Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Travel

The perfect sentence, the perfect beer

Day two of year two brings epiphanies, but only in the subway, where my writing-in-the-mind is impeccable. Today I dreamt-authored “throwing words around concrete walls, but the walls are never any less cold, gray, or unforgiving” while I traversed the 14th Street tunnel between the V and and 2 lines. When I crafted that sentence, I was walking up the slight incline that means you’ve finally reached Seventh Avenue, only to descend again onto the busy 2 train platform, a platform I used to frequent late at night when it meant a ride home. I can’t remember the last time I was there (nor can I really remember the context of my words), and I felt no particular nostalgia for it as I boarded an uptown 3 within seconds of getting there. I felt a slight pang of nostalgia when I ascended to 96th Street, but not for years past—for Super Bowl Sunday of three weeks ago, when I left the very same station to meet Ryan and walk to 125th Street to take the bus to Astoria. We were both excited to take the bus. It’s exceedingly rare that it’s a more attractive option, both aesthetically and practically, to reach a destination that’s amply served by the subway… but there it was. The day was cold, crisp, and sunny, and having flaked out on an early morning run to let the earth warm up a bit, we crunched up Amsterdam Avenue toward Columbia and promises of the M60, with its university student then crosstown traffic then airport employee user pool, sprinkled all the time with people like us who just wanted to go to Astoria and get to ride over a bridge.

Tonight, though, I was just going to Whole Foods for the second time in the last year. The first time had been 20 minutes earlier at the Whole Foods on the Bowery, which is perfectly nestled along one of my dozens of comfortable commute-home routes. I was looking for a specific product that had been recommended to me earlier in the day, and the Bowery location didn’t have it. They didn’t appear to, at least, and I looked several times. Often, after work, I’m not the in the mood for rejection, and this one of those times: I wasn’t asking, especially because I had been told that the product I sought was most assuredly at the 97th Street location. I was excited to go to 97th Street until the recommender had pointed out that I could try my luck at the Bowery, and I was a little bummed that it would be so easy. When it wasn’t, I took it as a sign to skip the ride home and head uptown. In terms of things getting my attention, this had it. I suppose it’s time to be come with it. The product is the “best beer on earth,” according to this, and it is called Brooklyn Black Ops, and apparently was brewed in a seriously limited run that is pretty much over. You can’t find it any more, or something. I like good beer, but most importantly I like things that sound cool, and the process of obtaining them making them even cooler, and that’s before you get to its wonderful, wholly-fabricated lore:

Brooklyn Black Ops does not exist.  However, if it did exist, it would be a robust stout concocted by the Brooklyn brewing team under cover of secrecy and hidden from everyone else at the brewery.  Supposedly, “Black Ops” was aged for four months in bourbon barrels, bottled flat, and re-fermented with Champagne yeast, creating big chocolate and coffee flavors with a rich underpinning of vanilla-like oak notes.  They say there are only 1,000 cases.  We have no idea what they’re talking about.

Simply put, the idea of chasing all around the city for one of the final bottles, which is supposed to pretty much blow your taste buds and liver (11.7% APV) to smithereens, was incredibly an incredibly appealing hunt on a gray, warmer-than-normal day on which I’d rather do anything than come home and stare at the TV. I never doubted that I’d find it at the 97th Street location, and I did. Then I went into the internal deliberation of one bottle vs. two bottles, which only arose because of the price. I settled on one. The joy was in the chase, and to savor every last minute of it as I would every last drop… and now it sits in my fridge, ready to go. It was an effort not to pound it tonight, but with its punch, I needed to put it off one more day. It won’t live until Thursday. I’ll probably write something after I drink it. I might even write it down, but I might not, and it might become another example of perfect craftsmanship dissolving into the void… and you’ll have to settle for the second-rate stuff like this.


Where are our cathedrals?

Thanks to MPdSP, I’ve hooked on to Tony Judt’s memoirs at NYRB (I own an e-subscription, so it’s just as well). In the most recent issue, he writes about riding the railroads around Europe in his youth, in awe of the train stations:

At their best—from St. Pancras to Berlin’s remarkable new central station—railway stations are the very incarnation of modern life, which is why they last so long and still perform so very well the tasks for which they were first designed. As I think back on it—toutes proportions gardées— Waterloo did for me what country churches and Baroque cathedrals did for so many poets and artists: it inspired me. And why not? Were not the great glass-and-metal Victorian stations the cathedrals of the age?

I’ll submit that they were. What do we have now? Certainly not airports, which is a shame because they’re the most obvious choice and the one to which many people I know have clung, tearing at the linoleum for significance in their knowledge and appreciation of O’Hare’s or Hartsfield’s concourse layouts or fast-food options. The emptiness of the airport space has been explored by many people in many forms, most popularly and recently in Up in the Air, despite its messiness. Everyone knows airports aren’t up to the aesthetic challenge of replacing train stations, and simply pointing this out does not make a great film anymore.

Are websites the new cathedrals? It seems that the answer is obviously yes but more obviously no. Certainly the rage engendered by every Facebook redesign would indicate that people have a fondness for the site that extends to the emotional: they think it’s theirs, not to be fucked with. But there’s nothing particularly aesthetically pleasing about it, nor does it function in the same way as a religious cathedral or train station. Those places are transitory by nature; you arrive, appreciate, and leave. In that way, Google would be a better corollary if it was much of a site at all. Facebook, by contrast, is designed like the world’s biggest airport you’d never want to leave — unlike Tom Hanks in The Terminal or that dude at Charles de Gaulle, they want you to live your life there. It keeps you where you are, instead of pushing you out, even if from an overload of wonder.

A friend told me that a professor once told him that the worst thing to do (one presumes as a tourist) was take a photo of the Grand Canyon. By taking the picture, you were absolving yourself of properly recording the memory, and one assumes ruining the view for anyone else who wanted to see it with fresh eyes, like the people who skip the “Scenes from Next Week’s Show”* on Lost.

* My brother and I used to watch the entirety of Beverly Hills 90210 in breathless anticipation of whether there would be “Scenes from Next Week’s Show” after the end credits. We called them “SCENES!” and would jump into the air, fists extended, when they would happen.

Of course, that was more than 10 years ago, and I can take a picture with my free-with-a-2 year plan phone I have now. Which I’ve done to take pictures of many things, my feet included:Also funny signs:

…and never food, but it’s only a matter of time. The point is that I use my camera to document the horribly mundane, or at least the amusing things amongst the horribly mundane ones. I also have pictures of my friend’s sixth-month old baby, which I uploaded and never showed anyone; what was the point? Did I take the picture to avoid paying real attention to her? And were the literally thousands of photos of the Grand Canyon to which my brother had been subjected make him not want to stay for more than three hours, after a treacherous four-hour drive (one way) to get there? And were the pictures I took on that trip the same reason I didn’t feel like I needed to hike into the Canyon on my return trip seven months later? Pushing further, I’ve never been to Westminster Abbey… but I know it from The Da Vinci Code. I’ve walked past Trinity Church hundreds of times, but the inside I know from National Treasure. The worst part is that even if I went inside, I’d still know it from National Treasure. It’s part of something bigger and ultimately aesthetically unspectacular (lower Manhattan), and by no means modern. The vast majority its visitors are running down a checklist, hoping to be awed… which is exactly what I would do if I was visiting. But I’d really be looking for the mundane; I’d think it was really funny, and noteworthy, if someone wrote “poop” on an official-looking sign or something.

In just my home city of New York, there are many structures that ostensibly pass as cathedrals: the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim, Yankee Stadium, the Met, Lincoln Center, the Natural History Museum, the Statue of Liberty, maybe the Tennis Center or Apollo Theater… but none of these are inspiring in the day-to-day, or even in the year-to-year. I don’t know if this is a result of American vacuousness, but if it’s not totally empty, it’s because one structure doesn’t easily top all the others. Everyone can appreciate maybe one of those places more than the other in the way they have their favorite slice of pizza or burger, and they can rhapsodize and intellectualize it all they want… but in the end, all of those discussions are really no different from one another. Awe is fleeting, but not by design.

Borders (not the bookstore kind)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a running dialogue today about a NYT trend story that basically says non-blacks are taking over Harlem. He disagrees, but more to the point is indifferent about what—even if true—it even means when there are like, real problems for black people. Something like: Gentrification isn’t new, and the root problem is bigger than any one instance of it happening.

But the better question is whether it’s happening or not. He asks in this post:

Still, thinking more on the geography the Times calls “Harlem” raises some questions for me:

“But the neighborhood is in the midst of a profound and accelerating shift. In greater Harlem, which runs river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population — a shift that actually occurred a decade ago, but was largely overlooked.”

By my estimate this basically places Morningside Heights (amongst other things) inside of Harlem. I imagine that might have been true at some point. But those borders sound really permissive to me. Am I off?

What I thought (and wrote a comment to this effect that is basically reproduced here) is that it’s no different than a phenomenon I was writing about earlier in Queens, where most black neighborhoods are referred to as “Jamaica” on the nightly news, et al., because it’s expedient. If the Times is including Morningside Heights in its map of “Harlem,” maybe they’re going by an old map that places it “inside” a greater Harlem, but I agree with (Run) T-NC that that seems a little off. Which gets us to the idea of how a place is defined. If Harlem did once swallow Morningside Heights whole, why doesn’t it now? And to where does it extend? Most importantly, why do we consider it to extend to wherever it extends?

A friend told me a long time ago that I was into the idea of “place,” and I’m really starting to feel that. I’m about 200 pages into William Vollman’s Imperial, which is already the most exhaustive account of the idea of “place” I’ve ever read—and I have 800 pages to go. It’s all about Imperial County, California and its sister region on the Mexican side and treats the area (wisely, I believe) as a single entity, with this crushing vivisection that makes it almost impossible to view as a unit. But for most of history it was a unit, and at some point it very well may be again. On top of all this, I was in Imperial County last week, spending 48 hours of Christmas break in Palm Springs with pops and bro. I wanted to see the Salton Sea—a reeking, festering, dead body of water around which a good portion of Vollman’s Ouija-like narrative revolves—but was talked out of it, or rather basically forbidden (as family time was short) by my stepmom, who said she had investigated it for kayaking purposes and found it “disgusting.” I didn’t have the heart to say well yeah…

But it all gets to the idea of defining a place. I’ve tried to do this before with MV and think I did a bad job [note: I just re-read it and it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I feel like I was grasping for something I didn’t quite reach] but I’m trying with Queens now and I think I’m getting some good stuff down. Definitely helps to not be from there and not be there; while there’s something to be said for writing things down as they happen*, there’s also a value in using what you remember—it’s our memories that make places what they are, to us, and it’s important to be true to that.

* Of course, I did write everything down already, but that’s not the point.

Holiday in Bizarro World

I am friends with a disproportionate number of creative professionals who have been affected by the economy: Writers, editors and graphic designers, mostly, but also architects, artists and others sprinkled in. The point was really hammered home with The Gawker Guide to Journalism, 2010 edition, which basically chronicles the ever-accelerating death spiral of paying media jobs. I’ve written elsewhere that I expect paid content to be a reliable part of the future of the Internet, but in a completely different form than how I grew up expecting to spend my life (and the events of the last couple weeks have spurred me to finally start putting my experiences as the Last Old Skool Journalist of a particular sort—one who grew up with newspapers, and was drawn to them—down on paper). I used to joke back in Queens that trade magazines were the places to get the money, and the newspapers like the ones I worked at were the place to get Real Experience, but translating that Real Experience into the job of one’s dreams seems to now be one of only 10 possible ways to get there, and certainly one of the hardest. The fact that I feel like I’m profoundly lucky to have the job I have now—the job I used to think was the “cushy” “journalism”—speaks to this fracture. In the Last Exit piece I cited above, I ask how much paid (as in, I get paid) journalism’s crash is actually related to the economy and/or the rise of the Internet and how much of it is cyclical, but there’s no doubt the economy has wreaked havoc on the best laid plans of many, many smart people I know who are working to a fraction of their considerable potential.

Contrast that with the lives of my dad and brother, who live out in the desert, and it’s like going to bizarro world. My dad works in academia, which for the gruff it gets during the fat years sure looks like a nice, warm incubator in times like these. Sez dad: “I will never curse tenure again.” My brother works at an investment company with the initials C.S. that basically doesn’t invest itself enough in risky things like the housing market to have suffered major consequences, as far as I understand it, as they work mostly in client services. Thus they haven’t been hit too hard, and anyway, bro is an up-and-coming manager there. Stepping into their world, it’s like the economic collapse was something that was happening simply to other people, one that made you appreciate what you’ve got, like seeing an accident on the highway. In fairness to them, I think they’ve looked at my career choice as foolish from the get-go, but the degree to which this has “confirmed” anything like that seems disproportionate with what I and hundreds of thousands of people are going through. I didn’t go to graduate school, but my four years in Queens were—and I don’t think anyone would doubt this—much harder than any J-school would have been; by extension, what’s happened to me is like if they went to medical school or law school and graduated only to learn that no one wanted to pay doctors or financial advisors anymore. I realize that people choose these schools mostly because they offer security against this inevitability, but growing up, who thought we wouldn’t have newspapers?

The point is, I spend last week in a bubble where the recession was happening to other people, and it really threw me for a loop. It doesn’t seem like the real world to me, and at least for the moment I still value the potential highs in my field over the security they have. God bless the trade magazine.

The Revolution Won’t Be Televised, Unless There Are Cameras At Chick-Fil-A

So ya boy had just landed in Atlanta when he got a text message. “Waited for you but it said your plane was late, so we left. Will pay for my share of the shuttle.” I looked at the timestamp. 11:35. It was 11:38. True, I was still on the runway, and probably wouldn’t be off the plane for another 10 minutes, but still a little hasty, no? But I guess when you’re my friend from high school—with whom I had coordinated flight times for easy to-and-from airport travel—and you meet someone at Logan Airport who’s going to the exact same wedding you are and just happens to have extra space in her car, you don’t exactly ask her boyfriend to hold up for 15 minutes. This is understandable, as would be the small twinge of guilt that follows.

Having spent $35 on a morning cab ride (don’t ask), I decided to take public transportation up to Buckhead, which cost me about 45 minutes and $2.50. I didn’t mind whatsoever, but Bruce felt even worse when he heard. When I called him from the train, I could hear the regret coming through the earpiece. “Just call me when you get here,” he said, “… we’re going to get some food.” The word “food” hung in the air like a pinata. Not only did I miss the ride, now I wasn’t going to eat before a scheduled 2 p.m. basketball game with the groom, and Bruce felt bad about it. The funny thing is that I didn’t, really. I had eaten a large meal at LaGuardia, and when I finally did get to the hotel, the groom had left us a goodie bag with an apple and peanuts, so when Bruce called at 1:15 to ask if I wanted anything from the food court, I was like “No… well, tell me what they have.” He started with Taco Bell, and then “there’s a Chick-Fil-A…”

“Get me a Chick-Fil-A,” I interrupted. “Get me one of those.”

I had heard things. He brought me the Chick-Fil-A, and it was Good. Biblically so? Maybe. But Chick-Fil-A became a big part of the weekend, with members of the wedding party consistently running across the street from our hotel to the mall to get some. The groom himself ate breakfast there at 11 a.m. on his wedding day, only to follow it up with lunch at 2:30, passing his best man on the way in. With the wedding closing in, the only words that needed to be exchanged were “Chick-Fil-A” by both entering and exiting parties. They be knowing.

So, to Bruce: I may have missed the ride, but you gave me Chick-Fil-A. It’s entirely possible that I, in fact, owe you.*

* On second thought, no, no I don’t. But it is a damn good sandwich.

Journey to Joiner’s

Tonight, in my honor, some friends and I will be traveling the distance between one of their houses in Brooklyn and my own. It’s called the Journey to Joiner’s. We will travel via bar. All are invited.

Start: 9 p.m

Angry Wade’s

222 Smith Street

End: ???

My apartment

335 State Street

NOTE: the start point is new to accommodate basketball lovers.

If you want to join us along the way, give me a call and I’ll tell you where we’re at.

Good times!

Happy 3 Egg McMuffins Day!

On this day three years ago—or whatever day the first day of March Madness three years ago was—my friend Coachie Ballgames and I set off from the Grand Canyon for a little desert town named Las Vegas. It’s the only time I’ve been to Vegas, which is why I left one of the Earth’s five most spectacular places to go there, as I had been at the Canyon months earlier.

As anyone who’s been to the South Rim of the canyon knows, you have to leave the the highway and travel for an hour plus on a two-lane road to get there. It’s pretty barren along the way, so on our way out, we were hungry and listening to Mobb Deep CDs until we got to the Interstate, and we stopped at the first McDonald’s we saw.

Despite being along the highway, this was very much a local McDonald’s. We got Looks, but we hadn’t bathed in days, so it was possibly to be expected, though one suspects that could have been a blending mechanism. Anyhow we stood in line behind someone very much of that time and place and when he stepped to the counter, and exchange followed that is very much on my mind every year at this time:

CASHIER: May I take your order?







CASHIER: Would you like coffee?


US: (complete awe)

I can’t tell you how great it was. The force and conviction of his order, and the pregnant pauses, were really un-duplicatable, which doesn’t mean we haven’t tried. And so I invite you to raise an Egg McMuffin to your mouth today if it isn’t past 10:30 where you are, and toast the human comedy.

A trip to China… Could there be a catch?

I just received an invitation for a guided trip to China through the University of Chicago Alumni Association. Sounds fun!

University of Chicago Alumni Study Trips invites you to join fellow travelers on a 12-day tour of China’s most dynamic cities, beautiful countryside, Tibet, and the Yangzi River. In Beijing, visit the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace. Tour the old Beijing district by pedicab for a firsthand view of traditional life. Marvel at the Great Wall, the most enduring symbol of China. Next, fly to Xian to view the legendary terracotta warriors at the tomb of China’s first emperor, Quinshihuang.

In Chongqing, board the Victoria cruise ship for a memorable cruise down the Yangzi River to see the breathtaking Three Gorges and the engineering feat of the Three Gorges Dam construction site. Finally, fly to Shanghai for an exploration of this European-influenced city that features beautiful colonial buildings on the historic Bund. Visit the world-class Shanghai Museum and classical Yuyuan Gardens.

Professor Guy Alitto from the Departments of History and East Asian Languages & Civilizations will accompany this program.

I actually took History of Modern China with Professor Alitto, so this could be great. I wonder… could there be a catch?

TRIP PRICE: from $4,590 per person, double occupancy

Well that’s not bad. I love bunking with others! And airfare alone is probably $1500.

DOES NOT INCLUDE: : international airfare, domestic airfare to and from San Francisco or New York, visa processing, excess baggage charges, travel insurance, two dinners, and items of a personal nature.

Bummer! Well, at least I can save up for it, right?

TRIP DATES: April 7-18, 2008

So the details are… they’re asking me to go on a $6000 trip before any other expenses and it leaves in two weeks. And here’s the kicker: you have to hang out with other U of C alumni for 12 days. Quite. Tempting.

Finally! Pizzeria Bianco

We’ll tackle the Pats tomorrow. First, a Pizzerio Bianco update.

I have previously written about how I planned the first leg of my Thanksgiving trip around a trip to Pizzeria Bianco. This was my fourth attempt at getting into the famed pizzeria and my first successful one. Steven, Grant and I left directly from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (A very strange name for an airport, if you think about it. Sky Harbor?) and got there at 3:45, 75 minutes before it opened. We were the first people in line.

Let me rephrase that. I was the first person in line.

By the time the restaurant opened, there were probably 100 people waiting, and there’s room for about 60, tops. Bar Bianco, located next door, opens at 4 p.m. and I had a great beer: Hop Knot IPA from the Arizona-based Four Peaks Brewing Company.

But that’s not all that important.

We weren’t actually the first people to be seated — a group of 7 had made a reservation — but I made sure to toe-tap just inside the door to be the “first person through.” There were seven of us, as well, so we ordered all six of Chris Bianco’s specialty pizzas. They are the only six on the menu. They are:

MARGHERITA – Tomato Sauce, Fresh Mozzarella, Basil
MARINARA – Tomato Sauce, Oregano, Garlic (No Cheese)
ROSA – Red Onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rosemary, AZ Pistachios
SONNY BOY – Tomato Sauce, Fresh Mozzarella, Salami, Gaeta Olives
BIANCOVERDE – Fresh Mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Ricotta, Arugula
WISEGUY – Wood Roasted Onion, House Smoked Mozzarella, Fennel Sausage

I found them to be divided into two categories. The Margherita, Marinana and Wiseguy were merely “quite good,” but as my brother Steven pointed out, the Margherita was bested by, among others, Domenic DeMarco of DiFara in Brooklyn, where we famously waited for three hours one winter’s day last year. That day, the pizza was merely “very good,” on one of my two other trips, I had the best single pizza I have ever had, and it was sans toppings.

Chris Bianco is the upscale, Phoenix-based DeMarco — he makes every pizza himself, in front of a restaurant, as opposed to DiFara’s counter. But where DeMarco excels in the cheese-and-oil areas, Bianco has mastered his toppings on the Biancoverde, Sonny Boy and Rosa. Neither the Biancoverde nor the Rosa has sauce, but the cheeses make up for the lack of tomatoes, and the Sonny Boy is just about the best sauce-and-toppings pizza I’ve ever had. These pies are all absolutely superb, but The Rosa is the best. The Biancoverde doesn’t look all that appetizing — it looks like a bunch of clovers fell on a cheese pizza — but it is a great change-up from the others and can hold its own thanks to the ricotta. The Sonny Boy I’ve talked about. The Rosa I can’t even say much about except that it is the second-greatest pizza I’ve ever had, second only to the single DiFara Pie described above. It’s just exquisite.

Bianco’s strength, or at least one of them, is his ability to churn out perfect, homemade crusts every time, and that was on display here. Not all DiFara pies are created equal: DeMarco is moving slowly enough that sometimes he doesn’t properly rotate the four or five pizzas he has going at once. Bianco worked quickly but perfectly. Every pie was perfectly cooked, exquisite. On the way out, we all thanked him, and though he’s from Brooklyn I gave him a “Queens, baby!” to which he responded “Yeah, baby!” Good times, especially when Thanksgiving is the next day. This is why we live, folks.

And, without further ado, The Rosa: