Saturday, May 30, 2009

Washington Slept Here, A Tree It Can Grow Here

So, blogs are my new thing. (And you're reading about it on a blog - how meta!) As I sit and kill time on endless copycat Rockland nights or lonely, lazy Saturdays, I find myself reading. And reading. And reading some more. Brokelyn. Brooklyn Based. L Magazine. Somewhere in my travels, I came across the listing for Score!, a giant free swap -- of clothing, books, music and more -- at Brooklyn Yard, in Carroll Gardens right on the Gowanus. And so today, I packed up my mother and sister, and we met up with Aubrey for a glorious day of outer-borough hipsterdom.

I didn't really know what to expect, but I knew to be super excited. I couldn't have had any idea, though, just how cool it would be. Rack after rack of corduroy jeans and track jackets and funky T-shirts. A DJ playing a reggae version of "Tainted Love" just a few feet from the canal. Absolutely delicious Mexican food cooked and served out 'neath a corrugated tin roof. Hipster parents holding hands with their hipster babies, all under the watchful eye of the Williamsburg Saving Bank.

I got myself a track jacket, a really excellently scruffed-up dockworker coat, some gloriously weird T-shirts -- but the tangible souvenirs weren't the important part. Today was a really fantastic lesson in why Brooklyn works. The swap was all about recognizing all we have to give to each other. Looking at what we have to get from each other is the wrong approach. As fun as it was to swap up someone's forgotten goodies, it was even cooler to see the hipster woman in the bright orange coat, screamingly green skirt and tortoise-shell glasses paw the Halloween costume we had donated, even better to watch the arty lesbian give Reading Lolita in Tehran a good shake and stick it in her purse.

The way I see it, Brooklyn has finally stopped longing to be Manhattan. Even Bushwick is getting gentrified. Families are making the choice to raise their families in Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights, not the Lower East Side and the Village. There's just something organic about the whole borough. And it's not just because it gets how cool it is that Park Slope hipsters can walk their dogs two blocks away from the "urban" kids playing basketball in the public park.

But maybe Brooklyn never even had any Gotham lust. Maybe the quiet pride you see in so many of its denizens translates to the borough itself. Maybe Kings County gets that it's gritty and arty and dirty and fascinating and subtle and layered, and it likes it. And how lucky we all are for that.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Heppy Bears-Day TO YOU!: Lil Places I Love

There's something to be said for casting off all propriety and decorum, throwing all the little rules we make for ourselves out the window. It's easy to get so caught up in life that you forget where you are. And suddenly, you snap out of it and realize you're celebrating someone's 80th birthday at a tawdry Russian nightclub in the heart of Brighton Beach, eating caviar-filled blini and gloriously fried potatoes while you watch scantily-clad Slavic Amazons writhe around to heavily-accented pop song karaoke. This is Tatiana.

Tucked away on the corner of the Brighton Beach boardwalk closest to the border with Manhattan Beach, Tatiana looks like it could be just another cheap and delicious attempt at recreating Odessa in New York, substituting the Atlantic for the Black Sea. But Tatiana is so much more. Every one of these little bistros have their specialties. Volga's where you go for pelmeni, Primorski's where you go for Georgian grub and Tatiana's where you go for weird.

This is what Tatiana says about itself, on its Web site: "Ladies hang on to your husbands and guys don't forget to shave, because there are plenty of people to impress. You do not need a red carpet invitation to see city's top fashion worn in style and such sex appeal that is even desired by many celebrities."

I rarely get the chance now to go to the nightclub part of the restaurant (maybe this summer?), but my first experience was a memorable one. It was family matriarch Khana's 80th birthday, and I was just finishing middle school. The party didn't start until 10 or so, and we entered the grand banquet hall to see table after table stocked high with Russian food. But at around midnight, the real fun began. Six or seven Russian women came out in outfits ... that were just so Bob Mackie-bizarre. As they danced to late 90's techno (Brighton Beach is always a few years behind) like "Blue (Da Ba Dee)", I became fantastically aware that this was why I loved New York. You just won't find anything this flat-out strange in Peoria or Harrisburg, even Philly or Boston, I'd contend.

I still go to Tatiana from time to time (sometimes on momentous occasions, like my last meal pre-Israel,) but it's clear nothing will ever top the memory of a bevy of Muscovite dancers serenading my 80-year-old great-aunt with a loud and raucous "Heppy Bears-Day TO YOU." That experience lives alone.

Tatiana Restaurant and Nightclub
3152 Brighton 6th St.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Twofer Tuesday: Follow, Misguide, Stand Still

I chanced upon Michael Holbrook Penniman, commonly known as Mika, this weekend totally by accident. At the baking and wine party I had with the Prozdor girls, we all took turns using Liore's snazzy iPhone to play DJ. Someone put on this song, and I fell in love instantly. Mika's got a Freddie Mercury-esque quality to his voice, a fact he totally plays up in "Grace Kelly." That's a brilliant song, too, but my favorite of his is "Big Girl (You are Beautiful)" - it's got a wonderful video, too!


Everyone knows Phoenix by now. "1901" is totally ubiquitous - and that status is hella well-deserved. These Versailles-born lads can craft one hell of a pop song. Like MGMT or Justice if they really cared about lyrics, there's a magical, synthy quality to all this stuff. (And the lead singer's got the good sense to be dating Sofia Coppola - maybe he can talk to her and we can get more Virgin Suicides, less Marie Antoinette?). So, yeah -- "1901" is great, but "Lisztomania" is even better.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Twofer Tuesday: Pram's All Full of Pamphlets

Twofer Tuesday today includes one song from L Magazine's list of 8 NYC Bands You Need to Hear: 2009 and another from one of my favorite music blogs. I can't lay claim to finding this music, but I can certainly take some ownership of loving it.


Found this New Zealand-based band through the Music Alliance Pact project on the excellent blog I Guess I'm Floating. Though their sound is more like Boy Crazy or the Clumsy Lovers' non-banjo-driven stuff, what makes "Pamphlet Baby" pack a punch is the tale it tells. Much like The Decemberists' "A Cautionary Tale" disguises a mother forced to prostitute herself to feed herself as a lilting sea shanty, this song takes the sad tale of a mother whose baby dies and wraps it up in feel-good, mellow girlie pop. It's a fun little song, and the video below is delightfully low-budget.


Aubrey and I have remarkably similar taste in music. We even have "super" compatibility on So it surprised me when I sent her to the link to "Blackout City," my favorite track from Brooklyn-based electro wizards Anamanaguchi, and her reaction was "it's like LET US BE AS ANNOYING AS POSISBLE/ ughh i loathe it." Clearly, this song's not for everyone, but the combination of jangly guitars and the bouncy electronica of mid-90s Nintendo TOTALLY works for me. What do you think? (Take note of the too-cute music video.)

Monday, May 18, 2009


Happy 39th birthday, Tina Fey!

What a stellar year this woman has had. Back in September, she grabbed the national spotlight like a woman possessed when America decided she'd be our go-to Sarah Palin stand-in. With her razor-sharp delivery, her winks, her goofy gestures, she defined that Alaskan yeti before Palin had a chance to define herself. Thanks, Tina, for making sure Barack got the presidency, for ensuring that our collective consciousness wouldn't be tricked or distracted by that snowbilly Empress of the North.

And then there was 30 Rock. The NBC cult comedy's defiant third season out-catchphrased itself ("That's a dealbreaker, ladies," "Nords!", "the patron saint of judgmental statues") and remained wickedly hilarious. Extra points to Tina Fey for making the parade of guest stars work, for giving Alan Alda and Salma Hayek and Jennifer Aniston (ugh) and even Oprah real characters to play, not using them as walk-on "look who we nabbed" talent, a la Will & Grace.

Keep it up, Tina. We're all better for having you entertain us.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Me and Mrs. Jones

In wonderful and offbeat news this morning, The Daily Mail is reporting that author Helen Fielding is developing a stage musical for London's West End based on lovable singleton Bridget Jones. I couldn't be more thrilled.

My love for Miss Jones is no secret. When I did that law program in Carlisle in 2003 (why does this keep popping up this week?), a bunch of us started a summer book club. Bridget Jones's Diary was someone's choice for first entry. After a July and August spent traveling from Philly to Boston, New York to Hong Kong, it returned to me tattered and well-loved, notes scribbled in the margins and choice excerpts highlighted. The film's even better -- featuring a raucous star turn from Renee Zellweger (this was on her last legs of likability, and she was soon to squander her Jerry Maguire/Nurse Betty potential in overly self-aware Oscar bait like Cold Mountain and Cinderella Man) and a brigade of unendingly quotable goofy lines. It was the last film I saw at the late, great Clearview Cinemas in New City, adjacent to the late, great Bradlee's and the late, great Pizza Hut. I'm even one of the rare few who enjoyed Zellweger's mostly ill-advised return to Jonesland, 2004's Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.

So, I have plenty of reasons to be excited about this musical adaptation. What do you think?

(ALSO - In other fun theater news, Pushing Daisies pixie Anna Friel will be taking over for Audrey Hepburn in a stage adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Hmm ... I think I like that.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pours a Daydream in a Cup: 'Lil Places I Love

Blog note: In this blog's previous incarnation, Thursdays were the home of 'Lil Places I Love, small peeks inside some of my favorite cafes and bookstores and cinemas and whatever else around this city and around the world. Today, I'm taking it far back to the beginning of high school, to Cafe Max -- one of the first places that helped me believe I was more than just a tourist in New York, that I had claim to this city, too, despite making my home in suburbia.

I spent the summer of 2003 at Dickinson College, taking part in a CTY program on Law and Politics in United States History. Much as I loved the class, the best part of those three weeks were the friends I made. We banded together to draft an ill-advised petition when our TA was dismissed from the program for marijuana possession. We trekked through fields and parking lots on a quest for a movie theater showing no less cinematic greatness than Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde. (How do you feel about that Oscar, Reese Witherspoon?) We talked life.

So when I began JTS's Prozdor program in Manhattan the fall of my freshman year, it was a source of tremendous comfort to be starting out with CTY crony Sarah Schoenberg in tow. Though we've mostly fallen out of touch as of late, she was my confidante and one of my closest friends for a good six months or so. On those lazy Sunday mornings -- as a whole Hebrew school filed out to the Secret Garden Cafe (and its resplendent spinach-and-mushroom quiche is the subject of another post) -- we explored. We walked down to Columbia and popped into the university bookstore. We traveled a few blocks over to the river, snuck up stairs to the roof of JTS. We were little rebels. And then we found Cafe Max.

When you think of intellectuals sipping on cappuccinos, reading Kafka on languid afternoons, you think of Cafe Max. When you think of pretty, witty foreign baristas, you just know they're working at Cafe Max. When you have a good think about Joni Mitchell's "dark cafe days," she'll lead you to Cafe Max.

The cafe is a sort of protective oasis from the hustle and stress of city life. With little to no regular tables and chairs, Cafe Max forces you to sit down and relax, take a half-hour to sink yourself into a faded, plush sofa and disappear. The paintings on the wall drip with whimsy -- a canvas print of "La Donna Piu Grande Nel Mondo" (The Biggest Woman in the World" and a leprechaun painted onto a map of Italy. The food, too, is delicious -- try the bruschetta crostini or the panini parma. But most of all, Cafe Max works for no bigger reason than its general vibe. For a year, Sarah and I found our way for weekly therapy sessions. It remains a special place for me.

Just a note: as I searched online to confirm the address (1262 Amsterdam Ave, btw), I realized that the blogosphere generally refers to my Cafe Max as Max Cafe. Ah well. It will always be Cafe Max for me.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Put the Go in Gokey!

Well done, America!

After ten trying weeks, we've finally given the boot to this nation's creepiest, growliest, Robert Downey, Jr. doppelgangeriest ghoulish widower -- that talentless hack known as Danny Gokey. From the very moment he charged our TV screens, awash in saccharine producer-driven sympathy packaging and hoisting photos of his late wife, there was something screamingly wrong about this worship leader from Wisconsin.

Maybe it was his tuneless axe jobs at popular American songs (he clearly did not get the memo that you're not supposed to understand the words in Earth, Wind and Fire's "September"). Maybe it was his self-indulgent "swagga" -- to borrow a phrase from Kara DioGuardi, this nation's worst invention since the Snuggie. Maybe it was the way he said "thank you" to the AI crowd after every performance, like this was the Atlanta leg of his 37-city tour, not Disco Week on a reality TV show. Maybe it was that dying cat note he tacked on the end of "Dream On." Whatever it was, he just didn't jibe with me.

His shtick robbed us of the bluesy grit of Alexis Grace, the sultry twang of Jesse Langseth, the clear, sure voice of Ricky Braddy, the drop-dead gorgeous that was Megan Joy Corkrey. He overstayed his welcome, and I'm glad he's gone.

Next week will be a finale for the ages. Kris and Adam both stand an equal shot of winning this thing, and both may be just about equally deserving. Who are you gunning for? I haven't picked my favorite yet, but I know I'll be refreshing DialIdol like a fiend next Tuesday. I'm an Idol worshipper. It's a curse.

Wednesday's Written Word: Too Young, Too Brooklyn, Actually

Blog note: Another day, another re-emerging blog series. Wednesdays used to be the home of Wednesday's Written Word, a forum for excerpts of excellent books -- and I think I'll stick with it. Today, we explore Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude.

Jonathan Lethem is one of those media darling Brooklynite authors, one of those Dave Eggers-lite 826NYC folks. There's a good chance he lives around the corner from Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer, bumps into Vendela Vida when getting Starbucks in Williamsburg. Dude's published pieces in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Harper's, The Paris Review and McSweeny's. But stylistically, Lethem couldn't be farther from his hipster outer-borough friends. He makes you turn the page by grounding his fiction in identifiable reality, not by engaging in fits of wordplay and twee literary games. Each style has its merits, but Lethem's is grittier. It all coalesces to make The Fortress of Solitude, a '70s coming-of-age novel that roars off the page like the streetwise cousin of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I thought a lot about what passage to pick, and I decided on the book's perfectly spun opener. To give you anything else would spoil this magical reading experience.

Like a match struck in a darkened room:

Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o'clock on an evening in July.

The girls murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes, their gauzy, sky-pink hair streaming like it had never once been cut. The girls' parents had permitted them back on the street after dinner, only first changing into the gowns and brushing their teeth for bed, to bask in the orange-pink summer dusk, the air and light which hung over the street, over all of Gowanus like the palm of a hand or the inner surface of a seashell. The Puerto Rican men seated on milk crates in front of the bodega on the corner grunted at the apparition, not sure of what they were seeing. They widened their lips to show one another their teeth, a display to mark patience, wordless enduring. The street strewn with bottle caps half-pushed into the softened tar, Yoo-Hoo, Rheingold, Manhattan Special.

The girls, Thea and Ann Solver, shone like a new-struck flame.

An old white woman had arrived on the block before the Solvers, to reclaim one of the abused buildings, one which had been a rooming house, replacing fifteen men with only herself and her crated belongings. She was actually the first. But Isabel Vendle only lurked like a rumor, like an apostrophe inside her brownstone, where at this moment she crept with a cane between the basement apartment and her bedroom in the old parlor on the first floor, to that room where she read and slept under the crumbled, unrestored plaster ceiling. Isabel Vendle was a knuckle, her body curled around the gristle of old injuries. Isabel Vendle remembered a day in a packed boat on Lake George, she scratched letters with a pen dipped in ink, she pushed stamps against a sponge in a dish. Her desktop was cork. Isabel Vendle had money but her basement rooms stank of rinds, damp newspaper.

The girls on wheels were the new thing, spotlit to start the show: white people were returning to Dean Street. A few.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Twofer Tuesday: Followed Your Breadcrumbs

Blog note: A reintroduction! How lovely! Fans (are there such things?!) of this blog will remember this erstwhile staple: Twofer Tuesday. Every Tuesday, you'll be treated to two songs I can't get out of my head. On most occasions, they're quite good. And this week:


If you know me, you know I love covers. And as fellow cover-lovers know, there's a few gold standards: Ted Leo's "Since U Been Gone"; Hot Club de Paris's "You Can Call Me Al"; Death Cab for Cutie's "World Shut Your Mouth." Add one more to that list: Jenny Owen Youngs' glorious take on "Hot in Herre." It's smart, it's sassy and it knows exactly when to hew to Nelly's original and when to take his words and see how far they'll stretch.

But this folksy Jersey girl is far more than that one triumph. Check out her lilting, interesting takes on melancholy in "Fuck Was I" and "Drinking Song." Yup, Youngs is no one-hit wonder. And -- as the song I literally cannot stop playing this week can attest to -- she's pretty great when she ups the tempo, too. Enjoy "Led to the Sea":


I discovered these twangy Iowans totally by chance last summer. I found their CD on the subway, and when it went unclaimed from Grand Central to Union Square, I loaded it onto my computer. It wasn't until this morning that I finally decided to give Crimes (which turns out to actually be their sophomore album) a listen. It was worth the wholly unnecessary wait I made for myself. 12 hours later, I've only really explored one song, but I can't stop raving about it.

"Honor Amongst Thieves" is quirky without being needlessly twee, erudite but not pretentious, repetitive but never boring. It sounds like one of those O Brother, Where Art Thou '20s jigs, like the earlier work of the Ditty Bops without coming across as quite so consciously self-aware. Give it a try. It's weird, but it's wonderful.

Also, what luck! I just realized that both Jenny and These United States are performing at Bowery Ballroom on May 27. I think I'll be there -- will you?

Monday, May 11, 2009

This is the First Day of My Life

The way I see it, summer's all about reinvention. And so, this blog is going through a catharsis -- hopefully part and parcel of a transformation that will make this page a little more fun, a little less angry.

Expect to see more arts coverage now that the semester's done and less political rants -- although my inner feminist may yet be awakened from time to time. Most of all, what are you looking for from the blog?

Let me know. :)

- Alex.