Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tuesday Night at the McCarren Park Pool: "Mean Streets" at Summerscreen

We hadn't gone to any of the previous movies on Tuesday night at the McCarren Park Pool's series because we've been teaching an early evening course called Close Reading & Critical Analysis. But last night we were not so tired after class ended and so were walking the few blocks after dropping off our books and papers at the Dumbo Book HQ - because The L Magazine's Summerscreen featured Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese's 1973 breakthrough movie.

As we strode up the not-so-mean Lorimer Street, we called Arizona on our cell phone. "I said it was you," our father said. When we told him about being on our way to see Mean Streets, Dad said, "I just saw it again last month, great film."

For several months during our teenage years, we suspected our father was in the Mafia. He did know Crazy Joey Gallo, right? Not too well, but he talked about seeing him a couple of times at one of his customer's stores. And there seemed to us other signs.

"Is Mom there?" we ask. "She's right here," he says. Mom has Alzheimer's, says the same thing to us every time we speak to her, how much she loves us, misses us, when are we coming back, it's so long since she's seen us - even if it's the day after we've returned from Phoenix on JetBlue.

She doesn't really remember her 20 years living in Florida, and of her first 48 years living in Brooklyn, she remembers not so much the 20 years at our house near Kings Plaza ("the one with the swimming pool?"), her first 18 years with her parents on East 43rd Street and Church Avenue, our apartment on East 54th Street ("where the landlord yelled at of you?") -- but talks more about the place on Ocean Parkway by Avenue V & Gravesend Neck Road where we rented an apartment in the house of her aunt's mother-in-law's house, who also lived with her three unmarried sons who went to the track a lot.

Of that house, which she hasn't lived in since she was 22, Mom always says, "That was where the gangster lived next door. He liked you. What was his name?"

"Mr. Tomato Man," we say back. "Carlo Gambino." Supposedly he would pat our head every time we came by. We were two or three, so recall the tomatoes more than the man.

Why she recalls Carlo Gambino and not that she has a brother is a mystery of the human brain.

It's about 8:45 p.m. and we've missed the 7 p.m. music by Brooklyn's Second Dan, but we get there not too late into Mean Streets. As we step down into the pool, the first line we hear is Robert De Niro's "Let's go to the movies."

And there's a shot of a row of Times Square movie houses, all lit up at night, long gone. We first saw Mean Streets on a late fall Sunday afternoon when we were 22, a few weeks after it debuted at the New York Film Festival, at the only Manhattan theater where it was playing, the Cinema I on Third Avenue at 60th.

We were going for an M.A. in English at Richmond College, a long-gone (subsumed by The College of Staten Island) upper-division CUNY school near the Staten Island ferry terminal, so we had our tear-off weekly Rugoff chain student discount pass. The film danced in our head as we ate afterwards at the old Bun 'n' Burger chain ("Eureka! A good burger!" - Craig Claiborne read a big sign in front of every store -- and the New York Times food critic was right.)

Now we pass up the free drink offered at a Starbucks tent as we walk back, way to the back where the pay-for-food regular tents of San Loco, Smoke Joint, Blue Marble Ice Cream and Brooklyn Brewery stand. We find a space behind a big blanket of five picnicking young people -- most everyone, as always, is young, but Mean Streets has brought out a few more older people from the neighborhood sitting in those convenient if not quite comfortable black canvas portable chairs.

And there's Harvey Keitel in his 1973 suit, good Catholic on the Lower East Side, back when there were, it sometimes seemed, more mean streets in this city than not. Charlie's torn between the church, his Old World gangster uncle, Teresa the shunned epileptic and her relative, Robert De Niro's kinetic, crazy-impulsive, not-too-much-up-there Johnny Boy. Okay, everyone's seen it. Or maybe not.

We actually saw De Niro and Scorsese making a film over Christmas vacation in 1990, our last year of teaching at the Broward Community College campus in Davie, Florida, where they filmed part of Cape Fear. The English Department and our faculty office was in Building 65, and our building's theater-auditorium upstairs played the high school auditorium where Robert De Niro's vengeful psycho talks to the teenage daughter of the family he will terrorize, played by Juliette Lewis.

An office near ours had a sign taped up: "Marty's office." And in a strange coincidence, the screenwriter on Cape Fear turned out to be Wesley Strick, who back in 1978 was the young editor, younger even than us at 27, who accepted our first book of stories for Taplinger Publishing and sat with us over weekends as we edited the typed manuscript with white strips and lots of caffeine at his Yorkville apartment.

In late April 1991, we were out in California teaching at a Long Beach State writers' conference when we visited Wes and his family at their house in the Hollywood Hills. We were sitting at his pool, where Jack LaLanne had trained for his marathon swims when he lived there, looking down at the Hollywood sign, when he had to take a call from Martin Scorsese. We heard them talk about the film, which was then being edited.

That's our lone connection with the great Scorsese. Wes has written many more movies, directed a couple, and written a fascinating, underrated novel about a Reaganesque actor and World War II-era Hollywood, Out There in the Dark (2006). We lost touch years ago, the way people do.

People can lose touch with films they like too, but once you see them again, it's like being with an old friend you connect with even after 20 years.

The yuppie picnickers annoy us with their constant talking -- one woman lies with her back to the screen -- so we get up and find a seat almost directly in line with the center of the screen, a great view in an outdoor venue filled with great views (the obstruction in the middle being the exception that neatly bifurcates the audience), but it's up against the back of the pool and the ground is pebbly and the concrete behind us feels unpleasant, so we get up again.

We find a good spot up by the sort-of bleachers created by the edge of the pool at its southwest corner. We're in a posse of multi-ethnic male skateboarders who smoke too much but whose sullenness (or is thoughtfulness?) keeps them totally silent.

Actually, unlike other movies we've seen at the pool, Mean Streets keeps the crowd pretty silent. There are a few subdued laughs when Keitel tells Amy Robinson in bed that he can't get involved with her "because you're a cunt." There seems to be uncomfortable shifting during a scene with a horribly stereotypical gay man of the 1970s. And there's not much reaction as the film moves toward its relentless climax even with the local reference:

"Do I know Brooklyn? Do I know the jungle?"
"Yeah, you know Brooklyn."

Scorsese knows old New York, before Little Italy was reduced to a two-block theme park of nostalgia lost amid NoLita and Chinatown. He knows the mob.

Around the time this movie came out, our parents, with four other couples, including our mother's now-forgotten brother and his wife, owned a Borscht Belt hotel, the former Nemerson, that they renamed the DeVille Country Club ("where the elite meet," said the bumper sticker). Somehow my parents brought in a partner, a guy named Frank (we're still nervous about giving his last name), who managed the Bensonhurst catering hall (still there, so we won't name it) where one of our brothers had his 1968 bar mitzvah reception. We recall seeing our mom sitting with Frank at the bar at 3 a.m., laughing.

Anyway, after their "partners" had been in with them in the South Fallsburg hotel for a while, we came down one morning to breakfast to find a light-blue-backed legal document on the kitchen table. We read it. Our parents and the four other couples were selling their share of the hotel to their partners for the tidy sum of - one dollar.

Later, we asked our father about it and he just quoted from the Coppola film: "They made us an offer we couldn't refuse."

The Family (theirs, not ours) assumed Gov. Carey would soon bring casino gambling to the Catskills. When it didn't happen, they sold the hotel to Swami Muktananda for a song. Maybe an aria. The swami performed multiple weddings in our old Penguin Room nightclub, where we saw Robert Klein bomb, Myron Cohen triumph, Billy Daniels still manage to sing and Hines, Hines & Dad dance. Take my hotel - please.

The audience applauds at the end, but they're pretty silent. With Mean Streets, it's understandable, commendable. Instead of streaming out quickly, as we've seen at other McCarren pool movies, they don't seem ready to move fast. Most are just still sitting on the floor or the folding chairs as a woman announces the next week's film -- 28 Days Later -- and a few other things.

We're not sure the guarded exit behind us on Leonard Street is for audience members or just for the food vendors taking stuff back to the trucks, but we walk along with people carrying huge packages of food and the stuff that heats it, and go out. The crowds leaving McCarren pool go another way.

On Leonard Street by Skillman, we snake around six beach chairs on the sidewalk, five old women and an old man speaking Sicilian. Coming up to our block, there's another couple of old women sitting in the chairs, talking the same dialect. "'Scusa," we say, or something like that.

It's well after 10 p.m. but life still seems wonderful.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tuesday Morning in Downtown Brooklyn: Outside the New York State Bar Exam at the Marriott

Just as we could not get into the McCarren Park Pool on Sunday night to see MGMT, we were on the outside looking in this morning at the downtown Brooklyn Marriott as hordes of young people with green wristbands were inside having more fun. Well, actually, this group probably wasn't having fun because this their green wristbands entitled them not to drink Brooklyn Beer as they rocked out but to be one of the thousands taking the New York State Bar Examination to become attorneys.

And we were there not to get in, but to give moral support to one of the test-takers we were coaching this year. Today was the state part of New York's two-day exam; tomorrow is the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), 200 multiple-choice questions in six subjects given in 48 states. We help students with the latter part of the test, since our bar exam passage experience is limited to Florida and our expertise comes from our years as an academic support director at a law school in Fort Lauderdale. (In this 2003 issue of a newsletter for law students, we've got an article, "Conquering the Florida Bar Exam," on pages 12-16.) We tried hard to prevent our grads from failing, but some pretty successful people didn't do well on their first bar exam.

The bar exam is a pretty scary test and an ordeal for most who take it. In the early part of this decade, bar exam passage rates plunged in nearly every state, and so academic support professionals like ourselves and our colleague and friend Mark Padin, academic support director at Pace Law School, got involved in more intensive bar prep -- a full discussion of why law school grads need to take prep courses like BarBri would take up lots of space -- and eventually the passage rates started to rise again, even at so-called "fourth tier" (by U.S. Snooze & World Report standards) schools like the one where we worked. CUNY Law School, for example, is now doing exceptionally well.

Our own favorite story of bar exam prep came from believing the tales of horror passed on by those who had passed about what a nightmare the two-day test (three-day in California and a couple of other states) is this:

Our lecturer at PMBR, an MBE review class, convinced us to buy Depends because not only was the exam so time-pressured (the famous 1.3 minutes a multiple-choice question) but that the bathrooms would be so filled with vomit expelled by the panicky that we would not want to leave our seat.

In a test of the product before the test, we discovered that no matter how much we drank (we're teetotalers!), we couldn't go in our pants, even with that adult diaper. That's when we realized that Depends was made for people with true incontinence, not for those too busy to go to the bathroom. We went to the men's room twice during every three-hour exam session and it was a nice break (good place to sneak in an energy bar).

The Brooklyn Marriott is one of several sites in New York for the test, including the much larger Javits Center -- all Florida's bar examinees must go to the Tampa Convention Center; when students would ask me why the test wasn't given at more centrally-located Orlando, I'd say, "The state tourist board wants you to come back to Orlando!" -- but Brooklyn is only for those writing their essays by hand, not on a laptop.

Outside at 7:30 p.m. we saw people looking at highlighted pages of outlines, eating bananas, holding the clear bags that were required for all their stuff (just like for the liquids carried onto planes), chatting nervously. "You see anyone else here?" one person asked another -- presumably talking about fellow grads from their law school.

Inside, people started to line up outside the Marriott's second-floor grand ballroom, pretty much one abreast, supervised by men and women from the NYS Bar Examiners wearing gold nameplates. The line soon snaked around the second floor of the hotel, past the smaller Jackie Gleason and Roebling ballrooms and then the ones named after Jackie Robinson and Walt Whitman.

We tell people the day of the exam is not a time to look at notes or review and not to bring any books, but some test-takers felt the need. If you don't know it after three years of law school and two months of bar prep, you ain't gonna know it. We saw one young woman, wearing clothes more appropriate to late October than late July, sitting on the floor with what looked like half the library of the extensive collection of BarBri books. OMG.

The crowd was largely 25-30ish, maybe 75% or 80% white (diversity's still a problem in the legal profession), pretty much equally males and females. Most of the guys were wearing T-shirts and jeans, and the women were also informally dressed. We saw no neckties (absurd) and only one dress. Smart people held onto sweatshirts and jackets, as even huge test rooms can get really cold from the A/C.

In their plastic bags, we saw pencils, pens, erasers, energy bars, candy bars, potassium-laden bananas, aspirins, bagels, Coke cans, yellow highlighters, gum, boxes of raisins, tissues, sunglasses (?), and Pepto-Bismol. Many carried water bottles, with a few energy drinks there too.

People looked nervous, but not as nervous as you might think. No one was shaking although the bathrooms were doing brisk business. Some people had fixed, frozen smiles. There were some deer-in-the-headlights looks. Two women played with their neck chains. One guy kept clicking a ball-point pen. Another had a piece of paper in his mouth. "Did you move here?" one person said, catching sight of another. "No," she replied, "Brooklyn is better than Buffalo." Was that ever in dispute?

The most relaxed person we saw was a guy in sandals, one blue-jeaned pants leg rolled up beyond the knee, who had no plastic bag whatsoever and was reading the arts and leisure section of Sunday's Times. He scratched his beard absent-mindedly, looking as if he were on line not for the bar exam but for a slice at DiFara's pizzeria. This guy, we predict, will either ace the test or fail miserably.

As an academic support director in Florida, we met with people who failed the bar exam as many as six times. The odds are pretty slim that you will after the second try. Some of these folks in line now will be back here next February and a few will be here a year from now. Last July's New York pass rate was 79.1%.

By the ballroom promenade entrance, they start letting them go inside: "Have out your tickets and your ID." Most have been given their fluorescent green wristbands from an official peeling them off letter-paper-sized sheets. The line moves surprisingly fast, and by 8:10 a.m., with the test starting at 9:00 a.m., they're scurrying along.

Soon they start letting them in the ballroom -- or the promenade to it -- in two lines, and they don't appear to be checking the ID and tickets that rigorously.

We see people strolling in late, some frantic, some looking as if they didn't have a care in the world. One woman shows an expired passport and explains that she contacted the Bar Examiners and some document that was supposed to come never came. They tell her to go in, where they'll sort it out.

Peeking in to the grand ballroom, we see easels with five- or six-digit numbers, showing the range of numbers to sit in that area. It's a cavernous room, like the Tampa Convention Center we took the test in. When we started that Tuesday morning, opening our exam booklet (for the MBE, we tell people to use the trick we did: do the last ten questions first, so that when you later come to question 191 you're in for a delightful surprise), we soon had this realization: hey, this is just like another test, we'd been taking standardized tests since the Iowa test at P.S. 203.

By the time we got out of the Wednesday morning session, we were pretty confident that if we could avoid getting ptomaine poisoning at lunch, we'd pass.

When we got our score in the mail (we found out we passed online) that fall, it kind of annoyed us: if we had known we'd do that well, we wouldn't have studied so hard.

But no one really knows at this point, do one? A close friend of ours will be sitting in her Long Island home a few weeks from now, grading the essays written today.

Good luck to those taking the bar exams today and tomorrow, and our sympathies to their friends and loved ones who've had to put up with them lately. Thursday will be, for many, the most euphoric day they've experienced in years.

That's how it was for us. We just walked around downtown Tampa and took extraordinary pleasure in sitting for hours at a coffee bar, reading newspapers to see what had gone in the world since May. After leaving the Marriott, we cross Jay Street to get a drink at the NYU-Poly Starbucks and sit relaxing on a bench among the trees of MetroTech, hoping our friend inside taking the test remembered to breathe.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Evening Outside the McCarren Park Pool: MGMT

(Photo courtesy Jen Carlson, who gives us good publicity at Gothamist)

We didn't get inside the McCarren Park pool this week, but then, we didn't get there till 6 p.m. to try to see MGMT. At Dumbo Books HQ much of the day, we watched the rain, reread Mrs. Dalloway and drank lots iced English afternoon and Prince of Wales tea. But after an early-bird-special dinner, we sauntered up Lorimer Street to see if there was room for us. No dice. Apparently the Parks Department had closed it somewhat earlier.

But MGMT, the Brooklyn based mystic future-pop duo, had just started playing and we wanted to hear them even if we couldn't see what they were wearing -- or in Andrew VanWyngarden's case, sigh, not wearing. Well, we're fated to pretend.

So we went around to the south side of pool on Bayard Street to hang out among a shifting crowd of about forty or so people. The sound was really good from out there -- we know that from the shows with $37.50 tickets -- and we figured we'd still have a good time, right?

And we did. VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser's dreamy, magical sounds, sometimes psychedelic, often playful, were loud and clear and we so we just used our imagination - and, um, our memory of this video and others.

Four or five people stood up, their noses plastered to the fence, straining to see, but we had a decent view of some of the inside and a very good view of the backs of the green portable toilets ("A ROYAL FLUSH - 877-234-6545"). Some of us stood or sat on the grass, and two young ladies with excellent management skills had brought beach chairs.

During the 45 minutes or so we spent listening to hypnotic songs like "Pieces of What" and "the Youth," applause and cheers and "Thank you, thank you very much" from the band, we recalled Yogi Berra's advice that you can observe a lot by just watching. And here's some of the pieces of what we saw as MGMT sang:

T-shirts with names on them included Mets, Orioles, Chicago (the city? band? Broadway musical?), Been Skating Since - Since - Since...(on a 14 yo boy), Citibank (ironic?), Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Carlsberg, Keith Haring (with crawling baby and barking dog), Squid Board (?), Pet Shop Something (not "Boys"), Columbia Cross-Country, Dangerous, On the Keyboard, Patta (huh?), Clark #17, Northern Soul, Martinique, Green Day, Queens of the Stone Age, Brooklyn (two - one in script like the old Dodgers logo, the other with bicycle wheels for the O's), Midwest Lounge, Earl Jean, Gryffindor, Holcolmb Stone (Stern?), Friends, Australia-I'd Rather Be Down Under, and Death Mold.

Hats: ten or eleven baseball-type caps, two with team logos, only one backwards; two fedoras (one on a kid cross-gartered like Malvolio); one homburg.

Three pairs of sunglasses that looked like the "play" plastic kind you give to three-year-olds.

Bow ties: one (on a guy carrying a little black Chanel shopping bag)

One couple spinning themselves around to make themselves dizzy and then gaily dancing barefoot, holding hands and pretending to conduct an orchestra (their only excuse for such behavior better contain the word "lysergic")

Three skateboards

One stroller, containing a toddler both
pacified and Animal-Crackered

A surprising number of girls in their summer dresses rather than shorts, jeans or pants

Two guys with over-21 wristbands, a sign they'd unthinkingly left the promised land and now were unable to return

More smiling than you'd expect ("Electric Feel" is that good)

Lots of cell-phone texting (to people inside?) and picture-taking (gay male couple taking one of them up against the fence)

A continuing promenade
of hipsters (some of whom passed back and forth several times), along with old people from the neighborhood who just were walking on the path around the pool, the old ladies smiling, the old men frowning

One cop standing at the curb, ignoring the three people next to him leaning on somebody's car (later there were two cops, and the three people got into the car and drove off - oh)

One kiss (boy/girl)

One mindless nail-biter (boy)

Three constant yawners (all girls)

A three-year-old girl in leopard-skin tights on her daddy's shoulders (she still wasn't seeing Andrew VanWyngarden, we bet)

People on their terraces in the Aqua ("condo living by the pool") sitting and drinking wine and apparently having a great view of both VanWyngarden and Goldwasser

People streaming out and walking down Lorimer Street even as the songs got better

Two pony-tailed girls shaking their bodies to the music (see, they know good stuff when they hear it - or maybe smoke it)

And finally:

"This is a great, um, venue, and it's a great time - this guy's staring at me - it's the last season, the end, right? Boo, it's sad. In honor of the last season, here's a 14-minute song."

It's bouncy fun, but people are streaming out. And after the long song ends, here's Andrew...? Ben...? saying, "Thank you, Brooklyn, thank you very much..."

Cheers, applause -- including us outside.

Then someone else thanks all the day's bands (including Black Moth Super Rainbow and The Ting Tings), tells people about coming weeks (not that many left!), and we take the road less traveled by, down Leonard Street, instead of Lorimer, back to Dumbo Books HQ.

They say never to look back, but after crossing under the BQE at Meeker Avenue, as we stand at Badame-Sessa Memorial Square, we look back across the street and see the big cartoon on the building of the sick bus with its tongue hanging out and thinking "I need the one stop bus shop."

But after it's experienced the activated fleet maintenance, it's transformed into the smiling, happy school bus.

We feel like that smiling bus with the good management. What does the brain matter, compared with the heart? Life is wonderful!

Saturday Night in Prospect Park: Bear Hands, The Jealous Girlfriends & Ghostland Observatory at Celebrate Brooklyn

According to our 1988 diary, twenty years ago this weekend we were at Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell, watching a peformance by the Miami City Ballet under the direction of the great Edward Villella.

In those days we spent half the year in South Florida and the other half on the Upper West Side. We always used to like to watch the Miami City Ballet practicing, as you could see them through the wall-to-wall windows at their space in the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach.

That summer in Manhattan, we were taking classes at Teachers College and preparing, thanks to an award from the New York State Council on the Arts, for a fall gig as writer-in-residence at the Rockland Center for the Arts in West Nyack, attempting to replace the irreplaceable Terry McMillan.

That was then, this is now. Last night we were blissed out by a great evening featuring two tasty up-and-coming Brooklyn bands and Austin-based Ghostland Observatory, whom we discovered years ago via NPR. On his MySpace blog last August, a Williamsburg writer said,
The L Magazine practically told readers to avoid the last McCarren Pool Sunday concert of the summer because of what it called "the retarded electro-pop sounds" of Ghostland Observatory, but I'm just an old man so what do I know? I stood in the rain (under an umbrella, but still got wet) for over an hour blissfully enjoying Ghostland Observatory's sound, which practically compels you to start dancing, or at least swaying.


A large posse of us got off the last couple of cars of the G train last night, and at times we felt we were the chaperones of some hipster tour group. Getting out of the subway across from the we-haven't-set-foot-in-there-since-the-1970s-and-we're-glad-Pavilion-Theater, the crowd dispersed into those who like to go in the Prospect Park Southwest corner entrance and those who like to enter the park further north. "You can go either way," we said to a couple of girls who stood frozen and looked confused; they nodded and followed us, glad our unsolicited advice was not misinterpreted.

The exciting Bear Hands had just started playing as we grabbed a seat way up front, on the aisle. There were lots of seats, and till about 8:45 p.m. we were alone in our row except for a middle-aged woman at the other end. The crowd was predictably young, but there were a surprising number of individual-and-couple over-40s. Maybe we just seek out our own kind.

We recall a terrific Robert Krulwich piece on NPR a few years ago in which he spoke to a scientist who said most people's musical tastes get frozen, if we recall right, at about age 22 or 23. We also recall, around the same time, in the stodgy U.S. News & World Report a list for people over 50 of 50 things they could do to keep their minds young. One was listen to the music young people are listening to.

Bear Hands -- well, they are proof that The L Magazine sometimes got it right last summer, namely when they named Bear Hands the last of their "8 New York Bands You Need to Hear":
Of all the bands appearing in this feature, there are perhaps none with less experience than Bear Hands. They’ve managed to keep a pretty low profile around the city, which is understandable, since they’ve been together for well under a year...but I can’t help getting over-the-moon excited about their infectious, complex take on what I think can best be described as post-punk. It reminds us of how Steve Malkmus and Pavement loved the Fall, but used country, folk and (sadly) prog influences to cover it up just enough so that they were never easily pigeonholed. Bear Hands does something similar, combining the punchy, slightly aggressive tone of post-punk with a heaviness and borderline dissonance that actually reminds me quite a bit of the Archers of Loaf and — don’t hate me for this — a band called Braid, who were among the best of the mid-90s emo bands everyone called “angular.” More important than any of that, though, and what I hope they don’t lose sight of after they’ve been around for a little longer, is that they seem to be as excited to be playing their music as we are to be listening.

They still seem to be excited. Our negative criticisms are minor:
1. It wasn't necessary to say "We're called Bear Hands" that many times during the set -- though we guess people were walking in the middle and may have been confused as to which band they were watching.
2. It's OK to push the stuff you're selling but don't be presumptuous in saying "See, we're capitalistic just like you guys." We socialists also buy T-shirts of bands we like.
3. Much as we've never been in the habit of telling shirtless young men to put on some more clothes...oh, never mind. Vocalist/guitarist Dylan Rau's sound is beautiful anyway. But the burgundy boxer-briefs were too much visual info - for us alter kockers anyway.

But we liked the music a lot. Joining Rau are drummer and vocalist TJ Orschner, Ted Feldman on guitar and percussion, and Val Loper on bass and percussion -- the percussion included the maracas (always a good choice) and tambourine (ditto).

Our favorite Bear Hands song is the luscious "Bad Blood" with its wonderful opening:
I would rather bury you than marry you at sea
Swiftest current, darkest waves, we'd just fall asleep
And I would rather bury you than marry you at sea
Sharpest waters you can find from here on to the east...

They have a terrific Vietnam war song with trenchant lyrics too. Someone who knows a lot more than we do, writing at Entertainment Weekly, said:
For the past month, we've been telling everyone within earshot about Bear Hands, an unsigned up-and-comer out of Brooklyn that should be on the radar of every indie label.

We guess "mellow" is probably not a word used by anyone anymore, but Bear Hands got us feeling that 1971-ish way. As did the next band, The Jealous Girlfriends, another local Brooklyn band.

While The Jealous Girlfriends' amazing vocalist/guitarist Holly Miranda (who, lighted in a certain way, did resemble a sexy pirate) at one point said, "I totally smell reefer," we're certain our good feelings came from more than just a contact high. More like the pleasure of listening to an exquisitely tuneful song like their "The Pink Wig to My Salieri."

In addition to Holly Miranda, The Jealous Girlfriends are Josh Abbott on guitar, vocals and drums (he graciously thanked Bear Hands: "they were sick"); drummer Mike Fadem; and Alex Lipsen, amazing on keys (joined by Miranda for one song), bass, very cool synth and modules.

We would have detected the influences of BritPop even if it didn't say so in the program. And we agree with this characterization in The New York Times: "The Jealous Girlfriends float through soft and erotic clouds of guitar and keyboards that can turn grungy and turbulent." Yessss. When Alex Lipsen called last night's show "fucking awesome" and "the coolest show ever" from the band's POV, he was speaking for us and most of the rest of the growing crowd on that gorgeous, not-too-hot, not-too-humid, perfect night.

People stood up at the end of "The Pink Wig to My Salieri," but even better, for us at least, came next when Holly picked up the guitar and the band went into "I Quit." It was smooth and catchy, and we liked the more aggressive sound of a new song they played, too (we didn't catch the title). The band has a good stage presence and they were lighted really effectively, and there were great instrumental sequences, skillful guitar riffs and Holly and Josh can muffle their voices in the mics in a really cool way. As we said earlier, we were blissed out.

We were also very tired, having been up since 4 a.m. (yes, we were once 22 and used to go to sleep at that hour on Friday night/Saturday morning; now, 35 years later, that's when we awaken - on this day, to the sound of two 22-year-old relatives of Dumbo Books coming home and having trouble with the lock on the apartment door downstairs). So we stayed only for a couple of songs of the fabulous Ghostland Observatory. We're lucky because we got to see them last year, also outdoors in Brooklyn.

We thought we'd let other bloggers take over and we could excerpt their commentary. Here's Kevchino, who supplied the pic at the top of this post (please check out his other comments and reviews):
Austin, Texas's Ghostland Observatory brought their laser light show to Brooklyn's Prospect Park Bandshell. Frontman Aaron Behrens ran around the stage hyping up the crowd as Thomas Ross Turner wearing a cape controlled the drums and synthesizers.

And Pop Matters' comment is truer than true:
With axe-wielding front man Aaron Behrens simultaneously channeling Freddie Mercury, Bowie, and Gary Glitter against a backdrop of diabolical beats and a laser show that will melt your brain, Ghostland Observatory’s undeniably unique brand of electro-rock is as catchy as hepatitis at a Caribbean resort.

So, exactly 20 years after we saw the Miami City Ballet in a terrific performance, we were back in Prospect Park, older if not wiser, but still basically intact, last night. And all night, BPH notwithstanding, we managed to avoid the, um, somewhat unpleasant scene of the restroom and hold it in until we managed to walk to the Barnes & Noble on Seventh Avenue & Sixth Street! As Ghostland Observatory's Aaron Behrens sings:

Just keep on dancin'
You're dancing on my grave!

Isn't life wonderful!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Joseph McCrindle, RIP

We are very sorry to hear about the death of Joseph McCrindle.

The headline on the New York Times obituary by William Grimes was "Joseph McCrindle, 85, Connoisseur of Art," and although his many contributions to the art world are probably what he is best known for, his contributions to American and British literature in the middle of the last century were also immense.

As the Times noted, he was at one time a literary agent who represented such great writers as John McPhee and Philip Roth. But, perhaps selfishly, we are most grateful for Mr. McCrindle's London-based Transatlantic Review, published from 1959 to 1977. Half-jokingly, he said he started the literary magazine as a way to promote the kind of writers whose work he couldn't sell to book publishers: writers like us.

We started reading Transatlantic Review in the mid-1960s, when it was available on larger newsstands. Often we'd buy our copy at the Eighth Street Bookshop. As the Times obit stated, "It offered an eclectic mix of knowns and unknowns -- John Updike, Harold Pinter, Anthony Burgess and Iris Murdoch among the known -- along with drawings, film criticism and interviews with writers."

We still remember the kind and generous acceptance letter we got from Transatlantic Review for a story called "Reflections on a Village Rosh Hashona 1969," which we wrote when we were only 18, in our freshman year at Brooklyn College. It had been rejected 24 times before that by other magazines.

Our story was published in issue 57, Winter 1976, along with the winning story in the Erotica Award contest by our friend Jerry Stahl, a wonderful piece about a man whose penis looks like George Washington. Finding the issue on a Manhattan newsstand, seeing that bright red shiny cover, alongside the names of famous writers like Penelope Gilliatt and D.M. Thomas, as always tickled to see the price in pounds and pence as well as dollars and cents, we bought three copies. At least one is in a box in an Arizona garage.

Transatlantic Review published only two more issues after that, a double issue, 58/59, and then the Summer 1977 issue, number 60, with a Bruce Jay Friedman interview; a John Updike essay; fiction by William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Harold Pinter, William Trevor; and poetry by Iris Murdoch, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and others. Also, if we remember correctly, a wonderful story, "Promising Young Composer Dies Bizarre Death," by one of our Brooklyn College friends, Peter Cherches. (Of course at our age, memory fades, so it might have been published the year before.)

After he closed down Translantic Review, in addition to amassing his brilliant art collection, including over 2,500 drawings by old masters -- which the McCrindle Foundation will now donate to about 30 institutions in the U.S., including the Brooklyn Museum, the Morgan Library & Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum -- Mr. McCrindle continued his contributions to literature, particularly in helping younger writers. As the Times obit noted, the annual prize to promising creative writing students he funded has gone to Walter Mosley, Mona Simpson, A.M. Homes and Ethan Canin, among others.

The Times also called Joseph McCrindle "reserved and self-effacing" and said he "moved relentlessly though life, traveling constantly, moving from one project to the next..." The world will miss him.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sunday Evening in Williamsburg: Alix Strauss's "Have I Got a Guy for You!" at Stain Bar's Sunday Salon

On a very hot Sunday, we dropped in for two brief visits to the McCarren pool party (it was easy to get in, unlike last week when we were locked out) and also stopped by the Giglio on the last day of the Feast, but lots of more articulate bloggers have written about those events.

At 7 p.m. we were a few blocks from Dumbo Books HQ at one of our favorite hangouts on Grand Street, Stain Bar, for the Sunday Salon reading series, which last evening featured the editor and four contributors to the anthology Have I Got a Guy for You!: What Really Happens When Mom Fixes You Up.

We've been to many great readings at Stain Bar, like this one a year ago -- and back in May 2007, we even inflicted ourselves upon an understandably restless audience there. Last evening's reading took place not in the cozy inside of the bar out at its beautiful backyard garden. With a large crowd of more people (2:1 female advantage) than chairs, we comfortably perched upon a little stanchion, using the grass as a table for our sparkling water.

Have I Got a Guy for You! was compiled and edited by award-winning novelist Alix Strauss (The Joy of Funerals) and social satirist (Britney Spears: An Unauthorized Biography), featuring 26 women's strange-but-true tales of dates from hell, all arranged by mothers determined to get their daughters married off to Prince Charming, Doctor Charming or Rabbi Charming.

If the five stories we heard last night are any indication, this book is not only hysterically funny but also a cautionary tale for all Jewish mothers (at least those with adult unmarried daughters -- our mom never set any of her kids up but then she was handicapped by giving birth only to three boys) -- and apparently in this, you don't have to be Jewish to delude yourself into calling Robert Chambers "Mr. Right."

Sunday Salon's co-hosts Nita Noveno and Caroline Berger first introduced Alix Strauss, who said this book actually took longer to create than her well-received literary novel did: two and a half years turning the 163 submissions into the 26 personal essays that made the final cut.

The inspiration for the book came from, naturally, Alix's own mother, who set her up with a friend's son's friend, who stood 4'11", wore an unexplained black eye patch, picked his teeth with the edge of a Sweet 'n' Low packet and, oh yes, was married (but "only for six months, and it's not working out"). Alix's mom later said she "didn't think to ask" if he was married, apparently not noticing that deal-breaker.

Before bringing on the other contributors, Alix cataloged some of the bad dates they reported; my favorite was the guy whose apartment was filled with miniature Snoopy figurines so precious to him that he grew livid when his date tried to touch one of them.

Leora Klein, an eighth grade Manhattan English teacher whose work has appeared in The New York Sun, The New Jersey Jewish News and elsewhere, hilariously described a date with a man her mom had seen a pic of on a friend's cellphone. Dan, suffering from a sore throat, talked mostly about his ex-girlfriend who he broke up with because after three years he "wasn't ready for marriage" and his other ex-girlfriend who he broke up with because after three years he "wasn't ready for marriage." After that, his throat was so sore, he decided -- no joke -- to stop talking and write his thoughts on a memo pad for the rest of the evening. No wonder Leora started looking around for a hidden video camera.

The moral of Adina Kay's tragically funny relationship instigated by her mother started when she broke her own rule: Never date Hebrew school teachers. Even if your mom says they're "not too Jew-y."

But Dan turned out to be, mirabile dictu, cute, tall, well-built, not hairy and polite. Unfortunately, when he finally seems more interested in Adina than in Nickelodeon cartoons, video games and her opinion of his Hanukkah lessons plans, he refuses to go down the block from his apartment to Duane Reade for a necessary purchase, saying he's "too big for condoms -- they hurt when I put them on." Did we mention the balled-up tissues all over Dan's living room floor and his telling Adina, "My room's not ready for you to see"?

Adina, finishing her MFA at Columbia and published in literary magazines, is obviously a hopeful type if she went out with this schmendrick four times. We suspect her motive was collecting some good material.

Next up was Katherine Wessling, whose personal essays have been published in Swing and Speak magazines and heard on WNYC's broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition. She grew up in West Los Angeles with an elegant, refined country-club-and-cotillion who, worried that her adult daughter is lonely in New York, sets her up with someone she's heard is "in banking."

This supposed banker, Sal, wearing a "monkey suit," turns out to be a boorish dese-and-dose goon who downs Long Island iced tea, says it's "fucking unbelievable" that Katherine has never seen The Godfather (his favorite film is Goodfellas and says he himself is involved with "The Family"), and deposits his used chewing gum on the restaurant floor.

Hey, Sal would tell Katherine, at least he isn't his loser brother Tony, who's stuck in graduate school in "Montana or someplace" trying to be a poet rather than usefully make big bucks. Give Katherine's mother credit, she says, for setting her up with "the world's most incompatible guy for me." At least mother and daughter, and all of us, got some good laughs out of her matchmaking.

Next, Heather Robinson discussed growing up in Pittsburgh with her glamorous mother, Judy -- nicknamed "The Dazz" -- who, still looking terrific, was a good sport enough to be at a nearby table. Determined to help her 20-year-old daughter, mooning over a breakup from her first boyfriend at the University of Washington during the summer, Judy sets up Heather with Barnet, who turns out not to be in his thirties but at least 40. But he seems good-looking and nice enough.

Their date related skillfully by Heather, a senior writer for the Daily News' Big Town Big Heart section who's also been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Post and Time Out New York, takes a weird turn when Barnet feels the need to talk about the cause of his divorce: domestic violence. And no, it's not what you think...but strange enough.

Heather interrupted in media res, so you'll have to read the book to find out if there was a second date. Her mom, after all, says "everyone in pants deserves another chance." Hey, Mrs. Robinson, you're not trying to seduce us with that line?

Finally, Eve Biderman, co-author of Letters from My Sister with her sister Faye, described several very funny dates with totally unsuitable (to say the least) men that were set up by her Orthodox Jewish mom (and, in one case, by her dad).

We'd say that the first guy's spitting out "excess" salad dressing into a glass he keeps at the restaurant table for that purpose deserves to be singled out for grossness on the second dates. But the second guy's using the New York Times as toilet paper on the third date gives him a run for the money -- as does the third dude's discussion of a mouse's "fecal matter" during dinner. And Eve's blind date experiences go downhill after that. But we can all laugh about it now.

After a big round of applause for all the evening's readers, some of us bought our copies of Have I Got A Guy For You! -- either the standard book or a deluxe edition that came with a little red man in a plastic bag that would, we were told, get a lot bigger if we immersed him in water.

That's probably more than can be said for any of the loser guys the contributors to this smart, funny anthology were set up with.

We have never been on a date as bad as any we heard described by these women. No wonder our life has been wonderful.