Saturday, June 7, 2014

sidewalks of new york

a field guide for taming the wild pedestrian

When I arrived in New York 25 years ago, there was a shared sense on the street that if you didn't follow the rules you could get hurt.

Figuring out the correct side of the sidewalk and how to navigate taxis, bike messengers, and loose mental patients was part of survival in this tough City. It was also part of being a good fellow New Yorker. You felt proud of yourself as you accomplished the ways of the City. Similar to stepping confidently onto a "people mover" at the airport, you learned what "regular coffee" really meant at a street cart, how to fold your Times so as not to annoy fellow subway passengers, how brief a question needed to be for a New Yorker to answer it, and that you always stayed to the right and moved attentively on the sidewalk.

True New Yorkers knew these things. New New Yorkers wanted to learn them quickly. Visitors wanted to know so as not to draw attention to themselves. We were all in it together. And if you hadn't figured that out yet, you quickly did, or risked being run off the curb.

But today, there is an epidemic of untamed pedestrians roving the sidewalks as if none of this was ever necessary. Whether they were raised without socialization, came to NYC fooled by the promise of a Lego or Disney store on every corner, or simply are disconnected from the real world by their digital devices, too many pedestrians have become stubborn obstacles on a maddening course, unaware of the danger they put themselves in, or the disruption they are to the City's flow.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

f*ck


Last week a friend posted a Gawker video of consummate New York actress Elaine Stritch saying "fuck" while on the Today show to promote Shoot Me, the new documentary about her life.

I actually don't understand why hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford were so surprised, except to fain chagrin for anyone in the home audience who was offended by it. But I suspect most people would have been more surprised if Stritch had not said "fuck." She has built a long career on being herself—a crusty New York broad who speaks her mind with unapologetic gusto and humor—and everyone knows it.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

gray's papaya lights go out on 8th street


Eater.com has spent the past few days celebrating the life and death of Gray's Papaya at the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue, with photos of its bright orange lettering being removed from its awning and reminiscent post from followers about drunken munchies and Gray's goofy signage.

I, myself, best remember Gray's Papaya, and the Famous Ray's Pizza of Greenwich Village a few blocks up Sixth Avenue (which also recently closed for the second and final time), on my late-night walks home from Bob's NYU dorm during our first year in New York, when he lived in graduate student housing on Third Avenue and I lived in the Jesuit Community on 17th Street.

Friday, December 6, 2013

madela's peace and 1960s christmas

Jim and Jane Henson’s handmade
Christmas card from 1960.
Nelson Mandela’s death reminds me of all the great men and women who put their lives on the line for peace and justice, especial those of my childhood.

As a kid in Catholic grade school in the 1960s I was very aware of what the "reason for the season" really was. It was something more powerful than Santas kneeling before a manger, a fish on a bumper sticker, or a fight in a mall parking lot over being wished the wrong happiness.

We were taught that the message of the first Christmas was the longed-for good news of the coming of peace and justice to those who needed it most: the poor, the war-torn, the oppressed, and to ourselves when we recognize our humble role in the story. The great messengers of my childhood were not just from MY church or MY country, but from all over OUR world, and these men and women literally risked their lives for it.

I remember how, in grade school art classes at this time of year, we made faux-batik Christmas cards, by covering a bright rainbow of crayon colors with a thick layer of solid black crayon, and then carving words and patterns through the black down in to reveal the colors. The waxy messages were mostly of peace, as we listened to the words of JFK, MLK, RFK, Gandhi, John XXIII, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigans. We learned that Peace, with a capital “P” was not a silent night or a snowy nativity scene, but something radical, that stood in the face of the predominant culture, that often told us, even Christians, something we might not want to hear, but sounded more like “glad tidings of great joy” than any other words being preached.

May Nelson Mandela rest in the peace he championed, and may we all continue his work to bring it to the world.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

kempster all-saints day

This week, many people have celebrated All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls Days, but my family has one more of its own: November 5th.

It started back in 1888, when my father's father Edward Llewellyn Kempster was born on that day. And it remained a major day of celebration until grandpa's death in 1990, having lived to be 101.

But only a few years later in 1995, my mother died on November 5th, followed over the next couple years by two of my father's siblings—my uncle Brenton Kempster and my aunt Mary Kempster Hand—both passing on that day in subsequent years.

The year following the last of these deaths, my father called to say that there had been yet another November 5th passing. I braced myself, only to hear him say, "I tried to start my car this morning and found the battery was dead."

In my family, we use the day as an opportunity to send the "traditional" Facebook post or email, to wish each other well, and say "be careful."

I wish the same to you all.

Friday, October 4, 2013

bullying & empathy: honk if you hate bullies

I was bullied in grade school. I hate bullying passionately. It breaks my heart. It makes me angry.

But I was disturbed by this story about a Ft. Hood, Texas father who, upon hearing that his son was bulling his fourth-grade classmates, forced him to stand at a busy intersection holding a hot pink sign that read, "I am a bully. Honk if you hate bullies." The father made the case that “we don’t need another Columbine."

"Bullying is also a form of public humiliation," the father told a radio interviewer. "Maybe he understands that when he humiliates someone publicly that doesn't feel good. Hopefully he'll take that with him so the next time he tries to bully someone he'll think about it twice."

This dad needs to learn the right way to teach empathy.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

love songs to blue skies

With art school, parish duties, and New York at my doorstep, I barely had time to be homesick for California, that first autumn in 1989. But I was. I missed Berkeley's temperate climate and dramatic landscape, the way nature entered everyday life, how people treated one another, the forward-thinking politics, and my friends. Oh, my friends. And the deep, clear blue West Coast sky that saturated Berkeley's daylight, the shadows, and my mood most of the year. 

Having in the past only visited New York during its damp springs and hazy summers, I had no idea that crystal blue skies were a trademark of New York autumns. Nor would I ever have guessed that over the years I would live here, whenever I'd glimpse a shard of azure cutting all the way down between the skyscrapers to the uptown end of an avenue, that I'd begin to associate such glorious blues with meeting Bob in September at NYU, visiting SoHo galleries on October weekends, picking apples from a Union Square farmer's cart, shuttering at the forgotten backdrop of 9/11, embracing the annual brisk relief from summer's oppressive street smells, or relaxing to the sound of a lone saxophone crooning a love song under a canopy of copper leaves in Washington Square.