11/07/07 12:00am
by |
11/07/2007 12:00 AM |

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat text On the Road. Most people know the legend of the itinerant, hedonistic Kerouac, a man in perpetual search of new experience, a new way of writing and, more often than not, something to open his beer with. What many don’t know, however, is that from an early age, Kerouac developed an elaborate fantasy baseball universe. Using real players alongside notable personalities of the day, Kerouac assembled imaginary teams and, with the aid of dice and a system of playing cards, had them compete in an endless season, all of which was recorded in great detail, from minute statistics to Lardneresque game summaries. All of Kerouac’s fantasy baseball writing has been collected, along with many other things, in the New York Public Library’s exhibition Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the Road, which begins November 9th ( In honor of Kerouac’s unlikely interest, we’ve assembled our own fantasy lineup of literary greats by position, in hopes of starting a few barroom arguments. Enjoy.


Hall of Famer: Shakespeare
Marlowe, Bacon, Raleigh — everyone has their own pet theory about who actually wrote Shakespeare’s stuff. Personally, we’ve always suspected Chuck Palahniuk.

Starter: JT Leroy
Remember that old ‘80s movie Just One of the Guys where Joyce Hyser dresses up like a dude in order to write a story for her school paper? No? Laura Albert does.

Backup: James Frey

He so totally did too go all the way with Marissa Pessl at Morgan Entrekin’s kegger last weekend! Yo, that chick was begging for it!


Hall of Famer: Kurt Vonnegut
Before Kurt had even published so much as a single short story, his brother, Dr. Bernard Vonnegut, had already discovered the use of silver iodide for the artificial stimulation of rain clouds. And if you don’t think he rubbed that in during family dinners, well then, you just don’t know Bernie.

Starter: Millard Kaufman
We hope that McSweeney’s discovers us when we’re 89 years old, too.

Backup: Penelope Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald started writing novels at age 60 as a way to amuse her dying husband. Won the Booker Prize two years later. Easy as pie!


Hall of Famer: Alice Munro
Yes, we’re aware that Jonathan Franzen loves her. No, we’re not going to hold that against her.

Starter: Amy Hempel
She once kicked Hemingway’s ass in a bar brawl in Havana. Seriously. It’s on Wikipedia.

Backup: Lorrie Moore
Like your friend’s hot mom, only if your friend’s hot mom was always getting published in the New Yorker.



Hall of Famer: Thomas Wolfe

In college we tried to start a rock band called Maxwell Perkins. It broke up because we all wanted to play lead guitar. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Starter: Raymond Carver
So it would seem that Carver left a fair bit of his writing in the surprisingly capable hands of Gordon Lish. That’s minimalism, bitches!

Backup: David Foster Wallace
Don’t get us wrong, we loved Infinite Jest (honestly, it actually is really good), but did you know that fucker was originally supposed to be at least twice as long?


Hall of Famer: Mikhail Bulgakov
At a private literary gathering in 1935, the party’s hostess proposed a toast to the Soviet writer V.V. Veresaev. “No,” said Boris Pasternak, “I want to drink to Bulgakov. Veresaev is a great man, of course, but he is a lawful phenomenon, while Bulgakov is an unlawful one.” The moral of the story? Bulgakov was kind of a badass.

Starter: Milan Kundera
Kundera spent his time in Prague writing novels and working to reform Czech Communism. You spent your time in Prague smoking hash and sitting in some lame ex-pat bar scribbling in your moleskin notebook. Advantage: Kundera.

Backup: James Baldwin
We get the feeling reading him that if we’d ever met James Baldwin on the street he’d have just punched us right in the face. Which is cool, man.


Hall of Famer: Ford Maddox Ford
Wrote an ungodly amount of poetry, criticism and fiction, including the classic novel The Good Soldier. Made an unflattering cameo appearance as Braddocks in The Sun Also Rises. Basically birthed modern fiction as founder of The Transatlantic Review. A decent day’s work, no?

Starter: Dave Eggers
The last time Dave Eggers actually slept? Sometime in late 2002. He dreamed about argyle sweaters and Stephen Malkmus in a pirate mask.

Backup: Norman Mailer
So, just wondering, but… how many fistfights have you been in over your lifetime? One? Two? Ha! Norman Mailer has been in at least 4,000! And he’s still had time to start the Village Voice, run for mayor, make a couple of movies, write a shitload of books and win a pair of Pulitzer Prizes. You loser.


Hall of Famer: Marquis de Sade
If Rick James had lived in 18th-century France, he would have been the Marquis de Sade. Imagine it — volume upon volume of highbrow erotica written by Rick James. Super-freaky, indeed.

Starter: John Updike
Sometimes, you’re better off just letting your subject speak for himself. As with, for example, this passage from Updike’s novel Villages: “…her cunt did not feel like Phyllis’s. Smoother, somehow simpler, its wetness less thick, less of a sauce, more of a glaze.” What? Is this a sex scene or an episode of Yan Can Cook?

Backup: Philip Roth
Two words: Portnoy’s Complaint.


Hall of Famer: Thomas Pynchon
To be perfectly honest, the books we can more or less do without. His Simpsons’s cameos, though – well, can you come up with a better way to squander your anonymity?

Starter: Don Delillo
Who do you think misses the Cold War more? Don Delillo or Norman Podhoretz?

Backup: Philip K. Dick
Remember that Keanu Reaves movie where Keanu is working surveillance on Keanu and everyone is doing a bunch of drugs and Robert Downey Jr. is there and the screen and the lines are all squiggly and stuff? Yeah, that was pretty trippy.



Hall of Famer: Ralph Ellison
One brilliant novel just wasn’t enough to satisfy you people, huh? Ok, fine. In that case, Mr. Ellison would like to kindly invite you to bite him.

Starter: John Kennedy Toole
On the one hand, it sort of sucks to have killed yourself before your now-classic debut made you a world-famous author. On the other hand, at least you don’t have everyone hassling you about what you’re planning for a follow-up. Seriously, that can get on a guy’s nerves. Just ask Ralph.

Backup: Harper Lee
Well, she did have a letter in Oprah’s magazine about a year ago. So, you know, there’s that.


Hall of Famer: Marcel Proust
Look, if Proust had really intended for anyone to read all of Remembrance of Things Past, he would have put the madeleine scene at the end of the book, not the beginning. Why do you think they always save the weather report for the end of the local news? This is Marketing 101, people.

Starter: William T. Vollman
An interesting fact: even William T. Vollman has never actually read all of William T. Vollman’s stuff.

Backup: Vikram Seth
It’s not that he’s actually written so many books as that the ones he has written are so goddamn long. Ok, well, actually, just one of them (A Suitable Boy) is all that long. But it’s really, really long. The longest single-volume novel ever published in English, in fact. That’s gotta count for something, right?



10/10/07 12:00am
by |
10/10/2007 12:00 AM |

Vamp Tartlet Found Dead in Bed! Headless Body in Topless Bar! Extra, Extra! Read all about it! Where would New York City be without the tabloid press? Where else could a fast-moving, speed-reading, deftly urbane population get its quick fix of headlines, bylines, entertainment, sports, sex and death, all in eye-popping black and white? And get it in the middle of the Victorian era? Most importantly, where else could New Yorkers get it from first page to back cover, complete with artists’ interpretations of all the gory scenes? In the penny press, pal, that’s where. From the first newspapers in America, developed entirely for the aristocratic upper crust, to the populist about-face brought by broadsheets, which transformed what was solely a highbrow milieu into a smeared, smudged extravaganza for all of New York’s literate population; we can thank the penny press.

New York’s first newspapers were basic political broadsheets, catering to slim yet growing pre-Revolutionary slices of political reactionaries, discontents, Loyalists and Royalists. William Bradford, a prominent Philadelphia publisher, printed the very first paper, a Royalist weekly titled The New-York Gazette, on November 8, 1725 (New York was the third colony to have its own paper, following Massachusetts and Pennsylvania). The most famous pre-Revolution publisher was undoubtedly John Peter Zenger, who, displeased with the Gazette, established The New-York Weekly Journal, a revolutionary rag that operated from 1733-51. After printing licentious words about the tyrannical British crown, Zenger was arrested on charges of libel; it was his acquittal that helped establish what we in the journalism biz now call Freedom of the Press. Other notable pre-war publications included John Holt’s New-York Journal, which ran from 1766-82 and printed the “Journal of Occurrences,” a series of anti-British screeds by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty.

Post-Revolution, as the various colonies were trying to get their act together, a number of manifestos, both anonymous and authored, saw publication in the economic downtowns of major cities. These broadsheets echoed popular political opinion of all manner, both local and national, serving as the primary locus of debate among the American people during the time when our democracy was in its infant stages. In an early form of tit-for-tat, which would resurface with regularity, the papers of the 1790s provided accounts of street fights between Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Anti-Federalists. Still, other than basic rabble-rousing, these publications weren’t utilized for informing the public of daily events — just political points of view. After the nation’s HQ relocated to the swamps of Washington, D.C., the papers of the Northeast changed their tones to reflect the new focus: the economy. Most publications were either mercantile broadsheets of goods and services for sale, or single-party political agenda lists; regardless, these papers were only available as expensive annual subscriptions. Advancements in printing came about in 1827 with the Washington hand press, and then steam-driven presses a few years later. And yet, with all these publications, there was nothing available for the common man, no daily accounts of the vivid, vibrant street life he walked through, worked in, and slept above. Enter Benjamin Day, September 3, 1833.

The morning his paper, The Sun, hit the streets, hawked by newsboys at the absolutely unheard of price of one cent, Day knew he was on to something. The Sun was more interested in depravity than bureaucracy, with lurid tales of debauchery, sin, violence, details of backroom saloon deals and other entertaining news and reviews. The Sun provided play-by-play accounts of major, minor and illegal sporting events, complete with lithographic line drawings. From its coverage of the burgeoning sport of baseball to the far more populist rat- and bear-baiting competitions, The Sun was truly a democratic publication, the first that took pride in its combined readership of both the working class and an aristocracy that reveled in slumming. The Sun’s slogan, “It Shines For All,” symbolized its universal aspirations. The paper is also famous for an 1897 editorial in response to an eight-year-old girl’s questioning of her family’s faith. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” written by editor Francis P. Church, is impressive in introducing a florid and profoundly patriotic style that’s slathered all over today’s tabs. The Sun ran essentially uninterrupted from 1835 until 1950, at which point it was absorbed by the New York World Telegram.

Following Day’s rewriting of the rules of journalism, a number of other papers followed suit, including The Transcript (1834-39) and James Gordon Bennet Sr.’s New York Herald (1835-1924), which moved into Broadway and 35th Street in 1890, rechristening the neighborhood Herald Square. The Herald pioneered the use of railroads, steamships and the telegraph to gather news, but its star journalistic turn was in the sensationalist coverage of the murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute and frequent lover of many high society gentlemen. Although the city proclaimed disgust with the paper’s coverage, which led to a boycott in 1840, by 1860 The Herald had the largest circulation of any daily in the country. Two other papers that entered the fray, but in far more restrained fashions, were the New York Tribune, in 1841 and the New York Times, in 1851. These penny press wars (who remembers the musical Newsies?) not only amped up competition, which demanded better (or, at least, more outrageous) journalism, but they also presaged the tabloid wars in our more recent era.

Who could produce the more scandalous sensation to print on the front page? Which editor could secure the voice of a well loved preacher/politician/neighborhood character to expound wisdom? Which lithographers better encapsulated the lurid, leering, dimly lit world of tenement crime and dancehall destitution? Although the Sun was much more vibrantly democratic, the Herald took the cake with wholesale enticement of its readers, outshining the former with graphic glory. Those New Yorkers who plunked down a penny and raced off with their copy got their scandals sultrier, their politics dirtier, their murders bloodier and their high-society sex crimes more outrageous.

These methods used by the tabloids in their ongoing battles — price wars, more coverage, shorter articles, gorier pictures (thank the magnesium flash powder, first used by Jacob Riis in 1877, for bringing newspaper graphics to an all-new plateau) eye-catching headlines and outrageous editorials — are still very much with us today. We can look at the never-ending hilarity of the New York Post and the Daily News as valiant charges of the former penny press. And with the upcoming transfer of the Wall Street Journal to Mr. Murdoch’s ever-increasing portfolio of freedom-loving, American-flag waving, liberal-bashing conservative-populist media empire, it’s always important to realize: the battles between the rags and their digs in every century are as important to the ongoing development of media in the modern age. At worst, we might not have any news left, but we’ll always have headlines like “Hicks nix Knicks in six” (Daily News, 2000). And thank god for that.

08/15/07 12:00am
08/15/2007 12:00 AM |

My first copy of William Gibson’s Neuromancer was
given to me in exchange for contraband, payment for a debt incurred on
a small vial of flammable magnesium strips I’d squirreled away from the
American Embassy School’s chem lab. I can still see the thin-lipped
wince of disappointment on the face of the young British diplomat who
gave it to me.

He was a rube, a rookie, new to India, new to the New Delhi American
Embassy School and unaware of how valuable little fragments of
subculture could be in a country that back then, in 1996, was still
under an embargo. The Indian government was levying massive tariffs
against imported goods in an effort to protect domestic industry and,
in a place where Pringles sold for $10 a can, few, if any, genuine
articles of counterculture managed to wriggle their way through
government controls.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” read the first line of Neuromancer.
Here was this intoxicating vision, an entirely technological view of
the world that was both entertaining and terrifically addictive.
Cyberpunk fiction is a hybrid of dystopian science fiction and
hard-boiled detective novels. It’s punchy, but dense with imagery and
bogus technological jargon.

Burying myself in Neuromancer, I could forget the lepers
smearing stumps up against our windshield glass every morning, the
braying beggars drying cow patties by the side of the road, and the
endless expanses of gray and brown cardboard slums. I read the thing
more than 40 times.

I was stuck in a country teeming with almost a billion people and 6,000
years of civilization, a place already crowded with history, culture,
kings and empires — while back at home in the United States this
crystalline high tech was emerging. The Internet, the World Wide Web —
I’d only glimpsed these things on summer holidays or read about them in
tantalizingly brief articles in Newsweek or Time Asia. I was being left
behind, but by reading Neuromancer I could cling to it somehow, even if it was just fiction.

By the time I received my own grubby copy of Neuromancer,
the book had been around for over a decade. The story is generated
between two poles. It is both an attempt to visualize the place where,
as Gibson’s fellow cyberpunk Bruce Sterling put it, “You are when you
talk on the telephone… the place between telephones,” and an attempt to
capture the germination of consciousness from a cluster of networked
computers. Imagine the Internet suddenly evolving into something akin
to a massive brain, with each networked computer linked to it
functioning like a neuron.

Neuromancer takes place in the not-too-distant future — the
Internet exists, as do hackers. Gibson’s description of the Internet is
considered by many to be the progenitor of the term “cyberspace” and
perhaps even the metaphor of second space formed between users and
their machines:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions
of legitimate operators…  A graphic representation of data abstracted
from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable
complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters
and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

In Neuromancer, what we would now call the Internet is far
more visceral than an endless series of pages navigated by a search
engine and browser. It’s a frontier. Accessed via a deck that plugs
directly into a user’s brain, Gibson’s cyberspace can kill an unwary
“Console Cowboy” who strays too close to data encrypted by intrusion
countermeasures electronics (ICE).

I won’t ruin the plot, but suffice to say the machines win. This seems
to confirm what I heard Gibson say at a reading in 1999, during the
release of his novel Idoru: that he is a technological determinist,
convinced that technological change determines the pace of history.

Now, more than 20 years after Neuromancer’s release, the
technological future that Gibson envisioned seems hilariously naïve.
Take computers, for example: given how many software crashes and
hardware glitches we endure on a daily basis, why would we willingly
plug ourselves into something that might decide to kill us?
The Internet, too, has become something far less visual than the
“consensual hallucination” Gibson anticipated. Although it has
certainly become as ubiquitous as he thought it would, its form is far,
far different than the virtual reality of Neuromancer. It isn’t so much a place as a presence: a thing, a non-space that you can tap into almost anywhere at any time.

Gibson has backed away from technological determinism. September 11th
blew apart that hypothesis, proving just how intense forces of
religious faith and globalization have been in recent history. He now
claims that his science fiction has always been about the present, and
his past two novels have both taken place in the present day. His
latest, Spook Country,
is a serious attempt to visualize the Internet that has arisen, and to
properly contextualize the technological realm as one factor among many
shaping history.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the book’s title is meant to encapsulate what Gibson envisions as the virtual realm. If it is, Spook Country
is both an atmospheric description and a literal place within the book,
a reference to the uncanny underworld of spies and government agencies
and a metaphor describing the weird non-place that cyberspace has

While the stakes are a little lower in Spook Country, or at least more realistic than they are in Neuromancer, the plots are very similar — so similar that Spook Country feels like a conscious redeployment of Neuromancer. Given the complex back-stories informing Spook Country’s characters, it would make sense if it were.
 The protagonist is Hollis Henry, a popstar turned journalist hired by
Blue Ant, an ad agency appearing in other works of Gibson’s. Hollis is
assigned an article about artists who “geo-hack” — meaning they attach
their artwork to specific GPS coordinates.

One artist lovingly recreates celebrity death scenes around Los Angeles
— River Phoenix’s body slumped outside the Viper Room, Helmut Newton’s
car crash outside Chateau Marmot. His images are virtual, visible only
by linking to a website at the precise map coordinates; a layer of
information draped over the location.

As Hollis probes deeper into the story, she realizes her article is
pretext for Blue Ant to gather intelligence on the mysterious producer
arranging the technological component of the artwork. This producer
also works for another shadowy entity who’s tracking a shipping
container through the ocean.
Realizing the potentially sinister implications of this rogue container
(i.e. nuclear terrorism), Hollis confronts her boss, who claims his
agency is simply indulging in the advertising equivalent of REM sleep.
“Secrets… are the very root of cool, he says.”

While Hollis chases the producer from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Gibson
follows two more factions squabbling over the container. One is a
government contractor and his Russian-speaking, drug-addicted hostage.
The pair stalks the next group, a family of former Cuban intelligence

The Cubans, under contract to yet another shadowy entity, have
intercepted information about the container. Again, I won’t reveal the
rest of the plot other than to mention that all three parties converge
on the container and, again, the ambiguously good team manages to
prevail. It’s really the same thing that happens in Neuromancer, only set in the present with technology that could actually work.

Neuromancer uses classic film noir elements: its protagonists are the dregs of society, the femme fatale has a hot
bod, and the enemy is rich, corrupt, and at the center of power. Spook Country,
on the other hand, seems to reflect a much more mature view of society,
and the story takes place among middlemen, all of whom are clued in a
little bit, but none of whom is in complete control. None of the new
technology on display is completely reliable (even the gadgets of
Hollis’s billionaire boss require separate adapters) and all the actors
are smaller fish. No faces you’ve seen on television. Functionaries.

Things get done in Spook Country the way they’re usually
done in real life — a friend of a friend knows somebody, by
bureaucratic incompetence, or by sheer luck. It’s the opposite of the
heroic outsider dismantling the bad guys with his godlike skill. This
muddy realm of links and exchanges, this weird netherworld of
middlemen, is precisely why I delved into the world of Neuromancer as a teenager.

Around about my tenth read of Neuromancer, during the
summer vacation before my junior year at the American Embassy School in
New Delhi, a family friend of ours was kidnapped while hiking in
Kashmir. He was the son of a famous British journalist, snatched up by
a group of wannabe militiamen calling themselves the Hazrat Mujahadeen.

The Hazrat Mujahadeen said they were holding the boy hostage until the
Indian government released political prisoners in Kashmir and the
former Yugoslavia. Naturally, because of who the boy’s father was, the
entire foreign press corps flew up to Srinagar (the capital of Kashmir)
along with a number of British diplomats and mysterious American
bureaucrats. My parents were journalists too, and I came up with them. 

We spent nearly four weeks holed up in a ‘houseboat hotel’ floating
alongside the banks of Dal Lake with the rest of the press corps. At
night we would hear AK-47 fire echoing through the city, and there were
constant rumors. Some nights we’d be pulled ashore, with everyone
convinced that the militants were planning to drive a motorboat into
the hotel and shoot everybody. Sometimes blustering Indian officials
would appear, insisting that the militants had killed him or that he
was about to be released. The entire ordeal, at least on our end, was
conducted through bribery, threats and terse discussions over cups of

This is the atmosphere that Gibson channels in Spook Country.
And there is something within this setting, something about the
flickering back and forth of rumor and innuendo, of half-truth and
suggestion that also speaks to something fundamental about the
strangeness of technology interacting with people’s everyday reality.
Toward the end of Spook Country,
there’s a scene between the kidnapped Russian translator and the rogue
contractor. The two are driving through downtown Vancouver, trying to
find a wireless Internet connection that will let them log on to the
Internet without a password: 

“Milgrim had had no idea that people had these networks in their houses
and apartments, the sheer number of them were amazing, nor that they
extended so far beyond the owner’s actual property. Some people named
them after themselves, some were simply called ‘default,’ or ‘network,’
and some were named things like ‘Dark Harvester’ and ‘Doomsmith.”

While reading Spook Country, I decided to set up a wireless
network of my own. When I fired up my modem, I was suddenly confronted
with offers to join networks named, “prius,” “Team Vindaloo,”
“fuckbush,” and “isitreallysostrange” (after a lyric by the Smiths).

What was so uncanny about this was that I could more or less identify
which of my neighbors each network belonged to, simply by looking at
the bumper stickers on the cars parked outside. Prius belonged to the
owner of the gleaming Toyota Prius, fuckbush to the Subaru spattered
with Vote for Obama stickers, isitreallysostrange to the purple Civic
with the Smiths vanity plate — each of my neighbors was beaming out his
or her own network, not to mention broadcasting a tiny nugget of
information about themselves. 

In Spook Country, cyberspace, once a different ‘place,’ is
being enfolded onto real space. Information floating around cyberspace
is becoming a part of the environment, a fragment of perception no
different than a ‘real’ memory someone might have attached to specific
place. “Would it all be like this, in Alberto’s new world of the
locative?” asks Hollis, observing a virtual ruined Statue of Liberty
poking out of a Malibu Beach à la Planet of the Apes. “Would it mean
the untagged, unscripted world would gradually fill with virtual
things, as beautiful or banal as anything encountered on the web

Gibson uses real, identifiable locations for his scenes in Spook Country
— real restaurants, streets and squares. This, plus the potent
back-stories he’s included with each character, suggests that Gibson is
demonstrating that any information someone has about a location — their
past, their memories, their religion, their gender, their celebrity
status, their ethnicity, their training, even their addictions — will
inform the way that he or she perceives a location.

Stretching this new metaphor for cyberspace a little further, of
information tethered to a particular location, Gibson also introduces
the idea of being able to select between different channels. Of being
able to pick and choose what information is attached to a particular
location. This was in effect what I was attempting to do in India by
reading and re-reading Neuromancer
all those years ago, attempting to assimilate its chilly, high-tech
aesthetic and overlay it onto the fetid viscerality I experienced every
day in New Delhi.

Gibson’s attempt to introduce feeds of information into his new
metaphor for cyberspace points to a fairly serious flaw in it. Namely,
where are these feeds coming from? While information is unquestionably
beginning to be attached to specific locations, at the same time, the
idea of cyberspace as a thing, as a mass consensual hallucination that
is ‘elsewhere,’ doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon.

The corporate strongholds that console cowboy Case and his cyborg
assassin lover Molly tore into continue to exist as enterprise-level
corporate intranets. An underworld of illegal file-sharing networks and
areas where people can meet and chat back and forth continue to thrive.
Still, Spook Country is unquestionably on its way, if it hasn’t already arrived.

07/04/07 12:00am
07/04/2007 12:00 AM |

Professor Calamity, author of the Steampunk Manifesto, founder of the Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective, and inventor of the catastrophone [pictured above], stands ramrod straight on the steps of Judson Memorial Church during the Anarchist Book Fair. He is thin and wiry, dressed head to toe in black, with a red and yellow pirate’s kerchief around his neck and a newsboy’s cap on his head. He glances around furtively before chasing down the steps into Washington Square Park, where he sits on a rail and lights the first of many Parliament cigarettes. “My baby’s the catastrophone, but we have other phones,” he says, referring to the cellphone on his hip, the only part of his uniform that doesn’t match his steampunk aesthetic. 

The catastrophone, a steam-powered musical switchboard and calliope, stands over eighteen feet tall, requires three operators and sounds like a church organ. Monstrous and beautiful when up and running, Calamity’s baby now resides in several crates in his garage in Queens. “It is an illegal instrument,” he tells me. It took him years to build, but there is literally no place for it in the New York scene. “We could operate it in an unspace,” says Calamity. “Like a tunnel or a roof. But never in a venue, or a club. It’s too dangerous. It could explode. We wear rubber gloves, aprons and goggles when we operate it.” And, because of the steam, the catastrophone drips, creating a pool of water around the operators and audience, if there is one. Finally, Calamity admits with chagrin, part of the instrument is powered by butane and the smell “is not the most pleasant.” Still, he says, he looks forward to performing at least once this summer, at a friend’s loft in Williamsburg. “If they knew anything about steam, they would never let me perform in their house,” he says with a smile. “People think of steam as relatively benign. Like a teakettle.” He shakes his head and lights another cigarette.

Professor Calamity is one of about, by his estimation, two hundred New York City “steampunks,” a burgeoning sub-culture that mixes the mechanized aesthetics of the late 19th-century Industrial Revolution with the DIY anti-authoritarian ethos of the late 1970s. The term was initially coined to describe a “gonzo-historical” genre of fiction in 1987, a tongue-in-cheek reference to cyberpunk. In the past few years, however, the subculture has grown from its genre-fiction roots to include music, fashion, cinema and other related pursuits, (like old-fashioned accessory restoration and refurbishing defunct machines.) Developments in the scene are recorded in the UK-based Brass Goggles (“the lighter side of steampunk”) and Portland, Oregon-based Steampunk Magazine (“putting the punk back in steampunk.”) We are approaching what steampunk blogs refer to as a “gearhead renaissance.” The attitude of a steampunk is more can-do than the navel-gazing goth, but more sophisticated than the sanity-be-damned cheerfulness of skapunk or rockabilly. Steampunks are also differentiated insofar as they don’t necessarily self-identify with specific music: Calamity reminds me that he is not, in fact, a musician — he is a mechanic first and foremost, a tinker. Though steampunks are not musicians first, they do have definite musical tastes. The list of steampunk musical heroes includes Carla Kihldstedt of the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, Colin Meloy, and Voltaire, who describes his work as “music for a parallel universe in which electricity was never invented and Morrissey is the Queen of England.” Topping the list is Tom Waits, because of his use of calliopes, particularly on Blood Money. Calamity acknowledges Waits as the Godfather of steampunk, confirming the claim that Tom Waits is to steampunk what David Bowie was to glam.

Literary heroes include Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and more recently William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, whose
novel The Difference Engine is credited with bringing steampunk closer to the public eye. Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey are read aloud to steampunk babies.

Fashion-wise, a steampunk’s closet is heavily Victorian, but more practical than a Goth’s; steampunks are
sympathetic and very supportive of the neo-burlesque movement, with both the women and men applauding Dita Von Teese. When pressed to choose a favorite modern designer, many steampunks choose Jean-Paul Gaultier,
but insist that it’s preferable to make one’s own clothes.

“Instead of looking at a machine and saying ‘what can I make this machine do,’ we like to think ‘what can I do around this machine,’” says Calamity. No surprise, then, that many steampunks, two of which are in Professor Calamity’s band, came to find the culture through trainhopping. They find the strong presence of trains in the city a comfort. Calamity reminds me that anyone can operate the catastrophone. “The dial will go to three, and you stick the third tube into the third socket,” he says. “If you know basic math and can operate a switchboard, you can operate the catastrophone.” Steampunks, ultimately, are happiest in the garage, tinkering away with their Rube Goldberg machines. 

Steampunk will probably never go mainstream, because it can’t really be mass-produced. “When everything is the same, nothing has value,” says Calamity. “The iPod, to us, is very impersonal and disposable. I’m interested in re-envisioning our relationship to technology. I’m interested in having mechanical comrades.” I ask him if he wants to build a time machine. “I don’t necessarily want to go back in time,” he says, a little abashed. “But I do think man had a more honest relationship with technology in the 19th century than he does now.”

But, he says, ”Even within the Catastrophone Orchestra there is debate about recording and distributing our music.” Steampunk music, he explains, in its purest form, should be heard live: almost impossible, given the cumbersome nature of the instruments. Calamity also notes that since they don’t use electricity, amplification is difficult. He pauses before looking sideways at me and admitting, “My dream was to use electric eels to amplify the pyrophone, which is very quiet and right now can only be used for solos. But of course electric eels aren’t always electric. You have to threaten or agitate them. I thought we could have two tanks, and toss the eels from one to the other constantly. Salt water is an excellent conduit for electricity.” Unfortunately for Calamity, the other members of the Catastrophone Orchestra are very involved in animal rights. “If you find any less scrupulous steampunks…” Calamity shrugs and smiles.

Calamity’s phone rings, jolting us back into the 21st century. He is excited, he says, to start building another machine. “How much coal?” he asks. “Sweet. Let’s go. The tools are in the car.” He slams his phone shut, reminds me to put him in touch with anyone who doesn’t mind teasing electricity out of eels, and takes off across the park.   •

06/06/07 12:00am
by |
06/06/2007 12:00 AM |

The lights were low, the crowd was drunk, and some woman in a low-cut, high-slit skirt was slicing through the gathering handing out tiny, multi-colored blinky-light rings, the type that induce epileptic seizures in small children and senior citizens. There was a couple in matching purple thongs doing the neon-lit hula-hoop sexy-dance; another couple in a nightmare of an outfit, an amalgam of Alice Through the Looking Glass and a low-budget Matthew Barney ensemble character, with a liberal slathering of black-and-white BDSM; and there was a giant projection of an indie-porn on the wall. Everywhere people were hooking up. “Don’t you love my new fake tits!?” a buxom peroxide-blond exclaimed. Everyone did.

This was not just another night for Porno Jim and the poly-amorous community of New York City — it was a celebration.

The official reason for this sexy/dorky scene was the DVD release of Porno Jim’s new feature-length porn, Hookin’ Up. It was shot and produced here in Brooklyn, and features local actors: real-live girls- and guys-next-door types. Tattoos, multiple piercings, fauxhawks, vintage t-shirts and ironic scowls intact, these young men and women fucking and sucking away are the very people you might see getting coffee in the morning on Bedford Avenue, walking their dogs along Brooklyn Bridge Park, or struggling through a hung-over brunch in the Slope. But in no way should Hookin’ Up be considered the hipster version of “I’m here to fix your pipes, Ma’am” pornography: Porno Jim is an auteur, an artiste, and a man with a mission. But in order to appreciate his agenda, it’s important first to understand the people who might attend a Porno Jim party.

Too easily classified as “Burners” or “Poly-amories,” these are regular people — teachers, nurses, animators, accountants — who would rather get their kink on through sexual means as varied as masochism and foot fetishes. The poly-amorous community believes in multiple lovers and multiple orgasms, just not always at the same time — although there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as those involved in a poly-amorous relationship are honest and straightforward, everyone’s happy, as the various makeout sessions across the room, all night long, would attest. Various members at the party concurred — it was just another normal night, albeit one with a tremendous wall-sized projection of two guys and three girls going at it in a DUMBO loft space.

Odette (not her real name), an attractive young woman lounging on the couch discussing the merits and demerits of porn, was featured in the film, though not naked, and certainly not in any questionable positions. Her band, Bettie After Midnight, was the house band at the art-loft where many of the stars would meet before their late-night rendezvous. As an actual member of the adult industry, Odette has worked on and off for the last decade as an art director for various pornography magazines.  “It’s just another business, pretty easy going. What’s cool about it is that I get into trouble if I’m not looking at porn during work!” Someone face to face with tits and ass all day should have a well-formed opinion on Porno Jim’s production, and Odette agrees. “Porno Jim is making porn that he and other people want to see, but what’s more, is an improvement on what’s out there. It focuses on natural breasts, on womens’ orgasms, on regular people. It’s the antithesis of the LA porn scene, with all that fakery.”

Jessah (also not her real name), the hair and makeup artist on set agreed. As her first porn, she wasn’t sure what to think about the indie production values. “But everybody was very professional, very nice. It’s a very New York City type of porn — these are the people you see at loft parties, the people you fantasize about hooking up with. Alfred, her boyfriend and a friend of Porno Jim, chimes in. It was his bedroom where most of the shots were taken, of which he is clearly proud. “This kind of porn makes people think differently about the oeuvre. It is made through a community of trust, a group of people who respect each other — you don’t see that in other porn flicks.” Just then, the squeals of multiple orgasms drown out the Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster. Jessah throws her arms around her boy and proclaims, “Look honey! It’s just like the sex we have!” Alfred demurs, “Yeah, but where are the animals?”

Lisa, undressed to the nines in a bustier, fishnets and pageboy haircut, came to the party with a friend and didn’t know that it was a release party for an art-indie-porn; she just happened to be dressed for the part. Not entirely interested in porn, whether as spectator or participant, Lisa nevertheless considers herself adventurous, if a bit vanilla in the sex department. “I’m currently sleeping with an ex-porn maker — you should see the kid get around — but I’m mostly into normal sex. You have to get the basics down before you can get subversive.” Her take on Hookin’ Up? “It’s a step in the right direction for pornography. But it won’t change the system — it takes a whole new movement of films to change the language. I like watching the film and seeing the girls get off as much as the guys — that’s how porn should be made.”

Porno Jim is finally available for some Q&A. The 44 year old is dressed in a pinstripe suit with red Christmas lights strung around his shoulders, and doesn’t look a day over 35; he looks like your downtown I-banker with a naughty secret, his being that Hookin’ Up is the first live porn he’s made. Porno Jim started out mostly shooting still nudes ten years ago, but has always been interested in live, hot action. As should be expected from someone with a nom de guerre that wouldn’t be welcome at a cocktail party, Porno Jim is emphatic about his message. “America needs better porn,” as he thumps his ginger ale to the tabletop (Jim doesn’t drink or do drugs). “The volume of crappy porn that the country consumes is disgusting; what’s more, bad pornography impacts men’s sexuality in a negative way, which in turn leads to shorter erections, weaker orgasms, unsatisfied women, and a domino effect that impacts the entire sexual world. Porn should facilitate an orgasm, should improve everyone’s sexual life, whether alone or with another human being. I want people to watch Hookin’ Up on a date; I want people to get good ideas from it and to try those ideas out.” Porno Jim’s intended audience? Most certainly urbanites, hopefully more women than men, hipsters, artists, and performers, anybody who wants to get off. After a few more beers, and watching a few more people slobber all over anyone near them, this porn party has run its course, and we saunter off into the night, looking for something both more wholesome and more lascivious, unsure whether we’ll find either. This is New York City, after all.  

06/06/07 12:00am

In the past year, the fight for gay equality among Christians in America has become inextricably tied to a country that previously hadn’t garnered much attention here — Nigeria. Africa’s most populous nation is now a point of debate for many of America’s gay activists who, in the age of globalization, have come to realize that how gay people are treated in other countries may influence how they are treated here.

As conservative churches have begun to leave the liberal Episcopal communion — many in reaction to the 2003 ordaining of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson — the vehemently anti-gay Anglican Church of Nigeria has sought them out, making significant inroads into the American religious scene over the last five years. On the flip side, the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination founded in the United States specifically to minister to gay people ostracized by mainstream Christianity, recently opened its first church in Nigeria, and is increasingly attracting more members.

Coming to America
Gay people in Nigeria face a constant threat of violence, exclusion and persecution. Under secular law throughout the country, homosexual conduct is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, a remnant of colonial provisions under British rule. In the Muslim north, which adopted Shari’ah law in 2000, gay sex is a capital crime, punishable with death by stoning. But according to Davis Mac-Iyalla, a Nigerian gay rights activist in the Anglican Church, recent events have made it even more dangerous to be gay in the Christian south.

“It is much harder in the south. It is supposed to be more difficult to be gay in the north because you have the Muslims and the Shari’ah, but you have more Muslim gays and lesbians than Christians. The Anglican Church is targeting and drawing attention against the LGBT people. We face more violence and crisis in the south,” he says.

Last year, a bill was fast-tracked through the Nigerian National Assembly that would make illegal any public approval of same-sex relationships, including associating with gay people or publishing a gay newspaper. The bill, which was strongly endorsed by the Anglican Church, was widely expected to pass before the elections in April, but has since been tabled. It is not known whether it will resurface.

Currently, both the anti-gay and pro-gay factions from Nigeria are coming to America, seeking to gain allies in their fight for the future of the Anglican Church.

The Anglican Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has compared homosexuality to bestiality and slavery, and called movements to create a gay-inclusive church an attack on God. “What we are talking about is an attack on the Church by some whose aim is to discredit the gospel, pollute the Church, neutralize its power and pull it down,” he wrote in 2003.

Currently, Akinola oversees 34 orthodox Anglican churches in the United States that have left the Episcopal Church since December; Akinola has appointed the American bishop Martyn Minns to oversee the Nigerian mission in America. Jim Robb, the media officer to the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, says that the conservative churches have been unhappy with trends in the Episcopal Church for a while. “This movement of theological liberalism, which you might call non-orthodoxy, has swept through seminaries

and has taken a real grip on the church. The issue of homosexual leadership is just the latest thing. There had to be some natural places where we’d say we can’t compromise anymore.”

Akinola recently threatened a boycott of the Lambeth Conference, a meeting of worldwide Anglican bishops that occurs once a decade, objecting to the snubbing of Minns, who, along with Robinson, were the only two bishops not invited.

Mac-Iyalla is taking a stand against the Anglican Church’s condemnation of homosexuality, however. Mac-Iyalla, an openly gay man, founded Changing Attitudes Nigeria almost two years ago in the capital, Abuja, to foment gay-positive change within the Church. Now, the organization boasts more than two thousand members and branches in nine cities.

Because of constant threats of violence, frequent arrests and threats to his home, Mac-Iyalla recently chose to leave Nigeria. In addition, the Anglican Church has issued statements which deny that Mac-Iyalla was ever a member of the Church, and that claim he was in fact stealing from it, even though he was awarded a knighthood by the Bishop of Otupko.

But Mac-Iyalla’s love for the Anglican Church persists. “Nobody can stop me from the Church,” he says. “When things change, and I think it is safe to go back to Nigeria, I’ll go back to Nigeria and I’ll go to church. Nobody can keep me from the Anglican Church.”

Mac-Iyalla now leads CAN in exile, and is touring the United States to drum up support for his cause. He will be visiting numerous cities, even riding in a convertible in the San Francisco Pride Parade with Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus. He says he wants Americans to organize and put pressure on Nigeria to change, be it in the form of sanctions, divestment or moral indignation. “The gay American is the same as the gay Nigerian,” Mac-Iyalla says. “We need to work together as a voice to achieve our common aim. We need an inclusive world. We want everyone to be free.”

Furthermore, in concert with Akinola’s protest over Minns’ exclusion from Lambeth, Mac-Iyalla is determined to make sure the gay voice is heard there, even though Robinson will not be present. “Gene Robinson is a model of honesty and truth,” he says. “His not being invited to the Lambeth conference weakens me, but I still believe there is hope. With or without invitations, LGBT Anglicans from all around the world will be present. We must be there to tell our story.”

Going to Nigeria
The Metropolitan Community Church, founded in 1968 in Los Angeles as an inclusive place of worship for gay Christians, currently claims more than 43,000 members worldwide, and has congregations in 22 countries. The House of Rainbow congregation in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, is one of MCC’s newest, and is quickly becoming an important bulwark against anti-gay forces.

The Reverend Rowland Jide Macaulay, leader of the House of Rainbow, says his church is an important alternative to the established religions in Nigeria, in that it reaches out to gay people who have been rejected or cast away. He also says that since Akinola began his anti-gay crusade, the situation in Nigeria has become much worse, and a church like his is all the more necessary.

“We are always looking for ways to meet the needs of these people because we assure them that even though the government may be trying to pass a bill to ban gay marriage or same-sex amorous relationships, we want people to understand that God loves them nonetheless. That is so important,” he says.

Macaulay himself left another church over the issue of homosexuality. He was raised in the Pentecostal Church, and was ordained in his father’s ministry in 1998. But when the Church found out he was gay in 2001, he was forced to leave, and his father has since come out in favor of stricter anti-gay laws. Soon after he left the Pentecostal faith, Macaulay also left Nigeria, eventually joining MCC in London.

Founded in 2006, after Macaulay returned to Nigeria, the House of Rainbow quickly flourished. The congregation now has a steady attendance of at least 50 people every week, with a constant rotation of new people. Macaulay estimates that more than 300 people have attended services at his church in the last six months.

This is a stark contrast to MCC in the United States, which is going through a rough phase. While new denominations are springing up across the country, many more have been closing, and MCC has not been able to regain the membership it had in the 1980s. A similar predicament has been plaguing many other congregations.

One of the largest problems facing the MCC in the United States is that as churches grow older, they have been unable to attract younger generations to replenish their ranks. In Nigeria, Macaulay is facing the opposite. His members, who come from many different tribes and traditions, tend to be between the ages of 16 and 32. Nevertheless, a large reason for that is that many older gay Nigerians have had the means to flee the country in search of more accepting societies.

Given the immense challenges facing the gay community in Nigeria, Macaulay sees the need for House of Rainbow only growing stronger. To aid with growth, he is currently looking for an institution in Nigeria to instruct ministers for the organization, but says it is a difficult battle. “Other churches are saying that we’re the anti-Christ, so certainly the religious communities are not welcoming us at all.”

But Macaulay says that his greatest challenge is reaching people who are afraid of being seen. “People are afraid to come to House of Rainbow. They are afraid that someone will attack them if they find out.”

05/09/07 12:00am
05/09/2007 12:00 AM |

The 30th Street Heliport on a Friday afternoon in mid-July. An investment banker’s vision of the Fall of Saigon. Twin-engine Sikorskys. A non-stop stream of the things. Swooping, soaring, taking off, landing, rocking back and forth a half-foot off the ground, settling like unsteady toddlers atop the white-lined blacktop. Blades churning, engines roaring, sound waves beating down against the brick-faced warehouses across the highway. Towncars dropping off their charges like mothers at an elementary school. Ground crew in bright red jumpsuits, ear muffs stuck like sawed-off tennis balls to the sides of their heads, running about between the landing pads and the dingy white single-wide at the northern end of the parking lot. The air conditioning is on full-blast.

They wing off one by one over the Hudson. Traders, surgeons, brokers, lawyers, the odd magazine editor. One guy swears he saw a pair of junior analysts hanging from a landing skid. They’ll be back Monday morning in time for work, rolling across the water like a cloud of mosquitoes. Right now, though, Monday morning might as well be a million years away. Right now what matters is getting out. Out of the office. Out of the heat. Out of the murk. Out of town. A frog, it’s been claimed, will sit perfectly still in boiling water just so long as the pot has warmed up gradually. New Yorkers aren’t quite such good sports. When the summer turns serious, people start to hop.

It’s 92 degrees at 8:30 in the morning, but 80 feet underground on the Lexington Avenue E platform it feels like it’s at least 110. Twenty minutes out of the shower and already everyone is sweating. A kid in a western-cut button-down is through his undershirt and working on his second layer. A girl in a sundress and a pair of those big bug-eyed sunglasses glows a sickly yellow beneath the overhead lights. There’s a middle-aged man in pinstripes, suit jacket slung over his arm, tie pulled loose from his neck like he’s bellying up to the bar at happy hour. His comb-over is having a hard time of it in the heat. A few wilted strands keep falling onto his forehead. He brushes them back with the side of his hand.

And you’d swear that it’s too hot to move. You’d swear it. Too hot for anything but standing there as still as you can and thinking back to the coldest day you can remember and trying as hard as you can not to touch anything, anyone. But then a breeze blows in from down the tunnel and headlights flash along the walls and a train rattles into the station. And the doors open and the crowd spills out and then, all of sudden, just like that, it’s on. The outgoing crowd surges up the platform toward the escalators. The incoming crowd surges down the escalators toward the train. Somewhere in the middle, they meet — two sweating, squeezing, struggling masses, one pressing up against the other, like armies in some strange Braveheart outtake, but with briefcases and messenger bags and earbuds and Blackberries in place of pikes and staffs and swords.

“E train local, E train local,” calls the MTA man at the end of the platform. “No pushing. Do not block the doorway, do not block the doors.”

A moustache and a bald spot and a red mesh vest, waving his flashlight like he’s parking planes at JFK. And what the hell did he ever do to get stuck down here, anyway? Down here a hundred feet under the ground with the crowds and the smell and the bottled-up air. It’s a rough enough scene when you’re just passing through, but an eight-hour shift of this stuff?

Though it could be worse. “It could be worse,” a fifty-something woman in tennis shoes and a pantsuit tells her companion as the two of them squeeze onto the train. “I heard that in Phoenix it’s 115.” And of course now you know what comes next: “But it’s a dry heat,” the companion says. “Yeah, so’s an oven,” the woman snaps back. And, well, she has a point. She certainly has a point. Dry heat or no, 115 is a pretty ridiculous number.

The thing is, though, in Phoenix, it doesn’t matter. Dry heat, wet heat, medium-dry heat with chocolate overtones and a charcoal finish. Whatever. In Phoenix, it doesn’t matter. Just like it doesn’t matter in Dallas or in Atlanta or in Miami or in Kansas City. Every one of them could be sizzling away, 148 degrees in the shade, and unless you decided for some reason you wanted to, you’d never have to know about it. What do you do on a hot day in Phoenix? The same thing you do on a hot day most anywhere. You wake up in your air-conditioned house, walk out to your air-conditioned car, drive to your air-conditioned office, then wait around for eight hours and do the whole thing in reverse.

Then there’s a hot day in New York. The aforementioned. You can’t stay out of it. You’re in it by default. By virtue of the simple facts that half the city lives in seventy-plus year-old sweat-boxes and travels around on a bus pass. It’s 115 in Phoenix? Turn up the AC. It’s raining in Seattle? Windshield wipers. January in Boston? Put on the heat. You’ll be fine. Most places, just get yourself a good enough parking spot and it might as well be May all year round.

All of which is to illustrate the point that, so far as things stateside go, New York City is about the only place left where you’ll ever really deal with serious weather. All of which is to illustrate the curious fact that, here, on perhaps the most paved-over, ploughed-under, built-up, blasted, unnatural, adulterated plot of land the world has ever seen, you have the one spot in the country where the calendar still actually carries weight. Where behavior, lifestyle, still change with the seasons. It’s bizarre, but essentially true. And it would probably be a fun irony to contemplate if only you weren’t so busy standing on a subway platform sweating balls.

You’d swear that it’s too hot to move.
Too hot for anything but standing there
and thinking back to the coldest day you can remember.

It starts to rain around noon. A great big gusher of a thunderstorm, water pooling in the intersections, runoff pouring down the subway stairwells. The sky has turned an ugly absinthe green. The cab business is going gangbusters. So are umbrella sales — everywhere people putting up those hook-handled, silver paint and plastic jobs. By the end of the afternoon at least half of them will be stuffed in a trash can. “Five dollars,” calls out a guy huddling on a street corner with a stack of them. Ten minutes earlier he was hawking knock-off sunglasses.

There’s a crowd under the awning of a deli at 24th and Park, castaways marooned in the doorway, clinging to a patch of dry land next to an ice chest packed with fruit salads and pre-cut pineapple. Everyone is eyeing the sky — waiting for the deluge to cease. A man in a pair of waterlogged khakis is trying to turn on his phone. “I can’t believe this,” he says to a co-worker. “I just bought this thing on Monday.” He pops out the battery and wraps it in a napkin he gets from the counter inside. “I think this is what you’re supposed to do when this happens. What a cluster. Second one in a week.” Cars stream by, kicking water over the curb. A guy in a pair of camouflage shorts takes a Post for an umbrella and makes a run for it. Halfway down the block the paper is back to pulp. He’s drenched before he hits 25th. Heads down, shoulders hunched, a few hardier souls stroll deliberately by on the sidewalk. Their faces are set in a scowl as if the rain were a personal affront. Lightning flashes overhead. Everyone steps back into the store. Last week a bike messenger got struck in Harlem someone says. It seems like the sort of thing that would happen to one of those guys.

A half-hour more, and it’s done. The rain stops; the clouds blow east out of the city; the sun comes back out, and the pavement starts to steam. Thunder rumbles like an afterthought in the distance. Ozone mixes with the smell of exhaust. And after a brief interlude, it’s time to get back to the business of a summer Friday in New York. Which is to say, once again, escape.

It’s like Cannonball Run with a cast of eight million. A citywide dash for the exits. It starts in waves (the Boston Marathon comes to mind), with the half-day crowd cutting out first, kicking off the race to parts beyond. Then come the luckier of the full-day detail — the ones who say they might be able to slip out of the office “a little bit early” and, as it turns out, actually can. The other variety leaves next; they’re thinking they might slip out a little early, too, but as things would have it, they aren’t done till 6:15. Then the even less lucky, the poor bastards who end up working deep into the evening, telling their friends to go on without them, that they’ll meet them out there on a late-night train. And finally, of course, your self-styled dropouts. The ones who aren’t in any hurry at all. “What, so we can sit in traffic for five hours? No thanks.” They’ll leave around 11:30 — make it in by 2am. You know they’ve got a special shortcut they take to the LIE.

Which, by the way, has been backed up since one in the afternoon, 40,000 cars all gunning for the Shinnecock Canal. The Jitney is crammed to capacity, idling in traffic somewhere west of Hampton Bays. A pair of motorcycles are creeping along up the shoulder. A woman in a dark blue Suburban is checking on her daughter in the rearview mirror. Just behind her some guy in a pink polo shirt has lifted himself out of his 650i to look over his windshield at the gridlock ahead.

And back in Manattan, a girl in a borrowed car has double-parked on Lexington up around 53rd, picking up her friends at work so they can drive out to Fire Island together. A hotdog vendor has set up shop on a sliver of sidewalk just outside the Lincoln Tunnel. Traffic is at a standstill, but Snapple sales are going great guns. Forty-five minutes outbound says the man on 1010 WINS.

And it’s the same story everywhere. A line of cars, one after another after another, through the tunnels down toward the shore, out to Long Island past the post-apocalyptic charm of eastern Queens, Upstate, out over the Triborough, through the Bronx into Yonkers up the hill and past the saddest horse track in all the world. Even in the city it’s still a mess, the sidewalks clotted, the trains all rush-hour packed, a cross-town bus ride an hour-long affair. Hipsters get together to sweat on a makeshift beach in Long Island City. Down on Christopher Street, all the Uptown kids are pinballing around, terrorizing the gentry. Smoking, swearing, crying, kissing, spreading out some of them half-naked along the pier, waiting, waiting for what? Some cool air to blow in? From where, Jersey?

Eventually, though, it happens. The sun falls and the sky darkens and the air cools off. And the trains empty out and the roads open up and the traffic starts to move, and then, suddenly, instead of sitting on a highway in the late-afternoon heat or fighting your way down a sidewalk or through the crowd along an Amtrak platform, you’re having a drink in the back garden of a bar or rolling up the Hudson watching lights pop on in homes across the river. Or you’re standing in the surf with your shoes off, or sitting on a stoop with a six-pack of beer. Or you’re coasting along at 75, with the windows open and the air smelling like honeysuckle. And the crickets are out and a breeze is blowing and the waves are lapping quietly and the trees are hanging heavy and dark and lovely over your head. Ah, summer.

For a second there it seemed like a hell of a great idea.  •

04/25/07 12:00am
04/25/2007 12:00 AM |

When I decided to write an article about participating in March’s Critical Mass ride, I was almost certain that I was going to be arrested. After all, it was the first ride since the NYPD rewrote the parade rule to criminalize rides of 50 or more people without a permit. Under the new terms, violators could be jailed for up to 10 days. The police were so adamant about it that they drafted it without a public hearing — after two different versions of it were rejected in legislation. One civil liberties attorney stated the obvious: The cops were out to “get” Critical Mass.

An article in the LA Times predicted that the ride would be the biggest standoff since the Republican National Convention, when the police corralled over 200 cyclists in mesh netting and threw them in a makeshift holding facility along the Hudson. The NYCLU report documenting the incidents of spying, harassment, excessive force, and false arrests totaled 69 pages. By the time I got up the courage to ride, it was too late to apply for a press pass, which I could only obtain through the police department, whose rule I was protesting.

Even though many people were probably scared off, about a hundred gathered at the Union Square starting point. Eventually, one man handed me a white t-shirt with the number 25 written on it in red magic marker. “Do you want to wear this?” he asked, explaining that they went up to 49. He wanted me to be a moving target, an advertisement mocking the parade rule and daring the police to enforce it. I put it on, reluctantly.

The evening started with a half-hour protest, which drew major print, radio and television media. Here’s what was probably edited out of the coverage: During civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel’s speech, when he said, “In Brooklyn, we have a word for this kind of law,” one small group yelled “BULLSHIT!” (The word that Siegel meant to use, he insisted, was “cockamamie.”) Aside from that, a representative from the Five-Borough Bike Club announced his organization’s lawsuit against the NYPD, and leaders from the environmental group Time’s Up talked about their ongoing legal battles. Councilwoman Rosie Mendez told a cheering crowd that she would risk arrest by riding along in a pedicab. 

With that announcement, the swarm began to pedal — headlong into a police barricade a block away. I knew the first person the police shoved into their vehicle. She was a 49-year-old jazz singer named Kim Kalesti, and we’d spoken before the ride. It was her first one. She knew little about it, but had friends prominent in bike advocacy groups and wanted to show her support. Her business card had pictures of red carnations and advertised “BEAUTIFUL SINGING” in pink letters. It was strange to see this woman treated like a criminal. 

The cops ordered the crowd to disperse, and I slipped away into traffic and away from the scene. But I knew the ride wasn’t over. Since there are no leaders, it can reconvene wherever there are enough cyclists to join together. This time, the cops unwittingly helped me find the group. I knew I was getting close when I saw a police squad traveling in their direction. Two blocks later, I joined two other riders meeting with a larger group at Times Square. 

Predictably, as soon as the cyclists rolled into 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue, the cops started handing out tickets, whether or not the violations made sense. People riding in the bike lane were ticketed for not cycling on the right side of the street. Arguments over the fines heated up, and again the crowd was ordered to disperse. Shortly after, a photographer was arrested, and anyone trying to find out why risked the same fate. The flare-ups only got worse, but I would have to wait until after the ride to find out the details.

When we arrived at the Time’s Up headquarters for the afterparty, it felt like a victory even for the people with tickets to fight, and a television crew broadcast the return live.  Critical Mass had never received so much sympathetic media attention. Once inside, people ate and traded stories. Ms. Kalesti, the jazz singer, was back, and was cleared of all charges. I spoke with an older man named Steve Faust, who also wore a numbered shirt. When the cops pulled him over to summon him, they shouted, “Number 19, pull over!”

Since I had a tape recorder with me at the celebration, some people suspected I was an undercover cop. When one person made the accusation out loud, Jefferson Siegel from The Villager vouched for me, “Would a cop wear shoes like that?”

Bike advocates reviewed footage and photographs of the arrests, and I saw a girl I recognized in one video. When we’d walked our bikes on the sidewalk along West 43rd Street, she appeared shy and nervous. I found out later that she was a 21-year-old photographer named Joyce Lin who originally got into trouble for taking pictures of officers’ badges. One cop restrained her and another searched her bag. When he found a knife, several officers suddenly forced her to the ground. She screamed, struggled, kicked, and bit wildly, and she was taken in for assault and four other charges. 

He wanted me to be a moving target, an advertisement   
mocking the parade rule and daring the
police to enforce it. I put it on reluctantly.

The arrests that followed — as related by the DA’s report — could have been written by the Marx Brothers. When videographer Christian Gutierrez had taped the Lin arrest, the police ordered him to go and eventually arrested him for obstruction of governmental administration and disorderly conduct. Then, photographer Jordan Groh snapped pictures of the Gutierrez arrest, and was brought up on the same charges. The police were camera shy that night, and a journalist from another popular alt-weekly was told to stop taking pictures even after he flashed his press credentials. In addition to the three arrests, there were 47 summonses. 

Nobody, tellingly, was taken in for parading without a permit.

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

I’m sitting in a room with a group of Serious Actors. We’re about two weeks away from the opening night of this company’s inaugural production, and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel is observing his cast during a rehearsal break. “Huh,” he says. “My two female leads are wrestling.”

Other actors notice and egg them on. One guy hoots and whistles, and another air guitars to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

Then, suddenly, the match is over and the leading ladies stand up to dust themselves off. One of them looks to me. “That’s only us on break,” he says. “Now we’re off break. Serious time.”

Serious time begins and I’m surprised by how quickly and completely this group of hooting guys, some of whom are dressed in drag, becomes a group of Serious Actors.

This is a rehearsal for As You Like It, the first offering by New York’s first and only all-male Shakespeare company, poortom Productions.

poortom is the brainchild of Joe Plummer, the company’s founder and artistic director (he also plays the role of Celia). The idea sprang from a conversation Plummer had while in a production of Romeo and Juliet, when he discussed how the play might have played differently in its initial production, which was done, as all of Shakespeare’s plays were done, with men playing every role.

“This discussion was the catalyst that finally convinced me that Shakespeare’s plays might be fundamentally different when played by an all-male cast,” he said. “As You Like It is the play that exploits the gender-bending potential more than any other.  It was the logical place to start.”

In the play, Rosalind, who is masquerading as a man, falls in love with Orlando, and begins giving him lessons in love, so that he can woo the love of his life, who is her. For those keeping score at home, we have a man playing a woman who is pretending to be a man so that she can seduce a man who is in love with the woman she really is, though he still thinks she’s a man, which is of course what she really is in real life.

Now that that’s cleared up, consider, if you will, how this would play differently with both genders represented in the cast. Among other things, it would lose the extra edge added by the audience’s full knowing that it is two men acting against each other.

“Beyond the delightfully low-brow thrill of having a man playing the woman who’s dressed as a man playing a woman,” said director von Stuelpnagel, “I’ve started to see a certain fantasticality that emerges in the romance and poetry of the play, all by embracing the original absurdity in which Shakespeare originally conceived it.”

In other words, this is not a gimmick, but potentially the closest that a New York company has come to recreating what it would have been like to see an original Shakespearian production. Shakespeare, after all, was looking to entertain. He knew what his casts would be like, and wrote with this in mind. So banking on the entertainment value of drag jokes isn’t blasphemous, but instead, showing true respect by doing exactly what Shakespeare was doing in the first place.

This less-than-awestruck approach to the material is apparent in the cast, which is laid back during rehearsals. One guy wears pajama bottoms. There is a lot of “you girls look pretty in your dresses”-type teasing, and even more flashing with lifted skirts. Everyone laughs at their co-star’s performances, even after hearing the punch lines numerous times. That it is all male only increases the level of camaraderie.

“It’s a boys club, and it’s fun as all hell,” said Danny Deferrari, who plays Sylvius. “Acting in this show is like playing tackle football. Whenever you play with girls it’s always two-hand touch. My filter doesn’t exist here. All we talk about are farts and WWF wrestling. Oh, and hot chicks.”

Yes, but then they go off break and Serious Time begins. When someone struggles with moving gracefully in his costume, a female crewmember is called in to demonstrate how to sit down in a skirt. He practices adjusting it before kneeling, and soon gets the hang of it. “I can’t even feel it when I stand anymore!” he says, with genuine delight.

Despite the relaxed atmosphere during rehearsals, there is a serious organization that holds the company together. As with all start-up troupes, and many established ones, poortom has a constant need for funds, so they recently held an event at Vosges Haut Chocolat to promote awareness. During the event, Plummer introduced his company and raffled off prizes while servers walked around with gourmet chocolate. (I didn’t think that bacon and chocolate could go well together, but man, bacon and chocolate go well together!)

The cast worked the room, deeply confident and proud of their work. “There’s been something wrong with every show I’ve ever been in,” said Erik Gratton, who plays Rosalind. “Not this time.”

The guests discussed Shakespeare and drank champagne and cheered maniacally every time the group was mentioned. “I’m jealous,” said attendee and actress Sarah Masse, “As You Like It was the first play I was ever in. I wish I were a guy.”

Though the cast was laid back throughout the night, it was just as obvious that they were a group of Serious Actors. “Imagine me in a dress,” was a phrase I heard more than once.

Natalie Markoff, who owns Vosges Haut Chocolat and is engaged to Plummer, said she was nonplussed by his dressing in drag for a living.

“What can you say?” she said, “Boys will be girls who will be boys who will be girls.”

The poortom production of As You Like It premieres on March 15 at the HERE Arts Center (145 6th Avenue). For tickets and information:, 212-352-3101.