Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lost in History vol. 49 - The Few, The Proud, The Idiots

My body hurts. My joints ache. My leg muscles occasionally cramp up on me and when I walk from room to room (because I dare not leave my apartment for fear of the real world outside), my hobbled habits resemble those of an old man, bent at the waist, making tiny little footsteps as each hop hurts. My elbows and kneecaps are bruised. I have a nasty blood-red gash on the bridge of my nose and I can’t quite recall how it got there. My clothes (and before that glorious shower, my body) are covered in an impossible combination of flour, sugar, soy sauce, fish guts, sticky rice, blue, green and orange paint, silly string, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, Crisco, blood, sweat, mucus and god knows what else. Ladies and gentlemen, I am an Idiotarod survivor, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. It’s More fun than Halloween, New Years, the Black Label Bike Kill and my birthday combined. Unfortunately for me, I’ll have to wait another 363 days for this glorious event to hurtle round again. I think I have post-Idiotarod depression.

The fifth annual Idiotarod was just held this last Saturday on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and is best summed up with a comparative explanation. The original Iditarod is an 1100-mile dogsled race across the frozen tundras of Alaska. Replace the frozen tundras of Alaska with the icy streets of NYC, replace the sled with decorated and disguised shopping carts, replace the dogs with idiots in costume, and replace the necessary supplies one would need to race across Alaska (health supplements, space-age parkas, portable fire) with copious amounts of alcohol and various kinds of sabotage. Every year the route changes, mostly to keep the cops off our trails. Every year it gets more and more disgusting. And every year yours truly throws together a team and runs with the best of them.Started in San Fransisco in 1994, but exported to New York a decade later, the first two Idiotarods were run by Precision Accidents, a loosely-knit group of spectacle planners and organizers. After Team C.O.B.R.A. won in ’04 and ‘05, Precision Accidents passed the torch along to their special brand of madcap genius, and they’ve organized and hosted the two races since. And it is a race, people. An insane, psychotic, brilliant and absolutely revolting race, but a race nonetheless. The starting point had to be changed three times (from four separate points in Brooklyn/Queens to Ft. Greene Park to Chinatown) to keep the good ole boys in blue away from disrupting the event; at no point did C.O.B.R.A.actually hand out directions or checkpoints prior to the race starting; it was just on your mark, get GO! GO! GO! and the race was off.Our team was a hand-selected and hard(ly) trained squadron of ten individuals, dressed head-to-toe in black, sporting a spectacular silk-screened logo and wielding such weapons as (foamcore) nunchuks, (cardboard) ninja stars, (homemade) grappling hooks, a box of soy sauce-wasabi-water balloons and our proudest achievement: a dozen homemade smoke bombs. That’s right, the Staten Island Ninjas were a formidable team of high-kicking, hand-chopping, whiskey-drinking, sake-smashing, sushi-tossing, Wu-Tang blasting bad-ass idiots indeed.

The race itself? Impossible to describe. I remember a lot of flying projectiles. About eight miles in total, dragging a shopping cart, loaded with supplies, heavily fortified with whiskey, picking fights along the way with other Idiots. A lot of fights. An Amish team throwing dried corn. A “Give Peas A Chance” team throwing wet peas. A lot of wigs. Pop culture references galore. Pictures do a million times better than any nouns, verbs or adjectives. In the end, the Staten Island Ninjas didn’t win any officially prizes. (However every year I award myself certain hard-earned titles. This year I won the “Most Aggressive with Total Strangers” and the “Most Makeouts with Pretty Ladies” award, totaling in at 3 and between 3-5, respectively.) However, when it comes to the Idiotarod, everyone’s a winner. Except for the NYC Sanitation Department (see LIH vol. 48), who presumably has to clean up the aftermath.

More picture of the Staten Island Ninjas can been seen on my Flickr page.

(originally published on www.thelmagazine.com)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

An outstanding NYC weekend - art, bike rides, dancing, drinking, lectures, and pantslessness.

Matt Levy and Dave Wajsfelner, sans pants. pic courtesy of Dave Wajsfelner.

It was a truly wonerful, extraordinarily jam-packed New York City weekend for this adventurer / writer / biker / dancer / partier / eater / drinker / no pants wearer. Enough to warrant its own breakdown blog post. Here we go. Follow the boucning Matt Levy . . .

Friday: Work, N-Y Historical Society exhibit, 2 hrs down time, Bklyn > Queens Bike Ride, Secret Art Show, Queens > Bklyn Bike Back, Dance Party, Sleep.

A solid day in the office. Many friends and accomplices inquire as to what gets done in the "Office" when we're not putting together tours or tour packages. Well, a bunch of things, sometimes all at once, and hectically, which is generally what happens when you put more than one Levy in one room working on more than one project all at the same time. Friday's task list consisted of an email blitz to possible clients with whom I'll be schmoozing and boozing at a tourism conference in Virginia Beach during the first week of February. Another project was spent putting together a Press Kit for guidebooks to list our services to the average tourist. The Levys' Unique New York! was recently featured in Time Out's Guidebook to NYC 2008 (and not just a listing, but a 3/4s page interview with Gideon, reprinted from last spring's TONY issue,) which is stellar news as it gets out foot in the door for all the other guidebooks . After compiling press clipping and heading to our local graphic designer for part one of making them look professional and engaging, I tromped my way uptown to the New-York Historical Society for their free Friday night shindig titled "Let Them Eat Cake.".

The N-YHS, which is NY's oldest museum (founded 1804) is jumping on the free-Friday night bandwagon, but their catch is snacks and drinks for sale that compliment the current exhibit, which is "French Founding Father: Lafayette Returns to Washington's America." and is up through August. The foodstuffs for sale that night included pissaladiere (a French flatbread-type pizza), madeleine, fruit tarts and coffee, all from Bakery Soutine, on West 70th street. I pitched a cultural / food review of the exhibit to the Onion, and they bit down hard. This is what had me spending a solid two hours at the Lafayette exhibit Friday night, scribbling copious notes. The man was a rock star. Born into wealth, married into power, in 1777, at the age of 20, he set sail for America to help with the revolution. He quickly became Washington's right hand man and surrogate son, spent a quarter of a million dollars of his own money (in 1777, mind you) to clothe and arm his troops. By the Battle of Yorktown, the last stand for the British Troops, nearly half the ground forces were French. For the rest of the Lafayette story, check out the exhibit, and better yet, read my article - it hits the street on XXX.

Following the exhibit, I headed back to Bushwick for some down & dinner time. Exhausted, but semi-recharged by the presence of out-of-town friends whom I hadnt seen in years (plus whiskey), at 11pm I jumped on the bike and zoomed off to Long Island City, with trusty friend Marin, to check out a totally top-secret Flux Factory art exhibit in an abandoned warehouse. By invitation only and in small groups of 10 we were lead down an alley and behind a chainlink fence into a raw industrial space for a gorgeous and necessarily short walkthrough of a wild 1-night only installation. More, unfortunately, cant be said, as the
producers of the artshow told us, under strict penalties, that no specific detail could be mentioned about the event, under threat of recrimination. This wrapped up around 1, and should have been the end of the night, if it weren't for a Black Label related dance party at a new nameless artloft space on Morgan Avenue in the no-mans lands east of East Williamsburg but north of Bushwick and South of Greenpoint. You know the stretch - facing the projects and chock-fulla lumber yards. Somehow, someone got hold of an raw space over there and turned it into an artloft. Ridiculous, drunken, late night flinging around and stomping down. Made it into bed, wild but wiped out around 4am.

Saturday: TCB, No Pants Subway Ride, No Pants Burger and Beer, City Reliquary Birthday Party Hosting, Bklyn > Bklyn Bike Ride, Crazier Dance Party, Bklyn > Bklyn Bike Back, Sleep.

Thank god, a nice late wakeup and tcb: breakfast, emails, clean-up, chitchat with the roomies. Around 3 its time to head into the city for the No Pants Subway Ride 2008, also to meetup with Dave from San Fransisco for the first time in a year or more. The No Pants 2K8 is organized by Improv Everywhere & has been going on for 8 years now; its exactly what it sounds like. A whole lot of people (300? 400?) all board various subway lines and take off their pants, acting like nothing is wrong. The schematics are complicated, mostly dealing with exiting the first train one boards, dropping trou on the platform, reboarding the next train which already has pantsless people on board, so on so forth. The end result is a totally ridiculous in-joke on the pantsless peoples and a what the hell is going on on the part of the regular commuters. The inherrent problem with this dynamic is that when you have a subway car with 100 passengers, and 85 of them arent wearing pants, the joke is reversed on the pantsless participants. It becomes a joke on a joke - an Oh, I get it. All these people arent wearing any pants and theyre acting normal. Thats (not-so) funny. It's all about the percentage breakdown of spectators to those involved in the spectacle. If the % veers too far towards the latter, then the joke isn't on the audience, its on the performer. All in all, a fun spectacle, but with its critical function ineffective, simply due to the sheer popularity and attendance of the event. Following the No Pants Subway Ride, a group of friends (with word about our destination spreading quickly) and I marched our way over to an excellent new Burger Joint called Stand on 12th and University. Good hearty tasty burgers, delicious micro-brewed beers, and 40 diners, all without pants. It was deleriously wonderful. And absolutely normal. Without pants.

Following the No Pants Beer and Burger extravaganza, I had to haul ass - with Dave from San Fransisco - over to the City Reliquary Museum and Civic Organization, in Williamsburg to setup for a birthday party. I'm the Events Coordinator and on the Executive Directors Board, and we had rented out our space to a friend of the CR, who was hosting her birthday party in our museum. For those of you unaware, the City Reliquary is a community museum that celebrates the forgotten history and collected ephemera of NYC. Its a collection of collections of awesome New York City stuff - like vintage Seltzer bottles, and a complete collection of subway tokens, and the "2nd Ave" sign from the original 2nd Avenue Deli. The birthday party was no big deal, twenty people, young professionals, drinking wine and beer, eating hot dogs and tater tots, and exclaiming mirthfully over our idiosyncratic exhibits of NYer's Geology, the History of Burlesque inside an old storage locker, and the current exhibit, a History of Rosendale Cement. That wound down about 12:30am, but with cleaning and lockup, we were back on bikes by 1am.

This should have been the end of tonight, but come now people, this is NYC! So there was
yet another dance party to attend. Another Black Label related psychotic, presposterous blearly-eyed weak-kneed party spectacular, this one existed in an old speakeasy from the 70s under a hardware store under a walkup apartment building in Bed-Stuy. With about 80 people crammed into a rawspace the size of a walk-in cooler, the tunes were absolutely slammin', the bodies were young, lithe and pounding into one another, too much smoke in the air (which is what happens when one is attending an illegal, underground speakeasy dance party in NYC - people are thrilled they can still smoke while dancing and do so, egregiously), but finally, once in a too-long while, one discovers a dance party where everyone is dancing! The likes of those are few and far between, and I made good my promise of living to dance. Hours later, I biked my exhausted ass home, and crashed, again, around 4.

Sunday: CR shift, Relax Time, Lecture on Sanitation Department, Korean BBQ, Home, Done.

Not too late in bed, as I was in charge of opening up the CR for the 12noon - 3pm gift shop shift. It was a mildly-busy day, about 30 visitors and some good sales, but on the whole, enjoyed the quiet and peace and sewed a lovely little bird onto my favorite sweater. After the CR, I metup again with the same wonderful friend from far away and we chilled in some strange girls' apartment. 6pm was a lecture of the history of the NYC Department of Sanitation (which has alread been blogged - see below) and following that was a feast at a Korean Bar B Que joint on 35th street with old and new friends alike. Stuffed, exhausted, drizzly rain, talked-out and simply tired of moving, Dave from San Fransisco and I jumped the subway back to Bushwick where we spent the evening catching up on lives respectively, and laughing until the crazy early hours of 2am. It was the most unconcsious crash Ive had in quite some time.

And thats how one spends a busy NYC weekend.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lost in History vol. 48 - Trash, Trash Everywhere and not a Seat to Sit

It was a packed house Sunday night in East Chelsea. There were seats for about forty, and easily twenty more interested and interesting New Yorkers crammed into every available corner (and window sill, and behind the projection screen, and perched on the info table, and standing in the hallway). The walls were covered with photographs and descriptions, the half-dozen glass cabinets were chock full of artifacts and documents: pictures from the last hundred-plus years of the our city streets; two faux bottles of wine, one of which read "Pinot Garbage" in a loopy font; crisp, clean uniforms from the turn of the century; a scale replica of an old NYC barge, Hudson River-bound. This wasn’t some photography show about Old New York, nor was it an art opening of any kind. No, good people, this was a talk on garbage.

It’s a proud and perplexing site to stroll into a lecture about the history of the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY) fifteen minutes early, and only be able to snag one of the last half-dozen seats in the room. The talk was on the history and future of the DSNY as well as the cataloguing and display of the treasure trove of artifacts collected and exhibited in the room. Led by two excitable and excited masters on the subject of trash: Robin Nagle, Ph.D., DSNY Anthropologist-in-Residence, and Haidy Geismar, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology at NYU, the lecture ran an hour long, with a half-hour overflow of questions from the mostly older crowd. You know how cocky New Yorkers get – give them a soapbox about their Community Boards and NYC Municipal Services, and they’ll give you the world.

Dr. Nagle detailed the compact history of the DSNY, complete with black and white slides, throughout the last hundred years. Before the 1890s “New York was deeply filthy,” Dr. Nagle explained. The city had absolutely no municipal sanitation department and hardly any proper sewage disposal services; ship captains and their crew could pick up the pungent waft of trash from 6 nautical miles out. In fact, “The Big Onion” was a common derogatory (but affectionate) nickname for our city well before “The Big Apple” came around. Slaughterhouses, tanneries, coal firing plants and smelting yards would live side by side with residential tenements. Refuse piled up three feet on the dirt streets. Dead horses would lie in rotting in the streets for days if not weeks before a locally paid layabout would cart it off to the dump or the river. It wasn’t a pretty site.

Enter Col. George Waring in 1891. Elected by Mayor Strong under the reform party, Col. Waring (he fought in the Civil War) organized the city’s first Sanitation Department, and did so under the auspices of a military design: the men wore pristine white uniforms (giving them the nickname “the White Wings”) and helmets that matched the helmets of the police; they marched in formation in city Labor parades. Waring reduced nepotism in the civil servant boards that ran the White Wings, and welcomed feedback from the citizens of New York. Like Robert Moses on a much smaller scale, Col. Waring and his White Wings were a self-sustaining subset of the municipal government – beholden to no other political organizations and answering to nobody but the people, they cleaned up the city like nobody before. (It also helped that the impossibly brilliant uniforms made these men stick out in a dirty city – therefore, less opportunity for lazing around).

Professor Geismar and her class of Museum Studies students took a more hands-on and culturally exploratory approach to the talk, detailing the various things that make up the life of a San Man, from the “Mongo” they acquire (reclaimed trash from the streets that for whatever purpose, is kept and treasured) to the lockers and artifacts where they store their change of clothes. Because Trash Men are people too!

From Col. Waring’s White Wings to the carts, trucks and barges used today, Professor Nagle detailed the transformation of a rarely seen city service: “We are mostly invisible. The cops, the firefighters aren’t, but as soon as I put on a DSNY uniform, I disappear from the streets,” she explained. With 3,000 civilian employees and 7,000 uniformed men hauling trash out from your house to the dumps and barges (there was a nice breakdown on the history of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill and the park it will eventually become), the DSNY is a tremendous city agency, one that most of us take for granted. Remember next time you truck out your kitchen bin: there’s an army of men and women doing the dirty (and smelly) work for you.

(originally published 1/14/08 in www.thelmagazine.com)

Monday, January 7, 2008

Lost in History vol. 47 - Ghost Bikes

(Ryan the Boy affixes flowers and candles to Anthony's Ghost Bike)

The crowd massed on an semi-derelict corner in Bushwick, at least eighty strong, straddling their various two-wheelers: simple road bikes, complex mountain machines boasting thirty gears and sets of shocks, fixies, single speeds, a clutch of homemade mutant tall bikes and urban choppers. The mood was somber, like the overcast gray skies, but tinged throughout with a glimmer of hope. The group’s collective attention was focused on a small BMX bike with thick tires, painted all in white, covered with flowers and surrounded by candles, at the corner of Palmetto and Central Avenues. Placed underneath the bike’s frame was a little wooden placard, which read:

Anthony Delgado
13 years old
Killed by SUV
April 29
th, 2007
Rest in Peace

Then one of the organizers of the day’s procession took to a overturned milk crate, a black bullhorn held aloft. In a clear voice laden with emotion and tension, she began.
Today we gather in honor of those killed on New York City streets. This past year countless pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles. On average, one pedestrian is killed every other day on the streets and at least twenty-three cyclists have been killed in 2007. We are riding in honor of Anthony Delgado, Jeffrey Moore, Mark Grichevsky (GRE-CHEV-SKY), Juan Solis, Luis Ramos, Carolina Hernandez, Elijah Wrancher, Habian Rodriguez, Craig Murphey, Sam Hindy, David Smith, Franco Scorcia, Ronald Mortensen, eleven unnamed riders and the countless pedestrians and cyclists whose deaths go unreported and unrecognized. We ride with love in our hearts, with sadness for what has been lost, with rage that these crashes didn't have to happen, and hope that we never have to do this again. With these ghost bikes and memorials we want to raise awareness about a bicyclist's right to the street and pedestrian's right to safe passage in the hopes that New Yorkers can change the climate on the road and learn to respect each other.
The bicycle advocate then went on to tell us that on April 29th, 2007 Anthony Delgado was riding his bike home with a friend from a local baptism. An SUV pulled out of the lane in order to pass a slower-moving car and hit Anthony head on. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The ghost bike, marking the point of impact where Anthony was struck, is his neighborhood memorial.
(two mourners, Marin and Riley. Neither knew Anthony Delgado,
nevertheless, the emotional pull was strong.)

This ongoing, worldwide project is called Ghost Bikes. According to its stark, simple, yet emotional explanation on the website, “Ghost Bikes are small and somber memorials for bicyclists who are killed or hit on the street. A bicycle is painted all white and locked to a street sign near the crash site, accompanied by a small plaque. They serve as reminders of the tragedy that took place on an otherwise anonymous street corner, and as quiet statements in support of cyclists' right to safe travel.” Originally started in St. Louis in 2003, Ghost Bikes have been seen throughout the five boroughs since June 2005, thanks to the NYC Street Memorial Project and the arts collective Visual Resistance. VR is an open alliance of artists and activists who understand that one needs more than soapbox oration and take-it-to-the-streets activism to engender change in any stultified community. They were the ones who arrived on scene minutes after the car crash that took the life of Elizabeth Padilla in ’05, and they were the ones who brought a bicycle, painted it white, and locked it to the lamppost on the corner where the victim lost her life. An impromptu memorial with deep repercussions, the idea soon took off. In 2007 the project shifted hands to the NYC Street Memorial kids, who consolidated the various efforts that it takes for each ghost bike: research on the crash itself (which often involves talking to reticent cops or delving into various reports), contacting the families and loved ones, constructing and painting the bike, bringing it to the intersection and finally, upkeep. Everyone involved is an active member of NYC’s cycling community, and all are 100% volunteers, from conception to presentation. (photo of Craig Murphey memorial, Ten Eyck and Union)

Back to that blustery morning in Bushwick. This was the third anniversary of the Memorial Ride, and each year the ride commemorates lives lost the previous year. Most of today’s riders had started in Bensonhurst, and had ridden up to Bushwick stopping at various Ghost Bike Memorials along the way. Other rides of the same design were happening throughout Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan, with a general convergence at the Williamsburg Bridge, for a procession and rally at City Hall to make NYC’s streets safer for cyclists. But at that moment, with Anthony Delgado’s mother on hand, making small thank yous amidst her choked-up chest, with gospel blaring from the Ford Explorer and Anthony’s smiling face airbrushed onto the hood, with eighty-plus cyclists raising their bikes in a moment of silence, the social movement, the politics, the activism was only about one thing – the life of a thirteen-year-old boy, taken too soon. (a silent bicycle raise to honor the victims)

(originally published 1/07/08 on www.thelmagazine.com)