Let’s Talk About (The Museum of) Sex, Baby…

Among the myriad of museums that reside in the City That Never Sleeps, the Museum of Sex certainly maintains a certain measure of infamy within the city. While numerous topics can boast a museum that highlights the final intricacies of that topic, few garner as much enthusiasm as an entire educational and historical establishment dedicated to “rolling in the hay”.  Located in the Flatiron District, almost every new resident to the city as well as every tourist in their 20’s wanders into the gift shop as a point of amusement.  Both couples and singles will routinely wander into the gift shop to chuckle and point at the sexual paraphernalia on sale at the “museum” and are quick to take a few pictures to text to their friends.

However, I was able to find very few people who had ventured into the museum itself.  Most dismiss it as a fun spot to peruse, but assume the museum itself is a tourist trap begging to drain those with vibrant libidos of their funds with subpar exhibits.


I decided to explore the museum myself to determine if it does in fact possess educational merit within its exhibits.  Furthermore, I was curious if, befitting this blog, it would be a truly quirky experience that is unique to New York.  Wow, was I proven correct on both accounts.

To begin our tour of the Museum of Sex, we must start in the gift shop, which serves as the entrance of the museum as well.  I was immediately greeted by an adorable bleach blonde young woman dressed in a rather alternative style.  All black clothes, black makeup around her eyes, and yet despite the Elmo connotations of her outfit she was very polite and enthusiastic.  “Take On Me” by A-Ha could be heard playing over the store speakers.  It was a clean and surprisingly warm environment, not at all like some of the seedier “specialty shops” typically affiliated with the sex industry.

What did the store have for sale in the gift shop?  Well sex-related materials, for one.  Multiple models of vibrators.  Whips.  Chains.  Blindfolds.  Copies of the Kama Sutra.  Lube.  All of them were available.  But they also had some more gimmicky items in addition to this.  For example, their condoms (displayed below) were particularly amusing, lampooning everything from Star Wars to Donald Trump:


There was also a plethora of pro-marijuana legalization, like marijuana cookbooks:


And even Penis Pasta, for the culinary enthusiasts out there.


Once I had sufficiently explored the gift shop, I figured now was the time to take in the wonders of the museum itself.  Admission was under 20.00, and the first room you are introduced to is an exhibit depicting the Disco Era in New York.  70’s era furniture as well as multiple mirrors and disco balls accent the room.  Surrounding the room is several images taken at famed disco clubs like Studio 54, The Ice Palace, and my personal favorite, a gay club called “The Crisco Disco” (no word on if Crisco was a sponsor).  It’s interesting to see how much of the sensuality depicted in the dancing in the images, while different from dancing today, was clearly a direct predecessor to modern dance clubs.  There was an anarchic spirit to these disco clubs that is almost unfathomable today, and the photography manages to capture the energy of this.  The seats are comfy and drinks are even available for sale to guests in this first stop of the tour.  It stands as a fairly engrossing representation of a lurid bygone era in New York’s history.


Next up on the museum tour was the Boob Jump Castle.

No.  I’m not kidding:


It costs an extra $3.00 in order to partake in the “Jump for Joy” castle.  Sure enough, it is a jump castle, and inside are various sizes and colors of inflatable breasts.  Tit’s amazing.  Of all of the jump castles I’ve visited, it’s definitely the breast.  The employee running it also checks to make sure you aren’t dropping any artifacts from there, so one doesn’t end up busting the bust.  These puns are admittedly terrible, but that doesn’t mean they still won’t be printed.  Each participant is given 5 minutes to jump around in the castle as they please.


Now, I was of course taken aback by this addition in the museum.  This is clearly a cheap tourist gimmick, and a little distasteful.  Spending $3.00 to jump in breast jump castle can be perceived as nothing less than a colossal waste of money.

So after paying $3.00 to jump in the boob jump castle I then made my way to the “Sexual Artifacts” section of the museum.  Various sexual instruments that had been developed through history were all on display, and under each was the brief history of the displayed item.  And boy were there some gems.


What were some of my personal favorites?  Well the dildo jousting bike was a high point:


As was the stuffed raccoon plus sex doll.  Apparently there is a fetish called “Plushies” that is aroused by having intercourse with stuffed animals.  Some plush companies have catered by creating plush dolls specifically for this purpose:


There was also antique vibrators from the 1800’s….


A dress made entirely of condoms…


A power tool dildo…


And my personal favorite, a Braille Playboy.  That’s right, Playboy for the blind.  Apparently the Library of Congress started translating issues for the blind in the 70’s.  I always thought this was merely a gag in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”, but apparently it is in fact a reality.

After reading the history for each of the various artifacts on display here, it was then that I moved on to the next exhibit:  the Sex Lives of Animals.  And I have to admit, this may have been my favorite part of the museum.  Not only because it’s hilarious to see artsy statues of animals mounting one another in a museum (and the funniest lion “O-face” photo ever), but because it may have been one of the most informative exhibits as well.


The overarching theme of this exhibit is very simple: many species of animals engage in even the most unique and bizarre of sexual behaviors that to many would seem exclusive to humans.  Behaviors like oral sex (observed in foxes, gibbons, and macaques), group sex (witnessed in dolphins, deers, and garter snakes), and homosexuality (over 500 different species) have all been found in various forms of wildlife.  However, there were two accounts in particular in this exhibit that BLEW MY MIND, and are 100% true.

The first one was an account at the Central Park Zoo.  Two chinstrap penguins, Ray and Silo, began to engage in a homosexual relationship.  Now, sure, the idea of gay penguins is just adorable, but the penguins ran into a bit of a dilemma:  they wished to expand the family.   Of course the problem there is two gay male penguins are not going to produce an egg.  The couple then found an EGG SHAPED STONE and began trying to warm the pebble in order to hatch it.  The zoo quickly caught on and replaced the stone with a fertilized egg, which ultimately hatched successfully several weeks later.


What an adorable story am I right? Well, that cute tale should properly prepare you for the second story:  duck necrophilia.  Apparently at a zoo in Rotterdam, a duck had died in the zoo.  A heartbroken mallard, saddened by the passing of his love, paid tribute to her by making love to her recently deceased body for 75 MINUTES.  You don’t get those type of stories from the Museum of Natural History, I promise you.


After this I asked if many schools took field trips to this museum.  The employee said, optimistically, “not yet”.

The final two exhibitions, “Hardcore” and “Unknown Pleasures”, was a historical breakdown and display of the art of sexual imagery, film, and art.  Among some of the more bizarre findings were the first sexual “selfies”, going back to the 1920’s,  authentic “Tijuana Bibles”, which were mini comic books depicting comic characters in erotic scenarios, and several other examples of early erotic imagery. They even had a display of an actual glory hole in Brooklyn.


So in conclusion, is the Museum of Sex worth visiting?  Honestly, yes. The most bizarre thing about the museum is how earnestly they treat the subject matter, and I dare say it managed to be a more informative and engaging museum than some “traditional museums” I’ve visited.  Despite specializing in rather titillating content, this isn’t some backroom frathouse tourist spot with Ron Jeremy oil paintings.  The museum legitimately focuses on the subject from a perspective of its social, historical, and cultural impact.  It’s a really engrossing way in which to learn many fascinating details about a topic that is allurig to all of us.

And hey, if learning isn’t that enticing to you, you can also jump in a room full of giant inflatable boobs.

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My 20 Favorite Films of 2016

Despite the relentless onslaught of beloved deceased celebrities and an election that depleted the life force of the entire country, 2016 managed to be a banner year for film.  As a citizen I was horrified by the events of the year, but as a film nerd, riches abounded pretty much from the start of the year to the end.  The following list is my picks for my favorite films to be released this year, as well as a brief list of the worst drivel cinema released in 2016.  I use “favorite” as the term to describe these because some may argue the artistic merits of one title over another, and while artistic merit is a factor in my championing of the film, entertainment value is an equally important element.  Enjoy the list and let me know your thoughts!

20) Dr. Strange

strange

Yes, in many ways this is a pretty standard “paint by numbers” superhero origin story film.  However, the hallucinogenic visuals and a standout performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as the narcissist-turned-heroic sorcerer elevated it beyond being all too standard comic book fare.  It’s fun too.

19) Jackie

At times choppy direction?  Yep.  Awkward score?  Check.  In many ways this was a mediocre film.  However, Natalie Portman is so damn good as the grieving First Lady it compensates for some of the films apparent flaws.  It should also be noted the filming of the actual assassination is creepily detailed and effective.

18) I, Daniel Blake

This charming tale of an elderly disabled man fighting for his health benefits while also aiding a struggling single mom could have veered dangerously into melodrama.  But the writing and the dry humor keep the film steadily moving throughout its running time.  Social commentary in foreign cinema always offers a unique perspective, and this scathing critique of the social welfare system in England certainly draws many parallels with the same system stateside.

17) Blair Witch

blair-witch

Adam Wingard had blown me away with the horror comedy “You’re Next” and “The Guest”. I never would have guessed his third trick would be to take this long-dead franchise and inject it with white knuckle terror adrenaline.  While the film still follows the “found footage aesthetic”, it benefits from having a legitimate director this time.  Not only did the film do the original justice, it upstaged it.

16) Gimme Danger

This frank, hysterical documentary about Iggy Pop and The Stooges shows how a group of goofy misfits rattled the cages of 60’s music and created modern punk rock.  Anyone who knows me knows of my unabashed love for Iggy.  It has only grown after seeing this film.

15) Hail Caesar

Is it one of the weaker films in the Coen Bros. canon?  Sure.  But even a weaker Coen film is better than most typical films.  This time the Coens go back down the “Barton Fink” territory with a classic Hollywood tale filtered through their classic zaniness.  As always George Clooney and the Coens is a winning combo, and Channing Tatum’s suggestive dance number steals the movie.

14) Midnight Special

midnight

Any time a low budget film is able to connect with a mainstream audience in a truly potent way I always consider it a great success in the film industry.  When it is a science fiction film, a genre recognized for considerably towering budgets, I call that an even more impressive achievement.  This quirky sci-fi drama from director Jeff Nichols tells the story of a child with special powers who, along with his father (the always reliable Michael Shannon) is on the run from the government and an obsessive cult.  Despite the shoestring funds, Nichols is smart enough to know the key to a successful science fiction picture is to hire actors who treat the material earnestly.  Come for the fascinating premise, stay for the strong performances.

13) Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield was not an actor really on my radar as “the next big talent”, but between this war film from Mel Gibson and another entry later in the list, 2016 was a breakout year for him.  This story of a Seventh Day Adventist who refuses to carry a gun into war and yet saved over 70 fellow troops is a brutal picture.  However, it is alleviated by the beauty of the central story.   tend to enjoy war movies as they can be an obvious showcase for drama, but it was a nice change of pace to view a war film about a hero who refuses to engaging in the warring himself.

12) Moonlight

Though I didn’t fall obsessively in love with this film as many others, that doesn’t subtract from the fact that Barry Jenkins crafted a powerful, well-executed film.  The story of a young black youth coming to terms with his homosexuality during the War on Drugs was in danger of falling into melodrama.  But the craftsmanship prevents this from being so, and the level of authenticity in this tale is bountiful.

11) Captain America: Civil War

Finally, they got Spider-man right on film.  Not only did the wallcrawler’s cameo work wonders, but this “Avengers Lite” Marvel film that pitted Captain America and Iron Man at odds with one another did everything right where the other big comic face off film, “Batman v Superman”, completely fumbled.

10) Deadpool

deadpool

It’s juvenile.  It’s vulgar.  It’s irreverent. And it all works to make one of the better comedies of the year and my favorite comic book film.  I LOVED Civil War, but Deadpool outshines it slightly because no one believed the screen would do the character justice.  Not only did they succeed, but this might be the best example of a comic book film giving its fans EXACTLY what they wanted.  Reynolds is the only person born to play this role.

9) Train to Busan

Zombies on a train, what could not be awesome about that?  While that’s already a blast of a premise, it’s made even better with frenetic direction and human characters you sincerely care for.  The film gives precious little time for its audience to take a breath, and takes what some consider an over-exposed genre and does something fresh with it.

8) Zootopia

In a year where race was a hot topic, BRAVO to arisney for making the gutsiest, funniest and most poignant commentary on the topic with an animated film starring a bunny and a fox.  I don’t know if any film shocked me as hard as this one this year with just how great of a picture it is.

7) Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-water

A simple heist gone wrong film manages to be one of the year’s best because it is impeccably acted, directed, and paced.  The western motif gives the sense of doom in this no man’s land further resonance, and it’s surprising this type of film, so common in the 60s and even before, is not seen nearly enough today.

6) Green Room

“Green Room” had one of the weirdest premises of any film this year:  a punk band had to fight their way out of a club run by sadistic neo-Nazis led by Patrick Stewart.  And yes, the film is as insane and delightful as it sounds. An ultra-violent but at times bitterly funny film, I loved that it consistently took paths contrary to where I suspected it was going.  This was one of the last films featuring young acting talent Anton Yelchin, who passed away this year.  While it is heartbreaking that he tragically passed, his quality work in this film did not go unnoticed.

5) The Nice Guys

nice-guys

The best comedy of the year?  Yes, yes it is.  After director Shane Black wrote and directed the hysterical Robert Downey Jr./Val Kilmer vehicle “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” several years ago, I was enthusiastic about his next original comedic work.  This film detailing two private eyes (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) searching for a missing girl in the 70’s had me howling within 5 minutes of its start and held me until the conclusion.  I never would have guessed that Crowe and Gosling would have such a high level of chemistry, but I could hear the two of them bicker while reciting Black’s dialogue for hours and never tire.  While there is certainly some fun action in this film as well, I find myself excitedly waiting for the action to momentarily cease so I can once again hear the actors speak.

4) Rogue One

rogue-one

This “300 with TIE Fighters” side story in the Star Wars canon embraced its fandom and delivered the darkest chapter in the saga yet.  However, this is also likely the best directed film in the series so far, and the Droid in this film owns C-3PO, BB-8, and R2-D2 so hard it’s not even funny.

3) Manchester by the Sea

manchester

Casey Affleck has been a stirring talent in film from the moment he first appeared in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” (and superior to his brother Ben).  But with his performance in this New England drama, he may finally nab himself an Oscar, and unquestionably it is richly deserved.  The story of a Boston handy man who must return home to Manchester to tend to his late brother’s son sounds like a plot to a film that has been made and remade repeatedly.  But the film shifts the entire tone of this type of movie with a heartbreaking tragic back story that frames the entire film differently.  Much of Affleck’s genius in the film is how understated he can seem early in the film, which at first is off-putting, until you learn the painful journey the character endured before the events of the film.  It’s a funny film, it’s a tearjerker, but above all else, it is a deeply human picture.

2) La La Land

la-la-land

This loving tribute to the classic age of American Musicals was a quirky follow-up to director Damien Chazelle’s terrific picture “Whiplash”, but wow did he reveal that his talents have even more depth than his debut work suggested.  The opening sequence on the L.A. freeway in this film was the most impressive tracking shot I have seen in probably 10 years at least, and the choreography and staging throughout is bravura.  Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (in his second entry on this list) are able to portray the romantic pairing in the film in a manner that embodies the starry-eyed optimism of the musical in one scene, and yet can still organically transition into the realistic drama of modern film exhibited at other moments.  There are no dead genres in film, there is just a need to try something different within that genre.  Chazelle not only crafts a loving tribute to musicals but within that tribute creates a refreshing new take on it as well

1) Arrival/Silence

One of these films is a bold, ambitious science-fiction epic.  The other is a stirring religious epic that provokes endless questions about the nature of faith.  The two things they both have in common?  They both reveal the complexities inherent in the human experience, and are both my favorite films of the year.  Try as I might, I simply could not narrow down one choice over another.  “Arrival” blew me away.  The story of a linguist (a stellar Amy Adams) attempting to communicate with an alien species that has landed on Earth succeeds in being a “thinking man’s science fiction film”.  Dennis Villeneuve does not rush the narrative in this film, and the steady manner in which the film reveals the riches within rewards the viewer in an enormous fashion at the conclusion of the film.  I will not make the mistake of giving it away, but suffice it to say the ending of the film is POWERFUL.  The other film, “Silence” is the latest film from my favorite living director, the masterful Martin Scorsese.  This was a passion project of Scorsese for 30 years, and not only did it finally find it’s way to the screen this year, but it might be the most challenging and thought provoking religious film released in America.  The story tells of a pair of Jesuit priests who travel to 17th century Japan to find a fellow priest who is reported to have fallen out of the faith.  They are greeted by a society that is intensely harsh and unmerciful to the Christian faith, and the severity of the resistance creates a piercing internal struggle within the two priests (A fantastic Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver).  As always the direction and cinematography of this film is like a vibrant, lively painting, and I dare say there are shades of Kurosawa in the styling of the film.  Both of these films will continue t provoke thought and discussion long after the credits roll, which is one of the clearest signs of a masterful film.

So there you have it folks.  My picks for the best in film 2016 had to offer.  Feel free to provide your own picks or let me know what I may have omitted.  And if the list provokes you to track some of these titles down, let me know your thoughts after viewing!

 

One Man’s Trash TV is Another Man’s Treasure


Ever since I began publishing my experiences in New York on Bizarre Big Apple, my objective has always been very precise: to observe and report the strange locations, individuals, and behavior that one can witness if they are an inhabitant in New York.  As a result, this objective points me in the direction of some environments some people would not have an interest in subjecting themselves to.  The idea of witnessing something truly unique drives much of my explorations.

Which is why I was elated when I was approved to attend a taping of “The Jerry Springer Show”.

Now a few things that should be clarified before I describe my voyage to the Trash TV Mecca.  Technically, “Jerry Springer” is not filmed in New York.  It’s filmed right outside of the city in Stamford, CT.  However, I still qualify it as a bizarre thing to do in New York because the show has free shuttle buses that drive you from New York to Stamford, and therefore is still easily accessible as a New York resident.  Also, becoming a member of the audience for a taping is not as difficult as one might expect.  You can secure free tickets for the show at http://jerryspringertv.com/tickets, and as previously mentioned the show provides bus service from New York to the studio.  I’ve been to several TV tapings in the New York area now, and surprisingly my experience with the Jerry Springer show might be the most accommodating.

Once I requested tickets, in a matter of days I received a call from the show verifying that I intended to be present for a taping, which I verified.  I received an e-mail shortly after confirming I was approved to attend the show.  The e-mail, at least in my estimation, was quite humorous as it explains the rules and regulations that one is expected to adhere to, while attending the show.  Most of them are routine questions (no taping of the actual show, no resale of tickets, etc.), but the one that took me by surprise was the dress code specifications.  All solid colors, presentable clothing, and they requested no t-shirts.  The reason?  “You will be on television and we wish for you to maintain a respectable appearance”.  As silly as it my seem though, this is a wise decision.  When Charlene the stripper explains how she is cheating on her boyfriend with his brother, the last thing I’d want to do is harm the integrity of the product with my attire.

The show is courteous enough to provide a bus that transports you from the Penn Station area of New York City to the studio where the show is filmed.  I got there at 8:30 AM and filed into a packed bus, which after accounting for traffic took approximately an hour and a half to reach our destination.  Once passing through security, the guests for the show were asked to wait in a waiting room before filming began. The studio provided complimentary bagels and a screen that was showing “classic Jerry Springer moments”.  I was not aware Jerry Springer had “classic moments”, but among the episode titles for some of these gems were “Klanfrontation”, “Stripper Wars”, and “It’s Your Mother or Me”.  Classic moments indeed;  I am sure this is the “Sgt. Pepper”, “Revolver”, and “Abbey Road” of the Springer enthusiasts.  There were also Christmas decorations hung all around, which made the situation that much more surreal.  I don’t know there’s something off-kilter about seeing yuletide decorum on display, and then peering from behind it is Jerry Springer.


A member of the crew finally came to retrieve us after about an hour for the studio so we could be properly prepped for the taping. Once we entered the studio, the first thing that is noticeable is the same thing I’ve noticed for each television taping;  the studio is much smaller than it appears on TV.  As the audience was being seated it became clear by the conversations and comments being shouted, they were split into two very distinct camps:  sincere fans of the show and those who came to watch the spectacle (I’m in the second camp).  The fans are definitely a huge part of the audience though:  one woman explained that she and her mother drove all the way down from Toronto to be present for this taping because they loved the show so much.  There were a handful of other individuals in the room who had driven far and wide, though most of the audience was from the New York area.


The show is divided into three segments.  Each segment has a different “story” at the core of it that Jerry is trying to provide “counsel” for.  I put these terms in quotations because two things were abundantly clear watching the events of each segment unfold.  Number one: Jerry and the rest of the crew are completely aware of how asinine their show is, and their responses and reactions to the audience telegraphs this fact explicitly.  Whereas a lot of these shows attempt to make the host seem like a de facto counselor for those onstage, this is done to the bare minimum on the Jerry Springer show, and his main job seems to be to make sure the focus is remains on driving the narrative of the segment forward.  It is a skill Springer is quite good at.

In response to this point, I would be remiss to not discuss the host himself.  After going to this taping, I love Jerry Springer.  Is he the Satanic Overlord of a genre of television that is destroying America?  Probably.  In fact it’s fascinating how both the studio and segments of the audience treat him as if he is some twisted deity.  A perfect example is in the waiting room there’s a picture of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and another trash TV host (I was ill-informed as to the identity of the third) hanging on the wall.  The way the lighting was orchestrated in the room illuminated the face in a way that made it not quite visible in the photo.  It was lit in much the same way a pastor’s photo is lit in a mega-church.


While this is a somewhat or a troubling commentary on Springer, it’s nigh impossible to really dislike him.  When he walked onstage, he was greeted with an eruption of adoration, and almost immediately began delivering a rapid fire series of jokes.  He begins by telling the audience this is the 26th year of the show, and they have filmed over 5,000 shows with approximately 50,000 guests.  He then said “that’s a lot of perverts.  And you wonder why we have Trump for President”.  He then segways into an actual comedic monologue, with pre-written jokes.  Surprisingly, some of the jokes are reasonably funny.  An example of a Springer joke:

SPRINGER:  let’s give it up for the Jerry Springer Band!

AUDIENCE: (Applauds, then slowly realizes there is no band)

SPRINGER:  We’ll be doing drug tests at the end of the show.

AUDIENCE:  (Laughs)

SPRINGER:  I’m joking.  I don’t like cocaine, I just like the smell.

Springer clearly understands what his audience is looking for, and is effective at playing to it.  Despite how absurd the show is, Springer might be the brilliance behind why  longevity.  Most of the show doesn’t feel real, but every time he smiles to the audience when madness is occurring onstage, it reminds us he might be the sole component on the show that is truly authentic.  Yes, he may be the Devil provoking severely dysfunctional people into mortifying scenarios, but his willingness to embrace this role without a hint of shame is fascinating to watch.  I wondered if a man who was formerly a mayor and had worked for Bobby Kennedy is miserable in a job that seems so contrary to his previous professions.  If there is any regrets, Springer certainly doesn’t reflect it onstage.  He looks like he’s having a blast the entire taping.


The first segment began with a scantily clad woman sitting in the center of the stage.  When Springer asks what brought her to the show, she explains that she had a one night stand with one of her customers.  While she found it enjoyable, she believes the gentleman wants a real relationship and she does not, and she’s on the show today to clarify that for him.  But oh there’s a twist….he has a girlfriend!  Now, as salacious as this might sound, the immediate thing that became clear in the first segment is that this show is blatantly a work of fiction.  That isn’t to say the issues that the couples are expressing onstage aren’t authentic, as they very well may be.  But it is apparent there is theatrics at play. When the stripper’s one night stand emerged onstage, he immediately walked and angled in a very intentional manner that clearly verifies it was a designated spot.  If the show was really portraying a “slice of reality” I doubt it would have such proper stage blocking.  When the man’s wife comes onstage to confront the stripper for being with her husband, she takes her shoes off before rushing towards the stripper and a fist fight ensued.  It should be noted EVERY woman that got into a fist fight during the taping first removed their shoes before lunging at their target.  Which makes sense, as most people are concerned with their footwear before being consumed with enough passion to assault another human being.

The choice for the second segment was easily the least exciting, but revealed a very interesting intent of the show.  A young 19-year old sat in the center of the stage.  He looked like an adolescent version of Woody Allen, and projected that he was quite nervous.  His story?  He had slept with a girl and then she blew him off, only to find out over a year later he was the father of her four month old child.  He maintained that despite the deception he wished to be with her to raise the child.  When the mother emerged onstage she explained she had texted him several times to let him know he was the father, but he did not respond because he was wounded from her rejection.  Jerry then intervened, expressing his desire to see them work the situation out, which the couple seemed eager to do.  All in all, a “happy ending” for a Jerry Springer segment.  Then it dawned on me why this segment was approved: it is attempting to give the impression of “legitimacy” to the show.  Sure it has salacious, uncouth behavior, but if couples truly are finding civility and resolving their issues with one another, then the show really is helping their fellow man.  The organization of the three “stories” is clearly not scattershot and random.  They were attempting to create an atmosphere of civility before the inevitable climax.

Then the crew brought out the chicken wings.


Yes, you heard correctly.  The crew rolled out a cart with chicken wings;  one plate marked “Mild”, another marked “Hot”.  There was also an arrangement of carrots, celery, and ranch dressing.  The next guest, a black woman, sat to the right of the table and began to explain to the audience upon prompting the reason for the wings.  She believed her boyfriend is cheating on her, and she knows he hates hot food.  She plans to ask him a series of questions; for each time he answers “Yes” he eats a Mild Wing.  For “No”, a Hot Wing.  The theory would be that if he values being honest with her, he will be willing to take the heat of the wings to show his devotion.  As if it is some sort of makeshift lie detector test.  I don’t know why law enforcement is spending so much money on a polygraph when they can simply escort a suspect to Buffalo Wild Wings.

The boyfriend enters the stage next.  And the questions begin.  The first one is “you told me my favorite dress didn’t make me look chubby.  Was that true?”, at which point he leans over and grabs a “No” hot wing.  He suffers through it and is applauded for his honesty.  Pretty tame.  The questions get progressively more difficult, and the boyfriend keeps eating an alternating collection of Hot and Mild wings.  The last question was, predictably, “have you ever cheated on me”.  He chose a Hot Wing.  In the context of this system, it seems to suggest he truly loves his girlfriend.  Happy ending to this story. UNTIL…Jerry reveals that GASP!  He had an affair!  WITH HER COUSIN (DAH DUM DUMMMMM!)!  The cousin emerges from the back (and of course takes off her shoes), and proceeds to lunge at the girlfriend.  She immediately has her weave ripped off and thrown in the air by the girlfriend.  There’s a hilarious moment where the two women are viciously pummeling one another as countless pieces of weave float gently in the air like feathers directly above them.  The “Security” comes onstage to break the two up, and they begin to compose themselves.  But as the girlfriend is getting herself properly situated, the cousin walks over to the table, picks up the vegetable tray, and hurls it at the girlfriend.  Ranch dressing soaks the left side of her face, and filled with rage the girlfriend attacks the cousin and another fight ensues.  The women roll on the ground, covering each other in ranch dressing.  The wings are thrown.  Weave is flutrering in the air like it is being dispersed in a tornado. The segment concludes with both being carried offstage.  The entire audience was elated.  Half of them were enthusiastic because, based on their commentary the entire show, they believe 100% of it is real.  The other half of the audience, primarily a lot of college students, is amused by the spectacle of it all. 


And how did I feel about the whole experience?  Honestly in some respects I felt a sense of validation.  I am originally from South Carolina, and have moved to New York City.  When I explain to people where I am from I often told I don’t “seem Southern”, because I don’t speak with much of an accent and I am not prone to redneck tendencies.  Sure, there are certainly rednecks in the South; but that is not a collective of individuals exclusive to that area.  The majority of the guests were from the Northeast.  The overwhelming majority of the audience was from New York.  Many of them were hollering and ranting in the same manner a Southern-fried redneck would be saluting a monster truck rally.  There’s also nothing inherently wrong with that either.  Everyone I encountered and had any discourse in the audience with was very polite.  Just because someone finds enjoyment in something rather peculiar doesn’t mean they can’t be a quality individual.  Sure it’s a weird form of entertainment,  but then again I perform stand-up comedy.  Yelling your issues at a room full of drunken strangers isn’t that conventional either.

Some people feel if “Jerry Springer” is entirely staged, it’s a sham.  Honestly, I disagree.  The entire appeal of “Springer” is that most family units have dysfunction, and there’s a comfort in the schadenfreud of watching a family whose own dysfunction far exceeds your own.  So by that rationale, if the family isn’t a family but are in fact actors and performers helping to instill that sense of comfort, isn’t that better than a truly unhealthy family instilling that same feeling?  Also, if a show gives you a free coozy and t-shirt for attending, is it really all bad?


As one of my friends pointed out, there really is only one victim in this story:  the plate of wings.  Anyone who wastes an entire plate of wings and ranch dressing in a food fight is a monster.  Shame on you ma’am.

One-Track Mind Shops

Often times the grandiosity and spectacle that is often associated with New York is seen as slightly overwhelming by those who choose to visit there.  This of course is evident in the towering skyscrapers and manic activity that populate the streets 24 hours a day.  But it is perhaps most evident in the retail of the city.  New York boasts some of the largest department stores (with the largest in the world, an 8 stories high Macy’s in Herald Square, being a prime example), shopping malls, and bombastic variations on familiar retail chains the U.S. has to offer.  In the brief time I’ve been residing in New York, it is even somewhat peculiar for me to go into a Barnes and Noble or H&M in other cities that isn’t multiple stories high.

However, the population and size of New York also enables the city to allow the proliferation of a unique form of locally owned businesses:  the one-item specialty shops that populate the Manhattan area.  These are shops that specialize in selling one type of item and only one type of item.  Some of the businesses, such as stores that specialize in socks, restaurants that only serve Mac N’ Cheese, and stores that only sell hats, are admittedly quirky but not something that is necessarily surprising to see.  But to put it lightly…some of the other establishments are pretty weird.  To illustrate just a taste of these oddities, let’s take a look at a few examples of some of the more unorthodox specialty shops in New York.

The first shop, Just Shades, is actually the one that prompted me to go down this rabbit hole of specialty shops in the first place.  Just Shades has been open for several decades in the Village in New York (and, incidentally, you will learn the majority of the quirkiest specialty shops seem to populate the Village area).  Just Shades got its name pretty honestly:  they sell lampshades.  And that is it.  No lamps.  No light bulbs.  Lamp shades only.  I first became aware of this shop because of a classic segment on The David Letterman Show where he visited the shop and interviewed the shop owner.

After watching this classic bit from Letterman’s golden years, I was compelled to track down the location myself.  And lo’ and behold, it is still in existence:


One of the qualities that seems consistent with a lot of these one item shops is the fact that they all feel somewhat like a scaled-down warehouse.  The establishment also has stayed true to their roots: they still only sell lampshades, in various shapes and sizes.


I asked the woman working behind the counter how business was going.  She stated that it remained steady, which was what I wanted to hear.  Though specialty shops abound in New York, there are several that have closed over the years due to poor business and it’s pleasant to hear this isn’t another casualty to that trend.  It should also be noted that during the editing process of this post I allowed a close friend of mine to read this to acquire her feedback.  Upon learning that the business at Just Shades was doing well, she exclaimed “I am surprised a lampshade business would have….”bright” future”.  I now want to throw very large things at her.

When I asked what kind of clientele frequented the store, she said it was a lot of people who had a worn or damaged lampshade and needed a replacement, artists in the Village who liked decorating lampshades and wanted a blank canvas, and collectors.  Yes, that’s right, there are lampshade collectors.  So if you think your collection of 90’s Troll dolls is niche, go back to the drawing board rookie.

Our second spot on this specialty shop tour takes us to another quirky spot in the Village, Casey’s Rubber Stamps.


One thing that I was asked when I mentioned my idea for this post repeatedly was “are the people who run these shops…unconventional?”  Well, yeah.  If you are specializing in such a unique market, and this is literally ALL YOU TALK ABOUT AND BREATHE FOR 8 HOURS A DAY, you’re probably going to be a little odd.  However, the employees at each of these locations were very enthusiastic and friendly;  Casey’s was the only business that seemed to be run by individuals who skewed younger and were in fact closer to my age.  I think this was largely due to the fact that this store is not too far from St. Mark’s Place, a particularly hip and artsy street of the Village that skews to a younger crowd.  The artistic leanings of this particular specialty shop remain in line with the sentiments of the individuals who would populate this area.  They have an immense collection of various rubber stamps for sale, and are even capable of designing new ones.


Among the many types of rubber stamps available were things such as birds, zombies, astronauts, typewriters, and just about any other item one could imagine on a rubber stamp.  The shop owner was a rather attractive younger woman with a somewhat hip bohemian style to her apparel, consistent with the look many residents in the area have adopted.  She was very eager to share her knowledge on the products within the store, and seemed particularly fond of the skulls, the zombies, and any other stamps that would be purchased by Tim Burton if he were to waltz into this location.  I made sure to tell the shop owner before I left “this store certainly has my STAMP of approval!”. We both then laughed and laughed before I ran out the door and threw myself into oncoming traffic.

The eccentric and specialized retail outlets don’t end with rubber stamps though.  There are plenty of other stores that specialize in a fairly narrow focus throughout Manhattan.  Rain or Shine in Midtown specializes in umbrellas…


Bonnie Slotnick’s in the Village focuses solely on cookbooks…


There even was once a store in New York that only sold accordions.  However, it shut down because apparently it’s hard to stay open when “Weird Al” Yankovic is your only customer.  But I have chosen to save the best and most bizarre for last.  I say that because of all the specialty shops I was able to visit in New York, none may have been more bizarre than Chartwell Booksellers.


I know you are looking at the image of this storefront and are likely trying to rationalize why a reasonably polished-looking bookstore would be considered so bizarre.  Well, that is directly attributed to the type of books sold here.  Chartwell advertises itself as “The World’s Only Winston Churchill Bookshop”.  Most people hear this title and think “wow an entire section devoted to Winston Churchill!  Neat!”.  Well, not quite.


The images presented here are depicting Winston Churchill books available at Chartwell.  And when I say this, understand what I am saying;  ALL of these books are related to Winston Churchill.  Not only does the store carry the 40+ works Churchill authored himself, but it plays host to a somewhat intimidating collection of biographies depicting just about every aspect of Churchill’s life.  Many of these books are quite rare, and several of them are very early first printings.  Some of the early printings sell for thousands of dollars, with the most expensive Churchill work, which is kept securely under lock in key, being worth well over $100,000.  The shop owner also maintains a series of letters from Churchill that are for sale as well, though at quite a hefty price.  The owner’s encyclopedic knowledge of Churchill was certainly obsessive and yet fascinating as well.  He informed me that the popularity of Winston Churchill in America actually was greater than his rather considerable fame in England, a fact I was certainly unaware of.  The shop has remained open for over 30 years and is still going steady, a remarkable feat in such a competitive market like New York.  Chartwell even gets its share of celebrity customers; the shop owner informed me of all people, Spike Lee had come in that same day and has frequented the store on several occasions in the past.  As weird and centralized as the focus of the store might be, it actually gave me a tremendous amount of respect for the owner.  New York is notoriously known to be one of the harshest cities in which someone can maintain a decent living.  This gentleman has taken a very unique and quirky hobby and put it into a business that has remained active for over 30 years in the city.  That is a measure of resilience I think even Churchill would find admirable.

Commerce drives the heart of the Big Apple in many ways, and the nature of that commerce can come in many different forms.  Sure it can present itself in the form of monstrously large chains skyrocketing the electric bill in Times Square.  But these smaller businesses that primarily permeate the lower Manhattan area remain just as integral a part of New York’s makeup. While the larger stores certainly are providing the city with far more of its’ revenue, it is in unorthodox but charming businesses such as these that New York is able to present its identity.

Fortress of the Mole People: An Exploration of the Freedom Tunnel

Whenever someone uses the term “mole people”, it strikes most as a grandiose term typically only reserved for pulp science fiction yarns, grindhouse cinema, or other more flamboyant forms of fiction.  The term, which is meant to represent an underground colony or society existing hidden within a city, exists only as urban legend in the minds of most.  That is unless you watched “Demolition Man” and thought it was a modern documentary.

However, in the case of New York City, the “myth” of the mole people was at one point in time a reality.  In 1980, a tunnel that ran under Riverside Park for the Amtrak train system ended its services through that particular location.  The railroad system abandoned the Upper West Side tracks because they found far greater success transporting through yards in New Jersey and the Bronx.  As a result the tunnel system became abandoned.  As a result it became a haven for a large homeless community, who called this quirky locale home. And when I say homeless “community”,  I am not suggesting a handful of 9 or 10 individuals.  There were literally hundreds and by some rumors and reports, up to a thousand people cohabiting these tunnels together. One thing that should be made clear, however, is not all of the homeless that lived in these conditions were driven there by destitution;  some individuals simply chose to live there out of a desire for their lives to be “off the grid” of conventional city life.  Sure, there were likely some young adults in the 80’s and 90’s who thought that living in a rundown apartment in Harlem was the pinnacle of bohemian life, but populating a hidden Amtrak tunnel underground Riverside Park probably trumps that.  Although admittedly, it’s easy for a living space to be “rent control” when you aren’t paying rent at all.

The homeless who occupied this location proved to be quite resourceful as well:  they operated out of multiple tents, would loosen pipes to provide running water to the tunnel location, decorated the walls with ornate graffiti, and had even figured out how to pirate electricity for their “shantytown”.  It should also be noted that the extremes in the homeless community still exist today in some measure:  you can find homeless people in Washington Square Park who are spellbinding chess geniuses and you can also find them fondling themselves into the trash cans at the Port Authority Bus Terminal (and no I am not being overly salacious.  I have witnessed both many times. Variety is the spice of life I suppose). The homeless colonies were ultimately driven out when the Amtrak tracks began to be used once again for other train services, thus ending a colony that housed some residents who had called it home for over 10+ years.

Upon moving to New York, there were many sights that I was determined to experience, but for me the Freedom Tunnel (named after a mural that existed in the tunnel for many years by noted graffiti artist Chris “Freedom” Pape) was the Holy Grail of New York discoveries.  Sure, the Guggenheim or the top of the Empire State Building has its charms, but EVERYONE who arrives to New York of their existence;  I wanted to track down a unique experience that wasn’t known to the average New York visitor.  Despite no longer housing the homeless communities it once did, it continues to be a popular location for graffiti art and a fascinating exploration on how over a hundred homeless citizens survived the harsh conditions of New York in the 80’s or 90’s.

freedom-tunnel1

I finally had the opportunity to enter the Freedom Tunnel a few days ago (which  is located off of the 125th St stop for the 1 Train), and my time exploring it was certainly engaging.  The ground leading to the tunnel is littered with very thick, harsh stones, and even with a pair of pretty durable tennis shoes it is taxing to the feet.  I highly recommend a strong pair of boots or Timberlands while exploring this area; if you are wearing Crocs, remember to take them off when you get home, burn them, and think about the great shame you have brought to your family and friends.  As you enter into the tunnel you begin to see some of the most rudimentary forms of graffiti that exist throughout the length of the tunnel adorning the outside.

One of the first things that becomes very apparent as you explore the interior of the tunnel is the fact that the tunnel is not pitch black or shrouded in darkness.  Overhead grates every few yards project a wash of light downward throughout the tunnel, meaning the homeless communities were provided with natural lighting during the daylight hours.  This likely details one of the reasons this particular location was so desirable for the homeless community: despite being isolated and hidden the tunnel never feels completely shut off from the outside world because of the presence of this light.  I would suspect this also would have allowed the homeless communities to cultivate plants and things of that nature, if done properly and carefully.  There were several areas where puddles had formed from water leaking from the ceilings, but due to the considerable length of the tunnel there was still plenty of space to remain completely dry and unaffected by this if one was to live there.

From the moment you enter the Freedom Tunnel the graffiti art is everywhere, and much of it is very ornate and unique.  As graffiti artists have made a visit to this tunnel a routine pilgrimage the art is constantly changing and evolving, but there are some mainstays, such as art of former beloved New York Mayor Ed Koch (the picture below that looks like Paul Giamatti playing Martin Van Buren is, in fact, former Mayor Ed Koch).  As prefaced before, the art tends to be more populated in spots where the light is pouring in from the vents above.  Even Skeletor from “Masters of the Universe” makes an apparent in this unique art collection.

graffiti1graffiti2graffiti3graffiti4

If you think about it, the marriage of graffiti artist and the Freedom Tower makes complete sense: graffiti was and is the art form of the disenfranchised and is an art style that is still shunned by a large portion of the population, a quality it shares with the homeless cultures that used to inhabit the tunnel.  The tunnel ultimately ends near the tail of Riverside Park, and is fenced off to this day.

It is rather shocking that such a large population of individuals in New York City, some out of desperation and some voluntarily, were able to take something like an abandoned Amtrak tunnel and transform it into a fairly hospitable abode all things considered.  In a city that harbors its share of secrets and surprises it still stands as one of the best hidden gems New York has to offer.  If you are interested in learning more about this subculture from New York’s past, check out the terrific documentary “Dark Days” by Marc Singer, or the book “Tunnel People” by Tuen Voten.  It will no doubt provoke you to take greater consideration as to what is happening directly under your feet while walking in the city.

 

 

Welcome to Bizarre Big Apple

Well, if you found your way over to this blog post, then it is probably a safe assumption there is something about New York City that fascinates you.  And this isn’t hard to comprehend:  with 5 expansive boroughs, millions of residents and many more tourists, an abundance of iconic American history, and just about every ethnic culture one could fathom, New York has a ton to offer.

But enough about all that crap.

This blog isn’t about historical lessons, or attempting to aid you in seeing the classic sites on your “First Visit to New York”.  This is a journey down the most warped and unorthodox aspects of New York City.  To put it bluntly, this is a tour of New York for weirdos by a weirdo.

I have loved New York for as long as I’ve known it existed.  This blog is not designed to denigrate or slander these unconventional aspects of the city.  Instead, this is a blog that will be revealing just how eclectic and varied the city is, and doing so in a way that admittedly does lampoon it at times, but also celebrates it.  I hope you have as much fun reading about these escapades as I had experiencing them!