Escape From New York

Yesterday I left Staten Island for the first time in nine years. That’s right, I hadn’t stepped foot off the island, even for other boroughs, in nine long years. Actually that time went by rather quickly.

The drive was surprisingly non-horrific. With two and five year olds in tow I braced myself for the worst. A couple older kids came along for the ride and Mom did the driving, which was heaven sent- I dislike highway driving to the point of phobia.

We went over the Goethals, the turnpike, various parkways. We stopped for lunch at McDonald’s; I had a double quarter pounder sans ketchup and I threw out the bun (not before offering it to the rest of the family, they declined). It was awkward but doable eating the floppy hamburger patties with my fingers, the meat was terribly overcooked. It was edible, but barely, to the tune of $5. My little guys shared french fries and chicken nuggets, mom had a salad, older kids had an egg mcmuffin, more nuggets and fries. For drinks we had water (me), lemonade, mocha latte and diet coke.

I was surprised how many black people and hispanics are now north of NYC. Nine years ago non-asian minorities faded out a certain radius beyond the metro area with the exception of Springfield, MA. Most of the diners at that connecticut McDonald’s were black or hispanic, and it didn’t turn all/mostly white until Vermont.

After five hours we reached my hometown; I didn’t move here until age seven but it’s essentially my hometown. I wondered if I would start crying after all these years. But it was anticlimactic. There were the gorgeous mountains, lush green rolling in distant landscape. There was the guns-n-ammo shop. More lush greenery, an auto shop. Some kind of manufacturing plant (the sole one in the area, industry here has been decimated). The veterinarian where our sick pets were euthanized so long ago. Pretty colonials and victorians, many but not all in disrepair.

We arrived home to my very grouchy father. Grouchy is my dad’s version of happy, it only goes downhill from there. My little guy was all over the place while we unpacked- I tried to lock him in a playroom via baby gate but he howled pitifully so I let him escape.

My parents had dinner but I told them I would eat later. I went for a walk around local roads and hopped briefly into the woods, climbing a steep incline padded with pine needles and thin weeds. Pine trees towered overhead like solemn angels. I sat under one and patiently slapped mosquitoes as they landed on my skin. Later I ate some salmon and semi-raw hamburgers. My mother was horrified as she packed them out of sight into the fridge, asking wasn’t I worried about eating rare beef? Nope.

This morning I went to walmart. I needed shampoo and razors, my five year old requested pretzels. My mom warned me: the town looked worse than ever, but as I drove it looked the same. There was a new CVS. There was an abandoned something or other. There was the middle school where I was mercilessly tormented by my peers. I peeked down the street to my childhood best friend’s house- I considered driving past but that would feel stalkerish. I have no idea if her parents are even still living, and she has long since moved away.

Walmart… it looked exactly the same as nine years ago, except the shopping carts were in terrible shape (nothing irks me more than lousy shopping carts) and the walls were dinged up, in need of repainting. Two women said hello and politely asked how are you? This jarred me. They don’t do that in Staten Island, not that Staten Islanders aren’t friendly in their own way.

I am here for my aunt’s funeral. There is some drama with her estate that has darkened my father’s mood from bad to worse. I feel mildly vulturish hanging around waiting for the proceedings to unfold, but I never asked for this money. It’s all very sad. She should have lived a good twenty, thirty years further. God gives and god takes away.

Staten Island Summer

When I first noticed Staten Island Summer on Netflix I was delighted. A movie about Staten Island! Since when does that happen? I mean there was Copland which I believe was a thinly disguised version of Staten Island, but generally this island, despite its proximity to the cultural mecca of Manhhatan, has been left out of the cinematic universe. I eagerly clicked PLAY.

Sixty seconds in I knew I was in serious trouble. A “cartoon New Jersey” copulates with a “cartoon Brooklyn” to give birth to Staten Island. Yuck! Could they have been more crass? Technically this is true as Staten Island accents are a blend of Brooklyn and New Jersey- but animate it as porn? Blech. This was only the beginning.  From that initial point vulgarity, vapidity, and aimlessness only increased. Dick jokes, cleavage jokes, masturbation jokes. No, no, no!

I decided to lie back and think of England, enduring the whole damned 108 minutes of this monstrosity.

Let me state it bluntly: this is a horrible movie. Horribly written, horribly acted (with allowance for the disgusting, pointless script) horribly edited, there’s no significant plot, the characterization is abysmal and I’m pretty sure most of the scenes shot in “Great Kills” were in fact shot on the dreaded North Shore. Mysteriously no one in this film has a Staten Island accent except for the token guido, mafia boss, and extras. That’s right folks: the major players in a film about Staten Island sound like Julliard trained actors. I should have expected as much.

Staten-Island-Summer-Netflix-Premiere
Et tu, Brute?

There were a few funny scenes, or at least I found myself laughing once or twice through this sorrowful adventure. The scene where John DeLuca- the token guido- struggles with basic math on his Navy exam was funny. The animated scene where creepy pool manager (Michael Patrick O’Brien) births Satan’s spawn was humorous. The scene where the cops, mafia, African American drug dealers, and the crazed Hispanic maintenance worker all pull guns on each other was vaguely funny. But otherwise this was a giant waste of time and hardly emblematic of the city’s most verdant borough. Maybe writer Colin Jost spent too much time in Hollywood, but this was a useless, worthless, unavailing cinematic effort no matter which vantage point you approach it from. Don’t squander your life watching this film! Or at least fast-forward to the sparse scenes that might make you laugh.

Charter Chatter

The NYtimes recently published an article about efforts at collaboration between charters and non-charter public schools. The article is boring, but as usual the comments are more entertaining than the article itself. Most are from rabid charter school opponents, and they all say the same thing (please note my bracketed comments pertain only to NYC charters, which serve predominantly poor blacks and hispanics. My understanding is the charter situation is different in every state):

1) Charters steal money from non-charter public schools [this isn’t technically true; public spending is determined per student, so no one student is receiving less funding due to charters, and despite what you occasionally read in these stories I’ve never seen a NYC public school that wasn’t massively overcrowded. Many public schools here stick kids in trailers and storage rooms because they’re running out of space. Which is to say, there are plenty of little kids to fill those seats and rake in public funding. And remember, charter schools are public schools, and often spend less per student than non-charters.]

2) Charters siphon “good kids” with “involved parents” away from non-charters. [This appears to be true in some cases, but there are comparatively so few charters in NYC that the impact on the non-charter social fabric should be negligible.]

3) Charters don’t produce strong academic results. [True; even the few “high performing” charter schools like Promise Academy have pathetic test scores, though the scores are higher than the average city non-charters.]

4) Charters are a scheme by rich businessmen to get richer. [I don’t understand this one– NYC charters are nonprofit, and a drop in the bucket to the billionaires donating to them. The main people getting rich off public schools (both charter and non charter) are testing and curriculum developers, and construction firms that obtain outrageous bids for building and renovation projects.]

5) Charters threaten teachers unions. [True, and I sympathize with this one. I grow weary of teachers and unions being blamed for low performing schools. Most teachers are very dedicated to their job and have the best intentions. But the innercity is a very difficult place to work.]

That was the gist of it. The point that baffles me the most, particularly when I have heard it IRL from the mouths of so many white liberals is #2: they disagree with the notion that “good kids” might be separated to a better environment than your typical NYC public school, which are rife with violence, chaos, and low academic ethic. Yet moving their own children to better environments is exactly what these liberals do.  I can’t tell you how many white liberals I’ve known (one was even involved in OWS) who fled the city for the suburbs when their children were school aged, or after their children spent a couple years in the public schools here.

Of course, it’s their prerogative and duty to supply a wholesome environment for their children, but somehow they don’t want that same choice afforded to impoverished blacks and hispanics in the ‘hood. Middle and upper middle class families can move to the suburbs, or pay for private school tuition if they discover the school they’re zoned for is a rat hole. Innercity families, many of whom are bound to section 8 or public housing leases, have no such option– until charters came along. Yet somehow these same liberals who’d sooner die than send their children to low performing NYC public schools believe if the neighborhood kids are rounded up to the same building in the name of equality, things will improve. If this is true why don’t they send their own kids there?

My own opinion on charters is neutral, though I will admit I don’t understand why they are so despised by liberals. The charters I know of on Staten Island have miserable test scores, and the parents I’ve known who tried them out quickly withdrew their children (some moved to NJ, others enrolled in Catholic schools). However, I absolutely do believe parents should have school choices outside their zoned school (NYC does have school choice for high school, in theory if not in practice). No one would accept zoned grocery stores; we shop where we get the best quality and value. But zoned grocery stores with rotten, overpriced food is exactly what poor people in NYC are stuck with when it comes to educating their children through 8th grade. Charters may not be the best option to solving the problem, but at least it’s “an” option, and given how dire the public school situation is here, “an” option is better than “no options.” These families can’t wait indefinitely for the progressive grand plan– whether it’s yet more funding, or a new education fad– to finally work. Their children are getting older every day.

Finally, a note on funding: NYC already spends nearly $20,000 a year per student; many people don’t realize that some of the worst performing school districts in the United States are actually the best funded. For anyone who thinks yet more money will solve the problems in these schools, I would suggest you read the fascinating cautionary tale of the Kansas City school experiment. The district, which serves predominantly poor innercity children, was given a blank check to solve its problems. 2 billion dollars later (yes, that’s a “B–” in 1980s and 1990s dollars) the schools were even worse, more segregated, with wider achievement gaps between blacks and whites.

My own suggestion to NYC public schools would be to immediately start separating the kids in low performing schools (which are the vast majority of all NYC public schools) by behavior. The reasonably well behaved kids should be in one classroom, while the violent and disruptive kids should be kept in separate quarters. Because this is the nerve the charters have hit in these communities; it’s not just about academics– these families want a safe, or less unsafe, environment for their children. In fact if the public schools here started tracking children by behavior (and stopped obsessing so much about testing and test prep) I bet they would quickly replicate the results of successful city charters, with the more stable portion of the student body scoring a ~30% competency rate, which by NYC standards is high.

Informed Voters

This morning when I dropped off the rental car, I inquired why there was a 20% tax on the transaction.

“Bloomberg made that tax,” said the branch manager. “He wants to encourage people to take public transportation so he added a luxury and MTA tax to rental cars.”

“I have seven children, I can’t take the bus!”  I felt myself switch into rant mode. “It’s not fair to Staten Islanders, you need a car around here.  Maybe de Blasio will have mercy on us and repeal the tax.”

“Oh, de Blasio won?”

Whoa… I wasn’t expecting that one. “Uh…. no the election hasn’t happened yet, but he’s way ahead in the polls.”

“Oh really?  Is he a democrat or republican?”

“Democrat.”

“I don’t think Bloomberg’s been that bad,” he said, “but it’s time for him to go.”

“He shouldn’t have extended term limits.”

“How long has he been mayor?”

“Twelve years. Mark Green was slated to win before 9/11,” [I could see his face cloud over at this point, he obviously had no idea who Mark Green is] “so if 9/11 hadn’t happened Green would have won, and we’d have a different mayor now since term limits wouldn’t have been extended.”

I could see at this point I’d totally lost him, so I shut up.

“Let me ask you one other thing,” he said, and I braced myself for a continuance of the conversation. “What did you think of our customer service?”

“Oh you guys were great.  Really great.”

Then “Cassie” drove me home, while she prattled on about her medical emergencies related to her insulin pump, and how her 90 year old diabetic grandmother “only” (ONLY) had one leg amputated at age 70, so it’s all good.