Tuesday, September 6, 2011

If These Streets Could Talk

This is a letter I recently sent to a dear friend, one of the only people I've met who loves great cities the way I do.

I think a transplant's zeal for a place like Brooklyn at a time like this is a tough thing for a native New Yorker to embrace (and tougher for one with reason to look suspiciously upon the heaps of privilege that have done so much to make the place what it now is). I suppose some kid from Des Moines who drops anchor in Pilsen and after a year starts "repping" the South Side... well, that might piss me off, too.

But try to embrace the good side of the mania that overtakes a newcomer to that incredible place (Brooklyn and all the rest of it)--and grasp that, like most good things, its full self emerges with maturity, despite the fact that its nascent stage makes even the most patient among us cringe and disavow a place that rightly stains our lungs and spleen just a bit because it tears up our hearts like it does.

Let me tell you something about being young and moving to a place and getting knocked on your ass for love of it, and then getting kicked into the dirt of the familiar soil and gum stains and pot holes of your old home. (And no, I'm not talking about how I couldn't afford to stay in New York right now; I'm talking about living there for half a summer at age 21 and then having to move back to the drab old Midwest.) The thing is, it grabs you, that New Place, and it shakes you and it screams in your face, sometimes in open defiance of prudence and some of your own desires:

"This is your home now."

And maybe you should listen to it.

Shit, I did.

But for those of us who can love a city at least as much as any one person and it may be fair to say more, part of the pain of loving and losing, is a perceived loss of the old love, the old city--yours, with its lopsided oddities and its grided symetries and its boarded-up squats and its eight and one half million takers of the human pulse.

Coming back after you've breathed new air, smelled new funk, walked at a different pace, can take everything that once irked about your long-time home, and make it ache.

I know, because I've been exactly there. About 800 miles west of exactly there.

But those young souls who scream Brooklyn from the rooftops... they're you and me and every kid who's had their world spun in circles by getting lost on gorgeous new streets and marching to a different drum. Most of them sped up. You slowed down when you made your Pilgrimage to New Orleans. But you're them and they're you and nobody keeps the perfect time til they've practiced the dance for a while.

Cities don't care as much as the people in them may, about promiscuity. You can have two. (Shit, I think you can probably have five or six that are close to your heart... and I aim to, one day.) But it takes time to set that up. It takes some physical travel back and forth. For me, it took some healing from the shock of the first burn of head-over-heels and the yank back to the grind of day-to-day in the land of thicker pizza and a big lake instead of an ocean, before I felt right again. And you need to feel right again with both places to be able to love either the way you should.

It'll happen.

And let me say this, too: I know this is about more than two collections of buildings and intersections and sidewalks and bridges. I know there are individual people and I know there is love. And I know that's as important to these cities as trash on the sidewalk and rats on the subway tracks and po' boys and open front doors leaking dueling notes and chords.

All that interpersonal stuff, though, you'll navigate all that just fine. I can't speak to all that right now.

I don't feel it's my place.

I love you.

Friday, May 20, 2011

20 Tips for Visiting Family from the Midwest

(In no particular order):

1) Do not ask for a "slice of cheese." What you want is called a plain slice or, if you must, a regular slice.

2) Uptown is a direction, not a destination.

3) Take that god damn fannie pack off, please.

4) Sure, dad, that "I Heart NY" shirt will look really good on you. Totally buy it.

5) Hail cabs, don't call them.

6) Dumb as it sounds, you are waiting on line, not in line.

7) A bike lane is part of the street, not part of the sidewalk.

8) If you get out of a cab and hit a cyclist with the door, it's your fault, period.

9) Yes, that's a film shoot happening. No, you may not attempt to speak with the star.

10) The Empire State Building is the really tall one, the Chrysler Building is the really pretty one.

11) Yes, there really are that many subway lines.

12) "The City" means Manhattan.

13) No, you will not be shot on site upon entering Brooklyn.

14) If you want to be robbed, wave that camera around more, please.

15) Going to the Statue of Liberty is a waste of your fucking time and mine.

16) No, I have never run into that particular celebrity on the street.

17) Twenty percent is on the low end of the tip spectrum here.

18) Get the hell out of Manhattan every chance you get.

19) Times Square actually really sucks.

20) Fucking walk faster!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Beautiful Distractions

I had this half-hour interaction today with an 87 year-old woman in a Whole Foods. She said you never really figure anything out about life or who you are until you're in your fifties, but you chug along and do the best you can until then anyhow.

She said she's going to die happy, and that no man, including her husband who died of Altzeimers, has ever really done her any wrong. And she said a good measure of happiness is the ability to forget. She lived through the bombing of Frankfurt in 1944. She's probably got some things in her head worth forgetting.

The conversation started with a remark of "I don't understand those things," and a gesture toward my laptop, which had about fifteen windows open. I said I don't understand them as well as I want to. She said they isolate people, gesturing toward a pair of young women on laptops sitting right across from each other, in each others' presence but on other planets.

I said they do sometimes, yes. But then I told her about the friends I have in South America and France and L.A. and San Fransisco and New Orleans who I wouldn't know without those things. And about the friend in Cannes right now who never would have been able to make the film she made without them. She grinned a little, half-understanding, and extended her hand.

"Hildegaard," she said. "What's your name, young man?"

Friday, May 6, 2011

My Last (sob) Theater Review for my College Newspaper

A version of this review will be printed in the May 12 edition of The Envoy.

Redemption Has its Price
Jesus Hopped the A Train marked by memorable performances
Scott Klocksin, Staff Writer

This spring's Hunter College production of Stephen Adley Guirgis's modern urban tragedy “Jesus Hopped The A Train” is set at Rikers Island Prison in the present, and opens with a rude reminder to extinguish any doubts in the house about who's in charge.

A large, menacing figure named Valdez pierces the anxious pre-curtain darkness of the Fredrick Lowe Theatre in full prison guard regalia, barking in a working class New York accent an otherwise mundane announcement about audience comportment.

Welcome to Rikers, bitch.

People end up in The Joint for all sorts of reasons, but in this play there are some doozies. Lucius Jenkins (Roger Smith) is a paranoid schizophrenic who admits to eight murders in a vicious, multi-state killing spree. Angel Cruz (Luca Ritter) is a 30 year-old bike messenger who lost his childhood friend to the seclusion of a religious cult and reaped vengeance by shooting the cult's leader in the ass.

Jaclyn Mitgang summons a wide-ranging and disciplined ardor as Mary Jane Hanrahan, a public defender tasked with representing Angel. It's hardly a match made in heaven. Angel wants another lawyer. Mary Jane wants another client. But in looking back on the tumult of her past, she takes a fondness to Angel and decides his crime of peculiar if genuine passion is worth going out on a career-threatening limb for.

Lucius, meanwhile, is a tad harder to like. His status as a born-again Christian does little to divert the wrath of either the prisoners or the guards. Hope—at least of the kind the judicial system can provide—is lost for him, and his liveliness comes from on high. In their exercise yard encounters, Angel isn't convinced by Lucius's semi-coherent proselytizing.

And, to put it mildly, neither is Valdez.

Ryan Castro's convincing performance as the sadistic Valdez is one of several that stand out for deftly shouldering the burden of a script which demands full commitment in its reification onstage. Also worthy of mention is the way Roger Smith renders Lucius with an energy that is by turns manic and devastating yet always shot through with fortitude and emotional truth.

That Lucius, the Serial Killer could also be Lucius, the Charismatic Human Being, is brought home by a poignantly-delivered homage by “good cop” guard D'Amico (Ernest Pysher).

Caleb Levengood's sparse set, consisting mainly of a chain-link cage set at a 45 degree angle from the audience, fits the mood of the show like a big, chicken-wire glove, but makes for some awkward viewing at times. On several occasions, Valdez delivers lines obscured by the fence, and his bullying swagger suffers for it.

Th verisimilitude in the vision of director Antonio Edwards Suarez is also dealt a small blow in scenes in which Lucius and Angel pass cigarettes through an inexplicably imaginary fence that's supposed to be between them, though the Lowe's space constraints may have made this unavoidable.

The small set changes are executed by guards with a swift militarism befitting the bleak setting.

And that setting, as the play goes on, becomes the crucible of an improbable bond between Lucius and Angel—though, like the one between Angel and his lawyer, it's a bond that can't hold for long.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Swinging For The Fences

This review will be published in the May 13th issue of The Envoy.

The promotional videos on the website for the new Broadway production of August Wilson's hauntingly complex domestic tragedy, “Fences,” make the play seem light and fun. That it is one of the great dramatic works about the African American experience, almost seems lost in a promotional campaign that (perhaps understandably, but nonetheless annoyingly) squeezes every possible drop of hype from the appearance of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in its lead roles.
But “Fences” is a rich and tragic tale. This staging, nominated for ten Tony Awards and helmed by Kenny Leon, who has directed Wilson's entire repertoire, gives flight to its tragic and deeply human essence, despite some shortcomings. Set mostly in 1957, the play centers around the life of Troy Maxson, a 53 year-old garbage man whose dreams of playing Major League Baseball are thwarted not for want of ability, but by the times he lives in. Those times, though, were changing in 1957. A constant subtext is the way Troy's son, Cory, and his wife, Rose, are able to see which way the wind is blowing, far better than the weathered and wise old man in whose towering shadow they live.
This production abounds with moments of comedic brilliance, and Washington's firm command of his character and impeccable timing make them all the more pleasurable. But what we have far too much is a fast-paced back and forth between stage and house, in which laughs beget adjustments in performance aiming for more laughs, and the heart-wrenching weight of many of the play's pivotal moments are subsumed, their power dealt a blow.
One example is the way that Chris Chalk's Cory betrays a frenetic, almost goofy energy that at certain moments buries much of the emotional dynamism in his relationship with his father. He saws pieces of wood in one pivotal scene with a cartoonish frenzy that steals focus and left me scratching my head. Chalk's energy does accent the contrast between his appearance as a 17 year old high school athlete early in the play, and the stoic discipline of his later incarnation as a twenty-five year old U.S. Marine. The trouble with the younger Cory, though—and it's a problem that plagues much about this staging—is that our attention is lured away from the complexity and completeness of the relationships between the characters, and toward quirks found by the actors.
Those quirks and subtleties, though, are at times just as capable of thrusting the show toward greatness as they are of holding it back. Washington finds in Troy Maxson all the tenderness, vulnerability and suppressed rage befitting a man who has given his life to something he deserved yet always knew he'd never get. Amid a scene in which Cory pulls Troy off of his mother as they fight, Troy, in one motion and with the full conviction of his character, kisses his son on the head before shoving him away and verbally threatening him.
Those moments that require commitment rather than subtlety are also done well. Viola Davis, as Rose, earns our empathy as a waterfall of emotion washes over her at the news of her husband's infidelity. And in a grippingly sad exclamation point on the finality of Troy's journey, in the final scene in which he appears with Bono (played with skill and grace by Stephen McKinley Henderson), the emotional distance between the two old friends is starkly manifest in blocking that never lets them get too close to one another, and by the glaring absence of the brotherly warmth shared by the two men in their earlier encounters.
What stays with you, despite some significant hiccups, is the howling echo of a man whose stubborn and old-fashioned sense of responsibility have perhaps as much to do with his undoing, as the very real and painful injustice of the era that defined and defied his rugged spirit.

“Fences” is at the Cort Theatre, 248 W. 48th St., through July 11th.

Friday, February 26, 2010


One-day snowfall record for Central Park: 11.3 inches.

Wind gusts: up to 50 mph (hurricane strength).

Total snowfall expected: 20-30 inches.

Living through what might be the biggest snowstorm ever to hit New York amid the winter I've taken a vow to get around only by bike and on foot: priceless.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A feaverishly Productive Weekend!

It's mid-December. And every year around this time, two very inter-related things happen to me.

First (if I'm a student, as I am this year), I start getting all schmaltzy for my hometown, as one of my by-annual visits starts to approach. Second, I start procrastinating.

A lot.

I look for any excuse not to study for exams. Don't act like you didn't/don't do it.

Aaaaannnnnnnnnyway. If you breathe air and have ears, as I do, then you've probably heard Jay-Z's new jam, Empire State of Mind about every third time you walk into a deli in New York. And if you don't live in New York, maybe the same can be said, I don't know.

Hearing this song all the time has pumped me full a kind of strange, two-years-ago nostalgia. And as an unabashed lover both of my current city and of my hometown, I can't help wondering whether it is intended in some way as a response to Kanye West's uplifting and enchanting Homecoming (y'know, maybe one of those silly regional rivalry things that seem to go on a lot in rap... and in sports and lots of other cultural arenas, for that matter).

If you're working feverishly to be unproductive like I am, I'll leave you with some questions to fill up your mind and your time:

1)Which is the better video, and why?
2)Which is the better rapper, and why?
3)Which is the better city, and why?