Tag Archives: new york

The Nag

1 Jul


The days of wine and roses, and then the days that wine and roses are no more.

A President’s Answer

16 May

President Bush Explains His Social Security Reform Proposal:

“WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: ‘I don’t really understand. How is it the new plan is going to fix the problem?’

PRESIDENT BUSH (Verbatim response): ‘Because the — all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculated, for example, is on the table. Whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There’s a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those — changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be — or closer delivered to that has been promised.
Does that make any sense to you?
It’s kind of muddled. Look, there’s a series of things that cause the –like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate — the benefits will rise based upon inflation, supposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those — if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.’ “

Circa July 24, 2005.

Documentation from collaborative performance by David Duckworth and John Landino, Waterboarding: Last Gasp for Habeas Corpus and the Geneva Conventions, Jonathan Shorr Gallery, New York, September 30, 2006. Involved wheat pasting by gallery visitors. Top photograph: Timothy Feresten. Middle and bottom photographs: author(s) unknown.

Easter Greeting from a Friend

9 Apr

Michael Heyward, New York.

The culture of the hat is apparently still doing well in New York.  It is one of those small details of life that causes me to stop and reminisce about the city.  I have seen monumental constructions adorning the head during the morning Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival along Fifth Avenue.  Halloween in New York is equally festive.  But, perhaps, the most extraordinary event for crowning one’s ensemble was the annual Wigstock, begun in Tompkins Square Park, then relocated several times over the years, before retiring in 2005.  Yesterday we donned hats at Richard and Earl’s.  Richard, a retiree who is now a trader in what I jokingly call “could be Deco” (still, using a fine discriminatory eye for what he finds around the city), invited everyone to choose from a small mountain of hats atop the piano.  I chose the beaded flapper’s hat that I had first seen at Earl and Richard’s shop, Lotta’s Bakery.  Earl, the baker, by the way, provides scrumptious desserts.  Having a slice of blackstrap molasses gingerbread with an herbal tea is a heavenly treat.  1720 Polk Street is the place.

The Wages of Sin

22 Jan

My thanks to Patrick Marks for describing to me a cartoon he had always imagined being created, involving a conversation between a barker at a peep show and a would-be patron.  But this is not that cartoon.  It is partly based on the traffic I witnessed going into a triple xxx venue on 8th Avenue at 31st Street in New York.  Three 9 x 12-in. pen-and-ink on Bristol paper drawings.

Homeless in San Francisco: Day Twenty-Eight

28 Sep

15-year-old Frank Kavanagh has twenty-five cents in his pocket and his surplus clothing tied in a handkerchief.  He landed in New York from Hartford, his parents, once tired of supporting him, sending him away.  His first lesson in the big city is that people take in your assets and station quickly.  As my Vietnamese-American friend Jesse, who runs a fantastic sandwich shop on Steuart Street and travels to Hong Kong and Vietnam each year, tells me, in Vietnam people can smell the money on you.  Counting his coins, Frank is questioned by one adult “Montague Percy” about his circumstances as they sit beside each other in City Hall Park.  Percy deftly leads the boy to a saloon where the promise of free food acts as the carrot-on-the-stick.  Percy tells the boy to eat while he liberally orders as many drinks as he calculates Frank’s coins will procure him.  As with all of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s boy heroes, Providence comes in the form of another individual’s intervention to offset the negative weight of life’s scales of justice.  It is only moments after Frank has been fleeced that the street “arab” Dick Rafferty, a tad younger than Frank, takes in the “country” (boy) by explaining the street environs of the city and leading Frank to his first job as an escort to a blind beggar.  Needless to say, in this dime novel Telegraph Boy, or, Making His Way in New York, the beggar is a fraud and Frank moves on penniless to find another avenue for work in the city.

Poor Alger escaped New England by the dead of night following accusations he had engaged in unnatural acts with two boys under his Unitarian tutelage.  He arrived in New York in 1866.  He became one of the most published authors of the nineteenth century.  (An excellent source for biographical information on the author is found in Edwin P. Hoyt’s Horatio’s Boys: The Life and Work of Horatio Alger, Jr.)  For boy readers like Frank, who had slept in beds every night before his unfortunate fall from family grace, the teeming city of New York and its lower and upper class environs must have provided exotic adventure, just as the West in Alger’s later novels must have served.  When I was a young adult, the city as a site for excursion was fascinating.  I have lived in three large metropolitan areas since leaving a small town in what we referred to as the “sticks”: Los Angeles, New York, and, now, San Francisco.  I have also visited many other large cities.  What I have discovered is that provincialism exists wherever you go; this state of mind has nothing to do with the size of the town or city of one’s residence.  I was amused the day the waitress serving me at a restaurant near the pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, offered me, with wide-eyed sincerity, advice about traveling by bus to Tampa, across the bay: “Oh, I wouldn’t travel there.  You never know what’s going to happen.”  Downtown Tampa turned out to be the sleepiest location I have ever seen.  Perhaps, as a European American woman, her fear was based on the presence of seemingly  idle African American men in this area.  St. Petersburg, by the way, hosts a municipal museum at the pier.  The feel of the museum’s interior is more like Ripley’s Believe It or Not; baseball cards exhibited under glass were situated across from an Egyptian mummy case propped against a wall.

One thing I learned from my mother and stepfather was to open my arms to anyone, no matter their circumstances.  Thanksgiving Day was a celebration that could include the oddest assortment of people.  The large city is a place of open arms, unlike say, an Arlington, Virginia, where people passing by jogging will greet you with a compulsory Good Morning, but gossip about and judge you with distrust otherwise.  In Los Angeles, I lived above a man who must have been a Voudon priest for the sound of shrieking chickens and the sudden silence that followed their demise.  My neighbor Linda next door would often invite herself over, even once unexpectedly inviting herself and her husband to dine with my domestic partner Rod and I.  On Marble Hill in New York, my first neighborhood in that city, the stoop was meeting ground for neighbors.  There were Chrissie and Ellie, two cigarette-smoking 14-year-old going-on-adult women, who preferred my company, and my roommate Liz’s, to their own parents.  There was Peanut, who came to visit his brother Wolf, who was eventually convicted for the murder of a young Yale graduate (I harbored doubt about his guilt).  There was Henry, one of the most beautiful men I ever knew, in temperament and heart, gunned down the day he tried to prevent a robbery at the cleaner’s across the street.  There was Michael from Jamaica, who first found my disfavor after he beat his pregnant wife because of the news that the child was not his, and then later suffered a gunshot wound to the leg in his own apartment.  Joe, who had worked for a sculpture factory and created plastilene figures of young girls clad only in T-shirts and socks (probably of his daughter whom he no longer lived with), disappeared after pulling the trigger of the gun.  Michael assured me that Joe was only examining the gun when it went off accidently.  My suspicion, though, was that it had something to do with the business they were engaged in selling cocaine.  And there was a younger Michael, a native of New York, who eventually relocated to the South Bronx to live with the “mother of [his] child” (I never did learn her name).  He only had to warn me once not to visit him where he lived, as I would learn the inhospitality of the neighborhood in ways I would not want to see.  Our relationship was particularly close as he seemed to like the company of older gay men.  Mark and Denise and Michael and Phyllis were perhaps our closest friends in the complex.  Mark was a fantastic story teller.  I never challenged his stories because I could never hear enough from him.  Only Mark could tell you that on a cold winter night during a drug experience he descended to the bottom of the Spuyten Duyvil, the connecting waterway between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, a treacherous stretch for its swift currents, in his underwear and resurfaced with ice cycles in his hair (and live to tell it!).

Any community is open to a myriad number of sins.  I look with disbelief at a banner in my Tenderloin neighborhood affixed to a lamppost: “409 Historic Buildings / Downtown Tenderloin Historic District / Yeah, We Are Proud.”  With all the number of years of lived experience behind me, I know that the sins of the street are too numerous in my neighborhood.  The streets here are a living organism of incredible vibrancy and decay.  People mill about at street corners always looking both ways.  They speak to each other with broken glances in the direction of their conversation.  People dive through trash cans, sell and buy drugs, look each other up and down and say hello to the  unwary stranger, scream and fight each other, challenge automobile traffic, sell their meagre possessions on the sidewalk, ask for handouts and move constantly as if movement itself will effect some chance of better luck.  But this is not new.  Nineteenth century America is rife with literary and artistic anecdotes about fraud, malice, murder, and mayhem.  Contrary to Donna Dolore’s assertion following BDSM shoots, “I would leave a shoot feeling really invigorated, a stronger person.  It made me see what my body was capable of.” (Caitlin Donohue, “Because the Princess Says So,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, September 21-27, 2011, page 24), I seek fortification away from where I live.  (Note: in deference to SM, I have an incredibly gifted friend in New York named Barbara Nitke who has been shooting photographs of the SM scene for over ten years.  I have learned through her work alone that SM offers pleasure, immersion, and transcendence.)  But I cannot seek the immersive here in the hood, while physical escape is the only transcendence I hope to find.  I no longer embrace humanity the way I once did, be it because of age or fear or lack of confidence in humanity.  I do not engage the Tenderloin at all.

Of the few foreign cities I visited, Amsterdam and Paris were both hospitable in ways I could not expect.  While in Amsterdam in 1998 for Gay Games, the owner of a gallery invited me to join him for tea.  While in Paris, my host Philippe ensured I had adequate company while he took his family on vacation: a brother and his partner and numerous friends kept me entertained.  Upon Philippe’s return we engaged in the fun of an impromptu performance; working with his daughter Alice, we created a suit and hat from cut paper with crayons for detailing what I would wear to the polling precincts on Election Day.  “Des 4×4 pour tous” (SUV’s For All) was the motto drawn on the stovepipe hat, a statement to counter the anti-environmental politics of one of the leading parties participating in the election.  Surprisingly, an SUV owner took the statement to heart, believing we were advocating a SUV for every citizen of the city.  Now, wouldn’t that be a community without sin.

Philippe Barnoud, untitled photograph from performance “Des 4×4  pour tous,” 2008.

Homeless in San Francisco: Day Twenty-One

21 Sep

I must have pissed my neighbor off.  On Sunday morning I awoke to my alarm clock.  It was 7:00 AM.  Outside of occasional verbal noise from the street, everything was quiet.  I went down the hallway to shit and shower.  On my return, he had turned on the radio to a Gospel Hour program, loud enough that it could be heard down the hall.  The incident triggered an association from long ago when I lived in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan.  The block was made up of one- and two-story buildings, a patchwork of family dwellings and apartment buildings and striptease beer halls.  Eventually I wrote a poem about my time there, focusing in particular on a neighbor.  One excerpt reads:

“Her whines rode his growls in volleys / As their words evaporated through pink petalled drywall / Enriching the central hallway’s cool insulation / With unintelligible meaning / New voices since old had passed / When this building once housed the aged / When its green tar and shingled sides looked like home / Each morning they honed the anger of their dialogue / To a pitch and intensity that would break and subside / As she announced largely the bus she’d have to catch”

I am reading Carey McWilliams’s Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States (1942).  During the late 1930s, McWilliams, for his expose Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California, and John Steinbeck for the novel The Grapes of Wrath, were notorious for revealing the conditions of labor in California agricultural fields.  Both writers were vilified by a corporate-funded national press, accused of being “Reds” (Ill Fares the Land, 43), followed by vituperation from members of Congress who described The Grapes of Wrath, in particular, as “dirty, lying, filthy” (Ill Fares the Land, 47).  I purchased McWilliams’s book from my favorite New York bookstore, The Strand, where I found many useful and interesting volumes on American society from the 1940s.  My plan was to introduce a text on an aspect of the Mexican American experience to the students attending my course Minorities and the Critical Decade: World War II and After.  But, there were many different racial and ethnic groups involved in migratory labor at that time.

Steinbeck focused on White Americans from states such as Oklahoma relocating to California.  McWilliams, though, in his second book, looks at a wide variety of groups nationwide.  Ill Fares the Land takes into account the forces creating the need for migratory labor.  Of course there was the Dust Bowl effect over several decades where soil had been exhausted through monocultural practice, with single crops like cotton, and the subsequent erosion of the land through flood and wind.  McWilliams outlines the rise of a corporate or industrial agriculture.  In this setting, large farms and conglomerates push small farmers out of existence and crop mechanization makes human labor obsolete.  Sharecropping, a holdover system from slavery that granted individual farmers time on land as tenants, was replaced by transient, seasonal labor.  One feature of the new industrial agriculture was the harnessing of a large labor pool in the regions where crops were to be harvested.  In fact, costs could be lowered by suppressing the wages of these workers.  The key to accomplishing that was by recruiting into the area a larger pool of workers than actually needed.  For corporate conglomerates and absentee owners, the contracting agent exploited the situation by recruiting labor from thousands of miles away, including Mexico.

Individuals and families were often stranded after the harvest was over, having been so exploited by fees against wages for transportation to the region and credit systems for food, housing, and, in some cases, equipment and tool use.  In order to safeguard the health and safety of these workers,
it was then up to government entities to intervene, usually at county and Federal levels, because the corporate businesses refused to provide workers with adequate wages and amenities for safe living.  Even then, the measures taken were never enough to service all in need.  Various diseases were rampant with these populations during the work season.  Hunger was common.  Nutrition was dismal.  And housing was anything approximating what we think of today as housing.  Imagine living in converted chicken coops, barns, wagons for the convenience of moving the housing unit, sheds, open land without the protection of a strutured dwelling or trees (Mexican families in agricultural areas of Texas) or situated over or near swamp land (onion cultivation).

Human warehousing continues to this day.  I volunteered as a tutor at a welfare hotel in New York situated in what was the Martinique Hotel.  The community organization Hudson Guild provided the tutors in a room adjoining the hotel’s former ballroom.  Our Homework Help program took place on Monday afternoons.  The children were welcome on their own volition.  One young girl, about the age of nine, would join me.  She resisted any attempt to help her with learning, but she insisted on being at my side.  I finally realized she was an angry individual and that the only service I could provide was being present in a nonjudgmental way.  A younger, male child spent his time in the ballroom picking up wooden chairs and smashing them against the floor.  He never joined us.  His destruction was systematic.  He would work on a chair until it was in as many pieces as he could effect.

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend of a friend from the Midwest.  My friend Donald was eager that I meet this person.  We had coffee together at a cafe.  The Midwesterner was extremely tight lipped.  Drawing conversation from him was difficult.  I introduced the topic of an effort underway in Brooklyn, New York, whereby citizens without the aid of government are taking inventory of abandoned and empty housing units in their neighborhoods.  I spoke about the great number of empty buildings I remembered from my time in New York.  I even suggested that perhaps government intervention could possibly make available temporary housing in unoccupied buildings.  This remark really set off our guest.  Of course, I could understand.  He inherited many acres of farm land from his family, which he did not farm, instead letting the land to Amish farmers who apparently were not paying their rent.  He had not worked for the land he inherited, but he believed anyone who owned property had a right to use it as they saw fit, intervention be damned.  He ended the conversation by looking Donald squarely in the eye and saying, I’m ready to go.

My landlady in Union City was a likable character, whom I refer to as Toby in the poem.  She lived on the first floor behind my unit and the across-the-hall neighbor’s.  My departure from the building is described as follows:

“Oddly, the landlady’s sometime supervision of my affairs / Laced the hollowness of my days with a spirited warmth / Though her accounts of televised baseball / And Friday night bowling meets / Dissolved with my decision to leave at year’s end / As I mechanically repacked possessions / And daily bid goodbye to littered streets and windy fields / Toby ordered an eviction across the hall / For which I discovered taped to a glass pane of the front door / The words scrawled on a disemboweled envelope, / “Tony – Sorry we couldn’t make it, Sharon.”

East River, Kraft paper, paper bags, wall plaster, house paint on plywood, circa 1983-84.

Homeless in San Francisco: Day Fourteen

14 Sep

The image submitted here two days ago was actually drawn in 2009.  I have always been interested in homelessness but from a particular distance.  I can remember drawn near life-size portraits of homeless individuals by a Los Angeles artist that were riveting.  This was around 1980 and my first encounter with the subject in art.  I first came to the subject myself in 1983 while living in New York City.  I drew memory portraits in oil pastel on Bristol paper of individuals I noticed in subway cars.  My memory depended upon a few minutes of available observation.  Of these portraits, at least two people were homeless, both women.  I also drew a ball-point pen portrait from memory of a woman stuffing newspaper into her coat sleeves on a subway platform during a winter in the city.  The pen-and-ink drawing of an old man sitting in an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) posted two days ago was inspired by two different and unlikely sources.  The man is bearded and resembles the figure of my grandfather on my mother’s side, Ray “Duke” Moore, a man who was reknown as a martial artist and martial arts instructor in San Francisco.  He ran his own school for thirty years or so before retiring to San Jose with my grandmother Vera.  He survived her death and eventually lived in a trailer with a common-law wife in the Sacramento/Folsom region.  The figure in the drawing closely resembles his figure in a photograph during his last years in California.  In the photograph he is seated in a rocking chair looking directly at the camera, a flowing white beard and sunglasses accentuating his appearance.  The second instance of inspiration for the drawing came from a local New York newspaper article, perhaps the Guardian, about the deceased writer Quentin Crisp’s then life in the Hotel Chelsea during his final years.  The article was extremely unflattering, painting a portrait of Crisp as a man who lived in complete dishevelment.  I had seen Crisp sitting primly at an art reception at Leslie-Lohman, when the gallery was still located basement level on the edge of SoHo near Broadway.  He never seemed to move from his seat, nor flinch a muscle, as if he were either embalmed or an effigy in wax for display.  He looked nearly regal, yet fragile and vulnerable, as if his composure was his only protection from what life would have said to him.

Both my grandfather and Crisp were men waiting, in a sense, for the finality of their life.  I cannot imagine that home had any particular value in their circumstances.  My grandfather stares out from the photograph as if his surroundings were superfluous.  Crisp’s littered apartment space was probably not of concern.  The mind must be the most central component of home.  I am reminded of director Hirokazu Koreeda’s film After Life (1998).  In this story, the dead arrive at a rest stop where they are assisted in manufacturing a final memory of life.  It is a modest hotel with a big production budget for the final chosen memorial scene, created in a large studio.  My grandfather was homeless in the end as was Crisp.

The Hotel Kinney has been quite comfortable.  But this morning I was surprised by a disposal unit attached to the hallway wall outside of the common shower room.  Marked Biohazard, this box is used for disposing of needles and syringes.  I have yet to meet a neighbor in the building, although I have said hello to two strangers here.  Before obtaining the room, I spent different nights at a facility at 1001 Polk Street, at the corner of Geary.  I was referred to that facility by Glide [Memorial United Methodist Church] at Ellis and  Taylor Streets.  I knew of Glide’s radical orientation towards community when I was active with The Riverside Church in New York.  Once in San Francisco, I was invited to a Sunday service by an acquaintance from New York’s Gotham Volleyball League, a gay, lesbian and straight-friendly sports organization.  Monday through Friday at Glide, one can stand in line to request housing.  In a first-floor office, a placement administrator searches for available units throughout the city using a computerized database.  The first question asked is for the last four digits of your Social Security number, or “soch.”   The Polk Street facility is actually run by Episcopal Community Services.  I was only issued single-night referrals, but knew that 90-day housing was somehow available to others.  I suspect that the same was not available to me because a tuberculosis test result was not yet in their computerized system.  There is a deadline for reporting TB status to Glide.  Once past the deadline, assistance is not available for housing placement.

The facility on Polk is huge.  I can remember walking by or passing by on the 19 bus and looking at the residents standing outside.  There are always people hanging out, probably most on cigarette breaks.  I tried to avoid walking through the small crowds that would gather there.  I was nervous entering my first night.  But the feeling dissipated once I made myself comfortable on one of the metal frame beds.  There are single beds and bunks, all with numbers.  The bed is furnished with a plastic-enclosed mattress.  A white sheet and woolen blanket are issued at the reception desk within the lobby of the facility.  White terry cloth towels are issued by request.  The bed is located in a ward that contains roughly 25 or more units.  Each floor has several wards partitioned by walls which do not reach the ceiling.  A common toilet area, which includes a metal bin filled with hotel-style wrapped bars of soap, and a common shower area are located on each floor.  The beds are arranged in rows with walking space between.  One is entirely in the open and able to observe neighbors.  Lights out occurs at 9:30 PM and lights on at 5:30 AM.  Dinner and breakfast are served in a basement level eating area.  The line forms quickly at the service counter after breakfast call at 6:00 AM.

I expect that my stay at Hotel Kinney will be followed by more nights at shelters like the Polk Street facility.  I do not look forward to that.  But I also do not grant too great a degree of comfort to where I am housed because of impending displacement.  It is as if I am the portrait of my grandfather or Crisp.  I am, though, not imagining a home in the mind.  It eludes me entirely.

Two Women, 1983. Oil pastel on Bristol paper, 14 x 18 in. Collection of Naomi Sager.