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Past For Rent

October 26, 2010

Today I saw a bit of the past for rent.

I was walking along the Bowery for little reason other than when I walk in New York,  as I have done more or less incessantly for the past fifty odd years (or since I first came to Manhattan from Queens on the subway by my lonesome at the age of 10),  I often set an unthinking compass for certain venues.  Thirty years ago it was often Forty-Second Street,  the rundown Hell I found so unavoidable. Today it was the Bowery, no longer home to bums,  where turning uptown from Bleecker Street,  I saw that the Amato Opera was “For Rent” and anyone interested should contact “Harvey.” I knew Tony Amato,  who ran the tiny opera company,  had closed the place in 2009 following the death of his wife Sally,  who made all the costumes. But the rent sign brought me up short. Back in the early to middle 1990’s I used to come to the Amato a lot,  not necessarily because I am such a big opera fan,  which,  sadly (since many people seem to get so much pleasure out of it)  I am not. I came here because my oldest daughter,  Rae,  often performed in the chorus which Tony loved to stock with nine and ten year olds. Rae was in half a dozen Verdi operas and several others. It was always fun to see her in tiny costumes,  and watch her belt out the Italian,  right along with Tony,  who always sang along as he directed the show.

So now this little place was gone.  I stopped to take a picture of the front of the storefront which still bore the “Amato Opera” sign written in what appeared to be some Wild West font. I sent the photo via cell phone to Rae,  who is now 27 and lives in New Orleans,  Louisiana.  She texted me back: “that really sucks.  Now I am really bummed out.” The tone of her text,  if a text can be said to have a tone,  seemed genuinely distressed. This made me regret sending it. But as I wrote back,  in an unrestrained fit of Polonius-ness that “time is ruthless,” as if she doesn’t know that already. The whole thing was pretty depressing but some irony leavened the situation when one of those traveling tourist buses drove by and stopped to allow those who cared  to snap pictures of the former CBGB’s (now a clothing store) which  was once located only a couple of doors down from Tony Amato’s opera house.

another day, another bunch of loonies–Westboro comes to Brooklyn

October 13, 2010

In today’s punch-drunk political climate,  a Paladino moment  can break out at any time.  Such was the case the other day on Ocean Parkway as Dov Hikind,  the notoriously hotheaded Brooklyn state assemblyman broke through a police barrier and appeared to lurch toward  one Shirley Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps,  a middle-aged woman  wrapped in both an American and Israeli flag which she didn’t mind blowing her nose into,  claimed to be doing nothing more than exercising her First Amendment rights, which included holding up signs saying “Thank God For 9/11” and “Your Rabbi Is a Whore.”

“You’re the whore,” shouted the steaming  Hikind,  who in his best Paladinoese, added “just be careful the rest of your day in Brooklyn” as he was led away by a bevy of police officers.

“The truth drives these rebels against God to act like wild dogs,  I love to watch them lose it,” said Ms. Phelps, the Ma Barker-like leader of clannish,  Topeka,  Kansas-based church,  with a dentition challenged grin.  Most famous for showing up to “celebrate” at funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan brandishing mind-bendingly offensive signs like “God Hates Fags”(it is their contention that the Lord is actively allowing the soldiers to be killed in retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality),  the Westboro Baptists,  whose congregation consists primarily of the extended Phelps family,  was in front of the Kensington Chabad House in the heavily Hasidic section of Ocean Parkway to,  in the words of Ms. Phelps,  “to remind these forgetful Jews that they killed their savior and that they are going to Hell for it.”

This message was not getting much traction with the Chabadniks,  most of whom have never read a page of the New Testament and believe that the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson,  not Jesus Christ,  is the Messiah.  Most of the Lubachvitchers on the scene appeared more interested in asking neighborhood visitors to put on t’fillin, the leather phylacteries they claimed would ward off “non-Jewish enemies,” than debating whether  or not Barack Obama was the anti-Christ. The counter-Westboro message was mostly advanced by a contingent of protesters who screamed increasingly obscene remarks from behind a police barrier. This went on for about a half hour until the seven members of the Church got into their mini-van,  cut across three lanes of traffic on Ocean Parkway and drove to a yeshiva on Avenue I where they again waved their signs.

So it was another day in the vast American melting pot,  one more,  however  cartoonish, opportunity to take mournful stock of where  we have come to. This is interesting since Fred Phelps,  the founder and driving force of the Westboro Baptists,  was once a civil rights lawyer who once won a suit against the Topeka School Board for providing inferior education to black students,  in violation of landmark Brown v. the Bd. Of Ed. decision. How one gets from there to God Hates Fags is something perhaps historians of our fractious age will be able to ascertain.

Come on Nazis, you can do better than that!

October 9, 2010

Come on Nazis! You can do better than this!

Disappointed not to have gotten more notice so far from the minions of the Reich nostalgic. Yes, they had the amusing big nose lampshade photo, and usual commentary about how the first thought was to write a book about the object and make a fortune, but it is all so sadly lacking in dirtbag vituperation, like simply going through the motions. Where have I failed? Perhaps the Tea Party has just sucked the life out of these pot-bellied typers.

New Notice for The Lampshade, reviews, blogospheric reference

October 9, 2010

Kirkus Reviews


AM New York

Liz Ramsay’s blog


From The New York Times, 10.1.2010.

September 30, 2010
Books of The Times

A Grotesque Artifact Starts a Journey From Garage Sale to Buchenwald


The first thing you’ll want to do with a copy of “The Lampshade,” Mark Jacobson’s new book, is to remove its dust jacket, fold it neatly, and shove it as far down into your trash can as it will go. You’ll feel better almost instantly.


A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans

By Mark Jacobson

Illustrated. 357 pages. Simon & Schuster. $26.

Mr. Jacobson’s book is about a lampshade fashioned from human skin, a lampshade that may or may not be a Nazi relic, made from a concentration camp victim or victims. Its unfortunate dust jacket — diaphanous, crinkly to the touch — mimics the feel of that skin. It’s a direful thing to have in your hands, a desiccated version of Lady Gaga’s skirt-steak dress. Bad taste, bad vibes — get it gone.

What you’re now holding is this: an antic, improbable and resonant nonfiction book, one that’s part historical horror story and part squalid crime caper. If you changed its locations to South Florida, it could pass for a darker and slightly better-than-average Carl Hiaasen novel.

“The Lampshade” reveals what happens when a lamp — probably stolen, its shade said to be made from human skin — turns up at a post-Katrina rummage sale in New Orleans. The asking price: $35. The seller, we discover only later, is among the most loathed men in New Orleans, a drug-addled cemetery bandit.

A friend of Mr. Jacobson’s buys the lamp out of perverted curiosity. He gives it to the author, a contributing editor for New York magazine, asking him if he’d like to look into its origins. The buyer also clearly wants the macabre object out of his house. What happens next is … well, plenty happens next. DNA tests determine the lampshade is no hoax: it is indeed made from tanned human skin. But that’s all the tests reveal. The skin is too brittle to give up further information. As a forensics expert explains, “Some things are more dead than others.”

Mr. Jacobson travels to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where human lampshades were supposedly made to order for Ilse Koch, the so-called Bitch of Buchenwald, who was married to the camp’s commandant. Mr. Jacobson also speaks to a former head of collections at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Few answers are forthcoming.

The consensus among historians is that these Nazi lampshades may well be a myth, as are the bars of soap Nazis allegedly rendered from Jewish corpses. But soldiers, journalists and survivors reported seeing such lampshades at Buchenwald after its liberation, even if no one can locate one today. Mr. Jacobson isn’t tempted to abandon his search.

As “The Lampshade” moves along, it gets shaggier. Mr. Jacobson talks to cantors, to World War II veterans, to Holocaust deniers, to Nazi memorabilia collectors and to an actress who played the evil Ms. Koch in a sadistic porn film. There are more fluky cameos here than in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

He fields midnight phone calls from the New Orleans musician Dr. John, and consults Cyril Neville, a member of the Neville Brothers band. He drops in on David Duke, the white supremacist, now living in Austria and as blithely deranged as ever. Mr. Jacobson describes Mr. Duke’s dyed blond hair as resembling “a half-fallen soufflé,” and notes that his teeth are “whiter than buffed Chiclets.”

Sometimes “The Lampshade” is too shaggy. Mr. Jacobson’s visit with a Dominican spiritualist is a less-than-essential moment, and what are we to do with the news that the author has named the lampshade Ziggy? Mr. Jacobson’s laid-back writing can resemble stoner prose, as if he’s fighting an urge to add the word “dude” to his sentences. The lampshade, he writes, “had become the creaking flying saucer of the Holocaust.”

Mr. Jacobson’s book passes a primal test, however. When you put it down, you look forward to picking it up again. This is largely because it becomes an entangling meditation on not merely Nazi atrocities but on the nature of authenticity. It considers, too, other far-flung topics: the history of skinning and scalping humans; the roots of Holocaust denial; New Orleans prisons during Katrina; black funeral traditions versus white ones; Mr. Jacobson’s own Jewish upbringing in Flushing, Queens.

Mr. Jacobson charts how the lurid, almost pornographic idea of Nazi lampshades has percolated through popular culture. He quotes Leon Uris novels and Woody Guthrie songs, as well as Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus,” with its lines about Plath’s soon-to-die body, with its face as fine as “Jew linen” and her skin “bright as a Nazi lampshade.”

Mr. Jacobson spends a lot of time in New Orleans, and his book is yet another bluesy, scuffed-up paean to that city’s wonders. He quotes the Orleans Parish coroner, Frank Minyard — Mr. Minyard is also a central character in “Nine Lives,” Dan Baum’s New Orleans book — describing how Katrina has “shaken things loose,” in ways good and ill.

All the same, Mr. Jacobson doesn’t let New Orleanians or other Southerners off the moral hook. He reminds us that Mr. Duke got 55 percent of the white vote when he ran for Louisiana’s governorship in 1991. He brings his story full circle when he observes how some white Southerners once slaked their own thirst for human taxidermy.

Mr. Jacobson describes the 1899 lynching of a black man, Sam Hose, in Georgia. Then he writes: “Many viewers had approached the ravaged corpse to cut off pieces of his skin to take home as souvenirs. Later Hose’s heart, knuckles, and facial skin were displayed in local store windows and offered for sale.”

Beauty may be skin deep, Redd Foxx reminded us in a vastly different context, but ugly goes clear to the bone.


September 12, 2010

All that blather, all that sorrow and fear—and Michael Daly, whom I am fortunate to have for a friend,  cut through it when he wrote the lead of the year,  saying that Ground Zero already “is a mosque.”

Thanks for that, dude.


September 9, 2010

With the release of the New York Magazine excerpt of The Lampshade the story is now no longer living exclusively inside my head. It is out there,  and that always is an odd moment for a writer. Comments mostly but not exclusively favorable have piled on the magazine web site. I see  people on the subway reading about the human skin shade.  Questions are asked of me in interviews. It is a strange limbo,  because an excerpt is not the full book and assumptions are being made, impressions being formed on limited information. Still, coincidences continue.

I did an interview with John Kalish who does alot of stuff for NPR. I met John five or six years ago when he did a Morning Edition piece on a book of mine 12000 Miles In The Nick of Time which was about a journey my family took around the world. My oldest daughter,  16 when we took the trip,  was talking about our sojourn in India, a place the children found to be somewhat overwhelming. She told a story about how while all her friends were back in New York living what she believed to be a “normal” life,  she had been coerced into traveling through the Indian night in a second class sleeper which amounted to stretching out on the luggage rack.

“This man wanted to know about us,” my daughter told Kalish, “he kept asking `what is the name of your God?'” This segment made it to the final cut of Kalish’s piece and was broadcast across the country, including in New Orleans where it was heard by Skip Henderson. “What is the name of your God?” caught Skip’s attention. By this time Skip and I, after meeting in Clarksdale, Mississippi ten years earlier, had more or less fallen out of touch. Kalish’s piece, however, got us back together. We talked on the phone and renewed our friendship. Three years later Katrina hit New Orleans and four or so months after that Skip bought the lampshade at Dave Dominici’s rummage sale.

“So in a way,” I told Kalish after he taped the interview about the lampshade, “if it wasn’t for you doing that piece we wouldn’t be recording this one because that how I reconnected with Skip Henderson.” In this manner, I told Kalish, he had unwittingly played a crucial part in the lampshade story

Now, John Kalish is a very sympatico guy and an excellent interviewer.  For him radio has always been a mysterious medium, waves across time and space, a way to reach backwards and forwards through human affairs. Still, hearing of his ostensible role in the shade saga,  he could only groan.