Friday, May 25, 2007

If the Mayor's Running, We Need Imus Back

Our Town downtown
May 28, 2007

I wish Imus were still on. He probably will be again. He’s gotta’ be. You can’t get by on Charlie Rose and those other guys. I’ll bet Imus could get more out of Warren Buffett over the phone in 10 minutes than Charlie got in fawning over him for an hour a couple weeks ago. Warren would laugh at/with the I-man which would tell you something about him you wouldn’t get on another show where, if they’re like Charlie, they’d do all the laughing, for some unknown reason. No, actually it’s not unknown; they’re so overly impressed with the guest they have on that they’re giddy/nervous and can’t control themselves. Imus wouldn’t really give a damn about Warren Buffet unless he found out Warren liked his favorite singer Delbert McClinton. Of course that’s not totally true, but at least Imus may have been drunk in Omaha once which is worth something when it comes to talking to Warren Buffett.

Which is why you wish Imus were on now when all sorts of pols are running around trying to look and sound presidential. (In saying all this I don’t excuse Imus for what he said about the Rutgers girls. He’s a genius and such folks make darker mistakes than average bears do.) With Mayor Bloomberg quietly checking out his chances, I’d love to hear what Imus would say about it. Did you notice the Bloomberg ad (for the company, not Mike) during ‘60 Minutes’ last week? That had to be a campaign ad, didn’t it? A campaign ad in the sense that it got his name out there. I think that’s what it was. He’s serious about this idea of being president. If he finds out he’s got no shot, he’ll say he only ever wanted to our mayor, but he’s out for all he can get. A guy with all those homes, wants it all. If he brought out his standard line about being short and Jewish and divorced , Imus would tell him to get some cowboy boots from his good friend out in Santa Fe, He’d tell him to marry that big, good-lookin’ girlfriend of his, and he’d tell him to call the I-man’s friend Kinky Friedman about the Jewish problem. He’d probably get Kinky on the line where Kinky would tell the mayor he could use the line he used in his Texas gubernatorial race: ‘If you elect me the first Jewish governor of the state of Texas, I’ll reduce the speed limit to 54.95.’ It would be funny and Mike would laugh out loud which you don’t see or hear him do much. And it would all be done with Imus wearing his cowboy hat, and not like Charlie Rose wearing a bespoke suit from the same tailor the Mayor might go to.

You wish Don Imus were on today when, as I write this, folks are lining up at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square to hear Al Gore talk about, and read from, his brand new book. I-man doesn’t like (or at least, didn’t like) Al Gore. I’m not sure why and I don’t want to speak for the deposed radio star. But you could probably reach into your own mind and come up with the reasons he didn’t like him. It would be fun to hear Imus go on about it. Someone has to. Gore’s being treated like he’s Brian Wilson being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not that. Al Gore was never a major talent. He’s hot right now though, and you need someone who’s an insider/outsider like Imus to talk about it. You can laugh about Imus and the hat and all that and dismiss him as a racist cowboy if you want, but do you want to hear Larry King and Chris Matthews and Bill Moyers with Al Gore, more than with Imus? Imus is smarter than all four of them is why you want to hear Imus. And he’s not excited by, impressed by Al Gore. Hell, the I-man was so relaxed, unimpressed, not excited about meeting then-candidate Bill Clinton, he was the one who dubbed him Bubba.

The whole campaign for president will be a great spectator sport. I read where XM radio is going to have 24-hour coverage of it starting pretty soon. But with the mayor of our city maybe going to run, and with Al Gore maybe going to run, and with Hillary Clinton for sure going to run, you want Imus telling you what he sees in them.

Bill Gunlocke

Friday, May 18, 2007

A View from the Corner

Our Town downtown
May 21, 2007

David Crohn’s cover story on the preservation of the character of the South Village got me thinking about neighborhoods and how they change.

If I stand on my corner at 21st and Third and look up Third to 23rd I can see huge construction. I don’t usually notice it, huge as it is. I notice the posters all along the side of the site, advertising movies, and sneakers, and newly-released CDs. Eventually there’ll be some big high rise. What used to be there seemed like it would always be there, like it had always been there. When I moved into the neighborhood five years ago, some of the places on this block under construction were places that stood like veterans, to me the rookie, and I wanted to get to know them and wanted them to know who I was. The big corner newsstand was one of those that sold Foreign Affairs and Boston papers and all the fashion mags. I remember I had run up there the morning after 9/11 to get a newspaper. There were no newsstands open that day in the East Village where I lived then.

Up from the newsstand was a wonderful bar with the wonderful name, Poolbeg Street, named after a street in Dublin. Vinny the bartender by the door knew sports. We got to know each other. Up the block from there was Johnny Fox’s, another venerable pub. Now they’re gone. Those three places mattered to me and to other neighbors. People from outside the neighborhood would take cabs to come there. A big apartment building will make it a whole different block.

Across the street and back toward me is a Starbucks. I don’t go to it anymore. I never went much. I stopped going to all the Starbucks because I read where the owner was asking the city of Seattle to pay for most of the cost of a new arena for the NBA team he owns there. He’s just like all the rest I decided, and he lost me. It’s funny about Starbucks. Those who hate it, hate the chain-ness of it, I guess. They hate its everywhere-ness too. But a block away from where I’m standing in the other direction a new Dunkin’ Donuts opened and people haven’t stopped smiling since. Is it the color of the place? Does it seem less arrogant than Starbucks? Does it remind us of home somewhere, like Tim Hortens reminds Canadians of home? It can’t really be the coffee. Can a chain be lovable? Dunkin’ it seems may be one that can be.

While I’m looking left, I can see that Pete’s Place is dark and will stay that way. Closed awhile ago for health violations, it never re-opened. To have sat in one of the small front tables when they opened the big windows and have the morning sunlight light up your orange juice while you read the paper was as good as breakfast got in the city. Gone now. The citation from the health department was probably just the tipping point. The rent was likely killing him. Sweet-tooth Dunkin’ coming in across the street wouldn’t have helped.

You wonder how long before other places go. The CVS won’t go (and the lines in there won’t go any faster, until the manager calls on the three young employees sitting in different aisles stocking shelves to come up and man a register), but other places might. Please let the first one be the pizza place. I used to say I’d never had a bad pizza. I can’t say that anymore.
Up the street is Molly’s, the great atmospheric Irish pub with the great burger and the sawdust floor and a fireplace in wintertime. Almost next to it is the Lyric Diner which doesn’t close and whose neon sign which raps around its corner-front is classic. Rolf’s the famous German bar and eatery is painting itself white as I write this. It’s worth a trip in late fall and definitely around Christmas time to look in the window. It’s like looking at an applause-inducing stage set. I’ve never gone in, but I’ve smiled through the window at the wonder of the inside.

There are more bars, two of which drive the tenants of my building nuts with their late-night street-smoking/talking noise, and a Korean grocery and a classy flower shop. Two busy bagel places. A Blimpies I’m standing across the street from. A vintage clothing shop that has a wonderful used book section. A small newsstand near Dunkin’ where the guys from the methadone clinic on the block congregate, bumming smokes from one another.

There’s a lot on the block. I’m sure yours has lots too. And change lurking, among all those things.

- Bill Gunlocke

What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

Our Town downtown
May 14, 2007

The picture in the Times last Friday of some NYU kids romping in the fountain in Washington Square Park after the graduation ceremony was the standard-fare shot of the predictable merriment that goes-on on such a day. The lead picture on NYU’s web site that day showed one of the graduates making bubbles.

Maybe they’re protesting at Oberlin’s graduation or at Evergreen State’s. You don’t hear about it though. You’d think there’d be some kids walking out on some speaker. If they’re not doing it in Washington Square Park, where are they doing it? I’m not suggesting they do it. I’m just thinking about why, with a very unpopular war on, in which all the casualties are kids their age, there isn’t much protest.

There are a couple reasons. First I think TV makes the whole world go flaccid. If you’re a student, Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher are making all the clever signs for you. No need to festoon your dorm windows with peace signs. It’s easier to sit and watch the TV people be clever about the war. All that sitting doesn’t really lend itself to a Chicago 7 lifestyle either.

The main reason (although it’s hard to raise anything above TV as the cause of most of the culture’s inactivity) is that the kid making bubbles is not worrying about the draft. Neither are the kids hopping into the fountain. For all the claims of how much this war is like Vietnam, to my graduation day memory it’s not. The draft loomed huge back then.

Indulge me: My father hardly talked to me after the ceremony. What was there to talk about? We hadn’t really talked in a few years. The war was going on in Vietnam and we didn’t agree on one thing that that war spawned. He was bothered by my long hair, my cigarettes and my bellbottoms. He didn’t care for the music. He was older than most of my friends’ fathers and he wasn’t a guy who was going to wear long sideburns like many dads did then. That bugged me. He wasn’t one to watch the Smothers Brothers or ‘Laugh-In.’ He thought the army might even do me some good. That bugged me. He’d been an officer in World War II. Sensing all that in him, I had to do things like play ‘The Eve of Destruction’ over and over at a high volume (Wouldn’t you think a junior in the dorm near Washington Square would have played that same song the other day, that loud, and over and over, while whoever spoke tried to speak at the commencement?) I had to wear a white armband at my graduation.

The draft dominated the lives of college students then. Not a day went by we didn’t worry over some table about it. All of us, it seemed, knew a kid back home somewhere who, with no student deferment like we had, got drafted after high school, sent to Vietnam, and was killed. As soon as school was over for us, we were no longer going to be protected from maybe the same fate. It drove us crazy. I could say we talked about nothing else, but that wouldn’t be true. We still read the sports page, played the jukebox. Motown was big. But draft worries dominated. I wound up teaching in an inner-city grade school in Cleveland to beat the draft. Guys somehow got in the National Guard. Others didn’t. Many friends went to Vietnam. Part of me envies them the experience. Hard to explain.

Anyway, it’s very different today, certainly for the students in an era of a volunteer army. They can take five or six years to graduate. We couldn’t. We, for all our protests, knew we were lucky to be white boys with a few bucks in our families. We got news from home about a kid from our high school that had been killed. The draft connected us to him. The college kids now don’t have that.

-- Bill Gunlocke

What if Costco Came to Town?

Our Town downtown
May 7, 2007

I’ve got a buddy Joe who lived here for awhile. He’s got this saying that seems to apply to so many things. We might have been talking in a bar about the increasing number of women getting face lifts and boob jobs and how many of them were going back for more work. Joe would just say ‘The biggest distance is between zero and one’. He’d say that about all sorts of things. Once you get started at something, the rest of its attendant pitfalls or exaggerations or addictions seemed to follow. Naturally, inevitably, according to Joe’s law.

I thought of Joe the other day when I read about Martha Stewart gearing up for a line of foods next year in Costco. It scared me that she’s teaming up with them. Her cachet will prompt more people to stop in the store for the first time and that will be their Joe’s-zero-to-one moment. They’ll get hooked. You know they will. They’ll be buying those big Kirkland brands, telling themselves that they aren’t at all like the Wal-Mart shoppers they read about. ‘Costco’s different. They sell wine more than any place else does. Did you know that? You should see the fish they sell. And their wages are very impressive. The only reason we keep that Escalade and don’t go to a Prius is that we need the space for when we come over here to Costco. Or when we go to Target. We buy in bulk. Did I tell you about the wine selection?’

I went to a Costco a few years ago. I was in South Florida at my sister’s and a buddy who moved down there came by for breakfast one morning; when we’d finished he asked if I wanted to ride over to Costco with him. I’d heard some kind of buzz about the place but didn’t really know what it was, so I said OK. It turned out to be pretty cool. I liked the lighting in the place. It was very bright, but that may have had to do with the bright sunshine outside the windows and the big doors. I don’t know if all the stores are like that. My friend bought a bunch of stuff. I grabbed a very big bottle of Kirkland Omega-3 fish oil tablets for cheap. But I got out of town before I got a real chance to get to ‘one’.

I could be vulnerable in a big way to any kind of chain store. I grew up so far out in the sticks that we had to go toward town to go huntin’. (That’s not my line. It’s John Cooper’s the old Ohio State football coach’s. I always wanted to use it.) My western New York hometown was very rural and very small. Try 2,003 people. We couldn’t even field a football team. We played soccer, as did a lot of the small towns around there. Main Street was only a block long, with a few shops on the highway that went by one on end of the street, down by the Mayflower restaurant, where the Greyhound bus stopped. Jim’s Diner was at the other end of the block, across from the post office, next to Stanley Niles’s 5 & 10 where you could buy a gold frame with a picture of Kim Novak in it. I bought caps for my cap gun in there. If you wanted BB’s for your BB gun you had to go up the street to Percy Shetler’s Gun & Tackle shop with a note from your parents that it was OK for him to sell you BB’s.

But we didn’t have a McDonald’s and there was no place to buy Levis. Oh, you could get Dickie’s at Homer Schaefer’s men store and all sorts of work pants and boots with steel toes, but we wanted Levis and to get them you had to go to an hour to Rochester, like you had to go there to get a Wilson baseball glove or the new Trini Lopez album with ‘If I Had a Hammer’ on it. We’d have killed for a Wal-Mart.

They have one about 20 minutes from town now. And the once-childhood-lively Main Street is pretty empty.

What’s my point? There’s no Costco here, you’re thinking. There will be. There’s a Home Depot. We sometimes go to Chipotle’s for lunch. You should see the line. Joe says it’s that way everywhere. It was no doubt such lines forming at the spanking-new airline terminals that allowed Penn Station to be taken down.

-- Bill Gunlocke

An Inconvenient Truth

Our Town downtown
April 30, 2007

Even with Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein running the schools, two guys who have glossier resumes than you normally expect public school heads to have, even with them at the helm, only about half the city’s high school kids graduated in four years, according to important numbers released last week. That means half the kids didn’t even show up for school or class or something; you almost can’t go to class every day and not graduate from the city public schools. That 50% rate is about the same as the rates in Rochester and Syracuse and Buffalo. Half the kids in those places must have not really bought the program either.

That’s a glum statistic, isn’t it? It’s so flat and predictable it hardly dents our consciousness anymore. And, of course, the rest of the statistics show that the suburbs do much better. You’ve all heard that. And you know there’ll be the mandatory news reports about how much more they spend in Westchester per pupil, and you’ve all heard that the teachers there make more. And they’ll say New York City doesn’t get its fair share. And of course we want our fair share and we want our kids to have schools like Westchester does, or wherever it is that it all seems to work, as seen from here.

But look; we have Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein. That’s big, isn’t it? Bloomberg is a bright mogul and a philanthropist and the good mayor of the biggest place in the country. Klein was a big lawyer in the Clinton administration. That should be the turnaround team you’d dream about. Two mature, accomplished guys in good suits, men used to succeeding, turning their attention to the problems of urban education. Westchester should be so lucky as to have two guys like that in charge of the schools, you’d think. They weren’t just given the reins, they grabbed for them, so fed-up were they by the failure they saw, so convinced were they that they could make things better.

Don’t you wonder why then, even with the two sharp guys running the system, the system scored about like Rochester did, or Buffalo, or Yonkers, places that didn’t have Westchester advantages either? Like major league batting averages seem to top out in the .300’s, no matter what gear or substance or training methods are used, is it going to turn out that 50% is about where urban school graduation rates are going to settle?

We seem to be settling for that number. We try to get our own kids in schools, private or public, where the rates are better. And of course the numbers are way better in Manhattan.
But does that mean we shouldn’t worry about the rest of the city kids? Are New Yorkers so remotely taken up with worrying about Iraq and Darfur and snowmobiles in Yellowstone that they can’t even see the disparities and injustices close to home? How can a borough that has renowned colleges and public lectures on everything from global warming to the Shirtwaist Factory fire not be talking all the time about the failure of the local public schools, schools that may not be where their kids go, but where kids go nevertheless and who need help from somewhere? Schools in the same city, for God’s sake, where the publishing industry is centered, where Harry Potter is published. Schools where the kids of the people who deliver your mail go. Why don’t we demand of ourselves to make the schools work for those kids? We New Yorkers want to save the whale and save Darfur and save the next Penn Station from the wrecking ball and save ourselves from Wal-Mart. We should want to save the 50% of the kids that don’t graduate on time. Shouldn’t we be marching over that? Why do we accept such a high rate of failure where New York City kids are concerned?

-- Bill Gunlocke

Video Did Not Kill the Radio Star

Our Town downtown
April 23, 2007

Most of the massive commentary the past two weeks on Don Imus’s screw-up was made by people who had been more-than-occasional guests on his show (exchanging and grinning the whole time, by the way; I heard them all over and over enjoying the hell out of being on with Imus and his pals) claiming that they sensed all along his potential to do/say what he did. Blahblahblah. It was ass-covering all the way, as you’d expect among the hyper image-conscious.

If the I-man could get behind the mic for a minute he’d call them all ‘a bunch of lying weasels’. And he’d be right. Here’s what I used to hear, and it fascinated me: The caller could be Tim Russert or Doris Kearns Goodwin or Jeff Greenfield or Brian Williams or Jon Meacham. To a person they’d almost always allude to some comment made maybe an hour earlier or the day before on the show by Charles or Imus or Bernie. And they’d call each of the guys by name. It at first surprised me. They were listening to Imus first thing in the morning? I guess I figured they’d be watching CNN or some such thing. But on the mornings when they were on, they definitely had been listening to the show way before they were scheduled to appear. They were regular listeners. They of course didn’t say that last week.

Radio—and not just Imus and Stern—has a lot of regular listeners, an engaged audience, in a way that TV doesn’t. Sure, television will hook you with a few shows. In the six or so hours it’s on in most homes every night with its hundred-plus channels, it would have to grab you occasionally. Friends rave about ‘The Office’. My oldest daughter, who wouldn’t know Brady Quinn from Anthony Quinn, says ‘Friday Night Lights’ is the best show that’s EVER been on. She and her sisters wouldn’t miss ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. They’ve got TiVo of course. People, for certain, love ‘The Sopranos’. I’m sure there are other shows with a big following. Maybe six others for all I know. But viewers don’t seem as deeply hooked on them as radio folks are hooked.

Radio folks are proud of their listening schedule. They love ‘This American Life’. They’ve loved Garrison Keillor like people loved Will Rogers. The Car Guys; what’s not to like, after all these years, still? Howard Stern. Do you think Matt and Katie and Charles Gibson matter to people like Stern matters to people? Do you think Chris Matthews matters like Imus mattered? Does CNN have the fervent following that NPR has? No way. Radio people are proud of their habit. TV people aren’t quite. They know it involves popcorn.

Radio by its nature is better. Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose would do better on radio than they do on TV. Oprah might too. Larry King was great years ago on late-night talk radio. His vanity was easier to listen to than to watch. Maybe Oprah is getting a little harder to look at the more she tries harder to look good. Radio would take care of that. Radio is good for you, like Guinness.
If video killed the radio star, it’s not how you think. Take Ray Suarez. He was about the best voice on NPR. TV seemed like a step up to him and now he’s a regular on the Jim Lehrer News Hour, which is so good it’s almost radio-good. But only almost, and Ray Suarez isn’t the guy he was on the radio.

Imus wasn’t much on TV either. I never watched him if I could help it; I always listened unless I was somewhere that didn’t carry his radio show. Then I’d watch occasionally. It was different, in more than the obvious ways. When I listened on the radio, I didn’t have to do anything but turn it on and set the volume. I could go do what I wanted then. Stir protein powder in my orange juice, look at my teeth in the bathroom mirror, read the easy parts of the morning paper. Yeah, you say, but you could still do those things with the television going, listen to Imus on the TV like it was radio, just don’t look at it. But I really couldn’t. TV doesn’t work that way. You know that. I’d have to go in to see what the I-man was doing every now and then, see what hat he was wearing that day, my spoon left standing in the juice glass.

-- Bill Gunlocke

I Was an Imus Guy

Our Town downtown
April 16, 2007

It’s maybe 1972. It’s morning and I’m sitting in my Volkswagen bug listening to the radio. I’m in St. Brendan’s grade school parking lot in a suburb of Cleveland where I moved after college because I was already married with a week-old child at graduation and I needed to beat the draft by teaching and I found a Catholic grade school in Cleveland that needed an English teacher.

I should be in the classroom already because it’s 7:55 and the kids will be coming soon and I have to be ready for them. But a disc jockey named Imus is on the radio and he’s being so funny and smart and bold and his voice is so good, that I don’t want to get out of the car until his bit is done.

Imus was in Cleveland for a few years. Maybe twice actually. When he moved here, I could get him there still. I didn’t listen to him every day that he was on. There was some music usually going in the car. But I listened to him enough that people thought of me as an Imus guy.
Am I still an Imus guy? Probably. Do I think he was wrong as could be with the Rutgers comments? No doubt. Do I think he should lose his show over it? Yes, when I think of the young women who play for Rutgers in front of hugely white crowds a half an hour from a mammoth city where a guy who they’ve never heard of is calling them names for no reason except to get a rush from saying something forbidden; and even though he doesn’t for a second think they are what he and Bernie called them, he couldn’t keep his tongue away from saying what it wanted to say because it had been trained for a lifetime to want to risk it all for a laugh.

I’ll learn to live without him. Actually I’ve been living without him since Christmas when somebody got me a Sirius radio. I’m hooked on all the talk stuff on there including Howard Stern, who I had never listened to before. Never, even though I’m a life-long talk radio listener. Now I listen to him sometimes, and I think he’s a genius.

Imus was a genius too. Look at that face and those eyes. He has a great voice. He’s smarter by nature than any guest he’s ever had on the show. If fools who couldn’t have been listeners want to still keep writing that he was a shock jock and write him off as that, well they’re just stupid. If they think Jon Stewart is smarter and funnier than Imus was for four hours every day, they didn’t listen to him. They probably wrote him off because of the cowboy hat, which I think he wore to keep himself and everyone else from taking him too seriously. He was so smart he could have been a scold or a wonkish diatribe guy. His hat kept him where he wanted to stay. He wanted to make fun of himself and his co-workers, his wife, his Jewish producer, Archbishop Egan, black people, rednecks, homosexuals, pols, the Hamptons crowd.

He knew music, he’d been a Marine, he collected first editions, he played chess with his young son, he loved his brother Fred, he was a recovering alcoholic and drug user, he chewed Nicorette gum like jelly beans. He’s helped sick kids for years. And he helped me through more than one bad morning. He was a very big deal to me. It’s Friday morning and it’s the first day Imus is not on the radio. The whole thing is sad.

In the messy-with-books-and-papers back seat of that VW I sat in and listened to Imus in in 1972, there could easily have been a beat up paperback of “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five” or, my favorite, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” by Kurt Vonnegut.

-- Bill Gunlocke

I’m Still Thinking Mike

Our Town downtown
April 9, 2007

A few weeks ago we said here that we hoped Mike Bloomberg would run for President. Wouldn’t you know, right after we said that we read that he was in a slump, with the cops’ shooting of Sean Bell and the mayor’s not coming home when the 10 African immigrants burned to death in a Bronx fire; school bus problems, homeless family problems. OK, it was a string of non-successes for sure. But they weren’t utter-political-failure events, any of them. They didn’t change my mind. In fact now more than ever I hope he runs.

I just got an email from Obama—you probably did too—talking about his amazing feat of raising Hillary-level bucks. Oh, it is quite something, all that money so soon. He’s magic right now. He’s D-Wade. I don’t know what we want that’s more than that from him. Maybe nothing. He’s fresh when we need fresh. Not just because of Bush and Iraq either. We just want fresh. It’s a TV land we live in and he’s the new show. That’s the appeal. His being black is not something we’ve never seen before. His having gone to Harvard Law School is not out of this world either. Joe Biden was way off; Obama’s not articulate in some special new way to white people. Even the most sequestered white people have seen black politicians, actors, newscasters, and Tiger Woods. And Oprah, for God sakes. (Joe, seeing a U.S. senator with hair plugs is way more unusual to America’s eyes than seeing an articulate black person.)

I don’t know though that his freshness will not wilt. There’s no guarantee. He’s going to have to work at it and make fresh statements about the same old issues that are out there being talked about by all the candidates and he’s got to do it in a voice that’s better than anybody else’s. He’s got that ability. We’ll see how he does.

Hillary has a terrible voice. I don’t know if she can overcome it if she’s paired against Obama. Elizabeth Edwards has a wonderful voice with a great ability to choose the perfect word, but her husband doesn’t. He’s hard-charging smart but he’d be the weatherman on my broadcast team. Not the lead anchor. Obama would get that, with Elizabeth in the chair next to him. Hillary would get the weekends.

Rudy fascinates me, and not all negatively. Currently I’m fascinated by this though: Does he really think America will elect him and have his wife be the First Lady? There is no chance in hell that they’ll do that. Drop out now. Go back to your old haircut and get a show on TV or radio. You have a better voice than Obama and your sentence structure is the best I’ve ever heard in a candidate. So get a show. You and Judith are not going to be living in the White House.

John McCain’s soft voice is as phony as Woody Hayes, the old Ohio State football coach who slugged a player on the opposing team during a bowl game. He could talk just as soft as McCain though. I don’t trust that voice.

Mitt Romney is a guy if he lived on your street in whatever town or city you lived in, you’d probably call him The President. He’s got something in that way for sure. But he’s from yesterday and you’d be thinking of a president in some old movie. He can’t be president in these times. He’s just too old fashioned, even if it’s appealing on some level.That leaves Mike Bloomberg, who you’d never call Mr. President on your block. He wouldn’t live on your block. He’s got too much money to live near you. And I wouldn’t pick him for my news team either. He looks like a cute parrot and his voice doesn’t carry at all. And he bugs me that he needs so many material goods. All those homes. It’s sinful really. But I’ve got different sins of my own. So do you. He’d make a good president.

-- Bill Gunlocke

My Night with the Knicks

Our Town downtown

April 2, 2007

Three times in the last month I stood outside the Garden waiting for the guy with the tickets. It was fun standing there (I’m pathologically early to everything, so I’ve spent a lifetime standing waiting in such scenes) looking at the crowd of game-goers within the crowd of commuters. It was fantastic stuff to stare at. It was one of those times since I moved here eight years ago, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. It was exhilarating being alone right then and there waiting for a friend with the buzz of a game in the air.

The most recent of three games I saw (the first two were college games in the Big East tournament) was a Knicks game. If you’re already laughing or cynical, I understand. The sportswriters and talk show guys here have been merciless in their attacks on the whole Knick situation, mostly going after Isiah Thomas, for awhile going after him every single day. It was way overdone. Isiah Thomas is as accomplished in what his life work has been as anyone in this city. He was a better basketball player and leader than almost anyone in town’s been at what they do. He was one of the top ten of all time probably. In the history of the game. (Sportswriters may deep-down hate jocks and look for every chance they get to pile on. Ever notice how they take every chance they get to say it’s just a game? Even while they’re making a living sucking up to them?)

My ticket was free. Long story. And the price on it said $65. OK, that’s a lot. But so’s the ticket for the Joan Didion play with Vanessa Redgrave which didn’t get a hot review. So is the ticket to hear Betty Buckley at Feinstein’s. You think Sir Bono lets you into his shows for cheap? And where in those shows do you get to see LeBron James fly through the air without a script or a play list and throw down a dunk like you’ve never seen before? (The Knicks played LeBron the night I was there.) Where in those events (wonderful as they are) does the outcome go down to the last few seconds? Where in those performances do you stand up and exult over something unexpected and raise your arms and scream in jubilation? 65 bucks? By this city’s standards with $7 pints of Guinness, and $2000 apartments so small that you have to pay extra to keep most of your stuff in storage in Queens, $65 is not that bad. And don’t forget these guys are risking crutches every minute they’re on the court.

You get two good hours for the ticket price, even if some of it like the Knicks dancers is cheese. But so what? You could easily spend more on an average meal with drinks than that. You could spend that at the Joyce Theater where the dunks are scripted. Jon Stewart was at the game. So were some other young big shots that they showed on the big screen. That’s cheesy to show them, of course, but it’s a TV world we live in.

The game’s out by 10:00 and you go home by foot or cab or train and you get your mail and hang out for awhile before bed and that’s a good night. If you were a kid your mother would tell you to make sure you washed your face and hands after bring in a crowd like that.

The next night West Virginia played Clemson in the NIT finals in the same Garden. That would have been fun to go to. But there are so many things to do in the city that you can lose track. We list some things to do every week. The dailies list stuff every day. Time Out does a great job at keeping up with it all. There is so much stuff. The same night as the NIT game, Bill Bradley was reading at the big Barnes & Noble and Pete Hamill was leading a discussion near NYU about an Irish novelist at the same time, in addition to all the other sports and movies and theater and dance and gallery openings. Makes you wonder if St. Peter won’t ask us why we were inside that night watching TV. And what’s with NetFlix in New York City? he might wonder. There wasn’t enough to do in the big city?

-- Bill Gunlocke

You Should Have Been There

Our Town downtown

March 26, 2007

If you’re like me, you were maybe thinking if you’d been to one monthly Public Meeting of The Panel for Educational Policy at Chambers Street you’d been to them all. A sober PowerPoint presentation of dry material. An earnest report by some well-meaning staffer. Maybe a half hour of questions from some of the few parents that bothered to come. In the four meetings I’d been to, it felt like school.

Last Monday it was different. You should have been there. There were twice the usual number of people. The extra half were all festooned with white sashes that had something written in big Asian letters on them. They spoke in their language among themselves and took the front three rows of seats. They were organized and purposeful, you could tell. The woman in front of me sat up in her chair like she was waiting to see the pope.

The meeting began when a dozen panel members and Chancellor Joel Klein ambled in and took their seats behind a long table. I watched Klein as he came in and wondered if he was sighing to himself when he saw the bigger group in front of him. The four times I’d been there, he played with his Blackberry the whole night and seemed less than engaged, to say the least, by the whole process.

When you come to these meetings there’s a table outside the doors to the room with a stack of handout sheets. It’s the agenda for the night. Monday night’s had these four points: I. Executive Session (this takes place in private before the public meeting starts); II. Citywide Science Curriculum; III. Fair Student Funding; IV. Public Comment.

At some point early on, maybe within the first 15 minutes, before much of the agenda had been attended to, with the Chancellor comfortably settled in with his good friend Mr. Blackberry, there was a noise from outside the big open wooden doors, somewhere out in the open area where there are easy chairs and coffee tables, where the stack of agendas was, somewhere out there a menacing chant was going on. It came closer and suddenly about 30 people marched in to the back of the room carrying signs and chanting, among other things, “Listen to the parents!” They were loud in the room which isn’t big. It’s like the size of two classrooms, but with oriental rugs and big chandeliers hanging from very high ceilings. These folks with their signs looked nervous, but more thrilled, to have barged in to such a setting. Mr. Klein put his toy down.

Anyone with a camera in the room was now aiming it toward the back of the room. The chanting kept up, an occasional voice leaped out from the group cadence and belted out a solo, “Listen to the parents!” The look on the faces of the purposeful Asians in the front rows was glum. I’m guessing they were angry too. Here they were, as orderly and scrubbed and serious as any New Yorkers could be, sashes in place, and in barges this noisy group of Black and Hispanic folks taking up the “teacher’s” time again just like it was in high school. You felt sorry for them.
But you didn’t dislike the noisy group at all. You were impressed actually by their spirit and their passion. Listening to them speak individually though when Klein ultimately gave in and gave them time to go to the microphone stand, you wish that they would barge into their neighborhood libraries with their kids and make sure their kids knew how to read. Or you wish they knew to demand of the Panel that their kids be taught to read as well as the kids at Dalton, where I think Klein’s kids went or go.

Later when things quieted down, a half dozen of the Asians got their chance to go to the microphone. You learned they were Koreans who were there to express their anger and pain over a book that they’ve found in the schools that doesn’t accurately depict the suffering their people went through at the hands of the Japanese a half century ago. I don’t know what it said on their sashes.

-- Bill Gunlocke

I Hope Mike Runs

Our Town downtown

March 19, 2007

I thought about Bloomberg twice on Thursday. A friend and I were e-mailing about various candidates and I said I liked Obama most right now but it was for purely charismatic reasons. I like him like I like Tiger Woods whatever that means about him—and me. I said I don’t dislike Hillary. I like her more than I like Bill, in fact. I’m their age and I can see him sucking up to every teacher he ever had and even those he didn’t have when he was in school and hanging around after class with them. Brown nose comes immediately to mind. I don’t see her that way. Edwards I loved the last time with his two Americas mantra. I even made phone calls for him in some union office here. His new guy-on-the-far-left pose though seems just that, a pose he practiced in the mirrors of his newly-built mansion. It’s too nakedly ambitious. His admitting he made a mistake in voting on Iraq is being seen, mostly by him, as some big act of courage. He’s saying it to get votes now that 2/3 of the country is against the war. Where’s the courage in that?

Then I said maybe Gore will trim his hair and his waistline and make a run. I even noticed that Bill Bradley has a book just out. He seems pretty good to me still. Finally I said that if Bloomberg ran he’d be the most competent among the lot of them. (Rudy is probably the closest in competence to the mayor. He’s hampered of course by some of his unsavory affiliations. All these guys know questionable types though. You think the people with three or four homes near the mountains and the beaches and the golf courses got them from selling Christmas trees or licking Green Stamps?)

That I think Bloomberg’s the most competent doesn’t mean I’d for sure make phone calls for him if he ran. I might though. Here’s why: He doesn’t seem a bit phony. Think of everyone in the list above except for Bill Bradley and there’s a phony component to them. They’ve been running for office for so long they’ve forgotten how to talk like real people. Mike doesn’t sound ultra-real himself, but that’s probably what he’s always sounded like. He seems cautious and shy and not in love with the sound of his own voice. That doesn’t mean he’s not ambitious or too rich. It just means he doesn’t sound phony and that’s refreshing. Even the way he’s not-running running doesn’t bug me because of his shy manner.

The second time I thought of him was later on Thursday night outside of a bar where I’d been having a couple pints, talking with a work mate, and occasionally looking up at the one small TV screen in the place to catch a glimpse of the college hoops scores. I’d gone outside in the cold drizzle to see if anyone was out there who I might bum a cigarette from. Like a leprechaun, a little young guy from Ireland sprang from nowhere it seemed and was handing me a half-empty gold pack of Benson & Hedges that I think he wanted me to notice because on the pack was a no-nonsense label that said ‘Smoking Kills’. I think he knew we’d ask where these were from. Ireland? England? His voice gave it away. Ireland it was. He was over with his girlfriend to show her the States and he was staying up in Woodlawn with some friends he’d met here before. He was so glad to talk to us outside. He said we were like meeting Bill Gates. He was funny. We smoked and went back in.

I looked at the pack of smokes with the label. There was another label on the back that said ‘Smoking is highly addictive, don’t start’. I thought of Bloomberg. He got the city to change its smoking ways. That was big in a town that too heartily identifies with Sinatra’s rendition of itself. The mayor did the right thing, though I whined like a lot of other people and thought he was a creep, out of touch with the real guys. He probably is out of touch in a lot of ways since he’s gathered so much stuff. But I hope he runs for president.

-- Bill Gunlocke

There Ought to be More Madness Here

Our Town downtown

March 12, 2007

Here’s a note that came early in the week from Steve Bloom, who writes a lot of sports for us:

The [NYU] Violets finished the 2006-07 season by winning the ECAC Division III Men’s Basketball Metro Championship last night at Coles over Richard Stockton College, 58-55. They ended the season with a 22-6 record. Pretty darn good. It was fun covering the Violets. Thanks for encouraging me to follow the team.

Steve wrote a cover story on the NYU team at the end of January and got hooked on going to the games. None of the rest of us went to any of them, but some of us commented at the time of the article how surprised we were at the description of the game atmosphere. It was more the stuff of college sports than we had imagined NYU games would be. Cheerleaders, pep bands, excited crowds. Just up the street from the Angelika.

We thought it was great that it was that way. I especially did. I like college sports so much that I this year bought season tickets to Fordham basketball. One of my daughters went there but she could care less about their hoops. I go up to the Bronx because the gym is classic and the atmosphere is fun. Fordham’s in a good league. The coach is a show and the student section tosses baby dolls in the air behind the basket while the other team is shooting free throws.
You leave these games feeling different than when you walked in. You’re on cloud nine if your team won, way down if they lost. It’s better than going to concerts, which someone once said are totally emotionally ‘safe games’. Bruce never loses or even gets the ball stolen. You get to cheer baskets scored against no defenders. All the fans go home happy like they won a game. But, no risk, no real reward. That’s why sports are so wildly popular everywhere. Even as a spectator you invest something of yourself. You risk something. It’d be easier to rent a movie you’ve seen before on Saturday night than to watch a basketball game and maybe have to go through the pain of losing, but if your team wins, it’s a rush. How many real rushes have you gotten from NetFlix?

Last week and weekend the Big East Tournament was held at the Garden. People all over the country watched it on their tubes. That’s what I usually do. This time I went over to it. I bought a ticket Friday afternoon from a scalper whose looks and manner you’d know not to trust in a movie, but I was in a hurry to get inside and it turned out all right. Cost me $80. Craig’s List, which I don’t really know how to use, wanted at least $100. So I saved $20 there, I figured, and I stayed away from the $7.75 beers once I got inside.

The atmosphere was charged, better than a concert. Guys had money bet, guys had loyalties; they didn’t want their school to lose. People there had hats and shirts on from all over the Big East. Pep bands played the songs their fathers had stood and clapped to. March Madness was just underway.

The Garden is lit perfectly for basketball. The lights above the seats are dimmer there it seems than in other arenas; that makes the court seem brighter in contrast like a boxing ring at a big fight.

You think while you’re there that there ought to be big-time basketball interest all year long in New York—for the colleges. In Philly they have a little hoops world all their own with St. Joe’s and LaSalle and Villanova and Penn and Temple—and Drexel. It’s a great tradition. Why couldn’t New York develop such a thing among St. John’s and Fordham and NYU and Columbia and Manhattan. Men and women’s teams. Have a Christmas tourney in the Garden. It’d strengthen all the programs. It’d help keep some of the local talent here. And it would give you another reason to go to a game.

-- Bill Gunlocke

The Schools May Have Picked a Winner

Our Town downtown
March 5, 2007

Did you see that the city’s Department of Education chose a woman named Martine Guerrier to be the Chief Family Engagement Officer? If you don’t have kids in the schools or aren’t a news junkie, the appointment wouldn’t get your attention. It got my attention because this Martine got my attention the three times I went to a school board meeting this year. They don’t call them Board meetings; they’re called Panel for Educational Policy meetings. That sounds like they might be of a new order and of a higher nature than old-time Board meetings. Well, I never went to one of those sessions, but at these the level is not high. It’s so low in fact that nobody goes, unless you think 20-30 people showing up to listen and talk about a school system that has more than 1,000,000 kids is a good turnout.

The lone exception to the boredom of the proceedings and the boredom on the panel members’ faces (Chancellor Klein looked by far the most bored; he arrogantly [there’s no other word for it] played on his Blackberry the whole night(s)) has been Martine Guerrier. She can’t help it. She’s not showing off. She’s just sharper and more alert than the others. It doesn’t take much to be sharp at the Chambers Street meetings I’ve been to. But she’d be sharp in any crowd.
In this new job she’ll represent the parents of the more than 1,000,000 kids. She is a wife and mother and has a 10-year-old son. With that, and her intelligence, diligence, and speech pattern, she’s a great fit for the job.

That’s all I really know about her. I googled her after I first watched her at a Panel meeting. There wasn’t much about her. I was fascinated enough by her to do that. Watching her exceptional talents at the meetings was like seeing some random game on TV and finding yourself rooting for a player you’d never heard of because he got your attention somehow. It happens with supporting actors sometimes. You’re taken with them and start to follow their careers. Or you catch part of a song and you’re hooked on that singer. If your instincts are good, it doesn’t surprise you totally that some of those first impressions are validated and the person goes on to be somebody big.

That’s how I feel about this Martine Guerrier. She’s young, African-American, smart in a non-annoying way, likable in her manner and unafraid to ask for clarification of some point—at the meetings I attended—that otherwise would have just laid there in its own jargon.
The position she’s got now could be a place where she’ll be able to shine. Representing all the kids’ parents could be a huge, powerful opportunity to move the city to do more. There must be significant things that need doing or there wouldn’t be just half the students graduating in four years.

Running the city’s schools must be a bear. No place has figured it out. No other city has, for sure. It doesn’t seem to matter if the mayor takes control or a woman runs them or a board. There must be something essential that’s being missed. I wish they’d find out what it is. The kids are waiting. What probably will happen is that it will all be done by some computer programs in the frighteningly-not-too-distant future. Teachers will still be in the room but kids will learn music from Winton Marsalis and history from Bono, like we learn cooking from Rachel Ray. In the meantime, before we turn the thermostat way up to Fahrenheit 451, the schools need flesh-and-blood humans to run things. Sharp people are what are needed most and typically schools don’t attract the bold, energetic types that go into more alluring-for-them careers. This Martine might be one of those, and we better use her well while we have her.

-- Bill Gunlocke

Far From Gramercy Park

Our Town downtown
February 26, 2007

In Jackson, Wyoming last week I notice the rear of two cars parked in front of Bubba’s, the place you get breakfast; one has an Alaska license plate and a sticker that says Eskimo Women Kick Ass, the other car is from Wyoming and has a sticker that says Charlton Heston is my President.

In the local paper is news from the state legislature in Laramie about proposed legislation that seeks to do away with citizens being allowed to drive with an open container of alcohol.
These sightings are sent to you not to mock out-westerners with muddy tires like New Yorkers are supposed to do. They’re sent to show you how far from Gramercy Park you can get in a week.

Here’s what you can do in a week when your pregnant youngest daughter’s water breaks a week early in Jackson Hole and you gotta’ get there. The last-minute price of a ticket out of here is too high by any standard and you find one a lot cheaper out of Cincinnati, which you book because your college roommate is a lawyer in Columbus and you can stay with him and he’ll drive you to Cincinnati the next day. But first you go to rural Ohio with him while he refs a basketball game between same-town high school rivals Washington Courthouse and Miami Trace where it’s senior night and there’s a testimonial and silence for three kids from the two schools who were killed in a car crash earlier in the week. The National Anthem is sung by two students with a guitar with a pain you haven’t heard before.

The plane gets me to the Wyoming hospital an hour before the young couple is leaving with their baby for the two-minute drive to their house on Flat Creek Road. My ex-wife’s flight is delayed by snow so I’m glad I made it.

The kid is a beauty. Lucy Macauley. No staring at her wishing you could tape an odd ear back. She changes your life like friends said she would. It’s like there’s a Christmas tree in the room now. My son-in-law says the next day that the biggest of their two dogs slept in their room by the crib. He’d never slept in their room before.

I don’t ski and am getting tired of visiting my daughter out there without doing anything with the snow. This time I take a lesson in cross country skiing. It’s rewarding like swimming laps is and I go three other times. You can see the real skiers coming down the Tetons just a few hundred yards away. It’s beautiful to watch. You envy them. Later in a bar at the base of the mountain they all look in their ruddiness like Brett Favre and Sheryl Crow. You think you look like Bob Denver to them.

At another bar one night a snowboarder from Birmingham, England says he and his mates go into Yellowstone the day before to get near a geyser. He says there are two bears in front of the geyser so they can’t get very close. He is awed.

On the fifth night in town, I decide I’ll stay away one night from the baby’s house and let my ex have her to herself. I go to the local high school basketball game. The Jackson team is the Broncs. The Lady Broncs play first and the team from Lander Valley they play has three very good young players I think are Mexicans. The next morning my son-in-law says they were most likely Americans Indians. There’s a reservation in Lander he says. The crowd at the game wasn’t much different from the crowd in rural Ohio. Maybe the Jackson men have longer arms and bigger hands. Rangier, I guess. Cowboys.

A week after Lucy is born, her mother and father decide they’ll bundle her up and put a little knit cap on her head and put her in one of those papoose things and go outdoors into the snowy landscape with her for the first time. They take their two dogs in the car with them and drive off for a walk along the Snake River.That’s a long way from Gramercy Park, a short drive for them. And they don’t need a key.

-- Bill Gunlocke

C-Span, the Opposite of Sex, Is About My Speed

Our Town downtown

February 19, 2007

I was in South Florida a weekend ago, in the home office of Anna Nicole coverage. I didn’t pay attention to it because I’d never followed the trial over the money from her old husband, and I couldn’t watch the fat version of her on that TV series (I was kind of in love/lust with her in those old black and white jean ads she did and wanted to remember her that way). A lot of people must have been watching that fat show, even a lot of people who when you mention TV to them or say you don’t watch it will tell you they only watch the History Channel and “The Wire.” They must somehow have heard about her somewhere. They’re claiming they didn’t watch the stuff about her death either but I’ll bet they did. Most people are TV addicts, and if they go on about Bill Moyers and Bill Maher and “Washington Week in Review,” that’s a cover, and it’s still TV anyway and it’s nothing they couldn’t get in a magazine or a newspaper.
I don’t watch any of that stuff (I’ve got other vices), but I could become a C-Span addict. And not just “Booknotes” and “Q&A” and all that very tempting weekend stuff about authors that keeps you from reading. I mean the sober, opposite-of-sex “Washington Journal” morning call-in show that must actually be set in Pittsburgh in Mr. Rogers’ old studio, so welcoming and clean is the whole enterprise. Enterprise is too sexy a word for it. Compared to the C-Span morning hosts, Garrison Keillor is Tom Waits. It’s like the innocent morning radio I heard as a kid. It’s like a yellow record.

You’ve noticed “Washington Journal,” I’m sure. Looks boring and you’ve hardly ever stopped. And no doubt every time you have landed on it for even a minute, it’s always an unfashionable woman representative from Illinois talking to a guy who looks like a seminarian about a school bus seat belt bill. You run from it and head to the networks, or Imus.

I don’t run from it, or to it. I just turn to it sometimes on my Sirius radio (forget iPods and flat screens, get satellite radio and free your legs to move about, or lie down and stare at the ceiling; you can’t do that with even the biggest flat screen). When I’m sports-talked out, or I’m Howarded out on Sirius, I turn the dial to “Washington Journal.” It’s the same thing as on the television. And I get ready for the day listening to citizens (that’s what they seem like when they call in that show; they’re not consumers there) call about the war or the candidates or the Washington Post editorial on Joe Biden—or seat belts. It’s not bracing, I admit, but it’s not bullshit either, and that’s a good way to start the day. So, back to Florida. My sister who I was visiting wanted to go to the beach on Saturday after we stopped by and saw her newest grandchild. I was certainly up for both things, but what I really wanted to do on a perfect sunny day on my first day down there from the brickyard cold of here was watch Barack Obama make his announcement of his running for the White House at 11:00 that morning on C-Span. I lost. I had to go. And I could catch the highlights later on the CNN. But I wouldn’t catch what C-Span would be giving. With C-Span, you’re on the steps of the Illinois capitol building before Obama is. The announcer, if there even is one, is silent while the camera watches the flags flap in the wind or catches the ambient sound of the citizens as they gather at the foot of the steps waiting for the candidate-to-be to show up. It’s like politics unplugged. Unplugged is good.

-- Bill Gunlocke

You Know The Preacher Likes The Cold

Our Town downtown
February 12, 2007

Yeah, it was cold last week. I say I like the cold but even I will admit my face hurt in an almost scary way one morning walking to work. One night I went to a play on Theater Row and I had to cut through the Port Authority terminal to get out of the wind for a couple minutes even though I had on a knit cap and all that. I slept with that hat on a couple of those nights.

But I actually loved it. I like gloves and that hat and a muffler and the way getting warm feels. Bitter cold makes me appreciate four walls and the way they keep the wind and the wolves away.

Some people can’t stand it. They start complaining every year in October that the cold is coming. They find nothing fun about it. It makes them mad. They dream of getting out of it. I had a cab driver here once when I was visiting before I moved here and I was going from a restaurant on Spring Street back uptown where I was staying with an old college roommate. The cab driver was a bright young guy and we got to talking as is my wont, and it came out that we were both divorced fathers with daughters. Three for me, one for him. He was younger and newer at it and he lamented how much he was missing his young daughter up in Toronto. I empathized and tried to comfort him. I figured he was in graduate school or had been transferred here and was just driving a cab to supplement his salary to pay his child support. When I asked him what he did when he wasn’t driving, he said he did nothing else. He drove full-time. I thought about the picture of his daughter on the visor above him and how sad he was about not seeing her often and I so I asked, well, couldn’t you drive a cab in Toronto and be nearer to your daughter? He shook his head and said, Man, it’s too cold up there. I didn’t know what to say.

Some people are warm-blooded and like the cold. I remember some guys in grade school when we’d have snowball fights would throw their coats and sweaters off and be in their T shirts winging hard ones at us. No hat, no gloves. They just weren’t bothered by the cold. The same guys were too hot in just a T shirt on the dog days of summer. Their warm blood boiled and made them miserable.

A friend of mine has been visiting from Florida. He moved there because he’s one of those people—cold-blooded I guess—who’s miserable in winter. He may not ever have gone to the beach down there though he lives only 10 minutes from it. He’s not there for that. He’s simply there not to be cold.

We’re all wired in our particular way. How’s this for an example? The Florida guy I just mentioned said one day last week that he was watching tube while I was at work and he had to turn it off because there was a high-pitched squealing noise coming from it. I said I’d never heard anything. A couple nights last week he was watching something and he called me in to show me the noise. I looked at him and grinned thinking he was fooling me or was going nuts. I heard nothing; not a thing other than the show that was on. He couldn’t believe it. He had to turn it off, it was bugging him so. Later he turned it back on and called me in again. Same thing. He’s no clown. Very rational guy (No doubt there was some noise emanating from the tube). He’s also a music-obsessed person. He’s a graphic designer and listens to tunes incessantly while he works and whenever the TV isn’t on. I’m not a music-obsessed person. I wonder if that sounds he hears and I don’t has something to do with it. His ears are different. I think he’s just wired to need music.

At night last week when his TV shows were off and his CDs had stopped spinning he needed the heat up so high I could hardly sleep.

-- Bill Gunlocke

Take These Chains from My Heart and Set Me Free…

Our Town downtown
February 5, 2007

Last week in her back page essay, Gaije Kushner’s headline asked, ‘Wal-Mart, Coming Soon to a Block Like Yours? It could happen here.’

I could see us avoiding Wal-Mart. But we didn’t avoid Home Depot. And there are Staples all around. I buy a can of soup sometimes at the CVS on my block. I buy milk and orange juice there too in a pinch. As in pinching pennies; stuff is cheaper there. Barnes & Noble has a store card—like my CVS does—that gives you discounts that you can’t get at the smaller, cozier, warmer bookstores, which is why there are fewer of those great small bookstores even in this town where people have money and where the publishing world is centered.

I don’t have one of those B&N cards; I’m always somehow in a hurry and can’t fill one out. Maybe I don’t want to be one of those people who obsess over money things in bookstores. Those people who do obsess will thumb through the books in their neighborhood bookstore and then go home and order online from Amazon or someplace even cheaper. We could all be that way if we let ourselves. Those people (us, if we’re like that) would be at Wal-Mart in a heartbeat, or quicker—and feeling good about it—if vitamins or teeth whitening strips were cheaper there. Costco and Target are chains and are putting small independent stores out of business too, but they have some cachet that allows the normally-hand-wringing watchdogs over globalization to let down their guard, just like they do for anything Steve Jobs comes out with even if it’s for sure putting good old record stores out of business.

My kids mock me—Mr. Sixties—for going to chains at all. They go to neighborhood coffee shops that aren’t Starbucks. They buy their books at Three Lives bookshop. Their drugstore is Bigelow’s. I try to defend my occasional stops at B&N and Starbucks by saying on my soapbox that the real homogenization of society is not from chain stores but from television, and that sitting like zombies in front of a flickering rectangle every single night is way more lemming-like than all the lines of folks going in all the chain stores in the world. They don’t even answer that claim, they’re such TV addicts.

But even though I’m right about TV being the great chain store of culture, my kids are right about me being a hypocrite for going to chain stores. What the hell did I move to New York for? To eat at Boston Market?

I’m working on the coffee. There are plenty of local shops and restaurants to get a coffee from. I don’t need a chain for that. Do you? Bookstores for sure I can find that are independents. I go to them already. You can find them too. They’re the ones without escalators, and without the Godiva Chocolate bars by the cash registers.

When we read about someone who doesn’t e-mail or who still uses a Smith Corona typewriter we think that’s authentically cool. I think it’s authentically cool that my kids go to Three Lives for books and Jack’s for coffee. I should follow their lead for a change.

Here’s how the small stores could make it easier for me and you to go to them. Stay open as late as the chains. Small bookstores if you’re listening: You and the neighborhood libraries have to stay open as late as the chain bookstores do. If Friday’s stayed open longer than the neighborhood bars every night, they’d get most of the beer business eventually. You can’t close early and expect people not to go where the lights are still on. If you don’t at least do that, you can’t complain. And if we don’t at least make an effort to get our books from those small places, and our coffee and our vitamins and our beers from neighborhood spots, we won’t be able to complain when we’re standing someday in line trying to figure which two sides do we want to go with the Carver sandwich at Boston Market where the bagel place used to be.

-- Bill Gunlocke

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Norman Mailer: The Long Goodbye

Our Town downtown
January 29, 2007

I’d said my goodbye to Norman Mailer a few years ago when he was reading at the Barnes and Noble on Union Square. I’d lingered over his departure from the stage and watched him as he shuffled past the escalator, through the fiction section, with the help of two canes. I thought that would be the last time we’d see him.

But it wasn’t. Thursday night he was back on the fourth floor of the store reading from his big new novel about Hitler’s childhood. He looked a little stronger than the last time. He looked a little different too. You likely saw the Times photo in the book review a week ago. His hair straighter than you remember it. He looked like Irwin Corey meets Pat Riley. His voice was stronger than you’d think for someone turning 84 any minute. It’s a great voice, unmistakable for 40 years.

There were already people standing behind the rows of seats when I got there at 6:15 for the 7:00 start. There were heavy coats in everyone’s arms and they shifted them around as they read from Mailer’s new book or looked at books on the tables they found themselves near. In front of me was a brick of a book filled with black and white photos of individual London buildings. Did you know there’s a Museum of Childhood in London’s East End?

I was right behind three camerapeople standing on chairs filming the event. They mostly obstructed my view of Mailer reading at the table. Sometimes I’d look at the little monitor screen that was on the side of one of the cameras and watch him that way. That didn’t bother me. As I said, I had said my goodbye a few years ago. I only came last night to briefly see what he looked like and to see who would turn out. I wouldn’t be staying for the whole thing. I had somewhere to go.

The crowd was much younger than I thought it would be. Sure there were people my age who remember reading ‘Armies of the Night’ in college. There were quite a few faces there that you knew were somebody, especially when they got to go beyond the velvet rope to a seat that was being held for them by a friend or spouse up near the stage waving at them. But there were a lot of kids in their 20s and 30s.

Mailer alluded to that age group before he started reading. He mentioned how he’s normally ‘unduly pessimistic’ about the state of reading and books. But he said coming into these stores ‘cheers me again’, seeing so many young people reading books in the store so intently, like in a library. He meant specifically the big stores which you wouldn’t think he’d like, but he appreciated the crowds they could accommodate for such a reading. He probably missed the crowds, living up in Provincetown all year now. He was glad to see the people who’d come out on a cold night for him.

It was a clear night too, and as you looked at him up there, small, with his hair as white as the typed pages he was reading from, you could see the night over Union Square out windows on either side of the stage. It was that deep blue dark with lights from offices and restaurants like jewels on a velvet display cloth. Out the left window you could see those numbers flashing on that 14th Street building changing as fast as numbers at a gas pump when you’ve only got two dollars, like you often did when Mailer’s hair was dark and thick with curls and he was the darling, maddening cock of the literary walk.

-- Bill Gunlocke

The Mayor Needs to Bust a Move

Our Town downtown
January 22, 2007

When almost half the students in the public schools here don’t graduate in four years, something astounding needs to be done. New York isn’t alone in its need for something astounding to be done in the schools. All the major cities’ schools are just about equally unsuccessful. Those cities have given or are giving their mayors more control over the schools, like here. I haven’t read where any city has turned it all around, have you? We haven’t turned things around here. Other cities are looking to us to lead the way.

Will the moves that Mayor Bloomberg and his Chancellor Joel Klein announced the other day be the astounding changes that are needed? They don’t seem big enough or interesting enough to make much of a difference at all. They don’t seem radical. Isn’t something radical needed when half the kids aren’t engaged enough by what’s going on in school to graduate in four years in what can’t be at all a rigorous curriculum? Teachers getting asked to evaluate their principals. Tougher tenure standards. Eliminating some regional superintendents. Those aren’t major moves. A new formula for more equal funding of individual schools is a good thing, no doubt. But I’ll bet most people didn’t read the whole article in the daily paper about it. There was nothing headline grabbing about it. There needs to be something big done.

When the mayor said no more smoking in bars where the mirrors were almost brown from smoking traditions, that was a big move. When the mayor of London started charging extra for cars to enter the crowded part of the city, that was a major move. Bloomberg didn’t say we’re going to shift the monitoring of smoking in the city’s taverns to the department of social services. No, he said no more smoking. The London mayor didn’t say we’re going to make sure there are four people in every car entering the central city or they’ll be given a warning and possibly a ticket. No, he started charging them to go there and fewer of them now go there. Bold moves got results.

If the other cities are looking to New York to see how urban schools can work, then let’s do something radical. Columbia, NYU, Fordham, New School, Bank Street Teachers College; they’re here. Random House is here. Scholastic is here. Barnes & Noble and Strand are here. All those people that dress for those party pictures in the Sunday Times are here. Spike Lee is here. George Soros and Mike Nichols are here. Stern is here. The Times is here. Charlie Rose’s table is here. Shouldn’t we be able to come up with a way to make our schools bright and stimulating for the kids and lead the way? Seriously. We have a very bright guy as mayor who ought to be able to get the city’s minds and megabucks to turn the schools around. Don’t say Principal for a Day. Please.

The way it’s set up now must suck for the teachers as well as the kids. Who can feel good when the failure rate is so steadily high? Imagine the atmosphere in the hallways or the teachers lounge or the school library or the lunch room when half the kids aren’t graduating in four years. The media in town complain more about the Dolans’ handling of the Knicks and Rangers than they do about the schools. I didn’t say the callers to sports talk shows worry more about that stuff, I said the daily papers do. That’s ludicrous.

Someone has to bust a move. Ask Oprah to run the schools. I would. I’d try something more than what’s being done. Bill Gates is helping here. How about some New Yorkers? The mayor could get this done if he called upon the right people.

-- Bill Gunlocke

David Lynch, the Beatles and Me Go Way Back

Our Town downtown
January 15, 2007

There may have been bigger crowds for a reading than the one at the David Lynch reading last Thursday night at the tall Union Square Barnes & Noble, but I’ve never seen one that big, and I’ve been to them where you have to stand way in the back and you start looking at whatever books are in front of you on a table because you can’t see.

Last night I didn’t even get to the floor where the reading was. They wouldn’t let me; it was already filled to capacity and I was a half hour early. It was like Obama was in the building there were so many people standing by the security guards at the foot of the escalators hoping against hope that they’d let them go up. I gave up and left when I heard the rousing greeting Lynch got a floor above me. I knew it was too late then. The first floor as I left looked like the 24th of December so many people were killing time waiting to still maybe get up there or at least to see him on his way out. I didn’t care about him that way.

Sure, I’d loved ‘Blue Velvet’, but I’d never watched ‘Twin Peaks’ and any of the rest of his movies that I saw didn’t knock me out like Velvet did. I didn’t come to see David Lynch the film guy anyway. I came to see David Lynch the Transcendental Meditation guy. That’s a lot about what his book is about. I wondered as I looked at the crowd last night how many of them were into T.M. I hoped all of them were.

Here’s why: We all do thousands of things to try to change our life in some way. Maybe that’s mostly what we’re doing all the time. That’s likely what we’re hoping when we go to a movie. That’s what we’re browsing for in a bookstore. Some insight or some companion to our life. That’s what got me to an introductory lecture about T.M. over 30 years ago. It was in the wind then. The Beatles had gone to see the Maharishi and learned to meditate. Mary Tyler Moore did it. The Philadelphia Phillies did it. So did a Beach Boy. It was a zeitgeist thing. I paid my money and got a mantra of my own. It surprised everyone. They wouldn’t have guessed I’d be into such a thing. It seemed like a religion to them and they saw me as a longtime lapsed Catholic who was not much for devotion.

Well, other than the three pieces of fruit and a clean handkerchief and some flowers for the little private ceremony to honor the tradition of meditation, there was no ‘religion’ at all. There wasn’t even any philosophy or any psychology. T.M., we learned, was not psychological, it was physiological. It was rest, deep rest. And rest was what was needed to reduce stress. Once the stress was reduced we’d lead better lives with more energy and more focus. We were supposed to do it twice a day, morning and evening, 20 minutes each time. Sit in a quiet place.

I have done that for 30 years now. David Lynch has too. When I think of all the things I’ve not sustained interest in, it’s amazing to me I’m still doing it.

Last Friday down on Broad Street, the T.M folks opened up the lobby of a building they are refurbishing as some kind of center here. I may never get to it. I’m not much for organizations. I’m not even telling you the address. I’m not suggesting anything. All I’m doing is sharing my enthusiasm and respect for something that lived up to its billing. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

-- Bill Gunlocke

Is There An End To This Endless Summer? Please.

Our Town downtown
January 8, 2007

On the sill of a window that looks onto the rest of the office here, I have three books propped up facing me and a card from a photo exhibit I went to. I like the color of each, and the design. The one I find myself looking at the most is a book by Thomas McGuane. ‘The Cadence of Grass’. It’s a hardback novel and the image I stare at is a scruffy field out in Montana where the story is set and where McGuane lives. There is snow on the field but not much. Straw is sticking up through it and so is various brush. There’s a barbed wire fence and in the far distance you can see a mountain range. The sky is grey and it looks full of more snow. All this is in black and white in a grainy way. You could be parked along the side of this field or be standing where the photographer was with your dog or a rifle. You could hear your boots crunch in the snow.
I could go on about this picture. I find myself looking at it more this month. I like the snow of it. I like the emptiness of it too and the foreboding. But it’s the snow and cold of it I’m craving.
This weather here now is nothing. I hate it. When I was a kid I hated ACC sports with its Dukes and North Carolinas and Virginias. The weather of those places bothered me. It was all so temperate. So mild. Genteel. It was golf and tennis and tobacco farms. It’s been that way here so far this winter.

Where I came from in western New York, men (not my father, darn it) ice fished and had coon dogs. They had insulated boots and big coats to go hunting in. Those men in those coats with their hunting tags on the back took up a lot of room on the row of stools in Jim’s Diner on Main Street. You’d brush against their heavy coats going down the aisle of the place. They’d sit there and stir their coffee with thin spoons and smoke cigarettes all the while talking about the outdoors.

I have a young son-in-law in Wyoming. He and my daughter live near ski mountains and so a photo of a field near them won’t look as wonderfully bleak as McGuane’s dust jacket does. But it gets so cold there some nights that he has to keep his truck (a nice one; he’s no farmer from western New York. This is ski country) plugged into a generator so it’ll start in the dark of morning when he and one of their two dogs head out to plow driveways. That’s not Duke versus the Virginia Cavaliers in women’s lacrosse. That’s cold in a rugged way, like ice fishing.
I’ve only been near it once, but it seems in the dead of winter here, Montauk might offer some of that for the year-round folks. We’ll get ours soon. Soon enough, many of you are thinking. I can’t wait.

All this is to say that mild is boring. In art or sports or love. Deepak Chopra is boring with that voice. Yoga magazines with their cotton clothes and those ads for smooth stone day spas are too mild. Weather can be too mild.

One of the beauties of living here for me is that the big buildings block a lot of the winds that blow hats away in other places. Wind for some reason I don’t like. But snow and cold are bracing. The coffee tastes better when it’s freezing out. So does a beer in a neighborhood bar with its warm lights. Getting home to your apartment building suddenly matters more. Mail is even better when it’s cold out. There’s something civilized about a magazine in the mail box when nature is having its way out on the street. And how about the grace of fleece-lined slippers when you finally get home? You can even wear a knit cap in the house and look like Kurt Vonnegut on the back of ‘Breakfast of Champions’. That picture might make a good addition to my windowsill.

A week late. Happy New Year.

-- Bill Gunlocke

The Days When Newspapers Were Champs

Our Town downtown
January 2, 2007

‘Tunney,’ the new biography of one of the legends of the 1920s, boxer Gene Tunney, begins near the water off the West Village. Tunney’s old man worked on the docks and lived on Perry and then Bank Street to be near his work. The future champ who would knock out Dempsey twice went to St. Veronica’s grammar school and as a teenager coached boxing at P.S. 41.
The beginning chapters depict a neighborhood of working class people. It’s all different now of course. You’d have to own one of the boats that Tunney’s father unloaded to live there. Not many kids are there now who might grow up in the ring. Luckily the great apartment buildings are still there and the old sidewalks and the old trees and the school buildings that evoke that era. Which is of course why people sensitive to that don’t want it messed with by developers.
Here’s something in the book that sticks with me. Years later, Jack Cavanaugh who wrote the biography was on the train to Connecticut where he lives. Next to him was a noticeable guy who turned out to be Gene Tunney, and a conversation ensued and the book grew out of it. Anyway, the part of that train story that I liked was this: ‘Like most passengers in the car, he was immersed in one of New York’s three afternoon newspapers of the time, the nightly ritual for daily riders to the Connecticut suburbs from Manhattan.’ Is that a great scene or what? Don’t you ache for that way of spending your time? Three big wide newspapers to choose from to read on the train and then after dinner at home.

I was maybe 11 years old in the late 1950s when my father brought me by train into the city from our rural western New York hometown to see the Yankees play a weekend series against the Orioles. Of course I wanted to see Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford like any other kid who collected baseball cards and listened to Mel Allen on the radio. But the guy I wanted to see most was Gil McDougald. He was by far my favorite player. I couldn’t wait to watch him bat with his odd stance and to watch his easy long throws from third base to first base. He captivated me.

So, that first night in town, a Friday, when my guy Gil amazingly won the game with a single in the ninth, I was excited about getting up to a newspaper article in the New York paper the next morning telling about my hero’s hit. That’s what I did every morning at home; jumped out of bed to grab the sports page. What I still do. We got the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Another Rochester paper in the late afternoon. So, that’s how I figured it would be here. I was wrong. I think I found seven or eight New York papers throughout the next day in the hotel lobby’s newsstand. I bought them all and ripped out the articles on McDougald’s winning single for a scrapbook I kept on him.

Newspapers were what fathers did at the breakfast table back then. They were what mothers were doing at that same table when you came home late at night in high school.

Some nights now, in the face of a television filled with games and movies and talk, in the face of a computer filled with even more stuff, in the face of a cell phone filled with free calls after 7:00, I’ll still grab a Post or News and take it home with a couple slices of pizza and sit at the table like my parents did pretending in a way that I’ve got an evening paper in front of me.

It’s one of the great pleasures to walk to a newsstand here and grab a paper. Tunney’s old man did it. Tunney did it. Dempsey did it. At night it’s especially rich. The way the light hits the stacks. Some of the stands look like they could have been around back then. I read recently that the mayor cut some deal with a foreign company to get new ones and to replace the old ones. Ouch. Sometimes he can be way too natty. Luckily I haven’t finished reading ‘Tunney.’

-- Bill Gunlocke

Putting All The Presents In Focus

Our Town downtown
December 25, 2006

Other than the cameras I bought for my three kids, everything I bought for everyone else was a book. I may have bought twenty-five books. I do it every year. It’s partly selfish. I like bookstores and I like staring at the stacks and shelves until the book I’m looking for shows itself, gets my attention somehow.

That is a great pleasure. And it’s like no other in the cultural world. Think of the shallow satisfaction of scrolling down that cable channel that lists all the programs, maybe it’s the TV Guide channel. There aren’t many Eureka moments in that exercise. Maybe here’s the difference. In the bookstore, you’re maybe getting a text for the next semester of your life; you may be buying an epiphany. With the tube, you’re cutting class.

For me, it was in the bookstores that I had my shopping fun. But all sorts of non-bookstore stores were filled all over town, all over the country, in many places around the world. It’s easy to mock out the buying spree or frenzy or madness or whatever it’s called. I’ve mocked it too. My bookstore habit at Christmas has always been in my eyes an act of superiority to the folks going up escalators and through malls. But I have to admit when I’m honest that the other shopping shares a lot with my bookstore thing.

What intense shopping for gifts calls upon us to do is focus. It’s no time for strolling anymore or window shopping. It’s game day. All you know and all you’ve seen has to come together to find a gift that fits the person. You have to get to the right floor, find the right size, remember what the room looks like where the lamp might fit, did I get him a blue sweater last year? This is using our wits. There’s nothing better. We don’t really want to be cutting class. Jerry Seinfeld didn’t really cut class. He wrote a show. Walt Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass.” Thoreau wrote “Walden.” We like life best when we’re focused. That’s the beauty of a camera, the focusing on some smile or luster or shadow and squeezing the trigger. The photos we then e-mail out to friends are a kind of satisfaction, but not as close and personal as that focusing that came before. That’s why golf obsesses even the greatest athletes like Michael Jordan; the focus it requires. The poker craze, same thing.

Shopping allows all of us once or twice a year to have to focus in on a task. Of course we’d rather cut class and not do it, but if you give yourself over to it, it has satisfactions. Right through to the wrapping and the card.

Speaking of cutting class instead of shopping, a bar can look like a warm hideout from it all, especially now with ESPN on the bar tube. In the leafy, aging suburb of Cleveland I lived in for most of my adult life, there was a bar called Bud’s White Door, a frill-less place where you didn’t go looking for a bride. It was guys’ place mostly, beers, cigarettes and old-gold tin ashtrays. Anyway, on Christmas Eve day they cleared off one of the tables in the back by the payphone and set out a couple big rolls of wrapping paper, with a big tape dispenser and a scissors and ribbon. Of course it was free. I never used the service, was never in there that day, but I thought it was funny, brilliant, crazy. It also seems loving to me now.

Lots of things seem loving this time of year. The early darkness makes lights in windows seem warmer.

-- Bill Gunlocke

A Good New York Night and Why You Live Here

Our Town downtown
December 18, 2006

It was last Thursday and I could have stayed home and read the magazine that just came in the mail or finished re-reading James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ which had jumped off the shelf at me in an airport store in Salt Lake City at Thanksgiving or gone down to First Avenue and watched the NFL game at a favorite bar and eaten chili out of a big white bowl there.

But I had promised myself for two days that I’d go down to 4th Street to KGB (it’s a bar, and more than that) to a reading where three known women novelists were going to read from their latest work in support of an organization I’d never heard of but which sounded interestingly worthwhile in the listing in Time Out New York. ‘Behind The Book’ it’s called and they get authors to go into classrooms and they work with teachers to make it a lot more interesting than just having an author go into classrooms and read. I know that because when I got to KGB, I was one of only three people who are pathologically early to things like I am and I talked to a woman from the organization who was placing some cards promoting its mission on the wooden surfaces around the small second floor bar space in KGB that is one of the great spaces you’ve been in. Think the warm lighting and colors from the movie ‘Reds’.

So, yes, I did go. And the women who read were wonderful and maybe some of the 30 or so listeners fell in love with them like I did for being smart and lively-minded and beautiful standing in that good light reading to us with cars outside making some noise and kids too. The only thing missing was smoke. They say there was an ordinance in Boston that made an exception to the no-smoking laws there; it said that if now-dead former Celtic coach Red Auerbach came to a game and wanted to light a cigar like he used to when the great Celtic teams he coached had the game in hand he could. Well, KGB ought to be the exception here. I remember lighting up there when I used to go there all the time when I first moved here. I used to live closer.

It’s funny about this city; every neighborhood is so self-contained with its own taverns and bodegas and pizza slices and dry cleaners that you don’t have to go back to your former neighborhood to see the old bartenders and pizza guys like you thought you would. You get to the point where you think you don’t miss them, but you do. Walking from the Gramercy Park area where I live now down Second Avenue toward 4th Street past where I used to live and where I seldom walk now for some reasons, reminded me how suburban the rest of the city is compared to downtown south of 14th Street. It’s a better world down there. Pete Hamill wrote something like this once, that it’s one of the sad things in life to regret not living any longer in a place you shouldn’t have left. That’s me and the regrets I have over leaving a studio apartment on 13th Street. I can’t even walk down that street.

Anyway, on my way to KGB a little bit before 7:00 when I’m not even sure I want to be going to it, I’m passing all the places I used to pass and when I come to the wrought iron fence along the side of St. Mark’s Church, my eyes almost water as if I’m seeing my late mother sitting there against the fence unaware of me. But it’s not my mother, it never is; it’s a soft-faced black woman who I haven’t passed in the four years since I moved away, but who I used to pass in my going and coming on the street every night for four better years. She would sit there each night, shaking a big plastic cup like you’d get a $9 beer in at a Yankee game and she’d shake it all night. I used to give her a dollar every night.

We stared at each other, nearly gasping or collapsing in recognizing each other, like mother and son almost. I gave her ten bucks and smiled at her with wide eyes and told her she looked great. She smiled and was glad to see me I could tell and kept rattling the cup. I think I loved the women who read later because my heart had been opened by her and the walk downtown toward home. Merry Christmas to her. You too.

-- Bill Gunlocke

The Women At Land’s End

Our Town downtown
December 11, 2006

When we started The Water Log column, we didn’t really know where we’d go with it. It was started on a belief we had that there must be all kinds of stories to explore around the water here in NY. There had to be, we figured—there’s so much of it! We envied the days when there was such booming activity on the city’s docks that there was a regular beat in one or more of the papers called The Shipping News. We wished for that kind of waterfront busyness now, if only so we could have used that great name for our column.

Last week, I grinned when Becca Tucker, who writes The Water Log, told me about two groups of women downtown who knit hats, scarves and other warm things for the mariners and seafarers who go out to sea from here. There you go, I thought, that’s what you find if you look for it, or are just open to it. That’s the beauty of a column, the payoff of a beat—women in Manhattan who knit hats and scarves for men who go out to sea. Would you have guessed it? Even in so huge a city as this, with so much varied activity, that’s still a surprise isn’t it? In an age when people can order Christmas presents from Banana Republic on a laptop while sitting on the couch watching TV, isn’t it a wonderful throwback to think of the women getting together downtown here once a week and making hats for mariners they don’t even know? Isn’t that the best thing you’ve heard in a week?

It is for me. It seems that’s what we need. Eliot Spitzer thinks he’s what we need, and Rudy and Hillary and McCain and the governor of Iowa think they’re what we need. I’m more impressed with those women with their knitting needles. Maybe it’s the lack of vanity in the whole enterprise of making things for somebody else that impresses me. Maybe it’s envy of the men and women who go out to sea. There are a lot of reasons why such things move a person. It made me grin. I see the city differently now. I see people on boats and ships leaving and arriving in the cold. I see those women.

There are all sorts of ways people give of themselves, give their time, to help out. There are soup kitchens and homeless shelters and Big Brothers and Big Sisters and literacy groups that all need people. You could coach a team if you wanted. There are all kinds of opportunities to pitch in and do the equivalent of what the knitting women do. Christmastime always brings with it stories of kids and their families who need things. Churches and various other groups serve meals and need volunteers to help with all that. We all think of doing it. Some people actually do it. There’s still time this year.

One thing we say we’re going to do in the paper is list volunteer opportunities every week. We haven’t done it yet. Even the listing of such things seems to get put off, just like the doing of them does. But we will start compiling them soon and listing them. For us as well as you. Listing them isn’t enough. No more than watching 60 Minutes is enough or reading editorials or voting or listening to NPR. Not if you want to be like those women in Water Log.

-- Bill Gunlocke

On Coming Out Of the Holland Tunnel at Night

Our Town downtown
December 3, 2006

This big city can look good from all sorts of angles. If the photo books you've seen don't capture all of the vantage points, some exhaustive photo web sites do. There's not a view blushing unseen in this town.

There are a lot of spots that satisfy my eye. Most of them involve apartment buildings with stoops and fire escapes. None of them involve new buildings. When I first moved here, I made the observation to the friends I'd left behind in the Midwest that the people here were just the same as they were back there; they just had better looking buildings as backdrops to their activities here and that made them look more interesting. I said that in part to make them not feel left out, but I really did mean it. It's been brought home to me many times since—when I'm on a bus or in a cab cruising by Penn Station or the Garden. NO ONE looks interesting in front of those places. The same people back in their neighborhoods, walking in front of a row of apartment buildings with fire escapes and stoops, look cool—and look like they’re on their way to more cool.

Here's why that's on my mind today. I just returned from a few days in Jackson, Wyoming where I was visiting my youngest daughter, who has lived out there for 10 years already, and members of my extended family who happened to be there for Thanksgiving. It’s like being in another country at first, but once I got acclimated to some stunning visual differences, and acclimated to being around my daughter in the flesh instead of by e-mails and photos of her propped against books on my shelves, I loved it like everyone who goes there does, and I saw New York from there as being as cramped and crowded as a weekend movie theater. My eyes were stretched by the vastness of the place, and the daily sights of the Tetons and the majesty of the Elk Refuge redefined for a few days what beauty was.

Oh, I got into it. I wanted a Carhart jacket and an old Subaru station wagon with two dogs in the back, or at least I wanted the women who were driving them. I wanted to know how to ski, though I’ve been saying that for 10 years. I even thought of fishing and hunting. The people there looked independent to me and they looked good going about their day with the mountains as a backdrop (in front of Penn Station who knows).

If you figure the people who left their country and came to America must have been wilder-eyed than their neighbors who just stayed put there, you have to figure the folks who left Vermont to go out to Jackson Hole must have a wild-eyed look too. They do.

On the bus to Salt Lake City the last day out there (the planes were grounded because of snow), there was a guy in front of me who was 69 years-old, with a wide jaw and wire-rims and wild eyes and thick hair, who worried that he might not make his plane connections to Buenos Aires where he was meeting a friend and a guide to go hiking in Chile. He had a wife who was 27 years younger, and that wasn’t working out he said. He sat there in a blue watch cap reading a Penguin paperback of The Canterbury Tales. I wanted to know more people like him and didn’t want to leave just yet. But the plane taking me and two other daughters and one son-in-law was leaving for Newark later that day.

The ride from Newark to my apartment didn’t shake me out of missing the views of Jackson Hole. Neither did the single-lane, under-repair trip through the Holland Tunnel. But once we emerged out the other end, there it was, there they were—the fire-escape apartments and the stoops in front. Up the block were bars and newsstands and small restaurants with neon signs. It felt like home. There was nobody at home waiting for me. But these buildings and the way they were arranged were warm enough just then.

-- Bill Gunlocke