A Trip to The Mid

Last week, I had the great fortune to visit the editorial offices of The Mid. During my very brief but productive stay there, I wrote about the following:

1. Kirk Hammett’s missing iPhone (which resulted in the loss of 250 song ideas and riffs for Metallica’s first album in seven years)

2. Forget macaroni and cheese, here are ten fantasy trucks that we wished would pull up to the curb already. (Check out #7. The Please Pick Up My Kid From Wherever He Is Truck. No questions asked. And while you’re there, please find whatever he forgot to bring with him.)

3. I gave ten compelling reasons for why Sandra Bullock was really People’s most beautiful cover girl ever, and wrote my first obituary for a celebrity pet: Tinkerbell, Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua.

4. I reported on two videos poking fun at sexism in Hollywood, including Amy Schumer’s hilarious send-off, “Last F**kable Day.”

If you haven’t seen the uncensored video, please check it out here.

Dear Journalism, I’m breaking up with you. Again.

Dear Journalism,

I’m breaking up with you. Again.

When we first started dating, I was fresh out of college. My good friend, Tish Durkin, explained my prospects to me: “Playwriting’s the bad boy. He’s edgy and dark, he rides a motorcycle. He’s dashing and dramatic and terribly exciting. Journalism is the guy you can bring home to meet your parents. He’s wearing a bow-tie, he shows up at your house with a bouquet of flowers. He leads a respectable life.”

Well, not any more. Now Journalism is like the on-and-mostly-off-again boyfriend you can’t quite kick off your couch, who comes over to eat the leftovers in your fridge, and watches TV for hours (because he doesn’t have one any more). He’s cute and scrappy, but unreliable. He shows up late, if at all. And when he does manage to walk through the door, he expects you to ooh and aahh over him in excitement. And maybe give him a foot massage for walking all the way over here. Too bad he spends most of his free time chatting up women he’s never met, who promise to fulfill his every whim for $5 an article. The last time he showed up, you caught him texting females in other countries, and negotiating in bulk.

In the past two years, I’ve been flirting and dating and yes, looking at my options. Copywriting has been a promising and strong contender. I could actually start a life with him. He’s cool and creative and connected, and can pay more than his fair share of the bills. Digital Content is really writing for the internet. He’s a humbler and quieter fellow who likes to work behind the scenes. He’s content to be Contently. He can have a byline, or not. And he likes talking in different, funny voices, pretending to be other people.

Nobody says they’re writers any more. That’s like calling your date “a gentleman caller.”

I had such high hopes for you, Journalism. When we first met, you were full of intelligence and integrity, truth and mirth. Nobody could make me laugh harder, or cry more. You had standards, along with copy editors and researchers. You hardly ever had to apologize, or print a retraction. Even now, you can make me swoon so that I feel tempted to take you up on that booty call. But exposure, building a brand, giving me a byline–these are not substitutes for a real relationship. Get your act together, show up, and play fair. Don’t tell me to go take a walk, and then get upset when I date other people.

And maybe, just maybe, we might have a future together one day. A real one.

Yours,

Suelain

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Instead of Bread Lines, There Are Power Lines

Outside Bobst Library, WiFi is precious. Inside, students attend a Sandy soiree. Photo by Sandra Borri.

“On the Upper East Side, it’s like nothing happened,” a friend tells me. Post-Sandy, it’s a different story downtown. Electricity is power. So is WiFi. The power lines are the new bread lines. At NYU, across the street from Washington Square Park, folks gather to charge their iPhones, smart phones, cell phones, laptops, Google tablets, and iPads. Simple cell phones charge quickly. Smart phones and iPhones can take up to four hours. This is my new day job, charging my Samsung Galaxy so that it has enough power to last the night.

Every day we camp out around the extension cords and electrical outlets at Bobst Library, to share news and NYU guest passwords.

I first walked up to NYU on Tuesday afternoon, looking for my son, who is a freshman there. Cell phone service was down. There were no ingoing or outgoing calls. Texts turned up hours after they’re originally sent. Standing in the lobby of my son’s dorm, I ask to see him.

The RA on duty looks overwhelmed. It feels surreal when he tells me that I can’t go up to see my son and he’s not sending anyone upstairs to tell my son that I am here. He suggests that I can leave a message in my son’s mailbox. I don’t even know if my kid knows he has a mailbox. I scribble a note that I will wait outside, but the gates to Washington Square Park are locked. Rain is falling steadily. I notice people milling in the lobby at Bobst Library. I text my son that I will wait for him there, and hope he gets it.

Once inside, I notice a man trying to plug his laptop into a broken socket. It doesn’t work. Then I spy a college student charging his iPhone at an outdoor electrical outlet. Within half an hour, there’s a crowd around us. Jean, a parks worker, brings his own extension cord. It’s a generous and popular gesture. The next day, I start carrying an extension cord, too.

Nearly 3 hours later, my son gets my texts and joins me. He’s upset because nobody told him I was downstairs. We’re both thinking the same thing: if lower Manhattan had been plunged into darkness and chaos, that might have been my last opportunity to see my son or move him to safety.

When Hurricane Sandy first hit, I had enough supplies to weather three days but not seven. By Tuesday, I was like the Little Match Girl, trying to figure out how to make three matches last a few more nights. By Wednesday, I replenish my one fat, yellow candle–a Time & Again waxy wonder that smells like a banana split  and burns for long hours each night. A stationery store gives me a box of matches. I pick up two cheap lighters with a picture of the Twin Towers on the side from a souvenir store.  They work. On Mott Street, north of Canal, I find apples, carrots, broccoli, and bok choy. I am one of the lucky ones. I have a gas stove and running water. I also live on a low floor. There are people who have to walk down 16 flights of stairs to walk their dog.

Information is a precious commodity, as are candles and matches. We are an isolated, eclectic lot, bound together by a fundamental need to connect. The prospect of diminishing supplies and the lack of internet, cable, and TV news, force us to go outside and be nice. Screenwriters, therapists, fortunetellers, photojournalists, college students, graduates, and tourists all mix and mingle alike.

I make new friends at the electrical hubs every day. It gets cold sitting on the granite outside. We keep ourselves warm by telling jokes and stories and laughing. It’s a considerate crowd. Everyone asks politely, “May I?” before pulling out an adapter or cord or device. There have been no fistfights.

So far I’ve met Howard, a former gift shop owner who now sells expensive purebred puppies in the Village. Then there’s Carmella, whose rock star looks and bawdy sense of humor could give Keith Richards a run for his money. We are joined by Paul, an architect with a very dry wit, and John and Mario, who bring news from South Street Seaport, where Water Street is under water and looters have gleefully scooped up J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, and SuperDry merchandise after Hurricane Sandy graciously blew down the storefront windows. “I could have jumped from the patio and gone for a swim!” exclaims Mario, after patiently waiting on a coffee shop line for two hours to get us all cups of coffee. We share peanut butter sandwiches, and talk about the best way to take a cab to Astoria now that the subways are down. We don’t know when the blackout will end, and wonder if we should stay with friends elsewhere.

When a news reporter asks Carmella what brought her here, she quips, “Well, I was sitting in the park just feeding the squirrels…” to loud guffaws from the rest of us. “Well, obviously, we come for the power,” Carmella explains. “And the WiFi. This is a hot spot. Yeah. And I’m hot!” She tells us about her houseguests, who will be arriving soon to run in the New York City Marathon. Talk circulates about cell phone service (there is sporadic service from Verizon and none from AT&T), the more than 100 houses that burned down in the Rockaways,  a grocery store on Bleecker that charges reasonable prices for candles and bread, and Grand Bo-Ky, a Chinatown restaurant that serves hot noodle soups, beef stew, and duck on Grand Street. (The owner hauled in a generator from New Jersey.)

Bike riders, like Diana, a preschool teacher, bring us precious news from north of 25th Street. “There are lights there!” she tells us. And we all know what that means: working ATMs. She tells me about her hand-powered washing machine, WonderWash, and a non-electric dryer that works like a salad spinner. I listen appreciatively. I will try to get those as soon as my internet service is restored. Now that the bridges are open, we notice more places to get food and supplies–restaurants and small grocery stores and delis–and we add them to our collective consciousness, till we have a working map of useful places to go.

NYU students, professors, and other ID-bearing personnel can charge up their devices inside the library, but it’s not unusual to find people plugged into outlets in the restrooms and watching a press conference from Bloomberg. I know, because as a non-NYU person,  I am allowed to show my identification to security and use the bathroom downstairs.

The first few nights after Sandy, there were so many police vehicles and ambulances that I hardly needed the flashlight or candle. On Halloween, the moonlight looks like snow on the ground. I don’t hear any dogs barking and few cars are on the streets. At home, with my day’s haul of apples, broccoli, carrots, bread, and candles, I arrange four tea lights in the bottom of a stainless steel frying pan. I wonder, “What would Martha Stewart say about this?” and for the moment, I feel grateful. Lucky.

The next day brings more new faces and stories. We are so immersed in charging and downloading and updating and sharing passwords, that we almost don’t notice that dusk has turned to darkness. A sequined performer on stilts beckons waves of students inside to a Hurricane Sandy soiree. Big band orchestra music wafts out of the library.

And so life rushes in and continues after the storm.

I walk home on dark streets, following the lights of hot dog vendors and food carts. Clicking my flashlight on and off, I look like a drunken firefly as I make my way in a city that resembles an abandoned movie set.

On Canal Street, traffic cops attempt to slow down cars by waving signal wands that look like light sabers. Maybe they’d have better luck if they hired ravers to dance with Glow Sticks. “Aren’t you afraid?” I ask one. “These streets are dangerous even when the traffic lights are working. Has anyone been hit?” “Not yet,” she replies. “That’s why we try to stand off to the side.” I nod knowingly. My son and I have sat with pedestrians who’ve been struck by cars and SUVs and waited with them until the ambulance arrived. And that’s when it’s been light outside.

No Need to Apologize: Alison Klayman’s documentary, AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, is a work of art.

There’s a lot to like about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The celebrated artist and dissident has made a career out of flipping the bird and saying “Fuck You, Motherland” to China. With every tweet, blog post, sculpture, art installation, video, and book, he becomes a bigger and more beloved cultural and political icon. A playful and outspoken figure, Ai Weiwei has sometimes been hailed as the Andy Warhol of China–a bearded, pot-bellied, mischievously happy Warhol. The artist who helped design the Beijing National Stadium, or Bird’s Nest, for the 2008 Summer Olympics (and then denounced it for its pomp) is as memorable a figure as any Shakespearean character. And never is he so riveting as when he is pulling the tail of his motherland, China.

Alison Klayman’s documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, does not disappoint. You watch, fascinated, as Ai collects the names of thousands of schoolchildren, who died during a 2008 Sichuan earthquake because of shoddy “tofu” construction. Later at the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich,  he constructs a sculpture of 9,000 backpacks in their memory, in protest of the government cover-up. At the installation of “Sunflower Seeds” at the Tate Modern in London, he pours 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, keeping a reserve of 10,000 seeds, just in case any museum visitor should decide to slip a few seeds into their pockets for souvenirs.

Ai Weiwei takes a special glee in standing up to the tyranny of China and ridiculing its absurdities. Indeed, there are moments the cheeky heroism of his activism outshines his art. When policemen videotape his every move, he shoots back—literally, with his own videographers in tow. Clearly this is a man who knows how to get attention, and grab hold of the public consciousness.

Yes, Ai Weiwei has a hooligan side that’s hugely appealing in its defiance. As he tweets on his Twitter page, “There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.” The film also documents such poignant moments as his family’s history during the Cultural Revolution, the 12 years he spent as an artist in New York City, and his unexpected fatherhood in his 50s.

First-time documentary filmmaker Allison Klayman has struck gold with her documentary, which is at turns humorous, graceful, and sobering. With more than 300 hours of footage shot over two years, Klayman faced the daunting task of shooting this one-man David vs. Goliath drama as it was unfolding. She manages to pull off the near-impossible, delivering an intimate, endearing portrait of a man who lives under the watchful eye of a totalitarian government. At times, Ai seems almost American in his doggedness, as he speaks out against censorship and demands greater transparency.

Tonight IFC Films is hosting an afterparty for Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry at the caviar and vodka bar, Pravda. It’s a shame that the subject of the documentary could not be there himself to hold court at one of the underground tables. (Currently he is not allowed to travel outside the country and his blog has been shut down.) To Ai then, I raise a glass and make a toast in his honor: History is indeed delicious when you serve it up yourself.

Movie poster for Alison Klayman’s documentary, AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY.

A Native Son

As I look at the determined faces of the veterans marching in front of me on Memorial Day, I am in awe of their quiet dignity. Solemn and sad-eyed, they are the survivors of battles fought, and comrades lost.  Some of them are stoic and steely while others crack jokes, full of mischief. Watching them march on Mott Street, I think of a boy in Chinatown who grew up watching them too. He must have admired their straight lines and precision, the undeniably upright way they held their heads as they stepped smartly down the street. He must have felt intense pride at the sight of these stately servicemen, daydreaming of the moment he could join them.

Veterans march on Mott Street during the 2012 Memorial Day parade.

Danny Chen spent the first 10 years of his life growing up in Chinatown, the only son of immigrant parents. His mother, Su Zhen Chen, was a seamstress; his father, Yan Tao, worked as a chef. According to a January 6th, 2012 article in New York Magazine, Chen later moved with his parents to a housing project on Avenue D and attended Pace High School, where he excelled at math. He loved to play video games and dreamed of joining the NYPD. His mother wanted him to go to college, but Chen felt drawn to the military, and hoped to become a better man in its ranks.

At first Pvt. Chen wrote humorously of being the only Asian-American in his unit. He stayed upbeat and strong through the name-calling, the stupid questions, the teasing. In time, these immature remarks escalated into full-blown bullying, racist taunts, and brutal physical punishments. On October 3rd, 2011, Chen was forced to crawl across 100 meters of gravel carrying heavy equipment in the blazing sun, while his superiors threw rocks at him, hurling insults and ethnic slurs. Within hours, the 19-year-old was discovered dead in the guard tower, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

What happened to Pvt. Danny Chen in Afghanistan is every parent’s worst nightmare. And as it turns out, he was not alone. Just six months earlier, on April 3rd, 2011, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Harry Lew had killed himself after a vicious beating and hazing in Afghanistan. A native of Santa Clara, California, Lew was the nephew of U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress. Since his death, Chu has worked tirelessly for justice and reform on her nephew’s behalf. Three Marines were court-martialed in the Lew case. Eight soldiers were charged in connection with Chen’s death; all are facing varying charges of maltreatment, assault, battery, reckless endangerment, involuntary manslaughter, and negligent homicide.

Last Thursday, over 300 guests gathered in the auditorium of Pace High School to celebrate what would have been Pvt. Danny Chen’s 20th birthday on May 26th. In the crowd were the faces of his parents, his grandmother, and many relatives, friends, activists, artists, and supporters in the Chinatown community. They had come to remember his short life with songs, tributes, and cupcakes.

I thought of how Pvt. Danny Chen would never get to celebrate another birthday, distinguish himself in battle or march alongside his elders and peers in any Memorial Day parades. I remembered that Danny Chen joined the Army because he had wanted to make a difference in the world, and I realized that he already has.

Last week, over 9,000 cards were sent to Congress in honor of Pvt. Danny Chen’s birthday, urging passage of H.R. 5638, or the “Service Member Anti-Hazing Act.” The bill passed the House on Friday; it’s now awaiting approval from the Senate.

Elephant Party

Atlas. You can call him an end table but he is pure elephant to me.

A year and a half ago I dreamed of elephants. These were no ordinary elephants, mind you. These elephants were splendid and formidable, with glittering gold blankets and ornaments. They dazzled so brightly they hurt my eyes. They were marching in a parade through downtown Manhattan. And after frantically trying to call and text people to come admire them, only I alone could see them.

Elephants symbolize the removal of obstacles. I know if I see one, I am in the right place. It could be a statue of Ganesha, an elephant trumpeting on a book cover or embroidered on a pillow, a small figurine in a shop window, or a hood ornament dangling from a taxi driver’s rearview mirror. And when I see one, I press forward.

One elephant stays with me. His name is Atlas. Over the years as an end table, he has held up books, a lamp, stacks of papers and manuscripts, even a microwave. He has been with me steadfastly since my sophomore year at Yale.

Monks on Mulberry

Monks on Mulberry Street

Living in Chinatown, you get used to the jostling and pushing crowds, stopping suddenly to take a picture, tapping impatiently with a cane, tripping you with tiny, child feet, and luring you to look, taste, listen, and turn. The streets are full of the humming of humanity. During tourist season, it can take almost an hour to walk from the subway stations on Canal Street to the bustling businesses on Bayard.

Parades, which happen pretty frequently around here, are spontaneous carnival beasts. You’ll get an inkling of one when police barricades mysteriously appear at the curbs of Mott or Mulberry. There are the glorious, fiery dragons of Chinese New Year, the endless, cheery yellow procession of Falun Dafa devotees, and the East Meets West flotilla of Chinese-American and Italian-American citizens waving on floats through Chinatown and Little Italy. One minute you’re sitting on the couch watching television or reading a novel. The next minute finds you freezing on the fire escape, with a coat pulled over your nightie, at the first sound of drums. This is followed by cheers, and sometimes firecrackers or the Crimson Kings, Chinatown’s very own youth marching band and drum, fife, and bugle corps.

Yesterday was no exception to the “parades will happen when they happen” rule. Stepping downstairs, I was greeted by the sight of monks in saffron robes, exquisitely adorned flower bearers, giant golden lanterns, and a phalanx of middle-aged scarf dancers whose precise flicks of the wrist foiled every click from my camera.

The beauty and pageantry of yesterday’s parade was stunning, even by Chinatown’s colorful, noisy standards. With the sun shining above, and the brilliant hues of saffron and fuschia billowing against the dingy, dirty gray of the streets, it was easy to believe that Buddha’s birthday was waiting expectantly around the corner, and that it would usher in a time of greater compassion, illumination, and peace.

This momentous day marks another grand occasion: the birthday of my paternal grandfather, Don Moy, who would have turned 99 today. It’s both fitting and auspicious that I dedicate this first blog post to him.

Flower bearers for Buddha

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