Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tompkins Square Park

At a recent Saturday concert in Tompkins Square Park, a group of around 50 or so people stood in front of the small wooden stage to hear the headline act, the punk band Star Fucking Hipsters. Toward stage left, a large contingent of the audience hurled itself around, in a circle, colliding off each other, people twisting and turning in the air on the crowd's upturned hands, jumping on and off the stage one or two at a time, singing along to the words. During a previous set by the band Mischief Brew, a small dog ran away from someone sitting on a nearby bench and into the crowd, and people in the middle of the crowd hoisted it in their arms and passed it around.

During one of Star Fucking Hipsters' final songs, someone from the front of the crowd jumped onto the stage with a small American flag, the kind attached to a thin stick. Pulling a lighter out of his pocket, he lit the edge of the flag. The flag refused to ignite. After several seconds, he jumped back down into the audience and laid the flag flat on the stage, working at trying to get it lit.

"They make them so they don't light now," Stza, the band's singer and guitarist, remarked in the middle of the song.


"They make them so they don't light now."

The man in the crowd began tearing at the flag and biting it with his teeth. Eventually, with help from a woman standing next to him doing the same, he managed to tear it into several pieces. He then threw them into the air like confetti. Some of the pieces were visible on the ground later, after the crowd had dispersed from the park and the crew was dismantling the stage.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Record Store

Rockit Scientist Records occupies a small slice of St. Mark's Place between Second and Third Avenues. On one side of it is an upscale burger restaurant. On the other side is a convenience store of a type familiar on that block, with sunglasses, t-shirts and smoking paraphernalia laid out like produce between the front door and the sidewalk. As with many buildings on the block, there is a second-floor business upstairs, a tattoo and piercing parlor.

The inside of the store is narrow but deep, with CDs lining the walls and vinyl albums stacked closer to the floor. On a recent afternoon lesser-known Donovan songs were playing while the owner, a big man with long hair and glasses, was talking with the customers from behind the counter. He listened to a dark-haired young man with a backpack talk about a record store in Kent, Ohio. At another point he complained to a middle-aged customer about the poisonous state of American politics over the last few decades.

Later, when I was talking to him about how a lot of small East Village record stores have closed in recent years, along with bigger retailers like Tower and Virgin, he put forward a theory about different kinds of music listeners. Top 40 consumers, he suggested, were more easily satisfied with downloading music. His customers, on the other hand, had the mentality of collectors. "The kind of people looking for the 13th Floor Elevators or the Stooges are more passionate," he said. "They want the actual CD."

When I asked if he thought people valued the physical act of going to a record store, he shrugged. "It's like a bar," he said. "People come in to hang out and talk."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


It was a hot, humid night in Times Square. Around Seventh Avenue and 48th Street a group of girls in party dresses got out of a white stretch Hummer, then turned around and snapped pictures of the car before it left, a swarm of camera and cell phone flashes. Further south, crowds of tourists wandered idly. Many of them stood gazing up at a giant screen on the east side of the square that showed what appeared to be a crowd, at night, in Times Square.

At Seventh and 45th, just south of a knot of comedy club barkers, an elderly woman in a white blouse and flower-print skirt stood handing out fliers, titled "The Search for Happiness" and "The Divine Plan of Salvation." Both were published by a company in Hanover, Pennsylvania and stamped with the addresses of the Times Square Church and the Calvary Baptist Church. "Let's go to Heaven!" and "God loves you!" she called out in accented English to the people who passed by. Few of them took the fliers. Some were engrossed in conversations. Others ignored her, politely declined or laughed in an embarrassed way. Some who presumably didn't speak English looked baffled as to what was taking place.

Her energy never seemed to flag, however. If someone started to take a flier but declined, she would chase him down the sidewalk and place it in his hand. When someone did take a flier, she would instantly wet her finger and whip a new one out of the stack she held in her other hand, ready for the very next passerby. All the while she kept up a half-sung mantra. "Hell is made for the devil, not for you!" she called out. "God has prepared Heaven for you!"

Her name is Erma and she was born in Brazil. She has been doing missionary work in New York since 1970. She spends a few days a week at Seventh and 45th, other days at different spots on 42nd, sometimes near Eighth and sometimes near Broadway. In a conversation she has friendly blue eyes and a warm smile.

After talking to her I kept walking through the crowds down Seventh. "Don't worry, I'm not homeless," a comedy barker at the corner of 42nd Street reassured a tourist family that might or might not have understood him.