16 10 2008

I’ve been gone a long time. And thanks to popular demand (well, the demand of three people) and the longing to write again (due largely to the Phils’ win tonight), this is back. And I apologize for the absence, loyal readers – it’s flattering to know anybody ever read this. Summer has stolen me away, largely because I’m in New York and if you’re spending too much time writing and not enough time living you’re wasting the summer and your youth (and your rent money) and, as far as I can tell (because old men always say it), you’ll end up regretting it.

So in this first post back after this long, too long, hiatus, I want to tell you all about so many wonderful things. I want to tell you about so many wonderful people who’ve made this summer-into-fall an electric, fizzing one, and so many late nights and achy mornings, so many trips to dirt infields and dive bars or pristine ballparks and beach houses or race tracks, and the many train rides to and from Philadelphia for Phils games all summer, the ones that stole me out of New York in the afternoon and deposited me back, confused and blurry and still qualifiably drunk at 2 in the morning, happy and headed to work in seven hours.

But I’ll get to all that.

I’ll get to it later, hopefully, but I want to tell you about the way that the sunset is always red and then orange and then a rush of gold over the city (perks of pollution); or the way when you look out of our windows in our new apartment you can see flashes on the Empire State Building that look like flickering stars but are actually tourists’ cameras; or the way that no street ever looks the same over two weeks; or the pure, unadulterated joy of a train arriving at the subway station the instant you come down the steps and the daily sensation on rush hour trains that you’re part of a muscle, one fully contracted at first as the train’s stuffed with people, then relaxing as the fibers loosen back onto the subway platform; or the way that a beer looks when it’s set against a backdrop of thousands of young people all buzzing because they’re together, and all buzzing because they can tell each other the same stories over and over again while creating new ones all the same; or the way that conversations are always waiting to be had (and you’re a fool to miss out on any of them, if you can manage), whether they’re with a man leaning on a cane perusing the same bodega for some Czech beer, who happens to be a scholar of early American presidents’ drinking habits, or a man who was once a psychiatrist but has since started a now-successful country band on a whim, or a group of girls who are all math teachers about what their favorite equations are (y = mx + b won by a landslide); or how, despite what everybody tells you outside the city, New Yorkers are more friendly than almost anyone I’ve ever met, as long as you (1) don’t inexplicably stop on the sidewalk; (2) don’t bumble an order at a café; (3) smile; or how, we’re all tiny fish in the big pond, but it’s a big fucking pond and we’re all happy to pool together in schools, just as long as everybody’s cool with buying a round;  or how when you find a restaurant or a bar that you want to show your friends and family you do everything in your power to get the staff to remember your name (and try not to drink so much that you forget theirs) so you’ll have a chance in hell at getting a seat when you want to go between the hours of 5:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.; or how the movement of pedestrians is so angular, so Pythagorean, due to the grid system that it must look like a bunch of swirling squares if you looked down from space; and that it actually does look like that if you look down from the Empire State Building.

I want to tell you about German beer halls where people actually wear lederhosen and dirndls and the beer clangs together in liter mugs and we almost got kicked out for starting a big, hall-wide who-can-yell-the-loudest match; or the pizza place we’re banned from because we all got called Crackers and then Jon threw his soda in the air; or the way that having a friend with a back deck on which you can drink is the same as striking a pocket of gold; or how proud and emasculated at the same time it makes you when your girlfriend carries your side in bar foosball; or how there aren’t any parallels in this world that I’ve found yet to rival the way that girl looks at you when you cook dinner and it doesn’t taste like your furniture; or how every girl in New York must be issued a few sundresses when they move in to their apartments; or how they all want to talk – have I mentioned how everybody wants to talk?? Like they’re just amazed that they can live here – and will gladly talk your ear off about everything and anything as long as you buy a beer, and even if you don’t; or how about bar crawls that start with grand intentions and become two-bar bar-hops because somebody gives you a good deal on Sam Adams Utopias; or of places that can be pumped full of people on Friday nights and then empty as a freezer on Saturday night, due quite possibly to the change in wind speed; or bars where you can get 10-cent wings or dollar beers or free PBR (as long as you ask for it) or the chance to flip a coin to get every drink for free or maybe high-end cocktail lounges extending like a shelf from a Chinese restaurant andsports bars that are most likely scouted-out by prostitutes; or how you can stay out until 2 or 3 on a work night and wake up the next morning feeling the same as if you’d gone to sleep at 10, because you know – and you’re damn proud – that you didn’t miss out.

I want to tell you about baseball and the Phillies and my men’s league team (the Mudhens), now in the playoffs, and how it feels to hit with a real wood bat for the first time, how the bat feels like an extension of your body and how it, like a good woman, refuses to let you get away with any shortcuts; or how handball is almost as fun as racquetball, but it hurts a hell of a lot more, and how your average 13-year-old in Brooklyn is a hell of a lot better than your average 23-year-old Macungie, Penn. kid; or how walking across the Brooklyn Bridge isn’t really as cool as it’s made out to be, but how walking around the Village still is; or how, if you’re playing ball in Central Park, you forget you’re in a city at all; and if you’re playing ball in the Bronx, there’s a good chance your umpires won’t speak a word of English all year and the coach for the other team might get cold-cocked by his first baseman onto cement steps right next to the backstop; or how you could walk for hours because you’re always a block away from unearthing treasures like the Hell’s Angels NY headquarters, or Dave’s Quality Meats (owned by the guy who started Zoo York), or ice cream shops run by neighborhood kids, or stores where you can buy things like a book by Ray Bradbury about writing, on whose back cover he’s wearing a massive turtleneck with plumes of white hair erupting from the side of his head; or how Rachael Ray is pudgier in real life than she looks on TV (but is still pretty damn cute) and Mary-Kate Olsen isn’t, how Woody Allen is looking pretty old and Darryl Strawberry is, too, and how I usually miss celebrities because I’m looking at their dogs.

But I’ll just say…it’s good to be back.


But what I really want to do is…

9 11 2007

When you ask someone in New York what his or her occupation is, the ensuing response is rarely brief. You almost never get “I’m in sales” or “I’m a dog-walker” or “I’m a part-time transvestite call-girl.” It’s generally a routine that follows this usual course: a one-word answer, vague, followed by a detailed diagram of future plans, sealed with one of the following stock phrases:

  • I just want to get my feet under me.
  • It’s just for the time being.
  • It was the only job hiring.
  • Yeah, but I hate what I’m doing now.
  • But what I really want to do is direct.

I’m certainly guilty of using a number of those stock phrases to describe my current job situation, employed as I currently am in event sales/coordination for a publishing company that’s populated almost entirely by young people who, though they’re treated well, would rather be elsewhere. Some want to be directors. Others, artists. Others, dog-walkers. The especially dumb and masochistic want to be writers.

So the responses are always that we’re in sales, but

There’s a lot that’s admirable in those responses, though. New York, for all its harlequinned gloss and glamour, has the distinct and priceless attribute of endlessly upward movement. Here, eyes and ambition shoot toward the sky, and it’s a fire of dreams (and graffiti and rats and stuff) on the ground.

People here feel like they have to prove something. To themselves, to the buildings, to everybody who’s set foot in this town. Like you owe the city a little bit by living here. I like that feeling a lot.

We’re low on humility and accountability these days, as a generation so characterized by entitlement. It’s refreshing to be in a place where people are reduced to specks and forced to prove they’re anything more.

For more on that entitlement, and why it’s pernicious to tell your kids that they’re special no. matter. what., check back on Monday or Tuesday.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Former Mayor and now Presidential Candidate and the mob

20 09 2007

The New York media, fond as it is of pairs (pickles and pastrami, Jeter and A-Rod, intersection names [10th and 3rd, for example]) has now focused its attention on a new duo engaged in a dance: Rudy Giuliani and the mafia. The thing is, they’re not actually engaged in any such thing. Just let the hyperlinks tell the story…

Giuliani’s signature move while working as a lawyer in New York — and his ticket to Gracie Manor — was dissecting organized crime. So the relationship between the man and the mob, once so adversarial, has now somehow achieved a status of tacit mutual approval within the media.

First, there was the story of Robert Duvall’s endorsement of Giuliani for president, which drew the headline “Corleone Consiglieri Endorses Giuliani.”

Giuliani finally brought pomodoro-hot scorn upon himself from the Italian-American community by, for the 875th straight day, using his Don Corleone impression when speaking in public.

Then the Village Voice uncovered the one pocket of organized crime that Giuliani didn’t seek when he felled much of NY’s mob scene: school buses. By Tom Robbins. 

Oh yes. The Voice also has a picture of Pink’s nipples. A picture taken by Bryan Adams. That Bryan Adams.

(And that picture is here)

Victory at 1309 calories per minute

15 09 2007


Having just spackled his blood vessel walls with an off-white, viscous paste known scientifically as low density lipoproteins — contained in flaky, cinnamonny tubes by the 17 Palermno cannolis he had just stuffed down his digestive tract in six minutes — Crazy Legs Conte was in a hurry.

“I’m currently employed at the Penthouse Executive Club, and I’m still on the clock,” he said. “So I’ll head back to a swanky strip club. Now, it’s mostly natural digestion — it’s the anaconda diet.”

He had cannoli shrapnel, the bulk of which was white, ricotta-based cream, embedded in his goatee. Some fragments had even flown past his face and now clung to his brown dreadlocks, which seemed to be more a hairstyle chosen by sloth (hair will naturally dread when chronically unwashed) than aesthetics. And he was smiling.


When he did so, it was immediately clear that he had not quite chewed everything all the way through.

“A Palermo cannoli — very dense, rich food, tough shell — in a way they’re meant to be enjoyed perhaps one in six minutes,” Crazy Legs said, spitting a little. “Eating 17 in six minutes is a bit much. But at the same time they settle well. I had a little coffee, but as crowded as the San Gennaro Festival is, my lower intestines are that crowded.”

But in the 6th annual Cannoli Eating Contest, sanctioned by Major League Eating and a part of the 80th annual San Gennaro Street Festival in Little Italy, NYC, the only concrete thing he toted back to the strip club with him were the 6358 calories and 289 grams of fat. He’s won in the past. But today belonged to, for the second year in a row, a young man by the name of Eater X, who downed 21 — five shy of the record he tied in 2006 — to beat the six other contestants. Behind Conte finished Allen Goldstein and Nate Biller, with 16. (EatFeats.com has the final tally)


(On the right, comparing cannolis with the MC, who called himself Aquafresh)

X, at a pace of more than 249.3 calories per minute (.8 cannolis) faster than Conte, took home the trophy and, as the officials advertised, ‘Eternal Glory.’ At this point, you can start referring to the components in larger units; grams just won’t suffice. X, also known as Tim Janus, the fourth-rated eater in the world in the International Federation of Competitive Eating rankings, took in more than three-quarters of a pound of pure fat, a third of that saturated. At this point, calories aren’t convertible energy: they’re sandbags.

To burn off such intake requires, according to CalorieKing, 36.03 hours of walking. Eight-hundred, ninety-two minutes of straight jogging (Marathons, mind you, take trained runners around 240 minutes, on average). More than 350 minutes of swimming. Not even a great purge — which, if done within minutes of the competition disqualifies the contestant — could undo the damage levied on the human anatomy by this barrage of a delicacy that, even on the most generous food pyramid, is recommended to be eaten sparingly.

 “I didn’t do anything [to train],” Janus, who started competitive eating three-and-a-half years ago, after coming to New York to work on Wall Street, said. “It’s tough to train for these things. I don’t think there’s much method to it. It’s just a chaotic food to eat, so you just go willy-nilly and shove it in and see what happens.”

But stats only extend so far in descriptiveness. Even these numbers, which seem to lop months off lives as they climb higher don’t tell the story. The scene, which transpires and passes with both the human destructiveness and pace of a tornado inverting a village, is both horrific and mesmerizing. And the sight wasn’t made any less absurd by the juxtaposition of “Don’tcha (Wish your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?)” in the background.

When the gun goes off, pairs of hands dive into a plate of brown pastry cylinders with white bulging from both ends. Specks fly into the air and drift gradually down to the stage, tossed into the air by the upward thrust of the non-eating hand on the cup. In the early stages, etiquette inexplicably reigns. It’s eating, just in fast-forward.

Eater Six had six, Crazy Legs, five. But around the turn, things grow sloppy. And slower. Cannolis aren’t hot dogs. Nor are they burgers, hot wings, jalapenos, cabbage, french fries, Polish sausages, Italian sausages, German sausages, sauerkraut, pizza, lasagna, ribs or any of the other more substantive matter consumed in these feats of feast.

They’re like nothing else, really. They’re vein-bombs of soft, sweet cheese stuffed inside crispy shells, seemingly harmless and benign. And that’s where the problems start.


“It’s very rich,” said Don Lerman, one of the pioneers of competitive eating and the head judge for the Cannoli competition. “It’s not made for speed.”


The pros worked on a pace, gorging to an imagined beat. They came equipped with water or coffee — the only two liquids banned on the stage in any event are alcohol and soup — and dunked, chased and/or primed each tube of lard.


 “The dunk is a long-honored tradition in sports, from basketball to cannoli-eating,” Crazy Legs said. “So I do try to honor that. But at the same time, a lot of it is mind over stomach matter. Your stomach can fill up, but your mind can’t.”


But even the professionals — I’m not sure where one transitions from avid glutton to professional — were caught off-guard. The day’s weather, an overcast and crisp 74 degrees on the cusp of fall, was a positive for everyone but those on the stage.


“A lot of it has to do with the humidity,” Crazy Legs said. “Last year, it was very humid. A lot of times we’ll bring litmus paper and do a pH balance on the air just to gauge how tough the shells are gonna be. This year, slightly overcast, they stayed hard and firm, as if the cannolis were revolting against the fact that 70 of them were gonna be eaten in six minutes.”


“When this contest starts, you’re gonna see an eating frenzy like you never saw in your life,” Lerman said. “Except maybe in the shark tank at feeding time. I caution the general public, please don’t attempt this at home.”


The Judge


The last four minutes differentiated the professional from the sane. Although Janus and Crazy Legs slowed, they maintained their technique: sip, stuff, chug. The less-trained resorted to picking apart the cannolis or dividing the cannolis (ala the Kobayashi hot-dog style) or smashing the cannolis and eating the bits or letting a cannoli sit in their water or coffee cup for 20 seconds before cramming it.


Biller, the man in the orange, employed all of the styles:




At the halfway mark, Janus was a cannoli off his record pace from a year prior. But by that time, everyone else was so far off his pace that he could have virtually skipped the last minute and won.




In an age of sweeping democratization, where anybody can be heard (like Chris Crocker, for one), one could be forgiven for assuming that this is another indication of everything’s extension to everyone: a ‘sport’ for the masses, if not the massive. A practice brought down to the lowest and fattest common denominator. A discipline for those without it.

The world of competitive eating has assembled an impressively bureaucratic structure, under the umbrella of the International Federation of Competitive Eating and its child, Major League Eating.

The Nathan’s Hot Dog-eating contest remains the highlight of the season’s schedule, the point when every major eater stands in front of the world and finds new pockets of his or herself into which they can cram food.

“It’s our Super Bowl,” Janus, Eater X, said.  

But it’s more along the lines of a major horse race. All year long, contestants compete in lesser, more fringe events to make their stomachs more elastic and dispostions more masochistic and create stir for when the Fourth of July comes around. Each week offers a new competition in a different ‘discipline,’ some more important than others, all leading up to the main event on the Fourth.

There’s a small debate over whether competitive eating actually qualifies as a sport. It’s a small debate, one that occurs only in small pockets of daily American dialogue, because the overwhelming majority of the planet cannot imagine such a thing occurring.

A Tokyo reporter named Noriaka Takada competed, promptly eating only four cannolis and finishing dead last, a feat for which he was awarded a Luciana Pavarotti ‘box set.’ (It was a cardboard box with a picture of Pavarotti on it and a picture of a shirtless Hasselhoff on the beach inside)

“He doesn’t know why anyone would ever do this,” his translator told me.

But the practice is as much a freak show as it is a sport. The same vernacular — ‘push through,’ ‘prepare,’ ‘practice,’ ‘get mentally ready’ — that’s used in sports permeates competitive eating. And certainly, the words come with a bit of an ironic tint. But they don’t finish that way.

It requires some immense concentration and will to fight the impulses that have been native to humans for their lifetimes, namely the urge to stop. You can’t stop, just like sports, until the whistle blows. And where the body can be trained to run very fast and jump very high and run into other objects as hard as possible, so it can be trained to expand beyond its prior limitations to accept punishment in the form of food. The Romans in their orgiastic vomitoria had nothing on these guys (or girls).

So it is that human nature, basic physiology, becomes a nuisance. An unforgivable weakness.

Sonja “The Slender Sickle of Death” Thomas ate 11 pounds of cheesecake, which amounts to more than 10 percent of her body mass. One of the judges at the Cannoli contest once ate nine pounds of cabbage in five minutes — it wasn’t said whether it was in or out of competition.

“I love food so much, and the one thing I’ve found is I really hate to be full,” Eater X said. “Now more than ever.” 

“You know, in most competitions, that’s all I eat in a 24-to-36 hour period,” Crazy Legs said. “But in the San Gennaro Feast, I consider this pressert. Now I can move onto maybe an Italian sausage.”

Such self-brutality invariably spawns characters. And so you have personalities like Crazy Legs, Eater X, Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut and the currently retired Eric “Badlands” Booker, each a promotion in his self. Booker, who retired to work on a hip-hop album inspired by competitive eating (he told me to make sure to include the link: myspace.com/badlandsbooker), performed before the spectacle:

Bill Myers, 341 pounds of him, stayed a cannoli behind the leaders the whole time, eventually finishing fifth. The man, whose knees resemble uncooked, toppling dough, speaks to what’s happened to this discipline. He’s a relic from time gone by, when eating a great deal quickly was the preserve of those who did so for pleasure. But in recent years, sparked, of course, by Kobayashi, men with builds that belong to athletes have taken control.


So if it has the discipline, focus and pain-denial of a sport and competitors who look like athletes, competitive eating has evolved, indeed, into something that resembles a sport. And if we can call car racing a sport, can we not, this?


Eh, maybe not.

The Day

11 09 2007

The Weekly Standard had a problem (doesn’t it always?) with the Times’ pre-emptive 9/11 story, much like I did, pointing out that it’s probably very unlikely that most (or even a significant amount of) Americans sit around arguing about when commemoration of 9/11 should flag, and that the day is still ripe in our minds, still charged with emotion.

I tend to agree. How about you? But I’ve written awfully on 9/11 in the past, so I’ll defer to another source. 

For a beautiful piece written during the first waves after 9/11, before the invasions, before the conspiracy theories, before ‘WMD’ meant anything and the Dept. of Homeland Security existed, before our safety became a matter coded by colors, when America was one, unified and shaken mass, go to McSweeney’s.

Things overheard, in this, perhaps the final heat wave of 2007

8 09 2007

The beginning of another hackneyed series, as much for my own memory as for your enjoyment: Things Overheard. New York is abuzz with ceaseless noise, mechanic and human. And though these quotes will be always — or at least often — taken out of context, I say that the act of living in this city provides enough context for anyone.

And on this wet, hot spell that marks the end of summer by prolonging it, New Yorkers have things just as wet and hot on their minds:

As a 32-year old, it’s hard for me to deflower a 20-year old. (Courtesy of a 32-year-old man in very inadequate shorts at the Brooklyn Brewery, who seemed to be interested in some light gardening)

You wanna make sure, kid, that you give her the whole thing.  (Told to me by one of the pitchers on the baseball team in the Bronx I was trying out for, while we were standing around during batting practice)

I feel sorry for Michael Vick. (Man on Subway drinking an Olde English 40 in a brown paper bag)

Journalism or something like it

6 09 2007

The Times ran this story a few days ago:


The next question isn’t about the expiration date of 9/11 tributes. It’s about whether, really, that this is even a question. Did people start questioning such a thing before a New York Times reporter started asking them about it? Certainly, it’s a possibility. But is this a story?

This is where we get our truths, through trend stories mined from empty fields: a story like this is the equivalent of fool’s gold. It glistens like something real, but under inspection, its blemishes overwhelm the sheen. But newswriting, trend writing specifically, inheres a bit of lay magic — the ability and willingness to create, from nothing, something.

Such spontaneous generation requires the assistance of props. Writers exonerate themselves from responsibility with the employ of words like ‘many’ or ‘some,’ fatally vague quantifiers that don’t actually, really, mean anything. Of course ‘some’ people are tired of 9/11 ceremonies. Some people are also tired of hearing the Beatles or eating buffalo wings. ‘Many’ people don’t like to shower. But these collective words are cop-outs. They rely on the generosity of language to turn what is merely a writer’s preconception into a story with whispers of fact.

The crafting of trend stories requires asking just the right questions to elicit responses that, ostensibly, support the claim.  And if not the right questions, then the correct editing to condense long, multi-textured quotes into vignettes that contort the intended message.

But, then again, would that be a story at all? Or just a collection of nebulously connected points? A story is, after all, a line of best fit. And that’s the beauty of it: every instance, every moment involves myriad possibilities for a story. When we only had a few news sources, we were restricted to a few. Now, however, the democratization of media has given us access to more — perhaps infinite — angles. And that’s a pretty cool thing.