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Gay Talese’s Portrait of the Tallest Man in New York

“His knuckles are like golf balls and, when he shakes your hand, he envelops your wrist in lukewarm flesh.”

In 1961, 29-year-old Gay Talese penned New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey (public library) — the most glorious portrait of Gotham’s vibrant life since E.B. White’s Here Is New York, the same obscure out-of-print gem that gave us Talese’s illustrated taxonomy of the social order of New York cats. What makes Talese’s writing characteristically sublime are the nuances with which he examines New York’s living fabric through fascinating characters like a seventy-year-old George Washington impersonator, a cat psychologist, a professional mourner paid to cry at funerals, and the city’s only chauffeur who has a chauffeur, portrayed not with the gawking censoriousness of a freak-show spectator but with the sensitive curiosity of a humanist. Among them is the tallest person in New York — a young man of great humor and humility, whose physical givens have tossed him into an amplified, tangible version of the psychological paradoxes of which most of us are woven.

Edward Carmel (Photograph by Martin Lichtner, New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey)

The tallest man in New York, Edward Carmel, stands 8 feet 2 inches, weighs 475 pounds, eats like a horse, and lives in the Bronx. His knuckles are like golf balls and, when he shakes your hand, he envelops your wrist in lukewarm flesh. He pays $150 for each pair of shoes, $275 for each tailor-made suit, and sleeps at right angles on a seven-foot bed. At the movies he either sits or stands in the rear, or tries to get a front-row seat so he can extend his legs. He was born twenty-five years ago in Tel Aviv, and at birth weighed 15 pounds. At 11 years of age, he was a 6-footer; at 14, a 7-footer; at 18, an 8-footer. “I never recall being shorter than my father,” he says.

The father of the Tallest Man in New York, an insurance salesman, is 5 feet 6 inches. His mother is 5 feet 5 inches. But his great-grandfather, Emanuel, stood 7 feet 7 inches, and was billed The Tallest Rabbi in the World.

So far, Ed Carmel has earned his living from six sources, although his yearly income from all is probably less than $10,000. He has acted in monster movies, been hired as a Happy Clown, appeared as a wrestler, delivered deep-voiced radio commercials, played the “World’s Tallest Cowboy” in the Garden for Ringling Bros., and sold Mutual Funds. … In his latest film, The Head That Would Not Die, which did not win an Oscar, Ed played the Son of Frankenstein. In this picture he chewed on a doctor’s arm, hurled a half-naked girl over a table, burned down a house, and would have committed even more mayhem except, he said, “it was a low-budget film.”

“A year ago,” he said, “a wrestling promoter spotted me and they immediately billed me as ‘Eliezer Har Carmel — World’s Wrestling Champion from Israel.’ I’d never wrestled before I became champion. All they asked me to do was appear at some wrestling shows, strangle the ring announcer, make like a real lunatic, and watch as all the other wrestlers jumped out of my way. So I put in a few appearances, but never did get a match. I retired undefeated.

Ed Carmel came to America with his parents when he was three and a half. “My childhood,” he said, “was awfully, awfully rough.” He was the butt of jokes, was reticent in school and reclusive out of it.

[…]

After his graduation from Taft High School in 1954, he attended City College, where he acted in the dramatic group, wrote sports for the campus newspaper, ran for vice-president of his class — and won. “After two years at CCNY, I thought I could go out into the cold world and get a job as an announcer or actor,” he said. “So I quit school, but everywhere I went they asked, ‘What have you done?’ I tried out for the lead in the Broadway show, The Tall Story, which was about a basketball player, but I was too tall.”

The only employment he could find on television was in monster roles, and his acting lines thus far have consisted of a series of grunts and groans. If he gets any comfort at all from his life, it is perhaps in his conviction that it’s better to be very conspicuous in New York than not to be conspicuous at all. “In New York,” said the Tallest Man, “I feel I’m somebody. I feel I have to give an illusion of prosperity in the subway, that I can’t go out without wearing a suit and tie. I know that everybody I meet in New York is going to be attracted to me — or repelled by me — because of my size.”

The Tallest Man in New York has a wry smile, is extremely intelligent, and possesses a sense of humor dipped in vitriol. “New York,” he mused, “is an exciting town. Every day represents a new challenge — a new step forward on the road to getting an ulcer. In this city you’re invariably waiting for some son-of-a-bitch to call — and he doesn’t.”

New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey, should you be so fortunate to track down a surviving copy, is the kind of treasure that tosses you into outrage over why we allow such books to go out of print. Complement it with the equally human Mapping Manhattan, Berenice Abbott’s breathtaking Changing New York, and the indispensable New York Diaries.

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Henry Miller’s Notice to Visitors

“When you come please be so kind as to check your neuroses and psychoses at the gate.”

Fame comes with a vexing flipside — the constant barrage of requests and, in the pre-digital days, the common offense of unannounced in-person visits to the famed person’s home or workspace. Managing this onslaught of generally well-meaning but suffocating adulation with the right balance of graciousness and firmness, the kind that both honors the admiration and protects one’s creative space and regimen, is an art unto itself. Hardly anyone has mastered it with more humor and heart than the great Henry Miller — he of profound cosmic insight, great wisdom about life, and creative discipline worth protecting. Shortly after he moved to California’s Big Sur in 1940 in search for a haven to write, as his literary fame and notoriety were gathering momentum in America, Miller hung the following delightful and inimitably Millerian handwritten note on his front door, included in his altogether fantastic 1971 autobiography, My Life and Times (public library):

The undersigned wishes to inform all and sundry that he has long since left the Abode of Peace, that he no longer has any comfort or inspiration to offer, and that even the migratory birds avoid this spot. Prayers are offered up daily — without charge. The garden has been transformed into an open air Vespasienne. Look toward Nepenthe when you water the flowers. If you are seeking Truth travel a little farther south : you will find it at Ojai Chez Krishnamurti. Be kind to the children – they abide. For a metaphysical treat stop at the Big Sur Inn which is also a haven for stray cats and dogs. Life along the South Coast is just a bed of roses, with a few thorns and nettles interspersed. The life class meets every Monday regardless. Refreshments are served when demanded. Those interested in celestial navigation are advised to first obtain a rudimentary knowledge of integral calculus, phlebotomy, astral physics and related subjects. The use of liquor is strictly forbidden on interplanetary flights.

When you come please be so kind as to check your neuroses and psychoses at the gate. Gossip may be exchanged during the wee hours of the morning when the gremlins have left. Please bear in mind that this is a small community and news travels fast. (Carrier pigeons are provided when necessary.) Fans and other obnoxious pests would do well to maintain silence. Questions relating to work-in-progress will be answered in stereotype fashion in the columns of the Big Sur Guide at the usual space rates. God is Love — and in the ultimate Love will prevail. Remember, man is the ruler, not Saturn! Let us do our best, even if it gets us nowhere. In the midst of darkness there is light. “I am the light of the world,” said Jesus. He said a mouthful. Light, more light!

Respectfully,

Henry Miller

The notice is currently on display at the Henry Miller Memorial Library at Big Sur and can be found in Miller’s autobiography. Complement it with Miller on creative death and the joy of urination.

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Marguerite Duras on Immortality, Life & the Art of Seeing, Illustrated

“The art of seeing has to be learned.”

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie,Stephen King proclaimed, and a beacon of this conviction is The Lover (public library) — a short and stirring 1984 autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras, with a cover as iconic as the book itself, designed by the inimitable Louise Fili.

For this latest installment in the Brain Pickings artist series, designer and artist Kerri Augenstein has illustrated some of my marginalia from this masterpiece, including a poetic meditation on the recently explored question of immortality, in the style of her magnificent Dumb Dots Figure Studies series. Each is in reality a 10-foot drawing, so the screen does it little justice, but their elegant beauty still mesmerizes:

It’s while it’s being lived that life is immortal, while it’s still alive. Immortality is not a matter of more or less time, it’s not really a question of immortality but of something else that remains unknown. It’s as untrue to say it’s without beginning or end as to say it begins and ends with the life of the spirit, since it partakes both of the spirit and of the pursuit of the void.

The art of seeing has to be learned.

Both pieces are available on Etsy as limited-edition 5.5″ x 9.5″ prints in Kerri’s Etsy shop. You can find out about the philosophy behind her Figure Studies series here.

The Lover is a sublime and timeless read that, though semi-fictional, offers keen insight into the complex machinery of love on par with these 5 essential books on the art and science of love.

Previous artist series have included Susan Sontag on art and on love illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton, Anaïs Nin on love and more love illustrated by Debbie Millman, Salvador Dalí’s creative credo illustrated by Moly Crabapple, and Anaïs Nin on life illustrated by Lisa Congdon.

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