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02/14/07 12:00am
02/14/2007 12:00 AM |

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.” 

01/31/07 12:00am
01/31/2007 12:00 AM |

On a rainy January day, the exposed metal of the World Trade Center PATH Station on Church Street shelters the often-heavy work of remembering. There’s the slightly disheveled bearded man playing ‘Amazing Grace’ on a flute; the smiling, would-be entrepreneurs selling WTC photo albums, two for ten dollars; and out by the curb, in the rain, the lip-ringed college students proclaiming the government’s involvement in 9/11, nervously quoting FCC transcripts and secret DOD memos. But near the station’s entrance, next to the fence, there’s a crowd, and though most regard the photos and timelines with appropriate solemnity, some, especially the kids, are smiling. They’re getting the history from the History Guy himself, Mr. Harry John Roland, better known as World Trade Center Man.

Harry’s 52 years old, his graying hair covered by a wool USA cap. A dozen key chain lanyards with the names of a dozen different cities hang from his neck, gifts from the grateful. His pockets and bags bulge with photo albums and boxes of Lucite key rings. These are the tools of Harry’s trade, which he approaches with a good dose of humor. “Don’t let history be a mystery,” he shouts, “never say two ‘cause that ain’t true,” referring to the common misconception that only two buildings went down on 9/11.

Harry’s manner mirrors his appearance. He’s loud and persistent, quick to ask questions of the kids who inevitably gather around for his daily street-side history lessons. He fills silences with statistics stuck inside catch phrases, and it works, especially with the children. “How many buildings were here?” he asks a small boy, the youngest of a family of tourists. The boy doesn’t answer. “How many sins are there? How many seas?” The boy still doesn’t answer. “How old are you?” “Seven,” the boy replies. He gives the boy a key ring to remember the experience.

Harry isn’t a beggar, though he has been mistaken for one. “It’s not about the money,” he says. And he isn’t out to heal. But he does believe he serves a purpose, and his reasoning is simple: “I know how many people come here and don’t know what they’re looking at.” Harry’s a teacher. In front of the PATH Station every day, “seeing children light up” with understanding is what brings him back the next. And people ply him with gifts — an aerial shot of the collapse of the South Tower, from a grateful cop, is pasted in his scrapbook next to a photo of a man from California with the Twin Towers’ trademark fork-shaped beam installed as a memorial. He displays them with pride. (Also in Harry’s scrapbook, displayed with no less pride, is a ticket for blocking pedestrian traffic. The officer, it turns out, was new to the beat. The judge threw the case out, let Harry keep the ticket, and asked to see the officer in court.)

“A lot of numbers coincide with so much truth it shocks me,” Harry says, in regards to WTC Seven being the last building down and the first one back up, but he also knows that numbers don’t always tell the whole story. The official tally of deaths at the World Trade Center is inaccurate because it doesn’t take into account the homeless and the illegal workers. Also overlooked are the other countries that lost citizens, some 180 of them. At one point, Harry claims, even the Tribute Center’s version of the official tally was out of date. Harry tries to give you the facts, and, unlike the Tribute Center, he doesn’t try to force the donation. To him, history should be free.

His endless collection of photos provides his presentation with a personal touch. Most are his own work, some are gifts, and many include his son, whose first day at a school a few blocks from Ground Zero was on 9/11. Each photo has a story he’s more than eager to tell. Sometimes, when you get him started, it’s hard to make him stop.

From his days giving tours and working concessions in the World Trade Center complex, and from doing security at the Liberty Landing Marina just a block west of the Towers, Harry has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area. Always an avid photographer and history buff, since 9/11 Harry has felt compelled to abandon more proper forms of employment, instead paying a daily visit to the World Trade Center PATH Station. Yet he views it as a job, coming every day — rain or shine — and staying until he runs out of a hundred fliers and maybe half as many key chains.

Harry’s only missed one week at his new gig — in 2004, the week after he was called in to identify his nephew’s remains. He was out, he says, “letting that reality hit.” After that week he felt closure, and with it a new drive to “let people know it’s not just two.” Now Harry provides that same closure to visitors. Some have accused him of creating a climate of revenge, but Harry, who thinks we should’ve “locked down Afghanistan and Pakistan” before venturing into Iraq, rejects the label. “It’s just that reality can be cruel,” he says.
Still, Harry tries to make the experience painless, even pleasurable, and as a result, he’s become a fan favorite. Yet his adopted title, World Trade Center Man, doesn’t really do him justice. Born and raised in Harlem, Harry is an urban historian with a wide range of knowledge. 9/11, especially tales of Brooklynites opening their doors to those fleeing Manhattan, only increased his dedication to the city. Now, he says, he goes “to the neighborhoods just to see what the flavor is about.”

One visiting school group, Harry says, wanted a single picture to remember the city — them, with Harry, in Times Square. To that group, he says, he represents a unique New York experience, emblematic of the city itself. And even New Yorkers appreciate him. When he returned to Church Street, Harry recalls, a construction worker expressed relief that he would once again hear Harry’s familiar refrain. “I thought that the next time I heard ‘don’t let history be a mystery’ I’d want to punch you,” the worker said, “but now I see the importance of what you’re doing.”

Harry doesn’t know when he’s going to stop. He feels a responsibility to the thousands of visitors the site draws, and he doesn’t feel he can trust the other sources of information. The conspiracy theorists, he believes, have the story wrong, and the Tribute Center shouldn’t be charging. As for those selling photo albums, Harry feels they’re uninformed, so much so that they’ll listen to Harry and then regurgitate his message. But children from Boston to Beijing agree: there’s only one World Trade Center Man.  •

12/19/06 3:00pm
12/19/2006 3:00 PM |

After making its way through gentrified Brooklyn, the L train rises above ground at the Wilson stop, revealing to subway riders a large, idyllic sward of green covered with innumerable tombstones, some in rows, some randomly interspersed among pine trees and elms.

12/06/06 12:00am
12/06/2006 12:00 AM |

Imagine a rainy day and you don’t feel like walking home. You manage to successfully hail a yellow cab coming your way. The driver stops, and you hop in the backseat. Through the rear view mirror, you notice the driver has a kind face. You tell him where you are going, and later, on a whim, ask where he’s from.
He tells you his name is Rahama Deffallah. Before driving a cab, he was a civil engineer in Sudan. In 1997, Rahama fled to the U.S. seeking refuge from Darfur, a region the size of Texas in the western part of the country. At the time, there was what he calls a “silent genocide” taking place. As part of the Zaghawa tribe, he explains, “I didn’t have rights in my country. I was a second-class citizen in Sudan.”
Since Rahama left, the situation in his homeland has only gotten worse. In 2003, rebel movements representing the marginalized people in Darfur took arms against the government of Sudan. The government has since responded by dropping bombs from Antonovs, Russian warplanes, on Darfurian communities, and arming Janjaweed militias on horseback who have subsequently burned and raided villages, raping and killing the indigenous African tribes in the region. In the past few years, over 400,000 people have been killed and at least two million have been displaced. While international attention on Darfur has increased, so have the offensive attacks on the region. Rahama hopes that the world’s concern will soon translate into action and a commitment to justice.

You begin to realize what once seemed like a remote problem in Africa, has a powerful presence in Brooklyn.
As Secretary General of the Darfur People’s Association (DPA) of New York, Rahama is one of 247 Darfurians living in the Boro Park/Kingston area of Brooklyn, which hosts the largest number of Darfurian refugees in New York State. About 180 have arrived since the violence began in 2003. Almost every weekend, they hold a funeral service for their loved ones killed in Darfur that week. Rahama alone has lost 47 members of his family. The loss resonates in the community.

When you inquire more about the Darfurians here, Rahama conveys the hardships they endure. “All the people here suffer. They are working very hard to support their families back home.” The DPA has been organizing collections of clothing and school supplies, which they periodically send to refugee camps in Chad, Sudan’s western neighbor.

Rahama is quick to point out that many of the refugees in Brooklyn are living in conditions similar to those in refugee camps in and around Darfur. Because of language barriers and an unfamiliarity with the American system and way of life, they need help finding jobs, accessing social services and obtaining survival skills necessary for their new surroundings. “We hope we can become part of this community.”
You ask Rahama what he thinks of Brooklyn and he replies, “I like Brooklyn, it’s very friendly.” He tells you that where he is from is not developed as it is in New York. People live in mud huts. They are mostly farmers. The natural landscape is largely untouched. “When I came here, I was surprised at what I saw. It was more than what I expected.” While Brooklyn in many ways is far from Darfur, Rahama feels like he is close to home. “Most Darfurians live here together and support each other. Brooklyn is a good place for us.”
You discover that over the past three years, Rahama has spent his days driving a taxi and attending Darfur rallies, funerals and vigils. He has spoken to students, churches, mosques and other community centers about what is ravaging his homeland. He spent endless hours watching footage from his country to help translate subtitles for the recent documentary film Darfur Diaries. You wonder how he manages to balance all this. He responds, “Yes, it is a lot at a time, but it’s a matter of life and death.”

Rahama lives with his wife Awadia and their three young children: four and a half year-old daughter Zahar, two-year-old son Abdullah, who loves Dora the Explorer, and their recent addition Sheima, only a few months old. You ask what the kids know about Darfur, and Rahama says the little ones are too young to comprehend, but “Zahar is now understanding some things. When she sees any kind of picture of people suffering, she asks if this is Darfur. She’ll pick out clothes she doesn’t need and say ‘just send it to Darfur.’” Rahama hopes one day to show his children Darfur at peace.

It has been two years since Rahama has seen his own parents. He tells you his 93-year-old father and 90-year-old mother are still in Darfur. Their village of Mozbed was completely destroyed, and they are now living in caves in the nearby mountains. You learn that in the coming weeks, Rahama is planning a trip by himself to visit them. He helped coordinate a shipment of clothes and supplies from Brooklyn to Chad via Cameroon, and he is traveling to Chad to assure their delivery to the camps, personally distributing the goods to the refugees. From there, Rahama will cross the border into Darfur to see for himself what happened to his village and how his parents are surviving the situation.

Being constantly reminded of the genocide back home, you can’t imagine how he stays strong. In his soft-spoken but confident voice, he shares, “ I have hope there will be peace in Sudan. There will be regime change. I will see the refugees go home. I will see the destroyed villages rebuilt. Those refugees will see justice.”

Sangamithra Iyer is an editor at Satya Magazine. For more information on Darfur and Darfurians in Brooklyn, visit brooklynpeace.org, or email darfurny@yahoo.com.

11/22/06 12:00am
11/22/2006 12:00 AM |

Chloe D is a tall blonde standing on the corner of Ninth and Avenue C. Her friend and creative partner, Eric Miclette, calls her a WASTY-kid: a white Anglo Saxon tranny-child. “I am a direct descendent on my mom’s side of relatives who paddled over on that boat called the Mayflower,” Chloe says. “I guess I’m still paddling away from some of that repressive WASP stuff that was so damaging to me inherently. And now, here I am — as long as the neo-conservative religious whatevers don’t do some ‘drive-by’ — wandering around the neighborhood that I am sadly watching disappear.”

The neighborhood she is talking about?
The East Village, where she moved in 1981 and lived for many years with Pyramid Club founder Bobby Bradley,who was accused by some, due to the popularity of the club in the 80s and 90s,of starting the gentrification of a then very underground-squatting-project-artist-immigrant-and-junkie-filled East Village and Lower East Side.
What was her life in the East Village like back then? “I was around a lot of junkies making art,” Chloe says, walking into Tompkins Square Park. It was hard to decipher sometimes what was what — art and drugs were very much integrated in the culture at the time. Chloe, who is now an activist who sits on one of Bloomberg’s boards, was lead singer in an underground band, Transister, and was one of Nan Goldin’s subjects. “Now junkies come dressed in Urban Outfitters with trust funds. Seems that way. Funny how art can look so clean these days,” she says, laughing, as she looks around the park, now peopled not only by the squatters and old-school East Village rent-stabilized artist types, but also a lot of new inhabitants — many of whom are nine to fivers and NYU kids. “I guess the economics of the city has necessitated some of these changes,” she says, “but it’s a pity to have lost so much of the art and culture and experimentation we had back then. That’s why I am finally taking steps to pass along that period in the 80s and 90s to the people I believe can honor it as I do,” she says. “It was an important time for me. And for the East Village and the Lower East Side.”

The time in question is a period in the 80s and 90s when the likes of Ann Magnuson, Klaus Nomi, Karen Finley, Keith Haring and the Fleshtones frequented or performed at the Pyramid, where drag was reborn, where the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana played their first New York shows and Madonna her first AIDS benefit. But more importantly, it was a place where East Village and LES’s transgressives — misfits, punks, performers — and others like Chloe, found a home. “The Pyramid, CBGB’s, and later, Squeezebox, these are the places where I grew up — my safe havens, the places where I was so embraced and understood. It means a lot to me to have come from the community of ‘whatevers’,” she says, with affection.

“One of my greatest memories about the Pyramid,” Chloe recalls, “is that there was no direct racism, gender bias going on that I can remember. In fact, one of my friends ran into an old bouncer from back then in Miami and he said that while he worked there, oddly enough, there was no violence around that stuff. Drugs maybe, but not that racist stuff. Like in the 60s, the acceptance of the diversity was more natural, maybe, back then. I am looking to try to recreate that kind of environment in my creative world,” Chloe says. “We are a city that is surrounded by a puritanical wave that goes very deep I think, considering the history of NYC. It’s often baffling for others who hear about horrid things happening to people — gay and transgender people, people of color, people with HIV — it’s as if in their world they go untouched on some level until maybe they have a chat with somebody like me,” says Chloe, who started EQUI-AID, a non-profit horse-riding organization for children with HIV and other serious illnesses, and who currently sits on NYC’s HIV planning council, an appointment given to her by Mayor Bloomberg.

Though her work is in social justice and will remain so, Chloe understands the potential political power of popular culture and entertainment, and is at work, with Miclette, on an independent feature called Face to be produced by her old friend from the LES, Rosario Dawson. “The very smart thing that Isabelle Dawson, or Mama D to many of us (Rosario’s mom and Chloe’s dear friend) did,” says Chloe, “was she integrated her kids with a circle of white people, who were all very involved in social justice and were leading lives where that white privilege was reworked. Rosario was raised as I was — to use the privilege she had to work towards social justice. I’m interested in making films that inspire others to do whatever they can to integrate the social enterprising model: where a film can act as a fundraising tool and bring social change to areas that really need it.” Face, she says, “addresses that New England repressive ‘God forbid one mentions sex at the dinner table’ legacy that still trickles down, and most likely will for many generations. We are interested in exposing that legacy in the context of today’s sexuality and all its many faces — hence the title,” she says. “I’m not interested in stereotypes. I can’t really say more than that right now. But it’s in the works with Rosario and Eric and other members of my community — as well as people I love who have lived in the LES for many, many years.”

Her take on politics in the era of Bush II? “I don’t get into political discussions at dinner often anymore,” she says, “‘cause I want to embrace everyone no matter what. ‘Political’ for me is when I walk out of my house. If I can make an impact with my allies who share my views and/or pose questions to people, then that is maybe the best I can do politically. Love seems to be political to me these days, and has for many years. That loving somebody is so political,” she says, “is such a heartbreaking truth.”

10/25/06 12:00am
10/25/2006 12:00 AM |

David Langlois shows up late to his gig at Fada. No one seems to mind. David is a slight man with Rastafarian dreadlocks, a Parisian goatee and a disarming smile. When I offer him my hand to shake, he kisses both my cheeks, then starts rummaging through his bags, looking worried. “I lost my thimbles,” he explains, which under normal circumstances would be grounds for correcting his English (“You mean you lost your marbles?”) or smiling wanly and backing away. But David is talking about real thimbles, the Grandmother kind; they are part of his musical instrument.

What David calls his washboard is actually an assortment of household tools bolted together. In a row, attached to the edge of the washboard, are: a fondue pot, inverted (“my grandmother’s” David remembers fondly); a sieve, which sounds like a cymbal when struck; and a pie tin, also turned upside down. “The pie tin sounds better the more you use it,” David explains as he shows me the smooth dents it has developed under the striking of his thimble-tipped fingers. The deeper the dents, he says, the broader the range of notes. Under these rests a wood block, which says “clock” when David strikes it. On one side of the washboard is a flattened trowel, which previously belonged to David’s grandfather. On the other side is a little shelf handy for holding David’s cell phone, his Marlboro lights, and the rest of the instrument: eight thimbles, which David has finally located. He and the rest of the band prepare to play.

David sits down with the instrument on his lap and closes his eyes, as if about to lead a séance. His silver-tipped fingers flutter against the pie tin, then start to tap dance over the fondue pot and wooden block, throwing ratatats, ping pangs and knocks into the air. During solos he arches his back like a cat and scratches at the board with fanatic energy. Members of the audience look up from their dinners. A girl in a black cardigan sits rapt as if in church, while a middle-aged Polish couple begin to giggle and dance. The old woman sitting next to me at the bar, amazingly, has begun to cry. On stage, David has a faint smile as he plays.

He grew up in Paris, where he discovered Bob Marley at the age of ten. Though he couldn’t understand the words Marley was singing, the music affected him so strongly he decided to be a musician. His eyes still light up when he talks about Marley. (‘Get Up, Stand Up’ is only one chord,” he reminds me, excited. “It’s so different from what we play because it’s so simple. But it’s so good.”) Still, he doesn’t call Bob Marley his hero; David doesn’t have any heroes. And don’t make any assumptions about the dreadlocks either.  

“I’m not a hippy,” he insists between sets, throwing a piece of bloody steak between his teeth. He does believe music should have a positive message, though, and he did leave Paris for the Alps while still a teenager, where he was first approached by a washboard player. “I felt insulted,” David tells me, offering me a bite of steak and signaling for another espresso. “I said, ‘Dishes? I am a drummer, why should I play dishes?’” But after seeing the man perform with a full band, David changed his mind about the dishes and decided to give them a try. He found a washboard in an Alpine shop for $10, chose a fondue pot from his grandmother’s kitchen, located the most musical trowel in his grandfather’s tool shed, and was soon performing with his new instrument all over France and Switzerland. “When you are a musician in France, you are respected,” David tells me. “You get paid when you are not working, and you get to take vacation.” David used his vacation time to travel to Senegal every summer where he and local families “adopted one another” and bonded over a shared love of Bob Marley. “I was the only person with a guitar in the village. But they all knew music so well. The children there can master the most complicated rhythms,” David says. “It’s incredible.” Someday, he hopes to return. 

But for now, he’s calling New York City home. After a friend talked up the Brooklyn music scene, David decided to leave France and head to America. Though getting a visa proved very challenging (“you have to get letters of recommendation saying you’re the best at whatever it is you do”), David moved across the Atlantic. Looking for a job without knowing English was problematic but David found an East Village restaurant and live music venue willing to hire him. Peering at David’s resume, the owner asked, “Do you like rock and roll?” “Sure,” said David. “So you like to go fast with dishes?” the owner pressed. “Sure.” “You can be a busboy,” declared the owner. “Cool,” said David, smiling. He had no idea what “busboy” meant. 

 “Going fast with dishes” had nothing to do with music as far as the owner of the café was concerned. David turned in his apron after one week, but during that week he met Stephane Wremble, a formidable gypsy jazz guitarist in the style of Django Reinhardt, who played Sunday brunches at the restaurant. Soon, David became part of Stephane’s Hot Club of New York. Now that David plays seven nights a week, he has had to quit his other gigs, including the drum circles in the park. “I would play so hard in the park all afternoon that my fingers would grow blisters and I wouldn’t even notice,” he said. “At night I couldn’t fit my thimbles on. But that’s New York. There’s no time to rest.”

09/27/06 12:00am
09/27/2006 12:00 AM |

“Hey!” yelled the park ranger, ”This isn’t a free-for-all! You’re not supposed to pick the vegetation!”

I freeze. My skin’s been torn to shreds in search of the ripest blackberries, and if I move quickly it will just make matters worse. I look to our leader for guidance; his smile is unwavering.

“Hi, I’m the Wildman!” he says warmly, as if invoking his title might convince her it’s all a misunderstanding.
“I know Steve, I’ve known you for 24 years.”
“They just put that fence in this year—“
“You have to respect the fence, ok?”
“Ok, would you like a blackberry?”
“No thank you.”

We move onto a less ranger-heavy area and continue the tour.

Steve Brill doesn’t respect fences. In fact, he’s made a career of climbing over them and teaching people about the plants they “protect.” The real key to protecting plants, he says, is education. In his opinion, people are more likely to appreciate nature they can touch and taste than that which they can only view through binoculars. He’s been a naturalist for 25 years, and with daily tours of New York area parks, numerous TV appearances, and two books published, he’s obsessively dedicated. His insanely sunny disposition makes it all the more shocking when he denounces the Central Park Conservancy and their attempts at “conservation.”

“The Conservancy are a bunch of jerks,” he exclaims, “they cut down a lot of wild plants and keep putting in fences and lawns. The purpose of Central Park was to be the first park that looked like a natural forest… it’s really terrible what’s happening here.” I look at the lawns, which resemble big green rugs growing out of the ground. How attractive…

According to Steve, that’s exactly the sort of thinking that contributes to the destruction of urban habitats: the idea that “the park should be like a living room, not an ecosystem.” He believes this mentality causes the Conservancy to harm the very park they’ve sworn to preserve. For example, “they remove all the leaves every year, ‘cause you don’t want leaves on the floor in your living room.” This causes erosion, he tells me, as he points out roots that are two feet above the ground.

“Have you tried talking to them?” I ask, thinking they might welcome suggestions from someone with Brill’s expertise.

“There’s nothing I can do with those people,” he says, and proceeds with the tale of his troubled relationship with authorities. In 1986, “there were undercover agents on one of my tours who put me in handcuffs for eating a dandelion.” He was briefly charged with criminal mischief, but the net effect was free publicity; he was “on everything from Letterman to Dan Rather.” Such exposure might have jumpstarted a lucrative career, but when the park offered him a job conducting tours legally for $10 an hour, Steve accepted gladly, working until his resignation in 1990:

“A new parks commissioner came in,” he explains, “and they reneged on the deal [we] had made… I was supposed to tell people ‘don’t eat the plants, buy the hot dogs!’” Given Steve’s vegan diet and taste for plants, this was unacceptable, so he quit. (Steve now conducts tours by phone appointment; for details, visit wildmanstevebrill.com)

I contact the Conservancy to get their side of the story, figuring they must at least have a statement prepared about why Steve is wrong. Past claims against him have been numerous and farfetched: ”The birds will starve,” (he only picks berries in months of plenty); “People will get sick,” (no one ever has); “These plants have carbon monoxide contamination,” (CO is an inhaled, not an ingestible toxin) and “it destroys the park” (the park seems fine). Amelia Alonso, their PR Manager, says she’s never heard of Mr. Brill and needs to do some research. A few days later, I receive a chilly “no comment.”

This grumpiness is baffling, as foraging with the Wildman is both educational and fun. Steve’s vast knowledge and quirky personality have attracted a large following; today, there are 23 people paying $12 each to taste what the park has to offer. They’re from all over (the Bronx, New Jersey, Japan), and they laugh uproariously at his silly jokes, which he tends to recycle from tour to tour. Nobody, including me, seems to mind; we’re getting the Steve Brill Experience. We even chuckle nervously at his relationship woes.

“Wood sorrel is shaped like hearts, reminds me of my beautiful wife,” he says. “Clover has no heart, therefore it reminds me of my ex-girlfriend who ran off with another guy on Valentine’s Day eleven years ago.” Repeated references to her don’t fare as well, but I’m impressed he can picture his ex girlfriend from eleven years ago while looking at clover, white snake root, deadly nightshade — no easy feat of the imagination.

It also takes imagination to come up with appealing comparisons for some of the plants we find. For example, I try a fruit called the “may apple” that Steve plucks from the ground, saying it tastes “like lemon custard”… instead it makes my glands hurt.

“It’s a little sour,” I observe.

“Yeah, it’s like lemon custard,” he agrees, in the buoyant, Wonka-esque tone that seems to carry him through each day. Though some finds taste like things I shouldn’t put in my mouth, others are delicious. The pale green sheep sorrel, as Steve says, isn’t “ba-a-a-ad,” and the spicebush smells wonderful.

“This is one of the best herb teas in the world and you can’t buy it in the store,” he says of the bush, “alternate leaves, that means each leaf is alone on the stem… because they’re lonely, they’re shaped like teardrops. Waah!” He cries convincingly for 15 seconds. He also tells us that if we were to hide behind a tree “really early in the morning, and peek out at the spice bush, if you’re very lucky you might see one of the Spice Girls.” I find myself laughing… perhaps it’s the berries. Everyone else is laughing, too.

He tells us facts about each plant’s uses throughout history (did you know that little Turkish boys were once given cherry branches to use for swordplay practice?), and while walking, he serenades us on the “Brillophone,” an “instrument” consisting of two cupped hands held in front of his open mouth. He asks me almost as many questions as I ask him, and seems genuinely interested in everyone. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, meditates regularly, and has a young daughter, Violet, with his wife of four years.

In the end, Steve is just a nice guy with a passion for nature. Though he once attended anti-Vietnam protests, he eventually decided that teaching was his true calling. “You have to find your own direction of how you’re gonna contribute… I waited until I was an environmentalist to get arrested.” He sincerely believes he has an impact, reasoning “If you teach people and let them go out and pick the stuff… they’re obviously gonna care more about the habitats where they grow and the planet that produces them. Any five-year-old kid will know that.” And any number of five year olds who have gone on his tours, “natural foragers” as Steve calls them, would probably agree. If only they could convince the grownups, we might be on our way to a new understanding of what it means for urbanites to be citizens of the environment.

09/27/06 12:00am

Gregg LeFevre is a holdover from the time when Soho was known for its abundance of artists instead of its abundance of retail chains. From his underground studio on Bleecker Street where he is trailed adoringly by his hand-licking dog Tia, LeFevre works on two types of urban projects: site-specific bronze plaques, like the timeline embedded in the sidewalk of Union Square, and large-scale photography of outdoor billboards and posters that have been defaced. The bronze work for which he is best known is commissioned by city agencies and community groups to educate pedestrians. His more recent photography is a creative attempt to understand how city dwellers interact with the commercial imagery around them.

It is not surprising that LeFevre finds his own projects more gratifying, even if they’re professionally riskier than public art commissions. “If you’re selling work through galleries it’s a much more limited audience,” he says. “You’re speaking to professionals and curators and critics.  They’re usually a lot more aware of the current philosophy in the art world. It’s good because you can have a real dialogue, but it’s bad because if the dialogue you want to have is not particularly in fashion at the moment, then you’re in trouble. Out of sheer luck, what I happen to be doing… is acceptable.”

The son of a runaway father who spent 10 years at sea before meeting his Air Force pilot wife, LeFevre has the mild, withdrawn manner of a philosopher or a schoolteacher — not surprising, as he graduated with a philosophy major from Boston University in the summer of 1969 and served as a high-school teacher in the South Bronx for six years. Or perhaps it’s because a steady business of bronze art installations provides him with a niche devoid of competition (there are no other artists, to his knowledge, who etch these plaques). Maybe, though, it is because with the precision involved in bronze work, one has to be patient. In another time LeFevre could have been a scribe, immortalizing the ideas and stories of an ancient civilization with reeds on papyrus.

His current photo project, which is compelling not just for its aesthetic but also for its message, hints at LeFevre’s comparatively less tranquil past as a political activist. “I think there’s a reaction,” he says. “We all suffer from wanting to be fashionable through advertising. Even if you’re against it, in all kinds of subtle ways you’re affected by it, and I think it’s a reaction to that, saying, screw you, I’m not gonna diet and be perfect. And not only am I not gonna be that, I’m gonna mess up the images that are that.”

Not all of the distorted images that LeFevre captures are politically motivated though. For every group that destroys the ads of a company using child labor in the Far East, someone else is keying the eyes out of a movie poster. Whatever the incentive, the result is an image that defies its original intention. “You have an intrusion of large scale figurative photography into the city with billboards and posters and so on, and it’s ubiquitous,” he says. “I mean it’s really everywhere, and it’s designed to change the city in a sense to get you to buy or think or look a certain way, and then the city has an effect on these billboards, and that’s what I’m interested in, the dialogue that the city and its people have with these photographs.”

The dialogue to which LeFevre refers is considered vandalism in the eyes of the law, but sometimes irreverence is what gets art noticed. “I think graffiti’s really tricky,” LeFevre reasons, ”because on the one hand if you really condone it and say graffiti’s ok, anybody can do anything anywhere, it’s a really yucky looking city. At the same time there are some really gifted graffiti artists whose work you wouldn’t see if they couldn’t do what they did.” Yet he draws a line between committing an act of vandalism himself and photographing it. “If I can destroy one billboard then somebody else can destroy a billboard for a cause that I like.”

As to whether a link exists between his earlier bronze work and current photography, LeFevre speculates, “Part of me thinks it’s two completely separate consciousnesses, but obviously they’re not. I’m the same person.” The art also exists on the same New York streets, and in both cases the work is only complete when it is worn down, scraped or pounded. “Foot traffic tends to brighten and polish things, so I designed [the bronze plaques] with the thought that the parts I want to be bright over time, which might not be the most logical parts… would be raised.”
The most prominent aspect of LeFevre’s work is not the medium or its utilization, however, but the unassuming accessibility of the art itself. When LeFevre observes the way people interact with his pieces, he notices, “What’s interesting is, if something is underfoot it’s not art, so people are not precious about it. If they’re in a museum or in a window of a museum or a window of a gallery, it’s art, and most people are intimidated by art, they don’t think about it, so they just kind of write it off. But if it’s bronze in the pavement, then what is it? And then it’s much more accessible and they will look at it. And also, because it’s underfoot, people tend to stop next to each other, they tend to converse about it, because it’s not a normal social constellation.”

There is no entrance fee for plaques on the ground or the outdoor advertising all around us, and nothing to separate the viewers from the art or from each other. It is accessible 24 hours a day by all New Yorkers, and at the same time is something we very often walk by without giving it a second glance. “If you can bring people together,” LeFevre shrugs, “then that’s great.”

09/13/06 12:00am
09/13/2006 12:00 AM |

Far below the city’s glittering skyscrapers and tourist traps, there lies an entire clan of young urbanites bound together by one obsession: sneakers. They’re called “Sneakerheads,” and their once-private world is now in the fashion limelight. 

“People can always have fresh clothes, but sneakers really set someone apart. If you have a hot pair of shoes, everyone thinks you’re the man,” explains self-professed “head” Daniel Olavarria, 19.  Olavarria, a student in Manhattan, is just one of hundreds of people in the city, mostly men, who have an obsession with hunting down rare and expensive gym shoes that blur the line between sport, fashion and art. 

In this world, street artists team up with big names like Nike and Adidas to create limited-edition, customized shoes in a dizzying array of colors and patterns that can keep “heads” buzzing for weeks in anticipation.  “The shoe is the canvas, the designer is an artist, and the heads are the philanthropists who support them,” says Olavarria, who usually spends “a few weeks” researching upcoming arrivals, before deciding if and when to buy a new pair to increase his impressive collection. 

“In New York City, sneakers are a big fucking deal,” he says. “It stems from the need to have something that no one else has — the sneaker community here is small enough so that when you get a pair of limited sneakers, you know that no one else has it.”

Olavarria grew up playing street basketball, where his love affair with Nike Dunks and Air Force Ones began. But since shoes are expensive and trends move quickly, Olavarria didn’t get serious about collecting until he was finishing high school, when his feet stopped growing.

 “Basketball and the sneaker culture sort of go hand-in-hand,” he explains. “To play the game, you don’t need a lot of equipment, so sneakers can really set you apart. It’s a commitment to really get into it, though — I spend a lot of time and money on my kicks,” he says. 

Olavarria systematically organizes his wardrobe and his shoes by color, and then plans his purchases accordingly. “I have to have a shoe to match my outfit. It’s pretty rare for me to just pick up an unexpected sneaker — I usually know about the shoe ahead of time, and then I’ll do some planning.”

Much of that planning revolves around deciding where to get the shoes. Most of the city’s elite sneaker boutiques are dotted around the LES and SoHo, reflecting the distinctly downtown vibe that many sneakerheads carry with pride.  

“People have always looked to New York to see what’s in and what’s out. Heads here have a certain style and attitude that sets them apart, and they’ll do what it takes to get the sneaker they want — wait in line for days, pay top dollar, flip the price and trade off — you name it and a head out there is doing it,” says Roscoe Gibson, 25, the assistant manager at Nort, a skate–and-sneaker store owned by the graffiti artist Stash (nee Josh Franklin) in SoHo.

Many of the stores are set up as sort of an “insiders only” paradise, where only the most dedicated heads are given access to expensive kicks. Alife Rivington Club, for example, is a virtually empty storefront in the LES that, once lucky heads are buzzed in, opens into a lush, mahogany-lined gallery where heads gaze at glass-encased vintage Air Jordans and Nike Dunks.

Nort is all barren walls and exposed brick, save for the occasional graffiti scrawl and the massive display of Technicolor shoes behind a plastic wall. Like Olavarria, Gibson started liking sneakers in elementary school.
“I was fortunate enough to be around when most of Nike’s classic basketball and running shoes were first being introduced,” he says, adding that the reissues of these retro staples continue to be hot sellers. “Now the shoes I remember from back in the day are hot again.”

 “The New York heads really have a look,” says Nicholas Santora, 28, the owner of ClassicKicks, a sneaker boutique in NoHo. “In this city, sneakers are tied into sports, to music, to art. Street cred is important here.” 
Santora’s shop has accounts with most major brands, which periodically ship orders of their newest designs to the store, where sneakerheads will camp out overnight for a new pair. 

In a market based around brand names, Nike is the clear king of sneakers. “I only wear Nike as far as footwear goes. There are, of course, a lot of other brands and some of their styles are pretty nice, but you just can’t go wrong with Nikes,” says Gibson.

“Nike really knows how to target the sneakerhead audience,” says Olavarria. “Once you come out with a classic design, it’s going to appeal to every generation. Dunks have been around for 25 years, and they’ve never changed the design. People want to follow Nike. They set a standard for performance and fashion, and that’s hard to beat,” he says.

Nike is also responsible for much of the boom in sneaker boutique business. When the brand launched its Skateboarding line in the mid-90s, execs at the corporation weren’t sure how the skate market would react to a traditional sporting brand, so they released their new designs to non-chains, where sneakerheads and skaters alike quickly accepted the line. 

“The success of Nike’s SB (skateboarding) line really opened the door for a lot of other big brands to take the risk of releasing new styles and only targeting them toward a very niche market,” explains Santora.
“Now everyone from Adidas to Puma and even Reebok are shooting for the sneakerheads, which has traditionally been a very small audience,” he says.

Perhaps because of this shifting mindset, the sneaker culture in NYC has continued to flourish in the past few years. Sneakers, with their heritage in sport have now morphed into something much larger. Still, the true value of a good pair of shoes can’t be overshadowed by flashy designs or logos. Says Olavarria: “It’s hard for me to pick and choose what sneakers to buy — you can’t have them all. But that’s ok, because it forces me to appreciate each sneaker individually. When I finally get that pair I’ve been after, it just feels good.”  

08/30/06 12:00am
by |
08/30/2006 12:00 AM |

The High Schooler
Hazel Monforton, 17, junior, Brooklyn Tech

High school has been a hazy mix of half-assed angst and pop culture. In freshman year people set fire to the school, and I started the Dungeons and Dragons club. During sophomore year I watched Battlestar Galactica and Lost in Space, and last year our principal was fired. Senior year looks like Speedos and Starfleet, once the swimming season kicks up again and Trek Con comes to New Jersey. Looking over all this, I realize I am a dork. But I can’t wait for my final year of high school.

My summer has been a mess of internships and being broke, due mainly to my attempts to abandon the rigidity of the school-type schedule (I have succeeded.) Most of my friends are tied down by familial obligations or paying jobs, so I’ve been left alone to my nervous self. But it’s too late to worry about my SAT scores, and too early to worry about higher education. I have nothing to do but fantasize about my senior year.
I have been planning my senior classes since I was a freshman. Three years of forced math and science have taught me to appreciate how little I care about those subjects. As a senior, I’ll finally have a bearable schedule. I spent three years in algebraic torture, and my final year should be blissful.

I have a few certainties I can look forward to. AP American History will return in second-year glory. And I’ll have to come up with a new set of the untruths I liked to spread about certain presidents. For example, did you know that Bill Clinton has all the powers of the Incredible Hulk, but he never gets angry enough to use them? My classmates never appreciated my supplemental knowledge. I’ll have to dream up bigger and better fabrications for my senior year, and that makes me nervous.

Thinking further ahead, colleges are nothing more than mysterious, nebulous entities. All the fuss with the SAT will finally stop when personal essays and recommendations become a problem. When the application rush is over, Senioritis will spread like a wildfire.

The Undergrad
Jamie Peck, 21, junior, Columbia

Entering my senior year of college, I’m plagued by the question of how best to prepare for adulthood. Everything I do, I’m told, must somehow contribute to this preparation. So I’m trying to think seriously about the future, but I can’t with a straight face say that in just nine months I will be getting up early, inhabiting a cubicle, and shopping for clothes nobody has worn before. I mean, I like money and all, but that sounds like a total bummer.
 
I’m also going to miss my recently graduated boyfriend when I move out of our summer sublet in Bushwick (he’s staying in Brooklyn). He thinks the separation will make us appreciate each other more; I think we’re going webcam shopping.

It could be worse, you say, I’m only moving back to Columbia. But my Harlem apartment is just about as far as you can get from Bushwick and still be in New York. Also, Columbia makes me do a lot of work, which we’ll no longer be doing side-by-side. I know it sounds lame, but I’ll miss our dates to the library, if not the beer- and puke-scented elevator of his dorm building.

And about writing: I’m having doubts. I want to become wildly successful, but I’m constantly sabotaged by laziness. I realized this summer while attempting to write a novel that, despite the lies my mom tried to indoctrinate me with, I can’t just do any old thing I put my mind to. My boyfriend says it takes more than a month to write a novel… blah blah blah, but I figure if those little plagiarists over at Harvard can do it, I should at least be able to write a short one. I haven’t yet, and while it’s probably harder to write a plagiarism-free novel than a plagiarism-enhanced one, my failure to produce is due at least partly to lack of discipline.

So what do I do? I want to outwit my laziness and find employment, but not end up old and grumpy. Luckily, one thing my mentors at The L Magazine have taught me is that it’s possible to be a fully functioning person with a job and still not be a grownup. Thank you, mentors! To show my gratitude, I will take any and all full-time positions you may have need of filling in the future.

The Grad Student
Patrick Coffee, 24, The New School
A flippant disregard for the graduate degree dictates public opinion. So did the three million Americans duped into joining this fall’s ranks enroll to delay membership in the working world? Is the MFA an unassailable step in career building or a justification for extended periods of fraternizing and existential quandary? The urban, northeastern grad student of lore provides an invaluable object of derision for hack pundits nationwide: a pampered, pompous drain on our collective resources. Unable to shoulder the immeasurable burden of financial responsibility, the individual in question purportedly lives a life of entitlement on the wealth of pecuniary fruits earned by his or her largely white, suburban, upper-middle-class caregivers. Known to maintain a carefully manicured sense of detachment while peppering conversation with insider references and multi-syllabic twaddle, said individual is shrill, dismissive, and lacking in requisite real world experience. (Six weeks on Eurorail do not count.)  

Before conjuring images of academic idlers partial to grubby chin-stroking, consider the fact that the preceding defamatory likeness could apply to most New York students eighteen and over. While flirting with such perpetual cliché, the graduate experience constitutes a monetary and disciplinary balancing act, and the competing pressures of earning a degree and inching into the dwindling workforce often meet in frustrated collision. Institutional toil’s rewards remain invisible from the career ladder’s bottom rung, revealing their relative worth in painful increments. 

Though I move through periods of pointed apprehension as a writing student with an underdeveloped literary acumen, my program manages to work as both training facility and rough-hewn social circle. The school’s well-published professors offer cautionary tales and guarded optimism on the world of words to the skeptical fledglings of each new semester. Readings and complementary discussions serve as Oprah-like arbiters of developing tendencies; seminars mirror formal book clubs and writing workshops become round-table debates. My degree may not be a passport to long-term employment, but grad school continues to expand long-discounted capacities for critical reading and credible prose. Most importantly, programs like mine grant developing writers a peer-review forum to air even their most fruitless attempts at coherence all for the paltry sum of twenty thousand dollars a year. Each class exiting the program in sober persistence proves the rickety system successful in spite of itself.