06/11/08 12:00am

Ten-year-old Sarah Grace Lehmann wakes each morning around 8am to the sound of her older sister Rachel stirring in their shared room. “I have that delicious feeling of being awake, but being allowed to stay in bed,” she says.

An hour later, she descends the ladder from her loft bed and makes her way into the kitchen for morning chores and breakfast. The kitchen is as far as Sarah Grace, S.G. as her family sometimes calls her, will trek in the morning — she is one of New York City’s 3,654 homeschooled children.

“I went to school once,” she says, “just to pick up a friend, and I was like, ‘Wow. This is different. People come here to do what I do in the living room.’”

S.G.’s living room serves as the central school area in the Lehmanns’ Morningside Heights apartment. But S.G. and her three siblings (ages three, seven and 13) can be found at various times throughout the school day at the park, running errands, picking up fresh food from a greenmarket, at a museum with friends, in their respective rooms working on projects or studying with a tutor. On Wednesday morning, for example, all four kids attend classes in art, cake-decorating, chess, Spanish, creative writing and science at a homeschooling co-op, facilitated by a group of Upper West Side homeschooling parents.

S.G. lifts her lively blue eyes up from the pages of The Phantom Tollbooth, adjusts her glasses and says, “I love reading. It’s my ultimate thing. I can’t stress that enough.”

S.G.’s reading habits are, indeed, voracious. In just two weeks she read all seven hefty Harry Potter books on a dare from her sister. That’s more than 4,000 pages in 14 days — nearly 300 pages a day.

S.G., who has a large, outgoing personality and is prone to random outbursts of Broadway showtunes or quotations from whatever she’s  reading at the moment, loves homeschooling. At times, she says her mom jokes about sending her to school. “I have nightmares about it.” S.G. loves homeschooling because she gets to see her dad more than she would if she went to school, there’s more flexibility (“you can go on vacation in the middle of the year!”), she’s able to ask her mom questions when she needs help, she can move at her own pace and — what almost every homeschooler will tell you — she’s able to take breaks when she needs them.

Like most kids, S.G. thinks about what she’d like to be when she grows up. She’d like to open a bookstore in her neighborhood, “with a green awning and a red door, filled with only books that I’ve read so that I can recommend them to people.” She’d also like to go to college for marine biology, and she’d like to become a spy — “but no one’s supposed to know that.”

At one point, when S.G. was six or seven, she saw a movie about Christian missionaries in China and resolved to go there as a missionary one day. So, like any average seven-year-old, she began teaching herself Chinese. “My dad bought me computer games in Chinese and I would talk to waiters saying, ‘the food was good, thank you, goodbye’ stuff like that.” Eventually S.G. began more formal lessons.

Sarah Grace and her three siblings are representative in many ways of NYC homeschoolers. In New York, the stereotypical image of a homeschooler as the kid who can’t make birthday party conversation but will recite the titles of Shakespeare’s plays in alphabetical order is replaced by mature, cultured, politically aware kids for whom authority issues seem to be non-existent. Most importantly, with knowledge of and a say in their curriculum, their schedule and their pace, learning is a process that’s empowering and inclusive — a process that doesn’t end with the afternoon bell.

“I’ve never trusted the school system to educate my kids,” says T.C. Neimann, a public high school teacher in the South Bronx who, on sabbatical this year, is homeschooling his two daughters, Sylvia, 9, and Chloe, 8. His wife also teaches public school in East Harlem, but they decided to pull the girls out this year at their request. T.C. notes he’s yet to meet another homeschooling dad and says that his time at home with the girls has informed him as a teacher invaluably. “People ask what I do with the girls for classes, and that’s the beautiful thing — I’m not tied to that Samuel Taylor public school model that was originally designed to produce effective factory workers who can stay in line and respond to bells. At school they spend an inordinate amount of time getting kids to stay in line. That says nothing about learning. The other day the girls created a dance in the magnolia trees and incorporated the fallen petals. We have lots of lovely moments like that. To me that is learning.”

It all seems a little dreamy — self-motivated kids learning foreign languages, proficient in instruments, taking a vested interest in their own health and nutrition, with a knowledge of current events, dancing under trees… If you cup your hand to your ear you can almost hear Tolstoy applauding from his grave. So why doesn’t everyone homeschool?

There are as many ideological justifications for keeping kids in school as there are for pulling them out, but, at the end of the day, many non-native New Yorkers come here to advance a career, not stay at home all day, and most New Yorkers need as much income as possible to afford the ever climbing cost of living. Even T.C. says that he is receiving 70% pay on his sabbatical and if the state continued to pay him to homeschool, he would in a heartbeat. And though there are creative ways for homeschoolers to pinch pennies — sharing curriculum materials, finding group rates at museums and movies — the majority are able to make such a life choice because they are in a position to sacrifice a great deal of income. A University of Maryland study shows that homeschool parents tend to have a higher than average income — 1.4 times more, by their estimate.

Perhaps the most widely known reason that parents choose to homeschool their children is a conservative Christian fear of secular, science-based education, but you would be hard pressed to find such reasoning among New York’s homeschooling parents. Even people of faith who homeschool seem to do so with a more nuanced critique of New York’s school system and a long-term view of their child’s development as an engaged world citizen. Faith, however, is still the biggest motivator for homeschooling. Christians constitute the largest group of homeschoolers, and the fastest growing group is, reportedly, Muslims.

The epic waiting lists, gargantuan costs and not-always-friendly competition for many of New York City’s private schools also deter parents — the tuition of some NYC private elementary schools is akin to that of many liberal arts colleges.

In Harlem, Karen Clemente, who homeschools her two kids, Elena, 10, and Alejandro, 7, who are never far from their beloved hamster Alfredo Frodo Clemente, says that she might not be homeschooling if she weren’t living in New York City. “I didn’t plan to homeschool… I’m very conventional in some ways — I liked school, I pictured myself on the PTA — but I had a kindergarten-aged kid and a two-year-old, and to get to a good school from where I lived, I would have had to commute more than two hours a day. I figured instead of lugging a kid in a stroller around all day I could teach Elena myself. And we’re not morning people.”

Karen also suggests that kids in New York City face serious life questions at young ages, and she likes being able to walk with her kids through their formative experiences, not entrusting them completely to someone else. She wanted to have a more active role in their learning, explaining, “I could send them to school and then debrief them through the lens of my belief system… or I could just teach them, which would take about the same time at that age.”

Like Karen, the majority of homeschooling parents are married mothers whose husbands work full time and teach a subject or two to their kids in the evening or on the weekends. Karen’s husband, Victor, originally from Puerto Rico, taught his kids Spanish on Saturday mornings for three years. He teaches history every night when he gets home from work, and also gives science seminars, like a recent three-week course on electro-magnetism.
As a homeschooling parent, Karen says she understands the oft-asked question, “Are your kids socially well-adjusted?” On first impression, her kids do tend to use more adult language than their peers simply because they spend more of their time in conversation with adults. But that doesn’t make them less social. She usually answers by saying that people should spend a couple of hours with the kids and decide for themselves. Karen says, as will most homeschooling parents in New York, that her kids have a full, healthy social life and maybe even spend more time with their friends than other kids who are drained after seven hours of sitting in school.
Maybe, she admits, they are less fluent in pop-culture speak: she recalls a time when Elena was visiting a friend who lived outside of the city and went to school. The friend wanted to watch Hannah Montana but Elena didn’t know what that was and wanted, instead, to stage a revolt against the parents and draft their own Declaration of Independence. “That can seem a bit dorky to people,” Karen says.

Meg, a six-year-old NYC homeschooler, however, seems in many ways like a typical little girl, pop culture speak and all — she loves Disney princesses and can rattle off plots and songs from cartoons, and adores jewelry and dress-up. Ask her about hobbies and she’ll tell you it’s “playing with dolls.” Typical, right? “Oh, and Jackson Pollock,” she says. “I love painting like Jackson Pollock because you can make a mess. I love learning about artists like Galileo and, you know, I think someone crumpled my favorite artist’s nose… his name is Leonardo.”

“I love that my kids don’t have an ageist peer group,” adds Monica Carson, another Morningside Heights mother who homeschools her two kids. “They mix with grownups and little kids and kids close to their own ages more easily. I also like that my daughter isn’t as hung up on what’s ‘in style’ in school. She kind of plays around, looks at other kids, musicians that she likes, etc. and tries to find a style for herself.”

But, for all its advantages, this is New York City, and most people, even people with hefty incomes, live, quite literally, on top of each other. Lack of space — the dining room doubling as schoolroom and maybe even recess room — is an issue for homeschooling families in New York. But most of NYC’s homeschooling parents are quick to espouse the joys of educating a child in a city where the best, brightest and most diverse are close at hand: museums, galleries, restaurants, theaters, cultural centers, businesses — places that get the kids out of the house and learning about the world, without having to bring home a permission slip.

In New York the Education Law requires that a child must “attend public school or elsewhere” — that elsewhere can in fact be the child’s living room as long as they are under instruction for 900 hours in a year and given “instruction at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to minors of like age or attainments at the public schools.” Families must submit a letter of intent, submit quarterly progress reports to the state, keep a record (at least a semblance of a record) of attendance and write a final year assessment with the last quarterly report that proves the children are on par with state requirements for learning. Parents do not have to be certified teachers to homeschool.

There are plenty of ways for homeschooling families to connect and share ideas — blogs, co-ops, chat groups, support groups, groups like New York Home Educators Association that plan activities for homeschoolers. But some still insist that there’s not enough socialization.

At most colleges and universities, admission processes are basically the same for homeschooled students and non-homeschooled students, according to an admissions representative I spoke with at Columbia University, where, for example, in addition to SATs, homeschoolers must take two extra College Board subject tests. But that’s the only difference.

Either way, the kids seem to enjoy it. Although S.G. does feel that if she went to school she might feel more accomplishment, because “there’s always more” for her to do as a homeschooler, but at school she would be able to finish all her work in one day. Danny, S.G.’s seven-year-old brother, who also loves being homeschooled because he gets to build things and see his mom a lot, says, “There would be one good thing about going to school — stirring up a little mischief. You know, you spit a spitball at the back of someone’s neck and everyone’s looking around saying ‘Who did it? Who did it?’ and you say ‘I don’t know, was it you?’” 

02/14/07 12:00am

It’s an old New York story: twenty-something artists and students begin populating a largely industrial, working-class neighborhood — in this case Puerto Rican and African-American — and in a few years rents go up, chains move in, and gentrification moves on. Here in Bushwick, one of the city’s many “next new neighborhoods,” live two friends who, at first glance, blend in with the more recent locals.

If you were to keep an eye on Dan and Nate, though, you might notice that the same dirt-caked clothes they wear each day are more than an outsider fashion statement. You might find them looking a bit more weathered, a little skinnier, than the loft dwellers and unfiltered cigarette smokers patronizing the nascent coffee shops and art house video stores. You might even find they smell.

This is because Dan and Nate are squatters living in an abandoned or unoccupied building, rent-free and without permission.

While others keep a watchful eye on Craigslist to snatch up apartments in the hip neighborhood, willing to pay up to $2,000 per month for an unfurnished loft, Dan and Nate keep a watchful eye out the windows of their abandoned house to make sure police don’t become suspicious of their presence. 

Nate, 20, is a screen printer and grindcore punk musician originally from Mobile, Alabama who has been traveling around America for the last two years, hitchhiking, trainhopping, squatting, living in community houses and camping. Attached to his belt is a small knife, used for work in the house, a fork, and a Nalgene bottle. He showers when he can, about once a month, at friends’ places, (he recently calculated that he hadn’t taken his shirt off in 30 days), wears a zip up hoodie with a patch on the back that reads “Children Starve While the Rich Grow Fat” and has an easy, intermittently wry and goofy, sense of humor.    

Dan, 22, from Philadelphia, has lived in New York for three years — sometimes on the streets, sometimes squatting and sometimes staying at friends’ places. He spends his summers hitching around the country and the rest of his year working with New York City’s homeless. He does what he can to help people off the streets if they want to be off, or if they don’t, he still tries to be there as a friend. Recently graduated from college with a degree in Social Work and Theology, Dan considers himself a Christian Anarchist, as does Nate. They feel that squatting is perfectly in line with Jesus’ teachings, pointing to the verse in the Bible that says, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)

The house they’re currently squatting, the place they call home, has no running water or electricity. Dan and Nate light the space with candles and flashlights, sleep in sleeping bags and have covered massive holes in the roof with plastic tarps. Many owners who abandon their buildings will take a circular saw to the roof to speed up the building’s deterioration and to discourage squatters. The building that Dan and Nate are squatting was slated to be part of a citywide “urban renewal” program that never came to fruition.

For a bathroom, Dan and Nate have two buckets, emptied daily — one in the common area and a somewhat more offensive one on the roof, forcing them to make haste with their business on increasingly cold winter days. The “pee bucket” froze solid the other day. “It’s like camping,” says Dan.

The two enter and exit the three-storey, post-war apartment building through the cellar door, which they unsealed and found leads to the rest of the house. “If I come home alone,” says Nate, “I just run through the basement as quickly as possible. I hate that part. It’s so dark down there that someone could be waiting to slash my ankles or something.”

Once up the basement stairs and safely inside, they are greeted by the smell of turpentine permeating two floors full of debris, mostly wood that fell during a fire. Walking on these floors and up the stairs feels treacherous, though by now, Dan and Nate seem adept at negotiating the random jetsam of boards, rusty nails, metal scraps, broken bottles, and the occasional stuffed animal.

Their living space is up the third steep staircase, on the top floor. The main common area appears to have once been an apartment’s kitchen, complete with the remains of a 1950s-era stove, a table in the middle of the room, four sturdy chairs and a painting of sailboats at sea that Nate recovered from the debris. With candles lit at night, the ambiance is almost romantic — dim and warmly bohemian. “It’s definitely nice, until you wake up in the morning,” says Dan. “In the light, you think: ‘wow, I live in this shithole.’” 

When Dan and Nate first unsealed and entered the building, the third floor was just as full of debris as the other two, but they worked for days to clear it out and clean it up. “We found all kinds of stuff — photo albums, an entire record collection,” says Nate, “I can kind of tell what kind of people lived here… mostly families.”

The two sleep in what was probably the bedroom of an apartment, their sleeping bags on top of plywood slabs. They chose the third floor because the windows are completely gone, offering the most ventilation, and because it is the safest area to be, in that there is only one way up and down. “If someone comes in we’re going to hear it,” says Dan.

The most obvious inconvenience of living on the top floor, though, is the weather. As adequately as Dan and Nate have patched the roof, it is still winter, and the cold and precipitation can get pretty bad. 

“We snuggle,” says Dan when asked about managing the cold, “But it’s pretty much impossible to start moving in the morning.” To get the blood flowing, they do push-ups or sit-ups as they wake up.

Dan and Nate keep their packs, large camping backpacks that hold all of their possessions, hidden during the day up in the “attic,” or the exposed rafters that once held up part of the attic. To reach their things, the guys — both around six feet tall — must stand on a large cabinet and fumble somewhat blindly above them, often breaking loose pieces of drywall, a dangerous game of “dodge-shard” for anyone standing below. 

“I’m guessing the building was abandoned about a decade ago,” says Nate, “but it looks like there were squatters here about two years ago — I found some stickers for a hardcore band.” 

Dan and Nate don’t adhere much to societal conventions. Take consumption, for example: they don’t really buy anything. They bike, and if they have to take the subway, they get a swipe off someone’s unlimited MetroCard. They are what you would call “freegan” — eating by dumpster diving or waiting at restaurants around closing time to pick up food that would be otherwise disposed of. This can prove tricky, considering they are both vegan. They avoid “sphanging” (asking for spare change on the street), finding it tedious.   

There are times, though, that call for, well, alternative measures. Recently “sphanging” with a friend in Soho, Nate decided to switch it up a bit and sell hugs. 

“Best hug you’ll ever have!” he yelled, smiling widely and wearing a cardboard sign that read “Hug machine. Completely disease free!” Tourists lined up and Nate made eight dollars in an hour. 

Their days, however, are not all about the basics of subsistence. Both Dan and Nate read a lot, mostly nonfiction — autobiographies, history, nature writing, laments against and defenses of capitalism — but neither is opposed to the occasional dip into fiction. Now, along with reading a critique of the modern church, Dan is reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They have also started volunteering at a Bronx-based organization called Picture the Homeless that is staffed by the homeless or once homeless and works for the rights of those living on the street: fair treatment by police, a revamping of the shelter system and available, affordable and sustainable housing.

Squatting is now mostly associated with the anarchist and punk scene, according to Robert Neuwirth — journalist, community organizer and Columbia journalism professor who has reported on squats in New York City for over a decade, and authored Shadow Cities, a book on squats in the Third World.

“Most squatters in the developed world are middle-class, often educated people squatting for ideological reasons,” Neuwirth says. “It’s done as a statement against gentrification or out of beliefs that housing should be public domain and that unused space is unjustified during a housing crisis.”

During New York City’s early years, however, squatting was a much more mainstream practice. The island of Manhattan was developed from south to north. In the 1800s, squatters made serious use of the extension of English Common Law, which basically states that anyone who improves upon land is entitled to it. It’s called homesteading and the United States passed a “Homesteading Act” in 1862 that allowed anyone to claim up to 160 acres of land. If you cleared the land and worked it for five years, you would receive a legal title from the government. The law is rooted in the assumption that owners have more incentive to improve an environment than transient tenants. It opposes the idea of real estate as a “market,” suggesting instead that property maintenance will build safe communities full of invested individuals. Up until the early 1900s, the areas north of “downtown” Manhattan were full of immigrant and African-American squatter camps that were razed as developers moved northward. The razing was often accompanied by violent struggle.

The 1970s found New York in dire financial straits. Crime was at an all-time high and police corruption rampant; dire financial straits, however, tended to create good conditions for squatting. Building owners in the South Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side abandoned their no-longer-profitable properties, many of them resorting to arson for the insurance money. 

The surge of wealth pumped into the city in the 1980s, though, meant skyrocketing rents. Many people who found they could no longer afford the city quickly occupied the buildings that were abandoned in the 70s, thus beginning the “golden age” of New York City squatting. Manhattan’s Lower East Side became the most notorious squatter haven, featuring a preponderance of “rock and roll” squats with a distinct punk aesthetic and penchant for partying. But mostly, the LES homesteaders/squatters were working-class folks working for a safe space to live. Over 70 percent were Puerto Rican, and there were slightly more women than men. The LES homesteaders/squatters had a major hand in reviving and protecting a neighborhood that the rest of New York had essentially left for dead.

“I lived around the corner from the squatters on East 13th,” wrote journalist Luc Sante in a 1995 New York Times editorial, “and in the late 1970s that stretch, between Avenues A and B, was one of the most forbidding streets in the area — an alley of dope storefronts, muggers, rapists and ad hoc garbage dumps. The squatters changed all that, throwing out the drug dealers and chasing away the creeps without any official help. By 1983 or so, the street was reasonably safe.”

Now, New York City is, we’re told, safer than ever and back as the real estate capital of the world. Space is gold, especially in Manhattan. Starting with Mayor Koch, and gaining force with Giuliani, this has meant a serious crackdown on squats and squatters. Since the 1990s, almost all of the major NYC squats have been repossessed and rehabbed for commercial sale, and countless squatters have been evicted, many arrested and jailed.

Mayor Koch started anti-squatter initiatives in the mid- and late-80s, but in 1991, after a firefighter died in a fire allegedly set by a squatter, Mayor  Dinkins began the real push to get squatters out — the beginning of the end of the “golden age.” And then there was Giuliani.

“Giuliani carried out paramilitary-style assaults on squats to get squatters out,” says Neuwirth, referring mainly to the summer of 1995 when police in full riot gear arrived in a “tank-like armored vehicle” at two squats on 13th Street and forcibly evicted unarmed squatters, arresting 31. Famously, journalist and activist Brad Will (who was tragically murdered in Oaxaca just this past October) climbed to the squat’s roof, sat in a lotus pose as the wrecking ball swung towards him, and screamed “Fuck Giuliani!” as police arrested him. 

Some squats, though, have managed to survive the bloody real estate wars, mostly with the help of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a local tenants’ rights non-profit. The city sold squats, like the famous Loisaida C-Squat and Serenity, to UHAB, who repaired the buildings to meet code, and sold them back to residents (at the symbolic price of $1) as low-income co-operatives. This means that building residents are protected and can be selective about whom they choose to let in, but are not allowed to sell the property to outsiders at market value.

Today, it’s nearly impossible for a squatter to legally obtain a deed to their occupied space in New York City while maintaining outsider status. To acquire a title without legal compensation, what is known as adverse possession, one must prove they have “openly, notoriously and exclusively” held the property (in conflict with the true owner’s interests) for a certain period of time, usually ten years. And while adverse possession is a part of U.S. statutory law, it is in no way acknowledged in New York State or City law. Essentially, for a squatter to get squatter’s rights, the property’s owner — even if it’s the state — must be aware of her presence, acknowledge that she’s not welcome and somehow allow her to stay for ten years, and  she has to receive mail there. New York courts have long been wary of the acquisition of title through adverse possession, requiring bibles of evidence of occupancy.

Real estate being as valuable as it is, it’s hard for Dan or Nate, realistically, to picture having the space as their own someday — to not have to sneak in and out — and many still associate squatters with people looking for a free ride or aiding in gentrification. 

But Dan and Nate envision the space as more than just a free, albeit chilly, place of residence: they would like to turn it into a community house for the poor. “It would be sort of a critique on the shelter system,” Dan says, “which has so many rules and where homeless people are basically treated like they’re 17 and can’t make their own decisions”. 

They would like to it to be a self-help, owner-occupied usufruct. “Through loving each other and encouraging each other as a community, we could ‘rehabilitate’ people. I did it last year in a space that a church gave me. Out of the 25 people who lived there, only two didn’t get off the streets or drop their addiction,” Dan says. “But even those two, I think, gained some kind of tools to learn how to love and respect themselves more. It’s much more free and community oriented. If I had a space…”  

Even in the face of their community-building hopes, and desire to help others, Dan and Nate are technically criminals. Considering their situation and its almost certain outcome, it’s hard not to recall Sante, who said: “In destroying the squats, New York is destroying homes, punishing initiative, undoing community improvement, criminalizing hard work, squelching ambition and killing hope and serenity. In other words, it is attacking itself.” 

12/06/06 12:00am

An audience member got up to use the bathroom during Tim Crouch’s experimental, two-person-play an oak tree, and all on-stage action stopped. “I’m sorry,” she apologized to actors and audience.
“It’s fine,” writer/actor Crouch assured sweetly, un-ironically from the stage, despite the fact that the interrupted moment was a rare one — in which the audience was relaxed into a suspension of disbelief for more than a spastic, A.D.D. instant. “It’s awkward theater,” he concluded as she left, flustered.

Awkward? Perhaps. But brilliantly so. an oak tree, a piece of meta-theater, is awkward in a way that makes you question why most theater isn’t more awkward.
Crouch is the only constant in an oak tree. He plays a lonely hypnotist who killed a young girl in a car accident and hasn’t dealt with the emotional repercussions. The second actor changes at every performance. Male or sometimes female, they play the deceased girl’s father and have never seen the script before the night of the performance, relying on Crouch’s on-stage instruction.

Crouch destroys the fourth wall at the outset, introducing himself as actor and writer then calling up the second actor (I saw a magnetic Matthew Arkin) informing him of his role and asking if he’s comfortable.
The roller coaster begins. I want to use another word to describe the play’s effect, but it is, in fact, hypnotic. You see Crouch (as Crouch) essentially hypnotize an actor, coach him (sometimes audibly) down the spiral staircase of a narrative with dexterity and gentleness and then slip suddenly into a guilt-ridden, clumsily malicious character.
Crouch conceived a work of militaristically, fascinatingly precise formal elements to explore the near mystical imprecision of human grief.

11/22/06 12:00am

You know from living in New York that, if nothing else, you have options as a consumer. You may even get the feeling you’re a marketer’s wet dream — you’re just not sure if you’re ok with that. You buy organic and you’ve heard the phrase “fair trade,” assuming it to be a good thing. It’s likely that you want to make the world a better place, but, overwhelmed by theories and statistics, you’re uncertain about where to start.
The responsible consumption movement in New York has a few public faces, most of which you wouldn’t recognize — with the possible exception of Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. If you haven’t witnessed the “big bad Elvis-haired” activist, Bill Talen, in a Starbucks, he usually jumps up on the counter or prays for the exorcism of demons from the cash register or encourages customers to “take three steps back, pull the lipstick out of their purse and put the nipples back on that Starbucks mermaid.” Talen is banned from Starbucks establishments and has a restraining order that requires he stay at least 250 yards away from California’s 1,500 Starbucks.

“It’s theater,” he says of his revivalist preacher act, which usually consists of rousing anti-consumption sermons punctuated with “Hallelujahs”: “We don’t want suffering in our products! Someone give me a change-a-lujah?!” I think he let a “bike-a-lujah” out during a particularly spirited sermon on gas prices. The services usually involve some prayer to what Reverend Billy calls “the fabulous unknown” and end in freestyling sessions, a mingling of middle-age hippies and hipsters (almost) dirty dancing.

Reverend Billy participates in  Adbusters’ annual “Buy Nothing Day” on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving — traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. In 2005, American shoppers spent $28 billion on Black Friday weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. 

Talen says he’s never seen statistics as to how Buy Nothing Days affect markets, but insists that economic change isn’t the point. “The day is a celebration of the possibility of stopping consumption. Consumption is an American addiction. Buying nothing is a personal exercise; it’s a feeling of freedom.”

Michela Calabrese, Campaign Coordinator of Argentine and Brooklyn-based interrupción* — a self-proclaimed community of individuals, organizations and NGOs working for economic and social justice through responsible consumption — is as far from the old-fashioned tub-thumping of Reverend Billy as one can get. She speaks plainly and clearly, not bombastically — she’s an academic not an actor.

While Reverend Billy and interrupción* are in many ways working toward the same end — economic and social justice — their means of achieving it occupy different ends of the spectrum.
interrupción*  works at what they call, “new activism”, building new systems of production and consumption, like micro-enterprises, not just opposing old ones. 

“This isn’t just about ‘don’t buy Starbucks,’” says Calabrese. “This isn’t corporate versus fair trade. It’s about letting people decide for themselves, understanding that their purchase has power. In fact, four percent of Starbucks coffee is fair trade. But, it’s nearly impossible to get a cup of fair trade coffee at Starbucks; [they only offer it] ground and by the pound. Basically, it is your choice if you want to shop there, but you should know.” 
To the chagrin of many fair trade activists, interrupción* collaborates with corporations like Nestlé and Unilever, attempting to have them integrate socially responsible business practices — everything from waste management to stock market investment. “Multinationals are major players and are not going anywhere anytime soon,” says Calabrese. “We need to learn how to link notions of responsible action from the individual to the corporation.”
Calabrese draws a distinction between interrupción* and the overall Fair Trade “movement,” which, she says, can make people think of Christian nerds. 

Christians? Fair Trade? “Oh yeah,” says Michela, “It’s big in faith communities. A lot of places like Judson Church — where Reverend Billy comes from — have Fair Trade coffee hours after the service. Actually, interrupción*  believes the Christian social values… minus God.”

Fair Trade aims to ensure that farmers, without access to the technology to foresee international market prices, receive fair wages for their labor. The movement began in Europe in the 1960s as a response to multinational corporations and the new free trade system that meant ever-fluctuating international market prices for goods like coffee and cocoa. Farmers might spend six months with a crop and send it down the supply chain, to find that the demand has changed so dramatically, they’ll receive a fraction of what they made the year before. 
Fair Trade groups like TransFair USA certify products as “Fair Trade” according to their standards and mark the package with a seal.

Their certification, however, only accounts for farmers, the very first link on the supply chain. The rest is the basically invisible journey that a product makes on its way from producer to consumer. Large companies often ship their product to different countries to avoid tariffs — the average T-shirt, for example, will go to six or seven countries before it ends up in an American retail store.

Traditionally, a successful marketing strategy moves the consumer as far away as possible from the producer, keeping the supply chain invisible. interrupción* tries to rectify this disconnect: “You don’t want to know about sweatshops in Mexico, you don’t want to know about environmental damage in China and you don’t fucking want to know about economic free trade zones in South East Asia,” says Calabrese.
In purchasing you have much more available power than in, say, voting once a year — you can literally build or destroy a community. “The bottom line is accessible information about the root of your product. Responsible consumption begins with recognition — products do not begin or end with you.”

The easiest way to know the root of your product? Buy local. It’s a statement of investment in a community, in people. Building local markets essentially protects the indigenous personality of a place. People generally want a good life for their family and neighbors; they don’t want to add suffering to the world — so align your moral beliefs with your purchasing patterns.

“You will never be the most responsible consumer,” says Calabrese. “It is not an end goal; it is a process. Society overall is moving in the wrong direction. Any steps that you as an individual are taking in the right direction are good, are significant.” 

11/08/06 12:00am

Main Festival Entrance: Kaye Playhouse, 68th St. at Lexington Ave.

This year, the Avignon/New York Film Festival honors triple threat, actor/writer/director, John Turturro with a tribute and Gala Dinner at Manhattan’s own little France, the restaurant Daniel, on November 12th. They’re also giving him the first Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cinema Award for Independent Cinema, which includes a case of Provençal vintage wine every year for the next ten years…who says the French aren’t gracious?   The festival includes screenings of some of Turturro’s films like MAC, Illuminata and his newest, Romance and Cigarettes — a musical starring James Ganolfini, Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet in a modern day, working class Greek-style drama of animal urges, guilt and singing! There will be a screening of Bob Rafelson’s 1970 indie-favorite, Five Easy Pieces, in which Jack Nicholson works in the fields and “rides the fast lane to nowhere”— Rafelson will speak on his work. Dayna Goldfine and Dan Gellar will speak about their award-winning 2005 documentary, Ballets Russes, after a screening.  The festival will also premiere 20 new features, documentaries and shorts from the U.S. and Europe and host roundtable discussions, filmmaker interviews and plenty of cocktail receptions. Vive le cinema! For complete listings see:

10/25/06 12:00am

Billy Corben’s documentary Cocaine Cowboys is a raucous two-hour tour through cocaine-laced, bullet-riddled, Miami Vice-era Miami.  The tour, guided by the drug dealers, drug users, money launderers, lawyers and corrupt cops (who make Serpico-era New York look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), is very long and tends to focus on the gritty details of this deal or that murder and short-shrift the larger, more pervasive issue: that a modern American city was completely governed by the drug trade.

There are three main interviewees.  First is Mickey Munday, a vaguely Crocodile Dundee-like pilot who smuggled over ten tons of cocaine from Colombia to Miami.  Next is Jon Roberts, a greased-hair, Armani-wearing ex-dealer who made over $2 billion pushing coke for the Colombian Medellin cartel. Third, and most interesting, is the incarcerated, Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, a viciously accomplished baby-faced hit man for Colombian drug-lord and major psychopath Griselda Blanco.  All three seem intermittently proud of their life’s work.

Cocaine Cowboys is, at heart, a portrayal of sheer excess.  Money, houses, weapons, drugs, cars and human lives were all utterly disposable, because there was just so freakin’ much — all of it easily accessible outside of any law.

Miami owes its renaissance as a “cultural” city (or at least visitable city with a cool skyline) to the drug wars of the 70s and 80s. To understand how and why, the film is definitely worth the attention it asks of you. The filmmakers have tackled this old cliché of a tale in a new illuminating way.  Just don’t see it unless you’re ready to kiss your ignorance-is-bliss days of bumping to Will Smith’s ‘Welcome to Miami’ goodbye. 
Opens October 27

10/25/06 12:00am

Micah P. Hinson wants to make two things perfectly clear: one, that he’s from Texas, and two, he found the one drug store in Texas not yet cleaned out of Robitussin by Mike Jones. The Opera Circuit is Micah P. slowed down, chopped and screwed, in pain and heavily medicated. We hear “my back hurts so bad”—a reference to the massive injury Hinson suffered when a “friend” gave him a debilitating sucker punch to the back.This album is same hermetic enigma that is his other work, yet it feels even more disillusioned, tinnier and more orchestrated — Hinson’s urgent, naked voice actually seems partially clothed. On ‘Little Boys Dream’ he sings with a string orchestra and intermittently banjos and harmonicas appear, incorporated expertly, no doubt.  But somehow expert cleanliness doesn’t want to belong in the same sentence as hard-lived rambling romantic Micah P. Hinson.