Saturday, February 28, 2009


#59, Trinity College, Dublin

I was going to launch #59 with a ripping yarn of how -- upon these very cobblestones -- I once infiltrated the Trinity College Chapel Choir during Fresher's Week, despite the fact that I was neither a freshman nor a student at Trinity, only a twenty-something fiction writer with a nosering and a hangover longing to drape myself in a white surplice and sing some Purcell alleluias. But I decided what really needs airing here is a confession of a different sort.

I really, really like looking down at the pavement.

Trawling for house numbers and admiring architecture inevitably leads to many fruitful hours pedestrianizing with wide eyes, a sweeping gaze, and a backward-craned neck, but there are days when -- who knows why? stiff joints, bad mood, idle curiosity -- I just want to stare at cobblestones, manhole covers, water and gas access covers, drains, and grilles. I take peculiar comfort in the fact that I am not alone.

No, it's not for everyone, but I fail to understand how someone would not be fascinated by the prospect of seeing a Parisian drain, an Armenian manhole cover, a hammer-and-sickle in the center of a sewer cover in Abkhazia. Fortunately, to feed my appetite for such things I have the internet. In the wee hours after a long day of exploring the streets of my city, I can steal away to the web and check out what the Cambodians have covering their sewers. I blame Manhole Covers, Etc. ("I've been looking down so long, I don't know which way looks up") for justifying and perpetuating my silly obsession with mundane urban street furniture. And for those who'd like to contribute images from your corner of the globe or just have a look around, there's a little something for everyone at Sewers of the World, Unite! This goes out to all those out there -- you know who you are -- who feel industrial design gets short shrift, goes unsung, or is all too often stepped on. Yes, that was a terrible pun.

There, I've said it. It had to be done. As that prodigiously eye-linered British songstress Adele sings: Should I give up, or should I just keep gazing at pavements, even if it leads nowhere? Er, well, it goes almost like that. But give me a break, won't you? Call my modification artistic license, call it, as Joyce might, "almosting it." But what do you expect? Do I look like the Trinity Chapel Choir to you?

Friday, February 27, 2009


#58, Holesevice, Prague

Atop a lonely bluff in Prague overlooking the Vlatava River, the remnants stand of a sign that reads RESTAURANT PRAHA EXPO 58. It's like the Hollywood sign, only more ramshackle, but unlike Hollywood, where "youth" springs eternal, this sign is a nod to the past. OK, quick: World's Fair. What springs to mind? Maybe a few memories or associations are knocking about up there like marbles. You've heard about all the things that were invented or introduced for the first time at one fair or another: the ice cream cone at the 1904 St. Louis Fair, the Ferris Wheel in 1893 in Chicago. Maybe you think of that serial killer from Devil in the White City. But invariably, you think of the past.

In 1958, Brussels hosted the Expo 58. It was the first of its kind since the 1939 World's Fair in New York. World War II had, er, interrupted proceedings, and there was a great feeling of optimism about the Expo 58. Czechoslovakia, still reeling from Stalinism, was under strict state control, but the arts flourished. One exhibition that got a lot of attention was the Lanterna Majika, or the Magic Lantern, a performance piece with live dancers and actors interacting with film projections -- a highly novel notion at the time. Also, Expo 58 was home to the award-winning Restaurant Praha built specially for the occasion, a curved steel construction with an aluminum glass facade.
Czechoslovokian participation on the world exhibition in Brussels was significant in a sense that it meant the return of the country into civilised Europe . . . The steel construction bore no comparison to the previous totalitarian era. The basic idea behind the architectural design was contrasts of glassed-in, airy parts with mighty pavilion cubes.
Mighty pavilion cubes. I love the quirky linguistics of translated websites.

The Restaurant Praha Expo 58 was later dismantled and re-built in Prague at the edges of the Letenske Orchards in Holesovice: hence the hilltop advertisement you see in the photograph. The building still stands but it's no longer a restaurant. After suffering a chaotic phase of changing ownership, looting, and vandalism, it was eventually restored in 2001 and converted into -- what else? -- an office building.

Many Belgians ate soft-serve ice cream and drank Coca-Cola for the first time at Expo 58. The Russians were ahead in the space race and Sputnik was a big hit. Orson Welles was there. There was a real "World of Tomorrow" optimism to the theme and design. I especially love the Expo 58 logo.

We're so globalized now that a World's Fair seems, sadly, beside the point. Stupid things are being invented every day, all over the world; innovations spring up and we use them without thinking; our international artistic exchanges now take on the ghastly shapes of Baywatch and the Eurovision Song Contest. But those feeling retro might want to take the ViewMaster tour and imagine what it must have been like at Expo 58. Futu-rama!

Thursday, February 26, 2009


#57, Pest, Budapest

A few years back, I was in the company of an Irish taxi driver who harbored a particular contempt for establishments with the word "Quality" in the title. "Quality Inn," he scoffed as we sailed past a four-star hotel in the docklands. He proceeded, for my entertainment, to mimic the two sides of an imaginary conversation. "What hotel ya stayin' at? Oh, I'm stayin' at a Quality Hotel. Well, ya wouldn't want to be staying at a bleedin' non-quality hotel now would ya?" I've no idea what's inside the Quality 57 here in Budapest but I'm sure it's of the utmost excellence, fineness, distinction, eminence, greatness, worth, and . . . what's that word I'm looking for? Starts with a . . . Q . . .

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


#56, Sorrento, Italy

It's Halloween, you're female, and you have nothing to wear to the costume party. The drugstore ran out of sexy pirate costumes, you don't want to wear a gross mask all night, and no one wants to hit on the Michelin Man. Why not squeeze into a black leotard and stilettos and slap on some kind of cat ear tiara? And a tail? Because it's just so original? I've been burnt out on the catwoman costume for so long that I was surprised to be taken in by this charming changeling outside a boutique in Sorrento. I found her lingering a little over eye level, leaning playfully on this bright green 56.

My friend Niesha makes some amazing wood burnings and paintings that take the metamorphosis one step further. Her pieces, showcased in last year's Atlantic Avenue ArtWalk in Brooklyn, are a bestiary of strange delights: animal heads atop female bodies with juxtapositions that are by turns beautiful, moving, and odd. If you've never seen a praying mantis pull on a platform shoe in a baby doll dress, I do recommend you check out her work at Amniesha. I have a pensive unicorn-lady on hold meself that I hope to be bringing home soon.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


#55, Broadway, NYC

There's something about wandering around the financial district -- those narrow, crooked streets, the towering skyscrapers, the sharp angles -- that makes me feel like I'm trapped in a kind of urban Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It brings out a peculiar anxiety that I don't feel anywhere else in the city. It's exhilarating, it's nightmarish, it feels like being swallowed up by the great metropolis. Nothing in the wide avenues of uptown quite prepares you for the little rat's maze that awaits once you cross over into lower Manhattan. For me, the boundary is Fulton Street: everything above is run-of-the-mill mad Manhattan, everything beneath it is German Expressionism. It got me thinking about boundaries: where do you draw your own personal boundaries of the city? Which streets do you use to delineate changes in the landscape? Which pockets make you feel at home and in which ones will you always feel lost?

Monday, February 23, 2009


#54, Hradčany, Prague

Basically, my favorite.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


#53, Via Margutta, Rome

Maps are wonderful and useful things, but it is also a wonderful and useful thing to abandon a map and set out to explore a city without trying to find where you're going. You might begin at a well-known landmark, the Piazza di Spagna, and set off in the direction that looks the most intriguing. You know it when you see it: that forgotten alley where the Vespa is parked outside of a zebra-print painted doorway, that quiet, tree-lined street that is an oasis of quiet after the chaos of the Spanish Steps.

It was late afternoon when I stumbled upon the Via Margutta. The air was warm as it started to rain. I ducked into a doorway and opened my umbrella. The cobblestones beneath my feet grew black and slippery, making me slow my pace. The street was lined with mysteriously shuttered up art galleries and antique shops with hand-carved names. Leafy trees and ivy lined the walls that were the colors of gelato, darkening in patches in the rain. The weather had discouraged people; they waited scowling in doorways or hurried into chocolate shops. I kept on and discovered some beautifully engraved numbers and plaques along the walls, like this 53B.

When you don't know what you're looking for, you often don't know exactly what you've found until much later. The Studio d'arte Novella Parigini caught my eye for its unusual plaque. But it was in fact the home and studio of an actual Ms. Parigini, an artist who would often have in her company Dali, Sartre, and Cocteau. More research yielded more discoveries. In Roman Holiday, the Via Margutta was where Gregory Peck's character, the expatriate American reporter Joe Bradley, resided and where, in a memorable scene, Princess Anne (the always stunning Audrey Hepburn) remarks outside: "I've never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it's most unusual." The address? Number 51, just next door.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


The only thing better than this:

#52, East Wall, Dublin

. . . is its proximity to this:

Sean O'Casey Community Centre,
East Wall, Dublin

Officially, it's the Sean O'Casey Community Centre, but since its completion in September 2008, Dubliners have dubbed the new building in the East Wall "The Cheese". One thing I've learned is that if the Irish take the time to slag you or call you by a nickname you can't quite decide if you should laugh at take offense, they generally think you're all right. If they don't like you or if you bore them, they simply won't bother. This rule applies to buildings as much as people. Statues and landmarks all over Dublin have livelier names than the ones in the guidebooks.

Consider some of the old familiars. There's Molly Malone with her wheelbarrow (the Tart with the Cart) or the now-gone-missing Anna Livia Plurabelle in her cascading fountain (the Floozie in the Jacuzzi). Unfortunately for Anna, the real-life version of James Joyce's poetic embodiment of the River Liffey was not only called the Hooer in the Sewer but also repeatedly vandalized and eventually removed by the Dublin City Council for safekeeping, whatever that means; Ms. Plurabelle's since been replaced by the tall stainless steel spire (the Stiletto in the Ghetto or the Why in the Sky, depending on if you lean toward the sociological or the philosophical). And though it resembles a sporting trophy of some kind, I'm partial to the Phil Lynott propped outside Bruxelles: the Ace with the Bass, of course. As for the East Wall's new neighbor, the Cheese so far stands alone. But the Cheese by the Quays? Mightn't be the worst, if you're feeling rhymey.

Contrary to popular belief (my snarkitectural one-liners have been quoted anonymously, I'm proud to say, not once but twice in the Irish Times, including my level-headed suggestion that an ugly new building beside City Hall be wrapped Jean-Claude Christo-style), I really enjoy when a new building emerges that just gets it right.

On my most recent trip to Dublin in January, this was one of my first stops. The pictures I'd seen looked whimsical and playful and I never pass up an opportunity to go for a cold, rainy cycle through the docklands. Despite a few disappointments -- the view of the ground level was blocked by some ugly temporary hoardings and the center wasn't yet open for an interior look about -- the new building was a welcome sight. How many buildings actually make you smile as you approach? For a community center, the playful vibe meshes well with the functionality of the concrete structure. The "holes" in the wall are porthole-style windows that offer varying views from the different levels inside. The color scheme of faded robin's egg blue, deep red, and honey-colored wood is fresh and unexpected.

I'd be curious to see how the building gets on once the community center opens its doors. In the meantime, well done to architects O'Donnell + Tuomey for bringing an imaginative new structure to the skyline of Dublin and giving me a reason to sharpen my somewhat dull skills in kudos distribution. I'd hate to only be known for my snark. Or would I?

If you see this door, knock and tell the architects "Thank you."

Friday, February 20, 2009


#51, New Haven, CT

I realize I'm breaking the fourth wall here by appearing reflected in one of my supposed "pictures of cool numbers", but there's an issue that needs to be addressed. Do you notice how I'm holding the camera aloft as if raising the heavenly host above my head? This isn't a one-off. You see, I'm short. Getting some of these pictures is a challenge. I enjoy getting up close to architecture and capturing buildings' souls. I like to get a number square on and yet find myself all too often pointing my lens upward at a compromising angle. I lean over brownstone stairwells at dangerous angles. I stand on tippy-toe. All of these things I'm happy to do as it's the closest I'll ever get to the action-packed life of a photojournalist. But there are days when I long to meet my numbers face to face. As equals. Without tripod, without struggle.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


#50, Elk Grove Village, IL

I have a few distinct memories of childhood trips to see Dr. McNamara, our family doctor, and they're mostly related to things I'd see around me. First, there were the red metal railings along the interior stairwell. I'll have to verify this, but I seem to remember one of them was positioned at kid-height, which I thought quite thoughtful of them. I still had fresh fears from Tot Lot preschool that I'd slip through the open spaces between stairs and was grateful for anything to cling to during my ascents and descents. (This is why I still balk at trips up the wobbly Plexiglass stairwell at the Apple store in SoHo.) Second, there were the joyfully tactile, hedgehog-like Bristle Blocks in the waiting room that helped pass the interminable waiting period. Wait time was usually no more than five or ten minutes, but to a kid who'd rather be out on a bicycle, it felt like enduring the long stretch of Christmas Eve night, only with much less to look forward to. And then there was the joy of spotting the gigantic numbers on the nearby office/industrial buildings. They were unapologetically yellow, rather hideous, and completely out of scale with any suburban house numbers I'd ever seen. If I'd been standing next to one, it would've measured close to my own height. I couldn't believe that someone actually made numbers that big and bright and that they were allowed to be on buildings, especially buildings so brown and so boring. This 50, along with its neighbors 60 and 70, are still there on those boring, brown buildings, and any time I visit my hometown and stop by for a slice at nearby Munchie's pizza, they still make me scratch my head and wonder.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


#49, O'Connell Street, Dublin

James Joyce once boasted that if Dublin was ever destroyed, it would be possible to reconstruct the city from the passages of Ulysses. I've always thought that a funny notion since architecture hardly figures into his writing at all. You could trace a line on a map of Leopold Bloom's wanderings on June 16th, 1904 with stunning accuracy. You could even, as Ian Gunn and Clive Hart have done in their wonderfully exhaustive book James Joyce's Dublin: A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses, chart the exact movements of every single character from the Wandering Rocks episode down to the minute, from the moment Father Conmee descends the presbytery steps in his thin socks and silk hat (2:55 PM) to the last "salute of Almido Artifoni's sturdy trousers" at 4:00. All of this despite the perils of what Hart calls "readertrap": intentionally misleading devices like hidden crossreferences, linguistic ambiguities, and just plain calling things by the wrong names. Heck, our narrator even stumbles and calls the Grand Canal the Royal Canal. And yet we know that Stephen and Artifoni depart each other's company at, oh, about 2:24. Now I don't know how city planners and architects would potentially deal with "readertrap" in laying out the plans for the New Dublin, but I'm guessing they would have many more pressing issues to tackle in the wake of Joyce's fabled destruction of Dublin than puzzling over passages of Ulysses. Finding a pub, for instance.

As cosmopolitan Dublin grows more and more unrecognizable, getting a feel for the Dublin Joyce describes gets harder and harder, even with some of the buildings still standing. A few years ago at the time of the Bloomsday centenary, Frank McDonald, Environment Editor for the Irish Times, wrote a piece called "In search of the lost city" that reflects on the changes and tracks the histories of the buildings Joyce mentions. Well worth a read. When you realize how much has changed, inevitably so, it's a rare treat to discover a small sign of the Dublin of a hundred years ago.

This 49, located on O'Connell Street between the Liffey and the General Post Office, simply caught my eye for its design. But it also once housed Graham Lemon's, the confectioner that makes an appearance in the very opening lines of the Lestrygonians episode in Ulysses:
Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. A sugarsticky girl shovelling scoopfuls of creams for a christian brother. Some school treat. Bad for their tummies. Lozenge and comfit manufacturer to HIs Majesty the King. God. Save. Our. Sitting on his throne, sucking red jujubes white.

A somber Y.M.C.A. young man, watchful among the warm sweet fumes of Graham Lemon's, placed a throwaway in a hand of Mr Bloom.
Unlike Davy Byrne's, Graham Lemon's is no longer operational. But the destitute sign remains, missing a few letters so that the building now reads "E CONFECTIONERS HAL". Just like that precariously hanging "C" in the picture, we'll have to hold on to what we have for as long as we can.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


#48, near Széchenyi Bridge, Budapest

Stencils are about as straightforward as can be, but the logic of this wall escaped me when I took the photograph and continues to puzzle me to this day.  A simple white wall stretching alongside the River Danube, it is covered with the numbers "48", "56", and "89".  The sizes vary and the placement of the numbers is jaunty and random, but everywhere you look are these three numbers repeated again and again.  Now maybe I've just been watching too many episodes of The Prisoner, but I couldn't help but feel someone was trying to send me a secret message.  But if there is a code hidden in this image, it remains, as of yet, uncracked.

Monday, February 16, 2009


#47, Verona, Italy

Being suckered into seeing the Casa di Giulietta in Verona felt a little bit like standing outside of the bright green general store in Wall Drug, South Dakota.  A clever marketing campaign combined with idle curiosity and the fact that, whatever your skeptical brain may tell you, your coordinates are simply too close to allow you to not see the attraction everyone says is a must-see, all conspire to lead you to this tourist trap.  You are underwhelmed, to say the least, when you learn that "Juliet's balcony" was in fact attached to an entirely random courtyard window in 1929, though you didn't expect to be overwhelmed or even whelmed in the slightest.  You dislike wearing your moment of jadedness like a badge of honor -- it's just too easy -- so instead of complaining about how banal it is that ignorant pilgrims from all over the world come to the Via Cappello to declare their undying love for someone-or-other by sticking Post-it notes to the stone wall with bits of chewing gum, you take a minute and read these declarations of love.  You think about IGOR + DIANE.  You think for a moment about Shakespeare penning poor Igor's lovestruck monologue.  And then you move on.

Once more, the beauty of decay acts as a backdrop to this number, offset here by the crispness and dignity of the 47.  I found this one underneath a balcony (no, not Juliet's) and loved the smoky, earthy colors and textures of the wall.  The muted shades of rust and stone and the tactile peeling layers remind me of an Anselm Kiefer painting.  It's the unexpected beauty that catches the eye, though you wouldn't have thought to look this way if you weren't trying desperately to not look that way.  You know, where everyone else is looking.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


#46, Lynch & Sons, Dublin

The hand-painted pub sign in Ireland is a vanishing art. The more I've watched Dublin succumb over the last ten years to the bumper crop of ghastly cheap shop fronts of convenience stores like Spar and Centra (sobering evidence here), the more old hand-painted signs like this feel like an endangered species. These derelict buildings linger sometimes for years between demolition and preservation, and that's when people like me sweep in with the cameras or wander the grounds with simple curiosity, admiring what remains and wondering what will become of the old buildings we admire.

A few years ago, a friend of mine and fellow lover of dereliction printed up for me an article by architecture critic Hugh Pearman article (from the excellent Gabion site) that has since become a kind of private manifesto. The piece is called "Not building: the lure of desolation". It describes a very personal way of reacting to changes in the built environment. For me, it's right up there with Pessoa and Borges for meditative bedside reading. A brief excerpt:
Like an ending love affair or the maturing of a loved child, dereliction contains both loss and hope. What has happened - known, and perhaps lamented - is offset by what is to happen, which may be worse but which might just possibly be good. The frozen moment between two states of activity is, for me, supremely poignant. Because - anywhere that land has a value - it will not be allowed to remain in this state. It is inevitable, even desirable, that a new use should be found for it, whether it is an abandoned brownstone, a derelict railhead where the birches shoulder through the ballast, or a wharfside where ships no longer dock and weeds sprout among the cranes. Except in extreme cases, these are assets with investment potential or civic value. So be it - but I wish it were not always so.
You can read the rest here.

And yes, after weeks of accumulated numbers (many of which contain seven), here it is at long last: the first official ampersand of the collection. Lovely ligatures, aren't they?

Saturday, February 14, 2009


#45, Mala Strana, Prague

The re-numbering of buildings is something you see a lot of in places like Prague and Venice. As the city's streets and layouts continue to shift over time, many of the buildings still retain signs of both the old and the new addresses, often with both in plain sight. Even though the bright red 389 claims to be the proper address over this doorway, here it shares aesthetic duties with its old neighbor. I love the faded, framed 45 and the ghost of a text still lingering on the window over the door in gold letters. Look closely at the middle of it all and you'll see an anchor.

Friday, February 13, 2009


#44, Memphis

The jukebox was playing "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" as the sun slowly set outside Earnestine & Hazel's.  Through the window you could watch a single lonely blue trolley that went up and down the main drag of Memphis, empty of passengers.  Down the street and around the corner was the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated, a wreath on the balcony and a baby blue fishtail car parked eternally in the lot.  Inside the bar, the red-headed bartender was frying onions under the sign for Famous Soul Burgers as the dim light filtered into the room.  As she faced the grill, you could see on her shoulder blade  the tattoo of a young man's face and letters spelling out Angel Baby. Empty bottles of Coors Light littered the bar while black and white pictures of Patsy Cline and Ray Charles and B.B. King smiled down from behind glass.  Record albums were nailed to the walls.

Through the back door labeled No Dope Smokin' and up the narrow steps lay a warren of rooms that housed a former brothel.  The piano lid was locked and the bathrooms had tubs with clawed feet.  You saw upside down bar stools, bright blue walls, lace curtains and broken jukeboxes.  The wooden floor creaked.  Downstairs, the bartender looked up from the frying onions and said, "You should be here tomorrow night.  It's wild.  It's what they call Trolley Night.  They open up all these doors and you get people walking up and down South Main Street, actin' crazy, drinkin', eatin' cheese."  Instead you went outside and crossed the railroad tracks, past the Loflin Safe & Lock Co. and a motor parts shop, and watched the sun set over the Mississippi.  And just before crossing the tracks, you looked up and found this 44.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


#43, Staré Město, Prague

There are colors in Prague that you can only find in Prague. One of the earliest pleasures of the pre-Pantone days of my youth was looking at a fistful of paint chips and sounding out the names of the colors. These hues had names more exotic than those found in the standard box of Binney and Smith, though few childhood experiences of mine surpassed the joy of cracking open a fresh-smelling box of 64 crayons. Those perfectly pointed tips, that dizzying array of color, that little sharpener in the back of the yellow-orange box. What could anyone possibly need other than these 64 colors? Well, 64 was soon bumped up to 72, 72 went up to 96, and by 1998 Crayola was cooking with gas and 120 crayon colors. Progress. Snazzy new hues were introduced: there was now Shamrock and Mauvelous and Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown alongside the old fuddy-duddy Carnation Pink and Periwinkle. I thought a good deal about color for this 43, striving for le hue juste. It's been a nostalgic-for-no-reason week over here at &7, so I thought I'd stick with the theme and go straight to the source.

Casting a cold eye at the current list of colors on the Crayola Crayon Chronology , it's hard not to feel scandalized by the brash new colors with their cutesy-clever names and to read, as one would the obituary page, the roll of old colors that have gone to eternal rest. When I read the following sentence: Thistle was removed from the 120-count assortment to make room for indigo, a tiny part of me shriveled up and died, falling to the floor like so many carelessly peeled bits of crayon wrapper. Not Thistle! But nevertheless, it was true. Crotchety old colors like Maize and Raw Umber have been booted out for the sunny, youthful likes of Dandelion and Razzle Dazzle Rose. Fair? Hardly. But the color wheel of life rattles onward and so, too, must we.

But how do you describe the colors here? When a building has been weathered this much, bit of Burnt Sienna and a dash of Goldenrod isn't going to cut it. Then again, the times they have a-changed over in that crayon factory I so idolized, so it looks like we're stuck with Wild Watermelon. Except even that's outdated. In 2008, said color was renamed once again to, yes: Awesome. Ick.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


#42, Ferihegyi Nemzetközi Repülőtér, Budapest

Yes, that's all a very fancy way of saying "the airport" but let's face it: with little to distinguish this image from the thousands of other airports in the world just like it, we could all do with a handful of umlauts.

I've been reading architecture critic Witold Rybczynski's collection of essays Looking Around. He's got a great bit on airports where he describes perfectly the abhorrence we feel at the prospect of a too-long layover:
Like most people, I dislike airports. I am either walking too far or sitting too long. The food is bad, the chairs are uncomfortable, and the irritating public-address system squawks unintelligibly. The tired potted plants do little to dispel the obsessively mechanical atmosphere. Above all, there is the dispiriting feeling of inactivity reflected in the weary faces of my fellow passengers, for whom ennui has replaced anticipation. They are just as torpid as I am. If Fritz Lang's Metropolis showed the underground city of the enslaved workers as a kind of hell, then the airport waiting room could serve as a convincing vision of purgatory.
But then this was written about ten years ago, before the advent of iPods and text messaging and any other manner of Crackberrying, which now, of course, have replaced any outward appearance of ennui in our fellow passengers. Everyone is continually otherwise engaged. You may see a lot of indifferent faces and bad moods, but you have to go a long way to find torpid. I do on occasion plug into my tunes, but I do still try to dabble in the tried and true airport layover pastimes: listless magazine flipping, wandering between newsstands comparing snack mixes, spritzing perfumes and sampling whiskeys in the duty free, and best of all, people watching. You know, like looking for men in gabardine suits with cameras in their bow ties? Ah, the good old days of low-fi, DIY purgatory.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


#41, Asheville, North Carolina

Planes, trains, and buses aren't known for their mouth-watering culinary offerings. If for any reason you need more evidence to brown bag it on your next trip, read this brilliantly bewildered missive to Virgin Airways, a complaint letter so detailed and full of suspense it is raised to the level of literature. Most of us, though, know from first-hand experience not to expect to be anything but jostled from a journey by plane, rail or bus. Finding food and fuel was foremost on my mind on that June day when I first stepped into the streets of Asheville. I was fresh from a four-hour drive in a cargo van. I had eaten nothing for days but trail mix and cheese grits. So when I noticed that a bright red British double decker bus had somehow made its way, intact, across the Atlantic and claimed to be serving food right there in Asheville, North Carolina, I had to suspend my disbelief and give it a closer look.

The Double Decker Coffee Company is exactly what it sounds like: a coffee shop housed inside a double decker bus. The bus, a Route 41 gone horribly astray in its journey from Trafalgar Square to Tottenham Hale Station, is now permanently parked at 41 Biltmore Avenue. You can climb on board any time the door's open and stay as long as you like. It won't take you anywhere near Trafalgar Square, but it will serve you a good strong cup of coffee and a slice of pumpkin bread. Downstairs, the interior has had a few alterations, but you may need to mind your head as you prop yourself up on a stool. It's fun to think of a permanently parked bus as architecture, even though it looks like it might yet break through the wrought iron fence and go galumphing off into that good night. Can buildings be buildings if they're also on wheels? This bus blurs the line, and unlike the red booths outside Telephone Bar & Grill in Manhattan, you can actually enjoy your bit of Brit kitsch from the inside. Brill.

Monday, February 9, 2009


#40, Stary zidovsky hrbitov, Prague

Braille in public space and architecture is usually limited to the pragmatic: it's there on signs and labels to give instructions to the blind or visually impaired. Braille is something most of us encounter every day of our lives but rarely see: inside elevators, along corridors in hotels, on vending machines and inside public bathrooms. If we do ever engage in any discourse about it, it generally doesn't extend beyond the "Hey, did you ever wonder why drive-through ATMs have Braille?" variety. (The Straight Dope, as always, has the answer here.) In a weird reversal, we are the blind ones when it comes to understanding Braille. It clearly has its uses, but it also has possibilities. Why should Braille be limited to purely practical purposes? Could it also be art?

In late August of 2007, an artist named Scott Wayne Indiana framed this question into a mission. He began sticking strips of specially printed paper dubbed "Braille Graffiti" throughout the streets of Portland: on electrical boxes, along railings in music stores, above windowsills. The messages in Braille were not room numbers or instructions but philosophical tidbits. One read: "You don't have to be blind to see that the writing is on the wall". The artist explained his project was "an attempt to create a unique moment for a blind person who might happen across one of these bits of graffiti." You can watch a brief clip of the project here.

In France, a street artist named the Blind has taken it to the next level, making his own mark with Braille graffiti. His starkly beautiful creations, first sprayed onto walls with the aid of a stencil then finished off with rounded white 3-D half spheres roughly the size of half a golf ball, have popped up in highly public places, a la Banksy, on city walls, pedestals of monuments and outside the Palais de Justice. They evoke an immediate reaction as works of art. The white Braille, clean and perfectly aligned, has a cool, modernist look against the weathered classical architecture of Paris. But the longer you look at them -- and this may be the point -- the more you begin to wonder what they mean.

With the aid of a good Braille directory (provided on the Blind's home page), I did eventually puzzle out a few of his pieces, though the process of translating Braille to French, then French to English, was so time-consuming and frustrating that I walked away from the exercise with a headache and only a few fragments of words. But more than that, I came to a much deeper appreciation of the resourcefulness of anyone who has ever, out of necessity or out of a desire to help others, had to learn how to read not with one's eyes but one's hands. Ouvrez les yeux, reads one line of the Blind's graffiti beneath a statue in Paris. We might yet benefit to try to see things from his point of view.

So much for art. Next, I'd love to see how Braille can be worked into architecture.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


I'm a big fan of the uncanny resemblance.

#39, Ixelles, Brussels

#39, Worth Street, NYC

Saturday, February 7, 2009


#38, Herbert Street, Dublin

I love Dublin. I really do. It's the only place in the world you can pop into a hospital for a routine research look-about and find yourself a half an hour later in the lobby still chatting with the security guard. This is the man who, when he learned you were a writer researching a novel, promptly went into a locker behind the security desk and took down a battered yellow envelope of poetry. The poems were written by Patrick Nugent, another guard who'd worked on the premises ("Disappeared 4 months ago without a trace. Oh, you would've loved to have talked to him. He'd have talked to you for hours.") and insisted you take home a stapled copy of Patrick's poem "The Tooth Fairy" with the memorable last stanza (Again, for context: Abras = Abrekebabra's = regrettable fast food joint often frequented late at night and against one's best judgment.):

Now patrons of old Abras
Do not listen to any crap
Don't wear your false teeth while eating
Especially after buying a bap.

Henry Hughes, the security guard who insisted I take the poem, was a truly friendly fellow: in his fifties, maybe, fit and energetic, and full of stories. The best of them concerned his run-ins with the great writer and notoriously boozing Brendan Behan. Henry knew all the Behans and reminisced of the fifties and sixties when Brendan roamed the pubs of Baggot Street, often stopping, Henry said, to relieve himself alongside a house just across the street from the hospital. "Do you see that fence over there?" he asked, taking me outside and pointing to a rickety old wooden barrier. "They had it built after Brendan would come by one too many times to use it as a toilet." Apparently the roving Brendan had kicked it in once or twice as well, though the fence still stands near the intersection of Baggot Street and Herbert Street. Had Behan saw fit to amble a few meters in the other direction, he might have looked up to the heavens and seen this 38.

Most curiously, Henry also claimed to be in possession of the only copy of an unpublished poem by Brendan Behan called "The Dregs of the Unemployed" (with a line, he recalls, about "the biddies in furs on Grafton Street") though this, unfortunately, was not included in the collection of poems kept behind the desk in the old coat locker. I longed to know more about the lost Behan poem and asked if I might get a glimpse, but the gregarious security guard remained a bit cagey and secretive on this count. One wonders -- Henry was nowhere to be found the last time I ducked in -- if the secret will remain guarded forever.

Friday, February 6, 2009


#37, Asheville, North Carolina

It was a hot summer day and we were driving through Tennessee listening to Bob Dylan's Love and Theft. Ahead of us lay Asheville and the back of Pascal's van. Behind us, near Gatlinburg, we'd passed a gas station with a teepee and a sign advertising "rat cheese homemade jams & jellies". We'd passed billboards for Cowboys Seafood and the truly dubious-sounding Flyaway Indoor Skydiving (Annie: "That doesn't sound safe." Michael, in drawl: "Now you be sure to pull that cord before you count to one. That floor comes fast!"). Josh, with an air of bewilderment and awe, was pondering the merits of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk ("This album was mixed by a mad scientist. There's no songs, but they're all great songs."). And then, legs cramped and stomachs full of gas station squirrel food, we rolled into Asheville.

We had a few hours before our gig at the BoBo Gallery with hopeful, hypnotic Hope and Anchor and the incredible "Ragtime, Steam Boat Blues, Holes in My Shoes" Woody Pines, so I grabbed an iced coffee from a coffee stand inside a defunct London double decker bus and wandered. Along narrow Carolina Lane, I found this gingerbread purple and red house. Its neighbor, 27, was also decked out in bright finery. I love the odd rockery carefully arranged beneath the window sill.

The townsfolk of Balthrop, Alabama may or may not get to roll into Asheville again soon (we loved it there), but we are happy to be playing tomorrow night at Union Hall in Brooklyn with both Woody Pines and Josh's own Rocketship Park. Check out the amazing, ransom-note collection of typography in their banner; stay for the pretty music.