The Ghetto Biennale online

Now online is PRI's Christmas day edition of "The World," which included my report on the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

If you are visiting from "The World" and want more, scroll down a couple of posts for additional images and commentary from Port-au-Prince's Grand Rue. I'll happily address any questions left in the comments.


Suicide Bloomers

The Nigerian would-be terrorist who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam apparently had high explosives sewn into his underwear.

The Daily News also reports that US lawmakers (from the minority party) are already clamoring for an investigation into how this millionaire son of a banker was ever allowed to board a plane in the first place. He has apparently been on the terrorist watch list for two years (along with 550,000 others), and his religious fanaticism so troubled his financier father that the latter stopped into the US embassy in Lagos to warn them about his own son.

To which the only appropriate response from the Obama administration should be "when is the last time you took a Nigerian banker's 'exciting offer of confidential information' seriously?"



The Ghetto Biennale on PRI's "The World"

I'm assured that tomorrow, on Christmas day, my report on Port-au-Prince's recent Ghetto Biennale will air on PRI's The World. If in the United States check your local NPR affiliate station for showtimes HERE. For all you international listeners, the story will post to the PRI website on Monday, the 28th. I'll put a link up then.


In the meanwhile, they've already posted a Flickr set of my photographs from the trip, along with the almost oppressive suggestion that you visit this very same blog to "see more about the Biennale." Why oppressive? In addition to working on the piece for The World, I spent much of the last ten days writing stories about the event for the Suddeutsche Zeitung, the Times of London, the Miami Herald and the BBC's From our own Correspondent. Keeping all of these stories fresh and different has been enough of a challenge without more blogging on top of it.

Nonetheless, for those of you visiting from The World's link, antarcticiana refuses to disappoint, so here are a few more images from my recent trip to Haiti, where I was hanging out on the Grand Rue with a group of sculptors who make amazing vodou-assemblage art out of the discarded refuse of western civilization.

A detail from an André Eugene sculpture of a "Gede," installed right on the curb of the Grand Rue, along the Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The entire figure is about seven feet tall, with a ribcage welded together out of rebar. As I understand it, Gedes are a tribe of spirits representing the ancestors. One of the foremost among them is Bawon Samedi, literally "Baron Saturday," who is feted at the beginning of November with a vodou ceremony clearly correspondent with the Christian All Saints Day. I've blogged about the annual Gede festivity at Tap-Tap in Miami, before. The Gedes manifest a beguiling combination of sexuality and death, which Eugene explained to me in terms of a yin-yang duality he says permeates vodou. The Baron's voracious sexual appetite, he said, represents life, through procreation; but wherever life is present, so too is its opposite, death. The head of this sculpture is an actual human skull. Eugene says these occasionally wash out of the cemetery up the hill, appearing in the streets during violent storms, but they are so prevalent in the work of the Grand Rue artists that something more than hurricanes must be at work. I suspect locals now collect them and pass them along for a finder's fee.

A "Tap-tap," or public bus, sporting a mural of "Sweet Mickey," a popular konpa band based out of Petionville, the rich suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Konpa (compas) is the dominant dance music of Haiti, a slow lilting groove something like a francophone version of salsa, danced "kole-kole," meaning "stuck together." Religious imagery is at least as popular a motif as pop-culture, with a special fondness for the "Jesus is my shepherd" theme as in this image on the back of the Tap-tap, below.


As part of a film crew I once made the long and kidney-churning drive to Canje, in Haiti's remote Central Plateau, to interview Paul Farmer, secular saint and subject of the Tracy Kidder biography Mountains Beyond Mountains. Farmer explained Haiti as "9,000,000 Africans kidnapped and dumped in the middle of the Caribbean with no way to get home." In the traditions of vodou and even in iconography such as that on this Tap-tap, which reads simply "Black Africa," that heritage is still very much alive, evident and celebrated. A visitor arriving to Haiti after being blindfolded and put on a plane could easily imagine that they had been transported to Senegal or Côte D'Ivoire, rather than to one of the Antilles.

But the old connections of the colonial Caribbean are equally strong. One evening, hearing a brass band playing, I wandered out of the gates of the famous and fabulous Oloffsson Hotel, which fifty years ago served as the setting for Graham Greene's The Comedians. I followed the sound to an outdoor basketball court down the road, where these musicians were practicing for carnival. The ensemble included only drums, an array of horns, and voices. Robert Peterson, the sound artist mentioned in the radio piece I did for PRI's "The World," joined me. Originally from Louisiana, he was bowled over by the similarity between this Haitian carnival music and the brass bands of New Orleans. Before the Haitian revolution and the Louisiana purchase, Port-au-Prince and New Orleans were of course sister cities in the French colonial enterprise.

On another occasion, sitting on the veranda, we heard more passing musicians. After just the very first few notes, Robert blurted out "that's funeral music." He told me that before coming to the Ghetto Biennale the farthest he had been from home was a trip to the Canadian side of the Niagara falls, but he took to Haiti immediately, wandering about with his digital recorder in a kind of exploratory ecstasy.

In the age of jet-travel and US hegemony the old trade routes that linked the great ports of the Caribbean basin have faded in our collective memory. Uncovering evidence of them is always exciting.

Much as this looks like another assemblage by the sculptors of the Grand Rue, this is a ritual space, the vodou equivalent of a shrine or altar, outside in the yard at the home of the local vodou priest. There are likely cauldrons, repositories of spirits called by the priest to do "work" on behalf of practitioners, buried in the ground beneath this installation. In Cuba I saw bundles almost identical to this thread-wrapped ball, in similar environments. The bundle most probably contains symbolic objects collected together by the client at the behest of the spirit, speaking through the priest. If the client wishes to ensure the faithfulness of his lover, for instance, the bundle might contain a lock of her hair, a photograph, or a stolen swatch of fabric from her clothing. The Hollywood stereotype of the "voodoo doll" probably originates from a mis-characterization of this sort of symbolic substitution of part for whole.

All kinds of cast-off material are incorporated into the work being made on the Grand Rue. These stick figures, with heads taken from the discarded dolls of North America, are wound around and around and around with lengths of cassette tape, mummified in music.

Another Grand Rue creation, a sort of Haitian Carmen Miranda, with a headdress made from 7up, Guiness and Prestige Beer bottle caps.


Sell your waterfront property dept. UPDATED

According to twitter stream #cop15, we've gone from Copenhagen to Hopenhagen to Nopenhagen...

Update: as the comments point out, there's also Floppenhagen. And I've reached a grumpy new stage, Mopenhagen.


Times of London

Knick-nack shelf of postmodern gargoyles on the Grand Rue, Port au Prince

My first story on the Ghetto Biennale ran in the Times of London over the weekend in the Saturday Review section. To date no trace of it online, as far as I can google. If you are in the UK, save me a copy.


Passing the buck...

I am occasionally asked if blogging isn't a distraction from more "worthy" writing projects, and I explain that the habit is a bit like the oil pump in a car. It keeps the writing muscles lubricated and active so that the engine is primed when it is time to produce some literary horsepower. I admit that it is sometimes a welcome distraction from other mundane tasks, doing the laundry, for instance. But rarely am I so busy with other writing that I had better not waste time blogging.

One of those times is now. I've just returned from an absurdly short trip to Haiti, organized at the last moment to cover the Ghetto Biennale, a unique cultural interchange between the sculptors of the Grand Rue, residents of a teeming Port au Prince slum, and an international coterie of visiting artists with a diverse array of site-specific projects. Almost all the visitors had their preconceptions immediately challenged, if not shattered, by their initial exposure to the difficult conditions and the level of poverty they encountered.

But because I will need to spend several days formulating my thoughts on the Biennale into numerous newspaper articles and at least one radio piece, I don't have time to tell you more about it here. Instead I would direct those of you frantic for your daily dose of travel musing to go and read my father's fascinating initial account of his recent trip to Israel.

To whet your appetite, here are a few of his delicious observations,

on Jewish celebration:

"...the ceremony of most Jewish festivities—(boils) down to three propositions:(1) They tried to kill us. 2) They failed. (3) So, let’s eat."

on food and its role in Jewish versus Christian community:

"An agnostic can have a fine time at a Shabbat meal; he is unlikely to go to High Mass for either the sociability or the gastronomy."

on the church at Bethlehem, in the West Bank:

"I didn’t have the sense of the money-changers actually having taken over the control of the temple as I did with some of the more familiar Christian sites in Jerusalem."



Live Blogging a Fabada Asturiana, by way of Gdansk

In Asturias, on the southern shores of the Bay of Biscay, grows a unique and enormous variety of bean. Known as Fabes de Granja, they are white, and plump, and curvaceous, rather like a cannellini bean in aspect, but not in scale. It takes four or five of your garden variety cannellini beans to match the volume and heft of a single one of its gigantesque Asturian cousins. I have never eaten Fabes de Granja, but I plan to.

A line traced along the famous camino, the ancient pilgrimage route leading from central France to Santiago de Compostela, maps also the world's greatest bean dishes. From this geoculinary perspective I have developed the tenuous hypothesis that a recipe involving the sublime combination of beans, slow stewed with smoky, fatty pork products, must have made its way through Europe, carried on the palates and the olfactory memories of the pilgrims. Midway between the cassoulet of Lyons and the white-bean feijoada of the Douro in northern Portugal sits the principality of Asturias, and its eponymous, princely, Fabada Asturiana.

A true Fabada cannot be made without Fabes, and they are not easy to obtain. Down van Brunt street at the Fairway I can buy salt from the Himalayas, onions from Vidalia County, Georgia, and tomatoes from San Marzano, outside Naples, but not Fabes de Granja. The sense of inner peace I get from cooking doesn't often involve the kind of planning ahead necessary to order beans online, so my first Fabada effort was to involve a series of compromises. And Fabes, when you can find them, go for ten to twenty dollars a pound. Dried. I wasn't sure I wanted to spend that kind of cake on some beans.

1200 hours
First a trip to Sahadi's for some classic made-in-the-USA Cannellini beans, and then on to Eagle Provisions, the Polish purveyors of all things porky. The critical non-bean ingredients in a Fabada are chorizo, morcilla, and bacon. I had some chorizo at home. The poles had a splendid slab of double-smoked bacon. "Any morcilla?" I asked. "Blood sausage?" The woman behind the counter pointed at a fat and rather scary tube of flesh in the bottom of the deli counter. It was a floppy pale gray, fully three inches in diameter, nothing like a dense, shiny eggplant-colored link of morcilla. "It's the polish one, kiszka. It's the same." Why not, I thought. It's made from blood, isn't it?

1400 hours
Poured boiling water over a pound of the dry beans to promote accelerated soaking. By 1600 they had tripled in size, which is to say the beans were almost as large as a dried Fabe de Granja. (I've never seen soaked Fabes, but they must be the size of small pillows.)

1700 hours
The kiszka, two chorizos and a nice fatty bit of bacon await the addition of the beans.

All that porcine yumminess is now temporarily buried. Cover with water. Light burner. Skim the surface scum after the first few minutes of boiling. Lower flame to barest minimum. Most recipes urge the interruption of the simmering process by the regular addition of a jolt of cold water, alleging that this help the beans remain tender. I was tempted to check Mcgee, to see if there is any scientific data to support this contention, but instead I just went ahead and did it anyway.

Soaked and ready

Almost immediately the cured meats began to render their fat, infusing the beans with smoky cholesterol goodness. The kiszka collapsed into a grainy crumble less than fifteen minutes into the long, slow simmer, leaving nothing but a shrunken and miserable scrap of sausage casing, which I removed. The rich odors of the disintegrated blood sausage were, however, pleasingly morcillaesque.

This is a staggeringly simple dish. After a couple of hours remove the chorizos and the bacon, chop them into bite sized bits, and stick them back in the pot. Aside from the pork, the only flavoring comes towards the end of the cooking with the addition of the world's easiest sofrito: three or four chopped cloves of garlic are sauteed golden in olive oil, then in goes a tablespoon full of one of my favorite of all ingredients, sweet pimenton, a couple more of flour, and a sachet of saffron. Mix this into your beans, give it another half an hour or so of melding and simmering, a bit of salt, and voilá! Insanely delicious, given that this is nothing but beans and a few inferior bits from a pig. How much better could it be with the authentic giant bean? I intend to find out.


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
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Sean Hannity Uses Glenn Beck's Protest Footage

Daily Show
Full Episodes

Political Humor
Health Care Crisis

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?


Reading: An Episode in the life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira

When the great scientific-minded explorer, Baron Alexander von Humboldt, set out across the globe hoping to discover and understand every last plant, insect and mountain range, his arduous journeys were broken by interludes of genteel luxury. His title and erudition preceded him, and he moved bearing letters of commendation and introduction to the cream of new world society, bedding down in the mansions of the aristocracy of colonialism, rich planters and ranchers pleased to host eminent thinkers from the old world. And eager to hear their news. The combination of adventure and hospitality must have made the early nineteenth century an amazing time to travel. Von Humboldt displayed a fearless and multidisciplinary optimism, examining everything from the geology, botany, topography and astronomy of the places he visited to the agriculture, social structure and psychological characteristics of their inhabitants.

An important part of this immense chronicling, in the age before photography, was visually to represent these distant landscapes and cultures, and von Humboldt traveled to the New World accompanied by a variety of contract painters mandated to capture scenes of nature and life in as faithful a manner as possible. His travels inspired other artists.

One friend and acolyte of von Humboldt's was the German artist Johan Moritz Rugendas, who seems to have spent a melancholic and almost loveless life moving steadily through latin America, painting abundantly. When he wasn't, he was pacing, impotent, in Europe, wishing only to cross the Atlantic once more and rejoin his subject matter. My meager research has revealed no biography of Rugendas, but when I discovered a novel based on his travels, blurbed and introduced by Roberto Bolaño and written by an Argentine writer, César Aira, I ordered a copy immediately.

I was shocked when Aira's novella, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, arrived in the mail from Amazon; the paperback was little more than a flimsy pamphlet. Picture the instruction booklet that comes with an electric coffee grinder, or a hair dryer. Reading it took me less than two hours from start to finish. I found it profoundly weird and not only literally thought it lightweight.

Now, some few weeks later, I'm trying to understand why Aira's imagery is so persistent, even in translation. It won't leave my head. I am almost obsessed with the gigantic two wheeled carts, "contraptions of monstrous size, as if built to give the impression that no natural force could make them budge." The shafts by which these could be hitched to a full ten teams of oxen were so long that they "seemed to disappear among the clouds." Their cargo "sometimes comprised all the goods and chattel of a magnate," and they moved at a glacial pace: 200 meters per day. Rugendas, Aira writes, felt that following them "would be like traveling in time: proceeding rapidly on horseback along the same route, they would catch up with carts that had set off in other geological eras...." Philosophically, Rugendas is fixated on the intense flatnesses of the pampas; he seems to think that reaching the flattest place on earth, something like the umbilical of the planet, will help him to reveal great pictorial truths. In retrospect this seems a bizarre metaphorical anticipation of the concerns of modernist painting, the fixation on the flatness of the canvas itself. Are these things and notions Aira's invention, like his recreation of Rugendas' emotional state? This was precisely my problem with the novel; it is such an infuriating, surreal and seamless blend of fact, fancy and imagination that I never once found myself standing on solid ground. The whole tiny book is one quaking, boggy, postmodern uncertainty.

And yet I can't rid myself of vivid visions of Rugendas, trapped in a hellish lightning storm in the pan-flat wastes of the Argentine plains, dragged face down by one stirrup behind his own horse on a black night full of thunder. I can't forget his disfigured retreat back to the comfortable hospitality of Mendoza, and his earnest friend and disciple Krause, who can barely look him in his ruined face. The Indian cattle-rustlers he painted, charging out of the southern mountains, persist in charging through my daydreams. César Aira is a master conjurer, and like a stubborn teenager at a magic show, I won't rest until I have worked out the tricks.


Live Blogging a Slow Roast

11:00 AM
Feeling that in the last two or three days I have been involved in far too little meat eating, I determine to braise. The splendors of having Fairway just down the street here in Red Hook have started to fade, however. It isn't that they don't have perfectly adequate meats, and it is a last-minute gourmet savior, but their tendency to price any vaguely ethnic item at fully double its price elsewhere has grown tiresome, and even insulting. While they stock crucial ingredients like Lebanese pomegranate molasses, Tuscan anchovies, and organic Basmati rice, their prices for these items implicitly recognize that no knowledgeable Lebanese, Tuscan, or Basmatian would actually purchase these items there. The sticker-price tagging guns are permanently dialed to the "hipster" setting.

12:30 PM

I make my way to my newly refavoritized one-stop, the colorful and totally Polish Eagle Provisions, on 5th Avenue and 18th Street. (No, not in Manhattan, silly person.) Here the prices for fresh kielbasa, eight flavors of pierogi and gigantic jars of pickles resemble those one might hope for in Gdansk.

A lonely, and I'm afraid rather ruined, octogenarian woman sits near the potted plant display, outside in the Indian summer sunshine, feverishly scraping away at a square of cardboard with a nickel. I have seen her here on other occasions buying scratch-off lottery tickets, perhaps the closest thing she has to a social life. I hurry in, heading for the artichoke salad in the cold case. A few minutes later, while ordering a sandwich from the stern red-haired matron manning the deli counter, a commotion at the front of the store:

"F@#k you, you a&&H@*e! Don't tell me what to do with my money!"

"What!? You were just thrown out of here last week, young lady, and you talk to me like that? Oh my God, the mouth on you!"

I cringe, although secretly I am glad to be back in the New York of my beloved memories. The place I moved to, years ago. How is it possible to remember fondly the sight of a man deranged by anger, charging shirtless and bloody and barefoot into the middle of Essex Street, wielding a two-by-four studded with nails? What a strange way to relate to such a violent episode. Such moments from the unpublished archives of Joseph Mitchell happen rarely now, and I peer down the dry goods aisle in surprise, just in time to see the back of the alcoholic old crone, fleeing the scene.

1:10 PM
In the meat case, a rack of beef ribs, fatty beyond marbled. Today they are practically giving away a hefty chunk of cow side. Eagle slashes the prices on their meats just before the expiration of the sell-by date. (Rather than mark them down, I suspect Fairway "sells" such meats to their in-house steam table division, where staff cooks decide when they should be turned into tomorrow's fajitas. This is only a theory, however, pure conjecture, as I also suspect they have a libel attorney on retainer.)

At the register, carrying a six-dollar slab of beef hefty enough to work out with, I ask what the hell happened.

"She won a hundred dollars. Scratch-off. You want to buy a ticket? We're hot here, obviously."

"Uh...no. So why the cursing?"

"She has a foul mouth, that one. I asked her if she was going to go over and get a slice at the pizzeria with her winnings, and she said 'I never go in there.' I know why she never goes in there, she borrowed twenty bucks from them and never went there again. So I said 'maybe you should go now, with your hundred, and give them the twenty you owe. She didn't like that one bit."

2:00 PM
These cheap, remnant cuts of meat are every bit as delicious as anything else on the cow, so long as you cook them into submission. I waste no time. Remembering a recipe from Bill Buford's sublime chronicle of cookery, Heat, I lay the ribs at the bottom of my latest eBay score, a voluminous, rectangular turquoise dutch oven. Buford's recipe is medieval, in more ways than one. My gist is likely longer than his original, but the gist is this: put the meat in some kind of pot, pour in a bottle of red wine, cover it up. Cook it overnight, or until your children are fully grown, at 200 degrees. Fine, except I want to eat meat today, not tomorrow or the next. I imagine six hours will do just fine.

2:15 PM
Fancying it up a bit, I salt, pepper and cumin the rack, then bury it underneath some beautiful potatoes and turnips grown just down the street on a former asphalt baseball diamond, by Added Value. In goes a quartered onion, a couple of bay leaves and a full bottle of marginal Carmenere someone brought to a dinner party. I predict the root vegetables will completely disintegrate, but nonetheless add a delicious, rooty flavor to the vinous gravy.

Before putting on the very heavy lid, a layer of foil, to lock in as much of that wine as possible.

2:20 PM

Into the oven, on the lowest setting possible. I love my twenty-inch wide Kenmore gas stove, a spectacular white enamel relic from the 1950s that my friend Dodo discovered in her basement and gifted to me years ago. It does have one drawback, however. The "Robert Shaw" thermostat lacks precision. I don't know how the medievals managed it exactly, but for the ultimate slow braise you should aim for a temperature right around that of boiling water. I can't get the Robert Shaw below 240. On the other hand, I don't think they had oven thermometers in the thirteenth century.

Goodbye, see you in six hours. Note the after-market oven thermometer on the floor of the oven in the lower-right hand corner, a $7 device that has given this fifty-year old stove many years of extra usefulness.

5:00 PM
The temptation to open the oven, lift the lid, and have a peek approaches overwhelming. Despite the foil seal and the closed oven door, the house is filled with the aroma of hot, bubbling beef fat, caramelizing starches and reduced essence of boiling wine. I find it difficult to concentrate on anything, and I leave the house, heading on foot to the Fairway for some Brussels sprouts, which I suddenly feel certain will make a lovely side.

Blanched Brussels sprouts sauteed with shredded zucchini, garlic, and shards of dried hot red pepper, then liberally sprinkled with caraway seeds.

8:00 PM
The moment of truth approaches. My fear with this kind of preparation is that eventually the pot must cook dry, but the aromas, which now permeate the entire house, are divine. Even sniffing around the stove door there are no suggestions of char. Off comes the top. The vegetables, undisturbed where they lay cradled in the hollow of the ribs, have survived completely intact. I gently jiggle one rib-bone, and it immediately separates from its meat, coming away clean in my hand. The thickened remains of the wine lie underneath a thick, clear layer of molten beef tallow. I spoon as much of this rendered fat off as possible, but plenty remains to contribute its flavor to the gravy, which will be spooned over the root vegetables.

8:35 PM
Drool and consume. No knife required.