Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)



(Im)practical city living, #5

There are no stars in the north Brooklyn sky at night. And when I say none, I mean really, truly, almost zero.

After six years in these parts, their absence begins to seem normal. You actually forget that it’s not natural to look to the spire at the top of the Chrysler Building, and to the rest of the Manhattan skyline, for illumination after dark. You notice the moon maybe once a month, when it’s red and hanging low in the sky.
 

Every couple of months I take the train up to visit my sister and her partner in Massachusetts. We sit in their living room and watch the sun set over the mountains, and I’m always astonished to see the pinpricks of light appear on the horizon. I remember then how, back in Gainesville, nighttime drives across Paynes Prairie took my breath away.

I haven’t visited Florida in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest time I’ve gone without setting foot in the state since my parents moved there when I was two. Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to be outdoors lately.

My Brooklyn friends hate the summer heat, but I don’t mind it. I mind the lack of trees and flowers and stars, and the glare of the sun on the asphalt. I mind that the square of sand that brought my friends and me a few weekends of joy has been overrun with hipsters.
 

Bottom line: you know you need a break from the city and your life here when you start reading W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping A Tree” as an instruction manual.



Practical city living, #3

In what surely must be the funniest goddamned thing ever written about peeing — notwithstanding his own prior achievements — Kevin puzzles over intricate urinal graffiti.

While we’re on the subject: at a bar patio on the Lower East Side not long ago, some friends and I witnessed a man urinating into his empty beer mug. When he finished, he set the mug on the table in front of him, plopped back down on the porch swing (next to his smiling, entirely nonchalant date, who’d seen the whole thing), and continued his conversation.

One of my companions muttered, “If you’re going to whip it out in the middle of a bar like that, you better have something substantial. That looked like a tiny turtle head.”

Fortunately, I didn’t scrutinize things closely enough to know if she was right. But the description has stayed with me all the same.
 

I’m aware that this anecdote marks a new low here at MaudNewton.com. Still, if you’ve read this far, you followed the “more” tag. Did you think you were going to get Shakespeare on pissing-conduits running with claret wine?



Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.
 

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.
 

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.



Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)
 

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.
 

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.
 

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.

 

Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.



Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks

Whatever the limitations of the experience as a whole, here’s an advantage to reading a book on the iPhone: If you drop it, you don’t lose your place.

I had this reconfirmed this morning, when, as I dashed to the train, my phone slipped from my hands and plummeted to the subway tracks. There it lay, illuminated for a minute or two amid the straw wrappers and crushed soda cans, until it went dark.
 

I’ve always wondered what happens if something falls down near the rails — I mean, assuming you’re not willing to risk your life for it — and now I know: You go to the upper platform and notify the attendant, who calls the lost-object-picker-upper and tells you to stay where you are until he or she arrives, some 30 to 45 minutes hence.

Sure enough, two guys showed up a half-hour later, with one of those claw-hand poles, and retrieved the phone on the first try. I thanked them effusively and offered them money, but they wouldn’t take it.

Moments later the train pulled into the station. I climbed on, grabbed a pole, and picked up where I’d left off on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ($1.34 at eReader).



Practical city living #11: The fucking neighbors

Long, long ago I promised to tell the rest of the story about the upstairs neighbors whose fist-fights and make-up sex marathons unfolded weekly at 3 o’clock in the morning. (See The Price of Garden Access in Brooklyn, Part 1.)

The whole thing is a tale best spun out over drinks, but to cut to the last act: Their tenure in our former building came to an end shortly after the guy, a tall but wispy unemployed British actor who spent his days watching Time Bandits on endless loop, proclaimed Mr. Maud a “pathetic little man” and the two of us “pathetic little people” from his perch at the top of the stairway.

In hindsight, that was pretty great. Everyone should be imperiously insulted by a failed Shakespearean villain at least once in her life.
 

Now I live in a quiet neighborhood, on the top floor of a midcentury building with thick plaster walls, where I am grateful to know next to nothing about the private lives of those who reside in adjoining apartments.

Not so my friend GMB, whose neighbors get off on having screaming sex with the windows open. The point of this post is that she’s figured out the perfect line to shout to shut them up.



Practical city living #10: The inner lives of mattresses

New Yorkers: In case you didn’t know, the city is battling a whole new breed of vermin. New to us, I mean. Old to humankind. Pliny and Aristophanes both wrote about these pests. One is a character in the Tales of Bidpai. The scourge even predates King Tut.

It is often pointed out, by the media and politicians alike, that 311 bed bug reports still number only in the low thousands. But I know at least a dozen people who’ve fought these things, and none of them has, to my knowledge, notified the city. In general victims call only if their landlords refuse treatment altogether.

Earlier this morning GMB forwarded a McBrooklyn post, Beware of Garbage With Something Written on It. Good advice! May I also present, for your delectation and delight, Mangy Cur’s Infested (from which the shot at the top of this post was taken)?

I’m going to take McBrooklyn’s warning one step further: Steer clear of curbside finds (and, really, used furniture) altogether. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses. They hole up in wood. They thrive in paper. They even camp out in electronics. They hide all day, coming out only to feed, and once inside a building, they move easily between apartments.

Based on the suspicious collections of refuse I see on the streets, I’d bet good money that few people discarding infested items actually bother to wrap them in plastic. Pass the Astral, at 76 India, the night before trash pickup, and you’re likely to find a motley collection of mattresses and rugs, armchairs and bed frames, none of which are labeled, although some bear visible signs of a problem. Mae West may once have lived in the building, but a squadron of wild horses and a year’s free rent couldn’t drag me there now.

And yes, Greenpoint, my old neighborhood, is a hotspot and has been for years, but the plague isn’t confined to any one area. It’s in Manhattan, it’s in Queens. It’s even, according to some reports, invaded the subway.

On my way to work yesterday morning, I passed a couch and two twin mattresses, all wrapped in plastic. When I was returning home last night the couch was still in the same spot. The bedding was gone.

But hark! What was this? Just down the block two young gentlemen trotted off into the night, new beds on their backs.

By this morning, only a wad of plastic wrap remained.

Boston has warning stickers. Lexington, Kentucky is distributing leaflets. San Francisco has assistance for low-income residents.

New York City, meanwhile, has… a Department of Health fact sheet that is, to put it generously, a little on the short side? A booming used mattress industry? A local government that’s done next to nothing?

But if you see an Asian Longhorned Beetle, just call the special hotline. You’ll know the bug because it’s pictured on that leaflet that came in the mail last summer.



Practical city living, #9: Useless emergency signs

The MTA’s Emergency Instructions (above) might provide a diversion if your subway car goes up in flames and you can’t escape, but I wouldn’t bother with them if you’re in a hurry.

Essentially, the redundant and confusing information (presented in four separate columns — Fire, Medical, Police, and Evacuation) boils down to:

  • (1) DO NOT PULL THE EMERGENCY BRAKE (conveniently located above);
  • (2) Notify the crew in case of fire, danger, or illness (yours or another passenger’s); and
  • (3) Do not do anything else unless or until instructed by an announcement or MTA employee.

 

I know there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about hapless bureaucratic directions. But unless you were familiar with these, I couldn’t effectively convey why the agency’s Subway Emergency Evacuation Information (pictured below) is just crying out to be a subplot in a satirical novel.

The second sign, as you can see, incorporates the first one — in a size too small to read.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Yeah, once the emergency is over, be sure to go home and watch the helpful video at mta.info.

(Max pointed this out sometime last year, and now I can’t look at any of the emergency signs without wondering: Do they want us to die?)



Practical city living, #8

Did Showtime buy up all the train ad slots normally reserved for Poetry in Motion and Dr. Zizmor? No matter which way you turn on the subway these days you’ll catch the deeply unsettling gaze of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, get an eyeful of cleavage, or both.

The proprietress of Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny relays helpful tips for the resulting Henry VIII trivia games now sweeping mass transit.

Two older gentlemen on the train were trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives outlived him. The woman sitting across from me, trying to read her New Yorker, smirked to herself until it was too much. She stood up and walked towards them. “Catherine Parr.” She said. She was British. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s how you remember.” She walked, New Yorker under arm, further down the car.

“Divorced…”

“Beheaded. So two were beheaded.”

“And two divorced. Which one outlived him?”

“She just told you.”

“Divorced, beheaded, died…”

“…divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The man closest to the door adjusted his pinky ring and said “Huh.”

(Anne of Cleves also outlived the king — as his sister.)



Practical city living #6

When you live in a neighborhood that sits over the largest oil spill in North America, something you really don’t want to wake up to is a billowing tower of black smoke in the sky. I mean, assuming you’re a neurotic like me.

I saw the clouds from my back window this morning, learned nothing from WNYC, and ran to the computer hoping Google News would have the answers. It always does.

The 10-alarm blaze is many blocks from Exxon’s legacy, it turns out, but it’s ravaging an industrial landmark. The fire department is calling it “the city’s worst fire since 9/11.” R.I.P. Greenpoint Terminal Market. (Image credit: Grubby Kid.)