Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

Goodbye Brooklyn!

August 30, 2008

So I have officially moved away from Brooklyn!

In light of this, I should probably change the title of this blog…but, I do like it. So I’ll keep it for now.

I wrote a previous post about how comfort can be perilous — when you achieve a certain level of comfort, especially in an urban environment, it’s possible to get caught up in a senseless routine. On the other hand, restlessness and moving from place to place doesn’t do much to address this problem; it only complicates things. I’ve spent a few years entrenched in a pattern of moving somewhere, finally settling in, then leaving for greener pastures…it can be quite a stressful experience. And here we go again!

Not enough time has passed for me to really get nostalgic. But here, in no particular order, is a non-exhaustive list of Brooklyn-related things that I have enjoyed:

Loud hip hop. It’s a public service! It imbues the surroundings with a syncopated rhythm for your walking pleasure. If you’re walking down the street in the ‘hood, as it were, there’s nothing like a dose of loud hip hop to give you a little more spring in your step — a little boost of joie de vivre if you will.

Patties, especially those hailing from Flatbush/Crown Heights, are a terrific way to warm oneself up on a cold day. I’m not talking about the sad yellow ones under the glass counter at the deli — I mean the fresh ones from the Caribbean bakery. Even Golden Krust is great!

The Subway system — even if the map *is* ridiculously distorted! What was once an impossible labyrinth became a way of life. The futuristic DC system does have its advantages, such as cleanliness and air conditioning, but the MTA will be missed!

24 oz Coors (and 23.5 oz Arizona) tall boys are only a dollar! You’d be a fool not to buy them. How could they be so cheap? Well, if you haven’t already, check out The Story of Stuff for some perspective on that question.

The Brooklyn Public Library is my true love — for reasons I’ve articulated in a previous post, as well as the fact that they recently hosted transcendent the amazing Scott McCloud to speak about his work. He is great.


I Hate “Go Green” Eco-Chique Consumerist Bullshit

July 18, 2008

As you’ve no doubt noticed, “going green” is super trendy — and annoying as hell.

Clorox has a new line of “green” products to help nature. Now you can end environmental crisis (and be a better person) simply by purchasing a different type of chemical to clean your house! Wow, thanks Clorox Company.

A story: a few weeks ago I was watching PBS and I saw a commercial for a global warming documentary sponsored by the Shell Corporation. Let me tell you, I was *so* pleased to discover that oil companies are now on the front line of the crusade for ecological awareness! Wonderful.

Another story: Recently the Adult Ed program where I work had its annual graduation ceremony at a church in Bay Ridge. Being a forward thinking community organization, the theme chosen for the event was (you guessed it) “go green” and it featured projects and decorations that the students had put together in class to express this idea. I helped take care of kids during the show, I served food afterwards, and at the end of the event I got saddled with trash duty.

(…dramatic pause…)

The mountain of trash! Uneaten food, plastic tablecloths, cups, and silverware, paper cups and napkins, balloons, etc. Bags and bags of it, straight into the landfill where it will remain long after you and I are dead.

Go Green?

Fuck you!

Try to find

July 8, 2008

anything categorically more awesome than the Brooklyn Public Library system.

Not only do they have books, CDs and DVDs from any of their 65 branches available for pick-up at whichever branch is most convenient for you, they also have literacy programs, job readiness and career guidance workshops, all manner of clubs, classes, and foreign language discussion groups…the list goes on.

The D-Train and I have been going to a Spanish discussion group at the Windsor Terrace branch facilitated by a volunteer every week for the past two months and although my grammar and vocabulary are still in the linguistic toilet, I am now confident enough that I had a pleasant, complete (albeit quite simple) telephone conversation in Spanish with the spouse of an Adult Ed student at work yesterday. Thanks in large part to the BPL.

Not only that! The BPL offers an extensive catalog of digital media that you can download for free! (and in complete accordance with the laws of the land.)

I have memorized my card number because I check my account so much.

I love you, Brooklyn Public Library.

The peril of comfort

July 1, 2008

I knew it! You are going through one of those “what does it all mean?” things! 

I have about 6 weeks before work is over and the process of moving out begins — this is a sobering realization.

The original purpose of this blog was to muse about life in *Brooklyn*. But as Brooklyn became the background for my life, I stopped wanting to analyze Brooklyn itself — it lost its significance. I like Brooklyn, but I no longer wonder about Brooklyn. Its distinctive beauty and energy are just another part of life. I’ve become comfortable here.

Comfort! Despite the bouts of drama, despite the undercurrents of Albee-esque malaise, despite the psychotic landlord and the power outages and the relentless critters plaguing me throughout, despite my bizarre work situation, despite the severe lack of money which has shaped my life since day one, indeed despite all the manifestations of ubran insanity, comfort prevails! How does that work? And why does it bother me?

I took my position with Americorps in order to get experience in the field of counseling and community work while I weighed my options for seeking advanced training in those fields.  I wanted to help people deal with their feelings, their needs, and their life goals in some kind of community health setting. And I’ve been quite sucessful! I’ve learned alot about counseling, education, cross-cultural communication and social services in general.

That said, when I took my job I wasn’t totally prepared for how difficult it is to follow through with wayward or disinterested clients, or to put forth the effort to deal with onerous everyday office tasks, or to negotiate the heirarchy that exists even in a non-profit community organization. I wrote about how I was being forced to work independently; organizing my own work load as I saw fit. But when nobody is there to guide you or supervise your development, it’s easy to build a little world for yourself comprised of daily rituals and little more.

So I’m in an awkward situation. I’ve helped alot of people during the course of my Americorps year. But I’ve also found myself buying into, or perhaps creating, a work-a-day reality where I have little real responsibility, room for growth, or opportunity to be creative. This, it seems, is what happens when you settle for comfort.

But is comfort such a terrible thing? Must it always lead to complacency? It is perplexing.

Finally, a word about Americorps and social class. Of the original group of thirteen Americorps volunteers placed in various positions throughout my program, six have left without completing their term. Of those six, all came from working class backgrounds. None were college educated. Two were single parents. Five were people of color.

Of the remaining seven (who have either completed or are slated to complete their terms very soon) four are white (including myself), one is hispanic, two are asian, all are middle or upper-middle class.

It’s not surprising that people with parental resources are the only ones who could complete a year of penury in one of the most expensive cities in the country. But it does perhaps trouble the goals of the Americorps program. Just as Peacecorps was originally created to bring American values to countries that were potentially within the Soviet sphere of influence, Americorps seems to have been created to deliver middle class values to the rural or inner city poor.

Doc to Dock

June 13, 2008

Just wanted to take a moment out of my busy (?) workday to post a quick plug for a local charity organization that I’ve worked with a couple of times called Doc to Dock. Check out their site!

The idea is simple: During surgery, doctors open up huge bags of sterile medical supplies but typically use only a small number of them. The rest of the stuff, which is all packed in kits and individually wrapped and thus sterile, must be thrown away. (Then of course all of this crap, most of it plastic, goes either to the landfill or to the incinerator.)

That’s the law! Because of it, hospitals in America waste thousands of tons of brand new medical supplies per day. I posit that the point of said law is not to protect us from some looming public health risk, but rather to artificially boost sales for medical supply companies. (And in turn their suppliers, the plastics industry. And what does plastic come from? Oil!) We need to re-evaluate the conventional economic wisdom that production and consumption growth are always good — the late great Galbraith had a point.

Anyway, Doc to Dock works with hospitals to establish a recycling system so that unused medical supplies, still in mint condition, can be donated. Then Doc to Dock employs volunteer laborers (like myself) to sort the supplies, then ships them to hospitals in Africa where said supplies are desperately needed. So it’s good work! If you live in Brooklyn, you should go down there and help some time. They are cool.

For good measure:

Medical supply companies and their corporate parents are getting what amounts to a subsidy for overproduction — hospitals are required to buy more than they need. This boosts our GDP (yay!) but is not good for consumers. Put yourself in the producer’s shoes: Why bother trying to compete for a hypothetical African market when you’ve got a permanent customer in your pocket?

Tyco, known to all of us as the friendly purveyors of toy trucks and electrical equipment, is also the world’s fourth largest medical supply company. So they’re reaping the rewards of this arrangement; indeed Tyco executives are notoriously greedy. And they have no qualms evading local labor laws in Latin America (as when they were requiring female workers in Mexico to submit to pregnancy testing.) Love those toy trucks though!

Family Fun Day FUBAR

June 2, 2008

The community health organization that I work for recently threw their annual large scale “family fun day” — the selling points are fairly appealing: fun, sun, music, free food, children’s activities, community outreach from a variety of different non-profits and support groups, multilingual HealthPlus and Fresh Air Fund counseling, and, of course, healthy lifestyle choices! Who can’t get down to that??

Well, in fact, Zeus has his qualms with family fun.

We’d all heard rumors of rain (80% chance according to the weather channel) so we spent most of Friday preparing our building for the crowds — no sense in taking the risk of having the thing outside. Besides, our building is pretty spacious and an inside festival would be *way* easier to clean up. But mid-morning the next day the weather looked decent so our plucky Director of Programs ordered all the staff and volunteers to move everything and everyone outside into the sunshine for set up. I protested! But to no avail.

Minutes after set up was complete our little fiesta received the most sudden, intense, devastating, torrential, quasi-biblical downpour that I’ve ever experienced. Add to the mix hundreds of wet, hungry, disgruntled, non-English-speaking people, many of whom also happen to be infants or toddlers, and you have nothing less than full. blown. chaos.

It was like the 3D ride through a scene from the The Thin Red Line. Some people fled inside right away while others cowered shivering under the tents we had set up, under which all the food had to be hastily moved as well. There was no chain of command. There was no procedure. We were IN THE SHIT and we had to leap into action — Desiree began to marshal the tent-cowerers inside the building and coordinate transport of what was left of the food to some kind of impromptu food service point, which we managed to set up in the downstairs hallway.

I happened to be dressed as Shrek at the time, humpback and all, desperately imploring the enraged crowd to form a line for their chow, which was spread so thin that each person received an egg roll and a spinach triangle and a tightlipped smile from the beleaguered Americorps workers who had taken charge of food service. Then the word came down from on high that the food was to be moved to an upstairs classroom — we had to shout, shove, and struggle forward every step to get it up there.

“The people are pushing me…I’m trying to wait in line, but they just keep pushing!” one bedraggled lady cried to me and I, still costumed, looked her right in the eye. “Well,” I said, “then you gotta push em back.”

It went on like that — like a hurricane hit and people were fighting for survival — for what seemed like hours. Eventually the rain stopped and everybody stumbled back outside, grudgingly set up their tents once again, and, as the stiff-lipped Brits might say, “made a go of it.” At the back end of the afternoon the crowd started to thin, I slipped out, slinked away home and remained in a coma for the rest of the weekend.

Screw you, family fun.

Crazy intercontinental Chinese doors

May 14, 2008

I’m not sure if other people find this interesting but…these doors are everywhere in Beijing:

They’re just normal doors. But the stainless steel makes them look exaggeratedly tough. And they usually feature elaborate patterns and rounded edges, with flowers engraved upon the stainless steel surface (as above). This combination of security overkill and design intricacy gives an almost Gothic impression– like a Dickensian door knocker.

Somehow the mix of rigid and flamboyant smacks of “the new China” to me…and yet they’re all over the place down here in Bay Ridge too!

The length of Eighth Avenue that stretches south from Sunset Park is known as Brooklyn’s Chinatown, home to a very large population of Chinese immigrants who hail mostly from Fujian province in south east China.

So I’m going to speculate here: Not only did the design for these doors make it from China as such, but it must have gone from northern China (Beijing) down to Fujian, or vice versa, before even crossing the Pacific. That’s kind of crazy in itself.

Let’s suppose that the doors are imported, or at least that the steel needed to put them together is imported. Raw materials are relatively cheap in China so it’s not an unreasonable assumption. There must be a *very* elaborate set of logistics in place to get these thousands of Chinese doors into Brooklyn. Think of the livelihoods that depend on this set of arrangements. Exceedingly complex human and technical relations come together *every day* just to maintain a simple, crucial equation: Metal and labor and ocean passage goes into ===> a silly looking door <=== and profit emerges out of it.

It’s nuts when you think about it…

Brooklyn Clothes

May 10, 2008

It’s as if Andy Warhol turned his silk screen-ly attentions upon Marvin the Martian instead of Marilyn Monroe, choosing a hooded sweatshirt as his medium instead of a giant canvas. It’s as if someone decided that those skeleton costumes from the Halloween fight scene in The Karate Kid were the next big thing. It’s as if suddenly it became necessary to camouflage yourself outrageously in graffiti. Get a garment and cover it with pinks and greens, browns and yellows, colors and logos of every description utterly shocked to be in each others presence. This and some jeans with embroidery on the butt; you got yourself an outfit!

If you live in Brooklyn, don’t even pretend like you don’t know what I mean.

I am talking, of course, about Brooklyn clothes. Some surreptitiously-snapped examples:

brooklyn clothes at a J stop

Lively sweatshirts!

Or check out this gentleman’s (blurry) hat:

brooklyn clothes

Brooklyn clothes emulate hip hop style but are not explicitly defined by it: for one, they have a vibrant or eye-catching quality that seems absent in mainstream hip hop fashion. It adds up to something unique. Tell me if I’m wrong but I think that this particular style is home cooked, a Brooklyn phenomenon. I’m trying to gesture here at the bizarre Brooklyn flavor embedded in this fashion; the element that says, “I can do/wear/say whatever I want — I’m in Brooklyn.”

People of different ages, genders, races, and creeds all sport Brooklyn clothes proudly, from what I can tell. On the other hand, it seems like Brooklyn clothes connote a kind of street culture which is intertwined with the daily life of poor or working class folks more than that of us middle class types.

Another fascinating thing about Brooklyn clothes, as opposed to pretty much every other style of clothing in any culture that I’ve ever witnessed, is that the men dress flashier and more colorful than the women! I wish I had photographs to back this one up…but you can test this theory the next time you see a pair of Brooklyn-clad lovebirds at a J stop. It is quite true.

I often think of fashion as a particularly divisive element of consumer culture because it’s the ultimate in conspicuous consumption; it’s status writ with style. Brooklyn clothes are this way as well, I’m sure, but expressed in a cultural lexicon that I can’t read, hence that I don’t disdain as much. As such, Brooklyn clothes grab not only my attention but also my enthusiasm. Brooklyn can be lonely, drab, and gray — Brooklyn clothes seem to make this place a little more lively. And I am all in favor of that!

The Weather Above Ground

May 3, 2008

So yeah. Right now my gf is trying to get her space heater to work because it is freezing in here.

This is May! WTF??

Brooklynites were treated to a few days of summer heat last week, and my inner monologue acknowledged that heat-wise we had gone from winter to summer without very much spring.

But now where are we at? Fall again?

Co-operative power —> to the people

April 29, 2008

Here in our fair borough it seems like everyone is aware of the trendy Park Slope Food Co-op: Cheap, high quality food is made available to members if they work for the store for about 3 hours a month.  But alas! Far fewer people are aware of We Can Do It! (Sí Se Puede!) Women’s Cooperative cleaning service based in Sunset Park. Founded in August 2006, it’s an organization of immigrant women who work as domestic cleaners on their own terms.

All members of the group are workers; technically they’re all part owners of the enterprise.  They do all the publicity, scheduling and, of course, labor themselves (or with the help of volunteers). For each job they work, usually for $100 or thereabouts, $5 of their fee goes towards administrative costs to keep the organization afloat.

So it’s a win-win situation: consumers get lower prices since the infamous middleman has been removed. Workers don’t have to be subject to the exploitative labor practices and wages which are all too commonly associated with immigrant labor (the theory of monopsony describes this situation aptly). And the underfunded welfare / public benefits sector, which doesn’t have the best track record serving immigrants anyway, gets a break. Plus these workers can’t be deported since they’re business owners! And oh my goodness…the workers own the means of production! Well I never.

Now it turns out that the ongoing logistics and the relatively small start-up cost of this project was shouldered partially by the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, which in turn is a subsidiary of the SCO Family of Services a community-based non-profit organization which (probably) gets grants from a number of private foundations as well as the shrinking pool of money that the Federal and New York State governments earmark for this kind of thing every year.

So it seems like much of the start-up capital and running costs for this venture comes from various forms of government. But said government recoups its minimal investment through taxes and, indeed, a stimulated economy! Plus stable, working families promote nicer neighborhoods, which should raise property value (and tax revenue) and the standard of living for everyone involved. So in addition to being a small-scale, community-based, worker-owned organization, this is also a way for the government to spend its money, or even indirectly to make money, in a way that definitely benefits the community (rather than the corporations).

So instead of abandoning government altogether, perhaps it’s worth recognizing that there is a set of policies out there that could simultaneously relieve the plight of the urban poor while also promoting entrepreneurship, that could reduce welfare spending while also reducing the gap between rich and poor,  that could promote community development and encourage people to be more fiscally responsible.

Everybody knows about the famous micro-finance initiatives in Bangladesh which earned a 2006 Nobel Prize, as well as a lot of money, for Grameen Bank. I’d support a similar, hypothetical government program (though perhaps with more of an eye towards community).