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POSTCARD — February 10, 2014

Nothing Is Strange

A trip to Murakami’s jazz club

By 

Murakami at Book House You. © Tatsuya Mine

Murakami at Book House You. © Tatsuya Mine

Before he became a novelist, Haruki Murakami was a jazz fan. He got into it when he was fifteen, after seeing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers perform in Kobe in January 1964.The lineup that night was of one of the most celebrated in the band’s three decades of existence, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Cedar Walton on piano. “I had never heard such amazing music,” Murakami later said. “I was hooked.” Ten years later, he postponed his university studies to open a jazz club in suburban Tokyo, naming it Peter Cat, after one of his pets. In 1977, he and his wife, Yoko, moved the club to Tokyo’s central Sendagaya neighborhood, where he wrote his first two novels, which led to later books whose titles referenced doo-wop like the Dells’ “Dance Dance Dance” and jazz tunes like Fuller’s “Five Spot After Dark.” The music equally influenced his writing style, which he sometimes conceived in terms of jazz rhythm, improvisation, and performance. Continue reading here…

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Located in New York’s East Village on St. Marks Place, Oh! Taisho gets busy most nights.

A cool, bustling yakitori, they specialize in skewered meats grilled over Binchōtan charcoal. You order by the skewer: chicken gizzard, chicken wing, chicken skin, chicken heart. The menu even lists a “chicken chunks” skewer called yotsumi, though their many offerings have kept me so busy that I’ve never ordered it. Along with offal and other yakitori classics, Oh! Taisho serves ramen, yakisoba, salt grilled mackerel, seaweed salads, ebi shumai, gyoza, tatsuta age, agedashi tofu, a mixed vegetable sauté called yasai itame, and a pork belly and kimchi sauté called buta kimchee, which is a variation of the Korean dish jaeyook bokkeum.

If you like fish and pork, this is your place.

Grill

Long and narrow, cramped and loud, Oh! Taisho’s tables are tightly packed. The counter leaves you elbow-to-elbow with strangers. In winter, traffic in and out of the front door blasts you with frigid gusts, and the small wall rack by the prep area overflows with coats. There’s nowhere else to hang them. For lack of better options, women at the counter often set their purses on their laps.

While you eat, the friendly wait staff leans over and around you, yelling to each other in voices as piercing as alarm clocks. From behind the grill, cooks call out finished orders in Japanese, as customers and servers rush perpetually past you, and others scan the perimeter to understand what all the commotion is about. It’s not the kind of place you come to relax. It functions like an izakaya: you order small plates, drink and eat and talk and have fun.

Quail eggs, ume sasami skewer

Quail eggs, ume sasami skewer

On a recent visit, between eight and ten staff members waited tables, though they moved too fast to get an accurate count. When I asked my waiter what the whole grilled hokke fish tasted like, he said he didn’t like fish. No fish? “No,” he said smiling. “No fish. Shrimp, the squids. But fish—no.”

I started with a kaisou seaweed salad for $5.75. A squeeze of lemon brightens the flavors, offering a nice, light prelude to the meat-fest come.

I followed that with some old favorites: a pork belly skewer, or bara, a shishito pepper skewer, and sasami mentai: a moist hunk of white meat chicken drizzled with bright orange spicy codroe. These cost $1.75, $1.75 and $2.75 respectively.

Skewer selections

Despite their name, shishito peppers taste mild—although, for some reason, about one out of ten packs some heat. Dressed only with coarse salt, the little green spears are grilled until a nice dark char marks their sides and the skin melts in your mouth.

Shishito pepper skewer

Shishito peppers

The $7 large grilled squid, ika yaki, is the best I’ve ever had. It plumps and turns a lustrous purple when cooked.

Ika yaki, skewer, squid

Ika yaki, grilled squid

I like a little starch with my fish, so I usually order yaki okaka onigiri: a grilled rice ball stuffed with bonito. It’s $3.25. It’s bigger than your fist. Dressed with oil and soy sauce and cooked to a crisp, the outside kernels crunch like corn, while the ones inside remain soft and white. In the center: hot, moist, shredded bonito fish, one of the best flavors on earth. Salty, smoky, rich with umami, a buddy described it as “sea bacon.” Oh! Taisho was the first place I tasted bonito, and it revolutionized my idea of what flavor could be. I now buy bags of shredded bonito to sprinkle on everything from omelets to salads, and to flavor soups.

Onigiri close up

yaki okaka onigiri

Don’t let people tell you that all Japanese food is healthy. Oh! Taisho grills greasy seasoned strips of seasoned pork belly and wrap bacon around everything from peppers to scallops, asparagus to enoki mushrooms. They serve sliced roast duck, French fries covered with cheese, and something called chikuwa cheese, which are deep fried surimi tubes filled with dairy.

This mix of fatty and fresh, healthy and decadent, partly explains the crowds. White, black, college kids and businessmen—everyone comes here.

Two couples at a nearby table ordered the $39.50 Party Set: a total of thirty skewers. One man clapped when it arrived, while his wife covered her smile and shook her head at the excess, and maybe at the challenge ahead. “Kampai,” they said, raising sake glasses.

“Order ready!” the staff yells as they try to find counter space to set huge steaming bowls in front of you.

Pork broth soup

Pork broth soup

The old wooden counter is resinous and tacky—not dirty, but sticky from lacquer. When you sit there, you can watch cooks chopping, drizzling sauces, garnishing dishes and shaking skillets over bursting flames, laughing and smiling despite the pace and tight quarters. If you sit in front of the grill, you can feel the heat on your forehead. Without room for your bag, you have to set it by your feet. With few places to look, you’re forced to stare at the aluminum foil that covers the grill’s exterior, or to watch neighboring diners stare longingly at the cooks, waiting for their food. Others talk, drink beer. With crowds, it’s not unusual for your food to arrive between five and twenty minutes after ordering.

Life at the counter

At the counter, to my right, a Chinese high school girl was on a date with an Indian high school boy. After sitting down he said, “Soy sauce is the real deal.”

She said, “It’s kind average, you know?”

“Okay,” he said, “name a sauce that’s not average then.”

Without hesitation she said, “Worchester.”

“What’s that taste like?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You made that up.”

“No, I didn’t. It’s real.”

“Really?”

She proceeded to teach him Chinese mythology and describe which parts of our bodies symbolized good luck, health, wisdom, and so on.

To my left, a Japanese-American NYU student was on a date with white NYU student. She set her strawberry-shaped purse on the counter by the shichimi tōgarashi. “Well,” he said smiling, “I knew I liked teriyaki chicken, but those rice balls—yum! They’re not even balls. They’re spears.”

The cook!

The cook!

At the end of the counter, the cook reached inside a refrigerated case and grabbed prepped skewers. His timing was impeccable. With multiple skewers of varying thickness grilling for multiple tables at once, he knew how long to leave each skewer on the grill, when to turn them so they cooked evenly, how to stagger items, all while pulling new tickets from the hanging queue. He read the ticket, removed skewers from the cooler, dipped them in the vat of tare sauce and draped them over the black cauterized grills. As the food sizzled, he glanced at the door and called out orders.

Bacon-wrapped scallop skewer

Bacon-wrapped scallop skewer of doom

It’s easy to order more food than you can eat.

To keep from ordering the same familiar items, I branched out and tried the grilled skate wing. Dense and chewy like a moist seafood jerky, el hire carries the strong, deep flavor of the ocean. It arrived with a mayo dipping sauce which I skipped in favor of a squeeze of fresh lemon. My suggestion: eat it fast. When it cools, it dries.

The hotate bacon, or bacon-wrapped scallops, delivered the desired hit of fat, salt and seawater.

The chicken skewer with plum sauce arrived moist and fresh.

The soup made from pork stock, filled with rice and topped with scallion and sliced charsu pork, was equal in every way to ramen.

And the quail egg skewer offered texture and flavor in bite-size morsels that left room for more morsels.

‘Taisho’ is the name of a historic period in Japan, defined by the reign of Emperor Taishō, which ran from 1912 to 1926. I can’t explain what that has to do with this yakitori joint.

For booze, they serve beer and sake, and offer unusual sho-chus made from rice and wheat, sweet potato and sesame and one called jougo made from brown sugar ($6 glass, $50 bottle).

Stay a while or eat fast and get out—no one’s going to rush you, but the sight of people constantly asking staff about the wait will make you aware of how in demand your seats are, and might hasten your pace.

While I ate, a Japanese chef and the Indian cook were forcing seafood dishes on a Latino staff member. They had him seated at the counter by the cold case, eating seafood soup and picking at a weekly special: tiny baby horse mackerel, deep fried and seasoned with a hint of curry, called mame aji no karaage fuumi. The man shoved the little fish in his mouth and shook his head. He liked it. The soup, not so much. He pointed at the fried fish and waved to another staffer who was prepping in back. People kept checking on him. The large Japanese chef rubbed his back and poured more beer into his mug. Another prep cook came out to measure how much he’d eaten from the bowl. He must have been new, and they were testing and teasing him.

A young server came over holding a large plastic cup with a red straw. He patted the man’s shoulder. “Avocado milkshake,” he said, “you like that, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the man said. He liked it. The kid flashed thumbs up and walked out the front door. Later, a waitress in sweatpants came by and asked him, “Doing okay?” He nodded yes and grinned. He really liked the horse mackerel. When I asked my waiter if he was going to at least try the weekly special, he laughed. “No,” he said, “not for me.”

Long view

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As part of my book project on crowding, I traveled to New York in August to do some research and reporting. That research brought me to the busy Trader Joe’s in Chelsea, to write about the store’s “End of Line” position and their unique crowd-management technique. Here’s the piece:

 

In the produce section of Trader Joe’s store in the Chelsea section of New York, Karl Holman holds an eight-foot-tall sign that reads “End of Line.” It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday, and Holman is managing the line for the second time this shift.

While customers test peaches for ripeness, Holman holds the towering metal pole aloft, making the banner’s orange and yellow lettering visible to anyone who gazes up from the shelves. For the next hour, the line’s end moved constantly.

Short and stout, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a grey Trader Joe’s T-shirt, the forty-nine-year-old Holman addresses a knot of stopped customers who are blocking traffic. “Are you ready to check out?” he asks. “Step right here.” Customers glance at his sign and then file into place.

Continue reading…

 

 

 

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SaturdaysNYC-StripeTee-05

the classic

I was riding my bike home last summer when a homeless man laying down at a bus stop yelled, “Nice surfer shirt!”

I flashed a thumbs up as I passed and howled, “Thanks!”

 

Hang Ten

I have a closet full of striped tees like the one I was wearing, some vintage 1960s and ’70s, some reproductions. I’ve worn this style shirt, off and on, for nearly half of my thirty-seven years. I discovered them while thrifting in early high school in my native Arizona, yet I’d never stopped to consider: who invented them? How did they evolve over time? And what makes a striped tee a “surfer shirt,” anyway?

Vintage Rusty Surf Skate T

The Hang Ten clothing company set the surf tee standard. The produced the first surf wear clothing line, and were the first to popularize the striped tee in the gaudy colors and color combinations we associate with the 1960s and early ’70s: orange against lime green; brown paired with mustard yellow; yellow paired with turquoise; purple cut with white and pink bands. Along with classic beach culture icons such as Dick Dale, Gidget, Rat Fink and The Beach Boys, the tacky striped patterns helped define the look of the era. The Brady kids wore the shirts on The Brady Bunch. Brothers Kevin and Wayne Arnold wore them on the period piece The Wonder Years. Depending on your age, your parents probably wore them. (Check your family photos.) According to a 1992 LA Times article, the Hang Ten company kept their original, iconic, eye-catching shirt patterns on file.

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Contrary to reason, the guiding design principle seemed to be: the gaudier the better. And somehow that approach worked. The best shirts possess the quality that Thelonious Monk references in his song “Ugly Beauty.” Op and Hobie made them. Striped surfer tees were so popular that mainstream companies such as JC Penny, Sears and Montgomery Ward evenmade them, along with a litany of forgotten off-brands like Wentworth. (I have a Wentworth shirt that is a work of freak art.)

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Ugly Beauty: Vintage Hang Ten

Although they eventually fell out of fashion by the late-70s, in some ways, these shirts never completely went away. Any longtime thrifter has run into at least one on a resale rack. There was a brief revival in the early ’90s, when Hang Ten released a line of reproductions after company executives noticed kids in Newport Beach, California sporting vintage Hang Ten shirts with a particular zeal. The bold stripe pattern, both collared and pocket tees, have been experiencing a bit of a moment during the last year, worn by people in the beach pop and garage-pyshe set, some of whom style themselves after ’70s Bowery punks like The Ramones; examples include Nobunny, The Mean Jeans, Jeff The Brotherhood. And Russell Quan, drummer for the legendary Mummies as well as a billion other San Fran garage bands, seems to have been born in one: (See here and here.)

Vintage Hang Ten

FURTHER READING:

Here’s a cool history of the Hang Ten brand: http://surfcrazy.com/stanleys/hangtenhistory/HangTHistory7080%5B1%5D.htm

And a 2008 article about how Kohl’s was going to revive the Hang Ten brand: http://www.jsonline.com/business/29461529.html

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Vintage JC Penney’s Towncraft shirt

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Korean tea and traditional snacks

Korean tea and traditional snacks

Talk of tea usually revolves around China or Japan. These countries boast innumerable varieties and ancient tea-making traditions. South Korea does, too, yet you hear less if anything about them. What you also don’t hear about are their tisanes.

For a nation the size of Portugal, Korea produces a staggering number of herbal and fruit teas. Pine pollen and honey tea. Ginseng, ginger and jujube tea. Infusions made from roasted corn and Job’s Tears. Such variety makes sense when you consider the richness of their landscape: both hardwood deciduous and coniferous forests filled with fruits, roots, nuts, seeds, blossoms, leaves, herbs and berries. All make appearances in their teas. Occasionally I set aside the sencha and mao feng in order to indulge in Hanguk’s overlooked beverage pleasure dome. To spread the word, I wanted to tell other tea drinkers about Korea’s incredible tisanes and suggest Seoul teashops where travelers can try them. Seoul’s Insadong district offers the best place to start an exploration, because of the neighborhood’s central location, subway service, and the density of teashops and cafés.

As a passionate, daily tea drinker of over twenty years, I’ve tried many of Korea’s tisanes, even though I’ve not yet visited the country. I buy imported bagged and powdered versions, and I’ve made a number myself using fresh ingredients. Here are five different tisanes and a list of Seoul teashops where I’ve never been, but which do serve these teas. One day I’ll hopefully get to drink some of these in Seoul, too.

1) Five Flavors Tea

Omijacha, image from koreajjang.wordpress.com

Omijacha, image from Koreajjang.wordpress.com

Omijacha (오미자 차), or “five flavors” tea, at Jidaebang (지대방)

(2F 196-6 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-738-5379)

In Korean, cha means ‘tea.’ Although English-speakers frequently use the term ‘tea’ to describe any hot beverage, tea is technically derived from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. A tisane is an herbal beverage containing no tea. Koreans drink green and black teas, yet the term ‘Korean tea’ usually refers to uncaffeinated, native tisanes as well.

Omijacha is brewed from the berries of the Chinese Schisandra chinensis vine. In traditional Chinese medicine, Schizandra is considered an adaptogen, like ginseng, and restorative, believed to help the heart and kidneys. It’s also said to contain all of the five distinct flavors central to Chinese medicine: salty, sour, pungent, bitter and sweet. Opened in 1982, Jidaebang is one of Insadong’s oldest teashops. They serve omijacha hot on cold days and iced during Seoul’s sweltering summers, sprinkling a few pine nuts on top, which float in an appealing contrast to the bold red tea.

2) Quince Tea

Mogwacha, image from irenefranseda.blogspot.com

Mogwacha, image from irenefranseda.blogspot.com

Mogwacha (모과차), or quince tea, at Yetchatjip (옛찻집)

(2F, 196-5 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-722-5019, or 02-722-5332)

Mogwa is a Chinese quince which yields a tart, sweet brew reminiscent of citrus. ‘Jip’ means house in Korean, and Yetchajip translates as ‘Old Tea House.’ Insadong has been Seoul’s arts district since the Joseon Dynasty. Hidden within the neighborhood’s maze of bustling streets and alleys, Yetchajip’s building – a hanok, or “traditional house” – was built over 125 years ago, making it Insadong’s oldest teahouse. Although it’s a bit difficult to find, many people considerthis quiet, cluttered shop one of the most peaceful places in Seoul. Light is low. Fountains trickle and candles flicker. Birds chirp from a cage. Tea selection is limited (nine hot and seven cold), but ingredients are high-grade, and. The quince tea might be one of their best sellers. Tea comes with a small plate of traditional snacks, many made from glutinous, sweetened rice.

Here are a few interior photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68558939@N00/4245023786/

3) Citron Tea

Yujacha

Yujacha

Yujacha (유자차), or citron tea, at Star Miss Lee Café (별다방 미스리)

(Address TK. Phone: 02-739-0939)

Yuja is a tangy citrus fruit popular in Japan and China. Korean grocers sell this tea in jars, where the fruit is preserved in honey or sugar like marmalade. When people start to develop a cold or sore throat, they often spoon a bit into a mug to treat the symptoms, but nothing compares to fresh versions made in a teahouse.

Star Miss Lee Café sells yujacha and nostalgia. Located on the second floor above a convenience store, it offers games, toys, childhood comfort foods such as dosirak boxed lunches, and tea snacks such as yakgwa, a fried cookie dipped in honey. Patrons can also hang notes from nearly any surface, including an indoor tree. Here is the menu: http://www.missleecafe.com/menu.php Also, some photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seoulkorea/4946926893/in/photostream/

4) Jujube Tea

Daechucha (대추차), or jujube tea

Daechucha, image from CNN

Daechucha, image from CNN

Westerners might be shocked to find so much stuff floating in their tea. Blossoms, pine needles, sliced jujube fruit – with so much plant matter floating in the cup, they could mistake it as soup. It’s a problem of texture rather than taste. Western palates are accustomed to clear beverages; we’re only still getting used to tapioca pearls in tea. But the same ingredients that commonly appear in many Korean porridges and desserts also decorate teas such as daechucha.

Daechucha is believed to stimulate your appetite and help you fall asleep. You’ll commonly find jujube teas blended with ginseng, ginger and honey. Fans of herbal liquors such as Chartreuse will enjoy this classic combination. Herby and earthy without being medicinal, it carries a rich taste of earth similar to a roasted beet. Despite how that sounds, it’s surprisingly appealing.

Jujube tea is so popular that it’s sold at most teahouses, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a standout version.

5) Persimmon Punch

Sujeonggwa, image from My Korean Kitchen

Sujeonggwa, image from My Korean Kitchen

Sujeonggwa (수정과), or dessert punch, at Banjjakbanjjak Binnaneun

(6 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-738-4525)

Koreans drink tisanes for health, but they also drink them for taste. Fortunately, even their healthiest teas are delicious. Sujeonggwa is a dark red brew, sweet enough that it’s called punch. Made from cinnamon, dried persimmons, ginger and peppercorn, it’s commonly garnished with pine nuts and served as dessert. Each ingredient boasts a number of healthful properties, from aiding digestion to increasing circulation. Sujeonggwa is sold commercially in cans, such as the Paldo brand’s popular 8.4oz version. As with jujube tea, sugeonggwa is so widespread that travelers who ask around should easily find a solid teahouse version. From what I can tell, though, there’s a teahouse named Banjjakbanjjak Binnaneun that brews their own sujeonggwa and sells tea serving sets. Another place to get good homemade sujeonggwa is Su Yo Il (수요일).

Perched on the second floor above the main road through Insadong, Su Yo Il means ‘Wednesday.’ Although this café is bit on the pricey side, they often throw a whole persimmon into their sujeonggwa. With such a great view from the window seats, high prices seem worthwhile.

Read-to-drink teas, just stir into water

Ready-to-drink teas, just stir into water

Further info:

For more info, you can also check out the book Korean Tea Classics, written by Hong Kyeong-Hee (a native Korean, he teaches the Way of Tea at a wing of the Panyaro Institute for the Way of Tea, outside Seoul), and Steven D. Owyoung. Also, check out this this food-focused blog by a vegan named Mipa.

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Am happy to share this roundtable chat I had with writers Courtney Maum and Bart Schaneman over at Vol. 1 Brooklyn. The subject was travel writing and chapbooks. Tobias Carroll asked the questions, and I was as excited to hear Courtney and Bart’s answers as I was to have to think about these topics myself. Here’s the link:

 

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2013/05/13/talking-travel-chapbooks-and-a-sense-of-place-with-courtney-maum-aaron-gilbreath-and-bart-schaneman/

 

Make sure to order copies of Courtney’s chapbook Notes from Mexico here at The Cupboard, and Bart Schaneman’s Trans-Siberian here or over at Thought Catalog. You can still order my chapbook A Secondary Landscape here at Future Tense Books.

 

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I’m writing a book proposal currently titled Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet. In an effort to raise money to fund two short reporting trips to finish the proposal, I’ve launched a Kickstarter.

The Architecture of Density, by photographer Michael Wolf
The Architecture of Density, by photographer Michael Wolf

The book is narrative nonfiction about the profound yet overlooked ways dense communal living has shaped human affairs, including everything from our moods to our businesses to interior design. Crowding isn’t just an environmental and urban design issue. It’s a social, psychological and moral issue. With over half the world population now living in cities, it’s also our future. As the novelist Don DeLillo said, “The future belongs to crowds.” I plan to portray what that future looks like, how we’re preparing for it, and write the first book to detail exactly how crowds have shaped human history through time. Once I finish the proposal, I can find the right publisher and get to good hard work of writing the rest of the book.

I’m trying to raise  $3,000 by June 1st. Funds will cover flights to Tokyo and New York City, and small rooms in lean, inexpensive lodging like the YMCA and a capsule hotel. I’ve never asked people for financial help before, but I’m enormously passionate about this book, more excited than I’ve ever been about a project, and I believe that the subject’s global scope will impact the lives of city-dwellers both in the U.S., Canada and in Europe, and in developing countries such as China, India and Bangladesh. Maybe it’s a tall order, but it’s also a big world, and I want to make this book happen any way that I can, so I’m asking for help. As the saying goes, where there’s a will. If you feel like contributing a little, be it financially or by spreading the word, here’s more information.

Thank you for helping make Crowded a compelling read and a book to be proud of.
Love to all,
Aaron

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            Whenever people tell me that New Yorkers are unfriendly, I tell them a story. In the Park and 33rd subway station one February morning, I noticed someone leading a pale woman by the arm in a crowd of commuters.

            When I offered help, the first woman said, “I think she’s diabetic. Are you diabetic?” The second woman shook her head and moaned. Her eyes were open but registered nothing. The first woman introduced herself as Margo, and the stranger in her arms as Carly. “You’re going to be okay, just take slow deep breaths.” I took Carly’s free arm and helped her up the stairs. Amid the crush of pedestrians, she squeezed my hand, and I held it tight.

            We sat her on Park and leaned her against a building where she crumpled over, head down, arms in her lap. “Carly?” I said. “Can you hear me?” Margo called the paramedics.

            Pedestrians streamed by. The sun warmed the frigid air. A passerby in a suit stopped and took her pulse. “You eaten?” he said. She shook her head no. To raise her blood sugar, I gave her the only sugary thing I had: a ginseng sucker.

            I ran inside a store to get water. When I returned, a doctor in gym clothes stood in the first stranger’s place, asking pointed questions. Carly admitted she hadn’t eaten since 9pm the previous night.

            A woman stopped and asked us if everything was okay. “I’m a nurse,” she said.

            “I know CPR,” said another passerby. “If you need it.”

            At Carly’s request, Margo called her boss to say there was a problem. She worked at a nearby fitness magazine. Minutes later, a short woman bounded across the street.“Oh no!” she said, and stroked Carly’s hair.

            The doctor disappeared but left his card. We all joked about the great medical services on the street.

            Before the paramedics arrived and lectured us on eating habits, Carly looked up and, for the first time, seemed to make out our faces. To me she said, “That sucker you gave me was dee-sgusting.” Shelaughed. We all did.

NOTE: Here’s where the published Metropolitan Diary pieces appear. It’s a lively section, always worth reading:  http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/category/metropolitan-diary/

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Revered nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell worked for The New Yorker from 1938 to 1996 but never published a word after 1965. The first new work of his to appear in forty-eight years did exactly that: appeared. With little fanfare or announcement of its arrival, not even a perfunctory tweet, the piece was slipped inside The New Yorker’s February 11, 2013 issue with all the ceremony of a subscription card.

Entitled “Street Life,” the piece is one of three excerpts from a memoir that he started in the late 1960s and early ’70s and never finished. After filing his classic profile “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, Mitchell never submitted anything else for publication. For the next thirty-two years, the magazine kept him in their employ. He regularly came to his office, dressed in suit and tie. His colleagues heard typewriter keys tapping behind his closed door. They passed him in the hallway and rode the elevator with him. This is how it went until he died in 1996 at age eighty-seven. No one knew what he was working on, and no one seems to have asked. As fellow staff writer Roger Angell later wrote: “No one made jokes about him, or expressed ill temper about him; there was pride, in fact, about working for a place that would indulge such an epochal oddity. The piece, when it came, would be worth the wait.” The piece people expected never arrived. Unless Mitchell biographer Thomas Kunkel finds unpublished profiles in the author’s papers, these three first-person narratives might be the only new work readers get. The question is whether they were worth the wait.

This new excerpt comes to us from Thomas Kunkel, author of Genius in Disguise, the biography of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. Kunkel discovered it and the others while researching a forthcoming Mitchell biography. The New Yorker plans to publish the other excerpts at some point in the future.

I’ve written about Mitchell before, specifically about his enormous direct quotations and what they reveal about the nature of truth versus fact in narrative nonfiction. Like many Joseph Mitchell devotees, I’d been waiting years to read something new from him—ten, to be exact. Other fans, some who have been reading Mitchell since the ’60s, had been waiting forty years. And then there it was, a gem hewed from Mitchell’s estate, nestled between pieces from Susan Orlean, Adam Gopnik and Ian Frazier, regular contributors whose company might have made Mitchell’s presence and this February issue seem like any other, were his work and legend not partially defined by his preoccupations with death, the past and gallows humor. In this darker light, his story carries the eerie sheen of a message from the grave.

I discovered the piece accidentally early Sunday morning. My girlfriend and I were lying in bed, flipping through the magazine, when I saw the words “By Joseph Mitchell” and sat straight up. “Mitchell?” I said. I stared in disbelief at the author’s photo on the title page: the unmistakable figure in a dark suit, hands sunk in his pockets, one foot folded over the other, standing confidently in front of Sloppy Louie’s, a seafood restaurant whose owner Mitchell profiled in his well-known piece “Up in the Old Hotel” in 1952. This memoir, and his visage, came out of nowhere. The suddenness of it, like his sly expression and distant stare, gave me chills. Here was a man reporting on his own life seventeen years after it ended, in words he put down four decades ago. I read “Street Life” twice that day.

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As someone who has read about Mitchell extensively, I’m tempted to say that I knew this work was there, hidden in his papers among the discarded profiles and pieces that went nowhere. Signs of continued production pepper the historic record. Besides the recollections of colleagues hearing Mitchell’s typewriter keys, Mitchell’s daughter Nora Mitchell Sanborn told The Guardian in 2012: “[My] father was always writing. He would talk about certain projects and get involved in a million things. He had oceans of paper in many file cabinets, at home and at the office. Unfortunately these papers have been in storage since he died and in the charge of his executor [from whom his daughters are estranged].” The truth is that I never would have guessed those oceans of paper contained a memoir.

In The New York Times recently, New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “What’s so poignant about [the excerpts] is the sadness of the incompletion but the brilliance of the voice.” The voice, the declarative sentences, the catalogues of details, many of the hallmarks of Mitchell’s canonical nonfiction are here. What’s different is the volume: that recognizable voice often takes a maximalist tone, what Remnick describes as “more Joycean.” Mitchell is still pushing the boundaries of the form, seeing how much material he can include before the paragraphs bend and narrative snaps. But the lengthy sentences, long lists and repetition that defined pieces like “Old Mister Flood” and “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” now exhibit a manic quality. Where older pieces contained direct quotation that ran between four and ten straight pages, here we have a sentence on the first page that contains four hundred and thirty-nine words, thirty-one commas, one emdash, one parenthetical remark and a semicolon. Many paragraphs in “Street Life” reach such a dizzying pitch that you question the author’s mental state, even wonder if some sort of psychological collapse caused his forty-year silence. For some readers, the voice will try their patience and cause them to turn to the next piece. For others, the voice will deliver exactly what we’ve been missing.

“I keep on walking,” Mitchell says early on, “sometimes only for a couple of hours but sometimes until deep in the afternoon, and I often wind up a considerable distance away from midtown Manhattan—up in the Bronx Terminal Market maybe, or over on some tumbledown old sugar dock on the Brooklyn riverfront, or out in the weediest part of some weedy old cemetery in Queens. It is never very hard for me to think up and excuse that justifies me in behaving this way (I have a great deal of experience in justifying myself to myself)—a headache that won’t let up is a good enough excuse, and an unusually bleak and overcast day is as good an excuse as an unusually balmy and springlike day.”

At another point he says: “[I] have been down in three tunnels while they were under construction—the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel—and watched the sandhogs forcing their way inch by inch through the riverbed.”

Later he says: “Pretty soon my obsessive curiosity began to dominate me, and I went to a succession of Masses in St. Patrick’s that encompassed seven Sundays, the Easter-cycle Masses, and then I went to Masses in such representative Eastern Catholic churches that are in union with Rome, Syrian-rite churches and Byzantine-rite churches and Armenian-rite churches; and then I went to Masses or Liturgies in some Orthodox churches, Greek Orthodox churches and Russian Orthodox churches and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox churches and Ukrainian Orthodox churches and Bulgarian Orthodox churches and Serbian Orthodox churches and Romanian Orthodox churches; and then I went to Liturgies in two so-called Old Catholic churches, one that I found in a Polish neighborhood in Manhattan and another that I found in a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn.” It isn’t simply the information that’s important here, it’s the pleasure the author and the reader experience while hearing these items strung together, side-by-side. To my ear, it seems Mitchell has fallen in love with the sound of it all, the way each name offers a variation on the theme of churches and tunnels, Orthodox this and Orthodox that, adding a slight twist to the stock he’s temporarily toying with. In this way, Mitchell resembles a baby making sounds after discovering the sonic capabilities of its lips. The fact that the person who wrote this was well into middle age makes you think that, despite the dearth of published work, Mitchell still found great pleasure in working with words.

If this piece provides many readers with their first taste of Mitchell, the exuberance and details might not provide a good introduction. It piece might run some of them off.

In addition to the strength of Mitchell’s voice, the other difference between “Street Life” and his previous work is the subject matter. In place of characters like Joe Gould, shad fisherman and Caughnawaga Indian construction workers, the piece’s central character is Mitchell himself. Irrespective of its origins, this is the rarest sort of Mitchell piece: an entirely first-person narrative.

In it, he describes his compulsive wandering around New York City. He talks about what he calls his “obsessive curiosity,” and his attraction to “old restaurants, old saloons, old tenement houses, old police stations, old court houses, old newspaper plants, old banks, and old skyscrapers.” In a broad sense, “Street Life” tells readers a lot of what they already know: the aimless walking, the preoccupations with old New York, marginal New York, underground, off-limits and working class New York. Setting the scenes of his profiles, Mitchell often included comments about his personal habits. The most recognizable might be the opening lines of “Up in the Old Hotel,” where he says, “Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River.” Mitchell opens “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” which an equally dark, revealing admission: “When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there. …Invariably, for some reason I don’t know and don’t want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk.”

If the themes are the same, “Street Life” offers unique particulars. We learn about a few specific moments from his explorations – his encounter with a priest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for instance, who told him “a church is simply four walls and a floor and a roof inside of which the Mass is celebrated. Never mind the ins and outs of the architecture,” and the way a certain Mass gave Mitchell “an aperture through which I could look into my unconscious, a tiny crack in a wall that all my adult life I had been striving to see through or over or around—” For all its detail and personal revelation, though, “Street Life” never answers the question at the core of his legacy: What else was Mitchell working on all those years?

For seven pages, Mitchell speaks in a controlled frenzy, cataloguing his travels and the city’s topography, and when your patience starts to wane and you begin to wonder where the author is going with all this, he ends a sixty-seven line paragraph to say, “And now I must get to the point.” He then goes on for thirty-one more lines – not lists but a candid description of his paralyzing homesickness, where he felt at home neither in New York nor his native North Carolina – before drawing to what feels like a close: “Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around in the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression.” Ah, you think, here it comes, the moment of revelation, the insight we seek, a portrait of what he was doing for forty years behind his closed office door. Instead, he says, “A change took place in me. And this is what I want to tell you about,” and a black diamond icon marks the piece’s end. Because Mitchell never finished the memoir, we assume he never got around to writing the section that would have addressed this.

“Street Life” provides a deeper look inside the mind of one of our best nonfiction writers, but its charms cause certain frustrations. To fans, Mitchell’s life was already incomplete. The memoir reminds us of this. After making peace with the permanence of the Mitchell mystery and the finality of his work, this story comes along out of nowhere and stirs up the kind of sediments that Mitchell’s characters dredged for fish and oysters, leaving readers with a renewed and possibly irrational feeling of hope, a sense that we might finally find out what he was working on all those years, if not here in “Street Life,” then maybe in the next memoir excerpt. If not there, then maybe in the next, or at least in Kunkel’s biography. The most seductive thought of all: That an entirely new long-form profile of a personality as compelling as Joe Gould might sit in the author’s papers, waiting to be discovered. Until Kunkel tells us otherwise, we are left with this titillating fragment, this story that repeats so much of what we already know in different language, and reminds us what Mitchell already knew: that we really don’t know as much as we think, that nothing is finished until we ourselves are finished, and that the known body of an author’s work exists, like the old wharfs and train tracks that lined the shores of New York Harbor, in a state of flux. It’s as if Mitchell came back from the grave to tease us. “Okay,” he seems to be saying. “You want to know what I was up to all those years? Sit down. I’ll tell you.” And just as he starts to speak, he disappears again.

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Police had cordoned off the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, in Los Angeles’s old Jewelry District, before I arrived. I was walking aimlessly downtown that afternoon, killing time and eating tacos, when I spotted the bright yellow tape. Some men had robbed a jewelry store, and one of them had been shot.

Five police cruisers parked near the crime scene, along with several unmarked detective cars and three news vans. A Telemundo TV anchor in a tie stood in the middle of Broadway’s southbound lanes, shooting a segment. A Channel 5 anchor and her cameraman set up in the intersection as onlookers stood by watching.

“What’s goin’ on down here, man?” one pedestrian asked another. The second guy shrugged.

A third man walked up. “Someone get killed?” No one answered. The second guy, the shrugger, walked off in silence. Despite the sizeable crowd of lookers, even more pedestrians ignored the scene entirely, streaming past and barely glancing, as if everything was normal, just another day of crime and camera crews in downtown LA.

Maybe it was. The intersection was a hive of pawn shops and jewelry stores. Dave Tipp Pawn Shop stood on the northwest corner, Omid Jewelry on the northeast corner, and Broadway Jewelry Plaza on the southeast. Police buzzed around Broadway Gold Center, a corner shop with an iridescent interior that stood next door to another gold and diamond retailer called L.A. Noosha.

As if the sight of cops and news crews would make a cool keepsake, onlookers held up cell phones to shoot videos and snap photos. One young guy stood beside the Telemundo van and filmed the filming of their segment. The other talking head stood near the northeast corner by the crowd, reading her notes and discussing revisions with someone on the other end of her cell phone.

I stood on the curb beside Omid Jewelry and took in the scene. The stink of urine kept wafting by. The breeze carried the heavy scent between buildings, a dizzying mix of dirty truck stop urinal and cat litter ammonia that came from nowhere and everywhere at once. When someone walked by with a greasy slice of pizza, it briefly displaced the smell. The cherry cigar of a young kid in baggy jeans also helped conceal it, then the breeze shifted and the odor returned.

A pedestrian walked up and asked an employee at Omid, “Someone rob a jewelry store?”

Dressed in blue jeans and a dark collared shirt, the employee sat on a stool outside the store, one leg up, one down, and eyeballed the stranger. “Don’t know,” he said. That or he wasn’t telling. His job was to beckon customers. While cops surveyed the crime scene and journalists colonized the street, the man kept yelling “El pagar del oro!” in a Spanish accent, adding what sounded like, “Low price, like for gold!”

Unsatisfied with his response, the stranger walked off, and I caught the employee’s eye. In sync, we nodded.

To find out what happened, I started asking around. I leaned into a conversation to ask three strangers if they knew the details. I talked to an older man on a bike, and a twenty-something taking cell phone photos. The story was vague but simple: when two armed men tried to rob Broadway Gold Center, the security guard pulled out a gun and opened fire. The guard was an off-duty reserve sheriff deputy. When the criminals ran, he darted outside and kept shooting, hitting one in the back. “The one robber went down,” the bicyclist told me. “It hit him in the lower back, and boom, just down. His buddy kept running, just left him like that. Somehow he got up and made it to the getaway car.” A helicopter circled above downtown, searching for the suspects.

Another person contradicted the bicyclist’s account. The kid that got shot didn’t get away. He got caught and treated at the scene. And there weren’t two robbers but three. While two hit Broadway Gold Center, the other went next door to L.A. Noosha and jumped the counter to grab a handful of gold chains.

Nobody knew anything more about the guard: why was a sheriff deputy moonlighting as security? Was that common practice? “He’s a cowboy,” said the man on the bike. The guard’s actions were questionable. In late afternoon, this area was bustling. His bullets could have hit anybody, which suggests he was more interested in protecting jewelry than civilians.

I leaned against Omid Jewelry and listened to the helicopter echo between buildings.

Although the police tape left room on the sidewalk for pedestrians, it shrunk the corner of Broadway and Sixth into a tight passage. People inched between the tape and Omid like cattle in a chute, their shoulders bumping and hands rubbing as they squeezed through.

A scowling tan redhead in a blue tank top pushed through the crowd and yelled “Fuck!” Exasperated, he swung his dirty backpack back onto his shoulder after a passerby bumped it off, and he pushed into the swarm.

A city worker in a neon yellow vest came rolling up the street. Pushing a trash can with an enormous plastic bag full of trash set on top, she announced her arrival with a friendly, “Beep beep.” She stopped beside Omid and waited for a gap. One never came. “’Scuse me,” she said to no one in particular. “Comin’ through. ’Scuse me.” At first, her voice was sweet, but the longer she waited and the more people streamed past, the firmer her tone became. Finally she yelled, “Hey! You need to you move. I’m comin’.” Still, no one stopped.

A stranger emerged from the crowd and held out his hands to restrain the others. “Hold up one second,” he said in a booming voice, “someone’s coming through.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, her voice soft and genteel again. When she wheeled past, a rush of people filled the opening behind her like seawater in a tide pool, and somehow, in her wake, a tiny white Rite-Aid bag tumbled through the maze of tromping feet without hitting a single one.

“El pagar del oro!” yelled the man at Omid. “Low price, like for gold!”

Out of nowhere, a woman with long eyelash extensions and green reflective tights asked me, “What happened?”
“Robbery,” I said. “That place there.”

She looked across the street. “A robbery?”

“Two guys got away,” I said, “and one got shot.”

“Shot? He die?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

She squinted hard at the store then turned her head so fast that her thick braids twirled and draped across her shoulders. “That’s crazy. Glad he lived. Recession havin’ hard times out here.” As she walked up Broadway, the scent of perfume mixed with the stink of piss.

Beside me at Omid, a security guard stood by the door, hands in his pockets, white text on a black windbreaker announcing his position. A man stopped to ask the guard what happened.

The security guard smiled and shook his head. “No. No know.”

“You don’t know? You’re the security guard.”

The guard smiled again and looked at the man, and then at me. “No entiendo ingles.”

“No entiendo ingles?” The stranger stood close to the guard but leaned closer, staring hard through dark lifeless sunglasses as if he were about to reach out and push him. After a moment he said, “Uh, huh,” and walked off.

Behind him, a mother in a colorful headwrap walked by, telling her two young daughters: “It’s quiet. Look how quiet it is. Why’s it so quiet when somethin’ happens?”

After filming her segment, the Channel 5 news anchor slipped under the police tape and cut through the crowd. Wearing a skirt and pink sport coat, her stilettos were so sharp that she had to take tiny, stabby steps to maneuver. Outside of Omid, she paced around the sidewalk, making a spectacle of talking loudly into her phone as if she were some minor celebrity.

Once her cameraman arrived with his equipment, a Hassidim with a thick beard and a dark suit greeted them outside the store. He paused to point to the mezuzah on the doorframe. “Here is the scroll I mentioned.” The cameraman shot footage of the exterior and the scroll. Inside Omid, the anchor held her microphone over a glass case and asked an employee questions in a voice too low for me to hear. The guy next to me kept yelling “El pagar del oro!”

After the crew finished their interior shots, the bearded man led them outside and thanked them. “Okay,” the anchor said. “Thanks.” To her cameraman she said, “Great exteriors, too,” and brushed invisible fuzz off the front of her coat.

“Let me get a shot of this gentleman here,” the cameraman said as he aimed his camera at the security guard.

I scoot away to get out of the shot, and an older businessman and a young hip kid came from different directions and stepped beside me at the same time. The older man asked, “What happened?” I told him.

The young man listened and chewed his food. He had a small bouquet of flowers in one hand, wrapped in brown paper. “Wow,” he said, “shot in the back.”

I said, “That a pork bao?”

“Yeah, from up the street.”

The other man said, “Thanks for filling me in,” and left.

A young couple walked up, arm in arm. From their blissful smiles and wobbly sway, they looked like two lovers who’d been out drinking, even though it wasn’t even four o’clock. A police officer stood nearby, tearing down the yellow tape, and the couple asked him, “What happened?”

He wore dark Ray-Ban sunglasses and tugged at the tape with the delicacy of a bulldozer. “A robbery,” he said after a long pause. He wadded the tape into a ball in his hands, then he smiled. “Watch the news,” he said. “Watch the news.”

“Ah,” the young guy said, “thought someone got killed,” and squeezed his girlfriend around the waist. They tipped forward, like two jovial drunks, and walked up the street.

It turns out that two thieves dug a tunnel into Broadway Gold Center in February of 2011 and stole approximately $3 million dollars’ worth of jewelry. The store normally locked their merchandise in safes, but it took three hours to move the jewelry from the safes into the cases, and three hours to move it back, so on this night, they left the jewelry in sight. As one local jewelry store owner, Mahvash Zendedel, told CBS news after today’s heists: “This is very dangerous. Police, police we need help, more police here on the Broadway.”

The cop tugged at the tape, and as the rest of it came down, a surge of pedestrians streamed across Broadway, a river of living bodies rushing past me and the security guard and the gold. Cop cars and black sedans pulled away, falling into formation with the meticulous ease of migrating geese. Except for the group of detectives in suits outside L.A. Noosha, the intersection looked the same as it would on any other day. Cars passed unimpeded. Pedestrian traffic flowed, brisk and blasé, as if nothing had ever happened. People’s deadpan faces and the pulse of their lives erased evidence of the event, their feet scouring the scene of this day’s bloodshed, and the intersection of its fleeting significance, but not scouring it from memory, because with all the guns and money around, and the idea of the American cowboy, nothing can cleanse the certainty of the violence that lies ahead.

 

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