The Zen of Twee
From the New York Magazine article The Twee Party:
One afternoon last June, the quaint silhouette of a three-masted sailboat made its way into New York Harbor and pulled up at the Red Hook Marine Terminal. The Black Seal, a 70-foot-long schooner, had just completed a 3,000-mile wind-powered round trip to the Dominican Republic. There, it had taken on twenty metric tons of cocoa beans, mostly from La Red de Guaconejo organic-cacao cooperative, whose beans are said to yield chocolate with notes of “sweet pipe tobacco” and “Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Last December, Joe, our Mennonite artist-carpenter on the Montauk Catamaran Project left work early on Friday and to the train into the city to attend a friend’s Christmas party in the city. Joe grew up in the Midwest, graduated from high school in Arizona, and then back to the Midwest for Mennonite college( he worked construction during the his summers), followed a girl to D.C. (where he worked at the Phillips Collection) and then that same girl (working at Media Matters) passed along my first Help Wanted post here on the League.
When he got back to the shop on Monday he need to “debrief” a little bit on his experience of being introduced to New Yorkers as “This is Joe, he’s building a sailing yacht in the Hamptons.”
The gist of disconnect that Joe was feeling was that people were very impressed with the idea of his building boat in the Hamptons; he could tell by their affect that they were impressed, and that his endeavor accorded him a measure of status that he would not have been afforded if he had been introduced as “Joe, he works construction in Arizona.” (And not mere “construction”; I hired Joe because he was a finish carpenter for one of Arizona’s top builders of high-end homes, including (ironically?) a preposterously lavish house for Robert Kiyosaki, author the lots-of-reasons-to-hate-it Rich Dad, Poor Dad.)
And more than that, Joe offered, “Building a boat is about the most ordinary thing a person can do. All around the world, waterside peasants are building boats and plying their local waters, fishing trading, transporting. There’s really nothing precious or elevated about boat building,” the social awareness of Joe’s peace, justice and conflict resolution training at Mennonite college was rankled by the mishmash of social signals and the reality of the very ordinary, often mundane work we were doing.
In fact, Joe very nearly spent his Winter, not in Bridgehampton and Montauk, but in Brooklyn, where he would have been deeply embedded in this mishmash.
My wife was born and raised in Flatbush, in the bad old days, when it seemed perfectly normal (but terrifying) to run home from the subway stop, down the middle of the street so that the space between parked cars was a less effective vantage for ambush, keys in hand (as a weapon if need be, and for the shortest possible delay at the doorway), with dog shit and crack vials squishing and breaking under her feet as she ran.
The house she grew up in, a formerly boarded up and abandoned Victorian, purchased in the 70s for taxes and rehabilitated by the dragooned labor of her older sibling is still in the family, and we reasoned that if we could not find a sufficient workspace on the East End, surely we could find a shop in Red Hook, and I’d spend the Winter living in Flatbush and help keep an eye on my recently widowed mother-in-law.
I didn’t relish the idea of being away from my wife and girls for most of the Winter, but the availability of building space, the access to an over-educated, under-employed workforce that is embedded in a community that encourages them to choose leisure and prestige over income, and the notoriety that would surely accompany launching a 40 foot, schooner-rigged, Polynesian style catamaran into the Gawanus canal seemed to justify the sacrifice. Back to the New York Magazine article:
This is not the Brooklyn on your map but a notional place consisting mainly of the western “creative crescent” that arcs from Greenpoint south to Gowanus and runs on freelance design work and single-origin, crop-to-cup pour-over coffee. It’s the Brooklyn where bodegas stock Fentimans “botanically brewed” Dandelion & Burdock soda and where the Dumbo headquarters of crafting juggernaut Etsy has air ducts literally, no joke, swaddled in crocheted cozies. It’s not the Brooklyn of Brownsville, East Flatbush, Ocean Park, Canarsie. By Brooklyn owner Gaia DiLoreto, a 37-year-old former IT worker, is black and wants to be “a role model to young black women,” she tells me. She had one intern from East New York who “knew nothing about artisanal food. An $8 candy bar was insane to her.”
Fortunately for DiLoreto, there’s a robust audience for whom that candy bar is the very apex of civilization. Area code 718 romantics love to see their hometown’s name every time they pull something out of the fridge, to pretend a borough of 2.5 million people is a small English village, to partake of a Shop Class As Soulcraft authenticity that’s missing in their Twitter-addled, cubicle-drone lives, and to reassure themselves that Brooklyn is more “real” than Manhattan and not just an annex with shorter buildings. Sightseers from 212 are equally avid buyers: salving their one percent class angst, signaling their membership in the elite tribe of ethical aesthetes, shoring up their idea of Brooklyn as that exotic but taxi-accessible place where all the kooky artists and kids live and create stuff for the adults in Manhattan who actually make the world go around. And then there are the tourists who compose half of DiLoreto’s business. “Everyone loves Brooklyn,” she says. “That’s the place everyone wants to be, to have a part of, to be a part of. I want to do everything I can to leverage that.”
Leverage Brooklyn we have not.
I did spent two days in October with one of my brothers-in-law, driving around Red Hook, looking at properties, and taking photos and notes. We even stopped for lunch in the Red Hook Fairway, enjoying the view, remembering his sister who in her last years enjoyed many a Fairway sandwich while looking out over Lower New York Harbor, and marveling at how the neighborhood had changed. (My wife and I were looking at studio space in Digital Harbor back in 1998, and Randy, born in Brooklyn in 1949 has memories that go back to the Dodgers and beyond.
But a few days later I got a lead on a space in Bridgehampton, at the very edge of what I had staked as my commuting limit. (Prior to the 35 minute to and from, my longest commute had been from our apartment on 46th near Ninth to our office on 26th near Seventh.)
Shop Class as Soul Craft came out when I was in the midst of my reinvention/rediscovery of myself over at the (now sadly quiet) American Scene. As it happens, my father sent me a copy for my birthday, but I didn’t read it until it simply became too embarrassing to keep telling Scenester and twitter-friend Matt Feeney, “No, not yet. But I will I will.”
I liked Shop Class in pieces, lots and lots of passages that left me saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” But in whole I couldn’t quite connect to it, and best explanation that I can give for why relates to one of my chief concerns or unanswered questions as I embarked on my new career as a charterboat captain.
I have been, for all of my adult life, a professionally creative person, and have enjoyed the prestige that comes from that as part of the mix of tangible and intangible, fungible and infungible rewards of my career. In short, I have taking pride and pleasure both from answering the question, “So what do you do?” with “I’m a filmmaker”, and knowing that that’s not “filmmaker-slash-whatever”.
Because of the pleasure that I take in that prestige, I was afraid that running a boat for hire would make me feel like chauffeur, that I’d feel like a servant instead of a master, no matter that it says “Master” on my US Coast Guard license. I was born in Mahattan and raised in La Jolla. I have airs. I have pretensions.
My wife on the other hand, hated Shop Class. Forged by her childhood in Brooklyn and honed by her six years of commuting to Hunter College High School, Shop Class pinged all of her class-awareness. She tolerates my strutting and posturing, but just barely. In others she has no patience for it at all. Her in-bed, out-loud reading to me was accompanied by scathing commentary.
Joe’s leaving the shop next month to begin begin an artist in residency in Alexandria, VA. Looked at uncharitably Joe will be on display like a zoo animal, while the well-healed walk through a space that he’ll share with several other artists. It is, of course, a huge opportunity for him. Joe’s work, large scale, hyper-detailed pen and ink drawings translate terribly to the web. They have to be seen in person to be appreciated.
Then next Fall, like Will Wilkinson, Joe will be begin an MFA program. Several years of trying to get his work into galleries without the proper credentials have convinced him it’s a necessary step if he’s to have any hope of a career as an exhibiting artist.
Above: The author, playing at being an artisan
Below: A short film about boat building and fishing on Lake Victoria, shot and narrated by the author