Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Uniform Alert!

Matt was just home and in the airport saw a bunch of flight attendants for South Korea's Asiana Airlines! They looked so nifty that he was moved to alert me, and, well, you'll see why. Here are their current uniforms, Summer and Winter. "They knew how awesome they looked," he reported.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Blue Heaven

Here are some shots from Key West! Mostly El, as she is a much better photographer with a proper camera. Here am I, with a rental bike.

A characteristic Old Town cottage.

A typical residence in Old Town. Can you imagine a better place to finish a book?

All the gingerbread on the old Cigar-makers' cottages in Old Town corresponded to the people within. Wonder what this meant!

How often do you get to shout "Tin ROOF! Rusted" in unison? Not enough. Am thinking of buying this place, obviously.

"Breakfast with the roosters" at Blue Heaven restaurant. Seriously, the wild chickens are everywhere!

Banana bread (with the roosters) at Blue Heaven!

Hemingway House!

A six-toed cat at the Hemingway House. They're everywhere: even on Hemingway's bed.

Hemingway's Study (I refuse to call him "Papa.")

The sunset is a Big Deal in KW. Every night, everyone congregates at some bar (with obligatory guitar-strumming dude) to drink cocktails and celebrate the end of another day. Despite this, there was a shocking lack of good sunset-overlooking bars. And the "tiki bar" we found had not the faintest hint of a paper umbrella! Still, very pretty.

Original Sponge Man!

This guy was in the garden of the Audubon House. The guide was very apologetic about the fact that Audubon had to shoot the birds in order to paint them, despite our reassurances that A) It was the 19th Century B) They were hardly endangered and C) It was for science. Made me worry about the caliber of the average tourist.

Pepe's, the oldest restaurant in Key West.

This is an Ibis we saw on our tropical fruit bike tour (in which, yes, we did sample several novel fruits growing wild. We were the only members of the tour. The guide played "My Way" on a conch shell.)

The Southernmost point in the USA!

I know E will forgive my running a pic of her, since it is so neat! This tree, needless to say, is ancient! If we ever release a quirky album that gets play on Trouble's FMU show, this will be the cover art.

Two Creepy Things From Key West

So, in the month plus since I've been in touch, El. and I went to Key West! This was a sort of impromptu trip, but somewhere I've wanted to go ever since I read about Elizabeth Bishop's living there...even though of course we knew all about the Parrot Head-Margaritaville-honky-tonk aspect of it. For the most part, we managed to steer clear of this (and the mini Bourbon St. that is Duval) although not all the sun-bleached Buffet manques of a certain age eager to be guides to two unescorted gals! Everyone was very friendly, the town certainly neighborly, but it can't be denied that it's one of those places where ambition goes to die!

That said, we were enchanted by the Old Town architecture, the tropical beauty, and the ghost stories! Two were especially fascinating.

In the 1920's, Carl Tanzler (later known as Carl von Cosel) emigrated from Germany to the the Florida Keys, in the United States, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. Von cosel had worked as an x-ray technician and inventor, barely making enough to get by, but claimed to be a former submarine skipper and owner of nine college degrees. In 1934, he found employment at a Key West hospital in the tuberculosis ward. Shortly after bring his family to join him in Florida, he and his wife, Doris, separated.

A recent author of the story, Ben Harrison, describes Tanzler at this stage of his life as; "fifty years old - an imaginative, impractical inventor, scientist, electrical wizard and sometimes ingenious liar" who had "already begun to mix fact and fantasy in the search for his dream lover." Von Cosel became a lonely man and his lonliness was transformed when he fixated when a new patient arrived at the hospital, suffering with the affliction.

A poor Hispanic 22-year-old young woman, Elena Hoyos, was universally acknowledged to be a great beauty and Von Cosel, then working as a ward technician, was soon captivated, despite her rebuffs of his advances. He quickly became determined to help Elena, even cure her, using unconventional methods. There is was never any evidence of a romance between the young hispanic beauty and Von Cosel, but in his mind and will, he intended to rid her of the disease, with the ultimate aim of forming a lasting love attachment.

Her desperate family, knowing the severity of her illness, gave Von Cosel permission to try his unusual methods in an attempt to cure her. The hospital staff was dubious but with his nine 'degrees' and ocassional eccentric brilliance, they let him try his approach on Elena, knowing they could do nothing themselves to sabe her. Using an odd mix of chemicals, herbs and even reportedly X-ray treatments, he attempted to stem the tide of her tuberculosis. It was sort of a an early attempt at chemotherapy, but with untried methods.

Despite his efforts, Elena Hoyos died leaving Von Cosel despondent and once again, alone. Von Cosel got permission from her family to build her a mausoleum. There, Von Cosel used formaldehyde and other chemicals and spices to preserve the body, secretly visiting it nightly. He had a key made that no one but her sister knew about. The Hoyos's trusted Von Cosel and since he seemed to love her in life (even though it was an unrequited love), they were understanding of his fondness for visiting her grave. They did not know he was inside attempting to preserve Elena. Von Cosel paid for and built an above-ground burial vault which included a telephone so that he could communicate with her and a strange airship whose function he refused to state. During these nightly visits, he would talk to Elena's corpse and said later that one night he saw her ghost in the mausoleum. He claimed she appeared to him from that time after every night and they would have long conversations and she expressed her love for him. These nocturmal visitations continuted for two years until he lost his job at the hospital and moved to a remote shack. But he wasn't alone in his shack, for he had stolen Elena's body from the mausoleum!

There he placed her body on a large bed, enough to sleep two, curtained with a cloth veil. He continued his work on her decaying body as the chemicals could only delay her body from mouldering for so long. He rubbed her entire body with strange oils and chemicals and then later had to reconstruct parts of her face with morticians wax to reform her features. He later admitted to spending long pleasant nights talking to her and professing his love.

Not seeing Von Cosel outside Elena's tomb for over seven years, her sister began to suspect something was amiss. She notified the authorities and they searched her mausoleum only to find it empty. Elena's sister instantly knew who had taken her sister's body and found Von Cosel's shack and confronted him. He kindly invited her inside, and to her horror, she saw what appeared be a wax dummy in the likeness of Elena laying on the bed. He told her that he and Elena were happy and in love and invited her to come back again and visit. The sister was livid and horrified and went to the police.

They came and took what they assumed to be a dummy to the local morgue to be autopsied. The "dummy" was actually the long decayed corpse of Elena Hoyos; her bones held together with piano wire, her skin had been treated with wax, her eye sockets filled with glass replacements, and she'd been perfumed to mask the odor of decomposition. This was terrible enough, but what the investigators found next was truly repulsive.

Von cosel had reconstructed many parts of her body, her eyes, nose, and most disturbingly, her vagina to which he added a tube that permitted sexual intercourse. He had been having sexual intercourse with the corpse of Elena Hoyos for as many as eight years!

The case eventually went to trial where amazingly the majority of the public, especially women, were firmly behind Carl, seeing him as a man who loved a woman so much that he was unable to let her go. In his confession he stated that he had planned to use the airship to take the both of them "high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate elena's tissues and restore life to her somnolent form." many people sympathized with von cosel after hearing his story and a latin love song was even composed based on the subject. Von cosel was only imprisoned for a short time and elena's body was buried in a metal cube which was buried in a secret location.

Before the burial there was another bizarre incident. So much attention had been given in newpapers, press accounts and court records that the authorities thought it would be best to show the people Elena's body before her secret burial. They placed her body, still grossly decayed and with a silken, waxy face, in a trailer cart and allowed the curious throngs to view her before her second burial. One ten-year-old boy, now in his 60's, said,

"I've never been able to forget that sight. It didn't even look like a human anymore. So much reconstrution and decay....it was the scariest thing I've ever seen. Her face was an odd white-ish color that looked more like a wax dummy than a womans face. And she had horrible, black, staring, glass eyes. I still dream about that sight."

It seems that the press did not divulge the details of the necrophilia before showing her corpse and had the general public known about that aspect there probably would have been less sympathy for Von Cosel. Declared sane, Von Cosel was not charged with a crime because the statute of limitations on grave robbing had expired. Elena Hoyos was eventually buried at a secret location. Von Cosel, separated from his love, used a death mask to create a life-sized dummy of her, and lived with it until his death in 1952.

Robert the Doll

Robert, sometimes known as Robert the Doll, is a doll that was once owned by Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto. The doll, which is allegedly cursed, has become a fixture of ghost tours in the Key West area since it was inducted into the Fort East Martello Museum. Aesthetically, Robert resembles an early 20th century American Naval officer. Contrary to popular belief, however, the doll's hair is not made of human hair, but rather, it consists of a synthetic material resembling wool yarn.

Eugene was given the doll in 1904 by a servant who, according to legend, was skilled in black magic and voodoo and was displeased with the family. Soon afterward it became clear that there was something eerie about the doll. Eugene's parents said they often heard him talking to the doll and that the doll appeared to be talking back. Although at first they assumed that Eugene was simply answering himself in a changed voice, they later believed that the doll was actually speaking.

Neighbors claimed to see the doll moving from window to window when the family was out. The Otto family swore that sometimes the doll would emit a terrifying giggle and that they caught glimpses of it running from room to room. In the night Eugene would scream, and when his parents ran to the room they would find furniture knocked over and Eugene in bed, looking incredibly scared, telling them that "Robert did it!".

When Eugene died in 1974, the doll was left in the attic until the house was bought again. The new family included a ten year old girl, who became Robert's new owner. It was not long before the girl began screaming out in the night, claiming that Robert moved about the room and even attempted to attack her on multiple occasions. More than thirty years later, she still tells interviewers that the doll was alive and wanted to kill her.

The doll is annually rotated to the Old Post Office and Customhouse in October, with museum staff claiming that strange activity in the museum increases during such times.
Individuals who desire to visit Robert in the Fort East Martello Museum and wish to take a picture of him, according to legend, the person must ask the doll politely, and if he does not agree (by tipping his head to one side) and the individual takes a picture anyway, then the doll will curse the person and their family.


I am embarrassed to have been away so long! Suffice it to say, I've been having ups and downs better not lived out in public view, since both are tiresome in their own way! Have also been overwhelmed by Christmas! To date, have tree and wreath up; most cards out; about half my fudge made; and am maybe 1/3 done on presents!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It is a funny thing -- or maybe it's not -- but every time someone close to me has died, I have had an overpowering desire to watch ghost movies. As you know, I like Gothic themes any time -- and it being Halloween season doesn't hurt -- but at such times nothing else will do. I am especially drawn to those set in the 1970s, in which everyone is seemingly punished for the naivete of belonging to a happy family (just as a decade later one would be punished for being a teen girl.) In the past week I watched two I liked a lot: Burnt Offerings and, especially, Audrey Rose. Both feature amazing architecture as well as more than usual chills and genuinely surprising denouments.

A publicist sent me a book I ended up loving: Haunted Houses, by the photographer Corinne May Botz. The book's made up of carefully-culled images and first-person accounts by residents of haunted spaces. There are a number of spine-tinglers, and the combination of subtly evocative visuals and frank narration is highly effective. But there was one part that stood out especially for me, and not just because it concerns St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, not far from where I grew up (and site of an excellent annual rummage sale.) The former minister testifies to the many instances of hauntings in the church and then says,
"I don't know how you scientifically deal with that. I'm sure there are ways of saying that it was a bad dream or a projection, but it happens and it's not surprising believing in the communion of saints as I do. I think, "Yeah so? What's so surprising about it?" There's a fine line between the next world and this. It's all one reality and we can't divide it up, reality is reality. We know a little bit from Einstein about time, relativity and space, and that one interacts with the other. Time is a human construct anyway... who says there's a great division about past, present and future? Who says we can't visit those places in the so-called past? Now is all we have."

I love that. And when I read it, I sat up, struck by the simplicity of the idea. Because things are not uncanny unless they are breaking rules -- and rules are arbitrary. It seems to me great arrogance to always let logic supercede intuition, anyway.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I want to talk about something I don't often write about and that something is Matthew. But first I need to tell you that I was in a bad way yesterday. You see, I'd gone off my medication because -- wait for it -- I am neurotically afraid of the pharmacist yelling at me (don't ask -- my brother, when told, described this as "irrational but logical.") And I had run out of both my medications, the one that keeps me happy and the one that keeps me stable. Anyway, I was fine, and then yesterday I crashed spectacularly and locked Matthew out, then realized I didn't have any sleeping pills either so I'd have to go get those anyway, then was intercepted by Matthew who was lurking outside and who forcibly filled the prescription and made me take my pills and held me and rocked me and sat with me until the calmer-downer one had worked and put me to sleep. He also called my brother. (There was also a period of my sitting on the sidewalk sobbing piteously and making a spectacle of myself in front of various neighbors plus the mailman, Derek and, now that I'm not dead, I sort of regret that part.)

Matthew takes wonderful care of me. (I should mention that my old boyfriend was also very adept at managing my black moods.) Matthew, meanwhile, would surely deny that he does anything save love me and he'd say something kind about how it's a small price to pay, which isn't true. When I get low he'll take me to look at puppies in the window of the pet store on 6th Avenue if things are really acute, or present me with a sweet taste. Or wordlessly bring me a cookbook, or a Betsy-Tacy, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Matthew is the kindest person I know -- the first to approach someone who's shy or retiring, and the last to begrudge anyone success. He's without schadenfruede. His intelligence is penetrating and specific, and he admits that he doesn't know the other things, even when that isn't done. You shouldn't underestimate him, but he won't hold it against you when you do, because he's like that. He makes me feel attractive for the first time. He also makes me feel I can succeed at anything -- but that he'll love me just the same if I don't.

He also bears a striking resemblance to Laurence Harvey.

Friday, October 29, 2010

He would have loved that funeral. It was funny, and it was touching, and it was a full house, which he would definitely have appreciated. Various collaborators of his performed numbers from their shows, and a bunch of us spoke, and there was a lot of laughter.

I held it together until yesterday. They dimmed all lights on Broadway in his honor, and Grandpa Joe would have loved that so much: he lived for his work and truly loved the theatre. Anyway, something about that, in combination with leaving the apartment and saying goodbye to the doorman, just made me lose it, and I cried and cried.

I can't say enough how very kind my friends are. The night we came home from the funeral, after a long and exhausting day, I found a pot of daisies on my doorstep, from LD. In the mailbox was a package from my friend Virginia, containing Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. In the words of that bear of very little brains, "A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference."

And although we have another three days of formal mourning allowed, he always said everything runs too long, so.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Some of you know that my grandpa has been very ill for much of the past year, and this past Sunday, after suffering what the obit called "complications from a fall," he died swiftly and peacefully. As if it needs saying, we were lucky to have him around for 98 remarkably healthy years (I wasn't there for all 98 of them but, y'know, the world) and as my friend David put it, "laughing all the way."

People are so kind. Friends have been calling and emailing and it's so appreciated. This morning the doorbell rang -- and Dan had sent a care package from Russ and Daughters!!! I didn't know whether to cry or immediately eat a bagel and lox. (I did both.)

My dad has done all the stuff like dealing with Riverside and identifying the body, closing out accounts and all the real business of dying. I have very little to do myself, and even those few things are proving challenging. 1: I am preparing my "remarks" which is tricky for all the obvious reasons. But on a more mundane level, I can't find anything to wear! I don't know what I expected -- that I could just waltz down Broadway and find some classic LBD. It seems the high street doesn't truck in these. I tried J.Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, Zara, H&M, Bloomingdales, Club Monaco, even Top Shop -- and after wandering in and out of stores like a zombie for 2 hours, listlessly trying on a series of embellished tops and things that didn't fit and that couldn't be ordered or altered in time, I called it a day. I hate having to think about such nonsense, but there you have it. As one person wrote me yesterday, "It's like Tolstoy said - somehow daily life goes on, even in impossible circumstances." The death of someone who's lived a long, happy life, at 98, is never a tragedy -- more a time for reflection and celebration. Not least because Grandpa Joe was, quite literally, the happiest person any of us has ever known.

Now, if only I could somehow communicate that in a few paragraphs...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Something I am excited about: Chock Full 'o Nuts has opened a full-service cafe on 23rd Street! This may not seem like much of a big deal, but I have been into Chock ever since I read about its history. You see, having experienced antisemitism, founder William Black was sensitive to discrimination, and he made a point of hiring integrated staff, whom he paid a living wage and benefits. Later, Jackie Robinson was brand spokesman and after his retirement, Vice President of the company. In addition, the chain was known for high quality and uncompromising hygiene.

But I wouldn't be so excited if the menu wasn't totally retro and awesome: chicken croquettes, cream cheese on date-nut, and the "Chock Special" of "nutted cheese" on raisin bread! How I wish I still worked in the Flatiron! What a fab alternative to Eisenberg's Sandwich!

Sweet dreams!


Monday, September 20, 2010

Best. Weekend. Ever.

Why? Well, try a show on Victorian post-mortem photography at the Merchant House Museum; tea with Mady at Podunk; dinner with the gang at Grand Sichuan; wine and gougeres with the girls; corn-bacon panna cotta at the Basis food fest; a housewarming at I.'s, and PAVEMENT at the Williamsburg waterfront! And just to give you an idea of the glory of that show, they opened with "Cut Your Hair," did a 15-song set that included "Father to a Sister of Thought," then played, like, a six-song encore that started with "Spit on a Stranger," seemed like it was over and instead went into "Gold Sounds" and ended with "Kennel District." Plus, despite being really old, still reminded me of why people become groupies. Yeah, I cried, so what?

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Last time we went to Staten Island, to visit Killmeyer's Old Bavaria Inn, we stopped at the Snug Harbor museum. Snug Harbor was designed as a retirement home for merchant seamen -- a sort of Les Invalides for men who might otherwise have ended up with nowhere to go. The museum is beautifully done and worth a visit, and the sample room they have done up with the original furniture is actually beautiful. (Indeed, all the furniture was Stickley.) I was shocked to read that the whole place was nearly the victim of developers only ten years ago, and was only saved by the volunteer efforts of some very dedicated locals. I got to talking with the (rather eccentric) volunteer working the gift shop, who told me that before they intervened, the developers had managed to toss all the original Stickley into a dumpster -- a few enterprising people managed to rescue a few pieces before the garbage trucks came.

I was shocked and asked if this was common (I'd heard about the destruction of Dorothy Day's Spanish Town.) By way of example, he said that as we spoke, a developer was destroying the first free-black community in America: a hamlet settled by oystermen in the 17th Century! He explained that the borough is so mobbed up, and the developers so corrupt and insensitive, that things go on all the time that would appall folks just across the bridge.

So it was dismaying to see this week's Village Voice cover story, (by the terrific Foster Kamer) about the destruction of Cedar Grove Beach Club. Read the story, but here's the gist: for the past 40 years, a group of 41 families has leased this Staten Island beach from the city and had a summer community which is now the last remaining bungalow village in NYC. (Moses did away with the rest.) They've kept the beach in beautiful condition. Now the Parks Department, seemingly rather arbitrarily and vindictively, is reclaiming it and evicting them all, with the stated intent of tearing down all the (darling) bungalows and making the beach public space. Okay, except they have no plan, no budget and the adjoining beach -- from which they evicted everyone 40 years ago -- is filthy and neglected. This beach is only nice because it's been privately maintained. You don't need to have finished The Power Broker (seriously, has anyone?) to be wary of Parks Department muscle, and after my visit to Snug Harbor, I have a dim view indeed of SI's regard for history.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

North by

Wanted to mention that I was in Seattle, for a wedding (which was lovely), along with my ex (who has seemingly taken to living his life as an endless episode of "Between Two Ferns"), for the first time. We did all the tourist stuff: bought smoked salmon and chocolate-covered cherries at Pike Place, gawked at the view from the Space Needle, and were underwhelmed by the original Starbucks when we passed it.

But what I really wanted to tell you about was the hotel, the Panama Hotel, which, although it's featured in the novel The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I chanced upon. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, and rightly so: designed in 1910 by the Japanese-American architect Sabro Ozasa, it's beautifully preserved. Each room has brass beds and the original small sinks and there are shared clawfoot tubs and there's a wonderful feel of the past to everything; the owner, Jan, has clearly made it a labor of love. Even better, the building contains the sole and remaining Japanese bathhouse (sento) in America -- which, while unused, is also remarkably preserved, and which you can see if Jan's around to show you. Downstairs is a lovely period tearoom where guests can have pastry and coffee or, of course, any of their teas hot or iced. Wonderful, and I urge all of you to try it if you're in Seattle: it's the kind of eccentric spot I love, but also just a charming and affordable place to stay in the center of the International District.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dolly and I

I think I can say in all honesty that I have never done this, but am going to go ahead and link to this piece I did for Jezebel!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Poland Dispatches

I just ran across the journal I kept on my trip to Poland with my dad, and thought I'd share some of it with you.

Poland Journal, Part 2

In our house, we’d play “Concentration Camp,” which was a variation on “Titanic.” Both involved picturing various people we knew in historical situations and imagining how they would react and always involved Alan Gold, a nemesis of my dad’s who, despite his thriving career, was an opportunist and a sell-out of the worst kind, being cast as a kapo or dressing as a woman to nab a spot in the lifeboat. “I don’t know what I’d do,” Papa would always say, thoughtfully. “I like to think I’d do the right thing, but I might be a coward. Of course, now, I wouldn’t pass the initial inspection.” We also agreed that Mama would try to be heroic, screw it up, and end up getting herself and other people killed in the process – a scenario that also applied to her hiding Jews in occupied Europe. Invariably, these conversations ended with her storming upstairs in hurt indignation and slamming the door dramatically. There’d be a moment of silence and we’d all snicker.

Krakow had been disastrous so far: cold and rainy, and we’d promptly been cheated by a cab driver. It was beautiful, of course. But the restaurant we sought out, and which I’d marked with the complex iconography that I favor in guidebook situations, no longer existed, and we got some fast-food pierogis at a 24-hour spot geared towards tourists with ersatz peasant décor. Then we learned that the hotel, which was supposed to be in the center of town, was in fact in the suburbs somewhere and grotesque to boot. Papa was white-lipped with rage. The girl who worked there was beautiful but implacable and wouldn’t so much as consider a partial refund. I was extra-conciliatory to make up for his curt fury, and in the end no one was happy. “I was very rude to her,” said Papa later, and when he placed his wake-up call, apologized.

I got up about 7 and investigated the buffet, which was standard continental and had individual jams. I helped myself to coffee with milk, a peach yogurt and a roll with jam and butter, plus thought to pocket a banana for later, since I imagined the day would be a grueling one. I’d brought the book but kept an ear on the party of Americans instead – loud, nice, middle-aged, with Minnesota accents. Maybe a choir group, I thought. They smiled at me but I think the Euro-drag, of which I was wearing my most somber iteration, deterred them from speaking to me.

“They’re probably all incredibly nice people,” said Papa later. “And probably headed to Auschwitz.”

The guide-service was sending a car to pick us up – no mean feat since our hotel was a good 20 minutes outside the city center in a stretch of suburbia that knew no nationality. But as a result, we were able to take the front seats of the van. As we reached Krakow, despite the pristine beauty now revealed by a cold sun, I noticed Papa’s spirits were flagging and flagged anew every time we passed another hotel. The city center, of course, was full of them: old and quaint, or expensive and discreet, and occasionally modern. “Look at that one,” he said grimly. I was looking; there was an ornate carving of what looked like a medieval guildsman of some sort over the door, and the pretty stylized building numbers typical of the area. This was not what he had meant. “Or that one. It’s right here. Imagine how convenient that would have been.”

“Probably expensive,” I said comfortingly. I secretly sort of liked the horrible remote Best Western, which had an enormous pattern of peacock plumes on its façade, like a Florence Broadhurst print adapted by giants, and faced a Holiday Inn.

We made several stops. First, the guide – who had hennaed hair, a nose ring and, evidently, a bad cold, got in. “Hello!” greeted Papa, seemingly cheered by this tangible prospect of Auschwitz. Then we made the rounds of three more centrally located hotels, which got him down again. There was a father and son, British, both beefy and earringed; some Germans who apparently spoke excellent English, and an American couple, both of whom had curious hair. “How’s your hotel?” Papa asked each of them in turn, and looked grim when they replied that it was fine, or good, or very nice.

“Are you excited, doll?” Papa asked me as we got under way. The rest of the van was silent, whether because of the hour or the occasion I didn’t know.
“I’m apprehensive,” I said. “It’s gonna be harrowing. Bad”
“’Bad?’ It’s quite literally the worst place in the world.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No! I’m excited!” he said.
“I’m glad to do it,” I tried to explain. “It’s something we have to do, and if you’re doing it, this is the one to see.”
“Yeah, we can cross that off our bucket lists.”
“Don’t use that expression, I beg of you.”
“You ‘beg’ of me?”
“Yes, I beg of you. Can I tell you, though –“ I lowered my voice. “I’m concerned about being…inoculated. To the horror.”
“Of the holocaust? You mean because we’ve been so overexposed?” asked my father loudly.
“Well, it’s just that, I remember the horror of learning about it – that visceral horror, when I was little. And now we’re used to the horror. We’ve seen the piles of shoes at the Holocaust Museum, and heard that story about the woman who met her husband the G.I., and they both quoted the Schiller poem – you know what I mean – and it’s hard to still feel that shock. So I’m worried about that.”

“Well,” he said, “I’m just hoping it’s all in tact.”

I wanted to talk about Reform Judaism and Holocaust fetishization, but not within hearing distance of the sick guide, the Germans or the couple with strange hair.

The guide put on videotape that showed footage of the Russians liberating the camps. Plus plenty of information about selection, Mengele, torture, lethal injections, the Wall of Death, gas chambers, crematoria, sadism, starvation, and, of course, corpses. I started to giggle when my eyes met Papa’s.

“They seem,” said Papa loudly, “to assume total ignorance about the Holocaust.”

“Well, it’s good to hear the Russian perspective,” I offered lamely in an undertone.

“Ha! That’s the pot calling the kettle black,” he said.

I ate the banana.

“That was good thinking,” said Papa. “I also have an apple for you.”

“Should I eat at the camp? Maybe it’s…disrespectful.”

“This apple would have been such a feast at Auschwitz,” said Papa.

“I have some nuts too, those nuts Mama packed for us.”

“Oh, excellent. Give me a handful. Are you covering your face with the scarf because of her coughing?” he asked loudly.

“No,” I muttered, although in fact I was. I didn’t want to offend the guide. “I’m…keeping my nose warm.”

After we’d arrived, and merged with another few Anglophone groups, and received electronic headsets, and looked in wonderment at the hundreds of visitors, things got serious. We spent two hours at Auschwitz itself. “It’s really like a little village,” said Papa. He was disappointed, though, by the fact that most of the buildings were given over to exhibits and informational placards explaining the purpose of the Final Solution and the varying numbers of victims of different races.
“I think,” I said in an undertone, “that some people really didn’t know this stuff. That woman over there seemed really shocked that Hitler wanted to wipe out Jews.”
I tried to stick close to this woman after that, but she didn’t say much else – she was too overcome with shock and emotion.

“What was the guide saying in there, I couldn’t hear,” said Papa as we left one of the rooms, which explained “daily life.”
“Oh, they had models of the food the prisoners ate: a bowl of coffee – some kind of coffee substitute, actually, and no milk – then vegetable water for lunch and a piece of bread for dinner.”

“Three meals a day,” observed Papa. “No wonder you were listening so attentively to that part,”

Our tour group was grave and respectful. The guide, as Papa said, was really sad for someone who had to give the same tour multiple times per day. But a party of Israeli teenagers, identifiable by white sweatshirts bearing stars of David and a few large Israeli flags that teachers brandished to keep the group together, were laughing and joking loudly. “I guess they got it in the cradle,” I remarked. One of the boys, who was roughhousing, dropped the flag he’d had wrapped around his shoulders like a cape. A shocked tourist from another party retrieved it and ran after the oblivious teenager.

“How Hitler would hate this,” said Papa. “All of these Jewish kids, so carefree, and with the symbol he hated more than anything in the world.”

After that part of the tour, which included the various torture cells and interrogation rooms and the Wall of Death, we were given a brief break before leaving for Birkenau, a mile away. Papa bought what they called a garlic bread but proved to be a length of baguette spread with some kind of seasoned dressing and a thick blanket of mild cheese. He bought a postcard on which he planned to scrawl “Wish You Were Here!” to a like-minded friend. “Obligatory, I guess,” I said. “Do you have a coin for the bathroom?”

I washed my hands and readjusted my hair in the bathroom. I looked hideous. I nodded and smiled at the woman who took coins. Papa was waiting at the top of the stairs. “Now, there’s a bad job,” he said in an undertone. “Madame Peepee at Auschwitz.”

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On My Shelf

Just finished A Novel Bookstore - which earlier, you'll recall, I was merely enjoying - and can now make my final recommendation, which is affirmative if somewhat qualified.

Do you know the premise? Two bibliophiles decide to put together a bookstore called "The Good Novel" in which they carry only wonderful fiction. They put together a top-secret panel of writers to choose the novels and create the most wonderful, well-edited store in the world. Then someone begins threatening the members of the secret committee...

Anyway, it's all terribly French and a thoroughly good read. I must say, though, that rather ironically, for a book explicitly against bad fiction, there were a touch of the Ayn Rands about it. Not the prose, but rather, the throngs of angry mediocrities who are threatened by intellectual purity and dead-set on subverting it at all costs who seem to populate the Objectivist universe. Oddly enough, I've never met a sinister, organized mediocrity in my life - or, at any rate, not such a self-aware one. But don't let that stop you; it was a real page-turner.

It got me thinking about "good" books, too. I recently bought that Robert Khan "Books" edition, which has a similar mission and has given me all kinds of good ideas. I'm always looking for recommendations and am excited to have been directed towards Mary Robinson's Why Did I Ever by one of the three people whose fiction recommendations I most trust.

If I had to make my own list, it might contain (besides some of the basics):

A Girl in Winter, Philip Larkin

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

A Few Green Leaves, Barbara Pym

Up in the Old Hotel, Jospeh Mitchell

Here is New York, E.B. White

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch

The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

...and I'll think about more! (I can tell you what would NOT be on mine: The Dud Avocado, The Golden Notebook or The Ginger Man!) I hope this gives you a few ideas; may I have a few in turn?

Entertaining is Fun!

My dearest El. just sent along some pics from our engagement party spread. The caterers did a terrific job; it turned out to be surprisingly hard to find exactly what I wanted! In the end, we tracked down the long-retired proprietor of a tea room that used to exist a few towns away: she made the egg salad sandwiches, the banana nut-bread with cream cheese, the radish butter and the watercress. Some young women in town who are starting a catering concern made the deviled ham, the smoked salmon, the fruit salad and the deviled eggs! (They also provided lemonade and iced tea.) Then, El and her mother contributed cheese pennies, and a lovely neighbor made crab dip. I brought the sweets up from One Girl. Our neighbor Nicole (the recipient of my HS wardrobe of 1940s housedresses, incidentally) tended bar and generally helped out. It was a nice farewell to the Hastings house and a lovely chance to see all my folks' friends. But let me tell you: it is apparently far easier to find pesto and tapenade than tea sandwiches! While I'd never force the lovely Barbara to come out of retirement again, I'd happily recommend that new catering company to anyone - they even humored me and made melon balls!

Monday, August 30, 2010

From My Dad

I forgot to ask how you like the typewriter. I thought it was the best in my collection; not just the most attractive, but the one with the most crispest action and, hardly to be underestimated, the most satisfying sound. In fact, all of this was confirmed by my just-concluded visit with the gentlemanly proprietor of Gramercy Office Equipment, apparently the last old time typewriter repair shop in the city. (I went to him with my Olivetti Valentine, a machine so gorgeous it is in MOMA's permanent collection, but one with a tendency to fall apart even when less harshly treated than was mine). In any case, he had two Royals like yours on display, only in brown and blue. I told the guy and his son (his only employee) that we had a green one and they were suitably impressed, going on about its merits. I also procured from them a ribbon for the machine, and they said that if you had any difficulty installing it, you should bring it by. You might wish ti do so anyway, because the place is the last of a dying breed, and should you be so inclined, they'll talk old typewriters forever. They're right across from you old stomping grounds at Holt at 174 Fifth Ave, between 22nd and 23rd, 4th floor.

And Another Thing...

Also inspired by the L Magazine. There's some quiz on Brooklyn cred. And it's cute etc. etc. sure fine and I "had" it. But then there's this throwaway line about how "you almost never leave the borough, which is a good way to limit your worldview—and since someone from everywhere lives in Brooklyn, it is an excusable place in which to limit yourself thusly." Okay, this was joking and nothing against the author, who did a good job. But it is emblematic of the chauvinistic Brooklyn worldview I've come to find increasingly tiresome. People seem to regard it as a badge of honor never to go into Manhattan, and to this I say: unless you're, like, 5th generation Brooklyn and really do have your whole world here, or are severely physically handicapped or something...what's wrong with you? Why would you live in New York and smugly limit yourself? Sure, Brooklyn has some good restaurants and bars and lots of everyone's friends are here, but seriously? We don't have the Met (either one) or the MoMA, or...you know what, I'm not even descending to this level. It's idiotic. And I'll be damned if I visit a shrink outside of Manhattan and not just Manhattan but the Upper West Side, at that, because really, why limit your chauvinism? Anyway, I'm sick and I'm cranky and now's about the time when a little takeout wouldn't go amiss.

On Gentrification

Henry Stewart has some interesting things to say in the latest L Magazine (about which I have mixed feelings, but that's for another time if at all. In a piece on the fight for the Domino factory he writes,
When people talk about the gentrification of Williamsburg, they don't talk about what it has created, but only about the "bad things" it has replaced. For the gentrifiers, the former landscape needs to be destroyed, or at least gussied up beyond recognition—the past needs to be razed so a new culture can be overlaid, a culture that then celebrates its own superiority. To claim that gentrification has improved the community, Farr tells me, is "preposterous." How did the boutiques on Bedford Avenue make life better for the Latino community? Gentrification is not about what's been achieved but about the illusion that achievement has occurred. The idea. The feeling.

Of course, that's a tad reductive: "gentrification" is more than Amarcord. It's something about which we think a lot, living where we do. First of all, sweeping statements like that run the risk of generalizing about communities that are themselves multilayered and complex. My block, for instance, is made up of homeowners who have, in some cases, owned more than 50 years. Many of them have a fraught relationship with the residents of the surrounding projects. Which one represents the "culture" we're preserving? When does mere existence become an aggressive "overlay?" Williamsburg simplifies this conversation with its extremes. There's also the basic question of, where can people live in New York without trampling on something else? What they're talking about, I guess, is those who steamroll in after a place is "habitable" and lay on this gloss.

When a new, Neapolitan pizzeria opened not far away, there was something off about it. Not the place itself which, with its salvaged decor and locally sourced ingredients and Italian staff, was ready for Avenue B. Rather, the transposition of something so wholly inorganic and fully-formed was discordant. Especially when you walked in (especially post - "25 and Under") and realized some car service was doing a very brisk business indeed from Park Slope, while the neighborhood's residents, apparently, went on eating just where they had been. And yet, we went - we go - all the time. And there's the rub.

I will discuss this with Mr. Smith, who lives next door. I talked about something similar with a woman named Ally who was in her 70s and using a cigarette holder and has lived all her life on Amity. We were seated in front of a new coffee shop in which everything is sustainable and baked goods come from Birdbath. "Now," she said, "suddenly I'm a freak."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fall Wish List

I am in love.

The other night, coming back from dinner at The Bicycle Restaurant, a black kitten crossed our paths. And it was bad luck - for me! Because the moment I stroked that kitten and felt it nuzzle my hand, and felt its purring against my leg, and lifted it feather-light in my arms and felt its ribs and its heart hammering, I was a goner. I felt a rush of such absolute love and tenderness that it brought sharp tears to my eyes. I sat and cuddled it for maybe 20 minutes, while Slim went at my behest and got some milk. Finally we had to leave; I was weeping.

Slim is so allergic that I stripped off my things downstairs so as not to bring any of the offending dander into the apartment, but he felt terrible about it. Especially since, in the days since, I have randomly started crying, or fallen into melancholy reverie, or ventured out secretly whenever possible to try and find the kitten that I have dubbed Raisin Stein. I haven't; I've found her siblings, and her rather disinterested mother, but Raisin has not reappeared. And neither has my heart. It's gotten to the point where Slim says we just ought to bring her home and he'll make do, but doing it would be another matter entirely.

A Little Fall Inspiration...

Who wouldn't feel a back-to-school thrill looking at APC's fall line?

And these items from Etsy are proving seriously inspiring too:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Few Recs

I'm reading something I'm enjoying. That's all I can say, since I haven't yet finished it, but that's saying a lot, no? It's A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé, translated from the French. Pleasant and absorbing.

Also very, very good: Brother's Keeper, a classic documentary which you may have already seen, but if not it's on Netflix Instant Watch. That's all I'll say, since talking too much about a film, if it's good, can only detract.

Also saw Eat, Pray, Love, and after all the pans found it surprisingly watchable - which is not to say good, but perfectly engaging. Which, after all, is also true of the book. My problem with the book was that the author seems to think just enough to give the impression of depth, and while I understand David Denby's point that humor and self-awareness are rare in a seeker, I'm not sure they're required, really. Anyway, it's very pretty and Javier is very overwhelming and I've certainly spent more unpleasant afternoons.

(Step Up: 3D is also excellent.)

And what do we think about the new Arcade Fire? I can't love it although of course there's some good stuff. But gosh, you know how I feel about "suburbia" cliches - that felt tired when Eric Bogosian did it...and that was in 1994.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Monday Monday

I started my week with a solo dance party; I highly recommend it. This is the dance mix I've made and which I humbly submit as totally groovy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Am dealing with some major apartment ambilvalence. On the one hand, we want to move. A lot. On the other, we can't. And moving is awful (I have the unhappy example of my parents' daily calls to remind me of that.)

It would be nice to be closer to produce, to food, to friends. I saw a woman being choked on the street. You can't walk after dark.

But then too, we have friends living nearby now; there's a new CSA; a small farmer's market; lovely new neighbors and sweet neighborhood kids.

Recently, L.D. moved up here from North Carolina and lives nearby: I was worried about the transition from beautiful roots to impersonal concrete jungle. But of course she has a huge container garden growing at their house and is on a basis of mutual adoration with every child under 10 on her block. I am selfishly glad of course to have another friend in the neighborhood and opportunities for impromptu drinks and settles and clothing swaps. To say nothing of a partner in crime for cooking and the dressmaking and flower-arranging classes we are contemplating (hey, a subway buddy's no joke either in this kind of country!) Last night she and her boyfriend J. came by to observe the block party; we had beers and spicy chips (I used Food52's idea) and I showed her my new cheesecloth cafe curtains and the stained sweater I'd dyed with coffee grounds. Then we went to L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst. Friday, there was an impromptu rooftop potluck at Marie's house; they brought a goose lamp onto the roof and there was paella. Ruby works only 2 blocks away and I was able to bring her a piece of peach cake as a workday treat. In short, it might just be okay. (Although I'm still haunting Craigslist.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

MORE Baking

Today is our block party, and they are not playing: donations were solicited for a "bouncer" (read: bouncy castle.) Wowsers! (Technically, I suppose they are playing, but you know what I mean.)

Last year, I took the opportunity to essay a baroque and slightly vile mix-based pistachio-chocolate bundt, and it didn't exactly move. Now, since I feel my honor is on the line (and I really would like to contribute something people will like) I am going with the most tried of favorites: Rice Krispie Treats (even though I hate them) and chocolate cupcakes with ganache, weather permitting.

(As M said, "the hippies, in lieu of money or food, will probably be providing music.")

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Recipe: Peach Cake

I have been much more myself lately, seeinf friends and getting things done (indeed, some might argue that I've swung in the distinct direction of mania!) Among other recent projects, I made a cake from my new favorite cookbook, The Craft of Baking. The author, Karen DeMasco, is the pastry chef at Locanda Verde, and the sweets I had there were so scrumptious that I was moved to request her book for my birthday. While the cover features a "Lamington Cupcake" that would look appetizing only to an antipodean, the rest of the photographs are as mouth-watering as one could wish, and everything I've made has been delicious.

I had some ripe peaches rapidly attracting fruit-flies (yummy, I know) so I decided to adapt her recipe for Caramelized-Apple Skillet Cake. I used peaches (obviously) used brown rather than white sugar for a more traditional upside-down cake effect and, because I always want more of the topping and fruit no matter hjow delicious the cake, I doubled that and added a layer mid-batter. I don't want to sound like one of those jackasses on Epicurious who changes absolutely everything; rest assured, the cake is all hers and it was the cake that, in its moistness and flavor, was really revelatory!

Peach Skillet Cake

Adapted from Karen DeMasco's "The Craft of Baking"

1/2 cup brown sugar (I used light)
10 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
4 ripe peaches, peeled
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons coarse yellow cornmeal or fine polenta
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In an 8-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably cast iron, combine brown sugar with 4 tablespoons water, stirring to make sure all of the sugar is damp.

Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until melted and bubbling. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in 4 tablespoons of the butter. Pour half the brown sugar mixture into another bowl; reserve [if you don't want to do my second layer thing, just skip this step and halve the caramel.]

Slice the peaches and arrange half of them over the caramel in the pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the remaining 3/4 cup sugar, the remaining 6 tablespoons butter, and the vanilla. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in the egg yolks, one at a time.

In another bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In three additions, add the flour mixture, alternating with the milk, to the butter mixture. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the batter into a large bowl.

Clean and dry the bowl of the electric mixer well. Add the egg whites and, using the whisk attachment on medium speed, beat to soft peaks, about 4 minutes. In three additions, fold the whites into the batter.

Spread half the batter evenly over the peaches in the skillet. Add the rest of the fruit and the reserved brown sugar. Cover with remaining batter.

Bake, rotating the skillet halfway through, until the cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, 45 to 50 minutes. Place the skillet on a wire rack and let it cool just until the cake is warm, about 30 minutes. Then run a knife around the edge of the cake and invert it onto a plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

The cake is best eaten the day it is baked but can be kept at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 2 days.