McGurk’s Suicide Hall

McGurk's Suicide Hall
Image from The Bowery Boys

Just finished reading Luc Sante’s Low Life: Life and Snares of Old New York and was amused by the volume of material devoted to my ancestor John McGurk’s notorious Bowery bar – McGurk’s. He served whiskey shots needled with benzene, turpentine and cocaine sweepings, in an environment bad enough to drive his ‘girls’ to suicide. Six succeeded in 1899 alone, succumbing to quickly quaffed drams of carboxylic acid. McGurk was run out of town soon after, relocating to California, where his reputation apparently prevented his daughter from enrolling in convent school. He died in 1913. McGurk’s was demolished in 2005 and 295 Bowery has been rebuilt as part of glass complex, and looks the better for it, I do declare:

295-299 Bowery

Spies as Suicide Bombers

Graham Greene, an Mi6 correspondent during his days in Lagos, wrote that “espionage today is really a branch of psychological warfare. The main objective is to sow mistrust between allies in the enemy’s camp… The real value of the two scientists [Fuchs and Nunn May] to the Soviet was not from their scientific information but from their capture, and the breakdown in Anglo-American relations that followed. A spy allowed to continue his work without interference is far less dangerous than the spy who is caught.” (1968) Which brings us to “Anne Chapman” et al.

From Xinhua

Given their limited access, it seems likely that the spies apprehended were running agents and transmitting material – what has come to light seems of little value, and was unlikely to have been classified at all: airport diagrams, discussions of ground penetrating small yield nuclear weapons – so why, after ten years of investigation, bother busting them at all? Besides the personal snaps of the winsome staff of Future Map Advisory Services LLC., the salient feature of the news coverage surrounding the spies has been their gross incompetence. Their clumsy craft (invisible inks, dead drops, ludicrous code words etc.), their pathetic approaches – it hardly seems worth ten years of investigation. A few observers (see editorials) suggested it was a carefully timed ploy to disrupt strategic arms limitation talks ahead of G20, or perhaps force Russia’s hand on some Iran-related matter.

Something isn’t adding up. If the spies’ antics were really as amateurish as they say, why wait ten years to catch them? The United States is downplaying the threat of Russian espionage, has agreed to withhold something from the press as leverage against Russia, or has simply learned to emphasize the incompetence as a way to mitigate the discomforting thought that there might be vast networks of foreign spies and saboteurs at work in the United States and there’s little our special policemen can do about it.

Communities and Contempt

Parasitic Computing
A compelling takeaway I didn’t include in my post about Richard Nash‘s speech was his emphasis on how writers crave community. This was his lead into a demand-based publishing model, and had a queasy resonance for me. I applied to graduate school for this reason — I wanted to find other writers and gather a group of people together whom I could snipe and gossip about writing with. But this was an error. I don’t think it’s what I nor anyone else needs as an “artist.”

Community is a distraction, one concealing the hierarchies of a dying industry and glomming up the cozy entry-level inefficiencies that once made it possible to make a living as a freelance writer or hack journalist. Community is comfortable, but ultimately inimical to individual achievement. In the nebulous non-being between becoming amateur and professional one is encouraged to wallow in the same ideas as one’s peers, and a close-knit community becomes a self-reinforcing echo chamber of status, etc. The only people accelerated and empowered by such an environment are sociopaths — at least at the level I’m at.

The game changes once you’ve built something worth protecting, which is why [visual] artist colonies (grouped studios, shared leases etc.) and arguably the upper-tiers of the art school swindle function so well — they generate income and reduce inefficiencies — but there is no artistic benefit. And, until every individual component of an artistic community is capable of producing income, community is just another parasite drooping off the withering flanks of postpostindustrial cultural production.