Domino Theory — 2011 Edition


I've been watching with some interest the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia (also known as the "Twitter Revolution"), as protesters in that country have successfully overthrown a corrupt, autocratic government. Seeing as how I recently visited a neighboring country in the Maghreb — Algeria — I asked an American friend living there if similar rumblings were being heard where he was. Turns out there have been indeed — as well as protests and "riots" in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Lebanon. My friend reports that Algeria went through about a week of rioting, witnessing five dead, 800 injured, and more than 1000 arrests. The Algerians feel great solidarity with the Tunisians, particularly in regard to the autocratic, corrupt nature of their government; and what is happening in Tunisia has sparked optimism that maybe things in Algeria could also change. According to my contact, however, the Algerian police and military were very restrained in dealing with the protests, with many of the injuries actually being suffered by the government forces just trying to restore calm. So that was smart (though obviously painful for the cops).

Reading stories like this — and what's been happening in Cairo recently — is so strange to me, having walked those same, then quiet, streets, just a few short months ago. As with in Burma, I'm reminded that what seems to be a complacent citizenry can rise up quickly against their repressive government when provoked. While I was in the Middle East, I often heard about the infamous "red line," the theoretical line that dissenters could not cross. In Algeria and Egypt, the red line was understood in media circles as being anything directly critical of the military or the ruling family. So it was okay to write about "corruption" or to attack certain government figures, but never go beyond that. Well, it seems in recent days those red lines are being crossed and stamped out.

(I'm also struck by how big a role Facebook and Twitter have played in all this. I can't tell you how many students, artists, and journalists I met during my travels in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and Israel/Palestine who had FB accounts and have since friended me. How could these governments not have foreseen the way these social networks would enable people to work together and plan actions? It's really mind-boggling.) As "my man in Algiers" writes, "What happens next will be critical. If Tunisia has real elections and installs an inclusive, democratic government like they say they will, the rest of the Middle East will really start to shake." My instant association with all this, of course, is 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Such a thing taking place in the countries of the Middle East is incredible to contemplate. I mean, three of the countries I visited last year — Algeria, Egypt, and Bahrain — are all classic oligarchies.

I'm saddened to hear, however, that my own government's pragmatic concerns are taking precedence over this potential explosion of democracy. After all, the U.S. enjoys good relations with the autocratic leaders of both Algeria and Egypt, both of whom assist us in the "war against terrorism." True to form, my friend reports that "some of the latest regional media stories are all about how terrified the U.S. is over the prospect of the Tunisian Revolution spreading throughout the region." He goes on to sarcastically comment, "Yeah, that would really suck for us if all the corrupt dictators were swept out of power and replaced by democratically elected governments…"

I'm certainly no expert, but it seems pretty obvious to me that people living under a fair, representative system would be less inclined to spread fear, terror, and violence — and less likely to target countries like the U.S. that they see as hypocrites when it comes to spreading democracy…

"Perfect Professional Cut!"


When I first started a blog, I swore the one thing I would never do would be to write about getting a haircut. I mean, what could be more boring? But I guess rules are meant to be broken. Prepare to be bored!

For decades, anyone who grew up in New York City knew about Astor Place Hair — or as we knew it, simply “Astor Place.” It’s a downstairs, no-frills downtown barbershop with over fifty haircutters (I hesitate to call them “stylists”). For $15 you can walk right in and get a cut, all done in about twenty minutes. No need for a reservation, and the place is open until as late as 10:30 at night — perfect for getting a trim right before heading out on a Saturday night. Totally Old School, Astor Place has the requisite collection of Polaroids taped on their front windows of freshly-shorn hip-hop artists, singers, movie stars, and professional athletes — most of them sadly dating back twenty years or more. (When I first discovered Astor Place in the 1980s, they were known for their trendy cuts like boxes and fades. Later on, they offered karaoke as part of the hair-cutting experience, but I don’t think they do that anymore.) With its loud ambiance, peeling linoleum, bad lighting, and brusque employees, Astor Place always a late-night, seedy quality to it. It’s a real New York institution.

For years I went to Astor Place, and eventually found a barber who I thought did a good job with my unruly blonde locks. That’s part of the Astor Place tradition as well, finding your “special” barber. My barber’s name was Jay and he was from one of the Soviet republics. He had a brother named “Dr. Mike” who also cut hair at Astor Place. I always felt a little stupid, though, waiting behind two other customers for Jay when three barbers around him were sitting at their chairs with no clients. Was he really that superior?

Jay was known for whipping off the apron at the end of each cut and yelling out, in his thick accent, “Perfect professional cut!” He also not-so-subtly pressured over-tipping from his customers by waving the bills in the air — it seemed like some of his customers paid him a bigger tip than the cost of the actual cut. (Despite the pressure, I always stuck with $5.) By the early 1990s,when I had graduated from college and was living back in New York, I even had my roommate Jake and my girlfriend Sari going to Jay. Later, I heard that my dad and my half-brother became Astor Place customers as well.

Then Sari and I went off on our big round-the-world backpacking trip, and eventually moved away from New York. We stayed away for almost ten years.

When I did return to the Big Apple, I didn’t go back to Astor Place. I got the idea that the place was no longer “cool,” that it had become a pastiche of its former self. (Viz. the karaoke.) Also, I didn’t need the drama — all the yelling and the bad lighting. I started going to a small, family-run barbershop on 23rd Street. The guys there were also Eastern European, and the atmosphere reminded me of the first barbershop I went to on a regular basis, Lou’s, a place on Eighteenth and McDonald Aves. in Brooklyn.

After awhile, though, I became dissatisfied with my 23rd Street barbers. Like many factory-style places, they insisted on cutting my hair with electric clippers, not the traditional scissors, and I wasn’t happy with how the cuts were coming out. My wavy hair just doesn’t respond well to that method, and I was looking for a cut with a little more “character” to it. However, given that I’m way too cheap to shell out $50 or more for a high-end stylist, my options seemed limited.

Eventually, my brother-in-law Evan tipped me off to the Aveda Institute on Spring Street. Aveda couldn’t be more different than Astor Place: a view into the high-class world of the hair salon. The stylists are all students training in the patented Aveda method, with the cuts overseen by their teachers. The clientele are almost all women, a total one-eighty from the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of Astor Place. Best of all, a haircut, free herbal tea, a head & neck massage, and a shampoo only costs $18!

The downside of Aveda, beyond the obvious risk of a student cutting your hair (and the attendant mistakes which may result), is the difficulty in getting a reservation — a two-week wait is standard — and the duration of the actual cut. It’s not unusual for a haircut to take upwards of two-and-a-half hours. As a freelancer, however, I didn’t mind the long time in the chair, and enjoyed bantering with the students, most of whom were just getting started on “grown-up” life.

I ended up going to Aveda regularly for about eight years, but this year it’s been increasingly difficult to find time for an apppoinment. I’ve been so busy traveling, continuing to do A.D.-related appearances, and most of all, working on my current project, The Influencing Machine, that I just haven’t been able to block out the four-plus hours — minimum — required. Throw in the fact that with Phoebe in preschool, I need to be around home more, and the fact is that life is getting more busy and complicated.

The first time I “slipped” was back in May when I was in Sydney, Australia for a week-long writer’s festival. I really needed a haircut, and I found a barber who offered a scissor cut for a slight premium. The cut turned out fine, and since then I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only made it back to Aveda once. And guess where I usually find myself instead? Yep, Astor Place. The fact is that it’s convenient, cheap, and open late — plus a scissor-cut doesn’t cost extra! Sure, I miss the homey, spa-like Aveda atmosphere, but Astor Place just fits into my current situation.

The amazing thing is that my old barber Jay is still working at Astor Place! (He “found” religion while I was gone, and now sports a yarmulke. Otherwise, he seems the same. And Dr. Mike has retired.) It feels too weird to go back to Jay, though — too many years to reel in — and I’ve since found a new “personal” barber. Sarra does a good job with my hair, and even throws in an eyebrow-hair-trim when the situation requires. (The indignities of getting older…) And best of all, I’m in and out in a half hour, tops.

Sari says she doesn’t like my Astor Place haircuts as much as the Aveda ones, but to be honest I don’t see much a difference. I admit to missing the neck message and the shampoo treatment, but the fact is that the time-saving just can’t be beat.

So, Thomas Wolfe, you may not be able to go back home, but you can always go back to your barbershop.



Journalist Christopher Hitchens was a fellow guest of the Sydney Writers Festival last month, and we shared the same hotel, the Sebel Pier One. The establishment offered us guests a complimentary breakfast buffet every morning ’til 10 am, and one morning, just after ten, I was leaving the restaurant to see Hitchens coming in. He looked the part: puffy, rumpled, slightly hung over.

Even though the kitchen staff were putting away the food, much of the spread remained, and Hitch busied himself putting a plate together. The maître d’ ran over. "Sir, sir! Breakfast is over!"

Hitchens paused for a second and eyeballed the maître d’. "No, it’s not," he declared, and he went back to loading up his plate.

"No, sir," the maître d’ huffed. "Breakfast service ends at ten o’clock. It’s after ten. Breakfast is over."

Hitchens gave him another look, served himself some eggs, and chuckled. "You’re going to have to work a lot harder than that to keep me away from food." And with that, he found a table and began eating his breakfast.

Phoebe's Mantra


Sari’s away at Yaddo for two weeks — one more week to go — and this is a representative sample of Phoebe’s conversation:

"I’m a friendly little birdie! And you’re the friendly daddy birdie! Peep peep!" And "I’m a friendly little kitty. And you’re the friendly daddy kitty. Meow!" And "I’m a friendly little doggy. And you’re the friendly daddy doggy. Ruffie!" And "I’m a friendly little bee. And you’re the friendly daddy bee. (Daddy, what sound does a bee make?)" Repeat ad infinitum.

Sari said basically the same conversations occurred between her and Phoebe while I was gone in Burma, with "mommy" replacing "daddy."

What Goes Around and Around…


About six weeks ago, while doing my laundry in the basement, I noticed a pile of clothes someone had dumped in a laundry cart. The clothes looked damp, like whoever was cleaning them put them in hadn’t put in enough money to really get ’em dry. Someone else had needed the dryer and had tossed the half-dry clothes into a cart. As the days and weeks passed, I noticed the pile of clothes still sitting there, and figured they had been abandoned. (There are a number of apartments in my building which seem to host constantly changing itinerant folks, so my guess was the clothes belonged to a long-gone person.)

Cut to this morning, as I came downstairs to wash some of our linens. I’d been out of town for nearly two weeks, and the abandoned clothes were still there. For some reason, seeing them still there more than a month after they first appeared depressed me. I don’t know why, but after I put my clothes in the washer, I shook out the abandoned clothes and folded them. They were mostly sheets and towels, with three clothing items — a hoodie, a shirt, and a pair of pants — so it was a pretty quick job. Then I neatly stacked them on the laundry room folding table and went upstairs to my apartment.

Returning twenty minutes later to put my washed linens in the dryer, I immediately noticed that the abandoned clothes were gone! In six weeks no one in the building had touched them, but the moment I folded the clothes they were taken? It’s like someone had been waiting for me to make them more presentable! Was it the original owner? Someone else doing their laundry? Or a basement denizen I’ve never seen before? A mystery.

But the story gets weirder.

A half hour later, when I came down to the basement again to pick up my dried linens, I found another surprise. My laundry had been taken out of the machine and folded! Again, a mystery. Was it the same person who took the other clothes? Or a completely unrelated event? I may never know. But if this doesn’t prove the existence of karma, I don’t know what does.

Oberlin Then and Now: 1989–2009


My visit to Oberlin earlier this month was the first time I had been back to the campus since late 2000, and the first extended stay since my ten-year reunion back in 1998. As with all things, much had changed in the school and surrounding town, though at heart the Oberlin experience remains the same: happily, it’s still a tiny, politically progressive, hippie-oriented enclave in a bucolic northern Ohio setting.

The most striking difference between then and now is how much the town of Oberlin has evolved to cater to the college. When I was a student there in the late 1980s, the only places to eat in town were the Campus Diner, Lorenzo’s (a divey pizza & beer joint), the Tap House (which specialized in greasy bar food and cheap pitchers), the Oberlin Inn (which was too pricey for most students’ budgets), and Rax (a local roast beef chain). Right near the end of my time, a Subway franchise opened on Main Street, but that hardly counts.

Other places in town were Gibson’s Food Market & Grocery, a thrift store, a record store, the Co-op Bookstore, the Apollo Theatre, the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, a pharmacy, a couple of banks, a hardware store, a bike store, a copy shop, and an Army-Navy store. Of all those, only Gibson’s, the thrift store, and the record store could’ve been said to focus on student business; for the most part the “city” of Oberlin (pop. c. 10,000) seemed very resolutely an entity of its own, geared toward the local, non-student populace. Nonetheless, I never felt a lack: I was happy to scarf down a Mr. Fred or an Obie-burger at the Campus Diner; a thick-crusted, cheesy pizza at Lorenzo’s; or a chicken sandwich at Rax. And most of my life revolved around the campus itself.

Now there are all sorts of cafes and restaurants whose sole purpose is to cater to students: hippie diners, Asian fusion restaurants, upscale yuppie cuisine, a burrito joint, an ice cream shop, a Chinese eaterie, the list goes on. And Gibson’s has gotten truly baroque in its accommodation to the student munchies crowd: their main features seem to be chocolate-covered bacon and orange peels, and racks and racks of booze .(Up until the early 1990s, Oberlin was a dry town, with only beer allowed to be sold — except at the Oberlin Inn, which had some sort of special dispensation to sell hard liquor.)

And then there are the other places so foreign to my Oberlin experience: New Age trinket stores, yoga studios, hair salons, and even a comics store (albeit sparsely stocked and darkly lit). The strangest thing, though, is the absence of the Campus Diner. I always thought of that place as the center of Oberlin, the one place in town where college and town really mixed. It’s just weird to me that that place is gone. The absence of Campus, along with the Tap House and Rax being gone really makes me wonder how welcome Oberlin’s “townies” now feel in their own community. My guess, however, is that economic realities set the tone for these changes, and that the old establishments just couldn’t afford to stay in business. And it’s nice to know that a number of the new establishments are owned and operated by ex-Obies (who apparently just couldn’t bear to leave town after graduation). But I had been really looking forward a Mr. Fred! Grrr…

The Co-op Bookstore is gone too, a victim of over-building, replaced by a Barnes & Noble franchise. There’s also a used bookstore which shares space with the Ben Franklin. And the aforementioned comics store, which seems to be wasting its potential (though they were kind enough to supply books for my signing Saturday afternoon). I liked the selection of comics they had on hand — mostly alternative fare and Vertigo books — but it seemed like there was only one copy of each title on hand, and most of them were sealed in plastic (I guess to prevent browsing). The effect was less than welcoming. In addition, the store’s window displays were entirely bare, except for some faded posters of long-completed Marvel and DC “event” comics. Not even a couple of current alt-comix enticements, like, say, the recently published nonfiction graphic novel of a returning alum (hint, hint).

I was so happy to see the Apollo Theatre functioning, still showing its weekly quota of scratched first-run movies. Erik Inglis told me the college had recently bought the floundering theatre, and had plans to keep it going while also integrating the school’s film program into the upstairs offices. (The newest Oberlin Alumni Magazine has a feature about the whole affair.) Some of my best movie-going experiences took place at the Apollo: whether the movies were enduring classics or 80s drek, I’ll never forget seeing films like Aliens, Die Hard, Back to the Future Part II, Rocky IV, The Color Purple, The Wall, Eddie Murphy: Raw, Wildcats, or The Accused at the Apollo.

Changes on the Oberlin campus itself seemed mostly for the good. I really dug the way they’ve re-imagined the first floor of Mudd Library, with an array of free computers, a new books area, and a café. I enjoyed a quick visit to the old computer center, which now features a computer supply store, and an entrance decorated with a display of vintage 1980s and ‘90s computers — the very ones I used to spend so much time on during my student days. Otherwise, it was comforting to sit in one of Mudd’s enduring “womb chairs” and just to stroll through the library’s stacks, remembering that books are still integral to the college experience, and that to really learn and understand a topic you still need to immerse yourself in a book. Wikipedia is not the answer to all of life’s questions!

It was also fun to wander through Wilder, past the mailroom, the Rath, and the ‘Sco. I even picked up a copy of the Oberlin Review, still publishing — on paper, no less. It was both comforting and a little disappointing to see how little the Review had changed, however: still dry as dust and self-serious. (Though I did enjoy reading the “Review Security Notebook,” always one of my favorite features back during my student days.)

The new buildings on campus were all fine — I like the way the new science center wraps around the old one — but one of the best moments of our visit was the gorgeous fall afternoon when Sari, Phoebe, and I strolled around the whole campus, admiring some of the classic buildings: Peters Hall, Talcott, Keep, the art museum, and even dorms like Burton. On the other hand, Dascomb is still a pit. I took Phoebe on a tour down my old hallway (I lived in the same room in Dascomb my first two years at Oberlin) and passed my old room. It still smells the same — like feet! Phoebe seemed trepidatious. I was too. Maybe it’s time to demolish the place? (I think South’s time is over as well.)

The whole experience, combined with my “official” visit as a returning alum, was a pulsating mix of old and new, where I often felt myself caught between two temporal realities, past and present. But as long as the painted rocks remain in Tappan Square, Oberlin will always be home to me.

Indie Bookstore Week


In honor of Indie Bookstore Week, I was asked to say a few words about the importance of indie bookstores at last night’s kick-off party, held at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

My experience with independent retailers started in the comics world. As a young self-publisher, I took my photocopied mini-comics and zines to stores like See Hear, St. Mark’s Comics, and Jim Hanley’s Universe. They would often buy the books outright at a 50% split or do it on a consignment basis. Those stores were totally welcoming to an upstart like myself, and even had special places on their racks for the kind of stuff I was doing. It meant so much to know that these stores cared enough to support young creative types with stories to tell. And of course the fact that those stores supported my work made me that much more curious about what other comics they carried. As a reader, I was turned on to many new artists and books by such independent-minded stores.

Later, when I self-published A Few Perfect Hours, I was welcomed by stores like JigSaw (now sadly closed) and Book Court, which not only agreed to sell the books but even arranged an event, where I showed a PowerPoint presentation of some stories from the book, read the stories aloud, and had a signing.

And now with my new graphic novel, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, even though I’m being published by a “major” publisher, Pantheon is completely dedicated to supporting independent retailers. On my book tour, I had great events at Book People in Austin, Octavia Books in New Orleans, the Book Cellar in Chicago, and Brookline Booksmith in Boston.

And I’ve had a number of events in New York — all taking place in independent bookshops: Idlewild Books, McNally Jackson, Book Court, and right here at Powerhouse Arena. Not to mention the new comics retailer Bergen Street Comics, which is modeled very much on the mold of a bookstore rather than that of the traditional dark and stinky comic book store.

One thing I’ve really come to appreciate on this tour through the country’s top independent retailers is how responsive they are to their local community. And how real communities actually form around the stores. The fact that so many stores nowadays feature cafes and hold really interesting readings and events really helps. For the most part, you don’t get that sense in Barnes & Noble’s, Borders, and — obviously — Amazon. (For instance, because of some corporate decision, A.D. is only available in the “History of Louisiana” section in Barnes & Noble’s — who even knew there was a “History of Louisiana” section?! — and not with the other graphic novels. And the Border’s in midtown doesn’t have my book at all, because they only seem to stock superhero trades.

And it seems to me at least that the economic model of the indie bookstore is working, with new local stores opening up all over the place, like Unnameable Books and Greenlight Books, both in my neighborhood — while the big chain stores seem to be slipping fast.

Most of all, I feel like each of the independent stores I’ve been to are reflections of the quirkiness of the owner and the store employees. From the minute you step inside, you get the sense how much the people who run these places just love books.

Sari's Significant Object


I love that Rob Walker. Not only is he the brilliant author of the New York Times Magazine‘s "Consumed" column and the former "Moneybox" columnist for Slate. Not only did he write the critically acclaimed Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are (Random House, 2008). Not only did he pen the wonderful collection of essays about the Big Easy called Letters from New Orleans. Not only did he create the zine Where Were You, his personal reminiscences about celebrity deaths. Not only was he my collaborator on Titans of Finance. But now he — and partner Joshua Glenn (does he only work with guys named "Josh"?) have come up with a new scheme, one which combines Rob’s interests in art, social practices, and money — The Significant Object project. And my wonderful wife Sari is a participant.

Here’s how it works (from the S.O. website):

THE IDEA: A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value.


  1. The project’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.
  2. A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!
  3. Each significant object is listed for sale. Care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers.
  4. The winning bidder is mailed the significant object, along with a printout of the object’s fictional story. Net proceeds from the sale are given to the respective author.
Don’t you love it? I do; I’ve always thought Rob has an amazing talent for using irony to address serious and important issues, and this is a perfect example. Anyway, the S.O. project has already employed the talents of such writers as Nicholson Baker, Kurt Anderson, Colson Whitehead, Luc Sante, Doug Dorst, Ann Nocenti, and now… Sari Wilson. Check out her contribution, all about a sweeeeet penguin creamer, right here. And start bidding — the auction ends September 10!!!

The Austin Chronicle and Deckfight


One of my concerns doing A.D. was that, as a Northerner documenting this particular story of the South, I wouldn’t be taken seriously. It helped, of course, that I worked for three weeks in Mississippi after the storm, and that I’ve visited New Orleans multiple times, but the fact is that no matter how much research I did, I can never truly understand what it means to be from that region. So it means all the more to me when regional coverage of A.D. is positive. Today, I had the good fortune to spot two new reviews from the area, in The Austin Chronicle and the blog Deckfight.

Kate X. Messer’s piece in The Austin Chronicle ends with this wonderful passage: "Simmering in a roux of nuance and avoiding the graphic tendencies of the genre (no mean feat, especially considering the violent terror of the subject matter at hand), Neufeld captures the quiet dignity and resolve of these survivors as they muddle through nature’s recent "Take that, bitch!" and the Bush admin’s most arrogant "Fuck you" this side of Iraq . . . Most importantly, however, Neufeld nails NOLA: Characters in UNO shirts, "Where y’at!," Claiborne, and Galatoire’s all come alive as the world turns on its head — where bravery borders on stupidity, obligation becomes an albatross, and thugs step up to the mantle as heroes."

Deckfight’s extensive review is equally complimentary, concluding with these words: "In A.D., Neufeld uses an expressive medium to compensate for the feelings that words often miss — the significance of destruction, the loneliness, the frustration at an injust system. Though A.D. is only a glimpse into all of those, it’s really all that’s needed."

Thanks, y’all!