Politics as Un-usual: My Dinner With Adolfo

I'm always up for a good meal. Especially when

a) Someone else is organizing
b) Someone else is paying;
c) There's a rumor of rib-eye

This is not to say that I avoid scheduling or paying the tab. In fact I'm known amongst my friends as the ultimate gift giver. And I plan for everyone. So when I received a dinner invitation to meet a small group of artists to dialogue about our creative needs for New York City, I immediately responded, "I'm in."

Turns out the event featured one of the mayoral candidates in the upcoming election. Only I'd never heard of him. About two minutes after I'd been introduced to Adolfo Carrion, I was a fast fan. After all, when was the last time a politician you met face-to-face:

• Stopped to hear your thoughts
• Did not dominate the conversation
• Omitted the word donation
• Focused on artistic concerns

Yup, a bona fide politician actually put down his fork mid-air to listen to me. Not one minute was spent on fundraising or self-promotion. Nope. Instead, Adolfo, running on the Independent Party ticket, concentrated on us -- all young independent artists struggling to survive in New York City.

Let's face it. Anyone who shares a birthday (March 6) with Lou Costello and Michelangelo has got my attention... and must have some artistic DNA. And Adolfo does. The son of a pastor, Carrion was raised in a Puerto Rican home, in the evangelical church, hearing the sounds of mambo, bomba, plena and spirituals. Call it the Gospels according to Tito Puente. Surrounded by music from Ray Barretto to a cappella, conga to doo-wop, Adolfo the choirboy soon became Adolfo the guitarist, trumpeter and flugelhorn student; and later, Adolfo, lead singer in top-40 band Encounter.

Fast-forward to Adolfo the adult politician. Yes, I'd say the former Bronx Borough President surely understands the plight of the artist. For Adolfo, it's all about bringing back the grit and soul that's always beckoned artists and musicians from Dylan to Dizzy to New York City. After all, Bleecker Street would never have been the same without Bob D. and Blowin' in the Wind.

Adolfo's mission? Finding affordable spaces for artists to rehearse, create and perform; and connecting these creative artists with New York City kids. And what better way than through education?

Adolfo is passionate about getting music into the classroom, about transporting kids from a drab here to a colorful anywhere else. And not just during after-school hours, but full-time. Get it back into the core curriculum for every child in every school. In short, bring art and kids together. Get the spark going. Get musicians, poets, rappers and actors into the schools. And, when I mentioned my own educational project -- teaching kids topics in rhyme and rap from math to meteorology, geology to genetics -- he was totally intrigued.

Why not have the 4R's: Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic & Rihanna? Let's hear some new meaningful lyrics. How about Lady Gaga on Government; Drake on Democracy; Beyonce on Bio-engineering; Jay-Z on Geometry? I'm just saying.

A refreshing change from the norm, Adolfo stands out for his bond with the man-on-the-street. A pastor, public school teacher, and city planner, he championed the new Yankee Stadium and helped develop surrounding parks and transportation for the residents. For the people. Adolfo-ites are us.

Savoring my salmon, I realized that I was seated next to a rare breed of politician -- a humble, heartfelt, down-to-earth guy happy to reminisce about his childhood on the Lower East Side. Pausing over the pan-fried potatoes, he described something huge that's blatantly missing today: the personal relationship. As a boy on the basketball court, Adolfo had been on a first-name basis with the local cops, who tipped him off when his parents were coming home, caring enough to suggest he start his homework. Bring back the personal. Get cops and firefighters playing hoops, and yes -- talking to the kids, and listening.

Yes, Adolfo Carrion was definitely listening. Our dinner guest was President Obama's first director of White House Office of Urban Affairs, a regional director of HUD, sharing his creamed spinach, breaking bread (or should I say breaking steak), treating us all as though we were the stars and he was the fan.

In between bites of succulent sirloin, the spoken word was all. Adolfo was all about us, not him. Even in our small group it seemed more like a one-on-one encounter. No publicity games, no fluffy promises. It was more about facts and philosophy; less froth, more pith. Adolfo is as passionate about citizens as he is about steak. He wants to bring civics back into the curriculum; he wants to hear from new Yorkers. His motto? MAKE IT YOUR CITY.

As for HIS city, as a kid he attended PS 34 on the Lower East Side. Raised in the Jacob Riis housing projects, he understands the desperate need for affordable apartments in this city. Adolfo's the real deal. He and his wife Linda will bike from City Island in the Bronx to Cooper Union in the East Village in one full 20-mile swoop.

Calm and charismatic, Adolfo blends the down-to-earth with the dreamer. As exuberant about asparagus as he is about education, Adolfo exudes endless energy. Even his headquarters address is 247 -- perfect for a man who runs seamlessly 24-7. So I guess it's fitting that his public school curriculum is based on STEAM - Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Mathematics - a balance of the pragmatic and the artistic, a plan to prepare students for jobs and for life. Hoping to glide city government into High Tech gear, Carrion's Campaign for a Smart NYC now features a free MyCityPass app to bolt us from dinosaur to digital.

He's not a millionaire owner of a supermarket chain. He did not run the MTA. He has no need to flash photos of himself or ally with realtors to destroy hospitals. He's a jazz, rock, and R & B guy -- a Stevie Wonder and Allman brothers buff. He's a simple family man, father of four, proud parent, bicyclist, gourmet cook and a gardener.

Tossing homegrown herbs and peppers into his own hot sauce, he keeps the tradition of Sunday dinner alive, giving his kids a sense of responsibility and commitment. Menus, conversation, time.

Sitting around the dinner table in downtown Manhattan's FiDi, Adolfo reminisces about his kitchen table -- always a mecca of creativity, conversation and camaraderie. Just as I once sat on a kitchen barstool in Queens watching my mom slice hard-boiled eggs for Jewish holiday chopped liver, Adolfo uses his Latino-American-Italian-Asian fusion kitchen to spread the word -- and the food -- with his own family, cooking, talking, listening. Whiffs of asopao gumbo and sofrito whirl in my head. I can still smell the chicken soup in Mom's kitchen, and I can smell the arroz con pollo in Adolfo's.

After we'd finished dinner and dialogue, I was full from this exquisite meal. But now I'm hungry for this kind of mayor -- thoughtful, concentrated, open to new ideas, here for the common man. Carry on, Carrion.

You can pick up that fork now, Adolfo.