The SMITH Diaries Project

Mike Tyson vs. the Ballerina

November 4th, 2006 by Tate Hausman

Less than 100 hours to the polls close. And I’m watching the 6,000 pages of call sheets roll off the printer at 4 am.

Get Out the Vote weekend — GOTV — starts tomorrow. At this point, 95 percent of the electorate has made up its mind about who they’re voting for. Now its just about turnout. Who can motivate more of their supporters to the polls?

We’re putting 1000 volunteers on the phones and in the streets to pull in our crowd. We’ll make 120,000 phone calls and knock on 15,000 doors. All with volunteer labor. It’s the largest GOTV operation this district has ever seen — by a long shot. My opponent’s team might be staging something similar, but if so, it’ll be with hundreds of paid canvassers, imported from God-Knows-Where. It won’t look anything like ours. Comparing our grassroots power is like pitting Mike Tyson against a ballerina. A four-year-old ballerina.

It makes us laugh. We saw one of our opponent’s spokespeople on TV the other day. Quote went something like, “We’ve knocked on 1500 doors all over this district, and we’ve found that voters want blah blah blah…” I missed the blah blah blah part because our field director turned to me and said, “We knocked on 1500 doors on Saturday. Before noon.”

The exponential explosion in interest, attention, resources, bodies flowing into this race, it’s all swelled to epic proportions. As I knew it would. When you’re riding a wave like this race, the key is cresting at exactly the right moment. This sure feels like we’re at the peak, just waiting for the perfect crash onto Republican shores.

And once again, I’m seeing the “gateway drug” effect of my online organizing clearer than ever. My Home Teamers have flooded in from around the state, even around the country. Jeff Stein, an enthusiastic Home Teamer who votes in the district but currently lives in DC, arrived this afternoon. We put him to work immediately and didn’t let up. I just sent him out the door with six massive lists of call sheets to deliver around the southern swing of the district. It was 3:45 am.

It’s exciting being part of something so big. The emotional appeal of war becomes crystal clear. The enemy is in sight. The plan is laid. Will it go off as smoothly as Primary Day? I’m sure it won’t. This time we have real opposition. Karl Rove opposition. Millions of dollars of attack ads, voter suppression, fear mongering, ridiculous accusations, and indefensible lies. These are the bluntest objects of modern politics. We fight back with the sharpest sticks we can find — technologically driven voter targeting, peeling away her base one household at a time.

It’s 4:15 am. Tomorrow, the end game begins.

Wish me luck.

Up Next: Bedtime for The Campaignster, Who Is Not Setting An Alarm

The Foley Comes Home to Roost

October 19th, 2006 by Tate Hausman

Twenty days until the election. They call this the homestretch, but since I’ve been sprinting since May, its hard to imagine running any faster.

After our overwhelming victory in the primary, national attention on our race has ratcheted up steadily. It helped that my surviving candidate of the two whose campaigns I’ve been working on (click here for the fate of the one that didn’t make it) blew away our primary opponents — in a four-way race, we won almost 50 percent of the vote; our closest opponent racked up just 26 percent (two lesser candidates split the rest). That’s a blowout.

It also helps that FoleyGate has landed on the incumbent’s doorstep like a stinking pile of poop. Turns out she was the chair of the Congressional Page Board when Foley’s harassment was first reported. So either she knew about it and did nothing, or she grossly neglected her duties. Pick your poison, either way spells S-C-A-N-D-A-L.

(Not that Democrats haven’t had their own page scandals. Democrat Barney Frank, long the only openly gay Congressman, had a relationship with a page in the 80s, prompting this joke from Darcy, our field organizer/ex-stand-up comedian:

“What did Mark Foley say to Barney Frank?”
“I dunno, what?”
“We may be on different sides of the aisle, but at least we’re on the same page.”

But I digress…)

More than sex scandals, our chances to beat the Republican incumbent seem bright because our primary turnout was double that of the last equivalent one. Translation: this bodes extremely well for Dems in November.

Nobody likes a campaign consultant to toot his own horn, but indulge me just a little. Our tremendous victory could not have happened without our volunteers. Almost 200 of them hit the ground and the phones on primary day, pulling out our voters and getting them to the polls. And our volunteer program was greatly facilitated by Web-based systems that I set up.

The central system I’ve written about before was the Home Team, an experiment in “distributed volunteerism” that enlisted geographically spread out supporters to make voter-to-voter calls. I spent hours upon hours getting it up and running. I wish I could brag that this technology was the key to our victory. It wasn’t. Only about one-tenth of our Primary Day calls were made by Home Teamers.

So what value did it have? The Home Team was an excellent gateway drug. It got some really good people hooked on calling, and invested in the campaign. Almost 80 percent of people trained on the Home Team worked for us on Primary Day. Remember Iris and Dot? Neither of them made Home Team calls on Primary Day. Instead, they both came in to the district and joined one of our 12 centralized phone banks. Iris started dialing at 10 am and didn’t stop until the polls closed at 9. That’s one dedicated activist — and her entry to the campaign was the Web.

Dot and Iris live fairly close to the district, but we had activists come from as far away as Washington, DC. One of my most dedicated Home Teamers, Mike Furlong, came all the way in from Boston for the whole primary weekend. He recruited his brothers Dan and Bob, and the three of them spent days plastering the district with lawn signs. That’s online-turned-offline activism at its best. Ironically, Mike’s long-distance enthusiasm for the campaign has infected his local brother, Dan, who has become a complete campaigning machine. In Mike’s words, “If we can get Dan out of the barn, we’ll never get him back in.” Hundreds of volunteer hours later, Dan has proven Mike right.

The Home Team was also an effective training mechanism. Making voter-to-voter calls isn’t easy for everyone. The wrong numbers, hang-ups and the occasional “you-Democrats-are-all-America-hating-commie-fuckers-
get-a-job” response can take their toll on sensitive callers. Even tough cookies need time getting used to the scripts and interrupting a stranger’s afternoon. The Home Team helped hone those skills. And quite frankly, it also weeded out some of the very sensitive callers we wouldn’t have wanted to rely on on game day.

Now, with the primary behind us and the general heating up, we’re back to heavy Home Team recruitment. I train between one and three new Home Teamers a day. More than 150 callers have been trained, logged on and made at least one call. It’s a steady trickle. And they are finding us; we do little more than hang our online shingle and wait for new volunteers to knock.

Unfortunately, we face the age-old problem of every volunteer organizer in history — attrition. Without any real accountability to a campaign (i.e. no paycheck), volunteers always leave in droves. Rule of thumb is 40 percent attrition with new volunteers. That attrition is dramatically worse with online volunteers. When you can’t shake someone’s hand or look them in the eye, the human connection and camaraderie that attracts many volunteers has much a weaker hold. Many well intentioned new volunteers sign up, make a night of calls, and then life happens — work gets busy, a parent gets sick, the roof springs a leak — and the weak bond established by the Net is easily forgotten.

So now the challenge is keeping this legion of trained volunteers engaged. I end up making lots of calls to “sleeping” volunteers, trying to wake them back up. Occasionally it works; they were just away for a short vacation, or they lost their login information. Most of the time, it doesn’t. Instead of 40 percent attrition, I’m looking at 80-85. The lesson is obvious and clear: the loose ties of online connections are indeed the weakest.

Ultimately, all our work comes down to building an activist base come election day. Our volunteers will need to make 60,000 calls on November 7. Yes, with four zeros. In campaign parlance, we call that a “whole fuckload of calls.” Even if everyone I’ve trained made four hours of election day calls, we wouldn’t even hit half that target. That’s okay, though. As with any election, there will be an exponential spike in the final days. Two weeks before every E-day, you freak out that you don’t have enough bodies. But two days before E-day, you can’t cram everyone in.

It’s a classic scaling issue, and it happens literally every time. This year, the Home Team will hopefully help us avoid the problem. It’s nature as a Web-based, infinitely scalable program should absorb exponential growth. Should being the operative word. Like every campaign with too little money, too much work and too many moving parts, there will be cracks in the system. My job in the next three weeks is to keep the cracks from becoming valleys.

Coming Next: E-Day Arrives

Is That All There Is?

September 19th, 2006 by Frida in the City

A: French-speaking guy
B: Short, bald guy
C: Sports nut guy
D: Graphic designer guy
E: Guy with girlfriend
F: Thai-speaking guy
G: Italian guy
H: European jailbait
I: E.’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend
J. Bad Kisser

K: Shaved head guy
L: Country bar guy
M: Jewish hippie
N: Not The One

Zero: the number invented by the ancient minds to express the perfect state of mathematical nothingness. Also the number of men I am currently dating. At its highest point during this Love Diary, the number hit 3.5. But now, I am at zero, or more accurately .5 about to become zero.

When we last left off, I was about to teach J. how to kiss, a skill you would think he would have picked up along the way in his 28 years on this earth. After dinner one night, class began. After a few pecks (I was chicken feed to his rooster), I had to say, “WHAT is that?” He said, “Oh, I thought this is the way you like to kiss.” I replied, “Um, no. Relax your mouth, and try it this way.” He was too naïve to be offended, and things improved after that — so much so that we ended up in bed. A few strange techniques and an anticlimactic climax later, he left. We still chat from time to time.

I went on a few dates with K., who I met online, and he made me think that bald (or shaved head) can actually be attractive. Unfortunately, he did not feel the same way about my full head of hair and disappeared after date number two. Thanks for playing!

L. really threw me for a loop. Built like a Viking (not really my type), he painted (my type), played guitar (ditto) and had traveled extensively (double ditto). On our first date, we went to a hipster bar, where I proceeded to get stinking drunk on four margaritas, buy the bartender a shot, down a shot myself, and fall on my ass in the middle of the street after exiting the bar. L. invited me to see his friend’s band play, but first, he had to stop by his apartment to get his cowboy boots and cowboy hat. Exsqueeze me? What kind of band is this??? He lent me a John Deere trucker hat that should have said “Big fat Jew,” because that’s how out of place I feel in a country music bar. Lo and behold, we danced, had a wonderful time, and I ended up back at his place. Oops. You know what they say about sex on the first date? They’re right. Surprisingly, I got a text from him asking if I wanted to meet up for a drink after work, but we never managed to meet up. No love lost: making plans with a guy who only text messages is tiresome.

The highlight of this whole dating marathon was meeting M. His online profile was sparse and said he was 37. I took a chance and wrote back to him, and I’m glad I did. He was undefinable, but the closest I can come up with is clean-cut movie star on the outside and Jewish, New Age Californian hippie on the inside. Needless to say, I have never met anyone who could fall into both of these categories (I didn’t even know that the latter was a category.) He seemed guarded, but I ended up telling him things I usually don’t even tell my closest friends. By the time we left, I’d had two beers to his none. You know that look you get from a guy — all dreamy-eyed when he either really likes you or has had a few drinks — that’s the one. When I got home, it hit me: I was smitten. I decided that if he didn’t contact me again, I would demand another date for the sake of our future children. He e-mailed me the next day.

He took me on scooter rides that made me feel like Audrey Hepburn in Rome. We sat on beaches crowded with Mexican families. He told me was really 40. We ate sushi and ended up at my place where we got high and made out. He once got off a plane after a week-long trip and came straight to me. I was having a lot of fun. Unfortunately, he had broken up with a girlfriend two months before and was gun-shy, so we had to take things slow.

One day, I detected a change. I had to ask one time too many for him to come up. He asked me what my intentions were, and I said honestly that I wasn’t going to sleep with him (that time of the month), but it would be nice if he stayed over. He said, If all you want is creature comfort, then you have your cat for that.

I got the inevitable “We have to talk” e-mail from him a few days later. I learned that it was not his ex-girlfriend, not that he needed time, it was me. He was attracted to me, but something was missing, I just didn’t do it for him. I made a sincere but not desperate plea about how we should take the time to get to know each other. He didn’t know how to proceed, I didn’t know if I want to take his baggage on board.

We went out a few more times, took his scooter for a few more rides, drank a few more glasses of wine on my roof, before we decided independently we were too different to be compatible. A third of the time, it felt as if we came from other planets.

Now I’m on N., and though he’s not The One, he gives good date. Most accounts of women searching for love — chick lit, romantic comedies at the multiplex, HBO series—end happily ever after. I’m still trying.

The Future of Politics Are Oldsters (Like Iris & Dot)

September 10th, 2006 by Tate Hausman

Iris and Dot are my new friends.

Iris is 74. She lives in Syracuse, NY. She has six grandchildren, and they delight her, but none of them live nearby. Syracuse is driving the younger generation away, she says. I think her husband died rich.

Dot is 62. She lives in White Plains. Dot doesn’t have grandkids, and her one grown son “isn’t the marrying kind.” Dot’s a little lonely these days — she recently lost her 13-year-old basset hound, Lucky. She’s got a great voice and a forceful personality; after 35 years as an actress in NY, “there are some things that stick with you.”

I’m 29. I live in Brooklyn. I won’t havegrandkids for another 30 or 40 years. You wouldn’t say Dot, Iris and I have a lot in common. We’ll probably never meet in person. We’ll never share a meal. I’ll never see the photos of Lucky I imagine sitting on Dot’s mantle.

But in the past two weeks, Dot and Iris and I have become friends, and more than friends — comrades-in-arms. Dot and Iris were the first two members of the Home Team, a volunteer program I’m running for my congressional candidate in upstate New York. The three of us share a passion for political change, and a belief that this year it can happen. Thanks to the beauty of the Web, we found each other easily. Or, more accurately, I hung out a shingle and they found me.

The Home Team is an experiment in the Holy Grail that all campaignsters like me are questing for — distributed activism. That is, using the Web to turn “armchair activists,” who are distributed across the town or state or country, into real world activists.

Needless to say, this is no easy task. It is (relatively) easy for
Web users to connect with other Web users who share their values, or care about their campaign or issue. Where pre-Web it would have been hard for, say, a Jewish housewife in Provo to form a “Free Mumia” club, now she’s three clicks away from 20,000 new friends.

Unfortunately, most of the time, the “activism” stops at the mousepad. Sure, I’ll send a petition to my Congressman. Yeah, I’ll fire off an angry form email to a greedy CEO. But get inspired enough to devote an afternoon to flyering my neighborhood or stuffing envelopes? Not usually. The Web is still an impersonal medium, and it doesn’t pack the emotional punch that moves people to real activism. No matter how good a MoveOn email reads, it has 1/100th the motivational power of any meatspace appeal.

So, the dividing line between online and offline activism has held fast. Traditional organizers brush off the Web as a distraction, or worse, as a palliative. Web nerds brush off traditional organizers as old school, pre-21st century neanderthals who don’t “get it.” The truth is somewhere in between. The only semi-proven political use of the Web — fundraising — keeps many a campaignster lucratively employed. Giving money is a form of activism, to be sure, but it ain’t no Molotov cocktail.

Enter Iris and Dot. As you can imagine from their demographics, neither are terribly Web proficient. But neither are they Luddites. I’d guess that both of them got their first computers from their children, maybe from their children’s children, and struggled their way through a few exasperated intergenerational lessons; “No, Ma, its a ‘mouse,’ not a ‘mole’ …” Today, they both email with friends, and that’s how they came to me. Someone on my candidate’s email list forwarded them an appeal I’d sent out: “Make Calls to Take Back Congress from Your Home, on Our Dime.” This appealed to both of them. I got emails back from them within a day. They joined my first training call.

Our relationships started off tentatively. Our first date seemed solid; they followed me through the online lesson and said they understood everything. After we parted that first night, Iris made a few dozen calls. I listened in on a couple (the volunteer side of every call is recorded, which gives me a newfound respect for those “calls may be monitored for quality assurance” disclaimers). On her calls, Iris spoke confidently and seemed to be enjoying herself. She reached a number of sympathetic voters, and clearly won some hearts.

Seemed quite successful to me. But then, no more calls.

Dot didn’t even gets started for a week. I trained her on a Wednesday, and she didn’t make her first call until next Tuesday. Stage fright? I couldn’t figure it out. Like Iris, the few calls she did make sounded successful. Why did she drop out so quickly?

The ugly and obvious flipside of distributed activism was showing its head. Without the social interaction that binds so many activists to their causes, interest quickly wanes. We human are fickle creatures, and the next shiny object that passes draws our attention away from our loose, volunteer commitments. This is nothing new. Attrition is a constant factor for volunteer organizers. Without meatspace contact, the factor seems to triple.

Clearly, a special push was needed to keep these ladies involved. I tried emailing them both, full of pep-talk and cajoling. Nothing. Granted, the end of August is a hard time to motivate a grandmother in upstate NY to do anything other than porch sit, but still. They seemed so enthusiastic on that first call … and hadn’t they contacted me? I tried calling, left messages. I just about wrote them both off.

I wish I could take credit for salvaging the relationships, but credit lies with necessity, not inspiration. I had scheduled another Home Team training call on a Friday, and had two other women signed up. Then I missed an airport connection and was forced into a flight that conflicted with the training call. No one else on my staff could cover. So as a last resort, I called Iris. This time I got her, and I asked her a big favor — if she would lead a training, just like the one she’d received herself. I gave her Dot’s number, and told her to call Dot if she wanted backup. She agreed.

The training went terribly. One of the two students bailed, and so it ended up being Dot and Iris and an older woman who had lots of political experience. “I think she was probably older than both of us, but smarter than both of us combined,” Dot joked. They started the training, ran into a technical glitch, and had no idea how to troubleshoot it. The student got frustrated and never made a single call.

And yet, the galvanizing effect on both Dot and Iris was remarkable. Their participation shot through the roof. They each started making a concerted series of calls, practically every night. I started get emails at 9:15 pm, just after our calling deadline. “Good night tonight; I got five 1s in a row!” [In organizer-speak, a "1" is a strong supporter.] Or a question: “What’s his [the candidate's] position on the second amendment? A caller asked me today, and I didn’t know what to say.” And thus, my relationships with both the women grew.

There’s a concept in campaignster circles called “pushing power to the edges.” De-centralize your authority, the theory goes, and you will attract more (and more dedicated) human capital. Trust the people at the edge of your movement, and you will build your movement.

Dot and Iris were my edges. When I pushed even the smallest bit of power to them, it paid me back handsomely.

I did pay a price. They didn’t do anywhere near as good a job as I could have done in training the older woman, and that lost us another potentially useful volunteer. Giving up control failed to produce the short-term desired result. But in the long term, Dot and Iris got hooked. They’ve each made as many phone calls as the 30 least productive callers combined. They’ve spoken to hundreds of voters on our behalf. If we win this primary on Sept 12, they can rightly claim a piece of the victory.

Now, if I just could meet more 65-year-old single women.

Up Next: Primary Colors

Katrina One Year Later—Magic & Logic

August 28th, 2006 by Cree McCree

One year after Katrina, how’s the recovery going? Depends on who, where,and when you ask.

Many households — and even whole neighborhoods, like Broadmoor — are in full recovery mode, forging ahead on a wing and a prayer, without waiting for official approval or the long-awaited Road Home rebuilding funds. Thirty cottages in the Habitat for Humanity-built Musicians’ Village are ready to welcome their new owners, with more to come. Ray’s Boom Boom Room, a cool new black-owned club on Frenchmen Street, opened just in time for Louis Armstrong’s birthday bash, which was hoppin’ with jazz lovers. White Linen Night, the art galleries’ signature summer event, was also overflowing with see-and-be-scenesters, and you have to fight for a chair at Bacchanal when Chef Pete fires up the grill in his makeshift outdoor kitchen on Sunday nights. Still, there’s something a bit frenetic about all this activity, and everyone’s keeping a wary eye on Tropical Storm Ernesto as we enter the peak of hurricane season with pump stations on the fritz and levee upgrades barely begun.

Signs of bureaucratic bogdown are everywhere. Hundreds of kids are wait-listed for the state’s vaunted Recovery District schools, which haven’t even hired all the teachers they need to open in September. Much of the Lower 9th Ward remains without power or water. And that old swashbuckler Mayor Nagin, as I jauntily referred to him in my post-election diary, has neither swashed nor buckled since voters gave him back his job; the best master plan he’s been able to muster is a “plan to have a plan” by year’s end.

Hurry up and wait has become so endemic post-K that I wasn’t exactly shocked that the interview I taped with my friend Brett Evans a few months back, when he recounted his hairy escape from New Orleans, turned out to be . . . totally blank. Ghosts in the machine erased every trace of his story as thoroughly as the floods wiped out entire blocks in the Lower Nine.

But Brett, being a poet, loves a good metaphor. So he was happy to rewind his memory on the eve of Katrina’s one-year anniversary. Sitting out on his Mid-City back porch, where he eventually rescued the household’s four dogs after a series of miracles, Brett recounted the adventures of the “Cavalier Assholes Club,” who worked “more by magic than logic” and lived to tell and retell the tale.

Valerie Massimi navigates Mid-City floodwaters en route to Brett Evans' back porch, where this boatload of dogs were rescued several days later.(Photograph by Jonathan Traviesa)

What happened during the hurricane was so enormous. There are many different perspectives that you can apply to it, all valid.

One of them is how much life is like a J.G. Ballard novel. The frailest bit of civilization gets stripped away and the whole thing cascades pretty quickly. All the most appealing things about staying for a hurricane become the most hellish: Being stranded with your friends, being cut off from annoying telecommunications, being in a situation that is absolutely not boring.

The perspective I was thinking about today is how New Orleans operates more by magic than by logic, which is antithetical to planning against these sorts of things. I mean, everybody will do more than they did the next time. But my specific friend group and myself — the “Cavalier Assholes Club,” as we ended up calling ourselves — were going more by magic than by logic.

Two days before the storm, on August 27th, my friend Jonathan Traviesa had an opening at the Waiting Room Gallery in the Bywater where there was lots of speculation about whether to stay or to go. By all the data that was coming in, everybody should have been going. But there’s a sort of group think that happens when you have enough people you think are gonna do what you’re gonna do.

As people began to parcel themselves out, Jonathan and my friend Valerie and I decided we’d go up to a friend’s fourth story place in the American Can Company, an old warehouse in Mid-City that’s been converted to apartments, and do a sort of vertical evacuation. Knowing how laid-back and cool Valerie and Jonathan are, part of my thinking was, if I have to be stuck in a storm with anybody, I might as well be stuck with them. We also knew seven other people who were staying on the floor below us — the “third floor seven,” as I ended up calling them — that I consider a lot more sensible than myself, and if they were going up in the building, it mustn’t be a totally stupid thing to do.

Another factor in my not leaving that fateful Sunday before the storm was that I was a bit hungover. And the idea of like 12 hours in gridlocked traffic didn’t seem too pleasant.

Val arrived on my porch Sunday morning with nothing but a guitar, high heels, and a copy of Moby Dick, which sort of set the tone for our move to the Can. Tellingly, the night before the storm, we all played this parlor game called Aliens, where a couple people are the aliens and everybody else has to figure out who they are. It’s not based on any clues, just pure group dynamics. A pretty fitting metaphor for how we’d all ended up there.

When the storm hit early Monday morning, the building successfully bucked it. Not one window broke. The water was only about three feet high, and people were still able to go down to the courtyard and barbecue. We still had ice, it hadn’t melted yet. Even Monday night was pleasant. Me and Jonathan and Val sat around drinking bourbon and singing songs. We never imagined the levees would break, or that we’d be trapped by water everywhere.

Once the building got cut off and we realized we might actually die, it was absolutely not a game. Being stranded with my friends suddenly became much more ghoulish than I’d ever imagined. Everything was based on rumor and hearsay and you couldn’t believe anything except what you saw with your own eyes.

By Tuesday, we knew something was truly wrong. The water, instead of going down, came up higher. You couldn’t go down into the courtyard anymore. Life started to get more miserable. Everybody had to hang out on the roof of the building, where things got more tribal and weird, good and bad. There was an Indian family, maybe three generations, really sweet people, who were in town for a wedding. There was also some maniac who had swum across to the convenience store and looted all the cigarettes and was trying to sell them for like $10 a pack.

We had our own tribe, us three plus the third floor seven. I also had my three dogs and my neighbor’s dog and her cat. We still had radio power, and Mayor Nagin came on and said the water was gonna go up another eight feet. I knew if that happened, we’d probably die, and there was no way the animals would get out. We were trapped by water all around.

Early on, Jonathan and Val had gone back to his place, which was nearby but flooded, and retrieved an inflatable boat. Jonathan actually rescued a family or two in that boat, but then he lashed it to the front of building and the boat got stolen.

Fortunately — and in this regard there were many small moments of chance and opportunity — my friends Bill and Nancy were boating by. They came up into the building to go into another friend’s apartment, where I found a small, tiny boat that was really just a pool toy. I brought that back to Jonathan, who was able to take it out and eventually get another boat, a real metal boat, which would later end up being huge.

Wednesday was the last night everyone was together. Me, the dogs, Valerie and Jonathan were all in this tent on the roof, or just outside of it on blankets, and it was a last false, cozy moment. It felt almost like we were camping out as we drank whatever little liquor was left and dozed off.

As soon as daylight broke, it was like the opening of Apocalypse Now. Helicopters were hovering all around us. It was unbelievably loud. Unbelievably hot. All you could smell was diesel fuel and greasy, disgusting stagnant air, mixed with total human desperation.

At this point, everyone started to get really confused and frantic. And I had a complete meltdown.

It was in the parking garage, standing in the water, that I said my goodbyes to the dogs. This off-duty cop came up in a hotwired boat that he’d stolen from a roof with Jonathan’s help and I got in, thinking I was going to this little strip of land where the helicopters left and that I’d see Jon and Val over there.

Thankfully, for me and my dogs, they ended up not leaving that day. Instead, they took the dogs in the boat to the back porch of my house a few blocks away, which didn’t flood.

The police boat dropped me off by the interstate, and I knew if I spent the night there it was going to be absolutely hellish. I thought I was definitely going to die, and it was sort of my punishment for leaving my friends and my dogs. But at the same time, death seemed a little too severe a punishment, even for me.

Fortunately, I was with a couple of other people from the building and one of the guys spoke Spanish. And when these Mexican guys came up in a boat, filled with Corona and ice and water that they were bringing to other people stranded on the interstate, he asked them to take us back to the helicopter island. So I got out on a helicopter, which was no joy at all because I’d left my dogs behind. And instead of attaining any freedom for myself, I was just dropped off at this giant refugee camp of total chaos out by the interstate in Metairie.

I consider it a total failure of my will that I left the dogs. But what’s so puzzling about the whole story is that, as fate would have it, if I hadn’t gone when I did, things probably wouldn’t have worked out. Because when I got to the refugee camp, I met these Australian journalists. And when I finally met up with my wife, Janine, who’d been in Guatemala this whole time, we spent two days of serious jockeying on the Internet, doing everything we could think of to get back to the dogs, and finally got back in touch with the Australian journalists.

With them [and their press credentials], we were able to come back into the city and eventually work our way to our Bayou St. John neighborhood and wade into the by then black water, total shitwater, and get the dogs from the back porch where Jonathan and Val had left them a few days earlier.

So this particular tale ends with a miracle about how I got out, and especially about how my dogs got out. New Orleanians a lot of times live by the idea of a miracle. Because miracles are much more glamorous and dramatic than problem-solving. And it makes a good story — one that ended up on Australian radio. But at the same time, it reveals that when you play by the miracle, you play it absolutely close to the edge, with no margin of error.

The irony of the story is that the people who were in charge of the logic-over-magic department — the engineers in charge of the levees — ended up being as hungover and incompetent as if they’d been partying for 17 years straight.

THIS JUST IN! Read Cree McCree's new article, Citizens K: The 10 Best Blogs By, From and About New Orleans—One Year After Katrina.

Can You Teach Someone How To Kiss?

August 22nd, 2006 by Frida in the City

A: French-speaking guy
B: Short, bald guy
C: Sports nut guy
D: Graphic designer guy
E: Guy with girlfriend
F: Thai-speaking guy
G: Italian guy
H: European jailbait
I: E.?s girlfriend?s ex-boyfriend

J: Bad kisser

I took a week off from men for a week (I know someone who has taken 2006 off from men.) To recap: relationships with A. and C. were placed on the DNR (do not resuscitate) list.

The break was just what the Love Doctor ordered, because things have picked up. I decided to go to a French language professionals’ dinner, hoping that the people there would be a little older and a bit more settled in life instead of the students who usually turn up. Granted, we are all there to speak French, but I do have a hidden agenda. I was the only non-European person at the table, but they all really made me feel at home. The only interesting guy there was J., a musician (guitar) who is cute as a button. He seemed very young, but eager to talk in an endearing way, and offered to drive me home. I checked my e-mail the next day and found a very sweet note from him, and patted myself on the back for going out on a limb and showing up at a dinner where I knew no one. Ladies, you see, you never know.

I couldn?t stop thinking about him, so when he called the next day I was pretty ecstatic. He said he?d like to take me to a great French grocery store in the suburbs that I?ve been dying to go to. I don?t have a car, so I?d never gotten over there in my three years in the city. We spent almost 12 hours together, talking and laughing. It?s nice to have so much in common with someone for a change, although he does keep the conversation mostly about himself. After dating a lot of men in their 20s, I?m used to that. The good ones come around eventually and start taking a real interest in my life, while there?s no hope with (or for) the really self-centered ones. He told me that he just broke up with his fianc?e a month earlier (read: ?I?m not ready for a relationship?) but I had fun and want to see where things will go. After loading up on foie gras and other goodies, he offered to come over to my place to make an authentic French dinner. Now let me see? easy on the eyes, can cook a mean bouillabaisse while I relax in front of the TV? this I can do. After dinner, we made out a bit and my expectations plummeted like a lemming. He is a bad kisser ? not just bad, but horrible. It?s kind of like a make-out session in high school. How can someone of his age be so inexperienced? He made a face not unlike a grouper and when I saw that coming at me, I thought, NO WAY. Still, I held out for a few minutes until I murmured something about taking it slow and shooed him out of my place. Since he made it clear he isn?t ready for a serious relationship, our other option is being friends with benefits. But what?s the point if someone is such a bad kisser that it?s a turn-off? (Friends with downsides?) So, the question: Can you teach someone how to kiss, and if you can, would it even be a pleasant process?

Do You Really Want to Leave for This?

August 21st, 2006 by Brad Wieners

Earlier, I mentioned that things were accelerating in our home owning adventure. Well, they were — so fast, in fact, that it seemed to us there was hardly even time to write out lists of all the things that needed doing before Closing Day arrived. By now we had staked our financial future and at least a piece of our hearts on this 100-year-old colonial in Nyack, but unless we quickly bought a car, we’d be all-but-marooned in our new home, and our fear of sudden suburban isolation was growing as rapidly as the speed at which it was all becoming inevitable.

Talking with others I was reassured that rushing towards something you have decided you want but wish you could somehow forestall is the natural state of the prospective home buyer. Even so, our timetable was swift. We had committed to completing the transaction within 60 days, and that meant we had two months to tackle everything from repairs that we wanted the seller to complete as a condition of the sale to telling the woman who was caring for Gus (while M went back to work) that we didn’t think we could keep her on to M giving notice at her job (we couldn’t both commute and figure out how to care for G) to finding and purchasing a car reliable enough to convince M that when I went to work each morning in Manhattan, she wouldn’t be stranded with our baby…

And did I mention I was two short months into an incredibly demanding new position myself? Or that my kid sister, Megann, a 25-year-old hottie, had moved to Brooklyn and was staying with M and G and I (as she had while caring for G part-time last fall) and that she needed to find a new place to live, too, before we moved to Nyack?

So it was all happening at once. Gus was getting in on the act, too, taking his first ever steps along the side of our sofa, “cruising” as the child development people call it, and there M and I would be later, pillow-talking our way through one minor crisis after another in the Greenpoint bedroom we couldn’t wait to leave. Each day there was another tedious micro-debacle: What to do about the leak in the chimney that was compromising the upstairs roof? The lead content in the house pipes being 3x the FDA approved limit? The dead lawn? The debris in the arbor vitae? Each day one of us (usually me) didn’t get the issue quite resolved.

Thankfully, there was some comedy in this, even if it took a long pillow-talk or two to appreciate it.

For example, M and I drew each other into ridiculous who-knows-better debates about proper water filtration, the life expectancy of a water heater, and how to re-point a brick chimney. To hear us speak on any of these issues you might think we knew what we were talking about. Really, we were merely walking, talking, dueling search results from Google. I mean, without the Web, what exactly do you know about parge coating?

Meanwhile, I was developing a long list of questions that were unhelpful (but impossible to ignore) about the process.

For instance, why did we need an attorney, exactly? In California, the only other state where I’d been close enough to a real estate deal to have a clue about how they proceeded, buyers’ lawyers are optional, so why must we have one in New York? (The short answer is that in the state of New York, the bar has a cartel that makes it so).

Our attorney, David, recommended to us by our friend Thia as a “tiger,” was capable enough but a bit of an autodidact, and wasted no time alienating the seller’s attorney. Or maybe it was the other way around? In any event, we lost two weeks (14 of our precious 60 days) while David and the seller’s attorney, Rob, refused to speak to one another because both were of the opinion that the other had failed to promptly and politely return the others’ call… And, no, this was not the last moment where, if we were being followed by a reality TV crew, I might have deadpanned Jack Ritter-style into the camera: can you believe this shit?

Another unhelpful question: Why is it that realtors, of all the trades and professions, are in the habit of printing tiny headshots on their business cards? Previously, I had seen realtors’ mugs on billboards, but hadn’t given them much notice. You see these billboards, usually, in smallish burgs where they feel like Chamber of Commerce-y greetings, as if to say: Hey, passing motorist, did you know warm, friendly people live here and one like this mustachioed fellow would happily sell you a home? But in the Home Depot spec kitchen cabinets of what we hoped would become our new house we found two rather large stacks of realtors’ business cards, and I’d put the percentage of cards with high school yearbook quality headshots in the high 70s/ low 80s. And, really, has there ever been a self-selecting group other than realtors who so consistently appear like they are trying (but failing) to pull off a particular look?

Fortunately, our realtor, Bill, was not one of these, and was doing his best to help us navigate a somewhat tricky purchase. In brief, we were buying from a classic renovate-and-flip contractor who, as I mentioned previously, had subdivided “our” lot and built a big new home next door. This boded well for the potential appreciation of “our” home, and, M and I assured ourselves, it was no doubt the construction next door that accounted for the house we wanted staying on the market for over a year; that, and a too-high initial list price. Still, when Closing Day finally arrived on a slushy day in February, I kept wondering if those stacks of business cards with cheesy portraits weren’t a warning. What had we overlooked?

“Closing Day.” The way our attorney said it, it sounded both cursory and experimental, somewhere between a baptism and major surgery. In reality, it was one very long afternoon in a windowless office with several bored people (Bill completed two crosswords), but still there was one moment of high drama when M and I stood our ground on — yes! — the parge coat to fix the leaky chimney, and almost had the whole deal collapse. Ushering us from the airless conference room, David checked our resolve in a cramped corridor stuffed with files boxes and a water dispenser.

“Do you really want to leave for this?” He asked.

M and I shot each other a pained look. If either of us cracked, the other might, too, but the fear of being duped overcame the fear of losing the house. We had to be willing to walk away, that’s what we’d vowed. We had to be willing to walk away … M is better at being direct, and yet somehow I persist in believing I’m a better negotiator. I drew a breath. She spoke.

“We need this done. He said he’d do it, but he hasn’t done it.” Her voice was filled to near-cracking with emotion.

“Yes,” I said. “She’s right.”

The seller’s attorney bore the news poorly — like a migraine, really — but I guessed more at having to call and deal with the hot-tempered seller than because he himself found us that unreasonable. After an anxious ten minutes, he came back in and said, ok.

We left the offices at dusk, relieved, but depleted, and didn’t even get a look at the place we had just bought — we were catching a ride with our attorney David back to the city. While leaving town without marveling at our new home had a certain advantage (no chance of buyer’s remorse), it had a distinct disadvantage, too. For next few days, our new home remained an abstraction. We’d have to borrow a car the following weekend just to see it again.

Up Next: "Do you smell that, too? I think it's coming from the basement — where the furnace is... I'm taking Gus out of here right now."

Hocus-Pocus, The Lord in Focus

August 17th, 2006 by Ben Kaplan

Julie’s cousin is 12 years old and she’s beautiful. She’s just in Toronto from Greece and got a camera for her last birthday, so she keeps snapping my photograph as I stand on the altar trying not to cry.

In the first pew, between her parents, Julie has lost this battle and I try to look past her, force myself to stand up straight, as tears roll down her cheek.

What the fuck? It’s hardly like I’m religious. Last time I went to temple it was for a newspaper story; after I got the quotes I needed I took off, vowing to, but never actually managing to, someday return.

I’m getting baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church today because my fianc?e is Greek and while she’s certainly more religious than I am, she goes to church, say, six times a year, tops. Her dad is president of the Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto, while my family is composed of Reformed Jews in suburban Maryland who go to temple on the big holidays, but not much more. I lived with her parents for a year when I first got to Canada, and her mom, who I do love, prays on her knees on the floor of the church. Converting from Judaism to Greek Orthodox was something I could give them.

It wouldn’t change me, I thought, to go through the service: I’ll always be me. But now I’m on the altar in a wrinkled white Polo shirt and black slacks and my mouth is dry and I can’t, though I’m trying, repeat the words of the priest.

“Do you accept that the Lord Jesus Christ is your savior?”

“Will you follow his word, that he was born again, and accept him to be your lord of lords?”


Father Peter, a close friend of Julie’s family, who was born in Canada, not Greece, and he doesn’t have a long gray beard nor a righteous certainty; he shows mercy. He keeps the ceremony moving, and when I turn back to face the icon of Jesus on his cross, nails through his hands and feet, head fallen, I relate. How self-righteous am I? I feel like I’m martyring myself for love. And yet, while it feels awful, it also gives me power. Look at what I did. I gave up my religion for you. How can you possibly get mad at me when your friend’s friend sits too long on my lap?

I hate it when people ask me if my parents care. Of course they care, asshole. They just care more for Julie ? Julie, who I’ll be marrying in a month and a half in the Greek Orthodox Church her father built for her wedding day. And still…thoughts of my grandfather go through my mind. What would he say? I have to think he would support me. No amount of hocus-pocus, as my father calls it, can alter a lifetime of ingrained beliefs.

I duck backstage behind the altar to change into an expensive Caban bathrobe Julie’s mother bought me for the actual baptism part of the ceremony conducted in a small baby pool. My hands are shaking as I take off my clothes and I tie the robe up to my neck. Julie’s cousin comes backstage to see me. Is it OK for the family to watch from the altar? Why not, I tell him. I’m all in: take my photograph, stand next to me, applaud, it doesn’t matter: you’re going to do this to me, and I’m going to be strong.

Father Peter pours oil on my head. My eyes transfix on the Jesus. I mumble the Amens after him. He circles around me three times. I know why Julie is crying. I wear the look on the altar of pain. I’m the brat who only wants candy when it’s taken away. All this time I was Jewish it didn’t mean anything to me. I was Bar Mitzvahed and rooted for Israel, but nothing about being Jewish really stirred me. Now all that is being tested. Being taken. I’m giving my soul away. I see my father’s name on my baptismal certificate. Lester Ira Kaplan from Brooklyn, New York. Dale Jean Weinberg from Albany. What happens when Dimitrios and Eleftheria Tsatsaronis’s youngest marries a Jewish kid from New York?

We take a group photograph of her family flanking me with my certificate when it’s all over. Hunters posing in front of their captured bear. But that isn’t the way I’m going to frame this. In the car, on the way to the restaurant, I let everything go. I’m crying like I haven’t since I lost my job. Julie’s crying, too, but we can’t wear that into the lunch place.

Julie’s aunt tells me: “Congratulations,” but that isn’t right. Her parents say: “Thank you.” And that is.

Up Next: The families come together for the Big Day. Will everyone find wedding nirvana under one big tent?

Bar & Chain

August 13th, 2006 by Frida in the City

A: French-speaking guy
B: Short, bald guy
C: Sports nut guy
D: Graphic designer guy
E: Guy with girlfriend
F: Thai-speaking guy
G: Italian guy
H: European jailbait
I: E.’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend

The sports party was my perfect introduction to the concept of a sporting event as reason to throw a party. It was hosted by two gay men who owned their beautiful house, served gourmet food, and cared as much about the game as I did. But since E.’s girlfriend promised to introduce me to some people, I thought a single girl like myself should at least try to meet men when they are all congregated around large TVs. There were several cute guys there, and E.’s girlfriend introduced me to her ex-boyfriend I. He lived up to his reputation ? very European, very handsome. I’m not the only one in her mid-thirties who still looks like she is in her mid-twenties (OK, late-twenties). Although E.’s girlfriend was gamely trying to steer the conversation back to me, it was clear that I. was still in love with her. This was confirmed by the fact that he proceeded to call her every day after the party. His lack of interest didn’t offend me ? I’ve learned to just say ?Next!?

On Wednesday I had another French language dinner, and although the weather was abominable, I promised A., the guy I had gone on a few dates with, that I would be present, so I braved the snow falling that night. Hardly anyone showed up, but A. kindly engaged all in conversation, despite being much smarter and more well-traveled than the others. He insisted on driving me home, and I just couldn’t tell him that I didn’t want to see him anymore. He impresses me, and I don?t meet many people I admire, so I made plans with him for the weekend and will probably do the deed then.

Two nights later, I went with a girlfriend to a local bar ? a state representative was sponsoring an event to meet the young people in his constituency. I thought politics is almost as good as sports for drawing men. Bingo ? it was crawling with them. While we debated how to get the guys sitting across the bar to come over (neither of us had any clue, perhaps this is why we are still single?), some of her friends came by and we began to chat with them. I flirted the best I could, and ended the night feeling as if I made some good impressions. Nothing came of it, but I think I?m finally getting the hang of this. After that, the evening gets a little fuzzy, except for margaritas at a great Mexican place, followed by gin and tonics at a hipster bar. I love politics.

For my third and last date with A., on a Saturday afternoon, we went to Greektown for lunch. In true A. fashion, he made friends with all of the restaurant staff by the time he paid the check. I had to admit I liked him, but could never see myself in bed with him, so I told him as much when he dropped me off. He seemed to understand and took it very well. I hope we can be friends, and I realize if that’s to be then I’m the one who has to make the next move. That night, I had dinner with girlfriends, and we decided to test our flirting skills at a bar afterward. One after another, horrible guys (cheesy, desperate) kept coming over to us, so when the next one showed up by my side, I gave such a scowl that my girlfriends couldn’t stop laughing for 10 minutes. At least my get-away-from-me skills are in good working order. It was H.

I had met H. at my party a few weeks earlier and then gave him my signature tour of the gallery. Pros: Very attractive. Cons: Too young (23), we have nothing to talk about. While I wasn?t sure he was into me before, he squashed any doubt by standing as close to me as humanly possible at the bar without mounting me. He gave me three kisses, up from the usual European two, when I left. At this point in my life, the idea of using him for his body just doesn’t appeal to me. I can’t get it up for someone with whom I have no emotional connection.

Up Next: Mon Dieu! A Frenchman in the house of Frida.

In the Beginning, There Was Sober Sex

August 10th, 2006 by Ben Kaplan

The girl’s name was Heidi. I was at the Acme bar on New York City?s Great Jones Street checking out my friend’s punk band with a buddy who was visiting from L.A. We were supposed to be going to Europe with money I’d earned from a story about my erectile dysfunction for New York magazine. But this was October 15, 2001, and they weren’t running anything that wasn’t about the Twin Towers attack, especially stuff about a 28-year-old’s dick that didn’t work. I remember standing on my rooftop on Mulberry Street, inhaling the smoke, and feeling pissed off at the writers who were hogging my clips. I had to get out of Manhattan. Montreal seemed like as close to Europe as we could get.

So the singer’s girlfriend told me to call Heidi, and we drank and lost our voices to the show. About halfway through, at the bar over a cigarette, back when this was something in New York you could do, she asked me for the phone number back.

“Don’t call Heidi,” she said. “Call Julie; she’d be perfect for you.”

I had been OK all my life with girls. I usually had something going with someone, but I’d never actually had a relationship. I was never brought home to mom. Ask me my best sexual encounter and I could tell you my five worst. The truth was I’d never even been with a girl without first having five orsix drinks.

It was my first trip to Canada and we hit Montreal hard. My buddy brought x and that first night I used a press contact and scored us free tickets to the Basement Jaxx show. It was that kind of weekend. The girl my friend met was missing some teeth. We went to sleep that night with the sun up but I felt good that next day and I called her, plus scored some coke from Tiny, the Best Western doorman who weighed 200+ pounds.

Julie was no longer living at the number her friend gave me?it turns out the punk singer’s girlfriend lived across the street from her in Toronto and the two had jazz dance together in the sixth grade. But the girl who answered the phone told me where Julie was. My friend and I went to the casino, called Julie, and she and her friend met us, and Tiny, and we all had flaming Dr Pepper shots.

She told me she’d be in a green jacket but her friend arrived in a green jacket so she had an escape plan. Her eyes were alive and she was mischievous. I had more in common with her than with my best friend; it was an energy thing. We went upstairs to the bedroom, not to make out but to sing along with Travis and jump on the bed. We went to a party her lesbian friend was having, then danced to the Beastie Boys at a second-floor club. My friends went back to the Best Western. I went back with Julie and thought I’d be on the couch. I made it into the bedroom. But we didn’t do much more than sleep.

We spent the next day together. She wore a helmet and I borrowed her neighbor’s bike. We climbed a mountain, ate a picnic, and I left my wallet at her house. Then I drunkenly tried to spell “Tsatsaronis,” her last name, to the French-speaking Canadian 411. My buddy and I drove around Montreal that night hoping to find her on the street. Finally she called the hotel. On the morning we would leave, I had the first sober sex experience of my life.

My buddy and I drove back to New York in a rainstorm. I was thinking about what I’d say to Julie when I got home and called her; when I hit my place the phone met me with her ring. My friend went back to L.A., and the next month I went back to Montreal. We fell in love.

After she finished school, she moved in with me in Manhattan. There wasn’t really a plan?it’s just that things were better for both of us than they’d been. She started waiting tables. My story finally came out (and the erectile dysfunction, alas, if I ever really had it, went away). One day we went back to Canada for Greek Easter. Apparently she was Greek-Orthodox and the holiday was quite a big deal. They barbecued goats in her backyard and crossed themselves before eating. We went to midnight masses. I was overdressed.

On her way back to the States on an Amtrak, homeland security discovered she was working illegally in New York. They went through her diary like they were looking for bomb recipes and found out she was serving brunch to gay guys for $28 shifts in Chelsea. They put Julie on a bus for Niagara Falls.

I quit my job at New York magazine, and soon Julie and I picked up and moved to a small village where Julie’s cousin ran an English school on a tobacco farm in rural Greece. For a year, we lived across the street from a church. And when it was time to come home, after traveling, bonding with each other and the kids, America was still off-limits: so we moved to Toronto?right on in with her mom and dad.

I was a 30-year-old American Jewish guy living with my girlfriend’s folks in Toronto. I was making big changes. But the biggest change was still to come.

Up Next: After living in sin for twelve months, the ex-Hebrew school hooligan finally proposes but discovers that, in order to move forward, he'll have to leave something behind.

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