Ben Van Heuvelen

These faces in the crowd

In the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station in Brooklyn this afternoon, a very handsome boy in his late teens or early twenties was leaning back against an iron beam next to the tracks. He was dressed fashionably, in an army-green jacket with red chevrons on the shoulders and skinny navy-blue jeans that rode below his hips. Like a model in a fashion spread, he looked world-weary and sophisticated, until I imagined him in the age-appropriate clothing of normal teenage style, at which point he just looked bored. In fact, he seemed to be falling asleep. His eyes were closed and his head would loll and occasionally jolt, in the motion of an involuntary nap. I found an iron beam of my own to lean against and began to read.

When I looked up from my book, he was crossing the platform towards me. Something was wrong. His head was still pitched slightly backward, and his eyelids were mostly closed, one slit just wider than the other. His arms hung limply at his sides. Each time his foot struck the ground he would pause, as if to secure his balance and calibrate the distance of his next stride. I assume he was on heroin. The vacant stare, the zombie gait, the high sloping cheekbones and soft, pale complexion — I felt repulsed. I thought of the uncanny valley, a term in robotics that describes the sense of revulsion people feel towards very close yet imperfect facsimiles of humans.

Step by step he approached. There were train tracks at my back, and I wondered — in a moment that pitted self-preservation against modest heroics — whether I should step aside and let him pass to the ledge or stand in his way. Four paces away, three, two. I stood. At the last moment, he veered sideways and plodded back towards the other side of the platform.

I looked around as you do when something strange happens and you want an empathetic nod from a fellow stranger. There were a hundred people or more within view, but most hadn’t seen the boy, or had pretended not to see. One woman, blond, in a business suit, in her forties, craned her neck around me and watched, with a look of both consternation and concern, as the boy, now ten paces away from us, walked right up to the ledge of the Queens-bound G track.

A voice on the loudspeaker said, “There is a Queens-bound G train approaching the station.”

It’s amazing how many things you can think about at once in a moment of crisis. I noticed the cigarette behind the boy’s right ear. I wondered whether this might be a piece of performance art. I recalled a New Year’s Eve in Venice when, standing on a water taxi platform, I watched an old man in a tuxedo fall into the Canal Grande and, as I stood inertly thinking that I should jump in after him, some men reached belly- down over the ledge, grabbed his arm, and pulled him from the water. I told myself I should not intervene here, since if this boy should jump, then he had chosen his fate, and if he should fall, he had earned it. Then I reprimanded myself, telling myself that this boy was dear to someone — a mother, a little brother — even if he was not dear to himself. Then I reminded myself that if anyone living in such a city as New York were to imagine the texture of every other life he encountered, his heart would crack. A dozen more thoughts, too, as the boy swayed unsteadily and caught himself with a stiff shuffle.

A rumbling of wheels and a screech of old metal announced the arrival of a train into the station. It was the C train, on the other track behind me, arriving ahead of the fateful G. I felt my body loosen with relief. Either line would take me home.

Advertisements

Unwrapping the Shivers

The best rock’n’roll show I’ve ever attended was played on the second floor of a little venue in the East Village called Mo Pitkins, by a band called the Shivers. There were six people in the Shivers at the time, and about twice as many in the audience. The band was on point. In one song, a waltz named after a stretch of traffic-clogged highway in Queens (“L.I.E.”), the players stuck so tight to the drummer’s slow beat that the song, rather than seeming downtempo, created a small universe where time just moved at a more contemplative pace.

The lead singer, Keith Zarriello, has a soulful and expressive voice with excellent range and pitch. He’s as strong in trembling low vibrato as when he’s belting a scratchy tenor or crooning in falsetto. As a lyricist, he can be brilliant. “I’m gettin’ to know you, girl,” he sings in “L.I.E.” “I’ve seen you with your glasses on / I’ve seen you in your daddy’s arms / and I’ve seen you drive a car.” I defy anyone to write three clauses that better express the feeling in a romance when the charge of attraction first locks into bonded familiarity.

On stage, Keith seems shy. He wears large dark sunglasses and his microphone banter between songs consists mostly of half-mumbled observations to himself. When a song begins, though, he performs with great intensity, almost despite himself, as though the man on stage is only a half-willing conduit for the persona of the singer, like Whoopi Goldberg letting Patrick Swayze possess her in “Ghost.” As my friend Ryan said, “You can tell he’s doing it” — being a musician in New York — “because he has to.”

What little I know of Keith suggests he’s an odd guy. He’s a sworn anti-sexual, a conspiracy theorist, and a New York City real estate broker. His eccentric commitments appear in his songs to varying degrees, and they’re most obvious in my least favorite numbers; on one Shivers album, for example, a track titled “Inside Job” consists of 9 minutes and 11 seconds of silence. In other songs, though, Keith’s sense of division — he’s both a man with everyday problems and a seer grasping some hidden current of life — makes for great blues-punk poetry. “Everyone here wants to shave their head,” he sings, “but I wanna shave my brain.”

Yesterday I received a package from the Shivers. I had ordered Keith’s new solo album with a PayPal donation via the Shivers’ web site, trusting, in the spirit of internet commerce, that my gift into the virtual ether would reach a person of good faith. That person, I assume, was Keith himself, and he took great care in making up the return package. Inside the manila mailing envelope, Keith’s album was wrapped inside two sheets of the New York Post. The outer layer was folded such that across the face of the CD case was a large photo of a Tiger Woods mistress, bearing her cleavage. The inner layer was a photo of Greg Monroe, a power forward for the Georgetown Hoyas, holding his forehead after an upset loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

I don’t see any profound meaning here, just a couple of images thrown into funny contrast, an aesthete’s little joke. I think it was Keith’s way of saying thanks for being a fan.

I was grateful for his gesture; I think he knew I’d feel a little starstruck. In a song called “Half Invisible,” Keith sings, “Sometimes I walk the streets / no one sees me. / Other days, people think / I’m a movie star.” In this digital age, of course, someone can be both a guy with a day job and a musician who — for a certain internet-connected niche audience — resides in the pantheon of iTunes most-played playlists alongside Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Lou Reed. How cool is that?

Ryan with one eye

Every now and then, a high school ultimate frisbee team will ask me to come out and run a clinic for them. I teach some fundamentals, run them through drills, watch them scrimmage, and give them some basic ideas about how to keep improving. Last weekend I drove sixty miles north of Brooklyn to Cross River, NY, where about 30 kids at John Jay High School play together on a team that calls itself “Air Raid.”

Off Exit 6 of I-684, the road winds through woods, past long driveways and tasteful, large houses with stone fences bounding their acreage. Cross River is a wealthy town of Metro North commuters. Their children, the members of Air Raid, showed up at the fields one by one, driving their parents’ SUVs, minivans, and late-‘90s-era hand-me- down Mercedes sedans. The clinic was to start at 10; half of the team had arrived by 10:30.

All teenagers are hilarious in some way, when you get to know them. Teenage ultimate players tend to wear their quirkiness especially close to the surface. In a catching drill, one boy named Anton dove for an errant pass, missed it, and skidded awkwardly onto the ground; rather than stand up in a conventional way, he let his momentum carry him into a backward summersault, head-first through a puddle, and up onto his feet. Anton leaped to his feet, screaming. His hair was caked with icy mud, his sweatshirt soaked. Many of his teammates literally fell to the ground laughing as Anton ripped off his shirt and sprinted to the sidelines to change into dry clothes.

Later in the morning, I began confusing two boys named Kyle and Ryan — probably because both names have four letters and a “y.” Standing in the middle of a huddle, asking for a volunteer to help demonstrate the finer points of throwing, I called Ryan “Kyle” for the third or fourth time.

Exasperated, Ryan said, “You can remember I’m Ryan because I have one eye. Like, ‘Ryan with One Eye.’”

Experienced educators will recognize this immediately as the kind of bait that kids will occasionally throw out for authority figures, in an attempt to trick us into abandoning our focus. I was once a teacher. The correct way to respond to Ryan’s comment was to ignore it. Yet my authority-figure muscles have atrophied over the past few years, and Ryan’s comment was delightfully absurd. He appeared to have two eyes, and even if one was fake, how would that help me remember his name? He could just as easily be Kyle with One Eye.

“Really?” I said. “It’s true!” his teammates said. “Pop it out, Ryan!”

Ryan seemed to consider it, but looked distressed. I thought he was offended at being treated like a circus freak.

“Guys, I can’t,” he said. “My hands are dirty.” It was a matter of hygiene.

Ryan’s teammates continued to goad him, and rather than corral the group back into focus, I found myself daydreaming about having one eye. Beyond the lack of depth perception, the limited peripheral vision, the inconvenience of extracting and cleaning your glass eye every night — how would you break that fact to a new girlfriend? — I pondered the unappreciated comfort of having body parts in pairs. Eyes, ears, hands, kidneys. The worst part of having only one eye, I decided, would be that you’d feel at least twice as vulnerable to the threat of being blinded. We two-eyed people don’t often have occasion to ponder what blindness would be like. But I bet Ryan does. Subtly, subconsciously, he has probably learned to look longer and remember better whenever he encounters something beautiful.

I snapped out of my daydream. In a matter of seven seconds, a normal and predictable frisbee-throwing lesson had turned into absurdity. I felt fully complicit. Having indulged my daydream, I had lost the moral standing to correct their lack of focus with any indignation of my own. Instead, I could only smile at them conspiratorially, an authority figure silently acknowledging what all teenagers suspect, and occasionally charm or cajole adults into revealing: that power is a fiat currency, that adulthood is largely make-believe, and that the value of rules sometimes lies in the joy of ignoring them.

Ode to a pioneer

Several men could lay claim to the invention of the Frisbee. By some accounts, for example, the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, inspired by the discus throwers of Greece, had his men sharpen the edges of their shields and fling them at the shins of Hannibal’s stampeding war elephants to win the decisive battle of the Second Punic War.

Historians will look on our era, though, and credit the the modern plastic Frisbee to Walter Frederick “Fred” Morrison. He died Feb. 9, 2010, at his home in Monroe, Utah, of lung cancer, at the age of 90.

I interviewed Fred a few years ago. Based on that interview and his self-published memoir, I’ve written a piece for Salon.com on how the Frisbee came to be — something of a tribute to Fred, the man who created an object that I’ve spent thousands of hours of my life throwing and chasing.

On curiosity

Scientists have discovered evidence that could reveal the coloring of some dinosaurs.

From one perspective, on the scale of possible scientific breakthroughs – from the development of vaccines to knowledge of the origins of the universe – this discovery scores pretty low. From another perspective – that of the little kid in all of us, whose imagination was once excited by the image of giant, terrifying creatures – it seems like a small miracle. Paleontology is amazing. Didn’t you ever wonder how anyone could possibly take an arrangement of bones and, with any confidence, create a vivid rendering of a roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex? As children, I think we loved dinosaur pictures not just because we could imagine the terrible power of the T-Rex’s jaws, but also because science and art, magically combined, seemed to be allowing us to travel through time.

I’ve always assumed that the best scientists must retain something like this kind of wonder at the world. On that note, here is a passage from the Times article, which explains the origins of the dinosaur-coloring breakthrough:

In the new study, Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol, and colleagues have analyzed the structures of what appear to be feathers and say they match the feathers of living birds down to the microscopic level. They used microscopic features to determine the ancient feathers’ color. The study builds on earlier work on fossil bird feathers by Jakob Vinther, a graduate student at Yale, and his colleagues. In 2006, Mr. Vinther discovered what looked like an ink sac preserved in a squid fossil. Putting the fossil under a microscope, he discovered the sac was filled with tiny spheres. The spheres were identical to pigment-loaded structures in squid ink, known as melanosomes.

Mr. Vinther knew that melanosomes created colors in other animals, including bird’s feathers. He and his colleagues made a microscopic inspection of fossils of feathers from extinct birds. They discovered melanosomes with the same sausage- shaped structure as those found in living birds. By analyzing the shape and arrangement of the fossil melanosomes, they were able to get clues to their original color. They determined, for example, that a 47-million-year-old feather had the dark iridescent sheen found on starlings today.

Dr. Benton was intrigued when he read Mr. Vinther’s research and immediately wondered what it might mean for dinosaurs.

I imagine Dr. Benton, weary from his day’s tasks – writing grant applications, peer- reviewing journal articles, meeting with graduate students, planning his portion of an upcoming paleontology conference. His eyes have begun drying and tightening with fatigue. On his desk, amid the piles of papers, lies an article by a graduate student at Yale on ancient feathers. The article received some attention – it warranted an article in the Science section of the New York Times last year – but it’s one of three dozen studies that Dr. Benton knows he “should” read. He wipes off his glasses, picks up the article, and begins to skim, almost looking for a reason to conclude that he can stop without feeling any guilt. But he reads a bit longer, and as his mind releases from the surrounding world of practical concern, his thoughts become fluid. There is space for inspiration. With child-like literalness, he immediately wonders what this might mean for dinosaurs.