Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Of Semi-Hidden Places

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We stood on the Q35 bus, along an adventure wholly of our making and wholly suited to us. He was getting over the recent separation with his lover, who had left for good to the Netherlands and had already rekindled prior affairs, prompting an emotional spiral swooning on the inconstancy of man. For my part, I was mulling over the parallels to an innocent love that had wrought me a year ago and from whence my mourning had yet to cease.

We patted ourselves on the back, remarking how we had become responsible adults over the past decade, where even our drinking to excess had attained a gloss of class. He entertained and distracted from the underlying topic by explaining the various stops along the way: Only yuppies would get off at Fort Tilden. Minorities and ghetto types would get off at the first Jacob Riis stop, and even more ghetto types and gays got off at the second. This was our celebration to ourselves: Him, a sea of well-wrought yet fey men, me, a buffet of topless women.

Jacob Riis is beyond the pale, situated as far from the metropole as possible yet remaining within city borders, just too far from the prying eyes of both city officials and roving police for them to bother much. It’s a no-man’s land, which suits it just fine: Coney Island is Brooklyn: The Theme Park, Jacob Riis is a relief from the city altogether. And we were taking public transit. As it turns out, the best things in life are free, but it takes two hours to get there.

It was a place you could put your hair down, which was the point. The women were there because the gay men were there, and the gay men were there because it was inconvenient to get there. It was a true retreat: Sunbathers in speedos and even less lounging and drinking rum to the sounds of Willie Colon and Mon Rivera, couples of all flavors and families basking in the laissez-faire openness that had been fostered by such.

It was a bittersweet affair; an ephemeral circumstance by nature, one that had been lucky to survive so long but ultimately doomed if examined, just like our romantic relationships. Such was obvious amidst banter with a particularly flaming hipster, fresh from Austin and allergic to pants, who – after hazing me for not recognizing a Steel Magnolias reference, thereby proving my outsider status concerning gay culture – suggested that the abandoned buildings near the beach should be bought and developed by an enterprising gay entrepreneur into a hotel/nightclub. I replied that such would kill the vibe, and he instantly demurred and retracted: Nothing more needed to be explained.

Time flows differently upon exit from standardized society. Soon I found myself playing referee in a water-wrestling match between two gay men and two lesbian women, an altercation that started when the men interrupted the women’s conversation about a mastectomy (or, in the vernacular, “I respect how you chopped your tits off” – implying if nothing else that the procedure may not have been for purely medical reasons) to criticize the Boston Red Sox hat one of them was wearing. The match, consequently, was a draw: The Atlantic Ocean trumped everybody.

The rampant peacocking and the loving displays of affection served much entertainment and ease but emphasized our own singleton statuses. This was a day to dispel such thoughts and while it was largely effective, perhaps such cannot be totally dismissed: No act of throwing yourself at the sea and being tossed back can save you permanently from your own mind. He kept one eye on his phone, fantasizing in some portion of his mind of a thirteenth-hour reprieve, a return to lucidity, on his lover’s part, despite the Atlantic between them. His despair made me linger on the yet-unfounded causes of my own loss, in my case the Pacific being the literal divider to the vague emotional one: She wished me well and did so in a heartfelt, poignant manner, but did not explain her departure, fostering fruitless and pointless speculation.

I suspect I write best when overwrought; usually with anger. There is, of course, an endless supply of fodder to distract oneself with for the purposes of anger – Israeli helicopter gunships raining collective punishment on the world’s largest open-air prison, willfully ignorant industry purveyors of the glass ceiling, a limousine liberal mayor whose stint in Nicaragua may yet substantively parallel Mitt Romney’s evangelist “mission” in Paris as a superficial and ineffective resume-builder – which can then be directed into a flame that licks and stings with an honesty that provides a harshness under all the lyrical flourish. The flourish can be copied, the burn cannot.

This was on my mind, spying a wan smile on my compatriot’s face. Man is inconstant, irrational, prone to hurtful flits wantonly rendered. Integrity and loyalty are perfections to strive towards and man is often found wanting. “Do they not want to be happy,” he asked. It is the result not of thinking but of not-thinking. My own ill-fated relationship was one drowned in positive emotions I cannot imagine forgetting, but ultimately one not destined to exist: Simple circumstance did it away, the particulars don’t matter. Yet I was reveling in this thought with a good friend I had met due to a serious mistake I had made about my future well over a decade ago, with deep ramifications as to my life forever more.

A more logical person would have set up his life in a more proper manner, to not pine after the impossible or even improbable, but such a standard is unattainable because it doesn’t exist; life isn’t a concept but a necessarily flawed reality, and even the wrongs are worth living. In that stead, Jacob Riis is a place very well suited to be vainly, poetically wrong.

Stuck In the Middle

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If I didn’t know better, I’d think July was Police Brutality Month.

Hot summers tend to make New Yorkers crazy, and while today hasn’t been the hottest, it’s up there, and thanks to the prevalence of smartphones and security cameras, the city gets front row seats to every time some hood pulls a gun on some other hood in the street in broad daylight – and we’ve had our fair share of that thus far this summer. However, those same cameras appear to be pulling the duty of the oft-suggested lapel cameras suggested during de Blasio’s mayoral campaign.

Aside from the choking death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner for the egregious offense of selling untaxed loosies (which, to the unversed, are single cigarettes, ie: not in a pack), instantly reminding all New Yorkers of Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing, there have been close to a dozen taped accounts of police brutality coming to light in the past month. To name a(n un)healthy cross-section, Ronald John was punched in the face and held in an illegal chokehold for jumping a turnstile, Javier Payne was sent through a hookah store window on a stop-and-frisk altercation, Jahmiel Cuffee was stomped on the face while restrained for a stop that began when he was spotted rolling a joint, Denise Stewart was forcibly dragged naked out of her apartment by a cadre of cops for a child abuse claim that Child Protective Services determined was unfounded, Stefon Luckey was arrested on no charges and pepper-sprayed while handcuffed after complying with police orders not to interfere with their traffic summons on his brother, Ehud Halevy was struck more than fifty times by police on a false arrest, and an un-named Black man was beaten on the head with a baton for being belligerent after being cited for sleeping on an empty F train.

In addition, Richard Gonzalez was denied insulin while in custody for a false arrest to the point where he had to go to the hospital and EMTs had to intervene after cops beat a man handcuffed and strapped to a gurney for spitting on them. This regular occurrence of police overreach in the media has fulminated into a strong public interest, for which studies have come out pointing to over a thousand complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board about illegal chokeholds over the last five years, on stops that have largely been minor “quality of life” violations. This has prompted Police Commissioner Bratton to give a full-throated defense of the “Broken Windows” theory, which has put former Sandinista and current Mayor de Blasio in a tight spot. Can this ostensibly liberal mayor who is still learning on the job put a stopper on his Law-and-Order appointee?

As if to illustrate this conundrum, and to provide quite a bit  of political theatre, de Blasio found himself literally sitting between Bratton and Al Sharpton, who pointedly remarked that his son Dante would be a primary target for the NYPD were he not related to the mayor. Further raising the stakes are the NYPD’s efforts to arrest Ramsey Orta, the man who taped Eric Garner’s death, on suspicious charges, as well as his wife Chrissie Ortiz, on successive days after Garner’s death was deemed a homicide. Orta and Ortiz claim harassment – that the police were giving them undue scrutiny as punishment for their centrality to the case against their own – and this claim is bolstered by the speed at which the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association spokesman Patrick Lynch sought to use their arrests to exonerate the policemen.

If all this wasn’t enough, the general mistrust of the law enforcement and justice system has extended to the prison system as well, with Riker’s Island due for another riot, and questions as to the treatment of prisoners which are mostly minorities on non-violent drug offenses. The narrative that all this brings is that of a culture of repression against minorities and the poor, which is precisely the issue that de Blasio ran and won his position on. To say the least, de Blasio has his plate full.

That said, he may end up showing just how quickly he has learned: Officials have deemed Garner’s death a homicide, and while a homicide alone does not necessarily mean a murder, the implications are clear: If policemen are to be charged for the strangling death of this man, such an autopsy result would be both a first step and a signal as to political intent. As such, the public announcement was likely made with the knowledge of the next steps involved. An indictment and a jury trial of the offending officers would do much to balance the mayor’s choice of police commissioner with his responsibility to prove to the citizens of New York that, ultimately, he is in charge, not Bratton. This was, indeed, a vaunted issue during de Blasio’s first weeks in office – whether or not he could bring Bratton to heel – and now would be a particularly timely moment for him to prove it.

Papers, Please

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A TSA agent lives on my street.

She was walking home from a shift with that gait of the neighborhood’s version of the 99% of us that are working stiffs – the local permutation is that the remaining 1% are Highly Visible Layabouts, aka hoods, for there are no rich people here – in that purposefully unflattering sweater-and-slacks combo that is designed to be dowdy in a way that dehumanizes its wearer, distills them into sewn shoulder patches and cheap epaulets.

Akin to most uniformed public servants, she’s forming the beginning of one of those truly impressive rear ends appropriate to somebody whose job it is to sit down for ten hours a day. That’s not to say her job is easy: She has to exude a form of malevolence while holding just short of actual aggression, a true front-line soldier of our Security Theater – that paramilitary arm of our Political Theater with all pomp and little to show for it besides the cowing of those obedients who long only to be cowed.

It is a fitting juxtaposition that she herself lives in a neighborhood that has only a tenuous grasp of the rule of law; a ‘hood one step removed from the base tribalism that the city aldermen keep tabs on through an occupying police army. They do so, of course, from their offices downtown; “may the lord bless and keep the czar… far away from us!” She is, however, necessarily separate from such an army: When those cops are off-duty, they decamp to their own cop-friendly neighborhoods – the kind with POW/MIA flags and VFW clubs. They drink in cop bars. They don’t cease being cops on a cultural level. She, on the other hand, appears to hang one hat at shift’s end and put on another. It’s just as well: Without the uniform, her skin color would probably mark her for random search anyway.

To think such agencies require working stiffs such as these! It’s clearly just a job, and a much needed one at that, for even the President has realized the inherent rot in our current jobless economic recovery, but it requires a compartmentalization of one’s public life. What goes on in uniform becomes unreal, like manning a phone-sex hotline: Furtive and anonymous and just a little illicit, under the guise of an authority that has it on good, well, authority that such roles are needed, but rather unconvincing in their explanation of just how they are needed.

Her Security Theater is not comforting to the locals, but then it isn’t meant for the locals. It’s meant for the folks downtown and their constituents. Were the political lines drawn up a bit different, it’d be like working as a border guard under the employ of your neighbor. Uptown, that foreign nation, full of malcontents looking to steal good downtown jobs from the correct folks. Why, they should require passports past 96th Street! And who would check them?

Multiple Choice Culture

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A seagull drops an orange rind into the saltwater and dives to retrieve it from a briny froth that includes plastic bottles, a variety of wrappers and several dozen fishing lines in anticipation of unusually mercury-heavy catches. In the distance a container ship breaks up the horizon on its way to a traffic jam currently stalled under the Verrazano Bridge. This is a suitably debased pleasure ground for a suitably populist clientele. Welcome to Coney Island.

At the terminus of half of Brooklyn’s elevated subways (and other self-contradictory titles), Coney Island has always been a true People’s Park, a fact that local purveyors do not hesitate to exploit in their not-quite-but-approaching-twee populist kitsch: There is hardly a venue that is not plastered with former Steeplechase Park owner George Tilyou’s rather creepy clown face or a sepia-toned landscape of turn-of-the-last-century working-class crowds.

Okay, maybe a little twee

Yesterday’s working-class crowds have, with a few hiccups, thankfully turned into today’s working-class crowds; a welcome respite when many parts of Brooklyn have followed Manhattan’s lead and turned into theme park versions of themselves. Funny enough, the actual theme park, or rather the amalgam of three former theme parks that were very almost turned into a shopping mall, remains true to itself, renewed but not mere tinsel-laden bourgeois fakery.

Perhaps Coney Island is still below the dividing line: On the far side of the South/North Brooklyn barrier of gentrification, still too far for yuppies to commute. Perhaps it’s the public housing projects that surround it, and which have been bolstered by one thousand new affordable units as part of the city’s “revitalization” effort that keep such urban pioneers at bay. Either way, this one part of New York remains a place in which to people-watch the character of the new masses yearning to be free.

It does not disappoint. Harlem kids with matching t-shirts advertising the summer camp whose purpose it is to get them out of Harlem by any means possible enjoy the three-year-old Steeplechase, a rollercoaster that takes the name of a former ride in its former eponymous park, and the brand-new Thunderbolt, a rollercoaster that also takes the name of a former ride. In doing so they take part in rides whose death-defying thrills come from their design, as contrasted to the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel, whose death-defying thrills have seemingly come from the fear that they may fall apart directly under their riders. Those rides harken back to an era that brings to mind scenes from The Warriors more than the intensely-curated experiences of Disneyland.

Coney Island has successfully de-hoodified, it can be argued; eliminating drug dealers from its image much as the newly-rechristened Action Park in New Jersey hopes to do with lawsuit-friendly personal injury. It’s in this venue that these Harlem teenagers share the grounds, the boardwalk and the beach with a particularly Asiatic milieu – unsurprising considering our latest immigration patterns – of South Asians clad in colorful saris, Near Asians cloaked in hijabs and, if they’re to get wet, outfits that can only be described as burqinis – which are something like underwater wetsuits with skirts – East Asians who seem to eschew swimsuits altogether in favor of getting their street clothes wet, and semi-Asian Russians, who are, on the whole, gleefully anti-fashionable: Their dayglow wifebeaters and flouncy camouflage pants defy, or more accurately, transcend convention.

A woman calls out to her two sons, Ivan and Raul, not to get too far out from the shore. A Puerto Rican woman in bikini top and unzipped Daisy Dukes (her flag – because why not – leaving the mystery of her provenance not up to question) saunters by a middle-eastern family, her general lack of attire rendering their religious mores rather superfluous. They ignore her. She ignores them. Everybody ignores everybody. The Ukrainian man so sunburned as to be near purple, rubbing his prodigious beer belly while downing seemingly endless Coronas, is oblivious to the Latino man across from him, also with prodigious beer belly, holding a 90’s-vintage boombox as if it were the source of his tan, and he is in turn oblivious to the trio of Japanese women who find him to be an attraction much in the same way that the defunct Parachute Drop ride is an attraction.

It is a brilliant melange of racial harmony in the New York style. It is not a salad bowl. It’s practically atomized: Wild rice. Soon it will be tossed and turned even further into a curry: Stretching the definition of actual separation through ever-finer granules. This is also a welcome, if odd, counterpoint to the ossified stews that much of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods have settled into. In Bay Ridge, the Italians are still king: Pro-cop, anti-immigrant and the source of a great deal of anti-Muslim grief that’s currently winding its way through the city’s metaphorical back alleys. In Coney Island, they sit behind the counter and serve Muslim immigrants overpriced pub food as they do everybody else.

It’s a superfluous melting pot. Interaction is little though physical proximity is high. It is, however, an authentic one: Everybody shares the same goals and assumed socioeconomic class, separate from the usual grievances. It’s not the prettiest of beaches – flanked by housing projects, under the eaves of the subway, and as trash-strewn as the rest of the city – but in it can be seen the future of New York, and it is not so dissimilar to the past of New York, all told.

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