Friday, January 23, 2009


This is a sign either that I should drop my subscription to the New York Times now, in order to go out on a high note, or continue it indefinitely: This morning’s paper carries not only the news that President Obama (I love typing that) has already started to close down Guantánamo and make the United States a nation that doesn’t torture but a feature by Sarah Lyall, datelined Crapstone, on dirty-sounding place-names in England. She quotes one Ed Hurst, co-author of "Rude Britain," on the plight of a couple who bought a house on Butt Hole Road:

"'If they ordered a pizza, the pizza company wouldn't deliver it, because they thought it was a made-up name,' Mr. Hurst said. ‘People would stand in front of the sign, pull down their trousers and take pictures of each other's naked buttocks.’

“The couple moved away.”

The piece has a lovely map highlighting all the rude place-names.

The same page (A6) also has a piece on the misattribution of the Prayer of St. Francis (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” etc.) to St. Francis of Assisi. Turns out that he didn’t write it at all—some French guy did. One priest brushes it off, as if to say, Oh, Catholics will swallow anything.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hello Goodbye

Today is the day, the day we have all been waiting for, when George W. Bush departs Washington, D.C., via helicopter, and Barack Obama begins the dawn of a new era. Unaccountably, alternate-side parking is not suspended, but it is such a good day that even sitting in a parked car listening to the radio would be enough.

Lucky for me, my car is in a garage and I can watch the Inauguration on TV at work. My “Certificate of Exemption From the Additional New York City 8% Parking Tax (For Manhattan Residents Only)” arrived last week. It advised that I “submit it to the parking facility operator immediately.” But did I have to make a special trip to the garage to deliver the certificate? Wasn’t the idea of putting the car in the garage not to have my parking needs dictate my schedule?

The truth is that I miss being out in the neighborhood, and so over the weekend I took a few walks, one of which brought me home along the street where my car is stabled, and I just happened to have the certificate with me and also just happened to have passed a little hole-in-the-wall where I could have it copied, so I trotted down the ramp to see Julian of the bow tie, who said exactly the right thing: “Fifty-two.” That’s right! At the garage, I am Slot 52. Julian has my number. He accepted the certificate, and I got it there in plenty of time for the February statement to reflect my eight-percent discount.

The other financial news has not been so happy. My 401(k) statement arrived in the mailbox on Saturday. It is still in the mailbox. A few days earlier, I had made the mistake of opening a letter from the co-op management. It announced a twelve-percent hike in maintenance fees, to cover the rise in property taxes. That $400 property-tax rebate from the Mayor? Chickenfeed.

And yet I am prepared to offer, as an Inauguration Day Special, the deluxe edition of the 2009 Alternate Side Parking Calendar, suitable for dangling from rearview mirror, absolutely free!!! (No assembly required.) Write:

And now let us enjoy the spectacle.

Goodbye, Bush. Hello, Obama!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Trains, Boats, Planes

I am addicted to the New York Times.

After the Inauguration on Tuesday (only two more days till Bush’s helicopter leaves Washington!), I am going to give up home delivery of the Times—not reading the Times, just having it delivered and reading it first thing in the morning. I am getting spoiled, sipping coffee in a chair by the window with a fat cat purring on my lap. I should be out there shivering behind the wheel of a parked car.

When I first subscribed to the Times, which I have done on and off for the past four years, the first issue that landed on my threshold proclaimed the victory of George W. Bush in the 2004 election. I wanted to cancel immediately. Now that we have Obama, I will be overjoyed to look on the President’s face. But the New York Times is like a drug: it sets up a vibe in my head that makes it impossible for me to think my own thoughts in the morning, and I have newly resolved to be my own barometer.

The Times stories about Obama in the days leading up to the Inauguration and about the miraculous Hudson River jet landing with no loss of life, thanks to the pilot and the local ferryboats, have been bringing tears to my eyes the past couple of days. The Quotation of the Day in today’s Times should have been “You’re never too old to toot the horn” (Obama on the train ride to Washington). And the most touching, burblingly humorous detail of the jet-in-the-Hudson story, to me, was this, from an article by James Barron in Friday’s Times (Jan. 16, 2009):

“Many passengers rushed toward the back, thinking that was where the emergency exits were, [Bill] Zuhoski said, but that part of the fuselage seemed to be sinking, and flooding, faster. ‘I started to get, you know, close to my neck underwater. I just thought I was going to drown right there.’

“He stripped down to his underwear, the better to swim to safety. As the crowd thinned out, he crawled across the top of the seats and clambered out. He said he believed he was one of the last people off the plane, and he swam to a dinghy that was bobbing in the Hudson.

“Everyone else in the dingy had their clothes, and everyone was dry.”

Is it O.K. to laugh? After all, everyone survived, and when Zuhoski got to the dingy to huddle with the other passengers, “each peeled off something to outfit him.“ Anyway, the laugh is involuntary, and filled with fellow-feeling and relief. Imagine being the guy, who, on top of being rescued from a jetliner sinking in the Hudson River, was the only one who took his clothes off. It’s like that moment in a dream when you are onstage, or in front of a classroom, or leaning over the photocopier at the office, and you realize suddenly that you’re in your underwear. Only, Zuhoski wasn’t dreaming.

I am probably going to relapse and keep home delivery during the first week of the new Administration. I don’t want to miss coverage of the Inauguration. Or further details about the miracle in the Hudson.

Monday, January 12, 2009


I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed when the weekend’s “heavy snow,” instead of piling up, as predicted, in soft pillows on the roofs and sidewalks of the city as we slept on Saturday night, turned into a steady rain that pocked and battered the thin layer of snow, and then froze it into something like lace candy, which would take hours to chip off a car come Monday morning. I clipped my toenails for this?

The good news, according to today’s Times (just seven more days till Bush’s helicopter departs Washington!), is that the City Council has introduced a bill to give parkers a “grace period.” “’When people park, they shouldn’t have to feel that there are vultures, certain agents, waiting to give them a ticket the moment they are in violation,’ said Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored the legislation” (“Seeking Grace Period for Parking Violations”). Another councilman, John C. Liu, of Queens, said that the bill was “an understandable reaction from New Yorkers who too often feel they’re being squeezed as cash cows for the city.”

Last week, on payday, this cash cow gave in and paid the reduced fee on the ticket my mechanic got. I also cashed my $400 property-tax rebate from Mayor Bloomberg, apportioning $90 for the ticket (easy come, easy go); $175 for a month’s stabling fee for the Éclair; and $135 as a gift to the Istituto de Cultura Brasilia Italia Europa, or ICBIE. I thought of applying $80 to my cleaning fee: with the cleaning lady in Peru (perhaps forever), I hired myself to clean, and started out willingly enough. On Saturday, I put on my new bedroom slippers, which have detachable dust-mop soles, and stomped out dust bunnies and swirled away cat hair. But I fell down on the job when it came time to haul out the vacuum cleaner and the wet mop. Sunday, I was inspired to damp-mop the bedroom floor, and leaning over the far side of the bed, to give the floor a preliminary swipe of the dust-mop slippers (now employed as mittens), I caught sight of my disused luggage under the bed and was blindsided by wanderlust.

Three years ago, I took a trip to Bahia in late January, early February, which, in the Southern Hemisphere, is the height of summer. I had been to Salvador at Christmas a year earlier, and my host, Pietro, had taken me into the Ciudad Alta, or high city. My first impression of Salvador was that it looked as if a bomb had hit it: there are ruins of seventeenth-century buildings surrounding a few beautifully restored pastel churches lined with gold. The rich part of the city is literally built on the backs of the poor: the Ciudad Baixa, or lower city, on the hillside below, is heaped with the huts of the poor.

I stayed in Ribeira, in the low city, on the Bay of All Saints, where the water is so shallow at low tide that you can walk out a quarter mile and still be in only up to your ankles. Beachgoing in Bahia is different from Rockaway: instead of trying to find a spot to yourself and hiding your beer from the police, you get a table at one of the many barracas that line the beach and order a big bottle of beer, which comes in a colorful beer-bottle-shaped cooler. My favorite brand was Antarctica, because it reminded me that south, here, means cold. Then you watch the parade of vendors, selling purple peanuts and cartons of hard-boiled quail eggs (considered an aphrodisiac) and queijo, or cheese-on-a-stick. Queijo vendors ignite charcoal in a homemade brazier that dangles from a set of wires, like a tea tray in Turkey, and melt cheese bars, which look like creamsicles, over the coals. Remembering this made me hungry as well as nostalgic

Somehow I got the bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen clean, but the closest I got to the vacuum cleaner was when I tied a glittery Mexican Christmas-tree ornament, with an image of Frida Kahlo, to the pull chain on the closet light. The vacuum cleaner seems to belong to the cleaning lady now. I will keep it in the closet and guard it for her until her return. Meanwhile, I watched this video of Frida Kahlo by Victoria Roberts on YouTube.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Last Call

The Times today published its calendar of Alternate-Side Parking Rules (p. A-24). I had begun to think they were going to skip it this year, as there are so many higher-tech ways of accessing the calendar. Click here or here or here. Twitter. Cell phone. BlackBerry. Satellite. The coming winter looks pretty cushy, actually: Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 19, Lunar New Year on Jan. 26, Lincoln’s Birthday on Feb. 12, Washington’s Birthday (observed) on Feb. 16, Ash Wednesday on Feb. 25, Purim on (March 10). April is not the cruellest month for street parking, with Holy Thursday (April 9) and Good Friday (April 10) overlapping with Passover (April 9-10 & 15-16), and Passover overlapping with Orthodox Holy Thursday (April 16), culminating in Orthodox Good Friday (April 17). My rate at the garage is good for six months, but unless I am completely and utterly spoiled by the fairy-tale life (or in Bahia), I should get the Éclair back out on the street by April.

Speaking of Bahia, yesterday, the Feast of the Epiphany (on which, unfortunately, alternate-side parking was not suspended), was the last day of the fund-raising drive for my friend Pietro’s school, the Istituto di Cultura Brasile Italia Europa, or ICBIE. I prevailed on the good people in my Italian class to make a small donation, and we raised $150. If any readers would like to donate, you’re in luck: the campaign has been extended to Sunday, January 11th. The story of ICBIE is an epic to rival the Aeneid. You can look at the ICBIE Web site here or I can take a deep breath and try to compress it into one Bolañoesque paragraph. Here goes:

Pietro Gallina was born in Rome and grew up near the Forum, where his life was changed one day when his mother rented a room to an actor and artist and trumpet player called Ele D’Artagnan, an orphan who had been deposited at La Pietà, in Venice (where Vivaldi taught), and who, as his life went on, got more and more obsessed with his parentage, eventually discovering that he was the son of a harpist with La Scala—a daughter of the Lombardi family—and strongly suspecting that he was the illegitimate son of Toscanini, whom he resembled; he acted as an extra in Fellini films and produced highly eccentric and joyous paintings and drawings, often with found materials, but he could not bring himself to sell his art work, which he stashed in a couple of old suitcases and stored in a cave in Testaccio, because he had no home of his own after the shack he inhabited in a Roman shantytown was razed. Meanwhile, Pietro, motivated largely by the exposure to the arts that he gained through D’Artagnan, got himself a good education, in music (he is a composer) and comparative literature (he is also a writer), and taught at a high school of the arts in Rome for many years, until he got mad at Berlusconi and disgusted with modern-day Rome. Meanwhile, a friend of his, an American artist named Katherine Desjardins, had seen the work of D’Artagnan, which Pietro had inherited, and encouraged him to dry it out and bring it to New York, where it was exhibited at a gallery (KS Art) and three paintings were purchased by the Judith Rothschild Foundation and donated to the Museum of Modern Art, where one was exhibited last summer in a show called “Glossolalia”: triumph! The money that Pietro received from sales of D’Artagnan’s work became the seed money for his move to Brazil, where he bought a big old house in a beautiful but neglected neighborhood of Salvador de Bahia called Ribeira, a peninsula sticking into the Bay of All Saints, and started recruiting local kids to teach them Italian, because although you might not think that learning Italian would cure poverty it is nonetheless nourishing, especially when it comes with a side of pasta; he also made friends with the local grafitti artists (grafitti is not a crime in Bahia), giving them a place to show their work indoors for the first time, and he refurbished a couple of shacks behind the big house into guest quarters, where visitors from Europe and America can stay very reasonably, in exchange for work, and enjoy a garden of mango and banana and papaya trees, interspersed with basil and tomatoes, because you can take a Roman out of the Mediterranean but you can’t take the Mediterranean out of a Roman.

Pietro has been working on this project non-stop since 2003. He is running out of money, and I am out of breath. He decided to close the school for a semester in order to regroup and figure out how to sustain it over the long term. The supply of D’Artagnan paintings is not infinite, and the art market is not robust right now, and the economy of Brazil, like everyplace else, has tanked, and Bill and Melinda Gates have unaccountably overlooked this worthy cause. One group, Engineers Without Borders, out of Howard University, has made a tantalizing offer: they have chosen to work on Pietro’s project to build a theatre at ICBIE. The only theatre in the lower city of Salvador is a roofless ex-cinema, which nonetheless provides the venue for a lot of wonderful samba dancing. It's a great opportunity, but it's going to take some kind of miracle for ICBIE to keep enriching Bahia instead of the project in Bahia reducing Pietro to poverty. Anyone who wants to make a gift can do so through PayPal.


Friday, January 2, 2009


The discount available to anyone who contests a parking ticket made the front page of today's Times: "Parking Fine Too Big? Well, Just Say So." But my favorite story today was the tiny item about the truck driver carrying eggs who fell asleep on I-94 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. According to Trooper Jim Smiley, "His rig hit a guardrail and a bridge support beam that tore the trailer open and spilled hundreds of cartons of eggs along a 300-foot stretch." The broken eggs froze on the road and had to be scraped up with front-end loaders and carted away in dump trucks. The driver is O.K., though he got a ticket, and he probably should have been carrying gallons of coffee to go with his eggs.

I am busy filling orders for the deluxe version of the Alternate Side Parking Calendar 2009, featuring a self-portrait taken in the ladies' room of the Brooklyn College Library. Meanwhile, I received my first alert from the Parking Bot at, a new site that provides a whole slew of information from the DOT and whose mission is to keep parkers updated in real time—in the event of a snowstorm, say—and send updates via e-mail and Twitter. Very high tech. Makes me wonder what I'm doing with this X-Acto knife and rubber cement.

Speaking of calendars, mark yours for Friday, January 16th, when the fabulous Baby Dee will play the Cleveland Museum of Art. Dee's album "Safe Inside the Day" was No. 1 on the Plain Dealer music critic John Soeder's Top Ten list for 2008. Dee's appearance, with Daniel Isengart, at the Cabaret Artistique, from 8 P.M. to midnight, is in conjunction with an exhibit called "Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique." Ah, what could be more luxurious that Cleveland in January?

Thursday, January 1, 2009


When I got home from work yesterday evening, the application for the parking-tax exemption that I had requested in the morning was already in my mailbox. The postmark was 12/30/08, but I know I called on 12/31/08. It’s as if whoever I talked with—and I did call early, at 8:32 A.M., two minutes after the office opened—was still fresh, and she addressed the envelope even as I dictated my name and address, and then rushed it to the postage meter before whoever was in charge of that arrived and changed the date.

Either the city and the post office have gotten frighteningly efficient or Padre Pio is watching out for me and wants me to take advantage of the parking-tax exemption. Both scenarios seem equally implausible.