Homo homini rodentius est

Losing my religion

Busted! Martha and Co. strolling away from the knishery on Thanksgiving afternoon. And, no, she doesn’t have the power to melt faces. I did that…

I like to flatter myself that I’m a savvy little rat — after all, I was a mere stripling when I gave God himself the heave ho — no small accomplishment in a house full of Irish Catholics. And, yet, I am occasionally surprisingly susceptible to matters of faith in more prosaic matters. Like most people, I tend to believe what I’m told — even by people I don’t personally know, at all. Especially when they live in my television.

Artist’s rendering.

I had my faith thrown in my face on Thanksgiving Day. I stayed in the city this year and my friend Frank and I made plans to see a movie and eat Chinese. Around four in the afternoon I made my way to the Sunshine cinema on the Lower East Side and, arriving ahead of my friend, decided to stop into Yonah Shimmel’s Knishery next door to the theater to get a cup of borscht. I walked into the small restaurant and was immediately met with the image of Martha Stewart sitting at a table with her daughter Alexis and some guy. It was surprising enough seeing her in such a place but seeing her there at dinner time on Thanksgiving Day was nothing less than stunning. It was like running into Santa Claus at the movies on Christmas Eve. My first impulse was to whip out my camera and document it but thought better of pissing her off (she has done time in the slammer, after all). So I quietly paid for my soup and posted myself outside the restaurant where I snapped the shot of her walking away that appears above.

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Fashion Conciousness

I was walking down Hudson Street, past the magazine store that’s between 12th and Jane, and was literally stopped in my tracks by espying, out of the corner of my little eye, the magazine cover depicted above in the window of the store. Though a fruitcake of longstanding, I am not particularly susceptible to many of the commonplace obsessions of my tribe — including fashion and supermodels — with one notable exception. Even an atheistic rat bows before an icon as formidable as Linda Evangelista. The defining quality of an idol is pure inviolable existence by regard and Evangelista, her face perfect and perfectly plastic, commands our attention — it is impossible to be near her image and not notice it.

Click to zoom

And this cover image is a minor miracle. For its annual art issue, W Magazine asked art world wiseguy, Maurizio Cattelan to use Evangelista as his canvas for a photo spread. Many of the images he made — including one of her as the Madonna — are visually fun and more or less interesting (if a bit obvious). But the cover shot is a tour de force. In one shot, taken outside NYU in Washington Square, Cattelan distills the world of the day into one hilarious snarky frame. A soldier, perhaps home from Iraq, walks past a black Obama stand-in and, in the middle of it all, a distraught socialite stares vacantly into the distance and silently holds her plaint/protest. By putting such a blatantly sarcastic and ironic tableau on its cover, Cattelan reminds us — in the midst of a collapsed economy — of the essentially elitist, detached and mocking nature of fashion. In the picture, Evangelista wears $1.5 million in real diamonds… and they’re merely decoration. Brilliant. Bravo to Cattelan and the ballsy W editors.

Stalking the Perfect Pancake: Pershing Square

Pancakes at Pershing Square

One of the joys of adulthood is inventing playful ways of masking vices as virtues, for example: I tell myself that I can avoid going to the gym (again) by taking a very long walk – it’s more mentally stimulating and better for my heart to boot! The fact that the very long walk will terminate at my favorite restaurant in Chinatown, where I will consume 10x the calories that I burned walking – see, that’s the playful part. Here’s another example: I crave pancakes like Kirstie Alley craves… well, pancakes, probably. Steaming hot buttermilk pancakes soaked in butter and real maple syrup is a simply perfect food – but one I shouldn’t indulge too often. Or should I? I happen to live in a city with 34 thousand restaurants – many of which serve breakfast. I also happen to have a blog (…see where this is going?) It is my responsibility to my loyal readers – nay, my duty –  to hunt down the best pancakes in New York City, eat them and report on it here. And so I shall.

The first stop on my flapjack odyssey took me to Pershing Square – an odd little venue wedged into the underside of a trestle outside the main entrance of Grand Central Station. On the strength of another blogger’s glowing revue on one of the foodie blogs, which referred to the pancakes at Pershing Square as “the best” in the city, I forded a river of tourists one early Sunday morning to take a window seat and sample what they had to offer.

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Standing Over Jefferson’s Shoulder

Jefferson draft Declaration of Independence

I made a pilgrimage this afternoon to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to see something special: a draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand. For a moment I resisted the impulse to go, arguing with myself over the value of totems when what really matters are the ideas, not the artifacts, blah blah blah. Thankfully I lost that argument with myself. Totems and artifacts are important – they bind us to the particulars of abstract ideas and history; they allow us to imaginatively jump across the expanse of time and connect directly with the humanity of our ancestors. They help remind us that history, of even the most momentous variety, is made by people.

The documents, two sheets of paper or perhaps parchment, filled on both sides with Jefferson’s incredibly compact handwriting, were amazing to observe. Unfortunately these were not early drafts – there were no scratch outs or arrows indicating where sections should be moved. That would have been wonderful to see, a window into his mind as a writer, but what we have is invaluable. This draft, prepared by Jefferson for handoff to the Continental Congress, contains the famous condemnation of slavery that was later excised in order to guarantee sign off by some of the Southern states.

The way the documents were presented – standing up in glass cases that allowed viewers to read them from a distance of about 12 inches – one could imagine peering over Jefferson’s shoulder as he took painstaking care to prepare a flawless copy. There were things that were amusing and touching about the way he prepared the document. Though a draft, he took care to embellish the manuscript by hand drawing the kind of large type a printer would use to call out “United States of America”. He clearly wanted to convey the importance of what he was doing.

I spent awhile pouring over the papers, noting the particular style of his handwriting – the way he made his d’s and his t’s, how he used punctuation and, I admit, trying in vain to see of I could catch him using a semi-colon incorrectly (I could not). It was great fun. But what struck me as more moving than witnessing the document itself was observing a grandfather and his grandson (pictured above) discussing it and what it meant. As the older man recited the well known chronology of American independence the young man stared intently at the handwritten words on the page. Watching them I remembered the first rush of recognition I experienced when, as a teenager, it dawned on me for the first time that all the history I’d been taught in school, all the characters whose images and names were carved into stone pediments – the country itself – was the invention of men and women of flesh and blood, frail and courageous and imperfect and full of hope. When that moment of recognition comes it’s a wonderful thing.

Human Nature

News of Michael Jackson’s death came as a shock. But then… not really. I remember having conversations with a friend years ago, before Jackson’s life completely unraveled in a frenzy of tabloid headlines, about how he would manage impending old age. It was unimaginable that a man so in love with his own youth and talent could possibly endure the challenges of physical and mental decline that were inevitable. He would either become even more eccentric than he had already been – hole himself up like Howard Hughes and trade his public fame for lingering mystery – or he would die, perhaps by his own hand. There didn’t seem any other options for this tragic and enigmatic creature. So the shock was more of the nature of “oh… now.”

Like many, I was a fan who lost the faith and left the fold as his behavior and appearance became ever more bizarre. It was painful to watch someone who had touched us with an extraordinary talent drifting into apparent madness and, perhaps, criminality. So I was startled – and grateful – to hear something this evening during the first rush of memorials on the news that made me rethink what I thought I knew about him. None other than stalwart Sue Simmons – a blowsy fixture of local TV news in New York City – speaking unscripted about Jackson said (I’m paraphrasing), “he tried to become a character – neither black nor white, male nor female, young nor old – that would appeal to all people, who he hoped would follow him as he tried to make the world a better place.” I had never heard this before and it made him make sense for the first time. More than that, it made him seem almost tragically heroic. But not a hero. Any grandiose motivations pale into delusion when we consider the bad things he may have done. Sadly, that will be his epitaph as much as his music.

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