Articles by

<Christopher Ludwig>

07/06/05 2:00am

221 North 9th St.
Extras: Free Pizza with alcohol purchase
Minuses: Hipster to gangster ratio: 100:1

Though hidden two blocks east of Bedford Avenue behind a door marked only with “221,” it’s quite possible to stumble into Capone’s by mistake while searching for Williamsburg’s long-standing trendy institution, Supreme Trading (in hipster years, I think three is equal to 40). Capone’s is one block north of Supreme Trading, and in fact serves as something of a mirror image: it’s also between Driggs and Roebling, is also sans signage, also features a multi-level bar with nightly DJs, and also a dance space, pool table, and outdoor space.
An additional and: like Alligator Lounge a bit north, Capone’s serves free, brick-oven pizza with the purchase of any alcoholic beverage, which means for five bucks you can simultaneously get drunk and battle against the next morning’s hangover without stopping by Anna Maria’s on the way home.
Though Capone’s is built from the trends of nearby bars, the comparisons don’t do it justice. The space itself is uniquely layered. An antique bar sits in the front, salvaged from a speakeasy once frequented by Al Capone in Chicago (Scarface was actually born in Williamsburg, then called the 14th ward). Both a lower and upper level flank a spacious dance floor for maximum scenester voyeurism, while above it all is an outdoor lounge. A game room in the back features pool and a hunting game, which when coupled with the free pizza invokes the Peter Pan gleefulness than infuses much of the Williamsburg energy these days. The music is a mix of hip-hop, 80s new wave, and disco, and, I’ll add this last time, is more fun than Supreme Trading.

06/22/05 12:00am

Another reading series is hardly worth noticing in a city with a dozen literary events each day, so when this magazine introduced Literary Upstart: The Search for Pocket Fiction, we were a bit taken aback by the 200-odd people who showed up — and continued to show up. Especially since once can find readings of every kind in New York: from the traditional nodding-and-ahhing variety at Barnes & Noble, to the offbeat, like the “Little Gray Book Lectures,” in Williamsburg, which incorporates spelling bees and sing-a-longs. There are barroom readings like KGB, which lengthen listeners’ attention spans with alcohol, and a host of multimedia events that use visual art and music to accompany words. There are internationally renowned writers brought in by the Pen America Center, and open-mic nights that give voice to any earnest scribbler.

But varied as these events are, they’re similar in one way in which Upstart differs: they bring together the reader’s fans, friends and family (for most writers, an indistinguishable lot) in total support of his work, whereas Upstart readers face a panel of publishing insiders, and have their stories set on a public chopping block, with flaws discussed before the audience, and winners and losers announced. N+1, a semiannual culture magazine, compared literary readings to bedside visits. “The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair.” The notion of readings as therapeutic pats on the back is what Upstart tried to challenge. Whether or not it was critically successful, people came back again and again.  

The act of going to a reading itself is an expression of faith in a writer’s creative and career choices. This is true of musicians and other artists, but at least it makes sense to hear live music, or to see art on display. American literature, however, is not particularly rooted in an oral tradition (except spoken word poetry and its hip-hop cousins), and more often than not the best way to take in our writing is by reading it off the page. To hear it read aloud can simply be boring. As novelist and veteran reader Meg Wolitzer pointed out in a recent essay in the Times, many in the audience struggle to be good listeners at readings, and often “they close their eyes, perfecting that look of concentration we all recognize as sleep.” This effect can happen even when the Paul Austers and Ian McEwans are in town. And Upstart features, as yet, no Booker winners.

The Upstart readers were unknown and often unpublished writers from around the city, though some had written books or prominent publications, and came from as far as Houston. It perhaps suggests something about the competitive curiosity of the literary minded that so many were willing to sit (and stand) in hushed attention at a crowded bar to hear writers most had never heard of. In the same essay, Wolitzer wonders if she should give out quizzes after her readings to see if the audience was paying attention.

At Upstart, many were at least as interested to hear what judgment the professional purveyors of literature had arrived at (the panel included Doubleday editors, an agent, a New Yorker editor, and a columnist from this magazine) and whether it satisfied or challenged their own view of the story. Rather than close their eyes in concentration, here was a good reason to pay critical attention. At one reading, the judges deemed that a story kept its listeners at arm’s length from the characters, “except the feeling was that the arm was actually prosthetic, and slightly longer than a real arm.” The audience’s enthusiastic agreement suggested their engagement with the story   

The event’s popularity was partly due to press comparisons to another panel-wielding-search engine for talent, American Idol. The New Yorker, along with literary blogger Maud Newton, referred to Upstart as a “Literary American Idol.” Initially wary of the comparison, we protested, albeit gently: we’d selected the readers from many submissions, so none could be seen as obvious targets of ridicule (no William Hungs in this bunch). Also, our judges are thoughtful and constructive, we insisted.

They’re not unnecessarily cruel, nor do any cry when certain writers don’t win. The real goal was to turn the modern day MFA workshop inside out, and incorporate the criticism all writers must face into the dynamic of the readings — this would be writing as a constant work-in-progress, even for the winners, who didn’t escape criticism.

But slowly, we came to accept the validity of the Idol comparison. First, there were scandals, which I’ll wait for the DVD edition to reveal. Second, we realized it was the Idol-style critique that drew people the most. It helped that submitters were entitled to a drink on the magazine (and there were close to 1,000 submissions). The lure of payment in alcohol for their work must strike at something primal in writers (or getting paid anything at all). But the number of writers calling in for free drinks decreased each round, while the audience grew. It would be lovely if everyone came for good writing, but in truth it’s not evident if those who attend superstar readings even do so for the high quality of the fiction. This is America, after all, where the cult of celebrity and personality is likely to outshine the actual literature. The more entertaining readers over the past few years have drawn more attention to themselves than their work. Dave Eggers shows slide shows of frogs and has his audience write haikus. Jonathan Ames told the Times that he hands out diagrams of his balding pattern at readings, “just to let [the audience] know I’m on top of it.” And though neither these stunts nor Upstart are particularly sophisticated or subtle, sometimes a gimmick has its place, even among high culture.   

The quality of writing presented at the events was surprisingly good, considering this magazine had never before dealt with fiction. However, it’s not difficult to point out the stories’ weaknesses, particularly since none could exceed 1,000 words. But flaws were part of the point. Upstart provided the chance to see the authors bleed a little, and to revel in it. These readings were attempts to nurture the writing community without smothering it in sentimental support. Anyone who has been through workshops, or has an editor or agent, knows the importance of criticism, since writing is neither entirely solitary, nor sweetly democratic. In the end, the writers were serious enough that they were happy to take slaps from judges. And the audience was even happier to hear it.

06/22/05 12:00am

93 Second Ave, 212-777-7987
Extras: Live music, gallery, and a cozy, dungeon atmosphere

Because this is a book preview issue, we thought it’d be cute to review a literary bar. What’s the next Sam Remo or White Horse Tavern where the next great young poet will drink himself to death? Turns out the upcoming poets these days are scattered throughout the Midwest, teaching MFA workshops for six hours a week. When they fall off their barstool, will anyone be there to remember? My eyes mist at the thought.

It was also disappointing to realize Lit isn’t named after a freshman year survey course, but a fire that consumed the building before the present owners. There’s nothing literary here, but in its dark and damp ambience, Lit achieves a pulpy quality. The bar is two floors, with the main bar on the top floor, and the Fusion Gallery in the back. Downstairs, where live bands and DJs entertain nightly for a $5 cover, the stone walls and dim lit candles may make some feel claustrophobic enough to beg the king upstairs for a reprieve. But the dungeon is a unique space, especially when the music is hard. It almost makes you want to be lashed as well as chained to the walls (in a good way).

Lit advertises itself as a community center for alternative-style expression, and its music and art fulfill that. Supposedly this bar has become quite the locus for indie filmmakers and rockers, however I wouldn’t look too closely for Interpol on a Friday night. The sometimes teeming crowd looks mostly like your run-of-the-mill East Village mix of hip, rich and too drunk. But at least someone is putting these people in the dungeon where they all belong.

06/07/05 2:00am

Israeli director Keren Yedaya is well known for her political activism in Israel, particularly over women’s rights and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Last year, she created controversy during her acceptance speech for the Camera d’Or (Golden Camera) award at Cannes, when she said that Israel is “responsible for the slavery of three million Palestinians.” Combative as her politics may be, her film, Or (My Treasure), is a starkly realistic and human depiction of a mother and daughter struggling with prostitution. Societal ills and masculine brutality are deep issues here, but so are the flaws and emotions of the female characters.

“Many of my friends who know my politics were very surprised by the film,” Yedaya says. “They didn’t think I was capable of such complexity with this issue.”

Though Or is her first feature, Yedaya, 32, explored the subject of prostitution in earlier short films. Much of her activism has also been in aid of prostitutes, and she used the prize money from Cannes to fund a halfway house for women trying to escape prostitution. However, Yedaya approaches film as an artist, not activist. “You don’t make a film from a particular political or feminist point of view,” she says. “Or is a very political film, but the politics are inside, and dealt with in a gentle way.”

For Yedaya, in the politically charged Middle East, it may be impossible to separate ideology from art, but she diffuses these views through a natural style that echoes the neo-realism of Ken Loach. The cinematography characterizes the film less by graphic sex scenes of prostitution, and more by the feminine intimacy shared by the two women in their tiny apartment. American audiences in particular may be put off by this intimacy, such as a scene in which Or cleans the blood between her mother’s legs after a rough night on the streets. But Yedaya strives for this unfiltered realism, and hopes Or will debunk any romantic ideas that Hollywood may have given audiences about prostitution.

“A movie like Pretty Woman is a crime, I think,” she says. “It just doesn’t exist. A woman who fucks ten guys a day does not come out looking like Julia Roberts.”

It is through this ugly realism that Yedaya makes her most powerful political statements. She says that when she first considered the actress who played Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) Yedaya felt she was too pretty. In order to get the part, Elkabetz started chain-smoking, did not exercise and stopped attending to her personal and dental hygiene for a year. The result in the film is a woman once beautiful, but with pockmarked, jaundice skin, cellulite on her thighs, and greasy hair. Yedaya focuses the camera on Elkabetz’s body throughout the film, as Ruthie walks around the apartment in her underwear. “It’s important that my audience is not tricked by the camera or the editing,” she says. “I love films that aren’t afraid to show what we consider ugly.”

Though the outcome of Or may feel hopeless, she feels there is an inherent optimism that comes with depicting bare reality. “I trust my audience. If the public sees what is really happening to Or and Ruthie, they will be more likely to do something in reality to help women like them.”

It is this kind of political resonance through artistic complexity, rather than moralizing, that Yedaya seeks in her next feature, which she says will be about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It will be a love story, Romeo and Juliet, war and peace, in Jaffa.” Yedaya wants to make the film because she says this generation of Israelis and Palestinians, the third after the Holocaust and ’48 war, is ready for peace more than any before. No longer the children of Holocaust victims, she feels Israelis can ask the critical questions those before could not.

“You can see a movement happening,” she says. “I think peace is in everyone’s subconscious, which is what I hope the film will bring out.”

05/25/05 10:00am

On May 20, the city unveiled a $124 million modernization of the St. George Ferry Terminal. For decades the terminal corralled its waiting commuters within a cardboard-boxlike lobby that elevated public space with the romance of the DMV. The new design features an elevated roof with a glass ceiling and full-length windows that allow riders to see the sky, and to see approaching that canonized orange beacon pulling into dock from the harbor.
For commuters, the terminal is a quick connection before a train or bus finally delivers them home, while tourists mostly move from arriving to departing ferry. Improved retail space should bring more life to the hub, though none of it is yet filled (and will hopefully be more than fast food).
Besides a nice sight for sore-eyed commuters (the design still doesn’t change that Staten Islanders have the longest-average-work commute in the country, according to the last census) a revitalized St. George is good for a city that squandered its waterfront for so long, and is now content to convert what’s left to luxury condos. In addition to its improved promenade, and the small, lovely Richmond County Ballpark, there is also the Island’s 9/11 Memorial, designed by Masayuki Sono.
The memorial is worth the four-minute walk from the terminal. It features two 40-foot-high wings that waver toward the water as paper envelopes in the wind, framing the void left by the WTC. Within the wings, illuminated by soft lights at night, are the silhouetted profiles of the nearly 300 Island victims. A native of this off-the-chart borough myself, I know my share of those lost, and though the profiles might want for accuracy, the desire for such a personal touch speaks volumes about this community, and let’s you know why its worthy of more than a just free boat ride.     Christopher Ludwig

05/25/05 10:00am


Or begins with the promise of redemption, as an Israeli teenage girl, Or, finds her mother, Ruthie, a job cleaning a wealthy woman’s house that will allow her to stop prostituting herself. But as Or spends her days collecting cans along Tel Aviv beaches, and washing dishes in a restaurant, and Ruthie folds laundry and feeds dogs for shekels a day, Or shows that escape from prostitution is a Sisyphean struggle against poverty. The choice here is either to lead a life of servitude, or remain a slave to the body, and both women, devastatingly, choose the latter.

What makes this film as remarkable as it is tragic is Keren Yedaya’s ability to depict the story so humanly, while still revealing feminist and class issues. The film has a classic, Chekhovian narrative arc, and Yedaya reveals a gift for brutal realism without heavy handedness. There are many tender moments between Or and Ruthie, and between them and a few men who love them but cannot save them. Aesthetically, Or is beautifully bare, using still sequence shots that give us time to observe these women, to see their ugly flaws, as well as their beauty, to fall in love and to shake our heads. The sad outcome they share feels undeniably true, given the narrative’s inevitable regression. In its raw simplicity, Or is a masterpiece.

05/25/05 10:00am

41 First Ave, 212-475-5097
Cheapest Drink: Assorted drafts, $5
Most Expensive Drink: Pappy Van Winkle, $30
Extras: Blondes, blonde ales, a garden

Among the faux-dives and lounges of the East Village, d.b.a has done well not to completely democratize itself. This place knows drink, from the disadvantages of Belgian beer on draught, to the difference between keg- and cask-conditioned, and won’t dumb it down for canned beer fanatics. To hardcore beer enthusiasts, d.b.a. isn’t overwhelmingly impressive, but for we who consider Stella Artois the haute couture of hops and yeast, d.b.a. is a welcome chance for refinement. It features a rotating draft selection of 20 beers, plus 150 choices of tequila and whiskey. Blackboards list all selections, so you can order something exotic without employing those tricky Gaelic pronunciations of Irish whiskey.
The lush patio outside is a tiny but adequate beer garden (if only it didn’t close at 10pm). Dogs roam free inside and out. In the early evening of summer warmth, red ale in hand, d.b.a. has the easy charm of a rich uncle’s backyard.
Fancy beer, single malts, dogs, can you sense the obvious flaw? This is a man’s haven, a real “sausage-fest,” as the college kids term it. And management appears to understand its clientele. One female patron, upset with the service, pointed out that all the bartenders were blonde, wearing tight jeans and black, sleeveless shirts. “They look like they’re not wearing a uniform, but they are,” she noted. “And they look like they’re cute, but they’re not.” A bit harsh, but girl-on-girl service was flagging. Maybe d.b.a. is best for dudes, but to ladies, I say, down a pint of O’Hara stout, chase it with Laphroaig, neat, and to hell with blondes. Except blonde ales.

04/26/05 2:00pm

332 E. 11th St, 212-677-1027
Cheapest Drink: Pabst Blue Ribbon Draft, $3
Most Expensive Drink: Single Malt Oban 14, $12
Extras: Un-American Debauchery, Nightly

Rififi, the film, is a 1950s noir directed by Jules Dassin, himself blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Rififi, the club, fetishizes this sort of darkly playful and desperately cultish commodity. Weekly shows includes classic horror (think Day of the Dead and The Wickermaker); comedy shows that feature Hitler as a special guest; burlesque that goes beyond the scantily limited morals of even a Brighton Beach variety; and Morrissey-obsessed DJs who live for men in black pants getting dirty with underage girls on stage. Just so long as they pose for the website.

If the Patriot Act includes a new Un-American Activities Committee, Rififi wants to be spanked by them. But who doesn’t? Debauchery here is a pose, like the heroin-affected hipster who’s only sipped too much NyQuil. The horror films are established cult classics, the burlesque good, semi-clean fun, and the comedy mostly tame “what-the-fuck-is-up-with-that “ observations, though you’re bound to find the occasional gem. I caught a show rescued by the comedy of a black-albino man named Jeffrey, whose light skin and blonde afro pale beside stories of his “ghetto” family.

The new wave spun by DJ Jess and Alex Malfunction on Fridays is infectious, if not the kind of stuff you grow out of (but never lose nostalgia for). Rififi’s dance/stage area is small, and when it packs to capacity during summer nights there’s a sweaty stench off the crowd worthy of a Monday night horror screening. But the hunger for energy here is never sated, and the blurry swirl of half-naked bodies and dark, low-budget films behind them feels forbidden in the most inviting sense.

04/12/05 2:00pm

305 Bedford Ave, 718-302-1629
Cheapest Drink: $4, bottle of Sapporo
Most Expensive Drink: $39 bottle of wine
Extras: Outdoor garden, Japanese generosity
Contemporary Japanese culture has a reputation for openness and adaptation to western civilization, particularly in the embrace of business and technology. But it’s evident that New York often takes its cue from Tokyo, from anime art, obi-style scarves and the American male’s penchant for fashionable Japanese women. Supercore is where all that’s hip in the east and west blend perfectly together. The term Japanese Tapas, in its linguistic absurdity, says enough. Wonderfully cheap but perfectly prepared small plates are as European as they are Japanese: Moroccan-cured and French-Provençal olives, avocado on toast, cold tofu, plum riceballs and a delicately light Mackerel are among the highlights, all under $5.
The beer is bottle only, and very limited, but the Onigoroshi sake is served traditionally, overflowing into the saucer as a gesture of generosity. In fact, courteousness and generosity pervade Supercore, from its bowing servers to its casual café atmosphere. It is not unusual for patrons to sit in the wooden booths reading, surfing the internet or writing for hours on end, without staff complaint. Though it has a hipster reputation, very Williamsburg, the bar’s atmosphere here on the growing but still relatively desolate south side feels slightly out of time and place; a European sensibility, a gentle Japanese touch. Along with the traditional Mexican food of Bonita, the world music of Bembe, and French-Moroccan Zebulon, Supercore is part of the pan-global renaissance of the southside.                                                                             Christopher Ludwig

04/12/05 2:00pm

Naoufel has been in the United States for eight years, and for much of that time he’s been an illegal immigrant, one of nearly a million in New York City. He’s from Tunisia, on the  North African coast just south of Sicily. Brooklyn deli owners often mistake his tan skin and lilting accent for Italian, while in fact he speaks both French and Arabic fluently, in addition to English. Despite this linguistic proficiency, most of his jobs here have been in restaurants, as dishwasher and busboy. When he married an American woman and acquired a temporary work visa, he moved up the social ladder to the front of the house, as a server. But in a cultural climate increasingly hostile to both legal and illegal immigration, Naoufel is one of many immigrants at risk of deportation.
Tales of the porous Mexican border abound, from underground passageways built by drug cartels, to Mexicans starving or hunted in the Arizona desert — but Naoufel’s journey to America has been different. As a Tunisian immigrant, illegal or otherwise, he doesn’t have the established diaspora support network enjoyed by those from Latin America. Naoufel’s odyssey is isolated, and epic, and has seen him wander up and down the East Coast.
He came first to Washington D.C., with the help of a neighbor who was an ambassador to the United States. His only English was “I want job,” and he survived by washing cars for $40 a day. He felt hopeless, ready to go back to Tunisia, until he’d received a tip about a woman in Alabama who wished to “help serve humanity,” he says, by marrying illegal immigrants. She proved to be an interesting introduction to America outside its cities. Obese, over 50 years old, she lived deep in Alabama’s swamp country, coaxing immigrants like then 28-year-old Naoufel to marry her so that he might literally serve as her sex slave in exchange for working papers. Naoufel was horrified, though at the time he barely spoke enough English to protest. He escaped with the manager of a restaurant where he washed dishes, and the two fell in love. “It had nothing to do with papers,” he says. “Fuck papers, I thought, this is love.”
He divorced his “humanitarian” first wife, got remarried and received a temporary visa. He moved back to D.C., where one of his restaurant customers got him a job assembling robots. For the first time he had weekends off, enjoyed his work, and felt hints of the American dream, a vague idea he knew from movies, which had compelled him to come in the first place. But he had to leave the job when his wife’s mother got cancer, and they went back to Alabama to care for her. During this stressful time, he was arrested for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor fine in D.C., but nevertheless a wrinkle on his record that has delayed his permanent resident status approval.
Naoufel moved to New York to start over, but his visa has since expired, and he is once again an illegal immigrant stuck in the back of a restaurant, the simple pleasure of the five-day-work week a bittersweet memory. In common practice, an illegal immigrant who marries an American would have an interview with Immigration and Naturalization Services within three months to prove their marriage legitimate. But since Homeland Security absorbed the department, it is backlogged, overly bureaucratic, and especially confusing to immigrants who still struggle with English. Beyond the government’s attitude, since 9/11 the American public is increasingly opposed to any immigration, legal or not. It’s been two years, and the INS has not so much as returned a phone call to Naoufel. As an immigrant from a Muslim country, he’s had to re-register with INS several times, according to post 9/11 policy changes. “Just from the looks of the office I went to,” he says, “with boxes of files spilling out onto floor, I could see they were over their heads. I’m worried I’m lost in the system.”
Working in the same restaurant as Naoufel is Daniel, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, also married to an American woman, and the father of a three-year-old American daughter — but still, he has no papers. He appears daunted by the process, unable to afford an immigration lawyer, and fearful he will be deported from his wife and daughter. He supports his family on the four dollars an hour the restaurant pays him, plus a small percentage of server’s tips. He has never taken a vacation, or received a raise in five years with the same restaurant. Yet, in spite of his trials, when asked if he feels this treatment is unfair, he squints with incredulity, the answer obvious. “I want to give my daughter what my mother and father never gave to me,” he says.
The aspirations of immigrants like Daniel are part of the New York mythology we find enshrined in the harbor. But this new era of illegal influx is a different paradigm, particularly post 9/11. In 1989, mayor Ed Koch established the city’s unofficial “sanctuary” policy, joining others like Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston who violate federal law by not requiring police officers to inquire about a detainee’s resident status. It is a policy that Rudy Giuliani even defended before the Supreme Court. He lost, but vowed to go on publicly violating government policy.
Though free market ideologues talk about the economic benefit of illegal immigration, some politicians feel it leads to terrorism and crime, “a looming threat to western civilization,” in the words of Tom Tancredo, a conservative Colorado congressman. The crime rate in Los Angeles is high among its illegal population, and the city has repealed its sanctuary policy. Bloomberg repealed New York’s policy in 2003 after the rape and murder of a Queens woman by illegal immigrants (he re-instated it in a different form later that year). In Daniel’s restaurant, employees’ lockers are often robbed. One evening, a busboy passed around a business card in Spanish to other kitchen workers, advertising prostitutes for $30.
But these are the realities of urban poverty. Though workers may benefit their families by sending American dollars to their home country, their jobs don’t lead them out of kitchens here. They rarely have the time or money for education. Naoufel calls it “voluntary slavery.” The restaurants, he says, “prefer to hire people who will be desperately dependent on these jobs.” Naoufel shakes his head. “But still, you know, back home, we all hear about the American dream from movies, and never stop believing in it.”
That the INS will deport Daniel and Naoufel before they achieve legal status is a real possibility, one many immigrant families face everyday. Yet despite stricter laws, an increasingly xenophobic population, and vigilante border hunters in Arizona, illegal immigrants will continue to come to America, particularly to a city like New York. Their migration is inevitable in a globalised world in which the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider. “I prefer it here,” Daniel says, “because at least I am working for something, like achieving my dream.”
When asked what that dream is, Daniel cannot quite articulate it, beyond his phrase: “Living good.” Others, like Naoufel, may have had a taste of it, but lost it. But it’s somehow enough for them to know that such a dream exists, whether in the abstract or reality, and in that way they resemble thousands of young, legal dreamers in New York. But as those artists, musicians or writers discover, the city has a way of crushing dreams before it fulfills them. •