Immigration Bill Update

I don't have to move to Argentina just yet. Yesterday the Senate trampled all over the immigration bill in yet another rebuke to the Bush Administration, refusing to pass it and its Trojan horse national identity card provision.... I suspect it failed thanks primarily to my rabble-rousing fax....


Letter to the Senators

We don't usually pulpit around here, but if my government tells me I can't go outside and walk down to the corner bodega without a national identity card in my pocket I'm buying a vineyard in Argentina and keeping my income tax payments in a cigar box.

Here's the issue, courtesy of boing-boing and here's where you have a last chance to do something about it.

Here's what I wrote to Hil and Shoe:

My Dear Senators
The waves of noxious legislation encroaching on the personal freedoms of the American people and the grand traditions of their great nation, which began immediately after the horrors of September 11th, need to stop now. While there can be no doubt that there are those out in the world who wish to harm us, the instituting of a national-identity card requirement flies in the face of everything that this country has traditionally stood for. The forces of international terrorism will have won a great victory on the day that Americans are required to carry identity papers on their person, at all times. Should you believe that this proposed program "is not about that," you must consider its insidious potential rather than its proposed use. History tell us plainly that identity cards will inevitably be used as a tool to punish, to segregate, to intimidate and to arrest those who are already marginalized in our society.

I can imagine little that is more un-American than a national identity card. In my lifetime I have been a great traveler, and have visited more than 60 countries. In any country I have been where there was a national identity card this "required" document was used as a tool of oppression and control and considered a great nuisance and expense. Are we so arrogant as to believe that we would do it any differently?

Please support the Baucus-Tester and Grassley-Baucus amendments to the immigration bill and suppress this vile proposal.

Many Thanks


A Monsoon comes to Brooklyn (sell your waterfront property now dept.)

The Pacific navigators of yore leaned out of their proas and observed the angle of the chop of the waves before glancing at the distant horizon to read there a comprehensive meteorological report. Millennia ago, our species could smell as well as many others; alert heads turned at the distant wafted whiff of a predator; our ears pricked up at the scent of potential prey. Today, although in many ways alleged to be more advanced, we have lost those skills. Therefore, I may be wrong when I say that this summer, the sky over Brooklyn has a new and troubling aspect, an ominous look never before seen in these latitudes. There is an inexorable, rolling, bruised eggplant character to clouds that bring waves of rain, falling in sheets before passing quickly on, leaving a churning purple mass to reconstitute itself in the sky. Evening after evening a narrow slit of sulphurous yellow lies to the west, behind the Statue of Liberty, crushed under thick, gray, swirling cotton fit to burst, the sorts of clouds that in all my many travels have always served to announce and reinforce an arrival in the tropics. Here in Brooklyn we have, suddenly, heavy, wet, oppressive skies straight out of the Guatemalan rainy season, weather that one might expect to seeing gathering on the Amazonian horizon or lurking behind an Indonesian island in a Joseph Conrad novel. It is something alien, a Philippine typhoon gathering above New York harbor.

In other news, it is 105 degrees plus in southern Romania, as if it were August in the Sahara.

These things are not normal.


An American Master

Regular readers have had ample opportunity to read my bitter, middle-aged gripings about the ruination of the lower east side by an overabundance of faux-european watering holes and the wandering weenies who clutch their hipster guidebooks while stumbling through the neighborhood from one poncey boutique to another, leaving a trail of gentrification and American Express Gold card credit slips in their wake. For curmudgeons like myself, of course, the glory days were long ago, no matter how old you are; if you are too young to have been there, well, too bad, it was better then. Before I moved away. More real. More authentic. More dangerous. More fun. More like Bushwick. At that time Clinton St., now a three-block-long restaurant row of overpriced finesse, was an open-air narcotics Wal-mart, an endless parade of slow, trolling cars, surreptitious palmslides and the flashing of green paper and yellow butane in gloomy bulb-smashed alcoves. In 1989, with the exception of one or two grimy Mah-Jong parlors and the Parkside Lounge, a blighted inner-city whiskey-shooter ballasted by a resident handful of crumpled puerto-rican geriatrics, there was scarcely a bar to be found in the entire district east of the Bowery and south of Houston street. Now, of course, there appear to be hundreds, and the once urine-streaked tenements have been done up with aluminum and glass storefronts. On Ludlow St. one of the pioneers of this pernicious process was Max Fish, where, gentrifiers all, my cronies and I spent far too much of our leisure time through much of the early 1990s, acting artistic.

In fact Max Fish was (and is) the center of a thriving arts scene; it's just that the staff on the side of the bar where they keep all the bottles was more prolific, more dedicated and in every way more serious about actually making art than most of those who were warming the stools on the other side. Over the years a number of wonderful artists paid their dues schlepping the ice-tub there; some of them are still at it. At Max Fish, if you wonder after the whereabouts of your favorite bartender, you are more likely to learn that they are off on a sculpture retreat in the Berkshires, in Oregon teaching a seminar on print-making or at an artists' colony in Canada, rather than vacationing on a tropical beach somewhere. The bar also serves as an art gallery, with monthly shows, some curated by bartenders. I hadn't been by in a few years, but the prospect in late April of an imminent Swipple group show offered the promise of a reunion of sorts, so a handful of us Brooklynites put principle aside and headed into Manhattan on a purely voluntary basis to go to the opening.

Swipple is a sort of loose association of artists with a strong online presence. Founded by Jason Wright, himself a former Max Fish pourer, Swipple has curated and put on group shows of Swipple artists on both coasts and even in some of the flyover states. Although having made drinks at Max Fish is not a prerequisite for Swipple membership, those who have put in time on Ludlow St. are well represented in its ranks. Many associates from the golden age of the lower east side have dispersed across the continent, and new artists unknown to us have been added to the Swipple fold, but the extravaganza at the Fish did not disappoint. The crowd was filled with familiar faces. Peering at those who some years ago had existed on the edge of acquaintance was slightly disconcerting in that one wasn't quite sure who in the crowd had come back and who might quite possibly never have left.

Jim Damron, however, I knew had decamped some years ago to an unknown and isolated frontier somewhere in central California. It was immediately obvious from one glance at the wall that the bucolic isolation of his self-imposed exile has refreshed and invigorated his painting and that while toiling away in the wilds of the tomato fields or whatever, he has made great strides as an artist. His portrait of Fidel Castro positively leapt off of the wall at me, and the few minutes it took between spotting it and determining from Jason Wright that it had not yet sold were fraught with anxiety. Fellow Brooklynite and chief boon crony Joseph, himself yet another former cocktail stirrer at the Fish, now turned real estate mogul and furniture designer and the (currently and only temporarily) faster half of the Atlas Cycling Team, was much taken with Damron's masterly portraits of Galileo and Newton, and suffered similarly stressful moments. (A slideshow of the entire show and even a photograph of the festive opening can be seen here.) Luckily we had arrived early. It took us no time at all, like emigrants made good returning to a little mexican village in fresh Nike sneakers, to demonstrate that we have thrived, at least financially, in the outer boroughs. Whipping out mountains of cash and slapping them on the bar in dueling piles, we then rubbed our palms with glee as Jim Damron himself affixed little neon-orange "SOLD" stickers to the sheetrock walls beside our new purchases.

Fidel in situ, back in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Meanwhile, twinkling on the café tabletops were examples of another Damron masterwork, the "Fertility Light." Small, glowing, battery operated lamps made out of recycled Beech-nut baby food jars, they are the sculptural equivalent of a doodle. At only $25 dollars a pop I felt these were such a steal that in my infectious enthusiasm I quickly convinced a number of attractive young ladies propping up the bar that their lives would be incomplete without owning one. It was only then that I realized to my horror that I had single-handedly sold out the entire world supply of Damron votive lamps without managing first to secure one for myself!

Now that Jim, safely back in California, has managed to supply me, I feel feel much better in urging you to get one too.

Three of the many moods of the world's coolest lamp, my Jim Damron "Fertility Light," Red Hook installation view. The Swipple Website warns: "May cause birth control failure."


Pull up your damn pants

Fabulous. Dallas is now contemplating litigation against the more-than-a-decade-old fashion trend of wearing saggy pants. Discounting the influence of my father, who pioneered "extreme plumber's crack" all the way back in the middle 1960s, this admittedly lame and objectionable mode of jeans-wearing originates from the penitentiary and regulations preventing incarcerated Americans from wearing belts, both to minimize suicides and because belts are, duh, a potential weapon. So the city of Dallas, in considering criminalizing low-pants-wearing, is bringing things full circle. Those poor inner-city unfortunates amongst us who have such dim prospects ahead of them that the most optimistic they can be is to idealize and mimic the thug lifestyle of their imprisoned contemporaries now face incarceration merely for aping the sartorial style of their role-models "upstate." No need to commit a crime--we'll gladly send you away just on the basis of your self-identifying as a thug! Expect the Dallas police force to shortly hold a press conference opposing this legislation on the grounds that malefactors with their pants belted around their knees can't run very fast.


Reading: Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez

Some years back, while on the walk across Cuba mentioned a couple of posts ago, I finally delved deep enough into One Hundred Years of Solitude to become completely hooked, at last emerging out the back of the novel in shock and awe at the supreme talents of the master. In mid-read I met, in the city of Ciego de Avila, another American traveller-writer, and when I explained to my embarrassment that I was reading it for the first time we discovered that both of us had suffered repeated failed attempts to get through it, separated by many years, before gobbling it whole and joining the ranks of those who consider it among the very greatest novels. Since then I have met other readers who likewise dipped a toe in that murky pond many times before at last being caught up in the swirling whirlpool of Macondo. I'm not sure how to account for this, other than to imagine Garcia-Marquez refusing to write a single word with the intent to entrap and entice the reader into turning the page rather than to recount the history of his imagined clan.

It is difficult to imagine the toil and struggle required to produce the perhaps aptly named One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not so the journalistic Clandestine in Chile: the Adventures of Manuel Litin, a slim volume of 114 pages, which Garcia-Marquez distilled from eighteen hours of interviews with Litin. One imagines the writer banging it out on a newspaperman's schedule, but it is a measure of the author's enormity that the relaxed, documentary first-person story of the exiled filmmaker's secret return to Pinochet's Chile keeps you on the edge of your seat, despite portraying its narrator as a relaxed, carefree and foolhardy hippy who sometimes seems unaware of the potential consequences of his dangerous dance through the terribly altered country. And while Clandestine in Chile is far from the top of Garcia-Marquez' long resume of literary accomplishments I found myself, reading it, just as embarrassed not to have picked it up before as I was to have only gotten to One Hundred Years of Solitude at the creaky old age of thirty-five.

In 1985 Litin returned to Chile in disguise to make a film about the dictatorship and its ongoing impact on his country. In his introduction to his account, Garcia-Marquez leads with a documentary filmmaking truism: he imagines that the "making-of," the film about making the film, risks being as interesting as the film itself. "When Miguel Littín told me what he had done and how he had done it," he writes, "I realized that behind his film there was another film that would probably never be made."

The requirements and conditions of filmmaking are so absurd that in fifteen years of working as a soundman on documentaries I cannot remember a single shoot reaching its conclusion without some episode prompting the comment that "we should be filming ourselves." On some films one has this feeling all day, every day, prompted by episodes like the beseeching of a Philippine peasant to hoe the exact same furrow, "in the exact same way as before," over and over again, in fact six times. This repeated request is so inexplicable as to result in fifteen minutes of bemused discussion between the peasant and the translator. All the while copious amounts of smoke and fire are puffing out of the ears of the producer like steam from a kettle. The problem resolved, the crew demands lunch.

The tension between the subject, who invariably wishes to be as hospitable as possible and is generally interrupting his or her day in order to share themselves and their life, and the filmmakers, who desperately hope that their presence will not provoke any change whatsoever in the daily life they hope to capture with honesty and authenticity, has throughout my career been the stuff of endless hilarity. I have been on countless shoots where I have witnessed some variant on the following conversation:

Subject (having just been filmed collecting his pigeons in the pigeon-coop after being forced to re-release them three times in a row): So, what would you all like to do now?

Director: Well, what would you do now? Nothing you wouldn't do normally. What would you do if we weren't here?

Subject: I'd probably make myself a cup of tea. Or take a nap.

Director: A nap's no good. It doesn't make good TV. Tea? The thing about tea is, it isn't very active. We would really like to see you, you know, it would be nice if you were doing, if you were doing,... doing something.

Subject: Like what?

Director: Well, what might you be doing? Could you be hammering something? Maybe hammering a board onto the pigeon coop?

Subject: I could do that if you want , but I think that would terrify the birds.

Director: Well, not that, then. What could we do? What other sorts of things do you get up to?

Subject: Tea sounds nice.

Director: Don't you worry, we'll get you some tea. For now we need to just concentrate on getting this next shot.

Director (to cinematographer): Phil, Phil, we really need some B-roll here. Can we do tea? Can we make making tea look exciting?

Phil the Cinematographer: Of course.

Director: But is it active enough?

Phil: Don't worry, we'll cheat it; I'll make it look good.

Director (to subject): Okay, here's an idea. What if you made some tea now? How would you go about it?

Subject walks over to stove, turns on a burner, picks up kettle and walks to sink and begins filling it.

Director: Wait! Wait! We're not ready. We need you to empty the kettle and start over...

Me (the soundperson, to the director): That faucet is really noisy. Would you mind asking him not to do any speaking at the actual moment that he is filling the kettle? That will make it much easier to edit.

After that prolonged digression into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, let us return to the resolutely unfunny Chilean dictatorship. Garcia-Marquez, intrigued by the idea that Litin had made a documentary in Pinochet's Chile using three different foreign crews, none of which knew of the existence of the others, nor, for much of the filming, even of the presence of Litin himself, sets out to write the "making-of." Litin, disguised as a bourgeois Uruguayan businessman, spent much of his time in Santiago directing the cameramen via subtle hand signals, waved from dozens of yards away across plazas and parks to one trusted assistant, who "translated them." It was a brave and heroic, but also foolhardy and somewhat absurd undertaking. It seems almost implausible to me that any great amount of the footage could actually reflect his vision, but it is the filmmaker's personal journey through the once familiar territory of his beloved Chile that is truly fascinating.

In the midst of the drama of trying to get a film made under such harrowing circumstances, it is Garcia-Marquez's observations on identity and exile, as experienced by Litin, which make for the most poignant reading. Of wearing a suit and attempting to assume the persona of just the sort of latin-american oligarch he pities and despises, the narrator says "changing personality is a daily battle in which, wishing to continue being ourselves, we keep rebelling against our own determination to change." Sitting alone in a restaurant in Valparaiso, still frequented by an elderly couple who had known Litin and his wife when he was courting her there, Marquez-Litin watches the couple and observes that "occasionally they would look over at me without curiosity, without the slightest inkling that we had once enjoyed each other's company at the same table. It wasn't until that moment that I realized how long and devastating the years of exile had been. Not just for those of us who had left--as I had thought until then--but also for the ones who had stayed."

Those who left, like Litin, are the old guard. He discovers that within the country is a new generation of dissidents struggling against the savage Pinochet dictatorship, youngsters who scarcely know his name or the names of Allende's murdered colleagues. He shuttles around like James Bond, changing hotels and taxis dozens of times, wearing a blindfold on visits to the secret hideaways of the resistance while trying to come to terms with the ongoing dictatorship and his sense of loss and abandonment. He lingers and lingers, captivated by the prospect that a dissident general in the junta is on the point of offering himself up for a clandestine tell-all interview. Meanwhile he cannot shake the feeling that the junta is, if not on his tracks, at least aware that something is up. It is the moment for flight, and for editing the film, but we can tell that Litin wishes terribly that he could stay.

I met a Chilean on that trip through Cuba, one of the few exiles who decided to stay in Havana rather than return after the final, long-awaited demise of the General. It was too different for him, the new Chile, too full of shopping, infected by a general obsession with money, how to get it and keep it. "Nobody wants to remember what happened to us," he told me. "It might interrupt commerce." Litin, of course did go back, to work, making films, but after reading Garcia-Marquez' account the one I would most like to see was the one he made in 1986 when he was persona non grata.


My Cellphone Got Run Over by a Bus

I know, you're thinking I'm behaving like the yellow press, stooping to any eye-catching headline just to grab up some readers. But it isn't true. Or rather, the headline is true. Some sinister force is at work, trying to keep me disconnected from our over-connected world. After leaving the mobile telephone in Germany on my recent trip there and going phoneless for a good ten days while the antiquated snail-mail system struggled with international delivery, it finally arrived some time last week. But reunification was short-lived. Yesterday I drove up to Court St. to buy some mat-board and managed in my prematurely senile way to set the phone on the hood of the truck while wrestling the 32 X 40" sheet into the cab. Then I drove off. Because the large sheet of card risked damage from the stick-shift I drove cautiously down the hill. So cautiously that it was only some twelve blocks later, on the cobblestone stretch beyond the BQE, near the garbage transfer station, that I heard through the open window the thunk of an object falling from my truck onto the pavement. In a flash the thought entered my mind: PHONE! I rounded the corner onto Lorraine and pulled over onto the sidewalk, already looking back over my shoulder. Turning off the truck, I jumped out just in time to watch a school bus lumbering down the street. I could clearly see the phone, nestled in a little divot in the cobblestones. The front wheels of the bus missed the phone by inches. I hastened towards the corner, but the rear wheels of the mighty yellow behemoth scored a direct hit--the phone lifted up into the air after the wheel had passed, as if in the throes of a final, mortal vibration. To my astonishment, once recouperated, the phone powered up again. I can still receive calls, but can't make any, as the keypad no longer functions. Don't send any text messages; at the moment I can't read them. On a positive note, the new and improved display has a beauty all its own, like the sheen of motor oil on a fresh rain puddle.


The Rebar Chairs of Cuba

Between polishing my new wood floor and reinstalling my kitchen, I've been spending some time lately going through stacks of photographs taken a number of years ago on my epic journey across Cuba on foot. (If you are new to this blog and work for the State Department or the Department of the Treasury, now is the time for me to tell you that everything written here is a meticulous fiction, no matter how much it may appear to be essentially documentary in nature....) This journey may or may not have happened in what I would refer to as Cuba's "late Special Period," meaning well after the demise of the Supreme Soviet. The collapse of the USSR brought many hardships to Cuba; soap, for instance, was in 1994 and 1995 almost impossible to obtain anywhere on the island, and at that time Cubans washed as best they could with limes.

It seems unlikely that the Soviets were ever particularly adept at producing and exporting patio furniture; certainly what little industry there had been in this area had long since ceased by the dawning of the new millennium, when I might have set out to walk the length of the island. One hears much about the ingenuity of the Cubans in that time of hardship and scarcity, and as a result wherever I might have went I found no lack of outdoor seating.

To cope with the difficulties of having a seat on the front porch in a time when there was no seating, the Cubans elevated the lowly rebar, that humble pig-iron rod used in vast quantities for concrete reinforcement, to the status of a primary construction material. The result, with some deft bending and welding, was a plethora of indestructible outdoor furniture. Found the length and breadth of the country, in styles ranging from the bauhaus knockoff to the positively baroque, the rebar chair became for me a testimony to the resilience of the Cuban peoples, and a signifier of their desire to sit down and relax.

Since then I have become a big fan of rebar, which crops up again and again in the so-called third world, that mass of impoverished countries of which Fidel Castro has so often been pleased to consider himself the philosophical leader. My potrack is made of rebar, welded into a configuration copied from the window-guards of mud houses in Rwanda. The spindles supporting my banister, my friend Joseph informed me while graciously lending me the use of his shop to machine them, are "the only drilled and tapped lengths of rebar in the history of mankind." I have a chisel made of rebar, found in a coastal hardware store in Brazil. Some might say that I have seized on using the material as an ongoing design theme throughout my abode only because I am a cheap bastard, but I prefer to date my interest back to the ingenious, bespoke, chairs of Cuba.