Tuesday, July 31, 2012

If it's not one thing, it's another: Not tonight, General Tso. I have a headache.

The first in a semi-regular series about observations of New York, If it’s not one thing, it’s another takes a wry, sometimes sardonic, piercing and illuminating (but always modest) look at the snippets of life around us.

Not tonight, General Tso. I have a headache.

Not a train, bus, or airplane runs on time as expertly as the lunch specials in some restaurants in my part of town, which is uptown Inwood. Even the Movado clock across the street from Lincoln Center is off by a few minutes. But you can set your watch by the timing of the 11:30 to 3:30 pm lunch specials at these models of efficiency. Sauntering in at 3:40 at my favorite restaurant is done at your own risk.
            “But my watch says 3:35.”
            “But I’m a regular here.”
“But I was just across the street,” I plead.
“Doesn’t count. 3:30 is 3:30,” says the boss, two telephones and a Styrofoam takeout box in hand.
“Why?” I inquire.
“This is America. Everything runs on time. The bank closes on time. Time is money.”
I can respect that, plus the spotless kitchen and waiting area; the large flatscreen cable tv tuned to heavyset Americans in some part of the country decorated with tattoos and dark sunglasses driving around in pickup trucks looking for something; plump spare ribs tastier and with more meat than fancier places downtown; and exquisite chicken dumplings that I once ordered for eight days in a row and, just found one under my computer.
When the beloved lunch special is missed by minutes, one is sentenced to choosing from items from six different columns, numerous color photos, and charming illustrations of farm animals. A tedious process. My favorite depicts a proud rooster, which is not on the menu but meant to highlight chicken dishes from numbers 71 to 91, including one named after a daring man who never ate the dish that bears his name, the brave and fearless General Tso.
The other day, a teenager rushed in, bills folded in his palm, but 10 minutes late and attempted to argue about the time.
“But I-“.
 “Don’t even try it,” I advised wearily. “He’s heard everything.”
When I returned home with a 10-pound plastic bag groaning with ribs, dumplings, soy sauce and duck sauce packets, and a free soda for ordering more than $11 (a hearty consolation, I might add), I spread this late lunch feast out over my entire kitchen table and cracked open a fortune cookie.
“Someday everything will make perfect sense,” I read.
Yes, someday.

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It's about Time - Malachy McCourt

Fourth in a series of conversations with New Yorkers about time, writer and actor Malachy McCourt notes how slowly time passed while growing up in Ireland, and how time has changed him. 

Before I go on, yes, he is the brother of Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes. Malachy was born in Brooklyn but raised in Ireland. He has acted on stage, in soap operas, and movies as well as hosted his own radio talk show, written best selling books, authored quite a few articles, and ran for governor of New York on the Green Party ticket, losing by a narrow margin to Eliot Spitzer. 

Malachy has a great deal to say here and I'm happy to share it with you. Enjoy!

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Monday, July 16, 2012

It's about time - Anita Velez-Mitchell

Third in a series about time, Anita Velez-Mitchell, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, talks about her life as a dancer, poet, short story writer, editor, director, choreographer, playwright, mother and grandmother.

Now 96, Anita performed on the Ed Sullivan show and at Carnegie Hall. She danced for Xavier Cugat and her legs were so prized that she had them insured. She was shot out of a cannon while working for Ringling Brothers Circus, the experience which she recounts in It's about time. Her vitality and passion for life and poetry can be found in this fascinating conversation. Enjoy!

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The Perfect Criminal

If most crimes in New York City were committed by average looking white women of a certain age and proportions, women who look like me would be stopped and frisked from sunrise to sunset.  But most women who look like me aren’t dealing drugs or committing robberies or burglaries or shooting their neighbors or cocaine dealers.

So I’ve never been stopped and frisked. Why would I? Men of color commit the majority of crimes in this city. And their victims are most often, people of color. I can’t help but feel that the two sides of the stop and frisk experience will never view the world and each other the same way. The young men who are subjected to stop and frisks and the cops who patrol the city travel in two concentric circles. As a writer who recorded cops in action for more than two years and wrote two non-fiction books about their lives on patrol, the saddest part is that the hardworking people who are most often victims of crimes get swept up along with the worst and most dangerous parts of their neighborhoods.

Stop and frisk is a numbers came.
Descriptions broadcast over a police radio are only as specific as one given by a victim of a crime. Black male, medium build, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. How many young men does this represent? Cops look out into the streets from the windows of their air-conditioned patrol cars and see hundreds of young black men. How do you pinpoint just one? You don’t.  It’s impossible, just as picking out a white woman like me in midtown means you stop many in the hopes of finding the right one. And all it takes is one gun, one bullet for a mother to lose her son, her daughter, her husband.
There may be a scientific component to the art of police work but the core of the job is carried out by a man or woman who operates by his or her own instincts. And sometimes those instincts are not the right ones on any given day. I found that the cops I traveled with for my books 23rd Precinct: The Job and Cop in the Beat, all armed with the same training, acted on the basis of their personalities, intellect, experience, and capacity. How do you know if your decision is the right one?
Some of these police officers carried the frustration of witnessing men and women struggling to keep their families on the straight and narrow path only to be victimized or bullied by someone in their neighborhood, and then seeing the criminal back on the street again and again. There’s a certain expectation with a career criminal: Maybe he’s not carrying a gun on Tuesday but he may have one on Friday. I’m reminded of the lines from Gilbert and Sullivan: Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream. And then there’s the theater of the arrest: People come running to taunt the police, bottles thrown from windows, and insults hurled when someone is arrested. There are no guidelines for human behavior and emotions on any given day.
The game of the streets is a dirty one, whether you are an active participant or not. The cop being taunted may be the same one responding to a 911 call for help from the same person who just cursed them out.  The innocent young man walking home from school or from work gets caught up in the mayhem by virtue of living among people who have done jail time or contribute little or nothing to their communities. On a hot night with crowds of people outside, there’s a fear by both the cops working the streets and people living inside of their homes that something will happen.

I worked with cops who handled stop and frisks and left the person with a handshake and a “hey, man, just part of the job” sense that we’re all in this together. Others, and the women are judged with the men, jumped out of their patrol cars like professional wrestlers with the single minded judgment that “they’re all criminals” and left resentment behind. Another cop was renowned and praised for getting guns off the streets. After a few nights of riding along, I found out why. He stopped and frisked plenty of young men, betting on the odds that they were carrying a weapon.
An old friend of mine has lived in Washington Heights for decades and has been stopped many times.
“It’s part of living in this neighborhood,” he said, resigned. “Nothing we can do about it.”
It isn't an easy life for a man living in Washington Heights or Brownsville or East New York, where I grew up, and being a cop handling crime in the streets isn’t an easy job. Everyone wants to return home safely at the end of the day.
There’s a large gap here, and it takes place on three levels. The first is how the police handle the people they stop, the second is the innocent man being stopped and frisked, and the third is the criminal element which flourishes with a hands-off policy. If Police Commissioner Ray Kelly instructed his cops to eliminate stop and frisks completely as some would like, a spike in crime and deaths will certainly happen. How do you explain this to someone’s family? The way to bridge this gap would be better training for cops on how to conduct stop and frisks.
Other cities are placing cameras on the uniforms of their police officers. If the police recorded stop and frisks and other encounters, just as they are by witnesses using camera phones, these recordings could provide evidence and information. The camera, called a Body Cam, is used in Oakland, California and in Burnsville, Minnesota, a town smaller than most Brooklyn neighborhoods.  It offers the opportunity to provide evidence of misconduct or serves to exonerate.
At the end of the day, one cop may suspect a gun and be right. Another may suspect a gun and be wrong.  Not every cop has the same instincts and not every young man is guilty or innocent. Refining the process and procedure to enact more accurate stop and frisks ensures a more targeted approach.
Only when more and more of our men are holding down jobs and getting an education rather than finding themselves in jail, then there will be less crime and less opportunity for young and innocent men to be judged as criminals.
It’s going to be a long, hot summer.
What would you do?

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

It's about time. Artemio Colon

Second in a series of interviews with New Yorkers of all ages, It's about time features 91 year old Artemio Colon, who arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico when he was 25 years old. He is the founder of the Westside Boxing Gym in Manhattan's Washington Heights, located on 163rd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Artemio Colon or simply, Colon as most people call him, was one of the first people I met when I began my career as a journalist. He and his family practically adopted me, and I spent many hours photographing and interviewing his fighters, traveling with them to amateur bouts, and learning the ropes. He always dreamed of having a world champion but time and circumstance, fate and a good fighter never came his way.

A companion video, My Hands Talk for Me: A Boxing Journey, is also included in this post since it features a fighter from Colon's gym. The journey of a prizefighter from his first fight to champion of the world is a long one. Alfredo Rodriguez of Manhattan has only been training for a month; his dream is to become a champion. For such a short time in the gym, Rodriguez has remarkable skills and coordination; his journey has just begun.


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Saturday, July 07, 2012

Baghdad on the Hudson: Celebrating the Fourth of July in Upper Manhattan

During the midnight hours of July 4th, the night sounded like a war raging outside my windows. What was supposed to be a celebration of freedom turned out to be a desecration of our national holiday and a trashing of the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood.

This is what a war correspondent must hear, I mused, except that I was safe inside of my rent stabilized apartment as streets were bombarded by professional grade fireworks that went off until three in the morning. This wasn’t the far away land of Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria where living is precarious and danger is very real. In Inwood, where blocks of apartment buildings, businesses, and our park were under siege, the symbolic takeover of our streets lasted for more than twelve consecutive nights and culminated in deafening explosions and the shelling of firecrackers, sparklers, and M-80s all around us.

I’m all for celebrating our national holiday, and the last several years have been quiet up here, except for a pop or two of fireworks. Something changed this year and the neighborhood literally exploded. Thankfully, no one was injured, the acres of parkland of Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill Park did not ignite, and firecrackers lit under parked cars did not become improvised Molotov cocktails. It was tantamount to rioting, harkening back to the years before Rudy Giuliani became mayor, when gunshots were heard as often as dogs barking today.

What happened?

Neighbors complained about the effects and aftermath of July 4th, where working people were kept awake until the early morning hours, some frightened by the noise and shelling, and Inwood Hill Park was used as a campground and public toilet. Our founding fathers would have objected, no doubt. Residents reported no enforcement by the New York City Parks Department and while the 34th Precinct reported issuing close to 200 summonses and arresting 16, this wasn’t enough.

No one has an answer. If the NYPD had brought in additional units (or the National Guard), a faction of the neighborhood and our politicians would have protested, cried racial discrimination and claimed that they were under lockdown. Sadly, our local politicians have yet to weigh in. So, as usual, the police and the part of the community that rebels against these infiltrators get caught in the middle.

For those of us who lived through this chaotic scene, there’s been no explanation as to the how and why this occurred.  A complete investigation would help determine how to prevent it from happening next year. Was the NYPD as a whole assuming that this year would be as quiet as previous years and relaxed investigations of firework sales? Did the 34th Precinct let its guard down and thus, was unprepared for this unpredictable and potentially dangerous display of fireworks? Were they overworked with the amount of fireworks, calls to 911, and people in the streets? This might have been the case. But there were warning signs more than two weeks prior to July 4. What was the plan?

Taking an analytical approach, let’s find out what the intelligence on the ground was—and improve it. Without cops on the beat who can help serve as the eyes and ears of the block, law-abiding residents and business owners lack a personal connection to make the NYPD aware of issues on our streets. Two cops traveling through Inwood with windows rolled up or with lights and sirens blaring miss the pulse of the community.

Signs posting rewards for illegal fireworks a few days before July 4th seems like a lone firecracker bursting within Macy’s impressive fireworks display. Who manufactured and sold these fireworks, how did they get into the neighborhood, and how is the NYPD conducting an investigation into these sales?

And how many cops were on patrol on July 4th?  Five patrol cars —which amounts to 10 cops total—means that if three cars handle emergency calls, then only four cops are patrolling our neighborhood, a startlingly dangerous number for the community and to them. And let’s remember that one must stop for a break now and then, and if a police car breaks down or a police officer has a family emergency, then the total number of people we’re relying for safety drops down even further. And two cops barreling into a boisterous crowd of people can be disastrous and impractical. And there ARE more important 911 calls, from domestic violence, to burglaries, robberies, and assaults that require their immediate attention.

So what do you do?

People who used a national holiday as an excuse to raise hell trashed our lovely neighborhood. Let’s get to the bottom of this. Rules, common sense, and the laws, unfortunately, have to be spelled out to some. Too much freedom isn’t always a good thing for everyone. Reasonable New Yorkers understand the need for respect, education, and for sleep no matter what their backgrounds are.

Consider the generations of men and women who lost their lives as a sacrifice to freedom.

Next year, let’s have a better strategy, better policing, better neighbors. July 4 will be here again before we know it.

Response from Inspector Barry Buzzetti of the 34th Precinct:

Although on the 4th, the precinct deployed 40 additional police officers who effected 12 arrests involving fireworks and issued over 130 Criminal Court summonses, we do understand that, like any other service-oriented organization, we can always improve the delivery of our services.  Your input, and input from other residents of the precinct, is always a major part of this improvement.  After every major event, including July 4th, we begin planning for the next year.  This includes an analysis of the event that just occurred and considerations of how to more effectively address it in the future.  Next year, we will start our enforcement efforts earlier and more aggressively.  More intensive supervision of our officers and team-led enforcement, in which officers in the company of a supervisor enforce violations, will also be more actively incorporated into our plan.  Attempts to identify persons bringing fireworks into the city from out of state and locations where they are stored and sold will also be key points that we will be sure to better address next year.

To address crime and quality of life issues in Inwood, we have deployed additional officers to the neighborhood, particularly in and around Inwood Hill and Isham Parks.  We have worked with the Parks Department to have a new security camera installed in Isham Park and are currently considering locations for additional ones.  We have also assigned additional officers specifically to perform duty between 8:00 pm and 6:00 am and to aggressively enforce rules regarding parking and operation of motorcycles.  This has, we believe, already begun to reduce problems caused by the reckless operation of motorcycles in the area.  I hope that you have noticed this increased presence. 

On your part, I would recommend that you consider joining the Northern Manhattan Civilian Observation Patrol.  It is a very worthwhile organization that is being formed to increase community awareness and security in Inwood.  Involvement would require a minimal amount of time.  If you, or anyone you know has any interest, contact the organizer, Aaron Simms, at aaron@aaronsimms.net.  It is my understanding that there is an event involving a walk-through of the neighborhood planned for this Monday evening, July 16.  If you have any further issues regarding your email, or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact me at this email or at 212-927-9445.


Monday, July 02, 2012

It's about time.

Announcing the launch of the ongoing video series

It’s about time. Conversations with New Yorkers about time.

Time passes quickly, doesn’t it?

I’ve made an attempt to capture it on film. In a captivating series of documentary interviews, New Yorkers face the camera to talk about how time has passed in their lives. In these conversations, they share insights and anecdotes that range from philosophical to poetic, humorous to bittersweet, prophetic and wise. 

You'll meet a cross-section of people and personalities, including my first subject, veteran New Yorker Stephanie Arcelan actress, fashion executive and the wife of famed boxing trainer Ray Arcel, who discusses her love for life, poetry, and her late husband.

Upcoming interviews include:

Boxing trainer Artemio Colon talks about his love of boxing and how quickly time passes;

Poet and playwright Anita Velez-Mitchell reveals how she watched time pass as a young girl and what it feels like to be shot out of a cannon;

Writer Malachy McCourt notes how slowly time passed while growing up in poverty in Ireland, and how time has changed him.

I hope you have a good time and thank you for watching. 

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