Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

To Bike Or Not To Bike: That is Bennington's Question

Page 10 of Martin Cummings' Corkscrew study
showing all of the network possibilities

BENNINGTON -- In 2003, a year before the west leg of the Bennington Bypass opened and began to choke life out of the town's tourism trade, Martin Cummings prepared the Corkscrew Recreational Path Feasibility Study.

"The Town of Bennington and members of the Bennington area bicycling community have an interest in establishing a system of multiple use recreational trails. One option that has been frequently discussed is the establishment of a pathway, along the bed of the Corkscrew Division of the Rutland Railroad, between the Bennington Museum and the Bennington Arts Center. This study examines the feasibility of this proposal."

The next 23 pages of research and statistical evidence address concerns and solutions associated with the multi-use trail -- "an extensive network" linking historic, cultural, educational and recreation sites in the Bennington area along the Corkscrew rail bed.

The idea, impressive in scope, died a quick death because of issues in Old Bennington. A passage on page 18 might best explain why the bike path never took flight:

"The two property owners who spoke were more negative. One said that a pathway at the edge of her property would result in … 'looking at people from wherever that you really don’t want to look at.'"

And that's how a great idea gets buried fast in Old Bennington.

New ideas for bike paths sprung to life in the Corkscrew's wake: the Rail Trail, spurred by town support and public dollars, and the Ninja Trail, spurred by private money and a grassroots collective, are two of them.

Dan Monks, Bennington's planning director and assistant town manager, called Cummings' Corkscrew presentation 10 years ago "a great study, and it's a great pathway."

But, he said, there are many issues, first and foremost the right-of-way issue.

We'll explore right-of-way issues in the following days and weeks while talking to main players involved in the Rail and Ninja trails.

Until then, here is the Corkscrew Recreational Path Feasibility Study:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Butternut Squash and Pear Soup at Fiddlehead and burnt toast at Bennington College

Kate Davis with a cuppa butternut squash

BENNINGTON -- Bennington College sophomores Kate Davis and Christina Cale came to Fiddlehead at Four Corners this afternoon to teach kids and parents how to make healthy, delicious soup while touting the importance of using local fruits and veggies.

By doing so they made a little bit of a statement, too. Tension at Bennington College is higher than usual these days after the school replaced longtime food service vendor Bill Scully ('94 Bennington grad, North Bennington restaurateur and hydro-electric visionary) with multi-national behemoth Aramark. Read about the rising mountain of burnt toast here.

The most interesting thing about that piece appears at the end with the mention of Aramark harshly undercutting Purple Carrot Farm's offer to provide butternut squash, by 9 cents. Students operate the campus farm, which is part of the the ever-growing and popular Bennington Sustainable Food Project here.

"Insane" is the way Kate described the butternut squash brouhaha as she prepared for today's class, the intent of which was to teach kids and parents about cooking healthy meals with local fruits and veggies.

The butternut squash Kate and Christina used today grew at Purple Carrot Farm, and Kate was somewhat flattered when I asked if she used PCF's gourds as a statement of sorts.

The short answer was No ... 

... but the long answer was "It was awesome. They were super-generous to let us use their produce for a donation instead of by the pound. It's like bringing the produce from Bennington to Bennington!"

The Mighty Food Farm in Pownal and Spice N' Nice in Bennington donated to the cause, too.

For more than an hour, the sounds of Kate and Christina teaching and of moms and dads and sons and daughters listening and laughing and learning emanated from the mezzanine. Together they prepared fresh ingredients for the butternut squash and pear soup in teacups.

What made it all so real were the Pavlovian kitchen sounds of the blades of the knives clanking the tops of the tables as parents and little ones chopped squash and potatoes and onions. After 10 minutes I was drooling for a taste.

Each new chef walked out of Fiddlehead with a large ziplock bag full of chopped ingredients and unopened boxes of coconut milk so that they could make it at home. Butternut squash isn't really my thing but I sampled the soup and loved the flavors.

One of the parents said "I love butternut squash but I've never had it with pear. I loved it."

Below are Kate and Christina talking about their teacup of deliciousness.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bennington's Financial Bypass Surgery

For Don Keelan's story about the north leg of the bypass click here

BENNINGTON -- What happens when you build a bypass? You're bypassed and forgotten.

The most recent statistics on Vermont's agency of transportation website (here) explain why Main Street Bennington continues to struggle amid an uptick in the national economy.

In August 2012, when the eastern leg to Wilmington was completed, 5,644 motorists a day drove into town on Route 9.

In October '13 -- at the height of foliage season -- 4,917 motorists a day came to town on Route 9, a decrease of 727 or 12.3 percent.

The number of incomers from Route 9 has decreased at least 14 months in a row but probably much longer considering the days when 10,000+ motorists came to town.

The continuous slide means a few things: First, 12.3 percent means fewer trucks rumble through town, which always was the main argument to build the bypass though all one needs to do is sit at the four corners during a typical day to see dozens of 18-wheelers barging in and out of town, which makes you wonder if the bypass achieved its goal.

The second, larger, effect is that when you build a bypass to give truckers a chance to loop around town over a 4-mile stretch (see the map above), you give regular motorists a chance to loop around town, too. Which means families in cars. Which means money and disposable income. Which means money and disposable income bypassing Bennington and driving to other towns to spend money. Manchester. Rutland. Brandon. Killington. Springfield. Wilmington. Brattleboro. The Upper Valley. Northwest Kingdom. Basically everywhere but Bennington. Which means Main Street Bennington turning into a morgue many days, even Saturday and Sunday. Which means businesses can't operate in this kind of climate and leave town. Which means who wants to open in a business on Main Street Bennington when fewer and fewer people are coming to a town that offers little incentive to do so? Which means fewer and fewer jobs for Benningtonians. Which means a town struggling with poverty issues begins to struggle even more. Which leads to more beggars and people sleeping in their cars. Which leads to anti-panhandling ordinances!

It's all connected.

The numbers starting in April 2013 start to get frightening:

* April -- 21.2 percent decrease from April '12
* May -- 11.4 percent decrease from May '12
* June -- 14.0 percent decrease from June '12
* July -- 13.9 percent decrease from July '12
* August -- 9.8 percent decrease from August '12
* September -- 6.7 percent decrease from September '12
* October -- 1.0 percent decrease from October '12

Another Vermont DOT chart (page 11 here) shows more depressing stats.

In 2003, a year before the west leg of the bypass opened .4 miles east of the NY/VT border, 9,700 vehicles a day came into town on Route 9.

The DOT posts traffic-flow data every two years for this part of the bypass, and the last reading in '11 showed that the number of daily motorists who bypassed the west bypass to drive into Bennington on Main Street was 4,500.

The bypass has had a great effect on Vermont tourism. As of the last tally, visitors to the Green Mountain State spent $1.7 billion in 2011. 

How much of that came at Bennington's expense?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Bennington Selector Joe Krawczyk apologizes for "threat" against Desert Storm veteran

Joe Krawczyk above, Ron Conroy below

"I'm going to get
that son of a bitch ..."

BENNINGTON -- Select Board Chair Joe Krawczyk has apologized for blurting out on live TV what many Benningtonians heard as a threat against a fellow veteran during the town's October 28 meeting.

About 100 minutes into the meeting, Ron Conroy, who served in the Navy from 1989 to 1992, delivered a statement voicing his disgust with the select board for its new anti-panhandling ordinance and how it goes against the 1st amendment of the Constitution.

"You think I'm not disgusted after serving my country 28 years in the Army?" Krawcyzk, who has served 4 terms on the board and is president of the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington, fired back as Conroy walked toward his seat.

Conroy stopped, stood in front of Krawczyk and said "I'm a disabled veteran. Desert Storm."

Krawczyk: So what are you trying to tell me?

Conroy: You have no right to try to throw that Army thing at me. <walks to seat>

Krawczyk: I'm telling you don't tell me I'm doing something against the Constitution.

Conroy <unseen>: I fought for my Constitution.

Krawczyk smirked.

Another Town Hall regular supported the ordinance and just before a new piece of business, Krawczyk muttered "I'm going to get that son of a bitch after ... "

And then Krawczyk trailed off.

He acknowledged his quote at 3:20 this afternoon:

"My comments were totally inappropriate," he said in a Facebook message. "I felt that comments made were directed toward me that questioned my support of our rights under the Constitution. That struct a nerve. You may or may not know that I spent a career in the military. During that time, more than 27 years, I took an oath of office and swore to Protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I have repeated that oath as a State Representative and a member of the Bennington Select Board. That oath is important to me and I would gladly give my life defending our Country and our Constitution. Having said that, I apologize to the individual and to the voters of Bennington who have elected me, for allowing my emotions to be displayed in that or any other forum. As I said in the beginning, my actions were inappropriate. What I was thinking at the time is that I hoped the individual would be there after the meeting so I could ask him why he thought that I would deny anyone's rights under the constitution. He left before the meeting ended and we were unable to have that discussion."

Bennington blogger "Ethan Allen" rejected the apology: "We don't need people like that running our town. We're ripe for change -- but we're rotting on the vine."

The ordinance sparked last Sunday's community panhandle (here).

To see Krawczyk's threat, fast-forward to 1 hour, 39 minutes.

UPDATE: "I don't consider it a formal apology," Conroy said at 6:45 tonight. "He didn't refer to me by name and referred to the citizens as voters so his only concern right now is his political career. That was not an apology."

UPDATE 2: Selector Jim Carroll just posted a lengthy defense of Krawczyk here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Q&A with Tom Freeman of "Breaking the Cage"

Breaking the Cage debuts December 5
at Loews Theater in Cherry Hill

Though the journey was rough
and I often felt alone, one friend
I knew I could count on was Tom.

BENNINGTON -- I met Tom Freeman the night he appeared Phil Jackson's Trentonian TV webcast in March 2012. Tom reminded me of Erick Sermon from the '80s rap duo EPMD because he was so laid back and kind of looked and sounded like The E-R-I-C-K.

The Fairleigh Dickenson grad and married father of 5 gave Phil a strong interview about his writing and budding film career, then was gone, and though we never saw each other again we followed each other on Facebook.

That's how he approached me last week, through Facebook chat. He asked if I could recommend someone at the 'tonian to pitch an interview for the new documentary Breaking the Cage: The Zu Life Story -- which he wrote and produced. I gave Tom a few names then offered to do my own Q&A with the man behind Zu Life: Jay Sykes of Burlington City, New Jersey. Read it here.

Then I thought that Tom deserves a Q&A, too. 

He has written several books (The Organization; Sons of Sin; Her Little Secret), a documentary (Live 2 Tell: The Lucas Torres Story) and a docu-series (Hip-Hop's Great Migration), and a feature film -- Her Little Secret, based on his book -- is in pre-production. Breaking the Cage: The Zu Life Story debuts December 5 at the Loew's Theater in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Q. How and when did the idea for "Breaking the Cage" come about? 

 A. Late 2010. Reality TV was dominating the airways and I thought if we had a reality show documenting Zu Life's return to society it would be a good marketing tool for him. I realized that he would need to create a buzz to put out a reality show successfully so we decided to do a documentary. At the time he had about 18 months left before he maxed out. 

Q. What is your relationship to Zu Life personally and professionally? 

A. Personally were like brothers or at least cousins lol. We can talk and build on a variety of subjects. He has always been ahead of his time and I was the same way so we were always able to communicate about any topic and it goes both ways he can come to me for advice or vice-versa. Professionally we have a partnership. 

Q. How long did the project take? What kind of equipment did you use? Who are the directors? What is your role? 

A. The filming started September 12, 2012 and ended November 2013. The documentary was shot on DSLR cameras. The directors were J Dogg, Quest, Tone Morgan and J Criss. I co-produced and co-wrote it with Zu Life. 

Q. You credit yourself as a writer of the project --- what did you write? 

A. Narration. 

Q. What were some of the difficulties making "Breaking the Cage"? 

A. When Zu Life first came home I was still living in Atlanta so communicating my vision to the people who were handling the production in Jersey was a challenge but what's life whith out challenges! 

Q. How were you able to get the documentary shown at Loews in Cherry Hill? 

A. They respected the movement and the quality of the material. 

Q. How long is it? 

A. Approximately an hour. 

Q. What do you hope comes from the documentary? 

A. I hope people get to get a look at Zu Life, his life, struggles and triumphs, in hopes that they better understand the music. Also as a from of marketing standpoint, visuals are almost as important as lyrics and cogent nowadays. 

Q. What is Tom Freeman's goal in the entertainment industry? 

A. To make Zu Life a household name and keep doing what I'm doing but on a much bigger level.

Speaking of Zu Life, here's Jay's ode to his relationship with Tom ... 

I first met T-Blacc when I was very young. I didn't know him that much due to our age difference, but we were from the same area and knew all of the same people. It wasn't until the summer of 2003, when I was waived up to an adult, given a bail, and released from the Juvenile Detention Center, until we were formally introduced and became acquaintances. 

A close friend of mine, who was at that time in our rap group, informed me that Tom and 2 other brothers from my our neighborhood were starting an independent record label called "Sleepy Eye Entertainment". 

Initially I didn't have any interest in working with Tom and his partners because I didn't feel we needed their assistance, but I went to meet with them anyway. Skeptical at first, I was reluctant to hear their proposition, but soon after performing rap verses and conversing with them I had a proper understanding of their vision. We then went on to making songs all while forming a bond based on a common dream. Out of the 3 brothers who played the roles of our managers, my friendship with Tom seemed to grow stronger with each passing day.
One of Jay's Facebook updates yesterday

Tom was like the mentor and big brother I never had. Not only did he help me with music, but he helped me cope with everyday life as a teenager in the streets facing 20 years in prison. He was my voice of reason at times when I didn't see any hope for the future. Though our bonds were growing stronger by the day the time approached where I would inevitably have to serve at least 10 years in adult prison. 

I confided in Tom when I felt like no one understood or could relate to what I was going through at that time. He did everything he could to keep me mentally focused and prepared for what I was up against, as well as motivating me to continue to follow my dreams despite the unfortunate circumstances. I was sentenced on June 25, 2004, to 10 years in adult prison at the age of 17. 

Though the journey was rough and I often felt alone, one friend I knew I could count on was Tom. 

He didn't let me down. Throughout my prison term he sent me letters, pictures, books, magazines, etc. His letters were filled with words of encouragement and updates on all of the things he was accomplishing through writing. A gifted writer, he went on to publishing 3 books, writing for several magazines, and filming documentaries all while I was incarcerated. He was an inspiration to me. He never let up on his dream! That gave me the drive and courage to do the same when I was eventually released. A great friend, big brother and mentor, I'm eternally grateful for Tom's friendship. He believed in me when I didn't believe in ANYTHING. 

 Thank you Thomas Freeman... Much love, loyalty, and respect FOREVER!

Front-page story in the Burlington County Times

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bennington's Peaceful Protest Against Panhandling Ordinance

A little girl holds a sign underscoring the message
during Sunday's peaceful protest (Joey Kulkin photo)
"I have a roof.
I'm fortunate today."

BENNINGTON -- This town has fought for the cause since August 16, 1777, so it should surprise no one that close to 100 Benningtonians flocked to the four corners today to peacefully protest the town's 6-day-old ordinance (here) crafted to punish belligerent beggars and people living in cars.

What began as Black Friday pushback by Fiddlehead at Four Corners owner Joel Lentzner (here) ...

It was 19 degrees but Fiddlehead owner Joel Lentzner
sat on the front stoop of his art gallery for 115 minutes
to deliver his message. (Joey Kulkin photo)

... mushroomed into a movement just 48 hours later when the lone town leader who voted against the ordinance organized today's peaceful protest.

"It's not easy to stand alone," Selector Jim Carroll said in the crowd.

Then the piano teacher announced the protest on Facebook and it was on.

I've lived in Bennington on and off for the last 18 years. I've walked downtown as much as any townie has. I know what panhandling is. I know what aggressive panhandling is. Panhandling is not a problem in Bennington let alone aggressive panhandling. Here are a couple of faces downtown regulars might recognize ...

I stumbled upon these fellas a week apart about 18 months ago.

The first guy asked me for $3 as I walked by him on the corner of Main and School. Sorry, I said, but I don't have 3 bucks. That was a lie. I had exactly $3 in my pocket after lunch at Nova Mae Cafe; best panini I ever ate. Instead of giving him money I gave the guy the unopened bottle of tea that I didn't drink at the cafe. 

When you think about it, as I did in the moment, the tea was probably the only healthy liquid he drank in a week. I said something to the effect "Hey, it's better than nothing." 

He took the bottle of tea but looked at me with sad puppy eyes. He wanted cash. I thought "Jesus Fucking Christ, dude, this is really good tea and cost me 3 bucks!"

I continued walking toward the four corners.

Ten step later I stopped, turned, walked back to the guy and told him I have 3 dollar bills and that I'd give them to him if he let me take his photograph. He wanted something. I wanted something. Click. We crossed paths again on Main Street days later. He asked me for 3 bucks, again. I said no and asked him not to ask me again. 

He apologized and moped away.

Sure sounds aggressive to me.

The second guy in the tie-dye asked me for 2 bucks when I was in front of the gallery. I asked if he was going to buy a 40 with my money. He laughed and said Yes. Party boy. I had 2 bucks to spare and said I'd give it to him if I could take his picture. He used me. I used him. Click.

I've been told by a member or two of the big boy club that I'm part of the problem because the town helps poor clods like the ones above on every front -- food, shelter, medical and social services -- so I make the problem worse by giving these beggars extra cash to get drunk or buy smokes.

And I say tough shit. I've been in dire straits and asked for money to survive. I'm lucky to know people who helped me through the dark days. This is my way of paying it forward.

Arla Foster, who turns 60 on Christmas Day,
lives in an old school bus (Joey Kulkin photo)

The woman who provided a temporary home to 6,000 people is homeless and lives in an old school bus on Burgess Road. "I'm always cold," Arla said, "because there's no heat on the bus. The bus is about a bigger problem."

Living in automobiles, and how the town will crack down on those who violate the ordinance, presents the bigger issue, one that many protester's spoke against. One woman said the shelter on North Street, usually packed, does not allow pets so one guy she knows refuses to stay there and sleeps in his car across the street because "he doesn't want to give up his puppy."

With each passing minute in the 12 o'clock hour, one Benningtonian after another packed the four corners. Their ages ranged from 70 to 4. Many brought anti-ordinance signs. 

The ordinance will take effect in 2 months unless Mary Gerisch, secretary for the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless, gets 500 signatures to force a vote. Read more about what the Bennington Banner wrote about Gerisch (here) in the weekend edition.

If today's gathering is an indication, Gerisch should have 500 names in a few weeks.

Benningtonians love a good fight. Just ask the ghost of Gen. Burgoyne.

Benningtonians showed up in force today, starting with Gerisch ...

Gerisch gets another signature
(Joey Kulkin photo)

Followed by Polly van der Linde the piano teacher ...

Polly "panhandled" $168 for the cause
(Joey Kulkin photo)

Followed by Joel and Nina and their 3 daughters ...

Joel and Nina have owned and operated Fiddlehead since 2000
(Joey Kulkin photo)

Followed by the masses ...

The Four Corners were packed but nobody interrupted
holiday shopping traffic (Joey Kulkin photo)
For more photos by Annette Joly Griffith click HERE

Here's what some of them said on the Facebook page dedicated to the protest ...

And here's what many of them did in the middle of the road ...

Joel Lentzner, Fiddlehead's owner and a 1991 Bennington College graduate, contemplated on his sit-in. "Wild that a small thing I did to show my kids how to protest against something you think is wrong is turning into something that might actually bring about change."

Then again, Benningtonians don't like to be trifled with.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Goodbye, Sascha

Wesley from Cape Cod with his first piece of art
(Joey Kulkin photo; read more on Stella (here)

BENNINGTON -- I just sold my dream girl to a homeless man.

Wesley bought "Sascha" today, a great sale on a weird day. It's the first piece of art Wesley's ever bought and it's going to be the prettiest thing in the construction worker's dwelling.

"The colors -- the blue and white" is one of the reasons Wesley bought the oil painting by Stella Ehrich of North Bennington. But let's be honest about the real reason: Wesley bought Stella's piece because of the girl in the wedding dress. "She's gorgeous," he said. "Striking."

She's gorgeous. Striking. It's same reason I fell in love with the painting 400 days ago, why so many Fiddlehead at Four Corners customers love the painting, why I tell customers who stand in front of it "Can I borrow twelve hundred and fifty bucks so I can buy it?" They laugh. I laugh. It's my Sascha shtick.

Sascha radiates so much innocence in this painting; the innocence of a young woman about to give herself away to the man of her dreams; these last few hours of individuality; I used to be a little girl, she's thinking, and now I'll spend my life with him, forever; the innocence in the way she looks down; and the way she rests her toes on the floor, knees pointed inward. Structurally, her collarbones are perfect. And 34-B, just right for me. Without ever having told Stella, she painted my dream girl.

She painted Wesley's dream girl, too.

This morning I woke up and thought about which menorah we'll use for the second night of Hanukah tomorrow. Joel, Nina and I have tried to think of a Thanksgiving menorah hybrid because Hanukah and Thanksgiving overlap tomorrow night. First time ever. We've brainstormed a few funky ideas but haven't put any of them into real motion.

This morning I thought about Steph Davidson's menorah made of marble ...

Joey Kulkin photograph

... it sits on a table in Joel and Nina's dining room, in front of a female torso carved from marble, another one of Steph's masterpieces. The modern-day Michelangelo and his wife, Graham, a Picasso for our generation, died 3,738 days ago in a car crash. They were expecting their first child. So for all of the ideas about a turkey-menorah -- drilling holes in the legs and putting a candle in each one, which works out great for the second night of Hanukah -- I think we knew we'd be using Steph's marble menorah.

That's why Steph was on my mind this morning.

For the next several hours, Air Lift was on my mind.

I'm working on a story about Air Lift, the 2-year-old chestnut colt -- son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault -- 64 years after his one and only race at Jamaica. He didn't finish the 6th race on July 27, 1949, because he broke his leg at the 3/8th pole and was destroyed minutes later. W.C. Heinz witnessed Air Lift's death and wrote, on deadline, what some consider the greatest newspaper sports story (here).

Sixty-four years later -- August 12, 2013 -- I was the first person to produce results from that race. But there's one more thing I want to do to update the story, and so for a week I have worked like a dog, phone calls and emails galore, trying to track down something that would make the story unique. But finding that something has become a struggle of struggles and by 2 this afternoon I was a frustrated motherfucker.

Then a guy walked into the gallery. Not the kind of fella you typically see in an art gallery. Short at about 5-7 and muscular, like Steph. Looked like he'd just come from the stables, what with knee-high rubber boots and a 5 o'clock shadow that was much closer to midnight. Sweaty. Grimy. If you squinted just right, as I did, he looked like Steph, the only difference being Steph always wore an anvil-goatee. Wesley is from Cape Cod. Steph grew up on the cape. So this was a weird -- and great and much-needed -- kind of thing taking place.

He plotzed about the gallery for 10-15 minutes then walked to the counter. He asked me a question that got my attention fast. He asked about one of Stella Ehrich's paintings -- "the one with the girl" -- and here we go. After a big-ticket sale slipped through my fingers last year I vowed never to let anything get in the way of a big sale again. And that's why Wesley walked out of Fiddlehead with Sascha.

For a few moments I'd forgotten about Air Lift. Selling this kind of piece gave me a lift.

Wesley works for an environmental firm and is in the middle of a big construction job in Bennington. He came to the gallery 3 months ago and fell in love with Sascha at first sight. He came back last month to see if she was still here. What's funny is that I don't remember him and I pay attention to everyone who walks through the doors.

Wesley returned today. Big payday. Time to buy his dream girl. My dream girl.

"Have you ever bought art before?" I asked while wrapping the painting.

"No," he said, "it's my first piece."

"Where's it going to go in your home?"

"I don't know -- I'm homeless," he said. "Right now I live in a trailer."

And I'm back on Air Lift's trail.

There's a hole on the wall now like there's a hole in my heart.
Goodbye, Sascha.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tom Freeman Presents: "Zu Life: Breaking the Cage"

Zu Life with a model (Photo by Devin Wade)

BENNINGTON -- The subject of Tom Freeman's documentary "Breaking the Cage" is a rehabilitated urban statistic by the name of Zu Life who went to prison at the age of 17 for carjacking and paid the price for 9 years. He won his freedom 14 months ago and went home to Burlington, New Jersey, to begin a career in hip-hop.

Can that be any more cliche?

In seeking publicity, Freeman provided a 10-point brief about the documentary, which he wrote and produced. It hits the big screen at Loews Theater in Cherry Hill on December 5.

1. Success story -- went to college a month after serving 9 years in prison (graduated in September)
2. Real life events -- shares the true horror stories of prison life
3. Therapeutic to gang members, young people in general
4. Touches several real life issues in urban community
5. Entertaining. Zu Life is currently one of NJ's hottest new rappers
6. Thought provoking -- raises and answers questions concerning judicial system and department of corrections
7. Revolutionary -- Hardcore Trenton gang members discuss meeting Zu Life in prison and falling in love with the music and the person
8. Family oriented
9. Inspirational -- Started a non-profit from a jail cell and followed through with his plans
10. Local -- He's from a small town in New Jersey and this has never been done before! Independent documentary on the big screen! People from all walks of life gravitate towards the movement.

Pursuant to those bullet points, here is Kulk's Q&A with Zu Life -- born Jay Sykes.

His answers are anything but cliche.

Q1: What were you convicted of? How old were you? Did you care that you were going to prison or was it a badge of honor? Congratulations on graduating college! (which one?). But, and not to be negative, why are you rapping? You have a college degree now. Seems so cliche to do the prison/rap thing. What are your dreams and goals outside of the entertainment industry?

A1. Carjacking. 16 when charged 17 when convicted. Yea I cared it wasn't a badge of honor. Institute of Audio Research NY,NY, certification in studio engineering/audio recording, I'm rapping because it's a gift I've had since a child. It was always a dream of mine to pursue music and entrepreneurship in entertainment. My dreams and goals outside of the entertainment industry are to provide opportunities in self-employment and entrepreneurship to people who share similar stories, or come from similar backgrounds as myself. My vision is to foster peace by educating, assisting and helping to develop at risk communities through our non-profit organization Hotep Inc.

Q2: What are some "true horror stories" of prison life? What are the 3 worst things you experienced?

Tom Freeman appeared on Trentonian TV
about 18 months ago (here)
A2. Police Brutality (Corrections officers), severe and inhumane punishment. (Solitary confinement for years at a time), harsh realities of gang life. (Being Crip in a prison system where 80% of active gang members are blood)

Q3: How so? Because this sounds like a cliche.

A3. Therapeutic by providing solutions to problems that have plagued our communities for decades. Particularly in New Jersey, gang violence was the leading cause of death for African-American males between 16-35 from 2000- until. And gang violence was no different inside the penitentiary system. Through music I was able to cross barriers and bridge gaps that seemed to be nearly impossible to accomplish. My story is a testament on how to find positive solutions to detrimental problems within our culture through peace.

Q4: Again, a cliche. Rappers have been singing about the hood for 25 years, hell almost 30 years. I listened to Slick Rick talk about the hood in the '80s with "Children's Story" ... Then there was KRS-1 breaking it down succinctly (here) ... So again, why is this generation any different? I thought this was the most thought-provoking rap and video ever made, with one of the great lines from Kool Moe Dee: "I never ever ran from the Ku Klux Klan and I shouldn't have to run from a black man." (here) ... So, how are you and your peers "touching" on the same issues in 2013 that the rap/black community touched on in 1988? After 25 years, don't you think you need to do more than just touch on an issue? What are you doing to change the culture?

A4: Since 1988, not only has the culture of music changed, but the culture and consciousness of African people as a whole has changed as well. In 1988 these hip-hop artists that you've named weren't in control of their art form and therefore couldn't truly be lucrative from their messages. In time, the messages changed and the art form was lost in almost totality when the objective became more about profit than artistic expression. On top of all of the major crisis' that has sky rocketed statistically in urban communities since the 80's, (Drug Infestation, Poverty, Staggering Incarceration Rates, Homicides, etc) as a reflection of the music the urban communities have been in a steady decline as well. More and more in this 'Information Age" that we're living in, the music industry as a whole is changing. More artists are seeking entrepreneurship and creating innovative ways to generate revenue from their music. Also, within the communities, more and more solutions to problems that once held us bacc are starting to manifest into existence. My story is nearly an example of how things that once seemed impossible can now be seen as attainable. And how unfortunate circumstances can be looked at as blessings in disguise.

Q5: Until I hit play on this 50-second clip I'd never heard Zu Life. You sound a bit like Tupac. Who are your influences? Have you ever listened to rappers pre-2000?

A5. Any rapper with a background of gangs, incarceration, and street life, with social, political, and spiritual consciousness is always compared to Tupac lol. I like a lot of Pac songs, but I don't know his catalog entirely. I was also musically influenced by Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, Nore, DMX, Mobb Deep, MOP, Snoop, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and countless others. I was a hip-hop head growing up and I started rapping at an early age and excelled at it. Outside of music I was influenced by my family, Noble Drew Ali, Marcus Garvey, Ivan Van Sertima, Cheik Anta Diop, Dr. Joy DeGruy, Malcom X, Stanley "Tookie" Williams and many more.

Q6: How so? What kind of statistical data will you present? Who did you interview?

A6. I provided statistics on the juvenile incarceration rates, percentages and ratios of blacks to whites incarcerated with both juveniles and adults, etc. I also interviewed correctional officers and former inmates. As well as raised issues on the conditions of prison, the mistreatment/injustices within the department of corrections towards inmates, and the recidivism rate within the state of New Jersey.

Q7: So they're basically slurping you?

A7. Not funny at all, bro. And no they're not "slurping" anybody. They're telling their stories about juvenile incarceration, excessive sentences, and HARSH realities of life inside of New Jersey's Dept. of Corrections. The circumstances of how some of us met are at times breath taking. You'll hear stories of people finding companionship and forming bonds where under any other circumstances, these tasks would have been impossible. Friendships formed amongst chaos, understanding established amongst confusion, and hope, respect, and common ground found through music. All for the same cause, PEACE.

Q8: Define "family oriented." How many guns appear in this documentary? How many bottles of liquor? How many children are shown reading a book?

A8. Now you're just being close-minded, stereotypical, ignorant, and disrespectful, but I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt because you're used to dealing with lames, frauds, and "arm chair revolutionaries" in this nut ass society we live in lol. But nonetheless I'll be as real as possible with you, because I'm serious about what I do. NO, there is not 1 gun shown in this film. NO, there is no liquor displayed in this film. Actually, through our nonprofit organization, Hotep Inc., we show the various ways we are being a part of the solution to the problems that plague our culture and communities. The documentary shows positive transformation within 1 person that influenced his peers, his family, his community, and ultimately his state. It shows my vision of what I consider "Breaking The Cage".

Q9: What is the nonprofit? What were the plans and how did you follow through?

A9: Hotep Incorporated is an education nonprofit organization founded by myself and two other close friends that I've met through my journey within the penal system. We were passionate about our culture and the issues within society and our communities. We would always study and discuss ideas on how to provide solutions to these problems. Discussing these ideas got the attention of another friend who suggested that we get a 501 c 3 and bring some of these ideas into fruition. In May, 2012 after years of education, studying, research, building, and planning, Hotep Inc. was established. Our purpose is to foster Peace through educating, assisting and developing at risk communities, by way of Education/Financial Literacy, Vocational Training, and Ex-offender Re-Entry Programs. As soon as I returned to society I formed my Board Of Directors, established our vision, mission, by laws, and called our first meeting. Since then we've done several fundraisers, established a summer program for the youth (Friday Night Live, sunday kickball games, teen summits, introductions to business, cultural awareness, etc..) We've donated to other charities and have been a constant positive presence in our community since we've been established. Not too mention I've been on parole 1 year and already completed school, got a job in the field I studied, got a drivers license, started establishing credit, put out a mixtape, several videos, packed several big show venues, clubs, etc., been on several radio shows, done collaborations with many established artists, etc.. I make every parole appointment, never got a dirty urine, or had any other altercations or incidents with any law enforcement. And now I'm premiering my documentary in Loews Theater.

Q10: Honestly, is this just a promotional video to sell a few CDs, to make up for lost time?

A10: Listen Joey, this isn't a joke, game, fad, or gimmick. This is my life. This is my story. This is one story that many people can relate to. This is a movement that can potentially move mountains. This story needs to be told/shown to the world. How many of us are forced to live in, or intentionally place ourselves, in CAGES? Whether physically or mentally the majority of people in society are in some form of a cage and many of us can't find a way, or are AFRAID to find a way to BREAK it. This documentary is bigger than music. This documentary is a piece of a portion connected to a universal movement, and that movement is PEACE. This is my attempt at BREAKING THE CAGE.

Bonus Q: Explain how it feels to be "caged" as a black teen into his 20's. How did it make you FEEL every day? Day after day. Year after year. Take away all of the hip-hop, the nonprofit, all of the extracurriculars. What does freedom feel like one year after getting out of the cage?

Bonus A: To have your freedom taken away is something I wouldn't wish on any man. To have your freedom taken away as a teenager, that feeling is indescribable. Prison is a world within a world, a society within a society, with its own set of rules followed by all kinds of hardships and trials to face along the way. I went from a stage of denial, to a state of shock, to a deep depression, to numbness, to resurrection, to a divine and spiritual journey of knowledge, education, reflecting, understanding, and building. I was blessed to be around positive and spiritual people. People who shared similar stories as mine that I grew bonds with. These people grew up with me and helped me become a man. I was fortunate enough to be around people who motivated me to want to progress in life. People who pushed me to write music and perfect my craft. I was also blessed to have a support system throughout my journey of family and friends who wanted the best for me and believed in me.

I've been to every prison in the state of New Jersey, including the segregation units. I've been in administration segregation units (The Hole) for months, years at a time. I've been in the security threat group management unit "Gang Hole" (and completed it). I've seen and went through a lot of things throughout my journey, but I never lost faith in God. I don't know where I found the strength sometimes, but through prayer (meditation), reading, studying, exercise, and, writing I became stronger. Prison went from being like Hell to being a Universal Learning Center. It taught me patience, discipline, history, culture, and so much more.

A year out and I feel blessed. I thank God for another day and I try to live in the moment all while pushing towards my goals. Honestly, at times I still feel stuck in a cage. Adjusting to a world in 2013 has its ups and downs. Fortunately I have a good support system that helps me when I have difficult times. I try to enjoy the life of freedom as much as possible but my mission always plays in my mind. Everyday someone comes home from where I just was, but they all don't know how to rap. Most people don't have a support system at all. This is why so many of us die or go bacc to prison. I cant forget my mission.

7. Stick to the Eyes Next Time

(Lyrics, photo by Joey Kulkin)

Stick to the Eyes Next Time

A nose is a nose is a nose, is a rose

And so I spoke of her nose.

But then she got mad
at my words that were bad?

Emotions that followed were rancid and sad.

Really, all I meant is that her nose was my rose.

Clearly I chose the wrong verbal prose.

'Cuz her nose was my rose,
yet was I scorned like a thorn
no longer adorned
like love
when it's borne.

Her nose was my rose.

Love wilts,
I suppose.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Election Night Pizza in America

BENNINGTON -- Election. Night. Pizza.

Those 3 words cause Pavlovian responses in newsrooms across America and thanks to the Internet we get to see what such responses look like in real time.

It's 6:46 as I type these words so the night's still young in newsrooms. Indeed, thousands of pizzas will be arriving for the next several hours. I'll post more later or tomorrow and hope to reach 100 pizza pictures; then again, there might not even be 100 newsrooms these days; wouldn't be surprised if newspaper bosses even paid for Election Night Pizza anymore.

One night in Roswell I took a whole pizza for the sports department. I was the department so you can imagine why a few newsie eyes rolled. That might be the funniest thing about Election Night Pizza: watching territorial news-side putzes sneer as the sports department joins the party and devours several slices in one fell swoop. Good times.

Anyway, here's an early gathering of pizza (and grinder!) photos via Twitter and Instagram. What does your newsroom spread of pizza and soda look like at 7 o'clock?

Here's ralefever from York:

Not only is there #electionday pizza there is election say cheesy bread! #yorkvote

@LarryRyckman of the Denver Post:

Poor girl:

Here's @nicholashuba's Instagram post: Election night means 2 things democracy and pizza, a newsroom tradition. #njelection #reporterproblems

The injustice! Angela Hong has to eat a grinder. First-world problems, indeed:

It's 2 hours later, 6:42 in the p.m., and I see no Daily Freeman pizza, Ivan.

UPDATE: Google Glass Pizza at the Daily Freeman!