Monday, November 21, 2011

It's A Hell Of A Town

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These kids have energy. Positive energy. Unpretentious. Guileless.

It's in their eyes and postures. In the way they communicate. Earnest but not silly. After spending back-to-back days in Zuccotti Park, I see why elites are hysterical. A generation no one noticed is peacefully pushing back. And based on my time in NYC and DC, these kids aren't stopping any time soon.

The violent vibe comes from the cops. They surround the park, batons in hand, pepper spray ready, one order away from again clamping down. Many of these cops are NFL big. One wonders what enhancements they use to bulk up. Their expressions are hostile. To enter the park, you must walk past a line of them as they closely peruse you. And these are just the uniformed cops. Who knows how many plainclothes are milling about.

For all of its symbolic power, Zuccotti Park is the tip of a potential national upheaval. Kids across the country are Occupying. As we saw at UC Davis, they're putting their bodies on the line, learning to defend themselves without violence.

You have to be truly cynical to doubt the courage of kids willing to be pepper sprayed at pointblank range by a uniformed thug. To mock a collective strategy that put cops on their heels without a single rock thrown.

Something good is happening. It's too early for specifics, but a general definition is taking shape. Again, age and experience warn me against optimism. But I do want them to win something. To inject their determination into the larger culture. We sure as fuck can use it.

Meantime, New York's finest march in lockstep. NYC cops have always been a law unto themselves. But since 9/11 they've added many new toys and tactics to their Robo arsenal.

The city feels increasingly authoritarian. Preventing terror is the official excuse. Yet the monsters paraded are usually drips. The latest threat touted, Jose Pimentel, supposedly an Al-Qaeda sympathizer and would-be bomb maker, is meant to make New Yorkers thank Michael Bloomberg and Raymond Kelly for saving their lives.

For a captured terrorist mastermind, Pimentel's resume is pretty thin. Kelly concedes that Pimentel is a "lone wolf," which mutes the intended effect. Even the Feds had no interest in him. But the issue isn't self-defense -- it's systemic reinforcement.

In order to justify police state methods and laws, we have to see those deemed dangerous. Pimentel's rumpled appearance, brown skin, and unemployed status will scare those willing to be scared. But given the police apparatus that Pimentel was allegedly going to attack, his "threat" was at best negligible.

As ridiculous as Pimentel seems, his image feeds something darker. Rudy Giuliani gave Manhattan to the rich. Bloomberg is solidifying that control while expanding into other boroughs.

Protecting the city's One Percent is a well-stocked army of blue. Their stop-and-frisk policies, stopping non-white people on the street and searching them with no evidence or warrant, has become commonplace. That the vast majority are found to be innocent means little. Making people afraid is the goal. Reminding them who owns the city.

Sunday morning, I spent an hour in Penn Station for my train back to DC. It had been ages since I was last there, and the changes were alarming. Cops in flack jackets with detection dogs, stopping people at random, searching their luggage and pockets while the dogs sniffed at the edges.

A video celebrating this practice continually played in the waiting area. Over and over we were told to submit, obey and not talk unless spoken to. This was for our "protection." Any "suspicious" behavior would lead to arrest.

According to the NYPD, there have been 14 terror threats to the city since 9/11. A generous baker's dozen over a decade. How serious any of it was is open to speculation, but those aren't IRA-hitting-London numbers.

I'm sure that someone somewhere wants desperately to blow up something in NYC. Yet the cops aren't uprooting complex networks. If they were, we'd never hear the end of it (and their budgets would boom). This explains why suspects like Pimentel are made to be bigger than they are. And I'm guessing he wasn't arrested while waiting to board Amtrak's Northeast Regional.

The revealing thing is, Jose Pimentel doesn't frighten city elites. The non-violent kids in Zuccotti Park do. All that firepower aimed at young people linking arms, chanting, discussing, singing, looking to remake their world. So, who is it we must really fear?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lucky Jim

Few memoirs make me wistful about my life, but James Wolcott's did. I wasn't sure I could love NYC more than I do, but Jim deepened my affection.

Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York is an exploding time capsule, a torrent of images that can overwhelm you, even if you get the countless references. It's also an elegy to a lost literate time, when words could cut through rock and reshape landscapes.

It helps to have your story bracketed by Norman Mailer and Pauline Kael. Mailer put young Jim in a position to realize his potential. Kael gave Jim guided tours as his talent took form.

Kael figures most prominently in Lucking Out. The bohemian film critic who crashed the New Yorker had a serious effect on Jim. Kael not only inspired his criticism, she showed him the professional ropes, grooming Jim for the career he has since enjoyed.

His love and respect for her is evident and touching. In lesser hands, these memories might become maudlin. But Jim finds the right balance. At times he and Kael resemble a two-reel comedy team, a broken city serving as their Hal Roach lot. They trade wisecracks while walking into the horizon, engulfed by graffiti and sirens.

It's tempting, in this glass tower age, to romanticize Seventies New York. Yet Jim shows it wasn't all glorious grunge. The city was dirty, mean, cheap. Teen hookers on the West Side; bat-wielding gay bashers; Times Square's porn squalor before Disney's invasion. As crass as modern Manhattan has become, I know few denizens who'd return to the days when you literally ran for your life.

But it was in the danger zones where new forms flourished. From the broken glass and wasted lives of the Bowery emerged a music scene rivaled only by Forties be-bop (and later Eighties hip hop). Jim was on the ground floor, watching it cook.

Much has been written about CBGB's and the birth of punk. Documentaries share identical soundbites. The vinyl is worn. Jim injects fresh juice into the mix. His early embrace of Patti Smith remains a point of pride. His analysis of Television reminds us of how eclectic CBGB's truly was.

Ramones, Talking Heads, Dead Boys, and The Cramps also appear, with the B-52s making a cameo. Each band possessed a singular voice and style, born of necessity and lack of pressing commercialism. Outside, NYC was wild. Indoors, CBGB's matched its mood.

Jim's relative temperance kept his mind clear to record the proceedings. He's the anti-Lester Bangs, whom Jim not only knew, but once shared a love interest. Bangs' chemical appetite fueled his appreciations, which are fun to read, but are often bogged down by emotional overkill.

Jim surveyed the same terrain with a more forensic eye. Bangs may have moved at the speed of punk, yet it's Jim who precisely captured the moment. He evokes the smell, the sweat, the frenzied desire to create that defined CBGB's. It makes you hope that somewhere a bunch of weirdo kids are creating scenes of their own. In the corners. Far from the florescent glare.

Two chief emotions hit me while reading Lucking Out. One, Jim's open love of language. I first read him in the Village Voice. His book reviews for Esquire in the early-80s showed me what words can do. Sentences from his Vanity Fair column remain with me.

Lucking Out is the culmination of these various periods. Everything Jim has is laid out in this book. At least it seems that way. If he has additional stories, deeper memories, then I trust he's resting up for another round. As full as Lucking Out is, you sense that there's so much more he's not sharing. But that's the memoirist's privilege. We're at his retro mercy.

Lucking Out also stoked memories of my early NYC days. I was in junior high/high school when Jim roamed deserted streets. To me, New York was That Girl and The Odd Couple. Taxi Driver silenced those laugh tracks. Woody Allen forced me to improve my vocabulary. SNL inspired me to write urban comedy.

When I told my family I was moving to New York, they were stunned, convinced I'd be mugged and dead within a month. Had they seen the first building and neighborhood I lived in, their fears would've been justified.

Jim's memories of pre-gentrified Manhattan pretty much match my own. New York was still dangerous in 1982. There were neighborhoods you simply didn't walk through. Central Park after dark was for thrill seekers and lunatics. The subway looked as it did in films like The Warriors and Fame. But the alternative scene was more or less gone.

There was Ann Magnuson's Club 57, where I first performed in the city. There was Danceteria and the Pyramid Club. But the original bloom faded to hard core punk and early techno noise. Reagan era values spread, creating what became known as yuppies. I dated one. Weirdly enough, that was my initial scene. I fell into a crowd of rich white kids devoted to money and cocaine. I didn't stay long, but I saw where the city and country were headed.

Perhaps it was inevitable. How long would the rich allow their borough to rot and collapse? Especially when all that cheap housing could yield mega-real estate profits. At least there was a time when their indifference allowed for beautiful mutations.

James Wolcott cut his teeth among the mutants. Lucky him.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

America's Game

The Penn State rape scandal is mind blowing. In a culture of noise, idiocy, and violence, this might be somewhat muted, especially for younger people. But don't let that fog your eyes -- the Penn State story is big and bad. Very bad.

We're not just dealing with a twisted pedophile here. We see how deeply corporate sports corrupts those who profit from it. Penn State's program, under coaching legend Joe Paterno, was supposedly one of college football's jewels. They did things the Right Way. Paterno provided steady, inspired leadership. "Success With Honor" was their motto. Beneath it all, the raping of boys was allowed.

I've read some tortured defenses of Paterno on various sports sites, saying that he fulfilled his legal requirement by reporting to his superiors. But reporting what? Sexual misconduct of some kind in Penn State's sports facilities. Maybe Paterno didn't know how horrible it was. Maybe his source, Mike McQueary, current assistant coach, then a graduate assistant, didn't make it graphic enough for him. But something serious happened. Yet nothing was done.

If you receive information about sexual assault, regardless of how it's presented, and you're in a unique position of authority, does filing a simple report cover it? Paterno obviously thought so. His job was to win national championships, not police the showers for felonies. But if Joe Paterno wanted action taken, he'd doubtless get it. Again, it came down to, Not My Department, Not My Problem.

That it took the university to fire Paterno further proves his cluelessness. Saying that he'd retire at the end of this season was arrogance based on privilege. Think about it: in the midst of the biggest scandal in college sports, based on the rape of children, Paterno thought the next step was to prepare for Nebraska's defense. You can use his age, 84, as an excuse; but if Paterno's that out of it, then he shouldn't be coaching in the first place.

Of course, Paterno's not the only one culpable. McQueary did nothing. Athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president Gary Schultz did nothing. Former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky apparently did something, as he is now charged with molesting eight boys over 15 years. Sandusky claims he's innocent. He'll have his day in court. But what must truly shock Sandusky is how Penn State's football apparatus failed to protect him for life. It's like you don't know who your friends are anymore.

Money is the only reason why Penn State football isn't shelved until further notice. How can those kids be allowed to play with this hanging over their helmets? The Penn State uniform is tarnished. And not in a traditional sense. Recruiting scandals are one thing. Paying players under the table is now expected. Covering for a serial rapist is new rancid ground.

Clearly, I picked the wrong time to write American Fan.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Hey. Been in Michigan with my son. About to return to my new home in DC. Will be back soon with delicate takes on our beautiful society. Until then, here's a head's up on my next gig, courtesy of Barry Crimmins. More on this later. Aloha.