A literary and photo journal of New York City neighborhoods. Issue No. 1 - Summer 2017. Alexandra Bildsoe . Sean Damlos-Mitchell . Robert Englebright . Emily Fishman Ben Janse . Andrew Jimenez . Jason Koo . Isaac Myers III . Alison Rodriguez
â€œThey broke free of the swirling cloud mass finally and came out into a calm, clear sky. It was weird, a bizarre world of intense cold and dazzling light which seemed disconnected from all things on earth.â€? Fred Bosworth - Last of the Curlews.
CURLEW QUARTERLY. Issue No. 1 – Summer 2017. DUMBO Market Report .....................................................................................................................6. Prospectus ..........................................................................................................................................11. When you live in New York, you live within the belly of the beast. When you fly into the city, and glance over at the Manhattan skyline, and feel the pulsating rhythms, you know just what the city is saying: “I dare you,” and “Give me all that you’ve got.” It’s King Supreme. Number One. Numero Uno, and it knows it. You don’t mess with New York. Moving Day - Alison Rodriguez – Over the River and Through the Woods ....................................12. “When my husband told me that we had to move to New York City, I cried. Not the tears of joy that you might be assuming would greet the announcement that we would be moving to arguably (not arguably) the greatest city in the world. Not tears of anticipation or elation, not tears of happiness or excitement. Tears, through racking sobs, of sorrow.” Profile – Isaac Myers III – The Man from Peakin, Illinois................................................................60. “Robert Englebright moved from Chicago to New York in 1999. His first apartment was in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. By the time the millennium turned, he had spent over a decade learning and practicing the craft of commercial photography. This fall he’ll be fifty-eight. He has broad shoulders and a strong handshake, and wears blacked-rimmed glasses that he often pairs with a black ball-cap or an ascot hat, which he takes off whenever he hears a thought or a phrase that catches his interest.” Books – Andrew Jimenez – Michael Woodsworth’s The Battle for Bed-Stuy .................................116. “It’s easy to be cynical about the effectiveness of grassroots organizing and the power of local politics when participatory democracy is measured in small donations facilitated by multi-national banks, who are happy to charge service fees on each transaction, and the recent liberal successes of marriage equality and healthcare were fought on the federal level — and won only after receiving moral blessings from corporate America.” Fiction - Ben Janse – Abscond!........................................................................................................136. “There was a new exhibit at the Whitney. James Franco had already brought in his students to see the work. The Nepalese guard had stopped him initially. The news had made the rounds and everyone had a good laugh. Of course then the head curator came down and gave James’ class the tour, even though it wasn’t yet open.” Poetry – Sean Damlos-Mitchell - “Ext. / Int.” & “Int. / Ext.” ........................................................162. Poetry – Jason Koo – “Morning, Motherfucker” & “I’ll Follow You” ............................................216. Photography – Emily Fishman...............................................................................Cover-59 & 114-211. Photography – Alexandra Bildsoe................................................... Pg. 60-62, 81, 93-113, & 212-End. 3
CURLEW QUARTERLY www.CurlewQuarterly.com Issue No. 1 - Summer 2017 Published 2017. Editor: Isaac Myers III, Esq. Contributors: Alexandra Bildsoe Sean Damlos-Mitchell Robert Englebright Emily Fishman Ben Janse Andrew Jimenez Jason Koo Alison Rodriguez Cover Image: Emily Fishman Color Theme: Andrew Jimenez “A Gentleman’s Mustard” Printed by: Instant Publisher P.O. Box 340 410 Highway 72 W Collerville, TN 38027 Curlew New York 68 Jay Street, Suite 503 Brooklyn, NY 11201 212 - 804 - 8655 www.CurlewNewYork.com Info@CurlewNewYork.com Curlew Quarterly would not be possible without the faith and guidance of JoAnn Myers. Dad, Joseph, Shamika, and Shivaughn, infinite thanks to each of you as well. Curlew Quarterly is available for purchase at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, New York City’s only all poetry bookstore, located at 141 Front Street (take the F train to York Street). For a complete list of bookstores and venues where Curlew Quarterly can be purchased, please visit our website at www.CurlewQuarterly.com. Submissions and inquiries may be mailed to 68 Jay Street, Suite 503, Brooklyn, NY 11201, or e-mailed to Info@CurlewQuarterly.com. All rights reserved. 4
DOWN UNDER THE MANHATTAN BRIDGE OVERPASS - SALES. Total Number of Apartments for Sale Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, as of July 26th, 2017*: 48. ONE BEDROOMS: 12. Average Price of One Bedroom: $1,041,917. Average Pricer Per Square Foot for One Bedrooms: $1,368. TWO BEDROOMS: 9. Average Price of Two Bedrooms: $1,781,556. Average Price Per Square Foot for Two Bedrooms: $1,246. THREE BEDROOMS: 21 Average Price of Three Bedrooms: $3,367,667. Average Price Per Square Foot for Three Bedrooms: $1,650. FOUR BEDROOMS: 6. Average Price of Four Bedrooms: $4,910,000. Average Price Per Square Foot for Four Bedrooms: $1,677.
*Zillow.com as of July 26th, 2017. 6
PROSPECTUS. Isaac Myers III introduces Curlew Quarterly. When you live in New York, you live within the belly of the beast. When you fly into the city, and glance over at the Manhattan skyline, and feel its pulsating rhythms, you know just what the city is saying: “I dare you,” and “Give me all that you’ve got.” It’s King Supreme. Number One. Numero Uno, and it knows it. You can’t do New York halfway. So when you go for it, you’ve got to be prepared to lose your mind a little, and live with this slight sense of delusion, that something magical is just about to happen, and that the right connection is just around the corner, waiting for you to show up. To have fought in a war and survived, that’s when New York begins to fall in love with you, begins to offer its riches, its opportunities, its best graces, its blessings, and its gifts. I can’t say thank you enough. All of the right people have shown up at just the right time. When I first had the idea for Curlew Quarterly last fall, I hadn’t yet met either of the photographers who have contributed to these pages. And so I’m thankful to Emily Fishman and Alexandra Bildsoe, for believing in this journal enough to offer their time, and their cameras, and their ideas and suggestions to each shoot. I have an iPhone. It has a camera. It wouldn’t have done here. I met Alison Rodriguez in January of 2016, as I was showing her and her husband apartments in Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. I had no idea that we’d become friends, and that we’d share so much in common. So when I sat down with her for the interview that follows her story, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” I couldn’t help but agree when she mentioned how “dumb stupid luck,” had paved a way for her and her family throughout the years. I didn’t know I’d meet Jason Koo last October, and hear his poem “Morning, Motherfucker” and be inspired to put together these pages. Back then, I had heard of Brooklyn Poets, but didn’t know much about the organization, and hadn’t yet had a chance to connect with its diverse and supportive community of poets. Now that I have, I’m thankful to be a member, and excited to see where Brooklyn Poets goes from here. I didn’t know Robert Englebright would show up one afternoon in December of 2015, and help me photograph an apartment that would help Curlew New York close a rental, and then another sale the next year. I didn’t know Robert and I would become dear friends, or that he’d be so gracious with his time, and patient with me as I figured out how to put together a profile. And as my friendships with Sean Damlos-Mitchell, Ben Janse, and Andrew Jimenez stretch back the farthest, when I tried to think of people who could help me put together something like this, a literary journal, with poetry, and fiction, and non-fiction, I didn’t hesitate ––– I asked them for help right away. And of course, they stepped up. Ben with an original short story, Sean with two poems that he crafted just for this journal, and Andrew with a review of Michael Woodsworth’s The Battle for Bed-Stuy, a book that I’ve been meaning, and wanting to read for some time now. I wanted to put together a journal that shows what it’s like to live as a writer in these five boroughs. And as the principal broker of Curlew New York, I wanted to put together a quarterly that relies on one of my favorite adages for writing: let the reader make the connections, don’t overwrite. We’re a residential real estate company based in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Each quarter we create and distribute a literary and photo journal of New York City neighborhoods. We could try to articulate a why, but we work hard on the journal, and we lean on a quiet, and a knowing, and we trust that our readers, and our clients, and our friends, and our families, will fill in the blank. Isaac Myers III - July 26th, 2017. 11
OVER THE RIVER & THROUGH THE WOODS. Alison Rodriguez and her familyâ€™s trek from Weehawken, New Jersey to Park Slope, Brooklyn. Story: Alison Rodriguez Photography: Emily Fishman
THE BEGINNING. When my husband, Paul, told me that we had to move to New York City, I cried. Not the tears of joy that you might be assuming would greet the announcement that we would be moving to arguably (not arguably) the greatest city in the world. Not tears of anticipation or elation, not tears of happiness or excitement. Tears, through racking sobs, of sorrow. I was four months pregnant and proudly from New Jersey. Moving to New York City . . . yes, of course it was always a dream. But living three blocks away from the funniest, most dynamic 90-year-old Cuban grandparents was also a dream. Living in a rambling old Victorian was a dream. Living next to wonderful neighbors was a dream. And so I thought moving to New York City would be a nightmare. We had three months to make the move. Optimistically, I thought this would be plenty of time, but little did I know of the quagmire of finding an apartment in New York City. Since my schedule was far more flexible than my husband’s, it fell to me to find our new abode. After drying my tears, I rolled up my sleeves and dug deep into that mystical website, StreetEasy. I wish I could say that I had a strategy. I wish that I could say which neighborhood I wanted to live in, but neither of those things would be true. Instead, I started looking at apartments based on size and price. At first, I genuinely believed that I could live in a studio with my husband, our two bony labs and a newborn. It seemed reasonable. Spacious! Leaving a four-story Victorian to move into New York City didn’t have to be complicated, I thought. Surely, we could downsize and feel that much freer with reduced space. Haven’t you heard of the tiny home phenomena? With a clock ticking on when we had to move into the city, I decided that we should buy. Now, in retrospect I realize that all of these factors combined does not make for an easy or clear-cut approach to finding a new home. But then; moving to New York was unexpected. After going to law school later in life, Paul had been working at a law firm. While the people there could not be lovelier, the hours were grueling and weekends were nonexistent. With a little one coming, we started thinking about what our life together would look like, and what we wanted it to look like. It was during this time that he got a call from New York City and ended up taking a lawyering position that required us to move. It turns out that if you work for the city, you need to live in the city. It’s a rule that dates back about forty years and affects hundreds of thousands of people. New York City, it turns out, is one of the largest employers in the nation. 14
With my writing getting done in the evenings, I started trekking into New York City during the day to see apartments. The Bronx. Queens. Manhattan. Brooklyn. Staten Island. I checked out all of the neighborhoods. But I quickly realized that for all their charm, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island were too far away. With Paul working in downtown Manhattan, I prioritized proximity to his work over everything else. If something happened with the baby, I wanted him to be able to get home, fast. THE GAME IS AFOOT. Brooklyn and Manhattan became the focus of the hunt. Manhattan’s Chinatown and Lower East Side were the areas that I started to visit every day, thinking through how I could manage a pregnant belly and six flights of stairs with two dogs. Happily for everyone, the landlord assured me that he wouldn’t be considering two dogs, taking the decision away from me. I get the appeal of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. In fact, if I were a different person at a different time in my life, I would be dying to live there. I saw other iterations of me living that life. Cooler, younger versions that wore hipster sunglasses and ironic smiles as they walked by my swollen belly. I’m sure they have fabulous jobs in fascinating industries and I would have loved to have learned more about who they were and what they were up to, but when I looked at my two hounds as they lay at my aching feet, all I could think about was finding a home for us all. After endlessly hunting, I thought I had found our dream apartment. Two Bridges is a section of Chinatown located under two different bridges, the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Someone very witty named that section of town. The apartment I fell for had just been renovated. It had exposed brick walls and rough-hewn shelves instead of kitchen cabinets. It also had soundproof windows that I didn’t understand the reason for until a train rolled by. Babies sleep through everything, I thought as I furiously worked on the application, ignoring family gatherings and not returning phone calls as I filled it out. In the end, we were denied. “One dog, maybe,” they said, “but not two.” THE HOUNDS. We adopted Sasha and Samba about three years before, after working from home I realized that I needed co-workers. Having always wanted dogs and having no plans to move, I thought it was the ideal time to look for a dog. All of our pets have always been from shelters, so the dogs were no different. I found Lucky Labs Rescue that’s run out of Illinois when I accosted a man on the street to compliment him on how lovely his dog was. 15
“Oh, thanks,” he said easily. “I got her through Lucky Labs -- it’s great, they ship the dogs out east after they match you with a dog based on your personality type. Like online dating,” he added with a twinkle in his eye. Before he could continue the conversation I was on my way, the name Lucky Lab Rescue seared into my mind. So when the time came to get a dog, I gave them a call. When one of their first questions was if we wanted bonded labs, I was only too happy to learn more. Apparently, bonded labs are two labs who are best friends and if they are separated, they will get depressed. That sounded so sweet that I instantly agreed that yes, we should have bonded labs. I told Paul later that night that we were getting two dogs instead of one. Exhausted from his long hours at the law firm, I’m not sure he even heard me. We asked for dogs that were housebroken, friendly, confident, good with kids, good with other dogs, and good with people. Hey -- if it’s like online dating, why not go for 1990’s Brad Pitt? Two days later, Lucky Lab Rescue called me back and said: “We’ve got them.” Except for confident. They aren’t confident. For weeks after coming home they kept their tails tucked so far under themselves that people thought they were boys instead of girls. They jump with loud noises. They shake when there’s thunder. They are many things, these dogs of ours, but brave isn’t one of them. AMERICAN DREAMS. With Manhattan kindly, and firmly, declining our applications and our dogs, I turned to Brooklyn with a renewed vigor. I had heard so much about how dog-friendly the borough was and figured that I had to be able to find us a home somewhere. We met Isaac during our quest to find something to buy. Anything. Anywhere. He was eternally optimistic and a delight to talk with, while bringing us intriguing deal after intriguing deal. He struck gold when he found a cash only deal in a rougher part of Crown Heights. It was a small one bedroom in a building that needed work, but still. It was next to a park and had an elevator. The building had good bones and although it was a one bedroom, it felt spacious enough to allow us to camp out in the living room while the baby took the bedroom. We put in a bid. We were accepted! It wasn’t until later that we found out that someone had been found dead in a shopping cart in the hallway. The police had ruled that there was no foul play and that it was a natural death. A 16
body in a shopping cart in the hallway. No foul play. Natural death. This did not deter me. When we found out about the shootings taking place all around the neighborhood, I blithely dismissed them. Sure, a gunman had shot into a crowd of people going to the subway, but how likely was that to happen again? Yes, an older woman had been shot in the knee as she crossed the street -- but it was random gunfire, it wasn’t directed at her. But then I felt the baby kick. And as the reality sunk in that we had some precious cargo to take care of, the worries started to multiply. But, like Manhattan, Crown Heights decided it wouldn’t have us. Even though our bid had been accepted, even though we had submitted all of the needed paperwork, the apartment had been sold to someone else. BROOKLYN OF AMPLE HILLS WAS MINE. I had a month to find us an apartment in New York City. When the going gets tough in my family, we don’t complain. We get silent. Deathly focused and silent. My computer became a wasteland of opened tabs for apartments all throughout Brooklyn. I only talked about apartments. I arranged to see dozens and met with countless brokers. I was the worst client that a real estate agent could hope to meet. I knew too much and wasn’t about to settle for anything less than perfect. I realized I couldn’t be cute anymore, I had to get real. No more buying, no more messing around with different neighborhoods, I had to find us a home. Then I saw a sign. You may have seen the same one! It spoke to me and changed the entire direction of my approach. It was a StreetEasy ad on the subway that was an equation. I’m paraphrasing, but basically it went like this: if you have dogs, kids, want public schools and wear performance fleece, move to Park Slope. Fuck it, I thought on the train. I am moving to Park Slope. I will buy performance fleece. I completely changed our trajectory. I narrowed in on parts of Park Slope that had trains that ran to Paul’s office. My days and nights continued to be an endless slog of seeing apartments. I should take a moment here and explain something. We don’t (yet!) have all the money in the world. Paul works for the government. I’m a writer. There are student loans, and we valiantly work on putting aside cash for retirement and charity. We help family when they need it and we love to give thoughtful presents. Paying rent was not something I was longing to do, nor did we have that much flexibility on what we could afford. I was looking for a relatively inexpensive apartment. Inexpensive apartments are not something that New York City has. Even the shitty, walk-up, dirty apartments next to a highway are expensive. 17
We stepped out of a dreary apartment onto the sun-drenched patio. The agent hopped outside with us. “Ambiance!” she chirped brightly. The roar of the traffic from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway was overpowering. “It sounds like the ocean!” she yelled over the din. “Kinda,” I replied weakly, forcing a smile. I thought, maybe -- just maybe -- if I looked at enough apartments, maybe I could find something that I’d feel happy in, where I’d feel comfortable having a baby crawl around. If it was just me, I’d live in a box. If it was just me and Paul, we’d live in a refrigerator box. For our honeymoon, we took a backpacking trip through South America for three months. We each had a backpack -- the kind that kids bring to school; a small, regular backpack. We are not fancy people, we do not long for ornate niceties. But I also didn’t want my kid to live in a hovel. It’s true -- things change when you have a kid. I found what felt like a million different options and arranged to see all of them. There was one that looked like it got good light. I am a sucker for good light. I emailed the agent and he told me that the only time I could see it would be at the open house. Apparently the current tenant didn’t want to allow showings. I added it to the list of ten other apartments that we would see that Saturday in March and moved onto the next listing. The day of the open house, it was miserable outside. It was overcast and rainy with the raw coldness of spring that makes you wonder if it will ever be warm again. Like every other weekend, we had trekked into New York City to look at apartments. We had seen everything on the list and nothing was possible. But we had one left; that apartment where the tenant wouldn’t let the apartment be seen. We had fifteen minutes until the open house was over and even though we were exhausted, we decided to go. We found parking just out front of the apartment. The rain started to clear as we got there. The real estate agent looked thrilled that we showed up. Apparently only one other couple had come, and they didn’t like the place. The current tenant was requiring everyone to take off their shoes before they entered. We struggled to pull off our wet, muddy rain boots and walked inside. It was everything. It was perfect. It was home. Sunlight streamed through the bay windows and the kitchen was charming, just off of the hallway. The bathroom had seen better days, but there was a claw-foot tub that was darling. The 18
bedrooms were small, but there was a patio off of the back of the main bedroom. We walked outside. “We’ll take it,” we said to the agent. He looked at us, shocked. We looked at him, thrilled. This would be the eighth apartment we would apply for. We were out of time and desperately in love. At some point in this story, it makes sense to mention that we have great credit scores and a bit of cash tucked away so that we can hopefully buy a home at some point. We don’t have a questionable past and people tend to think that we are nice when we meet them. But alas, there had just been no getting around our two hounds. “Give me $100,” the agent said in thickly accented English. “I need to run your credit score,” he explained. “We have two dogs -- labs,” I said first, wanting to make sure I got this hurdle out of the way. “Yes, yes. Dogs, no problem,” he said. We haggled a bit more, back and forth. Could he speak with the landlady and make sure that the dogs were okay before running our credit score? Yes. Would he take PayPal? No. Would he take Western Union? No. We gave him cash. No receipt. We left, giddy with excitement and anticipation, laughing in the rain. He called the next day: “The dogs would be fine.” I had never taken so much time with an application. In the end, it was over eighty pages. We included reference letters from our lawyer, our accountant, our previous landlady, and friends, all vowing that we were good people. Two years of tax returns, dog photos and a charming story about why we (foolishly) had adopted two of them rounded out the application. I had never wanted an apartment so much in my life. The agent called back. We were set to sign the lease. We went to meet the landlady. She was utterly gracious, explaining to us how she had renovated her home after buying what ashes remained following a fire that had destroyed the building decades ago. We thanked her profusely for accepting our two darling dogs. Somberly, she relayed that her own two dogs, that had looked just like ours, recently passed away. She smiled sadly. Her new puppy scampered up and she bent down to pet it, the loss still reflected in her eyes. It’s hard to lose a pet. They become part of your family, part of your life, and even after they are gone, you always reminisce about the crazy, adorable, annoying, wonderful things that they 19
did. We’ve lost several over the years (we like to adopt older pets, we are not pet murderers, thank you) and the loss stays with you for more time than you might expect, or even realize. With the paperwork finished, we thanked her again and started to dream about what it would be like to move into Brooklyn. A few weeks later, we got the keys, ready to start our new life in our beautiful apartment with the bay windows and a little patio out back. We walked into our new home. The cleaning lady was smoking as she sat perched in the bay windows. Except, they weren’t bay windows. Just regular windows, looking out to the street, glaring back the overhead light that buzzed above. The previous tenant had moved out because the beautiful claw-foot bathtub had collapsed while her son was in it, taking a bath. The water from the bath had flooded the apartment and the apartments below. The floorboards creaked and the kitchen was in the hallway with old, wooden cabinets and counter space that was narrower than me while pregnant. Nothing was how we remembered it, and I felt a flash of fear. What have we done? In our excitement, in our giddiness, we had glossed over some very important facts. As I climbed into the claw-foot tub that was propped up on bricks with my eight-month pregnant belly, it swayed beneath my feet. But as we had accepted the keys from the real estate agent, he had added something unexpected. “The landlady, she wants to renovate the bathroom. Can you move out for two weeks so that can be done?” he asked. I emailed her. Yes -- it was true. She wanted to do the work in two weeks. We cancelled our baby shower that was going to double as a housewarming party and made plans to stay with family. We moved back out and waited, hoping the baby would wait as well. The two weeks for the renovation dragged on. I tried not to dwell on it too much, but all I wanted to do was be back in Brooklyn. The magical time that we had already spent there was enough for me to fall helplessly in love. Our apartment does not have bay windows. The floorboards creak and sometimes the radiators make scary noises. But we live in what I think is the most beautiful neighborhood in the world. We have two grocery stores within one block of us. The dry cleaners are literally around the corner from our house, along with a cobbler, a spa and an array of adorable boutiques. The neighbors are as hilarious as they are delightful; we feel like we’ve moved onto Sesame Street. We feel like we’re home. 20
Our landlady graciously offered to give us a month free of rent for being out of the apartment while it was renovated. Are you kidding me? I thought. You’re making the apartment more beautiful and you want to give us money? I countered with asking if it would be possible for her to install a washing machine and dryer in the apartment instead of forgoing rent. One of the things I dreaded the most about moving from Jersey to New York City was the idea that I would have to go to a laundromat instead of the basement. I reminded her that we were having a kid. I tried to sound a little tragic about it (for a Jersey girl, it would be a little tragic). She agreed. I was ecstatic. I waited a few weeks of being back in the apartment -- now with a lush, spa-like bathroom and a magical washing machine and dryer -- to see if our landlady would let us paint the kitchen cabinets white. It would look so much better. Again, she agreed. We ponied up to get the cabinets painted, so now the kitchen -- while still in the hallway -- looks a million times better. I dance as I go through it now, admiring how the storage baskets look stacked neatly on top of the freshly painted cabinets. I hired our handyman from New Jersey to make the trip out to Brooklyn. He’s put up light fixtures, fixed creaky doors, and hung paintings. I installed new doorknobs throughout the apartment and towel racks in the bathroom. It’s all stuff we’ll leave behind when we move to a new home, but it feels delicious, knowing that we’ll be leaving the apartment with these gifts. To say that I love the apartment that we live in is an understatement. When I am not home, I dream about going home. When I am out, I think about the art on the walls of our home. I have learned where the floorboards creak and try to avoid them. Babies do not sleep through everything, and it is possible to wake them up with clumsy footsteps. I understand why people die in their apartments. Having gone through the odyssey to find our own sweet little home, I never want to move again. Recently, the lease came up for renewal. We adore our apartment! I scrawled on the renewal. It’s true. I’ve never been so happy in my life and have never loved a home more. There is something so refreshing about having your entire existence contained in the amount of space that you can almost stretch out your arms to reach. It’s lovely that when you misplace something, it’s only a few steps away instead of a couple of staircases. 21
The dogs have adjusted to their reduced circumstances. I even think that they like it. As always, they stay close to me and sit on my lap when there’s thunder. They are not brave, these dogs of ours, but they are loved. Our baby has started to crawl around the creaking floorboards. He loves the apartment as much as we do, and giggles when he finds a new piece of silly art that we put up, like the image of a cat peeking out from a windowsill or a whimsical coat rack. He and I take a lot of walks these days. “Mama,” he says. It means everything and nothing at once. He doesn’t yet know that I’m his Mama. “Mamamamamamama,” he coos as he looks around while we walk down the street. There’s the one with slanted floors, I think as we walk by an apartment I saw while on the hunt. There’s another one on the ground floor with the huge backyard and the dishwasher. That’s the one that looks like it was a dorm room. There’s the one that’s a flow-through apartment, where we would have had to walk through one bedroom in order to get to another. The one with fabulous light fixtures. And on, and on and on. This is my own private commentary as I walk through the neighborhood. I feel intimate with Brooklyn in a way I hadn’t expected; I already know so many of its secrets, what’s behind so many doors. And I can finally relax, knowing that I don’t have to search anymore or look any further. I can take a deep breath. After we moved in and were lazing about our adored home one Saturday morning, Paul and I were reading the news. “Look,” he said to me. “This is a story about how some of the Nets’ players looked at different apartments when they had to move to Brooklyn. It says that the guy who looked at four different apartments was teased by his teammates for being too picky. How many did you look at?” he asked. I looked down at the newspaper I was reading. Did it matter? I hadn’t kept count. All I knew was that when I found our home, I knew. I settled back into the couch, the sunlight streaming in through the windows. I had thought they had been bay windows before, but wasn’t this actually more perfect? We were finally home.
Alison Rodriguez is the founder of Starry Writers, a content creation service for small and medium sized businesses. Her work mostly focuses on real estate brokerages, though more recently, they’ve also branched out into helping entrepreneurs in other industries find their voice as well. She enjoys the collaborative nature of the work: giving a voice to a business that is longing to sing. Through much of her twenties, she worked within real estate and property management. She loved helping companies manage and grow their portfolios, including Yale University’s residential investment portfolio, a collection of rental units that she helped maintain a vacancy rate of less than one percent. When she and Paul invited us into their home to ask a few questions and take a few photos, they couldn’t have been more welcoming. Paul stepped out at one point and returned with an assortment of cured deli meats, select cheeses, and a bottle of wine. As the late morning fell into the early afternoon, Alison spoke about what drove her to began a career as a writer; and about a few of the hurdles and blocks that she’s experienced and overcome as a female entrepreneur. She helped teach a course at Rutgers: Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship, where she shares some of this knowledge with the students. Paul chimed in from time to time, regarding their strategy for decorating the place; Sebastian offered a plethora of smiles, coy looks, and giggles; and Sasha and Samba welcomed us they best way they knew how ––– repeatedly curling up next to us on the couches, and holding their quiet and gentle demeanor the whole time. Alison offered anecdotes about how her optimistic nature has found a great sense of balance with Paul’s healthy-skepticism; insights into her writing process; along with a few glimpses into her life as a wife and mother in Park Slope, Brooklyn. At one point, she mentioned how often she and Paul remind each other how lucky they’ve been: to have met each other, to have created a life where Alison can write on her own schedule, Paul can pursue his dreams as an attorney, and together they can both spend quality time with Sebastian. “Lucky,” she kept saying. “We’re so lucky.”
Photography: Emily Fishman - Cover-Pg. 59.
Paul: So I actually don’t even know what we’re doing today. I knew that Isaac was coming over to take photographs, and I was like, “Okay!”
emphasize how many places we saw, and how much work it was for you with your pregnant belly.
Emily: That was in there.
Alison: And you know that I wrote, and you read the article.
Alison: It was not pleasant. Because literally I was going into the City every day. And to get in from Weehawken ---
Paul: Yeah, I read it. Alison: He’s up to date on that. And I read it to him, and I was like, “What do you think?” And he was like “. . . Oh you know, it’s our story.” Isaac: He said, “That’s about right.” Alison: And I was like, “Oh . . . But it’s true right?” He knows all of the details. Isaac: Well, what was it like writing the piece? Alison: Yeah, so you gave us a deadline of what, February 28th, 29th - is it a leap year? It’s not. It was the 28th. Isaac: I can’t remember. Alison: So the first three weeks of February blew right buy. And I hadn’t even written a word. And then the day before it was due, I sat down and I wrote it. Isaac: Really? Alison: Yeah. And then I just went back, and I re-read it, and I edited it a little bit, to clarify. But I don’t know what kind of writer you are, but I’m the kind who just writes, basically once, and that’s it. You know how there are some people who just -Emily: Revise and revise. Alison: And also people who really like craft -- I’m not a crafter, I’m a writer. Which is why I think I do my job well. And I can just bang out pieces. And so I was up until midnight writing that, and then I re-read it in the morning, and I e-mailed it to you. So it was fun, it was a nice way to actually revisit - and I was thinking, “Man, we went through that,” was how I felt. I can’t believe -Paul: I will say that you didn’t quite capture or
Emily: I was like, “Holy crap - that’s a schlep.” Alison: Yeah, it’s a pain. It was not lovely. Paul: How many places was it, overall - over a hundred? Alison: I honestly, I don’t even know. You asked the same question, didn’t you “So how many?” Isaac: Yeah. Paul: I think it was over a hundred, we were estimating. Alison: Because we would see ten in a day together, and so that was at least one day definitely every weekend. If not, two. And then I was going every day during the week. Isaac: So if you see ten apartments, how do they not merge together? Or sometimes they do? Paul: Quickly cull. Alison: So the other story that I was thinking about including that I didn’t was that Paul and I - we had to move to New Haven for him to go to law school, and intelligently - you know that Maya Angelou quote, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” So I need to believe this part about myself, we are just a wreck about this stuff. We allotted one day to find an apartment and we set up three appointments. Paul: We were on our way to Vermont for vacation, and we were like, “Oh, we’ll drive to New Haven, we’ll find an apartment, and then we’ll be on vacation, we’ll be set.” Alison: It will just be done, right? Paul: And we did! 31
Alison: Right, so we saw apartment number one - it was terrible. And then apartment number two - it was terrible, and we get into apartment number three, and I’m in the car with a host-dog, not even our own dog, it was Paul’s dad’s dog.
Alison: We never called.
Paul: We went on vacation with my dad’s dog.
Alison: Yeah, so writing this really reminded me of just how horrible it was. It really wasn’t a pleasant process. To put this in perspective, Paul had been at the law firm for three years and then he had gotten a call for this job. He was really excited about it and accepted the job, and then we found out that there wouldn’t be health insurance for three months. I was pregnant. And it’s just standard, it’s how the City of New York works. It’s not because it was Paul, it’s not because I was pregnant, it’s just how the system works. And so suddenly it was like, oh my gosh, I need to figure out how to get insurance through the A.C.A. Because there are sonograms, and there are check-ups, and I can’t not have insurance - or if I went into labor early, or if I needed some kind of extra medical attention, there’s all of these things, you just don’t know. And so that was part of the reason why we were so delayed in finding the place, because I had to go through all of the insurance nonsense and I had to figure out, okay, do we do C.O.B.R.A. - okay, we don’t do C.O.B.R.A., how do we do all of these other programs - what’s covered by the hospitals? What doctor will take ObamaCare and then will take the new health care through the City of New York because I’ll switch over to that, so I don’t have to switch doctors? Which hospital will take both?
Alison: And so I’m in the car with the dog, Paul walks into the apartment and he’s like, oh yeah, we’ll take it. And the people are like, “Well, what do you mean, you didn’t even talk to your [at the time] fiancée, how could just say that?” And he was like, “Just wait, she’s going to say the same thing.” And he got in the car, and he said, “Oh, just check it out.” And he didn’t say anything, and I walked in and I was like, “Oh, we’ll take it.” And they were like, “Did you guys talk about it?” And I was like, “Oh, he said that?” And I was just really amused that that was the case. We just like a very similar aesthetic. So when we walked in here, we were just like, “Oh, obviously, this is phenomenal.” And the woman who was not happy about living here, because her bathtub had collapsed - she had all of these other calamities. Isaac: You met her? Alison: Oh yeah, she was not -Paul: She didn’t want showings. She also didn’t want showings when she wasn’t here. So she allowed one showing while she was in the apartment. Alison: Which is the only reason why we got it. It was the only reason why we got it. Because it was a terrible day, sort of rain, overcast, and no one was coming out, and there was only one showing, ever. Apartments fly in this neighborhood. But she wouldn’t let anyone in. And then it was a big hassle to coordinate, but I believe that’s the only reason why we ended up with the apartment. Because the apartment below, where they didn’t have those restrictions, they had fifteen applications after one showing. Paul: Even while we were here, she gave us her number, and was like, “If you want to talk about all of the things that are wrong with the apartment, give me a call.” 32
Paul: I’d rather not know. Isaac: How much time you got? Let me give you a breakdown. That’s hilarious.
Emily: Maddening, I bet it was totally maddening. Alison: It’s so obscene. Paul: What’s actually shocking about that process is that no one could answer her questions. Alison: No one. Paul: It was like, “We don’t know if this is covered.” Alison: And I would be like, “Okay, is a sonogram covered?” And it would be, “We don’t know.” And I would think, “You are
the insurance company.” I broke things down for them, and they were like, “Don’t know,” And I would be like, “Would you check?” And it would be, “They don’t know either.” Who knows? Who knows? Literally, no one knew. It was an insane process, and thank God I had the flexibility with my schedule to make phone call after phone call after phone call, but it took weeks to just organize healthcare. And so I got that done, and then Paul got the call -- you can apply for a waiver to not live in the City, and so Paul applied for it because we lived three blocks from his ninety-year-old grandparents who we helped take care of, and we legitimately do. I would go over and help clean, I would cook with them, I would help. Paul: We still go over almost every week. Alison: Yeah, and I still do now, but now it’s a schlep out from Brooklyn, and so we applied for the waiver, and said because we take care of them, can we please stay? And then the answer was no, and so that was the phone call that Paul got while we were in the O.B.’s office for my four month check-up, and that’s when I started crying - and that’s the beginning of the story. So that was sort of the trajectory. And you only have three months to move in. So if you don’t move in within three months, you can lose your job. Emily: Oh my God, so stressful. Alison: A little bit. And then Paul’s mom, who is very lovely, was saying, “Oh, so what’s the theme for the baby room?” And I was like, “The theme for the baby room?” Isaac: What’s the theme? Alison: Oh, you know the theme, for the baby-room, you know it’s a very common thing, you’re doing like, animals, or space - or a Safari, or whatever thing. And I was like, “A theme?” Paul: That was actually a very common question. Alison: It’s a very common question. We got it all the time. And we were like, “Forget a theme, man!” Isaac: I would like to have a room, the theme is
“a room.” Paul: That week I think there was an article in the New York Times about how so many people with one bedrooms will use the bathroom to put the baby in, because they just don’t have space, and they don’t have anywhere else to go. Alison: Yeah, so they’ll put in basically a folddown changing table in the shower. And then they’ll put the baby in there. Because as I put in the article, I get why people die in their apartments. This is really hard to go through. And, I get it, you’ve got kids, it’s hard to find a place. Isaac: Well, it sounds like you were very optimistic at first, do you remember a specific time where that wavered, where you thought, “This is going to be a little bit more difficult than I thought it would be.” Alison: So I was really amped about the place that we thought we were going to buy in Crown Heights. And I just thought that’s going to be awesome, we’ll have just maintenance fees, we won’t have any overhead costs in the sense of a mortgage or rent, and that would be amazing financially. But when that fell through, I was sort of like, “Oh, no. We’re in a lot of trouble now.” Because then it was the end of February, and we had just a little more time to move-in, and so - I didn’t even start looking at apartments until you definitely got the line that we weren’t getting it. And I hadn’t considered neighborhoods, I hadn’t considered rent prices -- not any of that, so it was kind of suddenly like, boom - go find something, now. So that was sort of a dark time, in terms of finding a place. And I wouldn’t say I ever lost my optimism. We could have moved into a million places. There were a bunches of places where they were saying, “Two dogs, no problem, we’ll take you.” But we’re really fussy. We’re very particular about where we’ll live with just aesthetics, which is funny because I definitely put in there that we’re not. Emily: Well, is there a flip-side too, where you know there’s a wealth of options, that if you just keep looking, and if you just stick with it, that you’ll eventually . . . Alison: That’s how I felt. I felt, yeah, it’s 33
horrible, and yeah it’s grueling, but I really just believed that we’d find the right place. And I remember I was talking to this one agent, and it was a weekend, and we had gone to see about ten places again, and there was this one place that was so terrible. It was literally, as I described it, it was the awful apartment next to a highway that was super expensive. I think it was $2,900 and it was maybe a little bit bigger than this place, not much - but the whole thing just looked like a train-wreck. And I asked her, and this is not actually that far from here, it’s right over the B.Q.E., and I asked her, “Hey, so are they going to do renovations before?” And she was like, “Oh, no, you can hire your own handyman.” Emily: What? Alison: Well, I mean, look, we’ve been doing it, right? We installed the light fixtures, we’ve been doing all kinds of work in here. Which I can appreciate now, but this also had good bones. Emily: Yeah. Alison: Our apartment didn’t have paint peeling down from the walls, and our kitchen wasn’t covered in grease. Emily: There was a layer of things that prevented you from being able to imagine yourself actually living in the other one. Alison: Right. It was rough. That one in particular was rough. She was so rude - she was like, “Look at your price point, this is what you’re going to find.” Emily: I hate when people talk like that. Alison: And I was like . . . “Thank you, I’m going to keep looking.” So I didn’t actually lose my optimism. I didn’t enjoy it, but I was just sort of like - if I just keep going. Isaac: The pressure adds a different element to it, when you’re working against the clock. Alison: Yeah, I sort of just figured that it would work out. Because I knew that our worst case scenario would be that we could just rent something not ideal for a year. I mean it wouldn’t have been the best-case scenario because we 34
would have to move twice, and that would be a pain. Paul: We thought that was such a viable option, but I don’t think we appreciated how much of a pain it would be to move again. Emily: That’s the thing, you just do what you have to do, right? Alison: Well, remember that horrible apartment - we saw so many horrible apartments - that was like our M.O. - horrible apartments. You want to see a terrible apartment, come with us! Isaac: I got awful apartments! Alison: We specialize! Isaac: Everyone is trying to sell these nice places . . . Paul: Who wants that?! Alison: Do you want to be miserable and uncomfortable? We’ve got you covered. Yeah, so, remember the one in Midtown, on Thirty-fourth Street, and Paul was like, “We gotta move in here, this is perfect.” Because he had given up hope at that point. Paul: I did. It was the closest thing I could find to work. Alison: Right. Isaac: Thirty-fourth and what? Alison: Thirty-fourth and, I think it was Tenth Avenue. Isaac: Westside. Alison: Yeah, but the idea was that it was steps from the subway, Paul could shoot right down to work. Paul: That was probably one of the most important things - just how to get in to work easily. Alison: Right. Which is why I laugh looking at that place that you showed me over by Key Foods. I was like, “It’s too far.”
Isaac: The walk to the subway was too far? Alison: I think it was the walk to the subway, and it was not a short subway ride. And you were like, “What are you talking about? I walk from whatever part of Yorkville to the subway--” Because now, this place is -- what would you say --- a seven to ten minute walk to the subway, it’s pretty close. But I think that one was something like fifteen minutes, and I was like, “No, never! I could never do that. That’s not acceptable.” But yeah, I think that was my back-up plan. That was in the back of my mind. We’ll rent a place that we don’t love. But if I can possibly find something that we love, we’ll go there instead. But it was a race against the clock in that I knew that we only had a limited amount of time, but hopefully I’d be able to find something really awesome where we’d be really happy. And it worked out.
Isaac: But sometimes that optimism or trust in others can be good for you, right?
Isaac: One of the things that I really enjoyed reading about your piece, is when you came back and you saw the apartment again, and you said, “Where were the bay windows?”
Alison: Right, so I would say, of the two of us, I am the eternal optimist. Which is funny, because Paul likes people a lot more than I do, which is interesting. But I believe people much more than Paul does. He has this healthy skepticism, and I’m like, “Oh, you told me - obviously you wouldn’t lie to me.” Which is how I approach everyone, which is probably not the best way to go through life, but it you know, it just really makes it entertaining. So this frames how I approach everything, including looking at real estate, so Paul and I have looked at buying real estate for years. We’ve been together for, it will be twelve years this month, and we’ve looked at real estate probably from the beginning, and we’ve always been like, “We’re gonna buy.” Right, Isaac? And I will walk into a place, and I’ll be like, “It’s beautiful!” And Paul will be the voice of reason who’s like, “It’s covered in mold,” or like, “The foundation is collapsing,” or “There’s no roof.” And I’m like, “It’s fine! It’ll be fine!”
Paul: It’s more daylight!
Isaac: So could you talk a bit about that experience -- seeing something, and then seeing it a second time, and not actually…
Isaac: Who needs a roof ?
Alison: So I am known to do this. Paul and I are complimentary in this way. Because I’m like, “Let’s join a cult!” And he’s like, “Bad idea, don’t do it.”
Isaac: Maybe when it’s raining.
Isaac: It could be really good! Alison: No, but this happens. Paul: This is not a joke. Three or four times. Alison: This is a recurring thing. “These people sound really nice -- I think we should give them all of our money.” And Paul steps in, “Do not do it.” This commonly happens in our relationship. Paul: I’ll say, “I think it’s a cult.” And she’ll say, “I don’t think so.” Alison: They seem really nice, these people.
Alison: You don’t need a roof.
Alison: You go to the bottom floor, you’ll be fine. I’m just very optimistic with everything that I see. So I look at everything with this gloss of unreality I suppose. And so I think I convinced Paul of it too, right? Because we were also desperate. And it had enough good stuff, thank God, that when we walked back in we thought, “Okay, but we can move,” Was basically how we thought about it. Because we thought, this won’t work. Because we were really scared, and worried, and the lady was sitting here, smoking her cigarettes. And I’m still super pregnant. Isaac: I love that image. The cleaning lady was sitting there smoking a cigarette. Alison: And the whole apartment, the whole clean apartment reeks of smoke, right? 35
Isaac: Welcome home.
Isaac: So your landlord said that she would renovate?
Alison: Yeah, “I’m going to sit here and wait for my husband to pick me up.” I’m like, “Okay, lady.” So in any event, it was really…disappointing. It was like a little bit of cold water splashed on us. How are we going to make this place work?
Alison: Yeah, unprovoked by us. We got the keys, and they guy handed us the keys and before we could walk-in, he was like, “The landlady wants to renovate, is that okay? Could you guys move out for two weeks?” And we were like, “Oh yeah, that’s awesome. That sounds great to us, no problem.” So that was like, so we’ll wait and see. And Paul was like, I don’t know where he got this idea - but he thought we’d come back and it would be like seventies chic, like another disaster, but in a different way, like a new disaster. And he had no expectation that they would do anything nice. But I describe our new bathroom as a spa. It’s so luxurious compared to what was there. I’m probably overstating and overselling it, but then again, you guys know, I want to join cults. So it sort of makes sense right? It all comes together.
Paul: The bathroom at first . . . Alison: The bathroom was horrifying. We never took photos of it, because we hated it so much. And so Paul’s mom came over to do a tour of the apartment, and I think she took a video and she took a video of the entire space, except for the bathroom. So there’s no documentation of this place. Paul: I don’t know how much detail you put in the article . . . Alison: I didn’t. Paul: But there was no tile on the wall. It was a beautiful clawfoot tub, which was nice - but it had no legs. And then on the wall, there was just tile on the upper part, but the tile had fallen off - so if you took a shower, there would be a red . . .
Isaac: So you’ve told me a little bit about your work in real estate in the past, but I don’t know that much about it. What did you do before? Alison: In real estate, specifically? Isaac: Yeah, or all of it. Alison: All of it, from the beginning. So I graduated with an English and Poli-Sci degree, I first worked in government for the U.S. State Legislature as an aid.
Alison: Somehow water, because we had curtains that went all the way around the thing so it was -- --
Paul: For New Jersey.
Paul: A red muddy water would flow out of the bathroom and into the hallway every time that you took a shower.
Isaac: The Garden.
Isaac: The Garden State.
Alison: It was a disaster. So you walked in and the toilet was still where it is, and the tub is where the sink is now, running along the wall there, and the sink, was right here on this wall, so all the way in - but the mirror was over the toilet.
Alison: Yes, also the Garden, but we emphasize the great.
Paul: Yeah, so to shave, I would have to be over the toilet, and then run over . . . Alison: Run over to the sink, right? To get some water, or to clean off the razor. And then run over to the mirror. 36
Alison: New Jersey, for the great state of New Jersey.
Alison: The great.
Isaac: The Great Garden! Alison: We’re trying to be good ambassadors -- rewrite the story of Jersey. And so then I moved from there and I worked in politics, and it’s different from government in the sense that you’re working on campaigns, so I worked for Bob Menendez, also of New Jersey. And then I had saved up some cash doing that to just sort of take some time. I decided that I did not want to be in those worlds, and so I took some time to re-evaluate and decide what I was going to
do with my life. And so I saved up enough to pay off all of my expenses and just think, and I read a ton during that time, including Rich Dad Poor Dad, and I was like, “I should go into real estate.” So I found a job with a property management firm in Jersey, where I worked for, what a year - or two? So I worked for them, they were great. And then Paul got into law school up in Connecticut, so we realized, okay we’re moving. And then up there I got a job with a real estate firm that handles Yale’s residential investment portfolio. So this is Yale owning a bunch of apartment buildings, all in downtown New Haven. Paul: They’re the largest landlord. Alison: They’re the largest landlord in New Haven, yeah. And they’re just this behemoth. They own so much stuff. So I worked for them, and then one of Paul’s . . . Isaac: Was it property management? Alison: Yeah, property management. But that was more lease signings, and showing apartments. Isaac: Were you knocking on doors and collecting rent? Alison: No, because they were paying Yale. It was a very different sort of system. And so then, one of Paul’s law school professors had this company, and he wanted me to build out the northeast operations for it. And I thought of it as a way to get entrepreneurial experience, but with the guarantee of a paycheck. And so I thought, well that’s kind of cool. And so I did that. And then I left right before we got married; I just took some time off for a while, and hung out. Which was really cool. And we went backpacking through South America, which was amazing. And then when we got back, I launched an organic skincare line, and I did that -- I know it was totally random, just a random trajectory. But I had just finished reading a book on Estee Lauder. I read biographies of successful female entrepreneurs because I think it’s a different -- I like the stuff about guys too -- but I think women face a different set of challenges than men do in business. So I make a point to read their stories and see what they
did. So I had just finished reading a biography of her, and it was talking about how she had started her skincare line on her stovetop in her apartment. And I thought, that’s nuts. I always thought skincare products were from big factories, and there were machines doing things, and it was very intricate. And so I thought, well, if there’s ever a time to figure out how to make products, like with Google and YouTube, then it would be now. And so I started Googling and YouTubing and checked it out, and figured it out. And it came about because I had really bad skin. I started using Ponds Cold Cream, and I just looked at the ingredients, because you know, it was kind of crunchy and whatever, and so the first ingredient was mineral oil. And I thought, that sounds very healthy, it’s made of minerals. And so I thought, let me just Google it, just to double-check, but I’m sure it’s just all of these good minerals. And it’s Petroleum Jelly, which I didn’t know. And it’s not green. And so I saw this and I was bummed. Paul: One of the ingredients was linked to cancer. Alison: Yeah, and I don’t get into the politics of mineral oil, because they’re very contested, but it’s a difficult issue in the cosmetic world, so I was thinking, I just want something without it. That’s all I’m looking for. Surely there’s a cold cream that just doesn’t have it. And there wasn’t one. Emily: No kidding. Alison: Yeah. Like La Mer has it. It’s weird. It’s the cheapest ingredient -- it’s cheaper than water -- to include in cosmetic products. It’s Vaseline, is what it is. And I just wanted to find a cold cream without it, and I couldn’t, and so I thought, well, maybe I could make one. And I did. And it’s still around, it’s called Neuth. It’s fun. I like it. We have some in the bathroom. Isaac: How is that spelled? Alison: N-e-u-t-h. It’s the name of the Egyptian Goddess of the Sky. Isaac: And you came up with that name? Alison: No, Egypt did. 37
Isaac: I mean, but you decided on that name? Alison: Yeah. Isaac: I mean, obviously you didn’t . . . thank you. I appreciate that. Alison: I do what I can, Isaac. Isaac: Not bad! You went back into time . . . so after Neuth, you started writing? Alison: Yes. And so then after Neuth, which was about ten years ago, I started writing for other clients and other publications. Paul: You should tell them that technically you’ve been writing since first grade. Isaac: I was looking at Starry Writers. Alison: Yes Isaac: And there’s a few interesting posts on there. And I was reading one, and it sounds as though you resisted writing for a while, no? Alison: I did. Is that the one about having a nightmare? Isaac: Maybe, yeah. I think you mentioned having the nightmare for over a year, and then you thought, maybe I should be writing. And there was a moment when you were wearing glasses. Alison: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Isaac: That’s a separate post. Yeah. Alison: Yeah. That was a big deal. It was weird. It made it feel like I was a writer. Was there a question? I’m sorry. Isaac: Well, I guess know plenty of writers who don’t wear glasses, and I also know some who do, but I’m wondering when you were looking at yourself in the mirror with your glasses on, was there something that clicked? Do you remember where you were? Alison: I don’t. A big part of it was pregnancy. When you get pregnant your hormones change, and some women’s eyesight changes, and so mine did. And so that’s why I needed glasses. And I had never needed glasses before. So I 38
couldn’t even see the glasses. Paul picked them out. And so Paul’s dad is an eye-doctor, and Paul’s step mom is an amazing Paraoptometric. And she’s great! She really is. So she and Paul had picked out the glasses without me being able to see them, because I couldn’t see. And so when I put them on I was in her office, and my first thought was, “Oh they look great, that’s awesome.” Because I couldn’t see what they had picked out at the time, before the lens were inserted. And then it was just sort of like, “Oh, I look like a writer. I look like who I always thought I was. But I never believed that I was.” Does that make sense? Isaac: Yeah, it’s comforting. Alison: Yeah. It was actually really exciting because it felt like permission. And that’s one of the things that a lot of these women entrepreneurs who I’ve reading about talk about is how women ––– I’m sure men do too ––– but specifically, one thing women really fight, and have to work through is confidence and permission. And getting the glasses just felt like, I finally got permission to be a writer. Because the other thing too was that I always viewed writing as a wildly unprofitable enterprise. And I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of being an impoverished writer. And you hear a lot of stories, or I hear a lot of stories -- Well, there was this one guy who wrote a blog post for Gawker, when Gawker still existed. Isaac: Yeah, that was an ugly crash, right? Alison: Ohhh, that was horrible. But there was this guy, and he was saying, “Yeah, I’m divorced. I’ve got two kids with my ex-wife. And I can’t make child support. I don’t even have a place to live. I don’t even have an apartment, because I’m a writer. And I’m writing all of the time. And I’m submitting to all of these places, and I’m just not getting accepted. So here I am, I’m an impoverished writer.” And that was my vision of how you lived your life if you were a writer, and I was like, in my mind, that’s a very tough existence. Because you’re putting your heart and soul into something and you still have a horrible quality of life. And yes, you’re living your art and that’s cool, but you also just want to be able to live. Right? And have a standard of living. And so when I realized that
I could write and be financially compensated in an acceptable way, I was like, okay. It all kind of came to a head at the same time. Isaac: Yeah. You mentioned that at one point you were writing for something that you thought was sort of a smaller project, and when you finished, the people who you were writing for had said, “Okay, well we’re going to send you a check for . . .” what was actually a very big amount, and you had trouble actually wrapping your head around that. I don’t remember the story specifically, maybe you could tell it again? Alison: Yeah, it’s funny I was actually just talking about it with a friend. I was commiserating. I was telling her how our handyman has been here twice now. He was here just yesterday, in preparation for you. Isaac: We appreciate it. Alison: Yes, please admire the light in our bedroom, which is all Sean. So the table, the table nook there, that was Paul’s childhood table set. And his dad was renovating his house, putting on extension to the kitchen, and he was like, “Oh, do you guys want this?” And I just
looked at it. This was ten years ago, and I was like, “Yes, I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I want it.” So it sat in their basement for ten years. And then when we moved in here, I was like, “I think it’ll fit.” And then, funny enough, because I’m me - I did not measure any of the spaces, I just brought it here, and it fits perfectly. Isaac: Yeah, when you know you know. Alison: Yeah! When you know you know. Isaac: And when you’re wrong, well . . . Alison: Well, you could’ve been right! You never know! Isaac: Yeah, but I just as easily could have been right. Alison: Right. So anyway, the table is over thirty years old. And it’s quite rickety, and it was that natural wood color from the eighties, you know what I’m talking about, right? Isaac: Maybe if I saw it. Alison: It’s what my cabinets used to look like. I painted those and they were also that . . . al39
most like, this color [indicting wooden tray for beverages] but rough looking. You know what I’m talking about! Isaac: There’s got to be a way to clean that up. Alison: Nope; there’s just no hope for it. And so Paul, while I was pregnant, painted it, but the table rocked, it swayed, it felt like you were on the Titanic. And so the handyman came over, and I was like, “Could you refortify this in some way? Could you secure this? Because I really don’t want us to have this swaying table. Yes, it has ambiance, but it’s also a little uncomfortable.” You were here when it swayed. Do you remember that? Isaac: A little bit. Alison: It just always moved. So he was like, “Yeah, yeah, no problem.” He gave me a quote for it, it was a hundred bucks to re-secure the table, so he comes over. And I’m like, “Great, no problem. I definitely need this done.” And he comes over, he looks at it, and he puts one screw in it. And he’s like, “Okay, it’s fixed.” And I was commiserating with a friend, and I said, “I happily paid him one hundred dollars for that. It was one screw and it took him about thirty seconds. And I was thrilled to pay him that. Because I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me.” And that’s sort of how my clients are with writing. This is an incredibly long answer to your questions. Isaac: No, it’s perfect. Alison: I’m slowly getting back there. Alison: But my clients are these really cool people. One of them is, he’s this guy on my bookshelf, I won’t mention him by name - all of my clients have this sort of confidentiality thing. Isaac: Sure. Alison: But it’s this guy, and he’s a New York Times best selling author, and I write his blog. And the reason that I do is because, he’s really bright, and he’s smart, and he can write, and he’s cool, and he has a very successful and thriving business, he just doesn’t have the time. And his blog posts will take him a week 40
to write, and they take me an hour to write. And it’s the same thing as the situation with my handyman, basically. He’s happy to pay me because he can have this thing done, and he doesn’t have to worry about it. In the same way that I was thrilled to pay my handyman to fix my table because I couldn’t figure it out. Isaac: Yeah. Alison: They’re all things that we can do at the end of the day. But how do you value your time? And how do you allocate your resources? So I’ve been shocked and delighted that people, and specifically companies, are willing to pay me what they pay me to do the stuff that they don’t have time for, but they get that the should be out there, and they should be providing content for the people who are interested in what their companies are doing. Does that answer the question? Isaac: Yeah, I think that’s . . . Alison: It’s a very long answer, I’m sorry. Isaac: It’s an answer that was prefaced with a parable of sorts, I appreciate that. Alison: Yes! A fable. But a real fable. Isaac: A real fable. I think a lot of the books on entrepreneurship that I’ve read, they touch a lot on confidence, and asking, and the idea of why do I need to create this if it’s already been created? But they also mention that asking is part of it, but so is receiving. And thinking, okay, you know what, there’s other people who are making this amount, this is a more than fair amount, why should I not receive this as well? Alison: Yeah. So one of the things that I’ve done. So what got me on blogging, and how I was thinking, oh, I can sustainably scale this, was when I read about what a woman would charge for four blog posts a month, plus putting it on social media. And I was like, that’s an insane amount of money for four blog posts. We’re not talking about brilliant pieces of work here, right, we’re talking about blog posts. And now I charge more than she did. And I don’t do social media. And I mean it’s very sustainable. And that’s one of the reasons why I have that little reading nook in the back now. What
I love about this too is that I have the flexibility to be with Sebastian all day. He can go down for a nap, I can work. And I’m not outsourcing his childhood. And I get it, some people want to, or they don’t have the capability to be with their kid. And I totally get it, and I empathize. And I read about it my friends on Facebook who have to do that. And they talk about how every day, every single day that they go to drop off their kid at daycare, the kid cries, and the parent cries. Every single day. And every single day, Paul gets home from work and we say, “We are so grateful, that we’ve been able to figure this out. And to do Sebastian’s childhood in this way.” Because we get that not everyone has that flexibility or can figure out a way to do that. If you’re a coal-miner, you probably just can’t go coal mine while your baby takes a nap, right? I get it. Isaac: You’d don’t do it from your kitchen. Alison: Right. So it’s been wonderful. And I have been incredibly grateful. And so one of the things that I do to try to give back is that I try to tell as many people as I can about what I do. So all of my friends who are talking about being frustrated with their careers or interested in writing, I spread the word. There’s one woman who I met while she was in the Columbia M.B.A. program, and she was talking about how she would always be poor. That she was a writer, she’s writing these books -- sorry -Isaac: No problem. Is this Sasha or Samba? Alison: That’s Samba. And Samba is an aggressive lover. So you need to be very firm with her. You need to set boundaries, or else she will keep coming for you. I’m sorry. But, what was it . . . Isaac: M.B.A. Columbia. Alison: Yeah, M.B.A. and so she was saying, she was writing, but what she really did for money and how she paid rent -- she taught, not LSAT classes, but G.R.E. classes and prepped people for the exam. And that’s actually how she paid her rent every month. And just the other day, maybe two weeks ago, she came to my mind and I was like, man, that . . . sucks. That’s a hard grind. If what you want to be doing is writing,
and instead you’re teaching G.R.E. test-prep . . . I mean, maybe that’s your passion, I could be totally wrong. Isaac: It didn’t sound like it was. Alison: Maybe she loves doing it. But I just reached out to her, and I was like, “Hey, I know it’s been a while. I just wanted to check-in. Hope you’re doing well. I’ve been doing this freelance thing. And I thought you might like it. And just wanted to mention it to you. If you are, there’s this great book that got me started on it. And I’m happy to send you more details if you’re interested in it.” And at this point I have a template e-mail that I send people, and I’m like, “This is how you do it, if you want to do it.” And I haven’t seen people do it, which is very interesting. I’ve probably sent it now to over ten people. Isaac: What book does it reference? Alison: Oh, the book is The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. But then I have all of these blogs that I read. They’re all of these freelance writers who sell courses on how to be a freelance writer. And thankfully, because I’m married to Paul, I didn’t buy the courses because I’m like, cult! I see it, it’s a cult! No, it’s not a cult, but it’s like, buying things that I don’t need. So anyway, so I would just read their blogs very thoroughly, and would get all of the information from that, and so I explain all of that in an e-mail, because it gives you more real world examples. Peter Bowerman’s book is really good, but it’s more, sort of working with classic corporations sort of things. Isaac: Classic corporations? Alison: Yeah, like working with U.P.S. as a writer, and how to do that. Isaac: It sounds like companies who have already developed their voice. Alison: Yeah. And they need specific collateral for the business. Rather than how I feel more like a partner with my clients. I feel like we’re equals, because I’m actually giving them business advice -- -- Like, this would make sense because of this reason. Or you might want to do that, because of this thing that’s happening 41
in the market. And so it’s more of a collaboration; whereas, if I worked with someone like U.P.S. it would be very different. I don’t want to say inequitable, but there would be a very clear distinction, they would be like, “We are the boss,” and I would be like, “And I’m the writer!” It’s different when it’s a small company that’s thinking, we know we need to do these things, but we need help getting there.
ours who painted that [referring to portrait of Samba]. Emily: It’s really nice. Paul: It was really sweet. Actually she used it for a show, and people saw it and liked it so much, and now, even though she’s actually
[Alison leaves to put Sebastian down for a nap, Paul re-enteres the room.]
more of a landscape artist, she now has people from Australia and other places commissioning her to do portraits of their dogs.
Emily: This is a great aesthetic. I’m definitely taking style notes. It’s such a lovely mix, and it feels so welcoming.
Emily: That’s so cool. I love that. She’s got a little doggie side hustle. I want pets. So much. Are they always this docile?
Paul: I’m very happy to hear that because we’ve never really had a good aesthetic in our apartments.
Paul: They always are. So basically we take them out -- we can take them to the park during off-leash hour, and they look like crazy dogs. They just start running in circles. They’ll wrestle each other. And then they just curl back and relax. And they can be like this almost the entire winter, without going out much, and they’re totally fine.
Emily: It’s so bright and colorful. I love it. Isaac: And the speakers are a nice touch too. Paul: I love the speakers. Isaac: They’re placed in very specific spots, where you see them, but you don’t see them, but you definitely hear them.
Emily: Wow. You guys are great. You lucked out.
Isaac: As there should be, yeah.
Paul: I know. When they asked us, the shelter match people that we talked to . . . we were like, “Yeah, everybody asks for a dog that they can go hiking with, and do all of these things. Yeah, we want a dog who can hike, but that is not our energy level.” And we were very honest about it, and so I’m very grateful. Because apparently what people say, often, is that they want high-energy dogs. Because they have this things that’s . . .
Paul: As there should be!
Emily: Very aspirational.
Paul: My only complaint about them in the bathroom is that it’s not quite clear enough to put on a podcast and hear it over the shower. It doesn’t quite work. I was hoping that it would work.
Paul: Very aspirational. But they’re never really doing anything with them. But now they have this dog that has to be taken out like an hour a day.
Paul: Yeah. Emily: Is there one in the bathroom? Paul: There is, yes. Emily: Nice!
Isaac: You could not shower, or pause the podcast. Paul: That’s right. Or just put on music, which is fine. And actually the one who is sitting here, is that one right there. We have a friend of 42
Emily: I ended up with a cat like that. It was so high-energy that I ended up having to get a leash -- to walk the cat. Paul: Wow. Did it walk well? Emily: Pretty well. It was a struggle to get the
leash on. But he would stand at the door, and I could tell that he wanted to go outside. It was so stressful. I had to come home from work and play fetch with him. I had to take him back to the shelter. I felt terrible. It was a no-kill shelter.
one in this life. There really is. Paul is going to go grab some little munchies. We have lots of vegetables in the house, but nothing delicious to nibble on.
Paul: We actually did that before these guys. There was one cat that would just demand to play fetch. And so Alison would be writing, it would drop a play mouse right on her laptop, and just start meowing until she would throw it. And she just wouldn’t stop. And I think we had that one for the weekend, and then we took him back. We also put him behind a door. And his paws would go under the door and just start scratching.
Alison: Oh, Isaac, real quick - I was just thinking as I was putting Sebastian down that I wanted to mention, about being paid for my work, and the confidence thing. So at first I really did not believe that I should be paid, or that I should be paid that much. And it felt like very farcical, and like I was a fraud at the same time. But then I kept getting all of these great responses, like over and over from my clients. And that was what really built my confidence, and helped me increase my prices. Because I realized what I was doing was actually and legitimately providing value to them, and for them. And that was sort of the breakthrough. Where now, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I know that I’m a good writer. I know that what I’m doing is helpful to them. And so it’s reasonable that I’m compensated at the level of which I right. You know what I’m saying?
Alison: Terrifying cat. Paul: And it would start rattling . . . so we took him back, like, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Alison: And he was adopted the next week by some guy who thought it was awesome. Emily: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Alison: You know there’s something for every-
Emily: That’s so nice!
Alison: Because I am on a set price but, I mean come on, it’s a blog post guys. That’s kind of silly, right? But it’s also --- I am a good writer. And so it balances. And I’m also responsible. I always hit my deadlines. I always communicate with them. So there’s an up-charge for those things basically. You can get cheaper writers. You can get cheaper writers, but . . . Emily: It’s the same as with your contractor. Alison: It’s just what do you value, and what do you need? And how much are you willing to pay for it? Isaac: It’s a good hurdle to jump over. Alison: It is, man. It is. Because now I’m a writer! Isaac: Because once you get over it, you never go back. Alison: Right! Well, you hope. Emily: Well, there’s a friend of mine -- and this applies to all of us. But a friend of mine told me that first and foremost . . . So my primary hustle is working as a retoucher. Alison: Oh! Interesting. Emily: And that’s a specific set of skills, and it’s something that I spend a lot of time doing. But first and foremost we’re providing a service. And that’s how you maintain your clients. Alison: Right, right. Emily: Is by thinking of it that way, because especially with photography, there are a lot of people who are thinking . . . and I imagine with writing as well, “I just want to write and be creative!” But it’s such a small part of what you do. And I think that if you want to be successful as a business person, you have to approach it just like you are. You’re building these relationships, and recognizing your position in their success, and that kind of thing. Alison: I’m so sorry, I think that might be Paul [referring to her phone ringing].Otherwise I would no check the message, but aggressive text messages . . . Yes. It is. Oh, great, okay,
perfect. Emily: It’s nice that you have a sense for these things. Alison: Yeah, it’s weird. Emily: So twelve years you guys have been together? Alison: Yeah. He’s great. I like him! He really makes me laugh. He’s just lovely. Isaac: How’d you meet? Alison: I was Paul’s intern. Oh, but with your point, real quick, about maintaining and doing re-touching work versus, and also doing photography. That balance is one thing they talk about a lot in The Well-fed Writer. Oh, do they? Or am I conflating things. I might be. But the one thing that I definitely wanted to mention is that, so I help teach a class on innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship down at Rutgers. It’s called “I.C.E.” It’s a lot of fun, the kids are so cute. But what it was all about for me, and the reason that I wanted to do it, and the reason I would schlep all the way down to New Brunswick, which was not fun, was because I felt like no one ever told me when I was in college, that I had enough skill-sets at that point to go do something. And I don’t know if you guys can identify with this at all, but I really felt like I had to graduate from college and then go work for someone so that I could learn how to be something -Emily: Yes. Alison: -- and that I didn’t possibly know how to do stuff then. And the reason that I help create the class is because I really wanted them to know: right now you are good enough. You are smart enough. You are capable enough. If you’ve gotten to this point in your life. If you’re at a good college and are showing up in class to talk to me. You’re competent enough that you can go and do something. Because I had this work history that was very varied, and I got some great experiences that I really cherished, but it was also in many ways I feel like it was a waste of time in retrospect. I’ve been a writer from the beginning. And when I was doing all of these other things, I was sort of running 45
away from it. Isaac: Do you write every day? Alison: I couldn’t even tell you the last time that I was writing every day. It was probably in fifth grade with my journal, you know, like, “Jake is so hot!” Isaac: Do you still have those? Alison: Oh, do I . . . Alison: Jake is not hot. Talk about peaking early, man. Isaac: Yeah, what happened? Alison: I think it just happens. I think the hot kids in high school, it just doesn’t work out for them so much. I think they get too much validation for the wrong things too early in life. That’s my deep psychological analysis of it. And then . . . Isaac: Is Jake a fictitious person? Alison: Jake is real. Yeah. Jake is real. His name has been changed, though! But, all of the boys. All of the hotties. All of the hot girls. It’s . . .you know what I’m talking about. Emily: I know what you’re talking about. Isaac: Britney Spears. Alison: Exactly. Isaac: She’s it. She’s everything. Why would you not want to be Britney Spears? Alison: She was. Isaac: And then . . . Alison: Oh, right. Right. Emily: It comes down to a matter of self-care, that keeps you . . . If you have good hygiene, you dress comfortably, and put together. That’s kind of the difference, to your psychological . .. Alison: Yeah, I think they just get too much attention for the wrong things too early. And 46
so then they think, “Well, oh, if I’m hot, then I don’t need to study.” Emily: Sure. Alison: “And so if I don’t need to study, then I’m not going to go to college. And if I don’t go to college, then I’m going to end up being . . . whatever.” And I’m not saying that you have to go to college in order to be successful. That is not the message. Isaac: It’s an interesting connection. Alison: Who knows. Maybe it’s, I don’t know -self-esteem issues, maybe it’s over-confidence. But it’s sort of this idea that . . . it’s sort of the opposite of what I was talking about with women and entrepreneurship and confidence, and feeling like a fraud or not. The Atlantic did this huge article on it. And I was just re-reading it. And it was talking about the confidence gap between men and women. And it’s not that men are trying to be jerks. It’s just that they genuinely think that they are awesome, at everything. And it’s like, “Of course you’d want to hire me!” Whereas women are thinking, unless we are at one-hundred percent capability -- for example, when you see a job description, it’ll be like, “Oh, if you’ve got this, this, and this, please apply.” Right? And if women are missing one, they won’t. But if men have twenty percent of it, they’ll apply. Emily: I feel like I had to be given the permission from a man, to think like that. And then once I kind of started thinking that way I was like, “Oh, I will definitely be negotiating my salary.” That kind of thing. Alison: Yeah. It’s interesting, because those are always messages from men. You know? Emily: Yes. Alison: This has absolutely nothing to do with anything you’re writing about, and I’m so sorry. Isaac: No, actually, it does. I think this is extremely valuable. Alison: I took Sebastian to the Upper West Side yesterday to see his cousin, who is ten. And he had a take your family to school day.
And so he was over-the-moon excited. With me his cousin was like, “You’re basically Sebastian’s carrier, so make sure Sebastian is there.” So we’re on the subway. So first of all I was waiting for the subway, and I was seated. And this guy who was sitting next to me looks over, and he’s like a guy in his mid-fifties, and he’s like, “I remember those days.” With a little baby. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s so sweet. How old are you kids now?” And he’s like, “Twenty-four and twenty-six -- they’re both in jail.” And I was like . . . “Well, it happens to the best of us. It does. There’s lots of . . .” Isaac: That’s a good response, I think. Alison: What are you going to say? It’s crazy, the incarceration rates in the U.S. In any event, he was like, “Yeah, but you know. I just think it’s horrible how women are treated. You guys give life. You nourish life. You raise the next generation. And you’re treated in this horrible way.” And I was saying, “Thanks, dude. That’s really nice of you. I appreciate that.” So I get on the subway. I’m hanging out. Sebastian’s stroller is enormous and I put it where it’s trying not to take up space, but it is, because it’s a stroller, and it’s enormous. And I’m going to get off at the next stop. And this woman, who is also in her fifties, and she’s got a little yoga mat. And she looks at me, and she’s like, “You should move that stroller. Because it’s impeding people going in and out.” And I look at her, and I was like, “Oh, I’m getting off at the next stop.” And I paused and I was like, “But you know, it would be really nice if you offered to help.” Emily: Yeah. It’s an interesting foil. Alison: Yeah, and she looked at me -Emily: You said that? Alison: Oh yeah, I said it. Emily: Yes. Alison: I know because it’s weird, it’s really weird with a kid. Do you have kids? Emily: No. Alison: It’s really weird with a kid how you’re
treated. Simple niceties that you assume people would do -- they do not do. But then others really do it. But it’s a very weird thing, where you’re like, “I didn’t expect it from here, but I got it here.” It’s really fascinating to see. Emily: Yeah. Alison: So she looks at me, and she’s like, “You think you’re so special with your kid and your stroller. We’ve all done this before. What, like it’s a big deal?” And she storms off. And it hurt my heart so much. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, that’s so mean, and vicious. And I’m just going to the Upper West Side to do this thing, for this kid.” And I just got off at a subway stop that doesn’t have an elevator. And so I have to tromp up these stairs, with a stroller, with a kid. And I thought, “Alright, I’m going to remember what one of my business mentors said at one point, which was to ‘Always be a duck.’ Right? ‘In life you want to be a duck. You want to be calm on the surface. Your feet are, you’re working really hard underneath, but no one sees it. They don’t need to realize how hard you’re working. And then everything rolls off your back.’” Emily: That’s nice. Alison: And I thought, okay, right? The idea is not to take it personally. And I thought, “Who knows what this lady has been through. Who knows where her kids are. We know that the last guy, his kids are in jail. Who knows what she’s going through.” And her thing, it wasn’t about me. That was something way about her. And I just happened to be there. And I also then thought about when I used to take yoga, one of my yoga teachers would say, “You can’t do yoga here, and not do yoga in life. Yoga is a lifestyle. You can’t be in here, and calming yourself and breathing peacefully, and then go outside, and drive like a monster. If you’re going to do yoga, you have to do it everywhere. And you have to imbue this in all aspects of your life.” And so I was thinking about that, and I get to the stairs. And I have this enormous stroller, and this kid, and I start carrying the stroller up the stairs. And the stroller is so big that it’s taking up the entire staircase. No one’s coming down, or going up, right? And this young and fit guy comes huffing down the 47
stairs and he looks at me like, “Oh, can I help you?” Meanwhile, there was an old guy with a cane at the bottom, and you can see that he wanted to help me, but he was an old guy with a cane, right? And so now he, the old guy starts directing us, and he’s like, “You move the top two! You move the . . .” Isaac: He’s helping! He’s contributing. Alison: Right, he’s offering his stroller-maneuvering advice. Very helpful. Isaac: This is how it’s going to be done. Alison: Right. So he’s yelling at us from the bottom of the stairs. The guy and I get to the top. And I thank him. I’m like, “This is such a huge help. I really appreciate it.” And he’s like, “No problem! You have a great day.” And jogs down the stairs, and off to catch the train. And I was just like, “Man, what different responses I got in the span of an hour: I got the guy whose kids are in jail. The woman who is angry. The old guy wanting to help. And the young guy who actually carried the stroller up the stairs.” And it just . . . I have no idea why I was telling you that story, it was very important, and I forget why. Emily: It made me think of the way that . . . we were talking about getting messages from men . . . but the way that women treat each other also. Alison: Right, you guys are really good at keeping track of where the conversation came from.
too short, you look like a slut.’” You know what I mean? Alison: It’s a really good point. About how you wouldn’t treat yourself in the way . . . just how judgmental, right? Emily: We’re terribly judgmental. Alison: And then you get to be the fifty-yearold lady going to yoga, and being like angry at the mom. Isaac: Yeah, like, did you just come from yoga, or are you about to go there? What’s going on? Alison: You should really stay there. Maybe let it last for a while. Are there retreats? Isaac: A second lap. Alison: Go Eat Pray Love for a little bit? And feel better. Isaac: So what are you writing, well, not for clients? Are you working on any books? Alison: No, it’s a great question. So not really. I have basically been just trying to do client maintenance -- I know -Emily: She’s crazy! [Referring to Samba] Alison: She’s very aggressive, with her need for love. Emily: I’ve never seen that.
Isaac: That one was all her! I lost it, but she picked it back up.
Alison: I’m not doing a lot. I have about twothirds of a novel written, which is pretty fun.
Emily: I don’t know what happened before that. But I went to this, basically a women Democrats rally, pre-midterm election, and there was a woman who read some writing. I think there was poetry, and she talked a bit about the piece, and I think she maybe writes for the Atlantic, and publications like that. But her message was, “I have a daughter. And I think about how I treat my daughter. And I try to apply that not only to other women in the world, but also to myself. And I think of, what are the basic needs? How would you want to take care of them, and nurture them? And you would never be like, ‘you’re fat.’ or, ‘that skirt’s
Isaac: Nice. What’s the title? Do you have a title?
Alison: No, not yet – will keep you posted! Isaac: Okay. Alison: It’s . . . well, I can’t give too much away, of course. Isaac: Of course not. Alison: But it’s a good question. I just don’t know.
Isaac: What else would you want to write? Alison: Well, all the things that I would write would be about reflections on life, and I do not want to publish anything about that. This was a very interesting thing to write, because I’ve never written anything personal that’s been published. Because I don’t really like to share in that way. I feel like it’s a lot of information. Isaac: I didn’t know that. I didn’t realize that. Alison: Yeah. No, I don’t write personal things, ever. With sort of the idea that, I think it’s too intimate of a portrait. Isaac: Are you saying that you don’t write personal things for publication, or that you don’t write personal things for yourself either, like journaling? Alison: No, I don’t really. You know what I do? I keep a journal for Sebastian. About how awesome he is. Like, “Today he really liked Cheerios.” And things like that. And it’s not an everyday journal sort of thing, but it’s like, “Today we moved you from the sink in the bathroom to the sink in the kitchen sink. Because you’re big, and you don’t fit in the bathroom sink anymore.” But I keep a journal for him, but I don’t really write personal stuff. Isaac: They say you could publish non-fiction as fiction, right? Alison: So I’ve heard about people doing this, and then the people reading it . . . If I wrote about you, right? Then you would read it, and you would be like, “This guy is such a jerk!” And have no connection that it was you. Apparently this happens all the time, that people don’t see themselves in the way that others see them. Isaac: Can you believe this guy? Alison: This guy is horrible! Yeah. Yeah, but I really don’t write personally. Isaac: Well it will be interesting to see, whether that evolves, or whether it changes. Who knows. Alison: Yeah, but it’s actually . . . this piece was
some of the most fun writing that I’ve done. It was fun to talk about a journey. It was cool. I really enjoyed it. Isaac: I’ve recently been reading On Writing Well, and the author, William Zinsser, says that a writer must get himself piqued up, in the same way that an actor or sports player must. Do you agree that, and if so, what do you do to pique yourself up to write? Alison: I don’t agree with that. But, I also think that everyone has their own individual habits and tendencies. There’s also all the people who say “You have to write in the morning.” But if I write in the morning, I’m not writing anything. I have to write at night, and quietly, when the world is asleep. I think it’s just different for everyone. For me, I just like to start writing. I like to just sit down and write, because I feel like how I write is really my voice. And I just sort of let it flow. One of the things that I really enjoyed about writing the novel that I’m working on was that it was like, “Oh, I’m going to hang out with my friends, the characters, again.” Which kind of freaked me out, because they’re in my head. But there are characters that you create. And I thought that there was something really fun. And I realized that I have their entire future at my fingertips - as in what happens to them. Do they get killed? Do they fall in love? Do they, I don’t know, get run over by a train? What happens to them? And that I found to be a very cool process. So I imagine that as I have more time and Sebastian is a little bit older, that I’ll really enjoy going back into that world. But I do feel like it’s a world that I need to very purposeful go into. Because if I don’t, I just won’t ever go. You know how some people are just like, “Oh, the muses.” Or, “I was just inspired.” And I think that’s one part of writing that I think is universal, which is that you can’t wait for inspiration. In that you can be inspired, and you can write cool things, but that if you wait for that inspiration, you’ll never write. And so you just always have to be doing it. Isaac: Absolutely. Alison: Because if not you’ll never write. So that was one of the things that I love about the freelance gig is that I’m always writing. It’s still keeping that voice going. Still keeping that 49
process going. Did you see the movie Great Expectations? Emily: I love that movie! I just watched it recently. Please tell me you’re talking about the one with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke. Alison: Yes. Oh my God. So amazing. Did you see this? Isaac: It’s on my list. Alison: It’s beautiful. Emily: The styling, the lighting, the execution. The characters. Alison: It’s awesome. You need to check it out. It’s just a very beautiful rendition of the tale, which you know, right? Isaac: Yes. Emily: They changed some of the character names but the plot line is -Alison: It’s the same thing. It’s just a modern rendition. But it’s really well done. And I encourage you to watch it from an artistic . . . because you’re a writer, from that viewpoint. There’s a section where Ethan Hawke, who is a painter in the movie. And he’s the male lead. Isaac: Nice, I’m sure he plays a painter well. Alison: He does. Emily: He does very well in his t-shirts, and with his lines.
“Hey, I’m going to give you all of this money. And a place to live if you’ll just paint. And that’s all you need to do is just paint.” He’s all moody like, “I don’t paint.” But he accepts the offer. And so then there’s this great soundtrack. Amazing. Emily: The soundtrack is so good. Yes. Alison: Amazing. Amazing soundtrack going in the background while he’s talking about -- and he starts painting again. And so it’s him painting to this amazing music. And he’s saying, “Even though I abandoned art, or painting, even though I abused it, even though I haven’t been painting for all of this time, it just came back to me. It’s a gift. It’s something that I just have.” And that’s how I feel about writing. Emily: She almost recited that word for word. Isaac: We’ll get the script -- we’ll compare . . . maybe you’ve seen the movie a few times. Alison: Maybe once or twice! I haven’t seen it since high school. Emily: It’s on Netflix. Alison: Is it? Emily: Yes. [Paul enters once more, bearing an array of snacks - cheeses, salami, ham, cold cut slices, bread, red wine. We’re thrilled, and welcome him.] Paul: You guys are still going strong?
Alison: That was his peak, wasn’t it?
Alison: We’ve had a lovely time. How’s the outside world?
Alison: But there’s scene in the movie where -- so he’s a painter, but the idea is that he’s not making any money from it, so he’s stops being a painter . . . for some reason. Emily: Yeah, there’s the point in his life where the time just sort of speeds up, and all of the sudden the lawyer appears. Alison: Right, but he hadn’t been painting. And so there’s this lawyer who show up and says, 50
Paul: Lovely. Alison: Excellent. So that’s how I feel about writing, that it’s always been a part of me. I don’t know if you feel that way about art, or photography. Emily: I feel like that about creativity. I’ve only been in the photography industry for five years. I’ve kind of hopped around from a bunch dif-
ferent things. But there was a strong period of my life where I was very pragmatic. And I was very into science, because that felt like something that was less abstract. Where I would look at a blank screen, or blank piece of paper, and just feel overwhelmed. But life shifts, and it turns, and things happen. And your priorities re-align. And what’s important to you re-aligns, and you start to explore things again, which is what sounds like happened to you with writing. Alison: Yeah, totally. It’s true. And I feel like it was always there. And again, talking about how Paul and I talk about, literally every day, how lucky we are -- that’s part of the narrative. How lucky that I can write. I get that my clients are like, “We can’t do it. Please do this thing.” And if I didn’t have this talent, then this wouldn’t be the life that we have. And it’s not anything that I did, I think. Maybe it helped that I was a big reader as a kid. They say that good readers are good writers, but who knows how much . . . Emily: It’s certainly not . . . It’s not something that everybody enjoys doing. I’ve heard you say a few times, “I’ve been writing since I was a kid.” And I used to have a visceral reaction to having to write papers, or having to write creatively. My body is just like, “Nooooo.” So I think it is a special skill and ability, or predilection. Alison: Yeah. And luck. I think it’s luck that we’ve been able to cobble up this together. Luck that we ended up with the apartment. Luck that we ended up in a lovely neighborhood. Emily: Wait, wait, wait. No way! Because you put so much work into that. Alison: Really, I would say that I totally think it’s luck. I think it’s dumb, stupid, luck. And we’re in the best school district in Brooklyn -dumb, stupid luck -- we didn’t know that when we came here. Dumb, stupid luck that we got the apartment with the pissed off lady who was like, “Whatever, ya’ll. I’m not showing my apartment. I just had my apartment flooded and my kid almost died.” Dumb, stupid luck that we were the only ones who showed up. There’s just so many series of . . . because if you had me and Paul as applicants, with two
dogs and two illicit cats, and I’m pregnant . . . I do not think you’d pick us over anyone else the world. Yes, we have good credit scores. Yes, we can check all of the various boxes. But I think if you had a choice, and you see us, and two dogs, or you see two quiet roommates who don’t have dogs, and also excellent credit -- I think it’s luck. I really, really do. We applied for a bunch of other apartments, and they were like, “Nope! Don’t think so, sunshine.” And we walk by them, and we’re like, “Man, we could have lived there. There’s one in particular on St. Marks and Fifth. And I always walk by and I’m like, “I could have lived there.” And I walk by one on Sixth Avenue near Prospect Place, another place that Isaac showed us. And every time Paul and I go by, we stop the car, and we’re like, “Can we see the people who moved in. Let’s see!” Isaac: I know, because they never gave us an answer. They never said “No.” Alison: That was so weird. They could still say, “Yes.” Paul: We’re still waiting. Alison: Any moment! You never know. I think it’s hard work, but I think it’s mostly luck. I think about photography a lot with Sebastian, because we’re always taking pictures of him. And there’s so many pictures where my finger just didn’t click in time. You know what I’m talking about, I’m sure. And so I miss that moment, over and over, and I try in my mind to make a mental image of that moment. Emily: The decisive moment. Alison: Right. I tried to get it! I try. And once in a while I get it, but . . . Emily: That’s pretty much how it goes. Unless you just keep pressing on the shutter. Alison: By the way, so you asked how Paul and I had met. So I had just gotten out of a threeyear long term relationship with my college sweetheart. We were definitely not going to get married, but he was like, “I’m going to propose to you.” And I was like, “Okay, we’re going to end that here, sir. I love you a lot, but not for life, like that.” I was always in long-term 51
relationships, so I made a deal with myself that I’d be a single for a year, and just play the field. Which was very confusing for a woman who has always been very monogamous and only dating one person at a time. I would be out at dinner, and looking at someone and be like, I don’t know your name. Are you this guy? Or are you this guy? And did I tell you that story, or did I tell the other person? It was so bad. I did not enjoy it. So I’m single and hanging out, and I started my internship with Senator Frank Lautenberg, and Paul walked in and I looked at him, and I was like, “Oh, it’s him.” And then Paul saw me, and then his first thought was, “There’s trouble.” Which I like to think was though in a loving way, darling? Paul: Yes! Alison: And then I kept trying to get Paul to ask me out, which he wouldn’t do, which was not cool. Emily: How would you do that? Alison: I would be like, “Oh, hey, I want to talk about my career. Can we go get some coffee?” And Paul would be like, “That’s inappropriate, no.” Yeah, meanwhile – Paul: Did you tell them about the phone call? Alison What phone call? Paul: When I gave you my number.
Emily: Oh, my . . . Paul: But the thing is, we knew each other well enough, that I knew that she would know that it was a joke. Alison: I was heartbroken. Paul: But you knew that it was a joke. You told me afterwards, “Oh, that was really funny, but . . .” You knew it wasn’t serious. Alison: It’s all true, but it was just . . . Emily: He got you. Alison: Quite. So then we ended up hanging out, and this is when we’re friends, professional colleagues. Because what I found out later is that it’s against Senate ethic rules to date an inferior, what would you call that? Paul: A subordinate. Alison: A subordinate. So anyway, I convinced Paul to somehow go out and hang out for the day one weekend. So we went down to the shore. We were in Jersey, so it’s about an hour away. We spent an amazing day together, just talking, and hanging out, and we go out to dinner -- we pay for ourselves, this is not a date, we just happen to be enjoying a day together. And then, and this is the days of A.I.M. to, so we had been chatting. Isaac: Nice. Let’s bring the screename back.
Alison: No, I don’t want to tell that story, that still hurts my heart, sweetheart.
Paul: I thought you thought it was funny.
Alison: So he gave me his phone number, which I was really excited about. And I was in this honor society at Rutgers, which was all of these sort of cool kids. And I was so proud, because they all had heard about Paul, right? And so I was like, “Let’s call him while we’re at a meeting. And it’ll be funny, right?” And one of my best friends, a guy, was a like, “Oh yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll call him and I’ll give him a hard time.” So on speaker phone, he dials up Paul’s number and it’s like, “You’ve reached the rejection hotline.” And I am standing there in front of all of my friends and I’m trying not to die…
Alison: So Paul goes dark. We just had this beautiful day.
Emily: Whoa, what? Alison: And he’s not on A.I.M. And I’m getting a little antsy, because this guy -– we had been talking everyday and I’m thinking, what’s going on. And so I A.I.M. chat, or message, I don’t even know . . . Paul: I.M. Alison: I.M. Right. Back in the day. Man we’re
gonna be old talking about this stuff. Isaac: That’s right -- the away message. Alison: Right, because you could put these layers of subtle meaning . . . like, I want this person to know . . . There were all of these layers to it. But, anyway, so I contact one of his co-workers and I’m like, “Hey, how’s Paul doing?” And they write back, “Oh, he’s dead.” Emily: What?! Alison: And I’m like, “Oh.” Yeah, real life. And they’re like, “He hasn’t been to work since last week.” - So, since Friday, and I had seen him on Saturday, and now it’s Thursday. And so we haven’t seen him, we have no idea, they just assume that he’s dead. Because Paul is not someone who misses work. So then Paul signs on to A.I.M. and I message him, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh! You’re okay. You’re alive. I’ve been so worried.” And the message that comes back is, “Paul is dead. This is his aunt. He has died.”
I’m just signing onto his computer to clean up his accounts.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, what happened?” And she’s like . . . “she” . . . it was Paul! “She” responds, “How could you be contacting me at this time? How could you ask me these personal questions? I can’t talk to you about this.” We’re chatting for an hour. And I’m freaking out because I like he’s this guy, I really liked him, and now he’s dead. This is just so weird. Anyway. It was a lie, as we can all now see. Emily: Wait, how long were you chatting with him? Alison: An hour! Yeah, because I was freaking out -Emily: Oh my God, this is so terrible. Alison: Yeah, so, anyway, it turns out that in real life, Paul had a spontaneous Neuro-thermax, which is a very fancy way of saying all of the sudden his lung popped, unprovoked, for no particular reason.
Paul: I love that you still enjoy this story.
Paul: I was in the hospital for a week.
Alison: You’re very lovable. So, “Paul’s dead.
Alison: Right, he was in the hospital for a week. 53
And that’s why he hadn’t been in touch with anyone. But I didn’t know any of that. So Paul was also an E.M.T. at the time. So when he felt it happen, he was in a meeting for work, and he knew that either he would be dead in five minutes, or he had a couple of hours. Because it’s either, it bursts with blood, or it bursts with air. If it bursts with blood you die right away. If it bursts with air, then the air fills up your body cavity, because the air leaks out of your lung . . . anyway, it’s very freaky. Emily: So scary. Alison: So Paul just stays in the meeting, because he’s like, well, either I’m going to die right now, so no reason to make a fuss. Paul: That’s my work-ethic right there. Alison: Yeah, so I’ll just wait. The meeting ends, and Paul’s still alive, so he’s like, okay, it’s the other one. So his boss is talking to him in the parking lot, and Paul is hunched over a parking meter because he can’t stand, because he’s loosing oxygen Emily: Why had you not gone to the hospital? Paul: I didn’t want them to know that anything was going on. Alison: Yeah. So anyway. So Paul’s hunched over is like, “You know, I think I’m feeling a little under the weather. I think I’m going to go home.” Paul now totally knows what’s happening to him, because he has this E.M.T. training. So he drives himself to the hospital. And he’s wearing a suit because he’s just been at work all day. And he goes and he sits down in the waiting room. And you sat in the waiting room for . . . four hours? Paul: Yeah. Alison: Reading a newspaper, because they all just assumed that he was there with someone, because . . . Emily: His composure. Alison: And he was just reading a newspaper in a suit in the waiting room of the E.R. And they finally came over to him, and they were like, 54
“Are you okay?” And he whispered, “I can’t breathe . . . “ Paul: At that point, your throat shifts to one side, which is the sign that this is really bad. And then they were like, “We gotta get him in!” Emily: Oh my god. Alison: And then, so they had to cut you - to put in a tube to suck out the air. But it’s a teaching hospital, so they cut him the wrong way. And they’re shoving in the tube and they’re like, “It won’t go in!” But then they figured out that they were missing a part, right? Paul: Yeah. Alison: Anyway, it was very dramatic. And Paul was not dead. But he had gone through a lot. So on the last day of the internship -- this all transpired, and Paul came back to work, he was alive, we kept flirting. The last day of my internship, one of my buddies was up from Rutgers, and he’s like, “Hey, I’ll give you a ride home.” And I was like, “Oh no, actually - Paul’s going to drive me home.” And Paul looked at me, and it was like . . . this had not been discussed at all, but, he did! Emily: How long had elapsed between the date, and the end of the internship? Paul: There was no date. Alison: That was our little beach day. That had happened before Paul’s lung -- so that was . . . I was still in my internship, so that was our friendly day that we happened to spend together and then pay for dinner ourselves. So it wasn’t a date. So then that day, Paul drove me home, and we went out to dinner, and he paid for me. And I called all of my girlfriends, and I was like, “He paid! It’s a date! Oh my god.” And we’ve been together ever since. Isaac: [to Paul] Is that how it went down? Paul: That’s it, pretty much. Emily: From hearing this, you strike me as an incredible pragmatist. Seriously. Alison: One of the things that we talk about
all the time is how thankful we are that we moved into the city. One of the things that I was advocating, as the cult-joiner, and person of disrepute was, what if we just got a pieda-tierre? We could hang out in Jersey, and we could come in . . . we’ve got our whole life in Jersey. And Paul was like, “No, no, no. pragmatist, we’re following the rules. We’re doing everything by the book. We’re moving in on time. We’re going to be there.” Man, the amount of people that Paul has to deal with now who aren’t living in the City, and every time it comes up now we think, we’re so grateful.
THE MAN FROM PEAKIN, ILLINOIS. Robert Englebrightâ€™s journey of ambition, ambivalence, and renewal. Profile: Isaac Myers III Photography: Alexandra Bildsoe
I. FIRST IMPRESSIONS - GRAND CENTRAL STATION. Robert Englebright moved from Chicago to New York in 1999. His first apartment was in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. By the time the millennium turned, he had spent over a decade learning and practicing the craft of commercial photography. This fall he’ll be fifty-eight. He has broad shoulders and a strong handshake, and wears blacked-rimmed glasses that he often pairs with a black ball-cap or an ascot hat, which he takes off whenever he hears a thought or a phrase that catches his interest. On a Saturday last November, I met Englebright in the middle of Grand Central Station. In addition to his own work as a photographer; Zigna – a commercial photography firm that originated in Denmark –– brought Englebright on board three years ago. When they hired him, he was already working through his three-to-five year plan to move back to Chicago. So when they offered him the opportunity to manage and train their photographers, Englebright told their managing director that he would only take the job under one condition: that he would eventually help the company open a franchise in Chicago, and that they would move him back there in order to do so. That afternoon in November he had on blue jeans, a black jacket, black ball-cap, and orange Nikes. I walked over to meet him and when I shook his hand, I was impressed by the strength and certainty of his grip. He has a real “good to see you, put her there,” sort of handshake. In his left hand he held a take-away bag that I asked about -- “Peruvian food,” he said, “A little on the salty side, but still, tasty.” We looked for a place where we could enjoy some of the sunlight. Eventually we found Perk Café, a small and quiet coffee shop on East 37th Street, between Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue. We ordered our drinks, found a table by the window, and started with real estate. I asked him about his work shooting interior spaces for real estate agents. “With real estate photography, it’s a mutual endeavor, I’m the photographer, but I can’t just be thinking of myself when I’m taking the photographs,” he said. “I have a client who has hired me for a specific reason, so I have a different hat on as a real estate photographer, rather than when I’m just shooting on my own.” As Englebright had previously spoken of shooting spaces for interior designers, he was quick to compare that work with the work of shooting for real estate agents. “With real estate photography, it’s more of a numbers game. It’s shooting a lot, but it doesn’t take as long,” he said. “Whereas when photographing for interior designers, I’m able to charge a lot more, and it’s just one job that could be an entire day at a location. And with real estate photography, you’re trying to convey the spaciousness of an empty room –– or the flow, the layout of an apartment. You’re trying to do that with photography, so that people can look from one photograph to another and get an idea 62
of how the rooms fit together. Whereas, with interior designers, you’re trying to show off their work. You’re trying to show off surfaces, patterns, fabrics, their use of color, how they coordinate it, fixtures, all of that stuff. So it’s a different animal. You’re coming in close on things, and there’s different composition elements that you take into account.” When I asked Englebright what criteria should be used to evaluate the quality of one photograph against another, he expressed the importance of taking each photograph on its own merit. “For the most part it’s subjective, but there are criteria that can make a good photograph, but then you could see a photograph that seems to be counter to all of that, and still be a great photograph, but then when you get behind it, you realize that the guy who took the photograph is a really good photographer, and knows all of those rules and criteria, and is breaking them intentionally.” Although we pulled at this question for a short amount of time, it was clear that Englebright was more interested in the question of what it actually means at all, to be a photographer. From 2013 through 2015, he spent a great deal of time growing his own work as a photographer. These efforts can be seen from the photo and journal blog that he included on his website, which features a series of posts beginning in September of 2013, then rising and much like a bell curve, the frequency falling off again by the end of 2015. Englebright mentioned that he had tried to keep up with the blog in order to grow his own private work as a photographer, but that as more time passed, he grew more frustrated by the nature of blogging. “It just feels so self-involved,” he mentioned, “as though I’m just writing and writing things about my own work that no one will ever read.” Even so, one post from March of 2015, “What is it to be a Photographer?” captures the plight that Englebright finds himself within, as a modern photographer. It’s now easier to claim to be a photographer without actually being one. One doesn’t need a darkroom. One doesn’t need to set apertures and shutter speeds. Cameras are cheaper (the amateur ones are cheaper -- the professional ones are more expensive). The boundaries have disintegrated. And the elitist stance that I may appear to be taking by having to define what is a photographer is made because of the effect this is all having on the profession. I can’t help but feel like the bar has been lowered regarding what it is to make a living as a photographer and the possibilities of doing so. He expressed similar thoughts when we met in person. “It’s a different business than what I came in doing, definitely. Companies would hire photographers, and most of the commercial photographers had training, they had learned from the photographers before them. Now people pick up a camera and it’s like, wow, I’m a photographer. And companies take advantage of the whole Instagram, Twitter thing by dangling them in front of people who take pictures -- ‘I’ll give you this watch and you go out and photograph it,’ and then they end up using it for advertising, and these people -- the 63
guy who took the photograph of the watch has no understanding of usage, of ownership, copyright, so he’s just basically giving his images away to this company without negotiating any usage fees, or rights, or anything like that. And this has just upended what it means to be a commercial photographer.” Englebright didn’t start taking pictures until he was eighteen. “I didn’t really pick up a camera until I was a teenager. But I was always into drawing, and painting, and ceramics, and jewelry making, all of that stuff.” He mentioned that when he did first start taking pictures, he was most interested in the abstract. While Englebright’s collection of images includes a number of intimate portraits and broad shots of cityscapes, his Second Impressions series has a way of catching people’s interest right away. The Second Impressions photographs are blurry, or as Englebright would at one point pause, to gently correct me: they’re “out of focus.” The subjects within the photographs exist more as placeholders for the presence of a human being, rather than as human beings themselves. In Two Women Standing in Times Square two women stand on a New York City sidewalk, just before the crosswalk. One woman appears to be dressed in a white top, with a gold skirt, while the other woman seems to be wearing a black dress. They’re both wearing heels. A ray of sunlight falls into the photograph, from just in between the buildings that stand on the other side of the crosswalk, which is covered by shade. A large building that’s just across the way from the two women stands in the way of the sun. On the side of the building you can see what appear to be orange letters and numbers along a ticker display. The photograph is out of focus, but still, the women’s presence within the photograph tells us that there’s a story unfolding here; something is happening. And because we can see just enough, and imagine just enough, a certain want and desire to solve the mystery, to bring these two women into focus, intensifies our interest. I was interested in hearing Englebright’s take, as to what inspired the Second Impressions series. “The idea was that photography by it’s nature is very representational -- and it’s very much a product of technology,” he said. “It was born in the industrial revolution and the advances in photography and technological advances have always mirrored one another as we go. The thirty-five millimeter camera, the digital camera. There have been these revolutions, so Second Impressions was my attempt to try and wrestle the medium away from the representational and to somehow convey what it’s like to try and remember something. Because you can never remember the details, you just remember the outlines -- the sort of basic forms in your memories. Maybe you’ll remember a specific detail, but for the most part there’s a generality. And so that’s what I was trying to do with 64
Second Impressions. I didn’t want it to be representational. But I don’t know how many people got the whole out of focus thing. Because you kind of have to approach those photographs without a certain assumptions as to what photography is.” Englebright’s Second Impressions collection made for a convenient pathway toward getting closer to what he sees as the purpose of fine-art photography. “I think there are certainly things you absorb, culturally, about what’s beautiful, and what’s not -- you learn those things. If you’re raised in another culture, beauty has different meanings. And it’s kind of the same thing -- where we’re culturally taught, or we’re not necessarily taught it, but we learn it, what beauty is supposed to be. And so that’s what we bring with us when we look at art. We bring with us the idea of what beauty is. So say you go to the Met and you’re looking at Washington Crossing the Delaware, or you’re looking at John Singer Sargent portraits, and then you happen to wander into the Twentieth Century wing, and you see abstract expressionism, or you see Picasso without ever having experiencing art in that way; you won’t have any dialogue whatsoever in your head, about how to process those things, so they’re completely foreign to you. And so I think for many people, that’s the same thing for photography. You learn that photography is very representational, that it’s a picture of a wedding, it’s somebody’s graduation photograph, it’s a picture of your trip to Yosemite, it’s a beautiful sunset. Look on Instagram, the most popular photographs are these highly-processed beautiful pretty pictures. Those are the most popular pictures. So that’s what I’m saying with Second Impressions -- it kind of goes against what people have learned photography is.” One question that I wished I would have asked him that afternoon at Perk Café related to the history behind his last name. To me, it felt quite apt that a man who spent an entire lifetime taking photographs would have the last name of Englebright. So a few days after we met, I sent him an e-mail, asking whether he had any background information on the history of the Englebright name. Only a few days later, with an unexpected depth and thoroughness, he wrote back. Hey Isaac: Interesting that you would ask me about my last name. I don’t know the specifics. My father once told me when I was a teenager that if I ever come across an Englebright there is a good chance we are related. In the two times that I have met a stranger with the same last name, I have found that to be true. Once when I was entering an Air Force base and the guard had a name tag that read “Englebright.” We were third cousins and he grew up knowing my paternal grandmother. The second time I got a call from a guy on Long Island who somehow saw my name on the internet and wanted to know if my family was from Illinois! His name is Steven Englebright, and he’s a New York State assemblyman. Luckily he’s a Democrat. My father’s certainty that I am related to any Englebright is because our branch of the family 66
changed the name at some point in the late 1800’s from Englebrecht to Englebright. But otherwise I do not know much about my ancestors other than they immigrated from Germany and settled in Indiana and then Illinois as farmers. My father came from a very rural background, and probably would have remained there had it not been for World War II. After that he was part of the wave of GI’s coming back from the war looking for work, and he found it with Caterpillar Tractor Company in Peoria, Illinois. That’s when my mother entered the picture and another generation of Englebrights was born. II. BEHIND THE LENS – THE UPPER EAST SIDE & WILLIAMSBURG. Although I sat down with Englebright on a bright Saturday afternoon in November of 2016, our friendship stretches back to December of 2015. Back then, I had my first exclusive rental listing and had solicited the help of a photographer. Englebright had been highly recommended. I had tried renting the place by using photos from my iPhone, but without any luck. The apartment was a junior one bedroom in the Cherokee, a unique and historic building in the Upper East Side. I like to think that Englebright had on an orange sweatshirt beneath a black coat, but I may be mixing this up with the orange shoes that he wore when I met him again in Grand Central in November of 2016. When I first shook his hand that afternoon in December of 2015, he was standing outside of the Cherokee’s most north-western entrance. Formally opened in 1912, and originally used as tenement house for working class families with one or more tuberculosis-infected members, the building is a six-story walk-up that’s made up of four open and light-filled courtyards. The layout is unique in that when owners and tenants and their guests walk out of their apartments; they do not walk into a hallway, but instead directly outside and into the airy stairways that stand in the four corners that surround the courtyards. After we met outside the building, I offered that we walk up the three flights of stairs to see the apartment. The owner had recently moved out, which was a blessing, as the apartment was without furniture, and in many ways, as I’d learn over time, easier to photograph. This was my first time working with a real estate photographer, and as I wasn’t sure how much orchestrating to do, or not do, I leaned heavily on Englebright’s insight. The apartment itself is a little over four hundred square feet; with a separate bedroom off of the kitchen; a living room that’s just long and wide enough for a love seat, desk, and if the resident would like, a small television mounted against one of the walls. I can’t remember whether Englebright asked where we should start, but if he did, I said wherever he thought would make the most sense, and if he didn’t ask, I must have just stood in the kitchen, sat back, and watched him go to work. He worked with a tripod, and as the apartment was set up an a Y-shaped fashion, he took a position near the apartment’s entrance near the kitchen, and looked across the kitchen and living 67
room. This was a junior one bedroom, and I had previously tried to fit the kitchen as well as the living room into one shot, but alas, no dice. So as Englebright prepared the shot, I waited in the apartment’s bedroom. He worked out how to get a shot that showed how the kitchen flows into the living room, and also a few that brought out the wall-colors in both rooms. From time-to-time, I’d have an idea for how to get the right shot, or how to improve a shot, and would run it by Englebright. Usually he’d give it a try. Sometimes I’d jump ahead of the camera, and remove a teapot, or other kitchenware items that would clutter the shot. Other times we’d purposefully position a prop item in the shot, in order to get a certain home-like and comfortable feel. We were collaborating. After he had enough interior photos, Englebright took his time to get a few quality shots of the outside of the building, including the light-filled courtyard and surrounding staircases. Only a few weeks later, I rented the place. Then one year later, I relied on these same photographs when the owner decided to put the place on the market for sale. After only two open houses, we reached an accepted offer. And as I was showing the apartment, one of the comments that I heard more than a few times from prospective buyers didn’t surprise me: “This place photographs well!” About eight months after I first met Englebright in the Upper East Side, he and I had dinner at the French Roast’s West Twelfth Street and Sixth Avenue location. As we sat at one of the tables outside on a hot and humid Thursday afternoon, we watched plenty of men and women walking up and down the eastern side of Sixth Avenue. Our conversation wove toward and away from photography. He mentioned an episode of NPR’s Storycorps show that he had listened to that brought him to tears. He offered that he had grown more and more interested in radio programs – and how he enjoyed listening to them while moving through the less technical aspects of his work. He mentioned that he lived in the West Village for a few years during the early and mid Aughts, and said that while it was nice being in his old neighborhood again, he was still glad that he had decided to move out to Flushing. He talked about the entrepreneurial aspect of his career, stringing together shoots and commissioned photographs and portraits; and more specifically, he talked about traveling up to the New York Rangers pre-season training sessions in Tarrytown, New York one summer, and what it felt like to stand amongst the giant athletes, and what it took to get them to sit and stand still for long enough to take their photographs. Englebright, who played hockey in middle school and high school, and for several years up and through his mid-forties had a particular interest in the Rangers shoot. When I asked him whether he saw any relationship between his hockey-playing days and his 78
work as a photographer, I thought that he might mention something about how he felt drawn to both due to their competitive nature. His actual answer was quite a bit better. “One of the things that I really miss is that when you’re playing – that’s what being in the moment is all about,” he said. “Playing hockey, those three periods go by like that, and it’s because you’re so concentrated on this one activity for that period of time that everything else is gone. I’m not thinking about time, I’m just thinking about this hockey game, and my participation in it, and when I’m on the ice, I’m focused. The most focused that I’ve ever been is while playing hockey, and it’s the same thing when I have a camera in my hand. I could just be walking around by myself, and it’s the same thing. A couple of hours could just go by like nothing, because I’m always looking around and thinking what can I take pictures of ? And my mind is occupied for that entire time on one thing.” About five weeks before we met at the French Roast Englebright had helped me with a three-family house in Williamsburg that was built around 1896. When Englebright showed up to shoot the place on a Tuesday afternoon the week after the Fourth of July, an eighty-year-old man was living on the house’s first level, and had filled the place with his decades worth of stuff: socks, plaques, books, newspapers, pill-boxes, a collection of cotton ball bags and the like. The walls were bare. The floor was made up of a grey and uninviting tile. And the furniture was about as old as the house itself. When Englebright met one of the owners of the house, a woman in her forties who moved to the United States from Albania, the two immediately took a liking to each other. I remember sitting by as they collaborated on how to shoot the apartment on the home’s second floor, which was as different from the first-floor apartment as I could imagine. Whereas the walls of her father-in-law’s apartment were beige and empty, these were alive with color and activity -- one was aqua, another orange, and the dining room was covered in wallpaper patterned with red brick, and also held a yellow refrigerator, which the owner had painted herself. As the owner and Englebright made their way through the second-floor apartment, they towed the line between what the place actually looked like, and what the story about the apartment that Englebright’s photographs would tell. Sometimes a door would be opened at a very purposeful angle, so as to let in just the right amount of light, while other times a door would be closed -- so that an unsightly collection of objects could remain just out of view. It’s not that the photographs told a different story, or that they stretched the truth about the house, its space and its condition, its rooms and the objects within those rooms, but that the photographs gave a potential buyer the 79
opportunity to see the house in its very best light. III. AT HOME - FLUSHING, QUEENS. Before Englebright moved back to Chicago, he lived off of the penultimate stop of the 7 Train in Flushing, Queens, the Mets-Willets Point station. The 7 train ends at Flushing Meadows Park, and Englebright’s apartment sits just on the other side of the park, along College-Point Boulevard. When we met at the French Roast back in August of 2016, Englebright mentioned that there’s a bus that takes you all the way around the park, but that he’s timed the difference between walking and taking the bus, and that the bus usually takes just as long. That night when I stepped off of the 7 train at Mets-Willets Point, I enjoyed the comfort that comes with being able to look out into the distance and see the night’s sky more fully; a feat that’s much more difficult while moving amongst and around the tall and dense buildings in other parts of New York. Once I stepped into Englebright’s place, I felt a warmth that extended beyond coming in from the cold outside. A loveseat sat against the wall that was perpendicular to the foyer. A rectangular coffee table stood before the loveseat, holding a collection of photography books. One that caught my eye and interest right away was The Art of the American Snapshot - 1888 – 1978. The book has a cover that displays a black and white photo of a woman standing in a giant field, with a ring around her right index finger, a small watch around her left wrist, and both hands raised in front of her to cover her face. We can’t see her face, but one thinks the gesture that she’s making is a playful one, rather than one that stems from shame, or fear. Englebright offered me a cup of tea and said that he’d give me a tour of the place. Both bedrooms sit at the back of the apartment, farthest away from the entrance and at the very front of the building, which gets plenty of light. And as the windows face west, the sun falls into both bedrooms in the afternoon and evening. We started with the larger bedroom, a room painted in an aqua like color, with two large windows that stand opposite the door into the bedroom, and look out over College Point Boulevard. Though it was already night outside, the light from the overhead light fixture in the bedroom created a calming glow against the room’s walls. As he stood in the center of the room and beside the bed, Englebright explained how he had painted the entire apartment over the week that Hurricane Sandy blew into town. “I couldn’t go anywhere else,” he said with a smile, “so I painted.” From there, we moved to the second bedroom, the smaller of the two, which held Englebright’s computer, two monitors, and photography equip80
Tea from Above - May, 2017 - Bildsoe, Alexandra.
ment, as well as a few photos. A photo within a small wooden frame that was sitting on his desk caught my attention. In the photo a woman with white hair wears black sunglasses and a white fur coat and black pants. She sits on a bench that’s surrounded by leaves that must have fallen from the trees nearby. It’s clear that the woman is aware of Englebright’s presence. And as she’s facing the camera, she’s glancing up and flipping her hair behind her in a fashion so as to suggest that life is meant to be thoroughly enjoyed, and that’s exactly what she’s doing in that moment ––– soaking up the autumn weather, living in the moment. I told Englebright that I enjoyed the photo. “That’s my friend, Joan,” he said. “We were in Central Park, and she knew I was photographing her, so that’s what she did,” he said with a smile. As we turned the corner and made our way into the living room again, I enjoyed looking through his book collection. Three or maybe four stacks line the wall across the way from the kitchen, just behind the love seat. And as I glanced at the stacks, I was reminded of how comforting it can be to have books on display. Not long afterwards, the hot water that Englebright put on was ready, so he poured two cups of tea. I had green tea. He had peppermint tea. And we started all the way back to his days in Peakin, Illinois. I asked him when he first stated playing hockey. “I started playing when I was eight, and I wasn’t very good for the first couple of years, but then I really improved,” he said. “I got a scholarship to Michigan State, I mean they called it a scholarship, but it was kind of a recruitment tool, for 81
Michigan State – like a summer camp. It was great. And I was awarded it, and that was the first time I experienced that kind of acknowledgment. And it was a really cool experience, and so then I really started taking it seriously.” He mentioned that his parents were working class, and that they didn’t have the income to send him and his siblings to college, and that although he had found an emerging interest in photography, he didn’t exactly have the grades to get into college – so he looked into joining the Air Force. When I asked how he decided that he’d join the Air Force, and whether a recruiter had visited his high school, he offered that he had actually approached them. “I went to the recruiter,” he said. “I went to them because I knew I wasn’t going to college, and there was no way that I was staying around Peakin, Illinois.” He started serving in 1977, the same year he graduated from high school, and was stationed at the Grissom Air Reserve Base, in Peru, Indiana. He said his decision to join the Air Force was one of the smartest decisions that he ever made. “It put me through college,” he said, “It’s paying my health insurance. I have health insurance through the V.A. If I want to be buried, I’ll be buried at Arlington cemetery. I could go to a V.A. old folks home if I want to. But there was no way that I was going to re-enlist. I wanted to go to college.” One afternoon in January, I was connecting from the Q train to the 6 train and walking through the Union Square subway station when I ran into a friend, Paul Esposito, who is a photographer as well. I mentioned that I was working on this profile, of Robert Englebright. “Now that sounds like an important man,” Esposito said with a smile, “just the name itself!” I mentioned to Esposito that Englebright shoots real estate photography, and asked him whether he ever shoots interior photos and he said that he didn’t. “Interiors are different animal,” Esposito said, “you’ve got to have more of an engineering background and mindset, it’s not for me.” So when I think back to how Englebright described his position at the Air Force on that Friday evening in December, it’s easy to see the connection. “In the Air Force I was in an air-refueling wing of the strategic air command,” Englebright said. “There’s different commands within the Air Force, so I’ll break it down. So I was in the 305th Security Police Squadron. I was in administration. That squadron was the security police. They guarded the base. The base was filled with, KC135s, which are air-refueling planes. They’re passenger planes that are just giant flying fuel tanks. And they fly up and they refuel jets in the air, so the majority of people on that base were some way in support of those tankers.” Of course Englebright would have a knack for shooting interior spaces. He had served in the Air Force. He had the engineering background that Esposito described. 82
Englebright first started working as a photographer after attending the University of Illinois Chicago’s school of Architecture and Design, where he majored in Art and Architecture. As he was reflecting on the time that he spent at UIC, within “the Loop” as he said with a smile, he mentioned that he was considering pursuing a masters of fine arts in photography at UIC once he returns to Chicago. He said he had decided to move back to Chicago to be closer to his family, but also, that he wanted to continue to challenge himself to improve his photography, and that the masters program would help. “I like the idea of going back to college, being challenged again in that environment,” he said. “And you’re in this environment where you’re being critiqued, and from what I remember, it’s just fertile territory.” When Englebright mentioned his desire to pursue a master’s degree, he also mentioned a dilemma that we both found interesting. “With the arts, you’re not really taken seriously unless you have a masters.” After he shared this idea, I thought of a quote that I had mistakenly attributed to Federico Fellini, but was actually said by Quentin Tarantino, “I didn’t go to film school, I went to films.” I had come across the quote months ago, while I was browsing through The Impossible Cool, a blog that’s made up of old black and white photos of celebrities. The photos are usually paired with quotes. The Tarantino quote lead us to an interesting predicament -- how there’s a divide between those who feel as though, in order to have any clout as an artist, and to demonstrate that someone has studied and worked with the best, then he has to at least have a masters degree. Perhaps this could be described as the “intellectual elitist” stance. And in fact earlier that evening, Englebright mentioned that he had been accused of being an intellectual elitist on Facebook. “Either you stop learning after high school or you’re an intellectual elitist!” He said with a smile. But in contrast, there’s just as strong of a sentiment that if you’re a real artist – you don’t got to school, but you study and work on your craft within the actual classroom: the real world. Perhaps this could be described as the “rugged individualist,” stance, and the one that Tarantino would defend. I thought it would be good to find the Fellini photograph and quote for him. Of course, I was actually looking for a photo of Tarantino. I had an inkling that Englebright might enjoy the Impossible Cool, and that it would be good to get his take on the photographs, so I went to the site. As we both looked through the photos, he offered an insight that I hadn’t considered. “Being the photographer, I want to know
who took the pictures,” he said. This reminded me of what Englebright had said at Perk Café about Instagram and commercial rights. I had been browsing the Impossible Cool’s site for years, yet at no point had I actually asked myself, “Who actually took these photographs?” Pushed forward by this question, we tried to find out. Though we spent about twenty minutes using Google’s “Search Google for this Image” feature, we couldn’t find a photographer’s credit for a single photo. Nonetheless, the idea, the problem, was firmly planted within my mind: less consuming, more creating, more credit and respect for those who create. As we looked through photos, it was easy to see the fascination and enjoyment on Englebright’s face. I could sense his engineering mind at work. When I asked him what it was like, viewing other photographer’s work, and whether it inspired or helped him take his own photographs, he offered a cooking analogy that was apt. “It’s sort of like, okay, I love this dish, how can I take the ingredients, and make a new dish out of it? How to apply that doing a portrait and trying to get that same attitude,” he said. “Like if one of those shots appeals to me, how to use it as influence, without replicating it entirely.” At one point we came across a photograph of Catherine Deneuve. In the photo, Deneuve is standing on a beach and wearing a white button-up sweatshirt as her hair is blowing in the wind. The photo seemed to be taken on a whim, and so I thought back to the book on Englebright’s coffee table, The Art of the American Snapshot - 1888 – 1978, and asked him how he would define “snapshot.” “What is a snapshot? A snapshot is representational photograph that’s taken literally,” he said. “I think that’s what a snapshot is. It’s just of a moment, someone taking a shot, taking a photograph of just something.” Whoever the photographer was, Englebright wondered how many shots it must have taken him or her to get just the right shot of Deneuve, with her hair blowing in the wind just the right way, and with her eyes focused into the camera’s lens with just the right amount of intensity. About an hour later, as we were flipping through a portfolio of Englebright’s work, we came upon a photo that he shot in a coffee shop along the Embarcadero in San Francisco. In the photo, two female baristas stand behind a counter at a coffee shop. Off to the left, a man in is walking in and looking directly at both of the women -- though neither one of them, in that exact moment, are aware that he’s looking at them. I told Englebright that I thought one of the most interesting aspects of photography is its ability to capture moments that are impossible to hold onto as we move through time. He considered this, then added his take. “That’s the thing about photography. I’ve studied it, so I can recognize it, but if you don’t 84
recognize it then you don’t realize that, because photography is so ubiquitous and commonplace that it’s easy to take for granted,” he said. “So people look at photographs and they think they’re just representations, they just think, oh, someone just took a snapshot. Because that’s what they do, they just take snapshots, and every once in a while they get lucky, and they take a really good photograph. So that’s how they view photography, but a lot of photography is about waiting. It’s about waiting for the right moment. It’s about having your camera, having it to your eye, and just, anticipating the right moment.” I asked him how he was able to take the photograph in the coffee shop along the Embarcadero. “I just got lucky, but luck favors the prepared mind,” he said. “And I happened to have my camera up in my eye, there was something in this scene, and this guy walks by, and I just kind of recognized it, and took the picture. You touched on it when you said, it’s probably more difficult to take that shot than it looked, the one of Catherine Deneuve. That’s just it. That guy probably took thirty, forty, fifty pictures of her just to get that one shot.” As we jumped back into his journey from Peakin to Chicago, from Chicago to New York, he told me about his first few months after UIC, and what it took for him to get his first job within the photography industry. “After college I couldn’t get a job right away in photography,” he said. “I knew I wanted to go into commercial photography, so I worked a year at an administrative position at this company that sub-leased computer main-frames, but the whole time I was looking for a photography job. So I finally landed one with a really good advertising commercial photographer.” That photographer was Jeff Schewe, who was working out of a studio that had been converted from an old warehouse type garage in Chicago. This was around 1988. Englebright had contacted Schewe upwards of ten times before the two men actually began working together. “I don’t remember how I found him, but I filled out an application. And there were a few people who I wanted to work for, so I just kept bugging them. Finally he was the one who said come in, and he gave me this technical test, with all of these questions. For example, what’s the maximum F-stop, or back then you would use view cameras for product photography, for technical reasons, so he was asking me the standard rail length of a sinar camera, which is an old school bellows camera, and just things like that. And then later, he interviewed me, and he hired me. And he let me know that the only reason for that test was because he wanted to show people what little they know. That was his personality. He was always saying things like that, ‘I want you to know that you don’t know shit! I’m the one who knows everything!’” After Schewe hired him, Englebright spoke of the two working together on shoots for 85
several large corporations. He mentioned a few McDonalds adds that they worked on, as a well as a few spots for Monsanto, and offered that they once travelled to Ireland on a shoot for Guinness. “Budweiser, had just bought Guinness, so we went to Ireland for a couple of weeks, and just drove around,” he said. “Schewe had scouts and the whole idea was to find these quintessentially Irish pubs, and photograph advertisements for Guinness. But it was mainly advertising, I was mainly doing advertising photography throughout the time that I worked with him,” Englebright said. After three years, Schewe’s temperamental personality began to wear on Englebright. “This is really what he said one time. I’ll never forget this -- the USPS driver screwed up or something and he didn’t get his package, and he was like, ‘I’m surrounded by idiots! And you’re one of them!’ Luckily, I had been in the military, so I had heard that kind of shit before. I had been through boot camp, so there was nothing that I hadn’t heard.” It seemed easy for Englebright to take a long took a long view of his career, how it had evolved and changed over the last thirty years. That evening he shared quite a bit about two photographers who had a big influence on him: Victor Skrebneski and Mary Ellen Mark. He told me how he first started working with Skrebneski. “I knew his assistant at the time, and his assistant wanted to quit. So first I was interviewed by the studio manager, and then I was interviewed by the vice president of the company, and then I was interviewed by Victor, and then they offered me the job.” He pulled out a giant hardcover book of Skrebneski’s work -- Skrebneski: The First Fifty Years. Englebright worked with Skrebneski in the late nineties, and whereas Schewe was never one to hold back his words, Englebright remembers his time working with Skrebneski quite differently “We talked, we were in the dark room a lot, so we had a lot of time to talk. But he more showed me things more than told me things.” I was wowed by the Skrebneski photographs. They held a certain stillness and depth, and also showed a bit of his personality. One black and white photograph was printed upside down; another zoomed in on a woman’s shoulder and cleavage. These felt like timeless images. “He did a lot of Haute Couture work, he did a lot of high-end fashion, and we would come to New York. We were in New York about two weeks a month,” Englebright said. And as he was traveling from Chicago to New York so often, it didn’t take long for him to decide that it was time, that he would move to New York. The year was 1999 and this would be when he found his place in Bensonhurst. “I think I answered an ad, I don’t remember where though. That was pre-Craigslist or anything like that, but somehow I found this guy who was looking for a roommate, and so I lived there for a couple of years.” 86
About two years after he moved to New York, he began working as an assistant for Mary Ellen Mark. He described one of the shoots with Mark, which allowed him to travel to Hollywood. “We went to Tim Burton’s house around the time that his version of Planet of the Apes was being filmed. We photographed him and that kooky wife of his at their house, and then we went to the set of the movie. No one remembers the movie, it was a flop, but still, it was cool to see the set!” After only six months, Mark asked Englebright to manage her studio. “She had a really good heart. She was a photo-journalist at heart, and you’ve got to like people. With the kind of photography that she did, there has to be an inherent empathy, and she had it.” The empathy that Englebright identified within Mark and within her work was easy for him to spot, because it’s within him as well, and shows up in his work in a similar way. “I really liked working for her,” he said, “because she relied on my technical expertise to do what really needed to be done.” Although Englebright was building a career, something didn’t feel right. The transition to New York had taken its toll on him. He missed his family back home, and although he had been offered the opportunity to work as Mark’s studio manager, he was struggling to keep things together. His worth ethic and drive had propelled him from Peakin to Chicago, and then from Chicago to New York. He was building his career, but he was also losing a bit of himself. When we met in November, Englebright mentioned that at this point in his life he realized that he needed to admit that he had a drinking problem, and that he was ready to get help. That same afternoon I told him that I too had quit drinking, and mentioned that some of his struggles with alcohol were the same as mine. We shared war stories, horror stories. He spoke more of his work with Mark, and how his drinking had affected their work together. “Mary Ellen Mark is considered one of the greatest female photographers of the late 20th Century, but this is how bad I was. She wanted to hire me as her studio manager, but I was still about eight months to a year from the decision to get sober. So here I had this great opportunity to work with this amazing artist, but I just couldn’t be bothered with it. Then one day, I just didn’t show up for a shoot. I was her first assistant, and she really relied on me to get film and to do all of the technical aspects of the shoot. And I just didn’t show up one day, crazy. So that was pretty much the end of that. That was when I sobered up.” He mentioned the twelve step program that he went through, and offered that steps eight and nine ––– relating to making a list of the people one has harmed and making amends to them whenever possible ––– led him to write Mark to apologize and ask for her forgiveness. As he continued to move through his sobriety, he worked as an assistant with a few other 87
photographers; however, after only a few months, he felt ready to change the trajectory of his career. “I decided that I’ve just got to stop working for other people. I have to stop working for other photographers. That was sort of a mini-revelation. I have to stop defining myself by other photographers, like who I’m working for. But then the question is, okay, but then how do I make a living until I get to the point where I can make my own money as a photographer? So I quit, and didn’t really have a plan B, but eventually I got a job as a personal assistant and I did that for three years.” The job as a personal assistant was with an owner of a now defunct rehabilitation center in Manhattan. “When I stopped working with Mary Ellen, I was just trying to think, what could I do? I thought as a personal assistant I could do a lot of different things, so I went for the interview, and the guy who was running the center says, ‘Okay, can you start tomorrow?’ He didn’t check up on my background, nothing. He had this okay-I-think-you’ll-work kind of way about him. But he was a nut, man.” Englebright said that when he first started working with the man, who we’ll call Stephen, the clinic was profitable. “When Stephen took over, it was a business that was focused on actually helping people, but by the time I came in, it was only taking Medicare and Medicaid recipients. The people who were coming in and out of that clinic were desperate. And to me, Stephen was just using them for the money he’d receive from the state for accepting Medicare and Medicaid, then he just kind of ran it into the ground.” Englebright added with a smile, “He also produced Broadway musicals and stuff, which was another part of his business that I didn’t quite understand.” It was remarkable to listen to him talk of a journey of approximately forty years with such clarity. Our memories can be so expansive once their jogged. I felt inspired, and was also reminded of how transient our lives can be, especially when they’re stretched out across decades. What may seem like a rut, an extended funk, a time in which nothing is working -- when stretched over a lifetime, in reality, is just a blip on the radar. At one point during this time of transition, he found himself selling his photographs of flowers, as well as some of his other work, in Central Park. “I had a little booth. I had a little folding table that I had brought for about six months or so. I had two tables, and a four-wheel cart, and I’d have my table, my framed prints. And I had self-published a little book of flowers, thinking that I would sell those books. And I had a modicum amount of success, but not enough to really want to pursue it.” It wasn’t that he didn’t give it an honest shot. “I took a three day course on how to sell your artwork. I was selling my prints for one hundred dollars, maybe one hundred and fifty. I tried selling 88
the prints for fifteen dollars, twenty-five dollars, but it left such a sour taste in my mouth,” he said. “I just thought – I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to be like that. I saw other photographers selling their work for less, but they weren’t doing what they wanted to do. I just wasn’t going to do it.” He explained this in a bit more detail, acknowledging that he realized why some people might not value his work in the same way. “I suppose it gets back to my old school way of thinking that I developed from school, from college, and from studying fine art. Most people don’t have a fine art background. Most people have never engaged in dialogue about what is art, and art appreciation. Most people are just laymen, or lay people who just look at a piece of work and they like it or they don’t like it. But they’re also putting a dollar value on it -- ‘I really like that photo, I’ll buy it from you for fifteen dollars,’” he explained. “I’m not selling a photo for fifteen dollars. I’m not selling a photo that I have printed, and that I have signed. It’s a numbered addition. I’m not selling it for fifteen dollars. But all of that’s foreign to them, and I’ve got to understand that. So is that a market that I want to sell my work in? No. So I had to walk away from it, and that’s what I did.” As he decided to move away from trying to sell his work to the public, I asked him how he decided to start shooting interior spaces. “When I was living in Chicago, one of the photographers that I assisted was Jessie Walker, and her clients were interior magazines, and so when I was working with her, I just learned how to do interior photography. How to light it. How to frame. How to interpret a three-dimensional space. She’s passed away since then. But she was probably in her late sixties by the time I was assisting her, a really elegant and wonderful woman,” he said. “But that’s how I learned it. And when I quit Stephen, the crazy business man, and was also no longer interested in really trying to sell my own work, I tried to think of things that I knew I could do that required a certain skill level that not just any photographer could do. And so I thought, interior photography. Because you’ve got to know what you’re doing in order to do it well. And actually my experience has borne that out since doing it here in New York.” Eventually this work in the real estate photography field would lead to him being contacted by Zigna. “I was doing a lot of work for interior designers. I had my profile on a couple of different websites, and they saw my work and contacted me. That was in January of 2015. Nothing really came of it until about May or June. Then they came to New York, and I sat down with the owners and the sales executive that they hired, and after hashing out a plan, we slowly started getting work.” Zigna eventually brought him on full-time. He mentioned how moving him back Chicago would be beneficial for both him as well as for Zigna. “They want to branch out anyway. They want to go to 89
San Francisco, Boston, and I don’t need to be here, really,” he said. I asked him whether there was one year in New York that he felt he owned more than any other. He didn’t hesitate. He said that year would be 2016. “I finally gained some traction,” he said. “I think 2016 is when a lot of my effort came to fruition -- a lot of the work that I’ve been doing, and that’s one reason that makes this year significant. I think I’m concentrating on my own work as a photographer more than I have in a really long time. I think when I was working as an assistant, when I was working as studio manager, when I was working for this crazy businessman, I wasn’t a photographer. Inside I didn’t define myself as a photographer. I wanted to be a photographer. But this has been a great year.” As I listened to Englebright speak of his journey, I grew more and more excited for him, and sometimes thought about the journey of the prodigal son. Although both of his parents have passed, he has a sister who lives in Chicago, who he’s excited to be closer to. When I asked about his parents, he didn’t hesitate to speak of what they meant to him. “They were great people. It took me until my adulthood to realize it, but they were great people. They were great examples, they loved one another. I never saw them argue. They did everything for their children, and were there one hundred percent as parents. Selfless. Just everything that I think you’d want from a parent,” he offered, and then added with a smile, “I mean my mother got a little too physical when we were young, but you can’t be perfect.” He mentioned how much better he knows Chicago, as compared to New York, and how that factored into his decision to move back home. “It’s territory I know better, even though I’ve lived here now for as I long I’ve lived in Chicago. It’s a little bit smaller of a pond, and that’s another reason why I want to get out of New York and get back to Chicago. I lived the commercial photography thing more there than I did here. Because by the time I got here, I was already spinning my wheels in the whole drinking thing. But there I think it would be easier for me to walk into an add agency and show them my portfolio. It’s impossible to do that here now.” I asked him whether he thought it would be difficult, after seventeen years, to leave New York. He told me about a few real estate companies who had given him a hard time about leaving. “There are a couple of people who do not want me to leave. This one woman almost got angry! ‘We get a photographer that we love and then you leave!’ I tried to tell her, ‘listen, I’m working full-time now for this company, I can’t,’” he said, then added, “There have been clients who I’ve had to say ‘I can’t work for you anymore. Because I can’t work for everybody.’ And so there are just a few that I still shoot for. And she’s one of them, because she just refuses to let me go.” 90
I told him that I thought he was about to be a very busy man. He laughed. “I’m going to be a really busy man, yea. But it’s exciting! I’ve got these opportunities that I haven’t had -- I mean, I’ve had the opportunities, but I blew them. And now I’m determined to take advantage of them.” IV. SECOND IMPRESSIONS. As I sat in my office on the last Friday of February, an unseasonably warm and sunny day, the idea behind Englebright’s Second Impressions came to mind again. I could remember meeting him for first time in December of 2015. I could remember having dinner with him at the French Roast, and sitting outside on a hot day in August. I could recall the afternoon we spent at Perk Café; as well as the evening in his apartment in Flushing. I could piece together a sense of him, but still, so many details alluded me. What color was his jacket when we first met on that afternoon in December of 2015? What did he order for dinner at the French Roast? Who else was sitting in Perk Café on that Saturday afternoon in early November, and what songs were playing in the background? Throughout the time I spent with Englebright, I felt a strong draw toward the idea of what time can do to women and men, how it seems to unwind so slowly, yet at the same time, our lives feel as though they pass by so quickly. How to hold onto a moment? How to treasure and cherish a season of life without a desperate clinging? One of the things that I grew to appreciate about Englebright is his ability to dig into fertile emotional territory with such ease. He wasn’t afraid to tell me about his decision to stay sober, or about his winding path, and how he managed to find his footing again. I wasn’t afraid to share some of my poetry, and to talk about my own history and past, as well as my struggles with drinking. One Saturday in January when Englebright and I met, he mentioned a David Isay quote, “Listening is an act of love,” that he heard while taking in a Storycorps podcast. He mentioned this quote because we were talking about recovery, and about group therapy, and how awkward at first, but comforting eventually it can feel to just be able to share what’s going on within our lives, within our hearts and minds, without the other person jumping in and offering their ideas, or their reactions, or their advice about what needs to be done. The more time I spent with Englebright, the easier it was for me to realize that Englebright has this down, and that he’s a great listener. It’s easy to trust him, and to feel comfortable around him. As 2016 drew to a close, I wrote Englebright a few days before Christmas to wish him a happy holiday season. A few days after the new year, I was on my way back to New York and was on an Amtrak train that had left from Chicago, when I received his e-mail in response. Hi Isaac, 91
Good to hear from you. I hope your trip is going well and you arrived there without incident: I know how the Amtrak and bus trips can go some times, or oftentimes. When are you returning to the Big Apple? I am glad you were able to sell the Cherokee apartment. I’ll keep my fingers crossed with the Williamsburg house. I appreciate you involving me in your magazine project. I am honored. It has caused me to reflect back on the last eight years or so. For so long I have had my head down just doing what I’ve needed to do to keep progressing and trying to catch up on so much lost time with my photography that I’ve not bothered to look back and really examine the recent past. Thanks for triggering that. You had asked me why I like shooting real estate, and I may not have mentioned that it’s a way for me - a person who is not prone to actively seeking out the company of mankind - to meet people, which I genuinely enjoy doing. I thought of our conversation while I was watering one of only two plants I possess: it had been given to me by an elderly woman who was selling her multi-family home because it had become too much for her to manage. Three generations of her family had lived in both floors of the home. There were a lot of memories there. She had two of her girlfriends helping her decide what to keep and what to throw away. I was having a conversation with her and complemented her on how healthy her plants were. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with them. She offered me one of her small rhododendron plants and a plate made of shells that I had admired. I was honored by the act of generosity, and I will always remember it as I take care of her plant. It’s going to be more difficult to move emotionally than I had thought it would be. I started my fiveyear plan of moving back to Chicago about three years ago, but during that time I’ve been slowly getting out of my shell and developing friendships such as ours. But I have to remember that all things change and it’s not good to hold on to that which needs released. It’s time for me to let New York go and return to Chicago a different, better person: it feels right.
Violet Mattress - May, 2017 - Bildsoe, Alexandra.
We went to visit Robert on a Saturday in late May. Though I had seen his place before, I had only been there on one cold night in December. Because the calendar had turned, and we were inching closer to the Summer Solstice, by the time we made it out to his place again, we had a lot more light. That Saturday he was about a month and a half away from completing his move to Chicago. Though he had found one apartment that he liked back home, as negotiations had stalled, he would be going back again to look at a few more places. We talked about his experience looking at real estate in Chicago, as compared to the New York market. He mentioned how he was making his rounds and meeting with old friends, and preparing to leave New York behind. He mentioned his love of looking out the window from his bedroom, and how he would sometimes spend entire afternoons in there, just watching the light fall across the back wall as the sun sets. Although Robert and I had dinner one last time between this interview in May, and when he actually left in the middle of July; now that heâ€™s in Chicago, and Iâ€™m in New York, I realize what our friendship meant to me. When we spoke, we spoke openly and honestly. And although heâ€™s only a plane ride away, it feels as though the distance is quite a bit longer.
Photography: Alexandra Bildsoe - Pg. 60-61, 81, & 93-113.
Isaac: Have you ever had any epic dinner parties here?
Isaac: And you all lived in the same house for pretty much your entire childhood?
Robert: No. I haven’t had any epic dinners here.
Robert: Yeah, my parents bought the house shortly after my brother was born. And my father lived there until about four years before his death.
Isaac: So you don’t enjoy cooking? Robert: I love to cook actually. That’s one of the reasons why I’m looking forward to moving back to Chicago, having dinner parties. Isaac: The kitchen just doesn’t allow it? Robert: Well, the kitchen would be fine. I actually read an article, and I don’t remember if it was in The New Yorker or in The Times, but there was this article about how there was a cook who made an entire Thanksgiving meal from a kitchen that was one of those . . . afterthought kind of kitchens, and she made an entire Thanksgiving meal. So I could definitely cook in that kitchen if I wanted to. But also it’s just . . . I’m out here in Flushing, and nobody ever comes out here. And I don’t have a dining room table.
Isaac: Wow. Robert: Yeah. Isaac: Was that about forty years? Robert: About fifty years. Yeah. Isaac: Is it still in the family? Robert: No, it was sold. And my father was just constantly doing something on it. He was constantly renovating --- well, not renovating because they bought it new. But he was constantly doing something to it. Isaac: Fixing things, adding things?
Isaac: What color was it?
Robert: Well, he decided that he was going to put beams in the ceiling of the living room. Beams, as though it was an old tudor kind of thing. And so he did that. And also so the basement was just an unfinished basement when they bought the house, so I can remember being a young teenager and he decided that he was going to build two bedrooms and a bathroom in the basement –– wait, oh no –– I know what it was. So the house was small. It was only three bedrooms and a bathroom, but there were four kids. So my two sisters lived in one bedroom, and my brother and I lived in a bedroom, but we got to an age where we just couldn’t do that anymore. And so then he built those two bedrooms downstairs. And that’s where my sister and my brother had their bedrooms, and they had a bathroom. So things like that. He added on a patio in the back.
Robert: It was red.
Isaac: That’s cool.
Isaac: Like a crimson.
Robert: Yeah, the curtains. And the bedspread. Those things were red.
Isaac: So, have you ever thought of building your dream house, and if so, where?
Isaac: When you were a kid, do you remember spending any time decorating your bedroom? Robert: Hmm, that’s a good question. Alex: That’s a great question! Robert: No, my mother did. I didn’t decorate my bedroom. My mother did. Isaac: Did you like the way that she decorated? Robert: Ha, well, I had no reference at the time. Isaac: You never had any reflections, or taste. Robert: I liked it. I mean, I wouldn’t like it now, but I liked it then. I liked that she color coordinated everything.
Robert: I have, yeah. Where? No, I haven’t 99
thought about that. Isaac: What would the house be like? Robert: I’ve actually drawn up plans. Isaac: Oh yeah? Robert: Yeah. I used to love to. So part of what I studied in college was architecture. Art and architecture. And so I knew how to do plans. And so this was a combination house and studio. And the studio had this wall of glass that faced south. And so there would be these panels, so it was curved, and it would be south-west, and these panels would cover the windows. And it was a very modern feel, and it was kind of sprawling all on one floor. Isaac: Is it anything like -- what’s the name of the hose that you went out to see -Fallingwater?
mowing the lawn is almost right up there with fishing. Isaac: You don’t like fishing? Robert: No. They’re two of the most boring activities I can think of: fishing and mowing. Isaac: Have you ever been on a riding mower? Robert: Yes. That’s fun, actually. But after a while . . . after a few weeks, the novelty kind of wares off. Isaac: Sure, I hear that. Five acres is a lot of acres. Robert: Five acres? Yeah, that’s a pretty good size.
Robert: Fallingwater. No, it was more modern. It was more -- do you know Mies van der Rohe?
Isaac: It’s amazing how you think about space differently after you’ve lived in New York for a long time. Whenever I go back to Indianapolis, or to visit my parents who live in Louisville now, I just think . . . there’s so much space! The houses are actually apart from each other.
Robert: Yeah, it’s true.
Robert: It was more Mies van der Rohe.
Isaac: Do you remember anything specific about your first day in this apartment, or your first night?
Isaac: But you don’t know where you would want it to be? Robert: I’m trying to think of when I drew that. It would probably be somewhere in Chicago. It would have to be somewhere where there’s four seasons. Isaac: You’d want to be able to observe the change in seasons?
Robert: Yeah. How filthy it was. Isaac: Everywhere? Robert: Yeah. Isaac: Your landlord didn’t tell you about that?
Robert: As far as a garden, like a vegetable garden, I would want to do it myself. But as far as mowing lawns, trimming the grass . . .
Robert: Well, I moved in as a roommate. And by the time I found this place, I was just so desperate, so I just took it. And at that point, well, even now . . . I’ll make due. So I met the guy, he was a nice guy, he lived here, and he was looking for a roommate. And he gave me the big bedroom. But it was at night when I met him the first time, and I didn’t really see how dirty the place was. Isaac, it was really disgusting . . .
Isaac: So a bit like a grounds crew.
Isaac: Clothes on the floor?
Robert: Like a grounds keeper. Because
Robert: We’re talking about, and honestly,
Robert: Yeah. Like have five acres. Yeah. But I’d still want to have a gardener. In case I didn’t really want to have to deal with it. Isaac: Do you like gardening?
no exaggeration –– I don’t think in the six years that he was here . . . there’s parts of this apartment that he never cleaned. Never. And just little things, like there was a leak underneath the sink. Right? So instead of calling the landlord and saying, “I have a leak underneath the sink, do you mind fixing it?” All he would do was stack up towels underneath, but wouldn’t bother taking them away. So when I moved in there were . . . I don’t know how long they had been there, but they smelled really disgusting. He had this pile of wet moldy rags underneath the sink. And the bathtub . . . I spent five hours cleaning the bathroom. Isaac: Wow. Robert: I couldn’t set a foot in that bathtub. It was just amazing. So, that’s kind of the first impression. Isaac: And when was that? Robert: That was six years ago. And then he was here for about a year. And then he moved in with his girlfriend. Isaac: How’d you find this place? Robert: Craigslist. Isaac: Did you look at any other places in the area? Robert: No. Not in the area. I didn’t. I looked in Washington Heights. I would have liked to have stayed in Manhattan. But what I liked about living out here, I just loved the fact that there’s a park right there, and then the pool and the ice rink. That sealed it.
Village at the time? Robert: No, Midtown. Isaac: Where were you Midtown? Robert: That was Fifty-Seventh Street and Tenth Avenue. Isaac: West side. Robert: Yeah. Isaac: 7 Train, right? Robert: 1 Train. Yeah, the 1 stops at Time Warner Center. So it was kind of there, the D and the 1. Isaac: So you’ve had one roommate who was here before you, and then . . . you mentioned that there was an opera singer who lived here? Robert: Yeah, so then, what I did . . . I was living here by myself and I decided that I would try Air BnB, and so I did that, and that’s how she found this place, Air BnB actually. But this was her first time in New York, of actually living here. And she was going to Queens College for music, but she was only going to be here for a short period of time -- a month, or two months. Initially it was just a short term thing, but we got along really well, and so she went back, and then she came back, and I think she lived here for a year and a half before she got her own place. Isaac: And then after she moved, you just had the place to yourself ?
Isaac: Cool. And you just saw the add on Craigslist and you though, I guess I’ll think about Flushing? Or you were thinking about Flushing before?
Robert: Yeah. But actually, between that guy and she moving in, I had other roommates, just off and on. It really depended on whether I needed the money, and if so, I’ll put something up. But then after she left it was just me.
Robert: No I wouldn’t have thought of flushing.
Isaac: Have you redecorated a lot since you’ve moved in?
Isaac: So you saw the add first.
Robert: Well, I painted the whole place, and there was no furniture. So I brought all of this stuff in here. I didn’t have any furniture when I moved in, to speak of. And so I bought the bed, the desk, the chair, this sofa. The lamp and the coffee table were given to me
Robert: Yeah, and it was far out. I’d never been out here before. Isaac: And you were moving away from the
by a friend of mine who had moved out of his apartment, and I kind of liked them, and thought they would be nice to have. Those chairs were actually in storage. I’ve had those for about twenty years. They’ve traveled with me. As a matter of fact that would probably be the only things that I had when I moved in. But otherwise, I kind of bought everything. This curtain, I thought it would stretch the whole way. That’s why I put the bar up. And I was going to have storage here, but I mis-calculated. This curtain was in my friend Abram’s place -- it was in our apartment in the East Village. It covered one wall. It was just a decorative velvet. Isaac: It’s sort of nice though, because you get to have a place for the lamp. Robert: Yeah, and it covers up some things. Isaac: What’s it feel like to have your own space and decide how you want to decorate it? Robert: Really nice. Because for so long, since moving here -- to New York –– I never lived by myself. And even now it’s a little bit different, if I stayed here I would probably invest more in decorating. But because it’s not my place, I only go so far with it. And that’s something that I’ve discovered with buying a place in Chicago -- I 102
love the idea that I can really make it my own. And to some extent, I’ve done that here. Isaac: It looks like it. Robert: Yeah. Isaac: Did you make it back to Chicago a couple of weekends ago? You said you were going to go. Robert: I did, yeah. Isaac: Did you see any places you liked? Robert: I saw one place and I put an offer in actually. Isaac: Okay. Robert: But then my agent sent me four new properties. And the seller of this property that I looked at last time -- it ended up that we were only able to look at two properties, so in that regard, the trip wasn’t very fruitful. But next weekend I’m going home to a surprise retirement party for my brother, so I’m going to drive up to Chicago to look at four apartments on Sunday -- I’m really excited about them actually.
Isaac: They’re in the right area, right size? Robert: They’re not in the areas I would prefer, but I like the apartments and I’m willing to compromise with the neighborhood. I’d love to be closer to the lake, but I like the feel of the apartments. But it’s really funny, I look forward to being able to put my own stamp on a place. Isaac: You’re in the world of real estate agents quite a bit, with your photography. Are there any differences that you’ve seen between the hunt in Chicago versus the hunt in New York, or differences in the real estate world between these two cities, that you can pick up on? Robert: Well, my experiences are different. If I had experience here buying property, then I could compare it with what the experience is of buying property in Chicago, so I don’t have that. It would just be conjecture. But from the real estate agents I’ve dealt with here, it’s a different market. It’s more laid back in Chicago. It’s definitely more laid back in Chicago. Here there just seems to be more pressure for the agents, and I’m sure they get that from the clients. People are just generally more demanding in New York City, just about everything.
Isaac: I like how you say that as there we can hear sirens going off in the background. Robert: So I don’t know if I have anything to compare with, but the real estate market isn’t as volatile -- there’s not as much money in it there, so there’s less pressure. Just in general, it’s more middle class. Isaac: One time -- I was showing a property in Astoria, there was an open house that started at 11 am on a Sunday. And there was a line of potential buyers outside. It was the first open house. That was spring of 2015. When there’s a new property, and there’s so many people who are looking for something just like it, or looking for a deal, you’ll sometimes see a line outside of the first open house. Robert: I’ve heard about that before. I’ve read that too. Now that you mention it. Isaac: You might not see something like that in Chicago. Robert: Right. Yeah. As a matter of fact, we went to an open house, and there was nobody else there. That was the place that I put an offer in on. And it’s a nice place. Completely newly
renovated. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms. Isaac: Three bedrooms! You’re going to live like a king!
your offer in, and the owner doesn’t really give you any feedback, and meanwhile you also have four more properties to see.
Robert: I know! It’s fantastic!
Robert: Yeah, and maybe I’m still really disappointed about losing that first property.
Isaac: That’s awesome. What are you going to do, so there’s a bedroom, a guest bedroom --
Isaac: Tell us about that first property.
Robert: And my office. Because when I first started looking, I thought -- I’ll have a two bedroom, like I have here, I can use one as a convertible office, and the other one I can use as my bedroom, but if visitors come, then that’ll be the guest bedroom. But now I’m like, I can have three bedrooms! Isaac: Is there a view? What floor is it on? Robert: It’s on the third floor of a three-story brownstone. So it was built in the early 1900s and has a lot of character to it and they’ve maintained that character. It’s really nice. It’s newly-renovated, but it’s wainscoting, and wood-trim is still there. It’s a nice building, but for some reason I’m oddly ambivalent about it. I think it’s the neighborhood. I’m not sold on the neighborhood. Isaac: Well sometimes it’s tough when you put 104
Robert: Just in general? Isaac: Yeah. Robert: So, first of all, the photographs didn’t really do it justice -- the ones that I saw on the listing. Isaac: Oh yeah! That must have been interesting, from a photographer’s perspective, looking at photographs of apartments. Robert: Yeah, well, especially because that’s my job too. Isaac: That’s right. Robert: And believe me. Chicago, that’s going to be the wild west there, because they don’t use professional photography photos. But anyway, so the photos weren’t all that good to begin with. So when I walked in I thought, is
this the same place? And there’s just these little details, that when you see them in person . . . I really didn’t take into consideration the idea that it was an Arts and Crafts apartment. Isaac: What do you mean by that, Arts and Crafts? Robert: Well, so my favorite period in American design is the Arts and Crafts movement, which was in the early 1900s and it’s a distinctly American vernacular. And it’s an Arts and Crafts apartment building. It’s a six-flat Arts and Crafts building. And the apartment itself has been renovated, but they kept all of the original wood and there’s ways in which Arts and Crafts use a particular design dialogue or language, proportion with just the designs, and that was evident with the wood and also there’s particular color palates that are indicative of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the tile around the fire place was original glaze tile. This original glaze tile with this green tile, it was beautiful. And the original stained glass was still in the bookcases on either flanking of the fire place. And so one of the things that I love about Chicago apartment buildings . . . there was this period where they were built with sun rooms. And when I lived in Chicago before, I had one of those apartments, and as a photographer -- it faced west -- and it was a great place to do portraits, and this apartment had a sun room facing east. And it was just a large apartment, three bedrooms. It was laid out really well. Two bathrooms. And one of the nice things about it was that one of the bathrooms was next to what would have been a guest bedroom, and it was off of a hallway. And so you could actually . . . so say I had a cocktail party, or a dinner party. Isaac: An epic dinner party. Robert: An epic dinner party. So if I had an epic dinner party, my guest could use that bathroom, but then if I had a guest, they could close it off to the hallway, and use it as sort of an en suite bathroom. And the kitchen was recently-renovated, and it was big. And there was a free parking garage at the back of the building -- gated, locked. Isaac: Wow, I guess you’ll have to find another
one like that, right? Robert: And the funny thing was, that was the first apartment that I looked at. And so we kept going around to other apartments, and I kept thinking: It’s not as good as that one, it’s not as good as that one, it’s not as good as that one. But in the end, the seller, I don’t know why she decided to back-out. I mean, maybe she didn’t like my original offer? You never know. Isaac: Well, it sounds like you were ready to go, and then that happened, are you feeling more ready now, more antsy to get out of Flushing, to get out of New York? Robert: Yes and no. I could let that happen, but I’m not going to. It is what it is. It’ll unfold. Originally I was so disappointed -- I was like, oh man, I couldn’t get out of here when I wanted to, but you know, disappointment is just unmet expectations. I didn’t have my expectations met, so . . . Isaac: How could this happen to me? Robert: Yeah! Right! Isaac: Not me! Maybe other people. Robert: Yeah, so. It’s okay. Isaac: When is the Taste of Chicago? Isn’t that a big thing? Robert: Yeah. That’s a really big thing. Isaac: Is that July? Robert: I don’t even remember anymore. I don’t know. Yeah, that’s a really big thing. Isaac: Maybe you can get back before the taste. Robert: Well when we put in the offer for the apartment, he said the closing date is July 15th, for the one I just put an offer in on. But the other thing is that I’m getting my loan through the V.A. And so there’s two restrictions that will cause them to deny a loan. One if the right of first refusal, for the homeowner’s association, within the buy-laws. And the other restrictions is not being able to rent my apartment. If the buy-laws state that the apartment can’t be rented, then the V.A. won’t allow the mortgage. 105
Isaac: And that’s what tripped you up with the last one? Robert: Yes. But Al, my agent found out that they wouldn’t have had to change the buy-laws. There’s a way that the V.A. will accept just doing a rider, and just exempting my apartment without having to actually change the buy-laws. But when he brought that up to the seller, the seller just gave him the cold shoulder. And that’s strange because she’s trying to sell the apartment, she has someone that’s trying to buy it. Isaac: Or is she? Robert: Right. And that’s why we can’t figure this out. But anyway, so two of those four apartments that I’m going to look at now, they’re already V.A. approved. So I wouldn’t even have to bother with that. Which means that I would then get the apartment more quickly. It would be more the end of June, rather than July. Isaac: Well, have you been making your rounds around the city, as you’re preparing to leave? Catching up with people who you haven’t seen in some time, what’s that been like? Robert: As a matter of fact I just had a phone
conversation two nights ago, letting someone know that I was leaving, and we’ll meet up. But it’s weird. It’s strange. Because I’ve lived here seventeen years, and it’s just . . . the finality of it is made clear when I discuss the fact that I’m going to be leaving -- when I’m having that conversation, the finality of it is evident. Isaac: Maybe there’s people that you haven’t really kept in touch -- well, I’m asking: are there people who you haven’t really kept in touch with, but you do want to say goodbye to? Robert: He was one of them, yeah. He was my old boss, actually. And I have a fondness for him because he represents this period when I was getting sober, and really struggling with just trying to begin to establish myself. But I don’t know that I’ll go out of my way too much with people that I haven’t spoken with in a while. I’m just not that kind of person. Really. And the other thing is actually wanting to experience things for the last time. Isaac: What have you done? Robert: Well, nothing yet. But I want to specifically go to Central Park knowing that I may not be there again. The Met. Moma. I’m just not in Manhattan very much anymore. I
was there today, this morning. I was down in Wall Street, near the southern tip of the island.
that was the only thing I got that really excited me.
Isaac: Just shooting?
Robert: Yeah, I was shooting.
Robert: Yeah, I took a few, kind of more pedestrian photos of other stuff.
Isaac: Anything good? Robert: Yeah, I did get something good. Isaac: Beautiful snapshots? Robert: So you know those orange and white steam-pipes that come up when they’re working on whatever they’re working on underground? And you know all of that smoke comes up? Alex: Those are great. Robert: Yeah. There were two of those down by Wall Street. And you know those streets are so narrow, and it’s the original canyons of New York. So two of those. And I was looking up and you see the smoke, and you see the highrises through the smoke. And I really love the ambiguous nature of the photograph, because you don’t really know where the smoke is coming from. And it’s like . . . is that a cloud? And so I like that someone’s going to look at that and really not know what’s going on. But
Isaac: How often do you go shooting? Robert: Not as often as I should. Not “as I should,” but not as often as . . . I haven’t been motivated as much, as I’ve just been working more. I’ll work around ten hours a-day. And I’ll tell you what, if I’m being honest with myself. I’m using this whole move as an excuse. Isaac: To . . . Robert: To not go out. I’m like, I’m going to wait until I move to Chicago to do these projects. Because there’s a few things that I mentioned -- for instance going back to school. So I don’t really feel that motivated to do a lot. Other than what I already have. And there is stuff that I’m doing, I’m just not generating new photos that much. Isaac: There’s a holding period though, right? When you can’t . . . dive into something with complete gusto when you know that there’s a
really big change that’s happening in your life, or about to happen in your life.
Robert: Yeah! In general, yes, it’s the weirdest thing. Here, if you go into a coffee shop, well, let’s not use that as an example, but into retail stores, or anything like that, you’re pretty much guaranteed that the person on the other side of the counter is going to have some kind of attitude.
Robert: You’re just being nice.
Alex: Or just ignore you.
Isaac: I mean, maybe. I guess you can have this idea that . . . this is my last hurrah, and I’m going to take a photograph every day, right?
Robert: Or just ignore you.
Robert: Yeah, but I suppose there are those photographers who would actually use that as a reason to photograph. Do you know what I mean?
Robert: Yeah. Isaac: But if that doesn’t feel innate to where you are at the time, then you can’t force it. Robert: Yeah, exactly. I do look forward to getting settled there and then to start exploring again. I think I’m just kind of . . . I don’t feel what I felt when first moved here. I feel like I’m just kind of over it. Isaac: Seventeen years. Robert: It’s just that I’m ready. I’m ready to move. And that I just started making the comparisons. Because going back to Chicago over the weekend, it’s really funny -- I stayed with a friend of mine. And he was one of my oldest friends who I knew fairly early on when I moved to Chicago. But when I moved here, we didn’t really stay in touch -- I didn’t really stay in touch with him, and then once I got sober, we started connecting a little bit more. So when I went there last weekend, I stayed with him. And it was really funny, we started back right where we left off. It’s like those seventeen years weren’t even there. We went right back to being dear friends. It’s fantastic. And plus just spending that time. I only saw two apartments. We hung out a lot. We did different things in Chicago. And it’s just that the quality of life is different there. Isaac: How so? Robert: People smile! They say hi! They’re friendlier! 108
Alex: I’m always the one, I’m walking out and I’m like, “Bye have a good day!” And I never get a response from anyone. Robert: Or actually when you first greet them. I make a point to say hi -- and do you ever get that, where you say hi to someone and they’ll just look at you? Isaac: I didn’t mean to offend you. Robert: Well, you know. But anyway. Isaac: No, I meant, “By saying hi, I didn’t mean to offend you.” Robert: Right! They can’t be bothered. And I understand it actually. Because if I had to work in retail in New York City. And deal with the people that they have to deal with, I’d probably have the same attitude. So I understand it actually, but it’s just . . . but anyway, being in Chicago for a couple of days, I kind of got a taste of it again. And there’s pluses and minuses. The great thing about New York is just the cultural diversity. And the art, what’s available to us here in New York, it’s definitely not there in volume in Chicago. Because even though it’s a large city it’s still in the Midwest. Isaac: When you sit and look out the window, what do you think about? Robert: I do that a lot. So when I look at of these windows? Isaac: Any window you’d like. Robert: I like looking out of these windows. And it’s because there’s so much activity going on. And that’s one of things that I like about
this apartment. And there’s a lot of noise with the planes flying overhead, or you just look out the window, and there’s the expressway, and then College Point Boulevard is a busy boulevard. But I like that, actually. I’ll look out my window and I’ll just think about the unique experience of being in New York. And even though I was just kind of commenting negatively about a few specific experiences in New York City, overall I really love living here. It’s sort of a love hate thing. And I look out the window and I just think of all the activity that’s going on, and where are these people going, what are their lives like? And I’ll just see all of this activity, and it’s kind of like . . . not invigorating, but I get some sort of positive feeling from it. Isaac: How often, and how long, usually . . . Robert: Do I look out the window? Isaac: Yeah. Robert: It depends on what’s going on, but I’ll look out the window for like five minutes. Sometimes I’ll look down and see what’s going on down on the street, and I’ll watch people. Because sometimes it’s busier than other times. And also the light is really beautiful. Because there’s the expressway there, I have uninterrupted light. And it’s best in the early evening. So I just love what the light does in my apartment. It’s natural light. The light’s great. Isaac: You have the expressway there, but it is pretty quiet. Robert: It is pretty quiet, yeah. I was concerned when my sister came to visit in December, because she lives out in the country. And they don’t measure how far away their neighbors by feet, or three doors down . . . they measure it by a quarter-mile, or a half-mile. And so I was a little concerned about how noisy it was, but she said she didn’t even notice. Because I’m kind of acclimated to it. But it’s not really that bad, considering. Isaac: Well, how about one last question, for auld lang syne? Robert: Definitely. Ask a good one. 110
Isaac: Okay. So how much of your life would you say you leave to chance, and how has that changed, if at all, over the years? Robert: Wooh. Okay. I can’t answer that without getting a bit philosophical. Isaac: That’s good, that’s fine. Get as philosophical as you need. Robert: I try to leave as little to chance as possible, but with the understanding that I have little control over what may happen to me. Something I couldn’t at all consider or expect may happen. So at this point, what I can control, I try to control. I try to leave very little to chance. But I think, in my opinion, that’s an illusion, as far as chance goes and control in our lives. We have less control in our lives than we think we do. And as far as chance goes, I think what you’re asking me is how much am I willing to gamble on not taking the necessary precautions in life to insure particular outcomes. Does that make sense? Isaac: That’s a good definition of chance. Robert: And so in that regard, I think I leave very little to chance. I try to control what I can, and then let the rest go. And that’s a one-eighty, compared to how I used to be. Isaac: How so? Robert: I never thought about saving money. I never thought about how a particular job I had might affect me. I never really thought that much about cause and effect -- I never used to as much as I do now. I used to leave practically everything to chance. But I think that was a product of my drinking. That’s my experience now. Now that I’m sober, I’m a different person.
BED-STUY AS A MODEL FOR SOCIAL-DEMOCRATIC REFORM IN THE UNITED STATES Michael Woodsworth’s The Battle for Bed-Stuy examines how the Lyndon B. Johnson Era’s War on Poverty affected the historic neighborhood. by: Andrew Jimenez “In the years leading up to Occupy [Wall Street], the US left seemed influenced by strains of anarchism. Many of these tendencies rejected structural critiques of capitalism and traditional forms of left-wing organization. It may be safe to say that post-Sanders the general moment is more informed by social democracy . . . Would you agree with that characterization of a shift? MATT KARP: The Sanders campaign was also a return of the US left to electoral politics in a serious way, which opens up opportunities and challenges of its own. I’m hoping that Sanders’ surprising success is a reminder that elections are something the Left should take seriously and participate in. I’m not saying that the struggle should be restricted to elections, but it’s hard to imagine any kind of meaningful left victories occurring without an electoral component. There’s an opening for social-democratic politics at all levels. But at the same time there are many challenges that come with that kind of strategy. How do you enact social democracy on a state or local level? You really can’t. To even win the barest essence of social democracy, like a national healthcare system, you can’t do that by winning city council seats. We need to engage in lower-level electoral politics while continuing to build a national movement.”
____________________ “What Did Bernie Do?” A Conversation with Cedric Johnson, Matt Karp, and Jennifer Roesch, Jacobin, Fall, 2016, 23.
As a historian of slavery’s relationship to power in Nineteenth Century America, Matthew Karp is no stranger to critiques of capitalism. But what of his assessment of social-democracy at the local level? It’s easy to be cynical about the effectiveness of grassroots organizing and the power of local politics when participatory democracy is measured in small donations facilitated by multi-national banks (who are happy to charge service fees on each transaction) and the recent liberal successes of marriage equality and healthcare were fought on the federal level (and won only after receiving moral blessings from corporate America). But social democracy relies on local energies to envision real-world policies, which monolithic structures by their very nature can support but not enact. To see what social-democratic policies look like locally, we need only to look at the work of politicians, community groups, and activists in Bedford-Stuyvesant, beginning in the mid-twentieth century. Michael Woodsworth’s comprehensive The Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City, details the effects of capital flight (joblessness, price-gouging, redlining, urban renewal and decay) that threatened the neighborhood in the early twentieth century; and Bed-Stuy’s struggles against these effects — for better primary schools and basic city services, for a community college and hospital, for jobs, and for representation in local government — exemplify local-level social-democratic ideology in action. As demographic changes began to settle in the nineteen-forties, and blacks and Caribbeans joined the ranks of homeowners in Bed-Stuy, block associations sprang up among the stoops and steeples of north-central Brooklyn’s handsome brownstone streets. Untethered to any political party or area of academic study, the associations were comprised of small groups of Bed-Stuy citizens concerned with issues like beautification and juvenile delinquency. Initially, members were more likely to organize a garden club than a protest, but nevertheless, the seeds for Bed-Stuy’s future activism were planted here. When these efforts gained federal attention in the 1960’s, it seemed for a brief moment
that the Great Society might be able to merge the demands of the Civil Rights movement with the promise of the New Deal. Despite. In the end, failure resulted more from a self-interested bureaucracy, concerned with preserving social order over ceding power to the poor, than from the inherent weaknesses of either local American political structures or the initiatives themselves.
“Bed-Stuy fascinates,” Woodsworth writes, “because it was simultaneously emblematic and exceptional. It epitomized the processes by which urban black communities in the mid-twentieth century grew in population, were ravaged by capital flight, and organized to take political action.” Far from the “monolithic zone of suffering and blight” the term “ghetto” implied, Bed-Stuy was a diverse community composed of both the desperately poor and the upwardly mobile, “and those socioeconomic contrasts often overlapped with the cultural cleavages between people whose roots were in the American South and those who hailed from the Caribbean.” In the late Nineteenth Century, the abutting neighborhoods of Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights had been converted from farmland into upper-middle-class bedroom communities of mostly German, Irish, and Italian families. During the Great Depression many residents, unable to afford their property taxes and eager to get out before they owed more than the houses were worth, sold their homes. Still others defaulted altogether. The completion of the A train in 1936 connected Harlem with Brooklyn. At the same time, blacks from the American South and the Caribbean were moving to the city, where work — though not plentiful — was still to be found more readily than in rural areas.1 By the nineteen-fifties, New York City was home to almost seven-hundred and fifty thousand black people ––– more than in any other American city ––– half of which lived outside Manhattan. Still, it was difficult to figure out how many called Bed-Stuy home because nobody could define exactly where Bed-Stuy was. A neighborhood whose borders “were defined by racism,” the name Bedford-Stuyvesant hadn’t even come into popular usage until around 1939. One War on Pov-
21. Matias Echanove, “Bed-Stuy on the Move: Demographic trends and Economic Development in the heart of Brooklyn” (Masters Thesis, Columbia University, 2003)]. 118
erty-era study went so far as to say that Bedford-Stuyvesant is “wherever Negroes happen to live.” So when local community groups in the nineteen-sixties defined “Bedford-Stuyvesant” as a singular “community,” they were “tacitly acknowledging that racism set the parameters for their efforts.” World War II created enormous job growth at the Navy Yard, offering the black working class of Brooklyn a rare opportunity at economic equality. But when the war ended, the Navy Yard closed down much of its operations. While most of the country was enjoying a post-war boom, white flight kept black Brooklynites from most of the spoils; capitalism followed the money to the suburbs, while racism kept black workers out of the city’s social-democratic contract with the unions that protected what few blue-collar jobs remained. An estimated forty-five percent of black employees lost their jobs, and unemployment among black Brooklynites rose to double that of whites. “Underlying it all,” Woodsworth points out, “was redlining: the process by which banking and mortgage institutions, with guidance from the federal government, conspired to withhold credit from neighborhoods considered to be risky.” The practice, somewhat ironically, was the result of a New Deal effort to revive housing by performing risk assessments for each segment of the market. Racism, like any ideology, manifests itself through a series of common practices; and though by itself morally neutral, Capitalism turns a profit through the commodification of common practices. Thusly, areas of the housing market where black residents resided were valued lowest. In Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights, whites who had remained through the Great Depression saw the value of their homes drop, and their eventual departure further contributed to the devaluation of Bed-Stuy’s housing stock. However, it wasn’t hard to find among the poverty pockets of affluence — particularly on the leafy east-west residential streets in Stuyvesant Heights. Woodsworth describes the residents of these spacious — if a little rundown — brownstone and limestone row houses in three broad groups. The first was twentieth-century black elites, whom W.E.B. DuBois called the “talented tenth.” Doctors, lawyers, realtors and small-business owners, they were long-established northerners
who, while preaching black solidarity, often maintained classist attitudes about the influx of poorer, less-educated southerners. This dynamic would later complicate the struggle for improvement and services during the War on Poverty. These southerners comprised the second group. Intellectuals and thought-leaders who had attended black universities and earned masters degrees, many were career social workers or highly-influential preachers. Lastly, there was a growing number of West Indians, who would often work two or three jobs in order to “buy house.” Among them were the parents of Shirley Chisholm, a Barbadian who was the country’s first black member of Congress. Chisholm remembered that, due to their work ethic and obsession with their children’s education, Barbadians were known throughout Brooklyn as “Black Jews,” a stereotype they were proud to adopt. Many West Indians, upon arriving in America, were surprised to find themselves, despite their vast cultural differences, lumped in with African Americans. Chisholm herself wrote in her memoir that there was “no such thing as a black community” in Brooklyn while she was growing up. These differences carried over into politics; while African Americas were still wary of the Democratic Party, the first nonwhites to make political headway in New York City were of Caribbean decent, and they did so as Democrats. Caribbeans in Bed-Stuy also formed Paragon Progressive Credit Union, which by nineteen seventy had over five million dollars in holdings and with five thousand members was the largest credit union in the country. Establishing funding for scholarships, home loans, and renovations, it provided the financial impetus for the restoration, preservation, and anti-poverty programs to come. And so, despite obvious racial barriers, Bed-Stuy, boasting a fifteen to twenty percent owner-occupancy rate, “represented the fulfillment of many aspirations among the upwardly mobile families in the Central Harlem ghetto. Because many of these homeowners rented out one or more units within their brownstones, an estimated twenty-five to thirty percent of local families lived in an owner-occupied building. Another ten percent were owned by people who lived nearby.” There still
existed plenty of buildings with too many tenants or (in the case of those that had been abandoned) too little, but “the high home ownership rates in Bedford-Stuyvesant marked a stark contrast with Harlem, and indeed with most other areas that earned the ‘ghetto’ label in the wake of the Great Migration.”2
The summer of nineteen forty-five was a season marked by violence. Teenagers vandalized and robbed stores across Brooklyn; gangs with names like The Socialist Gents, The Saints, and The Brewery Boys staged massive rumbles in which young men attacked each other with penknives, icepicks, bayonets—or worse yet, zip guns they’d cobbled together out of curtain rods, coffee percolators, and blocks of wood. The teen murder rate had doubled since nineteen forty, and J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, said the crisis of juvenile delinquency was “approaching a national scandal.” The postwar years of capital flight only exacerbated the problem. Newspaper pages were stained with stories of teenage veterans returning from World War II and joining gangs, “adding an element of paramilitary leadership to the raw enthusiasm of younger boys,” but these tales largely neglected the attack-by-retreat that white flight inflicted on the nation’s cities. Activists in Bed-Stuy at the time were staging their own battles — against price-gouging in local stores, where quality food and other goods were already scarce; the lack of a neighborhood hospital; urban decay; and job scarcity. The high level of dedicated homeownership in Bed-Stuy lended a special quality to community organizing. In a neighborhood of long blocks of uniform row houses, with no lawns and few public parks, block associations formed to help preserve and beautify the shared community space of the streets. “A walk through an association block provides a refreshing atmosphere,” the Amsterdam News reported in 1948. “Here and there are found new trees planted along the streets that were bought through the block association. Yards are kept; homes look inviting with trim, neat windows. Radios are always kept tuned low; all is serene. Dogs travel on leash, and are curbed. Refuse and gar2. Pratt institute Planning Department, “Stuyvesant Heights: A Good Neighborhood in Needs of Help” (1965). 121
bage cans are covered and placed on the sidewalks only a short time before the disposal truck makes its collection.” “It wasn’t long before block associations began to come together to form larger groups,” Woodsworth writes, “the most active of which was the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood Council. By the mid-nineteen-fifties, it represented more than one hundred block associations and had begun organizing to expand access to public transport and protest the withdrawal of city services from majority black areas.” Members of the “Talented Tenth” who had entered local politics, like Thomas R. Jones, were now reaching out to these community groups. Only just becoming aware of the power they had to affect change in their neighborhood, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood Council was the place where the “Streets linked up with elites.” While the council fought on the one hand to beautify the neighborhood, it also looked for help to stop the wave of teen delinquency and violence on the other. Elders wondered why gangs wasted so much energy on fighting each other and dodging police, and why teens took such mirthful pleasure in killing one another. To Bed-Stuy homeowners, this behavior seemed to reflect a rising tide of nihilism that threatened to engulf the community they were working so hard to build and maintain. But the gang members themselves saw things in a much different light; gang involvement was about finding routine in a life that otherwise promised very little. Sonny Carson, who rose to fame in the sixties as a black nationalist, wrote in his autobiography, The Education of Sonny Carson, of his life as a leader of The Bishops in the nineteen-forties: Purchasing a coconut-custard pie, then walking all the way uptown, shaking people down who looked like they had money (in The Black Community this means making them give you a nickel or a dime), buying wine, looking for the pushers to purchase some marijuana. Going to someone’s pad, getting high, winding up in bed with one of the girls. Invading the present enemy, The Beavers, or maybe The Robins or The Socialist Gents. Dodging the police all the time. To Carson, Woodsworth surmises, the “Brooklyn delinquent, not unlike James Dean’s char-
acter in Rebel Without a Cause, appeared as an authentic, masculine figure parading across landscapes shot through with apathy and despair.” In November 1946 the Brewery Rats — a gang comprised primarily of Italians whose home base was an abandoned Pulaski Street brewery on Bed-Stuy’s north side — broke into a Jewish community center in neighboring South Williamsburg. They didn’t injure anyone, but they trashed the place and protested that the community center should serve everyone, not just local Jews. Shocked and concerned, parents turned to a group called the Brooklyn Council for Social Planning for help. Their efforts would ultimately change the course of social reform in the United States.
In the 1930s Clifford Shaw, a sociologist from the University of Chicago, developed the thesis that youth crime resulted not from antisocial behavior in the individual, but from the breakdown of social structures in rapidly changing urban communities — a phenomenon he called “social disorganization.” Saul Alinsky, a former student of Shaw’s, incorporated this theory into a style of community organizing less focused on establishing social control within communities than on confronting outside power structures in order to demand better services. Taking a page from Alinsky’s book, the BCSP hired Leo Laughlin, whom Woodsworth describes as a “streetwise social worker in his late twenties.” As a “detached worker,” Laughlin was tasked with infiltrating the Brewery Rats and diverting their anti-social urges towards more positive pursuits. In June nineteen forty-seven, Laughlin began insinuating himself into the Brewery Rats’ world. He hung out in candy stores, betting shops, and empty lots. He threw coins into juke boxes, flipped cards, and spent long hours chatting on stoops. He helped to organize dances and managed a sandlot baseball team. He picked up the gang’s slang and befriended their leaders. To convince the boys he wasn’t a cop, he scampered away like one of them when the officers raided their hideouts.
Laughlin was able to learn a lot about what motivated the Brewery Rats’ behavior. Like the activists and the block associations, the gangs were, in their own way, fighting postwar malaise. Alongside veterans who returned from combat to a deflated job market were young men who had
lost their jobs when the war ended. “Traumatized, shiftless, and uneasy about the future, they found stability, structure, and leadership opportunities” among the gangs. Maintaining that “constructive activities can be substituted for destructive ones,” Laughlin reported to the BCSP board that it wasn’t a love of violence that drove them to rumble, but a desire to build group solidarity and self-worth. A classical socialist reading of postwar urban America would say the environment that produced youth gangs in the 1940s was a direct result of the failure of capitalism to serve the disenfranchised; as a system which operates on the principle of ever-increasing wealth, it places no value on catering to those from whom it can procure no profit. While Woodsworth does not frame his telling of Bed-Stuy’s social reform programs leading up to and including the War on Poverty years in these terms, Laughlin’s efforts — in many ways the proto-blueprint for the federal War on Poverty — descend from this line of reasoning. One of the first ways he gained gang members’ trust was to use his connections to get the most outstanding among them jobs in government. Next, he persuaded the Brewery Rats to move their headquarters to a row of abandoned shops nearby the rat-infested brewery. They spent 1948 cleaning, renovating, and fixing up the storefronts, which they opened under the name Club Caliph. They had quit vandalizing shops and now took pride in maintaining one — from which they organized baseball tournaments, dances, and fundraisers. Laughlin suggested they collect dues and run the club according to democratic procedures, so they elected officers and drew up a constitution. The Brewery Rats were unionizing. Meanwhile, the board of the BCSP was working on a plan to organize the wider community. Focused on the area around Tompkins Park, the largest public green space in Bed-Stuy, they formed the Tompkins Park Neighborhood Council, which included parents, teachers, priests, police, and shopkeepers. They supervised Laughlin and raised funds for the Brewery Rats’ clubhouse. When Laughlin, considering his work done, left two years later, the TPNC petitioned the city to have the brewery demolished and worked directly with the Brewery Rats on a campaign to get the community involved in cleaning up the streets.
Woodsworth states, “the results supported BCSP’s premise that a previously undefined neighborhood with no set borders or unifying characteristics could redefine itself as a ‘community,’ and that through such a process a new form of place-based political organizing could proceed.” A post-structuralist perspective affords a slightly different view — one that puts the goals of individuals in the context of different organizational power structures; the teens, disenfranchised by a political system stymied by racism and beholden to capital interest, focused their energies on physically destructive means of finding acceptance and power. The community groups, with their connections to the neighborhood and local government, were able to provide the infrastructure and funding to address the desires of gang-involved youth while respecting their need to maintain control over their own hierarchical power structures. Their efforts “suggested that Brooklynites were increasingly linking youth behavior, social conditions, grassroots community action, and political power.” Looking to repeat and institutionalize the successes of BCSP and TPNC, Mayor William O’Dwyer, who’d established the New York City Youth Board in 1948, promoted an “aggressive form of social work that targeted children and families who had not requested help and, in some cases, resisted it. The animating goal was to ‘reach the unreached.’” The Youth Board set social workers up in schools and housing projects, where they would identify at-risk youth and “refer them to private agencies that provided vocational training, after-school supervision, and sports programs.” Additionally, the Youth Board worked with BCSP to establish the Brooklyn Detached Worker Program, which stationed social workers in four areas—Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and South Brooklyn—and tasked them with infiltrating and reforming gangs. One of the workers assigned to Bed-Stuy was Kenneth Marshall. Marshall had belonged to a youth gang in Bed-Stuy less than a decade earlier, so he knew the landscape. The Youth Board assigned him to work with the Greene Avenue Stompers, one of the fiercest gangs in Brooklyn. Much like Laughlin, Marshall “made himself popular by organizing dances in rented halls on neutral territory—which precluded the beef that typically resulted from gangs crashing parties on foreign turf. Meanwhile, he used his government contacts to find jobs for motivated Stompers, which earned
him a nickname: ‘The Job Man.’” By 1953, the Youth Board reported a 9.5 percent drop in delinquency rates citywide and 12.5 percent drop in arrests and referrals in target areas. When Marshall testified to these successes before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was “the first time many legislatures had heard of the pioneering work going on in New York City.”
In their nineteen-sixty book, Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin argued that youth formed gangs not because of “a lack of motivation to conform but quite the opposite.” In developing their theory, they borrowed from the late-nineteenth century French philosopher Emile Durkheim. Durkheim, who – along with Karl Marx and Max Weber — is credited with creating sociology and the social sciences, coined the term anomie, which is defined as a concept of lawlessness, or “normlessness,” in which individuals reject normal constructs of behavior for a social order of their own making. This differs from anarchy, which as a philosophy eschews all hierarchical order structures. “Delinquents, Cloward and Ohlin argued, came to disregard social norms out of frustration at the disparity between their aspirations and the pathways to achievement. If gang members could be introduced to opportunities in mainstream society, they might behave differently and, in so doing, break the self-perpetuating ‘circle of poverty’ that ensnared them.” To effectively eliminate delinquency, Cloward and Ohlin envisioned a state in which a basic standard of living is provided for all individuals, rather than only those with privilege. This argument is personified in today’s calls for a universal basic income. The work of BCSP and the Youth Board seems to support this theory. But as Woodsworth points out, it was never meant to be hegemonic. A competing theory put forth by psychologist Kenneth Clark found the root of delinquency grounded in legacies of racism. Other competing theories—such the culture of poverty and the opportunity theory—fail because they do not address the social structures and institutions that create poverty and so cannot present proper mitigating
circumstances to control it. Despite this, no single theory shaped the War on Poverty more than that of the culture of poverty—largely thanks to Michael Marrignton’s 1962 book, The Other America, which used the theory as its guiding principle. Put forth by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, the theory states that the poor are trapped in a multi-generational pattern of unemployment, disenfranchisement, ignorance, and hopelessness. Structural factors such as discrimination, economic shifts, and capitalist exploitation contributed to the conditions in which they lived, once the poor were poor they became caught in a “vicious cycle.” When parents are poor, their children are likely to go to failing schools where they lack the motivation or skills to succeed; even those who did graduate would face dim job prospects. Their children, in turn, would grow up poor, thus entrenching the culture. Historian Alice O’Connor wrote that to scholars like Lewis and Harrington, “the culture of poverty was more than an explanation for persistent disadvantage; it offered a dissent from postwar optimism about the solvent of economic growth, and a dire warning about the consequences of failing to act.” As the culture of poverty theory became embedded in the design of the War on Poverty, it came under intense scrutiny. Woodsworth writes, “the emphasis of cultural conditions tended to preclude discussions of structural inequalities. Thus, Harrington unwittingly laid the basis for a federal assault on poverty that emphasized individual remediation rather than changes to the political climate . . . With its emphasis on the self-perpetuating aspects of lower-class lifestyles, Lewis’s thesis was easily co-opted into arguments that poor people were to blame for their own poverty and deserved to be disciplined and shamed into changing their behaviors.” When President Johnson tapped Sargent Shriver to run the War on Poverty, they adopted the slogan “A Hand Up, Not a Handout.” By the 1970s; however, the War on Poverty was dragging on. Programs operated with too little funding, community groups suffered from infighting, and poverty seemed as bad as ever. The mentality of the federal government towards the poor began to change, and in New York City — where the specter of bankruptcy loomed over the dingy streets —
welfare programs were seen as wasteful and the War on Poverty increasingly began to look like a war on the poor. Programs that mandated maximum feasible participation from target populations gave way to policing that disproportionately targeted those same populations. It’s easy to see how, without any greater self-examination, the culture theory became warped — the need for change shifting from the culture in power to the one that is in poverty. “The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.” But if we look at how the theory originally operated, the culture as a whole is damaged, ruined by hundreds of years of slavery and oppression. And so those with privilege, “themselves oppressed, and having no sense of themselves as members of an oppressed class, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.”3 Nevertheless, there were programs that did work, and their facilitators understood this catch-22 — in which the powerless were expected to be the facilitators of their own empowerment — and took advantage of its rhetoric when communicating with the entities to which they reported. Two of the best examples in Bed-Stuy were the Young Mothers Program and the Women’s Talent Corps. It’s interesting that while the War on Poverty began as a result of efforts to curb young male delinquency, the most successful of its programs were conceived and headed by women for the benefit of women. The Women’s Talent Corps was the idea of Audrey Cohen, a well-to-do white woman who in the 1950s founded an agency that employed college-educated housewives to carry out social-science research. She called it Part-time Research Associates, and its clients included AT&T, the consulting group McKinsey, the State Department, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Seeing that the country’s core economy was turning away from manufacturing, she envisioned the social-service field becoming a major source of jobs in cities and set her sights on finding work for low-income women. “In the field of community service there exists a shortage of jobs, as well as a short supply of professional and non-professional workers to fill them,” she wrote in her request for War on Pov3. Pedagogy and the Oppressed, 1968 (Eg. Trns., 1970) Paulo Freire. 128
erty funds. “If our efforts are to be directed forcefully against the conditions of poverty, new jobs in community and social agencies must be developed and persons presently unemployed or underemployed must be recruited and trained for them.” Her plan was two-fold. She would recruit and train low-income women for “meaningful, socially useful jobs” that would provide them with an alternative to welfare; then, once employed, the women would be “bridges” between poor people and the schools, daycares, hospitals, healthcare clinics, social-work agencies, and legal-service centers they needed. From her years at Part-time Research Associates, Cohen was not naive to the fact that creating these jobs would require massive “institutional change,” and for months she lobbied these sectors — especially schools. The Young Mothers program was the brainchild of Olga DeFreitas. In 1965, working out of a Salvation Army basement, she began enrolling pregnant teenage girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen in education and life-training classes. The next year, she received a two-hundred and forty-four thousand dollar grant that allowed her to hire ten staffers. By 1977, that number increased to thirty-five. The program flew in the face of contemporary norms about unwed teenage mothers in that it envisioned them not only as graduates, but as able to join the workforce and support their children on their own. In addition to their training, they received in-house nursing services, as some of the girls had already given birth once, and what DeFreitas called “conditional grants” of $1.50 per each hour of class attended. It’s not hard to see this stipend as a kind of living wage — as it used taxpayer dollars to pay the girls to attend school — while the programs themselves stand as examples of social-democracy enacted from the bottom up. Additionally, as Woodsworth notes, “like Young Mothers, Women’s Talent Corps emerged from the initiative of one woman;” it wasn’t “an idea conceived by federal poverty programmers.” But it did make “creative use of state resources to quietly advance the goals of the feminist movement. It also facilitated the entry of African American women into government jobs, which, as Michael Katz has observed, ended up being one of the lasting legacies of Great Society programs in cities around the country. Equally significant was the fact that the Talent Corps
explicitly repudiated the culture of poverty thesis: The training program reflects a basic philosophy about the “teachability” of uneducated people. It assumes that the “culture of poverty” does not affect the attitudes of most of the low-income groups in New York City, and specifically not of the women enrolled in the Women’s Talent Corps program. Rather . . . trainees subscribe to the basic cultural values of the U.S. and strive for the same goals as other Americans. It assumes that these women are ready and able to become the “new careerists” of the future. What they need is help in developing and focusing their latent talents, rather than major restructuring of their attitude toward society. By the 1970s, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation had funded a program that trained and hired unemployed young men in masonry and iron work. And thanks to loans from Paragon Credit Union and Great Society grants, homeowners were able to afford repairs that helped maintain the beauty and value of their brownstones. Because of this and the Restoration Corporation’s other successes, the percentage of Bed-Stuy families with annual incomes over the city median increased by eighty percent in a decade. There were still other impressive numbers to report. While national poverty rates for blacks were still much higher than for whites, they had plummeted from fifty-five percent in 1960 to thirty percent in 1974. The portion of black New Yorkers working in government had doubled, from ten to twenty percent, and would continue to rise, especially among women, for decades after. This created a politically savvy black middle class resulting from Great Society policy networks that linked African American leaders to the state. Though drop-out rates among black students were still high, they had dropped by thirty percent between 1960 and 1970, and Medgar Evers College in nearby Crown Heights significantly increased college graduation rates among Bed-Stuy residents. The War on Poverty was a nationwide effort that began in the streets of 1940s Bed-Stuy. Proud new homeowners and Civil Rights advocates linked up in an at-times tenuous partnership, seeing one another as the answer to their problems. In the Epilogue of Battle for Bed-Stuy, Woodsworth surmises: In assessing the afterlife of the long War on Poverty, it’s tempting to conclude that the fate of places like Bedford-Stuyvesant was ultimately decided by forces so overwhelming— deindustrialization, the fiscal crisis, the lingering geography of racism—that there was nothing much any community organization could do to alter conditions on the ground. Indeed, the very basis on which power had been constituted during the 1960s, namely the neighborhood, proved a remarkably weak fortress from which to fight against the economic and political restructuring of New York and the United States. 130
In that sense, the War on Poverty had disempowered the poor rather than empowering them. It had codified the institutions and processes through which low-income communities could gain concessions from local and federal governments, while at the same time ensuring those institutions and processes were maddeningly bureaucratic. The fact that those institutions had originally been designed to control the behavior of young, mostly black men made it all too easy to blame precisely that behavior—and the communities that produced it ––– when the institutions failed. Bureaucratization and personal ego trips — like when Governor Wagner temporarily refused to accept federal funding because it would go directly to community groups rather than first being funneled through the city’s coffers — definitely played a large part in the failure of the War on Poverty. But the ultimate failure of the War on Poverty was that, much like the culture and opportunity theories, it couldn’t address the systems that cause oppression because it was designed to operate within those systems; not only the democratic party—which was the dominant party at the time— but American democracy as a whole is controlled by capital, and capital’s sole objective is to make money. Anyone who does not serve this end is the enemy. Within the government itself, there’s something illogical about expecting localized community groups to address structural problems without enacting any structural changes at the federal level. While this doesn’t preclude local change, it certainly adds unnecessary roadblocks to funding and prevents scalability, to borrow a business term—a government structure created to serve capitalist ends would never allow it. If it was idealistic for Bed-Stuy’s community groups and Civil Rights activists to think they could change the structure of society as a whole, then so too was the capitalist’s idea that concessions to the poor could be a stalwart protection for capital against a tide of civil unrest. Behind Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy’s talk of equality and rhetorical language about war was the reality that black gangs scared white people. The principle that drives Nabisco and Target to release ads with rainbows during Pride Month in 2017 is the same one that told the 88th Congress in 1964 that the Civil Rights movement was bad for business. Protecting Capitalism would be both the impetus and the downfall of the Great Society. Although goals like national universal healthcare and education reform are desperately
needed at the federal level, state laws can be passed to, for example, divorce funding for schools and libraries from local property taxes, thus guaranteeing equal funding for both everywhere in the state. Additionally, the recent liberal successes in mandatory healthcare and marriage equality were both passed nationally only after state laws proved the popularity and viability of each. In the case of healthcare, so long as certain general mandates are met, each state has latitude to run the program as they see fit. Since the needs of groups vary from region to region, a social democracy at the federal level is really little more than an interstate highway of federal funding to support work being done locally by the people who need it, for the people who need it.
ABSCOND! by: Ben Janse The following are eleven interviews conducted by the popular radio announcer Roger C. Barcomb, found among the thousands he left behind when, after a brave struggle, he died of embolism last July. Though they were set aside with only a paperclip binding them together, sometime itâ€™s something that small that will tie together a group into perpetuity.
MARGARET There was a new exhibit at the Whitney. James Franco had already brought in his students to see the work. The Nepalese guard had stopped him initially. The news had made the rounds and everyone had a good laugh. Of course then the head curator came down and gave James’ class the tour, even though it wasn’t yet open. I was standing back to back with Lyndsey in the doorway between our galleries. We spoke without looking at each other, making sure to keep a close eye on our rooms. Mine was filled with tiny jackets with hand-made patches sewed on by the artist, many of which were miniatures of popular patches referencing the Hell’s Angels or various counterculture slogans. Lyndsey’s room was full of tiny pants, all folded on tiny racks like in a store. I kept being afraid a fairy would arrive and start trying it all on. “Margaret,” said Lyndsey, “I know what sandwich I’m getting.” “Don’t even start.” “The farmer’s lunch. Cheddar cheese, sprouts, pickled peppers. They put this sauce on there, I don’t know what it is, but it’s amazing.” “I think it’s just mustard.” A couple walked into the room and Lyndsey and I moved a step apart. They looked at the clothing with their heads tilted. “Look at the stitching,” said the man. “So intricate,” said the woman. They said this, as if they were appreciating the nuances, but I could tell they weren’t really appreciating the nuances. Not to say I necessarily did either, but being a museum guard, standing all day with the work, tended to bring you to a new relationship with the artist. It was all very hard to explain, but easy to understand. The woman brought out her phone. The man posed with his hand on his chin, as if trying to figure out which jacket suited him best. I took a few steps forward. “Actually, there’s no pictures allowed in the gallery,” I said. “Oh sorry,” said the woman. The man looked down and they both hurried out of the room. This is what I do all day long. Lyndsey and I met back in the doorway. “I’m getting meatballs,” I said. “Margie, you always get meatballs.” “With extra cheese, too.” 137
“I’d get fat if I ate like that.” “Not me,” I said, patting my belly. Wendy, our supervisor, came through the door and we moved apart again. She shook her head as she walked up to us. “Margaret, are you on your spot?” I looked toward the corner. “Um, no. I guess not.” “Could you move to your spot, please? And you Lyndsey.” I walked to the corner. We had spots where we were supposed to stand. Mostly, I think it was to make sure we didn’t talk to each other. Even when there was no one in the room they didn’t want us to talk to each other. “That’s the second time today, Margaret,” said Wendy. “That’s a write-up.” I shifted my weight to my right foot and lifted my left a little off the ground, giving it a brief reprieve, one of a number of contortions and mental manipulations I had learned in order to work a nine-hour shift on concrete. “What exactly is a write-up, anyway?” I said. “It’s just for our records.” “Oh.” Wendy looked at the jackets, checking to see if anything was out of place. “You know, HR.” I shrugged. “HR, right.” She looked back. “In case we need to take action.” I shifted to my other foot and pushed my hair to the side. “I guess I just wanted to know the repercussions. To be honest, this job kind of blows if you can’t talk to someone once in a while, you know? It feels like being a prisoner? Or maybe a lower class of person that isn’t allowed basic human rights?” I leaned on the wall and checked the time. Another forty-five minutes until we rotated. I looked up. Wendy was still there. “Margaret, you’re leaning against the wall.” “What?” “Look.” We turned. The wall had a light brush of black where I had made contact. “Hmm,” I said. “Listen, Margaret, I think we may need a meeting.” 138
Wendy had only been supervisor for a few weeks. She was wearing a purple skirt and blazer and looked straight out of an 80’s television show. We used to have this woman named Toni who was awesome, but she was fired suddenly and we hadn’t been allowed to ask about it. “You see, we’re a team here,” Wendy said. “This art, this is our legacy as people. When you lean on the wall you devalue that. Don’t forget Langerhan who spent twenty-two years in his father’s attic making this exhibition. How do you think he would feel walking in and seeing the walls like this?” I looked away, at the small jackets with the skull logos. I thought about how when you turned off the light they glowed in the dark. None of the visitors knew that. “Didn’t he kill himself, though?” Wendy gave me a look. “And what about the curator and the install team, Margaret?” The fluorescent lights were above us. It was all quiet on the exhibition floor. I crossed my legs so that my knees rested on each other. “I mean, no offense, Wendy, but I almost never see the curators or install team in here. We’re the only ones I see in here, to be honest.” Her face was flushed. “You know what, Margaret, don’t bother coming to work on Thursday.” “Okay cool,” I said and leaned back against the wall. Wendy’s eyes widened and she tried to say something. Then she turned and walked away. Her heels echoed on the concrete. I thought of all the things I could do on Thursday. I imagined a wind like a cool breath of trees. I imagined a blanket of leaves and moths. “Margaret, what are you doing?” Lyndsey whispered from the doorway, eyes alarmed. I could hear her, but I had the strangest impression that it was not a mouth forming the words, but the flapping wings of a scarlet tanager. A woman pushing a stroller walked into the gallery. Her baby was asleep in the carriage. Or there was no baby. It was hard to tell because the shade was down. I had noticed that some people pushed a stroller around with no baby in it sometimes. She smiled and looked at me. “How many months along?” she said. “What?” The woman was looking at my stomach. She was very excited. “Is it your first?” “I’m not . . . ,” I started to say, looking up, but then I could no longer see her eyes, just two dragonflies flying in tandem through a pond, looking for a lily pad. I turned to the exhibit but I couldn’t see that either, only boulders along a dry stream bed in which aquatic insects waited for rain. 139
The building itself phased in and out, the walls becoming ivy, everything else a herd of wildebeests fording a river. Something was happening to me, but I couldnâ€™t yet tell if it was something good or bad. I knew my only chance was to get the images to match up. To get what I was seeing to be where I was. I wasnâ€™t even going to wait until Thursday. I was already gone.
JESSE New York City is a walled fortress, with everything about it designed to keep you in. I passed six toll booths just on the way out. I had to petition his majesty and roast a goat for the armed guards. The roads, too, are deceptive. You have this feeling of freedom, or know that you are supposed to, but then what are these lines that you have to stay between, and what is over that hill where no road leads, a forbidden, magical place? Most people were already aware of these limitations, but us New York City types don’t get out much. “You’re Car2go has now left the home area,” said the automated voice. I shifted into third. “Damn straight.” It was a summer of construction. I could see smoke rising from manhole covers, sewer grates, yellow pipes sticking straight up from the asphalt, the tops of buildings, windows. Three men with metal poles stood working on a cargo truck. High above us six workers were tossing cinderblocks out of a window. A flock of house sparrows fought in a mud puddle next to the curb. There was always someone waving you in a direction. If you wanted you could drive for days without making a single choice. Driving in Manhattan is more about letting off the brake than hitting the gas. Even the ambulances were at a standstill, their sirens calling out to the dying they would never reach in time. Cars didn’t have the right of way. Pedestrians didn’t have the right of way. Bicyclists didn’t even have the right of way. The city had the right of way, and its goal was to run you down. I made a left on Twelfth but didn’t make it through the intersection. Every car was in the middle of a turn. A short man in a bright green vest held a sign that said SLOW, as if we had any other choice. The trucks sounded like lions. The cars looked like buffalo. Nothing was coherent visually, with older squat buildings sitting among newer all-glass high rises, with lime green apartment buildings from the 60’s in between. The Colossus of Rhodes was there too, transported from its ancient faraway shoreline; no longer a wonder of the world, just another building among the rest. We nudged forward under the green light, fighting to make it through the intersection. An SUV cut me off, then a taxi, then a semi. They were in motion. They were going somewhere, somehow. It seemed unbelievable. The grasping arms of backhoes were just visible above the fiberboard construction walls that were labeled Post No Bills. Delivery men swept in and out of everyone’s lane, risking their lives for tips. Seagulls followed high above us as if we were ships on the sea. Two hours in, I knew I’d never make it out. I was failing even at leaving the city.
WALTER I was in a meeting to look at a new property on the Upper West Side, 86th Street and Columbus Avenue. The owners were Sarah and Rob, a couple in their mid-fifties who were selling up. “At the end of this meeting one of three things will happen,” I told them. “Number one is you decide to list your home with me. Number two is that you may decide not to list your home with me. And number three is I might decide not to take your listing.” “Okay,” said Rob. “Okay,” said Sarah. I opened my briefcase and took out a folder, briefly glancing at the papers inside. “Just to be clear,” I said, “I am fine with any of these three things happening. I’m just here to help represent your best interests.” I looked at them and focused on not blinking. It was a script, so I could think about other things. I was thinking about a friend of mine, Jim, who I hadn’t seen in many years. You meet everyone in the city, in grad school or poetry readings, but slowly over time they move away. I wondered how he was doing. I heard he was building a stone house by a river, somewhere on the border with Pennsylvania. Must’ve cost a fortune. “Now, I have a couple of questions,” I said. “The first one is, do you absolutely have to sell this home?” “Yeah, we do,” said Rob. “We’re not completely decided, actually,” said Sarah. “Okay, great,” I said. I was looking out the window, just above their heads. It was a view of another building, just a stretch of brick. Jim had married a woman who I only met a few times. It’s strange, I thought, to have a good friend and then barely know his wife. I wondered if she thought of me as one of his good friends or not, or if she thought of me at all. “Question number two,” I said, “is will you price your apartment so that it will sell or are you just content to let it drift forever on the market?” “Well, we have to,” said Rob. “We don’t want to lose money, though,” said Sarah. “Wonderful, wonderful,” I said. Jim and his wife had had a child, I think. I was supposed to come visit at one point, but I couldn’t. Or I didn’t. It was too far of a drive or work had gotten busy or the car broke down. I was supposed to go out there several times actually, now that I thought of it. I shuffled through the papers in the folder and clicked my pen. They had made dinner and everything. In fact, we had planned 142
something quite recently, I was pretty sure. I wondered what happened. “And lastly,” I said after a moment, “do you want me to handle the sale?” “We’re thinking about it,” said Rob. “Actually, we’ve got a few concerns,” said Sarah. “Okay, great,” I said, clicking the pen again. “Let’s hammer out some details then.” I was thinking about what I would do once I left there. I couldn’t think of anything. I was thinking of what dinner would be. Nothing came to mind. Instead I was thinking of a forest trail we used to take when I was a kid, back when I was part of a family myself. What happens when everyone leaves and you don’t make a family of your own? “Is he hearing us?” said Rob. “Your hands are shaking,” said Sarah. I looked them in their eyes. Their faces were alight, concerned. I said, “Okay, great,” again, but this time much quieter, or perhaps not at all. I looked down. The air in the kitchen had turned to steam. It seemed to me the smells had changed, but what they were I couldn’t identify. “I don’t actually know if they are shaking,” I said, holding my hands out. “I mean, it’s possible.” “Lots of things are possible,” said Rob. “Too many things,” said Sarah. “That’s not entirely helpful,” I said. The steam had thickened. I tried to find their faces but all I could see was a fern uncurling under moonlight. I looked down at my hands but they had become antlers, and my arms were smooth brown fur. We were on the 7th floor, which was no place for an antelope. I knew that we were going to die. I smiled at the couple. “You’ve got crickets coming out of your mouth,” I said. And just like that I was headed north.
STEPHANIE In the Lincoln Tunnel we dodged laser beams. Everything sounded like a vacuum but louder. Coming up through black rocks, I noticed that I had exited one city just to enter another. This is what I saw: first, storage units as far as the eye could see. Everywhere steel and wire. Then miles of bus graveyards with only a few scraggle trees with shredded plastic bags caught in their limbs. After that it was abandoned railways cars, and then parking lots so large you needed a car just to get back to where you parked. This was followed up by rows of houses with such excessive wiring it looked as if everything was caught in a net, then just phone towers and power stations as far as the eye could see. It was as if things could only happen one at a time, as if the universe was a number of successive states, each appearing alone but precipitating the next. After this was a mile of large round vats, painted blue. No one knew what was inside these. It was said that if anyone did know, the world would end. Then it was all bridges, none of which were being crossed, then tunnels. Everywhere was only metal. Steel-hatched and crossed. There were many billboards for Rolex watches, donating your boat, various jewelers, a blue wine with an unreadable cursive name, donating your car or boat, cyber security, and one that just said Eat Clean, Bro. After this it was all yellow and red shipping containers piled seven or eight high for miles. It was an hour into the drive when I saw the first field, flanking the onramp with twin radio towers red and white. I felt the urge to stop here and run through the meadow â€“ I had finally made it â€“ but no, there was no place to stop and besides, I was headed for taller grasses.
SOPHIE If my boyfriend just looks at me I get a urinary tract infection. I really do. I drink cranberry juice all day long. I take herbal pills of various leafs, bearberry and goldenseal. It doesn’t matter, so I don’t know why I bother, but then maybe it does matter and would be even worse otherwise, so I always bother. I feel this way about everything in my life, actually. It’s hard to know anything. I work at a temp agency. It’s a great way to see different parts of the city, they said. A new building every day. If you like buildings. I specialize in sitting behind desks fielding questions from people I’ve never met before who are looking for other people I’ve never heard of. I can also sort the mail. I was in a new office near Times Square, getting the early morning rundown. “So, I don’t know how it is in other firms,” said the woman, “but here you don’t leave the desk unless you have coverage. For anything ever. But don’t worry, coverage is easy. Just call me or Stace and we’ll come right out. Here’s the numbers.” She pointed to a list of phone numbers taped to the desk, then left. I looked at the computer for a while. The browser took me to a news site. The EPA was shut down. Hydraulic fracturing was putting known carcinogens and neurotoxins in our water supply and no one could do anything about it. A billionaire was appointing other billionaires with conflicts of interest to government posts. The Endangered Species Act was being repealed. Protected wilderness was being redesignated for drilling. A scientist interviewed on how the drilling would help the nation mentioned that we actually had enough wind energy to power the entire country, including our cars, five times over. This got me in the right frame of mind for my work. It was a hedge fund office. I was in the midst of death, etcetera. Then I had to go to the bathroom. Urinary tract infections are fine until you have to go to the bathroom. It’s kind of like your bladder fills with boiling lead which is pushing on your urethra. I’m not kidding. You have to go to the bathroom that bad. None of the feelings make sense. I picked up the phone and dialed the first number. No answer. Then I dialed the second number. Same deal. Where had they gone? People were always going places. That’s why you can’t trust them. Just look at me here and my parents in Indiana. My pee then turned to acid that was also on fire, dissolving painfully through my lower pelvic regions. “Hello?” I said to the room. I was alone in the universe. I pulled out my thermos of cranberry juice and drank a cupful. Then I got out my probiotic yogurt, which was for a different uncomfortable problem that I was also having at the time. Three well-dressed businessmen walked out of the elevator. I gestured them to wait and called both numbers again (no answer) and then looked up. 145
“We’re looking for Mr. Redburn,” said the first one. “Yes,” I nodded. “All three of you?” They looked at each other. Their ties were pink, baby blue, and black with white stars. “Of course.” “Because if one of you could stay here and cover the desk,” I said, “I really need to use the bathroom.” I looked at them. They looked at me. It was clear we couldn’t talk to each other. There was a million light years between us. “We’re here for a meeting,” said the pink tie. “All three of us.” “Right, okay.” I glanced at the index. “Conference room eighteen.” “Which is which direction?” I had no clue so I pointed a random direction. “That way,” I said. They walked away. My yogurt had blueberries, which weren’t cranberries but still helped, I’m sure. At that point I wasn’t sure if it was better to get a UTI from sex or not from sex. To be honest, I couldn’t ever imagine wanting to have sex again, either way. A new woman appeared, in a turquoise pants suit. “Is that your yogurt?” she said. “Oh great, you’re here,” I said, getting up. She leaned on the desk and raised her eyebrows, making no move to take the chair I was offering. “Because I don’t mind if you eat it, of course, but I’d hate for someone else to see and judge you for it.” “Judge me?” “Also, you have cranberry juice in your cup.” I looked down. She was right. I did, I really did. Then, in the distance, I saw the woman from earlier walk by. “Pa…Patricia?” I called. “Excuse me, Patricia?” She looked over at me and smiled. Then, seeing the woman I was talking to, rolled her eyes conspiratorially, and walked through a door. Was that her office? I sat back down, picked up the phone and immediately called her number. No answer. Then I called the other number. Also no answer. The woman was still there, leaning over my desk, looking at the mail I had been sorting. “I hate to tell you this,” she said, “but these aren’t in alphabetical order.” She began sorting them herself. “That’s great,” I said. “Listen, why don’t you sit here why you do that. I’ll be right back.” 146
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I mean, for your sake. What if someone walked by and you weren’t here?” I looked at her. “Well, you’d be here.” She shrugged. “I really don’t want to tell you how to do your job,” she said. A new feeling made itself known then, of claws and blood, my insides filling with jagged shards of glass, and everything changed. Transfigured through pain, I could no longer see the desks or the cubicles, but instead saw a series of caves in which small eyeless creatures moved. What were they doing here, I wondered, and could I be one of them? I felt the answer more than heard it. I walked forward on new legs that bent backwards. I had to get to the safety of the darkness. Thunder was striking all around me, hatchlings were running from the storm. Snakes flickered their tongues for my scent. They darted forward and I ran. Nothing was decided. We could change the future or die here. Time existed in molten lead and bubbling acid. Time existed in gradients of light and darkness. We could have always or we could have never. We just had to decide for ourselves.
CHRISTOPHER We haven’t figured out faster than light speed, but there is still the feeling, in a car, that you have reached faster than possible speed. A breaking of the laws. No surface should be this smooth and straight. No view should disappear that quickly. You shouldn’t need gauges to tell you things that your own body couldn’t. I hit a rat going down Broadway, as well as two cats on Bleecker and a dog on the G.W. bridge. I hit a rabbit in Westchester and a skunk in Tarrytown. Then on the Taconic it was a stream of raccoons, turtles, and garter snakes. Later, when it got dark, it started to rain and I was hitting every frog in three counties. The road was a graveyard behind me, smeared with blood and guts. This was just the kind of thing I had been trying to get away from. I had tried to escape, but had been unable to escape. When the moon went down I figured I had done enough and ran into a tree. But I didn’t die. The tree remained a tree, and the moss remained moss. I got out of the car, which was no longer a car, a little drunk without drinking. I could feel the spin of the Earth. I wandered into a forest that ended after ten feet. Insects were telling each other stories around me. They were about moisture and the quality of bark. Of metamorphosis. A thousand children and none of them looked like you. Then I was in a field. I don’t think I ever moved again.
SAM I pulled over to a rest stop near Millford for a stretch. Could you believe it? I pulled over. Here, there were no stations. You could stop anywhere, whenever you felt like it. You didn’t even need to ask for permission. Living in the city was like being a kid. Now I’m an adult for the first time, I thought to myself. Anything was possible. I felt that no matter how far I went there would always be a bit more road. I could always cross the next rise to find a story never told. As I left the restroom I saw six small dogs jostling for space around the side of the building. Up here, there are still wild packs. They were eating something, I realized. Probably a human, taken down trying to get some Cheetos. I was probably next. Just like it used to be. A woman came up from the other side, walking past me to the dogs. “Oh, sweeties, what have you gotten into?” “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I said. “They’re vicious.” She twitched her nose. “Ugh. I think they found a skunk.” “Killed you mean.”As she got closer one of them began to growl at her, guarding the kill, and then they all began barking. She took a quick step back. “Did they get you?” I said. She was looking at the dusky sky, but I could tell she wasn’t seeing anything. “No, they didn’t get me.”“Then what is it?” “It’s just, for a second I thought, for a second I thought they changed into something else. One of those big white things, completely white.” “Snow lynx?” “Polar bear.” I recognized something in her then. “You’re headed out of the city.” She nodded. “Too much of everything,” she said, “and not enough of everything else.” “I know exactly what you mean,” I said. She turned. A streetlamp lit her in yellow. “Maybe you know where we should go,” she shrugged. “I just started driving. I touched her shoulder. “Of course I know where to go. But so do you.” The polar bears then changed back into snow lynx, but the building stayed a cloud. We got out our car keys and, yes, we started our cars, but we were also starting something else, a journey in which we both didn’t know where we were going, but in a similar, real sense, knew exactly where to be. 149
DAVID As I walked onto the 1 train at 34th, I lightly bumped a man in a dark blue suit. Now, usually this is the smallest of offenses, as the subway is usually so crowded during rush hour that such collisions are unavoidable. But this man, this clean, neat man with a delicate face, did take offense, and moved himself and his umbrella (there was no rain) to the next pole over. I didnâ€™t feel like I had done anything wrong and yet his face had registered hurt, and even a sense of the foreknowledge of this hurt as if he had known, all along, that I would end up hurting him, that it was our destiny to play out this scenario where I am the aggressor and he the victim throughout eternity. There was something in my face, the curve of my lips, or the space in between my eyes, that told him I was no good. The train whistled through the tunnels and whipped around turns. Everyoneâ€™s wrists were pulled partly out of socket. Those sitting down touched shoulders and thighs, leaning on one another, pressed first one way and then the other by inertia. A high whine of steel could be heard grating through the windows. The wheels were shooting sparks that only rats could see. The pole I was holding was greasy and I thought about taking a sample for a potential project with my Biology students. I was always trying to help people. I really was. The man was still there, minding his own business. He had headphones on, slim ones that were contoured to his facial angles. I couldnâ€™t hear the music he was playing. He was too polite for that. I started to think maybe I had misjudged the interaction. Perhaps I had misinterpreted the facial expression, too, or even wholly invented it. For all I knew, the man had nothing against me at all. At the next stop a whole new wave of riders entered the car. I moved deeper inside to make way for the new rush, and in order to test my new hypothesis regarding the man, I ever so slightly bumped him again, keeping a close eye on his face. Well, even before I had touched him, I already knew that I was wrong and my initial impression had been correct. His face began to pinch, the knuckles on his umbrella whitened, and he tried to flatten himself out of my way (unsuccessfully, of course), all the while displaying a long-suffering expression of victimization. We rode to 50th. A woman briefly touched my hand on the pole. A child got confused and started tugging on my coat. A man leaned into me for a second, then leaned back. I took it like a pro, my facial expression never changing. Riding on the subway is like standing in a crowded basement during an earthquake. We all knew this. We all accepted this. The next stop was mine, and though I now had my back against the far doors, at 66th the platforms switched sides so I would actually be the first out. I kept myself up by pressing into the 150
doors and bracing with my feet as the train swayed beneath me. I tried to look at nothing and wanted no one to look at me. “Excuse me.” I looked up. It was the man. My man. He was gesturing for me to stand aside so he could get off. I stared at him in pure wonderment. Negotiating your position when the subway car is in motion is not particularly easy and contains a high risk of falling, especially while it is braking. Not to mention that I was against a wall with no place to go. I thought this man, of all men, would know that. I just stared at him, not moving at all or replying. Well, you can imagine, he knew that was coming too. He sighed his weary sigh and adjusted his umbrella in his hand. “We’re all getting out at the next stop,” I told him. The lights flickered on and off. A kid somewhere asked her dad if trains had bad days too sometimes. The brakes were applied and the crushing of metal on metal accompanied us into the station. The doors opened behind me and the man brushed right by, not waiting for me to turn around and pick up my bag. A light brush, just a sleeve grazing a sleeve, but had mine really been much different? Should I have made a corresponding face, in which he was the aggressor and me the victim? I followed him out, right behind him. I had the most peculiar feeling that my body was filled with burning helium, not enough to get me off the ground, but enough to press on the bones of my chest to propel me forward. The man was heading for the revolving door and I got in the next turn and pushed it as hard as I could. The lowest bar caught the man on the ankle and he stumbled. He looked back at me and said, “Jesus,” but did not stop, hurrying to the stairs, away from me. I was hot after him, and running up beside him, I pushed him into the center railing as I passed, doubling up his body and nearly knocking him over to the other side. Even he didn’t see this coming, and I looked to see his hurt face, containing a touch of surprise as well, and this was satisfying – to see this expression that I knew he would make, to play out our roles the way we were destined to do since before the universe came into being. I kept running the rest of the way up, my feet pounding the concrete, up the next flight and down the street into the early city dawn. I couldn’t stop, my cycles were running too fast. I went until I hit a traffic light and leaned against the pole to catch my breath. Slowly, thought returned. I started to remember the past as if it was happening for the first time. My sense of righteous anger faded. I became confused. What had actually happened? I wasn’t sure of anything. Heat emanated from the concrete in waves. People passed all around me. I tried to focus. The man had been bumped into twice, by me, then he said excuse me. After this he was attacked and almost 151
pushed down a staircase. None of it made any sense. The world was falling apart, the oceans turning back into comets, the land into planetary dust, the molten core was falling into the sun. Had that really been me? Why had I done what I had done? I was in the city, but I didnâ€™t feel like I was in the city at all. Instead there was a prairie, vast and open, with purple grass that grew over my head. The cars were scattering lizards, the taxis were bees, the streetlamps humming cicadas. I knew I was looking at the building I worked in, that was the truth, but all I could see was a pack of coyotes, shaking their coats in the breeze. Below me were two mottled eggs. I walked forwards, shuffling my wings, and covered them with my underfeathers. Soon my mate would return and tell me of her journeys in the sky.
SETH I thought I had hit the road to see the red taillights in front of me, but now that they were gone I realized I preferred the darkness. I remembered traveling as a child the lights always seemed magical, trailing up the road and curving into the distance, telling us where we were going, of the future that awaited us. My family were travelers, selling handmade crafts across the country. I grew up in every state. I never really had a home for long, a year or two max. Everything was changeable. The past was always lost forever. I grew up in the country, mostly, but my dad took me to New York City when I was twelve and we stood in the crowds just to feel the people around us. I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t believe that there could ever be so many people in one place. Every few years my dad got restless and up and moved the whole family, especially after Mom was gone. So I never became connected to one landscape. Or anything. Now, I often found myself doing the same. Moving across the country, changing jobs, changing roommates. I knew there was somewhere out there I should be, but I didn’t know how to get to it. I kept hoping I’d find a town or a field. Some combination of every place I had ever lived. This was what I was really out driving to find. Past Kingston the landscape really started to thin out. Each home was a pinpoint of orange light in the distance. I almost felt as if any of them could be mine. I would pull up and walk into the warmest glow there ever was. Children, lovers, cheese and wine. The river of air at my back and the country all around me. A world I never knew existed and yet was always waiting for me. I started to look closer to see which one it would be. The first house I passed was too bright, and its lawn ornaments too commercial-looking. The second looked good except it had a NASCAR flag out front. The third was practically a mansion. I had never wanted that much. And the fourth, well, I could see those kids out front, those could never be my kids, rubbing dirt in each other’s face, while the fifth was practically falling down. I just kept on driving. The night was filled with mystery.
DENISE I pulled over at the first river I saw and jumped in. The Housatonic, I think. Didn’t even turn off the headlights. What do you do once you’re out of the city? You could get yourself killed asking that question. You’ve banked so much on the open spaces to clear things up, but then you’re just driving and driving, and you’re still you, and your problems are still your problems. You started on a road. You’re still on a road. You’ve done nothing. After a while, it becomes clear that it was the road itself that was changing, while you stayed the same. You were being used. But I figured a way out. The river presented a new set of problems. The river turned me around, tumbled me over, and sent me into rocks both jagged and smooth. Fish swam along with me. Fallen leaves and debris drifted on errands of their own. Pollen created swirls in the water. Moss covered every rock as I slipped into the distance. As the river flows it dreams. I could see these dreams. They were of perpetual motion. A moment where every moment was the same moment, but with all new parameters. They were of particles of rock finding shelter in new worlds. They were beautiful dreams of melting snow and nightmares of only dust. They couldn’t get the rock particles where they were supposed to go. They couldn’t get the mineral precipitates into the aquifer. How will the plants grow? What would the crustaceans burrow into if there was no sand? A river runs by anxiety as much as gravity. And just like the particles of sand, the river was taking me where I needed to go. I only had to do a minor amount of maneuvering and swimming to keep upright. It was cool, but not cold. The water was infested, but with life. Any moment the fix would set in. Any moment I would be different too. The river did not need to tell me its dreams because they were already my dreams. Everything began to speed up. The sun was setting and the water reflected orange. The effort I was expending to keep above water became greater. The river was trying to turn me into particles. The nitrogen in my proteins was needed on a bank near Poughkeepsie and the magnesium in my spleen for a tree up New Paltz way. The calcium from my bones were needed for the shells of freshwater crabs in West Shokan, and the carbon in my flesh for a patch of ten-thousand-year-old fungi down in Woodbury. I hit a rock but managed to push off with my arms so that I stayed upright. I hit another and went under, but came right back. Then I hit a third. This was what it was to have a true purpose. This is what it was to be needed. I touched my head and my hand came away red, the iron going to dragonflies down in Pine Bush. The change was happening. I hit a rock again and went down. Under the water I saw fish hiding beneath the banks and crayfish feeling the stones with their long antennae. My blood streamed in a ribbon. Zinc to heal the gills of fish suffering from parasites near Nell’s Island, phosphates to hold together the DNA of algae in Long Island Sound. I saw another dream 154
where a human-shaped waterfall was preening its rivulets. Noticing me, it leaned forward and blew mist into my face. Salmon struggled to swim up its hair and freshwater shrimp clung to its eyelashes. If only they made an exhibition of this I wouldnâ€™t need to talk again. The waterfall was reading from a parchment made of ancient glaciers. It was decreeing and would not stop decreeing until everything was fixed or the end of time, whichever came first. It was a heavy task but I believed I could do it. I came here to do it. Much later, I woke up with my head on the bank, one arm trailing in the water, the other clutched onto the roots of a tree. It was only a temporary reprieve. I knew that next month I would jump in again.
RACHEL It was, what, June 6th? or 7th? There had been a full moon a few days beforehand, I remember, but it had waned a bit so that by then more of the stars were visible. We were in this alfalfa field somewhere upstate, all eleven of us, like we had just stepped out of a time portal. Trust me, I was just as surprised as anyone else. I mean, how did we know? I donâ€™t even want to see the decision tree for it. We walked from the trees as one, not yet knowing what we were doing there and yet also knowing everything. Field mice, rabbits, snakes, and deer watched from the foliage. We lifted our right hands and in them appeared daggers of starlight which we used to cut small slits in our forearms. The snakes then came forward, one for each person, and spurt venom into the cut. Soon we were able to see the cosmic plane from which springs infinite worlds. We became aware then of the possibilities ahead of us, the oceans of rivers of thought. We could see new futures that hadnâ€™t existed until that moment, new ways out of situations that seemed to have no way out. Then we lifted our hands and in them fell a leaf. These we put in as well, which mixed with the venom and soon we could see the world of nature, no longer in parts, but all at once, whole and complete. A shiny line connecting every living thing, plant and animal, multicellular and unicellular, composed and decomposed. We came to understand what life actually was and our role in it. Why the first humans came to be on the savannahs so long ago. Why the first cell formed in the first ocean. Next, thirteen drops of rain fell into our wounds that had passed through the systems of over one million humans each. This connected us to the plane of community which we had somehow lost among the millions, and in doing so we knew each of our neighborâ€™s names and could draw from memory the lines on the faces of strangers. In turn, we became visible to others as people with names that could be known and faces with lines that could be drawn. Next, we each thought of a family member long dead that we had only ever heard about in stories. We imagined a face for this ancestor, as well as a body and limbs, and put the idea of this person inside ourselves as well. This connected us with the ancestral plane, where we could see all our relations dating back into antiquity, all the people whose existence caused our existence, the line that was broken when we left our homes and came to the city, the built-in support group of our lives that was lost. Lastly, we each picked up a handful of ash, and as we spread it onto the wound, healing it, we became aware of the world of mirrors in which our other-self dwells. This is the self that does everything that we do, except in jest, to warn us of the dangers of ego. We stood in silence after the ritual of renewal, or whatever it was, ended. We took deep 156
breaths and listened to the wind. At this point, it wasnâ€™t hard to imagine that everything that was lost had now been returned to us. It wasnâ€™t hard to believe that all our problems had possible solutions. We looked at the trees and saw streetlamps. We looked at the birds and saw taxis. We looked at the deer and saw our nextdoor neighbors, returning home with groceries and flowers. So we stumbled to our cars and turned our golden headlights south, where they merged with the greater lights of New York, our home. What we then realized was that the only place we really wanted to be was back in the city. Someone had even said that, Margaret I think. She said, if you want to see me, see me in the city.
EXT. / INT. & INT. / EXT. Sean Damlos-Mitchell EXT. / INT. most misty days
how like my apartment I am /
strewn about it
obscured, on the north side & high above & outside /
likewise strewn about
there are photographs
visible only from the leeward window the Japanese fortress, impenetrable grey concrete shrouded in grey
most of them are of me & I am looking at them
back at me
the whole of it never able to be perceived at once at once, a composite in the minds-eye built-up over time, the key to its being –
maybe that’s just me /
I mean am I
on sunnier days a fortress, no fortress no scaling up its wall, only me
the drinker of the bottles or the thing that’s drunk /
there is furniture in places
with nowhere to escape / half-strength fluorescence litters
floor & wall alike, flickering
& it holds me up or holds me in
its arms & of course I’m describing –
from this rooftop vantage point
the evening sky, staying too late
I could just as easily be describing I mean really
I could be
INT. / EXT. to take an outside something make it inside – what is lost in the processing – I’d like very much to save something, grow it & forever – better still how do we bring the inside outside, shares to those in need – I wish I were better able to understand the subject, the subjunctive, the subjective is this what it means to be solely terrorized? freedom fighter, fidget spinner, gin & tonic to be preserved at earth’s expense debit unrecorded, annihilated credit what futures do I have to offer? listen up little kids, you have to understand the world’s a very different place – it will never be again. the city’s gone!
The first time I met Andrew Jimenez, Ben Janse, and Sean Damlos-Mitchell was in the Autumn of 2011. We had just begun our first semester at the New School, and were hoping to earn MFAs in Creative Writing; Andrew and Ben for fiction, and Sean and I for poetry. Back then we were all in our mid-to-late twenties, and although we had been accepted by the New School, over time, Sean, Ben, and I would learn that it would be several more years until New York would fully embrace us, support us, and create enough opportunities and friendships where it felt as though we could actually see ourselves living here for a while, and thriving. Andrew’s place in BedStuy helped. Even when it was only Andrew and a few roommates who we didn’t know living there, the place felt like home. Somewhere to throw a party. Somewhere to write. Somewhere to read, or just listen to music. Somewhere to crash for a few nights, or a few weeks, however long it took to answer two questions that’d we’d often ask this city, “What now? What next?”. When we gathered for this interview almost six years after that first autumn, we talked about what Andrew’s place meant to us, and we tried to piece together how our friendships had formed. We talked about the craft of putting sentences together, and even just for a short moment, we tried to define poetry. We talked about the J Train, and the A train, and the C train. And we touched on what it’s like to go back and read your own writing, from years ago. “It’s really weird,” Andrew said, “because it’s somebody who you know really well, but who isn’t you.”
Photography: Emily Fishman - Pg. 114-211.
Andrew: Do you mind if I put on some background music? Emily: That’s a great idea. Isaac: Sure, yea. Andrew: Sure you would mind, or sure you would like me to put on some background music?
Andrew: We can’t do it. Sean: Yea, sorry. Andrew: Alright, let’s ask these questions. Let’s do it. What’s this conversation about? Ask a fun one to kick things off.
Isaac: Sure, I would not mind.
Isaac: Of course, so I was thinking - there’s actually a fourth roommate who is no longer with us, and I thought we’d sort of talk about what --
Sean: Could you put Death Grips on?
Isaac: Wait, what’s the guy, the drug-dealing music song?
Sean: Don James?
Andrew: Oh yea, Stitches. Sean: Stiches Isaac: Yea, Stitches. Sean: Yea, we’re going to listen to Stitches, all day. Isaac: Who is Death Grips? Andrew: Punk. Sean: It’s punk, like rap. It’s really noisy. It’s good. Emily: You guys had an LCD moment last night? Andrew: Oh, many. Isaac: Lisa Loeb. You searched for her? Andrew: Lisa Loeb. You know, I’m not afraid to admit it, I love Lisa Loeb.
Isaac: Well, Mouse used to live here. Andrew: Oh, yeah! Yeah. Sean: Yeah. Andrew: The non-human roommate. So you want to know . . . Isaac: Well, what’s it like without him . . . tell me about Mouse, Andrew. I mean you’re the one who lived here first, so . . . Andrew: Yea. Isaac: So when did you move in? Andrew: 2007. Isaac: Nice. Andrew: And I got Mouse in 2009. Isaac: Okay. Andrew: Yeah, yeah. I lived by myself.
Sean: Are you recording this now?
Isaac: In here?
Isaac: Yeah, yeah, we’re live on the air.
Andrew: Downstairs. And then I moved up here in 2009, but I got Mouse a few months before that, and so I lived downstairs by myself and it was just, kind of lonely.
Andrew: Let’s do . . . the piano bar. Isaac: “Study, work, or relax to some of the best jazz piano of today, and yesterday.” Sean: It doesn’t say though, converse, or interview.
Isaac: You lived down there for two years? Andrew: Yea. Isaac: How much was the rent back then? 173
Andrew: Thirteen hundred. Yeah, I had a real job at the time. And yeah, it was just kind of lonely. So yeah, actually, I lived down there by myself, and I had another friend for a little while who was staying with me while he was getting his life together, his name also was Shawn, but he spelled it the other way. Sean: The wrong way. Isaac: The inappropriate way. Sean: It’s very inappropriate. Isaac: It’s so offensive. Sean: We can’t spell it out loud here. Andrew: And actually, this is actually kind of funny. So, the dude’s name was Shawn, and he had a cat named Ben, and Ben really loved me. Like way more than he liked Shawn. Which is also true for these guys. Sean: That’s right. Wait, were there names really Shawn and Ben? Andrew: Yeah! Ben: Andrew has always been with a Sean and Ben. His whole life. And he always has to be. Sean: Yep, in every eternity. Ben: Or the universe will collapse in on itself. Andrew: So then Shawn ended up moving in with his girlfriend, and he took the cat with him, and it was really sad, so I got Mouse. Sean: And then you got a new Sean and Ben. Andrew: Yea, a new Sean and Ben. And Mouse. Sean: It’s very strange. Andrew: And Mouse was cool. He was kind of like a dog, he would follow me around, and meow a lot. And he would always want to sit on my lap. It was kind of annoying, but also kind of nice. Isaac: When did he move on? Andrew: When was that? 174
Sean: Last year? Andrew: Yeah. Sean: About a year ago. Andrew: I guess maybe it was in the fall, last fall. Ben: That long, huh? Andrew: Yea. He was just really old. When I got him, he was about eight or nine already. So he was like sixteen. Isaac: When you say you were downstairs, you were in this place, or down, on the lower floor. Andrew: On the garden level. Isaac: So you had access to the backyard. Andrew: Yeah, which I never used. Isaac: Never? Andrew: It was just overgrown, with leaves everywhere. Sean: Why didn’t you clean it up, have some friends over? Andrew: I cleaned it up once, but I don’t really spend -Ben: Oops. I tried to turn it down. Andrew: Yea, that’s the lowest it can go. Ben: I have the speaker right in my ear. No it’s okay. Andrew: Yea, if I wanted to go outside, I would just go to the park, or sit on the stoop. I didn’t really care about using the backyard at the time. Sean: What would you do at the park? Ben: That’s really sad. Now we’re locked out of the backyard, we can’t get there no matter what. Andrew: Well, the thing about being outside is --
Isaac: You can jump down there, right? Ben: You’re right, I take back the “no matter what.” Andrew: --- there’s no sunlight back there. It’s all just shade from the houses. Sean: It’s nice on a really hot and sunny day, during summer.
with our lives.” And so they told me about it, and I called my landlord and I said, “I heard about this deal, I’ll move up there and pay eighteen hundred a month,” and he just said, “Okay.” Isaac: Well, first, how did you find the place, in 2007? Andrew: Craigslist.
Andrew: Yeah, in which case I’d just rather stay indoors.
Isaac: Craigslist. And then when you moved up here in 2009, you had to find the roommates?
Isaac: Do you guys ever do the stoop sitting out there together?
Andrew: Yea, I just found some roommates on Craigslist.
Andrew: All the time.
Sean: Yea, not together usually.
Sean: You posted an add looking for Seans and Bens.
Andrew: Unless we’re having a pipe. Ben: Yeah. Usually when we smoke pipes. Usually one of those. Not during the day time. I don’t really like sunlight very much. And it gets bright on the steps.
Andrew: Yep. Seans and Bens only. Isaac: Did you have a lot of people cycle through?
Andrew: The backyard is perfect for you then.
Andrew: I had, I think, two sets of roommates before I met these guys.
Ben: I know.
Andrew: We’re allowed to go down there.
Andrew: One of them was this crazy artist guy. I think when he moved in he was twenty - he was really young. He went to F.I.T. I want to say, and he was this weird performance artist kid - and he -- well, I don’t want to tell this. It’s a personal story about him.
Ben: We are. Well, Denise isn’t down there now. Andrew: But she told me that she tells her tenants that we’re allowed to go down there. Sean: You see some creepy guys in your backyard - don’t worry -
Andrew: It’s just the neighbors.
Ben: Sounds like the kind of juicy details I’m looking for.
Sean: It’s just the neighbors from upstairs. Isaac: So, you just told your landlord, “I want to move upstairs,” how did that work? Andrew: The people who lived up here were moving out, and he really wanted them to stay, and I think they were paying two thousand a month at the time, and he said, “If you stay, I’ll let you have the place for eighteen hundred a month,” and they were like, “We would love to stay - but we’re all just doing different things
Isaac: So, Ben, you were here before Sean, or who moved in here first? Ben: Yea, I moved in here first. I moved in here just temporarily at first. Isaac: And when was that? Ben: It was the fall of 2014. It was after we graduated. I left with my ex-girlfriend because she really wanted to go to California or 175
something - and we broke-up along the way, so after a couple of months I came back - and had no place to live, and had quit all my jobs. I had no jobs. I had the best sequence of jobs. I had four part-time jobs that would all work one day a week.
I need to have roommates, then I want to be with people who I know and like. And so I was lucky.
Isaac: Whoa. What were those jobs?
Sean: Oh yea, it’s hazy to me too. Well, before I actually moved in here, I actually stayed over there for about a month. With all of my boxes.
Ben: It was great, bartending, catering, babysitting . . . No wait there was . . . Sean: 67 Burger, were you there too? Ben: Maybe, during part of it I was. And for a little bit it was teaching, because I was teaching at the New School. So it was like a variety. But there was this woman living in Sean’s room now, and she wanted the other room, just to have nobody in it, but she never stayed here. The four months she lived here, she spent two nights here. And I had no place to go. I just came back, and so Andrew said just go in this room, and so I was in the tiny little room. But also I couldn’t use her bathroom up there, that was a real strict thing. Andrew: Oh yeah! I forgot about that. Ben: So I was just using Andrew’s bathroom, which is in his bedroom. And after a couple months I thought, well, I guess I should start paying rent. Isaac: That’s not bad. Ben: Yeah. Isaac: What’s the screening process like, Andrew, with new roommates? Andrew: Well their names have to be Sean and Ben. I don’t know. I didn’t really have a screening process. I had people come over, and I made sure that they were normal and seemed cool, and I guess that was really it. I just felt them out. It was easy with Ben and Sean because I knew them already. I hate having roommates. I’m really -Sean: He’s really mean to us. Andrew: I’m just kind of particular about my space, and I don’t really like sharing it. So if 176
Isaac: So Sean, when did you move in? I can’t really remember.
Isaac: You’re indicating by the window near the reading area, right? Sean: Yeah, by the window. There used to be a couch there. Ben: I forgot about that. Sean: Yeah. I moved out of my old apartment, 593 Bushwick. Isaac: That was a good place. Sean: Where I was with you, actually yeah. And I was looking for an apartment, and I wasn’t so sure where I was going to move yet, so I moved all of my stuff here. And at that time the room that I now live in was available to move into, so I probably should have just done that, because I ended up moving into it a year later anyway, but then I moved into South Slope and moved all of my stuff out of here. Then moved back here, and into a room, the tiny room upstairs for a year later. And that’s where I resided for about six months. Ben is much better at dealing with tiny spaces than I am. Ben: Dealing with how little they cost! Sean: Yeah, I found it depressing, and overwhelming. Isaac: So you switched rooms? Sean: So we switched rooms, yeah. Andrew: Which Blurns didn’t know about. Sean: Yeah. Isaac: Is there a story there? Sean: Not one you can print.
Andrew Jimenez. 177
Ben: Well, Blurns, he came in and we were all gone, but we left a key for him or something. And he was with his girlfriend - he wanted to have sex with his girlfriend, and he was like, oh, I’ll do it in Ben’s room. We’re closer friends.
Isaac: Is that usually useful? Sean: No, it’s just something that I like to do.
Sean: Well he had done it in my room the year before. And I was sleeping on an air mattress, and he put a hole in the air mattress.
Ben: But we all pitch in pretty well, and we all are communicative. When we have problems about someone doing something or not cleaning something, we’re just like, “Hey, why don’t you clean that crap?”
Andrew: He broke the air mattress.
Isaac: Most of this stuff is Andrew’s?
Ben: So anyway, he’s having sex in what he thought was my room, but it was actually Sean’s room, and we’re returning back with Sean, and Sean’s like, “God, I hope he’s not having sex in my room.” And we come in, and you could just hear it taking place.
Sean: And he was! Ben: And when you’re that close you’re like, “Yep, it’s Sean’s room.” Sean: Yeah, so that’s the story about how our friend Will had sex in my room. Both my rooms. Ben: Two years. Sean: Yeah. I hope that answers all of your questions. Ben: You might want to lead with that one.
Sean: Well, Andrew bought it but I think it’s all of ours now. Ben: Like, if I ever leave I’m definitely taking this TV that Andrew bought with me. I’d say most of the stuff is Andrew’s stuff, but I have some art on the wall, which I feel good about. Isaac: What are we talking about, this stuff here? [Indicating behind the sofa]. Ben: Yeah, that stuff. That’s actually a pastel that my mom did, the eyeball thing. And that’s something one of my friend’s, Al, did. Andrew: That’s Al’s, right? Ben: Yeah, a collage. And this is all of our books mixed together. Sean: Except mine. I keep mine upstairs.
Isaac: So who would you say does most of the cleaning around here?
Ben: Except Sean’s. His are upstairs.
Sean: We all take turns.
Sean: I write my name in all of them.
Andrew: He’s an elitist.
Sean: Yesterday Ben and Andrew cleaned up, and I didn’t know that they were doing that. So I didn’t participate.
Isaac: You threw a lot of books out recently, or you alphabetized them? Ben: Alphabetized them.
Andrew: Ben does all of the dusting because I refuse to dust.
Isaac: How was that?
Sean: Ben, you’re a good duster.
Andrew: I did it, and it took three fucking weeks.
Ben: Yeah, we kind of have different specialties.
Sean: That was a big project, yeah.
Sean: I like moving chairs back and forward. 178
Isaac: Three weeks, is that long?
Andrew: Much longer than I thought, I thought, three hours max?
Ben: Probably something to do with dinner.
Isaac: You thought three hours max?
Andrew: That’s where I wrote a lot of my story for Curlew, sitting in that chair.
Sean: Well, there are a lot of books over there.
Isaac: In that chair over there?
Andrew: How long could it take?
Isaac: Was it worth it?
Isaac: Where else does the writing happen down here?
Andrew: Yeah, in the end it was worth it. Sean: It’s much easier to find things now. Ben: I did feel that I suddenly found books that were lost forever afterwards.
Ben: Kitchen table. That’s a solid spot. When you need a break you can sit in this chair with a light on, but when you really need something special, you go to the blue chair.
Sean: Well you’ve been to a write night here, which we don’t have nearly often enough.
Ben: Like Palace of the Peacock.
Isaac: We used to do them quite often.
Andrew: Palace of the Peacock.
Sean: Yea, it used to be every Thursday.
Sean: But now we can never get any new books, because that would throw everything off. So we’re stuck with what we have.
Isaac: When Josh was here.
Andrew: I’ve tried to leave room, where I could, to add some books. Ben: I like that the most room is left on the part everyone sees. Andrew: Yeah. Ben: But that’s okay, once you’re in the reading room, it’s all good. Isaac: Ah, that’s the reading room over there? Ben: Yeah. And it’s got that nice chair in the window, so you can like sit in it and have sunlight over your shoulder on your book, but it’s not on you. Isaac: Nice. Ben: So I like that. Sean: Thoughtful design. Ben: It’s also a good thinking spot. Sean: What’s the best thought you’ve ever had there?
Sean: But it would usually devolve into kind of a non-write night. Isaac: Yeah. Sean: Just a night, a night of hanging out. Isaac: Eventually the writing would start. Sean: Yeah. Isaac: And then it would stop. Sean: Yeah, well sometimes. Sometimes it would never start. Ben: Alright, we’ll hangout until two a.m. and then we’ll write! Alright, just three more beers, and then we’re gonna write till five a.m. Sean: Or something like that. It’s a nice place to bring a lot of people together to write. Isaac: I think so. Sean: Kind of a social hub in that way. Andrew: Yesterday we had all of those people over for the reading. 179
Sean: That’s true, yeah. Andrew: The script. Sean: Yeah, Laura and Jane are writing a sitcom. They had a reading here, of their work. Isaac: Nice. Sean: So that was cool. Isaac: It’s good to host. Sean: Yeah, we allowed other people to use our space. Ben: Yeah. Sean: We’re not personally invested in those people at all, but they’re working on something. Ben: Some of them are our least favorite people. Sean: That’s right. Ben: No, they’re cool people. Isaac: Do you find living with other people -- [Ben catches a speaker perched atop the television that has fallen, just before it hits the floor] -- good catch, wow! Ben: Did you get that on the recording? Sean: Yeah, you might want to show how good our reflexes are. Andrew: It was bound to happen eventually. Sean: Yeah, that’s kind of a precarious spot. Isaac: But before you guys lived together –– well –– I know Sean we lived together for a while, but do you find living with other writers allows you to write more, or sort of incentivizes you? Sean: Yeah. Ben: Definitely. Because often I’ll come home and Andrew is writing, and I might have been going to do something else, but I’ll just sit down and write, and I think vice-versa as well. Because he’s doing it. 180
Andrew: Yeah, I definitely feel peer-pressured when I come home and see Ben writing. Sean: Yeah, sometimes they’ll ask, “Are you going to write tonight?” And I’ll be like, “I don’t think I’m going to.” And then they’ll be like, “You better write! We’re writing. And we’re pretty cool here, don’t you want to be cool like us?” Ben: Yeah. Sean: And then I give in. Ben: Yeah, and if you continue to say no then you have to do push-ups, until you get it right. Yeah, and it’s also nice because in grad school we were always talking about writing, we were always going out to the bar afterwards and talking about writing books and stuff, as well as classes of course, but afterwards I think for a lot of people, they lost that outlet of creative discussion, so that’s also a cool thing, to live with writers who understand what you’re working on. Andrew: Yea, that was one of the main reasons why I went to the New School. To have that group of friends who were also writers. Ben: “Forty-thousand dollar friends,” I call them. Andrew: For me only forty-thousand. I know it was a little bit different for you. Sean: Yeah, I still don’t understand. Ben: It was actually thirty thousand. Sean: Really? Ben: Because I had the ten-thousand, didn’t we all get the ten thousand dollar --? Isaac: What was that, the ten-thousand dollar what? Sean: Gift certificate. Best Buy! Andrew: That’s how I got this TV! Ben: Wait, you didn’t get the ten thousand? Isaac: What was it?
Ben: Scholarship. Fellowship. Isaac: Hmmm. Ben: Scholar of fellows. Isaac: I guess not. Sean: Yeah, it’s weird when -Ben: It wasn’t for the poets, probably. Sean: I think everybody got one. Isaac: I just know they didn’t pull you aside at orientation, and tell you what you had been awarded.
Ben: I’m from a combination of Maryland and upstate New York. Sean: I’m from Arizona and I was born in California. I moved here from Arizona, 2010, 11? 2011. Andrew: I’m from Long Island originally, and I lived in Florida for a while. And then I moved back here. Ben: I’m going to grab some water. I’m still listening. Isaac: Have you had any thoughts about rearranging the space here at all, how often do you change it?
Sean: Yeah, I remember orientation. I don’t remember if I met any of you there?
Andrew: Oh yeah, a thousand times.
Isaac: At orientation?
Sean: Yeah, Andrew likes to re-arrange furniture.
Sean: [to Isaac] Yeah. I met you later. [to Ben and Andrew]. I met you two in the bathroom
Isaac: Yeah, what sort of changes?
Andrew: [to Ben] That’s where we had met though, at orientation. Ben: Did we meet there? I can’t remember if it was there or in Tiphanie [Yanique’s] first class. Andrew: When was that student reading? Because that’s when we had met Sean in the bathroom. Isaac: That was like a week after orientation. Ben: [to Sean], I had already met you, you had already met Andrew. Sean: Yeah, we hung out before school started. Ben: But then you guys were having a conversation in the bathroom, and I was in one of the stalls and I just stared commenting on it. Sean: Yeah, and then you came out and said, “One day we’re going to live together!” I thought it was really weird at the time. Ben: Yeah, in six years. We’ll be doing an interview. Emily: Where are you guys from?
Andrew: Man, so this bookcase used to be in the dining room over there against the kitchen wall. We had completely different couches. There was a couch here and a couch there once. Ben: There was a different chair. Andrew: Yeah, different chair. The record player, I’ve moved a thousand different times. There was a church organ over there. Isaac: Oh yeah. Andrew: But when Mouse started getting really old, he would just piss wherever, randomly, and one of his favorite spots to piss was on the keyboard of the organ. Isaac: Did that make a sound? Sean: If it was on, maybe. Ben: It gave it a special quality. Sean: Yeah. Ben: How would you describe that? Andrew: Piss-smelling? 181
Andrew: Yeah, light fixtures have changed.
Sean: Yeah, it smelled very bad. We couldn’t get the smell out. It’s too bad that it was a cool organ.
Andrew: Sean tried really hard to get the smell out.
Sean: Yeah we installed that ourselves. That was fun.
Sean: Yeah, I did.
Andrew: Yeah, Sean and I did it.
Ben: But then it just smelled like Febreeze and cat piss. And so one day when Sean was gone, me and Andrew, we just carried it outside.
Isaac: How long did that take?
Isaac: You just brought it outside? Ben / Andrew: Yeah. Isaac: And they took it away? Andrew: Somebody took it, right? Ben: I don’t think so; I think they took it out with the garbage. Andrew: I thought somebody had taken it. Ben: We put the sign out that said free, but then it always kept flipping up in the wind, so nobody could ever see it. Isaac: You can write free on the other side though, right?
Isaac: Is there actually a light under that thing?
Andrew: It wasn’t that long. Fifteen, twenty minutes. Isaac: Twenty minutes? Andrew: Yeah. You have to unscrew whateverthe-fuck was there before, and then you have to re-connect the wires, and then screw all of the stuff in. Ben: Wow. I’m usually the only one who does light stuff because you guys are scared of heights. Andrew: I couldn’t reach it. So Sean had to help. Isaac: Where did you get it from? Andrew: Ikea. Isaac: Ikea, nice. And then I forget, Ben, you’re the one who hates overhead lighting?
Andrew: Yeah, we should have written free on both sides.
Ben: I was just like, man, that sucks.
Andrew: I hate overhead lighting.
Sean: Well it’s gone now, so something happened to it.
Ben: I like things to be bright --
Isaac: Cool, cool. Ben: Yeah, what else has changed? We got a lot more books.
Andrew: I just, I hate it. Ben: -- Inside, and I like things to be dim outside.
Andrew: The color of the walls, when I first moved here were bright yellow.
Andrew: The overhead lights over there –– the ones that were here when we moved in are just the worst.
Isaac: Oh yeah, that’s right.
Ben: He likes changing light fixtures. Like the weird cone one above.
Andrew: It’s just the way that the light comes out and the quality --
Ben Janse. 183
go to work.
Andrew: The quality of light is very harsh. This I don’t mind because the quality of this light is different, it’s more calming, it’s yellower.
Isaac: So what do you enjoy about writing late at night?
Ben: I think it’s weird because it has no filter. Isaac: I never knew how much of the color was based on the bulb, or the lampshade. Is it both or is it the bulb? Andrew: Yeah, I think it’s just a combination of the two, for me. Isaac: Well, what time of the day do you get the most writing done, nights, mornings? Sean: Yeah, nights. Andrew: Yeah, I’m not really a morning person. Afternoon and then in the evening. Sean: Though Ben is good in the morning, and you only work two or three days during the week. Ben: Yeah, I like writing right after I wake up, making it the first part of my day. Isaac: To sort of, get it out? Ben: Well I feel like, okay, so you’re sleeping, you’re kind of in the world of dreams, and creation, you know, you’re just creating things and you wake up and you just have one foot still in that world, especially when you’re really rested. If you’ve just had nine or ten hours of sleep, you’re closer to your subconscious, which is the true genius.
Sean: I like when you kind of . . . I haven’t been able to do this as much anymore, but when you, especially in undergrad, when you stay up and you start to feel kind of crazy, loosing your mind a little bit, and I feel like the mind is working more quickly too. I always feel very slow in the mornings. I feel like the longer I’m awake, the faster my mind is going. So some days I just don’t sleep at all. Isaac: Well, who does the cooking? Do you guys ever have shared meals, and how often, if so? Ben: We don’t really do shared meals much. Sean: Yeah, well we’re usually not always here until much later at night. Ben: We get hungry at very different times. Andrew: Even when Ben and I are here, often at the same times now that I work from home, and we’ll still cook separate meals. That’s one thing that I wish we did more of, shared meals. Ben: Yeah. Sean: Why don’t we put it on the calendar? That would be really good for us. Ben: First we gotta get a calendar. Andrew: Let’s make a Google calendar just for shared meals.
Andrew: That’s how I feel at night.
Ben: Yeah, one night a week!
Ben: I feel tired at night, and plus usually I start drinking at some point. I write less well, after I start drinking.
Isaac: Sean, I’ve received e-mails from you at three or four in the morning, the poems, so you’re a night writer?
Isaac: You’ve hosted a few Thanksgivings though, right?
Sean: Yeah, sometimes. I try to write more in the mornings, but, I don’t have many mornings that I’m free, usually it’s the weekend, so I have to do something, or it’s the week, and I have to 184
Andrew: Let’s get a slack group together.
Sean: Yeah, those are always fun. Ben: And yesterday we had a big shared meal, kind of.
Sean: Yeah, and Easter. We’ve done that a few times. Isaac: For the script reading? Ben: After the script reading we bought onehundred and twelve oysters from this wholesale place, so we just ate oysters all day. Sean: Yeah, just for the five of us. Six of us? Five of us. Andrew: Yeah, five. Ben: Us, and then me and Sean’s girlfriend. Sean: Girlfriends. Andrew: They share a girlfriend. Sean: We don’t share a girlfriend. Ben: Wait, they’re not? Isaac: Cool. So, Ben, you used to live, where in Queens? Ben: I’ve lived in Ridgewood and Astoria, Queens. Isaac: And you’ve lived, Sean, in Bushwick, South Slope, and Bed-Stuy? Sean: Yes. Isaac: And Andrew, since you’ve lived in New York you’ve lived in . . . it’s just been here?
of the majority of people who lived there, that gave them very different flavors. When I was in Ridgewood everyone was Polish. Which was cool, I’d get some Polish food at the corner store. The bodegas were exactly the same, except there would be really good Polish sausage too. That was cool. And then Astoria was really Greek; it has all of these amazing Greek restaurants. Isaac: Very Greek. Ben: And then there’s Greek people everywhere. There are also Bordellos whorehouses everywhere, all over. Sean: Wait, what? Ben: Which was really weird, because they were coming from a culture where that’s a normality. Sean: They’re not legal operations? How do you know that they’re there? Ben: They’re not. This old Greek man told us about them. And then you can spot them; they’ll have blackout curtains above them and stuff. But it’s been confirmed many times. And I’ve been outside them and this sixty-year-old man will come out with two twenty-looking women scantily clad and just walk around and be kissing both of them. Andrew: It’s a telltale sign. Ben: Yeah, that’s a telltale sign.
Andrew: No, before I lived, well, since I moved back to New York in total, I’ve lived way out on Long Island at my dad’s place in Mastic Beach, and then I lived in West Islip. And then I lived in Queens for a year in Far Rockaway, and then I moved here.
Sean: I’ve never seen anything like that.
Isaac: So how do all of the other neighborhoods compare, based on what you guys have experienced?
Andrew: This is the best place I’ve ever lived in my whole life, I think. Sean: Yeah, I like it here. Ben: I find the neighborhoods that I’ve lived in, each had a very distinct ethnicity in terms
Ben: So good fish and whorehouses in Astoria, which Blurns once made us get a drink in one. Sean: In a whorehouse? They had drinks there?
Sean: He made you? Ben: He made us. Isaac: He forced it? Ben: And I had a Heineken for fourteen dollars. And there was this woman singing Russian songs, I’m not sure exactly, and then 185
people would throw change on the floor, and she would pick it up seductively. Isaac: How seductively?
Yeah, I didn’t really know. We’re kind of in this no-man’s land, where it’s not that long of a walk, but it’s a bit of a walk to the grocery store.
Ben: Do you want to see?
Sean: And the laundromat.
Isaac: Yeah, on a scale of one to ten? Ben: Yeah, throw some change for me. And then we got the hell out of there immediately. And we saw them taking people upstairs and stuff.
Ben: It was a really long walk to the laundromat. For a long time there wasn’t really a bar within walking distance. And still, it’s kind of far. But that’s kind of nice too because it feels like a neighborhood, and these streets are so beautiful.
Sean: They were just taking them away, you could have been next.
Sean: Yeah, they are beautiful. Well they did win the award right? For greenest street.
Ben: Taking them away, disappeared them.
Ben: The thing I notice about this neighborhood as well is that people seem to take more care and more pride in how it looks. Like people will have the most beautiful plants and gardens.
Sean: Yeah, sounds like a scary place. Isaac: So when you moved to Bed-Stuy . . . Ben: Bed-Stuy! Yeah. Isaac: What were your expectations? Did you have any?
Sean: Well they are all families who own these places. Except us. And if you look outside, we could probably do a much better job of keeping it clean. Which we will.
Ben: Well I came here kind of because it was my only choice.
Ben: Put it on the calendar.
Andrew: That’s how I get ‘em!
Sean: Yeah, we’ll put it on the calendar.
Sean: Well we’ve all been here a lot, a number of times, three or four years beforehand.
Ben: Yeah, so it’s cool.
Ben: Yeah, we’ve spent a lot of time here. Sean: So we’re pretty familiar with it. Ben: No, I definitely wanted to live here. And we had actually talked about, I was supposed to move in before I moved in with my exgirlfriend after we graduated, but I was trying to, what’s it called when you do something you don’t want to do for someone else? Andrew: Compromise? Ben: Compromise. When it’s not a compromise at all, and you just do what they want you to do? Isaac: Well that’s something different. Ben: What was the question? Oh, Bed-Stuy. 186
Isaac: Well what about, well back before all of this Bed-Stuy and New York stuff. Did you care a lot about decorating your room a lot when you were a kid, anybody? Sean: I put up Star Wars posters. Ben: I would cut out the Calvin and Hobbes strips everyday. Every Sunday and put them on my wall. Isaac: Every Sunday? Ben: Yeah. Isaac: How many Sundays? Sean: Was it just covered? Ben: I don’t know from 1991 to 1996 when it ended, so I was covering most of my walls.
Sean: Wow. Isaac: Do you still have those somewhere? Ben: No. I threw all of my childhood stuff away. My dad was moving and he was like, “You gotta get rid of it. Or take it.” And it was overwhelming, so I just threw everything away. Now I’m free. My dad moves around a lot. Isaac: [to Sean] You said Star Wars? Sean: Yeah, and music posters when I was a kid. Andrew: Nine-inch nails, Marilyn Manson? Sean: No, no. That was never my thing. Andrew: I was actually not allowed to hang up anything in my room or decorate or make any choices about my room. Ben: That’s really weird. Why? Andrew: I don’t know. Sean: That’s why you care so much about it now. Andrew: Yeah, I think so. Ben: Was your home really neat? Andrew: Yeah. Ben: Like you had to keep it really neat? Andrew: Yeah, I’d notice when I go over my friends places, even ones who decorated their houses very nicely, there was still areas where there was stuff piled up. There was none of that in my house. Everything was really organized and clean all the time. I think that’s very much an Italian thing, like the stereotype about how an Italian grandma will have plastic on her couch to protect it. We didn’t have plastic on our couches because my mom thought that was tacky, but every little detail was thought about. Where to place the little figurines and everything. Ben: I went to those kinds of houses as a kid and I felt deeply uncomfortable.
Andrew: I like it because it felt neat and organized and when I’m writing –– to this day, if the apartment is messy, if my visual space is cluttered, then my mind is cluttered, and I can’t focus on my writing. So that’s why when I wake up I like to eat breakfast and clean, if it’s not already clean, and then I can get to work. Isaac: Most of the writing that you do is here? Andrew: Yeah, when I’m out in public I get distracted. Sean: Yeah, I can’t write in a coffee shop. Too noisy. Andrew: Yeah. Ben: I hate writing in coffee shops. It doesn’t work. Sean: It makes me really anxious. Ben: You gotta get lost in your own thoughts. It takes me at least ten minutes or more to get deep into what I’m doing, and then every time that I’m taken out, I have to take those ten minutes to get into it again. Sean: Yeah. I have to stand up and walk around and talk to myself. You can’t do that at a coffee shop. Ben: I like to be able to scream uncontrollably sometimes. But back to the houses, I remember those people’s houses, and it just looked like no one lived there. I also come from a very cluttered-house, and it would make me feel kind of scared, as though I was in a weird prison when it was too neat. Like a fake home. Andrew: I know what you mean because I felt that way about people’s houses that weren’t decorated with an overall . . . Ben: Well, I never actually went to your house, so your house might have been different. But usually I would associate those places with parents who were really mean and there were always rooms you couldn’t go into. And that’s always really creepy, like what happens in these rooms? Probably really terrible things, to children, I assumed. 187
Sean: Maybe. If we had a bunch of kids that came over here I wouldn’t want them in my room.
Ben: And you couldn’t eat the snacks and stuff.
Isaac: What about me?
Andrew: My house wasn’t like that, but we did have a living room and a den, and the den was where the TV was and everything, and the living room was just a parlor.
Andrew: Did you have a balloon game, or a blanket game?
Ben: Yeah, and the kids couldn’t go in the living room?
Isaac: I remember I had this poster of Michael Jordan dunking on people.
Andrew: I went in there all the time, but we never used it for anything. There was a record player in there so I listened to records. And it’s not like we couldn’t use that room, it’s just that there was no reason to, we never did.
Ben: Which was you, right?
Ben: My house was one of those houses where you could jump on everything. And all of my friends would come over and my dad would make us all food and drive us places in his van. We used to do this thing, where my dad had this cool sleeping bag, and we’d ride it down the staircase, and we’d sled a lot. And then we also played the blanket game with the Nerf bow and arrow, and the same thing with the sleeping bag. You had to be under the sleeping bag or you could be hit with a bow and arrow, so everyone would be wrestling under the sleeping bag. Isaac: What’s the name of that game again? Ben: The blanket game. Isaac: The blanket game, that’s right. Andrew: My brother and I had the balloon game. Ben: Yeah? Andrew: Where we would stay on our knees in the living room, and the balloon couldn’t hit anything, lamp, table, couch, chairs, floor, nothing, so we just had to keep the balloon up in the air the whole time. Sean: Oh yeah, that’s a good one. Ben: That’s a good game. I’ve definitely played versions of that. 188
Ben: What about you, Isaac?
Ben: What was your home like?
Isaac: No, but it was in the early nineties, when I was living in Indianapolis for this first time, and I just remember that poster, it was a young Jordan, but it was . . . Ben: Was it a series of him dunking on different people? Isaac: No. He was dunking on two people, I think he was dunking on the Pistons or something, and that was before I was really into basketball. I didn’t know much about Michael Jordan, but I had that poster and it just looked so . . . but I didn’t put it up, I think it was just something that my parents thought I would like. At some point maybe I told them that I liked the Bulls, and maybe they got it for me, but it was sort of neat to have things on my wall that I wasn’t really sure how they got there. Ben: It was like a mystery. Andrew: Like sometimes you would wake up and there would be a new poster there. Sean: Where did this come from? Isaac: So when I think about the earliest memories of my room, I think about that poster. Ben: Did you imagine that maybe everyone had a poster of Michael Jordan in their room that just appeared? Isaac: Not quite. Ben: That it was just something that happened
after you were born. Sean: Did you guys ever have safety drills with your family? Andrew: No. Sean: Like had to have a family meeting, and if there was a fire, then we go to this place. Isaac: You did those? Sean: Yeah. We had a little book of instructions. Isaac: Every night? Sean: Not every night! My sister and me did that, but when my two youngest brothers came along we just didn’t care any more, so no more safety drills. You know, if you’re in your room and there’s a house fire, and your parents can’t come and get you, what do you do? You never did that? Andrew: I think we may have done that once. Ben: I was prepared for a lot of non-practical emergencies. We all had fake names that my dad would drill us on, because he was worried, because my dad is Christian, but my mom is Jewish, so he was really worried coming from the perspective that we were going to be killed because we were Jewish. So in situations where things would come up, I was supposed to say that I was John Barbaino. And that I had this Italian family, which I also at the time knew the names of, but I forgot who it was. Sean: Yeah, that’s hopefully not practical. Isaac: That could be your pen name, John Barbaino. Ben: No thanks. It’s so Italian, I don’t think I look very Italian. Emily: That’s a deeply seated fear. Ben: Yeah, he had a lot of them. There’s a lot of others that area really weird ones. He sends me Kelp pills every year, in case there’s an atomic bomb that goes off. Isaac: Kelp pills?
Ben: Yeah, Kelp pills have a lot of iodine, and it protects your lymph nodes in case there’s radiation. I’ve got them up in my closet. Sean: Do you have enough to share? Andrew: Yeah, can you do a bunch of those? Ben: Are you kidding, there’s not enough for all of us! My dad told me to only save myself! Sean: Only save yourself John! Ben: You’re John now! Isaac: How did you first start getting interested in poetry, Sean? Sean: Now there’s a question that I haven’t thought about in a long time. I think it was really, I wrote kind of poetic stuff when I was a kid, I played around with verse, mostly for medieval epic stuff like Sir Gawain, but then in college I was writing a lot, and I was writing stories, and I found that poems were able to express things in a way that I didn’t think prose could. I felt like I had a lot of things that could only be expressed in that way, so I started writing more poetry. Then I applied to grad school. But I had really only been writing poetry for around three years before going to grad school for it. And then of course, that intensified my poetic activities. Yeah, I still like it most days. Isaac: Do you have a specific poet that you read, or professor that really jump-started your interest? Sean: I never actually took a creative writing poetry class in college. I liked all of the romantics, Keats, Shelley, Whitman, but I read a book by Jack Gilbert, who was the first contemporary poet who I had come across who I felt very moved by, and it kind of contextualized and modernized how I conceived of poetry. And I thought, oh, I would like to do that. Isaac: Jack Gilbert. Sean: Yeah, he just died a few years ago. He was a sad old man who lived alone on a Greek island. 189
Sean Damlos-Mitchell. 190
Andrew: That sounds great. Isaac: I think I was just reading about him. Sean: Yeah, I think he died two years ago. Isaac: Do you remember the first poem you wrote?
Ben: So the early childhood stuff is kind of cute and nice, but teenage stuff it’s just . . . Andrew: It’s so bad. Ben: I was just so depressed that it ever came out of me that I feel like I might never write again.
Sean: The first poem that I wrote? No. I have no idea. I’ve actually been finding a lot of old poetry on my computer that I just had no idea that I had written, and I don’t remember when I wrote it.
Andrew: It’s embarrassing.
Isaac: It’s fun to do that, right?
Ben: You don’t gradually improve, so I feel like everything that I did was really really bad, until it was good.
Isaac: I found something that I wrote in 2011, and I came across it last night because I was searching for something else, and I found that, and it’s sort of . . . you’re reading yourself, but it feels like you’re reading someone else who hasn’t figured out the things that you’ve figured out. Sean: Yeah. I feel very removed from it, and I wouldn’t want to go back and try to edit it or change it, because it came out of just a completely different person. Andrew: I kept a journal all through middle school and through the first couple years of high school every day, and sometimes I go back and read some of that stuff. And it’s really weird because I’m thinking, oh, I can see a little bit of who I am as an adult in there, but there’s so many other things that I’m just confused about, that I haven’t sorted out yet, and so it is really weird, because it’s somebody who you know really well, but who isn’t you. Isaac: That’s right. That’s a good way to put it. Ben: Yeah, I found a lot of old writing when I was going through my old stuff a couple of years ago before my dad moved. And it was just so depressingly bad. Isaac: The writing? Ben: The writing. Isaac: But was it comforting at all, to read it?
Ben: And then I threw it all away. I feel like writing is one of those things where you improve by leaps and bounds.
Isaac: Did you notice a time when it turned? Ben: Yeah, I remember the first good short story I wrote, and I thought, oh, I this is what good is. I thought the stuff that I had written before was good, but I suddenly understood something about writing and fiction. There are just so many mistakes that you make. That’s why I think writers take so much longer to develop. Andrew: It’s really easy to make mistakes. Ben: Yeah, and just mistakes of taste and style, of clichés, and just not be aware of it. To be able to make sentences work right. I remember something that I used to do, that you see in a lot of amateur stuff, when we had to read a lot in workshop, is that someone gets confused between using beautiful words, words that can connote beauty, versus actually having beautiful writing. And so they’ll use words that have a lot to do with light, and they’ll use the words “beautiful,” and “shimmer,” just words like that a lot, but that doesn’t actually make your writing beautiful. Isaac: Are you sure it doesn’t? Sean: There’s actually a list of words too, where if you put them in any writing it’s automatically beautiful. It doesn’t matter what else is going on. 191
Isaac: Just put more beautiful words in there!
Ben: That’s true.
Andrew: There are a lot of words like “esoteric,” and “ephemera” that I remember. There were these words, maybe it’s a grad school thing, but you see these words come up over and over again, and they were meaningless. Instead of just writing concretely about what you were trying to express, they’d use these other words that had no meaning.
Sean: So you didn’t like my short story, “The Esoteric Ephemeral Nature of Light”? Is that what you’re trying to say here? Isaac: How often do you read each other’s work? Sean: I try not to. No, I’m just kidding. No, Ben has his novel that I need to read. I’ve read the first part of it, but it’s very long. And I’ve been busy. Ben: You’ve read the whole Rail-Bike section? Sean: No, I haven’t quite finished it. I’m almost finished with that part. I like it. I’ve just been busy. I have to read a lot for work too. I should just teach your novel, for my class. Ben: Yeah. Andrew: You could kill two birds with one stone. Sean: Yeah. Ben: That’s cool. Sometimes Andrew gives me stuff to read when he’s working on it. Sean keeps it more close to the vest. He doesn’t trust us fiction people. Sean: That’s right. I don’t trust them, no. All they do is tell lies, man. I’m trying to get at the truth here. Isaac: I think I was telling you, Ben, that I hadn’t actually read any of your work until you sent me a couple of pieces last fall. It was really nice to actually read your work, because I had known you for a while, but it was different to actually read your work, because it allows you to know someone -- I don’t know if it’s more intimately, but differently. 192
Isaac: Because you’re seeing what’s important to them. Sean: Yeah. Did you read Ben’s story that was published in Friction? Isaac: I didn’t. Sean: That’s a really good one. Andrew: “Only Space Above” Sean: Yeah, we have a copy here. Ben: You read the one in Granta, right? Isaac: I did, that one is amazing. Andrew: “My Mother’s Death Party”. Sean: Yeah, the one where they keep driving away from different accidents, and there’s a big party at the end? Ben: Yeah, kind of. Sean: Yeah, that’s a good one. Ben: [to Isaac] I wanted to follow-up on the last thing you were saying. Isaac: Yeah? Ben: What do you feel you learned about me? Isaac: I’m not saying that I learned something about you, but when you read someone’s writing . . . when you know someone is a writer, and you know that it’s important to them, you sort of have this abstract sense that this is who this person is. I’m not sure if you learn something about them, but it’s easier to connect with them, because you see what they’re putting on the page. Ben: It’s true. And who a person is, and what they talk about isn’t like what they write. Isaac: Right. Emily: It’s another dimension of their personality.
Ben: Right. And I feel like for good writers, it’s a lot closer. Isaac: Closer to who they are? Ben: Yeah. But it can be very different. Well I think a lot of bad writers are putting on a thing. Andrew: Yeah. Ben: And usually it’s a bad thing that they’re putting on. Sean: Yeah. Isaac: Yeah, now I have to get into my writer voice. Ben: Yeah, you’re just a regular guy, and then you start writing about people that beat up women a lot. There are a lot of people like that, I think. Who thought that they were writing about important things, to have assholes guys doing deushey stuff to people. Sean: But sometimes there are artist, I think of David Lynch, who has this very positive and optimistic outlook, right? And then what he creates is so different from that. Ben: That’s true.
Ben: It’s taken out of context. Flipped around. Isaac: Yeah. Ben: Don’t screw us on this one! Sean: The three assholes of Bed-Stuy! I talked to the most insufferable residents of this neighborhood. You wouldn’t want them to be your neighbors. Ben: The title of the piece, “Murder These People”. Andrew: If I don’t look bad in this interview, then I’m going to be really disappointed. Isaac: If you don’t look bad? Andrew: Yeah. Isaac: How do you want to look bad? Andrew: Just make me look like a terrible person. Isaac: Well say some terrible things! Ben: He wants to be a monster. Isaac: J Train or A|C?
Sean: And he thinks, in the world of fiction, we can have terrible things, terrible things.
Sean: J Train - JJ! I don’t know why I said it like that. No, I take the J train to work everyday. It’s terrible!
Ben: But I wonder if you knew him, and his sense of humor, whether it would be as . . .
Sean: I don’t know, it seems from interviews that he doesn’t seem quite like that, and from his books. Ben: Sure. There are exceptions to everything. Sean: But it can be done very poorly, right, if you try to embrace the important things, or things that you think are important. Isaac: Yeah. Sean: Rather than writing about what you know. Isaac: Yeah, that’s the problem with interviews though too, when you know that it’s being recorded and that it’s going to be transcribed.
Sean: It’s usually a forty-five minute commute, and on Monday of last week it took me an hour and a half. Massive delays, the platform is packed, and it’s up in the air too. I felt like people were going to fall off of it. Isaac: You don’t like going over the Williamsburg Bridge? Sean: And the train came, and it was too full for everyone, and I had been waiting twenty minutes for it to get there. I feel like the MTA is just getting worse and worse. Isaac: But they’re charging us more and more. Sean: Yeah, what’s going on? 193
Ben: Doesn’t make sense. I take the C train. It’s really terrible, but for different reasons. I feel like the C train is like getting into a crowded basement, and riding that to work during an earthquake. It’s really moldy. My allergies explode on the subway, and I just sneeze the whole way, which is gross for everyone. Isaac: Do people give you space? Ben: Sometimes. You try and sneeze as much as you can on the person next to you –– no. Into a Kleenex. Isaac: That’s your fault. You’re standing there. Ben: And I usually try to have my bag full of Kleenex, but every once in a while for some reason I’ll have zero on me, and then it’s just about . . . I don’t know how you deal with that. Sean: That sounds pretty gross. Ben: But I would love to take the J because it’s high up, and it’s open, and I love how you can see things. Sean: Yeah, I do like going up the stairs everyday. I like to go up them quickly. It’s good exercise. I start my morning. But then I get to Canal Street and I have to run down two more sets of stairs, then up two sets of stairs. Isaac: Canal Street is a tough station. Sean: So I feel like I’ve gone up so many stairs by the time I get to work. Isaac: And it’s very narrow too, and I always feel like it’s very possible to fall onto the train tracks. Andrew: It is really narrow. Sean: Yeah. But I know the train now to get on, so that I can get off, and run straight to the stairs and be the first person there. Isaac: Nice. Sean: If you wait, it’s really crowded. Ben: Sean has to be first. Sean: It gets so crowded, and then everyone 194
is really slow, and it takes ten minutes to go down, and then I miss the train. Isaac: Andrew, what’s it like without commuting in every day now? Andrew: It’s kind of weird. I prefer the C train to the J train, just because the J sucks, you’re always waiting for it forever. It’s really slow. I don’t like that it’s outside. I like the subways underground. I like that it’s dark. I like that it’s strange. I like that it smells weird. Ben: It’s because you don’t have allergies. Andrew: Yeah, I don’t have allergies. And I also think, I don’t know why this is, but I feel like the people who ride the J train are kind of boring, and stereotypical, but on the C train –– weird things happen. A lot of weird things happen on the C train. Ben: What’s one weird thing that happened? Andrew: One time I was on the C train and it was late at night and the bars were closing and I got on at West 4th Street to come back here, and this dude gets on the train at Canal, and he was really boastful, and really happy. And he was saying, “Man I just got this new job, I just got paid!” And he takes out this huge wad of twenties, and he’s like “Look at this! I made this just today!” Isaac: Who was he talking to? Andrew: To the whole train! Isaac: Yeah? Andrew: Yeah, and everybody was drunk because it was three o’clock in the morning, and everybody was laughing. And he takes out a pack of cigarettes and he just lights a cigarette on the train without asking anyone. And I was thinking, wow, that’s really bold, people are going to get mad. And people weren’t mad, they were like, “Oh dude, can I have one too?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure!” And every time the train stopped at a station he would look out and make sure there were no cops coming and then he would say, “Alright! It’s okay to smoke the cigarette.” Then two girls got on and he started talking to them, and
I thought, oh man, this is going to be terrible, but he was so charismatic that they were into it, and he took out his pack of cigarettes again and he said, “Do you want to smoke a joint?” And he just lit the joint up on the train and started passing it around to everybody. We all got stoned. And then this homeless dude got on at High Street.
Ben: One time I was on the J train, and this guy walks on and he’s like, “I just got out of Rikers! I left seven bodies behind me since I’ve been out; I’m going to leave seven more soon! Are you looking at me, college boy? I’ll leave another body on this track right now!”
Isaac: High street.
Ben: “My momma’s in jail! My dad’s in jail! My brother’s in jail! My cousins are in jail!”
Sean: Ha, yeah, High Street. I think you’re making all of this up.
Andrew: That’s like a family reunion.
Andrew: I have pictures of it. So the homeless dude got on and he was like, “You know, I’m in a really bad place, does anybody have any spare change, or a sandwich?” The typical deal. And the boastful dude was like, “Man, you can’t just ask people for money, you gotta work for money!” And the homeless dude said, “You know, I wish I could, but I don’t have a job.” And the boastful guy was like, “Alright, what if I give you work, then I’ll give you money.” And the homeless guy was like, “Yeah, sure,” and then the guy goes, “Alright, do twenty pushups right now, and I’ll give you twenty dollars!” And the homeless guy was like “Okay!” And he was like doing pushups, and the guy throws the twenty-dollar bill on his back. Sean: That’s gotta be kind of humiliating though, right?
Isaac: He said that to you?
Ben: “So if anybody has got any money or change, I’d really appreciate it, if not, God bless.” Emily: That also sounds about right. Ben: I was just like, “What?” It was as though he found out the structure of it: you tell a personal story from your life, and then you ask for money and say “God bless,” but he didn’t know that you’re not supposed to threaten every person with death first. Since he was talking about college boy, I was reading a book and I wear glasses, so I put the book away and took my glasses off so that he wouldn’t think that I went to college. Sean: That’s right. Without your glasses it doesn’t look like you went to college.
Ben: It’s really scary. And then I got off at the next stop and waited for the next train.
Sean: Watching this homeless guy humiliate himself.
Andrew: You think it would be, but the homeless dude was so happy! Ben: It felt like he had earned it. Andrew: Yeah, and I was thinking, this is embarrassing, but the homeless dude was really positive and into it. It was a pretty great experience.
Ben: He was going to leave seven more bodies behind, and I didn’t want it to be mine. Isaac: Sean, you look like you’re thinking very deeply. Sean: Oh, I’m just trying to remain calm and meditative. Isaac: Good.
Ben: And he probably had pretty good pipes afterwards.
Sean: And focused on the moment that is, right now.
Isaac: I guess I would prefer the C train as well.
Isaac: There was a question that I had, and then I lost it, and now I have it again: I know the 195
first time I met Andrew, you were just finishing a Chipotle burrito. We were in Soho, or the Village before a reading. Were there any first impressions that you had of each other that turned out to be – Andrew: I remember. Yeah, it was for the LitCrawl. Isaac: That’s what it was, LitCrawl. Andrew: And I remember you were eating something, you were sitting on a sidewalk waiting for us to arrive, and you were eating something. Isaac: I thought I met Sean, and then we walked and met you, and you were eating.
and a while we would be like, remember when we used to be friends with Sean? Isaac: I remember that guy. Ben: It was very much a past-tense thing, and that Sean would never be our friend again. Sean: Yeah, but then we became ever better friends. Andrew: Yeah. Sean: Then that second year, it was like six months that I just wasn’t around that much. But we still occasionally hung out -- a lot of karaoke.
Sean: Yeah. You were eating a Chipotle burrito.
Ben: Yeah, we’d be somewhere, and then you two would be somewhere in the corner twenty feet away from us.
Andrew: I also remember you eating something out of a plastic container.
Sean: Ah, well I’m sorry.
Isaac: Absolutely not.
Ben: I’m not asking for an apology, it’s fine.
Isaac: Ben, I don’t remember the first time that we met, do you?
Sean: Isaac never eats out of plastic. Ben: Isaac doesn’t eat out of plastic containers, are you kidding? Sean: But that was a good night. I feel like my initial impression of Ben was pretty accurate, because I heard you read your story, and it was very much like a Ben story, and it was very good, and then you were in the bathroom and you seemed liked the kind of guy who would use a bathroom, and you were. Ben: I still use bathrooms till this day. My initial impression of Sean was that Sean would be one of our best friends and part of the group, but then Sean immediately disappeared for about eight months. Andrew: That’s right! Isaac: Oh, yeah. Sean: I still saw you guys. Ben: And there was a long time where I thought ––– we never saw you. Where once 196
Ben: No, I feel like we had an immediate cool sort of, I don’t want to say deep, but a cool discussion about something. Probably music. Isaac: Yeah, probably. Sean: [to Isaac] You were sitting at the bar at Cafe Loup when I first met you. Isaac: You picked me up, yeah. Sean: Someone was like, “Oh, this is Isaac, he’s also in the poetry program,” and then you turned around and you were on your chair and you were like, “Hi, I’m Isaac.” Isaac: I was talking with Caitlyn, I think. Sean: Yeah, with Caitlyn. Isaac: I like to think that you were in your night picnic shirt, but you might not have been. Sean: I may have been. Ben: Sean was always wearing bow ties back then.
Andrew: Yeah, remember those days?
Isaac: O Cafe my Cafe?
Sean: I did have a few bow ties back then.
Andrew: Cafe Reggio!
Andrew: I was always wearing ties too.
Sean: Yeah, Cafe Reggio.
Ben: You were always wearing ties.
Ben: Yeah, that’s it.
Sean: Yeah, you seemed a lot more aloof in those days than you actually are.
Isaac: Where is that again, oh yeah, by the park.
Andrew: Well, I don’t trust people very easily. Ben: He didn’t seem very aloof to me. The first thing he did was try and get me to go to this cafe that his girlfriend was working at.
Ben: And it has the macaroni and cheese. I was too poor to actually buy anything back then. So I ate half of Andrew’s. Andrew: Yep.
Andrew: And we did, I convinced you.
Sean: That’s why you got out of grad school with less student loans.
Ben: Yeah. And we did.
Andrew: Because he never ate.
Isaac: What cafe is that?
Ben: Because I never ate. I used to go to restaurants and wait until everyone else had finished their meal, and then eat whatever was left.
Andrew: Café . . . fuck. Isaac: Cafe Fuck? Sean: Cafe Fuck? Andrew: No, it’s on MacDougal Street, it’s the famous cafe. Sean: Cafe Wa? Isaac: Cafe O’le? Ben: I was only there that once. Andrew: It’s down the street from Cafe Wa. Isaac: Cafe Go-go. Andrew: It’s an Italian place they had the first cappuccino machine in the United States. Sean: Oh yeah, what’s that place called, we’ve been there. Isaac: Have we? Ben: Cafe Cappuccino. Captain Cappuccino.
Andrew: I remember you told me that. Ben: Those were tough days. Andrew: And it’s the first thing we bonded on, and was like, “Oh yeah, I used to do that in high school too because my parents never gave me any money.” Isaac: You had to do pushups. Sean: Oh yeah, Andrew, you had to do twenty pushups. Ben: I wish he were a magical being who you could conjure up and do pushups for and he’d throw twenties on your head. Isaac: Just think hard enough. Ben: Let me do my work for the day. Sean: You could just do that every hour, for like eight or nine hours a day.
Sean: Yeah, it’s red inside with a bus.
Ben: How much do you think he’d give you for a clap push-up?
Andrew: It’s red inside and green on the outside.
Andrew: At least forty. 197
Ben: Because I’m pretty good at those.
Ben: Well, yeah.
and rainy and there are no leaves on the trees. It has a whole different feeling from when it’s sunny and kind of warm in the spring and the flowers are blooming everywhere in all of the trees. It just looks beautiful all of the time. There’s something really classic about a tree-lined street and brownstones. It just always looks good. When I walk home from the train, I’ll be on Ralph Avenue and it’s much more commercial, and just turning the corner from Ralph Avenue onto Macdonough, no matter what mood I’m in, it’s an instant feeling of calm, like, “Ah, I’m home. It’s peaceful, quiet.”
Sean: Maybe he had actually just robbed somebody.
Isaac: Well, 2007, we’re looking at about a decade that you’ve been here, right?
Ben: He had a ton of cash, yeah.
Andrew: Yeah. It’ll be ten years in August.
Isaac: Well, Andrew I was reading your piece. I took a cab from my house to up here this morning, and as I sat in the back I was reading --
Isaac: When you moved-in in 2007 did you think you would be here for ten years?
Isaac: [to Andrew]. I like how you call him, “The Boastful Man,” Sean: The Boastful Dude. Isaac: The Boastful Dude. Andrew: He was so happy, whatever he did for work. People asked him and he refused to say what it was.
Andrew: You can read in a car? Isaac: Yeah. I don’t prefer it. Andrew: I get carsick instantly, just thinking about reading in a car I get really sick. Isaac: I’m sorry. Andrew: Yeah, thanks, Isaac. So you were doing that. Isaac: Yeah, and it was really nice, to read about Bed-Stuy as we were driving through it, and I remember there was a specific sentence like, “The A Train was completed in 1936 and connected Harlem to Brooklyn,” which I thought was cool to think about. 1936 wasn’t that long ago and a lot of the things that are described in Woodsworth’s book, and that you describe in the review are still all around us, right now. And it was really nice. I’ve walked through Bed-Stuy before, but I can’t remember the last time I drove through it, or been driven through the neighborhood, and it was just a really nice morning, especially with the sun and everything, and having your words with me. Andrew: Yeah, Bed-Stuy is really beautiful in any weather I think. I like it when it’s cloudy 200
Andrew: I hoped that I would be. Well I did a lot of research into places in Brooklyn that I wanted to move to, because I had moved throughout my life so much, and I was just tired of moving. But when you don’t have a lot of money that’s what ends up happening, you move a lot. So I wanted to move to Fort Greene, but even by then it was too expensive for me. And so I found this place here. I had never even heard of Bed-Stuy when I moved here, but I remember passing by because when I lived in Far Rockaway I also lived off of the A Train, and when I was looking for a new place to live, at one point the A Train was down so busses were running instead, and I always remember passing through the Utica station and seeing the artwork and things on the walls, and thinking this is a cool station, but then when you pass by on the bus and you can actually see the neighborhood I thought, “Oh wow, this is really beautiful. This is what it looks like around Utica, this is really nice.” And so I wrote it down and I did research on the area, and I found out that it was called Bed-Stuy and I looked into the history and I was just really into it. This is really cool. This is a working-class neighborhood, it has a cool history, and it’s also really beautiful, and so I started looking for places and found out that it was relatively affordable, and then moved here.
Isaac: Did you see any places around here before you found this one?
Isaac: And when you saw this one for the first time?
Andrew: Yeah, I looked at a couple of other places. Putnam and Patchen. I look at another one that was on Decatur and Stuyvesant, it was really beautiful, but it was in an owner-occupied Brownstone, and me and my girlfriend at the time were looking for places, so the owners they lived on the garden level, and we looked at one of the places upstairs. And they wanted to do an interview and meet us in person, and they met us, and the meeting was really awkward, and I couldn’t really figure out why, and then I realized later that it was probably because we were white, and they were just kind of weirded out by that, and I think that’s really why we didn’t get the place.
Andrew: Yeah, when I saw this one for the first time the outside was kind of run-down and I wasn’t really a fan of the tree that’s out front, the Catalpa tree –– it’s grown on me sense –– but at the time I thought, “it has this ugly weird tree in the front,” and we had to wait for over an hour for the landlord, he just kept us waiting.
Isaac: Did you apply for it, and they just said, “No thanks.”? Andrew: Yeah. So it was a realtor, my girlfriend and I, and then the husband and the wife, and it was just the five of us standing around having a conversation. Isaac: Standing? Andrew: Yeah, that was another thing that was awkward, we were just standing there. Isaac: It was in their house? Andrew: No, it was in the apartment, so it was unfurnished, so we had to stand, but it was also just kind of awkward. Isaac: Well you think that if you would have an interview and you were thinking about prospective tenants you might say, come into our home, sit down, we’ll make some coffee for you. Andrew: Yeah. Right. Isaac: And at least give you that. Andrew: Yeah, until you brought that up now I didn’t think about that, but I think that added to why it was uncomfortable. We felt unwelcome from the start. So we didn’t get that place. And then that was the second place that we looked at, and this was the third.
Isaac: He was just late? Andrew: Yeah, he was just late. And then when we looked at the place downstairs. It wasn’t finished being renovated yet, so it was covered in sawdust and it had sheetrock still in it and stuff, the toilet had just been installed, so everything was unfinished. And he was looking for us to move in within two weeks, and I asked, “Is this place going to be finished and cleaned by the time that we move in?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, it’ll be finished.” And so we took the place, and then when we went to move-in, most of the renovations had been finished, but there was still no toilet seat, there was no medicine cabinet. Isaac: It hadn’t been cleaned at all? Andrew: Not at all. And we had all of this furniture that we needed to move into the place, but it was filthy. So we had to rush to clean it, so that we could put all of our stuff in it. I remember I was just incensed, and I called him up and I was like, “You’re giving us a discount on the first month’s rent. It was completely filthy in here. And we had to clean it up to move our stuff in.” And he was like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’ll give you a quarter off of the first month’s rent.” And I said, “No, half.” And he was like, “Oh, okay fine.” Isaac: I think it was, correct me if I’m wrong, but I bet in 2007 it was tougher to fill these places, so you probably had more leverage to negotiate. Andrew: Yeah. And even now he’s still really cool about things. It still takes him forever to fix things, like any landlord I guess. Isaac: I remember the first time that I came in 201
here in 2011, I was living in Harlem at the time with my uncle so I didn’t have my own place. But I feel like every place that I’ve had since then, just sort of felt like apartments, and this actually feels like a home, and it’s really neat and comforting in that way. Andrew: Yeah, that’s definitely what I picked up from my mom. We were talking about it earlier, that’s what makes it feel like a home, I think. Ben: I think it’s who you live with. I’ve lived with strangers just a couple of times, usually I’m always living with really good friends. And it sucks living with strangers, because you come home and it’s not your space, and you kind of feel like you’re still on the spot, you still can’t be yourself completely, whereas here since we’re such good friends and have known each other for so long, you’re just yourself, and you’re doing your own thing and you can completely relax. Sometimes me and Andrew spend all day home during the day and we don’t even talk to each other. So there’s not that . . . Sean: There’s not that pressure. Ben: Yeah, there’s no pressure, as though you need to entertain, or make conversation or anything. But we do talk a lot. Andrew: Just hanging out with your siblings. Sean: Yeah. Ben: That’s what makes it feel like a home to me. Just the comfort level. Sean: It is nice to be able to be quiet, and not have to talk throughout the day. Ben: Yeah, not be doing interview all the time. Sean: No, this is nice too. Ben: No, I like this. I like talking. Ben: Can we take at least one picture of someone throwing twenty bucks on someone doing push-ups?
things about having a smartphone -- I took these pictures back in 2007. Isaac: They’re still there? Andrew: Yeah, I had the very first iPhone that came out and they’re still on my phone. Sean: It just goes to the cloud? Andrew: Yeah. Isaac: Sean, do you use the cloud? I don’t. Sean: I don’t think I do. I just got a new phone so I’m not sure. I had all of my photos go to dropbox for a while, but then my dropbox got too full so I deleted them from that. Yeah, let’s see. How much longer do you see yourself living here, Andrew? Andrew: Hopefully for the rest of my life. Sean: Yeah, in this very house? Ben: He wants to buy it. Andrew: Yeah, I want to buy it. Sean: Yeah, you were also talking about wanting to move to Detroit, right, or Pennsylvania? Andrew: Yeah, my friends and I are looking into buying a place there, but I would still keep this place. Sean: You’d still live here. Andrew: Yeah. Isaac: Detroit? Andrew: Yeah, I would love to move to Detroit. That sounds like it’s a cool place. I deleted the pictures. Sean: I don’t believe it ever happened. Isaac: Sean, are you participating in National Poetry Month?
Isaac: You gotta earn it!
Sean: I’m always participating in it.
Andrew: I bet I can find one of those pictures, I’ve seen it recently. That’s one of the great
Andrew: NATPO? NATPOHO?
Sean: Yeah, you have a whole month to write a poem, is that right? Isaac: I can do it! This is the year. Sean: No, I should try to write a new poem. Isaac: A new poem everyday.
-- well, there’ve been a few days when I’m by myself and I’ll go to the park and write, and that’s been good. But it’s harder for me to do that. Isaac: When did you decide to move to New York?
Sean: Someone must have downloaded the picture. Maybe you’ve got one of those timetraveling iPhones.
Sean: Well, I had applied to grad school here a year after I graduated from college, so that was 2010, then it was 2011 and the I got into the New School so I came out here. I kind of wanted to come. It was a little tough. I was going through a break-up at the time. I was initially going to move out here with my girlfriend who became my ex-girlfriend, but then we broke-up, and so I decided that I had to move so that I could go someplace new. So it was kind of almost --- not quite a reckless decision because I thought I wanted to go here, but I’m glad I did. I got to meet all of you.
Andrew: It’s on the Dancing Bug comic strip.
Isaac: I’m glad.
Sean: Well that was probably just the date that the strip is from. Yeah, so, I should try --- I’d like to go to more readings, I haven’t really been going to readings recently.
Sean: Yeah, that would be great. Andrew: Someone had something on here from December 8th, 2005. That was before the iPhone was even invented. Isaac: No, I don’t believe it. Andrew: The iPhone came out in 2007.
Isaac: They do make a difference, don’t they? Sean: Yeah, but a lot of times I just don’t get done with work in time. They start at seven, or eight, and it’s too far away –- I can’t get there. But I would like to go. Would like to participate more. I do miss the part of grad school where everyone was just going to readings and events together, it was a constant thing. We had to go to a few a month, right? Isaac: Yeah. Sean: But it wasn’t like we had to, because we also wanted to because it was beneficial. Isaac: It was nice to be on the ground and sort of “in it,” I think. I do fondly remember writing by the water with you, very early on. Sean: It was so windy. Isaac: Down by Brookfield Place. Sean: Yeah, that was cool. Yeah, I haven’t
Ben: I had a very similar situation where I was supposed to move here with a girlfriend who broke up with me right after that reading where we all met. And it was weird because my reading got a really good response. People laughed a lot and I was really shocked, and everyone really liked it and stuff, and I thought, she saw me at my best. I knew things were in a problem state, but then none of it mattered, she broke up with me anyways. Thank God. Isaac: Where did you move from, where were you living before? Ben: Boston. Yeah, I had been in Boston for almost eight or nine years, not all consecutively, I had been in Michigan for a little, for a PhD in biology that I dropped out of. It’s kind of like in Boston, you’re just getting ready for the real world, you’re ready to graduate and go to New York City. Isaac: I’ve never spent any time in Boston. Ben: It’s a really cool town. I really like it a lot. Well, it’s a lot cleaner, and a lot nicer for the most part. It doesn’t smell as bad. But it also feels kind of like a small town in comparison, 203
which is both nice and not nice. If you live in Boston you’ve probably got a front and back yard. It’s not as much cloistered off from the world. I lived in this one neighborhood where there were four bands on our street and we all shared a practice space in my friend’s basement, so there was so much collaboration, and music, and recording, and all sorts of stuff. We would jam until eight a.m. sometimes.
Ben: Most were in New York City. I really wanted to be in New York City, but I did apply to the big ones all over. Not Iowa because I thought that seemed douchey. Andrew: I think we all had that thought.
Ben: UC-Irvine, the ones like that. I had family out in L.A. so I thought that wouldn’t be the end of the world. I almost applied to the Indiana one that has a really good program.
Isaac: What were you doing in Boston?
Ben: But I was like, “Fuck, I don’t want to go to Indiana.”
Ben: What was I doing in Boston? Do you mean what did I do for work, or how did I get there?
Isaac: It’s a nice place.
Isaac: Yeah, both. Ben: Okay, I went to Boston College, which kind of sucks, but I was there for four years, then I went away for two years for the PhD, and then I came back for another two years. And when I came back I just didn’t know where else to go. I knew Michigan sucked a lot and that I never wanted to be there again in my life. I’ve still never gone back. I hope to hold to true to that. Isaac: Was this before or after Sufjan Steven’s album about the state? Ben: This was after. I actually really got into Sufjan Stevens senior year of college, but I was also dating this girl in Michigan who was really into Sufjan Stevens. This was just when Seven Swans came out, I think. But I went back to Boston because I didn’t know where else to go back to. When you’re so miserable, you’re like, I’m going to go back to the last place where I remember being happy. Isaac: Wow. Ben: And all of my friends were gone so I kind of had to start over. And that was a rough year, but then, I found new friends. Isaac: So when you were applying to MFAs, were they all in New York, or were they all over the country? 204
Ben: I might have applied to it. I actually applied to fifteen or sixteen places. Isaac: That’s a lot. Ben: Yeah, I went into debt for it and stuff because I was thinking, I don’t want to wait another year, what if I don’t get in to any of them, I want to have more choices. It’s worth it now. Isaac: As you’re applying you hear so many horror stories about people who applied everywhere and didn’t get in anywhere. I remember that’s all of the stories that I would hear. Did you apply to Sarah Lawrence? I was going to apply to, but I only had so much time, and I remember that one of the requirements of their application process is that you have to write an autobiography of your life, or the first few pages of the autobiography of your life. And all I had was a traditional personal statement. Ben: Yeah, I applied there as well. I wrote one, and I kind of got into it, and the lady who headed the creative non-fiction program there was heavily trying to recruit me. She even got me an extra scholarship because she loved it so much. And I told her that I don’t really want to write non-fiction. I should find that piece. Maybe there’s something good about it. Isaac: Probably.
Ben: But in the end, the commute. I didn’t want to live up there. Isaac: Yeah, I didn’t realize how far it was from New York City either. Ben: Yeah, it would be an extra seven thousand a year just in traveling. I guess that’s if you didn’t get a pass, I guess it would be less if you got a pass.
Sean: Okay, nice. Ben: It’s my favorite. Sean: I’m glad that we all ended up at the same program. Isaac: Sean, have you ever tried to define poetry?
Isaac: Or if you lived on campus, or by the campus.
Sean: I’m sure I have, but I don’t remember what I said. I think that was one of the topics of some long paper that I wrote in grad school.
Ben: Yeah, just going up three days a week.
Isaac: “What is Poetry”?
Isaac: What about part-time residency programs. Did you ever think about those?
Sean: Yeah. What is it? It’s the movement of the soul on a piece of paper.
Ben: No. Full immersion or nothing. I went there just as much to get writing friends.
Isaac: Cool. That makes sense.
Sean: Yeah, I went to meet people. Ben: And part-times, they’re not really the same.
Sean: No, that’s too generic. I’d have to prepare and send you a long response in order to really get at what I would want to. Ben: Is that a quote from something – “the movement of the soul on a piece of paper”?
Sean: [to Ben] What book did you pick, for your picture?
Sean: No, I just made that up.
Ben: Oh, the Italo Calvino anthology.
Isaac: “The movement of the soul on a piece of paper.” Nice.
Sean: I think it’s kind of nice to go through the chronology of this place and relation to us -- when we moved here, what happened before that. It’s a fun topic to think about. Isaac: Like what? Sean: Like that New Year’s party after our first semester, I hadn’t thought about that in a long time. It’s weird that at that point this was not a place that I lived in, or one that I thought that I was going to live in. But now that I’m here I have a very different relationship to the space, because I live here now. It seemed much bigger than before I moved in.
MORNING, MOTHERFUCKER Jason Koo MORNING, MOTHERFUCKER Just popped the collar of my robe in this motherfucker, I.e. kitchen, as I make some sweet-ass hash browns. Is that the start of a poem? It’s barely the start of breakfast. Noon light comes streaming through the window. Is that the start of a poem? My landlady—what a word— Just told me to be out of here by July 1. At first I wrote Just told me to be out of her. Slightly different poem. The millionaires buying her brownstone, milling past me As I cranked this up in my robe at this motherfucker, I.e. dining table, wondering if it could indeed be a poem, Demand it. I’m gonna squat right here in this kitchen, I.e. motherfucker, with my million-dollar syntax and hash browns And make those motherfuckers mill around me for life. I’ll miss this motherfucking beautiful neighborhood Of Whitman & Auden & Crane & Mailer & McCullers & Miller & Miller & Smith & Wolfe & motherfucker How many more writers could live in these brownstones? How many more ampersands could live in contemporary poetry? Now there are probably no writers here except me. Oh, and little known former Poet Laureate of America Phil Levine on Willow St. And fellow Asian American male poet Ken Chen, also on Willow St. I wonder if they too pop the collars Of their robes as they make some sweet-ass hash browns. Mailer surely popped the collar of his robe. He probably Put on boxing gloves to take his hash browns out of the oven. Hart Crane I can’t see ever making, let alone eating, hash browns. Just too much cranium to contain in one kitchen. Whitman couldn’t have eaten just one hash brown, or two, He had to be making whole schools of hash browns, 40,000 hash browns forked with 40,000 motherforking forks. He would’ve written about all the potato fields they came from, Sunsets over the cool brown earth that made their beds. Henry Miller likely would’ve fucked his hash browns. Auden would’ve had his hash browns at an appropriate time Scheduled into the morning. Last night I talked about That motherfucker’s face. What a motherfucking poet’s face. Was Auden ever young? Did he come out of his mother’s vagina Already wrinkled? Imagine that vagina. Auden’s face Like a hash brown out of that vagina. I’m feeling better, In spring, in this motherfucking beautiful light. I’m dancing In this motherfucker, i.e. kitchen, as I flip these hash browns And think I can start to begin to forget you some day.
Previously published in glitterMOB, 2015. 217
I’LL FOLLOW YOU Jason Koo
I’LL FOLLOW YOU It is sweet to kiss the ear of your kitty as he sleeps. Sweet to pull the high-top sneakers off your girlfriend’s feet as she sleeps. Sweet to discover she is not completely asleep by the way she lifts her second foot a little to make the untying easier. Sweet to wake up to the sound of her silence in the bathroom as she readies herself for work, touching up her face as gently as your kitty laps water from his bowl. At these times you don’t question anything, what is love, whether you’re working hard enough, whether you’re not missing something somewhere else. Life couldn’t be elsewhere. She comes to kiss you goodbye and rests her head on your chest for a moment, so sweet to pretend you’re asleep through this, sweet to listen to her walk out your door remembering to lock it, sweet through the hall, sweet through the second door, through the gate, the sweet of the latch, sweet imagining the singular sounds she makes as she moves through the rest of her day. So sweet you don’t ask how to reconcile all this with what sweetness you feel alone after she leaves.
Previously published in Americaâ€™s Favorite Poem, C&R Press, 2014. 219
Jason Koo is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and cultivates the poets, poetry, and literary heritage of Brooklyn. He also teaches creative writing at Quinnipiac University. When he started working as a professor at Quinnipiac, he gave an interview that the university published on its website. Below the interview, one of his former students from Lehman College left a comment. “At Lehman we used to write ‘Koo is Kool’ on the blackboard. Quinnipiac students are very lucky to have Jason Koo as a professor.” Although Koo didn’t see himself as a professor early on, after moving to New York for the first time in 1998, and spending a year working as a paralegal, he continued his education by earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and he started to come around to the idea of teaching, and excelled. When he moved back to New York again a decade later in 2009, he wasn’t sure what job he’d find, or for how long he’d be able to live off of the money he had earned from a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Although he quickly found work as an adjunct professor at NYU., he also started to think of other ways that he might earn enough money to live and work in New York as a poet. When he came up with his idea to create an organization for aspiring poets to learn from and take workshops with more experienced poets who were looking for teaching opportunities in a tight job market, he thought that the name, “Brooklyn Poets,” would have already been taken. But it wasn’t. He started a Tumblr page. Five years later, Brooklyn Poets launched its first edition of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology this past April with copublisher Brooklyn Arts Press, which features a collection of poems from one-hundred and seventy different poets from the borough. When we met with Jason on a hot and partly-sunny day in mid-July, he filled us in on what brought him back to New York the second time around; what he’s enjoyed about building Brooklyn Poets; and the importance of creating open and inclusive poetry communities. And oh yeah, he’s from Cleveland, and cares quite a bit about his hometown teams. And as Major League Baseball recently released a documentary about the Cleveland Indians of the 1990’s, we also talked for a bit about The Dynasty That Almost Was.
Photography: Alexandra Bildsoe, Pg 212- -End.
Isaac: You were actually born in New York City, do you remember anything from the first time around? Jason: From when I was born? Isaac: Yes. Jason: Not much. There’s a tribute poem that I wrote last year on the occasion of my fortieth birthday, and I was sitting right where you are [in a chair on the rooftop facing the Manhattan skyline] when I start the poem, and I’m thinking about being born here, and how little I remember. So it’s kind of like trying to trace my origins to the first year of my birth, when actually a lot of terrible shit was happening here. That was when -- do you know the Son of Sam killer? He killed his first victim five days before I was born. And it was in the Bronx, just a few blocks from where my parents lived. That’s not where I was born, but they lived there. And I hadn’t actually even realized that until I started writing this poem and started reading up on that summer, what was going on then. Isaac: What summer was that? Jason: That was the summer of 1976, his first victim. And then they call ‘77 “the Summer of Sam.” That’s when he started killing a lot of people; it took them about a year to figure out what was really going on. And then ‘77 was also the year of the big blackout. The whole city lost power, and there was mass looting in all five boroughs. 3,776 arrests, apparently until this day still the largest mass arrest in New York City history. So that was all happening during the first year of my birth in New York City. And I had no idea. My parents had never told me about any of that. So I was thinking about -- in the poem -- how we process history, and how you can kind of carry yourself with a certain amount of security, especially by the time you turn forty, but still how little you actually know about who you are. Isaac: That’s right. Jason: Yeah. Even in the present moment. Because I think of myself as someone who has a pretty strong identity. Because I had to fight for a while to be proud of my identity, and what I’ve been able to make of myself -- specifically,
in the American way, feeling like a self-made American and son of immigrants. But at the same time, the more I explore it, my outlook has changed a lot over the years. I always feel this paradox, with a strong sense of identity and knowing who I am and what I want to do, and at the same time, a profound sense of feeling like there’s just an emptiness -- there’s a void underneath all of that. My identity is so tenuous. Isaac: Maybe the void feels like, “I know who I am and I know what I want to do, but what’s that based off of ?” Jason: The sense of the void? Isaac: Well, what I’m hearing you say is, if we have this strong sense of knowing who we are and what we want, but if we never ask why, why am I this person, why is this what I want to do? Then you can sort of get lost. Jason: Yeah, maybe they’re actually symbiotic. Maybe that’s what you’re saying. If you’re not asking why, then you probably won’t have a strong sense of identity. So maybe it’s not as strange as I think. It is a paradox, but maybe it’s a necessary paradox. Isaac: The more you know yourself, the less you know yourself. Jason: Yeah. Exactly. The last poem of my new book is called “More Than You Know.” It’s kind of riffing off of the song “More Than You Know.” Isaac: Which one is that? Jason: The jazz standard. I’d been listening to the Thelonious Monk / Sonny Rollins version of that song. I was born here, and we left, and we moved to Toledo, and I grew up in Toledo and Cleveland. And then I didn’t move back to New York until after my first year out of college, 1998–1999. That poem is kind of an elegy for that year. And just how lost I was. I moved here to be a poet, but I was just on my own and lost. Isaac: How long did you stay the first time around? 223
Jason: Just a year. I worked as a paralegal. Isaac: And you were in Astoria? Jason: Yeah. Not far from here. My parents wanted me to go to law school. I was actually open to it, because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know anything about MFA programs at the time. I knew I was serious about poetry and I wanted to write poetry, but I didn’t know how I would make a living. So I figured, oh maybe I’ll become a lawyer and do that. But then I worked at a law firm and, oh my god. Isaac: What sort of cases, what sort of firm? Jason: It was a mid-level Midtown firm that was in the Rockefeller Center. They didn’t have me do much. You don’t do much as a paralegal, you’re just like a glorified photocopier. Every now and then I would file stuff. Because they have actual law students that were the real paralegals. They’re not paralegals, I can’t remember what they called them -- associates or something, maybe clerks. But there’s some title that they have. But they’re doing the real work. So I felt entirely useless. I feel like you like that for a week when you do it, you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to get dressed up everyday, and take the train . . .”. It’s kind of a bit like -- even before Mad Men -- there’s this romance with working in Manhattan. But it gets old quickly. Especially when it’s hot out, or super cold, and you’re just miserable with commuting. And then I would get there and just do nothing. Isaac: Midtown is one of the more exhausting neighborhoods. Jason: Yeah, because there are so many people there. Isaac: And everything is high. Jason: And then you go to lunch, and you just sort of go downstairs to a food court. So the ironic thing is, when I graduated from college -- I feel like it doesn’t exist so much today -people used to talk about the real world versus academia. And they would be like, “Are you going to get a job in the real world?” And so I used to think, being a paralegal is a job in the real world. But then when I started grad school, 224
they threw me in to teach right away. I had no teaching experience at all. And I was teaching composition right away to help fund my schooling. They gave me a teaching stipend and everything. It’s one of the reasons why I went to Houston. And the irony is I felt like that was a lot more like the real world because that job actually had responsibility. If you didn’t show up, your students were pissed. Well, maybe not pissed. But you could see the impact that you were having daily on people’s lives. Whereas when I went to work in Midtown, I had zero impact on the world. Isaac: What’s at stake? Jason: Yeah. I’m convinced that not a minute of the work that I did there had any impact on anything. And I would think, why am I getting paid for this job? Whereas I got paid less to teach English composition, but I felt like I was actually making an impact. So I immediately liked teaching, because I felt like I could be passionate about what I loved, and it actually had . . . you could see it had a physical impact on people. It wasn’t just an intellectual impact. You could see it on people’s faces -- getting them excited about literature. You could see a lot of these people had never had a teacher be excited about writing. If you’re a young twentythree-year-old creative writer, and you go into a composition class, most of those students have never had a person like that talk to them about writing. Isaac: That time, the late teens, early twenties is such a key time to actually help someone keen into, and get a sense of -- oh, this is what creative writing can do for you. Jason: Yeah, and if you’re lucky enough to have a young and compassionate teacher, then that’s almost better than a senior teacher who has been teaching for decades. When it’s the first class you’ve ever taught, you’re really excited to talk to human beings about poetry. Isaac: Did you have any nerves? Jason: No, that’s how I knew that I would be good at it. That’s why I’m still teaching. Because I was surprisingly just calm about it. Somehow between college and working as
a paralegal, I changed. Because when I was an undergrad, I didn’t think I could go to grad school because I hated other students. I never talked. I was a total loner. I just read by myself. I didn’t talk to anybody. And I was really socially awkward. Even in class I never talked. My senior year I started coming out of that maybe a little bit. But I used to think, how can I go to grad school, because I can’t teach, I’m just going to hate the students. But then somewhere -- maybe it was New York City, even though when I lived here I barely talked to anyone. Maybe it was the paralegal work, I just got so bored with it that I was excited to talk to people about writing. Isaac: Well, there are a lot of jobs where you don’t interact with people in an entire day, or really that much at all. Jason: Yeah, I think I was craving community. Because I had been doing the alone thing for about three years. When I started getting serious about poetry it was around my sophomore year in college. I started shutting everyone out. So for about three or four years . . . it’s not like I was a hermit, but I was not really that social. I feel like I had about three friends. And also my family, I had to kind of be aggressive, especially with my mom, because they were trying to control my life. And I was just like, “Look, I’m not going to talk to you on the phone,” I was barely communicating with my parents. Because every time my mom would call me it would just be a war on the phone about what my life was going to be. And we’d get into an argument every time. Now she’s great. She’s like, “Oh, you made it.” She doesn’t know how, because to her, from her perspective, she was just thinking, how are you going to do that? Your dad is a doctor. How are you going to write poetry? And make money? Isaac: When did your parents start to come around? Jason: After the first book came out. It was that and also I got my PhD. That was really important to them, because they wanted to see that I was a professional. And it happened at about the same time. I got my PhD in 2007, and the book was accepted in 2008 and came out in 2009. And then I got my first full-time
job. The biggest thing was that when the book came out, I went to Cleveland to do a reading at Cleveland State University. And my parents invited all of their Korean friends. Till this day, it’s still the biggest reading that I’ve had. There were probably over one hundred Korean people in the audience. And then my parents really enjoyed the reading. They had never seen me read my poems. They had never seen me command an audience. So I think they were impressed with what poetry had done to turn me into an adult. They never said that, but that was my sense of it. Because they were really proud of me in that moment, with all of their friends there. And then they bought the book, and they were giving it away to everyone. The thing with parents, especially Korean parents, is that they just need a story, something that’s going to impress their friends, right? So the problem when I started doing poetry was all of my Korean friends, they were all growing up to be doctors and lawyers and people in business. Kind of like most Asian American young professionals. No one else did what I did. Not a single person. There was one other person who I knew that went to grad school, but it was for fashion or something. One other person went in a humanities direction. But she didn’t become a poet. The problem was that all they could tell their friends for ten years was that I was writing poetry. So what they would do -- that’s why the PhD was important --they would say, “Oh, well, he’s getting his masters, he’s getting his PhD. He’s going to become a professor.” Because that sounds like something. Just saying “He’s writing poetry” sounds absurd. And that became a big subject of antagonism between me and my mom. If you know the “Charlie Tuna” poem in the first book, she would say, “No one asks about you anymore,” or “No one is interested in having their daughters marry you anymore because you’re such a failure.” But when the book came out, suddenly I was unique because they had this book that they could send to everyone, and nobody else had that. And they were like, “Oh, your son’s a doctor, who gives a shit. All of these fifty other kids are doctors, too.” Alex: Should we go inside? It’s blazing. Jason: Yeah. I’m probably getting burned. 225
-- -Isaac: How’d you find your place in Astoria? Jason: I think I just used the Rapid Realty of the day. I got the place pretty quickly, because I had to find an apartment pretty quickly. It was eight hundred a month, which was actually a pretty good deal when I think about it now. The space was nice. I had basically two rooms, and a tiny bedroom. That’s why I took it. And it was near what used to be called the Triborough Bridge -- it was near the park that was under the bridge. I liked the neighborhood. It was just a dirty apartment, and it had roaches too. That was back when I didn’t understand that your landlord was supposed to do something about roaches. I just thought that every New York City person dealt with roaches. Because my parents would always tell me, “Yeah, we had roaches when we lived in New York.” And I would think, oh, okay, so I’m just supposed to deal with them myself. And then later I talked to my mom about that and she was like, “Oh, yeah. I probably should have told you that you could have asked your landlord for help.” The other thing in that poem that I was talking about, “More Than You Know,” was that that the toilet didn’t have a toilet seat when I moved in. And I went to the landlord and said, “Why
does my toilet not have a toilet seat?”, she was like, “Oh, you’re supposed to bring your own toilet seat. Everyone buys their own toilet seat.” And oh my god, I bought it, too. I was just like, “Oh, okay.” So I went to Bed Bath and Beyond. Isaac: Did you pick out a good one, though? Jason: Yeah, I guess. It’s like a mythic episode of my life. I wrote an essay about it. It’s in that poem. It was kind of an epic day because I went to Bed Bath and Beyond, and picked out this toilet seat. And it was a super hot day like this. It was July, or August maybe. And I’m walking around the city with it. And I had just moved there, so I didn’t really know the city that well. All I really knew was Borders. I used to go to Borders a lot. Isaac: It’s too bad they didn’t make it. Jason: Yeah. That was my favorite one, of all the chains. So they had a Borders on Fifty-Seventh and Park. And I knew that it was there. And it was so hot, and I was carrying this fuckin’ toilet seat. And I thought I’m just going to go there. Alex: You were carrying the toilet seat into Borders? 227
Jason: I just needed some air-conditioning and I needed to get out of the heat for a while. And that’s when I met -- well, I didn’t meet her at the time. But it was this girl whom I ended up falling in love with. This coffee shop girl at Borders, whose name was Stella. That was the day I kind of met her. It’s in that poem. Isaac: That’s in “Please Sign In?” Jason: Right, but I also talk about it more in “More Than You Know.” So that day lives on. I also remember that day because another thing that I did to get out of the heat was that I went to the Film Forum. I was willing to watch any movie just to get out of the heat. And they were showing this Fellini film, Nights of Cabiria, which ended up becoming one of my five favorite films, but it was packed so I sat in the very front row in the left corner seat. And I put the toilet seat on the floor in front of me. And this film just blew me away. Isaac: Those early New York stories . . . because you just don’t know what you don’t know. And there’s such an innocence about it. Jason: That’s what the whole poem is about. That’s the thing, you’re miserable when you go through it, but those end up becoming your favorite New York stories. Isaac: I wish I could get lost in Manhattan again. That used to be a thing, where am I? Jason: Exactly, yeah. Isaac: It still happens a little bit in the Village, but I can usually figure it out pretty quickly. Jason: Right, yeah. Now with phones and stuff you don’t really get lost anymore. You’ve got Yelp, you’ve got Google Maps. Unless you don’t have your phone you kind of don’t get lost. The Village used to bewilder me. That’s why I just hung out in Midtown, because it felt safer to me. Everything was at a right angle. Alex: Gridded, exactly. Numerical. Jason: And all of the subways were straight. I never went to Brooklyn. I don’t think I went to Brooklyn once when I lived in Queens. I would just take the N to work and go back. And Bor228
ders was halfway between work and my home. So I would pretty much go there everyday. On the weekends I would try to make excursions to other parts. But anytime I would go to Lower Manhattan I would just get lost. So I would go to the museums. Because anything uptown or in Midtown was just easier to find once you figured out the avenues and how the traffic flowed. Isaac: Yeah. Those are a little easier to grasp. Jason: I just saw that apparently tonight MLB is releasing this documentary about the ‘90s Indians. You know the 1990’s Cleveland Indians? It’s called The Dynasty That Almost Was. I hadn’t heard about any of this. Isaac: What a title. Jason: Yeah. I watched a couple of clips and they’re fucking haunting. There’s a part about Game 7 of the World Series in ‘97, and how in the ninth inning they started preparing the Indians’ locker room for the champagne celebration and they had footage of it. And Omar Vizquel talks about how he had to go to the bathroom, so he went back there and he saw the locker room. And then Brian Anderson -- who was a pitcher who had pitched in the eighth inning -- said he went back there and he saw it too. And they were all talking about how they felt jinxed. And the Indians’ radio announcer had to go down there to prepare himself for the interviews. And they’re watching the game, and Jose Mesa blows the save, and then they tear down the plastic and everything . . . oh my god. Isaac: What year was that again? Jason: Just haunting. 1997. And then the part that I didn’t know . . . the crucial part of that inning -- I tell this to everyone, but everyone is just like, Jose Mesa blew the save, and I tell them, it’s not that simple. It’s not like he just came in and got lit up. If he did I would hate him too. But I’ve never hated him. I was just like, look, there was a bloop single. And then he struck a guy out. And then there was an opposite field single that set up first and third. And then there was a sac fly. That’s good offense. They didn’t really get a hard hit. We
were up by one. That just sometimes happens. It’s not like he came in and gave up a three-run homer without getting anyone out. But the crucial at bat: it was one out and Moisés Alou is on first. And he has Charles Johnson up at the plate. He was probably one of their weakest, if not their weakest hitter in that series. And he had him down one-and-two. One ball and two strikes. But he kept throwing the ball on the outside corner. Isaac: Why, because he was cautious? Jason: Yeah, you could see that they were trying to stay away -- you don’t want to risk throwing in too much because someone might hit a home run, and you’re only up by one. So they kept throwing away, away, away. But you could see that Johnson was trying to go that way. Because he kept fouling it off to the right side. So in my head, I remember thinking in ‘97 as a kid . . . you can’t keep going out there. If you keep going out there he’s going to hit it that way. If he hits it to right field, the guy at first is going to go to third. I was already imagining it happening. And that’s exactly what happened. Mesa went out there again, and he just hit a soft little single to right field, and Alou went to third base. And because he went to third he scored on the fly ball that was hit, and the game was tied. And we basically lost, because once they tied it you knew that we weren’t going to win. But they interview Mike Hargrove—I just saw a clip, I don’t know what they go into in the actual movie—and apparently he called a pitch from the dugout. This almost never happens. He told the catcher to signal for a pitch inside. Because apparently he saw the same thing. So he told Alomar to tell Mesa to throw it inside. But Mesa didn’t want to throw it inside. So he kept shaking him off. He shook him off two or three times. Finally Hargrove was like -- because you don’t want to make your pitcher throw a pitch that he’s not comfortable with -- okay, just let him throw what he wants to throw. So he threw a little slider away, and he hit it. And they interview Mesa, and Mesa was mad because he was meddling -- oh, you never tell me what pitch to throw before, so why are you going to tell me what pitch to throw now? But I’m just like, dude, he was right! If you had listened to him, you probably would have gotten him out. He probably would have popped it
up or something. Because he was looking -- if you’re looking away and every pitch is on the outside corner and you’re thinking it’s going to be there, then you’ll get jammed if it’s thrown inside, and you’ll probably pop it up, or just hit a ground ball to the pitcher or something. They could have had a double play and they would have won the World Series. If he had just listened to the fucking manager. And Mike Hargrove has never talked about this before, because he didn’t want to burn Mesa. And I’m thinking, only now, twenty years later do I find out the truth about that inning. And now I hate Mesa! I’m like, fuck that guy, it was his fault. If he had just listened to the manager. Isaac: It’s interesting because as a fan you sort of don’t know all of that, but eventually you sometimes find all of those things out. I guess I wish I could be as into sports as I was at that really precious age. Jason: Yeah. Even now I’m not as into it. Isaac: How old were you then? Jason: I was twenty-one. And I remember Jaret Wright started that game. I think he was twenty-one, too. He was a rookie that year. He pitched great, and left with a 2–1 lead. And it was surreal. I was watching this guy my age pitch the biggest game of my life. It was definitely the biggest game of his life. Isaac: How long after that did you write “How to Watch Your Team Lose Game 7 of the World Series”? Jason: It took a while. When I wrote that I was living in Houston. So it was probably -- I think it was 2001 or 2002. I think it was 2001. Isaac: Was that cathartic? Jason: It was, yeah. It helped to write the poem. I go into that sequence pretty clearly. Isaac: I’m not a baseball fan, so I don’t really know baseball that way. But I think what sort of drew me into this poem a bit more was the idea that even if your team has lost, when you at least still have the T.V. on and you’re watching the recap -229
Jason: It’s still better. Isaac -- the season’s not over. And then you turn the T.V. off . . . Jason: Yeah. I was watching it at a place called Naples Pizzeria, I think it’s called. It was in New Haven. I almost thought to myself, will I be able to write poetry if they win because I’ll be happy? But then they lost and it kind of just seals your fate in a way. Alex: They sacrificed themselves for you. Jason: Yeah, maybe. The Cavs won last year, but I was older, so I was formed. Isaac: My team like that was the Colts, and all of their postseason failures. Jason: Well they finally won. Isaac: Yeah, they finally won. But when you were talking about Mesa’s pitches that kept going outside . . . I’m not sure, did you see the Steelers v. Colts playoff game in ‘05–’06. It was January of ‘06. Jason: I don’t think I watched that. Isaac: It’s just one of those games in Colts’ lore. AFC Divisional Playoff. Colts had almost gone undefeated during the regular season. They’re down late in the fourth quarter and need to get the ball back in order to have a chance, then Jerome Bettis fumbles. And then Nick Harper picks it up and he has a free ride to the end zone, except he has to get around Ben Roethlisberger. Jason: And he couldn’t get around him. Isaac: Yeah, he couldn’t get around him. And then years later, Tony Dungy had mentioned in an interview, yeah, we always coach our cornerbacks that when you have an interception or you pick up a fumble, get outside, get outside. And Nick Harper cut inside to try to get around him . . . and it’s like, you should have listened to your coach. Jason: Yeah, that’s the kind of thing you usually don’t hear because the coaches or the other players . . . 230
Isaac: They’re not going to throw them under the bus. Jason: Yeah, they don’t want to criticize their teammates or players in the press. But if you’re a good fan, you know that stuff is going on. If you’re really that obsessed, and you’re watching that carefully. There’s stuff that happened in the World Series last year -- I think Terry Francona did a great job, and Game 7 was so great because Rajai Davis hit the home run, but there were these little decisions that were made that were just the wrong decisions. Not just the decisions. The plays. The players made these little plays, just a little sloppiness defensively hurt the Indians in that game, and then it started snowballing. I think it was tied, and Mike Napoli threw high to second base to start a double play, and because he threw high they couldn’t get the double play, and they only got one out. And the guy on second advanced to third. And then there was a shallow fly ball to left center that Rajai Davis didn’t charge, just thinking that Kris Bryant wasn’t going to run home because no one else probably would have run home. It was pretty shallow. But Bryant was just like balls to the wall that game. He stole two runs that game with his baserunning. And he went home, and Rajai Davis made a good throw, and he almost got him. But if he had been charging the ball to kind of get his momentum going, either Bryant doesn’t run at all -- or I feel like he would have ran anyway, but I think Davis would have gotten him out. They would have been out of that inning, and it would have been 1–1 still. But because he didn’t get him out, they scored that run, and then they scored another run in that inning, because Kluber had to keep pitching, and then it was 3–1. And then Tito left him in too long, I thought. And he comes back out in the next inning and gives up a solo homer to Báez -- the first batter of that inning. And Báez was just in a total slump, he couldn’t hit anything. That was the only big hit he got for the entire World Series, but it was just because the Cubs started to get confident. And Kluber had started to get tired, because he had been pitching a lot—that was his third start in the World Series. And he was just out of gas. He was striking nobody out, which is not Kluber. If he’s not striking people out then you know that he’s not on his game. And then Miller came in, and somehow
Kris Bryant scored from first on a single. He was running on the pitch and Rizzo hit a ball down the line, and our right fielder got to it, but again, he didn’t assume that Bryant would try to score, so he didn’t hustle the ball in. And then Bryant ran all the way home. That’s how they scored their fifth run. So runs two, three, four, and five, in my mind, never should have happened. Isaac: It shows how much of a mental game it is. Jason: Oh yeah. And it was really just because the Cubs had momentum at that point. Because they had just come back from being down 3–1, so they were really confident. And they were the aggressors in that game. I feel like the Indians, from Game Six on, when it was 3–2 coming back to Cleveland -- it’s because they were coming home, I think. I think they relaxed a little bit. Isaac: So how do you equate that with small mistakes in poems? Jason: That’s why I got into baseball, I think. Because I think they’re very similar. I think about that a lot, actually. It’s funny you ask. It’s
another thing that I was writing about recently. It’s in the poem “Always Finish What You Start,” which ends with this Godard film that me and my best friend went to see with his wife and Ana. Have you seen Contempt, the Godard film? Isaac: I haven’t. Jason: It’s basically about the breakdown of his marriage, but it’s one of the most incredible films you’ll ever watch. I was meditating on decisions, because there’s this character in the film that makes all of these decisions, and he doesn’t even realize that they’re decisions. They’re kind of like non-decisions. But they have catastrophic consequences for his marriage, which kind of just unravels while the film goes on. But it’s sort of related to what we were talking about -- they’re very related. I think about the sequencing thing, because when you’re putting a poem together you’re thinking about the sequencing of words and phrases. Depending on how you sequence the words, the phrase is either going to be really memorable or just kind of pedestrian, right? And then depending on how you sequence the phrases, the poem is either going to be really memorable or really pedestrian, or just awful, 231
right? And then even behind that is how are you sequencing your days leading up to the poem? And then behind that is how are you sequencing your life? What kind of reading are you doing? Who are you reading at what time? Because what you’re reading is going to influence how you’re thinking and how you’re writing. What teachers have you had? What kinds of other things are you doing in your life? Do you need to get up every day at the same time and work to write the poem? Or do you need to step back? All of those things. So any time you write a good poem -- there’s this line that I like in a DeLillo novel -- there’s a kind of danger because the words almost didn’t make it to the page. You feel that. Isaac: I love that. Jason: Yeah. I think it’s in Mao II. It’s one of my favorite things about writing that anyone has said. I feel like baseball invites this more because it’s very similar to literature. I think that’s why so many writers like baseball. It’s very similar, especially to poetry, but I think literature in general, just because it’s slow. It’s very slow. It’s very meditative. And probably eighty to ninety-five percent of the game is pauses. It’s not like basketball. Isaac: Basketball is like jazz. Jason: Yeah, exactly. A ball will go out of bounds or something, but when they’re playing basketball there’s a flow. Even when someone scores there’s just a quick pause, and then they throw the ball back in. But with baseball, it stops and starts with every pitch. So you pitch the ball, and then if a guy catches it, or if he fouls it off, there’s a pause. And basically the game stops. It’s almost like it resets with every pitch. And then even if he hits it, the ball’s in play and then whatever happens happens and then it stops. Right? So the pauses are an integral part of the game. And I think because of that . . . there’s much more thinking involved. It’s much more meditative. So you’re thinking much more about the sequencing of things. Because it’s literally broken down frame by frame. You can go pitch by pitch. Whereas it’s a lot harder to do that in basketball and football and the other flow sports. You can when you watch the video, but it’s very difficult to be like, “Well, 232
if he had cut to the right instead of to the left . . .” Maybe you might be able to do that with the play that you were talking about, but it’s much more difficult to do within the flow of those kind of games, whereas with baseball you’re like, okay, well if he had started with a fastball on the outside corner, instead of the inside corner, maybe that whole at bat would have been different. Or maybe if that umpire had called that borderline pitch a strike instead of a ball, it would have been 0–1 instead of 1–0, or it would have been 0–2 instead of 1–1 or 2–0. The difference between 2–0 and 0–2 is huge in an at bat. Or even 1–1 vs 0–2 is huge. I think Frost talked about this, actually. I can’t remember where it’s from. I think it’s one of his letters, or a little prose thing he wrote, where he talks about the little sequence of pitched balls. This was back when there was an earlier, much older form of baseball. And I can’t remember if he said it’s like poetry, but he was making an analogy between the little sequence of pitched balls and I think writing a poem. Putting one thing in front of another. And having to do it in the right sequence. The good news, I think, is that I think there are a variety of right sequences that you can take, right? I don’t believe that there’s only one sequence. There’s no one way to get a batter out, right? There’s no one way to pitch a perfect game, right? There are multiple ways that you can pitch a perfect game. And it involves a little bit of luck. Isaac: Yeah, but you can sort of write yourself into a corner. Jason: Yeah, that’s very true. Isaac: But as we’re talking about pauses in baseball, one of the terms that gets thrown around, for good reason, in workshops often is tension. Where’s the tension in this poem? Or where’s the tension in this story? And in baseball we have a sport where there’s constantly -- especially playoff baseball -Jason: Oh yeah. Constant tension. Isaac: Where’s there’s constant tension. But then the other thing was, just writing yourself into a corner. I think in a separate interview, I can’t remember which one it was, you said
that it’s not so much about the first line or the second line, but the first movement. Jason: Right. Isaac: If the first movement is good, okay. But then when you get into the second movement and the third . . . if you go someplace and you don’t really know how to get out of it, then you’re not going to find your poem. Jason: Yeah. That’s when I started writing poems slower. Because when I was younger I felt like I lost certain poems, or they weren’t as good as they could have been because I was much more of the belief that you had to be inspired. Because that’s how -- when I wrote the first poems that I thought were really good, they came all at once. In one sitting. So when you do that you’re trying to recreate that feeling for yourself. I would still do that in Houston, during my first year or two there. I would think, okay, I have to do this all now, and then you go back and you try to revise them, but it’s difficult to revise them because you don’t have that feeling anymore. And you get terrified. You feel like you’re blocked. And you feel like
you’re ruining the poem because you can’t get back into that original verve. But it’s part of the painful process of developing your process, actually. Figuring out how you’re going to write poems. And especially for me, since I’ve always been interested in writing longer poems. I realized that I had to slow down. And I was actually sort of capable of compartmentalizing the writing. I realized inspiration didn’t matter at all. It’s not that it didn’t matter -- inspiration does exist, but if I felt inspired, if I felt like I had a good opening, then I had to really be sure that that good opening went into the right movement. I can’t remember which interview I talked about that in, but yeah, I’m talking about the second movement and the third. It was really the third movement that I felt was crucial. And since I like to write these longer sentences as a way of generating momentum, it was almost always the third sentence. Because I actually felt like the first line was pretty easy, or the first sentence. I had no trouble generating interesting openings. But a lot of times they would get stuck after the second or third sentence. I would get maybe halfway down the page and I would just feel like . . . this feels dead. But
if I felt like I got there, I felt safely within the poem, and it was going to go. But I would be very slow about it. Because if I didn’t like it the next day when I looked at it, I would scrap it, and I would try again. And then the next day the same thing. And so finally I started to do what Hemingway would do. He would write in the morning and not look at it. Because the thing is you have to abstract yourself so that it’s as if you’re reading someone else’s writing. So that you can be really critical about it. The next day, if you look at it, and you haven’t looked at it all day, you’ll be able to tell immediately if you don’t like it. If you don’t like it you should just immediately cut it. And you’re willing to do that then, because you haven’t stared to care for the poem yet. But if you like it, then you know you have something good. And it’s not because you’re arrogant, it’s actually the opposite. It’s because you’re in a place where it’s as if you’re reading someone else’s writing. And so if you like it then you can keep moving. That’s what he would do every day. He would revise everything that he had written the previous day, and then he would write new stuff. And get to a place where he felt as though he could
continue, and then he would stop -- not look at it, and then do the same thing the next day. But that was for writing fiction, not poetry. Isaac: They’re not completely different. The process of coming up with the next line, or coming up with the next plot movement -Jason: Right, the process is the same. Isaac: But was he the one who said that he knew when to stop, when it was just before he ran out of ideas, or something like that. Jason: He might have. I don’t know that quote. But it sounds like him. Isaac: I’ve butchered the quote, but it’s something like . . . whenever he felt that he was running out of steam he would stop, because he knew that he’d have a way to get into it the next day. Jason: Yeah, something like that. And I try to do this sometimes, I fuck up, though, a lot of times. But he would get to a place where he felt like he knew where he wanted to go the next
day, where he could continue from that spot. Isaac: But he wouldn’t want to go there. Jason: Yeah, exactly. He wouldn’t write himself to exhaustion. I thought that was very helpful because that was something that I did a lot when I was younger. I would just exhaust myself and nothing was coming. I would spend like twelve hours. But the problem is, sometimes something will come. The first poem I ever published was this villanelle where the first four or five hours nothing was coming, but then it happened very quickly, at like midnight. But the difference there was that I was writing for a class. And the class was the next day. Isaac: A deadline. Jason: Yeah, it was Ed Hirsch’s class on form. And every week we had to write a poem. It was the best workshop I had ever taken, because that’s what really got me writing again after college. Because there was such an intensity, I had to produce a poem, and there were like eighteen people in the class, and there were a lot of good writers. And so you felt the pressure of coming up with good stuff. And that pressure was really good, especially for someone like me who was having trouble writing at the time. I was so busy teaching and doing other stuff that I really only had Monday nights to work on my poems, but I had a pretty long uninterrupted stretch from Monday afternoon all through the night, and then the class I think was at two p.m., so I also had Tuesday morning. So there was the pressure of the deadline first of all, but also I had been thinking about it. That’s another thing I realized, is that a lot of times you’re working on poems even though you don’t realize that you’re working on them. Isaac: That’s right. Jason: Because you have an idea, or you’re thinking about stuff, or maybe you’re taking notes. But if your mind has been prepped, and then you just get into the right space, then maybe it might take three or four hours but it will come. But if you go into this space and you haven’t prepped or anything, you could just sit there forever. Or if you’ve backed yourself into a corner, as you said, you’re probably never
going to get out of it, because you’ve taken a sequence already that’s led you to a dead end. What you need to do is backtrack, or just start over. So sequencing is very important. But the beauty of it is that there are multiple paths. There are multiple paths to paradise. They’re still limited, but it’s not like there’s only one, I believe. Whereas when I was younger I was really freaked out about this because I thought that there was only one, and I had to be sure. I like the poems I was writing; I’m proud of my first two books, but my process then was very different. It was very painstaking. Even the longer ones, I felt like everything had to be exactly the way that I wanted it before I would continue. Whereas now with the longer poems that I’m writing, in both the book that’s coming out next year, and then the book that I’m preparing that will be after that -- the new book is very very long poems, like fifteen- or twenty-page poems in couplets. They’re almost like essays. Isaac: And that one’s Sunset Park? Jason: No, Sunset Park is a chapbook that is one section of the new book called More Than Mere Light, which has that “More Than You Know” poem that I talked about. The chapbook will come out sometime this fall. More Than Mere Light comes out next spring. And then I have a new book that I’m working on which is all long poems in couplets, and those poems are much more . . . I don’t like the term free form, but they’re a lot more free form than what I’ve done. I wrote them all in a notebook. And I wrote a lot of them on my roof. And the idea was to just really let my mind go to as many different places as it could go, and then when I transfer them to the computer, I do a lot of revising immediately as I type them up. That’s another great way to revise. Isaac: You get two shots at the same poem. Jason: Yeah, because it’s like you’re composing again. It’s not really like you’re revising. I got into that because with More Than Mere Light there was one really long poem that I wrote. It was a letter poem that I wrote to a friend whose father had died. And it was about forty pages in manuscript, and that was where I really got back into super long poems. But even that 235
one was kind of tied down formally because it was a letter. So I had one primary audience. And I was thinking about this certain kind of long poem tradition that James Schuyler, I feel, inaugurated, whereas with these newer ones I’m just kind of going all over the place. I’m talking about sports. I’m talking about love. I’m talking about history. I’m talking about New York. I’m talking about teaching. Isaac: It’s all connected though, right? Jason: Yeah. Isaac: It’s easy to draw parallels and connect the dots. Jason: Yeah. So multiple paths, now, I feel. Isaac: America’s Favorite Poem ends with “Work,” and there’s something in that poem about being able to teach your students how to write breakup letters without hurting anyone’s feelings. Jason: Yeah. I would love to teach a class like that. That would be the best composition class. If you could get away with it. Isaac: Do you think you could put together an entire semester around that, though? Jason: I feel like you could. When I was teaching at Houston they had composition, and then they had rhetoric. And when you taught rhetoric you were supposed to focus more on persuading an audience. So we would do some exercises like that, except they wouldn’t be the students’ major assignment. So one of the best assignments that I developed came out of something like that. The earliest version of this was where I would have students write a personal ad, kind of like a dating profile. This was back before dating apps, back when there were personal ads. So I said, “Okay. Sell yourself. Write a piece of rhetoric that’s going to pitch yourself to a prospective partner.” And then I would have them pair off, and read each other’s pieces. And then I had them go on mock dates. I think one pair of students actually went on a date. It was only one, though. And the idea was that you had to compare the real person who you talked to to the rhetorical person. And then when social networks appeared I 236
started having them do these with social media profiles. First I did it with MySpace. And then Facebook. To this day I think I’m the only person who has done this assignment. Maybe some other people have stolen it, or have done something similar. But it’s a great assignment. So now what they do is, they pair up and they interview each other, and then they research the person’s Facebook page, and they compare rhetorically the text of the Facebook page versus how someone presents himself as a text in real life, and what are the differences. I think it’s not really all that far fetched. I think a lot of universities think you have to teach students to write a thesis statement. And I’m like, why? You don’t use thesis statements in—remember the real world that we were talking about? You want to teach them argument. And you want to teach them how to cogently persuade someone of something, I think. And you want to teach them to communicate. But there’s no reason why a student has to learn how to write an interpretive paper about literature. There is if it’s a literature class. But these aren’t literature classes, they’re composition classes. They’re supposed to be learning how to build sentences. If I could just have a class where I wasn’t required to teach them essays, these kind of essays, then I feel like I could teach them to write in ways that they would really be into and they would ultimately learn more, right? First of all we’d do a lot more personal writing. That’s how composition started. I think it was at Harvard. It was mainly personal writing. And so there’s still a school that believes that’s the best way to teach composition. But with personal writing, a lot of universities feel like it’s not capital enough -- you’ve got to be able to translate that into employable capital. Like, “Oh, you’re not writing a personal essay to get a job.” Isaac: But you sort of are. If we’re talking about writing cover letters, how important that is . . . Jason: Well now they call that technical writing. Isaac: But the idea of a cover letter is that you’re supposed to present yourself, and explain why you’re a good fit. And if you have a personal aspect to it, then your letter will stand out. But if it’s very technical, then it’s going to look quite a bit like all of the other ones.
Jason: Yeah. I feel like if you could link up writing with personality and persona, and just a sense of presence -- if you can help students understand how writing is deeply involved with your identity, your presence, that’s a hugely marketable skill. Isaac: I don’t think many people are ever really told that. Jason: There are comp theorists who talk about this. But the problem is that composition is usually the only required English class, and it’s at the freshman level, so students just treat it as this drudgery requirement, because it’s almost always like, well, you have to have them write x number of papers . . . and it has to end with a research essay. And I’m always just like, why does it have to end with a research essay? What even is that? Does that mean that they go to the library, and find ten sources, and write about a topic? They’re not in middle school. What you’re really trying to teach them to do is to read texts and be able to quote from them in their own essays. So if you wanted to write an essay about this interview, you would have to have the skill where you would be able to quote me within the flow of your own writing, right? You don’t even need to cite it, really. You really
only need to cite if you’re going to join the academic community. Why do you need to learn MLA citations as a freshman? Isaac: Just in case. Jason: Maybe! But the percentage of people who go into English grad school is less than one percent, right? So why do they need to learn MLA citation? I don’t think that they do. What they really need to do is learn how to read a source, and to quote it. Because actually, for whatever reason, it is really difficult for students to quote writing without sounding awkward. They just can’t do it. And I’m just like, look, all you have to do is say, Denis Johnson writes, comma, quote, or, Isaac argues, comma, quote. But it’s really hard for them to just learn that basic skill. They butcher it over and over again. Or they just throw the quote in there. They just put it in quotes and there’s no author. And I’m like, “Who is speaking here?” And they’re like, oh, it’s in the citation. And I’m like, no, that’s not why you have citation. And that’s the other problem. When they learn citation, a lot of time what they think is, oh the citation is for where I dump the author’s name in parenthesis to let people know who is speaking. And I’m like, no, that’s not why you have 237
citations. Citations are so scholars know where to find your source, but you’re not just going to insert a quote -- you wouldn’t do that in normal conversation, why are you going to do that in writing? If I just start quoting someone, and I don’t tell you where it’s coming from, you’re just going to be confused. And it’s the same thing when you’re reading an essay.
Jason: Yeah. But that’s what you’ve got to teach them.
you’re in a relationship with? Those are all very delicate forms of writing that involve not just emotion—they actually involve very little emotion. It’s not that you don’t feel the emotion, but it’s really hard to express emotion genuinely. What it involves is manipulating rhetoric. You have to be able to understand tone, and what’s appropriate in a certain rhetorical context, right? So when you’re texting someone to set up a date, it’s not appropriate to say certain things that might be appropriate after you’ve had sex with them, right? And most reasonable people, you think, would know this. But in fact, as we know from many men on dating apps, most men do not know this.
Isaac: You forget that you had to learn those things too.
Isaac: I don’t know if it’s that they don’t know it.
Jason: Exactly. If I could just teach them how to do that stuff. I would teach them how to write a good email. Or you could teach them how to write an email -- I talk about it in that poem “Work” -- to an employer, or to a prospective lover. What is the delicacy of rhetoric? How do you text someone to set up a date? Versus how do you text someone after you’ve kissed them for the first time? Or how do you write a thoughtful email to someone whom
Jason: Or they’re just assholes.
Isaac: I think the more time you spend writing, the more things just come natural. And you just take all of these things for granted.
Isaac: Well, now there are all of these opportunities to write. At one point, if you wanted to write someone, then there was only a letter. There wasn’t email. There wasn’t text messaging. There weren’t internet chatrooms. But now there’s all of these new opportunities and mediums to exchange writing, and no one --
well, not no one, but there’s less people that are actually investing in building these skills. Jason: That’s why I feel like composition is almost more needed now than ever. Maybe if I had a second life I’d go into composition theory, because there’s such an odd disconnect. We’re doing more writing than ever -- exactly what you’re saying -- in more mediums than ever, not only technological devices but types of format, texting, email, tweeting, Facebook statuses and so on and so forth. And yet the things you see taught in freshman composition are still just antiquated ways of teaching academic writing. And I get it because you want to prepare them to write essays in their other classes, right? In college. But is that really what’s going to serve them most? I just think, if you really wanted me to teach them to write, and to prepare them for the future, I could do a better job if you just let me do whatever I want. Because the other problem with academic writing is that every discipline is different, right? If you’re writing about a short story, that’s very different from writing a history research essay, or writing an essay for a science class, or a math class, or an economics class. The type of writing that you see in business, it’s almost like a presentation. It has no personality or anything. Whereas if you’re writing about a story, or if you’re doing creative writing, all of those are different. I don’t know how we got on this subject, but I get fired up about it. Isaac: I’m not sure either. But it’s interesting, and makes me think more about how I learned to write, the things I picked up along the way, and now take for granted. Do you remember your first step in Brooklyn? Jason: Do I remember my first step? Alex: The first time you touched Brooklyn soil. Jason: Well, when I moved here I had already been here. When I lived here in ‘98, Brooklyn was still not . . . well, it was hip to live here, that was when “Williamsburg” was becoming a thing, but I didn’t have any friends that lived here. That’s why I moved to Queens, because one of my writer friends from college moved to Astoria. So I decided to move there just to be close to her, but then I went to Houston
and one of my friends from Houston moved to Brooklyn with his girlfriend at the time. And so I would visit them a lot. And then another friend of mine from L.A.—actually whom I met on MySpace—who was a photographer, she went to Parsons and lived in Brooklyn. So through the early-aughts and the mid-aughts I would visit them. And at that time I was living in Missouri doing my PhD. So eventually in 2009 I was looking for a job, and I just kind of said fuck it. I had won an NEA in 2008, which gave me a little bit of money to make a move like that. Because I moved here and I didn’t have a full-time job. I was able to get one job at NYU, a part-time job teaching composition, which was going to give me ten thousand dollars for two classes in the fall. And then right at the beginning of the semester they cut one of them, so I only had five. But I was able to get a couple more classes at Lehman College. I was really conscious of needing to live in a city and I really wanted to move to Brooklyn because my two best friends were here, and a lot of my other writer friends were here. So I was thinking, if I don’t move now, I’m never going to move. Because the thing with academic jobs is that you kind of get roped into going where the jobs are. And there are, first of all, not many jobs in New York City, and then when there are jobs, everyone wants them, so they’re really hard to get. So I realized that the path to moving to New York was not going to be landing some glamorous job—I was just not going to get one. I kind of had to get my foot on the island by adjuncting or something. And I thought, okay, I have this grant money, I have a little bit of a buffer at least, where I can kind of just do this adjuncting thing for a year and hopefully . . . I just bet on myself. If I lived here for a year maybe I could get a full-time job somewhere. And that’s exactly what happened. I was lucky. So in 2009 I moved to Sunset Park, which is where some of the Sunset Park poems come from, and maybe you could say I took my first “official” Brooklyn steps there. My friend Bill and his wife, the friends I was just telling you about whom I stayed with when I came to visit, they helped me move in, and my best friend Gunny who still lives here, in Bay Ridge now. They helped me with a U-Haul and unpacked the truck. I lived on Forty-Second Street, between Fourth and Third Avenue, and 239
it was weird because I had just lived in North Carolina. I had this visiting professor job there, and I had lived in a duplex. I had one half of a really big house: I had two floors, a porch, a front yard, back yard, garage. And then I moved here . . . and I really wanted to live alone, because most of my life I lived alone, since college. That’s why I moved to Sunset Park, I could get this one-bedroom, which was fifteen hundred a month, which was a lot, but I was like, I have to have this. And I had a little yard, but it was much much smaller. So I lived there for two years. And then eventually I met my girlfriend at the time—this is in that poem “Work”—who had just started teaching yoga. I met her at this yoga studio, and I think it was the first yoga studio in Sunset Park, apparently ever. Maybe there had been one, back in the day. I think it’s still a pretty predominantly Hispanic, Latino, and Chinese neighborhood as you get closer to the center of Brooklyn. I lived closer to the Hispanic and Latino side, and it was interesting, the yoga space, because you could see just how white the yoga space was, because they were having a lot of trouble getting students. Isaac: What was the name of the place, do you remember? Jason: It was called Suryasta Yoga, which meant sunset—I’m pretty sure that meant sunset. And it was actually a great little studio. It had this little terrace. And the owner was great, but they had to close after less than a year because they just were not making enough money. Which is pretty curious for yoga in New York, because they don’t usually have trouble making money, do they? But there just weren’t enough white people that would come. There would almost never be Hispanic or Latino people in the classes. Maybe one or two, tops. And that would actually be pretty rare. Anyway, that’s a sidebar. After Sunset Park we moved together to Brooklyn Heights. Do you remember when rents were down, briefly? Quote un-quote “down”. Isaac: When was that? Jason: It was right after the financial downturn. A few years after that. They started to drop, probably when I moved here in 2009, but then 240
they kept dropping. And I think in 2011 we moved there. We were able to get a pretty big one-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights right on Remsen Street. This is prime Brooklyn Heights, like a block and a half from the Promenade, and we were able to get that for $2,750. It had a backyard. And it had a huge bedroom, it was basically two rooms, so we divided that, one part was an office, and the other part was the bedroom. And then it had a long living and dining room area, and then a kitchen and bathroom. It was huge. The biggest place I’ve ever lived in New York was $2,750, so I paid less to live in Brooklyn Heights (after splitting the rent) than I did to live in Sunset Park. But then rents started going back up, and the landlord’s husband died. They were Norwegian. I remember talking to her about Karl Ove Knausgård, who was starting to get big at the time. Her husband died and then she wanted to sell the brownstone. This is where “Morning, Motherfucker” emerged, that poem. It’s weird to think about the timeline of a relationship, and try to get it right. I think it was in 2013, I think that’s when we broke up. She moved out. We lucked out because we had signed a lease together, but because my landlord was selling the house, she didn’t want to find a new tenant. So rather than making me pay the whole rent, which I couldn’t do, she just let me pay what I could . . . I thought I could pay maybe eighteen hundred a month. But she thought she was going to sell it right away, that was the thing. And I lived there from September until the next July, paying eighteen hundred a month. I probably had the best rental deal in New York City. And she resented it more and more, because not only was she getting pissed because she wasn’t selling her brownstone, she was getting pissed that I was down there renting for eighteen hundred a month. But I was like, look, we agreed to this, so why are you getting mad at me? And then she sold it for five million! I’m like, I think you did pretty well. But then when I moved out . . . my ex had actually covered the deposit, because she had just inherited this money from her grandmother. And so I didn’t have to pay any part of the deposit. And so she was just like, I’ll cover it, because I’m going to get it back. And I thought, all right, cool. And then when I moved out my landlord was like, “I’m not going to give you any of your deposit
back.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “Well, you’ve been living here for eighteen hundred.” And I’m like, “Well, that deposit’s not my money.” And she was like, “I don’t care. She should have lived here if she wanted her deposit back.” So she never got that money back. At some point she called me and was like, “Can you get my deposit back?” And I was like, “You gotta talk to the landlady.” And they were trying to decide if they were going to go to court over this. It wasn’t that much money, in the end, so I think they just dropped it. I thought my landlady was kind of an asshole, though. I was thinking, really, you made five million dollars, and you’re not going to give this deposit back? Alex: Five million. Jason: She was like, I have a lot of expenses. And I was like, really? Alex: Four million in expenses, okay? Jason: She was like, “We had to do a lot of work on the apartment,” and I’m thinking, I’m willing to bet you cleared at least a few million, though. You have no problems. Because she bought the house in the seventies, or sixties. She told me once that she bought it for like fifty grand. It’s just incredible. And she sold it for five million. Isaac: It just makes me think, in 2040, or 2050, will people still be telling stories like that? Jason: Yeah. Like I bought mine for a million, now it’s fifty million! Isaac: Right, we don’t know? Probably not, but at what point does it cap? Jason: Yeah, I don’t know if it ever necessarily caps, but it definitely levels off. You’re never going to see fifty grand to five million. But I mean, who knows, because Manhattan is insane, right? I look at rents in Manhattan and I don’t even understand them. I’m like, how could this place cost five thousand a month? Who pays five thousand a month? But I guess a lot of people, apparently. Isaac: So when you left Brooklyn Heights, did you know that you were going to move to Wil-
liamsburg? Where did you look? Jason: I didn’t know at first, but that was the one year that I had a roommate since college. Because by then rents were back up. I really wanted to live alone, but I couldn’t afford to live alone. Luckily my friend J. Scott Brownlee, who is also a poet, was trying to find a roommate, so we shared this really tiny one-bedroom. It was on Meserole Street. It’s a building they’re gentrifying. You can see that whole street now is condos, but that’s the one old building. And they’re renovating. Any apartment that someone moves out of, they renovate. And now they have wood floors, whereas the older ones have linoleum floors, you can see them when people cook and they open the door and you can see inside. But we were on the top floor of this five-story walk-up. We had a little private roof. It was cool. We had a dropdown ladder from the ceiling, and you could go up there, and that was the one perk, because it was very small. The living room was the kitchen as well. So our bedrooms were tiny. It was basically a one-bedroom that they converted into a two-bedroom, with tiny bedrooms. And then he moved in with his girlfriend. They moved to Philadelphia. She went to business school. And then I moved here. Isaac: I was going to ask, what do you think of Levi’s using Whitman to sell jeans. You’ve seen those commercials, right? Jason: Oh, I think it’s fine. Do they still do those? They’re pretty old. Isaac: Yeah, it was a while ago. Jason: I remember liking those. I think it’s all about how you do them, if you do them well -- then it’s like whatever. We do it too. We use Whitman to brand our company. I guess technically it’s probably better if a poetry nonprofit does that to help other poets, but you know, if Levi’s wants to do it, if people discover Whitman through it, that’s fine. Isaac: I think Infiniti has a commercial with a William Blake poem. Jason: More and more you’re seeing an intersection between poetry and advertising. You see it because of social media and tweet con241
sciousness. There’s a sense that either poets, or poetry, or people that read poetry, have a knack for condensing language. Even I’ve had to draw on some of that. I think they’re very different activities. But I think it’s kind of a no-brainer that if you have a poetry background, you’re used to condensing language and trying to persuade audience, so I’m not surprised that you’re seeing more poetry used with advertising. I’m not surprised we saw that on Mad Men, with Frank O’Hara on that show. And some of the other poets that they talked about. My best friend is in advertising, and he’s always talking about doing stuff with poetry. Isaac: I like one of the sentiments in Whitman’s poem “Oh Me, Oh Life!” where he gets into some of the questions that we ask ourselves, regarding our existence, and why we’re here, and what we’re meant to do with our time here. Then I’m most drawn to the last two lines, where he writes his response to these sorts of questions: “Answer. That you are here—that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Isaac: What verse would you say you’re contributing, or what verse would you want to contribute? Jason: Yeah, that’s a good question, how do you contribute a verse? Are you asking metaphorically, or with my specific poems? Isaac: Probably both. Jason: I guess with my poems I wouldn’t be pretentious enough to be like, this is the poem, this is the verse that I would like to contribute. But if I think about that more metaphorically, I would think about both within my own poems and within the work that I do as a teacher, and with running Brooklyn Poets, just a sense of inclusiveness. That’s a big part of my aesthetic, first of all. That’s why I write such long poems -- openness and inclusiveness are huge aesthetic values for me in a poem. Having a poem be a space that includes basically everything. There’s no hierarchy in a poem for me. There’s nothing that I feel I shouldn’t be able to write about. Why shouldn’t I be able to write about baseball? Why shouldn’t I be able to write about porn? And in this same poem that I’m writing about love, and my parents, and history.
And so the time-honored subjects are no more valuable than the so-called low subjects, or pop culture subjects. I think a lot of people have broken those barriers down in postmodernity, but I think still within poetry you don’t see as much inclusiveness as I think people think there is. When you read postmodern theory, you read a lot about inclusiveness, heterogeneity, openness, but then when you read the actual poems, you’re not seeing sports in those poems. You’re not seeing sex in those poems usually. They’re usually pretty theoretical and pretty closed. So that’s a big part of what I like to do with poems, and I feel like that carries over in a sense, not just aesthetically, but intellectually, and even morally, as a presence, or as an identity within the community, I want to be as open and inclusive as possible. It’s a big part of what drives Brooklyn Poets, trying to be more inclusive than other poetry organizations. And to show people that poetry is not one thing that’s only for a certain kind of people. My big passion is that you need to create physical spaces for people to interact. It’s not enough to do it on the page. Or to believe in it politically, or in theory. I feel like that’s a big part of our problem, especially in poetry, because poetry is something that happens in a solitary fashion. There’s the writer writing the poem, and the reader reading the poem. And those things can happen alone. And a lot of people are comfortable with that. And you can have a journal where you have lots of diverse voices, that’s great, too. But you don’t really have the community effect until you have the bodies in the room together, right? And I didn’t really understand that until I started doing poetry events. I never grew up thinking that I would do this many poetry events, but I’ve discovered that I really love it. And it’s not just because I enjoy the social interaction, it’s because I see the political effect that it’s having. It’s not a political feeling that I have when I’m doing an event, but I can see the political consequences of just people enjoying being in the same space together, and meeting people they might not have met. And it’s not just race. It’s also sex, gender, it’s also age. If you go to the Yawp, you’ll see senior citizens there, retirees mixing with people in their twenties. And people coming from all different parts of the city, people with many different kinds of jobs, and obvi-
ously people of different classes. That mixing is really important. So I guess that would be my verse, I don’t know if you could sum that up in one word. But inclusiveness and openness are definitely the biggest contribution that I would hope to make.
Curlew Quarterly celebrates the lives, homes, and work of poets, writers, and distinct professionals living in New York City. Its quarterly...
Published on Aug 10, 2017
Curlew Quarterly celebrates the lives, homes, and work of poets, writers, and distinct professionals living in New York City. Its quarterly...