“Ascension of the Shaman”, 2016
glazed ceramic in artist’s frame
65 x 57 x 9 cm
Through May 28th 2016April 28th, 2016
By LAURA REILEY
Tampa Bay Times Published: April 13, 2016
THE RESTAURANT’S CHALKBOARD makes claims as you enter from the valet parking lot. At the hostess stand, a cheery board reads, “Welcome to local, farm-fresh Boca.”
Brown butcher paper tops tables and lettuces grow along a wooden wall. In a small market case, I see canned goods from here and produce from somewhere. Check the small print: blackberries from Mexico and blueberries from California.
With the tagline “Local, simple and honest,” Boca Kitchen Bar Market was among the first wave of farm-to-table restaurants in Tampa Bay to make the assertion “we use local products whenever possible.” I’ve reviewed the food. My own words are right there on their website: “local, thoughtful and, most importantly, delicious.”
But I’ve been had, from the snapper down to the beef.
It’s not just Boca. At Pelagia Trattoria at International Plaza, the “Florida blue crab” comes from the Indian Ocean.
Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights shouts “Death to Pretenders” on its menu, but pretends cheese curds are homemade and shrimp are from Florida.
At Maritana Grille at the Loews Don CeSar, chefs claim to get pork from a farmer who doesn’t sell to them.
This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.
More often than not, those things are fairy tales. A long list of Tampa Bay restaurants are willing to capitalize on our hunger for the story.
PEOPLE WANT “LOCAL,” and they’re willing to pay. Local promises food that is fresher and tastes better; it means better food safety; it yields a smaller carbon footprint while preserving genetic diversity; it builds community.
“They say if you spend your money locally, it gets multiplied three times,” said Michael Novilla, who owns Nova 535 event space in St. Petersburg and tries to buy local, from soup to soap.
He was speaking of the local multiplier effect, a term coined in the 1930s by economist John Maynard Keynes. And part of Novilla’s motivation is health, finding clean sources for the food he eats. So if he found out markets and restaurants he loved were playing fast and loose with the truth?
“It would be like finding out your husband was married to someone else the whole time.”
One of his favorite places to eat local is The Mill.
The Mill in St. Petersburg opened last summer to instant acclaim. With walls that look like tooled leather saddles, a men’s room sink inset in a tractor tire and chandeliers made of wagon wheels and mason jars, it’s what the designer called “farmhouse industrial chic.” Sandwiches run around $13 at lunch, and at dinner, sous vide fried chicken hits $24.
We gave it three stars out of four, and in December it was awarded best new restaurant in Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon awards.
Servers are likely to start proceedings with a mini-disquisition on how all the food comes from within a couple hundred miles of the restaurant (mileage may vary).
“Everybody’s spiel is a little different,” said chef-owner Ted Dorsey. “But I say a 250-mile radius.”
Dorsey said he buys pork from a small Tallahassee farm through food supplier Master Purveyors. But Master Purveyors said it doesn’t sell pork from Tallahassee. Dorsey said he uses quail from Magnolia Farms in Lake City. Master Purveyors said the quail is from Wyoming. Dorsey said he buys dairy from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka through Weyand Food Distributors. Weyand said it doesn’t distribute Dakin. Dorsey said he gets local produce from Suncoast Food Alliance and Local Roots. Both said they have not sold to The Mill. He named three seafood suppliers. Two checked out, but a third, Whitney and Sons, said they had not sold to The Mill yet. They hope to in the future.
I called him on all this. He said he needed to speak with his chef, Zach West, and get back to us. The results didn’t get any closer: farmed trout from Idaho, beef from Colorado, yellowfin tuna off the northern East Coast.
“Local Florida proteins are not quality,” Dorsey explained. But what about the mileage claims?
“Well, we serve local within reason.”
IF YOU EAT FOOD, you are being lied to every day.
The food supply chain is so vast and so complicated. It has yielded extra-virgin olive oil that is actually colored sunflower oil, Parmesan cheese bulked up with wood pulp, and a horsemeat scandal that, for a while, rendered Ikea outings Swedish meatball-free.
Everywhere you look, you see the claims: “sustainable,” “naturally raised,” “organic,” “non-GMO,” “fair trade,” “responsibly grown.” Restaurants have reached new levels of hyperbole.
What makes buying food different from other forms of commerce is this: It’s a trust-based system. How do you know the Dover sole on your plate is Dover sole? Only that the restaurateur said so.
And how can you be sure the strawberries your toddler is gobbling are free of pesticides? Only because the vendor at the farmers market said so.
Your purchases are unverifiable unless you drive to that farm or track back through a restaurant’s distributors and ask for invoices.
For several months, I sifted through menus from every restaurant I’ve reviewed since the farm-to-table trend started. Of 239 restaurants still in business, 54 were making claims about the provenance of their ingredients.
For fish claims that seemed suspicious, I kept zip-top baggies in my purse and tucked away samples. The Times had them DNA tested by scientists at the University of South Florida. I called producers and vendors. I visited farms.
My conclusion? Just about everyone tells tales. Sometimes they are whoppers, sometimes they are fibs borne of negligence or ignorance, and sometimes they are nearly harmless omissions or “greenwashing.”
I have been a restaurant critic since 1991 and have always known there are fraudulent menu claims. This “housemade dessert” is Sysco’s Fudgy Wudgy chocolate layer cake I’ve eaten a dozen times. That “fresh snapper” has done serious freezer time. I know about the St. Petersburg restaurant that refilled Evian bottles with tap, the fancy Tampa restaurant where the “house wine” is a dump of open bottles on their last legs.
It was around 2012 that Tampa Bay menus sprouted the sentence “we source locally” near the admonition about consuming raw or undercooked meats. Fiction started to seem like the daily special.
Most restaurants buy food from one of a small handful of distributors who source products in bulk at the best price from around the world.
The national biggies are Sysco and US Foods. Smaller Florida-based companies include Cheney Brothers and Weyand. Then there are specialty distributors such as Master Purveyors in Tampa or Culinary Classics in Orlando. Most restaurants do not have the time or wherewithal to deal directly with farmers and producers; most farmers and producers don’t have the infrastructure to do their own sales, marketing and delivery.
So the storytelling begins.
MERMAID TAVERN has been a Seminole Heights draw for craft beer since it opened in 2011. In 2015, Gary Moran, chef-owner of the defunct restaurant Wimauma, took over in the kitchen at the restaurant owned by Becky Flanders and Lux DeVoid, tweaking an edgy, independent-minded menu.
The restaurant’s tagline is “Death to Pretenders,” and one of the appetizers is the “F**k Monsanto Salad.” Monsanto, if you need a reminder, has come under fire for innovations such as Agent Orange, Roundup and genetically modified “frankenseeds.”
The menu reads: This menu is free of hormones, antibiotics, chemical additives, genetic modification, and virtually from scratch. We fry in organic coconut oil and source local distributors, farmers, brewers and family wineries … Our fish is fresh from Florida or sustainable/wild fisheries.
During Tampa Bay Beer Week, I stopped in to eat.
“Do you make your cheese curds here?”
“Yes,” said the bartender, “everything is made in house from scratch.”
Only it’s not. Those cheese curds arrive in a box. The fish and chips, which the menu says uses wild Alaskan pollock, are made from frozen Chinese pollock treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, a common preservative.
And although the menu says its shrimp are Florida wild caught, they are actually farm-raised in India from
Preference Brand from Gulf Coast Seafood.
Moran didn’t deny it.
“We try to do local and sustainable as much as possible, but it’s not 100 percent,”
he said. “For the price point we’re trying to sell items, it’s just not possible.”
And that F**k Monsanto Salad? Moran said he buys his produce at wholesaler Sanwa on Hillsborough Avenue. According to Sanwa produce buyer Beatrice Reyes, while produce is labeled by country of origin, it would not be labeled as “local” or “non-GMO.” Unless you’re buying from Sanwa’s small organic section, there’s no way to assure you’re getting non-GMO. Even some certified organic foods have been found to contain GMOs.
Could some of the ingredients in the salad be grown from Monsanto seed?
“It’s really hard to find non-GMO produce,” Moran said.
Moran followed up via email, claiming to also shop at farmers markets and providing a list of ingredients he believes to be non-GMO.
GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT regarding the word “local” is nearly non-existent. In many cases, farmers police things themselves.
Jim Wood pasture-raises Hereford pigs at his Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park. He’s so frustrated with restaurants lying about using his pork that his invoices now say, “You cannot use my name unless you reference the line item sold.” That includes chalkboards.
“Chefs make a lot more money by using my name and selling someone else’s product,” he said. “There are some chefs who respect us and respect our brand, and others who use it for monetary gain without compensating us.
“I don’t think Adam Putnam has a clue what’s going on.”
He was referring to Florida’s two-term Commissioner of Agriculture and likely candidate for governor. Putnam oversees Fresh from Florida, a state-run food marketing program with an annual budget just under $10 million. The program was created to give small producers an avenue to be part of a brand. Recently, the program has sponsored advertising on an Xfinity Series race car.
In 2013, an On the Menu program was added for restaurants. Restaurants fill out a two-part application and, once accepted, are able to use the Fresh from Florida logo to identify ingredients grown or produced in the state.
Here’s how it goes awry.
Restaurants supply vendor information up front about their sources for Florida-grown products, said Putnam’s press secretary, Aaron Keller. But otherwise, the program is an honor system. No restaurant has ever been demoted or removed.
And while the Fresh from Florida logo is supposed to apply to specific ingredients, restaurateurs may slap it on menus, giving the impression that it represents everything.
Putnam declined several requests for interviews. Keller said the program was never intended to be regulatory and that its aim was to encourage reputable restaurants to source Florida products.
And if they lie?
“Should a restaurant misuse the program or intentionally mislead consumers, that’s a different matter entirely, which we would want to pursue.”
I called Joel Salatin, arguably the country’s most famous farmer, whom you might recognize from the documentary Food, Inc. or from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He opined while waiting for a load of manure at his Polyface farm in Virginia.
“Anybody who trusts the government with our food hasn’t been paying attention very much,” Salatin said. “The government’s track record on food is pretty abysmal.”
“We’re on the front edge of a “local-food tsunami,”
he said. And nearly no one is keeping watch.
For 40,000-some Florida restaurants, 191 inspectors from the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation oversee them all for safety, sanitation and — occasionally — lies. By comparison, Georgia, with about half the population, has 300 inspectors. Ohio has 637 for about 22,000 restaurants.
In the past two years, Florida inspectors found roughly 750 food misrepresentation violations. Of them, 123 restaurants were fined, with an average fine for first-time offenders between $150 and $300.
Count among the violators Koto Japanese Steak House and Royal Palace Thai in Tampa’s trendy SoHo District, and That’s Amore on Harbour Island. Places like Tarpon Springs’ now-closed Zante Cafe Neo were repeat offenders for misrepresenting fish.
Old-timers like Gulfport’s La Cote Basque were dinged for advertising veal schnitzel dishes but having no veal in sight. “No packages commercially labeled veal (and) no veal invoices are present (but a) large volume of frozen pork chops and sliced pork” were observed. Wholesale veal can cost three times as much as pork. For pork-eschewing Muslims and Jews: Surprise.
None of these was fined.
Of the 95 misrepresentations in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties over the past two years, none had to do with farm-to-table myths. None were because conventional produce was substituted for advertised organic, or because commodity beef was swapped for “grass-fed,” or because “local” greens were really month-old Mexican spring mix.
On average, restaurants are inspected twice a year, more if a restaurant has chronic infractions. An inspector can’t know any of those things just by peering into a walk-in refrigerator.
MARITANA GRILLE AT THE DON CESAR gets the highest Zagat ratings of any restaurant along Pinellas County’s beaches. It’s the top restaurant at the pink palace built at the height of the Jazz Age. Entrees can run $28 to $48, and a three-course tasting menu with wine pairings is $95.
In February, Maritana listed Jim Wood’s Palmetto Creek pork on the menu. Wood said that he had not sold to the Don CeSar since the departure of previous chef Gavin Pera.
Chef Jose Cuarta took over about seven months ago and inherited a menu with a section titled Small Farms.
The menu listed Hammock Hollow squash with heirloom tomato and olives. Hammock Hollow, a certified organic farm in Island Grove, Fla., has sold lettuces and tomatoes to fancy hotels such as the Willard in Washington, D.C., for more than 30 years.
Hammock Hollow owner Charlie Andrews hasn’t had squash for months, he said, and is definitely not selling it to Maritana Grille.
Asked about this, Cuarta said, “That should come off the menu.”
Asked about the provenance of the unspecified “small farms” venison, Cuarta said he buys it from Jackman Ranch in Clewiston. Jackman’s Mark Hoegh said that, while he does sell the Don CeSar wagyu filet mignon, he does not sell them venison, because he does not produce venison.
And the section’s “Long Island duck”? It’s actually from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son, a duck farm in Pennsylvania. This matters. Long Island is an area long noted for producing some of the finest Pekin ducks in the world.
WITH ITS LOCATION AT Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel and menu of high-end Italian, Pelagia has been a hangout for Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rays players and a regular go-to for business travelers. Hosting events such as a Florida strawberry tasting menu, chef Brett Gardiner has been an active participant in Fresh from Florida promotions.
In March, Pelagia’s menu listed Three Suns Ranch wild boar ragout. Three Suns owner Keith Mann, who has masterminded a plan to take in trapped nuisance hogs in Punta Gorda and have them USDA slaughtered for meat, said no. This has happened to him with several restaurants.
“They want the story and they don’t want to pay the price… I consider it theft. It’s stealing our hard work.”
About Pelagia, he said: “We’ve never sold to them.”
Gardiner said he was surprised Three Suns was named on the menu and that it was a mistake, a holdover from the past, when he’d purchased the pork through a distributor.
The menu touted “local” burrata mozzarella on the caprese salad. Gardiner said it was a product from Fort Lauderdale called Fioretta.
The menu also listed Zellwood corn polenta, Zellwood being Florida’s most famous sweet corn, grown about 15 miles north of Orlando.
“We buy fresh corn from them and cook it down,” said Pelagia sous chef Tim Ducharme.
When reminded that Zellwood corn isn’t in season now, Ducharme said, “Well, we buy fresh corn from someone.”
About the menu’s Florida blue crab:
“We don’t really use blue crab,” Ducharme said. “It’s a jumbo lump crab canned product from US Foods out of Miami.”
The Times had the crab DNA tested by Bob Ulrich in USF’s College of Marine Science, the identification performed by PureMolecular.
Pelagia’s crab is actually a species called “swimming blue crab” from the Indian or West Pacific Ocean. The FDA requires that this be sold simply as “crab” or as “swimming blue crab.”
“If they are selling this as Florida blue crab,” said Ulrich, “it’s deceiving.”
When apprised on April 6 of the test results, Gardiner said, “I’ll own up to that. It’s swimming blue crab. Most of the time it comes from Indonesia or Vietnam. I guess we’ve been calling it that for so long, but it should say jumbo lump crab. It’s obviously an oversight on my part. I try not to be malicious or mislead people.”
A half-hour later, he emailed us a revised menu.
GROWING LOCALLY AND SUSTAINABLY with water conservation and zero-carbon footprint is nice if you can do it.
It’s also expensive, said Robert Tornello of 3 Boys Farm, a hydroponic outfit in Ruskin. Especially when you add strict food safety documentation, greenhouse infrastructure and trained labor costs of $12 to $16 per hour. It’s less than half that in places like Mexico.
“When a driver at $15 an hour has to do a three-hour round trip, plus fuel and overhead, to deliver three $30 cases of greens at 15 percent gross profit, you realize that the system is broken,” he said.
Rebecca Krassnoski of Nature Delivered has sold her naturally raised pork to restaurants like The Refinery and Pearl in the Grove. Here’s a little bit of her math:
Her cost to raise a pig to slaughter weight is $240 to $300, plus $50 to slaughter it and $50 to transport it. So, let’s say her total cost is $400. That whole pig, minus entrails and hair, will weigh 192 pounds. If she sells it at $3 per pound, that’s a sale price of $576.
“I make $200 if everything goes well,” she said. “That’s on a perfect day. On average, I’m lucky if I make $100 on a pig and maybe I raise 100 pigs in a year.”
Ten thousand dollars a year is not a living, she said, but “nobody wants to pay $6 per pound for pork.” Most restaurants can’t, or won’t, pay her what she needs to live.
“I can’t think of a time when my chops have been served at a restaurant on a daily basis,” she said. “I think a lot of times farmers with a good story are used as a billboard.”
And another thing. While it’s fun to nosh house-cured ham biscuits and sip small-batch bourbon in a dining room festooned with antique wheat scythes, for the people who actually grow the food, this isn’t reality.
Farms tend to be where farm-to-table restaurants aren’t, said Craig Rogers, shepherd-in-chief of Border Springs Farm in Virginia.
“The average farmer hasn’t been to a restaurant any fancier than Applebee’s,” he said.
INSIDE EDITION CORRESPONDENT Lisa Guerrero wore a fitted black blazer and stilettos when she busted with her camera crew into Get Hooked, a casual seafood restaurant in Hudson that on occasion hosts micro-championship little people wrestling.
Taking co-owner John Hill by surprise, she confronted him about his “Delicious Lobster Sensation,” part of a Feb. 8 segment about the frequent fraudulence of lobster dishes.
Although the restaurant has its own fishing boats, and Hill likes to say, “Our refrigerator is the Gulf of Mexico,” its lobster roll-like sandwich is made with a commercial product that contains cheaper fish such as whiting and pollock.
After the show aired, I followed up to see how the revelation had affected the restaurant.
“We’re selling more lobster rolls now than ever, and we’re serving the same product,” co-owner Michelle Bittaker said. “What the show forgot to tell you is that the sandwich is $9.95, with french fries and coleslaw. Nobody in America could serve a real Maine lobster roll for $9.95.”
They also offer a real Maine lobster roll on their specials board, she said, 6 ounces for what she calls a more realistic $24.95.
King & Prince’s Lobster Sensations product has a 12-month freezer life, a 60-day shelf life unopened and a 10-day shelf life opened.
“It’s like the cockroach,” said Michael Peel, longtime owner of the now defunct Crazy Conch Cafe, who worked around seafood for 34 years. “It will be here after a nuclear attack.”
In addition to flavor enhancers disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, the Sensation contains surimi, a fish paste that is flavored, frozen, extruded, dyed, rolled into ribbons and cut into chunks.
Surimi is one of the fastest-growing seafood products in North America. It is also, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, among the most frequent culprits in the state’s food misrepresentation complaints.
“If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, is it a duck?” said Peel. “Sometimes, but other times it could be surimi.”
IN 2006, THE TAMPA BAY TIMES exposed the frequent substitution of other fish species for grouper. Since then, dozens of news outlets have exposed spurious fish claims, yet the misrepresentations continue. In February, I had the grouper sushi roll at Jackson’s Bistro on Harbour Island tested by Ulrich at USF. It was tilapia.
Naturally raised and grass-fed beef are equally fraught with fraud, according to John Bormann, program sales manager for JBS, a leading processor of beef, pork and lamb.
On an average week, 530,000 head of cattle are processed in the United States, he said. Fewer than 12,000 of them are naturally raised and antibiotic free.
“Sysco might buy 4,000 pounds a week of all-natural beef. Do you think that will service all the people who are claiming to sell it?”
If you see all-natural steak for less than $20 on a menu, he said, beware. Most Americans prefer the mouthfeel of corn-fed beef, but words like “hormone-free” and “pasture-raised” taste so much better than “feedlot.”
“Folks think they need a story on almost everything on their menu,” he said.
Noble Crust in St. Petersburg lists Fat Beet and 3 Boys farms on its chalkboard. Tim Curci of Fat Beet said, “It’s a plan, not a farm,” which will eventually grow things for Noble Crust on 9 acres near Race Track Road in Tampa. But right now? Fat Beet supplies a tiny fraction of the restaurant’s herbs. And 3 Boys’ Tornello said he hasn’t sold to Noble Crust since the end of last year.
“That chalkboard needs to be updated,” Noble Crust co-owner T.J. Thielbar said. “I do agree, it’s a misrepresentation.”
Not so bad when compared to Marchand’s at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg, which listed 3 Boys for a year past their last purchase, until Tornello said he wrote a letter asking them to remove it, which they did. Vinoy chef Mark Heimann confirmed this.
The menu at St. Petersburg’s Stillwaters Tavern touts: locally produced dairy, vegetables, grains, seafood and shellfish … we work with local artisans, farmers and foragers to serve the best of each season.
Grains? Maybe, if grits from Tallahassee made with corn from Kentucky are “local.”
Mistakes happen. On April 6, the bar menu at The Canopy at The Birchwood in St. Petersburg listed Faithful Farms as a provider of lettuces. The farm went out of business last summer. When asked about it, chef Jason Cline said, “I forgot that was on the menu. I’m totally embarrassed. I’m literally taking it off the menu right now. Within the hour.”
And then there’s this guy.
ANTONINO CASAMENTO STARTED with eight Mediterranean water buffalo a few years ago, he said, his herd growing to more than 30.
Not to be confused with American bison, these curvy-horned creatures are milked from Rome to Salerno, their milk turned into mozzarella and other prized Italian cheeses that often command double the price of cow’s milk cheeses. Richer and more flavorful, buffalo milk is also lower in cholesterol and higher in protein and calcium.
These days, Casamento is selling between 10 and 15 varieties of what he said are his own buffalo milk cheeses out of the tiny Mozzarella Bar he runs as a restaurant in Tampa. State officials said it is not permitted to sell wine, which it does.
While you eat your cheese at up to $26 per pound, he will show you his “bible,” a photo album of his water buffalo.
It appears his bible is a fairy tale.
While he once sold his cheeses at St. Petersburg’s Saturday Morning Market and other outdoor stands, questions arose that he was substituting cow’s milk from Dakin Dairy in Myakka. Jerry Dakin confirmed he was selling milk to Casamento, but said Casamento hasn’t bought any in the past year.
In January 2015, Casamento was accused of animal cruelty over a calf in Plant City found tied to a post too tightly, with an eye injury and a rope embedded in the muscle tissue of its neck. In February 2015 he signed a settlement with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office relinquishing ownership of the calf and agreeing to have Brandon veterinarian Mark Mayo inspect his herd.
“He really did love on ’em,” Mayo said of his visit. “They were a little down on weight. I wouldn’t say it was a severe animal cruelty case. People have good intentions and sometimes things don’t go well.
“He was talking about selling his herd.”
According to EcoFarm’s Jon Butts, Casamento sold his water buffalo about a year ago, many for their meat. Butts took two males and a female at his Plant City farm, but said Casamento has not been buying their milk.
Casamento said he sold some buffalo, but keeps other animals with a farmer named “Satia” in Myakka. He couldn’t tell me how many buffalo Satia has, nor Satia’s last name, address or phone number.
Repeated calls went unanswered until I received this text: Dear Laura, we’re flattered that you’d like to write about us, as for your inquiry as to our supplier list, we highly respect our supplier’s privacy; our focus has shifted to MB our Italian bistro, and as a restaurateur in a highly competitive market wish to keep them as part of our coveted Italian family recipes.
I told him we couldn’t find anyone in Myakka who knew about a herd of water buffalo and asked if he was declining to reveal their whereabouts.
His answer: You’re welcome. One day I’d be happy to chat with you in front of a cup of coffee … or wine, if you’d like.
THERE ARE RESTAURATEURS SELLING precisely what they say they are. But the list makes for strange bedfellows.
Greg Seymour owns Pizzeria Gregario in Safety Harbor. He buys whole pigs from EcoFarm and makes his own bacon, tasso and fennel sausage. He makes his own mozzarella and yogurt from local milk and sources produce only from local farms that have organic certification or use organic practices. It’s all listed on a crowded chalkboard. The farmers say he’s the real deal. This is a guy who hasn’t eaten asparagus for years because it doesn’t grow here.
“I choose to do it because it’s what I think is right,” he said. “And I’m just dogmatic in the way I do things.”
But that has got to be expensive.
“It’s brutally expensive, so it’s challenging because consumers are used to inexpensive food,” he said. “It’s hard for them to compare apples to oranges. I have low overhead and I don’t mind working 80 hours a week. But I’m a pizzeria, right? So I can’t charge for a high food cost.”
A 12-inch pie with housemade fennel sausage and pickled banana peppers: $17.
Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez at Rooster & the Till in Seminole Heights, although thoroughly sick of the term “farm to table,” source locally for much of their food. Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm in Tampa grows specifically for Rooster, but has been misrepresented by other restaurants.
The first tipoff on a menu? Constancy.
“The only thing we can grow year-round is lettuce,” said Urban Oasis co-owner Cathy Hume. “If they have collard greens on the menu in June, something is wrong.”
Some restaurants have their own farms. Bern’s Steak House’s menu ends with a section about its organic farm: Depending on the seasons and the weather, we try to serve what we grow on our farm daily to our customers.
Part 2: Farmers markets
In 2012, the Times reported that Bern’s Steak House was overreaching on organic claims, getting most produce from conventional suppliers. On a visit to the relocated farm in February (Bern Laxer’s original farm is now soccer fields and a Wawa), there was significantly more produce growing. Bern’s declined to comment for this story.
There are also restaurants that make no claims at all.
Jeannie Pierola doesn’t shy away from lavish descriptions at her Edison: food+drink lab in Tampa. Red snapper a la plancha with avocado coconut grits, organic baby spinach, merguez marmalade, avocado coconut chutney and mango harissa puree. Research shows people will pay more when descriptions are longer.
But Pierola, who did a James Beard House dinner in 2015 celebrating Florida’s indigenous foods, scarcely mentions provenance.
“I assume my guests know I am always pursuing the best product,” she said.
Cafe Ponte chef-owner Chris Ponte deals with more than 30 vendors for his 14-year-old Clearwater restaurant. He doesn’t list any small farms.
“It’s too difficult to be true farm to table,” he said. “It would be awesome if you could one-stop shop.”
It’s difficult, but you sort of can. There are people like Emily Rankin of Local Roots and John Matthews of Suncoast Food Alliance, a new breed of middlemen connecting chefs to farmers. Rankin helps deliver the food of about 60 producers a year to around 100 restaurants. But the average restaurant works with 300 ingredients. She said her supply can only cover a small portion of any menu.
How much is enough, in good faith, to make farm-to-table claims?
THE OWNERS OF THE REFINERY are widely known champions of local. They choose their words carefully.
“Have you ever noticed we have never said we are a farm-to-fork restaurant?” asked Michelle Baker, co-owner of the Tampa restaurant with her husband, Greg. “We’ve simply stated that we buy as much as we can … We’ve fought and forged these farm relationships because it’s just the right thing to do.”
The James Beard Foundation named The Refinery a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2011 and named Greg Baker a semifinalist for Best Chef South for the past five years. Beyond Bern’s, it may be the Tampa Bay restaurant best known nationally.
The Refinery’s website reads: If it wasn’t grown in Florida or produced using ethically sound methods, you probably won’t find it here.
Not everything has gone as planned.
“They have a solid business model for sourcing produce, but it’s shakier for protein,” said Mike Peters, who was purchasing manager when the Bakers’ second restaurant, Fodder & Shine, debuted at the end of 2014. A diligent re-creation of early Florida Cracker food, it came complete with hardtack and beef from Cracker cattle.
“I wound up losing so much money, I couldn’t justify it,” Greg Baker said. “We abandoned the whole Cracker idea and began retooling and examining what our customers wanted. They didn’t care about heritage breeds, so we changed our mission.”
Considering the fundamentals you have to have (carrots, onions, celery, potatoes, garlic, lemons), Greg Baker said, The Refinery uses 70 to 90 percent local produce, depending on the season. He uses all Florida fish and as much local meat as the market will bear.
“There is a small percentage of people willing to pay for a Pasture Prime pork chop, (which) would be more than $40,” said Michelle Baker.
But at Fodder 2.0?
“Upon reboot of the concept, we immediately stopped claiming to use local anything,” said Greg Baker. “The market demanded different things, at a much lower price point, and one can starve on one’s principles.”
WE’RE NOT HELPLESS. Increasingly, there are ways for consumers to track where food comes from. There’s foodwaze.com, which verifies sustainable food businesses. There’s the chef who is also a Stetson University math professor developing a mathematical model to trace food.
“I’m not trying to re-enact a scene from Portlandia,” said Hari Pulapaka, chef-owner of the award-winning farm-to-table Cress in DeLand. “But consumers have to take ownership.”
And there’s an ingenious fish tracing program from Katie Sosa at Sammy’s Seafood in St. Petersburg. Sammy’s records the boat, captain and catch date. Customers can look it all up tableside on their phones.
While Sosa works with up to 200 restaurants, only a handful of folks like Steve Westphal of St. Petersburg’s Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach, and Benito D’Azzo, the chef at Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, use her tool.
Why? Some customers might not like what they read: This fresh fish was caught more than a week ago? Complicated truths are the reality of the entire food industry.
There’s always a ragged edge to innovation, that famous farmer Joel Salatin said. The only path to greater transparency in our food system is consumer activism.
Ask questions. Be prepared for the answers.
“When it comes to something as intimate and personal as our bodies’ fuel,” Salatin said, “I beg people to be as discerning as they are about the Kardashians.”
Since the first Boca debuted in 2012, the parent group rolled out another in Winter Park and a third in Riverview. Two more are set to open.
As of April 5, the website listed vendors King Family Farm and C&D Fruit & Vegetable Company, both in Bradenton. King Family has, for months, been listed as “permanently closed” on Facebook, its phone disconnected. Leanne O’Brien of C&D said they do not sell anything to Boca.
The Riverview chalkboard recently listed Seminole Pride beef and Long & Scott Farms, neither of which are current vendors. While Boca’s Tampa chef, Sandy DeBenedietto, said they buy their Florida pink shrimp through distributor Halperns’ Steak & Gary’s Seafood in Orlando, the distributor has no record of pink shrimp purchases this year.
And on that Tampa chalkboard, Captain Kirk Morgan was said to supply red snapper and grouper.
Morgan is not licensed to sell direct to restaurants, and said he has never sold Boca any fish. Furthermore, he doesn’t catch red snapper or grouper. He catches sheepshead, mullet and jacks.
When confronted, Boca’s executive chef Matt Mangone first said he had met Morgan at I.C. Sharks market in St. Petersburg, and had purchased from him a couple times.
When told the angler said otherwise, Mangone said, “Well, we bought it through a friend of his.”
Morgan had no knowledge of that. Why was his name on the chalkboard?
Mangone uttered a familiar reply.
“I guess the board needs to be updated.”
Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley began to witness an uptick in food provenance claims several years ago. She reported this story over a period of two months, interviewing dozens of chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, state officials and food industry experts.
She combed through hundreds of menus from Tampa Bay restaurants, identifying those that made specific claims, and then she investigated those claims. She visited farms, spoke with distributors and had foods genetically tested when deemed necessary.
When she found discrepancies or misrepresentations at restaurants, she gave chefs and restaurateurs the opportunity to explain. As a result of these conversations, a number of the restaurants in the story amended their menus to more accurately reflect what they are selling: Pelagia, Jackson’s Bistro, Mermaid Tavern, The Canopy and Maritana Grille changed their printed menus and Boca Kitchen Bar Market and Noble Crust agreed to change their chalkboards.April 23rd, 2016
April 23rd, 2016
An island fox. Researchers say one community of the species has the least genetic variation in a sexually reproducing species. Credit Chien Lee/Minden Pictures
By Carl Zimmer
NY Times Published: APRIL 21, 2016
The Channel Islands, off the coast of Southern California, are a natural laboratory for a particularly adorable experiment in evolution.
A unique species called the island fox has lived there for several thousand years, shrinking over the generations until now each is smaller than a house cat. Adult island foxes weigh as little as 2.35 pounds.
Now a team of scientists has discovered another way in which island foxes are extraordinary: Genetically, they are nearly identical to one another. In fact, a fox community on one island has set a record for the least genetic variation in a sexually reproducing species.
Oliver A. Ryder, the director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, said the new research posed a biological puzzle.
It’s an axiom of evolutionary biology that low levels of genetic variation put species at risk of extinction. Yet the delicate island foxes are still racing across meadows and bounding up trees.
“How can the island foxes get away with it?” asked Dr. Ryder.
The new study, published on Thursday in Current Biology, was led by Robert K. Wayne, a geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Wayne has been studying the DNA of island foxes since the early 1990s, hoping to understand their remarkable makeup.
“They’re like dodos,” Dr. Wayne said in an interview. “They have no notion of human fear. You can just put them in your lap.”
Some scientists suspect that island foxes are fearless because of a long relationship with humans.
Native Americans first settled the islands about 13,000 years ago, and they may have brought along gray foxes from the mainland. Previous studies indicate that island foxes share a common ancestor with gray foxes that lived 9,200 years ago.
It’s unlikely the foxes made the trip on their own; the islands are separated from the mainland by 12 to 70 miles of open ocean. Another clue pointing to human help: Native Americans painted foxes on rocks and gave them ceremonial burials. Foxes may have had a spiritual importance to them.
However the animals arrived on the Channel Islands, they adapted quickly. The oldest island fox fossils date back 7,000 years and show that they were small even then. The Great Shrinking required less than 2,200 years, it seems.
Dr. Wayne has focused on genetic variation among the island foxes. He and his colleagues started off by examining a few genetic markers, finding striking similarities between the animals. But the scientists couldn’t be sure just how similar the foxes were until technological advancements made it possible to sequence their entire genomes.
There are six subspecies, each living on a separate Channel Island. In their new study, Dr. Wayne sequenced the genome of one fox from each of five subspecies. On the sixth island, San Nicolas, they sequenced two genomes.
Like other animals, island foxes carry two copies of each gene, inheriting one copy from each parent. In large populations with a lot of genetic variation, there can be many versions of any given gene. An animal may inherit two varying copies of a gene from its parents.
But the scientists discovered virtually no differences in the DNA the foxes had inherited. “We call it genetic flatlining,” Dr. Wayne said.
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While each subspecies has very little diversity, the foxes on San Nicolas are almost like identical twins, a record.
Low genetic variation can pose a serious threat to survival. When a new threat appears — a new disease, for instance — some individuals may have the genes to resist it while others lack them. In a population with low genetic variation, none of the animals may have the right genes to survive.
Inbred populations also often share mutations that are bad for health, shortening life spans or reducing the number of offspring. Dr. Wayne and his colleagues found that island foxes have many more harmful mutations than gray foxes on the mainland.
On the face of it, the island foxes should have vanished long ago. “But that hasn’t happened to them in thousands of years,” Dr. Wayne said. “They’re an exception to the paradigm.”
Dr. Wayne speculated that island foxes might enjoy some sort of special protection. It’s possible, for example, that as top predators on a small island, they didn’t have to face the challenges that other inbred animals do. Or perhaps the people who lived on the islands even helped them survive.
Or, while the genes of island foxes may be almost entirely identical, maybe they are activated in the animals in varying patterns. Experiences early in life can program genes to switch on and off, a phenomenon called epigenetics.
“It might also be some combination of all of the above,” Dr. Wayne said.
Other researchers suggest that island foxes had been protected in more familiar ways. Newly arrived foxes could have rejuvenated the Channel Island gene pool with some fresh variation.
“Their study has not ruled out occasional immigrants reaching the islands,” said Richard Frankham, a geneticist at Macquarie University in Australia.
But Dr. Wayne said his new study cast doubt on that possibility.
Each subspecies of island fox is genetically distinct, showing no sign of newly introduced genes moving from island to island. “There’s no evidence of gene flow,” Dr. Wayne said.
Understanding the evolutionary history of the island foxes is important to ensuring they have a future. A rapid population decline led to four subspecies of island foxes being declared endangered in 2004.
It’s likely that several causes helped drive down their numbers.
In recent decades, golden eagles have arrived on the islands and begun killing off the foxes. They have also faced new diseases introduced by raccoons and other invasive animals.
Some researchers are concerned that their genetic similarity could increase the risk. “If we care about the persistence of island foxes and other small populations, we should be concerned about low genetic variation,” said W. Chris Funk, a biologist at Colorado State University.
Writing in the journal Molecular Ecology last month, Dr. Funk and his colleagues suggested one way to help the foxes: move animals between the islands. If the subspecies mix genes by interbreeding, they may be able to increase their variation.
Scientists have already used this procedure, known as genetic rescue, to help other species. In Florida, for example, the resident panther population has had a difficult time producing new cubs. Researchers introduced panthers from Texas, and their new genes have helped the Florida panther population grow.
Based on his new research, Dr. Wayne said he didn’t think island foxes need genetic rescue, at least until scientists find strong evidence that they are suffering because of low genetic variation.
“I would really hesitate to move foxes around,” Dr. Wayne said. “Each island is genetically distinct. I would be loath to destroy that.”April 23rd, 2016
BY Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Published: April 23, 2016
When Sheila E. picked up the phone Friday evening, she didn’t need to be asked how it felt to lose her friend Prince. The breathy, reassuring voice of this singer and percussionist — a familiar presence in the mid-1980s thanks to tunes like “The Glamorous Life” and “Erotic City” — had grown small and measured, clear indication that the news of Prince’s death Thursday at age 57 had taken a toll.
Yet Sheila E. — who first made a name for herself in the Bay Area playing with her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo, and other jazz musicians — seemed to brighten as she began telling me about her experiences with the legendary musician. After meeting in 1978, the two started working together around the time of “Purple Rain,” then spent much of the next half-decade side by side, both on the road and in the studio; they remained close, she said, even after they drifted apart musically. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
What do you remember of that initial meeting?
My dad was playing with Santana at the time, and they’d heard about this guy playing and recording all of his own music. I remember seeing the poster for his first record with him and the big Afro. My friend who worked at a record store gave me the poster, and I put it in my bedroom and said, “I’m gonna meet you.”
A couple of months later, he came out to San Francisco to play. No one knew who he was — the first record had just come out. The show was interesting, a little bit different than what the single was. When I went backstage, I introduced myself, and he turned around and said, “I know who you are. I watched you with George Duke. I think you’re amazing.”
We started talking, and we liked the same type of music and people that influenced us. We became friends right away. He came and started hanging out with my family, and he was introduced to Latin jazz music. He had never heard it before. He was like, “Where did this come from?”
Six years later, he co-produced your debut album, “The Glamorous Life.”
I was so excited. We did it at Sunset Sound [in Los Angeles]. We said, “Let’s just do a record.” We stayed up and we recorded the whole album in a week.
You must’ve been working 24 hours a day. What was the schedule in the studio?
There was no schedule — that’s what was cool about it. We just wanted to get it done, and if we were tired, we went home for a few minutes. But there wasn’t much sleeping because we were having fun: “Let’s try this. Let’s try that.” Some of it was with the band, some of it was just he and I.
Prince was making so much music at that time. He put out a new studio album every year between 1984 and 1992. Nobody works like that anymore.
That’s the problem: It’s work to other people, but to us it was just life. If you enjoy what you do and you’re in the studio every day just hanging out and creating, it’s not a job. Then, all of a sudden, you look back a month later and you’ve got 30 songs.
Was there a difference between the music you were making for his albums and the music you were making for your albums?
Not at all — it was just one flow. Especially at Paisley [Park] at that time, I’d be in one room doing vocals and he’d be in the other studio doing something, and he’d call me in. I ended up engineering a lot of his recordings because it was just him and I in the studio, 4 or 5 in the morning.
Yes. Our tie was him watching me play with my dad’s band and my family. He had never seen a girl play percussion before. He said, “Who else can we look at that plays?” I said, “The only person I know that plays drums that I grew up listening to was Karen Carpenter.” He was like, “Well, then you’re unique, so you need to do something because no one has ever seen this.”
I did my record and turned it in to Warner Bros. I didn’t even have an A&R person — I just did the record and turned it in. I told the label who I was and that I played timbales, and they were like, “What’s that?” They didn’t even know what the instrument was.
Eventually you and Prince stopped working together.
I was opening for him on the “Purple Rain” tour, then I was in his band. And then it went to headlining my own shows, and I felt it was too much for me. It was a heavy burden to carry to be a superstar. I said, “I don’t want to have to worry about doing interviews. I just want to go back to playing drums and percussion.”
That’s part of who he was, too. He just wanted to play. What’s to talk about? Nothing. We say what we need to say when we play.
Did you stay in touch?
I always knew when he was thinking about me, because the next thing you know, he’d call me and it would seem like we had spoken yesterday, even if it had been months. We were just connected in that way. It was all kind of seamless, like a thread that continued for 38 years.April 23rd, 2016
Equisical #1 (SW1), 2016
ceramic and glaze
8 x 8 x 5 inches
“Equi lib ree um”
Opening Reception: Sunday April 17, 3-5PM
April 17 through June 1, 2016
28, 2015, acrylic, oil and glitter on canvas, 135 1/8 x 117 3/4 x 2 1/2 inches
Opening April 9 from 6-8PM
April 9, through May 21
By Gay Talese
The New Yorker Published: April 11, 2016
I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.
I first became aware of this man after receiving a handwritten special-delivery letter, without a signature, dated January 7, 1980, at my house in New York. It began:
Dear Mr. Talese:
Since learning of your long awaited study of coast-to-coast sex in America, which will be included in your soon to be published book, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” I feel I have important information that I could contribute to its contents or to contents of a future book.
He then described the motel he had owned for more than ten years.
The reason for purchasing this motel was to satisfy my voyeuristic tendencies and compelling interest in all phases of how people conduct their lives, both socially and sexually. . . . I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not as just a deranged voyeur.
He explained that he had “logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I watched”
and compiled interesting statistics on each, i.e., what was done; what was said; their individual characteristics; age & body type; part of the country from where they came; and their sexual behavior. These individuals were from every walk of life. The businessman who takes his secretary to a motel during the noon hour, which is generally classified as “hot sheet” trade in the motel business. Married couples traveling from state to state, either on business or vacation. Couples who aren’t married, but live together. Wives who cheat on their husbands and visa versa. Lesbianism, of which I made a particular study. . . . Homosexuality, of which I had little interest, but still watched to determine motivation and procedure. The Seventies, later part, brought another sexual deviation forward, namely, group sex, which I took great interest in watching . . . .
I have seen most human emotions in all their humor and tragedy carried to completion. Sexually, I have witnessed, observed and studied the best first hand, unrehearsed, non-laboratory sex between couples, and most other conceivable sex deviations during these past 15 years.
My main objective in wanting to provide you with this confidential information is the belief that it could be valuable to people in general and sex researchers in particular.
He went on to say that although he had been wanting to tell his story, he was “not talented enough” as a writer and had “fears of being discovered.” He then invited me to correspond with him in care of a post-office box and suggested that I come to Colorado to inspect his motel operation:
Presently I cannot reveal my identity because of my business interests, but [it] will be revealed when you can assure me that this information would be held in complete confidence.
After reading this letter, I put it aside for a few days, undecided on whether to respond. As a nonfiction writer who insists on using real names in articles and books, I knew that I could not accept his condition of anonymity. And I was deeply unsettled by the way he had violated his customers’ trust and invaded their privacy. Could such a man be a reliable source? Still, as I reread the letter, I reflected that his “research” methods and motives bore some similarity to my own in “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” I had, for example, kept notes while managing massage parlors in New York and while mingling with swingers at the Sandstone nudist commune in Southern California (one key difference: the people I observed and reported on had given me their consent). Also, the opening line of my 1969 book about the Times, “The Kingdom and the Power,” was: “Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places.”
As to whether my correspondent in Colorado was, in his own words, “a deranged voyeur”—a version of Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, or the murderous filmmaker in Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”—or instead a harmless, if odd, man of “unlimited curiosity,” or even a simple fabulist, I could know only if I accepted his invitation. Since I was planning to be in Phoenix later in the month, I decided to send him a note, with my phone number, proposing that we meet during a stopover in Denver. He left a message on my answering machine a few days later, saying that he would meet me at the airport baggage claim.
Two weeks later, when I approached the luggage carrousel, I spotted a man holding out his hand and smiling. “Welcome to Denver,” he said, waving in his left hand the note I had mailed him. “My name is Gerald Foos.”
My first impression was that this amiable stranger resembled many of the men I had flown with from Phoenix. He seemed in no way peculiar. In his mid-forties, Foos was hazel-eyed, around six feet tall, and slightly overweight. He wore a tan jacket and an open-collared dress shirt that seemed a size small for his heavily muscled neck. He had neatly trimmed dark hair, and, behind horn-rimmed glasses, he projected a friendly expression befitting an innkeeper.
After we had exchanged courtesies, I accepted his invitation to be a guest at his motel for a few days.
“We’ll put you in one of the rooms that doesn’t provide me with viewing privileges,” he said, with a lighthearted grin. He added that, later on, he would take me up to the special attic viewing platform, but only after his mother-in-law, Viola, who helped out in the motel office, had gone to bed. “My wife, Donna, and I have been careful never to let her in on our secret, and the same thing goes, of course, for our children,” he said.
He removed from his pocket a folded piece of stationery and handed it to me. “I hope you’ll not mind reading and signing this,” he said. “It’ll allow me to be completely frank with you, and I’ll have no problem showing you around the motel.”
It was a typed document stating that I would not identify him by name, or publicly associate his motel with whatever information he shared with me, until he had granted me a waiver. I signed the paper. I had already decided that I would not write about Gerald Foos under these restrictions. I had come to Denver merely to meet this man and to satisfy my curiosity about him.
As Foos drove us to the motel, he took the opportunity to sketch out the story of his life for me. He explained that he had met Donna in high school in a farming town called Ault, about sixty-five miles outside of Denver, and that the two had been married since 1960. His parents, hardworking German-Americans, had had a farm. He described them as kindhearted people who would do anything for him—“except discuss sex.” Every morning, he said, his mother got dressed in her closet, and he never witnessed either of his parents exhibiting an interest in sex. He said, “And so, being very curious about sex even as an early adolescent—with all those farm animals around, how could you avoid thinking of sex?—I looked beyond my home to learn what I could about people’s private lives.”
He did not have to look far, he said, steering the car toward the suburb of Aurora, where his motel was situated. When he was a child, his mother’s married sister, Katheryn, lived in the farmhouse next door. At the age of nine, he said, he started watching her. Aunt Katheryn was in her late twenties then. She often walked around nude in her bedroom at night with the shutters open, and he would peer in from below the windowsill—“a moth drawn to her flame”—for an hour or so every evening. He watched her for five or six years and never got caught. His aunt Katheryn liked to sit at her dressing table with no clothes on, arranging her miniature porcelain dolls or her collection of “valuable thimbles.”
“Sometimes her husband was there, my uncle Charlie, usually deep in sleep,” Foos said. “He drank a lot. Once, I did see them having sex, and it made me upset. I was jealous. She was mine, I thought.”
I listened without comment, although I was surprised by Gerald Foos’s candor. I had known him for barely half an hour, and he was unburdening himself to me about his masturbatory fixations and the origins of his voyeurism. As a journalist, I do not recall meeting anyone who required less of me than he did. He did all the talking while I sat and listened. The car was his confessional.
He told me that he was a virgin through high school. It was only after joining the Navy, serving in the Mediterranean and the Far East, and training as an underwater demolition specialist that he enlarged his knowledge of sex under the guidance of bar girls. But he also kept fantasizing about his Aunt Katheryn.
When he returned from the service, he started dating—and soon married—Donna, who was a nurse at a hospital in Aurora. Foos found work as a field auditor for Conoco. He was miserably employed, sitting in a cubicle all day, keeping records of the inventory levels of oil tanks. To escape this tedium, he said, he began to undertake what he called “voyeuristic excursions” around Aurora after dark. Often on foot, although sometimes in a car, he would cruise through neighborhoods and spy on people who were casual about lowering their window shades. He made no secret of his voyeurism to Donna. “Even before our marriage I told her that this gave me a feeling of power,” he said. She seemed to understand. “Donna and most nurses are very open-minded,” he said. “They’ve seen it all—death, disease, pain, disorders of every kind—and it takes a lot to shock a nurse.” She even accompanied him sometimes on his voyeuristic excursions, and it was Donna, he said, who first encouraged him to make notes about what he saw.
“We’re getting close to our motel,” Foos said, as he drove along East Colfax Avenue, passing through a neighborhood of stores, a trailer park, fast-food outlets, and an auto-repair shop. He said he had chosen the single-story Manor House Motel as the site of his laboratory years earlier because it had a pitched roof—high enough for him to walk upright across the attic floor—which would make it possible for him to realize his dream of creating a viewing platform to peer into the guest rooms below.
He bought the property for a hundred and forty-five thousand dollars. “Donna wasn’t happy about giving up our house and living in the manager’s quarters of the motel,” Foos said. “But I promised her that we’d buy another house as soon as we could afford it.”
Foos pulled into the parking area of the Manor House Motel, a brick building painted green and white, with orange doors leading into each of its twenty-one guest rooms. He parked next to an adjacent building consisting of an office and the family quarters. Donna, a short blue-eyed blond woman wearing a nurse’s uniform, greeted us in the office. She was heading to the hospital, to work a night shift.
On the way to my room, Foos told me that their son was a freshman at the Colorado School of Mines, and that their daughter, who was born with a respiratory ailment, had to drop out of high school to be treated at a special clinic, where she lived. He opened the door to my room, switched on the air-conditioner, and put down my luggage, saying that he would collect me in an hour to go out to dinner. “After that, we can come back and take a little tour of the attic,” he said.
After I unpacked, I began making notes of my impressions of Gerald Foos. My interest in him was not dependent on having access to his attic. I was hoping to get his permission to read the hundreds of pages that he claimed to have written during the past fifteen years, with the result that he would one day allow me to write about him. I knew that he viewed himself as a sex researcher along the lines of Alfred Kinsey, and I assumed that his account centered on what excited him sexually, but it was possible that he noted things that existed beyond his desires. A voyeur is motivated by anticipation; he invests endless hours in the hope of seeing what he wishes to see. Yet for every erotic episode he witnesses he is also privy to hundreds of mundane moments representing the ordinary daily human routine—people channel-surfing, snoring, urinating, primping, and doing other things too tediously real for reality television.
I was intrigued by the notion of the voyeur, in the course of his trespasses, inadvertently serving as a social historian. I had recently read a book called “The Other Victorians,” by the literary critic Steven Marcus. One of the main characters is a wellborn nineteenth-century Englishman who overcompensated for his Victorian upbringing by having sexual experiences, including voyeuristic ones, with a vast number of women—servants, prostitutes, other men’s wives, and a marchioness. He wrote a voluminous memoir about his liaisons and escapades, which he called “My Secret Life.” He arranged for it to be privately—and anonymously—published on the Continent, and it gradually achieved notoriety as pirated editions circulated through the literary underground. In 1966, an American edition of the book was legally published for the first time, by Grove Press. Marcus considers it a trove of insights into the social history of the period.
“In addition to presenting such facts,” Marcus writes, “ ‘My Secret Life’ shows us that amid and underneath the world of Victorian England as we know it . . . a real, secret social life was being conducted, the secret life of sexuality.” As the anonymous author wrote in his memoir, “Man cannot see too much of human nature.” I hoped that Foos’s manuscript, if I obtained permission to read it, would serve as a kind of sequel to “My Secret Life.”
Foos took me to a restaurant called the Black Angus Steakhouse. After ordering a margarita and a sirloin, he promised that he would mail me a photocopy of his manuscript. He said he would send it in installments, because he anticipated having to photocopy it in the public library, a few pages at a time, for the sake of privacy.
I asked Foos if he ever felt guilty about spying on his guests. While he admitted to constant fear of being found out, he was unwilling to concede that his activities in the attic brought harm to anyone. He said that he was indulging his curiosity within the boundaries of his own property, and, because his guests were unaware of his voyeurism, they were not affected by it. He reasoned, “There’s no invasion of privacy if no one complains.” Still, he took great pains to avoid discovery, and he worried that, were he caught, he could be charged with a crime.
Over dinner, he described how it had taken him months to fashion his motel’s viewing vents to “foolproof perfection.” He’d initially considered installing two-way mirrors in the ceilings, but dismissed the idea as too incriminating if discovered. He then thought of installing the faux ventilators and hired a metalworker to fabricate a number of six-by-fourteen-inch louvred screens. Only Donna, who was in on the plan, could help Foos with the installation. She would stand on a chair in each of the designated rooms and reach up to fit a louvred screen into the opening in the ceiling that Foos had made with a power saw. As he lay prone in the attic, he secured the screen to the plywood floor and rafters with long flathead screws. He installed three layers of shag carpeting over a central strip of the attic floor; the nails that kept the carpeting in place were rubber-tipped, to deaden any squeaks from footsteps.
After the screens were in place, Foos asked Donna to visit each room, recline on a bed, and look up at a ventilator as he was staring down at her. “Can you see me?” he would call down. If she said yes, he used pliers to bend the louvres into an angle that would conceal his presence while maintaining a clear view of the bed and the bathroom door.
“This trial-and-error process took us weeks,” Foos continued. “And it was exhausting—with me constantly going up and down between the attic and rooms, and my hands aching from all those adjustments with my pliers.”
Foos said he began watching guests during the winter of 1966. He was often excited and gratified by what he saw, but there were many times when what went on below was so boring that he nodded off, sleeping for hours on the shag carpeting, until Donna woke him up before she left for the hospital. Sometimes she brought him a snack (“I’m the only one getting room service at this motel,” he told me, with a smile); at other times, if a particularly engaging erotic interlude was occurring in the room below, Donna would lie down next to him and watch. Sometimes they would have sex up on the viewing platform.
“Donna was not a voyeur,” he told me, “but, rather, the devoted wife of a voyeur. And, unlike me, she grew up having a free and healthy attitude about sex.” He went on, “The attic was an extension of our bedroom.” When Donna was not with him on the viewing platform, he said, he would either masturbate or memorize what he saw and re-create it with his wife.
While driving us back to the Manor House, Foos continued to talk. He mentioned that an attractive young couple had been staying in Room 6 for the past few days and suggested that perhaps we would get a look at them tonight. They were from Chicago and had come to Colorado to ski. Donna always registered the more youthful and attractive guests in one of the “viewing rooms.” The nine non-viewing rooms were saved for families or individuals or couples who were elderly or less physically appealing.
As we approached the motel, I began to feel uneasy. I noticed that the neon “no vacancy” sign was on. “That’s good for us,” Foos said. “It means we can lock up for the night and not be bothered by late arrivals looking for rooms.” If guests needed anything, a buzzer at the front desk would alert the proprietors, even in the attic, so that if Foos was up there viewing he could climb down a ladder in the utility room and arrive at the desk in less than three minutes.
In the office, Donna’s mother handed Foos some mail and briefed him on the maids’ schedules. I waited on a sofa, under some framed posters of the Rocky Mountains and a couple of AAA plaques affirming the cleanliness of the Manor House Motel.
Finally, after saying good night to his mother-in-law, Foos beckoned me to follow him across the parking lot to the utility room. Curtains were drawn across the windows that fronted each of the guest rooms. I could hear the sounds of television coming from some of them, which I assumed did not bode well for the expectations of my host.
Attached to one wall of the utility room was a wooden ladder painted blue. After acknowledging his finger-to-lip warning that we maintain silence, I climbed the ladder behind him. On a landing, he unlocked a door leading into the attic. After he had locked the door behind us, I saw, in the dim light, to my left and right, sloping wooden beams that supported the motel’s pitched roof; in the middle of the narrow floor was a carpeted catwalk about three feet wide, extending over the ceilings of the twenty-one guest rooms.
Crouching on the catwalk behind Foos, so as to avoid hitting my head on a beam, I watched as he pointed down toward a vent in the floor. Light could be seen a few feet ahead of us. Light also came from a few other vents farther away, but from these I could hear the noise of televisions. The room below us was quiet—except for a soft murmuring of voices and the vibrato of bed springs.
I saw what Foos was doing, and I did the same: I got down on my knees and crawled toward the lighted louvres. Then I stretched my neck in order to see as much as I could through the vent, nearly butting heads with Foos as I did so. Finally, I saw a naked couple spread out on the bed below, engaged in oral sex. Foos and I watched for several moments, and then Foos lifted his head and gave me a thumbs-up sign. He whispered that it was the skiing couple from Chicago.
Despite an insistent voice in my head telling me to look away, I continued to observe, bending my head farther down for a closer view. As I did so, I failed to notice that my necktie had slipped down through the slats of the louvred screen and was dangling into the motel room within a few yards of the woman’s head. I realized my carelessness only when Foos grabbed me by the neck and, with his free hand, pulled my tie up through the slats. The couple below saw none of this: the woman’s back was to us, and the man had his eyes closed.
Foos’s expression, as he looked at me in silence, reflected considerable irritation. I felt embarrassed. What if my necktie had betrayed his hideaway? My next thought was: Why was I worried about protecting Gerald Foos? What was I doing up here, anyway? Had I become complicit in his strange and distasteful project? I followed him down the ladder into the parking area.
“You must put away that tie,” he said finally, escorting me to my room. I nodded and wished him a good night.
When I met Foos in the office the next morning, he bore no trace of irritation, and he did not comment on the fact that I was not wearing a necktie. “Since we have some privacy here, I’d like to give you a quick look at my manuscript,” he said. He unlocked a desk drawer and removed a cardboard box containing a four-inch-thick stack of handwritten pages from yellow legal pads, the work of fifteen years. The penmanship was excellent. This was the manuscript he called “The Voyeur’s Journal.”
He explained that he kept small pads, pencils, and a flashlight stashed in the attic. “When I see or hear something that interests me, I’ll scribble it down, and later, when I’m alone down here, I’ll expand on it.”
He seemed desperate to share his findings. I wondered if voyeurs crave escape from their prolonged solitude by unburdening themselves to other people. Steven Marcus writes, of the Victorian adventurer in his book, “Had he really wanted to keep his secret life a secret he would not have put pen to paper. . . . He asks whether all men feel and behave as he does, and concludes, ‘I can never know this; my experience if printed may enable others to compare as I cannot.’ ”
A week after I returned to New York, I received in the mail nineteen pages of “The Voyeur’s Journal,” dated 1966. The first entry begins:
Today was the fulfillment and realization of a dream that has constantly occupied my mind and being. Today, I purchased the Manor House Motel and that dream has been consummated. Finally, I will be able to satisfy my constant yearning and uncontrollable desire to peer into other people’s lives. My voyeuristic urges will now be placed into effect on a plane higher than anyone else has contemplated.
He described the painstaking effort of converting his attic into a viewing platform:
Nov. 18, 1966—Business has been great and I am missing observing several interesting guests, but patience has always been my watchword, and I must accomplish this task with the utmost of perfection and brilliance.
His notes become increasingly grandiose as he nears his goal. “These idiots working for this sheet metal shop are dumb as radishes,” he writes. “ ‘This vent will never function properly,’ they say. If I told them what purpose it was going to serve they probably wouldn’t comprehend.”
If I had not seen the attic viewing platform with my own eyes, I would have found it hard to believe Foos’s account. Indeed, over the decades since we met, in 1980, I have noticed various inconsistencies in his story: for instance, the first entries in his “Voyeur’s Journal” are dated 1966, but the deed of sale for the Manor House, which I obtained recently from the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s office, shows that he purchased the place in 1969. And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan. I have no doubt that Foos was an epic voyeur, but he could sometimes be an inaccurate and unreliable narrator. I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.
At times, I could almost picture Foos rubbing his hands together, like a mad scientist in a B movie: “I will have the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state, and then begin determining for myself exactly what goes on behind closed bedroom doors,” he wrote.
In an entry dated November 24, 1966, he describes using the viewing platform for the first time:
Subject #1: Mr. and Mrs. W of southern Colorado.
Description: Approx. 35 year old male, in Denver on business. 5’10”, 180 pounds, white collar, probably college educated. Wife 35 years old, 5’4″, 130 lbs, pleasing plump, dark hair, Italian extraction, educated, 37-28-37.
Activity: Room #10 was rented to this couple at 7 p.m. by myself. He registered and I noticed he had class and would be a perfect subject to have the distinction of being #1. After registration, I immediately left for the observation walkway. It was tremendous seeing my first subjects, for the initial observation, enter the room. The subjects were represented to my vision, clearer than anticipated. . . . I had a feeling of tremendous power and exhilaration at my accomplishment. I had accomplished what other men had only dreamed of doing and the thought of superiority and intelligence occupied my brain. . . .
As I peered into the vent from my observation platform, I could see the entire motel room, and to my delight the bathroom was also viewable, together with the sink, commode, and bathtub. . . . I could see the subjects below me, and without question they were a perfect couple to be the first to perform on the stage that was created especially for them, and many others to follow, and I would be the audience. After going to the bathroom with the door closed, she sat in front of the mirror looking at her hair and remarked she was getting grey. He was in an argumentative mood and appeared disagreeable with his assignment in Denver. The evening passed uneventful until 8:30 p.m. when she finally undressed revealing a beautiful body, slightly plump, but sexually attractive anyway. He appeared disinterested when she laid on the bed beside him, and he began smoking one cigarette after another and watching TV. . . .
Finally after kissing and fondling her, he quickly gained an erection and entered her in the male superior position, with little or no foreplay, and orgasmed in approximately 5 minutes. She had no orgasm and went to the bathroom. . . .
Conclusion: They are not a happy couple. He is too concerned about his position and doesn’t have time for her. He is very ignorant of sexual procedure and foreplay despite his college education. This is a very undistinguished beginning for my observation laboratory . . . .
I’m certain things will improve.
Things did not improve for Gerald Foos with regard to the second couple he observed. The man and woman were in their thirties, and they talked about money, drank bourbon, and went to bed with the covers pulled “up to their noses.”
The third couple, affluent-looking people in their early fifties, were more interesting. They were in town to spend Thanksgiving with their son and their daughter-in-law, whom they had not met before and of whom they did not approve. Foos writes that he observed them discussing their son’s marriage. He noted that the wife unhooked her bra by sliding the closure around to the front.
She removed her shoes and sprayed the interior of the shoes with some sort of deodorant. . . . After the bath, she spent 1 hour preparing her hair in rollers and primping in front of the mirror. This is a 50 year old woman! Imagine the hours she has wasted in her lifetime. By this time her husband is asleep and no sex transpired tonight . . . .
The next morning at 9 a.m., I observed her giving him oral sex to completion.
After watching them for two more days, Foos summed up, “Conclusion: Educated, upper-middle-class older couple who enjoy a tremendous sex life.”
Between Thanksgiving and January of his first year as a motel voyeur, Gerald Foos spent enough time in his attic to observe guests perform forty-six sex acts, at times alone, at times with a partner, and, on one occasion, with two partners. Each time, he summed up his observations in a formal conclusion.
One day in December, two neatly dressed men and a woman came in and requested a single room. The more vocal of the two men, who had red hair, explained that his furnace at home had stopped working and that his wife was freezing. Later, Foos realized that when the man signed the register he had listed as his home address a regional vacuum-cleaner store.
Within minutes, Foos was in the attic and had positioned himself over their room. They were a “very polite, very organized couple with [a] male companion,” he wrote. All three immediately disrobed. Then the husband snapped photographs as his wife and the other man had sex in various positions. Foos recorded the encounter in minute detail. When it was over, he wrote, “They all three laid quiet on the bed and relaxed, discussing vacuum cleaner sales.” (Foos also learned that the companion was a sales rep for the couple’s firm.)
The trio represented the first group sex that Foos witnessed at the Manor House. Within a few years, however, he stopped regarding additional bed partners as a deviation; rather, he viewed them as posing a financial conundrum. Should he charge higher room rates for threesomes or foursomes than he did for couples?
As it was, extra charges were levied only on guests who checked in with pets; they were required to leave a fifteen-dollar refundable security deposit. Foos liked to spy on guests with pets, but for different reasons than he spied on couples. When a couple from Atlanta arrived holding the leash of a large hound that they referred to as Roger, Foos went right to the attic.
He was disgusted to note that the couple bickered about money, with the wife complaining about having “to stay in this dump.” Foos was infuriated: the motel, he wrote, “is not first-class, but it is clean, and has had guests from all walks of life.” Foos watched with horror as the dog proceeded “to do his duty in a large pile behind the chair.” Roger’s owners cleaned up the mess, hoping that the chair would hide the soiled carpet.
The next morning, when the couple asked for their fifteen-dollar deposit, Foos shocked them by escorting them to their room, moving the chair, and pointing to the spot on the rug. (It seems not to have occurred to him that this action could have given him away. Also, he told me, dogs, unlike people, often seemed to be aware that someone was lurking above. When Foos was in the attic, dogs often pointed their snouts up toward the vents and barked.) Before the couple checked out, Foos returned to the platform to eavesdrop. The woman said to her husband, “He’s just a dumb-idiot manager who probably keeps all deposits for himself anyway and was just lucky in pointing out a particular spot on the carpet.” Foos’s darkly philosophical conclusion:
My observations indicate that the majority of vacationers spend their time in misery. They fight about money; where to visit. . . . All their aggressions somehow are immeasurably increased, and this is the time they discover they are not properly matched. Women especially have a difficult time adjusting to both the new surroundings and their husbands. Vacations produce all the anxieties within mankind to come forward during this time, and to perpetuate the worst of emotions. . . .
You can never really determine during their appearances in public that their private life is full of hell and unhappiness. . . . This is the “plight of the human corpus,” and I’m sure provides the answer that if the misery of mankind were revealed all together spontaneously, mass genocide might correspondently follow.
As time went on, Foos became increasingly disenchanted with his guests, whose behavior prompted him to confront larger questions about the human condition as well as his own political convictions. Within walking distance of the Manor House Motel was the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, which, during the sixties and seventies, served as a temporary home for injured Vietnam War veterans. Foos was only moderately against the war when he built his observation platform, but as the struggle continued he revised his opinion. In “The Voyeur’s Journal,” he wrote:
Checked in this male who is in the Service and had apparently lost his leg in Vietnam. He rented a room for five days, and has received a pass from the Hospital to stay with his wife who has come from Michigan to visit him.
His artificial leg was attached just below the knee, the stub raw and sore. In the evening, Foos watched as the wife opened two bottles of cola, and her husband made a toast:
“Here’s to what makes the world go around!”
“Sex . . . ?” She smiled.
“No! Money! It’s the one thing people will do almost anything for. What do you think we are at war in Vietnam for. It is the god-damned money.”
A few years later, another wounded veteran—this one a paraplegic—checked in to the Manor House with his wife. Foos watched as the wife tried to help her husband out of his wheelchair and emptied his catheter bag. At one point, the husband asked her, “Why do you continue to love me when I’m in this condition?” The wife was affectionate and supportive, and after observing the couple completing a successful sexual encounter, Foos wrote, “I have had the opportunity to observe many of the deplorable and regrettable tragedies of the Vietnam War. This subject is lucky. He has a loving and understanding wife.”
Another time, he rented two connecting rooms to a pilot, his girlfriend, and a male friend. Foos spied on them and heard the pilot bragging about once “throwing a Vietcong soldier out of his gun-ship.” Foos wrote, “The subject makes me sick.” The pilot also described “his favorite sport, which is chasing and shooting coyotes from his aircraft.” Later that night, Foos saw the single friend masturbating as he listened, with his ear against the connecting door, to the pilot in bed with the girl. In his conclusion, Foos registered his distaste: “Their disregard for animals” and the fate of the Vietcong soldier infuriated him, although he did add a self-serving note pointing out that the friend’s lascivious eavesdropping “makes a truism out of my contention that all men are voyeurs to some degree.”
Foos liked to strike up casual conversations with his subjects after he’d observed them. If he discovered that a guest lived in the Denver area, he would sometimes follow the person home after checkout.
One was a middle-aged woman who checked into the motel with a well-dressed younger man. The woman mixed a drink, then removed her clothes. As the two entwined on the bed, the woman moaning frantically, the man abruptly stopped. “I’m having difficulty making my car payment,” he told her. She reached for her purse and handed him a hundred-dollar bill. He then returned his attention to her prone body. After satisfying her, he rebuffed her offer to reciprocate, then relented. “I need an extra fifty dollars to finish paying my bills,” he said. She gave him the money, and several minutes later he left.
When the woman drove off, Foos followed her in his car and saw her enter an apartment in a retirement complex. He watched through her kitchen window. “She was in tears,” he wrote. Foos walked around the complex and asked a neighbor about the woman. He learned that her husband had been killed in Vietnam and her son was away at college. In his conclusion, he wrote, “The tremendous sexual desire that some women of middle age express during these encounters is a definite tragedy.” He added that he had seen the same gigolo in his motel with men.
In addition to collecting data on sexual styles and positions, foreplay, and pillow talk, Foos took an interest in his guests’ bathroom habits. He had installed viewing grilles in several of the Manor House’s bathrooms for this purpose. One woman sat on the toilet “side-saddle.” A man sat on the toilet backward, facing the wall. Foos noted, “Every imaginable position or approach to the commode has been observed.” More men than Foos could count urinated in the sink. He expressed anger at the toilet industry for its failure to address the challenges men have in directing their urine stream accurately. (“If I had my way, I’d design a household toilet that was more like an upright urinal,” he told me.)
He complained about the guests who smoked, not because it fouled the room but “because the smoke rises and floods the vent,” impeding his view. He also made note of guests whose behavior he found weird or upsetting: the guy who secretly urinated in his date’s bourbon; the obese fellow who checked in with a much younger man and then dressed him up in a furry costume with horns, saying, “You are heavenly; I have never seen a more beautiful sheep-boy.”
But more often Foos found observing his guests depressing. They argued. They watched too much television. (This was especially irksome when the guests were attractive and could have spent their time having sex instead.) After watching one sexual encounter, which he regarded as typically unsatisfying for the woman, he wrote:
This is real life. . . . These are real people! I’m thoroughly disgusted that I alone must bear the burden of my observations. These subjects will never find happiness and divorce is inevitable. He doesn’t know the first thing about sex or its application. The only thing he knows is penetration and thrusting, to orgasm, under the covers with the lights out.
My voyeurism has contributed immensely to my becoming a futilitarian, and I hate this conditioning of my soul. . . . What is so distasteful is that the majority of subjects are in concert with these individuals in both design and plan. Many different approaches to life would be immediately implemented, if our society would have the opportunity to be Voyeur for a Day.
As Gerald Foos reflected upon his “burden” as a committed voyeur, he saw himself as an entrapped figure. He had no control over what he saw and no escape from its influence.
As I read the sections of the journal he sent me, which covered the mid-nineteen-sixties through the mid-seventies, I noticed that his persona as a writer changed, gradually shifting from a first-person narrator into a character whom he wrote about in the third person. Sometimes he used the word “I,” and sometimes he’d refer to himself as “the voyeur.”
The entries become increasingly portentous, and Foos starts to invest the omniscient Voyeur character with godlike qualities. He appears to be losing his grip on reality. But only once, while posted in the attic, did he actually speak through a vent to a person below. He was looking down on Room 6, where he saw a guest eating Kentucky Fried Chicken while sitting on the bed. Instead of using paper napkins, the man cleaned his hands on the bedsheets. He then wiped the grease off his beard and mouth with the bedspread. Without realizing what he was doing, Foos shouted, “You son of a bitch!”
The subject stopped eating and looked around the room, and then went to the window and looked out. Apparently he knew someone shouted S.O.B., but couldn’t determine from which direction the insult came. He went to the window and looked out for the second time and pondered the situation for a few minutes, and then continued with his animalistic eating habits.
Foos lost control on other occasions, each time risking exposure. One time he was watching a couple who were in town on a cattle-buying trip. After they ate McDonald’s hamburgers (wiping their hands on their bluejeans) and watched a rerun of “Gunsmoke,” they got into bed. Foos was eager to see the woman undressed, but the man turned off the lights. “I won’t stand for this at all,” Foos wrote in the journal. “I return to the ground level and park my car directly in front of his unit, and turn the lights on bright.” After going back to the attic, Foos was stymied once more.
The room is lit up real well, and he begins his animal-like thrusting under the covers. [After three minutes he] immediately withdraws and departs for the bathroom. I finally get to see her body when she un-covers to wipe the semen away on my bedspread. . . . She is very beautifully proportioned, but probably equally stupid and dumb.
He comes back from the bathroom and notes that the lights outside are still on. He says, “I wonder what the situation is with this car with the lights on.”
The journal entry ends with an existential rumination: Foos is sinking deeper into isolation and despair. The more I read, the more convinced I became that Foos’s stilted metaphysics were his way of attempting to elevate his disturbing pastime into something of value.
Conclusion: I am still unable to determine what function I serve. . . . Apparently, I’m delegated the responsibility of this heavy burden to be placed upon myself—never being able to tell anyone! . . . The depression builds, but I will continue onward with my research. I’ve pondered on occasion that perhaps I don’t exist, only represent a product of the subjects’ dreams. No one would believe my accomplishments as a voyeur anyway, therefore, the dreamlike manifestation would explain my reality.
Foos made it clear to me from the beginning that he regarded his voyeurism as serious research, undertaken, in some vague way, for the betterment of society. At the end of each year, he tallied his observations into an annual report, trying to identify significant social trends. In 1973, he noted that of the 296 sexual acts that he witnessed, 195 involved white heterosexuals, who favored the missionary position. Over all, he counted 184 male orgasms and 33 female orgasms. The following year, there were 329 sexual activities that he believed warranted recording. He also broke people into categories according to their sex drive:
—12% of all observable couples at the motel are highly sexed.
—62% lead moderately active sexual lives.
—22% are of low-drive sexually.
—3% have no sex at all.
In 1973, he had observed only five instances of interracial sex; by 1980, he told me, the number was closer to twenty-five. Foos viewed this as one of many examples in which his small motel reflected social changes throughout the nation.
Another of Foos’s categories, and one of the largest, was “honest but unhappy people.” A great majority of these were out-of-town couples who, during their brief stays, filled his ears with complaints about their marriages. He constantly reminded himself how lucky he was to have Donna for a wife. She was an in-house nurse, a co-conspirator with regard to his prying, a trustworthy manager of their family finances, and a private secretary, who would take dictation in shorthand when Foos was too tired to write in his journal.
As the years passed, he became more preoccupied with receiving recognition for what he viewed as his pioneering research. By necessity, he existed in the shadows, running his laboratory for the study of human behavior. He considered his work to be superior to that of the sexologists at the Kinsey Institute and the Masters & Johnson clinic. Much of the research at such places was obtained from volunteers. Because his subjects didn’t know they were being watched, they yielded more accurate and, to his mind, more valuable information.
In the late seventies, two things happened that changed the nature of Foos’s journal. He grew jaded about what he was seeing through the vents, and he began to realize that it was impossible for him to get the scientific credit he felt he deserved. His writings began to reflect not only what he felt while watching other people but also how he felt about himself and his compulsion, beginning with his origins as a farm boy infatuated with his aunt Katheryn.
He started another, more biographical notebook, which he called “The Collector.” In it he recounted the story he had told me the night I met him, in the car from the airport. But he wrote about himself in the third person, as if he were a character in a novel:
The youth moved silently through the night over the grass and across the barbed wire fence. . . . Shutters folded back, unsuspecting, letting the northwest breeze play through the arrangement of the bedroom. The youth looked in, forgot about the cold and rain outside, forgot about essence, forgot about time. . . . While observing his aunt, she began to move toward her collectibles.
The closest he came to admitting his special interest in his aunt occurred one day, just before his tenth birthday, when he confessed to his mother that he was envious of his aunt’s thimble and doll collection and wanted a collection of his own. His sensible mother suggested that he begin collecting baseball cards. This started him off on a lifelong hobby, resulting in his amassing tens of thousands of sports cards by the time I met him, in 1980, when he was forty-five. But he always associated his collecting with his boyhood attraction to his aunt. He wrote, “The youth will confuse sexuality and the art of accumulating objects. . . . There was a direct association from his aunt being nude and his collecting.”
In later years, he also collected stamps, coins, and vintage firearms, and as a boy he kept a stash of muskrat tails, a by-product of skinning the ones he and his father trapped—one of his chores. (The collection was dispersed, he says, when his parents complained of the “special odor in my room.”)
Gerald was the first of two children born to Natalie and Jake Foos; he was five years older than his brother, Jack. Gerald acknowledged that he was by nature a “loner.” When he was not busy with farm chores or spying on his aunt, he would often “look up at the sky, and know there was something out there for me.” His mother had encouraged him to get a library card, and he spent hours reading. He wrote, “I was mesmerized by books, and what might be called ‘the life of the mind,’ and the life that was not manual labor or farming or housework, but seemed in its specialness to transcend these activities.”
Some of Foos’s reminiscences offer glimpses of what he would become: “The town was truly a rural paradise; even into the 1920s, some 2,000 farms averaging 80 acres each.” He continued, describing his childhood:
I am very curious about everything and everyone I see . . . and so I have felt invisible also, as a child feels himself invisible, beneath the radar of adult supervision. The consequence of so much unsupervised freedom was that I became precociously independent.
Foos never got over his first love, a high-school cheerleader named Barbara White, who, along with crowds of onlookers, cheered from the grandstands after he had hit a home run or scored a touchdown. This was in 1953, his senior year, and I saw clippings about him from the Greeley Daily Tribune, which regularly printed his picture and described his achievements. “Foos made a beautiful run, escaping a couple of potential tacklers at the line of scrimmage and plowing on after being hit again at the 10,” read one story. Barbara White broke up with Foos when she discovered that he had a foot fetish.
Foos’s stint in the service produced few insights in his notebook because, as he claims, his most interesting Navy experiences were “top secret.”
Years after being discharged, after building the viewing platform in his motel, he felt at times as if he were still in the Navy, adrift on the sea, peering down through the vents the way he used to squint through binoculars on deck duty, keeping a lookout for objects of interest. Life in the attic was humdrum. His motel was a drydocked boat whose guests endlessly watched television, exchanged banalities, had sex mainly under the covers if they had sex at all—and gave him so little to write about that sometimes he wrote nothing at all.
He also got bored with cataloguing his guests’ dishonesty. They sometimes tried to cheat him out of the room rent, and hardly a week passed without his witnessing instances of chicanery. One working-class couple asked him for a few days’ grace period to pay their bill. Foos spied on them the next day and heard the husband tell the wife, “The dumb guy in the office thinks I have a check coming in from Chicago, and we will fool him the same way we did the motel in Omaha.” Foos locked the people out of their room and kept their possessions until they paid him.
Conclusion: Thousands of unhappy, discontented people are moving to Colorado in order to fulfill that deep yearning in their soul, hoping to improve their way of life, and arrive here without any money and discover only despair. . . . Society has taught us to lie, steal, and cheat, and deception is the paramount prerequisite in man’s makeup. . . . As my observation of people approaches the fifth year, I am beginning to become pessimistic as to the direction our society is heading, and feel myself becoming more depressed as I determine the futility of it all.
These experiences prodded Foos to concoct an “honesty test.” He would leave a suitcase, secured with a cheap padlock, in the closet of a motel room. When a guest checked in, he would say to Donna, in the guest’s hearing, that someone had just called to report leaving behind a suitcase with a thousand dollars inside. Foos then watched from the attic as the new guest found the suitcase and deliberated over whether to break the lock and look inside or return the suitcase to the motel office.
Out of fifteen guests who were subjected to the honesty test, including a minister, a lawyer, and an Army lieutenant colonel, only two returned the suitcase to the office with the padlock intact. The others all opened the suitcase and then tried to dispose of it in different ways. The minister pushed the suitcase out the bathroom window into the bushes.
A few years after Foos started mailing me photocopies of his handwritten journal pages, I received a large package from him containing a three-hundred-page typescript of his viewing logs through 1978. This included the material in the handwritten journals from his early years as his motel’s voyeur, but a good portion of the manuscript was new to me. It continued in the same vein as the earlier entries—a litany of undifferentiated sex acts and accounts of people squabbling. There was one entry from 1977, however, in which the Voyeur claimed to have seen, for the first time, more than he wished to see.
What he saw was a murder. It occurred in Room 10.
He described the occupants as a young couple who had rented a room for several weeks. The man, in his late twenties, was about a hundred and eighty pounds. The Voyeur deduced from his eavesdropping that he was a college dropout and a small-time drug dealer. The girl was blond, with a 34D bust. (Foos had gone into the room while the couple was out and checked her bra size, something he says he did often.) Foos devoted pages and pages to an approving account of the couple’s vigorous sex life. The journal also described people coming to the door of Room 10 to buy drugs. This upset Foos, but he did not notify the police. In the past, he had reported drug dealing in his motel when he saw it, but the police took no action, because he could not identify himself as an eyewitness to his complaints.
One afternoon, Foos saw the man in Room 10 sell drugs to a few young boys. This incensed him. He wrote in the journal, “After the male subject left the room that afternoon, the voyeur entered his room. . . . The voyeur, without any guilt, silently flushed all the remaining drugs and marijuana down the toilet.” He had flushed motel guests’ drugs several times before, with no repercussions.
This time, the man in Room 10 accused his girlfriend of stealing the drugs. The journal continues:
After fighting and arguing for about one hour, the scene below the voyeur turned to violence. The male subject grabbed the female subject by the neck and strangled her until she fell unconscious to the floor. The male subject, then in a panic, picked up all his things and fled the vicinity of the motel.
The voyeur . . . without doubt . . . could see the chest of the female subject moving, which indicated to the voyeur that she was still alive and therefore O.K. So, the voyeur was convinced in his own mind that the female subject had survived the strangulation assault and would be all right, and he swiftly departed the observation platform for the evening.
Foos reasoned that he couldn’t do anything anyway, “because at this moment in time he was only an observer and not a reporter, and really didn’t exist as far as the male and female subjects were concerned.”
The next morning, a maid ran into the motel office and said that a woman was dead in Room 10. Foos wrote that he immediately called the police. When officers arrived, he gave them the drug dealer’s name, his description, and his license-plate number. He did not say that he had witnessed the murder.
Foos wrote, “The voyeur had finally come to grips with his own morality and would have to forever suffer in silence, but he would never condemn his conduct or behavior in this situation.”
The next day, the police returned and told Foos that the drug dealer had been using a fake name and had been driving a stolen car.
I came upon this account in Foos’s typescript a few years after I’d visited him in Aurora—and nearly six years after the murder. I was shocked, and surprised that Foos had not mentioned the incident to me earlier. It almost seemed as if he regarded it as just another day in the attic. But, as I thought about it, his response—the observation that he “really didn’t exist as far as the male and female subjects were concerned”—was consistent with his sense of himself as a fractured individual. He was also desperately protective of his secret life in the attic. If the police had grilled him and decided that he knew more than he was telling, they might have obtained a search warrant, and the consequences could have been catastrophic.
I called Foos right away to ask about the situation. I wanted to find out whether he realized that, in addition to witnessing a murder, he might have, in some way, caused it.
He was reluctant to say more than he had written in his journal, and he reminded me that I had signed a confidentiality agreement. I spent a few sleepless nights, asking myself whether I ought to turn Foos in. But I reasoned that it was too late to save the drug dealer’s girlfriend. Also, since I had kept the Voyeur’s secret, I felt worrisomely like a co-conspirator.
I filed away his notes on the murder along with all the other material he had mailed me. I now knew all that I wanted to know about the Voyeur.
Over the next decades, I continued to get letters from Gerald Foos of Aurora, Colorado. He reported that, as far as he knew, investigators had failed to find the killer, but that the police had been summoned to the Manor House for other reasons. He told me that one guest had committed suicide, shooting himself with a pistol. A five-hundred-pound man had suffered a fatal heart attack, and, because his bloated corpse could not fit through the door, firefighters had removed the room’s picture window.
In addition to these bits of news were his ongoing complaints about the appalling examples of human behavior he’d witnessed, including robbery, rape, and sexual exploitation. He had come to believe that the arrival of the birth-control pill, in the early sixties, which he’d originally celebrated, encouraged many men to expect sex on demand: “Women had won the legal right to choose but had lost the right to choose the right moment.” He felt that the war between the sexes had escalated and that sexual relations were getting worse, not better. (Lesbians, whom Foos admired, were an exception.)
As his misanthropy deepened, the language he used about his motel clients sounded more and more like unintentional descriptions of his own conscience. He wrote that he felt “overwhelmed by the fantasy, the play-acting, and the game-playing of the real world.” He continued, “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest.” He claimed to have become extremely antisocial, and when he was not in the attic he avoided seeing his guests.
It occurred to me that Foos might be approaching something like a mental breakdown. He reminded me of the psychotic anchorman in the 1976 film “Network,” who implodes, screaming, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” I also thought of John Cheever’s 1947 story “The Enormous Radio,” in which a couple’s marriage slowly suffers as their new radio mysteriously allows them to overhear the conversations and secrets of their neighbors; and of Nathanael West’s 1933 novel, “Miss Lonelyhearts,” in which an advice columnist’s life deteriorates as a result of his ongoing exposure to his readers’ sad and empty lives. Gerald Foos had literary and scientific pretensions, but he had no self-awareness. Here was a snooper in the attic claiming the moral high ground while passing judgment on unsuspecting people below.
Where was I in all this? I was the Voyeur’s pen pal, his confessor, perhaps, or an adjunct to a secret life he chose not to keep completely secret. Several times over the years, it occurred to me that I would be wise to discontinue our correspondence. Foos was not a subject I could write about, despite my curiosity about how it would end. Would he get caught? If he did, what would be the trial strategy of his attorneys? Was he naïve enough to think that jurors would accept that his attic was a laboratory in quest of truth? Moreover, might I be subpoenaed to testify?
Still, whenever an envelope from Foos arrived, I opened it. In March, 1985, after a long silence, he wrote to say that Donna had died. She had been in her mid-forties and suffered from lupus. There was a new woman in his life, a divorcée named Anita Clark. He had met her one afternoon when she was pulling her two small children down East Colfax Avenue in a red wagon. Anita took over Donna’s duties in the motel office. Like Donna, she was happily complicit in Foos’s secret life. She considered herself a full-fledged voyeur. From subsequent letters I learned that business was going so well that, in 1991, Foos bought a second motel down the street, called the Riviera. He installed four faux ventilators in the bedroom ceilings there, but the Manor House remained his observational headquarters.
Despite this apparent success, Foos was still tormented. He wrote, “Voyeurs are cripples whom most people think are flawed and imperfect and whom God has not blessed.”
I had not heard from Gerald Foos for a long time when, in July, 2012, I read on the front page of the Times that a twenty-four-year-old man, the son of a nurse, had fatally shot twelve people and wounded dozens more in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre. After scanning the article and seeing that Foos’s name was not listed among the victims, I called him. Bizarrely, he told me that he had once been inside the gunman’s apartment: Foos’s son had been an earlier tenant. “After I moved my son into another neighborhood,” he said, “this guy apparently replaced him, although we don’t ever recall running into this guy whose picture is now all over the news.”
A few weeks later, Gerald Foos resumed writing letters to me, and he used his familiar bombastic style in response to the movie-theatre shooting: “Haven’t the people of Aurora treated their fellow men with kindness and consideration, so that the sword of Damocles was lowered on us?”
He had sold his two motels in 1995, when arthritis in his knees made it too painful for him to climb the ladder and crawl around the attic. First, he’d removed the vents and patched up the holes in the ceilings. With the proceeds, he and Anita bought a ranch in the Rockies, splitting their time between it and a house on a golf course in Aurora. He missed his motels, which he called “that protected space, that sacred ground,” although he took comfort in the belief that the business was in decline. When he began, in the sixties, motels thrived because of the “tryst trade”; guests could walk directly from their cars to their rooms without having to interact with anyone in a lobby or elevator. Couples today, he said, seem less concerned with that kind of secrecy and discretion.
He wrote to me of missing the power he’d felt as the Voyeur. He wrote about having dyed his hair and later feeling ashamed as he studied his reflection in the bathroom mirror: dyeing his hair was a form of deception that challenged his self-perception as a truth-teller.
Since we last communicated, Foos had a new hobby. He had become preoccupied with government and corporate surveillance. “Almost everything we do is on record,” he told me over the phone.
He talked about how the private lives of public figures are exposed in the media almost every day, and about how even the head of the C.I.A., General David Petraeus, couldn’t keep his sex life out of the headlines. He insisted that the media is in “the Peeping Tom business, but the biggest Peeping Tom of all is the U.S. Government,” which keeps an eye on our daily lives through its use of security cameras and its ability to track activity on the Internet, credit cards, bank records, cell phones, G.P.S., and airline ticketing, among other things.
He asked me, “Perhaps you may be thinking, Why is this of interest to Gerald Foos? Because it is possible that someday the F.B.I. will show up and say, ‘Gerald Foos, we have evidence that you’ve been watching people from your observation platform. What are you, some kind of pervert?’ And then Gerald Foos will respond: ‘And what about you, Big Brother? For years you’ve been watching me everywhere I go.’ ”
During the spring of 2013, thirty-three years after I had met him, Foos called me to say that he was ready to go public with his story. Eighteen years had passed since he had sold his motels, and he believed that the statute of limitations would now protect him from invasion-of-privacy lawsuits that might be filed by any former guests. He was seventy-eight years old, he reminded me, and he felt that if he did not share his findings with the public now, he might not be around long enough to do so. He said he was dissolving the confidentiality agreement that I’d signed in 1980 and gave me permission to write about him and to use all the material he had shown me over the decades. (Later this year, I will publish a book about Foos, a large part of which consists of entries from “The Voyeur’s Journal.” For the use of his manuscript, he received a fee from the book publisher.)
I flew to Denver and met Foos and Anita for breakfast at an airport hotel. He carried a cane, and his thinning gray hair was offset by a gray mustache and goatee. Tightly buttoned over his massive chest was a tweed jacket and, under it, an orange sports shirt. Anita was as he had described her in his letters: eighteen years younger than Gerald, she was a petite, quiet woman with frizzy red hair.
He wanted to show me his collection of sports memorabilia—tens of thousands of sports cards that Anita had organized in alphabetical order. He explained that one of the reasons he was now willing to reveal himself as a voyeur was that he hoped the media notoriety might draw attention to his collection, which he was eager to sell. He believed it was worth millions.
I was more interested in discussing the murder that Foos claimed to have witnessed in Room 10 of the Manor House Motel in 1977. I had let Foos know that, without naming him as a witness, I intended to contact the Aurora Police Department to find out if it had uncovered any new information about the homicide. Foos did not object, saying that he regretted his negligence in the matter. In going public with his story and confessing his failings, he hoped to achieve some sort of “redemption.”
During our breakfast, I showed Foos a letter from Paul O’Keefe, then a lieutenant, now a division chief, of the Aurora Police Department, who wrote, “Unfortunately, we can find no record of such an event.” He had checked several cold-case databases and found nothing. Two coroner’s offices had no information, either. In subsequent phone calls, two former officers said that it would not be impossible for there to be no remaining police records in a “Jane Doe” case such as the one I described: the identity of the victim was unknown, after all, and the crime took place before police departments kept electronic records.
It is also possible that Foos made an error in his recordkeeping, or transcribed the date of the murder inaccurately, as he copied the original journal entry into a different format. Over the years, as I burrowed deeper into Foos’s story, I found various inconsistencies—mostly about dates—that called his reliability into question.
“It seems as if that young woman just fell through the cracks,” Foos said. I thought he might be relieved, but he told me that he had talked to a lawyer. In publicly admitting that he had witnessed a murder and had not acted to prevent it, he said, “I could be an accessory to a crime. I might be convicted of second-degree-murder charges.”
Still, Foos went on, after years of hiding, he was ready to come clean. “Life comes with risks, but we can’t be concerned with that,” he said. “We just tell the truth.”
After the meal, we drove to the Fooses’ house. “I hope I’m not described as just some pervert or Peeping Tom,” he said. “I think of myself as a pioneering sex researcher.” I asked him if he ever considered filming or recording his guests.
“No,” he said, explaining that to be caught with such equipment would have been incriminating, and using it would have been impractical.
He maintained that most men are natural voyeurs. “But most women prefer being watched to watching others,” he said, “which may partly explain why men spend fortunes on porn and women on cosmetics.”
Later, I asked Foos if he had heard of Erin Andrews, the television sportscaster who was secretly filmed coming out of the shower in her hotel room by a stalker who had altered the peephole in her door. The man, who then posted nude footage of Andrews on the Internet, was convicted of a felony and served twenty months in prison. Andrews sued him and the hotel for seventy-five million dollars in damages to compensate for the “horror, shame, and humiliation” she suffered. Last month, a jury awarded her fifty-five million dollars.
Foos had been following the case on the news. His take on it did not surprise me; it echoed the twisted justifications for his own behavior that he’d offered over the years. “While I’ve said that most men are voyeurs, there are some voyeurs—like this creep in the Andrews case—who are beneath contempt,” he told me. “He is a product of the new technology, exposing his prey on the Internet, and doing something that has nothing in common with what I did. I exposed no one. What this guy did was ruthless and vengeful. If I were a member of the jury, I’d unhesitatingly vote to convict.” He insisted that he had little in common with Andrews’s predator.
I asked him why, since he had spent half his life invading other people’s privacy, he was so critical of the government’s intelligence-gathering in the interest of national security. He reiterated that his spying was “harmless,” because guests were unaware of it and its purpose was never to entrap or expose anyone. He told me that he identified with Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who illegally released government documents alleging that, for example, U.S. intelligence agencies were tapping the cell phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
“Snowden, in my opinion, is a whistle-blower,” Foos said, adding that instead of being prosecuted Snowden should be praised “for exposing things that are wrong in our society.”
He considers himself a whistle-blower, too, even though, so far, he hadn’t revealed anything to anyone except his wives and me. Asked which “things that are wrong” he wished to expose, he said, “That basically you can’t trust people. Most of them lie and cheat and are deceptive. What they reveal about themselves in private they try to hide in public. What they try to show you in public is not what they really are.”
While he was on the subject of morality, I brought the conversation around to the murder again.
“If I’d known that this particular lady was dying, I’d have called an ambulance immediately,” he said. He had subsequently thought about how he might have saved the woman without incriminating himself. “I would have said, ‘I was walking by the window and heard a scream’—or something like that.”
Foos recounted the night of the murder once more, filling in some details that were not in the journal I had read decades earlier: When the maid found the body in Room 10, “I thought, Oh, no,” Foos said. He had Donna check that she was really dead. Then he called the police. As the coroner was loading the body into a van, Foos said, “I was sick, telling myself, ‘You know, I could be responsible for this.’ ” Still, even after acknowledging his remorse over the woman’s murder, he would not connect his behavior in the attic with serious wrongdoing.
I remained perplexed about Gerald Foos’s motives. How could he assume that going public with his sinister story would achieve anything positive? It could just as easily provide evidence leading to his arrest, lawsuits, and widespread public outrage. Why did he crave the notoriety? Unlike the nineteenth-century adventurer in “The Other Victorians,” who produced a lengthy confession—“My Secret Life”—but then withheld his name from it, Foos wanted to send his manuscript out into the world, and he was willing to acknowledge his true identity, even with all the risks that entailed.
It occurred to me that Foos had something in common with another American who wanted the world to read what he had written: Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. In 1995, after he had already killed three people and injured twenty-three others with homemade bombs, he promised “to desist from terrorism” if the Times or the Washington Post would publish his manifesto condemning industrial society. Kaczynski’s wish was granted, but he was later discovered and arrested. His brother had recognized him by his writing style; the Unabomber was done in by his manuscript.
The people who bought Gerald Foos’s motels in 1995 presumably never knew why some of the guest rooms had six-by-fourteen-inch plasterboard patches in the ceilings. In 2014, the Manor House was sold to a real-estate partnership headed by a local developer named Brooke Banbury. The day after the transaction, the former owners promptly left, abandoning their personal belongings and the contents of the motel. Among the items found in the Manor House was a submachine gun with three loaded magazines and extra bullets.
Banbury’s wife had hoped to donate the motel’s contents to a local welfare agency, but she couldn’t find one willing to accept it all. So her husband hired a wrecking crew to demolish everything and haul it away. Within two weeks, all that was left of the Manor House Motel was a plot of flat land enclosed by a chain-link fence.
That is what Gerald and Anita Foos saw, four months later, when I paid a visit to the site with them. They hadn’t known that the motel was being razed, and there were tears in Anita’s eyes as she parked their car near the fence.
“Seems that everything is gone,” Foos said, opening the car door and, with the aid of his cane, stepping out. The couple walked arm in arm through the fence’s open gate.
“I hope we can find something to take home,” Foos said, walking slowly, with his head down, searching for a memento or two that might be added to his collections—perhaps a doorknob or a room number. But the demolition crew had pulverized everything. Finally, Foos bent and picked up two chunks of green-painted stone that had lined the walkway along the parking area (he had painted the stones himself) and a strip of electrical wiring from the red neon sign that had spelled out the motel’s name.
“It’s too bad we didn’t get here earlier,” he said. “We might have gotten a piece of that sign.”
They walked slowly around the lot for fifteen minutes, keeping their heads down. It was a hot day, and Foos was perspiring.
“Let’s go home,” Anita said.
“Yes,” he agreed, turning toward the gate. “I’ve seen enough.” ♦April 8th, 2016
Claude Parent, who used the vertical and horizontal as mere jumping-off points. Credit Emmanuel Goulet
By JOSEPH GIOVANNINI
NY Times Published: FEBRUARY 29, 2016
Claude Parent, the French architectural visionary who in the 1950s broke with his traditional Beaux-Arts training and then orthodox Modernism to take a radical course, designing buildings on the oblique instead of the vertical and horizontal, died on Saturday in Paris. He was 93.
His daughter, Chloé Parent, said he died at a hospital after his heart had stopped while he was being fitted for a pacemaker. He had celebrated his birthday on Friday.
His quiet demeanor, impeccable manners, Issey Miyake jackets and white Rolls-Royce all belied the fact that Mr. Parent (roughly pronounced pah-RAHN) was an instinctive subversive — though a highly successful one, not unlike more conspicuous French rebels like the writer Jean Genet and the artist Yves Klein, with whom Mr. Parent frequently collaborated.
Mr. Parent subverted convention from the beginning of his practice, when he and a fellow Beaux-Arts student won a magazine-sponsored competition in 1952 to design and build a house. They created a long, low, California-inspired dream house and then fractured it, breaking the horizontal lines abruptly with a massive wall. The house lost its unity, a radical idea then and now.
With the encouragement of the Parisian sculptor André Bloc, who was the influential editor of the magazine Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, Mr. Parent collaborated with many artists, importing ideas from painting and sculpture into a field that usually follows the logic of its own closed system. He broke open solids to achieve plasticity, like a sculptor, and he introduced color in bold patterns, like an abstract artist.
His collaboration with Mr. Klein taught him to cultivate the void: In drawings they speculated about building wall-free environments of moving air, with beds cushioned by pulsing air jets in open-air rooms enclosed by air curtains under forced-air roofs and comfortable environments powered by “air-conditioners” hidden below ground.
Their drawings depicted buildings that effectively vaporized, much like filmy, see-through Minimalist glass structures done by the avant-garde today. In a field often characterized by caution, Mr. Klein represented “a wild part of my life,” Mr. Parent once told an interviewer. “The deliriousness of his utopia seized me.”
In 1957, with Mr. Bloc, he designed the Café du Rond Point on the Champs-Elysées, a walk-through painting-sculpture with a ceiling of angled and tilted planes blithely floating above the escargots and steak-frites. They painted the planes in a palette of neutrals accented with a vivid red.
Mr. Parent introduced dynamic instability into the most solid of objects: a building. In 1963, for example, under the influence of the abstract de Stijl artists of the Netherlands, he broke off the living room of a flat-roofed two-story villa he designed in Versailles — the Villa Drusch — and glazed its cube-shaped concrete frame, which he then tilted 45 degrees so that the cube teetered on its edge.
Mr. Parent’s interest in dynamic instability matured fully in collaboration with the cultural theorist Paul Virilio, with whom he practiced in the firm Architecture Principe from 1963 to 1968. A student of World War II German bunkers, Mr. Virilio deepened Mr. Parent’s interest in instability by introducing him to abandoned bunkers that seemed to surf down the sandy embankments of Europe’s Atlantic Wall.
For Mr. Virilio, the bunkers’ interior environment was troubling because of the vertigo its tilted walls and sloping floors provoked. “But vertigo is wonderful!” Mr. Parent said, as he recalled in an interview last year. “I have to see it!”
The tilted bunkers, with their pulling-and-pushing effects on the body, inspired their design for a church in Nevers, Ste. Bernadette du Banlay, which was consecrated in 1966. The building is a concrete hexagonal structure with rounded corners that Mr. Parent and Mr. Virilio split in half to allow light in.
Inside, in the 400-seat sanctuary on the second floor, the two halves of the floor, front and back, slope up at different degrees. Rather than trooping to the altar for communion on a Sunday morning, congregants would immediately feel the gentle push and pull of gravity. Space in the building was active, not passive. Priests discovered that coffins would slide off gurneys. Nuns were not amused.
Mr. Parent and Mr. Virilio formalized their approach after the church’s construction, naming it the Function of the Oblique, and in 1966 issued a manifesto, “Architecture Principe.”
“Parent and Virilio were proposing a new idea of space that broke from the traditional rationalist idea of space open for any inscription drawn into it,” Frédéric Migayrou, deputy director of the Centre Pompidou’s architecture department, said in an interview on Sunday. “Their space was defined by the body in movement. In the ’60s and ’70s, fighting for this meant crazy, incredible combat, but they changed the rules, and opened a new field of thought for architecture.”
To study the effects of the oblique, Mr. Parent and Mr. Virilio devised a pair of long, bent cabins suspended 10 meters (or about 33 feet) in the air, each half swinging like a pendulum. Their idea was to live in the cabins under the observation of physiologists and psychologists. But the student rebellion of May 1968 forced them to abort the experiment, and the partners eventually split. After the rebellion, Mr. Virilio wanted to politicize the practice; Mr. Parent wanted to practice the oblique without politics.
Mr. Parent went on to build an apparent oxymoron: transgressive shopping centers. His GEM Commercial Center at Sens of 1970 looks like a concrete submarine emerging from the sea, with a pedestrian circulation pattern of switchback corridors, all on the oblique, climbing the front facade.
At a time when France had begun a modernization program that included the supersonic jet the Concorde, the high-speed TGV train and the Pompidou Center, the utility company Electricité de France hired Mr. Parent to advise on the design of nuclear power plants.
The company sought an architect who could assuage public fears about nuclear power’s impact on the environment with designs that integrated plants into the landscape. (Mr. Parent designed two of them, and he was an advising director on many others.) Many of the huge, parabolic-shaped concrete silos that can be seen today in France resemble Brancusi sculptures, reduced to a smooth and dynamic essence.
The project was opposed by many on France’s political left and in the country’s emerging ecological movement, but Mr. Parent felt compelled to accept the reality that nuclear power represented the future. His reputation suffered for it.
Mr. Parent closed his office in the early 2000s. But he continued to pursue his visions graphically, producing hundreds of drawings in which he applied his theories of the oblique to panoramas of utopian cities and territories, always populated by figures, to show the effect of his ramped architecture on the body and on populations.
“Objecting to the vertical city, he imagined inclined sites, oblique cities where inhabitants, like mountain dwellers, essentially live on slopes in a new organization of space based on health and the pleasure of the body in movement,” said the architect Jean Nouvel, a protégé of Mr. Parent’s. (He dedicated his recent design of the Paris Philharmonic to Mr. Parent.)
Bernard Tschumi, a former dean of the Columbia architecture school, who has offices in New York and Paris, said of Mr. Parent: “He was not a marginal figure, but a figure who worked in the margins, in an avant-garde outside the mainstream genealogy of the Modern movement. He played an enormous role, and showed that alternative practices are possible.”
Claude Parent was born on Feb. 26, 1923, in the Paris suburb Neuilly sur Seine. His father, Hypolite Parent, was an aeronautical designer and engineer, and his mother, Marie-José Binétrui, owned and ran a modern furniture store.
Mr. Parent’s first marriage, to Therèse Houdart, ended in divorce in 1958. He married Bernadette Goulet the next year. She survives him, as do his children, François, Florence and Chloé; his sister, Nicole Parent; and four grandchildren.
As his career wound down, Mr. Parent’s reputation paradoxically grew. His church in Nevers, a succès de scandal when it was completed, was declared a national historic monument in 1990; so was his commercial center in Sens, in 2011.
In 2009, Mr. Migayrou curated a major retrospective of Mr. Parent’s built and drawn work, inaugurating a new museum in Paris, the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine.
Largely through Mr. Migayrou’s initiatives, Mr. Parent and his Oblique Function were introduced to a young generation of architects adopting the computer as a design tool.
“With his sloped floors and inclined walls, he was there first — he was a key figure for my generation,” said Greg Lynn, 51, a pioneer of computer-generated architecture and author of the groundbreaking book “Animate Form.” Mr. Lynn and others of his generation have developed the oblique on their screens, building the continuous topographies and fluid form and space that Mr. Parent introduced.
“He was a vibrant thinker,” Frank Gehry, the Los Angeles architect, who met Mr. Parent as a 30-year-old working in Paris, said on Sunday. “He wasn’t worried about what was going on around him in normal practices, and he didn’t belong to any group. He was unabashedly himself. And his drawings were extraordinary — beautiful fantasies, full of poetry.”
Thanks to Jonathan MaghenApril 8th, 2016
Found Object (Balance) (detail)c-print,
5 parts, framed2016113 x 91 cm6
April 9 – May 29, 2016April 5th, 2016
Agnes Pelton, Star Gazer, 1929
Oil on canvas,
39 X 25 inches
Alex Olson, Agnes Pelton, Linda Stark
Opening Reception: Saturday, April 2. 6-9PM.
April 2 – May 28, 2016
Alice Mackler, untitled, 2015
6.5 X 7 X 4.5 inches
Kelly Marie Conder
Magdalena Suarez Frimkess
Jessica Jackson Hutchins
For many years photography was seen as a
marginalized medium populated by a group of men
consumed be technical prowess and the
measuring of each other’s equipment. They
created many images, striving for the perfect
Then a group of woman came along
(Charlesworth, Levine, Sherman, Kruger…).
They were unbridled by their non-membership
and changed the way we understand image as an art.
The artists in this show have used ceramics to
define a new space for sculpture: much in the
same way the artists of the 1980s & 19990s used
photography to create a new language for
themselves out of a medium that had previously
existed in the margins
ALL RIGHT is organized in collaboration with Ryan Conder
Opening Saturday, April 2nd 6-8PM.
April 2nd – May 21st
Redling Fine Art
6757 Santa Monica Blvd
LA, CA, 90038
By ANDREW DAS
NY Times Published: March 31, 2016
U.S. Soccer, the governing body for the sport in America, pays the members of the men’s and women’s national teams who represent the United States in international competitions. The men’s team has historically been mediocre. The women’s team has been a quadrennial phenomenon, winning world and Olympic championships and bringing much of the country to a standstill in the process.
Citing this disparity, as well as rising revenue numbers, five players on the women’s team filed a federal complaint Wednesday, accusing U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination because, they said, they earned as little as 40 percent of what players on the United States men’s national team earned even as they marched to the team’s third World Cup championship last year. The five players, some of the world’s most prominent women’s athletes, said they were being shortchanged on everything from bonuses to appearance fees to per diems.
The case, submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, is the latest front in the spreading debate over equal treatment of female athletes. A tennis tournament director was forced to resign recently after saying that female players “ride on the coattails of the men,” and the N.C.A.A. has drawn scrutiny for the financial disparities between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” said goalkeeper Hope Solo, one of the players to sign the complaint. “We are the best in the world, have three World Cup championships, four Olympic championships.” Solo said the men’s players “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”
Solo was joined in the complaint by the co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, forward Alex Morgan and midfielder Megan Rapinoe.
U.S. Soccer officials pushed back forcefully on the players’ claims in a conference call Thursday night, citing figures that the federation said showed the men’s national team produced revenue and attendance about double that of the women’s team, and television ratings that were “a multiple” of what the women attract, according to Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president. A federation spokesman, Neil Buethe, called some of the revenue figures in the players’ complaint “inaccurate, misleading or both.”
In a statement released earlier Thursday, U.S. Soccer recounted the role the federation has played in the growth of women’s soccer, including its introduction to the Olympic Games and in providing full-time salaries for top players. It said it was willing to discuss compensation as part of continuing talks over a new collective bargaining agreement.
But in linking their compensation to the men’s pay, the women’s players put U.S. Soccer in a difficult position. The federation has collective bargaining agreements with both teams, but the financial terms differ widely.
A men’s player, for example, receives $5,000 for a loss in a friendly match but as much as $17,625 for a win against a top opponent. A women’s player receives $1,350 for a similar match, but only if the United States wins; women’s players receive no bonuses for losses or ties.
Opportunities for women to participate in sports have increased greatly in the more than 40 years since the passage of the gender-equity legislation known as Title IX. But sports officials continue to struggle with matters of compensation.
It has been argued that men’s sports, and their players, deserve a financial edge because they draw bigger crowds and generate far more money in ticket sales and corporate sponsorships. That is the case for U.S. Soccer’s national teams, the federation said Thursday. But that is not true for every sport. Women’s figure skating, for instance, has often drawn higher TV ratings and bigger crowds than men’s figure skating.
In their complaint, the five players cited recent U.S. Soccer financial reports as proof that they have become the federation’s main economic engine even as, they said, they often earned only half as much — or less — than their male counterparts.
At the same time, the players said, they exceeded revenue projections by as much as $16 million in 2015, when their World Cup triumph set television viewership records and a nine-game victory tour in packed stadiums produced record gate receipts and attendance figures.
U.S. Soccer officials disputed those figures, arguing that the women and their lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler, cherry-picked an extraordinarily successful year to draw broad conclusions.
Michael LeRoy, who teaches collective bargaining and sports at the University of Illinois, said that market conditions between the men’s and women’s sports are vastly different. LeRoy pointed to a high-profile case brought by Marianne Stanley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Southern California in the early 1990s, who argued she should be paid at a level equal to the men’s coach. Her legal effort was unsuccessful.
“They have to prove equality of work and market conditions, and it’s such a rigid legal requirement,” LeRoy said of the women’s soccer players.
While women have often been dismissed in international soccer — the men’s World Cup began in 1930 and the women’s not until 1991 — they have become the sport’s standard-bearers in the United States. The women’s team has provided the type of repeated success that has remained elusive for the American men. Not so long ago, a woman, Mia Hamm, may have been the best-known soccer player in the country.
When Hamm and her teammates won the 1999 World Cup in the United States, they also set records for attendance and television viewing. Last summer, when the United States defeated Japan to win another Women’s World Cup, the final was seen by 25.4 million viewers on Fox — a record for a men’s or women’s soccer game on English-language television in this country.
“We have been quite patient over the years with the belief that the federation would do the right thing and compensate us fairly,” said Lloyd, the most valuable player of the Women’s World Cup.
Although only five players signed the complaint, they said they were acting on behalf of the entire women’s team, saying they are all employees of U.S. Soccer through their national team contracts. That is significant, according to Peter Romer-Friedman, the deputy director of litigation for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
“By speaking up publicly, the players are saying, ‘It’s important for the public to know that we’ve filed this suit,’ ” Romer-Friedman said. “Frankly, as a civil rights lawyer, it is important for them to speak out because it has an educational effect.”
The filing of the complaint was the latest move in an increasingly contentious legal fight between U.S. Soccer and the women’s national team, which is favored to repeat as Olympic champion at the Rio Games in August but has long grumbled about its pay, working conditions and travel and hotel arrangements.
The long-simmering feud boiled over after last summer’s Women’s World Cup triumph. A match in Hawaii that was part of the team’s victory tour was canceled when the players refused to play on an artificial-turf field they deemed unsafe. Gulati later apologized for the situation.
Two months later, the disagreement veered into federal court when U.S. Soccer took the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against the national team’s players’ union as part of a dispute about the validity of the players’ collective bargaining agreement. The federation contends the agreement, which expired in 2012, lives on in a memorandum of understanding the sides signed in early 2013. The union contends it does not.
In response to the complaint filed Wednesday, U.S. Soccer argued that not only was the players’ pay collectively bargained, but that the players had insisted more than once on a salary-based system as a means of economic security over the bonus-centric plan the men work under. Russell Sauer, the outside counsel for the federation during labor talks, also said the women’s labor contract included provisions — severance and injury pay, health benefits and maternity leave, for example — not available to the men’s team.
“The truth is,” Sauer said, “the players are claiming discrimination based on a more conservative structure, based on guaranteed compensation rather than pay to play, which they themselves requested, negotiated and approved of not once, but twice.”
Furthermore, U.S. Soccer noted, a major source of revenue and contention — World Cup prize money — is determined by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, not the federation. But the women’s complaint seems to take aim at a bigger share of domestic revenue, like sponsorships and television contracts, and U.S. Soccer financial reports hint at a richer future involving the team: The federation’s budget projections for 2016 include $2.3 million for a 10-game victory tour after this summer’s Olympics.March 31st, 2016
The Channel Islands’ island fox’s population rebounded after invasive mammals that competed with it for food were eradicated from the islands. (Rory Stansbury / Island Conservation)
By Sean Greene
LA Times Published March 23, 2016
In 1894, a pregnant house cat escaped from a lighthouse on Stephens Island, New Zealand. She had her kittens in the wild, where they went feral. Within 13 months, a native bird species known as the Stephen Islands wren was nearly extinct.
It’s a story often cited as an extreme – and by some accounts exaggerated – example of the damage that invasive mammals can do to delicate island ecosystems.
But the plot is hardly unusual. On islands where native species evolved with no natural predators, intruders like rodents, feral cats and goats can quickly outcompete or even eat the locals.
Islands are home to 15% of the world’s terrestrial species, but they represent 61% of recorded extinctions, experts say. Invasive species usually were a factor.
Now a new study is making the case for a tried-and-true method of staving off this island extinction “crisis”: Get rid of the invasive mammals.
“We spend billions of dollars a year on conservation … but you can help a lot of the world’s biodiversity by removing” these invasive animals, said study leader Holly Jones, a conservation biologist at Northern Illinois University. “In terms of gain per dollar spent … it’s a pretty darn good return on investment.”
Jones led a team of 29 scientists who reviewed hundreds of mammal eradication projects on 181 islands. In 251 such efforts over several decades, 236 native species got a boost when the uninvited guests were removed from the habitat. Only seven species suffered after the invasive species were removed, according to results published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“This paper is a story of hope,” said co-author Nick Holmes, director of science for Island Conservation, a nonprofit organization that uses this approach to try to prevent extinctions. “Here’s an intervention that we can see an impact within a lifetime. It’s a reason to celebrate.”
The study looked back on eradication projects since the 1970s and ‘80s, when some of the first techniques were developed for removing invasive mammals. The study also included a 1925 effort to remove the feral descendants of the Stephens Island lighthouse keeper’s cat, which came too late for the wren but aided the recovery of the fairy prion bird and a nocturnal reptile called the tuatara.
The analysis includes the eight countries with the most eradications – New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, Seychelles, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Mexico. Cases in these countries represent 82% of all invasive mammal eradications around the world.
Of the 236 species that benefited, 62 started out as “endangered” or “vulnerable” and 20 others were categorized as “near threatened” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List.” Four of those 62 improved enough to qualify for down-listing on the organization’s endangered list.
Among them was the island fox of California’s Channel Islands, which had been listed as critically endangered. Feral cats were competing with island foxes for food.
On San Nicolas Island, scientists, the U.S. Navy and Island Conservation painstakingly trapped and relocated the islands’ cats, and by 2012, the island was seemingly cat-free. In addition, the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy removed feral pigs from Santa Cruz Island. The foxes bounced back, and officials are now considering removing the island fox from the federal endangered species list.
On nearby Anacapa Island, the Scripps’ murrelet – a tiny, rare sea bird – was a candidate for listing on the federal Endangered Species Act. Black rats, which got there by stowing away on ships, were eating the birds’ eggs. Rat removal began in the early 2000s, and the murrelet’s numbers rebounded almost immediately.
Ten years later, another bird considered long gone reappeared on the island: the endangered ashy storm-petrel.
There were a few cases where efforts backfired, including times when native birds of prey experienced temporary population declines due to eating poisoned rats.
There were also examples where native birds had come to rely on the invasive rabbits and baby goats for their food. Once the intruders were gone, some of the bird populations became permanently smaller, Jones said.
While the study highlights the importance of removing harmful invasive species from islands, it’s just as important to make sure the interlopers don’t come back after multi-million-dollar eradication efforts, Jones and Holmes said.
On the Channel Islands and those around New Zealand, for example, officials take strict biosecurity measures to prevent invasive species – especially rats – from hitching rides onto the islands. In New Zealand, visitors must unpack all their belongings in rodent-proof rooms and on some islands, including Anacapa, pass through tunnels lined with rat traps when they land.
Holmes said the results should encourage similar projects on other affected islands.
“There’s thousands of islands that we know have threatened species and continue to have invasive mammals,” he said. “If we want to prevent these species from going extinct, we have to do these interventions in pretty quick clip.”March 23rd, 2016
For thousands of years, sailors in the Marshall Islands have navigated vast distances of open ocean without instruments. Can science explain their method before it’s lost forever?
Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
By KIM TINGLEY
NY Times Published: MARCH 17, 2016
At 0400, three miles above the Pacific seafloor, the searchlight of a power boat swept through a warm June night last year, looking for a second boat, a sailing canoe. The captain of the canoe, Alson Kelen, potentially the world’s last-ever apprentice in the ancient art of wave-piloting, was trying to reach Aur, an atoll in the Marshall Islands, without the aid of a GPS device or any other way-finding instrument. If successful, he would prove that one of the most sophisticated navigational techniques ever developed still existed and, he hoped, inspire efforts to save it from extinction. Monitoring his progress from the power boat were an unlikely trio of Western scientists — an anthropologist, a physicist and an oceanographer — who were hoping his journey might help them explain how wave pilots, in defiance of the dizzying complexities of fluid dynamics, detect direction and proximity to land. More broadly, they wondered if watching him sail, in the context of growing concerns about the neurological effects of navigation-by-smartphone, would yield hints about how our orienteering skills influence our sense of place, our sense of home, even our sense of self.
When the boats set out in the afternoon from Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, Kelen’s plan was to sail through the night and approach Aur at daybreak, to avoid crashing into its reef in the dark. But around sundown, the wind picked up and the waves grew higher and rounder, sorely testing both the scientists’ powers of observation and the structural integrity of the canoe. Through the salt-streaked windshield of the power boat, the anthropologist, Joseph Genz, took mental field notes — the spotlighted whitecaps, the position of Polaris, his grip on the cabin handrail — while he waited for Kelen to radio in his location or, rather, what he thought his location was.
The Marshalls provide a crucible for navigation: 70 square miles of land, total, comprising five islands and 29 atolls, rings of coral islets that grew up around the rims of underwater volcanoes millions of years ago and now encircle gentle lagoons. These green dots and doughnuts make up two parallel north-south chains, separated from their nearest neighbors by a hundred miles on average. Swells generated by distant storms near Alaska, Antarctica, California and Indonesia travel thousands of miles to these low-lying spits of sand. When they hit, part of their energy is reflected back out to sea in arcs, like sound waves emanating from a speaker; another part curls around the atoll or island and creates a confused chop in its lee. Wave-piloting is the art of reading — by feel and by sight — these and other patterns. Detecting the minute differences in what, to an untutored eye, looks no more meaningful than a washing-machine cycle allows a ri-meto, a person of the sea in Marshallese, to determine where the nearest solid ground is — and how far off it lies — long before it is visible.
In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan, searching for a new route to the nutmeg and cloves of the Spice Islands, sailed through the Pacific Ocean and named it ‘‘the peaceful sea’’ before he was stabbed to death in the Philippines. Only 18 of his 270 men survived the trip. When subsequent explorers, despite similar travails, managed to make landfall on the countless islands sprinkled across this expanse, they were surprised to find inhabitants with nary a galleon, compass or chart. God had created them there, the explorers hypothesized, or perhaps the islands were the remains of a sunken continent. As late as the 1960s, Western scholars still insisted that indigenous methods of navigating by stars, sun, wind and waves were not nearly accurate enough, nor indigenous boats seaworthy enough, to have reached these tiny habitats on purpose.
Archaeological and DNA evidence (and replica voyages) have since proved that the Pacific islands were settled intentionally — by descendants of the first humans to venture out of sight of land, beginning some 60,000 years ago, from Southeast Asia to the Solomon Islands. They reached the Marshall Islands about 2,000 years ago. The geography of the archipelago that made wave-piloting possible also made it indispensable as the sole means of collecting food, trading goods, waging war and locating unrelated sexual partners. Chiefs threatened to kill anyone who revealed navigational knowledge without permission. In order to become a ri-meto, you had to be trained by a ri-meto and then pass a voyaging test, devised by your chief, on the first try. As colonizers from Europe introduced easier ways to get around, the training of ri-metos declined and became restricted primarily to an outlying atoll called Rongelap, where a shallow circular reef, set between ocean and lagoon, became the site of a small wave-piloting school.
In 1954, an American hydrogen-bomb test less than a hundred miles away rendered Rongelap uninhabitable. Over the next decades, no new ri-metos were recognized; when the last well-known one died in 2003, he left a 55-year-old cargo-ship captain named Korent Joel, who had trained at Rongelap as a boy, the effective custodian of their people’s navigational secrets. Because of the radioactive fallout, Joel had not taken his voyaging test and thus was not a true ri-meto. But fearing that the knowledge might die with him, he asked for and received historic dispensation from his chief to train his younger cousin, Alson Kelen, as a wave pilot.
Now, in the lurching cabin of the power boat, Genz worried about whether Kelen knew what he was doing. Because Kelen was not a ri-meto, social mores forced him to insist that he was not navigating but kajjidede, or guessing. The sea was so rough tonight, Genz thought, that even for Joel, picking out a route would be like trying to hear a whisper in a gale. A voyage with this level of navigational difficulty had never been undertaken by anyone who was not a ri-meto or taking his test to become one. Genz steeled himself for the possibility that he might have to intervene for safety’s sake, even if this was the best chance that he and his colleagues might ever get to unravel the scientific mysteries of wave-piloting — and Kelen’s best chance to rally support for preserving it. Organizing this trip had cost $72,000 in research grants, a fortune in the Marshalls.
The radio crackled. ‘‘Jebro, Jebro, this is Jitdam,’’ Kelen said. ‘‘Do you copy? Over.’’
Genz swallowed. The cabin’s confines, together with the boat’s diesel odors, did nothing to allay his motion sickness. ‘‘Copy that,’’ he said. ‘‘Do you know where you are?’’
Though mankind has managed to navigate itself across the globe and into outer space, it has done so in defiance of our innate way-finding capacities (not to mention survival instincts), which are still those of forest-dwelling homebodies. Other species use far more sophisticated cognitive methods to orient themselves. Dung beetles follow the Milky Way; the Cataglyphis desert ant dead-reckons by counting its paces; monarch butterflies, on their thousand-mile, multigenerational flight from Mexico to the Rocky Mountains, calculate due north using the position of the sun, which requires accounting for the time of day, the day of the year and latitude; honeybees, newts, spiny lobsters, sea turtles and many others read magnetic fields. Last year, the fact of a ‘‘magnetic sense’’ was confirmed when Russian scientists put reed warblers in a cage that simulated different magnetic locations and found that the warblers always tried to fly ‘‘home’’ relative to whatever the programmed coordinates were. Precisely how the warblers detected these coordinates remains unclear. As does, for another example, the uncanny capacity of godwits to hatch from their eggs in Alaska and, alone, without ever stopping, take off for French Polynesia. Clearly they and other long-distance migrants inherit a mental map and the ability to constantly recalibrate it. What it looks like in their mind’s eye, however, and how it is maintained day and night, across thousands of miles, is still a mystery.
Efforts to scientifically deduce the neurological underpinnings of navigational abilities in humans and other species arguably began in 1948. An American psychologist named Edward Tolman made the heretical assertion that rats, until then regarded as mere slaves to behavioral reinforcement or punishment, create ‘‘cognitive maps’’ of their habitat. Tolman let rats accustom themselves to a maze with food at the end; then, leaving the food in the same spot, he rearranged the walls to introduce shortcuts — which the rodents took to reach the reward. This suggested that their sampling of various routes had given them a picture of the maze as a whole. Tolman hypothesized that humans have cognitive maps, too, and that they are not just spatial but social. ‘‘Broad cognitive maps,’’ he posited, lead to empathy, while narrow ones lead to ‘‘dangerous hates of outsiders,’’ ranging from ‘‘discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.’’ Indeed, anthropologists today, especially those working in the Western Pacific, are increasingly aware of the potential ways in which people’s physical environment — and how they habitually move through it — may shape their social relationships and how those ties may in turn influence their orienteering.
The cognitive map is now understood to have its own physical location, as a collection of electrochemical firings in the brain. In 1971, John O’Keefe, a neuroscientist at University College London, and a colleague reported that it had been pinpointed in the limbic system, an evolutionarily primitive region largely responsible for our emotional lives — specifically, within the hippocampus, an area where memories form. When O’Keefe implanted electrodes in rats’ hippocampuses and measured their neural activity as they traveled through a maze, he detected ‘‘place cells’’ firing to mark their positions. In 1984, James B. Ranck Jr., a physiologist at the State University of New York, identified cells in an adjacent part of the brain that became active depending on the direction a rat’s head was pointing — here was a kind of compass. And in 2005, building on these discoveries, Edvard and May-Britt Moser, neuroscientists at the Kavil Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Norway, found that our brains overlay our surroundings with a pattern of triangles. Any time we reach an apex of one, a ‘‘grid cell’’ in an area of the brain in constant dialogue with the hippocampus delineates our position relative to the rest of the matrix. In 2014, O’Keefe and the Mosers shared a Nobel Prize for their discoveries of this ‘‘inner GPS’’ that constantly and subconsciously computes location.
The discovery that human orientation takes place in memory’s seat — researchers have long known that damage to the hippocampus can cause amnesia — has raised the tantalizing prospect of a link between the two. In the late 1990s, Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at University College London, began studying London taxi drivers, who must memorize the city’s complex layout to obtain a license. Eventually, she showed that when cabbies frequently access and revise their cognitive map, parts of their hippocampuses become larger; when they retire, those parts shrink. By contrast, following a sequence of directional instructions, as we do when using GPS, does not activate the hippocampus at all, according to work done by Veronique Bohbot, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University.
Bohbot and others are now trying to determine what effect, if any, the repeated bypassing of this region of the brain might be having on us. The hippocampus is one of the first areas disrupted by Alzheimer’s disease, an early symptom of which is disorientation; shrinkage in the hippocampus and neighboring regions appears to increase the risk of depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. On the other hand, the taxi drivers who exercised their hippocampuses so much that parts of them changed size were worse at other memory tasks — and their performance on those improved after they retired. Few of us spend all day every day navigating, however, as cabbies do, and Maguire doubts that our GPS use is extreme enough to transform our gray matter.
What seems clear is that our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future. And though our sense of direction often feels innate, it may develop — and perhaps be modified — in a region of the brain called the retrosplenial cortex, next to the hippocampus, which becomes active when we investigate and judge the permanence of landmarks. In 2012, Maguire and co-authors published their finding that an accurate understanding of whether a landmark is likely to stay put separates good navigators from poor ones, who are as apt to take cues from an idling delivery truck as a church steeple. The retrosplenial cortex passes our decisions about the stability of objects to the hippocampus, where their influence on way-finding intersects with other basic cognitive skills that, like memory, are as crucial to identity as to survival.
Recently, Maguire and colleagues proposed a new unified theory of the hippocampus, imagining it not as a repository for disparate memories and directions but as a constructor of scenes that incorporate both. (Try to recall a moment from your past or picture a future one without visualizing yourself in the physical space where that moment happens.) Edvard and May-Britt Moser have similarly hypothesized that our ability to time-travel mentally evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, and that the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story. ‘‘In the same way that an infinite number of paths can connect the origin and endpoint of a journey,’’ Edvard Moser and another co-author wrote in a 2013 paper, ‘‘a recalled story can be told in many ways, connecting the beginning and the end through innumerable variations.’’
Disorientation is always stressful, and before modern civilization, it was often a death sentence. Sometimes it still is. But recent studies have shown that people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost — assuming, of course, that you are eventually found — has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective. From that standpoint, the greatest threat posed by GPS might be that we never do not know exactly where we are.
Genz took his thumb off the radio receiver’s talk button and waited for Kelen’s reply. He could make out on deck John Huth, a Harvard physicist and member of the international team that discovered the Higgs boson particle, vomiting volubly off the port side. The last time Genz checked, Gerbrant van Vledder, an oceanographer at Delft University in the Netherlands, one of the world’s foremost institutions for wave modeling, was huddled miserably behind the abandoned galley, where a lone cabbage thudded against the walls of the sink. Compounding their digestive distress, a booby, ignoring the limitations of its webbed feet, had crash-landed on the deck, barring the men’s access to the head. Sometimes Genz felt that all his decade of research on wave-piloting had taught him was that he could never hope to predict what might go wrong next.
Genz met Alson Kelen and Korent Joel in Majuro in 2005, when Genz was 28. A soft-spoken, freckled Wisconsinite and former Peace Corps volunteer who grew up sailing with his father, Genz was then studying for a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Hawaii. His adviser there, Ben Finney, was an anthropologist who helped lead the voyage of Hokulea, a replica Polynesian sailing canoe, from Hawaii to Tahiti and back in 1976; the success of the trip, which involved no modern instrumentation and was meant to prove the efficacy of indigenous ships and navigational methods, stirred a resurgence of native Hawaiian language, music, hula and crafts. Joel and Kelen dreamed of a similar revival for Marshallese sailing — the only way, they figured, for wave-piloting to endure — and contacted Finney for guidance. But Finney was nearing retirement, so he suggested that Genz go in his stead. With their chief’s blessing, Joel and Kelen offered Genz rare access, with one provision: He would not learn wave-piloting himself; he would simply document Kelen’s training.
Joel immediately asked Genz to bring scientists to the Marshalls who could help Joel understand the mechanics of the waves he knew only by feel — especially one called di lep, or backbone, the foundation of wave-piloting, which (in ri-meto lore) ran between atolls like a road. Joel’s grandfather had taught him to feel the di lep at the Rongelap reef: He would lie on his back in a canoe, blindfolded, while the old man dragged him around the coral, letting him experience how it changed the movement of the waves.
But when Joel took Genz out in the Pacific on borrowed yachts and told him they were encountering the di lep, he couldn’t feel it. Kelen said he couldn’t, either. When oceanographers from the University of Hawaii came to look for it, their equipment failed to detect it. The idea of a wave-road between islands, they told Genz, made no sense.
Privately, Genz began to fear that the di lep was imaginary, that wave-piloting was already extinct. On one research trip in 2006, when Korent Joel went below deck to take a nap, Genz changed the yacht’s course. When Joel awoke, Genz kept Joel away from the GPS device, and to the relief of them both, Joel directed the boat toward land. Later, he also passed his ri-meto test, judged by his chief, with Genz and Kelen crewing.
Worlds away, Huth, a worrier by nature, had become convinced that preserving mankind’s ability to way-find without technology was not just an abstract mental exercise but also a matter of life and death. In 2003, while kayaking alone in Nantucket Sound, fog descended, and Huth — spring-loaded and boyish, with a near-photographic memory — found his way home using local landmarks, the wind and the direction of the swells. Later, he learned that two young undergraduates, out paddling in the same fog, had become disoriented and drowned. This prompted him to begin teaching a class on primitive navigation techniques. When Huth met Genz at an academic conference in 2012 and described the methodology of his search for the Higgs boson and dark energy — subtracting dominant wave signals from a field, until a much subtler signal appears underneath — Genz told him about the di lep, and it captured Huth’s imagination. If it was real, and if it really ran back and forth between islands, its behavior was unknown to physics and would require a supercomputer to model. That a person might be able to sense it bodily amid the cacophony generated by other ocean phenomena was astonishing.
Huth began creating possible di lep simulations in his free time and recruited van Vledder’s help. Initially, the most puzzling detail of Genz’s translation of Joel’s description was his claim that the di lep connected each atoll and island to all 33 others. That would yield a trillion trillion paths, far too many for even the most adept wave pilot to memorize. Most of what we know about ocean waves and currents — including what will happen to coastlines as climate change leads to higher sea levels (of special concern to the low-lying Netherlands and Marshall Islands) — comes from models that use global wind and bathymetry data to simulate what wave patterns probably look like at a given place and time. Our understanding of wave mechanics, on which those models are based, is wildly incomplete. To improve them, experts must constantly check their assumptions with measurements and observations. Perhaps, Huth and van Vledder thought, there were di leps in every ocean, invisible roads that no one was seeing because they didn’t know to look.
Early last year, Genz and Kelen, grants in hand, saw a chance to show Huth and van Vledder the di lep. Kelen is the director of Waan Aelon in Majel, or Canoes of The Marshall Islands, a nonprofit organization that teaches students to build canoes using traditional methods and modern materials. If the students hurried, the first sailing canoe to be built in the Marshalls in decades — the Jitdam Kapeel, which can be roughly translated as ‘‘the sharing of knowledge’’ — could be ready by summer’s sailing season. Kelen’s goal is for his students to build, staff and maintain a fleet that will transport goods and passengers between atolls and islets without using fossil fuels. Despite the expectation that the Marshalls will be one of the first countries to disappear beneath rising seas, Kelen envisions a renaissance of sailing: a means for his students to reclaim their heritage while creating jobs that don’t contribute to their own destruction.
Huth and van Vledder bought plane tickets to Majuro while Genz and Kelen made arrangements for the journey. At the last minute, Joel’s leg became infected, and Kelen offered to pilot in his place. The scientists embraced this new plan: Talking with Joel before and after, they figured, would be almost as useful as having him onboard.
Soon after arriving, they visited him at home, where he was confined to bed, and eagerly showed him their maps and simulations while posing detailed queries about various properties of the di lep. Although this was the scientific investigation Joel had been pushing for, he seemed reluctant to respond. He asked Huth and van Vledder if they believed in the di lep; they still weren’t sure, they replied. Holding a rudimentary map that Huth had made of wave frequencies between Majuro and Aur, the captain traced a shaded region with his finger. ‘‘Di lep here,’’ he said.
The next afternoon, Kelen and his five-man crew set out for Aur. A breeze rattled the palms, blowing the Jitdam past a fleet of slumbering cargo ships anchored in the lagoon. The power boat Jebro puttered in pursuit. At the mouth of the opening between islets into the Pacific, the setting sun threw a flickering train on the water. ‘‘Now we get the truth,’’ Huth cried, thrusting a sextant toward the sky. ‘‘The moment of reckoning!’’
Twelve hours later, Huth was seasick, bent over the deck rail, to which he had bound himself with a harness and tether. ‘‘If anyone said the di lep was subtle, they were wrong,’’ he said, wiping his mouth. Nevertheless, he was doggedly recording on the hour the boat’s GPS coordinates, the wind speed and direction and his observations of the waves in a waterproof notebook. This data would allow him to map the journey with wind and wave details at each coordinate; van Vledder could later add wind data collected by satellite and local bathymetry, using programs written at Delft, to create a computer model of the seas they were currently in.
In the cabin, Genz heard Kelen’s voice on the radio again. Kelen could see the lights of the Jebro behind him, he said, and he thought they were about 10 miles east of Aur. Because they were approaching its reef too fast, his plan was to overshoot it, then look for it to his west after sunrise. Genz glanced at the boat’s GPS device and realized that Kelen, over the last decade, might have learned more than he had ever let on. He wanted to shout congratulations.
‘‘Copy that,’’ he said instead.
The sky grew lighter, revealing more sky, a flock of seabirds fishing and, finally, far ahead, the canoe, battered but intact, struggling to head downwind. After getting a brief tow from the Jebro, it reached Aur under its own power. An empty beach came into view, then children running on it. ‘‘This is feeling like an adventurer,’’ van Vledder said. ‘‘Coming to a new place, and people out to welcome you.’’
The entire village was waiting in a palm-frond-thatched pavilion, having been alerted by ham radio. A woman put leis around the necks of the sailors and scientists as they entered. The community had piled a long table with lobster, fish, breadfruit, plantains and rice balls with coconut. The acting chief of the island made a speech. He said the local children had never seen a sailing canoe before. The islanders wanted to learn to build them again; they had only one motorboat, and gasoline there cost more per gallon than most of them made in a month of selling fish and handicrafts in Majuro.
Two mornings later, Kelen stood outside a cinder-block schoolhouse on Aur that the chief had offered as a dormitory, looking up at an overcast sky and weighing again — as he had when he first met Genz — how much of his knowledge to share in order to keep it alive. Now in his late 40s and newly a grandfather, he had lived his early childhood on the atoll nearest Rongelap, Bikini, where the hydrogen bomb and dozens of other nuclear weapons were exploded. Later, as part of a program to test the effects of radiation on humans, American officials told the people from Bikini and Rongelap that their islands were safe to resettle, so they returned for several years. During this period, Kelen’s father taught him to sail in a traditional canoe made by Kelen’s grandfather. When Kelen was 10, the Americans finally evacuated the islanders to Kili, an uninhabited island bedeviled on all sides by violent ocean swells too rough for the canoe, which rotted away.
Eventually, Kelen’s parents moved to Majuro, home to half of the nation’s 50,000 citizens — an urban hub compared with the outer islands. They sent Kelen, a top student, to boarding school in Honolulu. There, when he was 19, he went with his class down to the docks to watch the world-famous Hokulea return from a trip to New Zealand. Later, he came back to Majuro as a young man and dedicated himself to the preservation of fading skills, like weaving and canoe-building. But he felt tremendous ambivalence about what gaining resources to preserve his culture, or any native culture, seemed to require: allowing outsiders, whether academics or reporters, to commodify it. Secrecy and hands-on training is integral to the tradition of wave-piloting; explaining the di lep would disrupt those features of it even while immortalizing it in books and journals, perhaps inspiring more Marshallese children to become ri-metos.
The tide was on its way out as the sailors and scientists began to load up for the 70-mile journey back to Majuro. The villagers sang again and prayed for their safe return. They laid another feast and stocked the canoe with provisions, packed in woven pandanus baskets, and handicrafts, including a toy sailing canoe, a perfect imitation, small and light as a bird. Until now, because his crew and canoe were untested, Kelen had deemed it unsafe to have any passengers aboard the Jitdam. One more person could fit, however, and he invited me on board.
‘‘Youp, youp,’’ called Binton Daniel, the master builder who had supervised the construction of the Jitdam, and the sail shot up. The sailors waved in overhead arcs at the people on the beach. The people waved back. Gradually, the sound of swells rushing against the coral rim of the lagoon grew louder. With a thunk, the bottom of the canoe hit the top of the reef and slid across, and we were out in open water.
Daniel eased the mainsheet and let the boom swing out. The first mate, Jason Ralpho, a stern-looking man in gray socks who worked with Kelen at the Ports Authority, and Ejnar Aerok, a plump, professional karaoke singer, secured the line to a cleat. The youngest, Elmi Juonran, lifted a lid off one of two hatches and, muttering, disappeared to boil water for ramen in a big silver teakettle. ‘‘He says he’s the only one who knows the password to these doors,’’ Kelen said. Juonran’s cousin, Sear Helios, named for the department store his parents visited on a trip to Honolulu, steered from the stern of the canoe with a 50-pound wooden paddle.
Kelen leaned back against the mast and looked at the front of the outrigger float and the back, estimating our speed. He checked his wristwatch. The wind was coming from the northeast, and the current, he said, would take us farther east that night. Ostensibly, he was dead-reckoning — to do that you must know where you started, where you’re going, how fast you’re moving and in what direction. Wave-piloting, if Genz, Huth and van Vledder are right, is more precise; theoretically, a wave-pilot, dropped blindfolded into a boat in Marshallese waters, could follow a set of seamarks — waves of a particular shape — alone to land.
‘‘Majuro should be that way,’’ Kelen said, pointing. ‘‘I’m closing my eyes and looking at the wind. This is a very short distance. Again, I’m only a student. I’m entitled to a few mistakes.’’
Swells glided, smooth and gentle, beneath us. Sunset cracked yolk on a puffy lavender sky. The horizon appeared infinite and also very near, as if we had fallen into a mixing bowl. Around us, the crew faded into shadow. Ralpho lit a cigarette, and its tip burned orange in the dark. The sail luffed.
‘‘This is kind of scary smooth,’’ Kelen said. ‘‘Does it feel like we’re moving anywhere? That’s not good. We have to move or we’ll drift away from the islands.’’ Yet he didn’t sound worried. We lay back. The sky was foggy with stars.
As a young man, Kelen said, he spent some time on the West Coast, picking strawberries in Oregon, working in a turkey plant, then driving a Rent Town USA truck up and down Highway 101. He described long days of sweet berries, of cutting the necks of birds, of truck-stop sloppy Joes and giant cups of coffee. We lost sight of the Jebro and missed three call-ins. Kelen could still remember fishing as a child on Bikini, its long white beaches. In his memory, everyone there was happy. Periodically, a government ship brought provisions, and men in white lab coats tested him and the other islanders with a huge machine. When the ship came to take them away for good, Kelen thought they were going for a ride.
Aerok began to sing in a high, lonely tenor. Ralpho added baritone harmony. ‘‘It’s kind of like a country-music song,’’ Kelen said. ‘‘ ‘I see you as beautiful as a sunset, and I cry when I leave the beach that you stand on.’ It’s kind of like a sailors’ leaving-home song. It’s a song when you start singing it, everyone knows it.’’
I closed my eyes. The sounds of the canoe — creaking, sloshing, rippling — traced its shape like fingers moving over a face in the dark.
I awoke to Aerok and Juonran singing about Majuro, another sad song. The sky spilled radiance onto the water. Beside me, Kelen was awake, too. ‘‘Every time I look up at heaven, I wonder, How many Earths are out there?’’ he said. ‘‘How many planets like ours? There’s millions of galaxies. There must be something.’’
We saw one star drop, then another. ‘‘Every time I see a falling star, I make a wish and I don’t tell nobody,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t believe very many things, but this is something that makes me feel good, even if it isn’t true.’’
By 9:30 the next morning, the sun was high and the sailors had grown quiet. Kelen rested his shoulder against the mast, peering into the distance. If we didn’t see Majuro by 10, he said, the current had pushed us too far to the west. At 9:50, Juonran pointed, and everyone else followed his finger to the faintest of tints on the horizon. Kelen swatted him on the butt. The sailors laughed.
‘‘Another good guess,’’ Kelen said to me.
All maps are but representations of reality: They render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships — the proximity of one subway stop to another, say — that are invisible to the naked eye. If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, arose from navigating, so, too, is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity.
‘‘When I was young, we had canoes,’’ Kelen told me one afternoon on Aur. ‘‘We didn’t have TVs. In evening time, my father would open his arm, like this, and say lie there,’’ he tapped the inside of his elbow, ‘‘and he would tell me the legends of sailing. Some people have those heroes, like Superman, and they’re picturing they are Superman. When my dad talked about sailing, I was on that canoe.’’
To teach way-finding, the Marshallese use stick charts, wood frames crosshatched like dream catchers to represent swells coming from four cardinal directions, with shells woven in to symbolize the position of the atolls. These meant nothing to the first European explorers to see them, just as Mercator projections meant nothing to the Marshallese. Even today, local schoolchildren visiting the historical museum in Majuro are sometimes baffled when they’re told that the blue and green pictures on the walls are pictures of where they are.
If ‘‘where’’ is both subjective and physical, what do you need to know, precisely, to figure out where you are? From the moment our nomad ancestors wandered out of Africa until a few decades ago, locating yourself required interacting in some way with the environment: following the stars or a migrating herd of wildebeests, even reading a compass or a street sign. Then, in the time it took to transition from rotary phones to smartphones, we became the first unnatural long-distance migrants, followers of step-by-step instructions that obviated the need to look around at all. Over the last several years, organizations like the United States military and the Federal Aviation Administration have expressed concern about their overwhelming reliance on GPS and the possibility that the network’s satellite signals could be sabotaged by an enemy or disabled by a strong solar flare. The United States Naval Academy has once again begun training midshipmen how to take their position from the stars with a sextant.
As researchers urgently explore what GPS is doing to our minds, wave-piloting — a technique that seems to involve the subtlest environmental cues a person can detect — is slipping, virtually unnoticed, from human consciousness. Even if Huth and van Vledder could figure out how it worked, they admitted, it didn’t mean they could feel it or teach others how to do so.
Back on Majuro, they spent several days typing notes and crunching data, barely emerging from their rooms. Huth created a preliminary map of the route and approximate wind and sea conditions to show Korent Joel to see if he could identify a pattern that might be the di lep. But when they arrived at his home again, they learned that he had checked into the hospital the previous afternoon. Several weeks later, he was flown to Honolulu, where surgeons determined that his leg was gangrenous and amputated it below the knee. In his absence, Kelen and Genz helped Huth and van Vledder quiz Joel’s Rongelapese uncle for stray clues to di lep’s features, but nothing they recognized as epiphanies.
Until November, when van Vledder visited Cambridge, Mass., where he and Huth sequestered themselves in Huth’s office. As they mapped the coordinates Huth had recorded atop van Vledder’s model of sea conditions, they found that the path they had taken was exactly perpendicular to a dominant eastern swell flowing between Majuro and Aur. And at places where the swell, influenced by the surrounding atolls, turned slightly northeast or southeast, the path bent to match. It was a curve. Everyone had assumed that a wave called ‘‘backbone’’ would look like one. ‘‘But nobody said the di lep is a straight line,’’ van Vledder said.
What if, they conjectured, the ‘‘road’’ isn’t a single wave reflecting back and forth between every possible combination of atolls and islands; what if it is the path you take if you keep your vessel at 90 degrees to the strongest swell flowing between neighboring bodies of land? Position your broadside correctly, smack in the di lep’s path, and your hull would rock symmetrically, side to side — in a manner that would turn a loose cabbage into a pendulum and teach an anthropologist, a physicist and an oceanographer a hard lesson about the human gastrointestinal system’s adaptation to life at sea. In other words, it was as Joel’s uncle had, it turned out, told them: The di lep feels like pidodo, diarrhea. We might have been riding it all along.March 19th, 2016