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 184: The computer scientist plays poker

Coming July 15.

Time for another preview of my forthcoming book, The Man Who Signed the City. Up today is Avi Rubin, a computer scientist, cybersecurity expert, and poker player.


Rubin looks so young, he once had a Las Vegas casino question the validity of his photo ID, and there is something childlike in his enthusiasm for poker. On the day we went to Delaware Park, when I arrived at his house I found him already in his car, sitting impatiently at the end of the driveway. Once we were at the casino, the closer he got to the poker room the faster he walked. I half expected him to break into a trot.

His plan was to play a cash game in the morning, then enter the casino’s noon tournament. In a tournament, the entrants vie for prizes awarded to the top finishers. Prize money in most daily tournaments is modest and the players risk no more than the entrance fee, so tournaments tend to attract more casual participants and poker tourists. But in a cash game, the players vie for each other’s money, and because there is no limit to how much can be won, cash games attract professionals for whom a casino is the office. Soon after Rubin sat down at one of the games in progress at 9:30 am, a pro in a black T-shirt called it a day holding more than $4,000 in chips. Rubin was happy to see him go. You do not win that much money at a small-stakes table unless you know what you are doing.

Texas Hold ’em is the game you see on cable television poker shows. In Hold ’em, each player tries to make the best five-card hand out of two cards dealt facedown and a set of five communal cards faceup in the center of the table. The cards come in four rounds—first each player’s facedown cards, then three communal cards (called “the flop”), followed by a fourth (“the turn”), and finally a fifth (“the river”)—with betting after each round. Texas Hold ’em rewards a good head for odds and a good memory for what everyone else does in the course of the game. Cautious at first, Rubin spent several hands sizing up the other players. He guessed that at least three were professionals. They had substantial chip stacks and cool, appraising faces, and they were not making mistakes. Still, after about 45 minutes he began winning some pots and seemed to be holding his own. He played well for another 45 minutes, until he tried to bluff with a weaker hand, failed to fold when he should have, and lost $240 to one of the pros. On a break soon after, he said of the player who had just beat him, “I should have realized he was strong. But every time I bet, the pros on the other side of the table were raising me and I was folding, and I was getting a little fed up. So, they got in my head a little.”

He checked his iPhone. Years ago, he had invested in Apple stock at a great price. Now he noted that the company was up $5 per share in morning trading. He chuckled. “The good news is I’ve made more on Apple this morning than I’ve lost here.”

Day 171: Preview of Coming Attractions

The opener for what is, at the moment, the second chapter of The Man Who Signed the City. The subject, biophysicist and cancer researcher Denis Wirts.

Galen of Pergamos was a physician with a practice in second-century Rome. Among his clientele was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen was also a prolific scribbler, so we know a lot about his ideas on disease, including his theory of cancer. Cancer, he wrote, was caused by “black bile” that flowed through the body. Anywhere it became trapped, it formed a malignant tumor.

He was wrong about black bile, though it is one hell of a good metaphor. But he was strikingly close to the mark with his flow theory. There are cancers, such as glioblastomas in the brain, in which the primary tumor can be deadly. But for most people, the original tumor does not pose the mortal threat. In more than 90 percent of cancers, what kills is metastasis. Cancer cells have a terrifying ability to move through the body and form new tumors in the bones, in the lymph nodes, in the lungs, in the liver and other internal organs. If a physician finds your tumor before the cancer has spread, you may survive. If the tumor has metastasized, cancer will kill you. Medicine has few weapons to counter the flow of black bile.

What if that is, in part, because a large portion of cancer cell biology and cancer drug testing has been reliant on a ubiquitous piece of lab equipment? The wrong piece of lab equipment? German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri invented the Petri dish in 1887. Unless it was invented two years before that by a Slovene, Emanuel Klein, or by a pair of Romanian microbiologists, André Cornil and Victor Babes. Unless it was invented a year before that—we are back to 1884 now—by English researcher Percy Faraday Frankland. Whatever its provenance, the two-piece flat cylindrical glassware (now frequently polystyreneware) has been used by scientists for decades to culture and study cells of all kinds, including cancer cells.

Denis Wirtz is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He has dedicated the past few years to developing methods of studying cancer cells in three-dimensional environments. In a Petri dish, cells are cultured on a substrate so thin as to be effectively two-dimensional. Wirtz believes that this 2-D microworld-in-a-dish so distorts the cells and their behavior as to cast doubt on a significant part of critical cancer biology. He and his research team have been growing and observing cancer cells in 3-D matrices that are much more like human tissue. The difference has been so dramatic that when Wirtz talks about it, he becomes an evangelist for cell biology in three dimensions. To figure out metastasis, he says, scientists must work in 3-D. And it would be a good idea to take hundreds of drugs, deemed failures after testing them on cells in a dish, and test them again in 3-D matrices. Wirtz thinks pharmaceutical companies may have missed medicines that will work because of their reliance on Herr Petri's invention.

Day 167: Excerpt from The Man Who Signed the City — Dan Dubelman

Another preview from The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People. This time, indie rocker Dan Dubelman and his then-wife Vickie.

Early on a Saturday evening, the Dubelmans are trying to get out of their house in East Nashville to play a gig. Guitars cases are propped against an amplifier as their owners shower and dress. Dan emerges first. He is short, about five-six, and lean from intense two-hour tennis workouts seven mornings a week. He wears his hair shorn to stubble and a soul patch under his lower lip. Tonight he sets off his white shirt and white jeans with a battered black cowboy hat that has had most of the cowboy mangled out of it. Vickie has braided her dyed-red hair into pigtails. She favors skirts or pants slung as low on her hips as she can get away with, and tonight’s dark brown slacks reveal a tattoo south of her lower spine. Over her right collarbone she has more ink, an image of Venus. She climbs up into towering platform shoes and they begin to cart equipment to their truck.

“Did you bring the set list?” she asks.

Uh, no. Into the house to retrieve the piece of paper. Back out to the truck.

“Do we have a capo for your guitar?” Dan says. Back into the house.

“We do this every time,” Vickie says, grinning. She and her husband have matching gaps between their front teeth and a relaxed, affectionately bickerish rapport with each other. Some of their songs are teasing dialogs edgy enough to be interesting and sexy.

At a riverside joint named Windows on the Cumberland in Nashville’s 2nd Street arts district, Dan sets up his guitars while Vickie pulls out Betty Dylan posters, scrawls notice of tonight’s performance on them with a felt marker and tacks them up outside the club. She does not expect this gig to do much for their cash flow, but what the hell, they like to play and the club’s owner, Boots, has called them his favorite band. “We’re always suckers for people who think we’re good,” Dan says.

Provisional publication date for the book is July 15. Stay tuned.

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...