Thursday, March 31, 2011

#276: Pretty Vacant?

Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

There's been so much pretty urban decay to gawk at and so many delightfully wonky numbers in the collection lately that I've almost forgotten about the understated elegance of some of my neighbor's address plates. It's just too easy, you know? It's like having a crush on the homecoming king. Justifiable, sure, but hardly interesting. Give me the socially awkward, kind-hearted misfit over the neatly-packaged prat any day of the week. Better stories. More fun.

It's gotten to the point where I am so obstinate about finding hidden, underappreciated gems that I will spend an entire city block ignoring all else around me, contemplating, nay, admiring spray-painted numbers on garbage cans -- the same ones that often misspell the name of their own street and even the one that's tagged by someone known only as "BEER SLUT." In other words, I think I might be taking this obsession a little too far. Is there such a thing?

Even though I am kidding no one via this exercise, least of all my slumming, iconoclastic self, I will take this day to step back, look up, and appreciate the finer typefaces in life. Oh look -- a manhole cover!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

#277: Bad Math Flashbacks

Gowanus, Brooklyn

I had a bad math flashback today.

I should point out that, for someone who's ostensibly obsessed with numbers, I suffer from serious mathophobia. Algebra eluded me, Pythagoras puzzled, pre-calc drove me half batty, and after a severe bout of trigonometry, math and I shook hands and respectfully parted ways. That is, until we were unexpectedly reacquainted in that year, fresh out of grad school, when I hoodwinked the staff of a well-known SAT test prep company into hiring me as both a verbal and a math instructor for large numbers of high school students who surely could wrangle a parabola with far more aplomb than their fearful leader ever could. (Please don't tell their parents.)

They say we teach what we most need to learn. But that was giving me way too much credit. I didn't teach math so much as memorize lines, as one would a play. (My interior monologue: Now here I'll say, "Turn to page 89 and look at question 3." Then I'll say, "We can see the absolute value of x is...") But should a student pose a question from the homework or one from a practice test I'd never before clapped eyes on? Not a chance. I was sunk.

Each Saturday morning, I'd rise at six in the morning to take the hour and a half subway ride up to the Bronx, caffeinating heavily and valiantly dispelling my SAT prep wisdom to under-served populations like thousands of do-gooders before me. I made slightly more than minimum wage but far less than I felt I deserved, considering my sizable student debt; still, as the tireless pterodactyl in the Flintstones cartoon often croaked, punching Fred's time card at the quarry, "It's a living."

With ease and skill I whisked my half-sleeping students through the verbal portion of the lesson. But each morning as the verbal portion of class switched cruelly to an hour and a half of straight-up, no-holds-barred mathematics, I would sweat bullets. I went to great lengths to avoid the (quite common) phenomenon of a student asking me a question where I hadn't pre-packaged my reply, either rapidly changing the subject by saying that in the interests of time, we had to jump ahead to the next question and/or using the time-honored pedagogical game of dodgeball: "Well, what do YOU think the next step is?" Or: "Think it through. I'm not going to just GIVE you the answer, you know." I would punctuate this proclamation with an imperious glare and a swift flick of the page, and thus would I put this or that particular nightmare off -- at least until the next class.

You see, my escape was only temporary. My students' practice tests were multiplying, the math section definitely wasn't going away, and my nightmare of looking like an utter fool before a group of bloodthirsty teenagers seemed doomed to recur with each new class no matter what diversionary tactics I tried. I knew eventually the issue would catch up with me unless something changed. I had only one choice: I would have to become adept in my most hated subject or die trying.

I tried to learn the math. I did. I scrunched my forehead in concentration over desks and filled practice tests with meaningless scribbles in hopes that it would somehow all click if I kept at it long enough. On warm weekend days, I cloistered my sorry self in my kitchen with a scratch pad and collection of number two pencils, wrestling with arithmetic while others were off riding bikes or drinking in my favorite bars. I took four-hour practice tests and at the end, felt like that guy in the urban legend who, in the middle of an exam, drove pencils through his ears or nose or whatever in sheer desperation. I even consulted a math tutor myself, so great was my need.

Nothing helped.

The anxiety of prepping for my classes wore down my nerves faster than the rubber on a NASCAR tire, and when the College Board announced they were making the math section on the SAT even harder, I quit that gig faster than you could say solve for x. Now I teach college level English, a language I'm somewhat more familiar with, and I'm happy to report that while the stacks of papers to grade are higher, the cold sweats have stopped.

My math flashback was brought on today by a rather harmless bit of LOLing from a student in my English composition course, responding to my open-ended "Do you have any questions for me?" query-in-writing that I do midway through every semester. Generally, I will get students asking me English-y things like, "How is my writing so far?" or "I really liked 'Third World Driving Hints and Tips,' is there anything else you can recommend I read?" I do give Get Out of Jail Free cards for those devoid of curiosity, assuring my chickadees that if they've answered the first five guided questions fully, they can leave the last question blank.

I was at the very end of the day's stack when I came across this scrawled under the heading "Do you have any questions for me?":

If a train leaves Pittsburgh going 20 mph for 60 miles then excels to 70 mph for the remainder of the trip, how long will it take that train to reach Toronto?

I gave the student a check for doing the assignment, a joke-acknowledging emoticon in the margin, and while I can't award LOL points when calculating midterm grades, I sure did appreciate the chuckle -- after my heart stopped palpitating in almighty fear.

Posting numbers is so much easier than solving for them.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

#278: Rothko in Brooklyn

Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn

Monday, March 28, 2011

#279: Zed Seven

Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

Who needs Agent 007 when you've got Zed Seven? With a name like that for a main character, this new spy series of mine is just gonna write itself.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

#280: D.C.

Washington, D.C.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

#281: Foiled!

Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

Friday, March 25, 2011

#282: From a Halifax Harbor

Halifax, Nova Scotia

One travel-fogged night nearly ten years ago, I was on the red-eye from JFK to Shannon and gazed out the window down at the twinkling lights some 35,000 feet below. That glittering land mass beneath me was Halifax, a place I'd never been, but a name I sure liked to say.

For years the place had a strange sort of fascination for me, and whenever life in Da Big Crapple would get too hectic with its rat race pace, life-threatening taxis, and muttering hot dog vendors, I liked to slow down and picture myself in Halifax, what I imagined to be a remote fishing village. There I could pass the days weaving fishing nets, or impressing my friends with some fancy sailor's knots, or doing whatever landlubbers with seafaring hearts do to pass the time.

The real Halifax, when I finally touched down for the first time last summer, turned out to be a tad more urban than I'd imagined in my fisherperson's fantasies. But still, with its fishing boats and seagull-haunted harbors and yummy salt water taffy, I found plenty in it to make me lose myself in the notion that I could be just like the narrator in the Waterboys' "Fisherman Blues."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

#283: Call Me Blue Roses

North Circular Road, Dublin

The weeks pass, the numbers count down, and over the screen the tumbleweed blows.

I love my collection, and I love to share it, but lately I've started to feel uncomfortably like Laura from the Glass Menagerie, obsessing over my pretty little glass animals, limping around with an ailment I can't pronounce, wondering where my gentleman callers have gone. OK, not really so much limping around with the weird ailment part. But as for the other stuff? Y'all can just call me Blue Roses.

Laura Wingfield (AKA chick in the Tennessee Williams play who can't pronounce "pleurosis") is one of those characters who probably irks me so greatly because I recognize some of my most unflattering features in her. I'm all for a good Tennessee Williams drama, but Laura as a creation gets under my skin: a frail Quasimodo in a dress, a tinny whinefest of a character who I am tempted to sweep off the shelf in one swoop of my arm. You want to shake the girl and say, Stop moping about your goddamn glass unicorn that broke! Quit daydreaming about admirers! Go out and live and little! So you're afraid of the outside world and find it all safey-wafey in your dreamland? Fine, be that way, go nuts with your magical made-up universe, but don't check your stats like some hypochondriac taking your temperature. The fever is always from within, not from without, if it's any good at all, and that you know without checking.

A sad fact of the creative endeavor is it's not always so hot in that supposedly fiery furnace. All creative bursts face a cooling-down period, and this project is no exception. True, there have been expeditions where I've set out, camera and notebook in hand, with almost a grim missionary duty to find, say, a 291 or a 178, and I will trawl up and down the comfy gridded streets of Manhattan, feeling less and less that feeling of exploration that inspires me in cities and more and more like the city is some crossword puzzle I am trying to finish. I wonder sometimes if my blog risks falling into that trap, this puzzle I have to finish merely because I started it.

I work through the slow times -- wandering, taking pictures, collecting, writing -- in hopes it will pick up again, and in fear that my best days are in fact behind me. Will the anecdotes flow, the banter resume, the joy of the hunt still keep me on my toes? No idea. Better not reflect on those glass animals too long, Blue Roses. It's the weekend. Aren't you, like, going to L.A. or something?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

#284: Consider the Lobster Pound

Red Hook Lobster Pound, Brooklyn

Here's a mouth-watering number, and it's got nothing to do with the font. #284 Van Brunt Street is home to the Red Hook Lobster Pound, the jewel in my neighborhood's claw.

Now that the weather's getting crappier rainier colder warmer, my hankering for Red Hook wandering has been awakened. Maybe it's the fact that I can practice my tin whistle on an abandoned pier to the annoyance of none but the seagulls. Maybe it's trad night at Rocky Sullivan's. Possibly it's because there are few things I love more than cycling through urban maritime dereliction. But who am I fooling? It's the lobster rolls, plain and simple, best consumed on a partly sunny afternoon sitting in the grass near Valentino Pier. From there, you can eat your buttery snack and gaze out at the Statue of Liberty while the New York Water Taxi chugs past, ferrying loads of Swedish furniture-seeking passengers to that blue and yellow Mecca on yonder horizon.

Swedish design, Maine lobster, served up Connecticut style, in Red Hook, Brooklyn: not a bad recipe at all. I think one of the homeless guys on the F train says it best: "It doesn't matter what the food is, I'll eat it: Mexican, Chinese, Polish, American, Jamaican. Ladies and gentlemen, my stomach is like the U.N. building: it's international."

Red Hook Lobster Pound pimpin' its wares. In the background, a rare sighting of the B61 bus, native to the area. This elusive species is rumored to make scheduled stops along Van Brunt Street, though it is best known for its erratic behavior and general knack for speeding off just as one spots it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

#285: Delivery Boy

Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn

Brooklyn street art: where the humble delivery boy is elevated to the status of a Socialist Realist hero.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

#287: Along the North Circular

North Circular Road, Dublin

The main attraction here is the 287 on Dublin's North Circular Road, but I'll have to give some credit to the number 500 since that's how many posts I've racked up here as of today. It's an anniversary of sorts, and one I'll celebrate by sleeping in after a raucous night playing tin whistle with the Fauxges, the Pogues tribute band I've been fortunate enough to play with. Now that I've done my dues here and banged my head on a beer tray, I think I'm ready to put in a bit of R & R.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

#288: Don't Belabor the Fibber's Grime

Chinatown, NYC


This is a re-post, but since I find myself still very much in the same mode this weekend, I thought it fitting. I also thought it somewhat alarming, as I seem to have been "finishing up" my novel since, oh, 2008, but you can't rush this stuff.

"Don't belabor the Fibber's grime."

One hundred and fifty pages into the manuscript, eyesight rapidly deteriorating, caffeinated to perfection, and knee-deep in what my fiction writer's Bible calls "The 10-Percent Solution": today has been a good day.

Nothing pleases me more than sitting down for the very first time with a freshly printed manuscript, a carefully chosen pen, and a cup of coffee. I allude to it in my "About Me" box, but I really do have my moments of Just So, where my entire mental well-being depends upon the careful arrangement of items on a table at a certain time of day at a certain angle in a certain light (to quote Nick Cave quoting everybody else).

I nearly steamrolled some business-suited lady this morning in a panic to claim "my" table by the wall. She, inching intrepidly behind me, wanted the freshly-evacuated table for a business meeting. I had to explain, calmly, that if I didn't sit exactly six inches away from exposed brick with my back to the espresso machines facing out onto the window at a quarter past ten, my brand new Sarasa fuchsia-colored pen parallel to the 300 pieces of paper I had spent the last four years of my life laboring over, that I would probably, and very quickly, lose my sh1t. I didn't say this. When the business-suited lady asked if she could have my table (foolishly attempting to barter it for one of the world's most inauspicious tables ever, the Bermuda Triangle of the morning rush) I said quietly yet firmly, "Sorry. But I was hoping to get some editing done. The light is better here," and sat down. Besides, possession is nine tenths of the law, and the second I saw that table open up, Ipossessed that table.

What does all of this have to do with my blog, and have to do with numbers? One thing, mainly. Reading through a hundred and fifty pages of my own work, I've had the chance to notice my habits, both good and bad, as a writer. One thing about us scribblers, is we can often fall in love with certain ideas, words, or sentences that somehow feel important. This is good. This is how we write, and get excited about writing, and continue to do so. But when you're in the final revisions of a novel, there is no room for that fluff, filler, and palaver you love so much. You have to be choosy and merciless. If it doesn't serve the story, you cut it.

That is what the 10-Percent Solution is all about (with thanks to Stephen Koch, who penned said Bible). You like something you've written? The odds are it'll be better if it's ten percent shorter. (This current post is a "do as I say, not as I do" anti-example of the 10-Percent Solution. Just so you know.)

All writers have obsessions. I am utterly obsessed with place: scenes, settings, objects, buildings, angles, and architecture. I am, however, also writing a book with a narrator who is not me, and for whom frequent 600 word discourses on pub signs in Dublin is not suitable. One thing that's made the editing process easier is the knowledge that all these "thinky bits", these set pieces, these musings about the world I see around me, can have a home. It's called Ampersand Seven, and yes, it's become a lovely, flexible, Hydra-headed monster, a halfway house for my obsessions, a place to hash it all out and share the love.

A quickly scrawled note in the margin of page 146 reads, in small block fuschia letters: "DON'T BELABOR THE FIBBERS GRIME." It's a reminder for me to come back to the section and cut, eliminate, spindle, and mutilate many of my laborious descriptions of a hygienically-challenged rock club in Dublin I'd frequent as a late teen and in my early twenties. Thickly coated black paint, sticky floors, peeling band stickers: this stuff goes on for pages. It's a good reminder for the novel, but it's also nice to know that, when the urge grows desperate, there is a place to belabor it, a repository for all that obsessive description. And that's here.

I think it was reading Sheila's very funny post today (Don't even TRY, CHiPs!) that got me thinking about the bizarre yet dead-perfect mantras we often -- at times accidentally -- come up with: words of wisdom forged in the hot magma of the moment that says it all perfectly. So for the next few weeks, if you notice a little more unhealthy obsessing over lime rot or serifs here, you'll know why.

"Don't belabor the Fibber's grime." That is all.

Friday, March 18, 2011

#289: Skullduggery

Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest

Despite the perfectly good, never-before-seen #289 in my arsenal, I couldn't resist bringing this little guy back for a second look. What can I say? I just saw the Pogues play at Terminal 5 and they've got more skulls on their merch than Jolly Roger's T-shirt drawer, so I guess you could say I've got skulls on the brain. (Heh. I've also got brains in my skull.) Here's one more for the collection -- a lurker painted on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which spans the Danube and connects Buda to Pest.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

#291: Tumbleweed

My writing desk: Brooklyn, NY

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

#293: Neighborhood, Abbreviated

Tribeca, NYC

Snappy names: all neighborhoods need them, and if you don't believe me, just ask a New York realtor. The patch of land in Brooklyn where I live has been called, depending on who you ask, Cobble Hill, Cobble Hill West, Red Hook, Columbia Waterfront District, Salt Pile District (just made that one up), and surely many more are being proposed as I write this.

A clever acronym or desirable set of syllables can go a long way in describing a region, and I know I took some delight in learning what all the New York acronyms stood for when I first moved to the city. You've got Tribeca (or TriBeCa, depending on your copyeditor) for Triangle Below Canal street, SoHo for South of Houston, NoHo for North of Houston. Brooklyn's got DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and the thankfully never-caught-on BoCoCa (Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens), the silly acronym the Village Voice once tried to pin on my band. It can all seem ABiMu after awhile (A Bit Much).

Fortunately, there is the AIA Guide to New York City to the rescue, which I frequently flip to for its scintillating research, delightful history lessons, and just enough snark to keep me glued to each entry. The guide is divided up into neighborhoods and, when real names just aren't good enough, they never hesitate to present some viable options. Because of the AIA guide, I now enjoy wandering not just through Tribeca but through the Glass Box District, and perhaps my favorite (architectural tongue firmly in cheek): HoTunA (Holland Tunnel Approach), the so-called neighborhood with enough car exhaust to asphixiate a casual passerby.

So whether your neighborhood has a sanctioned name or not, what's your take on all the fussy nomenclature? And what, if you wanted to mess with your realtor's PR department, would you dub the place where you dwell?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Saturday, March 12, 2011

#295: Makeover on Baltic Street

Baltic Street, Brooklyn, 2009

Last year, a reporter from the New York Times contacted me about an article he was writing about house and building numbers in New York City. He was specifically interested in missing building numbers, a task that I, an avid number-noticer, was all too eager to assist him in. I'm rarely asked for my opinion on anything from anyone except for the automated voice message woman from Rite Aid, so I jumped at the chance to share my expertise. Unfortunately, this is me we're talking about. The one who shuns phones, avoids email, and positively takes pride in being on the go and incommunicado. Ergo, my version of "jumping at the chance" was not fast enough. The article had gone up, I'd missed his missive, and I spent the rest of the afternoon mourning my opportunity for my moment in the limelight.

What I would've said if I'd had the chance is hardly revolutionary, but it's an issue that tugs hard on my nostalgia-strings. Missing house numbers are a sad fact of life in New York -- but particularly sad in the case of this building on Baltic Street in Brooklyn. This door underwent a fairly complicated facelift, and while some aspects were improved, the accompanying number, I'm afraid, was not. It's one of many shifts in the neighborhood I've noted. (4 Verandah Place, have I got a jeremiad for you!) The first picture shows what 295 Baltic used to look like. Below is what it looks like now:

Baltic Street, Brooklyn, 2011

Were the numbers stolen? Replaced? Whatever the case may be, it still saddens me a little to see it missing. Especially since, to the right of the door, you can still spot the pins the 2, 9, and 5 used to hang from.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

#297: Me and Banksy

North Circular Road, Dublin

Hey, he's no Ellis G, but somebody's gotta stalk the guy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

#298: Rejection Letters

My inbox, Brooklyn

You know what I didn't have for today? A new picture of a #298 for my number line. But I did have this -- a rejection letter for my novel! It was just sitting there in my inbox, doing nothing productive but compounding my feelings of self-doubt, despair, etc. When it could be doing something really useful instead, like making itself into a guerilla art project.

Rejection letters. Every writer who submits work to something other than their flash drive gets them. It's not unique, though I imagine we all have our own ways of dealing with the rejection. I've watched the Dylan Moran video so many times that I probably account for 5% of the 143,498 hits it's gotten. Oh, to have a balcony like that where I could sit and smoke so contemptuously and scenically. And the flugelhorn -- don't forget the flugelhorn!

But I don't have a balcony. I don't have a flugelhorn. And I don't even smoke. All I have is a fire escape, this stack of angst-packed Smiths CDs, and my own breath: breathing in, breathing out, keeping it all together despite the urge -- and the urge is great -- to fall apart. I also have Helvetica stickers. And red pens. Oh, do I have red pens.

I'll admit I've thought about doing something artistic with all the rejection letters I've collected over the years. And yes, I've thought from time to time how it'd be clever and ironic and therapeutic to share my apparent shortcomings to the world in some mildly creative way. Nothing overly nasty. Nothing mean-spirited or bitter. Just, you know -- a healthy grin, a virtual middle finger to stick up to the naysayers who are, after all, only trying to sell books. But I think there was always this catch: My hypothetical project would only be clever and ironic and therapeutic if I did it after I'd already gotten an acceptance letter. That way it would be safe. Then I'd have that all-important distance. I'd come to the table pre-approved, so I could feel good about all that fake self-deprecation.

What can I say? My deadline snuck up on me; I got impatient.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Monday, March 7, 2011

#300: Phases

Upper East Side, NYC

The last of the 300's is upon us. It's a milestone, though a bit of a sad one since my love for threes falls just behind my love of ampersands and staying inside on a rainy Sunday. As I prepare this post, the last of the 300's, I'm listening to the cold March rain lash the windows, dolefully eyeing my accordion case and hoping an umbrella and a car service will be enough to get me to the Balthrop, Alabama gig tonight at Rockwood Music Hall safe and dry. I'm also noting how cool it is that the zeroes look like waxing half moons. In between one place and another, one phase and the next, I can't think too much about the dark I'm leaving behind. I can only look ahead to the fullness that comes next.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

#301: There Is No "I" in 301

Branson, Missouri

. . . But that didn't stop someone from trying.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

#302: On This Site in 1890, Something Happened

Upper West Side, NYC

Posterity? Vanity? History? You make the call. But while this bright blue "Built in 1890" tag most certainly belongs to the building upon which it's affixed, I kind of like the implication here that it's actually the number 302 that was built in 1890.

Whether it's to denote a historical event or announce that so-and-so lived in such-and-such address at such-and-such time, sticking plaques on buildings is one of the easiest ways we've devised to pass on a bit of local history to others. Personally, I'm all for such homegrown geekery. Not only do I get to learn a bit a trivia, but it's also like someone leaving little notes for me all over the city.

However, there's always something lacking in plaques where all I'm given is a date. Now, there are some exceptions. When a year is carved into a foundation stone, that seems to me like a logical signing off, a way of saying, "Yup. Finished this one. Better sign it." But these modern-looking afterthought signs are a weird affectation to me. Who decided that its being built in 1890 was significant enough to warrant its own special sign? And am I the only one who is reminded here of those omnipresent "On this site in 1897 nothing happened" plaques that you see in all sorts of strange places throughout the world?

If nothing else, this does bring back fond memories of my favorite plaque hoax of all time, one Father Pat Noise, who lives on in secret notoriety on the O'Connell Bridge in Dublin. Now there's a piece of history I can get behind. Even though, like all that stuff in 1897, it never happened.

Friday, March 4, 2011

#303: The Russian Key

Sandoony Russian Baths, Brooklyn

Thursday, March 3, 2011

#304: Mood Indigo

Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn

The numbers are plain enough, but the color makes me deeply happy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

#305: Riverside Drive

Upper West Side, NYC

I've been trying to collect more hand-painted numbers because I like the personalities they project. Hunting for high numbers often brings me to the Upper Sides, both West and East, where I sometimes get lulled into near-boredom by the ho-hum doorman buildings and untouchable architecture. Small gems like these keep me going, especially on those cold, overcast winter afternoons when everything seems washed in shades of gray. OK, this is washed in shades of gray. But it's shades of gray I can live with.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

#306: Poofy White Dogs

The Bowery, NYC

A companion piece to #308, this address on the Bowery lays its claim to fame as the home of glam fashion designer Patricia Field. I do the research because I'm curious, but I restrain from further effusiveness because I have very little to say about the designer's Sex and the City associations and Ms. Field's "poofy white dogs" who share the space. But uh, how about that sharp-looking 3?