The Race of Gentlemen

The Race of Gentlemen, held on the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, is helping to bring back the post-War golden age of hot rods

First published in American Way magazine, September 2018. Opening image and first shot of Mel by David Carlo, other photography by Myles Pritchard.

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Engines are roaring, old bikes are churning up sand and the briny sea air is thick with the smell of gas and oil. But Gene ‘Windy’ Winfield, a week shy of his 91st birthday, is a picture of cool in his shiny black 1932 Ford Roadster hot rod, with its growling, gleaming engine exposed.

He’s on the starting line at the Race of Gentlemen, a series of period-perfect drag races, held every June since 2013 on the wide beach at Wildwood, New Jersey, a blue-collar boardwalk town at the southern end of the Jersey Shore. With only pre-1935 cars and pre-1947 bikes allowed to race, it’s the most adrenaline-soaked history lesson you’ll ever see.   

Gene is ready for the rush he’s been chasing since the late 1940s, when as a 21-year-old he started taking his souped-up Ford 27-T Roadster to race the dry lake at El Mirage, California. He has never smoked, drunk alcohol or even coffee—this obsession with speed has been enough. It has helped keep him wiry and youthful, with a thick mop of black hair under his battered teal helmet.

Gene first worked on this particular Roadster in 1948—he’s customized and repaired it for five different owners through the years, and by rights it should probably be in a car museum somewhere. Instead, with the tide fast encroaching on the sandy track, it is set to race Holeshot, a beautiful yellow Sedan dragster, driven by New Jersey car customizer Joe Conforth, who has built a number of winning cars in previous years.

The veteran flag girl, in her bandana and vintage Harley jumpsuit, points her flag at each driver, one by one, building the tension. Gene looks on like a rugby player facing down a Maori haka. Then, as at the start of every race here, she leaps into the air, her tattooed legs curled behind her in a moment frozen in a thousand retro-filtered photos.

As she whips her flag down, there’s a spin of tires and a thick spray of sand, as gears engage and revs turn to raw power. Gene’s Roadster can’t quite grip on the grainy sand; but Joe’s Holeshot lives up to its name (holeshot is a term for the driver who is quickest to reach racing speed), and is soon flying down the beach, overlooked by Wildwood’s Ferris Wheel and wooden rollercoaster. Gene’s powerful Roadster picks up pace, but it’s too late.  

Still, when I catch up with Gene in the pit area, after his first race on the sand, he’s beaming. “That was wild,” he says. “We had the engine power, but we just couldn’t get enough traction. But what fun! It’s so great to see this whole culture coming back.”

Gene was there when it was new, as he tells me in between countless interruptions for selfies. In the mid-1940s, aged just 15, he started playing around with a 1928 Ford Model A, installing a fake antenna just so that he could hang a foxtail from it like the cool kids did. He was soon “hopping up” cars, in hot-rod vernacular, and racing on the streets.  

Gene was called up to the Navy for the last six months of WWII, and served six months after the War ended. When he returned home, he found there was a whole new set of Californians who wanted to modify pre-War cars and race them on disused air strips or salt flats. “Guys came back from Hawaii or Okinawa with a bit of money in their pocket, having learned new skills,” he says. “This scene built up around speed, but also this fabulous engineering.”     

By 1948, Gene was running Windy’s Custom Shop in a converted chicken coop behind his mother’s house in Modesto, California, when he read about dry lake racing in a new magazine called Hot Rod. He was soon figuring out how to tweak his 27-T Roadster to smash records at the El Mirage and Reno dry lakes, reaching 144.4mph at Reno in 1949. When he was called up again, this time to serve in the Army in Japan, he organised the country’s first ever stock car race in 1951, leaving the other GIs in his dust.   

Like many of the early hot-rodders, who were miscast as hoodlums, Gene was a technical pioneer. In the late 50s, he created the Winfield Fade, blending paint to create cars that looked like pieces of candy. He would go on to wow car nuts across America with wacky creations like the Winfield Reactor in 1965, a Space-Aged machine that would appear in Star Trek and Bewitched. His cars for movies like Blade Runner and Back to the Future 2 helped cement his heady reputation among folk who know the difference between a Flathead and a Nail Head.

Over the years, the popularity of hot-rodding has ebbed and flowed, fading in the 1960s because Detroit had learned (largely from the hot-rod scene) how to build powerful muscle cars. But, while the ’80s saw a resurgence in hot-rod culture, Gene says today’s scene is livelier than ever. “I go to car shows and I see people doing fabulously innovative things with the same technology we used in the 1940s.” Demand for old knowledge is such that Gene’s out-of-print first book, The Legendary Custom Cars and Hot Rods of Gene Winfield, will set you back close to $200.

Gene points to the growing popularity of not just the Race of Gentlemen, but also the annual drag races at El Mirage and the evocative Bonneville salt flats in Utah. “People are tired of cookie-cutter cars,” he says. “You need imagination, and ingenuity, to build a hot rod, and that challenge appeals to people.”

People are tired of cookie-cutter cars. You need imagination, and ingenuity, to build a hot rod, and that challenge appeals to people.

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One of the big players behind the revival is Mel Stultz, aka Meldon Van Riper Stultz III, who founded the Race of Gentlemen back in 2012. When I first encounter him, he’s rushing around outside his black Harley-Davidson truck by the racing strip as his pet pig sleeps in the back. He’s barefoot, bearded, heavily tattooed, wearing an old U.S. Marines shirt and a battered Harley cap. He’s so busy that he can only tell me the story of the race in frantic snippets, later supplemented with a telephone call.   

Mel grew up a self-confessed wild man around Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen’s old stomping grounds up the Jersey Shore. He’d been a surfer and skater, then a drummer in a band called Pigs in Space (or PIS). After a stint in the Marines after high school—and the realization that his band weren’t going to conquer the world—in the late ’90s found himself learning to “chop” a Ford Model A Sedan. He started building hot rods, obsessed with the DIY creativity of it all, and a few years later traded one for a 1939 Harley-Davidson motorbike. He was hooked, and one of his trademark moves since has been to surf old bikes, standing on the saddle, hands-free, bare-foot and wild.

Mel was never interested in simply looking at old cars and bikes in shows. So, in 2010—while he made a living re-fitting bars around Asbury Park, and running the revamped Asbury Lanes bowling alley—he began running drag races on a disused race track in Englishtown, New Jersey. Increasingly fascinated by those early hot-rodders, in 2008 he reformed a near-mythical car and motorcycle club called the Oilers, first founded in the 1940s by a Californian Navy vet called Jim Nelson, who—with echoes of Gene’s chicken coop—built hot rods on his parent’s turkey farm.      

Mel was sitting alone on the local beach at Allenhurst, New Jersey, one day in 2012, when he had an “If you build it” moment. “It was just, like: Man, we could drag race down that beach.”

At the time, he was reading about the great 1920s racing driver and mechanic, ‘Gentle’ Jimmy Murphy, and the days when car-builders like him had to do demos for businessmen in return for funding. “You’d get these guys in suits and ties, who would strap into these contraptions they’d built and just haul ass.”  

He came up with the name the Race of Gentlemen, partly as a nod to ‘Gentle Jimmy’ but also to persuade the mayor of Allenhurst to allow the race to happen. “I had neck tats and a crazy beard. The idea was, Let’s not scare this town.” Mel also liked that the acronym, TROG, nodded to troglodytes and the garage punk of the Troggs. “Besides,” he says. “You can be a gentleman and a punk.”

So, in the Fall of 2012, Mel ushered 15 cars and 15 bikes onto the beach at Allenhurst, as around 3,500 spectators turned up, many having seen Mel’s punkish home-made flyers. Mel had got his Oilers crew involved, and had plucked up the courage to ask Sara Francello, the “tough ass” barmaid at the bar he was re-fitting, if she would be the flag girl. Sara had no idea what a flag girl was, but agreed, even though she hates having her picture taken. Mel and Sara would eventually become a couple, and she would become perhaps the most photographed flag girl of all time.

That first year was a success, even as cars and bikes regularly got stuck in the sand, and a 14-page feature in Hot Rod magazine was a clarion call to a whole community: “It shook the industry,” recalls Mel. “People just looked at the pictures and were like: What the Hell is this?”

People just looked at the pictures and were like: What the Hell is this?

But, just days after the race, Hurricane Sandy hit Allenhurst hard, meaning Mel had to go searching for a new place to hold his race. Wildwood, an hour and a half south, hadn’t just survived Sandy relatively unscathed, but was a match made in hot-rod heaven, with its boardwalk amusement park and mid-century motels providing a perfectly nostalgic background. In 2013, the town welcomed Mel and his cohorts with open arms.   

The race has grown every year since—this year, there are close to 200 cars and bikes racing, and nearly 20,000 spectators, listening to the wry commentary of the dapperly attired, cigar-smoking Nick Foster, a cigar shop owner and Mel’s former next door neighbor.

Part of the race’s success has been down to how it looks, right down to the battered period helmets, many inscribed with speed-based aphorisms like ‘Death rides a fast camel’. But the photographs don’t give a sense of the community the race has created. “It really is like a family, and people will do anything for each other,” says Sara, the flag girl and race manager. “A lot of these guys are real softies underneath it all—there’s so much emotion between them.”

This weekend, emotions are heightened by bike accidents involving two beloved members of the TROG community: Jeremiah Armenta and Atsushi Yasui, aka ‘Sushi’, a race legend who brings a ten-strong crew from Japan every year. Both are set to make full recoveries, but Mel later admits to being shaken. “It hurts to see your friends like that,” he says. “But it shows just how real this is. These guys are hitting close to 80 miles an hour on a beach. You can’t fake that.”

These guys are hitting close to 80 miles an hour on a beach. You can’t fake that.

Still—while Mel considers new ways to minimise the risks involved, while not sacrificing the soul of his race—he’s also planning to grow the Race of Gentlemen. On Labor Day weekend this year, he is putting on a series of oval track races for the 115th anniversary of Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. He has unconfirmed plans to take TROG to Galvesten, Texas, next year, and possibly take the race back to California, where it has previously been held at Pismo Beach. He’s even eyeing up potential overseas locations for the race, possibly including Australia and Japan.

“It feels like we’ve hit on something,” says Mel. “People want this so bad. They’re tired of things being plastic and disposable. These cars and bikes hark back to a time when people built things to last, with their bare hands. It’s such a thrill to see guys like Gene coming to the race—there are fewer and fewer of these guys left, and we want to make sure that their spirit never dies.”

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In hot water in Iceland

From public pools to natural hot springs, Iceland has a longstanding love affair with the water. Toby Skinner jumps in for a lesson

First published in American Way, June 2018. Photography by River Thompson.

It says something about Icelandic culture that, when a sketch comedian and actor called Jón Gnarr ran for mayor of Reykjavík in 2010, the official manifesto of his newly-formed Best Party promised “Free access to swimming pools and free towels for everyone. This is something that everyone should fall for, and it’s the election promise we’re most proud of.”

Gnarr—helped by a catchy song to the tune of Tina Turner’s ‘The Best’—won the election handsomely, serving as mayor from 2000-2014, even if he couldn’t quite push through his swimming pool pledge. “I really argued for it,” he tells me. “There was the small matter of fixing Iceland’s shattered economy, but swimming pools aren’t far behind in terms of what’s important to people here. I would get hell if one of the pools was closed for renovations.”

I’ve come to Iceland to get a sense of why swimming pools, and in particular hot baths, are such an important part of life in this land of lava, steam, elves and bleak beauty. For a population of barely 350,000, there are now more than 120 public pools, or sundlaugs, meaning just about every village or neighborhood has one, each with its own hot tub, heated by the geothermal energy that’s pumped straight from Iceland’s volcanic core. Some are rudimentary, almost backyard affairs; others are designed by modish architects—but they’re all relatively cheap to visit, and open even in the darkest depths of winter.

“The public pool is to Icelanders what the sauna is to the Finns, or the pub is to the English,” says Gnarr. “Alcohol was banned here from 1915 until 1989, so the hot tub became the center of the community: the place where people come together to talk, or just be. No topic is off-limits, whether it’s politics, personal stuff, or: does anyone know where I can get a part for my Honda Civic? Ask that at a bus stop and people will think you’re a lunatic. But in the hot tub, there will be a guy who’ll know a guy. I’ve had some very surreal, Twilight Zone conversations in the hot tub.”

No topic is off-limits, whether it’s politics, personal stuff, or: does anyone know where I can get a part for my Honda Civic?

Gnarr is a regular at the Vesturbær pool, a neighborhood pool in the capital, where the curved hot tubs have become meeting point for the the city’s movers and shakers, including Björk. “I go three times a week to clear my head and just have a nice chat in the hot tub,” says Hildur, a pop singer who won best song at the Icelandic Music Awards last year. “I see Björk there quite a bit, and I’ve seen foreigners freak out when they see her. But, for Icelanders, it’s all about treating everyone equally, especially in the tub. So if you see Björk, be cool.”

But swimming can offer more than the chance to clear one’s head, or spot a famous elfin singer. In the long rectangular hot tub, dug into the concrete just off the man-made Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach on the edge of Reykjavík, I meet 81-year-old Haukur Bergsteinsson, relaxing with a cup of tea in hand.

Bergsteinsson enjoys swimming in the frigid sea off the white-sand beach, which was created in 2000 with imported Moroccan sand, but it’s more than that—he swears it helped him recover from cancer.

“When I started swimming here in 2008, I’d never really swum before,” he says, in halting English. “It was cold, and I didn’t go far at first. But I started getting used to it, and after a while I realised that the symptoms of the cancer I’d suffered were disappearing. It was almost like I was being reborn.”

He hasn’t stopped, swimming around 300 metres across the bay every summer day since, entering the sea over the rocks in his lime green swim cap and goggles. He’s now approaching swim number 1,600. “Whatever the doctors say, I know how it makes me feel,” he says. “It clears my head, and when I sit in the hot bath afterwards, I feel fresh, alive and happy.”

Since the first geothermally-heated public pool, Reykjavík’s Sundhöll baths, opened in 1937, Icelandic pools have become increasingly ambitious in design, with some of the newer pools looking more like five-star spas. I drive four hours north of Reykjavík to the remote, windswept Troll Peninsula, an area of bleak, Bergman-esque beauty where horses outnumber people. In the tiny village of Hofsós—population 200—I find a rectangle of bright aquamarine, built into the grassy landscape overlooking the ominously grey Skagafjörður fjord. With its elegantly curved changing rooms carved into the side of the fjord, it might just be the most beautiful public swimming pool on the planet.  

The pool, which opened in 2011, was funded by local businesswomen Steinunn Jónsdóttir and Lilja Pálmadóttir, the latter the wife of Everest director Baltasar Kormákur, who wanted to give something back to the area in which they had made a life. “It was about doing something for the local community, so a pool became the obvious choice,” says Jónsdóttir, when I meet her after a blissful swim and hot bath, involving lots of floating and Wordsworthian reveries. “Hot water is part of our survival as a nation; it unites us.”

Hot water is part of our survival as a nation; it unites us.

Jónsdóttir and Pálmadóttir’s key decision, when they had the idea back in 2007, was their choice of architect. They brought in Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir, the founder of the Basalt architecture firm in Reykjavík, who has become the undisputed doyenne of modern Icelandic pool design, with a host of big projects, including Geosea, a new bath complex that opens this June near the northern town of Húsavík, known for its whale-watching tours. As Jónsdóttir puts it: “She just has a gift for blending architecture and nature. We were very opinionated clients, but she was the visionary.”     

Since opening, the pool has been such a success that Jónsdóttir worries about the crowds, which increase every year. “We almost made it too nice,” she says, only half-joking. “We get so many visitors, but it’s important that the locals still see it as a place they can come and relax.”

If Hofsós is a public pool that increasingly attracts visitors (who pay a higher entrance fee), many of Iceland’s biggest pools were built primarily for tourists—including Sigþórsdóttir’s most famous project, the Blue Lagoon. The silica-rich geothermal spa, on the otherworldly Reyjkanes Peninsula in southwest Iceland, has become a ubiquitous symbol of Iceland to outsiders: so much that it was named one of National Geographic magazine’s 25 Wonders of the World in 2012, and even appeared in an episode of The Simpsons.

The lagoon appeared inauspiciously in 1976, in the form of a wastewater pool from the nearby geothermal energy plant; but, by 1981, hardy locals had started bathing in the water, boasting of its supposed healing powers. Still, when Sigþórsdóttir was hired as the lead architect in 1998, tasked with reimagining the site as a tourist attraction, scepticism was rife. “At the time, there was virtually no tourism in Iceland, and people thought it was a bit of a joke,” she tells me, when we meet in her office on Reykjavík’s main street. “I was a female lead architect, and I had all these men telling me that this project wasn’t going to work.”

Those men were fantastically wrong. Today—with visitor numbers to Iceland having boomed to more than two million a year—you have to book well in advance to join the flocks getting in-water massages and flotation treatments in the steaming aquamarine water, with their white silica face masks and Skyr smoothies.

And the already-vast Blue Lagoon keeps growing. This April saw the opening of The Retreat, a luxury hotel and day spa built into the dramatic 800-year-old lava flows, all of it surrounded by lagoon water. As with all projects designed by Sigþórsdóttir and her team, the design followed nature. “We had the lava cut by skilled craftspeople, and it informs the whole building,” she says. “We want it to feel like you’re deep in the water and the lava. Nature is always the star.”

But to bathe in hot water in Iceland, you don’t need fancy architects, and in some cases you don’t even need to build a pool, because the steaming, bubbling landscape does it all for you. In Hveragerði, a little town half an hour east of Reykjavík, I hike along a steaming geothermal rivulet, stopping only to strip off and jump in. At Hellulaug in the Westfjords, Iceland’s remote northwestern peninsula, I bathe in a naturally-heated rock pool, gazing out at the wild Atlantic Ocean, utterly and thrillingly alone.

But perhaps my most euphoric hot-water moment comes at Grettislaug, on the other side of the Skagafjörður from the slick Hofsós pool. Here, at the end of a bumpy gravel road, I find two rudimentary pools dug into the rocky land by a local farmer and tour guide, Jón Eiríksson, who has also built a small campsite around his baths, with a few little grass-covered wooden huts. With views of glacial mountains to one side, and the folkloric Drangey island to the other, it feels like the end of Middle Earth.

I quickly strip down to my swim trunks and make for the pools, my skin quickly turning to goosebumps in the chilly Icelandic air. Sliding into the warm pool is pure relief—but the bearded guy on the other side barely notices me, lost in his own Zen moment, which I feel professionally bound to interrupt.

It turns out that he’s Michel Chevalier, a 33-year-old Frenchman who has hitch-hiked here after after an epic journey cross Europe, and hasn’t left, earning his stay at the campsite by serving guests in the little reception cabin. “Arriving here somehow felt like arriving home,” he says. “You go hiking, you immerse yourself in this deep nature, and then you come back and sit in this warm water, just reflecting, being. I feel totally at peace here.”

You come back and sit in this warm water, just reflecting, being. I feel totally at peace here.

Sitting there, as we fall silent, I get what he means, and why Icelanders make this such a central part of their culture. It’s not just the chance to actually speak to people, without phones, clothes or any other distractions. It’s the pure, cleansing feeling of it all: that fresh, glorious combination of warm water and clean, cold air, often in the midst of some of the most bleakly beautiful landscapes this planet has to offer. It feels a whole lot like happiness.    

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Medieval and human statues in Prague

Prague 1, the city’s historic center, is still one of the world’s great gothic spectacles—and there are ways to escape the crowds and the medieval-themed restaurants

First published in American Way magazine, April 2018. With photography by Tim White

On Prague’s Old Town Square, the sheer level of competition is weighing heavily on the silver human statue, who I meet on a chilly February morning. “There are so many performers here, it can be hard to get their attention,” says the silver man, who is Czech-born Robert Horvak when he takes off the silver facepaint, top hat and jacket. “There are a lot of tourists, but there’s so much for them to see here.”

Horvak’s schtick is to flutter his eyelids and greet passers-by, especially children, with a squeaky bird voice. He’s been here five years, but it’s hard to draw an audience when there’s also a traditional Czech five-piece band on the square, as well as a costumed Olaf from Frozen and a Ukrainian Santa who boasts a very huggable 12-foot tall polar bear.

But Horvak’s primary bête noire is the Slovakian gold human statue, who stands just a few yards away, with his more conventional “stand very still” routine. “We are not friends,” says Horvak, almost wistfully, before snapping into character as a young girl appears with some small change. When I try to talk again, the silver man won’t break character. “Bye bye!” he squeaks, proffering a thumbs-up. “Fantastic!”

It’s true that it’s not easy to stand out in Prague’s historic district, or Prague 1, which includes the Old Town, the New Town, the Jewish Quarter and the Little Quarter. The area is barely more than two square miles, running either side of the Vltava River across the famous Charles Bridge—but it contains perhaps the greatest collection of medieval buildings on Earth.

Ever since Charles IV, the all-powerful 14th-century King of Bohemia, made Prague his pet project, the city has attracted the best Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau architects—who have built marvels like the gothic spires of the St Vitus Cathedral or the extravagantly grand Neo-Renaissance National Theater by the river.

This is a place to wander cobbled alleyways, and gawp, ideally not on a motorised vehicle (Segways were banned in 2016, and locals still grumble about scooters). It’s a district so evocative that you can forgive the fact that there’s one too many Irish bars and a few too many tour groups following guides and lurid umbrellas towards the famous Astronomical Clock.

I stay at the Grand Hotel Praha on the Old Town Square, where the service is on the glum side, the decor is on the kitsch side and it takes about five minutes through dark corridors to find my cavernous and faintly spooky room. It’s perfect.   

On my first morning in Prague, I decide to visit a museum, but am paralysed by choice. The museums here run the gamut from the sensible and place-specific (Kafka, Beer, Torture) to the odd (Miniature, Sex Machines, Historical Chamber Pots and Toilets) and the downright out-of-place. I am dismayed that the Apple Museum is not a homage to Prague’s orchards, but to Steve Jobs.

I settle for the Museum of Communism, which is a humane and surprisingly humorous primer on the old Czechoslovakia’s tricky relationship with Soviet rule, ironically placed in an 18th-century aristocratic palace, next to a branch of McDonald’s. Originally opened in 2001 by an American political science major, the replica classrooms and video testimonies are fascinating—as are the written accounts of the Prague Spring, a brief period of relative freedom and optimism in the 1960s, which was eventually crushed by Soviet troops in the process of so-called Normalization.

I get a more tangible version of the story on the way back to the square, at the tiny Bric A Brac Antiques curio store, packed to the rafters with vintage Czech Pilsner Urquell signs, art deco chandeliers, Communist-era phones and just about every other curio imaginable.

Martin Mičan, the erudite shopkeeper, was a punk in the Communist 1980s, with his mohawk and black-market Dead Kennedys records, who came back from his military service in 1989 to find the world changed. He says that you can piece together a lot of Prague’s history through the more than a million items at the shop, and the larger sister shop a street away. “The 60s here was really like Swedish Socialism,” he says. “But most of the things we sell are from the period between the wars, when Prague was stable and affluent, and the stuff was not only beautiful but built to last. All my cooking pots at home are from the 1920s.”

The 60s here was really like Swedish Socialism

After telling me a story about how charming Matt Damon was when he came to the shop (Prague is one of Europe’s top filming locations), Mičan points me to Pivnice Štupartská, a traditional Czech restaurant just down the road, which he says is cheaper and better than the church-like U Fleků, the famous microbrewery and restaurant which has been trading since 1499.

With its dark wood panels, Art Deco mirrors and copper beer tanks, Pivnice Štupartská looks the part, and has the classic Czech menu: beef goulash soup in a bread bowl, chicken schnitzel and lots of pork. I order the pork knuckle, not quite imagining the massive hunk of meat, which looks more head-sized than knuckle-sized, wedged onto a thick skewer. I manage about half of the rich, tender pork, with crispy crackling, washed down with half a litre of Gambrinus tank beer.  

It is possible to escape the tourists in Prague 1. If you walk in any direction from the Old Town Square, the souvenir shops selling absinthe and college football Matryoshka dolls thin out. Across the Charles Bridge, and west towards the castle, or south past the grafitti’d John Lennon Wall, the evocative streets become quieter, giving way to a more neighbourhood-y feel.  

That evening I head to Mlýnská kavárna, a cafe/bar in a former mill on Kampa Island, on the river’s west side, which is reached via a tiny wooden bridge, past a gently-rotating mill wheel. It’s said to be the social center of literary and artistic Prague—and its most famous regular is David  Černý, the enfant terrible of Czech art, who managed to offend even the art world when he put a wax model of Saddam Hussein in formaldehyde in 2005.

Černý has an apartment nearby, and a few of his iconic faceless baby statues can be seen crawling creepily by the river in the nearby Kampa Park. He created the Pop Art bartop here, with old toy planes and severed baby’s heads built into the Plexiglass, and the barman seems surprised that he’s not in for a beer tonight. Instead, the people-watching consists mainly of well-heeled locals in knitwear, seemingly deep in conspiratorial chat.

If you can escape the tourists, you can also escape the medieval theme restaurants, and the food scene in Prague 1 has become increasingly sophisticated over the years. The next day, I take the ten-minute walk north and east from the Old Town Square to find Naše maso, a buzzing, slickly branded butcher’s shop and eatery. The young staff—who are all smiles and collegiate banter—bring out simple but exquisite, all-Czech plates of steak tartare, meat loaf or tender steak from 70-day aged beef, washed down with beer or vodka from a tap on the wall.

“We get more than 700 guests a day,” says Jakub Picka, a 22-year-old former medical student who decided he preferred the fun of working here. “In the summer, it’s like a big party that spills onto the street.”

The vibe is similar next door at Bistro Sisters, a clean space where a mostly female staff serve delicious Danish-style open sandwiches. The server, Barbora Stejskalova, has a big smile and even bigger life goals. She’s about to run food tours in Prague, while she studies to be a teacher. Then the plan is to open a Czech restaurant in Spain, after which she wants to run her own school in Prague, offering the International Baccalaureate program. She makes me feel old and tired, but also hopeful.

The Scandi thing is is taken to the next level, though, at Field, the Michelin-starred restaurant just up the road. Czech chef/owner Radek Kašpárek takes its ingredients from the Czech Republic but his cues from Noma, Copenhagen’s temple of New Nordic gastronomy. The PR tells me he’s planning to put ants on the menu, though the dishes I try are mysterious and wondrous enough as it is: like a starter that contains the worm-like root of a woundwort, a little-known cousin of the nettle, and a wonderfully tender lamb dish with six types of fennel. Both are undecipherable and utterly delicious.  

Even the beer is getting a gentle update in Old Prague. This, remember, is the centre of a country that drinks more beer per capita than anywhere else; where they serve Pilsner Urquell in McDonald’s (I checked); and where doctors are said to sometimes prescribe beer to patients with stomach and kidney problems.

I get the lowdown that afternoon on a private tour with Jan Macuch, a born-and-bred local who wrote old Czech recipes for the now-defunct Prague Post newspaper, and now runs popular beer and food tours for the Eating Prague tour company.

With his flat cap, big smile and faintly subversive air, Macuch is not your average tour guide—not only can he hold his own on the works of both John Irving and Irvine Welsh, but he is a fount of gossip and cute lines. “What’s the greatest lie told in the Czech Republic?” he tells me over a house pilsner at T-Anker, a modern craft beer pub with a terrace overlooking the Old Town. “Let’s go for one.”

In between gags, he gives me a brief history of Czech beer: from the earliest brewery at Prague’s Břevnov Monastery in 993AD, through the invention of Pils in the Czech city of Pilsen in 1842 to the fact that Communism inadvertently helped local brewers by forcing them to stick to traditional methods. “We’re about light, balanced beers,” he says. “Czech brewers tend to use the so-called Noble Hops, and they’re very clean and drinkable. Maybe too drinkable.”

While Pilsner Urquell from the tank is the king of beers here, more and more great craft beers are joining the fray. Macuch takes me to Lod’ Pivovar (The Ship Brewery), on the northern edge of the Old Town, which opened in early 2017 and claims to be the world’s first microbrewery on a boat. Set over two floors, there’s a restaurant as you enter past vats of brewing beer, and a bar/library on the deck below, with rows of board games and books below the ship’s portholes, just above the water level.

The magnificently-bearded owner Vojtěch Ryvola is sitting by the bar on his beloved creation—all blonde wood and steel vats—which he says literally came to him in a dream. The former property developer spent a year and a half and EUR2 million turning an old Hamburg disco boat into a quality restaurant and brewery; and to prove that he was serious about the craft beers, he had his new head brewer create a beer called Titanic, which is officially the strongest in the Czech Republic.

“This place should be gimmicky,” says Macuch, in summary. “But it’s one of my favorite places in Prague. The food’s brilliant, too.”

That evening I end up staying with my new guide, hearing tales of Czech actors, artists and politicians that aren’t suitable for print. We end up in Bonvivant’s CTC, a neighborhood cocktail bar with a tin Art Deco roof, Jazz-era fittings and no menu. Cocktail guru Tomáš Palička opened the bar four years ago, inspired by legendary New York bartender Jerry Thomas and a love of Czech spirits like Becherovka herbal liquor and Slivovitz. I have a Becherovka Old Fashioned with a giant orb of hand-cut ice, which is seriously good, even if I’m no longer remotely capable of taking notes.

As we stumble along a narrow, cobbled alleyway on the way back towards the Old Town Square, I hear the familiar refrain of an English soccer chant, possibly from one of Prague’s many bachelor parties. “I’m sorry for my people,” I say to Macuch.

“Hey don’t worry about it,” he shoots back. “Socks and sandals as a fashion choice was invented in Czechoslovakia—so we know national shame. But, then again, we also gave this to the world.” He gestures to the Baroque townhouses looming above us. “So, there’s that.”

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An American ghost town odyssey

This month, 170 years after the start of the California Gold Rush, we take a tour of Old West ghost towns—an eerie and curiously wistful expression of the American Dream

(First published in American Way magazine, February 2018. Photography by Myles Pritchard)

“To me, ghost towns aren’t just collections of derelict buildings. They’re living, breathing spaces, where people had hopes and dreams. Every nail in every building was put there by someone who once saw a better future.”

Gary Speck, the author of two books on ghost towns and one of America’s foremost experts on the subject, is explaining why these abandoned, often spooky outposts have captivated him since he was a child.

Speck guesses there are as many as 35,000 ghost towns in America—from forgotten railroad towns like Thurmond, West Virginia, to the former border town of Glenrio, Texas, or Cahawba, once the state capital of Alabama. All of them, he says, are places where “the dream was interrupted,” whether by economic pressures, natural disasters, exhausted resources or even a new highway.

The most common types of ghost town, particularly in the American West, are former mining communities: rudimentary and dusty towns where speculators—mostly men—came from across the country and the world to make their fortune. Or not.

The California Gold Rush started 170 years ago last month, when a sawmill operator named James W. Marshall discovered gold in Coloma, in the northern part of the state. According to Speck, the clamor that followed “didn’t just change the history of California, but the whole of America. Back then, it was like the first man on the moon, and it drew hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life to go west. Before it, San Francisco was a sleepy Mexican mission town and Sacramento was a swampy little supply town.”

While places like San Francisco continued to thrive after the Gold Rush, others saw the dream turn to dust. Today, you can feel that history in places like the Californian town of Bodie, Speck’s favorite example. “It’s the Real McCoy—the state intervened at just the right time, so it looks exactly as it did when it ceased to be a town,” he says. “I’ve been going since I was a teenager, and it gets me every time.”

But the abandoned mining towns of the Old West take many forms, as illustrated by the four I visited on a triangular road trip between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Yosemite, via Death Valley: Bodie, Calico, Rhyolite and Nelson. Even during their heyday, these places were far removed from the Rawhide romanticism that has hooked generations of schoolkids.“They were tough, dirty places,” says Speck, “and 99 out of a hundred people who came with a dream left broken and broke.”      

In these decaying old buildings, I can still feel something like hope.

And yet, he adds, there’s a profound beauty—a kind of “spiritual feeling”—to towns like Bodie and Nelson. “It’s like experiencing art, when you can’t explain why it touches you. But I can go to the same ghost town 10 times and I still feel something. It might be that, in these decaying old buildings, I can still feel something like hope.”

 


Eldorado Mine, Nelson, Nevada

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It’s fair to say that things have changed around the Eldorado Canyon Mine near Nelson, Nevada, a 45-minute drive into the desert south of Vegas. Where once this was a violent place marked by greed and suspicion, today’s it’s the setting for selfies and alternative weddings, where they’ve filmed everything from Top Gear to Miss Bikini USA and Cirque du Soleil promos. “We have something going on just about every night here,” says Tony Werley, who owns this stretch of canyon road with his wife Bobby.

The drive to Nelson is spectacular, with the little settlement appearing over the brow of a hill, the mountains of Arizona shimmering in the background. For all the wild beauty and blistering heat, however, the only showdowns I see on arrival are between young visitors trying to get the best angle of the 50s-style gas station for their Instagram feeds.  

The town, centered around a mine that opened in 1861, is a curious visual cocktail. The 20 or so wooden buildings are right out of the the Old West, but the streets are also littered with mid-century oil signs and artfully decaying vintage cars. “We’re a family of hoarders, and I guess I collect a lot of old rusty stuff,” says Tony, a big man with a moustache and a cowboy hat. A trained carpenter from Vegas, he bought the land 23 years ago as a very unusual retirement project.   

There were only four buildings here at the time, but Tony enlisted his wife, brother and five children to help bring the old mining structures scattered around the canyon back to the main settlement. Eight of the family live here now, and there are three Werleys buried on the land. “It’s a real family job,” says Tony. “It may be wild, but it’s our home.”    

The family’s affinity for strange collectibles extends to the interiors. The reception building is packed to the rafters with bric-a-brac, ranging from taxidermied animal heads to, bizarrely, a room full of life-sized aliens. Off the entrance room, there’s a mini-museum dedicated to the history of the Techatticup Mine, and the Werleys provide their more stout-hearted visitors with guided tours through its tunnels, which extend deep into the surrounding hills.     

The men who worked the mines were largely Civil War deserters, who nonetheless had no qualms about fighting among themselves. With rich veins of gold, silver, copper and lead, and access to the nearby Colorado River, Nelson became one of the most lucrative mining towns in Nevada. But it was also a tough, lawless places, where murders were a common occurrence.

But what really killed the town was a railroad, built in the early 20th Century across Southern Nevada, which rendered the river steamboats useless. By 1907, the post office closed and the miners moved on.

“It was no picnic being out here,” says Werley. “Luckily, I’m not the sort of guy who believes in ghosts.”

 


Calico, California

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I arrive at Calico, off Highway 15 a couple of hours northeast of L.A., just before closing time.  With the sun setting over the desert hills, the town could be a themed area of Disneyland. There are trinket stores selling dreamcatchers; a Western-kitsch saloon serving Sarsaparilla; the Calico Odessa miniature railroad; and the Mystery Shack, where water flows uphill and tourists in cowboy hats get photographed leaning at 45-degree angles.  

All of this makes sense, given that the town was bought in 1951 by Walter Knott, the berry farmer turned amusement park entrepreneur (and friend of Walt Disney), whose uncle had founded one of Calico’s mines. Having worked as a carpenter here as a young man, Knott created a replica of the town as it was in the 1880s, adding gunfight shows and faux-saloons to draw in the tourists.

For all the yee-haw showmanship, Calico’s short history is very real. With silver discovered in 1881, it quickly became California’s biggest silver mine, and by 1890 the population is said to have grown to 3,500. There were schools and surgeries, a Wells Fargo office, a newspaper and three hotels.

As ever, the good times didn’t last. The 1890 Silver Purchase Act drove prices down, and by 1896 Calico’s mines were no longer economically viable. By the turn of the 20th century, only a few stubborn locals remained.

Near the top of the hill, I bump into cheery tour guide Sheriff L.T. King and his wife Patty May, who are clearing up after a day’s work, still dressed in their period costumes. King used to do stunts for movies and tourists at the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, where Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was filmed. “I’d grown up playing cowboys and Indians, and the obsession has just never left me,” he says. “I feel at home like this, somehow.”    

He and and Patty met in an Explorer Scouts group as teenagers, and realised they shared a passion for all things Wild West. A little over a  decade ago, when King’s back started playing up, the couple moved to Calico to make a fresh start. Their tours are peppered with nuggets of local lore, such as the one about the ghostly dog who can still be heard barking in the mine.

“We like to say Calico’s not haunted, it’s occupied,” says Patty. “Unlike much of the Wild West, Calico was and remains a happy place.”

 


Bodie, California

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Few ghost towns have thrown up legends like Bodie. If you came to the town in its 19th century heyday, you were warned about the Bad Man From Bodie, a catch-all term for the ruffians who started brawls and gunfights in the 65 saloons that lined Main St. If you visit today, you have to beware the Curse of Bodie, which bestows bad luck on anyone who takes anything from the park.

“We don’t know exactly how the curse started,” says Park Interpreter Catherine Jones, who has worked at Bodie for the past four seasons. “But if it was a ploy to get people to stop stealing stuff, it was smart.”

At the end of a dusty mountain road north of Yosemite National Park, Bodie—California’s official state Gold Rush ghost town—is unlike the other places I visit. For a start, at 8,379 feet-high on a windy plateau, it’s so chilly in late September that I can see my breath as I look out over the town’s 200 or so evocatively weathered buildings.    

Run by the state, Bodie has been kept in a condition of “arrested decay” since the post office shut its doors for the last time in 1942 (before the curse, there were armed caretakers guarding the site from looters). There are still old pianos and decaying mannequins in shop windows, and you’ll find shards of china and square nails scattered among the buildings holding out against the sagebrush. The sense of lives interrupted is palpable.  

With 200,000 visitors a year, Bodie is the king of American ghost towns—but it also did pretty well as a real town. Gold was discovered here in 1859, and more than $34 million-worth was subsequently extracted. By the 1870s, Bodie had as many as 10,000 residents, and the scores of restaurants in town would serve oysters and Champagne. There was more than one daily newspaper, a brass band and even a mini Chinatown with a Taoist temple to cater to the town’s Chinese service workers.

As more saloons opened and more men came in search of a fast buck, there was a corresponding spike in violent crime. The Bad Man From Bodie became a very real risk. But then, in the early 1880s, miners began moving to even bigger, more prosperous towns. By 1910, the population had shrunk to 698; in 1912, the Bodie Miner newspaper printed its last issue, and in 1932 a fire ravaged the town. By the time the post office shut during World War II, Bodie was already virtually a ghost town.

Catherine gives me a tour of the old mine, the Miner’s Union Hall (now a museum gift shop) and the Swasey Hotel, a tilted structure that looks like it might collapse with a prod. Finally, we stop at the modest grave of Waterman S. Bodey, a man from the East Coast who—after a decade of searching—finally found gold in these hills in 1859, only to die in a blizzard later that year. Like so many who came West, his triumph was all too fleeting.

 


Rhyolite, Nevada

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Standing beneath the hulking skeleton of the Cook Bank building in Rhyolite, Nevada, it’s hard to believe that this was once an active town with an ice cream parlor, a stock exchange, a school and even an opera house.

Rhyolite, overlooking a long desert plain just north and east of the Death Valley National Park, could almost be a site of Roman ruins, so decrepit are the bank, the general store and a handful of smaller buildings. You can hear the desert wind whistling through the empty windows, like a faint echo of life gone by.

The town’s glory days began when prospectors Shorty Harris and E.L. Cross found gold here in 1904. By 1907, Rhyolite had electricity and the man behind its most famous mine, Bob Montgomery, bragged that he could take $10,000 of ore from the ground every day. The three-story bank, which dominated the skyline then as now, cost a whopping $90,000.

Almost as soon as Rhyolite had hit the heights, several events set the stage for its decline. First, the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco hit local investors, as did the 1907 Bankers’ Panic. By 1910, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine was operating at a loss. The facility closed in 1911 and the lights went out for good in 1916.

Near the entrance to the town is an unexpected reminder of its demise: 12 ghostly figures, in flowing robes, keeping watch over the desert plain. This dark vision is The Last Supper, which was put here in 1984 by Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski, who saw echoes of the Holy Land in the lonely vistas of the Mojave Desert.     

More artists were drawn here over the years, and it has become one of America’s strangest sculpture parks. Among the show-stoppers are Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada (1992), a 20-foot pixelated rendition of a nude woman, made from pink and yellow cinderblocks by Hugo Heyrman; and Tribute to Shorty Harris, a rusting iron silhouette of a miner and a penguin, by Fred Bervoets.

The prospector and the penguin make an odd couple—but, then, so do the crumbling ruins and the modern art in this unsettling place of heat-stroke, whistling winds and unfulfilled ambition.

Meeting the fisherpoets of Oregon

As the 20th annual FisherPoets Gathering kicks off in Astoria, Oregon, meet the fishermen and women who plumb emotional depths as well as literal ones

(First published in American Way magazine, February 2017. With photography by Malte Jaeger)

In the winter of 1998, in the waterfront town of Astoria, Oregon, a handful of fishermen got together to do something fishermen rarely do: recite verse. Around 40 budding poets came to the Wet Dog Cafe, Astoria’s oldest microbrewery. By the end, according to one of them, there were lots of “big, burly fishing dudes with tears in their eyes.”

This month, the FisherPoets Gathering enters its 20th year, with performances in venues across town. In the words of the website, visitors can expect “deckhands and skippers, cannery workers and shipwrights, young greenhorns and old timers, strong women and good-looking men.”

Last year, around 1,500 people paid $15 for the button that gives access to all the events over the weekend—mostly open mic readings delivered by around 100 poets with commercial fishing experience.

“We’re adamantly non-commercial and real inclusive,” says Jon Broderick, a fisherman and former high school teacher who organized the original event, and who still plays a big role. “The whole thing is authentic, not polished. The experiences are genuine, and the songs and poetry are honest.”

“It’s a real love fest,” says Dave Densmore, an old-school captain who has been fishing since he was 12 years old. “Most of us are talking about something we love and have given our lives to.”

Densmore doesn’t see any disconnect between casting nets and writing verse. “There’s real poetry in fishing,” he says. “You can’t live that close to nature without seeing the spiritual side of it.”

There’s also, for Densmore, an element of changing perceptions. “We want to show another side to this industry. Show people that there’s a human story behind that piece of fish in Styrofoam: blood, sweat and tears; a guy who missed Christmas with his family; a guy who lost a finger.”

Stories are not in short supply among the men and women who gather in Astoria, a town where the logging and fishing industries have largely given way to microbreweries, art galleries and “a sort of shabby cachet” in the words of one fisherpoet. We meet some of the people who will be telling them.

Jon Broderick

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The bay is flat and greasy
and the mudflats feel like Mars.
Past buoys long neglected
we head south among the bars
Where sometimes the sea is breaking
when it kicks up hard southeast
and water, dark and angry,
tries to swamp you on the beach.

from “Hell to Pay”, by Jon Broderick

Now 62, the founder of the FisherPoets Gathering has been a commercial salmon fisherman since 1976. He lives in Cannon Beach, Oregon, and fishes with his four sons in Alaska’s Bristol Bay each summer.

“From that first phone call 20 years ago, people have been remarkably enthusiastic. Of the 41 people I contacted who’d written poetry in The Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, 40 showed up. It’s created a sort of fisherpoetry genre that’s now thriving around here.

“Fishermen are often natural storytellers and some of their experiences have been tough. At our Saturday afternoon story circle a few years ago, a fellow was telling about a terrible accident in the 1980s when he and his partner got wrapped up in the trawl. His partner was killed and the guy was pinned to the net reel for three days in the winter while his boat idled along. He was nearly dead when the last pass of the Coast Guard plane spotted him. The diver who saved his life showed up at the story circle. They hadn’t met for over 25 years. It was a pretty moving reunion.”

Moe Bowstern

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Recall the oily lazaret
Where we stored spare web for patches
We’d flip for chores—who lost that bet
Ventured through those nether hatches.
Chances lost and fish holds plugged,
Words at the galley table;
Exhausted, laboring as if drugged,
When we were young and able.
Round and round Alaska’s bays
We hauled the seine in circles.
Now 20 years on, we tell play by plays
Like amateur Studs Terkels.

—“Old Parts”, by Moe Bowstern

An artist, writer and musician, Bowstern became a deckhand and cook in Kodiak, Alaska, at age 18. Working on commercial fishing boats on and off since, she is also the founding editor of fishing-themed zine Xtra Tuf.

“When I was 22, in normal life, I was too loud,too everything. But up in Alaska I wasn’t enough. You need to get stronger, mentally and physically; you have to become a badass.

“It could be lonely on board commercial fishing boats—people grunt, stop talking, stop being human—but there’s also so much beauty. It can feel like the stars are raining down on you.I wouldn’t trade comfort and hot water for the sight of the Pleiades on a moonless night out at sea.

“Seeing these macho guys open up [at readings] is something really beautiful. There was one old skipper I knew from Alaska, this sour divorced guy who had no time for me. But he started reading at the FisherPoets Gathering and it turned out his writing is gorgeous. It’s totally changed the way we see each other, and he and his daughters love me now.”

Dave Densmore

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Well, we’d made a mile or so,
When we saw a crabber’s lights approaching.
It was the only other crab boat
That was even out there on the ocean.

We’d thought her a hundred miles away,
But God, she was a beautiful sight!
Her lights were on us, we were saved,
As she came charging from the night!

But suddenly she seemed to turn away!
Or at least she was running on past!
I grabbed our lone parachute flare,
As my crew just stared aghast!

We sat there in that bouncing raft,
Watching her lights fade away.
Until I said, “Well, grab an oar.”
There was nothing else to say.

—from “The Ride”, by Dave Densmore

A native of Kodiak, Alaska, “Dangerous” Dave Densmore bought his first boat at 13 and was the youngest king crab skipper in the Bering Sea at 23. In 1971, he and three crew members spent four days on a life raft in a violent storm—an incident recalled in the excerpt above. In 1985, his father and son were killed in a fishing accident. Always “happier on the ocean,” he lives on a 54-foot ketch in Astoria.

“I didn’t allow myself to think we’d die on that raft. On the first night, I told my guys the rules: We weren’t gonna talk about food, water, wives, girlfriends. It was just the four of us, the raft and the now. Eventually, we almost got run over by a Japanese trawler. It flipped the raft. Luckily, they let us onboard, all shivering and shaking.

The Japanese sailors took turns to bring Savlon and warm water and massage my purple, frostbitten feet. Without them, I was told I would have lost both feet. “When I lost my father and son, I lost everything. It was mighty dark for a couple years, and I didn’t write for a while. But eventually writing a poem about my son helped me come to terms with what had happened. I read it for the first time in public at the FisherPoets Gathering. There was a guy and his wife in the audience who’d lost their son and they weren’t doing too well. Of course, I think about him all the time, and the kids he might have had. But you can find a silver lining if you look hard enough.

“At the FisherPoets Gathering, there’s just this sense of being with people who’ve been around the same things and had amazing experiences. You hear of a lot of miracles out there. I’m not a religious man, but I can see the spirituality in it all.”

Jay Speakman

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I cursed the day and the buckshot spray
and I cursed the incessant motion.
And I cursed the wind and I cursed the tide
and I cursed the Atlantic Ocean.
Then I cursed all the knots in that snarl of pots,
and every damned inch of rope.
But the only thing I wouldn’t curse,
I wouldn’t curse my boat.

—from “A Tale of the Old Muddy Reef”, by Jay Speakman

Now 67, Speakman spent 12 years as a lobster fisherman in Maine before heading to Alaska and British Columbia to fish halibut, salmon, herring and king crab. He and his wife now run an art, and furnishings store in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

“We spend a lot of time in an environment that’s little seen and little appreciated. Out there, you see the food chain, the flow of life—it connects you. A lot of the poetry is about expressing that appreciation, without getting too mushy about it. We’re not celebrating it in a way that is cocky. It’s a very humble profession. You have full-grown men talking about how they feel watching the color slowly drain from a beautiful salmon—the sorrow of that, the need for a kind of forgiveness. It’s not just drinking and having fun.”

Geno Leech

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I don’t miss the bar crossings
and backbreakin’ toil,
The ice forks and shovels
and salt-water boils,
Diesel-fouled foc’sles with
ironing-board bunks,
The stink, and the sweat,
the gurry and funk…

Sometimes at night,
in a tea cozy warm bed,
I think of the years
that I stood on my head,
Draggin’, crabbin’
and Albacore jiggin’,
I miss the fish,
but I don’t miss the fishin’.

—from “I Miss the Fish but I Don’t Miss the Fishin’ ”, by Geno Leech

Leech lives between Cape Disappointment and Dismal Nitch in Washington state. A former merchant seaman and Gulf Coast dredger, he also worked in commercial fishing off the Oregon and Washington coast.

“Most of my poems are about other people and boats. The thrill is in the hunt, a bit like fishing—sitting with that empty piece of paper, not knowing the ending, trying to hook something.

“I like [reading] with music; it holds the crowd better, especially when you rock it and sock it with a rhymer. ‘Poet poets’ tend to frown on the rhymers—they look at you like you’re an accordion player—but here it works. I load up the adjectives, then hit ’em with the rhyme.

“Broderick and the guys could have cashed in and gone big with this. But they’ve kept it real, and they’ve not let it become over-developed. For me, I just like the rush of being on a stage.”

In search of Soho’s soul

Central London’s buzzing, hedonistic center may be changing fast — but its soul is still very much intact

(First published in American Way magazine, January 2017)

The cellar of Soho’s St. Moritz Swiss restaurant isn’t much to look at, but it’s a cultural institution in London, the venue for the city’s longest-running club night, Gaz’s Rockin‘ Blues, which hasn’t missed a Thursday night since 1980. The weekly event has a rich, slightly off-kilter history, and its founder — a trilby-hatted, fifty-something dandy called Gaz Mayall — is more than happy to share it with his guests.

“Over there, that’s where Lemmy from Motörhead used to stand all night playing the fruit machines,” says Mayall, who also fronts ska band The Trojans, and whose father is the great bluesman John Mayall. He points to a series of framed comical postcards sent by Lemmy from around the world. (“This is not the Sunshine State at all,” Lemmy writes of a visit to Miami. “I’m in a terrible state.”)

“There’s always been a colorful crowd, but it’s never been about famous people,” Mayall continues. “It’s been about generation after generation discovering great music, larking about and falling in love.” That said, Mick Jagger and David Bowie were among the famous regulars, along with a who’s-who of British art, from Damien Hirst to Lucian Freud and Tracey Emin, who used to work the cloakroom.

The owner of the St. Moritz is Armin “Sweety” Loetscher, who introduced London to Swiss fondue in 1960, and graduated from bratwurst and glühwein parties to hosting rock ’n’ roll royalty in his alpine-themed basement, which has barely changed in half a century. For a quiet-spoken Swiss gent in a check shirt and gilet, he has some past.

“I remember Joe Strummer [of punk band the Clash] pointing at the tiny stage and saying: ‘How the heck can we play there?’” he says.

“I told him that it was enough for the Kinks’ first gig, so he’d better get on with it.” Strummer did as he was told, and with his first band, the 101ers, he wrote the song “Sweety of the St. Moritz,” whose lyrics are framed on the wall (“It don’t look like the home of rock ‘n’ roll/It looks more like a hole”).

The St. Moritz is a classic Soho dive bar, in a part of the city that has always marched to its own beat. This is the London district that first heard American jazz, skiffle, Bowie and the Stones. It birthed British rock ’n’ roll in the late 1950s, when Cliff Richard played the 2i’s Coffee Bar, and hosted a thriving red-light industry in the 1960s. It has drawn jazz-era intellectuals and beatniks, housed the new romantics and beeen central to London’s gay scene, which came of age in the 1980s. For as long as anyone can remember, Soho has been at the literal and figurative center of it all.

But the square mile or so between Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue is evolving. Many of the red neon signs and lurid dives have given way to well-funded, well-PRed restaurants, and stricter licensing laws have calmed the hedonism. “People say it’s losing its soul,” says Mayall. “But then they were saying that back in the ’60s. A lot of the old places have closed, but we’re still here doing our thing, and praying that they won’t turn this place into a block of flats.”

There are still many places to get a feel of old Soho, like Bar Italia, which has been run by the Polledri family since 1949, or Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, where Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald played their first U.K. gigs, and where Jimi Hendrix played for the last ever time. Today, the Ain’t Nothin’ But blues bar on Kingly Street does a raucous nightly impression of down ’n’ dirty Memphis.

For a more traditional English boozer, the Victorian-era Coach & Horses is famous for its association with the staff of the satirical magazine Private Eye, and for the now-departed Norman Balon, who was  deservedly honored with the title as “London’s rudest landlord.”

The French House, where Charles De Gaulle wrote a speech rallying the French people during World War II, is another legendary spot. Today “The French” sells more Pernod than anywhere else in London, and only serves half-pints of beer except on April 1st (when the first pint is customarily poured by Suggs, lead singer of the ska band Madness).

The food isn’t bad, either. Since the mid-19th century, when Italian and Greek immigrants opened restaurants here, Soho has been the place to eat in London — and the area could today claim to have the greatest concentration of good restaurants on the planet. They run the gamut from hipster takes on street food, like Taiwanese steamed bun joint Bao, to venerable establishments like Quo Vadis, which has operated since 1926 and offers a modern take on classic British. You can also pop across Shaftesbury Avenue to The Ivy, which has hosted London’s theater set for 100 years (Soho is also London’s Theaterland).

There is also a new generation re-tooling the Soho spirit. Like the eclectic and fiercely independent Soho Radio, which formed in 2014 and broadcasts live from a little room off Great Windmill Street. “We sometimes get people who wander off the street and start freestyling, and the guys who come on after me sometimes cram a hundred musicians into this little space,” says ebullient Australian DJ Tasty Lopez. “We just go with the flow.”

Just up the road, Lights of Soho is a good example of a new breed of local institution. It’s both a bulb-and-neon art gallery and private member’s club, staffed by some of the most beautiful young things in London. This being Soho, the gallery showcases the work of the late Chris Bracey, the neon artist who literally lit up the district in the 1960s, before designing neons for the likes of Stanley Kubrick.

Whatever your take on the area’s transformation, Soho is an intoxicating mix of history, hedonism and the best people-watching in town. And if you simply want to return to the good old days, there’s always Thursday night at Gaz’s.

Mr Faena will see you now

Enigmatic Argentine Alan Faena has created a whole new district of Miami’s Mid-Beach, named after himself. But what is the real story of the man in the white fedora?

(First published in American Way magazine, December 2016)

Five years ago, the few blocks north of Collins Avenue and 32nd Street weren’t empty, exactly. But there was little in the parking lots and ten-cent condominiums to draw people from the bustle of South Beach, a 20-minute walk to the south. There was nothing, either, to suggest that the area would become home to one of America’s most unlikely property projects. Yet last month it was officially opened as the Faena District, the first time a part of Miami has been renamed since the Art Deco District back in 1979.

This “man from the south,” as the Argentine Faena likes to call himself, doesn’t do things by halves. He’d already launched a game-changing fashion brand in Argentina and turned a derelict Buenos Aires grain store into a pioneering hotel when — less than five years ago — billionaire investor Len Blavatnik brought him to scope out this sleepy stretch of Mid-Beach, and in particular the old Art Deco Saxony Hotel. The Saxony was once the grandest hotel in Miami Beach, but had grown as tired as the area around it.

The Saxony Hotel looks very different today, even if the neon sign remains. Now Faena Hotel Miami Beach, it’s an almost otherworldly pleasure palace, where everything is done to the maximum — from C’est Rouge!, the lavishly arty cabaret show in a red-velvet Hollywood theater, to Damien Hirst’s gilded woolly mammoth skeleton, the sculpture that has launched a thousand white-toothed selfies.

That’s just the beginning. The $1 billion Faena District — funded in large part by the Ukrainian-born Blavatnik —  already includes a smaller boutique hotel, Casa Claridge’s; a lavish condo whose two-story penthouse was on the market for $72 million; an arts space for “the ambitious, the innovative and the groundbreaking”; and a high-end shopping emporium. Plans for two new condos, Faena Mar and Faena Versailles, may curently be on hold — but the brazen ambition of it all is staggering.

Most of the buildings have been renovated or designed from scratch with big-name architects, from Rem Koolhaas to Norman Foster, but most are named after one man. There’s the Faena Forum, the Faena Bazaar, the Faena House residence — even the beach is the Playa Faena. Little wonder that Philip Levine, the forward-thinking mayor of Miami Beach, has described the man behind it all as a “modern-day Wizard of Oz.”

Given the hype, I’m a little surprised to discover that the nerve center of the Faena empire is a nondescript trailer on a building site — albeit a trailer with artful old photos on the wall and animal-print fabrics strewn around. Faena sits at the end of a Formica table, dressed as he always is: white fedora and white shirt, collar up. This is him dressed down; for more formal occasions he’ll add a white jacket, and sometimes a cane. He is chiseled, intense and talks quietly, often in metaphors delivered with a pronounced accent.

The story Faena likes to tell is of the visionary outsider who made good. Growing up in Buenos Aires, the son of a second generation Syrian-Jewish textile manufacturer, he was noticeably different. “I was always creating other worlds,” he says. “I fantasized about jumping into the pictures on my wall. I hated school, and I was always in my own head.” Though he says he learned to be social — his asado barbecues are legendary — he says his head is still where he’s happiest. “I can pay attention to other people for some time, but then I go back to my thoughts.”

The big thinking started at 19, in the wake of Argentina’s return to democratic elections in 1983. Faena used his savings to launch a fashion label, Via Vai, selling brightly colored T-shirts aimed squarely at Argentina’s newly optimistic youth. “Democracy was starting, freedom was starting,” he says. “It was time to dance.”

Despite being little more than a plan to “walk my thoughts” — a favorite Faena phrase — the business took off, and fast. It grew to 80 stores nationwide, and was the first Argentine label to export to Europe.

But Faena didn’t want to be a fashion mogul forever. In 1996, aged 32, he sold the business to become a gardener, living at his beautiful beach house in Punta del Este, an exclusive enclave on the Uruguayan coast. Typically, his reasons were a curious mix of philosophy and practicality. “I knew that more stores and more clothing lines wouldn’t have made me happier or a better person,” he says. “I wanted to learn about time without time, to be more coordinated with nature.” He’d also seen the peso collapse in Mexico in the mid-1990s, and rightly predicted that hard times might be on their way to Argentina, too.

During his five years of self-imposed exile, creative types from around the world started coming to Punta Del Este, intrigued by the star who’d left the fashion world behind. “It was like an embassy of pleasure,” says Faena. “It was a healing place for all these people. After a few years, I started thinking, can I take this to more people? I started to feel the need to create again, to make another revolution.”

So he started going back to Buenos Aires, which by 2000 had been crippled by depression. His vision had become “a building that was like a big pot for ideas,” when, in the run-down port area of Puerto Madero, he came across an old grain silo that was slated for demolition. “I just thought, Wow,” he says. “But there was nothing around; not even streets.”

Finding financing was, he says, “a very long story.” The turning point came when Faena flew to New York City to meet Chris Burch, a billionaire investor who’d also made his money in the fashion industry. Burch came back to Buenos Aires and — despite describing Puerto Madero as “a junkyard with wild dogs” — was persuaded by Faena’s passion and vision. Burch introduced Faena to Blavatnik, who would go on to become Faena’s main partner. Between them, they stumped up $200 million to turn the run-down mill into the first Faena Hotel, hiring Norman Foster and Philippe Starck to fulfill Faena’s architectural and interior design vision.

In 2004, the hotel — “a fantasy of art, music, taste and smell” — opened with a bang. “We got it right straight away,” says Faena, simply. The Puerto Madero “junkyard,” meanwhile, quickly became one of the hottest property success stories in Latin America, with the likes of soccer player Lionel Messi moving into its million-dollar apartments. In 2011, with his wife Ximena Caminos, Faena added the Faena Arts Center, which opened with an enormous fabric walkway installation by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. Puerto Madero, like Faena, had truly arrived.

At Miami’s Hotel Faena, it’s easy to feel that all this was meant to be; as if it were obvious that all the glamour should land here. But take a walk around Mid-Beach, and you can get a sense of what Faena and Blavatnik found when they first came in 2011. Away from the Faena District, Collins Avenue is lined with liquor stores, mom ’n’ pop bodegas and Cuban holes in the wall. Back then, there wasn’t the trendy Edition Hotel down the road, with its futuristic interior by boutique hotel pioneer Ian Schrager, or the hip Freehand hotel and hostel.

“This part of the city wasn’t abandoned, but nothing was happening,” says Faena. “No one was interested. They all said, ‘That part of Miami? Forget it.’ You have to build it cheap because you won’t be able to sell at a high enough price. But I saw it as an outsider. I saw the beach, I saw the trees. It was about listening to my heart and mind, and not the market.”

I saw it as an outsider. I saw the beach, I saw the trees. It was about listening to my heart and mind, and not the market.

From the start, Faena says, there were “battles, jealousies. Every day there was a fight. But I’m a fighter for my thoughts.” He comes back to that phrase again: “My motivation was always to walk my thoughts; there were moments of uncertainty, but this is the walk of the creator.”

While developing the hotel, the largest piece in the puzzle, he fired three hotel designers before hiring movie director Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin, normally a costume designer, to “develop the narrative of the hotel.” As Faena puts it: “The problem with most interior designers is that they like to repeat themselves. But I needed people who were free of mind, and ready to work with my script.”

Faena is sometimes compared to Jay Gatsby. He doesn’t blanch at the reference, nor at the one about the Wizard of Oz. He’s happier, though, with comparisons to Walt Disney. “He brought fantasy to emptiness,” he says.

Much of the Faena Hotel feeds into the myth of its creator. The eight murals in The Cathedral lobby, by Argentinian artist Juan Gatti (“our Michelangelo”), teem with references to Greek mythology, but also to Faena’s life: the rose in Gnosis represents his gardens, but also his personal genesis; the sword in Pax refers to Faena’s fighting spirit. The list goes on.

There’s symbolism throughout the hotel, too. The grand chandelier in the Gatsby-esque Living Room bar is tuned to flicker more whenever there’s lightning over the South American Pampas. The Tierra Santa Healing House (the spa), inspired by Faena’s Uruguay beach house, was designed with a Latin American shaman who recommended singing bowls and Andean lava treatments.

Faena says he was “a hundred percent involved in everything. I control every detail of every stone, every painting, every fabric, every sofa, every color.”

But there’s also a bigger picture at play. With a whole district now named after him, Faena becomes the latest visionary to leave his mark on the 101-year history of Miami Beach. “I’ve studied all these great minds, these crazy people doing crazy things,” he says. “They find in me a new generation who is pushing the limit. I feel glad that we’re delivering on our promise.”

Certainly, he’s more than aware of his own legacy. “I think, in a hundred years, people will say: How did these incredible buildings arrive on the beach?” he says, gesturing beyond the trailer. “And they might wonder how a man from the south, an outsider, created utopia here.”