open journal

I Went to the Edge... and It Was Good by Michael Dustin Youree

I've had many friends tell me that Istanbul is one of the greatest cities in the world.  Now, I can see why they say that.  From the start, the international flair was there.  On my bus from the airport to Taksim, the city center, I eavesdropped on two perfect strangers sitting in front of me.  One a Russian, and the other a Turk.  They spoke in English about all things from soccer to the current political turmoil in the Ukraine to the young Russian's schooling in nearby Cyprus.  The stage was set.  My eyes and ears were open.

When I arrived in Taksim, I jumped in a cab to meet my friend, Allen Hulsey, at an event he was playing nearby.  I ended up at this private gathering of local bartenders who had recently decided to have a community night where they ate and drank together.  Allen was the entertainment, sponsored by Jameson Whiskey.  The only English speakers were Allen and the Jameson rep, Memet, a Turk who studied at Miami.  This didn't matter.  I was warmly welcomed with smiles, handshakes, delicious food and Jameson.  And, of course, music has a language all its own... one that everyone speaks.  It was a great first night and it ended on the couch of Allen's friend, who was hosting us both, talking about philosophy, music, and our crazy vagabond lives into the wee hours.

One of my goals for this trip was to experience the Muslim culture of the city, which was new to me.  Of course, I have many indoctrinated ideas about Islam that I know to be highly speculative.  So, the next day I traveled to the Blue Mosque and, for the first time, set foot inside a mosque.  As is the case for many old Christian houses of worship, the art and architecture are beautiful.  I carried my Dr. Martin boots, the ones I've worn everyday for the last nine months, in plastic bags given at the entrance where I was prompted to remove them.  Head wraps were given to the women who did not have them as were body wraps for the women who had exposed legs.  The experience was mild, warm even, not much different from walking into a classic cathedral further west.  I left with little more feeling than the fulfillment that I'd scratched something off my bucket list.  The next step, the real cultural experience, would have to wait.  The communal days of worship were on Fridays.  I wouldn't be in Istanbul then.

Muslim culture and influence are a major part of the city.  That is apparent in the mosques that densely populate it, their beautiful spires shooting into the sky everywhere.  This isn't too dissimilar from where I grew up in Dallas, TX, albeit crosses are mounted on the towers instead of crescent moons.  At certain hours of the day I was intreagued by the calls to prayer over loud speakers.  These are not in Turkish, but Arabic.  If you remove your ideas and indoctrination about it, it is a kind of appealing a cappella song.  

Music is a big part of the city too.  This is especially revealing through the life of Allen, who had another gig that night at a rock and blues club.  I arrived to find a thoroughly American scene.  Pictures of rock legends like Hendrix and Joplin graced the walls.  A giant Hwy 66 sign hung from the middle of the venue.  It was here that I met Esin Iris, charming, hot as hell, born and raised in Istanbul.  A singer and writer, she spoke perfect English, and we had a nice conversation over Allen's Americana set.  At one point, she snatched my phone away and entered herself as a contact.  "If you can't reach Allen, don't hesitate to contact me," she said.

The next day started abruptly.  I was too much on the outside to comment on the details, but the reality became that Allen and I needed to leave the apartment we were staying in.  I had two more nights in Istanbul and was now unsure of where I would go.  Allen assured me that all was fine and he was alright.  In a matter of hours, we met with a friend of his who, with one email via his iPhone, got me a room at a fancy hotel just off of Taksim Square.  We spent the rest of the day and well into the morning with this friend of Allen's.  I would come to find that this day was the eve of his 19th birthday, and that his father was a Turkish business mogul, but he a German national.  A computer wiz far beyond my understanding, he already had a thriving e-security business out of Berlin.  Wow.

We spent most of our evening at a hidden gem of a bar molded after the Prohibition Era.  The bar tender, Alex, was an ex-pat from San Diego who stirred up killer cocktails.  As if this day needed any more amazement, we made friends with a particularly interesting stranger.  We welcomed him to join our party and, as it turned out, he is British photojournalist Ayman Oghanna.  This is a man who has spent his young career in the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  I was immediately engrossed.  Several hours and many cocktails later, I asked him about the beaded bracelet around his wrist.  Without hesitation, he pulled off the beads and gave them to me.  He explained that he got them in Eastern Turkey.  They are prayer beads (pictured below).  He told me each time things got rough (which I could tell by his portfolio is a regular thing) he would think of something he is grateful for with each bead.  Now, it belongs to me.  I then took the bone bracelet off my wrist from Estes Park, CO, and fastened it to his.  The exchange was complete.  Eventually, we all went our separate ways.  Our youngest compatriot, now officially 19, paid the substantial tab.  But the night wasn't over for this teenager and I.  He invited me over to his home for a nightcap.  There, overlooking the Bosphorous and the bridge linking Europe to Asia, we listened to music and discussed political theories like Liquid Democracy.  The sun was coming up by the time I returned to the hotel to call it a day.

My final day in Istanbul was a fairly uneventful one.  Some good Turkish food, a visit to Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bizarre, and, of course, a little music.  I got to see Esin do her thing and, via Allen, had the pleasure of discovering Turkish songwriter Selim Saracoglu live.  I didn't make it a late night.  I had a 7am wake-up call to catch a flight.

When I say that I went to the edge, I am being a bit figurative, but quite literally I mean the edge of The West.  For centuries, Istanbul, once Constantinople, has been a gateway.  It's borders encompass both Europe and Asia.  It's geographic location makes it the city it is, a crossroads of culture that is thriving today.  It is a hot bed of politics and ideology.  Its Prime Minister is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal and is infamous for the crackdown during the Diren Gezi protests last summer.  It is a city (and perhaps a country) that struggles with its identity.  Many of the young, liberal people I encountered expressed discontent over the Muslim population, a couple even out right saying it's the city's biggest problem.  I can understand that.  In my home country I am often frustrated by the political sway and presence of the ultra-conservative Christian right.  But I must take a step back.

As I was riding to the airport via public transit, a Muslim couple sat next to me.  The woman was fully covered in a black burka.  As we came to one of the more picturesque parts of our bus journey, she whipped out her iPhone and commenced with snapping photos.  I couldn't help but smile.  Are we really that different?

Allen and I had a lot of great conversations over our four days together, but one stands out in this case.  For a long time I have been thinking about my own self-righteousness, the trait that makes me (or anyone) think they are an authority on right and wrong.  Fact is, I'm not... how could anyone be, in a world as diverse as ours, in a universe as vast as ours?  So, as hard as it is, I try to let go of that self-righteous inclination and instead move in the a direction of the one value I hold most dear: love.

Istanbul is a city full of love.  As I ponder the gifts it gave me, I feel it, pure and simple.  I grasp the beads around my wrist and I am thankful.  As I appreciate the tradition handed over to me, I remember to respect the Muslim I know little of and the Christian I know much of.  Though I am in a category like my artist brothers and sisters who push boundaries and challenge traditions, I am well aware that I do not have all the answers and there is so much I share even with the most conservative human.  We all want to feel love, to be in love, however it is individually defined.  Do I get angry?  Of course.  Am I capable of hatred?  Unfortunately, yes.  But I try not to give in to these emotions as they are contrary to love and move me away from that universal, ultimate pursuit... the one for happiness.

I was half dead when rose from my wake up call at 7am.  There was a text from Allen.  "Make sure you get the poster I left for you at the front desk."  Turns out, Allen had gone back to the venue where Selim had his show, took down one of the posters and had him sign it for me with a personal note (you can see it below, though smashed a bit from my travels).  It was a classy gesture from an old friend and one I've yet to officially meet, one that suggests the spirit of Istanbul, in my experience... a city of the world that meets you with open arms.


Funny memory of Istanbul: I got called Brad Pitt at least five times.  I guess all us blond, square-jawed white-boys look the same.  Kinda racist.  Kinda awesome.  I mean, if these attributes alone make me the mirror image of Hollywood's leading man, I'll take it.  In passing, I said to a group gawking at me, "I'm here to invade Troy".  It took a minute, but they burst into laughter once they got it.  Question is: do you?  Maybe I should move to Istanbul.  I'd be a bigger hit than the Trojan horse.  Of course, an inflated ego is a bit of an Achilles heel.

The State of New York by Michael Dustin Youree

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A few weeks ago, I sold the first guitar I ever owned, an acoustic / electric Ovation.  I haven't played it in years and, at this point in my life, it was just taking up space in my tiny storage compartment.  I figured I could just flip it for some quick cash, so I put it up on Craigslist for $150, a good deal for this guitar.  I had several people offering to buy the guitar, but one stood out, a high school music teacher.  He could only pay $75, but promised the guitar would go to support a music program at his public school in Brooklyn.  I was sold.  We made plans to meet up a few days later.

While using Google Earth to find the right place for us to meet near my storage facility, I was struck with nostalgia when I saw this...

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The yellowish building on the left is what used to be know as 5 Pointz, arguably the greatest salute to the origins of graffiti and the art form it has become.  It was a rich piece of the New York story that provided thousands with inspiration and drew flocks of street art tourists and NYC connoisseurs.  It helped that it was perfectly situated across the street from PS1, the super trendy modern art museum.  I have a particular connection to this place.  My girlfriend and I met at one of their summer dance parties.  As for 5 Pointz, it was a culture defined, a wonder to behold, and a testament to the soul of graffiti, that the city streets belong to the people who live on them.  Here is a few shots of 5 Pointz before it was destroyed...


And here's what it looks like now...


The loss of 5 Pointz bums me out.  The world lost an invaluable treasure to make way for high-rise, high-priced apartments that most New Yorkers can't afford.  I understand.  That's capitalism.  There are millions to make with 5 Pointz out of the way.  I don't blame the owners or developers for destroying it.  To give them some credit, 5 Pointz wouldn't even exist if the owners hadn't granted the permission in the first place.  The white washing of the walls was pretty dickish, but it worked in killing the resolve of the rag-tag band of supporters standing in their way.

It was time to go meet the teacher.  I had a bad taste in my mouth thinking about the destruction of 5 Pointz and how that relates to the current state of New York City.  It didn't help much when I stepped onto the crowded subway platform to find that the L train was still six minutes away.  Figures.  Throughout my 9.5 years in NYC I have seen the subway system decline in service, yet dramatically elevate in price.  Without going into a rant, lets just say it adds to my criticism of the direction NYC is headed.  Quickly, I decided I would try to beat the six minute train to Union Square on foot.  From 1st Avenue I cruised down 14th Street, adjusting the pace of my speed walking to the rhythm of the street lights.  I won.  Making it to the uptown 4 train just as it was rolling into the station.  It was an odd feeling it gave me, somewhat contradictory.  I had outsmarted the NYC system with the street savvy I gained from being a part of the NYC system.

As I pulled into Grand Central Station for my last subway transfer, my mind was reeling, lost in the frustrations I have with New York City, which is fueled by the love I have for New York City.  I walked down the deep tunnel that leads to the 7 train.  There I found a small reminder of what makes this place special.  At the base of the tunnel was two men playing sublime lullaby-like music on the harp and guitar.  In front of them danced a little boy joyfully.  The boy's parents and the musicians beamed with amusement as they watched him move to the music.  I couldn't help but smile myself.  Then, after descending the final flight of stairs to the 7 train platform, I heard another musician on the classical guitar beautifully playing Yesterday by the Beatles.  Again, I was pleasantly amused.  There is still so much talent and culture and warmth here, even in the blistering chill this winter has brought, even amongst the cold and calloused calculations of this money hungry city.

I finally met my buyer at the Court Square Dinner in Long Island City, the Queens neighborhood of 5 Pointz and PS1.  He was a nice guy, not too different than me, an aspiring musician who fell into the world of teaching as a way to afford the ever-skyrocketing cost of living in NYC.  We chatted for a bit, at the end of which he handed me $80 and promised to send me pictures of the guitar in the classroom.  I was recently inspired by my participation in The Acoustic Guitar Project and wanted to do something similar with this guitar... tell it's story.  I left the deal feeling pretty good.  I had made a little much needed cash and helped out a music program at the same time.  I was both a businessman and humanitarian, a capitalist and a socialist.

I can't help but be concerned about the state of New York City.  It seems as though it is falling out of balance, that its finance driven ambition is crushing the creative spirit of entrepreneurial pursuits.  As a freelancer, you take great risk.  Health insurance is virtually impossible to afford on your own.  The steady growth of corporate housing makes finding a legitimate apartment lease ever harder because they require you to prove an annual income far beyond the annual rent.  This is only possible with a corporate job.  The list goes on.  Those of us who wish to be explorers and go our own way are pushed into the system, like some kind of modern feudal cast chaining us to a social class.  Eventually, the rebellious spirit of the entrepreneur is crushed under corporate demands.  

As an artist, I don't feel a part of collective community, but instead twisted into the mindset of capitalist competition.  My fellow musician is one I am in a race against, someone who I should be threatened by because there is only so much pie and I want mine.  We are like dogs fighting for scraps.  It doesn't help that the infrastructure of venues and promoters seem not to care about quality, only quantity.  You could have the greatest show in the city, but if you don't bring X amount of people you will never be booked again.  This sabotages the scene.  Where once you could count on a venue to play good music, now there's no guarantee.  People have lost interest.  Of course, I don't blame the venues and promoters, they too are just trying to survive the rising rents and indoctrinated sense that money is what matters most.  When you're just trying to survive, its hard to care about anything else.

This is how it's always been in New York, some may say.  And maybe they are right.  But we live in a different age.  The time where one has to go to certain cities to be connected with the movers and shakers in a given industry is coming to a close.  The world is globalizing.  How can New York keep up with cities like Austin and Berlin, which offer cheap housing, lower costs, higher quality of life, cultural richness and the communal spirit.  Counter to the notions of big finance, you can't buy everything.  Trickle down economics doesn't translate to the aforementioned qualities.

There is a bigger debate at play here, one for the soul of America as a whole.  Are we a country where we all fall in line under the multi-national corporate feudalism, where coloring outside the lines is frowned upon or are we a country that prides itself in innovation and empowers those who think outside the box?  I'm not here to say that it has to be one or the other.  Nor do I write in an effort to damn corporations.  There is a balance.  I don't see social ideas and capital ideas as opposed to each other, but rather complementary.  That is what made NYC the great city of the world.  My honest concern is that the more it becomes difficult to live outside the cast, the less people are willing to be entrepreneurs, the fewer Edisons we breed and Einstiens we welcome.  Instead we have a country, a New York, where people just fall in line or go elsewhere.

5 Pointz is gone.  Will the spirit that built it go too?  Will we continue to destroy culture and beauty for the sake of a few more million dollars?  I have witnessed artists flee New York to find better, more pleasurable lives elsewhere.  Success too.  I am in the process of being one of them, trying to decide if New York is a place for a person like me... a rebel, a creator, an entrepreneur, a capitalist and a socialist.

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Often times, during rush hour or in the wake of delayed trains, the subway platform becomes crowded.  When the trains roll in they are already full.  As the doors open, people on the platform jockey for position in a dance against one another to grab what little space there is in on the train.  Tempers rise.  Scowls are exchanged.  It's a dog eat dog world.  I've learned to step back.  Other trains are coming.  And chances are there will actually be room to stand comfortably.  In the meantime, I can learn to smile again with the music coming from yet another talented subway musician.  Maybe I'll even say hello to my fellow New Yorker who had patience, sharing a laugh about life here.  It's a dog run with dog world.  New York is the dogs that inhabit it.