Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Playin' Possum

I spent last summer in rural Pennsylvania, sorting through a collection of 30,000 books in my mother’s basement. Needless to say, I needed to time away from the basement, so I got back into the running habit. I ran pretty much the same routes every day – there weren’t too many options, either into the hills or out of them. Out of them was easier due to the decreased grade, but it had its moments too. Probably the most noticeable was that every time I ran in front of the Laurel Health Center at the bottom of the range I had to sidestep a big dead possum. Through the passage of weeks it bloated out, until it settled into a slow decomposition. Each time I ran by I thought I should move it, but I didn't.

I have a strict policy of not moving dead possum. The reason is simple and deep-seated. It goes back to possibly the first cliche I discovered the true meaning of, when I was five and living with my grandparents. My only real job was to take the trash out, but I always managed to put even that off until the last minute each night. So one summer night, right before my bedtime at 9:00, I lugged the garbage bag out to the trash bin, and when I opened the lid there inside was a dead possum curled up in a fetal position. I'd never seen one so close before, so I of course wanted to pet it. But when I reach my hand in, the second I felt fur that dead possum reared up, hissed loudly, and jumped out at me. They don't call it playin' possum for nothing. I screamed, my grandparents came running out, and the possum scurried off. The next week I got pneumonia; as my grandpa was dunking my head under the ice water in the tub he told me, "That's why you don't touch dead animals, son."

But I can't say it stopped me completely. When I was 10 or 11 I was riding my bike down the old highway to Tee Pee Junction when I saw another dead possum by the side of the road. I at least had sense by then to keep my distance, but I couldn't help stopping. It was pretty obvious this possum was a goner, as its head and chest were ingrained in the highway. But what made me stop was that its entrails seemed to be arranged in a line behind it across one lane of the highway. When I looked closer, I realized its entrails were still crawling away - four or five little pink possum fetuses had crawled out of the maternal pouch and were pulling themselves all in the same direction, further into the street. My curiosity combined with my undisciplined sympathy compelled me to pick each one of them up and pull them to the side of the road. But when I realized my parents would kill me if I brought another wild animal home (we won't even get into the copperhead, snapping turtle, squirrel, and rabbit babies I'd already tried sneaking in) I quickly deduced that the best I could do for them was to dig a hole, put them in it, and put some dead grass over the hole. Come to think of it that was maybe the worst thing I could do for them as they must have died a slow death of either freezing or starvation, but I was never much of a quick thinker. I did wash my hands profusely when I got home though.

That must have worn heavily on my subconscious through the years, because when I was a graduate student and crew coxswain in college I found myself in a similar moral quandary. We were on our way to a training camp in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and our van got lost. Now I don't know if you've been to that neck of the woods, but it's hairy. Our van driver got lost in the middle of the night, and we ended up at some police station so far into Bumfuck Egypt that the one cop in town had put a sign on the door saying he was out and would be back in less than an hour. When he returned he was lugging a trashbag over his shoulder and had a shoebox under the other arm. He apologized; he had a call to exterminate a pest under someone's porch. It was dead now, he said, but it had a brood. I knew what was in the shoebox before he opened it.

Six baby possum were wriggling all over each other in there, and I immediately asked if I could have them. My crewmen looked at me - well, you can guess how they looked at me. But I told them this was my responsibility and it wouldn't be any bother to them. The cop was strangely tender with them for such a big, gruff man, and it was with a little reluctance that he gave them up after rescuing them. The last thing he told me was not to get too attached, they'd die within a day or two anyway.

I was late for our first practice on the river in Natchitoches, as I got up early, found the nearest pet store, ran there, and got pet bottles to feed the babies with. At first everyone on the team was wondering aloud if I came down there to cox or to rear wild animals, but after the first practice I let my roommates at the hotel help me feed them, word got around on how cute they were drinking from the bottle, the girls' team started coming over to our room, and everyone was happy. We kept the shoebox on the heater to keep them warm, and they seemed rather comfortable with us.

The next morning every one of them was dead. I had to tell the news to every visitor who came to say good morning. I dated a girl on the crew team for a couple of months after that, and I think half the time we were together we were talking about those dead baby possum. I don't know whether to feel bad about that.

So every day when I sidestepped this big dead possum in front of the Laurel Health Center, I restrained myself from moving, poking, or otherwise disturbing the fate nature dictated for it. Well, I did take a picture of it - that's not too disturbing, is it?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The New York Cool Archives

As you probably don’t know, I spent a decent chunk of 2007 writing for NewYorkCool. It was a pretty sweet gig, work-wise – Editor Wendy Williams always gave me full creative freedom and responsibility for arranging my own pieces, and I got a couple of nifty assignments I wouldn’t have learned about otherwise. If it wasn’t for this whole “making a living as a writer” thing that led me inevitably to higher-paid (read: paying) pastures, I would have been happy to graze in the verdant NYCool meadows for the foreseeable future.

I’m a little more financially stable now (as much as a freelance writer and tenure-free college professor can be) and should be putting out some more stuff with NewYorkCool pretty soon, so in honor of that I thought I’d do a quick retrospective:

Calling All Nerds: Williamsburg Spelling Bee @ Pete’s Candy Store
- This was the first piece I wrote for NewYorkCool. I still go to the WSB regularly, winning my first one a couple of months ago and finishing third in the mosr recent finals. Go me!

Alexi Murdoch @ Mercury Lounge 2/7/07 – The sheer brilliance (and overexposure) of his breakway single “Orange Sky” and his own reluctance as an artist for self-promotion – he took a year or so of being courted by record labels until self-releasing his first album to follow up the single – have probably destined Alexi Murdoch for one-hit wonder status. This was his first US tour, a good 2 years after Orange Sky’s popularity made his name for him. My response to his gig at Mercury Lounge was mostly “eh.” The opening act Midnight Movies was a revelation though, and they did a couple of songs with Alexi for the highlight of the show.

Beyond Race Launch Party 2/21/07
– When I was invited to this party, I really didn’t think Beyond Race Magazine would make it past their first year. First, there was the name – they’re not really about race, which I guess they were trying for with the title, but why put race in the title if it’s not about race? Also, the grammar nazi in me wanted to mark up the issue they were throwing the party for. And finally, they seemed so intent on promoting the print copy at the expense of a their website not even coming close to being interactive. But here we are a year and a half later, and they have a nicely designed website with plenty of links and a few advertisements, and they seem to have a copy editor now. Go Beyond Race! (Hey, a little double entendre action never hurt anyone.)

The Bowmans @ Joe’s Pub 3/3/07 – This gig was special to me for a number of reasons. For one thing, it marks the only known recorded instance of my voice online, as I included a pre-show interview with Claire and Sarah Bowman. Even better, it started a fun email exchange with the opening act, a folkie who accused me of slander when I compared him to Art Garfunkel. My response: “Hey, I like Art Garkfunkel!” But most importantly I got to finally write about one of my favorite acts, AND I got Claire into Nicolai Dunger, another of my favorite acts.

Langhorne Slim @ Southpaw 3/23/07 – In many ways, Langhorne Slim was my last shot at hipsterdom. He played his first gigs at Asterisk near my apartment in Bushwick, where my good buddy Domer has been rhyming for years now. He also tends to attract crowds at least 10 years younger than I am. But most importantly, he was most likely the last artist about whom I’ll be able to say, “I heard him before he was big.” That smugness is fairly evident in this piece.

Chris Smither @ Joe’s Pub 3/9/07 – The day after this show, Chris Smither called me from the road northeast of NYC. He couldn’t give me an interview the day of the show, but I pestered his publicist enough that she told me he’d call me the next day, but I never thought he really would. I absolutely loved talking to this guy. His knowledge of the songster tradition, his general intelligence, and just a good dose of that down home charm completely won me over. The show was pretty convincing, too – you can tell he’s been doing what he does for over 40 years now. If you’ve never listened to him, pick up Leave the Light On, which he released in 2007 shortly before the show. All acoustic, the album has a presence that actually makes me look forward to getting old.

Erin McKeown @ Southpaw 4/20/07 – In a lot of ways, Erin McKeown is like a younger, female Chris Smither – she does quite a bit of public domain material, is a first-rate guitarist, and probably feels most comfortable playing to a coffeehouse crowd. But se’s also firmly in the Lilith Fair tradition, with a hefty lesbian following and plenty of more personal songwriting to go with the songster material. I truthfully thought this gig might be a flop, as her material and persona aren’t necessarily a match for Southpaw’s wide-open sound and sometimes raucous, sometimes indifferent crowd, which wasn’t challenged when her publicist told me she only allows photographs for the first 30 seconds of the first 3 songs of her sets, with no flash. But she really rose to the occasion, with an energetic, fun set.

Punk Rock Record Fair 5/12/07 – Now this is what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. There’s nothing like spending a verdant spring morning and afternoon in a dimly lit music venue looking at musty old records and watching people compare their tattoos. There was no sarcasm in that statement.

That 70s Show @ PowerHouse Arena – This one was new to me – the only art show I’ve ever reviewed. I toured the collection with Melinda MacLean, who contributed the other half of the review. Really, though, it was more of a pictorial history than an art show, with lots of good shots of 70s punk rock acts at their unashamed best and, even better, some truly wondrous candid shots of NYC at a time during which I’m not ashamed to say I’m glad I didn’t arrive here. Check it out here.

Serendipitously, I recently wrote my first piece for NewYorkCool in over a year, a review of the Latin Alternative Music Conference in July. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Tour: Germany

Our friends Chris and Melissa are a mixed couple. Not in the racial sense – you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at them that they weren’t from the same town, and they’re so evenly matched in disposition you might think they were brother and sister. But she’s from the south – Kentucky – and he’s from the south of Germany –Bavaria – so when they decided to get married it was apparent that both of their families would demand a wedding on their respective shores. Hence, last month they were wed in Louisville and last weekend they did it again in Schwandorf, Bavaria.

Christine and I told them from the start that we’d only be able to attend one of the weddings, and especially after Canadian Customs didn’t stamp my newly-minted passport on our recent trip to Toronto I wanted to finally have a documented trip out of the U.S.

Our flight out was to Munich, and we even got seats together, which was fortuitous since we'd booked last minute – I’d just bought and paid for a ring, and I couldn’t help myself from popping the question 3 hours into the flight. I’d thought up a scheme involving the flight attendants where they’d ask us if we’d like anything, I’d say, “Yes, I’d like a ring, please,” they’d procure it, and I’d ask her to marry me with the smiling stewardesses looking at us in approval, but I decided against it when both of the flight attendants were men. How it happened was somewhat less planned – she got up to use the restroom and when she came back I let her in, then got on one knee between the seats – not an easy task in Economy Class – and asked her to marry me. And thus did we leave the ground single and land engaged.

Which made the rest of our trip somewhat of an engagement honeymoon. We landed in Munich at 1:00am EST, or 7:00 in the morning there, which meant we we’d missed out on a night’s sleep. We were lucky Hotel Royal was both near the Hauptbahnhof and allowed us to check in early. We got in a couple hours of sleep, then headed out to meet Melissa, her family, and Chris’s brother Stefan at the Englischer Garten. It was there that our weekend of heavy drinking began. Both Christine and I had the Weisse Bier in mugs that were bigger than our heads while enjoying the greenery and artificial ponds as well as our first opportunity to use our 2 years of college German.

After a good 3 hours of drinking, Stefan took all of us from there to the Hofbräuhaus, where there were more Americans than Germans. We enjoyed the enjoyed the dirndels and lederhosen, and even got the pretzel girl to take a pic with us. Afterwards Stefan took us to a more low-key place, where I promptly fell asleep at the table.

The details of the night are a bit hazy, but we somehow made it back to our hotel and the next morning we had the hotel’s breakfast – which was delicious, by the way – and headed over to the Marienplatz to see the world-famous glockenspiel before splitting town for Regensburg. Our timing was perfect as the noonday tinkerbell chimes were playing on our arrival. I have to say, though, that my big discovery in Munich was the Deutsches Jagd- und Fischereimuseum, complete with a giant catfish statue in the front and wooden fishing reels and very disturbing ancient paintings of hunters in heated battle with their fictional prey inside.

When we boarded the Deutsche Bahn (DB) train, we were surprised how nice the plush seats were, folding down for sleeping in roomy suites holding 6 capacity . We enjoyed this for about an hour of our 1 1/2 hour trip, until the conductor finally came by for our tickets, saying yada-yada-ersterklasse-yada-yada while pointing at the big “1” on the door until we took our places at a table in the adjoining dining car for the rest of the trip.

I was disturbed to find the train station at Regensburg was surrounded by a shopping center that wouldn’t have looked out of place in any American town its size, but Christine told me to just keep moving, it only gets better. I’m glad I listened; after we checked in at the Hotel Ibis, we went directly down Martin-Luther-Straße into the. Coolest. Town. Ever.

It’s hard not to sound like a dumb American tourist at this point, but it was just so, well, different. The way each street led you down its own cobblestone path, cathedrals that truly felt sacred (except for the 2 neighborhood toughs drinking from their beer bottles on the steps), and the bier, er, beer…We started out with dunkelweissen and this mixture of beer, cherry brandy and coke that labeled us as out-of-towners – hey, the dunkelweissen was great – then made our way past the Rathaus and down the Donau, with stops at 2 or 3 more biergartens along the way, and ended up at this renaissance fair on the river (they called it the Regensburger Spectaculum).

But by far my favorite part of the Regensburg was our 4-hour stay at the Spitalgarten, not just for its fine selection of weissebier but for our conversation with an older German couple that sat down at our table. Both Christine and I had 2 years of German in college to fulfill our foreign language requirements and like most American college students hadn’t use it since, but we’d been slowly making our way back into the language ever since our arrival. But we were thrust into full conversational form when this cheerful lady with lots of makeup asked us in German if they could sit with us while her companion looked the other way. I’m pretty sure she thought we were German, and her man harrumphed in disgust when we said in our broken German that we were Americans and our German wasn’t that good. But she sat down anyway, and tried to speak to us in English. It turned out her English was about as good as our German.

But we managed to string together a conversation in Germenglish, and the woman seemed quite taken with the novelty of it all. And he warmed up to us eventually as well, eventually getting through to us that his wife had died 15 years back and he wasn’t getting married again, then showing us pictures of the cottage his companion at the table was moving into and complaining that it wasn’t any different from her old one, which he then showed us a picture of; he was right, they looked identical to us. She told us how she had one son from from her only marriage, and then I thought she was talking about church – Kirche in German – and started to lose interest, but Christine then pointed out she was actually talking about her job sorting cherries – kirschen – and pointed to the woman’s nails, which were stained completely black. They bought us round after round of bier, and we all together watched the sun set over the Donau.

The next morning it was off to Schwandorf, and Chris and Melissa’s wedding. Unlike our train to Regensburg, this one was really crowded - we seemed to be on the G train of Bavaria, as it was only 3 cars long and there was a very drunk guy spilling beer all over the woman who had to sit next to him. But it was short at least, and we were at the Schwandorf station within a half hour. Outside the station, we saw a group of people dressed up, and took a chance that they were also headed to the wedding.

“Fahren sie zum Kleins?” I asked in my broken-but-less-hesitant-than-yesterday German.

“Sorry,” one of the women in the group said. “We’re American.” Turned out one couple was coming from Frankfurt and the other from Helsinki. We offered to share a cab, but they insisted they had a car coming for them. It’s funny, we didn’t see much of them again until 3:00 the next morning at the reception, when we discovered we were all staying at the same bed and breakfast and made the drunken decision to walk the 3 miles back there. But more on that later.

The time between our arrival at Chris’s parents’ house and the reception was a blur of friends, relatives, friends of relatives, relatives of friends, friends of friends, relatives of relatives, and a magnificently corpulent Bavarian priest who attempted to do the nuptials in both German and his wonderfully broken English in the small but heavily decorated country church where Chris was once an alter boy. Oh, and the ringbearer had a fauxhawk. Classic.

And then the reception started. Held at Zum Birnthaler outside the neighboring village of Krachenhausen on a meandering river (every town we go to in Bavaria seems to have one!), the reception lasted from 2:00 in the afternoon until well after we left at 2:00 the following morning. There was a Bavarian wedding band playing a voluminous mix of polkas, American pop, wedding novelty songs, and wild electric keyboard solos, 4 or 5 meals scattered throughout, a few of Chris’s old-school friends in their dirndels and lederhosen, and an open bar with unlimited draughts of – you guessed it – weisse bier. By the time the midnight hour rolled around , both Christine and I were pleasantly glowing but surprisingly not drunk – ah, the fine art of extended, sustained drinking.

It was around 1:00 when we ran into the Americans from the train station, and they all seemed in the same state. So ebullient did we all feel, in fact, that when we discovered we were all staying at the same place we decided we’d just walk the 3 miles to 12 Ringstraße together. It turns out that, it being so far in the country and all, they don’t bother with streetlights outside the town, so most of the walk was pitch black except for the moon’s reflection on the river we walked along, and one of the women with us, an urban planner in Chicago, freaked out thinking there was someone or something following us (it didn’t help that her husband kept saying he heard footsteps behind us).

Alas, we made it there without being hacked to bits by any natives, and the next morning we woke up, dressed, and met our hostess Frau Schön downstairs for breakfast. We had a pleasant conversation in Germenglish with her and Herr Schön while waiting for our ride to Frankfurt, and he even loaded us up with some fresh tomatoes from their garden for our trip. This was our only car experience in Germany – we rode with another mixed German-American couple who worked with Chris at Lufthansa, and we got a definite feel for German highway velocity. It ain’t just the Autobahn.

It may have been the weather (cloudy with patches of rain, as opposed to sunny and perfect the day before), it may have been that we didn’t arrived until well into the afternoon, it may have been that we were still bushed from the night before, but Frankfurt was a bit of a letdown. Bombed heavily during WWII, the architecture now is pretty haphazard – in fact, it reminds me quite a bit of NYC. There was an Ironman Triathlon going on well into the evening, so we just sauntered around the river mingling and then avoiding the massive crowds of heavily spandexed Germans before eating dinner at an average restaurant and retreating to the hotel for some German television. (I have to say, I thought Frankfurt-style Wurst tasted a ,lot like hot dogs – then I thought about it, and what’s another name for hot dogs? Frankfurters. And that, my friends, is what I learned on my first trip to Germany.)

And the next day, after waiting 45 minutes for our subway train (another way Frankfurt is like New York), we got to the airport and discovered that due to the amount of people already boarded, we could only fly in Business Class. Man, I didn’t want that 7-hour flight to end – massaging seats that reclined into beds, warm towels, gourmet meals with wine, we even got our own slippers. I personally think that’s how they tell the Business Class from the Economy chumps – I swear that when I went to use the Business Class restroom, the flight attendant looked down at my feet, saw my slippers, and nodded approvingly before letting me pass.

And then we were back in Jersey. It was at Customs that I knew I was back:

Customs Guy (looking at my passport): “Business trip?”

Me: “No, wedding.”

CG: “You come back married?”

Me: “No, engaged.”

CG (Shrugging and handing me my passport without ever looking up): “Takes all kinds, I guess.”

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Williamsburg Spelling Bee Finals

I got third! I'm now the proud owner of the multi-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which, by the way, was quite a haul home on my bike), and a $25 Pete's Candy bar tab that we used to try the fancier drinks on the menu (I recommend anything with the elderflower liqueur).

Check it out here with a nice mugshot, although they do refer to me as Jonathan.

Monday, June 23, 2008

On Tour: Nashville

The year before last, my best friend Andrew got married and moved to Nashville after his wife got a fellowship at Vanderbilt. We used to spend quite a few weekends down there in college, as it offered both a nightlife and an abundance of musical venues, two things sorely lacking in Murray State’s surrounding retirement community in a dry county. (Certain districts of the town of Murray have since gone “moist,” a kind of creepy way of saying they allow beer to be served in establishments that derive at least 75% of their income from food.)

Anyway, I finally got to make a trip down to see him this past long weekend, and I’m now on the plane back. We’d planned on at least 2 days of fishing on Percy Priest Reservoir, but that was cut down to one after we busted the prop on our rental boat. We weren’t having much luck anyway, with our catch of the day a 1-pound largemouth bass not even legal to keep, and a bunch of undersized white bass.

I got some real keepers at the record stores, though – I forgot how great The Great Escape is, with Van Morrison’s and the Old 97s’ new releases weighing in at $8.99 each, Stereolab’s The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music (sic) at a paltry $5.99, and a “Welcome to Nash Vegas” bumper sticker rounding out the purchase at a less-of-a-bargain $2. Drew, though, clued me into Grimey’s Records, a more out-of-the-way place with an even better used CD selection. I got 2 more Van Morrison CD’s – Common One and A Period of Transition – to almost complete my collection of his domestic releases, as well as The Cream of Clapton (I saw Crossroads listed as the 4th-ranked guitar song of all time in a Rolling Stone at the garage while Andrew was getting a hubcap, and had to hear it), Golden Smog’s latest, and Beth Orton’s Best Bit (say that as fast as you can 5 times) EP, all for under $35. (On a how-themighty-have-fallen note – Metallica played at Grimey’s tiny basement venue the night before, and I was intrigued how they’d spun their epic battle with Napster as a “vinyl vs. digital” thing rather than the much more plausible “corporate band defending its label’s profits” thing. I guess they had to make sure they sold all 200 tickets to the show.)

We had a good time out at some of Nashville’s eating and drinking establishments, though. I passed Friday afternoon while Drew was working, and then Friday night when he joined me, at the South Street Smokehouse drinking pint after pint of Sweetwater Pale at the bar with the local crowd, then w e woke up late Saturday morning and had country ham, biscuits, and grits at a tiny soda shop with a pleasantly ancient waitress. After spending the whole day on the water, we took it easy Saturday night and packed up for the beach Sunday, an entirely enjoyable day of chargrilled steak, Coronas, and manufactured sand. Sunday night we wound down with the Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Bosco’s Brewery. Monday morning it was Pancake Pantry, the place for breakfast in Nashville – at least that’s what Andrew says, until we find that his crazy neighbor who accosted him last weekend for letting his cats too close to her pit bull she has chained to her porch is in fact our waitress. But then she apologizes and gives him his breakfast for free, and it becomes the place to eat breakfast in Nashville again. That evening we did a final-evening whirlwind trip through Flying Saucers, home of more brews than I could drink in a year; Trivia Night at the Corner Bar (proper noun) with his wife and her friends; and 4 hours of karaoke at Lonnie’s, perhaps the seediest place I’ve had the pleasure of playing a fool at.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

I normally put my book reviews on GoodReads, but this one wouldn't fit:

My friend Todd’s finishing up his PhD in Urban Planning at Louisville this year, and he’s been telling me since he started the program that I should read this book, especially since I live in New York City.

I bought the book awhile ago, but never got around to reading it; it just didn’t seem to be my kind of thing. “It’s more your thing than mine,” Todd said. I didn’t know what he meant until I decided to incorporate it into a freshman orientation class I teach on the history and mystery of New York City. After reading it, I’d say that anyone living in New York City (or any other major metropolitan area, “Great American City” in Jacobs’ words) should not just read but ingest it.

The introduction states her thesis, which is essentially that traditional urban planners (as of 1961, the original date of publication, but most of her points about NYC planners remain valid today), instead of addressing cities on their own terms with their own distinctly, well, “city” relationships and problems, try to make them fit into smaller-town prototypes. This, she argues, is by nature destined for failure.

She divides the book into four sections. The first section, The Peculiar Nature of Cities, lays out what makes cities function, specifically:
  • Interrelated primary functions – In other words, the reasons people are commingling on the streets, and how those functions work off of each other. She uses a beautiful passage on pp50-54 to describe the “ballet of Hudson Street,” where through the course of every day the strete remains alive with people putting out the trash, kids going to school, local vendors setting up shop, mothers walking their babies, kids acting crazy on the streets after school, night workers stopping by the bodegas to pick up their lunch, the local taverns picking up the night crowds, lots between and after.
  • Limited privacy – Her argument is essentially that people don’t want to have long, drawn-out interractions with strangers, but they want to feel safe that if they need help they’ll receive it.
  • Uses of sidewalks – She devotes three chapters to the way that sidewalks socialize (or don’t socialize) people, and how decreased sidewalk usage is directly related to reduced street safety.
  • Uses of parks – She’s not big on them, at least in and of themselves, as she sees many city planners following the “Garden City” plan of simply producing open green spaces on the assumption that people naturally flock to them to get away from the streets. They often achieve the opposite of their intention, she argues, as the primary group to flock to them are criminals and the indigent if the parks are simply put in and left alone.
  • Uses of neighborhoods – I thought this was the best chapter of the section. She dismisses forthright the notion of neighborhoods as self-sufficient within a city, and sets out the hierarchy of neighborhood-district-city that, if connected, keeps neighborhoods functional and not simply warring “turfs.”
The second section, and in her words the most important, The Conditions for City Diversity, points out specific necessities to maintain diversity. I must state here that by diversity, she doesn’t necessarily mean cultural diversity (although that contributes to the diversity she speaks of) but rather a more universal diversity, including functional, economic, educational, cultural, and other forms. These conditions include:
  • Mixed primary uses – By “primary” she means the reasons a street, block, building, or other landmark is a destination rather than simply a place to pass through; these include work, residence, education, entertainment, and recreation. The needs for there to be a variety of primary uses goes back to her earlier statement on the need for interrelated activity to keep a street/block/neighborhood alive.
  • Small blocks – This is a relatively short and succinct point, essentially that the longer a block is, the less spontaneous traffic it will have, and thus the less interactivity of uses.
  • Aged buildings – This to me was one of the most elucidating chapters of the entire book. My first thought while reading was that she would address the historic and aesthetic value of older buildings; instead, she spends the majority of this chapter dealing with their role in generating economic diversity. The argument is simple, actually – older buildings are the only lodging that smaller, riskier, and/or newer enterprises can afford, so essentially they are the incubators of small business, which in turn stimulates economic diversity. She is positively prophetic in her use of Brooklyn as a prime example on pp196-198; she writes – in 1961, mind you – of Brooklyn’s potential as an incubator of small industry with its surfeit of huge industrial buildings. Living and running my business out of a factory loft in Bushwick with a vibrant, hipster-enterprise-filled community all around me, I can vouch for the wisdom of this assessment.
  • Concentration of population – Here is her argument, which has become a pretty standard one in liberal urban planning circles, against suburban sprawl. One thing she makes clear early – by concentration (and density) she doesn’t mean overcrowding. In fact, she argues, overcrowding usually occurs when the conditions for diversity aren’t met, and additionally the most dangerous areas of most cities are the ones with densities low enough that there is little community surveillance.

In the third section, Forces of Decline and Regeneration, Jacobs focuses her energy on the forces that encourage, sustain, defer, and/or destroy diversity and vitality in a city:
  • The first force for decline in a city or a neighborhood is the most ironic – a neighborhood made successful by its diversity and dynamism self-destructs by allowing one or two industries or purposes dominate it. She mentions banks, insurance companies, and high-end office buildings as prominent diversity destroyers, as they are economically conservative, investing usually only in established successes, and that they have the financial resources to supplant any other industries in the near vicinity. Once again I’ll use my beloved Brooklyn as an example: Williamsburg, over the last 5-7 years, has found itself an apex of hipster, artistic, and industrial uses; the city, in response to the increased desirability of the area for residential yuppie traffic and the attendant increase in financial resources, has rezoned both Williamsburg and the riverfront-area Greenpoint to encourage high-rise and condominium construction. Already, every inch of Greenpoint’s riverfront has been bought and sold, never to be used by anyone but the proprietors and renters. The waterfront is boarded up invisible from land, and with the housing market the way it is I haven’t seen many lights on in the buildings that have been put up.
  • Another negative force is what Jacobs terms “border vacuums,” areas in cities and neighborhoods where a buffer zone forms between different uses and/or demographic groups. These areas, she states, tend to form “gray zones” where few people from either side go, and end up the most dangerous places in the area. She includes railroad tracks, waterfronts, campus edges, expressways, parking lots, and large parks as obvious physical barriers, but emphasizes that these areas can form anywhere there is little overlap in activity between the groups of people who occupy and/or work there. Her solution is to turn borders into what she dubs seams, “a line of exchange along which two areas are sewn together.” To offset the negative Williamsburg-Greenpoint example I used in the last point, I’ll bring up a successful “seam” area on the Brooklyn waterfront, the pier off Owl’s Head Park. When I lived in Sunset Park I would run down there frequently, and I found there the closest approximation of the Old New York I imagined before moving here – skaters ramping, fishermen fishing, teenagers flirting, runners running, parents strolling, and all of this with freighters meandering by on the water and the Verrazano Bridge in the distance; a complete diversity of uses, with each peacefully sharing a relatively small space.
  • Her next point addresses perhaps the most cliché problem in city planning, slums and projects. I think this section in retrospect (remembering that Jacobs wrote it in 1961) was perhaps the most influential in changing the perception of slums from an unavoidable leftover area for economic charity cases to addressing gradually eliminating the economic influences that necessitate them. Her solution to the problem is not in decimating or moving slums, but making them nice enough that people want to live in the areas they are. The clue that this is working though, she says, can be misleading because if the strategy is successful there should be not a rise in population but a drop; this would be due to the drop in overcrowded dwellings and a return to normal population density for the amount of residential units. One last important thing to note about her proposed solutions for unslumming is that although she states unequivocally that city funds must be a sustained part of the process, the process will only begin at the behest of the businesses already set up in the slums, as they are the ones economically invested enough to stay and they are also the ones to benefit most economically from the upgrade.
  • Next, she engages the issue of money and its use, both to good and bad effect. In doing so, she basically divides funding into 2 categories: gradual funding, and cataclysmic funding. Of the two, she says only gradual, sustained budgetary allowances can truly sustain a neighborhood in a city, and even states that large amounts of money given to any one project at once can have disastrous effects. In light of her theories on what makes a successful neighborhood, it’s easy to see her reasoning – if any one project or division gets a large amount of budget, then naturally the outlaying areas will be negatively affected, which leads to a loss of diversity when the well-funded project becomes the neighborhood’s only attraction. Another key point she expounds on is the power a city authority has to destroy a neighborhood by withholding credit; this, she argues, happens quite frequently when a city’s central authority decides an area or community is economically dead then effectively “blacklists” it, discouraging lenders from funding enterprise there and fulfilling their own proclamation.
The last part of the book is sort of a mishmash of topics that are probably here because they couldn’t fit into the precepts of the other sections. It’s probably the weakest section of the book, perhaps for the unsettling reason that Jacobs is better at pointing out problems than forging viable solutions. Her views on automobiles in cities, for example, are hopelessly dated; she essentially explains how to restrict private automobile usage as if it would go away if you made it hard enough for individual car owners to get around, which sounds like it was written, well, around 1961 (or before). Her ideas for subsidizing dwellings in response to the problems of unslumming she addressed in the last part – subsidizing housing costs for working renters according to their income and adjusting the rent up or down as their income fluctuates – pose similar problems as the more generalized federal welfare system, as it essentially provides negative reinforcement for making a more liveable working wage. And her proposals for salvaging housing projects, while mostly viable, are essentially rehashes of suggestions she’s made in previous chapters, like tying in borders, cutting up blocks, guaranteed-rent dwellings, incorporating street-level vendors, and eliminating turf-like xenophobia, and she accompanies all these suggestions with the final ominous line of the chapter pertaining to the salvaging projects themselves – “Think better of it.”

The last 2 chapters of the section, though, are perhaps the most instructive and incisive of the book. “Governing and Planning Districts” lays the groundwork for building successful districts by building on her neighborhood-district-city hierarchy from the book’s first section. Unlike many of the solutions she proposes in this last section, Jacobs reveals here some obvious and hard-won experience with district jurisdiction and administration, and the structures she describes had already been working well in her district of NYC, Greenwich Village. The last chapter, “The Kind of Problem a City Is,” contains Jacobs’ plea for looking at cities not as chaotic mass needing a shape to be imposed on them, but systems of “organized complexity,” with interconnected systems that reveal themselves through inductive reasoning, i.e., looking at specific examples to figure out the systems they work within, rather than by imposing systems formulated by planners upon them that mostly work against the natural complexity that already exists. And speaking of nature, she closes out the book by making a compelling argument for cities as products of the natural world rather than forces imposing on the surrounding natural world that leaves any lull from the few chapters preceding it a distant memory.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On Tour: Toronto

Christine and I just got back from a trip to Toronto to see her parents, pitifully my first time out of the country. They didn’t even stamp my newly-minted passport at the security checkpoint, so technically my documentation says I’ve still never left the country, but we’re going to Germany in July for a wedding so I’m making damn sure they stamp it. Hell, I might even see if they have any Canadian stamps there, and if they can postdate it. A few notes from north of the border:

I got to experience, multiple times, the Canadian equivalent of Dunkin Donuts, Tim Horton’s. Christine’s dad even gave me a brief history while I had a double chocolate donut and a way-too-sweet iced cappuccino at the Niagara Falls location. I’m no hockey fan so I didn’t know Tim Horton was one of Toronto’s most beloved players, winning 4 Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs from 1961-1967; I thought that was pretty impressive until I found out there were only six teams in the NHL at that time. Anyway, the kicker of the story was the way he died – almost 30 years before OJ, he was involved in a high-speed police pursuit, but he wasn’t quite so lucky . Hopped up on a painkiller-vodka cocktail, he flipped his sports car over a curve in the QEW at over 100MPH and was thrown from the vehicle . Needless to say he died, but here’s the irony I found after hearing the story – a man killed while being chased by cops leaves behind a legacy of Canada’s most well-known donut shops? I wonder if they cross themselves before ordering.

In other sports-related Toronto news, I got to see my beloved-loser Royals play the Blue Jays on Saturday at the retractable dome. It was a beautiful day, sunny and in the 70s, which was nice after our first couple days there that were cloudy and in the 40s. It was a vintage Royals game – they gave up 4 runs in the first inning, racked up 7 hits without scoring in the next few innings, and gave up 2 more unearned runs – one walked in with the bases loaded and one off a throwing error to first base on a routine ground out. I really thought the Royals might finish around .500 this year, but even that modest goal seems at least another year away. Their scoring is so anemic that this past week opposing pitchers have thrown a no-hitter and 2 complete games. To put this in perspective, Jon Lester’s no-hitter was the first of the year and the 256th in the entire history of baseball, and the Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch’s complete games marked the first time in eight years that 2 Toronto pitchers threw consecutive complete games.

But enough about sports. We got to see plenty of art as Toronto is in the middle of its yearly art festival, but I was especially impressed with the Distillery District, a cool mixed-use area located in the old distilleries that imported booze to the States during Prohibition years. It still has a few pieces of equipment on display like massive scales, mills, and conveyor belts integrated right into the fabric of restaurants, galleries, lofts, theaters, and educational facilities. We spent a day there, and I spent a good portion of the rest of the trip talking about it. City planner Jane Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities and spent so much of her life expounding on the virtues of mixed-use facilities, spent the last 40 years of her life in Toronto, must have had a hand in revitalizing this district, and if not then she surely must approve wholly.

In all, I’m pretty well infatuated with the Golden Horseshoe now. From the wine trail along Lake Ontario to the Maid of the Mist to the gorgeous view of the lake from Christine’s parents’ back window, I found the place truly majestic. And speaking of Her Majesty, the QEW was even a welcome surprise – after battling my way through NYC and surrounding traffic for the last few years, I found those Canadian drivers downright gracious. And I think they even made me a better driver, at least until I got to Binghamton.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Destroyer @ The Music Hall of Williamsburg

I really have to give it to Dan Bejar. With his wrinkly button-down shirt, stiff Levi’s, and Rockport walking shoes and a propensity for turning his back to the audience while slumped over his guitar, he’s the mopiest stage presence this side of Stephen Merritt. Most of his songs are lyrically indecipherable, and he’s singularly untalented as a vocalist. And I think he’s the best thing going in indie rock right now.

Now before you think I’m going into some diatribe on the state of indie rock, let me be more clear – I saw Destroyer for the first time last week at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (I still have a hard time saying that), after ingesting their last 4 albums over the course of the last year. Bejar was the last of the New Pornographers for me to listen to his solo work – I always thought his 3 songs per album were good but his damn voice was the worst part of the whole NP collective.

The beauty of it is this – he somehow makes it work, perfectly, and mostly through constructing melodies that could only belong to him, then sending them on their way through songs that sometimes meander, sometimes pound, sometimes skip along, but more often than not bring you to places you could only hear through Bejar’s filter. And he’s not afraid to adjust the lens – Destroyer played songs I’d grown fairly used to over the last year like “Crystal Country” and “Rubies,” stretching out the former and tightening the latter (which I always thought ran about 4 minutes long on the album anyway), keeping only the good parts.

And lyrically, I’ll repeat the most oft-used disclaimer because of the truth behind it, one I’ve heard Bejar himself give in an interview – his writing will never be reviewed the New York Times Review of Books. But the phrasing more often than not interplays with the songs so well that you can’t help singing gleefully along to lines like “Endangered Ape, a couple years in Solitary never really hurt anyone/Distinguished colleagues dig music writers' bribes - I apologize.” After a year or so of listening and one Destroyer show under my belt, I still have no idea what he’s trying to say. But I’m all ears.

On a side note, this was the first time I’ve been to the Music Hall of Williamsburg since the conversion from the old Northsix – a couple impressions:
  • It’s definitely more, well, regulated than Northsix. We had a hard time even getting in, as the barcode on our tickets hadn’t yet activated, and the security guys wouldn’t let anyone in if their barcodes didn’t scan. Once in, my girlfriend was delighted to be randomly carded while we watched the show from the balcony with beers in our hands. From our perch we noticed at least one hipster shoving match quickly and quietly diverted by 3 well-dressed black men who then blended back into the masses.
  • There was also some noticeable homogenization at work – the upstairs balcony and bar looked exactly like the balcony at the Bowery Ballroom, and the downstairs lounge was identical to the one at Southpaw. The Bowery Presents owns and manages all three.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I now know what it means to be rickroll'd

And by a student, no less - I'm having to come to terms with the fact that no matter how smart I am these youngsters will always rickroll circles around me. She wrote a paper comparing news sources on the Florida teen beatings, and of course gave me the primary source on YouTube:

Personally though, I much preferred the alternate take.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

It seems the world is conspiring to make an asshole of me.

Or maybe it’s just this city.

The last two weeks have given me more cases in point than I want where, just a couple years ago, I might have had more faith and patience in human nature, both mine and other people’s. Both are sure being tested lately.

While she seems at least moderately impressed with me overall, Christine has always had a major complaint with me – my driving. I don’t like to give up my space, and having a couple tons of fiberglass between me and others just intensifies my resolve. Case in point:

The Thursday before last I was driving to Prospect Park so I could get in a few miles. I was in a hurry since I was supposed to meet up the Brooklyn Road Runners at 6:45 and it was already 6:50. And I couldn’t find a fucking parking spot. I should have known – it was just past rush hour, and everyone had just found their space for the night. Compounding my frustration was the fact that I’d passed up a spot 5 blocks before the meetup point thinking I could get a little closer.

Finally, though, after 5 more minutes of looking, I saw an open spot on the opposite side of the street from mine. I was on Prospect Park Southwest which is four-lane and there was one car in my lane with its hazards on, so I made a quick U-turn around that car and slid right in.

I was hopping out of my car and shuffling through my keys when I heard someone yell, “Hey, friend.” It’s probably a fair assumption when you hear a stranger call you “friend” that they don’t mean it, and this was no exception. A tallish guy in business casual had gotten out of the car with the hazards on and was walking briskly toward me. “I just wanted you to know, I was waiting for that spot.”

“I’m kind of in a hurry,” I said, locking my car door.

“So am I,” he said, standing in the middle of the street, “I was about to pull into that spot when you made an illegal u-turn and pulled in front of me.”

“Wait a second,” I said, confused, “You were on the same side of the street I was on, so you would’ve had to make the same turn to get this spot. And you had your hazards on.”

“I had them on so people behind me like you would know I was about to make the turn and wouldn’t be surprised.”

“That’s very considerate of you,” I said, walking away, “but I’m not looking out for people on the opposite side of the street from a parking spot.”

“Well, you should know, you stole my parking spot,” he yelled at my back.

“You don’t have a parking spot,” I yelled back.

And then, the following Monday morning I was putting the laundry in the machine downstairs. I intentionally do our laundry on Monday mornings to avoid the crowds jostling for the three washing machines in the building, but on this day I had a bad feeling when I heard someone coming down the stairs two flights up.

As expected, all the machines were available. We have two single-load machines in our building and one double-loader, and I promptly put a few of my whites in one single-loader and some of my colors in the other. Right as I’d claimed both of them, the door to the laundry room opened.

My building has at least a 75% hipster quotient, and one of their population was staring agape down at me with his laundry bag over his shoulder.

“You’re using those two?” he asked.

“Um,” I said, “Yeah. There’s a machine available right there.” I pointed at the double-loader.

But,” he said, unslinging his laundry bag, “I only have one load. Can’t you put both your loads in the big one?”

“Whites and colors,” I said impatiently.

“But I can’t afford the big one,” he said sadly.

Normally I’m a sucker for this shtick, but I’d just sent in our rent check. He wasn’t fooling anybody. “You can have these two in 23 minutes.”

He looked at me like I was his dad, huffed, “Thanks a lot,” and stomped back up the steps.

And then last week I was on the train on my way to work. I had my copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and was ready to use the midday lull to grab a seat and read. When I boarded the L it was more crowded than I expected, and it was all school kids from the projects across Flushing Avenue. It was around noon on a Friday, so they were obviously getting a head start on the weekend.

Every seat was taken except one between two of the kids, one of whom had his legs spread wide in that way that says, “I’m important enough to take up two seats.” He was a fat kid too, but the kid on the other side of him was a string bean like me so I figured I could wedge my way in.

He didn’t want to move his leg when I sat down – I think he even moved it out a little, then said to no one in particular, “Look at this boy, wants to sit in my lap or some shit.”

It was then I noticed that one or both of the boys surrounding me smelled distinctly of piss, but I had my seat at least. I took shallow breaths, pulled out my book, and started reading.

Before long the fat one started talking to me while his friend on the other side of me snickered into the back of his hand. “Yo, I don’t respect yo’ movement, son. Know what I’m sayin’?”

I don’t know if he expected an answer. I kept reading.

Then he started talking to a girl sitting across from us. “You believe this nigga? Boy tryin’ to sit on toppa me. I rather you sit on toppa me.” She acted like she didn’t hear him.

When we got to the Grand Street stop he said, “Those Grand Street boys, they don’t play. They all thiefs. But they cool. We all thiefs too. F’na rob somebody when we gets to Bedford.”

The skinny one could hardly contain himself, and most everyone else on the train was moving away, but at least I knew it was only three stops to Bedford Avenue. I kept reading.

The next three stops were pretty much repeats of the same shit he’d already said, and by the time Bedford Avenue came up I felt like I knew the fat kid. I even wondered if he’d say goodbye.
After the gaggle of kids had unboarded to spend their Friday afternoon stealing from hipsters, a gay man and his female friend sat down next to me, and he started talking to her. “Did you see that gang of kids? I really like the big one – he was so masculine. Did you see the ways he was playing around with this guy? He had every one of his friends’ respect. That’s street right there. I was like that in high school. But yeah, I’ve really been getting into this spinning class at Chelsea Piers, and they have this circuit workout where we can work on our abs. Then afterwards we can go to T salon – they have the best scones…”

And finally, last Friday I was out with Christine for dinner at this seafood place on North Sixth. We were sitting at our table between two other couples, and both of the guys were loud. One was talking about how sorry he felt for this girl he knew because her dad was a drug dealer and she didn’t have a lot of money, and the other guy kept talking with a prominent lisp about how great it was to make out with her on their last date. My luck must be on the upswing, I thought. These guys are making me look REAL good.

All in all, it was a fine night – the nights are starting to not be freezing, and we were strolling jauntily across North Sixth on Bedford when this blinged out SUV turned into us, clipping Christine. Remember how I said how much she hates my aggressive driving? Well, it’s not just me. After barely avoiding getting run over by this asshole, she managed to get a foot up to kick the rear passenger door as it passed.

We were then crossing Bedford when I heard a yell. Before I could turn around I felt what seemed like a baseball hitting between my right temple and jawbone. I turned around, and some guy in baggy sweats, low-zipped hoodie and a wife beater was jumping around and swinging his arms.

“Why you wanna kick my car? Huh? You don’t touch my car!”

My head didn’t really hurt at the time, but I knew it would soon. I was about to go into damage control mode when Christine stepped in front of me. “He didn’t kick your car, I did!”

The guy stopped swinging his arms around and looked at her. “What?” Then he looked back at his SUV that was stopped in the middle of North Sixth. “Why you wanna kick my car?”

“Because you about ran us both over!” she yelled at him.

Then he looked at me and started jumping around and swinging his arms like an idiot while moving backwards toward his SUV. “What you wanna do about it? Huh?”

I looked hard at his vehicle then yelled, “GMC1105! GMC1105!”

He got in his vehicle, halfheartedly yelling “I had the right a’ way” before speeding off.

I looked back, and Christine was already calling 911. The cops were there within 5 minutes, six cars’ worth of them.

The first two out were about our age. “Let’s take a look,” one of them said. I showed him my jaw, which already had a lump on it.

“Was the guy black, white or Hispanic?” the other one asked.

“Hispanic,” I said.

“Well,” another cop who just joined us from another car said, “It coulda been worse. People get so mad about traffic shit. I seen a kid get dragged a half a block a few weeks ago.”

“Oh yeah,” another cop from another car said, as all the cops gathered in their own little huddle on the corner. “When we got the call we thought the guy’d still be here beatin’ on you when we got here.”

“We got his license number,” I offered.

“You already give it to dispatch?” one of them asked.

“Well – yeah,” I said. “Are you gonna do a search?”

“The one car that’s got the machine didn’t come out,” he said. “And who’s to say the car belonged to the driver?”

I gave up, and they could see that.

“These things happen,” one of them told Christine, then he looked at me gravely. “But you should never be afraid to call us. It’s just,” he said, looking around, “it looks like the crowd’s disbursed and without a witness, we ain’t got much to go on.”

Almost on cue, a hand touched my shoulder. “Excuse me.”

I looked back, and a short bald man with a woman taller than him was looking at me in concern. A witness. At last, something was going my way.

He looked at the cop, then leaned into me. “Do you know where we can find a good Indian vegetarian place on this block?”

Friday, April 11, 2008

You Can Tell a Book by Its Cover – The Religious

I’m an antiquarian bookseller, and a media junkie. I buy people’s collections, sort through them, sell what’s worth something online, and give the rest away. I have a loft in Bushwick I share with my girlfriend, our dog, and our books. The walls, in fact, are 15-foot-high bookshelves. I sometimes climb my 15-foot ladder to the top and just look around, surveying the area while our 4 1/2-pound Chihuahua looks up at me and barks.

In 2006 I moved out to rural north-central Pennsylvania to sort through a collection I bought from a flea market that went out of business. It was my largest purchase yet, a collection of over 40,000 books. After cataloguing, rating the conditions, and getting rid of more than a few, I found the easiest way of breaking the monotony was to set aside the titles most worthy of ridicule. As I did this, I began categorizing the general areas of laughableness and scanning them for my own enjoyment.

Without question the largest section I have so far is religious titles. I don't know if that's because there are just so many funny Christians out there or because there were so many religious books in north-central Pennsylvania. Anyway, without further ado, I present to you the first 9 religious specimens in my study of the impish, the wimpish, and the just plain simplish.

Do the religious really need to filch titles from Woody Allen? If you doubt the connection, take a look for yourself:

The little yellow book here is suspiciously similar to Dr. Impe's. I guess he figured his audience wouldn't ever notice. Well, I'm onto you, Buster.

OK, so this one was almost too easy. But seriously, I think Tammy Faye looked better on The Surreal Life.

Is it true, what this man says? Has he eaten God?

This one wasn't particularly funny in itself, until I opened the book and this photo dropped out:

I don't know whether to be touched or creeped out by this person's spiritual devotion to his/her pet parrot. It is kinda cute, though.

Funny, he looks more like Jesus in the first picture. (The second looks more like Geraldo.)

Well then. I can't even think of a response to this one. (Except this, maybe - does "fatty, fatty, two-by-four" count as religious persecution now?)

In case you missed this title or his 1970's hit "The Late Great Planet Earth," you can catch his 1990's bestsellers "The Road to Holocaust" and "Planet Earth: The Final Chapter." No, I'm not making this up.

I found it interesting that, while most of the previous titles were in the lower-circulation trade paperback format, this one is a high-circulation mass market paperback. What are they saying about their audience?

File these two under, Who Cares?

OK, OK, all for now. As always, I welcome all smartass responses.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Nike-Davidson Tryst?

I have to give it to Nike, they know a cash cow when they see it. Here's Davidson, this year's Cinderella team in the NCAA's, making their run to the Sweet 16 and then the Elite 8, and all of a sudden there are thousands of Davidson supporters in Detroit, and this from a school with an enrollment around 1,200.

But look a little closer. First, just take a look at the matching red shirts every one of them, including Davidson star sharpshooter Stephen Curry's father, is wearing - one word, "Witness," is emblazoned on the front, and below it, not subtly, is the ubiquitous Swoosh logo.

Then, who's in the stands cheering for Davidson? And better yet, who, by some "rumor" buzzing around the stadium, was predicted to be there cheering for Davidson? Why, that's LeBron James, Nike's reigning basketball endorsement kingpin, cheering for "the kid" as he calls him.

Now, if this seemed to happen even remotely organically - if I thought LeBron James really knew the assistant women's soccer coach at Davidson, much less had to sink so low as to buy a ticket to the game from her, as the rumor goes - I would say that's a wonderful example of gamesmanship trumping celebrity. But it looks much more to me like a shrewd business manuever by Nike to initiate a future endorsement from a possible cash cow in Curry, and get some more brand exposure (as if we don't get enough) on a nationally televised game. The fact that it's Nike, perhaps the biggest brand in sports apparel, supposedly rooting for the underdog is especially ironic.

So I say, with all the "Davidson vs. Goliath" hype of this game, that Davidson losing was a nice victory over Goliath, The Man, the powers-that-be; at least in the Final Four Nike will only be endorsing the athletes' shirts.