Tuesday, June 29, 2010

bad music and great writing in this corner of the 'hood

I should have expected it.  Once I recommended WSP's musical medleys, I was bound to encounter the worst specimen of harmony and propaganda imaginable.  Appreciative of afternoons with virtuoso pianists, I headed into WSP last Thursday only to be reminded of one unalterable park fact – its public.

Which means they don't give background checks to all park-goers.  There's no test you have to pass.  Your obnoxious laugh intermixed with wheezing may be detrimental to society but no one will lock you out.  That's right.  Annoying people are allowed into WSP.

Case in point:

The picture doesn't show the whole band because none of them could play on cue and their attention spans and commitment to the act was low enough that random members would wander off mid-chord.  

Intermixed in their musical style was hippie, hillbilly, screaming rage, denim, tattoos, facial hair, cool hats, and possibly groupies (although they could have just been uncommitted band members).

I must admit that I know nothing about them.  I made no attempt to ask questions.  I just walked away.

Choosing a bench on the opposite side of the fountain, I tried to ignore their horrendous cacophony and their anti-government, anti-church, anti-music, anti-everything lyrics which often featured various terms and descriptions of actual human excrement.  

But the distance didn't work.  Perhaps realizing the lack of funds coming their way, they chose the full on screaming tactic.  

I don't care what establishment you oppose, I'm not listening to your reasons when you're screaming off-key.  

I retreated to the West pathway.  Here, with their performance adequately muffled, I joined other escapees for a quiet park afternoon.

Tom Beller and Hal Sirowitz
And I suppose I must thank those musicians for exiling me to the far West of the park where I later encountered a wonderful public reading.  "Mr. B's Reading Series" was put on by Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, a literary website that highlights and publishes pieces of creative nonfiction concerning life in New York City.

This reading honored the site's 10th anniversary.  Readers included Thomas Beller, Abigail Frankfurt, Said Sayrafiezadeh, Hal Sirowitz, and others.

The readings were both light and deep, funny and profound.  The audience broke out laughing on numerous occasions.  I'll never again see a man on the subway without thinking of Frankfurt's  assessments of their spread.  And Duane Reed takes on a whole new atmosphere in light of Sayrafiezadeh's war.

Mr. Beller's Neighborhood has published selections in two books, both available on Amazon: Lost and Found: Stories from New York, published in 2009, and Before and After: Stories from New York, published in 2002.  

Thanks to Mr. Beller's reading series, WSP offered a quality alternative to the would-be-musicians by the fountain that day.  And no, a public park doesn't keep out the annoying, but its open paths also host the enriching.

So just remember – music isn't always fun and literature isn't always boring.  

Friday, June 25, 2010

film on the green 6/25

The Cultural Services of the French Department and the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation have teamed up to present summer films on the green in NYC parks.

Tonight you can see "Same Old Songs" at Washington Square Park from 8:30-10:30.  Some seats will be set up but you may also bring your blanket and spread out.  Seating will begin around 8:15.

I also heard from a WSP park employee that attendees were not prohibited from having their own food and wine out at last week's WSP film on the green.

This is the second and last of the French films shown on the green at the WSP location.  It is completely free of charge.

See http://www.frenchculture.org/spip.php?article3496 for more info.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

WSP fashion fix with The Topshop

If you're needing some time in the great outdoors tomorrow, why not go to Washington Square Park to get your nature fix and your fashion tips all at once?

The Topshop four day summer promotion is making a stop in Washington Square Park tomorrow, June 24th.  

Come check out their trend workshops and styling tips.  You can also set up a full in-store appointment that is absolutely free!

They are scheduled to be at WSP from 11 AM - 2 PM and from 4 PM to 7 PM.

For more information on the full event and lists of locations check out:


You can also check out The Topshop online:  http://www.topshop.com

happiness in a grand piano

A former ballet music director and his twelve year old student captured the attention of park-goers, playing a grand piano by the Washington Square Park fountain last Tuesday afternoon.

I've noticed the grand piano previously in WSP but this time a small boy in shirt and tie was at the keys, captivating an audience with classical music.  This was no beginner.  He played for well over 30 minutes without music and without pause.

As I shot my own video, I was approached by a man with a clipboard introducing himself as an MTV B-roll associate.  He and his small crew were taping other musicians in WSP. . . until they saw this small pianist.  "This kid's a child prodigy!  We had to catch this" he excitedly informed me, "I feel like I'm gonna see a lot more of this kid someday."

And the clipboard full of forms?  I was in the background of their footage and they needed a waiver from me.  It's true, I'm pretty much a superstar now.

So who is this child prodigy?  His name is Jason W. Cordero.  He's twelve years old, originally from Ecuador, and currently living in Queens.

Jason began playing the piano six years ago when his father bought him a toy keyboard and soon discovered Jason playing songs by ear.  They enrolled him in piano lessons.

Jason also enjoys playing the violin and guitar but he's happiest at the piano keys, explaining simply that the piano "is just better."

Jason kept a growing audience in WSP, even drawing the admiration of the young skateboard and scooter crowd:

And don't worry about the youngster being out on his own, Jason's father is always close by when he plays.  On Tuesday, Jason was accompanied by both his father and his younger sister.

But Jason and his father are usually found gracing major NYC subway stops with a keyboard.  What brings them to WSP with a grand piano?

Colin Huggins.  The self-proclaimed "crazy piano guy."

Colin, the former music director of the Joffrey ballet school, often plays a grand piano near the WSP fountain, drawing crowds in his own right.  Colin began playing in parks in the summer of 2008.  Broadening his art to the parks allowed him to have what he calls real performances, much different than the limits on art and the limited audiences he found in Joffrey performances.  He saw the pleasure his music brought to wider, public audiences and he was hooked.

After the summer of 2008, Colin steadily phased out of his work at Joffrey.  By the time he left Joffrey in January 2010, he only oversaw the payroll, working for the benefits.  Now he is a full time public performer.  His Joffrey days are long gone and he is "so much happier."

Colin loves playing for the public – "I like to perform and I like to meet people.  At the ballet studio it was just the same thing day after day."

You may have previously seen Colin playing an upright piano in various locations throughout the city: Union Square, the West 4th Street subway station, Times Square, or Herald Square.  He has only recently begun to use the grand piano, which he only brings to WSP.

Ask him how he gets a grand piano into WSP and he'll point to his biceps – "Isn't it obvious?"

The grand piano is stored by Manhattan Mini Storage, who sponsor Colin by allowing him to store the piano for free.  In return they get the effortless advertising of a sticker on Colin's piano.  The piano legs fold up and Colin rolls the piano upright from the storage facility near the Holland Tunnel to WSP, a distance of approximately 1 mile depending on the route.

View Larger Map

Despite the profound impact that the grand piano makes, Colin is undecided between it and an upright piano – its sound quality and level seem somewhat soft to him.  He would also like to start rotating locations  again, even with the grand piano.

So why has he chosen WSP as the currently exclusive location?  Because of WSP's long history of tolerance toward musicians.  The police may stop him other places, but in WSP he is a welcome addition to the culture of street performers, most of which Colin has met and likes.

I've even caught him teaming up with other WSP acts:

Yet Colin says street performers have taken a hit.  Due to government dislike of buskers and the decreased tourist industry since September 11th, buskers have diminished.  According to Colin, the ones who still perform are a more limited group of those who have "really held to their guns."  He is one of the few WSP buskers who make their living full time from street performances.  Most have day jobs.

Colin understands the government's distaste for buskers, stating that there are few reasons for the government to like them as they draw crowds which can stop pedestrian traffic and pull people away from full priced, ticketed performances.

Tourists provide the main source of donations to buskers, thus the drop in tourism has a large impact.  While Colin says other buskers claim to have once made $600.00 every time they played, he has only made that once – when he needed to pay his rent and played from 10 AM to 10 PM.

Despite this, Colin is committed to making it work because of his vision for art, which is similar to that of most great artists – that art should appeal and be available to everyone.  He likens this vision Ballacino's strategic directing of the NYC Ballet which eventually drew diverse attendees so that the audience, according to Colin, "looked like a street performance audience," catering to a wide demographic rather than to an elite few.  Colin is also writing music and social networking, hoping eventually to release and market his own pieces.  He would also like a few more sponsors – often the key to an artist making it.

So where does Jason come into the picture?  Colin kept seeing Jason play the keyboard in subway stations.  He says that Jason's music was "really good" but that he made a few "fundamental errors."  So Colin suggested that they meet for lessons in the park, the only place he has a piano accessible.

Jason is Colin's only student.

Not only does Jason get the lessons for free, he makes money from the sessions, emptying the tip buckets each time he relinquishes the keys to Colin.

Although Jason has only had lessons for the last several months, he learned most of the difficult pieces he played on Tuesday from Colin.

For their actual lesson, they keep the piano in a corner of the park and play softly.  "You can't teach anything with an audience" Colin states.

Then they role it out to the fountain and have a blast performing.

And if you think Colin is the one who profits most from Jason's performance, I'd have to disagree.  It seems Jason stole the show and took the tips Tuesday.  After his initial lengthy set, Jason switched off with Colin every few songs.  He didn't leave until after 8:00 PM, when his father pried him away.

Colin said he'd play until 10:00 PM.

And park-goers loved them.  Many took a seat, staying longer than they seemed to intend.  One onlooker waiting to meet a friend exclaimed "Have you ever seen anything like this!?"

There is certainly something special about a grand piano in WSP.

"This is such a nice park to spend time in," a local New Yorker told me, "and this. . . this is incredible."

But despite the applauding onlookers, Colin and Jason each have complaints about WSP audiences.

"I don't know what it is about the children here," Colin mused, commenting that they often behave worse toward him here than in other performance locations, hitting the side of the piano or stealing from his tip bucket.

And while I would think Jason would rather play a grand piano in a grand park than a keyboard underground, Jason prefers the subway station.  Why?  This small entrepreneur grinned, "I make more money there."

Jason's performances are hard to find.  He plays in subways almost every Sunday but he rotates stations without a set schedule.  His lessons with Colin in WSP are even harder to predict.  He'd only say he comes every couple of weeks.

Colin is a more regular WSP presence, usually spotted in the late afternoons and evenings.  He said comes four to five times a week and more frequently toward the end of the month (when rent is due soon).  If you want to catch a more guaranteed performance, head to WSP on a Friday or Saturday night, where Colin has concerts near or even in the fountain from 8:30 - 10:30.

Whether or not you're prone toward classical performances, Colin and Jason will surely bring a smile to your face.  And thanks to visions like Colin's, WSP continues to be a place where New Yorkers and tourists alike can experience the truth of Colin's philosophy – "art exists to make people happy."

To see more, you can also visit:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmCv6Jo6FWQ  (Note: the first minute of this video is an advertisement for the video producers.  After that, it features Jason and his father).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"take a music bath"

Tired of Pandora or your itunes selection?  Searching for a relaxing afternoon of quality musical entertainment to bring a sense of peace and balance?

Then head down to Washington Square Park, where tourists and locals alike have sat back to enjoy the music since the end of World War II.

Musicians and other buskers have long made WSP a primary stage. But this has not always been a peaceful relationship.  In the late 1940's, the government began requiring permits to play in WSP.  Then in 1961, when the park commissioner attempted to close WSP to entertainers, approximately 500 permit-less musicians and supporters filled the park and led a procession around the park.  They were met by the NYPD billy clubs and the event went down in history as the "Beatnik Riot."

Needless to say, those "Beatnik" music-lovers made quite the impression and won their right to stay – musicians of all varieties are still setting up throughout WSP today.  I guarantee this – if you don't like the first musician you hear, you'll be able to find at least four other performers at any given time, all within the same 9.75 acre tract . . . unless it's raining.

Take for instance this guy:

He didn't seem to pause the entire 10 minutes that I watched him.  If he took a breath, he hid it well.

Or there's these two gentlemen:  

No hat set out for money, just enjoying their acoustic duet and sharing it with the world.

Or there's these guys who often draw quite the following under the arch:

 They even have CD's for sale.

If you're in the mood for something more action-packed, these guys can catch your attention (and make you catch your breath) as their acrobatics include literally jumping over their audience:

According to their loud warnings, you better be sure you "DON'T MOVE!!!"

If the musical and variety acts don't appeal to you, there's always the birds:

But be forwarned, they'll probably search you for breadcrumbs rather than singing you a love song.

No matter your musical preference, WSP can offer the perfect accompaniment for your lunch break, your afternoon walk, or that needed "time to think."  As Oliver Wendell Holmes once advised, "Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons.  You will find it is to the soul what a water bath is to the body."  In WSP you always have plenty of bath soaps to choose from.

I'm scoping out the stories behind the amazing musicians of WSP.  And as promised, my first feature will highlight a grand piano, a former ballet music director, and a child prodigy.  Don't worry, I won't make you wait long!  

In the meantime, I felt the need to introduce and make my shameless plug for WSP entertainers.  If you're in the NYC area you should absolutely stop by for a pleasant afternoon or evening by the fountain.  Tell me who your favorite performers are and check back to find out more about the people behind your accompaniment.  If you're not in NYC, check back for a taste of the music as I see it and for insider info on the best performers and times so that you're well prepared when you visit.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

the crazy piano guy and the child prodigy

A grand piano in Washington Square Park?

An MTV B-roll reporter calling this pianist a "child prodigy"?

linda dolano also caught on the MTV B-roll tape?  Albeit only in the background.

That's right – yesterday afternoon was filled with WSP musical excitement!

Stay tuned for the stories behind "the crazy piano guy" and his "child prodigy" student (and some video clips so you can hear them for yourselves)!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

there was kissing but there wasn't any singing in the rain

We all know rain is a vital, life-giving force, raising the heads of those parched flowers, giving the grass a brilliance to its green, nourishing our fruits and veggies.  So what better time to explore how WSP revives its frequenters than during the rain we keep getting?  Are New Yorkers like plants?  Do they too find revitalization from the rain?

I certainly don't feel revived when I'm trudging through wet NYC streets in my fashion-conscious (weather-oblivious) sandals, getting slimy brown feet from the street sludge that you don't actually notice until its wet and sticking to your toes, and making mental notes of more reasons not to like tourists (they don't know how to lift their umbrellas to the appropriate height so as not to run into the rest of us).

But maybe that's the NYC streets . . . maybe that's Times Square.

Maybe it'd be different in WSP?  Maybe rain in WSP would be more . . . refreshing? 

When I got to WSP the other day, there were still people mingling in the rain.  Although the benches were empty and most people were passing quickly through, some were settling in for the afternoon.  Still failing to get my own sludgy toes comfortable, I took note of what kinds of people actually stick around a rainy WSP.

First, there's the elementary school kids.  Excited to be free from the classrooms and already busy splashing through the fountain, the rain didn't phase them a bit.  Not to say that I blame them, one of the younger ones has probably already peed in that fountain – what's a little rain to wash it off?

And their parents?  I'm sure they were just glad to have them wrecking the fountain rather than the apartment.

Next, there were the lovers. 

These were the couples who obviously love old black and white movies.  And this particular couple was definitely creating their own Hollywood moment.

Rain.  Fountain.  Kissing.

All they need is a few cheesy lines and a broken umbrella tossed aside.  Although including a cat in their embrace could be nice.

Love in the park.  You have to admit it's romantic even without piano accompaniment.

The third group was the chess players.  

No amount of rain was going to cause an adjournment in this exhilarating game – the anticipation of getting to say "check," much less "checkmate," was enough for these guys to ignore their rain-soaked sweatshirts.  Oh the excitement.

I don't have a picture of these chess players because I'm admittedly an amateur.  After hearing the guy in the black hoodie scream at a tourist "I DON'T KNOW YOU!" I decided to walk the other way.  For your full feature on the chess players (who I'm sure are usually more approachable than this), you'll have to keep checking back and wait for my courage to grow . . . or at least for a day when my sandals aren't sliding off my rain-sludged feet – I'll need all my traction to run away if I break their concentration.

And finally of course, there was a fourth kind of person hanging around WSP as it rained . . .

Me.  The people-watching writer.

Although I have to say, I like WSP much more when it's minus the rain.

Have you seen any other rainy WSP dwellers?  Know of some weather-conscious sandals I should invest in?  I'm open to input!

"sorry I'm being creepy today" - the ghosts of the NYC burial grounds

From adjoining a Native American village to becoming the focal point of the famous "Beatnik riots" of 1961, Washington Square Park has a long history of wearing many faces.

And although my main interest is in the living – the stories of current, breathing homo sapiens who frequent the park – perhaps we must acknowledge the infamous stories of the WSP dead.

Whispers of ghost stories surround WSP, as I found out in one of my early park visits.  My first mistake was to sign up for a Greenwich Village tour from one of those obscure, never-heard-of-them tour groups.  My second mistake was to not walk away when I saw the tour guide – a forty-something, skinny, pale guy with too many notecards, and a jerky way of shifting his weight rapidly from foot to foot.

I'll give him this – he showed up.

He blundered through note cards, un-artfully avoided answering any questions, and frequently stopped mid-sentence to dig through his messenger bag without ever uncovering an item.  And just when I tried to find something redeemable about the tour, it started raining.

Awkward-tour-guide could not find his umbrella.

At this point, we were standing in the Northwest corner of the park, near the Chess players.  Awkward-tour-guide thought the rain set the perfect mood for telling WSP's deathly past.  During one of his many mid-sentence stops followed by a lengthy blank stare at a bench, awkward-tour-guide blurted out, "Sorry I'm being creepy today. . ."  


"It must be the ghosts."

Before I knew it, he was speed-walking the other direction.  No explanation.  Only a few stumbles and a dropped index card.

Gotta love tour guides.

So, when it rained yesterday, I thought it set just the right "creepy" atmosphere to revisit awkward-tour-guide's most awkward moment.  Are there ghosts in WSP?  And, if so, do those ghosts particularly like the rain? 

In the 1800's, WSP was known as a "potter's field," a public burial ground for the poor, the unknown, and once the yellow fever epidemic hit, the diseased.  WSP also displayed public hangings, although the extent of this function is disputed.

In 2008, during park renovations, several skeletons were unearthed.  See http://washingtonsquarepark.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/the-skeletons-of-washington-square-park/ for details (and opinions) concerning these incidents.  It is said that at least 20,000 bodies are known to remain buried under WSP's pavers, seeping up through the cracks to haunt us with their presence.

I have to admit that although I scoured the park yesterday for eery noises, flashes of light, or shadowy figures, the scariest thing I saw was a chubby fourth-grader running around with his shirt off.

Then I remembered – in the movies, ghosts show up in pictures.

And I got lucky.  I accidentally shook the camera while taking a picture of the Northwest pathway.

Creepy looking right?

But I must be honest, those blurry figures are only a woman walking her dog and a man scarfing down a cheeseburger.

However, when my search continued to produce no results, I took inspiration from that creepy photo – maybe I could look like a ghost if I ran around a tree while my friend took shaky pictures.

But in fact, I wound up just looking like I was running around a tree while my friend was taking
 not-quite-shaky-enough pictures.

Either I have too good a camera or I'm too poor a ghost.

I've decided to go back to my original intent – meeting and knowing the living humans of WSP.  Whether any ghosts enjoy lounging by the fountain, I can't say.

But I can tell you that if you see a blurry, shadowy figure running from behind a tree and it actually looks like a ghost, it is most certainly not linda dolano.

[Special thanks to Lindsey Hamilton for attempting to capture a lindadolano ghost photo.  Check out my photographer at http://hammyandwife.blogspot.com/]

Have any eery WSP tales?  Seen linda dolano running around WSP trees?  Do share!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

finding rest in the city that never sleeps

New York City.  The concrete jungle that never sleeps.  The bright lights.  The grid packed with over 8 million inhabitants.

Sure, it seems exciting when you first arrive.  Soon you realize that half the people you meet are just like you – awestruck New York newbies, moving in and setting up shop, searching for the dream.  How exhilarating.

Until the late-night garbage man, combined with the clanging old radiators, combined with the sirens down the street make it all but impossible for you to either:
      a. sleep
      b. recall any notion of silence

When you settle in at a two-person table at Starbucks only to find that you will always be joined by at least three other strangers scooting your latte dangerously close to the table's edge, you come to a sudden realization – there are people everywhere.

Just where, for instance, are you going to make a private phone call?  Assuming you don't yet have that lush corner office and your apartment walls are deplorably thin, you've got quite the predicament.  What do you do?

If you're like me, you find ways of pretending you're alone, finding silence in the muffled roar of the streets.  Keep walking fast and it's like no one can hear you scream into the phone at your husband.  Really.  No one can hear you over the taxis honking.  Not even your husband.

But then there are the parks.

I moved to the city in September 2009, while the winter was still at least a month away and the parks were bustling with all those New Yorkers.  For all the noise and all the concrete, NYC to me is a few skyscrapers nudged between a lot of parks.

And highest on my list?

Washington Square Park.

I fell in love with Washington Square Park (WSP) the first day of graduate school at NYU.  I scheduled my reading assignments around the levels of light in the park.  And somehow, even with all those people crowding all those benches, even with kids yelling on the playground and musicians bombarding the air with competing melodies, even with all that bustling activity, I found it to be my place of quiet.

Soon after this love affair began, I found myself sitting next to an environmentalist on a flight to a conference.  Clearly a lover of nature himself, he said to me, "In other places, a park is just a park.  But not in New York.  New Yorkers NEED those parks."

I got to thinking about just what need these parks fill.  Sure, the chance to sit outside and feel the breeze is never to be underestimated, but just what do these spaces of paved walkways, fenced-off plots, and carnivalesque oddities facilitate?

Armed with my love of WSP, my need for stillness in a city of action, and my joy in meeting new people, I'm heading into Washington Square Park.  Lucky for you, I'm already there most days.  Follow me as I find out just what is in WSP – who comes to it, what do they find in it, why would you need to go anywhere else?

So tell me, what's the strangest thing you already know about WSP?