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  • 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

  • The Tipping Point

    It was a year ago or so that a friend recommended The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I had long ruminated and been very perplexed as to the reason that certain phenomenon, trends, etc, suddenly and inexplicably hit critical mass and really took off. Things such as the hula hoop – invented in 1957 and a fad by 1958. Then, interest lay relatively dormant for over 40 years. In the last few years, there has been a renaissance in hooping, but now with a much more serious interest for exercise and dance. Yet, it is difficult to ferret out any particular reasons to explain the resurgence in interest now. One may cit interest in exercise, material availability, etc., yet all these elements have been in place for decades.
    Gladwell seeks to explain such mysterious sociological agents of change that mark everyday life with his three rules of epidemics: The Law of the Few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context. Gladwell’s thinking is also based on the 1967 Six Degrees of Separation study by social psychologist Stanley Milgram. However, despite the books popularity and Gladwell’s financial success (over $1 million dollar advance for the book and subsequent speaking at $40,000 per lecture), the scientific community is not in full agreement as to the validity of Gladwell’s analyses and for many, the reasons for a tipping point in social phenomena still remains a mystery.

    I see this tipping point concept in my business as well as the innumerable trends I have witnessed in the last 44 years I have lived in New York City. Frozen yogurt shops, gelato, and most recently, aerial arts – a relatively difficult and somewhat dangerous activity to gain an audience with the general populace. Until recently, such interest in things like trapeze, wire walking, lyra, and silks has been limited to circus professionals. People such as Hovey Burgess have been steadfast in training a small number of those with a passion for flying high.

    On Sunday, January 13, 2013, I had been wandering the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a trip to visit the Domino Sugar refinery. I was intrigued by a one-story industrial building with a colorfully painted door with the words The Muse Performance Center brandished across its face, the huge Domino Sugar building in the distance looming over the place. I wondered what may lie behind this door when I heard my name called. I am recognized on occasion by a customer from the large number of contacts I have made over the last 38 years in business. But nonetheless, it is quite infrequent and certainly unexpected on a Sunday afternoon on a deserted street in an industrial area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
    I did not recognize the individual, but he was in fact a customer and informed me that he had just been to my place of business in the last week. He was, quite conveniently, associated with The Muse. I asked if it would be possible to enter the space and take photos, to which he said yes. He introduced himself as Ryan and gave me his card: Ryan Shinji Murray, it said, along with the words: pleasure to meet you. let’s keep in touch. I learned that Ryan is a very talented working professional and was leaving for a 3-month tour that week – I was fortunate to have met him just before leaving.
    I entered the small industrial space and saw that it was, in fact, one of a number of spaces I had heard of that was used for the training and teaching of aerial arts. In the last few years, there has been a renaissance in interest in all manner of aerial circus arts. Studios in inauspicious locations around New York City provide space for such activity. In the five boroughs of New York City, you will find STREB, The Trapeze School of New York, Circus Warehouse, Skybody System, Aerial Arts NYC, Helium Aerial Dance, Kiebpoli’s Aerial Class,The Sky Box, Body and Pole, the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and The Muse, located at 32D South First Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. STREB, one of the most well known, is only two blocks away from The Muse.

    I thank Ryan and the cordial staff of The Muse for letting me take photos of their space. And I will let others explain why now, among the other particular current trends and fashions of New York City, that aerial arts has reached The Tipping Point :)

  • Mobility and Just Tricks for All

    New Yorkers enjoy the same passions as suburban and country folk – many activities, however, due to space and cost considerations, require resourcefulness, ingenuity, and hard work in order to find space, acquire permits and other bureaucratic hurdles. But the New Yorker is tough and tenacious and typically prevails.
    Here, to many’s surprise, you will find juggling, fire spinning, flying radio controlled jets (on a decommissioned airfield), surfing, rock climbing, birding, kayaking, trapeze classes, chess clubs, motorcycle clubs, skiing, tennis, land sailing, kite surfing, ice skating, horse racing, sailing, fishing, horseback riding, petanque – all within the confines of the city’s five boroughs.

    Finding venues and shoehorning activities in city spaces is not only a challenge, but often gives rise to a unique twist, brand, or flavor of the activity – New York Style.  Often, leveraging relationships and connections is necessary to obtaining space, as did the students of Pratt Institute to utilize their sports complex for a local juggling club.

    On Saturday and Sunday, I attended the 4th Annual NYC Unicycle Festival, a 3-day event which opened August 31 with the Brooklyn Unicycle Day, featuring a 13-mile unicycle ride across Brooklyn. The festival‘s main events took place on Governors Island on Saturday and Sunday. Activities included races, competitions, exhibitions, instruction, and a variety of unicycle sports including unicycle basketball and hockey. World-famous riders displayed their skills. The festival was produced by Bindlestiff Family Variety Arts, Inc., headed by Keith Nelson. I participated as a vendor of unicycles and juggling equipment.

    There is a beauty and simplicity in the unicycle. The one-wheel design is the ultimate in simplicity, and the fixed gear gives the ultimate control. Unicyclists can travel forwards, backwards, idle, spin, jump, climb stairs – virtually anything an individual can do on two legs. They are used by hobbyists, commuters, off road enthusiasts, and performers.

    Welcome to the universe of the unicyclist, where unity is the key – one wheel, one people. If they had their own creed, perhaps it would read something like this: I pledge allegiance to the Unicyclist’s Place in America, and to the Vehicle on which we stand, one Wheel under Body, indivisible, with Mobility and Just Tricks for All. :)

    See my complete photo gallery here.

  • Unknown Bikers

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    The outlaw spirit is alive and well in New York City. On my visit to Salerno Service Station on Saturday, April 28, 2012, a small group of bikers convened at the station. I brought it to Mario’s attention, and he informed me that there was a club house for the East Williamsburg chapter of the Unknown Bikers around the corner at 41 Maujer Street. I found them somewhat intimidating, but Mario assured me that the bikers had posed no problem to them at all over the years.

    As I sauntered over to Maujer Street, I noticed that the street had been closed off with traffic cones to all but the motorcyclists. My timing was perfect – within seconds of my arrival, the street was filled with bikes and bikers.
    Others were taking photos and filming, and I followed suit. I am always careful around bikers, not knowing what type of reaction I might get taking photos. I was scrutinized by numerous members, but it appeared that I had some type of tacit approval.

    Certainly bikers come from all walks of life and, to some extent, are like the rest of us. But there has to be an element of iconoclasm for someone to ride a Harley, join a motorcycle club, and wear a jacket proclaiming membership. There is a defiance, a renegade outlaw free spirit that has surrounded motorcycles since their origins, and belonging to a motorcycle club and wearing a jacket certainly makes that statement.

    It was clear that some type of event was underway. I asked the nature of the gathering, and I was introduced to the organizer who informed me that this was a charity effort, the 4th Annual Alie Run of Bikers Against Childhood Cancer Foundation. The final destination of the bikers would be the Brooklyn Hospital. Salerno Service Station is one of the sponsors of the event.

    The organizer assured me that the members were regular people just like everyone else. Admittedly, I was surprised that the nature of the meeting was a children’s charity event. Actually, motorcycle charity rides are common throughout the United States. I imagine some cynics may feel that these efforts are only bad boys trying to ingratiate themselves with the public. I will give them the benefit of the doubt. Here, in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it looks to me like goodwill, courtesy of the Unknown Bikers :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Last to See the Future

    The future is here at last. I hope. I was excited to see the demo bike station of the New York City Bikeshare program to be launched in the summer of 2012. I never thought I would see a bikeshare program in New York City. We hear of these things in places such as Portland, Oregon, considered to be a model city when it comes to progressive ideas and quality of life. Here in New York, these things are like faraway fantasies of tropical islands in the cold of winter. Never going to happen.

    But it is. I am impressed that Alta Bicycle Share was able to work out the details and orchestrate such a large program like this in New York. Programs which may be simple elsewhere can find monumental hurdles or impasses here. The beauracratic nightmare, along with issues of handling payments, security, theft, safety, vandalism, collecting and redistributing bikes using rebalancers, location of kiosks, etc. have to be worked out in a city already packed to capacity with pedestrians and competing vehicles.

    Alta Bicycle Share designs, deploys, and manages bicycle share programs and systems worldwide. They have launched systems in Washington, DC/Arlington, Virginia, Boston, and Melbourne, Australia. The NYC program will roll out with 10,000 bicycles available at 600 stations in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. I spoke with a representative for some time and took a test ride on one of the bikes. The details seem to be very well thought out – I asked many questions and raised many concerns.

    One of my biggest concerns for any plan that requires things left in public spaces is theft. Theft has been an issue that has severely limited the widespread use of bicycles in New York City. Bicyclists resort to heavy chains and lock systems along with the use of old bikes that are least desirable for stealing and resale.

    I was told that the bikes used in the program are designed to use unique parts and have tracking devices. A stolen bike would be obvious on the streets, not to mention that a 40-pound clunker is not going to be particularly desirable in the resale market of stolen goods.

    Bike Share in NYC will be funded by private sponsorship and user fees, not taxpayer dollars. Memberships are expected to run about $100 per year, and bikes will be available 24/7 (day passes will also be available). Membership will give unlimited use, but rides are limited to 30-45 minutes (for longer trips, a bike can be dropped off at any station and exchanged for another). See more here.

    There are still problems to work out, not the least of which is $50 million in sponsorship funding. The program does look like it is moving forward. In many arenas, the latest and greatest can be found in New York City. However, in areas that involve large systems to be implemented, it often feels like we are Last to See the Future

    Related Posts: One Screw, Street Cred, Orange You Glad, Urban Bike Polo, Art Bikes, Penny Farthing

  • Mine

    One of my earliest childhood experiences wass flying simple balsa model airplanes with my friend Jaime. Portuguese in ancestry, Jaime’s English as a very young child was virtually non-existent. I only remember him using one word in English, and that was when we flew our planes in our yards together. As we chased them to recover them at the end of their flights, Jaime would run for his saying, “Mine.” What better word to learn for a boy playing with his toys?

    As a child, I was fascinated with all things that could fly – kites, birds, butterflies, damsel flies, rockets, planes, parachutes, balloons. However, lack of money and proper understanding of aeronautics foiled many of these endeavors. I recall jumping from the top of my father’s automobile with an umbrella in a desperate attempt to fly or parachute. I built small parachutes from napkins or pieces of cloth, suspending objects from it. Fabricating kites from found objects – sheets and tree branches – resulted in craft much too heavy to fly. I saw paper hot air balloons in catalogs such as Edmund Scientific but never was able to purchase one.

    Only as a teenager or adult was I able to take these childhood interests to fruition. In high school, I became very actively involved in the model rocketry club. In my 20s, I took ten hours of flight training towards a pilot’s license. In the parks and beaches of New York City, I flew kites of many styles and sizes.

    I still dream of owning a small plane. This and occasional nightly dreams of flying have become metaphors for freedom and release from a life of increasing stresses, responsibilities, and the slings and arrows of urban life.

    On Tuesday night, I witnessed something I have never seen before anywhere in New York City – the launch and flight of a paper hot air balloon. The owner appeared suddenly from nowhere, quickly lighting and releasing the balloon, barely allowing time to make our way towards the launch area. Powered and illuminated by a small flame, we watched the glowing orb rise into the clear night sky, becoming smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared.

    Jaime, and I know that you are reading this, please know that as I ran towards that balloon, my mind drifted to those days of childhood when we chased our dreams through the grasses of our yards. I hope you caught some of your dreams, because I have caught a few of mine :)

    Photo Note: All the photos on the website are typically taken by me. However, it was impossible for this sequence of balloon photos, since I would have been unable to capture reasonable quality photos at night with a point and shoot camera. My photographer friend, Bill Shatto, had his Nikon D3, a pro camera with extraordinary low light capability, faster focus, tracking, and low noise. Today’s photos are courtesy of Bill Shatto. Photoshop work is mine.

    Related Posts: A Small World, Under the Sun, Floyd Bennett Field

  • Segway, Anyone?

    In 2001, geeks were abuzz, speculating on the secret invention of Dean Kamen, an award-winning design engineer with hundreds of patents and revolutionary products. The invention was codenamed IT or Ginger and had received the endorsement of Steve Jobs of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. No small achievement.

    IT turned out to be as rumored: an electric, self-balancing human transporter with a complex, computer-controlled gyroscopic stabilization and control system. The remarkable device senses and responds to subtle body movement and can even be controlled hands-free. Kamen claimed that the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” Many predicted a billion-dollar industry overnight and nothing short of a world-changing technology.

    Perhaps the only thing more arrogant than the claims of Dean Kamen about the future impact of the Segway was my email to him, explaining point by point why the Segway would fail in cities and certainly in New York. I received a return email confirmation stating that they would follow up and answer my objections, which they did not do.

    I say arrogant because I am not an engineer, nor do I claim to be an expert prognosticator of such events. There have been numerous analyses as to the reason for the Segway’s failure when viewed in hindsight. But even at the time of the product launch, my gut feel told me that there were way too many obvious problems which would prevent the Segway from large-scale adoption anywhere, particularly in a place like New York City.

    One was price – $5000. This will make it a deal breaker for nearly everyone. After all, this is not an enclosed vehicle capable of carrying a load and passengers. It is just a motorized two-wheel device. I also believed that people would vandalize them and steal them.

    Another big issue was weight – 80 pounds. There are many stairways in New York City. Who will carry an 80-pound device up and down them?
    The vehicle did not have a very long battery life. Charging for most people would be burdensome here.

    Then there is the huge problem of what to do at your destination. This is has been a problem for bicyclists for as long as I have lived in this city. How many will want to leave a $5000 vehicle on the streets? Will offices and retailers allow these to be brought inside? Hardly.

    Also, regardless of claims to the contrary, there is no way these will be allowed to be used on crowded streets and sidewalks in New York City. They may be compact and marvelously maneuverable, but the sidewalks are often too packed, even for unencumbered pedestrians. How will the Segways fit in?

    The Segway did turn out to be a commercial failure, relegated to a small number of users in niche situations – some postal carriers on certain routes, etc. In 2009, Time Magazine declared it one of the 10 biggest tech failures of the decade.

    All the claims of Kamen seemed so obviously made by someone devoid of any real world experience of living in New York City. This wealthy, inventive genius and visionary lives in a mansion in a small town in New Hampshire, with his own helicopter hangared in his garage. He owns his own private island off the coast of Connecticut – North Dumpling Island – and travels there using his helicopter. This is a highly privileged life in remote, unpopulated locations.

    Perhaps once a year I may see someone cruising the streets of New York City on one of these devices. Segway, anyone?

    Other Transportation-Related Posts: Nice Move, Kid, Water Taxi, Jet Ski, Bikes, The Tram

  • Boxing Al Fresco

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    Once upon a time, I became intrigued with biofeedback for stress management. My interest in biofeedback was something that dated back to my college years, when many were experimenting with a number of modalities of biofeedback and equipment. Many types of body control were documented. Later, some styles were adopted by the medical profession for a variety of conditions.

    A well-known psychiatrist located on the Upper East Side had provided a testimonial on a stress management book. I contacted his office. He was expensive, but this was to be a limited number of sessions, training under his guidance, in his office and with his equipment. I was told that insurance would cover the program (it did not).
    The sessions became ones of psychotherapy – I never did get to train at all on his equipment. When I confronted him about this, he said that there was no value to biofeedback training if my behavior and mental processes were just to undo the relaxation I achieved. True, but was not what what I had…and I saw this would become a long extremely expensive process with no end in sight, so I quit after a short number of sessions.

    However, I must admit that I have never met a person who could read me so quickly and thoroughly. I was like a pane of glass to him and he was in my head. He made a number of observations that I remember clearly to this day. I told him of my interest in cello and that I was taking classes with a woman who was an alumna of the Juilliard School. Proud that I had the privilege to study with someone like her, his response surprised me. Bad, he said. “Why?” I said. “Because you turn everything into a job.” He knew that learning to play cello was a serious commitment and would do little to bring me pleasure, only to add another burred to my life. He was right. I quit the cello after six months, telling my teacher that dragging my cello out at night to practice was feeling like a job. She heartily agreed that this was not good at all and she encouraged me to quit.

    My doctor suggested instead that if I wanted to learn music as a hobby, that I try something much less demanding, like a recorder, where I would not be dragged into a hobby that was like study at a music conservatory. He also demanded that I take a Saturday and squander the entire day away, i.e. waste time frivolously. He knew my temperament all too well, that I always had a hidden agenda and only felt good if I could justify my activities as “productive.”

    Recently, in the early morning, while writing near an open window facing the park, I heard a very peculiar slapping type of sound. It was unique to me and I could not guess what was going on. Getting up and looking out through the foliage of spring, I saw a woman sparring with her trainer in the raking early morning light.

    I could not help but reflect on how so many residents of New York City were overachievers with schedules packed with activities, whether cultural, interpersonal, hobbies, classes, training, meetings, business functions, gallery openings, theaters, clubs, bars, festivals, etc. To ask them to do something is like a request to be penciled into the appointment book of the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

    I fully realize that this woman may in fact be a well balanced person. Being physical is great for mental and physical health. She may not be overextended. Or perhaps she is a neurotic New Yorker, type A personality, choking with activities and entrenched with the busy busy ethic. Or, perhaps she is a young woman, freshly arrived straight from the corn fields of Kansas, just enjoying a little boxing al fresco.

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Room and Board

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    When in high school in the late 1960s, I worked many part-time jobs, including McDonald’s. The working environment was brutal by today’s standards. At McDonalds, there was Zero tolerance for idleness – we had to remain moving at all times. If we had no customers, we were to clean and if there was nothing to clean, we were to clean again. And again. No exceptions.

    The manager would stand, arms crossed, in the center of the dining area behind the customers. If there were any lines, the manager was extremely displeased. Regardless of customer volume, and whether it was humanly possible to serve quickly enough to eliminate lines was of no matter. We would hear the terrifying “I see lines, gentlemen.”

    In this work environment, it would be hard to imagine an event momentous enough to warrant the entire staff taking a break. The world’s first manned moon landing on July 20, 1969 was just such an event. Someone had brought a small black and white television, placed it on the counter to see the moment Neil Armstrong take that first step onto the moon’s surface. The entire staff and group of customers all watched in silence for what was one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements, fulfilling President Kennedy’s vision nearly a decade earlier. We heard Armstrong say “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And then it was back to work – customers were waiting.

    Although the deployment of technology was not perhaps as rapid and voluminous as what we have today, it was still an exciting time and the appetite for the newest and latest was as ravenous as it is now. With a smaller number of consumer product innovations, many new things were given attention, things which in today’s environment would likely be overlooked. It seemed everything had to be improved, and in some space age manner, if at all possible.

    One of these was 3D chess, where 3 or more chessboards are stacked above one another. A variant, Tri-D chess, was seen on the first series of Start Trek in the late ’60s. It was during this time that someone introduced the game to our high school chess club, of which I was a member. Most of us, however, saw it as rather gimmicky, adding complexity to a game which already offered enormous challenge and which diluted the beauty and classicism of the 2D version of the game.

    Chess is commonly seen played in the streets and parks of New York City, sometimes with makeshift setups. The resourcefulness of New Yorkers and their willingness to accommodate never ceases to amaze me. Here we have a world class city fully immersed in the technology of our time, yet should the conditions require it, there is a willingness to do whatever is necessary to achieve an end, regardless of how primitive the solution. At times, New Yorkers can be like spoiled children, but when duty calls, we can, like most people elsewhere, rise to the occasion.

    In today’s photo, we see a player in Union Square Park with a milk crate for seating and a table so bowed it clearly demonstrates that to play 3D chess in this city, if the money, means or technology is not available, a New Yorker only needs a little Room and Board :)

    More Chess Stories: Good Fortune, Chess Monsters, Marshall Chess Club, Solid as a Rock, WFF ‘N Proof, Xiangqi, Guns or Big Heads.

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Really? Like What?

    This place was a real eye-opener for me. I have been by this rather nondescript retail shop for over a decade with nary a thought. Two things drew me to investigate. One is that it is a retail game shop surviving in 2011. There have been others in the Village, but all are now long gone. Two, there always appeared to be a large gathering of customers socializing and/or playing. Peering inside, it appeared that this was some sort of fantasy game environment, ala Dungeons and Dragons. And it is.

    One second in the Game Workshop and it is immediately clear you have entered a world with passionate participants. The cultish feeling was not new to me – in high school, I was a player of both chess and the strategic board games of Avalon Hill and Wff N Proof. The games attracted the nerd crowd, which according to my sister, I was clearly a member of. However, a close friend and fellow game player from those years recently pointed out to me that I had girlfriends (who were not nerds) – I am not sure if that disqualifies me from full membership in nerdom.

    The camaraderie of Games Workshop had the feel of the chess world – indulgence, extreme focus and lively banter – the conversation here was dominated by analysis and commentary on military capabilities of other countries and what-ifs. I was very surprised to learn about the history of this company. Founded in 1975 in the UK, there are now over 380 stores in 19 countries worldwide with thousands more that sell their products. The British based corporation is traded on the London Stock Exchange. Yearly revenues are in excess of $200 million.

    I found this statement from their website:

    A hobby is something people make time for. It is not a pass-time and therefore not usually analogous to watching TV or playing computer games. In our case, as with most hobbies, it involves commitment, collection, craft or manual skills and imagination. Someone who is involved in the Games Workshop Hobby collects large numbers of miniatures, paints them, modifies them, builds terrain and war games with them in our imaginary universe. This involves huge amounts of time.

    Games Workshop Hobbyists play war games with large numbers of metal or plastic miniatures they have carefully chosen and, usually, painstakingly painted, on a table top face to face with their friends. It is a social and convivial activity loved by Hobbyists the world over.

    The game involves a lot of activity rather than passivity – making and decorating figures, creating playing space and learning the daunting amount of information and rules. Much like fantasy role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, the games become an alternate world.

    I asked the sales staff if they minded I take photos. The response was essentially No Problema and I was already feeling this was another place with a policy of No Negativity. I stayed for some time watching the game playing and work, chatting with the sales staff to get some insight into this world. Game Workshop provides free space for customers to paint their figures and also play their signature proprietary games – Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and the newer Lord of the Rings. The wall space displays merchandise for sale – all the various figure model sets and also the voluminous manuals and magazines like their own, White Dwarf. I was told that the shop at 54 East 8th Street is the only store in the Northeast and is one of the largest revenue grossing operations in the United States.

    There are worse ways to spend time than to be actively involved in a social activity and strategic game playing requiring a skill, memory, and imagination. I think the entire experience drew out the nerd deep inside because my first reaction to this place was: These “boys” (and girls) are too old to be playing with toys. They have too much time on their hands. There are much better things to do with one’s time. However, I found myself answering Really? Like What? :)

  • We’ve Got Skiing Too

    Most New Yorkers have limited exposure to elements of the natural world. It is possible, particularly in Manhattan, to live and work and never see a tree or blade of grass. There are times, however, when Mother Nature shows her hand and makes her power and presence known, and no urban environment stands in her way in times of blizzards, rain, blistering heat, intolerable humidity, frigid cold, astronomical events, and dramatic lightning (see Back To Our Main Feature here).

    There are many physical activities that depend on certain natural environments that make all but impossible to partake of in New York City. However, for the willing, extremes of winter weather occasionally provide a tiny window of opportunity to indulge in snow play. But only if one is willing to seize that opportunity immediately when available.

    Today, there were ideal conditions for cross-country skiing in Manhattan. Much snow-related fun can be seen in the parks of this city – building snowmen, snowball fights, sledding – but I have witnessed some extraordinary activities in new fallen snow on the streets, immediately following a blizzard, before vehicles, plows or people have had any opportunity to disturb the white powder. The two most memorable are the making of snow angels in the middle of 7th Avenue South and a man in business attire skiing down lower Broadway to what I assumed was his office.

    This morning, shortly after sunrise, while gazing out my window, I observed a man circumnavigating a large lawn in Washington Square Park on cross-country skis. He had the entire area to himself, and the snow was a pristine white, undisturbed except for his lone circular track.

    The phrase moving meditation is an overused cliche, but at times, it is valid. I found myself mesmerized while watching the skier make his rounds. The soothing quality of the white blanket of new fallen snow was enhanced by the circular repetitive movement of this lone skier at dawn. There are many great things about New York City, and sometimes you may find, if you are poised, that we’ve got skiing too :)

  • Guns or Big Heads

    Generally speaking, a man with a head this large playing chess would command quite a bit of attention. The big-headed character, a mascot for Emmy award winner Ted Greenberg’s one-man show*, was available for any players while promotional free tickets for the show were being distributed. The chess playing mascot, however, got little attention for three reasons:

    One, this is New York City, where anything goes and a lot is usually going. Two, this area of Washington Square Park, currently used for chess, is dominated by chess hustlers who are set up for business and playing for money. Three, the best candidates to find interest in chess are chess players. However, serious chess players (or hustlers) really could not care less about anything apart from a player’s skill, and the mascot had mediocre playing ability. Perhaps a joke best illustrates this attitude, common to players and known to those very familiar with the game:

    In a park, people come across a man playing chess against a dog. They are astonished and say: “What a clever dog!” But the man protests: “No, no, he isn’t that clever. I’m leading by three games to one!”

    This character trait of players is the theme in the short story The Chessplayers, about a trained chess playing rat, who, though remarkable on the face of it, leaves players in a club unimpressed because the rat’s playing ability is not that good.

    New York City is a mecca for chess, and anyone who lives here will see this illustrated in many ways. On August 6, 2009, I wrote a true story about a shooting I witnessed in Washington Square Park, where chess players only ducked and hid long enough for the bullets to stop flying before resume their games. See the story, Chess Monsters, here.

    Only good playing will will impress good players. Gimmicks, novelties, Emmy Awards, or non-human players will not. And neither will men with guns or big heads :)

    *Ted Greenberg (sitting to the right of his mascot) is an award-winning comedy writer who has written for the David Letterman show. Information about his one-man show, The Complete Performer, can be found here.

    Other Postings on Chess in New York City: Good Fortune, Chess Monsters, Solid as a Rock, Marshall Chess Club

  • Urban Night Climbers

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    For a full night climbing experience, click and play audio link to accompany your reading.

    Many years ago, in a conversation with a customer, the subject somehow turned to my childhood love of tree climbing. My customer was VERY pleased to hear this, and encouraged me to rekindle this interest, embrace some trees, or perhaps even join him and his friends in their nocturnal sojourns. He was a night climber. Of buildings.

    New York City is a city that never sleeps. We are known for our night clubs, night life, and night people – but night climbers of buildings? I was not aware that there was an underground fraternity of those who practice buildering, aka urban climbing, stegophily, or structuring.

    The press has covered the various climbing spectaculars of the city – Philippe Petit’s legendary walk between the world trade towers on August 7, 1974. George Willig, a mountain-climber from Queens, New York, United States, climbed the South Tower of the World Trade Center on May 26, 1977. Alain Robert is a French rock and urban climber who in 1994 scaled the Empire State Building and on June 5, 2008, climbed the New York Times Building (later that day, Renaldo Clarke also climbed the building). Dan Goodwin, using suction cups and a camming device, climbed the North Tower of the World Trade Center on May 30, 1983.

    But recreational buildering goes back much further than might be expected, at least to Victorian times in England, where students had been climbing the architecture of Cambridge University. Geoffrey Winthrop Young was roof climbing there in the 1890s and published The Roof Climber’s Guide to Trinity in 1900. In 1937, The Night Climbers of Cambridge was written (under the pseudonym Whipplesnaith) about the nocturnal climbing on the town buildings and colleges of Cambridge, England in the 1930s.

    In the United States, two men, George Polley and Harry Gardiner, both nicknamed the Human Fly, pioneered buildering as early as 1905. In 1920, George Polley climbed 30 floors of the Woolworth building before being arrested. Not much, however, is written about current recreational nighttime buildering in New York City, for obvious reasons. In 2008, the New York Times published an article with a little on the activity.

    Apart from legality or prudence, I do understand the lure of urban climbing. Much as the alpine areas of the world are magnets for rock climbers, the buildings and skyscrapers of New York City provide the same challenges and draw in masonry, steel, and glass. Perhaps I may yet get to witness the activities of these urban night climbers…

    Photo Note: I was recently privy to access to one of the very few rooftops in the Village affording a direct view of Washington Square Park. The building and friends kind enough to invite me to share the view, will, in the spirit of buildering, remain a secret :)

  • Solid as a Rock

    I have written a number of times about the very rough side of New York City – you see this in living conditions, the street, businesses etc. In a city with such a wide range of resources and income with the people and businesses, you will see plenty of appropriation, improvisation, and salvage. It often can be surprising or even shocking what can be seen in a place like New York City (see Very Practical and The Dark Ages).

    Many New York City neighborhoods are in transition, often with a mix of of old and new. In time, gentrification usually rules the day and a transformation ensues. Occasionally, there are surviving holdouts due to special situations – long leases or building ownership. But even in the case of property ownership, the lure of big money by cashing in on the real estate becomes too great, and owners ultimately sell. A good example is Grand Machinery Exchange, the last of 40 dealers of machinery in the SoHo/Canal Street area. Sale of their buildings brought a small fortune.

    In today’s photo, the Chess Shop at 230 Thompson Street managed to scavenge discarded chess table tops in concrete with a steel banding from Washington Square Park, still under renovation in Phase 2. See the chess playing area here, prior to demolition. It is surprising how often one can see something quite edgy like this, often juxtaposed with the much more upscale.

    Add piles of cinder blocks for bases, and you have some very durable chess tables for a long time to come. I asked the shopkeeper what they do with these after closing, but I had forgotten that there is no closing – the shop is open 24 hours, so there is no need to bring the tables in from the street.

    Of course, a chess shop is not the type of business with the income to indulge in lavish furnishings, so this solution to their al fresco chess playing needs makes sense. No worry about damage, vandalism, or theft. The tables may not be pretty, but like the Manhattan schist that this city is built on, they’re solid as a rock :)

  • New York is Tennis Country

    New Yorkers are accustomed to finding amenities in the most unusual places. Virtually every piece of real estate is utilized and maximized. In Little Stuff, I wrote of New York City’s very broad range of products and services, including those things providing the everyday needs most visitors rarely notice and often ask about, such as gas stations and supermarkets (see American Express here).

    Many of the services and establishments catering to residents who do not need prime real estate locations are sometimes located off the beaten path and shoehorned into whatever space works. They become destinations, and they can be found here and there, if not everywhere.
    The most challenging services to provide are activities which require a lot of SPACE to be utilized by a few at one time. Like tennis.

    There actually are 500 public tennis courts across the five boroughs run by the City of New York, and the costs are extremely nominal. However, demand is great and permits and scheduling are necessary. Using them requires patience, planning, and the ability to deal with limited times/availability and the occasional disappointment.

    Money buys convenience, and for those with lots of money, there are a handful of private tennis clubs in Manhattan (rates can run $100 per hour.). One of the largest facilities in the city, shown in the photos, is the Sutton East Tennis Club at 488 East 60th Street. An inflated bubble encloses the club and is located under the 59th Street Bridge – see additional photo here. The courts are open year round, 7 days a week, from 6AM to 11PM.

    Lest we forget, New York City is also home to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, Queens, the world’s largest public tennis facility and also the official venue of the U.S. Open. Everything considered, and in spite of the relative invisibility of all the tennis facilities the five boroughs has to offer, it would not be unfair to say that New York is Tennis Country :)

    Note: Thanks to Sutton East Tennis Club for their graciousness in allowing these photos to be taken. For their website with information about the club, classes, rates, etc., see here.

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