Brick By Brick

“That word though, if it is a word: Overwritten. In recent years it’s become a sledgehammer in the hands of too many cowardly, unambitious, ladder-climbing, cow-in-a-swivel-chair editors. The good ones know how to tell you where to dial it back, and finding a good one is mission critical. I’ve been lucky in that regard. The bad ones are hanging a kneejerk, uninspired, boardroom groupthink scarlet O on stylish writing.” — Michael Brick

Photo by William Philpot, via facebook

Photo by William Philpot, via facebook

I can’t remember when I first saw Michael Brick’s byline. Definitely sometime after we moved from West Texas to New York, after 9/11. Trolling Nexis for a few days is no big help. I’ve had a few beers since 2001. Maybe it was when he was still on the New York Times‘ business desk, doing stuff like this:

Here comes Jason Friedman, flying in from Southern California with just one-eighth of a master’s degree. The family business needs him early, he has decided.

The six storefronts of J&R Music and Computer World, the company his parents built into an economic anchor and landmark on Park Row in Lower Manhattan, have been shut since Sept. 11. On the day of the World Trade Center attack, a thick cloud of hot, black soot blew through the doors and settled inside the DVD players and computer hard drives. Rescue workers also smashed some doors, to set up a triage center that got little use.

Or this:

Do not call him a bouncer. Bouncing is a last resort. For the self-respecting guy at the door, bouncing is crude.

Take Taille E. Brown. By 10 o’clock at night, even on a Monday or Tuesday, he is standing in his spot behind a velvet rope outside Mission, at 217 Bowery.

Mr. Brown, 31, is bearded, 6 feet 6 inches tall and 350 pounds, built like an upturned piano. When spoken to, he stares ahead for half a minute, then breaks into a wide grin. He has a soft voice. “God bless,” he says at the end of conversations.

Mr. Brown is the classic guy at the door, an adherent of the Teddy Roosevelt approach. The guys at the door come in many shapes and colors, but they share some common traits (Y chromosomes), and some tricks of the trade (a spoonful of prevention is worth a bucket of bouncing). From the trendiest hot spots to the rowdiest dives, they work long hours for little pay, mostly with no training.

Or maybe it was downpage of Portraits of Grief, a stunning collection. When the dust settled, he covered Enron, then commercial real estate. Then he moved to the city desk, writing about the heave and pull of NYC, the dead kids and the 4th of July and the last days of summer, when New Yorkers take to their roofs:

Even in these days of computer games, conditioned air and liability lawsuits, the people of New York still go to the roof. They charge through security doors and climb up fire escapes, and nervous landlords or busybody building superintendents are no match.

They go seeking cool relief, a little conversation, the spectacular belvedere from what amounts to the ceiling of the city.

”Sometimes you’re up on the roof, you have a little music, you close your eyes, you could be at the beach,” says Leon Ichaso, a filmmaker. ”It’s celebratory. There’s a sense that they can’t catch you up there.”

With summer winding down, this parallel urban landscape is in its final distinctive days. Rich or poor, native or immigrant, on deck chair or cardboard box, New Yorkers are on their roofs for just a few weeks more, to watch, rest, play, drink, romance, smoke, hide, show, gasp, sleep, escape.

And an old bar:

Way behind the black-and-white roller coaster pictures and smiling beer girl posters, the snapshots of the regulars and the late lamented Ruby, a sign behind the bar said, ”Welcome Back to Coney Island Summer 2004.” The scrawny dude everybody calls Master was walking around in a too-big tank top looking for a good place to hang a new sign. Same message, different summer.

There was Willy behind the bar, same job for 24 years. Her daddy was William, who wanted a son; she’s Willy the lady bartender. She has 90 bottles of liquor, 75 bottles of wine and no visible end of beer. Anything that won’t get you drunk is somebody else’s job. Willy empties her pockets when she works. It bothers her, walking around with stuff in her pockets.

”But people give me stuff all day,” she said.

It was nothing a smoke break wouldn’t fix: Summer was coming on fast at Ruby’s down by the Boardwalk. In a city of close quarters, a bar is a mystery nobody wants to solve, a hiding place and a box social, where everybody knows that nobody knows your name. There are scads of them, but Ruby’s is the summer place, open 9 a.m. to whenever, April to Halloween, a Woody in a minivan world.

Like any good dive, Ruby’s has its regulars and its history, but those are other stories. This is the story of another long slide into summertime at Ruby’s Old Thyme Bar and Grill, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.A.

There are dark bars and bright bars, and Ruby’s is both. The vibe changes like the watercolor smear that is summertime. The room is an airy gap, three walls and a pair of garage doors facing the beach. The bar top is long and dark, wide enough to keep three feet between you and Willy.

City Council vote advance? Make her sing:

It should smell like lavender. Jessica Wurwarg would like that. Make it unassuming but strong, forged with steel and brick, and post a restroom attendant to watch over it at all times. This place will be central to our daily lives.

“It could be a negative if it’s not done exactly right,” said Gabrielle Langholtz, 26, a promotions manager who spent the sunny part of yesterday at City Hall Park, handing out fliers for an open-air market.

After all, this will be a haven for what is at long last the great common thread, the still unbroken circle. In a city with several daily newspapers, a Noah’s Ark of pro sports franchises, millionaires, billionaires and the penniless, there is this immutable unifier.

“You are walking down the street in the city, and you need to use the bathroom, and there is nowhere to go,” Ms. Langholtz said.

The City Council plans to vote today on a resolution to authorize the building of as many as 20 public toilets.

You know all this if you’ve looked here once or twice in the last ten years. (You most certainly know the name Todd Fatjo. And, lord have mercy, Jimmy Moy.)

That’s a long wind up to say this: I noticed Michael Brick sometime in the early two thousands and really, really liked the way he put sentences together. And when I launched this blog, gosh, more than 10 years ago, I said so in the very first post.

Fast forward a few years and a long move south, Michael Kruse and Thomas Lake and I were sitting on my back porch talking shop and we got the idea to hold an annual writer’s get-together at Tom’s folks’ place in Georgia. We gave it an audacious name: The Auburn Chautauqua. The selfish idea was to make each other better so we needed a guest list, a dozen or so other people whose writing we loved, who could teach us something. We dreamed big.


I don’t know how Tom made the pitch to get strangers to meet us in the woods in rural Georgia, but Michael Brick showed up in October 2009 wearing a fedora and aviators (fact check me, somebody). Lots of our heroes have joined us in the woods since then, folks like DeNeen Brown, Charlie Pierce, Amy Wallace, Tom Junod, Michael Paterniti, Chris Jones and Gary Smith. We have enjoyed hours of criticism and conversation (and Oklahoma Leg Wrestling and slide guitar and a few fights) with severe pros, but none of them taught me more about being a better person than Brick.

Among egomaniacs, he has this rare ability to open his mouth only when he has something to say. And he often waits his turn and stakes out the last word. He’s the master of the walk-away. We became pals, all of us.


And Brick kept coming back, somehow, carrying a batch of crusty notebooks filled with magical songs. He’d wait until the sun and a few drinks were down and he’d open a notebook and the screen porch would fall silent. In this critical world, there are few things I admire more than a man who can sing his own songs in public.

Michael moved with his sweetheart wife Stacy and kids to Austin, to be closer to family (and the Chautauqua). He wrote a book called “Saving the School: One Woman’s Fight for the Kids That Education Reform Left Behind,” which you should buy. The Washington Post called it “a compelling, enlightening account of a school community rising to save itself in the unforgiving, data-driven, often nonsensical world bequeathed to public education by No Child Left Behind.” He wrote an e-book, er Kindle Single, called “The Big Race”, which you should buy eight times. He brought up two great little kids who love to read and he even played a little ball on the side.

Not even Brick can bury a lede like I have here.

He missed the most recent Chautauqua in October. Chemotherapy kept him close to MD Anderson in Houston. The void on the screen porch was immense. We couldn’t remember all the lyrics to his songs, but we did read the Todd Fatjo story out loud and laughed all the way through, like always. A bunch of us planned a trip to Austin in January. He caught some bad news the day we got there, January 8, and put it plainly on the phone. I couldn’t keep my feet. He wanted us to be prepared.

We ate pork tacos for lunch and had a good time passing around his Alvarez. We took a walk and drank some bourbon. He taught us another lesson about dignity and humility. He talked about two pieces of his best work that have not been published. It’s true: they are good. (If anybody knows an agent who wants to represent a wonderful children’s book, holler.) The day ended the way we always end nights on the screen porch in Georgia, holding each other up and singing “Amazing Grace” to the ceiling the best we can.


Brick’s band, The Music Grinders, play a farewell performance tonight, January 13, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Carousel Lounge, 1110 E 52nd Street, Austin. If you’re in the state of Texas, best hurry.

One more story, then. From the NYT, April 23, 2003. I’ll give our friend the walk-away.


Let’s play a game.

Because a dim light warmed us yesterday, and we could go outdoors without a jacket, and because we are younger than we were last week, let’s play.

The city told us we have time. Compared with New Yorkers just one decade ago, we have 6.8 more years if we are boys and 3.2 more years if we are girls, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said this week in a study of life expectancy rates.

So call it five years, and let’s pretend we can follow our whims. It is found time. It is not the free time that money can buy, or the five years the doctor gives someone with an unspeakable disease. Just extra time. Let’s decide what to do with it.

This being New York, though, an examination of this sudden temporal windfall is expected. It all sounds a little suspicious.

“What am I, old, though?” asked Howard Grandison, who spent part of yesterday afternoon lounging on the concrete steps in Union Square. He wanted to clarify the specific terms. He wanted to know the rules of the game. It’s only fair.

That point was amplified by Ralf Itzwerth, from Sydney, Australia, who was visiting New York for the first time, staring down from the observation deck of the Empire State Building at the tiny-looking people with the five extra years.

“Just living long doesn’t mean that you’re happy,” Mr. Itzwerth said. “You might limp through life on one leg. You might live two years longer on your respirator with your lung cancer.”

This whole five-extra-years business will cause other problems, too, said Sean Keenan, 32, a firefighter, who was standing in front of a firehouse on West 37th Street. “Try to collect Social Security,” Firefighter Keenan said. “I’m sure I’ll be working.”

Time out. This game cannot get started until New Yorkers accept that they have five extra years, and dream. Let’s just think about five good years.

We could marry. Or divorce. We could spend it underwater (more about that in a moment). We could travel, or just while away the afternoon sitting on a fire-hose connector on 17th Street clutching a cigarette. That is what a man who gave his name as Bob Jones — and who was kind enough to mention that “Bob Jones” is also the name of a university, as if to signal that he was giving a fake name — was doing yesterday. He did not have trouble finding a reserve of gratitude for five extra years.

“I’m going to tell you what I’m going to say: Thank God,” said Bob Jones, if that is his real name. “What would I do with it? Keep on praying, keep on praying, keep on praying. All right. I came a long way.”

Philip Chadwick, a graphic designer who was reading the newspaper in Union Square, said: “When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. But I don’t think anyone would turn it down.”

But those are heavy thoughts. And that is not the point of this game. With all the stress and worry and fussing, it seems as if New Yorkers ought to be dying younger every day, not having their life expectancies extended. So let’s play.

Lenny Speregen, 43, a commercial diver who lives in Brooklyn, bought a glass of carrot juice in Midtown yesterday, not so much because it might help him live longer but because it might help him see more clearly when he is down in the depths of the Hudson River.

You have five extra years, Mr. Speregen. Whatever will you do? “Hopefully spend it underwater,” Mr. Speregen said, describing how when he’s submerged, the only person he worries about is whoever is on the boat or shore monitoring his equipment.

“It’s the most stress-free environment,” he added.

You have five years, David Mark Patterson. Yesterday you were in Union Square, where you read a book. What will you do with your five extra years?

“I am going to spend five more years wandering the streets looking for nuances and intricacies to turn into tangible data —- ” Mr. Patterson said. He was apparently starting a joke, making fun of the statisticians who tell New Yorkers how long they will live, but he was interrupted, and implored to play the game. “I would go around town doing guerrilla sculptures,” he said.

Fine. And Bryan D. Johnson will relax. Coleen Bradley will write to express herself artistically instead of writing to please her bosses and make money. Ron Cohen will retire and ride his mountain bike. Sean Ross will drink heavily, unless he was kidding.

And Robert Presti, 38, the owner of Simply Natural, a juice and vitamin supplement shop, will move more slowly and deliberately. “With that extra five years, all the stresses New Yorkers are under to do things quickly, we’ll be able to take it slow,” Mr. Presti said. “At least as slow as the rest of the country takes it. It’ll all come out in the wash eventually.”

What game should we play next? We have some extra time left.

11 thoughts on “Brick By Brick

  1. Thank you Ben. You opened a window and let me see a man that I have been praying for. “Pancho needs your prayers it’s true. Say a few for Lefty too.”

  2. I’ve never met you, Michael, but I’ll be thinking of you and reading the wonderful stories Ben posted. “Let’s play a game.” What a great lede. Doesn’t that just sum up what a gift it is to have a whole world to write about.

  3. Ben, beautifully done. I’m a friend of Brick’s and appreciate that you shared this. Mike and Stacy have provided us with many magical memories, and I’m so happy to read that the feeling of appreciation and love is shared by others.

    “Tell me with whom you consort with and I will tell you who you are.”

    You’re good peeps, Ben

  4. Thank you, Dan, for posting this. Thank you, Ben, for compiling it. Thank you, Mike, for making the NYT newsroom a better place with your presence, for the writing and for the fine human being behind it.

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