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Subway sighting: the best socks in the history of the universe

Sunset Park is an immigrant community, half Hispanic, half Asian. The two groups slide against each other frictionlessly. They coexist but never mingle. They live next door to one another; they share the streets: They simply don’t acknowledge each other’s existence. For example, they never shop in the same stores. I suppose this is because they don’t speak each other’s languages and have not adopted English as the common tongue. You hear very little English on Fifth Avenue, which is the main drag through Sunset Park.

Fifth Avenue has this very Mad Max-ish vibe: People surviving, teeming, and sometimes thriving in the remains of a 19th century/early 20th century civilization. This is the only Mickey D’s I have ever seen in a repurposed 19th century building:

You know those churches you see all throughout the southern Mediterranean that are built on the remains of Roman and Greek temples? Fifth Avenue is kind of like that. Syncretism in action, you might say. Behold the temples of 19th century commerce conscripted to the era of branding and deep discounts:

Would you shop for a dress suit in a store that looked like this? I know I wouldn’t! But the store was crowded.

One might be tempted to philosophize here. Could be that brand sensitivity is only a defining characteristic of unmoneyed Americans who grow up in this country. (Just think about all those kids in the projects who buy price-inflated Nikes endorsed by famous basketball players. They cannot actually afford those Nikes without going hungry or pursuing employment opportunities in the underground economy that put them in physical peril.) Supplier-induced demand – also known as “marketing” – dominates their spending habits. They shun bargains that would help them extend their limited supplies of cash. They no longer know how to separated their physical needs from their needs for status.

Whereas immigrants operated outside the realm of supplier-induced demand.

Except that even in that hideous suit store, there’s an odd sort of branding going on. The name of the store is “George Michael,” the name of the popular dead pop star who was synonymous with excess and a certain type of conspicuous consumption.

So, obviously the mana of the Dead Pop Star outweighs the risk that you could be bitten on the ankle by a rabid rat should you venture into that store.


Fifth Avenue is a very busy thoroughfare! Business is good; everybody is out shopping.

This makes me wonder about the politics going on behind the scenes.

I have to imagine that at least half the population of Sunset Park – and very likely more – is undocumented.

But Sunset Park doesn’t worry itself about American politics.

Sunset Park only cares about the economy.

Which despite the odiousness of Trump and the dire warnings issued regularly by people who know a lot more about market volatility than I do, continues to get stronger and stronger and stronger.
In fact, despite Trump’s hard line on immigration, I imagine if you interviewed five people along Fifth Avenue at random, four out of five would tell you they like Trump. “Good for money,” they’d say.

They don’t give a shit about identity politics or about commanding equal opportunity and respect under the law. They just want to buy a lot of things cheaply.


There are numerous other fascinating details about Sunset Park.

For example: See this roof?

It’s not made out of wood. It’s obviously made out of some kind of cast iron alloy, maybe cheap steel.

Here’s another shot where you can actually see the roof rusting:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen metal roofs on 100-plus-year-old buildings before. It makes me very curious about the engineering specs.

Of course, the residential housing units in Sunset Park are not brownstones – though they use brownstone floorplans. No, they’re constructed out of some other kind of stone that I’m tempted to say is granite (although, of course, how would I know?) That stone, significantly stronger than the sandstone used in brownstones, has been supporting all that weight for well over a century.


Also, every Asian-owned business in Sunset Park has kiddie rides out in front. You could do an inspired post-modern photo essay on the Kiddie Rides of Sunset Park if you had the photographer chops:

Anyway, Sunset Park is quite fascinating, and if you wanted to make a long-term killing in New York City real estate, this would the place to buy. It’s only served by the N and R subway lines, and they don’t connect to anything. Literally! It took me three hours one-way to get to Flushing so I could say goodbye to Summer and Chris! That means Sunset Park is at least 15 years away from gentrification. I noticed a couple of bedraggled, lost-looking hipsters wandering about but nary an overpriced café to stash them in. Lots of guys with man-buns, though! It’s the ‘do of choice for swaggering young Guatemalan honchos.

By the end of my fourth day there, I found myself quite overstimulated: Other people’s vibes impinging on my always porous personal boundaries.

I was happy to get back to the quaint and scenic Hudson Valley where everybody – myself included – is bor-r-r-ing..

You must be getting old, I chided myself. And, indeed, my sense of my own antiquity was reinforced by learning Walter Becker – one half of Steely Dan – had died.

My musician pals have always made fun of me for adoring Steely Dan as much as I do, but adore them, I do. For their jazzy riffs, for their strange minor key discursions, for their lyrics:

Is there gas in the car?
Yes, there’s gas in the car
I think the people down the hall know who you are…
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Very jolly few days culminating in a terrific yesterday traipsing about the Big City.

One of the things I like best about Alan is that he really, really, really likes plants. Thus, trips with him to the enormous and wonderful New York Botanical Garden are a treat. I can trail in his wake listening to him talk about the various botanical species we encounter and his own adventures taming them, or I can just tune him out and loose myself in the astonishing beauty of the flowers.

We caught the tail end of the tulips:


And as you can see from the picture above, we caught the azaleas at their peak. The lilacs were also in bloom:


And the beautiful exotic grasses, columbines, and pygmy daffodils in the rock garden:


I have to say, though, that my biggest thrill was finally seeing the one stretch of virgin forest along the Bronx River (more of a stream actually), which is all that remains of the way things used to be. A mere 400 years ago. Before there was an Empire State Building.


Afterwards, Alan and I repaired to a fancy, fancy bar, sipped bourbon, and discussed the mysteries of the universe while I eavesdropped on two nattily dressed Chinese billionaires drinking white wine at the table next to me. They spoke in Chinese, but their conversation was peppered with terms like “Amazon” and “intellectual property.” I figured they were speculating about expanding Ali Baba into the American marketplace. Chinese billionaires love white wine. I can’t imagine why.


When I got off the subway at Canal Street an hour later, I felt disoriented. And then I heard a voice: “Patrizia?”

It was Summer! Whom I’d subwayed down to meet. Pretty propitious running into her on the crowded street when we were each independently wending our respective way to our rendezvous at a Kosher vegetarian restaurant called Buddha Bodai.

We passed a Haagen-Dazs store that was giving out free ice cream. The line extended for blocks. It was obvious that many people had spent their day getting free ice cream and then standing online for more free ice cream:


Chris joined us while we were waiting online. There was lots to talk about so the wait went quickly.

He didn’t get his H1B visa, so it’s looking as though they will not be staying in the States. They are debating the respective merits of settling back into China versus settling back into Japan. (Due to her complicated family history, Summer holds a Japanese passport.)

First time I ever had an extended conversation with Chris. He is quite bright. Summer has always told me that he is extremely atypical for a Chinese male: “He is more interested in happiness than money!”

I will miss Summer a great deal if she leaves. But for the first time, she was talking children. So, yes. They’re through with the free-floating stage.


Speaking of children, Max arrives here tomorrow. Saturday, we drive up to watch RTT in 2! two! too! graduation ceremonies.

I’m actually mildly anxious about this. Part of that is due to the thought that I will have to drive with time limits in a city (Syracuse) that’s very congested and filled with insane motorists. Part of that is due to my thought that while I’m positive RTT loves me, he really doesn’t like me very much, and I just cannot go through another episode of acting like myself and having him lash out at me because I am so-o-o-o embarrassing. Enough, Robin! Tolerance is the mantra of your generation, shuffling as you do through the identity politics polka. True, I’m not black, and I’m not transgender. But my life matters, too! Right? Right?


I also wanted to write about Scott Fitzgerald since for research purposes, I’ve been reading a book called Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby.’

The first few chapters of my work-in-progress take place in New York in the early 1920s. This calls for a lot of research. Research is time-consuming. So, I figured I’d let someone else do the research for me – in this case, an academic called Sarah Churchwell who wanted to write about The Great Gatsby in the context of the decade (1920s) that created it.

It’s an interesting book. Filled with interesting details. For example: During the 1920s, there was no uniformity among NYC traffic signals. In some neighborhoods, red lights meant stop and green lights meant go, while in others red lights means go and green lights meant stop. Traffic police sat in these oversized cement perches rather like lifeguard stands, directing the local flow.

The book also sheds considerable insight into Fitzgerald’s composition techniques.

Like all writers, I’m fascinated by how other writers write.

In the 1920s, Fitzgerald had not yet embarked upon the ripest period of his lifelong alcoholism, when everything, you might say, was fermented. But he spent the greater portion of his days relatively ripped.

Which meant he had only an hour or two every morning between quaffs of Alka-Seltzer to work on his art.

He wrote maybe 100 words a day.

Possibly this accounts for my own sense that The Great Gatsby is so overwritten as to be barely readable.

Yes, yes, yes. The novel is a stylistic masterpiece. Many of its individual sentences are so beautifully composed that they make me want to weep.

But the book has no connective tissue. It’s like this fossilized collection of beautiful sentences, a subtextual framework that feels more like an engineering accomplishment than a piece of art.

I much prefer Fitzgerald’s short stories to his novels, as breezy, superficial, and banal as they may be. They feel more authentic.

Lots more to be said about that, but helas! No time.
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My date for Sunday’s Make America Grate Again rally bailed, so I will be facing The Donald’s minions alone. It should be a bracing photo opportunity.

Monday, I’m off to Ithaca for a few days. Road trip! I can use one.

I continue to get very sore after I exercise. I’m wondering what terminal disease I have, what outfit I should plan for my deathbed, and whether I can think of any last words more memorable than Steve Jobs’, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.”

Congressional legislation is underway to lower the minimum wage in Puerto Rico from $7.25 an hour to $4.25 an hour. Right. ‘Cause they speak Spanish there, so who cares?

Got into a fierce argument with Ben over this one.

“The Tompkins Workers Center sez the goal should be a living wage, not a minimum wage,” he told me. “And that could be $4 in some areas and $20 in others.”

“Oh, right,” I snarled. “White liberal Bwana-ism at its best! From the same white liberals that brought you indeterminate sentencing!”

June is feeding pigeons under the elms on a wrought iron bench on one of those malls transversing upper Broadway. There’s still an El train on Amsterdam Avenue, so my sense of geography is very distorted. Shortly, she will rendezvous with Henry Miller to extort money from him for Flossie’s liver operation. Flossie will die anyway. So will June’s father.

There are tons of photos of lower Manhattan in the 1920s on the Internet, but nary a one of upper Manhattan. Which is odd because upper Manhattan in the 1920s was a happening place. All I could find was this famous pic by Berenice Abbott of Columbus Circle:


This is a good two miles south of where June is sitting. Doesn’t sound like much, I realize, but New York City is a city of microenvironments.

And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife...
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Celebrated the solstice at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. If you can’t scamper naked through Stonehenge playing ring-around-the-rosy then hanging out at the Coney Island is the next best way to see the summer in. Right? Right!

I had a blast.

The parade’s history kind of parallels the rise and fall of civilization, which naturally makes it even more fascinating for moi, ever the uneasy bystander at scenes of transience. It began as a marketing scheme in the early 1900s when Coney Island was (believe it or not) the more innocent of New York City’s two major entertainment districts and continued in its guise as a bad Mardi Gras homage until 1954.

I’m not entirely sure why it stopped. I went to Coney Island often as a kid in the 1950s and early 1960s. My memory was that the beach was always packed with bodies; there were long, long lines at the rides.

But in the 1940s, urban planning zealot Robert Moses rezoned large swaths of Coney Island as “residential,” hastening its demise. I suppose Moses preferred the poor to engage in middleclass aspirations rather than to revel in cheap street entertainments and the petty crimes that inevitably accompany them. (This is why I hate all liberal do-gooders, by the way.) New York City residents revolted, however, forcing the rezoning of the tract of Surf Avenue between West 22nd and West 12th for outdoor amusements once again.

By 1964, though, the last remaining amusement park Steeplechase Park had closed its gates. The real estate upon which Steeplechase Park sat was sold to Donald Trump’s father. He was unable to get a variance to build the first Trump Tower, though. The property was eventually sold to another real estate developer with the rather amusing name of Thor Equities, which plans to tear down the few old buildings that are left and replace them all with Burger Kings and Taco Bells. Hurricane Sandy forced Thor’s hammer down but only temporarily.

Meanwhile, the tiny Coney Island USA nonprofit set up shop in one of the few early 20th century buildings remaining. The Mermaid Parade is an attempt to stay Thor’s development – but, of course, it can’t really be stayed, and one assumes that in another five to ten years, the parade will be just another promotional event, smaller in scale than the hideous Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade – an event that I also remember as quite charming while I was growing up in an apartment between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, literally half a block away from the parade route, but which today has degenerated into inflated billboards for bad movies, stale cartoons and other forms of artificially created demand.

The parade itself was very long and poorly organized. I enjoyed it, but I suspect most of the spectators took off long before the midway point. I will say this for corporate promotional events: Just like Mussolini’s trains, they run on time.

The sweetest part for me was right at the very end. Fifty or so of us went down to the beach for the official opening of the ocean itself. Some signatory cut ribbons on signs representing each of the four seasons – I toted the heavy wooden Autumn sign – and a small group of revelers ran into the Atlantic, scattering strawberries and other fruits and dumping bottles of vodka into the saltwater. This was very touching to me. Yeah, yeah, a prefab ceremony but really reminiscent of something older, far more primeval, like the Cretan bull dancers marrying Neptune by throwing gold rings into the Mediterranean six thousand years ago. I was moved.

Other stuff is happening too, but for some reason, I'm finding it difficult to write right now.


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Every Day Above Ground

September 2017

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