Saturday, November 29, 2008

a prayer for mumbai

On 9/11/2001 Tina called to ask why airplanes were flying into buildings here. She was overseas in Mumbai, and I didn't know what she was talking about. I hadn't yet heard about the terrorist attacks. I was at work with my head buried in my computer. Fifteen minutes later, I was being evacuated from my building. Like most people around the world, I spent the following days watching CNN.

On 11/26/2008 Tina called again. She told me she was fine and not to worry. Again, just like 9/11 more than seven years before, I didn't know what she was talking about. I hadn't yet heard about the attacks. I was just getting out of work this time around, and when I went home, I again spent the following days watching CNN.

Tina is my emergency alert system, and I trust her intuition and insight into unfolding events more than any news service. I also trust my girlfriend's take on what matters and what's relevant in any given situation, emergency or not. It comes as no surprise then that I trust what I'm hearing from her, in Mumbai, about what's happened there.

There are two things she talked about that I haven't heard here.

1) She says reports there claim up to 40 or so terrorists involved in the attack and not the 10-15 reported here, and the coordination behind and the money invested in the attacks was tremendous. Again seemingly more so than the reporting here suggests.

Watching CNN, and how they talk over the same footage, running on a continuous loop until they get their hands on something different, has a hypnotic effect. While they are ushering experts before the microphone to talk about al-Queda connections, etc. and answer the same inane questions, the viewer watches this same footage over and again. The building on fire. The hijacked police car driving down the road. The body picked up in the street. And what new details are mentioned are often lost by the mind-numbing format of what's been scrolling in front of your eyes.

Tina mentioned that satellite phones were found in the possession of the terrorists which they used to coordinate their attacks. In the case of those who stormed the Taj, two had booked a room in the hotel in advance to use as a command base throughout the attacks. Another two had been working as kitchen help in one of its restaurants so they had an intimate knowledge of the hotel's layout. I hadn't heard any of these details come out in reporting and, if they did, they were probably lost in the constant stream of looped video footage. Instead, I heard them talking about investigators sifting through the terrorist's "pocket litter," one of those terms that news reporters end up falling in love with and repeating ad nauseum.

2) The terrorists were thoroughly cold-blooded and diabolical in their disregard for human life while executing their plan.

This statement goes without saying, but it lacks any punch without specifics. In a chilling story, this is what Tina provided me. Unfortunately she did this last night before I went to bed, and I was unable to sleep soundly throughout the night with the images I had afterwards in my head.

In the Taj, they were apparently executing hostages with grenades instead of bullets. She told a story of how a couple of terrorists in the hotel room tied up a group of hostages, wolfed down plates of biryani taken from the hotel kitchen to keep up their strength, and then left the hotel room, dropping a grenade inside the door before exiting.

On one hotel floor alone, 20 dead hostages were found.

While watching TV, I kept seeing these explosions going off inside the hotel, wondering why they were indiscriminately tossing explosives around like crazed maniacs in a video game. The television coverage fueled this misconception, running text banners like "Terrorists Lobbing Grenades From Hotel Roof." The explosions were not indiscriminate, though. More likely than not, each one of those blasts marked the horrific death of a roomful of hostages, bound and gagged, whose last sight was a terrorist leaving the room and a grenade rolling across the floor.

Grenades were being lobbed outside the hotel, as well, but again not indiscriminately. They were apparently being dropped from the roofs and a transom overpass that ran above the street, connecting the main hotel to its tower wing. They threw grenades, from above, into the street crowds below to perpetuate the chaos outside on one hand as well as keep any vehicles -- emergency responders or otherwise -- from approaching the hotel on the other.

I didn't mean to come off seeming overly critical of the television coverage here. The TV stations are just doing the best job they can. My frustration is not with the reporting but with the real evil that exists in the world, and how it has reared its head yet again. It makes the global economic crisis look mild in comparison, not to mention the energy crisis, the environmental crisis of global warming, the dietary crisis of a fat America, etc ... or any of the many personal "crises" that we get consumed with on a daily basis that can't even be called crises in comparison.

My frustration is that someone I love is suffering in the wake of senseless violence that's all too close to home, and I'm not there for her. I'm in the midst of the holiday of thanksgiving with a tremendous amount to be thankful for, but I can't be thankful right now, not with the knowledge that this evil has once again announced its intention to make our world a living hell.

I pray for Tina, her family, friends, the people of Mumbai, India, and the rest of the world today. I pray that the horror of events in the past few days brings us closer together as human beings, as the horror of 9/11 did, and I pray this strengthens our resolve to confront and obliterate those who would act with such disregard for humanity. I pray with a faith that our common humanity will one day bind us indivisibly and make such terror and suffering an impossibility in our world.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

to spit or not to spit on sarah jessica parker's head

My current apartment in Pittsburgh is nice. The neighborhood is safe, affluent and youthful. The cost of living is affordable. The proximity to my family is convenient. On paper, it's all good.

Off paper, it's maddening.

A lot of it is personal. I grew up here. I can't drive familiar roads here (and they're all familiar) without thinking about how I drove the same roads in my high school days. I can't shake the feeling, as I'm driving, that I should be chain-smoking out a cracked window and bullshitting with friends about which of the shy girls in our class is most likely to be a wild animal in bed.

So, in part, it's my fault. This city will always be backward to me because I can't help reliving my past here. In this sense, I can't live in Pittsburgh in the present tense. However, it's not all my fault. The city kinda sucks on its own, too.

I remember seeing how the city had been portrayed in the movie Wonder Boys while I was living in San Francisco and wondering why the hell I had ever decided to move across country. I convinced myself that Pittsburgh was a hip, artsy haven that I had simply not explored enough in order to find my niche. When the tech bubble burst in 2000, and I couldn't find a Bay Area job, I moved home with a knavish excitement.

Shortly after returning, the illusory cinematic vision of the city was dispelled. In less than 2 years, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I moved to New York City once again.

My first apartment of my own in NYC was little better than the apartment I had occupied several years earlier in Greenpoint. Instead of being in a rundown building abutting the BQE, this apartment was located in the Gray's Papaya building in Manhattan's West Village.

The corner apartment on the 2nd floor (pictured here) was still FOR RENT when I moved into my studio on the 4th floor in 2002. This apartment was still vacant when I moved out in 2004, and I would be surprised if it isn't still vacant today.

Gray's sells the city's cheapest hot dogs and is open 24 hours a day. The pervasive smell of hot dogs in the building was undercut by the smell of nail polish remover from the beauty salon on the 2nd floor. In this photo, notice the wall slots for A/C units in each apartment. The waft of hot dog/acetone found its way in, year-round, even up on the 4th floor, even with an A/C unit installed and packed with insulation like the one in my apartment was.

What also got in was a tremendous amount of noise. Both day and night, Gray's was mobbed by locals, NYU students, shoppers at the Barnes & Noble across the street, tourists on foot and by the busload and the beggars who subsisted off their spare change. Even late night (early a.m.) you'd find a line outside its door, mostly loud and drunken college students and club goers. The club goers particularly vexed me. They inspired this early poem:

Swear Eggs

Club closes 4 a.m.
Its horde disgorges
four floors below.

Vampires suck last drops
before a long return home
to slum coffin silence.

Moonroof open howling
hip-hop subwoofer
shakes the panes.

An empty forty
vacuum pops, skyhook
shot from the sidewalk.

Awake my bloodshot
eye pried from sleep
watches on

four floors above
through drawn curtains.

An egg cools in my palm;
a word written
in black upon its shell.

I’ve got a dozen
ready to hurl from a
styrofoam carton mouth.

Four floors below
car doors close, engine revs
trails off.

Eggs intact
until morning, until I make
a hateful omelet.

The traffic added to the noise, as well. Not only was there the honking thoroughfare of Sixth Ave. to deal with, but W. 8th itself was noisy, too. It was an uneven brick street over which any car with any undercarriage issue-- e.g. a problem with its shocks, a low-hanging muffler or oil pan-- banged and clattered, echoing all the way down the block. Now that I think about it, this could not have been much different than the cacophony I put my mother through, playing with the pots and pans as a tot.

I remember the day that the city, as if answering the solemn curses from inside my studio, decided to pave W. 8th Street. You'd think the smell of wet asphalt blending with hot dogs and nail polish remover would be an intolerable, trifecta stank. However I embraced the stench, even during a hot hot summer, knowing it was temporary, that it would provide a smooth surface over which cars would motor silently, and I would soon be able to sleep blissfully throughout the night, not waking up with each passing beater of a car, each time thinking there was a stranger banging around in my kitchen.

Once the paving job was finished, I had about two weeks of the most pleasurable sleep imaginable until a local motorcycle gang took a fancy to its smooth surface. It became their 4 a.m. drag-racing spot, three or four nights a week.

The solemn curses resumed inside my studio.

My time there sounds awful now, as I've written here, but that apartment was the launchpad for my poetry writing. I hadn't written a poem since Vassar until then.

Also, despite the noise and smells, I came to love New York City there.

I loved the Italian barbers I went to on Christopher Avenue who kept an up-to-date stack of Playboys and Hustlers as reading material for their customers. And how they cleared out one barber's station during the holidays every year to keep a complementary full-bar for its customers. (I learned the hard way that a certain barber there hit the Amaretto pretty hard while on duty.)

I loved playing pool at the Crow Bar with its signed sixties rock n' roll memorabilia in the bathrooms and wooden crows perching in the rafters over the pool tables. And how its ghoulish female owner apparently had a story behind each piece of memorabilia that invariably ended with her giving a rockstar blowjob.

I loved the microbrew bar/restaurant around the corner with the NFL package where I could watch the Steelers play with sound on the TV in the corner. And how bizarre it was watching a game there one weekend with a group of a dozen or so deaf Steelers fans, how ironically loud were the finger-cracking and palm-smacking of their gesticulations in conversation.

Most surprisingly I found myself in love with the city the day they filmed a segment of Sex In The City on my block.

I say "most surprisingly" because with the popularity of the show, there was a horde of people roped off along West 8th Street, and I had to show some guy ID with my address on it just to walk down my block. And I am allergic to hordes of people, especially the kind of people who would tolerate being herded together to get a glimpse of the making of a show like Sex In The City, which you would literally have to strap me in, Clockwork Orange-style, to watch.

Apparently, in this episode, the girls go slumming for a hot dog at Gray's Papaya. The director's chairs for the actresses were set up along the wall outside Gray's Papaya, and as it turns out, Sarah Jessica Parker's chair was placed directly below my studio window. (This is a picture of her attending the premiere of the cinematic rendering of the show. However, she could have just as easily been walking off the set as a witch in one of the Narnia movies in this dress.)

From inside my apartment, I heard the crowd cheer, and when I went to my window to look outside, I could see that Sarah Jessica Parker had arrived at the scene.

As I leaned out the window and saw her seated directly beneath me, I was overcome with the urge to spit on her head.

I paused to deliberate whether or not I was the kind of person who spits on celebrities' heads, and I concluded I was not, but I could easily be one, and would perhaps never better have an opportunity than now, so why not?

By the time I decided to spit, though, I was being addressed by a film crew member from the street.

"I'm sorry," the crew member said through a bullhorn. "Is this light bothering you?"

There was a floodlight aimed at my side of the building from across the street, but it didn't quite reach my window. It was close enough that it might have annoyed me, though.

"If it is, we'll move it for you," she said through the bullhorn.

The crowd hushed, and the shoot seemed to stop as the crew waited for my response.

"No, no, it's fine," I yelled out my window, loud enough to be heard, and the production crew resumed its work.

Because of the little bit of consideration shown by this crew member, I am not a celebrity spitter today.

Such politeness, reaching up to my studio apartment window, after so much noise and vulgarity had wafted through its pane, totally disarmed me. No longer did I despise the crowd outside, the crew and stars of the show; I sat back down on my couch to watch television, feeling like I'd just spoken with next-door neighbors I'd known for ages. For the first time in New York, I felt like I belonged in the city. I felt at home. At home without a past, only the present and future.

Monday, November 3, 2008

a constituency of one

My ballot is an 18-year-old virgin. Now 36, I've been of-age to vote the last 18 years, and I've chosen to abstain from doing so in every presidential election that's taken place in that time.

I've never cast a vote for President of the United States, and tomorrow, Nov. 4, I'm inclined to abstain once again.

It's not that I'm undemocratic (with a lower-case "d'). I've cast my ballot for candidates in other national, state, county and city government positions. However, I've never pulled the lever for the big one. Until recently, I've never paused to examine just why this has been the case. Then again, until recently, I haven't been so tempted to give up my vote to a presidential candidate.

Obama's been the first for whom I've considered unlocking my political chastity belt.

Like so many, I was moved by a politician in a way I'd never been moved before when I heard the speech Obama gave at the 2004 DNC. That speech marked the emergence of a charismatic figure in the Democratic party that it hasn't seen since JFK. (Some might argue 'ol Bill was pretty charismatic, but who wouldn't agree now that, even in his heydey, he's just plain sleazy in comparison to Obama? And for those of you who would argue for Hillary's charisma?... please.)

Obama's speech to the DNC didn't move me nearly as much as a speech he made earlier this year, though. While campaigning against Hillary for the party's nomination, he delivered his "A More Perfect Union" speech.

I was more moved by this speech not because of its subject matter--race--but rather the way he confronted the topic and the context in which he confronted it. Afterwards I realized that, whenever I'd heard any other politician speak on the topic, I had received a canned preparation of words. Hearing Obama was like eating fresh pasta for the first time instead of the spaghetti in the cardboard box. I had never heard a politician speak so genuinely, so openly, about anything. And here this man was, speaking this way about the most live-wire topic there is in our culture.

Obama decided to speak candidly on the topic of race not just to a convention of fellow Democrats at a time when he was out of the national spotlight like he did with his speech at the 2004 DNC. No, he took it upon himself to address the nation on the topic while he was maintaining a tenuous lead in his bid for his party's nomination. In three words -- how fucking ballsy!

Even if he hadn't delivered in his speech (and he did,) I would have admired him nonetheless for doing what he felt he had to do, regardless of the consequences. That speech fixed him in my opinion as a genuine character. That action supported his description of himself as someone who only got involved in the race at the time that he did because he sought to bring an end to politics as usual in Washington.

The genuine singularity of his character put the spotlight on his opponent, Hillary, and how she lacked the same authenticity. How some people support her with the fanaticism that they do is a mystery to me, especially after this year's race for the nomination, when her Machiavellian self was put on display. Everyone watched as she continually "redefined" herself during her campaign while Obama remained a rock in comparison. The closer she came to her inevitable defeat, the more quickly and radically she changed herself. Hillary shed tears, shot guns, danced (awfully) and threw back shots of Wild Turkey and everything else under the sun to try to appeal to whatever group of people she was speaking to at the time. She reminded me of how the T-1000 morphed into every form it had ever taken in its death throes at the end of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

After knocking off the most ruthless Democrat in the party for its nomination, I expected Barack would have it easy against McCain. And, really, he has. However, what I did not expect is how disillusioned I would become with him in the process.

His golden image in my eyes started to lose its lustre when Hollywood scorned the Clintons and threw its support behind him. As a general rule, I distrust celebrity endorsements because they are celebrity endorsements, i.e. endorsements given by people who, for the most part, live lives completely out-of-touch with reality. They call it la-la land for a reason, and once Obama began receiving all his celebrity endorsements, I began to question the viability of his proposals.

What he claims to do as president seems far-fetched, to put it mildly. Healthcare for everyone. College for everyone. Tax credits for all but the rich. And all of this in the midst of the worst economy the country has seen since the Great Depression. Ahem... pardon my skepticism.

One particular claim, for example, was that 98% of small businesses in the U.S. make less than $250,000 a year, and these businesses would receive no increase in taxes under Obama's economic plan.

I was even more surprised, upon checking the validity of this statement on independent Web sites like and, that this statement was, in fact, judged to be true.

However, upon closer investigation, it's only true if viewed in a very specific way. The "small businesses" to which Obama is referring in this claim are based on individual tax returns that claim business income and expenses. These small businesses would be people that are largely self-employed. It comes as no surprise 98% of these "small businesses" make less than $250,000 because, if they made more, they'd incorporate themselves for liability purposes.

His claim that 98% of small businesses in America will not receive an increase in taxes under his plan is factually true if you are talking about the self-employed IT consultant, the mom-and-pop owners of an antique store or one of the many eBay sellers supplementing their incomes.

In other words, it is applicable only to those small businesses that account for a miniscule fraction of the GNP; it is not applicable to incorporated small businesses which are the driving force of the economy.

A "small business" like my father's before he retired, which employed nine people (five doctors and four administrative personnel) and made more than $250,000 net a year, would be taxed at the same 35% corporate tax rate under Obama as it is taxed today under Bush.

McCain's economic plan cuts this corporate tax rate by 10% across the board to 25%, small and large corporations alike. Such publications as the Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine endorse McCain's economic plan over Obama's primarily because this corporate tax cut will stimulate the economy by making it less costly to do business, thereby encouraging business investment and entrepreneurial risk, thereby creating jobs.

...totally off topic...doesn't Steve Forbes bear a striking resemblance to the head vampire from Lost Boys?

However, by holding out his 98% of small businesses claim, and decrying the greed of corporate America, Obama has succeeded in distorting public perception of his economic plan. It also helps that he has Warren Buffet's endorsement, which he does not hesitate to hold out as a badge of legitimacy when speaking about the economy.

Alan Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a non-partisan foundation according to, wrote a paper that appeared in the Oct. 24 Wall Street Journal, entitled "How's Obama Going to Raise $4.3 Trillion" which takes Obama's economic plan to task. To summarize, it answers the question, "How is he going to pay for it?" The answer is, simply, that he can't without raising taxes substantially across all tax brackets.

Obama doesn't have to answer this question, though, because the public hasn't demanded him to do so. Incredibly enough, neither has his opponent, and for not hammering Obama over the head on such points, McCain doesn't deserve to be elected to the office.

He had ample opportunity to do so and didn't. He also showed that he couldn't debate himself out of a cardboard box. Instead of trying to articulate the fantastical nature of Obama's promises, McCain choose to cave and allow the Republican party to dust off its old playbook and paint Obama as a Manchurian candidate for a left-wing Marxist movement that seeks to undo all things American.

McCain also allowed Obama to associate him, to the very end, with Bush. He never effectively countered Obama's claim that McCain voted with Bush 95% of the time, and that a vote for him was four more years of Bush.

Anyone with Internet access and an interest in the validity of politicians' claims knows, by checking sites like the aforementioned and, that this claim is true, but again only from a very specific point of view.

Yes, he voted along with Bush 95% of the time, but only in this past year, and he did so largely in order to counter the Democratic majority in the senate along with the other Republican senators. Prior to the Democrats gaining control, McCain voted with Bush a little over 70% of the time. While this makes his voting history strongly Republican, it is hardly evidence of him walking lock-step with the Bush administration as Obama has portrayed him.

The funny thing is that, on the most substantive point (the economy) of this campaign, it is Obama and not McCain who is for "more of the same," i.e. Bush and Obama @ 35% corporate tax rate vs. McCain @ 25%.

Does McCain have a shell-shocked war buddy managing his campaign?

Obama also distorts the truth when he claims that McCain is for a $4 billion tax cut to oil corporations, and I know,...yes, it's politics, and you spin as you have to in order to win. But that's the whole point. I bought into Obama being above it all. I bought into him being the anti-politician, and in operating this way, in operating like the same politician he set himself apart from in his campaign against Hillary for the nomination ... he just doesn't charm me anymore. The hearts are no longer inflating and popping around my head when I see him.

He almost had me with his sweet-nothings, but now I can't look past the deceptions and question marks. With his spell now lifted, if I was voting for the candidate who I thought best gave the country a chance to emerge for its current woes, I'd vote McCain. However, honestly, I can't do that, either, knowing McCain's not run a good enough campaign to deserve the presidency.

So I'm re-adjusting my chastity belt.

I quoted MacNeice in an earlier post as saying, "I am damned if I am going to swallow Marx or Trotsky or anyone else lock stock & barrel unless it squares with my experience, or perhaps I should say, my feelings of internal reality."

The same applies here. Call me a prude, but I simply won't give it up for a candidate I don't full-heartedly believe in. Obama almost had me, like he's got so many now -- maybe enough for the presidency -- but I'm just not buying all the sweet talk.