“Joker” invites comparison with “Taxi Driver.” Some people might even claim that Joker is Taxi Driver for millennials. If that is true, let’s think about what that means.
I was about 21 years old when I first rented Taxi Driver, on DVD, from the video store. I’d heard that the guy who shot Reagan had been affected by the movie, so I decided to watch it mostly from an historical perspective. I watched the movie, sat for about five minutes thinking, and then I watched it all over again. Then I watched the documentary. The next day I watched the film again.
Taxi Driver follows an insomniac cabbie named Travis Bickle, a loner, a Vietnam vet (in a scene where Robert DiNero does pushups in his kitchen, his back is covered in whip scars) as he forms a plan to Do Something, anything, to declare his existence.
Joker’s protagonist seems to have a similar motivation. He is a loser by any normal standard, and he can’t seem to make friends with anyone. But there is a difference. Travis Bickle is unhappy, but he does not appear to other characters in the film to be mentally ill. He holds a job, lands a date with a beautiful woman, his co-workers joke with him. Travis Bickle’s problem is that he unconsciously sabotages himself. He takes the beautiful woman to an x-rated movie theatre. He toughens himself by holding his wrist over a stove flame and does a regimen of pushups, then eats a meal made of bread, milk, honey about 10 tablespoons of sugar and whiskey in a bowl. He pushes his TV stand with his foot further, further, until the TV falls and breaks, and then he buries his face in his hands as if to say “Why did you do that!” The effect is that the viewer understands that, yes, the world in which Travis Bickle lives is filthy and he is surrounded by seedy characters, but this is to some extent the result of faults in Travis’ behaviors. Almost as though, at some level, Travis wants to live in his environment, because it allows him to reinforce his misanthropy and his feeling of martyrdom.
Joker’s protagonist never has a chance. He is portrayed as being mentally ill at the beginning of the film, having spent time in a mental hospital. His coworkers are mean to him, he is the victim of a beat down while dressed as a clown (his job), and then his boss doesn’t believe he was beat up, so he docks his pay. One of his coworkers gives him a gun (the film seems to suggest that the coworker wants to get Joker in trouble), which he then drops while performing at a children’s hospital. A woman on a bus yells at him for being nice to her kid. While riding the subway, three drunk rich kids start to beat him up. Even Batman’s dad, who is running for mayor, punches Joker in the face. Oh, and Joker lives with his mom and used to get beat up by her boyfriend as a kid. Okay, so the guy is mentally ill and very unlucky. I mean the guy gets beat up two days in a row by strangers.
I get it, this is a fictional Gotham City, it’s not supposed to be the real world. But that’s kind of the problem with this movie. It seems to take itself seriously; it seems to want to make a comment on mental illness and the subculture that doesn’t get laid and hates the trust fund people. But to get to the point that the viewer feels some kind of sympathy for the anti-hero, the film has to make the world in which the character lives so brutal that it stops being a real world. It’s like the film wants to have it both ways: it wants to say, “See, society drives people to be like the Joker,” and also, “This is not society as it really exists.” Some people who identify with the Joker may feel that the world is the way it is presented in the movie, but they are delusional. Everybody has a good day every now and then, and they can make something out of it, maybe. The Joker has never had a good day in his life. So he kills people. Is that some kind of moral?
Even if you have not seen Taxi Driver, you know the scene where DiNero stands in front of a mirror and practices tough talk. “You talkin’ to me? Well I don’t see anybody else here. Okay. Take THAT ya FUCK!” There is a very similar scene in Joker, where the character pretends to meet a girl on a dance floor and fantasizes about shooting a guy that’s with her, but he accidentally shoots a hole in his wall. There’s another scene where he walks into an automatic door. So the Joker is bumbling. Travis Bickle is methodical: he cuts a curtain rod and fashions a kind of holster so he can hide a gun in his sleeve and have it drop into his hand. He walks up behind a robber while shopping at a bodega, points the gun at his head, says, “Hey,” waits for the robber to turn around, then shoots him. When, in the end of the movie, Bickle goes on his killing spree, it is unexpected, but not surprising. When Joker goes on his killing spree, I think he was the only one in the theatre who didn’t see it coming.
So the biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know whether the Joker is already a psychopath, or “society” makes him one. It seems to suggest that he is already looney when the film starts. So then, what is the point of the film?
Roger Ebert almost always gave at least a half of a star, unless the movie was so aggressively bad or morally bankrupt that he could find no cinematic value to it whatsoever. One film that he awarded zero stars was called “I Spit on Your Grave.” In this movie, a woman is terrorized and raped and tortured and left for dead over the course of an hour and a half, and then she gets her revenge by terrorizing and torturing the men who terrorized and raped and tortured her. “The whole point of this movie seems to be to show such awful things being done to one person that you don’t feel so bad when they do awful things to other people,” (I’m paraphrasing Ebert). But the problem is that the viewer doesn’t feel that any justice has been done, just that a woman had her life ruined and then was just as bad to the bad people as the bad people were to her. Is that entertainment?
What makes Joker watchable is Joachim Phoenix’s performance. He does a very good job of seeming mentally ill. And that’s what most of the movie is, watching Joachim Phoenix act mentally ill. But you could probably save $15 and talk to John outside Lionheart if you want to see someone act mentally ill. Or you can watch the President speak at one of his rallies.
Probably I am being too hard on this movie, but it almost literally begs to be contrasted with Taxi Driver. It has DiNero in it. The characters pretend to shoot themselves in the heard with a gun made out of their index and ring fingers, just like DiNero did in his closeup at the end of the climax of Taxi Driver. If a film is going to try so hard to draw a parallel between itself and a classic, then it raises the critical bar.
The cinematography of Taxi Driver moves the plot. In one scene, Travis Bickle looks at the bubbles in an Alka Selzer, and the camera zooms in and holds the shot for half a minute as the background noise of diner conversations fades out. This says “Travis Bickle is zoned out.” In another scene, Bickle stands talking into a payphone, and you hear him apologize and rationalize his having taken Betsy to an x-rated movie for a date. The camera pans away so Bickle’s voice is off screen, while the shot shows an empty hallway for 45 seconds. The message: Loneliness. The only scene that really stands out to me from Joker is one where he dances on some steps in the sunlight in his Joker outfit. The message: the Joker is insane. But I already knew that.
Taxi Driver’s characters are multi dimensional. You kind of don’t like Betsy, but you see why Travis would be attracted to her, and she gives him a chance. You don’t care for the pimp, Harvey Keitel, but he is funny and seems to want to protect the 13 year old prostitute that he whores out. Travis Bickle is actually likable, he seems to have a sense of morality. The result is a feeling of foreboding and loss as the film reaches its climax and you realize that all of these characters are going to die because of the choices that they made. Joker’s characters are as one dimensional as you can get. There are Drunk White Rich kids, who throw french fries at nice girls and punch clowns in the face, so they have to get shot. There is a Mean Fat Coworker who gets the Joker in trouble, so he has to get stabbed in the neck and eye and his head smashed against a wall a bunch of times. There is a nice midget who is always friendly, so he does not have to get killed. There is a Delusional Mother who let her boyfriend beat up the Joker when he was a child, so she has to get smothered. There is a talkshow host who made fun of the Joker for being a terrible comedian, so he has to get shot on live TV. There is a rich guy whose wife wears pearls, so he has to get shot and his wife has to get shot. The only character development in the movie is when the Joker draws a letter in his notebook.
John Wick was entertaining. John Wick kills sixteen thousand three hundred and forty-seven people, because they killed his dog. There is no universe in which any of that makes sense, so you just watch the film and admire it for the complexity of the choreographed fight scenes. Joker only kills six people in the movie, so there is significance to the murders. It’s like the movie wants you to think that murdering is okay as long as you’ve been treated badly enough by everybody and never had a good day in your life. I’m not sure that’s a great message to put out there, because when people are depressed and lonely, they forget about any good days that they’ve had, and they think they have never had a good day and everyone has treated them badly and they are miserable through no fault of their own. Does that mean that they should go murder people? Maybe they ought to just go on vacation, or to a bar, or get a hobby. Woodworking is nice. Or hiking.
When we left Silkie’s Crows Nest marina, the guy who let us use the ramp said “You been here a week and you ain’t left Sharpsburgh yet. This three or four month trip of yours is gonna take you three or four years!” Well, now we are in Portsmouth, Ohio, 362 miles south of Sharpsburgh. That means we’re traveling an average of 10.34 miles a day. At that rate we will make it to New Orleans 158 days from now, around March 11th.
Sam and I would be quite broke and in need of chiropractic care well before that point. Probably some psychiatric care as well.
The problem isn’t that our boat is unsafe or that we didn’t plan well ahead of time for the expedition. I’ve been planning the trip for almost a year, building the boat for eight months and fundraising since May. But we barely finished putting the boat together when we got hit by the hurricane flooding in Sharpsburgh, our primary motor died after a week, and as a result we keep having to spend two days to a week on shore as we get motors fixed or make changes to the boat to make it lighter and more maneuverable.
Out of 35 days, we’ve been stuck on shore due to weather or motor problems 21 of those days. Our average when we’re actually moving is 25.85 miles per day, and we’ve had a few days in which we have travelled more than 40. This includes the time we’ve spent locking through more than half the locks on the Ohio, which can take some time out of our day and necessitate stopping as well as slowing down the river’s current.
At that rate we will make it to New Orleans in 55 days, or around December 5th, which is actually about five days before I had originally planned to arrive.
So, everything hinges on getting the motor fixed or getting a new motor that runs.
Even if the motor only works until we get to the Mississippi, I’d be happy to stay close to shore, row for steering, and float with the current for propulsion. But we cannot go through the remaining 9 locks on the Ohio without a motor, at least not with the boat in its current length.
If we cannot get our current motor working, or find a replacement, within a few days, we are going to basically cut the boat down to half it’s size, get rid of all equipment and tools except bare essentials, use the trolling motor for emergency power, and propel the boat, basically, by oar.
The upside to that plan is that we will save on gas and we will look like Arnold Schwarzenegger by the time we get to Louisiana.
This trip is turning into a rehash of my adventures on the Hudson, except the seven boats and five years from those expeditions are all crammed into one, this time.
By the way, this was supposed to be a book tour, so I’ll put a plug in here. My books are called “Coming of Age on the Hudson” and there are two volumes, but they are quick reads. There are pictures. Just make sure you buy the blue copy on Amazon, not the yellow one.
I wanted to explain how we arrived at our funding goal–to explain the cost drivers. It’s probably difficult to imagine how we budgeted for our upcoming adventure, 2,000 miles down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in a homemade barge pushed by a speedboat.
Construction & Equipment
Here is a picture of the Quartermaster’s List–the items that we have to check off as we load our supplies in New Baltimore before shipping them overland to Pittsburgh. The items in black I have acquired over the years or already bought for this expedition. The items in red we still need to procure. Take a glance to see all the different kinds of things we have to bring to navigate the rivers safely, legally, enjoyably and sustainably.
The costs to complete the boat’s construction, equip it for the three-month expedition, and finish the electrical system, add up to $2623.
While the Ohio and Mississippi are not tidal like the Hudson (and therefore will provide current to push us along), and while we will have a windmill-powered electrical system attached to two electric motors to steer, we nonetheless will have fuel requirements. First, in case something goes wrong with our windmills, we are bringing a small generator to supplement our electrical generating ability. More importantly, the Mississippi is a very sinuous river, like a piece of boiled spaghetti that fell on the floor, which means that while we will float generally south, we will constantly be crossing and re-crossing the shipping channels. In order to avoid being run over by commercial tankers, we will have to use a gas motor to stay as close to shore and to cross the channels as quickly as possible. We want to have at least $1000 budgeted for gas. (Subtotal: $3623)
In order to get the barge, the supplies, and the speedboat which will function as a tugboat to Pittsburgh, we will have to rent a Uhaul. We’ve built the barge in sections no longer than 8-feet in one dimension, so that all of the pieces can be loaded into a long Uhaul. We will also have to take a pickup truck with the speedboat on a trailer. New Baltimore, NY and Pittsburgh are 444 miles apart by road. Our fuel miles-per-gallon are going to be pretty horrible. If the Uhaul costs around $400 and each vehicle uses $100 in gas, we’re looking at $600 to get the supplies to their starting point just above Pittsburgh on the Allegheny River. (Subtotal: $4223)
If we budget $2,000 for food, for two people, for 90 days, it comes out to $3.70 per meal. We’re going to be doing a lot of fishing and Ramen Noodle eating so that we can afford to have meals in towns sometimes. (Subtotal: $6223)
The whole point of this trip is to visit as many small towns and big cities as possible. We’re going to try very hard to sleep at anchor or to find people or businesses along the way where we can tie up in a safe place, leave the boat, and explore. But I imagine we will have to pay for dock space in some of the larger cities. Since docking fees can cost $12-$20 per foot, and our barge is 20-feet long, staying at a marina can cost us $240-$400 per night. (Or, the equivalent of 100 of those $3.70 meals.) Were going to avoid it as often as possible, but if we stay at a marina once per month while on this trip, that will cost around $1000. (Subtotal: $7223)
Sam and I are pretty good at making unorthodox repairs to stay afloat, and I have a small backup motor and redundant systems to charge the batteries, but if something goes wrong and we need to buy new batteries (which cost $110 apiece) or have a marine mechanic replace a propellor or service our engine, we would like to have a little reserve cash. $300seems like a good number. (Subtotal $7523)
Sam and I will each have our personal life savings of about $1,000-$1,500 before we set sail, but we will also have our personal bills to pay such as cell phone bills, health/car insurance, loan payments etc over the three month period. So that knocks necessary fundraising down by about $1000, to $6523. Also, I have a security deposit from my apartment worth $1100, assuming the landlord doesn’t try to take it, so that brings the fundraising down to $5423. My GoFundMe is currently at $1380, so Sam and I have to raise $4,043.
Along the way, Sam and I are going to do a little busking. We sing and play a couple of instruments and we’ll put out a tip jar. I’m also going to try and sell as many of my books about Coming of Age on the Hudson as possible. I earn $4.83 cents when I sell a volume on Amazon, so if I sell 1,000, the trip will be paid for! But realistically, we hope to raise the money through a combination of book sales, busking, GoFundMe fundraising, doing casual labor down the rivers, and regular old river charity.
Anyhow, I just wanted to explain how I arrived at the GoFundMe goal, so you didn’t think I was pulling it out of thin air.
Here is a picture of the barge, almost completed, in New Baltimore as of July 19th.
Thank you to everyone who pledged to Kickstarter, but I’m not going to make my funding goal, and Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing site. If you pledged to Kickstarter your credit card will not be charged, and if you could donate instead to my GoFundMe I would greatly appreciate it!
Below is a picture of my quartermaster (supplies) list for the three month trip. The funding will help me obtain supplies (although I already have a lot of the equipment like anchors, motors, batteries, etc) and provisions along the way. The fundraiser will also help me cover 1) transporting the boat overland to Pittsburgh on 8/28, which will require renting a Uhaul and the gas for another pickup truck; 2) docking fees which range from $12-20 per foot in some areas; 3) fuel which I need to run an outboard to stay out of the channel to avoid commercial traffic as the Mississippii meanders; 4) food for Sam and I; 5) finalizing the electrical system on the boat; and, 6) an emergency fund for repairs along the way.
Ever since I was 21 and planning to build my first boat on the Hudson River, I’ve daydreamed about taking a raft down the Mississippi. Thirteen years later, I’m actually doing it. Starting on September 1st, 2018, I’m leaving from Pittsburgh on a homemade boat, and hoping to get to New Orleans about three months later.
I started drawing the plans, making a schedule, setting a budget, and gathering materials back in January. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I looked at some of the designs for my previous boats and picked out the best parts. The new boat actually incorporates pieces of all of the rafts I took down the Hudson, plus hardware from a sailboat I bought but never used, a motorboat I bought but never used, several canoes, a sunfish, and a rowboat. For that reason, I decided to name her Float of the Phoenix.
As you can see from the picture above, I designed the boat to be two boats. The front 20-feet are essentially a floating barge with an 8×16 foot cabin. In this barge are rooms for me and my partner on this trip, Sam, a commode, a galley, and a bar. This barge will be propelled, very slowly, by two electric trolling motors (which I have left over from my Hudson River trips), as well as a small 4.5 horsepower engine. These motors will be enough to steer the boat, but hardly enough to push it into a headwind or upriver against a current. At the back of the living-space/barge, the boat interfaces with the speedboat which I bought in March. The speedboat has a 50 horsepower engine, which can propel the entire rig at around 3 mph. (Given that the current on the Mississippi runs around 3-4 mph, this would provide 7-8 mph movement relative to the shoreline when piloting the boat downstream). Or, the speedboat could be detached, the barge could be piloted alone or remain anchored, and the speedboat can travel 35 mph. Kind of like how the starship Enterprise-D has can separate its battle bridge from its saucer section. The combination of the two crafts gives us the space to live and store supplies, and the security to bring equipment like computers, but also a one-day range of 60 or more miles if one person stays with the barge while the other uses the speedboat.
I discussed the boat design with Mike, my partner on the Hudson River trips, during the first three months of this year. The main points were how big to make the vessel, how to get it to Pittsburgh (the only water route to the Mississippi is through the Great Lakes, over Michigan, through a canal at Chicago, and down a portion of the Upper Mississippi, which would add thousands of miles to the trip), and what to use for floatation. I decided I had to transport the boat over land in a Uhaul, so each piece had to be de-constructible to portions small enough to fit into the bed of a truck. I also decided that the best kind of floatation would be pontoons, as opposed to a displacement hull. We tried looking for second-hand pontoons from a pontoon boat, but they cost thousands. I contacted a company from New Zealand that makes plastic pontoons, but they said that the cost of transporting them to the U.S. would be many factors higher than the cost to me to purchase them. I thought about building my own pontoons out of plywood, but I’ve never been able to make them hold water, and they would cost a lot of money and time. I thought about using large-diameter sewer pipe, but, again, only one store stocks them in my area and they wanted $400 for a 16-foot pipe. Meanwhile, other years I have used 55-gallon plastic barrels and they worked great. I used to buy them for $13 apiece from a gourmet tomato sauce factory in Catskill, but they’re out of business. It takes 450 pounds to submerge a 55-gallon barrel. They are 2.5 feet in height. I could make two pontoons, each from seven barrels laid end-to-end, which would give me 6,300 pounds of displacement. I found a car wash in East Greenbush that sold the barrels for $10 apiece. They got their detergent delivered in them. So Dad and I drove across the river and got them on a rainy Sunday afternoon in March. In case you’re wondering, a standard pickup bed fits exactly 14 55-gallon drums standing upright. We brought the barrels to my parent’s house in New Baltimore, where, for the previous month, I’d been creating a work area in the woods behind their house.
The problem with using barrels on a boat as opposed to a dock is that barrels are designed to float, but not to cut through water. The way most docks are designed, and the way I’d designed Assiduity back in 2009 (on which this vessel’s design is loosely based), the barrels are tucked up under the decking of the dock, strapped into place individually with fire hose, and there are gaps between each barrel of several inches. When a boat constructed this way is pushed through the water, not only the first barrel but every barrel gets pushed through the water, creating drag. Meanwhile, every vessel has a hull speed, which is the speed at which the vessel moves through the water most efficiently. Hull speed is based on the length and shape of a hull. Basically, when the bow of a hull cuts through the water, it creates a wave. At slower-than-hull-speed, that wave breaks along the sides of the boat, creating drag. At hull-speed, the wave breaks immediately behind the motor at the stern of the boat, creating the least amount of frictional resistance. (Boats can travel above hull speed, but it requires exponentially more power AKA fuel consumption for every integer increase in speed).
To overcome the problem of 14 barrels making 14 individual waves, I decided to combine the barrels into pontoons. This would come with a double benefit: not only would I greatly decrease the drag on the boat by presenting a solid shape to the water, but in the event that any part of a pontoon is punctured, it would only damage 1/7 of the pontoon, because each pontoon is composed of seven individually-sealed barrels.
I could only think of fiberglass for combining the barrels. And before I could fiberglass I had to get the barrels into a pontoon shape at least temporarily. I decided to use Gorilla Tape. It took me one day of working alone, and a few hours with my friend Andrea, to get the pontoons duct taped together. For ease of transport, we made two sets of 4-barrel long pontoons, and two sets of 3-barrel long pontoons.
Now the fiberglass cloth could be laid across the barrels without falling into the spaces between them. It didn’t matter that the duct tape will eventually not hold up to the stress. It just needed to hold the barrels together until the fiberglass hardened the barrels into a single shell.
Fiberglassing is not fun. You have to use an epoxy, which is a two-part chemical that hardens when mixed. A “hardener”–the smaller container in the picture–is mixed with a “resin”, which begins the reaction. The mixture has to be exact, a few drops too much hardener and the mixture will cure in just a few minutes; too few drops and it will never harden. The cheapest epoxy I could find was from Older Timer Industries, on Amazon, for $87 a gallon. [TIP: If you’re ever using epoxy to fiberglass, get all of your materials set up first, like your brushes, and your fiberglass strips cut to size, because once you mix the epoxy you’re working against a ticking clock. Also, put the hardener into your mixing container first, and the resin on top. It is counterintuitive but it will help you mix the materials together more easily.]
Fiberglass also is not cheap. Luckily I had a roll laying around since 2010 when I built my last boat. Fiberglass comes in a long roll. You lay it on whatever you’re building or fixing and then you paint the epoxy on it. The epoxy gets absorbed into the threads of the fiberglass and when it hardens it makes a composite of a hard kind of amber with strong fibers running through it. It’s the same principle that makes bricks, which are dried mud and straw, so much stronger than just dried mud or straw. There are two tricks with fiberglass. The first is to select the right weave size as you’re buying it. Too small a weave (less than, say 1.5 oz) and you need to put many layers on before you get a good amount of strength; too big a weave (say, over 5 oz) and it gets hard to get the epoxy to permeate the weave and make a strong bond (although you could fix this problem by contacting an epoxy supplier and getting them to make you an epoxy with a lower viscosity). The second trick is to cut the fiberglass into the largest strips that can go around whatever curve you’re fiberglassing without wrinkling. You can bend fiberglass a little bit better than you can wood or plywood, which can only bend along one axis at a time, but if you try to fiberglass over a long conical surface with a sheet of ‘glass the size of a bed sheet you’re going to end up with a lot of wrinkles because it won’t lay flat.
In the picture above, I could use one long sheet of glass, because the barrels are cylindrical but not conical. That is to say, the fiberglass only has to bend in one direction–down–not sideways or diagonally.
Once I finished fiberglassing the pontoons, I started to think about what I could put on the front of them to make them cut, rather than plow, through the water. I discussed the idea of making shapes out of cardboard and taping them in place at the front of each pontoon and then fiberglassing them, with my father, but he had another idea. Back in the woods, I’d left my 2010 boat, Assembly Required, for the last eight years. Mike and I had made that boat by covering a canoe with plastic wrap and then fiberglassing it and taking the mould off when it hardened. So it had two bows made of fiberglass that were shaped like canoe bows. I took a saws-all and cut these tips off [insert mohel joke here].
It was a little janky trying to attach the tips of Assembly Required to the bows of the pontoons, because the tips widened a little wider than the barrels. Eventually the barrels would be sort of arrow shaped ====> rather than completely flush.
Next we took more fiberglass and used it to attach the tips to the pontoons. Sam came down to help on this part of the project. He is going with me on the trip. It helps tremendously to have a second person around when epoxying, or carrying something heavy, or framing, or traveling 2,000 miles down the Ohio and Mississippi over three months.
Mike always suggested filling anything close to the water with foam for extra protection. I decided to fill the pontoon tips with foam because they were the most likely to hit something. If they sprung a leak, the water could only fill as much space as not taken up by the foam I put in. I cut pieces of foam from a sheet of 2″ insulation foam I’d had lying around since 2012, and then I sprayed expanding foam into all the crevices. I used two cans.
Then it was time to duct tape the tops of each pontoon, to present a solid surface for the fiberglass.
Then I coated the whole kit and caboodle with more layers of fiberglass. The 1″ stick in the picture is in place to help the boat track through the water (move in a straight line).
In the meantime, I happened to see on Facebook Marketplace that a man in Castleton, across the river from Coeymans, was selling a rowboat for $200. I wasn’t quite sure how to support the deck of my barge if it was going to be 12-feet wide as planned, because the floor joists would have to stretch over eight feet unsupported between the pontoons. If I had something like a rowboat between them, it would provide support beneath the deck and also give me a lot of storage space. I checked out the boat, it seemed in good shape, it was light enough that two people could lift it, it was made of fiberglass, it was approximately the same depth as my pontoons, and it had flat gunnels (side walls) so that I could run the floor joists of the barge across and they would sit evenly. I bought the boat, Dad drove his truck up to Albany, met Sam and I, and we brought it back to New Baltimore. Sam and I tried the boat out in the Hudson with a trolling motor and found she moved well, and I needed just to patch a small hole in the stern and to get a bilge plug to fill the bilge hole.
Now it was time to paint the pontoons with a pigmented “gel coat.” I actually did not do this. The gel coat I bought off of Amazon was the wrong product, and I was in a hurry to get the pontoons done (I only had one whole day and one morning a week to work on the boat during May). Instead I bought an “epoxy paint”–which I had never heard of before–from Shady Harbor Marina in New Baltimore. I could choose from green or red. I thought green was more woodsy.
I used the green epoxy paint on the bottom of the rowboat, too, and put about ten coats on the seam on the transom where the rowboat leaked. When I was finished, it was nice to see the three hulls all matching in color.
But it’s as important to wear latex gloves when using epoxy paint as it is when using epoxy! I had been in a hurry that day and didn’t want to bother. Bad choice. After washing with gasoline, soap and water, and a pumice stone, this was the best I could do. I had to wait tables that night looking like I had moldy fingernails.
The pontoons had taken almost a month and a half to finish. The reason they took so long was because I work on the boat in New Baltimore, and live and work in Albany as a waiter. Generally I would leave Albany at 8 a.m., put a coat of fiberglass on the pontoons between 8:45-11:30, and then I would have to drive back because it would take at least two hours for the epoxy to harden.
The decking was much more straightforward framing work, except that I had to plan it in sections which could be easily moved and transported.
The final boat will be 12×20, which dimensions are easily divisible by four, to keep my cutting to a minimum. (Plywood comes standard in a 4×8 foot sheet; 2x4s come standard in 8-foot lengths.)
I brought the two front sections of the pontoons and the rowboat down into my parent’s yard, where it is flat, and where there are electrical outlets nearby. I placed the hulls within a 12-foot square.
The front of the pontoons (pictured above to the left and right of the rowboat) were almost exactly 12-feet in length, as was the rowboat, so that I could frame a deck by building three 4×12 foot sections of deck and bolting them together to produce a 12×12 foot deck, or 144 square feet. [144? Gross!]
I’d gone to the hardware store to buy the pre-treated 2x4s for the decking, but I forgot about all the bracing I would need, every 16-inches between the crown and base plates of the deck frame, to support the plywood. So I went around the “boat graveyard” in the back of my parent’s house and took all the 2x4s off of my old contraptions, raided my workshop for odds and ends, and ended up with the 30 pieces of 45″ joists that I needed.
This was June 7th. Dad and I framed out the deck sections in the yard during the mid-late afternoon (I happened to have a Thursday off).
Many hands make light work. I have a paragraph in Coming of Age on the Hudson about how one extra person does not cut your labor time in half, but by 4/5, because one extra person just makes it so much easier to frame something or cut something by holding the other end of a board so you don’t have to make a jig or hold a board in place with your foot while putting a screw in with your left hand and holding a screw gun in your right. Anyhow Mike and Sam (my friend from last year’s Hudson River boat) came down on Thursday evening and helped me bolt the frames together. Sam was much better than I am at drilling holes so that the bolts pass through in a straight line and don’t get stuck in the wood (because he measured everything precisely), and I asked Mike to focus on how to make a jig that would allow for the 4.5 hp gas motor to vice onto the back of the boat.
I took a 12-foot board and bolted it through the 4×12-foot sections to hold them all in place. When we were done, I could really see what the dimensions of the boat would be.
Loading the Pieces Individually
As I said, I had to construct the pieces in fragments small enough that I could lift them with one other person, and they could fit in a pickup truck, because I will have to disassemble the whole craft and ship it to Pittsburgh. On Friday of last week, Dad and I unbolted everything Mike and Sam and I had bolted together the day before, and shipped it to my friend Jake’s island on the Hudson River.
I was glad to see that we could load all of the deck pieces as well as the two front-halves of the pontoons into the bed of the pickup truck, as planned.
We brought all of the materials to Jake’s island. They would be safe there, so that Sam (the other Sam, who is going on the trip with me), and I could assemble them on the beach inside Jake’s island’s cove on Monday, when we both had a day off of work at the restaurant at which we are jointly employed.
Assembling the Boat for the First Time
On Monday, June 11th, I picked Sam up at his apartment and we drove to New Baltimore to assemble the deck on the pontoons. We hadn’t yet tested the pontoons, or the rowboat after I’d (attempted to) fix the hole in the transom. We drove to Brigg’s Island, the island of which Jake is the caretaker and where we’d build the boat. Brigg’s Island is 1/2 mile south of Coeymans and forms the northern boundary of the Hannacroix Creek. Jake maintains the northern tip, where he has a dock with a sailboat that he and his friends are fixing up. There is a very steep staircase that leads down from the north cliff of the island to the river. To the left of this staircase is an outcropping of rock which protrudes north toward Coeymans. This outcropping creates a natural, small, beach bay approximately 100 feet across. The bottom of this bay is sand. The bay is made of sediment which flows into the bay from the tidal action of the Hudson, because the north side of the island has been filled with silt from dredging the Hudson, so that the “island” is technically now a peninsula, although the easiest access to this bay is from the tip of the island, which Jake owns, by boat, rather than overland, through the jungle which has grown from the deposited silt over 95 years.
I wanted to assemble the boat on the sand beach within the bay, because I was wary of the effect of frequent tides and wakes from barges and speedboats jarring the boat as I took several weeks to assemble it. I preferred to bring the materials to the beach and anchor it in such a way that 3/4 of the time, the boat would be beached (and therefore immune to the effects of wakes, tides, and winds) while 1/4 of the time it would float, so that I could come to the island and test the buoyancy of the pontoons and the motive power of the outboard.
So, Sam and I had to carry the pontoons and the frame down a staircase to the very tip of the island, which is composed of broken rocks which are submerged for 1/2 of the day and dry the other half, and get the pieces around a sheer outcropping where our only choice was to carry each individual piece while wading hip-deep through moss-covered rocks (an endeavor which would require several hours).
Instead, I proposed that we carry the rowboat to the river’s edge at the bottom of Jake’s cliff, load the framing, screws, and tools on top, and I would wade around the island pulling the boat by a rope. Sam agreed, mostly because I emphasized that this was objectively the safest and most time efficient plan.
First we carried the pontoons, individually, down the staircase to the water’s edge. We put them in the water and they floated perfectly. I swam each one to the rock outcropping and shoved them into the cove, because the waves would push them onto the sandy beach just a few yards away. Then we carried the decking down and put it on the center hull.
Sam commented, “Dude, I feel like we’re in the 1800’s on the Erie Canal.” As I pulled him, inside the boat, around the corner of the precipice and dragged him and the boat onto the beach, he sang, “…fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.”
When we’d drove, carried, and pulled the materials into the cove, we were overcome by the picturesqueness of the scene.
After all, what were our friends doing at that moment? They might have been in an office, working at a service job, overcoming a hangover, or playing video games. None of that could compare with the present, in which Sam and I were assembling pieces of our creative projection on a beach on a beautiful spring afternoon.
We assembled all the pieces, vice-gripped the trolling motor and marine battery into place, and installed the 4.5 hp outboard motor, to give it a shakedown trial. The electric motor carried us easily into the river, and then the outboard started up on the first pull, and moved us at least 3 mph. We went south to the mouth of the Hannacroix Creek, in New Baltimore, which is the one 1/4-mile of the Hudson River that I have visited by boat more than any other part of the 150 mile stretch from Albany to NYC (and I have gone past places like Coxsackie or Poughkeepsie four or six times.) I took this picture from the first evening we tried out the motors on the boat.
It was a really grand time putting the boat together with Sam on a deserted beach with tug boats and yachts going up the river and the sun coming down, up to our calves in the water, the birds flying over, the fresh breeze blowing in our faces.
The next week was fun but stressful. I’d agreed to house sit/ cat and dog sit for my good friends Nyssa and Rich. They are two of my closest friends. After the apartment that I’d lived in for nine years burned down, I stayed with them, and their cat slept with me every night, and their dog is always excited to see me. At the same time, a group of folks I’d met on the river last year, who are part of an international organization called Ninth Wave which, among other endeavors, paddles rivers across several continents, were about to canoe the Hudson River, and I’d agreed to pick them up from the train station, let them sleep on Nyssa and Rich’s couches, and then drive them to New Baltimore where they would stage their 2018 river adventure. In exchange for the hospitality, they accompanied me to the hardware store to purchase the lumber for the walls and ceiling of the cabin, and then helped me paint the 35 2x3s and seven sheets of plywood, front and back. I had to paint them so that the lumber would not absorb water and increase in weight by 300%.
On the next Monday, June 28th (three days ago as of this writing), I picked up Sam and we drove to New Baltimore to frame out the walls of the cabin and the ceiling. We accomplished this task by 2 pm. Sam and I went to the Halfway House Tavern, the oldest business in Ravena, for lunch. Then we brought two canoes to Coeymans, lashed them together, and loaded the walls and ceilings on top. I figured it would be easier to paddle the materials 1/3 mile south to Jake’s island than to carry each piece from the top of Jake’s island around the precipice, our bodies semi-submerged.
Once we’d loaded the plywood and walls onto the canoes, there was no place left to sit. Sam and I tried to sit atop the lumber and paddle south, but the wind was blowing north, and twice we tried to paddle south only to be blown back north into the dock from which we’d departed.
I decided the only way to get the materials to the island was for me to take a rope and walk along the shore rocks. I’d done this for eleven miles along the Hudson in 2010, when the wind was so unfavorable that neither our motor nor our oars could overcome the blowback. Sam remained in the boat and used an oar, and later a 2×4, to keep the canoes from getting stuck on the piers that make the dyke along the western shore, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1920s to prevent erosion and maintain the channel depth.
It was a treacherous expedition which took an entire hour to complete. The rope was short enough to be caught, frequently, on the protruding piers and the bolts of metal that extend from them. The rope tended to pull Sam and the canoes with the lumber into the piers. Fallen trees and other obstructions laid over the piers and required me to let go of the rope, overcome them, and meet Sam on the other side, ready to toss the rope, having paddled. The heat index triggered several alarms, so that we could not exert any effort without sweating so profusely that we required cloths to wipe our eyes. Then suddenly a storm broke over us, and it began to rain. Sam shouted jovially,
“Of course! This is our luck, man!”
And I rejoined, sarcastically,
“Hey it could be worse!”
After we did finally make it to the cove, we just checked that the barge was anchored and tied up well, which it was, and unloaded the supplies on it.
Two days ago, June 19th, I went to New Baltimore and met my dad to build the walls of the cabin. I used to not like to work with my dad, because neither of us had any experience working with power tools or framing walls. Now, I love working with my dad. He has learned about framing walls and using power tools from me, as I built boats and a cabin in the woods at Mom and Dad’s property. Especially, though, Dad read my book, and there is a lot of specific information about boatbuilding, and he is a character in it, and we have grown closer since he read the book, and I have come to anticipate his help and ideas in my boat construction.
He is also nearly seventy, and although he is a great help as a physical laborer–greater than, say, any girlfriend I’ve had, even at sixty-nine years old–I don’t want to tax him. So I like to ask Sam or Mike or my other friend Sam to help me move heavy things that require dexterity.
But Dad can certainly carry a framed-out wall, hold up 40 pounds, or suggest unorthodox ideas by which to complete a task, so I certainly like his company.
Anyhow yesterday, Dad and I went to the island. Sam and I had already deposited all of the heavy parts to assemble. Dad and I had to transport our bodies, a cordless drill, screws, some lumber, and a waterproof roof rack that you might put on the top of a car, to the cove, around the precipice that is 5-feet deep at high tide, which it was.
The wind was blowing so hard that white caps were crashing over the surface. Dad asked me about an object he descried in the river, whether it was a stick. I confirmed that it was a whole branch, almost a section of a tree, floating downriver. It took merely ten minutes for it to float a half mile past us, which suggested the river surface was blowing south quite fervently.
The most eventful part of the day was canoeing around the tip of the island into the cove in the heavy wind. Dad, I believe, has only been in a canoe one another time, and we were loaded with supplies. Dad got into the front of the canoe, and a barge passed just as I was pushing us off. A wake broke over the bow and doused him with water. Soon, though we were around the tip of the island and the wind blew us safely into the cove.
I brought the anchor up. It’d held the barge off the beach. When the anchor was aboard, I blew right onto the beach, next to Dad, who waited with the canoe and supplies. Once beached, we began to take the plywood and framed lumber that Sam and I had brought aboard the previous day off the boat. Then we laid out the plywood decking, screwed it in place at the corners, and left a half-section right in the middle unscrewed, as a hatch for access to the rowboat.
Next we screwed the walls into place.
Here’s a view out the front of the cabin. Hopefully I’ll have a similar view for about two and a half months straight this fall.
The hatch opening was 4 ‘ by 4’, and gave access to the entire rowboat for storage space.
Today, June 21st, the first day of summer, Dad and I went to the island and put the roof on. We used a cordless drill to drill pilot holes, and my power drill plugged into an inverter attached to a marine battery to drive the 3″ contractor’s screws. Adding the roof made the structure much more ridged. My phone overheated so I had to take this picture from back atop the ridge on the island, on zoom, so it is a little blurry. That is the status of the boat as of today.
The Next Steps…
The next steps are to finish the construction of the boat, fundraise for the expedition, wire the electrical charging system, and prepare the boat for transportation overland from New Baltimore, NY to Pittsburgh, PA.
The portion of the boat seen above is currently 12-feet square. The finished boat will be 12-feet wide by 20-feet long. Thus I will be extending the length of the boat by eight more feet, the same size as the cabin in the picture. I need to finish fiberglassing and painting the rear portions of the pontoons, frame out two more deck sections like Mike, Sam, Dad and I made ten days ago, and then frame out the rear of the cabin and roof as in this picture. Then I need to purchase and cut the plywood for the sides of the cabin. The cabin will have 2.5-foot windows which will fold down around the entire length of the cabin, beneath which will be screen to help protect us from mosquitos. I will be adding a door to the front and a sort of hinged deck on either side which will extend over two canoes. The rear portion of the deck will interface with the speedboat I bought in February, as a barge interfaces with a tugboat, so I will have to come up with some sort of bumper system that also secures the speedboat in place when driving the barge. Interior work on the cabin and the final paint job will not be completed until we have launched in the Allegheny River above Pittsburgh.
I am using Kickstarter, a fundraising website, to try to raise $7,000 for the trip. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing fundraising site, meaning that people offer to donate to a project but are not charged for their donation unless the total amount of the fundraising goal is pledged. There are incentives built into the donation levels. For example, donating $25 entitles a contributor to a copy of my book, Siren Song, $60 gives a contributor a two-volume copy of Coming of Age on the Hudson, and $500 buys a contributor two days and one night on board the boat as we make our expedition. I have 30 days to raise the $7,000 or I lose any lesser amount pledged. The Kickstarter math is complex, though. If 140 people pledge $50 and get a copy of my book, and it costs me $10 to print a copy and $5 to mail it, and Kickstarter takes it’s 10% fees and charges, I net $4,200. If 700 people donate $10 and receive no books, I net $6,300. It makes it a little hard to budget the total amount of money I will have available until the end of the Kickstarter period. I’m also saving for the trip from my regular employment, but much of that money is currently going to purchase construction materials. Along the way, I am hoping to raise awareness of my book on Amazon.com and sell enough copies to supplement the amount I will start out with. The more books I can sell or money I can raise, the more interesting of a trip I will have, because I will be able to visit more places and see and blog about more things. Since the purpose of the book I’m writing on this project is to compare the political and cultural life of the small towns along the Ohio and Mississippi, and abstract those conditions or policies that are leading some communities to thrive, my fundraising is directly related to the quality of the book. The more I can raise, the longer I can stay on the river, the more places I can dock, the more tributaries I can travel up, the more cultural facilities and local businesses I can visit and patronize.
Also, as of today, I am quitting smoking in order to save money for the trip (as well as for it’s health benefits)!
Having enough electricity on this trip is key. My partner on the trip, Sam, and I will be bringing our laptops, cell phones, and AV equipment in order to blog and podcast along the way. I need to use my phone for the river charts app which requires running my location services. The navigation and anchor lights and interior lights need to run. And I am using two electric trolling motors, mounted on the two sides of the boat, one of which is remote controlled, to steer when the river presents conditions that do not require the outboard motor. To power all of this equipment, I am installing two 1Kw windmill generators, which I already own, but which I need an expert to help me wire to the bank of four deep-cycle batteries which will store our power. We will also bring a generator and, if the budget permits their purchase, solar panels. All of this needs to be wired to a sacrificial fuse which prevents overloading in high gusts of wind and a charge controller, at a minimum.
As of right now, the plan is to take the boat apart on August 1st and store it on land at my parent’s house until the last week of August, and then to rent a Uhaul to transport all the pieces, as well as the speedboat, out to PA. I would much prefer to find a professional driver with a flatbed to bring everything out. I have started to spread the word that I am looking for that service, but if anyone has any advice, please contact me at [email protected]
I will be updating this site at least once a week as the construction progresses.
For the last 5 months, I’ve been planning a new adventure: a 2,000 mile trip down the Ohio and Mississippi from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. I’ve wanted to build a boat and sail the Mississippi since 2006, when I first started building rafts for the Hudson. I figured I would do it after I rafted to NYC, but then that took four years, and by the time I checked that goal off of the list, I had a career at the NYS Legislature. Then I left to go back to school, and by the time that was over I was completely broke. Then I said I would do the Mississippi after I published my first book. But that took longer than expected, and I figured I ought to try and sell some books to make money first. Now it’s time to piss or get off the pot.
The Mississippi has a current, unlike the Hudson which is tidal. I’ve built a houseboat before that floated on barrels. My plan is to do the same thing again, and use the river current to move me slowly south. But because the Mississippi is so sinuous, I needed to acquire a motor of at least 10 horse power to steer myself out of the channel to avoid river traffic. I really wanted a motor of 50 horse power. I’d rather have more power than I need, and use 1/10 of it’s capacity, because at some point there will probably be a strong wind or some kind of contingency where the extra power will come in handy.
A 50 horse power motor costs between $3,500-$5,000. But a guy from Tivoli (on the east bank of the Hudson just north of Rhinebeck) was selling an old boat with a 50 horse power Mercury for $875. He told me I could have the boat and the trailer, too. So on the one really nice day that we’ve had so far in 2018, my dad and I took his truck an hour south across the river and I bought the boat. The guy was nice enough to put two new wheels on the trailer and rewire the break lights and blinkers. We brought the boat back to my parent’s house in New Baltimore, and for the first time in 13 years of Hudson adventures, I became the owner of a boat that isn’t a one-time use item.
It was really a wonderful purchase. I just expected to get a motor that I could put on the barge I was planning to build, and instead I got a whole boat with an electric start, hydraulically powered steering, lights, bilge pump, chairs and cupholders.
So that was a warm day in February, and then it snowed or rained every day I was off after that, and today (Monday, April 9th) was the first day I could go down and work on it.
In the mean time, I’ve been drawing plans. I want the boat to be big enough that me and my partner on the adventure can live relatively comfortably and have our own little space. It needs to be water proof because I will be bringing my computer in order to blog about the communities I visit as I travel down the river. Also, Sam, who is going on the trip with me, plays guitar and harmonic and sings, and I play keyboard and sing, and we want to try our hand at pod casting and busking, so there has to be space for the instruments too. Also, space for a wet bar and an ice maker so I can have afternoon cocktails, a galley for making food, space for storing provisions and clothes and a telescope and a microscope, because I really do want to learn as much as I can about the rivers as I go down.
Rob (my partner on the Hudson adventures) and I have been talking and going over some designs, and it seems like the best plan is really to go with a square wooden platform like a dock that floats on 16 55-gallon plastic barrels and has a 12X10 foot cabin on top. We’ve built a similar vessel before. We discussed using plastic pipes or metal pontoons for floatation but they are too expensive.
My friend Andrew is an engineer and he will help me wire the two 1Kw windmills which I have owned for ten years, which should supply us with more than enough power.
The motor boat I just bought, which I call Delaney, because she looks like a floating DeLorean to me, will function as a tug, interfacing with the cabin in order to steer it at something like 3mph relative to the current, while remaining detachable in order to operate independently at 35 mph.
So, Sam is my co-worker, and he has been in the Israeli army and made road trips across the U.S., and he’s looking for an adventure, and we have complementary strengths, so he is going to join me on the trip. But he is not terribly familiar with my previous river trips, so I thought it would be a good idea for him to come down and see the boat and see a representative day of boat work, which usually entails a lot of driving and hardware store planning and helping my parents move furniture and very little progress gets made, but we get ideas for the next time we work.
And sure enough, that’s how the day went.
I picked up Sam from his Albany apartment at eleven, after getting lost. We drove to my friend’s house, because he was giving my parents’ a patio set and they needed help loading it into their truck. Then we drove to New Baltimore and ate a sandwich with my folks, and I gave Sam a tour of the “boat graveyard”–the 4 canoes, 1 sunfish, 1 sailboat, 1 motorless motorboat, and 1 homemade fiberglass catamaran–that I’ve managed to accumulate in the woods behind my parent’s house.
The big order of the day, though, was to bring the motor boat over to my mechanic, Glen, in Hannacroix, about five miles away. I wanted him to give Delaney a once-over and to fix the trailer, which was missing left hand turn signal.
We had to fiddle with the trailer to get it on the hitch. Meanwhile, my uncle Paul showed up with a kind of wooden diner table he’d gotten from a worksite, which he was going to give to my mom, which annoyed my dad because they have more furniture than they know what to do with but always take more–and I said I would take it down the river with me. So, boom, I have two benches and a table for the boat now.
Then we set off for Glen’s shop. We were doing alright until I looked in the mirror and saw that the boat was tipping way to the left and I shouted to dad to slow down. We heard a scraping sound and came to a stop. Dad looked back and said,
“Oh, crap, the wheel fell off!”
We pulled off onto a side road across from the New Baltimore Town Offices.
Sam and I went looking for the wheel, which had rolled onto somebody’s lawn, and then we came back and called Glen.
“Hi Glen, it’s Dallas Trombley again. We ran into a little problem. The wheel fell off the trailer. We’re stuck across from the town office. We were wondering if you might be able to help us out.”
“Oops! Okay, do you have the bolts? Or they came out?”
“I’m thinking the guy who sold me the trailer forgot to put them in back in February.”
“Well, okay…give me a minute and I’ll mosey on over.”
As we waited we looked behind us, where two quarter horses were watching us from ten feet away. Somebody came by in a pickup truck and said “Hey Kirk,” to my dad, and he said, “Hey, Jimmy.”
“Wheel came off the trailer, huh?” Jimmy observed.
“You find the bolts?”
“They’re probably here there and everywhere a mile back.”
“I think so.”
Another guy passed and offered to help us because he had some bolts and lived a little down the road, but we thanked him and told him the mechanic was coming.
Glen came and got under the boat and jacked it up pretty quickly. As he was working he laughed and said,
“I told Steven the mechanic I was coming here and he said ‘Can’t those people get over here without their wheels falling off?'” Because my father had been driving to Glen’s a couple of years ago, and his front wheel fell off, and Glen had to go help him.
Glen took two of the four bolts off the other wheel and used them to put the first wheel on, and then we followed him as he drove Dad’s truck with the trailer the last mile to Glen’s shop, the wheel wobbling the whole time.
Back at my parent’s house, Sam and I decided to try and open the 1980s popup camper that has been rotting in the woods for 15 years and hasn’t been opened in 5, in order to see if anything might be usable for our trip–like the sink or stove or inverter or table.
First I had to find the lever that turns the capstan or ratchet which lifts the top up. I found this under the camper under years of leaves. The popup works by turning this ratchet which has a spool on it and this pulls a cable which runs under the cabin and somehow lifts the top. Of course, as soon as I turned the spool, the rusted cable snapped.
So now we had to find a way to get the top of the popup off. We went down to the workshop and found a vice and a come-along and tried to squeeze the vice unto the cable, anchor the come-along, and use it to pull the cable. But the cable pulled out from the vice immediately.
I crawled under the camper and managed to tie a loop into the cable and hook the come along directly to it. We ran a heavy rope between two trees and hooked the come along to it. But it kept stretching the rope rather than pulling the cable.
Sam and the come-along with the camper.I then ran a rope to a tree that was farther away, and we got everything taut, but instead of pulling the cable, it started to pull the whole popup forward. Sam observed that the whole cable apparatus under the camper was probably seized up and rusted. So we gave up with the come-along plan, but not before I jammed my hand releasing the tension. It was the first blood of the new trip.
Sam asked if I was alright, and I said “There will be worse injuries than that on the trip, I’m sure.”
We tried to lift the top of the popup and some weird chewed-up cushion material flew out. Then we heard my mom calling that dinner was ready, so we gave up.
We had a nice dinner, and afterwards, as Mom and I were clearing some plates, Dad asked Sam sincerely, “Hey, what’s going on with you guys and the Gaza Strip or whatever. I saw something on the news.”
I wanted to say, “That’s quite the topic to bring up casually to someone you met three hours ago,” but Sam went into an immediate summation of the issues based on his experiences and seemed to explain it to Dad in a way I never would have been able to do.
We left around 6:30 and on the way back we re-hashed the events of the day.
“So, we managed to bring the boat over to the mechanics’ shop,” I noted.
It wouldn’t have been right if there wasn’t an hours-long setback on the last day of 2017, a year that was pretty much one long string of disasters politically and culturally. But personally, this year I’ve learned to take action ahead of time in order to have the time and resources to meet such challenges.
Back in February I hit a piece of ice while moving my car on a street-sweeping day, and busted the exhaust system. The mechanic said it would cost $1,200 to fix. I said he should junk the car. He called me back fifteen minutes later and said “You know, I think I could Jerry-rig something up for $300.” So I had a car for a while longer.
I had a big grand boat book tour planned for the summer. It turned out that a lot of book stores won’t stock my book and NPR won’t have me on the radio, because I’m self-published. Even the BS Albany ALT Magazine wouldn’t respond to my emails. After two days on the boat, she started taking on water. The old me would have said “It’s NYC or bust!” and ended up sinking with $1,000 worth of equipment and books on board around Poughkeepsie. Instead I adapted and drove to bars and marinas for the tour, met an international group of people canoeing up the river, and now I’m working with them to schedule their adventure down the Hudson next year (and I still have my boat and motor because it didn’t sink).
At Thanksgiving, coming back from my sister’s house downstate, my engine started crapping out, like it wasn’t getting gas when I hit the pedal. The next day I was supposed to drive to Indian Lake to visit a friend for the night. Its an hour and a half drive without cell service at the end. The old me would have driven up and made due with whatever happened. But then I thought “If I get up there and my car breaks down I’m going to have to flag someone down and then get towed for fifty miles at least, and all this might cost me $1,000.” So instead I picked up a shift at El Loco and made money and avoided potentially losing $1,000. It’s little stuff like that that adds up.
Today I am having dinner with my family at Red’s in Coxsackie. I’m going to my parent’s house at four. I haven’t started my car since Tuesday and it’s been really cold. I figured I’d just make sure it would start at noon. Of course it didn’t. But it gave me time to check the fuel cap, try starting it in neutral, turning the wheel, brushing the terminals free of corrosion, and then finally calling my friend Alison for a jump, which worked, two hours later, but one hour before I had to leave.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.” I think we should keep that in mind as we enter 2018.
If you know me socially, you might not know what a big part of my life reading comprises. I view reading the way an actor views his first important role: it’s the vehicle for me to advance in life, my career, and art.
I was an awful reader in elementary and middle school. It wasn’t until 8th grade that I really started reading, after being shamed by my sister about the terrible spelling on my Christmas List. My mother took the list to the toy store and the clerk said, “Maybe you should buy him a dictionary for christmas.” So I started checking out books from the Middle School Library about ESP and the Bermuda Triangle and Atomic Submarines and anything else that seemed cool or paranormal or militarily interesting. Anyhow, looking back on my life so far, I can see that reading has been the most fruitful activity I’ve engaged in, and my books are, collectively, the most valuable possession that I own.
A couple of the 36 books I read in 2017 were boring, but some were very interesting. When I look at a book on my shelf like Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which I read in 2008 and which served as the basis for the musical, I wonder how I ever hadn’t read that or another book. Reading changes your perspective so emphatically that I don’t think I am really the same person that I was in, say, 2007, a hundred and fifty books ago.
Teddy Roosevelt read a book a day. I was struggling to read a book a week this year and I only made about 3/4 of the goal. But in Edmund Morris’ biography, he talks of how TR read many different genres and allowed the ideas to “cross pollinate” in his mind, where they would form new ideas. I’ve tried to do that over the course of my adult life, but I could never describe what I was aiming at, until I read Morris’ description.
Anyhow, here are a couple of interesting things I learned from books this year.
–A lightbulb can burn for 100 years if you leave it on. What destroys the filament in a lightbulb is turning it on and off, because it heats up and cools down, which causes stress in the metal, like bending a spoon back and fourth until the metal softens and it breaks. (To Engineer is Human, The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Hentry Petroski, 1985.)
–After the great Chicago Fire of 1871, the only living creature to survive the flaming inferno was the postoffice cat, who workers found nestled in a half-filled pail of water when they dug through the debris. (Ten American Cities, Nina Brown Baker, 1949, p. 218)
–Anyone with an interest in great literature, characterization, and New York City history should read Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote profiles for The New Yorker in the 1920s-60s. In this book I first heard of McSorley’s Tavern and the health benefits of raw oysters.
–What made New York the Empire State was not just the construction of the Erie Canal, but the dispersal of the toll money which accreted to the state to individual banks throughout the state, for use as their capital. This stimulated the financial sector in New York while supplying capital to small investors when capital was scarce. It also allowed very small investors to invest in canal stock through the first savings and loan institutions. (Nathan Miller, The Enterprise of a Free People, Aspects of Economic Development in New York State During the Canal Period, 1792-1838, Cornell, 1962.)
–How did Calvin Coolidge become president? By being in the right place at the right time, all the time. He had a pretty radical college professor when he was at Amherst. The professor taught the students that life is like a river, and the trick is to stay in the middle where the current is. Don’t get stuck in the weeds or grounded out on rocks–in other words, caught up in scandals or an impulsive decision or leave politics, and then eventually some opportunity will arise and you will be in a position to make use of it. In 1922 that opportunity was being appointed as Harding’s VP–basically a throw-away job designed to attract votes from the northeast. Then Harding died of a heart attack, and Coolidge was in the right place. (Coolidge, Amity Shlaes, 2013)
–Hoover, on the other hand, was in the right place at the wrong time. Here is a man who’s reputation history has really destroyed, who had such promise before 1929. He made himself a fortune in mining in Australia and China before he was 30. When WWI broke out he was living in Brittian and organized the efforts to get Americans out of Europe, when they had no access to money because the markets had frozen. Then he organized a huge food relief effort for Belgium during the war–the only man allowed to travel behind enemy lines of both sides. Then he was head of food mobilization for the U.S. under Wilson. Then he organized a massive relief program for Europe after the war, in order to keep communism from spreading to a destroyed France, Germany, etc. But when in office during the Depression, his insistence on a strict reading of the Constitution and that Americans needed to find a way to help themselves left a poor taste in voter’s mouths. In 1932, FDR didn’t have so much of a plan as an attitude that when 1/4 of the country was out of work, the government must, to paraphrase, “Try something, anything. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try something else. But above all we must try.” (Hoover, Kenneth Whyte; FDR, Jean Edward Smith).
There is a mindfullness to the New Orleans culture which is refreshing compared to the doctrinaire morality of the north. Up here people go to the bar and do shots to get drunk, but poo poo a person who has a cocktail before noon. In New Orleans they enjoy themselves. Lift Your Spirits is a cocktail book written by Chris Williams, bartender extraordinaire from New Orleans. The cocktail recipes are great, but the philosophy of his book is the best part. He describes the bar as a kind of “proscenium”–a word I had to look up. It is the portion of a stage in front of the curtain, where a narrator or MC introduces the action. What a great image for a bar, and what a great way to think about your bar experience. You’re not just at the bar to get drunk, but to share a communal entertainment. If you’re a fan of the art of cocktails you should really watch this video of Chris Williams making a Mint Julep.
I’m not sure why Machiavelli has the reputation of saying “The Ends Justify the Means.” I didn’t find that quote anywhere in The Prince. Also, he seems like a yes-man who’ll do anything to curry favor with a local tyrant.
Karl Marx was too clever by half. The first half of his manifesto seems reasonable enough, insofar as he anticipated that wealth and power could not continue to accrue into the hands of rich robber barons while the majority of people worked 15 hour days for 6 out of 7 days just to make a bare subsistence. But he throws the baby out with the bath water and insists that democracy is also ineffectual, and so there must eventually be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and it must be worldwide. It set up the 20th century to be a war between Communism and any other form of government, which they viewed as enemies. I think I’d rather live in a corrupt democracy that at least depends every election cycle on seeming to have the support of a majority of people, than live under a dictatorship of mechanics and factory workers without any constitutional rights. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Or as Robert Frost said, “Revolutions are the only salves, but they’re one thing that should be done by halves.”
There were highlights from the histories of the medieval times, and a fascinating book by The Economist about the different kinds of financial markets and their function, but, alas, I’ve got to get ready to go to work now.
Every time there is a major recession, experts say afterward that nobody saw it coming. I think experts don’t see recessions coming because they–by virtue of being experts–are not regular people, and don’t see what regular people see, or feel the pressures that regular people feel. Yes, the Wall Street Journal or Economist analysts and the policy staff for the Treasury Department have read about economic factors that effect “regular people,” but I doubt–with their Ivy League educations and their political connections–that they sense the workaday economic stressors that the majority of people in the country experience. They base their economic projects on abstract factors like interest rates versus stock yields and the effect this has on stock prices, and forget that most of the people who actually labor and make drastically different economic decisions based on small changes in commodity prices don’t have stocks or bonds, even through a retirement plan.
I predict a recession in February, and I predict it will be pretty long-lasting, and here is why.
Stock’s are astronomically high, with no basis outside of speculation. Stock prices have risen by 25% since election day of 2016. It is not because production is up 25%, or because some new resource was discovered or technology was invented which increased the value of industrial resources by 25%. Stocks are up 25% only because investors expected that corporations would receive a tax cut under the Republican tax plan–which they have–an 11% tax cut. Of course this means that corporations will have more cash for paying dividends to investors, to put toward reserves, to buy shares of other companies. If a 25% year-over-year increase in the stock market isn’t a speculative bubble, I don’t know what is. The question is, when will it burst? I say February.
Wages have not kept up with inflation. My monthly rent increased 10% this year. Food costs are up. I would bet my bottom dollar that local property taxes are going to be up year-over-year. The economic activity of working class people are like sands underneath the economic pyramid. When they stop spending money because they can’t make ends meet, it hurts the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors on which many other working-class people depend, and the sectors that supply those industries. It seems to me that just as during the 1920s, when there was a prolonged depression in the agricultural sector even while the stock market was booming, right now we have a recession within the working class even while the stock market has exploded.
The holidays kept consumer spending up and now it will fall precipitously. Even though almost everybody I know has said they’re having a hard time meeting bills to some extent or another, most people still bought presents for the holidays. Some people spent money they didn’t have. Now the holidays are over, the Postal Service and the retail chain stores will lay off their extra workers, people in the construction industry will go on UI for the winter, and consumers, generally, will try to spend as little as possible in order to shore up their meager personal savings or pay down their credit cards.
The cold will hurt. Half of the country is undergoing an ice freeze. That keeps people inside. It also raises the costs of local governments for salt and road maintenance, which will tend to increase local taxes. It also means a bigger slice of the monthly budget has to go to utility bills. But more than that, people get downright depressed when it is brutally cold, and January and February are the worst months of the year. Maybe Netflix and Hulu stock will go up, but the rest of restaurant and hospitality sector will go way down.
If there is the slightest bad news, there is nothing the government can do to mitigate the negative effects. Interest rates are still at rock bottom after the last Republican-tax-cut-deregulation-funded recession. The deficit is sky-high and the Congress is not ideologically aligned with the idea of massive public works projects if things start to go south. In the event of a stock dip, the President, no doubt, like Herbert Hoover, will assure the country that the economy is “fundamentally sound,” when in reality it is sound only at the very top, and everyone knows it, but they ignore the fact as long as stocks are going up.
This is the scenario I see–which I am really not hoping for, but I think it is foolish to ignore the facts: Come January, consumer spending will drop, the job report will be weak, people will try to rein in their spending after the holidays, pay down credit cards, and save up for school taxes; the people will be ornery because the weather is bitterly cold, their money is not going as far as they expected, the country is socially divided; they will hunker into a defensive economic posture. A few of the big retail chains might report less-than-great profits as a result of the retraction in consumer spending, and their stock prices will start to dip. Meanwhile the tax break which was supposed to create jobs for anybody who wanted one won’t seem to create any jobs. People will get more frustrated as February rolls in with a bad winter storm. Some economists will start to predict that the stock bubble has reached its limit. Either a scandal will break that hurts the President, which will hurt the stock market, or Congress will fail to avert a shut down, or some insurance company will turn out to be overextended and insolvent, and it will trigger a jolt to the stock market. Stocks will dip and there will be nothing the government can do to stop the “correction.” Meanwhile the rest of the economy is already gasping for breath and the $1,000 the average person got from their tax return will already have been spent to pay down their credit card or pay their property tax which is no longer deductible. It doesn’t really matter what starts the fall, because once it happens, there is basically no leadership in the country, no great minds, no resources or plan to arrest the trend.
If you have any money in stocks, I’d consider taking it out and investing in bonds around January 2nd.
For about a decade I’ve observed The Tromblean Calendar of Seasonal and Cultural Consistency. The most popular of the holidays on that calendar seems to have been Gin Day, which occurs on the first day that it is warmer than 63 degrees in Albany, which is when gin cocktails, having been retired for the winter, come back into vogue. This year I am adding a new day of observation — December 27th–Pre Resolution Day.
Normally people make a New Year’s resolution and they implement it on January 1st. It is a pretty hard day to start a new resolution, because most people’s resolutions entail the avoidance of some vice, and New Year’s day generally includes champagne at mid-night and a substantial meal at mid-day. So right away people find themselves in this moral quandary where they say, “Hmm, I’m giving up drinking or smoking but I’ll wait until after I go to sleep following this New Year’s Eve party, and the new year will start when I wake up in the morning.” Or, “I’m supposed to jog every day, but I’m having dinner with my family and I’m going to wake up late so I’ll start my New Year’s resolution on January 2nd.” Then, having failed to follow through on the resolution on the very first day, it gets much harder to start it on the 2nd, and a lot of resolutions die of exposure.
I’m going to start implementing my resolutions on December 27th (they are to jog and practice the piano scales everyday, while limiting myself to five smokes). That way I will start to form a routine before the New Year comes. I will have built up four days and laid the groundwork for the more healthy habit. My legs will have already begun to be conditioned for running, and I will already have overcome the first test of cutting down on smoking: New Year’s Eve.
If you really are resolved to follow your resolution, why not start four days early?