Category Archives: america

united states of confusion

Chattanooga this Chattanooga that – 

Boston’s bigger than Cleveland – 

Oregon’s green, New York’s black –  

.

Blue collar jobs gone to China

White collar crime on the rise

Grandma takes pills for Angina

Grandpa watches Fox, can’t eat fries

.

If you grow green you’ll be busted

Except in Colorado and Cali – how’s that?

Houses in the South smell musty

Can’t scrub off the shame of the past

.

This United States of Confusion

Gunshots on city blocks – who’s to blame?

Cops shooting kids shooting heroin

But no way to fix psychic pain.

.

Chattanooga this Chattanooga that – 

Portland’s wetter than Tucson – 

Alaska’s cold, but low tax –

.

Manhattan priced out the artists

Detroit’s a stain on us all

Tech-heads are joining the army

Wall Street bonuses too big to fall

.

Red states won’t socialize with blue ones

Conspiracy theories abound

I had a dream we were dreaming

If we don’t wake up soon we’ll all drown.

Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) is a US Iraq War veteran currently serving 35 years for leaking a massive cache of military secrets.

Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) is a US Iraq War veteran currently serving 35 years for leaking a massive cache of military secrets.


faces on the subway

Faces on the subway

Rarely a second glance

Still, when our eyes meet

It’s something like romance.

Some like their smart phones

Some read their books

Me, I watch the faces

Collect their stolen looks.


i am not rich

I am not rich except in all the ways you should be

no need to spell it out

I am not smart but smart enough to know right from wrong

shall I go on?

Or can the song stop here with the bolded-up truth that finds the mark each time

a la Babe Ruth?

That we’re all there already and that winning is redundant

when all have won

Open your hand, see the prize stretch out from your fingertips to infinity

to everyone.

Me in the Badlands of South Dakota. Photograph by Iain Willis.

Me in the Badlands of South Dakota. Photograph by Iain Willis.


registering the homeless to vote

Not long after I came to the US my friend Sarah convinced me to go on a road trip with her to register voters ahead of the 2008 election that brought Obama to power. This is a piece I wrote at the time. I don’t know whether the situation has changed much in the last four years concerning the disenfranchisement of homeless voters. I’d be interested to know if anyone has more information.

a homeless man in Las Vegas

I have just returned from 10 days spent registering voters in Nevada and Colorado, two states that could go either way in the upcoming election.

In some ways the trip was not unusual. Right now large numbers of politically-motivated activists, Democrat and Republican, are migrating to swing states across the US, knocking on doors, standing outside strip malls, trying to secure crucial votes that could prove the difference in an election that once again looks like it’s going to the wire.

Though we were certainly part of this general trend, myself and my friend Sarah (who accompanied me) stood at a distance from party politics.

There was no proselytising for one thing: We weren’t interested in telling voters who to vote for, only to vote. Our road trip also concentrated exclusively on a single demographic; the hundreds of thousands who sleep rough in America every night. Outside homeless shelters in Las Vegas and Christian missions in downtown Denver we tried to enfranchise the poor and destitute, tempting them with bags full of cheeseburgers and cups of cigarettes. Kneeling on the sidewalk of a dimly-lit street to help a Vietnam War vet with a head full of liquor write out his social security number; listening to their hard luck tales and the incoherent ramblings of crack addicts.

It was an experience and an education. One of the most glaring insights was the extent to which the homeless in the U.S. have been abandoned by the political process.

Democrats are traditionally seen as the party of the poor and dispossessed and it was clear from talking to the homeless on the streets of Nevada and Colorado that majority planned to vote Obama.

It is a fact both parties tacitly acknowledged last week in Ohio when they clashed over a six-day window in which voters can register and vote in the state on the same day. The measure would clearly benefit the homeless, whose chaotic lifestyles can make the simple act of getting to the polls on election day a near impossibility.

Ohio Democrats support the move; Republicans do not and have challenged the voting window in court.

In spite of the obvious advantage they hold, there was little evidence that Democrats in Nevada and Colorado were reaching out to this small but potentially significant pool of voters. At the Obama campaign office in Las Vegas our plan to target rough sleepers was met with incredulity. They could offer no advice on where we might find homeless voters, and seemingly had no plans to reach out to them themselves.

In Denver they were more encouraging, though equally bemused by the tactic.

Maybe this is not so surprising. There’s no doubt some of those pledging support for the Chicago senator on the streets of both states would raise more than a few eyebrows in polite Democrat society.

Our first sign-up was Mark, a 48-year-old ex-con we met outside a 99-cents Taco restaurant in down town Vegas.

Mark had half his teeth missing and a deep tan from riding out in the sun all day on a beat-up mountain bike. He had spent nearly half his life in prison, and whilst inside became a member of the notorious white supremacist group, the Aryan Brotherhood. Nonetheless he said he was planning to vote Democrat, “for the black man.”

Perhaps the failure to engage with the homeless can also in part be explained by state laws on voting rights that have for a long time excluded many of those who find themselves on the street.

A large proportion of America’s estimated 750,000 homeless have criminal records, and until recently many states prohibited former convicts from voting. Civil rights groups claim the restrictions were rooted in racism since the number of states passing laws stripping convicted criminals of the vote doubled in the years after suffrage was extended to blacks and, then as now, a disproportionately high volume of African-Americans went through the prison system.

In the last few years legal challenges have returned voting rights to ex-cons. With a handful of exceptions most states, including Nevada and Colorado, now allow former felons to vote. (Although most states still don’t extend that right to those currently serving time).

It appears, however, that no-one has bothered to tell the people concerned. The most consistent response we heard on the street was: “I ain’t allowed to vote. I’m a felon.”

For those at the margins of American society, rehabilitation is a long, often lonely road.


bioluminescence

A version of this story was first published on CNN’s science blog, Light Years, June 19, 2012. 

The summer is upon us and if you live somewhere relatively hot or you’re going some place hot for your holidays, there’s a good chance you’ll see fireflies.

firefly

I live in Brooklyn, New York, and when I look out my bedroom window I can see them hovering in the yard, tiny balls of yellow light that flicker on and off in the dusk like lighters at a rock concert.

Fireflies are quite a common sight although for how long we don’t know. There have been widespread reports that fireflies numbers are dwindling. The reports are all anecdotal but they were enough of a concern for entomologists and biologists to convene a symposium in Thailand in 2008 entitled, “Diversity and Conservation of Fireflies.”

If fireflies are under threat it’s a terrible state of affairs. They are a unique and interesting creature and their loss ultimately would be our loss. They belong to a very exclusive group of land creatures that exhibit a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

In simple terms, bioluminescence is technique certain organisms have developed to create energy, in the form of light, via a chemical reaction. This reaction often involves a chemical called luciferin.

Fireflies are unique because most bioluminescent creatures – 80 percent – live in the sea. On land only certain insects and fungi are bioluminescent.

It was in the ocean that I first found out about the phenomenon.

I grew up in England where we don’t get fireflies. We get things called glow worms, which are not worms at all but flightless insects. They’re hard to spot since they’re usually hidden away in long grass or hedgerows. Consequently most Brits will probably tell you that their only recollection of a glow worm growing up was via the pages of a cute children’s story.

It was few years ago and I was on Lombok, a tiny island next to Bali, when I first experienced the weird spectacle of nature flickering to light in the darkness. I went for a midnight swim and started to feel a strange prickling sensation and when I dipped my head underwater and ran my hand in front of me it was as if the Milky War had been miniaturized and liquified at the same time.

The trial of sparks left by your moving hand in bioluminescent waters is caused by single-cell organisms called dinoflagellates. They’re a mysterious organism scientists don’t fully understand. They’re a form of plankton and while they feed on prey and move around like animals, they can also convert the sun’s rays into food using chlorophyll in the same way plants do.

If you want to see the coolest bioluminescent creatures though, you’ve got to go into deep water.

Unless you’re James Cameron or that ridiculous (sorry, I mean romantic) couple who got wed on the deck of the wreck of the Titanic, you probably can’t afford a ride in a deep sea submersible to the ocean bottom.

Don’t despair though. If you’re lucky enough to be in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) anytime soon you can check out there wonderful exhibition “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” which runs till January next year.

Here, fireflies rub shoulders with the creatures of the deep. In total 80 percent of deep sea organisms are bioluminescent, and certain of them have developed fascinating and elaborate ways of illuminating the permanent night.

Anglerfish, which are frankly hideous-looking things, get their name from the modified spine which sticks out of their forehead just like a fishing rod. The rod is topped with a lure that pulses with bacterial light.

Anglerfish, like most deep sea creatures, emit blue light because it’s easier to detect at these depths. An exception is the stoplight loosejaw dragonfish which gives off red light from indents just below its eyes. The loosejaw gets its name from the fact that its jaw can dislocate from its mouth when it’s hunting prey. Consequently it looks quite a lot like the alien in Predator (which I watched as a child when I’d grown out of the cute glow worm stories).

The AMNH exhibit contains many more highlights, including a small replica of a cave in New Zealand where thousands of fly larvae have turned the ceiling into a festival of stars.

Walking around the exhibit I was reminded of the limitless capacity nature has to amaze. If you’re in New York and you have a spare afternoon, go see it. Failing that, take a look in your back yard.


on the trail of native america

A version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sept 10, 2011.

On a groggy late summer’s day on Manhatten island I’m taking refuge in the marble-domed George Gustav Heye Center, near the start of Broadway, admiring two pieces of flint. Not just any pieces of flint. Dating from between 11,000 and 13,500 BC, these are among the earliest evidence of Paleoindian culture in any museum collection in the world. Each has been carved in fluted points a few centimetres long.
the mohawks helped build the empire state

To archaeologists, they are Clovis points. To the rest of us, they are easily recognisable as the lethal tips fashioned by early hunters before being fastened to wooden shafts to make spears. Aside from their antiquity, the really interesting thing about the spearheads is where they were found: just 320 kms north of here in Washington County, New York State.

So when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that later bore his name to claim New York on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1609, the natives who greeted him were part of a continuous occupation that had gone on for millennia.

Yet in less than 400 years they have almost completely disappeared.

Back in Hudson’s day, there were no such countries as Canada or the United States of America. Now I’m in north America’s largest city on my way to a native American festival across the border to learn more about the sad decline of such a proud culture.

I begin at the George Gustav Heye Center, opened in 1994 in the historic Alexander Hamilton US Custom House as the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian. The spearheads, like most of the collection, were gathered by George Gustav Heye himself, a New Yorker who quit Wall Street in the late 19th Century to indulge his passion for Indian artefacts.

Heye was one of the few men of his era interested in preserving the continent’s pre-Colombian past, amassing 800,000 pieces in his lifetime. He opened his first museum in 1922 in order, as he put it, to “unveil the mystery of the origin of the red man”. Yet despite his best efforts little material evidence of Manhattan’s native history has survived.
There is the name of course. Manhattan derives from the word Manna-hata written in the logbook of one of Henry Hudson’s officers and meaning “island of many hills” in the language of the Lenape Indians who lived there. There is also the route of Broadway, which follows an old Indian trail.

Ironically, the most striking example of Native American craftsmanship in the city in existence today are the skyscrapers. In the Twenties and Thirties Mohawk Indians were employed in the construction of some of New York’s most iconic landmarks, including the Empire State – sadly, because they worked for such low wages and reputedly had such good heads for heights. Like the Lenape, the Mohawks were native to New York State and a large proportion of them were driven inland or had their population decimated by disease in the wake of European colonisation.

Famously, the Lenape lost Manhattan in a treaty with the Dutch in 1626 in exchange for $26. What’s less well know is that the reason they gave away their homeland so cheaply was due mainly to their having no concept of land ownership. To the Lenape, you could no more own the land than you could the sky. And anyway, they believed the Europeans merely wished to share the island with them.

The Lenape were exiled to Oklahoma. But the majority of remaining Mohawks now live north of the border on reservations in Quebec where I am now heading to visit a Native American festival being held in Kahnawake Mohawk territory on the south shore of Canada’s mightiest river. One of the festival organisers tells me that Kahnawake means “place of the rapids” in the Mohawk’s native Iroquoian language.

We drive there on a grey afternoon, crossing over the pregnant waters of the St Lawrence and into the reservation. Battered clapboard houses, gas stations selling cliché Indian souvenirs and scores of smoke shacks line the roadside (tobacco is sold tax-free on the reserve).

The streets are deserted, the houses shut up and the only sign of life is a few scattered children playing on porches. My host Jean takes me to a café where an old photo of the town’s lacrosse team hangs on the wall. Lacrosse, like the smoking of tobacco, is one Native American tradition that caught on with the colonisers. We sit outside watching vast cargo ships slip by on the St Lawrence Seaway, the canal linking the Atlantic to the Great Lakes that runs through the reserve.
“The locals are wary of outsiders,” says Jean in hushed tones. “They prefer to be left to themselves.”

The Mohawks came here from the 16th century onwards. Since then they’ve been involved in a long resistance struggle that continues today. In 1990 the nearby Mohawk community of Kanesatake was involved in a land dispute with a local mayor that ended in a violent standoff and the death of one police officer.

A twenty-minute drive from the Mohawk communities, Montreal feels like another world. Established by French fur traders around the same time the Mohawks came to the region it has developed into Canada’s second city and the country’s cultural capital, with over 100 festivals taking place throughout the year. With a largely bilingual population speaking French and English, it is a friendly, cosmopolitan town that offers a nice melange of Gallic charm and North American practicality.

The city’s annual Just for Laughs comedy festival is finishing and a fashion festival is about to get under way, but I am here for the First Peoples Festival, a 10-day celebration that brings together indigenous artists, musicians and filmmakers from around the globe. Held in the city every year for the past two decades, the festival’s focal point is in the Place des Festivals where traditional teepees are assembled in front of the stage and where a ceremonial flame is lit the first night.

For the opening night the headline act on the main stage is Samian, a rapper from the Abitibiwinni First Nation in western Quebec. A star among the province’s indigenous community, his arrival on stage is greeted by screams from adoring fans and the words from the announcer: “A voice for aboriginal culture.”
He raps in French and in his native tongue, Algonquin, which he learned from his grandmother. “My language is dying out and it’s important I do what I can to save it,” he explains.
Elsewhere there are films, poetry readings and displays of traditional song and dancing.  “This is obviously not Just for Laughs,” says Andre Dudemaine, the chief organiser of the First Peoples event. “We have an agenda to create space for aboriginal artists. There are severe problems burdening our native communities. Unemployment and drugs are the two that come to mind. But there are reasons to be optimistic too, one of which is the festival. Ten years ago a platform like this could not have been imagined.”
We speak amid the gentle bustle of the Quartiers Des Spectacles, where most of the 100-plus festivals locate themselves. I wonder how he hoped to stand out in such a crowded marketplace.
“If you really want to know about the authentic culture of this land then this is the only event that offers that opportunity,” he says. “It is a chance to participate in a living history.”


of jazz, rock, rap and new york

It was a cold night in Harlem. The speakeasy was down some steps in the basement of a brownstone on West 133rd Street. We rang the bell and a small, neatly dressed black man with a gold pendant round his neck opened the door a fraction. “Is that you Gordon?”jazz

Our guide stepped out from the shadows and into the thin line of light escaping from the doorway. “I got some guys here itching for good jazz. Think you can help out?”

In the back the band had set up on a small stage: A dusty upright against the wall, the sleek contours of the sax reflected in a solitary spotlight.

“Billie Holiday played here when she was a teenager hustling for gigs,” Gordon said, as the heavyset Venezuelan on piano struck the chords of the first number. “She treaded these same floors.”

From the speakeasies of Harlem to the nightclubs of the Lower East Side and the street corners of the Bronx, New York is a city that lives and breathes music. Almost every genre of popular music has found a home here down the years and many of the greatest musicians of all time have, like Holiday, called the city home at one time or another: Bob Dylan started out in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village; Madonna began her ascent to pop heaven in a crummy apartment in the downtown, juggling playing in local bands with shifts at a donut store.

The city has also witnessed many seminal moments in pop history – the birth of hip hop in the Bronx; The Beatles’ first appearance on American television recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway; the arrest of Sid Vicious for the murder of his girlfriend at the Chelsea Hotel.

Tapping this rich vein of history takes a few days and is best accomplished in the company of one of the handful of tours focused on the musical heritage. The tours are subdivided by genre and usually presided over by amiable obsessives who can give you chapter and verse on the relative merits of bebop or the significance of Joey Ramone’s favorite brand of soft drink (it was Yoo-Hoo in case you were wondering).

Gordon Polatnik runs tours in Harlem. A softly spoken 50-year-old, his mild manner masks a lifelong passion for the neighborhood’s jazz history. He ran a café here for five years mainly, he admits, “so that I could have live jazz on the menu every day.”

His tours reflect this concern with the contemporary scene and feature at least two live performances. In between he led us through Harlem, along streets filled with distinguished brick rowhouses that date back over a century and which first welcomed African Americans driven out of midtown Manhattan in the years before World War I. This migration brought with it dance halls and gambling dens that jumped to the erratic new sounds of jazz and ragtime.

In the roaring twenties prohibition drove the liquor underground into the speakeasies on 133rd Street, known then as Swing Street. The new law did not dent the party, however, and society figures and celebrities such as Mae West clamoured to the area and to renowned venues like the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington’s orchestra were the house band.

These days the music venues are a little thinner on the ground although the Apollo Theater on 125th Street has been running a talent night every Wednesday for so long that it can boast that Billie Holiday got her big break there.

“The city is a proving ground,” said Gordon as we climbed back up to the street into the crisp air of the Harlem night. “Anyone can come here and get a gig. That’s the genius of New York.”

——–

Standing in front of the downtown tenement Bobby Pinn held up a vinyl copy of Led Zepellin’s Physical Graffiti. Overhead the sky was clear blue and though the sun cast a shadow on the artwork it was still possible to see that the building on the album cover and the one across the street on St Mark’s Place were one and the same.

“Now,” said Bobby, a fast-talking New Yorker with bleached blond spikes and an inexhaustible supply of rock and roll anecdotes. “Which of you is gonna tell me what’s missing on the Zep album?”

Our small band of rock geeks scratched heads in shamed silence as yellow cabs clattered by and skinny young things in black jeans weaved past on the sidewalk.

The tenement on the album has a level missing, Bobby said. Apparently this cosmetic change was ordered by the band after it was discovered that one of the group’s drug dealers lived in the building. “Taking away the dealer’s floor somehow made sense. There’s heroin logic for you!”

Bobby began his rock tour in the heart of the East Village, formerly the Lower East Side. A hundred years back large swathes of European migrants made the streets around here the most densely populated on the planet. In the post-war years this beat-up slum was a perfect haven for penniless artists. Bobby showed us the St Mark’s Hotel, a flop house frequented by Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, who nicknamed the eaterie on the ground floor “the respectable bums cafeteria.”

A hundred yards or so down Second Avenue he pointed out the site of the Fillmore East, a concert venue where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin vied for top billing alongside acts like The Who, who premiered their rock opera Tommy there. On the sidewalk a mosaic plastered onto the base of the traffic lights commemorates the venue, now a savings bank. The mosaic contains the names of bands that played the Fillmore as well as a shard of the guitar Pete Townsend smashed on stage during the Tommy show.

Today the Lower East Side is a sanitised version of its former self, replete with boutiques selling retro clothes and yoga centers (“What we’re rebelling about now is the influx of yoghurt,” said Bobby). But in the late seventies this area was awash with drugs and crime. Nor were these problems confined to the downtown. The city was bankrupt and a blackout in the summer of 1977 led to widespread looting.

Out of this chaos came creativity. The emerging music scenes of punk and new wave were at the vanguard of this creative surge. Homegrown bands like The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie cut their teeth in venues like the legendary CBGB on The Bowery. The Ramones played their first gig there “in front of seven people and the bar dog.”

At the same time disaffected teenagers uptown seized on the chaos to forge a new musical form. JDL is part of the Coldcrush Brothers, a rap act from the Bronx formed in 1979. “Back then the city was in disarray,” JDL said. “Slum landlords were burning down apartment blocks to get the insurance money. These places had no amenities and were deserted. As kids we held parties in them that turned into jams, never guessing this thing we did for fun would turn into a multi-billion dollar industry.”

The former DJ now leads tourists around his old neighbourhood showing them significant markers in the story of hip hop, including the location of the first documented hip hop party on Sedgwick Avenue.

“The reason New York is such a force in music is the diversity,” JDL said. “The drive to make it here is phenomenal. So many people come here to see it, to live it. It’s what makes this the greatest city in the world.”

A version of this story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on May 21, 2011