A Nostalgic Look Back to The Crier's 2006 Issues
A nostalgic look back to The Crier
Content is from the 2006 issues of the magazine's archived pages providing examples of what this site offered it readership.
Although this domain has changed hands several times, the new owners of the domain enjoyed reading The Crier magazine and did not want its literary footprint to totally disappear on the web. Thank you Christine Smallwood and Doree Shafrir for your labor of love which flared so briefly.
Last fall, Christine Smallwood and Doree Shafrir had an idea. Dissatisfied with the current crop of literary magazines and journals, they decided to start a new kind of magazine—one that would be smart, but not pretentious; timely and savvy, but not precious. The result is the Crier, an unconventional mix of stories on everything from art and culture to travel, science, and leisure.
In the Crier’s first issue you’ll find the real story behind New York’s High Line project, a tale of how fame, fortune and Debbie Harry had their way with the West Side; an essay on the Savage Rose, a forgotten hippie band that hailed from the liberal utopia that Denmark used to be; and the story of one food writer's lifelong quest to make her grandmother's biscotti—no easy task when the old lady refuses to give up the goods.
All that, and much more, from writers around the country who have been published in Salon, the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Independent, Slate, The Believer, the Village Voice, and The Nation.
The Crier commissions a different artist to illustrate each issue, making every one an especially fine addition to coffee tables, bookshelves, bathroom magazine racks, bedside tables, knapsacks, and both man- and lady-purses. Six inches wide and nine inches tall, the Crier is too large to fit in your back pocket, yet petite enough to read on the train. It’s a small magazine of big ideas.
About the Editors
Doree Shafrir is a freelance writer, and the former Arts and Entertainment Editor at Philadelphia Weekly. She holds a master's degree in arts and culture journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Brooklyn.
Christine Smallwood is Assistant Literary Editor at The Nation and a former staff writer at the Philadelphia Independent. She lives in Brooklyn, too.
Interview: David Freedlander
by Doree Shafrir
THE QUARTERLY REPORT
The Animal Kingdom
The Beasts Within; Dignan, A Life; The Kidnapped Camel
by Sarah Goldstein
In the Cuts
by Pete Segall
by Joshua Lewis
High and Mighty
by David Freedlander
The Cookie Monster
by Kirsten Henri
Books: Baby Mama Trauma
by Caitin Flanagan
Caitlin Flanagan's Loving and Loathing our Inner Housewives.
Music: Great Danes
by Brendan Graves
The Savage Rose remembered.
Film: Smiles for the Camera
by Christine Smallwood
A film star's smile lights up the screen
"We love this NYC based magazine because we love NY! Especially love the cultural articles, foodie reviews, and the lifestyle stories. But even the darker side serves its purpose - to warn us of the things that can go wrong in the Big Apple. Like the con man George Binakis who defrauds his victims by posing as a contractor. The story about the 70+ year old woman who was defrauded of over $65,000 is chilling but necessary information. She was led to trust & especially sympathize with George so deeply by his stories of his heart ailments - he supposedly had a pacemaker and was seeking additional treatments - that when he disappeared with her money, she was certain he had died or was suffering somewhere. She finally called George's brother, a real estate lawyer named Patrick Binakis to ask about how George was doing, fearing the worst. He told her that he had no contact with George, but when she mentioned the money, Patrick Paraskivas Binakis hung up her! Patrick then proceeded to tell others that he had little contact with his brother or that George was getting better. These conflicting stories plus the rude and unnecessarily hostile treatment by Patrick are what finally convinced her that something was fishy. And although there was no evidence that Patrick was complicit in the scam, his behavior suggests otherwise. The Crier was required reading at my house and will be sorely missed as a valuable resource for us New Yorkers who are always on the lookout for information to help us live the life we deserve!." Robin & West Slomin
David Freedlander author of “High and Mighty”
INTERVIEW by DOREE SHAFRIR
David Freedlander’s piece for The Crier on Manhattan’s abandoned rail line, “High and Mighty: How Fame, Fortune and Debbie Harry had Their Way With the West Side,” told the story of how the High Line went from eyesore to cause célèbre in a few short years. Doree Shafrir spoke to him about how he wrote the piece, what he thinks about where the High Line is going, and why you shouldn’t have to pay for a latte to find somewhere to read.
The Crier: How did you come up with the idea for the piece?
David Freedlander: I first heard about the High Line at an art show called “Plane of Heaven,” put on by a group called Creative Time. It was in a warehouse where the High Line ends—actually, it was a slaughterhouse. A real slaughterhouse. There were signs on the wall that looked like they’d been stained with blood, and all these promotional photos of families sitting around a dinner table piled high with meat. But there was a window in the place where you could look out onto the High Line. I ended up going there every weekend and walking around, just looking at the High Line. This was in October, and the area was in the news—the Jets stadium had just failed.
When I called Joshua David to find out more about the Friends of the High Line, he’d only consent to a phone interview, so I went to a Community Board meeting where I’d heard he’d be and tracked him down. I knew what he looked like from the Friends of the High Line website, where there was a society page photo of him at a benefit with his arms around Kevin Bacon and Diane von Furstenberg.
TC: Did you get seduced by the High Line’s mystique?
DF: It’s an amazing structure. It’s very out of place. You wouldn’t notice it unless someone pointed it out to you—it’s so weird that there’s this thing in Manhattan that got “discovered” just because people started noticing it. It’s a part of Manhattan that was still unclaimed and had been until this got going. And by unclaimed, I mean that it was practically off the grid.
As pleasant as Central Park is, it’s a fake, manufactured wilderness. When you’re on top of the High Line it’s not like that.
TC: What does it look like?
DF: It’s overgrown, wild. There are bushes, brambles, trees, and tall grass. The last train on the High Line was in 1980, and even before 1980, trains ran very infrequently. People I spoke to who’d lived there that long said they couldn’t remember any trains. But that may be because no one saw the High Line. It’s like people who live next to highways—they don’t notice the cars.
TC: How did you get up there?
DF: There are a few places you can sneak up, though they’re all getting closed off now. It used to be a lot easier to get up there, apparently.
TC: Tell me how you started working on the piece.
DF: I started reading everything that had been written about the High Line, and then I started calling everyone whose name appeared in the articles. There was this guy John di Domenico, who got an NEA grant to rethink the High Line in 1983. When I called him, he said, “You are really going back on this thing.”
TC: In your piece, you write that no one who lived along the High Line ever really appreciated its scope—they were only familiar with the piece they could see from their window. It seems as though the writing about the High Line was similar—people focused on little pieces but never on the structure as a whole.
DF: Yes, there were a lot of little stories, but people were never really getting the scope of the whole thing. There was a lot of stuff that was just reacting to something that had just happened in the news. Everyone I talked to said they wished they’d written the piece I was working on.
TC: What do you think about the work the Friends of the High Line did?
DF: What those guys did is really amazing and inspiring. They were very savvy; they pulled all the right strings. When a piece of unclaimed or undiscovered land in Manhattan gets claimed and discovered, there’s always something that gets lost. The High Line is going to be very designed, but it’s hard to lament that too much because it was probably inevitable. They’re killing it but I don’t think there was an alternative. Everything has to have some kind of economic or civic function to exist. There’s no room for uselessness.
TC: What do you think would have happened if Hammond and David had never met?
DF: It probably would have been torn down. Then again, tearing it down would have been such an undertaking. It’s hard to imagine them tearing down the whole thing. The argument against what they’re doing to it now was that West Chelsea is not going to be a low-slung neighborhood anymore, but there were going to be high-rise condos with or without the High Line. How successful it will be, or even how that’s judged, remains to be seen.
TC: Your piece highlights the power of power—that is, it seems that Hammond and David were able to get so much done because they were so well-connected. Do you think that made a difference?
DF: I think so. There was a confluence of city power happening at the right time for them. Mayor Bloomberg was spending more money on art and architecture, and Manhattan was becoming this kind of playground for the well-to-do. [Former City Council speaker] Gifford Miller and Hammond worked together. It’s how something like this happens. It’s a question of what parks are—if Central Park is the lungs of the city, then the High Line is the eyes, or something. It’s a promenade. I guess it’s a park for urban hipsters.
TC: You also write about the growing usage of public-private partnerships in parks.
DF: It’s amazing. Things have to have an economic benefit. It’s not something that city governments think they have to pay for as a public good. The public square has been replaced by the Business Improvement District. Public schools are becoming charter schools. There’s been a gradual decline in places where people can meet for free, where you don’t have pay $2.50 for a latte to sit there and read, because you need to find people to pay for it.
What a relatively obscure scientific theory has to say about how we live.
by Joshua Lewis
I was in the Union Square Barnes & Noble recently, on a mission to find a copy of The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. But because I didn’t know what section it was in (General Science? Technology? Computers?), it took me awhile, and of course as I stood there I was treated to a lecture from one of New York’s self-appointed professors. This one had the definite look of a guy who let his mind-expansion experiments wash him out of grad school in the ’70s, and he was beating his hapless friend over the head with his gee-whiz scientific ramblings. We’re talking about the kind of guy who’s really excited to tell you that because of quantum mechanics, man, it’s like we’re all molecules, and there’s something really Buddhist about the Hubble Deep Field, and … well, I tried to tune him out. I really did. But I’m a trained scientist—hypersensitive to the sort of apocalyptic generalizations that can come out of a ’60s-era Berkeley bachelor’s degree, a lot of weed and a subscription to Popular Science—and so I couldn’t help but listen.
It had a little synchronicity to it, as that guy no doubt would have put it, that I was there to get a copy of Ray Kurzweil’s latest book. Kurzweil is one of those maverick inventor types who’s bounced entrepreneurially all over the scientific and technical landscape—he’s the Kurzweil behind the Kurzweil synthesizers, he’s got an Artificial Intelligence company, and recently he’s been half of “Ray and Terry’s Longevity Products,” an online nutritional supplement business. He’s an inventor of the old school and he’s undeniably an incredibly smart guy. So when he offers up a theory about how the world works, you give him a chance to sell you. And over the last 10 years or so, he himself has become utterly sold on the idea that we’re headed toward the climax of our technological story, the apotheosis of our heroic tale of science. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, which came out in September, is his latest and most thorough book to present this claim. At 672 pages, it’s a huge doorstop, and the bluntness of its title hits you between the eyes—something big is coming. And soon.
As I hunted for it, Professor Burnout was on the other side of the Astronomy section, meandering his way to something like a point. “It’s all about getting past the human, right?” he said, poking his friend in the chest. “We’ve got—you know, animals have claws and fur and great ears and eyes and shit, and we’re—you know, we’ve got none of that. But we’ve got this”—he corkscrewed his finger at his skull—“so we’ve evolved to learn all this stuff, and we can make tools and we can see all this stuff and discover all this stuff and then we become … more than human.”
There I was, pulling a book off the shelf about how we’re gong to become more than human, and the crazy guy at B&N was right on Kurzweil’s wavelength. Wheels within wheels, man.
The idea of transcending our human, all-too-human selves is not exactly a new idea. In fact, it may well be the oldest idea of all. For most of human history, though, it’s been the sole purview of religious belief and practice. Modern science defined itself exactly by its open-endedness—unlike traditional closed religious systems, its answers are not in the back of the book—and by its detachment from any notion of the human. The ideal scientist was an all-seeing eye and an all-reasoning brain: passionless, collected, and logical, a mere vessel through which truth is revealed by experimentation and intuition.
As a result, the End of the World As We Know It has not historically been a major science question, except in the sort of distant, irrelevant-to-me future when the sun burns out or the universe collapses in on itself. If people think about science and technology causing the end of the world, it’s in the sense of Science Gone Horribly Wrong, scenarios in which we’re punished for our technological hubris: nuclear war, environmental devastation, mutants fighting to the death in some sort of giant Thunderdome.
The last hundred years, however, have given rise to ever more attempts to apply scientific understanding to our inner world (in addition to our outer world)—and with that has come ever more pervasive technologies of the self. Some of this is familiar and relatively mundane—eyeglasses, pacemakers, vaccinations, facelifts. In the last 30 years, though, our ideas of self-transformation have begun to work at more fundamental levels—genetic engineering, nanoengineering, brain modeling—and the dream of remaking ourselves in our own image. As the man said, we have the technology We can make you better, stronger, faster.
The Singularity is the purported culmination of this tale of achievement over nature. Put simply, it represents the moment when computer engineering, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering come together and create an artificial entity that has the intellectual power of a human being, and the speed, efficiency, and power of a machine. A “thinking machine” similar to humans, it would think and act faster than us, and thus design and build its successor. Once that happens, that machine creates another, and another, and this happens so fast that we humans can’t even comprehend it. At that moment we cross a Singularity, a point beyond which we are unable to keep up with the changes propagated by our artificial creations, and all our ideas about the world become irrelevant—we are literally incapable of predicting what happens next. Ray Kurzweil and a few other major scholars argue that such a transformation is due to hit in about 40 years.
It’s not all bad after the Singularity. Humans won’t control their world, but we will get to frolic in a Lawnmower Man-like playground of full-immersion virtual reality—with totally replaceable and modifiable bodies, and disease- and decay-free environs—secure in the knowledge that we’ve got it good. There’s a fear, of course, that our children will rise up like Zeus and make us, like Cronos, irrelevant, impotent and left behind. Kurzweil, though, guarantees that we’ll be able to get all our parts replaced and our brains enhanced, and thus join the reindeer games of our posthuman overlords.
To read the conclusion of “Singularity Sensation,” and the rest of Issue 1 of The Crier, subscribe now.
High and Mighty
How fame, fortune and Debbie Harry had their way with the West Side.
by David Freedlander
One day in 1999, as Joshua David walked the streets of Chelsea, he noticed a strange railway 30 feet in the air. Resting on steel girders, it ran in the middle of city blocks, cut through buildings, and sat above low-rise warehouses, auto-body shops, and other pieces of urban detritus on Manhattan’s forgotten Far West Side. David, a freelance travel writer, was working on an article for the glossy City magazine about Chelsea, a Manhattan neighborhood in the midst of changing from a gritty, industrial area into a glitzy, residential one. An incongruous mix of galleries and loud, pumping clubs were moving into the huge warehouse spaces abandoned by manufacturers.
David had lived in the neighborhood for over a decade, but had never given much thought to the undistinguished, rusting structure. He asked people he was interviewing if they knew anything about it, but none of them had thought much about it, either. It was just part of the landscape.
If anything it was a nuisance. Running mid-block between 10th and 11th avenues, it cut off views of the Hudson River for those living on its eastern side. The sliver of sidewalk below was always in shadow, and it was home to thousands of pigeons who relieved themselves on pedestrians as they passed underneath.
Like most New Yorkers, David knew his city in concentric circles—the street he lived on, the blocks to and from the subway, the hike to the nice grocery store, the rings spreading outwards with diminishing degrees of familiarity. The High Line, as the structure was called, cut against this circular logic; it ran north-south for 22 unencumbered bocks. Those who lived in the area only knew the piece of the line in front of their window.
As he walked north, David came to realize the true scale of the structure. “The thing that captivated me about it was that there wasn’t a break in it,” he explained one evening over martinis at Florent, the Meatpacking District diner. “You could go from Gansevoort to 34th Street without stopping. It was this closed, invisible place no one had been.”
By now the story of how Friends of the High Line saved the structure from certain demolition has become accepted urban popular wisdom, and its founders, David and Robert Hammond, have become internationally recognized symbols of can-do civic spirit. But the High Line almost didn’t make it. When David and Hammond first teamed up to save the railway, after randomly meeting at a community board meeting and soon after David’s fateful walk through the far reaches of his neighborhood, it was incredibly close to being torn down. Chelsea Property Owners, a group that was basically a front for Edison Properties, the New Jersey-based developers who made their fortune on parking lots and mini-storage spaces, had been advocating to demolish the trestle and fill the open space with buildings. For years, they had been talking with area businesses and homeowners, most of whom also favored taking the wrecking ball to the High Line, as did the Giuliani administration.
Neither Hammond nor David had much political organizing experience, but they weren’t total neophytes. David had been tangentially involved in the gay rights movement when he first moved to the city in the mid-’80s, and Hammond had worked as a fund-raiser for his old Princeton buddy and soon-to-be City Council speaker Gifford Miller. Hammond and David also happened to be extremely smart, savvy and charming. And they were both looking for something to devote their boundless energy to. David was burning out of the constant grind of travel writing and Hammond was a freelance dot-commer at the tail end of the boom. They were ready for the challenge.
Today, Hammond holds the title of executive director of the organization; he’s the public face and does the political outreach. David talks to the press and works with the community board. Their skills are complementary—Hammond is the visionary, the impulsive one; David has the historical view and briefs staffers about the changing dynamics of Chelsea and the West Village. David is the thoughtful one, methodical, and with his thick glasses and thinning hair perpetually sticking up from the back of his head, he seems not unlike the smart spastic kid in elementary school who mellows out as he gets older. Hammond is the ultra-hipster, who gave up a financial career to try his hand at painting. Usually sporting skinny ties and dress shirts with homemade designs, Hammond is moody and earnest. With David’s glossy magazine background and Hammond’s business background, both are equally adept at knowing what makes someone sign on to the cause and, more important, contribute money. Each knew he needed the other—the High Line was way too much of a long shot for one person to tackle alone.
“It became clear that this structure was not going to save itself,” David said. “What upset me about it was that in the tradition of Penn Station, something was going to be torn down and it didn’t have a chance to be examined. This was going to be demolished and no one would say a peep about it.”
To read the conclusion of “High and Mighty,” and the rest of Issue 1 of The Crier, subscribe now.
The Cookie Monster
by KRISTEN HENRI
Making grandma’s biscotti is no easy task with the old lady refuses to give up the goods.
If I told you this was a story about my grandmother and baking, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be a heartwarming tale of familial warmth, with lots of treacly bits about how I learned something about my purpose in life through the magic of cookie dough.
If you were picturing a Rockwellian tableau of a little girl on tiptoe pouring a cup of flour into a bowl as a snowy-haired woman looks on, I wouldn’t blame you. I’d understand if you were expecting to hear adorable details about my grandmother. How she’s both wizened and wise. How she comforted me with bowls of homemade chicken soup when I was ill as a child. How the smell of her chocolate chip cookies filled the house every afternoon when I came home from school. Then you’d be prepared for the denouement—how I cast out all of my modern kitchen tools in favor of baking with the newly discovered measuring cup in my heart.
Kitchen stories are supposed to end happily, with the easy-to-make recipe wrapped in a tidy lesson for the soul. Even in stories in which the chef-protagonist wrestles with kitchen disaster after disaster, he always emerges victorious, the world’s most perfect pizza, roast chicken, or chocolate soufflé in hand. You, the reader and amateur cook, are thereby enticed to embark on his self-same project of finding inner peace while impressing company.
This is not that story.
Picture a grandmother. She is wizened, yes, and also wise. She’s also very short. But personality-wise, she is not short at all. She is from southern Italy and at 78, the few stray wisps of hair on her chin have evolved into a full and surprisingly bristly beard. She is not a squishy grandmother. Her Old World love comes in fiery bursts.
My grandmother has lived in America for 50 years, nearly twice the time she spent in Italy. And yet she still speaks in a verbal strew of her own invention. Not quite English, no longer the rococo Italian that spills over with delectably tubby vowels, this is a personal Esperanto complete with its own grammar and mangled pronunciation of the letter “H.” Having grown up in her house, I am fluent in this non-language, which along with my status as only grandchild makes me the ideal translator of her recipes—according to me, anyway.
For years, I fantasized about my grandmother and I side by side over a hot stove, she transmitting her secret ingredients and special techniques to me, her willing pupil. Perhaps I was genetically programmed to know how to make pasta from scratch! I would soak up generations of earthy Italian cookery, drawing out tablespoons and folklore in equal measurements, and transcribing it all for posterity.
But mostly I wanted to learn to cook from my grandmother because her recipes exist only in her head. Even though she’s in good health, she’s still one broken hip away from taking my entire culinary history to the grave. For years I’ve lived in fear of her suddenly dropping dead without ever knowing how she makes taralli.
I’ve never learned how to make my grandmother’s recipes because my grandmother doesn’t want to teach me. To be fair, she also does not want to teach you. She doesn’t want to teach anybody.
To read how Kirsten Henri finally convinced her grandmother to teach her how to make taralli, and to see the recipe for yourself, subscribeto The Crier now!
Baby Mama Trauma
Loving and loathing Caitlin Flanagan.
By Izzy Grinspan
To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife
By Caitlin Flanagan
Hardcover: 272 pages
Little, Brown, $22.95
I love Caitlin Flanagan. Love her. Like most women who appreciate living in a time that doesn’t require us to memorize meatloaf recipes, I can’t say that I agree with her politics, but that’s never dampened my adoration.
I’ve been in this state before. At lunchtime in college, I’d race off to the cafeteria, eager to get my hands on the latest newspaper column by a certain gray-suited, perpetually smirking fellow student who was best known for his claim that homosexuality was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. My friends, liberals like most of the student body, loved him as much as I did. Here’s why: A dirty little rumor claimed the he didn’t believe a word of his own punditry. If this story was true, then his bi-weekly 2,000 words about the divine wisdom of the Republican Party didn’t stem from his right-wing convictions; they were instead the product of simple creative genius, and we couldn’t help but marvel at the skill with which he executed his craft. Once, overcome with fury and passion at a particularly virtuoso performance, a boy at my table dashed across the room and flung himself into the columnist’s lap.
Nothing compares to the needling pleasure of reading someone who says all the wrong things in exactly the right way. A collection of revised essays Flanagan published in the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife is ostensibly about housewives and their role in American culture. The book is that rare thing—a polemic that’s most fun for those who disagree with the author wholeheartedly. Sometimes, as when Flanagan argues that marriage obligates constant sexual availability on the part of the wife, I suspect she’s joking. But the real point of Flanagan is never just her provocations; it’s the dexterity with which she executes them.
Flanagan calls herself an anti-feminist—she once told the New York Observer that “feminism and homophobia” were her two pet peeves—and most of her essays prove her right. Essentially, men’s tragic inability to do housework means that the sexual revolution was a bust. (I’m not generalizing. With Flanagan, all gender issues boil down to innate sex-specific cleaning skills, as if the knowledge of how to fold a bath towel correctly were coded on the second X chromosome.)
A long piece in Ms. Magazine in 2004 laid out exactly what’s troubling about Flanagan: As the go-to girl on gender for two of our most respected magazines, she uses her elevated platform to attack feminism from a thousand roundabout angles, always carefully excusing herself from the demographic she’s trashing. She’s not a working mother, her two children and New Yorker contract notwithstanding. But she is a humble housewife, despite the fact that she has a housekeeper to do most of the work around the home. In short, she’s a bit of a weasel.
But the way she weasels! Flanagan’s formula combines three parts cogent social analysis with one part screed about the failures of feminism. Citing June Cleaver, Flanagan looks at the way the 1950s housewife has become a metonym for the oppression of women, from movies like Far From Heaven to those greeting cards that smugly ask us to congratulate ourselves on not knowing how to cook. But of course June Cleaver’s era was actually rather short: “The Feminine Mystique was published within 20 years of V-J Day,” Flanagan reminds us.
In other words, whether or not Cleaver enjoyed cooking a roast every night, the perfect housewife who holds down a freshly scrubbed nuclear family is not natural, but historical. Our reference points for women’s roles in and out of the home shouldn’t begin in the 20 years after World War II. All right, you think. Flanagan’s making sense. But within sentences she announces that this short-lived blip on the gender timeline is in fact that model by which we should all live. Gotcha again. Flanagan is a master of the bait-and-switch.
To read more about Caitlin Flanagan’s theories on housework and Izzy Grinspan’s tortured relationship with her rhetoric, subscribe to The Crier today.
FALL 2006 ISSUE
Interview: Brendan Greaves
By Christine Smallwood
THE QUARTERLY REPORT
On the Border
Working Vacation, The Other Side, Standing on Ceremony, Out of this World
By Kim Brooks
By Adam Federman
A Photo essay.
By Heather Culp, Anna Wolf and Brigitte Sire.
By Angela Valdez
By the writers of Freedarko.com
A Series of Collages.
By Dan Keenan
Desperately Seeking Dave Chappelle
By Maureen Tkacik
Reading Laura Kipnis.
By Izzy Grinspan
Walton Ford at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
By Rebecca Onion
Mark Leckey’s Drunken Bakers.
By William Pym
An old sermon warns of the dangers of going too fast.
By Brendan Greaves
The Tallest Man in the World, All-Inclusive
By Thomas Marquet
The Fourth Foer
By Mark Sorkin
Brendan Greaves author of "Camel Ride"
INTERVIEW by CHRISTINE SMALLWOOD
The Crier: When did you first learn about the Black Camel of Death?
Brendan Greaves: Because I suffer from a record-collecting addiction in its advanced stages—a dysfunction that led me to quit my job and enroll in a folklore graduate program—I picked up a discounted interweb-special copy of Dust-to-Digital’s lavish Goodbye, Babylon box set last year. Among box sets, it has the semantic distinction of being housed in an actual wooden box (ordered, I hear, from a high-end wine-shipping company) stuffed with cotton. The book is laid out in the wide format of a traditional shape-note singing hymnal, which is almost twice as wide as it is high. It’s a packaging and marketing gimmick, sure, but an effective one, I think, in light of the depth of scholarly research in the liner notes. As far as I know, it’s the best and broadest collection of pre-WWII gospel currently in print, and the sixth CD contains only recorded sermons. “The Black Camel of Death” struck me immediately as the strangest one, the most metaphorically out there.
TC: What inspired you to write about it?
BG: Really I was trying to gear up for graduate school, to throw myself back into the research paradigm—something I was able to avoid in a curatorial role at an art gallery, where I was generally writing about vernacular and contemporary artists about whom not much has been written, at least academically speaking. There was the sense—probably foolish—that we were making it up as it happened. The field of musicology is an entirely different situation, and basically I was curious to delve into material with which I wasn’t too familiar. I have a longstanding interest in American vernacular music, including African-American gospel, but the recorded sermon was fairly foreign to me as a specific phenomenon in pre-War sacred music. Also, I was trying to impress my girlfriend.
TC: You did a fair bit of research and came up with some new ideas about the meaning of the Black Camel. How did you go about writing this story?
BG: I think I was more interested in uncovering and sorting old ideas about the black camel metaphor rather than developing new ones per se. I did some preliminary interweb research, which I tried to substantiate with more reliable, stable sources. There’s a lot of writing out there, folkloristic and otherwise, about American gospel music, from George Pullen Jackson through Kip Lornell. However, stupid me, I only realized after the article had gone to press that the David Evans who I (mildly) criticized for his analysis of “The Black Camel of Death” was in fact the David Evans, a very well-regarded academic musicologist. He’s done quite a lot of important work with Delta blues and is a close friend of my professor and mentor here at UNC, Bill Ferris.
TC: What other Black Camel-like tropes were popular in Southern Christian preaching in the late 1920s, when Reverend J. Milton recorded his speech?
BG: I know animal metaphors were popular—the donkey, the boll weevil, and the sheep all appear. Most are at least indirectly related to scripture though. There’s nothing quite like the camel that I’ve heard.
TC: You write about how recording technology changed the practice of religion. Do you think that video technology has had a similar effect? Are there any parallels between the culture of recorded sermons and the culture of televangelism that held sway in America in the 1980s?
BG: Actually, it’s funny you ask—the other day a friend of mine, a North Carolina Lumbee Indian who has done some work with local Native American Protestant churches and their praise music, showed me an interpretive video sermon that got me thinking. Basically, an English clergyman (I don’t know his denomination) had taken an African-American audio sermon out of Texas—entitled, if I remember correctly, “The King of Kings,” a powerful piece of parallelism and subtle humor—and composed a visual component to accompany it. This video piece was essentially a kind of bricolage of evangelical internet clip art, heavily-effected photographic images meant to evoke the majesty of nature. I agreed with my friend Jeff that these hackneyed and patently unnatural images were remarkably ineffective compared to the audio portion of the sermon heard alone. (It didn’t help that the only human beings featured were white folks, which didn’t quite make sense with the sermon’s message, author or audience.) Jeff’s brother, a Baptist preacher, also agreed. Apparently, this is a big development in sermonizing, and there are online databases of audio sermons and these Powerpoint preachers, of which I was totally unaware. Televangelism seems to be on the wane since its `80s heyday, but it’s obviously still a major force, especially in the South. The difference to me lies in the audience—most television programs include a revival setting with a large, visible, participatory studio audience, whereas most early recorded sermons had only an imaginary audience.
TC: Were there differences between northern and southern sermons at the time? That is, is there something uniquely southern as well as uniquely American about the Camel, and if so, what?
BG: Northern and Southern gospel music, a category which includes recorded sermons, certainly developed along divergent trajectories. A big part of Southern gospel resulted from the influence and subsequent agrarian isolation of Northern popular forms, like shape-note singing, as disseminated by William Billings and others, and composers and itinerant singing-school teachers. So Southern gospel involved both a survival and reconfiguration of more archaic, once-Northern forms abandoned as “degraded” or “impure,” and hybrid forms, incorporating popular music, blues, hillbilly, ballads, etc. Also, there was a larger black population in the South and arguably, a more diverse set of denominations with more emphasis on a personal, ecstatic communion with the divine—particularly sanctified, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions. The African influence on Southern Christianity cannot be overlooked. So Southern sermons tend toward the more syncretic, arcane, and metaphorically weighted, less dependent on normative Christian or Biblical dogma, and I think the Camel is a product of that tendency. After WWII, American gospel music, white and black alike, changed dramatically, rapidly secularizing and commercializing, and the South nurtured the bulk of publishing houses, which sponsored most tours and recordings. That isn’t a negative assessment, just a general trend; any purist concerns about the mirage of “authenticity” dissolve upon close inspection. We still see exciting emergent styles in gospel: for example, the recent boom in African-American sacred steel guitar gospel, wherein the voice is largely replaced by the vocalizing pedal steel guitar, an instrument historically (though wrongly) identified exclusively with white country music.
TC: What are some other memorable sermons that readers interested in your piece might want to seek out and try to hear?
BG: I would suggest checking out that sixth CD of the Goodbye, Babylon set. J.M. Gates’ “Death Will Be Your Santa Claus” is a favorite of mine. I’m getting into white indie-label gospel c. 1980 right now. I can’t necessarily dig the music itself, which is even described on one record I found the other day as “Just Plain Vanilla Singin’,” but the cover art is truly bizarre, at once formulaic and surreal. That’s going to be an upcoming paper, I think…
TC: Your piece concludes that Milton, whether or not he was aware of it, appropriated wholesale a metaphor—the Black Camel—from an entirely distinct culture—Arab Islam—as filtered through Victorian British society. To be blunt: So what? What does it matter that Milton lifted the image, especially if he didn’t know he was doing it?
BG: Well, this is a question of intentionality—the big one—and I think that cultural critics need to address that issue, of course, but there is another side to the coin. It’s important to consider how ideas are disseminated and diffused—or independently invented—throughout time and space. The centrality of identity and intentionality necessarily excludes the analysis of a large body of work by subaltern artists engaged with what I would call vernacular modernism. Without getting too theoretical here, the concept of primacy or originality in expressive culture and even the notion of intentionality can be considered Western hegemonic constructs, along with primitivism. As a folklorist, what interests me more than creation is re-creation, the myriad negotiations of constructed tradition, authority, and authenticity. The point is not who thought up what first, but what does this artifact mean to us now. Any artist—and J.M. Milton was certainly an artist—is necessarily involved in a complex negotiation of the tactics of expressivity. What I would propose rather than a “trickling-down” or “trickling-up” model between the ugly and imagined dichotomous divide between “folk” and “fine,” “vernacular” and “academic,” “self-taught” and “trained,” “popular” and “elite” aspects of culture is a more fluid, eddying back-and-forth flow of visual, sonic, and linguistic information and influence, something more in keeping with modernity. “Appropriation” is just another word for living in the context of modernity. We have this sermon now, made available to most any American who wants it, via a public library, the internet, The Crier, or a record store. So what do we do when we meet “The Black Camel of Death”? What does it mean to us, now? How did this metaphor reach us?
TC: Speaking of the popular… Do you think the makers of Camel cigarettes had any idea of the secret significance of their chosen symbol?
BG: No, I can’t imagine they did. Remember, the Camel I encountered in that Avalon bus was rusted almost beyond recogni tion. The regular Camel cigarettes mascot is a khaki or beige shade, not black. And that snout…
Desperately Seeking Dave Chappelle
The one I found wasn’t the one my editor was looking for.
by Maureen Tkacik
The first thing I did when I got to Yellow Springs, Ohio, population 3,665, in August 2005 was make a deal with the kids who lorded over the pile of skateboards, cell phones, plastic bags, and Hold ’Em cards on the corner outside Dino’s Cappuccinos. From the 50 percent they’d been asking I negotiated them down to 10—they called them “points”—of the $2-a-word cover story I had been, technically, assigned. The fee was, I said, crossing my fingers behind my back, strictly a “finder’s fee”—it wasn’t like I would be paying for an interview, since the kids seemed to have zero insight into what had made the most recognizable resident of the state, television-star-in-exile Dave Chappelle, leave a $50 million deal and everything, as my editor had put it, “he’d chased his whole life.”
Was he crazy? I asked. Well, yes, but he was crazier for listening to that whack-ass non-commercial hip-hop he’d been blasting from his Toyota. Hahahahahahahahaha.
And his sister Felicia, she used to teach them drama classes, but now she didn’t, and also she had begun wearing a Muslim head scarf, no word on whether the two of those things were related either. Hahahahahahahahaha.
Yellow Springs likes to smoke weed. A kid on my plane to Dayton, a kid who lived two hours away in Kentucky, had advised me as much about Yellow Springs, and how I might order a high-inducing pizza here. Beyond smoking, Yellow Springs also likes to do yoga, don tie-dye, dance like the white people in that one sketch with John Mayer (although you could see how that had gotten a little played out at this point), bike through the nature reserve, Tivo Six Feet Under, and participate in online political activism, even though everyone in the Yellow Springs branch of any online campaign here undoubtedly sees one another twice a day at Dino’s.
Dino’s was the unofficial headquarters of Operation Chappelle. It was at Dino’s, to the sounds of M.I.A.’s “Bucky Done Gone,” that I learned that Antioch University, the big employer in Yellow Springs, had been at the forefront of the civil rights movement, which made the town improbably diverse and strangely conflicted over race and politics. The whites had, it turned out, organized a Mumia Abu-Jamal rally; the blacks disapproved of Mumia and didn’t want to get involved. This was about as heated as tensions get in Yellow Springs, which is as lovely a place one can raise kids who still retain the right to complain of nothing to do. Dave’s late father, an Antioch music professor, had co-founded an institute to combat racism, which as a kid Dave found profoundly pointless in a place like Yellow Springs. At 14 Dave moved from here to his mom’s house in D.C., which had the same relationship to crack as Yellow Springs did to weed, and within a year he was performing at the Comedy Cellar, wooing D.C. crowds and telling D.C. jokes. He didn’t think too much of Yellow Springs in those years, except to make fun of it or occasionally make fun of his own interactions in it.
In general Dave told people he was from D.C. because he felt he had earned that. While his alpha classmates risked their lives stupidly selling crack, Dave deliberately put his dignity on the line every night in front of the hard old-heads of the comedy business. He bombed once, at the Apollo in Harlem, and took an apprenticeship with the Washington Square street comedian Charlie Barnett, and by the time he was 18 he had earned the right to forget Yellow Springs forever.
Ten years later, though, Dave returned and, to his own surprise, kind of liked the place. It was weird and peculiar and, in its way, understood him. His father was dying, and his television career sat stalled in meetings over the inclusion of additional white cast members. He was 28, twice the age at which he’d started doing stand-up, and the old singularity of purpose was gone; in fact, he had begun to suspect it had never been there in the first place. So he fired his manager Barry Katz, the former owner of Boston Comedy Club (which is actually in New York City), and took up with the former Boston doorman Neal Brennan, the youngest of 10 Irish-Catholic Philly kids who suffered fools even less charitably than Dave. And he bought a house on a farm and called it the “Fuck Hollywood House.” Every day at the Fuck Hollywood House he’d drive to Dino’s for his coffee and the New York Times and to smoke American Spirits in the back. Some days he and his wife Elaine would have beers at the adjacent Ye Olde Trail Tavern. The day I showed up in Yellow Springs, they appeared to be strolling aimlessly down Xenia Boulevard, bathed in sunlight.
“He’s here!” the black kid from Cincinnati, the group’s lead negotiator, hissed.
“I’m kind of trying to avoid the media right now,” he said, after bumming a cigarette. “I mean, that’s sort of the whole point.”
To read the conclusion of “Desperately Seeking Dave Chappelle,” and the rest of Issue 2 of The Crier, subscribe now.
Walton Ford’s Animal Paintings come to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Walton Ford’s Animal Paintings come to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
In 1833, John James Audubon tried to paint a golden eagle, but he had trouble killing the bird. The explorer, classifier, and sometimes-artist tried electricity and poisonous smoke, but to no avail; he finally succeeded in sticking the bird through the heart with a straight piece of steel. In a New York magazine article 179 years later, the painter Walton Ford described wanting to make a response painting. “My picture will have the eagle trying to escape, the fox trap on its leg, this horrible burning smoke coming out of its mouth. It’ll be thinking, Like, what the fuck do I have to do to get away from this asshole?”
This November, more than 50 of Ford’s large-scale watercolors will be on display
at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Even those unfamiliar with Ford will quickly pick up on the strained, practically tortured, relationship he has to 19th century naturalists. It’s no surprise, really, that an anti-imperialist painter of birds and animals would pit himself against those who sketched and categorized the flora and fauna of the “new” North American continent. But while there are few explicitly Audubon-derived images in Ford’s oeuvre, Delirium (2004), inspired by this incident with the golden eagle, is one remarkable example. On its own it would merit the voyage to Brooklyn.
Ford doesn’t have to be in direct dialogue with America’s most famous naturalist to fill his canvases with tortured creatures of all shapes and sizes. Take Nila(1999-2000). Broken into 22 rectangles of different sizes, each framing a portion of the larger watercolor, it depicts the eponymous Indian elephant under siege. Birds perch on every part of him. A rooster balances on his sawed-off tusk. An owl crouches on his shoulder blades. A turkey vulture sits on his rump. A flock of European starlings ride him like barnacles on a whale; two copulate on his distended, grotesque penis. And along the bottom of it all, Ford’s spidery handwriting spells out the scientific names of the bird and animal actors.
Nila is indisputably sublime, inducing terror and glee—terror in the romantic sublime sense, expressed through the concrete precision of Ford’s draftsmanship, the dazzle of Nila’s corrugated trunk and the gloss of the birds’ haughty feathers; glee in the childlike sense, with a superabundance of detail, the giddy, dawning realization that each of the panels is separate, and separately named (“Nostalgia,” “Crack of Dawn,” “Premonitions of midnight,” The Abbë’s revenge”), the viewer reveling in the delight of spindly drawings and notations on empty spaces that hold even more mysteries. This is the glee of the archivist, or the curious kid who just read a bunch of Nancy Drews and is now poking around in her grandma’s attic, about to pull out the box of old yellow letters—a clue.
To read the conclusion of “Wild Things ,” and the rest of Issue 2 of The Crier, subscribe now.
Resurrecting Reverent J.M. Milton’s Forgotten Sermon.
by Brendan Greaves
When I was 10—or around then, it’s hard to remember—I died in a car accident. Or so I heard during one gray Sunday mass, when a muttering deacon solemnly pronounced me dead in prayer, the casualty of a few bigger boys more duly departed in a true crash. My parents weren’t there, so no one noticed that I was in fact alive and well, squirming in the pew, an unlikely companion for a sedan full of drunk teenagers. It
was a dull shock—no triumphant Tom Sawyer moment—and I never figured out if it was
a morbid joke on the part of my classmates or an honest mistake. (Shortly after my “accident,” I won a MADD-sponsored poster contest, sanctioned by my Catholic elementary school, with a gory drawing of a young man splayed over the blood-drenched hood of a crushed yellow Corvette.) In college, I narrowly survived a wintry wreck on Christmas Eve, pried from my father’s Geo with the Jaws of Life and airlifted to Boston Medical with several broken ribs, one of which had punctured my right lung, filling it with blood. But it was a bus that finally buried me.
The Black Camel of Death found me first in autumn, in a school bus in Avalon, Mississippi. There is no sign for Avalon Road, and I’m no navigator, but I’ve managed to find the spot twice in as many years, on two separate pilgrimages to bluesman Mississippi John Hurt’s grave. The dirt road rises sharply from the edge of the Delta, winding into the kudzu-bruised hills above the river’s furthest fingers aching eastward. The Hurt family plot, when you finally stumble upon it, resembles not so much a graveyard as a forest clearing
faintly hiding its dead beneath untidy ridges. Of the dozen or so knolls, many remain unmarked, while others have been planted with placards, faded into obscurity, or folded into tin signposts like those found in botanical gardens. John Hurt’s resting place is a sturdy stone slab littered with guitar picks, a few stunted candles, a cracked CD or two, and once, oddly, a hand of sodden Pokémon cards.
The bus in question, entombed a good 50 yards from Hurt’s grave, is no longer roadworthy in the functional sense but, swallowed up to its yawning emergency doors in an embankment, it is perhaps love-worthy. On my first visit, I noted it but rolled on by. On my second visit months later, the crows sniping at a clutch of rotting fish just outside somehow emboldened me. Stepping through its exposed rear maw into the thick heat, I quickly realized, despite the darkness of soil beyond the windows, that it was a short bus, maybe a ’50s model, sufficient for a rural community, but cozily coffin-like in its present subterranean setting. Inside, among the uprooted seats and drifts of detritus, I came across an old Camel cigarettes sign, the dromedary silhouette blacked out with rust. A simple advertisement, darkened with age, the ruined image remains as vivid to me as the cemetery destination itself, somehow as attuned to death as Hurt’s humble hole outside. Its silence was blaringly appropriate after hours of listening to Mississippi John’s music—itself so keenly familiar
with mortality—on the car stereo driving south.
Not so silent was the preacher who, over seven decades before my encounter, warned his faithful of the inexorable coming of the Black Camel.
Ahh, we’re going to speak now from the subject: the Black Camel’s Death, travels in the path of misunderstanding. The locomotive engineer misunderstood his message. Fails to take the siding, and the Black Camel of Death meets him and others, ah, swept into the judgment. There are many passengers and the engineers all gone to the judgment by failing to understand—Black Camel’s Death pulled him into eternity.
The fast driver of a car, the auto car, sees the curves and the signals and fails to understand the dangers. He rides on in a hurry. He’s in such a hurry—the faster he goes, the faster he wants to go. `Til he meets another fast-going car right around the curve. And it goes on a head on collision and the Black Camel Death meets them in the path of misunderstanding and into the judgment he goes. Oh yes, that loving wife, he fails to understand her, and she goes her own route, and by and by it winds up, ah, in dissatisfaction and death, because the Black Camel Death got on the trail, and so with a flying machine, the man that jets in the air and flies away like a bird and goes way over towards the ocean and the seas, take a long journey, fails to put enough oil in his machine, and fails to put enough gas in his machine, and he goes on flyin’, and by and by into some hamlet into some wilderness he’s going down, and we’ll see him no more. Black Camel Death that met him.
I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Yes, I got good religion, my Lord.
Well, I got good religion, oh my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, well I’m checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Well, you better get your ticket my Lord.
Well you better get your ticket, oh my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, well, I’m checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.