Spring Comes To Montauk

The spring equinox is the start of the calendar year in many traditions, and it feels like a new beginning these past few weeks. I was lucky enough to be in Montauk, New York, with my wife when March 21st came. We were almost the first New Yorkers to see the sun rise in the “new year” – almost, that is, except we chose to sleep in a bit longer rather than drive the ten minutes from town to lighthouse, the easternmost point, to really be the first.

We had beers and fish and chips at Shangwong’s, and took long hikes through Camp Hero, and Montauk Point, and around the lighthouse, and just took in the emptiness.

I’ve noticed tourists everywhere have a habit of going to the end of peninsulas, seemingly just for the hell of it. We enjoyed Montauk so much, even in the off season, that I made a short list of things to see when I go back, almost all of which were closed in March: the Lighthouse Museum; the Montauk Indian Museum; a hike by the “Walking Dunes” in Hither Hills; a spa in a salt cave; and the Maritime Museum in nearby Amagansett.

Or maybe next time I’ll go even earlier in the season, when fewer things are open.

IMG_2214

Sunrise in Montauk, March 21, 2017.

Montauk

The beaches on the ocean side

come sloping down from shrubland –

these piles of boulders and dirt

scraped from the Berkshires and pushed

sloppily to sea. It still invites

a sleepy person to sit and face

the south, luxuriating on

an Ice Age glacier that lost its

vitality and shriveled. There’s

nothing to do in Montauk but

watch the sun and moon come and go.

You hear the jingle of keys from

your motel room: your neighbors,

also from the city, people

who have lists of miniature

experiences that must be had,

detailed plans for where to go and

what time to get there and what to bring,

and cherish crossing things off their list,

are up before the light: They’ve heard

the best precise place, the point

to which the sun reveals herself

while wearing her most garish bonnet,

is furthest to the east, beside

the lighthouse, but you’ve succumbed to

the nothingness: You plant your elbows

in the sand outside your door and crane

your neck and watch the shadows

stretch out and breathe in, the way

the continent sees them.

 

Deadpan or Just Dull?

If I had three days to write a story about Paterson, New Jersey, before I saw the film Paterson, I’d have been sure to include the famous waterfall, and definitely something about Paterson poet William Carlos Williams and his easy-to-grasp dictum about poetry: “No ideas but in things.” I’d also make some use of the city’s industrial history and, if  it reasonably fit the story, mentioned Hurricane Carter.

You could say that, since Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson has all these things, I’m something of a screenwriting savant. Or you could say, since I’ve never once set foot in Paterson, his film is about as poetic and authentic as a Wikipedia page. I know I’m supposed to love Jarmusch, the great uncle of independent cinema, but I can’t help feeling like I’m being put on when I watch his films, like their deadpan simplicity and see-through gags are daring me to call “Bullshit!”

Adam Driver

Adam Driver in “Paterson.”

I was so irritated when I left Coffee and Cigarettes in 2004 that I swore I’d never go to a theater to see one of his films again, but the buzz about Paterson lured me back. And it is, after all, about a poet with a day job as a bus driver, whose creative life is not too different from my own.

A Paterson bus driver, named Paterson, goes to work every day and manages to get verses of poems written, sometimes with obvious inspiration, and sometimes just from airy nothing. His girlfriend, more of an unfocused dreamer than he is, both inspires him and provides some counterpoint to his discipline and his measured approach to poetry. His one frivolous habit is taking his dog for a walk every night and tying him outside a bar while he goes inside to drink.

One thing you can say for Paterson the script is that it makes excellent use of the red herring. We’re encouraged to fear that his dog gets stolen, and all along we figure the resolution will have something to do with Paterson yielding to his girlfriend’s insistence that he try to get his poems published. Though the one major setback isn’t completely unexpected, it wasn’t quite what I saw coming either. Although I didn’t like the film much, I concede that the end was sweet. The balloon home to Kansas flies away without him, but he wins because he has a rich creative life, not because his poem gets published.

It’s also one of the few films that shows how difficult writing is, without being tedious, but that’s largely because Ron Padgett’s poems, which Jarmusch used for the script, are so accessible and lovely. One of them, “Love Poem,” Padgett himself reads about nine minutes into this podcast.

“Love Poem” reminds me of something a director I know once said about Joe Swanberg’s films, which landed him his Netflix series Easy: Why does every single character listen to LP’s? You could say that a screenwriter, like a poet, doesn’t just make content out of a world that already exists but creates a world, and if the Swanberg of Drinking Buddies, like the Baumbach and Gerwig of Frances Ha, wants to make a world where everyone’s so cool that vinyl records are the rule and not the exception, then that’s their prerogative.

“Love Poem,” according to Padgett, is a poem he wrote in the 1970s. It begins as an ode to a brand of matchstick, and cleverly turns into a description of his love for his woman. That it still speaks to us via Jarmusch means it’s a quality poem. That Jarmusch has Paterson’s girlfriend gush about the contents of the poem, the shape of the logo on the matchstick box? That could mean we’re witnessing a vision of creativity that’s right at home in a loving relationship, as opposed to the tortured genius who keeps his loved ones out of reach, but it also goes to show the limitations of Jarmusch’s ability to create a world. We’re expected to swallow that two people in 2016 are both taken by an antique-looking matchbook. It’s whimsicality bordering on twee.

It gets worse yet in the bar Paterson takes his dog to every night. Like Jimmy’s Corner on a good night, it’s a white person’s fantasy of a cool black bar: 70s R&B and a 60ish barkeep with a folksy appreciation of local history. Their discussion of who belongs on the “Hall of Fame” wall behind the bar is plain clumsy. That Paterson’s girlfriend wants him to get a cell phone and he refuses, you could see as a reflexive position on the antique world these characters live in, as if Jarmusch knows we’re noticing all the anachronisms and makes Paterson a guy who, like Jarmusch, is consciously holding onto this unique world, but I wasn’t buying it for a second. I wanted more reality, more plot, and higher stakes.

 

 

The Impermanent Collection

This fall I’ve gone for a few escape days to the Medieval collections of the Metropolitan Museum. With reality TV running the planet, it felt right to connect to something permanent, to the superstitious and anarchic foundations of our culture.

“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages,” as Mark Twain said, and there’s nothing like a visit to the reliquary collection, the bejeweled, decorative boxes used to carry the sub-divided bones of the saints, for a good laugh. At the Louvre I once saw a reliquary battle crown, so a king could ride into battle with the bones of his kingdom’s favorite saint decorating his head.

First was up at The Cloisters, which I vowed to visit again just to see the gardens in high season. Medieval art is full of trippy aesthetic surprises, easier to like, in some respects, than the graph-paper Renaissance stuff that came after it. The Rolling Stones got dressed in Medieval garb for some of their album covers, a part of a revival of Medievalism in the 60s that included Terry Gilliam’s animation, whose inspiration I see in the tapestries.

I catch myself reading too much in museums: taking a brief look at an artifact, registering that it warrants a closer look, then reading the text that goes with it before spending any quality time with it. It’s better to look first, to take an object in as a piece of art without any context to crush its capacity to excite you. Then see what the context does.

julius-caesar-1410

J.C…..but not Jesus Christ.

Admiring a tapestry at the Cloisters, I figured it was a series of events in the life of a king, or possibly a bishop, knowing that the military-religious complex would have made Eisenhower blush. Well, it turns out it was a depiction of the life of Julius Caesar, from the Netherlands around the year 1405.

Of course they dressed him like a contemporary king, the way Shakespeare pictured ancient kings in Elizabethan costumes, but what was he doing there at all? It defies what we think we know, that no one cared about classical subjects, only religious ones, until traders brought ancient texts from the East, and the Italians spontaneously fell in love with the whole Greco-Roman thing, and a wonderful feeling spread north from Fra Lippo Lippi’s paintbrush as the 1400s went on. Well, in 1405 some important or at least rich person in Holland liked Caesar enough to commission a giant tapestry about his life, and there it was.

Back at the regular Met this week, I caught the exhibit Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. Though the projected images of modern Jerusalem on the walls gave some of the rooms a propagandistic feel, the collection was mind-blowing. Everybody was there! Jews and Muslims, sure, but also Orthodox Christians, Coptic crosses from Africa, invading Catholics, and a Chinese bowl that somebody got from somebody.

There was even a decorative golden plate with the coat of arms of the House of Lusignan, a French dynasty that ruled Cyprus for 300 years. The coat of arms was tiny, and the script all around it offering good wishes was in giant Arabic characters. Did everyone who could read and write know Arabic, and maybe something else as a second language, or was it the kind of gift a conquering king gets from the locals? “Here’s a lad and a lass in the national costume presenting you with our famously refreshing cultured goat milk drink, oh, and this plate with our favorite sayings on it”?

I’ve written before about my preference for museums as repositories of artifacts rather than overly-curated shows with too much thematic baggage. The Met, I was happy to see, now has a giant room in a far-off wing devoted to visible storage, where it keeps its 19th Century chairs and tea sets that aren’t sensational enough for prime time, crowded together but behind glass. History is full of contradictions. The Medieval collections are always full of hallucinations and murder, and above all surprises, and despite the curators’ best efforts the Jerusalem show is another good example.

A Neighborhood Fights For a Landmark

4th Avenue in South Brooklyn isn’t anybody’s favorite road, not to drive on, certainly not to walk on, nor even – let’s be honest – to live alongside.

Historically, 3rd Avenue was the commercial strip south of Prospect and Hamilton Avenues, until it got an expressway built on top of it just before World War II. Now, if you’re driving to New Jersey or Queens, you take 3rd, at least till you find an entrance to the highway; if you’re driving ten or twenty blocks, you take 4th.

Despite all its traffic, 4th still has a thriving retail life – bodegas, dollar stores, and affordable restaurants, good and bad, not to mention the storied Irish Haven at 4th and 58th. It’s heavier on schools and neo-classical government buildings than 5th Avenue, its more pedestrian-friendly, two-lane neighbor, but most of those buildings are from before the 1920s, when it was still a grand thoroughfare, before the subway lines got built underneath it, and before cars became omnipresent.

IMG_0303

The city proposes demolishing the NYPD Precinct House that dates to 1886.

4th Avenue also has two historic gems. One is the Brooklyn Lyceum way up north in Park Slope, at 4th and President. I’ve always figured “President Street” was a placeholder, waiting for another president to die, one the locals liked enough to name a street after. The Lyceum is just down the slope from the case study in gentrification, Park Slope, and it sold a few years ago for $7.6 Million.

A 30-40 minute walk to the south is the other gem, the NYPD Precinct House at 4th and 43rd. This is my neighborhood, and has been for 11 years now. I’m about 100 or so feet from 4th Avenue. Like many people who’ve been here much longer than that, I’ve been waiting for that building to come around. Sunset Park recently got named one of the coolest neighborhoods in America, whatever that means – no, I know what that means. It means college-educated people from out of town are moving in and changing the rental and retail markets.

IMG_0301

The neighborhood has been rooting for something special to be done with the space.

I’m no knee-jerk critic of gentrification. I’d be a hypocrite if I were, but a person has to be sensitive to the changes they’re bringing to the social landscape around them. Let’s face it, we wreak havoc on storefront churches and tire shops, and make a hard rental market even harder for working people. One of the few benefits we bring is attracting investment to historic places that have fallen vacant or need repairs.

What a shame, then, to hear that the precinct house is likely getting torn down to build a school. They found a developer for the Lyceum, but not this gem full of architectural luster,  just when the time is just getting right to do something with it. Sunset Park community activists generally have more immediate problems to worry about – rent spikes, sink holes, and broken promises politicians make about jobs in the new developments – but one did post on Facebook that the precinct house was at risk. They advised sending a letter or an email by July 15th.

The 15th is this Friday! So I emailed:

IMG_0578

New construction on 4th Avenue generally looks like medical parks, in Syosset.

Dear friends at the New York City School Construction Authority:

We who live in the neighborhood can see that changes, including changes in the physical environment, are coming our way, and we only have to look at 4th Avenue around 3rd Street in Park Slope to see what that will look like: Soulless, boxy condominiums that could be in Brooklyn, or could be in Piscataway or Houston, or anyplace.

We understand the enormous pressure you are under to find politically feasible spaces to build schools on, but we object to the false choice we’ve been given, to have enough classrooms or to preserve some semblance of historical integrity in our neighborhoods.

And when I say “historical integrity” I don’t mean to imply that this is some dilettante-ish desire on our part. We’re talking about those same children who would attend that school you want to build on 4th Avenue at 43rd. What kind of city are they going to grow up in? What sense of New York’s past are they going to have? What kind of respect for classic architecture and aesthetics will they have?

We know, it’s a balancing act. City administrators have to choose between meeting our other goals and saving some bits of history, but let’s agree on one principle. If a building is historically important, and another use for it can possibly be found, and it’s clearly just a beautiful site on the face of it, then let’s always err on the side of saving it.

If this were 1986, when Brooklyn was desperate for investment and public sector improvements, this choice would be a lot more forgivable than it is now. That gorgeous building did not sit empty for a generation for someone to knock it down now that construction crews have finally come back. Do us a solid, and do those future students a favor, and save that building.

Best regards,   Charles Bowe

You can email too: sites@nycsca.org

IMG_0304

For many of us this is our first encounter with the NYC School Construction Authority. Email them at sites@nycsca.org

 

Tales of Tales

My head spun when I saw the film Tale of Tales last week and only realized afterward that it was directed by the very same Matteo Garrone who made Gomorrah in 2008.

Gomorrah (which is one of a dwindling number of features you can watch and re-watch on Netflix streaming) felt like a cinematic beating. A sprawling, Neapolitan-language gangster film set in the Naples housing projects, with “Martin Scorsese presents” splashed across it, it felt like you were tapping the same main root that Mean Streets had come from – but even more shocking in its violence, and even more unwieldy in how diffuse its several narratives are.

tale-of-tales

Salma Hayek with John C. Reilly (on left).

I liked Gomorrah (written by Garrone, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviano based on Saviano’s book) just as much when I re-watched it this week as I did in the theater. Its hyper-realism feels like an urgent wake-up call, and the de-centeredness of the story something like a magazine profile of organized crime as seen by its low-level operatives, some with tragic falls, some with more subtle compromises.

Tale of Tales is based on another Neapolitan book, by the 17th Century folklorist and author Giambattista Basile. (It’s funny to think that, while the Pilgrims in Massachusetts were splitting hairs about salvation, ever fearful of witchcraft, another Christian across the ocean was writing about witchcraft and magic, committing Rapunzel and Cinderella, among others, to paper for the very first time.) Filmed in English, the script is again by Garrone, Braucci, Di Gregorio, and Gaudioso.

Tale of Tales, though I enjoyed it, is a lot harder to love, I suppose because the fairy tale setting makes my expectations go through the roof. You don’t have to tell me what the world of fairy tales is like; it’s full of witches and princesses and ogres, I know that. So you don’t get a pass if you make merely situational drama.

When I watch a fairy tale I want a Freudian slap across the face, not an exercise in trying to weave some thematic coherence out of loose-ended stories. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Jacques Demy film Donkey Skin (1970), one of his under-watched films after Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and also (true confessions) The Princess Bride. They’re all three a bit second-rate with special effects compared to their contemporaries and clearly labors of love. Donkey Skin is a tight narrative with a clear protagonist and through-line, whereas Tale of Tales talks around the through-line and makes you surmise it.

Tale of Tales 2

One of the memorable images from Tale of Tales is the (newly) young princess in a moss-covered wilderness, red on green, a palette Garrone used in Gomorrah: blood gushing from gangster’s heads onto an Astroturf patio. Like Gomorrah, Tale of Tales is gruesome and a bit moralistic. Even when you see the payoffs coming, you’re still in suspense. Garrone is the center of a circle of writers on top of their game, making stories that are clearly theirs. Even if it’s not my game, I have to say “Bravo.”

My Counting Sheep: Queen Anne’s Lace

During a rare bout of insomnia this morning (Is it insomnia, if it’s rare?), I tried a version of counting sheep that only made things worse, but let me start yesterday afternoon.

Getting excited about the prospect of leaving New York City for someplace further up the Hudson Valley, I’ve been reading a first-person account of an early Dutch settler’s description of the land and the people who lived here. Adriaen van der Donck published A Description of New Netherland in 1653 to keep the Dutch public interested in the colony around New Amsterdam. Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World claims van der Donck as a sort of American proto-patriot, a democratic agitator whose vision for New Amsterdam found expression in the Revolution that only came years after the Dutch had given the colony up.

A disciple of Hugo Grotius who was fluent in Mohawk and other native languages, he was, among other things, the first North American civil rights lawyer, a guy the Indians knew they could at least ask to represent them if a Dutch or English settler broke the terms of an agreement.

From "A Description of New Netherland," translated by Charles Gehring.

From “A Description of New Netherland,” translated by Charles Gehring.

A few years ago, when my head was completely in the city, I might have skimmed the chapters on nature and agriculture, but now I can’t get enough detail about how to grow squash. Knowing that van der Donck was making a case for our region, you can’t help but marvel at the compliments he comes up with. In his description of “the South River,” i.e. the Delaware, he says, “Well-traveled observers rank this river with the most attractive anywhere and compare it to the superb Amazon River, not so much for its size as for the other outstanding qualities…” We can cut him a break for having never seen even a photo of the Amazon, but if that’s how far he’d go to make a case, then how funny that he’d devote paragraphs to how easy it is to grow pumpkins and melons here.

With his lists of vegetables on my mind, I went to sleep but woke up just four hours later. My oversampling of distilled agave with lime earlier in the night might have had something to do with it, but I was wide awake! Ever since I read a few years ago that we once divided the night between “first sleep” and “second sleep,” and waking up for a while in the middle of the night was considered perfectly healthy, and since I rarely have to set an alarm for anything early morning, I’ve tried not over-reacting to sleeplessness and instead gotten up and read for a while. This morning, however, I knew my wife would be getting up early and wanted to let her sleep, so I vowed to do all I could to join her.

My usual method for this, my “counting sheep,” was to name the U.S. presidents backwards in time. I can do this, give or take a few pre-Civil War slave masters, all the way to Washington. I get riled up thinking about Rutherford B. Hayes, so my method changed to listing first ladies. These I get cloudy on after Lou Hoover (who was, incidentally, fluent in Chinese), which doesn’t always give me enough time to get bored and fall asleep.

Lately I’ve taken to counting off the numbers, and substituting something else for the prime numbers only, then remembering and repeating them. For example, if I chose colors one night, it’d go: “One, yellow, green, four, blue, six, orange, eight, nine, ten, purple, twelve,” etc. Here’s what didn’t work this morning, and I’ll tell you why:

Thinking of van der Donck, I decided to list some crop I could grow, if I had a plot of land a hundred miles north of here, in place of every prime number, but not only that! That plant had to begin with the letter in the alphabet that corresponds with the number, the way the Hebrew alphabet is also its numbers. So I was listing, “…Gourds, eight, nine, ten, Kale, twelve, Marjoram, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, Quince, eighteen, Sage, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, Watermelon…”

9965afb41fb3abe11383aacc3979f1e9

It was too exciting! I had too many moving parts to keep an eye on. I was thinking about prime numbers, and why they tend to come in clusters. That secret’s in the multiples of three: Three land three times between one and nine, responsible for two of them (3 and 9) being composite, and not prime, numbers. Then they go into a sort of hiding for a decade, doubling up with other multiples on 12, 15, and 18. It’s these areas, every third decade – the teens, the forties, and seventies – that tend to have lots of prime number.

The Three is like the Bishop in chess: It can go many places, but some it can’t. Already I was thinking, “He gets lazy.” I’d given this number a personality, but I wanted to see just how lazy, and the answer was “Pretty damn lazy.” The forties would have a prime number infestation if not for Seven times seven! (The Seven is like the Knight in chess, who swoops in from an unexpected direction.) I had so much to look forward to, I exhausted the alphabet, crops corresponding to prime numbers and all, and had to start again at 27 as letter A, with new vegetables for any letter that already had one, so it was “…twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, Cabbage, thirty, English peas, thirty two,” etc., all the way to 43, which was Q, and I’d already used Quince. Now I was wracking my brain to think of another crop that starts with Q. All I could figure was Queen Anne’s Lace, which grows like a weed in cow pastures. I had to change the rules, to make the numbers come and go quicker. It was simply too exciting. I am still, in fact, awake, four hours later.

Whatever your counting sheep is, you are walking a thin line between coming up with something that is monotonous and rhythmic enough to lull you, and just scintillating enough to keep your attention. Good morning!

A Frozen Zen Garden Awaits Someone

I don’t like it when the sky dumps over two feet of snow on a city and forces it to shut down; I love it when the sky dumps that snow. It forces the inflexible to change their plans. It forces the ambitious to relax. It forces the pedestrians in the most in-a-hurry city in America to stop and let one another pass.

When the city banned cars from the road on Saturday, people on foot took to the streets, smiling and snapping photos of each other in the middle of avenues. The moon was full somewhere up in that sky, and many were inebriated – nothing was open except for bars and liquor stores, and a few bodegas and hardware stores hoping to sell a few more shovels.

The next day, I wasn’t the only person to think of going to Green-Wood Cemetery: I came across a dozen or so people, mostly in twos, but one other solo guy as well, a bat shit crazy Chinese-American ranting about a disagreement he was having in his head, who greeted my “hello” with a scared silence that lasted till he was thirty yards behind me.

IMG_5578

Come to mourn the loss of absolutely nothing.

I was looking for a spot I’d found the week before, one day when my wife and I were the only people who’d thought of going there. We’d come across a part of the cemetery I’d once known as a dumping ground for torn-out shrubs and piles of leaves, and then a construction site. Now the construction was finished.

Old cemeteries are under financial pressure to find more patches of ground within their gates to bury bodies in. Civil War vets don’t pay the bills. Green-Wood, I could see, had converted its biggest compost pile into a new mausoleum.

Why do we like cemeteries? What compels people to go think about life surrounded by other people’s ancestors? In most places they’re the only parks made for silent contemplation. Roller blading is forbidden. Lycra® is bad form. Reading the names of strangers whose place in the fabric of life is already final, you feel connected to that fabric.

Still – and I say this as someone who does U-turns on country roads in Pennsylvania when he sees that he’s missed a boneyard by an old Moravian church – you feel pangs of guilt about the voyeurism of it. This isn’t your great-grandparent, and it isn’t your faith. The beauty of this spot was cultivated to ease the grief of someone else.

This wall of empty space in Green-Wood provides all the contemplation with none of the distraction of the actual object of mourning. Very tastefully done too, I might add.

IMG_5806

Boss Tweed’s grave, worn by generations of hands.

With few actual graves in this pile of snow, it’s understandable that the crew at Green-Wood was in no hurry to dig out its paths. I would have walked right past it yesterday if I hadn’t made a mental note that it was just around the corner from Boss Tweed’s grave. I always found it curious how much corrosion Tweed’s stone has, presumably from people who’ve come to touch history. He’s not Saint Mark or Elvis Presley. He’s the symbol of something that, to those who care about it, they probably have mixed feelings about. Forgive the pun, but I guess he’s still a touchstone.

If you can find Boss Tweed’s grave, keep poking around. I’d put my rubber boots on to wade into the drifts, but only got as close as the next ridge over, about as far as it takes for a madman to feel like danger has passed so he can start ranting again. It was so pretty I didn’t want to disturb it.

This week while water trickles from underneath the drifts, one of you will break through the crust on top of the snow to find a frozen meditation garden, a place to contemplate being on this planet and what’s really important. All the things we miss while we’re doing, doing, doing.

Sha Na Na at Woodstock: History Inside of (Fake) History

When you think of a rock star writhing his way through a solo at Woodstock, you think of Jimi Hendrix, or possibly Alvin Lee or Santana. Or, in my case, I think of Rob Leonard, who sang “Teen Angel” for Sha Na Na.

I always loved how the guys of Sha Na Na seemed like they were bursting out of their sequins at Woodstock. I’d heard John Entwistle say on the radio long ago that The Who were miserable there, because they weren’t politically radical at all – Townsend in fact is quite conservative – but also, not least, because they got dosed by acid in the coffee. I mean, you might want to mention to somebody about to go onstage, “By the way, there’s LSD in that.”

I was already familiar with Sha Na Na from 1980s TV,when I heard them sing “At the Hop” in the Woodstock movie. They seemed like a seasoned troupe of doo-wop devotees from deep in the 718 area code finally letting its greasy hair down. It was lovely how they subtly responded to the occasion, yet dutifully hit all their cheesy marks, and the hippies politely paid their respects.

It turns out, that’s not how it went at all. Far from working class musical purists, Sha Na Na had only recently been formed at the time by members of a Columbia University a capella group. The very same Rob Leonard, now a linguistics professor at Hofstra, wrote in a Columbia alumni magazine a few years ago that the explicit purpose of the band was to appeal to a pre-Vietnam War teenage Eden to calm down the bloated rhetoric of intolerance versus revolution that was causing physical fights at Columbia.

Leonard’s older brother George, a founding member of Sha Na Na who was reading Susan Sontag at the time, called the band’s first performance “The Glory That Was Grease” as a reference to an Edgar Allen Poe line, “The Glory That Was Greece.” Grease, as in the male hair product, only became the emblem of that generation after the fact, after hippies had turned male hair into a hunk of cultural vocabulary. No one used the word “greaser” till the 1970s when they were writing imagined stories about life in the ’50s. Touchingly, Rob Leonard’s article is a sort of mea culpa. Scholars are pointing out that Sha Na Na started a wave of 1950s nostalgia that served the political reaction for a whole generation, and Leonard doesn’t dispute that.

The story goes, Jimi Hendrix himself asked Sha Na Na to perform at Woodstock second to last, before his finale, and you can see him in the “Teen Angel” clip, apparently enjoying the set from the side of the stage. You can’t help but suspect that he was using them as a setup, to show how far rock and roll had come in just a decade; these songs were newer at the time than the White Stripes or Norah Jones are now. Or I like to think that maybe he just liked the songs. In my experience, visionary artists are usually respectful of traditions, even the ones that they’ve uprooted. Anyway, to paraphrase Emma Goldman: If I can’t shake my ass to Sha Na Na, I don’t want to be a part of your acid subculture.

At the Cemetery

The best way to clear one’s head in a city has long been the walk in a park, and if it’s a park inhabited by dead people, all the better. Dead people scare most living people away, and give the rest of us the sense that we are visiting them on the day of their funeral, not on a day they were alive. It feels right to stay focussed, not speak out of turn, and to keep small worries in perspective. There is no sunbathing or frisbee, and very few children. At Green-Wood Cemetery in my part of Brooklyn, I once suggested to one of its board members that they start enforcing a dress code, but he seemed to think that was going too far.

A branch in Green-Wood, post-Sandy.

All this prohibitive decorum makes cemeteries priceless to the person who craves some quiet time.

It’s easy to spot a writer trying to compose a story with dialogue in another public place such as the train. He or she is distinguishable from the actors practicing their lines because, for one, the actors are usually prettier and more polished-looking, but they’re also speaking in one single voice while they mumble to themselves. The writer trying to juggle the tone and state of mind of the narrative voice AND each character participating in the story, stares deep at a tiny hunk of paper or a cell phone with her lower lip quivering. If he or she spoke out loud we’d take her for a schizophrenic, not an average narcissist. These people need rooms of their own, or some open space.

You can’t think a deep thought on the West Side Highway, with bikes and rollerbladers, and a de facto fashion show, whizzing by you. The writer in the West Village trying to take in winter sunlight while deciding if his ending is too predictable seems like he’d be S.O.L, but I digress – real estate! the most omnipresent and boring conversation in New York. The weather is more exciting, especially lately.

The dead don’t mind if you talk to yourself. And the little facts you know about them from their tombstones inspire you to write biography after biography as you walk by, priming the writing pump, like a warm-up lap before a soccer game. “This guy fought in the Civil War but his brother didn’t: Probably ran his father’s business.” “Died the same year as his wife, name sounds Scottish, I bet they were Presbyterians, and maybe that made her unhappy.” “Married an Italian: Wonder if they liked the Dodgers.” “Wife chose not to be buried here: Must have gotten remarried, or maybe she died in Florida. Bet the kids never liked the new guy. Sounds like an asshole.”

In Green-Wood yesterday morning, I was finally taking the time to let go of all the tension of the U.S. Election Day two days prior – and a day in between spent at Coney Island, where the projects were still without power ten days after Hurricane Sandy – and to start thinking comedy again. The first snow of the year added a bit of cruelty to those who are still suffering, but only made the cemetery more peaceful.

They give you a flyer when you enter Green-Wood now, saying that there are downed trees everywhere, be careful, you were warned. Most of the trees that went down were adjacent to asphalt roads, where half their roots are compromised.

Gigantic, dying trees, many of which were here when the inhabitants were alive, leave you with the impression that to the trees we are all just pups. “They teach so many things,” I stopped to muse, “including how to die with grace.” And right then, I shit you not, the tree behind me bends its limb down in the breeze, and drops a wet snowball on my head, right between my glasses and my cheekbone. Apparently they have a sense of humor too.

One grave of a guy named Theophile Kick described his death: “Aged 46 years. His sun set while it was yet day.” That was in 1878, and it’s likely that Mr. Kick had feelings about the Rutherford Hayes-Samuel Tilden election every bit as righteous and turbulent as my feelings about Obama-Romney. Voter suppression, Southern racists, Supreme Court intrigue, it’s a different set of characters in a familiar genre. But life goes on, and you have pages to write, until you die.