The Essayist

Aggregated long-form essays from the world's best writers and publications.

Cannery Woe

by Wells Tower

BETWEEN JOBS A FEW YEARS BACK, I decided to work in a southwest Alaskan cannery in Dillingham, which is not so much a town as an open-air boat garage by a tent city near Bristol Bay. Shifts ran 16 hours, 24/7. I had not been on the slime line five minutes that day, my fifth, when I was pelted in the throat with a salmon heart. It lay near my boot—a fleshy, violet organ the size of a Concord grape. Across the conveyor belt, a man steeped in piscine vital fluids grinned. “Come on, take a shot,” he said. “Have some fun or you’ll lose your fucking mind.”

Back then I was a great believer in easy money. One day a friend had said he’d gotten a little bit rich gutting salmon in Alaska—and it was a piece of cake. He’d told me to expect “at least five grand.” I’d bought a plane ticket instantly. My new job (cake, indeed, compared with a slot at the beheading station, where a guy had just chopped his hand off) involved wielding a dildoesque wand, vacuuming blood from the spines of flayed fish at a rate of 80 tons per day. The goo bore a disquieting resemblance to blackberry preserves, and the gelatinous rattle it made as the chrome tool inhaled it kept my gorge on the rise.

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London Riots, Hackney. One of the most intense things I’ve ever seen/experienced.
My friend, Matty, took these pictures shortly before the Clarence Road convenience store was looted and, again, just before the crowd started beating photographers and press. The black line that bisects the road in the distance of the second photograph is, in fact, a row of riot police. Obviously, you can’t see the hundreds of kids congregated behind us.
The atmosphere was very odd: on the one hand, everybody was filled with a sense of justice-being-done after the death of Mark Duggan; on the other, people were pretty disgusted by the looting and acts of violence done to onlookers.

London Riots, Hackney. One of the most intense things I’ve ever seen/experienced.

My friend, Matty, took these pictures shortly before the Clarence Road convenience store was looted and, again, just before the crowd started beating photographers and press. The black line that bisects the road in the distance of the second photograph is, in fact, a row of riot police. Obviously, you can’t see the hundreds of kids congregated behind us.

The atmosphere was very odd: on the one hand, everybody was filled with a sense of justice-being-done after the death of Mark Duggan; on the other, people were pretty disgusted by the looting and acts of violence done to onlookers.

(Source: mathmos-marty)

The Blazing Light in August

Gabriel Gbadamosi on London’s riots

I’ve woken up in a riot – inside a London phone box. A brick has just smashed into the glass. There are four of us squashed in to get out of the rain of bottles and stones. I can’t get my arm up to protect my face, we’re all trying to crouch down, I can feel glass fall on my hair. But I’ve got a thick, springy Afro and I can still shake it. My friend’s got blood on his ear lobe; we look at each other and nod, instinctively – the two of us bursting out onto the road and legging it hard and low so the wind of the riot blows over us.

I’ve woken up and I’m fifteen, invulnerable, my heart thumping with adrenalin. I’ve never seen or felt this before and didn’t know it could happen: people squeezing under cars to get out of the rain of glass, pavements strewn with rubble and injured people and blood (there’s a deafness in my ears from the roar and screams of the crowd). I can smell petrol fires and I’m running past smashed up windows of cars and shops. I turn back to look at the pumped-up lines of policemen confronting us across the street, banging their truncheons on metal dustbin lids. I’m on the frontline because I want to see what’s going on – I can see the faces of the police, ashen, white – and before the next charge of boots and uniforms and the answering volley of stones and bottles, sticks and whistles, I can see people picking up and dropping broken slabs of paving stones from under our feet to hurl them over my head at the police.

The ground under my feet is being torn up. The basic social contract that I won’t break the law by being in a riot and that, in return, my society will keep me safe is being ripped apart in this confrontation with the hard reality of violence: we must break them or they will break us. I see a policemen get hit in the head with a brick; people are tearing down walls. Smoke from a police van on fire drifts into the spaces between us. And I’ve woken up because I know my colour and my class can’t be repressed anymore; there are too many of us, change has to come.

That was August thirty-five years ago, and this is August 2011. By my reckoning, the difference between then and now is that this generation of rioting looters and arsonists thinks we failed. Not only did we fail to end discrimination, create better outcomes in education, health, employment and social mobility, we failed to end the entrenchment of hopelessness and poverty in the young.

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Harvard and Class

by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti,

I grew up in Montreal and went to an upper-middle-class Jewish day school where kids had parents who maybe owned a carpet store or maybe were dentists. And then I went to Harvard for college. And it was pretty weird.

When I applied, I thought it would be great because I would get to meet lots of smart people. Those were the kinds of people I liked to be friends with, and I thought there would be more of them there. That was the main reason I thought it would be a fun place to be. I don’t think I was super ambitious or professional minded or even a very good student.

The thing I figured out soon after I applied was that, on Gilligan’s Island, it wasn’t the Professor who went to Harvard, it was Mr. Howell, the rich man. That was something of a revelation…

By design, the university wants to be an enclosed institution, so you’re required to live on campus, which means that you’re not living in the city. You don’t have a landlord or neighbors or those kinds of things. You’re pretty much required to sign up for the meal plan, which means you don’t interact with people in restaurants or grocery stores or any of that kind of stuff. The drinking age is twenty-one, and it’s strictly enforced in the city but mostly unenforced on campus, which means if you want to drink or go to a party, you can only do that on campus, but if you want to go see a band at a club, you can’t do that.

I spent my first year trying to figure out how to participate in the life of the city in some way, but by the end of my first year I think I gave up because the pull of the university community was so strong and the boundaries were so hard to overcome.

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A Kiss Is Still a Kiss (even if the sex is postmodern and the romance problematic)

by Edwin Dobb

Surgeon Rear Admiral C. M. Beadnell has written that the mouth kiss “probably evolved by gradual stages from the apposition of face to face which constitutes the kiss among primitive races.” Beadnell’s use of the word “primitive,” implying here an indefensible cultural chauvinism, makes one wince, but the overall point is well considered, as are most of his observations on the subject in his obscure but entertaining The Origin of the Kiss and Other Scientific Diversions, a thin, pocket-size book published in England in 1942 as Volume 89 of The Thinker’s Library. Beadnell, surely one of the more eccentric thinkers in this or any library, describes various tropisms (consider how plant roots reach into soil while the branches above seek light) and “tactisms” (the life-prolonging fusion of paramecia being my favorite example) to show that the urge within an organism to contact something other than itself is as old as evolution. By the time mammals appeared, the urge had developed into a repertoire of pleasurable and instructive ways one creature might touch another, the desired sensation being exceptionally acute wherever an exterior membrane is joined to an interior one. “The mouth is one of such situations,” Beadnell notes, “and the rapture of the kiss is to be sought in terms of the functioning of a highly specialized and erotogenic touch-zone.” Without doubt, Admiral. Everything in my experience confirms this assertion, and I daresay that N., whom I have not seen since high school, would also agree. Rapture is to be sought at the threshold where outer meets inner.

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The Days and Knights of Tom Murphy

Wells Tower on Tom Murphy, outdoor chess champion

For a mere $5, I learned from Murphy that the entire tortuous body of the game’s strategy is neatly reducible to three clean principles.

"Number one, king safety" — above all else protect your king. "Number two, control the center" — i.e., maintain influence over the board’s four center squares. "Number three, free the people and give everyone a healthy job" — that is, don’t oppress your powerful rear echelon behind a torpid row of pawns; stagger your pawn platoon so that your ranking pieces can go to work attacking or defending.

True to his third law of chess strategy, Murphy is himself one of the least encumbered people you are likely to meet. He has no telephone, no bank account, and, at the time I caught up with him, he was spending most nights on a bench in the park and passing his days at his chosen employment: offering lessons at $15 to $20 per and hustling speed chess for $2 to $5 a game. Yet as a player, Murphy’s fame extends far beyond the park. In past years, he’d racked up major tournament wins, routing some of the best chess players in the country and cementing a widespread reputation as a player who might have risen to international prominence had his life taken a different turn.

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Unknown Bards: The blues becomes transparent about itself

by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Late in 1998 or early in ’99—during the winter that straddled the two—I spent a night on and off the telephone with a person named John Fahey. I was a junior editor at the Oxford American magazine, which at that time had its offices in Oxford, Mississippi; Fahey, then almost sixty and living in Room 5 of a welfare motel outside Portland, Oregon, was himself, whatever that was: a channeler of some kind, certainly; a “pioneer” (as he once described his great hero, Charley Patton) “in the externalization through music of strange, weird, even ghastly emotional states.” He composed instrumental guitar collages from snatches of other, older songs. At their finest they could become harmonic chambers in which different dead styles spoke to one another. My father had told me stories of seeing him in Memphis in ’69. Fahey trotted out his “Blind Joe Death” routine at the fabled blues festival that summer, appearing to inhabit, as he approached the stage in dark glasses, the form of an aged sharecropper, hobbling and being led by the arm. He meant it as a postmodern prank at the expense of the all-white, authenticity-obsessed, country-blues cognoscenti, and was at the time uniquely qualified to pull it. Five years earlier he’d helped lead one of the little bands of enthusiasts, a special-ops branch of the folk revival, that staged barnstorming road trips through the South in search of surviving notables from the prewar country-blues or “folk blues” recording period (roughly 1925–1939).

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The Fickle Needle of Fate

by Paul Collins,

You’re working in the parts department of a Plymouth dealership, car demo disc in your hand, campaign coverage of Nixon and Kennedy chattering away from another car in the garage.

And you’re wondering: Who the hell puts a turntable in a car’s dashboard?

Five years earlier, the verdict of Peter Goldmark’s son had been pitiless: “Boring.”

The radio in the Goldmark family’s Chrysler had no stories to listen to, no good music—why, the boy demanded, couldn’t they bring their own stuff to listen to in the car? By 1955, Peter Goldmark had plenty to work on already—the Hungarian émigré was an inventor of the 33 rpm LP for CBS Laboratories, and had created the nation’s first color TV system. But now, he admitted, “I kept thinking of my son’s question.”

Their car already had a radio, something almost unthinkable before the 1950s. Prior to transistor radios, getting music in your car meant installing a vacuum-tube set so monstrous that it required sawing apart the dashboard. But now Goldmark sensed an opportunity: why not hook a dashboard-mounted jukebox up to these sleek new audio systems?

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In the Jungle

by Rian Malan

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a small miracle took place in the brain of a man named Solomon Linda. It was 1939, and he was standing in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in black Africa when it happened. He hadn’t composed the melody or written it down or anything. He just opened his mouth and out it came, a haunting skein of fifteen notes that flowed down the wires and into a trembling stylus that cut tiny grooves into a spinning block of beeswax, which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a very big hit in that part of Africa.

Later, the song took flight and landed in America, where it mutated into a truly immortal pop epiphany that soared to the top of the charts here and then everywhere, again and again, returning every decade or so under different names and guises. Navajo Indians sing it at powwows. The French have a version sung in Congolese. Phish perform it live. It has been record- ed by artists as diverse as R.E.M. and Glen Campbell, Brian Eno and Chet Atkins, the Nylons and Muzak schlockmeister Bert Kaempfert. The New Zealand army band turned it into a march. England’s 1986 World Cup soc- cer squad turned it into a joke. Hollywood put it in Ace Ventura Pet Detective. It has logged nearly three decades of continuous radio airplay in the U.S. alone. It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows.

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Cream of The Crap

by Mark Blackwell,

It started quite innocently, with a contest under the headline “Do You Suck?”: “So you and some other losers got together and tried to start a band? None of you can play your instruments, carry a tune, or write a decent song even if your lives depend upon it? … Well, congratulations! You win!” The constant barrage of material from pathetic excuses for bands that record companies are forever hawking had sparked the idea: If this stuff is marketable entertainment, i.e. good music, just think what the bad stuff out there must sound like.

The rats come out of the woodwork for the $500 prize. Everyone seemed to have a terrible band, and those who didn’t rushed to start one. By the deadline, we amassed six large trash bags of submissions. In the next two days, the mail filled yet another bag. (Late entries weren’t disqualified. Any true Worst Band wouldn’t;t necessarily be punctual.)

Fred and I convened to begin judgment. The first candidate was Meatbreath’s metallic failure, Givin’ Grandma the Sausage. Next came Iron Dog’s not-so-aptly titled We Know How To Rock. Then Headwound, Rectal Pizza, Uncouth Bastards, Choking Victim, and Up the Horses Ass. It became increasingly clear this wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience. Finally Fred lost it. As we listened to entry 68, the Inbreeders from Hazelwood, Missouri, he jerked he repulsive tape from the stereo and began stomping it to pieces. We called it a day.

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Pleasures of the Fur

by George Gurley

A moose is loitering outside a hotel in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. The moose—actually a man in a full-body moose costume—is here for a convention … and so is the porcupine a few feet away, as well as the many foxes and wolves.

Even the people in regular clothes have a little something (ferret hand puppet, rabbit ears) to set them apart from the ordinary hotel guests. One man in jeans and a button-down shirt gets up from a couch in the lobby and walks over to the elevator, revealing a fluffy tail dragging behind him. The elevator doors open. Inside, a fellow is kissing a man with antlers on his head.

The other hotel guests look stunned.

“We’re a group of people who like things having to do with animals and cartoons,” a man in a tiger suit tells a woman. “We’re furries.”

“So cute,” the woman says.

Welcome to the Midwest FurFest.

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Tania's World

Howard Kohn and David Weir on Patty Hearst,

Patty Hearst and Emily Harris waited on a grimy Los Angeles street, fighting their emotions as they listened to a radio rebroadcasting the sounds of their friends dying. On a nearby corner Bill Harris dickered over the price of a battered old car.

Only blocks away, rifle cartridges were exploding in the dying flames of a charred bungalow. The ashes were still too hot to retrieve the bodies of the six S.L.A. members who had died hours before on the afternoon of May 17th, 1974.

Bill Harris shifted impatiently as the car’s owner patted a dented fender. “I want five bills for this mother.”

The S.L.A. survivors had only $400. Reluctantly Harris offered $350. The man quickly pocketed the money.

Minutes later Bill picked up Patty and Emily and steered onto a freeway north to San Francisco. They drove all night — the Harrises in the front seat of the noisy car and Patty in back, hidden under a blanket. They were too tense to sleep, each grappling with the aftershock of the fiery deaths.

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The String Theory

by David Foster Wallace

What happens when all of a man’s intelligence and athleticism is focused on placing a fuzzy yellow ball where his opponent is not? An obsessive inquiry (with footnotes), into the physics and metaphysics of tennis.

When Michael T. Joyce of Los Angeles serves, when he tosses the ball and his face rises to track it, it looks like he’s smiling, but he’s not really smiling — his face’s circumoral muscles are straining with the rest of his body to reach the ball at the top of the toss’s rise. He wants to hit it fully extended and slightly out in front of him — he wants to be able to hit emphatically down on the ball, to generate enough pace to avoid an ambitious return from his opponent. Right now, it’s 1:00, Saturday, July 22, 1995, on the Stadium Court of the Stade Jarry tennis complex in Montreal. It’s the first of the qualifying rounds for the Canadian Open, one of the major stops on the ATP’s “hard-court circuit,” which starts right after Wimbledon and climaxes at N.Y.C.’s U.S. Open. The tossed ball rises and seems for a second to hang, waiting, cooperating, as balls always seem to do for great players. The opponent, a Canadian college star named Dan Brakus, is a very good tennis player. Michael Joyce, on the other hand, is a world-class tennis player. In 1991, he was the top-ranked junior in the United States and a finalist at Junior Wimbledon is now in his fourth year on the ATP Tour, and is as of this day the seventy-ninth-best tennis player on planet earth.

A tacit rhetorical assumption here is that you have very probably never heard of Michael Joyce of Brentwood, L.A. Nor of Tommy Ho of Florida. Nor of Vince Spadea nor Jonathan Stark nor Robbie Weiss nor Steve Bryan — all ranked in the world’s top one hundred at one point in 1995. Nor of Jeff Tarango, sixty-eight in the world, unless you remember his unfortunate psychotic breakdown in full public view during last year’s Wimbledon.

You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.

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The Burden of Home

by Aaron Gilbreath

Sometime in fifth grade, just before North Shore came out, I bought a bodyboard and learned to ride waves pretty well. At home, I covered my bedroom walls with images clipped from surf magazines: black sand and palm groves; bronze women in bikinis splashing through azure water. I stuck surf stickers on my door, corny ones that said Body Glove and Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax in blinding pink and yellow fonts. When I lay in bed at night, I pictured myself sleeping in a thatched hut and drinking from coconuts. I taped a quotation from an ad on my door: “Summer is an attitude not a season.” And I wore only shorts, even in winters that reached the low forties. When my parents dropped me off at middle school, I gathered with my friends on the playground before class. Condensation frosted the tetherball pole. Crystallized dew coated the brown winter grass. And I’d stand there shivering with my arms crossed, wearing shorts and a flannel and a hooded Vans sweater, watching my breath. At one point, I asked my parents if we could replace my bedroom’s brown carpet with beach sand. They asked where the bed would go. “We’ll build wooden boardwalks around the edges,” I explained, “with one plank diagonally across the middle for the bed.” And how would I avoid dragging sand into the rest of the house? “I’ll wipe my feet every time I leave my room.” The brown carpet stayed.

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The Thing With Feathers

by Wells Tower

IF YOU WERE THE LAST BIRD OF YOUR SPECIES, looking for a comfortable place to evade extinction, the view flying over northern Monroe County, Arkansas, would probably not tempt you to touch down. You’d see abandoned trailer homes with saplings growing through their windows; asbestos-shingle shacks with discarded cars and appliances sinking into their lawns; rice fields sectioned into rectangular ponds like the plastic lagoons in a TV-dinner tray; and huge, insectile central-pivot irrigators patrolling oceans of soil where thousand-year-old cypress trees once stood.

Yet Bayou de View—a spit of hardwood jungle here at the uppermost tip of Arkansas’s 550,000-acre Big Woods, smack-dab between Little Rock and Memphis—is where the world’s rarest avis, the ivory-billed woodpecker, has reemerged more than half a century after ornithological authorities pronounced it dead. Seen from above, Bayou de View looks about as primeval as a planter of ficus trees at a shopping mall. Below the treetops, though, the terrain looks less like eastern Arkansas and more like rural Mordor. The water, which is the color of beef au jus, flows in labyrinthine meanders boiling with toothy gar and cottonmouths as stout as a man’s wrist.

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