When I was young my dad used to school me at Trivial Pursuit every time we played. I went on thinking he was a singular genius for a couple of decades.
My reverence flagged only when I realized all the questions in the game were written by baby boomers; the answer was always Jefferson Airplane, G. Gordon Liddy or Robert McNamara. At some point, probably when I started teaching college, I came to realize that his McNamara is my Condoleezza Rice; his Liddy is my Linda Tripp; his Syd Barret is my Jeff Mangum, etc., etc. Generations are structurally parallel to each other.
My students don’t know this yet, and as a result they treat me like I’m Doris Kearns Goodwin when I reveal what is a fairly superficial knowledge of George W. Bush’s cabinet, or the cast of various John Hughes films.
And that’s one of the best aspects of aging: ordinary, trivial information gleaned by osmosis eventually passes for legitimate historical knowledge.
I’m more aware of this osmotic knowledge when in New York. I don’t watch any scripted television or queue up for summer blockbuster movies, but I still know about shows like Psych and Burn Notice only because I wait for subway trains. A fragmented and superficial education in contemporary pop culture comes with one’s New York address.
In Wisconsin I’m blind to pop culture. There are no subway posters and where I live, no billboards. If I stumble into a Gap for some socks I may be forced to learn a new song by the Shins or Snow Patrol, but otherwise I have no connection to what others in the world are up to if I don’t turn on a television or open a magazine.
This topic came up with some friends in New York. It turned out that we had all heard of the show Breaking Bad but couldn’t say anything about its nature other than the guy in it was also in the movie, Drive. It occurred to us that we didn’t even know people who knew people in New York who watched Pscyh or Corazon Caliente, yet everyone at the table knew both shows to the depth that I do Condoleeza Rice, which is to say, not very.
The question of who was watching shows like Burn Notice and Breaking Bad simmered in my head for a few weeks when some acquaintances in Wisconsin urged me, without my provocation, to watch Breaking Bad.
“It’s amazing, you gotta check it out. It’s totally unique.”
After the recommendation, all five of them dove into a conversation about Breaking Bad’s merits and left me in the dust. I contemplated the elegance and ease of five individuals sharing consciousness through a television show. I was momentarily jealous that they had a conversational topic to share, so sat out the round sifting for pumpernickel chips in the bar snack mix. The mix had been removed of all the good stuff leaving mostly pretzels and some goldfish crumbs. This forced the revelation that in a place like Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where the culture is relatively homogenous, sharing consciousness is easier than it is in New York.
I interjected having seen a poster of Burn Notice on the Nassau subway stop where someone had scratched a vagina in ball-point pen between the legs of its star…whose name I didn’t know.I didn’t realize for several beers that I had my shows confused.
Writing this from a subway platform at Nassau and Manhattan Avenues, under a poster for Rock Star beverage and a superhero movie set to explode, an eclectic crowd mills on the platform. Asians carry Asian-language newspapers under their arms; Polish women tote the Polish daily Nowy Dziennik, and kids of a million backgrounds are drinking various energy drinks.
I’m about to shoehorn onto a train with the most diverse cross section of individuals on any train in the world, who themselves live within most Byzantine network of pop-media advertising anywhere else. I wonder how elegantly all this diversity interfaces. Does anyone know who watches Burn Notice? How much consciousness do we share in New York versus a one-bar town in Iowa? How much of this NYC multitude ends up inside of me superficially through osmosis, and how much through engaged scholarship?
I have no idea what “Nowy Dziennik” translates to, nor will I ever know what Burn Notice is about.
They always say that New York is a melting pot, but I think sometimes it’s more like the lava lamp on Grace Slick’s nightstand.
I should probably ask the woman to my left how to say “hello” in Polish.
I just heard another New York peer round up to the decade when asked how long he’d been in New York. His first response was an efficient, “Ten years,” and then went on to say he moved to New York City in the middle of the Kerry/Bush election. It was probably an innocent fib, perhaps even a mathematical oversight, but it marked the bazillionth time I’d heard someone padding their New York tenure, and I’ve taken to recognize the move.
Moved NYC in April ’05: ”Been here about a decade.”
Moved in June of ‘04: ”Been living on the Lower East for the better part of the century.”
Implants in New York are like kids dying to have a double-digit age, or one too eager to become a teenager: “I’m almost 13”
“I’m starting big boy school next year.”
When I mentioned this to my wife, she told me that it was just as petty of me to scorekeep as it was for someone to embellish. Perhaps, but I can’t be punished for merely noticing a trend, can I? It’s hard to tell when one is over-vigilant because it feels exactly the same as observation. I would say I keep an objective mental inventory of all food in our house and she would say I focus more heavily on the number of squares on the chocolate bars that come and go. And to the contrary, I would say that it is she who notices me noticing the chocolate because she’s the one with the issue.
The point is that it’s hard to distinguish between impartial observation and vigilantism..and also that what one is looking for often says something about who he or she is.
I understand the impulse to compete in NYC though. New York is the only city I’ve ever spent any significant amount of time in that has a learning curve steeper than acquiring a language that has a totally different alphabet. There is a genuine satisfaction in finding a suitable apartment and to memorizing the neighborhood’s alternate side parking rules. Knowing how to negotiate the Brooklyn Bridge from the tangle of D.U.M.B.O. sidestreets will give a humble man a full-chest. And knowing how to get navigate Flushing, Queens to get good dumplings makes many an implanted New Yorker feel like Maro Polo.
No one has ever one-upped me in Wisconsin by claiming they’ve been in Fond du Lac for longer than I, nor has anyone bragged that they found an “undiscovered” neighborhood that was yet-to-be gentrified. People don’t chronicle time spent in a particular place in Wisconsin because time isn’t in itself a measure of valor.
If aliens came from a galaxy far far away and were looking for a place to live in the U.S., they might choose to lay anchor in Cedarburg, Wisconsin: the roads are paved smooth, grass grows green in open fields everywhere, food is (too) plentiful, the people are kind, and the living is comfortable even for the marginal citizen. And being from so far away, our aliens would probably be on the margins. But as long as said aliens didn’t exoticize or flaunt the culture on their old planet, no one would question when their ship landed in Cedarburg, just that it chose it willfully and respectfully. And that it didn’t try to stand out too much – Wisconsinites prefer formal over temporal continuity. They’re György Lukács to New Yorkers’ Bertolt Brecht.
Living in Cedarburg part-time for 7 months and 5 days, to the hour, I thought I’d left the tenure pretense behind. A student asked me today how long I’ve lived in New York and I reflexively said “a decade,” even though I only moved there in August of ’02.
In the moment I couldn’t tell whether the slip was due to efficiency or overdetermination. I thought about correcting the technical error, but he was looking at me like I was a painted warrior from the East.
“Really, why’d you come all the way out to Fond du Lac for?”
I avoided quicksand by asking him how long he’d been in Fond du Lac.
“Since I was born..but my family’s been here for almost 200 years.”
After a decade in New York City, I saw my first undomesticated roadkill yesterday. That is, unless it was a pet raccoon. I tried to take a picture of it as I passed it and nearly caused a pileup on the BQE, so just take my word for it.
I spent the entire traffic jam from the Kent/Wythe exit to downtown Brooklyn wondering where a raccoon could hide out in Brooklyn. Did it flop in McGolrick Park, chainsmoking brown cigarettes, drinking Spirytus by day with the clochards? Did someone throw it out of the back of a van rolled up in a carpet, mafia-style? The raccoon equivalent of Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy..got sick of the Catskill woods and moved to the Big City only to have his plan unravel?
One morning commute last fall I counted 16 expired deer along highway 41 in Wisconsin. Most of them were painted with large fluorescent “X’s” meaning they were tagged for pickup by the DOT. Imagine: there’s so much road kill, the state of Wisconsin has dedicated a bureaucracy to its removal. I brought up my road kill observations in class and it turned out a good fourth of my students were chomping at the bit that very moment to go hunting. They mentioned that the number of dead deer on the highway wasn’t a sign of deer depletion but proof of their overabundance; a problem they would shortly take on with rifles as their fellow SUV footsoldiers fought them on a second front with fenders.
The episode forced me to recall a Red -tailed Hawk that became a cause célèbre when it took up residence on Central Park West a few years ago. There was even a PBS special about “Pale Male,” as he was called, in which local Upper West Siders were interviewed about their relationship with him. One resident glorified Pale as a sublime natural wonder; another regretted its habit of eating pigeons in front of children too young to process life’s cruel lessons. Most spoke about it as if they were taking cues from Hakuna Matata in the Lion King, as if The Upper West was a natural ecosystem only with Grey’s Papayas instead of watering holes. After showing my class a clip from the show, their overwhelming response was, “Why are they treating it like a unicorn?!”
Apparently Red-tailed hawks are everywhere in Northern Wisconsin. No one would bat an eyelash if one swooped down and took a muskrat right in front of them. Someone suggested that if a Bald Eagle swooped down for a housecat it might be worth a double take. I said if a Bald Eagle came to Central Park they’d suspend alternate side parking for the week and change the colors on the Empire State Building for a day or two.
I recounted traveling to the Aldrich museum with two art collectors and a dealer a few years back. Along the way we saw some Canada Geese congregating off the road. One of the collectors excitedly referred to them “wildlife.” At the time the remark smacked as the kind of gross generalization that would start wars if said about a subgroup of humans. When I told the kids about the story, they guffawed and asked why rats don’t get the same reverence.
It was a good question. I said geese have a better PR firm, and you don’t see them dragging slices of pizza down the street backwards.
Later in class, I was going through slides I had taken at New York art galleries. One of my more observant students noted the vogue for forest dwelling creatures, antlers and rural rustica. That’s why I love teaching: naïve eyes are often the most objective. Eureka! When you live in an environment paved in asphalt and skyscapers block the sun, it skews one’s perception of what might be considered threatened wilderness.
I went on to note some of the dozens of artists I know who are engaged in mini-crusades to stem development along the New York waterfront or to expand green space in the city. This is usually in the form of portentous post-apocalyptic paintings or photos of unusual trash in the East River. All of it was anathema to my students, many of whom actually tend livestock in addition to going to school. Whatever the actual state of environmental degradation in the world today, it is safe to say that in Central Wisconsin there’s a justifiably lesser compulsion to announce the falling of the sky.
I told the students that I occasionally see a Red-tailed Hawk in my local park, too, but Greenpoint Brooklyn isn’t as glamorous as Central Park and doesn’t fetch the same press. I did mention that they film movies in McGolrick Park all time and it makes parking a bitch because they line the street with Haddad movie star trailers that take up ten parking spaces each.
“Movie Star trailers!!!! Wow, do they really have those? Do you ever see real celebrities just walking around?”
“Well if a Bruce Willis swooped down and grabbed a falafel from a halal food cart, it might be worth a double take.”
I was dying for some Thai food that would make my eyes swell and my forehead sweat. The kind that lets you know three hours later how often you pick your nose. I wanted SriPraPhai, or any of five neighborhood places that make me cough from the ambient chili in the air when I walk inside to pick up my order.
But I was in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where my ethnic choices are limited to nachos at a bar and grille, fried cheese curds and pretzel nibs (if those count as German,) or gelatinous Chinese from a restaurant that recently moved into a space occupied by a furniture store. Funny, there’s a jewelry store in town that inexplicably occupies a gaudily ornate and out-of-place Chinese Pagoda. I’ve always thought the two businesses should trade digs.
On my way to a lonely complex of box stores that rise like ominous commercial silos from the pastures along Highway 43, I spotted a promising option: “Noodles and Company.” I fantasized that it was a Phở restaurant as I drove past. Sure it was in a sanitized strip mall with a loopy corporate looking sign, but in Cedarburg one would put up a sign if they were selling weed out of their basement. It’s standard issue.
First, I went to the Michael’s hobby store, the only place within 20 miles to buy art supplies, salivating in anticipation of peppery noodles. In the aisles, kind ladies politely smiled and I charged past them machine-gunning head nods back, crazed by a jones for hot chilies and a fear of the dopamine-sapping low that overcomes me when I stay inside a large craft store for more than five minutes. Taylor Dayne’s 1987 hit “Tell it to my Heart” was playing, giving me even less time before I cratered. I overpaid for some matte medium and exploded out the building in under three minutes like a ten year old coming up for air after grabbing thrown pocket change from the bottom of a pool. I aimed my mother-in-law’s SUV, with its personalized plates announcing her by name, D-O-R-E-E-N, and headed for “Noodles and Company.”
Surprisingly there was a line. And there were siracha bottles on each of the well-spaced tables. Two promising signs. A teenager who would be played by Paul Dano in the movie about his life gave me a lukewarm smile with his fingers poised over a keypad to enter my order. Not a promising sign.
The menu featured “Bacon, Mac & Cheeseburger,” “Wisconsin Mac and Cheese,” “Beef Stroganoff,” and a couple of perfunctory pan-Asian style dishes, “Bangkok Curry” and “Japanese Pan Noodles.” I honestly thought Beef Stroganoff was something only my grandmother on my dad’s side made. I thought it was her own recipe. I grudgingly ordered some pan noodles, took a number and sat down at a clean table by a window looking out on a mattress superstore, recognizing that in the greater scheme of foody pretense, offering a beef stroganoff dish was a fairly advanced move.
Paul Dano’s girlfriend arrived with a disappointing stir-fry of bland noodles and sautéed vegetables, a pack of soy sauce and a fork and knife set. The plate was sprinkled with black sesame seeds, the cheap signifier for Asian food of any sort. Put sesame seeds on a bratwurst and it’s an “Asian Dog.” I had to go back to the counter to ask for chopsticks. Udon noodles with a fork? Really? When I did, Paul Dano looked at me like a dog does when you hide food behind your back.
“Do you have chopsticks?”
“Maybe…I’ll check in the back.”
Dano came back a few minutes later with a pair of basswood sticks in a paper sheath. The girl who brought out my tray was looking at me now, and so were two people waiting in line to be served. I felt like an alien troublemaker.
I ate my noodles alone without reading material. And my table was too far away from the others to see what others were reading, to look into purses, or to overhear conversations; all favorite New York pastimes that almost make up for having to dine like chickens in a Perdue plant. I thought of Ray Liotta’s line at the end of Goodfellas, “Right after I got here I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles with ketchup.”
Four days later, I got my chance to eat like a penned chicken, when my wife and I tried a popular restaurant in Long Island City. It was really dark..either that or my cones had reset to Milwaukee dining light levels. I started talking to my wife in my loud voice, not realizing the lack of a 12-foot buffer between tables that I’m used to at my local fine dining establishment in Wisco. I ramped up into a magnificent polemic about a writer who wrote a lazy review of a recent exhibition. My wife moved my glass of water toward her in anticipation wild hand motions. Before I could reach my Al Pacino-scent-of-a-woman finale, a head appeared from my blind spot.
I couldn’t make him out in the dark, but my stomach jumped into my throat. I felt as found out as Rumpelstiltskin. My rant was wine-fuelled, ad-hominem and not meant for anyone who didn’t know me well enough to know why I hate riding in the back of pickup trucks.
“I overheard your, uh, conversation.”
I took my candle and brought it up to his face sheepishly. “JOHN! How much of that did you hear…and how much hush money do you want?”
“It happened 14 inches from my head, I couldn’t help it. I could taste your hostility in my root vegetable gratin. I’m kidding..Don’t’ worry, I’m on your side, but you have to know everyone’s reading over your shoulder on a New York subway in rush hour and hearing your conversation at dinner. That’s part of the fun of living like sardines.”
“..I always say penned chickens.”
February 20, 2012 · Print This Article
My late-night Bushwick experiences over the past seven years have merged into a single composite memory: I get dropped off by a gypsy cab on a dark street named after a Dutch aristocrat, search for a DIY gallery-opening in the basement of a basement of an abandoned warehouse that I heard about from a friend who heard about it from an art handler at his LES gallery, and afterwards I head to Kings County Bar and continue to drink Yuenglings until early in the morning and then walk back to Greenpoint along Morgan Avenue avoiding shadowy drunk strangers and feral dogs.
Given this surreal recollection, it felt very strange to go to an opening last Friday night in Bushwick at Luhring Augustine Gallery, held in a large, manicured, out-in-the-open building. The blue-chip Chelsea mainstay recently joined the East Brooklyn slummer party by opening a spacious franchise at 25 Knickerbocker Ave.
The venerable gallery hit the party scene running by hosting a blow-out opening reception of Charles Atlas video projections that was almost like watching Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” minus Clint Mansell’s score. As I milled about on the sidewalk I saw the the well-heeled segment of the art world having a midlife crisis. This was its Fiat convertible and the cool young mistress with forearm tattoos riding shotgun.
Bellwether or Outlier, one couldn’t help wonder. My friend and I considered the dissonance between the gallery clients’ Citarellas on the Upper East and the Dominican bodegas dotting the streets around us.
“Does this move mean that Chelsea is the new 57th Street; the Lower East is the new Chelsea; Bushwick is the new Lower-East and Ridgewood is the new Bushwick?“
“What would the New Ridgewood be?”
“A pile of bedbug infested mattresses behind a KFC in Hollis, Queens.”
“Maybe a sinking trash barge in Long Island Sound. Extra exclusive because the whole abject scene would be time sensitive; if you got there too late you’d be both out-of-the-know AND dead.”
“Funny because it’s not that far off.”
I didn’t end up at Kings County until 3 AM that night because I had to fly back to Wisconsin early the next morning to attend an art opening of a family friend at the Cultural Center back in Wisconsin. My mother-in-law was helping out with the decorations for the Medieval-themed art exhibition, complete with barrels of mead, monks, minstrels, and, despite my warnings that they were New World animals, oversized turkey legs.
Unlike most galleries in Bushwick, merely finding the Cedarburg Cultural Center isn’t edifying; It’s intentionally easy to locate and its target audience is anyone who can fit through its well-decorated doors with close-toed shoes. It has a large sign out front and amply distributed posters at every diner, curio and fudge shop letting everyone who passes through town, young and old, square and hip alike, know when a spectacular cultural event will take place.
That evening I headed from my in-laws house to the Cultural Center – not a three-minute walk even if I was obstructed by rogue dogs and drunken streetwalkers. When I arrived I chatted up several of the volunteers who were still prepping for the opening, rolling antiqued, walnut stained wine barrels and draping tables in scorched burlap to give the Sheetrocked and acoustic ceilinged interior the patina they must have imagined glazed the Middle Ages. It all seemed a bit like a stage production or scene from a Monty Python movie; even so, it was such an earnest and unpretentious spectacle that Guy Debord himself might have granted them amnesty.
Drinking from flagons and picking turkey from my teeth, I had to wonder whether such a charade, especially one which professed to be art, was without pretense. If pretense is false display, this exhibition was both pretentious and spectacular by Guy Debord’s own standards about represented reality. High crimes in some high-cultural precincts.
Throwing back the last of my grog and adjusting my coffee filter hat, I wondered whether it was more pretentious to prove how resistant one is to the spectacular by entering a race to the obscurest of bottoms, or to have an art exhibition in 2012 based on a theme lifted from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, especially when art has suffered through a 150 years of modernist purification and 75 of Frankfurt School warnings about the implications of received culture.
When the antiqued barrels were finally emptied of their spiced wine and the turkey legs were gone, me, a jester and a monk headed out for a nightcap. Looking down Main Street our choices were illuminated in the night: “C. Weisler’s” “R.J. Thirsty’s” and T.J. Ryan’s.” Their signs radiated like supernovae, practically beseeching our company. No secret doors, no back alleys. I imagined how weird our motley cast of bouzingots would have looked shuffling down a desolate Bushwick street searching unmarked doors for the one opening to a secret demi-paradise of artfully crafted drinks and conversations.
With all this on my mind I dropped a joke. “How many hip intellectuals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
A collective head shrug.
“It’s an obscure number you’ve probably never heard of!”
A collective ‘huh?’
Dave the monk ended the radio silence, “Did you hear about the artist who starved to death?….He didn’t have enough MONET to buy food.”
So obvious, I thought. So obvious, indeed.
A monk, a jester and an artist walk into a bar…