Sunday, December 23, 2007

On Sale, for one day only, THE MAGNA CARTA!

My last Tuesday went something like this:
8:30am, up and scanning emails, checking voicemails. Open up one that says Sotheby's is hosting the sale of the Magna Carta at 7pm that evening. Get really excited; its the Magna fucking Carta! Check the Sotheby's website - they open at 9am.
8:45, hit the shower, make some coffee and toast.
9, call Sotheby's. Yes, they're selling the Magna Carta, yes its free for observers and yes it starts at 7pm, but get there early cause there's gonna be
a lot of watcher-ons like myself.
9-3 or so, take care of business, personal and professional. Attempt to find a date for the auction via Craigslist Missed Connections page, posted with the title: "Are You Sexy? Are You Smart? Do You Want To See The Magna Cart(a)?" No-one responds.
3-5 or so, errands in the city, including swiping a pair of $25 fuzzy slips from TJ Maxx.
5-7, all the way uptown to 72nd and York. Drink a beer and make some phone calls to California about some upcoming tours for a group travel company called Contiki that I also work for. 7pm rolls around, I manage to convince my new roommate Marcelo as well as this funny quirky bird of a girl, named Ivana, also a building friend, to showup.
The place is packed. This is a single-item bid, its just the Magna Carta, and they're expecting it to fetch between $20 and $30 million dollars. Thi
s particular M.C. dates from 1297 and is the only one existing in the Western Hemisphere - out of the complete set of 17 Magna Cartas, 15 are in England and are never leaving; one is in Australia and is never leaving. This is the only one in the Western Hemisphere, previously owned by Ross Perot since 1984 and on display at the National Archives. Ole Perot decided to sell his copy, with the proceeds going to his children's charity. This is, quite honestly, the only time a single document of this much importance will ever go on sale, ever. This is what brings us to Sotheby's on a Tuesday night for the public sale of one of history's most important documents.

David Redden, Sotheby's VP and the auctioneer took the stage and the crowd, its 20 cameras and 30+ reports hush up. He says "Well. The Magna Carta. What can I say?" I expect him to start giving an expedited history of the document, something along the lines of "written in 1297, it is the definitive document that rebukes the Monarchical system by indirectly introducing the Common Law of Man . . ." but no. Instead, he launched straight into the bidding. "Do I have $12 million? $12, $12, $12, I have $12, How about $12.5? $12.5 I have $12, I have $13 yes I have $13, $14 . . . etc." It climbed to $19 million an
d held. Held. Held. And in less than 3 minutes it was over. $19 million dollars for this sheepskin parchment, riddled with holes, hanging onto a massive wax seal attached via tattered ribbon, and one of the three most important documents in America's history (the other two being the Declaration o Independence and the Bill of Rights, of course.) Sudden. Quick. It was truly heartracing.

Afterwards there was a Q&A session with the new owner, a David Rubenstein of the Carlysle Corporation, an equities fund company, or something to that effect that I'll never understand or have to worry about. He was very sincere, almost blushing. He was phoning in his bids, as he had flown in from DC and his plane and cab were late and he almost missed the entire auction. He made some very tender and patriotic statements about keeping this document in the Western Hemisphere, on view at the National
Archives for public viewing, and how he couldn't let any foreigner or outsider take this document away from hardworking Americans. It wasn't clear if he spent his personal money or his company's money. After a couple of questions including "Do you speak any Latin?" & "What's your favorite passage?", I shot my hand up and inquired "So, do you plan on spending any alone time with the Magna Carta?" and the gathered crowd had a chuckle. Mr. Rubenstein remarked "This IS my alone time!" and gestured to the cameras convened.A few more questions and then he had to pose for individual pictures and we all took to the streets. It was some of the most exciting 3 minutes I'd spent in a long time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Lost in History vol. 46 - Unsilently Parading Through Our NY Night

It was cold on Saturday night. Not freezing-wind-to-the-bone cold, but a numb-the-ears-and-nose-if-uncovered-for-too-long cold, a cold that seeped into shoes and made walking uncomfortable, a cold that stiffened knee joints and made one’s eyes water if they stayed unblinked for too long. And the two or three hundred people that had gathered around the Washington Square Arch, bundled up and bearing boomboxes, probably wouldn’t have wanted the weather any other way. If it’s too warm, then Unsilent Night doesn’t feel right, like celebrating Hanukkah in June. If it’s too cold, then the hour-long event feels like it’s taking forever, and the all-pervasive cold distracts people from the magic and aural audacity of Unsilent Night.

Unsilent Night is the work of Phil Kline, a musician and visual artist who, every year since 1992, has created this city-block-long sound system slash roving party slash impromptu parade slash subtle protest against the commercialization of Christmas. On the second or third Saturday of December (essentially, two Saturdays before Xmas itself), Kline gathers people in Washington Square Park and has them bring their audio-playing machines. Old-school Radio Raheem shoulder blasters, iPods plugged into $600 Bose minispeakers, trenchcoated-John Cusack--holding-up-his-heart-on-a-mixtape-in-a-boombox-style sound-machines, laptops, short-wave radios, guitar amps, Sesame Street plastic tape players, you name it, if it plays music, then there will be someone carrying it. Kline himself prefers cassette players to CD and digital players, as there’s more of a music-recorded-onto-magnetic-tape authenticity to the sound than in a digital encoding, but he takes what he can get. Kline also organizes a few dozen boomboxes to lend to people, but as the event’s grown organically over the last fifteen years, he’s had to rely upon people bringing their own. And they do.

We congregated at a quarter to seven. People schmoozed, sipped tea, sipped whiskey, reconnected with busy-bee New Yorker friends. At seven the procession started. Kline had everyone, on the count of three, press Play. Some hit the button a split second earlier, some a split second later. All of a sudden, washing over Washington Square Park was this gorgeous, glorious orchestra of sound. Wind chimes, a piano tinkling, stringed instruments plucked, is that the sound of icicles breaking? With the tapes, CDs, iPods, radios, players and humans all playing, we started the procession. From Washingon Square we headed east to 4th Street, north on Lafayette, a nice wide diagonal cut across Astor Place to Cooper Square, continuing east on St. Marks Place to Tompkins Square Park. It was a simple, easy route; hardly over a mile of city streets, but covering an incredible amount of history. Allen Ginsberg read HowlTriangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. That’s where Abraham Lincoln made a\his famous "Might Makes Right" speech denouncing slavery in 1859, which got him onto the NY Republican ticket and eventually into the White House. That building used to be called the Electric Circus, and it was where Andy Warhol debuted the Velvet Underground with Nico in 1966. And so on and so on.

Of course, none of this was running through my head as I walked with my date and the crowds and the boomboxes and the sounds. I was just listening. With my head, my heart, my body, my whole being. Repeatedly (and quietly) shushing the talkers. Hustling ahead and dropping behind to catch different syncopations of the same sound. Positioning myself between two boombox speakers to try and live right between each note. And enjoying the cold of the night, the warm arm looped through mine, the sounds of Phil Kline’s endless song, and the contentedness of two to three hundred New Yorkers all experiencing the same wintertime magic.

(originally published on Dec 17th, at

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Great Wall = like The Empire State Building but MUCH more Incredible

The Great Wall is greater than great. Its enormous. Gigantihuge. Absolutely impossible to comprehend, unless the thing is being experienced directly, in person, feet on the stone and hands on the parapets. Someone once told me that no reproduction (IMAX film, glossy photo book) can do justice to the Grand Canyon. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon but I can't find fault with the logic. I can say that the same truism applies. Although the Grand Canyon was carved by nature and the Great Wall most certainly wasn’t, the enormity of the construction makes it, in some ways, more impressive, more astounding that the goddamn thing was ever made. Taking into account the sheer number of workforce, the weight of the stone that these men worked with, the thickness and height, and the length my god, the length. Like the canyon, there can be no descriptions that do the thing all its deserved glory. But what am I, if not a poetic-urban-journalist with a tendency to hyperbolize? So, with an army of synonyms and a clutch of photographs, I’ll attempt to describe my Great Wall experience.We decided to take the extra time and head to one of the Wall’s lesser touristy sections. Mutianyu, an hour and a half outside of Beijing, albeit hardly the tourist-free spot on the Wall is still farther from the crushing hordes than its better-known counterpart Badaling. Alisa hired a private driver and van, as well as assistance from a pretty, lovely private tour guide, a 29 year old Beijinger with perfect English named Eileen, courtesy of At first I was reticent about taking this very posh, very personal experience to the Wall and back – being a world traveler who prides himself on his budgetary restraints, via couchsurfing, street eating, using public transport and/or biking, (but ALWAYS hiring a GOOD TOUR GUIDE at the sites!) etc. I found having our own private van and driver, along with the guide, was a new, interesting deal. By the end of the day I acknowledged that in certain circumstances, hiring a private driver and van can be a windfall for reasons, one of which is explained below. And if the guide knows his/her shit, and is a compelling, interesting, personality, then that can be the best purchase of them all.

On the way to Mutianyu we drove past one of Beijing’s outer-suburb fruit farms – another corollary to the NY-Beijing parallel worlds (but it was too cold for an emergency session of THE LEVYS’ ANNUAL APPLE-PICKING XTRAVAGAZNA BONANZA SPECTACULAR 2007! EVERY APPLE MAKES IT UP TO HEAVEN!) Upon zipping past an enormous fiberglass cornucopia-bounty-of-fruits-overflowing-from-a-walnut-shell prop, we had the driver pull over so we could snap ridiculous pictures. The rest of the drive was a calm, quiet ride through the outer districts of Beijing’s countryside. Then we got to the Wall.

First things first were the souvenir hawkers (ESB parallel
= the Virtual Reality ride ticket shillers outside). Another NY parallel - The Nigerians in Battery Park, who need to take serious lessons from the tiny Chinese men and (mostly) women at the souvenir stands and tourist markets. Those Nigerians got nothing on the Chinese. All sorts of tourist souvenir gifts: from “hand-carved” wooden Dragon masks to cheap-ass canvas Chairman Mao messenger bags, from dried fruits and macadamia nuts by the gram to ugly paintings of pastoral Chinese scenery, from silk robes stitched together in an outer-province sweatshop to more kitsch garbage prominently displaying the face of everyone’s favorite pickled Commie; all sorts of unbelievable crap for sale with the standard white devil markup of approximately 200-1000%. There’s really no telling how much this shit should sell for, other than nowhere near the price they spit at you. The best way to go about shopping with these vultures (best as I can tell, being a White Devil of course,) is to ask their price, chop it into a third or a quarter or a fifth or a sixteenth and spit it back. Then when they get incensed and bust out with the exact same comical routine of “NO! I MAKE NO MONEY. NO GOOD! YOU GIVE ME . . .” you barter and bargain and back and forth until you get to a price you’re happy to shellout. It helps to walk away sometimes, to threaten to take your fat American wallet next door, where everybody is selling the exact same crap. It also helps to have a calculator to whip out and point at emphatically. It also also helps to shoot the same over-exaggerated faces back at the merchants when they act up on you. No matter what kind of price gets settled on, trust us. They’re making a fat stack of yuan.

We opted to take the chair-lift (ESB parallel = the 3 elevators) up and the plume-ride down. Well worth the $2 – $3 it cost each way. Our cable car once carried the holy Dalai Lama when he visited in the mid-90s. Sadly, we missed the cable car that carried former President Bill Clinton, who visited in ’98. At the top it was a short hike up the stairs to the Wall itself (parallel – the ESB elevator lets you off right inside the gift shop, to which it’s a short walk to the observation deck). And then . . .

Simply incredible. Indescribable. The thing just went on for miles and miles. Winding along the tops of the mountain ridge, snaking topographically so that it dipped and weaved and wound it way around off into the countryside, disappearing, reappearing, sliding into the endless China of mountains and cities. It was impossible to follow the line as it twisted and turned from one mountaintop to the other, just simply noticeable as the top-most crenellations zigged, zagged & zugged, seemingly into infinity. This section of the Wall (which, contrary to popular belief is no longer continual – parts of the Wall have fallen apart; only the reconstructed sections can be visited) was built in 1368 and renovated in 1983. There were massive guard towers situated every couple hundred kilometers and one rather large guard station, with enough room for beds, a kitchen, and storage, apart from the standard sentry posts. A super-rare feature here – both the inner and outer parapets had merlons (holes) in the wall so sentry guards could shoot at invaders. According to Wikipedia, “The Mutianyu Great Wall has the largest construction scale and best quality among all sections of Great Wall.” It was absolutely awesome. We took lots of ridiculous pictures.(Another fun comparison to the ESB is that as we were making our way around the Wall, Eileen, who was peppering us with facts and stories and dispelling more myths [was built by soldiers and laborers, and not slaves are is commonly misconceived], sent us off to walk some of the wall off a ways, and she hungout at one of the 3 watchtowers, cos it was a whole lot of walking around the wall that she’s done before. This just so happens to be a tour guide trick that we employ when bringing groups to the Empire State Building – instead of the hours-long wait on millions of lines, we just hangout at the bottom of the damn thing, and wait for our groups to go up and come down.)

Finally we get tired of marching up and down these tiny little half-steps and posing for multitudes of pix, and we trudge up and down the myriad hills that makeup the wall towards the
toboggan-on-wheels-track-cart-slide-thingie that take intrepid souls from the top back downhill. And hells bells, you better believe we rocked that shit! With a level to control the braking mechanism, and some 30 degree luge-track-style turns, I hammered-ass down the slope, slowing only enough to kick Jonah in the back as he had gone before me and his cart wasn’t zipping too fast. At the bottom we posed for a picture with two bozos dressed like Genghis Khan, did a blitz of tourist shopping, and boarded the van for the ride home, with a lunch stop.

Here’s where the private driver thing kicks ass. Not behold
en to a bus route or schedule, and on the super-hungry side of things, we instructed Eileen to tell the driver to take us to a local small-city restaurant that he likes, where it wouldn’t be a problem for us carnivores to get meat, and for Alisa to get fish/seafood and veggies. We ended up at this place called Mom’s Family Restaurant. Located inside Mom’s house, we were given a private room in the back, complete with couch (not pictured). Eileen took all the orders, and the food arrived and was placed down on the Lazy Susan (almost all restaurants in China have this thing, further exemplifying the Family-style dining concept) and we dug in. It was fucking incredible, a veritable xplosion of taste, texture, smell, spice, hot, cool, together. We had a mutton Mongolian Hot-Pot, a whole broiled fish with tofu and some kinda sweet brown sauce, butterflied fried chicken breast in a not-too-sweet honey sauce, the requisite Szechuan noodles, a roasted pork plate, some greens with garlic, white rice, possibly more dishes I’m losing in the recollection. We fed 6 people (including the driver) with 7 or 8 dishes, 3 big beers, ate until we felt close to bursting, and the whole meal, everything included, $15. I wanted to cry it was so beautiful. We rolled ourselves into the van and took off back to Beijing. The most wondrous food coma came quickly.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Lost in History vol. 45 - Lost in China!

I’ve just returned to NYC from a two-week adventure/vacation to visit family, friends, and a beloved, taxidermy’d Communist leader in Beijing and Hong Kong, the respective characters of the three cities having been the subject of much conversation between friends and family over dishes of Peking Duck and Szechwan Chicken. This New York-ophile found Hong Kong too unfriendly. Four days there, and it was apparent that the city hates pedestrians. With most of the streets practically off-limits to crossers (via the ubiquitous torso-high white metal fence), the sidewalks narrow (okay, not as narrow as Lower Manhattan’s walks, but pretty damn narrow) and elevated skyways looping the pedestrian from one office complex to another without ever touching ground,the city’s layout encourages more and more people to ride around as opposed to walk about. Many of the boulevards were only crossable via underground passageways. With the high-level, high-intensity, fast-moving traffic — a combination of double-decker buses, double-decker light-rail trams, cars, cabs, vans trucks and bikes (not many of those, unfortunately) — all going the other way, like in England, it made for intense traffic phobia and disorientation.

Also, Hong Kong has a lot of shopping malls. A lot of shopping malls. Mini-malls in the metro stations; a junk clothing mall (like Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn) mixed in with a building full of hostels; a fashion and accessories mall in the ferry terminal; a luxury mall connecting an underground intersection crossing with a park with this passageway acting as the only way one can access the park . . . it was exhausting. Hong Kong’s relentless commercial valuation of every soul just trying to get around was more than a little depressing. It felt like an entire city of Midtown Fifth Avenues and Lower Broadways in SoHo.

Beijing is more of New Yorker’s kind of town. First off, it has twice the population of NYC. So they’re used to high-density living and hundreds of people crossing the street at the same time. Beijing is also super-flat, like Manhattan. Our flatness is manmade — we flattened the hills to build skyscrapers. The word Manhattan comes from the Munsee Indian word Mannahatta, which has a few different meanings: 1) long hilly island, 2) place of timber to make arrows, and 3) place of general inebriation. All true. Beijing, however, is naturally flat — a blank slate to build upon. It was developed over three hundred years but formalized when Chairman Mao and the Commie party widened the streets in 1949. Our man Mao didn’t do anything half-assed: eight-, ten- and twelve-lane boulevards are the norm, for Soviet tanks to squeeze through in case of riots. What’s more, the entire city is on a grid plan. Like Manhattan’s grid plan, this made following maps and orienting the city on a bicycle easy and a blast. New York and Beijing are on the same latitude, so they experience (mostly) the same weather patterns. And Beijing is a foodie’s paradise: incredible eats and phenomenal street food all up and down the tiny hutongs — little rabbit-warren type villages for the lower classes. Most of the hutongs were surrounded by newly built 20 story high-rises for the quickly growing middle classes.

Kind of like the lux condos going up all over town, lording over tenements and their (formerly) working classes. There was energy in Beijing, a rush-to-get-things-done type of attitude, a confidence and righteousness in the faces and conversations (in English) that I had with residents, either expat or native born. The entire city is f’ing crazy about the upcoming Olympics (thankfully, unlike NY). The subway line was a little shaky and small, but within the next decade the entire metro is expanding to three times its current size — almost exactly what happened when New York’s original IRT lines were joined by the BMT in the 1910s and 20s and the IND in the late 20s and early 40s. Beijing, like the rest of China, is experiencing a housing and construction boom. And, Beijing has hipsters. And I’m sad to report that no matter the hemisphere, no matter the culture, the hipsters simply don’t dance. (See previous post) Just like back home.

As a native New Yorker, urban journalist and licensed tour guide, the list of cities where I feel I could live is a short one. I’m proud to add Beijing to the tally, if I could learn its confounding language. But until that unforeseeable day comes, there’s simply no place like New York.

(originally published at

Monday, December 3, 2007

Beijing Dance Party . . . now, with 60% MORE INTERNATIONAL HIPSTERS!

After a mediocre meal at a mediocre Sichuan restaurant with two boring local girls that Jonah and I had met a few nights back, Dad, Frank (our host here in Beijing, more on Frank being an angel in disguise as a couchsurfing host later) and Frank's Chinese/Japanese cousin Ivan (quiet and mysterious - is he Chinese? Japanese? Lying? Nobody knows . . .) decided to hit the sack and cab it back to our collective pad. Jonah and I, however, were very interested in a promising local rock night at a club somewhere, somehow, in deep Beijing. So after a brief battle with an over-excitable and totally agro itty bitty Chihuahua, J and I had a hysterical cab ride to some nightclub district in this increasingly marvelous city. The district was instantly noticeable by its enormous (maybe 2 stories high) Art Deco neon DRIVE IN sign. Not art-deco, but Artistic Decorative. Second amazing touch was that the road from the highway to the collection of spots to dine and dance was a small winding dirt road with electrically lit-up trees scattershot throughout the woods. Not too many, but just enough to make the trip, from urban highway into magickal blue-lined wooden glade, to expansive swankville nightclub-and-resto-district. The atmospheric shift was impressive. We found the club, paid our 40 RMB ($5) and headed into the space.

The venue, called 2 Kologos (Two Friends) was the size of a suburban basement rec room, and smelled about as funky. The tiny little bar in the corner was shilling cheap, strong liquors and beers (20 RMB for a 'wisky coke' [their spelling] – less than $3), the place was a fog of cigarette smoke (not yet illegal to smoke in bars in China) and the place was a veritable fire hazard – that is to say it was absolutely jam-fucking-cram-man-packed with INTERNATIONAL HIPSTERS!!! That's right gang – hipsters of all shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities and fashion senses. You had fashion-punkers, math rockers, lumberjacks, cool nerds sporting black-square frame glasses, artfags, tight pants, tight shirts, nice hats, and impressive array of facial hair on all who could grow it. Most impressive was the pure internationalism of the scene – we met kids from Chile, Poland, Spain, Wisconsin, Germany, France, Westchester, Beijing, New Zealand, SoCal, etc. Most of the expats spoke perfect Mandarin. It was hard to find a bad-looking kid in room. I would've paid good RMB to get a pie chart pictographically describing everyone's geographic provenance – where they came from, where they've been, where they're living / going next. That shit would've been badass. There were a fair share of Asians and the women (and men) who love them, but the majority of the hipsters were simply a Vice Magazine's ad bastard's wet dream.

The night was pieced together by Tag Team Records – Going Out of Business Since 2005 – a local rock / free-jazz / electronic label based here. The bands featured included: Arrows of Desire, a generic grungy rock and roll foursome; PK14, a half-way decent noise-rock band with a little bit of noodley electronic knob twisting and button pushing – the lead singer was a short squat balding teutonic individual who spent a lot of time screaming a la Frank Black (they reminded me of some krautrock group I couldn't place); FM3, a spaced-out five note drone group that busted out with a fog machine, clouding the entire space in a thicker haze than simple cigarettes could produce; and Lonely China Day, the only group actually made out of Chinese, also playing generic poppy, punky rock and roll. And, as mentioned above and totally expected, none of the hipsters were doing anything – we're talking not even a little hip shaking or head nodding. It was depressing and confirmed everything I feared about the international youth community – everybody is too fucking cool to do anything but smoke, drink, flirt and fuck.

But then Sulumi took the stage – two skinny Japanese dudes with asymmetrical haircuts, and they started plugging in a whole table of wires, sound machines, boomboxes, cables, sound manipulators, and . . . wait . . . was that? Yes, I think it was . . . holy shit . . . these two dudes are plugging in old-skool 8 bit Nintendo Gameboys. We had found members of the 8 bit Revlution! (There is a small but fierce community of Gameboy DJs across the globe that call themselves the 8 bit Revolution – they make their sounds by plugging in home-doctored Gameboys to DJ equip and rock the fucking house with hyperkinetic Midi-created videogame dance music. Bitshifter is one of them and located in NYC – check out his stuff, its ridiculous.) It took Sulumi a short while to get the sound right, sounds kept switching on and off, a blip here, a blurt there, but once they started rocking it, the goddamn sounds were like a dance virus. You had these two tall skinny Japanesesters physically throwing themselves across the stage, slamming their fists into the table, flipping their gorgeous black sheened cuts across their heavy-on-the-bangs heads, flinging their lank-ass bodies into air, just hammering along with the insanely infectious, unbelievably bouncy, uppity up electronic trampoline dance disaster jams . . . AND NONE OF THE FUCKING HIPSTERS, I MEAN NOT ONE SINGLE HUMAN BEING WAS EVEN ATTEMPTING TO MOVE.

Except for me and Jonah. I mean, of course we started moving – we're dancers through and through. I also realized that if we were to move up and center in front of the stage, our simple excitable energy would catch along and maybe, just maybe and hopefully and God willing, some less uptight of this here international community would start to shake ass. So that's what we did. And Goddamnit, we shook some serious ass. As the accumulated whisky cokes gathered in our bellies and the smoke killed our corneas, as the music hit that never-ending high and the gorgeous idiots gazed on with incredulousness, we did our best to show them how to do it. And it worked – sort of. Out of the capacity crowd of 100 bored looking bozos, we got a solid half-dozen dudes (well, five dudes and one chick from Chile) onto the floor. (Our proudest achievement – one of the dudes throwing down on the dance floor was a blond moptop'd douchebag who, immediately preceding Sulumi's kicking out the jams, tried to start a fight with me in claiming that they weren't going to be any good. And who was right, motherfucker?!? [I was pretty drunk by this point.]) The rest of the room could go fuck themselves. We were having a blast. At some point the DJs quit up all their righteous noise for a short intermission, and I took the opportunity to exclaim out loud (to the laughter of some and the indignation of others) YOURE TOO QUIET! THERE ARENT ENOUGH PEOPLE DANCING! MAKE IT LOUDER! Also having an equal-opportunity-blast were the three some-odd professional photographers with biig cameras who couldn't get enough of taking our picture. I fully expect to be on Beijing's blog equivalent of And looking like I kick some ass. After the bands, after the DJs, after more whisky cokes, after ogling the various babes and Asians, after sneering at the uptight hipsters, after I got my tattoos licked by an sexy overeager Polish boozer, after purchasing a "Buddha Machine", after conversing with numerous peoples of all sorts of nationalities and ethnographies, after all of this delirious, delightful delicious experience in Beijing nightlife, we (our brotherly party of two expanding to include two Jeremies, one from New Zealand and the other from the aforementioned Weschester; the Westchestarian being one of our more exuberant dance-floor partners) attempted to carry over the energy and dance-mania to some other clubs. But it was 2:30 in the AM (late for Beijing standards – this city is a working city and the nightlife is pretty much limited to Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and over by 1 or 2 am) and the two other clubs we hit were as exhausted as we were. So at about 3 Jonah and I called it quits and taxi’d back to our digs. We drank, we flirted, we schmoozed, we chatted, we DANCED, we impressed, we depressed (the losers, that is), we rocked it and socked it and put rockets in our sockets, we slammed so hard our weary bodies were only wanting more on the long ride home. Sleep came swift and sweet and absolutely earned.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Hong Kong is contractive, a palimpsest, and unlike anyplace else in the world;

in terms of verticality, in terms of advertisements, in terms of infuriating-pedestrian-unfriendliness, commercialism, megalomania, surging electricity, large-scale lighting 'spectaculars' on the tops and sides of buildings. Hong Kong kicks ass, but I'm not sure if its kicking its own ass, or the ass of its residents, visitors, neighbors and friends. It kicked our ass, that's for certain.

To recap. Jonah, the youngest Levy boy is spending a few months abroad, enrolled in courses on visual studies and digital media at Nanling University. So Dad Levy, Alisa Brot (his fiancé) and I decided to head out here to visit and adventure for 1-2 weeks. We did the same thing in November 2006, when the J-ster spent 3 months in Hanoi, Vietnam. The kid likes Asia. The Vietnam voyage included Gideon, the middle Levy, but this time we left him at home to cover the business. Also, he's broker than the rest of us. Also, he doesn't travel very well. The rest of us travel very well together; we're all into adventure, history, sightseeing, bargain shopping, and most of all, ETHNIC EATING! So that's what brought us to Hong Kong. The schedule: 4 days in Hong Kong, then all four of us fly up to Beijing for an assortment of days - Alisa to NY on the 1st; Jonah back to HK on the 4th, and Dad and I the 20 hour flight on the 6th. So welcome, Levys (and Brot) to Hong Kong -
a bunch of rough-edged and tough-gritted, street-wise and cash-savvy native New Yorkers; all used to the neon brashness of Times Square, the hustle/bustle of Canal Street, the mercantile excesses of 5th Avenue during the Xmas Shopping Season, all of it was absolutely bupkis compared to the overwhelming anti-humanizing effects of the streets of HK

The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong is comprised of four territories, therefore, it is NOT part of China proper. The four territories correspond pretty nicely to our beloved hometown. HK proper is, of course, sparkling Manahatta, economic powerhouse for the entire seaboard. Kowloon, right across the river, is a large region segmented into smaller hoods, each one known for their cultural or commercial specialty, be they immigrants, boutiques, malls, hip cafes, and rapidly rocketing real estate; this would be the equivalent to our brilliant home borough of Brooklyn! The New Territories is a massive tract of land north of it all and attatched to mainland China; mostly parks and working class hoods corresponds to The Bronx. The Peninsula Sai Kung, which is east of Kowloon (part of the larger landmass that reflects Long Island) has many smaller bodies of water and tiny islands scattered throughout the place: thats Queens and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. And of course, darling Staten Island is represented by Lantau Island, the most remote of the five territories and home to both Lingnan U and Disneyland Asia.

Imagine a city with the signs and the hurriedness, the abrasion and glare, the flash and panache of Times Square, but with everything in Cantonese. Now visualize all those signs, buildings, buses and people are layered one on top of the other, in a vertical sardine-tin stacking style that stretches between two and eight levels high. For example, the buses are double-deckers. The metro goes underground two to five levels deep, where transfer-stations have trains of opposing directions layered vertically, as opposed to horizontally, across the platform as in New York. The local business signs on the street are twelve stories worth - one advertisement per floor, running the whole height of the building, and in most cases, craming more signs perched in the front, center, and rears of blocks. Now watch as this headachey Cantonese Times Square and shopping district expands to cover the entire island of Manhattan! It's exhausting. Not that we didn't have fun while in Hong Kong. But when one wishes for the calm and serenity of Lower Manhattan during a weekday lunch rush, you know that there's something wrong with the vacation spot you're at.

The fun we did have:
* Taking the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak – a hundred plus year old funicular railway that leads to the top of the mountain in the middle of the city. You 'aint leaned nothing until you've leaned a good 45 degree angles into the hill as a 60 year old wooden tram chugs upslope at 6mph.
* Watching Jonah kick some serious ass in a tournament-style rugby game. Keep in mind that my brother is, at a fresh-faced 21 (his birthday was Monday, and part of the reason we went Chinabound) a lanky, stick-figure kid of 6 ft 2, and probably the last choice on a rugby team. Except that most of his team were fellow Westerners, and all his opponents were tiny shriveled up Chinese college kids. Therefore, Jonah slaughterized the opposing teams. I mean flat-out pulvernated them. Making the first of many goals and equally many tackles, we were proud of the kid.
* We wandered markets and bargained down too little and paid too much for all sorts of amazing and beautiful crap (to protect the surprise elements of many of these gifts, the information herein has been blanked out. Suffice it to say, there's a lot of jade and Mao involved.)
* We drank beer on the street. No open container laws! Woo-Hoo!

* We visited the beautiful bird and flower markets.

* We goggled at the post-modern, ultra-modern, hyper-modern and just plain ugly architecture of the downtown and Central business districts. * We looked the wrong way down streets and almost got run-over many a time as all the driving in HK is British style – steering wheels and streets all on the wrong (other) side.
* Checked out the noonday gun, which has been firing at the stroke of noon ever since the 1800s and is in a popular Noel Coward song that I've never heard.

* One of the wonderful, only-in-Hong-Kong experiences was visiting the World's Largest Seated Bronze-Cast Buddha on Lantau Island. It's 634 meters tall and weighs 250 tons – about the same size as a jumbo jet. It was consecrated in 1993 at a cost of $65 million and is perched at the absolute top of a pretty little hill which gives one magnificent views across the island. I spent the first two nights at Lingan U, in Jonah's roomate's bed, as he was home with his fam. The second two nights I spent on the couch of two of J's lovely friends, whom we all met at JONAH'S BIRTHDAY SPECTACULAR DINNER! In a huge group of 20 friends, we invaded a local Thai restaurant and had them cook us up a storm. Spicy tom yum soup, incredible green curry chicken, hot red curry beef, some of the best spicy pork ribs I've ever had, beer, jellied coconut crèmes for dessert, wonderful conversation amongst Jonah's classmates, girlfriends, buddied, Rugby teammates, family and folks, it was such a lovely experience. The kid is truly loved by all who get to share his warmth and giving personality. He's a great (big) little brother, and I love the kid.

The last adventure for the Levys (and Brot) on Hong Kong was actually outside HK altogether, as we took the hour-long ferry ride to Macau island, another Special Administrative Region not part of China. Macau was settled by the Portuguese 300 years before Hong Kong, and its mixture of Portuguese cooking, British development, Chinese food, and absolutely outlandish Vegas style casinos and preposterous architecture was a bit of a melee – the Macau Mishegosh we called it. Essentially just running around the entire island and not experiencing much, other than a delicious Portuguese lunch; we tried to do the bungee jump off the Macau tower – it was closed. We tried to find some Colonial architecture – it was mobbed by Chinese tourists on their weekend sojourns to gamble (illegal in HK) and buy baked pork strips and egg custard tarts. We got lost entirely too many times and spent way too much on cab rides back and forth.
The conclusion to Hong Kong as we were running around was not a friendly place to live. Hard to visit as well – the entire city is built against pedestrian traffic – fences are installed on practically all the corners to prevent people from crossing at all – streets are traversed via underground passageways; cars, busses, trams and trolleys take right of way against those on foot; the lights are interminably long at intersections that can be crossed; and to boot alongside the pedestrian impossibilities, every single available interior space that isn't an office or a home is a mall. The passageways in the metro are malls. The bathrooms in parks are inside malls. The Ferry terminals have stalls and shops. Malls stacked ontop of malls built under malls. Vertical retail shopping experiences as far as the eye can see. It was dehumanizing, infuriating, unbelieveable. It was nice to move along to Beijing, after only 4 days. Once we got to Beijing, and China itself, things took an incredible turn.
More pictures will be viewable on my Flickr account once I get them all up there - sometime the week of Dec 10th. Keep em peeled. Beijing updates coming soon.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lost in History vol. 44: To Grab the Ring, or Not to Grab the Ring . . .

The audience shuffled into the cold Water Street warehouse space. A chatty bunch of about twenty-five occupied the folding chairs set up in front of a marvelously detailed 20th century carousel placed behind two shuttered chain-link gates. Only a few children were present, but by the looks of the adults’ eyes, the entire audience was prepared for a childlike transformation, once the gates rolled up and the carousel started moving. Calling all adults, children, Shakespearean superstars, carousel confidants and puppetry populists: the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater presents Hamlet, atop Jane’s Carousel, through this weekend.

The carousel is an ongoing restoration project overseen by Jane Walentas, wife to DUMBO developer David. The carousel was built in 1922 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company; the couple purchased it in 1984, and Mrs. Walentas has spent the better part of two decades refurbishing it. The eventual intended home is Brooklyn Bridge Park, but the park isn’t ready for the ride just yet. So it sits, sometimes in motion but mostly just waiting for other creative souls to make the most of a glorious old-time amusement ride.

Which brings us to the Czech-American Marionette Theater. What better set for a mini-production (ninety minutes flat, five puppeteers, about a dozen puppets) of Hamlet, featuring mini-inanimate-actors, than a carousel? You’ve got the cyclical conscience of the lead and the circular logic of life-or-death existentialism; what’s more, both the set and the stars are made out of gorgeous hard-carved wood!

Okay, not all the actors were inanimate. The three men and two women performers, carrying fifteen roles between them, were always an active presence on the stage. Crawling across the benches, straddling the horses and slithering between the rotational poles, they made the best of their one-of-a-kind carousel. These were puppeteers who acknowledged their presence next to each two-foot co-star, which allowed them to make the drama big enough for the children in the to enjoy and understand, but intense and goose-flesh inducing enough for us big kids during the truly heartbreaking scenes. One particularly powerful moment shows us Ophelia’s madness, high above the audiences’ heads.

There are a handful of original songs performed by the in-house musician, on keyboards, resonator steel guitar, harmonica, mouth-harp, and uke. The songs illustrate the action nicely, and the musical genres cross over from gospel to Nordic war chant to Southern blues to Eastern European folk to cinematic soundtrack. The puppets do their thing, sometimes less interestingly than the performers, and sometimes as interesting. Hardly do the puppets outshine the hardworking actors, with the exception of the singular, multi-faced puppet representing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There’s also a wondrous interlude with Balinese shadow puppets during the play-within-a-play scene.

But of course, the true star in all of this is the carousel. When turning counter-clockwise or when sitting absolutely still, with all its light bulbs on and mirrors glinting in the lights, or even when dark and ominous, a portent of things to come, truly nothing can beat its old-Americana majesty. Once the viewer gets over the intense envy developed while watching these actors with their marionettes climb and jostle, dart and skip, weave and work their ways around this rotating work of art, the entire production ends up playing second fiddle to the stock quiet and simple spectacle of the carousel.

Jane’s Carousel
56 Water St, DUMBO.
Closing weekend! Friday and Saturday at 8pm
Saturday and Sunday at 2pm
Tickets available in advance at the box office,, or (212) 868-4444

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Khiel Coppin "Suicide by Cop" / new Sidney Lumet film

Complicated thoughts on the NYPD, 20 bullets, and an obviously distraught 18 year old african-american, brandishing a hairbrush and begging the cops to open fire. On my bikeride home from the movies, while going through still-tough-as-nails Stuyvesant Heights - the neighborhood of the shooting - I realized a was a few blocks away from the tragedy, which happened Monday night. Coppin refused to show his hands to the cops, and claimed he had a gun, so the cops shot. 10 of the bullets hit the kid, and he was pronounced DOA at Woodhull hospital. Now, the cops were just doing their job - this psychotic youth claimed he had a gun, and a history of crime and mental illness. But to draw an easily recognizable pattern of overeager cops shooting unarmed black youth is nothing new in Brooklyn (and Queens). Everyone remembers the Sean Bell shooting in Jamaica, Queens, in November 2006. Not many NYers still recall the January 2004 shooting of unarmed Timothy Stansbury Jr. on the rooftop of 385 Lexington St, also in Stuy Heights. This was when "Tim-Tim" was reaching for the rooftop door while the cop was on the other side. The cop blasted away at this unarmed 19 year old. Cop got acquitted too. Heartbreaking. What to do, in a world of sudden and surprise violence? No answers here, just reflections.

This is the bleach stain on Gates at Throop. Essentially where Coppin's body fell. Some guy on the street told me just finished cleaning it that night.


On a positive note, Gideon and I saw the spiritually crushing but phenomenally powerful new Sidney Lumet flick "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." another brilliant moving picture by a living (he's 83!!!) master. Go see it. Now. And tell me what you think.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lost in History vol. 43 - CHANGE-A-LUJAH!

Some of you might be familiar with Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. You might have seen the blond pompadour’d preacher spitting verse about the evils of capitalism in the midst of Times Square, that hedonistic Disney orgy. You may have passed cash into the collection plate (donations support the non-profit church) at a performance in St. Marks-In-The-Bowery church; we hope you raised your hands and shouted AMEN, BROTHER! during any of his year-round sermons. You may have been trapped inside a Starbucks while the good Reverend was attempting to exorcize the cash register, much to the dismay of the baristas and police officers — Billy has been arrested over 40 times; there is also a cease and desist order that bars him from within 100 feet of every Starbucks in California. You may have found him inspirational, irritating, arrogant, ostentatious, ear-splitting, or all of the above. You might think he’s being ironic or insincere. If you’ve never heard his message or just don’t get it, there’s an opportunity for all sinners and spenders this Friday when the Reverend Billy documentary What Would Jesus Buy? opens at Cinema Village.

Reverend Billy (real name: Bill Talen) is a street performer and spectacle maestro who found his calling in 1999 when he realized that the road to damnation is paved with 17% interest credit cards. Having developed his persona in San Francisco, Reverend Billy moved his portable spectacle to NYC in the 1990s, right in the midst of Giuliani’s sanitization and homogenization of Times Square. The church has grown: from street-corner speeches decrying the soullessness of Disney to a thirty-four-member choir in matching red robes, an eight-member band (The Not Buying It Band) and a choir conductor and choreographer, savitri d, Talen’s wife and collaborator. Through the expansion, Reverend Billy’s message has stayed direct and deep-hitting: we’ve replaced personal interactions with over-consumption, and we’re losing our souls in the process. Not to mention destroying the planet.

The documentary truly drives home the sincerity of the Reverend’s mission, while striking fear as well as warmth into the heart of all who view its ever-pertinent message. Prepare thyself for the Shopocalypse! Broken into humorous chapters with witty animated title screens (“Baby Bling” has the requisite Madonna suckling Baby Jesus, the baby playing with an iPhone,) we follow the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a cross-country tour, singing in malls, preaching on early morning television shows, visiting colleges and singing Christmas carols in front of McMansions in Texas, in the thirty days leading up to Christmas, 2005. What’s important is that each liberal, upbeat, idealistic congregation shot is interspersed with hard numbers about America’s shopping problem. We meet American families and see their mountains of debt; there are interviews with Shopping Addiction therapists, religious leaders, American Depression survivors, a stressed-out human rights lawyer and a fantastically unconvincing Wal-Mart religious preacher, who can’t spout one good thing about the Wal-martization of America. In the middle of the film the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir bus gets into a pretty terrifying accident, and this only emboldens the choir as well as the audience — no force of man or act of God can slow their mission. The Reverend and his folk reach the holy grounds of Disneyland on Christmas Day, for one final action.

Upon first viewing, one would think it a film that preaches (pardon the pun) to the converted, but during a post-screening interview, director Rob VanAlkemade beamed as he informed us of conservative Christian groups across the country applauding the film and calling it a bastion of true Christian values. At the advance screening, we were also treated to a special performance, by the Stop Shopping Choir, of two original songs that they perform while on tour: the title track of “What Would Jesus Buy” and “Shopocalypse.” You may think Reverend Billy a genius or an asshole. Regardless, he’s a true New Yorker, one with a message for the masses that, if taken to heart, would result in a lot less post-holiday heartache and a lot less crap for the closets.