Big-hearted, yet petty

One afternoon last week, I came home to find a car pulled into the driveway next to my house. It’s not my driveway — amazingly, I don’t have a driveway, or a garage — but it’s eight feet from my front porch, so I have a certain proprietary interest in  what goes on there.

It was doing one of those half-in-the-driveway, half-blocking-the- sidewalk things, often employed by people who will “just be a minute,” which could be an hour. The car was a Mercedes GLS SUV which “starts” at $68,700. And the engine was running. Someone was at the wheel (hard to tell more because: tinted windows) but she (or he) was just idling, waiting for whatever.

OK, I have a problem with expensive cars. I drive a 17-year old Honda Accord, and, while I don’t expect everyone to follow my example, I think it’s useful to remember that a car is morally complicated transportation device. It seems ostentatious and excessive to own a car that costs more than the average salary of an American worker. Surely there’s a soup kitchen somewhere that could use some of that dough.  I think Americans have become too comfortable with extravagant shows of wealth, not just Trumpian excess but also the kind of low-key swagger familiar to people in my area: $20 cups of coffee and $800 dinners and $50 million houses with a separate yoga studio and full-grown tree planted because it invites contemplation of the transient nature of existence.

And I have a problem with parked cars with their engines running. Wasting gas for no reason at all, spewing earth-destroying chemicals into the air because the driver can’t be bothered to turn a key or press a button.  Makes me so mad I write incomplete sentences. I’m calmer now.

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Now, friends, that is a vehicle.

 Now, anyone can tell you that the milk of human kindness flows through my veins. I try to be a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather. I am an exemplary neighbor. I ask “How are you keeping, Missy?” to a woman who might very well be named Missy. I ask “How about those Giants, Fred?” to a disgruntled Oakland A’s fan, implicitly suggesting that he may wish to abandon his long-held allegiance to the local squad.

(Really, there is nothing sadder than an Oakland A’s fan. His team has stopped trying to win. They gladly give up their best players for “prospects,” who, if they’re any good, will immediately be traded in exchange for more prospects.  Really, they have no incentive to win. They make money anyway, so why bother? The Giants bother. They may not always win, but they try. I digress.)

I do not hold grudges. I am slow to anger and quick to forgive. I am genial even in hard times. I am, in point of fact, a prince of a fellow.

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Almost seems to have a personality, doesn’t it?

But, in examining my shortcomings, I do realize I have resentments, and most of them seem to be about motor  vehicles. Some days, it’s really fortunate that I do not have a firearm in my Honda. It may be that I cry out to an indifferent universe and ask it to rain fire upon the malefactors. Perhaps I pound the steering wheel. I try to remember not to pound the accelerator.

What behavior causes such a violent reaction? Oh, I’m so glad you asked.

∅ Changing lanes without signaling. It is so damn easy to flip a little lever up or down. It’s a service to people behind you. People might say, “there’s no one behind me.” First of all, you don’t know that. Blind spots, right?  Second, just get in the damn habit. Make it automatic.

∅ Refusing to let people into your lane. I may have mentioned this before. You’re accelerating on an on-ramp. The lane does not last forever, because it’s on an on-ramp. There’s a guy to your left, and he just refuses to let you merge naturally. Meantime, you’re running out of lane, so you have to brake precipitously, and if there’s a car behind you: Rear-ender! Who gets all territorial about a lane? Who wants to make the driving experience harder for other people? I ask you. I just asked you. Who?

∅ People who suddenly remember their exit and swerve over three lanes to get to it. Honest to God, pay minimal attention to your destination. Going to San Rafael? Then get in the damn lane that goes to San Rafael. Easy, right? Then you can go back to dreaming of Jennifer Lopez frolicking in the surf.

∅ Tailgaters and high-beam users. I know this is a familiar complaint, but why do people do it? Is it all testosterone poisoning? What if I hit the brakes suddenly, bro? What if I am suddenly blinded and swerve over to your lane and there’s a head-on collision that suddenly involves 12 cars in a carnival of carnage?

∅ Taking two parking places. Doesn’t everyone hate that? In a 17-year-old Honda, one can solve that problem. One scratch more or less; do I care? But the owner of that other car cares. He plunked down a cool $200,000 for his Mercedes G-class off-road (!) vehicle. Not that I would ever suggest intentionally scraping another car, because that would be wrong. Although, taking two parking places is also wrong. So complicated.

Perhaps you think I’m just a cranky old guy. I promise, I have been swearing at other drivers since my mid-20s. There are many indications that I am irritable and elderly, but this is not one of them.

I would like to add arrogant bicyclists and clueless pedestrians, but my bile is spent. It felt good, typing all that. I understand that bad drivers are people too, and I fully support their right to vote, to earn a living, to love the people or peoples of their choice. But I also appreciate that civilized living in a crowded urban environment requires enthusiastic agreement to a set of common principles, the main one of which is: Don’t be a dope.

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The transient nature of existence

Photography by Tracy Johnston

All my questions cheerfully answered by Michelle Mizera

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The large jonathan

New York Index:

Duration of trip: Nine days.

Number of Broadway shows seen: Four

Number of Broadway shows seen choreographed by Shana Carroll: One

Number of trashy books read: Four

Number of trashy books so bad I left them behind in the airplane seat pocket: One

Number of museums visited: Four

Number of polystyrene penises seen: One

Number of boroughs visited: Two

Number of Bed, Bath & Beyond stores visited: One

Number of weddings viewed in Central Park: One

Number of Metro Card swipes unsuccessfully attempted: Fourteen

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Near Lafayette and Prince: Summer in the city

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The source of my infatuation

My mother went to Vassar in the 1930s, and many weekends she’d take the train down to Manhattan and go out drinking with Princeton boys. She was enraptured by essentially everything, the subways and the hotel bars and the nightclubs where you could get crazy to swing music. She saw Benny Goodman live! She told me that several times, and she played “Stompin’ at the Savoy” on the record player.

We were far away from New York, in a small bungalow on a small street in dumpy Pasadena, California. There were copies of the New Yorker piled up on the table, and books by John Cheever and John O’Hara and all those drunk-in-Connecticut boys. She read me Thurber’s Columbus stories as I was going to sleep — I knew “The Night to Bed Fell” better than I knew “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” When I was 10, I knew who Peter Arno was.

So Manhattan is, for me, is the island of romance. Every inch, every cross-street, every run-down diner and barren lobby. I was nostalgic for things I have never even seen. Even after all these years, even after working there and sweltering there and killing cockroaches there, I still think of New York as the pinnacle of civilization.

There weren’t any cockroaches in California, so I thought that they, too, were sophisticated.

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Artistic conversations

“This would be a good photo, right here.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You know, essence of Brooklyn, food truck-based Cuban restaurant, Greenlight Books, diversity, strollers, those kinda hats that…”

“Yes, but not really a photograph.”

“Well, Jeez. OK. Jeez.”

(later)

“So this would be good. Fort Greene, Walt Whitman, Brooklyn Eagle, just a sense of the…”

“It’s a plaque.”

“Yes, but you could do something with it. Get a kind of, maybe, a young writer of literary fiction, with her baby, with two babies, multi-racial babies, and…”

“Not a photograph.”

(later)

“So this, this –“

“You could just take photos with your phone, you know. Use them in the blog.”

“But I didn’t take any photos in Brooklyn.”

“Use your skills. Word pictures, killer descriptions, metaphors, similes, evocative whatevers. You’ll figure it out.”

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Only known photograph from Brooklyn (snapshot by JC)

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Notes on a meme:

It is a commonplace now that Oakland is the new Brooklyn. I guess that means that the center of creative energy and youthful exuberance has moved from Manhattan (or San Francisco) to its less glamorous neighbor to the east, the formerly poor and clueless sister city now made relevant and hip by changing demographic times. Let us come together in this boutique of  hipitude.

Of course, that’s not true. Maybe it was true for 17 seconds in 2004, but now property values are inflated in both places and the inhabitants are the about-t0-be-rich looking for a nice condo in the colorfully changing neighborhood. The new rich are a little more multi-hued than the old kind, but they’re still the same breed, Mad Men of the 21st Century, flocking with others of their own species, secure in their uniform uniqueness.

But in both places, it is possible to squint at the older buildings and see the communities now vanished, ethnic affinity groups clustered in neighborhoods, changing with the waves of immigration that have defined America. Now it’s all the Culture of the Deracinated, a commercial potpourri of ideas from German minimalist poets and Puerto Rican muralists and Japanese cartoonists and Ghanian percussionists.

 Brooklyn has much more stringent height limits, so it will keep its lovely tree-lined brownstone-lined streets, as opposed to Oakland’s growing collection of grotesque condos. Which seems great, until the phrase “Potemkin village” occurs to you.

 Brooklyn is Oakland on steroids; Oakland is Brooklyn with a human face.

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Trashy book report

“The Accident” by Chris Pavone: Someone writes a tell-all book about Rupert Murdoch. Complications ensue. Murdoch appears under a pseudonym, but it’s all very wink wink. Three cheeseburgers.

“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley: Someone kills Roger Ailes (pseudonym again) and some other folks. Why? How? Who? And why is Bill O’Reilly (pseud.) acting like such a dick? Fortunately, one moral man and so forth. But still, what fun. Four cheeseburgers.

“The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: Look, if you want to write a movie, write a movie. Don’t make us read this dysfunctional family drama for 300 pages and then turn it into honeysuckle and balloons for the last 50 pages. Total betrayal. Why do people like this book? Maybe nobody finished it. One-half burger

 “The Second Life of Nick Mason (a Nick Mason novel)” by Steve Hamilton: Left on the airplane. Bad Lee Child. I entirely forget who did what to whom, but one moral man and so forth. The New York Times went nuts for this.  What? One cold half-eaten fry.

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Skyline from Brooklyn side. Five cheeseburgers 

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The persistence of hope

I was walking down 72nd street, planning to walk across Central Park to the Met, which is one of the great experiences available on earth. I was just passing the juice bar, what we had come to think of as “our juice bar,” when I realized: Politics is boring.

Sure the Presidential race is exciting, in a Harry Potter kind of way. Will Voldemort be defeated? We’ll have to wait until November. But really, there are a lot of interesting and complex issues to be considered, and none of them are being talked about in any real way. It’s all posturing. It’s all looking for the message that connects emotionally, which is exactly the opposite of intelligent discussion.

And intelligent discussion is kind of fun. Listening to people who know more than you do: Exciting. It’s stimulating to hear an idea you’ve never heard before.  And do we not crave stimulation of the brain? We do.

For instance: There are two popular musicals on Broadway that deal with aspects of the black experience. They are more interesting than the rhetoric of Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter. “Shuffle Along” is about reclaiming racist stereotypes, in much the same way the the LBGT community reclaimed the word “queer”. Minstrel shows were, after all, based on art forms created by slaves. Why not own them?

“Shuffle Along” is being criticized for being too didactic, but we need a good history lesson from time to time, particularly a history lesson that includes fabulous tap dance numbers and Audra McDonald singing ballads.

And there’s also “The Color Purple,” which has a mostly white audience cheering the triumph of a black woman. The ideas are commonplace, but Cynthia Erivo (holy God she’s good) and Heather Headly make it visceral. It’s a way into the heart of the matter; it’s a way of provoking conversation about the persistence of misery.

We went down to the Bowery to see the New Museum.  All five floors are devoted to women artists. They each had something to say about gender, and it went way beyond “sisters are doing it for themselves.” I thought idly that it would be nice to see an all-male show dealing with gender, but alas, my sex does not seem to be up to dealing with that yet.

And it wasn’t just gender. Nicole Eisenman (and she’s as good as Cynthia Erivo) has a complicated and fabulous vision of modern life, mostly on canvases too large for my little iPhone, but I did manage to capture a little meditation on narcissism called “Selfie”.

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(Snapshot by JC)
 

Even stranger was a piece by Cally Spooner (called, unfortunately, “On False Tears and Outsourcing”) which features dancers miming acts of violence behind a glass wall — outside of which patrons sip coffee and chat.

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“Never mind her; look at my hand”
 

 

We went to the Whitney; same thing. I have one quibble: A lot of the art is political, and many of them have mission statements written in the purest artspeak gobbledygook. I think maybe that’s an artifact of grant writing, which virtually demands large quantities of horseshit. And I suspect that some of the art is pure impulse — hey, this would look cool; how can I get a Guggenheim to do it? For instance:

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Excellent snakes, excellent pelican (snapshot by JC)
 

This is a detail from a huge floor diorama by Rochelle Goldberg called “No Where No Way.” The explanatory card talks about environmentalism in some murky way, but I deeply believe that Goldberg thought “I can make these amazing objects out of stainless steel and ceramic; what the hell can I say about them?”

Anyway: Ideas. Beauty. Musings about empire.

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Parental pride

So yeah, our daughter Shana has a show on Broadway. That was a nice sentence to type. It’s the new Cirque du Soleil thing, “Paramour,” and she choreographed the circus tricks and did some general mucking about. The show is a huge smash financially if not critically, and now she can go home and do her own projects, which is good news for truth and beauty.

Yeah, we went backstage and met the stars, and generally hung around the periphery looking exactly like visiting parents. They all called me “Mr. Carroll,” and I told them about listening to Lincoln at Gettysburg — because I am so very old.

So, you know: New York

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The artist with the wonderful Eisa Davis (snapshot by JC)
 

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Photography by Tracy Johnston

Ornamental marketing by Michelle Mizera

God those captions look ugly. Sorry about that.