NYC Craft Beer Festival 2015

The Pumking rules at NYC Craft Beer Festival (Fall 2015)

Hipsters are the one demographic who New Yorkers publicly shame and ridicule without remorse, but I give my bearded, tight-pants-wearing friends credit for delivering the five boroughs from beer hell. The Big Apple once suffered the plague of Budweiser, Michelob, Colt 45, and the like, but it now drifts in a sea of tasty beverages that delights and amazes.

Halloween weekend’s New York City Craft Beer Festival celebrated the renaissance. My $55 general admission ticket granted access to drinks from breweries within city limits, upstate, and across the country, and supplied me with a small, commemorative 2-ounce tasting glass. I initially thought the glass was too diminutive for proper tastings, but when my eyes fell upon the dozens of vendors, and even more drinks, I realized that it was the perfect size to sample suds without getting absolutely hammered within the first 30 minutes.

Southern Tier Imperial Pumking

The Southern Tier Imperial Pumking at the New York City Craft Beer Festival.

There were many delightful brews in Metropolitan West’s two-story space, but the one that I deemed the best of show was Southern Tier Brewing Company’s Imperial Pumking. The seasonal wasn’t the only pumpkin-flavored beer at the festival, but it was the one that instantly made me James Franco.

Imperial Pumking tastes like a liquefied slice of grandma’s pumpkin pie that was given a proper chill. I was shocked by its robust pumpkin flavor during my first tasting; rich and sweet, but not at all a candy-like. Many pumpkin brews taste like they are made with pumpkin spices; Imperial Pumking tastes like it’s made of real pumpkin, and has a consistency to match. It’s a heavy beer, with a heavy flavor.

Pumking is best sipped, not guzzled, as the taste comes in waves. The first is the strong ale flavor; the second is  the delicious pumpkin. Drinking Pumking was not unlike drinking two beers at once, and that is not at all a slight.

I’m not so bold as to say that Imperial Pumking is now one of my all-time favorite beers after sampling just four ounces, but it’s certainly a drink that I’ll be searching out in the very near future. In fact, I may order a case, or five, from a distributor, so that I’ll have the deliciousness at hand throughout the holiday season.

Street Fighter II

Reflecting on Street Fighter II and arcade ass-kickings

Every summer, as warm weather settles over New York City, newscasters report that violence and crime escalate as the mercury rises. One doctor is likely to state that the high heat indexes are the direct cause of the unruliness; another equally qualified physician is likely to contradict that statement by explaining that people are simply outdoors longer in the summer, thus upping the chance of a confrontation. Regardless, if you were in the New York City arcade scene between 1991 and 1999, you either witnessed, dished out, or received an ass-kicking. As a frequent visitor of nearly every major arcade in New York City during those years, I experienced all three aspects of the phenomena. And Street Fighter II was very often the cause of those ass-kickings almost every  time.

Street Fighter II‘s very premise encourages rising tensions. You control a fighter, and have to beat up the competition to keep your quarter alive.  No matter if you lasted one minute or rattled of 10+ victories in a row, there was always something to boast about. If you got served, you could always boast to your “cheeser”  opponent that your six-hit combo was better than anything that he would’ve dreamed of doing.  If you bodied your opponent, well, that speaks for itself. The typical arcade rat didn’t pose any danger during those mouth-off moments, but if you were playing one of the arcade goons (every game room had at least two), you probably got a knuckle massage against your will.

I remember my first arcade beat down—unfortunately,  I was on the receiving end. I had just finished waxing some cigarette-inhaling punk using Guile’s infamous Jumping Fierce > Standing Fierce > Sonic Boom> Backfist mega-combo in the original Street Fighter II.  The leather-clad bastard got pissed and blew smoke in my face, as he couldn’t handle such a devastating defeat. I, naturally, told the scrub to step off and awaited the next challenger.

What came next was a thunder-clap of pain so severe that I hadn’t felt anything comparable until I ripped my pec in a freak martial arts accident years later. My jaw felt as though it was struck by Mjolnir itself, and my ears rang with as one with tinnitus. It’s hard to say exactly when I recovered from the Fist from Hell, but my most immediate memory was of my homie Abe wiping blood from my lip with a handful of tissue. Was this the price to pay for kicking ass in Street Fighter II?

Yes, apparently. I still get ribbed by the boys for catching such a bad one, but I wear my beat down with pride. Not only did I whip my opponent in-game, but I mentally pushed him to the point of a physical altercation. I owned him.

Kids these day don’t risk a punch in the face with the Xbox Lives and PlayStation Networks providing safe haven for all manner of smack-talkers. But back in the 1990s, mouthing off and Street Fighter II just didn’t mix. Especially during the dog days of summer.

Image courtesy of Capcom.

The Tenement Museum

NYC’s Tenement Museum shows that we’re all history in the making

What is history? A musket shot during America’s colonial era? The Moors’ march into Europe? The construction of Giza’s first awe-inspiring pyramid? Yes, yes, and yes. But history isn’t simply large, globe-changing brushstrokes; its many smaller moments, too.

I, of course, knew that, but The Tenement Museum gave new life to those more intimate happenings. Located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, The Tenement Museum highlights the many peoplesThe Irish, Germans, Italians, and Jewswho immigrated to America in hopes of finding a better life than what could be procured in the old country. Their stories are radically different from my people’s introduction to America, but they are ones that are just as vital to New York City’s culture.

The Tenement Museum, design-wise, isn’t the typical museum in which you simply gawk at items hung on a wall or resting in a sealed, glass case. The museum delivers its educational load via numerous walking tours in which visitors explore and analyze an actual tenement, 97 Orchard St., that’s owned by the institution. You literally walk into the rooms where desperate and hard-working immigrants worked, slept, and played in the first half of the twentieth century.

Shop Life, the thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening 90-minute tour that I dropped my $25 on, took a look inside a German family’s salon and its back-area apartment. The past breathes new life when you can reach out and touch it. I won’t delve into the the details of the tour—it’s best to experience it fresh—but the session explored the gulf that separated the American immigrant dream from what was the laborious, troubled reality.

More importantly, the tour detailed the struggle of maintaining traditions in a new land, the opposition to that from those who crossed the Atlantic earlier, and what it means to be an American. As a person of color in America, those are themes that still resonate; ones that I ponder on a regular basis. In that regard, I felt a connection with a German family that walked the lower Manhattan streets a half century before I was born.

I didn’t expect to be moved by the Schmidt family, but their actions—opening a saloon, participating in neighborhood political clubs, bonding with their group in solidarity, raising children—were everyday activities that helped shape Orchard St. and the Lower East Side. The record of their simple lives demonstrated that even minor movements create change—you just need the will to act.

History comes later.

Image courtesy of The Tenement Museum.

The Dirtbombs Ultraglide in Black

My all-time favorite albums list is shockingly predictable

Every writer-slash-know-it-all with an Internet connection and a keyboard eventually masturbates to their own tastes and egos by crafting definitive lists of…something. I am not above this.

Recently, a drunken friend of a friend asked me about my “desert island albums.” I was well-prepared to answer the question, because, like the idea of creating an all-time best album list, it is something wholly unoriginal. So, I answered the question. And decided shortly thereafter to create this list.

This hideous list.

Now, the music itself isn’t bad my any means, but it’s awfully predictable. I really hoped that I possessed enough cool to name several obscure, indie rap-funk band from Nigeria that “don’t get enough love.” Instead, I came up with this mess.

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  1. There are many albums I haven’t listened to in their entirety, thus disqualifying them from this list.
  2. There are many albums that I used to dig as a young man that no longer speak to me.
  3. I really need to listen to some albums that were released before my birth.

So, judge. Educate. Recommend. You have my ear.

Madonna Live to Tell

How Madonna improved my Street Fighter II skills

Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection is the singer’s first greatest hits compilation. Released in November 1990, the album culled The Material Girl’s most-popular tracks from 1983-1990.

Capcom’s Street Fighter II is the game that put one-on-one versus fighting on the map and staved the arcade’s inevitable death by nearly a decade. Released months after The Immaculate Collection in March 1991, Street Fighter II forever changed the video game industry.

Oddly, I discovered both the record and the game in the same place: Coney Island’s legendary Faber’s Fascination arcade.

I grew up in the shadow of the world-famous Cyclone, as a poor kid from one of Coney Island’s dense New York City housing projects. Free time and loose change were spent in Faber’s Fascination (known among the C.I. denizens simply as “the arcade”) playing Lifeforce, Punch-Out!!, pinball machines, and other quarter-eating staples.

One particular summer, summer 1991, I entered Faber’s Fascination through its back entrance and discovered the establishment’s Street Fighter II machine–no one played it at the time. I now realize that I discovered Street Fighter II before the 2D fighting game craze descended on my area of Brooklyn.

Street Fighter II

Street Fighter II immediately caught my eye because I pumped a lot of allowance money into the original Street Fighter, an all around atrocious title. After eyeballing the attract mode, I ponied up a quarter, picked Chun-Li, and placed my fingertips on the punch and kick buttons.

The computer properly served me.

A few days later,  I returned to the arcade with a bevy of buds and pockets full of quarters. I popped coins into the machine, as did my friends, and started up. But as I exchanged fists, feet, and fireballs with friends, I noticed a series of Madonna songs blaring over Faber’s loudspeakers.

Now, I’d always been a Madonna fan; I was a child of the ’80s, after all. But hearing her pop sensibilities in the arcade–the grimy playthings of urbanites–was truly out-of-place. It felt wrong. Guile’s Jumping Fierce > Standing Fierce > Sonic Boom > Backfist shouldn’t be backed by “Lucky Star.”

I was getting my ass completely handed to me by a long-haired rocker type until Madonna’s “Live To Tell” crept into my ears. I was vaguely familiar with the song, but hadn’t actually taken time to listen to the lyrics or arrangements. It didn’t matter;  the slow, melancholy track moved something within. My hands’ frantic movements slowed to match the speed of the track as I hummed the melody–and it helped my game! Instead of attempting to rapidly fire off combos and specials, my fighting became more deliberate and timed.

I honestly don’t remember if I won that contest (chances are pretty slim), but it was the turning point in my fighting game play style. I learned that I didn’t need to mash; a more calculated approach led to me eating far less Dragon Punches and Flash Kicks.

The Madonna Effect isn’t very surprising, really. Music tinkers with something in my brain. When notes, melodies, and hooks latch in, I excel. It’s one of the reasons why I run roughshod through games like Dracula X: Rondo of Blood–its soundtrack pulls me into the game world and establishes a foe-wrecking flow.

Still, the Madge-Street Fighter II combination is a special one as it not only puts me in the zone, but carries the weight of nostalgia. ‘Til this day I fire up the Immaculate Collection, pop in Ultra Street Fighter IV, and drift away in a hazy dream of combos and counters where summertime discovery, laughs, and freedom last forever.


A wild podcast approaches!

Not very long ago, I ran a well-respected website devoted to video games and video game culture: 2D-X. For a number of reasons, both internal and external, I decided to shutter it in 2014 after a solid five-year run. I met great friends, made connections with a range of interesting people, and chopped it up with editorial icons that I’ve admired from afar for a long time.

Still, closing 2D-X was one of the smartest moves I’ve ever made.

2D-X was never intended to grow into something significant, which was clear by the many mistakes that were made as the site grew. I eventually found the winning formula, but by that time I was…tired. Monitoring traffic, editing stories, and acquiring product was something I did in my day job; 2D-X demanded that I do it at night, too. I even added a podcast that morphed into a videocast. It wasn’t meant to be that much work.

Birthed from the pain that came with working for a horrific company where checks bounced and employees were left broken people, 2D-X was pure escapism. It was a place where I could write happy nostalgia pieces about old games. It made me smile until it made me not smile.

But the urge to create has returned. And this time, it has nothing to do with job-related ills.

I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a podcast for a short time now. Actually, that’s an understatement. I have a notebook full of potential show names and hardware purchases. I’ve had a fine time researching, plotting, and planning. Surveying the podcast landscape for ideas has led to the discovery of many wonderful shows, including The Brilliant IdiotsFreakonomics Radio, and Spawn On Me. Informative. Entertaining. They represent what I love about the podcast medium. And I have the audacity to believe that I can produce something of similar quality.

I can’t reveal an exact date, as I’m still hammering out a recording schedule, but the podcast is definitely happening. I have a theme, topics, and potential guests lined up, and can’t wait to edit, blend, and fade audio clips into a beautiful sound-quilt.

Stay tuned. This is going to be fun.

Image courtesy of Sweet Water.

Baseball Stars, sports, and summer ’89

Baseball Stars NES Box ArtParents’ basements were made for safekeeping childhood memories.

I recently rediscovered a stack of Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges locked inside a storage bin in my folks’ home. The titles were part of an obviously curated collection that boasted some of my all-time NES games, including Contra, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, and River City Ransom. Honestly, I don’t remember when I purchased them. Was Contra the same cart that I picked up in ’88? Was Goonies II part of the game lot that came bundled with my top-loader NES eBay buy from a few years back? Those details are lost to time.

But when my eyes locked on the Baseball Stars cart, several major and minor dust-covered memories floated to the surface.

I remember buying Baseball Stars during the summer ’89 with money that I had saved since my mid-May birthday. I knew Baseball Stars was soon to hit retail due to write ups in various video game magazines, but in those days solid releases dates were incredibly rare. As a result, I held on to $50 for weeks, ignoring my desires to drop coin on Nerds candy and Daredevil and Uncanny X-Men comics.

That was a small miracle made possible by an overwhelming desire to own what I knew was going to be the best baseball video game ever made; a game that would enable me to create my all-time favorite players and teams and pitch, hit, and run all summer. And that’s exactly what I did after making the purchase. My friends and I devoted days to tweaking players and teams, and setting up elimination tournaments for nothing more than bragging rights. Days and nights melted away.

Rediscovering Baseball Stars also made me remember just how much I loved the sport during my teen years. I watched nearly every Mets and Yankees game that was broadcast during non-school hours, collected Topps, Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck trading cards, and obsessed over stats. I emulated Rickey Henderson’s offensive and defensive style when playing baseball with the boys. I began to casually wear batting gloves, too, a habit that continues until this day. Seriously. They help keep convention cooties at bay.

Nowadays, baseball’s plodding pace and overly long regular season don’t inspire me to do anything but turn the channel to the nearest MMA or NBA broadcast. And that’s fine.  I no longer have a desire to study box scores, or devote four hours of my day to watching men adjust their cups and spit brown sludge.

I’d rather take swings in Chelsea Piers’ batting cages or, now that it’s been reintroduced to my life, fire up Baseball Stars on a lazy weekend.