the music of our city

Last night, I took the F train into Manhattan after being restricted to the borough of Brooklyn for almost a week in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It was a surreal experience. The city was as quiet as I’d seen it since 9/11. Practically, the only cars on the street were taxi cabs, outnumbering other cars 10 to 1. There was a tension on the trains punctuated by supportive smiles and silent nods from other passengers.

I went to Manhattan to attend a talk, The Public Forum at Joe’s Pub, featuring two of my artistic heroes, solo performer Anna Deavere Smith and David Simon, creator of “The Wire.” They talked about their work processes, the music of speech, and, of course, Sandy. It was great being in a theater for the second time in as many nights, and hearing them speak in a place I consider a home was healing.
David Simon and Anna Deavere Smith

One of the most poignant moments came when Ms. Smith spoke about how tragedies can invigorate creativity. They spur artists to vehemently return to the work because artists make art. She expressed her anticipation of rejuvenated creativity and related it to shopkeepers returning to work after Hurricane Katrina. This is who they were, and if they didn’t open their shops, their lives lost meaning.

The Forum inspired, indeed. Mr. Simon shared how he records actual background conversations for all his productions instead of the traditional “peas and carrots” walla typically taped because it works as a soundtrack – the music of conversation. Ms. Smith insists on word perfect recitation of the interviews she performs because every “like” and “um” represents the soul of that person.

I left Joe’s Pub on cloud nine. After the talk, I was supposed to connect with my wife Christy, who was teaching yoga in the neighborhood, but my phone died and I couldn’t call her. We planned to meet up and ride the subway back to Brooklyn together. Instead, I hopped on the F train at Broadway-Lafayette, resigned to ride home solo. When the train pulled into the Delancey street station, I peered out the train’s window, hoping Christy might be on the platform, since that is where she typically catches it.

Low and behold there she was.

My train car passed Christy, and she didn’t see me in the window. She boarded the train two cars behind me, so I had to walk back to surprise her. At the next stop, I was able to skip to her car and sneak up on her, smiling big, hoping for a hug.

She saw me, and with wide eyes she said, “Were you down there next to the fight?”

Fight? What’s she talking about? Where?

She pointed to the end of the car, and I saw it: Two men – one big, young guy and another, older, homeless man. They yelled at each other. The young guy was pissed because the homeless man was staring at him. The homeless man shouted that he wasn’t looking at the young guy.

They got louder and louder until I said, “Let’s get out of here. Go to the next car.”

Christy hesitated, but the fight escalated, and it seemed punches might fly at any moment. She stood, and we went to the next car, fleeing the fight.

Through the end windows of our new car, we safely watched the young guy, inches from the homeless man’s face, screaming. Finally, as the train pulled into the Jay Street-Metro Tech station, the young guy lifted his arm and slammed it against the homeless man’s face. The homeless man dropped to the ground, and the young guy grabbed his own travel bags, exiting the train onto the platform.

Dazed, the homeless man stood up, scrambling for the young man, but then he realized he was leaving his own bags. He went back for his bags, grabbed them and stumbled onto the platform where I assume they continued fighting. The F train pulled out, and we headed home, both shaken by the experience.

A woman sat across from us. She was eager to recount the altercation blow by blow. How she evacuated the fight car, too. How the young guy had also yelled at her when she sat across from him. She speculated he might be displaced by the storm. He had travel bags. Maybe he was going home. Maybe he was an evacuee, headed to a friends’ place in Brooklyn. Whatever the case, he was disproportionately angry, and the homeless man got the brunt of that rage.

Soon, she spoke about the storm. She’d been volunteering in Red Hook and Coney Island, and the stories she shared were harrowing. She and her friend purchased saris in Jackson Heights and took them to Coney Island because women who wouldn’t leave their homes uncovered for religious reasons had been wearing wet, moldy saris for days. In the Red Hook Housing Projects, there are many elderly residents who didn’t evacuate and won’t leave. There is plenty of support from Red Cross on the ground, but the residents won’t evacuate. One elderly lady’s apartment had wet, moldy carpeting and was infested with rats and raccoons. The woman begged the older lady to let her carry her down 12 flights of stairs, but the older lady wouldn’t abandon her home. The woman told us she must get a hepatitis shot because she’d been wading in waste for two days.

Christy and I arrived at our stop, leaving the woman on the train with faint smiles and weak waves.

“Good luck,” we said.

“You, too,” she replied.

We felt gut punched. It was hard to talk for a few minutes, grappling with the fight we witnessed and the woman’s tale. After a detached week watching devastation on the news, we heard first-hand accounts of what it looks like inside the madness. We saw the affects of madness on men. We tried to make sense of our fortune of living at the highest elevation in Brooklyn, a place barely touched by Sandy’s wrath.

Then, I remembered the conversation of Ms. Smith and Mr. Simon just an hour earlier. As an artist and a writer, it is my job to share these stories. It is my job to reflect the madness of victims and triumph of heroes. It’s important to get back to work. For many, this may not be possible for a while, but it is important to return as soon as we can.

I can return to work now. I can help others with not only my donations and service, but by writing and sharing stories. It doesn’t matter if you sell coffee, teach yoga, work in a skyscraper, or entertain and educate through artistic creation. As soon as you can, get back to what you do best. It adds your unique voice back to a wondrously diverse symphony – the music of our city.


The City of New York volunteer registration

Park Slope Armory 8th Avenue between 14th and 15th streets in Brooklyn
(Kids cannot volunteer and should stay at home)

Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation
402 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, NY 718-965-3100

Red Hook Initiative 767 Hicks Street Brooklyn, NY 11231

Red Hook Recovers  (347) 770-152

Resurrection Parish (Gerritsen Beach)
2331 Gerritsen Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11229 (718) 743-7234

The Silver Gull (Breezy Point) 1 Beach 193rd Street, Breezy Point

Far Rockaway St. Francis, 219 Beach 129th Street

Coney Island  Staging area @ 2770 West 5th Street Between Neptune and West Ave.

Staten Island – Tottenville High School 
100 Luten Avenue, Staten Island, NY 10312

Rebuild Staten Island

skeletons on the horizon

In 1999, I told a friend that the bottom would fall out of the New York housing market eventually. The friend laughed and said it would never happen because rich people have always moved to New York, and they will continue to do so, buying up or renting properties. When my friend laughed at me, almost ten years ago, I said, “Just you wait. Something that is beyond our imagination will happen, and the New York real estate market will drop.”

Since I moved to New York in 1993, I have not paid more than $850/month in rent. I’ve paid as low as $600/month, and one time I even lived in this city for free (four months on the Bedford L train stop in an illegal basement studio with cockroaches the size of my thumb). And in those 15 years, real estate has gone up, up, up. I’ve never owned a car, apartment or house. A long time ago, I resolved that I probably would never own any of those three possessions while residing in New York City, unless I struck it rich.

Now, in the wakes of the mortgage and economic crises, it has happened. The bubble burst, but I’m still broke. During a time in which the market is dipping its hardest in 60 years, I still don’t have any money. On the upside, the best part about not having any money in an economic downturn is that your life doesn’t really change that much. Others, I’ve seen, are not as lucky. My mother, who dreams of retiring early and moving to New York City to be near her two children and new grandson, now cannot fathom leaving her home in Illinois because she cannot retire due to the damage done to her retirement fund. Even Europeans are shying away from the new real estate, for the economic downturn hits them, too, in this global economy.

The condominiums being built in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I’ve held residency for ten years, have all but halted construction. As I sped along in a car on the BQE New Year’s Day, I looked at the lattice of would be condos and wondered what will happen to all of these buildings barley born. Do financiers have the money to finish the projects? What is happening to all the store fronts recently closed or going out of business? Will this city return to the shell it once was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, overrun by crack dens and squatters doped up on heroin? Hey, crack is cheap, and now that we’ve destabilized Afghanistan, smack is more plentiful that ever. It seems conditions might be perfect for a resurgence of the 80’s. If kids start killing kids for their Air Jordans, it’s over.

I trust this scenario isn’t probable, but a recent article in the New York Times and a report by the Associated Press indicate otherwise.

Much debate grows over the focus of how to create new jobs. President-elect Obama seems to be considering a new New Deal, which will provide jobs in construction in repair of interstate highways and bridges. This would be a good proposal, if the thousands of people being laid off were all in the construction business. However the fact is that unemployment in professional services outnumbered that of construction by almost 20,000 people in November of 2008.

We need to turn our focus to generating jobs in technology and other corporate infrastructure to get a large majority of the workforce off the unemployment line. “The Office” replaced “The Honeymooners” as a comedic reflection of the American lifestyle because there are fewer blue collar workers than there were 60 years ago. There are fewer farmers, too. Technology has taken over, and people who once would move to a different state to work construction on roads and bridges are not as prevalent.

President-elect Obama mentioned a “Technology Czar” (it seems as though we have czars for everything these days) as a possible addition to his administration, and I think this is a great idea. The only thing that seems to not be slowing is technology. More computer games, more social networking websites and more intensive business technologies are paving the way for a new perspective on what is important and how we can generate jobs to stimulate the economy. Plus, any new jobs that might be created in construction will take upwards of two years to even implement, so the only reason to work toward creating these jobs is to “promise” that the future will have more jobs. This will drive up stocks as it did with the promise of offshore drilling, which will take 10 years to implement. Building bridges and interstate highways are not an immediate fix to the current problem.

I’m hoping that the skeletons of metal and mortar rising in downtown Manhattan, Harlem and Williamsburg get completed. I never thought I’d say that, but I feel that when they’re completed, it’ll signify that our economy is on the upturn. I hope that the half-finished houses and empty lots across the country get filled up, for the farmland razed to make way for the pre-fabricated houses isn’t returning to farmland any time soon. I hope that we can generate technology based jobs, so the stock market and banks can see the unemployment rate dip down again, which will then give the capital to potential home owners who might purchase homes or condos. Then domestic construction jobs will return.

In the mean time, I’m hoping I sell a screenplay or win the lottery. If I can do that in the next year or so, I might be able to purchase some real estate. Quite frankly, if that happened, I wouldn’t purchase one of those glass monstrosities. I’m looking for a pre-war, classic New York apartment in a co-op building because the condo laws in New York City stink.


As a side note to all of this mumbo jumbo, I saw Danny Hoch’s TAKING OVER at The Public Theater just before the New Year. It’s a thoughtful and angry meditation (if mediation can be angry) on the gentrification of Williamsburg. My white guilt rose into my throat, and I came out of the show wondering if I were part of the problem. After all, I am a transplanted Illinoisan living in a neighborhood that was once filled with Hasidic Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Poles and African Americans. When I first moved here, I raved about how I lived in the most diversified neighborhood ever. These days, most of the people getting off at my subway stop are of the Caucasian persuasion, and I am one of the few tenants on my street who still has a Puerto Rican landlord.

Finally, after much soul-searching (thanks Danny), I realized something: I’m an artist, and artists have been coming to New York City for over a century to make it in the Big Apple. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, right? Artists have also been at the forefront of the gentrification problem. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen before it was Clinton. I dwelled in Alphabet City when smack addicts would shoot up in the hallway of my apartment building and avenues A, B, C and D stood for “Aware, Beware, Caution and Death.” And, I had huge art parties in my loft in Williamsburg before many artists lived on my block. What I finally realized is the Hasidics, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Poles and African Americans all came to New York City from somewhere else, too. If I weren’t still broke after all these years, I’d feel a little more guilty for my part in the gentrification process; but for now, I’ll thank my lucky stars that my rent is still affordable, I have my health, and know that when I “make it here,” I’ll purchase that perfect apartment.