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  • La Cabane à Olivier

    In 2008, in Just Like Everyone Else,  I wrote about the Quebecois who encamp on the streets of NYC at Christmas time to sell trees. I see these operations yearly, however, this year I came across a couple of vendors whose makeshift homes were more substantial than anything I have previously seen. On Bleecker Street, near the LaGuardia Corner Gardens and the Morton Williams supermarket, I found an operation run by Olivier Moreau and his friend, Carl.

    I peered through his window and greeted Olivier in the best French I could muster with, I am sure, a French Canadian accent. His ears perked up, much like the feral child who hears the familiar sounds of nuts rustling, and I sensed in his response that he immediately saw me as one of them. I suppose I am, and I explained to him that I was born in northern Maine, where French was and still is the lingua franca of that region. I grew up hearing French spoken, particularly among family gatherings when younger and to this day, my mother still speaks to me in an amalgam of Franglais, French, and English.

    I was drawn into his amazing little abode, La Cabane. His rustic quarters was outfitted with all the comforts of home – a bunk bed, an easy chair, a stove, lights, a desk/table, and a wall of tools. It was a balmy, unusually warm evening, and for the Quebecois, no more than a T-shirt was needed. We discussed his business, where he gets his trees (Douglas and Frasier firs from North Carolina), and his top selling ornament (a crossection of tree that proclaims “Mom, I’m Gay”). I quickly guided the conversation towards my favorite French Canadian slang, all of which, to my delight, they were well familiar with. I asked about the unusually spirited French music they were listening to, and they introduced me to an artist I was unfamiliar with – Mononc’ Serge – apparently quite popular, known for his irreverent and vulgar lyrics and sardonic humor. The meeting and conversation was another great New York moment, befitting the Christmas season.

    It is amusing to see the lavish homes in New York City often marketed as a possible pied-à-terre, places that most can only dream of as a primary residence. But here, on Bleecker Street, was a true pied-à-terre: the small, modest second home of a Frenchman on his brief stay in New York City, La Cabane à Olivier :)

  • The Man Himself

    In 2002, I negotiated the sale of my business which operates under my own name. After extended negotiations between parties, the deal ultimately fell through. The sticking point? My attorney would not give the buyer exclusive and perpetual right to my name, the way the contract was drafted. When I asked why, she was so obstinate about this point. After all, they were buying the business, which was built around my name, were they not? She said there was extensive case law where former business owners were prohibited from opening new, unrelated enterprises utilizing their names. It was a good offer financially, and for years I have blamed myself for allowing my lawyer to “lose the deal.” Until this morning, when I read the story of Patsy Grimaldi.

    On February 9, 2011, I wrote Zero Minutes!, about my visit to the legendary Brooklyn Pizzeria, Grimaldi’s. The story title referenced the unusual and fortuitous lack of a line, which was typically hours long. Now visitors have a new option – Juliana’s, which operates from the same spot that Grimaldi’s once did. Grimaldi’s is located around the corner, located in the landmark building, One Front Street.
    I assumed that the new pizzeria, typically less crowded, garnered its traffic from those who mistakenly went to the original location, or, like I did last night, opt for a shorter line. Online reviews for Juliana’s were quite high, surprising, until I learned the reason why.

    In 1998, Patsy Grimaldi sold the naming and branding rights to Frank Ciolli. Disputes between Ciolli and the landlord led Ciolli to move Grimald’s to its current location at One Front Street, leaving the original coal oven behind. Regretting his departure from the business and seeing his name negatively portrayed in the media, Patsy reopened in 2011 at the original location. Unable to use either Patsy or Grimaldi in the name, he settled for Juliana, Patsy’s late mother.

    The pizza was delicious and the waiter very cordial. In conversation at the meal’s end, he informed me that the older gentleman walking throughout the restaurant was none other than the man himself, THE Patsy Grimaldi. Stunned, I immediately told him of my previous story on the pizzeria and asked if I could meet the owner. The waiter, in spite of a very hectic environment, made it a point to arrange a meet and greet. And so, a few minutes later and, after he posed with patrons for photos, I met Patsy Grimaldi. I complimented his pizza, and he told me a little about the back story  and how unhappy he was at the way events had unfolded in the Grimaldi saga. He suggested that I come back at a later date if I wanted to discuss the story at length. I told him I would come back and shoot video as well. He agreed.

    And so it was another New York moment, all due to a serendipitous sequence of events. After a day of touring in Williamsburg and Bushwick, I was ready to return home in Manhattan. My girlfriend, however, tired of eating in the same old haunts, suggested taking a chance to see how busy Grimadl’s would be. When we arrived at Fulton Ferry, it was the typical mob of patrons, which meant either trying Juliana’s or returning home. At Juliana’s, there was no wait, as we were immediately ushered in by an older man waring a cook’s smock with Patsy Grimaldi embroidered on it. I assumed it was a relic of the old Grimaldi’s and evidence of a competitor capitalizing on the location of a previous owner. But alas, I was wrong. We had, in fact, stumbled upon the real thing, run by The Man Himself :)

    Food Note: How’s the pizza? Excellent – one of the top pies in New York City. A signature coal-fired thin crust with the ingredients and toppings in perfect proportions – not too cheesy (and thereby oily), the bane of nearly every pizza in town.

    For more pizza, check out my list of the Best Pizza in New York, on which Grimaldi’s is included.

  • Friendship Lights

    A running theme of my life in New York City has been seeking out those small gestures of kindness, consideration, love, humanity, and joyfulness. Why do I say small? On September 4, 2012, I wrote Humanity Comes in Small Bites. From that story:

    New York City is much loved by many. However, it is no paradise, and the slings and arrows can easily outweigh the pleasures. I cannot speak to the experience of living full-time anywhere else, but this is no heaven and unless a masochist, the resident is best to lower their expectations for bliss and look for Pockets of Joy and Small Gestures, not Eden. Random acts of consideration will stand out and become noteworthy events, set against acts of rudeness. Here, acts of humanity come in small bites, not large meals.

    On October 1, sitting in Washington Square Park with a friend, we noticed an individual place a small light on the ground clipped to a white card. Everything about it seemed deliberate. It beckoned to be picked up, so I did, handing the light to my friend while I kept the note. On one side of the small white card it said:

    If you are lonely, sad or missing someone special,

    please take this free Friendship Light.

    On the reverse side:

    A year ago I had a dream of people united, playing and having fun. People of all races and creeds were tossing and wearing this little glowing light. This moved me deep inside. I worked day and night for a year to make this dream come true. They are called Friendship Lights and represent love and friendship.

    If you are feeling alone, missing someone special, ill or need a smile – please take one. It will warm your heart and help to get you focused on positive side of life. It has for me and many others.

    I do not want anything in return. Your happiness will make me happy. And I believe good deeds make you a better person. We all get down sometimes and need someone or something to get us back on track. If you are interested in reading my story and why I do this: http://www.friendshiplight.com/maker

    God bless,

    We delighted in the impromptu gift and positive, life affirming message. And so, Jack has decided to make an industry of Small Gestures with his Friendship Lights

    About the inventor: Jack Giambanco is a Gravesend, Brooklyn resident where he makes the lights in his garage in various colors from a biodegradable plastic. You can read more about Jack and the story behind The Friendship Light here.

  • Assistant Pigeon Feeder

    A friend loves quoting a comedy piece from the late 1990s from New York’s TV comedy program, Saturday Night Live. In their Weekend Update, news anchor Norm Macdonald reports:

    Well, the magazine P.O.V. came out this week, with a list of the best and worst jobs to have in the next century. The three best were, in this order: Multimedia Software Designer, Management Consultant, and Interactive Advertising Executive; while their worst, for the third year in a row: Crack Whore.

    Later in the segment, Norm was handed a piece of paper and announced, “Correction to the story earlier: The actual worst job is Assistant Crack Whore.”

    In a recent conversation with Ferris Butler, I asked for suggestions in writing a comedy piece for a story idea I had for this blog. He pointed out that a key element is often absurdity and suggested that I take an absurd twist on my idea, rather than what I was thinking. If absurdity is effective as a comedic element, what is more absurd (and worse) than “assistant crack whore” as a job position?

    On August 22, 2012, I wrote Easily Washed Off, a story about a Washington Square Park habitué known as Pigeon Paul. Apparently, many visitors new to Paul and his feeding spectacle find it novel, quaint, and endearing. Personally, I find it rather unsettling and avoid looking at Paul when he is feeding pigeons. Even using the walkway near Paul’s bench is disgusting, as it is covered in pigeon excrement.

    Recently, passing through the area, I noticed a well-known homeless man, Larry, taking over Paul’s work. Larry appeared to be reveling in the attention he was getting from both the birds and passersby. Watching the display somewhat reluctantly, Norm Macdonald’s comedy bit came to mind. Whereas I used to believe that Washington Square Park’s worst activity was Pigeon Feeder, after seeing Larry, I believe that a correction is in order. The actual worst activity is Assistant Pigeon Feeder :)

  • Mona Lisa

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    I recognized this woman from a previous encounter which I photographed and wrote about on March 25, 2011 in Front Window. Her entire wardrobe and suitcase had been painted. I had misjudged the situation, not realizing she was a painter. In one comment on that original story, a reader, Matt, said:

    I work in Penn Station and this lady lives in the station, she carries around a little can of white paint and a stick everywhere she goes.

    Recently, I ran into her again. She had staked out a small cove on 6th Avenue in the Village which she had converted to her own temporary art studio. I liked the feel of this small shrine to her brand of impressionism/pointilism. I complemented her efforts, however, she said she was in meditation. She was not very forthcoming about who she was or the nature of her art. She only gave a name of Mona Lisa. She asked for money – I gave her a couple of dollars, but she asked for more. Another brief encounter with one of New York City’s many enigmatic characters, this time Mona Lisa

    Other artists and characters: Fudge Time, Walter Mitty, King of Accordion, Mike Fontana (Part 1 and Part 2), Supercute!, Creative Expert, Criminal Suspect, Walid Soroor, Reverend Billy, Hoopmobile

    Abandon All Preconceived Notions: Mark Birnbaum (Part 1 and Part 2), Gaby Lampkey, Jenn Kabacinski (Part 1 and Part 2), Driss Aqil

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Meet the Artist

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    As a Christian proselytizer once said to his audience in Washington Square Park, saying it doesn’t make it so. And believing something, doesn’t make it so, either. This is why, in spite of intense belief in Santa Claus by millions of children around the world, a red-suited man does not fly through the air pulled by a team of reindeer. To believe otherwise is, for an adult, self-delusion. And so I thought it was with artists.
    Until quite recently, I had little patience and tolerance for those who defined themselves as ARTISTS, as if they were a different class of people who truly thought and saw things differently than the rest. To hear them speak, one would be led to believe that true artists were also more principled, i.e. they would not “sell out” but were true to their art. They would not pander to the almighty dollar like the lowly businessman.

    All of this, I thought, was pure, unadulterated crap. In my mind, these people were posers, caught up in the image of being an artist and all its hipness and coolness. People who had some interest and ability in drawing or painting, but were failures in their ability to do productive work, and hence, sought to justify their failure by playing victim in a world that does not value art and reward artists. They were unambitious and unskilled and hid behind the moniker of ARTIST in order to cloak the truth. And they were bitter.

    Meeting Philippe Petit in the 1970s did nothing initially to dispel my notions. In fact, his posture as an artist was much larger than anyone I had met. He had a serious attitude and was fiercely iconoclastic. However, the man had done things that made me begin to question what I believed about artists. Although he was not incredibly wealthy, it would have been very unfair to consider him unsuccessful or unambitious. His walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 spoke for itself. His reputation as one of the world’s quintessential street performers was legendary – I witnessed his weekly street shows in the 1970s in Washington Square Park.

    Over a period of decades I had the privilege of hearing Philippe speak on numerous occasions and getting to know him as a client. I began to observe more closely those individuals who considered themselves artists, some of them in my employ. I saw that many were neither posers nor particularly interested in the cachet or image of being an artist, but that they were genuine people and genuinely different. Most were much more visually oriented than others, noticing aesthetic nuances that others never saw. It was not a matter of training or focus to prove something; it appeared to be the way that they were wired.

    I also reexamined my own life and saw that although I had been steered towards study in mathematics, a subject that I had some natural gift for, creativity was never really acknowledged and only found an outlet within the bounds of product design. As I began writing for this website for the last seven years, I have become much more acutely aware of the creative process. My thinking has changed. I believe artists exist. Although I still do not understand precisely what makes great art great, I accept that artists are behind it. Sometimes, when my analytical side is in abeyance, I see myself more akin in spirit to artists than scientists.

    Recently, I was invited to see Philippe speak about his latest book, Why Knot?, in Bryant Park. I photographed and filmed the entire presentation, which you can see in 4 parts here. He spoke with unbridled passion and love for knot making. He demonstrated as the audience made knots with him, using a red cord that had been provided for any attendees who wanted to participate. As always, his enthusiasm was infectious. He is an artist. Of course, my saying it does not make it so, either, and not every self-proclaimed artist is one. So, go see for yourself. If you have the opportunity, attend one of Philippe’s talks. And although the phrase has been rendered a cliché by book marketers, in Philippe’s case, you really will Meet the Artist :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • A Different Kind of Sunset

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    There are many, many juxtapositions and sharp contrasts in New York City. But, barring an occasional visit from the Mennonites, there is nothing quite like seeing Hasidic Jewish men in an urban setting. The beards, payot, rabbit fur hats, tzitzit, skullcap, and formal all black three-piece suits that are worn year-round and are particularly startling to see on hot summer days.

    For eons, I have admired the spectacular vistas of Manhattan while crossing the Williamsburg Bridge by car and had promised myself I would return by foot to take photos of the New York City skyline. So, armed with my camera, I finally made the pilgrimage across the Williamsburg Bridge via the bike and footpath from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back.

    It was evening, and an extraordinary number of Hasidim were making the passage from Williamsburg to Manhattan in small groups and large. At various moments, they dominated the view down the walkway. I saw two jogging across the bridge, still dressed in traditional attire. I was not the only one to take notice – as a group passed, a man next to me stopped, turned, watched, and then commented, “What was that about?”
    I am sure that visitors to the city are startled by such an apparent anachronism. I don’t find even the piercings and tattoos of urban youth quite as shocking – the phenomenon of extreme body art and mutilation can be seen around the world and is more and more common, whether in New York City or the suburbs. But the traditional, conservative dress of Hasidic Jews along with strict religious practice, rituals, and customs, such as closing on the Sabbath, are truly remarkable to see in a place like New York City in the 21st century. Enormous retail giants like B&H Photo forgo what I imagine would be substantial business by being closed Friday afternoon and Saturday.

    I got numerous interesting photos of the bridge structure, ships passing, graffiti, building rooftops, the Domino Sugar Factory, and people crossing. Ironically, the worst photos are what I set out to shoot – the skyline. Even though I timed my visit to take advantage of the sunset, none of the skyline photos, which needed to be taken through chainlink fence, were good. It was not at all what I set out to capture. The most interesting images were of men in black in the amber glow of the setting sun. It was, altogether, A Different Kind of Sunset

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Homeowners Too

    The big city, particularly New York City, conjures up images of shysters, swindlers, scammers, and hucksters. Growing up in New England, there was a particular aversion to New York, as opposed to let’s say, the more genteel society of Boston. New York was seen as a place defined by glamour, glitz, and money – like Las Vegas, but with more style, character, and culture.

    A visit to New York City came with forewarnings from family and friends. Watch this and watch that, they said. Don’t do this and don’t go there. Be careful. In the 1970s, such admonitions were certainly prudent, however, being young and brazen, I heeded none of it, and luckily, I was never a victim of anything very serious.

    There is truth to all of this. A big city where tourism is strong means lots of naive, innocent prey and a nice thick jungle for hunters to get lost in after scalping their victims.

    Hurricane Sandy unleashed another storm in its aftermath – a flurry of flim-flam men. And a disaster of this magnitude is a big magnet for thieves – victims of the storm now had to contend with crooks not only from New York, but from out of town as well. Of course, opportunists in the wake of a disaster are nothing new. The day after 9-11, vendors were selling T-shirts in Chinatown: I Survived 9-11. Others were selling memorabilia at Ground Zero. Heinous and unconscionable. Fortunately, our mayor at the time was no-nonsense Rudy Giuliani, who decreed in seconds that such offenses would be SQUASHED immediately.

    As regular readers of this website know, I have been closely involved with cleanup and rehab of a friend’s home in Staten Island. One of the most crucial steps in the aftermath of a flooded home is mold remediation and abatement. To be done properly, this is a long and technical process, best left to professionals. The home must be dried, using commercial dryers. There are chemical treatments and HEPA vacuuming. Mold left in walls can come back with a vengance. Many homeowners hasty to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy found themselves ripping newly installed walls open, only to find mold which required proper cleanup and additional construction.

    But where to find someone reputable and honest in the sea of offerings in Sandy’s aftermath? I spoke to numerous established local businesses specializing in mold remediation. I also turned to Craigslist, where we found our final choice. In retrospect, Craigslist was perhaps not the wisest source for such a serious project, however, good fortune was with us, and we found one of the most thorough and scrupulous individuals I have ever worked with – Art Hull.

    Art, like many who worked for victims of the storm, was from out of town – in this case, Ohio. Art was extremely knowledgeable and technical – more so than the many other local contractors we interviewed. He had previously worked in the Biotech industry in California and was well versed in mold and microbes. But what set him apart from the typical New Yorker was his level of service and honesty. He always went the extra mile and then some. He and his assistant spent over 3 weeks in a small home, never rushing the process or a procedure. Phone calls, of which there were many, were typically 30 minutes long, with every detail thoroughly gone over. He gave many extras – checking the roof, checking the attic, replacing the subfloor, checking this and checking that, often traveling and shopping for things needed that were not part of our contractual agreement. To this day, I still call Art in Ohio for advice on various aspects of the home rehab project.

    All told, it was clear from the start that Art was not a native New Yorker. He started the job with a small deposit, willing to wait for an insurance settlement – in our case, he was only paid 4 months after his work was completed. Sadly, many of his other clients became greedy after insurance settlements and have contested his charges for work completed as per contract. Poor Art, now back in Ohio, has had to resort to expensive NYC legal counsel and is still attempting to collect his fees for many large jobs completed some time ago. I was very disappointed to find that the spirit of the swindler was alive and well, not just on the streets of the city, but like Sandy’s sewage, had permeated the walls of Homeowners Too :(

  • Dick and Ferris

    Are you ever bored? I can guarantee that a night out with Dick and Ferris in New York City would never be boring. Unfortunately, I can not arrange it, but I can give you a taste.

    I was an NYU student, and I, along with classmates, was becoming acquainted with the city with a friend, Dick, as a guide. He was a native New Yorker and an interloper at NYU – 25 years old and not a student. To us, he was much wiser and older. He had been a child actor. He knew everything about the world, or at least the world that was New York City. And to us, at 19 years old and a recent transplant, what other world was there? He showed us everything, particularly the underbelly of the city. His word was gospel.

    Dick was wild, untamed, and a chain smoker. He was excessive. Like Thoreau, he wanted to live life to the fullest, suck the marrow out of it, and drive it into a corner. An outing with Dick was akin to one with Hunter S. Thompson.
    Ferris Butler, on the other hand, was a bit askew. He was a friend of Dick’s, also an outsider and NYC native. He was decidedly a character, one that anyone who met him would not forget. Together, Dick and Ferris were a formidable pair.
    Dick drove a taxi, which he saw fit to use for his own personal joy rides. However, his indulgence posed a problem – how do you party all night and also clock enough money to bring the taxi back to your employer with an acceptable amount of revenue?

    One night, circa 1971, a number of us were in Dick’s cab, including Ferris. It was nearly 4AM, and the taxi was due back at the garage shortly. It was a very desperate situation. Dick had done no business at all and needed to bring the taxi back with at least $40 in fares to avoid being fired. He had the only solution – he would speed through the city streets as fast as possible with the meter running, clock $40, and pay out of pocket. However, as typical, he had no money. Ferris was the only rider with any money – he did not want to pay, but Dick extorted the money from him.

    The ride felt like the car chase scene in the French Connection. The only thing I remember clearly was one leg of the journey where Dick turned onto the 59th Street Bridge outer lane. It was hair-raising as we careened across the bridge with Ferris in the front passenger seat screaming and begging for Dick to slow down, but to no avail. Time was really money now. We achieved our mission – by 4AM, the meter had been run up to $40 and all was well. A memorable night. This was to be one of many adventures in New York City with Dick and Ferris :)

    Note: Watch my video as I drive the same outer roadway of the 59th Street Bridge that I did that night.

  • Do the Right Thing 2

    It was more than one year after 9/11, and restaurants downtown were doing promotions to win patrons back into downtown Manhattan and invigorate commerce in the area. My girlfriend at the time was passionate about food and followed the New York City restaurant buzz. And so on November 8, 2002, we visited Les Halles Bar and Grill on John Street for a dinner deal that was too good to be true. We were accompanied by my friend Leslie, a regular reader and subject of this website.

    There was a lot of buzz about Les Halles, owing to its dynamic duo – celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and proprietor Philippe Lajaunie. The pair was appearing regularly on the Food Network’s TV show, A Cook’s Tour, featuring Bourdain’s worldwide culinary romps with sidekick Lajaunie. So, in addition to what we hoped would be fine food at a discount, perhaps if we were lucky, we’d have had an opportunity to meet Bourdain and/or Lajaunie.
    When we arrived, it was mayhem. The maitre d’ was swamped, and the whole scene was out of control. I wanted to leave, however, my friend Leslie pulled me aside and suggested that since my girlfriend had been so excited about this outing that I tolerate the situation and not rain on her parade. I saw her reasoning and committed to stay the course.

    As we waited outside on the street, I reflected on my travels to France. I so loved my visits there and the numerous dining experiences I had. This was a world apart from that and a huge disappointment. The situation perplexed me. Did Lajaunie, a Frenchman, need business this badly to turn the whole experience into a circus? Frustrated and irate, I turned to my girlfriend and Leslie and said that this experience at Les Halles went against everything the French stood for.
    A man at a light post nearby overheard me and approached us. As he neared, I recognized him as none other than the owner, Philppe Lajaunie himself. I was quite nervous. Unknowingly, I had insulted an internationally known restaurateur and TV celebrity. Best I had shut my mouth, but now I had made my bed and it was time to lie in it.
    I was sure Philippe would challenge my comment, and I wondered what he was planning to say in response to my comment that his restaurant went against everything the French stood for. He introduced himself and said that he had overheard me. Shockingly, he said, “I couldn’t agree with you more.” He gave me his business card. We chatted about France. He welcomed a photo. Wow. Instead of public humiliation, I was coming up smelling of roses.

    He was not pleased with the chaos and crowd either. Regretful and apologetic, he offered us compensatory drinks. He escorted us to the bar and ordered for us from the bartender. He saw to it that we got a table in a timely manner and visited us during the course of our dinner. I was impressed with Philippe’s candidness and lack of defensiveness. It was another case of restaurant management’s Do the Right Thing :)

    Related Posts: Random Acts of Consideration, War Against Disservice, War Against Disservice Part 2

  • I’ll Take Care of You

    Have you been in a restaurant where any special request, no matter how small, is met with hesitation or a negative? And where it is particularly irritating because you know that your request can be easily met? Don’t you already have plenty to do and worry about? When you are a customer of a service establishment, shouldn’t they shoulder the burden, troubles, and responsibilities? Why should you feel uneasy or worried that your needs and requests will go unmet and worse, that you may have to help solve the problem that you are paying them for? In short, why should you be doing their job?

    Early Saturday morning, I lay awake in bed and reflected on the unpleasant chore of going to have my car inspected. In New York City, something as simple as inspecting your automobile can be very troublesome. Often an appointment in advance is necessary, there are long waiting periods, or a service station is out of inspection stickers. Many times I have spent hours trying to get my car inspected, only to return home defeated, having to try again another day.

    I called Salerno Service Station and asked for Ryan, the general manager – a man who had forever changed my attitude towards the auto repair business and led me to write an extensive two-part story – Jacked. It was Ryan who had answered the phone. I asked if they could do an auto inspection that morning. He said, Don’t worry. Just come in. I’ll take care of you. That is when it hit me hard. He had given me the key to ultimate customer service when he said I’ll take care of you. It was the reason why Salerno had hundreds of five star reviews online.

    HE HAD SHIFTED THE RESPONSIBILITY FROM ME TO THEM. All of the responsibility. Completely. 100%.

    That was the key, because in that way and only that way can a customer fully relax while the service provider does their job. Even with good customer service, there is often a nagging worry that something may go wrong. In auto repair, so many things can and do go wrong – a bigger problem will be discovered, a part will be unavailable, there will be no time today for the repair, the cost will be too great, you will be cheated or lied to, you will be sold something you do not need, etc. But with great customer service, at a place like Salerno Service Station,  you will be insulated from any hassles servicing your car because they are taking care of you. You can relax. Like my first visit when I was told by Ryan to go have a nice breakfast at the Willburg Cafe while he took care of my muffler job.

    It is like the days of old, when people spoke of being in the doctor’s care. There was great comfort in those words because it meant that someone competent was going to take care of you. People love to be taken care of. This complete taking over of responsibility from the customer or patient is characteristic of the Italian culture and their approach to service. Now I saw how it was at the core of the No Problema attitude that I wrote about.

    Over many decades of owning a car in the city, I have grown to despise the auto inspection ordeal. However, now, for the first time in my life, in the hands of Ryan and the Avallone family, Mario and Salvatore, I actually looked forward to this year’s inspection. In a harsh environment like New York City where comforts have to be actively sought out, there are no sweeter words than I’ll Take Care of You :)

  • Pass In The Night

    In the 1960s, I worked one summer at North and Judd Manufacturing, one of the oldest companies in Connecticut. Begun in 1812 with the manufacture of wire hooks, eyes, and other small metal items, North & Judd added the manufacture of saddlery hardware in the 1830’s and grew into a company that produced over 40,000 items.
    The history is interesting, but working there was not. As an entry level employee, I was given the least desirable work, tapping thousands of the identical part every day, working for minimum wage. It was grueling and a good look into the engine of the industrial world and the toil and sweat that keeps it oiled and running.

    North and Judd and places like it across the land are shrines to the unsung soldier, the worker performing the thankless task. But it was also there, amidst the grit and grime of one of America’s oldest factories, that I found extraordinary people. Unlike Professor Robert Gurland, however, the glimmer of these individuals does not shine far, and only a handful of those around them will ever know of their extraordinary character or talents. And, of course, any close friend or associate who may champion their talents will be dismissed as merely patronizing.

    I met a woman in that factory who had manufactured the same part for over 30 years. I think of her from time to time when performing repetitive tasks. Some cynics may write her off as nothing but a drone, someone akin to a robot. I, however, prefer to celebrate such an individual. Certainly, working 30 years at one job demonstrates something, if nothing more than extraordinary tenacity. Our setup man in that factory was also extraordinary, tending to the needs of dozens of pieceworkers, troubleshooting setups, and machinery, always resourceful and under extreme time pressure. I have long desired to travel cross country on a sabbatical, ferreting out such people and gathering stories for a book, Ordinary Lives of Extraordinary People.

    Recently, I was traveling in the hinterlands of Staten Island. It was mid-afternoon and hunger had come upon me. It was too early for dinner, but I needed something. I had no interest in doing online research, so I chose a place at whim, Tony’s Pizzeria on Arthur Kill Road. The place looked rather unappealing, but I entered nonetheless, expecting a New York-style dirty and rundown interior behind its garish exterior.
    It was immaculate.
    I was immediately greeted by the counter person, who seemed genuinely concerned about my every need. Much like my experience with the Italians in the South of France, where everything was No Problema, here, too, no request presented any problem but, to the contrary, was heartily embraced. When I later asked for a cup of ice, he responded, “of course.” My dining companion concurred that this individual was the most attentive and accommodating wait person we had ever encountered. I got neither his name nor a photo.
    It is unlikely that I will be there again and equally unlikely that you will visit Tony’s Pizzeria yourself. He will, like so many extraordinary individuals, go largely unnoticed, and our chance encounter will be little more than Two Ships That Pass In The Night :)

  • All Things Feral

    I recall a conversation with my sister about children and a viewpoint expressed by Polly Platt in French or Foe. In this book, various aspects of French culture are laid out by the author, an American living in France married to a Frenchman. According to Platt, the French, who believe that they brought the world civilization, see the importance of discipline in child rearing as well, with children viewed as “little savages” who must be civilized in order to enter society. Children are expected at a very young age to behave like adults, even, for example, sitting well behaved throughout an entire meal in a restaurant.

    I summarized for my sister the discipline imposed on children by the French and their expectations. My sister concluded that this type of child rearing was cruel. Strict discipline of children is certainly a contentious subject, however, with what I have seen in the subways of New York City which at times can appear to be like Lord of the Flies with children and teens acting out and even cursing their parents in public, perhaps a bit of French thinking might serve us well in the taming of children.
    The conversation with my sister regarding wild children was appropriate coming from a French perspective – not only is my family of French ancestry, but also, perhaps the most well-known case of feral children is that of Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. The story is the basis for Truffaut’s film L’Enfant Sauvage.

    In 1797, a boy was first discovered and captured by hunters near Saint-Sernin, France. He was taken in and studied by a young medical student, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who named him Victor. At the time of Victor’s capture, he was estimated to be about 12 years old and was naked, filthy, had numerous scars on his body, and was wild, unsocialized, and unable to speak other than guttural sounds and squeals. It was speculated that he been raised by animals and was a true “feral child.” Although there were many hypotheses regarding his origin, nothing was ever substantiated, including any rearing by wild animals. His interests were very basic, and he was highly attuned to activities, sounds etc. During his time with Itard, he wore no clothing, eliminated by squatting on the ground, and would neither use utensils to eat nor sit on a chair. Little progress was made with his socialization, and Victor died in Paris in 1828. You can read more here.

    I have always been fascinated with stories of feral children, and on a raw, cold, bleak November day nearly a decade ago, I got as close as I ever have at meeting someone who certainly appeared untamed. I was passing through Washington Square Park, which was deserted, excepting one lone musician who was sitting on a concrete bench playing guitar, seemingly oblivious to the cold. I recognized him, having seen him previously a handful of times playing in the park, often with a wild, disheveled appearance. He was playing blues with occasional use of a slide, which I love. His raw, edgy style and interpretations of blues classics were very engaging – I listened to a few songs standing in the cold and left a dollar in his open guitar case. When I asked his name and he said Feral, I confirmed the spelling, lest he had thought that I had asked about his disposition or temperament.

    Years passed and I had not seen him since that period. Recently, at the Folk Festival, I scanned the program and was excited to see Feral Foster listed as the closing act. He played and sang an original composition, The Whole Wide World. I really liked it and after his set, introduced myself. He gave me one of his CDs, all original songs, i.e. no covers – a difficult road to travel for any musician, but a necessary path for anyone looking to make their mark. I saw him a few days later at The Gaslight, a club on MacDougal Street in the Village. His music still has a rawness and his playing style and persona has an idiosyncratic and untamed look and feel, befitting a man named Feral. Whether it is a film like L’Enfant Sauvage, the rearing of children in France, or my meeting of Matt Foster, from early on, there has been a thread in my life of All Things Feral :)

    Photo Note: Top photo courtesy of Bill Shatto.

  • This Hood is a Done Deal

    I recall a conversation many years ago with an artist who lived in Brooklyn and said that she found Manhattan over gentrified and fundamentally uninteresting. I was angry, defensive, and took this as sour grapes from someone who was not fortunate enough to live in Manhattan. After all, Manhattan was a mecca for so many human endeavors and the center of the universe, was it not?

    Unlike the stereotypical Manhattan resident, I have visited Brooklyn and Queens often. And, over the course of the last six years that this website has been in existence, I have spent much more time in the outer boroughs, exploring and canvassing for subjects and potential stories. Now, in fairness, I must admit that the cultural brew in Brooklyn and Queens feels much richer than that of Manhattan, which has become more much more business and tourist oriented. If you seek an authentic New York and ethnic enclaves, the outer boroughs are where you must go. Neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights, Astoria, Richmond Hill, or Flushing in Queens and Borough Park, Sheepshead Bay, or Bay Ridge in Brooklyn have virtually no parallel in Manhattan, save Chinatown. In these neighborhoods, you will find a variety of merchants and restaurants catering to the local ethnic groups.

    Regardless, Manhattan residents are a remarkably and classically xenophobic bunch, so you know things have changed when Manhattanites start traveling to Brooklyn and Queens for cultural and recreational activities. There are plenty of good reasons: the Brooklyn Museum, the Mermaid Parade, Coney Island, Dead Horse Bay, Floyd Bennett Field, the Queens Farm, the Queens Museum, Flushing Meadows – Corona Park, and perhaps one of the biggest draws and hottest neighborhoods in the five boroughs, Williamsburg.

    You know things have really changed when, on a weekend, one Manhattanite runs across the dyed in the wool East Village icon, David Peel, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who both have crossed that river into another borough looking for a change of pace. Walking down Bedford Avenue, the main commercial artery of Williamsburg, I spotted David in a local pizza parlor, wearing his signature John Lennon-styled sunglasses.
    The neighborhood has gone through remarkable transformations and even has a lively street scene with street performers, unusual outside of Manhattan. David knows me from our frequent meetings in Washington Square Park as well as the stories I have done including him as a subject. I spoke to him briefly about the irony of meeting in Brooklyn. He showed little surprise at all, knowing that Williamsburg was obviously the place to be. After all, New Yorkers love the hot new place and This Hood is a Done Deal :)

  • A Special Serendipitous Meeting

    In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

    Many of us who live in lower Manhattan and lost power during Hurricane Sandy, found ourselves leaving our neighborhoods and heading uptown, where there was power. Many stores and restaurants were open, and in some locations, it was business as usual – one would barely notice evidence of a major power blackout. Many photos were taken and articles written about this bizarre bifurcation in Manhattan – in parts of the Village, one needed a flashlight to walk, yet midtown was all aglow and abuzz.

    Two days after the hurricane, while on a journey midtown to a pharmacy, I spotted none other than Hovey Burgess.* He too found the blackout conditions quite depressing and was wandering in a world of light to pass time and brighten his day.
    Hovey is one of my very earliest customers, going back to the very inception of my business in 1975. He often came to my home (where I ran my business for the first 6 years) with his wife Judy to pick up juggling equipment. Hovey is one of the greatest supporters of his fellow artists and suppliers I have ever met. When I have called him over the years to tell him of some new prop or publication as a point of information, I would often find him at the shop immediately to peruse and purchase. Money was never a consideration – purchasing new juggling-related equipment or books, or attending juggling- or circus-related shows of merit, was always his number one priority. He is well known to often attend numerous performances of the same show. He is the quintessential patron of the arts and, if possible, he is someone that, ideally, you want to have interested in what you do. He was one of my earliest customers and advisors. I owe him a great deal.
    And so, that is why it was no ordinary occurrence -  it was a Special Serendipitous Meeting :)

    *Note about Hovey: For those who do not know him, Hovey is a circus aficionado, performer, juggler, and educator. For over 30 years, Hovey has taught circus arts at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of the book Circus Techniques. Hovey has a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts.

    His skills and work includes clowning, juggling, equilibristic and trapeze work with Circo Dell’Arte, Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, Electric Circus, Patterson Brothers Circus, and Toledo Zoo Wild Animal Show. He is a former President of the International Jugglers Association.

    He taught at American Conservatory Theatre, Juilliard, National Theatre School of Canada, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College, and Sarah Lawrence College. He was circus choreographer for Robert Altman’s Popeye (Paramount). Hovey is currently a member of Circus Flora, based in St. Louis. In 1999, he was inducted into the People’s Hall of Fame, which honors living cultural treasures and is housed at the Museum of the City of New York.

    More on Hurricane Sandy: Yesterday’s Muddy Pants, Seeing Scenes Rarely Seen

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