time capsule to my teenaged self

Dear Jim, Hello from 2015.

I’ll bet that sounds downright Jetsonian to you as a 17-year-old in 1975.

So I’ll settle one big question at the outset: we do not have flying cars.

There is, come to think of it, something called a personal computer that I know you’ll appreciate for at least a couple of its features in particular: it will check your spelling for you. Hold your tears. I know you’ll love that.

And then there’s the Internet, which is also hard to describe, but it will eliminate the need for the family’s old Encyclopedia Britannica. And there’s a whole lot of, well, anything you might ever want (publicly or secretly) on the Internet, such as movies and music and travel guides. And, umm, well, let me just say, kids your age today aren’t even thinking about agonizing over how to convince the sales clerk at the 7-Eleven to sell them a copy of Playgirl.

Yeah, I know about your secret Playgirl stash.

See, I’m you, grown old. I’m you 40 years from now.

Continue reading “time capsule to my teenaged self”

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sidewalks of new york

a field guide for taming the wild pedestrian

When I arrived in New York 25 years ago, there was a shared sense on the street that if you didn’t follow the rules you could get hurt.

Figuring out the correct side of the sidewalk and how to navigate taxis, bike messengers, and loose mental patients was part of survival in this tough City. It was also part of being a good fellow New Yorker. You felt proud of yourself as you accomplished the ways of the City. Similar to stepping confidently onto a “people mover” at the airport, you learned what “regular coffee” really meant at a street cart, how to fold your Times so as not to annoy fellow subway passengers, how brief a question needed to be for a New Yorker to answer it, and that you always stayed to the right and moved attentively on the sidewalk.

True New Yorkers knew these things. New New Yorkers wanted to learn them quickly. Visitors wanted to know so as not to draw attention to themselves. We were all in it together. And if you hadn’t figured that out yet, you quickly did, or risked being run off the curb. Continue reading “sidewalks of new york”

gray’s papaya lights go out on 8th street

Eater.com has spent the past few days celebrating the life and death of Gray’s Papaya at the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue, with photos of its bright orange lettering being removed from its awning and reminiscent post from followers about drunken munchies and Gray’s goofy signage.

I, myself, best remember Gray’s Papaya, and the Famous Ray’s Pizza of Greenwich Village a few blocks up Sixth Avenue (which also recently closed for the second and final time), on my late-night walks home from Bob’s NYU dorm during our first year in New York, when he lived in graduate student housing on Third Avenue and I lived in the Jesuit Community on 17th Street. Continue reading “gray’s papaya lights go out on 8th street”

kempster all-saints day

This week, many people have celebrated All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls Days, but my family has one more of its own: November 5th.

It started back in 1888, when my father’s father Edward Llewellyn Kempster was born on that day. And it remained a major day of celebration until grandpa’s death in 1990, having lived to be 101.

But only a few years later in 1995, my mother died on November 5th, followed over the next couple years by two of my father’s siblings—my uncle Brenton Kempster and my aunt Mary Kempster Hand—both passing on that day in subsequent years. Continue reading “kempster all-saints day”

my first christmas dinner at bubba’s

Christmas of 1989, my first after having moved to New York City, would have been fairly lonely had my then brand-new-beau Bob not invited me to his home in Beaver Falls outside of Pittsburgh PA to celebrate the holidays with his family, or should I say at “Bubba’s.” That’s what his family called his mother. Bob’s father’s side of the family was Serbian, and even though his mother is a lean, wise-cracking, back-woods Kentucky woman–someone who’s real name of Katherine or “Kitty” would have suited her better–nevertheless, as soon as her first grandchild was born, she was given the nickname “Bubba,” a Serbian term of endearment for grandmothers.

Now Bob’s family is one of the wildest, most chaotic groups of people that this little son of a lockstep German woman has ever spent the holidays with, but that first Christmas at Bubba’s swirls in my memory as the wildest. Continue reading “my first christmas dinner at bubba’s”

the hairy pendulum swings

This piece appears as one of the two introductions to the art anthology Hair, published by Bruno Gmünder in 2010. The book is in its second edition, and the introductions themselves received callouts in reviews.

The Hairy Pendulum Swings:
How culture has embraced male body hair over the past century

When I was a child the world was warm and furry, from shag carpeting to suede bean-bag chairs to shing-a-ling trim to the long manes on everyone young. No one but competitive bodybuilders and drag queens would have considered shaving or waxing their bodies back then, and actors and athletes, like Sean Connery, Joe Namath, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan bared their luscious chests proudly on screen and in the pages of the magazines as often as possible.

In 1960s and ’70s America, chest hair was not only popular, it defined masculinity. The opposite of idealized stone-cold waxed muscle, the mysteries of adult male sexuality lay hidden deep within the thick matted diamond of hair between a workman’s pectorals, or under an athlete’s arms, or in furtive glimpses of bushy crotches in locker rooms. Hair softened the hard parts of men’s bodies, gave shape and expression to those that would otherwise have been shapeless, and suggested raw animal attraction waiting to be discovered.

And then came the 1980s. Continue reading “the hairy pendulum swings”