There’s no recency here but the end of the calendar year prompts a little reflection and so I’ll start by mentioning a few noteworthy music or sports venues I visited for the first time in the latter part of 2018.

1 I won’t say the name of this off-the-books music venue to keep it outside the purview of search engines but it’s in Bed-Stuy and it rhymes with love. I saw Bethlehem Steel play there three weeks ago on a Sunday night. It’s a short walk from the Kosciuszko J train stop on a quiet street off Broadway. You wouldn’t know it’s a music venue looking at it from the outside, but the first of four bands had gone on when I arrived so I just followed the vibration. Up a steep stairwell with a loose handrail, the main room holds no more than 75 people. It was a little smoky. I didn’t venture into the adjoining rooms and corridors people were moving in and out of but it appeared that tall boys and booze were being sold in a spot behind the stage. The sound was excellent. This venue’s survival up against what must be all sorts of obstacles is very inspiring and the bands who play here deserve credit for keeping the ever-changing but still dynamic DIY scene alive in a city that seems to be driving out artists faster than we can bring them in.

2 On a December visit to Kansas City to see Michelle, I saw the stunningly gorgeous and relatively new Kauffman Center (opened in 2011). Helzberg Hall (pictured above) is the facility’s crown jewel. We attended an evening performance of the KC Symphony’s annual Christmas Festival. The narrow venue somehow manages to hold up to 1600 because of the depth and steepness of the seating setup. The staff is welcoming and the sound is superb. The night before, I saw the UMKC men’s hoop team tip-off against non-conference foe McNeese State at venerable Municipal Auditorium. The beautiful, tightly-configured upward trajectory of the seating reminds me a bit of Alumni Hall in Chicago but Municipal is a bit larger – with about 7500 seats. There were only a couple hundred fans on hand for the game I attended but I imagined what it must have been like full when the place hosted nine final fours between 1940 and 1964. Old architectural charm has survived recent renovation touch-ups including bathroom fixtures from a distant past. The building is smack in the heart of downtown and you hope it can remain viable given what seems to be a shortage of meaningful, revenue-producing tenants. It’s clear the city of Kansas City is spending money to keep the place in good shape. It’s a throwback and it was a thrill to see. One aside: UMKC plays in the Western Athletic Conference which has nine member schools playing men’s hoops. It’s an odd and disparate collection of schools from far away spots like Bakersfield CA, Brownsville TX, Greeley CO and Las Cruces, NM. The travel budget must be huge and the logistics brutal for a student athlete based in KC but the school is probably seeing that automatic Big Dance bid light up in the distance.

3 Long a fan of major championship golf and the Ryder Cup competition, I saw day one of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Guyancourt, France on the last Friday of September. The Americans took three of four points in the morning four-ball session. I sat on a hill with a cup of coffee overlooking the eighth hole as Euro fans sang and clapped for the home team. Every part of the fan experience: the transportation, the concessions, the bathrooms, the signage, the hospitality were nailed successfully by the French hosts. The course had what felt like an unforgiving Scottish setup. The sun came out in the afternoon. I switched to red wine. Voices around me were speaking German, French, Swedish and thick-as-could-be Irish and Scottish accented English. The Euros swept the afternoon foursomes to break the American backs. The history books will forever recall this Euro rout with Tommy Fleetwood front and center – and the whining of Phil and Patrick Reed as exhibit A on why the Ryder Cup is not won by teams stacked with the most individual talent. It’s a team competition that’s typically won by a squad of players who like each other and have fun playing with a partner.

4 Five consecutive Autumn visits to Toulouse have included stops at many of the city’s sports and music venues. I added a new one in 2018 and really enjoyed it. L’usine a Musique is about 20 minutes northwest of city center on the Salvador Dali-bound L1 bus. A Tuesday night Goon Sax show staged by the arts collective La Chatte a la Voisine drew a big crowd with lots of familiar faces. The bar was really nice and the Picon biere went down great. The band was a little cranky but played a full set showcasing their 2018 release We’re Not Talking. La Chatte’s biggest challenge after settling with an act to stop in Toulouse is finding a cool venue that doesn’t break the bank. L’usine’s distance from downtown did not scare off visitors on this night – so maybe we’ll see the place become more prominent going forward.

5 There was a time about 20 years ago when my Dad and I were on a mission to see all the major league ballparks but then they started building new ones quicker than we could get to them. We’re not chasing as hard any more but we did check a nice one off the list in August. On a two night stay, we caught two games at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. We got the cheapest available tickets and snuck into box seats for both contests. The outfield facade quirks and open concourse are great. So is the view of downtown Minnie at night. The organization uses the vast outdoor plaza spaces to honor its history to great effect. My Dad was able to see a remembrance photo of the late Twins player, manager and broadcaster Frank Quilici who he knew as a young man. We also got a chance to see Joe Mauer and that sweet swing of his one last time.

-Favorite records of 2018? The new ones from Human People, Justin Sullivan’s Night Shop and Remember Sports. The Durham, England band Martha put out a single late in the year offering great hope their next LP will be fantastic. And of course we wait on the edge of the seat for new material from Kevin Morby and maybe but perhaps not likely Jeremy and Woods? The aforementioned Bethlehem Steel has been playing new songs at shows which signal a new full length. And I hope along with the French rock and rollers that Justin tours in support of In the Break beyond one-man-band select stops in an opening slot like the endeavor he undertook just after the record came out.

-New York State’s scaled-down version of a high school basketball tournament feels like an afterthought given the unique complexities of the public/parochial split – and the complete NYC / upstate postseason disconnect but at least the  New York State Federation of Secondary School Athletic Associations (NYSFSSAA) are taking a stab at breathing some new life into it. The Federation’s Executive Committee announced last week that it will move the tournament to Rose Hill Gym in the Bronx starting the last weekend in March of 2020. The three-day tourney has been staged in the small town of Glens Falls, NY (about 200 miles north) for all but a few of the last thirty years. Most of the top medium to big high school programs are in NYC and on Long Island . It made for an untenable road trip for many supporters of the city schools and lots of empty seats in Glens Falls. It’s about time this tournament ended up in the five boroughs and what better venue than Rose Hill? With a capacity of 3200 and a feeling of intimacy and intensity unrivalled except for perhaps a packed Carnesecca – it is a great decision to locate the state’s so-called “finals” at a historic venue in New York City. Now, if only the Federation could unify the associations on the matter of playing a true statewide hoops championship similar to the formats in most midwestern states. Fans in this state need a single-elimination tournament (school size based) with a huge bracket and broad participation that ends with a champion which defeated teams other than the ones they played the duration of the regular season. The PSAL for example would have to compress or eliminate its lengthy separate borough and city-wide playoff formats. In return, they’d meet public and Catholic schools on the Island and in the suburbs north of the city. Those matchups would be rich in drama. For now, I view the three-year move to Fordham a good start in spicing up a tournament that for many years nobody here in the city cared about much.

-On September 17, I hit 500 miles for my career on the blue bike. My routine is the same pretty much every time. Grab a bike outside Stuyvesant High School. Ride it up to Riverside Park in the 80’s. Get on a crosstown bus at 86th Street. Watch the city pass me by until I get out at Second Avenue. Say hello to the Lou Reed mural before getting on a downtown Q to a Queens-bound F. I enjoy every second of this regimen on the off day and hope I can keep doing it for a long time.

-Favorite food moment of 2018: Discovery of the Polenta Sourdough loaf made by She Wolf Bakery. Nothing like it warmed with a little butter and a cup of strong coffee.

Happy New Year.

It’s a big thing now to moan about the city’s public transit system.

You hear it all the time especially from a loud subset of riders who use social media to beef about their snarled commute during morning rush on the F train. Or the guy in Astoria in a fit about his station being shuttered six months for renovation. Or especially where I live: the politically-spazzed new arrivals who whine about the 7 train, expecting an easy glide during a massive effort to modernize track signals.

The reality of the bus and train network in New York City is this: It’s by far the greatest public transit system in the US. It runs 24 hours a day. The fare is $2.75. It’s way better than any other form of getting around. It has been financially neglected for decades. A recent rash of service disruptions attributable to deferred maintenance and upkeep is now finally becoming the focus of attention by a more liberal state legislature which will likely approve a new, dedicated funding source in 2019 under the name “Congestion Pricing.”

Congestion Pricing is a marvelous, long overdue idea because it would serve a dual purpose. By imposing a hefty fee on vehicles entering Manhattan, it would reduce non-essential traffic into an already insanely crowded street grid. Money from the entry charge would go to modernization and more intensive upkeep of the city’s public transit system.

Our Governor and Mayor have both pointed fingers at each other for the real – and perceived deficiencies of the subway system’s current state. The Governor has control on the revenue side of this equation given his role as primary overseer of the MTA which funds and makes decisions about bus and subway service. And while it’s his city, Mayor de Blasio has little power to affect change. With a big boost from the summer’s well-informed and dynamic gubernatorial campaign of Cynthia Nixon, de Blasio has become more emboldened to shine light on Cuomo’s role and so now we have what appears to be real momentum for the kind of fix – and modernization – that a system of this scope and grandeur deserves.

Ridership is nearly six million daily on the subway and 2.5 million on the buses. It really is an amazing opportunity to go places in this city at any hour with some measure of confidence you’ll get there in a safe and timely way. The greatness of the public transit system is a large part of why I live here – and why I’ll stay here if I can continue to afford the rent.

The whiners will be whiners. I don’t pay too much attention to them but their chorus of irrational complaints is impossible not to hear. At the end of my Mom’s last visit back in July, I went with her to take the bus to LaGuardia. There was an impatient crowd at the bus stop. About 75 or so of us had been waiting longer than the usual ten minutes or so for a Q70 to the airport. Seeing the problem, a MTA bus dispatcher rerouted a Woodside-bound trip to the airport and instructed the waiting mob to pile on via a makeshift stop on Broadway. As passengers scurried to board, some yelled disparaging things to the dispatcher about the bus’ failure to keep a schedule. “There’s bad congestion at the airport,” he said. “We’re having a hard time getting in and out of there.”

Instead of being thankful to the dispatcher for creatively deploying a bus out of nowhere, they let him have it because he represented some delay they’d experienced on public transit either that morning or before.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day last week, I saw that same dispatcher stop a double-long Q53 returning from Rockaway (headed to Woodside) and convert it to a Q70 to LaGuardia to accommodate a huge throng of tourists (many of whom had suitcases). It was an amazing display of dexterity by both the dispatcher and the driver to suddenly change up the routine – on behalf of an institution or bureaucracy that is often labeled as ineffective, stodgy or resistant to change because of its union culture.

Here’s another story of greatness by a MTA worker (a second-hand account). My co-worker at the airport John takes public transit to the job. As he was getting his select bus paper receipt for the M60 from a machine in Astoria, his Metrocard with 80 bucks loaded on it was eaten by the machine. Not sure how to get the value on the card returned, John copied down the machine’s ID number and pocketed the paper receipt that came out when his card got eaten. When he exited the bus at LaGuardia, a MTA worker was servicing the machines at that stop. John told him what happened to his card. The guy said it was actually a common problem and that he’d go to Astoria to check out that machine to see if he could recover it. Sure enough, a few hours later, John got a call on his cell phone and the guy had come back to LaGuardia to hand him the card.

Hope and inspiration has come from near the top too as new NYC Transit boss Andy Byford appears cut from a cloth different than most bureaucrats. Byford came on a year ago and has immediately become the face of the system. He’s rides it every day and stops to introduce himself to the rank and file. Byford is said to pick up trash when he sees it on the platform and he’s been tirelessly speaking about the specific changes that need to be made to make the system run smoother.

I expect improvement under Byford’s reign with the new revenue stream in 2019. But to me, that will just make an unfairly maligned system that much better.