The London Civil War

"match day offer ARSENAL lamb kebabs"

I haven't been in London in a while, and I'm trying to see as many people as possible. I rang my old friend Kay to see what was on. It had been some seven years, since she came to a barbecue in Red Hook.

'We're off to the football match on Sunday,' she said. 'Chelsea vs. Arsenal. It'll be mental. You can meet my son.'

'Do you think I'll still be able to get a ticket?' I asked.

Kay laughed. 'Not in your lifetime. We're not going to the stadium, just round the pub.'

Later she explained that tickets for the Arsenal games at the 60,000 seat Emirates Stadium, whenever they do go on sale, sell out in a matter of seconds. At some 90 or 100 pounds a throw.  (Scalped tickets on ebay sold at $450 for Sunday's match).

A tidal wave of profit-taking, Russian money, international football mania, and astronomical player salaries have elevated ticket prices into the stratosphere. Apparently what the blue-collar working-man average-joe football fan in London does today, with tickets either unavailable or unaffordable, is to watch the game in a pub as close to the stadium as possible, in the hope that the energy from that arena of gladiators might surge through the surrounding neighborhoods, like foam frothing over the glass of a hastily-poured pint. Walking up Holloway Road in the rain, about half an hour before kickoff, I was part of sea of red-scarved supporters. Only the luckier, richer half of this crowd was actually headed to the stadium. The rest were looking for a widescreen television and standing room. Many local businesses had Arsenal flags prominently displayed in the windows, and the pubs were already full to bursting with chanting and singing fans fueled by testosterone and beer.

"pouring rain, kickoff in seven minutes, stadium in background"

The rabid energy of the crowd was impressive, and it was difficult not to remember the chilling scenes from Among the Thugs in which Bill Buford finds himself caught up in the destructive rampages of Britain's football hooligans, rather uncomfortably enjoying the raw, adrenaline rush.

"will they rename Emirates Stadium, now that Dubai has gone bye-bye?"

I didn't see a single blue Chelsea scarf or Didier Drogba jersey. The civil war of London is no laughing matter. There is none of the casual banter and harmless insult exchanged between fans of opposing teams that I'm used to witnessing on the rare occasions I concern myself with sports in the United States. At least not in the drinking establishments within a stone's throw of the "home ground." The Chelsea supporters apparently stay in south London in their own pubs, and any headed to the match kept their colors well concealed underneath their coats and jackets, like Crips trying to take a short cut through Los Angeles. Kay informed that they go into the stadium through a separate visitors entrance.

At the pub about a block from the gigantic stadium all the chairs had been cleared away to avoid them being flung about during the game. Kay assured me that anyone proclaiming allegiance to Chelsea risked a good pummeling, even while noting that Arsenal was a "family team," comparatively free of hooligans. We didn't watch much of the match, as we were catching up on the intervening years, a task made challenging by an almost incessant chorus of spectators chanting "Red Armeeeee, Red Armeeeee!" in a sort of chaotic and asynchronous round that at times approached the sort of sublime accidental sonority that is the goal of much avant-garde music. "The referee's a wanker," they chanted in semi-unison, before continuing on to others much more lewd.

"even the 'no parking' stanchions are carefully painted to match Arsenal's colors"

The remarkable thing, of course, is that we were in a pub. Neither the referees nor the opposing team were within earshot. The notion that the home team crowd, chanting in unison, might overwhelm the opposing team with their expressions of love for the local boys, or that the officials might wriggle in dismay in their jailhouse stripes, was off the table. The chanting served no other purpose than as a raw expression of the primal urge.

Oh, woe, on Holloway Road: Chelsea 3, Arsenal Nil


No word yet on whether or not it's a single malt...

Via the continuously fabulous Boing-Boing comes the exciting news that a couple of cases of Scotch abandoned by Ernest Shackleton's expedition may soon be disinterred by the Antarctic Heritage Trust after one hundred years buried in ice. As much as one would like to have a sip, tasting the romance and aura imbued by a century of icy mellowing, the most remarkable thing about this discovered cache has to be that it wasn't all drunk back in the day.

I can pretty much guarantee you that at the McMurdo Antarctic station of today any cases of Scotch that might go missing end up consumed, well before the end of the season. When the weather is inclement and resupply of alcohol uncertain, folks are known for lining up at the lone shop, buying up anything stronger than a ginger ale, and hoarding it. How Shackleton's boys let a couple of boxes slip through the cracks and into a real or proverbial crevasse, undrunk, is just another of the eternal mysteries of Antarctic exploration.


The best reason never to have a sex scene in your novel

Repeating a favorite pun in this year's coverage of my favorite literary prize, the Guardian informs that the "Bad Sex Award shortlist pits Philip Roth against Stiff Competition." I've never read anything by Mr. Competition, but, like Paul Theroux, he's a two-time offender. (November 2006's headline reads: "Stiff Competition on Bad Sex shortlist"). There are some heavy hitters in the running this year. The list is HERE.

This dubious achievement award goes to the author of the most "unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant sex scene in an otherwise sound literary novel," and past winners include Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Perhaps unsurprisingly there aren't a tremendous selection of excerpts from past nominations to be found on the web, but this collection from 2003 is representative. It reeks so strongly of clammy, clichéd comminglings that one imagines the judges holding their noses while forced to choose only one of these pathetic passages to reward as the very most stinkingist. Almost nothing is funnier, or as awful, as a serious writer trying to write something more than porn.


Sean Hannity and Cuban Government Propaganda

Political rallies exist, almost by definition, as a demonstration of force, commitment and intensity of feeling about a given issue. The more people who show up in support of a particular position, the more legitimacy, or at least gravity, it garners in the eyes of the world. The spectre of thousands of people piling on buses and heading to Washington implies a particular level of sacrifice: the wee-hour alarm clock, the milling about the assembly point in the dawn chill, the long ride on a stinky bus, the car-sick mascot. All this is why twenty thousand people assembled on Capitol Hill are worth more than a million clicks on an email link that says "sign this petition," and it also explains why I was so irate after my mother and I read in the New York Times, on the day after attending a mammoth demonstration attempting to prevent the Iraq war, that "thousands" of people had attended. We were sure (and likely correct) that "hundreds of thousands" would have been more appropriate.

There are, of course, tried and true methods to boost the numbers. Serving wine and grilled steaks at your rally will almost certainly inspire a higher turnout, as will good weather and the promise that celebrities and entertainers will appear on the stage of your cause.

There are some even more artificial methods for boosting the wider public perception of the numbers, which is what really matters. One of the classics is that used by both the "fair and balanced" Fox News and the state-run television network of the Cuban government. If your rally is sparsely attended, simply include video footage of a much larger crowd of people from some other moment in time, in order to create the illusion of numbers. Thank God for watchdogs like Jon Stewart:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
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Sean Hannity Uses Glenn Beck's Protest Footage

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You are wondering where Cuba comes into this. In the year 2000, during the Elian Gonzalez crisis, I was busy clawing my way across the island, preparing to write Walking to Guantánamo. The country was subjected to one gigantic rally after another, propaganda masterpieces demanding the return of the child Elian to Cuban soil. I happened to be in Camagüey when it was that city's turn to host one. In the morning the sounds of the distant rally boomed over the rooftops, and the air was churned by the helicopters filming it. I hope it isn't obnoxious to quote from my own book:

I followed my ears to the demonstration, walking through empty streets lined with parked guaguas. The battered buses had brought demonstrators from every corner of the province. Nearing the zoological gardens, I fought a tide of people streaming out of the rally, each with a tiny paper flag....

As soon as they had been counted, and filmed by the helicopters, many people took advantage of the free transportation to enjoy a day in the city. I joined the streams of people flowing toward the center of town. Like the Cubans, I had done the required and put in a brief appearance.

Back on the television at [the house where I was staying], the masterful multicamera production continued uninterrupted, looking just as urgent and crowded as it had before. Again and again, the live editor cut to sweeping aerials from overhead helicopter shots, demonstrating the magnitude and density of the crowd. But the sound of the rotor blades was no longer heard whirring above the house. The crowd scenes had been filmed earlier in the day, just after the buses unloaded.

I'll leave aside the irony that Comedy Central is the only network now consistently bringing us quality advocacy journalism. Someone very sharp at The Daily Show spotted this egregious use by Fox of typically authoritarian propaganda technique, and, perhaps because of a viral campaign of complaints to the FCC, Sean Hannity was forced to apologize:

This smarmy man has a very creative use of "inadvertent." Doesn't this word mean "by accident," or "not on purpose"?  In my long and illustrious career as a sound recordist for film and television I think I've been sufficiently exposed to the workings of broadcast news to ridicule this notion. The introduced footage is from two months ago. Are we meant to believe that Fox News simply has piles of videotapes stacked hither and thither in the edit suite, unlabeled and undated? Here's a hypothetical, fictional conversation between an editor and a producer, which I've created especially for this occasion and inadvertently include here:

Producer: Hannity wants to say that there were 20,000 people at the rally.
Editor: I'm not really sure we have the coverage for that. The cameraman pretty much filmed the steps where the Congressional delegation was standing.
P: Didn't he get cutaways of the crowd?
E:  No, he did. (Weren't you there, telling him what to shoot? Maybe you were at Starbucks?) It's just that the shots aren't really too impressive. It looks like a few people are having a picnic out on the lawn and a couple of the usual loonies are standing around holding their signs. There's not much there I can work with.
P: Hannity's going to be pissed. What are we going to do about it?
E: Well, I did have one thought. You know I cut that segment on the Glenn Beck rally, back in September.
P: What about it?
E: How can I put this? I still have a nice fat folder of selected crowd shots from that rally, right here on my hard drive....
P: Whoa there, cowboy. Great idea, but I never heard a word about it, okay? Plausible deniability. But if you think you can make it fly, go for it. I'm going out for coffee, you want a soy chai latte?

 At least the Cubans are smart enough to use footage from the same day.


I would tell you to keep the tip, but I see you already did

It would be wonderful if attending the Gede bacchanal at Miami Beach's Tap-Tap Restaurant became an annual ritual, but for the moment it has to be considered just a coincidence that I am back in Miami a second year in a row for the Haitian day of the Dead.

A familiar cast of characters turned up, both from the spirit world and from among the local supporters of Haitian culture. There's nothing quite like a perfect shrimp créole with voodoo drumming pulsing in the background, and so before the revels I had dinner at the front of the restaurant with my old friends Dori and Joseph Vuksanovic.

As we were settling up the check, Dori pointed out that the tip was included. It has been common for years in New York to add the tip onto the check for parties of six or more, presumably because twenty percent of such a significant sum proves to be such a daunting lump that large groups are emboldened to downsize the gratuity. But we were only three, and as a New Yorker it was shocking to find myself removed of all agency in the decision of how well to remunerate the wait staff. Dori laughed and explained that it is this way all over South Beach, because so many of the customers are tourists from Europe, unaccustomed to tipping.

I was reminded of an episode from my illustrious career as a temporary automotive storage specialist at that venerable hash-slingery, the Water Club, a fine dining establishment floating in Manhattan's East River. A good friend of mine, a waitron, as we valet parking attendants referred to the waiters there, came very close to losing his job after adding the tip to a check. The customer had run up quite a total, dining a deux and drinking Cristal champagne. He was of German origin. In thirty years in the city he had gained a New York attitude without losing anything of his accent. Our friend, who shall remain nameless, smelled a stiff. He assumed the gentleman was a Bavarian fat-cat just off the Lufthansa flight, someone accustomed after paying his bill to leaving on the table nothing but a few small coins and some pocket lint. His date was probably a pro. So he wrote his 18% onto the back end of the check.

Bitterness, tears and agony ensued. The man stormed about the dining room, proclaiming in a loud voice that he was not some tight-fisted Schwabian rube here to be taken advantage of. He owned an apartment nearby, he said. He had lived here for years and never seen such an outrage. He shouted, and pouted, and called for the head of the waiter on a platter, in lieu of an after-dinner mint. He told the manager that he wanted to see the manager. In this serene environment of white tablecloths and candlelight, with the East River burbling by outside the grand plate-glass windows, drama like this was unacceptable. The next day a memorandum was issued by the administrative offices of the restaurant informing all wait-staff (and, inexplicably, the valet corps) that under no circumstances were gratuities to be added onto checks.

That Miami Beach has abandoned any remaining pretense of the gratuity's relationship to service is, just like Halloween in Red Hook, an indicator of America's growing sense of entitlement and inevitable, concomitant decline.


Halloween and the end of US dominion

The arrival at my home on Saturday night of only one miserable trio of trick-or-treaters is a compelling indictment of the contemporary American way of life. A barometer, falling, of our standing in the world. I don't want to make too much of it, but the "financial crisis" might easily have been predicted by an astute analyst sitting through any recent long and lonely Halloween evening in my living room.

It isn't that there is anything to fear out on the local streets to account for the dismal turnout. The crack wars ended more than a decade ago; for most of this millenium the nearby blocks have been filled with the sounds of young pioneers, hammering and sawing and renovating Red Hook into its current state of eminently trendy desirability. My once edgy neighborhood has been conclusively gentrified. On days other than Halloween, I am known to gripe and moan that one can scarcely walk down the sidewalks any more, so clogged are they with strollers. In a few brief years this formerly marginal stretch of industrial waterfront has become as Park Slope, the Upper West Side, or any of the other notorious baby-making neighborhoods of New York City. There are, in short, an abundant supply of toddlers, and grinning, fawning parents eager to accompany them as they trick and treat, holding their moist, plump little hands while escorting them about the neighborhood.

But it is well-known that the Halloween pickings here are comparatively slim. The buildings are widely spaced, and there is still the occasional vacant lot. There are even one or two uninhabited shells, undoubtedly haunted. The stoops are steep, the doorbells ersatz and erratically positioned. On many blocks residences are mixed in with anonymous businesses that operate behind unwelcoming steel doors.

Contrast this with the uniform brownstone rows of Park Slope, where dozens of affluent households may be visited on any given stretch of street, and one will quickly appreciate that children there enjoy what economists call a "comparative market advantage." Here in Red Hook the aspiring pre-pubescent candy-collector must wander past an apartment building, cross in front of a vacant lot, and pass a small factory or sweatshop before finally collecting hard-won treats from one or two strange and isolated houses. Not so in Park Slope, just across the Gowanus canal. It is the neighborhood of choice in which to harvest the low-hanging fruit of the treat orgy, a place in which nobody poor or dangerous or threatening could possibly afford to live.

If you lived here in Red Hook, you might do the same as the local folks, which is to exploit this inefficiency in the market. In other words, pack your ten-year old in the station wagon and drive him or her the mile-and-a-half up the hill to the Slope, to knock on the doors of complete strangers who are not neighbors. It is more secure, the bag is filled easily and quickly. The parent spends less time, and the child is more richly rewarded. In investment terms going to Park Slope is a low-risk strategy with a market-beating rate of return. But at what cost?

 Unexploited resource

It isn't that I feel lonely, or neglected, although those emotions are close to the ones I felt in the moment, as I puttered about the kitchen, cooking, a lonely and hopeful wooden bowl full of candies placed on a chair near the front door. Ultimately I don't particularly mind that I myself did so little business. After all, I will be subsisting on those undistributed sweets for weeks to come. But viewed from two quite different perspectives, last night's pathetic showing can only be seen as another powerful indicator of the decline of United States hegemony, an explanation for the falling dollar and the surging deficit. In it are manifested, on the one hand, our sense of entitlement, and on the other, a grievous lack of initiative.

The origins of the trick-or-treat tradition are murky, but clearly it was once a pagan ritual involving a symbolic extortion and redistribution of wealth. Treats were doled out in order to purchase protection against unspecified tricks. As late as the 1970s in central New Jersey this contract was understood to mean that in return for handing out candy a homeowner would be exempted from having his aluminum siding pelted with eggs. Such notions may persist to this very day in some suburban enclaves.

If this ritual once delivered a social good it was surely that one had an opportunity to better know the neighborhood, to meet and greet one's neighbors, admiring their children and exalting the creativity that went into their costumes, irrespective of their wealth or social standing. All this has now been swallowed up in a tidal wave of consumerism. Everyone from the children to the candy companies and the costumer licensees of the latest Hollywood entertainments now look on Halloween as a fundamental cornerstone of the commercial calendar. There is no earning of treats with implied threats of violence, no messing about chatting with the neighbors on the stoop; a sackful of confections is simply an inevitable and predetermined reward waiting at the end of October. Whether it comes from working one's way through one's own neighborhood or targeting a reliable and high-density alien zone seems not to matter. From the parents' perspective, taking a drive out of the neighborhood is the fastest way to fulfill the child's expectations.

Our society feels there is nothing wrong with this strategy, because we have come to take the full bag of candy for granted. The social lubricative advantage of the original ritual has been lost; the only thing remaining of importance is what ends up the sack. In broader economic terms the meteoric rise of outsourcing, and the desperate promotion by our government of favorable "free trade" policies in the neo-liberal age, are obvious parallels. Both the exported labor, sent chasing the lowest possible wage, and the tariff-free importation of the goods thereby produced, amount to nothing more than an effort to keep our candy bag topped up to the brim. We seem to feel we deserve a certain standard, although we are no longer the ones struggling for it.

Viewed another way, where are those children willing to trample all over the others in their mad rush to get at the sweets? Where are the contenders? I have a whole bowl full of uncollected candy sitting over here. Where are the kids who went to Park Slope first, racked up, came home, dropped off the loot, and then headed right back out for more? Where are the envelope-pushers of trick-or-treating? Where are the teenagers who are perhaps just a bit too old and really ought to know better? Where are the late-comers who ring the doorbell just after you've gone up to bed, willing to offend in order to collect just one more candy bar? Where are the innovators, offering their leaf-raking services in return for an extra Snickers? How about a little competitive spirit?