31 October 2019

Another Trip to New York, Another Fabulous Time

The George Washington bridges seen from the Cloisters.
Just got back after spending nine days in New York. The highlight of the trip and always the primary reason we (the wife and I) go to the Big Apple is to visit youngest daughter. She's working full time as a social worker while also getting her MSW and -- like her older sister -- making her dad very proud. She soaked us for four dinners, a brunch and a theater ticket but it's worth ten dinners, seven brunches and five theater tickets to hang with her. My late great father would be enormously proud of my children and my brother's four young 'uns. I have two nieces and two nephews who are among planet Earth's finest citizens. Enough boasting about my family....

Our first day we went to the Brooklyn Museum where we especially enjoyed an exhibition of the photography of Gary Winogrand. Most of the photos were the '50s and '60s and while most were taken in the New York area, there were shots from other parts of the US as well. He's got a Diana Arbus vibe to him which I really enjoyed. I liked the Brooklyn Museum which I thought of as a kind of "people's museum." Not as ostentatious as some of the other great museums in the New York area and feels like it caters to the hoi polloi. The day marked our return to the labyrinthine New York subway system where you can see all manner of people. Most qualify as "normal" looking individuals engaged in "normal" subway travel but a few of whom are dressed or posed as if pieces of performance art. The subway is dirty, confusing and often overly crowded but it can get you anywhere. I'd hate to commute in it everyday but as a tourist it's damn convenient.

Central Park.
On day two we went to the Museum of Natural History which is to me more noteworthy for the structure itself then for anything in it. On this my second visit to the museum I was struck by how run down the place has become. There were placards that were difficult to read, some exhibits were poorly lit and some of the descriptions of the Native Americans need to be updated to be in line with modern sensibilities. From the museum we crossed the street and strolled through Central Park and lemme tell you Autumn is the perfect time of year to meander through the biggest municipal park in the US. It's not exactly the Vermont countryside, but the foliage is still striking. Temperatures were in the low 60s, ideal for a long walk.

On Friday we had lunch at Katz's Delicatessen which owes a great deal of its fame to a scene in When Harry Met Sally. We got to the Deli at about 11:15 and immediately got a table. By the time we  left there was a line for seating stretching out onto the sidewalk. Timing is everything. The cuisine was fine but one comes for the atmosphere which Katz's has in spades. Far too many individually owned delis, cafes and restaurants across the country have closed in the last few decades to be replaced by chic, hip and stylized eateries that have flash but no character. Berkeley has lost two classic eateries in the past few years that had histories stretching back decades. The missus overheard two old geezers at a nearby table lamenting the many fine delis in New York that are no more. Katz's walls are festooned with photos of celebrities who have patronized the place, everyone from Joe DiMaggio to Leonardo Dicaprio. Next we took in the Tenement Museum which you can only enjoy via one of their many tours. I went on one called Hard Times in which we were taken to a tenement and shown rooms once occupied by particular families of immigrants. Our guide was a young lady who knew her stuff. The museum does an excellent job of preservation and research to accurately depict the immigrant experience from the mid 19th century through the 1930s and to a lesser degree, until today. The museum also boasts a kick ass gift shop. (I love museum gift shops, though I rarely purchase anything from them.)

Saturday we went to the Top of the Rock which is, of course, the top of Rockefeller Center. The views are spectacular, although I preferred my visit last year to the top of the Empire State Building.
In the evening we took in a hot and controversial play, The Slave Play. It has apparently made many a theater goer uncomfortable -- including some in our audience  -- because of its frank and vivid representation of interracial relationships -- not to mention relationships in general -- and its uncanny ability to connect racial tensions of today (even those hidden within a romantic relationship) with the legacy of slavery. It also lampooned group therapy and all the jargon and tropes that go with it. For this is a play about using role playing set in the antebellum south as couples therapy. The actors are almost as brave and bold as the playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

People enjoying a Jackson Pollack painting
The next day we enjoyed brunch with youngest daughter then navigated a downpour to go to MoMa, aka the Museum of Modern Art. This is one of my favorite museums in the world and it did not disappoint on this rainy Sunday. There was the works of Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollack, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Georgia O'Keefe, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and many more. What an absolute delight to spend time with the work of some of our greatest artists. There was also an exhibition of one of my favorite poets, Frank O'Hara, who was also an artist and a curator at the museum. There's nothing that can lift a mood like being surrounded by great efforts by great artists, it restores one's faith in humanity.

Monday's visit to the Cloisters was nowhere near as exciting but still enjoyable and the location affords some magnificent views especially at this time of the year. It was preceded by a stop at Columbia University where my mother did her graduate work and where my favorite writers, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg met. We also stopped by Tom's Restaurant the exterior of which was used as a stand-in for Monk's Cafe in the greatest of all TV sit-coms, Seinfeld. You may have heard of it. Later we took a second stroll through Central Park.

On our last full day we made a second pilgrimage to Zabar's where I had a bagel with lox, a sticky bun and tea. Zabar's has been seen or mentioned in dozens of movies and TV shows. The cafe and adjoining store have been a going concern since the 1920s. We also popped into the New York Public Library which to my surprise has a gift shop and indeed it is a terrific gift shop. Our visit provided one of the highlights of the trip as they currently have a JD Salinger exhibition and boy what an exhibition. On display were the author's typewriter, passports, pipes, reading glasses, book contracts, the original manuscript of Catcher in the Rye (!!!!) along with correspondence and family photos. Fantastic.

Yesterday we flew across the country and boy are my arms tired (rim shot).

09 October 2019

I'm a Joker, I'm a Smoker, I'm a Midnight Toker I Sure Don't Want to Hurt No One

I don't see these types of movies. No superheroes for me. No Marvel universe. No inter-galactic space battles. No franchise films. But I was drawn to Joker because it starred the great Joaquin Phoenix in a story that was said to be devoid of CGI, booming soundtracks and promises of many sequels to come. I understood that it was a stand alone film that was more about character than action sequences.

The physicality of Joaquin Phoenix in his portrayal of the title character in Todd Phillips’ Joker was the most compelling aspect of the film. He was not merely athletic but fluid. It was thus not surprising to learn that in preparation for the role he studied the great dancer Roy Bolger, particularly his Old Soft Shoe performance. Phoenix didn't just channel the classic tap dancer, there was something balletic in much of his movement. At times, he also looked like an athlete, particularly when running. The Joker is all about movement and not just Phoenix’s body, but his face as well, which is often contorted into laughter both uncontrollable and calculated. Laughing. There is a lot of it in Joker though it is generally uncomfortable or more often painful and compulsive, even pathological.

There is violence in Joker. I read that it was excessive. Indeed there has been a lot said and written already about Joker as critics have been polarized in their views of the film. It is always a big weight to carry into a movie theater to know that there are strong and conflicting views about a film. I found I was constantly checking in with myself as to how I was reacting to Joker, rather than just absorbing the film. (I’ve often found that the less I know about a movie before watching it the purer the movie-going experience. I always try to read as little as possible about a movie before seeing it, only wanting to know enough to decide that I will like it.)

Joker has a lot of violence though I've seen much worse. It is also very much about isolation and mental illness and urban decay and the proverbial theme of man’s inhumanity to man. It is thus a story very much for our times and also for many other times as well. I thought a lot about New York in the 1970s which seemed to be an inspiration for the time and place of Joker. The film was also quite clearly inspired by the work of Martin Scorsese, particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, is an out-sized kind of Travis Bickle, less in control and in more desperate straits. Fleck is also a violent version of Rupert Pupkin. It’s no accident that Robert De Niro is in Joker where he plays a successful talk show host, Maury Franklin, the very type of person Pupkin aspired to be. (Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that everyone knows that De Niro played both Bickle in Taxi Driver and Pupkin in the King of Comedy. If you’ve not seen either film do so posthaste.) While Joker is an homage to Scorsese it is also -- though perhaps inadvertently -- a nod to a recent Phoenix film, You Were Never Really Here which was directed by Lynne Ramsey and is more violent than Joker.

The same city can be viewed in myriad ways by different people. For the wealthy, New York is a city rife with opportunity and an endless array of activities available from theater to sports to museums to fine dining to carriage rides in Central Park. To the very poor New York is a cold, heartless place full of crime, drugs, rats and looming violence. Joker's fictional city of Gotham (which you’ve heard of if you know your Batman) is similarly two-sided, although it is at a point where the ugly underbelly is getting more exposure — a garbage strike helps see to that — and is spilling into rampant violence and mob-led protest. The antics and actions of Arthur Fleck have inadvertently led to this. He has captured the zeitgeist of the city’s trauma and made it writ large. Simultaneously he has been “discovered” by Franklin and is about to enjoy his designated 15 minutes of fame. Or is he?

Critics have complained that Joker is not only about nihilism but seems to celebrate it, that it is empty, cynical, that it celebrates victimhood and fails to make its points. I’m not sure what it says about me as a cinephile, but I rarely like movies that take such critical beatings (to be fair Joker has a sizable number of critics championing it as well, indeed more critics like it than not). But I think critics are asking the wrong questions of Joker or looking for things that they want to find rather than what the film actually offers.

Joker is a brilliantly choreographed dance with an exceptional artist as its lead. The story’s point and focus take a backseat to the manner in which it is presented. In this respect it reminds one of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which was so enthralling for its composition — colors, music, recreation of time period — rather than for the narrative itself.

I always wonder about people who are obsessed with storyline and points to stories. Do they read poems to see how they end? Would they rather spend their spare time diagramming sentences or reading them?

Surely though Joker is about something. It’s about a lot. It’s about pain and how we deal with it and overcome it or how it deals with us and overcomes the better angels of our nature. There is a lot of substance to Joker. It also explores that helpless feeling that only through retribution can solace be found for the downtrodden. That sense that playing by the rules only works for those for whom the deck is stacked. But ultimately I found it mostly to be damn good entertainment. A great actor giving a virtuoso performance in a film unafraid of itself that is willing to pull no punches and even throw a few -- not necessarily gratuitously. Mostly it passed the entertainment test. It kept me awake and aware and watching and wondering and smiling and grimacing and admiring. And what I mostly  admired was Phoenix's tour de force performance.

What a dance!

04 October 2019

Today I Re-Learn The Lesson That You Can't Go Home Again

View from the school in SF
For the first time in seven months I went back to where I worked for seven and a half years. You can’t go home again. I had lunch with Sendy, my former boss and the best boss I ever had. She’s leaving the school next week. The school director is leaving soon thereafter. Half the people who were there when I left have gone. The schedule has been changed. The school has gotten a fresh coat of paint. Tables, desks and shelves have been moved. None of the students who were there when I left are still at the school. It's the exact same place I left in March only totally different.

The school is right by Fisherman’s Wharf. That area hasn’t changed much in seven months — nor in seven years, for that matter — but it looks different, feels different, smells different, from when I worked there.

The school was full of ghosts. Including mine. Ghosts of teachers who entertained, bored, inspired, impressed, depressed, edified and mollified students since the school opened 12 years ago. Only one person working at the school when I arrived in July, 2011 is still there. ESL schools are transitory. Students come for no more than a year, most for no more than six months and many for as little as two weeks. Teachers and staff come and go too. This is especially true in places like San Francisco where people soon figure out that you need a substantial income to live in the city.

When a young man I was a newspaper reporter and having the time of life. I seemed made for the work. I was excelling at it and happy. Then I got a stupid idea of leaving journalism to work in Sacramento for the student lobby. I wasn’t cut out for the work and left after a year and began wondering, flailing around in life easing my journey through drugs and alcohol. After six aimless years I went into teaching and there found a career. I was a public school teacher, in a middle school no less. I was happy again although the pressure was enormous, the pay barely adequate and the slings and arrows stung. Eventually when administrators seemed to turn on me, I couldn’t take it anymore and segued into teaching ESL to adults. The first permanent job in the field I landed was, for much of the time, heaven on Earth. The students were nice and liked me, my bosses were nice and liked me, my co workers were nice and liked me. It was all grand fun and to top it off I was damn good at it. The only drawback was the hideous commute that grew worse and worse with each passing year then with each passing month then with each passing week and at the end with each passing minute. I was at retirement age anyway so last March I said my farewells.

I look back on my time as a reporter as one of the best and certainly most fulfilling periods of my life but I suffer horrible pangs of regret when I contemplate how I abandoned it. So my time teaching ESL in San Francisco is the only work experience that I look back on with fond memories. It was a job to be sure but it was so damn much fun to show up there and be greeted by darlings from all over the world. I took the job seriously and one aspect of it that I took seriously was that it should be — while students improved their English — damn good fun. For students and for me. I found that students learned better and I taught better if we were having a few yuks along the way. Students bought into it. My classes were big happy families. Meanwhile I was working for people who respected and supported me. These were people who were on my side and not incidentally they knew how to have a good time too. Who wouldn’t miss that?

I was very happy to see the school again as well as a few of the people I worked with, most especially my boss. But it made me wistful and a little sad. Something was gone. When we return to old haunts or visit old companions there is a melancholy mixed with the cheer. Nostalgia tinged with sorrow. It’s never the same. Parts of that experience have died, others have changed. There are people and places that we will never see again. Ever. And there people and places that are unalterably changed.

Last June I took a part time at a nearby ESL school teaching one class in the mornings. It’s a 15 minute walk from home, so there’s no commute to deal with. Teaching one class is easy. The school is small so the classes are small and thus there are few papers to grade. My part-time gig takes up just a few hours a day and the money earned goes to future travels. My work in the Summer funded a forthcoming trip the missus and I are about to take to New York.

The job is nice. The people there are nice. The students are nice. It’s an easy gig. It’s not the same as my time in SF but it’s okay.

Goddamn, I was lucky to work at a place that today is making me feel plaintive. Damn lucky. I guess that's what you take out of "going home again" you can see how good you once had it.