Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Go East, Part Three and Last

Obviously, with being under the weather much of my first week here and in Boston for part of the second, I had to make up for some lost time if I was going to be a good tourist. So after ascertaining on Sunday that the streets were going to clear up some, I figured I was smart enough not to try for any museums on Monday and so instead wandered around Brooklyn some more. This time I headed for DUMBO, which seemed to be down the hill, and looked around. There was another view of the Statue of Liberty, another hunk of downtown Manhattan, and a couple of old buildings I found myself wondering about.

Now an ice-cream shop, which used to be what?
I walked the streets, noticing the rampaging gentrification and idly musing about how the vibe reminded me of SoHo in the late '80s. There was St. Anne's Warehouse, which is now a theater, and I vaguely recall a Lou Reed connection, like that was where he put on one of his latter-day multimedia pieces. There was the looming hulk of the Manhattan Bridge, not nearly as charming as its neighbor, Roebling's more famous bridge.

Brooklyn offers a yellow YO in the distance
There were some pizzerias, a very popular restaurant whose motto was "You don't cook; we do," which I didn't go in, and a big used bookstore. A lot of it, to be honest, was too industrial to be interesting, and the snow hadn't been cleared as much as it had been up the hilll, so it was a kind of a slog. Old-timey and new seemed at a precarious standoff.

Looming at one frontier of the neighborhood was the Eagle Warehouse building, which I couldn't get a decent shot of because of the sun. It's a lovely building, and the plaque on it says it was erected by a famous architect on the site of the Brooklyn Eagle, the newspaper Walt Whitman edited, after it had gone out of business. (Walt's also got a plaque on the building). No longer a warehouse, it's now apartments.

A dragon, not an eagle. See? You can't trust the media!
And across the street is a nice old bank, one of the first cast iron buildings in Brooklyn, which is now a pizzeria.

But the one thing it was, was wet and cold, so I mounted the hill -- turns out I'd taken a way long way around -- and contented myself with having made the discovery. There's every indication that this part of town would be far more charming in the summertime. 

The next day I set off for the Brooklyn Museum to see the Coney Island show. I didn't dawdle around the house, I didn't waste half the afternoon reading the Web, I found the direct subway line to the museum, got on the train, got off at the right stop, mounted the stairs and there was the museum in front of me. My adventures with unknown public transportation generally aren't so successful, and I felt good that I didn't have to turn around, switch trains, or anything. I did, however, have to return, because the Brooklyn Museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday. So I wasted the other half of the afternoon reading the Web. 

Determined, however, to make something of the day, I decided to take myself out to dinner. I'd passed a very interesting-looking joint called Henry's End on my way back from DUMBO. It appeared to be kind of old-school (no fancy stuff, some classic dishes) and kind of new-school (well-chosen ingredients, interesting preparations). I wound up going there three times, and having great meals each time. The first night I had the duckling with wild mushrooms, which was phenomenal (and plentiful), the second, a special of a kind of breaded chicken breast roulade stuffed with mushrooms and blue cheese napped with a beige sauce that might well have had cognac in it, and the third time their take on veal piccata. The first night there was almost nobody there, except for a lively table of four, one of whom looked very familiar -- is Marshall Brickman still alive? The second time was on Friday, and the place was packed. I got into a conversation with the couple at the next table, both of whom were Brooklyn natives, and I said that I'd been wandering the area and liked a lot of what I'd seen and that I might be interested in moving there, whereupon the woman, in classic New York style, said "I'm glad to hear that," and produced a card, saying "I happen to be a real estate broker!" Okay, Emily, you'll be my first call. And my last meal there was my last dinner in town, and I couldn't think of anywhere else I'd rather go. As befits a high-end neighborhood, it's a neighborhood joint, but kind of high-end, and has been there since 1973. If you must spread the word, use some discretion who you spread it to. 

The next day, I had a meeting with my agent to get a sense of what will happen when on the road to Nov. 1, publication day for my book. I was determined to get some authentic New York pizza into me, but he had to stay on Manhattan because he had appointments later, and almost apologetically he chose Lombardi's, in SoHo, which claims to have been serving pizza since 1905. If that's true, then they may well be America's oldest surviving pizzeria. Whether they're the first American pizzeria is an argument I don't really want to get into, but my reference book says that both Totonno's in Coney Island and John's on Bleecker Street were started by former Lombardi's employees. I can state from empiric evidence, though, that they know how to make a pie. 

After we had our talk and parted ways, I decided that it was warm enough to walk to the new Whitney Museum to see what the foofaraw about the Frank Stella show was about. Next to the Picasso sculpture show at MOMA, this was the big show in town, and I guess the weather had scared off the tourists, because there was no problem getting in. The Whitney still has some of those iconic works from the '20s on that they're famous for, but I have a real problem with the highly-interpretive labels, which are annoying. If you read anything but the name and title of the work, you're forced into someone's idea of what's going on. I'd like some bare-bones stuff: who the artist is, the circumstances in which the art was made, stuff like that. I'll make up my mind what's happening. There may have been more of this in the Stella show, but the big statements from him that are in each of the rooms are jut so down-to-earth and sensible that you have to just laugh at the art historians tying themselves in knots. There's a short dialog in which an interviewer asks Stella if those pieces that escape the wall are paintings. He says of course they are. A sculpture is just a painting that came off the wall and stands there.  I found myself taking no notes as I walked around, lost in wonder at this guy's ability to reinvent himself and plunge into whatever new idea takes his fancy: he's 80 this year, and is currently working with CAD software and 3-D printing, which, after you've taken in all the stuff here, is no surprise whatever. 

I took a much better picture, but somehow it's lost. This doesn't really get the scale as much, sorry.
Stella's remarkable Moby-Dick series, his work with all manner of materials and colors, his progression from a kid in his 20s making rigorously thought-out black paintings to things that leap off the wall, from geometry to seeming anarchy, it's all here. I compared the show to being on drugs: you don't really know what to say while it's happening, and it stays with you for a long time. Unfortunately, it's not staying at the Whitney much longer, and closes on Feb. 7. If you're in the vicinity, it's well worth your time. (EDIT: Hey, Texans just got lucky! This show moves to the Ft. Worth Contemporary Art Museum from April 17 to Sept. 18. I'll go see it again, that's for sure!)

The next day I went to a museum pretty much around the corner from where I was staying, the New York City Transit Museum. I had two goals in mind: one, to see the museum, of course, and two, to see if I could get one of those dime-sized tokens with the Y cut out of the middle that my dad used to bring home and toss into his change drawer. They fascinated me as a kid, although of course now it's all done with a magnetic strip on a Metro Card. The museum is in a closed-off part of the Court Street station, into which representative subway cars from all eras of the city's history, starting in 1905, are parked. It's got all the old turnstiles, all the old ads, a long section on the building of the lines (several sandhogs digging the tunnels under the river were involved in blowouts that shot them into the air -- and many of them lived) emphasizing that it was a job that'd take anyone, so that blacks and recent Irish and Italian immigrants could get jobs. You do, however, have to be a serious nerd to linger over the old rolling stock, but I saw what I came for and hit the gift shop, where I found that there were no loose tokens, but stuff made out of them, so I bought a key holder whose padlock-shaped base has one of those little tokens embedded in it. I wasn't pleased that the stock description next to the bar code said "key holder w/antique token." Antique my ass!

It was nice enough to keep wandering, so I told myself I'd head to Caputo's, the Italian place that makes its own mozzarella, to see if they had salt-cured anchovies. It was a long walk, especially after the museum, but I got there and found that a can of the same anchovies I have here would cost the same as ordering them from Amazon, which I'd rather not do. Also, with my radically decreased consumption of pasta and pizza at home, I'm not going through them as fast as I used to. I passed and started wandering again. I needed some lunch, but what? I saw a place that called itself a "Jersey pork butcher," that offered Italian delicatessen, and walked in. It was a place a friend of mine has mentioned often, notable by its ridiculous names for sandwiches. I forget what they called an eggplant parmagian sandwich, but that was just what I wanted. It was still hot when I got to the apartment, too! 

The next couple of days involved some business stuff, some maintenance (I had to do my laundry), and planning the last few days in Brooklyn. Along the way, I found a nice unpretentious sort of northern Italian joint, Rucola, which was an invigoratingly long way from the apartment, meaning I was burning up those carbohydrates as I walked to and from there. Dean Street has some very old wooden houses on it, although the restaurant's in a brownstone. The roast chicken turned out to be a masterpiece, and I recommend it. 

On Saturday, I wanted to get a pair of shoes, specific shoes I'd seen advertised and thought might be something I could wear in more formal situations, since my shoemaker of choice seems to be Nike, not always the right choice. My New York radar seemed to be working great: I found the shoes and started walking until I hit Union Square, where it occurred to me to call my friend Mike, with whom I'd gone on a wander in Brooklyn the week before. He had just sat down with his girlfriend to have lunch at the White Horse Tavern, so I just started walking. That's not a section of town I'm familiar with from childhood, but somehow I managed to walk straight there passing a couple of things I'd never seen before, including a house with a plaque honoring Charles Ives, who'd lived there, and a tiny triangular plot of land with some very old gravestones in it, which turned out to belong to an ancient Portugese synagogue. Amazing. At the White Horse, the three of us sat around talking and when they were finished with lunch, we set out walking downtown on Hudson Street, which soon turned into terra incognita for me. We walked and walked, with Mike expatiating on some of the history we were passing, which was increasingly being hemmed in by these huge buildings that I'd seen from Brooklyn, new buildings I had no names for. There was also a condo in TriBeCa which I'd seen ads for, one of those buildings being built for the oligarchs and .01 percenters. It looked like a stack of glass blocks poised to fall over, easily one of the ugliest buildings on an increasingly uglifying island. Eventually we reached Battery Park, although it was too dark to see anything there, and thoughts turned to where I could have dinner. In that general vicinity -- Mike works down there, so he knew the area well -- there are a couple of protected blocks of very old houses, including Fraunces Tavern, where Washington bid farewell to his troops after the Revolution, and, much later, some Puerto Rican nationalists blew the hell out of one of the rooms. The place turned out to be huge inside. The museum was closed, but the various bars -- there's a beer-specialist room, a virtual museum of whiskey, and several dining rooms -- were open. We had a beer -- mine was a stout, actually -- while making up our minds what to do next, and it turned out that the whole bar/restaurant thing had gone broke and been rescued by a craft brewer from Ireland called Porter House, whose stout I was drinking (there was an oyster stout on the menu, but it wasn't in yet). Eventually a live band started playing and drove us out into the street, where we wandered looking for a restaurant without any luck. We wound up in the Fraunces again, and all had a beef pot pie that was very nice, although maybe a bit heavy on the thyme. But it was value for money, and not what you expect from a place that has definite tourist-trap vibes around it. I'd go there again. We wandered a little more and I saw the U.S. Stock Exchange, heavily armored now against bombs, and the Federal Building with its huge statue of Washington, since it's where he took the oath of President. 

My last destination on this trip was that Coney Island show at the Brooklyn Museum, and I'd left it until Sunday, a day when it might have been mobbed. I'd never been to this museum before, and I have to say it impressed me. They're changing a lot of stuff around, and a lot of it is closed, but I got to see a very good show of stuff from their African collection, which is very impressive, a collection of feminist art, the centerpiece of which is Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, and a collection of historic interiors which includes two early Brooklyn houses in their entirety. But the Coney Island show blew my mind. 

The smiling face of the Steeplechase

According to the wall caption, Coney Island's heyday was the first half of the 20th Century, and some of the graphics support that. I would wager that today's children would be more scared than enticed by the Steeplechase's grinning trademark, and a number of film excerpts, too, show it when it was a place to meet girls (the theme of several films) and engage in a day of innocent fun. There was also the boardwalk and beach, for perhaps less innocent fun, although Weegee's famous picture of the beach crowd during a heatwave (he got on a tall ladder and had them all face his way) shows that privacy might have been a bit hard to achieve on some days. And there was a kind of desperation to the fun, which I think comes out in the numerous Reginald Marsh paintings of the place, and is very explicit in Henry Koerner's scary oils. (Red Grooms, who I hear is Bob Dylan's favorite painter, has a couple of pieces in this show, too, including a multilayered reconstruction of Weegee's photo on glass). The show digs into the sociology and the response by fine art and fine art photography to this massive collection of rides, fortune tellers, taffy-sellers, and dance pavilions. This, for instance, is from the teens:

Iconic Islanders
I didn't know that Mae West grew up in Coney Island, where her father was a prizefighter, nor that Jimmy Durante started as a piano-player in a cabaret that offered drag shows to a racially-integrated audience. But horror and fun mixed closer together than they'd dare do in this time of trigger warnings and helicopter parents. This was another icon:

Hello, boys and girls!
The fact that age has had its way with this demon just adds to the icky affect of its cyclopean gaze. 

And then, around the end, where the amusement park was in stark decay and only minority kids were hanging around the ruins (and, some of them, making art), came a wonderful surprise: an installation about Coney Island by a remarkable graffiti artist who briefly worked in my neighborhood in Berlin, and whose new pieces always gave me a thrill when I'd encounter one: Swoon. 

Swoony, baby!

It's kind of hard to depict this, since it's her usual paper work, some of it X-acto cut, some charcoaled, all of it in 3-D and standing up. It binds the past and present of Coney Island together, and is a great end for the show. You've got a little more time with this one: it closes March 13. Go.

Which is what I had to do next: go. Monday saw me cleaning up the apartment, packing, running into the city to celebrate, a couple of weeks late, National Hot Pastrami Sandwich Day at Ben's, a new place to me (it started on Long Island, apparently), with a friend who works at the New York Times.

I had been gone three weeks, and really needed to get back to Texas. I mentioned in an e-mail to my agent that I had to go home but on some level didn't want to and he replied that I wanted to go home but was wishing that home were somewhere else. And he nailed it: very probably, moving back to Austin was the only thing I could have done in October 2013, given my circumstances. While I'm not even sure that moving back to the U.S. was a smart thing to do, I'm very sure that Austin, while it'll do for now, isn't the place for me any more. Walking the streets of Brooklyn was somehow soothing: my family has a long history in the Northeast, and that's where, eventually, I should probably be. It won't be now -- I hope there's a second volume of the book in the future -- but I suspect it'll happen. Brooklyn, the Hudson Valley, maybe even somewhere in New England or (perish the thought) New Jersey. But this trip shook me, and in a good way. I have a lot to do in the coming months, but now I have this to think about.

To be continued in the months to come.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Go East, Part Two

Whatever it was I caught on the plane coming to New York had dissipated by the end of last week, and Monday, since it was a holiday, my friend, the street photographer/union activist Mike Lee, came to visit. Mike used to live in this neighborhood, and we took a long walk, talking about this and that, catching up over lunch at the most wonderful old-school Italian joint imaginable, which we just happened to walk into. Both watching our carbs, or I would have suggested splitting a pizza, but as it was, I had mixed shrimp and scungilli (that's conch, folks) in a Fra Diavolo sauce: it doesn't get more old-school than that. No, I'm not going to divulge the name of this place yet because I'm going back for dinner this week.

We walked as far as Caputo's, an Italian deli that makes its own mozzarella daily (except Monday, when it's closed) and then we cut across on some side-street and headed back to the apartment. It was sunny, but cold, and with a lot of wind, making it worse. I saw places I hadn't seen before, the famous Brooklyn row-houses, one after another.

I was trying to figure out what this all reminded me of, and then it hit me, later: this was like Greenwich Village's pleasanter quarters in the years I first discovered them, but at a (relatively) affordable price. I probably still can't afford to live here, but it feels comfortable, and the mixture of hip (but not hipster) and family and old-time Italian is very appealing. Maybe it's time to play the Lottery. 

Tuesday was about packing: I'd bought a ticket on the Acela, the so-called high-speed train Amtrak runs between Washington and Boston, to spend a couple of days seeing Boston for the first time in oh, maybe 40 years. An old friend from Austin, Stewart, had moved there and fallen in love with the place, posting odes to cold weather and snow on Facebook that would've gotten him lynched back home. Turns out this may be deep-seated with him: doing research, he discovered that his first ancestor in the United States had a farm in what is now Harvard Yard! 

Well, I packed, but I also panicked. I'd used Amtrak's phone app to buy the ticket, and then couldn't get at it. I had apparently forgotten the password, and repeated inquiries got no help from Amtrak. Fortunately, there was an e-mail, and when I found it, I discovered the train was at 3, not 3:30, as I thought. This was going to be the test of my new iPad Pro, which is like my laptop but lighter and with fewer apps, but suitable for the Web and e-mail, as well as having the New Yorker and a bunch of Kindle books to read: a perfect travelling companion. Which I dutifully put in its bag and left on the couch, as I discovered as I was entering the subway station. 

The train trip was uneventful, with some immensely fat guy asleep next to me the whole way. Of course, you never see the most scenic parts of where you are, but I was fairly thrilled by the maritime activities in New London, Connecticut, and a sand beach a bit further up the route. We crawled a lot of the way -- word is it that Amtrak doesn't have much in the way of high-speed rails on this leg of the route -- but as soon as we got a glorious scarlet sunset, we started jamming. 

Best I could do
Boston was even colder and windier than Brooklyn, but the subway stop I needed was only a couple of stops away from the station, and then there was what seemed like an interminable walk down Charles Street to the hotel. 

But what a hotel! Only a dozen or so rooms, and Stewart (a chef by profession) told me he'd heard good things about the restaurant. It hardly mattered: I was so cold that if I'd been told the hotel restaurant was awful, but the place across the street would give me the best meal of my life, I'd still have dined in. It was cold out there! And as it was, I got the best meal I've had all year, although I did remind the staff that the year was only 20 days old. There was a charcuterie plate with a homemade pâté (served too cold, a common failing, but time will take care of that) that I loved and a duck liver mousse that was extraordinary. Then I had their take on what's becoming a welcome cliché, the iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing. This was little gem lettuce with various add-ons and a "blue cheese compote," with a bit of what they described as Serrano ham subbing for the bacon that's usually there, and which I don't think was Serrano ham. Whatever, it was good, and I was getting stuffed, so I was happy that the portion of leg of venison with "heirloom carrots" and mushrooms was as good as it was -- and enough to finish the job. With it, I had a Languedoc wine, Chateau L'Hospitalet, that matched everything perfectly. (I know, Gérard Bertrand is not a well-loved figure in Languedoc wine, but there's a pretty stellar wine list in this restaurant and this was a good compromise between affordable and correct). This was an expensive meal, but well worth it, and well worth having to subsist on celery sticks for the next week if I have to. 

The next day, I met Stewart to hit a couple of art museums. The first was the Isabella Stewart Gardner House, site of the largest unsolved art-heist in America when a couple of guys disguised as cops lifted a Vermeer and about 39 other paintings about 40 years ago and a scandal erupted when it was discovered that security was virtually nil in the place, a sprawling pile designed after an Italian villa. Mrs. Gardner was left $1.5 million when her father died (not such a huge amount in today's crazy art market, but this was the late 19th century) and immediately decamped with her husband to Europe to start buying art. She got decent advice and went back year after year, stuffing it in her villa willy-nilly. When her husband died she came into more money and continued collecting until she died. Her will stipulated that the house be open to the public, but there would be no rearrangement of anything at all, no labels on the works, no change of any kind. The minute you step into the place you can tell one thing: she was mad. Some of the art is good, a lot is mediocre, some is just plain bad. There's a Rembrandt self-portrait that's more important for documenting the way he looked when he painted it than for any particularly artistic merit (mind you, I'm not much of a fan of his, and I do wonder how the "cops" missed this one, because I identified it right off). The place is dark, disordered, claustropobic, and I was happy when we headed towards the door. 

Except we didn't, and I'm glad. The place has an active trust that's bringing in money, and at one point they had Renzo Piano enclose it in a sort of glass box, as well as create a second building in the enclosure. This has a gallery that pays host to travelling shows or shows curated by the foundation, and at the moment has a show dedicated to the Italian Renaissance artist Carlo Crivelli, aka Cucumber Dude for the number of cucumbers that appear in his paintings. I'd read a rave about it in the New York Review (or maybe the London Review of Books; I can't find it in either), and was happy to catch it. His weird gourd obsession aside, he had a masterful eye and sense of color, and although there aren't that many paintings of his surviving, the bunch here are lovely, and, given the chaos next door, well-displayed. It closes tomorrow, so I'm very glad I saw it. 

Next up was just around the corner -- well, nearby, anyway. Stewart is a member of the Museum of Fine Arts, and breezed us past the admission desk with his card. I'd still have paid, I realized as we were leaving. This place is as chockablock full of great stuff as the Metropolitan Museum. Its collection starts later, with the Italian Renaissance, its Egyptian collection isn't nearly as big, but although I'm not sure I saw everything I would have wanted -- the building is in a confusing shape, thanks to a rotunda whose ceiling is covered with a huge John Singer Sargent fresco. Its American collection, particularly from around the time of the Revolution and the early days of the Republic, is, unsurprisingly, tremendous, as (also unsurprisingly) is its collection of Sargents, including "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," which Stewart tells me was as controversial as his "Madame X" in the Met. It's displayed flanked by the gigantic Chinese ceramics it portrays. And one of the coolest things in the museum is a humongous Roman statue of the goddess Juno -- well, it wears her head, although that seems to have been added later, albeit during Roman times. Juno stood in a garden in the Boston suburb of Brookline until it was donated to the MFA, at which point it was transported by helicopter and deposited, through the roof, at its present location via a nail-biter of a helicopter ride, all documented at her base. 

I wish I could be as kind about its contemporary collection, but there are very few first-rate works in it, if what was on display is anything to go by. Of course, I was also experiencing art burnout by this point in the afternoon, as any reasonable person would. Clearly, this is a collection shaped by the Boston Brahmins of years past, with an admirable spirit continuing into the present, but perhaps without the vision of the Met or the talent of MOMA and the Whitney. 

Thursday was my last day in town, so Stewart showed me some of the tourist attractions which, it being colder than humanly imaginable, were pretty thin on tourists. I realized that I had a strong affection for pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary tombstones, dating back to family vacations in Vermont where my father became convinced that where Revolutionary War veterans were buried there'd be copious blueberry bushes. This is irrational, but he was right almost all of the time, and he had two willing helpers with kid-sized hands to harvest them. Needless to say, there were no berries out at this time of year, and in Boston probably at any time of year, but we tromped through the Old Granary Burying Ground and I snapped away. 

All manner of famous people are planted here -- Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock -- and as you can see it's quite a collection of funerary art, American style. 

After I dragged Stewart to another graveyard, he insisted we go warm up at the Boston Athenaeum, just up Beacon Hill. He's a proud member of this, too, and spends some of his days doing research here. What, exactly is it? The best I can do is that it's a venerable private library with impressive holdings of periodicals (I saw bound Harper's and Atlantic Monthlys going well back into the 19th century, and no doubt they have the entire run) all housed in a building dripping with art (part of the reason the MFA was built was to house the Athenaeum's collection, which it then grabbed when it became a separate institution), serving, for most of its existence, a rarified stratum of Boston society. After all, a lot of people in Boston have access to libraries at Harvard and MIT, whose collections must duplicate some of this stuff, and there's also the Boston Public Library, which probably has a book or two. And, in fact, the membership at the Athenaeum was literally dying off when the trustees mounted a membership drive that coincided with the digitization of the collection (a mighty undertaking, I bet) and a revamped lecture and concert series that seriously lowered the median age and boosted the membership rolls. It subscribes to a huge number of magazines, which was heartening to see for an old magazine-head like me, including everything from Toad Suck to One Story (which prints one story per issue) to Petite Propos Culinaires (the number of scholarly food magazines was impressive, too). I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. 

We then took a leisurely stroll up Beacon Hill so I could see where Stewart lives, and as we passed one building he noted it was subsidized housing and he was on a list to get into it. It was astonishing enough that he could afford to live on Beacon Hill at all, but I was flabbergasted that in this age of real estate greed the city of Boston would have this large, beautiful building available for lower income residents. After all, right around the corner are some of the older buildings, one of which houses John Kerry and his wife. 

Next up was the show I most wanted to see. The Institue for Contemporary Art is way the hell out on a pier (don't worry, it's being developed for high-dollar residences with breathless marketing hype on the fences keeping people out of the building site) with a commanding view. Leap Before You Look is an exhibit about Black Mountain College, and back when I was being pressured to figure out what college to apply to (despite mostly mediocre grades), Black Mountain was my choice. There were great composers, painters, and not so many writers, but it seemed like a place where I'd meet the kind of people I wanted to meet, some of whom, I devoutly hoped, would be girls. And I would have, had the institution survived past 1957, when I was in third grade and not thinking much about girls at all. One of its first stars were Josef and Ani Albers, on the run, as were several other early faculty members, from the Nazis. The Albers were Bauhaus veterans, and it shows, not only in their work, but in the way they and the other faculty approached the learning process. The college wasn't very rich, and students helped grow their own food and constructed some of the campus buildings while learning painting, dance, design, textiles, and pottery. John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Lou Harrison, Ruth Asawa, Robert Motherwell, the names go on and on, a roll-call of '50s avant-garde luminaries. Which were students and which were faculty? One takeaway from this show, which it's at pains to point out, was that it destroyed the hierarchy of the arts, and, along the way, the teacher-pupil hierarchy. In the end, a very Bauhaus idea. I'm sure I would have loved it, but experiments like this don't last. It sure looks like it was, well, not fun, but something bigger than that, while it lasted. Later, I went to the bookstore and they had a Black Mountain college pennant and a t-shirt, but at $40, that was a lot of mazuma for a t-shirt, so I let it sit. And as we left the Black Mountain show, we were presented with this installation:

Just what I needed. 

Dinner plans were to go to Legal Seafood, a Boston institution that, according to a friend of Stewart's, was good despite its having turned into a chain. I wanted good old New England Atlantic seafood, but hell, it wasn't even 5:30. So we jumped onto the MTA and headed to Harvard Square, where there was a branch of the restaurant plus The Harvard Bookstore, which Stewart assured me I'd like. It's not the official university store -- that's the Harvard Coop -- but an independent book store with everything from a zillion new and used books to a machine that can access obscure books and print and bind them right in the store. Much as I love Book People in Austin, I wish we had something like this there, too. We spent tons of time there and when we emerged from the used/remainder section in the basement, an author was giving a reading/talk. Right then and there, I decided I want to do one there when my book comes out, although I doubt my publisher will do much in the way of a tour. I think I'll be coming to the New York area, though, and this is just a train-ride away. 

We managed to spend enough time at Harvard to work up an appetite, and Legal was only a few icy blocks away. I had a kind of Yankee cioppino, where lobster replaced the crab. Most of the shellfish in it (as with the steamer clams I'd ordered for an appetizer) was overcooked, sad to say, but the broth was great -- I got tomato, white wine, and herbs -- and there was enough left over for Stewart to take home for lunch the next day -- and to torment his cat with. 

The next morning I hopped on the Acela, and saw the stuff I'd missed in the dark. This is the part of the country in which I grew up, although time has done a good enough number on it that it doesn't twang my heartstrings with nostalgia, and I doubt I'd want to move back to it. Brooklyn, however...

I had been following the news, which told me that a gigantic blizzard was coming, so as soon as I got home I put up enough food for two days -- or so I thought -- and hunkered down. The first day was no picnic, and I didn't go out into the blowing mass of snow, but today's okay if you're not going to take a long walk, and I'm sure tomorrow will be, too. 

Plus, I've got another week here!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Announcement

I've been waiting until the publisher said it was okay -- and then I went off to Boston without the only device that had this beautiful cover on it, so I had to wait til today.

But in "Fall" 2016, a rather indeterminate term used by the publishing business, Flatiron Press, a division of Macmillan based in, yes, New York's Flatiron Building, will bring forth this book:

To deal with the FAQs that have already been asked on Facebook in the couple of hours since I put it up there:

* No, I don't know exactly when copies will become available.
* Yes, you can preorder it on Amazon, although to be honest I'd rather you buy one at your friendly local independent bookstore.
* I'll probably be able to order some copies from the publisher for those wanting to have an autographed copy, and I wouldn't be surprised if I did a few readings where you can buy and get signed a copy of the book. I'm fairly sure Book People in Austin (maybe in cooperation with Waterloo Records, across the street) will have something, and I'm hoping for a few other dates, but it's waaaay too early to tell.
* Stay tuned here and to other social media for further details and announcements.

I'll be blogging this past week, which has been great fun, over the weekend, since I believe I may be snowed in.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Go East, Part One

And so it came to pass that I got tired. Tired of waiting for a number of things that were, it's true, in the pipeline and out of my hands, to happen. Tired of Texas, a place that seemed insane not just to the elite snobs on the coasts, but to an increasing number of its inhabitants. Tired of Austin, a place I used to know and now don't know and where I hardly know anybody. So when a friend posted on Facebook that he was looking to sublet his apartment in a historically listed building in Brooklyn Heights for six weeks, I offered to rent three of those weeks starting on January 11. A check was mailed and, in return, some keys were also mailed. I really had no plans, but I knew I'd make some.

I had to get up at 5:15 to make my plane, but I figured I'd rather get there early than wander the streets of Brooklyn after dark looking for a street. I called Uber for my transportation, because there is no way to get to the airport from where I live unless you or someone else drives. The driver was a cheery guy who told me the minute I got in the car that David Bowie had died. A great start to a trip, right? (Of course, the punch line was delivered by e-mail when I set up my computer once I got in: unlike the $26 trip to the airport the other time I'd used Uber, this one cost $42. I already had moral compunctions about using this service, which is battling background checks -- very routine ones -- for its drivers in Austin with full-page newspaper ads, but an inquiry to customer service indicated that I had chosen a deluxe version of the service without knowing it, hence the higher charge. There was no appeal, and their doom was sealed by a text to my phone: "Your Problem Has Been Solved!" Sad to say, theirs has just begun, since I'll never use them again; I'll get Lyft after the return flight and delete both apps.)

A boring flight, a boring subway ride, the requisite getting lost when I got to the subway stop (a tradition with me), a chance encounter with a mailman on his rounds, and I found the house. The apartment was very nice, the kitchen tiny and rather underequipped, and a block away was a street with everything I needed, from a branch of my bank to a magnificent grocery store, to a friendly wine shop and a number of restaurants, all of which I'd been cautioned by my host to avoid. There was another couple of long shopping streets nearby, Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, which I needed to explore, but as for Monday, despite spending close to $100 at the Garden of Eden, the supermarket, I still didn't have dinner, so on friends' recommendation, I went over to Court Street and began the hike to Rucola, a small restaurant on a back street.

Now, these days, my mealtimes are fraught. Some months back, my doctor informed me I had diabetes, a diagnosis I still don't understand fully. In response, I've cut back the carbohydrates, including such favorites as pasta and fruit, taken my glucose readings four times a day, and ingested a pill called metaformin. I read the nutritional specs on everything I buy, and exercise rigid control when I eat out. I've also started exercising regularly, walking small streets by my house as humongous vehicles careen past me at extra-legal speeds. It's worked: I've never exceeded the maximum glucose numbers except for one time I knew it was going to happen (I was making a beef stew and hadn't read the recipe right and at dinnertime still had another hour and 45 minutes to go so I drove to the supermarket and grabbed a package of frozen fried shrimp which were delicious, but broke the bank utterly), my hemoglobin numbers are in the safe zone, and I've come to hate dinnertime.

No worry at Rucola: a salad and a serving of what they called porchetta on a base of white beans which were delicious but which I avoided (foolishly, as it turned out) for the most part was excellent and affordable. Still, I was going to have to try to cook in a kitchen with no equipment to speak of unless I won the Powerball. People who weren't talking about David Bowie were talking about the Powerball. Sometimes both. I dedicated Tuesday to exploration.

Court Street seemed the best bet, and this time I walked it slower. Food discoveries included Shelsky's, a famous delicatessen that was like a museum of traditional Jewish fish with traditional high prices and a friendly guy behind the counter (the bigger guy on the homepage there), and Union Market, a Central Market/Whole Foods kind of place, sort of a long ways to go in this cold weather, but nice to know about. I was also looking for Caputo's, an Italian joint that makes their own mozzarella and seems to be a trove of other Italian delicatessen, but I was getting tired and decided to turn back: the wind was not friendly, and it was picking up. I turned on Atlantic Avenue to see what was up with it, and entered a time machine.

I'm sure Urban Outfitters was commanded to keep this display intact, but it's a healthy reminder that the waterfront, once a far better place for merchant ships to dock than Manhattan, was just a few blocks away. (Of course, once unloaded, you had to get the stuff over to Manhattan somehow, so warehouses also did a thriving business). There were also loads of Arab shops on Atlantic, including several Yemenite cafes with no menus in the window and no inviting aspect whatever. Most of the action seemed to be happening in the back. Is qat legal? That might have been it.

I was beginning to like this neighborhood, no question. The Brooklyn Historical Society was just down the street and I couldn't wait to see what they offered. They're only open Wednesday through Sunday, though, so I had to wait. Naturally, on Wednesday, some gift of a fellow airline passenger or subway rider laid me flat on my back, so I mooched around the house, which was okay because it was being winter outdoors. I made it to the store, and that was about it.

I had to get better on Thursday, because I'd bought a ticket for the Picasso sculpture show at MOMA, as the Museum of Modern Art is now universally known. I'd seen the blockbuster show in, was it the '70s? when most of what's in the Paris Musée Picasso set up in New York while they fixed it up, and it was both exhaustive and exhausting. I've come to a better understanding of him since then, at least partially aided by John Richardson's magisterial biography, still in progress as we pray for the aging author to live to finish the last volume, and this show forces us to come to terms with his thinking in a way that mixing up paintings, etchings, drawings, and sculpture never would. Focussing entirely on Picasso's 3-D work, it clarifies ideas that show up in the painting and other 2-D media. Transformations of objects into planes is easily understood once you check out his varied guitars, mandolins, and absinthe glasses: instead of standing there facing one aspect of them, you can walk around them, or look at them from the side. And for those of us who are impatient or tired of his postwar celebrity, there are works made from junk or scraps that fairly scream that the artist is having big fun. This, I realize, is why when I went to MOMA as a kid, I loved his goat and baboon, which the museum owns. Picasso is quoted as saying the goat is more like a goat than a real goat, and I don't know why, but that's the absolute truth. And even a kid can get the joke in making the baboon's head out of one of his son's metal toy cars. I had a blast.

Less so in the rest of the museum, though. On the top floor is an extensive show dedicated to Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874-1949), a Uruguayan who managed to hit all the artistic hot-spots and absorb and contribute to their innovations before returning home to be his country's premier painter. There's some brilliant stuff scattered throughout his career, and I don't think I gave it enough time, but I recommend seeing it while you're there; the guy may be second-tier, but he was no imitator. There's also a large exhibition of the museum's Jackson Pollock holdings that is great to see all in one room. The rest is hit or miss, with, I'm afraid, more miss than hit. Soldier, Spectre, Shaman is about artists' response to World War II, and is just too broad an idea to be coherent. A show dedicated to Lebanese artist Walid Raad shows him to be an exhortatory political artist who, yes, makes important points, but to me unimporant art. (But remember that that kid who went to the museum also got to see the Guernica, which he's been digesting for his entire life). A show on the museum's new photo acquisitions is almost entirely art about art, which, admittedly, is what the art world is about these days, as is an exhibition of the museum's other new acquisitions, although Feng Membo's Long March Restart, a Super Mario adaptation of the Chinese Revolution that you can actually play, is fun, Cara Walker's huge cutout silhouette covering an entire wall is amazing -- I'd like to see more of her work, exhortatively political though it is, because she's fearlessly dealing with black history -- and Cai Guo-Quiang's "Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows," a wooden boat hanging from the ceiling, flying a Chinese flag, and pierced with thousands of arrows, is oddly moving.

The sun was going down by the time I left, and I walked over to the subway to meet Gary Lucas, a guitarist/composer I've known for a while, for a chat at the famous White Horse bar in the West Village. I guess it's a tourist trap some of the time, and we sat in the Dylan Thomas Room, where the poet drank himself to death one evening, but neither of us indulged in alcohol. We caught up, he gave me his two new CDs, one of which is a tribute to the music in Max Fleischer's cartoons, a typical Lucas idea that should be fun to listen to. He told me about a party he and his wife were going to around the corner from where CBGB used to be, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first issue of Punk magazine. He went home to pick up his wife and change clothes and, with nothing else to do, I wandered through the Village until I suddenly found myself there. The room was packed, and I didn't recognize a soul. I actually hate going to things like this unless I'm reporting a story or know someone and the Lucases weren't showing, so after about a half-hour, I left for Brooklyn, where I decided to ignore my diet and get a cheeseburger at a cafe near the house. The bad news is that, as I'd been warned, it was awful. The good news is it didn't bust my glucose level at all.

Punk sculpture, artist unknown
I was apparently sicker than I knew, because I was tormented with a fever all night and slept fitfully. Friday I mooched around the apartment, only putting my shoes on at 5:30 so I could go get something to eat at the store. Saturday found me feeling a lot better, so I decided to really look at this place I've found myself.

The best way, I decided, was to walk down the street to the Brooklyn Historical Society. Surely they'd have a comprehensive overview of the city. But no, the place is small and, I guess, underfunded. A neat exhibit about abolition and Brooklyn was fascinating, although I knew that Henry Ward Beecher's abolitionist church was in Brooklyn. I didn't know that a lot of escaped slaves and lots of free people of color lived in Brooklyn, at least partially because the slave-catchers couldn't be bothered with such a podunk place and spent most of their efforts in Manhattan. The so-called Dumbo neighborhood (I think it stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge and have no idea what the O is for unless it's to keep people from thinking of the Ramones and pinheads and so on) was a thriving black section of town and several black preachers were instrumental in enforcing equality here. I skipped the exhibit on the hockey team in the basement, and the other rooms in the building didn't have much of interest, so I headed out with my camera, no particular destination in mind, but a desire to find the First Colored Schoolhouse, if it still survived.

One thing I discovered was that my theory that Brooklyn preserved more old buildings than the rest of the city was correct. Part of this is that I'm staying in the Brooklyn Heights Historical District, the first urban neighborhood to be so designated by the federal government because of the existence of buildings like the one I'm in (which was pictured in a full-page article in a 1965 New York Herald-Tribune on display at the Historical Society). There were places that made me curious right around the corner:

For that matter, there was a whole street I'd stumbled on that seemed to be converted stables or carriage houses:

Hunts Lane

As I wandered up Henry Street, I entered the Fruit District, so-called because it has streets named Cranberry and Pineapple, and some houses that must date to the early 19th century.

I turned on Middagh Street, thinking that was where the Colored Schoolhouse stood, but all I found was this beauty:

At that point, I noticed I was near the water and wandered over to a historical marker that noted that there was a house on Middagh Street that, at one point, had been shared by W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers and...Gypsy Rose Lee! It also noted that it had been demolished in 1946. But what an odd bunch of folks under one roof.

I realized that I was at one end of the Brooklyn Promenade, a scenic walk from which, it developed, one can see not only Manhattan, but Governor's Island and Liberty Island. I took a truly awful photo of that view, but another shows an island I once knew well, but no longer do:

What are all those buildings? 
Of course, this brought to mind coming to Manhattan in 1999 and seeing the World Trade Center looming over lower Manhattan, two buildings I'd never seen before and weren't part of my mental map at all.

Fortunately the path eventually gave me this more traditional vista to look at:

Whew. I was beginning to worry there for a minute. 
The Promenade seemed to have ended, and I was astonished to realize I'd come to the beginning of my street, having gone in a very eccentric circle to where I'd started. It was time to head back to the apartment, download the photos, and try to make sense out of the day. One thing I realized, though: so far, I really like Brooklyn.

A theme I'll explore later, but for now, I'm headed up to Boston (on the train, no less) on Tuesday evening (that is, if the Amtrak app will give up my ticket, which is living on my phone) to see more art and history, and then return on Friday to see another old friend perform.

And there'll be another, shorter (I promise) post tomorrow or the next day. See you then.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Oldest City

And so it came to pass -- anyone's guess how -- that I was invited to a literary festival in Florida. No, really, a guy who hasn't had a book out since 1986 rubbing shoulders with professors and authors. Not only that, I was sort of the headlining act, last one of the conference.

The Other Words conference has been going on for several years, and although I'd never heard of it, I did note, once I'd been invited, that it would allow me a weekend in St. Augustine, Florida, a place I'd never been, and that all I had to do was show up on Saturday night so that this guy Wyn Cooper and I could talk. Cooper, as you'll see from the link, is a poet who's also had one of his poems turned into a hit record by Sheryl Crow, and a brief conversation with him before I left convinced me this would be fun.

I don't have much to say about the conference itself -- if you're curious, you can click the link above -- but I was very interested in being in America's oldest city, seeing as how just a little while back I'd been to America's other oldest city, Santa Fe. St. Augustine has them beat by about 50 years, though, and I figured there'd be something to see.

And there was: when I woke up on Friday morning, there was this big grey edifice across the street and a bit to the left of my hotel, the Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish fort built to defend the city from the various forces who wanted it for themselves. The town itself was founded in 1565, and some wooden forts erected against the threat of the French, largely Huguenots (aha! A Montpellier connection!), who'd settled a bit to the north near what is now Jacksonville. This didn't prevent the French fleet from trying their luck against the Spaniards, but their luck was bad: the fleet was destroyed by a storm, and the Spaniards marched north and destroyed their fort. Then the shipwrecked sailors appeared and the Spaniards killed them all. Florida was off to a great start.

Then came the British, who burned St. Augustine to the ground in 1586, but wound up settling further north in Jamestown, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. The reason St. Augustine was so important to Spain was that it was on the Gulf Stream, which could whoosh boats coming up from South America, often laden with gold and silver, straight to Spain. Seeing that their location was so vital and their new settlement could be used as a stop for Spanish ships for repairs and supplies, they decided to build a stone fort, and work was started in 1672 and finished in 1695. The main building material was coquina, a fossil-bearing rock that's much sturdier than limestone, and it's held up.

Which is better than the town itself has done: British forces from South Carolina showed up in 1702 and burned it again, but spent 50 days beseiging the Castillo and never took it. Giving the British the finger, the Spanish governor announced that runaway slaves would be given their freedom if they came to town, and made good on it. Of course, they were still employed in manual labor, but they got paid for it.

Good defenses make good neighbors
In 1763, the British acquired Florida as part of a deal involving a peace treaty, and took over the administration of St. Augustine and the Castillo. There's really not much to see per se inside the fort: the most interesting stuff is graffiti scratched by soldiers stationed there, which include pictures of boats that naval experts can actually identify and assign to a nation, but the Parks Service has good posters detailing the various periods of the Castillo's history, and some of them highlight individuals who were important in the city's history. My favorite was a Swiss mercenary who rose high enough in the British army to be appointed governor, and apparently complained bitterly about how awful Florida was. He wound up getting transferred to Quebec, where he really enjoyed the weather.

Owing to the turbulent history, "old" as far as structures go in St. Augustine means early 18th century, and there are older structures in New England, the Hudson valley, and Philadelphia, among other places, and because the Spanish gave the place up for the last time in 1821, when they gave Florida to the United States (and the Americans renamed the Castillo de San Marcos Fort Marion after the "Swamp Fox"), there's no real Spanish vibe to the town except a self-conscious one. Part of that came about when Henry Flagler, who had helped John D. Rockefeller establish Standard Oil (and was acknowledged as the mastermind behind it) decided that Florida held an unprecedented opportunity for healthful tourism, and, in 1882, moved to St. Augustine to start developing it. The first thing he did was to build a hotel.

Not the Best Western where I stayed
He also built another one across the street, a little less grand. It's now St. Augustine's City Hall. This one is now Flagler College, where the conference was based. Flagler built a railroad to connect various of his enterprises in Florida tourism, and eventually it went all the way to Key West, but he really lavished a lot of attention on St. Augustine. Thanks to the conference, I had an ID that let me into the no-go areas in this building, including the dining hall.

Thanks to the miracle of my patented Blur-O-Vision photography, you can't really make out the lavish murals in the top photo or discern the little stage where musicians would play for hotel diners. Nor, in the lower photo, can you see that the windows are stained glass by Tiffany, the largest holding of Tiffany glass in the U.S. 

Here's a view of the main entrance, showing some of the books conference attendees had for sale, most of them poetry, which is definitely not my field. But the whole building is this over the top, take my word. 

Unfortunately, there's not much of interest in this tourist enclave I was staying in unless you need scented candles, bath supplies, or candy. Dang, there was a lot of candy for sale. I found a place called the Fudge Bucket, which I humbly submit is the worst business name I've seen this year. It's on St. George St., where a lot of old houses have been turned into bars, restaurants, and tchotchke emporia. 

I did a lot of walking, mostly because I like to walk, and you never know what you'll find. There was one area where there were some impressive old houses that I liked. 

And there were other, more fanciful, ones.
Photo somewhat worse for shooting directly into Florida sunshine
I spent a lot of Friday tramping around these streets and pretty much exhausted the possibilities. I was also wary: this was the weekend of a marathon, and Pirate Days, where the city is invaded by people who like pirate cosplay. There was a van parked at my motel which had skeletons all over it, and I saw a lot of people walking the streets in full (and meticulously detailed) pirate drag. Saturday there was a parade, but fortunately I missed it. 

Since I was free until Saturday night, I did a lot of wandering, and managed to meet some St. Augustinians who, I hope, aren't typical, although I fear they might be. First was a sort of hippie chick who accosted me when I was headed to Flagler College. "Pentax or Nikon?" she asked, pointing at my camera. It was a Nikon, and she told me that's what she'd had. She asked me what I was doing in town, and I told her, and she introduced herself as Georgia and said that she didn't know much about poetry but she did know about rock and roll and had adopted Jim Morrison as her mentor "as a poet and as a clown," which I thought was fair. She said she'd have a camera "when I get everything back," and wished me a good stay. The second one was a young guy I met crossing a bridge a bit further up the street that runs by Flagler. I'd gone to a huge liquor store outside the city limits to buy a six-pack for nightcaps while reading at night, and this kid perched on the bridge's railing said "Do you believe in God?" Not wanting to walk into a minefield, I said "Sure," and he replied by knocking on the railing's stone and saying "He's concrete, just like this. He's not an abstraction, no way." Okay. The third one was a chunky young guy who struck up a conversation as I was eating breakfast. He said he listens to NPR all the time and asked about the conference and went back to what he was doing. As he got up to go, he handed me a napkin. "Check this out sometime. Have a nice day." The napkin had a URL for something called The Political Cesspool, and he had written "Check the archives," and then two Latin words, one of which was "deo" and the other a form of the verb "vencere," which, having never really learned all the tenses despite my Latin teacher's best efforts, made me think it could be translated as "God will win." 

Food? Yes, they have it. St. Augustinian cuisine is seafood, of course, and yet it's not all that varied: you have mahi-mahi, you have blue crab, and you have shrimp. And that seemed to be it. There's also a local specialty of Menorcan clam chowder. Menorca is a Spanish island in the Balearic group, much touristed by Germans and Brits these days, but with a version of Catalan culture and language. Although Menorcans were disproportionately represented among St. Augustine's Spanish population, and set up the town's bakery (now a tourist trap serving fake Spanish pastry) and provided ancestry for Steven St. Vincent Benet, the clam chowder is all that remains. Thus, I had to have some, and so I hit Catch 27, which looked pretty good, for dinner on Friday. If their version was anything to go by, the broth is tomato enhanced by the local datil pepper, an odd-looking, mildly hot, chile, which adds a good deal of complexity to the flavor by not trying to overwhelm anything. The flavor of the clams comes through, and the only problem I had with Catch 27's version was the two immense croutons in it, which soaked up the broth and sogged out. But it gave me ideas, which I intend to try out in a self-invented recipe soon, so I bought a bottle of datil sauce at a hot-sauce emporium tourist trap and brought it home. Catch 27 also made some decent crab-cakes. 

My other bit of culinary knowledge was provided on Saturday, when I went to find a pharmacy. I walked across the Lions Bridge, a drawbridge across the bay, and into another part of town that was less touristy. Still, there was no pharmacy for as long as I walked, although I did happen on the Alligator Farm, one of St. Augustine's earliest tourist attractions, which is actually in the National Register of Historic Places. Cost $22.95 to get in, so I passed but I took the opportunity to ask my phone where the nearest pharmacy was. The answer was discouraging -- why are there no consumer-friendly businesses in the St. Augustine tourist area where I was staying? Santa Fe seems to have no problem having convenience stores and so on in their tourist area -- so I walked back. On the way out, I'd passed O'Steen's Restaurant, highly recommended by locals, so, hot and sweaty from the long walk, I decided to stop in. A cup of Menorcan chowder was out of the question, sad to say (I figured it'd be the definitive one), but their famous fried shrimp wasn't. It was, um, fried shrimp, but the shrimp themselves were fine: the local shrimp seem to have an iodine-y tang I associate with the Atlantic, not overwhelming, but another note in the basic shrimp taste. They were inexpensive and gave me the energy to hike back to my motel and collapse. 

The other place of note to eat was, amazingly, the coffee shop attached to my motel, Mary's Harbor View Cafe, which is the place to catch breakfast (or lunch, apparently). Mary, a large no-nonsense woman with a cheery demeanor, runs a tight ship, and has earned the neon sign on the back wall declaring the place The Mary Show. I had omelettes all three days, and can report that the hash-browns on offer here are the real deal, not some grease-soaked previously-frozen slab of starch. And the shrimp omelette I had Sunday morning was top-notch, as were the others, but that one was special. Mary's joins the pantheon of great motel coffee-shops that also includes the legendary Duke's At The Tropicana of sainted memory. 

My interview went well, and Sunday I headed to the Jacksonville airport in a cab driven by a chatty but sane woman who'd survived what sounds like a fairly impoverished upbringing in a trailer. And I survived the flight home, which was smooth, although the route went through a swath of weather that scared me to death every time I called up the map on my phone. Interesting short trip, although I have no particular interest at the moment in exploring Florida further. Just remember: if you visit, no bookstore, no pharmacy closer than six miles, and no convenience store, but a Fudge Bucket. What an odd place. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Visit With Dracula: 1997

For about eight years, I had an enviable freelance position as a roving cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Europe, with a territory encompassing Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, and, occasionally, other places the other correspondents didn't want to go or where stories they had no interest or knowledge in were. I wrote a lot about art, some about music, and got to visit a load of interesting places and people. I'm thinking of doing another Kindle book with some of my greatest hits from this period of my life, but seeing as it's Halloween and this CD just showed up in my living room for some reason, I figured it's time to tell the tale of my brief encounter with Dracula.

Yup, that's him

* * *

        Dracula lives!
And, this being 1997, he lives in the suburbs, drives a car, has a cellular phone, and frets over the exorbitant cost of heating Castle Dracula in the wintertime. Some things haven’t changed, though: this year hundreds of people have left Castle Dracula minus some of their blood.
Yes, there really is a Dracula, and yes, he really has a castle. Not the sort of forbidding stone pile of filmdom, but a stately country home built in the middle of the last century by Rudolf Mosse, a Jewish publishing magnate who lost it to the Nazis in 1934. The house was commandeered after the War by the East Germans, who used it as housing for some of the tenants of the collective farm they built on the grounds. Dracula bought it for a token fee from the Treuhand, the organization in charge of converting East German state property after the unification of Germany, and now he’s stuck with it.
As readers of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, published 100 years ago in Dublin, have discovered if they’ve researched its background, there really was a historic Count Dracula, Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, a gruesome Wallachian nobleman in Romania who used to enjoy punishing disobedient subjects and “unchaste women” by impaling them on sharpened logs, often dining amidst the hapless victims as they died. Tepes was the son of Vlad Dracul, Vlad the Dragon, and “Dracula” means “son of the dragon.” In the 350 years since his reign, the family grew in stature in Romania, eventually becoming the Kretzulesco family, whose status was upgraded to princes and princesses, and whose grande dame, Katharin, escaped the Communists and settled in Kansas City, where she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan for her tireless anticommunist activities and work to free her native land from the Russian yoke, and died in 1994.
The story takes its current turn in 1977, when a Kretzulesco heiress walked into an antique store on Berlin’s fashionable Pestalozzistrasse, trying to sell some of the family silver. The store’s owner noticed the crest and inquired about it. The woman told him a tale of woe: the Kretzulesco line was about to become extinct, having produced nothing but women in its current generation, and they were too old for child-bearing. This was a worry, because the family was responsible for the maintenance of two palaces in Bucharest, nine churches, and eleven monasteries scattered throughout Romania. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church only recognized men as having the power to make decisions, and if the property was to remain in the hands of the family, the Kretzulescos would have to adopt a male heir. Thus, after consultation with the youngest daughter, Princess Caradja Krezulesco, the antique dealer became Ottomar Rodolphe Vlad Dracula, Prince Kretzulesco.
It was, if not quite a deal with the devil, not quite an ideal situation, either. At first, there wasn’t much Prince Dracula could do about things. The Ceauçescu regime didn’t mess with the Church, so those properties were safe, and the state maintained the two palaces in Bucharest, which were regarded as national treasures, and housed the Goethe Institut and a musical-instrument museum. But with the changes in Eastern Europe eight years ago, he seized the opportunity to buy the Mosse property in Schenkendorf, a village a few miles from Königs Wusterhausen, a town on Berlin’s southeast edge. He set about renovating the house and grounds, only to start running into problems.
“I want to paint these walls,” he told a recent group of visitors, “but the historic preservation people want me to conduct a color analysis to discover the original wall-color that will cost me 70,000 Marks ($39,600)! It’s been painted so many times, who can tell?” That, and the fact that it costs 200 Marks ($113) a day to heat the antiquated building, is just the tip of the costly iceberg.
In order to make money, the Prince has moved his antique business into Castle Dracula, and has opened a lovely beer-garden and snack bar, complete with an outdoor grill and a stage area for outdoor musical events. Even there, he’s run into problems: this year, he tried to have a fireworks display and was informed that it would interfere with nesting storks in the area. He lost his deposit with the fireworks folks, only to discover that, due to a late spring, the storks stayed in Africa longer than they normally would.
The property has potential: off in a wooded copse near the main house, Mosse erected a tower with a commanding view of the countryside, atop which he would take breakfast. This still has bomb damage, and the pond next to it is filled with muck and beer-cans, but there are plans to renovate both next year. The collective farm Prince Dracula plans to turn into a complex with a hotel, shops, and a restaurant as soon as a stubborn 87-year-old woman who lives there is persuaded to go elsewhere or passes away. But all of this will take money, and so far, Castle Dracula has been a financial black hole.
The most successful undertaking at Castle Dracula, though, has been, unsurprisingly enough, a blood drive for the German Red Cross. “They were completely unprepared for the response,” the Prince glowers. “Twelve thousand people showed up, but they only managed to have the resources to get donations from 870 of them.” In addition to the five Marks ($2.82) donors got from the Red Cross, they also got a CD of “Dracula’s Song” from the Prince. “I pressed up 10,000 of them, and there are 500,000 more of them waiting to go,” he says. “If only I could get a connection with the American Red Cross, I’d be willing to tour the U.S. promoting their blood-drive, but...” He shrugs his shoulders.
But noblesse oblige and all that. Still, another crisis looms for the 56-year-old Dracula. “It is of course essential that Ottomar produce a male heir,” his 38-year-old girlfriend Bärbel explains as she gets ready for a bartending shift. “We are planning to marry next year, but I feel a tremendous pressure, and this makes me feel terrible.” Meanwhile, the publicity machine grinds on, with a web-site (long vanished as of 2015), plans for more concerts next year, and, of course, another blood drive. And, just maybe, Son of Dracula.
(To reach Castle Dracula, take the S-Bahn or regional rail from Berlin to Königs Wusterhausen. From there, it is a short taxi ride to Schenkdorf, where the Castle is easily found.)

* * *

As much as the story above paints him as a gloomy guy, Dracula was hardly publicity-shy, and mine was certainly not the first story about him -- as a friend of mine who freelanced for them noted, People magazine had run a story about him not long before mine. But there was some truth to his worries; even today, Schenkdorf isn't exactly a tourist destination. 

I remember the visit as pleasant, with a friend's sister translating for me, and in the end, I managed to talk him out of a beer mug from Castle Dracula's beer garden. He'd never even thought of selling them as souvenirs. 

And in the process of researching this post, I found a Wikipedia entry on him, which noted that he'd opened a winery, but had died ten years after I'd talked to him of a brain tumor. He didn't even live long enough to see the birth of his son, Otti, in December, 2007. By then, the Kretzulescos had given up on the castle, and had moved out. But Dracula lives on. 

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