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12/19/07 12:00am
12/19/2007 12:00 AM |

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway noted, “Travel writers wrote about the men fishing in the Seine as though they were crazy and never caught anything; but it was serious and productive fishing.” Whether that was a professional opinion or literary flourish is difficult to say. After all, he’s talking about a body of water enshrined in legend for its filth, stink, and pollution — the product of Paris’ infamous sewer system — during the 1920s, when munitions were probably still floating around from WWI. Supposing anyone caught a fish there, who would have eaten it?  

Similarly, anyone who walks or cycles along the East River during sunny weather has seen people fishing there, but few actually know what they do with their catches. Intrigued, I headed for Stuyvesant Cove, the area near Con Edison’s water purification plant at East 14th St. There, three fishing rods were propped over the railings into the water, while their owners stood a few feet away chatting, looking at the women jogging by, and otherwise passing time. They had all fished in this spot for years, through all types of weather and on all occasions, but this was the first time they were approached to speak about their hobby with a journalist.

First question: Do they keep what they catch? “I’m a catch-and-release man,” replies Sgt. Efrain Diaz, a veteran who returned from Iraq in 2005. When I ask if he knows anyone who actually eats the fish, all three of the fishermen shoot me an incredulous look that says, “Of course!” “I know a guy that’s been eating the fish out of here almost 20 years, and there ain’t nothing wrong with him,” answers Jesse Ruiz, who sports a tear-drop tattoo below his left eye. The least talkative of them, Fred Doumbe, a tall African-American man, chimes in that he eats them himself and is fine.

They offer a number of theories why the water is clean and the fish are healthy. For one, most of the fish are migratory, and do not stay in the East River — which is actually a tidal strait connecting Upper New York Bay to the Long Island Sound, rather than its own body of water. “They come from Canada and Connecticut,” Jesse points out, “They know that the food’s here, so they come looking for it, but they don’t stay here.” He goes further, saying that the water is clean because a friend who works for an unspecified environmental organization told him that they process the water in a nearby plant. In the springtime, he claims, one can see as far as five feet deep. He even swims in the water when the weather is warm enough.

Is it wishful thinking? The purification plant he’s referring to is close to the spot where they are standing. If you look at the shore near 14th Street, you will find steam rising from the water that’s being boiled and disinfected. And never doubt a fisherman’s wisdom about the waters he frequents. According to Kate Zidar, who runs a free fishing clinic at the Lower East Side Ecology Center, she gets even more of her information about river conditions from the fishermen than from marine biologists, river advocates, and other experts. Since the anglers are there every day, they have far more data.

Still, it’s a stretch to say that the river is pure. New York still uses a combined sewer system found in old European cities and older Northeastern metropolises. During heavy storms, the rainwater mixes with sewage dumped out of CSO (combined sewer overflow) outlets throughout the five boroughs. This practice has caused the city to be found in repeated violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which has led federal courts to pass two (ignored) consent decrees mandating a solution. Proposals are currently being made to address the problem, but in the meantime, each rainfall dumps a new batch of debris into the surrounding water. Zidar once asked a fisherman standing next to one of these outlets if he knew what it was. He responded, “Yeah, fish food!”
Safety considerations also depend on a number of factors, from the age and gender of the person to the type of fish and how you cook it. Zidar usually abstains from East River fish because she’s a woman of childbearing age, but she says, “Honestly, if I ever caught a young bluefish on a clear summer day, I can’t say for sure I wouldn’t try it once.” The biggest health risks are caused by mercury and PCBs, which young women and children are more susceptible to, but pose some risk to all. One can minimize exposure to these chemicals by filleting the fish, which takes away more of the toxins than cooking it in a stew. 

In any event, none of this would keep the men that I approached from their favorite pastime. “The only reason I don’t eat the fish is because I’m not a seafood lover,“ says Diaz, “I only keep what I’m going to give away, if it’s legal.” People interested in fishing in the East River need to do more than just bring a rod, bait, and tackle. They need to learn regulations because keeping an illegal fish is punishable by a summons, and the rule is enforced. “They’re never going to get me because I go by the regulations.” 
Sgt. Diaz asks if I would like to see some pictures, and he takes out digital prints from his time in Iraq. He shuffles through some of soldiers taking turns dressing up as mujahideen — “just messing around,” he explains — until he reaches one of him fishing in Saddam Hussein’s private lake. The dictator sent people around the world to find exotic specimens for him to catch. “Saddam would be spinning in his grave if he saw this,” he says, pointing to a picture of himself in uniform, holding a rod in one hand, a colorful catch in the other, and a machine gun around his neck. The time of this interview was one day after the hanging. 

Even so, the picture of the striped bass that Sgt. Diaz caught in the East River makes his catch from Iraq look like a guppy. It measures in at 47” — spanning his torso down to his knees — and weighs almost 31 lbs. That qualified as the largest fish anyone in the group caught that year. “This guy [Jessie] is always trying to beat me. He’s been trying to do it for a couple of years now,” Efrain teases. “I gave him a chance. I went to Iraq for a year and a half. [He] still couldn’t do it.” Jesse’s personal record so far is 38”, an impressive feat, nonetheless. 
The day after I leave will be the beginning of a new year, and the start of a new competition. “We’ll see what happens,” says Efrain. “I’m gonna beat you this year,” taunts Jesse, and Efrain jabs back, “Fat chance.”

08/29/07 12:00am
08/29/2007 12:00 AM |

“To you, I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition.” –Woody Allen

A built-in aquarium lines the walls of Ken Bronstein’s unexpectedly large apartment on the Upper East Side. I had been wondering. I know people with sensibilities antithetical to Mr. Bronstein’s, and their walls are covered with crosses and quotes from the Bible stitched into fabric. I’d been curious to see if the president of New York City Atheists (NYCA) decorated in a way that gave insight into his beliefs — an atheistic equivalent to a crucifix, maybe — but except for a “Separate Church and State” sign leaning against a wall, he does not.

This may not be surprising, given the nature of those beliefs and the means by which he reached his position. As Bronstein tells it, he was on the path to becoming a rabbi before he became an atheist. His parents were what he called “three-day Jews,” meaning they weren’t especially devout, and only attended temple on major holidays.

“The first thing was,” he said, “I knew Santa Claus didn’t exist. I became a skeptic. I said, ‘Society and my parents are lying to me. This is not true.’ I went to Hebrew school. That’s where it started. I didn’t buy the thing about Noah, I didn’t buy Moses and the Egyptians. I asked for evidence, but they couldn’t give it to me.”

The doubts grew, until they reached their zenith when Bronstein was giving a speech during his bar mitzvah.

“I was in a beautiful synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, and as I was speaking I was thinking, ‘Religion is damaged material, you’re lying to me.’ It was during that ceremony that I became an atheist.” He completed the ritual part of the celebration but not the spiritual part.

If this seems a commonplace story of contemporary disillusionment, consider that it took place in the 1950s, when there was little deviation from the religious norm. Of course, there’s not much dissent now, either: though there are more self-identified atheists today than ever before, a recent Newsweek poll showed that 91 percent of the population say they believe in God.

Bronstein’s conversion led him to search online for like-minded people, and found an NYCA meeting he could attend.

“There were about seven or eight people there,” he said. “That’s it. I expected to see 500. I asked why there weren’t more members and was told there’s an expression: ‘Atheism is like herding cats. They don’t want to get involved in anything.’”

NYCA is the third major attempt at an atheist group in the city. Other groups were started in the 1970s and 80s but quickly dissolved, due partly to lack of enthusiasm. It was this absence of passion that upset Bronstein when he first attended a meeting, prompting him to stand up after 20 minutes and declare the situation “Unacceptable!”
 
Bronstein met with then-president Josh Karph, and outlined ways the group might increase its membership, including street tables and a newsletter. Karph had tried tabling before, with limited success, due mostly to members not wanting to man the booths. Bronstein ran the project, buying equipment and scheduling weekly meet-ups.

The tabling successfully attracted new members, and when Karph stepped down from his position to focus on his career, he asked Bronstein to take over. He agreed, and made two fundamental changes. The first was to focus the group on a single issue — the separation of church and state (making the “Atheist” name a little misleading).

“We’re not trying to make people atheists,” Bronstein said. “That’s not our objective. We’re pushing for church and state [separation], because if we don’t have that, we’re going to be wiped out.”

This means NYCA does not have an official position on issues like Iraq, though it can host a discussion about it. The views tend to be fairly homogenous, though Bronstein swears it’s diverse to the point where some members actually believe in God.

The second change was to charge membership fees, starting at $25 a year, on the theory that people will be more motivated to participate in a group they’re paying to be in. (Bronstein declined to say the exact membership, but said it was “in the hundreds.”) He registered NYCA as a 501(c), a nonprofit group exempt from federal taxes. This prohibits them from endorsing candidates, even in a race where three candidates won’t raise their hands when asked who believes in evolution. They can (and do), however, have lobbyists pushing for them.

The growing membership has resulted in more money and more enthusiasm about furthering their cause. There are monthly meetings, with an average attendance of around 30, and regular events like brunches and movie nights, during which such films as like Inherit the Wind are shown. They have three cable TV shows, all filmed in Bronstein’s apartment, with Bronstein operating the camera. Special events are done in conjunction with groups across the country. To counter the National Day of Prayer, the NYCA hosted a nationwide blood drive, with more than 1,000 donating, on the argument that their action helped mankind more than prayer did.

I went to an early-summer street tabling to see for myself how atheists seek converts. It was cold and rainy. Members arrived late and few passersby seemed willing to stop and get information. These tabling events usually begin, weather permitting, at around 10am on Saturdays (“every Sabbath,” Bronstein jokes) between May and October, in front of the Time Warner building at Columbus Circle.

Bronstein arrived with Josh Treiber, a 29-year-old volunteer wearing a sweatshirt with the words “God Free” across the chest. His story parallels Bronstein’s. He grew up in a religious family, sought proof of God’s existence, and ended up finding the NYCA instead.

Set-up involved the construction of a white plastic tent and two folding tables. A faded blue “New York City Atheists” sign hung in back, and two yellow “Total Separation of Church and State” banners were latched to the sides.

Even if they didn’t stop, people commented on the signs, even before set-up was completed. A few were supportive, shouting “I’m with you!” and, of all things, “Amen, brother!” They were encouraged to sign up for the mailing list, and maybe five did while I was there. Bronstein says a hundred will on a busy day, though not all become due-paying members.

Inevitably, opponents saw the stand and came to debate. One man stayed for more than an hour and had a conversation in which I heard Treiber explain a few times that he’s not anti-religion and that separation of church and state doesn’t inhibit anyone from practicing their beliefs. I missed much of the conversation, but I heard the man ask what Treiber’s morals were based on if not religion (“What do you think of murder?”), after which he gave a list of scientists who believe in God.

“He was cool,” Treiber said later on. He compared him to another man who had made comments earlier, dressed in a hunting jacket with camouflage pants, who told Treiber he was going to hell for his (non)beliefs, and said if he objected to the phrase “In God We Trust” on currency, he should give all his money away.

This believer had two children with him, who he deployed to distribute “My Best Friend” pamphlets to people nearby. In them, a cartoon bully finds God and is inspired to stop taking people’s lunch money. After the bully befriends his former victims, the final panel depicts all of them being saved through Christ.

Many accepted it when it was offered, but I saw a few throw it away when they saw what it was. NYCA used to have similar mailing programs, Bronstein said, but never found them to net more than a “one or two percent” return rate. At the table, nearly everyone who is interested enough to approach signs up.

I asked Treiber how he deals with people damning him without losing his temper. Members are told to not yell back or engage with hecklers, but when one man suggests that separation of church and state is racist against religious black communities, it takes a lot of restraint for Treiber to hold back.

“I don’t take them seriously,” he said. “I respect their passion, but I think what they believe is a fairy tale, like believing in DC Comics.”

A frequent line on NYCA literature is “Atheism is a Conclusion, Not a Belief.” Of course, many religious people have concluded that their beliefs are fact, and some, in the face of scientific evidence, posit arguments such as that an all-powerful God put evolutionary fossils into the world to test our faith. In contrast, NYCA prides itself on being rational — on having conclusions, rather than beliefs.

The thing that upset Bronstein about religion wasn’t the idea that people were being ostracized for not attending prayer groups, or that they felt the need to keep their atheism a secret, but how religious groups used their proximity to God as leverage.

Take, for example, the distributed leaflets. Through religion, you are saved. Through atheism, you are, what? Rational? Hardly equivalent, or as comforting as the idea that an all-powerful and loving God is protecting you, especially when you feel alone or in need of protection.

Ironically, the past few years have seen a leap in both atheism and religious influence, a polarity resulting in many ways from a president who is not shy about his beliefs. This has led to more college-aged believers, but also an impassioned counter-attack from those who dislike his rhetoric and its implications. The past few years alone have seen a flurry of books that don’t toe the religious line, from scientific studies like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion to teen-fiction like Beckie Weinheimer’s Converting Kate.

The difference between those works (and their religious counterparts) and Bronstein’s NYCA is that the former are arguing whether God exists, while NYCA is focused more on the creation of a society free from belief-based prejudices.

At least, that’s their official line. No doubt Bronstein would love it if the world woke up skeptic tomorrow, in the same way the Pope wants more Catholics.

The idea is funny: atheism as religion. But that might be the way it’s headed. Bronstein is attempting to turn NYCA meetings into ceremonies, like Sunday mass, on the theory that people respond positively to ceremony and ritual, and that a sense of tradition and continuity from one week to the next will increase membership.

Bronstein couldn’t tell me what such a ceremony might involve, but I wonder if atheists will grow less interested the more it smacks of a religious service (even without God), if religion is what they’re trying to avoid. At one point during the street-tabling, a man who came to get information was invited to the meetings. He was visibly taken aback. “Atheists attend meetings?” he asked. A problem of herding cats.

08/01/07 12:00am
08/01/2007 12:00 AM |

If Daniel Goldstein doesn’t win the appeal on his lawsuit, the largest single-source development in New York City history will swallow up his apartment building, along with the surrounding 22 acres. New York State has approved the use of eminent domain for the developers eyeing his property, and construction has started across the street. All but two of the units on his block are completely empty, and some of the vacant buildings are already girded with scaffolding in preparation for demolition. Once these small brownstones are out of the way, Forest City Ratner hopes to replace them with a 20,000-seat arena for the Nets basketball team, nestled amid 16 Frank Gehry-designed skyscrapers. These are the last days of resistance to the controversial Atlantic Yards Project, and things don’t look great for Goldstein and his cause — there’s simply too much money to be made.

Bruce Ratner already owns a hefty chunk of real estate bordering the proposed footprint of the Atlantic Yards, and as far as Goldstein is concerned, the developer is now seeking more land to add to his monopoly. A block and a half north of the apartment stands the Atlantic Terminal Mall, whose green-and-brown institutional façade stretches west down Flatbush Avenue. It was built in 2004 over the demolished Long Island Rail Road Terminal; three years later, Ratner is eyeing another functioning rail yard, directly across the street. Although Forest City Ratner will not technically own the land until (and if) the development moves ahead, the MTA has granted them permission to begin construction without formally owning the deed. 

Ironically, one of the buildings condemned to make way for the sports arena is a loft space converted from an old Spalding factory, purveyors of the NBA’s official basketball. That space is located on Goldstein’s street and sits derelict and empty. A short distance away is pre-Prohibition watering hole and neighborhood institution Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, which, if destroyed, would be a real loss to drinkers (and historians) throughout the borough. The bustling Bear’s Community Garden is outside of the danger zone, as far as demolition goes, but it will be hard to keep it green in the shadows of the skyscrapers; it’s in direct line with the tallest of Gehry’s planned buildings, the unfortunately named (and for many, unfortunately designed) “Ms. Brooklyn,” which is projected to block a significant amount of the garden’s summer sunlight.

Though the fight over Atlantic Yards has been well covered, many New Yorkers haven’t seemed to grasp the immense scope of the project, which will include seven skyscrapers far taller than the current tallest buildings (by at least 30 stories). Critics, citing the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS Report), contend that, in practical terms, many of the nearby neighborhoods will be in long periods of darkness, with skyscraper shadows stretching as far as the Fort Greene Historic District. Opponents also claim that FEIS proposals for handling game-time traffic surges are woefully inadequate, limited as they are to two road closures, three changes in street directions, and small adjustments for traffic signals.

Author Jonathan Lethem, a prominent activist against Atlantic Yards, called the language used to describe the project “mendacious flimflam” in an open letter he wrote to Gehry, referring to purported “open spaces” that include private rooftops, and the promises of “affordable housing” when only 12 percent of the units are below Brooklyn’s median income, according to Goldstein’s organization in opposition, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB).

As representatives of DDDB, Goldstein and his fiancée Shabnam Merchant are struggling to stop the Atlantic Yards Project, and are in the unique position of doing so by simply fighting for their house. “Since I’m very public and loud and a spokesson for this group, some people think I’m fighting my own personal crusade,” says Goldstein, “but I know from doing this work for over three years that the people here are opposed to it.”

As I visit Goldstein’s place for the interview, I’m surprised to find so many cars parked along his block. He explains that people use the spots for the nearby shops and business during the day, but at night the streets are as empty as one would expect of a residential block stripped of the vast majority of its residents.. And the condominium seems well maintained: its hallways are clean, the intercom works fine, and the elevator functions more comfortably than those of many offices in Midtown Manhattan.

As the elevator lets out on Goldstein’s floor, I notice placards, boxes, and office supplies in the hallway — one of
the protest signs is written in Chinese. Apparently, the proprietor of a fine-art supply store had about 25 legal immigrants make the sign after his business was forced out, but the shop-owner was not allowed to reveal his identity because — pushed into a corner with his business — he signed a contract with Ratner. One of the advantages of living in an empty building is that nobody can object to the use of the hallway as storage space. I leave my bicycle in the hall without locking up. Who would be there to steal it?

When I ask if being surrounded by a big, empty building ever leaves him with an eerie feeling or leads him to worry about crime, Goldstein answers matter-of-factly, as though the idea never occurred to him. “No. Maybe it was because I knew the day was coming, and I prepared myself for it.” 

Needless to say, Goldstein and Merchant (who also started the No Land Grab website) have been keeping busy. I have to wait a few minutes on the couch when I get there because Daniel has to take a business call. When asked to describe his daily activities with DDDB, he jokes, “I get up and start working, and I finish sometime late at night.” Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Merchant is multitasking, preparing food while working on fundraising from her laptop. In addition to their full-time jobs with the organization, they’ve been preparing for a wedding this fall, but their final plans are contingent on the legal battle to keep their home. “Most people plan weddings for a year, but because our very home is up in the air, it’s hard to make plans,” he says.

Right now, Goldstein says that the developers still need to take “three more legal steps” to take over the building. Theoretically, that can begin as early as the fall, because a federal judge recently dismissed their lawsuit (Goldstein v. Pataki), but the plaintiffs — who include all the remaining property owners — filed an “expedited” appeal. It will take four to six months to have the case looked at again, delaying Ratner’s ability to move forward with an Article II or IV action — that is, a transfer of the deeds. “We have to see what the State does,” he says, “if they dare to move forward while we’re doing that appeal. It could be months; it could be years.”

Under the terms of the contracts, none of the former residents who signed with Ratner is allowed to speak to the press, attend public hearings, or donate to groups opposing Atlantic Yards. There’s even a provision in the
contract, says Goldstein, “that they would try to get me to sell.”

“There were a couple of people who said that they regretted what they did,” he says, “not out of any principle, but whatever kind of payday they thought it was, it didn’t turn out to quite be that because of taxes and the way the market had changed.” Though, he adds, some people “made out very well with money. Of course, I knew what they were getting because they offered it to me.”

As for why Goldstein got involved in such a difficult battle?

“This is the first home I bought,” he says. “I’d been looking for a long time, and I bought it because of the neighborhood and the location — just like Mr. Ratner. It started out that I wanted to keep this home. And by luck of the draw, I bought into a building that’s key to this project happening. The project can’t go forward while I’m here. Putting aside my own feelings, that’s a responsibility that I have. I wouldn’t be doing this if I felt that the surrounding neighborhoods wanted this thing.”

I hesitate a little before asking, “What would you do if the eminent domain— ”
“Went forward?”
“Yes.”
“I don’t know.” He pauses. “We never discussed that seriously. We’re optimistic that it won’t happen.”   •

07/12/07 12:00am
07/12/2007 12:00 AM |

“Regarding the game as a healthful exercise, and a manly and exciting recreation, he plays it solely for the pleasure it affords him, and if victory crowns his efforts in a contest, well and good, but should defeat ensue he is equally ready to applaud the success obtained by his opponents; and by such action he robs defeat of half its sting, and greatly adds to the pleasure the game has afforded both himself and his adversaries.”
    –Henry Chadwick, from Haney’s Base Ball           
      Book of Reference, 1867

The global sweep of human history is, in a word, revolting. Our contemporary world is hideous beyond description. But it’s still probably the best iteration of human existence on the planet to date.

But how then to explain my lifelong flirtation with historical recreation societies? What lies at the beating heart of this dark preoccupation? Am I a shadow sadist, a malevolent voyeur or just some manner of period dress fetishist? I wonder: is the impulse to physically embody the past a way of learning from its failings or is it a full-scale reactionary embrace of them?

Bearing these questions in mind I decided recently to enter into a cautious surveillance of the world of creative anachronism. I chose a little organization known as the Vintage Base Ball Association.

My quest began with a modest, delicate exploration of the Vintage Base Ball Factory website, a clearinghouse for those who wish to obtain authentic period dress and gear if they were, let’s just say, inclined to play a game in the style of the 1840s. Yes, there is evidence of severe madness here. But also there is little disputing the craftsmanship and rigorous expertise on display at the VBBF, where for $12 you may expect to be hand-fashioned a genuine deadball-era playing sphere  that none but the most hulking or gifted could ever expect to hit more than a few yards. Something in this very notion helps cast a light upon the quixotic mysteries of the vintage baseball world. The sport’s modern architects have striven at endless length to create a ball that would actually travel the greatest distance possible when struck. Here we have an equivalent (or greater) amount of exertion devoted by vintage baseball enthusiasts to supply the precise opposite: a ball that could be shot out of a cannon and not leave the infield.

This point seemed somehow important to me — why would you want to hit the ball nowhere? I brought it up during my expansive discussions with current President of the Vintage Base Ball Association Glenn Drinkwater. Speaking with him, it becomes clear that personal glory of the sort brought about by towering home runs and diving circus catches is not amongst the central priorities of this pastime.

“In the 1840s and 1850s,” Drinkwater explains, “baseball was a social event in which one traveling ‘club’ was ‘hosted’ by another. Accounts of games from that period tend to make only passing mention of the actual results. Mostly they talk about what sort of food was served by the ‘host’ team.” To Drinkwater’s way of thinking, the foremost mission of the VBBA is to represent and restore this sort of collegial and semi-competitive feeling to the game. “People don’t argue about calls in a vintage baseball game. We argue minutiae — was a pitcher was really called a ‘hurler’ after 1857?”

1857 was a red-letter year for vintage baseball enthusiasts, as the New York Knickerbockers codified the first standardized set of national baseball rules. From this point forward, something anarchic and devil-may-care in the game’s previous incarnation was set aside. Previous to that time, baseball’s variants had tended toward a hodge-podge of rules decided upon on the spot. Often games were played with strikes but no balls, and batters would hold out for a perfect pitch over tireless stretches. While waiting for some kind of action to occur, baserunners would chat for long periods with opposing team members about the issues of the day, creating a veritable sewing circle atmosphere on the diamond. Games ambled leisurely for hours at a time and were frequently called on account of darkness. After the codified rules were established, the refined game turned into a spectator favorite and exploded in popularity. By 1869, the first fully professional team was formed. Quality of play was hugely improved, but something interpersonal amongst the players was lost.

Filling that social vacuum appears the essential motivating factor at play while in a vintage baseball contest. On an idyllic weekend afternoon, a subway and ferry ride brings one to bucolic Bridgeport, Connecticut, for a noontime tilt between the hometown Orators and their familiar rivals the Newton Sandy Hooks — two of several such clubs within the Tri-State area; closer to home are the New York Gothams and Brooklyn Atlantics.

The crowd is sparse and the field unkempt — perhaps even a touch treacherous. A ground ball hit onto the stone-filled infield might easily take a malevolent hop, resulting in a punishing concussion for some unsuspecting shortstop. The participants are valiant competitors, though few seem near their athletic prime. Gray hair and prominent stomachs are the norm. Nevertheless, each moment is approached with effusive energy and a laudable seriousness of intent. Technique and strategy are applied not so much in attempt to gain competitive advantage but rather towards

“People don’t argue calls   in a vintage baseball game.   We argue minutiae — was a pitcher really called a          ‘hurler’ after 1857?”

keeping faith with the spirit of the enterprise. The avoidance of anachronism is far more important than the scoring of runs.

Some of the argot is easily comprehensible — batters are known as “strikers” and a run scored is a “tally.” Other instances make no particular sense and are vaguely disturbing: fans are known as “cranks” and a crass or unsportsmanlike gesture is called a “boodler.” Pitching is underhanded, and outs may be recorded by catching a ball after one bounce, but the essential iconic nature of the diamond and the employ of its position players is unmistakable. The extent to which the sport as it was played 150 years ago remains on first glance
an entirely recognizable entity is notable and surprising.

The Orators are in total control of this contest. Not so much by dint of runs scored, but rather owing to their immaculate and matching navy stockings, caps and belts, and striking gray jerseys and knickers. In their flaming red collars and shambling whites, the Sandy Hooks cannot help but look a little overmatched, if not out and out silly. At no point do I have any idea what the score of this game is, but it is only too plain who is winning.

In the aftermath of the event, amidst the glad-handing riot of congratulations, fan greeting and general quality sportsmanship, I did request and was allowed to inspect the cap of one middle-aged participant in the match. Something about the handling of it proved transporting, and, in the manner of recovered memory syndrome, a deeply suppressed recollection was brought back to me in a swooning headlong rush.

As an adolescent, I recalled that I had one time woken up very early in the morning in the autumn of 1988 to travel to a Renaissance Fair in rural Virginia. There I believed — for some reason — that I might meet a girl. There were in fact women present, and a good portion of them attired in suggestively low-cut dresses with frilly lace necklines. Further, whatever the reason, these women responded effusively and in a servile fashion to the term “wench.” “Wench,” some costumed knight would shout aloud, “bring me my smithing tools!” And dutifully off would scamper some college-age girl in a corset. My mind went off the rails. My head almost exploded.

But of course these women wanted not a thing to do with me — fat, ill mannered, besotted with junk food and lust — and soon I found myself alone at the grog shop, attempting to ascertain the 16th-century equivalent of Mr. Pibb. The line was long, it was unseasonably warm, and my mind began to drift. I thought of the upcoming World Series, which was to pit Tony LaRussa’s muscle-bound, juggernaut Oakland A’s as a prohibitive favorite against the Los Angeles Dodgers. These A’s — the Bash Brothers, Canseco, McGwire — hit for power like no one since Murderers’ Row. They were giants! They looked like wrestlers!! I was ostensibly rooting against them on principle, but secretly I thrilled to watch them pummel opposing pitching with automaton-like brutality.

Suddenly, I was snapped from my reverie by a cacophony of thundering hoofs and the crash of a man falling from his steed. He was rolling on the ground, pretending to have been impaled by a rival as an enthusiastic crowd applauded his gutting. By then I had reached the front of the line and was addressed by the piercing tenor of an impatient male server in a peasant blouse and tri-colored Elope hat: “What’ll it be knave?” he shouted, “What’ll it be??” 

06/06/07 12:00am

How many times have you walked down the streets of New York and done a double take? Skimpy clothes, oddball couples, a lizard on a leash… street life in the city is never boring. For a century’s worth of photographers, it has provided not only entertainment but artistic inspiration. New Yorkers have featured in photos for nearly as long as the medium has existed, but it was not until the dawn of the 20th century that technology caught up with the wandering eye.

In the decade following Lewis Hine’s famous documentary photographs of Ellis Island immigrants, Paul Strand (1890-1976) produced many iconic images of bustling Wall Street workers and impoverished inhabitants of the Lower East Side, underscoring the medium’s capacity for recording vibrant, transitory moments. As street photography has continued to evolve into a definitive genre, its practitioners have remained focused on the idiosyncrasies of city-dwellers. And while the impulse to capture these instances is shared by many, the results are as diverse as the populace itself.

In the 1930s, an anonymous photojournalist named Arthur Fellig emerged to become Weegee, the infamous raconteur of New York City’s seedy underbelly. Purportedly a twist on the word “squeegee” (an instrument used to dry developing prints), Weegee’s nickname soon became associated with the game “Ouija” for his uncanny ability to track down accidents, murders, fires and their aftermath. Weegee’s signature style involved capturing dramatic, nocturnal scenes with his flash camera: maimed bodies sprawled on the sidewalk, the horrified shock of witnesses, or the flaunted thigh of an incarcerated cross-dresser. Recording crime scenes during the decade that spawned film noir, Weegee’s theatrical eye and penchant for irony produced a new kind of documentary photograph. Joy of Living (1942) paradoxically depicted a newspaper-covered body alongside a movie marquee advertising the upbeat comedy, while Their First Murder (1941) caught a crowd of children reacting to the shooting death of a neighborhood criminal. Their range of expressions — despair, horror, glee and curiosity — showcase Weegee’s skill in snapping urban chaos.

Also working during the 1930s and 40s, Helen Levitt (b. 1913) took her Leica to the streets of Spanish Harlem. Using a right-angle viewfinder (which allowed her to work without her subjects’ knowledge), Levitt trolled the lively pre-TV streets recording interactions between families, friends and neighbors of the working-class neighborhood. In her untitled black and white prints, children feature prominently: a toddler squeals in delight while his mother rummages in the baby carriage beneath him; an adolescent girl proudly hauls two glistening bottles of milk; three young Halloween revelers pause on their front stoop, each donning a festive mask [pictured on the previous page]. Levitt transforms ragamuffin street kids into emblems of grace and beauty. Unlike Weegee’s tongue-in-cheek perspective, Levitt chose most often to highlight fleeting moments of sheer joy.

During the 60s, groundbreaking photographers Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus shook up the nomadic practice with their distinctive takes on urban portraiture. Primarily working in black and white, Winogrand (1928-1984) penetrated pavement-pounding crowds to capture his subjects

As street photography has evolved, its practitioners have remained focused on the idiosyncrasies of the city-dwellers.

in action, snapping guests at museum openings, visitors to the zoo, and Fifth Avenue pedestrians. With characteristically oblique camera angles, Winogrand’s shots mimic the experience of walking through the city shooting sidelong glances. In his 1968 photograph of a bedraggled bum, Winogrand frames an anonymous arm extending inwards from outside the picture plane to proffer a fistful of change. In a less familiar sighting, Central Park Zoo, New York City (1967) features two chimpanzees sitting snugly in the arms of a well-dressed, bi-racial couple. Part happy accident, part political commentary, the photograph encapsulates Winogrand’s hunt for the quirky and unpredictable. Thriving on juxtapositions of sameness and difference, he trained his camera on a row of twittering teenage girls, as well as the misfit in a crowd, to produce images that evoke the randomness of the street.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) similarly made a career of exposing outcasts. Never interested in the common man, Arbus sought the oddities in Washington Square Park, civic demonstrations and Coney Island; and rather than spontaneously snapping passers-by, she invited each person to pose. Her often-reproduced 1962 picture Child with a Toy Hand Grenade, New York depicts a skinny, blond boy gripping the explosive device in one hand while grimacing with angry frustration. His scrawny frame and overt rage are simultaneously funny and disturbing (while also providing a visual metaphor for the controversial Vietnam War). A later photo entitled A Young Brooklyn Family Going on a Sunday Outing (1966) similarly asks “What’s wrong with this picture?” Two teenage parents pose with their baby and rebellious, cross-eyed son. Details such as the father’s juvenile sheepishness and the self-conscious mother’s beehive and painted eyebrows belie the unconventionality of this family unit. By utilizing a flash, even in her daytime photos, Arbus’s sitters stand out eerily and starkly from the blurred background of the city.

More recent photographers have approached the metropolitan streets balancing an awareness of historical precedent with a desire for originality. A sleepless night for German tourist Andreas Herzau provided the incentive for a three-year photo project capturing New York before, during and after 9/11. These images push the Arbus-like fascination with the foreign or unfamiliar by employing uncanny unions of presence and absence: reflections in shop windows, a lone glove in the mud, or the dust-covered façade of a Ground Zero crosswalk sign, its eerie orange “Don’t Walk” instruction emerging like a dying ember from beneath the crusted cover. Situating living people alongside mannequins or abstracted architectural backdrops, Herzau blurs foreground figures to forge new ways of considering the city.

In the concurrent work of Japanese photographer Yuichi Hibi, a series of nighttime cityscapes recall Weegee’s exploitation of the flash. Hibi’s often secluded streets are lacerated by streams of white light, reflected on wet pavement or the incandescent glow of solitary street lamps. Also a filmmaker, he channels a cinematic style in his shots, harnessing the dramatic possibility of a tree’s threatening shadow or a pair of isolated figures crossing a rainy, desolate East Village Avenue.

As a genre, street photography has encouraged innovation from its earliest  inception. Contemporary practitioners run the gamut in terms of style, motivation and technique, zooming in on the specificity of facial features or reaching out to incorporate urban surroundings. Recording the particular people and places of our city, their images nonetheless manage to provoke collective responses of shock, joy and sadness, revulsion and beauty. The proverbial melting pot of New York City.

03/14/07 12:00am
by |
03/14/2007 12:00 AM |


Irshad Manji is the internationally best-selling author of
  The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, which has been published in 25 countries. Wherever the book is banned (throughout the Muslim world, including Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates), Ms. Manji seeks to reach readers by posting free translations on her website: muslim-refusenik.com. The New York Times describes Ms. Manji as “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare,” and Oprah Winfrey recently honored her with the first annual Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction.” And on International Women’s Day last year, the Jakarta Post in Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim country — named Manji as one of three women making a positive change in Islam today. Her new documentary, Faith Without Fear, will be broadcast by PBS on April 19 at 9 pm EST.

What my day used to be probably isn’t much different from yours now. In the morning, I’d roll out of bed half asleep and stagger to the front door of my quiet Toronto apartment to grab the paper. Nights, before I went to bed, my most pressing concern was whether I’d remembered to floss.

Now when I wake up, the first thing I do is check my email and forward any chilling messages to the police. Then I deactivate my top-of-the-line alarm, get the paper and sip my coffee while gazing out of my bulletproof windows. The police have instructed me not to carry a cell phone in case one of my enemies uses global satellite positioning to track me down. And when preparing for bed, I make sure my portable panic button is within reach.

Life went on high alert three years ago. That’s when my book, The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, came out. The book challenges sexism, anti-Semitism and other prejudices that pervade my religion right now. Nearly overnight, I became an internationally best-selling author, cheered by people who believe in universal human rights. But along with this support came angry threats from would-be terrorists: “You will pay for your lies,” “Enjoy your short stay on earth,” and “This is your last warning.”

None of this should be a complete shocker. In my book I point out that Islam — once a religion of justice — has become a hotbed of intolerance, particularly towards women and minorities. I argue that Muslims must embrace the progressive parts of our history rather than letting the extremists define our religion for us. I plead for Muslims to speak out against honor killings, stonings, suicide bombings and other crimes committed under the banner of God.

I knew that expressing such thoughts could put my life at risk. As I wrote the book, there were times when I thought to myself, quite seriously: If this paragraph doesn‘t get me killed, the next one will. Gives new meaning to “deadline,” doesn’t it?

I also thought of Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses was so reviled by Muslim fundamentalists in Britain that they paved the way for a $2 million bounty on his head, courtesy of the Iranian government. Rushdie spent several years in hiding. I remembered Taslima Nasrin, a novelist, feminist, doctor and Muslim dissident from Bangladesh. She’s still in exile — 15 years after the first death warrant against her. Only last week, a Muslim group in India renewed the reward to kill Nasrin. Above all, I recalled the assault on 82-year-old Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel Laureate in literature, who was stabbed in the neck three decades after writing a book that some Muslims considered heretical.

So do I have a death wish? No. But what would be sadder for me than a life ended is a life wasted. As a Muslim woman who’s lucky enough to live in North America, I insist on using my precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged. Put bluntly, I have the opportunity to shatter deadly silences. How irresponsible would it be not to?

Speaking out isn’t new to me. I’ve been raising questions — and hell — since, well, forever. My mother, a devout Muslim who fed me and my sisters on a cleaner’s salary, sent us to a regular public school during the week and a conservative madrassa (Islamic school) on the weekend. From Monday to Friday, I’d play sports and run for student council like any ambitious, go-getter of a girl. On Saturday, though, I’d find myself being lectured about the inferiority of girls. And Jews.  

I chafed against the hate speech and, from under my itchy white chador, began defying it. My mother struggled with my outspokenness. “Whatever you do,” she lovingly warned me, “please do not anger God.” But I had to ask: Was infuriating my teacher the same as angering my Creator? Did God really want me, one of his creatures, to be a second-class citizen? Did He seriously condemn an entire people — Jews — to eternal enmity? In short, is this the same God of mercy and compassion that Islam’s holy book, the Quran, describes at the start of almost every chapter?

After my teacher ranted against Jews yet again, I asked for proof of their “conspiracy” against Islam. “Either you believe or you get out!” he bellowed. With my temples throbbing under my chador, I kicked open the hefty madrassa door and yelled, “Jesus Christ!” I wanted to make a memorable exit. Little did I realize just how memorable it was: Jesus was a Jew.

I walked away from the Islamic school, but not from the Islamic faith. I needed to find the beauty in Islam for myself and took time over the next 20 years to study it. That’s when I discovered Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking and creative reasoning. It’s called ijtihad (ij-tee-had). By engaging in ijtihad, Muslims can update religious practices to reflect social changes, including the advancement of women and respect for religious diversity. Ijtihad means that Muslims can be faithful and thoughtful at the same time. Who knew?

It also means that Muslims can live our faith without fear. Of course, all people of conscience — whatever our religion, if any — have moments of wondering whether we’ve transgressed. That’s perfectly human. So courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the recognition that some things are more important than fear. To me, much more important than fear is freedom — the ability to exercise it and grow from the consequences.

That vision is entirely consistent with the spirit of Islam. For example, the Quran contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to think, analyze and reflect than verses that tell us what’s absolutely right and wrong. In fact, no matter where you open up the Quran, you’re never far from three messages that add up to a defense of freedom. One: only God knows fully the truth of anything. Two: God alone can reward belief and punish disbelief since only He knows what real belief is. Third: our resulting humility sets us free to ponder God’s will without any obligation to toe a dictated line.

I believe so passionately that Islam and freedom can be reconciled that I’ve spent the last two years producing a PBS documentary about this mission, called Faith Without Fear. My hope is that all viewers, Muslim and not, will be inspired to conquer their personal fears — the fear of being ostracized (or worse) in their particular communities, the fear of offending minorities in a multicultural world, the fear of asking questions out loud. By confronting our fears, we can finally take ownership of the solutions before us. This, too, might be frightening, but the status quo is a far bigger risk.

Still, I’m not vying for martyrdom. At an especially dark time, I asked Salman Rushdie why I should write a book that might endanger my life. I’ll never forget his answer: “A book is more important than a life. Once you put out a thought, it can be disagreed with vigorously, vehemently, even violently. But it cannot be un-thought. This is the great permanent gift that a writer gives to the world.”

Notice he wasn’t denying that I might be offed for expressing myself. Rather, he was implying that the purpose with which we live is sometimes more important than the number of years that we live. Another way of saying what my conscience already knew: Courage is the recognition that some things are more important than fear.
Despite all the death threats, I’ve received infinitely more amazing responses. Most gratifying is my mother’s blessing. For years, she believed I was a self-hating Muslim with a chip on my chador. After I visited her on my book tour, I realized she finally got it. Mom slipped a card into my suitcase. The front of it blared “Bravo!” Inside, she wrote, “I’m so proud of your achievements. You go, girl!”

That’s my credo, too: Keep going until you find your voice. Once you find it, use it. In a free society, using your voice is not just a right, it’s a responsibility. May more of us marshal our voices to break deadly silences — for good. 

03/14/07 12:00am

Not only is Timothy Bracy a singer and songwriter for New York rock ‘n’ roll band the Mendoza Line, he is also a sports columnist for the online version of this magazine, and he studies creative writing at the New School. As such, we felt him to be uniquely qualified for a look at three of our favorite kinds of bars in which to get very, very drunk.

The Sports Bar
Ambling down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, there is nothing in this heavily gentrified and increasingly wealthy neighborhood to portend the appearance of the Old Carriage Inn, an unpretentious blue-collar watering hole catering to the whims and appetites of hardcore football junkies each Sunday in autumn and throughout the winter.

And yet there it is, distinguished from the high-end coffee shops and pricey French restaurants by an inflatable New York Giant, many feet high and swaying back and forth on a windswept January night. It would seem capricious and shortsighted to pass a balloon of this size and eminence and not at least stop to briefly examine the premises. When a careful examination reveals the further siren call of discount Michelob Ultra and free billiards in the back, the agenda for a once freewheeling evening feels suddenly and irrevocably cast into stone.

But maybe this is a mistake. The inarguable promise of countless amenities are suddenly mitigated by a fear that this place is crawling with off-duty cops. It is not simply the preponderance of burly and mustachioed men which conveys this concern, but also the careful scrutiny with which I am suddenly regarded as I pass through a phalanx of patrons en route to the bar. Brows are furrowed, pejorative glances exchanged. Although I am a deeply law-abiding citizen, an air of minor criminality has always, unaccountably, exuded from me. When in the presence of the authorities, it has typically been their habit to seize upon and incarcerate me. It occurs unspoken, ineffable, but the sentiment being conveyed from patron to patron as I pull up a stool is almost certainly: “Boys, it looks like we got a beatnik on our hands…”

Fortunately the Old Carriage Inn proves not to be the ass-kicking factory it initially appeared to be. The bonding rituals of football fandom being what they are, surface differences are quickly forgotten in the wake of a collective fixation on the large-screen glow of the AFC Championship game. When it becomes clear by dint of small talk that I am not only familiar with the unfolding events, but am seriously invested in them, my scragliness and unfamiliarity is rapidly absolved and I am granted the fullest courtesies of the regular crowd.

A middle-aged New England Patriots booster sits next to me (as it turns out he is an MTA employee, not a cop), and leaning in reveals his anxiety concerning what will transpire in the second half. Though the Pats lead 21-6 and have dominated the first half, the Colts scored last and something just doesn’t feel right. “I gotta feeling they’re gonna spring something on us. Sooner or later…” he informs me, revealing a heavily accented Bostonian pedigree.

“No chance,“ I reassure him, and then proceed to witness his expression grow gradually more crestfallen as his team staggers, wilts, and finally gives away a trip to the Super Bowl. Tonight the bar is filled with Patriots fans trying to make sense of that rarest of developments — the full-scale unraveling of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady during an instance of critical historic consequence. Still, no antipathy is directed towards the few boisterous Colts fans who, in the game’s final moments, are cavorting in an understandably orgiastic dance of catharsis. There is good will, camaraderie and hot wings.

The Student Bar
Do I drink this much because I’m in school, or did I enroll in school accidentally during a bender? I can’t remember, and it hardly matters anymore — the circumstances are immutable, the outcomes pre-ordained. I have a ten-foot high stack of esoterica sitting on my desk, much of which I cannot even read, let alone discuss intelligently in a classroom. It is fairly obvious I am destined to become a professor.

I’m here now at the unfortunately named Scratcher on 5th Street in the East Village, winding my way through a fourth pint, attempting to more fully engage with the nuance and ennui of Chekhov’s “A Boring Story.” My class is at eight, but it’s cocktail hour now, so there’s little choice but to deal with this reading during Happy Hour. And it is apparent I am not the only one splitting the difference between the nurturing of intellectual curiosity and the desire to receive one dollar off all domestic bottles and drafts.

A small, raven-haired woman in a stylish jacket is hunched mournful and contemplative over Heidegger — surely nobody is reading this for laughs. Musing over our connection I catch her eye and beam an inscrutable smile in her direction, one meant to make manifest the implied camaraderie of our meaningless existence; I with my Russian suffering, she with her proto-fascist German, both of us getting hammered in a hipster bar with a name like a Louisiana brothel. Without hesitation she snaps her volume shut and heads expediently towards the door. I presume she must have to get to class, although this does not fully explain why she would elect to direct an uncharitable hand gesture towards me on the way out. Perhaps the piercing significance of my glance carried with it even more gravity than I had intended, bringing forth an unclogged reservoir of unalloyed emotion, as is frequently the case in my interactions with the fairer sex. In any event, I didn’t get maced; considering this a triumph, I return to my reading.

Later that same week, a late-night, after-class gathering at a bar on Univeristy Place proves to be something more of a holiday atmosphere. Perhaps that is owing to the fact that we all just got out of Japanese cinema class, and everyone is still giddy with the collective understanding that college credit continues to be issued for watching Samurais. On this quiet Wednesday you can feel a bit like a rarified and important conglomerate, deep in discussion over the sort of things not easily comprehensible to those without a hobbyist’s enthusiasm and a fair amount of time. We unpack subtle differences between relatively obscure masters like Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse with a pleasing earnestness. The conversation is fevered and cabalistic in its obscurity. Interestingly, I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. I couldn’t tell a tracking shot from a tractor pull, but this knowledge in no way inhibits me from inveighing with jabbering delight about the vital importance of this and other techniques. In keeping with the cheerful spirit of the occasion, no one calls me on it. On the basis of my insipid gibberish, it could be argued that time is being wasted here. So what? Model train enthusiasts have their conventions, philatelists go to auctions. We go to bars in order to ponder the degradation of honor in post-WWII Japan. Surely that is better than being a philatelist (or at least sounds less scandalous).

The Rock Bar

Every other time I was ever at the Mercury Lounge — maybe ten times — I was here to actually play music. But now I’m here to see Frightened Rabbit, a Scottish band which came highly recommended. It turns out that if you aren’t playing, and not friends with the band, you aren’t supposed to go into the dressing room downstairs. Well, that came as news to me. There are a lot of advantages to the dressing room: it is a quiet place to discourse upon the relevant events of the day, the beer is free, and you are kept safe from the rabble. So naturally that is immediately where I went. I arrived on a crowded Tuesday, only to be rebuffed by an Irish band manager dressed in a vintage seersucker suit. “Are you in one of the bands on the bill?” he inquires, betraying deep mistrust. “Well, no,” I said, beset with astonishment. “Does that mean I have to… go upstairs?!”

It’s pretty ugly up there. The drinks are expensive and the heaving crowds and noisome instruments make it nearly impossible to talk football and cinema. Yes, you really have to like music to want to be here. After a few minutes I’m pretty sure I don’t. For one thing, the club scene definitely does not jibe easily with one’s drinking. For instance: I am not there but five minutes before one bearded individual crashes into me, spilling my drink on the woman to my right! As the dark lager splashes from my glass and onto the shoulders of this perfect stranger, she fixes me with an irritable frown. The mortification is incredible. It’s a total frame up! She thinks I’m the culprit! My attempts at explanation are drowned out by the opening act. A second large man in a thick winter jacket brushes against me and my beer splashes again. It cost six dollars for this drink. I’ve seen a little chaos in my day, but the very underpinnings of civilization appear to be collapsing around me. I presume this must be what it’s like in a prison riot.

It’s difficult to overstate how thoroughly the band has the advantage over the audience in these settings. Standing on stage one is largely spared the immeasurable tortures of live music — the claustrophobia, the PA problems, the periodic but inevitable touching which occurs between strangers. Such horrors represent the very teeming marrow of my anxiety. Many times I have stood on stage as a performer and pondered what looking glass I had fallen through. How to explain a circumstance wherein one party is being compensated to occupy the only pleasant place in the entire club, while the other has paid to be squeezed together in a harrowing mash of pulverizing flesh trade? Bafflingly, this does not appear to be the majority view of those assembled to see Frightened Rabbit. Their effusive actions mirror the precise opposite of my own impulses — smiling faces, bobbing heads, shouted requests and other beatific gestures, incredibly, are in evidence.  

Well, god bless them — I’m going to save myself. It seems to me that I really only have two choices — run for the exits, or climb on stage and see if I can somehow get in the band. Quick and lucid thinking is a hallmark of human beings in a state of deep peril, and for a second I imagine myself assuming a Glaswegian brogue so persuasive that I cannot help but be mistaken for a lost brother, soul mate, or general asset to the performance. And I still believe this would have worked, had it not been for the sudden, unexplained appearance of my longtime nemesis and former bandmate Peter Hoffman, who I am sure would have immediately ratted me out, name, rank and serial number.

And so I race through my beer and hurry for the front door, pushing past the teeming crush of humanity with fevered dispatch. “No re-entrance!” the surly doorman informs me as I pass in a breathless rush. For Christ’s sake, you’re telling me… 

02/28/07 12:00am
02/28/2007 12:00 AM |

Seven years ago this month a 16-year-old California high school student named Gary Baum started a website devoted to documenting the frenzy just then beginning to engulf the burgeoning literary success known as Dave Eggers. He called it the “FoE! Log” — “FoE” being his term for a “Friend of Eggers” — and in its pages he set out to catalogue every instance, however insignificant, of what he termed “Eggersiana.” The Log opened for business on February 21, 2000 with an excerpt of a New York Observer piece by the paper’s then media columnist Gabriel Snyder detailing Eggers’ recent rise to prominence. It shut down about a year-and-a-half later, Baum’s closing post noting a passing reference to The Dave in a Detour magazine editor’s letter.

In between, the site issued a steady efflux of all things Eggers — critical roundups, reports from readings, updates on the writer’s ever-shifting “enemies list.” Over 17 months, Baum dissected, among other things, the courtship of Vendela Vida, the ascension of Neal Pollack, the relative levels of prestige accorded the various parts of the McSweeney’s website (the magazine’s letters section, it would seem, is where hipster-lit pretension goes to die). It’s all still online (aphrodigitaliac.com/mm, for the curious among you), and as gently faded collections of media ephemera go, it’s pretty spectacular. Nostalgia abounds. Long-broken links to sites like Suck and Feed; John Hodgman — Mac spots not yet even a glint in his eye — popping up at McSweeney’s readings as a second-string FoE; Zadie Smith in the first flushes of fame; a Jedediah Purdy reference; Salon.com, solvent and happy. At the center of it all is, of course, Eggers — launching imprints, issuing manifestos, settling scores — the ringmaster of his own decreasingly ramshackle traveling circus; omnipresent by design. And scrolling through the archives of Baum’s site, a person is reminded of one obvious but generally unremarked fact — for all the acclaim his first work brought his way, Eggers has always been a far more accomplished impresario than author.

Until the recent publication of his latest book, What Is the What (of which more later), Eggers’ output as a writer consisted essentially of one very fine memoir, a considerably less fine first novel, and a wildly uneven collection of short stories. It’s by no means a resumé to be ashamed of, but all the same, it’s not exactly the sort of oeuvre that would automatically place a person at the white-hot center of American letters. Eggers’ oeuvre isn’t the thing, though — it’s all the other stuff. The magazines — Might, McSweeney’s, The Believer {fig. 2}, Esquire (for a brief, acrimonious stint); the friends — Lethem, Moody, Hornby, Smith et al; the performances, the pranks, the reading series; the ever-expanding charitable venture 826 Valencia {fig. 3}. Since officially making the scene, Eggers has emerged as the Kevin Bacon of a certain set of young literati. He’s the nexus, the hub, the center of the web, the straw, as it were, that stirs the drink.

And to be honest, it’s all seemed like pretty good times. There’s an aggressive whimsy to the Eggers enterprise that, provided you haven’t preemptively hardened your heart, can’t help but charm. Convincing a child sitcom star to fake his own death for a magazine article? {fig. 4} Fun. Chartering a bus to carry the crowd from a bookstore reading to a bar? Even more fun. Imploring the attendees of another reading to show up dressed in bear suits? Perhaps even more fun. Having your Park Slope tutoring center double as a super-hero supply store? Hopelessly twee, true, but still fun. There has always been with Eggers an air of novelty, the sense that, while the publishing industry came ready with all manner of well-established conventions, few of them were particularly necessary or worthwhile, and for his part he’d just as soon mix things up a bit, thank you very much. Literature was a lovely thing, but it wasn’t sacrosanct, and the trappings that typically came with it were more than fair game.

And so we got drawings of staplers and short stories on book spines, journals disguised as junk mail {fig. 5} and touring writers raising hell in public restrooms across the country. It was a carnival. It’s still a carnival. Bright lights, shiny baubles, wild rides. Buy a ticket. Take a tour. What sort of stick-in-the-mud wouldn’t?

It was this whimsy, this sense of fun, that made A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius {fig. 1} such a striking debut. Much was made of the book’s postmodern flair, but more appealing than Eggers’ metafictional (meta-nonfictional?) gambits was the manner in which he introduced them — humorous, breezy, nonchalant. It’s not like these were new ideas — the self-consciousness inherent in memoir writing, the cribs and compromises involved in translating life to the page, the mix of ego and shame attendant to the enterprise. No one was being let in on any big secrets here. The tone, though, delighted. Wry, self-aware, amused and amusing, Eggers opened a hole in the fourth wall and strolled casually through. Easy, entertaining, utterly readable — it was the sort of thing John Barth might have written had he been an editor at New York Magazine.

In retrospect, these seem the weakest parts of the book. The financial statements, the flow-charts, the rebate offers, the readers’ guide — it all feels like little more than an extended bout of belle-lettrist throat clearing. A page or two of the stuff is fine, but after that, one starts to wish he’d get on with it. That Eggers’ voice in these passages has been so relentlessly aped doesn’t much help matters either. A style that once seemed, if not radical, then at least something fresh, has since been co-opted by the entire twenty-something population of Brooklyn. This is, of course, quite an accomplishment in itself, but the ubiquity of the trick becomes somewhat off-putting. More problematic, perhaps, than Eggers’ legions of eager imitators, though, is the fact that the more one looks, the more one starts to suspect there’s not all that much difference between the ersatz versions and the real thing.

Much of A Heartbreaking Work  remains splendid, though. The quiet, solemn opening — trees scratching at the winter sky while streams of exhaust from the drying machine leave the house where his parents are dying. The moment on the jetty in the lake in the cold with the cardboard box of his mother’s ashes. Eggers and Toph in their car coursing down Highway 1, a red speck seen from above, the moment’s freedom, possibility made almost palpable. The book’s angry, joyous, profane close — the sentences chasing sentences, the lovely echoes of Molly Bloom; speed, power, momentum building, words piling upon words, a blind, frenzied race towards some vaguely intuited release. This is all undeniably great stuff, and Eggers is an undeniably talented writer.

Looking from the outside in, though, it’s never been clear just how much he actually wants to be a writer. He has written books; he no doubt will write more books; he may very well, for all I know, be writing a book even now. A person can easily imagine him, though, giving it all up if some more interesting endeavor came along. He’s an author in the same the way that Bono is a pop star. One writes and one sings, but they’re both pretty intent on keeping quite a few other balls in the air as well. There is the sense that fictional worlds are somewhat less fundamental to Eggers than they might be to another writer. He’s so busy, after all, plying his designs on the real one.

It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that Eggers’ most successful work to date, the aforementioned biographical novel What Is the What is, like AHWOSG, firmly tethered to the actual. For all his imagination, Eggers struggles when set to free-float as a fabulist. In 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity {fig. 6} — his lone long-form work of fiction thus far — Eggers seemed somehow adrift. The writing was, in stretches, as sharp as ever, and there were a number of fine set pieces throughout, but he was never quite able to bring it all together. Instead of building one upon the other, combining to tease out resonances, responses, the book’s episodes remained disconnected, inert. He’d carved out the parts, but the world as a whole remained murky.

In his short stories, too, Eggers is best when working as a realist. “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly”, the finest piece in his 2004 collection How We Are Hungry {fig. 7}, is a carefully crafted, cautiously narrated tale of an excursion up Kilimanjaro. Perfectly conventional, it borders in parts on being almost simply a sort of reportage. But it’s far and away the most effective story in the book. So too with What Is the What {fig. 8}. Stylistically, structurally speaking, this novel based on the life of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng is the simplest, most straightforward thing Eggers has ever done. It’s also the best. Told in a beautifully spare, modest voice, the book follows Deng from his village in southern Sudan, through his travels fleeing murahaleen militias into Ethiopia, then to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp and finally to the United States and Atlanta. By turns nightmarish, idyllic, tender, despairing, the novel has received lusty huzzahs from virtually all corners. And rightly so. It’s a remarkable story, and on Eggers’ part a remarkably sensitive work of reporting and re-imagining.

One can only imagine, though, what he might have done with the book had he gone at it several years earlier. The relationship between the impoverished African refugee and the famous American author who’s taken up the telling of his story hardly needs to be, as they say, “problematized.” It’s already plenty problematic. And given his history of muddying the narratorial waters, it’s hard to believe that the Eggers of AHWOSG wouldn’t have had something to say about it all.

This Eggers though — at least if outward appearances are any indication — simply decided to assume that his own motives were reasonably pure and just got on with writing the thing. And instead of seven separate prefaces and a 28-page footnote questioning to what extent and in precisely what ways the enterprise was a potentially exploitative one (to be fair, a pair of perfectly valid inquiries that someone probably ought to get around to making sometime) something far lovelier, far more interesting emerged.

Midway through the story, as Deng travels across the desert towards Ethiopia, he becomes lost and finds himself at a mysterious desert-dweller’s subterranean home. The man gives him water and oranges and hides him briefly underground. Before Deng leaves, the man turns to him and tells him, “I live because I do not exist… no one can kill the man who’s not there.” The reference seems plain — we’ve come across Ellison’s Invisible Man. The hidden hole, the hidden life, the American tale transplanted, transcribed — given new meaning in Africa. It’s a different hole, a different man, but the echoes are there, and they resonate throughout — complicating, enriching. This is the great joy of the novel — the author as he informs his narrator, the narrator as he informs his author, the connections, congruence, sympathies — conscious and not — made immediate and real. Ellison is just one example, but one senses everywhere the influence of Eggers’ experience on Deng’s story, and Deng’s presence, of course, ever-affecting Eggers’ choices on the page. One inhabits the other, and we’re given the chance, albeit briefly and tentatively, to inhabit them both.

In the years since his first great success, Eggers has, on an almost biweekly basis, been anointed the “voice of his generation.” Admittedly, there is something at least slightly ridiculous about the phrase. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to this latest work — the tale of lives so seemingly removed from Eggers’ and our own — that the title has never felt more accurate. It’s the sort of book one always suspected Eggers could write but was never sure he would. Now he has. So long as he’s in the business, hopefully he’ll find time to write a few more.