New Haven

Idle Notions and Unexpected Realities: Movie Tie-Ins at the Institute Library

In November, 2012, someone who knows me very, very well suggested that Best Video out in Hamden should merge somehow with the Institute Library in New Haven. "You could do some great stuff together," I was told. "Think of the programming potential." "You're right," I said. "That's a really interesting idea, especially because the sort of people who love the Library are basically likely to be the same sort of people who love Best Video." I know this demographic, having served on the board of the Institute Library for the last seven, nearly eight, years, and as a person who worked for Hank, when Best Video had a store in the old Yale Co-op on Broadway.

And now:

Back in 2012, encouraged by the idle conversation described above, I sent an email to a few people saying, "Hey, what if?" and heard crickets. One person said, basically, "Cute idea, but..." and nothing else. But now here it has come to pass that the Best Video Film and Cultural Center exists, with the assistance of the Institute Library, which is acting as a kind of fiscal sponsor for the enterprise.  Basically, the function that the Library now serves for the New Haven Review, it's now serving for the BVFCC -- ok, there are probably some differences, but that's my sloppy shorthand for it. I leave the details to the lawyers; what I'm thinking about, and celebrating, is my sense that the dreams of 2012 can come true.

The things that the Institute Library is, physically -- a time capsule, a museum of cultural oddities, a little tiny piece of history -- Best Video has always had in its movie collection. Best Video's stock is all over the place in terms of genre and time period, but to me, Best Video was the place where I could find all the old movies I'd heard of but never had a chance to see. When I worked for Hank, which was a thousand years ago, there were a lot of hours when I was, frankly, alone in the store with no customers, and I could play whatever movie I wanted as long as it wasn't obviously going to offend anyone who came by. So I watched a lot of movies from the 1930s and '40s and '50s (in addition to the new releases of the 1980s, which were a mixed bag, frankly). Hank had VHS tapes of just about everything in the world, or at least it felt that way; and if I was reading a book that made passing reference to some old Barbara Stanwyck flick, which in those days I often was -- well, all I had to do was pull it from the cabinet. Decades later, when I first walked up into the Institute Library, I swear to God I thought it was the set of a movie I'd watched on one of those days when I was just monitoring paperwork and waiting for the late afternoon rush.

The Institute Library is in color (mostly this kind of odd shade of green), but it goes with those old black and white movies I associate so strongly with Best Video. I am ardently hoping that movie and music lovers will rally around the BVFCC and keep Hank's establishment alive. But what I really want is a movie series at the Institute Library. I mean, for years I have been dreaming about this. I want a screening of "Auntie Mame" at the Institute Library. "The Thin Man." "The Maltese Falcon." "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." It feels like, after years of talking about it idly, this may come to pass. There is no popcorn machine at the Institute Library, and there probably will never be, but as God is my witness, this engagement is wonderful news for Best Video, for the Library, and for everyone around here.

The Imponderables and The Institute Library

The Institute Library, which is now serving as a home for the New Haven Review, is about to see a big shift. It's an exciting change, but one I cannot help, personally, but be a little sad about. After three years, Will Baker is leaving his post as Executive Director of the Library, and moving to Pittsburgh. Now, I'm sure he'll have a grand old time there, as he is known for his love of Rust Belt cities. But this small New England city will not be the same without him. The Board of Directors of the Library spent a few months working on selecting a new Executive Director, and it was, I can tell you, a strange process filled with unexpected turns. I was, myself, on the search committee, and we read resumes from people living all over the United States. There were a lot of folks who were very hot to trot to come to the Library and take over where Will would be leaving off. I entered this process with a very open mind, thinking, "It is entirely possible that the next ED will be someone from Tennessee who hasn't ever been here but just somehow Gets It." Because, of course, this is a position where diplomas and straight-arrow resumes don't necessarily make someone the right candidate. This is a position where it really boils down to what Jeeves might refer to as "imponderables."  Having an MLS is nice, but not the point. What matters is having, oh, I don't know -- a kind of spirit and energy and gung-ho-ness; and having a real grasp of what the library has been about, and, what it can be about in the future. Those are really hard to quantify qualities.

It surprised me very much when at the end of the day, the library's new Executive Director turned out to be none other than a neighbor of mine, someone who I met last year when I found her lost mitten on Orange Street, someone who I see several times a week, in passing. Her name's Natalie Elicker, and she's someone who has been doing tremendous work around New Haven the last few years, working in various capacities. She's been working as a lawyer, but she's actually better known to me for doing all kinds of volunteer work and being one of those people that everyone seems to know. (At the time I met Natalie, returning her lost mitten to her, I was actually a little sheepish because I realized I'd probably walked past her house a million times, passed her on the street eight million times, and never once said hello. We ought to've known each other already.) So: Will Baker, who also has made his home on Orange Street the last few years, will be passing the baton to Natalie, resident of Orange Street. He's very happy about it, he tells me -- it turns out he has known Natalie since he moved to New Haven, years and years ago, and thinks very highly of her. (Will is clearly a better neighbor than I am.)

On Saturday, May 24th, the Library will be hosting an open house from 4 to 6 in the afternoon, so that any and all members of the New Haven community can come and celebrate Will's tenure at the Institute Library. When they come up the stairs, they will see a library that has changed so much from the place the Library was in 2011, when Will was hired.

When Will came on board, the Library was, granted, a pleasantly sleepy place -- it was a heavy mug of hot milk with honey in it: comfortable, eminently enjoyable, something that made you feel you were living in a novel of another era. But it was floundering in many ways, and it needed help. The Board had put a lot of energy into organizing that help, and was doing the best it could, but the fact was, someone was needed to be at the Library full-time, every day, and help wake the place up. We needed to change the Institute Library in some ways, yet find a way to maintain the old elements that made the Library the sanctuary it was. Somehow, Will Baker grasped this. He said, basically, "Hi, I'm Will, I think I can help you out." And he did. He took ideas we had and ran with them; he added his own ideas to the mix, and implemented them. People began to come into the library and then they added their ideas, and the day-to-day of the Library got very wondrously complex. The third floor was renovated, and a gallery was formed. It had been an utterly neglected space for decades -- decades! -- and it was, within a year, I think, of Will's hiring, a place where huge, crazy art pieces were installed, pieces that wouldn't have been displayed anywhere else in New Haven. (Thanks for this are, for sure, to be directed to Stephen Kobasa, who guided the gallery into existence and then made sure all was well for three years -- but it wouldn't have happened at all, I suspect, were it not for Will being there in the first place.)

With Will at the helm, the library was able to expand its hours. This is no small thing. This is a huge thing. There was a time when the library was only open about 10 hours a week, or something dismal like that, because financial worries made it impossible to do more. But the library made the investment in Will, who made the investment in the Library, in turn, and he changed the way things worked. Suddenly the library was open Monday through Friday, 10-6; and on Saturday, a corps of volunteers kept the place open mid-day. This was, at least to me, a huge sign. Being open -- almost nothing was as important as that, to me. The way the library had been so dormant all those years before -- the short hours were, to me, a symbol of all the sleepiness. It was quaint to read about but so hard to love ... because you simply couldn't get inside. But that changed.

The Library became a little daytime writer's colony. It became a place where alter kockers came to read magazines and peruse old books of essays and talk socialist politics. It became a place where teenagers came and helped out because they thought it was fun and because they felt like this was their place. Everyone's been at home at the library. This is an astounding level of change for some of the board members to contemplate. It seemed so improbable.

But we had to admit this: Library could not continue as it was. It had to adapt. The miracle here isn't really merely that Will changed the Library. A lot of people could have changed the Library and led it to a more stable place -- and while it's not sustainable, currently, it is closer to a sustainable financial footing than it has been in years -- because there are a lot of people who have fancy degrees in management and arts administration and such. And they could have come in and said, "OK, so, what we're going to do is this." And maybe the place would have thrived. But it would almost certainly have become an entirely different sort of place. And it could easily have lost its grounding in history, local history, because a lot of people aren't sensitive to that kind of thing. It's easy to talk about preservation, and have good intentions, but it is damned hard to achieve the preservation of a place like the Library. I've talked with a lot of people about it, over the years, and it's one of those things where either you Get It or you Don't. So I can tell you:

Few people would have allowed the Library to change and thrive with the style and manner that Will did. Will married Change with Preservation; he got the old and the new to talk with one another, civilly, and with laughter, and over cups of hot coffee. The Library may not be a double mocha cappuccino, but it is no longer the mug of hot milk and honey. It is something new, at the same time that it is something old. The Institute Library is a better place thanks to Will Baker, and we are indebted to him. I am indebted to him.

All are welcome Saturday afternoon. Four to six. Thanks, Will.

I was wrong in 1988. Bob Dylan Matters. OK?

So, in 1988, I was sitting in Broadway Pizza eating pizza and talking with some friends of mine who both happened to be named Dave. We were all people who cared a lot about music. I mean, a lot. We were the sort of people who went to record conventions to buy bootleg recordings of stuff, we spent hundreds of dollars collecting Japanese imports of, you know, whatever we were into. We were whack jobs. I worked at Cutler's Records, in those days. The subject of Bob Dylan came up. He had a new album out, and the Daves weren't drooling to get their hands on it, but they were saying things like, "yeah, I gotta get the new Dylan, I'll pick it up this weekend." And I snorted, "Bob Dylan is irrelevant."

This led to one of the biggest arguments about music I think I've ever had, and the Daves and I still talk about it today, when I run into them. Which isn't often, but this is New Haven, so, you know, it happens, now and then.

We laugh about it.

Dylan has proven to be important to a lot of people for longer than I could possibly have imagined, back then in June of 1988. Now, I personally still don't care much. I had a phase when I really enjoyed The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and thanks to a college roommate who was obsessed with Blood on the Tracks, I came to really love that album too. But otherwise? I have to admit I don't really give a hoot.

Here's what I give a hoot about: Donald Brown's book about Bob Dylan. The Institute Library is hosting a book release party this week. Come on down. Maybe get the book. Here's why you should do this: because you know -- if you're a reader of the NHR's site -- Don is a smart guy. He's got a good sense of humor (something I find many Dylan types sorely lack). He's a really good writer. And... it's coming toward the end of May, and you need to get out more.

I'll see you there. I'll be the woman standing around arguing heatedly with whoever will listen, insisting that for my money, Lou Reed is more interesting than Dylan...

Here's the NHR / Institute Library site for reserving a spot.

And here's the amazon listing for the book, which already has some good review! (The book will be on sale at the party, slightly cheaper than on amazon.)


Oppenheimer on the Advocate

Mark Oppenheimer, founder of the New Haven Review, former editor of the New Haven Advocate, and columnist at the New York Times, comments on the end of the New Haven Advocate: Here's the sad thing: the Advocate was an alt-weekly that could have made it. New Haven is a loyal town, the brand was great, and it was for a couple decades an absolute must-read — not only among the heads, freaks, geeks and other counter-culturalists who loitered on the Green (smoking the green), but in the political and business communities, too. The combination of arts coverage plus progressive politics worked for this publication.

And I Iike to think it was still working in the years I edited the paper, from 2004 to 2006. But we were already owned by the Hartford Courant, which was already owned by the Tribune, and that big, massive, stupidly run conglomerate, now in well-deserved bankruptcy, somehow managed to stymie every possible innovation that could have kept us relevant. It wasn't just starving us for funds, or even mainly starving us for funds. Worse, it was insisting that we be part of a "synergy" strategy that folded our web presence (and ad sales) into that of other publications, including dailies that we were ostensibly supposed to fearlessly cover, and even a local Fox TV affiliate.

The synergy never materialized, of course, and what the suits had to show for it was not higher ad revenue or more eyeballs but just a shitty website for an alt weekly that, a decade earlier, had been early to, and smart on, the web, as well as a generally demoralized staff. And with all that, we still did good work. Our alumni — including people I hired who are now at The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, and (as a free lance) New York magazine and elsewhere, and who are writing novels and recording music and generally making trouble — continue to bear (I hope) the mark of the beast that I branded on their forehead, using a branding iron that had been passed on to me by other alumni, including Paul Bass and Gail Collins and a forgotten cast of awesomes. Good night, New Haven Advocate, and may plights of angels ping you in your dreams.

—Mark Oppenheimer, December 1, 2013

End of an Era

In case you missed it: the once proud New Haven Advocate is no more.  Granted, it hasn't been itself in a while, but as of last week, it's gone.  Former NHA staff member Brian LaRue posted his take on the untimely demise on November 27.  Here's what he had to say about it.  You can see his original post at ItsBrianLaRue, and you can email him with comments at:  At NHR we welcome comments to Brian's post as well as more detailed reflections from those who wrote for, worked at, or read avidly The New Haven Advocate at any time in its former existence.  Submit the latter to  

Three Alt-Weeklies, My Own Salad Days and One Long Goodbye to Them All


This morning, the final editions of the three alt-weekly newspapers that serve Connecticut — the New Haven Advocate, Hartford Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly — all hit newsstands. The Hartford Advocate, which I discovered on the floor of my high school’s chorus room, was the first alt-weekly I ever read and inspired me to pursue journalism seriously. The New Haven Advocate, which I read religiously through college, opened my eyes to the premise that whatever I wanted to get out of doing journalism, I wasn’t getting it from being a journalism major. (I switched to English pretty quickly.) At some point in my 20s, I wrote for each of those three papers.

It’s often sad to acknowledge a significant part of your past is gone (and almost always a bum-out to realize you’ve reached an age when you can look back and notice how entities that at one point defined your life are totally gone), but my own sense of loss is a mere detail. The tragedy is that every region deserves an alt-weekly, and to imagine every Connecticut college campus and artists’ colony and band rehearsal complex not having one that serves its own denizens… well, the image just doesn’t feel like Connecticut to me. The Connecticut I know is home to a culture where mild crankiness and dry wit ride high, where homegrown music and art are championed by very vocal local boosters, where the landscape is dotted with a few of the more prestigious colleges and universities in the U.S., where the political conversation tends to pan leftward, and where an extremely diverse (economically and ethnically) group of people try to understand each other and get along. Connecticut is alt-weekly country, man.

Now, just to clarify things: There are some people who will probably say the Advocate, the NHAdvocate and the Weekly aren’t going anywhere. Those three papers — collectively, the New Mass. Media Group — are owned by the Hartford Courant,  Hartford’s daily and paper of record (which in turn is owned by the long-flagging media giant the Tribune Corp.). The Courant has, for many years, published a weekly pull-out arts and lifestyle supplement called Cal. The New Mass. Media papers and Cal will henceforth be combined into one publication, to be called CTNow. This name reflects the longstanding domain, which had previously existed as a Courant­-owned, web-only entertainment publication. New Mass. Media editorial staffers will hold onto their jobs — they’ll just be folded in under the CTNow umbrella. There will be some kind of paper in the old Advocate/Weekly boxes. It’ll just have a different name.

It’ll also have a different mission. Former colleagues of mine at New Mass. Media have told me the higher-ups at the Courant have instructed them to refrain from cursing in print and from writing about “edgy” topics. Furthermore, the Courant’s description of this whole re-branding project, in a recent memo to advertisers, as a “strategic realignment of our suite of entertainment products” misses the point of alt-weeklies entirely: They are supposed to be news publications, not merely “entertainment products.”

Look, even before everyone with an internet connection had the opportunity to publish anything at any hour of the day or night, alt-weeklies faced a particular challenge of timing. Dailies had the lock on breaking news. In order to be worth reading consistently, because they can expect to be scooped more often than not, alt-weeklies have to go in-depth and provide valuable context, to illuminate the characters involved, to explain the back story and point to potential outcomes. Most local dailies can only really go into a similar amount of depth in their weekend editions, because their reporters each have to polish off a handful of quick news stories every day and can’t sprawl out and devote 1,200 words to one topic. And alt-weeklies are supposed to be loud, opinionated, profane, funny, comforting, irksome, turgid, terse — because that’s how we are as human beings. Daily papers are expected to behave more decorously, “on the record,” so an alternative is needed to pick up the slack and join the conversation in the same tone as the people on the street. If you don’t have that, you don’t have an alt­-weekly. And if the Advocate/Weekly papers lose their “alt-” functionality and become mere “entertainment products,” then they are effectively done.

There’s a tragedy for readers in losing the Advocate/Weekly papers, as I hope I at least partly explained, but there’s another tragedy, one that’s repeating throughout the world of alt-weeklies, and that’s the loss of opportunity for journalists, particularly young journalists. Oh, sure, it’s 2013, and there’s no shortage of outlets for a young, loud, opinionated writer to be loud and opinionated in media. But oftentimes — and I’ve written about this before, talking about the shift in media from the all-hands-on-deck newsroom to these networks of isolated bloggers — you lose the wisdom of the tribe that comes from being part of an editorial staff at a decades-old publication. And beyond that, working at an alt-weekly teaches a journalist so many important lessons. For reasons I’ve already laid out, when you report for an alt-weekly, you have to go deep. You have to figure out the not-obvious story. You have to become an engaging storyteller, not just a sharp transcriber. The editorial staff is small. (When I worked at the New Haven Advocate, the most full-time editorial staffers we ever had was seven, and that didn’t last long.) Your beat is broad. You need to learn your history, fast, so you know what to ask about and who to talk to. In general, you need to get really good. Really. Goddamned. Good.

I first came to the New Haven Advocate in the summer of 2004, in a manner that seems impossible now and was fairly improbable even for that time. I was sitting around in my apartment, unemployed, in a prolonged post-collegiate daze. “I should write CD reviews professionally,” I thought, and so I emailed Chris Arnott, the paper’s arts editor, to ask for his advice to a young aspiring music critic. He wrote back explaining, well, he started out in the early ’80s, and back then you cut your teeth in ’zines and then worked your way up to weeklies, and he just wasn’t sure how to navigate the blogosphere because he’d never had to, but he liked my band’s most recent CD-R and particularly liked my lyrics, so might I be able to come by the office the following afternoon?

When I did visit the Advocate’s office — located then in a sleek office tower 11 floors above the New Haven Green, which, for the low-slung Elm City, offered panoramic views in all directions — Chris explained the paper needed someone to take a crack at re-imagining and completely updating its upcoming annual guide to everything in the New Haven area. That was the assignment he had for me, and, well, once I was done, we could take it from there. He was excited to make progress — this issue, he said, would be an ideal showcase for this hot-shot young designer they’d just hired, this kid with a portfolio full of pieces inspired by pulp novel covers. Seconds later, I discovered that kid was my college friend Jeff Glagowski, and after a downright giddy reunion, Jeff, Chris and I started talking about the cover for this issue. We had this pulp theme, right? So let’s have a 50-foot-tall something laying waste to the Green. A giant Yale bulldog? …No, too needlessly antagonistic. A giant angry squirrel? …No, too in-jokey; you’d need to explain the Green is full of squirrels with attitude and… no. Finally, thinking of the man who’d held the highest elected office in the city for 10 years (and who would continue to hold it for 10 more), I said, “…How about a giant Mayor DeStefano?”

That was the one. It had just the right balance of “ridiculous” and “appropriate” to work. (And here it is as a lunchbox.):

That afternoon commenced about five years of having completely ridiculous ideas and, a week or two later, publishing 50,000 copies of them. I’ve explained — I hope — why alt-weeklies are important. But they’re also fun. They kind of have to be. The salaries are typically atrocious, the hours are long and the benefits are slim. There are reasons why so many young reporters in the alt-weekly world bounce around from one city and one paper to another, looking for the gig through which they can gain a foothold and advance. In his excellent appreciation of Boston Phoenix upon that esteemed alt-weekly’s shuttering, former Phoenix editor S.I. Rosenbaum pointed out how “the job itself had to be the reward.” You work for an alt-weekly because, every week, it feels like some combination of a public service and a tremendous prank you can’t believe you’re getting away with. You spend countless days in which you work from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed again because you know you’re helping to create an ongoing community institution, something thousands of people rely on for an experience they can’t get anywhere else, and you have to bring your A-game for them.

And then there are all the weeks when you and your colleagues end up putting something in the paper simply because it’s funny and you can and no one’s stopping you. One former editor of mine, Tom Gogola, had an ongoing campaign, several weeks long, of making sure there was at least one image of a goat in each issue of the paper. When the New Haven Coliseum was demolished, Chris Arnott had an idea to include a “Demolish Your Own Coliseum” kit in the paper — the staff created a design that was printed in the centerfold of the paper, and by snipping it out, folding along the dotted lines and affixing some tape, readers could set up their own tiny Coliseum and smash it however they  wanted. Another time, before Christmas, we sent illustrator/writer Hugh Elton, who was then about 20 years old, out to sit in mall Santas’ laps and review their performances. During one editorial meeting, while joking about the tendency of the local daily, the New Haven Register, to publish cuddly human-interest stories, we decided to beat the Reg at its own game and devised the “kittencopia,” a horn of plenty from which protruded the pasted-together heads of about a dozen kittens, which we printed in several issues. One year on Valentine’s Day, I published a bitter ode to being broken up with that culminated with me proclaiming my adoration of my ever-trustworthy cassette four-track recorder. We sent contributing writer/illustrator Craig Gilbert out on the town wearing a Bigfoot suit, and photographer Kathleen Cei assembled a huge photo spread of Craig-as-Bigfoot riding a skateboard, browsing local shops and interacting with kids on the street.

We also published a lot of work that was cool and meaningful. We covered the work of housing advocates exposing the city’s worst slumlords. We covered the work of immigrants’ rights groups and told the very human stories of the perils faced by many of the city’s immigrants, before and after New Haven’s controversial move to issue IDs to undocumented residents. Reporter and editor Betsy Yagla brilliantly covered a high-profile local trial of a Navy sailor turned suspected Al Qaeda informant in 2008. Contributor Doron Monk Flake decided to throw a block party and logged the entire process of securing all the necessary permits and permissions. Tom Gogola, in 2005, insisted we use a tour stop by The Black Keys as an opportunity to put them on the cover, and assigned reporter Ryan Kearney to write the first comprehensive, long-form feature about them in any newspaper or magazine. I had the chance to interview Tommy Ramone, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Lou Barlow, Ian MacKaye, Juliana Hatfield, Ted Leo, Doug Martsch, Ian Svenonius, Zach Hill, Honus Honus, Mary Timony and countless others — an absolute dream for me as a 20-something rock musician. And our pages saw an endless stream of reviews, reports and columns by local musicians, artists, actors, filmmakers and so on, writing from the perspective that only active artists can bring to coverage of their own world. (This was a particular point of pride for Chris, that so many working artists of all disciplines would pitch in to write for the Advocate when we simply asked. “Other papers write about the scene,” he would often say, “but at the Advocate, the scene writes for us!”)

I have to acknowledge that I’m mainly remembering the Advocate for what it was at one time. I moved to Brooklyn in 2010 and missed out on the last three years of its existence, but it had been hobbled for at least a couple years by that point and the last three seem to have not been pretty. While New Mass. Media had been performing in the black for a long time, we were told, it reached a point when it couldn’t escape the effects of Tribune Corp.’s financial woes and eventual entry into bankruptcy proceedings. Many of the perks — like the vouchers advertisers would give to the paper in lieu of paying a balance in cash — dried up long before I left New Haven. There was a series of perhaps ill-thought-out hires at the management level, and content started to suffer. Long-time staffers gradually left all three New Mass. Media papers, and a hiring freeze prevented them from being replaced. The Weekly shuttered its Bridgeport office and moved operations to the New Haven Advocate’s office. Both papers eventually moved into a small storefront several blocks from that glorious 11th-floor perch. New Mass. Media didn’t have an easy time finding a digital foothold. Sales departments had some difficulty selling into the websites, and the sites were plagued by poor navigation and the disappearance of huge chunks of its web archives.

Eventually the Advocate/Weekly’s web properties were shunted into one tab on the domain — a tab labeled “The Advocates,” a designation no one in the editorial department of any NMM paper ever used, and which was probably as nonsensical to readers. I don’t think the consolidation of the Advocate/Weekly papers was a natural function of how print (and certainly not digital) media has performed in the 21st century. I think it goes to show the Courant’s management didn’t have a clue about what the brand of each of these papers was worth, or about the value audiences derived from the publications. The management has rolled these media properties up into something they can understand, which does not reflect the value audiences recognized in them during the days when they were performing in a functional fashion.

In any case, I’m in a position I never thought I’d be in: I’ve seen my former colleagues put the paper to bed for one more week, except this is the last time it’ll wake up on Wednesday morning. New Haven Advocate, Hartford Advocate, Fairfield County Weekly — you all did right by me. You shocked, amused and, most importantly, educated who knows how many people, and you turned me into a grownup along the way. Goodnight, old friends.

 Brian LaRue, November 27, 2013



A book I forgot to read a few years ago

I find that summertime is when I remember titles I meant to read years ago but forgot about for no good reason. The other day, for example, a copy of Nicholas Dawidoff's The Crowd Sounds Happy fell into my hands, and I sounded pretty happy about it myself, because I really wanted to read that when it came out. And then forgot about it entirely. I cannot remember the last time I read a book so quickly. I got it home and had finished reading it within, I think, 36 hours. Somewhere around page 40, I sent an email to a friend and said to her, "I don't know if you have time for recreational reading, but if you do, you should really take a look at this." When my husband came home from work, I said to him, "I've started reading a book and I think you need to read it."

It's not that I think Dawidoff's book has universal appeal; far from it. I think it will appeal to people who grew up as sort of sad lonely baseball fans -- which, okay, is probably a large group -- and people who grew up in Dawidoff's version of New Haven (a relatively small demographic). His descriptions of listening to games on the radio are lovely. The descriptions of his family life range from sweet to  harrowing. But what slayed me, personally, was his writing about the city I live in. I live, now, just a few blocks away from where Dawidoff grew up, and as someone who's there and raising a child, I could not help but find it fascinating. I was so interested in his memories of New Haven, in fact, that I found myself speculating about how no one who hadn't lived in New Haven in the 1970s would ever want to read this book. Now, that's probably not literally true, but it might not be far from the truth.

No one needs me to tell them that Dawidoff's a good writer. No one needs me to review this book at all, really. But if you are like me -- someone who has all good intentions of reading something which you then forget about until prodded, years after the reviews -- you need someone to remind you. Yes, this is a book you want to pick up. It's not a heartwarming book; Dawidoff isn't a guy you'd describe as happy-go-lucky. But it's a wonderful depiction of one kind of life in one specific version of New Haven, and I'm very glad to've read it.

The Lights on Broadway. Specifically, the neon sign we all wanted to put in our apartments, back when we were young and cool.

I speak, of course, of the massive Cutler's Records sign. The Cutler's sign was not only literally huge, but it was metaphorically huge in the mind of anyone who lived in New Haven. It was the most important physical marker on Broadway. Seeing the Cutler's sign -- which was neon, and in my childhood, I could swear, had a record moving on the turntable, though maybe I'm making that up -- you knew you were here. You couldn't possibly be anywhere else. Cutler's wasn't a chain. It was of New Haven and for New Haven. You could buy recordings of every Yale singing group you never wanted to hear, and all the local bands who maybe you wanted to hear, or maybe you didn't, because the bass player never called you even though he said he would, that asshole. People who knew Cutler's as the small storefront it's been in recent years have absolutely no way of understanding how phenomenal it once was. It's not merely that it used to be bigger. It's that it used to be bigger and what they had was music. Just music. There was a huge classical side, where your longhair types could find whatever it was they wanted (don't ask me, I don't know a thing about it), and there was a room full of 45s, where you could find every pop hit you'd ever hummed to yourself absent-mindedly and then couldn't get out of your head even though you couldn't remember the title. I know this because I used to be the girl in the 45s room and a large part of my job was to deal with customers who came in and asked me to sell them the song they couldn't remember. "It went like this: 'ooooh, baby, I said, yeah, yeah, yeah....'" these people would sing. If I didn't know the song, I'd go get someone else to help. Sam, there was a guy named Sam who knew every disco tune ever (this was not the same man who ran the classical side, Sam Carmack). There was Bob, who knew pretty much everything in every genre, probably because he'd been working at Cutler's since I was around four years old. The staff was incredible. It shifted a lot -- people tend to come and go in record stores, though there's always a core staff that stays forever -- but you knew that if someone was working there, they knew their shit in at least one category. And we had reference works to help us out if we were stumped, though I can't remember us using them more than once or twice in the few months I worked at Cutler's. The staff just knew the material. And we were good at helping people find that song, and we'd sell them the 45, and they'd leave the store with their little paper bags and head home, happy as clams.

My tenure at Cutler's was very short. It was the first job from which I got fired. I never knew why. After practically begging for a job -- Al Lotto hired me, finally, and I don't really know why -- I spent maybe four months working for Phil Cutler. It was 1988. I don't think I'd graduated from high school yet when I started, though perhaps I had, just barely. I was living in a mouse-infested apartment on Elm Street which I was subletting from three Yale students, and had the shortest walk to work imaginable. I was paid very little money, but it was all right: my rent was $250 a month and I basically had no substantial expenses beyond that. Then one day I went to clock in and there was no time card for me. I went to Al to ask where my card was. He said, "It's not there? Hang on, let me see if it's still in the desk." And when he came back to me, he looked unhappy. "Phil says you can go home," he told me. Ever cool, I said, "What?" and burst into tears. Poor Al. He gave me a hug and said, "Don't worry, you'll be fine." He didn't seem to understand what had happened any more than I did. I walked back to my disgusting apartment, cried a little more, and then hit the streets to find another job. Around lunchtime, Atticus offered me a job, and I became a bookman.

But Cutler's remained the best record store around, even if I was angry at the owner for canning me. Other new record stores came and went. I remember Amperes, and Strawberries, and Sam Goody's. I remember the used record stores downtown, which often seemed to be staffed by refugees from Cutler's -- you saw the same people flitting in and out all the time.

It is because of the time I spent in the record stores on Broadway -- Cutler's and Rhymes -- that when Nick Hornby's High Fidelity came out, I was able to smack myself on the head over and over again and say, "oh my god, this is the best book I've ever read." It's because of the time I spent in those stores that, when I first read Laurie Colwin's Goodbye Without Leaving, I was able to see so, so clearly, Fred's Out of Print Records, the store where Geraldine hangs out.

In a few days, Cutler's will close. I've gone and finally done something I never thought I would do: I bought Cutler's t-shirts. I now ardently wish I had one of the shirts that had the classic drawing of Cutler's*. But I was too proud to buy one when they were still making them. I gave a t-shirt to my brother this past weekend. He was visiting us -- an unusual occurrence -- and when I told him Cutler's was closing his jaw dropped and he said, "Ok, I gotta go tomorrow and buy --" "Don't worry, I've got it. I already got you one." If I could have, I'd've bought the neon sign, too.

*The drawing can be seen in the Hendricks/Goetzmann book About Town, and don't even get me started on that right now. But if you want to buy a copy you can:  contact the William Reese Company

A short consideration of romance in New Haven

Fellow New Haven Review contributor Nora Nahid Khan recently wrote an article for the New Haven Advocate about the futility of attempting to find romance in New Haven. (Link here: sorry, I can't seem to get the link function to work right now: )

I know what she's talking about. I really and truly do. Romantic life in New Haven when you're in your twenties can be beyond frustrating. I assume it doesn't get any better or more fun when you're in your thirties or forties. But the fact that I am writing this from the perspective of a married person -- and, I might add, a pretty happily married person -- indicates that romance in New Haven is possible, does happen, and can even end in happy marriage. Don't despair, Nora.

That said, even with all my memories of romantic frustration (experienced primarily between 1993 and 1998), my own personal experience has left me littered with so many romantic memories of New Haven -- especially downtown New Haven -- that I can't help but say, "It's not that New Haven isn't romantic. It's that somehow people have lost their ability to notice romantic things when they're happening; because what matters isn't where you are, exactly, it's what's in your head, and what you are willing to do or say." The New Haven Nora finds so unromantic is the same New Haven where I had my first kiss (which was, I feel, a very romantic moment). Naples Pizza is where I had my (sort of) first date, which, okay, was not such a success (the guy showed up stoned, not exactly the way to win my heart). But matters did improve. Through my teens and twenties, romance was about walking around downtown aimlessly, looking into shop windows, stopping to sit and do nothing useful or noble on Beinecke Plaza or on the steps of a nearby secret society; going to Mamoun's at a ridiculous hour; sitting on the front stoop of my apartment on a sweltering August night, looking across the street to Rudy's, drinking a black cherry soda; sitting on the front porch of the apartment in East Rock reading and watching a massive rainstorm pass over us. And there were many public displays of affection. Many. I don't know where Nora's looking, but I see public displays of affection and romance all over the place. And I could tell you stories.

I will say that trying to find a viable mate in New Haven is difficult; this is a subject I've discussed ad nauseam with several people over the years. It is sometimes assumed that, since I am a local, I met my husband here in New Haven. My standard line on this is, "No, I had to import a husband." Though New Haven is filled with single people looking for mates, I apparently did not meet the elusive standards of the single men I chatted with, day in and day out, while working in a bookstore downtown. I suppose grad students are looking for more ambitious types than the type of girl who'd while away her time working at a bookstore the way I did. But it still stung, to be passed over, over and over again. I wonder if the people in their twenties looking for mates who Nora's looking at are people who are looking for mate, sure, but not (sorry) wholeheartedly, because they're putting more effort into looking for professional success.

It wasn't that long ago that I was, like Nora, bemoaning my singleness and wondering if I'd have to move across the country to find a boyfriend (I didn't). And I have lots of friends, male and female, who talk to me all the time about how it sucks to be dating in New Haven. I always say, "I know. I know." Because I do know. But I also think that things change; we change; and, New Haven being what it is, the available pool changes. Romantic life in New Haven is very, very possible, and can be more wonderful than you'd imagine. Give it time, and in the meantime, be grateful you're not paying New York rent while you suffer through your romantically-challenged years.

The End of Oldies Radio

Over the holiday, I read Michael Chabon's , which has in it a very poignant essay about (among other things) oldies radio — how one day the songs you grew up with are now oldies, while meanwhile the the songs that used to be your oldies, like Elvis and doo-wop, are falling away from radio forever. In today's radio culture, a song like Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," a baby-boomer favorite that had resonance for the generation of two after the boomers because of of the movie Stand by Me and, moreover, because it's a great song, is now lumped together with all the way old crooner stuff, the Como and Sinatra, the Rosemary Clooney, which, while it has its own merits, is for the boomers and all the rest of us basically grandmom's music. Even early Beatles don't really make it onto FM radio much any more — if you remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, then you almost sixty or even older, which is to say a small percentage of the radio listening audience. And not a demographic advertisers care about (unless they are advertising prescription drugs). What does this all mean for me? Only that today, driving back from New York City with my 3-year-old fast asleep in the back seat, I flipped through the radio until it landed on the sublime "Super Freak," the 1981 hit by Rick James.

I grooved through the last minute or two of that song, it faded out, and then I was hit with "Ventura Highway," the 1972 bit of lite Americana by the band America.

Now, I love both "Super Freak" and "Ventura Highway," truly. They are both catchy and lyrically memorable, and they both have the power to evoke a certain time in one's life. Now, the times they evoke in my life never really happened, but rather seem as if they must have happened — but it's a special kind of song that has the power to do that, too. BUT, and this is the point, they are two songs with nothing in common artistically, thematically, or culturally. They have been yoked together by some radio programmer out in ClearChannelLand only because they figure some guy in his forties (or maybe in his mid-thirties, but with an affinity for both music of his own time and the lite fare of his father's time) will remember and enjoy them both.

In other words, if one thinks that a radio station ought to have a character, then this is a purely cynical programming move, putting "Super Freak" and "Ventura Highway" together. Which is another way of saying that nobody really expects radio stations to have a character any more. DJs don't get to make playlists, and radio stations don't serve meaningful communities of listeners.

To that latter point: there used to be a New Haven DJ named , who worked the morning show on WKCI ("KC-101"), a Top 40 station broadcasting out of Hamden, one town to the north of New Haven. Vinnie — who also had the honor of working with Glenn Beck when Beck was a crappy New Haven–based morning jock — wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but he was beloved by others. He could be crude and juvenile, to say the least, and at times could be quite smart. Anyway, what I liked about him was that he was a New Havener. His show was peppered with references to real New Haven hangouts, to what New Haven was like in his 1980s childhood, to stereotypes of surrounding towns in Connecticut, etc. In other words, he was our neighbor: Our Neighbor Vinnie.

After he resigned/was fired/was forced out, he was replaced by this dude with the fake name Mike Maze. (To be fair, Vinnie Penn was a shortened, so fake, name too. If I ever stalk the airwaves, it will be as Mark Oppenheimer, as in "Oppenheimer," the song by the Old 97s.) From what I can tell, Maze isn't the biggest moron on the air, but he is no New Havener, nor do his ClearChannelBosses seem to have any expectation that he be. His show could come from anywhere, and it seems to go nowhere. It has no grounding, except in the pop-culture reality-TV ether. For some reason, the idea behind a lot of morning shows now is to re-hash the TV of the night before.

I miss the way radio used to be. I came along way after the heyday of free-form. I never knew a time when DJs had any real power over what they played. But at least they weren't playing "Ventura Highway" after "Super Freak."

Loose Ends, Now Tied

In previous essays here at the New Haven Review, I've written about the death of letter writing and about my misty memories of flyers around downtown that proclaimed "New Haven is the Paris of the 80s." I wondered who it was that put up those flyers, and thanked them for their efforts, and expected nothing to follow. Yesterday I got quite shock when I received in the mail -- via the U.S. Postal Service -- an actual, real, hand-addressed letter from a man who tells me that he did it. He's the "New Haven is the Paris of the 80s" guy. Somehow he found my entry here from months ago, and he wrote me a letter to thank me for it.

Made my day. Hell: made my week.

The mystery is solved, my friends. I'm not going to reveal his identity, but I want you all to know, all is well, and the world is now, in my view, a slightly better place than it was twenty-four hours ago.

The Economics of Improvised Music

This weekend's New York Times had a about the , an awesome—and extremely welcoming—group of musicians who gather on the last Monday of every month at Neverending Books on State Street to explore the range of possibilities that improvised music has to offer. As the NYT article rightly points out, improvised music is most closely associated with jazz, but that genre doesn't have a lock on improvisation; one of the real pleasures of playing improvised music, in fact, is to explore the ways in which musical genres can be bent, broken, combined, or, in some magic moments, superseded. (Those with a keen eye will notice that I'm on the of the collective. In the interest of full disclosure, this is because I played with the group for a few weeks in 2005 to write a for the New Haven Advocate about the collective and their encounter with improvisational conductor . I haven't been back, for a variety of reasons that will all sound like excuses now, but I've been wanting to return for a long time—now that I'm a better musician and almost have the right gear. I learned more about music in the weeks I spent with them and Morris than I had in a couple of years, and I'm still to this day drawing from those lessons.)

The NHIC and , a terrific club and jaw-dropping studio that routinely puts on shows of non-mainstream jazz and other music that defies categorization, deserve every bit of praise that the article heaps on them. But they're also emblematic of a larger characteristic of New Haven that I've found myself repeating many times over to people who ask me what it's like to live here.

As just about everyone who's lived in this area for longer than a year or so knows, New Haven labors under a reputation that is probably about ten years out of date. Many people outside of New Haven think of the place and imagine a city in trouble. But we know that it is not so. New Haven has its share of struggles, of course—and I do not mean to belittle those troubles at all, or perhaps even worse, aetheticize them—but it is a positive thing as much as it's a problem. It energizes the place, makes it vital. It makes the people who live here give a damn about it. And right now, New Haven is that wonderfully unstable combination of interesting and affordable. It is ethnically and culturally rich, thanks to both the town and gown sides of things. It is economically diverse. And it's a place where something like Firehouse 12 and the New Haven Improvisers Collective can exist without having to fight, every single minute, for survival.

The month or so before closed, you may remember, was a great time to write an article about a) the death of New York City as a vital cultural force or b) the inability of American pop culture to replicate anything like the heady heyday of the late 1970s. Obviously both of these statements dramatically overstated things. But nestled within the hyperbole is a kernel of truth: It is difficult to innovate and take chances—artistically or otherwise—when the cost of simply living is too high. God help me, I can't find the interview, but if I remember right, a reporter asked Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads if New York could ever produce another CBGB. No, said Frantz, it was just too expensive to run a business in New York and book bands the way Hilly Kristal, its owner, did (Though Brooklyn club challenges that assertion). Then he said something really neat: The next influential club, he argued—the one that incubates the bands that go on to have a strong effect on pop music—was probably going to be in a strip mall someplace, away from a huge urban center. I saw what he was saying. I thought of , nestled in an industrial park in Hamden; it helped build an audience for the Providence-based band , which led to their signing to Nonesuch. And I thought of Firehouse 12, providing a home—and a gorgeous home at that—for music that has trouble finding a stage. Based on the consistent tastes of their owners, both clubs have managed to develop scenes, and audiences. They've created that crucial vibe whereby people will go to see a show of someone they've never heard of simply because they trust the club to book someone good. This speaks a lot to Steve Rodgers (of The Space) and Nick Lloyd (of Firehouse 12) as excellent club owners. But it's also the town that they're in, full of people who want to hear good music—and make good music—and don't have to go broke to do it.

Browsing the Shop Windows on Memory Lane

A number of threads in my life wove themselves together in recent days and it was all about shopping downtown. The New Yorker ran an article by Patricia Marx that name-checked the old punk boutique Bonnie and Clyde—it was on Chapel Street, I think in the space where Wave Gallery is now. The article was talking about a boutique in Chicago that's named after the store (which they said was in Stamford, but really I think they meant New Haven, unless there was a sister store in Stamford I'm not remembering) and I thought, "Man, Bonnie and Clyde. I've got stuff from there." And I do—I have a dress I still wear, and a military-issue shoulder bag that I last used two weeks ago. Bonnie and Clyde was, I think the first place I bought Manic Panic at—hair dye—a habit I found very hard to break.

Then the other weekend I was at Fashionista. If you don't know about Fashionista—well, maybe you don't care, if you're someone who isn't interested in buying other people's old clothes, shoes, jewelry, or cigarette cases—well, ok, but: Fashionista is just something to behold. It's a vintage clothing store run by Nancy Shea and Todd Lyon and it's a more spacious and better lit version of the Ritz, which was a vintage clothing store on Broadway once upon a time. Need an old tuxedo? They're there for you. Ball gown? Not a problem. Kicky little sheath dress? Purple suede elbow-length gloves to go with the sheath dress (or the tuxedo, for that matter)?

You simply never know.

I bought a dress at Fashionista few years ago. I get compliments on it all the time. But it's the damnedest article of clothing I own: it is made out of an old leopard print bathrobe. I love it. It's frumpy and amazing at the same time. When it falls apart—which it will, one of these days; how long can a bathrobe really last?—I will be heartbroken.

So I was at Fashionista a few days ago talking with Nancy and Todd about Bonnie and Clyde, which they remembered, and suddenly Todd said, "Wait, I've gotta show you something." She ran to a rack of men's overcoats and pulled out a coat that had an interesting label on it. I wish I could remember now exactly what it said, but it said that it was made for the Edward Malley Company, a department store that used to be right across the street from where Fashionista is now located (on lower Church). The line of clothing was something like "The Churchstreeter." I guess it was a particular line of men's outerwear or something. Todd cradled the coat and said, "Look: it came home."

For some years I've been acquiring clothes at second hand shops in part because I liked the clothes but also because I liked the labels, which told their own version of the history of retail in downtown New Haven. I have a dress (I wore it to a prom in 1985 I think) from Kramer's—I bought it at a second hand shop State Street. If you ask nicely maybe I'll show you a picture of me wearing it—high necked, but slit to here, head to toe paisley and head to toe sequins. It's a nightmare. I'm never going to sell it. I'd like to be buried in it, if possible. It's a great dress made all the more dear by the Kramer's label.

I've got a shirt from the Arthur Rosenberg company; they used to give J. Press a run for their money. I've got an overcoat from Gentree's, from before Gentree's was a restaurant—it was a men's clothing store. (Now, of course, it is nothing; Yale tore down the building and it's, I don't know, part of the new art building or something.) I have a hatbox from the Edward Malley company, as well as a very lovely cotton button down shirt from them.

Small shops no longer have products with their own labels in them. You don't buy a dress from Hello Boutique that has a label sewn in saying "Hello Boutique - New Haven." But it used to be clothes were marked that way. You can find very fine quality jackets with labels that seem improbable now: "Manufactured for ... in Derby, Connecticut." Derby, Connecticut?

I hope someone in Derby is collecting clothing labels, too.

New New Haven Lit Journal!

I am excited to report the existence of , a new literary journal based in New Haven. In their own words: The Dirty Pond is an independent online literary journal based in New Haven, Connecticut. The journal's primary objective is to provide a home for work by New Haven-affiliated writers, with an eye towards curated gatherings in the near future. We will be updating biweekly.

We seek work that is anchored to our fair city without being provincial. We want work that is fierce, compelling, and wonderfully weird. And we're particularly partial to work that is cross-disciplinary and/or collaborative in nature.

We want your short stories and your essays. We want your flash fiction and your poems. We want your photography and your artwork. We want your liner notes. We want sections from your script.

We generally do not want genre fiction, but will grant some leniency, particularly to fanfic.

Most of all, we do not want to be bored.

When you submit, please submit a bio, CV, cover letter, and (if relevant) a myspace/facebook url and a list of upcoming related local events in which you may be participating. Please make sure images are in a standardized .jpeg format, videos and music accessible, and if you're sending us a novel, just give us a heads up.

Please send all submissions along to thedirtypond @ (remove the spaces).

Deadline for submissions is September 15, 2009.

First edition goes live October 15, 2009.

Submit, artists, musicians, and writers of New Haven! Submit!

Beach Town

People don't necessarily think of the greater New Haven are as a beach town—I imagine the label university town is much more widely used—but in the summer, it is. And I don't mean beach town in a snooty, country-club way. New Haven is a beach town the way that many of the towns on the Jersey Shore and Long Island are beach towns: In the summer, the place cranes its neck toward the Long Island Sound, and the skinny stretch of sand in front of the water becomes wonderfully overpopulated. I should admit right here that I am a huge beach person, a trait I inherited from my mother. I am one of those people who could—and does—sit on the beach all day, alternating between reading, napping, taking walks, and watching the water. I've told my parents that staring at and swimming in the ocean is one of the closest things I have to a religion, and I'm only half joking. So after living in New York for years (too far from Brighton Beach and Coney Island to go as often as I wanted to), learning that New Haven had beaches was a revelation. In the seven years that we've lived here, my family and I have split our allegiance between two beaches: the shore of West Haven and Lighthouse Point, in New Haven proper. They are right across the harbor from each other; you can see one very clearly from the other.

Parts of the shore of West Haven are surprisingly untouched for a town beach. A lot of smart things happened in the course of its development, the biggest one being that they kept large areas of the dune intact. (Oceanography 101: If you keep your dune, the beach can replenish itself. Take away the dune and, even worse, build a seawall, and the ocean starts to take away the beach. Which is why so many beach towns end up building a line of jetties along the coast and still have to get the Army Corps of Engineers to dump tons of sand on the shore at the beginning of every summer. Also, the dunes protect the inland from all but the big storms. Build your house behind the dune, and you're reasonably secure. Build your house on it or in front of it, and hey, you take your chances.)

Aside from being smart, the dunes in West Haven give the beach there a real sense of wildness, making the houses huddling along the beach road and the stacks of the water treatment facility rising in the middle distance almost surreal. But in front of Chick's, my favorite fish fry place—because of their lobster rolls, vats of mustard for the french fries, and also their free beach parking—West Haven's beach is a town beach, complete with dozing lifeguards, rioting children, casual swearing, loud reggaeton coming out of tinny speakers, and guys trying to catch blues off the pier and coming up mostly with sea robins. It's great.

Lighthouse Point is in some ways a more civilized place than West Haven's beach. It's a well-maintained park, complete with playground, water park, concession stand, ranger station, multiple bathrooms, a gorgeous old pavilion with an even more gorgeous old carousel inside (people looking to get married in the summer, take note: That pavilion would be a truly awesome place for a party), and, of course, the lighthouse itself. But in other ways, Lighthouse Point is crazier. No matter how crowded West Haven's beach gets—and on Saturday afternoon, it's pretty crowded—it never manages to kick off that sleepy vibe that all great town beaches have. Lighthouse Point isn't a town beach; it's a city beach, bursting with summer camps and the children of multiple extended families running amok, on the sand, in the water, on the swings, across the lawns, all over the rocks. A dozen big barbecues scent the air while multiple large sound systems compete with each other for dominance of the park's groove—hip hop, merengue, reggaeton (again), bachata—and combine in the air. Charles Ives (who studied composition at Yale) would be proud.

Both West Haven and Lighthouse Point have their quiet times. People who like their beaches cold, on the off season, will find what they want at either place. And I'm lucky enough to be able to go on weekdays. But even on the busiest weekend, both parks have their secluded coves and stretches of shore with only a few people, or none at all. The days when I get both are when the religion hits me hardest. One minute there's just the sand and rocks, sea and sky. The next, it's people at their best, playing, relaxing, having fun, just being with each other. It's bliss.

Whither Home?

I was away for three weeks in June, and for two of those weeks I was away not only from where I live, but from the internet. In a sense, separation from the internet was the more telling separation -- I know more people available to me online than I do in New Haven, to say nothing of the people I ‘follow’ (or stalk?) on Facebook. While away, I visited all my ‘homes away from home’: including three of my four siblings’ homes in Delaware, one of which is the house we all grew up in, where my mother still lives. I also visited my stepson and his family who live a bit west of Philadelphia -- Philly is where we lived when he lived with my wife and I, and where our daughter was born. And I got over to rural New Jersey where a longtime friend (a Philly native I met in Philly) lives with his family and writes -- and where I am an honorary “Uncle Donald.” And I made it down to Rockville, MD, outside DC, where my sister-in-law lives and where my mother-in-law is now in an assisted living home, which I visited for the first time. The main reason I went away at all was to visit the shore in Ocean City, MD, where some version of my family has gone to unwind in June since we were all kids together, and where my parents spent their honeymoon, and where there was no internet connection, which helped to emphasize the feeling I have down there anyway -- that I’m in some perpetual version of my youth, either the late ‘60s when I first went there, or some memorable teen visits in the late ‘70s, or those years in the ‘80s when it was all about my daughter.

All of this is to introduce the thought which I’ve had before, when returning ‘home’ to New Haven, this town I’ve lived in for ten years (moved here from Hamden when our daughter went off to college in Baltimore), and frequented for five years before that (after moving to CT straight from grad school): I’m hard-pressed to say what makes this place my home other than the fact that I live here -- at some distance from all the people I’ve known longest. My way of life and general outlook seems a continuation of grad school, which is to say, transient, not in for the long haul, expecting to go elsewhere, someday, and only hoping ‘there’ won’t be worse. And that feeling, I think, is sustained by the fact that the population of New Haven, as I experience it, is tied to Yale and recurrently transient: students, grad students, junior faculty are here for awhile and move on.

Yet, while in this limbo (working on long term writing projects and at ‘teaching gigs’ tends to sustain a certain disconnect from my surroundings ... maybe even requires it?), I have become accustomed to New Haven, even though I consider myself barely a resident. There are places I frequent, and which I like seeing -- Willoughby’s, Yorkside, Book Trader, Labyrinth, Odd Bins, Anna Liffey’s, Cutler’s, Mamoun’s, Rudy’s, Royal India, etc. -- but I seem never to move much beyond the familiar grooves worn by making my way, mostly on foot, to the orbit of that big educational concern in town, which I refer to affectionately, or not so affectionately, as the Mighty Fortress.

When I’m back in the environs I hail from, I’m always glad to know I’m only passing through. Much as I like seeing everyone, it’s good to know I don’t really live there. And I can think of one event, a few years ago, that made me realize that I actually have a kind of relation to New Haven. It was the closing of The Rainbow Café, and at the time I :

We rely on such places as providing identity for what "our town" is, and for providing us with a renewable sense of who we are as their steady patrons. You are where you eat, and where you shop? Something like that.

Realizing the place was pretty new when I first went there and that it was now gone, it seemed to matter that I'd outlasted a business.

So, a question to any long-standing or native New Haveners reading this: what do you consider to be definitive aspects of New Haven ... the kinds of things one shouldn’t miss while living here? Or: what's a change you've seen in your time here that had some effect on you?

Bernard Wolfe: Anyone? Anyone?

Though New Haven is rich in intellectual history and, as a corollary to that, has a small place in literary history, one hears little of writers who've actually lived here. By writers I mean not writers who had to take teaching posts to get by but writers who grew up here and went on to Great Things (or even Greatish Things), or who just happened to wind up living here. It does happen. Sometimes. One of my parents is a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan from way back and so I grew up in a household that had ridiculous numbers of those cheap mass market paperbacks with lurid covers. I did not inherit the sci-fi/fantasy gene, so I was and am uninterested in this stuff, but there's one writer in that genre who fascinates me: Bernard Wolfe. Wolfe's stuff came to my attention maybe ten or fifteen years ago. It's not that I was so interested in his writing but I was intrigued by his writing career. He wrote a number of novels, and his subject matter was all over the place. His best known novel -- and a book that is, I understand, a sort of classic in the field -- is called Limbo. I'm sure if you like this kind of stuff it's great; I've tried to read it twice, been bored to tears each time, and don't expect to ever get through it.

But Wolfe wrote a lot of other stuff, too. He wrote a classic of jazz lit -- co-wrote, really with Mezz Mezzrow -- Really the Blues -- and he wrote a Hollywood novel (Come On Out, Daddy); he wrote political novels; and, as one can glean from the title of his memoir, Confessions of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer, he wrote pornography. It was this book that I read from cover to cover, and which made me wonder: What the hell?

Because it turns out that Bernard Wolfe was a townie. The guy grew up in New Haven. Went to Hillhouse. Went to Yale -- an unusual thing for a Jewish guy of his generation. He graduated from college and was sure that he'd kick some ass in publishing only to find that no one would hire him. So he started out writing porn. (His being a Trotskyite was probably an issue, too, but what can you do.) He had worked as Trotsky's bodyguard, at one point. But he became a real literary figure in his day, and published many works which got reviewed by, you know, professional book reviewers. The New York Times Book Review knew who he was.

So how is it that no one I've talked to around here knows anything about him? Back when I had daily contact with literary geeks of many stripes, I would ask, periodically, "So tell me what you know about Bernard Wolfe." And I'd get very little back. People of a certain generation recalled the name, and that was pretty much it.

Even if Wolfe was just a hack, wouldn't you think that his name would be mentioned more often in New Haven? I mean, as a famous hack? Let's face it, this is a town that will grab desperately at any straw that seems like it'd be good p.r. ("We got restaurants! Boy, do we have restaurants! We got some damn good restaurants! No, don't go over there.... come over here, where there's some good restaurants!"). You'd think maybe that places like, oh, I don't know, the New Haven Free Public Library, for example, might have some Bernard Wolfe stuff sitting around. Well, they've got a copy of Limbo. That's it. The Institute Library has a copy of The Magic of Their Singing, which is Wolfe's take on Beat culture (and pretty entertaining at that). Yale, of course, has tons of stuff, but most of it is in the Beinecke (i.e. not circulating), and I think was mostly given to the place by Wolfe himself (though I may be wrong on that point). They have some of his papers, and I've read them, but it's a spotty collection. It's like the guy evaporated shortly before he died, leaving almost nothing behind. Spooky.

So come on. There's more to this. Wolfe was obviously something of a wonderful maniac in his day. Why don't we know more about him? There was clearly a bunch to know... and I, for one, would like to know it.

Letter from New Orleans

Thinking about it now, I pause to think about the ramifications of moving from one new place to another over the past five years—from New York to New Haven and now to New Orleans. After years of banging around various locales in and around New York City, it wasn't too long after I moved to the Elm that I was schooled by two locals on the question of emphasis when it comes to how you actually pronounce New Haven. New Yorkers, it seems, tend to put the emphasis on the NEW! and not the York. "I live in New York, not to be confused with Old York." But here, as Ideat Village impresarios Bill Saunders and Nancy Shea counseled one night, repeatedly, the emphasis, generally speaking, is on the Haven. Not NEW! Haven but New HAAAY-VEN. After awhile I got it; you want to linger on the Haven a good long while, since it is a town that will grow on you. So I started emphasizing the Haven part of New Haven and was therefore able to live here for over four years. When it comes to New Orleans, hey, I'm having a hard enough time pronouncing some of these street names without worrying too much about where the emphasis ought to lie. Post-Katrina you could argue for NEW! Orleans, but that sounds like Chamber of Commerce-approved marketing of the most vanilla-cynical variety. Besides, the blessed and endemic lassitude of the Big Easy begs for a lingering over the Orleans. On the other hand, from a fact-checking point of view, there is an Orleans with which one can make a differentiation. So I have been worrying about it, but not too much.

The other day I was walking in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans, which, I have learned, is not pronounced “ma-RIG-knee,” and came upon one of those those Volvo sub-wagons you see in every town, festooned with an abundance of bumper stickers citing various locales, pols and causes. Amid the Hillary! Stop War! and Peace is Patriotic stickers was one trumpeting the glories of . . . New Haven!—complete with an accompanying icon, a slice of pizza. The nudgenik in me thought, "Hey, that's wrong! None of the legendary places in town sells pizza by the slice! Outrages!"

But seeing that bumper sticker, indeed the whole trove of them, did evoke yet another question of where to put one's emphasis, this time when it comes to the old canard, "Everything in moderation." It's one on the great cautionary aphorisms of all time, but that's only because most of us put the emphasis on the moderation. Embedded within lies the stunning and deeply gratifying notion that if you can swing the moderation, you can have everything!

And so there we were, the winter of 2008, myself and Bill and Nancy, and the writer Todd Lyon. By then I knew how to tell people I lived in New Haaaay-ven and it had stopped bothering me that my friends from New York would always want to know how I was enjoying Hartford. In any case, we had an agenda. Oh, such a one as it was! We would hit four pizzerias in one night. We'd start at Zuppardi's in West Haven, get the double-dose at Sally's and Pepe's, and then grab a capper pie at Modern.

A slice here, a slice there, no gastro-problems would ensue if we paced ourselves; that was the plan. Alas. Immoderation won out in Wooster Square and we never made it to Modern. As for BAR, we kept it off the list. Too new, relatively speaking, to qualify for the tour.

Boston's Neat Graffitist vs. New Haven's.... Random Acts of Text

A Short Tribute to Selected Artiness I Remember from the 1980s, and a Hearty Recommendation of a Novel by Eric Kraft

When I was in high school, someone—I have no idea who—went around town putting up posters that said "New Haven is the Paris of the 1980s."

This was completely untrue, but it just slayed me and my friends. Every few years or so, I end up in a conversation with someone who was around then, and we go, "Remember the 'New Haven is the Paris of the 1980s' guy? Who the hell was that?" and then we laugh and have another beer.

In the 1990s I read all the available work by the sadly underrecognized literary genius Eric Kraft. I'd read his Herb n' Lorna, fallen madly in love with it, and begun to eat my way through the rest of his books. The one I liked best, and which is probably still my second favorite, is called Reservations Recommended. It is a sad comic novel (I know that sounds impossible, but trust me, it isn't) about a guy who lives a boring life working for a big company, but has an alter ego who is a restaurant critic in Boston. A lot of the novel is this guy's observations about Boston in general, and many of those observations focus on someone he calls the Neat Graffitist. The Neat Graffitist, actual identity unknown, goes around Boston neatly magic markering the town with random statements, "in small, precise capital letters," such as:


There are many parts of Reservations Recommended that I reread with deep pleasure, just reveling in the wonderfulness of it, but the words of the Neat Graffitist are some of my favorite parts of the book. My husband and I are especially fond of this one:


The Neat Graffitist belongs in a category, I feel, with the "New Haven is the Paris of the 1980s" creator, along with the person who spent time writing pithy little sweet nothings on masking tape and putting them on parking meters around downtown around 1984–85. I vividly remember strolling around downtown with a friend who noticed this and chortled: "Uh-oh—someone's getting arty with the parking meters." It was almost certainly a Yalie, but still pretty entertaining.

So whoever the "New Haven is the Paris of the 1980s" guy (or, okay, girl) is, thanks and hats off to him/her; also to the Masking Tape Artist of 1984. Where are you now? Do you even remember doing these things?

Meanwhile, Eric Kraft's been getting rave reviews for his recent fiction, but it's not likely you've actually acted on your fleeting thought, "Gee, I should pick that up sometime and read it." Listen to me. Start with Herb n' Lorna if you can; if you can't, with Reservations Recommended. Act on the fleeting thought. Fleeting thoughts are our friends.