Featured Story: Election

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's Quiet Round Here, Isn't It...

Apologies for breaking the wonderful silence that has settled over this blog. I'm far from finished with my online life. In fact, about a month ago I hatched a cunning plan to launch an all new and improved blog. It's now running in a functional enough state that I'm ready to unveil it. Behold the new hotness!

It's not just one new blog, but 3-in-1. I plan to post photos weekly, music whenever I'm inspired by what I'm listening to, and blog posts... well, I'm not guaranteeing a return to my travel days, but I'll make the occasional post. Please update your bookmarks or your RSS subscriptions if you're using a newsreader. I will cease to update this blog and instead direct my attention to the new site. I'll be online more often, and hopefully in a more interesting way.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Of Stars and Leaders

Bon Iver concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, From Spring / Summer

I wonder at what point Obama realised he had become a pop culture icon. The fact that many young people treat him like a rock star is old news by now, of course, but to see it in action is still startling.

I went to see The Decemberists the night after the presidential election.1 In another life, Colin Meloy, the lead singer, would be a school teacher. I could see it in the way he led the entire packed venue to slowly crouch down, then stand up, over and over, faster and faster, until the entire audience was jumping up and down and the band kicked off a boisterous song. And in his spontaneous interactions with the audience, whether it was playing a guitar solo with a peacock feather a fan was waving around, or borrowing a cell phone from someone in the audience, calling a number in the phone book, and singing an entire song into the phone.

But the most amusing part was seeing everyone go nuts when the band brought a cardboard cutout of Obama on stage. At one point they tossed it into the audience and the cardboard Obama crowdsurfed around. People were as excited as if it were a 1997 Radiohead concert and Thom Yorke had jumped into the crowd.

Image courtesy of Faith-Ann Young

  1. The picture at the top of this post is from a separate concert by Bon Iver, possibly the best show I've been to in New York. Now that it's winter time it seems appropriate to showcase one of his tracks.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hidden Lives

Sam recently told me about a moment she remembers clearly from many years ago. She was walking down the street and saw a homeless woman rummaging through a trash can. As she pored through it, a homeless man walked up with his cart, dug in it, pulled out an apple and offered it to the woman. On the busy street, no one paid attention to the generosity and care of the ragged people at the trash can.

As I sit in a coffee shop in DC taking a short break from work, I'm thinking of that moment she related to me for various reasons. What jolted my memory was seeing a homeless woman walk in a couple hours ago and take a seat at the window. A while later another woman joined her and they sat talking. As I sat with my drink, secretly eating a sandwich I brought with me, a man walked in and also joined them. It looked as though he wasn't familiar with the other two, as he introduced himself. I saw him ask one of the women for some money, which she lent him with a pat on the back. Who are these people? Where do they live? What do they do every day? As they catch shelter from the grey rainy day outside, it's an interesting glimpse of a community I know nothing about.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Before the man said a word I could tell he was in a bad mood. He opened the door with stormclouds on his face, and without giving me the chance to whimper "sorry to bother you," he barked, "the next time you knock on the door like the police are gonna bust in, think about all the people round here that have babies you're waking up!"

I looked at Jeremy, my partner in crime, and tried to find a way out of the situation. In the best of times I don't like pressing my views on people. How were we going to convince this man to vote for Obama when we landed on the wrong foot before saying a word?

"We're apologise sir," Jeremy said, "we didn't realise how hard we had knocked." The truth was, so many people hadn't answered their doors we weren't sure that anyone could hear us use the tiny knockers on all the doors in the apartment complex. By the end of the day we would have knocked on approximately 140 doors and talked to just 15 people. We weren't sure whether to believe so many people were truly out of their apartments on a grey and soggy Saturday afternoon so we had become a little over-enthusiastic trying to get them to answer.

To my surprise, we ended up having the longest conversation of the day with this man. After introducing ourselves as volunteers for the Obama campaign and asking if he had made up his mind who he would vote for in next week's presidential election (he hadn't), we asked what issues were most important to him. His primary concern was health care – the current situation was "ridiculous" – and his wife, a teacher, wanted to know whether Obama planned to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act.

Just over a week later I sat in a bar in the Lower East Side with friends and watched the election results start to roll in. I had decided to treat the night like New Year's by pairing the spectacle with drinks. I figured no matter which way the results turned out, I'd be happier if I wasn't sober. I had watched the Palin/Biden debates in the same bar, and like that prior evening the crowd was boisterous and vocal.

We watched CNN roll out an increasingly ridiculous array of computer generated effects to illustrate the vote counts, capped with the crowning achievement of using an actual hologram to project a commentator into the news studio. In between trying to determine how much better informed I felt by hearing news from a live Princess Leia, as opposed to the more pedestrian norm of a pundit's face on a giant plasma screen, I kept track of which way states were swaying. It was certainly interesting to see CNN predict state outcomes after only the first 2,000 votes had been counted. And I found the more I drank, the less I cared how statistically insignificant a 0% vote sample was.

The crowd was so loud by the time the election was called for Obama that I had no idea what state had first handed him the victory. Virginia? Pennsylvania? I couldn't tell. All I knew was that a spontaneous cheer went up. People were hooting, clapping, pounding the tables. The bar passed out glasses of free champagne and everyone toasted.

Soon after, we spilled out onto the street and made our way to another bar. We were some distance from the real party in the streets up in Harlem, but nevertheless celebration was in the air everywhere. By the time Obama gave his acceptance speech I was another couple drinks down, which made it that much harder to believe he was really there, that he actually won the election.

Where did this ecstatic feeling come from? It's not because I expect Obama to make a lot of progress with this country's problems. I have very modest hopes for what may come of his administration. The simple and sad truth is that 8 years of one of the worst U.S. leaders of all time has lowered my expectations to the point where I am excited by the prospect of an intelligent person in the White House. Someone who seems to grasp how the world works in reality. The fact that he showed one of the most nuanced understandings of the issue of race in this country is icing on the cake.

And it is that issue of race which I have been thinking about most in the days since the election. I voted for Obama because I thought he was the best candidate for the job, and his physical appearance had nothing to do with that opinion. Now that he is the president-elect, however, I have let myself think about the colour of his skin and am moved by what has happened. There is a song by Nina Simone I've been listening to a lot recently.

Nina Simone recorded the song in a performance she gave 3 days after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Her emotion shows through in only a few places in the song, but it is enough to glimpse just how devastating the period after his death must have been.

"Will my country stand or fall?
Is it too late for us all?
And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?"

Many interviews with potential voters before the election showed just how far from resolved the problem of racism in America is. The New York Times has been covering reactions to the election from all over the country and the world. In one clip from a school in Brooklyn, a black child is asked what he thinks of Obama's election. He replies, "since a black man became president, then other people that would usually think that black people would become something bad or anything else like that, we can become presidents or whatever we want to." This child feeling like people look at him as a problem is one of the sad realities of life in the U.S. An article in the New York Times on Sunday showed the attitudes black people have to grow up dealing with. In response to Obama's success, one woman interviewed commented, "I think there are going to be outbreaks from blacks. From where I’m from, this is going to give them the right to be more aggressive."

As sad as it is to hear those comments, I am still blown away by the person we have elected to be our future president. If nothing else, it will hopefully spark more progress on the problem of racism, and recognition of the unhealed wounds of America's roots.

On that note, I've been following up Nina Simone's song with this more uplifting Marvin Gaye-sampling track by Brother Ali.

Monday, September 01, 2008


From From Thanksgiving to Christmas

Shortly after I moved into my apartment last year, the superintendent for the building was fired. As a parting farewell, he destroyed the locks on the outside front door. It seemed he had neglected to perform any kind of maintenance as the next superintendent found serious plumbing problems, and corners of the basement were apparently piled with rat droppings.

Next up was a very personable superintendent named Al. Al grew up around the corner from where I'm living. The East Village. More specifically, Alphabet City.

From Winter / Spring

This is an area where a large part of New York comes to dine and party at night. It's lively, and it feels like a neighbourhood as opposed to faceless blocks of apartments. Al told me stories of the history of the area. A couple decades ago few people would set foot here. Broken down apartments, drug addicts, and trafficking ruled the streets.

People would drive in from Jersey, put money in the one small window of an apartment block that wasn't boarded up, take the drugs that were handed back, and drive out. A network of tunnels connected the basements of apartments along Avenue B from 2nd St. all the way to 14th St. Useful for escaping when the police mounted an occasional raid.

From Spring / Summer

2nd St. and B is where I live now. The gym I go to is situated in a basement of a building on B. There are at least 5 bars and restaurants on the one short stretch of street between 2nd and 3rd. Every Friday and Saturday there are crowds of people dressed up outside these places.

From Spring / Summer

I moved without the faintest idea of the history of this area of New York. It's strange to think how it's changed. Not all traces of the past have been erased, of course. The East Village still has a grungy feel about it. Uneven pavements, pothole-strewn streets, lots of brick and concrete. A few weeks ago I sat in Tompkins Square park, the site of rioting and police brutality when police tried to evict homeless 20 years ago. As I ate my falafel, I saw a fight break out between a group of drug addicts. Nearby on the grass people lay tanning and young families with babies picnicked. A strange mix.

I've yet to delve into the history of New York. Maybe because the size of the city makes it a daunting task. It's a shame I don't know more people like Al to make it personal. Now I don't even have Al to hear anecdotes from - he quit after a short time, and the building management has managed to get through two more superintendents since then.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


From From Thanksgi...

There are certain things I miss about San Francisco. The architecture, the hills, the beautiful views, the Bay, the food. New York pizza, as an aside, is highly overrated. I've heard people defend it by saying, "it's great because it's cheap and it's on every block." You know what? So is dogshit, but you don't see many people raving about that. Something doesn't add up and I think the error in the equation is false pride. I digress.

What I really miss is the feel and culture of the city. A place where an event like the Love Parade is allowed — thousands of people dancing in front of City Hall with police standing by as weed smoke floats through the air and people run around dressed up in costumes or dressed down in nothing.

All is not lost here in New York. Occasionally I catch snatches of San Francisco invading the less whimsical nature of this city. Several weeks ago my housemate Carlos joined thousands of other people dressed up for SantaCon. The entire event consisted of nothing more than dressing up as Santa and parading all over Manhattan, stopping at plenty of bars along the way. There was a shared festive attitude which induced total strangers to talk to each other and livened the atmosphere for everyone who happened to stumble upon the event.

No-one knew what the parade route was ahead of time, but the organisers sent out text messages which were forwarded from person to person until the entire group of hundreds all headed as one to the next stopping point. At that point everyone would mill around the streets, fill up all the bars in the vicinity, and generally cause a commotion. The fascinating part was that no-one seemed to know who the organisers were. It seems that terrorist camp training can be put to good use.

A couple weeks later I was surprised to find old subway trains taking up space on the V line when I walked into the 2nd Ave. station on a Sunday morning. It reminded me of the old streetcars from all over the world running along the Embarcadero, down Market Street and into the southern area of San Francisco. For a second I thought I needed to go back to bed to clear my head, as the previous night had been inspired by a 5-litre wine bottle on display in a store which Erik and I bought and shared between not quite enough friends.

Once I affirmed that I was indeed awake, I got on the train and found that each carriage was from a different decade, stretching back to what looked like the 20s or 30s. The advertising space was lined with old ads for Pomade and filtered cigarettes ("The Healthy Cigarette!"), and the MTA authorities let people wander from one car to the next as the train was moving. The cars ran as a special event each Sunday in December, completing a loop of the city every hour and a half. It was lucky timing that my brunch excursion coincided with it.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Picture the quintessential high society party — sipping champagne and snacking on caviar. Looking out on a city 60-some storeys above the ground. Catching snippets of smalltalk about business partners and recently closed deals while a piano man plays jazz in the background. Congratulations, you've just pictured the Google Christmas party. If it sounds a little pretentious, well, it wouldn't be New York if it weren't. Relax. You obviously need to grab a couple dry martinis from the open bar. Then leave the wine- and cheese-tasting room and hit the dancefloor.

It turns out that there are benefits to long distance relationships—wait, I should rephrase that. There are benefits to other people's long distance relationships. It's good luck for me that Jasper is in one as I was his replacement girlfriend for the party.

In terms of being his invited guest.

Not afterwards.

Who would have thought that people who sit in front of computers all day long would attend an event in elegant evening dresses and stylish suits? I suppose it's understandable that people will make the effort if you rent out the entire Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller Center, but I wasn't expecting it. I wonder if the case is the same in California, or if people there show up to formal office parties dressed in shorts and sandals.