Monday, August 30, 2010

No good deed goes unpunished

So I am knee-deep in work for the foreseeable future. Expect one update, if that, this week. Sorry, folks.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bye bye Miss American Pie

Though I've never met the man, my life to this late, great date has followed in the footsteps of Sander Hicks. Not ideologically, but geographically, he's indirectly shaped two of the biggest parts of my life. The publishing company he founded gave me my start on editorial work. And, on an evening trip to Adderley with K.-- so long ago, it was catching sight of his coffee-shop-self-publisher-rabble-rouser Vox Pop that made me want to explore Ditmas Park. Now, many clients and a year in the neighborhood wiser and more fulfilled, I walked down rainy Cortelyou to see that Vox Pop is no more.

The place had a tumultuous fiscal history and from time to time was seized by the marshals for failing to pay taxes. It acquired new management and a new financial program with community-based ownership, and for a while it seemed, at least to an outside eye, like the place was doing well. But apparently it's been seized and closed for the last time.

Back my newly-Brooklyn-aware days, I dreamed of moving to Park Slope so the Tea Lounge could be my neighborhood cafe. My favorite branch closed before I could move out of my parents' house, and I started searching for greener pastures, which I found in Ditmas Park (quite literally, in fact--have you seen those yards?). Though I didn't spend as much time in Vox Pop as the old Tea Lounge, it was the same sort of neighborhood beacon for me. I brought A.-- there for hot chocolate last year, proudly showing off my neighborhood to an out-of-towner. Waking up early on a rare Saturday, I took myself there for breakfast in pajama pants, fresh from picking up my new library book. I went there in the depths of being sick and miserable, when it was about as far as I could drag myself out of bed. I took C.-- there for coffee shortly after we met and also kicked off our Berkshires journey with a couple of eggs McVox. (How eggs and cheese on a bagel can be so sublimely delicious, I don't know.)

And so it's with a bit of chagrin that I report that upon A.--'s triumphant return this past weekend I opted to take her to the tiny Market, where we munched on fancy cupcakes and sipped cappuccinos, instead of Voxy's less-upscale fare. I felt a twinge of guilt but reasoned that A.--'d been to Vox Pop before, and that it was such a nice day to sit on tiny Market's tiny bench outside. But if I'd known it was my last chance to go there, I would have changed my mind.

The NYT just ran an article about a new breed of coffee shops which are more like fill-up stations than home offices. I like the idea of focusing on coffee quality rather than laptop amenities. But as a chronic wanderer, I like a coffee shop to be a place where I can sit down and relax, whether with a dreaded laptop or a journal or a copy of Invisible Cities on a snowy night. Vox Pop may not have been the perfect cozy-up spot, but it was much more friendly and inviting than a tiny hipster go-go-go counter.

I wish I had patronized the business more, both to contribute to their financial success and to eat some of those delicious sandwiches. But it's in the nature of my wandering to always seek newer, better, farther locales. And so because it was nearly on my corner Vox Pop suffered from my wanderlust, same as lamentedly-closed Amai on my parents' block. When I want coffee, I want a destination (see Monday).

I know my paltry few bucks of coffee a week couldn't have kept Vox Pop in business even if I had come by every day. But I wish I had appreciated it more while it lasted. I have been thinking lately about what the purpose of a blog should be, and have come to no brilliant conclusions. There are several nostalgia blogs I read, and I know this blog's purpose isn't to be one of those. But I hope that at least in this one case it can provide a fitting tribute for an institution I will miss.

Monday, August 23, 2010


The neighborhood in Brooklyn that I am perhaps most unfamiliar with is Bushwick. I'm still a little shady on where Williamsburg ends and Bushwick begins (I suspect this murkiness plays into a scheme fueled by developers) but I thought I'd check it out. In order to provide my travels with a bit of coherence (and incentive!) I decided to use everyone's favorite gentrification barometer, the coffee shop, to plot my course.*

I'd read that some of these creatures existed out in the Bushwilds, and indeed this is true. However, I think they have a ways to go before they hit the stride of their more genteel counterparts. In the midst of a Monday rainstorm last week, I stopped in at W'burg's Bakeri, where my sodden tastebuds and I were treated to an extraordinary macchiato. With this memory lingering on my tongue and an awareness that I'd better drink small if I intended to hit up more than one place, I decided that the macchiato would be my taste test beverage. So bear this in mind; perhaps the iced coffee or something is truly stunning at these places. However, as far as I can report:

1. Cafe Orwell. Definitely the most isolated (one lone bikeshop punctuates the factory and construction ambiance) and the most undrinkable. My macchiato was so acidic I practically couldn't get it down. The whole place was dark and shadowy, filled with a correspondingly darkly shadowed laptop mob. The countergirl seemed confused when I asked how much my drink cost. The answer: too much! At $2.75, it was a regrettable choice. So I gulped and turned the corner to...

2. Archives Cafe. This counterfellow was a bit more with it, as was the price ($2.50). I found this one potable but not extraordinary. There was a nice row of carpeted benches on which to sit, though I do echo one Yelp reviewer's concerns about what sorts of fluid might be lurking in that ratty shag. Archives was also on a somewhat more inhabited stretch, with a fancyfoods store and an entrance to the local subway (Morgan L stop) just a couple beats away. But I walked back along Bushwick Ave. towards more civilization...holy cow! a bodega! a bar! a hardware store!...and my final destination...

3. Boulevard Cafe. The guy behind the counter here was positively delightful. The cookie I ordered (got to keep up your energy on these taxing treks) was delicious, especially melted in ($2!--and this place the closest to civilization of all!) macchiato. Unfortunately, it was still not as delicious as the nearer-to-hand and basically-as-charmingly-decored Bakeri, but if I lived in the neighborhood I would definitely be back often. The facade is a nice friendly not-too-hipstery blue, and the tables are comfortable for some people watching. This place is definitely the winner of the outing, if not of my whole heart (though arguably is in W'burg not Bushwick. Or are all of them? Geography skillz, as previously stated, shady in this department.). It is also right near the Montrose L stop, though being a complex and variegated soul, I of course ignored its earnest entreaties and walked a ways to pick up the B43 (not a fully-worthy successor to the 48, but it'll do, pig, it'll do.).

Now that the three-drink jitters have worn off (I was up mighty late Thursday, and may or may not've munchily inhaled most of the remains of a bag of chips at the time), I am contemplating hitting up the remaining three cafes that Bushwick seems to play host to. Stay tuned...

*My feelings about gentrification generally, and in this neighborhood in particular, could power about eleven more posts (and already have fueled some). Suffice it to say I felt more uncomfortable wandering through the projecty area than the industrial park one; buildings can't judge you, and you can't feel like you're impinging on their personal space. On the other hand, hipsters surrounded by factory wasteland make a disturbing image (rather like the brightly-colored weeds that sprout and spawn from cracks in the buildings' facades). Can you believe there's a youth hostel out there? Reviews seem favorable (and I do concede the price is right), but have these folks seen other parts of New York as a comparison point? Yes, it's close to a subway and a coffee shop, but it's a nuclear winter out there. I am pretty cavalier, but in contrast to the reviewers, I'm not sure how I'd feel about the neighborhood after dark. (Feel free to contract me, those more in the know.) Hostile, indeed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Today I shall tell you about Clifton Hood’s 722 Miles, which takes a (not exactly uplifting) look at the building of the NYC subway. This book is well-suited to readers such as me, who can stare at a subway map for hours. It goes into a lot of detail (it's an expansion of Hood’s doctoral thesis) but is also accessible to those of us who are not huge history buffs or as up on economics as perhaps we should be. ’Cause as well as financial and logistical details, the history of the building of the subway is rife with intriguing people and events.

For instance, did you know that the Steinway Tunnel (stretching across the East River at 42nd Street, now home of the 7 train) as well as, presumably, Steinway Street in Astoria, was named after William Steinway, piano maker extraordinaire, a key player (har, har) in the development of both the subway and the borough of Queens?

Did you know that, before the IRT started building the first subway, inventor Alfred Beach made a mysterious hidden pneumatic tube subway right under the nose of City Hall? Its waiting room was decked out in paintings and couches; its car was such a sensation that thousands of people waited to ride it. Seriously, what’s better than pneumatic tubes? Maybe they're what the internet's made of.

Hood also zooms in on the development of Jackson Heights, a neighborhood that was created by developers in response to the projected expansion of the subways. Previously open farmland, Jackson Heights became a sort of garden-city suburb, proudly advertised as only 22 minutes from Midtown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idealized suburb offered fabulous accommodations “for those whose social and business references are acceptable”—i.e., no Jews allowed. I find it gratifying that this neighborhood has since evolved into one of the most diverse in probably the entire world.

On a less fun note, 722 Miles also provides an informative look at the circumstances that ultimately led to the MTA’s current dire straits (up to a point; the book was written in the nineties and really only discusses subway history until the fifties or so). Conflicts between big business and government in the subway’s early days meant that it didn’t achieve full government funding; later, petty fights among groups puttered on while the automobile gained primacy over the subway. And oh that subway fare. Politicians built entire campaigns on the importance of the nickel fare to the city’s everyman. (Successfully; the fare was not raised until 1948.) In the words of Maurice Forge, former Transit Workers Union leader, the public would view raising the fare as a crime on a par with “doing damage to motherhood, apple pie, and the Constitution.” But this fear of pie ruination spelled disaster for the companies, and later the city, running the subway; the system contracted enormous deficits as prices spiraled and the Great Depression hit and everything except the subway was subject to the economy...

Maybe it's sorta like what’s going on now, when service cuts are so often deemed preferential to fare hikes (not that that’s gonna stop the MTA from raising fares as well, most likely in 2011). I am sympathetic to the position that everyone should be able to afford mass transit, but in both the present instance and the historical one, I come down on the side of the fare hikers*—it’s no good maintaining an affordable fare for a system that just doesn’t run as it should. Particularly when increased fares could help fix some of the problems. (And fares are so low—even with my shoddy grasp on economics, I can still read and understand that both now and during the Depression, with inflation sidling into every aspect of life, fares cost proportionately less than they have at other times.) Grumblerumble.

Anyway, if you are ¾ and upward as much of a subway nut as I am, check this book out. At the very least you will wow your friends with your ability to finally keep the IRT, BMT, and IND lines straight.

*Though it will not surprise you to hear that I empathize with one Stanley Isaacs, councilman and former Manhattan borough president. His response to Robert Moses’s desire to construct tons of highways and bridges with the money that would be generated by a higher fare? “I believe that this is probably the most audacious proposal yet made to saddle those least able to afford it with the cost of civic improvements which in the main serve those in the higher income brackets; to make those who do not own cars but travel in the subway indirectly subsidize the motorist. The whole program is clear. The straphanger is to pay double the present fare so as to carry the full interest upon and amortization of the capital cost of the subways. Why? So that the city will be able to borrow more money to build parkways, expressways, and highways, which are to be furnished free of charge for the capital improvements to the man who can afford his own car, doesn’t travel on the subways and doesn’t pay even a nickel toward the construction of the speedways furnished him.” Grr.
(Quotation from 722 Miles, p. 246, where Hood also helpfully points out that at the time of Isaacs’s remark, two thirds of New Yorkers did not own cars.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Follow-up, briefly

Apparently I like "little bands." I am sad my taste is being thus belittled (aren't I small enough?) but pleased there is a new Ra Ra Riot to play with. And Mumford is adding a show; maybe tickets will appear...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sigh no more, no more

Seeing Arcade Fire (didn't they used to have a "The"?) at Madison Square Garden a couple weeks ago, I was struck by a disquieting thought. ArF (as I think of them fondly) are certainly not my favorite band. They have some brilliant songs that I like more than many offerings from my more-favorite bands, but I've found their first two albums a bit hit or miss on the whole. (Haven't listened to the third very carefully yet, but I will.)

But, despite this non-favoritism, I tried to think of bands I like more than ArF and I got stumped. I like more classical music than ever these days, and I love me some oldies and some nineties rock, and of course I'm fond of the silly music I mentioned some time ago. But what about good ole-fashioned rock bands? You know my favorite. And there's ArF's perplexing opener Spoon. In the pretty-good category are Beach House, who opened for The National a few weeks ago, but I only know one of their albums, and all the songs sound the same to me (though it is a good same!). And there's Gabriel Kahane, but is he a rock band exactly? Ra Ra Riot has a new CD coming out and that's good (their "Can You Tell" has topped my playlist for a while). But who else? Three or four bands does not a rock fan make, I fear. There must be something I'm missing, no?

So I wracked my brains. I launched a small exploration by deciding to purchase Mumford and Sons' CD. (Thanks to S.-- for the initial recommendation!) And I do like their album, which bears out the mood and musical flourishes of the couple of tracks S.-- gave me. But my success only serves to remind me that I am feeling pretty starved for new music. And I would love a band I could actually see live. (By the time I got to looking for tickets for Mumford, they were sold out. Thanks, guys.) Any suggestions, o knowledgeable public?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

So happy I was invited, give me a reason to get out of the city

I am pleased to report that western Massachusetts, as you probably know, is FULL OF ART. Over the course of our trip there, C.— and I hit up three concerts (including a seven-and-a-half-hour-long one—don't worry, we took a dinner break and an ice cream break), three museums (well, one was in New York), and a botanical garden full of strangely decorated chairs and dog sculptures. Though I had been up to the Berkshires before (college visits for me and my sister, a visit to a friend) I had never taken advantage of the cultural attractions there (other than acquiring a purple cow from Williams that one time).

So it was with satisfaction, and with gratitude at the cooler weather, and with a great deal of sunburn, that I set out, with C.—'s company and expertise, to partake in great traditions such as sitting on the lawn at Tanglewood with a wine and cheese picnic to the strains of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. And hiking the tiniest part of the Appalachian Trail at Mount Greylock. And hiding in trees at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. And, on another musical note (or, like, a million musical notes—or were they cows?), taking in Bang on a Can's marathon at Mass MoCA, full of great tunes such as "B&E (with aggravated assault)" whose composer described it as "just like the title says."

And of course there are Mass MoCA (in the coolest building you can imagine) and The Clark (which is very attached to its Definite Article) and DIA:Beacon ( full of the largest art I have ever seen), all of which are worthy of their own blog posts... Or maybe I should just tell you to check 'em out yourselves, at least DIA, which is totally right above a MetroNorth station. Both Mass MoCA and DIA had big Sol LeWitt installations, which were impressive and frequently laugh-out-loud entertaining. I don't think I look at lines, or colors, or walls, for that matter, in quite the same way anymore.

Another popular museum item these days seems to be white paintings, of which we have now seen a multitude, by several artists including LeWitt. This was appropriate because we were able to catch a production of Yasmina Reza's "Art" in Pittsfield our first night there. "Art", for those of you not familiar with it, is a black comedy about three friends whose relationship becomes increasingly strained after one of them proudly purchases an entirely white painting. I stage managed the show several years ago and it was great to see it again (and to see it without having to change the lighting or give actors lines).

I think I have probably sustained culture radiation as a result of all this artistic brilliance. And I have barely even mentioned the food, to say nothing of Pittsfield's scavenger-huntable street signs, or the book barn! If you would like to hear more, you know where to find me (not, alas, in the Berkshires).

PS: Extra-special thanks is due to C.— for handling all the driving (you know where I stand on such things). In semi-related news, it turns out I have not forgotten how to ride a bicycle after all, and gleefully took one for a spin around Governor's Island this past weekend.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Good call

I will have to tell you all about adventures in the wilds of Massachussetts. But first, a brief interlude:

Recently I proofed a book whose somewhat tongue-in-cheek but perfectly reasonable message was that we just don’t complain right these days. Instead of just getting catharsis from whingeing to our coworkers, acquaintances, and dearly beloveds (a practice that is, to be sure, not without its merits), why not address our complaints to those who can actually resolve them?

And so when my speedily-shipped and otherwise unimpeachable coffee arrived from Intelligentsia in whole bean form, instead of the French press customization (#10!) I had so admired on the website, I griped to the other caffiends in my office. But then I decided to call customer service.

Taking a lesson from the book, I remembered to be nice, since it’s not customer service reps’ fault that you didn’t get what you ordered. Tempering my uncaffeinated-groggy rasp with what I hoped was amiability, I explained my situation and asked if there was anything I could do. There is! replied the friendly guy on the other end of the line (and let’s remember it was not even 9 A.M. in Chicago, full points), and he promptly offered to re-fill my order, saying it would arrive within 2-3 days. All this even though I was unsure whether the espresso I’d also ordered had been shipped beansy or not (I did not realize about the coffee ’til I got to work). As for the beans, well, share them with a friend who’s got a coffee grinder, he suggested.

And so I exhort you to be kind to customer service people, and they will be kind to you. And stop by if you want some coffee; I’ve got plenty. To my amusement, I got the confirmation from UPS that it’s being shipped, of course, ground. Luckily, this proved true in more ways than one.