Saturday, April 30, 2011

Friday, April 29, 2011

#247: Remains

Front Street, Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn

One cold and sunny winter morning, full of caffeine from ReBar, I wandered into Vinegar Hill in search of numbers. I stumbled on this building's gorgeous digits and snapped them right up like the greedy hunter/gatherer I am, then spent the rest of the day idling about glossy-glassy DUMBO, window-shopping and happily mucking about under the watchful eye of NECK FACE's looming tag on Jay Street. But I was curious about the building. I went home and did a search, which was when I stumbled upon this arresting New York Times headline from January 24th, 1884:


The full article tells the story of laborer Patrick McBride, who suffered a fatal accident while oiling a machine in the engine room in Prospect Street, Brooklyn. Afterwards, his remains were taken back to his home at 247 Front Street.

While I am no great fan of salacious headlines -- except ones that involve waffles and firearms -- I find myself unable to resist wasting perfectly good brain cells contemplating the hidden histories of the buildings we live in. Who were the people who came before us? What stories would the apartments tell if they could talk? New York is a great city for re-invention, which is part of the appeal. Who you were isn't nearly as important as who you are or, even better, who you might become. You want to get away from the past? Come to New York. Sign a lease and move right in. Re-paint the walls. Move in your new IKEA Krapt furniture, burn some sage, order a pizza, yadda yadda yadda. You'll probably never know the tenants who came before you and in most cases, you wouldn't want to. Isn't that the way it should be?

As a kid, I was obsessed with time capsules. I was in Girl Scouts when I first learned about the phenomenon, which in the case of Illinois Prairie Troop 767 was probably much cooler in theory than in practice. I'm sure those futur-ific folks in 2085 are going to find themselves mighty enriched when they dig up a Pringles can full of friendship bracelets woven out of embroidery thread a hundred years in the dusty past. History at your fingertips. Who are we making these capsules for, anyway? Ourselves, maybe. It's scary to think of being forgotten.

Stories. Scribbles. Time capsules. Lost objects. Cracks in the plaster. Photographs. Articles. Clues. The city is full of them. Most go unheard or unnoticed. But the impulse is still there to tell, to tell. Just in case there's someone on the other end of the tin can telephone who just might be listening.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

#249: Rollie Fingers 'Stache Re-hash

Upper East Side, NYC

If there isn't yet a typeface called Rollie Fingers, there sure ought to be. I used to love seeing this guy whenever I unwrapped a fresh packet of Topps baseball cards, dusting off the bubblegum sugar powder that coated his well-waxed mustache. While I remember him most for his pitching arm, someday we may all look back and honor him as the 'stache that launched a thousand serifs.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

#251: Chicago Spikes

Chicago, IL

There are many beautiful things in the world, but I can't think of many that beat flying into Chicago on a clear day over Lake Michigan, seeing that unreal skyline come into view through the plane window. For me, it's a view that also means going home. It means I'm about to throw myself back into all the things that make up who I am: architecture-gawking downtown. Hockey-watching on the TV and Pat Foley's voice shouting "Hawks win! Hawks win!" Suburbs with lakes, forests, rivers, groves, and oaks in the name. Bicycle-riding through the Morton Arboretum. Alleys and wooden fire escapes. Telephone wires. Pizza that puts sauce on the top. Dis, dat, and dese guys. Easter Sunday borscht with my family. Things that make me homesick when I'm away. Things I savor from the second that plane lands at O'Hare till the second it's wheels up all over again.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

#255: Electrocution Lessons

Upper West Side, NYC

There isn't much danger in what I do, taking pictures of numbers on buildings, but I think it's kind of cool that this one looks like it could electrocute me. It'd be like my Ben Franklin flying a kite in a storm moment, without all the scientific reasoning.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#256: I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea

Chelsea, NYC

Thanks to Elvis Costello, I can't pay even the most casual visit to Chelsea without hearing a pressured and nasal voice in my head protesting it doesn't want to. Nor can I "watch the detectives," talk to anyone named Alison, work on my novel ("Every Day I Write the Book"), or cackle heartlessly at peace, love, and understanding. Even green shirts and red shoes are off limits, lest my day fall prey to one big voice-over by Declan Patrick MacManus.

Most scandalously, I'm worried I'll never be able to pick up Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad -- a book I'm very much looking forward to reading -- till I find a solution for this problem. Will hiding it behind a different book jacket suffice? Must I blast non-Elvis music on the stereo when I crack open the spine? Solutions, if you have any, are most welcome. Because I do my best to keep my head free of this stuff, but hey -- accidents will happen.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

#257: Sew What

Garment District, NYC

Monday, April 18, 2011

#258: Color Fast

Midtown West, NYC

Sunday, April 17, 2011

#259: Meeting Poppa Neutrino

Rochester, New York

On the last night of Balthrop, Alabama summer tour -- AKA our "Six Nights in Vermont 'Cause We Got Turned Back at the Canadian Border 2010" tour -- we played a gig at the Bug Jar in Rochester, New York. About two or three nights prior to that, we played on a raft made out of recycled material in the rain between two sewage plants on Lake Champlain with a beer-guzzling duo, an amateur theater group, a couple of dogs, and a seafaring gentleman who called himself Poppa Neutrino. Poppa Neutrino had seen us play at Radio Bean in Burlington, Vermont the night before and there he was, grizzled and gentle, a man well into his seventies, seated in a lawn chair on a raft of questionable floatability.

He welcomed us on board and, once we settled in, proceeded to tell us the tale of how he once sailed from the port of New York across the North Atlantic, all the way to Ireland on a raft made out of junk. "Whoa," we said, slapping mosquitoes from our arms, eyes shifting nervously between one another. "Huh," others said, then turned around and checked to see if our van, parked on private property where the owners are famed for calling the cops and getting violators arrested, was still there.

I took a less doubtful yet still cautious approach and asked if he knew any sea shanties. But none of us quite knew what to make of such a claim. His story was fantastical, something straight out of Robinson Crusoe. And in this skeptical age, I'm afraid to say we found much to doubt about Poppa Neutrino's voyage -- worldly, urban Brooklynites that we were.

Well, we shouldn't have.

At the bar of the Bug Jar in Rochester, New York, I was drinking a pre-show whiskey and chatting with Buckridge when Michael, at the other end of the bar, motioned for me to come over. I sidled down off my bar stool and headed over. Michael turned around his laptop, which was opened to the Wikipedia page for Poppa Neutrino. Sure enough, in 1997-1998, Poppa Neutrino -- musician, nomad, philosopher, raftbuilder -- became the second person in history to cross the Atlantic on a raft, his homemade vessel, Son of Town Hall. He was certainly the first to do it on a raft built out of trash. His wife, Betsy, served as his captain.

Poppa was also the subject of a book by Alec Wilkinson called The Happiest Man in the World and a documentary by Victor Zimet and Stephanie Silber called "Random Lunacy". Also quite randomly, I used to regularly check out his daughters' band, The Flying Neutrinos, at Rodeo Bar in New York City.

In a sad coda to this story, we learned that Poppa Neutrino passed away on January 23 of this year at the age of 77. You can read his obituary here. A heartfelt remembrance to the man with a wild adventurer's spirit who made us all step back and believe in the possibility of magic.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

#260: Grimy Whimsy

Garment District, NYC

Friday, April 15, 2011

#261: In the Lurch

Garment District, NYC

Looks like 6 ran off with 1 and left 2 in the lurch.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

#262: Dreary Midtown Digits

West 40's, NYC

Why not add to the Midtown gloom with some more soulless, utilitarian numbers? This looks to me like a long workday followed by a lonely night, tempered with some takeout food that is cold upon arrival.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

#263: Industrial Blue

West 40's, NYC

It is an indication of my fierce dedication to this project that, in order to fulfill the demands of the number line, I have been trawling grounds perilously close to Times Square.

This is, as most people know, the Bermuda Triangle of Manhattan, where tourists go to gawk and urbanism goes to die. It is neither original nor interesting to hate on Times Square and makes about as much sense as rolling your eyes at the American Adventure Pavilion at the Epcot Center, yet my revulsion runs deep.

How do I cope? By being prepared. My travel bag on these expeditions includes: Nikon, smelling salts, my cool yet impractical glasses that limit peripheral vision, ear plugs, portable sensory deprivation chamber (if only) and oh yes, that most rare of all items, patience with pedestrians. Is there anything I won't do for &7?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

#264: Blue Light Special

West 40's, NYC

Tiny cold cathode lights embedded behind these numbers give this #264 a cool blue glow -- so sleek and subtle and ├╝ber-modern you almost don't see it at first. It's like watching the TV at night, only without all the noise and people and terrible programming.

Monday, April 11, 2011

#265: A Cigar is Just a Cigar

Garment District, NYC

From the door of a cigar shop in the west 30's. Humidorious.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

#266: Nut Exp

Missouri, Route 266

Also known, in its non-cropped version, as the Chestnut Expressway. This two-lane highway that leads out of Springfield was part of the original Route 66. The rolling green hills and gently winding roads that meander through the Ozarks make this a flat-out beautiful drive.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

#267: Sunny Shadows

Gowanus, Brooklyn

This one was hidden behind a locked gate, obscured by iron bars, making it near impossible to get a good shot. I was angling my camera, kneeling and shifting and hemming and hawing, about to give up when the door serendipitously opened and one of the apartment's residents stepped out. People tend to react in one of two ways when I ask if I can photograph their house numbers: with frank suspicion or with a sort of surprised flattery. This neighbor was one of the second category, and graciously offered to open the gate nice and wide so I could get my #267. I thanked her, slipped my lens cap back on, and set off into the sunny afternoon.

Friday, April 8, 2011

#268: The Return of Snorlax Rotunda

New Haven, CT

Here on the Island of Misfit Fonts, there exist some typefaces so gloriously skewed and bizarrely hand-crafted that even the finest font-finding apps of the world can't identify them. Fortunately, I have a assembled a team of experts (that's y'all) to assist in the classification process. Last time I posted this number, the suggestions for font names started rolling in, inspired by the weird Pokemon-shaped #8. We got Pokemon Gothic Flourish (Thanks, designslinger!) and Snorlax Rotunda (via the great Ray Gunn). With friends like these, who needs a font finder?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

#269: Shades of Gray

Garment District, NYC

There are days when reading The Guardian and chortling over Irish blogs really messes with my American brain, and the word "gray" is a case in point. I can't type certain words anymore without a flinching feeling that I'm spelling them wrong. The evidence is confounding. I drink Earl Grey tea, don't I? Yet I was born and raised in a country where the color of the Crayola crayon is spelled, beyond the shadow of a doubt, g-r-a-y. It wouldn't be so bad if we were at least consistent about it. But board a bus at Port Authority and it's a Greyhound, not a grayhound. What's a girl to type?

Is the crayon's color gray or is the crayon's colour grey? Am I a traveler or a traveller? Will I organise my schedule today or organize my schedule? I can't keep it all straight. It's gone beyond spelling now and seeped into my vocabulary. "Here, bring me that beer mat," I'll say, when what I should say is "Bring me that coaster." I'll order "takeaway" instead of "takeout." Usually it doesn't cause any real confusion, but there are times when the phrases that roll off my tongue don't translate right away, and as everyone knows, there's this thing called a New York minute where people just don't have time for you if you don't translate right away.

If I'm on the downtown F train and I hear a thick Brooklyn accent say "Clear (mutter mutter) closin'" I will know to "Stand clear of the closing doors." It's second nature. But when I shouted to a bartender at a New York bar, "Thanks very much indeed" (a simple pleasantry you hear about four times an hour in Dublin), he yelled back at me angrily, "What did you say?" I repeated: "I said 'Thanks very much." His face took a moment to unknot itself. "I thought you said, Thanks, you're a slut," admitted the bartender sheepishly. "No, indeed," I said, before remembering that New Yorkers don't say indeed, and shuffling off in confusion.

I don't mean to be eccentric. It's just that certain words look or sound better in one "language" to me. It was a great point of connection for me and my Girls Write Now mentee, a well-travelled (ahem) and bright native New Yorker teenager when I saw her novel draft peppered with "grey"s and "colour"s. It seems she's solved the problem quite nicely. She just clicks the Union Jack and types in "English UK" all the time. Why? It's her favourite, of course.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

#270: The Eyes of Dr. DJ Eckleburg

DUMBO, Brooklyn

Like popcorn and whiskey, I've always appreciated an inspired ill-pairing. A bluegrass version of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" shouldn't work, but it does. (Luther Wright & The Wrongs' "Rebuild the Wall" is what I'm talking about, and if you haven't heard it -- "Are there any deer in the theatre tonight? Get them up against the wall! That one in the headlights, he don't look right to me" -- it's well worth the hour of suspended disbelief.)

So if Sean Donnelly, AKA MC NxtGen, the singing binman from Loughborough, can rap about the National Health Service, surely there is room in the world for Dr. DJ Eckleburg, Dumpster-diving DJ to the literati. He raps about Gatz, he drops beats about Keats, he gets everybody in da house to put their hands up in the air for J-Franz, and I found him -- right here in DUMBO.

Dreaming up fake MC names is almost as fun as making up roller derby names, and while I've no skillz with two turntables and a microphone, it doesn't stop me from thinking of what I'd call myself and what I'd rap about if I had no shame at all. Just wait till -- in the guise of MC SMLXL -- I drop my album "Rapping About Architecture." (Anyone got a good rhyme for "Mies van der Rohe")? Or better yet, I can just set down my t-square, jump ahead to "The Blueprint 4," and beat Jay-Z at his own game. I may do it myself, I'm so Brooklyn.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

#273: Freaky Chinatown Rebus

Chinatown, NYC

I'm not sure exactly what this awning wants me to think, feel, or for that matter, buy, but maybe something's been lost in translation. Any insights?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011

#275: At Swim-Two-Seventy-Five-Birds

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien: Dalkey Archive Edition

In honor of April Fool's Day -- and to balance out all the math-bashing from earlier this week -- I've dug deep into my archives to procure today's #275. It's a page from of one of my favorite books, Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds, a supremely odd comic tome ripe with tricksters of all stripes. Did I say "dug deep into my archives"? Make that "dug deep into my bookcase." All right, I didn't dig deep at all. This book is always in easy reach.

Yes, as I retire to my typing-chair, nearly everything I need is assembled beside me, each item situated well within an ergonomic 135 degree reaching radius: books authored by Flann O'Brien, a rectangular box of Girl Scout Cookies, a cold and brimming pint of Stone IPA, the closest thing available to a pint of plain. To summon the words for this post, I close my eyes and retreat deep into my interior blogosphere -- I'm getting in character, you see, to match the book's supremely lazy narrator, a jobless layabout with literary pretensions and severe logorrhoea (an excessive flow of words; prolixity; wordiness; tumidity -- see also verbosity) who can't seem to get a straight sentence out of his mouth. Wanna see what I mean? Check out the first line:

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.

This is, as Sheila has pointed out, "a masterpiece of self-consciousness," a completely ridiculous opening to both a book and a character. (Please go check out her excellent and exhaustive post on Flann O'Brien. A great introduction to his work, if you haven't read his stuff before.)

As for the author of that convoluted sentence, what can I say? I do have designs on our friend Flann, and for me to try to bowdlerize his humor and sheer weirdosity into an off-the-cuff column such as this feels a disservice. Let's just say that if I ever go back to school to fetch that Ph.D I've been blathering about for I don't know how long, I'll try to reconcile my brevity, but for now, there's O'Brien on the o'brain, and a quick homage seemed fitting and fun.

Here's the man himself, looking every bit the grumbling Dublin writer:

The hat, the overcoat, the pose: I love it. Though I've often wondered if the "DUBLIN DIVERSION" sign was his idea or if he's standing there in mortal agony, aching for a pint of Guinness, feeling like one of William Wegman's dogs. (Anachronism, I realize: let it stand.)

Nothing warms my swiftly-beating Brooklyn heart quite like grumbling Dublin writers, especially ones who make me laugh. I love the writing itself, but I'm also a fangirl for the whole O'Brien/ O'Nolan/ Myles (another of his alter egos) weird different personalities dealie-deal. Like, I want there to be a WriterCon so I can go dressed up as Flann O'Brien. (Can someone please get on this?) In the meantime, though, one might say that his influence has rubbed off on me.

Flann O'Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan) died on April Fool's Day forty-five years ago today. Happy April Fool's to the only man I know who can turn a phrase like this one: "Come away with me, says I to Slug and Shorty till we get our stolen steers."