Thursday, December 31, 2009


#365, Chelsea, NYC

In the summer of 2006, while on a two-week holiday in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest, I came up with an idea for a project. I've always been into projects -- it's why writing a novel will always be more satisfying to me than short stories -- because life's too damn vast without them and sometimes you just need some creative structure to keep you occupied from day to day. It was on my first day exploring the streets of Prague that I began to notice an assortment of beautiful and peculiar numbers on the buildings, walls, and streets of Mala Strana. I took a photograph of one, and then found another, and very quickly the idea came to me: I would try to photograph numbers 1-99 throughout the three cities I visited. I had no clear plan of what to do with the photos once I took them. That would come later. For now, I had a project -- an urban scavenger hunt -- and I hit the ground running.

The numbers cooled off for some time. (Yes, I got them all.) Then in the fall of 2007, I had an installation of my photographs at the Fall Café in Brooklyn: eleven panels of nine numbers each, stretched across one wall in a display of symmetry that made my order-craving heart unspeakably happy. After six weeks and many excited friends offering compliments, I took the photos down and propped them up against the wall in the hallway of my apartment where they remain to this day. That project was done, but there was only one problem. I kept paying attention to numbers. I saw cool numbers everywhere: in architecture, on apartments, painted on peeling walls. They wouldn't let me alone. So I kept collecting them. Again, I didn't know what to do with them. I was just a collector like any other. I gathered them because it gave me pleasure to do so.

Ampersand Seven -- the next stage of the project -- came about because I didn't just want to look at numbers. I wanted to write about them. I wanted to share them. Each number had a story, and the more places I visited, the more stories I gathered. Writing a novel is very rewarding, but mostly it's a lonely slog through the fields. You toil for months, then years without any feedback (I don't share my fiction till it's "ready," which usually means that I horde it). I was hungry to share some of my writing. I was tired of feeling like a mad scientist. ("What's Therese doing there behind her laptop?" "Oh, she says she's writing a novel." "A novel! How interesting! Does she ever share any of it?" "No, she just sits there looking concerned for hours and then begins cackling maniacally. Then she leaves after a few hours, comes back the next day, and does the same thing.") I was, in short, kind of losing my mind. A blog, with its freeform layout and chance for opening dialogue with readers, seemed like the perfect antidote.

On January 1st, 2009, I posted a photograph of a tiny #1 from Prague -- the city where the number collecting madness began. The next day, I posted a handsome Italian #2. And I kept posting. One picture a day. Every day. In sequential order, all the way up to the end. Sometimes with commentary, other times with none. Some days I geeked out on typography and others I rattled on about the pleasure of wandering in alleys or vision quests in Tucson . There were sad-luck dames and soul burgers in Memphis and poetry-writing security guards in Dublin. I had wonderful readers who shared their thoughts, either about the image or about the story that went along with it. Every day I looked forward to posting a new number and seeing what thoughts or reactions it prompted in my readers. Some days the comments were quiet and others we rattled on about David Lynch or waffles or fish or fonts. And today, after a fruitful year and many, many numbers, the "365 Numbers in 365 Days" experiment comes to its quiet conclusion.

It wouldn't be properly concluded if I didn't emphasize what enormous satisfaction I have gained from the feedback of my readers. Y'all have been what makes &7 what it is. Clicking on the comments was far more fun than I ever imagined it could be, and over time, I realized that the dialogue here has been what sustained me through the days when the number-a-day demands threatened to feel at all difficult or tiresome. It never really did get tiresome at all, thanks to you. I've found friends and other bloggers whose sites have become daily or weekly pit stops for me, and I will continue to make those pit stops. Thank you for making this so much fun.

As for what's next for Ampersand Seven, I can tell you this: yes, the number line is ending for this year, but the blog will most definitely go on. I'm going to take a much-needed break from the grueling pace, so it may be quiet here for awhile as I try to enjoy a little aftermath and let the dust settle. I'll be taking January off, but I plan to be back shortly thereafter with all the curious pictures, bursts of snark, and digressions you've come to know so well. In the meantime, I hope you will feel free to let me know what you've enjoyed or if there's anything you'd like to see in the new year. Thank you to everyone for the kind words and the inspiration, and I hope you'll continue to stop by to see what's new. And if you're pining for your daily number fix -- sorry, addicts -- the Random Number Generator on the sidebar is there to help tide you over.

Obsessively yours,

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


#364, Chicago

"Performance is about the urgency of vanishing."

I remember hearing these words spoken in a dusty black box theatre in Evanston my senior year at Northwestern University. It was the week before our final performances for our Non-fiction Studies class and we were gathered around the stage with our scripts and our props (I was probably packing a pince-nez and anguished letter to Maud Gonne as part of my transformation into the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats), listening to a pep talk from our professor, Dr. Dwight Conquergood.

He was the consummate enthusiast though that term -- "pep talk" -- doesn't quite capture all that went into one of Dwight's addresses. Dwight (he wanted us to call him Dwight; no one ever called him anything else) could go from the quotidian ("Eat lots of yogurt! Complex carbohydrates are good for boosting energy!") to the pedagogical ("Performance is about the urgency of vanishing") to the encouraging (just about anything else the man ever said) in the span of one spirited burst.

Though I remember him saying many things that were wise, this phrase is the one I remember most: "Performance is about the urgency of vanishing."

Even before that day, it had been an intense semester. The point of the Non-fiction Studies class was to research a historical figure we were interested in, arrange the research -- all primary source material -- into a script, then put it together into a one-person show. I was armed to the teeth with Yeats books and would spend long hours at the Pita Inn consorting with Emily, Jill, and Sarah -- Toshi Maruki, Bette Davis, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, respectively -- over jasmine tea and falafel, talking about our projects. Dwight liked to call the class "a caravan." It was a fitting metaphor. There we all were, piling things into our separate cars, carting our own baggage and tricks, but we were all on the same journey. We were all headed for the same scary but rewarding place: the stage. Other students took a class with Professor So-and-So. We rode on a caravan with Dwight.

But as for the show itself, what did I know of the seriousness of such an endeavor? I was twenty-one years old. I was just a bundle of energy and coffee. I grew very interested very quickly in the nuts and bolts of the script: what aspect of Yeats' life to focus on, what "lens" to put on it, and wouldn't it be cool if I threw in some ancient Rosicrucian ritual stuff to the blocking? It was Dwight who gently guided us to the idea that we were not just putting on a show. We were performing somebody's life, and to do that well required much more from us than the simple audacity -- "Hey look, I'm this dead poet/ movie star/ important religious figurehead!" -- we all vaguely felt. It wasn't enough to just slap together a script and say a couple of lines and hope it all held water. What we were doing required empathy. We had to try to see a life from the inside out rather than from the outside in.

When we first walked into his course one blustery fall Chicago day, we'd all heard great things about Dwight Conquergood's class. He was academically respected and the chair of the Performance Studies department. We immediately liked him: a positive, smiling, sharply intelligent man with little wire-framed glasses, slim build, and fair skin and hair. His friendly appearance gave the impression of a lovable uncle, or -- if not for all that vast intelligence underneath the cheery demeanor -- even a greeter at Wal-Mart.

Weeks before he uttered those lines about performance and vanishing in the black box theatre, there was one day in class -- maybe to give us a break from our own projects, maybe because some of us had asked -- Dwight presented some of his research on gangs. He showed us slides of Latin Kings' graffiti and spoke of the semiotics of gang symbols. His area of interest was working with disadvantaged or marginalized communities: Hmong refugees in Laos, gang members in Chicago. What we hadn't known was that in the eighties, he moved into a housing project in Albany Park called Big Red, a part of Chicago so rife with crime it was known as "Little Beirut." Gangs, crime, graffiti, and disorder -- that was what he faced on a day to day basis. No one told him to do it. It was his idea. He was studying a community, Dwight reasoned, so there was no better way to do that than to live among the people he was trying to get to know.

Little by little -- and often at great risk to his personal safety -- Dwight became part of the community. He gained the trust of gang members. He learned about them because he had a profound desire to understand and wanted help give them a voice in a society that thought they had nothing worthy to say. He didn't see them as academic subjects. He tutored and mentored them. He attended their funerals. He thought their stories were important and deserved to be heard. Even after he suffered an assault while living alone in Albany Park, he stayed in Big Red. When he said that to represent someone's life was a great responsibility, it was because he knew it firsthand.

Did my performance about Yeats and the occult change lives? No. Did it give voice to someone marginalized and misunderstood? Depends, I suppose, on your definition of marginalized and misunderstood. But I did learn a great lesson in the process of putting on my dusty old cape and pince-nez and reciting "He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead." If we are lucky enough to have a written document of a person's life -- what they saw, thought, and experienced -- we are left with a great gift and a great responsibility. And the fragile quality of that gift is what can make a performance so poignant, or an untouched drift of snow beautiful, or a wonderful holiday somehow painful: because we are aware that as it is happening, it is also leaving us.

One day a few years after graduation, I heard from a former classmate that Dwight had been diagnosed with cancer. He was no longer teaching, and the cancer, I was told, was gradually worsening. The next day, I sat down with a big pad of stationery to write Dwight a letter.

It was a difficult letter to begin. Of course it was. But there was no choice. I had to start. I told him how much I had learned from him. I recounted my memories of "the caravan" and tried to put into words my gratitude. I tried, already grieving, to still be present in the moment, to simply say what I was able and hope it would be enough, even as I knew it could not be. I signed my name with love and enclosed a photograph of me, Emily, Jill, and Sarah -- friendships I forged in Dwight's Non-fiction Studies class, fellow passengers on that mad, wonderful caravan, friendships that remain strong to this day. I sealed the envelope. I put on a stamp and walked down the four flights of stairs of my Brooklyn apartment and out to the nearest mailbox. I took a deep breath, then slipped the letter in the mailbox.

As I walked back home from the street corner -- no tears yet, only a lump in my throat -- I thought back to that enthusiastic, gesticulating professor giving us a pep talk in the black box theatre, speaking excitedly of yogurt and empathy. I thought, again, of that day when he talked to us about the urgency of vanishing.

When I received word a few months later that Dwight had passed away, I returned, after hanging up the phone, to some of my old notebooks. In them, I had placed important papers from college (I threw away nearly all my notes), and I found some hand-written notes from Dwight. He would watch our rehearsals and give us feedback while we stumbled through our lines or tripped over our props, and his notes were always written in his elegant, scrupulous script. Everything he wrote was positive: not a mindless optimism, but a deeply grounded, intelligent reflection on what we were attempting. Any small feats of empathy we achieved -- we captured someone's true voice, we were sensitive to the difficulties of cross-cultural or cross-gendered representation, we had done our research well -- Dwight treated like a great victory. It gave us courage to attempt what felt like the unattemptable. I can think of no greater gift a teacher can give his students than that.

Dwight saw performance in everything around him. It was interchangeable with life. It was, in his own words, both "a contest and struggle." The urgency he described to the whole endeavor, well, I feel that a lot, whether or not there's a curtain rising or falling. That's part, I guess, of what makes life so precious. Vanishing is not just a fact of performance, it's a fact of life. But what a shame it is when the vanishing comes so soon.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


#363, Chelsea, NYC

That's one way to cover an air conditioner. One thing I appreciate about my fellow city-dwellers in this great metropolis: we may rattle on and on, and there may be mold spores of incomprehensible ugliness clinging to our insides, but you can't say we don't make the effort to turn something everyday and forgettable into something beautiful.

Monday, December 28, 2009


#362, Upper East Side, NYC

"Glamorous" is not the first word that springs to mind when describing a typical day on the &7 beat. It can be physically rigorous or leisurely and meandering -- depending on if there's a deadline looming -- but taking pictures of buildings and numbers is a pretty straightforward activity. No vapid fashion models. No flying bullets. No rubbernecking for candid shots of humanity at its best or worst. Take people out of the equation and you can generally get away with photographing anything -- provided you're not speeding into the Lincoln Tunnel.

I do get the odd suspicious bystander every now and then who will accost me and ask why I'm taking a picture of their neighbor's mailbox, but all in all, it's a drama-free endeavor. So it was strange to find myself one day on the Upper East Side in a paparazzi moment, tiptoeing through the affluent blocks of apartments, peering through locked gates at hidden numbers, crouching down to get just the right angle. This one emanated a bit of the Greta Garbo "vanting to be alone" aloofness, so I trod as gently as I could.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


#361, Fort Greene, Brooklyn

Saturday, December 26, 2009


#360, Fort Greene, Brooklyn

Friday, December 25, 2009


#359, Branson, Missouri

Some people say Christmas has become too commercialized. But when I look at this candy-striped sign from the taffy capital of the world (I just made that part up -- don't consult the Branson tourist board), I feel pretty darn cheery. For the full effect, you have to picture the giant sign above this building that says "OZARKLAND" and the skinny old man in overalls and a baseball cap chewing tobacco in a lawn chair on the porch. There it is: your moment of Currier & Ives, American heartland style. Merry Christmas, all. Please eat too many cookies.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


#358, Siena, Italy

There are few events which don't leave a written trace at least. At one time or another, almost everything passes through a sheet of paper, the page of a notebook, or of a diary, or some other chance support (a Métro ticket, the margin of a newspaper, a cigarette packet, the back of an envelope, etc.) on which, at varying speeds and by a different technique depending on the place, time or mood, one or another of the miscellaneous elements that comprise the everydayness of life come to be inscribed.

-- Georges Perec, from Species of Spaces and Other Pieces

As the year draws to a close and I reflect on the methodical madness of the last 358 days, days that have been marked off one by one with a series of numbers in sequential order, I realize that there is a great feeling of satisfaction in doing something totally for its own sake. No one asked me to do it. I just got hung up on a cool idea and thought it'd be a great project to attempt and then share: this ongoing record of places I have been, visited, lived in, wondered about, and wandered through. And to do it with numbers in sequential order.

On the other side of all this, there is also a growing feeling of anxiety as I grapple with what the next 365 days will bring. Yes, there's a lot of pacing back and forth and maps being agonized over here in the Situation Room, since frankly, I don't know what shape the madness of 2010 will hold yet. So I'm spending some time thinking back on what first inspired this project -- a fascination with text and image, a love of typography and scavenger hunts, an endless urge to amble, wander, explore, and record. I'm breaking back open the books that inspired me. I'm making lists. I'm going for long walks through the snow in impractical shoes.

The conclusion of this project -- my goal was always to simply reach 365 -- coincides with the finishing of my novel, so there is a great feeling of both accomplishment and loss with both of these projects that I have divested so much time and passion into. I want to dive into the next project with wild abandon, but what will the next project be? It's all very angsty till I remind myself that this -- this project, the pictures, the stories -- is simply my way of leaving written traces, as Georges Perec would say. It springs from curiosity, not from rigidity. So till I find the right format for what I'll do next, I need to allow myself some time to recover. To recharge my batteries. To take stock. Projects aren't as simple as 3 + 5 = 8, as much as I'd like (in my control freaky way) them to seem. It's good to remind myself of that.

So in the meantime, here's a few more numbers for you. Ignore the hand-wringing if it's not your thing, and be gentle with your obsessive captain as she steers this ship safely homeward. I've enjoyed the company, and I'm looking forward to cracking open the champagne in another week when this number line has reached its end. It's been quite a year, n'est-ce pas?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


#357, Bowery, NYC

You know, instead of all those tired-looking CBGB's OMFUG shirts that have been clogging the clothing aisles and sheathing stick-like models for the last twenty-five years, I'd like to see a true bastion of the New York City underground celebrated. That's right, kids, head a few buildings north of Joey Ramone Place and you can be the first in your parents' luxury high-rise apartment 'hood to don a commemorative 357 Bowery t-shirt. Y'all know there's a party going on at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and I'm bringing my accordion and a full bottle of Laphroaig 10 Year. Who's in? Oh, and if you happen to have a spare screen, a 10" ink squeegee, and about ten gallons of black paint, bring those along, too. We've got some silk screening to crank out.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


#356, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

It's something of a pathetic fallacy, I realize, to claim that a trio of jumbled, disjointed numbers is an outward manifestation of my current inner state, but I'm just gonna go out on a limb here and say that there's something uncanny about the resemblance.

What's interesting about this one is they didn't even try to make that 3 and that 6 stand up straight. Nope. This was chaos and failure from the outset. The dude with the screwdriver or the Krazy Glue wanted this to look like numerical soup. While I want to applaud that move (you know, in that "it's healthy to embrace imperfection in all its forms, especially when you're a detail freak" way), I just can't bring myself to do it. Life is complicated enough. Can't you just line up your numbers properly so the nice lady with the camera and the nose ring doesn't start shaking uncontrollably? Seriously. Do not make me get out my t-square. Things will get ugly, fast.

The end of the year jitters. Nothing a few lists and a few glasses of mulled wine won't cure.

Monday, December 21, 2009


#355, Chelsea, NYC

Sunday, December 20, 2009


#354, Upper East Side, NYC

Saturday, December 19, 2009


#353, Meatpacking District, NYC

Friday, December 18, 2009


#352, Brooklyn

If there was some kind of memo circulating about changing the official Xmas colors from red and green to pink and purple, I'm just gonna sit here with my hot port and slippers and good book and be grateful I didn't see it. Bah. Humbug.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


#351, Brooklyn

Y'all thought I was kidding when I said I was going to start ransacking the dictionary to help me through the last two weeks of this project. And I was, until I realized that ransacking the dictionary actually sounded like a lot of fun.

Remember dictionaries? Those handy desktop reference books you'd flip through, the pages fanning, your eye casting about for the right page (hangar/ harangue; Scrooge/ seafood; sundae/ superconductivity)? They're practically already relics, those clunky old informative things. Which is one reason to love them even more. It's not until you're faced with the prospect of losing something that you begin to contemplate all the things there are to love about it. Have I ever paid attention to, say, the typeface of numbers in these dinosaurs of the reference world? Not much, because I've been too busy looking at buildings. But 351 seemed as good a time as any to look more closely at these tiny creatures. Also, I just dig the pointy serifs.

Strolling through the Barnes & Noble on Court Street today, killing an hour while I waited for the copy shop to fire off another copy of my manuscript, I happened to notice a gigantic booth devoted entirely to the Nook, the new electronic reader on the market. From what I can tell, it's like the Kindle only easier to make jokes about. (I realize that the term "nookie run" I remember from my college days has since been usurped by "booty call," but the memory is enough to make me freshly cringe.) But whoa -- books on screens! The death of print! The future is here! O dear, I thought to myself. One more piece of hyped technology to make me shake my Luddite's fist in the air like I just don't care.

There's enough going on in the pinball machine of my head right now to concern myself too much with the debate of print vs. electronic media, of book vs. Nook. But then I'm a weird blend. As soon as I'm done typing this, I'm just as apt to go Photoshop some architecture photographs as I am to go glue more stuff to this Kafka-themed altered book I've been working on for months, cutting pages out with a sharp X-acto blade and filling in secret compartments made from matchbooks. Context dictates most of my choices. If I'm in the mood to fire something off fast or get a bit of brain candy, I'll head over to something with a screen and type or click on it. Usually, though, I prefer to curl up with something made of paper.

As someone who has an intense love of books -- good, old-fashioned physical object books with real pages you can turn and covers you can get coffee stains on and everything -- I am not looking to be converted by the e-book movement. I worked for several years at the Northwestern University library as a book conservationist and believe that books -- as physical objects -- must live on in ways that their authors can't. Simply holding a brand new trade paperback in my hands makes me feel warm and tingly. I don't care how many people I could reach by posting excerpts of my novel online. I want a book, damn it, and I will get a book.

All the more reason, it would seem, to see what trouble I can get up to with this medium -- Ye Olde Blogge -- in the upcoming year. I don't see this "death of print" palaver as a threat. I see it as a challenge to be more crafty, more hare-brained, more beautifully obsessive about the things I love. Yes, I'll stand with Charlton Heston-esque stubbornness and say that they'll pry my trade paperbacks from my cold, dead hands. But that's no reason to be throwing away the blog with the bath water.

gen . er . ate v. -at . ed, -at . ing. To bring into being; produce.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


#350, Tucson, AZ

After this past week, I keep thinking that I'm done with Tuscon, but it would appear that Tucson is not quite done with me.

One of the pleasures of photographing numbers is the sort of reverse tourism it lets me indulge in. Instead of reading about places in a guide book and then seeking them out, I seek out the places first and then look -- often times long after I've returned home -- to see if I can make any sense out of what I've just captured. In this case, the 350 marks the home of Che's, a bar and music venue on the stretch of 4th Avenue. While Che's claims to be a jewel in the crown of this surreal desert outpost, it's surely not as culturally significant than the tiki bar where we played in a hundred degree heat to a crowd of three fans -- including that guy in the cabaña hat who kept talking to himself.

An online travel guide where I sought to find more information on the elusive Che's informs me of this: "Whether you prefer bourgeois elegance or nihilistic debauchery, Tucson can provide an evening's entertainment." Where, exactly, would playing accordion in front of a hookah bar fall on that continuum? And can we call this 350 bourgeois, or should we just admit that Tucson is just clutching at adjectives?

What can I say? It happens to the best of us. And with fifteen days left to the 2009 countdown, I'll be clutching at anything that doesn't move and looks like it came from a dictionary.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


#349, Venice, Italy

I'm completely charmed by that modernist 4.

Monday, December 14, 2009


#348, Upper East Side, NYC

After yesterday's deeply offensive color scheme -- the photographic equivalent of going to a tiki bar and downing a couple of mai tais, then putting a grass skirt on your head and doing a hula dance on the bar to amuse your genuinely mortified friends -- I thought a return to form was the best apology. Consider this your morning paper and cup of Earl Grey tea.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


#347, Tucson, AZ

It's enough to make you wish you were colorblind. I'm telling you, this town felt like a bad vision quest.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


#346, Tucson, AZ

Now that I've spent all that time dissing Tucson, Arizona -- though, in fairness, it's less of a dis to the place itself and more a detailed report of my own existential dread brought about by desert climates -- I feel I have to take it all back, for look at all the nice hand-made things you can get there. Hand-painted numbers do have a quality the others will never have, in the way that a handmade gift is always nicer than a store bought one. Don't you think?

With less than three weeks left to this project, I'm starting to get that weird spring fever feeling that hits one just before graduation from school, only it's twenty-seven degrees outside and there's no diploma for obsessive number collecting.

There will indeed be a full stop once we hit 365, a realization that's making me extra sentimental for something as relatively ordinary as, say, a hand-painted number on a building. What follows in the new year is still being worked out, but I've got some ideas brewing and it's still going to hit all the usual notes -- obsessive collecting, urban scavenger hunts, riffs on everything from Hemingway to Helvetica -- and I couldn't be more excited about it. In the meantime, I hope you'll enjoy as we race toward the finish line.

Friday, December 11, 2009


#345, National Print Museum, Dublin

Every January for the past four years, I've taken off from cold, windy JFK to cold, windy Dublin Airport for one of many "research trips." Such is one of the joys of being a fiction writer -- whatever it is that seizes you, you must listen to, you must use, you must take and create. And if what seizes you happens to include Dublin pub-hopping ("researching the Guinness" -- very important), impromptu visits to tattoo parlors, and long afternoons of cycling through the docklands, why then, you have to listen to that. And so I have.

And now, after four years of work, four years of research, four years of living with these funny, ruined, confused, brave characters in my head, I am done. What began as a feverish thirty-day writing experiment (a novel written in a month during NaNoWriMo in November of 2005 -- That's National Novel Writing Month, for those who haven't heard of this exercise in giddy shared madness, it's wonderful) -- then stretched into a year-long project, and then it just kept piling on after that. For every page of finished writing, there are thirty to forty pages of stuff kinda like it that got thrown out, hundreds of frantic Post-it Notes scrawled with urgent, sudden bursts of prose or grim instructions for revision (I am a cruel editor), and -- perhaps my favorite part of all -- a few small, carefully kept notebooks that served as my constant companions on these research trips. The stuff behind the scenes.

It's a long road, this novel-writing, and you find at the end of it that the whole thing is like one of those covered wagon trips out to California during the Great Depression. You started it mostly to get the hell out of the Dust Bowl, then got all starry-eyed thinking of that golden coast full of promise, then worked night and day through sweat and toil to make this gosh durn thing happen. (You should probably put on some Woody Guthrie real quick, before I change metaphors on you.) Then when you get to the end, you find the trip is nothing like what you'd thought it would be, and some people died along the way and new ones got picked up, but it's all OK because it's fiction and that's just part of the journey.

But back to the notebooks. There is certainly something very satisfying about the sight of a clean, typed, 241-page manuscript on a table -- that thing you made for other people to read. But then there's these little black notebooks with maps in the front, the pages stitched together with thread, the pocket in the back stuffed with ticket stubs, scraps, and odd things that just felt "important" -- that you've filled with all sorts of stuff that's never going to make it into any novel.

I could tell you stuff about this #345 -- and the monotype machine it was taken from -- that would out-rain Rain Man. Is it important to know that the monotype was used in printing processes around the 1890's or that the slugs used for the machine are a combination of 80% lead and an alloy of tin and antimony? Of course it isn't. Not to the novel, anyway. But it's in the notebook, and the tiny streak of smudged ink on the same page reminds me that it was raining that day I went to the museum, and it reminds me of the vegetable soup I had in the little café beside it, and how I looked out the rain-streaked window, an Irish Times on my table and my head full of my made-up characters and full of ideas for Chapter 7, and all of a sudden, what was useless one moment suddenly contains the whole universe.

That's why you wrote it down. That's why you write.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


#244, Tucson, AZ

Cue the jungle drums, pass the espresso, and bear with the wordless pictures for another day or so. Friday (tomorrow!) I hand over the manuscript. See you on the other side -- delirium loves company.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


#343, San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


#342, San Francisco, CA

In my alternate life, where all notebooks are Moleskine and all shoes Made in Italy, where entrance hallways are not lined with peach bathroom tile and front doorways are unencumbered by seven layers of sticky black paint, this is what the entrance to my home looks like: angular, architectural, clean, and well-designed. Up those steps, a bright studio awaits me with slanted windows, a wall of exposed brick, and all the fixtures stone or brushed steel. I sit at my ergonomic desk sipping espresso, contemplating my orange Bigso Box of Sweden files that are, of course, impeccably organized. I open my Mac and sentences of elegance flow from my well-manicured fingers.

What really happens when I get home is I shove my weight against a heavy black door (after wrestling the obligatory ten seconds with the lock that always sticks), trudge up the crooked steps with three visible layers of manky linoleum in various states of decay. I pass the inexplicable mish-mash of nightmare knick-knacks my neighbor on the second floor has installed on a wicker shelving unit in the hallway: ceramic bullfrogs holding stone tablets that say I Love You, Easter bunnies grossly out of season bearing white taper candles, and I wonder as I shove open my front door what I'd ever do if I tried to find a right angle in my apartment. Die of shock, probably.

Still and all, in a chaotic apartment in Brooklyn, things fall into place. The rough draft in its many pieces hardens into something sharp and complete, the windows let in fresh air, and unfettered by perfection, I work. I plan. I craft. And it's good. Damn, it's good.

Monday, December 7, 2009


#341, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

Sunday, December 6, 2009


#340, Upper East Side, NYC

Sugar? Snow? Salt? No, just a carving over the doorway of a building on the Upper East Side. As I sit in New York City, pining for rain to turn to snow already, it seems fitting to have this 340 to, well, rub it in.

A few months ago, while trawling design blogs for typographical eye candy, I came across some breathtaking images both playful and ephemeral. The pictures -- words and designs delicately crafted in sugar -- were the work of Canadian graphic artist Marian Bantjes. The detail in the images is so arresting that it's hard to not draw closer even as you hold your breath, both out of awe and a fear, maybe, that one sneeze could send the whole thing packing. I admire an artist willing to craft something that inevitably will crumble to dust. This is the fate of all projects eventually, but I'm talking about the artists who embrace this very aspect and make it part of their work.

On the subject of art and the ephemeral, few things are as beautiful to me as the meditative, painstaking projects of Andy Goldsworthy, the subject of an excellent 2001 documentary by German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer, "Rivers and Tides." Watching Goldsworthy, this stoic man, hunker down in the woods, stringing together a magnificent chain of leaves simply for the sublime pleasure of watching them float down the river, enduring every nuisance of nature -- bad weather, errant winds, broken stems -- in his quest to do so, is both tragic and inspiring, mundane and heroic. In an interview, Goldsworthy speaks in simple, direct terms of his craft:

All that effort goes into making something look effortless.

A better expression of the creative process (apart from the one where I bang my head against a wall, repeatedly, which is satisfying only marginally and hardly eloquent) I have yet to find. If you're curious, you can check out a clip of "Rivers and Tides" here, though I can't recommend highly enough seeing the full-length feature -- beautiful, meditative, stunning. And don't miss the chance to admire the intricate, ornamental beauty of Bantjes' sugar images. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


#339, Lower East Side, NYC

A favorite among fading ad enthusiasts, ghost sign collectors, and hunters of the New York ephemeral (do not be fooled by our intrepid nature: we are legion), this decaying 339 on Grand Street on the Lower East Side is the gold standard.

"Ideal" was the big advertising promise back in the day -- you can see another example of it in my #20, Samuel Cohen's Son Ideal Class on 2nd Street -- and here both ladies & men could rest assured that they could fetch their ideal hosiery wholesale from this corner shop. (It begs the question, what exactly is men's hosiery, anyway?) My heart went pitter-patter when I discovered this gorgeous specimen of urban decay earlier this year on an otherwise uneventful number-hunting expedition on the LES, and if I wasn't already bought, sold, and sent down the river at first glance, when I glimpsed that tiny fading ampersand I sure as heck was.

More gawking, speculating, history-mongering, and oohing and ahhing to be found from fellow friends at Greenwich Village Daily Photo, Lost City, and Fading Ad Blog. Or take a stroll down Hosiery Row and see for yourself. Have an ideal weekend.

Friday, December 4, 2009


#338, Tucson, AZ

Staggering up and down 4th Street in a hundred degree heat, past the tattoo parlor and the Dairy Queen, past the Jimi Hendrix mural and the hookah bar, looking only for air conditioning and a place to kill an hour before sound check. Back at the tiki bar it was what you'd expect: a jolly roger hanging over the stage and a grass skirt circumnavigating the bar, plastic palm trees stuck in fruity drinks and one dude in a cabaña hat talking to himself. I had to get out.

Tucson and I have that oil-and-water thing going on. Heat destroys me. It bloats my brain and saps my life force. Arid climates are dead zones to me, and it's in these places that a city or town is truly an oasis, the only sign that I'm not in a nightmare post-apocalyptic landscape. If I want to feel like I'm in a Cormac McCarthy book, I'll read one. Just don't make me get out of a van or airplane anywhere near one of those deserts. Five minutes in and I'm unscrewing my industrial sized water bottle. Ten minutes in, I'm hallucinating cow skulls.

One thing that did charm me about Tucson was the effort everyone put into brightening up their buildings. Maybe enough exposure to heat convinces you that a life-sized Jimi Hendrix is just what the town needs. Adobe huts painted bright blue or brick red lined the main drag. Ceramic numbers decorated the walls of cafés. This weirded-out 338 hung above a smoke shop. Bright green trolley cars lurked behind a chain-link fence, waiting to come out and play. It was almost enough to convince you that the place was life-sustaining.

Later on, when we were wandering back up and down that main drag with guitar and accordion and horns and toy piano, drumming up civic interest in our show over at yonder tiki bar, when we were standing outside that Dairy Queen, playing "Love to Love You" to bewildered and bemused natives scooping up peanut butter parfaits and Oreo Blizzards, it was almost like a real place and not just a whistle stop on a bad vision quest.

Of course, one adrenaline-infused gig (my accordion's reeds actually went haywire that night, it was so hot) and two tall frosty drinks later (an alcohol-soaked concoction know to Tucsonians as "The Fat Man," or, for the smaller version, "Fat Man on a Diet"), the room was spinning and the playing field was leveled once more. And doggone it, if that dude in the cabaña hat wasn't still at the bar, talking to himself four hours later.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


#337, Pittsburgh, PA

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


#336, West Village, NYC

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


#335, San Francisco

File this one in the "numbers that look like their cities seem to suggest" folder. It'll go well along with the fabulously glitter-spackled Chelsea hair salon at #328, the timber lodge Branson, Missouri fish at #218, and the rugged, distressed #85 at the chic hotel adjacent to Brooklyn's notorious House of D, the now-defunct juvie detention center. (Not to be confused with the David Duchovny film by the same name from earlier this year -- for the 0.002% of you who saw that blow past like so much tumbleweed.)

This unabashedly cheery mosaic decorates the Katherine Michiels School on Guerrero and 25th Street in San Francisco's hilly and highly respiratory Mission District. The school, a stately, symmetrical architectural charmer, is one of many San Fran style Victorian dollhouses that look almost too cute to inhabit. In fact, I don't think anyone actually lives in half of these houses, and if they do, I don't know what they do when they want to slam a door once in a while. While I don't routinely go in for decorative rainbows (those who've been following along know I belong more to the skull-and-crossbones set), there's no harm in trying to make going to school more inviting. &7 Seal of Approval is hereby duly given.

Now that I think about it, a school adorned with a cheery skull and crossbones mosaic might not be such a bad idea. I'll have to have my people draw up some sketches and get back to your people. Zaha Hadid it ain't, but in this recession, it'll have to do.