Archive for month: July, 2012

Random notes from a summer vacation

26 Jul
July 26, 2012

So I am standing today with my son outside the cathedral in Pisa, Italy staring at the famous tower and watching it do what it does best in the world.  And my son, who understands hard-science, practical stuff better than I ever will, takes in the spectacle and says, more or less, “Woah, that is truly a mess.  Amazing.”

And he smiles, glad to have seen such an oddity.

Me?  I’m supposed to be the pessimist.  I’m the guy who is reputedly drawn to a constant parsing of human failure.   The Leaning Tower should be pretty much in my philsophical wheelhouse, right?

Instead, I’m standing there thinking of the taller belltower in Firenze, or the Great Fire Monument in London, or the Shot Tower in Baltimore, or the Space Needle in Seattle, or the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in New York.  I’m thinking to myself, “It’s a Homeric fucking triumph that every other one doesn’t just tilt on over.  It’s a victory for all of humanity that this one Italian edifice is world famous for doing what other structures just don’t seem to do.

Maybe there’s cause for hope.  I dunno.  This bears some more thought, anyway.

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And while we sit here in Tuscany, shoveling fresh cinghiale carpaccio and mozzarella into our gullets, then washing same down with chianti classico, and finishing with bacio gelati, we are informed by text messages from all over New Orleans that the Hubig’s bakery, home of the sacred pies of that same name, is burning.  A five-alarm blaze.

As a family, we are of course overwhelmed by a guilt-sensation not unlike that of longtime lovers caught en flagrante with fresher, more exotic paramours.   My wife’s immediate hyperbole:  First Katrina, then BP.  Now this.

I assume the Louisiana National Guard has been called out to provide an armed cordon sanitare around Angelo Brocato’s and Sucre.  Damn.

As someone whose Mardi Gras costume a year ago was Savory Simon (!), the Hubig’s mascot, with my one-year-old daughter accessorized as a pillow-cased Sweet Potato pie, I sincerely hope, in all seriousness, that the bakery carries full fire and casualty insurance.  And, indeed, that the policy is with a company that provides a more honorable response than those seen after the flood seven years ago.

Hubig’s is just one of those small, but resonant touchstones.  Sad day in the Bywater, truly.  I know a lot of people in New Orleans,  along with many others elsewhere, are feeling down.

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On a day in the Pompeii ruins, on the last summer vacation with my son before he heads to college, the eighteen-year-old scion saved the Pompeiian bordello, with its pornographic imagery carved above the stalls, for last.   It was a seasoned touch on his part, something to let me know he has grown up and that the family dynamic is ever-changing.

He also went into town one morning and bought a bottle of wine.

Like it ain’t no thing.

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Pies at Ancien Pizzeria de Michele in Napoli.

Been eating this stuff my whole life.  Except I haven’t.

Marinara or Margherita.  Those are the choices.  And it is enough for a lifetime.

And by the way, Napoli is my Italian default.  Tuscany is beautiful and gracious, but if I have to make my way in this country for any length of time, my inevitable retreat and redoubt will be decidedly Neapolitan.  Lots of trash, rock ‘n’ roll graffitti, loud, raucous street life, old ladies leaning out second-floor windows, shirtless kids kicking soccer balls and breaking soda bottles.  Crime stories on the front page.  Complaints about ordinary corruption.  And they know what to do with seafood.  Outside of a news stand near the port, two guys in muscle shirts tried to sell me a hot iPad.

In short, Naples — bless her — is the Baltimore of the Mediterranean.


Pickles and Cream

18 Jul
July 18, 2012

The following is reprinted with permission from Lucky Peach #4, published by McSweeney’s.  It is on sale now.  And, yes, payment for this essay will require co-publisher David Chang slaving over a hot stove.

Bernard Simon


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I want to embrace the best of the kitchen.

But if DNA is destiny, and genetics holds any sway at all over the human palate, then I have much—probably too much—to overcome.

The Simons come from peasant stock, and by that I don’t mean the countryside of Alsace or Tuscany or any other place where cuisine makes the days true and beautiful, where gardens and orchards and farms and village butchers conspire for a cuisine both purposeful and ingeniously simple. We are not the progeny of any agrarian ideal worthy of Impressionist paintings.

No, my father’s people were kicked-to-the-ground-by-Cossacks peasants, wandering Pale of Settlement Yids who lived with one or two bags always packed and spent the early moments of the last century running ahead of whatever Jew-hating militia was on whichever side of the Polish-Russian border. Like fodder for an Isaac Babel story, we hauled ass from pogrom to pogrom, dragging our huddled mass west until a sign said NEW JERSEY.

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Mr. Bealefeld’s Come-To-Jesus Moment

14 Jul
July 14, 2012

Embedded in a recently published interview of former Baltimore commissioner Fred Bealefeld is an extraordinary utterance — something that would and should be a lot more heralded if America were paying sufficient attention to the growing costs and failings of its drug prohibition:

“Professionally,” declares Mr. Bealefeld in a brief interview with the Baltimore Sun Magazine,  “I think our war on drugs has failed…We invested a lot of this country’s blood and resources and didn’t achieve the results. Developing real educational and job opportunities for somebody would have been much more meaningful in neighborhoods than some of the work we built into putting people in jail. That’s why I think it was so misguided. We wound up alienating a lot of folks in building this gigantic jail system in our country.”

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In Memoriam

12 Jul
July 12, 2012

photograph by Paul Schiraldi

Uncle Lionel Batiste

1931 – 2012


A Fight To The Last Mexican

10 Jul
July 10, 2012

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

So wrote Thomas Paine against monarchy, the morally bankrupt ethos of his day.  But then, it was a less fearful time, and the political leaders of Paine’s moment were scarcely risk-adverse.  Indeed, they were willing to address the moral questions before them to the point of treason.

Not so today, when we can hold a national political contest and neither candidate — nor their respective parties — can find the courage to speak a word about the policy disaster and dishonorable fraud that is the American drug war.

So here, for the hell of it – and because it can never happen in American political discourse – let’s take a solitary moment to be honest with ourselves about why we remain addicted to drug prohibition. Read more →