I’m back from Newfoundland, where

I’m back from Newfoundland, where Kate and I wore sweaters, hiked a lot, watched whales, and ate roast moose! Roast moose tastes like birch, it turns out. Kate tells me that game animals taste like what they eat; while living in Alaska, she ate moose, duck, even bear. Duck was the worst, apparently, because wild ducks taste like, well, algae, and a kitchen where duck is cooking smells like a steamy pond. Yuck, yuck, yuck! Anyhow, I took the Rich AssholeTM tour, renting a colossal red Ford Explorer and bouncing around the gravel roads while encased in a Gore-Tex parka. Every time I parked the car and walked away, the Explorer would be perched on some seaside cliff or other, making the countryside look like an SUV commercial.

I was in lots of company, though. Earlier this spring, one of the wild alpine meadows about a mile from the house was used as the setting for Qoyle’s house in the Kevin Spacey production of The Shipping News. A new road had been build to the meadow, and dozens of SUV-driving, Gore-Tex wearing crew members had driven out past the house to Fort Point, where they hired fishermen to anchor offshore with fog machines and add to the already-thick Newfie fog. Every local boarding house in the area was hired for the shoot, and the movie brought lots of business into the area. Our neighbor Frank Bartlett, who runs a small dairy farm, opened a small restaurant to cater to the film crew. At seven AM, two production assistants would come in and pre-pay for 150 orders of fish and chips that night. Frank was really happy about the extra business, and I was really glad to hear that nobody had a bad word to say about the production company. They paid all their bills on time, picked up after themselves, and left about six weeks after they had arrived, taking their SUVs and technical parkas with them.

I started going to Newfoundland when I helped my stepbrother Sam build a house for his mom and my dad about ten years ago. The house is almost a hundred percent finished now, with the final installation of a hot-water shower stall. That’s a long haul from the days when Sam and I would mix beer and cool-aid in a plastic vat, cook beef and cheese over a hotplate, and crap in the woods at night.

Kate and I have differing ideas of the perfect vacation. My ideal vacation is one where I can come back with harrowing tales of adventure: height scaled, wrongs righted, Malay pirates beaten back from the rigging until the scuppers run red with blood. Kate prefers a more vacation-y vacation; reading, sleeping late, cooking at home, taking walks. Malay pirates being scarce in Newfoundland, I have to admit that there’s really something to the restful variety of vacation. I came back actually rested, imagine that!

I’m back from Newfoundland, where

What Dr. Ho SAYS,

What Dr. Ho SAYS, Dr. Ho DOES.

I got a mysterious envelope in the mail the other day. The return address merely said “Caribbean Online Ltd.” Inside was a shrink-wrapped CD, all in Chinese, with the bold, mysterious name of “Doctor Ho.” The CD carried an allure I haven’t felt much since high school — the allure of something that was kind of illegal, like buying a big butterfly knife in Chinatown or ordering the “Shroom King” mushroom kit out of the back of High Times.

Anyhow, I probably got the CD because I had put some money down on the outcome of Survivor II. Doctor Ho turns out to be the proprietor of an online casino in Macau that pairs live video feed of buxom Chinese croupiers in tight tank tops with buxom 3D croupier avatars in no tops to speak of. Doctor HO, indeed!

Clicking through Doctor Ho’s site, I found his bio — and was stunned. “Who is Doctor Ho?” the site asks rhetorically, then answers with a barrage of Tony Robbins meets Horatio Alger meets Doctor Evil.

This is the resume to end all resumes:

“In China, he is called Wong Tai Sin – the god who fulfills peoples wishes.

  • His dramatic rise to fortune is charted in popular movies and books.
  • He has been honored by the British Monarchy and His Holiness Pope John Paul II.
  • He has survived a pirate attack and numerous threats on his life.
  • He is a highly skilled ballroom dancer and collector of limousines.”

    (read the rest…)

You can see Doctor Ho by clicking here, but be forewarned: looking deep into the red, blinking eye of a papally-honored, ballroom-dancing pirate survivor is deeply unsettling.

What Dr. Ho SAYS,

Messing with Manhattan’s Control Panel

Messing with Manhattan’s Control Panel settings

There were two artists crouched outside Lafayette Cleaners this morning, drawing a startingly detailed portrait in charcoal and chalk. It was titled “American Astronaut”, and showed a bald man staring up from the concrete with an inscrutable expression. It’s not rare to see street art in my neigborhood — someone nicknamed “the shadow” has carefully spray-painted around the streetlight silhouette cast by each fire hydrant, each parking sign, and each standpipe. Someone else, lately, has been stenciling “Drop The Rock” in various colors dozens of times at each intersection; something to do with America’s growing prison population.

The messages written by New Yorkers for New Yorkers aren’t limited to art, though. It’s a common practice to see comments scrawled in pen on the posters in the subway station. A poster for Madonna’s tour in the Spring Street station is pretty representative — a speech balloon has been added, with the words “I suck dick!” The sentiment is common on subway posters; local newscasters aren’t on the wall for three nights before they’re assaulted with a fusillade of scrawled phalluses. Other subway comments are wittier: A poster for the U.S. Open now reads “Every Player. Every Emotion. Every Hack Rich Spectator.” Most, though, are simple and heartfelt: an MTA poster reads “Why run for the train? There’s another one just like it on the way.” To this weak joke, New York’s answer is simple: “Fuck You!” in black Sharpie.

I suppose you could call it grafitti, but I think it’s more about communication in the city, a kind of meta-layer that New York residents have superimposed on the city itself. It’s necessary, if the city is to be livable, to tweak things here and there, just like you’d straighten a picture in a hotel room. Except that, here, the hotel room is one thousand degrees, loud and muggy, and the picture is a stupid piece of corporate twaddle thought up by an intern who wasn’t really trying that hard. It’s necessary to push back a little, it seems like, or the city will get the upper hand.

Like the conductor on the new brushed-aluminum six train was doing this morning, fighting with the new computerized recording in the loudspeakers. “This is… Bleecker Street”, announced the train in a cool, recorded voice as we pulled into the Astor Place. “This is NOT Bleecker Street!” cut in the less cool, definitely non-recorded voice of the conductor, background noises almost drowning him out. “This is ASTOR PLACE! ASTOR PLACE! ASTOR PLACE!” At every station up the line, the conductor drowned out the train, superimposing a faster, grittier, and more accurate reality onto the MTA’s, well…

sucky one.

Messing with Manhattan’s Control Panel

Is it kitsch if they’re good at what they do?

I went to go see the World Famous Pontani Sisters at Marion’s Continental last night. Marion’s is my favorite bar in New York; it’s friendly, has a nice mixture of non-impossibly-hipsterish people, is packed with 1960s kitschy crap, and tries really hard to think of fun things to do. Like on Mondays, when the Pontani sisters come out and do a three-minute burlesque review every twenty minutes. This was Official American Kitsch, too: a grass-skirt number, a fruit-on-the-hat number, a rubber bathing-cap, sequined bikini, and tap shoe number, a Bond Girl kung-fu number.

The funny thing is, even though the costumes are outrageous, the sisters are good, which (oddly) seems to rob the show of the ironic self-referentiality that everyone has come to expect of all things “retro.” And I can’t understand why I’d think of the absence of meta-reference as a “loss.” God knows that the last thing we need is more post-post-postmodern self-referentiality. I guess this is more like an honest-to-goodness revival of burlesque, not an ironic presentation of burlesque’s symbolic trappings. The sisters really seem to own their presentation, too; they’re not tall, and they’re covered in tattoos, so there’s a strong Lower East Side vibe to their routine. Plus, they have a solid, well-executed website. And they seem to have thought the whole thing through carefully; viz. this this article by Angie Pontani.

Is it kitsch if they’re good at what they do?

Dirge for a Dot-Com Dinosaur

Dirge for a Dot-Com Dinosaur

I’ve been reading a lot of Mark Twain; by way of Tom Swift and G.A. Henty, I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. After that, not wanting to leave the Mississippi, I downloaded Life on the Mississippi, and discovered the chapters on Twain’s apprenticeship as a Mississippi riverboat pilot:

“If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.”

Over the course of thirty years, the steamboat trade mushroomed into a giant, thriving industry, and the men who could store the technical knowledge about the location of every rock, shoal, branch, channel, and current — both by day and by night, in high water and low — were the kings of the steamboat economy, commanding princely salaries, loafing in pool halls under salary while in port, and sneering at mere captains, underwriters, engineers, and passengers. Riverboat pilots formed a powerful and union, demanded astronomical wages, and strictly controlled the influx of new apprentices.

The Civil War brought the steamboat trade to a sudden halt; when the war was over, the railroads had sprung up to take the place of the river boats. A skilled profession had vanished, almost overnight. Twenty years after leaving his job as a river pilot, Twain returned to find the industry all but vanished.

Like Twain, I stumbled into a booming industry at the right time — my home-grown HTML skills were good enough to get me on the first rung of the ladder. It’s been a fast climb, too — and, for a while now, it seems like every time I reach a new rung, the last rung is burned away under me. Not so long ago, I had a fairly sizeable team: my people had people of their own, and I would make jokes about my role as a petty tyrant. These days, it’s just me and my technical specification decks. And the laptop I’m writing this on; I’m using a 128Kbps Ricochet modem, which is one of the coolest manifestations of wireless technology out there. My laptop acts like it’s plugged into an Ethernet jack – my Internet connection is that fast – but it’s plugged into a gray radio modem velcroed to the back. The company that operates the service went out of business this month, and they’ll be turning all the transmitters off on August 8th. Like Kozmo and UrbanFetch, I’ll really miss Metricom.

Dirge for a Dot-Com Dinosaur