Monday, October 31, 2005


mischief night

The ghouls are out on Franklin Street. They wear black shawls and keep single file on the sidewalk. At the corner of Greenpoint Avenue, they turn and laugh. The bottoms of their faces are stained red. One takes the plastic knife from his belt and twirls it in the air in front of him. This is how I know they are not real ghouls, but impostors. Ghouls don't use knives: their touch causes paralysis. They claw and bite their victims to death. I have read the Monster Manual, and cannot be hoodwinked so easily.

I am walking back from practice in a crushed shell on Kent, in a district of Brooklyn where every building warehouses bands. The closer I walk to the river, the darker it gets. At any moment, I could be slashed by a fey assailant wielding the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album. South of Greenpoint Avenue, Franklin Street has been rent by bulldozers. It's not the Big Dig or anything, but it breaks the rhythm of the asphalt. It is a work in progress, a new city pushing up through the cracks in the ground, or an old one sinking under the road.

I turn on Oak, and then on Guernsey. Tall, narrow aluminum-sided buildings rise along both sides of the street. A Polish-language version of "Every Breath You Take" plays in a third floor apartment. The band has taken pains to simluate the production of the record, but the singer sounds more like Bono than Sting. I wonder how "bo kazz you see" translates into Polish. Brooklyn is a good place to wonder, because there is always one person there who knows the answer to every question in the world. The trick is finding that person, and making sure she isn't drunk, or stoned, or cutting a take.

McCarren Park is deserted. It's late: we didn't get started until nine o'clock, and then took five, and took another five. Turning the clock back makes the night thicker than you'd guess. Ahead, I can see the lights of Bedford Avenue, the Turkey's Nest, video stores, kids with costumes, the whirl and sparkle of chiming guitars. But that could just be my mind playing tricks on me. You can't actually see music, you know; we rock writers just pretend we can in order to expand our limited metaphoric palettes.

I am boarding the L train, and heading back to the 14th Street PATH Train Station. I am returning to Jersey City for the third ride through the spin cycle. The first was exhilarating and disorienting; the second was old hat. You can only ride the Tilt-A-Whirl once before the patterns of motion become apparent, and the thrill wears off. Tomorrow, it will be exactly three ago that we loaded the last of Steve's things out of the Hi-Vue and into a truck after he'd made the insane decision to move on Hallowe'en. We'd already carted our stuff to Grand Street, and we were preparing to begin the adventure. On November 1, our two-year lease officially expires. Our landlord hasn't said a word about it. I don't know if he will. I don't know what happens next.

Monday, October 24, 2005


hidden in plain view

Tonight I go to Grace Church Van Vorst to do some songs on behalf of the rocks. The Embankment Preservation Coalition is having their annual meeting, and they've invited me to play. I am not sure what they are expecting. I hope they're not counting on something inspirational. The last two songs I've written about Jersey City are neither nice nor hopeful. I've folded the lyric sheets up and stuck them into the inside pocket of my guitar case.

I have also written a song about my City Councilman, who is, as you probably know, my least-favorite person in town. I can't imagine tonight's show turning into an appropriate platform for that song, especially since the Embankment Coalition is counting on the support of the Councilman. But, yes, I could go there tonight and embarrass everybody, especially myself. I could throw my spanner into the municipal works if I chose to.

I encountered the City Councilman yesterday. We were in the third floor gallery in Victory Hall, attending the closing of an exhibition called With Apparent Ease. The couple in charge of the installation were showing the Councilman around. Nobody else was in the gallery. I felt, again, that sense of dislocation and impermanence that has been my most persistent companion at Jersey City events. It is important, I recognize, not to make a scene and jeopardize the Councilman's favor. And again I wanted to be someplace where every battle did not turn on small gestures, and every initiative was not so fragile that we had to tolerate those who are absolutely intolerable.

The Jersey band called Hidden In Plain View does a song called "Garden Statement". That big city feeling, they assure us, is better than suburban dreaming. Surely it is. That big city feeling is a certain useful anonymity, a sense that if you make a misstep and leave an ugly footprint on the street, there's always a parallel road to run. You're not constantly confronted by your own mistakes. But garden-state dreamers cannot afford to hold grudges. There is one cafe on the corner, one flimsy set of arts organizers, one Councilman -- when I speak my mind and anger these people, I've got nowhere to turn.

I am not running for office, though. And I've already got more friends than I deserve. Should I alienate my neighbors, my cardhouse does not tumble. It's those who are engaged in specific local enterprise who've got to keep smiling and making excuses for those whose power they'd like to enlist to their cause. I've already seen enough grotesque fawning here to fill the pages of a hundred copies of Teen Beat, or Roll Call. I understand why it's mandatory, and maybe even forgivable. But it's not something I can manage. And perhaps that, more than anything else, is the reason I don't belong here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


apres le deluge

The rains are over. Out on Grand Street, the tubes that carried water from the basements to the sidewalks are quiet now. A few days ago, all of the pumps were going at once, transforming the curb into a gigantic kiddie pool. Water poured from holes in the stoops, forming rivulets pockmarked by falling raindrops. Ripples and crosscurrents on the surface of the pool were pulled by tides. Trailblazers in rainjackets felt the waves lap against their boots. And then it stopped.

Me, I was sick throughout. I had the Consultants-MTS cold. I tried to get out of the house here and there, to fetch a can of olives, or to ride the train, or just to get wet. Rain puddled up in my messy hair, and slid down my runny nose. I tried my best to avoid the greasy cafe next door, but I was sucked inside. The windows fogged up with steam, and the smell of burnt coffee beans sat in the courtyard like a cement block. A tube stuck out of the sidewalk loading doors, spitting water all over the steps. The basement of the cafe had flooded, too.

I'd left the house to grab the brolly we'd stashed in the back of the Bubble. Sniffling and coughing, I'd stumbled down the steps, past the bicycles and soaked athletic gear that littered the hallway, and out the door and into the rain. There, on the sidewalk, stood our landlord, looking at the soaked house. Rain poured down the peanut-colored frontage like a filthy waterfall. The landlord stared at his home in the same way that gamblers, hypnotized by the wheel, continue to absently watch the action even after they've been wiped out.

I like our landlord. He has four excellent and talkative children whom he does not appear to have destroyed. It has come to my middle-school educated attention that he likes his smoke. I have seen him when his eyes are the color of Pepto-Bismol. At those moments, peering into the great stoner beyond, he is not at his most conversational.

But as the rain splashed on his flannel shirt, he wanted to talk. These were all warm rains, thick and moist and gummy. The water glued together my puffy eyelids, and coated my cheeks with a slippery film. The basement, my landlord told me, was an absolute wreck. How are our leaks?, he'd wanted to know. I informed him that new corners of the ceiling were soaked, and that water was dripping into the outside hallway. He promised intervention. A man would arrive during the weekend and install gutters.

I wondered how gutters could help. Our interior wall is decaying; most likely, it will have to be removed outright if the house is to be saved. There is a crack in the sheet-rock from where the black mold broadcasts its cancerous message. As I rowed up Grand Street, it occurred to me again: our landlord seems to have no idea at all that our lease is up. He is impossible to read: if I'd told him we were history, he might have implored us to stick it out. Or he might knock on our door on November 1 to introduce us to the tenants who are taking our place.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


stroller bomber

There is an unattended package at the foot of the stairs. From further down the platform, it looks like a bag of tandoori rice. But I cannot be certain at this distance. Moreover, it is not advisable to approach an unattended package. We are told to contact authorities, all of whom have the proper dogs. But telephony is not general at the Grove Street PATH Train Station.

Today, stroller bombers are planning to detonate bombs in strollers on the trains. The mayor of that other city (not my mayor) informs us that his intelligence suggests that the threat level is greatest today. It is not high enough to become tinted red, but it is reddish-orange, or blood orange. There is a young Scandinavian couple on the bench between my seated body (reading the Economist) and the suspicious, unattended package of tandoori rice. They have a stroller with a baby inside. The bomb may be inside the baby.

The sanskrit letters of the unattended package of tandoori rice dare me to read them. An overweight policeman wearing wraparound shades patrols the platform, looking askance at everybody's bags. He doesn't stop us or ask us what's inside -- he just surveils us with cool, obese contempt. We all may be terrorists, stroller bombers, weirdos.

Our train arrives. I am confronted with the decision: which car to take? It is a rolling game of Russian roulette; guess wrong, and I may find myself seated next to a sarin carrier, or an anthrax carrier, or a freedom fighter strapped with explosives. Historically, I have chosen to ride the car that contains the largest number of good looking chicks. But those good looking chicks might be bombs. When anything is possible, the wisest plan is to have no plan. I close my eyes and choose randomly.

I have chosen to ride the car containing the fat policeman. He stands by the front window, playing with his nightstick, his uniform stretched tightly over his gigantic belly. At Newport, two tan-skinned men get on the train. They laugh, and speak loudly in a Middle Eastern language. The men carry travel bags, airport push bags, shopping bags, a gift bag from Victoria's Secret, a gigantic economy-sized bag of Kibbles & Bits. They lean the bags against the steel hand pole. If the bomb is inside the bag of Kibbles & Bits, will the shrapnel explode from within a roiling mass of dried dog food?

Across from me, a middle-aged man sits, eyes closed, praying under his breath. It seems illogical that the insurgents would bomb Christopher Street station, because Midtown is where the big-city action is. But perhaps the insurgents have listened to the mayor (not my mayor), and figure their best chance is to direct their efforts against soft targets such as shopping malls, or nightclubs, or me. Christopher Street may have some symbolic value that I haven't yet ascertained. Quietly, I calculate the possible significance of various stops. Christopher Street: gay sex, Christopher Columbus. 9th Street: cafe culture, NYU, dressing to the "nines". 14th Street: cheap electronics, clothing, meat-packing. 23rd: Tekserve, Chelsea, gay sex.

There is nothing in my bag but a roll of tissue, copies of the Economist, staff paper, and a quickcam I took from Melody Lanes. The staff of the Economist was apparently deeply divided over whether the war was justifiable, though all agree that to leave now would be disastrous. On my way to the Longwave practice studio in Williamsburg to rehearse with Overlord, I am singing Mos Def's words: tomorrow may never show up/for you and me, life is our promise. I could be incinerated in a flash of light and metal, and kibbles and bits. Or these days could progress in the same piston-like rhythm, all steam and grease and pounding. There is no way to know for sure, for good.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


this room is yellow (unless it is blue)

That room is brown and beige. This room is yellow unless it is blue. Within the wall separating the rooms, a black mold conspires to work with me. Spores pour out of the crack in the wall and swoop around the rooms in little eddies. When I turn the ceiling fan on, the spores swirl like a merry-go-round. Laughing, giggling, they pounce on my back and cling to my clothing. They clamber up the ladder of buttons and stream into my mouth and nostrils.

Inside the lungs and skull, the mold spores set up colonies of their own. They develop infrastructure: roads, schools, a civil defense and emergency response system. Occasionally the body attempts to eject the invaders by coughing and sneezing. On such days I expel millions of black mold spores, casting them to the floor of the brown and beige room, or spewing them all over the windexed surface of the computer table. But usually, the body is okay with the colonies. For weeks, they grow in peace, gently molding the valleys of my brain unvexed.

The thoughts come in clouds. It is sometimes hard to tell if it is the mold thinking or the prior brain. A certain musty odor to the thoughts may suggest mold's distinctive influence. A cloud might develop near my right temple and slowly travel toward the base of my spine, trailing thoughts as it goes. Sometimes the world will clap its hands and I will suddenly become dizzy, the brown and beige room swinging around me like a gyroscope. I enter the yellow room and lie prone on the sofa.

The sofa could be a participant. It is old and crumpled. We inherited it from the family, and it carries decades of the family's dust in its cushions. The sofa is covered with loose-fitting cream-covered fabric. Pillows slant down toward the wall. Anyone foolish enough to sit on the sofa slides toward a black hole. We have long discussed killing the sofa -- dismembering it and leaving it out to be hauled to the garbage mountain. But the sofa is still here, emitting soft puffs of dust from decades of the family's dusty actions whenever it is prodded. The dust mingles with the mold spores. It stimulates the corners of our eyes.

We have carpet. I vowed never to live in a carpeted apartment, but perhaps I did not swear loudly enough. When we moved in, the carpet was new and blue, and had the odor of a freshly laundered schnauzer. Uma, our animal, claws at the carpet and pulls its fronds apart. It is now busy with dander: dead flecks of her skin. When I enter the carpeted room, muscles in my throat constrict. I lie on my back on the carpet, tossing a quarter or nickel up toward the ceiling, and catching it in the palm of my hand. When the coin slaps down squarely in my palm, it feels pleasant. Often I will misjudge the toss, and the quarter or nickel will go clattering against the keyboard of the laptop or the ivory control switches of the Vox organ.

When we leave here, the spores will travel with us. I will sneeze on a new wall, and the spores will rush out like a ribbon, and bounce into cracks in the white facades. There, they will establish cliff-face villages, like rock dwellers in the Hindu Kish. Life will be hard for a time. But they will propagate. Some will find their way back into my respiratory system. Reunited with old friends and old ways of life, they will rest together in hot valleys of mold. And will I breathe in and out, typing, always typing, as the colored clouds cross over the inside of my forehead.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


this town rips the bones from your back

Ever since I have been in Jersey City, progressive types have told me that the key to reorienting our urban design is putting head planner Robert Cotter in charge of Housing and Economic Development. But I doubt even the most driven local activist would've wanted to see it happen this way.

My best wishes to Jack Bierne for a full and speedy recovery.

Monday, October 03, 2005


a dream

She is a graduate student at Columbia University. She has brown skin and long, curly black hair. She is as tall as me; maybe a little taller in her heels. She carries a bookbag and a notepad. We are standing together on the corner of Wayne Street, and she is interviewing me about my writing -- not for a magazine, she tells me, but for a class project. The woman wants to know the scope of my disengagement from Jersey City. Behind us, the sun is setting over City Hall, throwing a long rectangular shadow over Grove Street.

We begin to walk toward City Hall. I do not like to go this way, I tell her, but I find myself compelled to move in this direction. I mention that trips to my vegetable market cause me to walk on Grove Street. Secretly, this isn't what I mean. The crowd is pouring out of Council Chambers. They are jubilant; they have just secured a victory in the battle to preserve the Sixth Street Embankment. They walk to the roadside and take a sharp left toward me, chattering and smiling. It is as it was on a day I cut class, and found myself on Mountain Avenue outside of the high school just as the three o'clock bell rang. I did not want to be in the building -- and yet as I watched my schoolmates from across the road, I felt the ghost's longing for corporeality.

Bodies pass me. I recognize the activist Mia Scanga, always a vocal presence at City Council meetings. Kathryn Klanderman, former president of ProArts, calls me by a name I don't recognize. She walks with a woman whose face is veiled. I turn to introduce Kathryn to the graduate student, but to my embarrassment, I have forgotten her name.

Paul Sullivan takes me aside; he is jubilant. He will be hosting an arts tour of his own in the Heights, and he would like me to provide music. I am suddenly overwhelmed with guilt about my decision to skip this year's Studio Tour to play the New England Popfest. I ask him about what I've missed. He is enthusiastic about the popular response to the tour, and about the new studios that have opened on Jersey Avenue. The art itself he dismisses as "Knitting Factory stuff".

I find this glibness uncharacteristic of Paul. But then City Hall looks different, too -- taller, more ornate, capped with golden domes. A young woman on the marble steps dressed like a stewardess hands out brochures. The facade is grey and imposing, and fills me with fear. For a moment, I worry that I will be arrested. I realize that this must not be Jersey City Hall at all, but instear it must be a museum or civic building in Manhattan: perhaps a courthouse, or a train station.

Sure enough, our railcar begins to move. There is art everywhere: on the walls of the car, on coffeetables, on the covers of periodicals. I pick up a magazine and look at the cover. A woman who looks like Martha Stewart is stretched out in bed. Her body is covered by a thin white sheet. The pose is sexualized, but she appears to be in terrible pain. Paul explains that the photographer used to be a Jersey City local, but has since left for the wine country.

This is a commuter train. We have gone into the city upon the request of my old high school friend Steve Barison, who I have not seen in some time. We are here for a Pixies doubleheader: first, we have seen the Pixies in concert, then we went to see a screening of a movie about the Pixies. The movie, which was not good, was Steve Barison's idea. So many of my high school friends crowd into the railcar. We are returning to New Jersey as twilight falls. I am reminded of a trip I took with these friends when I was very young: to Madison Square Garden to watch Peter Gabriel perform. I remember the frenetic banter on the way back, the fevered comparison of our internal experiences, the slickness of the train windows and the sick yellow color of the seats.

Our train ducks through tunnels. We are laughing and joking. I do not want the car to reach New Jersey -- I want to go on laughing and joking in this cabin as long as we can. Steve Barison's face is clouded, obscured. I tell a joke, and a person I don't recognize at the back of the car begins to laugh inappropriately. What's so funny?, I demand to know. I become angry. Suddenly, I am preaching straight from the Book of Romans. Bible in hand, I speak of sin and salvation. We shall all be restored in the fullness of time, I tell my friends. With each passing trestle, the light in the railcar grows dimmer.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


roadrunner once, roadrunner twice

My Teenage Stride tore it up at the New England Popfest in Northampton this weekend.
We played at a club called The Elevens. Last October, the Popfest was held at the Eagles Club, further down Pleasant Street toward I-91. The Eagles Club was little better than a grange hall: candlepin bowling and pickled New Englanders sitting in a downstairs bar, and twee indiepop kids rocking in an unadorned upstairs room with a drop ceiling.

But they had an elevated stage, good lights, and, it turned out, an excellent sound system. Approached from the street, The Elevens looks like the spare room of an adjacent horrid Irish pub. Inside, though, it is more like the Stone Pony: an area away from the dancefloor for equipment, a nice lounge, a well-situated sound booth, good monitors, good mics, and plenty of places to plug in.

From fancy restaurants to Fenway Park, every place in New England seems to be built of thin wooden planks that have been painted green. At Drunky McSwiggin’s, or whatever it was called, we watched Mike Timlin throw a few crucial ground balls. Crowds of indiepop fans, a bit intimidated by the bar, pressed their little bespectacled faces up against the windows. The Red Sox are not twee, but it is twee to be a Red Sox fan.

Around the corner, at Pearl Street, a long line of locals hugged the curves of the sidewalk; across Main Street, singer-songwriter fans crowded into the Calvin for a early show. Closer to Smith College, a wino with an acoustic guitar (not Sufjan Stevens) banged out songs about Connecticut to bewildered passersby. Northampton is singing.

This is the time of the season for parties. By Thanksgiving, Northampton will be positively polar, and even the diehard professional protestors out by the Farmers Market will have to take their No Blood For Oil signs inside. But the music will continue. I went to school in Western Massachusetts, and while that was by no means fun, Northampton was a semi-familiar lifeline for me. I remember seeing Richard Thompson and Robyn Hitchcock at the Iron Horse, where I had my first encounter with horseradish mustard, and taking the PVTA bus from Amherst to catch locals Caroline Know and The Vestrymen open a Pearl Street gig for Mike Watt. Once we’d turned twenty-one, my friends and I would drag our crappy equipment and our cassettes to the basement of Sheehan’s Pub, and we’d play as long as they’d let us. Each time we did, we’d come up with a different absurd handle for the act: Alter Benjamin, Paladin’s Chives, Zapf Chancery. Northampton never flinched.

A decade later, we took the stage at The Elevens with slightly more confidence in ourselves, but with the same faith in Northampton audiences. Hilary surveyed the club and mentioned, again, how very easy and profitable it would be for some enterprising sod to open a comparable rock and roll performance space in Jersey City. And of course she is right – and I’m forced to entertain the question once more. What makes some towns music cities, and other towns music sinkholes?

The folks who run this Popfest are affiliated with Skipping Stones Records, a Connecticut indiepop label. But they don’t hold their party in Hartford, or New Haven, or even Storrs. They make the drive up I-91 to the Pioneer Valley on the well-established pretext that there’s music in these mountains. In Hudson County, we do something similar. Uncle Joe’s aside, we’ve been taking our performances to Hoboken for as long as I can remember. We complain about the yuppies and the crowds of frat guys at Bahama Mama’s, and about the prohibitive real estate prices – and yet when we want to do an important show, there we are in Hoboken again.

Maybe Joseph Condiracci and his band of First Street expats will manage to revive Uncle Joe’s somewhere in Jersey City. But until that or something like it happens, we’re actually worse off now than we were two years ago. Northampton, Massachusetts is no city of a quarter million: it’s a medium-sized, post-industrial college town that’s reinvented itself as a site of cultural interest. They’ve got a place to rock on every block. We’ve got zilch.

You can’t blame the proximity of New York City. Hoboken is a PATH train ride away, too. And you can’t point the finger at our local ordinances, annoying as they are. Northampton – and Massachusetts in general – is one of the most overregulated places on earth, a town where they will slap legislation together in a heartbeat to outlaw anything and everything they can. We experienced this firsthand as we struggled with a ridiculous rule that prohibited us from reentering The Elevens after one in the morning – even to get our equipment. Northampton is further proof of something we all should know instinctively by now: petty rules and tightass elders cannot stop the rock. As long as there are places to play with regular slates of performances, no minor-league version of C. Dolores Tucker can lay a glove on an established indie music scene.

Now, I can imagine townies becoming extremely annoyed with current Northampton. There are places to dance, but no hardware stores. There are upmarket restaurants and art galleries, but no corner bodegas. Walk a block from the red-brick Downtown, and the composition of the streets changes drastically – suddenly, you’re surrounded by big, drafty houses that exude that distinctive New England horribleness. There’s plenty of evidence that Northampton is a much better place to hang out than it is to live. But when the lights go down and the music starts, this Massachusetts hamlet I rejected way back in '94 has it all over my much bigger and much richer hometown.

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