Articles by

<Phillip Pantuso>

07/16/15 10:27am


Martian Dawn & Other Novels
Michael Friedman
(Little A)

A not-insignificant proportion of experimental fiction broadcasts itself by breaking boldly with mainstream literary forms in order to serve a recognizably literary function. You can usually identify these books at a glance, by their idiosyncratic typographies and/or self-reflexive narrators. The worst of them transpose formal pyrotechnics for humor and humanity. Michael Friedman’s Martian Dawn & Other Novels, though it’s about as weird a book as books come, does not make this mistake.

Martian Dawn & Other Novels is actually an omnibus edition of three novellas: Martian Dawn, published by Turtle Point Press in 2006; Are We Done Here?, completed in 2009; and On My Way to See You, in 2013. The latter two are published here for the first time. The subjects they tackle, collectively and individually, include: Hollywood stardom, planetary colonization, the film industry, love affairs, holograms, Amazonian missionaries, pop culture, casual Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. On every page there is something funny, sad, weird, or some combination thereof, conjured by Friedman’s deadpan tone, pile-up of cliche and detail, and the placement of quotidian characters into absurd situations (or vice versa).

Let me illustrate by way of example: Martian Dawn concerns a Hollywood power couple, Richard and Julia, who are called back to work to reshoot the botched ending of a science-fiction film called Martian Dawn. The shoot takes place on Mars. Richard is a world-famous actor and a Buddhist dilettante, friendly with the Dalai Lama, who spends his free time following Rinpoche, his Tibetan dharma-to-the-stars, on the international lecture circuit. Until Richard met Julia, she was a hooker at the Baby Doll Lounge, “taking on all comers at $500 a pop.” Now she, too, is a world-famous actress, who spends her free time shopping on Rodeo Drive and reminiscing about her former lover/pimp, Angel. When the novel begins, she’s on location shooting Cat Fight at the OK Corral—“the story of supermodels on the loose in Manhattan.”

Attentive readers will recognize that Richard and Julia are based on Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and the characters each plays in Pretty Woman. This becomes evident in the first chapter. From there, the cast expands to include a Weinstein-esque film producer and his psychotherapist, who’s in love with him; the sequestered inhabitants of a biosphere in Arizona; four cosmonauts orbiting and flirting in space; and a reporter for Whale Quarterly named Cap, who has strong feelings for the solitary blue whale in the biosphere. They eventually all meet up on Mars, which has been colonized. Would you even believe me if I wrote that it all comes together?

Are We Done Here? and On My Way to See You don’t adhere to common sense either. Are We Done Here? pogoes between the Manhattan demimonde, an Amazonian village, and the Betty Ford Clinic, while On My Way to See You is a murder mystery, set in France, concerning a vanished gay writer, his holographic doppelgänger, a drag queen in Nice, and an author named Ben Berkowitz who has a wife and children back in Williamsburg, several girlfriends/lovers on the side, and a list of unfortunate phobias that includes French furniture.

None of these characters is developed much beyond their signifiers. They’re mostly defined by comically outsized self-absorption, but this flimsiness keeps them pliable for Friedman’s screwball plots. He moves them around like board game characters. Their shallowness also makes them easily skewerable as avatars of various pompous delusions: Hollywood arrogance, spiritual empowerment, ego superiority. They speak in banalities and pronouncements that skew just off-course from the patter of recognizable human conversation. They find themselves adrift in situations that veer from real to surreal and back again. In Are We Done Here?, two characters confront their lovers about an affair:


“Don’t be coy,” Lisa insisted. “Let it all hang out. It’ll do you worlds of good. Don’t even think about denying it. How long?”

Thomas did his best to maintain some composure. “Uh…um…not long—”

“Two years,” Harper blurted out.

“Oh my God!” Lisa gasped.

Thomas’s jaw dropped, and he shot Harper a horrified look.

Lisa pulled a Luger out of her handbag.

“Is that a Luger? Amazing. Where did you find it?” Thomas asked.

“eBay. Now up against the wall, motherfuckers!” she shouted, waving the gun around.

“Give me the gun, Lisa,” David instructed.


Or take this exchange, from Martian Dawn, in which Svetlana, a sexy Russian cosmonaut and the author of From Borscht to Crepes Suzette, a cookbook, comes on to her American counterpart in space, a schlub named Walter:


“This is sex module. Do not try to fight it, Walter. Do not make me beg.”

“Phew! Is it hot in here, or is it just me?” Walter asked, pulling at his collar with his index finger.

“You are helpless to resist. You are in my power. You will do as I say,” she cooed.

“Point taken,” he murmured.


Afterward, Walter finds himself wondering:


What had just happened? Was he developing something more than just a passing interest in Svetlana? Were they going to do something—sometime soon? And how was her carbonara sauce?


Friedman, who is also a poet and a commercial law attorney in Denver, is that vanishingly rare combination of “weird and virtuosic,” to quote from Molly Young’s introduction to this volume. Like any good satirist, he distorts his characters in order to reveal something flawed and funny—and human—in them. He’s perverse and weird and yet his work is still inviting—though you can never be entirely sure that he’s not pulling a fast one on you. Phillip Pantuso

03/25/15 7:37am


Hall of Small Mammals: Stories
Thomas Pierce
(Riverhead Books)

The characters in Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals are bone collectors, particle physicists, hot air balloonists, TV show hosts, comedians, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, believers and apostates, and would-be initiates of a cultish scouting society called the Grasshoppers. Across a dozen short stories, their concerns orbit a resurrected clone of a long-extinct dwarf woolly mammoth species, a visit to the zoo to witness a rare monkey species, an unidentifiable infectious disease, and a theoretical subatomic particle called the daisy, amongst other things. Their worlds are recognizable yet strange, imaginariums of the possible that feel like extensions of the probable, existing in “a universe a few inches to the left of this one, perhaps,” as Pierce himself has said. (more…)

02/11/15 8:49am


Shasta Fay Hepworth and I were introduced to each other at a party back in my hometown of Austin, and right away it was obvious that we were both into each other. She was beautiful (hazel eyes, a thousand-watt smile) and witty. She had many of the same interests I did (books, writing, sports) and a few I knew nothing about (dressage). Twenty-eight years old, she taught high school chemistry, and made bad scientific puns. She was too good to be true. I got her number, and we’ve been texting ever since. (more…)

01/05/15 9:20am
Photo by Jane Bruce


Erv’s on Beekman

2122 Beekman place, Prospect Lefferts Gardens


Beekman Place is a dead-end street in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, one of three such lonely spurs off Flatbush that end abruptly at the B/Q Brighton Line, which runs along the eastern side of Prospect Park. There are only a few businesses on the block; most of it is taken up by colossal apartment towers. On cold, drizzly nights, the rumble of the unseen subway in the air, Beekman feels like the setting of a film noir.

01/05/15 9:15am


The Unspeakable
Meghan Daum


Is 21st century American culture wimpy? Our discourse is often paralyzed by a fear of offending, a fealty to “hearing both sides,” exhaustion and its discontents. We retreat into platitudinous sentimentality. Even those reckonings with loss, with unspeakable feelings, are often streamlined, made palatable for publication, or otherwise unprocessed. We turn away. Maybe we’ve seen too much, crossed some rubicon where even the worst shit seems surreal, as if war only existed on videotape, and heartbreak only on Medium dot com. (more…)

11/21/14 11:36pm

Charles D’Ambrosio
Tin House BooksIn profiles of extraordinary athletes there is often a scene in which the athlete will recall the particulars of some long-ago play in detail so specific it’s as if he is narrating a replay. The purpose of such scenes, for the writer, is descriptive: This guy’s awareness is on the level of genius. He is playing a different game than everyone else.

There are few equivalencies between sports and writing except that both are creative endeavors, and every creative endeavor has its handful of practitioners who are playing a different game than their peers. This is the plane Charles D’Ambrosio occupies in the world of letters. His toolkit, finite and familiar, is the English language, the same one ticker-taping through your conscious mind and mine, but with it he constructs sentences, paragraphs, entire pages of such sustained insight and fluency that you can’t help but feel a little fraudulent as a fellow user of the same mother tongue.

Throughout the essays that comprise Loitering, his second such collection, D’Ambrosio roots around in our common cultural assumptions and unearths faulty logic, weaponized rhetoric, and a lack of sympathy. What we think we know—about whaling, haunted houses, orphans, suicide, and urban neighborhoods in decline, amongst other subjects—is riddled by these failures of understanding. The truth is always more complicated, once you take the time to look.

For example, in “Casting Stones,” D’Ambrosio writes about the trial of Mary Kay Letourneau, the public school teacher who fell in love with her 12-year-old student, and how “language was being leveraged” in the courtroom, the media, and in public opinion to nullify the only notion Letourneau ever offered by way of explanation: love. “This seemed a crude and retrogressive project,” D’Ambrosio writes, “since what really distinguishes us from apes is not the opposable thumb but the ability to hold in mind opposing ideas, a distinction we should probably try to preserve.” And in the title essay, a witness to a crime attempts to speak to some “big-deal” TV journalists about what he saw, but they ignore him because he doesn’t fit the narrative that is already going out on the airwaves, in a pantomime of truth-telling. The witness, drunk and disheveled, is caught in between the truth and truthiness, a place D’Ambrosio “recognize[s] as life itself.”

When D’Ambrosio fixes his eye on himself and his family, which is often, he unspools sentences of such rich introspection that you’ll read them and wonder how well you really know yourself. “Seattle, 1974” traces the writer’s youthful ambition and “hankering to expatriate” to a city with a richer culture than mid-70s Seattle. “Winning” is a rumination on change and loss, told through the story of an uncle’s bar in Chicago, the only remnant of which is a brick wall. And in “Whaling Out West,” D’Ambrosio camps out in the coastal woods with the plan to witness a Makah whale hunt but ends up writing about his family: “We’ve shot ourselves and jumped from bridges and lost our minds and aborted some of our babies and orphaned others and now reproducing and carrying on the family name is down to me, and the truth is soul-wise I’m likely a bigger monster than either of my broken brothers or my father.”

D’Ambrosio’s attention to language is exacting and phenomenological, such that his sentences reveal in their final, private selves truths that seem universal. Eleven of the 17 essays in Loitering also appeared in a limited-run 2005 collection called Orphans, which came and went in exactly the amount of time required to attract a cult following.

I think there’s a reason that essays are having a moment. “Essay” derives from the French infinitive essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” Meanwhile, our cultural discourse veers from one stridently-argued conclusion to the next, an impoverished stream of takes and summations that leaves no room for ambivalence or nuance. The essay is the one forum in which we can find the contradictions, bewilderment, and uncertainty that are the dark matter of daily life. In a world where nothing ever adds up, inquiry and confession are better modes of discourse than the usual assaultive blunderbuss.

Because, as D’Ambrosio writes in this book’s preface: “We are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.”

09/24/14 4:00am

Recently, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the married co-creators of the web series High Maintenance, were exiting the Atlantic Avenue subway station when they saw an unassuming, middle-aged woman, begging passersby for money, cigarettes, or MetroCard swipes. “She looks like a Park Slope librarian,” Sinclair tells me, recalling the sight. Or: “Your aunt who just lost her job at a school board in Pennsylvania.” It took a moment for the face to register, but when it did, Sinclair turned to Blichfeld and said: “It’s her! It’s her! It’s Heidi!” 

“Heidi” is Homeless Heidi, a character in an episode of High Maintenance who dates men in order to use their showers and take their money. She is based in part on the woman outside the Atlantic Avenue station, a grifter who’d stayed with at least two of Sinclair’s and Blichfeld’s friends, and whom the couple had seen countless times around the borough over the last five or so years. “I think she prefers to beg,” Sinclair says. “We watched her for a while.”

Another inspiration for the character was Sinclair himself, an actor whose bushy beard often got him cast as down-and-out characters on network TV shows. Creating characters out of a combination of personal biography and close observation: That is the formula High Maintenance has employed to great success, over 13 episodes so far. “When I was a kid, I used to play a game with my mom where I would imagine lives for strangers we would see,” Blichfeld tells me. “I think we still do that, only now we put it on paper and dramatize it.”

High Maintenance utilizes a simple but effective narrative structure, following an urban weed dealer, played by Sinclair, as he delivers to customers across the city. Each episode focuses on a particular customer, and by extension, their living space, where the deals take place. The setup enables minor intrusions into the private lives of New Yorkers, in all their neuroses, personality quirks, and messiness. Sometimes the dealer sticks around to smoke, or eat, or, in one case, help dispose of a mouse caught in a glue trap. Other times, he is in and out in the time it takes to complete the transaction. “We wanted to portray a situation that could unfold in real time,” Blichfeld says, “and in our experience, a drug deal usually takes just a few minutes.” The decision to make the protagonist a weed dealer as opposed to, say, a pizza delivery man was an easy one. “It’s just a sexier concept,” Blichfeld says. “And pizza men don’t get invited past the threshold, except in porn movies.” Or, as a character in the first episode puts it: “When the guy who delivers my Pad Thai comes, he doesn’t inventory my personal belongings.”

The show is funny, but it steers far away from the traditional stoner comedy tropes. There is no burnout philosophizing, no excessive snacking, no MacGyvered ad hoc contraptions for smoking, save the occasional appearance of an apple pipe. Rather, High Maintenance treats its characters and its setup without a trace of caricature; these are ordinary people, just trying to deal with their lives. “We don’t need to write about the fact that people smoke pot,” Sinclair says. “The more interesting thing is, why do people smoke pot? Or, what are the circumstances around it?”

By inviting the viewer inside characters’ homes and lives, the show appeals to the empathetic voyeur in each of us—a compassionate curiosity that might just be the natural response to living in New York. City dwellers, especially here, seem intensely private and protective of personal space, and yet we’re outwardly focused, constantly studying strangers on the sidewalk and subway. We want to observe, but not be seen staring. “We’re fascinated by how you can look around a train car and see all these people shoulder-to-shoulder, not looking at each other,” Blichfeld says. “In this city, people are all in their own worlds, but they’re touching. It’s bizarre that we do that.”

A drug dealer is one of the few people who moves freely between these two worlds, the public and the private. In High Maintenance, the dealer is an unnamed character referred to only as “The Guy.” Few biographical details are hinted at, though in early scripts The Guy had an entire backstory. “But it just wasn’t as interesting as what we imagined the viewer could imagine for him,” Sinclair says. By leaving him blank, The Guy becomes the transparent eyeball of the viewer, the unobtrusive vessel by which we gain access to the inner sanctums—and thus, the private lives and personal problems—of strangers. This access satisfies our urge to look; what we see is human struggle, and it is never less than mesmerizing. Sometimes, the problems we see are banal, as in the episode “Trixie,” which focuses on a young couple who rent out their loft on Airbnb because they’re “trying to live like adults this year.” Other times they are profound, as in “Jonathan,” when comedian Hannibal Buress witnesses and is traumatized by a shooting at one of his shows, or in “Brad Pitts.”

“Most of our episodes have a theme of people trying to stay optimistic in the face of adversity,” Sinclair says. “When you live in this city, one day of the week is going to be the worst day of your life, and one day of the week is going to be the best day of your life. And that’s kind of what it’s like to live here. That’s why New Yorkers are really nice to each other when the shit hits the fan—there’s a community centered around suffering.”

Sinclair and Blichfeld claim solidarity with their characters, many of whom are middle-class artistic types striving to maintain as much as advance in the world. The couple married on New Year’s Eve, 2010, and the next year started writing the character sketches that would become High Maintenance. “An enjoyable evening for us is hanging out with friends and telling stories,” Sinclair says. “A couple of years of that turned into this TV show.”

Blichfeld is an accomplished casting director—she won an Emmy for her work on 30 Rock—and Sinclair is an experienced actor and editor who taught himself filmmaking by entering spec commercial contests online. They had all of the skills and contacts to make a successful show, but little of the money. So the first 13 episodes were mostly shot in friends’ apartments, with actors the couple knew socially. “We wanted to keep it low-stakes for ourselves, and see if anyone would even watch it,” Blichfeld says. “We all just got to hang out and make some movies together—that was good enough for us.”

The episodes were released in batches on Vimeo, where they stream for free. Each is between six and fifteen minutes long, and although a few characters appear in multiple episodes, the plots are non-contiguous. They’re like short stories, demanding little but rewarding thoroughly. No detail is wasted.

“It’s hard to tell a satisfying six-minute story,” Sinclair says. “When we sit down to write, the satisfaction comes from the intricate braiding of all these different elements, and I didn’t wanna make no prairie braid all day—I wanted to do a double fishtail! But we have to be very judicious editors. If you’re trying to take someone from A to Z and you only give them A, D, M, P, R, V, they’ll still know it’s the alphabet.”

Late last year, Blichfeld and Sinclair had discussions with FX about bringing High Maintenance to cable, but ultimately the couple signed with Vimeo, who provided financial backing for six upcoming episodes. “They have been really cool,” Blichfeld says. “They haven’t put any restrictions on us at all. We’re like their artists-in-residence.”

Staying with Vimeo allowed Blichfeld and Sinclair to keep High Maintenance the same show it’s been, only a “little bit supersized—more locations, more cast, more scenes, more setups.” The new episodes will be released in two batches: three sometime in November, and another three in early 2015. For the first time, viewers will have to pay to watch, although pricing hasn’t yet been determined.

Following our interview, Sinclair and Blichfeld were heading back home to complete editing on the final two episodes. I ask what they look for when they’re editing—how do they maintain the meditative, languid pace and the finely drawn character portraits that mark each episode, without revealing too much?

“We like to keep it real blurry,” Sinclair says. “Literally and figuratively—sometimes, the image blurs on our show, and that’s intentional. We like blurred lines.”

“Not the song,” Blichfeld adds. “Although that’s interesting, because I just read that Robin Thicke was really stoned when he recorded that song.”

07/16/14 4:00am

Bar Chuko
565 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights

Since opening in 2011, Chuko Ramen has received a level of praise rare in its unanimity and fervor. Almost as legendary as the ramen, though, are the waits—routinely bypassing the hour mark, even after three years. Partly this is because Chuko is tiny; mostly, it’s because it’s deservedly popular. So it was with mild trepidation that I approached Bar Chuko, the new izakaya spinoff opened by Chuko’s owners last month, just down the street. It was a warm Thursday evening, around dinnertime: what would the crowd be like?

The answer: blessedly small, mostly because Bar Chuko is at least three times larger than its predecessor. It has a sort of unremarkable, pan-minimalistic feel: all clean lines, blond wood, and exposed beams. The narrow, shotgun space is semi-divided into two rooms: in the front, to the left, is the bar itself, cut long and beveled from some light-hued wood, and backed by a brick wall. Opposite it, to the right, runs a row of tables-for-two, with brushed metal chairs. Fading sunlight slants through the floor-to-ceiling front windows, which look west over Vanderbilt Avenue, across Atlantic Yards, to the Barclays Center, a spaceship rusting in a ditch. In the back room, two large, family-size tables take up most of the space, and a rectangular opening in the black brick walls looks into the kitchen, where a coterie of chefs prepare food amidst steam
and sizzle.

An izakaya is a type of casual, after-work drinking establishment where small plates are served to accompany the drinks. Bar Chuko’s menu is divided into Snacks, Bites, Raw items (oysters, spicy tuna, mackerel, clam), Bowls (chilled fresh tofu, chicken ramen) and Skewers, in meat or vegetable varieties. The food is creatively simple, packed with flavor and surprise. Take the toasted rice congee, a rice gruel with mustard greens and a melting soft egg. It was rich, warming, and occasionally lit up by something… I want to say “pickled.” Or the miso cheese, a creamy spread served with little toasts and accoutrements of cucumber, scallions, and salmon roe. It’s like a wacky, izakaya version of bagels and cream cheese, one you might think was played for laughs, until you tried it.

But this is, first and foremost, a cocktail bar, and the drinks star. The expansive menu boasts a wide range of spirits, including Japanese whiskeys like Hibiki, Yamazaki, and Nikka Miyagikyo, as well as a small but discerning beer list heavy on craft beers from Bronx Brewery, 21st Amendment, Hop Nosh, and Ginga Kogen. The cocktail offerings include bespoke specialties like the Shush (shishito, shochu, lemon, honey) and the palate-desiccating Tokyo Drift (Rittenhouse rye, plum liqueur). There’s also a list of chu-hai cocktails, a traditional Japanese mixed drink that combines shochu, soda water, and flavored syrup. Think alcoholic Italian soda, and you’re on the right track. Bar Chuko offers them in lemon, lime, pineapple, orange-ginger, watermelon-black pepper, and aperol-grapefruit varieties, for $6-7. They’re all potent, and alone would be reason enough to return to Bar Chuko, especially in the summer. Thankfully, there are many more reasons.

06/18/14 4:00am

Old Stanley’s Bar
226 Wyckoff Avenue, Bushwick

In the heart of Bar Land (Bushwick), Old Stanley’s is the kind of everyman’s bar that quickly becomes your favorite neighborhood watering hole. I enjoy an artisanal cocktail with hand-carved ice as much as the next gentrifier, but sometimes you just want a cold beer, some peanuts and sports on the TV. The Big Buck Hunter in the corner is the only clue that we’re still in Bushwick.

Old Stanley’s, which opened back in April, is a team effort helmed by Ben Quackenbush, Chelsea Altman, Ben Altman, and Matt Webber, a crew whose individual bar experience includes Allswell and The Narrows. Their most recent venture is refreshingly unpretentious. Sports memorabilia, vintage movie posters, and a couple (faux?) taxidermy animals adorn the wall; Christmas lights are strung throughout, and exposed wooden beams lend the place a homey ambience. It feels spacious too—on one side are periwinkle vinyl booths, a dart board, and the aforementioned Big Buck Hunter, which shares its corner with a Playboy-themed pinball machine. Across the multicolored, backgammon-patterned floor and up a step is the bar, backed by a large, illuminated stained glass work and lighted by low-hanging lamps. The nearby jukebox is full of discerningly-selected punk: Latterman, the Methadones, and Teenage Bottlerocket sidled up next to the Replacements and the Damned.

When I visited on a recent Tuesday, Old Stanley’s was comfortably full, but the vibe was still warm and welcoming. “It feels inviting,” my companion noted, as we settled in at the expansive, half-moon oak bar. The only specialty cocktail on the menu is the weekly revolving Stanley’s Cup, which will set you back $8. Otherwise, it’s beer and your standard liquor selections. The beer collection is fittingly low-key and inexpensive, with drafts like Victory Prima Pils, Sixpoint Sweet Action, and Bronx Pale Ale going for $6. Bottles and cans run from $4 to $7, with options including Miller High Life, Dale’s Pale Ale, Tecate tall-boys, and Shiner Bock. If you’re feeling fancy, you can quaff a Chimay for $12. Well drinks come in pints and cost $7, and there’s a frosted-mug-and-shot deal for $6. Like any no-frills dive worth its salt, shelled peanuts are free at the bar, day and night. There are also pretzels and sausages.

At 10pm, several people seemed to be on casual dates—maybe the only kind you’d go on, on a Tuesday. A couple of gregarious groups were packed into the booths. The rest of us were bunched at the end of the bar, where the TV was playing the NBA Finals (decidedly pro-Spurs crowd). The bartender attended to us all with a calm grace, in keeping with the time-slowing effect Old Stanley’s has. I stayed for hours.

04/29/14 10:00am

Choire Sichas lecture at the Lost Lecture series first event in NYC

Sometimes lectures ask a lot of you: maybe you have to wake up at 7am and trek across campus. Maybe you paid thousands of tuition dollars for the privilege. You have to share the fluorescent-lighted lecture space with hundreds of semi-disinterested peers, while a professor talks at you for an hour or more. Or maybe you’re crammed into a boardroom, as your boss clicks through a presentation of third-quarter earnings and fourth-quarter goals. By the time you’ve reached the age at which interesting, free lectures are available to you, maybe you’ve just lost interest.


Which is a shame, really, because interesting people sharing their stories is one of life’s underrated joys. The goal of the Lost Lectures is to reinvigorate that platform. Describing itself as a series “enchanting talks from secret locations,” the Lost Lectures is a London-based media organization that hosts lectures by scientists, artists, techies, designers, entrepreneurs, and entertainers in obscure locations around the world. Previous speakers include Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge neuroscientist who spoke about affective empathy, and Daisy Ginsberg, a synthetic biologist and designer whose talk offered a creative vision of a genetically designed future.

Last Friday, the Lost Lectures came for the first time to New York City, following months of furtive transatlantic planning. Past lectures have been held in a lighthouse, an empty swimming pool, and an old hotel; this one was at the Knockdown Center, a 50,000-square-foot factory with exposed timber ceiling beams and brick walls, built in 1903, that sits on a gated three-acre lot in Maspeth, Queens. The event was cohosted by the radical art website Hyperallergic.

Hundreds of people came out, eating banh mi from Bun-Ker and drinking free slushies provided by Green Pirate. The first speaker was Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prize, who humorously recounted the 1999 winner: a couple who designed the Blonsky device, an imaginary contraption that employs centrifugal force to facilitate the birth of a child: the in-labor mother is strapped in to the device, which is then spun at ever-increasing speeds, until out pops the baby.

Similarly humorous was Choire Sicha, founder of the Awl and self-proclaimed “anti-blogger.” After describing himself as being “on the Internet for far too long,” Sicha played a slideshow that explored the ever-pressing question: is the Internet getting stupider? Sicha engaged in a bit of formal humor, clicking through hand-drawn diagrams and reading off his iPhone as he recounted the history of newspapers in America (largely stupid) and the evolution of Internet usage, with its latter-day, venture-capital imperative on “liking” and “reposting.” “We enter a cycle of mindless sharing,” Sicha said. “So share mindfully.”

Barbara Nitke, a New York-based photographer who has shot stills on hundreds of porn shoots, shared her portfolio and hard-won insights from her 12-year career. “This is a hard job for guys—pun intended,” she said, to laughter. “They gotta do long strokes, deliver a cum shot on cue, and then he’s got dialogue!” Nitke concluded with the sobering diagnosis that “we live in a society that demands sex work—we want to see porn videos—and then we turn around and shame [porn stars].”

In addition to the interesting talks, there were several compelling live performances. Dev Hynes, of Blood Orange, performed a piece of music that was intended as a demonstration of both his anxiety and synesthesia. As he played a lush, droning piece, polychromatic visuals were projected on screen, swirling into tendrils and fractals, or resolving into solid, impressionistic blocks of color. A team of dancers from filmmaker Deidre Schoo’s documentary Flex Is Kings demonstrated the moves that comprise Flexing, a dance style that originated on the streets of East New York, including gliding, posing, connecting, hat tricks, the get low (“a series of floor moves where you defy all means of gravity”), and bone-breaking, which drew cringing gasps of awe.

The highlight of the evening was Amanda Lepore, a transgender model, fashion icon, and the owner of the “most expensive body in the world.” Lepore touchingly recounted her career, beginning with growing up gender-confused—“substitute teachers couldn’t tell if I was a boy or girl,” she said. She started taking hormones at 15, became an emancipated minor a couple years later, had surgery, and ran away to New York, where she became David LaChappelle’s muse. “Ever since then, I’ve had euphoria,” she said. Now Lepore’s a singer, too, and she concluded her lecture by singing one of her songs, a vaguely house-indebted number called “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” and dancing in a shimmering pink dress.

If the Lost Lectures are supposed to be a creative reimagining of the trope, then Friday night’s offering can only be counted as a success. Keep an eye out—you never know when and where they’ll return.