Read An Excerpt From My Empire of Dirt


PROLOGUE: THE RAFT

Fifteen minutes gone that we can never get back and all we are doing is staring through the wrought-iron railings of the Promenade fence out over the East River, two eight-year-olds just stuck inside a day. There are no bullies to run from in the park, no rats to stalk in the undergrowth beyond the playground. Though, it’s true, we have never, either of us, ever seen a black party balloon before, still we ran out of good stuff to throw at the one stuck in the tree above us almost right away. Our bikes haven’t turned into police motorcycles yet. This is not an adventure at all.

A soot-smeared orange ferry on its way to Staten Island drifts out of its decrepit, oxidizing dock at the Battery. A tugboat with a gravel barge stuck to its nose pushes its way against the current and, ever so slowly, upriver toward, and eventually beyond, the Brooklyn Bridge. We lay limp against the fence, both unable to imagine how we will survive this endlessly dull day ahead, but both too polite to complain to each other.

Hey, wait. There it is right in front of us. We aren’t pressing our faces up against the fence rails anymore; suddenly these are the twisted bars of a great, dark cage, and right there, staring back at us, is Adventure. “Let’s build a raft,” I breathe, too excited to speak the words.

Chris’s eyes strain against the side of his skull, trying to see my face, gauge my intention without taking his head away from the sun-warmed metal bars. “A raft out of what?”

“Wood,” I say, not certain that rafts can be built from anything else.

“Where would we go?” my friend asks.

“There.” I point with my arm fully extended through the bars out across the river, north of the Fulton Fish Market, to the only visible sliver of beach on Manhattan Island.

“Where will we get the wood?” asks Chris, quickening to the plan.

“I’ll show you,” I reply, the plan coming together as I gallop the few yards to my bike. It is yellow, has a black banana seat, and best of all it has three speeds. The gear shifter looks just like one in a cool muscle car. Rather than being on the chrome handlebars, it’s mounted on the crossbar. The selector has a pommel grip you pull toward you as you work through the gears. It shows the gear you’re in with a red line next to each number, one, two, three. If I pedal hard enough, I have convinced myself, sparks will shoot out of the pipe at the back just behind my seat where the chrome plastic cap has fallen off and left an exhaust-pipe kind of hole. We mount our bikes and make our way north along the Promenade, fly down Suicide Hill to Old Fulton Street and the abandoned cobbled streets beyond, under the noisy roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge and down New Dock Street, which ends hard against the East River. Beyond the low guardrail that we are scrambling over, the river has long since swept the tar-flecked wooden mooring posts and concrete docking into a chaos of enormous, jutting, broken teeth. It functions as a maw, catching the flotsam of a river at its environmental nadir. Collected here among the filth is everything two eight-year-old boys in search of adventure could ever need to build a raft.

The rest of the day and—because Chris is sleeping over and then my mom says it is okay for us to spend the whole day—the next were filled scrambling across the collapsed pier, collecting odd lengths and diameters of rope and faded scraps of plastic—once umbrellas, municipal office-furniture upholstery, buckets, a red flip-flop. We pry planks and boards of waterlogged, tar-streaked wood from between the concrete slabs, slipping in up to our knees in the filthy, whirling eddies as the current first ebbs, then flows.

At the end of the second day when we return home near what we estimated to be dinnertime, Chris’s dad, Mr. Dupassage, is waiting for us outside my apartment building. He leans impatiently against his orange BMW 2002, arms folded until we come to a tire-screeching skid a few feet from him. I’m sure that the orange BMW is the first European car I’ve ever seen. Chris says his dad can go a hundred miles an hour in it. Mr. Dupassage wants to know what is all over our clothes. Chris does not tell him that the tar on our hands and faces and shoes and jeans and our nearly identical terry-cloth polo shirts is from the wood we salvaged for the raft we are going to build.

Chris says he does not remember what it is. I straddle the crossbar of my yellow banana-seat bike, studiously watching the derailleur move when I shift gears. I think that Chris might be ashamed of our raft adventure.

Opening the trunk of his orange European car, Mr. Dupassage tries another tack, asks Chris where the stuff all over his clothes came from. Chris says he does not remember that either.

Mr. Dupassage takes a lime green towel from the trunk and shakes white paint flecks off it onto the faded gray asphalt of the street and, draping it over the supple, beige leather passenger seat, warns Chris that he is going to have to sit right on the towel and not move a muscle the whole way home or he might get that stuff on his clothes all over the upholstery of the orange European car.

I wonder if sparks come out of the back of Mr. Dupassage’s orange car when he goes one hundred miles an hour in it. Mr. Dupassage smiles when he says good-bye to me. He tells me to be careful not to touch the walls in the halls or in the elevator on my way upstairs, then he gets into his orange car. I think the car must be going almost one hundred miles an hour when it reaches the corner, but from where I am standing, still straddling my yellow banana-seat bike, I can’t see any sparks flying out behind it.

Chris is French, or his parents are, or his father is. I wonder how long it takes to get to France from Pierrepont Street. My mom calls from the window on the second floor where we live. She wants to know if I know what time it is. I look at the red LED readout on my Texas Instruments watch and I tell her it is eight fifty-six.

In the elevator, when I lean against the wall, some of the tar from the raft wood wipes off my shirt onto the brown-and-white-flecked enamel wall. I suppose that French people must not like rafts very much. French people like river barges better than rafts.

When my mom tells me to explain how I got myself covered in tar, I tell her that Chris and I are building a raft to sail across the East River.

The East River is not, in truth, a river. It is a tidal strait that joins with the Harlem River, also a part of the same tidal strait that was painstakingly, over twenty years during the nineteenth century, hollowed out to accommodate ship traffic. This strait connects the Long Island Sound up north to New York’s Upper Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond to the south. Because the narrow waterway joins two such whopping great bodies of water, the tide roars up during the flow tide, then twelve hours later, down during the ebb tide. In its narrower stretches the tide moves at speeds approaching six knots. Manhattan turned the riverbank to stone on its western bank, as did Brooklyn and eventually Queens on the opposite shore, so now, call it a tidal strait or a river, it is more a sluice than a naturally occurring body of water. People who fall or dare to jump in it have few places where they can pick their way out. The East River hosts a handful of accidental drownings every year.

For this and many other reasons, the East River is no place for an eight-year-old to play. Another person’s mother might have made this point immediately after her son announced his intentions to cross it on a raft that he and his buddy Chris Dupassage planned to build from found material piling up on the tide line along its rocky banks and fetid beaches. Not my mother. She supported every insane notion or scheme I ever presented to her. It was a conscious—determined, really—effort to shield what she considered my creative gift, to protect my imagination, my notion of the possible, from the crush of practical reality.

The lower reaches of the East River have teemed with traffic since the earliest Dutch settlements in the 1670s, and I spent most of my childhood living up on the bluffs above Old Fulton Street, the site where, in 1814, Robert Fulton inaugurated regular steamboat-ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan and made Brooklyn boom. The ferry kept Brooklyn’s economy running, fueled its growth from Dutch farming village to throbbing Anglocentric factory town and international port until 1924, forty-one years after the Brooklyn Bridge was completed. The cobblestone streets bustled and the town became a city. The horse-drawn construction of the Eagle Warehouse and all the other warehouses and towering factories put an end to any doubt that Brooklyn was rising just as confidently as its neighbor across the river. By the 1970s, though, those factories and warehouses were slipping into decrepitude, creating a vacant canyon land where packs of dogs and kids on bikes from the various bordering neighborhoods competed for territory among the low-slung, Civil War–era brick warehouses with rusting, arched iron doors that still smelled of the pepper they once housed. Here on the flats stood a dozen monolithic, white cement factories built at the turn of the nineteenth century by the Scottish-born king of the cardboard box, the industrialist Robert Gair. In 1926, Gair moved his light-industrial empire upstate to Piermont. By the 1970s, “Gairville” had become a collection of empty or emptying monuments to the slow death of urban manufacturing.

A week passes and Chris still hasn’t returned to fix our raft. During that gap I check on our pile of salvaged raft material at least twice a day. If, when I get down to the river’s edge, any other kids happen to be hanging around on the north side of New Dock Street, in the paved lot long since gone to seed, forsaken by its owner, or the city or whoever abandons the vast spoiled tracts in the landscape of my childhood, I wait for them to leave, to leave without molesting our raft pile. I position myself a calculated distance from our pile. Not so close that I will draw attention to the salvage, but near enough so that if some nosy kid does notice the pile, he’ll know it is mine and that I am watching him. I worry a lot about what I’ll do if the nosy kid who does notice our raft-makings also wants to build a raft and sail it across the East River. I worry especially about what I will do if that nosy kid who shares my nautical ambitions is much bigger or more aggressive than me. But I stay at my post by the pile all the same. I lie on my back on the sun-baked pavement, my shoulders propped against a discarded tire—hundreds and hundreds of tires are heaped behind the concrete wall of the Sanitation Department depot on the south side of New Dock Street. I lie on the hot sidewalk, my chin resting on my chest just like James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven. His shoulders on his saddle, his chin on his chest, his back in the dust of that West Texas cattle station, he reclines, unconcerned and unmoving, while dangerous men fuss needlessly around him.

Time passes slowly out here on the river. I catalog the hours. I count the days. Try to calculate the minutes until Chris returns to the raft. While I am not picking over the ingredients of our unmade raft, I am filling a composition notebook. It is a diary of the project, an account of the project and a fable of the adventures to come, with meticulously drafted plans for The Raft’s construction. Chris never does return.

I am grown now. I am still restless. Often uncomfortable in my husk, feeling it tighten around me when the world falls quiet. Those who know me well have grown used to both grand gestures and grim antics. I come through in a pinch if a spasm of physical strength (and, on the rare occasion, bravery) is required. I fall down on the job if the most rudimentary clerical precision is called for. My mind is a whirl; concocting stories, nursing regret, scheming, and—more often than I like—suspecting the worst. I talk too much and I listen intently.

This past February, suffering through a three-month hangover, the result of a failed effort at a career change, I am untethered, undone really.

Years of magazine writing had taught me to trust that after a requisite period of inward-aimed anger, doubt, and pity, inspiration always returns. The plan had been to bide my time, await the rebound strategy, the plan for renewal or reinvigoration that has always been just one good night’s sleep away.

If only I could sleep.

A Love Story, In No Way A Cautionary Tale

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On Sale at Book-Sellers Nationwide and on-line
For seven months, Manny Howard—a lifelong urbanite—woke up every morning and ventured into his eight-hundred-square-foot backyard to maintain the first farm in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in generations. His goal was simple: to subsist on what he could produce on this farm, and only this farm, for at least a month. The project came at a time in Manny’s life when he most needed it—even if his family, and especially his wife, seemingly did not. But a farmer’s life, he discovered—after a string of catastrophes, including a tornado, countless animal deaths (natural, accidental, and inflicted), and even a severed finger—is not an easy one. And it can be just as hard on those he shares it with.
We now think more about what we eat than ever before, buying organic for our health and local for the environment, often making those decisions into political statements in the process. My Empire of Dirt is a ground-level examination—trenchant, touching, and outrageous—of the cultural reflex to control one of the most elemental aspects of our lives: feeding ourselves.
Unlike most foodies with a farm fetish, Manny didn’t put on overalls with much of a philosophy in mind, save a healthy dose of skepticism about some of the more doctrinaire tendencies of locavores. He did not set out to grow all of his own food because he thought it was the right thing to do or because he thought the rest of us should do the same. Rather, he did it because he was just crazy enough to want to find out how hard it would actually be to take on a challenge based on a radical interpretation of a trendy (if well-meaning) idea and see if he could rise to the occasion.

If you’re still abusing Oxy, stop right now.


The studio was so contaminated that the NYPD could only bag the solid remains before the had to evacuate the scene. The front door key was not located and the door locked behind them as they exited. As a result the scene and its contents became the jurisdiction of the NYS Surrogate Court.

Dan is dead. Phone to my ear, walking to work, a brisk morning in October. A shock, if not a surprise; that’s how I received the news from Rachel. Mother fucker, my tight response. When?

That’s the thing. That’s the terrible thing.

Oh. Shit.

The detective said he was in there, in his studio, maybe two and a half weeks before…

Right—the horror registering immediately.

The detective, he told Sally, Dan’s sister, did you ever meet Sally? Anyway. She said that they had to use dental records to get a positive ID.

Fuck.

Right? Terrible.

Why didn’t the neighbors?

They did. Eventually. I mean, just a crazy coincidence, but I know the people right downstairs from Dan. Even after Dan stopped talking to me. I didn’t know where they lived, just. They complained to the building manager about a smell, but the building didn’t do anything. Then there was a stain on their ceiling.

Fuck.

Right? And maggots.

Fuck.

They said. Anyway, they had to be evacuated.

That’s right.

But before that, John noticed Dan’s light on at crazy hours over a few days. Noticed from the street. From Houston Street. Dan wouldn’t answer his phone when John called. John left messages. The light stayed on. So John went up to knock on his door. That’s when he knew. Dan had been so crazy, John worried that if he was with the cops when they knocked down his door and he wasn’t dead. Worried that Dan would cut him off again. They’d only started talking again recently. So John went to the roof, climbed down the fire escape to the open window. He couldn’t even get near it. The smell. Just called 911 from the fire escape.

Right.

The smell.

Right.

So terrible.

I bet. Fuck.

Sally is coming in from Alaska on Monday to collect Dan’s things.

So the studio has been cleaned up?

I guess. I don’t know. The police took out the body.

Yeah, but there’ll be plenty to clean up after two weeks.

You think?

God yes.

Really?

Horrible, hon.

Really?

Sally can’t be the first one through that door. No way.

Right. Of course not.

I’ll do it.

Really?

I guess.

God.

What’s the cop’s name, d’you know?

I’ll ask Sally. She knows. She says he’s been great.

His name and number. Precinct maybe?

Okay.

***

Phone rings just once. Madden.

Detective Madden?

Speaking.

This is Manny Howard. I’m trying to help out Sally, Dan’s  sister. I’m a friend of Dan’s. Dan died. You…

Right. You’re Sally’s brother?

Dan’s friend. Trying to help Sally. Want to clear the way for her. Get into the apartment where Dan died. Make sure it’s clean.

It’s not clean. It’s sealed. You don’t want to go in there.

Rachel said you caught a bad job.

One of the worst.

She said…

Rachel?

Another friend. A friend of Dan’s. Trying to help Sally. I want to go in there first, secure what I can of Dan’s. If I get enough maybe she won’t need to go in there.

She shouldn’t go in there.

Right.

There won’t be much worth keeping.

It was bad?

We couldn’t locate a key. We couldn’t stay in there long enough to find a key. Collected the remains and let the door lock behind us. Had to seal the scene. Usually gaining access is police business. If we have a key, we hold on to it for next of kin. That’s the job. Usually, say, if Sally provided notarized permission I could give you the key. There’s no key, so it becomes a, I forget the precise term, it becomes a matter for the court. I want to be helpful. It’s a terrible thing.

Yes. Sally sent me all the documentation including notarized permission from Dan’s dad to enter the apartment. I also have the death certificate. I have what the court needs. I’m thinking I can just go in to the apartment, see what happens.

I see. The lock. The lock. It’s nothing that couldn’t be carded open.

Right?

You know, a credit card is all you’d need.

I see.

If you have the documentation. Like I said. It’s not a police matter.

Right.

***

Sitting in the chair at the barber shop, I unload on longtime barber and and friend, Ray. My friend, Dan, remember I told you we had a fight. He was calling all the time, getting crazier and crazier. I did what you told me, told him, ‘don’t call me all fucked up’?

Yeah?

Dead.

Unh huh.

Alone.

Right.

Two weeks. Alone.

Sorry.

Decomp so bad they had to use dental records. And, you know, that’s the thing. The Dan I know, love, that Dan, wouldn’t have lay rotting in his apartment for two weeks with no one. Dan had friends, tight friends. Dan was important to people. But he’s dead and lying in a lake of his own juice, food for, you know.

Sometimes I hate The Disease.

Unh huh.

Really. People talk about evil, you know, wonder if there’s such a thing, if it walks the earth, you know?

Right?

The Disease, it’s Him—you know. That’s what I think anyway. It grabs you by the face, separates you from everything you love, that loves you.

It was like a wild animal on Dan. Two years is all it took. He was working, doing what he loved, getting paid, you know, paid to take photographs. Two years, reduced to, fuck. You know. They had to ID him using dental records.

Yeah?

Of course.

Right.

Remember that hot spell two months ago?

The Disease, it doesn’t discriminate, Rich, poor, smart, stupid, gay, straight, handsome, skinny, fat. It’ll take you if it can. It’s happy to have you.

It was probably Oxy.

Doesn’t matter.

Right. You know, I thought he was drinking. So stupid. He left a message on my phone that night: The Night. I didn’t check it. You know? He leaves so many. They’re all the same. I just. It was on there for two weeks. The whole time he’s in the apartment. If I’d checked…

You’re not feeling guilty, right?

No, no. It’s just. It would have been so easy.

There was nothing you could do.

Still, two weeks.

Nothing.

Dan wouldn’t want me to feel this way. That wasn’t Dan. Anyway I’m going in to clean out his things. Clean out his things for his sister. Sally.

That’s what’s gonna make you feel better?

I guess.

You don’t need to do that.

Sally can’t.

So? You?

Yeah, I guess. Maybe. Thought I’d call around figure out what I can expect, figure out what’s in there.

There is nothing in there.

Right.

No. No. Nothing.

Still.

***

After half a dozen phone calls to companies that specialize in bio hazard clean-ups (crime scenes, shut-ins, suicides, that sort of thing) I contact someone willing to give me advice, even after I tell him I don’t have the $5,000 it will cost to properly decontaminate the scene.

The thing is, Manny, it’s not really just a smell, it’s microbial. It’s alive. It gets into everything, anything with fibers. I say don’t do it. But if you do go in, don’t stay long, 2-3 minutes, most. Wear a respirator and get those coveralls, the Tyvek, or it’ll get into your clothes. And get a pair of those Tyvek booties. Even if you don’t step in something you can see, you’ll track that smell on the soles of your shoes. If you get in your car it’ll get in the carpet. You won’t get it out. Once you smell that smell you’re gonna be smelling it the rest of your life anyway, you don’t want it really in your car. When you leave, back out of the apartment and throw everything you’re wearing back in behind you and close the door.

What’s it going to be like?

Impossible to say.

Yeah, right. Two weeks in there.

Every scene is different. Was he on the floor or the bed?

Don’t know.

Suicides are usually on the bed.

Don’t know.

If he’s on the floor all, that floor’s gotta come up, subfloor usually, too.

The downstairs neighbors had to be evacuated. He came through the ceiling.

So he was probably on the floor. Mattress usually soaks up a lot of it.

Oh yeah?

Not always, though.

Ha.

What’s in the apartment? What’s in there still? The detective who caught the case said flies and maggots, millions in the lake?

If it stays warm, they could still be there. Nothing dries up if it’s hot. When it cools down it dries, no more food. Maggots die.

Hah.

No way to say for sure.

Right.

***

The Jumper


Once upon a time spring was “jumping season” in NYC. My office window offers a panoramic view of the Brooklyn Bridge. For better or worse, before September 11, 2001, you could count on at least two people making a high-profile dive off one of the two stone towers of the historic bridge. That was then…


NYPD pursues jumper up the cable to the tower

NYPD pursues "jumper" up the cable to the tower

The Jumper

The Brooklyn Bridge

by Manny Howard

I recently spent an afternoon watching a guy

entertaining three of New York’s finest on the

eastern parapet of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was

wearing what looked like a green track suit.

“Jumper!” the call

went up in the office.

The view here is

extraordinary: the

Brooklyn Bridge, the

World Trade Towers,

the financial district,

the Statue of Liberty,

and the harbor

beyond. We had

seats in the sky box

for this one and

watched as the P.D. cleared the roadway of traffic (both to and from Manhattan), set up command posts, moved two pods of Emergency Service Unit officers (the name they give a S.W.A.T. team these days) into position, one on the cables below him and one on the parapet with him. We shared a pair of binoculars, looking through them at the Jumper, who didn’t look like the kind of guy who anybody had paid much attention to before. I don’t know why we all agreed about this, because even with the binoculars it was impossible to tell much of anything. Maybe black, maybe Hispanic. Somebody said he was an Arab. Maybe

Thirty, maybe twenty, he was wearing a baseball cap backward on his head.

Regardless, he had his audience now. There were the three cops in the first ESU unit, two helicopters, two harbor patrol boats, half the tourists in downtown Manhattan, and us. Why hadn’t he jumped already? we asked, handing the binoculars around.

Why don’t the cops just grab him? They were three big guys after all. The one closest was sitting Indian-style right next to Jumper whose feet dangled over the tower. That cop was tethered to the other two guys and the bridge’s super structure. He could just reach out and boom.

Like that.

But Jumper just kept on talking, gesticulating—angry sometimes, sometimes morose.

“He looks a little dingey,” observed someone in the office, handing off the binoculars to pick up a call ringing through on her desk. “We’ll have the meeting in five minutes,’ suggested someone else, wandering towards the water cooler. Soon thecurious crowd at the window thinned to just two of us.

The P.D. had inflated a giant yellow and white mattress thingy on the ground below the parapet. Jumper just talked and talked. “He’s not going anywhere,” said the other guy at the window, walking back to his desk.

“Five bucks says he goes,” I said.

“Dude,” scolded my officemate.

“You can’t bet on that,” said someone else looking up from her computer. I watched for a while longer trying to keep the binoculars in focus. Then I picked up the phone and called a friend in midtown. I explained the situation.

“How long’s he been with the police?” asked the friend.

“Going on twenty minutes.”

“He’s not jumping. No way. These guys jump in the first couple a minutes if they’re gonna go. No way he jumps.”

“So?”

“Five says he doesn’t jump.”

“I’ll call you.” I said and hung up the phone. The afternoon sun was making it hard to see what was going on but the two cops supporting the negotiator were leaning on the railing on top of the parapet like they were on break now. Bored stiff I figured. Each had one leg up on the railing, the one with the hard hat on had his right arm slung like a wing over the top bar. The cop on point, squatting, stood up now and shook out his legs and Jumper just talked and talked. I took a call and made two. “Is he still up there?” a voice called from the conference room.

“Yep. The cops look pretty bored. I bet this was going to be the highlight of the shift for most of those guys. Now, I don’t know.”

“Yell if something happens.”

“I imagine I will.”

Jumper must have looked down and seen the yellow mattress inflated bellow him. The Eastern parapet, the one in Brooklyn, isn’t in the East River. There’s a cobblestone park below it that’s quite nice to visit just after sunset when the skyline lights start to shine. Anyway, Jumper got pretty agitated and triedto scoot around the other side of the tower, away from the mattress-thingy. He did this on his belly and hung his legs out over the tower to show he meant business.

“He’s moving!” I yelled.

The meeting in the conference room broke up and our windows were full as the three cops dropped to their knees and crawled towards him. He waved his arms wildly.

We all made the same sound when he started to drop. A loud strangled gasp with a curse mixed in there. Jumper spun spread eagle, maybe three revolutions, before he hit an outcropping in the tower half-way down. He only made it half way, though. As he fell he hung pretty close to the granite (quarried in Vineyard Haven, Maine) that the tower’s made of. The ambulance guys are trying to figure a way to get him back onto the roadway right now. They don’t seem to be in much of a hurry, though. The three ESU cops are still on the top of the tower. One guy, I’m guessing the lead negotiator, seems pretty broken up.

Traffic out of Manhattan is starting to pick up again, now. It’s just about rush hour. I must say, it tightened me up a bit watching him spin like he did.I sure wish I hadn’t made that bet.

First Published: http://www.mrbellersneighborhood.com/sec9/jumper.html