Day 273: Stephen Dixon

I'm almost finished putting together The Man Who Signed the City, although final tasks keep multiplying as if by spontaneous generation. Here is a bit of Chapter 12, which features the writer Stephen Dixon.


Door opens on Stephen Dixon’s life on June 6, 1936, but at birth he is not Stephen Dixon, he’s Stephen Ditchik, son of Abraham Meyer Ditchik, a dentist, and Florence Leder Ditchik, a former beauty queen and Broadway chorus girl, both born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side. Stephen is the fifth of seven children, last of four boys. He grows up in a brownstone on 75th Street that has lodgers on the top three floors and his father’s dental practice on the first. “He was an old-fashioned dentist,” Dixon recalls. “If he extracted a tooth and that cost $15, and you only had $10, he’d take $10.” When he works on his children’s teeth, Abraham considers Novocain an unnecessary expense. He is not much on preventive care, either, and by high school, Stephen’s mouth is a wreck. He decides he needs another dentist, goes out and finds one, and takes jobs after school to pay for root canals and the other procedures his decayed teeth demand.

His mother, Florence, is not allowed by her father to become either an architect or a doctor, her first wishes. So she becomes a professional beauty, and as Miss New York competes in an early edition of the Miss America pageant. Off of that success, she lands a two-year contract to dance in George White’s Scandals, a revue, modeled on Ziegfeld Follies, that in its day furthers the careers of W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, and Rudy Vallee. It also acquaints Abraham with Flo. He comes to the show one night and watches her from the theater’s front row and, as Dixon surmises, likes her face and shape and begins courting her. The night before they are married, she has a toothache. Abe pulls the tooth in the kitchen. Without Novocain.

In 1941, he loses his license to practice dentistry and goes to prison for 18 months when he is implicated in a scandal involving a physician who was performing illegal abortions. When Abraham goes to jail, Dixon’s mother, furious and humiliated, never divorces him, but she does legally change her name and those of her children. Dixon says, “She went through the phone book. There was a question, would the name be Dodd or Dixon? She did it over the kitchen table.” Thus 5-year-old Stephen Ditchik becomes Stephen Dixon.

Day 246: Coming in a month, The Man Who Signed the City

I have growing confidence that The Man Who Signed the City will publish on September 1. (Please don't be snarky and point out how often that date has shifted.) I'm about to start the final proofing, and I'm dying to show you some cover design concepts, but the designer would kill me. Suffice to say it's going to look great.

Twenty-one profiles comprise the contents, and one of my favorites features the Baltimore painter Raoul Middleman. Here's a taste.

Raoul Middleman scoops paint out of a film can onto a palette. It is a November mid-afternoon in Baltimore, and the remaining daylight is making a run for it. If he is to paint a picture today, Middleman will have to work fast, but that is okay with him. He likes getting his hands going before his head has time to intervene. "If you get too analytical, you lose it," he says. "I try to see things before language. The painting has to have its own inscrutability, like the world itself. I'm not saying I get that—it's an aim."

Middleman has been painting full time, day in and day out, for 37 years. When he can paint seven days a week, he does. He has two studios in Baltimore; one serves as a warehouse for his work. He does not know how many canvases he has stashed there, but he guesses anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000. When representatives of The Ice Collection in New York came to select pictures for his recent one-man show, they gave up in exhaustion before they could survey the entire trove. The painter Paul Resika once said of Middleman, “I remember thinking, when I first met Raoul 30 years ago, that he had this enormous energy, like John Marin or Jackson Pollock. And that he had painted more pictures, of every subject and every mood, than anyone I had ever seen.” He paints portraits, nudes, still lifes, kitschy narratives, landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes. He has painted in Scotland, France, Wales, New Mexico, the countryside around his farmhouse near Havre de Grace, Maryland, and the rusting industrial underbelly of Baltimore. He paints women in black bras and boots, woodland streams, rocky shorelines, grumpy self-portraits, horses, crab houses, carryouts, and, on one recent occasion, a writer who had come to interview him. He paints with bold color and vigorous brushwork. He likes to talk, he likes to eat, and mostly he likes to see what happens when he puts one color next to another.

With an assist from teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, he has made a living as a figurative painter, no small accomplishment in the latter half of the American 20th century. His asking price at a recent show was $1,400 for a framed figure drawing. For some canvases, the tab ran to $28,000. Gerrit Henri, writing in Art News, said, “Where Middleman’s deep painterly energies are coming from is, considering the present art situation, something of a mystery, but the evidence of his powers is undeniable.” Other painters have been generous in their praise. Eugene Leake, president emeritus of the Maryland Institute, calls Middleman “a born painter,” and adds, “Everything is big, including his talent and ambitions.” In a letter, the late landscape painter Fairfield Porter once gave Middleman what could be considered the highest praise, painter to painter: “I envy your paintings. I wish I could paint like that.”

The object of all this laudation is a slouchy, baggy figure, age 61, with a gray woolly beard, thinning gray hair that is sometimes combed but usually not, an ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth, and stained fingers that could get him mistaken for an auto mechanic. No matter what he is doing—painting, teaching, greeting guests at a jacket-and-tie gallery reception—he latches a ring of 23 keys to his belt loop, like a night watchman. He has long forgotten what most of them unlock. Garrulous and hammy, he is a storyteller who can joke with a genteel, Chardonnay-sipping audience about painting pigeon shit on a rock, offending no one. He cheerfully describes himself as a vulgarian, a “Jew-boy from Ashburton” who misses strip joint burlesque and admires Rembrandt and other giants of representational painting for how they rendered life in all its earthy, fleshy rawness.

His primary studio, like the rest of his house in downtown Baltimore, is a remarkable jumble. His wife, Ruth Middleman, is a painter too, and neither seems inclined toward housekeeping. Stuff is piled, stacked, shelved, stashed, and tossed everywhere. Tubs of pigment with evocative names—alizarine crimson, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow. Shopping bags chock-full of the film cans he uses to hold the paints he grinds himself. Bottles of linseed oil, turpentine, and walnut oil. Tins of Rattrav’s Black Mallory and Dunhill Nightcap pipe tobacco. An old but indestructible dial phone. A paint-spattered stereo system beside a stack of CDs that include Bach, Mozart, Handel, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. A human skull with badly bucked teeth and no lower jaw. Framing wood. A cart full of brushes. A couple of easels. A big circular mirror. Stools so encrusted with paint their original surfaces have not been glimpsed in years. Tacked to the walls are paintings of fish, landscapes, self-portraits. “Cultivate mess,” he likes to say. “For me, art comes out of mess. Disorder is crucial to discovery.”

Today’s painting will be a still life: a few lemons, one of them halved, a plate, a silver teapot, and some whole fish just purchased from Baltimore's Lexington Market. He works out the arrangement he wants, then begins the underpainting, sketching the basic composition in brown tones, laying in darks that will underlie the color. "This is like setting up scaffolding," he says. "You can just paint direct. There's more freshness that way. But there's more richness this way." He doesn't talk much while he works. The only sounds are the moist sucking noises of his pipe and the scrape of his brushes against the canvas.

Day 199: The sideshow historian chapter

Another preview of The Man Who Signed the City. This time, James Taylor, historian of the American sideshow, and a sideshow in his own right.


Ladies and gentlemen never have you met a man like the one exhibited here. By day he is a petty bureaucrat in an agency too fearsome to mention in front of the children. But at night, he becomes the Boswell of the Ballyhoo! The Annalist of the Outré! The Memorialist of All That is Thaumaturgic, Teratogenic, and Transmundane! And for the expenditure of mere minutes of life's precious expanse, you can meet this unique man on these very pages. Please step into our story, where the lovely Zamorah will direct you to your seats. Don't mind her beard, folks, she was born that way.

James Robert Taylor III has some interesting friends. There is Paul Lawrence, also known as The Enigma, tattooed from shaved pate to big toe like a blue jigsaw puzzle, with horns surgically implanted in his skull. Then there is Johnny Meah, the Czar of Bizarre. During his working day he drives nails up his nose and slides swords down his throat. Jeanie Tomaini, the Half-Girl, is 2’ 6”. She would be taller if she had legs, but if she had legs, she might never have made it in show business. And Matt "The Tube" Crowley...you may not want to know what Matt can do with a length of sterile tubing and a plunger bottle.

All these folks delight Taylor, 47, who is dedicated to putting the odd in periodical. He publishes Shocked & Amazed! On and Off the Midway, an illustrated journal of the sideshow, presenting its human oddities, bizarre performers, and Barnumesque heritage. Each issue mimics the entertainment that it chronicles. The cover art recalls the lurid banners that once advertised “Howard the Human Lobster” or “Percilla the Monkey Girl.” The table of contents reads like the spiel, delivered by a talker (carnies, Taylor explains, never use the term “barker”), that promoted the attractions inside and exhorted passersby on the midway to see the show. Once inside Shocked & Amazed! you encounter blockheads (performers who drive spikes up their noses), various anatomical wonders like Otis the Frog Boy, pickled punks (deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde), famous sideshow impresarios, and other attractions. Taylor calls the final piece in each issue “the blow-off.” In a sideshow, the blow-off is a last attraction placed at the exit to entice the audience to leave, making room for a new batch of paying customers.

There is an air of the 19th century about him. He wears silver rings on three fingers of each hand and threads a watch chain through the buttonholes of the waistcoats he favors. There is not much hair left on his head, but he does sport a fine set of muttonchops. He used to carry a walking stick and would not look bad dressed in a Victorian cape. He has a couple of physical anomalies himself: a little toe that curves over his other toes, and a heart situated at an odd angle in his chest. “Nothing I can make a buck off of,” he says. He is friendly, profane, and smitten with the sideshow life. His knowledge and friends have landed him on The Jerry Springer Show. He was consultant to The Learning Channel on its documentary “Sideshow: Alive on the Inside.” His collection of books, curiosities, and memorabilia is growing into an archive that he hopes to exhibit someday. He speaks sometimes of growing up feeling like an outsider. Now he is an insider, “with it” in carnival lingo, accepted by a crowd of professional misfits and anomalies.

The entertainment spectacles that he relishes have changed over the decades, but he doubts they will disappear. “The spirit of sideshows is eternal,” he says. “People will look. We're very curious monkeys.” He smiles and adds, “The human race is an amazingly exotic species.”

Day 175: "You've never received an icy glare…"

Click for a better look

Celebrating 175 straight days of blogging with another glance at The Man Who Signed the City: an excerpt of the chapter on Drew Daniel, English professor, half of the electronic band Matmos, veteran of world tours with Bjork. (And yes, that's a new cover mockup, ovr there on the right.)

Of the 1,000 copies of Quasi-Objects, they consigned five to a record shop in London called Rough Trade. Rough Trade’s customers included, on at least one occasion, Bjork, and she bought Quasi-Objects. She liked it so much she gave Daniel and Schmidt a call from Iceland. Would they like to remix a song of hers titled “Alarm Call”? “At first we thought it was a prank or something, one of our friends winding us up,” Daniel remembers. “It was a shock. Then, when she started thinking about making her album Vespertine, she approached us to make some rhythms for one song. Then we made a few more, and it started to snowball.” She came to San Francisco to work on the album with them at their house. The first day, Daniel’s computer crashed and he had to call a friend to fix it. “That was pretty embarrassing, but she proved patient with the way we operate.”

Then came the real stunner. “I was working at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles on my dissertation, in the archives looking for visual representations of melancholy, and I got a phone call from Bjork.” She was standing on a cliff in Iceland where, Daniel says, she goes to make big decisions, and she was inviting Matmos to join the backing musicians for her upcoming tour. The tour would be huge, traversing Europe, the United States, and Japan, and it would take a commitment of up to two years. Daniel was in the middle of his dissertation, and had to approach his adviser, Richard Halpern (now one of his colleagues in the Johns Hopkins English Department), and announce that he would be taking a few years off to go on the road. Halpern agreed to let him take a break. “He didn’t have to do that,” Daniel says. “Most people would have been, like, ‘Later, loser,’ but Richard knew I was serious.”

Daniel and Schmidt had to learn Bjork’s full tour repertory and figure out how to perform everything live. One song, “Aurora,” included the sound of Bjork walking through snow. “We couldn’t do snow on stage, though we looked into it,” Daniel recalls. “Martin had this idea to walk on rock salt on a contact-mic platform. So the rhythm of the song was Martin walking. It’s actually a challenge to walk at the right pace for a whole band.” They spent six months in rehearsal and preparation. Says Daniel, “I was scared at the idea that we were really going to do this. But Bjork said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got a lot of people to work with you and make this bullet proof.”

The touring ensemble included a 13-piece orchestra, a choir, a harpist, and Matmos. The first performance was in Paris. “We couldn’t believe what the audience for a pop star sounds like on stage,” Daniel says. “You know, we get good applause when we finish a show, but as soon as she walked onstage, the roar of the French fans was really frightening.” His parents were backstage. So was Catherine Deneuve. “We actually met her at the Dancer in the Dark premiere”—Deneuve and Bjork both had roles in the Lars von Trier film—“and Martin tried to bum a cigarette from her. You’ve never received an icy glare until you’ve tried to bum a cigarette from Catherine Deneuve.”

Day 147: Excerpt from "The Man Who Signed the City"

Creation of The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People, continues apace. At least, what passes for apace with me. I'm simulteanously revising text, researching typography and book design, mocking up covers, exploring publishing platforms, testing software, and pondering which model Tesla to buy with all the royalties that soon will be surging into my account.

That last one, not so much.

One of the profiles to be included is from 2012—essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider. Here is how that one opens:

It is simplistic but not entirely inaccurate to say that Tim Kreider drank his way through his 20s, drew his way through his 30s, and has been writing his way through his 40s. As a drinker in his 20s he was, by his own testimony, depressed, but by his friends’ testimony, still fun to be around. As a cartoonist in his 30s he was an adept caricaturist whose drawings were frequently puerile, as frequently obscene, and savagely funny unless you count yourself among the right wing of the Republican Party, in which case you probably regard them as filthy, blasphemous, treasonous, and worth collecting just in case the day comes when he can be prosecuted.

As a writer, however, Kreider reveals himself to be well-read, smart, a fundamentally decent and kind man possessed of rare candor, a pitiless sense of his own shortcomings, and a gift for friendship that makes you wish your number were stored in his cellphone. This summer, Kreider published We Learn Nothing, a collection of 14 essays the author describes as a collection of thoughts about friendship and loss. There is indeed much in the essays about friends he still sees and friends who have drifted out of touch or cut him off, eccentric friends, and friends who were flat-out nuts. There is also an account of the author trying to feel some empathy for people he loathes at a Tea Party rally, his discovery in his 40s of two half-sisters he did not know he had, and a lovely, fond remembrance of a deceased friend who was beloved for the elaborate lies he told. There are rueful tales of Kreider’s hopeless love life; a tough, an unsparing account of an uncle who died in prison; and yet another telling of what he describes as the story he cannot escape, about the time he was nearly murdered in Crete.

The book provides substantial evidence that while Kreider was a good cartoonist, he is a superb essayist, a funny and fluent storyteller who wears his cultural literacy lightly, capable of references, in the same paragraph, to Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dude from the film The Big Lebowski, and Rebecca Solnit, all without affectation. To read “The Creature Walks Among Us,” “The Czar’s Daughter,” “Escape from Pony Island,” or “An Insult to the Brain” is to appreciate a mordant but affectionate observer of life’s rich pageant, and a craftsman who almost never puts a word wrong.

For example, here he is on the sudden recognition of falling in love: “Someone shows you the rabbit’s foot she just bought, explaining, ‘It was the last green one,’ or simply reaches out and takes your lapel to steady herself as the subway decelerates into the station, and you realize: Uh-oh.” On political intolerance: “One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfactions of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us from the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.” On embarrassment, derived from observing a man with a very bad toupee: “Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted.” On friendship: “This is one of the things we rely on our friends for: to think better of us than we think of ourselves. It makes us feel better, but it also makes us be better; we try to be the person they believe we are.”

Forthcoming July 1. Maybe. Let's says Julyish...

Day 135: The Book Formerly Known as Profilia

(click for larger)

Work continues apace on the anthology of profiles that I plan to publish this summer. My working title has been Profilia, or something more like Profilia: Encounters with Interesting People. That had the virtue of employing a distinctive word, distinctive because I made it up. (Though just today I came across a street usage: "profilia, the act of liking every single thing on someone's Facebook page.") But I worried that it might mislead because it sounds Italian, or like some sort of unusual sexual predilection. Or is just mystifying and therefore offputting; I want readers to put the book down after they've read it for about two hours, not before they even open it.

So, I am all but settled on a new title, one that makes use of the title of one of the anthologized pieces: The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People. I'm not committed to "remarkable"—that could become "interesting" or "fascinating" or "intriguing." Or, "people who were willing to talk to me."

The contents are all but set, too. One or two of these could drop off—right now this would weight in at around 90,000 words, not unreasonable for a book but a bit pricey to produce—but this could be the Table of Contents (the order will change):

  • Dan Dubelman, indie rock musician
  • Larry Hoffman, composer
  • Jonathan Haas, drummer
  • Drew Daniel, literature professor and electronic musician
  • Leon Fleisher, pianist
  • Stephen Dixon, novelist
  • Rosemary Mahoney, author and travel memoirist
  • Roy Blount Jr., humorist
  • Tim Kreider, essayist
  • Walter Murch, film editor and polymath
  • Raoul Middleman, painter
  • Chuck Keiger, sign painter
  • Avi Rubin, computer scientist and poker player
  • Barclay Tagg, thoroughbred trainer
  • Kevin Tallon, deaf boxer
  • George Kennedy, championship swim coach
  • James Taylor, historian of carnival sideshows
  • Park Dietz, forensic psychiatrist and serial killer expert
  • Sidney Mintz, food anthropologist
  • Denis Wirtz, biophysicist and cancer researcher
  • Kathy Edin, sociologist of extreme poverty

I think that's a pretty good lineup, don't you?