High Explosive for Everyone

Madrid, 1937:

Then for a moment it stops. An old woman, with a shawl over her shoulders, holding a terrified thin little boy by the hand, runs out into the square. You know what she is thinking: she is thinking she must get the child home, you are always safer in your own place, with the things you know. Somehow you do not believe you can get killed when you are sitting in your own parlor, you never think that. She is in the middle of the square when the next one comes.

A Last Whiff of Fulton's Fish, Bringing a Tear

On the closing of New York’s Fulton Fish Market.

It smells of truck exhaust and fish guts. Of glistening skipjacks and smoldering cigarettes; fluke, salmon and Joe Tuna's cigar. Of Canada, Florida, and the squid-ink East River. Of funny fish-talk riffs that end with profanities spat onto the mucky pavement, there to mix with coffee spills, beer blessings, and the flowing melt of sea-scented ice. This fragrance of fish and man pinpoints one place in the New York vastness: a small stretch of South Street where peddlers have sung the song of the catch since at least 1831, while all around them, change. They were hawking fish here when an ale house called McSorley's opened up; when a presidential aspirant named Lincoln spoke at Cooper Union; when the building of a bridge to Brooklyn ruined their upriver view.

Vodka Nation

How the spirit became a billion-dollar business.

Michael Roper, owner of Chicago’s Hopleaf bar and restaurant, recalls what bartending was like in the early seventies. While Smirnoff was considered top shelf, he remembers lesser varieties such as Nikolai, Arrow, Wolfschmidt, and another brand that was then ubiquitous called Mohawk. “Mohawk was cheap, cheap, cheap,” Roper remembers. “Mohawk had a factory just outside Detroit along the expressway and .  .  . all their products were made there. It’s almost like they turned a switch—whiskey, vodka, gin. And it was all junk.” Still, by 1976, vodka had surpassed bourbon and whiskey as the most popular spirit in America. Roper attributes vodka’s rise partially to women, who started drinking more spirits and ordering them on their own: “Women were not going to like Scotch—that was for cigar-smoking burly men,” he speculates. “And .  .  . it was unladylike to drink Kentucky whiskey. But it was considered somewhat ladylike to have a fancy cocktail with an olive in it.” He also remembers when a salesman first brought Miller Lite into his bar, explaining “it’s for women.” In a similar vein, Roper considers vodka a low-calorie option with “a less challenging flavor.”

Balanced Diets

On the history and study of pica:

Indeed, we have long defined ourselves and others by what we do and do not eat, from kashrut dietary restrictions described in Leviticus to the naming of Comanche bands (Kotsoteka—buffalo eaters, Penateka—honey eaters, Tekapwai—no meat) to insults—French frogs, English limeys, German krauts. But poya seemed to beg a different question: what was one to make of people who ate food that wasn’t food at all?

The Ghost of Wrath

Part one of a planned nine-part serialized biography of Harrison Gray Otis, the “inventor of modern Los Angeles.”

Future installments will include Otis’s interlude as “emperor of the Pribilofs,” his military atrocities in the Philippines, his bitter legal battles with the Theosophists, the Otis-Chandler empire in the Mexicali Valley, the Times bombing in 1910, the notorious discovery of fellatio in Long Beach, and Otis’s quixotic plan for world government.

John Demjanjuk: The Last Nazi

John Demjanjuk has had a huge year. Twenty years after being sentenced to die, he finally climbed to the pinnacle of the Wiesenthal Center's list of Nazi war criminals this April, shortly after the Germans filed the arrest warrant that allowed the OSI to put him on the jet to Munich.

Heartbreak Hotel

When Chicago’s Stevens Hotel opened in 1927, it was the biggest hotel in the world. By the time it was closed, it had bankrupted and caused the suicide of a member of the Stevens’ family (which included a seven-year-old future Justice John Paul Stevens), and changed the city forever.