Sunday, February 15, 2009

My First NY Times Byline

My first byline in the NY Times appeared today. You can get to it by following this link.

Jollibee is a Filipino fast food chain which just opened its first East Coast location in Woodside, Queens. Given how I feel about chains, how I feel about food, and how I feel about chains that serve food, I can't say this was the kind of story I imagined myself writing. But given how I feel about neighborhoods, community folkways, touchstones from other cultures and how they that get translated by immigrants when they come to New York, this is exactly the kinds of story I imagined myself writing.

Here's a bit of the backstory.

The piece was filed on Friday in time to appear in today's Times. But the grand opening was scheduled for yesterday, Valentine's Day, at 7AM. I heard from a few folks in the community that there'd probably be a line by then. For fried chicken, burgers, and spaghetti in sweet sauce. That is to say, not for typical 7AM food.

I got there about 6:45a and started taking some tape for a separate radio piece. A few guys at the front of the line had been there since 2:30 AM. The next few folks arrived a little after 5 AM. Now there were 50 or so people waiting on line. The queue ran around the corner and partway down the side street.

Some last minute repairs were being done on the front door by workers. Every time it swung open for an adjustment, the closest dozen or so let up a big cheer. The unmistakable scent of fried chicken wafted out.

Finally, at 7:15, the Jollibee mascot appeared from behind the counter and came to unlock the front door to officially open the store and greet customers as they rushed by to the counter at the far end of the store. I got swept up in the wave at the front of the crowd. I managed to get a tape of some of the first orders being placed. Quickly, a separate line formed at each of the 4 cash registers. They ran 7 or 8 deep. Because of a snafu with the phone company, the computerized registers lacked a connection to the Internet. Orders were taken by hand on pads and tabulated on pocket calculators and iPhones. There was a bustle, but everyone was orderly and polite. And soon enough, boxes of Chicken joy and wrapped Yumburgers were being handed over the counter.

From what I have gathered in speaking with a couple of dozen customers and members of the community in the past few weeks, there is remarkable pride among Filipinos about Jollibee. Sure, they love the taste of comfort food that reminds them of the chain back home that many of them grew up with. But there seems to be much more pride about the chain's economic success. Comparisons to the Korean chain Pinkberry were mentioned a couple of times. Got some good quotes around that. More to come, I hope!

And here are some pics that were snapped by folks there on Saturday:

Friday, August 29, 2008

Day 391 - Waiting for Gustav

Leg 7: 497 miles from Lockhart, TX, to New Orleans, LA
Leg 8: 1,377 miles from NOLA to NYC via Amtrak
(3,959 driving miles; 5,336 total miles)

I am writing this from a train I wished they called the City of New Orleans. Alas, it’s called the Crescent which, frankly, wants for an iconic folk song to match Arlo Guthrie’s paean to the former Illinois Central’s New Orleans-to-Chicago train.

We left New Orleans on time, just past 7am today, Friday, due in New York tomorrow afternoon. I arrived at the station 30 minutes before we were to depart to find there were already several hundred people queued up along three walls in the cavernous 1950s waiting hall. Someone mentioned that there were 200 more passengers than was usual for a Friday before Labor Day.

This is what the early stages of an evacuation look like in a major American city. And it’s worth noting that it’s the three-year anniversary, to the day, of Katrina.

Gustav is still days away from clarifying its intentions for the Gulf Coast. But that hasn’t kept a jittery quarter-million residents in New Orleans from engaging in a high-stakes guessing game as to where he might go.

Weather models envision landfall anywhere from eastern Texas to western Florida, a gapingly broad swath. New Orleans may be spared, or it may receive a glancing blow, or it may take a direct hit. The problem is no one knows, and no one will know more until late Monday or Tuesday when landfall is hours away. By then, if it is aiming for New Orleans, it will be too late for residents to safely make their way out of town, and hotels sufficiently inland will be booked anyhow. So they make plans now—and will likely begin to leave days before we will know exactly where Gustav will go—because that’s what you do when you live in a city that is largely below sea level with infrastructure inadequate to compensate for that fact during hurricane season.

The past several days have been a surreal combination of tense conversations in households (“You think we should go to Hattiesburg or Alexandria, honey?”); anxious calls to motels a few hours inland (imagine 100,000 people doing this simultaneously); and desultory conversation (overheard from grocery stockers the next aisle over: “So, you got a plan yet?” “Oh, I’ll probably just put a few things in my car and head up to my mom’s place in Hammond for a few days. I already got most of my stuff stacked on tables and shelves.” “I hear you.”). It reminded me more of idle chit-chat about sports scores than strategies for keeping appliances and keepsakes from being inundated.

Then again, my hosts and I were no less schizophrenic about it. We dutifully filled the gas tank in the car, another canister of “emergency gas” in the trunk, and reviewed maps for a departure route. In between we were drinking casually all afternoon, smoking a brisket in the backyard, and planning a dinner party for seven which we had taken to calling our big Fuck You to Gustav. Tension mixed with resignation. But tense about what, exactly? Resigned to what, precisely? No one was sure.

One radio show on the local talk station was interviewing callers about the best ways to secure your RV on the side of the road if you got stuck in traffic on the highway during the brunt of the storm. A DJ on a rock station further down the dial was playing tunes for a New Orleans citywide going away party. What else can you do but make a plan, compare notes with neighbors, and then engage in gallows humor to pass the stunning 72 to 96 hours until you implement, tweak or abandon your plans?

But, like I said, most people will just go because they won’t wait until the last minute and risk getting caught in town when it’s too late to leave. That’s whom I was lined up with in that waiting hall this morning, and who are on this train with me now. Phil and Daisy Mason are heading to Atlanta to stay with her daughter. How long I asked? Weren’t sure—a week, maybe, they guessed? Mike from Slidell was heading the same place. Jackie and Marion, further north to the Carolinas. This was just a sampling from the tables in the dining car.

Tulane has canceled classes until next Thursday already to allow students to evacuate. Loyola has done something similar. The University of New Orleans is sure to follow if it hasn’t already.

Even if Gustav never comes close to New Orleans—if not so much as a single drop of rain falls in the delta, and if no mandatory evacuation is ever called by officials—100,000 New Orleanians are likely to have left town this weekend. That means hundreds of thousands of person hours of work lost as businesses close down for a few days. The city, in addition to the direct costs of orchestrating this mass migration, will be out that sorely needed tax revenue. And think of all the out-of-pocket money about to be spent by residents holing up in hotels and motels in northern Louisiana for a few days, possibly for nothing.

Several friends and colleagues here have told me that if Gustav is a substantial storm that hits New Orleans directly, the city’s done—end of story. People who came back before won’t come back again. I guess that may be true. But as concerning should be that this sort of mass fleeing in advance of storms which may never actually make landfall is unsustainable. Residents won’t be able to afford or endure it--assuming they heed the call at all, next time. Businesses—especially major national and international businesses—won’t tolerate it. This collective wincing in the face of approaching storms will chase away the private investment that is essential to New Orleans’ resurrection over the long haul.

So pray for Gustav to pass New Orleans by. And then pray for another three years before another storm is even forecast to come close. We need it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day 390 - Foggin On The Radio

This is pretty neat. Today, my first national radio piece was aired on the Marketplace Morning Report. (Thanks to all of you who alerted me that you heard it while I was away!) Not bad for a first attempt if I do say so myself, though (of course) I hate my voice. I have one more scheduled to air in the next few weeks.

This one is a short piece about New York businesses which use firewood.

I’d like to say a few quick but huge thank yous: to my friend Alex Poolos who encouraged me to pitch stories to Marketplace and is most directly responsible for this opportunity; and to a fantastic reporter named Linda Blake who, over the past year, has been immensely encouraging of my foray into journalism generally, and who—more to point—edited my clips (from California, no less) to get them into shape. Thanks, too, to John, Jim and Kevin at Marketplace for the generous amounts of time and guidance they provided while I’m still learning the ropes. It’s encouraging to know there are outlets as prominent as Marketplace that are as open as they are to freelancers.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Days Afield: Day 383 - Coffee, Barbed Wire, Beer, and (shhh) Catholics in Kansas

Leg 5: 502 miles from Oberlin, KS to Guthrie, OK
(2,951 miles so far)

(Sorry for the dearth of photos. Camera battery was dead.)

I love regionalism, really I do. I love things that are slightly different from area to area in a country, or a state, or a city, reflecting the particular folkways or mores that a certain group has developed or adopted over time. In a world of homogenizing corporate and media influences, it’s getting harder and harder to find these differences.

All that said, I prefer my coffee dark and this part of the country simply doesn’t do dark coffee. It’s not necessarily bad or weak coffee. But they certainly don’t have a taste for French roasts. Theirs are termed “mild” or “medium blend”. Lannie Tauber of Hena coffee roasters taught me this almost a year ago, and it didn’t particularly click for me until the third cup of rust-colored hot water that I poured for myself at a roadside stop.

Driving south and east from Oberlin, KS, this morning, it became clear to me that this part of Kansas is actually what I always imagined Iowa to be like: nothing in any direction other than planted crops. Here, along KS-4, there was truly nothing but crops straight to the horizons, 10 or so miles away. At that point, grey outlines of grain elevators and water towers and the occasional oil derrick were barely visible in the morning haze. They are FAR away… miles and miles.

All the drivers out here seem to wave to passing cars, even at 65 mph in opposite directions. For an attention glutton like me, it’s a pretty cool thing. I moved up from waving to passing cars to sticking my whole arm out the window to wave to a guy in a tractor in the field off to the side of one road. He waved back. I was thrilled.

Thank god for Rand McNally maps. I mean, I love Google Maps as much as the next person. But when you’re touring and traveling, there’s something about a paper map rich with additional information that is just great. It’s how I found the Barbed Wire Museum of Kansas, which is where I was heading this morning.

I pulled of KS 4 in La Crosse and turned south down Main St. The map had it as just off to the right after the turn. I went the length of the strip of shops and back up to the state highway. How big could a museum devoted to barbed wire—just in Kansas—be, I thought, so it seemed to deserve a second, more careful pass. No dice. So I stopped in for some directions at the gas station on the highway. Back through town, I was told, and make a right immediately after going over the bridge.

The bridge? I been up and down this road twice and I saw no bridge.

“It’s there, just after the train tracks,” the kindly woman at the register told me.

And off I went again. The “bridge”, it turns out, is a car-length section of road that passes over a dry culvert not more than a foot or two deep. In Kansas, that apparently counts as elevation.

And there it was, set back along with the Kansas Historical Society’s local branch and the Post Rock Museum: the Barbed Wire Museum of Kansas. Truth be told, it was the largest of all the buildings there. A pre-fab job from the 1960s, the size of a small warehouse.

Raymond George, well into his 80s, greeted me at the door and pointed me toward a startlingly large—no, encyclopedic—array of barbed wire samples from the mid-19th Century through the late 20th Century. There is a ridiculous number of variations, some of them so slight as to be undetectable to the untrained eye. But each has a slight, differentiating nuance and its own patent number. And there are several bound books (all offered for sale) that chronicle the many variations in painstaking detail. The museum also provides pointers on starting your own collection. (I can't lie... I bought a few strands.)

Mr. George, who farmed a section near Great Bend, KS, for several decades, walked me through some of the more narrative sections of the exhibit: how the first barrier fence of wire was made and patented in the 1850s (which seemed rather late to me); to the different methods for stretching, stapling and connecting barbed wire, to the dozens of different post hole diggers and augers that were used to sink the posts. Along the way, he shared some tricks of the trade, like always posting in the spring when the ground is soft and wet and easy to dig and before the heat of summer expands the wire too much before it’s stapled.

There were two other highlights of the tour. One was the small room containing portraits of all the donors to the museum (which was launched, remarkably, in the 1940s) with representation from (equally remarkably) nearly every Kansas county, another dozen US States, and two from Australia. They’re all white men, yes. But that’s still some remarkable geographic diversity for the Barbed Wire Museum of Kansas. The other was a 72 lbs crows nest made from barbed wire snippings. Apparently, a pair of ravens (which is what they’re called out here) proceeded to construct their nest over several seasons. It was finally cut out en masse, part and parcel with the fence posts it was nestled between, and bequeathed to the museum.

I have to say, given how little overall variation there is among the thousand plus samples of barbed wire, and the dozens of post-hole diggers and augers (I used one just a few weeks ago that looked just like one of the first ones from the 1800s), it seems safe to say that all three have been little improved upon in nearly two centuries. Which doesn’t lend itself to a very, well, dynamic exhibit. (Crows nest notwithstanding.) That said, Mr. George was one of the warmest folks I’ve come to know on this trip and we shared a lot of conversation about where we were both from and how different the places and generations that we’re each a part of are. And I couldn’t have imagined a more lovely way to spend an hour. I hope to make it back again soon.

I was back on the road on a mission to find, in an unlikely place, a brewpub. It’s called Mo’s Place in the unincorporated community of Beaver, KS. When I mentioned this to Mr. George before I left, he said, “Beaver. That’s a Catholic community.” There was neither a trace of judgment nor derision in his voice. He simply stated it as though I ought to know that before setting out. A point of information.

I waited a moment to see if there was something else coming, like maybe “They eat their babies.” Then I ventured, “Do you mean as opposed to a Protestant community? Is that unusual around here?” Aside from not eating babies, I know almost nothing about religion, so this was shaky ground for me to be standing on, especially with post hole diggers nearby.

“Yes, as opposed to Lutheran or Methodist, which we mostly are here. I’m a Lutheran. And Beaver’s just always been a Catholic community—since I was a boy. We have a few Baptists, too, in other communities.”

This should not seem as strange to me as it did. I live in a city that still largely organizes itself based on ethnicity. And very often that ethnicity also corresponds to a religion. Perhaps in a place as exceedingly white as Kansas, I didn’t consider differences in religion—certainly not differences among Christian beliefs—as being different enough to organize communities around, or to represent diversity. But they are powerfully different, and they matter a great deal to folks. I mean, I try not to be naïve about these things. (I have, after all, read Garrison Keillor.) But this was really surprising me. And yet I loved discovering it and talking to Mr. George about it.

Duly warned, I dug around in my duffel bag for my rosary and set out to get me some locally brewed beer.

It's hard to even call Beaver, KS, a town. (Being unincorporated, technically it is not.) It's far out, truly, on farm roads miles from state highways. The railroad spur was pulled up long ago. There's little more than a grain elevator, a dozen houses (some boarded up) and almost nothing going on at midday in August. Not much else except for a smattering of activity around the grain elevator, and some more on the next block at Mo's Place.

I wandered in around 2:00pm, well after the lunch crowd—such as it might have been—was gone. The lunch special was gone, too. There wasn't anyone else in the place when I arrived except for me and the husband and wife that own it. Len Moeder grew up around here and Linda spent some time around her in school. But both had moved to upstate NY and Orange County, CA, for 35 years while they had corporate jobs. Then they decided they wanted to cash out and pursue their dream of opening a brewpub.

“We looked at property in California, but by the time you got investors—“ Len’s voice trailed off.

So the decided to return to rural Kansas.

We talked as I sat at the bar in the long, prefab building that, from north to south, houses the kitchen, dining area, bar and brewery. Stacked up in the brewery area are bags of grain. They keep the bar stocked with all seven of their brews by making a few 20-gallon batches each weekend. So far, they’re doing fine enough to live in town, walk to work, pursue their passion as their living, and only be open four days a week.

Len & Linda’s model is this is truly the embodiment of how beer used to be made: at the scale of the local proprietor selling to his or her clientele. Before Prohibition, most pubs brewed their own beer and didn’t distribute it any further than the reach of their bartenders' arms. (This is the way a restaurant prepares its food. Beer was considered as individual a product as prepared food was.) And, like restaurants, some pubs brewed beer that was great and some that were terrible, but most were just fine in between. Mo's Place's offerings trended on the fine side with room for some more body and maltiness (IMHO). But I loved about knowing that Len & Linda were making beer for their neighbors in Beaver and some of the surrounding communities. Now, they just need to wean all of straggling Coors drinkers off that swill.

I am pleased to say that I was their first New Yorker!

And I note another regionalism. Around here, a pint of beer served from the tap is called a “draw”. A quart would be a “large draw.” I love it!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Days Afield: Day 382 - Goodbye Grasshoppers

Leg 4: 397 miles from Badlands to Oberlin, KS
(2,449 miles so far)

A strong blow began the day before I left the Badlands. It whirred across my ears all afternoon, blew dust and gravel into my eyes, and bowed my tent downward most of the night. I slept on the windward side to keep the stakes from getting pulled up out of the ground. It was strong and sustained enough to be a conversation topic among locals at the filling station the next morning. It continued the next day and blew the car around as I headed south on undulating SD 73 toward Nebraska. Amber waves of grain were more of a grassland maelstrom. And millions of sunflowers, all facing eastward and reminding me of weary, regimented soldiers more than future lipids (this is big sunflower oil cropland) were holding up, but just barely. But then again, maybe soldiers and sunflowers all wind up becoming grist for the mill in some fashion.

Even with the wind, the noonday sun brought huge numbers of grasshoppers out to warm themselves on asphalt of this sleepy state road. Let me tell you, these were some mongo-sized jiminies. Fist-sized, maybe! It was impossible not to hit them. At least that’s what I told myself after the first dozen. They make this god-awful sound when they get kicked up under your floorboards like stones. And then there are the ones that scramble side to side as you approach. Do you steer gently with them to try to keep them between the wheels as you pass over at 65 mph? That’s what I tried to do until I realized the tractor-trailer coming at me in the other lane would—in my quick, self-serving karmic calculation—do more harm. And this wasn’t my car to fuck up.

At the border, SD 73 turns into Nebraska 61. A few miles on is the nearly abandoned town of Merriman. And then it’s 67 miles until you get to Hyannis. Not a café or gas station or phone booth in between. Every 10 or 15 miles through these rolling hills you’d pass a lonely ranch gate. But these just led to rutted roads that disappeared over the horizon. No buildings. No silos. No barns. Nothing. Ranches halfway down this stretch need to go 35 miles in either direction to do ANYTHING. I only passed 5 vehicles going north in 67 miles, three of them in the last 5 miles before Hyannis.

Nothing but the simple stuff here along NE 2.

At Hyannis, I turned east onto scenic NE 2. This is a road I was on, going west, 12 years before, nearly to the day I suspect, on my first cross country road trip. One of the best parts is the active rail line it parallels that is basically a highway for coal. Every half hour or so, a 100-car unit train of coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming—one of the largest sources of coal in the world—lumbers eastward toward power plants in the Midwest and Southeast US. Today was so windy that as I was pacing one train (54 mph) I noticed what looked like smoke blowing off of the tops of the open-hopper cars. It took me a minute to realize it was actually coal dust. Lots and lots of it. Glad I don’t live beside these tracks.

For much of this trip, I’ve been listening The Omnivore’s Dilemma on CD. It happened to be in the glove box and I’ve been thankful for it through some of the long stretches of highway. It’s been oddly like a narrative for the entire trip so far. I began listening in Iowa when the earlier chapters focused on an Iowa corn grower. I heard more while in South Dakota as I was being introduced to Pollan’s calf on a ranch in Sturgis, SD. Eventually, I wound up in Kansas about 50 miles from the feedlot that his calf wound up on and I kept passing transporter trucks for that feedlot operation—Poky—on all the roads I was on. I started to think of The Truman Show.

So Kansas was another of the states I haven’t been to yet and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t totally giddy when I passed over the border. Of the three (SD, KS and OK) this is the state I really, really wanted to visit.

I pulled into Oberlin, KS, after most of the shops closed up for the night. And the downtown was pretty much deserted, save for a few cars in front of the local watering hole. Its Main Street is a period piece from the late 1800s with some 1950s storefronts mixed in. It has the requisite covered sidewalks that I really love. There are competing local drug stores directly across the street from each other and I wondered if there was a Hatfield-McCoy sort of feud going on. (And, if so, which one was the real McCoy.) I pulled in here because I had seen a sign for the Landmark Inn on the highway about 30 miles north. I hoped that it wasn’t going to be too dear because the thought of staying here for the night really appealed to me. And given the quiet, lonely state of affairs, I couldn’t see how it could be anything but a bargain. More importantly, I wanted to support this town with some economic activity.

The Landmark Inn is the old Oberlin Savings Bank. The old bank lobby is now the Teller’s Room Restaurant. The sign on the door said dinner was served from 6-8pm, but at 7:15 it was bolted tight. There wasn’t a single car parked in front except for my own. I wandered around the corner looking for a way into the hotel proper. Finally I found a door along the side street that opened into a small hallway across from an empty room that said Managers Office. I called a hello. Not a soul. At the end of the hallway was the back entrance to the restaurant as well as the adjoining gift shop. Both doors ajar but each area dark. Both areas were outfitted with dozens of antique fixtures in a potpourri of styles. Someone, clearly, was trying to curate this space. And it was spotless. I did note that everything I saw was on offer, each having a small handwritten price tag visible.

I made my way back to the office and hollered once more.

Finally, as I was getting ready to leave, the proprietor walks down the stairs in his socks and seemed a little surprised to see me. I suddenly wondered what he did with the bodies and their vehicles. Nevertheless, we exchanged pleasantries and handshakes and I asked how much for a room.

He cleared off a pile of books and paper from the chair in his cramped office and hit a few keys on the computer, toggling through screens which he scrutinized through squinted eyes like he was poring over an ancient ledger.

“Looks like we have one of our basic rooms—queen sized bed.”

In a place that couldn’t have had more than 5 or 6 rooms, all of which were perfectly empty, I couldn’t quite imagine what he needed to consult the computer for. He stared at his screen while tapping some more keys and said more slowly, as if a premonition where slowly coming into focus, “Also… looks like we have… a slightly… larger one for… a little more.”

Just as he was making his way into the third option, I decided to put an end to the little charade and asked him how much the basic room was.


I suddenly felt less like I was sharing the wealth with this sleepy little town than I was being had. But I was tired and desperately needed a shower after 3 days of camping and so I signed on the dotted line. Upstairs, for my 69 bucks was one of the handsomest rooms I’ve stayed in. High ceilings with ceiling fans. Ten-foot windows with draw shades. A four-poster bed. Antique washstand. Not half bad.

And I was even more surprised when, at breakfast the next day in the famed Teller’s Room, there were indeed 4 or 5 other guests. From where they materialized overnight, I have no idea. But they were there and all knew the proprietor well and we all got on just fine as I shared my Kansas itinerary for the day and got earnest pointers from everyone.

Yes, I thought. Definitely Truman Show.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Days Afield: Day 381 - Good days in the Badlands

Legs 2 & 3: 1235 miles from Chicago to Interior, SD
via Strawberry Point, IA, and Mitchell, SD
(2,052 miles, so far)

So the stated reason for this trip is to cross off my list the last three states in the Lower 48 that I haven’t yet been to.

Yesterday: South Dakota… check.

It’s hard to say this credibly, but what song do you suppose was playing on the radio as I crossed over from Minnesota to South Dakota? By Springsteen? (Wait for it….) Badlands. Yes, I’m serious. Pretty neat, actually.

Despite my intention, I’m getting to take this trip mostly out of circumstance and kindness. I’m actually delivering the car I’m driving to friends in New Orleans. They were in NYC for the summer and are returning directly to New Orleans after doing some other traveling; I got to take the car back for them—by way of South Dakota. Well, I didn’t exactly ask about South Dakota in particular. Uhh…

Point is, I had the car at the end of August. And I had these three states to get through. It wasn’t like I got to plan the trip to these places at ideal times. I actually didn’t know when the ideal time to be in the Badlands is, but it’s apparently not usually at the end of August when the temperatures are typically 100-105 during the day, around 80 at night, and the height of the dry season assures you that all the prairie grasses are brown and dormant.

Except this wasn’t like any usual year. Temperatures had been running 15-20 degrees below normal and they received about one-third more rain than they normally do. My dumb luck and good fortune. Grasses were green and lush and made for some spectacular early morning hikes on top of the highly eroded buttes. Just as the sun was cresting their jagged tops, I crossed paths at some distance with breakfasting antelope, stepped over cacti, craned my head to follow darting swallows and swooping finches, and even heard a rattlesnake. The snake’s rattle was less what I was expecting from theatrical representations, but when you hear it in the tall grasses a few feet off to your side, you know exactly what it is and it freezes you in your tracks.

And then the bugs start biting, so you keep pressing on.

I got a quick primer in the heavens, too. I joined Ranger Larry and some fellow campers for an evening astronomy program at the Badlands Amphitheater. Apparently southwestern South Dakota, along with parts of Utah, are considered some of the darkest parts of the continental United States, ideal for stargazing. Except this was also the time of a full moon. So any gazing we did was confined to the first 45 minutes or so of darkness.

A group of about 30 of us had been gathered around Rangers Larry as they used these nifty high-powered laser pointers to show us Antares, how to find Polaris from the ladle of the big dipper, and (this was most exciting to me) how to pick out orbiting military and meteorological satellites as they glided by dozens of miles overhead. There were even a few shooting stars!

“Nah, probably just space junk coming home,” Ranger Larry said, tamping down enthusiasm.

There was even some shooting space junk!

Then the eastern sky began to brighten over the buttes’ edges and, a few minutes later, the sky was set ashine by a moon so bright that I had to wince to look at it.

We gave our eyes a moment to adjust. Some of the kids were already staring at the moon’s surface through binoculars. Ranger Larry explained how the tidal relationship between the Earth and moon has slowed its rotation so that we always see the same side of the moon from Earth.

“That’s the same side of the moon that Jesus saw,” Larry pointed out, to punctuate the point.

In our hour or so of discussion of the heavens, this was the first time any hint of the actual or imagined place Heaven crept in. And while it struck me as a bit tinny to the ear. I’ve sequestered myself with a relatively agnostic crowd in my life such that more-than-casual references to a god sound strange to me. But as I’d discover elsewhere on this trip, God is an ever-present force in most other folks' lives.

In the three days I spent in and around the Badlands, I wandered afield to visit the Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City, SD, which also led me to an obligatory visit to Mt. Rushmore--one of the more successful bald-faced boosterism projects ever executed. It was conceived by local historian (and, no doubt, property owner) Doane Robinson in the early 1920s as a way to attract tourists to the Black Hills at a time of almost uncontainable westward expansion and hubris. [Read: “Let’s swipe this sacred land from the Lakota, chisel some white guys’ faces into the side of the mountain, and bring more white folks here to gawk at them while we fleece them, too, for their Lincolns and Washingtons in exchange for commemorative spoons and presidential snow globes.”]

By last year, Doane’s vision had succeeded for the small town of Keystone, SD (population 311) to the tune of about 2,000,000 folks a year. (The number of spoons and snow globes was not available.) I am now one of them. And the damn concessionaire that runs the parking racket for the NPS also has $10 of my money that I’ll never get back.

One of the most interesting side trips was to see the old launch facility for Minuteman ICBM missiles, lately a National Historic Site complete with War Games myth debunking. More on that later.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Days Afield: Day 379 - All caught up at Hot Doug's

It's not hard to see why, when things are this much of a mess, you do the best that you can, trim away the rough spots, make it as clean as possible and then hope time takes care of the rest. There are parables here for the way we should lead our own lives. And, perhaps, for trauma surgeons with certain gunshot victims.

But I raise this not to be philosophical. Rather, only because it was the perfect Foggin urban view we had while sitting in the garden of Hot Doug's for owner Doug Sohn's take on the classic Chicago dog. I won't do much better than the review linked to here, so check it out if you're planning a visit soon. I will, however, share the photo below of the delicious table setting just before the carnage began. I had a classic Chicago dog and another made with blue cheese and topped with pear chutney. Also on table, according to my limited memory, was a jerk pork dog, a garlic dog, duck-fat fries and a few others I'm forgetting.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Days Afield: Day 378 - Chicago's Small Businesses

The first leg of my cross country road trip took me 817 miles from NYC to Chicago. It had been almost 3 years since I was in Chicago last, which is about two years too long for my liking. As provincial a New Yorker as I am, Chicago is a town I never get tired of visiting and which I think I could live for awhile, if only to document all of the incredible neon business signs. And places to drink. And industrial businesses. And public art. And…

And on this trip, my friend and Chicagoan Bekah Scheinfeld introduced me to a great strip of small, locally owned businesses along a stretch of N. Clark in the erstwhile Scandinavian enclave of Andersonville. The water tower off to the east of the strip and visible from the main intersection of Clark and Foster is still painted blue with the gold Swedish cross upon it. I understand that, until recently, it was also a Middle Eastern strip. It still has two Persian restaurants and a hookah & tea shop.

This 6-block stretch of N. Clark is a neighborhood shopping street that was a hive of industry and activity in the middle of a recent weekday afternoon—a sure sign of a healthy strip. There is a mix of neighborhood services including a jeweler, a barber, a couple salons, a couple banks. a sensible shoe shop, a smoke & news shop, a few local drinking joints and a range of restaurants. There were also shops that were destinations for a wider clientele like a bookshop, some fancier restaurants and cafes, furniture stores, antiques shops, and chic-chic home decorating stores. Two blocks south is an industrial laundry that was abuzz and ablaze well past 11:00 PM one night. In short, it’s a neighborhood strip with a range of uses active at different times of the day. And nearly every one of them was a locally owned business, not a national retailer. Always heartening since locally owned businesses tend to keep more of their revenues in the local economy, largely by purchasing their services locally. And it also creates a distinctly local flavor that sets one neighborhood’s strip apart from another. And that, in my mind, is one of the best parts of cities and especially a city of neighborhoods like Chicago is. If you want homogeneity, move to the suburbs. Cities distinguish themselves, or should, by encouraging a mix of interesting destinations.

Two quick plugs:

Tanoshii is one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in several years. Yes, it has super high quality sushi. But it’s the proprietor, Chef Mike, that really makes the experience. He basically treats the whole restaurants as one big chef’s table. Regulars, or anyone new willing to listen to the gentle entreaties of the staff, know to skip the menu and provide Chef Mike with just some basic guidance (“no shellfish, please”, “anything with tuna”) or inspiration (“something with fruit!”) and let him figure out the rest for you. It’s delicious, no question. But that kind of personal connection with clientele is what makes a restaurant—or any business—a neighborhood institution. It creates community capital.

Across the street and south a few blocks is Simon’s Tavern. This untouched relic from the 1930s is an Art Deco period piece. Opened as a speakeasy during prohibition by local Swede Simon Lumberg in 1929, it became a proper cocktail lounge with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. Current owner Scott Martin took it over recently and, with the exception of a few additional flourishes (including a neon herring cantilevered as a marquis over the front of the place, as well as a hip beer list), hardly a thing has changed. The gorgeous, if ostentatious, mirrored deco wood bar has original portholes still lit from behind. Table seating is with blue and yellow upholstery, evoking a Swedish theme and likely added in the 1940s or 1950s. The point is, something like this in New York City would have been totally gutted and remodeled in an updated style. Scott (who, by the way, will take you on a tour of the old downstairs speakeasy for a nickel) decided to keep everything and celebrate it. And Chicagoans of all stripes (not just blue and gold ones) seem to have taken to it enthusiastically.

Oh, and did I mention that Scott, who owns a Swedish restaurant a few doors up, lives above that joint? It’s the classic arrangement that years ago in New York we called a “taxpayer property.” A proprietor would have bought a small building with a storefront on the ground floor and a living space for his or her family above. The income from the store was supposed to cover the annual taxes on the property (which was the only real cost since most property was bought cash on the barrel in those days).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Day 355 - City Workers' Art Show

You may remember Marvin Franklin as the name of the 55-year old subway track worker who tragically was killed by a passing train in April 2007 while on the job. What a lot of people may not know is that Franklin was an accomplished artist. In fact, he won best of show at the Salmagundi Art Club’s first ever City Worker Art show just a year before death. Last week, the Salmagundi mounted the second exhibition of city workers’ pieces, and dedicated this year’s award in Franklin’s name.

The exhibition spaces in the Salmagundi’s 5th Avenue brownstone in Greenwich Village looked a lot like a museum gallery. There were oils and watercolors, photographs, and occasional charcoals and pastels. A smattering of sculptures were distributed among the framed pieces. There was even one quilt. Subjects ranged from still lifes of flowers or fruit to portraits. The subway also featured prominently. But unlike most art exhibitions, the artists—-every single one of them—-is a working New York City employee.

Paul Thiesing is an educator with the City's Department of Environmental Protection. He used his daily travels through the upstate watershed to inspire an exquisitely rendered watercolor of a rainbow trout being taken from a creek. Every scale is discernible in a gently shifting spectrum of pinks, greens and yellows. Paul, who took home an honorable mention for the trout, was trained as an artist in school, but most exhibiting at the show were not.

A few paces away, Gary Sloman, with the city’s housing department, proudly stood in front a candid black-and-white photo. The 60-year old picked up a camera only a few years ago. His entry was a shot through a Soho restaurant’s porthole window of a couple gazing at each other as they finish dinner looks like it could have been posed for a fashion magazine.

“This is very upscale restaurant," he said. "You’re looking down into the restaurant and it looks like a first date. The woman looking very sexy and receptive. And the man looking like the guy in charge and also picking up the tab. And it looked like a very evocative photo.”

When Marvin Franklin won the top prize at the first City Workers Art Show in 2006 for his oil paintings of homeless people in the subway, he received a year’s membership to the nearly 140 year old Salmagundi Art Club. But the subway worker didn’t really come around. He worked the overnight shift on a gang of trackworkers based in Brooklyn, would commute to the Art Students League in midtown each morning to study for several hours, and then head home to eastern Queens to be with his wife during the day before sleeping for a few hours and starting again.

Ed Lynch is the curator who put together the show to celebrate artists who balance a life of working hard serving others while remaining dedicated to their art.

“The thought behind the first show," Lynch explained, "was these are going to be uncelebrated artists. They’re going to be people who decided to do art no matter what.”

And that certainly described Marvin Franklin’s discipline.

“If you can do what he could do," Lynch continued, "which is study-—really understand what you can do, what is your honed talent—-and then step away from the studio, reach out into the world in which you live and inform your work, then you can turn around and be like Marvin Franklin, And it would be a great compliment.”

And so this year’s best of show prize was given in Franklin’s name to honor that dedication to craft. Of nearly 300 submissions by city workers from all sorts of agencies, 123 were finally considered for the prize. It went to Pico Reinoso, an art teacher himself at P.S. 189 in East New York, for a piece entitled Afternoon Sonata.

“I teach the students, the elements--I emphasize the elements of design," Reinoso said. "The concepts of lines, the concepts of shadow, the concepts of perspective.”

Reinoso’s painting incorporates all of these elements. A soulful looking young woman about to blow into a recorder while contemplating the New York City skyline, distantly out her apartment window. Behind her, sitting on the couch in the sparsely furnished room is a woman with a similar likeness, maybe 20 years older. It’s meant to be unclear, Reinoso says, whether the older woman is the girl’s mother, or if it is the young girl as she imagines herself in the future.

All of the works that made it into the competition are serious art from a technical perspective. But not all are necessarily serious pieces. One certificate of merit went to Jennifer Sabino’s painting called, simply, Spam—-a Norman Rockwellesque portrait of a smiling pig seated at a table, a can of Spam placed before her. And then there was Duck Duck Goose, a satirical and unusual oil color of five police officers in full uniform seated in a circle on a highway, of all places, while two other officers ran around the outside in the way of the children’s game. Who, one wonders, could have pulled this off?

Alexandro Berrios is a 28-year old police officer in North Brooklyn. He may have chosen a fun subject, but Duck Duck Goose took him more than four months to complete, he says. In the spirit of Marvin Franklin, Berrios works hard to manage his city job and still find time for his art.

“I’m renting a studio in Long Island City," Berrios said. "I work the midnight tour. I hop in my car and I go to Long Island City, lock myself in an 11-by-18 room, paint for 4 or 5 hours, go home and take a shower, take a rest and then go back to work.”

For some the artists, their art is a way to tie different parts of their lives together. Nathanial Ladson is a city housing inspector with a portrait in the show. “You meet interesting people, you keep it in mind, and you put it on canvas. And sometimes it gets a little hectic, and I come home and I paint. That’s my peace.”

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Day 350 - Harlem Red & Green

Walking north from Morningside Heights into the valley of Manhattanville along Broadway or Amsterdam yields a dramatic perspective. It's about a mile, as the car drives, from the crest at 116th Street to the crest at 138th Street on the other side. It's an amazing view, day or night. But there's something that tickles me about seeing all the brakelights go dim and the traffic lights turn green all at once, only to be followed by a river of red again about 20 seconds later.