Sunday, February 24, 2013

Discovery, now in my underwear

Less than 2 months into my diatribous blog about this sure-to-be lifebranding year and I'm already re-riffing on riffs already riffed upon. But once again, I find myself mourning over a local small business closing: not just an indie record or bookstore but the mom & pop diners that are evaporating at an alarming place (there's nowhere to nosh after last call anymore except for drivethru fastfood) and now the big army/navy store in Tampa Bay is no more.

But is the army/navy just a holdover of my formerly alterno funky DIY vibe? Finding a decent pair of combat boots in any new city I moved to was always the top of my to-do, whether it was in an innocuous Tampa Bay stripmall or a rundown part of downtown Atlanta. New York City used to be lousy with army/navys and thrift shops - I still have a canvas military camera bag that was dyed a wild blue (everything was dyed back in the '80s. That's how we recycled and marked up).

I understand the concept around military surplus and how the plan to sell reasonably wellmade items to the general public has probably lost its curb appeal. Thrift stores continue to prosper, as everyone has more crap to unload than they can hoard. And, of course, their sad evil cousins -  pawn shops - are popping up like Amscots and We Buy Gold on every corner. Why does this sting so much more than it should, since the de-evolution of retail really shouldn't bother a postmodern guy like me, but I miss the days I would wander aimlessly on a Saturday, discovering new and exciting corners of a city. Rolling down to the Target through miles of endlessly under-construction Pinellas County roads does not suffice.

In the '80s I lived for a time across the East River from Manhattan in Astoria, Queens. The elevated subway ride was short and I'd look forward to solitary Saturdays exploring the city beyond (after thorough research through the arts section of that week's Village Voice). My train would plunge underneath the river and I'd find myself in a maze of steamy passageways until emerging into the bright light somewhere around Central Park South. I'd spend the entire day straddling Broadway block after block, numbered streets counting down to historic names by sunset. Along the way, I'd enjoy a huge bookstore or two (one off of Times Square specialized in nothing but plays and theatre books), sometimes standing in the discount theatre ticket line for a matinee that had no stars, just enthusiastic understudies. If not, I'd settle on an art film or - before the happiness of home video - what was known as a revival movie house. This was in the days before Disney gentrified 42nd Street, so I stayed away from the more sticky moviehouses until I got down to the Village later on in the day. In the meantime, there were little record shops on Carmine St. to explore and the holy mecca of Tower Records to wile away the time. A bookstore on 8th St near a Haagan-Dazs, a respite in Washington Square watching the skateboarders, another bookstore on Spring Street, maybe the endless shelves of the Strand. Along the way I got to partake the bounty of tiny Chinese kitchens, pizza by the slice, stalls on St. Mark's selling jewelry and sunglasses until ultimately joining a sleepy crowd and pool game at my favorite bar.

By the mid '90s I found myself living in Atlanta without a car, but easily finding a way to reinvent solitary Saturdays - although now with less independent stores and more chains. I still remained discerning, still experienced the excitement of the possibility of discovery. A Waxtree records, indie bookstore, and Junkman's Daughter in Little Five Points was an exotic destination some weeks; the MARTA up to Lenox Mall in Buckhead to catch a movie, hit the Tower Records, HMV, two-story Borders, and a veggie sandwich at California Pizza Kitchen on others. 

Today I spend solitary Saturdays right here in front of my Mac mini, perusing used books on Amazon, rediscovering old music on iTunes, streaming forgotten film on Netflix. It's not the same, certainly -  not by a longshot. Not merely the lack of exercise or a chance meeting when you turn the corner at just the right moment. There's nothing remotely romantic nor cutting edge about shopping in your underwear. I don't know what Saturdays were supposed to be when this time of my life rolled around. I do not know what everyone else does. I know something's lost when there's less reason to leave the house and find adventure. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Realism, post-produced

"Everywhere tiny hands of terrorists Begin the beguine. In the year 2013 it has been estimated that world population will be doubled. And then? We do not wish to destroy. We are powerless to prevent."
-Tennessee Williams, 1978

Artists, certainly more sensitive, perhaps more perceptive, have often been the canaries in the coalmine for the human condition. They are compelled to re-enforce their perceptions of the wrongs of their civilization. It needn't be a radical surreal vista like Dali's, or a film of dire warning a la Kubrick, or any dystopian sci fi purged from the minds of Gibson or P.K. Dick. What the artistic soul sees, the rest of world can either ignore or let gradually seep into their consciousness. 

I know the planet is filling up, resources are dwindling; that there are barely enough jobs for everyone, enough food and water. In my mind the chances of the earth self-course correcting (thank you, Lost, for lodging that term in my head) with a more harsh environment, or a corporation-controlled government unleashing a plague that only the 1% has the antidote for (but who will be around to do their dry cleaning?) - they are both equally plausible.

In my own tiny corner of the globe, I toil in a basically unsustainable, vehicle-hungry suburb, where most businesses still can't wrap their heads around allowing their employees to work at home. Sure, everyone brandishes colorful, branded, reusable shopping bags, but the mall parking lots are full - so, that famous recession seems not to have made much visible impact.

I vacillate between relocating to a big city in order to live small and vehicle free, or move to a smalltown to do the same. Each comes with its own price; but, with a broadband connection, I'm good with either. My parents' generation moved into "gated" communities in droves, to stave off the crime and the poor, to recreate their bucolic post-war paradises (although my folks grew up in East Harlem, so I have no clue what the hell they think they're recreating). I get it; I sometimes dream about some sort of clean, safe Disney World-meets-Amsterdam scenario. I grew up watching Fantasy Island - I know these places can be made-to-order.

"This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that…I found my normal present-day 'reality' pallid by comparison."
Philip K. Dick on the impact of Blade Runner, 1981

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Digital choice, the myth

In my quest for a less hardcopy world, i have made some firm resolutions: 

1. my entire music collection will be digital, selling what cds I can get money for through, donating the majority of what-are-now worth $.01 to thrift stores. 

2. I am also attempting to wrap my head around not owning movies/tv, but "renting" them - preferably free. (I'm still working on what to do with books, so don't expect that discussion here).

One thing, however, hasn't changed - I am a voracious music and film collector. Should I just fashion playlists on Spotify and listen to their music instead of mine - possibly. Is Google Play a good place to find obscure-ish music (that was the eMusic promise, if I recall, that fell flat for me real fast)? But at least I have two stellar options for purchasing music: iTunes and Amazon. But, really? I am convinced that they both share pretty much the same music library. 99% of the time, music I can't find on iTunes can't be found on Amazon either. I have to realize they are merely the distributor and can't sell what is not available, or…what is no longer available.

This part really sucks: Both music distributors boast how large their music collections are getting, but neither let us know when music disappears from their ranks (as they are selling us "copies", it's not like a book that sells out). I found this out recently when I went to iTunes to search for the latest Sleepthief single, only to discover their entire catalog was no longer on iTunes.

The resolution here is to go directly to each artist and buy direct. Sleepthief's website has his music for sale; all I need to do is create yet another digital account (on Paypal) to handle this sort of transaction. This may be the wave of the future - cutting out the distributor entirely, leaving convenience in the dust.

I found the exact same experience trying to stream free video. Shunning Hulu's increasingly sad offering of non-premium shows aside, I have a lengthy Netflix streaming list. Sure, they give you a slight heads up that some movies will be "expiring" soon, but if you're in the middle of a 8 year TV show run, you're going to be pissed. I just signed up for Amazon's "Prime" deal in order to get some free streaming - and the inevitable happened: the only "free" offerings were the exact same movies I can stream for free on Netflix.

Digital choice is a sad illusion and I am its willing slave.