I have eaten
the Brussel Sprouts
that were on
you were probably
they were delicious
and so bold
(Thanksgiving homage to William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”)
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I have eaten
the Brussel Sprouts
that were on
you were probably
they were delicious
and so bold
(Thanksgiving homage to William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”)
Fall put up its own form of resistance this year. Days stayed warm into late October. Leaves refused to turn. I looked everywhere for seasonal progress but couldn’t find it in the usual places. A trip upstate to hunt color on Columbus Day disappointed. In the city, crews strung holiday lights around trees with bright green leaves, as if they were in Florida or California.
The day before the midterm elections, change blew in overnight. Locusts and lindens filled the streets with their golden glow. Ocher leaves lifted and scattered in the wind. Coming up from the grimy subway underground, I entered a forest of light. It was a harbinger.
Accordionists are rare birds these days. Like supermarkets, landlines and cash, they speak to me of a disappearing time. I first fell in love with its elegiac sound at the age of two, when my parents hired a dark and handsome accordionist to perform outdoors at a garden party. I was never sure if it was him or his miniature piano-like instrument I was crushing on, but watching him turn squeezed air into music was mesmerizing. Walking across Central Park on a moody November day, I found this contemplative performer perched near the angel fountain at Bethesda Terrace. His eyes were closed and he was lost in a contagious reverie. Soon, I’d caught it too.
It’s common to walk around carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. What about on your feet? Would the world feel a little lighter?
In our current political realm of black is white and up is down, maybe the most appropriate response is to upend yourself. Artist Kathy Ruttenberg does that with her dreamlike sculpture of a woman on her head balancing a luminous globe in the Broadway median at 117th Street. That location is purposely centered between the gates of Barnard College and Columbia University, where I studied real news journalism. The cast silicon bronze, “Topsy-Turvy,” expresses the artist’s belief that pursuing knowledge can create a better world.
The fantastical sculpture is one of six from Kathy Ruttenberg on Broadway: in dreams awake, on the Broadway Mall medians from Lincoln Center at 64th Street to Washington Heights at 157th Street (until February, 2019). To see a video of all six, click here.
Warts are in, at least on pumpkins. So are lumps, bumps, wrinkles and diverse colors. These compelling and unique “Super Freaks,” seen on a day trip to Daisi Hill Farm in Millerton, New York, wore their weirdness proudly. Back in the city, I was bored by the smooth-skinned orange pumpkins sold street-side at corner groceries. Now I wanted a Jack O’ Lantern with some serious battle scars. Looking in the mirror, I felt more tolerant of my own. Imperfection is organic. It is honest. And, at heart, it can signify rebellion.
A grey-haired woman sitting in the Broadway median stares intently at me as I cross. Does she really see me? Or am I just a shadow of someone she once knew? Her eyes burn cigarette holes in my coat sleeves. Farther down, a pug squats, then scrapes. A mother bends to tie her child’s kicking sneaker. Up and down it goes, a tiny bow compass drawing arcs in air. A homeless man sleeps but hangs on to his hand-held sign: “Today’s my birthday.” His long hair and beard, his tilted face, sing like Jesus. Cars are lined up along the curb, nose to toe. In the windshield of a white Ford van, I see an etched universe of branch and sky. The intricate reflection stops me in my tracks. Everywhere I look, there’s opportunity to color in the blanks.
I don’t want a Maserati, I want a flying car. Ever since reading Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’ve dreamed of a vehicle I could drive over gridlock, through rivers and under mountains. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved these ingenious outdoor car parks. I like to imagine that the cars have swooped into their individual resting spaces like swallows into nests. I love seeing big metal machines stacked tidily like spice or wine bottles, two-ton weight be damned. At the push of the button they come carefully down, though there may be a wait if you’re the guy at the top. Even if cars can’t fly yet, they can still always pile up, up, up.
Like its ambitious citizens, the Manhattan skyline is always reinventing itself with an eye to the competition. The newest super tall skyscrapers—some still with cranes—look like fishing lines to the stratosphere. Are they trying to catch birds, helicopters, clouds? Here are views for billionaires (and maybe global criminals) who need to show they are on top of the world. Not just the one-percent, but the one-upper percent—the “my treehouse is higher than yours” club. Like NBA basketball players or super models, the towers look down imperiously on older buildings. The formerly imposing now looks short and squat. But reflected in the dimpled water of the Central Park Reservoir, the Super Talls shrink like Legos and belong to everyone. Nature brings them down to size, and wins.
DNA evidence has saved many a convicted felon and sent the guilty to prison. It’s useful, for sure. But there’s a kind of crazy land grab going on now around consumer DNA, I think.
Hereditary traits have become infotainment. Television and internet ads tout the joy of finding out your ancestry. Movies, books and news articles brim with stories about lost siblings reconnected or terrible genetic diseases stalled. I downloaded a fitness iPhone app that immediately urged me to send off saliva to their DNA partner in order to optimize my workout.
Honestly, I’m tempted. Curiosity is probably in my DNA.
As an optimist, I’d love to discover that I’m related to Beethoven. Confirmation of “unique super-hero traits” would be great, too. Yet caution prevails. There is emotional danger lurking in sending off your saliva to consumer DNA databases like ancestry.com and 23andme. You could just as easily discover you’re related to Benedict Arnold, have familial ALS and a bunch of half-sisters and half-brothers who need a loan. Great.
In fact, the plot of the popular novel, The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner (Little, Brown and Company, 2017), revolves around the difficulties faced by surprise siblings united by their DNA reports.
I’m more concerned with privacy and marketing issues. This Guardian article on DIY genetics by Arwa Mahdawi lays them out well. Consumer DNA gatherers have figured out a way to market your genetic info while you pay them for the privilege. It’s just like the “game” of Facebook—how many levels of privacy are you willing to be seduced into giving up in exchange for entertainment and information? Imagine if your DNA could be used to predict your party affiliation, spending habits or health insurance risks.
Consumer DNA products have expanded to our pets, too. After Barbara Streisand lost her beloved curly-haired Coton de Tuléar, Samantha, she cloned her from stomach and mouth cells and got three little Sams. The company she used, Viagen Pets, is easily found online. All it takes is one simple click, a compliant pet and about $50,000 a pop (or is it pup?). I do miss my adorable departed Havanese. But dealing with loss is part of life, isn’t it?
Taken to its most extreme, what’s next? The convenience of 3-D baby printing over pregnancy?
I wonder, isn’t identity ultimately a story we tell ourselves? A textured web of love and experience and ancestry and tradition? Personally, I choose the poetry of lived and oral history. It may not be full of scientific details, but it’s rich and beautiful and reassuringly opaque.
Sorry, ancestry profiteers. I’m keeping this spit private.
My immigrant great grandparents ran a small grocery on the Lower East Side. It was essential that my Grandma Mary drop out of school at age sixteen to help in the store so the family could save money on staff. Her educational sacrifice paid off in helping “the boys,” her brothers, go on to college.
Since then, all of the siblings’ future generations, male and female, have graduated from fine colleges and universities. And the Lower East Side has morphed into a chic destination that contains expensive condos, craft cocktail bars and artisanal ice cream shops. The pushcart past has pretty much disappeared but can be glimpsed in a visit to The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street or during a historic walking tour of the old neighborhood.
My brilliant grandmother went on to educate herself through wide reading and concert-going. She was highly self-disciplined and aspirational and always rued her lack of higher education. One of the many things she did out of pride was train herself to pronounce “th” and “r” properly. Others might say “toity-toid” (Thirty-third) Street, but not her.
I can only imagine how she might have loved this trendy CornerGrocers at Delancey and Rivington that looks like a home refrigerator on the lam. Whoever stocks it has a keen eye for display—it’s organic street art. And best of all, perhaps the convenience of the self-service aspect (though you have to pay inside), has allowed future Marys to stay in school.
The city streets used to be places where you could blend in and disappear. No longer. As a resident New Yorker, I hate to think of how many tourist selfies I’ve accidentally appeared in. I imagine little pieces of myself in phones all over the world. Somewhere, in some remote place, a returned tourist is undoubtedly giggling over my backside in leggings in one of their shots.
Between ubiquitous cell phones and street cameras, you are more likely to be tracked, recorded, photographed and broadcast while going about your daily business than ever before. According to the World Atlas, New York City is the fourth most surveilled city in the world after London, Beijing and Chicago. It’s making the streets safer, but in exchange for what exactly?
I took this photo of artist JR’s giant Peeping Tom pasted onto Galerie Perrotin’s brick facade this past summer just as a man walked by. It’s art about the act of looking: from the outside in, as a curious act, and as an intervention. Ironically, as I captured the image, I became a spy on the man walking by underneath. I was watching the guy watching his phone and capturing it for the Internet.
It’s a sign of the times that in Gary Shteyngart’s new comic novel, Lake Success (Random House, 2018), the troubled hedge funder Barry Cohen leaves New York via Greyhound bus to find anonymity. Trashing his phone and credit card to avoid his persistent high-octane assistant, he goes on the lam in search of the self he has lost. It seems it’s now easier to get lost on the highways of America than in the streets of New York.
Anonymity is a bubble that could instantly pop. Maybe, like Tom Hanks and Madonna, we all need to wear sunglasses and baseball caps outside. It’s nice to be unseen in broad daylight.
It took me decades to figure out that the New York City summer ends emotionally, but not literally, at Labor Day. Back to school supplies, best-of-fall media previews, and chilly boutiques stocked with winter coats all conspire to convince me that fall has started. In reality, it's still wretchedly hot. The summer sun continues to laser the concrete, my iPhone says it "feels like" 100 degrees, and a short walk outside is an act of faith and resilience. Inside, high humidity swells all my apartment doors so that they jam their jambs. They grunt with complaint.
The dog days of September?
I dial back to the August morning I awoke at a friend's beachside cliff house in Encinitas, California. From my perch on high, I watched a dog race joyfully through the surf while his owner trailed languidly behind with leash and morning coffee. A great splash of ocean lies between them. It's that cool, empty space I jump into now.
A crazy thicket of scaffolds is turning New Yorkers into moles. The other day I walked two long dark and dingy scaffolded blocks in a row, turned a scaffolded corner and walked yet another without seeing open sky. I wasn't just a mole. I was a mole in a maze.
City laws promote the erection of scaffolds, but don't legally limit how long they can stay up (for details, read here). As a result, they're out of control. Something must be done. An obvious step is to regulate how long they can stay up. But there's an easier idea.
When I walked under this Hanging Garden of Scaffold outside Cafe Lalo (the Upper West Side destination pastry shop where a scene in You've Got Mail was shot), I realized exactly what was needed. Uplifting interior design.
I propose The 2018 Scaffold Law of Aesthetic Uplift to stop the blight. Imagine the possibilities. Tiki Scaffold, Fiesta Scaffold, Disco Scaffold? Big Apple Orchard, King Kongland, Lady Liberty Lot? Think of blocks of lights at Christmas! Consider the stage sets outside Broadway! Tourists would come from all over to visit The Big Scaffold. Twinkling light and fake flower businesses would boom. People would actually mourn when the tunnels left.
Goodbye, mole people. Hello, party in the streets! What do you think?
One of the strangest interviews I ever did as a cub reporter was at the Russian & Turkish Baths. It was done entirely in the nude. It came floating back to me as I watched my dusty car get soaped up at another cleansing New York City institution: the West Side Highway Car Wash. Here, cars of all makes and models—from proletarian to presidential—get spanking clean while drivers watch through a plate glass window. Colorful neon lighting gives a happy disco feeling to each cleaning cycle. The car wash is 71-years-old and has a vintage electric sign, but it continues to innovate with eco-friendly products, water recycling and surprisingly artisanal snacks. Delicious Underwest Donuts operates a small coffee shop inside and makes fresh donuts in flavors like "car wash" (lavender-vanilla) upstairs. There's always a line at this popular destination. Which all goes to show that in the naked city, grime actually does pay.
Shadow graffiti is some of New York City's best street art. It's free, democratic and completely transient—here today, maybe gone tomorrow. Grates, fences and tall buildings etch awesome patterns when the sun is overhead. I run across jaw-dropping graphic shadows in the most mundane places, like under these elevated train tracks outside Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. A huge crowd milled outside the stadium gates, but this street right next to it was closed to traffic and empty. I got lost in the act of watching the lines converge. In the near distance, a colorful arrow on right seemed to say, "Check this out." In the middle distance, three pedestrians crossed in a single line like a Bronx version of the Abbey Road album cover. In the far distance, perspective narrowed the initial broad lines to a point. People were waiting for me. So I dragged myself away to the game.
Walking around the city, I regularly find answers to questions I forgot to ask. Like how in these stupefyingly hot August days do Broadway's beautifully planted medians survive? I might have imagined a scenario of thousands of little green thumb gremlins with silver watering cans swarming the avenue in the middle of the night. But when I saw this powerful red watering truck with a shotgun landscaper spraying up the avenue, I realized it was a way more efficient and high-tech solution. Everyone knows New York has fire trucks. Nice to know there's water trucks, too.
I love using Google to cook, particularly in summer. Not just because you can search the recipe for Alache Soup (above) but also because you can buy whatever looks freshest without fear of failure. After I greedily shop one of New York City's many Green Market farmer's markets, I google my bounty online with the word "recipe" added. It's a little like playing a menu slot machine. You pull the virtual lever and see if you get a winner. This is what I call cooking "forwards." Forwards cooking is ingredient focused.
But Google hasn't killed off cookbooks for me. I'm not the only one. The destination cookbook store, Kitchen Arts & Letters on Lexington Avenue, continues to thrive after 35 years in business (read a recent New York Times' profile here.) With books you cook "backwards." You pick your menu first, shop second and cook third.
Every summer I pull out favorite cookbooks like Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer (Hyperion, 2003), and Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Parties! (Clarkson Potter, 2001). Cooking step-by-step with these old friends puts me in a more meditative frame of mind. Juicy, ripe dishes like Ina's oven-roasted fruit or Nigella's watermelon, feta and black olive salad bring back pungent memories of summers past.
Despite a thriving website, Garten has a new book out this fall: Cook Like a Pro: Recipes and Tips for Home Cooks (Clarkson Potter, October 23, 2018). No doubt I'll splurge. Her ethos of the very relaxed hostess keeps performance anxiety in check.
Cooking forwards requires creativity, backwards requires intention, but cooking "sideways" (again, my term) is the ultimate in relaxation. All you need is a grill, olive oil, a spatula and a flip arm. Sideways cooking is pretty foolproof. And definitely the summeriest of all.
Construction workers spend their day in al fresco cubicles. It's the ultimate transparency. They text, drink coffee, snack and have lunch just like the rest of us, but somehow these mundane tasks seem amplified outdoors. The snoopy public (me, for example), feels like an audience at the theater or an anthropologist in the urban jungle. I pity the guys eating out of lunch pails on a cement sidewalk, and I want to shout at the rooftop texters, "Don't back up!" I personally will jump through any hoop to get my morning coffee, so I watched with empathy as this nimble worker scaled a long ladder on a sticky summer day holding two large iced coffees and a bulky snack bag. When he reached the top he landed the cups, hoisted himself up and over, and prepared to climb higher to his waiting co-worker. I was so thirsty by the time he was done, I had to go get some myself. In his honor, I drank it outdoors.
This Provincetown summer resident, let's call her Gorgeous, suffers neither fools nor casual photographers gladly. When I tried to flatter her into posing, she looked right past me. Anyone less than Elliott Erwitt, who turns 90 next week, clearly wouldn't do. She seemed to pride herself on the superiority of her fashionable eyewear, her chic mixed fur coat, and her slender frame. I didn't have any treats to offer, but my guess is she wouldn't have taken them anyway. I got down to her level, but she refused to get down to mine. It's not every day you meet the Anna Wintour of Chihuahuas.
When I first went to the Grand Canyon, I thought it would look just like the photos I'd seen all my life. I was stunned to realize they were inadequate. I realized then that some things could only be understood in person. it was impossible to capture and convey the Grand Canyon's magnificence and menace in a tiny two-dimensional frame.
Beach sunsets are pretty much the same thing. A lens can't do them justice. People love to shoot them, but they can't really capture them. The same thing is at play: a vast and colorful sky made small loses its reason for being. Sunset photos look like muzak sounds.
And yet, we try.
Here, an unencumbered girl runs and dances at ocean's edge near a hot pink sinking sun on the Fourth of July on "First Encounter" beach in Eastham, Mass. It struck me as a childhood experience of freedom and beauty and joy that I'd want every child to have, and so I shot it, and now I share it.