The Long Kiss Goodnight

This is the post I dreaded writing. The final post. The one where the doors close shut, and you put the book back on the shelf. This is the scene where the camera pans large, and the heroes are seen driving off into an idyllic sunset. I am not so sure about that last simile, but I can stick with it.

When I started this blog, I was hoping that I could get at least 50 interviews with the many interesting folks who hung out at Vox Pop. But yesterday, I watched along with others, as the iconic Statue of Liberty was loaded onto the back of a truck and driven away. There was no idyllic sunset. There was just this vacant spot in my heart where our neighborhood cafe used to be.

The Vultures gather for the public auction

Vox Pop was not a perfect place to say the least. But it served more functions than any business I have ever encountered. Churches, Synagogues, social clubs and ashrams all strive to serve some aspect of what Vox Pop stood for. But where the aforementioned do not encourage diversity of color or thought, VP opened its arms to those who walked on many paths. On any given afternoon you would see gathered at VP, Asians, Haitians, Jews both orthodox and secular, Nepalese young men, hipsters, gays of all kinds, lawyers, accountants, artists, musicians, poets and writers of all kinds, cartoonists, ministers, tarot readers and just everyday folk from around our streets, hanging out together and just nestling up to neighborly company.

Howard Zinn mentions in his book “The Peoples History of the United States” that the purpose of racism is to divide the people. Well then, VP represented the opposite. Maybe this is what annoyed the government powers that brought the hammer down so hard and fast, experienced auctioneers commented on the hasty expedition of the court order.

For me though, it goes way beyond politics or taxes. When my wife and I moved here, I had a dream that this was the area I needed to come to. I did not know that a Ditmas Park renaissance was going on. I just felt a deep calling to come to this area. I was very unhappy living in Bay Ridge, where I hardly found any good company. Our realtor brought us into VP to sign the papers saying “and this is YOUR coffee house.” Inside me was a resounding “Yes!”

Within the first 6 months of living here, I had made 5 times as many friends as I had in 6 years of Bay Ridge. Also, I had been playing my guitar for about 30 years in private, when I finally played in public at Vox Pop’s open mic. There I received the encouragement and support to play more often in public. Now I am lined up for my first paying gig. For this I owe a debt to VP.

Me at Open Mic. Photo by Tom Martinez

As to the people I will miss, it is almost too hard to name. I am sure I will see many of them passing in the street, or sipping coffee or beer at one of the other establishments. But it won’t be the same. Somehow Vox Pop was free of many of the conditions you find in other establishments. You never felt obligated to do anything. If I was broke, it was okay to hang out without buying anything. But mostly, I would get a coffee or sangria and just place myself, with my son, at one of the outdoor tables, and people would come to me. I was never alone at Vox Pop.

This blog was created because the people I encountered there were some of the most interesting and creative people I have met anywhere. There were no upper class snobs. Just creative individuals struggling along like everyone else. I will miss my conversations on film with Ric Menello, or listening to Lashonda describing her latest exploits. I will miss the revelry of open mic and the witty host, Mr. Punxsutawney Jesus, a.k.a. Chris Garay. There were the Sustainable Flatbush meetings, the Stitch and Bitch, the spoken word open mic, the art openings, the various business meetings Sheryll and I would have there and of course the Brooklyn Free School parties where we took over the place and filled it with families and musicians. Causes supporting causes. This was community at its best.

But alas, we were over taken by capitalism. We were defeated by the fact that everything has to serve a profit motive. And social conditions are deemed socialism. The legacy of neglect left by the founder, Sander Hicks, could no longer be avoided. And the axe of retribution fell on the current state of affairs.

For now, when I walk by the corner of Cortelyou and Stratford, I will feel a bit of pain for what was lost. I know in my heart that nothing is forever. And certainly VP, with the fiscal problems that were following it, could not sustain. But I need my time of mourning. In the Jewish tradition, the period of observance after a death is 7 days, but the spirit lingers for 30 days. Some may mourn for longer than that. But there is a need to move on. And move on we must. It is okay to mourn. It is part of the natural cycle of life. As I said in my previous post, “may something positive arise from the ashes.” What that is we cannot say. With that I will close the book on our beloved cafe. Place it back on the shelf. And refer back to it on a later date.

Regards and Peace

Bruce Zeines


Vox Pop Closing

As I have been away and really kind of off the grid, I have been out of the loop for a week or so. While I was driving through the incredibly picturesque scenery of Iceland, things have been transpiring at home.

Vox Pop will be closing its doors forever.

As per my brief message to Debi this morning that it could be that one door closes, another opens, it is still sad news that the main reason I felt immediately at home in this neighborhood when I moved in 4 years ago, is now gone.

I will be posting at least 2 more times on this blog, and then along with Vox Pop, the Vox Pop Literati experiment will end, and lie here for internet eternity as a memorial to a great space where I got to interact with great people.

Being in Europe just now, and typing on a hotel computer, I have to keep this post brief. But I do intend to have a more fitting goodbye to the social spot that was a bit more then coffee and salad. I do not intend to be sentimental, or maudalin in my post. Just a straight out thanks for what was, and what could be.

When we were in Reyjavik, Iceland, we found a cool coffee spot, which my son Noah proclaimed as OUR VOX POP IN ICELAND! So I intend to write a short piece about them as well with pictures.

We hope to find a neighborhood social forum soon. Hopefully, something new will arise from the ashes. I will leave off here as it is difficult to write fluently on a European keyboard. I will say goodbye for now.

Ciao.and regards,
Bruce Zeines

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A Hole in the Social Fabric

Last night, Sheryll and I sat out on a bench that looks across Cortelyou Road, toward the corner of the now and again seized Vox Pop Cafe.

Abandoned, with the exception of a few who lingered on the outdoor bench, it was a sad picture of an insensitive economic system. The prime question in our mind was “what good does this do for anything?”

Looking across that street, our old friend Ric Minello waddled by. I could see in his movements, the sadness he felt as his beloved neighborhood retreat, lay shuttered and dark. Somehow, it feels like the end of an era. A very short era. The forces that be, seem intent on closing this place. We wonder what could have been if they had just changed the name and business ID number and bury all of Sander Hicks bad karma, along with him.

Debi at the gates of injustice

Vox Pop is a great idea that has still not come to fruition. It was and is a wonderful work-in-progress. The potential still lies untapped. But no matter what the criticism might be, there is no business in 30 miles that has brought the community together as Vox Pop has done. Creative people have gathered in the outside garden since Debi took over, in ever growing numbers. With an ever growing diversity.

I will say right now, that if Vox Pop does not go on, neither will this blog. It is too bad. I have lined up some very interesting people for future interviews. Anne Pope, who runs Sustainable Flatbush, and dedicates her life to energy alternatives and reducing our carbon footprint was on deck. Also in waiting was comic artist Steve Ellis, who sketches and brainstorms with his writer, the graphic novel, High Moon at Vox Pop almost every weekday morning. If you have ever wondered what people are doing in cafes these days, this blog held some of the answers.

My anger as I sat on the bench was centered around the seizure scenario. My mother-in-law was there when the official vehicles pulled up and began the closing procedures. In Michael Moore’s recent film “Capitalism: A Love Story” there is one story line where the marshals come to seize a house. The community stopped them. The reason is that the seizures do nothing for the surrounding area. Quite the opposite. Now you have an abandoned home with no one living in it. What we have on Cortelyou Road, is a dead spot where a lively and thriving social hub existed. Now there is no activity to generate the income that was needed to repay the old fines. What we have is nothing. A hole in the neighborhood fabric.

The new economy has left many such dead spots. We can go on as to why we are in our current economic milieu, but that would be beyond the scope of this blog. It is just sad to see a once happening spot, now desolate and uninhabited.

Maybe there will be good news when I return to this blog again. Until then, peace.


Young Man Draws America By Bike

Well, because I was not paying attention, I did not read this post. As I am looking at this now, I see he has only five days left to donate to his cause. His goal is $1000, but I think he will need a whole lot more to underwrite this trip, so if you have stuff in your pockets, fork it over.

Hi Vox Poppers!
My name is Eric, I live over on Westminster. I’m a big fan of Vox Pop and thought you guys might like this project I’m doing. This September, I’m riding by bike across America for a year. I’m going to be meeting people, collecting stories of the recession and drawing the entire adventure.

I want to make a book/compilation of portraits of what America(na) is like right now. I started a blog/fb page here>>

I’m only accepting money from individuals and small businesses, and non-profits. No corporate sponsors wanted. So I can use all the support I can get. If you send me $5, I’ll mail you a hand-drawn postcard from the road! Or, if you know someone along the way who will let me camp in their yard and has an interesting story, I’ll draw their picture!

You can find out more about supporting my trip at this kickstarter page >>

I’d love it if you guys could make a post/link me on your site, I’d love to keep my Ditmas Park family up to date!

Yours truly,
Eric Clausen

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It has been a month since I last posted here. I am doing so now, because Ditmas Park blog listed me as “prolific.” Also, the weather has cooled enough for my brain juices to begin flowing in the right direction. Which direction that is, I am not telling you.

The truth is, for as long as I can remember, summer has never been very productive for me. Being born in this weather has not made it any easier. This summer has been particularly brutal. The prospect of sitting outside Vox Pop in the 90ºF sun, with 500% humidity, is not very appealing.

I have a list of people who are scheduled to meet with me, but my schedule just will not allow it right now, so for those anxious to see the next “literati” profile, I must apologize, but you will have to wait. Wait for those cool Canadian breezes to blow in. Wait for those squawking geese to fly overhead (oops, I forgot, they exterminated them!) Wait for the vernal equinox to tease us with the promise of early darkness and cooler weather.

Also, I am heading out. I have had a summer of heading out. The worst economy of my lifetime, and I was sipping Coronas in front of a lake in the Adirondacks. Next week, I go off grid, for a week of reflection and meditation. After that, we are flying to Iceland and then Copenhagen. Somehow an open spirit welcomes the new.

So the next post you will see from me here will be in late September. The creative life is demanding. As an artist, musician and now a writer, it is hard to balance all of this output. There are new events coming. Hopefully, when we return, so will the lights in Vox Pop.

Keep the faith.

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Pastor Tom Martinez

Pastor Tom Martinez

When it comes to nice guys, Tom Martinez may be one of the few people I have met, that qualifies for the definitive list. I first met him when I saw that he took photos of the musicians (including myself) at the Vox Pop open mike, which occurs every Sunday. Some of the best photos of us on stage have been taken by Tom. It was a great opportunity to have a chance to sit down on a hot afternoon, to speak with him and get a more in depth story.

Tom came to Ditmas Park when he was made minister at All Souls Bethlehem Church at
566 East 7th Street. The church describes itself thus: an inclusive community, welcoming and affirming all – without regard to race or ethnicity, differences in ability, gender or sexual orientation – all who seek a liberal church committed to justice and an open spiritual quest. In 1999 our congregation voted overwhelmingly to declare All Souls Bethlehem an Open and Affirming Church, and more recently it voted, again overwhelmingly, to become affiliated with The Center for Progressive Christianity.

Their mission is inclusive of a more holistic spiritual view which is grounded in the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings of Jesus, but take John Robinson at his word. To that end they enrich their worship and spiritual pilgrimage by drawing from other wisdom traditions, including Buddhism and Native American spirituality, and from other wise teachers such as Gandhi, Thích Nhat Hạnh and the Dalai Lama. They are affiliated with Unitary Universalism [UU]. Much of the work is humane based, and concerned with social justice.

Having grown up in Miami, and working for several years as a social worker, he attended Union Seminary. After graduating, he went to work for Christ Church in Summit, NJ. Wanting to get back to the city, he took the job at All souls Bethlehem Church here in Brooklyn in 2003, just around the time Vox Pop was opening.

Children of Abraham Peace Walk 2010-Photo by Tom Martinez

His first impressions of the neighborhood was the incredible diversity. He soon met Rabbi Ellen Lippmann and a Moslem educator, Debbie Almontaser, who were putting together The Children of Abraham Peace Walk and they needed a Christian based minister. At the time “I was writing poetry prolifically. That was my creative outlet. But then I went to visit my sister in Seattle. She showed me a slide show of pictures she took with her little digital camera. I was so deeply impressed and intrigued that I felt I wanted to do that.” This was around his 40th birthday. The impression was so strong that before even returning home, he purchased his first camera and began taking pictures.

But it would be his ministry that is at the heart of Tom’s life. “Everyone should be free to search for truth and meaning.” he stated. “Everyone is entitled to their own journey. You can be on that journey and still be part of a ‘UU’ community.”  The church is very progressive in that it also embraces the rights of the Lesbian-Gay community. Tom has called his church “the most diverse church in America.”  They have pagans, Jews, Christians, atheists, humanist-agnostic, Buddhist, and other variations that were too numerous to list.

Our conversation ventured into the area of our collective beliefs. Especially the notion that there is a divine being watching over us. I expressed to Tom some of my own views that “there are vast energies in the universe. And the possibility and purpose of humankind is to connect to these extraordinary forces. To become a conduit for them.  To become more awake. But this is in dire contrast to how the so-called ‘civilized world’ has come to be formed. And religion, as we have known it, has diverted us from this, and replaced this quest with collective fantasy.”

Tom responded, “It becomes a question on how to cultivate a spiritual mindfulness. A compassionate heart. To feel reverence for the natural world. Which here is all covered in concrete, grafitti, soot and grime. It is a gritty place to live.”

I mentioned the film Little Big Man in which the Old Chief Lodge Skins tells Dustin Hoffman’s character that “the white man no longer knows where the center of the earth is.” Here is another piece of juicy dialogue from the film where the village is being burned and plundered:

Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins

Jack Crabb: Do you hate them? Do you hate the White man now?
Old Lodge Skins: Do you see this fine thing? Do you admire the humanity of it? Because the human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone. And also the things from them… like that hair. The man from whom this hair came, he’s bald on the other side, because I now own his scalp! That is the way things are. But the white man, they believe EVERYTHING is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.

When asked if there was a meditative angle to his church he replied, “No. Anyone who grew up in a mainstream Christian denomination would recognize the liturgy, music and ritual. But many of the readings will be taken from outside the Christian tradition. A sermon might be something from another religious tradition.” Singing songs and giving a message with an open forum for people to share their personal concerns in the form of a deep sharing.

Tom claimed that his deep connection to Taoism is what brought him to his current calling. “There is this notion in Tao, that if you can name what is at the heart of the universe, then, it is not the Tao,” he quoted. His recent trip to Honduras, has fed his support for Liberation Theology which focuses on the unequal distribution of wealth and social injustice. He has made journeys to the 9th Ward in New Orleans, the Gulf Coast oil devastation and Baghdad, but he mostly shoots life in New York City.

Tom’s photos can be found regularly on Only The Blog Knows Brooklyn. His photographs have been published in the Staten Island Advance, and the Brooklyn Paper. You can see more of his photography at Tom Martinez Witness Photography.

“Photography and Ministry have been the two major passions that have overlapped in my life. I have come to understand how the two vocations have been merging. Sharing my understanding of the world and having people share it through my pictures, truly makes me happy.”

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Megan Demarkis

On one of the many nights this summer I have sat out on the bench at Vox Pop Cafe, here in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I have come to talk to many interesting people. If the topic of conversation swings toward education, you can bet on a fairly passionate exchange. One evening I happened to be seated next to Megan Demarkis. We got into an exchange of ideas after I learned that she was the Director of Organizational Excellence at Harlem, RBI, a community-based youth program combining baseball and literacy. I found many of her ideas compatible with my own and so we scheduled a more extensive interview.

The rest of this article is posted at The Free School Apparent.

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