Will work for rum

Some forty-eight hours ago, a cry for help went out from Daric Schlesselman to the members of the Van Brunt Stillhouse facebook page. Schlesselman is my neighbor, three houses and a vacant lot to the west of me, and he recently launched a new alcoholic business venture. His rum distillery is another neighbor of mine, three blocks and several vacant lots to the east, and I had been eager to stop in for a visit for some time, just to watch the sweet nectar drip out of the alembic.

"Time to start the rum!" He wrote. "As a few of you know, I had to buy sugar in 20 oz. bags this time around. I know. I'm insane. Who knew that sugar is seasonal? I would love some help cutting open all the bags for the first batch. I'm offering a bottle of rum to anyone who comes and helps open sugar...."

His message captures the essence of what it is that I love about my neighborhood. New York City is not a place where people typically stop next door to borrow an onion, an egg, or a couple of inches of ginger, but I do this sort of thing all the time. Red Hook is a village unto itself, hidden away in a remote corner of Brooklyn, surrounded on two and a half sides by water. Although the population seems almost to have tripled in recent years, and I see many new and unfamiliar faces in the streets, it retains the kind of casually intimate public life and community self-awareness described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities as essential to any thriving neighborhood. Despite her analysis, these are today rare commodities.

I'm proud and happy to live in a place where my neighbors are comfortable sending out the Brooklyn artisanal locavore version of an invitation to an Amish barn-raising. For this to work, however, one has not only to think it's a lovely idea, but also to participate. So, yesterday morning, after a couple of pots of tea, I clipped the box-cutter my father had conveniently given me for Christmas onto my belt, and headed down the block.

"She was only a bootlegger's daughter, but he loved her still."

Denise and Tim, unbaggin'

In Haitian kréyol they say "men anpil, chay pa lou," a classic aphorism of communal labor that plausibly originated with slaves cutting sugar cane. Meaning: "with lots of people, the burden is light," or, "many hands make light work." Daric had slightly pessimistically written "depending on work flow and number of hands, I'll be there into the evening [i]f you'd like to help but can't come until later...." I arrived about ten-thirty and was home an hour later, five hundred pounds of organic, unrefined sugar having been liberated from its packaging. When that bottle of rum shows up on my doorstep I just know those few drops of neighborhood sweat that went into it are going to make it taste that much sweeter.

We gathered around the vat, knives flashing. Derek Dominy (center) proposed that we form a union, but we were finished work before we had even had time to have our first meeting.

The merry crew, after licking their fingers and rinsing their blades.

 Daric and his wife, Sarah Ludington, checking the plumbing. The sugar is dissolved into a slurry and then put into a holding tank much like a wine cuve, where rare Guadeloupian yeasts will hasten it on its journey rumward.

Stirring the sweetness. This would go great with pancakes.


Desert Therapy

On jets flying into Las Vegas from the east, the bubbling red hills of the River of Fire are visible out the starboard side windows. Almost grotesque, these wave-like ridges of orange sandstone rise incongruously out of the desert floor, weathered into globules, as if molten. I didn't know what they were when I saw them, but later, when I saw "River of Fire" on the map, fifty or sixty miles east of the city, I was certain that's what I had been looking at out of the airplane.

It is perhaps a commonplace to note that Las Vegas is the most appalling city in the United States. My heart freshly broken, I was working on a film shoot when I probably ought to have been at a spa, or reclining on a psychiatrist's couch. I was staying at the Palazzo, twin luxury tower of the absurd Venetian, with its plastic indoor canals, imported gondolier-chanteurs ($65 for a twelve minute paddle through a mall, now that's entertainment!) and multi-story shopping experience replete with all the finest names in the franchise pantheon. There are more glorified fast-food joints bearing Mario Batali's imprimatur than you can shake a pair of chopsticks at. In my room, on my California king-size bed, operating my remote-controlled draperies, I couldn't stop thinking that someone else should be there by my side, my one-time best friend, to ridicule the laughable opulence, the black-marbled bath, the gold-brocade settee, the view, from twenties stories up, of an endless acreage of gleaming conference-center roofing dotted with air-conditioning units.

I had the brilliant idea that I would extend my trip by a couple of days, and drive away from the neon and the plastic, deep into the desert, and surround myself with an eternity of primeval rock, soothe my soul, contemplate my faults, bravely face the future.

After four days in the canned, smoky casino air and the eternal twilight of the utterly bogus Piazza San Marco, I felt I needed to get into the desert just to recover from Las Vegas, let alone the catastrophic trainwreck of my serial monogamy. The good news? Speeding along the blacktop with the windows rolled down in the desert cool, the gilded shark-fin towers of the Vegas strip receded quickly into the distance, and from memory. Surrounded by millenia-old sandstone bluffs unchanged since long-before they were wandered only by barefoot Anasazi, the grotesqueries of Vegas barely registered on my consciousness. The bad news? The heartbreak, not so easily diminished.

To try and recover from the sudden and unexpected shattering of your life by going alone into the desert, is a double-edged sword. In retrospect, I would argue that it was very brave of me. Lying, alone in my tent, the freezing desert sky filled with a billion stars, was a magnificent exercise in solitude. It was absolutely quiet. Except for the occasional bird or passing airplane, even during the day the winter desert was absolutely quiet, with a quality of silence I have not experienced since being in Antarctica. At night it was a perfect, complete silence. To be there, alone, is manifestly to prove that you are capable of being alone, that the world will not come to an end just because you are alone in it. Geologically, I was surrounded by proof that the world has existed for millions of years, compared with which the entirety of humanity and the triviality of its billion broken hearts is but an infinitesimal blip on the timeline of wind-sculpted rock.

But the tent was built for two people. Not for nothing is the desert the setting I find most compelling for Waiting for Godot. At least Vladimir and Estragon had one other to talk to. In south-west Utah I drove through places where pressing "seek" on the car-radio resulted only in an endless loop of blurry numbers. Like those numbers, the mind races. It fills with a turbulent tide of self-doubt, fear, longing and loss. The salty water sloshed around in my brain, constantly threatening to leak out of my eyes as fragile tears. The staggering beauty of the folded red rock and the striated canyons sometimes barely registered. I wanted to lose myself in the landscape, but it was difficult not to drive past all the magnificence as if trying to escape, or fleeing a crime scene.

I got to the airport four hours early, where I enjoyed bad enchiladas and the hilarious immorality of a departure gate clogged with one-armed bandits, cynically exploiting the desperate addicts who deposit the last of their dollars while listening with one ear for their row to be called.


As we slid through the orange midnight sky into JFK, I thought, the lights of New York City haven't looked this good in years.


On Newstands Now!

In what I suspect will be almost the very last time I have any excuse to blow my own horn with regard to Walking to Guantánamo, I am pleased to toot that the eminent academic journal Studies in Travel Writing has a special issue devoted to Cuba out right now.  My own name appears in its pages with alarming frequency. The journal, as far as I know the only one of its kind devoted to the genre I practice, one I often have difficulty explaining to people--so, you wrote a kind of a guidebook?--includes in the current issue a lengthy conversation between Peter Hulme and myself, two long excerpts from the book, and a review. I suspect I've seen the last of the last of these, although I haven't yet seen this last one, if you see what what I mean, but even if I've been raked over the coals I'll take what I can get at this point; not too many people review books three years after their publication.

In case they don't carry it down at your corner bodega, you can order your special commemorative edition here, all the way from Nottingham. Or at least look at the table of contents.


The Art just Keeps on Coming

A year ago, I blogged about the artist Beriah Wall, who has a refreshingly anti-capitalist approach to art distribution: he gives his away. Yesterday, as I was leaving the house in the evening to attend the opening of the long-awaited Kara Hamilton show at Salon 94 Freemans, I found on my stoop the latest example of free art from the always timely Wall. Call it a token of the times.

Verse: See a banker...

Obverse: Smack a banker OWS

(Although Hamilton makes her objects not out of clay but of precious metals and wonderous found objects from the natural world, I believe there may be significant overlap between her work and Wall's when it comes to critiquing conventional notions of the value, worth and price of art objects. About which more soon, perhaps.)