Not Content with Crumbs

Habitues of the Lower East Side's coffee and cake saloons conspired to win themselves a bigger slice of the pie.
In nineteenth-century New York, nothing went better with radical politics than coffee cake. Manhattan's Lower East Side boasted some three hundred "coffee and cake saloons," where anarchists and socialists tucked into crullers as they debated everything from the theories of Marx and Bakunin to the literary merits of Tolstoy and Ibsen, and the success of the latest performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. Late into the night they talked and between outbursts of indignation or sympathy sipped strong cups of tea à la russe adorned with thin slices of lemon. (more…) Read More...

Love Craft

Whether they take the form of a cassette tape or an etched whale's tooth, handmade tokens of affection exemplify making a virtue out of making-do.
Once upon a time a mix tape spent three weeks getting made by a boy in Texas. (more…) Read More...

Troubled Mime

One of Paris's most cherished performers, Jean-Gaspard Deburau came to regard his fame as an invisible box out of which he could not climb.
He who takes up the profession of mime while still a child deserves pity. Jean-Gaspard Deburau met such a fate. His soldier-turned-showman father dragged his half-starved, ragtag troupe hither and yon to entertain audiences with acrobatic feats and jaw-dropping balancing acts. The delightful pantomime of the impresario's son, however, proved the troupe's most popular attraction. The peregrinating performers eventually came to settle in one spot, winning a place at Paris's Théâtre des Funambules thanks to the youth's uncommon talent. (more…) Read More...

Rail Ambition

Engineers and bureaucrats trained their sights on bringing premier transport to the Balkans -- and what they achieved left all other systems at the station.
At one time Bosnia boasted the best railway system in Europe. Only the Orient Express offered better service. Extensive in reach, its five hundred miles of narrow-gauge line ran from Montenegro to Serbia. No fewer than eighty tunnels burrowed through rugged mountains. And what the railway could not burrow through, it ascended, its trains pulled by herculean locomotives. (more…) Read More...

No animal escapes the cruel knife in the end…

“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing..."
“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.” ? George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945) Read More...

Tamer Instincts

For circus performers of yesteryear, having a head for business meant having one that could fit in a big cat's mouth.
Of those who could claim to have rested their head on a lion's lower jaw Isaac van Amburgh was the first. An intrepid animal trainer, he accomplished feats of derring-do that went unmatched in his time. He and his pride of tamed felines became something of an international sensation, commanding the attention of no less estimable a personage than Queen Victoria, who commissioned a portrait of him, so deeply had his talents impressed her. Others among the great and good stood equally astounded. The Duke of Wellington once reportedly asked Van Amburgh, "Were you ever afraid?," to which the celebrated lion tamer responded, "The first time I am afraid, your grace, or that I fancy my pupils are no longer afraid of me, I shall retire from the wild beast line." (more…) Read More...

Staying on Their Toes

For nineteenth-century ballerinas, the precariousness of dancing en pointe was nothing compared to the precariousness of their financial situation.
Slip behind the swinging door of the Parisian theater and you will discover the coulisse, the performer's secret world of greasepaint, foot bindings, levers and pulleys. Off-limits to the ordinary audience member, this world has guarding its gate an incorruptible Cerberus. He will step aside only if you speak the name of M. le Directeur and present to him a passeport. (more…) Read More...

Still Life

At once profitable and precarious, the moonshiner trade attracted only the most spirited individuals.
The moonshiner treats strangers with suspicion. Rarely do they visit his mountain shack, and rarely does he visit town. He isolates himself among mountain and valleys, which he leaves only once or twice a year. When a batch of corn mash has fermented, he distills it into "mountain dew" strong enough to make eyes water and throats burn. Barrels of this he packs in his wagon under hay and overripe apples (their scent masks that of the liquor) and winds his way over rocky, narrow paths to market. (more…) Read More...

My wife left … on the arm of a svelte yogurt distributor

"The scale over there across the street is truly an ingenious device...."
"The scale over there across the street is truly an ingenious device. One preprograms the desired new weight into it, and if one has achieved or gone below that new low weight, the scale bursts into recorded whistles and cheers and some lively marching-band tune....  A failure ... results in a flatulent dirge of disappointed and contemptuous tuba." — David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987) Read More...

Love Bites

The story of the dentist McTeague's wooing of his patient, Trina, is one readers can sink their teeth into.
Temptation rides a whiff of ether in Frank Norris's McTeague (1899). The novel relates the romantic adventures of its title character, a San Francisco dentist who falls in love with Trina, a young lower-class woman who visits him for treatment of a carious tooth. (more…) Read More...