Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mt. Carmel Baptist Church

I moved yesterday, so I'm exhausted, but not too tired to post a Harlem church pic as is my usual Sunday tradition. I'm not sure if I live in Harlem, technically, anymore. I think it's actually Hamilton Heights, and yet my house is in a holler by the river, so I don't really feel like I'm in any "Heights." Oh well. It's a nice neighborhood nonetheless, being across from a beautiful park, near the biggest grocery store I've ever seen in my life, and next door to friends. I will write more about it soon.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pioneer Children Sang As They Walked and Walked and Walked and Walked aaaaand Walked

In two days Utah and Mormons the world over will celebrate Pioneer Day, a holiday honoring those who left their homes in Europe and the Eastern states to trek across the wilderness of the American west, to start a new life in a place where they could practice their religion free from persecution and in the company of fellow believers. Some of my own ancestors were pioneers, although I don't know if they traveled by covered wagon, pulled a hand-cart, or just carried a knapsack across the plains. Whatever their mode of transport, it was definitely more difficult, dangerous, and tiresome than my move to a new apartment 15 blocks away. Not wanting to be a huge burden on anyone, and to help relieve the stress of moving, I've been loading up my rolling cart each night and transporting a load of belongings from one apartment to the other, like a cat moving her kittens. At first I had trouble with the rolling cart, whose small front wheels will catch on any bump or groove in the pavement--and these are common in Harlem--and tip forward, spilling over. But after a few trips (in several senses of the word), I learned how to best handle the thing and learned the terrain of my journey, so that now I can make it there and back in a jiffy, with no real hardship.

My journey takes me up hills and down hollers, along a tree-lined cliff, past parks and a lovely college campus. I go along Broadway, dodging people, and down bumpy side streets. Instead of rivers, I ford ditches overflowing with the water gushing from open hydrants, and instead of wild animals I encounter catcalls from old guys that lounge on stoops. Instead of rolling grassland, I see littered pavement. Instead of the Great Salt Lake, I see the Hudson River. Then I know, this is the place.

The bumpy pavement and hills of Harlem are nothing compared to the roadless Rocky Mountains of the 1850s, but making my daily trek has me thinking about those pioneers. Their bravery and strength amazes me. I like to think that if I had lived back then I would have made the journey with them, all uncomplaining and energetic, but would I? Without sunblock or mosquito repellent? Could I have left my home and possessions, buried my children along the wayside, faced starvation, and exposed myself to all of the elements of nature in order to follow my faith? Hmmm... I doubt it. But it gives me strength and courage to know that I am descended from those who did, and it makes my walks seem delightful in comparison.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Second Canaan

Sometimes I wonder if these churches have any reason for choosing their names. Why Canaan? It is biblical, the name of one of Noah's grandsons. The Canaanites were called Phoenicians by the Greek, and known to be great traders. But there is no spiritual significance. I love the window on this church. When I passed this church it had a long line out the door, people waiting to get into its soup kitchen.

Who Does That???

Peter and Josh will be happy to know that I came about as close to swearing this morning than I ever have before in my life. I don't even remember the last time I was this angry. I don't really know what to do.

This is what happened. I had this subletter come for a week, since S's room was open and I had July rent to pay. It was just a week, but the money helped make a small dent in the three rents I had to pay this month. She seemed like a nice enough girl--in her mid 20s, a theater major from BYU, on her way to London, in NYC for a week to see the sights for the first time. I didn't really get to know her because she'd stay out all day and come back late at night. A few times she asked if she could borrow my cell phone to make calls, and I let her because I am a nice person, but it kind of annoyed me. Who doesn't own a cell phone these days? That was weird, I thought. But I wanted to be helpful, especially when she said she needed to check on her flight reservations and stuff. But she also made some calls to Utah, and at 4:00 in the morning on Saturday, one of those Utah people called her back on my phone and woke me up. That was really annoying. And it was even more annoying when another Utah person called my phone the next day and left a non-emergency message for me to give the girl. I mean, I'm happy to help out, but what am I, a bulletin board?

Initially, the subletter told me she'd be leaving Monday, but then when I asked her again she said Sunday evening. I worried about her because she didn't seem to even know which airport she would be leaving from. But whatever--she's a grown person, I thought, and she would be able to figure it out. I went to a movie last night and got home around 1 a.m.. Trini, my super, was outside and he said that he'd let the girl in because she'd had trouble with the key. But he laughed and said that although he opened the apartment door (which can be tricky) for her, he stood there and made her do it herself so she would know how to do it next time. We do have a difficult front door, but it is simple once you know the trick, and I had shown the subletter how to open it before a couple of times. When I got upstairs to the apartment, the door was ajar--she had got in, but not bothered to close the door behind her! But whatever, I though, she'll only be here one more day and then I won't have to worry about it any more. The next thing I knew, it was 4:15 a.m. and I (a light sleeper) heard someone opening the door.

I got up, and realized the subletter, and all her stuff was gone. But where was the door key and the gate opener? She must have had a much much earlier flight than she had told me! I ran out the door, barefoot and in my pajamas. The elevator door was closing, so I ran down the six flights of stairs and caught the girl as she was leaving the building with her suitcases. I asked her for the key, and she said she thought she had left it in the kitchen. I knew for a fact it wasn't there, and asked her to look through her bag. I probably looked like a crazy person, have just jumped up from a deep sleep, and I wasn't thinking clearly. I ought to have made her open her suitcase then and there and dig out the key. But seriously--who packs the key to their sublet?! She said to look again upstairs--she was sure it was there--and if not, she would mail it to me, or pay for it. So annoyed, and again too nice, I reluctantly agreed and went upstairs. But I had a sinking feeling, and hurriedly dressed and ran outside again. She was getting into a taxi. "Please!" I said, running up to the taxi door. "Search your bag again! I need that key." She did a cursory search of her handbag and then handed me a check for $30. "Let me know if its more than that," she said. Some dirty guy, who I think must have helped her get the taxi, asked for some money too, and I don't know if she gave him any, but the whole thing was so surreal. I was still half-asleep, half-dressed, standing in the street at 4:30 in the morning in Harlem, with half a dozen old drunk people standing around watching the whole thing. So I let her go, but I wish I would have been stronger. I wish I would have asked her for the key last night, or compelled her to open her suitcase before she left the building, and search until it was found. It crossed my mind that she had actually lost the key somewhere in the city, but Trini had helped her in, and had forced her to use the key herself, so she definitely had it.

As she drove away in the taxi, the sketchy man came up to me and told me that the girl said to give him ten dollars. I just gave him a death stare and walked away. Trini was there, asking what was going on, but he was ridiculously drunk, and not making any sense. I wanted to scream, to talk to someone, but all normal people were fast asleep. I sent an email to the girl, outlining my need for the key to be returned. She has no phone, so I couldn't call her. I paced around the house, fuming, and ate a bowl of cereal. Then I went back to bed and tried to sleep, mostly unsuccessfully.

Am I crazy? The thing is, it's not a simple key that can be copied by the neighborhood locksmith. Besides the door key to the apartment, we have a double set of gates on the building that open with a little laser key. None of us have ever lost ours, so I have no idea how hard it is to get another made, or how much it will cost. But it's one more annoying thing I don't want to have to deal with. I'm angry at how irresponsible this girl was, and how I now have to fight with her to get the thing back, and then get another made if she doesn't come through with returning it. For all I know, her check will bounce. Should I deposit it right away, or wait for her to mail the key? What if I had had another subletter lined up to come stay after her? She's lucky I don't, but I am moving and I need to return that key to the management by the last day of this month. Otherwise, my security deposit is at stake. Ugh. I'm so mad! And now I have had no sleep and that is making me even crankier. What a night. How can someone be so rude? Who DOES that?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Hot Child in the City

I've been walking around Harlem a lot these past days, making trips from my old house to my new house, back and forth, like a pack-horse. It's great exercise but it's so hot that wearing clothing is almost unbearable. Don't worry--I have restrained myself, but I have resorted to wearing sleeveless shirts that show off the big temporary tattoo I applied to my upper arm on Wednesday (a heart pierced by an arrow). My super thought I had a real tattoo, which was funny, and I kind of like how realistic it looks. Walking around in Harlem with a tattoo, even a fake one, puts a little more swagger in my step, and even though tattoos are nothing new here, I feel like I've got a little bit more street cred with it on display. Combined with my tough "Harlem face" that I use to prevent wierdos from approaching me, you'd think I'd be left alone. But actually I have had several interesting interactions with strangers today.

The first one was when I was at the LDS church house, waiting to be let in so I could help clean it. A lady named Agatha approached me and asked if I could tell her about this church I was standing next to. I told her a little bit about LDS beliefs, how we are Christians and believe that Jesus is our Savior, and I told her that we believe in baptism, repentance, a prophet--I even shared the Joseph Smith story with her, about his prayer and how he restored the truth that had been lost to the earth. I surprised myself how much stuff I was able to pack into that conversation, and was also surprised at how well she took the info. And I tried not to laugh when she asked if I lived in the church, or if the prophet lived in the church. I invited her to come to church, but she said she is a faithful member of a church in the Bronx. Still, hopefully I was able to share the spirit with her, and perhaps someday soon she will want to come and learn more. We parted ways with handshakes, smiles, and God-bless-yous.

It has been so hot that I have to restrain myself from eating ice cream all day. It's especially hard when the ice cream trucks are everywhere you go. Mister Softee patrols midtown, but in my neighborhood are some look-alikes with equally delicious fare. Last evening on my walk I saw a battle between a Good Humor truck and Kool Man. In a game of ice-cream truck stare down, they each vied for a spot next to a little park full of kids, blasting their jingles with full force so that one tune was indistinguishable from the next. Eventually Kool Man gave up and sped away, in search of his own sweet spot. Maybe it passed the horde of children playing in the spout of an open hydrant a few blocks away. I wanted to jump in the water with them, but my ipod wouldn't let me.

Another delicious treat to eat to beat the heat (what the?) is the frozen fruit popsicles that the guys in Central Park sell. I don't know what their real name is, but they are popsicles made of chunks of frozen fruit. My favorite is strawberry, and I feel like it's healthier than eating ice cream because there are actual chunks of strawberries in it. And it is so delicious! I ran an errand near 110th Street today and grabbed one as I headed into the subway to go home. But by the time I was done eating it, 15 minutes later, no trains were in sight, so I decided to just walk home. On the way, I ran into my friend G-Chameleon, who I also ran into the day before yesterday, randomly, on 5th Avenue. He walked me home and then continued on his journey to Pathmark.

While we were walking, a random lady that we passed on the sidewalk asked us if we liked summer or winter. I said I like autumn. She said she would take a year of winter rather than the heat we are enduring now. Garrett likes the heat of summer, and I guess it's not that bad. After all, E is in Arizona, where it is 115 today. Here it is in the 80s, but the sun and cement and 60% humidity combine into a deadly force that sucks the life out of you unless you are lounging by a pool with a cold drink, or living it up with A/C in your house. Or happen to be standing under the open windows of the Post Office on 125th Street, which I couldn't help noticing a few nights ago, was closed for business but had all its windows open and A/C blasting out into the hot July night. The windows are too high up off the ground for anyone to get inside, but the way they tilted downward was making the perfect air stream of cool refreshingness for passersby, who, unlike me, don't seem to be bothered that our taxpayers money is being squandered in such a way. Sigh.... I don't have a pool or air conditioning, but I do have a bathtub to clean, so that will have to do. And after I'm done I'll reward myself with ice cream.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Far-Flung Sea

Sometimes when I walk down a Manhattan street, I see a seagull fly overhead or I catch a whiff of salt air, and I remember that just beyond the skyscrapers, the Hudson and East Rivers kiss the ocean. And the ocean is just a few miles from where I stand--less? And the ocean is huge and expanseless and full of mystery. It is a strange comforting feeling to think that the ocean is so close to me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Place to Be

My voice is hoarse and I'm a strange mixture of exhausted and pumped up from cheering, screaming, and dancing the night away down at the Apollo Theater, just around the corner from my house here in good old Harlem. Every Wednesday night is Amateur Night at the Apollo, a showcase for new talent, and great entertainment for both us locals and tourists from as far away as Japan and Norway. This was my second time at Amateur Night, and I think I ought to go more often. It's so much fun!

The show always involves a dance-off between people from the audience, a bunch of young performers (no booing allowed here, and anyway these kids are always too adorable), sometimes a semi-famous guest performer, and then the amateur performers, who either get cheered on, or booed off the stage. Tonight I went to support my friend Rachel, who is an amazing singer. And she did such a great job, and was so adorable on stage! And amazingly, it was a night of awesome talent all around.

Besides Rachel, I loved The Professor (a really good harmonica player), and a guy (I don't remember his name) who sang an amazing gospel song. There was a rap singer I wanted to boo, but I just couldn't because he was an Iraqi war veteran. Rachel came in 4th, but I don't think Franco the guitar player was better than she was. His guitar playing was aight, but his voice was just so so.

Anyway, I'm too tired to write anything really awesome. I just wanted to say that I had such a great time. I love living around the corner from the Apollo. I love the tribute wall to Michael Jackson that they have out there. And I love all the fun people that live in Harlem--the proud people, the crazy people, the people that dance in the streets, and the people that drive up in their convertibles to pick up their grandma from the curb outside the Apollo. I even love the guys that try to pick me up with ultra cheesy lines. I love Harlem.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Maybe because it has been such a long rainy spring and early summer, there seems to be an abundance of insects this year, making New York City seem like less of a city and more like some kind of urban swampland. We have had so many flies this year! And don't even get me started on the mosquitoes. They fly in through my open window at night and bite my hands.

Tonight after work I went out with a few of my coworkers and got some Mexican food. I took the other half of my Grande Quesadilla home in a to-go bag, and after parting ways with my friends, I walked across midtown and caught the D train home. But it went kind of slowly, giving me plenty of time to observe my fellow travelers, hiding within the anonymity of my blasting i-pod (Magnetic Fields: "Come back from San Francisco; it can't be all that pretty when all of New York City misses you..."). The man across from me to the left was dressed impeccably in a seersucker jacket with really interesting buttonholes at the cuffs, which revealed the perfect white shirt and dark crocheted tie. Trousers, shoes, hair--all perfect. I couldn't help but admire.

The girl across from me held her bookbag on her lap and looked around interestingly at her fellow passengers, too. The fidgety wiry man next to me seemed to watch her. Then they both watched as a huge fly circled around the car slowly and landed on her bag. Her first impulse was to flick it off with her fingers, but she hesitated and didn't go through with it. Shaking her bag a little, the fly just clung on. So she opened the cell phone that was in her hand and poked the fly with the tip of it. It just walked a few little bug-steps and that was it. So she nudged it again, harder, and it finally took off. The girl looked up with a huge beaming smile, probably wanting to laugh out loud, and I know the guy next to me smiled at her. I probably grinned as well, and maybe I chuckled. Then it was my stop, and when the doors opened I got up from my seat quickly, forgetting the food in my lap, which fell on the floor with a bang, startling a very loud squeak out of me. The thin wiry man picked it up and handed it to me, and I apologized. I wanted to look over at the man in the seersucker jacket--was he looking at me, wondering what all the commotion was? There was no time--I hopped out through the closing train doors, and bee-lined it for home, still thinking about the fat slow fly and how it goes in circles around an ever-moving, dimly lit, underground subway car while other flies zip around in the breezy green freedom of Central Park. Does it know? Do any of them know?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Holy Cross African Orthodox Church

I love the little details like the crosses on the fence top, and how the brick arch-shapes in between the windows and the arch shaped frames on the middle row of windows tie in with the beautiful pointed-arch door frame. This is the Harlem brownstone-turned church at it's finest.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Saturday Stuff

Last night Peter and I met up after work and ate some delicious burgers at Silver Spurs before heading over to Webster Hall to see Shakedown at the Majestic perform in the US finals for the Emergenza Music Festival. They put on a great show, but were ultimately conquered by a girl band with a hard rock/country style called Lily Sparks. Meh. But it was fun to see all the different bands perform. I was pleasantly surprised by Preacherman and the Revivals, a psychedelic gospel group. I might even go so far as to say they were brilliant. Dollhouse Murder, a hip-hop group with a heavy rock backing, was not bad, but was just way too loud and a bit obnoxious. Then this band called Open Till Midnight came onstage and when they started to perform the crowd went wild. Girls were on guys shoulders cheering, people were waving lighters in the air, everyone loved them. And they sounded horrible! Like Green Day or a wanna-be Matchbox Twenty. The singer just jumped around with the microphone, shaking his long blond hair and high-fiving people in the crowd and everyone loved his really boring mundane songs. I must have been making faces, because Peter started laughing at me. I said to the Shakedown guys, "This is what is wrong with America!" Everyone loves really bad music. How are good bands supposed to get anywhere when everyone loves bad music?

On Saturday, I went to the Harlem Knitting and Crochet Meetup group, which meets in the upper rooms of the Harlem Branch Library about once every three weeks or so. I've missed the past one or two meetups, so I had to show them the skirt I'd finished. I love those ladies. I was the only white girl there, and only one of two people under 40 probably, but the women are so friendly and welcoming, and interested in what I'm working on, that I feel right at home when I go there. It's a wonderful group. We watched the segment of knitting-instruction video that filmed of our group. I started work on a new project, a bedspread, which will probably take me a few years to make at the rate I've been going these days. Some of the women had brought in completed projects to show Njoya, the group's leader, who wanted to photograph them. I got some good ideas for more things I want to make!

It was a beautiful Saturday. I bought fruit from a sidewalk vendor near the Apollo Theater, where people continue to pay homage to Michael Jackson. A huge wall serves as a place where people are encouraged to write messages or draw pictures that pay respect to the late king of pop.

Later, E and I went downtown to try out the donuts at The Doughnut Plant, which we'd heard so much about. It is just a tiny place, but the donuts really are amazing! I had a blueberry glazed donut, which may have been the freshest, tastiest donut I've ever had. From there we went down the street to Economy Candy, a little store packed floor to ceiling and bursting at the seams with all the candy you could ever imagine. They even have Sixlets. And chocolate covered sunflower seeds. And gummi bears the size of your head. And old-school candy cigarettes. And dark chocolate covered orange peel! I didn't buy anything, but at least now I know where to go when the need arises.

Later, I had the elders over for dinner and fixed them a nice big meal. It was fun to sit and eat and talk with them and friends. After they left I worked on some sewing and watched a lightning storm roll in, and went to bed much too late.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Shakedown at the Majestic

The first time I saw Shakedown at the Majestic, I was so late I missed everything but the last song. Who knew such a good band would go on before 10 pm? Luckily for me Shakedown has since played several shows around the city, and I've even managed to be there on time for a few of them. I'm definitely not going to miss this Friday's performance at Webster Hall. These guys have got a great sound!

The biggest thing that surprised me about Shakedown is how solid they sound for a band that's only really been together since November, when after playing their first show under the name Best Summer Ever, three friends Chris Vermillion, Stephen Frandsen and Taylor Nimtz headed to a burger joint for dinner and emerged as Shakedown at the Majestic. It's a name they hope will conjure a fifties vibe, the same sort of nostalgia and retro rock they aim for in their nascent sound. It's a name that fits, seeing as how the band-members cite such old time influences as Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys. The band often describes their music as "powerpop with a fifties vibe." Power is right--there are shades of the Beatles in tunes so catchy you find yourself humming them the next day, and pop is there for sure, in the bubblegum beat of songs like "Bria," sung with all the earnestness of a 1960s boy-band like the Turtles or the Who before they all went psychedelic. They are often compared to Weezer. But, adding to the strong melodies and tight vocals is something else--I know I heard a little reggae and a touch of rhumba in a few of the songs, spiciness delivered with a suit-and-tie seriousness that separates Shakedown from their nearest comparisons, current bands like Ra Ra Riot and Modern Skirts. But not too serious. Shakedown at the Majestic knows how to rock the house. With Stephen leading the audience in body rolls, the music is definitely danceable. In fact, I dare you to hold still. (Shake it, don't break it!)

Like most of the young New Yorkers that I know, the members of Shakedown at the Majestic have been in the city a few years, having initially come in pursuit of careers that have nothing to do with being musicians. Taylor, now with a day job in finance, played drums in various college garage bands and "I always thought I'd grow out of it," he says. "But as life kicked me in the teeth here in the city, I realized playing the drums was cool and I needed to get back into it." He and Chris started jamming for fun, and formed briefly as Suede Silhouette. Then Stephen joined in, things clicked, the feel was right. Shakedown at the Majestic features Chris Vermillion on guitar and lead vocals, Stephen Frandsen on bass and vocals, and Taylor Nimtz on drums and also providing vocals. It is a vibrant combination.

Chris Vermillion has been writing songs since his days as a drummer in a high school grunge band. Musical composition is important to him, and despite growing up in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, he's actually more drawn to Brazilian bossa nova, naming Antonio Carlos Jobim one of his strongest inspirations. As Shakedown's primary songwriter, he rhapsodizes about chord progressions, which is where he'll start when writing a song. Lyrics come later, after the substance of the piece has been created through "catchy, stick-in-your head" melodies and harmonies layered to perfection. While he can be protective of his song-craft, more and more these days he is sharing songwriting efforts with Stephen and Taylor, enjoying the collaboration of jamming with band-mates and letting the songs coalesce as a team effort. Building on its solid powerpop foundation, Shakedown at the Majestic continues to exhibit a distinctive blend of rock and roll, punk, doo-wop, and complete individuality.

Definitely right now the band's focus seems to be on developing their sound and their live performance. When asked about goals, they reply modestly about just wanting to play better, perform better, give the audience a better show. Practice is important to them; they take their music seriously. And, though they are taking things one step at a time, working first to perfect their craft before quitting their day jobs and going on the road in search of fame and fortune, none of the guys are averse to the idea of making music full time if the moment becomes right. Well, the moment seems to be getting closer. With a steadily growing fan base, plenty of opportunities to perform around the city, a debut recording in the works, and the chance to win a trip to Germany as part of this Friday's Emergenza Music Festival, Shakedown at the Majestic is poised to become a major player in New York's independent music scene. Keep an eye on these guys--they will not disappoint.

Come see Shakedown at the Majestic rock Webster Hall this Friday, July 10! Bring your dance moves. You know I'll be there.

Shakedown At The Majestic - Please Lucia! from Back Porch Media on Vimeo.

Photos by Jess White. Visit her photoblog.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Harlem Church of the Week

Sorry--I forgot to post a church last week, but I have not forgotten my own tradition. Nor have I run out of churches. There are still a million churches of all description waiting for their 15 seconds of fame on my blog. Here is a really skinny one. It's the "Mt. Calvary I.A.M.E." church but I have no idea what those letters stand for.

Independence Day

Recipe for a Lovely Independence Day:

1 lazy morning sleeping in.
1 leisurely train ride with a silly magazine.
3 hours laying on Jones Beach, eating fried chicken, popcorn, and playing in the surf.
1 leisurely train ride back to the city, half-napping.
A few more lazy hours in the sunshine.
Fireworks downtown, 11th Avenue the closest we could get.
D train home, lickity split.
Party on the roof with the neighbor boys: We brought the firecrackers, they provided the sparks.

America, we love you!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Cradle of Liberty

A friend's new car and a beautiful Saturday were two reasons to take a road-trip to Philadelphia. This beautiful city, the "City of Brotherly Love" is also called the Cradle of Liberty, because this is where our nation was formally established by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was also the backdrop for the drafting of the nation's constitution, the inauguration of the first two presidents, and so much more. The Liberty Bell is here, and Valley Forge just a few miles away.
Our first stop was Independence Hall, where we toured the rooms where Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and all the others spent so much time forging the details of what would become the United States of America. The 18th century georgian building is now overshadowed by skyscrapers, but it remains a beautiful site nestled within the city, and is surrounded by other contemporaneous structures such as Carpenter's Hall, the Philosophical Hall, and houses where lived notable men of Philadelphia during the time of the Revolution. Across the way there is a visitor's center, where we visited the Liberty Bell, and we wandered all around, touring the various structures and soaking in the history. The day was gorgeous, and it felt good to be out walking, exploring, and discovering things about my country.

When we got hungry we headed downtown for Philly cheese steak sandwiches from a place called Joe's. Wandering through a flea market, plenty more historical streets, and a wedding just emerging from a church, we took our cheese steaks to the cemetery on the grounds of a very old church, and when we were done eating we went inside. It turned out to be St. Peter's, the church that George Washington used to go to whenever he was in Philadelphia. We sat in the pew where he sat, and learned a little bit about the history of the church. Later, we visited another church, at Valley Forge, about a half hour's drive outside of Philadelphia, famous as the place where Washington's army camped one terrible winter during the war. Once a place of bitter struggle for survival, Valley Forge now houses a museum with artifacts of the war, of native American, and of prehistoric life. There are also numerous memorials to the soldiers who lived and died there, as well as monuments to Washington, our first general and president.
One of those is a beautiful chapel, with gorgeous stained glass windows and tracery. I took a lot of pictures, including a shot of one of the windows, probably made in the 40s or 50s, when Americanization was still popularly seen as a wonderful thing. I think that nowadays, in the tide of political correctness, many might say that we ought not to enforce "American" values on others. But really, what are American values, or what ought they to be? Freedom, peace, civil rights, and opportunities for business, family, and personal growth. If sharing these values with other people is Americanization, then long live Americanization.

America has also received the reputation of being full of gluttons, which is an exaggeration, but may have some basis of truth, because when we were done wandering around Valley Forge, we headed back to Philadelphia to find some more cheese steaks! This time we decided to go where the Philadelphians go, and ended up at Pat's. The line was around the corner and down the street. Across the street, neon signs covered another cheese steak establishment called Geno's. It too had a line around the corner and down the street. Which one was better? Pat's had a historical marker next to it, erected by the city, declaring it to be the home of the original cheese steak. But the Philadelphia motorcycle cops were eating at Geno's. Hmmm... I guess it was all the neon that convinced us Pat's would be better. Surely the food could stand on its own, without shameless promotion. Pat's didn't have any neon--just a big mural with pictures of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and a sign that stated it was "King of Steaks." I'm sure Geno's is delicious, but Pat's was divine! Despite having a cheese steak for lunch, another cheese steak for dinner was amazing, with diet coke and fries to boot.
After that, the sun was setting, but there was more of Philadelphia to see. We wandered over to the City Hall, looked at giant sculptures of dominoes and Monopoly game pieces, and the Robert Indiana "Love" sculpture, among others. Downtown Philadelphia is like one big sculpture park, with amazing architectural specimens mixed in, like the Arthurian-looking Masonic Temple and amazing Art Deco department stores. As the sun set over the City of Brotherly Love, my friends and I grabbed some ice cream and headed home. Two days later, back in New York, my friend's car was stolen, and we were even more thankful that we had enjoyed one road trip while we could.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

You Swept Me Away

The cover art for the new Avett Brothers album, due out in late September, is a portrait painted by band member Scott Avett. The piece is completely unlike any of the Avett Brothers' other album artwork, which has been dark but not quite so literal. It's also kind of a bad painting. With an irrefutable love for the Avett's music, I have no love for this painting. The woman's head (or is that Neil Young?) is fine, with Rembrandt-like crudity and chiuroscuro that would make Caravaggio proud. The skull adds an element of vanitas, an age-old symbolism evoking life's transience. However, what is going on with... her arm? It doesn't look at all like it belongs to her body, and the painting is rendered too black to make the parts properly relate to each other. Is she holding the skull? Couldn't the Avett Brothers have used a better work of art, something in the same vein from George de La Tour perhaps? Who knows why the Avetts chose this painting for their cover art, but I hope it isn't indicative of the music that will be included. Will the music be dark and obscure? Have the Avett Brothers lost touch with reality? Are they trying too hard to be serious?

Musically, the Avett Brothers have consistently proven that they are immensely talented. Emerging from the foothills of North Carolina with extraordinary energy and heart, they have created a mixture of American roots music, folk, blues, rock, punk and rhythm that goes beyond categorization. I have never seen a livelier performance by another band, nor heard more heartfelt lyrics. Their talent is evidenced by the crowds at their shows. When I first found out about them, I'd go see them play empty bars in small North Carolina towns where sometimes the guy at the door would let you in free if you were a girl. Despite the small attendance, the Avett's would always put on the show of their life. Guitar and banjo strings broke by the dozen, and harmonicas would go flying. At the end of the night I'd shake Seth and Scott's sweaty hands and they'd ask how I was. The music and performances were an infectious combination, and the more they played, the bigger the crowds became. Now the Avetts sell-out stadiums, tour with Dave Matthews, play for Leno and are interviewed by Vanity Fair. Rick Rubin is producing their upcoming album. Though still quite gracious, they wouldn't remember me, and on their nationwide tours they only stop to play in North Carolina once or twice a year.

"So do you stop liking a band once it becomes popular, because its not cool anymore?" a friend asked me recently. No, of course not. But I feel a little like a parent, proud of my kids who've succeeded beyond their own endeavors, and moving on with my own life. While I check in now and then to make sure they are well, I leave them to their own devices. So, paint whatever you want, Scott Avett, and put it on your album; I will tape it to my metaphorical refrigerator. Your music I will always love, not just because its good, but because I am also sentimentally attached to it. It is tied up inextricably with memories of love, heartbreak, long Southern summer nights, New Years Eve parties, road-trips, and bits of my life that I can't even explain.

But it had been a long time since I'd seen an Avett Brothers show, so I decided to go see them a few weeks ago, when they were in NYC. They played two nights at the Fillmore at Irving Plaza, a lovely venue with intimacy that belied its size. The set list was a mixture of old and new, which Scott, Seth and Bobby Crawford performed with as much zeal as they ever have. Seth played a large role with solos, and with a fourth man, Joe Kwon, on the string bass, Bob worked it on the guitar. It was different, and it was the same. And it was really really good. The Avett Brothers put more energy and heart into one show than many other bands put into their whole careers. The music is clever, earthy, real and yet danceable and singable. The songs are about life's questions, about love, and about lessons learned. Gorgeous melodies combine with foot-stomping beats, and pretty soon everyone is either dancing or crying. If they weren't as spontaneous as in years past (and who would have known--they gave incredible energy as always), it was because they were concentrating on creating a perfect sound, a perfect song each time. If they didn't play all of my favorite songs, it was only because there are too many great ones to choose from. And if they have bad cover album art, it is apparently completely unconnected to their music, because the Avett Brothers are only getting better.

I like what Seth Avett said in a recent interview in American Songwriter: "We've seen a lot of temporary, disposable, plastic music in the mainstream. When the public becomes over saturated with that, its very pleasing to the ear to hear something more simple and human, and with less libido, like somone's just talking to you." Well, these guys can talk to me any time. And the only paintings I'm concerned about are the ones they paint with their songs.

A Big Smile

Let me break the silence of this blog by making an announcement: I have no cavities! After my employers decided to raise everyones dental insurance payments and thus almost causing a revolt, I decided it was probably time I take advantage of said dental insurance. And as much as I hate being in the dentist's chair, I must admit that it was kind of fun having a high-rise view of midtown to distract me from what the dentist was doing. I won't go into the details. (The picture here is a dentist's trade sign from the mid 19th century on display at the American Museum of Folk Art. Signs like these were common in a time when many people could not read.)

I celebrated my good teeth by eating a bunch of sugary things.