Robert gazed down into the thin, fragile champagne flute that held the last drop of his second grapefruit mimosa and searched for answers. Never much of a drinker, the strange concoction had begun to take hold, and coupled with the mid-afternoon sun, he started to feel a bit queasy. Getting sick and vomiting in public was not supposed to be part of the equation, especially when you are on vacation and a long way from home. In Robert’s case home was one thousand twenty three miles away, the exact distance from Manhattan to his condominium in a newly revitalized area of downtown Dubuque, Iowa that had once housed a ping-pong ball factory. He had long wished to travel to New York City, what he hoped was the first step in additional future travels to London, Paris, Rio and maybe even Tokyo.
Robert was single and had a steady job at McGraw-Hill publishers in the education division, contracting schools on technology based learning solutions. While the job was not what he envisioned upon graduation from Iowa State University two years prior, the position he held made his parents proud and paid just enough to allow him to use his vacation days for travel. Growing up in a lower middle class family, the son of a steel mill worker and teacher’s aide, Robert never had the experience of visiting faraway places like some of the more well to do friends he made while at Iowa State. At times this made him both jealous and insecure. So, he made a pact with himself to see the world before he settled down to start a family as his mother wanted him to do upon starting the job at McGraw-Hill. After saving for two years and finding the best accommodations and itinerary for his budget, Robert found himself exactly where he wanted to be, Manhattan, the heart of the Big Apple, ready to begin work on his third grapefruit mimosa of the afternoon if his stomach would allow.
A pop culture addict, Robert had long been enamored with the lifestyle of New York City, learning much of it from old reruns of Seinfeld, Sex in the City and Friends. He made sure to read the New York Times daily and felt he was probably one of the few people in Dubuque to hold a subscription to New York magazine. It was not much of a secret around his friends and family that New York City was really the place where he dreamed of living and working. Unfortunately, the one job interview he had with a New York company was done via Skype instead of in-person and didn’t pan out the way he had hoped. Conducted from his dorm room during his final semester at Iowa State, one of the interviewers noticed that a row in his bookshelf library was dedicated to books from The Twilight Saga and snarkily asked if there were any David Sedaris selections on the shelf cringing in horror. Another smug interviewer thought his wide paisley patterned tie was “a fresh change” and “we could use more of that midwestern sort of thing in our office.”
On his second day in New York City Robert decided to head over to Kenmare Street in Nolita for a thursday afternoon brunch at a gourmet Vegan hot-spot called “The Cow’s Revenge.” An avid fan of The Bachelor TV reality series, he once went to a Chicago casting audition with the hope of being a chosen as a contestant but was rejected for not having a compelling enough story. Despite not making the cut, he continued to watch the show and had learned about the “The Cow’s Revenge” from the New York City “rose episode.” In that episode, one contestant, when asked if she could relinquish meat and become a Vegan like her suitor, admitted that she enjoyed eating “steak so rare that it dripped blood” more than sex. This was a deal breaker for the bachelor and Robert as well, as he considered himself a true Vegan in training, trying his best to adhere to the strict lifestyle that so many of his celebrity idols espoused, but having a hard time doing so because Dubuque lacked a strong Vegan culture.
Now, unbeknownst to Robert, midweek brunchers in Manhattan, even Vegan ones, happened to be a hardcore set. They were very different from the weekend crowd that ventured into the city from beyond the five boroughs. Most were either privileged scions or scionettes, pampered wives of financial services capos or members of the creative tastemaker class, all of whom practiced the highest form of snobbery. Only on a rare occasion would the average cubicle dweller tourist like Robert intermingle with the regular brunchers, those of whom would quickly take notice of an interloper.
Robert had made his way to the restaurant by train from across the East River where he was renting a room in a Bushwick loft that doubled as a music recording studio. He was happy to travel into Manhattan from Brooklyn, considering it more of an adventure than inconvenience. He liked observing the diversity on the train and was more than willing to fork over spare change to panhandlers, especially if they had great talent. As the train crossed the Williamsburg bridge, a young man jumped up from his seat and shouted like a circus ringmaster “showtime!” while his friend hit play on a boom box. Instantly, a syncopated beat blasted from the distorted stereo speaker and both youngsters, clad in matching Adidas tracksuits, took turns dancing, using the handrails and stanchion poles to swing and flip with ease while the train sped along the tracks. Most of the riders in the car did not lift their eyes from their cell-phones but Robert was happily mesmerized, as this was nothing he had ever seen in Dubuque, on TV or even on Youtube. Despite one of the dancers coming within an inch of kicking him in the face, Robert loved “showtime” and made sure to deposit five dollars into the young men’s bucket when they were done.
Upon exiting the train, Robert walked up the station stairs and found himself on the corner of Delancey street, a few blocks from his vegan foodie destination. Wary of the comment about the wide paisley tie he wore during his long ago interview, and very much wanting to fit in with the brunch crowd, Robert made sure to wear a much thinner solid blue one along with a crisp, fitted white shirt, skinny tapered blue trousers and brown loafers comprised of all man-made material. He knew that getting a good table at “The Cow’s Revenge” might be tough so he made sure to “dress to impress,” looking much like The Bachelor contestant that happened to be vegan.
As the restaurant came into view he noticed there was no line and felt good about getting a nice outdoor table where he could take in all the city had to offer. With great trepidation, Robert walked up to the entrance and stopped at a sign that said “please wait to be greeted,” implying that a host would meet him but that a seat was not necessarily a given. Noticing there was a prime table available and eager to be have it, Robert grew disappointed when none of the staff immediately greeted him. Despite numerous attempts at non-verbal contact to get their attention, and with seconds now turning into minutes, he finally blurted out a weak “excuse me please” to three of the staff that were engaged in what appeared to be casual conversation a few feet away. A tall thin woman, functioning as the host and dressed in what can best be described as a haute couture potato sack, disdainfully made her way over to Robert and said “Postmates?” Robert was puzzled by the term and politely stated that he would like a table, and preferably an outdoor one. The women replied that by the way he was dressed she thought he was a Postmates worker picking up a takeout order for delivery and that all of the outdoor tables were already reserved. Disappointed about having to dine inside but happy to be at the restaurant, Robert followed his potato sacked host across the indoor dining area as she strutted like a runway model toward a table near the restrooms. The greeter was just about to seat him when a co-worker mentioned to her that Chloe Seville, a brunch regular, had cancelled her reservation. The greeter pivoted to Robert and said that he was in luck as an outside table was now available, one that he enthusiastically agreed to take.
The hostess strutted back across the restaurant with Robert following close behind. He was led to the outdoor dining area where a small, round sea-foam colored table was awaiting him. It was unsteady and barely able to fit one bruncher, let alone two for which there were chairs. As he took his seat he noticed that none of the brunchers were facing each other but rather had their chairs against the wall or pitched at a severe angle. He decided to do the same with his chair, figuring the idea was not to have face to face conversation with someone sitting across from you but to instead observe what might be unfolding on the street. No sooner did Robert settle in when he noticed a row of pigeons on a ledge across the street huddled together, viewing passerbys much in the same manner as the brunchers were. A man in a suit, possibly a lawyer or businessman, unsuspectingly walked beneath the pigeons as he was shouting into his cellphone and one of them, with great accuracy, deposited a large quantity of yellowish poop on the man’s shoulder. The brunchers took notice and all laughed out loud as the man struggled to clean his suit with some newspaper that he pulled out of a trash can. All except Robert that is, who in actuality, felt pretty bad for the guy.
Once things settled down Robert focused in on what to order. He had never seen items like the ones listed on “The Cow’s Revenge” menu as most of the vegan food he had access to in Dubuque was of the frozen variety. Perplexed about the choices, he considered asking the girl sitting next to him for a suggestion but she was reading a book in french, “Les Trois Destins,” and he assumed she would not understand his question. Her appearance also made him feel she was a bit unapproachable. She resembled a mannequin Robert saw in a boutique store window on the way over. Statuesque even while at her seat, pencil thin black jeans with one rip strategically placed above the left knee, a loose fitting crew neck black t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a necklace with an oddly shaped symbol that hung just below her breasts. She had bright porcelain skin and asymmetrically cut reddish-brown hair, a swathe of which kept falling over the right lens of her wayfarer sunglasses. When the waiter came around to ask if she wanted anything else she answered in perfect english “just the check please.” Robert got excited as her accent sounded like a midwestern twang that was quite familiar.
Thinking he might have some things in common with the mannequin-girl, Robert gathered up the nerve to speak and introduced himself, asking if she could recommend something good, since he was visiting from out of town and this was his first time at the restaurant. The mannequin-girl turned her head towards him in a slow robot like manner, revealing sharp blue eyes that peered out from behind her sunglasses. She paused to take a long look at Robert before curtly answering,“kale salad.” Robert cautiously thanked her and decided to probe a bit more about her accent stating that it sounded like she might be from the Midwest. The girl quickly replied that she was not going to sleep with him, which caught him by surprise, since he made no such overture. Thinking he had offended her he apologized and retreated to his menu. The mannequin-girl, sensing Robert’s sincerity and embarrassment, told him she was born in the Midwest, Des Moines to be exact, but left when she was seven and lived abroad in Guinea with her father who was an American diplomat. As a result she understood French fluently and eventually went to school at the Sorbonne in Paris. When she stood up to leave she made sure to add that she likes to read the classics in French but comics in English and that she would be willing to see him again the next day at the Williamsburg comic and anime convention. Noticing that Robert’s cell phone was not in lock screen mode, she took it from the table, quickly typed her name and phone number in the directory and then left without as much as saying goodbye. As Robert watched her walk away, he looked at his cell phone directory and thought about what his parents might say if he was involved with someone like Chrissy. He also realized that he had not read a comic book since middle school.
Robert now began to take notice of the rest of the brunchers. The crowd was mostly fit women, post college but not over 30, with manicured eyebrows and perfect skin. They were outfitted with what appeared to be one hundred and fifty dollar t-shirts, four hundred dollar sunglasses and thousand dollar handbags. At least that was Robert’s rough estimate. The few men that were there were skinny and effeminate, except for Robert and another guy wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap backwards who was clearly being indoctrinated into veganism by his girlfriend. When the Yankee fan’s girlfriend stepped away to go to the bathroom he pulled a real beef jerky stick from his cargo shorts pocket and scarfed it down with ninja quick precision, relishing every last morsel, even licking his fingers. What he thought was a covert operation did not go unnoticed though as one bruncher had taken video of him indulging in his non-vegan snack and uploaded it to Instagram with the hashtag “veganfail.” The other brunchers, all in the same vegan social network, saw the video and immediately began shaming the Yankee fan for his actions. When his girlfriend returned the manager asked that they leave the restaurant as outside food was not permitted, especially when it is of the suffering kind. Embarrassed by what had occurred the Yankee fan’s girlfriend made an open apology for her boyfriend’s behavior but it could not be heard over the chorus of “Na Na Na Na, Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye” being chanted by the brunchers. Not to be outdone, as the couple were being escorted out, the Yankee fan flipped the bird to the brunchers as he would if he had been tossed from a ballgame. The girlfriend, mortified, grabbed him by the ear and led him away. They turned the corner at Kenmare street and vanished, never to be seen again near The Cow’s Revenge.
Robert began to wonder whether the various scenes he had been witnessing were the usual daily occurrences or anomalies. Since The Cow’s Revenge was a vegan restaurant, he was expecting a low key brunch with unassuming, compassionate and evolved diners much like the ones at the Hare Krishna cafeteria that he occasionally ate lunch at back home in Dubuque. Instead, Robert was now privy to open conversations about exotic trips to Bali or St. Barth’s and unethical back channel stock deals. Everything seemed distorted as most of the people he encountered didn’t look, sound or act like the people he watched on the restaurant’s bachelor episode and, as a result, he began to feel oddly disconnected from his brunch experience.
Robert’s existential daydream was interrupted by the arrival of his kale salad. While it seemed appealing, he was unable to dig right in as he still felt a bit queasy from drinking on an empty stomach. Compelled to ignore his cell-phone, something the other brunchers were having a hard time doing, he began to observe the street scene. Hearing loud music he looked towards the corner where he noticed an electric blue convertible lamborghini sports car waiting at a red light. The driver of the car resembled Beyonce. In fact, at first, Robert thought it was Beyonce but then noticed the car’s vanity plate stating “NOT BEY.” When the light turned green Not Bey made a left turn into congestion and found herself sandwiched between a UPS truck and a Fedex truck. Both the UPS and Fedex truck drivers vied for her attention with competing cliche blue collar pick up lines like “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven” and “You got all those curves and I got no brakes.” Not Bey was oblivious to their courting efforts, casually twirling some of her hair between her fingers and nodding her head to the music playing from her stereo. One group of brunchers, disturbed by the volume of Not Bey’s stereo while she was sitting in traffic asked that she lower the volume, to which her reply was a long middle finger accented with sunflower yellow nail polish that matched the color of her dress. As a response, several of the brunchers began to strategize together on how they could shame her on social media but just then the traffic eased up, Not Bey peeled out down the block, and they lost their golden opportunity for a second shaming of the day.
Robert thought all the action on Kenmare street was finished but he was very wrong. As he was finishing up his salad, which was actually quite good, he glanced across the street towards a brand new luxury high rise building. To his astonishment, on the third floor balcony, a fit middle aged man with the visage of an aging rock star stood naked, except for some tube socks, his flaccid manhood swinging like a pendulum. Robert turned away as a natural reaction and tried his best to play it off since he did not want to appear like a “flustered gump.” When he looked again, a woman with a shock of short platinum grey-blonde hair half the age of the naked aging rock star appeared in the balcony doorway. Attempting to conceal her nakedness, she stuck her arm through the crack of the door, placing a cigarette and lighter in the man’s hand. He lit up the cigarette, took a drag, and as fate would have it, the sun decided to break through some passing high clouds and shine down on him like a spotlight. He braced his elbows against the railing of the balcony, and in a very relaxed manner, decided to take in what the city had to offer as he smoked his post-coitus treat. Robert looked around at the rest of the brunchers and saw that no one else seemed to notice or care except for two girls that could be no more than sixteen years of age. Earlier the hostess had to ask the girls to stop launching spitballs at each other as they might hit other guests, which made Robert wonder how two immature school age girls could afford such an expensive vegan brunch.
The two besties who had been taking selfies and photos of each other during brunch now focused their efforts on how to best incorporate a staged photo bomb of the naked aging rock star in their pictures. Clumsily they maneuvered around the brunchers closest to their table, trying hard to angle a good shot but meeting with great difficulty due to the tight quarters. Finally, realizing that Robert was aware of the situation on the balcony as well, one of the girls asked if he would mind taking a photo of them with the man in the background. Always the gentleman, Robert obliged and one of the girls handed him her cellphone which was fitted with a black leather Gucci case. He had never seen a cell phone case like the one he now held in his hand and thought it odd that a vegan would be using leather but, nonetheless, Robert did his best to get a good shot of the girls with the naked man in the background. Robert happened to have a good eye for photography composition and while bending down on one knee, fired off a perfect shot of the two besties sipping drinks through straws as the naked aging rock star appeared in the background. He took a look at the photo and said to the girls “I think I got a good one” before handing the phone back. Initially both girls stared at the phone screen without making a sound. Once they zoomed in on the photo though they simultaneously broke into uncontrollable laughter, so much so that the green matcha shakes that they were sipping began to shoot out of their noses and onto the table, bringing on even more fits of delirium.
As the two besties rolled around on the floor, doubled over in joy, tears flowing from their eyes, the naked aging rock star left the balcony and went back indoors presumably for another round of afternoon love making. Robert reflected on what had transpired and wondered what type of life the naked aging rock star lived that would allow for such a luxury. As he pondered different scenarios, he noticed that several of the brunchers had grown quite disgusted with the boisterous behavior of the girls. One bruncher called the hostess over to express her displeasure but was instantly rebuffed. It seemed to Robert that the two besties, despite their age, might have a high status level at The Cow’s Revenge. As the girls teenage hysteria began to settle down, a long shiny black limo pulled up to the curb and double parked near a hydrant. Out stepped a driver clad in a grey uniform, white gloves and driving cap who took a position near the rear passenger door. Standing at attention and without a word, he placed his hand on the car door handle and opened the door, a signal to the besties that it was time to leave. Both girls took notice and quickly gathered their belongings and left without leaving a payment or tip. As the they half skipped towards the limo, one of the girls excitedly proclaimed that the photobomb pic was “awesome!” and they joyfully dove into the backseat. The driver closed the door, resumed his station behind the wheel and drove off into the manhattan bustle with his cargo ready for their next adventure.
As the sun became obscured by the buildings on Kenmare street, many of the brunchers, now subject to encroaching shade, began to disperse as well, albeit not in the same fashion as the two besties. Some walked, some summoned UBER’s or biked and one couple jettisoned away on a red vespa wearing matching Evel Knievel helmets. Robert, with no plans for the rest of the evening, sat at his table attempting to recover from the three mimosas. Just as he was feeling relaxed and contemplative he was told to vacate by the hostess because the staff had to stage the restaurant for a film crew. Robert squared away the bill and walked cautiously down the street, mindfully trying to walk straight in an effort to counteract the lingering effects of the alcohol. He took an unintentionally circuitous route toward the subway, meandering through SOHO all the while contemplating whether or not he was right for New York City. Right before he reached the subway entrance he noticed an old mom and pop comic book shop. He walked up to the storefront, stood outside for moment and then decided to go in.
I am the “other.”
Chances are that you are the other as well. Unless of course you are Native-American, then that is not the case. So, it is quite possible that your ancestors arrived on these shores in shackles and chains, victims of the abhorrent institution of slavery and indoctrinated into a new type of “otherness.” Or it may be possible that you or a family member arrived in North America, in these United States, seeking a better livelihood, a desire to escape war or flee religious persecution. You or your ancestors came by land, air and sea to The United States of America because it stood for hope in the face of suffering. Still the other but with a chance to assimilate and have the opportunity to access life, liberty and freedom in the messy experiment called The United States of America.
My grandfather, Israel Galperin, came here from Poland in March 1921 as a “transmigrant by bond.” When he landed at Ellis Island he was the other. I was very young when he passed away so we did not have any conversations as to why he left Poland as a young man to come to The United States of America. I can only assume that he came here because he felt it gave him the best shot at a better way of life.
He eventually settled in the Bronx, New York and worked in the garment industry in Manhattan. To assimilate better my grandfather, Israel Galperin, became “Sol Alper.” He married my grandmother Lillian, another other from Russia. Her family arrived here on the heels of the Russian revolution. She told me that as a young girl she was chased by soldiers in the woods near her home and separated from her family. She wound up for a short time in an orphanage until her family could be located.
Sol and Lilly raised three children, not always in the best of circumstances or with the best of finances. They tried their best and that is all that one could ask for. Their children went on to have children of their own, who have done their best to raise families of their own and contribute as best they could to the diverse fabric of The United States of America. That is the simple story. That is the story of who I am and how I came to be here in the United States of America. That is the story that must continue in order for The United States of America to survive, at the very least, comparably speaking, on moral high ground.
Lately, many people who were once others or came from a family of others have found it hard to identify with this generation of others, even though these people are interested in coming to The United States of America for the same reasons our ancestors did. The overwhelming majority are here for good purposes and, as in the past, this is a benefit to our nation. It is what has made The United States of America great. Yes, there may be a very few that wish to come here for nefarious reasons. That is a statistical reality and should be dealt with by immigration officials using the tools they have at hand. However, a ban on those traveling to the United States, especially one that singles out individuals according to their religion is divisive, antithetical in regards to terrorism and most importantly unconstitutional.
Today we stand at a crossroads in The United States. Banning individuals from entering our country because of their religion and origin challenges much more than legalities and constitutional rights. It challenges our collective compassion, empathy and humanity. It challenges us to decide what side of history we want to be remembered as being on. The side of the braggart without a heart, the showman who was able to tap into the irrational fears of 62.9 million voters to gain the presidency, only to begin the dismantling of everything The United States of America has stood for, leaving us on the doorstep of totalitarianism and global warfare. Or will we be on the side of truth, love, justice and the defense of liberty and freedom, not only in our country but across the globe. The future dangles in the balance.
This past summer I vacationed in Washington, D.C. with my wife. While I have worked in D.C many times over the years, I had not taken in the sights since at least the early nineties. Other than the stifling heat and mini-blackout that affected the hotel we were staying in, it was a fun and informative trip. Some of the exhibits we checked out had extra special significance given that we are in a particularly divisive presidential election cycle.
I have a keen interest in history and politics and there were more than enough museums, memorials and exhibits to keep me interested for the three days we were there. That being said, there were some highlights that stood out. The Smithsonian had a special exhibit about the history of U.S. presidential elections. It focused on the issues that surrounded each particular election, the agenda of the candidates and the views of voters. My wife and I also waited in line to view the Bill of Rights and The Constitution which were kept in a climate controlled case. Seeing the documents up close that are part of the foundation of our republic reinforced what freedom and liberty mean to me. Finally, we spent time at the Holocaust museum. Following the timeline of the rise of Hitler and fascism was particularly significant. The historical footage from that era and the personal accounts of how people were affected made me realize that you can never let your guard down when it comes to politicians and what their true goals are when they seek power.
It was extremely easy, based upon the D.C. trip, to start drawing conclusions about the democratic and republican nominees for president. The first thing that I thought was “this is really the best we have to offer our country and the world?” How can it be that these two individuals were on the verge of the presidency? Both seem especially damaged compared to previous candidates and one, in my opinion, seemed quite ignorant.
After returning home from our trip the election rhetoric and divisiveness really started to pick up. I have had awareness of nine presidential elections in my lifetime and this one by far has had the worst mud-slinging. The Willie Horton episode during the Bush/Dukakis election seems tame compared to what’s been going on this year. While Hillary Clinton has encouraged by her actions a great deal of worthy skepticism by the electorate, the republican presidential nominee has had absolutely no problem injecting xenophobic, racist, regressive and factually incorrect statements into the campaign debate.
Even though it has happened before, particularly in the Goldwater and Nixon campaigns, it seems particularly sad that a presidential candidate would take advantage of free speech and resort to hyperbole that tears at the very fabric of our union. Additionally, his delivery has been very alarming as it resembles authoritarian rhetoric that includes blame-shifting, historical reworking and double-think reminiscent of the novels 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The design of Donald Trump’s language, crafted by many years as an actor and public figure that understands what the media feeds on, is very hard to resist without a conscious effort to question it.
I recently found a remarkable video online that features an interview of Aldous Huxley by Mike Wallace from 1958. In the interview, Huxley posits that conditions are ripe for a totalitarian regime, quite possibly in the U.S., and that the instance of this is “right around the corner.” Here we are some fifty odd years later and Huxley’s prediction can not be ignored. The factors leading up to the election are quite alarming. We have an authoritarian candidate, an alpha-male assuming the role of a father figure that claims to be the only one that can “fix the mess” our country is in. The candidate is also masterful in his use of the media and seems to not only play the media like a fiddle but also has complicit individuals willing to humanize him like Jimmy Fallon and Dr. Oz. Add to those factors voters that are hopeless and eager for change because their lives and livelihoods have deteriorated or at the very least stagnated for years. Many of these people have suffered as a result of the recession and globalization. I fear that despite what any politician says or promises, be it a change candidate or recycled candidate, the jobs and 401K’s of these disaffected people are never coming back. It seems that the world has left them behind and our smartest government officials have failed in the process.
There is a case to be made for change but it is troublesome that voters would consider Donald Trump as a change for the better. Once you get past his provocative proclamations, you are struck with the fact that he has spent his entire life working in his own self-interest and not in the interest of others. He also does not appear to have an understanding or curiosity about the mechanisms of government and leadership outside of his own business. Additionally, he refuses to reveal anything about himself other then the slightest surface details and is on pace to set the Guinness Book of World Records record for falsehoods. If we consider the presidency at its most primary distinction, that of a job, clearly he is shockingly under qualified. I doubt people would get on a plane if a pilot displayed the same attributes that Donald Trump presents to voters yet close to half the country is willing to give him the keys to The White House. The most puzzling part of Trump’s support resides in the fact that in a country that prides itself in freedom, people are willing to risk having their freedom severely diminished by giving an authoritarian their vote.
I can’t say I share much in common with the average Trump supporter. In my opinion, many of their views are misguided and based solely upon irrational judgements and acceptance of falsities. However, I do understand their disenchantment with the political status quo and their desire for change. This is also something that Donald Trump understands very well. While he may not be the smartest presidential candidate the U.S. has ever produced, he might very well be the most clever and certainly the most manipulative. Many people wrote Trump off as a “crackpot” or “dumb” when he began his quest for the presidency. I wish he was as dumb as he presents himself. The truth is that he is smart enough to understand how to get elected yet dumb enough to destroy our economy, involve us in protracted conflicts and destroy our standing in the world. He is George W. Bush on steroids.
What I learned at the holocaust museum was that many Germans made the same mistake about Hitler when he started to gain power in Germany that our electorate is making about Donald Trump. Initially they did not take him seriously and this allowed him to gain a foothold with people that were suffering economically a great deal after WWI. Let us hope that history does not repeat itself and that The United States does not suffer the same fate that Germany did by allowing an authoritarian to ascend to the highest position in our democracy. If that is the case we may very well wind up a dictatorship.
As the gentrification process continues to move forward at an astounding rate in Brooklyn, celebrities like Michael Rapport and writers like Wendell Jamieson have taken the position that the changes have been for the better and that any negative impact, be it destruction of culture or displacement of long-time Brooklyn residents is “par for the course.” I wrote the following piece not long ago as a personal exercise to deal with the changes that have affected me, a life-long Brooklyn resident. I never intended to post it but a recent article by Mr. Jamieson entitled “My Brooklyn, Then & Now” and Mr. Rapaport’s public feud with Spike Lee inspired me to post this creative piece about a conversation between two old friends that happen to bump into each other on a Brooklyn street. While it’s more along the lines of a monologue, I think the point will come across.
A Conversation Between Two Old Friends…
Yo bruh! Wuzzzup?!?! Wow! I can’t believe it’s you! Remember me? Yes, Scooter! How long has it been? Ten maybe fifteen years? Twelve years – that’s right. You always had a good memory. Yes, right after 9-11. That’s the last time I saw you. We bumped into each other on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Right near that makeshift shrine with a photo of the World Trade Center. All those candles and the photos of people that were missing. Man, the buildings still smoldering, I’ll never forget it. Yeah, I try not to think about that time too much either. Kinda’ sad the shrine was removed when they started upgrading the area. It was really sincere Y’know. Real authentic. I guess you’re right though, no sense in reliving bad memories.
How am I? I’m doing great man. Got myself a steady job working for transit with all the OT I want. Yeah, I had to put the creative endeavors aside. Got a wife and two kids man and they need to eat! Mortgage, car payment, you know the deal. Oh, you paid cash for your crib and ride a bike? Wow! That’s pretty slick bruh! You were always smart about things. Smart to get out of the rap game too when you did. I hung on a little too long. Nowadays you need tons of money to be in the rap game. People coming here from all over with a dollar and a dream. Nah, make that $100,000 and a dream! Buying up all our old clothes and rhymes and then getting paid ten times what we did. Re-purposing rhymes? Ha, ha! You’re still mad funny bruh! Still got a great sense of humor! Man, remember we had nothing and we still made it happen. Didn’t need no club with a cover charge. No promoter or marketing guru to take a taste. We had a basement, a blue light and 2 turntables. And you, you were nasty with those decks! We did it for the love! Refined? Hmmm, I never thought about it that way. Yeah, things are definitely hot right now cause the scene became refined but man, we kept it real when we were coming up!
Yeah man, I agree, enough about the past. Actually, enough about me! Bruh, look at you! You look great man! And you made it! Every time I turn the tv on or look at the news there’s something about you. Man, people talking about you all over the world – even in France! Makes me feel good. Like I made it too! Man, you even met the President! Were there to greet him when he got off that helicopter in Prospect Park. Yes, he is looking out for us. Got my vote – twice! Can you believe a Crooklyn OG like you meeting Obama! Oh, sorry man I guess Crooklyn OG could give people the wrong idea about you. A reporter asked Obama about you and “O” said he said he thought you were cool. That’s awesome bruh! O saying you’re cool. You’re golden now! Good for you man, good for you. I guess good for us, right?
Well, I’m happy you’re living the life! All those celebrity party’s that you host at Barclay’s. I see all those limo’s on Flatbush Avenue now and it blows my mind. Have I been there yet? Nah, too rich for my blood bruh. Wife says we gotta’ stay focused and keep the eyes on the prize. One day though, one day. Funny, people were forced to move so the stadium could be built and now they prolly can’t even afford to sit in a place where they used to sleep. Yeah, I hear you, it’s best for the long run. In fact I’m proud we got a pro team again. Man, I think the Nets can win a championship this year. Oh, you’re not keeping up with basketball? Really, you’re the dude that stood at the foul line, threw the rock off the backboard and dunked on Jerome in Vanderbilt Park! I’ll never forget the look on his face! Oh, you’ve been watching football? That’s tough the Giants and Jets both have been sticking it up. English Premier league? Oh THAT football. You mean soccer bruh!
Yo, remember Tina? I bumped into her a few months ago. She’s still fine, bruh. Still single too. Can’t figure out why she never found someone. She’s a real good girl. Always kept it real. Remember when we double dated at Coney Island and got stuck on The Wonder Wheel? We were both trying to make like we weren’t scared but two hours was a long time. She was the strong one, the one that kept us relaxed with all those funny stories. Man, everyone thought you two would be the first to get married. Yeah, I hear you, relationships can be funny things man. I see that ring on your finger bruh. Who’s the lucky lady? Her name is Chloe? That’s a pretty name bruh. Oh, she’s French? How did you meet? At a chateau while skiing in France? Nice man, nice. You must have a lot in common. Really, she doesn’t speak English? No, no I don’t parlez-vous Francais. Never thought I would need to around here.
Yo, we’re not too far from Smiley’s. How about a slice on me? Oh, they don’t use organic ingredients? I didn’t know there was such a thing as organic pizza. Silly me. Yes, I will definitely look into organic, artisanal, wood baked coal oven pizza with plum tomatoes imported from San Marzano. Well, maybe some other spot we used to go to then? Oh, you have a business brunch to go to in Bushwick for a new wine bar you’re opening that re-creates the atmosphere of southern Spain. That’s awesome man, awesome. You’re really making good bruh! I’m proud of you man! Yes, yes I’d love to come to the opening and meet Chloe. I’ll even try and learn a little French! Alright bruh, Brooklyn, it was great seeing you!
To commemorate the year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy here is a first hand account from my friend Dominique Gauvard. She was right on the front lines in the Rockaway’s and really captured the reality that nature can be unpredictable and powerful.
“For Sandy.” Part One.
1. I watch the water parade over our protective wall and trample it into oblivion right as our lights blow out. This is the same wall I‘d jump over on dares, used to rest my shoes, and frequented as a seat for a better view. It disappeared in the first surge of white wash of the salt water. At first it comes as a curious toddler – crawling up the block and inspecting every crevice it finds. It quickly matures into a ferocious, beastly parent – scolding us for not quite listening to her warnings. The water invades our homes, claiming their dry walls as property of war. We are under attack.
“This is not normal. We really shouldn’t be here.”
2. A low orange glow brightens up the charcoal coated night. It glistens like sunlight across the sooty sky. It is ominous and looming. It causes you to go numb with the kind of fear that dissipates logic and only causes confusion. You get bits of reason from slight distractions proving you’re still in reality: when you stare into your black apartment, when your phone buzzes with news of those in this with you, or when you hear your father trying to secretly assemble escape plans. It encompasses the whole sky without a trace of a source. Intrigue fades into hysteria. Helpless – you can’t get to them, the ones you love, and can’t be sure how in danger they are. Paranoia – if the orange glow doesn’t spread to you then a new flame will begin here. Fear – there is nothing for you but water and night. Flames lick the sky and clamber closer towards us, mercilessly teasing us. We are trapped by red, blazing walls. We are watching the fire hop closer forcing our flamed prison to shrink.
“We don’t know where to go. It’s literally raining fire!”
3. I’m simultaneously standing at my front door and the water’s edge. The sea has calmed her siege and lays claim over her land. We stand paralyzed at the site of Poseidon’s new kingdom, full of confusion at the drastically different landscape – there is no more earth. There is no more neighborhood. There are only canals that are stagnant and unmoving. The only threat the water holds now is as a liquid barrier for those trapped by the fire. It is her last hurrah in the fight.
“I really feel like I’m in Armageddon.”
4. The SOS signal beams from a barely working flashlight in a barely standing house and barely makes its way down the block to those too trapped to help. We cling to our windows, hoping to see them leave – we never do. Children cry and wail for parents. They howl with a special kind of despair that was reserved for this moment. Their cries before this were merely practice for the display this massive event required. Their voices carry blocks in a chorus of sobs – all for mom, all for dad, all for normal, all for the water and flames to go away. A car floats by with what looks like a man inside. It is the only time I’ve ever seen my father scared.
“I dunno, kid. This is kind of scary.” Silence.
5. It is almost like we briefly have light again from the rapidity of texts coming to our cells – the only way to communicate in this technologically dependent society. This final wave of updates matched the final wave crashing through our street next to our window. My phone lights up as I see the final crest fall.
“The windows just blew in. I just made it out.”
“I had to swim out of my basement.”
“I’ll have to talk to you later – we just contacted emergency services.”
6. I pray for the first time in years. The prayer was not to get out of the situation, but out of certainty that I will not see the sun rise from this night.
7. I’m outside again. The house was too confining and, maybe, if I go outside it won’t be as bad as it seems. The windows are playing tricks on my eyes and this is not reality. It is. The smell is nauseating. The oil rises and envelops my nose in a violating manner. Those ugly, rainbow ribbons of oil swirl at my feet – gliding past the posts of my fence and tops of trees in the island in the street. The smell latches onto my clothes and will not let go. Not even four months later.
“The smell is so thick.”
8. Homes float by – not full ones, but enough pieces to construct one. Their newly finished wood floor glides by another’s stainless steel refrigerator. An oven knocks past a couch and both are stuck by a truck that belongs three blocks away. A roof floats by my porch and I hope that whatever knocked it off didn’t knock the rest of the house over. I wonder what roof their Thanksgiving will be held under.
“There’s cabinets on my porch. They aren’t mine.”
9. I pass out before morning, certain I’ll wake to smoke forcing itself into my lungs. The whole night is devoid of color except for the three indistinguishable infernos. We are all wide eyed with exhaustion and fear, unable to calm anyone to sleep. Fatigue wins only when the bravest souls maneuver boats to tame the scorching homes.
“I can’t sleep. Is it coming this way?”
10. I woke up to a new landscape. We are the zombie apocolypse. We are unable to communicate past groans of pain and shock. We are unable to walk and awkwardly stagger to assess the new apocalyptic world. We are unable to think because our brains can’t understand the damage done. You have ruined us.
As an incoming freshman at Brooklyn College in 1987 I was required to be screened for inclusion into a speech course. The testing procedure was quite simple. A copy of The New York Times was given to me and I was asked to read the lead article. I confidently breezed through a newspaper that I had been indoctrinated to while attending Andres Hudde J.H.S., also in my native Brooklyn. Upon finishing, I gathered my belongings and headed for the door under the impression that I would not have to take the speech class. Much to my surprise I was handed a card that had a check mark next to Speech 3. Feeling like a batter in a baseball game that thought he would be issued a walk and instead was called out on strikes, I approached the screener and asked for an explanation.
“It’s your accent dear. It’s very Brooklyn.”
Much has changed in Brooklyn over the past twenty-five years when I was subject to that speech class screening. I am proud to say that my accent is not part of those changes. However, some changes, including the very recent rise of wealthy transplants to Brooklyn, have created not only a culture clash, but also an overall feeling that there is a dwindling number of native Brooklynites left in the borough. As one of the “natives,” I often question how and why the changes have occurred, as well as where do I, and those like myself, fit in?
As a free-lance session drummer, I have always found myself navigating within different networks of musicians from all walks of life. The language of music is universal, especially drums and rhythm. Fortunately, I have been blessed to play with many homegrown musicians as well as with those that have found their way to Brooklyn from around the world. These encounters have often led to interesting musical interpretations and mash-ups. It has also led to some strange personal experiences as the population of Brooklyn has seemingly shifted from a predominately working class demographic to an influx of transplants from the Midwest and Europe, with not only a dream to make it in New York City, but the wealth to make it happen.
I first started feeling like an outsider in my own town back around 2005 when I was attending a rooftop loft party thrown by a prominent Swiss musician. When I picked up my friend, a German ex-pat, to go to the party she said the building was in East Williamsburg. East Williamsburg? I had never heard of such a thing! The address she gave was clearly Bushwick. Maybe there was something lost in translation? Arriving at the party we were greeted by her friends that were from various European countries. I was the only townie, the lone Brooklynite. The introductions finally found their way to me and a young woman asked where I was from.
“Brooklyn,” I replied.
“But where are you really from?” she questioned.
“Well, I’m a native Brooklynite.” I answered.
“Can’t you tell? He drinks cawfee and parks his cawr!” said my friend as she mimicked my accent.
The ice was broken! Everyone laughed and in a strange way I felt like an ambassador for Brooklyn. The mood was light and people asked what it was like to be raised in Brooklyn. Their curiosity was endearing and we shared a mutual interest in the music that night, bridging the gap between cultures. There was also a shared sense and understanding that I was a Brooklyn native and they were guests and transplants in my town. While my radar definitely indicated that things in Brooklyn might be changing (rooftop loft party’s in Bushwick?), I felt that night as if I was “breaking bread” (or beats for that matter) with working class yet artsy people such as myself.
My 2005 experience lays in stark contrast to a recent encounter where my accent was once again thrust into the spotlight. I was playing a show in Williamsburg backing an artist with whom I greatly admire. Most of her fan base reflects the new Williamsburg/Bushwick demographic – mid-20’s to late-30’s, mostly white, transplants, and in all likelihood, high money earners or trust fund babies to which the working class Brooklyn ethos might appear foreign. I have played in a lot of different projects over the years and must say that the current Williamsburg music scene is a great one for musicians. The fans are earnest, support their artists by coming to see them live and are enthusiastic at shows.
On this particular Tuesday night, the room was full and the energy was live. So, here I am, a lifelong “dyed in the wool” Brooklynite amongst the “newbie” transplants that call Williamsburg “Billyburg.” On two separate occasions that night I was asked not only where I was from but where was my accent from? I thought they couldn’t be serious but I soon realized that they were. For a second I was nervous. Did I lose my accent somewhere along the way, amidst my travels and contact with non-Brooklynites?
Because of some outward markings my oldest and closest friends often joke that I am a hipster but the dead giveaway that I am not is my accent. However, the two people I spoke with thought I was like them, a transplant from another place but they couldn’t figure out from where. I was a bit shocked that these two individuals didn’t make the connection. In a very nice way I explained that I was from Brooklyn. Really from Brooklyn! I felt compelled to not only bring their attention to the fact that they were in the presence of a life long Brooklynite but also that our numbers were beginning to dwindle as transplants such as themselves began to populate Brooklyn and change the culture – for better or worse. It was too much for the both of them. The gentleman nodded and walked away as if the conversation was leading to a place inappropriate for a light social gathering. The young women smiled and stared at me blankly like a deer caught in headlights. She did not seem to understand where I was coming from. If there is one obvious quality that the new Williamsburg residents share, other than their obsession with distinctions, it is that they do not like to have their good time interrupted.
Maybe my reaction was not the most diplomatic approach but I was also mired in the difficult process of searching for a new apartment rental and I let my frustration get the best of me. The house in which I was renting an apartment in Kensington was sold, I had to find a new place to live and it was my first experience being a housing seeker in a sea of gentrification. I quickly found that as a working class musician I was not only priced out of the more desirable Brooklyn neighborhoods, but I was also on the verge of being unable to stay in Kensington, my “hood” since 1992. The price on Brooklyn rentals increased close to 7% in 2011, which does not sound like a lot but to a freelance musician, it is.
I was working with several realtors during the search and they all relayed the same story – Brooklyn is a hot commodity and the transplants have the capital to acquire it. I can understand their desire. There is something about Brooklyn sensibilities and roots that translate worldwide. I have traveled as far away as Japan and people always seem to recognize my accent and Brooklyn “attitude.” When you are from Brooklyn you carry a certain “street cred” and cultural capital that is both sophisticated and down to earth.
During my search, a very dear friend and his girlfriend were in the process of buying an apartment in Williamsburg. They are hard working children of immigrants who were transplanting from New Jersey. They had scrimped, saved and borrowed to get the down payment together for a beautiful apartment right on the edge of the East River. The building (ironically enough called The Edge when the “edginess” that Williamsburg once had has since faded) was located a block away from a studio and artist space that I used to rehearse in during the late nineties. Back then the neighborhood was still a Polish and Puerto Rican enclave with only a smattering of artists who had emigrated from the Lower East Side. It was literally on the same plot of land that used to be an abandoned dock, where a girlfriend and I climbed through a fence and watched the wreckage of the Twin Towers smolder on September 12th, 2001. Now, about ten years later, a gleaming amenity-laden high rise stood triumphantly, surrounded by overpriced boutique shops and restaurants frequented by a class of people that a Brooklynite like myself used to only see when in Manhattan. The same people that likely would have been frightened to be in Brooklyn alone ten years ago now jog fearlessly at night along Kent Avenue.
My friends gave me a tour of the apartment and building and I expressed how happy I was that they got the place that they wanted. They work hard and deserve it. The conversation turned to me and how my apartment search was going. I informed them that it was not going too well, that I was having trouble finding a decent apartment, in a decent neighborhood and in my price range. Musicians learn early how to keep lifestyle expenses low so we can survive but renting an apartment for $900 a month with a bathroom ceiling that is caving in is a stretch. My friend’s girlfriend then suggested moving to Jersey City, which would be more affordable. WHAT?!?! I know she was genuinely offering a suggestion intended to help but – Jersey City? I’ve been there many times. It’s a nice place but Brooklyn is in my blood. How ironic was it that my good friends moved into Brooklyn and one was now suggesting that I, a native Brooklynite, move out?
The emerging Brooklyn lifestyle has come with a financial and cultural “price-tag” that is extraordinarily hard to bear. It appears that the rapid changes Brooklyn is undergoing were not implemented with native Brooklynites in mind. Instead they are geared to the “nu-Brooklyn” vanguard that have no interest in adding to the established Brooklyn cultural nuances but instead have a desire to create their own fantasy version of what Brooklyn should be. A utopia of trendy, bearded and bespectacled tastemakers circa the eighteen nineties. Yes, Breucklandia!
My gut is telling me that a lot of native Brooklynites have either chosen to move or have been forced to move away over the past ten years because they can no longer afford the borough. Brooklynites have never been ones to stand in the way of progress but it is quite sad that all the recent changes seem geared toward the affluent. For years I would complain that I had to go out of my neighborhood or into Manhattan to enjoy some things like sushi or a great bar with live music. Well, now my neighborhood is filled with fashonistas sporting designer dogs, a proliferation of Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians baseball caps, new live music venues whose programmers stay as far away from urban music as possible and several sushi and gourmet restaurants where the price of the average dish is comparable to Manhattan. The fact that The New Yorker magazine had a Brooklyn hipster recently grace its cover in a Eustace Tilley tribute has me hoping that Brooklyn has finally reached a tipping point. I for one hope that Brooklyn’s nagging hipsterism will go the way of other superficial trends and be relegated to a cheap clothing line at Target.
Brooklyn had always been a town that has welcomed transplants and immigrants looking for a better way of life. It was a town that, at its best, accepted people for who they were. When I was growing up in Brooklyn there was the feeling that despite any differences that were evident, such as race or ethnicity, the commonality of being from a working class family leveled the playing field. Now it seems as if the working class is struggling more than ever and Brooklyn is for sale to the highest bidder. Well, you can buy Brooklyn but you can’t buy the accent. In fact, you will have to get a C in a speech class if you want to own it.