Sunday, April 26, 2015

Art All Night. Pittsburgh all over.

    Art All Night's the most Pittsburgh thing I know.
    Or knew.
    A giant building. A call to artists. Any and all. Bring your stuff, we'll show it. No curators, no frills. All night. Free. Music. Food. Thugs, suits, posers, welders, drinkers, lovers, actors, activists, grandmas and kids, pastors and proletariats come on down, start your engines. The city poured into a building to see what the city has made. 
     But it's 18 years old now and so popular it's packed with people more excited to BE at Art All Night than they are to look at all the art or ponder "who are all these weirdos", these normal people who still make art, than they are to ponder each other. 
    Ponder? Might sound like an app, but it's not. 
    It's a pity. The event has turned a corner. Going is the event. The art's become secondary. The culture's commented on. "How primitive and local." It's tourism. It's a cause.
      "I went to see the Mona Lisa", not  I saw the Mona Lisa. 
     "Just waitin here in line to drive up Lombard!" 
   "Writing to say I'm at the Grand Canyon! OMG!" not Jesus Mary mother of God look at that....
   It's odd how the primacy of attendance and reportage not experience have taken over behavior. Or maybe that's what popularity has always been. The projected aura, the rumor of a thing becoming stronger than it's actual aura. The perfume more important than the person.
   I walked thru the boredom of thousands of people supporting an idea- like folks walking around a park for heart disease, or liking something enough to think they've changed it- they came to Art all Night like people go to museums: not to look at art but to show that they support the idea of art. Which in a way, fights art itself. Art's not an idea it's an action, a happening between a person and an object. A gesture and a body. A voice and your heart. 
   And where could that bond be more important than at an uncurated show, a display of art that no one's filtered, or judged, or censored, that was hand delivered by children and retirees and odd balls to an old steel mill where anyone can stand and stare? It's one of a kind.
  It was. 
  And is that the fate of Pittsburgh? Or should I say "Pittsburgh"? The way of Pittsburgh, the way culture happens in this city, its active sense of itself? 
   A town that trusted more in the making of a thing than how it could be sold. 
  And what else is social media but the selling of everything? Its dispersal and by that dispersal its dilution? How do you sell a City? 
   Happiness for millions? What does that even mean when what you're really talking about is the happiness of the marketer tapping those millions. 
   What else is branding? 
    What's the old story? Guy finds an abandoned beach on an island off the coast of Wherever and on that beach is a shack where this graying sunburnt dude and his gorgeous wife make a fish stew for the locals and whoever happens by. And the guy tastes it ....and it's the best fish stew he's ever had. I mean ever. He's traveled and worked all over the world he's made millions and spent lots of that money trying to find vacation spots where no one else goes and food no one else has tasted and this, this stew is the best.
   So he tells the old dude- give me jar of your stew and I'm going to go back to the States and get a team together and we're gonna market this shit and make you millions man, we're gonna change the face of cooking, put you on tv, spread your magic around the globe and make you a powerful man. 
  Oh yeah?
   Yeah I mean it's gonna take some hard work up front from you , probably five or ten years working 70 hour weeks, touring, making appearances but we'll get there. 
   Yeah? What do we get in the end?
    Well shit man we'll be able to move to some abandoned beach town with a gorgeous women and do whatever we want. 
   So when I look up at the folks living on Troy Hill or Greenfield in their middle class homes with their astonishing views and ten minute commutes and solid public schools, I wonder what the Hell theyre gonna get after we sell Pittsburgh to the planners of the New East Liberty and North Point Breeze. 
   I wish we had the guts to live in the old one.
   To live up to the old one's ethics. 
   I wish I did. 


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Crosswalk Jungle

 Tom Scanlon's terrified of Pittsburgh traffic. Of Pittsburgh drivers and their snarly ways.
  Seattle, San Fran, and even New York get his nod for driver decency but not Pittsburgh.
  Now understandably I'm suspicious of anyone with the same name as a machine politician nominated by Tom Corbett to a district court, but I've lived in all 4 cities mentioned above so lemme give my two cents here.
What's going on is that a generation, dare I say "a class",  of people are coming of age who expect cars to stop.
No matter what.
Crazy huh?
It's their right.
And they're not wrong about that. Legally.
 When you walk into a lane, and....maybe you've got your head down updating your twitter feed, maybe you've just turned up the volume on your headphones, and you're juggling a paypal or a bitcoin account as you switch hands, the fair trade Americano (no milk !) going from left to right, and, with nary a glance to see that the 2000 pound object coming your way is obeying the laws of the land or physics, you amble into the street...when you do that...Maybe there's a better way?
I mean, you're not going to re-spawn.
When I see someone put their life like this into the hands of automotive fate the first word that comes to mind is "Stupidity."
The next is "Entitlement."
A new generation feels like they don't need to look. It's beneath them. It's not their job.
Now we're all glad this gang has chosen Pittsburgh as the next center of a new and righteous economy but when I watch someone cross a street without the slightest acknowledgement that someone else - who could have just spaced out, or passed out, or who might have a job to get to, or a semi's worth of payload to deliver, or who might be late to pick up their kids from school, or who -hey- could be on the way to their virtual coffee shop office in their Prius- just stopped their car in the no-man's land between law and common sense and allowed them to live, something seems kind of off.
It's their right, I know, but it still doesn't seem "right".
I grew up in a city where you agreed mostly that everyone was part of a plan. That everyone in one form or another was "going to work". So if you had a chance NOT to slow them down, not to keep them from getting to whatever work it was they had to do, you took it.
 If you waved a car thru when you could have walked it wasn't a sign that the evils of urbanity had triumphed. It was simple decency.
 There were simple gestures. Take some quick steps getting across the street if 30 cars were waiting for you. Jaywalk whenever, but don't do it into oncoming traffic. Nod at the plumber who held his truck, even if he could have slipped past you. 
You were in it together.
I don't see that now.
 Well I see it in Pittsburgh still, but I certainly don't see it in Seattle or San Fran, and it's even starting to slip away from New York.
  What I see instead is a class of people letting everyone else know that they don't need to be rushed, they don't care if you have to wait, and they don't even have to register your existence, because history's on their side. You and they are not part of the same plan. You have a car, they have to mind their carbon footprint. You make a wage, they make content. You're post industrial and they're posting, as you hit the brakes. 
 I know that cars are bad. I know more people should walk or ride bikes and that everyone would feel better about themselves and the world if they moved thru it more slowly. Sure, ban cars from Manhattan. From Inner City San Fran. Tax every company that uses heavy trucking and that consequently bankrupts the ability of small municipalities to do anything BUT fix their roads. Require all parking structures be permeable concrete or better, raise gas taxes thru the roof (and into the basement tax structure of Europe), eliminate any subsidies to oil companies or to the highway commissions. But until the 80% of the nation, working to prop up these as of yet unreachable goals, feels some benefit from the new economy, take a second and lift your eyes as they pass you on the way to one of the 4 part time jobs their family's juggling. It's called class.
 When you don't. When you assume everyone should have had your education and if they didn't then screw em, it's called arrogance and in Pittsburgh it's kind of not how we do things.
 The average grandmother who's crossing Carson to get to her church on the Slopes, the family of four pushing a Giant Eagle cart across the lot in Homestead, the guys jay walking E Ohio.... when a car stops for them, they nod, they throw a smile, they wave. Join the club.
 Someone cuts you off, or gets a little too close to your kids in the crosswalk, go ahead and make an entirely different gesture but either way engage, make contact. Make believe that there's still a social contract. 
 Now I'll admit that the drivers of the new economy -so proud they're not driving at all- might lose a text or two if they look up and make eye contact with a fellow citizen, they might have to delay an email saying the real email's on its way, but would that be such a bad thing?
  Give me a little Pittsburgh aggression once in awhile if mostly what I see is decency.
  Puritan pedestrians can have Seattle, and Portland, or they can leave their bitter hearts in San Francisco.

The Straw and the Camel called America

   Things haven't been the same since......?
   Fill in the blank.
   Wave your generation's tattered old flag. Choose the poison you think everyone's been taking since.....?
   What's made us weak, us Americans?
   "Britain!!' said the founding fathers. "Banks!!" said the Jacksonians, "Disunity"said Lincoln,  to which the Rad Republicans replied "The South!!', the Gilded age barons said "The Weak", The Edwardians said, "Income Tax!!" , the Warriors to End all Wars quoted Washington, "Foreign Quarrels!!", the Greatest generation was about to say something profound and quite possibly change this country forever but then they all got drafted and for decades afterwards said "Reinstate the draft!", the Baby Boomers said "Everything!!" was wrong about America  ....and then they voted in Reagan who proved there's an exception to every rule even a Greatest one.
   I'd pretty much meld the teens and twenty somethings of the next three decades - 70's punks, 80's nihilists, and the 90s underground because all of them were caught by the first tsunami of mega capitalism and simply because they were the last kids to live when there WAS an underground, when the eyes and teeth of the internet couldn't find out your every inkling toward rebellion and make it pay.
   Taking a website page from Moore's law, or copying and pasting it ...or, even worse, should we say 'internalizing it".... there seems now to be a new generation every two years, a movement in every other county.....kind of like how there's a new grey and a new black at the Gap every other season. Yeah, I just dated myself there.....let's say kind of like how there's a new "custom made' sneaker every 4 months at....whatever the local pop up shop around you is called.
  Kind of like how you keep kids from crying. Give them new stuff. All the time. Don't worry, the dam of tears won't break and do anyone any harm until after they've moved out of the house and call themselves adults. "Hey, we're not liable..."
  That could be what makes America weak.
  I scaled this question back to the revolution because I want to posit that the fault - what makes America weak- is not in our stars but in us and has always been so.
  But before I try and prove that that can of worms has always been open I'll say this - What makes us weak is that we think escalators are elevators.
  We get on them and we stand as if we've just rented a cabin by the sea and we're gonna park there till the lease is up.
   Possessed by the idea that possession is 9/10ths of some law, damned if we'd imagine someone behind us might be late for work or late to catch a plane or late to get to their mom dying in a hospital, we occupy the escalator.
  What's happened here? When did egalitarian America decide not to make room? Not to give someone else a chance? Not to take more than your share?
  Stand to the fucking right and let people go by.
  Escalators are not Orange County. They are not your golf tee. They are not the four top in a Starbucks you've just colonized with your homework.
   Escalators are still stairs, the just move a little.
  They're like the highway: there's a fast lane and there's a slow lane. If you want not only to go slow but to stop entirely, stand to the right please......excuse me, could I slide by here?......pardon me, could you take the headphones off for a sec,...... sir could you just shift that bag a couple inches?.....HEY, GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY.
   thank you.
   Now back to the core problem in American history.
   It's easy.
   Money and Jesus had a baby and that little demon's been torturing this country since the Dutch landed.
  oh....wait a minute, gotta get this text.....

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The New World

     In 1667, Peter Stuyvesant -Pieter to his friends- planted a pear tree in a corner of his Manhattan farm. That corner is now the corner of 3rd ave and 10th. The tree grew pears until a truck hit it in 1867.
     Papers blamed the weather as much as they did the driver. Global freezing and the irresponsibility of organized labor. So contemporary, as they mourned the loss of a fruit tree which had survived Washington's evacuation to Brooklyn and on through to the draft riots of the Civil War.
   There's a memorial plaque to it now on the original Kiehls bldg - which opened for business when the tree was a tree and probably supplied fruit for the employees during their lunch breaks. 
     That's seven blocks from where I currently and will briefly live.
     Six blocks from St George's Episcopal Church - where I recently sat thru a bit of an Easter vigil- which was also built on the remaining grounds of Stuyvesant's estate. The Anglo establishment putting a religious stake into the heart of Pete's Dutch Reformation.
     An avenue and half east of that is a small brownstone pressed up against the massive Beth Israel hospital complex - all of it built on the slopes of Pieter's farm rolling down to the East River- where Antonin Dvorak lived in the 1890s and where he composed most of his famous and relentlessly overplayed symphony "From the New World".
   My friend Milton and I used to sit on a cliff overlooking a slice of Lake Erie and blast our teenage souls into reverie as we scanned the water for ore boats. Summer camp. Back when if you wanted a soundtrack to your life you had to make it public.
    The things you learn when you're unemployed and like to walk.
    Facts pile up around you in NYC. They cry out to be sifted. I'm sure 20 other, 2000 other, famous people lived and worked on their masterpieces and died ten blocks from where- in a Dunkin Donuts- I'm sitting right now. I'm sure orchards stretched the width of the island and streams ran beneath the corporate counter behind me. Datum don't make a poem.
   Life here is so literal, so angular and monetized and at once so abstract. You walk an endless grid. It's filled with variety, layered to the point of madness, but at the same time it's like an experiment and you're the control factor to a circuit board testing various economic theories, a proving ground looking for an exception to gather up, to either champion or ruin. Exalt or swallow.
   Triumph here is a rare as a public bathroom.
   Oblivion is easier.
   You can hide in New York. Retreat from your own ambition, give up, let the reins drop and because there's so many strivers here few take notice as you plod to a halt on the sidewalk. 
   If you don't want to make it here you don't have to make it anywhere. 
  At least you're "here". Reigning in your own private Hell.
   But rough as it can be Manhattan is always part Heaven. 
   Long as u can pay your rent you can put your head down here and not lift it for a generation. 
   There's a guy two floors up from me in our Stuyvesant brownstone who was friends with a famous children's author. Got written into his will. Hasn't done a thing in 20 years. He gets his mail. He takes out the recycling. Amazon delivers the occasional package. Beyond that he does....nothing....
   What would Pieter, our original Protestant, the founding father of our infamous work ethic, have to say about his distant tenant?
    Maybe the man's writing a symphony. 
    They say Vladimir Horowitz was studying a Beethoven score, got depressed, went upstairs and didn't come down for two years. Ate Dover sole every night, played very little, read and reread all of Beethoven's piano pieces while his wife ran interference and made excuses to the media and Vlad's agents and then one afternoon the man put on his overcoat, went to the barber as he'd never once shaved his own face, walked to the Steinway store on 57th street and tried out a new grand.
    Someone should replant that tree.