Thursday, October 28, 2010

They Live

Kicking off their Deep Focus series, Soft Skull Press has just published They Live, Jonathan Lethem's take on the film by the same name. I haven't read the book, but Douglas Rushkoff has. He provided a couple short excerpts in BoingBoing.

I have, however, seen the movie--and recommend it highly. Made in 1988, it provides a kitschy and prescient commentary on the way we live today.

In They Live, the world is not the colorful, shiny place we think it is. With the help of special sunglasses, a guy called Nada, played by "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, sees the real world beneath the Oz Technicolor.

Everything is black and white. Beneath the veneers of ads, magazines, labels, and money are the messages that keep us all hypnotized: OBEY, SLEEP, CONFORM.

Beneath the skins of the beautiful people--the yuppies in suits and shoppers in furs--are skeletal monsters from outerspace.

The best scenes take place when the glasses are on--in the hair salons and shops of this all-too familiar world.

Here's the copy for Lethem's book, "Lethem exfoliates Carpenter’s paranoid satire in a series of penetrating, free-associational forays into the context of a story that peels the human masks off the ghoulish overlords of capitalism. His field of reference spans classic Hollywood cinema and science fiction, as well as popular music and contemporary art and theory."

St. Mark's Bookshop has a bunch in stock now. In a time when the ghoulish overlords are brain-washing people into being stupid, fight back by reading books. They help you to see.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bad Old Days for Gays?

I've been thinking about the phrase "The Bad Old Days." In recent years, it has come up whenever there's a rash of highly publicized crime in the city. However, in a month when we've seen a spate of vividly violent anti-gay crimes, the city media has not bothered to goose the fear quotient with any mention of the return of "the bad old days."

A Google search of the phrase, accompanied by "New York" and "crime," shows a smattering in the 1990s and then more frequent usage in the 2000s.

Like a warm up, it appears in a May 2007 Observer article about "New Nostalgists," people who long for the "bad old days," when "there were no Tinsley Mortimers, no hedge-fund gods. No $1,000 pizzas or latte factories, no $50 million mansions or elliptical trainers at Equinox."

But it seems like 2008, after the recession hit and people panicked, was the year when the phrase started to be evoked in major sources as a sign of changing times.

Lou Beach, New York Observer

June 28, 2008: "Revenge of the Bad Old Days...Does it feel some days as if New York-- wealthy, successful, seemingly at the top of the world--is slipping back into the bad old days of crime, noise, dirt, rudeness?"

November 13, 2008: “Attempting to close a budget gap of this size through cuts alone will wreck havoc on New York City and force us back into the bad old days of broken down subways, unsafe parks and failing schools and will impede state and local government from addressing already increasing human needs,” said Raquel Batista, Executive Director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

January 4, 2009: Crain's wondered, "New York is gripped by fear. Are we headed back to the bad old days of the 1970s?"

January 26, 2009: The Post pushed the phrase with a headline, "SCARED TO COME TO NY: LIKE BAD OLD DAYS OF PETTY CRIME."

The Daily News

In February 2009, Joel Kotkin put it in a Forbes article. In a February 12 State of the City speech, Christine Quinn used it, saying, "We all remember the bad old days of the 70s. Empty buildings and broken windows...we won’t make those same mistakes again." Almost immediately, it turned up in a February 19 Scott Stringer State of the Borough address.

It appeared in the Daily News in July 2009, talking about "gutter punks" in Williamsburg, "It's like St. Marks in the '70s... It's the bad old days all over again." It appeared in initial caps, like a title, in the Times in August 2009. In September Dwight Garner in the Times used it to review Edmund White's book, City Boy, "an open-throttled tour of New York City during the bad old days of the 1960s and early ’70s: crime, graffiti, garbage in the streets..."

Over five days in April 2010, "The Bad Old Days" hit the trifecta. It was in the Times: "It is impossible to know if the recent increase in violent crime in the city is legitimate cause for concern that the 'bad old days' of crime may return." It was in a Daily News headline: "Increasing crime rates and shrinking NYPD headcounts remind New York City of the 'bad old days.'" And Bloomberg's use of the term "wilding," said the Post, struck "fear into New Yorkers who remember the bad old days when packs of marauding youths roamed the streets."

But April was a fluke in the year.

In 2010, The Bad Old Days seems to have fallen out of fashion. So far, according to Google, it's only appeared in 5 of the past 10 months, and not very often. Why? Said the Times in July: "At the start of the recession, many wondered whether economic forces would propel the city toward 'the bad old days' around 1990, when killings peaked at 2,245. Those fears have not been realized."

So all the "bad old days" prognosticators were wrong--unless you're queer in New York City.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

NY Loves Me

What is probably the official slogan for the city's Yunnie Generation has been plastered all over town. Maybe you've seen the signs?

The designers, "Public School," cheekily explain their campaign: "NYC is great for so many reasons. Especially the daily bombardment of big brands pushing their advertising on poor unsuspecting souls. To make it worse they try to mask their greedy intentions behind cool guerilla style posters to make it feel that more organic. Well add Public School to that list of invasive unsolicited propaganda. Except ours is too fresh to ignore..."

And now you can get the designy slogan on t-shirts. It's available at Barney's. Everybody wants one.

Public School

Of course, this isn't the first time the slogan has appeared on shirts. Urban Outfitters has been selling their version for awhile. Still, now that it's plastered all over town, it is hard to ignore.

The switch from "I Love New York" to "New York Loves Me." Think about that.

What would it take to wear such a shirt? What depths of self-importance are required to make the statement that you are loved by 8 million people, plus a whole lot of buildings and sidewalks, plus centuries of history, art, and literature, plus music, plus all the dead who ever added to the fabric of the city, plus egg creams, and--well, it goes on, because when you say "I Love NY" that's what you're loving. And when you say "NY Loves Me," you are reversing that love.

And maybe that's been the problem all along.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Delusions of Quaintness

Over at Vanishing New York, I've written now and then about new New Yorkers' inscrutable sense of safety. How they save seats with laptops while they go to the restroom and leave their apartment doors unlocked. This week, Sloane Crosley published an essay in the Times about this trend and bravely identifies herself as one of the trusting ones.

I've been reading and rereading this essay because I want to understand, and I don't know firsthand the people who feel so safe that they leave their apartment keys in unlocked mailboxes and sleep on the train with their purses wide open. Sloane boils this naivete down to two related reasons:

1. She says, "most New Yorkers, myself included, love pretending we live in a very big small town" and "We love our delusion of quaintness."

2. This wish to live in a quaint small town makes some people over-trust the everyday kindness of strangers. She warns, "we’re confusing humanity with safety."

I find it gratifying that she links two of my favorite pet peeves--the false illusion of safety with the suburbanization of New York. It's a combined longing that creates Little Nantuckets in Brooklyn and gives birth to apartment complexes that mimic suburban life. A decade ago, this combination was still embryonic, and then a whole generation came to the city without actually wanting to be "city people." Wrote the Observer in 2007, "For reasons both deep and ineffable, these young transplants just can’t help bringing suburbia with them."

I'm still trying to understand the "deep and ineffable" reasons why anyone would move to the city when they prefer the suburbs. But, for what it's worth, here's my latest example of what Crosley calls a smug "'the world is my safe deposit box' mentality:

Recently, I'm walking past a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue when I see, at their sidewalk cafe, that someone has abandoned a table with untouched appetizers and a glass of wine on it. They've left their belongings, too, a backpack and a laptop bag. They've even left their dog, unleashed, roaming among the empty tables. No one else is sitting at the cafe.

It's a strange still life. People walking by turn to look. They stop, stare, and move on. I imagine they are thinking what I am thinking: What happened here?

My first thought is that there must have been an emergency, something very disorienting. Why else would people flee without their laptop, bags, and dog? The table is closest to the exit, not penned in, and the bags are left vulnerable to anyone who might want to take them. The dog, too, seems completely forgotten as it wanders back and forth from one end of the cafe to the other.

Then, of course, several minutes later, they come out. A pair of blondes, braying with laughter through bleached teeth, giant sunglasses glinting in the late afternoon light. They only went inside to avail themselves of the bar. Ice tinkles in the fresh cocktails they hold in their hands as they return to their table. The waiter follows after them, bowing slightly, and takes their orders.

So does the fact that no one stole the dog or the bags provide evidence that New York really has become a quaint small town?

Crosley asks, "Have we gone too far in our quest for the quaint?" Yes. But, it can't last. If you play Russian Roulette long enough and keep on dodging the bullet, you can fall into the fantasy that there is no bullet in the cylinder. But keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, you'll find out the hard way.

Further reading:
Stolen Laptop
Steal This Laptop
Unlocked Baby Strollers
Unstolen Bike

Friday, October 1, 2010

Your Generation?

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..." No, not that generation. This generation. Maybe you've seen the ads?

They are absolutely everywhere. On the tops of cabs, on the sides of buses, payphones, and walls.

They are for My Generation, a new show on TV about a group of 28-years-olds who graduated high school together 10 years ago. The show's title suggests that it will give us insight into a whole generation, answering that question "What Is It About 20-Somethings?"

If these ads are to be believed, the Millennial Gen is packed with liars, cheaters, and all-around narcissistic creeps.

So tell us, 20-somethings, do these ads represent you and your peers? Are you really Generation Yunnie? Or does the assumption that you are this shallow, vapid, and sociopathic piss you off?

I don't want to believe that the tone of these ads represents the dominant and most vocal segment of the current generation of 20-somethings. If it does, then the future is bleak, indeed.