New York City

Out the Window by Brandon

My relationship to lower Manhattan is ambiguous — on the one hand, the villages and lower east side feel like a hipster theme park for art school kids and six-figure bohos; on the other, I still go there, and when entertaining out-of-town visitors am envious of their unencumbered enjoyment of what is usually called "the city." In the end, I suppose what I'd like is for visitors to spare a moment for the rest of the city — the worn-down, kaleidoscopic, bleak, optimistic melting pot.

Above is a slide show of stills from an out-the-window video taken during a car ride from JFK to my apartment at the gentrifying edge of Bed-Stuy. The cropped-but-sequential slideshow is here. Music on the video is "Under the Water it Glowed," by Eluvium .

A Farewell to Yankee Stadium by Brandon

The New York Yankees defeated the Baltimore Orioles 7-3 in the 6,850th and final baseball game ever played at Yankee Stadium. As someone who loves old sports venues and believes their demolition is a loss to the experience of sport, I ought to care; but I don't.

Four years ago, when I made my first trip to the stadium, I might have cared. I was on a graduate school field trip, and stayed on the bus in the parking lot. Asked by a professor why I was staying, I said it was up to him: I'd come in, but I'd piss in the sink. He let me stay.

Two months later, the Red Sox erased a three-game deficit to beat -- to humiliate -- the Yankees in the American League championship series. It was the only such comeback in the history of baseball, and more satisfying than their subsequent World Series victory. This might seem odd, but any true Red Sox fan will understand.

That was the high-water mark of my loathing for the Yankees. As the years passed, I soon came to appreciate two things: first, after sitting in a bar beside a woman who called Jorge Posada a "big-eared fuck" in one Italian-accented breath and cheered him in the next, that Yankees fans and Red Sox fans are much alike, less enemies than nemeses, like politically opposed siblings; second, that a rivalry is only meaningful if its participants are worthy of each other.

The players must be capable of rising to the occasion; they must have a certain  presence, a capacity for drama. Paul O'Neill and Roger Clemens, now retired, embodied this; so do Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Joba Chamberlain, Andy Pettite, Mike Mussina, Johnny Damon and even Jason Giambi.

But except for Chamberlain, these players are in the latter stages of their careers, or at least their Yankee tenures, and their replacements are inadequate. Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes: they're able enough, but in the manner of successful TV actors who cannot command attention on the grand scale of a movie theater screen. That they were groomed under the weak-chinned half-competence of Brian Cashman and Hank Steinbrenner, with the fabulously, tyrannically villainous George Steinbrenner relegated to golf-carting irrelevance in Florida, is at least poetic, and perhaps and directly related. Joe Torre's disgraceful dismissal and the hiring of Joe Girardi, well-meaning but unexceptional, was the coda to this decline.

The rivalry just isn't what it was. And by the time I finally entered Yankee Stadium, at the end of its next-to-last season, this was already evident. And I couldn't get over just how unremarkable the hallowed stadium turned out to be. Maybe this was because Fenway Park, with its ancient, musty corridors and whimsical geometries and smell-your-neighbor intimacy, had skewed my expectations of what a ballpark should be. But no. It was more than that.

From the outside, Yankee Stadium loomed, as raw and massive as its Bronx home, but it was a shell. Inside, it was merely expansive and featureless. The outfield walls were a generic shade of blue that echoed nothing so much as the signage of a suburban office park, and spotted with advertisements. Worse yet, a swath of the bleachers behind them had been blocked off, as glaring in its lifelessness as a chunk of dead coral reef. The foul territory behind home plate was so large as to make the game feel detached. Except for the porticos on the stadium walls, the interior architecture was eminently forgettable. I felt let down, insulted that the Yankees, so despised and so necessary, should play in a so bland a place. I poured a Tylenol bottle of urine under the seat before me during the seventh inning stretch, but my heart wasn't in it.

Perhaps, then, it's for the better that Yankee Stadium is being abandoned. After all, despite my own misgivings, New Yorkers love the stadium; the decision is being driven by pure, unadulterated greed, and the proposed stadium is as garish and overbearing as the ESPN Zone sports bar in Times Square. The entire process is a testament to the power of money and tastelessness -- but on a monumental scale, a scale appropriate to the drama. With any luck, the new stadium will impart its misguided vitality to the Yankees; and when I piss on it, I'll be able to mean it.

Note: My apologies for my extended absence here. My job has become much more demanding, and I've found myself without the energy to be creative come the end of the day. That sort of thing soon becomes a habit. A bad habit, though, and one I'm going to break.

Thoughtlessness by Brandon

On Saturday, as I descended the stairwell leading from the locker rooms to the pool at my YMCA, I was brought up short by a child who made a tent with his fingers and stopped to waggle them, oblivious to the person walking just behind him.

His mother shouted at him and apologized, but the incident touched a nerve rubbed raw by life in the city. In a place where the slightest task can hardly be accomplished without entering a press of people, where you mingle with thousands of strangers every day and the only solitude comes in your own apartment -- though, unless you are single and rich, you likely share that with a stranger, too -- consideration is vital.

Not engagement, necessarily, but an awareness of self and other. Small, common-sense acts -- a held door, a hand with a cart -- are what keep everyday routines from becoming a trial, if not from breaking down altogether. Yet I seem to notice, now more than when I arrived four years ago, acts of thoughtlessness.

Standing in front of subway doors without letting passengers off, pushing in as they exit, not giving seats to the elderly; refusing to move to the back of the bus, though the front is crowded; leaving carts in the center of narrow grocery store aisles; loud cell phone conversations in quiet places; and so on. Such trivial things, they require no special effort, no break from routine, only the most rudimentary level of empathy. In some ways their omission bothers me far more than other mistakes and cruelties which can at least be considered personal.

Nevertheless, as the  boy descended  I wondered if there might not be something unhealthy in my sentiments. What does it say that I become so annoyed? Might I not be taking it personally, seeing myself as the target of these small unkindnesses -- my dismay a reflection of supreme self-centeredness masquerading as public concern?

I entered the pool and did my laps. In my lane was an old woman who swam slower than everyone else, but instead of letting us pass on the turns she’d push off again, causing delays behind her. No, I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about the society we live in: one marked by a radically unfair division of wealth and dwindling social services, by short attention spans and rats-on-a-ship reality television, by unbridled consumerism, reflexive power worship, home theater systems, friends walking side-by-side with headphones in their ears. No, I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about our culture. No wonder people are such assholes.

Back and forth I went in the pool. After a while I rested and realized that a loud, repetitive shout I’d unconsciously ignored was coming from one of a group of children playing in the lanes next to mine. Looking closer, I realized they were mentally disabled. Among them was the boy from the landing, a stack of multicolored floats strapped to his back like so many candy wafers. He paddled tentatively as his mother held him, her face gentle and radiant with love and pride.

Image: David Sim

Scene From a Courtroom by Brandon

A spacious, stone-floored room lined in cheap oak and pine veneer, old and poorly lacquered, shining stickily in milky light from a row of unwashed windows, high on the wall with blinds askew. In the back half of the room, wooden benches with straight backs; in front of them, a yard-sale hodgepodge of office tables. Three women in department-issue security guard jackets cluster around a computer monitor, chatting over coffee.

To the left, at two paper-strewn tables, three men and a woman. One of the men and the woman are public counsels; the other, paralegals. One is older, caucasian, hunched over and sheathed in loose flesh, tired and noncommital. His counterpart is younger, wearing a blue suit and looking intent.

Slowly the players filter in.  A pair of attorneys, suited and groomed so as to suggest competence and power, but the intent is betrayed by the details, individually tiny but cumulatively obvious, like counterfeit designer handbags.

The bailiff is a massive man, dreadlocks gathered in two clumps that stick out from his head like rabbit ears.  The judge comes in, puts on his robe, surveys the room; he is a black man, hair thinned, youthful but his face beginning to droop.  Pulls out a New York Times, opens it up to the business section, and then looks at his computer.

The bailiff calls court to session in a booming voice trailing away to a mumble.

The first defendant: a skinny, shivering young man in a wife-beater and sagging, soiled black jeans.  He walks with a cane.  The yard-sale hodgepodge of tables is staffed by a dozen or so people. They fill out papers, carry them from one table to another, write and type. The hum of their activities muffles the proceedings, so only the charges can be heard:  resisting arrest, disorderly conduct.  Several minutes later, inaudible verdict delivered, the defendant shambles back to the gallery.

The next defendant is bald and muscular in the way of men whose muscle will soon wither and fatten.  He too walks with a cane, and the words of his case can't be heard; it's like trying to listen to a single conversation across the room at a party.  “Do you want to plead guilty,” I hear, and that is all.  Decision rendered, he walks away.

“Aladdin” is the name on the back of the judge’s computer monitor.  Rubbed, it returns the answers to his requests.

Most of the activity is conducted almost independently from the cases that are heard; the defendant, the attorneys, are only a small part of the show, and hardly central.

Another man, then another.  Now comes one of three protesters; there are many here today, their cases intermingled with the usual hearings.

The legal aid lawyer is compact, with a thin beard. He looks like a viking and speaks as if on a stage.

A protester in a Carpenters Union t-shirt accepts a deal offered by the city.  He offers his hand to the bailiff, is denied, hugs his legal-aid attorney.  A case is heard every few minutes, one after the other in a steady rhythym, and only a few, especially distinctive individuals stand out. The others become a collective presence, indistinguishable in memory, inhuman.

A thin woman with frayed cornrows.  From behind, she looks young, perhaps a teenager, in a jean jacket and jeans.  When she turns her head, she's revealed as middle-aged and undernourished, her face creased and prematurely aged.  Her postures and gestures are of supplication.  She says something; the judge replies, you should have thought of that first.  She's sentenced to twenty days in jail, the first person thus sentenced.  The guards escort her out through a door that opens briefly in the wall in the corner; through are glimpsed bars, bright fluorescent lights and yellow concrete walls, another pair of uniformed guards.  The woman’s bearing changes, like a cat prepared to fight. She disappears and the door closes, blending into the wood paneling.  Unless you looked closely, you wouldn't even know it was there.

A middle-aged woman with enormous glasses and swept-back hair enters from the side, sits down in front, and begins to read the Times.

The doors to the courtroom are bronze, tarnished with age.  On one is a metal relief of a fat man, holding scales of justice; his face is youthful and smug, and two robed young men kneel at his feet.  On the other door is an older, heavily jowled man in a curled wig, the spitting image of some Dickensian justice. He carries scrolls, and two young men kneel at his feet, too. They ought to feel grotesque, but instead seem banal and antiquated.

Outside the courtroom the hallway, bustling and jovial. A mother sits with her daughter, who drinks orange juice from a bottle with a mouth larger than her own.

How many courtrooms are in this building, a security guard outside the doors is asked.  Twenty, he says.

I don’t know, says another, ask the expert at the desk.  The expert at the desk says, fifty, sixty, a whole lot.

Four, five, six, counts off the next guard.  There’s probably five I don’t know about.  Say fifteen.  None of us know.

Here Be Tygers by Brandon

I had one of those odd I-live-in-NYC experiences today, when after covering a press conference at the Explorer’s Club I spent the day working from their board room, accompanied by, among other things, a stuffed emperor penguin and the mounted tusks of an elephant shot by Theodore Roosevelt. (A friend once gave me a tour of the Museum of Natural History’s back scenes; on the roof is a rusty iron room containing the floor-to-ceiling remains of Roosevelt’s hunts.) In the fireplace were statues of a lion and an elephant, on the bathroom walls were 19th century drawings of English boar hunts, in the foyer a stuffed polar bear. It was alive, however sleepily, with the magic of storybook tales of grizzled men drinking cognac and planning to illustrate the blank spots on their maps. And that provided an interesting contrast to the morning’s events -- the announcement by Space Adventures, a private space travel company, that Google co-founder Sergey Brin reserved a seat on the next ride to the International Space Station.

Brin’s reservation cost $5 million, with another $30 million or so to come later. The company’s CEO told us that his company didn’t provide space tourism, but space exploration -- a piece of branding that didn’t sit quite right with me, though I’m not sure why. Resentment, perhaps, because I realize that I’ll almost certainly never fulfill the dream of Earth from above and the stars in their perfection, and such realizations remind one of other dreams not likely to be attained.

That aside, though, the age of exploration whose scent still lingered in the Explorer’s Club seemed to celebrate something else, something nobler and relatively more egalitarian. Some explorers, such as Charles Wilkes and Roald Amundson and Meriweather Lewis, were well heeled. But others were not. George Comer was the orphaned son of immigrants, first visiting the Arctic as a 17-year-old deck hand. Hiram Bingham was the son of a missionary and discovered Macchu Picchu during his travels as a history professor. Edmund Hillary worked as a beekeeper so he could climb in the winter. Robert Morton Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, was an immigrant and a journalist.

None could now afford to explore space, such as it's actually exploration. And that's another issue: explorers didn't simply transfer funds and go for a ride, staying out of the pilot's way and maybe conducting a few experiments that a trained chimpanzee could run. They went to little-known places; they found new species, met new races, filled in the blanks; they survived and discovered. They possessed a certain vision, discipline and élan. Of course they were often abhorrent as human beings; but their mythology is admirable, and depicts a life to which one could conceivably have aspired.

But except for Earth's 1,100 billionaires, who can hope to explore space? Space Adventures' CEO insists that Dennis Tito, their first customer, financial consultant to "an international clientèle representing assets of $12.5 trillion," showed the world that to be an astronaut one didn't have to be superman. Instead you need courage, free time and $35 million in disposable income. I'm not sure this is progress.

After the conference, though, I heard another company official describing the company’s place within a larger pattern: the expansion of humanity's economic sphere to include the solar system, mining near-infinite quantities of raw materials. He compared it to the Wild West, and his own projects to the building of railroads; and of that expansion, myths will no doubt be born, and hopefully they will again be lived by teachers and traders and, if we still have honeybees, beekeepers.

And, with any luck, by journalists.

:: Image ::

Counterfeit This Bag by Brandon

New York City police claim to have seized $25 million of fake Chinatown gear this year. "Easy and sleazy money," to use Mayor Bloomberg's phrase. The latest raid came in what he called the "counterfeit triangle" down between Canal, Walker, Baxter and Centre streets, a hypercongested market mecca frequented by nearly every 30-and-under NYC visitor, and many of its dwellers.

Thirty-two storefronts now shuttered -- plain aluminum planes in a teeming tide of people, many of them customers. Just two years ago, police raided "counterfeit alley," and it's hard to imagine the latest raids will have any more lasting effect. Fake designer bags from Chinatown are as American as apple pie; the demand is basic and eternal, even innocent. From the first random internet piece returned by "chinatown bag crackdown":

I went to china town yesterday because my friend wanted to get a chanel purse and all of the stores said that they didnt have anything anymore wich i thought was wierd because usually they had tons of stuff and then i went to Crystal mall near metro and the girl who owned one of the stores there said there was a huge police crackdown and almost all the stores had to get rid of there merchandise shitty deal because i always went down there to get bags n stuff.

Supposedly that impulse has cost the city $1 billion in sales tax, or a palpably preposterous $12 billion  in sales. Nobody with a shred of common sense could believe that $35 bag buyers would throw down $600 for the real. Who knows whether Bloomberg believes, or if was foisted on him by the police, or by campaign-friendly designers and high-end stores, or --  inexplicably -- NBC.

Equally unknown is the fate of the now-busted Chinese people who worked the storefronts; stories don't seem to talk much about them. But the supply has already adapted: hushed transactions down side streets, under scaffolding, Louis Vitton logos peeking out of garbage bags. This probably doesn't bode well for the Mayor's second justification, that the trade produced "money laundering and bloody turf wars." Whoever survives the latest disruption will probably be more ruthless than their predecessors. Evolution in action.

For the moment, though, sales will probably fall. And a dash of scarcity will add luster to the fakes, in turn making the real versions more desirable. A feedback loop of brand valuation, optimized when there are just enough fakes -- not too many, not too few -- directing the evolution of its own particular species: designers of garish, tactless handbags.

Or maybe officials really do believe the $1 billion crap. On that note, time to watch the final The Wire.

New York City From Above by Brandon

NYC I didn't much like these photographs when I took them, but enjoyed them more at second look. There's always something ... shifting ... about seeing the city from the air; geologic contours are revealed that are hidden at a human scale, where the city seems to exist outside of immediate time and nature.

Perhaps I would have been more upset by my flight disturbance had I not had a window seat. Flickr set here.

Airplane Thoughts by Brandon

Manhattan Today my airplane pulled up at the last moment, circled the city and then landed. The pilot didn’t explain why -- congestion -- until we’d flown over Manhattan and the Bronx to the George Washington Bridge. The city was golden. Many of the passengers were vocally distressed, and a few made references to jihadists. That they considered this a more likely explanation than a traffic jam at LaGuardia was disturbing.

On the taxi home I read the Wall Street Journal: on the cover, a national map of home foreclosure rates. It looked blotched and unhealthy. Outside, in the streets of Queens and Brooklyn, spring was arriving. Winds on brown trees, high sun on tired brown buildings. Outside my apartment a middle-aged Caribbean dude sauntered by, singing about Bush and Cheney leaving office, as I searched for my keys. He wasn’t a hipster. From a Republican perspective, this cannot be a good sign.

I temped briefly as a photo producer at the Christian Science Monitor during the fall of 1999. I made photographs look realer: shadow here, light there, subtle shifts in emphasis and accent. The point is to make an image appear as it would in your mind’s eye. The more correction required, the more interpretation demanded. Artificially lit shots are especially tricky. Skin tone requires special attention. I ended up spending lots of time making the Presidential candidates and their people look ... like people.

The photo editor and I never quite saw eye-to-eye: should an image look good, or should it look real? Perhaps we had different definitions.

: Image

A Tree Grows (Out of Season) in Brooklyn by Brandon

A recent warm spell led to the block tree's unexpected blossom. (One block, one tree. Lovely Bed-Stuy.) Probably a bit disappointing for the tree, but he'll manage.

Was going to say something deep about climate change and a sense of season ... but why worry? It's a pretty tree. From the same weather, the aforementioned pigeons:

And however frustrating the lack of foliage, there's just something about the nightscape.

Photos up on Flickr