Category Archives: voyage

Giving Secret Santa a new meaning

My impression about New York so far is that the best things are hidden. Not just out of the way or hard to find, but literally hidden, secreted, stashed away behind some false edifice daring you to crack the shell of mystery and find whatever tempting nut is inside. It gives the whole city a tantalizing layer of urban scavenger hunt, keeping the best things out of the probing pages of the tourist guides and, naturally, allowing us to quote “Swingers” incessantly as we shuffle down a street towards another bar deep in an alleyway, not even bothering to look for a sign.

Best examples of this so far are, of course, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store, and the bar Chris the Giant brought me to the other night called The Back Room that’s deep in a back alley on the Lower East Side under a thinly veiled front as a toy store. It’s got prohibition chic (speaking of which: Happy Repeal Day!) with all drinks served in tea cups presumably to fool the Rex Banners of the world, were there still any, and if there were, they would have the following conversation:

Rex Banner: What kind of toy shop is filled with rambunctious yahoos and hot jazz music at 1AM?
Bartender: The best damn toy shop in town!

There’s even supposedly a double secret back room where, at one point or another, co-owners Tim Robbins and Mark Messier must have had lengthy conversations about the fundamental socio-economic inequities inherent in the Islanders 2007 draft picks.

But the best secret stash in the city I’ve heard about so far may be SantaCon, an event that, as far as I can tell from the clues given, is just a gigantic goddamn mass of Santa Clausi cavorting about the city in a drunken, jolly sea of red jackets and nog fumes. Even its Web site maintains a secretive, yet unpretentious, demeanor:

SantaCon is a not-for-profit, non-political, non-religious & non-logical Santa Claus convention, organized and attended for absolutely no reason.

SantaCon (also known as Santarchy in some places) was first brought to our attention at a gallery opening of Patriot Day photography on Thursday night, thanks to a man wearing a revolutionary war era outfit, complete with tri-cornered hat and metal mug for whichth to containeth his mead(th). He ordered a Red Stripe.
“Shouldn’t you be drinking Sam Adams?” I asked.
“Ha! That’s a good one. That’s funny. Boy, that’s a good one,” he said, genuinely amused.

It was not a good one, really, and I was aware of this, but maybe humour was different in the 18th century and he was quite committed to the bit. He struck up a conversation with us anyway. The patriot costume was from his own personal collection, as he’s part of a costume cult, a group that, as you would imagine, just really, really likes costumes. He also is a devoted Burning Man fan and goes to SantaCon each year (naturally).

SantaCon, coming up next Saturday, starts at a secret location, he said. It’s part street theater, part surrealism, and a big part sloppy, carolling holiday mess.
The “Santa” part is key to the whole thing. “You have to dress up, though,” he said. “Santa suit, elf, something, but you must be in a costume.”

At the end of the conversation, having decided he liked Robin and I, he asked for our e-mail addresses and said he was going to find us on Ye Olde Facebooke and invite us to the con.

Robin and I both looked at each other with an understanding that there’s really no way we could turn down an invitation to semi-secret event featuring more Santas than all the malls in New Jersey could churn out (though with probably about the equal amount of stale alcohol smell in their beards). Ok, so it probably isn’t semi-secret for very long, just look at this picture from last year at Grand Central. But it’s still cool to be in on the ground level.

I haven’t heard back from the guy yet. But if we do I may have a very important question — can you tell me where — because I know there’s one somewhere in New York City — is the secret Santa Claus Clothing Supply Store, and how do I find it’s hidden entrance?

In Brooklyn, enemies of imagination beware

It should come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this thing (hello again, dude in Jakarta who keeps Googling “drug-addled cartoonists“) that I have long-coveted the prestige of the mighty McSweeney’s Web site, all to no avail, because apparently you need things called “talent” and “creativity” and “humor” to be published there, so their rejections are understandable. Plus, the rejection e-mails are always very pleasant and thoughtful, with good punctuation and syntax, and come off as very encouraging. I imagine if they were old fashioned letters they would smell like fresh linen and be printed on crisp paper with a big, impressive letterhead that took up 2/5 of the page. Here’s an actual example:

Hi, Tim –

Thanks for considering us for this one, but I’m afraid we’re not going to use it. Hope you’ll keep trying.


That’s like 100 times better than the responses I’ve gotten from most jobs I’ve applied to in the past two years. Those responses usually look like this:

(uproarious laughter as application packet is opened, crumpling sound) proceeded by the following action:

Thanks for applying, jerk!

But besides highlighting the kind of sardonic, ironic, literate humor I have a particular appreciation for, McSweeney’s is the product of Dave Eggers, author of the book with the best title of the past 10 years (besides “Burning Down My Masters’ House,” of course). I was aware that Eggers and company also run 826 tutoring centers in a few cities in stores disguised as something fantastic and fun, including a Space Travel Supply Store in Seattle and a Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco. (Quote from David Byrne on their web site: “Definitely one of the top five pirate stores I’ve been to recently.”)

So it was a sweet surprise Saturday afternoon as I was wondering down the street (as jobless people tend to do) in Park Slope when I stumbled across the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company right on 5th Ave., not far from where I was staying. How can you resist going into a store with such powerful frontage?

So I went in. And it was, as I expected, pretty awesome. The commitment to the bit was most impressive — every inch of the store is covered in cans of invisibility spray, boxes of superhero tights, goggles (they do nothing), jugs of elongation serum and so forth. There’s a large de-villianifying chamber you can go into, because, as the store staff says, they can’t just go selling super products to would-be evil-doers. In the back, there’s a trick bookshelf that opens into a secret chamber, which is the room where all the tutoring happens.
I’m on a pretty tight budget up in New York while I’m getting set up, but I couldn’t resist the urge to buy something, since the money goes to support the tutoring center. I picked out a bottle of the shape shifting serum to bring to a bday party I was attending that night. Before you can buy anything, you have to read an oath of do-goodery and create a superhero name for yourself (Super Magic Man was all I could come up with in a pinch). You put your money in a vault and they read you your total from a microphone in a control room booth.

Only after you complete your purchase does the staff hint at what actually may be in the bottle you’re holding (“Put a few drops in the bathtub to activate the shape-shifting properties,” the girl said).

The store is great, one, because it’s one of the only place I know of in Brooklyn in which you can (legally) purchase a black hole, and provides the only non-pedophiliac sidekick placement services in all of the city.

But it is also refreshing because it reminds you of the value of actually using your imagination on a daily basis, something that makes me smile when I think of the hundreds of kids who’ve had to walk past a rack of capes and a shelf of immortality potion on their way to literacy and writing tutorial sessions in the back.

I spent a year in college tutoring kids in a generally poorly performing DC school and I was constantly amazed at the roteness of the education these kids were subject to. Even the program we tutored from was based on workbooks and flashcards for basic ABCs and math, and some of the kids just couldn’t make it stick. Then when the time of the year came for standardized tests, all other classwork was discarded and the school hunkered down in Defcon 1 test prep mode.

All the students wore uniforms and sat in ugly classrooms made of those industrial-grade concrete bricks that have been used to build schools for decades. The walls were lined with posters that hadn’t been updated since the 1980s and the happiest part of their day seemed to be when they got out of class and got to talk about trading Pokemon cards. When we got to black history month, all we talked about were the same black heroes we’ve heard about since I was in school — MLK, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, etc. This was at a school that was nearly 100 percent black too. Surely they were aware of these figures already, I thought.

I often thought of what kind of a world we were preparing these kids for, one where success is only provided through a rigid adherence to conformity, where the correct answers are always in one of the four bubbles provided, where the unforgiving, pale beige concrete walls would line the edges of their lives forever.

Many people would argue that kids in a rough school need some strict structure and guidance if they’re going to break the patterns that have hampered some of the poorer areas of DC for generations.

That’s fine, and maybe they’re right, I don’t know the answer. But for kids in the city who sometimes have a hard time picturing their lives beyond the nearest street corner, I can’t help but wonder how their education might be different if someone handed them a good-sized bucket of sonar potion, or how they could change the world with a new utility belt in hand, each pocket equipped with whatever gadgets their imagination had in stock.

826 National

NYC: Wraping up the print industry

So, fine, print is basically dead, whatever, I’m getting over it, and I’m probably not even going to join that Facebook group “Don’t Let Newspapers Die,” because unless the group plans to nail its messages to the doors of newspaper executives in the middle of the night Martin-Luther style, it’s an exercise in cosmic futility, not to mention that their stated positions are pretty vapid and unconvincing, even to me, a guy who has cried tears of ink of many a night watching this death spiral unfold. The positions are, as directly quoted:

  1. Newspapers are an important & historic public resource.
  2. Journalism is vitally important to the impartial gathering & reporting of news.
  3. Newspapers are cool!

At this point, better arguments for the continued existence of newspapers (as Michael Shapiro and I spent a day brainstorming on for our proposed newspaper survival advertising campaign) have to appeal to practicality. Some ideas include:

* You can’t wrap a present in the internet
* Why waste a good towel when your dog throws up on your floor?
* An iPhone won’t keep you dry in a pinch during a rainstorm
* Birdcages look naked without it
* Try stuffing your wet shoes with internet and see what happens
* Your Twitter post doesn’t transfer onto silly putty
* Without newspapers, what are you going to whack your cat with?

See? Much more practical. Appeal to the physical realm, because apparently no one cares that the high-quality investigations and storytelling of newspapers has yet to be fully replicated elsewhere, or that through history newspapers have served critical roles in shaping our democracy. Boooo-ring. But start telling people they’ll actually have to buy wrapping paper even for those I-hate-this-person-but-feel-obligated-to-go-to-their-birthday-party occasions, and we might start to get some traction.

Print may be dead, but it’s clear the world still needs copy editors. This is just from the course of a few hours wandering around the city yesterday. I let the signs in Chinatown slide. For now:

Farmers market in Union Square

Brocoli is, according to Google, a French record label. And only $2 a pound!

Dan Quayle, your legacy is a strong one. Oh Sarah … you could have been destined for such great things too.

Harder to see, but the sign says “their hot.” I tried one. And indeed, the chili peppers’ hotness did belong to a group of people standing nearby.

My favorite, at a Duane Reade:

Yikes. Maybe if this is the only other option, people will finally start flocking back to newspapers, happy to entrust their gifts to the comics page rather than being forced to purchase roll after roll of wraping paper.

NYC day 2: Where they paint murals of Biggie…

Random Brooklyn pictures, for no particular reason:

neighborhood near Ditmas where I looked at a sublet today.

Q line stop under Cortelyou Rd.

Delicious looking Flatbush food co-op on Cortelyou

colorful fruits in the cold on Courtelyou, right before it started flurrying

Also, first thing in the morning I looked at an apartment at the corner of Crack and Hooker Avenues, somewhere in the Stabbing District. I’ve never seen a directory with so many names that had “Zs” and “Ws” in them. See for yourself, and ignore the free advertising for T-Mobile.

Shout out to Black Star today from the BK. Listen to “Definition.”

NYC day 1: Little town blues, melting away

Key purchases on a first day in New York City:

1 winter hat from H & M on Broadway near the Village
Cost: $3.90 + the well being of at least four sweatshop children

1 MetroCard
Cost: $20, with $3 bonus

1 slice of crappy, greasy, yet oh-so-rapturously delicious pizza at Penn Station
Cost: $2.50
(seriously, to think there’s a place on Hilton Head that actually calls itself New York City Pizza. More like Hot Circle of Garbage Pizza)

1 entrance to Peter and the Wolf show at Union Hall
Cost: $8 dollars, + scenester application fee

1/2 gourmet grilled cheese sandwich
Cost: Spending two hours in a coffee shop watching Giganti get pummeled by the Wednesday crossword

Other highlights of the day: Sending out a cover letter describing my meticulous attention to detail while also misspelling the name of the organization several times in said letter; finding indoor bocce ball courts at Union Hall; not having to drive to Bluffton, not even once, all day.

Also, finding this LOLcat halping teh needeh kittehs:

top foto, Gothamist; bottom foto, me

Day 8: Ghosts are Good Company

Returning home to New Jersey, as I imagine is the case just about anywhere you call “home,” is a stark reminder of just how little progress I’ve made growing into a new person in my adult life. It doesn’t matter that, let’s say, I’ve abandoned attempts at trying to be fashionable or buying the newest Billabong clothes over the past eight years, skewing closer instead to a sort of anti-style of whatever discount thrift store clothing is available, because when I walk around Toms River, I still feel like the 16 year old me walking down the hallways of South in the morning and getting mocked by the friends of Charlie Frazier for wearing the same sweater he had on that day. Nor does it matter that I won several journalism awards or was interviewed on Fox News a dozen times in the past year, because in Jersey I still can’t feel cool, because I still run into the same salty Jersey surf guys in Seaside who have little respect for anyone who doesn’t have a super-thick wetsuit and spend most of the winter months in mylar booties chasing the waves off Casino Pier.

And Jersey doesn’t care that I got contact lenses to replace my glasses since I left, because my terminal case of red-eyed, sneezy, sniffly allergies return pretty much as soon as I cross the Jersey border and start breathing that coniferous air again.

It’s weird, this cognitive distance, the feeling of being a tourist in your own past, walking through familiar sights and sounds with a different perspective. Some parts of my past, however, I was certain could not still be following me. Oh New Jersey, why must you prove me so wrong?

Follow me back, won’t you, to those carefree days in the summer of 2001, when I worked at the boardwalk, terrorism was but a distant threat, and W was but a harmless Gerald Ford in training. That summer, I kept a running tally of how many people asked me to buy/find drugs vs. how many people tried to pitch some religion to me. I don’t know why Seaside attracts both kinds of people, but it certainly does, and both tallies were large, but the drug requests were much higher (rimshot!). I have the paper somewhere still I think, but it must have been at least 15 times throughout the summer.

Now granted, this was a bit of dark period in my life, when Phish CDs were a little too common in the disc rotation and I had a slight bit of this kind of look:

So it can be understood why the clueless benny might confuse me for the neighborhood apothecary. I usually directed each inquirer to the nearest police officer, the person I felt was most likely able to answer their question.

But then I went back to school, started listening to God Speed You Black Emperor! and had the rest of any fondness for 24-minute jam session tracks systematically beaten out of my by Barry Schwartz (and for this, I’m grateful). Then I trimmed up the beard to a respectable chin strap and even cut the hair down from Ben and Jerry’s employee length to the moderately less stereotyped season 1 Jim Halpert mop top. Like so:

It’s amazing how much differently people look at you or speak to you once your hair length is shortened (and perhaps shampooed a little more often). But even as hair length changes, Jersey stays the same.

Cut to yesterday afternoon, walking out of the Ocean County Mall on the Applebees side to inspect what was the first attempt at construction since the old theater closed down like 10 years ago. It looked like a PF Changs, which would be a huge upgrade for the OC.

I saw a girl walking my direction out of the corner of my eye.

“Hi, hello there?” she said, though I didn’t realize she was talking to me at first. “Hello? Excuse me?”

Ah here it comes, I thought. Conversations like this never begin well, particularly outside the mall in the waiting-for-mom-to-pick-me-up area. She had the acne-scarred face, oversized winter jacket and white sneakers that somehow became the uniform for white trash girls in Jersey, and looked maybe between 18-21.

“Do you know where to get any marijuana?”

Sigh. I appreciated her directness, at least. “Nope. No I don’t.” Then I walked away quickly, searching my brain for what it was that caused this girl to approach me out of everyone at the mall. I had gotten my hair cut that very morning, so that couldn’t be it. Was it the American Apparel track jacket? The tight jeans? The beat up old chucks? The glasses? Or just that I was the only young person at a mall on a school day afternoon? Am I even all that young anymore? Why is a possibly high-school aged girl approaching a 27 year old guy for drugs?

But most likely she had caught site of the long trailer of history I was pulling behind me that’s somehow becomes visible every time I return here, following me around like a spectral line marching to the bathroom like we used to do at Beachwood Elementary. There she saw it, full of the ghosts I can’t seem to shake of long-haired, barefooted, but ultimately nerdy and frightened Tim Donnellys from dusty, ancient years trapped in New Jersey.

Update: Here’s a link to the Bishop Allen song, as to which titular duties of this post are derived from.

Day 6: Change has come to Cape May

I landed back in the Jerz on Friday night and headed immediately down to Cape May, a place best anchored in my memory as the site of my first jellyfish sting when I was about 8 years old. Ah the delicacy of youth that made such an attack a day-ending affair. I emerged from the water in hot tears, feeling like my leg had been ripped open and injected with salt, followed by my mom and grandparents rushing to seek the guidance of the nearest lifeguard, who basically recommended finding some Benadryl and sucking it the hell up for the rest of the day. If only I knew then how many more times I’d be stung by jellyfish in the ensuing years while surfing or swimming, including I think three times in one day on Hilton Head two summers ago. Funny how your perception of pain changes when there’s no parents to run crying to.

But that memory may now be supplanted by the weekend-long bender that was the Etan and Daphne wedding, with all its chair-hoisting revelry, debaucherous hotel balconies and the bad case of the Gottahaveits that seemed to infect many guests at the Hotel Alcott.

As is typical with these things, one of the highlights was the after-party, the place where the stuffiness and dancing-to-Steve-Miller-Band-with-grandma formality are left behind and the friends of the couple can let loose a little more. This one took us to The Boiler Room, a brick-lined basement bar lit with soft red light that gave it the feel of some underground jazz club from swank decades ago.

I took one glimpse of the band playing in a recessed alcove and immediately added another item to my list of reasons that reinforce why leaving Hilton Head was a good idea. They were a blues ensemble of four guys (give or take a few drinks’ worth of math) led by a man I can only describe as the black Indiana Jones. Then this man in overalls, presumably someone who works for the bar, got on the mike to thank everyone for coming. He was probably — outwardly, at least– the happiest person in the room, which is saying something, since the bar was full of both our wedding party and another wedding party also in wild full swing.

“This is truly the greatest country on Earth,” he told the crowd. “I love America so much. America is truly the place where all things are possible and all things can happen. I love America, and I love each and everyone of you white people out there and I want to hug all of you. This is truly is the greatest country God has ever created.”

It wasn’t until I got the pictures off my camera that I noticed he was wearing an Obama pin on his blue pinstriped overalls. But I had a pretty good hunch as to what he was speaking about Saturday night. Just as he was about to leave the mike and thank everyone for coming, he said: “I understand we have some weddings here tonight. Where are those lovely brides?”

Etan fished Daphne away from her table and the other bride was pushed toward the stage.
“You know you ain’t truly married until you’ve been kissed by a black man,” he said.

Holy crap, I thought, Sean Hannity was right all along– Do you see what happens now that Obama has been elected? Everything will be different! The fundamental balance of power in our society is shifting! What else is in store? Next thing you know, black people will be telling people they can’t burn crosses on the lawns of biracial couples. Madness has come to America. Hopeful, barrier-breaking madness.

Before Obama, this man only entertained weddings. Now, he officiates.

When I sobered up the next morning, I thought back to all the spontaneous celebrations in the streets of America’s cities election night and the pure joy in this man’s voice Saturday, and wondered what the outcome would have been if Obama had added the “two brides for every man” policy to his platform.