T. COLE RACHEL is a poet, essayist, and music critic living in NYC. His work has appeared in Interview, Visionaire, OUT, The Fader, Dossier, and The New York Times Magazine. He is one-half of the DJ duo known around New York City simply as “Night Moves.” He also loves cats.
SEBASTIAN MEYER began photographing in 2004. Since then his work has been published in TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and The Guardian, amongst many others. His work has been selected for the British Journal of Photography’s International Photography Award, the Foto8 Summershow, the Art of Photography Show, and has been displayed in galleries around the world. He has been based in northern Iraq since 2009.
MONEY MARK has collaborated with the likes of Yoko Ono, Beck, and Blues Explosion, in addition to putting out a number of great solo records. You may also know him as the Beastie Boys’ secret weapon since 1992’s Check Your Head. This issue, he interviews Tennessee Thomas of Los Angeles band, The Like.
KRISTY ANN MUNIZ is a New York-based writer who was once compared to Tom Cruise. When she isn’t busy writing about political issues, she can be found trying to beat her personal record of eating three poutine meals in one day.
NATHANIEL RICH, the author of The Mayor’s Tongue, lives in New Orleans, where he eats poor boys.
MEXICAN SUMMER is a label based out of New York City, and they’ve put out releases from great bands like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Best Coast, Girls, Kurt Vile, and Real Estate. They were kind enough to provide this issue’s mixtape, so make sure you give it a damn good listen.
With his newest book Atlanta, photographer Michael Schmelling explores the countless elements that combine to form the hip hop scene in Georgia’s capital city, among them: the world-famous, the unknowns, the fans, the dancers, the club-goers. It most definitely feels as though no stone has been left unturned, and for that reason the book breathes with a sense of the wild enthusiasm that surrounds the music in this city. TTH Editor Stefan Marolachakis got a hold of Schmelling to find out what it was like putting this absorbing volume together.
Tell me how this project came about.
The book started out as a project for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. Those are the books where each one in the series is about an album, like Exile On Main Street or Meat Is Murder—extended pieces of music journalism, usually a couple hundred pages. I thought it might be cool to try to make a photo book about a record. So we (my friend Nick was going to write the text for the book) went about trying to figure out what album would make a good photo book. We figured it had to be relatively recent, not too nostalgic, probably Southern, and somewhat literary—or at least have a bit of story grounded in some literal imagery. We were thinking that The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee or Terry Allen’s Juarez could work, but we kept coming back to Outkast’s 1998 record, Aquemini. So we pitched that and got the contract to hand in the book about a year later.
I went down to Atlanta, where Nick was living, and we started working on the project. But almost immediately after getting there I realized there was something totally new coming out of Atlanta. Soulja Boy was blowing up, lots of kids were making music at home and posting it on MySpace, and Atlanta had this very nurturing and self-sufficient hip hop scene that was incubating all this great music. Some of it was getting up North, but there was, and is, a lot of stuff happening down there that doesn’t make it up North. Anyway, we decided to try to build the book into a larger project that used Aquemini as a starting point, and then looked at the hip hop scene in Atlanta as a whole, from the ground up.
How did you decide what to include in Atlanta?
The selection process really came out of what we found and the paths we followed. There was a bit of a conscious effort to find specific things, people, places, etc. We made some lists. The pieces really started fitting →
together in the third year of the project, the work had built up to a point where we could see where it needed to go. The Atlanta scene is pretty open; it’s a really friendly town. And the hip hop industry is, in a sense, a very commercial industry. People want to get famous, get on the radio, be seen. So the idea of having a photographer around, interested, wasn’t all that strange.
When did you get into hip hop?
I got into it in high school. Like a lot of Midwestern kids I probably got into it for all the swear words and brashness. But then, of course, the energy and the flux of the genre kept me interested, led me here. I guess I think of myself as a casual fan—I always have a handful of groups or artists that I really love, download all their tapes, but there’s tons of stuff that I miss out on.
“I realized there was something totally new coming out of Atlanta. Soulja Boy was blowing up, lots of kids were making music at home and posting it on MySpace, and Atlanta had this very nurturing and self-sufficient hip hop scene that was incubating all this great music.”
Which artists were you most excited to meet, and who emerged as your favorites?
I was really psyched to meet Young Dro—even if he’s not the biggest Atlanta star, he feels like the biggest star in Atlanta, the local hero. Travis Porter, three guys I met just out of high school. After two years of making mix tapes, they just got signed to Jive.
Kelefa Sanneh (The New Yorker) and Will Welch (GQ) both contributed to this book. How’d you link up with them?
They’re both old friends. I met Kelefa back in 1999, I think, and I want to say Will was at The Fader when I first was shooting for them back in 2001. There’s nothing better than making a book with old friends. Oh, also: Rodrigo Corral who designed the book with me, he’s an old friend, too!
What was the strangest situation you found yourself in during the making of the book?
There were a bunch, and they’re hard to describe. They’re pretty subtle, I guess. Most of them have to do with the way Atlanta works. There’s a certain do-it-yourself aspect to hip hop in Atlanta that manifests itself in strange ways. Like one day we went to shoot behind the scenes at a video shoot for Diamond from Crime Mob. The video was all being shot on green screen in a small, small studio they’d rented for the day. There was a really fascinating group of male extras milling about, getting ready to dance with Diamond. Mid-way through the video shoot she decided she wanted to shoot a video for a different song instead, this one wasn’t really doing it for her. If I were a writer I could somehow finesse a story out of the weird intricacies of that day, and how much a part of Atlanta, how specific to Atlanta they felt. So there’s that and, well, the birthday parties I went to at T-Pain’s house, and the carpeted strip club in his basement. (I never understood why it was so heavily carpeted.) ♦
Read more about the book here.
In August of this year I embedded with the US Army in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which is the spiritual home of the Taliban. Any journalist embedding with troops there first has to go through Kandahar Airfield, the huge military base at the center of all operations in southern Afghanistan.
KAF is a sprawling base housing NATO troops with essentially very little to do. The French have built themselves a bakery. The Canadians have built a hockey rink. And the US organizes geeky events like guitar jam sessions and salsa classes to help bored soldiers pass the time.
For those soldiers out on smaller bases doing the fighting that we read about in the news, the only way to pass the time is to sleep. In the middle of an air assault in the Dand district of Kandahar, the troop I was with took a break in a disused schoolhouse to avoid the heat of the midday sun—well over 100 degrees. With a few hours to kill, every single soldier just lay down on the filthy concrete and went to sleep on the spot as if following an order.
Whoever said that “War is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror” was right.
You may know our dutiful correspondent Money Mark from his work with the Beastie Boys, as well as his prolific output as a solo artist. The ubiquitous musical madman recently sat down to talk with Tennessee Thomas, drummer of Los Angeles band The Like, the all-female group Jon Pareles of The New York Times referred to this year as “irresistible,” on the heels of the release of their Mark Ronson-produced sophomore effort, Release Me.
The two covered a variety of topics crucial to any discussion of leisure: music, pizza, swimming pools, and computers, to name a few. Mark sent us the recording of their conversation on cassette, and as the tape starts rolling it finds them swapping notes on drum sounds…
Money Mark: To me, the drums have to distort a little bit. Just enough.
Tennessee Thomas: Yeah. If you capture what they actually sound like, it’s not as good.
T: We recorded all the drums on the record with just one mic.
$: Yeah, that’s Mark’s [producer Mark Ronson] style.
T: Tambourine was going in there as well.
$: [Laughs.] We actually had—well, we’d call it “a human mic stand.” In a simple kick and snare pattern we’d just be moving the mic from the kick drum to the snare while you’re doing it. You know, you get this inconsistency that’s really cool. You still have to play drums well. If you’re really good with the foot you can just keep that hat going, too, kind of a fun thing to do. We recorded drums outside a lot, between buildings, bouncing around.
T: Natural reverb. My friend and I acquired this list of the best natural reverb places. There’s that tunnel by Griffith Observatory which is quite good. There’s never anyone in there.
$: You could have your stuff on the back of a truck and just park in there for a second and do a beat. [Pause.] I’m supposed to ask you questions about leisure.
$: “The Leisure Issue.” I just photographed Max—you know Max Perlich? This is his photo. He said in his leisure time he fixes up old cars.
T: Leisure. [Here the British-born Thomas emphasizes the pronunciation of the word in her native accent—Eds.]
T: We don’t say leisure, we say leisure. [From this point forward, both Mark & Tennessee exclusively pronounce the word in the British style. Mark sounds like he takes exquisite pleasure in doing so, but that’s just our opinion—Eds.]
$: Leisure. A life of leisure.
T: The leisure center.
$: Living in a penthouse, top floor, with a pool. Way to go.
T: Yeah, swimming is very leisurely.
$: What about when you’re on tour? Any chance to see a city? There sometimes is.
T: Yeah. It’s really hard, though. It always depends, but if you only have a morning somewhere you have to make a big effort to wake up early.
$: But there have been a few times, right, where you enjoyed the city? I enjoy my days off.
T: I know. I can get very lazy, though. I think this time I’ll make more effort.
$: Sleep in.
T: That’s quite leisurely.
$: That’s definitely leisurely. [Pause.] Computers make things easy. You could actually have an amazing, leisurely time in your room, with access to internet.
T: You could do anything you want.
$: Record a song for thirty minutes. Every thirty minutes that you’re in your room, you could make a song. [Pause.] Do you ever go on YouTube and watch the drum solos?
T: I haven’t really spent that much time doing that. I probably should.
$: I did–just because I’m interested in hearing all the sounds.
T: It can be quite disturbing, though, to see a four-year-old that’s better than you.
$: That would be disturbing.
T: I know one. I know an eight-year-old that’s better than me.
$: That’s highly noble of you to say that an eight-year-old is better than you.
T: It’s great because by the time he’s ten he’ll probably stop playing and do something else. He’ll be a doctor or something.
$: Yeah, and when he stops playing you can actually have a chance to catch up to him, you can actually get as good as him. [Laughs.] I’m just kidding. You’re good, you’re pretty good—I mean, you’re very good. Especially with drumming, you know, how the pocket and the soul and how it’s connected. And how you secretly make the verses happen in the song and how you make the choruses happen in the song.
T: Yeah, it’s really quite complicated, the transition from hi-hat to ride cymbal. Really, really tricky. [Giggles.]
$: [Laughs.] The next-level shit would be if someone moved the other cymbal in front of your hand.
T: Yeah, an eight-year-old.
[After a short discussion of pizza and automobiles, talk turns to touring…]
$: I went to the Mike Watt school of touring, and first thing we had to do was learn everybody else’s thing. There were times when someone was sick and couldn’t lift anything—
T: That’s always the singer though, isn’t it? Oh, there’s always something.
T: Do you know Z [Berg, singer/guitarist of The Like] hurt her hand? Someone drunkenly put a bit too much weight on her and she fell off the table onto her hand. The second week of the residency she couldn’t play because her hand was so badly bruised, and now it still really hurts. She can play now, but she can’t help lift anything. So, that’s great.
$: That wasn’t an on-the-job injury—that was off the job, right?
T: You’ve got to be so careful.
$: If she was a basketball player she’d get fined for hurting her body.
T: You get fined?
$: Yeah! You know, fines in bands are good.
T: Oh yeah, that’d be great. “No per diems for you.”
$: That one’s kind of rough. Then they starve, then they’re just begging you for food. You gotta fine ‘em just enough. You’ve heard that tape of Buddy Rich chewing out his band? It’s terrible, he’s fining everybody. James Brown did the same thing. I don’t know if Elvis did that—E.C. Elvis. [That would be Elvis Costello & his band The Attractions, with whom Tennessee’s dad Pete played drums--Eds.]
T: There were a couple of occasions. No per diems, that was… when they did something really out of control.
$: Like miss a gig?
T: Like get stuck in jail. ♦
Back in 1991 I had no idea who or what Blur was. I was a sophomore in high school in Hydro, Oklahoma—a town so small that we didn’t have cable TV or, for that matter, a single streetlight. There was no college radio anywhere in my entire state and the internet was still a nerdy dream that had yet to materialize in the home of anyone I knew. At this time I was really into R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (which had just been released) and Silence of the Lambs, which I saw twice in a theater in Oklahoma City. I didn’t know fuck-all about music other than what I read in music magazines (I was a devotee of RayGun and the glorious early issues of Alternative Press) and often I just ordered records in the mail based solely on the things I had read about them. This is how I came to own Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless—two albums that would change my music-listening life. This is also how I came to own Blur’s 1991 debut, Leisure. When trying to order a copy of The Sundays’ Reading, Writing & Arithmetic and an oversized Cure t-shirt (I was skinny, yet I always inexplicably wore XL band tees), I somehow got sent a copy of Leisure instead. At first I was pissed, but since I was too lazy to send the record back in the mail, I had no choice but to listen to it obsessively.
Leisure is certainly not Blur’s best record (the zeitgeist-defining Parklife was still a few years down the road for them), but it certainly has its charms. “There’s No Other Way” and “Bang” are dumb, frothy Madchester knock-offs that are perfect for dancing alone in your bedroom (preferably with an early ‘90s shoulder-length bob, which is what I was rocking at the time) or soundtracking an ecstasy-fueled late-night party (of which I was attending NONE in 1991). Those songs—along with “She’s So High”—still rank among Blur’s finest moments. Listening to the record now—in light of Blur’s subsequent string of hits and Damon Albarn’s ascension to the ranks of Gorilla-fied pop superstardom—it still sounds pretty fucking rad. It’s also very aptly-named. Leisure is about exactly that—hanging out with your friends, hanging out with girls, birthdays (there is a song called “Birthday”), more girls, and acting like a fool (there is also a song called “Fool”). Before they became a huge part of the multi-headed monster of Britpop and before Albarn became obsessed with mocking classism and dissecting his own Britishness, Blur were kids making tunes about hanging and making out. It’s appropriate then that I discovered them at a time when those →
were pretty much the only two things I aspired to do. Leisure was an aspirational record for me—a version of how I wanted my life to sound. My teenage mind would have imploded had I known that some thirteen years later, someone would actually fly me across the country to interview the members of Blur for a music magazine AND that I would actually have the chance (and the balls) to tell Damon Albarn that I bought his first album totally by accident. His response was, naturally, to apologize. “I hope you managed to get at least some enjoyment out of it” he told me. I had to admit, I really did. ♦
NOTE: One must imagine that Damon Albarn wants to spontaneously combust from embarrassment when he watches the band’s first video. Not only is his haircut totally ill-advised and incredibly wig-like, but his pouty delivery takes “sullen creep” to a whole new level. Still, I watch this video and I kind of want to make out with him. Teenage fixations die hard, I guess.
Blur’s Leisure is out now. It’s been in stores since 1991.
The only greeting awaiting me as I step off the plane in Havana is a giant cloud of cigar smoke smacking me straight in the face. However, once you exit the airport, you are quickly engulfed in issues a lot heavier than cigar remnants. Relentless reminders of an oppressed society—the result of a broken system—are at every turn.
The Cuban government tries its hardest to delude the people but they’re missing the key brainwashing tool that currently doubles as the most popular leisure outlet in the United States: television. Half of America sits blindly in front of the television too distracted by Everybody Loves Raymond reruns to be bothered with keeping up on important political affairs. Most Cubans can’t afford a television and the ones who can aren’t entertained by it for very long, as political propaganda makes up the majority of programming being aired. American movies are a rarity on the island so, naturally, my mind was blown when someone screamed out “Jennifer Love Hewitt” towards me. (I am still curious as to how they know who she is and which of her epic films was able to find its way into the boot-legged cinema scene of the small colonial town, Trinidad.)
TVs and Hollywood aren’t the only everyday leisure items restricted from Cubans—computers and phones are non-existent in most households. The one resident I met who was lucky enough to possess a computer is not allowed internet access, thereby forcing him to use his fifteen-year-old desktop simply for basic gaming. Despite the fact that he’d already owned the computer for six months I had to demonstrate turning it on for him, convincing me that Minesweeper had not been used to its fullest potential on this device. The scarcity of phones results in names continually being screamed upwards at windows. The romantic in me enjoyed this doorbell tactic very much while using it to get into my casa particulars, but I wouldn’t trade my precious cell phone emoticons for anything—nothing sums up how you really feel the way a colon and parenthesis can.
The rarity of these technologically advanced leisure items is but one small example of the lack of progression in this crushed nation. The Cubans are forced to live in a time vault that is endlessly repeating 1959: →
the women have almost no social rights as the men possess a sense of masculinity with which our generation is only familiar thanks to the likes of Mad Men. And while the old-fashioned cars so often used as taxis might appear to be every greaser’s wet dream, this naive fantasy is easily shattered upon learning that citizens have to obtain not only a driver’s license but permission from the government to own a car.
Vehicles are just one of many necessities that require government approval. Apartments, and even most jobs, are also acquired through the state. The Castro regime vigorously attempts to hide the existence of these laws from foreigners by jailing any native who interacts with tourists except while working. Sadly, this is one of many strictly enforced laws that grant tourists far more freedom than the citizens of the country they came to visit. It’s not difficult to notice that access to the internet—though censored and so slow that I sometimes wasn’t able to check my email before my money ran out—can be found in most major hotels, but not residences. Another egregious example is the allowance of vacationers to eat cow, an animal restricted from Cubans due to a shortage on the island. One local I met spent a year in jail for killing a cow to avoid starvation. He had also resorted to eating a street dog—no, that’s not a term for a NYC hot dog, but rather one of the wild dogs that roam the streets of Cuba. The amount of locals that have been forced to find alternative means of gathering food increased greatly after what Castro refers to as the “special period in time of peace.” It was hard to believe my ears when a great number of locals told me that during the peak of this era it was common for natives to take to eating paper and sometimes even devouring such atrocities as condom pizza in hopes of survival.
This “time of peace” took place during the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed causing Cuba to lose 80% of their imports–the main import being petroleum which they were receiving at a generously low price from Russia partially in exchange for sugar, but mostly as a gesture of solidarity. In addition to being deprived of their most important import, this tropical nation had simultaneously lost its second largest export as well since Cuba had been selling its extra fuel off to other nations. The deficiency of petroleum resulted in several dramatic changes to the daily leisure life of Cuban residents, most of which are still in effect today in the smaller cities on the island. Losing oil diminished access to things so common in the states we don’t consider them leisure items but necessities, i.e. cars and electricity. Without gasoline, transportation was quickly reduced to horse-drawn carriages and buses that would often leave passengers waiting up to three hours. Activities around the house also changed as the absence of fuel brought with it frequent power outages. Households would go several days a week without power. With the dissolution of the USSR, Cuba—a country already functioning as though it were 1959—was forced into a style of living that shared more in common with 1859.
With an already crumbling nation rapidly becoming weaker, the government had to start relying on tourism to keep the country from drowning completely. The CUC (Cuban Convertible), a form of currency given to tourists worth slightly more than the American dollar, came into effect in 1994. Locals possess only the CUP (Cuban Peso), worth significantly less. These currencies are not accepted in the same establishments, increasing the gap between residents and visitors. To keep tourism flowing steadily the energetic streets of Havana are heavily →
occupied with police to ensure the safety of visitors and to prosecute innocent locals for any small action outside of the nation’s unjust laws. The government’s cruel, strict, and inescapable presence causes heartbreak to hang heavy in the air there; you can feel it each time you look in the eyes of a stranger, bringing to mind the way so many have described the feeling of walking through a ghost.
In the states we are all too familiar with the risks
of the troubled music industry, but the term
“starving artist” doesn’t exist in a country where
everyone is starving.
Heartbreak isn’t the only thing adrift in the Caribbean wind; the vibrations of Salsa music are as thick in the air as the humidity. While Cuba may be behind in technology it is miles ahead in its abundance of talented musicians. It’s logical that so many Cubans would become musicians, as the average resident only earns $10-$20 USD a month. In the states we are all too familiar with the risks of the troubled music industry, but the term “starving artist” doesn’t exist in a country where everyone is starving.
This wealth of gifted musicians can be enjoyed in the numerous dance clubs that stay open all hours of the night. Packed with skilled Salsa dancers, no one seems embarrassed or shy and no one has to wait until they’ve had a few Bucaneros before swaying their hips boldly—the energy felt from the Cuban music scene is even more intoxicating than their list of native rum cocktails. The struggles of this country seem non-existent as you watch the smiles sweep across the dance floor, but even after indulging in the strongest of mojitos it remains impossible to ignore the rows of extremely young hookers lining these clubs and the Canadian men who support them. Girls more beautiful than supermodels, mainly from small towns, resort to hooking in Havana because moving from town to town is amongst the aforementioned list of actions that one must request permission from the government to pursue. Consent will often be granted through marriage only, leaving a black market job like prostitution their only means for survival.
Those not as involved in the music scene might be found using skateboarding as an emotional outlet. I have never encountered a personality type more passionate than that of the skateboarders in Cuba. Since they have little access to tools or boards (another example of the scarcity of even the simplest technology), they are forced to rely on the generosity of strangers illegally bringing them supplies from the States to be able to continue doing what they love. They fully commit their hearts to the sport with no fantasies of going pro because that option doesn’t even exist for them.
While skateboarding is relatively rare in Cuban communities, a hobby of much greater prominence on the island takes place on its numerous beaches (one of which happens to possess the second largest coral reef in the world). The dance clubs may dominate the night-life scene, but the day-time belongs to fishing. The Caribbean shores are a natural source of a myriad of fish and Cuba is home to the Ernest Hemingway fishing tournament, an annual festival for which Hemingway himself helped create the guidelines. While a handful of natives engage in it as genuine sport, for most it’s simply a means of feeding their families. This much is obvious when strolling down the Malecon, a lively stomping ground not only for the fishermen who line it, but tourists and other locals as well.
The Malecon is simultaneously peaceful and extremely animated. Sitting on this epic five-mile wall against the ocean, the only thoughts occupying my mind were of the thousands of Cubans who attempt to escape from this country many refer to as Alcatraz, in vehicles even more unreliable than their dilapidated fishing boats. These risky ventures are discussed casually and frequently amongst natives. One man told me he was once in America for sixteen days; my shock at his allowance into the States disappeared when he went on to clarify that they were all spent “on the US Coast Guard boat.” (I didn’t have it in my heart to tell him that the Coast Guard boat doesn’t officially count as a state.) Not everyone, however, despises Castro and his communist vision of Cuba. In smaller towns, some sing his praises. One Castro supporter was a very loving and genuinely happy musician who took me on a late-night hike →
up a mountaintop with an eye-popping view of Santa Clara. Singing and drinking rum on this peak is a favorite pastime for the youth of this historically rich town, and along with my nights at the salsa club, it made for one of my most memorable evenings there. He was enjoying taking pictures with my digital camera—another technological luxury unavailable to the average Cuban—until we got into an argument over his blind support of Castro. He grew very angry with me, and I quickly knew my place. (He possessed a charming personality similar to that of 30 Rock’s Kenneth; destroying his naive visions would have been pointless and cruel of me.)
Walking through the same thick fogs of cigar smoke as I re-enter the airport for my return trip home, I am left with a plethora of heavy emotions that I am still not mature enough to fully understand. While I continue to try and sort out this mess of feelings, I can’t help but wonder how different this country might be were it not forced to live in the past. Would the passion be toned down or become electrified by the offering of more creative outlets? Would their days be spent out at the baseball stadium or inside playing fantasy baseball instead? After all, nights spent at discos salsa-dancing could easily degenerate into nothing more than an excuse to post drunken self-portraits on Facebook. These are sticking points around which debate could rage for weeks but, no matter the conclusion you draw, no one should be denied the luxuries of freedom and the simple technology that accompanies it. For the sake of Cubans left to go hungry both mentally and physically, I hope to see the transition of this nation into the 21st century happen sooner than later. ♦
New Orleans is known around the world for its carousing—its parades, drive-through daiquiri stands, four-hour lunches, and bars that never close (and which sometimes do not even have front doors). But in my first week of living here I’ve learned that the city offers many other advantages of leisure—advantages that may be of special interest to New Yorkers.
There are no free-standing mailboxes on the street. At first this seems like an inconvenience, for it can take hours of driving around the city to find a U.S. post office. But after a week of this exercise I learned that there is no need for mailboxes. All you have to do is place your envelope in your own mail slot with the corner sticking up so that it is visible from the street. The next time the postman passes by, he will pluck out your envelope and mail it for you. If you are sitting on your front porch, the postman will even pause to speak with you about his day and point out that you affixed the stamp incorrectly. You never even have to leave your house.
There are not many grocery stands in New Orleans. There is, however, a man named Mr. Okra who drives around the city selling vegetables out of the back of his gaudily-painted truck. He drives between two and three miles an hour so it is not difficult to flag him down. You know what he’s selling, because he announces it over a loudspeaker: “I have cantaloupes, collard greens. I have eating pears and bananas. I have the mango.” There are no prices, you just pay whatever he asks. You only need to walk several feet from your house, into the street.
If you don’t pay for MLB TV, you cannot watch New York Mets games on Fox Sports New York. If you have basic cable, however, you do have access to TBS (home of the Atlanta Braves), WGN (Chicago Cubs), Fox Sports Houston (Astros), Fox, and ESPN. This season, the Mets play the Braves eighteen times; the Cubs seven times; the Astros seven times. Eight games are televised nationally on Fox and ten on ESPN. Therefore nearly one third of all Mets games will appear on television in New Orleans. That leaves one hundred nights free—one hundred nights out of the year that can be devoted to something far more leisurely than watching the Mets. Thank God for that. Maybe with all this extra free time you will even decide to leave the house. ♦
So where’s the best place to catch a nap outdoors in the Financial District? Well, who cares? It’s winter again; the answer is nowhere. When the f did that happen? I got to say: I didn’t see it coming—my instincts really let me down. The monarch butterfly travels 3,000 miles to avoid this kind of thing. Your common black bear takes a nap for five months. I look at weather dot-com and say, “Boy, it’s going to be cold the next ten days.” Then I probably say, “Oh well, it’s not really the cold that does it, it’s the fact that it gets dark so early.” Bullshit! What baloney. I’ll take pitch black and 90 any day. Good napping weather.
A few months ago – what I like to think of as my golden past—I would have said the Elevated Acre was the spot. Back then I’d pop up there whenever I could find the chance: a slow day on the trading floor, a long lunch break at Deutsche Bank, an informal meeting with American International Group (I have a few jobs—I’m also available to baby-sit). The Elevated Acre’s dense undulating strips of tall grass and trees provide a nice spot to take off your shoes and hide; its boardwalk stands 30 feet above the East River with its sunny views and helicopters, and its turf lawn is perfect for some face-down napping. The top two floors of the palazzoesque New York City Police Museum →
(originally the First Precinct Police Station) peeking over the lawn add a nice touch—like you’re passed out on the manor grounds of some old estate in England. Then you roll over and gaze up at the largest office building in the city.
The Elevated Acre was part of the original design for 55 Water Street, though it didn’t have the snazzy name. When the two-building complex was completed in 1972 it had more square-footage than any office building ever built: a monument to the super-monoliths of the 1970s that everybody hates so much today. By providing a public plaza on the property, developers were able to trade for an additional six-and-a-half or so floors, a pretty standard arrangement in New York since the 1961 Zoning Resolution. As one New York City developer put it, “Architectural amenities are sheer nonsense. Zoning determines architecture.”
He’s got a point. The 1961 Zoning Resolution was a creature of its day, following in some fashion Le Corbusier’s vision of the future city as “skyscrapers set in parks.” It emphasized very large plots, built uniformly tall and wide, surrounded by or including open spaces. What you generally got were nondescript, oppressive monstrosities, squatting over neighborhoods, removed from the city grid and its street energy by bands of marginal and unused public plazas. 55 Water Street itself replaced four whole city blocks of older buildings and removed some streets entirely from the map. The original plaza followed along the same disappointing lines: built almost as lip service for the traded increase in square footage it allowed. The plaza was hidden away, unmarked from street level, and paved primarily in brick (including a wall at the eastern end that effectively cut off the East River view). The fountains and pools that it included didn’t last long before they were shut down and for long stretches of time the plaza would be closed entirely, unopened to the public. Don’t worry, the owners of the building got to keep their extra six-and-a-half floors. →
The original design has been called the height of “cynicism towards the public”—indicative of the orthodox planning of its day, which consciously or not seemed intent on destroying the very assets that make a city unique (I’m deep into Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities—truly amazing). It seems all the more exciting, then, that the Elevated Acre has been remade. Today the space is inviting, relevant and, most importantly, used—a reflection, in part, of the growing residential character of Lower Manhattan. A park means nothing by itself; it’s pointless if it isn’t frequented. Someone has to be around to feel the breeze blow, to watch the turf struggle nobly towards the sun. Well, we’re that somebody! It’s a small and lovely role to play—it takes like five minutes. Sure it’s winter, but whatever. There are things to do still, we’ve all got minds; we’ve invented layers. Something’s gonna happen. Something can be very small. ♦
Guitar for the Elevated Acre Video: “Mile High Raga” by Ryan Abernathey.
Yesterday, finally and officially, summer ended. Until looking at my photos from the past month, I hadn’t realized that I’ve unwittingly been chasing it the entire way down the East Coast. A month ago in Maine, the night chill and the first welcome glimpse of autumn had me lamenting that I’d not thought to bring a sweatshirt and had to resort to borrowing one of my brother-in-law’s shapeless ones, one of those made out of some foam material with zippers and pockets every place you don’t need. The fireflies were long dead and certain leaves were beginning their turn to a vibrant yellow, clinging to the rocks. It felt like the end of summer; the kids were going home or back to school, the population on the island that swells to at least three times its winter size vanished in a weekend, giving the locals their island back. I did my share of brooding on the rocky beach, reflecting on the summer past and wondering what the change in season would bring. One overcast day the water seemed an impossible aqua color, warm and inviting. I jumped in, with just a little prodding from my nephew, and was reminded instantly of the icy cold reality of Maine’s Atlantic, even in late August. On our last night, we ate lobster, of course, with pasta, one last time. There was too much and, as the last person to leave the next day, I ate the leftovers and had to toss the remainder. What a thing to throw away! But it was time to go.
Back in New York City, during a “heat wave” in a summer that turned out to be one long heat wave, there were yet beach days left. I got →
down to the Rockaways, and the wonderful Fort Tilden, twice. Sweating from the scorching heat and long bike ride, the water the first day was luxurious—I could’ve fallen asleep while floating. We tried to swim out to a sandbar a ways from shore, but my friend panicked and we turned back. The waves were made for riding, and caught at the right moment could bring you right to shore. A few days later on Labor Day I again made my way to the beach, this time stopping for a while at the West Indian Day Parade where I got some jerk, passed on bootlegs, saw the singer Shaggy float by (along with too many other dreamy sights), and ended up lost in Canarsie before eventually finding the beach. I ran into everyone I’ve ever met and headed straight for the water. I love the beach! Everyone’s a kid when they hit that water, surrounded by snot, spit, piss, and →
nearly naked creatures that can find all the world’s delight in a single tennis ball or boogie board! It was the last official day of summer in New York City, and I was determined that the next day I would get to work, putting behind me the stifling summer with all the unproductiveness and restlessness it breeds within me.
Guess what: I got nothing done! A week later I was driving south to an island off the southern part of North Carolina for a wedding. The island, quiet and fresh from its August rush, was glorious and I again felt that hopeful and sad feeling for which the late summer sun seems to be made, and always seems to be setting. Every day we went swimming, and every night. The lovely Atlantic, oh how vast and all-touching it is! It was spectacular! Clean and salty, the waves provided just a touch of danger amidst stretches of calm all day, every night. It was the most time I’ve ever spent in the ocean in a five-day stretch, and I only got out when I had to.
In a haze I continued south—to where I currently am, an island in the gulf off of Fort Myers, Florida. A friend of mine has repeatedly warned me against swimming here, claiming that there’s poison in the water. That, coupled with the twelve-month stingray “mating season” has kept everything but my ankles dry. Outside on the driveway the grasshoppers all seem to be dying. The grasshopper here is a beautiful, elegant insect with a deep orange coloring and skeptical eyes betraying, perhaps, an inherent wisdom. When approached he hops, erratically and pathetically, to escape imminent danger. In this idiot way he continues on, without plan or purpose, knowing that if somehow he survives all the cars, the bikes, the feet, and the pesticides, it’ll be his nature that kills him. ♦
Life Makes Fun of Art
Poets have publicists and so does my mother
but hers ain’t quite good enough.
Today Jesus might have trouble making it out of Nazareth—
he’d be pegged as too regional.
And no, I’m not growing a beard
I just haven’t shaved
and I hear memoirs are in these days.
The twenty-first century’s alright with me
but I wish I could say it was mutual.
Everyone’s trying to make a buck and I understand why:
you’ve got to make money to spend it.
So, look: I just need a job
I don’t want a career
and I hear unemployment is up these days.
No need to pity me and my ninety-nine-cent dreams,
but trying to make a living might just be the death of me.
It’s true that I’m only skin and bones and blood and water
held by joints at all four corners,
but I don’t wanna die
I just wanna be dead
and I hear martyrdom is in these days.
Oh Laura, come on home to me,
I’m the same boy I’ve always been.
I’ve just been busy fact-checking my dreams.
- Sam Axelrod