Monday, February 28, 2011

#307: Seahorse Seven

Upper West Side, NYC

Really, the temptation to affix a googly eye to the top of this seven -- and a whimsical mermish tail to the bottom -- is almost irresistible.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

#308: Bowery Poetry Club

The Bowery, NYC

I've posted this picture before, but its quirky hand-lettering always cheers me. This #308 also happens to mark the Bowery Poetry Club -- one of those venerable New York institutions I've for some reason never set foot in. (Now that I've admitted it, I'm that much more likely to remedy it.) That said, it's been a good week for readings and spoken word, and I can't decide what was more memorable: the man at the T.C. Boyle reading at BookCourt who, to kick off the Q&A, squeezed a stuffed animal frog before launching into a dramatic environmental jeremiad, or watching Brittany Barker, one of the fabulously talented girls from Girls Write Now, the organization I volunteer for, stand up before a huge crowd at the New Amsterdam Theatre in Times Square and deliver a phenomenal spoken word piece at the Urban Word poetry slam finals. Well, who says I can't pick both? New York is many things, but it's certainly never boring. And while I always love curling up with a good book and typing away in obscurity, it's nice to know that words can be wildly entertaining as well.

Also, if you happened to miss it (you might well have since I was too busy last week rambling on about obscure bits of Brooklyn to remember to mention it here), go check out my guest post at the Anti-Room on Stranger Danger, wanderlust, and the joys of traveling alone.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

#309: Negative Space

Warren Street, Brooklyn

Friday, February 25, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

#311: New York City Grievance Hotline

Upper West Side, NYC

311 is, of course, the number New Yorkers are advised to dial when they have a not-quite-emergency question and/or a community grievance that needs attention. Less serious than 911 and more New York-centric than your average 411 operator, 311 is one of those services I've never really taken advantage of. Or, for that matter, understood. It offers itself as a government information hotline, but who needs that when you've got Julian Assange? At best guess, and knowing what I know about New Yorkers, I'd say 80% of the 311 queries deal with alternate side of the street parking, a New York obsession. The rest of the time it acts as a Hydra-headed Snow, Garbage, Potholes, Schools, and General Complaints hotline. Of which there are many.

I haven't availed of 311's services, or at least never dialed in a request myself. But it's not because I've never had cause to. Reflecting back on my ten years here as a New Yorker, I'd say I've accumulated my fair share of grievances, queries, and complaints that might have warranted a phone call -- if only I wasn't too demoralized to pick up the phone. A sampling of actual, real life situations to illustrate this point, you say? Glad you asked. A few highlights:

  • There is a large flying cockroach on my bookcase. It has just disappeared behind Goethe's Faust and the poems of Paul Celan. I am home alone and deathly afraid. Please advise.
  • The current tornado has just caused a portion of my roof to fly off. I can see the sky.
  • A family of hornets appears to have built a hive in the skylight of my bathroom. Can you help?
  • The drug dealer and/or highly impatient person who sits in a car outside the building and honks the horn repeatedly at various inconvenient hours of the night appears to be working on a site-specific noise piece. I should like to see it stopped, or at the very least, moved elsewhere. Yours, etc. Sleepless in Brooklyn
  • What's up with the giant salt pile on the waterfront? Do you realize it's blowing into people's eyes at an alarming rate?
  • My landlord sent over Laurel & Hardy to drain the radiators in my apartment. Black, boiling water is being released onto my bedspread, walls, and desk. Does this fall under your jurisdiction?
  • The worker currently installing my carbon monoxide detector is talking to me gregariously about his jail sentence. He's been incarceration-free for over 20 years. Ought I worry? P.S. He loves books.
I'm sure there are others, but you get the idea. In the meantime, if you have a city grievance story you'd like to share -- either one that required intervention or one you let slide -- I'd love to hear it. Even if 311 doesn't.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

#312: Down and Out in Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn

It's nestled in between the East River and Front Street, sandwiched in between DUMBO and the Navy Yard, one of the quietest patches left in Brooklyn. Last week I was having another one of my Joseph Mitchell mornings where I wanted to clear my head of death and doom by wandering somewhere off the beaten path. I chose Vinegar Hill.

With its cobblestone streets and hidden laneways, Vinegar Hill is one of the less traveled parts of Brooklyn. It gets its name from an enterprising fellow named John Jackson, who snatched up the land in 1800. He called it Vinegar Hill after a decisive battle in the 1798 Irish rebellion with hopes of attracting Irish immigrants to the area, which is a little like calling an up-and-coming neighborhood "Dunkirk" in hopes of attracting the British and French, but whatever. Dude was successful, and for a time this part of Brooklyn was known as Irish Town.

Today, it's changed in some ways and unchanged in others. Walking away from DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass = clunky acronym deciphered) toward the Navy Yard, the construction sounds start to wane. There are no fancy chocolate shops or boutique galleries. The roar of engines and throttle of jackhammers give way to distant industrial echoes. At first there's nothing but the crackling low hum of the ConEd plant and a long straight road to nowhere. But walk a few more paces and turn a corner and you'd swear you were dropped in some city that time forgot. There's a patch of actual silence. You're suddenly aware of the sound of your own breathing. The only tweets here are those from real birds.

There's been much brouhaha recently about the (admittedly excellent) Vinegar Hill House restaurant on nearby Hudson Street, a magnet for foodies with its eclectic menu and cozy interior. I get the sense that most diners come to this tiny neighborhood with a strict destination mentality -- I myself didn't write down the address when I went to meet up with some friends the first time, I just turned left on Hudson and looked for the place with all the middle-aged white people eating -- which is great if you're hungry, but a missed opportunity if you're at all interested in exploring the forgotten bits of the city.

Fortunately, there's the always astute Forgotten NY to the rescue with some delicious pictures and reportage on the area. If you can't hoof it here yourself, do yourself a favor and take a screen tour. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

#313: Chalk and the City

Hell's Kitchen, NYC

The English language's longest palindrome I learned from a blackboard outside of a deli on 2nd Avenue. Peering through a cloudy window on the downtown M15 bus, I saw the message scrawled in chalk: "A man, a plan, a canal -- Panama!"

As palindromes go, 313's a lot easier to remember but less fun to say, though the Panama palindrome did get me thinking about the many strange, educational, or witty things I've seen chalked on blackboards outside restaurants, cafés, and bars as I've wandered the streets of New York City. Anyone can scribble the day's menu or the happy hour hours, but it takes brains and imagination to come up with something that will really grab the attention of the casual passerby. A few gathered from my notebooks over the years:


"Come for the lemon pound cake and apricot bars. Stay for the charming, well-educated boys."

"Today's special: helicopter flavoured crisps!" (Spotted in Dublin, presumably with a disclaimer)

"If you lived here, you'd be home by now. And showerless. But oh, the midnight snacks."


So I'm curious: Whether it was a bit of trivia or a strange claim to fame, what's the most memorable thing you've seen chalked outside of a café, bar, or shop? And did it entice you to go in?

Soho, NYC

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

#317: Friday Segments

Upper West Side, NYC

Maybe the first time I've seen a number with a thorax.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

#318: Robofont

Upper East Side, NYC

Completely unique and utterly charming, these techno-esque forms gazed down on the street below like gargoyles, glimmering faint gold from a tall pane of glass. I stood in a giant pile of snow to try to capture this one, all the while avoiding the blaring horns of oncoming traffic. The cast scale of the Upper East Side's architecture can be hard to overcome when you're 5'2", but that's no reason not to try. Could this be the best #3 so far of the 2011 collection? You make the call.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

#319: Comedy/Tragedy

Chelsea, NYC, Summer 2009

One late summer afternoon, I was dragging my camera through the hot city streets when I stumbled across a mysterious sight in Chelsea: an old gate covered with lush green leaves and the masks of Comedy and Tragedy hanging on a wall nearby. You might remember this #319 from when I first posted it in 2009, so I thought it would be nice to revisit it, especially in these cold, barren winter months. Wouldn't the dreary days of middle February benefit from a visit to a secret garden?

Chelsea, NYC, Winter 2010

Um. Scratch that. Apparently my numbers suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, too.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

#321: Curse of the Peacocks

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

For awhile I played in a band called Peacock's Penny Arcade. A sprawling, multi-instrumental group that included accordion, sousaphone, and an occasional all-female orchestra of kazoos, we formed over a bottle of wine after our friend Meredith (later our bass player) gave a reading at the Brooklyn Public Library and continued the happy madness as long as our crazy individual non-performing lives allowed us to. We all had day jobs of one kind or another: part-time college professor, pastry chef, war zone photojournalist, to name a few, but when we could, we'd band together our many instruments and interests, fly the flag of some Eastern European country or other on the stage behind us, and play an energetic set of our pop-punk-cabaret songs. One thing I remember apart from the liveliness of our shows is the fact that nearly every time we played a venue, it seemed mysteriously to close within a few months of our playing there.

Some of the venues were transient by design: there was the show at the Spiegel Tent, a sort of traveling circus cabaret tent that landed for a few weeks in New York's Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport and left with a few scant bottle caps and ticket stubs in its wake. Then, in what was perhaps the weirdest gig of our whole career, we were invited to play on board the Queen Mary 2 for a party kicking off the PEN World Voices Festival. I don't remember how this came about, but I do have the invitation with Salman Rushdie's name on it. For an audience that included Francine Prose, Colum McCann, and a sea captain who pleaded with us (in vain) not to curse, we played our way through a short set of quirky, curse-inflected songs like "Airport Road," "I Left My Bra in Mississippi," and "Nately," a sort of Kurt Weill-flavored song I wrote based on the character Nately from Catch-22. Dale Peck and Jonathan Ames jumped onstage at the end and shook tambourines. But mostly, we played a bunch of dive bars for a couple of our friends. And more often than not, with a regularity that seemed to suggest a Midas touch in reverse, these venues all closed down. One after the other after the other.

The list of now-defunct venues reads like an obituary page. Luna Lounge in Williamsburg (just up the road from where this #321 was taken): closed. Magnetic Field in Brooklyn Heights: closed. Rare in the Meatpacking District: closed. Lillie's in Red Hook, where we played by the light of a strand of Christmas lights in a freezing bar, warmed only by a handful of space heaters: closed. Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction, a perpetual Peacock favorite with its cozy upstairs and swanky red curtain backdrop: closed. Granted, turnover in New York bars is nothing unusual, but the timing of it all, the whole damn cumulative quality of it, made us feel as if we'd somehow laid the Curse of the Peacocks on the lot.

Was it something we said? Did we curse too much in our songs? Did our half-hearted half-decision to change our name to Peacock's Arcade (dropping, ahem, the penny to avoid getting mixed up with New York downtown performance artist Penny Arcade) doom us to an uncertain afterlife, forever wandering the old dive bars and haunts of our past? Maybe. But I do know this: if y'all have any venues in your neighborhood you want shut down, give us a call. Our rates are cheap, and though we're a little out of practice, we still can rally together for a good cause.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

#322: Half a Number

Upper West Side, NYC

Ah, the old "rip the front half off the 8 and call it a 3" trick. I'm onto you, #322.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

#323: There Goes the Sun

Chinatown, NYC, 2009

A few years back, I came across this freaky sun painted on a Chinatown day care center, and I've been having trippy nightmares ever since. Those of you who were around for the first round of &7 may remember this maniacal little creature, which was featured for 2009's #323. Creepy it may have been, but when I went back a few months ago to pay it a visit, I found myself confronted with a very different scene indeed. No city is immune to change, and this is no exception. Have a look at what I found:

Chinatown, NYC, 2010

Sanitized, sterilized (except for that strange green and yellow glyph that appeared among the clouds), and stripped of its sun, here is all that's left to the mural. I had to give it a moment of silence.

Friday, February 11, 2011

#324: Speed Motorcycles

Yorkville, NYC

I like stumbling on numbers in out-of-the-way places, and this motorcycle repair shop was so far out of the way from the main drag I nearly fell in the East River. I was grateful that my suspicious behavior (believe me, there is nothing remotely normal about a lone figure standing in front of a motorcycle repair shop, pointing a camera at a door and taking meticulously positioned shots in sub-zero temperatures) didn't end up with me actually floating in the East River. Plus there's something irresistible about hand-painted numbers over a shop door where daily operations rely on manual labor and attention to detail.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

#325: Mastering the Art of Number-Munching

Upper West Side, NYC

Like sushi or caviar, it's an acquired taste, but I hear the 3's on the Upper West Side are particularly delicious. For those with adventurous palettes, nothing beats the first crunch of a fresh serif from a well-prepared Manhattan address number, particularly when paired with medallions of plaster and marinated in a fine rust reduction sauce. Bear in mind that these delectable prime numbers are best consumed during months containing an "R," so there's never been a finer time to indulge than right now. Bon appétit!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

#326: Calculated Nonsense

Chelsea, NYC

As we've entered an era where high school kids freely IM their friends during class and five-year-olds are sending text messages while driving, I've been feeling nostalgic for the pen-and-paper, analog ways of yesteryear: the furtive missives scribbled with shiny #2 graphite and folded into taco-shape origami, the tactile thrill of passing a note from one hand to another while "teacher" was coughing up chalk dust in the front of the room. It was so dull during math class and our technology was so poor that my classmates and I, like a cluster of Victorian street urchins rolling a single marble back and forth for sport, would spend entire class periods typing numbers into our calculators that would, when turned upside down, spell words. You started with the simple 14 for "hi," then 07734 for "hello," then the real challenge was to come up with something -- anything -- more salacious than 58008. I don't think we ever succeeded.

Then trigonometry beckoned, graphing calculators elbowed out the four-function ones, and I was forced out of my right-angled thinking and strictly linear word games into worlds of elegant parabolas whose nuances I couldn't comprehend. I can't look at these squared-off typefaces without thinking back to the clunky technologies of my adolescence: the overly sensitive solar panels, green blinking cursors, and mind-numbing pocket games that required one calculator battery and a boredom so complete that you would press a single button one, two, three, fifty times just for the 7734 of it and wouldn't even notice if you were winning or losing.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

#327: Iveagh Market

Iveagh Market, Dublin

Monday, February 7, 2011

#328: Heartfelt

Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

Sunday, February 6, 2011

#329: The Wire

Tucson, Arizona

"You read this painting's composition from left to right. But you read the emotion from right to left."

There I stood, bleary-eyed and somewhat hungover, in the gallery of the Hugh Lane, an earnest voice off in the distance cravenly beseeching my attention. My head throbbing with an unnameable pain, I shuffled closer.

In search of the museum café, I had instead stumbled unwittingly onto a lecture in Post-Minimalism. I was not there for the Post-Minimalism; indeed I had not heard of Post-Minimalism until that very moment. Modern art inspires me and the Hugh Lane had been my destination before. I was not in totally uncharted waters here. But to be fair: this was a lazy Sunday. I had gone for the free Debussy concert and stayed on idly to wander the grounds. Craving a croissant and coffee after a stroll through Francis Bacon's paint-spattered, tornado-swept studio, I was ready to call it a day. Nevertheless, I found myself cocking my head like the RCA dog and bending down my ear.

"So what you see is something full of incident . . . up close!"

Full of incident? Indeed, the night before had been full of incident, spent in high spirits with a roomful of friends new and old at a pub in Stoneybatter. Consumed were several Belgian ales, dozens of conversations, and at least one homemade Rice Krispie treat. Cycling home along the quays at 2.00 a.m., a reflective belt over my overcoat, I received drunken come-ons from dim-witted lugs in speeding taxis and laughed as I failed at flipping them off, my mittens thwarting my best efforts to have the last word. Happy but decidedly worse for wear, I had dragged myself out of bed that next morning after a fitful sleep, reasoning that a bit of culture would have to be my hair of the dog.

"But backing up, we see that it becomes half atmosphere, half system."

I backed up and blinked, along with the silent majority, at the blotchy gray-white painting that hung on the far side of the room. I didn't see half system, though maybe, I thought, I could make out some atmosphere.

"Now as we move on," continued the erudite voice, "We must think in shadow."

I coughed and saw fireflies. My head was a masterpiece of ache in ten parts. Thinking in shadow was not going to be much of a problem. Still hungry for my croissant and coffee, I somehow found myself taken in by this pied piper of pithy proclamations and led out of the gallery. For reasons I couldn't fully understand -- maybe I liked big words, or maybe I really did need to see what this Post-Minimalist hubbub was all about -- I ignored my spinning head and followed the throng up the stairs. We entered an austere gallery with a single Waterford crystal chandelier where, affixed to the wall, we beheld the wire. Not a painting. Not a sculpture, not quite, and not merely a drawing. This was --

"Something so ineffable . . . so . . . semi-visible . . ." explained our fearless leader.

I squinted hard at the semi-visible. What I semi-saw was single mangled, tangled, ineffable wire, pinned to the wall, and a roomful of quirkily dressed, bespectacled spectators spectating it. All throughout Dublin, hungover revelers were edging sleepily toward their kettles and toasters, shuffling about in slippers, cracking open the Sunday paper.

I was staring at a wire.

"Richard Tuttle's wire sculptures are in stark contrast to Bacon's self-narratives. Here the artist has achieved his goal and left himself entirely out of the work. This wire is, in effect, an echo. It has undergone an entire journey from line to wire to shadow, arriving, at last, to its destination. It achieves a Zen-like evacuation of subjectivity."

As the words hung there in the air, quivering like the wire itself, I felt a sudden shock of recognition. Left himself out of the work. An echo. Thinking in shadow. A Zen-like evacuation of subjectivity. Why bejaysus, I had gone for modern art and ended up with the perfect explanation of a hangover. I suppose you could call that an epiphany.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

#330: In Flight

Dublin Airport

They play Enya on board and they can't get their cabin crew sorted; nevertheless, I find it hard to bear a grudge against the carrier that regularly whisks me off to my happy place. After all, wasn't it one of these very airbuses that shuttled me off on my first transatlantic flight?

It's hard to believe in this health-conscious age that not very long ago -- well, sort of long ago -- a 19-year-old American teenager who'd spent half her college career unable to wedge her way into any sort of bar, club, or drinking establishment could suddenly, once these wheels left the runway, not only legally partake of a bottle of screw-top wine of questionable quality but also light up a cigarette whilst doing so. Yes, planes back then actually had smoking sections. I'd be loathe to go back to those ashtray conditions if they were ever re-introduced, but to me in my Joy Division "Love Will Tear Us Apart" t-shirt and companion Kate in grin and flannel, it was just one big airborne vice bus carrying us off to greener pastures, and it makes me nostalgic just looking at this little slanted shamrock, remembering what used to be.

Friday, February 4, 2011

#331: Gothic Tails

Upper West Side, NYC

Thursday, February 3, 2011

#332: Sidewalk Glitterati

Chelsea, NYC

You'll be pleased to hear that the famous prognosticating groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, has forecast another six months of glitter. Goes well with February slush.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

#333: The Day Frank Died

Portland, OR

Late July afternoon in Keep Portland Weird, Oregon and the long shadows of summer cut sharp angles on the hard-baked rooftops. Snapping pictures in the pre-soundcheck hour, the wandering hour, I hunted and gathered while the rest of the band dispersed throughout the city, seeking sugar ("Voodoo Doughnut: The Magic is in the Hole!!"), strong espresso, or a wi-fi signal that wouldn't quit. I crawled back into Dante's dim dungeon after the sun-streaked streets to find a friend with a propped-open laptop on a tall cocktail table, another shimmying up a catwalk to hang a projection screen. My eyes were adjusting to the dank interior when a blue-lit face looked up from its station and asked if I'd heard the news: Frank McCourt died.

The instant froze and as if on cue, the music started up. It was Warren Zevon "Werewolves of London." I stared at the empty stage, the piano riff plugging on, while all around the seedy bar, projected on five screens, a burlesque dancer did bumps and grinds, failing to entertain the washed-out afternoon drinkers, their heads bent down, hapless fingers peeling back aluminum can tops one after the other. I opened my notebook to mark the moment and could only listen to Warren Zevon's lone howl over the speakers and watch the grains of dust drifting through the air, swirling and dancing, moving sideways, upward, every which way, it seemed, but down.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#334: Dumpster Diving

Upper East Side, NYC

A few days ago, I was gazing upon skips and wheelie bins, and now I have inevitably returned to Dumpsters. Beer mats are coasters again, pubs are bars, "pint" does not automatically mean "Guinness," and I have to switch off that part of my brain/vocabulary that says, "Ah no, you're grand, you're grand" to the woman about to offer me her seat in the café when a simple, "That's OK," is clearly what's called for.

The culture shock is slight, but like the Aer Lingus mealtime offerings, it brings pangs.

One good thing about returning to New York City after a stint in Dublin is how quickly I'm reminded that the distance is not so far after all. Missing certain creature comforts of overseas, I stroll into the Universal News on 14th Street to pick up my Monday Irish Times, then stock up on Barry's tea and McVitie biscuits at Two for the Pot on Clinton Street on the walk home. But at no point in time in Dublin was I treated to the sight of a man in full martial arts garb doing tai chi in the vestibule of the Jay Street subway while two members of the NYPD gazed on dispassionately. Flying into JFK over yard after yard of snow-dusted fields was a nice touch as well, and helped soften the otherwise hard landing.

It's an endless tale of two cities, this shuttling back and forth. If life is like "Cheers" (and thank God it isn't), I have two places warmly welcoming me and shouting out, "Norm!" when I walk in. It's good to miss things and be missed, strange and yet somehow fitting when packing and unpacking the same suitcase are tasks equally comforting. Ticket stubs, stories, friends, maps, sketches, undone crossword puzzles clipped merely because the Crosaire clues sound to me like poetry: they say you can't take it with you, but my luggage begs to differ.