"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Brunswick to repeal anti-panhandling laws

Back in 2012, when I was spending a lot of time in Tent City in Lakewood, I wrote a piece for In These Times headlined "Evicting the Homeless." The focus was on Tent City, but it placed the fight between the homeless and the township of Lakewood within the context of the larger trend of towns using local ordinances -- feeding bans, panhandling bans, camping bans, etc. -- to crack down on their homeless populations.

Since its publication, I've come across a number of similar cases around the country -- in Florida, the Midwest, in Great Britain. Lakewood is not the only town with restrictive ordinances in the state, of course, which is why the announcement today that the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness and the city of New Brunswick have reached a settlement on a case involving city laws banning panhandling and the soliciting of food.

A press release from the city said it would repeal the ordinances "because there are legitimate concerns regarding (their) constitutionality" and that they would stop enforcing them immediately.
The City’s law department plans to introduce two new ordinances that will address panhandling and the regulation of solicitation of donations. Those new ordinances will be introduced at a future City Council meeting and must be done so within 90 days, as per the terms of the agreement. The two challenged ordinances will be repealed.
The coalition, which was represented by the ACLU, won an injunction against the city in December after John Fleming, "a homeless man who was cited four times by the local police in the last two months" for panhandling on city streets by holding a sign asking for aid.

At issue is Fleming's -- and others' -- speech rights. Jeanne LoCicero, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, told me today that begging or soliciting for assistance is no different than other sidewalk solicitations.

"This is about a fundamental right to free expression," she said. 

Deb Ellis, executive director of the coalition, told me a few minutes ago that she is hopeful that this settlement can send a signal that restrictions like this, which target the homeless, are not acceptable.

I should have more on the settlement tomorrow or later this week.

Send me an e-mail.

Excerpt from 'Tent City'

This is an excerpt from the manuscript for Tent City: As an Alien in a Land of Promise, the poem I wrote after spending about a year visiting the homeless encampment in Lakewood. I'll be reading from the manuscript at the Asbury Park Music in Film Festival 2015 as part of a program on Tent City, featuring the film Destiny's Bridge, directed by Jack Ballo; photos from Sherry Rubel; and other performances by Rosemary Conte, Lisa Ferrara and others

This section is what I call an interlude -- there are several that break up the manuscript.

The book, sadly, is without a publisher, though I am on the hunt. In the meantime, come to the film festival on April 11 at 1, Salt Studios, 658 Cookman Ave.

Send me an e-mail.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Word choice, certainty and unnamed sources

Reading today's story in The New York Times on the anticipated -- but still uncertain -- prosecution of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, I was struck by two paragraphs. Consider this one first, the story's second:
Now, federal corruption prosecutors are close to once again bringing charges against a senator, Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. The Justice Department’s public corruption unit, which was overhauled after the Stevens case, is running the investigation. Once again, the case involves a lawmaker and gifts from a wealthy friend.
Think about the phrasing -- "are close to," meaning it is going to happen, and probably soon.

Two paragraphs later, however, we get this:
Charges are expected against Mr. Menendez in the next few weeks, and comparisons to the Stevens case are sure to follow. But officials and others close to the investigation say Mr. Menendez’s case diverges in crucial ways from the one brought against Mr. Stevens, which was dismissed after prosecutors were found to have withheld evidence.
"Expected" -- meaning they are likely, but not definite. After all, expectations do not always come to pass.

I know this seems a minor point, but phrasing matters. The Times seems conflicted -- on the one hand underscoring the certainty of the situation, while walking it back some just a few paragraphs later.

I don't write this to pick on the Times or to defend Menendez. My concern, as I wrote a few weeks ago, is that the Menendez story has been treated as though charges are a fait accompli, despite it being based on unnamed sources. Rumors have swirled around Menendez for years without anything happening. This time may be different, but it remains too early for the kind of certainty we are seeing in many of the recent Menendez stories.

Here is the lede from a story in The Wall Street Journal:
Federal investigators are preparing to file criminal charges against Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey as early as this week, after a legal battle over how much the Constitution shields lawmakers and their aides, according to people familiar with the investigation.
Here is a tweet from the Political Wire that also makes it seem as though it is a done deal:

Not everyone is pushing certainty, Reuters, in reporting the Journal story, added some important qualifiers -- adding the word "possible" to its headline and casting the story this way:
Federal investigators could file criminal corruption charges as early as this week against U.S. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.
The New York Business Journal took the same approach -- and wrote a nearly identical lede aa while adding additional qualifiers.
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez could face federal corruption charges as soon as this week, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

It’s not yet clear what precise charges might arise from the investigation that began more than two years ago, the WSJ said, but they are expected to focus on a doctor friend and political donor, Salomon Melgen, whom Menendez has acknowledged paying $60,000 for flights to the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, the report said, the Federal Bureau of investigation appears interested in whether Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, improperly sought to influence a probe into Dr. Melgen’s billing and a separate issue involving the doctor and the Department of Homeland Security.
"Could," "might," "appears," "not clear" -- words that underscore the fluidity of the story because of its sourcing.

And that is my point. The authority on which all of these stories are based is the same --- an unnamed person close to the investigation, a source whose motivation remains unknown to the reader. Does this mean that the source should be ignored or the story not written? Not necessarily. But we -- and I mean both reporters and readers -- should be skeptical about these kinds of stories. How close is the source to the investigation? Why leak the information and why do it now? Can the source be trusted? Why should the reader turst the source?

Ultimately, these stories -- if they are going to run -- need to be couched in qualifications.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

'Hangin' on by the skin of his teeth'

The Atlantic City experiment has always been a failure. When gambling was approved for the faltering resort town in the 1970s, it was billed as a panacea for a city in decline. Casinos would draw visitors and businesses, creating jobs and leading to a rebirth.

It never happened.

I'm no expert, but the casinos always seemed far too insular. They were designed to keep people inside even when they took a break from the tables and machines, and in the process created little incentive for non-casino business growth.

As you drive along Delaware and Atlantic avenues into the city, you see empty, boarded-up storefronts, cash-for-gold shops, bail-bondsmen and law offices advertising criminal defense services. Head west and even the closed businesses disappear -- older, dilapidated homes, vacant lots, cut-rate motels. And these are not new phenomena, as anyone who has driven through the city over the last three-plus decades can tell you.

Again, I could be reading what I see incorrectly -- I'm only an occasional visitor (I hate gambling, so I have little reason to go) and have not researched the city's economic history. But there appears to be two Atlantic Citys -- one constructed for the enjoyment of outsiders, the other left in the shadows to be ignored, except when the shadowy one comes into the light and interferes with the image the city would prefer to project. Then all the stops are pulled out.

Now, with casinos opening elsewhere in the Northeast, we've witnessed a new wave of casino closings that have state officials scrambling. An emergency manager is expected to issue a report as early as this week, and residents don't know what to expect. As NPR reports,

Bankruptcy would give Atlantic City more time to pay its bills and more flexibility to reduce spending, maybe by paying bondholders less and cutting workers' benefits. It could also make it harder to borrow money and maintain services. Plus, it doesn't address those broader problems. About 12 percent of residents have graduated from college. The median household income is less than $30,000, and it's considered one of New Jersey's most violent cities.
Resident Howard Cure put it this way on NPR:
Being poor and having a high crime rate is something that bankruptcy can't solve.
One piece of potential good news is the creation of a branch campus for Stockton University in the former Showboat casino. Property tax and casino revenue implications aside, there is a chance it will create a needed diversification of the local economy. As U.S. News reports,
Saatkamp says an off-site commercial area that would include shops and restaurants is also in the works in the Island Campus's immediate surroundings, adding yet another layer to a changing Atlantic City landscape.

"That adds incentive for businesses to come in and support the university, but also it adds a different type of an atmosphere that's attractive for companies to move into," says Saatkamp, referring to the commercial area as part of "University City." "We are a state university, so our public mission is to work with the communities that we're in. Not only are we a significant education driver, but we're a significant economic driver in our communities."
This would to build on The Walk -- the Tanger Outlets -- which appears to be doing well, if our Sunday expedition is any indication.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. New Brunswick continues to have its problems, despite being home to Rutgers' main campus -- see the closing of the Fresh Grocer after much fanfare about its opening. But Stockton's commitment and its efforts to drive new kinds of economic development are at least a new direction for the city.

Again, these are just the thoughts of an occasional visitor.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Under cover

While driving this morning, Van Halen's version of "Pretty Woman" came on the radio. It's a song I liked when I was younger, but hadn't heard in a while, and I was surprised at how flat and uninteresting it sounded.

The original Roy Orbison version is full of angst and an electricity provided by Orbison's delivery, his warbly tenor (or baritone -- some say it falls between, though I am not the right person to say), the slight stutter in his voice, the perfect timing.

Van Halen's, on the other hand, is mostly bombast -- big guitars filling every nook and cranny, David Lee Roth's vocal riding the guitars, but lacking nuance, lacking a sense of urgency, seeming perfunctory, as though he were reading it aloud without considering what the words actually mean. Basically, it lacks the pathos of the Orbison original without adding new shades of meaning or feeling. (Plus the video -- above -- is absolutely dreadful.)

I know this won't be popular with the Van Halen's fans -- I'm not a VH fan, though I do like some songs -- but the first thought that came to mind was why not play Orbison? The answer has to do with the narrow definition of "classic rock" employed by commercial radio (I've made this point before -- though that's a discussion for another day).

The other question the song raised is this: What makes for a good cover song? What is it about "Jersey Girl" by Bruce Springsteen, "I Wanna Be Your Man" by the Stones or "Heard it through the Grapevine" by either Marvin Gaye or Credence Clearwater Revival that makes these songs as good or better that the original recordings? All of these are good songs -- structurally, lyrically, rhythmically, melodically -- but great songs do not necessarily mean great recordings. Rod Stewart -- in his late-career rebirth as crooner of the American songbook shows. (I find his lack of connection to the songs he sings baffling, considering his brilliant covers of Sam Cooke and others when he was younger.) and there are examples of lesser, sometimes terrible, songs being recorded and turned into good recordings, because of the interpretation (Fountains of Wayne's take on Britney Spears' "Baby, One More Time," for instance).

There is no one thing that makes a cover song a good song. Covers can stay close to the original or venture into new territory, can pay homage or be completely consumed. For every reworking -- think Joe Cocker doing The Beatles or Adele singing Bob Dylan -- that creates something new, there are others -- The Smithereens song-for-song, note-for-note version of Meet the Beatles -- that works just as well.

I think what makes a good cover is the same thing that makes any recording worth listening -- the transfer of creative energy, emotion, a sense of purpose. It is a somewhat amorphous concept, I admit, and it is tied to individual taste -- which brings me to the reason I am writing this. Here are a few of what I think are the weakest covers you will find, in no particular order  (with some help from this site and this one):
  • Manfred Mann's Earth Band, "Blinded by the Light" -- teenage angst on the Jersey Shore turned into bloated space-ship nonsense. (Cue the hate mail.)
  • Manfred Mann, "Demolition Man."
  • Van Halen, "Pretty Woman" -- see above.
  • The Police, "Don't Stand So Close to Me (Greatest Hits version)" -- after a failed attempt at reuniting, the band issued a greatest hits package that included one new track, a soft-rock-snoozer version of one of their most sinister songs and, sadly, a preview of the worst of Sting's solo career.
  • Power Station, "Bang a Gong." Ugh.
  • Mick Jagger and David Bowie, "Dancing in the Streets" -- what happens when you put two of the greatest vocalists in music history together and have them sing a seminal Motown track? Well, it shouldn't be this.
  • Peter Frampton, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" -- do I have to comment?
  • Motley Crue,"Smokin' in the Boys' Room"
  • Aerosmith, "Come Together" -- as good as Earth, Wind and Fire's "Got to Get You Into My Life" is on the generally awful Sgt. Pepper's soundtrack, that is how bad Aerosmith is on this song. You can add almost any other song (Peter Frampton, again?) from this soundtrack to the list, by the way.
  • Rod Stewart, "Downtown Train" -- I didn't like the Patty Smyth version, either, but that had a little bit of juice. This is just dreadful -- worse than his take on Otis Redding -- and offers as good an example of Rod the Mod's clueless late-career interpretations.

I could find more. And there are some on the above lists with which I disagree -- I love Bruce doing "War" and don't have a problem with the R.E.M. cover. Consider this a starting point. Please weigh in, here or on my Facebook page.