On Thursday, November 10, 2016, I attended the protests that had unfolded across the street from Trump Tower after Donald Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. I talked with anti-Trump activists, people who voted for Gary Johnson, people who voted for Trump, and people who didn’t vote at all in an attempt to understand how these unfathomable election results happened. (Running time: 32 minutes, 9 seconds)
(This is the ninth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The American Political Tradition.)
Sunset Park is a cozy part of Brooklyn trilling with children making midday escapes from big brick schools, with a few old factories that wail great threnodies whenever the moon winks a ditty about displaced residents on a cloudy night. There are robust workers and tight-knit families and bahn mi bistros and bustling bakeries from which one can savor the tantalizing nectar of glorious Spanish gossip squeezing into the streets. If you are tipsy after too many pints at the Irish pubs lining the southwestern fringe, there are 24 hour donut shops serving as makeshift diners, with loquacious jacks cooking up chorizo hash for any hungry ghost in a fix.
This is the region, along with East New York and Flatlands and Bensonhurst, where Brooklyn’s true soul still shines. It remains insulated from the Williamsburg hipsters oblivious to the high rise monstrosities now being hoisted near the East River or the yuppies who cleave to Park Slope’s gluten-free stroller war zone like children keeping to the shallow end of the pool. But the motley banter rivals the bright babble bubbling five miles east in Ditmas Park and even the chatty ripples that percolate just two miles south in Bay Ridge. In Sunset Park, you can pluck the city’s most enormous plantains from bold bodega bins bulging with promise, talk to the last honest bartender at Brooklyn’s best bowling alley, or walk beneath a Buddhist temple for some of the finest vegetarian Chinese grub in the region. It is a place of repose. It is a place of fun. It is a place to live.
Yet as great and as welcoming and as improbably enduring as this part of Brooklyn is, it could have been bigger. And for a long time, it was. Until Robert Moses came along.
There are many grim tales contained within Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker — an alarmingly large and exquisitely gripping and undeniably great and insanely obsessive masterpiece of journalism documenting the most ruthless urban planner that New York, and possibly America, has ever known. If you love New York City even one tenth as much as I do, you will find many reasons to shout obscenities out your window after reading about what Robert Moses did to this mighty metropolis. It was Moses who killed off the free aquarium, open to all, that once stood in Battery Park. It was Moses who pitted reliable mass transit lines serving regular Janes and Joes against highways designed solely for those who had the shekels to buy and upkeep a car. It was Moses who believed African-Americans to be “dirty” and who, in building Riverside Park, stiffed the Harlem section of playgrounds (seventeen in the West Side; one in Harlem) and football fields (five to one). Moses was so casually racist that most of the parks he built, the parks that secured his popularity, served white middle-class New Yorkers. But working-class families needed these parks more and were often reduced to opening a fire hydrant in the streets and playing in the gutter during a hot summer.
Not a single person in power will ever change the Manhattan skyline in the irreversible way that Moses did. Robert Moses had massive ambition, savvy savagery, limitless arrogance and energy, improbably large coffers that he willed together through a bridge bond ploy, a panache for grabbing and holding onto power, and a sick talent for persuading some of the most powerful figures of the 20th century to sign crooked agreements and/or get steamrolled into deals that screwed them over in quite profound ways.
For me, one of the acts that sums Moses up is the way in which he ripped out a major part of Sunset Park’s soul by erecting the Gowanus Expressway above Third Avenue. This is a toxic concrete barrier that still remains as cold and as gray and as unwelcoming as the bleakest rainstorm in December. To this very day, you can still hear the Belt Parkway’s thundering traffic as far away as Sixth Avenue. During a recent walk along Third Avenue on a somewhat chilly afternoon, I surveyed Moses’s handiwork and was nearly mowed down by a minivan barreling out of Costco, its back bulging with wasteful mass-produced goods, as a mad staccato honk pierced my ears with a motive that felt vaguely murderous.
Robert Moses wanted to make New York a city for automobiles, even though he never learned how to drive. And in some of the neighborhoods where his blots against natural urban life remain, his dogged legacy against regular people still persists.
Sunset Park’s residents had begged Moses to build the expressway over Second Avenue. This was closer to the water and the industrial din and might have preserved the many small businesses and happy homes that once punctuated Third Avenue’s happy line. But Moses, citing the recently opened subway that now serves the D, N, and R underneath Fourth Avenue and the available support beams from the soon-to-be-demolished El, was determined to raise a freeway on Third Avenue that he claimed was much cheaper, even though the engineers who weren’t on Moses’s payroll had observed that one mere mile of freeway looping back to the shore wouldn’t substantially reduce the cost. But Moses had fought barons before and had made a few curving compromises while constructing the Northern State Parkway. Armed with the power of eminent domain and a formidable administrative power in which bulldozers and blockades could be summoned against opponents almost as fast as a modern day Seamless delivery, Moses was not about to see his vision vitiated. And if that meant calling the good parts of Sunset Park a “slum,” which it wasn’t, or spouting off any number of lies or threats to destroy perfectly respectable working class neighborhoods, then he’d do it.
As documented by Caro, the Gowanus stretched a raised subway line’s harmless Venetian-blind shadow into a dirty expanse that was nearly two and a half times as wide, wider than a football field and twice as onyx. The traffic lights were so swiftly timed that one had to be a running back to sprint beneath the smog-choking blackness to the other side of the street. The condensation from the steel pillars created such a relentless dripping that it transformed this once sunny thoroughfare into a dirt-clogged river Styx for cars. The cost was seven movie theaters, dozens of restaurants, endless mom and pop stores, butcher shops that raffled Christmas turkeys, and tidy affordable apartments — all shuttered. Moses did not plan for the increased industrial traffic that sprinkled into Sunset Park’s streets, just as he hadn’t for his many other freeways and bridges. Garbage and rats accumulated in the surrounding lots. There was violence and drugs and gang wars. The traffic tightened and slowed to a crawl, demanding more roads, more buildings to gut, more more neighborhoods to disrupt for the worse.
Who was this man? And why was he so determined to assert his will? He fancied himself New York’s answer to Georges-Eugène Haussmann (even reusing a doughnut-shaped building for the 1964 World’s Fair that the Parisian planner himself had put together in 1867), yet didn’t begin to earn a dime for his tyranny until his forties. (He lived off his family’s money and secured early planning jobs by declining a salary.) He thought himself a poet (not an especially good one), but if he had any potential prose style, it turned sour and hard and technocratic by the time he hit Oxford and received his doctorate at Columbia. He worked seemingly every hour of the day and took endless walks, memorizing the precise points where he would later build big parks and tennis courts. And he loved to swim, taking broad strokes well beyond the shores in his sixties and seventies with an endurance and strength that crushed men who were two decades younger. Small wonder that Moses gave the city so many public pools.
After I finished reading The Power Broker, I wanted to know more. I found myself plunging into the collected works of Jane Jacobs (Jacobs’s successful battle to save Washington Square Park was left out by Caro due to the enormity of The Power Broker‘s original manuscript), as well as Anthony Flint’s excellent volume Wrestling with Moses (documenting the battles between Moses and Jacobs), an extremely useful volume edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson called Robert Moses and the Modern City that may be the best overview of every Moses project (and attempts, not entirely successfully, to refute some of Caro’s claims), as well as a wonderful graphic novel from Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez (Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City) which I recommend for anyone who doesn’t have enough time to read Caro’s 1,200 page biography written in very small print (although you really should read it).
I wanted to know how a man like Moses could operate so long without too many challenging him. His behavior often resembled a spoiled infant braying for his binky. When faced by an authority figure, Moses would often threaten to resign from a position until he got his way. Moses used this tactic so frequently that Mayor La Guardia once sent him a note reading, “Enclosed are your last five or six resignations; I’m starting a new file,” followed by city corporation counsel Paul Windels creating a pad of forms reading “I, Robert Moses, do hereby resign as _______ effective __________,” which further infuriated Moses.
The answer, of course, was through money and influence that Moses had raised through a bridge bond scheme floated through the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, with Moses as Chairman:
Moses wanted banks to be so anxious to purchase Triborough bonds that they would use all of their immense power to force elected officials to give his public works proposals the approval that would result in their issuance. So although the safety of the banks’ money was already amply assured by Triborough’s current earnings (so great that each year the Authority collected far more money than it spent), by the irrevocable covenants guaranteeing that tolls could never be removed without the bondholders’ consent, and by Triborough’s monopoly, also irrevocable, that guaranteed them that if any future intracity water crossing were built, they would share in its tolls, too, Moses provided them with additional assurances. He maintained huge cash reserves — “Fantastic,” says Jackson Phillips, director of municipal research for Dun and Bradstreet; “the last time I looked they had ten years’ interest on reserve” — and when he floated the Verrazano bonds he agreed to lay aside — in addition to the existing reserves! — 15 percent ($45,000,000) of the cash he received for the new bond issue, and not touch it until the bridge was open and operating five years later. Purchasers of the Verrazano bonds could be all but certain that they could collect their interest every year even if the bridge never collected a single toll. Small wonder that Phillips says, “Triborough’s are just about the best bonds there are.” Wall Streeters may believe that “any investment is a bet,” but Robert Moses was certainly running the safest game in town.
In other words, Moses pulled off one of the most sinister financial games in New York history. The Triborough Authority could not only collect tolls on its bridges and capitalize on these receipts by issuing revenue bonds, which would in turn generate considerable income for Moses to fund his many public works projects, but it was capable of spending more money than the City of New York. Which meant that the city often had to come crawling back to Moses. And if the city or the state wanted to audit the Triborough Authority, this operation was so incredibly complicated that it would require at least fifty accountants working full-time for a year in order to comprehend it. Government did not have this kind of money to place safeguards against Moses. Moreover, it needed Moses’s financial assistance in order to provide for the commonweal.
It wasn’t until 1968, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay put an end to these remarkable shenanigans by siphoning tolls into the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The bondholders might have sued over this. It was, after all, unconstitutional to uproot existing contractual obligations. But Rockefeller’s brother David happened to be the head of Chase Manhattan Bank. And Chase was the largest TBTA bondholder. In a glaring case of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” the Triborough Authority as puppet organization for Moses was finished. Moses was forced to abandon his role. And the man’s political hold on New York was effectively finished after four decades of relentless building and endless resignation threats.
It seemed a fitting end for a man who had maintained such a stranglehold over such a large area. Six years later, Robert Caro’s biography appeared. Moses wrote a 23 page response shortly after the book’s publication. Caro’s rebuttal was five paragraphs, concluding with this one:
It is slightly absurd (but typical of Robert Moses) to label as without documentation a book that has 83 solid pages of single-spaced, small-type notes and that is based on seven years of research, including 522 separate interviews.
Next Up: Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act!
Two cops were gunned down near Myrtle and Tompkins Avenue on Saturday afternoon. It happened near my old neighborhood. There was a palpable panic that hit the latte drinkers like an epidemic, as if one shooting had the power to halt the eastward wave of gentrification. The more troubling question, of course, beyond the immediate concern for the victims’s families, was whether this incident would serve as a smoking gun for an altogether different war against peaceful activists, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and any person standing in the NYPD’s way.
Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the gunman who killed Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, was neither a protester nor a political agitator, unless one counts Instagram photos as a manifesto. He was a mentally disturbed man, admitting to an unspecified illness in court, and he shot his ex-girlfriend on Saturday, only to continue his spree at Bed-Stuy. Thus, Brinsley’s “motive,” which has been widely associated with Eric Garner, could just as easily have been hearing one too many treacly Christmas carols at the supermarket.
In all the finger wagging and op-ed quarterbacking, there has been little ink devoted to how a man like Brinsley obtained his silver pistol. Much like Elliot Rodger back in May, Brinsley was eager to communicate his plan (“I’m Putting Wings On Pigs Today”), motivated by hate, and carried out his violent rampage on people who were doing nothing: in this case, two cops who were merely eating their lunch. Whether Brinsley felt oppressed in an altogether different way, and didn’t feel he could express himself through peaceful means, is a matter that will likely have to be settled when further evidence pours in. But in light of 2014’s repugnant buffet of brutal violence, sexual assault allegations, #gamergate and other misogynist outings, and relentless racism, one must legitimately ask why it all seems to be spilling out now.
The loss of two cops deserves our sorrow and our respect. This was a violent and ineffable act, and the NYPD certainly deserves to mourn these losses.
Yet this incident must not be used by the NYPD to elude culpability for the murders of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, who were both killed while unarmed and who both did not need to die. The NYPD must not stifle the necessary protests that will help bring about reform, much less any investigation into deeply inhumane and flagrantly over-the-top practices. The NYPD can complain about “NYPD KKK” epithets in chalk until it is as blue in the face as it is in uniform, but is not the written word better than the loaded gun? Surely, the NYPD must understand that there is a lot of rage over Garner, Gurley, and Michael Brown. The protests have attracted tens of thousands of people and, despite one questionable incident involving a bag of hammers, these efforts have been relatively peaceful.
Moreover, the NYPD is contributing to divisiveness. There were the I CAN BREATHE shirts brought by a Colorado man on Friday night, actively mocking Eric Garner’s dying words and heating up tensions with protesters on the other side. Then there was the NYPD’s astonishing disrespect for Mayor de Blasio on Saturday night, in which cops turned their backs when the Mayor entered a presser with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton at Woodhull Hospital.
The NYPD has been accustomed to getting what it wants and, as 1,000 more cops will be hired next year, there is little doubt that its militarized presence will escalate. And maybe that’s the problem with America right now. If everyone insists on being greedy and eating what little they have left of the pie, how will we learn to get through hard times?
On Sunday, the New York Police Department put Kang Wong, an 84-year-old man, in the hospital. Wong was left bleeding in the streets. There were cuts to his face. His crime wasn’t murder or drug trafficking or robbery. It was jaywalking.
The New York Post reported that Wong, who did not speak English, was approached shortly after he had crossed the intersection of 96th Street and Broadway against a red light. Wong walked away when the cop tried writing him a ticket. The police tried pulling him back. There was a struggle. And the violence began.
The NYPD has launched a crackdown on jaywalkers at this intersection — still in effect as of Monday afternoon — in response to three fatal accidents over a week. (Details on these deaths can be read at DNAinfo.) The most prominent fatality was Samantha Lee, who was struck by a red Dodge Charger sedan on early Saturday morning.
But the jaywalking crackdown, and the violence directed towards Wong, is completely out of proportion with the crime or even the jaywalking “epidemic,” as Mayor de Blasio referred to it on Monday afternoon. As The New York Times reported last March, New York’s traffic fatality rates are less than one-third of the national average and half the rates of other big cities. 286 people died in New York City last year, up from 2012’s 274 deaths. Yet this is still a remarkably low figure. Indeed, 2013’s tally was only 30 fatalities greater than 2010, when Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan announced that it was the best year for traffic fatalities in the City’s history. (The second-lowest figure is 269 in 2011, just 17 shy of the 2013 “epidemic.” Historically speaking, New York is doing much better than the 471 traffic fatalities in 1910.)
Yet Mayor de Blasio is determined to rid New York City of all traffic deaths by 2024. Aside from the fact that such a statistic is completely impossible unless the streets are purged of all cars, there’s an even bigger problem: the program that de Blasio is drawing from doesn’t actually work in New York.
Vision Zero — a policy idea cribbed from Sweden that de Blasio was talking up last August — wishes to put an end to all traffic fatalities. But the considerable efforts by Scandinavians to curb death have had middling and often ineffectual results. Norway adopted a Vision Zero policy in 1999, but the number of traffic fatalities remained largely unchanged since. And while Sweden has seen traffic fatalities fall as low as 266 in 2010, New York is not Sweden. Sweden isn’t nearly as dense as New York. It doesn’t have nearly as much traffic. Moreover, 65% of Sweden’s serious accidents involve wild animals. Unless New York reduces its population density (not likely) and sees a sudden influx of Swedish moose hopping around the BQE, what works for Sweden is unlikely to work in the Big Apple.
Moreover, de Blasio’s attempts to enact policy predicated upon an unworkable fantasy has established a dangerous authoritarian precedent: a tactic that the newly reappointed Police Commissioner is bringing to New York from Los Angeles that is more about sponging offenders with frivolous $250 tickets and making their lives more of a hassle.
Mayor de Blasio and New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton are also working from illusory datasets for their new program. Bratton appeared at a press conference last Wednesday to promote Vision Zero, claiming, “Last year, pedestrian error — and I point this out — pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions.” The New York Times‘s J. David Goodman and Matt Flegenheimer — among other journalists — accepted this statistic without question, failing to follow up on where or how Bratton obtained this 73% figure. (On Monday afternoon, I spoke with Lieutenant John Grimpel in the NYPD’s public information about what data Bratton was drawing upon. Gimpel informed me that this came from an internal document from the Collisions Investigation Squad. I asked Lt. Grimpel if he would be releasing the data or the survey at a future date. “We’re not giving that out,” he said.)
On Friday, Streetsblog’s Brad Aaron did the work that other journalists couldn’t be bothered to perform, attempting to track the source of Bratton’s figure and reporting similar communications issues with the NYPD. Aaron pointed out that the 73% figure “doesn’t match up with any known dataset or the robust recent research into the causes of serious pedestrian issues.”
In other words, de Blasio and Bratton are using Scandinavian ideology that doesn’t work and basing their policy on statistics that they refuse to be transparent about and that look to be illusory.
When questioned by reporters on Monday about the crackdown, de Blasio stated that while there was no citywide crackdown, precinct commanders could act upon the issue. De Blasio also referred to pedestrian fatalities as “an epidemic we’re facing,” but refused to address the Wong case “until I have a better sense of it.” But if the Mayor cannot provide adequate data and transparent justification which explains why his jaywalking crackdown is a sane corrective, then he and his Police Commissioner are no better than other thugs who have persecuted the hoi polloi in the name of mass hysteria that they lacked the acumen to respond to.
As Philip Alcabes has pointed out in his thoughtful book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu
When officials or entrepreneurs make use of an epidemic threat to create politically or financially useful lessons, they follow a long tradition. Medieval Christians burned Jews in hopes of warding off epidemics of plague; outbreaks of cholera in the mid-nineteenth century in England and America; early-twentieth century epidemics of plague in San Francisco were said to be caused by immigrants (Chinese and Mexican, respectively); and venereal disease epidemics have been attributed historically to “loose women.”
During his inauguration speech, de Blasio held up Fiorello La Guardia as “the man I consider to be the greatest Mayor this city has ever known,” citing La Guardia’s belief in the rugged individual. But his new policies against jaywalking are not only a shocking throwback to draconian police measures enacted by Mayor Giuliaini. These measures stand against La Guardia’s populist principles. (They are also a waste of police resources. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani criminalized jaywalking in the late 1990s, pushing up the fine from $2 to $50, police rightly balked at having to waste their time. How many more manhours will be wasted because of de Blasio and Bratton’s ridiculous war?)
According to H. Paul Jeffers’s The Napoleon of New York, Mayor La Guardia stood adamantly against criminalizing jaywalking. In 1936, as the Nazi conflict escalated in Germany, La Guardia vetoed a bill passed by the aldermen that required police to arrest people for jaywalking. “I prefer the happiness of our unorganized imperfection to the organized perfection of other countries,” said La Guardia. “Broadway is not Unter den Linden.”
But maybe under de Blasio and Bratton, it is.
Mark Slouka is most recently the author of Brewster.
Author: Mark Slouka
Subjects Discussed: Gandhi’s pacifist maxims, Wilifred Owen, World War I poets, Vietnam, violence in fiction, Brewster in relation to Woodstock, people who still listened to Perry Como in 1968, memory and sex, listening as research, auctorial instinct, the poetry of real world vernacular, having a father as a storyteller, why Slouka’s characters are often defined by outside towns, viewing a life in relation to the next place you’ll settle, Slouka’s Czech background, Nazi memorabilia, Slouka’s reluctance in exploring the grounded, being a child of Czech refugees, lives lived on a borderline, geographically fraught characters, the bright bulb of heritage, broken lamps, crossing America 22 times, the wandering instinct, stories to tell at a bar, the Motel 6 as a gathering spot, developing a photograph of America through travel, Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobil with the Memphis Blues Again,” towns that people pass through on the way to somewhere nicer, the benefits of sharp elbows, why small towns get a bad rap in American literature, the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Richard Russo, metropolitan types who condescend to small towns, David Lynch, avoiding dark cartoonish material to write truthfully about bigotry, courting complexity, the terror of familiarity, when you know another person’s parents more than your own, finding approval in another family, mothers who mourn the sons that they lose, the revelations of characters who touch surfaces, being a “physical writer,” the physical as a door to memory, sudden transitions from violence to casual conversation, being a victim of belief culture, when the real enters the domain of fiction, knowing ourselves through the telling of stories, Slouka affixing misspellings of his name to the refrigerator, fridge magnet poetry, how Brewster deals with race, desegregation busing, racism and locked doors, Obama’s Trayvon Martin speech, the myth of other worlds, the 168th Street Armory, lingering racism in Brewster, “Quitting the Paint Factory,” how Slouka’s notion of leisure have adjusted in 2013, leisure vs. consumer capitalism, why humans are being colonized by machines, assaults on the inner life, Twitter and the Arab Spring, attention deficit, why the human population has turned into addicts, acceptable forms of leisure, the inevitability of multitasking, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, why four hour podcasts exist in a medium that eats away our time, being shaped in ways you don’t understand, Slouka’s declaration of war against the perpetually busy, the conditions that determine whether someone’s soul has been eaten, the church of work, why people work like dogs to consume more, being derided for sleeping eight hours a night, and Slouka’s elevator pitch for Brewster.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: The book oscillates between one of Gandhi’s most famous maxims (“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”) and references to war, whether it be Vietnam or the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. And I’m wondering, just to get started here, how did this backdrop of war and peace help you to zero in on these characters and this landscape? Was this your way of tipping your hat to a socially charged time without hitting the obvious touchstones?
Slouka: Yeah, I think so. It’s a matter of “all politics are personal” and vice versa. I was interested in writing about war. Because war’s in the background, of course. It takes place in the late 1960s. And the drums of Vietnam were going through the whole thing. But what I’m really writing about is the lives of these two young guys — seventeen or eighteen years old — who are fighting a very different private war: each in their own way, each with their own family, each with their own life. So the interplay — the back-and-forth between War writ large and war, lowercase, is something that interested me.
Correspondent: This is a very violent book. There’s a lot of smacking, slapping, and, of course, the revelation near the end. I mean, it’s pretty brutal. It’s almost as violent as being in any kind of battlefield. And I’m wondering if the larger social canvas of Vietnam almost forced your hand, when thinking about these characters, to really consider this domestic abuse and all of this terrible pugilism that’s going on underneath the surface.
Slouka: I think so. I think it’s probably unavoidable. I mean, I also grew up with guys like — let’s say Ray Cappicciano, the Ray Cap character who’s fighting a very real war at home. His dad is an ex-cop, a prison guard. He’s not a good guy. But one of my favorite scenes is actually in the book. It’s a scene in the cafeteria where Jon, the narrator, is reading Wilfred Owen’s poem about the trenches in World War I and the experience of watching someone die in a gas attack. And Ray Cap, who’s sitting across the table, basically goads him into reading it out loud. “I’m not going to read the poem.” “Read the poem.” He eventually reads the poem and Ray responds to it in a way that’s completely unexpected, even for him. And he responds to it probably because he understands on some deep visceral level what it’s like to be in battle. What it’s like to be drawn to battle and not be able to get away from it. I mean, Owen was wounded. He recovered. And then he reenlisted and then eventually died in the war. And Ray Cap is haunted by that. Because it’s like, “He went back?” He went back to this thing and eventually killed him? That’s his biggest fear. Because he keeps going back to the house where he has a hard life.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s something that foreshadows his particular existence. He needs to have almost a poetic guide to understand the predicament that he’s in.
Slouka: That’s right.
Correspondent: And he just can’t understand why Owen would go back to serve after he’s written this poem.
Correspondent: I wanted to ask about how you depict this late 1960s in Brewster as a different place from Woodstock across the river. A place where people really don’t matter. I mean, they’re expected to fall into line. What kind of research did you do into Brewster of the late 1960s to develop this sense of what life is like? Where you can be an individual all you want, but if you don’t fall into line, you’re going to have trouble living here.
Slouka: Oh yeah. Well, research for a writer often entails just talking with people, listening to people. There’s this gorgeous New York area vernacular that I just fell in love with while writing this book. That Italian American/Irish thing that I never wrote about. I grew up listening to it and I never wrote about it. So this book was a homecoming for me. The research I did was just sort of sticking my nose out the door and listening to how people spoke. But I also had to remember a lot. And the truth is that the ’60s didn’t happen in the same way at the same time for all people. You know, one of the guys that plays a role in this book is an Irish Catholic kid named Frank who’s still listening to Perry Como in 1968 because he is. Because some people were. Brewster in 1968 was still in 1957 in a lot of ways. And it was happening. Watts was happening. Woodstock was across the river. But the day that Woodstock happens, my heroes end up going down to Yonkers. Because they don’t want to sit around listening to everything that they’re missing across the river and also because they’re poor. They’re working class kids. And a lot of working class kids didn’t make it to Brewster. Because they didn’t know that they opened the fences and it was twenty-three movie tickets to get into Woodstock. So they couldn’t go. So they’re fighting against a conservative, repressive, frightened culture that’s all around them. You know, some guy was hitching up his office pants saying, “Yeah, I got a dream. You know, I’ll pay the goddam mortgage.”
Correspondent: But it is interesting that Jon, in telling this tale, doesn’t really hit those touchstones. He says, well, “We were more aware of the Tet Offensive than a girl’s nipples.”
Correspondent: But he doesn’t really announce what they talked about. In fact, there’s one point in the Tina episode where he has a perfect memory of what he talks about with the hippies. But then, when they leave, he can’t remember a single subject of what he’s talking about with Tina. And I find that really interesting. It’s almost like, despite the fact that he was well-steeped in the subject, he can’t remember that. It’s almost as if that doesn’t matter, you know?
Slouka: Well, that’s part of it. But he’s also having sex. (laughs)
Correspondent: Well, of course! That does have a way of…
Slouka: …erase the memory for a little while. But yeah, you remember certain things. You don’t for others. I mean, I personally think that the ’60s didn’t really become the ’60s until 1980. You know what I mean? Then when look back and we say, “Well, that was the ’60s.” But when you were in it, you didn’t think things were happening. Personally, I think the ’60s were in some ways, despite all the bullshit around the edges (and they’ve been reduced to a fashion statement), the fact is that they were probably the last time that we really considered altering on a mass scale what our priorities are in this country and how we would proceed. It didn’t work. It didn’t happen. But some things happened. It was an exciting time. So these guys knew that things were happening. They could hear it happening. But it wasn’t happening in Brewster. And that’s part of the tension in the book.
Correspondent: Going back to what you were saying earlier about how you made Brewster come alive. You say that you stuck your nose out the door. But you’re also competing with memory. And you’re dealing with who is still alive, who lived through that time, versus what you remember. I mean, at what point do you have to throw that aside and just rely on your own instinct and imagination for what you feel Brewster is or should be? I mean, how do you wrestle with all this?
Slouka: I think you have to throw it out very early. You just have to go by instinct. You just walk in. You know, you create a place that feels right on the page. That feels like a place that you can inhabit as a writer and believe in as a writer. And if you get that right, then eerily enough I think you get close to something that’s actually believable for other people. And it’s a kind of counterintuitive sort of thing. You’re following your own instinct. Because why would someone else understand that? And sometimes they don’t. But in my experience, if you trust yourself, you know, you make mistakes. You try to correct them and so on. But by the time you’re done, if you’ve trusted yourself and if you followed those instincts, then there’s a really good chance that other people will sense that there’s a sort of organic quality to that imaginative thing that you brought and they’ll buy into it hopefully.
Correspondent: I’m curious about this. I mean, how many people did you talk with? And if you’re hearing another perspective of that particular time, how does this mesh with you trusting yourself as a writer? You trusting that truth, that perspective, that world that you are planting and growing in the book?
Slouka: For me, when I talk about listening to people, it’s not about listening to their stories necessarily, though people will tell you their stories and I love to hear them. It’s about listening to how they talk. It’s about listening to — you know, I love the way people talk there. I was getting some beer at the A&P recently and I asked this kid. I said, “Where’s the beer at?” And he said, “Well, okay, you go to the back and you look right.” And I was walking away. I said thanks. I’m walking away. And he said, “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store.” Well, if you write that down on paper — “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store” — it’s a mess. The sentence is a disaster. But it’s beautiful too. There’s a kind of poetry to it. And that can be expanded infinitely. So for me, it was a matter of imagining this place. I had certain bones I needed to pick with my own past, with the memories of people that I knew back then. You’re trying to resolve certain things that aren’t completely clear to you even as you’re writing them, except that you know that you have to write them. But the research involves just opening your ears, which I did for the first time in this. I never wrote an American book before. This is my first truly American book. It was just a question of giving myself permission to set a particular — to say, “Look, you were born and raised in this country. You’ve listened to these people for fifty years. Just shut up and write.” And I’ve tried to do that and hopefully it worked out.
Correspondent: It seems to me — I’m just going to infer here. Maybe you can clear this up. If you had a bone to pick with yourself, maybe some of these interesting sentences that you hear at the A&P or that you hear from people telling you about the period, maybe it’s a way to get outside of yourself or to plant what might almost be called a more objective voice. Because you have something more concrete to work with. Is that safe to say?
Slouka: I think that makes perfect sense. I think that’s exactly what it was really. And this book is a homecoming. I lost my father the day after this book was finished. Literally. And he was the storyteller in my life. We had our hard times. You know, he drank when I was a kid. The last fifteen years were great. But I spent most of my writing life writing stories that were set elsewhere. They were from my parents’ time. They were the Resistance in Prague during the Second World War. It was ancient Siam. The Siamese Twins. Da da da. You know, it’s time to write my own story. Not that those weren’t, but this one’s my own in a different way. I think there’s something about listening, about coming home to Brewster, which is a difficult place to explain though I’m fond of it…
Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Because in The Visible World, your narrator is a child of Czech refugees from World War II. Not unlike yourself. In Brewster, Jon’s family is Jewish. They have escaped from Germany. You have Frank, who we just talked about earlier. He comes from Poland. You have Karen even, from Hartford on a more limited scale. You have Ray talking with the women behind the cafeteria. So there is very much a quality to your fictitious characters in which they always come from somewhere else. Or they’re not defined by the place they live right now. And I was wondering why that’s your affinity.
Slouka: Where that comes from.
Correspondent: Not necessarily where that comes from, but do you feel that it’s truer to write about someone or that you’re going to get a more dimensional character if they have some kind of additional background? That no one is really from anywhere?
Slouka: Oh god, you’re good at this. The problem is that it’s me. I’m the one who’s not really from one place or another. You know what I mean? I grew up on the fault line between two cultures. Two languages. Two histories. I grew up in a Czech ghetto in Queens, New York, for Christ’s sake, right? My first language was Czech. I didn’t speak English until I was five and I went out on the playground and had to figure out what the hell was going on and why these kids weren’t speaking Czech. My problem — and that’s just my life — is that with the possible exception of a little cabin that we have in a place called Lost Lake, I’ve never really had a home. And whenever I was in one place, I was always looking for the next good place. The next place and the next place. That’s one of the problems for me in getting older. You’re running out of time to look for the next place and the next place and the next place. I think I’ve transferred a lot of that kind of restlessness, which I think is very American actually. Americans are always looking for the next great place. I’ve transferred that restlessness into my characters, who are usually from everywhere but here. I mean, it’s possible that actually Brewster is the most grounded of my books. Because these kids are from there. Though it’s also kind of ironic that they’re also the most trapped. I mean, they’re from Brewster and they want to get the hell out. Again, not unlike me. It’s like: I’m here. How soon can I leave?
Photo: Maya Slouka
“He said that, as a literary biographer, he’d been asked to talk about Peter’s literary interests, which of course was absurd in a mere seven minutes: Peter deserved a literary biography of his own, and maybe he would write it — anyone with stories to tell should see him afterwards, in strictest confidence, of course. This got a surprisingly warm laugh, though Rob was unsure, after what Jennifer had said, whether he was sending himself up as a teller of other people’s secrets.” — Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child
In more than a decade at New York Magazine, Boris Kachka has displayed a limitless knack for bumbling inquiry, suggesting an easily played and incurious rube who hopes and believes with every desperate palpitation of his hypoplastic heart that constant proximity to disinterested players will reveal some grand Talmudic truth.
Kachka is a “reporter” who has seen faux import in an osteoporosic Sally Field climbing fourteen flights of stairs in a midtown hotel. Mere months before Romina Puga, Kachka bombarded Jesse Eisenberg with vapid invasive questions, attempting to read sage significance in Eisenberg’s monosyllabic discomfort and leading one to wonder if Kachka had written his superficial queries on his palm in some headlong campaign to read the future. In April, Kachka visited Claire Messud and James Wood and, unable to spark it up with these two charming and gracious minds, littered his simpering copy with eight desperate New Journalism “[BARK!]”s (one sans brackets) and dwelt more on Wood’s mien than his thoughts.
At New York, Kachka established himself as a diseased mongrel who could barely push his debilitated legs off the porch to work his beat. He has littered his work with portentous phrases like “anomie of Lipsyte’s generation” and “Park Slope’s popular freelance perch,” and it all smacks of a desperate burnout raiding the low-hanging lexical fruit that hadn’t already been plucked for some “Talk of the Town” piece at a more august publication.
Kachka’s new book, Hothouse, comes out on Tuesday and purports to chronicle Farrar, Straus & Giroux with all the lapel-grabbing furor of Jacob Riis investigating the New York slums. Despite “more than 200 interviews,” the result is a dry, listless, tendentious, sexist, blinkered, and preposterous book which regurgitates insignificant facts, latches onto third-hand rumors, and fails to comprehend the way the publishing industry really works.
Yet Kachka’s insufficient history has inexplicably captured the imagination of a few gullible and unquestioning boosters, including Heller McAlpin at the Los Angeles Times and Carolyn Kellogg at Bullseye. Perhaps Hothouse has received a fair pass because journalistic standards have collapsed well beneath the lowest notches on the limbo bar. Or maybe these literary cheerleaders cannot comprehend that hearsay, which is impermissible testimony in a courtroom, is not acceptable in any work purporting to reveal the trajectory of an uniquely influential business.
Much like Leonard Zelig or, perhaps more accurately, Being There‘s Chauncey Gardner, Kachka has been allowed to commit solecisms for years, yet there’s an inexplicable hubris attached to his bungling, the telltale traits of a more famous Peter Sellers character. Kachka’s approach to the truth involves relying on inference without respect for person or underlying fact. Helene Atwan, now the Director of Beacon Press, leads Kachka to believe that FSG intended to change Peter Høeg’s last name to “Hawk” for the release of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Kachka laps this confabulation up so that he can grill Roger Straus III on this incredulous matter. Kachka specializes in the bold uncorroborated inference, writing like a man who isn’t getting any action at home: “By the early 1960s, [Roger Straus] was probably sleeping with three of his female operators.” Probably? The scuzziest TMZ reporters are more committed to accuracy. (There are, of course, no endnotes upholding this claim.)
If Kachka feels as if his subjects aren’t giving him the answers or the access that he believes he is entitled to by rightful decree of the tottering authority in his feeble delusional mind, or the quotes don’t match the story he believes he already knows, then he will burn them with his cheap prossy pen. Here, for example, is Kachka’s first description of Jonathan Galassi in Hothouse:
Galassi, on the other hand, is a patrician only by training, a bon vivant only by necessity, but a nerd through and through. He invited his fourth-grade teacher to his ninth birthday party. He seems to have learned the bold body language of an alpha male, but never quite vanquished his low, slightly nasal voice or downcast expression.
Instead of being curious about Galassi’s intriguing background, Kachka sees Galassi as a cartoon to be mocked. Kachka cannot be arsed to get his source to trust him. He is clearly not Richard Ben Cramer talking baseball with George W. Bush to get a stubborn man to open up. And stacked next to fellow New York journalist Robert Kolker (author of the recently released and well-received Lost Girls), he’s a total embarrassment, especially when he pursues an Oliver Stone-like trail suggesting that Straus had a secret telephone line and was working for the CIA. Had Kachka more time to push his plodding connections, he most certainly would have spotted Straus on the grassy knoll.
Like the despicable gossip peddler Paul Bryant in Alan Hollinghurst’s excellent novel, The Stranger’s Child, Kachka seeks any vaguely salacious angle to throw into his preordained template, whereby FSG is a “sexual sewer,” male employees fuck anything that moves, and Mad Men parallels snap into place like a smooth sudoku puzzle. In Hothouse, Kachka claims that, because someone may have seen long black strands of hair in a borrowed apartment, Susan Sontag and Straus were having an affair. He then spends the majority of his book calling David Rieff “an illegitimate son” to shove this unsubstantiated carnal connection down the reader’s throat. When Kachka finds former FSG assistant Leslie Sharpe, who tells him, “Everybody was fucking everybody in that office,” the reader feels the extremely unsettling aura of Kachka’s cock hardening at the news. But of course, Kachka has nothing reliable in his notes on the many affairs he claims went down. Any man close to the age of forty who wags his dry tongue for scuttlebutt scraps is a pathetic figure indeed.
Hothouse evinces how little Kachka understands wealth by pointing to “starter dachas,” opens chapters with journalism cliches (“If Jonathan Galassi didn’t exist, FSG would have to invent him”), and squeezes out strained efforts at Tom Wolfe-style savaging against agent Andrew Wylie:
It doesn’t help that his face tapers from a broad bald pate to an unshaped brow, icy eyes, and a chiseled, lupine chin, or that his laugh sounds like that of the world’s most cultured hyena.
Can a face taper? Is Wylie a hyena, a wolf, or a jackal? Given all the mixed metaphors, I don’t think Kachka even knows.
Kachka lacks one of the competent reporter’s primary skills: pretend to like a source you loathe (or, more ideal, find something to like about someone you despise). He’s long past the point where any true observer can feel sorry for him, although the pity blurbs accompanying his cotillion ball reveal a few noteworthy mensches who should be commended for their kindness. Still, Kachka is not significant enough to be put out of his misery with a pink slip and a peremptory blast in the human resources office. He trudges on, a bearded penguin known to harass people with multiple phone calls at 6 AM (including yours truly many years ago on a matter pertaining to Zadie Smith) and getting people so thoroughly wrong that one wonders if he has even read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.*
Roth, like John McPhee and Edmund Wilson, was wooed by FSG without an agent. An assiduous journalist would look into whether or not Roger Straus, a notorious cheapskate (a man who operated FSG from a ramshackle Union Square West headquarters for years and a man who did not contribute a sou to Susan Sontag’s breast cancer fund), actively pursued writers who did not have representatives to protect their interests. (Kachka points out that Straus sought to discredit agents wherever he could, but he isn’t robust enough to construct a timeline or a concrete set of governing principles.) Given the sour grapes that developed between Straus and Wylie in the 1980s, to say nothing of the resentment expressed by writers for being underpaid, it is palpably obvious to look into the very business philosophy that permitted a publisher, often sustained by family wealth when times were lean, to subsist as long as it did. It would also seem natural to focus on how New Directions, who worked in the same building as FSG for many years, operated as FSG’s competitor, snapping up the poetry of Thomas Merton and John Berryman before FSG editor Robert Giroux.
Hothouse reveals that Straus was a poor businessman (“No FSG catalog would be complete without its impending announcement,” mocked one wag about the publisher’s long delayed titles), even as it promulgates the false myth that this apparent patriarch had “just enough of a personal financial cushion to keep from falling over the brink.” Nearly 250 pages later, Kachka writes, “The fact is that 1988-vintage FSG could have eaten 1982 FSG for lunch. In the old days, the cash simply hadn’t been there. Roger’s cheapness may have been inborn, but it was refined by forty years of hard, break-even experience.” Or maybe it wasn’t. Kachka is such an otiose journalist that he doesn’t follow the money, except through mere conjecture. He claims that Wilson, Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, Tom Wolfe, and Joseph Brodsky “received financial support far beyond standard contracts,” but provides neither source nor sums for this claim. Why did Straus really sell his townhouse? Is it not possible that Straus sold FSG to billionaire Georg von Holtzbrinck in 1994 because his coffers were light? Kachka lacks the diligence to pursue these questions, in large part because it contradicts his cheap thesis that FSG is the Greatest Publisher of All Time. On the other hand, Kachka is to be commended for inadvertently reminding us that Melville House’s Dennis Loy Johnson, arguably the most hypocritical man working in publishing today, is desperately trying to be a Roger Straus for the 21st century and will surely fail if he continues along the same trajectory.
Kachka does account for Straus’s tendency to skim his titles, but is too much of a milquetoast to probe: “The most common theory, especially among those who saw him lug manuscripts up to Purchase for the weekend, is that he didn’t so much read books as ‘read in’ them, as he sometimes put it — enough to get a nose for them, like fine wines.”
Hothouse is plagued by other contradictory assertions which quickly out Kachka as a squirmy journalist who cannot be trusted. He claims FSG as an innovative publisher, but confesses that Robert Giroux was not an especially edgy editor:
But though he was still approaching the peak of his professional power, he was no longer, if he ever really had been, at the vanguard of taste. By the sixties, even the Beats — most of them too extreme for Giroux — were old hat.
In other words, FSG was hoary from the get go. And it took careful line editors like Lorin Stein, progressive-minded editors like Sean McDonald, and gutsy publicists like Jeff Seroy to turn it into the publisher it is today. But all that happened under a German congolomerate’s watch, not Straus’s.
But what ultimately makes Kachka such an unpardonable scumbag is the way in which he wallows in the very sexism he tries so hard to expose. Aside from perpetuating a fantasy that publishing was a “gentleman’s profession” with “Roger and his publicity girls,” Kachka undermines Margaret Farrar (along with her barely mentioned husband), claiming that the woman who created most of the rules governing crossword puzzle design merely “enriched one publishing house.” (Later, Margaret is dismissed as “the crossword-puzzle creator and sometime editor.”) He introduces FSG supplies manager Rose Wachtel as “a prematurely elderly-looking woman.”
Peggy Miller, Roger Straus’s secretary of several decades, tells Kachka that she refuses to answer questions about whether or not she was romantically involved with her employer. But that doesn’t stop Kachka from deracinating her dignity by suggesting that she’s “a living homage to Straus” and claiming that she and Straus were a “couple,” with rampant fucking during their annual trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Compare this with Ian Parker’s 2002 description of Miller as “a tall, chic, ironic woman.” In fact, save yourself the $28 on Kachka’s junk and just subscribe to The New Yorker to access Parker’s piece.)
The most prominent example of Kachka’s sexism is his deplorable depiction of Jean Stafford, a distinguished (if troubled) FSG writer. Kachka pits her husband Robert Lowell’s accomplishments over hers and has no sympathy for her nervous breakdown even as he points out that Lowell and Gertrude Buckman “spent unsavory amounts of time together headed for an affair.” Kachka’s vulgar and misogynist suggestion is that Jean Stafford should have suffered in silence. But he doesn’t stop there. Boris Kachka, a man who will never be a poet or a novelist or a journalist of any renown, actually has the temerity to write that “Giroux patiently endured broken deadlines,” as if Stafford’s great difficulty with a mentally unstable and philandering husband was some commonplace household task. It was likely that the pressure to produce in these conditions led Stafford to bolt to Random House, but the doltish Kachka actually writes this sentence: “It’s difficult to tell exactly what drove Jean Stafford away.” One can easily hear Peter Sellers speaking this line in a French accent.
Does Kachka stop embarrassing himself? Not at all. In 1963, A.J. Lebiling, Stafford’s third husband and the man who she experienced the most happiness with, died at the early age of 59. This premature death crushed Stafford and made it difficult for her to write fiction. But don’t tell that to the clueless and insensitive Kachka, who neglects to mention any of this when writing about FSG’s 1967 author compilation:
Giroux used it as a chance to prod another of his flailing depressives, Jean Stafford, to finish her autobiographical novel “A Parliament of Women,” only to receive the reply: “There is no book and I don’t know if there ever will be.” There never was.
A flailing depressive? Is that all she was? Never mind that Stafford would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories — an FSG book. Kachka does not mention this Pulitzer at all. Nor does this sexist pig point out that Stafford was good friends with Roger’s wife, Dorothea Straus. How many author-publisher relationships did Dorothea salvage? We may never know, because it doesn’t fit into Kachka’s “gentleman’s profession” template.
But Hothouse‘s greatest folie de grandeur is the notion that FSG willfully positioned itself as the most distinguished American publisher under Straus’s watch. Many of the Nobel winners that FSG published in the pre-Galassi days emerged by accident. Indeed, the publisher then and now has stayed alive publishing blockbuster authors like Scott Turow, Thomas Friedman, and Tom Wolfe. But the big tell that Kachka is writing for a lonely audience of one is when he shakily assesses FSG’s stature based on its spine:
The Farrar, Straus logo is so engrained in the consciousness of savvy readers that seeing it on sixty-year-old Noonday compilations provokes cognitive dissonance. To say that FSC simply appropriated the logo is not enough.
Who are these savvy readers? Can they be found in Washington next to the savvy insiders? FSG survived not through loyal readers adhering to the brand, but because it gobbled up profitable publishers. But Kachka is so blind to his invented mythology that he calls Walker Percy “a true Giroux-Robbins team effort,” even though his best-known book, The Moviegoer, was published at Knopf, where editor Henry Robbins merely “had some input into Stanley Kauffmann’s heavy editing of the manuscript.” (Robbins was to flee FSG only a few years later under extremely difficult conditions. Kachka is not especially interested in investigating the high turnover among top editors, but he cannot resist inserting any moment where Straus barks, “You’ll be back,” to an FSG employee fleeing to stabler pastures.)
Perhaps Kachka’s inherent squareness and his lack of adventure, seen with his hilarious suggestion that pot passed around a publishing party was dangerous or his equally pathetic fear of legitimate 1960s actvism (“acts of protest bordering on personal threats”), is to blame for this turgid book. The title is surely no accident, given how large chunks of this book are as dull and as boring as the smooth jazz Bruce Hornsby album of the same name. If Kachka is foolish enough to continue with his floundering career as a book writer, it is almost certain that, like Hornsby, he will celebrate every 4th of July just a little tamer than most of the rest of us do.
* — During the last BookExpo America, I attended a party in which a marvelous woman I hadn’t seen in a while kissed me. Kachka stood next to her and looked at me: his small mouth agog, a pathetic paralysis infesting his slapdash bearing, a hilariously pointless anger in his insignificant eyes. He didn’t even have the balls to introduce himself or call me an asshole to my face. Some years before this, Kachka proved incapable of recognizing a clear case of performance art by telephone voicemail. He really seems to believe that it’s still the 1990s. He’s clearly not going to blossom on the clock. But I’ll be the first to buy him a drink if he does.
8/7/13 UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, prompted by a Twitter discussion of Boris Kachka’s book involving Alexander Nazaryan and Kera Bolonik, Boris Kachka told me to “go fuck yourself,” as seen in the screenshot below.
Kachka’s tweet was quickly deleted. I responded to Kachka with this reasonable reply:
So Boris Kachka, unable to refute any of this essay’s charges, prefers to take the low road — a fitting path, given how his book is so obsessed with the vulgar.
The national unemployment rate continues to hover just under 8%. It’s been like this for about a year. That’s higher than the 1991 recession. And the unemployment numbers are starting to match the recession of the early 1980s, just before unemployment hit over 10% in 1982. This program looks into whether or not the jobs are really coming back. Are we avoiding a serious problem that we don’t have the courage to stare in the face? To what degree are we repeating history? We meet a man who motivates the unemployed in library basements, get experts to respond to Chairman Bernanke’s recent claims that unemployment will fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015, discuss the finer points of Beveridge curves with economics professor William Dickens, chat about how the last four decades of labor developments have contributed to the unemployment crisis with Down the Up Escalator author Barbara Garson, discover a company that protected the unemployed against discrimination with the National Employment Law Project’s Mitchell Hirsch, and learn about discrimination and how local labor policy reveals national labor policy with Dr. Michelle Holder of the Community Service Society of New York.
I Really Want This Job
Barry Cohen is a well-dressed man with impressive cheekbones and an indefatigable smile. He reminds me of some 20th century titan who wants you to sign on the dotted line for a set of steak knives. On hot summer nights, he can be found in the basements of public libraries addressing the unemployed on how to find and get the jobs they really want. We talk with Barry and the people who look for confidence and guidance in his words. It turns out that Barry is working from an unexpected vicarious place. (Beginning to 9:40)
Curves and Predictions
Last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters that we were at the beginning of the end. He predicted that unemployment would fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015. But William Dickens, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Social Policy at Northeastern University, feels that Bernanke is being overly optimistic. He also demystifies Beveridge curves for us and elucidates a policy paper he co-authored with Rand Ghayad that caused at least journalist to freak out in the final moments of 2012. (9:40 to 18:37)
Down the Up Escalator
Barbara Garson, author of Down the Up Escalator, offers a more sociological view of the unemployment problem. She tells us that it’s not so much the recession that reveals the causes of unemployment, but the American worker’s dwindling prospects over the past four decades. We discuss the Pink Slip Club, the “new normal” of unemployment, and consider how the unemployed can contribute to society as they pine for nonexistent jobs. (18:37 to 29:10)
It’s difficult to feel inspired and real when the deck is stacked against you. One little discussed truth about being unemployed is the rampant discrimination against job seekers who are not presently employed. The situation is so bad that New York City was forced to pass Introduction 814, a groundbreaking piece of local legislation that made it illegal under the human rights law for an employer to base a hiring decision on an applicant’s unemployment. We speak with Mitchell Hirsch, the Web and Campaign Associate at the National Employment Law Project, to get a handle on just how bad discrimination against the unemployed remains. It turns out that Introduction 814 doesn’t go far enough. We also meet Dr. Michelle Holder, Senior Labor Market Analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, to determine why New York is a good microcosm for American unemployment. The conversation reveals how local policy reflects national policy and gets into problems with the Georgia Works program and “business-friendly” politicians. (29:10 to end)
Loops for this program were provided by BlackNebula, danke, djmfl, drmistersir, EOS, JorgeDanielRamirez, kristijann, KRP92, MaMaGBeats, Megapaul, morpheusd, and ShortBusMusic. Follow Your Ears Theme (licensed) by Mark Allaway.
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. (And this is the second of a two part report. You can read the first part here.) 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 two weeks left in our Indiegogo campaign to make the national walk happen. If you would like to see more chronicles 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!
It is so easy to breeze past the grand landmarks in life that we often fail to note how change sneaks up like a drone hovering above a confused moose. The two photos above capture the same view from the Manhattan Bridge walkway, but are separated by sixty-six years. The left photo was taken by legendary photographer Berenice Abbott (who also captured many iconic images of the 1920s Parisian avant-garde community) as part of her groundbreaking project, Changing New York. More than six decades later, photographer Douglas Levere revisited Abbott’s locations at the same time of day and at the same time of year and shot updated stills for his equally exciting project, New York Changing. The right photo is Levere’s. Through one simple act of visual diligence, we see how the unobstructed panorama of the East River has conceded to concerns for safety.
Who put up the chainlink fence? When was it erected? How many leapt to their deaths before the barrier became necessary? If the fence creates an imposed safety that our grandparents never knew, then how has this affected subsequent generations? Do we take fewer risks? Are we as alive?
If Abbott had not taken the photo and if Levere had not been inspired to follow in her footsteps, it’s possible that we wouldn’t be asking these questions. Yet Abbott’s project couldn’t have happened without the Federal Art Project, which helped countless down-on-their-luck artists to excel at their craft and provide inspiring ways of seeing our nation. Seven decades later, crowdfunding is meant to pick up the slack. And while most don’t feel that these investigations into change are as “entertaining” as a new Veronica Mars movie or a $1.2 million Amanda Palmer vanity project that exploits unpaid musicians, we still have to try. It’s our civil responsibility. It’s the legacy we’ll pass to future generations.
When Andres and I hit the Bayonne Bridge and began our carefree stroll across the Kill Van Kull, the Abbott-Levere distinction loomed large in my mind. While I had walked across the George Washington Bridge many times (one time, I confess, to recreate Parker’s march into New York in Richard Stark’s The Hunter), the Bayonne’s guardrail felt more fragile because of its junior height. And as I uploaded photos to Twitter while crossing, there was dubiety from some following along:
@drmabuse that bridge looks worse walking than it does driving (and that says a lot)
— Brian O'Leary (@brianoleary) April 5, 2013
But I’m here to tell you that walking the Bayonne Bridge is a marvelous way of taking in a vantage point unchanged since 1928. Once you get past your modern notions of minimum acme, you swiftly appreciate the tradeoffs: a clear view of dark boats cutting white wakes across gray water, great turquoise gantries in the distance raising their cranes in salute to the sky, the odd toxic beauty of industrial muck mixing it up with water, and rusted platforms awaiting the next raise of the roadway to accommodate the widening of the Panama Canal.
It is possible to appreciate the Bayonne Bridge too much. When Andres and I walked up, I became so excited by the toll plaza’s tight steel boxes and bluish green look that I could not resist taking the above photo. But the marvelous bridge doesn’t receive much in the way of pedestrian traffic. The sour collector working the booth did not take kindly to two cheapskates crossing the bridge for free. I waved and smiled and wished the bitter man a great day. It was the least I could do, seeing as how we were separated by cars and diamond mesh. Andres noted that a Bayonne Bridge toll collector had recently confessed to skimming thousands of dollars. I figured that any unpleasant feelings that the man in the booth developed towards us would be quickly mollified by whatever milk he liked to pour in his coffee. What I did not know was that my salutation was dangerous business.
About a third of the way up the bridge, a Port Authority Police car halted in the middle of the road. There was no siren, but a police officer emerged from the car and called to us. She put her palm into the air, stopping traffic into Staten Island with the strong sovereign touch of a holy man cutting a quirky passage for the Israelites.
She asked who we were, telling me that she was investigating a complaint. I explained who I was and what I was doing with calm éclat. The last thing I wanted was for poor Andres to get arrested. Besides, we hadn’t even hit Jersey yet.
The cars on the bridge couldn’t be held up forever. I provided my name and URL. The police officer seemed satisfied with my explanation. She duly acknowledged that people walk across the George Washington Bridge all the time. All I had to do was vouch for Andres.
I had been holding eye contact with the police officer the whole time. And as I talk up Andres as a dashing young journalist, preparing an exuberant presentation putting forth the thesis that Andres may be the next Gay Talese, I look to my right and see that Andres is smiling, aiming his camera at the police officer.
The police officer did not like this.
I suggested to Andres that he might want to put his camera down. He did this. Andres and I were able to smooth things over, but the police officer kept referring to Andres as a photojournalist.
“Well, he’s really a journalist,” I said.
“He’s got a camera, right? So he’s a photojournalist.”
I figured there were better venues to clarify the distinctions. Several minutes had passed. No car dared beep its horn, although I did see one sullen man waiting for the mess to clear. The officer allowed us to continue our journey across the bridge. A good thing too. Because if Andres and I had been arrested, we would have missed this fantastic boxing mural on the way down to Bayonne:
We arrived in New Jersey, where I swiftly observed the many canted solar panels secured to telephone poles. These were to remain a constant aesthetic companion throughout the walk. I asked one hearty man on his way to work what he knew about the panels, explaining that Andres and I had walked all the way from Staten Island. He was amused by this and told us that the solar panels had been placed on the poles about two years before, intended as a backup power system. I noticed a windmill in the distance.
“Any other questions?” asked the man.
I told him we were fine and thanked him. He directed us to Broadway — Bayonne’s main drag.
We walked past a sign that read “I found Iguana on the street. Please call.” I was curious about the capitalization. Had an actual lizard been located on the street? Or a priapic exhibitionist? Maybe it was someone unimaginative in the sack.
Perhaps it was all the iguana rumination that led us to set foot inside Barney Stock Hosiery Shops — a business devoted to women’s underwear and many other items for nearly a century. Barney Stock proudly announced Spanx in the window, and Spanx was to form a dominant part of my subsequent conversation. Andres and I met Lois and Melissa, the two very vivacious women behind the counter. But they were a bit on the shy side. They didn’t want to be photographed, but they were nice enough to talk about the store’s history.
Lois: Now this one son owns the store. Mel.
Lois: Mel Stock. And his father was Barney Stock.
Me: Uh huh. How often do you see Mel?
Lois and Melissa: (together) Every day!
Me: Every day!
Lois: He comes in every day.
Me: Is he a tough guy?
Lois: Nah. Not really. Well, he has to be to put up with it.
Melissa: To run a business, you’ve got to be tough.
Lois: I’m here 38 years. It will be 39…
Lois: It will be 39 next year.
Me: And I didn’t catch your name. What’s your name?
Lois: I’m Lois.
Me: Lois. And you’re Melissa, right?
Melissa: Melissa. Yeah.
Me: So Lois. So you’ve been here for 38 years.
Me: What was your first day like?
Lois: I was in high school.
Me: Oh wow! You were here since high school.
Lois: Well…I left. Got a good job.
Me: You don’t look a day over 35.
Lois: Oh! Yeah.
Melissa: Right! Right! That’s what I say!
Lois: (muttering) I wish I felt a day over 35.
Lois: Anyway, I started when I was in Bayonne High School. I worked here as a junior and a senior. Then I left and got a good job in New York. On Wall Street. Worked there. Then I left there and worked in Western Electric in Newark. Got married. Had three children. And then came back here when my children were in Mount Carmel down the block. And I’ve been here since.
Me: (to Melissa) How about you?
Melissa: Me? Six years.
Me: Six years.
Melissa: I’m not a vet.
Lois: Ha, like Lois is the vet.
Melissa: I’m not a vet at all.
Lois: But it’s a unique store.
Lois: We have everything that you can’t get in any other store.
Me: What’s the most exotic item you have?
Lois: Just bras.
Melissa: Bras and girdles.
Melissa: Cobblers that nobody can get.
Lois: Full slips.
Me: You really do have a peach cobbler.
Lois: It sounds good. Anyway, we carry some men’s things too.
Me: A lot of men come in here wanting girdles?
Lois: Some! We can tell who they’re for. But we have to be polite and we do wait on them.
Me: How many units do you move a day, would you say?
Lois: I can’t even ima…every day, it’s different. Now business is slow. Because I think Broadway has changed.
Lois: We used to have stores from one end to the other. Now it’s all empty.
Me: When did this change or really start to hit? Was it after 2008?
Lois: Yeah. Because they opened a mall over the bridge.
Lois: A shopping center. So a lot of stores went down there.
Me: And you guys — are you guys getting by okay?
Lois: Yeah. He owns the building.
Me: Oh, I see. So because he owns, he’s able to…
Lois: Right. He has offices. All upstairs. Yeah.
Me: What do you do to keep a newer set of customers coming in?
Lois: Well, we put in the paper ads, of course. With coupons and, you know, it’s just…Barney Stock is just — we sell Spanx!
Me: Yeah. Spanx is big.
Lois: He sells a lot of Spanx.
Lois: Yes. A lot. And like I say, it’s all the old timers coming back here. People. We do mail orders. Because people move with their children. They’re either down the shore, out-of-state. So they’re so used to what we have that they can’t get any other place. Pantyhose. The end. We do mastectomy bras for women who have had cancer.
Me: Is there a lot of that in this area?
Lois: We get a lot of that too.
Me: I mean, it’s one of the most underdiscussed topics. The fact that there’s just so much cancer.
Me: It really needs to be discussed.
Lois: We specialize in that. We have certified, you know, girls. So we really — if you want something, we have it. Or he’ll find it for you. (laughs)
Me: But Spanx is the big seller.
Lois: Now? Yes.
Me: Has it dropped off at any point?
Lois: No, I think it’s even more.
Me: It’s more.
Lois: So it’s a…I wish you could have met Mel.
Me: You know, I may come back another time. Just to meet Mel at some point.
Lois: Yeah. He’s the sole owner. He had a brother that worked here too. But his brother passed away. So he does it all.
Me: And he’s been here the entire 38 years that you’ve been here?
Lois: Yes. He’s been..
Me: He’s been busting your chops for 38 years? (laughs)
Lois: Right. Nah. He’s a big guy. I get along. I don’t let him bother me. I think that’s why I stay. So I open the store. And he comes in in the afternoon. And then I leave. See ya! (laughs)
Me: Well, thanks very much!
As we continued to walk up Broadway, there were more signs of the economic hits Lois had described. I was saddened to find a rent sign in the window of the Globe Delicatessen. I felt it important to tell Andres that my interest in places like Barney Stock and the Globe Delicatessen wasn’t rooted in nostalgia. I worried about the disappearing connections sustaining community.
Andres and I made efforts to find the To the Struggle Against World Terrorism monument, called one of the world’s ugliest statues by Foreign Policy. But all roads leading to this apparent eyesore were blocked. After a bold nine miles of walking, Andres called it quits. This was a remarkable tally for a man who had never walked across a New York bridge in his life. I saluted him. We said our goodbyes. I headed into Jersey City for lunch.
I regretted skipping over much of Jersey City, but I had no choice. I was behind schedule. It was noon and I was still eleven miles away from West Orange, New Jersey. I had five hours to get to Edison Park before the gates closed.
I did not count on getting screwed by Google Maps.
Google Maps claimed that I could simply make a left onto the Lincoln Highway Bridge. But this was a goddam lie. There was nothing at that intersection but asphalt leading up to the bridge. Moreover, despite recent hoopla over an alleged bicycle pathway between Jersey City and Newark, there weren’t any clear signs. I considered asking one of the countless auto dealerships along Communipaw Avenue if they knew anything about this, but I feared that these men would force me to test drive a Hyundai before giving me a straight answer. I wandered around. I discovered a pedestrian overpass which led me over Highway 9 into the western section of Lincoln Park.
When you cross this overpass, you see the Pulaski Skyway in the distance, but there isn’t a single sign suggesting a route for the carless along the Lincoln Highway.
I ended up wasting an hour wandering around the park, looking for the secret passage that would lead me across the bridge. I asked a Jersey City local, but he led me the wrong way north.
I feared that my journey would reach a premature end. I could not find it within me to cheat by thumbing a ride along the Lincoln Highway. I had developed a very clear code of walking ethics. The walking route had to be done completely on foot. I was also worried that I wouldn’t make it to West Orange on time.
Fortunately, I found the way to the bridge. It turns out that you can walk from Jersey City to Newark once you cross the pedestrian overpass. You have to turn left, walk close to the Lincoln Highway, and follow the path that leads you to the eastern edge of Joseph J. Jaroschak Field. Once you reach the field’s fence, look to your left. You’ll see a modest and unmarked opening leading to a guardrail. Walk through, take a right, and you’ll hug the southwestern edge of the field. You will see this view:
I was so overjoyed to find the way west across the Shawn Carson and Robert Nguyen Memorial Bridge that I considered dancing a jig. Then I realized that the path was more of a consolation prize than a walkway.
Believe it or not, this thin strip on the first of two bridges into Newark is meant to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians. It’s not too bad. You get a good view of the Pulaski and emerge close to a Jersey truckstop on the other side.
It’s the second bridge that is more problematic.
Between the two bridges, there’s a small sign that directs you to cross to the other side. So you end up walking west on the southbound side, where endless streams of semis bombard you not only with great gusts, but cause a recurrent rattle along this isthmus leading into Newark.
This was easily the shakiest bridge I have ever crossed as a walker. And I don’t recommend it for people who have a fear of heights. Frankly I’m not sure how many people actually use this passage. I didn’t see a single pedestrian or bicyclist along this route. But I did encounter three geese who were wading in sticky industrial mud. I watched a helicopter take off. Construction workers winced at me in bewilderment as I walked the little-tread path. But I made it into Newark, albeit an area of Newark that wasn’t designed for pedestrians.
I walked under overpasses with foul detritus strewn along any surface that was not road and passed trucks lodged into deep dirt beds. I walked by an abandoned movie multiplex, where a mysterious man on a yellow motorcycle swirled around a parking lot in disrepair. After two or three miles of this, I discovered civilization in the form of streets named after presidents.
I had developed a theory that a strawberry ice cream cone would carry me into Edison Park. I made it to Nasto’s, but there wasn’t a place to sit. This was just as well, because there was very little time. I had only a few hours to huff it through Newark into the Oranges. Six miles in two hours and much of it uphill. There was a great deal I had to pass over. So I offer considerable contrition to Newark. Alas, the U.S. National Park Service keeps very strict hours.
I got to Edison Park at 4:40 PM. Twenty minutes to spare. The mighty water tower loomed above me. Now it was a question of getting into the lab.
I walked to the door. It was locked. So were all the surrounding buildings. I circled around the lab and peered into foggy windows, wondering if I had a chance to visit it after a twenty-three mile walk. That’s when I saw the ranger.
Not only was Carmen kind enough to unlock the chemistry lab and permit me to see the test tubes and beakers and surfaces that haven’t shifted their position in decades, but he also agreed to a quick interview.
Carmen has worked as a ranger for three years and very much enjoys the job. Edison Park is the only place he’s ever toiled as a ranger. Before he was a ranger, Carmen worked for the military for 21 years performing aircraft maintenance.
To my great astonishment, one doesn’t have to pull any strings to get a job at Edison Park. If a job becomes available, one simply applies. There’s no need to dredge up esoteric facts, such as the mysterious five dot tattoo on Edison’s left forearm, to get the job. Carmen says he knew a bit about Edison in advance, but Edison Park’s crackerjack staff has been doling out biographical details for quite some time.
“It’s amazing how much you learn as soon as you come here,” says Carmen. “The books you read, the interaction with the other park rangers that are here, the curators, the archivists. You really start to learn an awful lot. I was by no means an expert at Mr. Edison. But as you work here and you are ingrained in this and immersed in this, you start to pick up and learn a whole lot about what’s going on.”
I asked Carmen if the public ever asked him unusual questions. He told me that many people ask if Edison’s house and lab are haunted: an unusual inquiry, given Edison’s commitment to science. People also want to know about Edison’s height. It turns out that Edison stood five foot seven, which matches Carmen’s height. Part of me wonders if there’s some subconscious employment requirement among the National Park Service to hire Edison Park employees who stand as tall as the namesake.
I challenge Carmen’s commitment to Edison by pointing out how the inventor ripped off people like Nikola Tesla and Joseph Swan.
“Well, that’s more of a misconception,” he replies.
“You’re going to defend the man.”
“I’m definitely going to defend the man.”
“Well, you work for Edison Park.”
Carmen points out that Thomas Edison had 1,093 patents, more than any other figure in U.S. history.
“You think about all these 1,093. The incandescent lightbulb and the rechargeable battery. Movies. I mean, other people have all worked on that before. But his really true invention, the only invention that he really came up with, was really the phonograph. Nobody had ever recorded voices before. So you gotta look at Mr. Edison not so much as this great inventor, but as a great innovator.”
This is my final trial walk for this project. I have traveled north to Sleepy Hollow, east to Garden City, and west to West Orange. I hope that these trial walks have demonstrated my good faith, my endurance, and my limitless curiosity.
There is now one long stretch for me to walk. And I cannot do it without your support. It will take six months. It will help create a portrait of this country. This is an all-or-nothing proposition. But I believe we can do it. If you have enjoyed these reports, please donate to the project today. Thank you.
EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 2, 2013, I set out on a twenty-three mile “trial walk” from Brooklyn, New York to Garden City, New York, 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 is the second of three trial walks for the project. And this is the second part of my report. You can read the first part here. (You can also read about the first trial walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow.)
The Ed Walks project will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. We have 19 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! (I’ll be doing another walk tomorrow from Staten Island to West Orange, New Jersey and I’ll be live-tweeting the walk at my Twitter account.)
The village was once called East Hinsdale. In the days when trains rattled harder than they do now and George Selden was still working out the internal combustion engine up north in Rochester, East Hinsdale was a few houses, a railroad station, a post office, and a sole store that served the surrounding farms. But in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a charismatic seed seller named John Lewis Childs would change the village’s destiny. Childs had arrived from Maine at the bright young age of seventeen. He built up a burgeoning bulb business and was so successful in hawking flora that he was able to build an impressive Victorian mansion in 1882 with a grand Gothic front and snazzy cornices. The manse was torn down in 1950 to make way for the comparatively pedestrian apartments pictured above.
Childs made several smart business decisions. Aside from taking great interest in his employees’s lives, he began naming the streets after flowers. But Tulip Avenue wasn’t enough for Childs. Childs was a man who saw the bigger picture. He bought up land faster than a trust fund kid with a limitless liquor cabinet and an expense account beyond the dreams of avarice, but with greater grace and acumen. There was pride and reputation at stake. Childs persuaded his neighbors that living in a place called East Hinsdale wasn’t nearly as inspiring as residing in a true village named Floral Park. It was a compelling argument. East Hinsdale became Floral Park in 1890. It is worth pointing out that Childs did this not long after establishing the nation’s first seed catalog business. (Many of his catalogs can be found online through the New York Botanical Garden.) But he was good enough to build a public park and the village’s first school. He even published an annual magazine called The Warbler. And he parlayed his business savvy into a political career that took him to the New York Senate.
But above all, Childs was guided by the flowers. And it seemed especially disrespectful that the place where Childs had once lived and blossomed and sprouted a town did not have a single flower for the casual stroller to admire.
Despite the historical calumny against John Lewis Childs, Floral Park is a very pleasant village, especially if you walk along Tulip Avenue. I stumbled onto a charming establishment called Swing the Teapot. I entered through a white door with a curled floral pattern etched into the glass and found a window seat at an old Singer sewing machine turned into a table with a smooth surface. Three tiny cups dangled from a teapot hanging in the front window, draped with striped curtains. Warm browns beckoned families and retired types and tittering girls inside to fine tables near brawny brick walls. I heard concerns about an uptick in foreclosed homes. There was a young woman trying to lull her grandfather into the seedy world of social media and hashtags. It was refreshing to sit in a public place without laptops or people constantly looking down for new messages, although I felt like the biggest hypocrite when I checked my phone to ensure that I was on the right route. I was, after all, only hours away from the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York.
I enjoyed a bowl of potato leek soup and a blended pot of Thai tea that provided much needed sustenance for the next seven miles. I asked the waitress how long the place had been around. She said five years. Was it a family business? “Can you read?” she replied. “There’s a story on the menu.” Indeed, there was. Something about a guy named Jack Smith who came to America in 1929 selling tea door to door. A Floral Park legend to match John Lewis Childs, but one you won’t find in the history books.
There were two men in the squinty distance, but I was too mesmerized by the three raceways edged with red and baby blue siding. The lined lanes devoured most of the space at Slots-A-Lot Raceway, with the king track’s inviting coils stretching some 150 feet.
The man behind the counter was Kenny. He owned the raceway and his eyes and cheeks burned with bright life. The other man was Bianco. He was the trusted techie wearing sunglasses and dark leather, perched on a tall corner overlooking the tracks. I had arrived not long after the place had opened, not long after Kenny had turned the keys for another night in raceway heaven.
Kenny and Bianco were from Brooklyn and had been pushed all the way out to Franklin Square to keep their passion alive.
“When I was a kid,” said Kenny, “the first time I’d seen a slot car raceway was in my neighborhood. It was around 1967. So it was in a store in Brooklyn called Jermaine’s. And it was a stairway that led up to second floor. So I took a walk up the steps. And when I was a young kid — maybe like about six years old or so — the first time I’d seen a slot car track was in Jermaine’s Raceway in Brooklyn, New York. On 15th Street and 5th Avenue.”
There is no trace of Jermaine’s through Google.
“So after that, it was kind of a sad story. So I saved up some money to buy a slot car. Back then, the cars were about maybe seven dollars a piece. So I saved up enough money and by the time I had that money, the raceway wasn’t there anymore. Later on in life, when I was around maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, a friend introduced me to another place in Brooklyn called Buzz-A-Rama.”
Fortunately, Buzz-A-Rama remains quite alive.
“And we went there. And I seen the place. I seen the tracks. And the rest from here to then is all the history of slot racing since 1975.”
I asked Kenny why he felt that slot racing had fallen off in recent years.
“It’s because of the space that you need to have these tracks set up in such a size building. That the rent takes over a lot of the profits of the raceway. But if you either have the building or you own it, or you can find it at a good rent, you can make it work. And if you know enough about the hobby to keep people interested — by having races, birthday parties, just walk-in customers, rental cars — and if you can do all that in the time frame that you have — after school hours from four in the afternoon to maybe nine or ten at night — and you can do that within that time, you can make it work. Because we’ve been here now almost — next year, we’ll be fifteen years.”
There are several reasons to try out slot racing in 2013, but one greatly compelling one is the fact that today’s slot cars are much faster than they were decades before. And if you’re racing open class, the lap time around the Slots-A-Lot king track is 2.1 seconds.
But the track surfaces need to be cleaned every week. The lanes need to be rebraided. There’s a DC battery system that needs constant maintenance. Because the last thing you want is a leaking cell. Fortunately, slot car supplies are secure. There isn’t much of the way of scavenging with this hobby. And that’s because Europe and South America love slot car racing more than America.
Bianco’s interest in slot cars was more recent than Kenny’s. He came from a family of motorheads. On the weekends, he’d help out his cousins with brake jobs and changing oil. The passion advanced to miniature when Bianco developed a highly addictive interest in RC cars in the mid-90s. It evolved further when he tinkered with a slot car home set.
“I went home and did some research on it,” said Bianco. “Because I saw the cars and the details and everything. And I was very amazed. And when I started doing research, I found that they made the cars in a bigger scale called 1:24, which ran on commercial raceways. So I started doing a search for commercial raceways in New York, found Slots-A-Lot, came down, introduced myself. The people here were warm, welcoming, and willing to help you get started in the hobby at a reasonable price. And I’ve been involved in the Raceway ever since then.”
Bianco helps Kenny with his computer needs, bringing in his expertise from the energy business, and he works at the Raceway for free. He loves slot car racing that much. He feels that if he doesn’t put in the time now, then tomorrow’s kids may not have a place to race slot cars.
“No matter what you go through in life, it takes you back to that happy point in your life. And that’s the passion that keeps this place going. Where guys continue to come back and the owner wants to keep the doors open.”
A lot of these guys, much like Kenny, have stayed at it since the 1960s. But Bianco says that, on a national level, slot car racing doesn’t quite cut it with today’s youth. Many raceways have been forced to close down because of the waning interest. It’s the birthday parties and the family gatherings that keep the flame alive, that keep Kenny and Bianco smiling in Franklin Square.
It was close to 4:30 PM and time was tight. The astronaut Jerry Ross was scheduled to begin his talk at 7:00 PM. But I had miscalculated the distance. There were two additional miles to the Cradle of Aviation Museum. So I was forced to walk past The Witches Brew in West Hempstead — a notable haven for Long Island skateboarders. Hampstead was also neglected, but I loved watching the acrobatic garbage men dance in the streets and leap on the back of trucks while making sunset pickups. I felt the sun dying into my back.
I arrived at the Cradle of Aviation Museum sometime around 6:20 PM. There were a few other people who sauntered behind me. An old school guard opened the door. I told him that I had walked 23 miles. Would it be possible to talk with astronaut Jerry Ross before his presentation? The guard said not before, but after.
“It’s up to Mr. Ross,” he said.
The guard sized me up as a man without military background. Had I possessed some arcane aviation factoid, there might have been a shot at camaraderie. But this was a place where my breakfast crepe-making skills were not welcome.
The guard let us into the Cradle’s grand lobby, where a Grumman F-11F and a Fleet Model 2 biplane were suspended above.
I was able to sit for a bit. My respite was not to last long. A queue formed near the entrance of the theater planetarium. After walking 23 miles, I stood in line. I watched an older woman with a medical walker slowly approach the front. She asked for the guard, who had retreated into the theater. She was told that the guard wasn’t letting anyone in. This did not surprise me, given his largely unsympathetic attitude to people with curious bipedal predicaments.
“Well, tell him I can’t stand!” said the woman. “I’m sneaking in.”
And she did.
A few minutes later, the sour guard emerged from the entrance.
“Did you let that lady in?” asked a man near the front.
“She threw me out,” quipped the guard.
Put any man on the road for a time and he will forge a clear gaze that tells you he’s seen it all. Magnify that quality by about six million and you have the look of an astronaut.
Jerry Ross is a robust man of sixty-five who does not waste words and does not waste time. He has clocked in nearly 1,400 hours in space, performed nine space walks, and enjoys flicking his red laser pointer around a purple planetarium screen.
“God had intended me to be in space,” said Ross before the awestruck crowd. But Ross had also been chiseled by a rock solid work ethic. “Every dollar I made baling hay on the farmers fields or whatever else I was doing, all that money went into a special account that I had established to help save money for my college education.”
Ross had built rockets as a boy in Indiana. His advancement had been swift. He went from studying mechanical engineering at Purdue to testing out ramjet missiles. He was the top graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School, which allowed him to secure a job as the lead flight test engineer for the B-1 Bomber. He flew 23 missions in the vehicle. And because Rockwell had built both the B-1 and the Space Shuttle, the cockpits for both were almost identical.
The first time that Ross had applied to fly the Shuttle, over 10,000 people jammed the mailboxes with forms. Ross was one of 210 selected to come down to Houston for physicals and interviews. But he didn’t make the next cut of 35 applicants.
“This all goes hand in hand with what I try to tell young people when I talk at schools,” said Ross. “It’s the fact that they need to pick out what their likes and dislikes and talents and capabilities are, and to set goals for themselves. To study hard, to work hard, and to not give up too easily if they don’t get things the first time they try.”
Ross was clearly a man who had a few pointers on how to walk across the country.
I stood in line after the presentation and told Ross about my project. He was very gracious and offered me a few minutes after he had signed books. I asked Ross how spacewalking differed from regular walking.
“Well, you don’t wear out the soles of your feet, for number one,” said Ross. “And you’re just floating along. You’re not physically walking. Any walking or moving around you do there is with your hands instead of your feet. And if you can imagine, the spacesuit is pressurized at 4.3 pounds/square inch. So every time you open and close your gloves, it’s kind of like squeezing a rubber ball. And if you can imagine doing that for six and a half or seven hours while you’re outside in a spacewalk, you can imagine how fatigued your hands will get.”
Astronauts train in a water tank wearing the exact same suits that they use in space. So they’re building up the same muscles they’ll need in orbit. The astronauts also spend about the same time in the tank as they do in space: roughly about six hours.
“It takes a lot of endurance and a certain amount of strength in the upper body. But it’s more the endurance factor that comes into play when you’re out there for long periods of time.”
Ross said that this endurance was more physical than mental, although the exhaustion is just as tiring mentally as it is physically.
“Because your brain is going a thousand miles an hour. It’s trying to remember everything you’re supposed to do. It’s trying to remember where you safety tether is, what your buddy’s doing. Every once in a while, you’re trying to look and sneak a view of the ground. And your brain is just literally almost fried by the time you get back inside.”
After his last mission, Ross devoted much of his time to making sure other astronauts could walk safely in space.
“I figured that if I wasn’t going to fly anymore, I didn’t have to worry about saying something that might make somebody mad. I’d just say what I thought was right. And more than once, during countdowns, when I didn’t like something, I would either call or email somebody. And for whatever reason, either because of what I said or because one of the people said or something, they stopped doing what I didn’t like and they came back another day to launch when things were straightened out.”
It turns out that Ross is also a walker. And he’s been talking with Purdue about doing a walk across Indiana for “a stem-related thing for schoolkids.”
I asked Ross if he had any tips for a cross-country walk.
“Watch for the bulls out in the pasture.”
Molly Crabapple appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #456. She is most recently the author of The Art of Molly Crabapple Volume 1: Week in Hell.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he can start a Kickstarter campaign for someone to send him tequila money.
Author: Molly Crabapple
Subjects Discussed: Daily walks to McNally Jackson, the logistics of setting up the Week in Hell experiment, the logistics of sneaking people and materials in a hotel, eluding maids, Philippe Petit, the similarities and differences between photographers and visual artists, conversation and dreams as inspirational forces, aerial hoops, the Internet as an idea source, prototypes of the Week in Hell experiment, the necessity of changing up artistic routine, Susan Sontag, education as a birthright vs. education as an adult, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Dick Clark’s death and those who shamed people on Twitter for not knowing who Dick Clark is, the infinite storehouse of online knowledge, the benefits of accordion players in producing art, Kim Boekbinder, how performers inspire Crabapple, drawing faceless girlthings with parasols, Crabapple’s tendency towards the curved line, Scarlett Takes Manhattan, drawing an undersea Algonquin roundtable, Alexander Woollcott, illustrating in response to current events and the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks squid, Occupy Wall Street, pigs and depraved nightclubs, the first animals Crabapple was drawn to, the allure of drawing grotesque items, allegorical pity parties, bitching about people who are more successful, a thought experiment involving Napoleon having a pity party, despair, self-pity, and depression as inspirational forces, Kay Redfield Jamison, not having down time, avoiding repeating yourself, Damien Hirst, unethical business practices, saying no to certain corporate clients, feeling bad about drawing a topless picture of Hillary Clinton for a conservative publisher out of financial desperation, the lines between the artistic and the commercial, whoring out your heart of hearts, the myth of artistic purity, Howard Roark and the Randian ideal, nude modeling, the need for expensive promotional campaigns, how a young and emerging artist who can’t do nude modeling can survive when she first starts out, retail jobs, New York as a place hostile to certain strains of art, Zoe Strauss, being declared “not a real artist” by The New York Times Book Review, Luc Sante’s Low Life, whether research bogs down art, and the value of lipstick planted upon art.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the logistics of this Week in Hell experiment. The first thing I have to say, in seeing the television covered up and in seeing the thermostat on the wall, what negotiations were there with the hotel management to actually allow this to happen?
Crabapple: Oh, we didn’t ask the hotel.
Correspondent: (laughs) Oh, you didn’t? They found out while it was happening?
Crabapple: They didn’t find out at all.
Crabapple: This was entirely surreptitiously.
Correspondent: Wow. (laughs)
Crabapple: I will probably send them a copy of the book. The reason was that we initially wanted to do it at another hotel and we had all this money from the Kickstarter. And we were like, “Golly, mister, here’s $4,500 to do our crazy art project.” And they were like, “Oh no! You must speak with our creative directors to see if you’re in line with our creative vision.” And I thought that was bullshit. So I just dressed up like a fancy person and borrowed a Ralph Lauren suitcase to hide all those rolls of paper in.
Correspondent: Really? (laughs) It’s like a bank heist.
Crabapple: We totally ran it like a bank heist. Snuck everything in. Told the maid not to come all week.
Correspondent: Was that the 57 minutes that you spent eluding the maid, which you refer to?
Crabapple: Yes! Exactly!
Correspondent: Wow. So you actually had to plan this like a bank heist. I mean, I understand. I’ve done some of these interviews in hotels and I’m told that I can’t actually sit down with these microphones with another person. Just having a conversation. So why did you have to go ahead and do this almost like you were shooting without a film permit? What steps did you take to plan this bank heist?
Crabapple: So me and Melissa, who’s my amazing assistant.
Crabapple: Who is actually the brains behind all of my harebrained ideas. We made a long list of everything that could possibly go wrong. We did everything from testing the right type of tape to hold the paper off, that wouldn’t peel off the paint, to getting the right fancy people suitcases. So we wouldn’t look all sketchy sneaking into the Gramercy Park Hotel with duffel bags.
Correspondent: Did you have any consultants say, “Hey, you actually look professional enough to pass muster with the scrupulous guards”?
Crabapple: (laughs) What was so funny was that I had this whole outfit, which can only be described as rich people’s whore.
Crabapple: It was all Alexander McQueen and Louis Vuittons and shit. And I went in and everybody is wearing sweatpants. And I was so disappointed.
Correspondent: Well, these tests about not peeling the paint off the walls. And the paper itself. The specific markers you used. I’m wondering. What were the logistics here? I’m really curious.
Crabapple: The paper and markers?
Correspondent: Yeah. How many types of paper did you have to go through?
Crabapple: We didn’t go through types of paper. Because I got that sponsored.
Crabapple: It was more — Melissa’s whole wall was covered with different strands of paper being held up with different types of tape.
Correspondent: Fantastic. What other logistics were needed aside from this? Anything else that you’re missing?
Crabapple: We had tons and tons of friends sneaking in the entire week and we found a back staircase for them to sneak up. Because we didn’t — I mean, especially when we had the wild closing party.
Correspondent: This is like Philippe Petit walking across the World Trade Center. How he had friends gradually get all the supplies up over the course of several weeks in advance. Was it similar here?
Crabapple: It was kind of like that. I even had one of my friends go into the hotel, looking super-sketchy so that he could see how much scrutiny he would get.
Correspondent: (laughs) Oh really? Did you have any input into his skeeziness?
Crabapple: No, we just went with his natural dress.
Correspondent: Oh, I see. I got it. Now for many of the visitors who came into this hotel room during this week, I’m wondering if you asked permission to draw them. I mean, this raises an interesting question for me. Because you have one particular drawing that’s part of this elaborate project where you have the photographers, who are drawn like lizards to your friend. Because they’re ogling her with their cameras. And so I’m wondering. This made me think. How much is any artist, who illustrates or sketches or paints, different from, say, a photographer of any stripe? What are your thoughts on this? And what are your thoughts in terms of drawing people at will who happen to come into the room? Or was that the agreement for anyone who came through the room?
Crabapple: Well, people usually want to be drawn by me. But that’s actually an awesome question. I’ve always thought that the instinct of the photographer and the visual artist are very similar — in that we’re generally twitchy weirdos who want to hang out with the cool people and we use our camera or our sketchpad as a way to kind of bribe the cool people to hang out with us. But the thing is that photography has become so ubiquitous that people don’t feel impressed anymore by having their picture taken. And, in fact, it can become like really grabby and soul-stealing. Like — I used to march a lot at the [Coney Island] Mermaid Day Parade and sometimes there would be such a crush of photographers — like yelling at you how to pose and demanding that you arch your back this way or demanding that you look at them — that it wasn’t a fun thing at all. Whereas most people only get drawn a few times in their life. So it still has a novelty to it. And I’ve always kind of used my sketchpad as this key to sneak into scenes where I really didn’t belong.
Correspondent: But stealing another person’s soul. It seems to me that you’ve always been very conscious about this. Even from the Dr. Sketchy stuff. So my question is: how do we return the balance so that the person who is photographed or the person who is drawn actually feels comfortable and doesn’t feel as if she has her soul stolen through the process of art?
Crabapple: Well, with me, what I always try to do is I always try and capture the person’s personality, as well as just how hot they look. Like when I did the picture of Stoya on that door, I’m talking to her. And I do like her beautiful, beautiful, perfect, mathematically perfect face. Then I also — since I’m friends with her, I draw her making her own costumes — she’s a brilliant costumer — and on her aerial hoop. And then I talk with her. And she complains about obnoxious photographers. And so I draw them swarming around her.
Correspondent: So much of the input came from what she was telling you. As you were actually drawing her.
Crabapple: Exactly. It was just as much a portrait of our conversation.
Correspondent: In terms of the hoop, that was based off of memory. Did you have any source material for that?
Crabapple: That was based off of memory. I’ve seen a lot of aerialists in my time.
Correspondent: You note that you were drawing the top of the wall at the very beginning of this. So that you would have some inspiration for your dreams. And it seems to me that between that and the influx of stories that you had plenty of inspiration. This leads me to ask, well, what do you do if you run out of ideas to sketch during this situation?
Crabapple: I asked the Internet. I had a livestream going along. And my livestream audience would be saying, “Draw hippos on the moon! Draw undersea Algonquin round table!” And I would put that in if I was running out of inspiration.
Correspondent: So did you feel that sometimes the list of suggestions was too intrusive a presence? Or there were a lot of bad ideas sifting through this? Were you playing Beat the Clock because you had only a week to cover this entire surface?
Crabapple: There was a certain amount of Beat the Clock going on. I drew pretty much every waking hour. Like in the back of all my glamorous friends partying, there was usually me standing up on top of a shelf frantically sketching things.
Correspondent: Really? Well, were there any trial runs of you sketching things? Like say in your bathroom for half a day? Or anything like that?
Crabapple: I was at Stumptown Comics Festival. They had me as a guest. And I didn’t want to sit behind a table and sign things. Because I don’t know. I felt like I was at a craft fair or something. So instead I was like, “Why don’t you just hang up a giant piece of paper where my table would be and I’ll just draw on it over the course of the convention”? And I did a six foot by six foot drawing.
Correspondent: So that was the trial run.
Crabapple: That was where I got the idea.
Correspondent: Were there any other runs before that? Maybe three by three?
Crabapple: (laughs) That’s just my career.
Correspondent: Exactly. So what do you need often to keep your routine changed up? I mean, you suggested that this was the end of a particular period in your life. It was sort of your renouncement of pen and ink. How often do you need to change things up in order to stay fresh as an artist? I’m curious. Do you anticipate the next move? Does it come organically? Do you just do it and it becomes ambitious by default?
Crabapple: I’m not a very thoughtful person. And I’m incapable of thinking in Five Year Plans. And also I’m kind of young. So I don’t really know — like I just don’t have that many periods in my work. I don’t know. I was in this deep fucked up almost clinical depression when I was 27. And I don’t know why. My brain was just wonky. And I needed to do something to do violence to all of this stuff in my art that I was tired of. And this was how I did it. And I’m sure I’ll need to do it again. But I don’t know when or how.
William Kennedy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #427. He is most recently the author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.
For related material, you can read my Modern Library Reading Challenge essay on Ironweed.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught in a migratory comedy of errors.
Author: William Kennedy
Subjects Discussed: Resonances in historical fiction that align with the present day, the William Gibson notion (“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”), Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding, the 2008 Greek riots, writing Ironweed while being firmly immersed in the 1930s, referring to the homeless before “homeless” existed as a word, prophetic novelists, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the tradition of torture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Roscoe, writing about the Albany political machine for forty years, stolen elections and kickbacks, interviewing morally shady figures as a novelist and as a journalist, meeting with Charlie Ryan, Dan O’Connell, how Kennedy coaxed political figures to tell him stories over the years, sources who insist on being on the record as insiders, intrusive noise, the journalist as the intellectual equivalent to the bartender or the barista, politicians who talk differently when microphones are present, Newspaper Row in Albany, lead filings and rats descending from newspaper ceilings, journalistic squalor, Kennedy’s relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Pulitzer’s notion of journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, fiction vs. journalism, The Ink Truck, Fellini, how a multidimensional fictitious form of Albany sprang from extremely devoted research, writing seven drafts of Legs, invention and informed speculation, the importance of letting imagination settle, Legs‘s resistance to realism, structuring a novel on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovering newness as a writer, precedents for Ironweed, parallels between Cuban history and civil rights, efforts to find the right Cuban history period for Chango’s Beads, Fulgencio Batista’s kids going to school in Albany, the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses as a possible inspiration point, The Gut in Albany, Black Power and community action during the late 1960s, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X sitting in the balcony of the New York Senate, Eldridge Cleaver, the Albany Cycle beyond 1968, telescoping Albany history for the sake of telling a story, arson and riots, the figure of Matt Daughterty, having to publish newspaper stories in out-of-town newspapers to avoid the wrath of the Albany political machine, comparisons between Quinn’s Book and Chango’s Beads, following personalities contained within fictitious families over many years, journeys away from Albany in the Albany cycle, avoiding Albany burnout, a new play based on a departure from Very Old Bones, and fiction driven by bullet-like dialogue.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: We were drawing a distinction between the journalist who is the bartender or the barista — the intellectual equivalent to that — and the novelist, who may in fact have an even greater advantage. Some novelists who were former journalists have told me that they’ll get people to talk with them more if they say they’re a novelist. I’m sure this has been the case with you.
Kennedy: Oh yeah. When the Mayor invited me over to talk about writing a book with him, he didn’t say quite why. I couldn’t understand it. Because I thought he had great antipathy toward me. But I went over. And we just had this conversation. And I sat there and talked to him. And I took a lot of notes. And he said he wanted me to maybe interview him and dredge up whatever I wanted to and write whatever I wanted to. And then he would rebut it. And I didn’t think that was going to work. But I knew that it was a great opportunity to talk to the Mayor.
So anyway we carried on. And it turned out I did write a lot about him in this book. It was kind of a biography. I wrote three pieces actually on him. And he was great in the first meeting. And then the second time, I brought over a mike and a tape recorder. And he clammed up. I mean, he didn’t stop talking, but he didn’t say anything. I mean, he was very salty in the first conversation. And he was a very intelligent man and very well-educated and smart as they come politically. And he had a great sense of humor. But it was boring in the second interview. So I took him out again. I took him to lunch. And he opened right up again as soon as he knew there was no tape recorder. And I took notes. He’s safe with notes because he can say, “He got it wrong.” There’s no proof.
Correspondent: Well, I actually wanted to ask — speaking of history, there are moments in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Quinn’s Book where you have newspapermen who are wearing hats as the lead filings are falling upon them. In the case of Billy Phelan, there’s actual rats falling from the ceiling.
Kennedy: That’s true.
Correspondent: I’m curious. Did you have first-hand experience of this?
Kennedy: No. This was at the newspaper that I was working on. But in their previous incarnation, which was only a few years before I got there, they were on Beaver Street in a very old, old center of the city. The South End. In The Gut. And it was Newspaper Row. The Albany Journal was there. The Albany Argus. The Knickerbocker News. The Knickerbocker Press. Etcetera etcetera. The Times Union was up the street a bit. And then they moved into new digs. But I remember that one of the reporters and the copy editors said that the rats used to come down, walk the ceiling. The composing room was upstairs. Over the city room. And there was always these lead filings that were coming through the cracks in the floor. And so these guys wore their hats around the desks. And the reporters wore their hats indoors.
Correspondent: The pre-OSHA days. (laughs)
Kennedy: You know, it had a practical application, those hats. In addition to being the style of the day. And the rats used to come down and eat the paste out of the paste pots.
Correspondent: Which is also immortalized in Billy Phelan.
Kennedy: That’s in Billy Phelan. They were all stories that these guys who had grown up there, they’d seen it. One of my buddies, he’d been a reporter for ten years or so all during that period in Beaver Street. And he was a great storyteller. And he told me…well, you know.
Correspondent: Did you experience any first-hand journalistic squalor?
Kennedy: Journalistic squalor.
Correspondent: Along those lines. Or perhaps other forms of squalor.
Kennedy; (laughs) Well, no. Not quite like that. The paper had modernized. I mean, I was there in the age of the typewriter and the clacking teletypes and papers would stack up on the floor like crazy. At the end of the work day, everybody threw everything onto the floor. The old newspapers. All the old teletypes. And it was a great mess. There was….hmm, squalor. (laughs)
Correspondent: Rotting walls? Asbestos-laden environments? (laughs)
Kennedy: Sorry, I can’t. I knew all the guys who had gone through it.
Correspondent: Well, on a similar note, Hunter S. Thompson. I have to ask this largely because The Paris Review interviewed you and cut this bit. He said, “He refused to hire me. Called me swine, fool, beatnik. We go way back.” But I also know that he wrote you a quite hubristic letter. How did you two patch things up after this early exchange of invective and all that?
Kennedy: Well, I never called him a swine.
Kennedy: It’s possible in a letter, in later years, I might have called him a swine. But that was his terminology.
Correspondent: He was trying to prop you up.
Kennedy: I would just throw it back at him or something like that. You know, there was no rancor at all. After the first exchange of letters, almost immediately it was patched up. I mean, he was furious at me for rejecting him when he applied for a job. You’re talking about the quote there where he said…
Correspondent: He said that on Charlie Rose.
Kennedy: Charlie Rose. But he was referring to my attitude toward The Rum Diary. Which was the novel that he was writing down in Puerto Rico when I got to know him. And he had just started it. And in later years, he sent it to me. I wish I had kept it. I don’t know why. I can’t find it. I don’t think I have any remnants of it and I’ve got a lot of his stuff. But maybe I have some pieces. But I don’t remember. And I can’t even remember the letter I wrote. But I wrote him a letter and I told him, “Forget about this novel. You can’t publish this. This is terrible.” And it was a big fat novel. It was fat and it was logorrhea. And it was a young man’s ruminations and discoveries of all of that.
Correspondent: A journalist aspiring to be a novelist.
Kennedy: Right, right, right. And he was a smart guy. Very, very smart guy. But that novel just didn’t work. What was published — the book that was published is one third of the text of the old book. It doesn’t have any of those flaws that I could see — I just started to read it again the other day. I tried to see the movie three times, and I can’t.
Correspondent: Oh really?
Kennedy: Well, I’m in the Academy and I get these screeners from the Academy. But it didn’t work. The screener didn’t work. It says “Wrong disc.”
Correspondent: Oh no.
Kennedy: So I have to get another one. But I’m anxious to see it. I think it’s full of probably libelous accusations against the [San Juan] Star, the newspaper down there and the people who run it. But that was expected from Hunter.
Correspondent: What do you think distinguishes your approach — being a journalist turning into a novelist — from Hunter’s approach? I mean, was he just not serious enough and you were more devoted? Was it a matter of being well-read? What was it exactly that distinguished the two of you?
Kennedy: Well, I was a serious journalist. I mean, he presumed to be. That was the basis for our initial argument about that bronze plaque. You know about that? The bronze plaque on the side of The New York Times — it’s a quote from Joseph Pulitzer When that building was home to The New York World, a great newspaper that Pulitzer ran in New York. Anyway, he revered that. You know, it’s this high-minded attitude toward the news. No fear of favor or whatever. Work against the thieves. Whatever. I’ve absolutely forgotten what Pulitzer said.
[Note: The Pulitzer plaque reads: “An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”]
Kennedy; I remember its tone. And I could find it. And this whole episode is summed up in the introduction to Hunter’s book, The Proud Highway — his first collection of letters. He asked me to write an introduction to that. And I told the whole story of how he applied for the job and didn’t get it and so on. But his attitude toward journalism was high-minded. But when he started to practice it, a year or so later, roaming around South America, he started writing — he was winging it, you know? He wasn’t interested in “Just the facts, ma’am.” He was half a fiction writer in those days. Roaming around. Whatever caught his fancy or his imagination, he would write it. I mean, it came to a point where he went to the Kentucky Derby and that was the one that really put him on the map. “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” It ran in Scanlan’s Monthly, I think. And it had nothing to do with reporting. He was making it up. And it was fiction.
There may have been some basis in all that happens in the story for it. But he just invents the dialogue that goes on between the various people and follows his own chart and reacts as a novelist, and then presents it as journalism. This is what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was presumably journalism. But it’s fiction. It’s a novel. And he claimed in retrospect that he had notes to prove every element in that novel. But he didn’t. (laughs) I mean, all the hallucinations. Whatever his hallucinations were, they were hallucinations. And they’re his. And they’re internal. And who’s to say who’s hallucinating when he’s writing what he’s writing. The sum and substance of Thompson was that he started off as a journalist and he became this wild crazy gonzo journalist, which was half a fiction writer’s achievement. And he was always in the early days thinking about the novel and new forms of the novel. And he created one. Novels are very valuable in their wisdom and their insights and their reporting and their historical penetration of the world that they’re centering on. And he was famously talented in all those realms to achieve those things. And he did. But in the end, I mean he comes off as a career journalist and a singular one. There was nobody like him and there never will be. A lot of people have tried. He’s inimitable. But when he started out, he had all the baggage that goes with the aspiring novelist. And he always made the distinction that I started off to be a journalist and turned into a novelist and he started off to be a novelist and turned into a journalist. And that’s true enough.
My journalism very rarely could be challenged — it could never be challenged as a work of fiction. I never did anything like that. I found ways to enliven the text with language. So did Hunter. But Hunter also reimagined history and reimagined daily life when he invented his world.
Correspondent: To go to your work, The Ink Truck — I wanted to ask you about this. Your first published novel. This is interesting because, unlike the topographical precision that you see in the Albany Cycle, the details of Albany in The Ink Truck are not nearly that precise. They’re more abstract. And I’m curious why that sense of place only emerged in the subsequent novels.
Kennedy: Well, because when I wrote that novel, I was reacting to my resistance to traditional realism and naturalism. You know, I had been there with Steinbeck, Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and so on. And Hemingway also was a great realist. Not the naturalist, but the great realist and the great reporter. And I was in a different mode. I was immersed in Joyce at that time and very much aware of Ulysses and the wildness of the invention that pervades that novel. I was thinking of the surrealists. I was in the grip of Buñuel the filmmaker. I loved his work.
Correspondent: Also a wonderful late bloomer too.
Kennedy: (laughs) And Fellini. I though that 8 1/2 was one of the great movies ever made. It may be the greatest to me and I’m not sure I don’t think that still.
Correspondent: What of Satyricon? (laughs)
Kennedy: Well, I thought it was interesting. So much of Fellini I do love. But 8 1/2, because it was in one guy’s head and it just went in and out of reality, that’s what I wanted to do. I used to say that novel was always six inches off the ground. So levitating was important. And I wasn’t really interested in grounding myself in the squalor of that situation. That was a pretty squalid time when we were in the guild room during that strike. There was a strike that I went through and was the inspiration for that novel. But that book is sort of an excursion to comedy and surreal comedy. I mean, it presumes to be serious in certain stages of its intensity. But basically it’s a wild, crazy, surreal story.
Correspondent: But when you have the character of Albany begin to appear in your work, suddenly I think there’s more of a kitchen sink approach. You have very hard-core realism. You have hallucinations. Surrealism. You have all sorts of things. Almost a kitchen sink approach. And I’m curious if the increasing complexity of your books, where this comes from. Does it arise out of your very meticulous and fastidious research? Does it arise from wanting to reinvent the form of the novel? To not repeat yourself? Does it arise from having established a Yoknapatawpha-like universe of characters? What of this?
Kennedy: Well, all of the above. Everything you said. I was always trying to do something that I hadn’t done before, that I couldn’t attach to anybody in particular. You know, you can’t imitate Joyce. You can’t imitate Hemingway. I tried and I did all the way along in various failed enterprises. And I knew that it was a dead end. I was trying for something new. With Legs, I was inundated with research. I spent two years under the microfilm machine. We no longer have to do that. Just punch in Google. Now it’s amazing. But in those days, I would spend days. All day. Half the week inside the library. Not only microfilm, but all the books of the age. All the magazines. I went to New York and got the morgues of all the major newspapers. The Times. The New York Post. The Daily News, which was fantastic. And so on. And I researched everything there was to find on Legs Diamond serendipitously. And then I also kept turning — I probably interviewed 300 people. I don’t know how many. Sort of cops and gangsters. Retired gangsters with prostate trouble. And I really stultified myself at a certain stage in that novel. And I had to stop and take account of what was really going on. And I had to reinvent the book.
Correspondent: You wrote it seven times, I understand.
Kennedy: I guess the seventh was the final time. I wrote it six times. Or was it six years and eight times? The eighth time was a cut. I had finished it but it was too fat. So I cut 70, 80 pages. I don’t remember what I cut. But I don’t miss them. Whatever I cut, it was all right. But I started from scratch really. After six drafts, I went back and spent three months just designing the book all over again and designing history of every character all over again and putting a totally new perspective on it. Because I had too much material. And there was no way to stop it from coming to me. Except to just close it off and say, “I’m not going to read another newspaper. I’m not going to crack another book. I’m going to write the story. I’m done with the research.” Of course, that never really happens. You have to go back and check. But that’s what I did. And that’s how I finished the book.
(Image: Judy C. Sanders)
They were saying on Thursday night that it was all over for the protesters. Brookfield Properties, the owner of Zuccotti Park, had asked the NYPD to uproot the people who had been occupying their park. Mayor Bloomberg had said it would be clean on Friday morning at 7 AM. And there were petitions and pleas and hues and cries. Just after midnight, I was paying attention to the cracks of thunder and the white lightning flashes and the hard rain rapping against the pane of my window in Brooklyn. I was reading reports of protesters shouting with joy against the heavens. They didn’t give a damn if they were being doused. Yet I fretted hard about the whole scene and couldn’t sleep and hit the subway station less than two hours after these ruminations, hitting the subway station close to the golden palindromic time of 2:22 AM.
While waiting for the train, I listened to a thin middle-aged man loosen his incoherent rap addressed to our present President from some semblance of a Black Power haze, conflating a CIA conspiracy to flood drugs into poor neighborhoods with an anti-Semitic plot involving 9/11. His umbrella nib stabbed through the air with each improvised line. In ten or fifteen years, could this be an Occupy Wall Street protester? Not out of the question. A little more than a week before, I went to Zuccotti and the surrounding areas after the Foley Square arrests. The open talk had transmuted into something more quiet and cautious after mikes caught quite a lot but sullied the message. There had been talk of interlopers and intruders and betrayers. And while hardly an expert in American politics, I knew my history, remembering how it had all fizzled out in the years before my existence. The thin middle-aged man gave me an opportunity for more sentimental equations, and I couldn’t shake my heart’s troubling tendency to play the long game.
When I hit Zuccotti on a very early Friday morning, the park was more pristine than I expected. The protesters were determined to keep it clean. The trash was neatly packed in careful sheaths. I observed a plastic lid on the ground, then watched as it was scooped up by a stray hand a mere thirty seconds later. Such stunning efficiency reminded me of Disneyland’s garbage policy.
The mood was more sanguine than the previous week. Two vehicles, circling round and round and round the park, were capturing images. I was certain that my face was now in a database.
“Hey guys,” shouted an enthusiastic man, “instead of surveilling, why don’t you check out the 24/7 live stream?”
It was a little before four. The TV news vans were mostly parked on the other side of Cedar. Their insides were dark, still as coffins. I looked above at the mannequins in a Men’s Wearhouse, their dead forms serving as sentries for the lively sea I was swimming in. Then I watched a man in a Santa Claus suit sweeping the curb. Thinking of the approaching winter, I wondered if this morning cleanup, this last moment of dignity, was the end of the movement.
I walked around, didn’t see any apparent plan for seven that morning. One sanitation car, one garbage truck. If the authorities had something up their sleeves, it was as unplanned as lint in a belly button. Not long before, Bill O’Reilly had called the Occupy Wall Street protesters “drug-trafficking crackheads.” But the only smells in the air were cigarettes and incense and the fresh urban aura that settles in just after a storm. Narcotics? The only person who came close was a Wikileaks reporter making a pleasant show about cadging a cancer stick. And who can blame him? He was one of the few reporters the protesters trusted, probably because most of the media had dead opportunism in their incurious gazes. I watched a dark-haired radio reporter in his early thirties, a dutiful employee wearing a tie, talk with a man who had been fired in 2009, a man who was trying to explain why he and his fellow protesters were there. The reporter quoted some circuit case, but it was his eyes that unsettled me. They were more concerned with winning rather than listening, perfunctory as a man trapped in a weekend escrow seminar.
It was difficult to ignore the media presence. As more reporters settled around Zuccotti’s perimeter, with few of them wishing to enter the square, the scene resembled some Mephistophelean metaphor from a Scorsese movie: more steam pluming from the grates on the corner of Liberty and Broadway, a plump and devilish photographer staring rabidly at his recently snapped images with a cigarette undulating up and down in his mouth like some phallic fount and backlighted by the harsh gleam of a TV news camera. In fact, the more these media types were concerned with image, the bigger their waistlines tended to be. It was almost as their cameras badgered their torsos into requiring more space.
“Nobody really marches anymore,” complained an anxious and experienced protester behind me. “We’re out there for America and they don’t even appreciate this.”
I chalked this up to raw nerves. What the protester didn’t know was that in a few hours, the collective hope would be vindicated. For now, more blue boys had arrived at Broadway. The human microphone system had adjusted itself to the city’s noise code. But when it came time to respond with jubilation, the protesters lived up to the bargain.
There was a Superman and two Captain Americas in the crowd. I wondered if there was some crossover between Occupy Wall Street and New York Comic Con. I had obtained press credentials for the latter many months before, but I had decided to blow it off. It seemed superficial in light of recent developments. One Captain America told me that he was tempted to go on Sunday when the tickets were cheaper. But it was clear that Zuccotti needed more superheroes than Jacob Javits. And the superheroes I observed – even the ones with Alan Moore’s Guy Fawkes homage – didn’t really need costumes. It wasn’t a surprised that their masks stayed mostly off.
I saw a kid peacefully sleeping on the perch on the park’s western corner and, vexed by what was set to go down in less than an hour, I became very protective. But he woke up and I was relieved. I walked back to Broadway and I stole wifi from McDonald’s. While snickering over this strange irony, I saw a guy trying to pick a fight. Something about twelve hundred dollars, one guy bopped on the nose. The NYPD stepped in and issued citations. The protesters urged those surrounding this duo to stay calm and nonviolent. This was to be a running theme of the morning.
People who wear T-shirts and who have a week’s worth of stubble (my mien on Friday) get different answers from protesters than people who wear ties. Even so, the protesters had been here long enough to employ caution. After two weeks, you had to be an old timer to get any bites. And I had only been at Zuccotti about seven times. So I spent most of the time just observing.
Still, the protesters were kind. Two asked how I was doing, perhaps sussing me out. A hearty man who identified himself as Keeper of the Trail Mix offered me a generous portion. Two men circled the perimeter swinging incense. There was a peaceful ding from a bell. “Good morning. Good morning. Spread the love.” DING! “Good morning. Good morning. Spread the love.” Ginsberg’s “oms” would not have been out of place.
Then, with less than an hour to go before the 7AM showdown, the blue boys began clearing the sidewalk on Zuccotti’s Broadway edge. But this precious isthmus between the edge of the protesters and the cops, tricky to negotiate on scant sleep, narrowed. And it thinned further when the union men came in with pickets decrying the NYPD standing up only for the rich.
“I’m trying to move!” shouted a burly man at a cop as the throngs thickened. “Don’t push me!” I hoped it wasn’t a harbinger of things to come. I squeezed in and out of the mass; it now took about five minutes to wade through the pea soup of a crowd. I noticed that the cops had formed phalanx positions at the two open corners of Broadway.
But revolutionary talk stayed strong. “We….are….the 99%!” shouted the crowd. I watched two empty NYPD buses shuttle down Broadway. The crowd remained very confident, but I did notice workers squeezing in between the cops and the barricades and wondered what was up.
Then word arrived that the Zuccotti cleanup would be delayed and there were cries and cheers. I hadn’t been quite sure of the news, in part because it seemed anticlimactic, but another man confirmed it. And the promise of a new plan, intimated by the double-layered trickle of repetition only minutes before, had come to fruition. But what to do?
“All week, all day, marching down Broadway!” shouted some people. There was a guy with a whistle. But for some reason this pledge didn’t catch on. There was still a tremendous cluster in Zuccotti. As the daylight arrived, I somehow caught on to this two step gambit and followed the group, finding myself near the head of the march.
Then there was a call to march on Wall Street – a celebratory response to recent developments. And the people with whistles piped in time to “Whose street? / Our street!” At first, they walked slow. A smiling woman stood atop a trash can, shaking her fist in unison to the chant. I liked her a lot. Another woman raised her open pink umbrella into the sky. I liked her a lot too. We were close to Bowling Green Park. I saw the two empty police buses that I had noticed earlier parked to the right. I was troubled by the police presence at the other end, which was close to the Charging Bull (protected by the same grille barricades used at Zuccotti). Were they leading us into a trap similar to the Brooklyn Bridge?
Judging by the number of bandanas over various mouths, the other protesters had the same worry. If I had to be pepper spayed, so be it. At the head of the march, many protesters had taken the brooms from Zuccotti, sweeping them along the surface of Broadway. It was a perfect protest metaphor.
Then the march rounded a corner towards New Street, with many protesters hopping a diagonally raised platform. “Banks got bailed out! / We got sold out!” A normal-looking guy, around my age and close to my male pattern baldness (I like to look out for my fellow balding members) and wearing a blue T-shirt, held a simple sign reading SAVE THE MIDDLE CLASS, with two humble red stars. He stood out from the others, and I wondered if he was part of the fresh influx that MoveOn had called upon.
But then the crowd began to run, for reasons unknown. At first, I thought it was general euphoria. But there seemed a genuine rush to run down the street, followed by protesters chanting “Walk! Walk!” to prevent any problems. And then we reached a new set of barriers, with a few white shirts and boys in blue. And I wondered again if we were being deliberately trapped. Being near the head of the group, I walked along the length of the barricades with the other protesters, bathed in the red neon light of freshly opened cafes to my right. And at the other end, there were several police mounted on horseback. White shirts commanded me to move on the sidewalk. “Keep walking,” they shouted. I ambled around in a slight daze. Somehow I ended up in the middle of the street, away from the barricades. I looked up and saw several horses headed my direction, with one mounted cop looking directly my way.
Not really knowing the protocol for how mounted policemen contend with guys drifting into the street, I felt the best course of action was to keep walking down Broad Street. Surely the other protesters would be behind me. They were not. It looked as if the NYPD were closing the protesters in. I somehow ended up in a Starbucks on Broad and Beaver, where the sight of mild-mannered white collar workers, many of them miserable, grabbing lattes before work proved a strange contrast to the recent excitement. I stole wifi from this Starbucks, as is my wont with a Starbucks, and attempted to consult Twitter to find out what the hell was going on. The signal was intermittent. I was only able to send tweets. So I returned to the streets, where I saw cops approaching with white ties dangling on their belts moving down Beaver.
I had asked a few people if there were any arrests. They said that there weren’t. But the great irony is that, only a few minutes later, after I was trying to find the march again, five people would be arrested at the very corner where I had just found refuge.
I did manage to pick up one part of the march again, greatly enjoying someone who had gone to the trouble of dressing in a shark costume, top half covered by giant jaws. The march turned left again on New Street, following the same pattern as before. I intercepted the march again when it headed down Beaver. There was a great roar of beeps from the cars moving in the other direction. I was to hear Wall Street workers grumble disapprovingly about traffic. But then there were about five NYPD scooters that pushed forward against this traffic in the street. Not quite Corman’s The Wild Angels in reverse, but I was still curious. At first, they appeared to be amicably following the protesters on their march. But I was later to see that some on these scooters were trying to intimidate protesters. I was relatively safe, somehow scooped up with all the video cameras that were following the angry red rear lights. In the distance, I saw one protester stand in front of the scooters, pacing back slowly. Then a scooter roared inches past me to my right. (Later in the morning, one of these scooters would run over a protester’s foot.) The protesters ran again. I saw a white shirt run into the street, his hand reaching to his belt, and I didn’t know if he was going to raise hell. So I pointed my camera at him and started filming. He saw my camera and then beat a retreat forward.
And then something amazing happened. An entire circle of protesters surrounded the scooters. They shouted, “The whole world is watching!” Behind us, a band arrived, composed of drums, horns, and flutes, and all dressed in green shirts. In the mad rush, I didn’t catch what group this was. But I appreciated their peppy offerings. And I wasn’t alone. There was a guy with a thatchy green scarf around his neck and a burgundy sweater who was clapping his hands and swaying his body to the music. He was nodding his head at his friends and smiling wide.
A witness later told me that five people had been arrested at Broad and Beaver. I decided to track back and noticed that there was a huge police presence moving down Broad – perhaps sixty cops. I decided to follow them. But when the last cop made it past the barricade, they closed the opening behind them. So much for my stealth tactic.
I decided the best option was to return back to Zuccotti. The mood there had not been broken, but the police presence remained strong. When I walked past Wall Street and saw a barricade manned by several police, with a few cops checking the IDs for all employees walking through, this was a dispiriting sight, like unexpectedly setting foot into an old Eastern European country. I decided that I had dodged enough arrests and barricades for one day.
It was Friday morning and it wasn’t over for the protesters. I headed home to grab a few hours of sleep.
Sheila McClear appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #412. She is most recently the author of The Last of the Live Nude Girls.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Embracing the diminishing returns of Old New York.
Author: Sheila McClear
Subjects Discussed: Peter Pan Donuts as a point of meaning in one’s life, Hunter S. Thompson and breakfast, Old New York, staying in New York by any means necessary, having unique issues with your parents, having problems with authority, the swift manner in which money disappears in New York, contending with siblings who tap parents for money, personal responsibility vs. economic victimhood, shyness and job interviews, latent rebellion, zoning out during a peep show strip, whether those who work in the nude can be turned on sexually, the many levels of compartmentalization as a stripper, zoning out in relation to performance and being uncomfortable, transactional relationships and comparisons between stripping and psychiatry, writing as a partition between shyness and performance, being charmed by wolves, how long it takes to a Midwesterner to become a true-blue New Yorker, worldliness, not talking with anybody for two weeks, writing about co-workers and allaying concerns, scribbling on the job and maintaining a notebook, memory as a great liar, expanding anecdotes into stories, how patterns inform the narrative, rebelling and dropping out, freedom and reality, being a reg, healthy addictions and obsessions, the advantages of having a focus, McClear’s reluctance to use the words “object” and “objectify,” difficulties with didacticism, the power dynamic between a stripper and a client, dealing with the inevitability of being objectified, losing one’s virginity later in life, working the same peep show stint as a top draw, Fashion Week, the importance of clothes and theatricality in the peep show, the advantages of wearing a schoolgirl skirt, how piercings trick people, guys who read your energy, not being able to hide behind your clothes, dressing like your archetype, subconscious authenticity, making more money when ovulating, the uselessness of wigs, split-second decisions, racism in the peep show industry, racial profiling and men’s sexual preferences, troubling generalizations, race and hiring practices in strip clubs, hygiene at strip clubs, the dangers of mops, sterilizing dollar bills, the necessity of internships to get a foothold in the New York media industry, Ivy League pedigrees, unemployment claims towards Gawker, improving labor conditions for sex workers, exploitation, stage fees, the difficulties of worker organization, what might have happened to McClear without the peep show industry, and the just safe enough nature of peep shows.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
McClear: I have problems with all authorities in general. It makes sense.
Correspondent: It makes sense. Your parents were both lawyers. When you were out here trying to survive, did you ever tap them for money? Because that was a question that was never answered in the book.
McClear: My mom gave me two grand when I moved. And every once in a while, she’d send like a hundred dollars in the mail. I never asked them for money. Occasionally, they would send it. No, I would say, other than the two grand — which, God, that disappeared so quickly.
Correspondent: It does in New York. Yeah.
McClear: I already had money too and…well, not a lot. But no. No. I didn’t. It was that and occasional things in the mail. Also my sister was tapping them for a decent amount of money.
Correspondent: Oh, I see. You wanted to be the more respectable sister? (laughs)
McClear: I felt it was unfair to pile on.
McClear: Then there was also the point of, well, at least then I…you know?
Correspondent: Yeah. Yeah. Of other attempts at employment, you write, “It wasn’t as if I didn’t try and do something else.” And I’m curious. To what extent could you be said to be personally responsible for finding work in a peep show? I mean, you were determined to stay in New York by any means necessary. You wanted to prove something to yourself. So obviously you made the decision. So how responsible are you for something like this? Or do you view yourself as a bit of an economic victim?
McClear: Oh, not at all. No one forced me to work there. And it wasn’t my first choice at all. But as I got more and more and more — I mean, everyone has a hard time finding work.
McClear; And I probably — I don’t know. I was probably doing something wrong in my job search.
Correspondent: You really think that? I mean, how many resumes did you send? How many job interviews did you go on?
McClear: I don’t know. I think I was so shy back then that I probably came off as bad in an interview. You know, a little awkward. But I was totally — I had this sort of latent thing where I never had rebelled. And I had never been a slacker. I never did drugs really. I never had acted out or been promiscuous. And like there was sort of that going on. And that sort of felt like the first excuse. Especially now that I was by myself and didn’t know anyone to reprimand me or find out what I was doing. It was sort of the first excuse that I found to act out in what was sort of a safe and controlled environment. I took it. And there are other things leading to that decision. Like needing a job and stuff. But I was looking for a way to act out obviously. It had to happen sometime.
McClear: Like when people go through their drug phase or their sleeping around phase or their slacker phase. I never did any of it. And I was 25.
Correspondent: You were feeling left out?
McClear: I was feeling left out! And totally uncool. (laughs)
Correspondent: Uncool? I mean, why? I mean, by what metric, if you are so anti-authority, did you feel uncool or not hep or not with it? I mean, who gives a fuck about that?
McClear: I guess I did give a fuck. (laughs)
Correspondent: Many times in the book, you describe zoning out and shutting your brain off during a peep show strip. Of a photography modeling job that steered into an entirely unusual direction…
Correspondent: …you write, “I had already floated away inside my head, detaching my mind from my body. Nearly three hours had passed before we were done.” But I have to point out even before you arrived in New York, when you performed with the Terranauts in Michigan, you write, “The rush of performing canceled out the noise in my head.” So it seems to me you’re describing here this need to act out. But I should point out that there has been, at least in my reading, this tendency to want to check your brain in or zone out or just not focus. To what degree was it there before you worked in the peep show? And do you think that working at the peep show exacerbated this tendency?
McClear: Yeah. I think it was there. Because my personality type is more of an observer. A little bit of a depressive. And sort of an introverted person. And a tendency to overthink things. Which is probably like…
Correspondent: (laughs) This is going the other way!
McClear: Well, it’s probably describing most writers. So it’s always a vacation if you can find a way — whether it’s meditation or exercise or playing in a band or whatever — to put your mind at ease. But then, of course, being in the peep show was just so — doing the show was much too personal. It was uncomfortable to be present. So I would always check out. And then it did exacerbate that tendency. Just like I described. Of turning a light switch on and off until the breaks. Because you’re like unsure of like “Am I on or off?” Or you can’t toggle between them as much anymore. Which is why I flipped out that one time and went to Bellevue.
McClear: And then I think it just ends up in you withdrawing more. Or just being less present. I actually had a friend who was a nude massage therapist at the time. And she was like, “Um, are you able to be turned on sexually anymore? Because I’m not.”
McClear: And I was like, “Oh. Me neither.” And she was like, “Yeah, I think it’s my job.” “Yeah, probably mine too.”
Correspondent: You couldn’t compartmentalize in any way? That Chelsea [Sheila’s peep show identity] was one type of sex and Sheila was another?
McClear: I could have. But I felt, and I did to an extent, that compartmentalizing too much would almost be like losing some core part of your personality. And I worked with a lot of girls who compartmentalized to the point where they were not the person they used to be before they worked in the business. So I didn’t want to be like that.
On Saturday, the New York Police Department arrested approximately 80 people — many participating as part of Occupy Wall Street, a peaceful protest against Wall Street and the economy.
But one incident suggests very strongly that the NYPD exceeded its authority and failed to follow appropriate procedure. In videos that have been making the rounds in the past 24 hours, three bystanders — all occupying the street and captured inside orange netting erected by the police — shout “What are you doing?” and “Oh my God!” in response to unseen arrests in the distance. The women, who offer no resistance or violent behavior, are seen and heard shrieking in pain as police officers pepper spray them without any apparent warning. On the main video, the young woman on the right clutches her hand over her mouth in shock, looking around and doing nothing, just standing there. She is clearly unaware that she is about to be maced. (The Daily Kos’s MinistryOfTruth talked with one of the women. She confessed in the report that she had no idea what prompted the attack.)
Two police officers clad in white shirts approach the women. One of them is equipped with pepper spray. He has been busy off-screen. He points fiercely at the three penned women, barking, “You guys are all going to be going” — presumably in response to the legitimate question “What are you doing?” The young woman on the right, still stunned, stretches out her hand. And he responds by spraying her in the face with pepper spray. He moves his arm to the right and sprays the others.
As the three women scream in pain and flail their arms, the netted orange perimeter is broadened. But not a single police officer steps inside to aid the women, much less arrest them. Other people scream for someone to bring water to the three women.
Here is the original video:
Here is the original video slowed down:
Here is the incident from another angle:
The NYPD would not confirm with The Gothamist whether or not it used pepper spray in any of the arrests. Yet the videos clearly indicate that it did. According to CBS News, the NYPD called every arrest justified. But an equally important question is this: Why did these officers consider the use of OC justifiable against these peaceful observers?
These three videos contain enough information about the macing incident to reconstruct a substantial portion of it. Reluctant Habits has also obtained a 2005 edition of the New York Police Department Patrol Guide, which outlines the specific use of pepper spray in Section 212-95. By the 2005 standards and based on the available evidence, it is clear that the NYPD did not follow appropriate measures.
In most cases, pepper spray is used to effect the arrest of a resisting subject. And the Patrol Guide specifies five uses for OC pepper spray:
- Protect self, or another from unlawful use of force (e.g., assault)
- Effect an arrest, or establish physical control of a subject resisting arrest
- Establish physical control of a subject attempting to flee from arrest or custody
- Establish physical control of an emotionally disturbed person (EDP)
- Control a dangerous animal, by deterring an attack, to prevent injury to persons
or animals present.
We see in the above videos that the women were not assaulting the police officers (unless stretching out one’s hand to get one’s bearings is considered “assault”). There was no need to establish physical control. They were not fleeing from arrest. (Indeed, how could they when they were trapped in orange police netting?) They were not emotionally disturbed persons. They were not dangerous animals who were going to injure anybody.
In looking at the Patrol Guide, we learn that the police are obligated to arrest the person who is pepper sprayed and charge them with a crime. Yet we see that the police do not make any moves towards the three women. They are left to scream, kneeled in the streets and in pain. They are not criminals. But they are clearly examples of what befalls “bad” citizens.
The Patrol Guide specifically orders the uniformed officer not to use pepper spray on “subjects who passively resist (e.g., going limp, offering no active physical resistance).” But the white shirted policeman has clearly ignored this procedure. In the same note, the uniformed officer is instructed to “avoid using O.C. spray in small contained areas such as automobiles and closets.” It is hard to determine with all the pandemonium going on in the video, but the orange netting erected by the police may very well fall into the scope of “small contained area.”
Patrol Guide procedures also request Emergency Medical Services “once the situation is under control.” But we see these women screaming and no apparent EMS members in the frame. Did the NYPD fulfill this option? Probably not. Because the women were left in the contaminated area to scream. They were not relocated to fresh air, contrary to another Patrol Guide mandate: “Remove the subject from the contaminated area and expose to fresh air while awaiting the arrival of EMS, or transportation to hospital/stationhouse if tactically feasible.”
Given the distance of the officers from the victims, it’s likely that none of the officers asked the women if they were wearing contact lenses. Nor were the women placed in a sitting position to promote free breathing. They were left to fall to the ground and suffer. The Patrol Guide also specifies that officers should provide a source of water and flush the contaminated skin of those who are pepper-spayed. Even if we give the NYPD the benefit of the doubt, and accept that the situation was an anarchic one and that it was hard to enforce these guidelines, one would think that this flushing proviso would be followed to the letter — if not as an enforced code, then at least as a basic quality of humanism that requires no explanation. But for a good twenty seconds, the women are left to scream and to experience pain, with one woman stretching her arms in an effort to find some relief for her anguish. The women who are not sprayed appear to want to help her, but, trapped inside the orange netting, they cannot offer water.
The NYPD’s conduct does not fall into the five general categories of pepper spray use. It fails to adhere to the NYPD’s own guidelines. And since the NYPD cannot own up to its inhumane behavior, despite repeat inquiries, it suggests very highly that the police are not especially committed to Fidelis ad Mortem — especially that vital faith in innocent bystanders whose only crime was to ask what was happening to fellow human beings.
Here is P.G. 212-95 reproduced in its entirety:
P.G. 212-95 Use Of Pepper Spray Devices
Date Effective: 01-01-00
To inform uniformed members of the service of circumstances under which pepper spray
may be intentionally discharged and to record instances where pepper spray has been
discharged, intentionally or accidentally.
Use of Oleoresin Capsicum (O.C.) pepper spray constitutes physical force under the New
York State Penal Law. Use of pepper spray is proper when used in accordance with
Article 35 of the Penal Law and Department procedures. O.C. pepper spray may be used
when a member reasonably believes it is necessary to effect an arrest of a resisting
suspect, for self-defense or defense of another from unlawful force, or to take a
resisting emotionally disturbed person into custody. In many cases, pepper spray will
reduce or eliminate the need for substantial physical force to effect an arrest or
gain custody. It will often reduce the potential for injuries to members and suspects
that may result from physical restraint and it should be regarded as a possible
alternative to such force and restraint, where practical. Pepper spray shall not be
used in situations that do not require the use of physical force. O.C. pepper spray
may be used in arrest or custodial restraint situations where physical presence and/or
verbal commands have not been, or would not be, effective in overcoming physical
When necessary to use pepper spray device:
UNIFORMED MEMBER OF THE SERVICE
1. Hold pepper spray in an upright position, aim and discharge pepper spray into a
subject’s eyes for maximum effectiveness, using two (2) one second bursts, at a
minimum distance of three (3) feet, and only in situations when the uniformed member
of the service reasonably believes that it is necessary to:
a. Protect self, or another from unlawful use of force (e.g., assault)
b. Effect an arrest, or establish physical control of a subject resisting arrest
c. Establish physical control of a subject attempting to flee from arrest or custody
d. Establish physical control of an emotionally disturbed person (EDP)
e. Control a dangerous animal, by deterring an attack, to prevent injury to persons
or animals present.
2. Effect arrest of criminal suspect against who pepper spray was used and charge with
crime which initiated use of the pepper spray.
a. Add resisting arrest charge, when appropriate
b. P.G. 210-13, “Release Of Prisoners – General Procedure” will be complied with if
it is determined that arrested person did not commit the crime or that no crime was
c. P.G. 216-05, “Mentally Ill Or Emotionally Disturbed Persons,” will be complied
with, when appropriate.
NOTE: Do not use pepper spray on subjects who passively resist (e.g., going limp,
offering no active physical resistance). If possible, avoid using pepper spray on
persons who appear to be in frail health, young children, women believed to be
pregnant, or persons with known respiratory conditions. Avoid discharging pepper
spray indiscriminately over a large area for disorder control. (Members who are
specifically trained in the use of pepper spray for disorder control may use pepper
spray in accordance with their training, and within Department guidelines, and as
authorized by supervisors.). In addition, avoid using O.C. spray in small contained
areas such as automobiles and closets.
3. Request response of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) once the situation is under
a. Advise person sprayed that EMS is responding.
4. Remove the subject from the contaminated area and expose to fresh air while
awaiting the arrival of EMS, or transportation to hospital/stationhouse if tactically
a. Determine whether the person sprayed is wearing contact lenses. (It is strongly
recommended that contact lenses be removed as soon as possible after exposure to O.C.
5. Position subject on his/her side or in a sitting position to promote free
a. The subject should never be maintained or transported in a face down position.
b. Do not sit, stand, or kneel on subject’s chest or back.
6. Provide assistance to subject as follows:
a. When consistent with member’s safety, and provided a source of water is readily
available, the uniformed member should flush the contaminated skin area of a subject
with profuse amounts of water.
b. Repeat flushing at short intervals, if necessary, until symptoms of distress
c. Continue flushing the contaminated skin of the subject in custody, at the
stationhouse as needed.
d. Commence the flushing of a subject’s contaminated skin upon arrival at the
stationhouse, if this has not already been done.
NOTE: Do not rub or touch skin of contaminated person, as the initial effect of
pepper spray does not dissipate for 15 – 20 minutes. Also, do not use salves, creams,
ointments, commercial eye washes or bandages. The desk officer will ensure that all
prisoners who have been sprayed with pepper spray receive appropriate first aid, if
needed, upon arrival at the stationhouse. Desk officers are also responsible for
ensuring that prisoners who have been sprayed with pepper spray are properly observed
throughout the arrest process, and that they receive prompt medical attention if they
need or request it. A Command Log entry will be made stating whether the prisoner has
had his/her skin flushed with water, been examined by EMS, or been transported to the
7. Transport prisoner immediately to the emergency room of the nearest hospital if
he/she is demonstrating difficulty breathing, or exhibiting signs of severe stress,
a. Windows of transport vehicle should be kept open
b. Members who come in contact with persons who have been exposed to pepper spray
must thoroughly wash their hands afterward and avoid having any contaminated clothing
make contact with their face
c. Advise hospital staff that pepper spray has been used on prisoner.
8. Prepare ON LINE BOOKING SYSTEM ARREST WORKSHEET (PD 244-159) and MEDICAL TREATMENT
OF PRISONER (PD 244-150) in arrest situations.
9. Complete the AIDED REPORT WORKSHEET (PD 304-152b) in non-arrest situations, e.g.
a. Check box “O.C. Spray Used”
b. Enter rank, name, and tax registry number, of each MOS who discharged spray in
the “Details” caption
c. List the time, doctor’s name, and diagnosis under “Details” caption, when
COMMANDING OFFICER, M.I.S.D.
10. Provide a quarterly printout of all arrest and aided incidents where pepper spray
was discharged to the commanding officer, Firearms and Tactics Section.
COMMANDING OFFICER, FIREARMS AND TACTICS SECTION
11. Analyze situations where O.C. spray was employed to evaluate its effectiveness.
a. As appropriate, modify existing training/tactics relative to the use of pepper
The only pepper spray authorized for use is the type issued to all uniformed members
through the Firearms and Tactics Section.
In order to maintain the effectiveness of the spray, it is recommended that the device
be shaken at the start of each tour. Carrying the pepper spray device during normal
patrol duty should be sufficient to keep the solution thoroughly mixed.
Pepper spray will not automatically stop all subjects, and even when it does
incapacitate, the effects are temporary. Members should therefore be ready to use
other appropriate force options and tactics.
When performing duty in uniform, the pepper spray shall be carried in its holster
attached to the non-shooting side of the gun belt. When performing enforcement duty
in civilian clothes the pepper spray must be carried, in the holster attached either
to a belt or in another appropriate manner. Undercover members may opt not to carry
the pepper spray. Members of the service may carry the pepper spray device during off
UPDATE: The Village Voice talks with Chelsea Elliott, one of the protesters: “We lay on the ground like little worms. One of the other girls was a medic, and was able to pour milk in her eyes. The cops left. They moved the net. All I know from what happened afterward, I watched on YouTube. For like 15 minutes, I couldn’t see; I couldn’t breathe at first. It was so out of the ordinary and unprovoked. Our medical group poured milk into my eyes for like 10 minutes, and apple cider vinegar on my face.”
UPDATE 2: The NYPD officer who pepper sprayed the protesters has been identified as Anthony Bologna. A Downtown Express profile of Bologna reveals that he became a police officer late in life and there is this telling quote: “You read in the papers about cops doing things that you can’t believe because you think everybody’s like you. But a department this large can’t really be completely free of it. If you don’t find anything wrong, you’re in real trouble because you’re not looking.” I am also investigating this article from 2001, which suggests the possibility that Anthony Bolgona attacked another protester at a Mayday NYC protest in 2001.
UPDATE 3: Jeanne Mansfield, “Why I Was Maced at the Wall Street Protests.”
UPDATE 4: The Guardian reports that Anthony Bologna may have committed civil rights abuses during the 2004 demonstrations at the Republican National Convention.
“Golden Hour,” which was shot at and around Riverside Park, is the third of what I’m calling my “anthropological films.” You can watch it above or click through to YouTube to see it in HD. (The series started with “Bubbles: A Consideration” and continued with “Dia de los Vivos.”) Like the other two films, this installment deals with certain glimpses of New York that most New Yorkers seem to ignore or fail to appreciate. This latest film chronicles aspects of how we live that were put into place decades ago by developer Robert Moses. (I recommend Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, if you’re not familiar with the subject.) But you don’t need to be know New York history to experience the film.
I plan to shoot a total of ten “anthropological films” before the end of the year. There may even be more, depending upon how deeply I plunge into these variations on a theme.
[UPDATE: I have created an “anthropological films” page for anyone who cares to chart the progress. I will update this page with additional information pertaining to the interconnected themes of these films as it becomes available.]
On June 28, 2009, I attended The Flower Parade. I knew nothing about the parade, but learned very quickly that its intent was to celebrate Colombia. The above film, “Dia de los Vivos,” presents the spirit that I observed and participated in.
On June 12, 2009, I attended a bubble battle in New York. But the event wasn’t really a battle — at least not in the traditional sense. Hundred of people who didn’t know each other gathered in Times Square to blow bubbles. It seemed like such a simple act, but it turned out to be so much more. And I hope that the above film, “Bubbles: A Consideration,” gives anyone who wasn’t able to attend a sense of the possibilities.
John Wray appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #282.
John Wray is most recently the author of Lowboy.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for those who will listen to him in the subway.
Author: John Wray
Subjects Discussed: The ABAB narrative of Lowboy, mirroring schizophrenia within a narrative structure, a sane perspective that assists the reader, subway details, Franz Kafka’s Amerika, real vs. imaginary details, Jonathan Zizmor, the C#/A subway tone, the origin of the character name Heller, Ulysses, resisting eccentric character names, merging two words into one unhyphenated word, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ideal seating positions in a subway, appealing to a wider audience, balancing the uncompromising literary voice with suspense, comparing the research in Wray’s three books, the difficulties of convincing the reader, Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, sexual preoccupation and schizophrenia, an intimate third-person voice, the relationship (or lack thereof) between Freud and Schreber, pat summations, urban exploration, the benefits of imagination, the Sikh religion and the end of the Seventh Avenue Line, open interpretations and false connections, respect for the subconscious, the old City Hall station, the dangers of being subsumed by research, writing vs. thinking, graphical segues in prose, B.S. Johnson’s holes, and John Wray vs. John Henderson.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You have Emily and Lowboy entering at the 14th Street station. I’m going to get subway geeky with you here.
Correspondent: I should point out that when you get into Union Square, there is — or there is now and there won’t be very soon — a Virgin Megastore.
Correspondent: Was that particular location a deliberate choice on your part?
Wray: (laughs) You know, sometimes there are just these happy accidents that come about either completely by chance or through some sort of action of the subconscious. I’m not really sure. The German editor of Lowboy was very proud of himself for the game of interpretation that he played, which involved a lot of reversals and mirror image analyses, that I guess you could say. He was very proud of himself for having been the only person to discover that the name of the detective in the novel, Ali Lateef..
Correspondent: Either the jazz artist or even the hip-hop artist in Oakland.
Wray: Well, there’s that. Yeah, that was a conscious reference on my part. But this German editor of mine was very proud to have figured out that Lateef spelled backwards is “fetal.”
Wray: Which is something that I never thought of. In a million years, I wouldn’t have thought of that. And I still don’t know what he was getting at. But who knows? I mean, it’s quite possible that these things percolate up from the subconscious in some way.
Correspondent: But I also must point out that the 86th Street Station does not have a line that you can see across, as you point out in this particular book. This led me then to believe as I was reading it, “Oh! Is this really real or not?” It was a kind of clue. Deliberate choice on your part?
Wray: Well, I deliberately — I’ve always been a big fan of Franz Kafka’s novel, Amerika. Particularly of the way that Amerika begins. Amerika, of course, being a novel written by someone who had never been to America and who was making deliberate use of the myth of America as a way of addressing many other things. Kafka was not particularly interested in the United States. And in the beginning of the novel Amerika, this boat filled with immigrants enters New York Harbor. And one of the very first sentences describes the Statue of Liberty holding aloft its wonderful gleaming sword.
Wray: Rather than the torch, of course. So in an earlier version of Lowboy, in a bit of a tip of the hat to that novel, I introduced various, fairly overt features into this New York City that would differentiate it from the New York of realistic fiction. Then as the novel evolved, it became more and more naturalistic in a way, and eventually settled into this mode of heightened realism that it now occupies. But there are still certain little vestiges of that earlier alternative New York.
Correspondent: And this would be one of them.
Wray: I think you’ve caught one of them. Yeah.
The cracked light turquoise paint clings to the gneiss on the Bronx side of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, forming the canvas for a stenciled C, a character cloud with a silver lining representing Columbia University. I can report with some small relief that elite rowers are in short supply on a cold February afternoon. But the Amtrak trains that roll across the bridge to the west of the Henry Hudson can be seen emerging on the Bronx side and disappearing behind the Big C. While the rock itself has defiantly exacted fissures through serious chunks of this not-quite-elliptical letter, the paint sits truer near the stems. And you can walk a good hard slog through Inwood Hill Park, slipping on the presently icy trails under the Henry Hudson Bridge leading southwest to Dyckman Street, and not know a damn thing about how the C came to be. You’ll run into friendly geese, with their sinuous necks jutting as slow and methodical and as graceful as their struts, and encounter a number of maps displaying city department propaganda about all the forest preservation going on. But what of the origins of C Rock itself? Nothing. An unknown letter defying history, standing some sixty feet tall but somehow still managing to upstage the large chunks of ice now breaking in the water.
It is commonly understood that a rowing team from Columbia University painted the rock out of school pride. Bill Twomey’s The Bronx suggests an alternate theory: that the rock was painted by engineering students from Columbia and the blue paint was purchased by George Younkheere (along with brushes and rope). In 1994, the New York Times reported that the peninsula was destroyed sometime in 1937 to widen the Harlem River Ship Canal, where the C was later painted. The Times also helpfully informs us that the paint is replenished every few years by Columbia crews. But who? And what authority determines how frequently the rock must be painted? Another Times article four years later informs us that the rock was painted by oarsman in 1955, with then Columbia assistant director of athletics Brian Bodine claiming that the work was done with team members suspended from boatswain’s chairs. But was Bodine there? And how does he know exactly? Are there pictures of the initial rock painting that Columbia is sitting on? (The latter Times article also informs us that there was a touch-up job in 1986. But from my observation, it appeared that the C had been painted a little more recently, perhaps at the stems.)
These shifting details still don’t answer the precise origins of the C, and it may be because the C is perhaps one of New York’s largest items of graffiti. The rock is referred to in some quarters as Geronimo, and there are apparently two physical activities associated with the rock. The first supports the Apache reference transformed into triumphant cry: giddy souls sometimes leap from the top into the creek. The second is reminiscent of that silly climactic scene from the film Gattaca: swim across the creek and back and prove your athletic prowess (and presumably your manhood). The site Inwoodlite claims that C Rock was established on a racist note, but is too diffident to share this with us. It is also known that a Lenape settlement was once situated at the top of the rock. This likewise suggests a clash between civilizations, but perhaps not the kind that the Lenapes would be aware of during their residency.
What’s fascinating is that there haven’t been any legal challenges to the rock. The C was painted and it has endured, quietly endorsed by the Inwood neighborhood and the Bronx dwellers living above the rock. Perhaps it is too unwieldy to rub out. Columbia is understood to have marked its turf on a rock cut by workers, leaving one to wonder whether some ambitious taggers might establish an A Rock and a B Rock somewhere along the Harlem River to ensure an alphabetical symmetry. This will probably not happen. They’ve cracked down on graffiti in the five boroughs, and Ivy Leaguers, it seems, are the only one afforded immunity and a natural canvas. The rest evade bulls and whip out cans and try tagging cars at the ends of subway lines, but their screeds and illustrations, however crude, are washed away to avoid permanence. No such fate for Columbia, whose C may very well be cruder and bolder than the output of today’s taggers.
(Photo credit: jag9889.)
It changes its hours, its temperament, and its reasons for existing faster than the seasons. Faster than some contemporary hostler can rustle up fresh horses or the unseen manager can replace fleeing steeds who take legal tender while tending behind the isthmus separating employee from customer. There are some moments during the year when it serves coffee, and other moments when it dumps these java options in favor of more alcoholic ones. (The latter scenario is the present option. It has resulted in others fleeing to more dependable joints where coffee has been a regular option for at least six months.) The place has a perfectly respectable architecture that possesses hospitable potential: plentiful tables to talk or to read, a tawny aura that isn’t likely to be profiled in Architectural Digest anytime soon, but that might work with the right clientele and the right management. Unfortunately, for those who hope to stay, there’s a revolving door in place: those who own the joint and those who run the joint are fresh-faced neophytes who emerge every two months. And you never know where the previous folks went, even when you ask around. It’s safe to say that this constant confusion about what this place is exactly doesn’t permit a hearty staple of neighborhood regulars. Without even a shred of permanence, it remains a house devoted to transients. And it inexplicably survives.
This establishment blames its current woes on the economy, which was why it recently ejected coffee from its beverage repertoire and truncated its hours. But you can find four or five boisterous talkers on any weeknight itching to turn the place seedy. And one senses a certain resistance to this not entirely unsavory option from the staff, for you can almost always hear them them bitching about crazed drunks and lonely eccentrics who they had to eject.
The folks who hang out at this place are almost never from the neighborhood. They come from SoHo, Queens, and sometimes Inglewood. A few arrive late after watching strippers at the Slipper Room, and deliver fleshy reports to anyone who will listen. A large television is behind the bar, mostly muted. Like most bars, it’s a point of reference for anyone who can’t find some topic to talk about. And there are always things to talk about. Just check your brain in at the door and concentrate on small talk.
Perhaps this place is some outre port in the storm. The place that nobody knows about or cares to acknowledge. The place where anyone who walks in and carries some sign of living somewhere within a five-block radius is viewed with a natural suspicion.
I don’t wish to name this place. There’s a perfectly wonderful bar that I could go to a few blocks down the street, but I’ve long had a soft spot for the underdogs. I am fascinated by this bar’s almost total failure as a business and as a place of natural community, but I likewise harbor some small hope that it will figure itself out. It could very well be that the anxiety now in the national air — the transition from a dopey president who seems as unstoppable as Friday the 13th‘s Jason to a guy who might actually do something — has affected its staff and customers. Or it could very well be that those in the neighborhood are “wiser” than I am, going to the sensible spots where their evenings will be predictable successes. But this seems too easy an option in a city with one of the swiftest gentrification rates in the known world.
I don’t know how long this place will last, but I hope to carry on attending. I suspect I have some modest aspirations as a flâneur. Or perhaps I’m simply waiting around or hoping to instigate some moment in which the people of New York City finally throw off the shackles.
The economic downturn is shaking up the rabble just south of Times Square. I was walking along Eighth Avenue, and a man leaped at me some fifteen feet from the edge of the sidewalk, grabbing my forearm. There had been a guy who almost tore the lapel off my wool coat last winter. But somehow the man today was more desperate. More determined to seize another’s attention. More compelled to invade personal space. Wanting to survive, needing to matter, bowling alone.
I chatted with a thin woman bundled in a dark pockmarked coat just outside Penn Station who said she needed $12 to get home. She was situated under one of those ramshackle walkways intended to steer pedestrian traffic away from the main sidewalk while some construction rattles on, but that almost always serves as an impromptu shelter in the winter. She told me that I was the only one who talked with her in two hours. Whether her story was true or not, she was pretty hard to miss. Her large cardboard sign had the word STRANDED! in big blocky letters, a kind of Bic-imbued pointillism. The details in her story didn’t add up, but I gave her a dollar that I didn’t really have. There was the man I saw begging for a cigarette just outside a diner. A woman stood with a smile on her face, smoking three cigarettes in a row. The man wouldn’t go away. He was persistent. She didn’t budge. He dived for one of the butts she had dropped on the sidewalk and then asked her for a light. She refused. I had no cigarettes or matches on me. It would have made some difference.
Someone told me yesterday that she had been given $40 and a box to collect her possessions upon submitting her resignation notice. No pay for the last two weeks. The White Castle on Eighth Avenue announces that it’s hiring. Benefits are the big selling point. And it can’t be an accident that a bundle of comfort burgers over there is called a Crave.
Everyone craves a little security these days. More than a White Castle burger, which you have twenty minutes to sit around and eat until they kick you out. If you’re not let go just because, then you’re certainly craven, hoping to keep whatever job you have. Whether it has become necessary to sacrifice a little liberty and empathy to pay the rent is a question I can’t possibly answer. But you can feel the bristling fear in the streets.
Charlie Kaufman recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #243. Kaufman is most recently the writer-director of Synecdoche, New York, now playing in limited theaters.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Lost in the endless ebb and flow of emotional and cerebral ideas.
Guest: Charlie Kaufman
Subjects Discussed: Mr. Kaufman confronting more energy than he is accustomed to, whether or not Mr. Kaufman is an idea man, Mr. Kaufman’s slow conceptual process, exploring the possibilities of an idea peer review process for Mr. Kaufman, whether an idea can be emotional, what Mr. Kaufman has to do to impress our interviewer and the audience, how Mr. Kaufman changes, the issues that arise from Mr. Kaufman’s experiences, coming closer to a complete resolution of the world, shots of clocks in Synecdoche, New York, misunderstandings from Hollywood journalists, initial assemblies, how time seems to speed up as Mr. Kaufman gets older, walking by a clock that was a piece of graffiti on the wall, Caden and his colors, how Mr. Kaufman talks with the costume designer, whether or not clothes are comfortable on Philip Seymour Hoffman, Beckett’s Act Without Words, Mr. Kaufman trying to get closer to who he is, trying to avoid copying presentations of relationships from movies, Death of a Salesman, The Trial, literary influences, Equus, Proust, near literalisms, writing the Harold Pinter scene when revising the screenplay, and verifying real world headlines through the act of writing.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: It’s safe to say that you are an idea man. So I must ask you: to what degree do you worry about an idea? Does your mind brim with more ideas — even correct ideas — than you can possibly use? Are you thinking of ideas right now? Is there a slight sense of panic with any idea? What is your idea of ideas?
Kaufman: Well, this whole question is based on the premise that I am an idea man, which I’m not sure that I agree with.
Kaufman: So I’m trying to break down what you asked me. And I don’t know. How am I an idea man? To turn this around. On you, Ed.
Correspondent: Well, I would argue that this film is laced with endless ideas meshing against each other.
Kaufman: Yes, it has a lot of ideas. But the ideas came over a two-year period, as I wrote the script. It’s not that I was furiously — like you or your girlfriend — furiously writing 700 pages in two days so that you could read it two days later. I mean, it’s slow. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all for long periods of time.
Correspondent: So it’s the impression, I suppose, of being an idea man based on the final output here.
Kaufman: It’s not like it happens in real time. It’s not like there’s a two-hour movie and I wrote it in two hours.
Correspondent: Okay, well then let’s turn that…
Kaufman: I mean, I think you thought that before.
Correspondent: Oh certainly!
Kaufman: But it’s not true.
Correspondent: Let’s talk about it.
Kaufman: Let’s turn it around.
Correspondent: Okay. What is the actual ratio of you coming up with an idea? Is it one idea every 2.2 days? What’s the deal?
Kaufman: I would say that…(to himself) you figure two years….maybe it’s an idea a week.
Correspondent: And you have to determine whether…
Kaufman: And this is terribly disappointing for you.
Correspondent: Oh no! It’s actually quite interesting! I’m wondering. Do you have a certain….? Over the course of a week, do you determine whether that idea is correct in association with another idea? Is there kind of an idea peer review process that you run across in your mind? I mean, what’s the situation here?
Kaufman: There is no correct for ideas. Ideas are ideas. And if they’re interesting to me, they’re interesting to me. You know, I don’t know what an idea is actually. I think I think more in terms of emotions than ideas, although there are conceptual things that I utilize. Conceptual things that are devices or that are interesting to me. But the meat of the work for me is the emotional aspect of it. And I don’t know if you would consider those ideas or…
Correspondent: I think an emotional idea is nevertheless an idea.
Kaufman: Okay, then I…
Correspondent: You’re assuming that an idea is based entirely on cerebral terms. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.
Kaufman: Well, it may just be more the way that you’re presenting it. It feels….when you talk about ideas, and how many ideas you come up with, blah blah blah.
Correspondent: We’re presenting it in statistical data, yeah. (laughs)
Kaufman: It feels very cerebral.
Kaufman: And scientific. And so yes, I have emotional ideas.
After bribing a number of underpaid assistants with Duane Reade gift certificates (there was a stack here; don’t ask how we acquired it) and attempting to whisper sweet somethings into New York Magazine editorial interns who have been wrongly pegged as know-nothings, Reluctant Habits has obtained the early notes for Boris Kachka’s “Oh noes! The publishing industry is dead!” article. We don’t know what to make of Mr. Kachka referring to himself in the first person in these early notes, assuming the shaky provenance can be believed (and indeed we have grave doubts). But we presume that it’s the kind of casual hubris one employs when one is too embarrassed to refer to one’s self in the overused first person plural.
1. Okay, Boris, authenticity! Authenticity! Authenticity! Get the architectural details right! Employ modifiers like “drab” and “mysterious.” Use words like “demise” and “gallows.” Use Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy for reference. We need the audience to cry uncontrollably. We need to create the impression that everyone who works in the publishing industry is crying uncontrollably. And, Boris, as you sit at the keyboard to write this, perhaps you will cry uncontrollably. Never let facts get in the way of the emotions!
2. You can never use enough exclamation points! Remember, we’re pulling back the curtain. The publishing industry is dead and has no hope! Watch the end of Planet of the Apes every 200 words to get the appropriate apocalyptic feel here. You publishing maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!
3. Well, if Bob Miller is setting this thing up, then he IS the story! Never mind that the imprint is unproven. If you can’t point to specific examples with HarperStudio, then go with Jane Friedman! After all, she’s the one who greenlighted this, yes? Even if you can’t figure out the precise details of her sacking, suggest authority by providing details about her post-retirement party.
4. Insert random quotes every 500 words. The quotes don’t have to match up with the text that follows. But this should create an authentic enough feel.
5. Still struggling for title for piece. Watch Burt Reynolds movies.
6. Find a way to work in Lenin reference.
7. There’s an alternative here to the standard conglomerates take over everything angle, isn’t there? Surely, it can’t be that simple. Think, Boris, think! Uh, dot com days?
8. Dale Peck angle? We need someone making low six figures here. I mean, that’s the New York readership! Surely, nobody who pays less than $2,500 a month in rent reads this magazine. Demographic will sympathize!
9. Work in “long tail” reference. Shit on Chris Anderson if you can. Still vaguely fashionable, I think, to take a dump on Chris Anderson.
10. Suggest that Markus Dohle doesn’t know what he’s doing, but focus on appearance if you can’t locate the facts. Maybe describe Sonny Metha as “dapper.”
11. Constant comparisons to the old boozing days of publishing. Things used to be better. That never fails, eh?
12. Okay, we’ll never know what happened between Richard Ford and Fisketjon. But go for the gossip angle if necessary.
13. Get sources to say that nothing matters. Need at least three quotes. Preferably anonymous.
14. Wait, how else is the publishing industry dying? Causation does not imply correlation? Fuck that. BEA attendance was down! Work that in.
15. Work in Kindle.
16. Need list of “Books Gone Bust.” Shit, only four examples come to mind. Well, that’s enough, surely! Nobody’s going to pay attention to the titles that actually sell, are they? They’re going to believe our “publishing is dead” angle because I’m Boris Fucking Kachka!
17. When in doubt of your shaky knowledge about the publishing industry, Boris, have a good wank. Or three.
Ever wonder what happens to abandoned subway cars? Well, apparently, retired subway cars have proven to be quite helpful to the fish population just off coast of Delaware. Cars are dumped into the water, and the subway car’s roomy confines has resulted in fish taking to the cars like, well, water. (There have been other efforts to dump aircraft, automobiles, and other vehicles into the ocean to create these reefs. But the fish seem to like the subway cars the best.) Red Bird Reef, named after the famed Redbird cars being used for this experiment, has seen a 400-fold increase in marine food per square inch over the past seven years.
Red Bird Reef is not without controversy. The American Littoral Society has expressed concern that the small levels of asbestos within the glue used to affix floor panels and the like might prove damaging to the environment. And since there are only so many retired subway cars to go around, other states are trying to compete for the subway cars. (New York provides these subway cars for free.)
So is this a waste of manmade resources? A sullying of the environment? Or is it very possible that, given the declining fish populations in the Atlantic, it takes this extraordinary manmade reef to generate a sustainable fish population again?
(via The Publishing Spot)
On Friday afternoon, I began walking the floors of New York ComicCon, collecting strange snippets that will be glued together for a future installment of Segundo. I counted thirty-seven Jedi Knights (some of them portly, making me wonder why Jedi discipline doesn’t seem to involve physical fitness), two Stormtroopers (both in good shape), and two Princess Leias (both in remarkably gaunt shape and dressed to show this). If one must choose a side in the Star Wars/Star Trek dichotomy, I’m more of a Trek man myself, even though I recognize that the franchise is dead and hasn’t produced anything of quality since Deep Space Nine. Nevertheless, if costumes are anything to go by, there is a distinct sign that Trek is on the wane with the true believers.
I’m not quite sure what Roman centurions and Jedi knights have in common, aside from the fact Asimov’s Foundation series serves as the missing link between the two. But I must confess that, of all the costumes I espied, I was the most impressed with the Centurions (pictured above).
Speaking of Star Wars, I learned about the economics of lightsabers. A good lightsaber will cost you around $100. More if you want it customized. Joseph Semling, purchasing manager of Brian’s Toys, told me that he has anywhere from 20 to 100 lightsabers of any particular type in his warehouse. And if you’re wondering what a lightsaber dealer is likely to net, a lightsaber goes wholesale for about $75 and is then sold from anywhere from $25 to $50 more at retail. And if you’re wondering how Semling makes his money, he informed me that he raises the price of his lightsabers when the supply goes down. Like anything, the lightsaber is subject to a supply and demand curve. But even if the supply remains relatively stagnant, I suspect if Semling moved six lightsabers a day, discounting overhead, he could probably pay for his New York hotel room.
But the most intriguing conversation I had was with Jeffrey Brown, whose work I was apparently more interested in than I realized and whom I may have profoundly confused with my line of questioning. I’ll let the following partial transcript speak for itself. But Brown, I suspect, has more going on in his personal chronicles than most people realize. And I’m hoping that one day, I’ll be able to sit down with him and give him the full-length treatment he deserves.
Brown: I don’t really write about my personal sex anymore.
Correspondent: I know. But I’m saying that people are still interested in the past.
Correspondent: So this might be a conundrum. Many people are expecting more of that in the present and the future.
Brown: Well, um, I just keep dangling it in front of them. Well, that sounds bad.
Brown: What I mean to say is that maybe I can just make it seem like I might write more. But I’ll really just write whatever I want.
Correspondent: Okay, I propose something for you. What if you were to fictionalize the personal and therefore it’s not personal sex. But it’s fictional sex. I mean, you did that with the robots. But to have a story that doesn’t involve you as the chief protagonist.
Brown: I have lots of ideas and I’ve got a couple more autobiographical things that I want to cover. Including writing about religion. Growing up with my dad being a minister. And I want to write a book about pregnancy. And the book I’m working on right now is about becoming a cartoonist. And then once those are out of the way, I have some ideas about fiction-like stories that I want to get into. Although the first one, at least, there’s no sex. Well, there could be. I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet.
Correspondent: Well, it’s not all sex. I’m just trying to point out the first-person vs. third person vs. fictive vs. real and all that.
Brown: Well, if you don’t know me, I guess it’s all fiction writing.
Correspondent: I don’t actually. I don’t know you.
Brown: Well, you kinda do.
Correspondent: Well, not entirely. Because this is entirely true. That’s the question.
Brown: But to people listening to this, they don’t know.
Correspondent: Well, now they know. Now that we’re talking about it. We’re clarifying.
Brown: But to them. To them, this could be fiction.
Correspondent: Oh, you may not even be Jeffrey Brown.
Brown: That’s true.
Correspondent: Okay, so let’s talk about this reality vs. what you put in your books.
Brown: Well, it’s something. And I haven’t entirely figured out why. I mean, there’s something about when you know it’s true. There’s something about that honesty, that authenticity, that kind of heightens the impact of things sometimes. Which is why I’ve avoided doing more fictionalized autobiography. And sometimes I’ve thought about moving in that direction. And then it just doesn’t feel right for what I’ve done so far. But on the other hand, books — like some of the Bighead stuff — there are some very personal autobiographical elements sort of in there. So in a way, I kinda do it occasionally. In various half-assed ways.
Correspondent: I’m wondering what boundaries you’re placing on yourself as you’re getting older. As you have a family. And all that.
Brown: I definitely. Well, not writing about personal sex anymore. There’s boundaries there that I’m much more aware of. You can see that in the new book, Little Things, where everything’s approached from a slightly different direction. Where I’m much more careful about what I’m revealing and how I’m revealing it.
Correspondent: But this issue of authenticity that you were talking about earlier, I mean, this causes a bit of a problem if you have boundaries like this.
Brown: Unless you just ignore it. Fuck it. I’m going to do — oh wait, can I say that?
Correspondent: No, you can say whatever you want.
Brown: This is going on the Internet? Oh, Internet. Then I just leave those questions up to people analyzing the work. Then I just ignore the problems.
Correspondent: Now wait a sec. Wait a sec. That was a very great way of evading the question.
Brown: I know. I tried earlier.
Correspondent: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m going to have to put it — just try to get an answer on this notion of how you retain truth despite having these boundaries.
Brown: (laughs) I mean, certainly there’s a theory that some people have. That fictionalizing — that by lying, you can get at a more real truth. So in that sense, whatever boundaries I have, I’m walking some sort of line between those boundaries forcing me to reveal some kind of more pure truth in that sense. But then we can go into how reliable is my memory. I think people who know me would generally say that I’m pretty honest. But it’s also possible that it could all be a big act. And I’m a really good actor. Totally. But —
Correspondent: The issue I have is here you are putting some kind of identity. It doesn’t really matter how true it is.
Correspondent: Nevertheless, it is true in some sense. And then there are these boundaries on top of that. So as a result, you’re painting yourself into these interesting limitations. Possibly to be more creative.
Brown: And I think the other thing to is that I tend to think of all the autobiographical works as a bigger picture when you put them together. So one book, for example, might have a lot of boundaries in some way that limit what you’re seeing from that book. It’s a very limited view of me as a person or as a character. Or however you want to put it. But when you read the other books, they all kind of inform each other. And so it’s like a tapestry of information that combines. It’s almost like it gets around those boundaries. Maybe.
Correspondent: Well, I also ask this because, in Little Things, you’re very clear about when things happen in that. You actually date the stories. If I’m thinking of the right collection. This happened during this particular time. I drew this during this particular time. And so as a result, it seems to me that there is an effort on your part to be truthful here.
Brown: No, I was just ripping off John Porcellino with that. No, I actually was ripping off John Porcellino. Well, I do that. And if you look in Unlikely, where there’s the drawings from photographs. Or AEIOU, where there’s the receipt from the dinner. And that stuff’s kind of just an additional way of telling people that, despite those boundaries, I’m trying to be as honest as possible and as forthright. Obviously, there’s probably some weird subconscious thing going on. There’s things that I’m not saying. Or things that I’m in denial about maybe. But what I’m trying to do is be honest.
[UPDATE: Our NYCC podcast, featuring this interview and others, including chats with Kyle Baker and Scott McCloud, should go up soon. But alas, I’m now on deadline. But I’m hoping to get the podcast up once I beat these deadlines.]
On Thursday night, a crowd congregated into a subterranean hall of the New York Public Library to listen to Simon Winchester interview Nicholson Baker. Mr. Baker wore a green vest and a low-key suit. Mr. Winchester was dressed in a gaudy blue pinstriped suit and a yellow shirt, with a dark red handkerchief drifting out of his outer pocket like a haphazard eleventh-hour accessory.
Baker was soft-spoken, effusive with his hands, and sometimes quietly gushed, particularly when talking about the “lush, colorful” nature of the New York World, one of the early 20th century newspapers that had been in his prodigious collection. Winchester was often sharp and crisp with his questioning, exuding the aura of a fussy countertenor waiting for a cadre choristers to marvel upon his ostensible magnificence, but he was good enough to point out that it was “Nick’s night.” At one point, Winchester poured water only into his glass. Baker, by contrast, filled both his own glass and Winchester’s. Winchester kept his gaze upon Baker throughout the conversation, rarely glancing to the audience. Baker, by contrast, regularly opened himself to the audience when expressing himself.
Shortly after sitting in his seat, Winchester announced to the crowd, “This is not going to be a lovefest.” But despite this pledge of pugilism, Winchester played it relatively safe. He had snide comments pertaining to Adam Kirsch’s review. Contra Kirsch, he pointed out that “stupid, but scary” seemed an appropriate line to discuss war.
Alluding to Checkpoint, Baker observed that his purpose in writing that novel was to ask a simple question: “If you think that your single action can solve the problem, is there a way that someone can talk you out of the problem?” But Baker pointed to Emily Dickinson’s maxim about telling all the truth but telling it slant. Fiction could only go so far. And thus, Human Smoke emerged from these meditations.
Baker pointed out that for every book he has written, he would generally get one third of the way into it before “something goes wrong.” Then, he sets it aside. But he had been working on a book-length history of the Library of Congress, dwelling in particular upon Archibald MacLeish, who was the Librarian of Congress in 1939. MacLeish would go onto become a key propaganda figure during the war. And thus Baker found himself immersed in “an interpretive problem.” He had to understand World War II. So he put aside this project and Human Smoke began to take shape.
In discussing the difference between his fiction and nonfiction, Baker noted, “Fear plays a large part in all this. You want to avoid exposing himself.” It was with this attitude that he tackled the more elaborate project of Human Smoke, of which he pointed out that he couldn’t do justice to the full experience of the war.
Winchester asked Baker about whether it was reasonable to rely almost exclusively on newspapers — the so-called first draft of history — for his book at the expense of historians who came later. Baker pointed out that the reporter who wrote about a major event he experienced “had the balance of things in his mind that brings you to the moment.” He cited the exploding soup cans during the bombing of Coventry — a detail that seemed particularly apposite to his framing of history. He pointed out that newspapers would reprint the entire text of a radio speech and noted that, within the letters to the editor section, one could find a great array of voices.
In dwelling upon Human Smoke‘s cast of characters, Baker expressed great curiosity about Herbert Hoover and pointed out that Victor Klemperer was “an interesting man, a sad man.” But he pointed out that just because he put a quote into the book, this did not mean that he necessarily believed in it. Of Gandhi, he observed, “Sometimes there’s a coldness that’s very disturbing.”
Baker appeared deeply troubled by World War II priorities. He said, “It was easier to fight a war against Germans than it was to allow Jewish refugees.” But he pointed out that he was not qualified. On the question of whether America knew about the Pearl Harbor invasion in advance, Baker opted to “defer to the experts.” Later in the evening, Baker said, “Who were the people who came out of the war with greatness and nobility? The Jews.” And there was an uncomfortable silence from the audience, who began to grow a bit restless.
When I interviewed Mr. Winchester in late 2006, he insisted to me that he was a historian, not a journalist, and expressed umbrage at my notion that he was “covering” the 1906 earthquake, pointing out that historians look back on events with “perspective.” This perspective, however, was not particularly evident last night.
Four of his questions pilfered very specific points that were presented during the Human Smoke roundtable discussion — all, of course, without reference. Not only did Winchester read aloud the exact same section from Checkpoint that was referenced on these pages, but he also brought up Jeanette Rankin, the controversy involving the Treaty of Versailles (raised by Colleen Mondor), and the efforts by Cardinal Clemens von Galen to suspend the T-4 program. I wondered if Winchester had spent that afternoon Googling to prepare for a book that had slipped his mind since he blurbed it many months ago.
There was a telling indicator of this propensity during the post-discussion Q&A. Asked about Human Smoke, Mr. Winchester pointed out that he had problems with Baker’s book, but that he would defend his right to write it. The delightful and quick-thinking Paul Holdengräber pointed out that Winchester’s line had originated from Voltaire.
Despite these quibbles, I actually liked Winchester. He was dry and mostly unsmiling, save through a few belabored grimaces that seemed more directed at the CSPAN cameras dutifully videotaping this conversation for Book TV than the audience who had shelled out $15 a head to see this. But he was quite entertaining as a Jeremy Paxman-style interviewer. At one point, he asked Baker point blank about the apparently unquestionable natural impulses that cause people and creatures to kill, citing a gorilla video that had been emailed to him, and some incident involving chickens on his cozy farm in Connecticut as evidence of these apparent impulses. He even managed to find a way to name drop Tom Brokaw — “who is a friend and who I like.” Winchester was an enjoyable blowhard, more Phineas Barnum than Phineas Finn. And juxtaposing his blustery presence with the more empathic Baker worked quite well.
Despite revealing himself later to be a dedicated Malthusian (and this charge seemed more a piece of contrarian theater than bona-fide ideology), Mr. Winchester partially acquitted himself when he bailed Baker out as he was responding to a question from the audience about whether America should now begin negotiating with Islamic fundamentalists. As Baker fumbled for an answer, Winchester quickly pointed out that the Northern Ireland crisis was resolved by talking the issue out through back doors.
As the crowd dissembled, Winchester ran up and down the signing line, balancing books like a juggler signed on for a circus at the last minute. I kept wondering whether he was carrying out some intriguing one-man dramatization of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, but this was not the case. He asked a few folks in the queue if anyone else wanted him to sign his book so that he could go home.
Baker appeared a bit worn out by all the publicity he’s been doing for Human Smoke. But despite his energies waning near the end, he maintained a great humility and offered some lively remarks for a book that is likely to keep fanning the flames of controversy for quite some time.
This was roughly the view you received if you had the privilege of attending the Boxcar Lounge on Wednesday night. The venue was indeed shaped like a boxcar and it was SRO for those souls, like Levi and me, who had arrived from McNally Robinson. (Of that counterprogramming, while John Freeman made a valiant attempt to ask questions of Lee Siegel that would cause him to think instead of fulminate more on his puerile anti-Internet views, the two of us left after twenty minutes. Siegel, as a speaker, has the voice of a semi-squeaky plush toy that still has a bit of air left, but hasn’t yet figured out that the tots have moved on to newer baubles. I had seen this kind of arrogant and opinionated blather before when the speaker had referred to itself as Andrew Keen. So there was no need to subject myself to it again. To offer a small sample: According to Siegel, the Internet is apparently composed of 80% porn. And while it’s absolutely diabolical for people to leave anonymous and hateful comments (as they did for Siegel’s posts at the New Republic), apparently it’s perfectly peachy keen for Siegel to impersonate “sprezzatura” because there is nothing forbidding such a cheap impersonation under journalistic rules. Never mind that Siegel’s shenanigans were hardly transparent and had to be ferreted out by top brass at the New Republic. I took notes, but I felt like I was transcribing a kindergarter’s efforts to discuss Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason based on a one-sentence summary. As such, my notes are not worth reproducing or summarizing.)
You couldn’t get a seat at the Boxcar Lounge. Unless you were one of the smart ones, like Maud and her friend, who arrived early to get a seat. There were many bloggers in the crowd, including Jason, Levi, Marydell, Lauren, and Sarah. It was also a pleasure to talk with Michael Orbach, Jami Attenberg, and a number of other people who I will no doubt remember after I hit the “Publish” button. I’m sorry.
Besides, who needed Siegel when there was another installment of Jami Attenberg’s Class of 2008 Reading Series going down? This one featured Michael Dahlie reading from A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Lynn Lurie reading from Corner of the Dead, and (pictured above) Ceridwen Dovey reading from Blood Kin. Dovey was one of the evening’s standouts. Her reading was quietly intense and suitably genteel, and I am now most curious about her novel.
And then there was Mr. Sarvas himself, who read from a chapter of his forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised: the infamous incident in the bookstore. The chapter contains a disparaging reference to David Foster Wallace and I felt compelled to cry out a “Yea!” in DFW’s defense. Mark likewise felt compelled to point to me during this moment.
Is Harry, Revised any good? I was a bit hesitant to approach it, as my candor compels me to tell even my closest friends when their work is not up to snuff. But I have read the whole of Harry, Revised and I can recommend it. Mark has ventured down a somewhat unexpected path here, unafraid to have his protagonist enter into uncomfortable territory. The book’s style displays Mark’s clear love for Fitzgerald and there is something of a French farcical feel that permits material that should not work to be executed with a crazed grace.
I am sorry to report, however, that there remains one passage that will almost certainly be nominated for The Bad Sex Award. But you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show to find out precisely what it is.
Like many statues nestled along the rectangular trestles of Manhattan’s parks, Karl Bitter’s bronze depiction of Carl Schurz — situated at the corner of Morningside Drive and 116th Street — is regularly overlooked by many New Yorkers. They walk their dogs. They chat on their cell phones. They rush to important appointments or set out to beat a jogging record. But they rarely stop to observe this rather tall and intriguing figure who remains memorialized.
That’s saying something, considering that Schurz is quite vertical in design (he stands nine feet tall), his left foot juts a mite forward, and his portly girth, disguised by a thick and definitive bronze coat and cape, demands attention. To look over the promontory where Schurz is propped, you must walk up three stone steps to get an unoccluded view. But no matter what building your eyes settle upon, Schurz will remain in dogged peripheral vision. Maybe pedestrians are vexed by Schurz’s hatless and Germanic form — for what it’s worth, he does politely hold his hat in his right hand — invading Harlem’s horizontal vista, which, like every Manhattan neighborhood, is now undergoing terminal gentrification. Perhaps to live in New York, the New Yorker cannot look upon the past, but must continue contending with the swift-paced momentum of the present. And if that means accepting glass monstrosities in lieu of charming brick buildings without remonstrance, so be it. But this willful acceptance also extends to figures like Schurz, who reminds us that there was indeed a New York before the present one.
The Schurz statue is unsullied by the verdigris now eating away at another of Bitter’s sculptures — that of Franz Sigel residing on West 106th Street and Riverside, currently earmarked for renovation. Schurz and Sigel both have parks named after them. (Karl Bitter, alas, does not. New York reserves its laurels for its heros, not the artists who render the legacy.)
We know that Schurz was a military man, a political reformer, and a journalist. He spent the majority of his life outside of New York, served as Secretary of the Interior for President Rutherford Hayes, moving to the city in 1881, ostensibly to retire. But a man of his insurmountable energies could not settle down. He had twenty-five years left in his life to make a name. And he did. Starting with his immediate rise to editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post in 1883 and followed by becoming one of the Mugwumps supporting Grover Cleveland the following year. He spoke out against Tammany Hall, drawing enthusiasm for his remarks even as a fife and drum corps passed by.
The first fact that, in our efforts for good government, stares us in the face is the existence of an organization — Tammany Hall — whose very purpose it is to give the city the worst government it dares, to the end of making money out of it. And this organization has been for years, and is now, in full possession of the municipal power.
Schurz spoke these words as two friends of his were the top mayoral candidates. He would not let friendships get in the way of principle. Likewise, he did not think much of William Jennings Bryan and also campaigned against him.
As the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation is proud to announce, he was an adopted New Yorker and was often unpredictable with his political choices. Schurz was gleefully antagonistic, and on September 22, 1900, he resigned his Presidencies of the National Civil Service Reform League and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York, observing, “I frankly confess that on account of my position of antagonism to other policies of the Administration, the performance of my part of that duty is especially unwelcome to me.” But he could not quite give this ghost up and was elected the following year as President of the Civil Service Reform Association.
When Schurz was buried in Sleepy Hollow in May 1906, he had an audience both rich and poor. Andrew Carnegie and Joseph H. Choate stood beneath one umbrella. The Times described Schurz as “a publicist and patriot.” The funeral was attended only by relatives and close friends, but policemen had to stop many who hoped to get a view of Schurz’s coffin. It was Choate who ensured that the statue now standing in Morningside Park was completed.
Schurz had a reformist ebullience scarcely seen in the present political age. We now seem to settle for charisma and monoglot messages about hope. Those who do stand out are censored or declared too lunatic for the political arena. This stands in sharp contrast to the words Choate unfurled during the statue’s unveiling, “As a leader he did what is so seldom seen and yet so necessary in the upholding of the best in public life. He put expediency above personal and party advantage. He never allowed party to lead him in the wrong direction, and for years he stood alone, an independent figure in party and public life.”
At the pedestal before Schurz’s form are the words: CARL SCHURZ Defender of Liberty and Friend of Human Right.
Today, who knows Schurz’s name outside of hard-core history buffs, fans of The Who, and curiosity seekers? Not long ago, when I visited Schurz’s statue, I observed a broken bottle of Gilbey’s upon the faded ornamental brick. The bottle had apparently been thrown at Schurz, and the glass shards glistened more resolutely than the brick. While the bottle, in all likelihood, had been hurled by a cavalier youth, I couldn’t help but contemplate whether there was a rejection of Schurz’s spirit in the air. History was apparently the work of others. But it seemed to me that it was the other way around.