Monday, January 30, 2012

Memory: Three Problems


Ever since I reached manhood, I have looked back upon that time when I was a boy and thought how marvelous beyond saying it must be to spend the first ten or fifteen years of your life in the same house—the home place—moving among the same furniture, seeing on the familiar walls the same pictures of blood kin. And more marvelous still, to be able to return to that place of your childhood and see it through the eyes of a man, with everything you see set against that long-ago, little boy's memory of how things used to be. (Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place)

Remember that what you are told is really three-fold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale. (Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight)

You can define a net in one of two ways.... Normally you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as...a collection of holes tied together with string. (Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot)


"Mind's Eye: Interior Memory Rendering" via The Jejune Institute

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Non-Reversing Essay

The image you appraise in the bathroom each morning is, of course, reversed, a doppelganger of the real you, a you flipped, a self inverted. A non-reversing mirror is a mirror that reflects your true image—that is, how others see you everyday. Anyone can make a non-reversing mirror. Via ever helpful wiki: "Connect two regular mirrors at their edges at a 90 degree angle. If you position the join so that it is vertical and look into the angle,"
you will see a non-reversed image of yourself. You sometimes see this in public toilets where there are mirrors on two walls which are at right angles. Looking towards the corner, you can see such an image. The problem with this type of non-reversing mirror is that there is a big line down the middle interrupting your view.
(That big line down the middle feels metaphoric.) So you can make a quick-and-dirty non-reversing mirror; the question is: who'd want to? Who could stand it? The effect is uncanny, startling. As in a dream, you feel as if you are walking up to yourself, the person in the mirror clearly not you, and yet you, clearly another person, and yet....

I've been thinking about the non-reversing mirror in relation to the autobiographical essay. Any essay reflects, sifts the past and present through the imagination in an attempt to discover what Vivian Gornick calls "the larger sense." A writer makes this sense, Gornick is quick to clarify, doesn't simply find it beneath a bramble of memories or half-baked ideas. The root of the word "art": assembling, putting together. The reflection in an essay is two-fold: I reflect as I reflect. Do I assemble a non-reversing mirror when I write an autobiographical essay? Do I essay the self that I recognize, or the self that others recognize. It's a tricky game. If an essay is a mirror, I want it to be non-reversing. I want it to reflect back a self shorn of habit, tic, and indulgent self-histories, though that may be impossible.

~~

René Magritte, A Reprodução Proibida, 1937 
~~

Perspective: when I was a kid on a Saturday night my parents were out to dinner and I was being looked after by my older siblings. Slithering around on the tile floor of the rec room, playing "snake," I cut my face on the edge of a table, gouging an inch-long cut above my ear. My parents were called home; luckily, no stitches were needed. Suburban child trauma narrowly missed. When I recall this event, idly or in earnest, the memory shifts between first- and third-person, a high-angle shot of me snaking inevitably, stupidly, toward that table edge, a subjective shot of the table edge looming in front of me as I approach.

At some point in our recalling—perhaps moments after an event, perhaps over years—we translate a first-person POV into a third-person, wishing to see ourselves as members of a dramatic tableaux. (Freud discusses this in part in his "Screen Memories" in The Uncanny.) Why the shift in perspective? Is it because we don't trust a memory unless we dramatize it, watch it playing out, its characters and setting interacting within a sanctioned "event"? Even if I'm alone in a memory, I seem to recall it with impossible omniscience, a God's-eye view that places me in a kind of context that's larger than myself. Is it because we long to wrench ourselves from the tyranny of the subjective, to watch ourselves as members of a dramatic cast, as others see (and acknowledge) us? In the non-reversing mirror of memory, we get it both ways: what I saw, what they saw: a portable, ongoing, heavily-edited, micro-movie machine that I crank and where I'm both star and director, both "I" and "he." Ah: that black line down the middle of the jury-rigged mirror says, it's one or the other.

Anyway, read David Lazar's "Three Fraternal Aphorisms" in The Body of Brooklyn. Then look in a mirror.

(Thanks to my graduate students for the conversation.)

Friday, January 27, 2012

33 1/3 Series: Call for Proposals


From Series editor David Barker: "Bloomsbury is thrilled to announce a call for new proposals for the acclaimed 33 1/3 book series, previously published by Continuum. (Bloomsbury acquired Continuum in July 2011).

The series—each volume of which focuses on one popular music album of the last several decades—started in September 2003 and has published 85 titles to date. Books in the series so far have taken a wide range of approaches, on subjects ranging from albums by the Kinks to James Brown, from Bob Dylan to Prince, from the Pixies to Public Enemy, and from the Beastie Boys to Celine Dion.

In these new proposals, we’ll be looking for original research, for stories in the history of popular music (recent or otherwise) that haven’t been told too often (if at all), and for perspectives that will broaden and develop the discipline of writing about music, as read by a global readership of music scholars and fans.

Proposals will be considered for books about any album that hasn’t already been covered in the series, or isn’t already under contract. (The Wikipedia page on the series can help with this.) Your choice of album is precisely that: yours. Titles in the series typically sell 4-5,000 copies or more: if you’re convinced that enough readers around the world would rush out to buy your book, then go ahead and persuade us!

All resulting books published in the series as a result of this call for proposals will be published under the Bloomsbury Academic imprint during 2013 and 2014. (All existing titles in the series will also be re-branded as Bloomsbury Academic titles, in due course.)"


More info here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Origin Story

My dad would bring home thick stacks of computer from IBM, where he worked as an engineer, and running downstairs to the rec room I'd ignore the litany of 1s and 0s, the computerspeak lining the margins in 20th century hieroglyphics I'd never understand, and flip to the back where a smooth white plain of promise greeted me, margins vanishing, onto which I'd scribble in pencil the nascent markings of a football player or rock star on stage or a fancy automobile, my tongue out and brow furrowed, moving the pencil as if stepping off oh a high building, breathless on the high dive, tumbling into the volcano, and learning soon enough the melancholy of failure and the curse of verisimilitude—very similar was a concept I couldn't master, struggling with perspective and shadow, angle and depth, my rock and rollers in bell bottoms and my baseball sluggers and my cars looking foolish, dumb, childish, babies, really, drawn by a baby who can't draw, and the urge to look out the window above me so strong as to be unnameable but not as strong as the urge to fight looking, knowing that the tableau of neighbor tree air conditioner shrub driveway station wagon in all its dimensional and color-rich glory of thereness would dwarf my puny attempts to represent, to render what I'd imagined, the distance between the paper and the world unimaginable.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Death and Life on the Bowery: A Conversation With Drew Hubner and Ted Barron

During the first half of the 2000s while I was writing Sweat and living in New York City for month-long stretches, the Bowery, like so much of downtown, was undergoing profound physical and cultural changes. The street seemed to be in a perpetual middle-state between ending and beginning. When not researching for the book, I was walking, walking, walking below Fourteenth Street, gratefully exploring the city, in particular the East Village: a visitor witnessing the continual transformation of once-derelict blocks into gentrified trendy locales. The Bowery's urban renewal—many old-timers and culture watchers might prefer to call it a death knell—continues as I write, and the stretch of blocks is virtually unrecognizable now from how it looked a decade ago.

I recently read and enjoyed East of Bowery, a new collection of short stories by Drew Hubner and accompanying photographs by Ted Barron. Hubner and Barron were living in New York at the same time, but didn't meet until years later.  The book began as a collaborative web project in 2008, and was later performed as a multi-media performance with live musical accompaniment at the Gershwin Hotel and the Bowery Poetry Club. Hubner's and Barron's milieu is the East Village and Lower East Side of the 1980s and early 1990s, an era when the Bowery still propped up one or two of the flophouses dating to earlier in the century, when old-man dive bars in Alphabet City could be stumbled upon and vanished into non-ironically, and when the city's homeless and drug-addicted had ragtag, generally ignored communities in Tompkins Square or Allen Street to call home.

There's an excerpt from the book at Sensitive Skin Magazine. Here's a portion:
What I really wanted was a vacated apartment. I could chill for a couple hours then walk right out in a few hours if all went well, counting my blessings. I climbed in the window and sat down at a chair at a kitchen table. I smelled coffee and heard a shower in the next room. I took a cup down, turned and sat just as an old man came into the room. He was wearing a bathrobe that hung open to reveal a graying, scarred chest. He burped and sat down at the table, pulling the robe over his knees. He was cold. When he looked up, straight at me, I saw that he was blind. My grandmother had cataracts but I had never seen anything like this. Both of his eyes were a blotted gray. You could tell he knew someone else was in the room but he just nodded. Whoever he thought I was he expected to be there.
I could have jumped up and ran out but something kept me in the chair. I don’t really know what. The whole day was a surprise, maybe I felt untouchable, maybe just because I was high, but I sat right there. I sipped off my coffee. There was an ashtray on the table so I lit a cigarette. When I did, he smiled and felt for the pack. I pushed it toward his hand like we had done this before and upon grasping the pack, he smiled and winked not at me but toward me. You would have had to be there to understand what I mean exactly.
~~

While reading East of Bowery I was put in mind of Flophouse: Life on the Bowery, published in 2000, a terrific collection of Harvey Wang's photos of soon-to-be-gone Bowery transient hotels, David Isay's and Stacy Abramson's historical commentary, and edited monologues of folks barely if stubbornly hanging on in those residences.  After Joseph Mitchell's New Yorker essays and James Agee's and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—and predating the boomlet of blogs such as Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, EV Grieve, It's All The Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago, and many others—Flophouse documents the city in vivid and precise nonfiction, telling true stories as those stories leaned and dissolved in dire times.  I've long been fascinated by the Bowery and its place in popular culture, careful to leaven what could become dangerous and irresponsible nostalgic romance with the painful reality of the street's history and its untold broken denizens. I was interested in why Hubner—who's published two previous historical novels, American By Blood in 2001 and We Pierce in 2004—sets his stories in the Lower East Side of a particular time, and why Barron felt compelled to photograph the sites and people of that restless area.

Recently I virtually sat down with Hubner and Barron and asked them about East of Bowery and about the appeal of the streets.

~~

How and why did each of you become attracted to the Lower East Side as subject matter?

Drew Hubner: It was the place that taught me to be an artist.  We all aspire from books but we get art from life and from living among other artists and seeing how they work.  Plus I know a lot of great stories set there.  So it's a great canvas and like the art thing it shaped my sensibility.  We all knew what was cool and what was not because we were there and you could just tell.  I come from freaks and the East Village is a great place where freaks from all over the country come to fly their flag.  It's the circus life for me.

Ted Barron: I moved to Clinton Street in 1984, and was just starting to make street photographs. It was visually rich and vibrant, as well as broke down and dangerous. I felt a connection to it almost immediately, and as a young artist, it was an exciting place to be. I walked everywhere and always carried a camera. I was 19 years old and the city, especially the Lower East Side, had an almost dreamlike cinematic feel to me.

Ted, what accounted for the "dreamlike cinematic" feel of the Lower East Side? The people, the architecture, the history? Is that vibe there for you today?

TB: I think some of that has to do with youth. I was very impressionable and obsessed with images both still and moving. Some of it has to do with the physicality of the place. New York, and especially the Lower East Side, was bombed out, and digging its way out and into something new. It looked to me like the New York I had seen in pictures and TV and films before I got here. I remember what a thrill it was to find all those places that I had seen, like the hotel entrance on 13th street from Taxi Driver and to superimpose them into the background of my photographs.  It was really rich territory, particularly below Houston Street where I lived. Life was like an episode of Kojak or Midnight Cowboy in my imagination, but I didn't really have to manipulate anything. Showing the streets and the life that people led in them was more than enough. So, yeah the history, I suppose, but it was selective, and subjective to what I thought looked interesting. I still feel it sometimes, when I'm walking through parts of downtown, more so than I do in my Brooklyn neighborhood that I've been in half of my life now.

International Bar & Grill, St. Marks Place, 1986
Drew, you describe East of Bowery as "complete and utter fiction." Why did you feel compelled to emphasize the fictional aspect of the book like that?

DH: I am sure I overstate.  I am told I have a tendency toward that.  What I am looking for is something operatic, like the circus again where there's something happening all at the same time in three different places.  Life is like that.  New York has always been like that for me.  There are a million stories and they are all happening at the same time.  The thing is I don't know everyone's story for real.  In fiction I can and the East Village happens to be my place and my tribe.  That's what I am trying to set into motion.  It takes flight at some point, hopefully right at the outset and thing to do is fly up in the air with it.  Fiction is a place I can do that.  It must be possible in nonfiction but it's not what I do.  By the way, I love the image of Ted walking around like that.  Youth is so earnest.  At the same time I was walking around with a little notebook getting the same feel for the same place, my mind in the same whirl!

Are your stories autobiographical?

DH: Of ourselves the stories are autobiographical. 

What were the performances at the Gershwin and Bowery Poetry Club like ?

DH: The performances were a lot of fun.  Writing is a solitary sport.  This was a chance to work as a sort of art house band with instruments of our choosing. We had Jim Coleman from Cop Shoot Cop and a cello player named Kirsten McCord.  Jim did atmospheric samples and compositions.  This month we'll have Kurt Wolf from Pussy Galore, a guitar wizard.  We try to take the audience on an experience.  Ted shows over a hundred photos in a loop.

TB: The amazing thing about the performances was that that it actually worked. It was kinda risky on our part trying to do an unrehearsed multimedia presentation with a reader, live music, and projections. 

Wiffle Ball on St. Marks Place, 1985
What governing aesthetic did you have for choosing the photos for the book? Did you choose them together?

DH: Ted chose the photos after reading the pieces.  We talked over our favorites just as we did with the prose.  It felt really collaborative in that, though we each have our own instrument it was important to us that it fit together right. 
 
What role, if any, did nostalgia or sentimentality play in each of your work in East of Bowery? Did you have to guard against it in any way? Indulge it?
 
TB: I've tried to keep nostalgia out of the work as best I can. They are very old photographs from a time and place that I do have a romantic attachment to. I think Drew was careful not to romanticize the druggier aspects of the writing and subject matter, and show it for the comedic folly that that lifestyle can become if you don't die first. The character is always trying to get out and get straight, even if he never quite gets there.

DH: I ascribe to the idea that the past is not even the past.  It is a part of who and what we are and it comes with us and our experience.  Again you can tell what's overdone, that's part of the training.  

What do you mean? 

DH: What I mean is that the voice is everything.  Also that there is a fine line between bullshit and what works and takes the reader on a trip.

Ted, what areas of New York City would you like to photograph that you haven't yet?

TB: I don't have any plans for any photographic projects specific to New York City or any part of it, but I've spent a fair amount of time recently photographing at Zuccotti Park and around the Occupy protests. I've been inspired by the young upstart revolutionaries, to look around the streets, and make photographs. There's energy out there that I find exciting. The landscape is so totally different than the New York I photographed in East of Bowery.

Has growing up and maturing impacted your choice of subject as artists?

TB: I don't really feel like growing up has impacted my choice of subject matter as a much it has hindered the act of making a picture with the filter and weight of experience. To successfully make photographs in the street—as I did in those early days—relies on a lot of intuition and impulse. The older you get and the more you've seen in your own work and in others, the harder it becomes to access that place. Its like what Picasso said, that "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." Not that I was a child then, but I was young. I'm still resisting "growing up," but I am a lot less reckless than I was then and that's a good thing.

DH: It's funny that Ted mentions the Occupy movement. It's funny but this work came out of writing about riots.  This has always interested me as a subject.  Life on the run so to speak, making up things as you go along.  When I first set foot in New York that is what the city represented to me.  The book starts with the Tompkins Square riots and he never has a place to live. I mean New York is more expensive now but so what it was was expensive for those of us us with no money. And it's really not about drugs at all, though for this particular time and place it was, it's really about that spontaneous spirit and that can happen anywhere. 

~~

Visit East of Bowery and Sensitive Skin Magazine to see old and new work from Hubner and Barron. Barron also writes a record collector's blog, Boogie Woogie Flu.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Google Shadows

Google Maps has brought a kind of global-scale snapshot aesthetic into the 21st century.  Around the world, streets and homes and buildings and cities are photographed, and millions of people are backgrounded and foregrounded, strolling extras and wandering innocents (mostly), their faces blurred into indistinct, Francis Bacon-like visages. Recently, visual artists Jon Rafman (here) and Avi Steinberg (here) have written about the remarkable accidental but wildly intriguing imagery that Google Street View has captured in its insistent, egalitarian mapping of the world, from wild horses to burning homes to robberies to nudity to despair to revelry to tragedy.  The narratives, half-baked, wholly imagined, are riveting. The World Book Encyclopedia was enough to keep me occupied for hours when I was a kid; if Google Maps existed then, I might've never left the house.  With improved 3-D imagery and satellite clarity, we can now virtually fly-over old neighborhoods or places we haven't yet visited, Peeping Toms with wings.

Surprises abound. I've written before about my lack of photos of myself, so it was amusing to me when I saw that Google Maps has helped to rectify that.  I recently took a look at the view of our street, having read that the camera-mounted Google Map vehicles had made a re-sweep through the DeKalb area last summer, and that the satellite imagery had been updated, as well.  Nothing terribly new about the image of our house, but as I zoomed in I noticed a small but bright yellow disc of light on our back deck—strange—and, zooming in to the highest degree, spotted Amy's and my shadows on the deck.  What were we doing at that precise moment? Standing, yes. Talking?  Looking into the yard? A moment—likely trivial, unimportant, not even significant to ourselves in hindsight, probably—captured forever, or until the next Google Maps update.  It's an eerie thing, to learn that you've been photographed without knowing it, this strangeness more keenly felt when what's been captured is your thin, faceless shadow—elongated, exaggerated, rendered surreal. An ordinary moment caught in high-resolution and yet grainy in its drama, an odd gift via aerial or satellite.

Our street.

Our house.

Just us and our shadows.


And what's that bright yellow disc? I may never know.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"Look At You"

I'm happy to appear in the inaugural issue of Carbon Copy Magazine, with Gillian McCain, David Trinidad, Allison Joseph, Charles Harper Webb, Amy Newman, Denise Duhamel, Sonya Huber, Jim Daniels, and many other folk.

In "Look At You" I take on my appellative doppelganger in the second-person. It makes sense when you read it. Trust me.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Never Completely At Home: A Conversation with Jeremiah Moss

"...the future looks bleak..."
For half a decade, Jeremiah Moss has been rigorously, somewhat gloomily, but always affectionately documenting a vanishing act: New York City's. Itinerant Manhattanite e.e. cummings once cannily observed, "America makes prodigious mistakes. America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move," adding, "She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn't standing still." An island that thrums in one's imagination as much as through one's actual experience, Manhattan (and its boroughs) has never stood still, but the tremendous change in the past several decades has been especially rapid, and many who live there lament the paving-over of the past, of a certain character and grimy charm. Of course, each generation of New Yorkers—each generation of humans, really—is alarmed over some aspect of history being relegated to the dustbin, but we perhaps feel this kind of loss most keenly today, burdened as we are with mounting anecdotal, physical, and digital evidence that the past and its charms are surely receding. Grieving cries ping around the Internet and at the corner cafe, before it makes way for a Duane Reade.

At Moss's valuable and affecting Jeremiah's Vanishing New York— "aka, the Book of Lamentations"—New York's past and present collide daily, lost cultures and sub-cultures, signs and blocks and buildings and ways of living archaeologically restored, if only temporarily, against what Moss calls today's "monoculture."

Recently I virtually sat down with Moss (a pseudonym), and asked him about his site and his obsessions.

~~

Are you a native New Yorker? Have you lived outside of the NYC area?

I am not a native. I'm often struck by how defensive I feel when asked that question, which is a new feeling. It only came after I started the blog and I became aware of a resentment that many natives feel toward non-natives. I believe that level of resentment is also relatively new, a reaction to a different kind of "immigrant" to the city, roughly beginning in the early 2000s. I'm not talking about immigrants from oppressed and third-world countries, but from middle America.

E.B. White, in his excellent book-length essay Here Is New York, refers to those of us who came from other places as "settlers." He says: "Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion."

I think a lot about how the settlers used to be—and be thought of—as people who could not live anywhere else, who had to come to New York just to exist—as queers, or artists, or some kind of oddball—and they often contributed something creative to the city. Now newcomers are seen as leeches, sucking the life from the city. This is often, but not always, true. Over the past decade it has seemed that newcomers don't want to adapt to the city, they want to the city to adapt to them. And many young people come to New York hugging their middle American culture to themselves, a culture that settlers used to be desperate to leave behind. It's a huge topic and very complex and it occupies my mind quite a bit.

So, while I feel defensive about my non-native status, I understand the suspicion and anger natives feel toward newcomers. After 20 years in the city, I feel it too.

Nostalgia is seductive but dangerous.  Do you ever find yourself romanticizing a past that’s better off in the past, or romanticizing a past that was in fact never really there?

East Village's Mars Bar, RIP
Nostalgia comes from two Greek words that combine to mean "homesickness." More and more I find myself thinking that nostalgic people are people who never felt completely at home anywhere, and we're always searching for that sense of belonging and connection. Like it's "out there" somewhere. It "exists" in the past because we can't really know the past, and so it's amenable to our fantasies.

Personally, I finally found that home when I came to New York two decades ago and settled in the East Village. I felt something I'd never felt before—a sense of coming home to someplace deeply familiar, because it was close to my sense of self.

When that started changing drastically, when it was being demolished shop by shop, building by building, person by person, I got angry. I did not want to lose that feeling of home. So I started the blog. Now I have a virtual home, where like-minded people ("family") come to visit, and I feel increasingly alien in my own neighborhood.

You describe the work you do on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York as “bitterly nostalgic,” a phrase that I find funny and very interesting.  Can you explain what you mean by “bitterly nostalgic”?  Is there a contradiction in terms at work?

I guess bitter nostalgia is what I'm describing above—angry homesickness. There's no contradiction. Who wouldn't be bitter when their home is destroyed?

 Do you find that you need to strike a balance between lamenting and acceptance?

On the blog I don't want to strike a balance. We need spaces that are just about the anger and lament.

In my reality outside the blog, I'm working on acceptance because being angry all the time is incredibly wearing on a person. But it's tough. Also, I tend to rebel against acceptance in cases where there's an injustice going on. How can we accept it when people are having their third-generation businesses stolen by the city and bulldozed by this weird new monoculture of luxury and sameness?

So when I start to feel acceptance, it ends up feeling like resignation, and that's not a good feeling either. At the same time, I need new pants and shirts, so I buy them where I can afford them—at chain stores. Is that acceptance or resignation? Either way, it's fraught.
The Commuters, George Segal, 1982

I’ve always been struck by the solipsistic nature of the “good old days,” in that every generation looks back fondly at a vanished past so there can, in fact, be no good old days.  Do you believe that nostalgia is cyclically generational? What do you think a Jeremiah in 2075 or 2100 would miss about 2012 New York City?

I'm not delusional in thinking that the past was all good. It was bad for a lot of people—for women, queer people, people of color. I get accused sometimes of celebrating crime in New York City and that's not the case at all. I take more of a buffet-style approach to the past—if I could, I would cobble together a city with pieces of various eras. I'm aware that's not living in reality. What will we miss about 2012? Whatever's left in 2012 from the 90s, 80s, 70s, and on back. What I will miss are most likely the things that have been around for a long time. Like bookstores. When I think about a world with no bookstores I want to jump off a cliff. It terrifies me. What kind of world will that be? What kind of human beings will be walking around? Awful.

You mentioned Here Is New York. In that book White also wrote, "It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible." Do you find that the city "works" better now than it did when you first moved to the East Village?  

If "work" means to function, so the flow of people and things runs smoothly, then I don't think the city works as well as it once did. One big reason is the rise of cell phones.

It used to be that when you walked down the sidewalk, people stayed mostly to the right, they paid attention to their body in relation to other bodies, and we all moved around each other accordingly. It was a barely conscious dance, a social contract. Now it's a train wreck because half the population is zoned out, sleepwalking, their attention sucked into a cell phone. I find it endlessly frustrating and alienating to have to deal with that.

Also, the city worked better when we had mom and pop shops to cater to residents and provide human relationships. Now we have anonymous businesses that cater to transients. Useful things like laundromats vanish so cupcake shops can take their place.

More and more, for these reasons and others, it seems like New York City is being made over for people who don't really want to exist here. They want to be somewhere else, with whatever's at the other end of the smartphone, or back home in the suburbs, or on their way to another place entirely.

So those of us who do want to exist here, and really be conscious and present, have to cope with what is the transient mind of many new New Yorkers.
 
Since 2007 you’ve written some two thousand posts.  That’s a lot of lamenting.  How do you see the future of your site?

It's not something I want to do forever. It's a lot of obsessive work. As I've written about on the blog, "Jeremiah" started out as a character in a novel I wrote (unpublished). Then he became me, or I became him, on the blog where I am myself under a pseudonym. Then I wrote a sequel to that novel (also unpublished) and the blog ended up getting folded into the plot. So the blog is like a living part of the novels—a part that deals with reality.

I hope to publish the novels one day and stop blogging at Vanishing New York, stop being Jeremiah, who has taken over aspects of my life. Though I will miss him terribly. I am sure I will feel nostalgic for the blog, too. Already, blogs are being pushed out by tweets and tumblrs, everything being condensed into fewer and fewer words. It's like we're evolving backwards. Soon we'll only want to look at wordless pictograms, not even complete pictures.

The good old days weren't all good, but much of the future looks bleak, you have to admit.

~~

Visit Jeremiah Moss at facebook and at his flickr stream for more commentary on New York City, vanishing, half-gone, and otherwise.

Monday, January 2, 2012

E-Z, but just beyond my grasp

Nostalgia is dreamy: a statement so redundant you need invisible ink to reveal it.  Nostalgia and dreams are close cousins. Maybe too close. The danger is that nostalgia is held aloft by a dream's buoyancy yet it lacks a dream's rigor.  A dream is a riot: anything and everything happens, and what feels predicted in-dream is revealed upon waking as wildly arbitrary; plausibility is useless, scorned, a nagging marm ushered out of the house so that the real party can begin. Nostalgia, too, lacks what I might call narrative credibility. (Did that really happen as I remember?) It's too easy to look back fondly, allow yourself a dreamy caress of the soft frame within which nostalgia floats. The idyll is there inside the frame, so sink into it.  Preciousness that way lies, and indulgence; worse, a kind of forgotten history into which go the dark jagged shapes that threaten to pop that wistful haze, the bad episodes loitering beyond the frame. Best to ignore.

If this all seems a bit heavy about E-Z Tracer, one of my favorite childhood toys, well, the mind goes where it goes. I was reminded of E-Z Tracer recently while reading Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, and I pulled it out of the far past via Google and YouTube.  This was great: as a kid I was a budding drawer, would spend hours penciling and inking baseball and football players, automobiles, and faux album covers for the fake band that my younger brother and were/weren't in (they were called J.P. and the Writers—more on them later)—but I had particular trouble with perspective and  with faces, with the human form in general.  What I really had trouble with, of course, was lack of talent.  What E-Z Tracer promised was mimesis and verisimilitude, words that I wouldn't know for years, but concepts I grasped intuitively that Christmas morning as I assembled the simple device and gave it a whirl.  My dad would regularly bring home from IBM stacks of discarded computer paper, on the broad blank back of which I'd draw for hours; E-Z Tracer now gave me...not confidence, really, more like a safety net, or maybe the self-assurance that I wouldn't screw up, that a shoulder might end up looking like a shoulder, a foot like a foot, a profile like a human profile, not an acid-trip casualty (which I wasn't aiming for, even designing J.P. and the Writers' late-60s album covers).

The toy worked simply and efficiently: two plastic arms were joined at one end; two smaller arms were joined and their open ends affixed to the larger arms: when either long arm was pulled, the other arms would move accordingly and in proper ratio.  The joint of the smaller arms was secured on the table, a pencil or pen was affixed in a hole at the end of the further arm and as you traced using the opposite arm, the writing instrument "magically" copied whatever you were tracing; different configurations resulted in a larger or a small trace.  Here's the commercial running on the afternoons in 1974 that ensnared me:


Albany Times-Union blogger Chuck Miller reminds us that the E-Z Tracer was simply a pantograph updated for the late-20th century suburban set, "the perfect way for you to practice forging mommy’s signature."  I wasn't interested in such illicit purposes; I wanted to draw better (and OK, maybe try and pass off a traced illustration as my own if I was feeling brave at grade school). You don't have to be an artist with E-Z Tracer, the narrator assured me, make your own great picture!  If only I could have used this principle at Saint Andrew's, during recess, amidst incomprehensible but fully-felt classroom politics, tracing my way to all kinds of success!  Not to be.  E-Z Tracer was a solitary endeavor at home after school, downstairs in the rec room as the house hummed with other activity, a buzz I barely registered. Like many toys, this one burned with an intensity that felt talismanic, hinting at door-opening epiphanies, but was soon replaced by the next plastic promise next week, or next month.  A year later, I'd find parts of the E-Z Tracer scattered in the basement.

Vague, nameless disappointment hovered.  Sure, the toy worked well, as promised (as promised!), but the ease with which I could now represent the world—Jim Brown in perfect proportion,; the Beatles on the rooftop in proper persepective—was a hollow victory.  I wasn't drawing, I was copying; I intuited this dilemma from the beginning, but was too young too articulate it and too wowed by the coolness of the toy to care much.  The disappointment would float to the level of consciousness after I'd finish a drawing, and brush away the pencil shaving and smudges: I just imitated something.  OK, I was all for imitating at the time: Rich Little was a favorite; I was imitating popular gestures, popular clothes, popular sayings all day at school, hoping to morph into a personality rendered conventional, likable, a kid with social value.  But this was different: at home at the table, I wanted to create, to flourish, to see where my moving hands would lead me, to draw a world recognizable, yes—I wanted to get those bell-bottoms perfect, that front grill looking like the car in the driveway—but I wanted that world to be mine, not E-Z Tracer's.  It was too easy this way.

I couldn't name this melancholy at the time, but it came back after I watched the commercial on YouTube, once I'd made my way through the comforting, feel-good glow of nostalgia to the place where the mist lifts, where I remembered E-Z Tracer's brief shelf-life for me.  To my siblings, my parents, friends I showed off for, I loved the toy; inside, something was dawning about art and representation, about the shallowness of having my hand held and being told, Look, this is how you do it, it's e-z.  All of this just beyond my moving fingertips, of course, but felt.  I didn't love paint-by-numbers kits much, either.
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