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Posts Tagged ‘new york city

Charlie Chaplin in New York

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Born in London in 1889, legendary comic actor Charlie Chaplin grew up poor. He was the son of a singer who often found herself out of work due to poor health. Together with his older brother, Sydney, he found ways to make ends meet by following in the family’s entertaining footsteps. The two Chaplins were successful both on stage and on screen, each signing million dollar contracts at some point in their career.

Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, simply titled My Autobiography, recently published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library series, is a fascinating life story. Not only is it a portrait of the film industry from the early 1920s to the 60s, it’s a look at how a mixture of luck, talent, and business savvy created one of the era’s top performers.

Around 1910, Chaplin landed in New York for the first time. Here is his first impression:

At ten o’clock on a Sunday morning we at last arrived in New York. When we got off the street-car at Times Square, it was somewhat of a let-down. Newspapers were blowing about the road and pavement, and Broadway looked seedy, like a slovenly woman just out of bed. …

However, this was New York, adventurous, bewildering, a little frightening. Paris, on the other hand, had been friendlier. Even though I could not speak the language, Paris had welcomed me on every street corner with its bistros and outside cafes. But New York was essentially a place of big business. The tall skyscrapers seemd ruthlessly arrogant and to care little for the convenience of ordinary people; even the saloon bars had no place for the customers to sit, only a long brass rail to rest a foot on, and the popular eating places, though clean and done in white marble, looked cold and clinical.

I took a back room in one of the brownstone houses off Forty-third Street, where the Times building now stands. It was dismal and dirty and made me homesick for London and our little flat. In the basement was a cleaning and pressing establishment and during the week the fetid odour of clothes being pressed and steam wafted up and added to my discomfort.

That first day I felt quite inadequate. It was an ordeal to go into a restaurant and order something because of my English accent — and the fact that I spoke slowly. So many spoke in a rapid, clipped way that I felt uncomfortable for fear I might stutter and waste their time.

I was alien to the slick tempo. In New York even the owner of the smallest enterprise acts with alacrity. The shoe-black flips his polishing rag with alacrity, the bartender serves beer with alacrity, sliding it up to you along the polished surface of the bar. The soda clerk, when serving egg malted milk, performs like a hopped-up juggler. In a fury of speed he snatches up a glass, attacking everything he puts into it, vanilla flavour, blob of ice cream, two spoonfuls of malt, a raw egg which he deposits with one crack, then adding milk, all of which he shakes in a container and delivers in less than a minute.

On the Avenue that first day many looked as I felt, lone and isolated; others swaggered along as though they owned the place. The behaviour of many people seemed dour and metallic as if to be agreeable or polite would prove a weakness. But in the evening as I walked along Broadway with the crowd dressed in their summer clothes, I became reassured. We had left England in the middle of a bitter cold September and arrived in New York in an Indian summer with a temperature of eighty degrees; and as I walked along Broadway it began to light up with myriads of coloured electric bulbs and sparkled like a brilliant jewel. And in the warm night my attitude changed and the meaning of America came to me: the tall skyscrapers, the brilliant, gay lights, the thrilling display of advertisements stirred me with hope and a sense of adventure. ‘That is it!’ I said to myself. ‘This is where I belong!’

Written by Gabrielle

November 20, 2013 at 7:20 am

New York State of Mind: A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis

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A Meaningful LifePublished in 1971, A Meaningful Life by Brooklyn writer L.J. Davis is a dark comedy and cautionary tale.

Lowell Lake, thirty years old, wakes up one morning to find himself in personal crisis, disinterested in his job and living in Manhattan, a city where he never intended to be. Suddenly, he’s aware of his surroundings and questions the direction his life has taken, retracing his steps to figure out how he came to be where he is.

Sophomore year at Stanford, while earning a degree in English (“It had always been his best subject and it didn’t commit him to do anything specific later in life”), he met Betty, a Jewish girl from Flatbush, Brooklyn. They liked each other well enough and although he began to have doubts as the day got closer they were married two days after graduation. The plan was to move to Berkeley where Lowell was to attend a university on scholarship but after he plays a joke on his wife everything goes terribly wrong.

”I thought we were going to Berkeley,” his wife had said nine years ago, her voice coming to him down the corridor of years as clearly as if she had spoken to him only a moment before. It was the instant his life had suddenly poised itself on an idle remark, and the hinge of fate had opened—a small moment, an utterly insignificant fragment of time that could have passed as swiftly as turning a page in a book, but instead it had changed his life forever. “Didn’t you say we were going to Berkeley?” she asked anxiously. …

He could still hear the voice, he could still see the room, he could still smell the old green overstuffed chair he’d been sitting in. “Maybe not,” he said. He was only teasing. Berkeley was definitely the place they were going, and the idea of going to New York instead had just sort of wandered into his mind a moment ago like a stray insect. No doubt it would have perished there at once if he hadn’t spoken it aloud. Now it was out in the open, and God help them all.

And so, they sealed their future plans on his poor judgment and her spite. “You’re going to hate it there,” his wife warned. After goodbyes to their classmates the two drove cross-country to begin their new life, settling into a small apartment on the Upper West Side. Lowell, after a failed attempt at writing a novel, decided to take a position as Managing Eaditor at a “second-rate plumbing-trade weekly.”

Now thirty, feeling as if his life were meaningless, Lowell recalls reading about young creative types buying and fixing up houses in Brooklyn slums, areas that were once home to wealthy government officials but are now in the midst of decay.

With urban renewal in mind and their entire savings on the table, Lowell sets out to buy a house in the outer borough. What he finds, and ultimately winds up with, is a comically dilapidated townhouse. The current residents are questionable, no doubt a few squatters in the bunch. As Lowell tours the building, the descriptions are so vivid that any reader with the slightest knowledge of city life will be able to conjure the smells.

A door was thrown open at the foot of the stairs, a dim rectangle of light in the impenetrable tissue of the darkness, and although Lowell was still unable to see where to put his feet, he could now see where he was going. The knowledge made him feel better, but not for long. A great warm wave of new horrible odors, both different in degree and intensity from the old horrible odors that he’d almost gotten used to, rolled up over him and nearly knocked him flat. It was like the first whiff of the atmosphere of some alien planet: heavy, warm, barely breathable, seemingly compounded of urine and stale oatmeal in equal measure.

After throwing himself into renovating the newly purchased and swiftly vacated house, deciding to do a bulk of the work himself, Lowell experiences a sense of renewal as well.

He was suddenly famous. In a building where he had labored five days a week for nine years without a single person asking him what he did, he suddenly found himself cloaked in a highly conspicuous new identity: he became known as the Guy Who Moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

He hadn’t moved yet and it wasn’t Bedford-Stuyvesant but that didn’t matter. He was finally doing something with his life, he was industrious.

While A Meaningful Life raises interesting and important questions about city life—gentrification, poverty, and the rise of Brooklyn’s prominence and formidability over the years—Lowell’s story offers a reminder to live deliberately and make good decisions, a powerful message that often bears repeating.

::[Links]::
Buy A Meaningful Life from your local bookstore

Written by Gabrielle

July 9, 2013 at 6:56 am

A Tour of Literary New York

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Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail was curious to know about New York City literary life. They were kind enough to ask me a few questions about bookstores, bars, and readings. You can read the feature in their travel section. Here are my answers in full.

What are your three favourite bookstores in NYC – please give a brief reason for each.

McNally JacksonThe best part about being a bookworm and living in New York City, and the surrounding area, is that there are so many independent bookstores, each with their own personality. Since I have so many favorites, depending on my mood–or current location–I’ll say that when visiting New York one should make sure to check out the iconic stores: McNally Jackson in SoHo, Strand near Union Square, and St. Marks Bookshop in the East Village.

One of the first things you’ll notice about McNally Jackson is that their fiction titles are shelved by region based on the nationality of the author. It makes for interesting perusing since you might not always know where a certain writer was born. The store also has a cafe where you can sit and read the books you’ve purchased or have brought with you. As one of the largest independents in the city, they host excellent events almost every night in the downstairs space. One of the liveliest stores in New York, it’s a great place to visit day or night.

If you’re looking to get lost in stacks of books, The Strand is the place for you. Started in 1927, Strand has 18 miles of new, used, and rare books. They also host many interesting events in their rare book room. Admission is the cost of the book or a $10 gift card. Definitely worth it.

St. Mark’s Bookshop, not actually on St. Mark’s Place but very close to it, opened in 1977. They’re known for a great collection of political and cultural studies books that are hard to find elsewhere. They also have a wide selection of poetry, literary journals, and zines.

Where are the best places for author readings, poetry slams or other similar literary events/performances (and what’s the best online resource where people can check for listings?)

WordNow you’ve tapped into one of the hardest parts about being a bookworm in New York City. As the evening approaches one is faced with a nearly unsolvable dilemma: which reading should I go to?

For this one, we’ll branch out to Brooklyn, which is a quick subway ride from Manhattan. WORD in Greenpoint devotes their entire basement to events; powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for hosting parties, not just readings; Housing Works is doing some creative programming and the crowd is usually packed with people in literary industry, whether it’s publishing or criticism; the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights is a monthly series that hosts a lineup of local and visiting authors; Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene not only brings in top authors but the storefront is a big glass window, which makes it an excellent place for those who like open spaces; Bluestockings on the Lower East Side is known for it’s LGBT events; and Community Bookstore has really ramped up their readings over the past few months since bringing the tireless Michele Filgate on board.

Two other places of note are the Bowery Poetry Club where you can find poetry slams and KGB Bar on West 4th where you can see rising literary talent, established local authors, and magazine launches.

Community Bookstore

As for finding out about events, my friend David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy and I started an online calendar, Book Boroughing, a little over a year ago. While it’s far from exhaustive we do include the major indie bookstore readings and some of the larger series around town. Before starting the calendar, I relied heavily on Slice Magazine’s (and still do). Time Out New York is also a great place to check for local happenings and can be found on newsstands.

Are there a couple of bars/coffeeshops where you’re likely to run into writers and other literary types  please give a brief description of each.

That’s a tough one. I think the nice part about the New York literary scene is that many local authors come out to events, so you can often run into them there. However, if you’re looking for some iconic bars, there’s the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel, the White Horse Tavern and the Kettle of Fish in the West Village, and The Half King in Chelsea, which is owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson.

Any other tips for bookish visitors to NYC  festivals, events, tours etc.  anything you can think of really that a travelling bookworm might enjoy.

Library HotelMy first piece of advice is to explore Brooklyn. It really is very close and the literary scene there is thriving. Nothing makes that more apparent than the growing success of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival that takes place at the end of September. Although the festival itself is on a Sunday, the events leading up to the day are staggering. There are a ton of readings and parties that take place all around the borough.

There are two annual Lit Crawls, one for New York City and one for Brooklyn. During the one-day event multiple readings, panels, and literary games take place around a designated area. Authors, publishers, and literary magazines all participate.

Book Expo America is a large publishing industry convention that takes place at the Jacob Javits Center. They’ve just opened it up to the public but, in true New York fashion, there are tons of parties and readings that take place after convention hours. During that week, while all sorts of literary and publishing types are in town, bookstores, publishers, and various publications use the opportunity to mingle with those they don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face during the rest of the year. Many of the parties are open to all.

While I’ve never been on a literary tour of Manhattan, I did come across one for Greenwich Village on the Fodors blog that is worth saving for your visit.

And finally, traveling bookworms might want to stay at the Library Hotel. It’s within walking distance of the New York Public Library, which is also a bookish place one should be sure to visit.

Written by Gabrielle

April 30, 2013 at 6:47 am

Brooklyn Gets Gritty in Brooklyn Noir

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The day I bought Brooklyn Noir, I got off the subway in my neighborhood and saw police posters taped along the row of poles. I walked over to get a good look at the crude pencil sketch, to see what the man, rendered, had done. Later, I would look up the full story. The night before, at 10pm, a man in his 30s looking for a fight, got into a brawl with a random 20-year-old on the train. They got off in Brooklyn and continued the senseless fight on the platform. The guy in the sketch wrestled both himself and the stranger onto the tracks but only he made it back up alive. Amidst the horror and confusion, the perpetrator fled the scene.

The weight of this incident transformed me, stuck with me for days — and still comes to mind as I stand safely behind the yellow line. It’s something that makes you think of your own family members, either as victim or survivor. It makes you consider your daily commute. I can’t imagine an adult living in New York who hasn’t worried about the possibility of being shoved onto the tracks by an unstable person, of which there seems to be no shortage. After all, even the sanest person, at the height of rush hour, has at one point or another fantasized about pushing an inconsiderate neighbor (don’t lie, New Yorkers).

Our constant vulnerability makes the Friday night incident so chilling. Randomness. It could’ve happened to any one of us. Stepping into this scene, new book in hand, you almost have to forgive me for asking, “who needs Brooklyn Noir when you have the local news?”

With the gruesome death reverberating in my bones, I tucked the book into my bag and made my way above ground.

However gruesome the news gets, New Yorkers are a resilient bunch. The morning headlines are a constant reminder that we live in a city riddled with violent acts yet there’s a strong sense of pride. Those “I Love NY” shirts are not just for tourists. We carry on — and for most of us, we wouldn’t dream of doing so elsewhere. This attachment is fiercest at the borough level. To Manhattanites, Manhattan is the best; for those in Queens, it’s their corner that shines; same goes for The Bronx and Staten Island. Then there’s Brooklyn, the feistiest of them all — but, of course, I’m biased.

When Brooklyn-based indie publisher Akashic Books launched their city-specific noir series in 2004 it only made sense that they would begin at home.

Edited by Brooklyn-native crime writer Tim McLoughlin, Brooklyn Noir is divided into four parts: Old School, New School, Cops & Robbers, and Backwater Brooklyn. With each story taking place in a different neighborhood, the borough’s diversity is in full view. Pearl Abraham takes readers into the exclusive Hasidic community in Williamsburg — a group who still fights the bike lane that passes through their housing complexes for fear of exposed flesh — while McLoughlin’s “When All This Was Bay Ridge” is a sketch of a once-Irish neighborhood where the original population clings to its roots by way of a local bar.

From the inside looking out: Picture an embassy in a foreign country. A truly foreign country. Not a Western European ally, but a fundamentalist state perennially on the precipice of war. A fill-the-sandbags-and-wait-for-the-airstrike enclave. That was Olsen’s, home to the last of the donkeys, the white dinosaurs of Sunset Park. A jukebox filled with Kristy McColl and the Clancy Brothers, and flyers tacked to the flaking walls advertising step-dancing classes, Gaelic lessons, and the memorial run to raise money for a scholarship in the name of a recently slain cop. Within three blocks of the front door you could attend a cockfight, buy crack, or pick up a streetwalker, but in Olsen’s, it was always 1965

In “New School,” Adam Mansbach takes us to Crown Heights where Abraham Lazarus, a white, weed-slinging Rasta, sets out on a revenge mission against the unknown thug who robbed him of his pounds of drugs that morning.

Tap tap BOOM. Birds ain’t even got their warble on, and my shit’s shaking off the hinges. I don’t even bother with the peephole. It has to be Abraham Lazarus, the Jewish Rasta, playing that dub bassline on my door.

BOOM. I swung it open and Laz barged in like he was expecting to find the answer to life itself inside. A gust of Egyptian Musk oil and Nature’s Blessing dread-balm hit two seconds after he flew by: Laz stayed haloed in that shit like it was some kind of armor. He did a U-turn around my couch, ran his palm across his forehead, wiped the sweat onto his jeans, and came back to the hall.

“I just got fuckin’ robbed, bro.”

The stories in Brooklyn Noir are dark, gritty, and realistic with a “ripped from the headlines” type feel: conversations started in chatrooms taken offline, crooked cops covering their tracks, the revenge of an abused woman. It’s almost odd to call this collection is enjoyable, yet it’s one of those rarities where you think you’ve found your favorite story until you move onto the next. It’s not surprising that Akashic published two more Brooklyn-themed noir collections or that they invited McLoughlin back to edit them.

Whether you’re a born-and-raised Brooklynite, a transplant, or have never stepped foot inside this glorious corner of the world, Brooklyn Noir is an absolute must-read for noir-aficionados and the crime-curious alike.

[Links]
Buy Brooklyn Noir at IndieBound or your local Indie bookstore
Buy Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics
Buy Brooklyn Noir 3: Nothing But the Truth
Buy Heart of the Old Country by Tim McLoughlin
Check out the entire series at Akashic

Written by Gabrielle

May 22, 2012 at 7:05 am

Spying on CoverSpy: A Conversation with the Site’s Founders

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In October 2009, after the opening of Greenlight Books, the idea for CoverSpy was hatched. Soon “a team of publishing nerds” were running around New York, chronicling the city’s public reading habits.

For a little over 3 years now, everyday this group goes incognito onto subways, through streets, and in parks and bars to get a read on the our literary thermometer. Using Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, they deliver the results almost in real time.

I speak with two of CoverSpy’s founders about the project’s origins, who’s reading what on which subway, and the best books they’ve ever spied.

Here are some highlights, you can read the rest at Book Boroughing.

How would you describe CoverSpy at a party?
A: CoverSpy is a project where we spy what people are reading on subways and around the city and report what we see on our website. Sometimes, especially at publishing events or hanging with fellow book nerds, we mention CoverSpy and people already know about us or maybe even follow us on Tumblr, which is an awesome feeling.

You’ve been doing this for a few years now, you must see trends. What are a few you’ve noticed?
A: When a book is on the NY Times Best Seller’s List we often see it being read around the city for months following. From Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin to Stieg Larsson’s novels, they are very popular for a time and then are read less and less, replaced by the next big hit. People on the Q train love Malcolm Gladwell, people on the F train love Jonathan Lethem and are usually carrying either an NPR or Strand tote bag. There are more self-help books on the L train.

T: People love it when we post a children’s book. They love it even more when it’s an adult reading one–like Sweet Valley Twins. That got a lot of comments.

Do you have a favorite train for cover spying?
T: Everyone’s reading on the F train, so that makes it easy.

A: The covers on the L train tend to be the prettiest, most highly designed which I appreciate. But I think the G train is my favorite because of the range of books read on it. I’m often introduced to authors I never knew existed on that line more than others.

Best book you’ve ever spied?
T: It was some steamy romance novel being read by an off-duty MTA worker—can’t remember the title.Or maybe the guy who was holding one sunflower and ten pink balloons. Again, I don’t remember which book it was. Sometimes it’s the people that stand out.

A: I get a lot of joy out of spying kids reading on the subway, so pretty much put a kid in front of me with Beverly Cleary or Harry Potter and that’s my favorite.

Written by Gabrielle

February 21, 2012 at 7:12 am

What to Listen To: Bookrageous

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Bookrageous is one of my favorite book-themed podcasts. Hosted by bookseller and Brews and Books blogger Josh Christie; event coordinator Jenn Northington; and Rebecca Schinsky, the blogger behind The Book Lady’s Blog, the show is a relaxed conversation between friends.Every other week the three run through what they’ve just read and what they’re reading now. Each time, they put my own list to shame — both in quality and quantity. While they have similar tastes — all gravitate towards highbrow, conceptual titles (without becoming pretentious) — I’ve come to look to Josh for graphic novels, Jenn for genre, and Rebecca for literary fiction.

For a while now I’ve had some form of contact with the three, to a varying degree, and talks of me being a guest on the podcast had been casually batted around; but this week it actually happened. David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy and I sat in to discuss “Book Touring”. Together we run Book Boroughing, a literary site for New York City and surrounding area.

As frequent event-goers and hardcore evangelists for the cause, we were called upon to discuss literary events at home and book-inspired travel. On the show the five of us discuss author readings, bookstores in other cities, book festivals, and literary adventurism.

I won’t say anymore; you can listen to  it here.

On this shelf this week:

Here are just a few books mentioned at the top of the podcast:

Josh
Raylan by Elmore Leonard
“As a novel, Raylan is a casual endeavor, Leonard having fun with a character who’s gained a measure of popularity. It’s also a pisser. Leonard has come up with some doozies for the plot: the dimwit sons of a backwoods pot grower joining in a scheme to swipe kidneys and then ransom them back for replacement in the victims’ bodies; a female coal company exec who, annoyed with a local’s complaints about the pollution caused by strip mining, picks up a rifle and shoots the old man. The violence here has the swift kick of a good, mean joke. It makes you wince and grin at the same time.” [via Barnes & Noble Review]

You can hear Elmore on NPR’s Fresh Air discuss his crime writing secrets

Rebecca
Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston
“Contents May Have Shifted is Pam Houston’s new novel. Except I’m not really sure you can call it a novel, even though that’s what the cover says, and even though I don’t have any helpful suggestions for what you should call it instead. About a globetrotting writer named Pam who has a part-time residence in Creede, Colorado (all things that are true of Houston as well), it is comprised of short vignettes that present Pam’s story in non-linear narrative and a borderline stream-of-consciousness style that makes it read like a memoir. No, like a diary–a very beautifully written diary.” [via Rebecca’s review]

Jenn
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (words) and Maira Kalman (illustrations)
“Ed Slaterton is part of the “grunty jock crowd,” a high school basketball hero who, in his über-popularity, is like “some movie everyone sees growing up.” Min Green is a wry, thoughtful, film-obsessed junior who manages for one miraculous stretch of time to get Ed to stop using the word “gay” as a catch-all pejorative.

It is this miraculous stretch of time – the one month and seven days after the pair shock their classmates by falling in love – that is chronicled in the delightful “Why We Broke Up,” a novel by Daniel Handler, with illustrations by Maira Kalman. Told in the form of a confessional letter by the heartbroken Min, the book is so good at capturing what it feels like to be a jilted 16-year-old girl that it seems almost wasted on its young-adult audience.” [via San Francisco Chronicle]

You can share your break up story with Maira and Daniel on their Tumblr page

Gabrielle (I plan to review the books I mention in the opening so here’s one I talk about later on)
The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll
“The Basketball Diaries is a 1978 memoir written by author and musician Jim Carroll. It is an edited collection of the diaries he kept between the ages of twelve and sixteen. Set in New York City, they detail his daily life, sexual experiences, high school basketball career, Cold War paranoia, the counter-culture movement, and, especially, his addiction to heroin, which began when he was 13. The book is considered a classic piece of adolescent literature.” [via Wikipedia]

David
Stay Awake: Stories by Dan Chaon
“While Stay Awake does not abandon Chaon’s signature themes of identity and isolation, disappearance and memory, it flirts even more openly with the line between the supernatural and the rationalistic – and indeed two of the stories, “The Bees” and “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands,” have overtly supernatural elements. The situations have grown even more extreme: a couple has a two-headed baby, a woman drowns several of her children, a father comes into his young daughters’ bedroom intending to kill them in their sleep. Two men in two completely different stories fall off of ladders, severing a finger – a coincidence that I must admit I found distracting. Characters desperately want to or do escape their homes, their towns, the marriages they’ve made; they think they’re free of the past until memory or something even more sinister catches up with them. One character watches Soylent Green on late-night TV, and an actor in that horror movie is described as “running through the future, screaming.” The phrase could easily be an alternate title for this book.” [via The Millions]

You can read Dan’s Book Notes piece at Largehearted Boy

Written by Gabrielle

February 9, 2012 at 7:10 am

Elf Girl: A Hilarious Memoir by Art Star Reverend Jen

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“Our mission: . . . humiliate ourselves in the name of art.”

The joy I felt while reading Reverend Jen’s memoir, Elf Girl, can not be expressed in words. Instead, it should be expressed by devoting one’s life to performance art — dignity forsaken, shame stricken from the lexicon. One should stock up on foam core, cardboard, dollar store instruments, hot glue guns, and whatever else it takes to live a life by Rev Jen’s example. This would be the appropriate response after reading Elf Girl. A lesser, although still respectable, response would be to fall absolutely in love with this woman, a woman who played a formative role in shaping the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 90s.

Elf Girl begins with Jen’s stint as a Christmas elf at Bloomingdale’s. As a longtime fan of elves, often considering herself one, Jen, disappointed by the department store’s idea of what the fantastical creature would wear (“Dresses!”), counteracted the inauthenticity with her own beloved elf ears, which, oddly enough, did not go over well with the management. This incident offers shades of what’s to come: fierce individualism and unintentional anti-social behavior, all at the expense of self-preservation.

Throughout the book you get the sense that Jen isn’t merely “doing” performance art, she is performance art, as if outrageous and absurd are Jen’s default modes.

At an early age Jen was a creative force, starting with her elementary school endeavor, Jen Magazine. Taking her art seriously even then, she recruited classmates to serve on the editorial team. At 15 she was accepted to a free art program. Under the instruction of “the most maniacal art teacher in the western hemisphere,” who taught his students to “sacrifice sleep, sanity, and any semblance of a normal life,” she learned “that being an artist wasn’t a way to coast through life. It required discipline.”

When she later left her hometown in Maryland for the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, living in a Salvation Army run residency on Gramercy Park South, she teamed up with her newfound friend Julia and formed Pop Rox, a band outfitted with a $2 toy guitar and snow-leopard-print unitards. At first they played covers of Guns-n-Roses, Metallica, and Alice Cooper but soon moved onto originals, which included one about their love for Woolworth’s, an inexpensive department store. They played to captive audiences of art students — locking their fellow classmates in a room — and crashed parties where they soldiered on through the jeers.

You would think that at SVA, an art school based in New York City, a quirky girl like Jen would at least be embraced by, if not hoisted on the shoulders of, fellow students. However, Jen was shunned by both the student body and the faculty. Eventually, however, Jen found her place and began to make a name for herself on the Lower East Side.

It was there that she came into contact with open mic nights; in particular, one run by an actor and producer known as “Faceboy”. Together, in the mid 90s, they formed a tongue-in-cheek group called the Art Stars, a term first coined by Andy Warhol. There are thirteen steps to becoming an Art Star, all listed and explained in Elf Girl. Just a few, to give you an idea, are:

1. Eliminate Hobbies: Everything an Art Star does should be done with obsessive/compulsive zeal. . .

3. Avoid self-improvement: . . . Self-improvement is for people with time on their hands, and Art Stars have no time on their hands.

6. Only take jobs that offer no room for advancement: The last thing you want is to get roped into a job that will prohibit you from staying out until four in the morning five nights a week. . .

One of the main components of being an Art Star is aversion to competition. Four years out of art school and turned off by all forms of art criticism, Jen was horrified that artists and performers, would willingly subject themselves to the spectacle of judgement. In direct reaction to an ongoing poetry slam at the time, the Anti-Slam was born — a place where performers could go on stage without leaving with a number pinned to their act.

Around the same time, John Ennis, the director of Toolz of the New School, a show that aired on the cable access station Manhattan Neighborhood Network, contacted Jen to see if he could borrow her elf costume for their Christmas special. Just before filming he asked if she wanted to be in the episode; and so began Jen’s televised career in sketch comedy. Nearly every episode, whether Jen showed up at NYU orientation as a student forced into prostitute in order to pay her tuition or at FAO Schwarz as Doo-Doo, the hard-drinking Teletubby forced into exile, ended with someone threatening to call the cops.

As someone who enjoys quirky social history, especially when it’s about New York City, I found the chapters involving Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral years some of the most interesting. Not only were they hilarious, as he often butted heads with local artists, they served as a reminder of the political climate during that time. In 1994, when Giuliani first assumed the role of mayor of New York City, I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the implications his tactics had on artists in the area. I do, however, remember that he ramped up the police presence as part of an aggressive campaign against crime. Before Giuliani my parents warned me against walking east of 1st avenue while later, in my 20s, I was getting overpriced, chic haircuts on Avenue C. However, it is disputable whether Giuliani had much to do with this decline in violence or whether the city had been part of a coinciding nationwide trend.

One of the more notable offenses was when Giuliani, in 1999, threatened to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum if they went ahead with an exhibition featuring controversial British artists. I won’t ruin Jen’s stories for you but one I can’t help mentioning took place in response to Giuliani’s enforcement of the cabaret laws as part of his “quality of life” campaign. The previously unenforced law, one that prohibits dancing in bars and clubs when the owner doesn’t have the proper license, led to a two day closing of friend Robert Prichard’s club, Surf Reality, the home of Faceboy’s open mic. Swiftly, Prichard and Jen formed the Dance Liberation Front and organized a guerrilla-style, agitprop protest: a conga line down Houston Street to Tompkins Square Park on Avenue A. The action, which Jen eloquently called it “social commentary disguised as comedy,” brought hundreds out onto the streets and received write-ups in local newspapers.

Since the start of her time in New York, many of Jen’s cohorts have moved to Los Angeles, but Jen remains a fixture of the Lower East Side, hosting her Anti-Slam every last Wednesday of the month at the Bowery Poetry Club and co-running the Art Star Scene Studios, an independent film production company, and writing a regular column for Artnet. New York is a better place for retaining this elfin wonder and once you read Elf Girl, you’ll think so, too.

::[Links]::
Buy Elf Girl at IndieBound
Reverend Jen’s website
Bowery Poetry Club
Diary of an Art Star column at Artnet.com
Jen’s Troll Museum Reviewed in The Village Voice
An interview with friend John Ennis (with photos)
Toolz of the New School videos

Written by Gabrielle

January 24, 2012 at 6:37 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , , , ,

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