Sunday, August 30, 2009

Excuse Me, Is This Sugar Town?

It's said that the second you arrive in New York to live, you're a New Yorker. Native-born New Yorkers will bristle.

But beyond questions of relative nativeness lies the matter of who gets to speak for a place, whose interests are being served by such and such spokesperson, and how is this authority handed out. Do we trust the voice of an insider, easily corrupted, or an outsider, prone to puffery and drive-by logic? And what about writers, those great arbiters of culture and country? How long would one have to immerse before being taken seriously? Joan Didion, for example, spent two weeks in El Salvador in 1982 and wrote a pamplet-sized book called Salvador, which begins, "Terror is a given of the place." Do we believe her?

Traditionally, the "outsider's perspective" has, rightly or wrongly, been given an exalted seat on the spectrum of all possible perspectives. The outsider is objective, we think, and won't be swayed by nepotism or nostalgia; he can see a place as it is, not as it's advertised; she won't be caught in the cyclical wash of spin and hype. But these are unsure waters. No one likes a tourist with a megaphone.

John Yarbrough wrote a poem in 2007 about New Orleans called Knowing a Place, which comments on NO's misrepresentation as a den of sin, colored in by too-ready shorthands like Zydeco, Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. It opens:

New Orleans never was a cream and sugar town
it was a poor place black coffee place
good place to visit if you didn’t dig too deep
hard place to live lots of folks went there
ordered up a plate of crawfish they didn’t eat

However shallow it may be to think of New Orleans, post-Katrina, mainly as the place where the sky rains green and gold plastic beads once a year, I admit to being infected by the stereotypes. I've never been to New Orleans. If I ever go -- and I'd like to -- I'd want to access something real about the place, authentic, living alongside the stiff drinks and hurricane coverage. What sources should I look to?

Lester Carey, for starters. NYTM columnist Rob Walker writes in his blog No Notes:

"A commercial sign-painter, Carey started in 1982 stencilling and painting on actual signs, sometimes on walls, but always at the behest (and in the service of) business owners, in New Orleans. Carey has painted signs for supermarkets, undertakers, restaurants, auto repair shops, among other shops."

"If you've lived in New Orleans in the past 10 or 15 years," Walker continues, "I think you'll recognize at least some of his creations." Calling out his ubiquity and undeserved obscurity, when asked which neighborhoods featured his work, Carey said, "I'm citywide!"

New Orleans isn't Sugar Town; it's Lester Carey's town. And he doesn't have to say a word.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, August 13, 2009

That's A Pretty Nice Haircut

A haircut has what. Association. Calendar on the wall.
Mirrors everywhere.
-Don DeLillo

It's that time of the month again, time to prune my ever-thinning locks of hair. Cheered on by the mid-August murk that's descended upon the eastern seaboard, I'm sporting, against my better instincts, a kind of ad-hoc ducktail. It needs to go.
Unlike the female lead in this summer's Wes Anderson knock-off, (500) Days of Summer, I've neither loved my "long dark hair," nor "how easily [I] could cut it off and not feel a thing." And not only because the window for growing my hair long has closed -- slammed -- shut.
Too often I've settled for the discount barbershops, your Bo Rics, your Supercuts, your Fantastic Sams (no apostrophe, fellas?). It's time to graduate to a full-blown (pun intended) experience, the real McCoy: mirrors edged with yellowed clippings of high school football triumphs not of the current decade; the lead barber, Gussie, who inherited the shop from his father, Big Gus, and wears matching rhinestone encrusted pinky rings; the dim hope that a shave with warm lotion and a straight razor is the fanning of a few GW's away.
Surely I'm being nostalgic, tracking back to "Y" (Yale) Haircutting, a barber I frequented when living in downtown New Haven, CT, where much of the above is still possible. Like the dive bar regulars who sit on a corner stool farthest from the door, at "Y" there were the local-friends-of-staff who sat in their designated chairs away from the haircutting, there to return the volleys of barber commentary ("Hot one today." "Sure is." "Can you believe what 'xyz public official' did now?" "It's beyond me. This country's in the shitter.") Repeat daily. They seemed to never leave.
"A barber is a place where you can get a haircut," writes Geoff Dyer. "That's the defining quality of the establishment but certain other elements are also essential: the availability of conversation (if required), reading matter and a task-specific seat (midway between the regular chairs provided for waiting customers and the frightening specialism of a dentist's chair.)" A suitable definition, but somewhat parochial. The photographer Edward Weston (no relation) got at something deeper: "I always feel denuded from the barber shop -- quite immodest: and seated in the chair I feel helpless -- anything may happen."

What do you think of when you think about barber shops? Is a trip to the salon one that elicits dread, that, like Samson, loss of hair is loss of life force? Or do you look forward to a haircut as a chance for renewal, that in the trusted hands of scissor-wielding men and women holds a new you?
Peter Brown: Barber Shop, Brownfield, Texas, 1994.

Michael Ormerod: Untitled, Undated.

Christiaan Geirgio salon, Grand Hyatt Mumbai

Sign, 5th Ave. btw 14th and 15th Streets, Brooklyn, NY

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Surviving Chelsea

From Bill Buford's (highly recommended) Among the Thugs, describing Stamford Bridge stadium, home of the Chelsea Football Club:

I entered the grounds and was frisked – my comb, because it had long teeth, was confiscated – and emerged from the turnstile to find people everywhere, on the steps, sitting atop fences on posts, suspended from bits of architecture. There was a narrow human alley, and I joined the mob pushing its way through for a place from which to watch the match.

Except that there was no place. There was a movable crush. It was impossible, once inside, to change my mind – to decide that I didn’t want to see the game after all, that I wanted to go home – because I couldn’t move left or right, let alone turn around and walk back the way I came. There was only one direction: forward. For some reason, there was an advantage, an advantage worth defending, in being one step ahead of wherever it was that you happened to be. And that was where everybody was trying to go.

There was a range of tactics for achieving this. The most common was the simple squeeze: by lifting your crushed arm from between the two bodies that had wedged you in place and slipping it in front and by then twisting yourself in such a way that your body, obeying natural principles, actually followed your arm, you could inch towards that mysterious spot just ahead of you. The simple squeeze was popular – I assume that most people had learned the technique trying to buy a drink in London pubs – and everybody did it, until interrupted by the shove.

The principles of the shove was this: somebody, somewhere behind you, frustrated at not getting to this mysterious spot just one step ahead, would give up and throw his weight into the person in front of him; then, amid cries of “fuckin’ bastard,” everybody tumbled forward. Nobody fell if ony because each person was pressed so tightly against the one in front who was in turn pressed so tightly against the one in front of him that no one, apparently, was in any real danger. But I wondered about the person at the very front and was convinced that somebody must be feeling very frightened at the increasingly likely prospect of being vcrushed against a wall – for eventually there must be a wall. And it must have been this fear, felt by the panicked, slowly suffocating one at the front whose ribs were buckling painfully, which contributed to the counter shove, an effort of animal strength that seemed to occur shortly after you had abandoned the simple squeeze and, being unable to stop yourself from tumbling uncontrollably forwards, had resigned yourself to the authority of the shove, when suddenly, inexplicably, there was the counter shove and you were traveling uncontrollably backwards.

The movement never ceased.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rabbits in Logan, Rabbits in Flint

Listening to the stellar Big Shed Audio produced piece "Rabbit So Good" on NPR, about the now defunct Venz Rabbit Hutch restaurant (Ann Venz, pictured) in Logan, AL, I was reminded of the infamous rabbit skinner, Rhonda Britton, from Michael Moore's documentary Roger & Me. (Warning: a rabbit dies in the clip. It is not for the squeamish.) As Britton mentions, holding an especially cute, floppy-eared rabbit in front of her yard in Flint, MI, a health inspector has threatened to close her operation unless she, "builds [her] a building where there's washable walls, washable floors, and an unbreakable light." You have to feel for Rhonda. It's snowing. Her rabbits, packed in a cage, are yellowing their neighbors' fur with urine. These sanctions would significantly cut into the "ten to fifteen dollars a week" profit her business yielded. All lights are breakable.

Roger & Me raised not a few hackles upon its release -- years later, those interviewed, including Britton, are still sore over compensation -- but I suspect the rabbit butchery garnered by far the most outrage. If the reactions to the "Rabbit So Good" piece are any indication, poor Britton probably met quite a backlash. A small sampling of responses to "Rabbit So Good" on the NPR viewing page:

I am extraordinarily disappointed in NPR for devoting so much time and attention to a restaurant that specializes in the death and mockery of rabbits.

I’m surprised and disappointed that NPR would include such an insensitive contribution. I’m sickened by the general acceptance, insensitivity and up-beat nature in which this report was written about the tasteless way “dinner" was served at this “restaurant".

As a rabbit rescuer and vegetarian, my stomach churned hearing about this restaurant that serves what I know as beloved pets as the main course.

To my mind, both the proprietors of the Rabbit Hutch and Rhonda Britton used a natural resource, rabbits, to maximize their livelihood, to get by -- especially in Britton's case. While the Rabbit Hutch, a restaurant structured to seat customers and, if inspired, seranade them with an organ and a sing-along, had the advantage of a group of loyal customers and community support, Britton acted alone because ... why, exactly? The answer, if there is one, says something about the state of these two very different towns at the time of these recordings. Ply Britton with, say, liberal small business loans for a year, or even six months, and watch her run the Flint outpost of the Venz Rabbit Hutch franchise.

Labels: , , , , ,