secretly working on an instructional BOOK on toilet training cats and had come to pick my brain. I also hoped to make and sell a kit, but soon after, such products became available. Even to this day, many are surprised to hear about the training of cats - understandable since, as any cat owner can attest, cats are difficult to train.

For years, I had a business customer who had the stage name Dominique the Catman. It was years before I learned in conversation with him that he had an act of trained domestic cats that performed regularly in Key West. I was absolutely AMAZED to learn of what he had done and astounded to finally see on video the act he had put together. Much later, I learned of the Moscow Cat Theater, a show that has toured worldwide and made a stop in New York City in 2005.

For some time, I have hoped to capture an alley cat in New York City. Here, however, as everywhere, cats are elusive and skittish. Invariably, by they time my camera is taken from a bag or pocket and readied, my quarry is fleeting or gone.

Recently, I was able to photograph a black cat. This was however, a residential neighborhood in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and this cat was likely an outdoor cat, not a stray. Like any seasoned New Yorker who has established him or herself, this feline looked like he had found his comfort zone in Brooklyn.
I used to talk to my cats, and one in particular I sometimes called Mr. PhD in Comfort. When not on the prowl for food, cats seek comfort, and I often found mine basking in the rays of the sun streaming through a window or resting in my home's most comfortable spot, which also happened to be one of my most valuable books or articles of clothing.

The character of the cat shares much with the New Yorker who has succeeded making a life here. Alert, clever, cautious, resourceful, adaptable - she's the Catwoman and he's The Catman :)

More animals: Catch the Worm, Drooling and Slobbering, That Should Cover It, Blessing of the Animals, Water 4 Dogs, Lost in that Wool, Pet Pride Parade, Bronx Zoo, Warm and Fuzzy, Ambassadors, Kitty, Parrots, Rain Forest, Feeding at the Zoo, Baby and Merlin, a la Chien, Gull, Dachshund Octoberfest, Snake Charmer

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sixth Anniversary

New York Daily Photo started on March 17, 2006 - there have been nearly 2000 postings to date. As in the previous anniversaries (see links below), I have put together a collage of 48 photos from the last 12 months, featuring many favorite postings of mine and visitors to this site. I have assembled a wide a spectrum of photos in keeping with the spirit of this website - street life, festivals, architecture, special people, food, vistas, music, nature, local businesses, the unusual, the lesser known, and the whimsical. Thanks to all of you for visiting and reading :)

Anniversary Postings: First Anniversary, Second Anniversary, Third Anniversary, Fourth Anniversary, Fifth Anniversary

Friday, March 16, 2012

Luck of the Irish

Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day, and in reviewing my postings going back to the inception of this website, I was surprised to find that I have neither done a St. Patrick's Day feature nor attended the St. Patrick's Day parade.

More surprising was that the very first posting of this website was on March 17, 2006, on Vesuvio Bakery, a New York City icon (closed and reopened as Birdbath Neighborhood Green Bakery). How absolutely bizarre that until today, I never realized that 1) the anniversary date of New York Daily Photo was St. Patrick's Day and 2) the choice of the distinctive green exterior of Vesuvio Bakery for my very first posting was never intended, but entirely accidental. In six years, no comment was ever made about the green color of the bakery's exterior and use of the photo on St. Patrick's Day.

My company also decided to pay tribute this year on our business blog. Our social networking consultant has, on occasion, been theming our product line for various holidays. The bottom photo is his interpretation of the classic Irish shamrock created entirely by selecting green colored juggling props from our product line. Our thanks to Kyle Petersen for his design and execution.

Although my understanding has always been that my ancestry was entirely French, my first name is Brian, one of the most popular names in Ireland. The choice was never adequately explained by my mother - there was some rumor of a strain of Irish lineage. Perhaps the rather fortuitous occurrences surrounding the inception of this website on St. Patrick's Day, the serendipitous choice of Vesuvio with its bright green facade, and the reopening with Green in the bakery name is somehow all related to the Luck of the Irish :)

Posts on St. Patrick's Day: Little in the Middle, Shrine to Kitsch

Thursday, March 15, 2012


As I stood one morning in front of Vesuvio's, which had closed for business, a woman approached me and was horrified. She expressed extreme dismay that such a legendary, iconic merchant would go out of business in New York City. How could such a thing happen? Why would anyone let it happen? Something must be done. They are pushing all the small businesses out.

The concept of They has become a private joke between a friend and myself. Unlike Chuckles, They are a much more insidious threat. Their tentacles extend far and wide. They are responsible for all the economic problems, as well as many other ills in New York City and in the country at large.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Just Like Them

On Sunday, I was with friends hooping in Washington Square Park. The park was jammed, as is always the case when Mother Nature bestows on New York City the gift of unseasonably warm weather. At times, we felt besieged by parents with strollers and double strollers. It felt like we had entered a new era where children come only in pairs. I have never had children, however, I am not a childless adult who is militantly anti-children with a shopping list of negatives to bolster my case against them. I wrote about this at length in The Last Taboo.

At one point, two girls rushed up to us, proclaiming that they too could hoop. In seconds, Angeleena (5 years old) and Victoria (8) Cordero began to hoop furiously as the hoops became objects caught in the winds of two small tornadoes.