We were back in the East Village where the night started. In Maharlika, the stylish Philippino restaurant, numbly recounting how it all went down. Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Dogg World from 1994 spilled threats in that sluggish, Long Beach way. Dangerous and casual. It felt like a California decision to drive 3 hours (“If we can do it in two and a half hours or less, let’s go,” Joe suggested) to a casino in Connecticut – it felt circa 1994 too. Eric B. and Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique was next. I wondered aloud if they had a DJ, wanting to send some approving eye contact his or her way. “It’s Pandora,” Nancy informed me. Shit is almost too easy nowadays I thought, taking a swig of my San Miguel in silent tribute to a harder time.
I was just joking around the day before. It was the end of the workday and concentration was elusive…But wait. I’ve told this story ten times and still haven’t found the hook. In each re-telling, I started obsessing over petty details because the symmetry was so uncanny. But it bogged down the story’s pacing and killed its comedic effect.
For instance, I like thinking about how Sandrine decided to skip a screening of 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (the 1979 documentary about Bronx street gangs) in order to ride up to Mohegan Sun with us, but we all wound up in a gas station in the Bronx hours later anyway trying to change a flat tire. The gas station was tucked in an industrial zone just off the highway that seemed to be untouched by aggressive ‘quality of life’ policies and re-zoning that have transformed many dilapidated neighborhoods in the last two decades. She got to see the ‘for real’ side of the Bronx depicted in that film after all. A lot happened that night, but the story is really that nothing happened. A net zero effect. It took everything we had to go nowhere. Had we in fact been gambling all along?
A few weeks ago I was in Long Island City early for a meeting and wandered into a Slovakian general store to browse around, suspecting that it might stock ceramics from that part of the world. It was a store like many stores that serve specific cultural communities in the city – products looked unbought and abandoned, displays that made the whole place look like business was beside the point. Past all the preserved foods and exotic snack chips, were indeed a few shelves of pottery: generic mugs and plain flowery vases mostly. And behind a stack of white plates, I noticed a rough textured piece that looked like a Chinese tea cup had been carelessly plopped onto a long, unglazed cone of a stem. The outside was the color of the most unaesthetic dirt – a yellowish brown that couldn’t have been arrived at intentionally. The inside of the cup was a dark pea green, glazed haphazardly. Hard to imagine drinking out of this, but that only added to its strangeness.
The store’s caretaker was stocking shelves when I walked in and he wandered over to see if I needed help. When I asked about it, he offered that it was a kind of wine glass for a special Slovakian liquor made of fermented honey. Convinced and charmed, I bought it, brought it home and arranged it on a bookshelf where other ceramics are kept. Among them, a tiny ivory colored bowl made by a former intern of mine, a jade green vase I bought at the local Korean supermarket, a coal black Japanese cup and saucer I picked up at the flea market at the Tenri Cultural Center here in Flushing.
In moments like that in Long Island City, I’m returned to my unexplainable infatuation with ceramics.
I remember seeing some centuries old plates and vases from what’s now Iraq at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco a few years ago. They were decked out in blues you could only find in fleeting flashes on an ocean’s surface. This blue was nothing but its own color; ultimately transparent and fresh as tomorrow morning. The marks divining its surface were aggressive (I’m not saying violent) compared to the austere Tang Dynasty stuff I had just marveled at in another room. In the next, from another century, the Japanese surface on some of their vessels: cracked and irregular like volcanic earth in some, mirror smooth in others, delivering their own kinds of complexions that were also nothing like the names we have to describe them. “Brown” just wasn’t enough.
In my kitchen cabinet is one of my favorite possessions: a plate with gently sloped sides that I bought in a pan-middle eastern restaurant in Amsterdam. It’s decorated with a briskly outlined fish in the center and multi-colored dots, dabs and strokes all around it. It’s body is built from a thickly formed ceramic and I’m convinced eating out of it makes stuff like my oxtail stew taste at least 10% better. A pair of coffee cups copped in a Berlin flea market that are just the right size, freckled with blue Pollack-y drips – its cultural origins unknown. All I know is that my coffee’s on point from out of that, caffeine rationed to exactly the right amount.
I was at Smack Mellon, an alternative art space in DUMBO, Brooklyn a few weeks back to see an exhibition by Yoko Inoue. In this vast space, Inoue had created her intimately scaled version of a Japanese night market populated by ceramic figures, vessels and masks that were mutant hybrids sampling from global consumer culture. Things were clearly marked for sale, rightfully – ceramics imply the functionality and normalcy of exchange even when, as in Yoko’s case, they’re aesthetic and conceptual vessels. In her work, Japanese-ness bleeds out, from the hand-crafted care we associate with the production of ceramics to the evoked make-shift spaces where deals are done. At dinner, when ceramics fulfill their most obvious task to make life a little bit better, to make daily rituals a little bit finer, is when we’re returned to our most unintelligible selves and when we become psychically connected to the ancients, who must’ve also derived great pleasure from wining and dining on classic material.
The California-lization of New York’s weather is evidence that the forces of globalization – the process by which any locale in the world becomes like a quaint Bay Area suburb – are manipulating the environment, flattening it. This shift in the world’s weather patterns might ultimately mess heavily with New York’s sensitive arrangement of culture and intellectual life. New York’s crack-era rap music from the 90s seems mired in an eternal winter, but would it be more like the drawl-ly rhythms of California gangsta rap (made for driving sinisterly in sunny weather) if New Yorkers expected 70 degree weather everyday? Would rap even exist if New York was encased in the air-conditioned geodesic dome imagined by Buckminster Fuller?
Another question: Could the homogenizing force of climate change greatly alter the patterns of another institution of contemporary life: tourism – which depends on a delicate balance of societal stability and exotic difference? I once saw a ritualistic rain dance by Native Americans in a touristic section of Berlin, a city whose bleak winter weather offered an appropriate backdrop to its modern history and lends gravitas to its contemporary art scene. This tableaux on a crowded Berlin street could be read as a kind of environmental, cultural confusion where the truths of dislocated and local racial histories were distorted by the demands and desires of tourism. The significant crowd that had amassed to watch this dance lost themselves for a minute and Berlin became nowhere. Its history disappeared.
For the 2008 Olympics, China was able to shut down rain (for the opening ceremony) and conjure it (to freshen Beijing’s polluted air) at will, but could they impose a “real” winter on New York next year? China’s motivation: it would symbolically solidify their monopoly over this century.
T-shirts have a way of aging quickly, especially those made specifically for the tourist industry. My parents buy me one of these whenever they go on vacation, marking the cities and landmarks they’ve visited. But one stands out: a yellow shirt with a blue, quickly-rendered ink brush graphic of a simplified globe. “The world is my home” is scrawled above it. Unlike the other t-shirts they’ve bought me, I have no idea where they got this one. And its point is clear: it doesn’t matter. Could’ve been anywhere.
Last week on Canal Street I saw a Chinese woman get arrested for selling knock-off designer handbags. Looking on vacantly with wide-eyed shock and fright, she was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police cruiser. This woman, clearly a new immigrant from China, is part of a large, complex knock-off luxury goods system in the Chinatown/Soho area that caters primarily to American and European tourists.
The next day, business continued unimpeded as if the arrest ever happened; that woman lost and potentially forgotten in the system. Further north on Grand Street, I frequently pass Spanish and French tourists carrying multiple bags from the myriad retail chains on Broadway back to their hotel rooms. Tourism and shopping are close cousins, contemporary activities basic to middle class life across the world.
The art world has awkwardly tried to tailgate on this actuality, chasing around tourist money with art fairs and biennals in every corner of the world. Dealers, artists, curators, critics and collectors flock to Miami this time every year hoping that living it up next to the beach might propel art sales and provide a career boost. Museums also feel compelled to lure tourist audiences with exhibitions that sometimes feel like decorative installations in shopping malls or amusement parks. Check out the latest from the Guggenheim and New Museum.
Museums are like stray cats after thanksgiving, tearing apart any trash bag at night to find the leftover carcass of a bland-tasting bird. If a little mouse runs by, they’ll forget about the ravaged turkey and try to chase that down instead.
It’s a cliche that driving in New York City requires patience. After more than seven years of having a car here, I’ve learned that what’s more important is actually having a stern conviction to your core principals of the road. For instance, if you believe that you should always go north on 1st Avenue instead of 3rd Avenue to get to the Queensborough / 59th Street Bridge because past experience has proven a high probability of congestion around 42nd and 57th Streets, then always stick to that strategy. Here are other codes for cruising the grid:
When going crosstown east to west in the morning, use 34th Street. When going west to east, use 23rd Street. When going crosstown on either, always know which avenues are going uptown and downtown and avoid turn lanes ahead of time. For instance, traffic on 7th Avenue is one-way downtown. Therefore, when going east on 23rd, always be in the left lane when approaching 7th Avenue to avoid all the cars waiting for pedestrians as they try to turn right onto 7th. If driving to Flushing, Queens from Brooklyn or Manhattan, always take the Brooklyn / Queens Expressway (BQE) to the Grand Central Parkway (GCP) and avoid the Long Island Expressway (LIE). Never go uptown on 8th Avenue or downtown on 9th Avenue if you’re passing Port Authority (41st Street). These are just a few of my basic tenets.
There is an internal logic to the city that can’t be tricked and the principals of the road can usually be banked on, except during the late spring to summer when street fairs close off blocks upon blocks to motorized traffic causing ripple-effect jams far away. The next time you’re on the outer roadway of the Queensborough bridge, beating the congested traffic on the inner roadway, glance to your right and you’ll see why you can only trick the system with the wisdom.