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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Zen Master

“I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
John 5:15

That was the Bible passage presented to me by my minister at my 1995 confirmation. I liked it; it had a really cool ring, and it seemed to have a cloaked message about how I was going to go on to become a great religious leader or something. But I also wondered just what the minister saw in me that he thought it fit to bestow that passage on probably the most stubborn confirmand he knew during his long ministership. I had, after all, probably set a record in the number of parent/minister meetings he set up. I was the one who ignored the workbook, colored on my sneakers, forgot what essays I was supposed to be writing, avoided listening to the tapes of classes that got made for absentees, once wore sneakers on acolyte duty, and tried to forge his parents’ signatures for assignments. This wasn’t what anyone could call casual mischief, either; I was doing it out of a contempt for the very idea of getting stuck in a weekly two-hour class for my invitation to the wafer/wine club. Although church membership was the ultimate reward for putting up with the Reverend’s extended sermons, I didn’t see it that way; I saw it as the right to take communion every two weeks and nothing more. I wasn’t shy about my bewilderment in having to do this, and I constantly presented the question of just who the hell thought up this stupid idea. The eternal answer never changed: That’s how its always been done. It’s tradition. Because we said so!

In my two years, I was one of only about three confirmands through those classes who went on to be a Sunday regular. I wasn’t outwardly religious, but on the inside, I was very conservative about my faith. I tried like hell to suppress my naturally inquisitive personality, but eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and left the church for a whole new religion, a process which became pretty familiar to me at the outset of the 21st century. In the ensuing years, I switched religions three or four times. Add one more if you count my conversion to the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam, which is probably still the one I feel the closest connection to. (Yes, I’m counting Atheism.) My soul, as you can assume, became an unsalvageable wreck. In 2006, just a few months after I moved to Chicago, I became embroiled in the political and artistic counterculture when I joined an organization whose stated goal was to round up enough support to impeach George W. Bush. That group wasn’t religious, but its primary meetup joint was a gallery owned by an art group on Chicago’s West Side and shared by a lot of small businesspeople. They held jazz nights every Monday while we were in the back room, and the jazz was always drowning out whatever point the leader of the group was trying to make. The building was also very hot, and the back room we were in was hotter, so I would usually creep out of the meeting once or twice a night to order a pastry and a root beer from the barista in the front, cool off a bit, and catch a few spare notes from the band of the week. I got to be acquainted with one of the regulars, Nanette, in the way one usually finds acquaintance with a regular server or grocer: We exchanged friendly words, and she knew what my usual order was. Nanette was basically a nonentity who seemed to be clearly affiliated with NNWAC, the Near Northwest Arts Council, who held our building. A very friendly and welcoming nonentity, but a nonentity nonetheless. And she got me on a path that changed my life.

The story from there is one I’ve told a million times. My group’s lease ran its course and it was forced to alternate meeting spaces, leading to a mix-up one Sunday where I showed up at the wrong place. Not wanting to immediately face the stiff late-October breeze again, I took up Nanette’s invitation to a prayer service which was starting soon. Expecting my participation at the time to be a one-shot deal ending in a polite disinclination to future services, I was drawn back when I learned that this peculiar Christian group didn’t revel in common religious dogma. Instead, they challenged it, and were very pointed about doing so. Nanette turned out to be an ordained minister whose little church wasn’t part of NNWAC. (Although, for the record, the church believed in and supported NNWAC.) At this church, I finally found an outlet where the people took my questions and doubts seriously and didn’t offer single-serving answers about just believing or spending extra time with the good book. I also think they made me a better person, to a very large extent. At least that’s how I see it, anyway; Nanette herself once told me she saw a gradual change in the way I looked at religion.

The church, Wicker Park Grace (now known as Grace Commons), was my introduction to a rising branch of Christianity called Emergent Christianity. (Some circles refer to it as Red Letter Christianity.) Along with a cadre of new sports teams to cheer for, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Chicago city grid, and a weather-toughened ability to ride a bicycle in the worst of conditions, Emergent Christianity and my newfound religious questions were among the most important things I brought to Buffalo from Chicago. Even though I live in the fucking suburbs, far away from civilization, and therefore can’t visit any of Buffalo’s one or two Emergent churches, my newfound outlook on religion is getting to be far more important than I expected when I returned.

Emergent Christianity explores original languages, cultural contexts, and histories of the original scriptures in a way that traditional religionists either can’t or don’t want to think about. The result is frequently an interpretation that challenges, offends, and frustrates the Christian orthodoxy. To get an idea of just how new and comparatively radical Emergent Christianity is, consider that its ideas – which include theologies like the Kingdom of Heaven not being a place we go when we die, the book of Revelations being an angry satire of the Roman Empire and not a preview of the end times, and the idea that one doesn’t even have to believe in any gods in order to be a good Christian – tend to baffle and piss off a generally open-minded populace in Chicago, a 21st century megalopolis. Even the atheist groups there – one of which I belonged to for a couple of years – hate Emergent Christianity because it turns a lot of their common arguments against Abrahamic scriptures into nonfactors.

My views on religion were seen as weird and offbeat in Chicago, but the beauty of a large-scale multimillion-population city like that is people see the freaks as nothing more than the kook on the corner. The misfits and offbeat are seen as facts of life, and the better part of the greater populace even looks at them as colorful accompaniments who are welcomed into the city’s multi-personal tapestry. Chicago doesn’t totally LIKE everyone who creates his own drumbeats to march to, but it knows how to deal with them and even grow a little from the experience. The trouble with Buffalo is that it’s not the world-class city it used to be. Although the city has improved since I lived in Chicago, it still adheres to a more rigid way of life and still has trouble accepting anyone who doesn’t conform to a much narrower definition of the normal. Buffalo doesn’t respond well to things it sees as challenges to the greater lifestyle, and it sees challenges in things as simple as riding bicycles.

In matters of religion, Buffalo is still very much a witch hunt town. South Buffalo is such a hotbed of Irish Catholicism that my family was seen as odd just for being Protestant, and Protestant is the most common Christian denomination in the country. I think this story tells how religion plays an important role in a proper South Buffalo identity: In February of 2008, I stopped in a sports bar in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks north of The Loop, to watch the Chicago Blackhawks play against the San Jose Sharks. The Blackhawks weren’t serious contenders quite yet, but they were newly reloaded with players like Martin Havlat, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane. They were playing that season with the main purpose of letting the league know that, after years of performing doormat duty for Detroit, they were fed up and not going to play dead anymore. I was interested in that particular game because the team was having a ceremony to welcome two of their alienated legends – Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull – back into the fold as ambassadors for the team. The team was in a thick hunt for a playoff spot which they eventually missed by just two or three points. As I drank Rolling Rock, watched the game, and chatted up fellow puckheads, I took notice of a few older folks who entered the bar around the start of the third period and watched the rest of the game out. The older folks began talking Sabres, and I immediately identified them as Buffalo natives. They happened to mention that they were relatives of Patrick Kane – himself a South Buffalo native – and were at the game but left because it was starting to run a bit later than they expected. When I mentioned that I was born and bred in South Buffalo myself, they asked what street I grew up on (Rutland, where they knew of) and what family I belonged to (they didn’t know my family, since my father is from rural New York and my mother is from Long Island, my family has no real roots in the city), and tellingly, what parish we were affiliated to. I said the closest parish was Saint Thomas – again, they knew exactly what I was talking about – but that we were members of Salem, in McClellan Circle. They weren’t quite as familiar with that, and when I mentioned that it was a Protestant church, it closed the topic.

In Buffalo, what I’m doing is heresy which itself is worthy of crucifixion. Old dogs are of course notoriously difficult to teach, but in matters of faith, they are perhaps more stubborn than in anything else. The more religious faction of Buffalo’s old guard sees itself as the last hanging thread between the Christian morals of a decent person and the anarchistic outbreak of society because of those who don’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and personal savior. And here I am, questioning and critiquing everything they believe, calling bullshit to the cherry-pickers’ faces, and challenging them to defend their archaic dogma. What I’ve learned, though, is that there is a small contingent of people who agree with me are are having trouble reconciling fire-and-brimstone Christian faith with humanity. And if the conversation steers toward religion, I’ve turned into some kind of sponge which they use to absorb all of their problems and questions about what their pastors tell them. Often, these aren’t people I see often, and sometimes its happened with people I didn’t even know. Within minutes in a discussion about peoples’ problems with religion, I’ve formed a connection with the other person. And I don’t mind doing it.

Vines bring life to certain plants, and I’ve been bringing life to peoples’ questions if they’ve been too timid to ask them in the past. Maybe my old minster was on to something after all; gradually, I’m becoming the vine.


The Hollywood Gangster

The local library has the classic gangster flick Casino on sale for a dollar. It’s a copy on VHS, not DVD, which means there are two video cassettes containing the whole of the movie, and the library doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to providing movies that haven’t been destroyed by some sort of weirdly misguided misusage. Still, Casino for a buck is Casino for a buck. Although the movie is fundamentally flawed in a few key areas, it’s also one of the best guy movies to show up from the Scorsese oeuvre, and it stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci at the peak of their Mafia games, at the tail end of a four-decade span when Mafia movies meant something.

As I sat down and gleefully cackled through one of Pesci’s umpteen f-bomb-laden tirades, I couldn’t help but reminisce back to high school, the time I started watching gangster movies. Peer pressure had pressed my curiosity button (which is one of those big red ones). Those were the days of gangster movies, rap stars, and basketball players being our heroes. (The first two more than the third in my case, because I didn’t start watching basketball until college.) Goodfellas and Casino topped many students’ favorite movie lists, and to us the gangsters were ultracool iconoclasts. They were dispensers of Sun-Tzu-like wisdom about survival and necessity, and cool, clear-headed, efficient businessmen who achieved wealth beyond out wildest dreams. The gangster characters owned the coolest things, drove the best cars, and were respected.

There was a strong connection between rap music and gangster movies in the 90’s. Rap in the mid-to-late 90’s had turned into exhibitionist posturing. The industry – not the music, but the entire INDUSTRY – had turned into a giant soap opera stumbling its way down to a materialist nadir. Gangsters were commonly used as imagery, deferred to in songs, and videos usually contained a handful of references to one of the more revered gangster movies. (The videos directed by Hype Williams were exceptions; ironically, Williams moved into movies himself when he directed Belly, a gangster movie which picked up a large cult following in my high school’s halls.) There was even a rapper called Scarface who reached the mainstream through a duet called “Smile” which he performed with a posthumous Tupac. To paraphrase Tupac and Snoop Dogg in their song “2 of America’s Most Watned,” it wasn’t nothin’ but a gangsta party.

A kind of sobering disappointment hit me when I matured, and I eventually realized that this music which I had once loved and used to scare and shock my folks was created and marketed to people like me specifically for that purpose. Glancing a critical eye toward the scenario now, I can’t help but wonder why gangster characters were the ones we glorified the most back in those days. Maybe we were all caught up in the materialist trappings of the lifestyle we saw these characters living, or maybe it was the respect they had from even their worst enemies, or maybe we saw them as examples of scrappers who rose to the top of the world and didn’t have any problems. But looking back on it now, it’s easy to see that despite being some of Hollywood’s best entertainment, the point of these gangster movies was always flying over our heads. Usually the point was that getting involved in crime, no matter how well-planned, rich, or elaborate, wasn’t going to pay off well in the end.

In 1967, director Arthur Penn revolutionized the idea of the gangster movies and turned maybe the two most dangerous real-life bank robbers in history into heroes of the depression-era downtrodden when he released Bonnie and Clyde, with Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Gene Hackman. The telling scene:
Clyde: “You! Is that your money or the bank’s?”
Patron: “It’s my money.”
Clyde: “Alright, you keep it then.”
The floodgates burst, and what followed was a 40-year period during which gangster movies poured out and hit steady and hard. In 1972, The Godfather spiffed up the image of the gangster so much that it not only had an influence on the way regular people looked at gangsters, but the way the real Mafia looked at themselves. A year later, Martin Scorsese got himself onto Hollywood’s map by releasing Mean Streets, a portrayal of small-time trench gangsters influenced by the real wiseguys Scorsese knew while growing up in New York City. In 1974, the sequel to The Godfather was released, setting the all-time bar for the whole film medium.

Since then, gangster movies have trickled into the theaters: Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables (a very mediocre movie, in my own opinion, but a friend of mine was an extra in the courtroom scene), The Godfather Part III (unfairly maligned), Goodfellas (maybe the greatest movie ever made, at least to me), Mobsters (rightfully forgotten), King of New York, Bugsy (also underrated and forgotten, probably because it starred Warren Beatty instead of a traditional gangster actor) Reservoir Dogs (woefully overrated), Carlito’s Way (underrated as hell), Pulp Fiction, Casino, Donnie Brasco, Jackie Brown (wildly underrated; it’s a mystery to me why Tarantino fans have fawned over Reservoir Dogs and forgotten this soulful indie), Belly, Hoodlum, The Boondock Saints (I don’t get it – really, was this thing made by twelve-year-old boys?), The Departed, Public Enemies, and American Gangster only scratch the surface. The movies that seem to get the most attention from the working class and poor are the Godfather movies, Scarface, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Casino, Donnie Brasco, and most recently, The Boondock Saints.

It’s one thing to keep these movies around as entertainment, but teenagers of the working class and the poor have taken to gleaning “wisdom” from these movies which they believe can be applied to the real world. Rappers have emulated them in countless ways. These movies, however, were never meant to show us an American Dream-like rise to the top of the world or give us the prevailing wisdom of reality. I’ll grant that Vito Corleone from the first Godfather movie has his moments, but he also didn’t want his kids to take after him. These movies are very elaborate plays on morality. Think of what they’re REALLY about (Martin Scorsese, a devout Catholic, says pride is a big theme of his because it leads to every other sin). In The Godfather, we think of Michael Corleone taking the reins of the Corleone family business after killing Sollozzo and McCluskey and establishing himself as the most powerful Mafia Don in the country. What gets ignored is that final image of Michael in the second Godfather movie, sitting sunken-eyed after methodically alienating everyone who meant anything to him. In the third movie, as if the second lesson didn’t sink in, the end shows Michael sitting on the opera house stairs, clutching his dead daughter in frozen-faced terror before letting out one of the ghastliest anguish screams in movies. We see Tony Montana from Scarface and his fancy suits, gorgeous wife, big house, all the trappings of wealth and power. But Montana got them all by essentially selling his soul and becoming a swaggering example of a moral compass pointed south. The iconic scene from the movie is a coked-up Tony Montana standing at the top of his lobby with a gun almost his own size, screaming defiantly while warding off his attackers in a haze of movie star invincibility. Does anyone remember the preceding scene, where Tony kills his sister in a cocaine haze? Or the fact that Sosa was taking Tony out because of the split-second where Tony somehow found a conscience again? Or that Tony’s moment of movie star invincibility is quickly followed up by the end shot of him lying facedown in his lobby’s reflecting pool, dead, as the camera pans upward to a statue with the inscription “The World is Yours?” Bugsy Siegel is shot trying to go legit, and Carlito Brigante is killed by a small-time gangster he himself spared earlier. Reservoir Dogs ends with a Mexican standoff in which EVERYONE is killed.

Even a lot of the best-scenario outcomes don’t bode well for the characters. Henry Hill from Goodfellas has his whole life swept from under him like a carpet. In Casino, Sam Rothstein is lucky to escape a car bomb. His best friend, Nicky Santoro, basically turned against him, and the bosses in Kansas City see Nicky as a liability and have him and his brother killed in one of the most brutal manners imaginable. Joe from Donnie Brasco is an undercover cop who starts feeling too much pressure, has his life as himself almost break down, and almost has to commit a crime himself when the FBI finally terminates his project. The Boondock Saints get off free, but then again, they weren’t bad guys; they were just unorthodox vigilantes. Jules from Pulp Fiction is left to whatever fate was meant for him, but his partner was killed, and he decides to change his ways after experiencing what he believes is divine intervention.

Yeah, gangster movies are not a genre which is known to end well for the main characters. Lots of fans give very common and generic statements about codes of conduct, business, and loyalty they got from gangster movies, but the movies themselves suggest those codes only existed verbally. The gangsters themselves appear to cherry-pick the ones they like the best, and even then they only do it by ear. A lot of the characters who supposedly live by these codes of honor are also in the habit of killing people, which makes me wonder if they have their honor priorities straight, because there are other ways they could have disposed of troublesome Mafiosi without actually killing them, and in some cases they’ve gone out of their way to track down and kill Mafiosi who were already laying low and in hiding for fear of their lives.

The coolness factor is a powerful thing here, and a lot of the characters from gangster movies do carry themselves with a certain degree of panache and swagger you and me can only dream of, probably because the law doesn’t really apply to them. Still though, there aren’t any lessons or codes to be taken away from these characters. There’s nothing to admire about them. They’d all slit your throat for pennies, and Omerta doesn’t apply to anyone, not even real-life gangsters. Gangster movies should be taken as entertainment, not people to emulate. To take a line from the epilogue of the original Scarface movie from the 1930’s, what to you plan to do about it?

What the Corasanti Verdict Says About Buffalo

It’s a very frustrating thing to be screamed at while riding a bicycle in the suburbs when I’m on the shoulder of the road and the asshole screaming at me is over in the passing lane. My bicycle, after all, is barely wider than I am, and it’s a statement about how impotent Buffalo drivers feel behind the steering wheel that they feel the need to yell at me while driving a full lane width across the road. No one is hiding anything by saying Buffalo is less than bicycle-friendly – although the city pays lip service to cycling through the sporadic placement of city racks and the occasional bicycle lane, this is still a place where the four-wheel-drive SUV is seen as less a penis extension than a viable method of getting around in high snows.

I never before realized the full extent of the contempt Buffalo has for cyclists and their brethren, like skateboarders and rollerbladers. Recently, a doctor named James Corasanti slammed his car into an 18-year-old named Alix Rice. Rice was dead within the hour, and Corasanti was nowhere to be found. It seems possible that Corasanti, whose head was slicked up by oil in alcohol form, was influenced by his drinking. But it doesn’t change a couple of things: The first is that Corasanti ran over Rice and went home before just randomly deciding that gee, he had perhaps better be at the scene, calling an ambulance or something. But he didn’t. He left, stayed home for an hour, and 91 minutes after the accident, his conscience finally got the better of him and he turned himself in. Corasanti was charged on manslaughter, evidence-tampering for supposedly removing blood and tissue from his Beamer and deleting text messages from his cell, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, DWI, and a few others.

What you need to know is that after the trial, he was cleared of all the really serious charges, even the ones that should have been slam dunks. With all the evidence and witnesses against him, the defense team worked a legal miracle, and the jury gave him his life and career back.

If Corasanti was found innocent by a jury of peers, it doesn’t say a whole lot about the status of skateboarders in this region. It says they believe skateboarders – and, by extension, rollerbladers and cyclists – are considered a nuisance and that Corasanti basically performed a public service. This is akin to the OJ Simpson trial, except this time there wasn’t a race card to hammer home, just a lot of contempt for people who aren’t working the controls of a speeding, out-of-control chromium death machine packing two tons of kinetic force. It’s one of cases where it’s makes one want to physically go into the courtroom and slap the jurors. Saying justice wasn’t done in this case is a gross understatement.

Now I wonder what would happen if the worst should ever come to fruition while I’m out on my bicycle, which is the only form of transportation I have in the bubble of suburban ignorance and contempt. I’m careful, but my part of the region doesn’t have so much as sidewalks. I don’t even cycle over some of the area’s bridges because they don’t have sidewalks, and the shoulders are dangerously narrow. Motorists in Chicago merely look at cyclists at some level between “nuisance” and “fact of life.” In Buffalo, cyclists are considered more of a straight-up insult to the manhood of anyone who drives a car. And apparently, now it’s okay to kill them by accident, which means people may take it as okay to do by “accident.”

James Corasanti should have been ruined and forced into some serious penance. What that jury did is inexcusable.