Archive | July, 2011

Jesse Joyce, Andy Hendrickson, Keith Alberstadt – comedians

31 Jul

l to r: Keith Alberstadt, Jesse Joyce and Andy Hendrickson

Astoria is home to lots of funny people.  I spoke with three of them about their work as comedians and living in Astoria at the Astoria Brewhouse (itself a comedy venue on Wednesday nights): Jesse Joyce, Andy Hendrickson and Keith Alberstadt.  They all live close to 30th Ave.

They said that one of the reasons why a lot of comedians live in Astoria is because it is easy to get away.  Comedians have to hit the road a lot: from Astoria there is not only quick access to Manhattan but it is easy to get onto the highway via the Triborough Bridge, and La Guardia airport is nearby.  As Jesse put it, “they tell you to get to the airport an hour before your flight.  I leave my apartment an hour before my flight.”

The three comedians have known each other for about eight years.  They even spent thanksgiving together once, at Andy’s parents house, where they came across his first stand up video.  “It was terrible,” said Jesse. Then he added, “everybody’s awful the first year or two, or three.  You only get good at it after years and years of practice.”

On becoming comedians

Keith: It sounds cliché, but I was the youngest in the family and kind of starved for attention.  I always enjoyed making people laugh…I bombed miserably for about five years through college and then things started to get better.

Andy: I was the baby of the family too.  I also think it was because we moved around a lot.  I was a navy brat.

Jesse: We moved around a lot as well.  That really hones your sense of humor.  You have to break the ice with 30 new kids in the class, and the best way to do it is probably to make them laugh.

On what it takes to make it in comedy

Jesse: What makes a comedian a good comedian is just doing it for ever.  Nobody gets really good at comedy until they’ve been doing it for around 20 to 25 years.  Every dude that we respect is in their 40s.

Keith: You need persistence.  The reason why it’s so fun and motivating for us and rewarding is because we remember how bad it used to be.

Jesse:  It’s the combination of being good at it and keeping pushing through the bullshit of the lifestyle.  We’re gone all the time.  Some people are really good at it but the lifestyle wears them down after years, so they go on to other things.

Keith: It’s actually a blessing that it’s difficult. If it weren’t, we’d have a thousand more comics.

On why more comedians are male than female

I’d noticed that during our conversation, other comedians were all “dudes”.

Jesse: Yes, about 10 per cent of comedians are women.  It’s a kind of an alpha thing to want to do with your life.  To feel the need to be on the stage with amplified sound and lighting and all the other people sitting on tiny chairs in the dark.   I read a GQ article about this: it also made the point that women have never had to develop a sense of humor, it’s not a thing that they needed to do socially.  Because women can get in the door any number of other ways.  As a guy humor is kind of important if you want to impress a girl.

Andy: That used to be the only way I met girls.  I used to be an awkward guy, from elementary school up through beginnings of high school till I started to figure it out.  But I was kind of funny – comedy was definitely important.

On stage weariness and living comedy

Jesse: There are many times when I don’t feel like getting up on the stage.  But once I get the first laugh I’m right in there.

Andy: It also works the other way.  If you haven’t been performing for say four or five days, you feel you just have to get back onstage.   And once you’ve been doing it for a certain amount of years your brain starts thinking in comedy terms.  With everything you think, “can I turn that into a joke?”

Keith: Everybody you meet assumes that what you say or do will be used against them on stage.  You say “no of course not.”  And then you do.  You can’t go to a wedding or a class reunion or whatever and be a normal person having a conversation.  People are always like “you’re going to use this aren’t you?”

On performing for the troops

All three have performed for troops overseas – Jesse and Andy spent a month together performing for the troops in Iraq.

Andy: Well, I like to make jokes about how great it is back at home, with the TV, hanging out in bars…

Jesse: They’re a great audience because they’re bored and they want someone to distract them from it, so those are the easiest shows ever.

On future directions

Andy: The internet has changed everything.  A guy was trying to predict the future of comedy ten years from now and said how a lot of the old school guys will die out because they’re not going to be able to adapt to the new media.  Everything’s getting segmented and broken down to little pieces and there’s no mainstream way to make it any more.  People develop a following online.

Keith: All it takes is one video, one bit from your stand up act, to go viral.  Anjelah Johnson is a comedian based in LA who sells out everywhere.  She just posted a You Tube video joke about a nail salon and it went global.

Andy: Not funny!

Keith: I think she’s adorable.

On the Tracy Morgan debacle

Soon before we met, comedian Tracy Morgan had apologized for homophobic jokes in a recent stand-up show (reported on the Facebook page of someone attending the show) – including that he would stab his son if he was gay.

Jesse: What nobody seems to talk about is that it’s not funny.  That’s the point.  There would be nothing wrong if the comedy outweighed the shitty thing he said.  But it didn’t because he’s not a funny dude.

The Comedy Central Roasts [Jesse sometimes writes for them] can be as racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic and sexist as you could possibly get.  And yet no-one ever calls out an individual and says that was inappropriate.  Because the humor outweighs the sentiment.

Keith: Plus people understand it’s a roast and it’s meant to be offensive, and they accept it as such.  People at Tracy’s show should know that it’s not to be taken seriously.  I could go on forever about how this country is on eggshells and how you can’t say things.  You can have ten thousand people who don’t have a problem with something then all it takes is one person to have a problem with it all of a sudden there’s a controversy.

Andy: Social media means things can get taken out of context too.

Jesse: Yes in fairness there’s no recording of Tracy Morgan saying that.  So what I will say in favor of him is that it could very easily have been taken out of context.  It’s a dude who was at the show who wrote it on his Facebook page and everybody just ran with it.  I think he has done a good job of squelching it though as best as he could, apologizing etc.

Keith: Because he had to.

On who you target

Jesse: I decided a long time ago that I don’t want to cater to as big an audience as possible.  Dane Cook and guys like that, they cater to as many people as possible.  There’s nobody who doesn’t get it but it’s not very sophisticated, its’ just on one level.

The number one demographic that doesn’t seem to appreciate me are women in their late fifties.  The people who do come out and see me, they really like what I do.  But I mean, Louis C.K. has a great following and so does Dave Attell and so do guys who have put a cap on what they’re going to do because they’re edgier, darker or whatever.

Andy: On the other hand Keith, he works clean.  As in, more digestible for a larger audience.  Clean can open up a lot of opportunities.

Keith: Yes, I don’t turn many people off.

On comedians they admire

Jesse: Louis C.K. is the best guy doing it these days.  Just because he’s so brutally honest.  He really has mastered the ability to take any topic regardless of whether or not you agree with it and you can’t deny that you see his point.  You can’t argue with the logic of the joke and it’s flawless. So even if you disagree with it you can still laugh because he’s walked you through the logic in his head.

Keith: Which is what Doug Stanhope does but Louis is much more likable than Stanhope, which helps a lot.  You don’t have to be likable but you can appeal to a much bigger percentage of the crowd if you are –people are more likely to go along with your joke.

What’s troubling in NYC to me is a lot of people who take pride in not being likable.  They take pride in “walking the crowd”, you know so that somebody walked out because they were offended.

Jesse: Chappelle and Jon Stewart, have always been favorites of mine.  I think Jon Stewart is a good example of sticking with it.  You never know when something’s going to happen.  I saw Jon Stewart when I had been doing stand up for 6 months, about 13 years ago, at a comedy club.  He had nothing going on career-wise.  It was 7-8 years after he’d had his show on MTV and everyone else had forgotten it.  So he was just right in the middle of doing what we do, which is just being a guy on the road in a club and he was great.  There were still another five years before he got the Daily Show.

He crushed.  He had a leather jacket and smoked cigarettes and had a six pack of Heineken on stage with him.  The point is you never know when the Daily Show is going to come around the corner.  He just auditioned for that, and now he’s influencing politics and hosting the Oscars and doing the white house correspondents’ dinner.

On comedy in Astoria

Jesse: Astoria is where comedians live but it’s not where we want to perform.  One reason why Astoria shows may not be where it’s at, is actually its ethnic diversity.  Are the Bangladeshi or Sudanese people down my street going to come to my show?   Brooklyn is so hip and homogeneous that shows there kind of make more sense.  Shows in Astoria are not altogether that logical.

Keith: I will say this.  Every time I go to a show in Astoria, whether it’s here at Astoria Brewhouse or in the beer garden or in Rèst âü Ránt, the shows are not stellar or off the charts but it’s such a good time.  The camaraderie, the hang-out time with the other comedians talking shop or whatever, are really fun.  You go to a comedy club in Manhattan and you might see friends you want to hang out with, but often you can’t really talk because it’s such a confined space.”

Davi Leventhal – artist

25 Jul

Davi Leventhal by a mural-in-progress

On the wall alongside 30th Ave’s Vesta restaurant there is a mural of a farm scene.  A cow and a pig look with trepidation through a window in the middle of the wall, as if to say “that’s where our friends ended up?”  To one side of the mural is the signature “Davi 09”.

Davi  is Davi Leventhal, who lives just off 30th Ave, a few blocks away from Vesta.  He was born in Brazil and came to New York with his parents at the age of one and a half.  His father had a two-year contract to set up the New York office of the insurance firm he worked for.  The contract was extended, and extended again, and the family stayed in New York.

Until his early teens Davi lived on Roosevelt Island.  “Often when I tell New Yorkers that I grew up there they say ‘who, what, why?!’”, says Davi.  “It’s its own little world that you would never imagine being next to Manhattan.”   Davi says that when he was growing up there, the island was tranquil, with a lot of parks and an everyone-knows-everyone atmosphere.

Davi found he had a knack for drawing while he was at school.  One of his specialties was drawing caricatures of teachers, some of whom found them amusing, others less so.  But it wasn’t until he was in his final year that he decided to embark on a career as an artist.  He quickly built up a portfolio and got into Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  “That was eye-opening,” he says, “because everyone around me either came from art-oriented high school or grew up with art tutors.”

Davi works in all kinds of media, “anything 2D”, though his favorites are oils and pen.  When he works in pen he usually uses a bic biro, having never lost that affinity for it he had at school.  Examples of his work are on his website and blog. [continued below]

He enjoys murals too; currently he’s painting one in his backyard for his landlord (a scene of Tuscany), and Mundo restaurant on Broadway has invited him to do one there as well.

The best part of painting murals, he says, is the feedback from pedestrians.  “It’s fun to see people appreciating your work as you do it.”  And he had got over the “stage fright” of working in public when he took part in a project copying master paintings in the Metropolitan Museum.  “For example I was concentrating on a painting, tweaking the face and everything, and heard someone say ‘what’s wrong with the eyes?’  I looked down and there was a 3-foot high kid looking at my work.   Kids are always dead on.  The eyes were off.”

Davi Leventhal's mural on the wall of Vesta

Davi freelances on art projects – currently he is working at MOMA Museum doing window changeovers – though he would like to one day earn a living from his art.   There are certain themes that run through a lot of his work. He uses fluid forms to show life’s interconnectedness, and tries to keep all the elements (earth, air, water etc.) in mind.

Many of his drawings and paintings have a lot of detail.  He hopes to counteract our environment of multiple distractions and short attention spans.   “I want to create works that force people to pay attention.  Works that have so much going on that the person looking can travel within it, and see something else each time they look back.  It’s a lesson in focusing.”

Davi moved to Astoria four years ago.  He likes its calm: “You don’t get that hecticness like in the city.  You can almost feel you’re in a village.”  Yet at the same time he thinks that the village-ethos can be too insular.  “Some people here seem never to have left the neighborhood.”

When he got together a group of people to create an artists’ collective last year, he found it frustrating that others wanted to keep it within Astoria while he wanted to involve artists from all boroughs.  Another challenge he faced was people’s limited time: “In New York everybody is so busy, and hardly has time for themselves let alone for anything else.”

On the Brazilian community in Astoria (which is centered around 36th Ave), Davi says that since the recent recession there are probably now more Brazilians moving back to Brazil than moving to New York.  Davi goes to Brazil from time to time to see relatives, and some of his artwork is owned by people there.

One thing Davi would like to see less of in Astoria are “those places that blast techno music that’s totally different from the culture here.”  He would like to see more boutique clothing and arts and crafts shops, and venues for musicians to play.  “It’s hard to find live music here.  So many musicians live in Astoria but they always have to leave Astoria to play their gigs.”  (Others agree – see this rallying cry).

And of course there is always room for more art.  Don’t be surprised if before long a freshly-painted mural appears on an Astoria wall with the signature “Davi ‘11” in the corner.

 


 


Dr Demetrios Markouizos – pediatrician

16 Jul

Dr Demetrios Markouizos

You can get a sense of how busy Dr Demetrios Markouizos’ practice will be by the number of strollers out in the hallway.

Dr Markouizos has practiced as a pediatrician in Astoria for almost 25 years.  He was inspired to become one by the pediatricians who took care of him as a child, first in Greece and then growing up in Brooklyn.  His practice is now on Astoria’s 37th Street, just off 30th Ave.

Taking care of children is different to adults in various ways, he says.  “Children get sick easily, but they get better fast.  Sometimes, when older people get sick you see them deteriorate and that’s very heartbreaking.  Kids know how to bounce back.  They are very resilient and have a lot of resolve.”

That resolve seems to have rubbed off on Dr Markouizos.  Last year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  “It was a little tough,” he says, “but I had a lot of good people around me – family, friends, and importantly my patients as well, who gave me the inspiration to continue and fight.  I did, and now I’m cancer free.”

He says that the experience was a reminder that life can take a turn for the worst at any time.  It gave him all the more reason to appreciate his passions: his family (he has a 12 year-old-daughter), his work, and when he is not working, travel.

“I love to see different cultures and types of people – how they live and adapt to their environment.  That’s what I would like to do more of in the future,” he says.  The fact that he now has an able assistant Dr Nick Papaevagelou (called “Dr Nick” by his patients) has already freed up a little bit of his time.

He says that one of the most important things for a pediatrician is good communication with patients’ parents.  “An infant or young child cannot tell us what the problem is.  So if we have poor communication between the parent and physician the wellbeing of the child is going to suffer.”

Thank yous are important as well.  “Unappreciative people I don’t appreciate!  There are some people, no matter what you do for them you can’t please them.  A thank you is worth a million dollars to me.”

When Dr Markouizos first started his practice in Astoria it was on 30th Drive, near St Demetrios Cathedral.  Then they moved to Crescent Street and finally built the new building on 37th Street, where he hopes to be for some time.  He has brought different functions under the same roof; the main pediatrics practice on the ground floor and a laboratory for samples and tests on the second floor.  He hopes to also introduce special facilities such as pulmonology and gastroenterology.

There is no shortage of patients – currently the practice has between 7000-8000 on its list.  Though (full disclosure) my one-year-old being one of those patients, I can testify to the fact that Dr Markouizos and Dr Nick somehow give their complete attention to each one who comes through the practice.

The neighborhood has got more “chic” over time, Dr Markouizos says.  “There is a lot of effervescence and movement along 30th Avenue which is good for children.  It’s a delight to be around here.  It’s full of life.”

Md Kamruzzaman – taxi driver

9 Jul

Md Kamruzzaman

Under the elevated tracks by the 30th Ave subway station there are always a few cab drivers waiting for passengers.  It was one of those drivers who took me to hospital when I went into labour with my son: walking under the tracks often reminds me of that moment.

Recently I spoke there with Md Kamruzzaman.  He lives in Queens – his son goes to school in Jamaica.  He says that he makes enough money from driving a cab: “not enough to save, but enough to survive.”

Md Kamruzzaman says he finds the toughest parts of the job are driving through heavy traffic, especially in the morning rush hour, and New York’s complicated road-sign system.  Before coming to New York in November last year, he lived in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific.  (Md Kamruzzaman is originally from Bangladesh, which he left 20 years ago).  The islands use the US road system but of course the traffic is nothing like New York.

“So when I came here at first I really got a lot of tickets.  Parking tickets, and tickets for not following signs or making a turn when you shouldn’t.  You have to be really careful.  When you have to pay the ticket it’s a lot of money.”

The aspect that Md Kamruzzaman enjoys most about driving a taxi is the interesting and unexpected people he meets.  Once, a passenger got into the cab and asked him to take him to the moon.  “I told him, I don’t know how to get to the moon.  And he said, oh yeah I know how to get there.”  Md Kamruzzaman laughed, “I ended up dropping him off on a normal street.”

Rami Nuseir – American Mideast Leadership Network

4 Jul

Rami Nuseir - American Mideast Leadership Network

On June 18, Jerusalem Nights restaurant on Steinway a couple of blocks up from 30th Ave was packed with people listening to readings in Arabic and English, for the event “Cairo Connections: One city, many voices.”  It was hosted by QUILL (“Queens in Love with Literature”).  The Middle Eastern décor was densely layered with stars and stripes banners, flags and shiny tinsel in preparation for the approaching Fourth of July holiday.

Towards the end of the event Rami Nuseir, Director of the American Mideast Leadership Network, thanked everyone for coming to this corner of Astoria that is often referred to as “little Egypt”.  His organization had found the venue for the event, one illustration of the many ways that it strengthens connections between people, languages and cultures.  A week later I met Rami for this interview at Grand Cafe on 30th Ave.

Rami, now 38, was born in Nazareth.  At seventeen he moved overseas, living in Belgium, London and San Diego before settling in New York.  “I hope that New York is my final destination,” he says.  “This is home for me.  When the plane lands at JFK I feel that I’m home.”

He still goes to Nazareth twice a year though, where his mother and other family members still live.  “I love my hometown.  It’s important to keep connected, not to disconnect.”

Before founding the American Mideast Leadership Network Rami, who is a lawyer, worked as Legal Counsel to non-profits.  The idea for his own organization took root soon after 9/11.  He was in Jordan, and a friend who worked at the US embassy invited him to give a lecture to a group of high school students about Arabs in America post 9/11.

“I realized how misinformed they were about us,” he says.  “The same way that general Mid-Western American society is misinformed about the Middle East.  A lot of people in the Middle East thought that Middle Easterners here in the USA were living in cages.  They thought that after 9/11 we were all being followed around at rifle-point by people who wanted to jail us.  I started thinking about how that could change.”

Rami had also seen that Middle Eastern youth in the US were feeling lost after 9/11 and needed support.  So he set up his non-profit to address those needs: to empower Middle Eastern youth living in the USA, and to promote understanding between people in the US and the Middle East.

One of American Mideast Leadership Network’s programs is called “Grassroots Diplomacy.”  In 2007, Rami took a group of US students to Syria, where they stayed with Syrian students.  “The idea is for people to learn first-hand, away from the influence of the media or politicians, or people who are partial, and let them see the reality for themselves,” he says.

He recently spent a year developing contacts in Libya to do a similar project there.  The group was all set to fly at the end of May but given the current conflict they have had to put the plan on hold.  Rami hopes that Libya emerges peaceful and able to rebuild, and that the project will still happen in the future.

In the meantime, he is taking a group of students to Nazareth in Galilee, in August.  “In the group there’s a white guy, a Colombian, an East Asian, a Pakistani, a white girl…I’m trying to show that America is not a homogeneous society,” Rami says.

“I’m proud to be taking students to my hometown.  That gives it a different feeling.  They’re going to have a blast but they’re also going to learn a lot.  The programs I build are educational so they’re not going to be wasting time, they do their homework.”

One of the purposes of the trip is to educate Americans about the Arab Muslim and Christian population in Israel.   Rami says: “The main misconception is that we don’t exist.  Many people do not know that there are Arabs living in Israel.  There are 1.4 million Arabs, of which 1.5% are Christian.”  (Rami is Christian).

He adds that educating Arab-Americans about the Palestinian population of Israel is important too.  “The moment they hear Israeli, they kind of shut down and want to hear nothing about it.”

Soon after he established the American Mideast Leadership Network the organization evolved to address other pressing needs in Astoria, beyond problems specific to youth.  The economic downturn meant that more than ever, recently-arrived immigrants needed help with finding jobs.  The organization helps people to do job searches, write resumes and manage finances, and it provides English lessons.  As Rami puts it, “things that can really put food on the table.”

He says that recent immigrants can have real trouble understanding the US job market.  “In the Middle East, you often get a job by calling up and saying ‘my uncle told me to call you, do you have a job for me?’  That’s changing now, but still most of the people who use our services have zero knowledge about how to job-hunt here in the US.

“We have to educate them on every step of the process: you look for a job, you send a letter and your resume, you go for an interview.”   He says that one of the most satisfying aspects of his work is when he finds someone a job.

Disappointment-management also comes into it.  Some of the people he helps have arrived with green cards that they obtained through the Green Card Lottery system.  “There’s a guy here who came from Morocco, where he was working for Mercedes and making good money,” says Rami.  “He was married and with a kid and very financially stable.  Then he won the green card lottery.   Suddenly ‘America’ controlled his way of thinking.  And so he and his family moved to the US.  He regrets it because now he’s working as a waiter somewhere.  We are trying to help him with work but there are the major challenges of language and navigating the system.”

Rami has to work hard to communicate the services that his non-profit provides, and convince people of why he wants to help.  “When I advise people on options for free health insurance, or offer a seminar that I don’t charge for, they say ‘why, why?’ and run away.  Look what’s happening in Egypt and elsewhere.  People lived under repression for much too long.”

Since November 2010, Rami had visited Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.  Some friends joked with him that he had something to do with triggering the revolutions in those countries.  “I replied that I was privileged and lucky to visit those places just before the revolution.”   He says that there was an amazing spirit on Astoria’s Steinway Street when Mubarak was overthrown, along with some wishing among Egyptians that they could be in Egypt to experience it.

When Rami first came to New York he lived in Manhattan, but he was drawn to Astoria.  “I love the Greeks, the Latins, the Russians, the Brazilians.  In Manhattan, especially when you work there, it’s very robotic.  Here you can sit and chill and enjoy things, and walk from one place to another.”  Astoria, he says, it like a bottle of wine, getting better as it ages.

As well as activities in their offices – from the English classes and financial training, to a new program of Arabic classes, to hosting a group of Egyptian intellectuals who met on Twitter and gather there for discussions – American Mideast Leadership Network organizes events out and about in Astoria.  On the same day as the QUILL readings at Jerusalem Nights, they were holding  an Egyptian dancing event at the Queens public library on Broadway, and an education event at the library’s western Astoria branch.

In July last year, they organized an Arab Heritage Week Festival in 30th Ave’s Athens Square with music, dancing and food vendors. Rami is planning to hold a similar festival this fall.  “We face a bit of resistance over the event, even from our community,” he says.  “There are people who have a conservative view of things, so putting together music and dance on the street isn’t very appropriate.

“My answer to them is ‘welcome to America.  The dancing is cultural, respectful.  Thank you for your opinion but Queens is the most diverse place in the United States – we need to celebrate our culture and heritage.’”

Rami says the network aims to be very clearly secular – welcoming everyone and not being influenced by one particular religion – and also to have no tolerance for racism.  Sometimes, he says, “our community can be divisive and territorial within itself.  You know, there’s a myth about the fact that we are all Arabs.  We are not.  We are 22 different nations, 22 different cultures.  We speak the same language but we are very different.”