Double Down

(Stories that begin with “I was a pizza delivery man” tend to go in a different direction than this one, so I apologize in advance for the letdown.)

I was a pizza delivery man one summer during my college years. My mom and I lived in southeast Pennsylvania, in a nice town close to the ivy-covered halls of Swarthmore College and one of the most depressed cities east of the Mississippi. When friends from my hometown in NJ would come to visit, they’d follow my directions from Rt. 95 and look around nervously, wondering why my mom had chosen to move to a ghetto slum. Within a mile or two, as they approached Wallingford, their moods would brighten.

When I began delivering pizzas, one of the other drivers stood beside me and pointed to the map of the delivery area. The area of Chester, PA cut off to the east by 95 was covered with cross-hatched lines. It may as well have said, “No man’s land.”

“What’s the deal?” I asked.

“We don’t deliver to that side of 95. Too many drivers got shot and had their cars stolen,” he replied.


“You want to buy a gun?” he asked. “I’m a licensed dealer.”

“That’s okay.”

(Keep in mind: this is within a year of my Napoleon Dynamite look)

I did carry a knife that summer, and kept a baseball bat in my car. I managed to make it through the season without getting into trouble, although I did pull out the bat once, when two guys were having a street-brawl directly in front of my car while I was on a delivery.

A year or two later, I drove a shuttle van during late-night weekend shifts for a motel near the Philadelphia International Airport. As part of that gig, I would drive the girls from the housekeeping department home when their shifts were up. They lived on The Other Side of 95. The side where there are corner bars with a line of guys 25 long waiting to get in, looking like a casting call for that bad movie-within-the-movie in The Hollywood Shuffle.

The trip was usually pretty easy, since I always knew how far I was from the highways. Still, a white guy driving a big van through Chester on a Saturday night must’ve seemed a little odd. If there were any cops on patrol, I bet they’d have been suspicious.

Why do I bring all this up? Because Chester’s getting a casino!

That’s right: this hideously depressed shipbuilding town has decided that the best way to revitalize its fortunes is to let Harrah’s come in and build a casino and racetrack.

Officials see the Harrah’s project as a potential economic engine that will bring new investment, service jobs and increased revenues to a Colonial-era city that has been battered by high unemployment, poverty, crime and drugs in recent decades [ . . .] While the city has not done an economic-impact study, [David N. Sciocchetti, executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority] predicts the daily influx of visitors to Chester will prompt new restaurants, gas stations and businesses catering to tourists. He also sees an opportunity for companies that will supply the complex with goods and services.

No, seriously! The cure for their ills will consist of compulsive gamblers and track-denizens! Even better, the area upon which Harrah’s is building gets tax abatements, so the city and state won’t get as much of a benefit from the commerce!

I understand that Chester’s essentially a dead zone, and probably still doesn’t even have decent pizza delivery, but if you’re going to try to reduce crime, poverty and drug use, I’m not sure that slot machines and harness racing comprise a viable strategy.

Read all about it.

The Redline Shoes

VM reader and former official VM bartenderess Bonnie Erickson purports to be close to launching her own blog. I’ll definitely link to that when it’s up.

Meanwhile, as a PSA, here’s a piece she recently wrote about the importance of the Broadway Dance Center, which is threatened by its new owner’s redevelopment plans.

The more I read of Jane Jacobs, et al., the more worried I get about the mall-ification of NYC.

Year Zero?

A week or so ago, I mentioned a whole lot of reading that I’m doing as part of my attempt to understand what can be done to help New Orleans recover from the devastation of last August’s hurricane.

The fact that I’m starting with Virginia Postrel and Jane Jacobs probably indicates that I don’t think that federal micromanagement is the way to go. One of Ms. Postrel’s early points in The Future and Its Enemies is that there is no “scratch” from which to start, in a dynamic society. Even annihilating swathes of the city doesn’t mean it’s Year Zero in NO,LA; there are tons of people who have claims on their homes, who don’t want to move away for good, and don’t want to live in federally subsidized housing projects.

All of which is to say, I’m not in agreement with Representative Baker (R-LA), who proposes an $80 billion federal program to “to pay off lenders, restore public works, buy huge ruined chunks of the city, clean them up and then sell them back to developers,” according to the Times. Or, more expansively:

Under his plan, the Louisiana Recovery Corporation would step in to prevent defaults, similar in general nature to the Resolution Trust Corporation set up by Congress in 1989 to bail out the savings and loan industry. It would offer to buy out homeowners, at no less than 60 percent of their equity before Hurricane Katrina. Lenders would be offered up to 60 percent of what they are owed.

To finance these expenditures, the government would sell bonds and pay them off in part with the proceeds from the sale of land to developers.

Property owners would not have to sell, but those who did would have an option to buy property back from the corporation. The federal corporation would have nothing to do with the redevelopment of the land; those plans would be drawn up by local authorities and developers.

So, from what I gather, the plan will involve massive federal involvement and funding, coercive land sales (why not just employ eminent domain, while you’re at it?), and a close alliance with “local authorities and developers” who are among the crookedest in America.

One of the best things about the article — besides the line “the bill has become increasingly important to Louisiana because the state lost out to the greater political power of Mississippi last month” — is that virtually every positive quote about the program seems to be delivered secondhand by . . . Rep. Baker!

Give it a read.

And mourn the likely departure of a NYC institution, while you’re at it.

Present Day

Made it home safe and sound yesterday afternoon, but the final approach was a bit shaky. By which I mean, the plane was wobbling from side to side for the last 10 minutes before we touched down. I pounded a G&T at the terminal bar to steady the old nerves, then Amy & I headed over to baggage claim.

The Christmas-day exchange of presents was kinda funny. Amy told her parents that they could shop for me off my Amazon wish list, but I think they misunderstood her and bought nearly everything off my wish list. When they first checked out my list (and hers), they told her, “But you guys only have books and CDs on your list!”

Not anymore! It became a running joke on Sunday afternoon, as I opened package of books after package of books:

Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style

Paco Underhill’s Call of the Mall and Why We Buy

Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker

Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History

Collections of essays from Emerson and Orwell

Robert Strassler’s Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, for when I feel like redelving into that subject.

Her father said, “That oughtta keep you occupied for a week or so.”

Now, I was mighty appreciative of all the books (on top of the aforementioned copy of Black Hole), as well as the 5-quart stand mixer, but the problem arose the next day, as we began packing. We started to consider shipping all the books home (including the stuff I bought at Faulker House, and the Sam Cooke bio I just finished, and the copy of Little, Big that I brought down, as well as the multiple books that Amy received), before a severe redistribution of clothes, toiletries, etc., enabled us to get all the books into our one suitcase. Fortunately, Amy’s clothes don’t take up too much space. All I brought with me on the flight was The Future and Its Enemies and the Jane Jacobs book.

At the terminal yesterday morning, we discovered that the suitcase weighed more than 60 lbs., which should’ve led to a $25 overweight charge. Fortunately, they waived the fee because of my Elite status on Continental. Then we were allowed to cut into the security line, right in front of some crippled kids and nuns. Yay!

On Monday, we returned to the French Quarter, got more beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and walked around for a while. Plenty of people were out walking; nowhere near pre-Katrina numbers, but it was still heartening to see so many people vacationing there.

That led us to wonder about who’s choosing to go. Were they people who’d booked their trips pre-Katrina, or did they decide to go after, to boost the economy (and find cheap deals)? We should’ve asked, but we’re morons, so hey.

Instead, we bought cheap T-shirts at a souvenir shop! We picked up a couple of “I (Heart) NO” shirts, a NOPD (Not Our Problem Dude) shirt and a great one that read “I Stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was This Lousy T-Shirt, a New Cadillac and a Plasma TV.” How could we resist? If you heard some of the stories about how people are spending their FEMA money, you’d blanch.

And that’s about all I have to report on. The Quarter looks like it’s doing okay, but I can’t say anything about the rest of the city. I still don’t know how they’ll manage to get people to move back, and how they can jump start any industry besides tourism in NO,LA. Amy & I entertained some idle thoughts about what it would take for us to move down there, but were stumped as to what sort of city it could possibly become.

Maybe some of the books on my new reading list will help me answer that question.

(Update: Witold Rybczynski at Slate just posted a piece about this subject)


(Here’s something I tried writing when I was sitting around in Madrid last week. Since I’m sitting around in an airport, I figure I’ll post it and you can try to make sense of it.)

I saw my buddy Tina last Monday in NYC. She and two friends were visiting from Australia, and this led to my doing the one thing I know I should never do: drink with Australian men.

Yes, dear reader, I spent that evening at the Hi Life, knocking down G&Ts while the main songwriter for Anal Traffic paced me with pints of Stella Artois. Fortunately, no Flatliners were involved, but we had such a nice vibe at the bar that we bailed on our original plan of heading around the corner to my favorite Thai place in the city. We ended up meeting there a few nights later for dinner, before they left NYC for an appointment with a roller-coaster in Sandusky, OH.

In all, it was an entertaining evening, catching up with Tina and shooting the breeze with Paul, a prototype for campy gay men, while their friend Ruben (a Spaniard) stared at us, relatively incomprehending.

I met Tina during my trip to New Zealand two years ago. We had a great time not taking anything seriously for those two weeks, and stayed in touch since. If you’re interested in reading about that trip, click back on the November & December 2003 archives. Someday, I’ll get all my pictures moved over to Flickr, and that’ll make it easier for you guys to see some of the wonderful photos I took over there.

As great as it was to catch up with Tina and make a new (and impossible-to-take-seriously) friend in Paul, the conversation also was a sort of counterbalance/antidote for the previous evening.

That night, I went to my friend K’s apartment in NYC after dropping the offical VM fiancee off at her apartment (she’s moving in with me in a few weeks, so our Sunday ritual of bailing on the late football games and trying to avoid the bridge/tunnel traffic will come to an end). K is in broadcast journalism school, and wanted me to come by so she could interview me about a “turning point” in my life. It was mainly a technical exercise in setting up lighting, audio, etc., and less about interviewing.

Or maybe it was supposed to involve her interviewing technique, but that’s not how it worked out. She didn’t exactly make it clear, so I figured I’d go with the me-and-a-camera format, talk to the red light, and evolve out some conversation with myself. It was nice, being unabashedly self-centered, insofar as I didn’t know if I was supposed to be talking with K or not. Sure, a lot of you will contend that I’m pretty self-centered anyway, but it was my job this time, so that made it better.

Anyway, I just rambled on forever. How on earth she’s going to cut it down to 60-90 seconds, I can’t imagine.

I know, I know: Get to the turning point!

(Actually, just writing that phrase reminds me of the time in college that a girlfriend slipped Rilke’s poem “Wendung” under my door. The night we first hooked up, I read her a poor translation of “Archaischer Torso Apollos” on a bench at Mt. Holyoke College. Weeks later, she was mad over something and she put that poem under my door. I think it was all about a dark, brooding, self-centered guy who is too dark, brooding, and self-centered for his own good. In a hotel. I’ll have to reread it sometime. They’re my virtual memories, so deal, okay?)

K asked me to help her with the assignment a few days earlier, and it got me thinking about turning points. Amy & K both thought I’d talk about 9.11, and it’s a pretty easy conclusion to draw. I thought about it, and about the death of my “surrogate” dad, and the time I saw my buddy Drake in the ICU in Philadelphia, and my dad the night after his heart surgery. All those moments affected me pretty profoundly, personally and historically, but I thought, “They’re all about death and suffering, and that’s not who I am.”

So I told K that the turning point in my life was the two weeks I spent in New Zealand, and I talked about that for her camera.

Thing was, I was in a pretty bad emotional state when I went on the trip, having been dumped a few weeks before. So I spent some time over there being dark and brooding, etc., before I had a big realization: no one cared.

See, what struck me early in the trip was the immensity of everything. Partly, it was the fact that I’d traveled nearly halfway around the world, chasing nothing more substantial than some black-and-white images from a comic book. I’d already been feeling torn to pieces over this breakup, alternating between rage and self-pity, but my absolute distance from my life was about to make everything make sense.

What I thought was, “If you take everyone in the southern hemisphere, and ask them all, ‘Do you know who Gil Roth is?’, there might be five people who’d say yes.”

And then I thought, “Why are you acting like they have to know all of your backstory?”

And then I stopped.

I wrote about this a little last year, on the anniversary of the trip, and it’s held up pretty well.

So I told K’s camera about the trip, about the sense of uprootedness-unto-freedom (reminds me of college again; this time the classes on Heidegger), of watching those cares spiral down the drain (counter-clockwise, what with that coriolis effect), of coming back here and soon after meeting the love of my life, and of being able to meet love like that, of being ready to be happy.

I hadn’t formulated those thoughts before, so I puzzled through them and others as the camera rolled. Unfortunately, I think K was hoping for something more death-oriented.

She started asking about 9.11 and the tattoo on my arm (“9.11.01 Never Forget”). She wanted to know what I think about now when I look at the tattoo, since I’m a different person than the guy who got it.

That’s still a tough question. There are all those sad points, both personal and historic, in life. I explained that I’ve found joy now, found myself in joy, but that doesn’t make for great copy, I admit.

So I tried explaining how my take on 9.11 hasn’t exactly changed, but has deepened, grown more complex, filled with more emotions. Like life.

I talked about the experience of watching Ric Burns’ New York documentary this summer, with its 3-hour conclusion about the World Trade Center. Amy & I watched that last installment a week before the anniversary of the attacks, and I meant to write about it here, but I was so darned busy.

Now I’m sitting in a Madrid hotel room, waiting for my coworkers to show up so we can go get paellas. So here we go.

There’s been a lot said and written about the Twin Towers, what they meant to people, what an eyesore they were, how much they meant to the skyline. But beyond all the anecdotes and theories about them, Ric Burns managed to get a story from a guy who had a unique perspective on the towers: Philippe Petit.

Philippe’s perspective would be from about 110 storeys up, balanced on a tightrope. I knew there’d been a Frenchman who tightroped between the towers in the ’70s, but I didn’t know anything about his story. Burns let it take up about 15-20 minutes of the documentary, and it was all worth it.

See, the thing is, I had always assumed that the tightrope-walker was a pro who decided that the Twin Towers were his greatest challenge. Instead, to hear Petit tell the story, he was just a guy with a toothache, waiting for his dentist’s appointment, when he read about the construction of the towers in the late 1960s. He knew then and there that he had to walk between them.

But the thing is, he’d never walked on a tightrope before. He learned the skill and developed it for a few years, so that he could walk between the towers.

The documentary covered all sorts of details: How do you get a tightrope across the span? How fast are the winds up there? How do you find this out without tipping anyone off that you’re getting ready to walk across the towers? It’s a remarkable story, and I wasn’t expecting to hear such joy in Petit’s voice as he told it. It was the tone of someone who knew exactly what he was supposed to do, and doesn’t have any regrets at accomplishing it.

The loss of the towers saddened him, of course, but he managed to balance that against the utter joy he had while walking along that rope a dozen times.

My favorite photo from that story is one the police took of Petit up on the tightrope. He’s lying on his back, one foot on the rope, the other across his upraised knee, balancing beam across his chest. He’s weightless, at play higher than anyone had ever thought to play. He was home.

Now, when I think of 9.11, all my horror can balance itself against the image of Petit in his heaven.

I tried explaining this to the camera and K, but it kept coming out wrong. Just like now. I’m afraid someone will read this and say that I’m tossing out 3,000 lives because of the absurdities of some Frenchman. I don’t know how to show that I’m not. The images of that day still leave me wrecked. But now there’s also this notion that the towers mean more than what Al Qaeda turned them into. Petit, in his absurd French way, made me realize that the towers were the place that he became complete.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about leavening sadness with joy. K didn’t get it, I don’t think. When she e-mailed me a day later, she wrote about my “lifelong sadness,” even though I thought so much of the interview and our subsequent conversation was about joy.

You want to talk about this some more?

Unreal city, under the brown fog of a winter dawn

Okay, I’ve goofed on Frank Gehry before, with his “Ooh! Look at me! I’m using curved metal surfaces AGAIN!

But nothing really prepared me for his inane new design for Brooklyn, centering on Bruce Ratner’s new NBA arena for the Nets (guess what? It uses curved metal surfaces!)

Yes, as you can see below, by 2011, Brooklyn will look like the set of a Tim Burton movie. Congratulations. Glad the NYTimes likes it.

(Probably doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that real estate developer Ratner is the Times’ partner on their new building.)

Gehry’s also a bullshit furniture designer.

My City of Ruins

Theodore Dalrymple has a very thoughtful essay about Dresden in the new City Journal.

Nowhere in the world (except, perhaps, in Israel or Russia) does history weigh as heavily, as palpably, upon ordinary people as in Germany. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the disaster of Nazism is still unmistakably and inescapably inscribed upon almost every town and cityscape, in whichever direction you look. The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose. Beauty, at least in its man-made form, has left the land for good; and such remnants of past glories as remain serve only as a constant, nagging reminder of what has been lost, destroyed, utterly and irretrievably smashed up.Nor are the comforts of victimhood available to the Germans as they survey the devastation of their homeland. Walking with the widow of a banker through the one small square in Frankfurt that has been restored to its medieval splendor, I remarked how beautiful a city Frankfurt must once have been, and how terrible it was that such beauty should have been lost forever.

“We started it,” she said. “We got what we deserved.”

But who was this ‘we’ of whom she spoke?

Who, indeed? Dalrymple explores that notion of culpability, that almost Greek tragic sense of a cursed house, nation-wide Atreides, shame that pre-emptively annihilates the possibility of pride.

Perhaps I’ll give Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction a read this week.