A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park, Part One

EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 5, 2013, I set out on a twenty-three mile “trial walk” from Staten Island, New York to West Orange, New Jersey, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. This was the third of three trial walks for the project. (This is part one of a two part report.) The collected trial walks represent only a small fraction of what will be created during the national walk. And if we don’t make it to our fundraising goal, then a national investigation of the people, places, and sounds of this country won’t happen. But your financial assistance can ensure that we can continue the Ed Walks project across twelve states over six months. We have 15 days left in our Indiegogo campaign to make the national walk happen. If you would like to see more adventures carried out over the course of six months, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you!

Other Trial Walks:
1. A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow (Full Report)
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part One and Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part Two)

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The Staten Island Ferry is the only real free ride you can catch out of Manhattan and it has stayed this way because too many people feel contrite about the way New York was designed. The city once had the happy idea of extending the BMT Fourth Avenue Line from Bay Ridge to The Narrows. The tunnel got as far as 45 meters before Mayor John Hylan, a principled man who fought against “invisible government” and interests and damn near anyone who stood against the people, put the kibosh on interborough interconnection just before the Great Depression. Despite the Verrazano-Narrows’s long span and double deck suspension, Robert Moses never considered the people when conceiving the bridge. The cars mattered first.

In 1954, The New Yorker‘s Paul Brodeur was able to cross the bridge on foot before it opened. He described the Coney Island parachute jump as “a tower of only miniscule proportions,” Staten Island’s “rickety wooden piers, stretched for miles,” and “a gray sea that was becoming grayer in the fading light.” But these days, you can’t walk the bridge outside of marathons and bike tours and, despite vociferous demand, there won’t be a southwest pedestrian passage anytime soon.

So if you have two legs and you burn with an insatiable fire that could take you to the ends of the earth under the right circumstances, then the only way into Staten Island from Manhattan or Brooklyn is to board a 3,335 ton, triple-deck boat ping-ponging from one terminal to another all day at a speed of 16 knots.

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At six in the morning, the MV Andrew J. Barberi is a flouncing platform sashaying across the Upper Bay, ideal for the soporific. Brave bodies flatten their forms across plentiful seats. They use backpacks for pillows and ignore the soft squares shooting flickering light from above: the squares reminding them of white billowy rectangles beckoning from bedrooms, awaiting them on shore. Half the passengers who remain awake grip paper cups like asthmatics clasping onto inhalers just before an attack. It’s too early in the day to call or text or chat. So those who peer down at their phones guide virtual cars along digital raceways or maneuver hepping sprinters through tropical obstacles in Treasure Run 2. The stunning view outside is now too rote. The phoneless stretch the ends of newspapers and tighten magazines the way their mothers and fathers did. Crepuscular readers on the Barberi tend to stick with paper. And it’s good to know that a few 20th century traditions remain alive.

I see a thirtysomething’s frizzy chignon burst wild and unrepentant with flaxen highlights from a slick brown jungle, her front curls dangling like fine wires along the left side of her face. As she talks with her friend, I know this is the end of a happening evening.

This is near perfect acclimation before Saint George Terminal, where I am to meet a young reporter named Andres David Lopez, who has heard about the walk and has driven all the way out from Harlem to meet me at an ungodly hour. This is merely the beginning of an unanticipated adventure.

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Andres is a young man from South Florida: the first in his family to attend Columbia University and the first reporter to accompany me on one of my long walks. What neither of us know as the sun purrs into the promising expanse of a bluing sky is that we will spend most of the next nine miles walking together.

There’s a brief break just before eight when Andres, who has budgeted a few hours to talk with me but who ends up spending a few more, realizes that he has to reclaim his car before the baleful Staten Island parking meters begin their profitable drain on reticules and wallets. He has to hike back to Saint George to advance his car to a safe spot. He does this. And we triangulate by text and he stays on the trail with me. I see immediately that Andres is a highly dedicated reporter in the making: one that any outlet would be proud to have on its roster. “Just don’t become an aggregator, man,” I implore him. “That way is the way of demons.”

He assures me that aggregation isn’t in the cards, although I do hope that robust outlets will be around to ensure that thorough guys like Andres can deepen their craft.

Andres has worked very hard to get where he is today. He’s hanging with me because he’s writing a piece on people who walk across the country. And he’s really going above and beyond the call of duty. I very much hope that the Indiegogo campaign will be fully funded, if only so that Andres can get that happy ending securing a grand narrative arc for his piece. He’s easygoing enough to get me to gush about Guy Debord and John Steinbeck and Will Self, in large part because he makes me feel responsible in confessing all antecedents for this project. He impresses the hell out of me when he tells me that he’s chatted with Peter Jenkins, the mack daddy of long walks.

I ask Andres why he went into journalism.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be coming out of high school,” he said.

He had a lost period for a bit, but always enjoyed reading and writing. So he joined the Navy.

“I thought I’d get some adventure and see the world. And I got accepted into the Nuclear Power Program.”

This was a rather colossal commitment: a six year contract that was especially intense. Andres spent two years living in South Carolina in a college setting taking essay exams on the basics of radiation, electricity, submarines, and other lightweight topics along these lines. The program gave Andres much-needed discipline, but he didn’t quite see a future in nuclear power.

“I had to decide, ‘Well, if you don’t want to be in the Navy for the rest of your life, what do you want to do for the rest of your life?’ And I decided that I wanted to be a journalist for a lot of reasons. Because it allows me to write and improve my writing every day. I’m constantly finding stories and trying to share them. I love the idea that I’m going to have deadlines every day.”

Andres was also drawn to the public service component. He sees journalism as a noble calling, as a way of changing the world for the better and an essential part of democracy. But the big question I had was why Andres was interested in walkers. Part of this has to do with Andres taking a class which deals in human interest stories, that involves learning how to synthesize a massive story for a national wire service. He’s very well aware, like most reporters, that ever diminishing budgets prevent journalists from flying out to necessary places. But maybe if the two of us keep walking, we’ll end up running into a story. This is precisely what happens several times on Friday.

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I have never set foot inside a live poultry market in my life, but something emboldens me in Staten Island.

Me: Adam, nice to meet you. So how long have you been in the poultry market business? How does one get into this line?
Adam: Well, right now, I’ve been here for about two months.
Me: Two months? Oh wow. So you’ve been an experienced butcher?
Adam: Well, just a little bit, yeah.
Me: Okay.
Adam: I’m not really up at the top. But I’m not planning on staying here long. This is just a part-time job.
Me: A part-time job.
Adam: Yeah.
Me: Could you do this full-time or it is just…?
Adam: Not really. No.
Me: So what’s it like on a day-to-day basis to do this job?
Adam: Well, I mean, it’s not bad. It’s good money and it’s — I mean, it’s hard work. You gotta be here in the morning. You gotta clean. And then, you know, you work — it’s ten hour shifts. But it’s got to be an hour of cleaning from before and an hour of cleaning after. So it’s very hard.
Me: Wow. Cleaning is the hardest part?
Adam: No, no. Cleaning is the easiest part. Killing is the hardest part.
Me: Killing is the hardest part. But do you get used to the killing after a while? I mean…
Adam: Yeah, you get used to it.
Me: What? How do you deal with that? Do you have nightmares at all?
[A chicken flutters in its cage.]
Me: Whoa!
Adam: No, no nightmares.
Me: No nightmares?
Adam: No, not really.
Me: No guilty conscience?
Adam: I mean, it’s not like I’m killing humans or anything. It’s chickens. But it’s food.
Me: It’s food. So have you had any kind of moral qualms out of curiosity?
Adam: Nah.
Me: Nothing?
Adam: Nothing. It’s not bad. You get used to it. Sometimes it’s fun. And you get to meet a lot of people. You get to talk with them. You get to chill with them. It’s cool.
Me: Do people ever crack on this job?
Adam: Uh, some people do, yeah. Some people even go and kill. Themselves. They try it out.
Me: So this is like a testing before they came a real homicidal maniac?
Adam: Yeah. Some people do actually test it, yeah. And they’re like — well, some people like it actually. They’re like, “Oh, this is fun.”

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Me: So what actually happens? What is the process of killing a chicken?
Adam: Well, when you kill it, you’ve got to let the drain blood — I mean, the blood drain out. And then after that, you’ve got to clean it. You’ve got to take the feathers out. So we have a machine for that. That takes the feathers out. And after that, it’s — you know, it’s just just kind of from the inside. And if people want it cut up and whole, we just give it to them. Whatever they want. And it’s a lot better than what they sell in the supermarket. Cause it’s all fresh here. It’s not like what they sell in the supermarket. Different taste. Plus, it’s cheap too.
Me: Do you get any special requests? Any particular parts? Or any special butchering techniques or anything?
Adam: No. Well, like I said, some people, they have their own style of cutting in pieces. Some people want it in four pieces. It all depends on how they cook it. I’m not much of a cooking expert. But, you know, I do whatever they tell me to do. So some people want to cut it small. I think they use it for curry or stew. That’s how I give it to them. Four pieces. Grilled. Baked. That’s how I do it for them.
Me: How many clients do you have? How many people actually rely on this place?
Adam: Well, about a day, I’d say there’s over a hundred maybe.
Me: Oh, a hundred a day.
Adam: Yeah.
Me: Like a hundred chickens? Or a hundred orders?
Adam: No. Over a hundred people that come in.
Me: Oh, I see.
Adam: Chickens. This is how many chickens we kill and we have trucks coming in later.
Me: So all the chickens that are here are going to be dead by the end of the day.
Adam: Well, hopefully, yeah…
Me: Hopefully!
Adam: Well, I mean, usually — about three quarters of this is gone, yeah.
Me: What kind of trouble do the chickens give you?
Adam: You see my arms?
[Adam rolls up his sleeve. There are several scratch marks he has received from the chickens. I ask Adam later if I can photograph these marks, but he says he doesn’t want to. But he is kind enough to let me photograph him in front of the chickens.]
Me: Oh my.
Adam: That’s the only trouble.
Me: Yeah. Scrapes on the arm here.
Adam: Only scratches. Other than that, they are no trouble at all. But, you know, it’s work. You’ve got to make money one way or the other.

Read Part Two! Adventures across the Bayonne Bridge, a women’s underwear shop, New Jersey solar panels, and Edison Park!

Tunnel Vision

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Some months ago, I shot some footage around Holland Tunnel. It was all part of a short movie — one of the so-called anthropological films I’ve been working on — devoted to the bridges and tunnels that surround Manhattan. The creative effort arose from innocuous intent. It had not occurred to me that many of these passages, despite being heavily traversed by thousands at any given hour, would be heavily protected by burly men toting submachine guns, many of their waists protruding from one too many pulls from a certain donut franchise extending its limitless basidospores across the five boroughs.*

I hoped to better understand my surrounding geography, to take in sights that New Yorkers are not supposed to look at, and to tinker with pre-existing notions of what it means to live in a city. Times Square is not just a place where tourists and cubemates shuffle like Romero’s zombies. Impromptu parades need not be limited to one cultural audience. Riverside Park isn’t just a locale for joggers to plug in their iPods. There are rigid designators — traffic signs, expected functions of roads, men shuffling in subways with cups — that we choose to block out and this selective criteria reinforces cliches. We believe we already know all this. And if we don’t, we can always Google it. But in many instances, we maintain only a superficial understanding of how these many infrastructures relate to our lives, much less the unexpected consequences that expound from such willful ignorance.

Obviously, living is an exercise in perceptive selection. It is unreasonable to expect anyone to pay attention to everything. But seeing as how there is a failure to discuss how present economic circumstances are hurting people, I felt that my little experiment might offer an intuitive nudge in the right direction, wherever that may be.

Even so, how can a two-dimensional medium, selectively cutting up particular bits and arranging them into some preordained pattern, accurately capture the totality of life? For that matter, what right did I have to offer a subjective viewpoint on a feeling varying from person to person? To address these problems, I imposed certain limitations for the anthropological films. I would not capture any dialogue or sound from the streets. And unlike Carson Davidson’s excellent short, “3rd Ave. El,” which presents the belated railway in its full elevated glory, I would do my best not to confine my peregrinations into a narrative form. In the editing, I would give into my own subconscious, permitting specific patterns to emerge around a piece of music.

My efforts with the tunnels were impeded by the fuzz. For we are no longer permitted to photograph certain territory we’re consciously ignoring. So we acquiesce to authorities who seem to believe that certain technologies, like Emperor Yuan in Ray Bradbury’s “The Flying Machine,” shouldn’t be permitted within specific territory. But might the balance be restored with a garden-variety saunter? By simply being there? Not at all. In our lust to capture everything, we’ve given up that right.

Setting aside the Port Authority Police Department’s overstated security concerns, this double-edged sword has much to do with living in a seemingly irreversible age in which nearly everything seems to be photographed or reported. On Saturday, while I was hanging out with friends, I was extremely surprised to see that my appearance was reported by two different people on Twitter. It wasn’t that these people didn’t engage with me or that they weren’t nice. They were. But they felt compelled to report where I was.

There’s also the case of Thomas Hawk, an amateur photographer who was ejected last year for photographing inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Hawk grandstanded his First Amendment right, but he proceeded to harass an employee by posting his photograph online. (In 2006, similar behavior from Hawk resulted in a security guard being fired.)

All this suggests that the need to document everything — indeed, the need to create an alternative and seemingly peerless reality — may outweigh the pleasure of knowing that you or someone else you know lived and had a good time, or that you all managed to do something interesting without anybody reporting it. While I cannot imagine a society that does not capture its highs and lows, I’m wondering if it’s even possible for our most feverish chroniclers to stop. Because if we don’t control these impulses to chronicle every private moment, we could very well be placing needless limitations on reasonable public discourse. And the territory we must explore to maintain “the real unconscious history” that Guy Debord so angrily italicized may beckon a more real and catastrophic social network.

* — With this aside, we reveal the identification of a crass and hermetic pattern. But suppose the donut franchise offers both fourth-rate sustenance and communal meaning to the law enforcement authorities taken to task? Do we stray into elitist territory or adopt the rebellious and frustrated position of not being able to circulate within restrictive geography? Certainly Guy Debord had some sharp feelings on the subject: “Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities, is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal. The economic organization of visits to different places is already in itself the guarantee of their equivalence. The same modernization that removed time from the voyage also removed from it the reality of space.”

NYFF: In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni (1978)

[This is the fifth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Several people who are much smarter than I am have written plenty of words about Guy Debord’s 1978 film, In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, a title which I must confess is rather difficult for me to type without looking at another browser window (currently open, right next to a minimized Explorer window urging me to search through “My Computer” and presumably my soul) and ensuring that I am not making a spelling mistake. (Yes, I could cut and paste the title, like your typical hack journalist would. And I suspect, given the thin crowd I observed, very few will actually write about it, claiming the film to be too difficult or too sophisticated. But I wish to respond to the more troubling typing gaffe at hand. Speaking only for myself, I retain some small hope that I might actually type in this Latin palindrome correctly with repeated effort. Incidentally, in case you might be wondering, this phrase stands for “We Turn in the Night, Consumed by Fire.”) And several people who are much smarter than I am will indeed be discussing this film on Friday, October 3. But I don’t believe Debord, the man best known for his Situationist activities (and if we mere consumer slaves take this film at face value, Debord was one of the finest egotists that mid-20th century French philosophy had to offer) would have approved of this staged commentary. The film, after all, ends with the subtitle: TO BE GONE THROUGH AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING. Which I think is a pretty clear instruction. So would it not have made more sense for the good people at the Lincoln Center to simply play the film twice for the benefit of any party who may not have parsed Debord’s words correctly the first time around, rather than to have talking heads attempt to explain the film for the audience? The assembled parties, last I heard, had no intention of excusing themselves.

And I certainly don’t believe that Debord would have approved of some balding blogger, who is, at present, clutching a copy of the film’s script that was kindly handed out by the good people at the Lincoln Center and is now again getting lost in Debord’s considerable thoughts, their relationship to the images, and is wondering why very few people make films quite like this anymore and what possible “take” I might offer.

For that matter, I don’t think that any reader (and especially French philosophers) would approve of these last two paragraphs, which are mired in needless clauses and parenthetical asides, and don’t really get anywhere close to conveying my rather amazing cinematic experience on Saturday morning, in which I was barely awake, peering around desperately for a caffeine drip, greeted in the dark by a dry and bitter French voice unloading a steady stream of anti-consumerist language, followed by personal adventures in the Left Bank that were truly not that different from the usual n+1 ravings (i.e., douchebag entitlement), but becoming, nevertheless, quite fascinated by the images of pilfered trailers from mediocre films, endless tracking shots across water, and assorted stills of overhead shots of Paris, various grids, and crummy-looking buildings.

This was indeed Paris, ten years after the riots and the failed experiment. And Debord, in 1978, did not like it one bit:

It was in Paris, a city that was then so beautiful that many people preferred to be poor there rather than rich anywhere else.

Who, now that nothing of it remains, will be able to understand this, apart from those who remember its glory? Who else could know the pleasures and exhaustions we experienced in these neighborhoods where everything has now become so abysmal?

Now the degree to which you can accept the veracity of this statement will probably inform the degree to which you enjoy Debord’s film. This is a man, knowing very well that he has enslaved his audience for 100 minutes, who proceeds to kvetch even grander than Jean-Paul Sartre. He often removes the images entirely, giving us either all-black and all-white for several minutes, so that the audience will be reminded of who is in command. (The film was made in an epoch before the remote control offered us the mute button.) He prides himself in his voiceover for being an intolerable gadfly. He regrets nothing, saying to us, “I remain completely incapable of imagining how I could have done anything any differently.” He suggests that he and his fellow gadflies are somehow superior because they did not apply for grants and did not go on television. Those who have not begun to live in some individual (and presumably Debord-like) fashion “are waiting for nothing less than a permanent paradise,” which might be identified as a job promotion or a total revolution. But Debord’s purpose was actually quite simple: “For our aim had been none other than to provoke a practical and public division between those who still want the existing world and those who will decide to reject it.”

I’m making Debord come across like an insufferable asshole. And while this may be somewhat true, the salient point I took away from this film was that there is now nobody like Debord who is telling the truth like this — even if Debord himself only half-believed it. It seems that something terrible has been lost in the last twenty years. A dessication of identity. A capitulation. I am not aware of anybody using the great possibilities provided to us by YouTube making a film like this who doesn’t care about the audience and who doesn’t care about how their offerings are perceived. It’s all about giving into the slim possibilities of fifteen minutes of fame, rather than living a lifetime of unapologetic infamy.

So Debord’s film comes at us forty years later reminding us that there was an altogether different type of provocateur who held various mediums hostage and used this to extort an audience into challenging their assumptions. Tout à fait brillant! If anyone will now listen to the man, his words are perhaps more important than any of us anticipated.