Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Minetta Brook: A Lost River Under the Streets of Manhattan

The irony of searching for a lost stream in Manhattan on a blazing hot day was not lost on those of us who took the recent Atlas Obscura tour with Undercity’s Steve Duncan, a “guerrilla” historian and urban explorer. The tour followed the 1.5 mile route of the now buried Minetta Brook, which originally ran above ground in Greenwich Village. The stream flowed through the western section of Washington Square Park, which was then just a marsh and ran out to the Hudson River at what is now Charlton Street.

Steve arrived wearing an orange mesh vest, a well-worn cap and nice leather shoes, ringed with bits of dried mud. The twenty of us stood at the Union Square Forever 21, listening to his introduction of the world under our feet. Rushing rivers under Union Square? Hard to imagine, we thought. Steve continued with an enthusiasm that wouldn’t flag over the course of three hours on the black tar streets of Manhattan.

Our first stop was a Subway sandwich shop. Too late for lunch, I wondered what the deal was. We paused long enough for Steve to point out the first of dozens of manhole covers he would point to throughout the day. It was in the middle of the street, partially under a parked car, partially under a big MTA bus rumbling by.

At our next stop we paused, at the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue to notice the designs engraved in the various covers sprinkled throughout the intersection. Was there a diamond pattern, squares, or grates? They all meant something and in all cases spoke to which municipal department needed it: electrical, sewage, water supply, runoff, subway, you name it. This one was easy. It said WSNY, which stands for Water Supply New York. The stop was brief and our motley crew of city dwellers wandered south along 5th Avenue, making a right on 12th Street, and pausing in front of the First Presbyterian Church. Standing in the shadow of the Gothic revival building dedicated in 1846, just after the stream was covered up, it became clear why the river was forced underground. One word: expansion.

Read the entire piece, originally published on Untapped Cities: New York.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: How to Get Into the Twin Palms

If you’re drawn to this book, like I was, because of its cover–crimson daggers plunging through skulls–thinking you’ll get a drug lord tale à la Breaking Bad, turn back. How To Get Into The Twin Palms, the first novel by Karolina Waclawiak, is the slack tale of immigrant Los Angeles. Within the stucco backbone of apartment buildings lining the palm tree blocks found on the west side, Waclawiak builds an outsider’s story, a narrator in search of a different life, or sometimes just a change in hair color.

We first meet our narrator, Anya–a twenty-something alien attempting to shed her Polish feathers in exchange for a Russian sable coat­–on her balcony, hiding behind a ficus, watching a man and woman fuck against a car outside the Twin Palms nightclub. So begins Anya’s quest to become Russian, to gain access to the Twin Palms, and to discover a place in the world that feels tolerable. Much of the book takes place in Anya’s apartment, a squat building in the Russian populated neighborhood of Fairfax. Her inherited apartment is “vertical blinds, beige carpets, bare off-white walls, and small things” left behind by previous tenants. And here we learn that Anya is a cataloger of stuff: bobby pins, hairballs, and ramen.

Waclawiak’s prose of clipped, vibrant sentences moves the story forward in a way that suits our narrator, whose English isn’t quite perfect, but who clearly misses her homeland. Even as Anya is rejecting Los Angeles, she isn’t considering going anywhere else:

My dark hair makes my eyes more cat-like and brighter in hue. More Eastern European. Less American. I am starting to make sense to them. I am taking off all my American skin. Killing my ability to pass for the Middle American and quiet and from here. Instead I am from the bloki again. Soviet-built and dooming.

When Anya’s not sizing up the men at the Twin Palms, she’s driving her car, occasionally to her job, most often with no clear destination in mind. Enveloped in her steel universe we’re along for the ride, going anywhere but here:

I took the 170 to the 101 and headed back to Hollywood. Past the car dealerships and the mosque, the deaf children’s school. Nothing made sense anymore. The giant neon cross on the hill was leaning down toward me. I opened the window and breathed in the air. It was blowing in my face and it felt fresh and I felt like I was flying. I accelerated and when I saw red taillights in front of me I quickly pulled off the freeway onto an exit, careful not to lose my stride.

The author is funniest when she pushes Anya into scenes with Mary, an older woman she befriended at her bingo job. When Anya gives her a ride home, Mary tells her about her dead husband, saying, “I’ll show you my wedding photos. You’re pretty but I was beautiful.” Anya shakes her head: she can’t even compete with an 82-year-old. The author is saddest when she pulls Lev into Anya’s life, a man she says, “ When I see him I know it’s going to be him,” but later in the book, once she knows his flaws, numerous that they are, she begins to change her mind, “We drove back in silence. I didn’t know if he wanted to sleep over and I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to. I didn’t want his sweat to spoil my bare mattress.” Losers and loners alike, we want to push these people away, even as we keep turning the pages.

Much of our narrator’s world lies in the unknown cracks of Los Angeles: calling bingo at the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church; sitting beside a cheap motel’s ash-covered pool talking to a stranger; hiding on the porch, taking note of men coming and going; and chasing down a fire that is raging in the mountains. In the end the existential grind of the city drives our narrator to irrevocable action. She heads to Griffith Observatory. Climbing high above the valley she tries to purge herself of the city, and her current boyfriend, a Russian gangster who’s already married. In the end all she is left with are charred remains: “Los Angeles wasn’t leaving and I couldn’t make it go away.” 

Waclawiaks’ mix of sad, dark humor is compelling and creates an other-ness that’s hard to shake. In the end, taking the bus along with Anya–now car-less–we feel, like our narrator, a little singed and covered in ash. But heck, maybe that’s not a bad way to start over?

First published on The Rumpus, July 17, 2012.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: Fear of Food

In Harvey Levenstein’s new book, Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat, we spend a great deal of time wallowing in the early 1900’s. As a Jewish girl from Los Angeles, I felt like I was being followed down the grocery aisle by my mother. Scratch that, my grandmother.

When I read the title of the book, I had high hopes. I anticipated getting a better understanding of my own food issues. To put it plainly: I’m a picky eater. I avoid bread (bad, bad, evil carbs), I don’t eat processed foods (most of the time), I try to buy organic and, when possible, I eat local. Did this book explain any of my “issues” to me? No. Well, mostly no.

Levenstein, a professor emeritus of history, sets forth in his preface to “uncover the forces that have lead to Americans inability to enjoy eating.” He goes on to say that he will regard his book as a success “if he can help lessen even a few people’s anxieties and increase the pleasure they get from eating.”

Read the entire piece, originally published on The Inquisitive Eater.