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18 Dec


In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a moral compact embedded in a political contract or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.  — Bill Moyers

It’s a privilege to ride the subway.

It’s a privilege to be jostled and annoyed,

to be forced into a world of people who are different,

and to find a way to make it work.

It’s a privilege to deal with the crazy,

and to sometimes be crazy myself,

for I have been that guy on the train

and have learned, as a result, not to judge.

Not to judge the sour man who scowls at my son, only to lean in and whisper “He’s smart!”,

or the elderly woman who says no to a seat, grateful but proud of her strength,

or the tattooed young man who gives up his seat for the mother no one else sees,

or even the tourists in their too-bright clothes, the ones who used to be me,

clinging and stumbling as the floor moves beneath them, desperate for a place to land.

It’s a privilege to feel that discomfort.  

It’s a privilege to feel discomfort at all.

A gift of grit, necessary for the pearl.

And for those of you who will not ride,

who are above rubbing shoulders with the world,

let me tell you a little secret:

It is your loss,

and you are not missed,

for it’s a privilege you have not earned.


Painting by Lily Furedi

My Great Good Place (Part One)

5 Oct

At the age of eight I threw my leg over the banana seat of my brand new bicycle, and with my brother David, five years old and only recently off his training wheels, set off across the street and down the sidewalk, following the quiet curves with their wistful British names: Trafalgar, Smethwick, Tottenham and finally Willesdon Square, to the very edge of our known world.  There, breaking our mother’s most fervent commandment, we blithely turned left, and, paralleling the four lanes of traffic she so feared, made our way past the Ethan Allen Furniture Store, the A&W, and the barbershop before turning into the small parking lot of our ultimate destination, the Qwik-Pik.

If you were a kid in my neighborhood in the early seventies, and you had a pocketful of change burning a hole in your pocket, Qwik-Pik was the place to be.  Marathon bars, Pixie Sticks, Hubba-Bubba, and just about any flavor of Faygo you could imagine.  (It wasn’t the only place to be.  A slightly longer trip north lead to the Farmer Jack’s shopping center, where, hidden away down a wide, dark alley carpeted in red AstroTurf, you would find The Pit Stop.  Leaning more to the Wacky Pack-bicycle repair-cherry bomb crowd, it was never my place, drawing a slightly older and more dangerous element.  But I sensed its allure, and had I gone wrong, It could very well have been my fate.)

Having successfully negotiated what my mom claimed to be the almost certain death of Van Dyke Avenue, we bought our treats and, carrying our little brown sacks with one hand while steering with the other, began our journey home. Turning back onto Willesdon Square, I felt a stubborn pride in having proven her wrong.  “See!” I’d tell her, as I calmly took another bite of my foot long  stick of apple-flavored bubble gum,  “It’s just like I told you.  ITS NO BIG DEAL !” 

That’s when my brother went down. 

A pebble, a twig; something ridiculously small was the cause.  But there was blood, there were tears (mostly over a scratched watch), and there was a call to my mom.  Upon her panicked arrival I found her less than receptive to my argument that it was really David’s own fault.  He didn’t know how to ride a bike very well.  I don’t know.  Maybe I played it wrong.  But I don’t remember seeing much of the Qwik-Pik after that.

It was a seminal moment.  Adrift in the auto battered suburban waste’s of Detroit, even as a child, I needed a local; a convenient destination for camaraderie and refreshment.  For an eight year old, that means dragging your kid brother to the nearest candy store, which I honed in on like a pointer to a quail, and then risked both our lives and my mother’s not inconsiderable wrath to attain. 

In the end, I failed.  But I find the instinct remarkable, for I realize now that it has shaped my entire life.

To be continued…



One for Studs

6 Nov

I hope for peace and sanity – it’s the same thing.  — Studs Terkel


I’m missing Chicago tonight.  It’s not something that happens often, but as I speak Barack Obama is 67 electoral votes from the presidency, Grant Park is filling up, and, I’m sure,  Studs Terkel is out walking the streets of his beloved hometown one last time, bearing witness to this amazing night.

You see, I love to vote.  I love to show up at the polls unshaven, coffee in hand, smiling like a lunatic, minutes after the doors open, while the  ladies are still trying to get organized, and loudly proclaim “I AM HERE TO VOTE!  Rattles the shit out of them.  Nine times out of ten they send me to the wrong table because they’re too flustered to comprehend where I live.  I blame this on Chicago. 

Like many things in Chicago, voting is a contact sport.  Chicago law bans campaign signs from within twenty feet of a polling place on election day.  So, of course, on election day, at a perimeter of exactly twenty feet and one minute fraction of an inch, it is a free for all, forcing voters to battle their way through a hectoring, sign waving mob howling for their vote.  It’s a blast.

Prior to Chicago my voting experiences had been pallid, lifeless things.  Missing the 1980 election by two months (Reagan was inaugurated on my 18th birthday), I cast my first vote for Walter Mondale in 1984, naively believing that the vast majority of Americans would vote as I did.  This illusion evaporated through the early morning hours as I watched the returns while cleaning out the grease trap at my college wing joint and the managers, aptly, swilled beer and plundered the dessert case.  Four years later I voted for Dukakis, which to this day I can’t even spell.  Had it not been for Chicago, I doubt I’d have ever voted again. 

This morning, however, was something new.  When I showed up at 6:09 in the pitch-dark New York City A.M. there was a line of over 100 people waiting to vote.  The poll workers were too busy to be flustered by one proud citizen, and as I waited in line while new voter after new voter stumbled through the unfamiliar process, I sensed a change.   Maybe, just maybe, I thought, today will be different. 

And so it seems to be.

I never met Studs Terkel, I never even saw him.  But we shared the same city for ten years and he introduced me, through his books and his radio show, to an America I could not only understand, but love.  It’s the America I vote for every time I step into the booth.  And it’s the America that tonight, for the first time in my life, is making me proud.

So I’m missing Chicago tonight.  I’m missing the little neighborhood taverns where the drinks are as good as the conversation.  I’m missing the rough and tumble of the politics.  I’m missing all the little theatres and the sing-a-longs at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  I’m missing the neighborhoods and all the friends who live in those neighborhoods.  I’m missing the trees and the lake and even that damn gray sky that shows up in November and doesn’t go away until May, practically guaranteeing clinical depression.  And of course I’m missing Studs, who always seemed to embody the city at it’s cranky, irascible best.


Let’s Get Lost

25 Aug

I’m a city dweller, and a walker, and I love to be lost.  The best place to do this is of course London, where the street system is in fact the paved record of footpath upon footpath worn across an ancient settlement over more than a thousand years of human habitation, and as a result is now almost impossible to navigate for more than a few feet without losing all sense of direction.  Also there are pubs.

In New York, by contrast, it is a hard get lost.  Stranded maybe.  A little turned around.  But rarely lost.  Oh sure, it can be done, especially in the vast outer boroughs.  But I’m talking about Manhattan.  There’s a grid system.  Numbered streets and avenues.  Rivers on two sides.  Anyone who’s mastered simple addition and subtraction can figure this town out in seconds.  It ceases to be a navigational challenge at about the age of six. 

Which leaves one, in the biggest city in the world, almost always knowing where you are.  The delicious joy of locating yourself in the world becomes a rare treat, because you are always deeply, mathematically, found.  And on top that you can always see where you’re going.  Instead of streets looping around in the whimsical manner of a drunken 13th century shepherd, they fly straight to the horizon as if created by a machine, which for all practical purposes they were.  Surprises are few, and boredom sets in. 

Which leads to my favorite coping mechanism, the ever changing route.  Go a different way, see things from a different angle and gain a new perspective on the  world.   This is good in theory and works for a while, especially in New York where blocks tend to be so densely packed that they become their own micro-neighborhoods and straying a very small distance from a habitual route can open up an entirely new world. But it can also lead to an insanity all it’s own.  

For ten years I lived in Chicago and rode my bike everywhere.   Covering far greater distances on bike than I ever could on foot, by the seventh year alternate routes had become exhausted and boredom began to seep in.  Struggling to maintain the adrenaline rush of urban discovery I traveled further and further from what is traditionally known as a direct route. By the ninth and tenth year the problem had become extreme. My 20 minute rides to the loop were now taking upwards of four hours and encompassing many of the surrounding suburbs as well as sections of northwestern Indiana.  In an attempt to deal with the problem I moved from macro to micro-exploration, traveling in a manner so direct that I frequently rode my bike through alleys, yards and in one embarassing incident, a stranger’s living room.  Finally, on an icy  winter day in Uptown I actually slid beneath a bus, where I made the very urban discovery of darkness, motor oil and extreme fear.  As a result I gave up the bike and moved to New York City in an attempt to start again.  And yet the desire remains.  I want to be lost.

So here’s the plan.  This weekend I will go somewhere I’ve never been, close my eyes, spin around three times and begin walking.  If I’m lucky I’ll find a pub.  And if I’m very lucky I’ll find myself.


‘Next Round’s On Me

20 Aug

I love English pubs.  There are few places I’d rather be.  In a really good pub, where television, video games and loud music have been banned, you will find that rare and wonderful combination of solitude and companionship; a place where people can talk.  Such a simple thing, I know, but quietly joyous when found.  On those rare occasions when I find myself in such a pub, I tend to order a pint or two of extra special bitter, a strong English ale whose gentle carbonation and fine hoppy flavor seems to lift me out of time only to gently drop me smack in the middle of the moment.

I am almost always in need of such a drink.

Having started Playing In The City With Trains a little over a month ago, I’m surprised to find that I need another blog. 

Growing out of the birth of my daughter Hallie and the discovery of her Down’s Syndrome, Playing In The City With Trains has quickly become a wonderfully cathartic meditation on family, friends and life in New York City.  But having taken on a personality of it’s own, I feel a little constrained about using the space to write about anything contentious, cranky or the least bit rude… anything, in short, that might offend someone.  Such topics are, however, the bread and butter of a good pub conversation.  So, on this page I thought I might create my own little pub where things are a little looser and the talk a little more free.

Come on in.  It’s early afternoon and the sun is slanting through the window.  Things are quiet, the barman (a big blustery man of a certain age) is both funny and attentive and the company is very good.  Pull up a chair, the next rounds on me.  If you haven’t tried it, may I suggest a pint of extra special bitter?  It’s delicious.