Anthony Weiner: the greatest New York mayor that never was

weiner documentaryThere’s a brilliant documentary floating about called ‘Weiner’ about the disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner, who gained worldwide notoriety when it was revealed that he was a serial sexter who had sent a woman a picture of his bulging crotch.

The scandal, which forced his resignation as a New York congressman, reignited during his audacious 2013 campaign to be the Democratic nominees for New York mayor, when another woman came forward to reveal she too had been sexting with Weiner. The news ended his chances of becoming mayor at a time when he had, incredibly, won back the support of much of the New York public, and was leading the race.

Like a fly on the wall the viewer is taken right inside the ‘Weiner For Mayor’ campaign with the charismatic showman politician, surrounded by his chaotic, but enthusiastic entourage of campaign managers and media advisors, spreading the word about his plans to make New York a better place.

Also prominent in the documentary is his high-profile, well-connected glamorous wife Huma Abedin, a close confident of Hillary Clinton and who stood by her husband through all his very public indiscretions.

The documentary begins with an old video of an enraged Anthony Weiner shaking his fists and going nuclear on the floor of the House of Representatives, shaming his Republican opponents for not voting in favour of a bill to provide funds to those who fell ill after rushing to assist victims of 9/11.

It’s a powerful video, one that I had not seen before (like most people I only knew of him through those lurid, comic images of his crotch that made headlines around the world) showing Weiner at his best, a passionate politician with real conviction.

It’s an image that’s reinforced throughout the documentary as we see Weiner dancing and jamming at various ethnic rallies, waving a huge rainbow flag at a gay rights parade and trying to explain some of his ideas in the face of repeated questions about his texting indiscretions. “Does anyone have any questions about my campaign?” is a question he frequently asks to the gallery of reporters.

There’s also a moment in the film where we see Weiner in his New York apartment, packing away all the toys left on the floor by his young son, a kind of universal act that any father, including myself could relate to.

And I so I found myself really liking Anthony Weiner, despite what I knew  about him even when the fresh texting scandal broke, throwing everything into chaos and delivering a shattering blow to his wife, his campaign team and the many New Yorkans who had given hime a second chance.

I think it was the election of Donald Trump – a man who without a touch of self-awareness had called Weiner a ‘wackjob pervert‘ – as US president that made me like the skinny New Yorker.

After all Trump was a man alleged to have committed many sexual indiscretions and whom was famously caught on tape telling a TV host that it was a good idea to grab women by “the pussy”, not to mention all the women who have come forward claiming to be harrassed by now leader of the free world.

The difference between the two men – both brash New Yorkans –  was starkly brought into focus by a scene in the film where Weiner, riding home after another long day on the campaign trail, reads an article written about him in the New Yorker magazine:

“Anthony Weiner is a remarkable candidate…as the protagonist of this tale he did not commit adultery, he did not break up a marriage, his own or anyone else’s, he didn’t employ the services of a prostitute, he did not stalk, he did not misuse public funds, he did  not grope or talk dirty to subordinates in any way, he did not have any physical or inappropriate physical contact with any person, his sexting partners have never been in the same room at the same time.”

There is undoubtedly a lot of truth in this observation and as Weiner reads it aloud, you realise he knows it too.

Had the second sexting scandal not broken during his campaign, it is entirely possible Anthony Weiner could now be the mayor of New York. Instead, he ended up finishing a pitiful last in the election race with just a few percent of the vote.

weiner and wife

At the very end of the documentary, we find Weiner sitting in a chair, alone, facing the camera with a perplexed expression on his expressive face.

He seems like a neurotic character from a Woody Allen film trying to understand the workings of his own mind. Why did he do the things he did? Not even he seems to know.

In the end Anthony Weiner’s demise – though at his own hand – seemed a comic-tragedy of almost mythical proportions. Had he managed to keep his bizarre urges in check, who knows how high he could have soared in the political sphere?

And in light of the rise of President Trump and all his obvious character flaws, did it really matter?

But then my view darkened of Anthony Weiner when it emerged that he continued to sext even after the ruination of his political career, and worse, when a lurid picture surfaced of Weiner with his midriff and crotch shown on camera, with his infant son sleeping beside him.

Had the documentary, which was screened last year, included that footage, a much more disturbing image of Weiner would have remained in my mind.

‘One of These Things First’: the joy of reading Steven Gaines’s bittersweet childhood memoir

one-of-these-things-first-360x544My introduction to the New York writer and journalist Steven Gaines came through a review copy I was sent of his newly published memoir, “One of These Things First”.

Beautifully written, with equal measures of tenderness, sadness, cheeky humour and a big dollop of nostalgia, it’s the story of his difficult Brooklyn childhood and the time he spent in the Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1962, aged just 15.

Being a gay, Jewish boy in Brooklyn in the 1960s did not make life easy for Gaines, who, fearing his “dick and balls might be cut off” because of his homosexuality, kept his predilection for the naked chested lawn-mower boy and Warren Beatty’s topless scene in Splendour in the Grass to himself.

I promised myself that I would not let myself think homo thoughts, yet I could think of nothing else. I was haywire with hormones. I spent most of the time walking around in a semi-hunch trying to hide an erection that wouldn’t subside.

Keeping a dark secret manifested itself in an obssession with stealing strange objects and then an obssessive compulsive counting disorder, culminating in his suicide attempt –  punching his fists through glass in a door at the back of his grandparent’s ladies shop, Rose’s Bras Girdles Sportswear – and his commital to a mental hospital.

Luckily for Gaines, he had a wealthy and loving grandfather – “Gog” whom the book is part-dedicated too – who paid for his stay at the expensive clinic (most famous as having treated Marilyn Monroe). Otherwise he would have ended up in the Hillside Hospital in Queens with its cold bars on the window and air of despair and hopelessness.

As it turned out, Gaines’s stay at Payne Whitney became a turning point in what up until then had been a very unhappy and lonely childhood, with constant reminders that he would come to “no good” and a difficult (to put it mildly) father who referred to his son as a “nut job”.

Gaines emerged from Payne Whitney with a degree of self-acceptance and self-worth that must surely have saved his life, and also inspired his career as a writer and journalist.

Here he found acceptance and friendship among the other “crazies” including the film and theatre critic Richard Halliday, who turns out to be the husband of Broadway star Mary Martin, one of Gaines’s childhood idols.

Even his Freudian therapy with the kindly and good-intentioned Dr Myers who attempted to ‘cure him’ of his homosexuality, ultimately proved beneficial because for the first time there was someone who “seemed interested in what I had to say”.

Gaines has an endearing obsession with movies and the book is peppered with references to his favourite films – Gone with Wind, Lust for Life, Gaslight and Marty and trivia about which actor or actress received an Oscar nomination or Academy Award.

He tells Dr Myers his favourite film is Splendour in the Grass, starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, which he saw 11 times – not because he related to Natalie Wood’s character who has a nervous breakdown, but because he got to see Warren Beatty with his shirt off.

The book is full of these painfully honest and darkly funny insights into himself as a yong man. It’s also full of the colourful characters – both good and bad – that shaped his young Jewish life for the better and for the worse, set among Borough Park, “the cognac of Brooklyn, the potent and flavorful essence” a ghetto-like place of immigrant Jews that no longer exists

Reading “One of These Things First”reminded me why I loved movies like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Woody Allen movies, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm with their quasi-tragic Jewish humour and quintessentially Jewish characters: the overbearing mother, the neurotic, the obsessive personality, the self-made man, the kids bound for decades of “strict Freudian analysis”.

Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, not for any suburban childhood or silver-spoon, Upper East Side private school education.

Reading about his life, I felt a connection with Steven Gaines that encompassed our  Jewishness, our capacity for mental disintegration (I suffered for a time from debilitating anxiety attacks and thought I was literally going mad), shared love of movie trivia and nostalgia for the people and places from our childhood.

Gaines-HIFF3After finishing the book, I had a peak around Gaines personal website. He is a prolific writer, the author of dozens of books including  biographies of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper and who has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the New York Times.

I especially like his website photo. It shows Gaines, middle-aged but still youthful with a cherub like grin, and suggests a man of warmth, intelligence, kindness and cheekiness, character traits which were also part of the make-up of the 15-year-old boy in his memoir, who came of age during his stay at Payne Whitney.

The junkie in literature: a review of William S. Burrough’s “Junkie”

“Junkie” by influential Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs is the second book I’ve read as part of a mini-project of mine to examine the place of the heroin junky in literature.

The first book I read was “Monkey Grip by Australian author Helen Garner about a single mother’s tortuous relationship with a junkie set in Melbourne in the 1970s. You can read my review of this novel here.

Whereas “Monkey Grip” is very much from the point of view of someone observing a junky’s addiction to heroin, “Junkie” throws you right into what it is like to be an addict and the world that exists around them.

Burroughs presents an incredibly honest account of his life as a junky revealed in a concise, perfectly-worded tale.

After a brief introduction about himself (where we learn that he had a good, healthy upbringing in a “large mid West town”) we find Burroughs dismissed from the army as unfit and living in New York City in the 1940s, addicted to junk and peddling it as well.

Burroughs has a nack of describing the essence of an experience. For example when talking of New York junky and pusher Bill Gains “whose veins had mostly gone, retreated back to the bone to escape the needle”, he writes:

“For a while he used arteries, which are deeper than veins and harder to hit and for this procedure he bought special long needles…he had to shoot in the skin about half the time. But he only gave up and ‘skinned’ a shot after an agonizing half hour of probing and poking and cleaning out the needle, which would clot up with blood”

In New York, Burroughs mingles with peddlars, low-lifes and average joes (waiters and bar tenders) that are hooked on heroin. Burroughs becomes a “lush worker” with his junkie pal Roy. They ride the subway train and look for drunks that have passed out and steal their wallets.

It’s all told in this sparse, lay-it-down-straight style that hides nothing.

Burroughs has an exceptional ability to convey the sense a character in just a few simple sentences:

“Lonny was pure pimp. He was skinny and nervous. He couldn’t sit still and he couldn’ shut up. As he talked he moved his thin hands, which were covered on the backs with long, greasy, black hairs.

“Gains had a malicious, childlike smile that formed a shocking contrast to his eyes, which were pale blue, lifeless and old.”

And not just when it comes to junkies. While in a hospital getting “the cure’, he writes of one patient:

“There was a thin, pale, little man with bloodless, almost transparent, flesh. He looked like a cold and enfeebled lizard…he did not have the concentration of energy necessary to hold himself together and his organism was always on the point of disintegrating into its component parts.”

According to Burroughs, contrary to what people might believe, developing a habit takes time. You don’t get hooked on the first or second shot. It can take months, but one day you wake up, look up in the mirror, and something has changed about you.

Once you get hooked, even if you manage to get off, heroin is always a part of you, because it caused “permanent cellular alteration”.

The story transfers to the seedy backstreets of New Orleans, where Burroughs is busted. He is locked in a cell, while the cops try to get him to rat on his suppliers, and the junk sickness kicks-in.

Throughout the book, Junk sickness is described in a way that you understand it’s malevolence:

“Doolie sick was an unnerving sight. The envelope of personality was gone, dissolved by his junk-hungry cells. Viscera and cells, galvanised into a loathsome, insect-like activity, seemed on the point of breaking through the surface. His face was blurred and unrecognisable, at the same time shrunken and tumescent.

Writing of his own junk sickness, the awfulness of it can be imagined:

“In my case, the worst thing is lowering of blood pressure with consequent loss of body liquid, and extreme weakness, as in shock. It is a feeling as if the life energy has been shut off so that all the cells in the body are suffocating. As I lay there on the bench I felt like I was subsiding into a pile of bones.”

Burroughs also reveals other aspects of the junky life from the “croakers” – the doctors who write  fake prescriptions to “taking the cure” – going into rehab, and the medicine you get and what works and what does not.

And he manages to incorporate social commentary (his contention that marijuana is a not an addictive drug) and political observations of the time (Louisana passing a law making it illegal to be  drug addict), while describing his own hellish plight.

It’s a book about his adventures as a junky, the pimps, low-lifes, artists, con-artists, cops and doctors he meets on his travels.

In the end it’s also a warning against heroin addiction:

“Junk takes everything and gives nothing but insurance against junk sickness. Everyone now and then I took a good look at the deal I was giving myself and decided to take the cure.”

William S Burroughs at his typewriter, circa 1960.

The back of the book contains a glossary of terms, which is worth reading to pick up the lingo while my edition included an introduction by Allen Ginsberg, fellow Beat poet and Burroughs admirer who was instrumental in getting the controversial book published in 1953.

Truly a book ahead of its time.

My obsession with New York-style coffee

There’s a little Starbucks that’s opened across from Flinders Station, a tiny kiosk of a shop, and while I have, in the past, sworn off such establishments, I have found myself ordered my morning coffee there most mornings before work since it opened a few weeks ago.

Why go to Starbucks?

After all Australia is a country that takes its coffee-making extremely seriously, and some over here might even suggest – oh the blasphemy! – that Australian’s could teach Italians a thing or two about a good coffee, that’s after Italian immigrants taught us how to make it in the first place.

But since visiting New York last year and drinking a lot of cheap “drip” coffee , I am drawn to the brewed coffee they sell at Starbucks.

It’s cheap too – $2.90 for a “grande”, as opposed to the $5 I paid when I made the mistake of ordering a “large” cappucino in the little art deco kiosk in the underground arcade under Flinders Street. The barista behind the counter (tattoos, laid-back, shuffling along like he’s doing the moon walk, makes coffee like he was born in front of an espresso machine) did point out the large cup as if to make sure I really wanted it before nonchalantly asking that I hand over five bucks.

(It’s the kind of place, where people sort out their own change. While I was waiting for my drink, a guy stuck a $20 buck note under an empty coffee cup that serves as the till and helped himself to a $10 and $5 note – a little too la de da for me!)

But back to New York and drip coffee.

It’s a one dimensional drink, it has none of the richness and flavour of a proper Australian coffee (I am always amazed at the consistently good standard of coffee in even the most ordinary, dreary café in Melbourne).

Drip coffee is bland, boring, quite watery and invariably served so hot you peel off a layer of skin from the inside of your mouth when you drink it.

But drink it do – and as if I am Proust dipping Madeleine cake into tea – it all comes back to me.

I am sitting in a working class café, on a stool at a bench by the window looking out onto a grubby street in Brooklyn, eating the purplest blueberry bagel you could imagine, wrapped in wax paper.

The bread is chewy and warm and almost violet in colour, flowing with rivers of dark blueberry and topped with about a whole philadelphia-tub’s worth of cream cheese.

It was a sweet moment – the uncool, coolness of Brooklyn (liquor stores with the neon signs in the window, old ladies in scarves pulling their groceries in wire trolleys, old-fashioned bookshops, terrace housing, an air of decrepitude, but distinctly New Yorkan, with Manhattan off somewhere in the distance).

I savoured that bagel. Man did I savour it. Like I was De Niro in a Scorcese flick. Or maybe a character in a Woody Allen film, the neurotic jew about to see his analyst.

Sipping my coffee, biting chunks out of the bagel. browsing a pile of magazines at the window, looking out at Brooklynites passing by…

And so I find myself queuing outside Starbucks on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth in downtown Melbourne.

There’s a little bit (a tiny, tiny bit) of New York in Melbourne. The yellow taxi cabs for one rushing by and occassionally hooting. People huddled against the cold. The underground subway behind me leading into the train station. The high-rise towers down Elizabeth Street and up towards the Paris end of Collins Street.

Three times they have got my order wrong at Starbucks. Twice they’ve told me they have run out of brewed coffee and yet I come back.

Carry my steaming mug of blandness across the street, remembering Brooklyn, the bagel and the coffee and how I felt.

Now if only I could find a decent bagel store.