Recently in People Category

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As I mentioned in a prior post, several local blogs helped us arrive at "Lost New York" as our conference theme, and so it seemed natural to assemble a panel of bloggers to talk about the relationship between writing, new media, and attempts to stave off the rapid transformation of traditional neighborhoods. Some of the folks we invited aren't able to be on the panel for one reason or another. Two of my favorite anti-gentrification bloggers, Jeremiah Moss (from Jeremiah's Vanishing New York) and EV Grieve, agreed to a conversation about the nature of their projects and the NYC blogosphere in general.

BW: Since you both blog under pseudonyms, I wonder: How did you come up with the names?

JM: As I wrote in a blog post a while back, "Jeremiah" began as a character in a novel I wrote prior to the blog. I've never published a novel and this one has not yet been seen by any editors -- I am still working it through. In that writing, I enjoyed having an outlet for my most curmudgeonly self, for the anger and powerlessness I experienced while watching the city I loved disappear. Writing is a kind of action, as opposed to passivity, and moving from the novel to the blog enabled me to stay in action about these issues -- much more than I expected.

BW: Do you still think of Jeremiah as a character you perform?

JM: I didn't expect many people to read the blog, and I didn't think I'd ever be communicating with readers. As that has happened, more and more, the line between me and Jeremiah has blurred even further. Simply put, the voice I use in the blog is me but not all of me. It is, however, an essential part of me -- sort of like a sharpened, clarified, angry, righteous part of me, undiluted by my natural tendency to see multiple sides of an issue. As Jeremiah, I can be staunch.

BW: When I read that post about Jeremiah's origins as a fictional character it really took me aback. It seemed both dangerous and liberating, given that I've only ever written online under my own name, though that can be both dangerous and liberating too. It also pushed me to think about blogging in literary terms -- as both literary writing and as performance -- in ways I hadn't quite before. Grieve, do you ever think of "EV Grieve" as akin to Jeremiah's semi-fictional avatar?

EVG: The Grieve name is meant to be about mourning. (And not pronounced as "Gree-vey.") Definitely Jeremiah's influence there. Plus I spent $35,000 on focus-group testing for that....

BW: Has becoming Grieve been something akin to Jeremiah's role-playing? Does being "Grieve" feel different in some ways from being the person you were before/are outside the blog?

EVG: At times. I've been out with friends, who don't know about the site, and I see an amazing urban etiquette sign or something. And I try to think of some perfectly good explanation of why I'm taking a photo of a funny sign or store closing. I'm the same person as before, but it now just takes me longer to run an errand. I'll meander more and scope every storefront, apartment entrance, etc. At times I'm worried folks might find my behavior a bit daft, that I'm casing the joint or something. And I've sort of lost my speedy NYC gait. Jeremiah, do you remember the commenter who thought we were the same person? As if we had the time and energy to do TWO blogs! In two fairly different tones!

JM: Yes, I do! We share a lot in common, but I wonder how people see us. I think I'm the grouchy one and Grieve is the more affable one. I don't know. Writing the blog has enabled me to enjoy the city more today than I did in the years leading up to the blog. So the irony here is that, through the writing of this angry blog, I've ended up feeling less angry. I was seriously thinking about leaving New York a few years ago. Then I started the blog and it held me here.

BW: I think that less-angry side comes through in your eagerness not to be misunderstood, and your sense of fairness when you have readers (sometimes even trolls) who take you to task on some point. I also think I've noticed over time a tendency to celebrate things you like -- a trumpet-playing bus driver, for instance -- and not just to focus on the death and destruction of the New York you loved when you moved here. Grieve, where would you fall on the mourning/celebrating spectrum? Like you said, the name implies mourning ... but you were originally mourning the closing of a bar that ended up not closing after all, right?

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EVG: Yeah. When the news came down in December 2007 that Sophie's and Mona's were for sale, I was naturally very upset. While I wasn't a hardcore regular there, Sophie's, in particular, was always very close to me. (I think we all have some sort of fond Sophie's memories....) Meanwhile, I was already a regular reader of The Villager and Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, as well as Bob Arihood's Neither More Nor Less and Lost City. I was growing increasingly tired of the onslaught of the condofication, bankbranchification, duanereadification and whatnot of NYC, in particular of the East Village. These things all inspired me to do something.

So on a drunken, lonely night (always a good combination for doing something stupid, like starting a blog! Plus, actually, it was the middle of the afternoon!) I signed up for a Blogger account to create a tribute site for Sophie's. It wasn't supposed to be about me. At first, I just collected different news items on the possible sale. Then I thought it could evolve into this project we could all be part of.... making little films about the people, etc., who frequent the bar. Post photos. Chronicle the possible end of days. It would be a document capturing a special time and place.

Before I ever really figured what to do with the site or told anyone about it, it looked as if the bars were staying in the family. So I retired the site on that positive note.

BW: What made you change your mind and come back?

EVG: Well, Jeremiah encouraged me to continue, to turn my attention to other things in the neighborhood. So I did. Didn't do much at first. I'd get about six hits a day on the site. Was just having a little fun. But I was following this premise for the site: Appreciating what's here while it's still here. Remembering what's no longer here. Wishing some things weren't here that are here. Doing this awakened the reporter that was in me.... and the site has evolved to be a little more newsy -- and hopefully provide a slice of life about a special neighborhood....

BW: So you slide back and forth between celebrating what you love and mourning the things that shouldn't have passed. Oh, and expressing disdain for guys in pink shirts.

EVG: Well, I don't mind pink shirts as much as the behavior of the person wearing it out and about. Anyway, like Jeremiah, doing this site has rekindled my love affair with the neighborhood -- and the city. FroYo and popped collars or not. To be honest, I hate having to leave for a long weekend or holiday.

JM: It's true that I encouraged him. And now look! He grabs up all the East Village news before I can get to it. Seriously, though, Grieve has an amazing ability to be everywhere in the East Village at once, to pick out minute details and spin them into something quietly meaningful. We have a very friendly rivalry when it comes to neighborhood business. Sometimes, I have to call dibs, because I move much more slowly than he does. We encourage each other. Blogging is this weird, lonely "vocation," something of an obsession, that I think appeals to introverts who yet want to be known, but not too known. So it's been great having Grieve and other bloggers to connect with through the process.

BW: The literary historian in me wants to ask if blogging is perhaps the next site of the formation of literary community, one of my long-standing interests in NYC literary history.

EVG: The relationship that formed between me and Jeremiah is one of my favorite things that has come from doing the site.... which makes wanting to crush him that much more difficult! Ha! I wonder if people might be interested in knowing how often we actually do talk via e-mail.... or run ideas by each other.... and, on occasion, read each other's posts if we're unsure how it's working. I also look forward to what he's going to have on any given day. I truly think he's one of the best essayists around....

JM: An anonymous commenter on another blog, Jill's "Blah Blog Blah," recently referred to the "East Village Blog Mafia." It was derisive, but fascinating--that someone's out there imagining that these bloggers have any kind of real power, a bunch of middle-aged people sitting around critiquing the uncontrollable. But there is some kind of community here, in this NYC blogosphere, though I know virtual communities and relationships are much maligned these days. I have mixed feelings about them. Are they any less real than in-the-flesh relationships? When I first came to New York, I sought a literary community. I couldn't find it. The blogosphere may be the closest I've come to it.

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BW: As far as content goes, as different as your blogs are I see both of you working in a time-honored tradition of lamenting the loss of an older and more authentic New York. It's a pattern of nostalgia that seems especially bound up with the bohemian tradition in New York, from the 1910s forward. That lamentation seems to be part of the bohemian experience itself: either it was over just before you arrived, or just before the next guy did. Is there something quantifiably different in that lament since, say, 2001? Or does pointing to this long-standing pattern distract us from the very real changes that deserve to be critiqued?

JM: The most dramatic change to me in recent years is the people. I sometimes get flack for critiquing people as a group, but super-gentrification, Starbucksification, etc. -- none of it happens without people. Many of the people who come to the city and specifically to the East Village today seem different than the ones who came 15 or 20 years ago. Their values are different. Their behavior is different. Their attitude toward the world around them is different. When I think about gentrification and my own role in it, I parse it this way: do you come to a neighborhood because you like the way it is, because you like not just the cute cafes, but also the down-at-the-heels bookshops and delis, and the old people on their stoops, the corner psychotics, and even the stink of the garbage at high summer? Or do you come to a neighborhood with the wish and the intention to change it? Do you see a "project" that needs work?

BW: I hear you. I've just been through exactly this problem with my kids' middle school on the other side of Chinatown, down by the river. (I refuse to use the label "Two Bridges.") We came to the school four or five years ago when it was just on the upswing: charismatic principal and staff, a well-rounded set of course offerings, grant money starting to come in for athletics and extra-curriculars like music and a robotics club and Saturday fashion and art classes. And it had real diversity among its students. The school was predominantly Asian and Latino -- something like 2% white kids. It didn't stay that way for long. Now it's been thoroughly infiltrated by Tribeca and the Village. A couple years ago we were asked to go to our old elementary school's "middle school info night" to represent our new school. When we were there, it was clear the middle school was already starting to get a lot of buzz. People whose kids weren't even admitted yet were talking about fundraising and running for PA offices. Pinko intellectual that I am, I said something like, "Well it's important to realize that we're entering a delicate ecosystem: there are already some culture clashes and neighborhood histories that make the parents' association both a challenge and a real opportunity for cosmopolitan learning -- parents and kids alike. We're not coming in here to colonize the place, after all." And one Tribeca mother looked me square in the face and said: "That's exactly what we're doing!" And I'm not kidding, I almost got into a shouting match with her at a parent meeting in the principal's office two years later, when I couldn't listen to another moment of her trying to bully and belittle the principal, who was trying to end de facto segregation in the school by slightly altering an honors program that had become skewed mostly toward the new arrivals. I'd guess white kids are up to 30% or so at the school, many of them from wealthy families, and their parents seem very entitled -- wanting the city and the school to conform to them and not vice versa. They bring energy and money, but in some ways at the expense of the dignity of the people who were there first.

JM: I think a lot of people now have come to the Lower East Side, the East Village, and other neighborhoods in the city with that attitude. They see "potential." They see plans for renovation and "renewal." And there is so much hatred and fear in that -- disgust for what and who is already there.

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BW: At the same time, how to stop the wave? We were part of the vanguard of gentrification, after all. Such conversations always make me wonder: do you think 150 years from now a committee will be formed to save Blue from destruction? ("Save Blue! It was the most unique of all the sore thumbs that invaded the neighborhood in the early 21st century!") Or are things cyclical? Will it be filled with squatters?

JM: The thought of Blue standing for 150 years is too much to fathom.

EVG: Well, I do believe that there will be people like us 150 years from now lamenting the loss of Blue ("The one-time home of Justin Long!") and getting excited about the discovery of a hidden 16 Handles ad.... there will always be people who love the city and appreciate its history. I have a friend who has lived here since, well, forever, and he'll say things like, "Oh, the Bowery hasn't been the same since prohibition ended!" Not a real sentimentalist, but I understand the point....

JM: Grieve once forwarded me a blog post from a young woman who recently moved to the LES and was now moving out again. She actually said she would not miss the "disgusting stink" of the pickles emanating from Katz's Deli. To me, if you don't like the smell of Katz's pickles, then don't come live here. Or live here with the intention to learn to love that smell. Or something. Basically, it boils down to a lot of people moved to NYC after 9/11 who seem to hate urban life and everything about it. It baffles my mind to wonder why they came in the first place.

BW: I do think blogs have been crucial in supporting efforts to preserve a traditional sense of neighborhoods. Do you guys have a favorite NYC blog or two you think deserves wider exposure than they've received?

EVG: Even though Bob Arihood has been featured in the Times, I think he deserves more attention. I love what he does... and his photography needs to be in an exhibit somewhere. I also really like Slum Goddess. She's funny and opinionated. She knows a lot of people. Her blog really exemplifies what a blog is supposed to be -- a little bit of everything. Hunter-Gatherer does this very well too -- you feel as if you really know the person and his or her interests.

JM: I second all of those choices. And one less-known blog I enjoy is It Was Her New York, by C.O. Moed. It doesn't get much attention because it's not about what new cafe opened up on Ave A or how tenement residents are fighting back against noisy luxe hotels. But it's written by a native Lower East Sider and it's very intimate.

BW: Thanks, both of you, for taking the time for this conversation! I look forward to hearing from more bloggers on these questions at our panel Saturday -- or here, in comments.

Photo credits: 1, 3: Jeremiah; 2: Grieve; 4: Bowery Boogie



Gotham City Birthday

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My younger son, Caleb, was born exactly five years ago. He's lived his entire life in Union Square and, like a good New Yorker, has adopted the Dark Knight as his superhero of choice.

For his birthday, Caleb requested that his mom bake him a "Batman cake." She obliged.

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Like many a tyke with a late summer birthday, Caleb will be having a party with his friends after Labor Day. "A Batman party, Daddy."

As Robin once said in the days of my youth, "Holy Guadalcanal, Batman!"

For you aficionados, that's season 2, episode 28, "The Bird's Last Jest," first broadcast on December 8, 1966. You can check it out below. Robin's remark comes at about the 3:02 mark.
 





WNY Speed Levitch

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Bryan began his lecture on Tony Kushner's play Angels in America today with a brief clip from the video of the "Central Park Sunset Tour" that Timothy "Speed" Levitch took us on three years ago. By that time, we'd been showing excerpts from The Cruise, Bennett Miller's documentary about Levitch and his Grayline bus tours, for a couple of years, and when when of our TA's turned out to have a connection Levitch and found out that he was going to be in town . . . well, we jumped at the chance to have him lead us and some of our students on our tour.

Levitch began the tour auspiciously, for our purposes, talking about Central Park and cosmopolitanism, and he then led us to Bethesda Fountain to talk about the "healing waters" of the Croton Aqueduct. It's that moment that Bryan showed this morning. (Those of you who know the play know why.)

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Spring 2006: Speed leads the "Central Park Sunset Tour" to the healing waters of Bethesda Fountain.


Recently, a couple of our former students saw Speed filming outside of Grace Church. They introduced themselves and told Speed the latest about the Writing New York course. Speed wasn't in town long enough to lead us on another tour, but in an e-mail he told us, "I was with a few Texans. Mystical Texans. Richard Linklater, me, Franklin and Kevin ... when we met the gals, we were finishing up a three-day-guerrilla-shoot for a new show we're working on called Magical History Tour."

If you're interested in a quick Levitch fix, check out this interview with Speed, conducted by our former student Toni Cruthirds, who has a blog devoted to New York City experiences.

And you can read Bryan's account of the Sunset Tour on the site The Great Whatsit.





We'll Miss You, Natasha

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Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming in the 1998 revival of Cabaret


I'm in mourning today for Natasha Richardson, who passed away suddenly yesterday after an accident during a ski lesson at Mont Tremblant north of Montreal. She was, as an Associated Press article put it yesterday. "a proper Londoner who came to love the noise of New York."

I'd been thinking about Richardson lately after seeing a version of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie at the Metropolitan Playhouse last fall. I'll always regret missing the 1993 revival of the play in which she starred along with Liam Neeson, Rip Torn, and Anne Meara. Now more so than ever. (I'm hoping it's been preserved on videotape at Lincoln Center, so that I can view it for, ahem, research purposes.)

Her performance in the edgy Broadway revival of Cabaret eleven years ago remains a vivid memory. Directed by Sam Mendes and featuring Alan Cumming as the Master of Ceremonies and Ron Rivkin as Herr Schultz, and Denis O'Hare as Ernst Ludwig, the production evoked a sleazier version of Berlin nightlife than more elegant vision in Bob Fosse's original, marvelously translated onto the screen with Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey. My family and I were fortunate enough to have a stage-side table at the "Kit Kat Club" (Studio 54), and we were riveted. Indeed, my poor father seemed more than a little discomfitted by the fact that the tickling boas and wiggling derrieres of the chorus girls were, well, right in his face.

You can get a sense of the production from this YouTube video of Cumming performing "Wilkommen" at the Tony Awards:



Richardson's "Sally" was more damaged and fragile than Minnelli's, a wonderful reinterpretation of the role that made you forget (at least momentarily) Liza's iconic performance.

Here's what Ben Brantley had to say about Richardson in his review of the production:

Sally Bowles has just stepped into the spotlight, which is, you would imagine, her very favorite place to be. Yet this avidly ambitious chanteuse recoils when the glare hits her, flinching and raising a hand to shade her face. Wearing the barest of little black dresses and her eyes shimmering with fever, she looks raw, brutalized and helplessly exposed. And now she's going to sing us a song, an anthem to hedonism, about how life is a cabaret, old chum. She might as well be inviting you to hell.

Not exactly an upbeat way to tackle a showstopper, is it? Yet when Natasha Richardson performs the title number of ''Cabaret,'' in the entertaining but preachy revival of the 1966 Kander-Ebb show that opened last night, you'll probably find yourself grinning in a way you seldom do at musicals these days. For what Ms. Richardson does is reclaim and reinvent a show-biz anthem that is as familiar as Hamlet's soliloquy.

She hasn't made the number her own in the way nightclub performers bring distinctive quirky readings to standards. Instead, she has given it back to Sally Bowles. Ms. Richardson, you see, isn't selling the song; she's selling the character. And as she forges ahead with the number, in a defiant, metallic voice, you can hear the promise of the lyrics tarnishing in Sally's mouth. She's willing herself to believe in them, and all too clearly losing the battle.

For pleasurable listening, you would of course do better with Liza Minnelli, who starred in the movie version. But it is to Ms. Richardson's infinite credit that you don't leave the theater humming the tune to ''Cabaret,'' but brooding on the glimpses it has provided of one woman's desperation.

He concluded by calling her performance "an electrifying triumph." You can get a dim sense of Richardson's Sally from these two recently uploaded YouTube videos:







I had the good fortune to see Richardson again in her next Broadway role, as Anna in
Patrick sMarber's play Closer, with Anna Friel, Rupert Graves, and Ciarán Hinds. My memories of that production are almost equally vivid, and as a result I've never been particularly inclined to see the film version starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen, and Julia Roberts in Richardson's role.

The last time I saw Richardson was in the role of Blanche Du Bois in the 2005 revival of Tennessee Williams's A Street Car Named Desire. In stark contrast to her Sally, Richardson's Blanche was glamorous and lovely (Brantley called her "radiant") -- indeed too glamorous and lovely for some who prefer their Blanches faded, ravaged, and completely delusional. Richardson didn't inhabit the role of Blanche in the way that she inhabited Sally, but it was a thought-provoking and often moving performance that emphasized Blanche's deep well of sexuality. I always regretted that John C. Reilly was cast as Stanley and then directed to create a character that in many ways was the antithesis of Marlon Brando's portrayal: Reilly's Stanley struck me as an iteration of the character he'd played three years earlier on the screen in Chicago, the sad-sack Amos Hart. I love Reilly as an actor, but how marvelous it would have been to see Richardson playing against a Stanley who exuded Brando's sexual charisma and air of violence.

Richardson's passing is a great loss to the world of the performing arts. She will be missed.

[The photo at the top of this post is from www.natasha-richardson.org.]



Nothing throws a neighborhood into relief like death, and nothing organizes a neighborhood like a good bar, preferably one that can sort the locals from the tourists or barhoppers.

don.jpgReading others' meditations on the death of Holiday Cocktail Lounge's owner, Stefan Lutak -- along with ruminations on the passing of Joe Ades, the peeler man, who'd sold his wares at the northwest corner of the Union Square farmer's market as long as I've been shopping there -- reminds me of the death of a good friend and patron saint of the old seaport, Don Taube, a couple summers ago. Don wasn't the owner of our local bar but he was one of the regulars, even though he had given up drinking years before when he wife died. (The picture above was taken the night I gave a book reading at the Seaport Museum; it meant the world to me that Don made it out that night.)

Losing a neighborhood figure like that leaves a hole, but a productive one in which the loved one lives on and continues to shape lives; I can't sit at the bar without thinking about Don and I know plenty of other people who can't either. Most of us wouldn't even need the brass plate we screwed to the rail with his name on it. I imagine the same will be the same for dozens of Holiday patrons -- God willing the place survives its owner's death.

The folks at the fabulous foundation City Lore, in their not-four-tourists guidebook Hidden New York, reprint a poem by the Brooklyn writer Robert Hershon:

The Driver Said
    boerum hill?
    it used to be
    gowanus
    this ain't no
    neighborhood
    if ya butcher
    comes to ya funeral
    that's a
    neighborhood
Not that many of us can still say we have a butcher, unfortunately, but lots of folks have a bartender, or a fellow who regularly occupies the stool next to you. These are the people who, no matter their demeanor, stitch lives together to make communities.

So here's to all the Dons and Stefans and Peeler Men out there, living, dead, or living on in people's memories and daily interactions.


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ABC news and others reported over the weekend the death, at age 69, of William Zantzinger, whose caning to death of "poor Hattie Carroll," an African-American barmaid, provoked one of Dylan's most memorable protest songs, released on his 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Zantzinger served six months for manslaughter and paid a $500 fine for the crime. He was sentenced on the same day Martin Luther King led his famous march on Washington. He later went into real estate and became a notorious slumlord.

These and other details I gleaned from a Mother Jones essay by Ian Frazier a couple years back, which contains background on the crime, the criminal, and the song:

The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator's name, omitting the t -- perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasize the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the zs. Zantzinger's actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the song lets on. Police arrested Zantzinger at the ball for disorderly conduct -- he was wildly drunk -- and for assaults on hotel employees not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing at the time. When Hattie Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical examiner reported that Hattie Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain hemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger's verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that, and of assault, but not of murder.

The judges probably thought they were being reasonable. They rejected defense claims that Hattie Carroll's precarious health made it impossible to say whether her death had been caused, or had simply occurred naturally. The judges considered Zantzinger an "immature" young man who got drunk and carried away, but they nevertheless held him responsible for her death, saying that neither her medical history nor his ignorance of it was an excuse. His cane, though merely a toy one he got at a farm fair, they considered a weapon capable of assault. They kept the sentence to only six months because (according to the New York Herald Tribune) a longer one would have required that he serve it in state prison, and they feared the enmity of the largely black prison population would mean death for him. Zantzinger served his six months in the comparative safety of the Washington County Jail. The judges also let him wait a couple of weeks before beginning his sentence, so he could bring in his tobacco crop. Such dispensations were not uncommon, apparently, for offenders who had farms.

Peter Eisenstadt, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York State (to which I contributed several pieces on 1790s New Yorkers some years ago) has what I found to be a moving response to Zantzinger's death over on his Greater New York blog. I'll let him have the final word:

If "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is not Dylan's best song--it would probably get my vote--it is certainly (IMHO) his greatest protest song, a genre that he would abandon, more or less, not that long after writing it. His later work, as great as it is, traded the directness of "Hattie Carroll" for a certain willful poetic obscurity, and in place of the keen sense of the interaction of the personal and the public in "Hattie Carroll", offered instead a long series of brilliant songs on Dylan's private woes and obsessions. And unlike some of his other protest songs, like "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Masters of War," "Hattie Carroll" is descriptive, not prescriptive, just a ballad, telling a story.

"Hattie Carroll" came out about the same time as Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, which added the endlessly debated phrase "the banality of evil" to our language. Whatever else you want to say about William Zantzinger, he was no Adolf Eichmann, and perhaps he better illuminates how an evil social order is more built upon myriad acts of relatively banal crimes than great horrors, and how the system of racial and class oppression that is central to the events of Dylan's song are less the product of calculated evil, than selfishness and greediness defended through a series of endless rationalizations.

And finally it is a song about the sadness and sorrow that is at the heart of all human history, the great men and deeds which are built upon the trough of meanness and pettiness, the unfairness, and the inequalities of every social order.

All of us, have from time to time, tried to "philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears," look at the public face of evil calmly and rationally, and try to understand and deal with it. At other times, all one can do, as the song finally recommends, "Bury the rag deep in your face, For now's the time for your tears." When my brother died last year, suddenly and tragically, it is this song, above all others, that I found myself singing to myself, again and again. I'm not sure why. It certainly was a time for my tears. And by making sure that the crimes of one relatively unimportant unsung man would be sung about forever, Dylan has rendered us all a service. Those of us who spend our lives writing about history, the lives of others, need to study, to analyze, to put things in proportion. We also need to remember, from time to time, to bury our faces in our handkerchiefs, and let the tears flow, and flow, and flow.

Photo credit: AP/Getty



New York City Mom's Blog

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Our friend Mannahattamamma has begun writing for the New York City Mom's Blog, a collective of bloggers that is affiliated with a larger network of blogs called the Silicon Valley Moms Group. The New York bloggers describe themselves as "a collaborative group of women living or working in New York City. They wrestle strollers down subway stairs and struggle with taxi cabs on every corner. But whether they™re parenting without backyards, extra storage space or carpools, or enjoying their recent escapes to the suburbs in spite of their horrific commutes, these moms are living proof that 'the city never sleeps.'" The writers include businesswomen, freelancers of various kinds, full-time moms, journalists, professors -- all of whom offer observations on the ups and downs of parenting in the City with humor and even poignancy.

The Silicon Valley Moms Group features some 300 writers -- all "opinionated moms" -- whose posts "the ups, downs, outrages, struggles, victories, and the everyday humor of motherhood." The related sites include the Chicago Moms Blog, the DC Metro Moms Blog, New Jersey Moms Blog, the 50-Something Moms Blog, the Deep South Moms Blog, and the Los Angeles Moms Blog. Sites devoted to Philadelphia and the Rocky Mountain area are planned for next year.

Mannahattamamma's latest post for NYCMB is about finding unexpected holiday cheer during walk through Union Square with her younger son. An excerpt:

At home, we'd been passing around a nasty stomach bug, which had attacked me all day Monday, and now I was ready to eat something but nothing sounded right ... in short, by Tuesday evening, I was grumpy, cold, and hungry -- utterly devoid of holiday spirit.

To make matters worse, I had to pick Caleb up at nursery school, which meant slogging through the after-work crowds in Union Square, and walking past Blue Water Grill, which sits on the edge of the Square and has big windows looking out onto 16th street. Walking past the restaurant, especially in the winter dark, I always want to press my nose against the glass and gaze inside, past the blue-lit Christmas trees that decorate the terrace. Who are those people, lounging inside at 5 o'clock on a weekday?
You can see all of her posts by clicking here.



Ahab by MC Lars

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Later this morning I'll be giving the last lecture of my Conversations of the West class, wrapping up the course's treatment of how Moby-Dick engages with its cultural inheritances from the ancient Greek, Biblical, and early modern English traditions. I'll try to tie it all in the end to what Barack Obama calls "deliberative democracy," in which "all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent." (As we've noted here before, Moby-Dick is reputedly Obama's favorite novel.) "Deliberative democracy," which Obama writes about in The Audacity of Hope, sounds a lot like the conception of cosmopolitanism that we've been exploring in my course: in fact, you could think of it as applied cosmopolitanism.

The last word will go, however, to someone whom I suspect very few of you have heard of, the post-punk laptop rapper MC Lars. I'll show his music video, Ahab, which you can watch below. Fans of Moby-Dick will be impressed, I think, by just how well Lars's song gets at major ideas in the novel.



But that won't be the last song of the course: that honor goes, of course, to Led Zeppelin.



Call Me Barack

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I know the election is over and we're supposed to be getting back to history as usual, but there's no way we're not blogging this.

Yglesias thought what set him apart was his comic book collecting, and I'll agree that's cool. (But Spidey? Conan? Not earning points with this DC kid.)

What makes this man great is his choice for favorite novel: Moby-Dick.

[Begin weird English professor victory dance.]


John McCain and Sarah Palin, in the latest installment of their occasionally uncomfortable joint interview with Brian Williams, offer their definitions of "elites":

WILLIAMS: Who is a member of the elite?

PALIN: Oh, I guess just people who think that they're better than anyone else. And-- John McCain and I are so committed to serving every American. Hard-working, middle-class Americans who are so desiring of this economy getting put back on the right track. And winning these wars. And America's starting to reach her potential. And that is opportunity and hope provided everyone equally. So anyone who thinks that they are-- I guess-- better than anyone else, that's-- that's my definition of elitism.

WILLIAMS: So it's not education? It's not income-based? It's--

PALIN: Anyone who thinks that they're better than someone else.

WILLIAMS: --a state of mind? It's not geography?

PALIN: 'Course not.

WILLIAMS: Senator?

MCCAIN: I-- I know where a lot of 'em live. (LAUGH)

WILLIAMS: Where's that?

MCCAIN: Well, in our nation's capital and New York City. I've seen it. I've lived there. I know the town. I know-- I know what a lot of these elitists are. The ones that she never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown. I'll be very frank with you. Who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.

I suppose we could have seen that coming. Too bad no one lives in that Pennsylvania cornfield where Flight 93 went down, or they just might be targets too. Oh, wait ...

So I find their answers interesting, in part because I've heard myself saying more than once this season: "What's wrong with arugula anyway?"  But of course that must mean I'm an elitist too. Real, men, apparently, only eat iceburg lettuce purchased at a Super Walmart. Oh, wait ... apparently even Walmart stocks the funny green stuff these days. Elitists!

Sure there are some folks in NYC who take their food snobbery out on the rest of the country. My friend A White Bear has great anecdotes in this vein from her shifts at the Park Slope Food Co-op, involving annoying co-workers who poo-poo middle-Americans for their poor taste in cheese -- as if every rural Kansan has a world-class fromogier within a couple minutes' drive. (The fact that they don't must be what's really the matter with Kansas.) And certainly there are a lot of people who live here who talk loudly, sometimes when tourists are close enough to overhear, that they can't imagine living anywhere else. (By the same token, tourists are often overheard saying loudly that they might be having a good time on their visit, but they can't imagine living here.)

And I'll admit it: I've identified emotionally at times--in spite of the fact that my ability to live in Manhattan has nothing to do with money and everything to do with a million happy accidents I couldn't have coordinated if I'd wanted to--with the old Talking Heads song "The Big Country," from their second album, More Songs about Buildings and Food (1978). The speaker is in a plane, flying over the mid-West (which apparently includes everything west of the Hudson). Looking down at all the ballfields and driveways he launches into the chorus:

I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I couldn't live like that, no siree!
I couldn't do the things the way those people do.
I couldn't live there if you paid me to.
Guilty as charged? Maybe. But I've had my moments of nostalgia for the sort of Sam Shepard world I grew up in, too. I only wish the bulk of the people there didn't think Obama is literally the anti-Christ, foretold by Scripture to wage war on Israel and usher in a one-world state. Don't they know how to read? To sift information? Can't they ask their fromagier for political advice? Oh, wait ...

All this waffling (Am I an elitist? Am I above that? Does thinking I'm above it make me an elitist anyway?) and referencing old Talking Heads songs is merely a set-up, though, for an excuse to plug David Byrne's recent entries in his online journal. He's on tour at the moment, all across that Big Country, on the ground this time. And, as he's proven many times before, he's an exceptionally gifted blogger. I would pay good money for a "David Byrne's Guide to Weird Americana," and even more to be a stowaway on his buses and planes and other modes of transport. From hot-air ballooning in Albuquerque to visiting Satin Doll's Lounge in Milwaukee, his entries celebrate the joys and idiosyncratic oddities of this great land of ours. It's a nice corrective to the dismissive (if sometimes understandable) chorus of his old song "Big Country," and yet this Byrne persona clearly retains an insidery-outsider's edge. It's not an elitist edge so much as one that brings a more generous kind of moral clarity.

lilybaldwinalbuquerque.jpg

As for McCain and Palin's less generous kind of moral clarity: doesn't that last line smack a little of hypocrisy?

"[Elitists are those] [w]ho think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.
I'd rather not have them legislating morality for my family, thank you. Damn evangelitists.

Byrne tour dates here, though there's no hometown show listed. Photo by Lily Baldwin, snagged from Byrne's journal. Doesn't it look a lot like an Amy Bennett painting?


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