The Daily

First Person

Letter from West Virginia

May 17, 2016 | by

GregNull_OldBlue

“A newspaper for people who can’t read, edited by an editor who can’t write”

Jim Comstock (1911–96) was the iconoclastic editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly, a “weakly” paper based in Richwood, a former logging boomtown in Nicholas County fallen on hard times. I spent the first years of my life over the mountain from Richwood, where Jim’s stunts were much discussed. The Hillbilly wasn’t just a paper—it was an art project, a platform for historic preservation, a conservative wailing wall, and, above all, an exploration of the West Virginian id. Once, in early spring, Jim famously added “ramp oil” to the ink at the printing press, a tribute to Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson, which celebrates the wild leeks that sprout in the mountains after a hard winter. They give off a terrible stench. Warehouses full of mailmen were made to gag. To his delight, Jim received a stern rebuke from the postmaster general. “Now we’re the only newspaper under orders from the federal government not to smell bad,” Jim told the Associated Press. “That’s an awful thing to do to a striving newspaper.” Read More »

Cleaning Up New York

May 10, 2016 | by

Cleaning is a two-way street. There is you (the cleaner) and there is the street …

Vintage Hoover advertisement.

A vintage Hoover advertisement.

I cleaned for Sylvia Smith two or three times last year. She lived on East End Avenue in a studio apartment that was falling apart from being recently built. She edited a trade magazine. She would only have me every so often when things got really out of hand. Her kitchen included defrosting the refrigerator and cleaning the oven each time. First I had to get the dishes out of the way. She used cheap tin silverware that was once painted gold but the paint had chipped away enough to leave it mottled tin. The advantage of this silverware was that she had enough pieces to supply a munitions factory and could eat for weeks without needing to wash a spoon. Although the apartment was always very dirty, Sylvia always wanted a fastidious job from me. This is really impossible to do the first time around on a dirty apartment.

It would take at least two cleanings to really bring every surface to clean clean status. Sylvia would always detain me at the end of my day with short imperatives like, “Clean this shelf please.” “I think you missed something here.” I performed my duty by being patient and thankfully escaped after much courteous bowing. Sylvia was a person with a need for sleeping pills. Next to her bed was a prescription bottle, which I sampled. Read More »

Babies in Art

May 5, 2016 | by

Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1635), by Carlo Dulci

Carlo Dulci, Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, 1635.

Babies in art mostly look nothing like babies in life. This is especially true of the baby Jesus, but also of babies more broadly, and this is true even, and maybe most noticeably, in paintings and sculptures that are, apart from the oddly depicted babies, realistic. Often babies are depicted with the proportions of small adults: their limbs are relatively longer than baby limbs, and their heads are not as relatively large as baby heads; in real life, babies have heads so large and arms so short that they can’t reach their arms beyond their heads. But one almost never sees this in a museum. I am told, also, that a major problem through the centuries for artists depicting the baby Jesus has been the question of what to do about the Lord’s penis. Read More »

My First Visit to an Editorial Office

April 28, 2016 | by

Teffi.

Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, born in Saint Petersburg in 1872, used Teffi as her nom de plume. (“It sounds like something you’d call a dog,” she wrote, explaining that she wanted “a name that was incomprehensible, neither one thing nor the other … best of all would be the name of some fool.”) In prerevolutionary Russia, she was renowned for her satire. To celebrate two new editions of her work, here’s a 1929 piece in which she remembers her “first steps as an author.” —Dan Piepenbring

My first steps as an author were terrifying. I had never, in any case, intended to become a writer, even though everyone in our family had written poetry from childhood on. For some reason this activity seemed horribly shameful, and should any of us find a brother or sister with a pencil, a notebook, and an inspired expression, we would immediately shout out, “You’re writing! You’re writing!”

The guilty party would begin to make excuses and the accusers would hop around, jeering, “You’re writing! You’re writing!”

The only one of us above suspicion was our eldest brother, a creature suffused with sombre irony. But one day, when he was back at the lycée after the summer holidays, we found scraps of paper in his room covered in poetic exclamations, and one line repeated over and over again:

“Oh Mirra, Mirra, palest moon!”

Alas! He, too, was writing poetry. Read More »

Tennis with Mr. Nice

April 13, 2016 | by

My week with the late Howard Marks, drug smuggler and author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In June 1995, on a magazine assignment that never came to fruition, I flew to Palma, Majorca, to spend a week with Howard Marks. He was just out of prison then, having served seven of a twenty-five year sentence on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations charges at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Howard’s backstory was well known in the UK, but less so in the U.S., despite a Frontline documentary on his worldwide marijuana smuggling. As a young working-class Welsh philosophy student at Oxford, Howard had started out as a small-time dealer and, in his smart, amiable way, worked his way up the ladder to become a bona-fide drug kingpin, a Robin Hood to stoners across the British Isles. “Mr. Nice,” as one of his aliases had it, dealt only in soft drugs; today he might be an upstanding citizen of Washington or Colorado. To the everlasting chagrin of the British police, he beat the rap once at the Old Bailey—he’d been caught moving fifteen tons of dope from a fishing trawler off the Irish coast onto dry land—by offering the unimpeachable defense that he’d been working for MI6 at the time. He was not a drug smuggler, he said, but a narc. Read More »

Shakespeare in the Park

April 6, 2016 | by

Meryl Streep and John Cazale in a poster for Measure for Measure.

Thirty-nine years ago last July (that’s thirty-nine steps on your Fitbit), I arrived in New York City from London to spend a postgraduate semester at Columbia. On the first morning, I went into Tom’s Restaurant (later the Seinfeld place) on 112th and Broadway and was immediately overwhelmed by the multiple-choice menu. London, in those days, was not a place of gastronomic variety for breakfast. A waitress of generous proportion came over to my table, “Whaddya want?” she asked. I was speechless, then mumbly, then speechless gain. The waitress waited patiently then said, “Talk to me baby, I’ll listen to you.” This is how I began my American education. Read More »