Barefoot Astroturf Situation: June in New York


Culture Diaries

The Drift launch party on the rooftop at the Public Hotel. Photograph by Meredith Huelbig.

June 10

I wake up to three missed calls and matching voice mails from a blocked number that turns out to be FedEx Express Heavyweight informing me that since I was not around to receive my thousand-pound skid, it’s on its way to JFK. The delivery in question is Issue Seven of The Drift, the magazine I cofounded and co-run, and it was supposed to arrive next Monday or Tuesday in time for our launch party Thursday at the Public Hotel. Evidently it’s early … and sleeping in was a potentially multithousand-dollar mistake.

Kicking myself for how late I stayed out last night—there was a party at Russian Samovar for Joshua Cohen, whose novel The Netanyahus won this year’s Pulitzer in fiction—I dial FedEx and shoot an email to our printer. I got through most of The Netanyahus in a single sitting last summer, before I’d met its author. It’s mostly a satire based on an anecdote told to Cohen by the late literary critic Harold Bloom, but it’s also pointedly presentist, a self-conscious parable for liberalism in the Trump years. Early on it draws a dichotomy between history and theology that I’ve been mulling over since I encountered it.

While I’m on hold with FedEx I receive an email asking me to write a culture diary for this website, and I decide to start right away—no cherry-picking. Not that what I’m doing now is particularly “cultural”: I’m telling the automated system I’d like to “speak to a representative … speak to a representative,” getting transferred to incorrect extensions, hanging up, and dialing the line again. I haven’t even gotten out of bed. 

Finally our printer manages to get in touch with their FedEx rep, and we’re told the issues have been successfully rerouted to my coeditor, Kiara, and will arrive at her apartment in fifteen minutes. I pull on some shorts and do my best approximation of a sprint. When the truck materializes, we watch the driver unload the skid and build a makeshift plywood ramp to wheel it up to the sidewalk. With the help of our new editorial assistant, Jordan, we cart all forty-something boxes up Kiara’s stairs. It is more exercise than I’ve had in months. I reward myself with an iced coffee and walk home in a daze.

My plans for the day derailed, I deal with the most urgent items in my inbox, and by then it’s already five and I have to shower and head over to Helena Anrather gallery, where the curator and Drift contributor Simon Wu has put together a group show. 

By the time I make it there, late, the friends I’m meeting are done looking at the art and have located the tub of complimentary Pabst Blue Ribbons in the back. I walk through the main room on my own. The show, “Victoriassecret,” is woven together with a text Simon has written about his family’s immigration from Myanmar when he was a baby, the experience of moving back in with his parents during the pandemic, and what he calls “the emotional landscape of class aspirationalism.” I read a picture book Simon has written about his family history and watch one of the artists pose for a photo next to her sculpture of a Korean Jindo dog, which people keep whispering weighs two hundred pounds. It’s sitting on what looks like a cardboard box. 

My friends are leaving for David Lewis Gallery, where Danny Bredar, a painter I know but haven’t seen in a while, is featured in another group show opening tonight. This one is called “A Mimetic Theory of Desire,” an apparent reference to the René Girard thesis that convinced Peter Thiel to invest in Facebook—Thiel understood, from Girard, that the impulse to imitate friends and acquaintances could be a marketable commodity—but I’m not sure I see the connection. One of the works shows a man looking at his phone below a bubble that reads, “OH DOING FINE Y’KNOW JUST BORED & HORNY LOL HOW BOUT YOU.” Danny’s is a striking oil painting of John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

Half our group has already departed, and we walk over to Spicy Village to meet them for noodles on a park bench. Danny’s sent us the cryptic invitation to the opening’s after-party, and since we’re a block away, we agree to drop by. 

Now we’re on an Astroturfed rooftop where buff Nordic-looking men are handing out Aperol spritzes. There’s a DJ playing electronic music, and the ground is shaking as people jump up and down. Danny notes that the ladder to the water tower one roof over is too low.

For a while I eavesdrop on a guy complaining loudly about how he’s in love with an Orthodox Jewish girl who’s turned off her phone for Shabbat.

“I can’t even text her right now, bro,” he says. “It’s like, a paradox.”

Turning around, I see the silhouette of a man who’s climbed the too-low ladder up to the water tower and is now standing at the edge of the even higher roof. For a terrifying second I’m certain he’s going to jump, but then he does a little posturinatory shake and everything’s back to normal.

My friends are still chatting—something about the institutions of the art world—but I don’t want to talk anymore. I just want to zone out to the music, run my toes through the fake grass, and watch the spire on the Freedom Tower change color.

June 11

There’s a gash on the bottom of my foot! Initially I blame the barefoot Astroturf situation, but the culprit turns out to be a little nail poking out of one of the shoes I was wearing last night. 

I spend most of the day on the emails I was supposed to send yesterday, scheduling them for Monday so people don’t think I work full-time seven days a week, and then it’s on to fiction submissions. Over the past few months The Drift has developed a massive slush pile, which our fiction editor, Emma, has been fighting through valiantly. It’s important to us to read and respond to every submission and pitch we receive—we want The Drift to be a place where new writers can publish for the first time—but it does mean we always have a backlog.

In theory I enjoy short stories, but today I’m having trouble focusing. It takes a while to get my bearings—decode what the writer’s going for, assess whether or not she’s succeeding—and by the time I’ve done that, the story’s over and it’s on to the next one. Reading slush can get disheartening, but then it’s always a thrill when we find something we love in the pile—something sharp and surprising and funny, at once intentional and light on its feet. Still plenty of time before we have to make our Issue Eight selections, I reassure myself.

I take a break to read Sam Adler-Bell’s essay on wokeness, which I’ve been saving for a few days in an open tab. I send it along to my family group text to resolve a recent debate about what “woke” means and whether or not it’s an insult. I like Sam’s definition: “Wokeness refers to the invocation of unintuitive and morally burdensome political norms and ideas in a manner which suggests they are self-evident.”

I read some more stories before deciding to clean my apartment, which is cluttered because it’s doubling as a Drift storage and mailing facility. My mom always used to tease me about my cleaning method—do one small corner with an unnecessary level of care and attention, then get distracted and forget to clean the rest of the room. She died about a year and a half ago, and I’m missing her especially today. I put on some James Taylor, her favorite, and start with the piles of books that have accumulated on my desk and coffee table. True to form, after about ten minutes and a single shelf tidied up, I remember an email I’ve forgotten to write.

June 12

Kiara has put together a script for the reading we’ll have at our issue launch party, and she sends me a Google Doc to mark up. We both often find literary readings intolerable, so we try to keep ours short—under twenty minutes total, divided among a group of issue contributors, each of whom is limited to a paragraph or two only. 

I look through the most recent issue of the London Review of Books and read a piece on Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers, which I listened to on audiobook last month. Like many people in my demographic, I got hooked on the royal family by watching The Crown; unlike many people in my demographic, I watched all four seasons in a single week high out of my mind on painkillers after jaw surgery. When I’ve since discussed The Crown with friends, their reactions have led me to believe I absorbed more of its royalist ideology than otherwise accords with my ideas about the world. I turned to The Palace Papers hoping to be disenchanted, but the opposite happened. Things I’m now convinced of: Princess Kate is a Trollope heroine, Meghan represents everything wrong with 2010s self-promotion culture, Brown is a fabulous reader.

I’m still avoiding all the emails I need to write and to-do list items I need to cross off, so I scroll through the Iris Murdoch page on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I’ve been asked to write a review that has to do with Murdoch, and while I probably don’t have time, I’m tempted. I look through my bookshelf for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, which I was given as a present in high school and have still never read. (An unfortunate thing about me is that I hate receiving books as gifts. Once I’m given a book, it feels like homework and I’d rather read almost anything else. I was given Tess of the D’Urbervilles four times, by four different people, before I finally cracked it.) 

Murdoch is a writer I should like more than I do. An Oxford academic turned novelist, her fiction in some sense extends from her critique of the limitations of analytic philosophy. She believed that philosophers too often neglected psychological complexity, and that without a more nuanced understanding of the psyche, it was simplistic to talk about a freely choosing will. She also saw the internal effort to be more generous in our judgments of others as crucial moral work. In part because I like these ideas so much, I always end up reading her novels programmatically. I find myself mapping her philosophy onto whatever the characters are thinking and doing, which tends to flatten the stories into the kinds of examples you’re given in a course like “Introduction to Ethics.”

Later on, I’m wasting time online and see that Bernadette Peters has sung “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods as part of a Sondheim tribute at the Tonys. I click on the clip but it doesn’t scratch the itch, so I watch some YouTube videos of a younger Bernadette singing Sondheim. None of the recordings are very good. What I really want, I realize, is to listen to the original cast album. I grab my headphones and take a walk. 

Into the Woods is probably the first work of art I loved as a child that I still think is perfect—encyclopedic, an attempt to interrogate foundational myths while putting a full spectrum of experiences and emotions on display. Sondheim’s is a bleak, if magical, view of the human condition: we’re doomed to not know what we want, to want what we can’t have, to be dissatisfied when we get it, to love the wrong people, then abandon and betray and outgrow them, to make mistakes and cast blame elsewhere, to try and warn our children, to ignore our parents’ advice. Every time I revisit it, a different lyric seems to shout out what’s been preoccupying me. This time it’s: “But how can you know what you want / Till you get what you want and you see if you like it?”

On the street I run into the artist David Levine, and he asks if I want to come to his studio to see a short holographic film he’s just finished exhibiting in Paris—I wasn’t free the night of his New York screening a few months ago. He says, “I won’t keep you, you’re probably heading off to dinner,” and I neglect to tell him that what I’m doing is listening to a musical about witches and princes on my phone.


June 13

Today I have to tutor high schoolers over Zoom. I also help prepare the Drift issue for online publication tomorrow and send a bunch of emails related to the fundraiser we’re throwing next week.

At five, Kiara and I have drinks with Zain Khalid to discuss the possibility of his joining us as fiction editor. (Emma is leaving to focus on her dissertation.) When I met Zain last summer, he gave me a hard time about The Drift’s fiction selections, and every time we’ve bumped into each other since then he’s commented on our newest stories. Zain appears to read everything published everywhere and has seemingly perfect recall and intelligent things to say about all of it. He hands me a galley of his soon-to-be-released novel, Brother Alive, and I walk out of the bar excited, a little buzzed, and a few minutes late for our seven o’clock Zoom. 

Monday-night remote staff meetings are a Drift tradition that started in deep-COVID and has thankfully continued. As an issue deadline approaches, the meetings tend to be logistical—who’s taking an editing pass on what, when various pieces need to be finalized, which ones might be pushed to a future issue. This time, since our most recent issue has just arrived from the printers, we’re thinking about what the next issue should include. Sometimes our staff comes up with ideas, and we approach writers who might be willing to execute what we have in mind. But for the most part, Drift pieces result from cold pitches sent to [email protected]. Each meeting, we go through a Google Doc of the best pitches we’ve received the previous week and discuss the ones we might want to accept. Tonight we also talk over the plan for the party on Thursday—members of our editorial team will take turns manning the door and selling issues.

The meeting ends at eight sharp, and I’m out the door for oysters with my friend Gideon. After dinner it’s cooled down and lovely out, so I convince him to join me for another long walk.


June 14

The morning is a mad dash to release the issue—finalizing our newsletter, noticing that an image is too small, getting a broken link to load correctly on social media, etc.—and I’ve conveniently run out of coffee in my apartment. By the time we publish at noon, I’m in outrageous need of a caffeine fix. I look through the early reactions to the issue on my phone at the nearest coffee shop.

Almost immediately, it’s clear that the issue is being received more warmly than I’d expected. There are a few pieces I’ve been nervous about—pieces that challenge established progressive wisdom, and that I worried might prompt objections, but, at least so far, they haven’t. 

In the late afternoon I go over to David Levine’s studio to see his film. I’m not sure what to expect, and as soon as I get there I start to feel how much pressure is involved in letting an artist watch you watch his work. This piece, called Dissolution, is a hologram delivering a monologue from the perspective of a woman trapped in, or maybe as, a work of art. David tells me I can walk around and view it from any angle, so I initially try to indicate my engagement by circling the machine, going up and down, side to side. It’s too hard to focus on the text at the same time as varying my position, though, and eventually I settle on the spot closest to the speaker. Most directly, Dissolution is a commentary on the powerlessness of art in contemporary society—its commodification for and by the rich, its political irrelevance. But the piece is also a kaleidoscope of topics from the news, a mix-and-match of contemporary idioms filtered through a trippy early video-game aesthetic. There are references to Epstein and cryptocurrency, as well as to the Orpheus myth and the Library of Alexandria. When it’s over, I wish I could watch it again. I’m not lying when I tell David I loved it.

On the way home I drop into the new Crown Heights Union Market. Distracted trying to parse David’s argument about commodification and attention, I grab a small bag of cherries without looking at the price and am grateful when the cashier asks if I’m sure I want them. They are nineteen dollars.

Back in my apartment, I start Brother Alive. From the first page, the language is purposeful and evocative, and it soon becomes clear how ambitious the novel is in scope. But at the beginning I’m still getting acclimated to the world of three adopted boys, each with a different skin tone, being raised by a mysterious imam on Staten Island. The narrator, Youssef, might be mad, or haunted—it’s too early to tell.

Around two in the morning, Kiara and I realize we’re both up late plodding through the Drift email account. 


June 15

Kiara, Jordan, and I work together at my place for a while, and then I head out to David Zwirner, where The Drift is hosting a fundraiser for the second anniversary of our launch next week. I’m supposed to check out the gallery and go over details with Felice, who has been helping us coordinate the event. It’s the first time we’ve ever organized anything of this sort. Two years ago, Lucas Zwirner, who is head of content at the gallery, sent a cold pitch to our general inbox, and we published his essay on self-consciousness and absorption in modern art in our second issue. When we met him in person this spring, Lucas asked if we might like to use the gallery for a fundraiser.

The Upper East Side location of David Zwirner is housed in a Sixty-Ninth Street townhouse with an elegant spiral staircase that twists up five stories. As I’ll later learn, the building used to be the Iranian consulate before the 1980 diplomatic freeze. Even later, I’ll dig up a picture of Princess Ashraf Pahlavi leaning against the fireplace on the second floor and wearing what the caption calls “a red Dior.” For now I’m the only person in the gallery, and it’s strange to have a show to myself. “By Land, Air, Home, and Sea: The World of Frank Walter,” curated by Hilton Als, is an understated exhibition of paintings and sketches. Walter, who traveled to Europe as the first manager of color within the Antiguan Sugar Syndicate, returned to the Caribbean in the sixties as an artist, writer, and critic of racism. As Als writes, viewing the series of small, fragmentary paintings is “like looking through a scrim at someone else’s dreams.” 

After Felice arrives and we discuss where the toasts should be given and whether or not a microphone will be needed, I walk around the neighborhood in search of a venue for our after-party. I poke my head into a few of the Upper East Side’s more dive-adjacent establishments before making my selection. (As I’ll be informed too late, the one I’ve chosen is the Fox News happy hour spot.)

I head to dinner with my cousin and her new fiancé. They’re in town from Australia and meeting me and my dad before they see A Strange Loop on Broadway. I walk past the Park Avenue Armory, where I saw The Lehman Trilogy three years ago (stunning, original, a capsule history of capitalism). I walk past a painting class in which everyone’s copying a cityscape at sunset (not so stunning or original, nothing to say about capitalism). I walk past the Central Park Zoo, and it makes me think back to a scene in Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, which I finished this winter. Building the zoo as a favor to Al Smith is the nicest thing Robert Moses does in all 1,344 pages. At its opening ceremony, Smith was appointed “Honorary Night Superintendent,” and for the rest of his life, he was allowed to enter the animal houses after hours, any time he liked. When he had dinner guests at his apartment across the street at 820 Fifth Avenue, he’d take them to see the zoo’s largest tiger, whom he knew how to make growl at the name “La Guardia.”


June 16

I try to sleep in so I can make it through our party tonight, but the sidewalk outside my window is being jackhammered. The day disappears into a morass of party prep, and somehow by the time I leave the house I’m running late for our mic check.

On the subway ride over to The Public I receive a series of confused-to-alarmed texts from Kiara, who says the hotel is not expecting us. We’ve arranged the event with a PR person who offered us the rooftop for free and had several calls with Kiara to coordinate details. Unfortunately none of that information was passed along to the hotel staff: the roof has been double-and-triple-booked, and there’s some sort of NFT happy hour happening in the space where we’d planned to set up our reading. People are arriving for drinks and dinner reservations, and the staff is saying we’re not in their system. Someone named Paloma promises us no one will be turned away, but of course this is a lie, and soon enough our editors on door duty downstairs are reporting that the bouncer is sending home hundreds of guests, telling them they aren’t even allowed to wait in line. (People are also being denied entry for offenses like wearing Tevas and graphic tees.) I take the elevator down and explain to the bouncer what Paloma had told me only two hours earlier. “I never said that,” she says, after being summoned via walkie-talkie. “Did you get that in writing?” asks the bouncer.

Back upstairs, the guests who’ve managed to get in seem to have no idea anything’s wrong. The readings went better than we could have hoped—jam-packed room, audience listening attentively and laughing in all the right places—and for the next few days people will keep texting me “amazing party!!!” as if it wasn’t an outright catastrophe. By this point in the evening, our group has displaced the NFT crowd from the prime rooftop real estate, and I listen to newcomers describe Caveh Zahedi’s Ulysses performance, which they’ve just come from. It’s Bloomsday on the centenary of Ulyssess publication, and I’m sad I’m not doing anything more appropriate. I wonder what Joyce would make of Ian Schrager.

Around midnight the staff starts ushering us toward the elevators, which is also contrary to the arrangement we’ve made, but I’m past caring. A few people suggest a bar for an after-party, and Kiara and I decide to tag along. Our friend Ben offers to pick us up empanadas, and someone I haven’t met orders a pizza. It’s the first food I’ve had in many hours.

Kiara and I Uber back to Brooklyn together with the leftover box of issues we haven’t sold. She’s locked out of her place, though, so she comes over to mine. It’s late but we’re both still keyed up, and we lie around laughing about the NFT happy hour and “Did you get that in writing” and vowing never to trust a PR person again … and then it’s four or five and we fall, at last, asleep.


Rebecca Panovka is a writer and coeditor of The Drift