Spinning old Brooklyn tales for Coney Island History Project

Amazing how life comes full circle.

From ages 12 to roughly 30, I lived in Coney Island, a neighborhood that was a far cry its heyday preserved in black-and-white photos and newsreels. I lived in the projects, surrounded by empty, junk-filled lots, rabid dogs, and the shadows of a once-cherished seaside destination. I left after establishing a career as a writer, but returned to it in verbal form courtesy of the Coney Island History Project.

The non-profit organization approached me to participate in its oral history series after reading my Coney Island memories in an esports article. I was interviewed on July 10, 2017. The interview posted relatively recently. I’d be very happy if you’d take 22 minutes to listen to it.

I’ve been interviewed many times over the years, but this is the one that meant the most to me. It isn’t very often that someone wants to tell your origin story, a process that truly makes you appreciate the journey from the past to the present.

Image courtesy of Coney Island History Project

The 5 best beers at NYC Craft Beer Festival (Fall 2016)

The NYC Craft Beer Festival has proven itself one of New York City’s most consistently enjoyable events, as it encourages beer fans, both novices and die hards, to step outside of their malted comfort zones to sample new beverages—even those that appear unappealing on the surface. I’m a prime example of this of this idea. I really, really hate IPAs, but will give one a chance if it carries a particularly interesting flavor hook. Plus, to quote the great Space Ghost, “I will put anything into my mouth that is given to me. Whether it’s supposed to go there or not.” Such gusto opens the door to many discoveries. 

Fortunately, the event boasts dozens of tasty, sample-ready craft beers, including ales, lagers, porters, and stouts. My 2-ounce tasting glass leaned heavily toward the heavier brews, but I made certain to sample as much as I could before Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared throughout the Lexington Avenue Armory, signaling the festival’s end. I admit to a certain bias for drinks with gimmicky flavors, which is evident in my five beers-of-the-show picks.

Abita Peach
It’s difficult to find a brewery that crafts a truly excellent fruit-based beer, as many overwhelm you with sweetness or skimp on the flavor so that you can barely recognize the fruity elements. Yet, Abita finds that balance with this peach lager, a refreshing treat that’s brewed with fresh, handpicked Louisiana peaches.

Breckenridge Vanilla Porter
I didn’t know what to expect from a vanilla porter, but Breckenridge Brewery delivered a pleasant surprise with this excellent blend that combines the chocolate and roasted nut flavor of a classic porter, with a vanilla punch.

DuClaw Sweet Baby Jesus
Sweet Baby Jesus can be summed up in four words: Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter. Oh, and “delicious.” It’s smooth and thick, with a creamy chocolate, coffee and peanut butter flavor that makes for a perfect after-dinner drink. Pairs well with vanilla ice cream, too.

Guinness Antwerpen
The Guinness brand is forever associated with its classic stout, but the company has made strides in the last two years to expand into the craft market. The result is handful of flavorful beers, with Antwerpen being one of my favorites. Light and creamy, this sweet stout boasts vanilla, butterscotch and dark fruity flavors.

Southern Tier Pumking
I’ve professed my love for this gem last year, so I won’t do so again here. Just click here. And then buy a six pack. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.

Sweet beers ruled my tongue this time out, and will probably do so again when the NYC Craft Beer Festival Spring 2017 show rolls around.

New York City pizza is a bland concoction of disappointment

Chicago vs. New York is one of the nation’s greatest rivalries. I’m not talking Bulls-Knicks , Bears-Giants, or Cubs-Mets. The true battlefront, the place where the mid-west and east square off in dirty slobberknockers, is in cheese, sauce, and dough.

Pizza. But you knew this from the title.

New York City is my home, but I’m a pizza agnostic. I love deep dish, classic New York-style slice, and Sicilian. Good pizza is just good pizza. But I can say without hesitation that New York pizza has transformed into a bland concoction of disappointment. It wasn’t always this way.

The Big Apple once overflowed with pizza goodness. Not that long ago, say the late-1990s to the  mid-2000s, you could buy a slice for $1 and enjoy a fatty, flavorful, world-renowned plain slice. A large plain slice. One so voluminous that you could use it to tarp Yankee Stadium during a rain delay. A slice so mighty that you’d be required to fold it, so that “you can pour the grease directly into your mouth,” as my colleague Max Eddy described it (albeit in derogatory fashion).

Your buck bought a mouthful of magic that came courtesy of significant amounts of well-flavored sauce and tasty, stretchy cheese. New York City pizza was once the perfect between-meal snack that you could enjoy upon strolling into any old school Italian pie joint. 

Now, we’ve got to put up with heinous $1 pizza. A small slice. Barely any sauce. A smattering of cheese. It resembles a dough-tomato sauce-cheese combo that would look at home emerging from an Easy-Bake Oven. Unfortunately, this hideous mockery of a $1 slice is the current face of New York City pizza and has ruined this great city’s pizza reputation.

It’s not as though there are just a handful of these places—they’re everywhere. Near the Port Authority. On the outskirts of Chinatown. On 125th St. A shop that sells solid pizza, on the other hand, is a bit harder to find, and will set you back between $3 to $5 per slice; a truly delicious, premium bite that caters to discerning palettes pushes the price closer to $5 or more. 

Unfortunately, as The Wall Street Journal points out, mid-range pizza shops, mainly in Manhattan, have slashed their prices in order to compete with the bargain basement shops. Naturally, that means ingredients are the first victims in the Great Pizza War. Some of my favorite places have suffered noticeable quality dips. The bottom end is booming, while the upper-tier is raking in profits. The dependable middle-class slice is vanishing. New York City’s pizza situation couldn’t be any more American.

Brigham Barnes believes that there some gold nuggets lodged in the $1 pizza muck. Barnes’s quest to find the city’s “most adequate dollar slice” has led the writer to several places I’ve frequented in the past, but have no desire to return to in the future. Though, I must admit that the author’s write-up about $1 Pizza Slice (yes, that’s the actual name!) makes the East Harlem shop sound like it sells pizza that embodies the heart of the one-buck slice that I used to love back in the day.

So, until I visit $1 Pizza Slice, I will stick to my usual joints that make delicious pizza, but at high price. The current pizza landscape demands opening your wallet so that you make enjoy the bread, sauce, and cheese combo that has somehow become incredibly simple to muck up in recent years. Desperate times, it seems, call for premium tastes.

Image courtesy of Serious Eats.

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.

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.

I lucked into seeing Letterman before he leaves ‘The Late Show’

April Fools Day is, without question, one of the most-annoying days of the year. An entire 24-hour period based on lies—or more lies than usual—doesn’t make for a particularly good time unless the pranks are skillfully executed (Note: The majority are not). That said, this April Fools Day was a completely different experience for me, because I avoided the shenanigans altogether by sitting in on a David Letterman taping.

Letterman was never my go-to late night host—at least not initially. As an adolescent, I stayed up past my bedtime to watch Johnny. As a teen and 20-something, I was into Arsenio. I didn’t appreciate Dave’s wit until a handful of years later, and by that time, I often crashed before his show aired due to being burnt out by a string of highly stressful jobs. I caught clips on YouTube and Entertainment Tonight whenever a celebrity did or said something stupid on the show. Letterman was always an entertaining gent who cracked wise in the peripheral.

That’s why sitting in the historic Ed Sullivan Theater was such a rewarding experience. I watched an entire episode of The Late Show for the first time in my life. Dave owned the show with a laid back sarcasm and witty banter with the audience,  Senator Al Franken, and the incredibly annoying host of Billy on the Street. It was glorious.

I had one regret after the show wrapped: I had zero photos to preserve the experience, as photography was understandably not allowed in the theater. Then it hit me—the camera ban  was the best thing that happened that afternoon. I didn’t fiddle in my seat adjusting flash and correcting zoom. Letterman, and his incredible house band fronted by Paul Shaffer and featuring jazz great David Sanborn, had my undivided attention for the first time in my life. It was an evening of great punchlines and dazzling musical segments.

There was a two-hour wait period in the time between picking up my tickets and being seated for the show. The impatient New Yorker in me began to bubble up, and I even questioned if the wait would be worth it. It was. Watching the television legend in his final days on the job—Dave exits late night on May 20—was magic. There were a couple of flat jokes, but the set was humorous, topical, and thoroughly enjoyable.

I wish I had done it sooner.

I’m kind of glad that I didn’t.

Image courtesy of CBS.

The night Wu-Tang Clan and Castlevania conquered New York City

Wu-Tang Clan dropped the seminal Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers in 1993, fusing the New York City-style underground sound with intelligent lyrics, street knowledge, Five Percent Nation teachings, and philosophies ripped straight from old school Asian martial arts flicks.

Shortly after the classic album transformed the hip hop landscape, the crew—nearly a dozen deep—announced that each member would drop a solo album. The best solo effort was Raekwon the Chef’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which quickly became a hip hop classic much like Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers. The mob-strong album saw Rae and faithful right-hand man Ghostface Killah chronicle cinematic street tales over what was then RZA’s most varied and experimental production.

But what does Wu-Tang Clan have to do with Castlevania, Konami’s monster-slaying action video game? A lot, actually. Or, maybe, nothing at all.

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx‘s lead single was “Glaciers of Ice,” a track featuring Rae, Ghost, and Masta Killa flowing over only what can be described as aural insanity. Listen.

I tuned into NYC’s Hot 97 the night that Funkmaster Flex debuted “Glaciers of Ice” over the radio airwaves. The collective hip hop populace lost it. Not only was the track absolute fire, but station callers—as well as my friends and me—were convinced that RZA sampled Castlevania to create what sounded like an organ from hell. We couldn’t remember which particular Castlevania game that the sample came from, or the specific level music, but believed that a video game was an important part of “Glaciers of Ice”‘s DNA.

The idea wasn’t too bizarre. RZA had a reputation for digging through the crates, grabbing obscure samples, chopping them up, and sometimes distorting them. This is a man who sampled an obscure cartoon, Underdog, to create “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.”

The official song samples are:

– “Bless Ya Life” by KGB (Klik Ga Bow)
– “Children, Don’t Get Weary” by Booker T. & the MG’s
– “Guillotine (Swordz)” by Raekwon

Castlevania is M.I.A. That doesn’t mean, however, that RZA didn’t sample one of the compositions. It could’ve went unlisted for a variety of reasons, such as not wanting other producers to know the sample origin, or to avoid potential lawsuits for not clearing the sample with Konami.

“Glaciers of Ice” was the hot discussion topic the next day. My boys and I analyzed the track for hours trying to discover its Castlevania origins. This led to us playing Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, and Super Castlevania IV in hunt of the sampled composition. We never found it. It doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things, really.

I can look back now and realize that it wasn’t just the sample hunt that intrigued us, it was the validation. The validation that our hobby, one frequently seen as the activity of basement-dwellers, was cool, exciting, and revolutionary.

Just like Wu-Tang Clan.

How Metal Gear Solid 2 helped me cope with 9-11

There are few video games that I’ll defend until breathless, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a game originally released on November 12, 2001, is at the top of the list. Series creator Hideo Kojima proved himself a genius/world-class troll when he delivered an exquisite piece of postmodern storytelling that simultaneously pissed off and amazed his fan base. I thought it masterful when I originally played the game over a decade ago. I still do.

Sons of Liberty is a Metal Gear Solid game through and through. It requires using expert levels of stealth and deception—dart guns, electronics scramblers, distractions— to creep through enemy-filled hallways and avoid firefights. The dialogue is charmingly long-winded, sometimes too much so, which serves to both humanize the characters and, more importantly, set up gamers for the swerve to come. “This isn’t Shadow Moses, Snake.” The ultimate truth, the ultimate lie.

It’s those elements coming together that elevates Sons of Liberty into the video game pantheon. Or should I say, upon deeper reflection, the most obvious elements. Sons of Liberty holds a place in my heart for bringing me a sense of control during a time when I desperately needed the distraction despite the fact the game eerily mirrored elements of the very event that caused me, and the nation, great stress: 9-11.

I know many people outside of my urban bubble see New York City as the home to rude, fast-talking, godless, socialists, but it’s my home. I’ve been here since age three, and really couldn’t imagine any other city in the United States as my base of operations. I love the voices, the swagger, street fairs, music, and career mobility that NYC presents. When you’re feeling down, you can walk out your home and randomly stumble upon a local, neighborhood mini-parade. NYC is dependable in that way. When you have that rock in your corner you feel invincible, barring illness, death, rising costs, or airliners plowing into two of the world’s most iconic buildings.

My insides were as ripped as my skyline on that fateful day—and for weeks afterward. Even when life began to return to normal, small things would still pull the panic trigger. I distinctively remember riding the Q train to college, an elevated subway line in Brooklyn, and freaking out when I heard something banging into the iron worm’s side. Clank. Clank. Clank. It was tree branches hitting the subway cars’ metal bodies. Not bullets. Not mini-explosions. Tree branches. I had heard the sound before, but in the new world, the new context, it was different.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty arrived in North America  just two months after the heinous attacks. Sons of Liberty built on the excellent foundation laid by the original Metal Gear Solid by adding first-person aiming and a revamped cover system, but it was the story that snared me. It began with Solid Snake yet again hunting a Metal Gear, but quickly turned into something…different. Standard video game fare transformed in a wonderfully convoluted story featuring grand deception, political conspiracy, the use of the media and digital age to control the masses, and, finally, a Manhattan disaster. A “G.W.” even played a role—two of the three initials which belonged to the American president who presided over the country during 9-11 and its immediate aftermath.

This was an amazing moment of synchronicity. Kojima could not have anticipated that world events, and the related conspiracy theories, would lineup with his fictional universe. That didn’t matter one iota; Sons of Liberty quickly became my escape from the stress of the real world disaster. 9-11 broke my world and made me feel utterly helpless. Sons of Liberty put me in an active role within a bizarro version of that world where I could save humanity from disastrous happenings. It was empowering, even though the game revolved around the goofy idea of a mech dinosaur carrying a nuclear payload.

I interviewed Kojima in March 2012, and the Metal Gear creator mentioned that he decided to cut elements from Sons of Liberty‘s ending (in which the Arsenal Gear flying base crashes into downtown Manhattan) as it too closely mirrored real world events. He tactfully avoided answering the question directly. I pressed him a bit and he seemed uncomfortable. I’ve always suspected that Arsenal Gear plowed through the Twin Towers as it descended upon Manhattan. I’ll probably never get confirmation.

No loss, really. Sons of Liberty is an excellent game–I consider it the best in the main series purely for emotional reasons. If Kojima really did cut a wrecked World Trade Center from the game, it may have been the correct move. I’m not certain that I’d want one of my favorite games to actually replicate the real world to that degree, especially when the real-world chaos happened in my backyard.

I’ll continue playing Metal Gear Solid HD Collection on my PS Vita and reflect on a time when Sons of Liberty was more than a game–it was a therapy session featuring super soldiers, clones, supernatural abilities, and soapy, soapy melodrama. Sons of Liberty may no longer hold the same importance to me in the years since its release and the 9-11 attacks, but it still holds some importance if that makes any sense.

And I’m happy about that.

Image courtesy of Konami

Join Me at Kevin Powell’s 14th Annual Holiday Party and Clothing Drive

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…so why not lending a loving hand to the New Yorkers who need warmth this holiday season?

Friends, I implore you to join me at Kevin Powell’s 14th Annual Holiday Party and Clothing Drive on 12/12/2014. Bring a clothing donation and you can join a night of music, comedy, dancing, and good vibes with no admission charge! Details below. Please share. I hope to see you there!

Kevin Pw

Image courtesy of Storage Clothing, Inc.

I rode to Coney Island inside a 70-year-old subway train

The New York Transit Museum is one of my favorite summertime destinations.

Seriously. I love learning about the intersection of culture and infrastructure in regards to New York City’s physical and lifestyle expansion. If you’ve never made the journey to the corner of Boerum Pl. and Schermerhorn St., please do so.

The New York Transit Museum offers many interesting events throughout the year, but few are as cool as the Nostalgia Ride. Held a handful of times throughout the year, the Nostalgia Ride lets ticket-holders board vintage trains headed to distant locations within city limits. I had the great fortune to participate in the Coney Island Nostalgia Ride on 7/12/2014. Here are some details courtesy of the New York Transit Museum:

Join us on the ever popular, boardwalk-bound Coney Island Nostalgia Train! Ride the 1930s R1/9 cars of the Independent Subway System above and below ground for a two-hour jaunt. Then visit Coney Island’s beach-side amusement park, take a dip in the ocean, or stay on the train for additional rides.

The well-kept cars were equipped with ceiling fans that kept passengers cool, retro advertisements straight out of the ’40s, and large windows that let natural light pour inside when we exited tunnels and surfaced. The train truly felt like a machine from another era. Others felt that, too. As the five R1/9 cars expressed through Brooklyn—and those suckers moved FAST!—commuters waiting for the regular rides marveled at the functional relics.

Once the train reached Coney Island, we were given several options: stay on board and ride the N and D train routes, take a small tour, parts ways permanently, or enjoy the beach/amusement park for a few hours until the train returned to pick you up. In addition, the friendly staff gave us small history lessons on the subway, passed around old school tokens, and took us on a tour when we reached our seaside destination. It was a leisurely, serene experience.

The younger passengers fiddled with their phones and tablet—much to their parents’ chagrin—but those of us over 30 snapped photos, filmed video, and exchanged subway stories. Perhaps appreciation of the past is something that comes in time as we make that not-so-slow march toward oblivion, but New Yorkers with even the slightest love for the subway system should give the Nostalgia Ride a go.