Columbus Day: How to Celebrate a Cultural Heritage

“See? Italians are a happy people,” said the North African gentleman working the silver jewelry kiosk in Washington Park during Albany’s Columbus Day Italian Festival on October 9th. He was referring to a man named Michael who loudly pounded one of the conga drums for sale. Michael was chanting something meant to spoof Native Americans, but not before he had a chance to haggle the man down to $17 for a ring he couldn’t believe fit his thumb. He smugly walked away with a blonde who was all legs. “There’s nothing wrong with happy.”

And what’s not to be happy about? On Saturday the dog walking green was transformed into “zona bambini,” with pony rides and petting zoos, an authentic marionette show that invoked images of the Emperor Charlamagne’s imperial conquest of Europe, and several Italian-style big bands. On the pond crooner Guytonno sang “Johnny B Good” and his “favorite oldies,” instructors taught any takers how to play bocce, and the APD RV sat idling all afternoon for good measure. Tinkers sold trinkets and venders sold tons of food. I mean, nothing says Italian like “Crazy Herb’s Texas Bar-B-Que.” Family fun, knick-knacks, calories, and music; how could it get any better than this?

Perhaps, if the sentiments surrounding Columbus Day truly reflected a celebration of the Italian-American Heritage there would be reason to sing its praises.

Columbus Day came to be celebrated in the United States during a 19th and early 20th century of discrimination against immigrants as a whole, but also against Italians and Catholics more generally. Perceived to be purveyors of a papal conspiracy to influence the Federal government, groups from the “Know Nothing” Party to the Ku Klux Klan outwardly opposed immigrant’s rights as American cities industrialized and came to fruition. Even as late as the 1960s, during John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president, xenophobic rumors abounded of the Pope having the young Catholic’s ear, heart, and administration. Against this backdrop, it only makes sense that an Italian-American lobby might seek to establish a holiday that celebrates Italian-American culture, heritage, and nationwide contributions. But why elevate Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus did not discover “America.” Christopher Columbus took what was to be America by storm. He claimed America. He slaughtered its people; he enslaved its people; he Westernized, Christianized, and vilified its people. Lands with people who already had a rich culture, folklore, medicine, infrastructure, writing systems, tools, scientific and mathematical achievements, literally several civilizations comparable to the best the Old World had to offer, in some ways outshining them altogether. While Europe was in its dark ages, tossing human waste in the streets, spreading plagues, even dismantling Roman masterpieces to build far cruder walls and buildings, the Inca were performing brain surgery. See terrace farming. See chinampas. See Chichen Itza.

Christopher Columbus conquered America; or Cuba, the Bahamas, and parts of Central America if you want to get technical. The ways in which his crew brutalized the locals are detailed in his ship logs, and widely written about, most notably by the late Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States.  The attempts by Columbus, as well as generations of other conquistadors, imperialists, and missionaries, to force Anglo-European culture and Christianity onto an unwilling populace runs counter to the cultural celebration, to the survival of Italian-Americanism, its adherents were seeking to lionize in the first place. There was senseless murder. There was enslavement. There was conquest, not discovery. And Columbus conquered it all for Castille and Aragon, the Catholic Monarchies of modern day Spain, not Italy.

Why not celebrate Italian politicians who fought for the rights of immigrants to participate in the rat race for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Why not celebrate Italian musicians who contributed to jazz, blues, rock and roll, and popular American culture? Why not celebrate a culture so vibrant that it survived the journey to America, the travails of Ellis Island, and generations of birth, growth, and renewal? Why not celebrate the struggle that Italian immigrants overcame in overcrowded urban hubs like New York, New Jersey, and California to become part of what it is to be American? Why not celebrate a people who acted as the progenitors of future generations of leaders, inventors, educators, and trend setters? Let us remember the lives of true Italian-AMERICANS, not the beginning of a long history of Native American colonization, enslavement, Anglicization, and genocide. No one celebrates the life of Benito Mussolini simply because he was Italian; no one celebrates the priest turned child molestors simply because they are Catholic; Christopher Columbus should not be the exception.

So when the African vendor asked, “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Italian?” with a smile and a wink, I felt it only fitting to oblige his request.
“Grazie, I believe…”
“Gracias!” said the man, “Thank you so much! Michael is a crazy guy, but he is so happy!”

There is nothing wrong with being happy, as long as you’re happy for the right reasons. Happy Leif Ericson Day.

Want good coffee in Albany? You’re shit out of luck.


UPDATE 11/25/14: This post is out of date. Read this for the most current info.

The headline isn\’t entirely true. You might have had a cup of coffee at my house.

Everyone who knows me, knows the (insane) extent that I go through to have good coffee. There\’s really no secret to having good coffee either. The beans need to be good. The roast needs to compliment the beans. They need to be used within days of being roasted. The grind needs to be appropriate for how you\’re brewing it. All the aforementioned steps, when stated out loud are painfully obvious; yet it\’s completely baffling that Albany has such a developed collection of incompetence disguised as coffee shops.

To me, the most painful thing is that every shop has all of the necessary fixtures and equipment to do it correctly. They simply lack the knowledge to do it any way other than what they\’re used to. Blue Bottle Coffee in Williamsburg prepares every cup of coffee one at a time and they\’re unfailingly busy from the minute they open, to the minute they close. Yes, this takes extra time, but if cars were cars, everyone would drive a Hyundai. For those who need their coffee right away they will go to Stewart\’s and add 8oz of french vanilla CoffeeMate to make it drinkable, but that\’s what they\’re proud to be voting for with their dollar.

The next most disappointing thing is that most of these shops roast their own beans, improperly using machines which cost would pay off my student loans in full. If you can\’t do it right yourself, get a wholesale account with Gimme!, Grumpy, Stumptown, or Blue Bottle and swallow your pride. You\’ll make more money and have more people in your shop than you\’ve ever had because people will travel, wait and pay for known quality. (The cost of coffee from any of these places is the same as  you\’re used to, and often the beans are the same or about a dollar more than Starbucks.)

Most often at fault, are low quality beans, which are roasted to oblivion to mask their low quality. Real roasters don\’t even use \”light\” or \”dark\” to describe their roasts. Brace yourself for the knowledge bomb:

In its most simplistic definition, roasting is the process by which the coffee seed is made edible for consumption. The roasting process is the means to the end, and in the end there should be no premeditated dark or light roasts, but only these 3 possibilities:

  1. The coffee is too underdeveloped, flavors taste vegetal
  2. The coffee is properly developed, flavors are revealed and highlighted
  3. The coffee is degraded, nuances masked by improper and over roasting

Of course, all of this has little meaning without the context of the quality of the green coffee (coffee seed) itself. If the quality of the green coffee is poor, then all that \’proper development\’ will do is highlight the intrinsic negative characteristics of the coffee (defects and the off tastes of cellulose). If the green coffee is of high quality and has complexity, uniqueness, balance and sweetness, then it is the roaster\’s job to develop, reveal and highlight these characteristics.

Source: the Gimme! Blog


With out nerding out too much, I make all my own coffee one cup at a time. I own a commercial grade burr grinder (the things that spin with blades are not grinders by definition) and a scale which I use to weigh out each cup\’s worth of beans. Rinse the filter, add beans, water and wait. Repeatable perfection. It\’s not hard, and costs about 40¢ per cup when all said and done.

As far as the new Lark coffee shop and the one on Hudson & Quail, I have low expectations. Call me a curmudgeon, but all I see is business majors looking to establish an appreciating asset and flip it. Oh well, I\’ll just go downstairs and make myself better coffee anyway.

‘All Business’ Event at the Marketplace Gallery

[tweetmeme] Tonight at the Marketplace Gallery (40 Broadway in Albany) they’re having an amazing show for First Friday. The show features the work of the completely amazing illustrator, Mab Graves. Somewhat reminiscent of Tim Burton, but less gimmicky, her paintings are completely enveloping. The detail work is completely beyond the scope of what I’ve seen before. Just look at the two following pictures.

See that jar in the girl with the red dress’ hands?

There’s bees in it. And they’re even more detailed than I was able to capture becuase I didn’t have the right lens with me.

On the way in, there was a bit of leftovers from the PaperGirl event, with a bit of RADICAL!’s work, which was always great to see.

Of course, in the art world, nothings ready until the very last second, but Samson always gets things done in time.

Bit more RADICAL!

Also, tonight you can pick up this month’s issue of Quintessential Zine at the Gallery.

An out-of-the-ordinary piece for Gregg Dunn.

NYC, Israel and Albany on the same wall. Nuts.

Mab’s also got a bunch of goodies. Paper dolls kits, articulated joint paper doll kits, and ready to go articulated paper dolls. Cheap too!

I won’t ruin the surprise on this, just be ready. Be sure to also check out 4 Central and catch Deep Children who will be playing some nice songs for you all night, in addition to the Existing Artists Group show there. If you can, brave the rain, get out of the house and have a fun time tonight at all the galleries. I’m going to be over in Gloucester, MA shooting for my cycling team all weekend, so do it for me! Oh, and order some TweetzzaPizza.