Fiery Threads

Some twenty years ago, early in my career recording sound for documentary film, I traveled to Honduras and El Salvador as part of a team working to expose the slave-like conditions suffered by the workers who make the billions of garments that Americans consume every year. What we found was that the typical individual sitting behind a sewing machine was an uneducated woman in her late teens or early twenties, often forced to take birth control against her will (to preserve the factory’s “investment” in having trained her), routinely subject to the predatory sexual advances of the floor managers. Many were naïve country girls lured to the city’s favela outskirts by the hope of a job. They were chosen because they were the most compliant and powerless segment of the population. Shifts were absurdly long, overtime routinely withheld. The pay was derisory, some tiny fraction of a dollar an hour; many women we clandestinely spoke with reported spending more than a quarter of each day’s earnings on bus fare and a meager lunch. The huge factories required no more investment than a few hundred sewing machines, some fluorescent tubing, and just enough fans to prevent the workers from fainting on the line in the tropical heat. Invariably, these maquilas were located inside the gates of a tax-advantaged “free trade zone,” protected by a private security force beholden only to the managers. Any demands for better conditions or wages were met with beatings, and promises from the garment contractors to simply pull up stakes and relocate in some even more inexpensive and unregulated country: Haiti, perhaps, or Nicaragua, or Bangladesh.

The stories emerging from this last country in the wake of the deadly Tazreen Fashions factory fire last weekend suggest that little has improved in the globalized world of garment manufacture. Scattered in the wreckage of the factory, among the charred bodies of the 112 dead, were scorched labels for Wal-Mart’s house jeanswear brand, “Faded Glory.” (An apt description of the American garment industry, demolished by “race to the bottom” outsourcing). The spokesmouths of the global retailing titan quickly announced that although Tazreen had once produced clothing for Wal-Mart, they were “no longer authorized” to do so. They blamed, and immediately fired, a supplier who they suggested had illicitly subcontracted with the unauthorized Tazreen, as if the conditions there were uniquely bad, or particularly dangerous. If you believe them, in today’s global marketplace, the world’s biggest companies don’t have the vaguest control over who is manufacturing their products, and under what conditions. Public relations departments and other corporate spin doctors have apparently become so sophisticated that huge international brands can manage to “stand behind their products” while simultaneously denying any knowledge of the savage conditions under which they are produced. Clearly the programs of “voluntary” self-policing put in place by many gigantic international brands are essentially window-dressing. The many contractors and sub-contractors operating their independent freelance factories from Dhaka to the Dominican Republic serve an important role: they obfuscate the supply chain. When something goes wrong, Wal-Mart, or Hanes, or the Gap, or any of countless others claim to be just another disappointed customer, (albeit a bulk customer) sorry to hear that some “renegade” factory didn’t live up to the exacting standards on the mimeographed form they had once held a photo-op to insist should be posted prominently on the wall near the exit doors.

I’m not the first to note the grisly similarity between the Tazreen inferno and the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist fire of Greenwich Village, New York, which killed 146 mostly young, mostly female, mostly uneducated recently immigrated seamstresses, just over a century ago, in March of 1911. That disaster was instrumental in the creation of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, and a catalyst for the discussion of worker’s rights in the United States. In an age when the clothes we wear are produced on the far side of the continent, in a distant country most people cannot locate on a map, it seems optimistic to hope that Tazreen might inspire the same kind of movement. Instead, companies must be held to account, by their customers. We need to change our ideas about what makes a brand worth wearing. 

On that trip to El Salvador twenty years ago, Charles Kernaghan, our guide from the National Labor Committee, estimated the cost of the labor spent on the production of a t-shirt at one half of one percent of its ultimate retail price. The cost of the fabric itself, and the shipping involved in offshore operations represented larger fractions, but most companies spend vastly more on advertising and marketing than on anything actually reflected in the quality of the shirt on your back. This means that doubling the pittance these exploited workers are paid would have a negligible effect on the in-store cost of most garments. Uh, I don't know about you, but I'd be okay with that. 

Photos from my own wardrobe.


Fighting over gasoline on election day....

Farther than the eye can see...

I drove out of the neighborhood for the first time since Sandy hit, only taking the car because I needed to drop off some soggy but salvageable possessions at the mini-storage. It was quite a shock. In part because life seems utterly normal in Carroll Gardens, just a few significant feet higher in elevation than my own wet basement. This is in contrast to the constant presence of sanitation workers, FEMA personnel, roving police cars, boots, sump pumps, downed trees, anxious citizens, volunteers, mud and piles of rotten sheetrock in Red Hook.

I went to Caputo's for a sandwich and sat on the roof of the pickup to eat it in the afternoon sunshine. Caputo's is a full five blocks uphill from Hamilton Avenue on Court St., and what looked like the most unholy traffic jam ever to hit the neighborhood was actually, the deli-man told me, the line to buy gas at a distant BP station. I estimated 90 minutes to get down the hill, based on how often the cars moved. What's more, almost of these cars were on, running, idling as they idly burned gas in their urgent desire to wait for an hour and a half to go and buy more gas. Fuming climate-changing fumes out of their tailpipes, with their feet on the brakes. Staggering.

Newspaper reports describe fistfights breaking out in gas lines, and service-station attendants turning off the pumps until the police have restored the peace. Our society has a major addiction problem. This is, at a minimum, a tri-state multi-million person crisis of access to fuel, caused by a minor glitch in the supply chain. We need a major rethink.

The irony is too delicious. An intense storm, likely the result of global climate change caused by the profligate burning of fossil fuels, inspires humans to line up like sheep, and fight with one another like rams, in order to purchase more of those suicidal fuels. Someone is trying to tell us something.


"Walking to Guantánamo" at the University of the South

I am very pleased to announce that "Walking to Guantánamo," the photography exhibit, opens today at the Art Gallery of the University of the South, also known as Sewanee, in Tennessee. If in the region, the show will be up until November 20th.

On October 26th I'll be speaking in Guerry Auditorium at 3PM, adjacent to the gallery, reception to follow. I hope to see you there!

 Installation photographs courtesy of Shelley MacLaren, Sewanee


Half the Sky on PBS

Naptime at New Light, a children's hostel and daycare in the Kalighat red light district in Calcutta, India. Founded and run by my friend Urmi Basu, New Light aims to break a cycle in which caste, environment, tradition and stigma combine to force children to follow the footsteps of their mothers into prostitution.

Half the Sky, the PBS / Show of Force production based around Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's bestseller about women confronting the most gruesome problems and issues they face in the (primarily) developing world, will finally be broadcast this coming Monday and Tuesday, October 1st and 2nd, at 9PM EST, on PBS. (Channel 13 in NYC). But check, as they say, your local listings.

Working on this series consumed much of my 2011; I made multiple trips to Asia and Africa, many of which I blogged about in one way or another in these pages last year. Working on "Half the Sky" was a deeply moving and rugged experience, and I hope you'll find the time to watch it. This is one of those rare cases where I really do feel that a film has the potential to bring about positive change in the world!

A wheelchair made from a $2.99 WalMart lawn chair, at the Edna Adan maternity hospital, in Hargeisa, Somaliland. Edna's hospital trains midwives, an incredibly successful, simple, and comparatively inexpensive way to combat the staggering rate of maternal mortality in Somalia.


Gun Control

Is seven a wave? Red Hook is all atwitter. It's impossible to walk down the street without having a conversation about the rash of gun crime that has made the neighborhood itchy in recent weeks. Seven incidents of on-the-street stickup is without a doubt statistically significant number. No shots have been fired, but having looked down the barrel of a gun a few years ago (in another country) I would certainly prefer to be mugged with a knife. Keep your eyes open, friends and neighbors.

So far, the worst thing about this pattern of anti-social behavior for me personally is how it showcases my inclination to profile. When you hear that a sixteen-year-old black young man pulled out a gun at noon-thirty on a sunny day, it makes it really difficult not to look askance at each-and-every sixteenish-looking young black male when you pass him in the street. This is how the police do their loathsome stop-and-frisk business all day long, and I can't bear them for it, and now I see a reflection of myself in their mirrored sunglasses. I don't like any of it one bit.

Photo: Stolen from facebook (no gun used), taken, I think, by Karin Weiner


Wedding Day! (with apologies to Christian Venier)

I'm getting married today!

and my father made these spectacular letterpressed wine labels, with which I have covered up the actual label of a spectacular wine, from Christian Venier in the Loire valley. So, Christian, I'm sorry, but it is all for a very, very good cause!


All the attractions, in one convenient location!

I was at an address today. I can't tell it to you. I'm keeping it a secret.

This was on a private, wedding related mission. I'm getting married, in case you haven't been paying attention.

The person I was going to see had said "call me when you get downstairs, the buzzer isn't working." Nonetheless, out of habit, I looked for their name on the directory outside. Without success. The whole building is full of secrets.


Relegated to the Salvage Yard of History...

The entryway to my bathroom, where renovations are ungoing, needs, among other finishing renovatory touches, a door. To ensure the privacy in that most private of rooms, I've been making the rounds of the Brooklyn salvage yards and upcyclers, looking for just the perfect portal.

Underneath the Smith and 9th Street "F" train station, itself eternally closed for renovations, lurks a vendor of previously owned clawfoot tubs, iron railings, doors, mouldings, and commemorative framed photographs of President Obama.

What a difference four years makes. Here I found poor Barack, available for a very negotiable, unfixed price, nestled right up against the antique mirror frames and unwanted fireplace mantles of brownstone Brooklyn. How long did it take the owner of this jubilant print to become disillusioned? Will Obama ever rise again, to be hung on the wall of some other proud American? I certainly hope so, the alternative being too dire to contemplate, but I also understand the feelings of dispossession and disappointment that brought this poor commemorative artwork to this low place. I'm afraid I was not buying it.


Now with enhanced security!

 This Quality Inn and Suites, where I stayed last weekend on the world's slowest drive up to Boston, should consider evaluating their security practices.

On top of the in-box, at the reception desk, so they'll be handy, for the night shift.


Bathroom Renovation

My apologies for the desultory and inconsistent bloggery exhibited here at antarcticiana over the recent seasons. In the brief few months of this year my personal life has gone from dismal and unfocused, even ruined, to completed, ordered, and joyous. This swing of the pendulum has taken its toll on my blog output. At the one end, I was too depressed and distraught to really see any point to it. And at the other, the exciting revelation that I had found my life partner made all that time spent online seem a waste of moments possibly spent with her.

She, however, has a job, so I can't blame all my lack of output on romance. I still do have much time to sit around and write things of little importance, during the day. So the rest I blame on a long-overdue renovation of the petite bathroom here at the homestead. Although I didn't do anything like the lion's share of the work myself, I have fussed and fidgeted enough to fill the days, making countless trips to Lowe's to purchase bits of this and that. In fact, there are still some days left to go. Bathrooms take time, like fine wine.

Although one of the many sub-themes of this eclectic blog is the  "greatest outhouses of the world," until now we have not given any coverage whatsoever to interior bathrooms. But on a (comparatively) recent trip to Louisville we were able to use a bathroom of such magnificence that it seemed appropriate to, in the vernacular, "go there." Off to be spectators at the famed Kentucky Derby, we stayed at the invitation of a dear friend in his Louisville manse, a spectacular residence now on the Kentucky state registry of historic homes. Each and every room was charming and well-appointed, but none so remarkable, perhaps, as the Delftware guest bathroom.

This is, you will have gathered by now, not my bathroom, and not my renovation. (I promise to post photographs of my own water closet soon--I sense a new theme developing.) In Louisville we washed and relieved ourselves using appurtenances decorated by the late ceramicist and artist Mary Alice Hadley. According to the Hadley Pottery creation myth, Miss Mary Alice in 1939 combined her artistic talents with the clay-tile glazing expertise of her Kentucky antecedents to create some dishware for the family houseboat. Her whimsical plates proved so popular that Hadley was urged to go into business, and the pottery bearing her name still operates in Louisville. To judge from the current Hadley Pottery listings on eBay, the company made rather a specialty of what are for my taste overly cute prancing ponies and childlike floral motifs. Her personal bathroom is a different matter.

The famed claypits of Louisville were not only useful for producing teacups and coffee mugs. In the days when the United States manufactured things, Kentucky was a source for toilets, sinks and baths. As the story goes, Hadley, when renovating her own powder room, shut down the assembly line at the local toilet factory long enough to custom-decorate her own bespoke crapper. Entering the john at the Hadley house, one is transported to the aqueous depths of Atlantis. One dives, hopefully not literally, into a world of starfish, bowl-swimming snapper and waving blue kelp. The tub is ruled by Neptune himself, together with a mermaid concubine.

Ms. Katherine Dixon, my lovely fiancé, in Derby finery, in front of the lovely Hadley House.


Seaglass Manufacturing Facility

The south shore of Sultanahmet is marked by a long waterfront promenade, divided from the sea of Marmara by a beach made of jagged, craggy boulders. Here, men fish, by the hundreds, casting lines baited with up to a dozen tiny, wriggling silver fish. On weekends, a grassy waterfront park is thronged with barbecuers and chattering families. Traffic zips past behind, the four lane highway dividing the city from the water. It's a bit like Havana's malecon, except that Istanbul has twenty million inhabitants. Nonetheless, the water is a sparkling, Mediterranean blue.

Among the weekend diversions on offer is target shooting, with air rifles. Early in the morning men set up these impromptu ranges, clambering over the boulders to string lines of balloons and build thickets of empty beer bottles on the rocks, some ten meters below the waterside walkway. They don't seem to have prizes; one pays, I think, for the rental of the airgun and the purchase of some rounds of ammunition. It's all about hitting things, firing, popping and shattering. Pity the hapless fish that surfaces too close behind. I would also advise against swimming.

The strings of balloons lining the coast are weird, but somehow beautiful; the longer lengths of them, hanging like inflatable laundry above the surf, suggest an intervention by Christo. But by afternoon the rocks are scattered with popped ballons, and shards of bottle awaiting the tide that will churn them into seaglass.


A Day at the Races, Part Two

As I noted below my last post, the Kentucky Derby, perhaps not an easy way to make money, is nonetheless money in the bank for any aspiring street photographer. The hats, the alcohol and the fevered viewing of the horses compile into countless revelatory and unguarded moments. Here's a second series from a weekend in Louisville: