Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Riding the Nostalgia Train

I caught the MTA Nostalgia Train heading downtown at the West 4th Street station. For the past few years, during the holiday season, the MTA has been running a train composed of old subway cars of models used between the 1930s and 1970s. This year, the Nostalgia Train is running along the F line for several hours each Sunday in December, from Second Avenue to Queens Plaza. Some of the cars are on loan from the New York Transit Museum on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn, where they are displayed year-round. Others are kept in storage and sometimes used to train firefighters in dealing with subway fires.

Most of the train was dark green, bolted and boxy in shape. At West 4th I boarded the head car, which on the inside felt like a rolling basement cafe, with red upholstered seats, bare bulb lighting and ceiling fans. A burnt motor smell hung in the air. The lights periodically cut off for a few seconds at a time, which was still common on the subway cars I remember riding in the 1980s.

At Second Avenue the train sat for around 15 minutes. Standing on the platform, I struck up a conversation with a gray-bearded man wearing a puffy down coat, who told me he had helped refurbish some of the cars. He showed me car No. 1575, a conspicuously silver car in the middle of the train. This car, he told me, was an old R7 model that the MTA had turned into a prototype for the R10, which seems to have been a kind of missing link in the evolution of New York City subway cars. It had old-fashioned wicker-looking green and yellow seats, but a bright blue floor with yellow trim that seemed to prefigure the 1970s. The lighting was fluorescent, which the subway refurbisher told me was a first when the R10 cars were built in the years after World War II. The fans were not ceiling fans, but more like upside-down table fans, hanging in pairs from the ceiling. Some cars of this model were apparently still being used in the 80s; I remember riding on a car that looked like one sometime around 1987 or 1988.

The doors between the cars were kept open. During the return trip uptown, I walked through the cars back toward the front. Many of the other passengers had clearly come to see the Nostalgia Train and navigated the straps and poles with cameras and video recorders. But a lot of passengers, particularly at the high-traffic stops at 34th Street and 42nd Street, seemed surprised and got on hesitantly. People looked up at the vintage ads on the walls, hawking Imperial Whiskey, Burma Shave and Rockaways' Playland at 98th Street and Rockaway Beach.

Because it was the last trip of the day, the train's uptown termination point was 47th - 50th Streets, Rockefeller Center. The passengers waited on the platform and applauded as the train disappeared down the tunnel, surprisingly fast and loud.

After the train had gone, I stood talking to a man in a baggy brown jacket who said he had been riding it back and forth all day. He had written down the numbers of the cars on a piece of notebook paper. While we were standing on the platform a modern F train, sleek and silver with red LCD lettering, hissed smoothly into the station on the uptown side. The man I was talking to walked up to the motorman's window in the first car and turned his head to look at the signal board up near the ceiling. He told the motorman the train in the tunnel up ahead was the Nostalgia Train.

"I understand," said the motorman. "But who are you?"

"Train buff," the man said, shrugging.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

John Cohen and Roscoe Holcomb

The Jalopy Theatre and School of Music sits behind a storefront along lower Columbia Street in Brooklyn. Half a block to the south, traffic rumbles its way to the Battery Tunnel. A block or so to the west is the Brooklyn waterfront. Depending on how you define the neighborhood boundaries, the area is either in Red Hook or on the edge of it.

Inside is a glass counter with the stringed instruments Jalopy sells--banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, vintage acoustic and electric guitars--hanging overhead, and a bar with a few beer taps, an espresso machine and a glass case of bottled beer. In a larger brick-walled room in the back, church pews and mismatched wooden folding chairs face a stage framed in red light bulbs. On a recent Saturday night, the musician, folklorist and filmmaker John Cohen was seated on the stage, playing music with the three members of the band the Dust Busters. Cohen is a gray-bearded 78-year-old, while the Dust Busters--Walker Shepard, Craig Judelman and Eli Smith--all look to be in their 20s or 30s. Cohen alternated between banjo and guitar, and the Dust Busters took turns on the fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica. Cohen had recently debuted a new film, Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy, Kentucky, about a legendary Appalachian musician he had helped discover in the 1960s. And a new book, Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival by Ray Allen, was telling the story of Cohen's old band.

In the 1950s, Cohen was living on Third Avenue, hanging out with and photographing Beat writers, Abstract Expressionist painters and folk musicians. The band he helped found, the New Lost City Ramblers, was one of the folk revival acts that most prized authenticity. They strove not only to play old-time, traditional songs but to play them in the specific, regional styles of the bluesmen and balladeers who originally performed them, putting them at odds with some of the more commercially viable folk groups. "He should have called it 'The New Lost City Ramblers vs. The Folk Music Revival,'" Cohen said of Allen's book.

That fixation on the authentic drove Cohen to Appalachia, where geographic isolation and widespread poverty had preserved a distinct musical culture. "Hazard, Kentucky in 1962 is reminiscent of the Depression of the 1930s," Cohen says in voiceover near the beginning of The High Lonesome Sound, the documentary he shot in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. On the screen in sun-drenched black and white, groups of men crowd the streets of Hazard, talking and smoking as they try to find work.

When he first got to Eastern Kentucky, Cohen asked around at gas stations for the names of banjo players, then drove around searching them out. As he tells filmmakers Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld in Remembering the High Lonesome, one day he found himself in the home of a man he met at a local bar, somewhere down a dirt road near a railroad bridge, listening to the man's mother play the banjo. An unassuming man happened by who people referred to as Rossy. When Rossy sat down and played the song Cross the Rocky Mountain, Cohen recalled, "my hair stood up on end."

Rossy was Roscoe Holcomb, a sometime construction worker, coal miner, sawmill worker, subsistence farmer and musician who at the time was around 50. An iconic black and white photo Cohen took shows him standing straight and rail-thin, neatly dressed in glasses, hat and tucked-in button-down shirt, a banjo in his hands. Holcomb considered musical ability to be a gift God had given him; when he first picked up the banjo he had prayed to God for a way to make enough money to get by, and had subsequently learned 400 songs in his first year playing. He was known as both a banjo player and a guitarist, but it was mainly the raw, anguished power of his high-pitched vocals that would haunt Cohen and other listeners.

Holcomb became the central figure in The High Lonesome Sound, a key to exploring Appalachia through music. Music and hardship are the common themes that run though the scenes of the film: Roscoe playing the banjo on a front porch while his shirtless nephew step-dances beside him, a coal miner and his family playing and singing in a house wallpapered with newspapers, people seeking salvation at church services and riverside baptisms, singing hymns and shaking and wailing with the holy spirit. "Music is the celebration of the hard life here in Kentucky," Cohen narrates. "The home music and the church singing are a way of holding on to the old dignity. Music is not an escape. It gives a way of making life possible to go on."

Cohen helped Holcomb achieve a certain degree of fame. He took him on tour through the U.S. and Europe. Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton would cite him as an influence on their work. But by the 1970s, he had become sick with asthma and emphysema. In footage Cohen shot from that period, Holcomb mentions his declining health and the fact that he can no longer work. Sitting on his porch, recorded now on color film, he tells Cohen that he has trouble finding the breath to sing. Holcomb gave his last performance in 1978 and died in 1981. Years later, Cohen noticed that young musicians still knew Holcomb's songs, and he decided to edit footage of Holcomb he had shot over the years into a new film, Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy, Kentucky.

In the audience at Jalopy in Brooklyn, men in beards and women in glasses drank beer from Mason jars and from bottles they rested on the hardwood floor. In the back of the room, Jalopy's co-owner Geoff Wiley, a big man with a chest-length beard, worked the sound board. Near the end of their set, Cohen and the Dust Busters were joined by another musician, Peter Stampfel. Cohen introduced the song Buck Creek Girls, saying he had learned it from Banjo Bill Cornett when he met him in Kentucky in 1959. "He recorded a bunch of songs for me, then he refused to play any more because he was afraid I might copy them," Cohen recalled. "I couldn't even understand them."

As he indicated, the song was complicated in timing and rhythm. When it was over, Cohen addressed the audience again. "That was 1, 2, 3, 4," he counted the musicians on stage, "5 versions of Buck Creek Girls."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ruby's Bar and Grill

Ruby's Bar and Grill on the Coney Island boardwalk has likely closed for the last time. The spot was originally the Hebrew National Deli, which opened in 1934. In the 1970s it was purchased by Ruby Jacobs, who also owned a camera shop and some of the old local bathhouses. Ruby's was open for the summer season on the boardwalk, from Palm Sunday to Halloween. During the off-season it opened one day each year, January 1st, to serve the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, a group of cold-water enthusiasts who take an annual swim in the icy Atlantic Ocean.

During the summer season, Ruby's operated with no wall between its interior and the boardwalk. A snack counter facing the boardwalk sold hot dogs, hamburgers, knishes, corn on the cob, french fries, waffle fries, corn dogs, fried chicken, clams or shrimp in a basket, sausage on a roll with peppers and onions, ice cream, cotton candy in multiple flavors, funnel cake and other items. Inside, carnival workers, older regulars and assorted beach visitors sat at the bar, drinking bottled beer and strongly-mixed cocktails and playing the jukebox. Peanuts, Crackerjacks, pretzels and a Harpo Marx statuette were kept behind the bar near the liquor and the cash register. A gigantic American flag hung overhead, along with similar-sized ad banners for beer and samples of the T-shirts Ruby's sold. The shirts carried the bar's name along with its logo, a drawing of a maniacal, grinning clown-like face. According to the sign above the entrance, which listed the bar's offerings in the hand-painted style of boardwalk businesses, Ruby's also sold umbrellas.

On the walls were old signs advertising Pepsi-Cola and five-cent beer, and framed black-and-white photos of the neighborhood in earlier days. There were also newer photo collages of the Mermaid Parade, a bacchanalian spectacle of ocean-themed costumes and burlesque style that snakes its way though Coney Island every June. Many of the parade's participants and spectators have tended to wind up drinking at Ruby's.

When Ruby Jacobs died in 2000, the bar was taken over by his two daughters and son-in-law. For the past few years, with plans for redevelopment of Coney Island in the air, there were rumors that Ruby's might soon be evicted. At the beginning of November, the rumors were confirmed when Zamperla, the development company that leases Ruby's section of the boardwalk from the city, sent letters to the bar and eight nearby businesses--Cha Cha's, Gyro Corner, Paul's Daughter, Grill Island, Beer House, Pio Pio Riko, Coney Island Souvenir Shop and Shoot the Freak--giving them two weeks to vacate the premises. In place of the evicted businesses, Zamperla was said to be planning to install a sports bar, and upscale restaurant and a brewery pub.

An online petition began to circulate opposing the move. On November 6th, a few days after it had officially closed for the season, Ruby's opened for possibly the last time, for a rally against its eviction. Wearing jackets and sweatshirts against the Autumn air, a sizable crowd gathered outside the bar, where a trio called the Undercovers played a set of mostly 70's rock in front of the snack counter. Protesters held signs saying "Shame On You Zamperla" and "American History Vanishing Before My Eyes." Local news crews did interviews. Dozens of people snapped photos. "This is our final call, or maybe not," Ruby Jacobs' daughter Melody Sarrel told the crowd.

Inside, there was a mixture of raucous and melancholy. A crowd thronged the bar, keeping the two bartenders busy taking drink orders and emptying cardboard beer cases. At the front end of the bar, closest to the boardwalk, a group of older patrons sat chatting more glumly. A man with long gray hair who had earlier been talking animatedly out front was now sprawled out asleep on a chair near the back, oblivious to the commotion around him. A thin woman in glasses inspected the Mermaid Parade photos on the wall. She told me she played in a brass band during the event. She remarked on a photo of a woman standing in the sun, with a likeness of the New York City subway map painted onto her face and a necklace made of subway line letters.

Some time around 6 or 7 in the evening, someone walked out of the storeroom in the back carrying a ladder, which he set up near the front. He climbed it and began to take down the wooden pole that the Ruby's T-shirts had been hanging from. Removing the shirts, he threw them down into the crowd. Then he took down the pole and carried the ladder back into the storeroom.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Halloween Parade, 6th Avenue
Lowrider, Laguardia Place
Downtown F Train

Lord Buckley at Theatre 80 St. Marks

I met Toby when we worked together at a publishing company in midtown. He was tall, thin and intense-looking, and often wore a black beret and, in cold weather, a black trench coat or a leather jacket. I would run into him sometimes on my way in or out of the building. He would be standing beside the doorway or leaning against the scaffolding poles near the curb, smoking a cigarette, and motion with his head for me to come over. We talked about various things--movies, books, politics, the way the city had changed since he grew up here in the 1960s. He mentioned that he had spent time living in a commune. "After a while it got to be like anything else. The women did all the work while the men stood around smoking and bullshitting."

Toby worked out of an office near the elevators where jazz was usually playing and the walls were covered in posters for rock and jazz shows. He always had one project or another in the works. He had published books on Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead and was working on various screenplays. One of the books he wrote was a biography of Lord Buckley. It was the first I had heard of Buckley, a hard-to-define mid-20th Century entertainer who worked in a vague area between vaudeville, jazz, stand-up comedy and the kind of performance art that would today be considered spoken-word poetry.

Lord Buckley is best known for nightclub routines, some recorded on albums, in which he reinterpreted classic subject matter--Bible stories, the Gettysburg Address, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven--in "hipsemantic," the dialect of 1950s jazz musicians and beat hipsters. Here is a sample of The Nazz, Buckley's version of the Gospels:
Well I'm gonna put a cat on you, was the sweetest, gonnest, wailingest cat that ever stomped on this sweet, swinging sphere. And they called this here cat The Nazz. That was the cat's name. He was a carpenter kitty. Now The Nazz was the kind of a cat that come on so wild, and so sweet, and so strong, and so with it, that when he laid it, wham!, it stayed there. Naturally, all the rest of the cats look to see what he puttin' down, they said, Hey, look at that cat blow! Let the cat go there, look at it! Get out the way! He said, Man, don't bug me, get off my back, I'm trying to dig what the cat's saying, jack! They're pushing The Nazz, cause they want to dig his lick, you see, dig his miracle lick.
Here is the opening of Marc Antony's Funeral Oration:
Hipsters, flipsters and finger poppin' daddies,/ Knock me your lobes/ I came to lay Caesar out/ Not to hip you to him./ The bad jazz that a cat blows,/ Wails long after he cuts out./ The groovy is often stashed with their frames,/ So don't put Caesar down.
The words alone don't convey the sound of the recordings, because Buckley had a distinctive, arresting way of talking. He spoke in regal tones, called people Lord and Lady, and referred to his friends and family as his Royal Court. His hep slang had an imperious, booming quality at times and a raspy slyness at others. He had also spent years in various areas of show business and was a master of grabbing and holding audiences' attention.

Richard Buckley was born in the Northern Californian logging town of Toulumne in 1906. He spent his early career in dance marathons and vaudeville shows, eventually drifting into the world of jazz clubs and developing the trademark style he used in his monologues. He created a physical style to accompany it, sporting a tuxedo, a waxed moustache, slicked-back hair and sometimes a pith helmet. During the 1950s, Buckley appeared on television programs such as The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and the Groucho Marx-hosted game show You Bet Your Life.

Although major fame eluded him in show business, Buckley became a well-known figure in underground culture. He was a larger than life character in every way, bestowing royal titles, throwing epic parties with circus people, becoming an early user of LSD. In one story that Toby admits is possibly apocryphal, Buckley was performing in a Chicago nightclub bankrolled by Al Capone. Taking the fur coats of the wives and girlfriends of the gangsters in the audience, Buckley threw them into a pile, doused them with lighter fluid and burned them. In another story from Toby's biography, Buckley very warmly and sincerely told a group of nuns seated in a diner that he loved them, eliciting giggles.

Buckley's recordings and television appearances and the stories surrounding him have earned him a devoted following. In the introduction to his biography, Toby describes someone playing one of Buckley's albums for him when he was a college student. Another Buckley enthusiast, the performance artist Steven Ben Israel, recalls driving through the streets of Brooklyn one night in 1959 when he was 21 and hearing a Buckley recording on the radio. He pulled his car over and called the DJ from a payphone, demanding to know who it was and where he could buy the record. "It was like going to another planet and meeting someone from my home town," he says. Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and other performers cite Buckley as an influence.

When I was working with Toby, he hosted an annual celebration on or around Buckley's birthday in April at the Bowery Poetry Club. A decent-sized, boisterous crowd would pack into the performance area and narrow bar section in the back of the venue. Wearing a sports jacket and a wide-brimmed black hat covered in flowers, Toby would MC the event, and he and other enthusiasts would perform Buckley's monologues. There were improvisational jazz sessions, appearances by Buckley's friends and relatives, screenings of Buckley's television spots and usually one or two Buckley impersonators dressed in tuxedos.

In early 2009, I was laid off by the publishing company Toby and I worked for. At the Buckley birthday celebration that April, having a cigarette outside during the intermission, Toby inquired about how my job search was going. In April 2010, things fell through and there was no Buckley birthday celebration. However, Theatre 80 St. Marks offered to host an October event commemorating his death. Theatre 80 had been the site of Buckley's final public performance, when the venue was called the Jazz Gallery.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gas Station, Hamilton Avenue, Brooklyn

34th Street Accident

I didn't see where the cab came from, whether it turned off of 6th Avenue or came straight through the intersection from the direction of 5th. I heard a thud and people yelling, and saw the cab stopped short on 34th Street in front of Macy's, with people lying on the ground next to it. Two police officers who happened to be nearby rushed over. Crowds of passersby formed on the sidewalks. A man in a brown leather coat started yelling at the cab driver from across the street. Everybody was a witness to what happened, he said, and the driver had better just stay in the cab or he was gonna get his ass kicked. The driver yelled something back in a heavy accent, pleading his case while his passenger looked on.

Three people were sitting in the street, two women and a man. A police car was parked in the intersection with lights flashing, blocking the west-bound lane from the 6th Avenue side. One of the women had on a grey jacket and skirt. She was shaking and crying slightly. The other woman was dressed in black. She was trying to calm her down. The man had glasses and looked Hispanic. The woman in black was telling people he had stepped in front of her and the other woman, trying to protect them from being hit.

People kept asking them how they were doing. The woman in black was holding her leg. She said it didn't feel like she broke anything. A tall black man in a sweatshirt offered to be a witness if they needed one. He said he would give them his contact information. He gave the woman in the grey jacket a piece of paper and asked me if I had a pen. I had one in my pocket and I handed it to her. A woman in a denim jacket and jeans brought over a metal chair from the pedestrian walkway around the corner at Herald Square. A short Indian man said the injured people shouldn't sit in chairs. People seemed to agree they should stay where they were.

Emergency vehicles converged from different directions, a firetruck, two ambulances, a large police van. Firefighters in long black-and-yellow coats, FDNY paramedics in dark t-shirts, uniformed and plainclothes officers crowded around. Police leaned into the cab window, talking to the driver. Stretchers were brought off the ambulances. At some point, I looked back and the people sitting in the street had been taken away. Within several minutes more, the emergency vehicles had left, traffic was flowing through the intersection, the crowds had dispersed and people were walking down the sidewalks along 34th Street again.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

James Ellroy

On  a recent evening, crime writer James Ellroy gave a reading at Book Court in Brooklyn to promote his new memoir, The Hilliker Curse. Ellroy's hard-boiled, labyrinthine novels about the shady side of 1950s Los Angeles, particularly the police force, made him a bestselling author. He once said that his books were resistant to adaptation, but a few attempts have been made. L.A. Confidential, adapted in 1997, is the best-known and most praised of the films made from his work.

Tall and hulking, with a pink polo shirt and a shaved head, Ellroy lit into the bookstore crowd like a deadpan preacher. He started by offering a deal: buy one thousand copies of his book, and you can have sex with anyone you want. Buy two thousand copies, and you can have sex with anyone you want and still get into Heaven. Buy three thousand copies, and you can have sex with anyone you want and get into Heaven, and Brooklyn will become the center of the universe.

He read some excerpts from his book. One concerned a trip to see his cousins in the Midwest when he was a child growing up in Southern California. Another concerned a woman he would later mysteriously refer back to several times as "the woman I had the conversation with in 2009."

After reading, he turned to the audience for questions. A man in the front row asked whether he had read a recent New York Times story about the FBI investigation of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was a subject of Ellroy's recent novel Blood's a Rover.

Ellroy said that he didn't really keep up with culture and didn't read much. As with many comments he made, the audience didn't seem sure how seriously to take this. One man asked how, if he never read, he had been able to recite snippets of poetry earlier in the reading. Ellroy said that he liked poetry and had "a very small repertoire of a dozen poems."

Someone asked about his influences and he mentioned classical composers, especially Beethoven. The curse of Beethoven's deafness made him rise to the occasion, he said.

Someone asked what he thought about his books being adapted into movies. He claimed it was a simple decision. "Money is the gift that no one ever returns," he said. "A size large always fits."

At one point he commented on a small dog a man in the audience had brought. He asked the dog's name. The man said it was Ralph. Ellroy said Ralph was giving him a "Hitler salute" with his paw. He offered Ralph  a job on a new show he was starring in on the Discovery Channel. "I'll give you a million dollars for free, Ralph. You kick a hundred g's back to your master and keep the rest."

Someone asked if he had ever committed a crime, and he replied that he had committed many, and been to jail many times. This was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Ellroy was an alcoholic and drug addict living on the streets of Los Angeles, before he became a published writer.

After the questions, Ellroy stood signing books. One of those in line was the man walking Ralph. Ellroy leaned down and scratched Ralph's ears.

"I'll bet this guy eats anything."

"He ate an olive earlier today."

"Oh," Ellroy said. "So he's a vegan now?"