Sunday, August 02, 2009

Transactions

In February of 2009, a halal food cart appeared on a certain corner in Jackson Heights. It never closed. In fact, it never left. Not even for a minute.

Where else in the city can you get a plate of cooked-to-order lamb with yellow basmati rice, salad, and fresh, sliced tomato...for $5? The "street meat" phenomenon is sweeping the city. Formerly the carts were scary, salmonella laden. Now they are intriguing, cool, hip. In Midtown the same meal would be $10, maybe more.

In Jackson Heights, the price is $5. At midnight, there are local drunks drinking locally, transient drunks arriving in yellow and livery cabs, and the cab drivers themselves, all queuing to purchase food off the griddle. Some are having the lamb over rice; some are having the chicken over rice. Those short on cash are having the halal hot dog: just "$0.99" as advertised on the cart's sides.

"Where else can you get a hot dog for a dollar?!" shouts the cart's owner emphatically. He's standing outside the cart, wearing a 99-cent short-sleeved plaid shirt and barking commands to the younger guy inside the cart in Hindi or Urdu or whatever the fuck. He's drinking a Schwepps Ginger Ale from a can and sweating profusely.

"We've been here six months," says the guy. "People complain. Fucking white people. Fucking fags. They complain that we are here! We are serving people twenty-four hours! What is the problem? The symbol of New York is twenty-four hours!"

We agree with this assertion and surrender our five-dollar bill. Then, with THANK YOU COME AGAIN bag in tow, we head down to the magazine shop that the guy also owns. We take a six-pack of Miller Lite out of the fridge, then realize that there are two deeply hidden six-packs of Sam Adams in another fridge. We atempt to put the Miller Lite back. "WHY ARE YOU PUTTING THAT BACK?!" shouts a voice. "We're trading up." "Okay."

In these exchanges, a primordial, undisputable truth of New York makes itself completely clear: the city is a pay to play place, no matter where you're from and as long as someone is taking your money.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

A Marquette of the Mind

Every roadtrip* hits its peak. You don't know when or where it's going to come or what's going to happen, but worry and care vanish, inhibitions cease to inhibit, and a clearer path appears. It's the point where vacating and creating truly synthesize, where obstacles are overcome. After a long night of catharsis, life starts anew.

These events--grand and unplanned--happen only in places where we have no business being, places we know nothing about. The entire mind-clearing event must be shared by all roadtrip participants and must be a series of perfectly aligned happenstances. Everything is left to chance, and chance delivers. You have to have enough buildup, the right number of drinks, and you have to be in the right place. It also helps if you don't have to be anywhere the next morning.

On the Upper Peninsula trip, catharsis came in Marquette. At almost 20,000 people, Marquette is the largest city up there. All Dan and I knew going in was that it had an ore dock (saw a postcard photo of it in Ishpeming), an electronics store (told by a 35mm news photographer in Houghton), and a regional university. We spent an entire dark and cold June day working our way east from Houghton--where our legendary stripper encounter the night before could almost have been the highlight of the trip.

We arrived in Marquette just before the weak presummer sun set on the trail of shit towns destroyed during the long wane of Michigan's copper empire. The city's outskirts, seen from a state highway dotted by regional chains that faintly resembled their national competitors, looked like a sprawling nowhere, a perfectly Lynchian Lumberton. Both the people and the landscape communicated a delicate balance of hospitality and terror.

Downtown, Marquette looked and felt like a Canadian Maritime city, like a half-sized version of Saint John, a place where honoring expensive architectural traditions once symbolized the industrial importance of the region.

We drove right through downtown to Lake Superior. The giant ore dock, where trains had once dumped millions of tons of iron ore pellets into waiting ships, turned out to be abandoned. This was heartbreaking. Worse, the immense trestle over downtown, which had carried the trains over city streets, had been completely removed. Even in America's smaller cities, industry and functionality are now hidden from everyday view.

Dan and I decided to work with the fading light and try to get some decent shots, even though we knew that every tourist who arrives in Marquette probably does the same thing. Dan disappeared on the other side of the dock. I walked out on an adjoining pier where the locals had their boats tied up. As I shot, a dude approached me from behind and stopped to talk to me.

"What boat are you on? I've never seen you down here before." The dude looked like a younger version of my Uncle Lenny, mid 40s, white and gray polo, curly Italian hair.

I didn't understand his question, so I asked him to repeat it. He meant: which boat did I own? In as few words as possible, I tried to explain that no, sir, we don't have a boat and we don't belong on this dock, we are two guys from New York who as continuously as possible roam the continent with cameras in hand, attempting to find meaning in America as well as in our own lives.

"You guys have a tent?" he asked.

Yes, I told him. We bought it in suburban Milwaukee but we hadn't used it yet.

"Don't stay in a motel. Head on up to Tourist Park. You can get a camping permit for fifteen bucks and take a cab right downtown from your tent."

This sounded great. I told him how disappointed we were to find the ore dock abandoned. No problem, he said, there's a working one about four miles up the shore. Up there they were "dropping pellets pretty regular."

Before we left, he asked where we planned to eat dinner. The North Woods Supper Club, I told him. A good friend recommended it. He made a wincing gesture and shook his head.

"No, you want to eat at the Vierling, great microbrewery. V-i-e-r-l-i-n-g. Right there on Front Street. You can park anywhere on the street...or you can take a cab from your tent."

Intrigued by this notion of taxi-camping, I reconvened with Dan and we headed up the shore of Lake Superior to the massive, working ore dock, which we found easily. There were no ships there, but we photographed it anyway, shooting the many mineral red ore chutes illuminated by the setting sun.

We found Tourist Park in the woods north of downtown, and we were checked into a riverside, "rustic campsite" by two shaggy, teenage dudes who occupied a little office. A few cars were already on-site, scattered among the trees, and a pitched tent accompanied each car. Dan and I opened the package that our tent came in and neurotically read the assembly directions.

The park workers, and the sun, were gone by the time we were set up. I 411'd a cab. The operator asked me if I wanted Checker Cab or Apple Cab. Checker, I said. I heard a faint click and the sound of ringing.

"GUY FAULKENAGEN CHECKER CAB HOW MAY I HELP YOU?" said the phone. I explained my situation, which took some effort, hung up, and cracked a Red Bull. I wanted to drink drastically. We had seen and shot a lot. We were as far from work and the East Coast as we were going to get. Now was the time for drinking.

20 minutes later, a yellow minivan pulled up. Inside was an utter giant of a man, who barely regarded us as we entered the vehicle. As Dan and I got in, his cellphone rang. "GUY FAULKENAGEN CHECKER CAB HOW MAY I HELP YOU?" said the dude. Dan and I looked at each other. The one-man taxi operation--suddenly reminiscent of Lawrence**! Ghost of expurgation past! Dan pulled a Red Bull from his coat and cracked it. At the PSSST! of the can opening, Guy Faulkenagen turned his tremendous head towards us and hit us both at the same time with a look of utter contempt. It's just Red Bull! I said. His face relaxed a bit, and his throbbing neck muscles rotated the massive head back to face the direction the cab was going.

Guy was a character. Dan wrote a song about him. He had played for Baltimore, back when Baltimore was Baltimore. He had some interesting fares lately, including a lady photographer who was shooting Special Olympics stuff for ESPN. He dropped us off downtown and told us to call him when we wanted to go back to the tent.

The Vierling was okay. I had prime rib with horseradish--why not? The high point of my meal was the giant shit I took between the salad and the main course, Peter Griffin style. I don't remember what kind of beer we had, but it was alright, too.

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Then we are walking around. It's chilly outside, and there are no people in the streets. We get money from a drive-through ATM on foot. We hear live music around the block. There are not that many blocks, but we have to walk down some alleys to figure out that the sound is coming from above us. Suddenly we are walking up lots of stairs. The buzz has set in. We are at a townie bar, on the third floor of a loft building. The cover band is timid, seemingly unaware that anyone and everyone downtown can hear them. They have a songsheet going around, almost all 90s and classic rock. CRACKERMAN!!!, Dan and I start shouting when songs end. We drink cheap beer upon cheap beer, bottles of stuff like Miller Lite. The place is mostly dudes, and no one looks at us except when they are taking our money. We talk about what we'll one day do with the thousands of images we're creating on these trips. The band plays the requested STP tune, and Dan and I love it. We leave. We are wasted.

Out in the street, we hear more music. This time, the music is coming from below us. Close to the abandoned ore dock, there is a cavernous brick club. We decide to enter. The bouncers tell us $2. What the fuck, I say, let's get out of here. Where I'm from, $2 doesn't even buy a slice of pizza, but the thought of paying that much to walk into this show deeply offends me.

We stand on the sidewalk. We are about to call Guy Faulkenagen, but for the first time we hear the music. It's heavy, heavy soul, with crazy harmonica and saxophone overlays. Marquette is delivering--delivering the last thing we'd expect to hear in the land of the pasty. We go back through the door and pay our two dollars each.

What happens next is what Dan tells me happens next. The band continues to lay on extremely thick and not-fake soul. I apparently dance with or hit on every woman at the estabilshment, from the patrons to the female band members. My notes indicate that I speak to the common-seeming "girl with camera" but also to more flavorful characters like the "MILF nurse from Escanaba" and "decent-looking human systems major" wearing a retro Pistons shirt. I sit down with the band at the bar, between sets, and find out that they are up from Atlanta, booked for a two-night stint in Marquette. The backing players are all white soul nerds like myself, and we talk about gear and how bands form and the gas mileage that their van gets. Thousands of thoughts about music and songwriting and equipment rush through my head.

I don't see Dan for this much of this episode. I think he may have his Vivitar on him...I certainly carry no camera.

Toward the end of the show Dan reappears and starts screaming at me to do bad things with the girl in the Pistons shirt, but I suddenly want to sleep and walk out. We pass the Pistons girl as we leave, and she looks confused. One of us uses the business card we got off of GUY FAULKENAGEN to summon him back to a downtown intersection. He's much more jovial with us this time, but he keeps getting in cellphone arguments with NMU students trying to get a ride home from a party ("HOW CAN I PICK YOU UP IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHERE YOU ARE?").

The next thing I remember is waking up midmorning to the sound of the river rushing by the tent, and the sound of an empty ore train rolling downgrade back to the mines.
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Is this really all about a night of drinking in Northern Michigan? Of course not. It's about how you become your own person. It's about how you work to end up unspeakably different from the way you were raised, and once in a while have a chance to check on your own progress. It's about how you live in America--all of America. The more trips you do, the more you get out of them. You have to do them for yourself, not your job, not to satisfy grant or scholarship requirements, not for a one-time thrill. The road teaches you not to conform, not to accept the security of a thrill-free life. The road is out there, but you have to work hard for the opportunity to experience it on your own terms.

Racing eastward out of Marquette toward the 1 p.m. departure of the Munising shipwreck tour, we passed by the working ore dock and saw that a ship had come in that morning. We studied it and photographed it, gorgeous in the almost-summer sun. Thousands of tons of ore pellets made a whooshing sound as they fell into the ship, soon to be headed east to what was left of the Rust Belt. The night before felt like nothing but a bad hangover, but we soon realized that a lot more had happened then and there. The two neurotic, ex-Catholic boys from Queens had once again escaped their backgrounds and experienced a night of total freedom.

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NOTES:
*By roadtrip, I mean an exploratory pilgrimage to a selected region--not driving through somewhere in order to get somewhere else, and not going somewhere as a business traveler.
**Lawrence, Kansas was the Marquette of the KC Siege, Summer 2007. I still haven't processed, written about, or posted any photos from Lawrence.
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And, with that, the UP photos will be starting back up...100 to go!

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Prostitute Removal

Note, 12/6: I have now gotten to the point in the Photographic Tale of the Upper Peninsula at which we arrive back in Houghton. This means that I get to rewrite "Prostitute Removal," about one of the locals whom we met during our stay. Enjoy.
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EXTREME CONTENT WARNING! Don't read this if it will hurt you. Scroll down to the post about the alcoholic fishermen.

I could tell something was wrong when she walked into the bar and sat down next to us.

It was our unplanned second night in Houghton, Michigan, a nice little college town at the base of the desolate Keweenaw Peninsula. The Keweenaw is the northernmost finger of the Upper Peninsula, dotted with abandoned copper mines and almost-ghost towns. We had driven and shot photos all day and were completely exhausted. So we returned to Houghton's straight-from-the-1960s Downtowner Motel and checked back into the same little two-bed room where we had slept the night before. After escaping the very kind owner and his allergy-inducing cats, we stopped back into the bar at the foot of the bridge for a nightcap.

The scene was quieter than the night before--no softball teams this time, just several small groups of friends. We didn't even order a pitcher. We'd have a pint of Oberon, go to bed, get up early.

And then she walked in. She was about our age, wearing a gigantic Adidas sweatshirt and black dress pants, and was actually kind of cute. She had pretty, insane brown eyes. She asked if the seat next to us was taken and then she started talking.

First, she worked in the Best Western up the block but it stressed her out when she had to talk to people so she was trying to quit. Before that she had gone to Michigan State, "looking to get knocked up by some fine-ass f***ing n****r." Continuing her oration on being obsessed with males of African descent, she claimed she was waiting to party with a Guyanese grad student from Michigan Tech whom she had met the night before at the very bar at which we sat. When it became clear that she was being stood up, she began exchanging angry text messages with her would-be beau:

Stripper/Prostitute: u must be f**king some chick
Dude: f**king some chick wtf?!
[repeat, many times]

As the night wore on, she revealed her true occupation: she had stripped all over Michigan. Flint had the best strip clubs in all of Downstate, and I think that was the city where she had been sleeping with the club owner(s). She related the infectious dangers of grinding on people all day, but pointed out that in most clubs, you could let a man finish on or with your chest for an extra $25. This was a way to make "good money on the side," but the men had to wear prophylactics, which sent her home "smelling like condoms" much of the time. The conversation became particularly inaudible here, due to an influx of patrons, but I think I got the gist of it.

As Dan and I attempted to ignore Angel, which is what she called herself most frequently, the minute hand on the bar's big wallclock revolved again and again. Our dreams of rest and of an early start the next day vanished over the next two hours as we listened to tales of gradually worsening depravity.

After she asked us if we were dating each other--because our pint glasses were, she said, unusually close to each other--it was time to play the "Guess how many abortions I've had!" game, introduced by Angel herself. I guessed five. Dan guessed three. I was "warmer;" the answer was seven. I secretly wished I could hand her a pamphlet about the Jesus and leave. Yet something was so uncomfortable and wrong about the situation that we couldn't just walk out, yet.

Suddenly Angel decided to sleep with Dan. I know this because she turned to me and said, "I'm going to f**k your friend now." She climbed on top of Dan, who was facing away from the bar on his stool, backwards. She lay on top of him and refused to remove herself. Dan's eyes were a picture of paralyzing panic. I could see his mind working to disprove the theory that viruses could be transferred through clothing.

"Your girlfriend is not going to like this," I said very loudly.

"You have a girlfriend?!" the stripper asked. "I bet she's the kind of girl who wears ninety-dollar patterned dresses, picks flowers, and doesn't like sucking dick."

Dan neither agreed nor disagreed. (Side note: that is an exact quote.)

Dan stared into the distance uncomfortably and he did not speak. At some point, Angel got off of him. He later revealed that he wasn't sure if I had been hitting on the stripper (Dan, I still want to punch you in the stomach for that). Around closing time, which is later in Houghton, Michigan than it is in Boston, we just walked out of the bar. The lonely stripper followed us to our hotel room. "Can I watch your HBO?" No. "Can I piss in your bowl?" Fine. When she emerged from the bathroom she seemed more messed up than before.

"I KNOW you guys are FUCKING with me. I know I've met you both before. TELL ME where you met me. What are you, like secret agents or something?" We said nothing and looked at the carpet. She pulled someone's prescription bottle from her purse. "You guys want some Xannies?" she asked. She took a few. Then she looked at my photographic equipment, and said very soberly, "Don't forget to charge your camera battery for tomorrow." I had forgotten. I thanked her.

A staring contest started and continued for a few minutes--with Dan between the beds, the UProstitute in the doorway, and yours truly in between and providing the aggression. "We really need to sleep," I said.

"You guys are no fun," she said, and finally walked out the screen door and across the street to her car, a full three hours after she sat down next to us. An engine began to purr out on the street and then receded in the direction of the bridge. Dan and I double locked the door and drifted off into a pleasant, hard-earned, and STD-free slumber.

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Originally posted 6/28/08 at 12:09 a.m.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ed the Republican

C. and I sit down to dinner at the 99 Restaurant in Assembly Square. Unlike most national chains, the restaurant is impeccable and the floor sparkling. Soon after ordering, an older divorcee takes the open stool next to us. Before long, conversation happens. He's a republican. Ballots in multiple languages are an affront to his patriotism, since John Quinzy Adams made English the national language in 1786. The liberals want to build low income housing in Assembly Square and move the T stop to the projects so the welfare moms won't have to walk so far to the train. He knows a great bar in Bimini--it was featured in a famous thriller. He made his ex-wife become a Marlins fan after she abandoned Boston, her children, and the Red Sox. He rents out property in New Hampshire, the "live free or die, motherfucker state" and when his international student tenants lit charcoals in the gas grill, he showed up wearing a .45 to yell at them. The last mayor of Somerville, a liberal's liberal, tried somehow to cancel out his concealed carry permit but political connections prevailed. I'm not sure if he is packing heat at dinner, but I don't want to ask.

As I work through my turkey tips and 48 ounces of IPA, I think: I shall refer to Ed as my new Parrothead friend. Sailing the Virgin Islands and hanging out at the shooting range. It just fits.

When he gets up to leave, he puts on a dark green bomber jacket that had been draped over his stool. Three logos adorn the jacket: one on each sleeve and one on the back. All include Jimmy Buffet's name.

Somehow satisfied, my perpetual hopeful hopelessness justified, I leave. C. and I plot an awesome urban exploration of abandoned Assembly Square, chug Jim Beam in East Somerville, drink more at the Cantab. After all that, I finally get home to write this up, having traveled many miles using nothing but public transit and my own two feet.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

East Somerville Bubble Wrap

Remember the simple joy of popping bubbles of air trapped in cellophane? In East Somerville, the locals have a slightly more sinister approach to stress relief.

Just minutes ago, while waiting for the 89 bus, my brother and I witnessed two young, heavily inebriated locals come acros a discarded mattress on Broadway. One, wearing plaid shorts, drew a boxcutter, got down on his knees, and began tearing the mattress apart. Broad blade strokes ripped into the covering, much of which the perpetrator tore off with his bare hands. Disturbed, his companion slowly backed away and moved in the direction of Khoury's State Spa, the "oldest bar in Somerville," famous for stabbings and men's room hand-to-hand drug deals. As his companion slunk away, the boxcutter wielder tore deeper into the mattress, ripping out pieces of yellow foam and throwing them on the sidewalk.

Soon, he noticed his friend had left him. PAUL! PAWWWWL! GET DA FUCK BACK HEA! PAWWWWL! GET DA FUCK BACK HEA! Even more enraged at being left to destroy the mattress alone, he put his back into his labor and the blade of the boxcutter soon snapped off, clinking onto the sidewalk.

Our protagonist paused for a second to bring out a new segment of blade, then went back to his anointed task, just cutting and tearing and ripping and stabbing on a cool late summer night.

This continued for several minutes. Eventually, someone came out of the house, stood menacingly on its porch, and told the young psychopath to get lost. Dejected, he trundled up Broadway to Khoury's and met some friends out front.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Balls Dropping

The scene is the legendary Broken Spoke in Austin (featured prominently in this Dale Watson video). I'm in my new Stetson hat, trying to learn how to two-step, when someone in another dancing pair accidentally punches my Shiner out of my hand. The bottle explodes on the concrete floor. A fat man seated nearby gives me a dirty look. I remember that I've left another Shiner waiting at my table and head back to reclaim it.

But I've already drank from a fishbowl full of rum and had several margaritas and several more beers. I take a left turn too early, and walk up to what I think is my table. I point at a bottle and announce, "That's my beer."

Up look four absolutely grizzled cow-women in plaid and flannel. The most wrinkled says, "Are you old enough to even be drinking that? Have your balls dropped yet?"

Somehow not missing a beat, I say, "The left one's down, but the right could use a little work."

"Let's have a look," says the worn-faced cow-woman, gesturing at my crotch.

As I begin to undo my belt in the middle of the seating area, I notice that the other three folks sitting at the table are now staring at me in horror. I start working open the button on my jeans anyway.

"I bet we could get that right ball down by midnight," my interrogator remarks. It is at that point that I decide to pick up one of the beers on the table and walk away. A few seconds pass before I realize that I just stole someone's beer and that my belt is wide open.

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