Monday, June 29, 2009

Monday Night in Williamsburg: "A Stoop-ID Tale" with Kimber VanRy at Pete's Candy Store

We are big stoop-sitters, having grown up in houses with stoops in East Flatbush, Gravesend, and Old Mill Basin. This week we've sat on our stoop in Williamsburg every nice day. But we don't drink anything stronger than iced tea or Diet Pepsi and haven't endured the tsuris that Kimber VanRy engagingly discussed tonight a few blocks from our stoop at Pete's Candy Store in "A Stoop-ID Tale," part of Pete's O.C.D. (Open City Dialogue) bi-monthly lecture series.

There were about a dozen or so of in the audience to hear Kimber's story that is probably well-known, giving all the blogosphere and newspaper coverage garnered by his citation last August for drinking a Sierra Nevada beer on the stoop of his Prospect Heights co-op.

Here are links to just a little of the digital and real media ink that he got (OK, this is partially so that we don't have to repeat the story):

"Fighting for the Right to Drink Beer on His Stoop" (The New York Times, September 7, 2008):
In Brooklyn, the borough of the brownstone, few spaces are more sacred than the stoop, the place where the city goes to watch the city go by. Mr. VanRy’s summons, news of which has spread on Brooklyn blogs, message boards and in a community newspaper, The Brooklyn Paper, has stirred debate about the legal status of stoops and stoop drinkers.

New Yorkers who enjoy drinking wine or beer on their stoops are indeed violating the law, according to the police.

The city’s open-container law prohibits anyone from drinking an alcoholic beverage, or possessing and intending to drink from an open container containing an alcoholic beverage, “in any public place.” The law defines a public place as one “to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access, including, but not limited to,” a sidewalk, street or park.

Exceptions include drinking at a block party or “similar function for which a permit has been obtained” as well as premises licensed for the sale and consumption of alcohol. The punishment for violations is a fine of no more than $25 or imprisonment of up to five days, or both.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said in statement about Mr. VanRy’s summons: “The officer observed a violation. The subject has a right to dispute it.”

"Prospect Heights man gets cited for drinking a beer...on his stoop" (Daily News, November 20, 2008:
VanRy got a $25 ticket for drinking a cool brewsky on his stoop in August, and he's taking his case straight to Brooklyn Criminal Court next month.

"If it was a dollar, I wasn't going to pay it ... I hadn't done anything wrong," he said. "My private property shouldn't be construed as public space."

VanRy, 39, was nursing a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and checking his BlackBerry messages on the stoop of the Sterling St. condo building where he owns one unit when a police car pulled up.

"At first I thought maybe [the cop] was asking for an address, said VanRy. "They didn't get out of the car or anything. There was nothing in my mind thinking [they were] stopping because I was doing something wrong."

VanRy said that as one of the cops played a video game on a cell phone, the other wrote him a $25 summons for drinking on the stoop - and allegedly told him not to worry because the ticket would likely be dismissed.

"I was a little confused, because my stoop is well set back," from the street, said VanRy, whose last brush with the law was a speeding ticket 14 years ago.

"I could see if somebody is becoming a public nuisance, walking around and endangering other people; but someone sitting there quietly on their own property is not worth [the NYPD's] time," he said.

"Well, recuuuuuuse me! Judge takes himself off stoop-drinking case" (The Brooklyn Paper [editor Gersh Kuntzman], February 9, 2009)
The long-awaited trial of a man accused of drinking beer on his own stoop will have to wait a few more days, thanks to the stunning recusal of a judge who took himself off the case on Monday because — his words, not ours — my coverage of the trial of the century has been “too good.”

“I read about the case in your paper,” Judge Jerome Kay said, minutes after he stunned a packed Downtown Brooklyn courtroom and made the extremely rare decision to take himself off the summons case against Prospect Heights resident Kimber VanRy, the man who was hit with a violation over the summer for drinking a Sierra Nevada beer on his Sterling Place stoop.

Judge Kay, who lives in Park Slope, said he not only followed the coverage in The Brooklyn Angle, but later walked past VanRy’s building.

“I know that building, I know that stoop, so remaining on the case would give the appearance that I could not be fair, pro or con,” the judge said.

And the judicial finale of Kimber VanRy's long battle against the bureaucracy, reported again by Gersh Kuntzman at The Brooklyn Paper, "Stoop drinker wins his case — but on a technicality!" (February 17, 2009):
Yes, Kimber VanRy is no longer facing a $25 fine for the public drinking summons he received on Aug. 27 for gulping a Sierra Nevada on his front stoop, but Judge Eugene Schwartzwald dismissed the case on Tuesday morning only because it “took too long” to get the case to trial.

“I’m dismissing this on ‘speedy trial’ grounds,” said the judge, using shorthand to refer to plantiffs’ constitutional right to a prompt trial. “This has been going on too long.”

Though he did not reveal how he might have ruled on the merits of the case, Schwartzwald did tell VanRy’s lawyer, Tina Kansas, “You did a nice job on the motion.”

That motion conveyed the substance of VanRy’s challenge to the portion of the city’s open-container law that allows cops to write summonses for any drinking that is done in view of the public, even if the drinking itself is done on private property, such as a front stoop.

VanRy said he was drinking his Sierra Nevada on his Sterling Place front steps, far from the public sidewalk. His summons set off a wide debate over that most iconic of Brooklyn public spaces: the stoop. . .

VanRy hoped that winning the case on the merits would forever prevent cops from ticketing people for a quiet beer on their private steps, so Tuesday’s dismissal was a little unsatisfying.

“It feels a little hollow,” VanRy said. “This dismissal doesn’t allow us to drink on the stoop, which was the purpose of this case.”In the end, Brooklynites should not take VanRy’s “win” as evidence that stoop drinking will be officially condoned by the NYPD, the successful Sierra Nevada lover said. . .

“I’m not sure I’ll drink on my stoop,” he said.

After being introduced by O.C.D. host Jamie Hook (who's close to opening The Cassandra, a triplex art house cinema here in Williamsburg), Kimber told this story in much more detail, with more humor and insight - and yes, he came in clutching a Sierra Nevada beer. (The company got so excited by the free publicity that the CEO and founder contacted the defendant and even got their legal staff to research the law.)

Although Kimber told the story much more funnily than we could describe here - his descriptions of the cops, his attorney, and the scenes during multiple trips to Manhattan and Brooklyn Criminal Court were hysterical - his tale of fighting the system raised some serious issues. Kimber read from the city regulation, and the rule seems overly broad and confusingly vague - and more importantly, the selective enforcement brings up the usual questions of class and race in NYPD dealings with the public on the streets.

(Photo by the great Che Kothari)

Or is the stoop "a public place"? Kimber noted that courts have ruled that valid citations were given to people who drank alcohol in their apartments with the door open on a hot night or were just standing in a public place next to a liquor bottle that they never drank from.

Also important is something we learned early on in law school: never, never, never say anything to the police without an attorney. Kimber didn't have his ID with him so he had to go back to the house to get it - and he could probably avoided the summons if only he hadn't voluntarily returned, because the cops would need a warrant to come into his apartment.

Anyway, it was a fascinating talk - Kimber related the times Mayor Bloomberg's been caught drinking wine in public parks; he discussed the weirdness of the spotlight in both traditional and new media (one blog named him the ninth of "90 Brooklynites to watch in '09; a Queens blog named him one of the year' biggest doofuses) - and the Q&A period afterwards was lively, raising all kind of issues. (What about a gated stoop? Does the gate have to be locked? etc.)

The next OCD lecture, on Monday (the most erudite night of the week, according to host Jamie Hook), July 13 at 7:30pm will feature David Rees, creator of the famous comic “Get Your War On” giving a one-of-a-kind tutorial in how to win at games of chance.

When we got home, we found some evidence that the usual undesirables had been sitting on our very own stoop: a can of Hawaiian Punch. Much as we get nervous when gang members or hipsters sit on our own steps, we figure this individual or bunch must have read about Kimber VanRy's story and so had been keeping their refreshments nonalcoholic to keep one step - or stoop - ahead of the law.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Evening in the West Village: Sabrina Johnston in Pridefest's final hour

We're glad we were able to get away to at least the final hour of Pridefest, the annual LGBT street fair that's now in its seventeenth year. Although we saw a few of the Gay Pride Day parades in the 1970s, and more in the mid- to late-1980s when we spent our summers on the Upper West Side, we'd never been to Pridefest before.

Of course, this day and week consist of the parade, the rally, the dance on the pier (still going on as we write this), last night's Rapture on the River, and dozens of official Pride and unofficial events, many of which draw tourists from all over the country and world. But this year we just caught the end of Pridefest and a great performance by our much-loved Sabrina Johnston.

Hudson Street between 14th and Abington Square was closed to traffic, and there were lots of vendors and the usual street fair food and other businesses with tables aqnd booths lining the street. We were there at the tail end, since it had started at 11 a.m., and we went right to the performance space at the north end, finding a seat at the back of the crowd. Most people were going in the opposite direction from us as we walked from the subway, but the remaining group were enthusiastic and the wildly diverse sea of humanity you always see at New York gay pride events.

Forty years ago, in June 1969, we'd just turned 18 and registered with our draft board at 44 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. We were taking our first class at Brooklyn College that summer, Poli Sci 1 in our major, but it wasn't till August that we began keeping a daily diary we've kept every day since. Like on August 3, 1969, we wrote in our childish way
I went to Kings Highway to get the Village Voice. It seems there was a real big gay power demonstration in Sheridan Square.

That was about five weeks after Stonewall, which we learned about largely through the Voice - we'd have to go to the newsstands at either the Junction or the Kings Highway (Brighton line) station to get it.

Fred W. McDarrah for The Village Voice

It was pretty much the only media outlet that had decent coverage of what happened 40 years ago tonight and in the days that followed.

From New York Times coverage:

The Voice was a lifeline, probably, for more than one messed-up outer-borough teen who didn't realize the articles themselves were homophobic (a word that didn't exist) enough to cause angry Stonewall rioters to march on the Voice office itself.

Later, we'd spend the much of the winter of '74-'75 working at the Voice as a $2-an-hour messenger in the display advertising department, and ten summers after Stonewall, pioneering gay Voice columnist Arthur Bell would say nice things about our first book.

But 40 years ago we were just one of those hippie-ish kids hanging out by the fountain in Washington Square Park. Here's a pic we took that summer of Stonewall, in August 1969:

Anyway, that was then, this is now. One of the co-hosts, Tyra Allure, is asking for all lesbians to raise their hands and shout out. The couple next to us, and lots of others do so.

Then she asks all gay boys to raise their hands and shout out, and a lot of people do. Then Tyra asks for bisxuals to do the same. More hands up and shouts. "You know they all lyin'," Tyra say. She asks for police officers to raise their hands and shout out, and a young white guy in a T-shirt blocking our view and others do. "I love a man in uniform," Tyra says.

Then she and her co-host, Vanessa Veltre, say this is when, traditionally, they call for a moment of silence for all of those we've lost, "but we're not gonna do that this year."

Instead, "I want all of you cops and everyone else to shout out . . . Hey, I'm just a little black girl from Trinidad, but I want, for all the the people you lost and sometimes didn't tell anyone . . . I want you to scream so loud that they hear you!"

We scream as loud as we can.

Then Sabrina Johnston is introduced, with of course a nod to her 1991 hit "Peace in the Valley," and to much applause, Sabrina comes onstage with two women dancers in bright red wigs and red outfits come on. They play around, Sabrina mocks being upset at the dancers, and she sings "I'm Free."

She's really great, and the dancers are too. It's buoyant and exuberant and appropriately celebratory. We hear bouncy standards like "Dancing in the Street" and "Respect." The teen girls near us and the thirtyish gay male couple are dancing around, as are many others. At a poignant moment, Sabrina shouts out, "Michael Jackson, can you hear me?"

Sabrina Johnston has a new album coming out this September, and she did a couple of new songs:
Free Free Free, by Sabrina Johnston

She starts to wrap things up with "Peace in the Valley":
Peace in the valley, peace in the city
Peace in your soul yeah-eh

Peace in the valley, peace in the city
Peace in your soul yeah-eh . . .

Yeah I'm talking about a love (love)
It's deep in your heart, I know it's there
The love was giving so you can't survive
It's the part of us that keeps us all alive . . .

Now's the time, look in your soul (your soul)
Are you happy with the thing that you were born
It gets better, that's for sure
Look to God and he will bless you with more . . .

"New York, thank you," Sabrina Johnston says. "I promise you one thing . . . I'll be only positive . . . we'll have peace in the valley, peace in the city, peace in your soul!"

There's a terrific segment with the two dancers, doing all sorts of amazing splits, somersaults, breakdancing. One's red wig falls off, and she's got nice real natural reddish hair; she tosses the wig into the audience where a big man catches it and eventually the other dancer rips off her wig too. The crowd seems giddy with a mixture of weariness and buoyancy.

Then Sabrina Johnston comes out again for her finale and exits to lots of shouts and applause. The co-hosts come out, Vanessa says they've been told they shouldn't be polticial but that's bullshit. New York State Senators need to stopping messing around. "Hey, Barack Obama, if you can hear this, we're going to get married whatever you say!" Pridefest co-chair Fran Rolan is introduced.

Other Pridefest workers come onstage. "We all stand here together!"

Tyra Allure says the transgender community gets misunderstood: "To me, it's really not your concern. Look at us and see us as we are. Don't question me: I'm a woman. Don't question her - oh wait [laughter]. . . When you talk to friends, go to your Bible - as I do - no one taught you to hate. . ."

Fran says it takes a community to put on Pridefest, "and it takes a village to clean up." She asks us all to take our chairs and put them on the side, at the designated places and to help clean up.

As the Pridefest staff goes offstage to applause, someone says, "We are proud, we are here to stay, make some noise!"

We walk down Hudson Street and lots of people are still buying food and walking around even though things are staring to close down.

The diversity of the crowd is remarkable when you compare it to pride events 25 and 30 and 35 years ago.

After we take this pic below of the rainbow balloon arch at the end of the street fair, we walk back to the L train via Eighth Avenue.

As on our subway trip out, a lot of the people in our car are GLBT. We all have to get off at Lorimer Street; for us, at least, it is home.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saturday Afternoon in the East Village: Pride Meets the Street, with New York Neo-Futurists' Twitter Plays, on East 4th Street

From Tompkins Square Park we strolled over to East Fourth Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery for "Pride Meets the Street," a Gay Pride Week event that's part of this summer's weekly Meet the Street programs on this wonderfully block, home to various vibrant cultural venues.

Behind Meet the Street is FAB, Fourth Arts Block, leading the development of the East 4th Street Cultural District and looking to build a permanent home for cultural facilities.

Pride Meets the Street was also an event of Pride Goes East, this week's celebration of Gay Pride on the East Side. The Stonewall rebellion and much gay history, of course, took place in the West Village, but as someone who sometimes hung out on St. Marks Place in the summer of '69 (though we were mostly out West) and after, we know there's a lot of gay history here, too.

Coming to the traffic-free block, we heard "Beat It" coming loudly from the speakers when we approached the block. Next they played "Billie Jean," then a lot more Michael Jackson songs we all love now whether or not we hated them in the 70s or 80s.

In addition to no thru traffic, there was no free parking with pride.

This banner was on the Bowery side. There was a table of Cooper Square neighbors nearby.

Like every Saturday weekend in June, it was B.Y.O.L.C. (Bring Your Own Lawn Chair). But we had too much pride to schlep ours around.

Who would pay to get an ice cream cone from the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck when a free one was available in the gutter, chalked by one of the big kids using the free chalk for all?

This family was figuring out how to play bocce. We'd never before seen it done in this kind of enclosed square.

There was also a volleyball net, but bocce was drawing more players.

This nice woman with the bullhorn was going up and down the block saying that the New York Neo-Futurists' Twitter plays would begin soon. She also said other stuff, like when two cute teenage boys holding hand walked by, she said, "They are gay. See how they walk with pride." They ignored her.

We didn't, though, and sat like all of the other lawn-chair-less audience, in the gutter (we're from Brooklyn, that's what we call it), in front of KGB, our old friend Denis Woychuk's cultural empire.

The Twitter plays all contained 140 characters. If you ask us, that is too many characters for a play. We couldn't keep them straight. Luckily the plays mostly had gay pride as a theme. Here two gay men, helpfully name-tagged "Papa" and "Daddy" adopt a child. Child hugs them. Short but tweet.

In 140 characters, what happens in this Twitter Twister play? "Right foot on yellow." Then one of the actors runs into the audience and kicks in the chest a young man fortuitously wearing a yellow T-shirt. He was surprised but unhurt.

There seems to a be fake itty-bitty bird (prop) in the little birdcage (another prop) the actor here is holding in her hand. Play: "If it's this size, get the hell out." There's still room for more characters, we guess, so maybe the climax should have been delayed.

When the audience came out of a real play (uh, we mean a non-Twitter production) in the Kraine Theatre inside, they got to be part of the show. Various innocent people were referred to as animals such as a snow leopard (man with white hair), a jackrabbit (man with ears), a field mouse (a middle-aged brownhaired lady), a swordfish (no, actually that was a swordfish coming out of the theater).

OK, we don't quite remember which Twitter play this was. We liked the one that was this exchange between two girls:
"Did you hear about that kid that got beat up for being different?"
"Neither did I."
The dénouement is a passionate kiss.

"I'm Henry the Eighth I am."
"No, you're jut a silly man who needs a shave and a new coat."
(Our only comment: Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown have a lovely daughter.)

We think this was the play - there were about two dozen of them, so we got our no-money's worth - where all antigay bigots have to come to the public square to be chastised or something.

The final play featured Marissa coming out and telling the audience she was giving out "poison cupcakes." We tasted ours and it was good and we didn't die. So we had a much better theater experience with the Twitter plays than Abe Lincoln did at "Our American Cousin."

New York Neo-Futurists rule. Here is a video about their benefit performances of "30 Gay Plays in 60 Gay Minutes" for a great group, Marriage Equality New York. You can still catch the last show if you hurry!

As we left, we saw more people coming to Meet the Street. By now some of them are old friends.

Pride Meets the Street was a fab event. Did we tell you we love East 4th Street? If you haven't met it yet, we hope this serves as an introduction.