Monthly Archives: January 2013

Gathering Place

As long as I can remember, there have been places of gathering. Not the institutionalized ones where we humans are expected to group, but the ones that draw together like-minded people who want to spend time with each other in a favorable environment, much like the selective pooling of dry leaves, a smattering of the many millions, blown into a huddled niche. Is it for company or affirmation or, perhaps, some magnetic pull of colliding worlds? Surely it is a strong impulse to find people that you find comfortable and comforting. And, too, a place that enhances that connection.

Having never been a joiner after two disappointing experiences with, first, a scouting troop and, second, a high-school fraternal organization, I aimed to seek out social interaction in less formalized ways. Happenstance was my guide. Finding the right place would provide the right companions.

There was a new coffeehouse that opened near the university. On Friday nights they would tune to an FM radio station that was testing a three-hour slot to play “alternative music.” Wearing my fringed boots and best paisley, I sat and sipped tea with others, listening to and discussing the music and other pop topics that a young twenty-year-old like me liked to think about. There was a lot of patchouli in the air, along with steaming cups of fragrant herbal brews, and a strong sense of independence. We were finding ourselves and our way within our very own subculture. The tables were mismatched and worn and familiarly comfortable. There was a large painted mural of mountains and streams, an idyllic place found in the crevasse somewhere between childhood and the future, and the atmosphere was thick with youthful energy. The whole reeked of placeness. It was us against whatever was outside that entry door.

I think that it is important that such a place be a neutral place. There have been homes known for being gathering places – parents’, grandparents’, friends’, a sibling’s first apartment, my first apartment – but as much as they can be enjoyable, it is that shared experience where everyone is on equal footing and everyone is there by choice, not by default, that gives it extra meaning.

This early experience of the coffeehouse has been repeated in the past few years. The new place is a restaurant that has a group of regulars, a cast of characters. It sits in a town that looks uncannily similar to that mural on that patchouli-soaked wall, only it is three-dimensional and real. There is music playing inside but it is emanating from iTunes on a laptop. It could be some of the same songs. The walls are cluttered with “salon style” hangings of artwork that likely could have been produced at that time when the FM dial was being reborn. It is warm and cozy, and the smells from the kitchen are engaging. It is another form of subculture, this place of homespun vegan fare that is tasty and guilt-free. There are heavy political discussions taking place at the many mismatched, dark-wood tables in the pale-green wainscoted room. A birthday cupcake arrives with a song and the filled-to-capacity room sings along. It is an intimate space wearing a big welcoming grin, and the place is partly real and partly unreal in terms of the world. The building’s bay windowed facade, however, looks out to the world, watching it and beckoning it to enter.

Garden Cafe

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Rock ‘n’ Roll, or Current Resident

radioWe are rocketing up the highway, driving as fast as our voices are loud, singing at the top of our lungs. (Why does no one ever sing at the bottom of their lungs? Don’t they contain air, too?) The songs we are singing are, maybe, ten years old (although, the way time and our minds are racing from us, like a tsunami down a steep slope, the songs might actually be 20 years old … or older), yet we know all the words, or most of the words, or, more accurately, all the vowel sounds – within the span of three minutes, the words “my pledge of love” come out different each time we warble them. We hit the high-note ending, pointing our fingers at whatever audience we think we are performing for (they adore us, they are undressing us with their ears), and then it is over, satisfyingly throat-ravaging, invigorating and youth-ifying.

The deejay intrudes, makes sure to tell us his patently fabricated name, and the call letters of the station, and the information that this obviously Podunk, 4-watt operation emanating from somewhere near a mountain and a swamp is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.” What follows, then, is what begins to turn into about 8 minutes of strung-together 20-second spots, so we hit the scan button – no, no, maybe … no, absolutely not … and then yes, something we know, and we’re off again, howling to the adult-contemporary moon. Then another deejay with the same voice as the previous one, maybe even the same name, and the same speech-pattern and shtick, time, weather, the kind of call-letters that start with B or Q and end in numbers … and he informs us that where he is broadcasting from is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.”  And we wonder: Rock ‘n’ roll has two homes, and in this flyover mudsplat corner of the world?

Over the course of the next hour, and several dozen impatient and severely judgmental excursions up and down the radio dial (it’s actually digital, but, come on, we still “dial” the phone, don’t we?) we receive signals from no less than three other homes of rock ‘n’ roll. We are puzzled: Just how many homes does rock ‘n’ roll have? How many does it need? I mean, OK, one in New York, another in Los Angeles, maybe a place in Nashville, a pad in London and, of course, one in the Caymans to hide the money and be close enough to Turks and Caicos to party with Keith. (And, sorry, Cleveland but, hall of fame or no, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t consider you home. Ever.) But, really: Seven homes within 60 miles in the middle of nowhere? Isn’t that just a little bit strange … and piggy? And whatever happened to rock ‘n’ roll’s tradition? Crashing in other people’s pads, or in the back of cars after a gig where it didn’t get paid, or in a corner of a bus station – when did rock ‘n‘ roll get to be Donald Trump?

All those homes – consider the mortgages. The utility bills (rock ‘n‘ roll tends to leave the lights on at night, because it passes out before it has a chance to flick them off). The  lawn-mowing. The pizza deliveries – you could go broke on the tips alone. Trying to remember all the ZIP codes. Imagine the key ring rock ‘n’ roll has to carry around – you’d need a roadie just to lift it. And when rock ‘n’ roll sings “home, where my love lies waiting silently for me” – well, which home? Which love? Although, if there’s a love lying waiting for rock ‘n’ roll at every one of its homes, one can begin to understand the attraction of getting into that business.

And what does rock ‘n’ roll’s home look like? Split level? A nice two-story Cape? And what do rock ‘n’ roll’s rooms look like? Shag rugs? Posters on the wall? Black light? Is it something cool and clean and classy – someplace with museum-quality furniture that Sting might lay his lute on? Or did Keith Moon get to it, and that cool air we feel on our necks is coming from the broken windows and the punched hole in the wall? We can imagine the bedroom (there’s a love lying silently there … on sheets that haven’t been changed since who knows when), but let‘s not try to picture the bathroom, if you don’t mind. Or the kitchen. Maybe rock ‘n‘ roll’s homes have gardens, and one need not stretch to envision what is growing in it. Or, now that rock ‘n‘ roll has attained the level of filthy rich respectability, maybe some of the homes have a cool Mitt Romney-ish Republican reserve to them, or a Downton Abbey-like elitism that befits an art form approaching its reminiscence-filled dotage.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a lousy host, though. We have invited it into our home for years, but have we once gotten an invitation over to its place? We would be happy to come over to any of the homes, at any time, thrilled to lie waiting for it … but, since we know all the words, or at least the vowel sounds, it wouldn’t be silently.

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The Community of craig

I am not a networker. I don’t Facebook. (Yes, it is a verb.) I do not tweet. I do write a blog, though. And, lately, I have become a frequent traveler on the now-infamous craigslist. I used to browse the job offerings there but, currently, I find that the “for sale” classified section is far more satisfying. You can browse or you can search, whatever your predilection. There is something for everyone on the list.

It is not a new concept of merchandising, but rather its delivery system is, having a  similarity of style to Amazon’s retail selling, which went online in the mid-nineties, too. Craigslist began in 1995 as a local community service for the San Francisco Bay area before expanding to other cities about five years later. Although it is many things to many people, craigslist, according to founder and developer (and namesake) Craig Newmark, “craigslist works because it gives people a voice, a sense of community trust and even intimacy. Other factors he cites are consistency of down-to-earth values, customer service and simplicity.”


Despite all the usual human tendencies to push limits or to be completely self-serving, and even, sometimes, malicious – here we won’t bother to discuss the spammers – there is a kind of public internet policing that maintains a general level of decorum and civility that rises to the surface in the community of craig. Sure, it is not without its scandals and tests of appropriateness, but, basically, it works. And yes, it has hurt the print medium, whose classifieds format it has mimicked. That is its strength and its weakness. In both versions, paper or electronic, messages are sent out in a bottle in the hope that someone – the right person – finds them.

What I have found is that craigslist is an important medium for bringing people together – in my case, as a purchaser of other peoples’ discards. This is an early form of reuse and recycling. Look at the alternative: A merchant opens a storefront or sets up a booth to sell wares – how many customers could potentially stop and purchase something from a store in a day, or a month? (Don’t think Apple.) And how would that item find the right buyer? With the old inked classified ads, the odds improved if the readership was large – but how many of that pool of readers really desired that one particular item for sale? And, since ads were sold by the line, how many listed items could one afford to pay for with the possibility of no payback? In the online listings, the audience comes and searches for the very item that they can’t live without. The seller just needs to get all those pesky keywords in a row. It doesn’t get any easier. One doesn’t even have to build a better mousetrap, or build anything at all – just search terms.

I have had a handful of interactions with the public on craigslist and, knock wood, they have been positive. There is a placeness found in a good communication and outcome – both parties pleased with the transaction. It starts with a lot of preliminary emailing, sort of feeling-out the seller while he/she feels out you, the buyer. Once a meeting of minds is achieved, a comfort level reached, there is a designated place of commerce similar to going into a store or a flea market booth. Only, many times, it is at the seller’s home. I feel odd invading someone’s privacy after finding the item I want in such a public forum. Some of the sellers are fine with it, others are visibly nervous. But in the end, if the sale works out to everyone’s satisfaction, it is a triumph of basic human endeavor – a gain/gain situation. A real person-to-person exchange in the 21st century marketplace, despite the technical medium that brought them together. Maybe craigslist is a catalyst of placeness. And you know it is a cultural phenomenon when “Weird Al” Yankovic writes a song about it.

I hope I am never disillusioned about craigslist. There is nothing fancy about it; in fact, its interface is still very like the early look of web style. There is no glitzy packaging, no annoying ads popping out in your face, no images except for the one or two that are necessary for describing the piece of merchandise … but you have to choose to look at it. The format is simple, basic even. What is there is electronically delivered, but human-powered, and the outcome is entirely in human hands. It is but a stage for acting ourselves in the new world order.

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Central Park

Among the annoyances of having to work for a living (aside from having to work for a living) is the getting to where your workplace is – and, assuming that, as in most American locales, short-sighted politicians with lobbyist bucks in their PACs have helped to eviscerate your town’s public transportation, then the getting requires driving. And driving requires a place to park. And, if you do not work in the ‘burbs or on the prairie – where fine arable soil now lies, out of sight and out of mind, beneath flat, parched and blacktopped acres painted with corralling lines and illuminated by buzzing light poles, offering free parking within stroll distance to your office/factory/shop/cell – then you pay to stow your vehicle on a razed-building footprint that’s now a lot, or in a multi-story garage building within some city’s limits.


For the past seven years, I’ve been doing just that – committing my car to minimum-security lockup for eight hours a day while I do somewhat the same for myself. Two parking garages have been involved, and to me they seemed, though structurally different in subtle but noticeable ways, very much the same in personality and affect: floor after oil-stained and grimy floor, dark (even in day), barren (even when parked solid), echoey down its low-ceilinged/vaulted-concrete claustrophobia-inducing corridors illuminated with dim and flickering and green/yellowish rods and protuberances that give every inch the quality of the lighting employed in snuff films, and all tied together with a spiral bow of ramps, and home to the funkiest stairwells and slowest elevators since Otis installed his first emergency-alarm button.

Grim eyesores of our car culture, ugly over-charging profit machines of politically connected and corrupting developers – this is what I have thought of these ubiquitous and obtrusive storage boxes. Personality-less. Places without placeness, and certainly without art.

But, lately, for no good reason, I find myself having a change of heart.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not looking at these lurid architectural layer cakes as some sort of black-sheep member of the Guggenheim Museum family – a twisty path leading to landings on which are not paintings but Priuses – but I have come to realize that these garages are not devoid of placeness, as I thought. In fact, quite the opposite. Especially if American mass media is any gauge, these undistinguished buildings are central to a kind of basic American placeness. In fact, they are redolent of placeness.


It is uncountable how many times in movies that parking garages – whether over- or underground – have been used as the arena for screeching car chases (those echoes, those hairpin turns, those bowling-alley-like high-speed head-on approaches) or foot chases, or muggings, or shootings – way out of proportion to their actual danger or the role they seem to play in our waking lives. Cars race into them, out of them, around and through them; cars with secreted bombs blow up in them, and cars explode out of them, sailing through the air to the ground or water or whatever lies below – an exhilarating propelled dive from imprisonment to freedom without having to surrender the time card and pay the inflated fee to the under-interested drone in the booth.


Do we hate and fear these places so much that we impose our nightmares on them? Or are we drawn to them because they are the most closed of public spaces, and anything can happen in them – placeness tofu, bland in and of itself but taking its piquancy and identity from added spices? Structural Zeligs that blend in but are present at key events? It was in a parking garage that Deep Throat met with Bob Woodward. It was in a parking garage that Jerry and George and Elaine and Kramer were lost in a Pirandellian episode that was among the most existential in television history. Deborah Sorenson, of the National Building Museum, suggests  that, depending on the structure, they are either cliff or cave, and she lists dozens of films and series that have used parking garages as the focus of plot points.


Maybe they had no placeness until the movies gave it to them. But they have it now. Maybe 20 bucks for an all-day piece of this uber-American mass-media theme park is not a bad admission price … and you get to park your car, too.

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Singing to the Sun

Since about a hundred years ago, with the formation of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and the offshoot Maverick Art Colony’s performance festivals, the eastern Catskills have been resounding with art and music. In the 1960s, the folk and rock scene gathered for Sound-Outs, concerts presented on a farmer’s land situated between Saugerties and Woodstock, in rural Ulster County. This musical staging style built to a crescendo in 1969 when the Woodstock Festival’s organizers decided to put together a blowout musical happening that echoed throughout the land. It still does, decades later. But it never happened in Woodstock. What did happen, though, was that it drew musicians to this place, to share and play in a nurturing environment, surrounded by sensuous natural beauty. Many of those early musicians stayed and made their homes in the Catskills. The history of this place is rich in the arts, as rich as in its soil, water resources and contoured mountains.


Currently, there is a decadelong tradition of some of these young upstart musicians, now gray of beard, getting together annually to jam and entertain themselves and the crowd, for the purpose of coaxing or welcoming the sun at the winter solstice. If I were the sun, I would be readily recalled by these true artists-in-residence. The quantity of talent that gathers on the stage each year is a bit of a crowd, and you can’t help but wonder how they will avoid stomping on each other’s musical toes. Happy Traum & Friends: Happy, once part of a folk duo with his brother Artie, is the dynamo who puts this event together; John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful – who performed at the 1969 concert and is as fresh today; Larry Campbell, a musical machine (just hand him any instrument and watch him make it sing) with a track record that reads like a Who’s Who of rock, country and pop music;  Amy Helm, daughter of Woodstock’s own Levon, but a musician in her own right as co-founder of Ollabelle; Teresa Williams, a powerful country singer; and guests Paul Rishell & Annie Raines – two musical blues magicians, he on guitar, she on harmonica.

Rishell & Raines

The performers are so comfortable in the venue and in their abilities that there is a special casual give and take that occurs, and we the audience are privy to it. There is no fourth wall here. Just some neighbors, gathered together to be amazed and amused. The sounds are beautiful. The musicians are pros, but there are no airs, no pretense of them being there as paid pipers playing. Their faces tell us that they are enjoying this annual event as much as we are, and relishing the interaction with each other. It is a thing to behold. And the music, always at a high level, can overwhelm you with its emotional content and real feeling, like shockwaves bouncing through the auditorium. You are completely in the moment and the music fills you as you disappear into the sound. Arslocii.

The night and the performances are intertwined, just as are the multitude of guitars and voices. These musicians breathe music, it exudes from their pores. There is nothing contrived, no trickery. Just music, flowing in through your ears, hovering like a puffy cloud around your brain, teasing and fleeing, diving down into your toes, then soaring back up into your lungs and filling them to the point of gasping, and settling around your heart – the place where the sound will reside forever … or at least until the next year’s concert. This special musical event is the return of the light just at the darkest moment, when you need it the most. It is the alchemy of turning sound into light.

Solstice Concert

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