Las Casas

Two under-the-influence friends discuss a history of human violence.

"...for years and years they would do this, it’s all in the Las Casas, and for years and years Spanish soldiers were just like falling over themselves, they couldn’t believe it, just completely climbing over one another, trying to get out of their boats and get to their swords fast enough to get a quick, easy lead-off beheading of a holy tribal king without even thinking that maybe it might violate, oh, I don’t know, the entire Christian moral code or, that whole thing aside, that it might go against just obvious, timeless, and basic human good versus evil restraint, you know, something like that was around even with cavemen, the totally simple idea that maybe needlessly causing excruciating, savage, horrifying, life-ending pain to another being, to a brother, to somebody like yourself, might not be the thing you should do. They found their heaven and they turned it into a hell. On purpose."

Quite Likely the Worst Job Ever

The sewer hunters, or “toshers,” of 19th century London.

Knowing where to find the most valuable pieces of detritus was vital, and most toshers worked in gangs of three or four, led by a veteran who was frequently somewhere between 60 and 80 years old. These men knew the secret locations of the cracks that lay submerged beneath the surface of the sewer-waters, and it was there that cash frequently lodged.

Pafko At The Wall [Excerpt]

A fictionalized account of a moment in baseball history from a contemporary master of detailed Americana.

"Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe in some undetermined way. This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells -- the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in. This is the people's history and it has flesh and breath that quicken to the force of this old safe game of ours. And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren -- they'll be gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened."

Chris Bell: That Don't Get Him Back Again

Listening to the Big Star songwriter, who left the group before dying in a solo car crash at 27.

His voice, on the recordings, is too sensitive. That's meant not as an aesthetic judgment. It wasn't too sensitive for the material, in other words. It was too sensitive for life. You listen to him sing, closely, and if you don't know another thing about what happened to him, you know that the guy with that voice is not going to last.

Salesmen

A random conversation with a street salesman is not what it seems.

"I pass him every day. Melons, he is usually selling, although I've seen him with whole truckloads of other fruit, and in the fall with unshucked ears of corn. He has a lawn chair with an umbrella fixed over it. He sits and watches the traffic pass. Sometimes he stands with the forearms on the rim of the bed of his truck, looking out over his produce. There is something reassuring in his form. Maybe it is his placidity, the way he stands. Maybe it is because his produce always looks fresh and healthy. Seeing him means that the long hectic drive, with the traffic of the beltway and mad stop and start of the city, is almost done."

The Games We Play

A young man shares a conversation with a barfly.

"'I gotta story to tell,'a drunk said to Mike. His thick hands slathered in black, greasy paste, the drunk maintained his balance by propping his elbows onto the bar counter. 'You look like an upstanding fella and I think you’ll appreciate my story.' 'No thanks,' Mike said and sipped his beer. He frowned as he swallowed. 'I’m waiting for someone.'"

How Chicago House Got Its Groove Back

A look at Chicago’s DJ culture in the ’90s.

One day in 1997, Sneak promised his friend and fellow Chicago DJ Derrick Carter a new 12-inch for Carter's label Classic, then spent hours fruitlessly laboring over a basic, bustling four-four beat. Finally, Sneak gave in and smoked the J he'd had stashed for later in the day. When he came back inside, he carelessly dropped the needle onto a Teddy Pendergrass LP, heard the word "Well . . . ," and realized, "That's the sample, right there." He threaded Pendergrass's 20-year-old disco hit "You Can't Hide From Yourself" through a low-pass filter to give it the effect of going in and out of aural focus, creating one of the definitive Chicago house singles.

Sears – Where America Shopped

An uncertain future for the retailer.

"Sears was so powerful and so successful at one time that they could build the tallest building in the world that they did not need," says James Schrager, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. "The Sears Tower stands as a monument to how quickly fortunes can change in retailing, and as a very graphic example of what can go wrong if you don't 'watch the store' every minute of every day."

All Hail the Chairmen

On office chairs.

In the 1950s and '60s, the distinctions between rank found blunt expression in chair design, naming and price point; Knoll, for example, produced "Executive," "Advanced Management," and "Basic Operational" chairs in the late 1970s. Recall the archetypal scenes where the boss, back to the door, protected by an exaggerated, double-spine headrest, slowly swivels around to meet the eyes of his waiting subordinate, impotent in a stationary four-legger.

Ring My Bell

A history of the cell phone ringtone.

Many recent hip-hop songs make terrific ringtones because they already sound like ringtones. The polyphonic and master-tone versions of “Goodies,” by Ciara, for example, are nearly identical. Ringtones, it turns out, are inherently pop: musical expression distilled to one urgent, representative hook. As ringtones become part of our environment, they could push pop music toward new levels of concision, repetition, and catchiness.

The Mysterious Mr. Zedzed: The Wickedest Man in the World

Few men have acquired so scandalous a reputation as did Basil Zaharoff, alias Count Zacharoff, alias Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, known to his intimates as “Zedzed.” Born in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849, Zaharoff was a brothel tout, bigamist and arsonist, a benefactor of great universities and an intimate of royalty who reached his peak of infamy as an international arms dealer -- a “merchant of death,” as his many enemies preferred it.