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Bay of Infamy

One of torture’s most striking aspects is the simplicity of its methods. Former detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay have said they were “waterboarded”—strapped to a board, their faces covered with cellophane, while water was poured on them—which simulates the sensation of drowning. Other times they were “short shackled,” chained to a hook in the floor, which forced them to curl up in the fetal position. Or they were made to stand for long stretches of time, a sleep-deprivation technique. Dorothea Dieckmann describes torture in Guantanamo—a novel that follows a young detainee named Rashid—in cold, precise detail. Reading it can cause a sort of bone-chill to set in, and an even more discomforting sense of awe.

Dieckmann, a German essayist and literary critic, owes much of the novel’s verisimilitude to reports published by the media, human rights groups, and the military. Journalists are now able to tour Guantánamo, and they, in turn, have relayed the physical characteristics of the place, from the presence of a McDonald’s at the military base—the only one in Cuba—to the arrows pointing toward Mecca that are painted on a wall in every prison cell. Dieckmann has collected those descriptions and assembled them into a factual framework, a world for her fictional prisoner Rashid to inhabit. But, she writes in her author’s note, “As regards the inner details, only imagination can provide those.”

This is Dieckmann’s first impressive feat as a novelist: that she even goes there—to Guantánamo, and into the mind of her protagonist. (Think how often acts of terrorism and torture are described as “unimaginable horrors.”) Guantanamo begins with 20-year-old Rashid’s arrival at the base,disoriented, delirious, and weak. Dieckmann offers only bare-bones information about him up front: He’s a German citizen, half-German and half-Indian. His father was born Muslim, though neither father nor son are devout. Rashid traveled to Delhi to meet his grandmother. At some point, he befriended a young Afghan who took him to Pakistan, where he attended an anti-American demonstration, which led to his arrest.

Dieckmann seems to innately understand how to flesh out the news stories. She manages details perfectly, providing just enough of them to shade in the world of the camp, and no more. That spare description conveys the ambiguity that pervades it—we experience Rashid’s confusion and never know what occurs beyond his field of vision. Her sentences tend to be short; adjectives are rationed with care. The scene-setting threads that run through her paragraphs—the sound of Muslim prayer calls that come on the loudspeakers five times a day, the Kit Kat bar Rashid receives from a guard—are vivid, while descriptions of his physical state are dense with visceral detail. After an interrogation, for instance, Rashid is doused with water and thrust into a closet-sized freezer. “Walls all around,” Dieckmann writes. “Gray metal walls, covered with a grayish-white crust. His back burns, his wet skin sticks to the stuff on the walls, rips as he rights himself.” The scene proceeds like this for two excruciating pages.

Yet, for all the precision of Dieckmann’s prose, her portrait of Rashid deliberately remains blurry—the story is about imprisonment, not a specific prisoner. What we get instead of biography are descriptions of what he’s seeing and his memories; we’re in his nerve endings, feeling those cracks of pain and the noose around his neck as he attempts suicide. We believe that he’s innocent of violent terrorist activity, but never quite learn the facts about what he has done, not even through a long, harrowing interrogation scene that evokes the bottomless exhaustion that comes with restating the same information over and over again. Dieckmann omits the questions—another instance of her paring away—and leaves only his answers, which take on an almost hypnotic rhythm.

The interrogations and beatings Rashid suffers do work, in a sense, in that they wear him down. But the practical pitfalls of those methods quickly become obvious. Rashid’s desperation swells as he changes his story several times, trying to anticipate what might absolve him, or what his interrogators might want to hear. We know he’s capable of lying because he does so at one point, telling them they have the wrong man—his name is Leo; he’s a tourist who got on the wrong bus in Pakistan. He says that he didn’t kill Americans, but later, after he’s been shut in the freezer, he answers “yes” when he’s asked if he’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s torture’s awful power—it can obscure the truth just as easily as illuminate it. Dieckmann knows that, and she reveals it here using the same sure hand she uses to take us into Rashid’s mind.

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Letter Imperfect

The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters, half of which are multiples of letters that share “the same skeleton,” writes Sinan Antoon in the author’s note to his brief novel I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody. The letters are distinguished from one another by dots, which weren’t originally used in Arabic script. They were later added in order to “eliminate ambiguous readings.” It’s an explanation more ominous than it may seem.

Ambiguity is an enemy of the state, or so it was in Saddam’s Iraq of the 1980s and ’90s, the era in which Antoon’s book is loosely set. He evokes a Baghdad heavy with Orwellian overtones, “the Leader” subbing in for Big Brother. At the outset of I’jaam, an internal government memo informs us that a manuscript was discovered in a prison’s files. Because its author, a detained student-poet named Furat, handwrote the pages in his cell, the words lack those ambiguity-defusing dots. The memo asks that someone elucidate the text’s meaning by adding them, a process called I’jaam, and then report back on its contents.

What follows is the “clarified” version of Furat’s manuscript, which chronicles his time in detention. Much of it is a kaleidoscope of Furat’s memories and dreams, intermittently grounded by scenes from his imprisonment. There are flashes of crowds at a mandatory student rally for the Leader, of teenage lust ripening under the midday sun, followed by descriptions of Furat’s rape and harassment by prison guards.

Antoon’s dialogue and wordplay sometimes feel heavy-handed, but more often he strikes the right chord, to haunting effect. A hallucination in which the figures of Arabic letters scatter their dots as they dance and couple “in forbidden positions” is especially strange, and beautiful. Stripped down to the skeletons that Antoon describes in his author’s note, the letters are liberated, reveling in their ambiguity.

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Use Your Illusion

Despite all that’s followed, the defining moment of George W. Bush’s presidency may still be May 1, 2003, the day on which Bush, costumed in a flight suit, landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln before a red, white, and blue banner that roared “Mission Accomplished.” Among liberals, that phrase was a cynical punchline, and the spectacle on the aircraft carrier proof of Bush’s grand delusion—that, or his intent to delude the public. To the rest of America, though, the photo op dramatized and bolstered the “victory” version of the Iraq invasion story. It was pure theater, but if most people were aware of that, they didn’t seem to mind.

There’s a lesson embedded in the “Mission Accomplished” extravaganza: Mainstream Americans like their politics a little flashy, DC pollinated by Hollywood. Stephen Duncombe gets this; most other left-wingers, he believes, do not. In Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, Duncombe argues that fantasy and spectacle—which he defines as “a dream put on display” —are the “lingua franca of our time.” On the whole, conservatives have become adept hucksters, using spectacle to sell their political vision. Liberals, meanwhile, tethered as they are to straight facts, found themselves constantly combating the “reality” engineered by the Bush machine, which only reinforced the stereotype that they were naysayers and nags. “Waiting around for the truth to set you free is just lazy politics,” Duncombe told the Voice. Progressives are in need of a new strategy.

Enter Duncombe’s Dream. Sitting in a café near Washington Square Park, Duncombe, a media and culture professor at NYU, explains that he began concocting the idea for Dream at a time when “everything about progressive politics was going down in flames.” Duncombe is boyish and animate, somewhat slight, and possessed of a face that broadcasts emotion. There’s a whimsical quality about him, enhanced by the black beret he wears with his neat black winter coat. He was born into activism: Charles Dickens caricatured one of Duncombe’s ancestors, a member of Parliament, as “the radical dandy,” and others in his family fled Canada after participating in a failed 19
th-century rebellion against Queen Victoria. His father was a minister and civil rights activist—their phone lines were tapped when Duncombe was a child—and Duncombe refers, with affection, to his teenage “punk rock days” in early-’80s New Haven. (“That scene was exuberant,” he says. “It was passionate. Politics should be like that.”) He went on to co-found the Lower East Side Collective, a community activist group, and helped organize events with others, including Billionaires for Bush. Their demonstrations were carnivals, attracting revelers who’d dance in the streets. Then came 9-11, followed by war. “Politics became something deadly serious,” he said. Liberals lost whatever sense of humor they had.

Dream could have simply been an elegy to that pre–9-11 era—a nostalgia piece for the recent past. Instead, it reads like a manifesto inspired by a pop culture fever dream. Seizing upon references high and low, Duncombe makes the case that spectacle can be an ethical and sophisticated means of appealing to, even seducing, the American public. Rather than bemoan the fact that people are obsessed with Paris Hilton and condemn video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, both of which Duncombe discusses with a mix of awe and critical glee, liberals need to determine
why that obsession exists—pop culture as road map into the American mind. “We can’t afford to ignore it,” Duncombe said. “If we do, we’re writing off the passion of a hell of a lot of people.”

The idea, which Duncombe dubs “dreampolitik,” is that progressives, armed with strategies derived from sources as vast as advertisements, celebrity-gossip magazines, and the casinos on the Las Vegas strip, would then be able to enact a politics that enthralls a broader sweep of Americans. The left needs to start appealing to people’s hunger for hope and attraction to fantasy life. What’s more, Duncombe said, they have to let go of the belief—”naive at best, arrogant at worst”—that intellectual arguments should be enough to win people over, and that spectacle, as the Bush administration employs it, is something to which they shouldn’t have to resort, a tawdry means to an end. “It’s a pathos of the left,” he said. “We’re worried about selling out, but no one’s buying.” Besides, the point isn’t that liberals move towards conservatism; it’s that they become savvier and, ironically, more realistic about what it takes to win.

Though midterm elections have restored the Democrats to congressional power in the months since Duncombe completed Dream, its argument remains potent. After all, the Democrats didn’t win because they presented a well-articulated narrative or identity—they won because they were able to position themselves as anti-Bush. They should stand for something, Duncombe said, and that something should provide people with a blockbuster sense of hope. (It’s no accident that Barack Obama’s book, number one on this week’s New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, is called The Audacity of Hope.) “The Democrats are going to lose unless they figure out a way of imagining the world,” Duncombe concluded. “They need to figure out what utopia they want to sell.”

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Freeze framed

Wendy Lesser begins Room for Doubt, a book of three interconnected essays, by admitting her own inflexibility. “I expected to go a lifetime without ever setting foot in Germany,” she writes. “‘I have never been to Germany’ became one of the totemic sentences of my identity, like ‘I have never been to a professional ball game,’ or ‘I have never been sky-diving.’ And never will, these sentences implied.” She does go to Berlin, of course, and the year she spends there, a place whose “primary allegiance is to change,” plunges her into a deep introspection. Something shifts.

If this sounds soapy or sentimental, it isn’t. Lesser, the aggressively intellectual editor of The Threepenny Review, doesn’t take pains to render herself a likable narrator. It can be hard to warm up to someone who says that “regret has never been much of a factor in my psychological make-up. . . . I make decisions quickly and easily, and I rarely
second-guess myself.” But that shell begins to crack open as she describes how life in Berlin enabled her to finally feel regret, and melancholy. She went there to work on a book about David Hume, but decided instead to write about a “difficult friend,” the writer Leonard Michaels, whose recent death she’d been “carrying around . . . in a locked, frozen package that I couldn’t get at but couldn’t throw away, either.”

The confrontation with that emotional “frozen package” comes in the intimate final essay. There, as she details how her friendship with Michaels survived bickering and periods of severed communication, Lesser seems most human. “Without the difficulties, there is no Lenny,” she concludes. “Maybe that is why I am trying so hard to hold onto them.” That she ends the book on a “maybe”—miles away from the rigidity of its opening—stems from something she learned in trying, and failing, to write about Hume: “the value of not arriving at a firm conclusion.”

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Salvation Army

In 1925, H.L. Mencken traveled to Tennessee, to cover the Scopes trial for the Baltimore Evening Sun. These dispatches helped forge Clarence Darrow’s legend—later gold-plated by Hollywood’s 1960 version of the play Inherit the Wind—as the sharp criminal lawyer who defended Darwinism by illustrating the illogic of reading the Bible literally. Mencken wrote so persuasively (albeit haughtily) against Christian fundamentalists, deeming them “ignorant” and “cowardly,” and declaring that they knew “little of anything that is worth knowing,” that it’s easy to forget substitute biology teacher John T. Scopes lost his case. He was guilty of teaching evolution, but the nation’s evangelicals were the ones shamed, and in the following decades they largely retreated from the public sphere.

The recent, explosive growth of the evangelical movement—some polls count 60 million Americans as evangelicals—and its return to the forefront of national politics has led to reams of news stories addressing the same big question that Mencken tackled: Who are these people? Jeffery L. Sheler attempts an answer with Believers, a book that ambles through evangelical America, stopping at the California mega-church Saddleback, home of Hawaiian-shirt-clad mega-pastor Rick Warren (author of Christian self-help tome The Purpose-Driven Life, reputed to be the best-selling hardcover of all time, with 25 million copies sold); Wheaton College in Illinois, where faculty are required to sign a statement attesting to their personal faith; and the annual Creation Festival, a Christian rock love-in (chaste, natch) held on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Sheler, a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report and a former evangelical himself, states in his prologue that Believers was born of his desire to “discover the heart and soul” of the movement and rectify the mainstream media’s “superficial” portrayal of it. The snag, though, is that Sheler fails to render individual evangelicals with the kind of depth that constitutes heart or soul. He offers instead benign, even self-evident explanations of their beliefs and motivations: We learn that James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, is a man whose “personal confidence and strong sense of moral certitude was rooted in an unshakable conviction that he is doing God’s work,” and a group of missionaries building a house in a Guatemalan village “believed they were responding to the biblical mandate to spread the gospel.” It seems Sheler didn’t ask the tough questions about evangelical faith and (to the secular mind) its paradoxes, nor did he observe his subjects with a critical eye. He’s more Mr. Rogers than reporter, wearing his sympathies on his cardigan sleeve.

Lauren Sandler’s Righteous undertakes a similar cross-evangelical- country journey. A former NPR producer and self-described “unrepentant Jewish atheist,” Sandler smartly uses herself as a foil for the evangelicals she meets, many of whom regard her as a spiritual charity case or potential convert. “My three decades on this earth have been something of a liberal cliché,” she writes. “I was raised in Harvard Square, and have long been registered to vote in New York. To me, the Bible is essentially a game of telephone: a number of word-of-mouth accounts that took hundreds of years to be recorded on paper.” She makes her skepticism clear, but still presents a portrait of evangelical life that is more balanced and nuanced than Sheler’s.

Righteous focuses not on Warren’s flock of suburban devotees, but on the teens and twentysomethings who make up a vast Christian counterculture in which, Sandler writes, “dreadlocks ally with buzz cuts, organizing against anything that challenges the perceived literal perfection of the Bible.” It is, she continues, “a dominant ideology without a dominant aesthetic.” Sandler draws characters deftly and has an ear for dialogue; she’s helped by her subjects, many of whom are articulate, ambitious, media-savvy hipsters—that is, media-savvy evangelical hipsters (subtract the penchant for irony). More affecting are the kids hanging out at festivals, rock shows, and skate parks in suburbs and desolate old downtowns across America, who say they felt a deep sense of “brokenness” before they were saved. Sandler describes one anguished teenage girl, whose military boyfriend ended their relationship before he left for Iraq, sobbing at an evangelical youth event as the speakers onstage “promised salvation from loneliness and doubt.” It’s clear why the girl “surrendered everything right then,” as she later put it, while a volunteer softly prayed for her.

Sandler, alarmed by the crusade she sees mounting around her, is most troubled by young evangelicals’ anti-intellectualism—their “extreme contempt for facts,” as she writes, quoting Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Her frustration reaches fever pitch in a chapter on intelligent design, in which a 25-year-old teacher at Christian private school lifts his lessons from the Bible, telling his students that our planet is only a few thousand years old. Carbon dating is a hoax, he argues: “God created the earth to look old to test our faith.” Public school students across the country, too, learn creationism in their classrooms, though on the sly. In addition to the book of Genesis, their reading lists feature The Purpose-Driven Life. Mencken would turn over in his grave.

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Pledge Your Saturday Night to Al Gore

All of a sudden, Al Gore is even more everywhere than before, crisscrossing the continent and jetting to Cannes to promote his global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. This month he appears on the covers of Vanity Fair and Wired, as well as this week’s New York magazine, and he opened Saturday Night Live on May 13 with a sketch that had him triumphantly addressing the nation as our current president.

The press is championing this impassioned “new Gore,” who says he’s not interested in a 2008 presidential run—he just wants to stump for his longtime cause by promoting the film, in which he argues that global warming is a real threat, an opinion now shared by most scientific experts. “I’ll get behind the popcorn stand if you want me to,” he reportedly told an audience at ShoWest, an annual movie industry convention, in March.

In New York, where the film opens on Wednesday, that translates to a panel discussion on Thursday at the Town Hall featuring Gore. Tom Cruise he’s not—a local publicity blitzkrieg isn’t on the agenda—nor does An Inconvenient Truth have the budget of a Mission: Impossible III, which is part of the reason why its marketers are employing an Internet-based campaign to help propel ticket sales.

One initiative, a sort of pledge drive, asks visitors to the Inconvenient Truth website, ClimateCrisis.net, to promise to see the movie on opening weekend. In support, MoveOn.org‘s Political Action Committee sent an e-mail encouraging its 350,000 New York and L.A. members to pledge to “see the truth,” and Facebook.com, a Friendster-esque social networking site for students, has set up a page asking its users to take the pledge. About 16,000 New Yorkers have promised to see it this weekend, according to Paramount Classics’ Andrew Lin; nearly 100,000 people across the country have pledged so far (the film opens in other cities on June 2). “We’re a small movie trying to be a big movie,” says Lin. “It’s very important to us to have a strong grassroots movement.”

Gore’s current media omnipresence and the attention he’s drawn to the problem of global warming seem to have inspired a preemptive strike from the right, led by Fox News Channel and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a D.C. nonprofit whose donors include Exxon Mobil and GM. Last night, Fox News aired its second documentary on the topic in less than a year—the first, The Heat is On: The Case of Global Warming, which aired in November, presented a more Gore-like stance. In Global Warming: The Debate Continues, Fox’s David Asman, whose on-camera interview style is reminiscent of Stephen Colbert in his Daily Show years, guides the viewer through a hodgepodge of arguments supposed to lead to the conclusion that the planet is warming up, but it probably isn’t that big a deal. (In response to testimony that climate models are just predictors, not “crystal balls,” Asman asked, “Is it really any better than a Ouija board?”) Asman and others refer to global warming “alarmists,” an echo of Sean Hannity’s assertion, made on his own Fox News show five days earlier, that Gore was a “fearmonger” who’d become “unhinged.”

Similarly, the two 60-second CEI television ads, which will air in 14 U.S. cities through May 28, warn viewers against alarmists. “Now some politicians want to label carbon dioxide a pollutant. Imagine if they succeed,” one ad posits as images of a girl blowing a dandelion into the breeze and an erupting geyser appear onscreen, while the other ad wonders, “Why are they trying to scare us?” Both end with the tagline “Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life.”

So far, anti-Truth messages seem to have had little impact, at least not in New York, where shows were sold out at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, one of eight local theaters playing An Inconvenient Truth, as early as last week—almost unheard of for a movie of this scale, let alone an apocalyptic documentary about climate change. And the film’s website has received more than 400,000 hits since it went live on April 20; Lin says 60 percent of the traffic comes from people, their curiosity piqued, who type in the film’s title or just “Al Gore” and “movie” in search engines. Another 15 percent comes from blogs big and small, where the pro-Gore buzz crescendos.

But the best P.R. yet for An Inconvenient Truth may have come directly from the White House. The Associated Press reported Monday that George W. Bush was asked if he plans to see Gore’s new film. The president’s short reply: “Doubt it.”

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A Spill Bubbles Up

“You die of cancer in Greenpoint,” says Tom Stagg, a retired NYPD
detective who can name 36 people from his block over the years who’ve had
cancer. “That’s what you do.”

And that’s one reason Manhattan
lawyer Marc Bern was talking to 100 people one evening last week in the
Brooklyn neighborhood. “You have been the victims of the oil companies,” he
told the crowd
at St. Stanislaus Memorial Post, an American
Legion hall. A mix of longtime Greenpoint residents and recent immigrants from
Poland, they gathered to learn details of a 17-million-gallon oil spill that’s
lingered beneath their homes for decades—and
the $58 billion class action suit Bern’s firm filed against Exxon Mobil, BP,
and Chevron just a few days earlier. They sat at long wooden tables, on which
plastic containers full of Italian cookies sat near piles of photocopied
retainer contracts awaiting signatures.

“Today is an important day,” Bern declared, pausing to allow an
interpreter to translate his words into Polish.

“Today?” murmured Marion Daverin, who was sitting several rows
back. “It’s been going on for years already.” Daverin, a 52-year-old lifelong
Greenpoint resident, says she’s known for a while that there was some sort of
spill, but not its extent. Details were sketchy at best, when they weren’t
completely off base. People mistakenly thought all the spilled petroleum had
poured into Newtown Creek, where the Coast Guard first spotted it in
1978—the same year the Love Canal toxic mess made national headlines.
Others thought that the lake of oil under Greenpoint, pooling on the
groundwater, lingered only under the oil companies’ properties lining the
Brooklyn side of the creek. Many assumed that the oil—original estimates
put the spill at a staggering 30 million gallons—had already been cleaned
up. “We never thought it was hazardous to our health,” Daverin told the Voice
. “Only in more recent years did we even know it was
under our houses.”

Napoli Bern Ripka is the second cadre of lawyers to come into
the neighborhood in the past six months with a lawsuit alleging that cleanup
hasn’t moved quickly enough. The Los Angeles firm Girardi & Keese filed a
civil suit against the oil companies on behalf of individual residents in
November; neighborhood people credit that firm with spreading awareness of the
spill through Greenpoint.

Not everyone’s happy about that. “The more publicity, the worse
it is for property values,” Assemblyman Joe Lentol told the St. Stanislaus
Memorial Post crowd. “Not because I put property before life but because, for
people in this room, their property is their life. It’s all they have.”

He stood up during Bern’s question-and-answer period and said,
“What I worry is that we may be having a feeding frenzy of lawyers.” And of the
growing publicity, he added, “Another legitimate concern is that we don’t want
this community to be portrayed as a Love Canal.”

The assemblyman, who’s
represented Greenpoint in Albany since 1972,style=”mso-spacerun:
yes”>  told the Voice he worries that the spill will be “overdramatized.” Still, Lentol has
been openly critical of how the cleanup has progressed and has pressed for a
new round of tests. He does acknowledge that public pressure would likely
prompt the oil companies to remove the spill faster. However, he told
the Voice, the lawsuits
“should proceed as quietly as [they] possibly can in order to avoid making it
into something it’s not.”

But with two law firms vying for their attention, Greenpoint
residents who never knew they lived on top of oil are quickly learning. Now the
question isn’t whether there’s an oil spill under a residential part of
Greenpoint, but how one of the largest oil spills in the nation’s
history—eclipsing the Exxon Valdez
by at least 6 million gallons—stayed
under wraps so long.

One fact residents are now realizing is that chemical vapors
rising off the “plume” may be toxic; a study done last summer detected
dangerous levels of benzene, a carcinogen, in soil only a few feet below street
level. Although the state’s department of health has long maintained there’s no
cancer cluster in Greenpoint, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise: Longtime
residents who spoke with the Voice count
friends and neighbors diagnosed with leukemia or pancreatic cancer, or know of
women who’ve had reproductive problems. A noticeable number of the ill, they
say, are in their late twenties or younger.

A working-class neighborhood
with large swatches of land zoned for heavy industry, Greenpoint has long been
steeped in pollutants from oil refineries,
an incinerator, a glue factory, a sewage treatment plant, and the countless
other toxic-waste-producing facilities that opened and closed over the years.
The plume is just one problem of many, which some residents suggest is a reason
why public concern over the oil spill never amassed. They also wonder whether
it would’ve been a much bigger media story had it occurred somewhere wealthier
or more picturesque than Greenpoint.

The spill did make headlines over the past three decades, and
local activists were on the case. Public meetings were held as issues arose,
and newspapers covered the story when new developments emerged. But for long
stretches of time there weren’t many of either: Exxon Mobil, which the state
ordered to clean up the spill in 1990, has been removing the oil since 1995,
and BP and Chevron followed suit. Prior to 1990, says Lentol, “We weren’t as
aware of the environmental dangers as we are today. . . . The information was
out there, but we didn’t fathom its importance.”

State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman
Maureen Wren points out that the agency conducts public meetings and last year
posted a page on its website assuring readers that the “DEC and responsible
parties [are moving] forward with investigation and product recovery,” proffering
long, jargon-filled explanations.

Another type of language barrier presents itself in
Greenpoint’s large community of Polish immigrants. An aide in Lentol’s Brooklyn
office says a number of people have come in whose “English wasn’t great, or
they couldn’t speak English at all.” And factor in the recent influx of
younger, wealthier people gentrifying Greenpoint, who often know little of the
neighborhood’s history and nothing about the spill.

The fact that the spill
lies underground—some pools as deep as 40 feet below street
surface—may be why its significance was overlooked for so long. The
stench hovers in the neighborhood in the summer, but only the oil that has
oozed into Newtown Creek can be readily seen, and the few places where
residents can even reach the water are nothing more than litter-strewn dead
ends. No photographs exist of oil-drenched animals or houses stained black, and
the description of an enormous migrating subterranean plume reads like science
fiction.

In the past, the public accepted what the companies and the
government told them: The oil poses no risks, and it’s being removed as quickly
as possible, reassurances that the two new lawsuits dispute. Exxon Mobil and
the DEC say almost 9 million gallons of oil have been removed so far, and they
estimate it will take 20 more years to get at the rest—and that’s just
the liquid oil. Experts working with Girardi & Keese believe that
contamination ranges much farther than maps indicate, and Exxon Mobil engineers
have admitted that they’ll likely never be able to clean up all the oil,
because it migrates and mixes with the soil. Exxon Mobil spokesman Brian Dunphy
says, “We’ll continue our remediation activities until the job is done,” adding
that the company is using the best technology it has to remove the oil.

More and more residents, however, are dismayed. “I guess I’m
naive,” says Jane Pedota, a plaintiff in the Girardi & Keese civil suit,
who’s lived on Hausman Street atop the plume for 27 years. “You think with all
that oil under there, of course they’d be responsible. They’d go down there and
take care of it. You put it in the back of your head.”
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> 

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A Wine Bar Built in New Orleans and Raised in Brooklyn

Occupying about half the space of this newish Park Slope wine room is a gorgeous, cleverly designed, U-shaped ash bar, built by the owner’s father in New Orleans and hauled up to Brooklyn on a homemade trailer. The wainscoting that runs the length of one wall is made of sinker cypress, a soft wood reclaimed from muddy Louisiana riverbeds. In all, wood figures prominently in Total’s design scheme, along with soft-but-not-dim lighting and pretty much nothing else—no homey knickknacks cluttering up every available nook—and the result is a mix of simple, almost old-fashioned coziness and modern sensibility. And there’re good wines too, most available by both the glass ($6 and up) and bottle, each poetically described on the menu with a smitten single-sentence evaluation. The $9 glass of pinot gris (“orange blossom–scented and tropical fruit–tinged. bewitching”) was as advertised, and the cheese selection ($6 each or $10 for two) includes one that’s “satiny and salty” and a Spanish goat cheese that’s “silky, creamy, and mild.” Other snacks include sliced smoked kielbasa ($3) and a family recipe crawfish étouffée ($8). Perfect for the kind of date on which you want to have a classy drink but don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard.

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Medical Alert

To the 3.3 million women living in New York City:

We thought you—among the toughest and most streetwise women in the country—ought to know the state of your health.

A report released this spring by the city’s health department emphasized that although New York’s poorest women disproportionately experience health problems, women representing every age group, race, and income bracket have reasons to be concerned about themselves too.

Some health crises target the young: AIDS is the number one killer of women ages 25 to 44, with 322 deaths per year—ending more lives than breast cancer and drug use combined. Others, like heart disease, are far more common in women 45 and older.

Neighborhoods where 30 percent of the population lives in poverty have the highest rates of obesity among women—not surprising, considering 44 percent of New York City’s women who are heads of households make less than $25,000 a year. Only 24 percent of the city’s adult women exercise.

Lower-income women, particularly Hispanic women, more frequently described feeling “emotional distress,” a measure of anxiety, depression, and similar problems. Fifty-six percent of women in distress also reported fair or poor health. Another potential measure of distress: One in three white women ages 18 to 24 binge-drink—compared to fewer than one in 10 black women in the same age group.

In 2003, an estimated 661,000 women in New York City were uninsured at some point. Twenty percent of the uninsured made less than $25,000 a year. Women without insurance are almost three times more likely to go to an emergency room for care than those with coverage—an indicator of lack of access to regular doctors.

Cancer—especially of the breast, cervix, bronchus, trachea, or lung—causes the most premature deaths among women. The average smoker dies 14 years younger than a nonsmoker. What you do now—smoke—or what you don’t do now—get Pap tests and mammograms—could translate into entire years cut from your life.

So take care of yourselves! We’ve included listings of clinics, hotlines, and services you can use to get in the best shape possible.

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Take Me Out to the Bar, After the Ball Game of Course

Come summertime, Manhattan’s big media rivalries extend past scoops and circulation numbers, past the question of who’s got the biggest headlines and the most buzz. The battles for bragging rights play out on the softball field, where the city’s publishing names face off on weeknights: Random House versus Time Inc., High Times versus The New Yorker, The New York Times versus your very own Village Voice team. And after a dusty, humid, summer-in-the- city game on the diamonds in Central Park, teams of all stripes pack up and trek over to Mc-Aleer’s for the beer-and- wing special, two pitchers of Bud or Bud Light and a big heap of buffalo wings ($26). This unassuming Irish pub, which has graciously hosted the post-game rush for years, offers a full menu of bar food to accompany the standard shot specials ($10 for four fruity woo-woos or kamikazes) and the wide range of imported and domestic beers you’d find at any Cheers-y neighborhood hangout. There’s a daily two-for-one draft deal, and magically, a Yankee game always seems to be on all of the bar’s six TV screens. Last Tuesday night’s crowd included the Voice squad, Stuff magazine, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who’ve got the best slogan on their T-shirts: “Tonight we drink with the fishes.”