Car 798 of Duboce Yard first came to my attention during the holiday season of 2008. I bike past the yard every day on my way home from work, as many San Franciscans do. If you're heading west, on the left is a mural marking the sights you see transversing the City. The Duboce Yard is one end of The Wiggle bike path, a series of right-angled turns that minimize the incline between Church Street, the Castro, and the Mission with the Panhandle, the Sunset, and the Richmond. Car 798 is usually an nondescript railcar, and if it's due for the road there's a lot of work to be done. The railway car depot is off of Market, just as Buchanan begins its climbs up and down the city's hills as it heads north. Trapped behind a black fence, Car 798 is only visible if you head straight at it, and although a few people walk the path between the head of Buchanan and the foot of Church Street, most of those who transverse it are commuting bicyclists. What brought it to my attention a year ago was the destination board, listing the North Pole, and the wreath. I missed my chance to take a photo of it last year, and was pleased to find that it had returned this year. It took a week of mental reminders, but I eventually brought my camera on a ride. The small irony of Car 798 is that, even though S.F. does experience colder winters than other large West Coast cities that shall go unnamed, it's nothing less than a bit of holiday humor to imply that our slightly-below 50 degrees Fahrenheit winters have anything to do with the frigid cold of the North Pole. Nevertheless, it's hard not to appreciate that the Muni mechanics at Duboce take a bit of extra time to spruce up a car that doesn't seem to have any intention of leaving the yard. However, its colors are red and white, which must give public transit fans from Tokyo to Amsterdam a thrill to think that Santa rides a standard gauge, and not a reindeer-pulled sleigh.
[caption id="attachment_645" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="Mother and daughter. Ping'An, China. 2006."][/caption] It seems only fitting to announce the opening of my Etsy store in the dying hours of the last day of the decade. The augur of a blue moon wouldn't be one to take lightly, if I actually gave two shits about idiocy like that. Instead, I will only hope for all my readers that I make the time to provide you with more stories and photos in 2010 - pronounced "twenty-ten" not "two thousand ten", folks. Here's to a new year, a new decade, and another opportunity to get it right. [caption id="attachment_645" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="Young boy. Guangzhou, China. 2006."][/caption] [caption id="attachment_645" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="Old woman. Shanghai, China. 2006."]
I remember the first book I bought that was written by Neil Gaiman. I was browsing the shelves at The Funny Papers, a comic book shop in the Outer Richmond in S.F. Way out on Geary, surrounded by fog, people who loved comics, and a blissfully long commute home, I would buy my weekly stash of Batman books and occasionally sneak glances at books placed above my line of sight. I was 15. One day, I saw a book with a stark white cover. The thin line drawing was of a San Francisco Victorian, and vibrant windows shone an orangey-gold inside that fictional house. I bought it, and devoured a strange tale of Emperor Norton I, the King of Pain, and insanity. I had met a Sandman story by Neil Gaiman, and came away completely entranced. I would soon meet one of the Sandman artists, Mike Dringenberg, at the next Wonder-Con, and even met Neil himself briefly while at a party at Comix Experience, another excellent comic shop in S.F. Nice guy, I thought about Neil, not realizing until years later that Neil was in part known for his genuine courtesy to fans. In 2001, I would even experience that friendliness firsthand, interviewing Neil prior to an on-stage appearance he was doing with Harlan Ellison and Peter David, and just after American Gods had come out. There are few writers who've both entertained me and inspired me as much as Gaiman has, so when I had the opportunity to help out at Comix Experience as part of Brian Hibbs' ongoing 20th anniversary year, I wasn't going to sit on my butt. Brian has maintained one of the best comic book shops in a city that has no lack of good ones, so I would've helped even if it hadn't been Neil as the star attraction. The first people in line had on display what popular culture has taught us since the first release of The Phantom Menace: Show up early. More than an hour before Neil was due to arrive, let alone open the doors, a handful of ticket-holders were waiting. From that point on, everything that could go wrong, didn't. It was as flawless an event as I've ever seen or participated in. Neil showed up, we let the crowd in, Brian gave a little background on his friendship with Neil, Neil read, Neil signed, and about two hours after we were supposed to be finished, Neil left. Brian has recounted much of the history in this blog post, which is worth reading simply for its unique historical perspective. However, it's also important to note that Neil made a correction to it after Brian introduced him on Sunday morning. The gist of it was, Neil stopped Brian from ripping off the covers of a misprinted Sandman #8 with a forcible shout, and convinced him to hand them out for free. Brian took it further, leaving copies all over San Francisco with the store's contact info inside, and the rest is history. As many tech observers have noted, and even the somewhat technophobic Brian himself has pointed out, having a devoted fanbase takes time and effort, and requires collaboration between the "star" and the reseller. Besides helping out Brian, the reading on Sunday was, in my mind, the real reason to lug weighty bookshelves around and play Krowd Kontrol Kop. Although, the crowd control bit we all knew was just for making the customers' lives easier: Neil Gaiman fans are not, say, Vince Neil fans. Thankfully. Neil's ability to read his work, both in person or as an audiobook or over the radio, is a rare talent among writers. As the FMA pointed out to me, Philip K. Dick would've had even more influence if he'd just hired an actor to read for him all the time. Neil, on the other hand, reads like he writes: the words flow, they sound as natural as if he were coming up with them on the spot, and even if you've memorized the story you'll be happy to hear him read it to you, again. Neil pointed out the obvious difficulties in reading from a comic book, so instead of reading from "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader," he read from his other new book with a question mark at the end, "Who Killed Amanda Palmer?" When I read them to myself a few days before, I thought they were good-but-not-great examples of Neil's ability to adapt and twist conventional tales in unconventional ways. Read aloud though, and by somebody who knows where to pause and what to tonally emphasize, made them sound more than entertaining enough to make the entire crowd forget the sweaty and cramped setting. At just over 100 people, the crowd would've been happy enough with Neil reading the phone book. What we got was about 30 minutes of pitch-perfect storytelling. The signing was no different. Neil spent significant time talking to each of the fans, and affixed his signature to a wide range of his books, a C.S. Lewis book ("The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Not by Neil Gaiman"), and one girl's arm. She had a tattoo of one of his characters, a baby gargoyle named Goldie, and once she had Neil's name inked below Goldie, she ran off to Haight St. to have it done in more permanent ink. She also ran back to show us. I think the highlight of the day for me, though, was when Neil asked Brian to sign a copy of his collection of retailer observations. Tilting at Windmills might not have the print run of The Graveyard Book, but even writers get other writers to sign their books.
[caption id="attachment_622" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="Neil Gaiman, Comics Experience proprietor Brian Hibbs and his feisty son Ben. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2009."][/caption] When he's in his civilian disguise as Bruce Wayne, just what does Batman do with his boots? Perhaps more importantly, just what do Batman and Bruce Wayne and their podiatrical dilemma have to do with this mostly-travel blog? Today the FMA and I helped out our good friend Brian Hibbs host Neil Gaiman at his comic shop, Comix Experience. The store is renowned as one of the best comic book stores in the world, and with good reason: Brian understands the perfect balance of catering to the customer while offering one of the most diverse selections of sequential storytelling ever seen. His is the Strand of comic book stores, where the comic book staple of superheroes gets no more than equal billing to other genres, although they've got superheroes, too. Calling Comix Experience a comic-book heaven would belabor the point, but be no less accurate. Just as importantly, Brian's was one of the first shops, although not the only one, to treat comics as more than superhero vehicles. I will have more photos and perhaps a few more stories to tell about today later this week, but I wanted to to share this one now. The FMA and I, Brian's employees, and several others longtime customers were assigned various tasks to help rearrange the store for Gaiman's short-notice reading and book signing. Since I tend to be good with the low brain-power tasks early in the morning, I helped lift and move bookcases. The FMA, less well-suited to that kind of drudgery than I, was assigned to make sure that Neil's various whims were catered to. Much to my surprise, Hessian sacks and live kittens were not required. English breakfast tea, on the other hand, was. At one point, the FMA and another lovely friend-or-employee of Brian's named Shannon were milling about in the storage area behind store as Neil visited the restroom to graffiti the walls. No, really: it's customary in a comic book shop to have visiting authors and artists leave a physical imprimatur on the store. Nobody said this, but I understood: On a Sunday morning, at 10:30, there is no thought that consumes one's mind as voraciously as the desire to consume bacon, to crawl back into bed, or, failing that, to doodle above a bathroom sink. During a conversation about comics in general, Shannon asked the FMA if she were much of a Batman fan, since the signing was timed with the release of Gaiman's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" deluxe edition. The FMA replied that she sort of wasn't, at least of the comics themselves, and the conversation soon turned to how the Dark Knight was ever able to make those quick costume changes in elevators and other confined spaces. Superman was logical, if you accepted the premise: he's Superman, and he can do anything. Batman was a character whose success depends on a veneer of being a bit more realistic. Having discussed the merits of modern, easy-to-compress fabrics and how they relate to a Bat-suit, Shannon and the FMA had moved on to the thorny issue of the boots. While trying to figure out how butt-kicking boots could be reconciled with the leather boardroom shoes befitting the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, a voice called out from the restroom. Neil had adjourned from his drawing to announce, from behind the closed door - which, by the way, was emblazoned with a full-length face of Matt Wagner's Grendel, painted by the man himself - that Bruce Wayne simply kept the boots rolled down while in billionaire playboy socialite mode, and rolled the boots up when he needed to keep the blood off his argyle socks. Now, I know that Gaiman is a brilliant writer, and judging by his 795,000+ Twitter followers (at the time of writing), I'm not alone. But I've spent 30 minutes this evening trying to roll my Harley Davidsons down from mid-calf, and I'm here to tell you: It just can't be done. UPDATED: The FMA pointed out that I got some minor details wrong in retelling the story, and those have now been fixed.
Short updates, focused on the now, telling you what's going on in brief bursts and why: that's what Twitter is about. One-hundred and forty characters to get your point across in what used to be called microblogging or moblogging, but has social networking features and is desperately, gloriously imperfect. If you're like me, you're a cynic, so you won't like this: Twitter is a good start. Most of the people who read this blog read it because they are personal acquaintances of mine, and they're whom I write it for. I started blogging to cut down on the ridiculousness of spamming my friends and family with stories of leaving the United States and living in Japan, and even though I love the fact that strangers can find my True Stories of Travel Gone Wrong, there is only one reader that I really write for: me. I try to cram so much into these ridiculous 24-hour chunks, it's shocking that the FMA puts up with my obsessions at all. Anyway, at my current day job, it's my responsibility to make otherwise complicated or obtuse software accessible to the average computer user. But here? Despite the paucity of my appearances over the past year, I've enjoyed the heck out of it. You and me, in this odd joint endeavor, are closing in on seven years of Big in Japan in August. There's a new skin on the blog that I'm in the process of tweaking. It's only the third or fourth full re-design I've had in the life of the blog, so I hope you enjoy it, but I want to make it clear that I'm back and blogging full time. (If you're curious, the Japanese calligraphy in the upper right corner comes from a photo I took at an exhibition of pro-am calligraphy in Ueno, Tokyo, of which one of my English students was participating.) However, this post will go somewhere - it's going to Twitter. Do not be afraid of the big T, which has become so popular that even a brain-dead doofus like Ashton Kutcher or his publicist can figure it out. Right there, that's a big strike against: If Ashton Kutcher cares, why should I? Turns out, though, that Twitter is superb at doing the one thing it was designed for, and that's Conveying the Now. You want capital-N Now? You go to Twitter and search. You want 18, maybe even 24 hours ago? Check out CNN. But you know this. You're savvy. Twitter still seems like a giant fustercluck of an information dump, and it is - don't mistake it for anything else. So you follow only the people that you find useful. It's so new, there's no established etiquette. This is not your invitation to start typing in capital letters. PLEASE, NO. As in public or in private, you should behave similarly on Twitter: Don't be a dick. It is, however, a great way to cruise on a wave of breaking news. If you're Amanda Palmer or one of the relatively few others who've hit whatever the minimum critical mass of devoted followers is required, it is also possible to make some money via Twitter. Looking at Palmer's example, while she was getting the shaft from her record company, she was able to auction everything from wine bottles to used dildos to T-shirts to make her rent. Don't misread me, though: Unless you've got something to say in addition to the legitimate, individual followers to support you, money is currently exceedingly hard to wring from the tweeting (twatting?) stone. But it can be done, and the future of making money from art will be like making money from news - from a heady and diverse mix of sources. If you're looking for more frequent updates from me, I'm also on Twitter at @b1g1nj4p4n. Twitter, despite what you might think about it, is a useful tool. It cries out for private, closed-network support, but it's essential the same as the moblogging I used to do on my Japan blog but with social networking features. The lesson, or as marketers say in their idiotic butchering of language, the "take-away" is that interesting things happen on Twitter all the time because it is of the Now. The Stranger's Paul Constant wrote up an analysis of Twitter that's excellent despite its obvious reliance on Twitter's arbitrary character-length conceit. One section that stood out:
Writer Dan Baum (@danielsbaum) wrote a long-form Twitter essay, broken up like this essay, about his awful experience working on contract for the New Yorker. He called the office "creepy" and "strained." It was the most candid look inside the magazine since Brendan Gill's Here at The New Yorker. New Yorker reporter (and avid Twitterer) Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) responded to Baum's feed in the magazine's defense. She ended it: "Time to cook dinner & leave the journalistic hair-pulling nude wrestling match, much as I have enjoyed it (especially the nude part)." It was no Vidal vs. Mailer, but it was the closest thing to a real literary battle I've seen in years. The fact that people can disagree and argue in real time on Twitter is important. It removes the ponderous formality of publishing. And the arguments are delightfully public, for anyone to see. Twitterfighting isn't a verb yet, but I hope it soon will be. There are other uses, too. Astronaut Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike) constantly Twittered during a mission to repair the Hubble telescope. "From orbit: We see 16 sunrises and sunsets in 24 hrs, each one spectacular as the sun lights up the atmosphere in a spectrum of colors."Twitter is both useful and asinine, frivolous and a source of income and probably both more and less, and all at the same time. As Constant points out, the only mistake to make with Twitter is to ignore it.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="The FMA clutches a rare victorious win against the Lords of Fate in the shape of Rizzo the Rat."][/caption] I wasn't originally planning on writing about today's excursion to the Marin County Fair, but it's as good a jumping-off point as anything else for me to rant a bit about food. Jon Carroll may have his feline fulminations, but I've got the inescapable edible. Unless you're consuming cats, I think we can all agree on who's got the topic with broader appeal. I'm currently reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, which neatly lays out in about 400 pages everything that's wrong with the American food production system. I'm not yet done with it, but Michael Pollan's ability to present some new idea or an old one in a fresh manner on nearly every page still blows me away. Some of his concepts are only tangentially related to the sort of idea-fucking that I've been doing for most of my life: "What if," I wonder, and then go off on a brain tangent about steampunk aesthetic and whether people like brass because it's shiny or the implications of a galactic police force that chooses more of its members from one planet than any other. Other ideas that Pollan explores in his book have serious, real-world implications for people who care about cooking, and he discusses them in such a way as to be inclusive and let people come to their own conclusions. There is very little dragging-the-horse-to-water crap that many opinion columnists or non-fiction book authors perpetuate. His writing style is conversational: Here is what I've learned by doing this. He doesn't even get to the point of, "...and draw your own conclusions." The terseness of the style forgoes the need for ham-handedness, and so you can actually decide whether he's on drugs or making sense. Frankly, I think he's making a lot of sense, and since the book came out in 2006 I'm a bit late to the game. That said, and book unfinished, it's important for me to note a few things about The Omnivore's Dilemma and its implications thus far. First off, for those of you who don't know how the FMA and I deal with our weekly consumption of fuel, we cook a lot. We prepare about five or six meals per week at home, although in any given week the number of meals eaten at home can vary from four to seven, depending on our social proclivities and the Jewish holiday calendar. These meals that we prepare at home don't just cover dinner, they make up almost all of my lunches and most of the FMA's, as well. We shop at the local Chinese and Mexican markets, hitting Trader Joe's only for orange juice, cheap but decent vodka, and bread and yogurt free of high-fructose corn syrup. If asked us for our favorite inert gas, it would have to be freon, since we depend mightily on our freezer to keep leftovers and home-cooked meals that were made to be frozen ready for a quick reinvigoration. At any given time, we have around half a dozen dinners for two ready to be defrosted on short notice, and none of them were bought. We do this for several reasons. We like to cook. Preparing our own food has more to do with taste than anything else. I remember soon after we moved to San Francisco and discovered that a Thai restaurant we had been to twice used the same Thai curry paste that we bought at our Asian market, but charged us more for the meal without the sense of pride we could take in preparing it ourselves. Fuck that, we said, and we haven't been to a Thai restaurant in more than a year. Why, when we can prepare the food like we remember it in Thailand, instead of having the tastes adjusted for Western taste buds. We like our cooking, but we like our flexibility, too. Americans, and that includes those who live and eat in America but don't identify as countrymen of L'Etats Unis, are facing perilous times. Our very health is being thrown into risk by the mere and base act of eating. Looking at statistics, the food we consume can be broken down into one large category, supplanted by an even larger one: We eat corn, and that corn is fed on oil. The chicken or cow that you're eating along with your broccoli in garlic and brown rice? Sounds healthy, right? But if Pollan and his colleagues are to be believed - and there's ample evidence that they're right - all those food products, if bought at a major American food reseller like Safeway, Shaw's, or Albertson's, all come from corn, and that corn essentially comes from petrochemicals. The chicken is fed corn. The cow is fed corn. The veggies were grown with fertilizer that comes from a mix of oil-based crap, and corn. The corn itself comes from animal- and petro-based fertilizer, and so even when you make an effort to avoid HFCS you're essentially buying the same shit that you put in your car. Not only do we like to cook, but we know it's healthier. We can choose which recipes are worthy of a full-on butter assault, and which can get by with a dash of olive oil, or with nothing. Fanqie chowdan, which I've just butchered the spelling of but is essentially a Chinese dish of egg, tomato, and green onion stir-fried and served with rice, is a healthy dish. We add nothing, letting the natural oils permeate the food. The more you know about what goes into your body, the healthier you'll be. Please, find me a logical counter-argument, because I haven't been able to think of one. Food is not merely fuel. We have been genetically and physiologically programmed to both utilize and enjoy food that tastes good. As the farmers that Pollan interviews in his book suggest, though, things that taste best to us are not always available. So we're designed to enjoy a range of foods, in different seasons and conforming to different tastes, but all of which can benefit our bodies. So it's good to eat potatoes in winter, and chicken in the summer. Strawberries are meant for one time of year, and asparagus another: just because some "organic" enclave can have it flown to your local Whole Foods regardless of season doesn't mean you should buy it. Nor does it mean that it's organic. So, we get back to the FMA winning a stuffed Muppet, Rizzo the Rat, at the Marin County Fair. Just north of San Francisco, Marin County is one of the most affluent counties in the entire United States, and the world, too. There are minority-heavy pockets of poverty - ask how many of the people you know who live in Marin have been to Marin City in the past 25 years - but there's also extreme wealth. Marin is also the northern gateway to San Francisco and the traditional marketplace that S.F. is, so the farmers even further north in northern and western Marin, in Sonoma and Novato counties, and some from Mendocino, too, make their way down to The City. The Marin County Fair was big on electric vehicle displays. PG&E had a booth, and classic muscle cars from the 60s, sleek and strong, had been refurbished with electric-only engines. Somewhere, Shai Agassi was bashing his head into a keyboard. An emphasis on the greenness of the fair was heavily drilled into your head, yet the fair lacked an equal emphasis on green food. Many of the food stalls might have had signs up indicating that this meat bowl or that funnel cake fried dough thing was baked using "organic" ingredients, but organic could mean anything. Organically-grown whatever that have to be flown and trucked into your hometown during the nadir of the off-season aren't "organic," at least not in the original sense of the term, according to Pollan. What you know about what you eat can make a huge difference in your health, so when a place as eco-friendly as Marin offers shoddy (in other words, zero) documentation at one of their biggest annual events, it doesn't bode well for the impact of changing hearts and minds. Then again, it's all slow going, and the FMA, who claims she never wins anything, participated for the first time ever in the classic American pastime known as the carnival ruse and walked away with an enormous stuffed and probably bootleg rendition of the Muppet Rizzo the Rat. This is how they sucker you in - but she looked so happy.
Making pizza at Di Fara's, Brooklyn. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2008. Besides being criminal, it is socially unacceptable to go to New York and not eat well. This is not to say that I am one of these deluded folks that thinks that the food there is better than the food in San Francisco, but the overall quality of grub is mighty fine indeed, and nothing less than world-class. You know this. However, the trip that the FMA and I took in December was her first encounter with the Big Apple, so it was only appropriate that the food we would eat would be different than what we could get in S.F. We had proper Tokyo-style ramen at Ippudo, a recently-opened branch of our favorite Japanese ramen joint. Ramen in Tokyo receives at least the same scrutiny that pizza does in New York. That's not to say that the best ramen in Japan is in Tokyo, but if you go to a place that's half-decent, you won't be disappointed. I first discovered Ippudo when I was living in an improbable gaijin house in the center of Tokyo's fancy-pancy Hiroo district. On the walk from Hiroo to Ebisu there was one of three branches of the local Tokyo chain of Ippudo. Open until 4 a.m., populated with a typical Tokyo mix of college students, partiers, and the occasional starving English teacher, they were known for their chashumen and their super-strong lemon sours. The FMA and I ate not once but twice at Second Ave Deli, which is no longer down in the Lower East Side but up in midtown, off Lex. Same people running it, same excellent food. Jewfood is in the FMA's blood, clearly, by the way she devoured the fried kreplach and the stacked sandwiches and the pickles and the Cel-Rey to wash it all down, and insisted we go back on Christmas morning. We beat the crowd by 10 minutes. We savored the divine garlic knishes at Yonah Schimmel's Knishery, had falafel from a cart near MOMA, had a not-kosher-in-ages meal for three days from the Carnegie Deli. You don't need a link to Carnegie. Check out 2nd Ave., trust me. We brought back two months' worth of bagels from Ess-a-Bagel and ate them in a month and a half. We had morning bagels regularly with craptacular machined coffee near the Avenue M station in Brooklyn, near where we were staying. We had a bartender who was a friend of a friend charge us $10 for $50 worth of drinks, we had two martinis for $5 in Midtown just to say we could. I think they used rubbing alcohol in place of vermouth. I took the FMA to a nice little French joint on 50th that suffers only from the goofy name of Chez Napoleon, just before hitting her first Broadway show - Spamalot, what else? Oh, and we had pizza. In New York. Shocking, I know. Now, for those who know me, I've been raised on as much on my Bubbe's kugel as I have on Tommaso's pizza. I'm not extremely picky about the pizza I eat: as long as I know in advance I'm getting ghetto crap, I can prepare myself to not be disappointed. Regina's in Boston has impressed me, and thanks to the recommendation of a friend the FMA and I met while traveling in China, Di Fara's ain't too bad, neither. So to speak. The line at Di Fara's, near my friend's place at which we were staying in Brooklyn, took about two hours to get through. The pizza was near-perfect, from the thickness of the crust - neither too doughy nor too crunchy - to the quality of the rich sauce or the ridiculously extravagant toppings the FMA insisted on. The massive leaves of basil were a nice touch, cut by the owner and sole chef Domenico. During the wait, his adult children helped with the prep cooking, but from throwing the dough to pulling it out of the oven, he was the only one to touch the pizza. I could've done without the extra layer of oil that he added after the pizza was done, but that's a small quibble for a pizza that's worth trekking off the beaten path. Six months later, I've finally worked off most of the extra weight I put on from this trip. I think.