Remember a little more than a month ago when I implied that spring had arrived in Chicago despite the insistence of the natives that I was being laughably optimistic? Well, the natives were right, and I was wrong. Since then we’ve had our fair share of plunging overnight temperatures and frigid rainy mornings. But now I’m hoping I can safely say that spring is really here, and our first brutal Chicago winter is behind us. Since leaving Los Angeles, where weather is stubbornly perfect 95 percent of the time, I have enjoyed the seasons despite the difficulty getting acclimated to bad weather. In LA it’s green all the time, but here watching the leaves appear on the trees has been an enjoyable novelty. And yesterday, which may have been the best day of the year thus far, I decided to dust off my tree books, unused since I left the east coast for California five years ago. I was curious to see what kinds of trees line our street, and what’s living in our back yard. (I was partly inspired to do this by the Talk of the Town piece in this week’s New Yorker about the guy who’s running New York City’s “tree census.”) So, using my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and Trees of North America, I discovered that we’ve got a Northern Catalpa and an American Elm in the front and some kind of Maple in the back yard. If the thunderstorms stop today, I might go back out and see what else is growing around here.
A few years ago, I was standing on the platform at College subway station in downtown Toronto. It was 9 pm, well beyond the evening rush. Further along the platform and also waiting to board the next train was someone I recognized - a colleague from work - older and embittered, a grumbling and grouchy sort. I'd barely spoken two words to him in the newsroom and wasn't in any mood to increase those numbers.The train arrived and this happened: A few people piled out and then one person in particular came out of the train and stood face to face with my grouchy colleague on the platform. They began punching each other in the face as if they were sworn enemies, all the while adjusting themselves on the platform so that Grouchy could go into the subway car, and the other guy could come all the way out. It was as if they were doing a dance. Before the doors had closed, and after at least a dozen punches had been thrown as they did their subway ballet, Grouchy was in the car and the other guy had gone up the stairs. I was within earshot - not a word had been spoken, not an insult slung. I guess some people just piss other people off.So that's my subway story. That and the time I slipped on the top step at an outdoor entrance to Leicester Square tube station in London and tumbled down an entire flight of stairs, to the bemusement (and in many cases, indifference) of London's commuting throngs.Every commuter or traveler seems to have his own subway story. The front page of a recent Globe and Mail Travel section takes the reader into the subways, undergrounds, tubes and metros of cities around the world. Writer Mark Kingwell, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, is the tour guide, expertly guiding the reader through some of the world's buried treasures. It's a fascinating read, and includes bits by other writers and travelers, each sharing subway anecdotes. All packaged with some fine photos.All of which leads me to a book I purchased a few years ago - Underground: Travels on the Global Metro - a coffee-table book featuring some stunning work from photographer Marco Pesaresi. The cities explored are: New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Calcutta, Milan, Mexico City, Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid. Each section is prefaced by a short essay. The book even has an introduction by none other than Francis Ford Coppola.Pesaresi is a remarkable photographer. His camera sometimes conspires with the passenger - causing a pose, an attitude (Mexico city). Sometimes, it is seemingly invisible (Milan) capturing but not appearing to intrude on a pre-existing mood (Tokyo). Sometimes it seems to be lurking, capturing quiet moments that likely would have been shaken off by the subjects, had they been overwhelmed by a more intrusive photographer.
I have a Bloglines account. Since you're reading this blog, you probably know what I'm talking about, but in case you don't, I'll explain. Bloglines takes all the blogs and websites you read everyday and bundles them together in one place, so you can check them without getting repetitive stress disorder from your web browser. Bloglines is like the newspaper of stuff I care about. There is no real estate section in my paper, no classifieds, only sports, food, the occasional political rant, and then an extensive cultural section that includes the blog you're reading now, and more than a few others that cover film, music and celebrity gossip (the lifeblood of the modern news media).For the last couple of months, my "newspaper" has included a metro section, and that section has been dominated by the Homicide Report, written by Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy. The Homicide Report is a straightforward, factual account of every homicide in Los Angeles County. It runs five days a week. Most of the homicides only a get a line or two, a simple description of the facts, under a stark and pointed headline ("Man shot working on a car"; "Teacher Found Killed"), but more importantly, whenever possible, the identity of the victim is revealed. For most homicides, this is a few lines more recognition than they would get in the Los Angeles Times or in any newspaper, for that matter. As Leovy says, "The media often covers homicide as a statistic story, marking up-and-down jags in the rates." In an interview with the blog LA Observed (another of my daily reads) she explains some of her motivation for starting the blog:"At the very least, seeing all the homicides arrayed in a list like this will give readers a much more real view of who is dying, and how often. And for me, it means no longer having to confront weeping mothers who say their sons' deaths were never covered by the press."It seems fitting that LA would lead the way with a blog about murder (Note: other cities have followed suit; just this week the Houston Chronicle launched its own homicide blog (via bloghouston.net)). After all, this is the city of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, of Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh, of Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. Crime is woven into the fabric of the city and its culture in a way that doesn't seem to be the case in the other American cities (except maybe Baltimore). While the classic noirists and the masters of the procedural used crime in the city to tell stories of the evil that lurked within it, the Homicide Report seems determined to tell of the innocence, as well. It remains to be seen what effect the blog will have on crime rates, if any, but it already raises my awareness on a daily basis.
I noticed that in the past few days several people have come to this blog after searching Andrei Codrescu and hurricane. Codrescu, a Romanian poet, writer and NPR commentator, is a favorite of mine and when I realized that he makes his home in New Orleans, I became worried that he might be missing. I'm guessing that those searching for him on Google are worried, too. In an interview a little more than a year ago Codrescu, like so many others, dismissed the threat to New Orleans:Standaert: You live in New Orleans, which could be submerged in a matter of a few short hours if a 'category five' hurricane hits the city full bore. Does this frighten you? Sorry if I brought it to mind! I've heard other residents say with a devil may care wave of the hand that it would be appropriate if New Orleans was Pompeii-ed, Atlantis-ed, or otherwise Sodom and Gomorra-ed. Are these people nuts? Or does living in New Orleans breed a laissez faire attitude toward eminent apocalypse? Is it the decadent caramelized, sugar powdered, steaming apple beignets?Codrescu: So what's living in San Francisco like? Or L.A.? Or New York? Or anywhere on the path of Comet from Hell? Be serious, Mike. This just ain't a safe universe. People in New Orleans get great pleasure out of possible disaster just like Venetians do: they are in a hurry to make beauty because they are so close to the elemental (fury) gods. But anyone who decided to be boring because they live on a rock under the desert, is either crazy or hasn't taken enough LSD. Or they may just be boring, which is incurable. There is nothing sicker than a bunker.I was relieved to hear that Codrescu is safe and in Baton Rouge. Yesterday he mourned on NPR. Like so many others he is both chastened by the wrath of Mother Nature and angry that his beloved city has been destroyed.
As many of our readers know, long-time Millions staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg's debut novel City on Fire is coming this fall. It landed on our annual preview last month and has been the subject of much media interest. Right now, Hallberg and the book are being featured at the ABA's annual Winter Institute, a sort of Davos for independent booksellers. We were able to secure a copy of City on Fire and can share the novel's opening lines. The book's Prologue begins: IN NEW YORK, you can get anything delivered. Such, anyway, is the principle I’m operating on. It’s the middle of summer, the middle of life. I’m in an otherwise deserted apartment on West 16th Street, listening to the placid hum of the fridge in the next room, and though it contains only a mesozoic half-stick of butter my hosts left behind when they took off for the shore, in 40 minutes I can be eating more or less whatever I can imagine wanting. When I was a young man—younger, I should say—you could even order in drugs. Business cards stamped with a 212 number and that lonesome word, delivery, or, more usually, some bullshit about therapeutic massage. I can’t believe I ever forgot this.