Visiting Liberty Plaza

A pink unicorn tricycle, Liberty Plaza, NYC, 4 October 2011

To spend one’s days and nights in a New York City park is expensive. At a minimum, one gives up running hot water, protection from rain and cold, convenient access to a bathroom, and most forms of privacy. I’ve done no more than visit the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, whose older name of Liberty Plaza the protesters have reclaimed, and I imagine that the ones who actually spend the night there know who each other are. Maybe the willingness to lose safety and comfort are proof, in one another’s eyes, of a level of commitment. Maybe the loss underwrites a trust in one another that makes possible the group’s persistent faith in the ideals of openness and democracy.

During my two visits, I wasn’t wearing my reporter’s cap, and I’m not much of a joiner. That left me the role of tourist. When I visited on Thursday, September 29, haphazard eavesdropping seemed to pick up repeatedly the earnest, necessary, and tedious conversations typical of groups of people trying to decide how to make decisions—conversations that tend to become especially byzantine in groups suspicious of hierarchies. But the openheartedness with which people were giving themselves to these tedious conversations was winning, and the protesters’ physical innovations to group interaction were ingenious and looked fun. Since electric amplification is forbidden in the park, the protesters have adopted what they call “the people’s mike”: at the end of every phrase, a speaker pauses while audience members who were able to hear him repeat the phrase for the benefit of audience members who couldn’t. Lest this practice render listeners too fawningly imitative, audience members all the while talk back to the speaker through a variety of silent, waggling gestures: jazz hands pointing upward signify approval, a pinched forefinger and thumb suggest that the speaker cut his message short, and so on. Watching this new semiotics, I found myself wondering, Why haven’t people been doing this all along? It’s as if it took the Facebook generation to make the most of human presence. People of every description were photographing, filming, and recording. Policemen stood around the periphery, gazing into the crowds, apparently looking for alcohol, which the protesters have forsworn, and tents, which city law forbids. The multiplicity of surveillance triggered a little paranoia in me, and I wondered what sort of databases my visage might be appearing in.

When I visited again today, Tuesday, October 4, the food table looked better stocked, but the sleeping area looked more bedraggled. The photographers, meanwhile, seemed more benign; I watched a young man interview a protester on video, and when she asked, at the end, who he worked for, he explained that the video was just for his Facebook page; he added that he was from Tennessee. Whereas, on my earlier visit, strangers had greeted me and asked what I might be able to contribute, today the people who struck up conversations with me seemed to have more-focused agendas. A woman dressed as Marie Antoinette tried to sign me up for wind-powered electricity. A camera crew for Al Jazeera asked me to pretend to be reading an issue of the protesters’ newspaper, the Occupy Wall Street Journal, for the sake of some B-roll that they were shooting. I actually did want to read it, and the outreach table had given away all its copies, so I pretended. The camera guys were willing to let me keep the prop.

Is this the revolution? I haven’t gone to a march yet, and haven’t yet attended the protesters’ twice-daily town meeting, which they call General Assembly, so I’m hardly in a position to say. Some critics have pointed out that the finance companies once associated with Wall Street are now for the most part headquartered in midtown, but the criticism seems to miss the point: Wall Street, as a location, is a symbol. The location of Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, is peculiarly literal. The protest is happening in a particular place; online, one may observe it happening, but one can’t virtually participate; it isn’t clear whether the improvised infrastructure could be transferred to another location, let alone seeded to many locations.

Other critics have objected that the protesters don’t seem to know what they want—an objection harder to dismiss. Indeed, the Adbusters poster that launched the movement asked the koan-like question, “What Is Our One Demand?” Similarly, the “Declaration of the Occupation,” which the New York General Assembly adopted unanimously on September 29, lists grievances but proposes no remedies—or rather, no specific remedies; it does exhort people to “create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” But details matter in politics; it’s only through negotiation of details that compromises can be reached. Moods—even good moods—pass, and New York City is going to get colder before it gets warmer. Before winter comes, I hope the protesters find a way to disperse their movement without dissipating it.

A WTC memory

A scratched and faded snapshot of the blogger in a parasail

More than a decade ago, I did a little bit of fear arbitrage. I was facing a very minor bit of surgery, so minor that after the fact it turned out that it hadn’t been necessary at all, though of course I didn’t know that at the time. I had decided that I was going to stay conscious during it, on the general principle that it isn’t a bad idea to keep an eye on a person cutting into you with a knife. Indeed, when the fateful day arrived, I was able to watch the doctor making her incisions, and my curiosity turned out to be more powerful than my squeamishness. (I remembered being especially fascinated by the glistening white layer of fat that lay just beneath my skin, deeper than even the worst scraping of a knee had hitherto revealed. At least I think it was fat.) I knew in advance that thanks to local anesthetics I wasn’t going to feel any pain, but to say that I dreaded the surgery would be an understatement. I hate to go the doctor even for check-ups.

Mulling over my fate, I berated myself over my cowardice for days until, in defense against my self-attacks, I started listing things that other people were afraid of that for me held no terrors at all. I had recently seen ads—I no longer remember where, maybe in one of the weekly giveaway newspapers that I used to read at lunch in the local slice joint—for parasailing in New York Harbor. I probably will never have the courage to jump out of a plane, but parasailing didn’t frighten me. By lifting you up into the sky, a parachute-sail proves its ability to keep you up there, or so my mind, surprisingly rational on this point, concluded. If modern medicine had sentenced me to be more brave than I wanted to be about surgery, it only seemed fair for me to reward myself by enjoying a risk that didn’t scare me.

I called an old friend who had survived lung cancer in childhood and had recently started taking multi-day, high-endurance hikes in the West; he was game, too. Across the street from the then-extant World Trade Center, just outside the Winter Garden, where a long quote from Frank O’Hara is carved in marble, we met the two men running the parasailing outfit. They were working-class New Jersey boating guys, a little brusque. I think we paid them cash, but I don’t remember how much—maybe $100 apiece? I remember that it was a lot for a graduate student, but not a lot compared to other New York luxuries. The operators didn’t make any small talk, nor did they offer any marketingesque pleasantries about the adventure we had chosen and how meaningful it might or might not be. They merely nodded to the life jackets, unmoored the boat, and motored out into the harbor with us. In the face of their alpha-male taciturnity, I remember scrutinizing the winch at the back of the vessel for clues about how the whole thing was going to work. For further clues there were only the occasional radio exchanges between our boat and the harbor police, terse and somewhat cryptic, from which I gathered that parasail operators were more tolerated than welcomed by the water authorities, who expected us to wait patiently until more-functional marine traffic had passed. The operators may also have had to clear things with air traffic control, or at least with the nearby helipads—I can’t recall. My friend and I weren’t the only passengers; there was also a man in his early thirties, who seemed to be a financial services type. His wife and elementary-school-age daughter were keeping him company but weren’t going to go up themselves.

It soon became clear that the boating guys hadn’t bothered to explain the parasail procedure to us because there was little for a passenger to do except enjoy the ride. (It was a little like surgery that way.) One at a time, each of us thrill-seekers was buckled into a vaguely diaper-like nylon brace, hooked in front to a large rope and then in back to an unfurled parachute. The boat sped up, the chute began to pull upward, the boating guys paid out the rope, one rose into the sky, and the water and the drone of the boat steadily receded. As the boat zipped back and forth across the harbor, far below, one floated in a fairly grand silence thousands of feet above New York. As you can see in the photo, I was as high as the top of the World Trade Center towers. It was pretty awesome.

After a while one was cranked back down and in. I think the only moment when any athletic skill was at all relevant came in setting foot again on the boat. But maybe not even then. Once all three parasail ticket holders had taken a turn, we headed back to the Winter Garden. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves—even the operators seemed a little jolly—but just as we touched the dock, the little girl on board abruptly vomited. She hadn’t succeeded in keeping her fear for her father to herself after all.

Pedestrianism in novelists

I thought I had blogged about the prodigious walking of Wilkie Collins back when I wrote about him for the LRB, but I don't seem to have.

In The Woman in White, Collins's hero Walter Hartright is eternally walking. His first vision of the Woman in White, in fact, comes during a walk from Hampstead to his apartment in the Inns of Court, a distance of slightly more than four miles. But even though Walter begins his walk after dark, he takes the long way home:

I determined to stroll home in the purer air, by the most round-about way I could take; to follow the white winding paths across the lonely heath; and to approach London through its most open suburb by striking into the Finchley-road, and so getting back, in the cool of the new morning, by the western side of the Regent's Park.

According to Google, if in your walk from Hampstead to the Inns of Court you insist on going by Finchley Road and the west side of Regent's Park, you nearly double your trip, to slightly more than seven miles long. No wonder that Walter later, in a high frenzy of sleuthing, scoffs at fear of distance:

"How far is it to Knowlesbury from this place?" [Walter asks.]

"A long stretch, sir," said the clerk, with that exaggerated idea of distances and that vivid perception of difficulties in getting from place to place, which is peculiar to all country people. "Nigh on five mile, I can tell you!"

It was still early in the forenoon. There was plenty of time for a walk to Knowlesbury, and back again to Welmingham. . . .

Though hobbled by something he called gout, and addicted to opiates, Collins himself walked vigorously. Biographer Catherine Peters reports that during an 1873 book tour of America, Collins was dismayed to discover that Americans did not carry walking-sticks and did not like to go on walks. From New York, Collins wrote home to a friend of his chagrin:

I . . . thought nothing of a daily constitutional from my hotel in Union-square to Central Park and back. Half a dozen times on my way, friends in carriages would stop and beg me to jump in. I always declined, and I really believe that they regarded my walking exploits as a piece of English eccentricity.

Collins's constitutional measured about five miles.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous, 1852 edition

Scene in a Bowery Ice-Cream Saloon on a Sunday Evening, Yankee Notions 1:184, May 1852

“They are evidently man and wife,” wrote the journalist George G. Foster, of two customers in one of 19th-century New York’s upscale ice cream parlors, “though not each other’s!”

I write about adulterous ice cream and other dark secrets in my chapter on old New York’s high life and low life in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York. I’ll be giving a short reading from my chapter at the launch party, free and open to the public, this Sunday night, May 2nd, at 8pm at the Bowery Poetry Club.

In my chapter, I take a quick tour of the literature of the down and out, but since the 19th-century down and out have been fairly well studied of late, I spend most of my page count describing a group of writers less well remembered: the chroniclers of the mid-19th-century rich, including such odd ducks as Charles Astor Bristed, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Régis de Trobriand, Ann S. Stephens, Donald G. Mitchell, George Templeton Strong, and George William Curtis. I discuss such vexing questions as how to mix a sherry cobbler properly, how to throw a party when your brownstone is only twenty-five feet wide, and what to do about the dangerous rash of flirtations between middle-aged women and much-younger men, as satirized in cartoons like this one, from 1852:

Young New York at a Party, Yankee Notions 1:327, November 1852

The caption, in case the scan is too grainy to read:

Young New York at a Party
Lady of the House.— Charlie, why don’t you ask Miss Brown to dance?
Charlie.— Cawn’t. Too demn’d young.

Step into my landau, baby

There’s a consensus that sometime this century, the flow of oil out of the ground will peak. Some think it has already peaked; others that the peak is yet to come. What will happen when supplies of oil start to dwindle? People have started to wonder, including a writer named James Howard Kunstler in a book titled The Long Emergency. I haven’t read it, but his prognosis appears to be dire and includes something called a “die-off,” which doesn’t sound pleasant. Yesterday, in a bid for reassurance, I read a dismissive review of Kunstler’s book that I found through Arts and Letters Daily. I wasn’t reassured, however. The reviewer claimed that Kunstler’s “concern with oil depletion is overblown” because

the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) recent assessment in the World Energy Outlook 2005 finds that the world has sufficient oil to carry on at its present rate of growth at least out until 2030 (although the agency believes that this would be unsustainable on other environmental grounds).

I don’t feel altogether certain that I’ll be dead by 2030, so this wasn’t quite the warm blanket of denial that I was craving. Also, I wasn’t confident that the reviewer understood thermodynamics any better than I did, which is not very well, especially when he insisted that “total entropy on the Earth is not increasing . . . [b]ecause excess entropy is carried off by radiation into outer space.” Outer space? What about the greenhouse effect—does it trap entropy as well as heat? Don’t systems gain in entropy as heat is added to them, and isn’t that the net effect of the greenhouse gases, in preventing the release from Earth of heat?

Best to march quickly past the real physics, and get to the heart of the matter: dollars per gallon. Naturally, as my anxious mind contemplated the fate of a world in which fuel increased indefinitely in price, I wondered: How expensive would gas have to be for people to decide they’d rather take a horse-and-buggy than an automobile?

At first I thought that I would do this by adding up all the costs associated with keeping a horse—hay, blacksmithing, saddles, stableboys, much higher frequency of street cleaning—and compare them to those of keeping a car. In the former Soviet Union, there used to be whole academic departments devoted to making an inventory of all the society-wide costs and benefits of an item, in order to set, by fiat, its price. We are all Hayekians now, though, and believe that the best way to process all the raw data of abundance, scarcity, damage, benefit, consumer whim, and real convenience is by seeing what people actually pay.

As it happens, in New York today, it is possible to hire for a brief trip either a horse and buggy or an automobile. They aren’t exactly comparable; the buggy is a luxury item, and I suspect that it dawdles to seem more leisurely. Nonetheless both the buggy-owners and the cabbies must take the measure of a much wider range of expenses than I ever could, even with the assistance of the internet. I thought I’d start with their numbers, making a few adjustments along the way.

If you want to take a horse and buggy ride in Central Park today, it costs $34, and in twenty minutes you go one mile. Three miles an hour seems awfully slow—improbably slow. The websites of various companies that cart brides and grooms to and from church promise speeds no higher than four to seven miles per hour, and they seem to be offering their slowness as a selling point. In today’s world, the hirer of a buggy is probably paying mostly for the twenty minutes—for a share of the horse and buggy’s day—rather than the one mile. In a post-gasoline world, buggies would presumably go as fast as was financially and legally prudent. I’m guessing that I can safely double the speed advertised and say that a horse and buggy in Central Park could go six miles an hour without increasing its underlying costs. So I’m jiggering with the data, and guessing that for the same $34, you could get a horse and buggy to go two miles in twenty minutes.

To go two miles in Manhattan by taxi costs you $2.50 plus 40 cents for every one-fifth of a mile—in total, $6.50. (For ease of math, I’m leaving tips out of both sides of the equation.) Let’s estimate that cabbies get about 24 miles per gallon, and that they go about 20 miles an hour in the city. That means the trip consumes about one-twelfth of a gallon of gasoline and takes about six minutes.

Horse & buggy Car
$34 $6.50
20 min. 6 min.
Hay 0.0833 gal. gasoline

There’s one more arbitrary number to come up with. How valuable are the fourteen minutes you’d lose by taking the buggy? That’s hard to figure; it probably depends on how valuable your time is. People with a low hourly wage will probably walk rather than hire either vehicle, so let’s say $20/hour. The value of those 14 minutes will therefore be 14 min./60 min. times $20/hour, or $4.66.

Let x equal an increase in price per gallon of gasoline. Then as gas becomes more expensive, the price of the automobile taxi will be $6.50 + 0.0833 x. The price of the buggy will be $34 plus the loss of time, valued at $4.66. A person would just as soon hire a hire a cab powered by a horse as one powered by an internal combustion engine when the total prices are equal, i.e.,

$6.50 + x/12 = $34 + $4.66

x = (34 + 4.66 – 6.5) 12

x = 385.92

When gas costs $385.93 more per gallon than it does today, then, you’ll probably start taking the curricle.