Widow Basquiat: A Must-Read New York City Tale

Picture New York in the 80s. Graffiti is slowly emerging from the Lower East Side’s dark alleys to the trendy galleries. Artists, drug dealers, and pimps own Downtown: a (not so safe) haven for visionary minds. A girl buys a one-way bus ticket to New York with only a few bucks in her pocket. Suzanne Mallouk’s story starts like many others, but the rest is History. Literally.

I am not a fast reader, but I finished Widow Basquiat in 3 days. This book is as addictive as the nature of Suzanne and the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s relationship. Once you start, you just can’t stop. Kind of like the heroin that the two lovers used to do in the Great Jones loft.

It’s hard to imagine that the city described in Widow Basquiat is in fact New York. It made me wonder if we traded creativity and irreverence for safety and Starbucks at every corner. On her first night in the City, Suzanne witnesses a murder:

“I went straight to the Seville Hotel. The first night a prostitute was murdered by the infamous “Slasher.” (…) There were cops everywhere and the women who were staying at the hotel were moaning and screaming and cussing at the police officers. I was so frightened that I moved out to the Martha Washington Hotel on 29th and Madison, which was only for women.” 

But New York was also the beating heart of a new vibrant art scene. Running into Andy Warhol or Keith Haring was just a typical night out:

“My strongest association with Keith was at the Paradise Garage club. (…) There was no liquor so everyone came high on mushrooms, pot and mostly hallucinogens like ecstasy and acid. (…) It was really (Keith) who brought graffiti into the SoHo galleries. (…) He was a real social radical. (…) The white art world disgusted him. Jean was black and had to present himself as separate from graffiti somehow. Keith was gay and white and could glamorize graffiti in a way that Jean could not.” 

Today, Chris Brown throwing bottles at people is considered a hot club experience. Suzanne even got into an epic pre-TMZ era cat fight with no other than Madonna over Jean-Michel Basquiat:

“One night Suzanne goes out to the Roxy and finds Jean-Michel with Madonna. Suzanne throws herself at Madonna and starts pulling her hair, scratching and punching her. (…) Jean-Michel laughs and laughs. (…) Later he paints A Panel of Experts. (…) On the collage he crosses out the word “Madonna.”

Race was at the heart of Basquiat’s work and remains one of the most powerful themes of the book. If certain anecdotes tend to show that racial tensions eased compared to the 80s, it’s only in a superficial way. Obviously, Suzanne wouldn’t get fired for dating a black man today. But she could still be discriminated for it. The tragic death of Suzanne’s friend Michael Stewart in 1983 also feels sadly current:

 “He had a massive hemorrhage at the base of his brain that appeared to have been caused by strangulation from an illegal choke hold (…) A grand jury investigation did ensue, (…) but those police officers are still out there walking the beat.”

The addiction to both people and substances is the main subject of the book:

“They do coke six or seven times a day. He tells Suzanne she can only wear one dress. He tells her she can only wear one pair of very large men’s shoes. He does another line of coke and paints Big Shoes (…) Jean-Michel sticks black paper over all the windows so that they won’t know if it is day or night.”

Widow Basquiat gives such a unique perspective of what it was like to be a twenty-something rebel in New York City at that time. Finding drugs and finding love was definitely easier back then (Jean-Michel moved in with Suzanne a few days after meeting her.) People could live in Manhattan like a complete Bohemians and give zero fucks about society:

“They dress in long black waistcoats and walk down 3rd Avenue carrying black and silver walking sticks. (…) They live without electricity and only use candlelight. They have no appliances or even a telephone.”

Beyond an inexplicable form of nostalgia – it’s not like I WANT to be a heroin addict in an abusive relationship –  the book made me want to explore today’s New York art scene. Basquiat only gained recognition as a major artist in the last few years of his young life, and even then, his paintings sold for the fraction of what they do today. I’m now on a mission to meet the legends of tomorrow. And even if we all know how this love story ends, Widow Basquiat still makes it a fascinating journey.


Order Widow Basquiat on Amazon.

If you want to immerse in Basquiat’s world, don’t miss The Unknown Notebooks Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum until August.

Learn more about Jean-Michel Basquiat here


 

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New Yorkers You Will Meet: The Filthy Rich

 

As I often mention it, everyone has a side hustle in the City, but I haven’t told you about mine yet. When I came to New York in 2012, I had the opportunity to work at catering events while I was job-hunting. Now that I have a full-time position, I still do it occasionally for extra money. It’s pretty much like being a waitress or hostess, but at private events, including people’s homes. This is how I’ve gotten to know the surreal world of a New Yorker type I like to call The Filthy Rich.

The filthy rich lives in a loft, preferably in Soho, Chelsea or the Flatiron District. The filthy rich enjoys gigantic books on coffee tables, white furniture, ironic art installations and candles, lots of candles. As a matter of fact, the filthy rich’s weekly candle budget probably equals a month of groceries for you. Electricity is so 2000 and late.

The filthy rich throws fancy parties with his filthy rich friends who like tiny food with complicated names. It takes more time to describe the tiny food than to eat it, but it doesn’t matter. The filthy rich still wants to hear about it:

FILTHY RICH LADY: “And what is this meatball-looking thing?”

ME IN MY HEAD: “You just said it, it’s a meatball.”

ME FOR REAL: “It’s Polpette Alla Romana”

FILTHY RICH LADY: “And what is that?”

ME IN MY HEAD: “It’s free food. FREE FOOD. And it’s so small you will literally burn the calories by chewing it so get over yourself and eat.”

ME FOR REAL: “It’s a meatball. Would you like to try?”

FILTHY RICH LADY: “No, I’m good. It’s so pretty though!”

Oh yes, filthy rich ladies don’t actually eat. I have a theory that they are on a diet called “Eating By Default:” if they hear a thorough description of a food item and stare at it long enough, their bodies somehow gets all the nutrients from it.

Male or female, the filthy rich does make up by drinking. A lot. The filthy rich can’t handle the sight of an empty glass, like, ever. That’s why he hires people whose one and only job is to refill over and over again. The filthy rich’s friends are more important than him. It’s usually the reason for filthy rich events in the first place. The host sometimes requires you to “shadow” a guest, which basically means following them around like a puppy and refill their glass when it’s closed to empty. Just picture going to a party with a Boozy Fairy God Mother. Here’s the challenging part of the job: you can’t wait until the glass is actually empty, because God forbids the filthy rich guest has to stop talking about his new boat and must NOD at you. That would be catering drama.

Some filthy rich people are not that fun because…well, you know…mo’ money mo’ problems! So occasionally, they will hire you as a “party motivator.” Not that this isn’t self-explanatory, but just to be clear: the filthy rich gives you  money to make guests dance and clap their hands. Yes, caterer workers do make a difference in people’s lives.

Overall, the filthy rich isn’t that bad; he usually lets you try the tiny food and tips. But when I grow up and become filthy rich myself, I hope I don’t turn into a filthy rich person.

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15 New York Rookie Mistakes

When you move to a city as effervescent as New York, no one is here to hold your hand and teach you how to belong. Here are a few things to avoid if you want your social life to be on the right track while staying mentally sane:

#1 Go to Times Square

You are only allowed to go to Times Square during the first week of your New York adventure, stare at the overwhelming billboards, realize it sucks, then leave and never come back.

#2 Buy wine at the grocery store

Europeans easily fall into that trap because at home, we find decent and cheap wine at any supermarket. That’s not the case in New York, so don’t mistake that “Chateau Diana” crap for wine. If you don’t want to be that asshole who brought “wine product” at a dinner party, go to an  actual wine store.

#3 Play It By Ear On New Years Eve

I can only think of three things that are acceptable for New Years Eve in the City: Throw a party at your place, go to a friend’s party, or leave town. But if you absolutely want to go out and spend 10 times the amount you would on a regular night to be with a bunch of tourists, make sure you have a plan and stick to it, which means buy tickets to an event way in advance and don’t even think about bar hopping.

#4 Think Harlem is unsafe

Not only it’s incorrect, but assuming that Harlem is dangerous for anyone other than Black people will make you sound like an ignorant idiot. Get over your century old stereotypes and go explore one of the most vibrant parts of Manhattan (Yes, Harlem is in Manhattan and is not its own borough.)

#5 Skip the air conditioner in the summer

Speaking from experience here. Summer in my uptown apartment without AC was like living in an oven. You can find AC window units for $100 and it will save you a great amount of fans, showers, ice cubes and Ben & Jerry’s.

#6 Assume you can eat the same things here

This is for my fellow international people particularly. Wherever you’re from, food in your home country can’t be as bad as in America. Even if you are already the healthy type, you can’t expect to maintain your weight with the same exact diet you’ve had for years because food is just different here. I had to give up on dessert for lunch after contemplating the damages of my first six months in New York.

#7 Try to get a cab on Halloween

Just like New Years Eve, it’s better to have a plan on Halloween. Know where you’re going and don’t think you can spontaneously crash another club or bar that easily. It’s impossible to find cabs on Halloween and Uber jack up the fares. But it’s actually fun to be on the train with Elsa from Frozen, Jabba The Hut and Beyonce all at once.

#8 Think Brooklyn is cheap

Again, google “gentrification.” Going out in Brooklyn might be a little cheaper than most of Downtown Manhattan, but living in Brooklyn doesn’t necessarily mean affordable rent. If that’s what you’re looking for, just forget about Williamsburg, Dumbo or Brooklyn Heights and prepare yourself to go further away from Manhattan.

#9 Pay to get into a club

This one right here goes out to all my sexy ladies in the club: know your worth! Besides from gay venues, no club owner wants an all-dude type of crowd. Did you know that some New York clubs actually pay women to come and party? Unless you are the only girl with a group of bros, you should always be able to not only get in for free, but have a few drinks on the house while you’re at it. Gentlemen, the struggle is real for you, but remember that small groups always help.

#10 Hope to get authentic Italian food in Little Italy

Just because a restaurant has the kitsch panoply of what Americans think Italy is doesn’t mean you should eat there. This is usually a “tourist trap” alert. Little Italy is like the Disney World of food. The neighborhood does have hidden gems like the amazing Piacere, but you need to step away from the main restaurant row on Mulberry Street. I also love Aroma Kitchen & Wine Bar in Nolita and In Vino in Alphabet City. Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is considered the real Little Italy if you feel like exploring other boroughs. Buon appetito!

#11 Underestimate the power of delivery

I’m not sure why I waited 2 years to order groceries from Fairway instead of walking ten blocks to go there and only be able to carry three bags back. But what I know is I am never going back. Food, groceries, dry cleaning…you can get delivered for pretty much anything in New York for the price of the cab ride you would probably end up getting anyway, so enjoy it!

#12 Worry about your appearance

Whether you look particularly slutty to go out on Saturday night or a complete mess in the Starbucks line on Sunday morning, here’s the thing: no one gives a shit! It’s New York, there are fabulous and crazy looking people everywhere so people stopped caring. No one is hear to judge you because everyone is guilty at some point.

#13 Think St Paddy’s Day and Santacon are cool

I don’t want to offend anyone here, but I just think St Patrick’s day and Santacon are the worst. What are we celebrating exactly? Irish people? Drunk Santa? Since when New Yorkers need excuses to go out and party all day? They don’t and can do it on any given day of the year, which is why most of the people out those days are not from the City. Next.

#14 Believe that The Hamptons rock

Will I go to the Hamptons if I was invited to a friends’ house and given a ride there? Absolutely! Do I want to pay the price of a week in Costa Rica to spend a long weekend 3 hours away from New York and run into people from work on the beach? Nope. The Hamptons can be fun if you find a great deal, but don’t forget there are so many other quick get aways from the City including Miami, Charleston, New Orleans or the Caribbeans.

#15 Only go out on weekends

You are in the most exciting city in the world. Don’t wait until all the tourists and bridge and tunnels get to New York over the weekend and make the City a mess to experience nightlife. New York isn’t named the City that never sleeps for nothing and there are plenty of ways to have fun on week days too.

 

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Fake It Until You Make It – The New York Way

New York is the kind of place where people say “I’m an actor,” “I’m a model,” or “I’m an artist” like it’s no big deal. If I didn’t know any better, living in the City would make me feel like I’m failing at life. Thankfully for my self-esteem, those surreal introductions are often part of a typical New York game called “Fake It Until You Make It.”

It’s very rare to meet New Yorkers that only do one thing, which is why life in the Big Apple is never boring. Your waitress might be a Broadway singer, your cab driver a business owner or your bartender an art critic. If you met them at a party, they might not even mention the job that pays the bills and keeps them the busiest. Nope, New Yorkers let their dream define them instead.

As much as I admire a good hustlin’ spirit, I am the kind of person who says “I blog,” not “I am a blogger” and I get annoyed at girls claiming to be “in fashion” when they are really just “into” it. In a town where speaking things to their existence is a religion, I’m still unsure whether I despise the bullshitting ways of the”Fake It Until You Make It” mentality or if I simply envy its daring state of mind. Believing that the kind of energy you put out there has a direct influence on the course of your life is the quintessence of the American Dream. New Yorkers may be the best keepers of this philosophy as they apply it to their careers, relationships and life decisions on the daily.

In the City, the act of pursuing a dream makes it a reality, no matter what’s actually in your way. New Yorkers are eternal optimistic people: it’s just a matter of time until you get where you want to be, so you can either dwell on the long road to walk or skip that part and own your dream. Just think about the opportunities that would come along if you said you were who you want to be to random people! Beyond the hustlers themselves, the ones powerful enough to give your dream a shot actually play that game too for a very simple reason: they invented it.

So why not play it? It seems like a no-brainer: besides the few party poopers that think you wouldn’t be serving drinks if you were indeed the next Beyonce, “Fake It Until You Make It” allows you to multiply your chances of making the right connection. I guess my cynical and pessimist European upbringing always comes back to the surface when I’m about to say “I am a creative writer” to strangers at a cocktail party. Instead, I usually end up talking about my twisted relationship with corporate America. Not very glamorous, I know, but at least it’s honest. Or is it?

I guess it really depends on what honesty means. What’s more real and self-defining than the dreams we live to see come true? “Fake It Until You Make It” might just be New Yorkers’ way to achieve life’s greater purpose. After all, don’t we all want to become the person we truly are?

 

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Islam vs. Terrorism: Why Obama Gets It

This past week, Obama has been receiving major backlash for not referring to the military intervention against ISIS as a war on radical Islam. First of, when does Obama not get called out by fellow politicians and the media? He would probably stir controversy if he was doing the exact opposite…just saying!

All Buzzfeed jokes aside, the President’s stand isn’t another careful choice of words. It’s a remarkable humanist move but also a well-thought political strategy. Nothing sums up Obama’s position better than a meme that has been circulating for a while now: the Ku Klux Klan members were never labeled as religious extremists.

Yet, the organization – among many other White supremacy groups – used Christianity as an instrument to implement the most archaic theories. America never perceived the KKK through the lens of religion because the threat was internal. Not a single sane soul needed to hear how far the Ku Klux Klan’s ideology stood from Christianity because America was already familiar with the religion’s founding principles. In the eyes of History, the Klan will always be known for what it truly is: barbaric, inhuman and as Tarantino loved to remind us…moronic.

ISIS is orchestrating the same exact domination plan, but because it’s in the name of a religion little known to Americans, the threat should be considered differently? As Obama said, the fight against ISIS cannot be treated as a religious war unless we want to “Grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists.” Just like fighting the KKK, this is a fight for human rights.

By not giving into fear and stereotypes, the President is not only lending American Muslims a much needed helping hand, he is attacking ISIS at its core. Obama’s enemies might be too short-sighted to recognize the necessity of his words in times of tension, or maybe anti-discrimination is not on their mood board. But they should at least grasp their political meaning and strength.

ISIS needs to perpetuate the idea that the world is against Muslims in order to turn Muslims against the world. The group feeds directly on Anti-Muslim sentiment and prays at night that Western politicians and journalists entertain that vicious circle. ISIS wouldn’t be such a growing threat without Islamophobia, which is the leitmotif of the group’s recruiting campaign. Unfortunately, the United-States and European countries seem to easily fall into the trap. The President’s choice of words is simply aimed at reversing that dynamic which will eventually help destabilize the organization. That’s if American dares to listen.

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10 Things You Can’t Say Out Loud In New York

New Yorkers are not the judgy type – you could pretty much go out naked in the blizzard currently happening and people wouldn’t even turn their heads – but like everyone else, they have their limits. As a foreigner in the City, I’ve realized that some things are just tabou here.

Thankfully, I can always play the French card: “but, you know where I AM from…” and get out of most situations without being considered a social pariah. To save you from any embarrassment, I compiled a few things that you should never say out loud to a New Yorker unless you are prepared for some major shade throwing:

#1 “I never had a pumpkin spice latte”

Mostly because I’d rather sleep in the morning than wait 20 min on line at Starbucks. Oh and also the ingredients it gives people cancer. Yep, that too.

#2 “I don’t do Instagram”

“But…but…where do you post your pumpkin spice latte pictures?!”

#3 “Fuck Yoga and Soul Cycle!”

No, I don’t enjoy cycling to Taylor Swift’s album nor opening my Chakras to complete strangers.

#4 “Apple picking? No thanks.”

Because being THAT excited about apples, trees or nature in general is a little sad. Although one more year in the concrete jungle and I probably be that person.

#5 “Screw The Hamptons”

Paying the price of an international trip to spend the weekend with the SAME people I see all year and swim in questionable water? Seriously…why?!

#6 “If you can’t walk two blocks in heels, just wear flats”

But please don’t walk to work in sneakers and then change to heels…pick a damn side!

#7 “I love carbs”

It’s fine to be on a diet every once in a while – but don’t pretend you don’t LOVE carbs and that you are not depriving yourself of something truly amazing.

#8 “I don’t have a credit card”

I pay bills and buy stuff with real money that I earn, not the bank’s. Shocking.

#9 “I hate the gym”

I totally understand the reasoning behind people going everyday – but don’t try to make me believe that you enjoy it or that it’s some sort of therapy. I hate it, you hate it, everybody hates it.

#10 “I’m not on the list”

No one is on the list because there is no list. Just be creative and you will get anywhere!

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Charlie Hebdo Explained By A French Expat

Starting 2015 with a post on terrorism was definitely not on my list, but I figured it would be hypocritical not to. Although the recent attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo happened miles away from New York, they touched America deeply. As a French person exposed to American people and media’s perception of the event, I feel a responsibility to tell my side of the story.

The first and most frequent reaction that I noticed among Americans while discussing this tragedy is to question the legitimacy of Charlie Hebdo as a publication. No matter how much discrimination Muslims suffer in the US, the respect of religion ironically remains a golden principle in America. “Between you and me, what’s the deal with Charlie Hebdo?” “Some of its content seems questionable,” “Is it even a real newspaper?” Behind those typical ice-breaking questions, I could hear the real and simpler one loud and clear: “Is Charlie Hebdo anti-Islam?”

My answer would be just as simple: absolutely not.

Let me get this straight, islamophobia is a major problem in Europe and particularly in France, a country that accounts for the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. In 2013, 226 anti-Muslims acts were registered in France. Since the 2015 attacks, islamophobic incidents increased by 110% compared to January 2014. Marine Le Pen’s “Front National” – a far-right party that paints Islam as incompatible with France’s values, demonizes immigration and the place of diversity in society – represents 25% of the French electorate. So yes, France has 99 problems and Islam is (sadly) one.

Now back to Charlie Hebdo, the left-wing satirical magazine that lost much of his editorial staff in the recent terrorist attacks. This historical newspaper is known for its commitment against not just Islamic radicalism, not just Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, but against all forms of obscurantism. Charlie Hebdo expresses this stand through investigative journalism and humor, particularly satirical cartoons. It’s the latter mean of expression – used to caricature the Prophet Muhammad among many other religious, political and social subjects – that sparked off a series of attacks against the publication, which eventually led to the murder of ten of its employees on January 7, 2015.

Islam clearly forbids the depiction of the Prophet, which is why Muhammad cartoons in Western media have always provoked mixed reactions in the worldwide Muslim community and violent protests in fundamentalists circles. It has never been about the actual meaning or intention of the cartoons. There is a big difference between doing something non-Muslim – such as drawing a religious figure – and committing islamophobic acts, like vandalizing a Mosque or discriminating a Muslim job applicant. If Charlie Hebdo’s staff is islamophobic for not following the proscriptions of a religion that isn’t theirs, then wouldn’t that make anyone who drinks alcohol guilty of the same crime?

Many Americans assume that France has very little limits when it comes to criticizing religion because it’s an “atheist” country. To those, I will simply suggest to look up the definitions of Atheism and Secularism…Spoiler alert: they are not the same. Terrorists attacked the people who fought for humanism and defended the very value that allows Muslims, Jewish, Christians and Atheists living in France to be one people: secularism.  It’s the death of this ideal that eventually allows Marine Le Pen and friends to infiltrate ignorance and fear of Islam into the society.

But Al Qaida chose not to attack their direct target – islamophobic groups – first. The organization’s ultimate goal is to conquer, but no one can conquer without a war, and any conflict needs two opposite sides, two extremes. Eliminating the voices of moderation can then fairly be interpreted as a Al Qaida’s strategy to facilitate its overall mission. With the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, terrorists didn’t kill the enemies of Islam, they shook the European heritage of the Age of Enlightenment while delivering the most brutal message: even tolerance won’t be tolerated.

 

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