A Sailor Song For a Society Soul

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Off the coast of every shore, far from the caress of the city’s lights, there are large vessels floating endlessly upon the dark black seas.  Boats governed by the fates of the tide; engulfed in the long, quiet persistence of nothing.  Yet in this somber refrain there is a sense of freedom, freedom and peace.  No matter how much radio contact, computer systems or tracking devices these vessels keep, they still adhere to the principles of the sea.  An infinite landscape of rippling ink; captains rely on the light of the moon to guide their way, an involuntary reprieve from our reliance on technology.  Far from our shores, men practice a freedom that could only be possible on this sodden infinity.

*****

            During my last job I had worked logistics for a local seafood importer.  I mostly worked with numbers and graphs, piecing together freight routes for distribution and inventory.  Every morning, the dirge began; I would awake to the sounds of a monotonous robot song bleeding from my cell phone.  I would walk with the zeal of a dead man to make some coffee and my day begins.  Making my way to work, I would follow the same route, seeing the same cars and anticipating the same traffic I have experienced for months.  I would arrive, open the door, sit down, turn the computer on and there they would be.  The same numbers and graphs flooded my screen.  I look down and to my surprise my pen is not where I thought it would be; it is on the other side of the desk.  This sudden, impromptu situation required critical thinking; I perked up.  Humor aside I did truly enjoy this job and worked tirelessly at it.  Yet, being in such close contact with shipping vessels throughout my career at this importer, I began to idolize the life aquatic.  We require constant connectivity and technological dependence.  Finding some time to settle into a life undistracted even for a few hours a week maybe the difference between droning sadness and positive self worth.

But dare I say I do retract!  We are more like the men at sea than I originally thought.  Like the gentle sway of a wayward boat, we too beckon to the uninhibited elements of an impartial vessel; our bodies are governed by the ebb and flow of our urban subway systems.  Furthermore, like the guiding light of the moon that directs the boys at sea, the warm embrace from the screens of our cell phones direct us into future moments.  So as it was once said, yet this time different; far from the dark black seas, men practice freedom that could only be possible on this cement infinity.

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Redefining the American Dream

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You kids are rushing the gates to live in the same tenements our parents were trying to get the hell out of.

-My Father

 

My father was born and raised just north of the Harlem River, in the once was Jewish/Irish enclave of the Highbridge neighborhood in the Bronx.  He would reminisce about simpler times, when the stadium was Mecca, the river, a swimming pool and kids could run wild without crippling parental apprehension.  Back then; youth was king and the city, their playground.

As time went on, neighbors moved out, buildings fell apart and entire neighborhoods were gutted by fire or road systems.  Like the momentum of age, innocence was lost and the panging realization of change set the community into free fall.  Yet far from the spires on Ogden Avenue, there was a development being built beyond the borough of Queens.  It was Levittown, Long Island and it would be called Suburbia.  A place created to ease these new pioneers from the clutches of urbania with the substitute of sprawling green foliage and starched white suits.  Up came the fences and the garages, the front yards and fabricated kindness.  It was a success, apropos a change in lexicon.  The idea of neighborhood was out and town was in; community was discreetly nuclear and privacy was the new governing body. 

Fast-forward a few generations and we are now watching the sons and daughters of our suburban trailblazers clamoring to escape the white wash confines of their towns.  Awash with debt and a damned economy, they have poured back into the neighborhoods our parents were so eager to leave; an exodus gone full circle.  Low on cash, high on hopes, millennials live three or four to an apartment as they actualize the progress of their American dream.

It’s the reawakening of community, a direct product of the internet age and the generation’s vigilant defense of transparency.  The tight-lipped and taciturn nature of a town represents the exclusionary secrecy of high institutions such as our banking system. 

So as the millennials rush back to the tenements of our ancestors, we are left with the question of why.  The answer is simple: every millennial has heard the stories from parents and grandparents about a simpler, better time, when the kids ran wild and wages were built on sustainability, not excess; before the era of “stuff.”  The youth are reinventing culture by going back to these better times; popular culture is saturated in the vintage mores, from the style of facial hair to taking pictures that ironically look aged.  The youth are now the holder of our future and the first order of business is to redefine a better tomorrow.  For those who do not learn from history are doomed to not repeat itself… Or at least that’s how I think it goes. 

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Melbourne: The Untapped Giant

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“The Tiger and Me” is a profoundly under appreciated Aussie Sextet that infuses European Gypsy with folk. Beautifully anachronistic, the group’s music is as much a visual exhibit as an auditory experience. Reminiscent of the Le Chat Noir, “I Left the Wolves Behind That Night” pours with the undertones of a cabaret for the damned. The haunting vocals and tearful strings are pronounced by the steady marching beat while the accordion officiates the pitch with its dynamic flair.

The band hails from the Southernmost city in Australia, the beautiful port city of Melbourne, prided for being the cultural capital of the country. The video itself was shot live through the side streets of the city that seem reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter or the old Caribbean. To us Americans and most of Western Europe, the cultural explosion that is taking place far from our coasts is going all but unnoticed, yet the city still pulsates with life and importance. It is only a matter of time until we recognize its brilliance.

Manhattan: The Dead Ideal

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Growing up in New York, Manhattan has always held an ineffable mystique to me; propped up by the bourgeois societals, limitless culture and a Hollywood love affair.  Coming into the “city” I would wax poetically about the grandiose air of the people and the pretense of their demeanor. Back then, when the economy was bristling with endless wealth, we romanticized the affluent in hopes that we will someday enjoy the fruits of our own labors.  We chased the reservation of the most highly touted restaurants and accepted the fate of an over judgmental waiter as he scoffed at our attire.  It was all part of the experience; a submission to abuse that made us feel ever more alive.

Times have certainly changed.  The endless luster of the Manhattanite has become pocked and pallid under a reeling economy.  The youth have seceded from the shores of the island for more practical grounds and with it they took the fresh-faced culture of the millennials.  Culinary and cultural hotbeds have moved east across the bridges and tunnels, settling in neighborhoods removed from Wall Street, but close enough to peer proudly at its monolithic spires.

I have just recently ventured down to the East Village, where my good friend lives in one of the last great youth enclaves on the island; StuyTown.  Hitting the bar scene, I quickly realized how antiquated and flaccid the neighborhood has become over the years.  It is teeming with Greek life, popped collars and cookie-cutter character; they pour from one dimly lit establishment to the next with the confidence of a wrecking ball.  The bars themselves seem to rely on the ideal of a time capsule, still grasping onto the brighter pasture of an earlier era when the Village was Mecca and the patrons were the trendsetters.

While on the other side of the river, a burgeoning community of artists, denizens, throwaways and professionals twill and grow neighborhoods into lively, cultural bastions.  From Astoria, Queens to Prospect Park, Brooklyn people are building alternative economies away from the once great Manhattan streets.

This is the generation raised by the comforting hum of Wall Street but came of age when the system broke down.  Lost and confused, the youth have decided not to chase the dreams of their fathers, but to create their own.  The silver spoons have been removed, the golden parachutes have been clipped and now all they have is each other.  The American appeal for excess and gaud is dead and in its place a new aesthetic is being born.  Success, by American design and standard has changed; Gucci and gold have become less a statement of class and more a symbol of the old flawed blueprint. Image

Anatol

Anatol had a simple job.  He stands beside the mahogany double doors separating the parlor from the viewing room.

He is a tall man; blonde, trimmed hair that sits effortlessly on his head and the eyes that seem too rich and bright for the funereal profession.

Everyday he stands between the two rooms, staring respectfully from one end of the parlor to the other; warmly welcoming grievers into the viewing room where a beautifully embroidered box holds the remains of some other’s memory.  From Anatol’s position, his view is limited to a vase of red carnations sitting atop a marble mantel; conscious of, yet removed from the pallor scene in the adjacent room.  The smell of age and roses waft through the parlor and the sweet dirge from Aunt Anka’s accordion can be heard.

Come senility or calamity, Anatol remains beside the high arches, welcoming all with his respectful ardor as they pass through his egress.

It was a simple job, but those mahogany doors would seem cold and distant if it weren’t for Anatol’s tender presence.

 

 

The Saxophone Beneath the Window

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In my old neighborhood on the West Side, there was a sax player; they called him Old Ben.  He played with the ease of Benny Carter and the zeal of Dizzy Gillespie.  I would walk past him every night on the corner of Broadway and 116th, painting a chocolate skyline from the throat of his brass.  Without a hat or handkerchief to ask for money, he would play till the last cabbie’s light went dark.  Like a song bird quieting an angry lion, Old Ben eased the tense city streets with his daily hymnals.

Every night, under the same building he offered up his sacrifice to the restless city.  Every night, under the same window, lit throughout his venue.  Neighborhood legend had it that beyond this window lied Old Ben’s sick mother.  It was only when he stopped his procession that the light was turned off, and the ominous hum of silence reemerged from within the city streets.

Months went by and Ben was still pouring his soul out from beneath the single lit window on the corner of Broadway and 116th… until that one day.  Echoing from every corner of the neighborhood, you could hear the solemn dirge of a sax, sullen and purposeful, it resonated from store front to alleyway.  Old Ben played with the companionship of new shadow; the shine from his bright cheeks, nor the gleam of his sax were visible.  Light was refocused from the above to the city streets.

On that night the light went out from atop Old Ben and the city adjusted their eyes.

Every night without fail

An Island without power, but an Island none-the-less

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So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Ever since the beginning of time, mankind has been drawn to bodies of water.  From the Queen of the Nile to Napoleon’s Seine and London’s Thames, the sustenance of life had become the criterion of society.  In America, the love affair continued; with help from Ernest Hemingway, the essence of man became an errant sea farer.  American real estate shifted from manner houses to beach houses and coastal towns began to emanate with the new standard.

In Long Island, the idiom “go west my friend” went unheeded and to great success.  The American dream was delivered with dynamic style. From the bastilles in the Hamptons, to the North Fork fishers, Long Islanders came from all tracks of life, but no matter the differences, we are all lovers of the life aquatic.  On October 28th, 2012 we all realized the sacrifices that must be made for such a life.

In Lido Beach, what was at first an opportunity for big wave surfing, quickly escalated into a massive evacuation.  Hurricane Sandy pitted coastal neighborhoods with such force that hundreds lost their homes and over a million lost power.  Some of the most prominent areas in Long Island were destroyed; from the Nautical Mile to Claudio’s of Greenport.  In our homes, dark and cold, we all began to reevaluate our situation.  With an escalating gas crisis and an Nor’easter within our midst, the battle rages on.  But like many times before, Long Islanders continue to be a resilient pedigree.  In a place with three million people and only two major means of exit, we learned to rely on ourselves.  New Jersey has its own problems and the City think the sun rises and sets on the Manhattan empire; if we want something done, we do it ourselves.

So as the days beat on and the power comes back, we will again breathe the fresh sea air and thank the Lord that this is our Island and we are all Long Islanders.