Gangs Bang Green Fairies

New York’s gangs, Europe’s booze make a lethal mix.

The Gangs of New York By Herbert Asbury Arrow Press (1927/2002) 366 pages Despite the enormity of New York City, the universe is mostly empty. In proving this emptiness, physicists recognized something humanity had intuited for eons. And this empty universe is amoral. Philosophers who trained this emptiness inward were only theorizing a long-held suspicion. Natural disasters terrifically referred to as Acts of God, and inevitable tragedies of happenstance and wrong timing, are amoral occurrences, inexplicable processes shackled to unstoppable, directionless power. And the only moral force in the universe as we know it is us humans. As humans with the free will to question free will, we have evolved an awkwardly opposed idea: infamy. In specific usage: a strange popularity, an evil fame, an elevation of a somehow defensible villain. The infamous murderer seems somehow amoral, especially when murdering his own. The murder is expected and necessary. The murder affirms the existences of the murderer and the murdered, and anyway the murderer will eventually end up murdered himself. It is their inextricable fates. This reprinted volume of nonfiction (first published in 1927) by Herbert Asbury is set in a portion of this universe named Five Points – New York’s amoral heart. There, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, men like Monk Eastman – alias Joseph Morris, alias Joseph Marvin, alias Edward Delaney, alias William Delaney, alias Edward Eastman – leader of a gang of 1,200 men, split skulls and kept score. “I had forty-nine nicks in me stick, an’ I wanted to make it an even fifty,” he is reported to have said. Here women like Red Norah married dead husbands. Here occupations included horse-poisoning, election-rigging, pimping and Mikado tuck-ups. Here the supposed innocents, like the 10- and 11-year-old assassins of the Daybreak Boys, murder and are murdered with the apparent randomness, lack of sentiment and ruthless speed of nature herself. Here large gangs of large men wage savage war in overpopulated streets, tearing at each others’ faces in an ocean of flesh. This is all true, including the hyperbole. Such is the nature of infamy – it slips into the explanations and understandings archetype and myth provide. And infamy isn’t the only word defined. The appended glossary entitled “The Slang of Early Gangsters” includes words derived from English, Hibernian English, Gaelic, Yiddish, Italian and early Ebonics. A selection of words imparted meanings not found in Webster’s, or wholly invented, includes: Sam or the Bens, who are fools or idiots, and to snitchel the bloke’s gigg, which is to smash someone’s nose. As in, “Anyone who wouldn’t read The Gangs of New York is a Sam or one of the Bens, and someone should snitchel those blokes’ giggs.” Or in this more able example from the glossary, “He told Jack as how Bill had flimped a yack, and pinched a swell of a spark fawney, and had sent the yack to church, and got half a century and a finniff for the fawney.” The reason for this volume’s re-release (and it’s a pity one was necessary) is Martin Scorsese’s new film of the same title, due to arrive in Prague cinemas in May. A movie screen is flat, and movies are a flattening, a transference of a lived-in universe to an empty rectangle suspended in the void. Film as a medium, no matter plot structure or shot sequence, is inherently linear. Each present image immediately renders null the previous image, which itself replaced, and warrants, its previous image. I’m eager to see the filmed version, for the very reason that Asbury’s personalities are each an individual flat image, a proposal or role, and their lives seem a mere moment. Asbury’s gangsters were molded into destinies, into honors and tribal lines they died for, hopefully leaving someone else, through their seed or their loyalty, to replace them. The Dedalus Book of Absinthe By Phil Baker Dedalus (2003) 296 pages It’s for export only. Who would want it here? Absinthe – and you haven’t heard it here first, folks – is a lie. It’s shit. And it shits all over your mornings-after. It’s for Czechs to give to non-Czechs as presents and for tourists to haul home, wrapped safely in their suitcases, to set on their home liquor shelves and never open. Here are the facts: Wormwood (an imaginative derivation from the Anglo-Saxon wermode meaning “mind preserver”) – or more specifically, its active ingredient, thujone (or tanacetone) – makes absinthe hallucinogenic. Thujone, a terpene, is derived from thujone oil, distilled from Thuja occidentalis or white cedar, as well as from other trees of the arbor vitae phylum. Thujone is a near relation to menthol (the preferred smoke of hookers and German portfolio managers) and THC, Tetra-hydra-cannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis. Now the bad news: EU regulations, to which the Czech Republic voluntarily adheres, prohibit absinthe containing more than 10 parts of wormwood per million, or 10mg of the stuff per kilogram of alcohol, meaning if you drink enough you’ll end up fall-down drunk and not much more. The same effect – i.e., intoxication – can be obtained from scotch, rum, vodka and even the ubiquitous pivo. Absinthe hallucinations are for liars, tourists or wannabe Romantics. Sorry. Enter the nostalgia: Absinthe was once much, much stronger. In the Belle Epoque, the wormwood/alcohol ratio was more like 260-350 parts per million. Any schmuck with a paintbrush could do a few shots and paint Sunflowers. Any asshole with a fountain pen could write this line: “Absinthe, mere des bonheurs” (“Absinthe, mother of all happiness”) and dissipate into an early grave and posthumous fame. Still, as alcohol, absinthe is harsh, potent stuff. If only the booze went down as easily as the book. The Dedalus Book of Absinthe, ably written by Phil Baker, is a well-researched and entertaining wealth of fact and fancy, anecdotes and information about the Green Fairy (or Green Death or Green Ghost or Green anything). Interspersed with historical accounts of absinthe’s production and legislation are debauched accounts excerpted from the writings of famous debauchees, among them Hemingway, Picasso and Van Gogh. Also surveyed are the rituals of libation, including digressions on the appropriate hardware. Those who think a shot glass, a spoon, sugar and a lighter are sufficient for an interesting Saturday night are in for an education. Ever hear of mainlining pure wormwood? When you recover from that, you might want to have some green eggs and ham (of Dr. Seuss fame) for Sunday brunch – green eggs made green from absinthe, a recommended hangover remedy. The final section is a quirk, a taste-test of widely available absinthe brands. How’d the home team fare? Hill’s, the oldest and most reputable of Czech absinthes, scored a three out of five, as did the imaginatively named Prague. Sebor and King of Spirits each scored a four. I take the rankings with a grain of salt (or a spoonful of flaming sugar to make the medicine go down). Phil Baker, though an insightful writer, is a Brit, and we all know how they drink.

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