Thursday, December 2, 2010

We’re Still Here

Back in 1986, me and Alex, this big Russian kid, became fast friends at Intermediate School 364. I was slightly pudgy, very nerdy, a bookworm. He was brash, assuredly more than half-nerd, but also pretty overweight. We were definitely outcasts, me more than him. Still, he was a bit of a bully, though his sometimes overbearing nature was limited to our immediate circle of friends, also tending toward the nerdier end of the spectrum.
If not for his prodigious girth, and the fact that he was white, he could’ve been an alpha male of sorts at our majority black and latin junior high. Years later, fresh out of college and coming back from my first office-drone gig, I ran into him on the L train. I was living at my folks’ crib by myself while they ran a bed and breakfast upstate, and he was visiting Ma Dukes Russka, and I invited him over.
At the crib, I introduced him to some of the loopier, more bugged-out Beatles tunes that he wasn’t familiar with. We both realized how much “Blue Jay Way,” off Magical Mystery Tour, really had that Wu-Tang rhythm down (remember how the Wu were still lighting the world on fire back in 1996, when NY was still king?). In the back of my mind, I was actually impressed with myself, as he’d always been the one to introduce me to music.
First the Beastie Boys, then punk rock and hardcore, plus a good dose of Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy when we’d both escaped being packed off to our zoned high schools, making a four-year detour to the big-time: Stuyvesant High School. Of course, plenty of his music came from our fellow Stuy friend and all-around nicest-guy ever, Dan McCabe, a tall, cornfed blonde, Irish kid who seemed to hang out exclusively with a posse of very cute goth and new-wave Asian chicks. Alex became my audiophile muse, even if his musical suggestions were re-gifted from someone else. It seemed like all my beat-up tapes, labeled in drippy, silver marker and sporting faded, photocopied covers, complete with lyrics and interior art, came from him:
But years before Stuyvesant, before we became semi-adults, before he’d dropped all that weight, he had the bossy, know-it-all thing down cold, and to a spineless jellyfish like my 11-year-old self, it made for an interesting friendship. I tended to hang my head low when challenged on the various bullet points that determined whether you were normal/accepted in a Brooklyn junior high circa mid- to late-1980’s (“Yo, why you reading those big-ass books!” or “Damn, where’d you get those no-name sneakers!”). And while Alex was hardly going all Ricky Linderman on their asses (a la My Bodyguard) whenever they were looking for a victim, his size and semi-boisterous façade let him fly under the radar more often than not.
Plus he had a little brother that he picked on a bit, which was training wheels for having me as his pliant sidekick. I even remember him getting into a fight on the hill behind his mom’s building with one of the only other white kids in that section of Starrett City, who looked eerily like Scut Farkas from A Christmas Story. The guy had wronged Alex’s little bro somehow, and they squared off for a couple of minutes until, tragically, Alex’s pants fell down, deflating the fight out of both him and his opponent. More than I ever did to wreck shit back then, so nothing against him for that.
I remember us having Mr. Shelton’s health class together. That period was always amusing to us, as Mr. Shelton, also one of our gym teachers, was shell-shocked in front of a classroom, having little control over the hormonal nutjobs he’d been charged with overseeing as a pedagogue. He also had a well-kept, very round afro, and thus was a throwback in the era of hi-top fades. Reflecting back, I can’t help but wonder if he sported his Sergio Tacchini jumpsuit at home, or out to the club (he strikes me now as a single man, and couldn’t have been older than mid-30’s, as I am now).
I always pitied Mr. Shelton, even as I took part in the maelstrom of unacceptable behavior that always greeted him upon arrival in class (to give him his due, he was a perfectly workmanlike, serviceable Phys. Ed. educator.) On this particular day, Alex and I were taking turns putting on the tinny headphones of his walkman (it’d be a couple of years before I got my first one) with the other one cueing up the opening battle-cry of the Beasties’ “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” at the loudest possible volume.
It was a weird game, trying to get the other one to flinch from the aural assault. We also did impressions of Mrs. Hill, our somewhat hardass Math teacher, tweaking Beastie lyrics (“Foot on the pedal, Math-team medal!”) to gently mock her apparently unflappable passion for math. I would probably cringe today if I heard our guffawing back-and-forth, as we were pretty merciless with her thick accent. Still have no idea where she hailed from, though in retrospect I believe she might’ve been from DR, actually.
To us, Mrs. Hill seemed a sour, disaffected spinster, the kind of teacher that itched for the days when a lightning-quick snap of the ruler on the wrist was considered coddling the student. I vaguely remember the usual rogues’ gallery of misbehavers that she made sit in the corner of the room facing away from the class. Perhaps my most vivid memory, however, was her relating some anecdote about walking by the Gay Pride Parade and ending up in a front-page cover picture of the Daily News as a passerby, and her subsequent freakout lest anyone see her on the cover and think her a lesbian (I think she was an evangelical Christian, to boot).
I know I’m perhaps rambling on, to the point that my inner KRS-One is yelling out at me “Ya Slippin’!” But that goofy, adolescent fixation on the Beasties reminded me of the roads we both took later, when our friendship ceased to be, like the Minor Threat song says. We still both lurved hip-hop, and, like many white kids in the city from different backgrounds, we were obsessed with blackness. Whether we admitted it or not, in our own different ways, we had the fever.
But how different that experience was for those in the five boroughs from that of suburban and small-town whiteys on a cultural tourism kick, even if fraught with the same potential for disaster. White privilege, earnest and sincere appreciation, rebellion, and simple osmosis from the black kids around us made for a melting pot of assumed racial identity back then. And like the beats and Norman Mailer’s “white negroes” before them, so many of their ranks came from the middle- and upper-class Village and gentrified Brooklyn kids. You had your Beastie herbs, your blunted-out weed-heads, the kids who were drawn to writing (graf, that is), the kids who liked to start shit and fight. Somehow, it seemed that red-diaper babies were always well-represented in their little crews. Some dabbled, others lived it.
I’m sure there were a handful of these 16-year-old graymeat crackers who simply sweated black culture because they were desperate for acceptance, but you might’ve been surprised how many seemed pretty genuine. They hearkened back to what probably felt like a generation ago to them at the time, to the curve of the 70’s and 80’s, when hip-hop was tottering on the unsteady, yet cocky, legs of its adolescence.
It was especially a throwback to the acceptance and equanimity of b-boying and graf, where skills and wowing your contemporaries overrode whether someone was black, Puerto Rican, or white. Even with the extreme racial tensions of the late 80’s and early 90’s, hip-hop, a culture by and for people of color, set the terms of rebellion and togetherness for so many. Even majority-Asian or white crews were rocking the baggy gear and geeking out on rap. And many of the white homeboys did have black friends. Somehow, despite the schisms of the time, there was an ease of association in that era. Maybe it was because everyone was pretty high.
For white kids into rap in NY, The Cactus Album, by 3rd Bass, released in 1989 at the height of hip-hop’s Golden Age, was the shot heard round the world, or at least as far as Far Rockaway. 3rd Bass was two-thirds white, their unique sound rounded out by their supremely talented black DJ, Daddy Rich. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another interracial, major hip-hop group from the time. As such, they beat out their contemporaries: Everlast, in his first incarnation as an Ice-T protégé before the Irish blunts-and-shamrocks shtick; and Young Black Teenagers, who were at least young. Other examples escape me now, strangely enough.
Unlike Vanilla Ice and a thousand other clones who came out, they took their craft seriously. Their beats were tight as hell. Both MC’s had good flows, and skills, and unique personal styles. MC Serch was more of the spastic clown, while the “Prime Minister Sinister” Pete Nice patterned himself as a kind of white Big Daddy Kane, dipped in suits, sporting a cane, and the occasional throne to denote his stately helming of the rap game.
I sported a Serch-like ‘do for a time, though it was more of a giant meatloaf-shaped case of bedhead than the sculpted flattop that Serch somehow eked out of his Jewfro. I also had the glasses, big, thick Elvis Costellos. Ironically, looking back, I really liked Pete Nice much better. He was smooth, laid-back, didn’t try nearly as hard to be down as Serch. Mind you, I still think Serch was dope, a pioneer and talent, to be sure. Plus, he supposedly discovered Nas, which outweighs pretty much any bonehead maneuvers he pulled over the years.
It was an exciting time, and I think about it fondly now, and realize how much of my NY experience was defined, even if somewhat superficially, by a decidedly non-white culture. Which is fine by me, because I’ve had to stop myself lately and wonder, “Why do white people bother me so much?”
Sadly, they really do. White people, such as they are, annoy me deeply and often. Think on the following: Late 80’s hip-hop. 1970’s punk rock. Dylan walking with the girl on that album cover. Lou Reed’s unfathomable shades and black turtleneck. Crazy Legs defying gravity on a piece of cardboard. The cracked sepia imaginary of the old Jewish/Italian/Irish/Polish districts from years ago. Labor protests for the 8-hour work day at Union Square, red agitators against head-cracking police batons. The jazz swirl of Harlem, heady with zeitgeist. The vim and vigor still coursing through the packed streets of Brighton Beach, Astoria, Jackson Heights, Washington Heights, Greenpoint, or Flushing.
To me, these have nothing to do with what I associate with white people: Sex and the City, cupcakes, the word “foodies,” helicopter parenting, excessively sitting on sidewalks, artisanal hot dogs, lining up for trendy bullshit, frat-rock date rape, not being able to hold one’s liquor, being patronizing, condescending, or overly glib with non-white people, “pimps ‘n’ ho’s” Halloween throwdowns, living in the city but hating everything that really makes it urban, luxury co-op complexes as the new gated communities, ironic ugly sweater parties, velvet ropes, crowded-as-shit faux dive bars, the mind-boggling proliferation of hand sanitizer, and everything else that’s sucking every last bit of blood, vitality, originality, and spontaneity out of New York, replacing it with a bland mishmash of empty wealth and 3rd-hand experience that clutches so desperately for authenticity, yet falls so very short of the real. What will be the point of coming to live the “NY Experience” when there’s no real New York left?
Our town used to be one that knew how to throw a punch. Why is it that everything that used to be pretty standard in any NYC neighborhood—a good butcher shop, a nice bakery, etc.—has been yuppified, made fancy, or emasculated somehow? Even hip-hop, poor thing, has been watered down, split into atoms and reconstituted, as similar to real music as McDonald’s is to real food. Hip-hop is the new pop, and has suffered as a result.
Was it my earnest, and sometimes misguided, desire to embrace blackness back in the day that’s made me so averse to the cultural bleaching of New York now? My people, who hail from that Central European nation caught between Germany and Russia, comfortably tucked in bed with the Czechs and the Slovaks below, and topped off by the Baltic Sea, certainly skew to the pink side of the skin-tone spectrum. The Irish and Italians, now honorary whites for many decades, plus Russians, Romanians, and other caucasoids, are all deeply embedded here, are considered white as they come, but don’t bother me none. Is it whiteness itself—that is, my own—that I still haven’t come to terms with? I’m still sorting it out.
I feel comfort and a sense of place when I hear an accent—whether it’s the exuberant, nasal delivery of a Swedish Jew from Chelsea, the thick French accent of a black skinhead, the rapid-fire cadence of the Indian counterman, the boisterous banter of high school kids of all colors coming home on the train with me, it’s like walking into Cheers after a long workday.
About 70-80 percent of the white folk I’ve met over the years, despite being from the same suburbs and small towns now feeding the endless wave of Americans into Gotham, have been pretty cool. Maybe when I met the bulk of them, New York still felt vibrant and real, and they were just part of the tapestry. Or maybe it was because they were mostly hardcore kids, and we belonged together in a way that transcended geographical origins.
But these days? The dull sameness of so many people now, all the edges sanded down, all their phrases punctuated by “Like,” “ummm,” or “yeahhh, you know?” All the while, walking and texting like zombies. But this is the new New York that we see on reality TV and in romantic comedies. It seems a magic meme to me, somehow metastasized. I refuse to believe that the fantasy lifestyle depicted on Friends was actually responsible for the deluge of boring-ass bourgeoisie who have flocked here, but what other conclusion can I draw?
But we’re still here. If you leave the major Manhattan enclaves that used to matter (the East and West Villages, the LES, the Meatpacking District, SoHo, etc.), and venture into the deeper areas of the boroughs, you’ll find people from all over the world. They’re not the New York of the magazines, that land of make-believe, but are nonetheless creating the future of this town with every breath, every step, every intermarriage, every public school classroom thrown together with their progeny. They’re my reason for optimism, the undeniable spirit of this place that refuses to lie down. That annoying, towheaded, sullen 6-year-old throwing a tantrum in front of his defeated parents at the Starbucks line might get a clue in a few years. He might make some friends and surprise his parents by turning out to be just what the city needs down the road. Maybe he’ll ditch the hand sanitizer and the iPhone, and escape into that intoxicating haze of New York, making it his own.
We probably won’t go back to how it was in the 70’s, late 80’s or early 90’s, and there’s much to be glad about when you think about the needless death and desperation that marked so many of those years. But native New Yorkers can’t help but romanticize the criminal past. Who doesn’t like a bad reputation when it keeps fools at bay, the rest of America quaking in their boots at the thought of the Rotten Apple? When we were down and out, we made punk, hip-hop, and New York hardcore, the slinky rhythms of freestyle, the infectious beats of salsa and latin jazz. Hard rocks in the Paris banlieues are carefully crafting rhymes about oppression and fighting the police. I’d bet my life they aren’t made breathless by the thought of starting their own gourmet cupcake stand.
Am I wrong to think that it’s been years since New York created anything that really took the world by storm, transforming it in its wake?
I want you to prove me wrong, and write me about what’s happening, what you see at ground level. Even though it’s been a lifetime since March of this year, when I touched down from Polska, it feels like the blink of an eye. Remind me of what still matters, because I know it’s there, lurking under the glossy, gilded surface.

For a nice story on New York as the world city, and definitely better writing than this ole blogpiece, visit:


  1. Hi,

    Great piece. I moved to the city for the first time in '91(I'm from Canada and had spent a couple of years in the UK before I came down to NY) and though I had only a glancing interest in hip-hop culture - I was still clinging to the last vestiges of hardcore/punk or whatever it was then - I remember the racial tension and particularly the power black culture still had in the city. It was amazing like some great electrical current through NY's cultural, social, whatever life. Too bad it was dying at the same time.
    I hear your comments on 'whiteness'. It's a strange thing, all these blanched out white people. I feel like our culture stopped dead sometime in the mid-90's and basically just cannibalizes itself. Maybe the pace of technological change has been too fast, or maybe we just ran out of steam. Or maybe there's something great happening out there, out of the media eye (and if it is great and happening, possibly trying to stay out of that killing media eye for as ong as possible). I was just back in London for a couple of years before returning to NY in early 2009, and the same process has happened there as here, and the English no longer seem English.
    But you're right, real NY life is happening outside of the Villages, on the edges, in the immigrant neighborhoods. And I often wonder when I'm in areas like Park Slope who those bratty, chronically unhappy kids, forever testing the boundaries their groovy, yuppie parents refuse to provide, will grow up to be. Will they be their parents, only more so, or will they open up to the city and become something else?
    And what will the city look like when they get old? That I wonder as well . ..



  2. yeah, good shit. nyc isn't that different now, only the racial divide is now an economic divide as well. the streets are still getting it in, we just don't fuck with the fake, we only sell them shit.