Portrait of Boris Serebriakov by Zinaida Serebriakova

In Defense of Greece’s Third Bailout Program

In the next three months, the new government that emerged from last Sunday’s elections, which, with the exception of the absence of the hard-line drachma-advocates on its far left, admittedly doesn’t look terribly different from the one who came to power last winter with a promise to rip up the 2nd bailout, will be called upon to legislate over 60 separate action items contained in the 3rd bail-out agreement that it signed after six months of clumsy negotiations in order to secure Greece’s continued membership in the Eurozone. I, for one, hope they succeed in their legislative mission. Not only because this legislation is a pre-requisite for subsequent tranches of aid and the funds to recapitalize the ailing Greek banking system (and protect the savings of hundreds of thousands of depositors, poor and rich alike), but also because it contains, along with a number of painful austerity measures, a surprising number of much needed reforms, some of which ironically figured in previous bail-out agreements but were never implemented.

A hopeless romantic who continued to cast his vote for a pro-European, reform-oriented progressive party that still seems to be stuck in single-digits (and did considerably worse in these elections), I didn’t opt for the majority, leftist government partner, Syiza, that won the elections. Still, I tend to agree with its highly capable Minister of the Economy, Euclid Tsakalatos, when he says that the 3rd bail-out program is arguably the best that could have been secured. Along with the prospect of finally addressing the problem of the country’s staggering public debt, the program that he negotiated, if fully implemented, offers a ray of hope in battling Greece’s long-standing problems—tax evasion, the black-market economy, an inefficient public sector and the bureaucratic stranglehold on private investment to name a few.

During the election campaign the conservative opposition party (falsely) claimed that the package was worse than the previous agreements its government had signed. Syriza, for its part, talked about the room for maneuvering the new bailout program allowed. Strikingly absent from the political dialogue preceding the elections was a discourse about the positive benefits of the agreement. Journalists and talk-show hosts rightly focused on the costs of the agreement to the average citizen, but unfortunately made little or no reference to the reforms it foresees. Although political analysts now argue that the distinction between pro- and anti-bailout factions (the “memorandists” and “anti-memorandists”) has lost its relevance in Greek politics, to claim you are actually in favor of the program invites disapprobation and censure from voters and viewers, not to mention friends and acquaintances. The agreement was portrayed to a great extent as a necessary evil.

I wonder, though, how many voters who are so rabidly opposed to the agreement, many of whom decided not to vote in the elections, indeed, many of those who voted for one of the five political parties that have signed or approved one or more of the bailout packages, have actually read the details of the 3rd program?

Granted, there are painful measures in this program, including the requirement to ensure that pension systems do not operate on a deficit. On the other hand, failing to reform a pension system that operates in a country with a falling birthdate in which 40% of the population in 2040 is expected to be pensioners and with a black-market economy just below 30% of GDP is criminal.

And yes, the much-hated national property tax (ENFIA) has its share of unfairness and inefficiencies, all of which should be addressed, but it is still, with the exception of the highly regressive VAT tax that we, like all Europeans, pay on products and services, one of the most equitable taxes in the country, if only because everyone who owns property pays it (in contrast to income taxes, which various well-heeled doctors, lawyers, plumbers, restaurant owners and others continue to evade through the non-issuance of receipts).

The daily print and digital newspaper Naftemporiki recently  published a list of the 65 action items that need to be legislated on in the next trimester. It is worth looking at a few hypothetical cases that these measures address. If you answer yes to the majority of these questions, perhaps you, too, are in some way a “memorandist” too.

  • A businessman with a hefty bank account owes over €70,000 in taxes. Should the state, as the Memorandum foresees, be entitled to  electronically confiscate a portion of the person’s assets to pay the outstanding taxes?
  • A car owner has not had his vehicle inspected for safety violations (as required by law) for several years, thus endangering his own safety and those of others on the road. Should this person (again as the Memorandum foresees) be fined?
  • A dermatologist with an office in the high-rent district of Kolonaki declares an annual income of only €20,000. The Tax Office has no immediate way of knowing that this taxpayer transferred more than €400,000 abroad in the last five years. Should banks, as provided for in the bailout agreement, be required to provide the state with a statement of all this person’s bank transfers?

The list of reform measures to be passed this fall continues:

  • Should someone with outstanding taxes and a high-bracket income be subject to having his or her salary garnished? The bailout program says yes.
  • Should the state, as dictated by the 3rd Memorandum, liberalize the energy sector on the basis of international and EU best practices? (Reminder: Portugal, another country saddled with troika-imposed reform measures, has managed with a similar mandate for rationalizing its energy sector to reduce dependence on exports to single-digit levels and now produces over 60% of its energy needs from renewable sources)
  • Should the state establish mobile units to crack down on smuggling?
  • Should someone with rental income over €12,000 a year be taxed on this income at a higher level than on the income earned by a moderate-income wage earner?
  • Should unfair and preferential tax exemptions be abolished?
  • Should the state devote more resources to its unit dedicated to taxpayers who owe very large amounts of taxes?
  • Should the General Secretariat of Public Income, something akin to the IRS, be protected from political and party interference?
  • Should the state draw up a plan to crack down on tax evasion that will include the ability to work with EU governments to identify bank accounts abroad that have not been reported to the Tax Office?
  • Should the state promote and facilitate the use of electronic payments (e.g. credit cards) in an effort to cut down on tax evasion?
  • Should the names of big tax evaders be published?
  • Should the state draw up and implement a plan of action to facilitate exports?
  • Should the state be obliged to draft and implement an action plan to reduce the size of the black-market economy, protect workers from illegal labor, and ensure that their employers provide for social security contributions?
  • Should access to “closed professions” – notaries public, pharmacists, tour guides, lawyers, etc.—be facilitated?
  • Should the state establish a national wealth registry so that it will know the amount of assets taxpayers—and tax evaders—own?
  • Should the state set priorities for tax collection and instances of tax evasion so that it will focus on cases in which there is a decent chance of securing back taxes?
  • Should the state implement best practices from the International Labor Organization?

As it’s probably clear by now, I do not subscribe to the oft repeated conspiracy theory that the bailout program is an orchestrated attempt on the part of Northern Europe to economically ravage Greece so that their companies can snap up Greek assets at a bargain price. I can’t see how the prospect of a politically unstable, destitute country in such a geopolitically strategic location is something the political leadership in Berlin and Paris is particularly keen on. Many of the measures in the 3rd bailout program, which are based on international (yes, capitalist) best practices and which in the case of Portugal, for example, has allowed to country to now borrow at negative interest rates, seek to reform the state apparatus, encourage investments, and battle tax evasion. Together they are more than just the price Greece needs to pay to remain in the Eurozone. They are perhaps as well—along with the imperative restructuring of public debt, without which Greece is condemned to a never-ending spiral of austerity measures—the country’s last chance for recovery. Much will depend on the ways in which these measures are enforced, but as I said, they seem to offer a glimmer of hope for modernizing the pubic sector.

I’m not naïve. Implementing these measures will demand from the new government considerable political will to stand up against vested interests and corruption. I hope it will find it.


Featured image: Zinaida Serebriakova, “Boris Serebriakova” (1908). The painting, by one of the first women Russian painters to gain international acclaim, may at first glance seem only tangentially related to the subject of the post.  I found, however, this portrait of her husband striking in its depiction of the act of reading, which, when one reads wide and critically, seems to me a condition of informed political discourse. Especially on things one disagrees about.

Ghilherme Lobo and Fabio Audi in The Way He Looks
Art, Music, Books & Film

The Way He Looks

The Way He Looks is one of those films that you want to rush out and tell your friends about after seeing, as you might a marvelous six-table restaurant you discovered in a part of town that few venture to visit. It’s not great art, although it did garner the Fipresci prize for best feature film in the Panorama (and a Teddy for the best LGBT-themed film) at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. It won’t change your life or the way you see the world. That said, this enchanting movie of young romance will probably leave you feeling pretty good.

Brazilian director Daniel Ribeiro’s first feature film tells the story of the friendship and budding love between two teenage boys who meet when Gabriel (Fabio Audi), the newcomer to town, enters his new classroom in a middle-class Sao Paolo suburban school and is assigned to sit next to a blind student, Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo).

The Way He Looks is less a coming out story than a tale of coming of age. In a refreshing re-writing of sexual awakening, the two 16-year-olds seem much at ease with their sexuality. The anxiety that ripples through the film as they become aware of their attraction to each other is the same that haunts every young person who falls in love—why doesn’t he or she call, am I being too forward, have I said the wrong things?

Not surprisingly, the notion of seeing and being seen reoccurs throughout the film. Gabriel takes his friend to a park to “see” an eclipse, and describes for him the movement of the sun and moon, and the magical darkness that sets in. He is Leonardo’s narrator at the cinema, and guide at a field trip to a lake. In a telling scene, we see the boys alone in the locker room shower after gym (Leonardo confides to Gabriel that he’s uncomfortable showering with the other boys). Gabriel guides him to a shower head and hands him a bar of soap, and then retreats a few steps, watching as his friend slowly drops his shorts and begins soaping his back. His gaze fixes on his friend’s buttocks until he glances down at his crotch and quickly grabs a towel to cover himself.

The beloved’s gaze is never far away. It stands behind us as we look into the mirror after the morning shower, and seeps into our thoughts throughout the day. Do I please him? It is a question that Leonardo puts to his best friend Giovana, who is as much in love with him as he is with Gabriel. “Am I attractive?” he asks. The irony of the question, posed by such an endearing, handsome teenager, is wrenching.

Leonardo has no “objective” standards against which to compare himself. For him, there is no golden mean of symmetry and proportion that describes the faces of the beautiful we see in art and advertisement. Yes, there are qualities of the beloved’s voice that embody a broader sense of the other’s beauty, the warmth of timbre and attentiveness that suggest desire. And then there is touch. When finally the two young boys kiss, Leonardo’s fingers gently trace the contours of Gabriel’s face to finally see his lover. Of his own beauty, however, he remains unaware. His blindness is a poignant metaphor for the sightlessness of the young lover.  Who among us when first in love, save for the few graced by nature with brilliant beauty (and not even all of those), have not asked themselves the same question? How do l look?

None of the boys’ questions, however, have to do with being gay. That Leonardo and Gabriel are comfortable with their sexuality from the start is part of what makes the film remarkable, given that the struggle to self-acceptance has been a recurrent motif in films about gay youth to date, including such gems as Get Real and Beautiful Thing.

Not surprisingly. Coming out is one of the most defining experiences gay men and women undergo. Whether we suppress or embrace our sexuality, whether we tell all or no one, our desire—and the ever sharpening and ultimately undeniable awareness of our differentness that it engenders—remains an incontrovertible fact of our existence. It cannot but be acknowledged, even if it is not dealt with. Even when the journey from troubled innocence to the community of the initiated is short and relatively free of angst and self-doubt—as Leonardo and Gabriel’s seems to be—it is one we all make, and one made, at least in the beginning, on our own, a rite of passage without guide or catechism. And if our sexual awakening is rooted in an acute sense of not belonging, or perhaps more tellingly, of no longer belonging, we, unlike other initiates, do not yet know much if anything of the community which we will become part of.

Leonardo and Gabriel’s story, however, is not a struggle for self-acceptance but the longing for and pursuit of their first kiss. When and how they have come out to themselves is a backstory the film declines to investigate but instead takes as a given. A simple matter of fact. While the film arguably underplays the real-world difficulties of gay adolescence and blindness both, it is a lyric tribute to what a better world might look like, and what hopefully for some gay teenagers growing up today, already is.


Technology and the Web

Instructions Missing

When we think of assembled objects, we are not likely to think of a concept of self. Instead we picture things like an IKEA bookcase or a model plane or a real-life car, objects that are put together from a finite and pre-determined set of pieces in a particular order and according to specific instructions. The bookcase frame precedes the inner shelf; lose a dowel and the object cannot be completed. There is usually only one way to put the object together and pieces are not usually interchangeable, so assemblers such as DIY enthusiasts, factory workers or robots have very little, if any room for creativity in their projects. Indeed, robots are ideally suited for the low-level tasks of executing the series of straightforward, single instructions that make up the process of assembly.

If the self is assembled on social media, it is not done by design from a preordained, fixed collection of components. There is also no manual, much less an image of the finished product by which to check one’s work. It is do-it-yourself without a set of instructions. However, that is not to say that there is no goal that guides the selection and presentation of identity statements on social media, only that the hoped-for possible self that these statements serve to foster is known in outline alone.

This desired self is perceived obliquely, in broad lines of character that suggest such traits as affability, compassion, resourcefulness, or humor. The assembler may have only the vaguest sense of the entity she is piecing together. It may be the well-liked, triathlete lawyer or the bright, cultivated non-conformist, but a sense of a goal exists, however dimly perceived this persona is. I’m reminded of the iconic scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Richard Dreyfuss sculpts a mound out of mashed potatoes. It is the model of a place he has never seen and still does not know even exists, but the general shape of this squat peak has been implanted in his consciousness (you’ll also recall that his models get more accurate and significantly larger as the film progresses).

Given the considerable number and range of digital artifacts that the assembler could find, retrieve or create, it would be surprising if the small subset of pieces that she eventually brings together and puts on exhibit were selected randomly. But they are not. Of the 50 photos taken on a weekend kayaking trip, 5 will uploaded. Not all causes are supported, not all quotes shared.

The discrete items of social media content that find their way onto timelines, feeds and blogs,—the reposted Soundcloud set, say, or the photo from yoga class and the morning’s giraffe pancakes—clearly serve an immediate communicative purpose. They provide our friends and acquaintances with information on what we are doing. At the same time, however, these bits of content make evidentiary statements about a desired identity we wish to present. Indeed, the exhibition space of the Facebook timeline was explicitly designed to showcase such statements. It was also conceived as a posting board for similar statements generated by activity in other social apps, provided that the assembler has allowed to post on her or his behalf (“Noah Mason is cooking quinoa pilaf on Foodily.”, “Liz Angelou is reading Hilary Mantel in Goodreads”). In the words of Facebook itself, the timeline “lets you express who you are through all the things you do.” [emphasis added]

As these collected or crafted digitalia are brought together into one exhibition space—and here we can use the term assembled—they eventually yield a distinct and characteristic image. That they do so is partly a function of the curatorial activity of the assembler. No discernible image would emerge if the uploaded items were entirely random or too wide-ranging. Instead, we have the structured chaos that the legendary Ausstellngsmacher and curator Harald Szeeman claimed was the essence of a good exhibition. In this instance the structure is provided by the image of the desired self that is being presented. Items of content must fit in some way with this image, which, since Facebook in particular is a denominated rather than an anonymous medium, must in turn be broadly credible in the eyes of the friends and associates called upon to endorse this image. And the more focused the material, the better.

In assembling these digitalia the assembler is half engineer, half bricoleur (to borrow a distinction from Levi-Strauss). Like the engineer, the assembler can deploy a specific task-appropriate set of tools to create the artifacts needed for the project at hand: a photo of the first runner beans in the garden, a mixtape of songs edited in mashup software, an uploaded summary of a 10k run recorded on a heart monitor. Like the bricoleur, however, he or she will also have a (recently culled) store of materials at hand that can be used for a task unrelated to their original purpose, even when they still bear by the history of their previous use. A video of Andy Warhol’s ‘screen test’ of Bob Dylan or a fundraising call for an anti-bullying organization can be appropriated and inserted into a new context where they acquire a new meaning: evidence of coolness or social concern. Naturally this need not mean that the assembler is not interested in the early Dylan or does not actively support anti-bullying initiatives. It does mean, however, that these shared or re-located items function in some instances as borrowed insignia with symbolic power. As it is uploaded into the assembler’s personal online exhibition space, the object becomes imprinted with the likeness of its appropriator.

These borrowed insignia bring to mind the contents of Barbara Bloom’s installation ”The Reign of Narcissism.” In this work, Bloom fashioned a hexagonal space in the form of a salon, which she furnished with period furniture, plaster casts, cameos and vitrines with chocolates, books and porcelain cups. The upholstery, the face of the chocolate, the teacup—each object in the room bore the artist’s image or some other mark of her identity such as her signature or astrological chart. The installation is an acerbic comment on the fetishism of collecting and, in the perfect symmetry with which the furnishings and statuary in the room have been placed, on a pointless obsession with order. But it also serves as a striking visual metaphor of how the self is presented through the conspicuous display of collected objects.


Featured image: Barbara Bloom, “The Reign of Narcissism”, 1988-89.  I first encountered Barbara Bloom’s work in James Putman’s remarkable study Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium, in which (among many other things) he discusses artists who have exhibited personal collections of objects as “museums”. (ed. Thames & Hudson).

This text was first published on the (now decommissioned) blog, Box in a Valise.

Street in Panormos, Tinos

Broken Vows

A gust of wind lifts up our bread basket and tosses it onto the pavement. Exei kairo, the locals say on days like this, when the dry northerly wind that whips down the Aegean Sea in late August keeps the fishing caiques moored at port and locals away from the sand-swept beaches. “There’s weather today,” as if the wind is the only meteorological phenomenon worth the name.  Ty told me that he and his cousins had a scale of their own when they were kids; the rungs of the scale were named for the heaviest object the wind would overturn—kareklatos for winds that overturn chairs, trapezatos when a table is upended. I wonder if there was one for a loaf of bread.

We’ve found a table at a modest taverna near the marina and wait for Ty, who’s gone looking for an ATM to withdraw the little cash he’s entitled to under the new regime of capital controls. In the meantime the boys are competing for my vote on what to do after dinner, a horse-and-carriage ride or a pedal-driven wagon for four. Neither seems like a good idea with the port traffic, swollen this evening by the last wave of pilgrims who are making their way to the pier for the ferry that will take them back to the city. Thousands come each year on the Feast of the Assumption to fulfill a vow, some making their way up the street to the Church of the Virgin Mary on their hands and knees. I’ve come instead to spend a few days with Ty and Alicia and their nine-year-old twins.

Ty arrives ten minutes later. “The first machine wasn’t working. Or maybe it ran out of cash. Let’s hope it’s a coincidence.”

“I still can’t get used to the idea that I can’t get to the money in my bank account. It feels like I’ve been locked out of my house,” I say.

“And someone else is living in it,” Ty says.

“Do I have a bank account?” Lukas asks.

“No. But you have stocks,” his mother says. “Your grandmother gave them to you and Harry when you were born.”

“What are stocks?” he asks.

“It means you own a small part of the company,” I jump in to explain. It’s a role I’m comfortable with, the teacher, a job I once had and loved, and the one I suspect I should be doing. The truth is, I enjoy talking with Lukas. He’s a bright, sensitive kid, with the enthusiast’s passion for discovery for the things that have piqued his curiosity—whether physics or Star Wars or the boats that ply the harbor—and barely concealed indifference for anything else.

I try to think whether there’s an analogy to raising capital in video games but find none and resort instead to the idea of a ferry company that wants to expand its fleet. I explain it as simply as I can but I’m not sure it makes much sense to him.

“How much do I have?”

His mother tells him. It’s a modest sum, about what his teacher at school might make in a month, but for a boy his age, I’ve discovered, money, like time, has very different orders of magnitude. Next month is the distant future and a thousand euros a fortune.

“Wow! Can I sell them back?”

“Well, you could sell your shares to someone else who wants a part of the company,” I say, “But why would you want to?”

He rattles off a list of Star War Lego kits and PlayStation games he’d use the money for.

“But it you sell it all, you won’t have any left over for later.”

“I don’t care.”

“Think about how you’ll feel when you grow up and want to come to the island with your girlfriend—“ I stop for a moment when I catch myself saying girlfriend and then add “or some friends from school, and you don’t have any money to rent a house to stay at.”

I scold myself for not saying “or boyfriend”, even though I haven’t talked to Ty and Alicia yet about how we’ll tell the kids I’m gay. There are much better ways for me to come out to them than slipping in a gay boyfriend in a story. Still, I felt inauthentic in a way I haven’t since freshman year in college, the last time, as best I can remember, that I switched pronouns in a story. It feels crappy, this visitation of an awkward, dissimulating former self, the teenage boy standing beside his date for the junior prom, concealing, with a smile as borrowed and ill-fitting as his rented brown-velvet tux, thoughts of the boy he wished could have been his date.

In retrospect it was a ridiculous example in the first place. The idea of renting a vacation house in the first place—with a girlfriend or a boyfriend—isn’t a relevant thought experiment for a nine-year-old. That said, romance is a far more familiar concept to Lukas than stocks and bonds. From Ratatouille to the video games he plays, straight romantic relationships are a standard part of the story. It’s the rare game where players will encounter same-sex romance, and none of the young reader’s detective novels I’ve given the boys for summer reading will have a gay character. Whatever the relevance of the vacation rental, it feels like a missed opportunity. How do we arrive at a society in which the gender of one’s romantic interests no longer matters when we erase the possibility of same-sex relationships from such a simple story? I promise myself to talk to Ty and Alicia about this when we all get back to the city.

The waiter arrives with our order, red mullet and a salad of rocket and grape tomatoes for the grown-ups, for Harry, spaghetti and for Lukas, youvarlakia, boiled balls of rice and ground beef in an egg-and-lemon sauce. “He likes hospital food,” Alicia once told me, and this is his favorite.

I would know this simply by the way he eats it, how he’ll devour the first half,  spoonful after spoonful in rapid succession, and then push the remaining roulettes into a mound on the side of the plate. This he’ll leave untouched until he scrapes up all the stray grains of rice and specks of ground beef left on the other side of the plate. It’s an intriguing interplay of immediate and delayed gratification that reminds me of the way I sometimes draw out the pleasure of a favorite meal, though I do so with salad and sides, neither of which tempt Lukas.

“How are the youvarlakia?” I ask him.

“They’re ok.”

“How so?” I ask. The teacher again. I glance at Harry and wonder if he’s bothered by the attention I’m giving his brother, if he feels I’m being disloyal to the bond we have as godfather and godson. I’ve learned, however, that Harry never says much when he’s eating.

“They’re too hard,” Lukas says. “I like it when they’re a little squishy. But the sauce is good.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “You can taste the lemon just enough. And it’s kind of soupy, which I like.” A sign the cook foreswore the cornstarch which other, less conscientious restaurants use to thicken the sauce.

“That’s a pretty smart review,” I say. “You’d make a good restaurant critic. Like Anton Ego in Ratatouille. And then, imagine you’d get paid for eating out! Though you’d probably have to start eating lots of different things. Not just ground beef.”

He frowns. “No, not like him,” he says, in a tone that suggests he finds the cartoon food critic creepy. I can understand his aversion; there is something ghoulish about the acerbic, limp-wristed Anton Ego—the long spindly fingers, the black rings around the eyes, the deathly pallor and hunched back. You cannot imagine this painfully thin man actually eating anything, much less relishing it.

The only alternative to Anton I can think of at the moment is Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and I doubt if Lukas has seen the movie.  I make a mental note to look up ‘food critics in movies’ once I’m back home. Maybe I can rent him a DVD with a more sympathetic reviewer than Anton.

As I write this I remember Anton’s precedents in earlier films: the arrogant theatre critic Addison DeWitt in All about Eve and the brilliant but misanthropic columnist Waldo Lydecker in Laura. As a young teenager watching these movies on my parents’ cable TV, I found the characters equally creepy, though for a quite different reason. Despite their cinematic attachment to women, DeWitt and Lydecker were, I realized later, manifestations of the Hollywood trope of the effete homosexual, which for many years was one of the few ways in which gay men were depicted. Though intrigued by their sophistication and wit, I was struck by the loneliness of these sour, unhappy men, and knew that I never wanted to become one of them.

It was only years later, as I came out in the summer after graduating high school, could I envision a different and far happier future for myself, a life in which, as I was learning, the love for another man would be a source of joy and evidence of the divine. I’m not sure there was ever a single moment of decision in which I swore I would never betray my sexuality, much less made an oath to a deity, but since coming out I’ve lived my life as if there were one.

Until now and the story I tell Lukas about his return to the island. It feels as if I’ve come to this place of winds that upturn chairs and loaves of bread not having fulfilled a vow but having broken one. But the winds die down in September, and there is time enough for different stories to tell.


Although this text, like others on Breach of Close, can be read as memoir, I’ve changed the names of its characters. I hope Lukas, if he reads this years later, perhaps when he’s old enough to rent a summer house on his own, will forgive me this change in identity. I tried to find a name he would have liked. His favorite Star Wars character Grievous—Lukas even dressed up as the Jedi hunter for Halloween—was, for obvious reasons, out of the question and I opted instead for the protagonist of the original film trilogy. Luke Skywalker also happens to be a twin brother.

Featured image: Street in Panormos, Tinos. Author’s photograph.

“High Maintenance” by Devin Smith
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

A Village Day

“Let’s get our hair cut,” Simon said. “There’s a barber shop in the East Village that’s doing some really cool stuff.” He made stuff sound like art or at least something I should know about.

I didn’t really want or thought I needed a haircut. My hair was like the button down oxfords and grey trousers that I wore to school, part of a uniform of ordinariness I didn’t have to think much about. But I would have followed Simon anywhere, and especially to the Village.

We’d only been there a few times. Our first forays in New York had been guided by the interests and habits of Simon’s sister, who studied fashion in the city and would regale her brother with stories of the places she ate and shopped, most of which were close to her school in midtown Manhattan. But like settlers in a new land, we had slowly begun extending our radius of exploration, spending the money we earned from our part-time jobs for which we had sacrificed track in the last half of senior year at art house cinemas and ethnic restaurants. Eventually we wound up in the Village.

I liked the neighborhood, with its gentle tree-lined streets of row houses and modest brownstones, its quirky shops and second-hand bookstores–and the young men I saw on its streets. So many of them, and unlike the suited businessmen with briefcases I saw uptown, who mostly walked alone and in a hurry to get somewhere, these men, some just a few years older than me, strolled the streets of the city together as if they were out for a walk in the park.

“How did you find out about the place?” I asked.

“It was in the Voice.”

The Village Voice. It was “our” newspaper. As far as I knew, we were the only ones in our class who read it. It was Simon of course who got me reading it, one day in the school cafeteria.

Shoving aside our plates of the congealed orange goop of our macaroni and cheese, he spread the paper out on the table and flipped to a page with a film review. “You’ve got to read this guy,” he said, “he’s so much better than that snob at the Times” he said. “Ginsburg used to write for it, can you imagine?” he said. Simon wasn’t old enough to have read anything the poet had published in the newspaper, but it was part of the lore of the city he seemed to be collecting, as a hiker might provisions for a long trek he was embarking on, preparation for the life in New York he dreamed of living. “The deli carries it. Maybe there’s some hope for this town after all.”

The next day I picked up a copy and read it cover to cover, and there in a small corner of the back pages I found an ad for a for a film. It featured a grainy black and white photo of two men: a bearded older guy in tight torn jeans and leather jacket, who stood slouching against a truck, and a younger man squatting at his side, close but not touching. They were looking straight ahead.

There were signs enough to suggest that this was a story of men who had sex with other men, and not just the phrase “All Male Cast” anchored at the bottom of the ad: the motorcycle jacket and ripped jeans, the story of trucker and hitchhiker that came to mind, the stance of the two men—what man willingly kneels by the side of the other? I wasn’t yet able to read them all but I didn’t need to. The desire in the men’s eyes, captured in the few tiny pixels of this sexually charged tableau, was unmistakable,

Later I would learn that we don’t read by decoding individual letters but by recognizing the shape of words, even when parts of the letters composing them are scratched off. In my case, the letters were not yet fully formed, but somehow I knew the word, as if it had always been there, waiting to be recognized.

Simon and I spent the morning rummaging through record shops and stopped for lunch at a place on 7th Avenue. The outdoor café was just a single row of small tables set within a thin, low-railed rectangle of sidewalk. From my seat I could thrust my arm out into the flow of pedestrians streaming by and touch the city, the way I used to dip my hand into the water as my father motored the rowboat out into the bay.

We ordered enchiladas and a beer. The waiter didn’t card us, as they had almost everywhere else in the city.

“This is what I want,” he said, slipping out from his bag one of the records he had bought and pointing to one of the musicians on the cover. The guy’s hair was messy, spiky at the top and shorter at the sides.

“Do you realize the dress code doesn’t say anything about how high your hair can be?” Simon said, obviously pleased with himself.  “It’ll grow out by graduation anyway if you don’t like it,” he said. He already assumed we’d do it. “What do you think?

A part of me wanted to say yes. It’d be a way of further cementing our friendship, but I sensed the cut Simon was contemplating wouldn’t suit me. It would have been like wearing the wig my classmate Desmond stuck his long hair under to get around the school’s dress code.

“I dunno.” Another part of me wanted to say “I kind of like the haircut the guys at the table in front of us have.”

They had come in after us. There were three of them, guys in their 20s, all dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts a size too small, two of them sporting a full mustache. The third, with traces of a beard, reminded me a little of the truck driver in the movie ad I had seen.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed their hair if Simon hadn’t suggested we get our hair cut that day.  The three men all had the same cropped hair as if they were members of some secret tribe or fraternity, shorter than what any of us at school wore, except Chuck, whose father was in the military and who’d applied to West Point.

I felt a little disloyal to Simon as I stole glances at them. Usually I couldn’t get enough of looking at Simon, though I could draw his broad proud forehead and high cheekbones from memory and could pick out the color of his brilliant blue-grey eyes from a flipbook at the paint store. I could mimic the way he sometimes tilted his head slightly up and to the right, as if scanning dozens of thoughts swirling in his mind. But I saw Simon every day.

Now that I noticed the guys’ hair I couldn’t stop looking at the heads of the young men who passed by as we dallied over lunch. I kept seeing the same helmet of close-cropped hair reappearing as one might a pale wildflower in a field that once discovered begins to reveal its ubiquity among the shoots of grass.

“What are you looking at?” Simon asked, turning around in his chair.

“Oh, nothing. Just trying to get the waiter’s attention. We need more salsa.”

The barber shop wasn’t an impressive place from outside, just a sign and staircase that led down to a basement shop. I had expected a glass-walled showroom or spacious white cube, like the gallery Simon and I had ventured into on our previous trip and where I had bought the outrageously expensive catalogue—a thin monograph of the Kirchener paintings we had seen—mostly as a souvenir of the day with Simon.

As he had warned, there was in fact a line to get in. It was only a short one, though, just a few people waiting on the stairs, but it lent the barbershop the air of a private club, the kind of place you had to be a member in order to be allowed in, an impression heightened by the other people in line, who looked as if they had already gotten their hair cut.

Simon went first, as I had insisted. I watched him as I waited, talking and laughing with the barber, already a young man of the city who betrayed no trace of the bus journey that had brought him here.

The barber was almost done with Simon by the time the next chair opened up. He was smiling broadly as the barber rubbed a little gel into his bright golden brown hair until it sprang up in a tousle of exclamation points.

“What’ll it be?” the barber asked me.

What will you be?” he could just as well have asked. I wouldn’t have known what to answer. How do you imagine a different life when you have so few clues of how this life might be lived, so few stories?  I could build my boyhood scenes of life in New York with the images I had scavenged from movies and books, however preposterous or anachronistic they eventually proved to be. But I had few pictures for this new and very different kind of life. In the days before a teenager with an Internet connection could browse through a list of gay celebrities and watch ads for Tylenol featuring gay fathers, before there was an Amazon with lists of LGBT youth fiction and town bookstores that stocked them, years before even Will and Grace, the public landscape of a future in which men who loved men lived was barren.

I was beginning, however, to amass a small store of images. I hadn’t necessarily sought them out—how would I have known where to look for them?—and most I had stumbled upon, like the stories of Cocteau and Baldwin or the movie ad. They were objets trouvés for a work in progress I only half suspected I was making but whose final features remained blurred.

At the time I had a shaggy mop of hair that brushed the collar of my shirt, just within the bounds of length prescribed by the school dress code. It was a thick mane that with the right cut and gel could have been almost any haircut I wanted. I just had to ask.

Instead I said, “A little off the top and sides”

As the first curls of hair fell onto my bibbed lap, I glanced at Simon, who looked as if he had just gotten out of bed, but my thoughts quickly wandered to the guy in the red t-shirt on 7th Avenue.

“You can take some more off.”

The barber combed up a segment of hair and clamped his fingers around the strands a couple of inches from the base. “This much?” the barber said.

“A bit more.”


I didn’t emerge quite as transformed as Simon had. I was just a teenager with a nondescript haircut that didn’t fit into any of the fashion niches at school, Simon’s new look included. Still, it was much shorter than what I had worn all through high school.

“You could have gotten that anywhere,” Simon said in a tone of muted disappointment.

“Maybe next time,” I said. Simon was wrong. It was definitely a New York haircut.


Featured image: “High Maintenance” by Devin Smith,  used under CC BY 2.0 .

Gustave Caillebotte, "Jeune home au piano," 1876
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Brothers in Arms

I can’t remember ever being bored as a child in the summer, just as I can’t remember feeling oppressed by the heat or smarting from a bee sting. Perhaps children never really feel bored—though judging from my godson, they do get restless—except at school, that boot camp for boredom where we are obliged to complete tasks that are either too hard or too easy, and only become prone to boredom later in life, when they begin to perceive and name the gap between the more interesting things they could be doing at a particular moment and the unrewarding things they are stuck with doing, or when, more sadly, they cannot imagine an interesting thing they would want to be doing.

It is equally likely, however, that my inability to recall long periods of summer boredom is simply due to the fact that my mother and my Uncle Leonard and my grandfather were so good at occupying me. Someone must have bought the watercolors I painted with, and the books I read and puzzles I put together when it rained. Someone must have arranged the day trips to my cousins’ houses and rented the boat to go crabbing and driven us in the evening down to the amusement park.

Someone—my mother, I remember—bought us laces the summer we discovered braiding. Alex, an older boy down the block, had shown us the keychain he had braided out of colored plastic laces. He didn’t have any keys to attach to the chain, but it didn’t matter. It was beautiful, with its tight ribbed sides of royal blue and lemon yellow, the laces extending beyond the last knot to a fringe of brightly colored lashes.

My mother drove us the next morning to the local Woolworths to buy a kit of laces for our own chains. I think she was happy to oblige us, as parents today might be to download a gaming app for a tablet. It was a cheap solution for keeping us occupied, with the added advantage that, unlike an iPad, it was something we could do separately, and this reduced the occasions for a fight.

Summer was the high point of our fighting. We had fewer occasions to do so in the city, where our days at school and separate circle of friends tugged us apart. Here in the country, however, with mostly common friends and endless time, we found ourselves in each other’s company more than either of us wanted.

My mother said that Charlie and I fought like cats and dogs, and in a way she was right. We tangled with each other as if we were of different species, fiercely and unremittingly. Our bickering was unredeemed by those moments of affection that mark other brothers, whose fights, like their fierce loyalty, are just another expression of the intensity of their bond, rivalry colored by love.

Competition there was, of course. I envied his skill at sports, though he was always a middling athlete, and his outgoingness, too, the way he joked with adults and how they warmed to his daringness. Perhaps he resented the achievements at school I had left for him to contend with. Ah, you’re Stephen’s brother, the teachers would say, expecting from him a level of performance he would always fall short of.

Since we refused to compete, we each carved for ourselves an identity that admitted no common interest, ability or taste. He liked cream soda; I wanted root beer. Charlie played baseball; I rode my bike. His favorite summer game was Parchesi, mine Scrabble. Sugar Pops, Raisin Bran. Getting into trouble, staying out of trouble. Trombone, flute, how could we ever play a duet? Whether by nature or, more likely, by will, we were, as my grandmother used to say, “contrary”. Even my family seemed to take the cue of our opposition as Charlie became Leonard’s favorite nephew, and I the beneficiary of my grandmother’s favors.

It was more than competition, though. Though we must have shared good times together as children, I can’t remember ever liking Charlie. I know that my memories of my middle brother are refracted by the events that led many years later to our final estrangement. When I think back to our childhood I see him merely as the first incarnation of the ungenerous and disloyal man he grew to become. The interpretative errors introduced by memory, however, are only part of the answer to our enmity. He was a mean boy, as my youngest brother Daniel, who suffered Charlie’s taunts and sadism more than I did, confirms.

I was rarely physically punished as a child, and when it was, it was always because of a fight with Charlie. The threat, however, was always there. It took the form of a burnished brown leather strap, the bottom third of which had been cut into strips like fat linguine. A hole had been punched at the top of the strap so that it could be hung on a peg on the kitchen wall of our house in the city next to the Knights of Columbus calendar for the year, a perverse amulet that warded off not the evil eye but the discord of bickering young boys. There was one at the summer house, too, though it could have been the same one, packed in a box along with the bathing suits and beach sandals and pajamas, and loaded into the car in preparation for our summer sojourn.

The slap of the lashes stung my calves for a minute or so, perhaps a little more in the summer when we were always in shorts. I wasn’t afraid of the pain. I knew my mother—and it was almost always my mother, as my father rarely punished us, not out of greater leniency but because of his discomfort with confrontation—never wielded the strap with force nor persisted beyond a few lashes, and then only on our legs or buttocks. Still I feared the strap, if only for the souring of my mother’s mood which would linger long after the blush of pink stripes on my legs had vanished and which made her inaccessible.

My grandfather had made the strap. He fashioned it with the same attention to detail and devotion to craftsmanship as he made a stage for our finger puppets, the way he fixed the flat tires on our bikes and hunted down the inner tubes we played with in the sea. I wonder if he thought, as he carefully cut the leather into strands of perfectly equal width, of how our flesh would smart as the strips whacked against the soft flesh of our calves, the same flesh he would rub calamine lotion in to soothe the burn of the poison sumac we had trampled through in the woods.

It was an odd object for such a gentle man to fashion. I never heard him raise his voice to his wife, and never heard him curse or swear. He seemed forever to be in a good mood, which I now find startling considering the chronic pain he must have suffered because of his bad leg and shorn hip. How could a man like that have made a strap? Perhaps for him and the world of neat order he laid such stock in, discipline was just another part of cultivating growth, and he approached it as methodically as he pruned and trained the tomato plants he raised at the side of the garage.

Contrary to my mother’s expectations, the laces occasioned yet another fight, its cause inconsequential like all the others and unremembered. Charlie may have teased me about my clumsy braiding or started whipping the laces across my arm. Whatever instigated the fight, it must have lasted a while and was loud enough to bring my mother out of the house to the patio under the oak trees, strap in hand. I could hear the clacking of her flip-flops as she approached.

In a rare if not unprecedented show of solidarity, Charlie and I, instead of standing still to take our punishment, ran several yards away to the garage at the top of the driveway. We were laughing as she came after us. For a moment, perhaps the only one, we were brothers in arms.

I lost track of Charlie as I ran down the incline of the driveway. I heard my mother utter a scream and for a moment there was nothing to hear. Then I heard her crying. I looked back and saw her, collapsed on the grass median of the driveway.

I stood there at the side of the road, edging slightly away from the property as I watched my grandfather hobble out of the garage with his cane toward my mother, who still lay on the ground sobbing. I wanted to run away, less ashamed than terrified that I was the cause of this. How could I, a boy of eleven, bring her to this?

I would have welcomed the punishment now as I stood in the street, not knowing where I could run to or if I should. The strap would have felt ordinary. I knew what to expect, how it would feel, what would come after. My mother’s collapse, on the other hand, was something new and frightening.  She seemed fragile and foreign, my mother and not my mother at the same, a woman like the one I had seen the lifeguards pull out of the ocean the week before, who had been knocked under by the waves and lay in the sputtering surf a few yards from where I was fashioning a moat for my sandcastle on the beach.

I hated Charlie for drawing me into this, but I knew I was at fault, the older brother who ought to have known better, the soldier of Christ who has supposed to turn the other cheek. Instead, I became a co-conspirator.

The closest I came to Charlie was the day we brought our mother to her knees and to the tears I had never seen her shed.


Featured image: Gustave Caillebotte, Martial Caillebotte Playing the Piano, c. 1876.

I collect images of famous brothers—this is one of them—nothing as grand as an actual painting, though if I had the money I might buy one. They are just reproductions I pin to a Pinterest board, and when I do, it is always Daniel I think of.

The Caillebottes, Gustave the artist and his brother Martial, the photographer and composer. The Goncourts brothers, who wrote novels together and chronicled the art scene and literary society of 19th century Paris in their marvelous journals and who never spent a day of their adult lives apart (they are buried together in the same grave in the Montmartre cemetery). The twin Bruckmans brothers, artists both, Lodewijk Karel and Karel Lodewijk.

The gallery is a way of remembering and forgetting. The intimacy of these portraits is a testament of the love I have for Daniel, and the love I wish had existed between Charlie and me.

screenshot of Kyriaki Goni’s work, “Deletion process_Only you can see my history”.
Art, Music, Books & Film

Desk Set

Desk Set is a frothy romantic comedy, watchable not only for the delightful repartee and chemistry between its stars, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, but also for its endearing naïveté regarding the advent of the computer. Filmed in 1957, it is also one of the first movies to feature a search engine.

Hepburn plays the role of Bunny Watson, the head of the reference library for a broadcasting network, whose job and those of her three librarians are threatened by the installation in their office of an “electronic brain”. The computer, called EMERAC (a not so veiled reference to the world’s first general-purpose computer ENIAC), has been designed by an efficiency expert (Richard Sumner, played by Tracy) to relieve the staff of the drudge tasks of responding to the thousands of questions—we would call them queries today, I suppose—that they field as part of their job. The film is peppered with them, from the banal to the esoteric: What songs are sung on Thanksgiving? Who holds the record for highest lifetime batting average? Does the king of the Watusis drive a car? What is the annual damage done by the spruce budworm?

Viewing the film at a time in which we longer look up things but google them, we can only smile when Sumner reassures the librarians that machines will never be able to handle the more complex tasks of intelligence because, as he maintains, there are “too many cross-references.” Or not think of Siri’s or Google’s fuzzy logic and natural-language search capabilities when in response to a query about the geography of Corfu typed, or rather punch-carded, as ‘curfew’, the computer spews out the verses to a relatively obscure but once popular Victorian poem about the ringing of a curfew bell in Cromwell’s England. “Do you mean Corfu? Showing results for curfew,” we half-expect the machine to print out.

The New York Times’ film critic at the time, Bosley Crowther, complained that the human-machine conflict threw the film “out of dramatic kilter.” “It simply does not seem very ominous when they threaten to put a mechanical brain in a broadcasting company’s reference library, over which the efficient Miss Hepburn holds sway.” Ahem.

Indeed, the “brain” in Desk Set is not much of a threat, at least not an ominous one. The film pokes fun at the single-mindlessness of the machine and its utter dependence on the quality of input it receives and the code it runs (at one point its sibling in Payroll issues the entire staff dismissal slips). This was, after all, a time when the notion of a machine capable of learning was merely a trope of science fiction for most viewers, as was the concept of a search engine that had at its disposable an indexed reservoir of tens of billions of pages of information and 20 million digitized books.

Bunny is indeed a dauntingly bright and witty woman, with a store of knowledge in her head—including the verses to the aforementioned poem—that makes the reference library, which is smaller than her fabulous, fireplace-equipped Upper East Side apartment, superfluous. (Apparently reference librarians in the 1950s made more money than they do now). At times she eerily foreshadows our googling self. Before meeting Sumner for a first lunch date, she manages to dig up information on his academic record, army service, marital status and employment history. “But I only had half an hour,” she says when Sumner compliments her for the thoroughness of her background check.

Tracy, Hepburn and EMERAC

Spencer Tracy, Neva Patterson, Katherine Hepburn and EMERAC

The queries lodged in Desk Set are anonymous. The callers never seem to leave their name, but there’s no reason why they wouldn’t, other than haste; their questions are harmless. We, on the other hand, leave traces of our identity every time we go online, forever shedding our digital DNA, as Witch Hazel left behind a few hairpins from her scraggly hair every time she dashed off the scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In our tweets and updates, our music playlists and tumblr blogs and Instagram posts, our traces are deliberate and our presence online, curated.  (Who among us doesn’t think beforehand, if only for a few seconds, of the impact a photo or status update will have on our friends and followers, or check the likes and retweets and reblogs it has garnered once we post it?)

Search terms are different, however. Our queries for how-to’s and why’s, like our search for porn or help, are made with an audience of one in mind and entered in the belief of anonymity, as if we were transported from our screens to the darkened privacy of a confessional booth, whose thickly latticed screen hides our visage from the faceless intermediary of an even more unknowable God.

Though we are not seeking remission of sins but knowledge, we are as vulnerable and exposed as we might be in the confessional. Alone in front of our screen, we declare our passions and anxieties, raw and unedited, and reach out for guidance and reassurance. There, interspersed with our queries for pickling recipes and plot synopses, stand our fetishes and unexplained rashes, conveyed in a stream of binary bits to the unpolluted sanctum of a distant data center, a heaven with no music save for the hum of the massive cooling systems. Few realize that their frailties and desires are being silently archived. Not only the sites we have visited—we all know we’re being tracked, though perhaps not to the extent we imagine (CNN, for example, has at least a dozen trackers that spring into action when we land on its home page)—but also the search terms themselves are being recorded.

Google tells me I have a history of 44,000 or so searches, which, it assures me, only I am entitled to view. That makes for a lot of questions.

I wonder if I had fewer to ask before Google?  Or have I become more inquisitive simply because it is easier to find answers now?  Has the access to such answers, however ambiguous or contested they may be, made me less patient with not knowing and increasingly unable to tolerate delayed clarification?

Granted, many of these search terms have to do with work and most are of interest to no one, not even myself any longer, except perhaps as a curious record of the projects I have worked on or the topics that have snagged my curiosity while writing.  Others, however, furnish clues to a more private identity, the terms that witness a short-lived enthusiasm (“gay Asian comedians”) or long-standing obsession (“nutritional data for bogue”), the pointers to injury (“infraspinatus”) or travel destinations.  And then there are those that reveal an inner fold of identity I have shared with very few people.

A study of these terms will not disclose everything about me. The imaginary biographer rummaging through this archive will know nothing of the extent of my generosity or openness, nothing of my capacity to love or forgive. She will not be able to determine if I have been a caring partner, though she may suspect when I have been an unfaithful one. But mining these data could reveal whether I am compulsive or frivolous, or prone to addiction or forgetfulness. It could tell whether I’m credulous or skeptical. The investigator could pick up clues not only of my interests and taste but also of aspects of character more difficult to quantify. She would note my particular anxieties and minor obsessions and in the end discover one or two things I have told no one else.

I have not yet deleted my search history, though it’s easy enough to do. Perhaps I would if I knew the archive would be published for pubic viewing. I tell myself I keep it because I may want to work with this archive at some point, but I know that my reluctance to erase it derives from the same aversion I have to throwing away old t-shirts and running shoes that have long outlived their usefulness, or deleting the notes for a post I know I will never write. It’s a piece of me.

Kyriaki Goni, a visual artist recently featured in at the 2015 Athens Digital Arts Festival, has done both in her work “Deletion process_Only you can see my history”.  Goni downloaded from Google the 10,650 terms in her eight-year search history, which she then mapped to a grid of an equal number of white squares, each representing a query. An algorithm selects a random cell, revealing the term on a large screen; at the same time it accesses Google and then deletes the term. The act of deletion trips the white of the particular cell to black, simultaneously triggering the printing of the search term on a scroll of paper. The user can click on the any of the remaining white squares to view a term. Eventually, when all the terms have been deleted, the entire grid will be a void of black space, and only the scroll of queries will remain of this curious archive of self.

As in my search history, most of the terms are quite ordinary, nouns that would have figured in questions that landed on Bunny’s reference desk (or her Greek equivalent): artist bios, Foucault, movie titles and tax deadlines. But others, like manicure shops and second-hand clothing stores are private, and a few, like herpes, startingly so.

Alone in the exhibition room, I watched transfixed as one search term after another flashed on the screen for a few seconds, blackening the cell and prompting the printer to add another line to the tangible record of her questions in an act of self-revelation and self-eradication at once intimate and disturbing.

I’m not yet ready to delete my search history. How could I discard it? It is a bit like a portrait painted by an artist with a merciless eye to my flaws and fallibilities but unmistakably me. Its uncensored litany of entreaties and questions does not yield a pretty picture but not a terribly ugly one either, and arguably no more a faithful presentation of my identity than the self I curate on social media, which is just me viewed from a different angle and illuminated by a different light. But only the vain would discard an unflattering photograph.


Featured image: screenshot (cropped) of Kyriaki Goni’s work, “Deletion process_Only you can see my history”.  There’s also a video of the work in situ.

For those who have not yet discovered their search history, it’s available here: https://www.google.com/searchhistory/

Readers interested in the widgets that track their online presence (and eager to block them) could investigate the Ghostery application. WordPress, you will be relieved to discover, has only five, and none is an ad tracker.


The City

Inside, Outside and Right Next Door

The arcade was never one of those elegant passageways of fashion and luxury goods that come to mind when thinking of the passages couverts of Paris or Milan. Instead of calfskin gloves, antique maps and elaborate, feathered hats, the shops in this stoa, the few that were still in business, purveyed less glamorous wares: university textbooks and discount shoes, a camera shop that advertised passport and ID photo services. Dark and unwelcoming, it was more a tunnel than a shopping arcade, covered not by a roof of glass but the slabs of concrete of the floor above.

The eight stories of the building were given over to the offices of commerce and to the professions that served them—import-export companies, lawyers, accountants and notaries public, whose tarnished gold-plated nameplates I could see on a wall by the bank of elevators in the building’s modest lobby, all uniformly set in the tall, thin, sans-serif font popular in the 50s and 60s. The largest nameplate belonged to “The Chamber of Tradesmen.”

The passageway described an L through the ground floor, leading from the broad avenue that runs from the Parliament to a busy if now downtrodden commercial square, and on to a side street bearing the name of a former Prime Minister. On the sidewalk a few meters from the entrance was a kiosk with the day’s newspapers hung with clothespins on a rope that drew a few passersby to scan their doom-ridden headlines of impending state bankruptcy.

The north corner of the arcade facing the avenue was given over to an upscale donut shop or loukoumadiko. Traditionally these are among the most humble of shops, often no more than a hole in the wall with just enough room for a counter and a large stove with vats of hot oil in which plum-sized balls of yeast dough are fried, drenched in honey, and dusted with cinnamon.

This shop, however, had been gussied up, with places to sit and a menu expanded to accommodate espresso, beignets and churros. The pair of handsome young servers, dressed in green polo shorts and a brick-orange bandanna worn in the way farm women might have wrapped their hair, were prepping for the midday crowd, scrupulously wiping and re-wiping the countertops. One of them was singing a Greek song above the English pop music that bellowed from the shop’s speakers.

It was a sleek and hyper-modern concept shop, like an industrial design souvlaki shop or trendy ouzo bar, in which tradition had been packaged in design and prices correspondingly raised.  “A shop you could find in London,” one could say in an air of sad praise, as if the measure of success were the degree of approximation to the enterprises of the North. Still, I admired the young entrepreneur, whom I saw on my way out of the exhibition and who in the face of the recession and the utter evaporation of financing had open this shop. I liked his disruptive mashup of European street food, those holy cows of cultural identity that so mark the countenance of a city. I imagined he paid his staff the troika-mandated new minimum monthly wage, several hundred Euros less than what it had been before the crisis, and I was certain he also provided the social security contributions that legalized their labor.  All in all, the loukoumadiko made for an unlikely and misleading portico to the row of dull and dimly lit shops further into the arcade.

The exhibition I had come to see in the arcade, entitled “Anna Wanderer”, is part of a project conceived by the School of Fine Arts called “Inside/Outside” that plays with the notions of private and public space. It was housed in one of the pair of booths flanking the elevator bay. They were a later prosthesis to the building, tiny cabins clad in wood, with a sloping façade vaguely reminiscent of the Scandinavian design that was a sign of sophistication in Greek movies of the 60s, along with whiskey and nightclubs. Each could hold one but not two clerks. Not a shop really, despite what I had read in the reviews, but the domain of a concierge or the workshop of a watch repairer.

The artist, Persephone Nikolakopoulou, had covered the walls of the booth with inexpertly taped wrapping paper depicting a turquoise sky with fluffy white clouds. A trap door was set in the ceiling, from which one could see a hand emerging and part of a wing, and another hatch lay in the floor. There was a bench which served as a bed, on which a brightly colored coverlet and a Tupperware of cookies sat, and a counter with a plastic cup holding remains of a frappe, that quintessentially Greek beverage of frothy shaken instant coffee. Each evening she would return to the booth to deposit mementoes of her explorations in the city. But I had come too soon, I realized, only a day after the opening. There were no stories here yet.

I thought of what I bring back to my apartment after my wanderings in the city. Concert tickets, exhibition brochures, a potted bougainvillea for the terrace picked up from the farmers’ market. Receipts of course, required by the Tax Office to claim a deduction, a government measure to crack down on the black market economy. I have shoeboxes filled with them, collected from cafés and taxis and dry-cleaners and a host of other shops and services. I have no doubt that the loukoumas shop issues them as well and as a matter of course. Not all shopkeepers do, even now, but all will comply when asked, some even offering a feigned apology and excuse that neither seller nor buyer believes.

Few of the receipts now give any hint of the occasion for their collection. They are merely the inevitable and unremarkable debris one accumulates throughout a day in the city, like the dust that settles on one’s shoulders or gathers in the soles of one’s shoes, far less interesting yet just as incommunicable a collectible as the scraps of conversation we remember having with a stranger on the tram or the recollection of a flirt.

When I returned the following week, I saw that “Anna” had strung a line on which she had affixed amorphous figurines made of modeling clay and hung a few sheets of newspapers. The plastic cup of coffee was gone, and its place lay a pair of bloodstained gloves. Someone had left slipped her a note under the door to her booth.

The crime lair seemed a bit forced, and whatever personal meaning her wanderings in the city had for her remained unreadable in the figurines and documents of crime she brought back. Of course, murders and knife-fights mark the city’s physiognomy much as its pocket parks and art galleries do, as Walter Benjamin reminds us.

In his endlessly fascinating and unfinished work The  Arcades Project, Benjamin mentioned various means one could use to construct a city topographically. In place of the markets and churches that once anchored the city in the minds of its inhabitants, one could map a city by its fountains, say, or its arcades, cemeteries and bordellos, and, at least for cities such as Paris and London and Berlin, its railroad stations, too.  Alternatively, or as yet another layer superimposed on the other more mundane mappings, one could turn to “the more deeply embedded figures of the city: murders and rebellions, the bloody knots in the network of streets, lairs of love, and conflagrations.”*

Anna could have started more modestly before wandering into the “bloody knots” of the city streets.  She could have climbed up through her hatch to the empty offices above, abandoned in the wake of crisis but still bearing the marks of their former enterprise, the gouges in the floor where once heavy metal desks stood, the floor plugs standing like sentinels in a forgotten outpost. I wondered what interesting) evidence of her wanderings could she bring to her booth from the offices still occupied, with their cabinets of lawsuits filed by squabbling heirs, embittered spouses and bankrupt tradesmen?

Or she could have begun with a shop.

While writing this I stumbled upon a passage from G. K. Chesterton’s critical study of Charles Dickens, in which he reminds us how often shops triggered the writer’s imagination.

There seems no reason in particular, at the first and most literal glance, why the story should be called after the Old Curiosity Shop. Only two of the characters have anything to do with such a shop, and they leave it forever in the first few pages… But when we feel the situation with more fidelity we realise that this title is something in the nature of a key to the whole Dickens romance. His tales always started from some splendid hint in the streets. And shops, perhaps the most poetical of all things, often set off his fancy galloping. Every shop, in fact, was to him the door of romance. Among all the huge serial schemes of which we have spoken, it is a matter of wonder that he never started an endless periodical called “The Street,” and divided it into shops. He could have written an exquisite romance called “The Baker’s Shop”; another called “The Chemist’s Shop”; another called “The Oil Shop,” to keep company with “The Old Curiosity Shop.”

Granted, if the artist had wanted to tell a story, she would have written one. Instead she created this installation. Still, I wonder why there is no box of half-eaten donuts in her booth.


Featured image: Photo of the booth by Persephone Nikolakopoulou. The project Inside/Outside (Entos/Ektos), which hosted the artist’s installation (others are to follow), is an initiative by the School of Fine Arts’ Unit for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The address is Panepistimiou 44, the curator Haris Kanellopoulou. Check out the donuts.

* The Benjamin quote is from Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin’s translation of The Arcades Project published by the Belknap Press (p. 83), which also alerted me to Chesterton’s book.