Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Afternoon in Greenpoint: "Leftovers with Lethem," Jonathan Lethem & "Chronic City" Reading at Word Bookstore

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the last day of the Thanksgiving weekend, we strolled over to Greenpoint's excellent Word bookstore to listen to Jonathan Lethem's progress as he attempts his marathon cover-to-cover public reading of his acclaimed new novel, Chronic City.

Lethem, a Brooklyn icon, is one of the best writers around, of course. We fondly remember stretching out our reading of Fortress of Solitude in October 2003 (our copy came from the Broward County Public Library, where we were first on the "hold" list for the book) because we loved it so much; it's one of the five best novels we've read this century.

Due to work pressures (four different teaching jobs, six days a week), we've been unable to get to any of his Chronic City appearances around New York - the city in which the novel is set - during which he will complete his reading of the entire book, culminating in a conclusion this Friday at Book Court.

But then we read this "breaking news" in The Brooklyn Paper:
The Bard of Boerum Hill — who made the front page of The Brooklyn Paper this week for falling hopelessly behind in his attempt to read the entirety of his new book, “Chronic City,” in eight sessions — has just added another reading before the Dec. 4 finale in hopes of getting it done.

Lethem will read 40-60 pages of the Manhattan-bashing novel at Word Bookshop in Greenpoint on Sunday, Nov. 29 — a mere hillock in the mountain of prose that the “Fortress of Solitude” author must climb if he is to complete the 480-page novel at the finish line of the “marathon” on Dec. 4 at BookCourt.

Who knows if he’ll even get through the 60 pages? According to a statement from the bookstore, Lethem will read, “but not continuously — he’ll take breaks along the way to sign books and chat with listeners about the book.”

The statement also mentioned that there will be free “bagels, donuts, fruit [and] pie” — and everyone knows that a writer can’t refuse a complimentary snack.

To be honest, two hours seemed long for a reading, so we arrived half an hour late, at 1 p.m. (Okay, we took a nap. We're old people!) There were no seats left, not much standing room either in the Word bookstore's downstairs, but there were the stairs.

Cut to the chase: Coming in during the middle, we managed to follow the narrative only somewhat, but Lethem's satire is brilliant and his prose filled with stylistic wonders, so it was pleasure to hear him read. . .

and read. . .

and take some bites of a bagel. . .

and read. . .

There was a break to sign books and for him to be interviewed by WNYC radio.

And more reading. Also some questions and answers. Someone inquired how the New York-centric book was received outside the city (good, Lethem said), if he had to ask permission to use the real-life NYC settings in his novel (no, because that "all events in this book. . . are fictional" disclaimer gives a free pass to writers), how he felt about his books being made into films (fine, since he thinks the best movie adaptations merely use the book as a jumping-off point and so he has no desire to write the screenplays or even be consulted).

Around 2:25 p.m., the reading ended. By that point the crowd had thinned (we'd long since found a chair to sit on) and we saw a couple of audience members texting and at least one filing her nails.

But at least nobody ended up like this hipster we saw earlier today on the G train.

As we filed out, we decided it was such a nice day that we'd cross Franklin Avenue to the American Playground - rather than the Armenian Playground, the Nigerian Playground, or the Bangladeshi Playground, which all required too much walking to get to - and hang around for a while, reading.

It struck us that "American playground" is a good metaphor for Jonathan Lethem's portrait of a wacked-out Gotham in Chronic City. But what do we know?

Well, for one thing, that the coffee the bookstore provided was from Dunkin' Donuts but the donuts were from Peter Pan. For another, that we're grateful to get to see a great writer read from his work. Catch the finale - those of you who don't work Friday nights - at Book Court on December 4 and see if Lethem makes it all the way through.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Phil Mulé, 1924-2009

We are very sad this week. Phil Mulé, who was the best landlord in the universe and a kind of second father to us - we were never more proud than on the day he introduced us to someone on the block as "the son I never had" (there were a lot of us fortunate guys) - passed away at the age of 85.

We were privileged to meet him decades ago via his daughter, our friend Nina, who started Brooklyn College with us in 1969. We spent many happy times in his company and that of his wife Diana, equally beloved, who passed away two years ago, and their family.

Our sadness is great, but it's also sweet. This morning we went to his sendoff: a beautiful service at the Devoe Street Baptist Church, to which he and his wife devoted so much of their lives - they met there in 1938 in Sunday school - and we heard ministers past and present speak with deep affection and from long experience with Phil. They knew him well enough to say he was "outspoken" and "opinionated" but as one said, he always spoke from a position of grace and concern.

We were really touched by the eulogy given by his granddaughter Amy, and with the family's kind permission, we're reprinting the text version here:
Although no one in my family has ever had trouble speaking, today, we find ourselves at a loss for words. How can we describe the man who was at once father, grandfather, uncle, brother and friend? How can we express the joy, support, affection and boundless love he gave us all? How can we say how much his life touched us and how much better we were for having him in it? There aren’t enough words, enough prayers and enough love to express it, but, in his own persevering spirit, I’m going to try.

His first priority was always his family, not only those who were related by blood, but all of those who laughed, shared and most importantly, ate with us. Holidays were always particularly interesting for me as a child. I never knew who would be breaking bread with us, but it made for wonderful dinner conversations, always ending with Grandpa’s “Bella manjada!” At the center of it all were Grandpa Phil and Grandma Diana, always ready to welcome you to their home or stopping for dinner at our house on their way home from everywhere.

My favorite story about Grandpa is how, when I was first born, he would show up at my mother’s door.
“Dad,” she’d say, “what’re you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood.”
“Where were you?”
“Jamaica?! It’s not even close.”
“It’s in Queens, it’s all the same, where’s the baby?”

Brooklyn and Mattituck, these were the west and east of their expansive world. Every time we rang the bell on Conselyea Street, Grandpa would greet us with a warm, hearty, “We don’t want any!”
Even through the protests of “Grandpa, it’s us!” he’d already be laughing and opening the door, always ready with a hug for his favorite grandchildren. During the many summers we spent at “Camp Grandma” in Mattituck, he was always willing to give us a ride in the “flivver,” his beloved red Fiat convertible, letting us sit on the trunk and ride with the wind. We all remember him going to get bread or the newspaper and coming back hours later. Always, there was someone to say hello to, someone who needed his attention. He was, after all, the "Mayor of Sigsbee Road."

One of the places he was most devoted to was his spiritual home, the Devoe Street Baptist Church (known to us as the First Italian Baptist Church). This church meant a lot to him, especially after Grandma was gone. He wanted the best for everyone here, to make sure the parsonage would be rebuilt and that his daughters and “sons” would have a good place to continue their spiritual lives.

Giving the best of himself was always natural for him and never more so than his time in the Navy. In 2008, Grandpa, Joseph, Nina, Aunt Paul, Mom and Dad made a trip to Maui. While there, they attempted to find Grandpa’s old base, Puunene. Although finding the base proved difficult, in the end, they found it and Grandpa was able to relive the memories of where he grew up, served his country and enjoyed being a young man in the South Pacific. It was a special moment for him and he was so glad he made the trip to his nephew’s favorite place.

These stories are just a small part of the many ways he touched us. Our memories will keep Grandpa Phil with us, filling us with his love and affection. He would be deeply moved to see everyone here today and would have made sure to talk to absolutely everyone. His legacy is in the people he touched, the lives that he helped and the love that he spread. Although he is gone, we will continue to feel the blessings of his love every day of our lives.

As Grandpa would say, “It’s been a bit of heaven.”

(This was taken at Phil's surprise 60th birthday party on September 30, 1984 - a night of much celebration that we were privileged to be there for.)

After the service at church, he was buried next to his wife, parents and in-laws at Linden Hill Cemetery and then we all returned to Williamsburg for a feast that Phil Mulé would have loved at Cono & Sons O'Pescatore.

The house seemed very odd without him when we returned. We mourn with his sister Pauline (Aunt Paul), daughters Nina and Linda, grandchildren Amy and Thomas, son-in-law Peter, nephew Joseph, niece Petrina, his other relatives and the many friends and neighbors whom he and Diana made part of their extended family. We will miss him very much.

Contributions in memory of Felix (Phil) Mulé may be made to the Devoe Street Baptist Church, 140 Devoe Street, Brooklyn NY 11211 Memo: "Phil & Diana Mulé Memorial Fund"

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday Morning at the Junction and Downtown Brooklyn: More Black Friday Shopping at Triangle Junction, Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center

After getting off the B41 bus from our Kings Plaza Black Friday expedition, we went to Starbucks on Hillel Place, where our venti black iced tea was waiting for us by the time we reached the register. Then we stopped off at the Triangle Junction Mall's Target and new AJ Wright stores before heading home.

It did seem more crowded at the Junction's Target than it did Black Friday last year, but as in Kings Plaza, nobody was in a frenzy.

Again, lots of people seemed to be buying stuff, but it was clear that a good proportion of them were there for specific items they'd seen as specials.

And some people looked as if they were doing their regular grocery shopping placidly amid the holiday sales, like this young man picking out some gourmet coffee.

At the AJ Wright store, which took over the space vacated by the bankrupt Circuit City, things were about the same. We were ready to go back home to Williamsburg so we got on the 5 train to Atlantic Avenue, where we get out and change for the G train at Fulton Street by Lafayette, but first we checked the Atlantic Terminal shopping.

The Target here was more jam-packed the Target at the Junction, but it usually draws a bigger crowd. We've heard that this Target is one of the most profitable in the whole chain.

It was like the subway at rush hour when we attempted to leave the store via the bridge over Fort Greene Place to get to the Atlantic Center sister mall of the Atlantic Terminal.

There we found truly large crowds at all the big-box national and regional chains.

It was a little too much for us, and longing for the open air, we didn't stay long.

On our way to the G train back to Williamsburg, we figured we saved a ton of money on this Black Friday at three Brooklyn shopping malls. That's because we didn't buy a single item. Let's hope, for the sake of the U.S. economy, there are fewer penny-pinchers like us.

Friday Morning in Mill Basin: Black Friday Sales at the Kings Plaza Shopping Center

We left Williamsburg before dawn and when we arrived around 7:45 a.m. at the Kings Plaza Shopping Center, the mall was crowded with Black Friday shoppers eagerly snapping up doorbusters and other bargain sales.

We have nothing to compare it with, but it appeared that a lot of Brooklynites were spending a lot of money on a lot of items at Macy's, Sears, H&M, Old Navy and the other stores.

Having no idea what this means for the economic future - is the Great Recession finally ending? - we did notice that the shoppers seemed deliberate and determined but not frenzied, and everyone appeared to be pretty much in a good mood.

All of this, like most Black Friday reporting, is of course merely anecdotal. The sales figures which will reported eventually will tell the story. Black Friday store reporting almost always seems to exaggerate the size of the day's cash register take and the intensity of the bargain hunters.

We don't go to Kings Plaza several times a week, as we did in the years after it first opened in September 1970, when we were 18 and our father owned a store here. In Summer in Brooklyn, a book which records our diary entries from the period 1969-1975, we seem to have spent more time in this indoor mall - New York City's first - than anywhere but the house, four blocks from here, where our family lived, and the campus of Brooklyn College, where we were a student.

Anyway, no longer a regular in this mall, we don't know how to compare today's crowds to, say, a "typical" busy Saturday of shopping. Of course, on a normal day, no stores are open before 8 a.m. and only elderly mall-walkers may be present. When we worked in the menswear department of the late and generally unlamented Alexander's, we got on the floor at 9:45 a.m. for a 10 a.m. opening that was standard in 1974. Before we hit 25, the only reason we'd ever take public transportation at 6:20 a.m. as we did today was a notice to appear at our draft physical at Fort Hamilton. (And Uncle Sam would reimburse us the 35-cent fare.)

The first worker we spotted inside the mall when we walked in was the Salvation Army lady and her homophobic kettle. Much later we'd see a group of them setting up at the Atlantic Center. Today's their first day of work for the season. Today that annoying bell went, thankfully, unheard in the general din.

We took a pic of us being monitored by the Kings Plaza security office. Hey, guys, maybe you could have had this in the 1970s when our brother Marc's Camaro got stolen out of your parking lot? (Of course, our '73 Mercury Comet got stolen from in front of our house on East 56th Street.)

One of the first things shoppers come across when they come in the main entrance on Flatbush just north of Avenue U is the bank of ATMs from Chase, formerly Washington Mutual, formerly Dime Savings Bank of New York, formerly Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn, where we had a little blue passbook with never more than $200 in it back in the day when we made $2 an hour at Alexander's (take home for 20 hours a week was about $32). Anyway, better get out that cash first, kids, and skip the credit cards that got us all into this fine mess.

To those "first time visitors," as StatCounter refers to you, we humbly but insincerely apologize in advance for the blurriness of the crappy cell phone pics we've made our ouevre.

Lots of folks were carrying these big, puffy bags from Macy's. We suspect their bulk is deceptive and that Macy's was having a blowout on pillows, or perhaps quilts. They looked more quilty (like Humbert's nemesis Claire, come to think of it) than pillowy.

These little kiosks, like the T-shirt guy, were either doing great business or nada nada nada. Their overhead isn't nada, like you might nada, but then their profit nada can be nada too. Take it from someone whose brothers ran a business called Only Shirts in the South's Biggest Flea Market, Fort Lauderdale's Sunrise Swap Shop.

A surprising number of people were lined up for food at this cookie place - we're sure that addictive smell must be made by Monsanto - and at other food outlets, even Sbarro. Pizza at 8 a.m.? Sbarro was next door to the store our dad owned with our uncle Matty (Slack Bar, Fulton Street downtown), Syd Siegel (Sid's Pants, numerous), Jack Lubel (Jack's Slacks on 86th and Bay Parkway) and Jimmy Saracino (Jay's Men's Wear on Roosevelt near Main in Flushing). Our favorite long-gone Kings Plaza food places were Cooky's, Bun 'n' Burger (two great chains) and the crepe place - not so much Zum Zum, Eddie Arcaro or Nathan's.

Santa was AWOL, but if he had been there, cell phone pics of his fatness couldn't have been taken beyond a certain point. Our favorite mall Santa story was when we were walking with a friend in the late 1980s in the Aventura Mall in what was then North Miami Beach. We passed Santa Claus walking in the opposite direction, and he waved and said, "Hi, Mr. Grayson!" Our friend gasped and said, "He does know if you've been bad or good." Only if you're a teacher at Broward Community College, we assumed.

Macy's used to have an entrance on the Avenue U side of the mall by East 55th Street. That's how we always walked here from our house and so we'd usually come into Kings Plaza there when we weren't so lazy we'd drive the four blocks. We got chicken pox at age 21 in our last semester at Brooklyn College and when we started feeling better on the first nice spring break, we escaped the house and came here - despite our next door Evie Wagman's warning that we'd be spreading the disease. Since we got it from our brother who'd gotten it from her 10-year-old son, we ignored that advice. An hour in the mall can fix anything, even varicella, when you're young.

Of course, when you're of a certain age, you can conk out at 9 a.m. after a hard morning of shop-till-you-drop.

People had some good hauls, even by that relatively early hour, and started heading out.

We don't remember Black Fridays in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s and our ethnic heritage is 100% Garmento. Every one of the 581 pre-1981 instances of the term "Black Friday" in the New York Times refer almost exclusively to specific financial panics, crashes or scandals or some non-shopping-related event, usually one in which someone got fleeced.

The first article that referred to the traditional start of the Xmas shopping season we found was in 1987, a mood piece on Garden State Plaza on the day after Thanksgiving, and it seemed to take it for granted that everyone knew what the term meant:

Today, after all, is Black Friday, believed to be among the most hectic shopping days - if not the most hectic - of the year. Although Santa made his annual debut here last week, for many this marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

In the next four weeks, many retailers expect to pull in one quarter to half of their yearly revenues.

This year they are more concerned than usual. Retail analysts have forecast a bleak holiday season, largely because Black Friday comes only six weeks after Black Monday, the day the stock market plunged.

Ah yes, we remember it well. Something about Dubai World debt, right? Whatever, just keep shopping and maybe the real unemployment rate will fall below 17%.

The lone empty-handed passenger, we caught the B41 bus to the Junction with a lot of bargain hunters with shopping bags,

along with one guy who had to bring in his giant flat-screen TV through the back door and needed our help to get it out.