Midnight A Train

I leave 190th street and a municipal elevator rockets me into the ground where I meet one of those subway trains that wend their way under the earth that I have been riding for much of my life and much of my parents’ lives and much of my grandparents’ lives and much of my great grandparents’ lives. I ride the elevator with a freshly groomed Scottish terrier who is interested in me and his owner who is not. I use a new technology to pay my fare, not a token, not a dime, not a metro card, but my telephone, and if you had told my grandmother that one day we’d use our phones to pay for the subway, she would have been. . . What’s the feeling when you don’t even own a piece of technology, the telephone exists at the corner store, and when your father disappeared for a few days, and then called home from Atlantic City, and then asked to talk to you, his daughter, not his wife, and so your mother, my great grandmother was furious at him, and then a lifetime later your beloved fifth of ten grandchildren summons you from a peaceful rest in eternity to tell you that now he can pay his subway fare with his telephone? My grandmother Pearl died in 2005, a few years before the iPhone, but then again, I bet she could see the writing on the wall, she was a smart cookie.

I take the A express down to West 4th and I make my way through the frozen night to the east village, to Little Poland, where I meet two friends and eat two holuptzes, but they’re covered in mushroom gravy! It’s delicious, and I wonder why I grew up with sweet and sour sauce on my stuffed cabbage, why I miss it, even now that the mushrooms are delighting me; why I need that tang, and the hot burst of the rehydrated raisins. We talk about movies and mental illness and part ways so they can take the Q to Ridgewood and I can take the F to the A to Washington Heights. 

Waiting for the A, I see a strange sight, a young man has sat on the edge of the C train platform, just opposite me, dangling his legs over into the shallow precipe the train will rush through and if he doesn’t move his legs, they’ll be severed, or he’ll be dragged under and he’ll be dead and the train will be delayed. Eventually others notice the young man calmly sitting in peril, and they whisper to themselves and nervously eye the man, the board that says the C train is getting near, their train, which may be delayed by this horror, which may shower them in gore, they’re so close, and otherwise make them complicit, so a few of them surround him and start shouting. They shout “you need to get up” and I do not hear what the man says in response, something like “you need to get out.” An argument ensues, the C train gets closer, and closer, it is now visible to me and people are shouting and it honks its terrible honk and someone has moved as if to grab the man, but the C train has stopped now, and now he’s up, the train pulls the rest of the way in, and the man is asking for money. Angrily the people who tried to save his life, save their subway journey, sweep past him into the now open doors of the train, and a few stop to give him money, and he gets on the train too, still begging, he holds the door open for a moment, costing the train another second, and then the door closes and the C train takes off. Some people look on and think a tragedy was averted and some people look on and think a scam took place, but all I can think is, he had to sit in front of an oncoming train to get people to care who he was, to get his money, and it’s so cold, oh life is hard, it’s so hard, it’s so hard. 

I wrote this on the A Train to 190th street making local stops, hearing Spanish swears and the sweet snores of the man spread out over three seats asleep on his sneakers and the grumbling cyclist who hates the announcements of delays and curses the driver of the train and the driver of the train announcing our delays. It is a quarter past midnight in the subway in New York City. I’m almost home. 

There Goes Funky Flashman: An obituary for Stan Lee

I wrote this on November 12th, 2018 for my now-defunct newsletter, and I’m posting it here in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stan Lee.

Stan Lee died today, aged 95, outlasting just about anyone who thought of him as anything besides the lovable grandfather of Marvel Comics. Oh, there were always mutterings, of money gone missing, of companies mismanaged, of credit stolen. But c’mon! How could you hate that tremulous twinkle in his eye, that signature ‘stache, the surprisingly strong voice still shouting out lines in blockbuster movie after movie.

I’m thinking about two significant factors in Lee’s own accounts of his work on the Marvel universe, specifically it’s early successes with the Fantastic Four. One, is that he thought the material beneath him. Famously, that’s why he’s Stan Lee, not Stanley Lieber. He was holding onto his given name for his career as a novelist, which he assumed would be where real fame, fortune and glory awaited him. Two, is that he created the characters which are his enduring legacy because he thought no one was paying attention. Marvel Comics-heck, superhero comics in general in the late 50s-was a failing proposition. Lee claimed that it was because his publisher Martin Goodman didn’t think they were gonna make it another month, that he, Lee, was given free reign to create something that nobody had ever seen before.

As usual, it’s not the truth value of these claims that interest me, but what they say about Lee as he created himself, and was in turn created by a comic history that grew up around him. Lee positioned himself, and alternative retellings do the same for his colleagues and compatriots – Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Steve Ditko, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane- as the ur-superhero creator. That image was of a scrappy child of immigrants, a New York City street urchin who became a WW2 vet who fought Nazis with a grim smile, and was unmistakably, without exception, Jewish. But where Kirby and Simon took on the gravitas of elder statesmen, Ditko the solemn and mysterious air of a devoted philosopher, and Siegel and Shuster the tragic role of victims of rich men’s machinations, Lee never seemed to lose that sparkle of disrespect, of untrustworthiness, of street-smarts and guile that was the early 20th century Jew’s inheritance from 19th century anti-Semitic characterizations of the Jew as criminal and mastermind. Lee’s public persona is in some ways a defanged Fagin.

So of course Stan Lee was bored and broke and nearly out of a job when he created the characters that have stayed with us this last half-century. Of course no one was looking. When else do scoundrels do their best work? And relatedly, of course Stan Lee is something of a trickster, a thief and a cad. This is not to minimize the extent to which some of his actions caused real pain and damage in his life. Especially notable is the way he and other men of the Marvel Bullpen took credit for hours of work by female artists and writers. It is just to say that as comic history moves on, as we memorialize and eulogize this man, as we come to terms with a complicated legacy, let us remember Stan Lee yes, as a real person with real flaws, but also as a character, a creation of himself, as masterful and complicated and collaborative as any of his others. There is after all, no better tribute to a writer. Excelsior, true believers.

You Can’t Stay Here: An open letter to Mayor Eric Adams

I am trying to end my time in Philadelphia. It has been difficult. I’m trying to sell my house, and no one wants to buy it. Well that’s the way of the market, I suppose. Interest rates and so on. Maybe the basement is damp. Things invisible and visible, that’s what is happening.

I am a mentally ill man. I have spent time in psychiatric care. When I bought this house, it was a great salve to a real fear of mine: that in my muttering, and not bathing, and great cruelty to myself, I would wind up failing to meet my obligations to myself and a landlord, and wind up, somehow, on the streets. That from there, without access to my medications or my psychiatric care and my family, my condition would worsen. That I would meet a gruesome end, in the cold of the street. Perhaps a far off fear, but a real one, that haunted me. Fears are made of the visible and the invisible, what we can see and what we can’t. What is happening and what isn’t.

I am trying to move back to New York City. THE city, we used to call it in my youth in its suburbs, in Westchester. My wife and I, we both love New York so much. It is a kind of infection and a kind of home, something between the two. It is under our skin. It is an invisible and visible thing. We want to get back to it. We are trying to sell my home so that we can return, to my larger home, to the city I love.

In a front page news story, the New York Times reports that Mayor Eric Adams wants to ramp up the City’s ability to coerce the visibly mentally ill on the street into treatment. (Mental illness is also a visible and invisible thing.) The new directive cites that it will affect those who show “unawareness or delusional misapprehension of surroundings.”

Sometimes I get so scared I scarcely know or care where I am. I throw myself to the ground. I talk to myself to soothe myself, to work out a pain inside me. I may strike my face. It’s been a few years, but I can feel these behaviors, just under my skin.

In the front page news story, when discussing the Mayor’s reasoning for his new policy, that might violate the Americans With Disability Act, which will force hundreds into the hospitals – the mayor and governor have ordered 50 whole new beds to be added to the psych wards; Mayor Adams is quoted as saying, “We’re going to find a bed for everyone,” – the newspaper cites “feelings.”

“[A] series of random attacks in the streets and subways has left many New Yorkers feeling that the city has become more unpredictable and dangerous.” (emphasis mine)

“The mayor has defended his focus on public safety and has argued that many New Yorkers do not feel safe. . . ” (emphasis mine)

In my time in psychiatric care, I have learned a lot about feelings. They get votes, not a veto, we say. Let them come, and let them go, we say.

I move through New York and I am happy. I move through New York, and I see sights and sounds and people that fill me with joy and great wonder. I move through New York, and I am safe. So I wonder. Which of us, Mr. Mayor, is showing “unawareness or delusional misapprehension of surroundings?”

The Clinch: Usyk vs. Joshua 2, Jedda, 2022, “The Rage on the Red Sea” (My first live fight.)

I was greeted by mischievous giggles at the door. It was a hot day, even just for the walk from the subway, and Ivan’s three and a half year old, V., ran away almost immediately and hid from me, but looked out curiously from under the dining room table at my sweating hairy bulk. It was the first time I had met her. Ivan and I have hung out sparsely in the last three years. He attended my wedding, but stag, as his wife, Erica, stayed home with the newly born V. I had meant to drop in and get to know the kid, but then there were all my trips to Mexico, and all Ivan and Erica’s to Italy. That’s okay. Things tend to pick up where we left them between Ivan and me. When I’d seen him a year earlier, he’d finally managed to convince me to get into Boxing. Now I had shown up at his apartment to watch my first live fight.

I come to Boxing with almost no experience as a sports fan. As a young child, I would watch my father watching football or baseball, and I’d ask him, “What color are the uniforms of the team we’re rooting for?” That question persisted embarrassingly long after other boys had not only identified whose uniforms were whose, but what team they supported and followed, what players they admired, who they longed to be. I never identified with athletes. Their physical experience of the world always seemed not just alien to me, but dull. Kick, swing, throw, run. Run, kick, throw, swing. Run. Run. So much running. Can’t we slow down? I can’t figure out which little man on the tv is which. I’m still hazy on the rules in most sports. What’s an offsides? What’s a down? What’s a foul line?

Boxing has rules, but they’re blessedly simple, as simple as a punch to the face. They are aphorisms. Above the belt. Good clean fight. Knock out wins. Perhaps more significantly, there are no multitudes of little men that I have to keep my weary eyes on. Just the two, weaving in and out of each other’s reach. Just the two, snapping punches back and forth. Just the two men, holding each other, in the clinch.

When I agreed to watch the fight with him, Ivan sent me the card and recommended I do some research not just on the two heavyweight fighters in the ring, but the shadow over them both: Tyson Fury, the thirty four year old Irish traveler fighter launching his comeback who will surely need to fight the winner of the fight in Jeddah. Fury is a rabelaisian figure I suspect I’ll get to write more about some other time. But for the moment, I’ll stick with my thoughts on Oleksandr “The Cat” Usyk and Anthony “AJ” Joshua. (Disappointingly, though Usyk’s nickname is transparently cooler and weirder, it seems like “AJ” is used far more frequently for Joshua than “The Cat” is for Usyk.)

I’ve never trained to box, and I’ve never been in the ring. I approach this as pure spectator, part of a roaring crowd out for the smell of blood on the canvas. More than I want blood, I want narrative. In that sense, this was a bad fight to start with. Meager bones. The Nigerian-British Anthony Joshua spins a slightly tired and repetitive “rags to riches” story of boxing saving him from his wild and criminal youth. But he also cites an aristocratic background in his Yoruban ancestry, and Ivan’s assessment was that like a prince, Joshua gives off an air of having picked up Boxing the way aristocracy does, alongside horse riding and etiquette. I agreed, and wikipedia’s citation of Joshua’s “goal” to be a multimillionaire off endorsements, his inheritance of the title “Most Marketable Athlete,” sealed the deal for me: I went into the fight ready to dismiss Anthony Joshua as a pretty boy who, if he was in any other sport, would fiercely protect his million dollar face.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk had the humble media presence of the citizen of a country where it’s always a risk to make it into the papers. Here are the two things you can learn about Oleksandr Usyk outside of the ring: He’s Ukrainian from Crimea, part of the Russian-speaking majority, fiercely proud of his country and disdainful of Russia’s annexation and invasion of his home. And he’s a devote Orthodox Christian. He’ll use Christianity to avoid talking about politics, having declared frequently, that, “Crimea belongs to God.” He’s gotten more patriotic of late, joining the Ukrainian defense against the invasion, and the fight was in Jeddah because the Saudis agreed to broadcast it free in Ukraine. But keep an eye on the cross, it became relevant at the end of the fight.

Ivan and I watched Joshua go the distance with Usyk, 12 complete rounds, and ate dinner, and paused the live broadcast to play Rapunzel with V., and put her to bed, and posed questions to each other. “How much do you think one solid heavy weight punch from Anthony Joshua counts for against the flurries of the smaller Usyk?” “Was that a jab or a hook?” “How much is Joshua working his kidneys like that gonna slow Usyk down?” 12 rounds, 12 close rounds. In the end, it was a split decision, with the American judge giving it to Joshua, but the UK and Ukrainian judges agreed with Ivan and me. Usyk outboxed Joshua, a nearly constant display of athleticism and ownership of the ring.

After Joshua’s bizarre speech, which one commentator described as him cutting a promo, pro-wrestling style, Usyk was interviewed while Ivan pointed out the back half of the fight had all the interesting rounds and made to close the computer. But I wanted to watch Usyk’s breakdown of what he had just done, and I wasn’t disappointed. When asked about the fight, Usyk said something along the lines of, “The fight is now history. When people study it, they will study it for the moment I almost lost. That is the moment my God, Jesus Christ, came in and saved me.”

Had we truly just seen a miracle? Usyk thought so. Ivan and I talked about what a higher power can mean to a champion. Then we cleaned up dinner, caught up on each other’s lives, and I headed back out into the night.

I’m going to be writing about boxing more here. I know I’ve been away for a while, and I know this is a strange way to come back. There have been other developments. If you like my writing, but haven’t seen my publications, please go to the link “Published Work” above. But in the meantime, I’ll see you ringside, yeah? Yeah.

After the Destruction, Over the Sea

The other day a friend, knowing my interest in the history of the Suburban Judaism in which I was raised, sent me some prayers written by the reform rabbi Abraham Soltes. Soltes had a fairly typical successful career of a mid-20th century rabbi, serving in a variety of pulpits and chaplaincies throughout the Northeast, including as chaplain of the military academy at West Point. Later in life he added some credentials at Tel Aviv University, and in a corporation.

His prayers are notable for how completely and comfortably they identify Judaism with the project of American Suburbia. One is a “Prayer for American Enterprise”, which he recited upon the opening of a new department store. He invokes God’s blessing for “this great enterprise, whose open shelves and abundant displays symbolize the fruitage of the noble partnership of freemen working together under God[.]” In another, a prayer for the opening game of a little league baseball season, he praises the “Lord of Limb and Spirit” for “having cast our lot in this wonderful land[.]”

It would be easy, as Jewish radicals, or at least, as Jews attempting radicalism in the year 2020, to mock and deride Rabbi Soltes’ contentment in a post WWII America. Easy, too, to judge his and other Suburban Jews complicitness in White Supremacy and White flight and capitalism, to judge their smug, self-serving liberalism. And certainly I’m not advocating that we, as inheritors of this Judaism and its serious flaws and sins, overlook the work that needs to be done in atonement.

But today I’m thinking about what the emotional content and appeal of Suburbia must have been to people of Rabbi Soltes’ generation, which is to say, my grandfather’s generation. How must it have felt, to go through tenements, and the Depression, and the War, and then to find a new life, outside the City? Your family the first family to live in your new split level house. Your feet the first feet to touch your new, fresh lawn. Leaving your parents back on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, everyone and everything in your life impossibly young and vital, as you bear children, as you speak English, as you get jobs working as an engineer of jet engines, or spaceships. What must it have felt like, to come through hell, to be the future, deep in this green and growing land? It must have felt like the end of the world.

A Skeptic & The Grey Lady

I am reading the New York Times. In my father’s opinion, it is overdue. Of his three children, only my sister Amy has shared his dedication to the paper. Ever since 10th grade, when my sister realized she could outguess what our social studies teacher would opine about next from the pages of the times, she’s been a daily reader. My elder sister, Julia, was once a frequent reader, but as adulthood’s burdens encroached on her mood and anxiety, she has abandoned the paper for more escapist avenues of infotainment. As for me, I have long preferred my news piping hot from someone I know. That is, I am ashamed to say that for most of my adult life, I have been using social media as my primary news source. I wait for people to react in outrage or amusement or disbelief, and it is with a helpful dose of humanity and pure bias that I ingest the day’s events.

I will say, this has led, yes, to the erosion of American democracy, but also a wonderful sense of superiority to the newspaper. After all, why wait until the Times has a new edition to find out what the president has tweeted? I can just go to twitter. Why wait for the Times to report on the tragic death of a young black man at the hands of police? Facebook live is already at the protest. Verification takes time, and time, well…this is the 21st century: who has time?

It would be nice (it would be publishable!) if this were a story of me learning to love traditional journalism. The fact is, I continue to get my information fresh from my peers on social media. I go to the New York Times for variety. You see, the twitter stream, the facebook timeline, they’re dull. All information, jokes, complaints, poems, outrage, cruelties, acts of love, acts of terror, they all have the same formatting. As Mcluhan taught us, the medium is the message, and one tweet looks much like another, whether it comes from president or proletariat, the same mind numbing bursts of writing. So I have turned to the Times for some variety. A modern love story is illustrated differently than an obituary. Photojournalism essays stand out in stark pictures, one from the other. Articles vary lengths. I am enjoying the leisure of the bourgeousie before his paper, the grand stroll through the world as it exists today. I have come into my inheritance as a New Yorker. I am reading the New York times.

The King is Dead, Again: the Echo of an Obituary

Melvis Kwok died a few days ago, which I know because a rather supercilious New York Times, having reported on the Elvis impersonator in 2010, decided to do a quiet Sunday obituary.  The man who took up the title of the Cat King, Elvis’ Chinese nickname, Kwok was a consummate busker,  parading the neon lit streets of Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong district with serenity and surrealism. Kwok began impersonating Elvis in 1977, the very year the King died. What electric thing passed through the screen, over the many miles between Memphis and Hong Kong? Who knows how a king survives? Of that first encounter via the documentary “Elvis: That’s The Way It is”,  Kwok said “I cried for a long time.” 

This connection, born in tears, played out in lights and sequins, guitars and strangled renditions of It’s Now Or Never is special. As Arthur Miller writes, attention must be paid. It is that strange link between collector and collection, between celebrity and fan, between obsession and obsessed. There are moments when a human being, hidden from the world by his ordinariness-obscured by the simple and transparent fact that he has two eyes, two arms, two legs, and a beating heart, just like everyone else-when such a person becomes a glittering, golden thing. Such was the rise of Elvis, that shining sun. Such was the life of Kwok Lam-Sang, who orbited him and reflected his light. Who might we orbit? When might we rise?

Funny Weather We’re Having

The day the coup came, we woke up to a creative destruction. My neighbors, it seems, are planning to sell their house, so they have embarked on extensive rennovations. Atenea, my wife, was delighted, as she always is, to hear the familiar strains of Spanish from the crew working next door, and she went outside to chat with them and gossip about what the neighbors are up to.

I spent the morning too caffeinated to eat, watching the run off elections in Georgia. Around noon, I expressed my contrarian opinion on the ascendant Democratic party on a variety of social media websites. It will do us no good, I warned. I choked down a cliff bar and found myself in an improved mood. Made some pasta and felt even better.

In the afternoon, when white supremacists took over the capitol of the United States (“how can you tell?”) I watched transfixed, then angry, then bored, then transfixed again, this time fearfully so. The national guard was called, the police were bolstered, the FBI showed up, none of whom have much experience in stopping white supremacists from doing things they want to do. The day’s skepticism surged, this time on a full stomach.

There is a moment in the Wizard of Oz (1939), when the Wicked Witch has interposed a field of poppies on the Yellow Brick Road, so that Dorothy and her animal companions, Toto and the Cowardly Lion, all fall asleep from the dangerous fumes of the intoxicating flowers. As the Scarecrow dithers, and the Tin Woodman rusts from his own ineffectual tears, they are saved by the magical intervention of Glinda, the Good Witch, who sends a snowstorm in the middle of the clear blue day to dull the poppies effect. As the chilly snow dissipates the sleepy fog, the Cowardly Lion, played by the comedian Bert Lahr, wakes up and yawns. He looks around at a snow-covered field of poppies, a world completely altered by the fierce competition of forces well beyond him, and says, “Funny weather we’re having!”

The night is young and curfew has been called for an hour from now. I sit at my desk and listen to the sounds of creative destruction, or construction, and think about the brown men in the house next to me, who have been working all day in what is most likely their second country. Do they know that the Nazi flag is flying in Washington tonight? It’s been a long hard day of work. I should go see if they need anything.

Elegy For Number 10

What to say about the small man in the number 10 Jersey, the always kicking Golden Kid, who grew into El Diego, the hand of God, and by his own cocaine-fueled reckoning, God himself? He rebuked the Pope for his golden ceiling, rebuked his sportsman elder, Pele, for his age, rebuked England for their war on Argentina with two goals. What to say of these two goals, most infamous, most miraculous? How to improve on the passionate words of Morales, with their mix of science fiction (“what planet do you come from?”) religion (“Thanks be to God. . .”) and pathos (“. . . for these tears . . .”)?

Let us say simply this. There will be many obituaries today remembering the bad man Maradona, his excesses of indulgence, his courting of controversy, his broad shoulders that could fight everyone. Those obituaries have entirely missed the point, of the Goal of the Century, of a life of sport, of Sport itself. Maradona can not be measured over a lifetime, but in a split second, in the beauty of evasion and motion, in the barrilete cosmico, the cosmic soaring. Is it a tragedy that Maradona peaked in 1986, and lived another 34 years? Maybe. Is the Goal of the Century a life-defining, life-justifying masterpiece? Yes.

As Maria Tallchief said of dance, “In every sense of the word you are poetry in motion. And if you are fortunate enough…you are actually the music.” Diego Maradona was, for several brief moments, the music. That was his gift. As long as he was alive, even as he aged, even as he gained weight, was forced to retire, was committed to a psychiatric hospital, fled to Cuba to kick cocaine, that gift was still in the world. Now it is gone. Adios, Maradona. Siempre Maradona.

What I Want To Achieve In My Writing

In December 2016, I wrote the following in a google drive document called “What I Want To Achieve In My Writing.”

First, I am most concerned with writing something beautiful. That it have the clarity, catchiness, melancholy, humor, rhythm, tenderness and unity of thought that I love in writing, this is what I mean by beautiful.

Secondly, I hope to express what I mean. To accurately represent some thought or feeling, to show how it developed, to make it seen.

Thirdly, I will strive to make my writing Jewish. That is, it will reflect at least one of the complexities of Jewishness that are such a deeply entrenched part of my life. Something in every piece of my writing must be explicitly Jewish, as everything I say and do is affected by this identity. More simply put, I will tell Jewish stories. 

Fourthly, I must attack fascism and authoritarianism at every possible turn. The cruelty of the Powerful Few against the people must be constantly exposed, mocked, scorned, decried, defeated.

I am reflecting on this document for two reasons, one personal, one political.

I’ve recently had work accepted into several literary magazines, and I’m wondering how well I did on these goals in pieces that are becoming my first public writing to a larger audience. I do not know if I am far enough away from those pieces to evaluate them. I do not know if I can make a fair judgement one way or another. I do know that these considerations were indeed at the forefront of my mind as I wrote the pieces that are being published. Perhaps that’s enough.

The political reflections involve, of course, the last point, and the recent election of Joe Biden. I am not so naive as to believe that Fascism as a threat will recede with the election of a doddering moderate, no matter how far he may be pushed left. It’s not that I’m concerned that I’ll need to give up the fight against Fascism in my writing. Rather, I am wondering how the struggle to outwrite Fascism will shift, grow and change in a world where Neoliberalism rules the day? What new tactics will I need in my poetry when I must remind the reader that the enemy is still here, when it is hiding behind technocrats?