Me and Eddy (Updated)

A few weeks back, superstar portrait photographer and honorary* member of the Brooklyn Pinarello User's Group, Wolfgang Wesener, dropped me an email with a hot tip. The greatest cyclist in the history of the sport was shortly to venture out from his lair in Belgium on a rare visit to New York.

Known for obvious reasons as "the cannibal," Eddy Merckx won the Tour de France five times, a total since eclipsed, but in his era he dominated the sport more completely than any rider before or since. He held the one-hour record and triumphed in innumerable classics, including the savage Paris-Roubaix, which he won three times. He is a legend, at the top of any list of the most famous Belgians in history. There is a subway station in Brussels named after him. The man walks the streets of Flanders like a living god.

Did I want to come along and drink free beer and meet the monster-legend? Certainly! The event was a press-tivity celebrating the fifty years of Bicycling Magazine, held incongruously at the Classic Car Club on lower Hudson St. To accommodate the guests, the Car Club had emptied their showroom onto the surrounding streets; the sidewalks outside were strewn with Aston Martins and Porsches.

Inside, they had wine, and cheese, and some of the latest carbon-fiber bicycles manufactured under the Merckx imprimatur. While these feather-weight ugly ducklings are all the rage, it should be pointed out that Merckx himself rode in an era when men were men and bikes were made of steel.

The event logo is inspired: a view of Eddy's posterior, with the man looking back at you over his shoulder. It's a reminder to the many, feebler, one-time followers that the best they could manage was to approach the back end of greatness.

I was focused on the cheese platter, but Wesener had an ulterior motive. He hoped to convince Merckx, or Merckx's people, or Merckx's patrons at Bicycling, to schedule a sitting for a portrait. While I gobbled canapés and helped myself to pair after pair of the complimentary bicycling socks on offer at the door, Wolfgang schmoozed. He has photographed flamboyant denizens of the Manhattan nightlife demi-monde of the 1980s, patrician vintners of the grape-clad hills of Tuscany, and innumerable superstars of the crank and cog, the stage and screen. A few choice names of former subjects, a list varied gently depending on the context, are enough to serve as an impressive resumé. Within moments he was back, breathless. Merckx was due to fly back to Belgium early the next morning, but at the end of the party he might spare a few minutes. There was only one problem. Wesener hadn't anticipated being able to photograph at the very event. All his gear was 30 blocks north, in his apartment. Would I consent to stick around and keep an eye on Merckx, while he went to collect it? I looked around cautiously, trying to ascertain whether they were still serving hors d'oeuvres. "Sure," I said, spying a tray of saté'd chicken skewers, "Why not?"

Baron Merckx and Wolfgang Wesener discuss the finer points of cycling strategy.

And so, without quite intending to do so, I had volunteered to be a photographic assistant for the evening. A short round-trip taxicab later Wesener returned, and I was helping set up lights, run power cords and sit for test portraits. Suddenly, it felt like a day at the office. It was all remarkably like preparing to film an interview, when the sound person is invariably asked to sit in the "hot seat" and give the cameraman something to focus on. As if we don't have our own work to do.

"The Cannibal," graciously autographing.

The installation complete, the evening became a waiting game. There is a certain amount of suspense to these affairs, for despite the lavish promises of the minions, the possibility always exists that the celebrity subject will feel overwhelmed by the end of the evening, put upon, hungry for the fine dinner he has been promised. Imperious or petulant, the coddled star may simply announce that he or she has had quite enough of signing cocktail napkins and making banal cocktail chitchat with the teeming masses. Then with a rush the handlers converge, and the whole posse swishes out the door and into the waiting limo and are gone, leaving you forlornly toying with dials on your now impotent, subjectless camera.

But Mr. Merckx is a gentleman. He endured for much of his life the searing burn of lactic acid in his oxygen-starved muscles as he demolished the cycling opposition; such men are not daunted by the social indignities of arranged public appearances. He came and took his seat. I held the reflector. Wesener snapped away, burning quickly through a couple of rolls of film. Film, real film. With just an exposure or two left to go he urged me insert myself into the frame, for a souvenir moment with Eddy.

A few days later, the film developed, Wesener called.
"You're very lucky, Mr. Fleming."
"Why is that?"
"The best picture of Eddy is the one with you in it!"

The next week, a print arrived in the mail.

For those of you who are unaware of it, my name, Fleming, was one widely given to impoverished Belgians (the Flemish) who fled Flanders and emigrated to Ireland seeking greener pastures, possibly as early as the 11th century. "Oh, here comes another boat-load of Flemings," the Irish would remark, when on slow days they enjoyed going down to the harbor to watch the ships unload. As this image makes clear, the passing centuries have done nothing to erase the winning, world-dominating DNA of we flatlanders. The shared intensity of gaze, the identical noses, the parallel angles, the commitment to victory at all costs. Me and Eddy.

Final image courtesy of WoWe

*Manhattan residents are only eligible to be "honorary" members. 

UPDATE 10/3/2011:

Wesener is not just some dilettante on a Pinarello. While my rides around Prospect Park this summer have been mainly about lowering my cholesterol and getting regular aerobic exercise, WW was in serious training for L'Eroica, the Tuscan cycling marathon held yesterday in the wine country of Chianti. (This explains, perhaps, why on our rides together I was desperately trying to hang on to his rear wheel). Today, in an email, he's written a sort of haikuish summary of the savage ride, much of it held on the unpaved roads that wind through the hills of Tuscany:

it was dark when we started and dark
when we finished
i did the 205 km (details later)
the dirt roads (50% of the race)
were hell (and nearly destroyed me)
it's so exhausting that after a while
you aren't aware of the incredibly
beautiful landscape anymore.

Eh, Congratulations, Paisan!


Deep in the Heart of Bavarian Staten Island

Three weeks ago or so, when Irene was just a hot breeze swirling around the Bahamas, Laura and I had an overlapping free weekday. Usually, we would head straight for Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, to see lots of birds amidst not so many people as on a weekend. This year, however, the unseasonable torrents of August rain and an administrative / budgetary snafu have left the East Pond, where the water level is normally manipulated to maximize its attractiveness to migrating waders, far too full for any self-respecting shorebird to pause there. "What do you say we explore the oyster-baron mansions of Staten Island?" proposed Laura.

"The what?" The murky, industrial waterfront surrounding Staten Island includes graveyards of rusting tugboats, miles of petroleum storage tanks and semi-submerged, expired ferries. But one hundred and more years ago, these now dubious waters teemed with oysters, and great fortunes were made harvesting them and serving them in the oyster bars of Manhattan and beyond. What's more, Laura informed me, a few of the grand residences of the oyster oligarchs might still be standing along Staten Island's northwest shore, enjoying a harborfront view of Manhattan.

It now costs $13 to cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which is close enough to the ticket price at MOMA that we were determined to savor every moment on the "borough of parks."

The nouveau-riche have always been fond of reviving the Greeks, and apparently the oyster magnates were no different. Now abandoned, the front yard wooly and overgrown, this titan is just waiting for a little bit of love and elbow-grease. One suspects it comes with a fascinating midden of oyster shells somewhere out back.

The wrought iron-fences, the closest one can approach, are more art nouveau than nouveau riche. They're very nice, and I'm frankly surprised no enterprising recycler-looters have never made off with them.

Right next door, there is no house left at all, only competing wrought iron gates complete with the presumed initials of an oyster magnate in the style of a champagne bottle label, demonstrating a certain consistency in the dominant Staten Island aesthetic over the years.

We followed the shore south and west, around the channel of the Arthur kill. There seemed to be no further evidence of the splendid oyster epoch. Suddenly we stumbled into a corner of Bavaria, not far from New Jersey, and providentially just in time for lunch. Almost across the street from a shady and overgrown graveyard filled with headstones of first generation immigrants from the old country, we found Killmeyer's.

Except for the ATM sign and the slot-mounted air-conditioner one would swear one was in any of countless villages in the surrounds of Munich.

We made for the tented biergarten in the back yard, empty of people on this weekday noon, but crowded with plastic Wal-mart patio furniture. A dirndled waitress, somewhat surprised to see us, soon brought us the list of spezialitäten. A blackboard on the wall listed an impressive array of deutsche brews. Traitors to the south, we ordered refreshing tankards of Gaffel Kolsch, a beer so delicious that it inspires in me the hope of one day visiting Cologne.

Latkes, and spaetzle mit wienerschnitzel. The latter seemed perhaps to have been breaded and frozen somewhere back in the old country, but we weren't really there for the food. Apparently on weekends Killmeyer's features their own local oompah band.

After this unexpected transatlantic adventure, we wended our slightly blurry way back to Brooklyn, where we regaled our good friend and favorite saloonkeeper St. John Frizell with our tales of intrepid outerborough exploration. "OMG!," he said, "You've discovered Killmeyer's. I love that place. Did you see the bar? It was built by itinerant Czech carpenters. Apparently they just traveled around stopping into places and offering to build authentic Praguian furnishings. Isn't it spectacular?" Absolutely, we agreed at once, and made on the spot a vague plan someday to return together, and polka.



In the Hood

Nairobi has more than its fair share of slums, including Kibera, said to be Africa's largest. One imagines that worldwide only Asian megalopolises like Jakarta, Dhaka or Mumbai can compete in terms of sheer acreage of shantytown. Life is grim here, with up to a dozen family members packed into a single dirt-walled shed. Open rivulets of sewage stream down narrow trails between rows of houses. When it rains these turn into foul raging rivers of mud and filth, eroding away the base of the houses. An utter lack of security and civil services mean most people are afraid to venture out at night for the dangerous trek to the latrines. Such toilet blocks, where there are any, can be hundreds of yards from the house, and serve hundreds of families, but getting to one in the dark invites rape and abuse. The result is the notorious "flying toilet": urgent nocturnal movements are deposited into plastic bags which are then flung randomly over the corrugated tin rooftops at dawn. The price of staple starches, like maize and cassava flour, has more than doubled in recent years. But life, commerce and community still manage to cling on. Vendors line the wider mud avenues selling vegetables, charcoal and chapatis, and music booms out of the rum shops, including, at the top of the last photograph here, the "Obama Busaa Club".


Laboring on Labor Day

I spent this morning, labor day, filming in Nairobi with the wonderful and inspirational Rebecca Lolosoli, pioneer founder of Umoja, the all women's Samburu village. It's apparently a sort of Amazonian women's power move, established as a retreat from the endemic abuse and wife-beating of traditional Samburu society. Male relatives are allowed to visit the village, briefly, but on the whole the Umojians are doing just fine without us men. 

Photo courtesy David Smoler