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Welcome to the Party, Pal

One of the best single issues of a comic book I read last year was Dead Man’s Party #1, a fast-moving, lean and mean hit man thriller that contained some truly crazy surprises. A few months ago, I had the chance to meet the creators: Jeff Marsick and Scott Barnett. I’ll admit it. I was nervous. Part of me expected to be shot in the head by one of them, while the other spread out some nice plastic sheeting on the floor behind me to catch the splatter. Instead, we talked about life, death, comics, mistaken identities… and of course, grisly murder.

DS: Okay, Jeff and Scott. Let’s say you’re both hitmen. I offer each of you a contract to take out the other. Who would take home the paycheck, and who’d be pushing up daisies?

Scott: Jeff’s definitely bringing home the bacon here. He’s the one with military experience; I imagine he knows about seven different ways to kill me with his eyelid, if he wanted.

Jeff: Yeah, it’d be bad news for Scott and I’d be on the next flight to Vegas.  I was an expert marksman with a pistol and rifle in the military and have a fascination with explosives and poisons, so I’ve got an array of options for Scott’s disposal.  Then again, I do tend to sleep pretty hard so Scott could probably Columbian necktie me while I’m dreaming about winning an Eisner for DEAD MAN’S PARTY.  

I hate when I’m asked this question, but that’s not going to stop me from asking you guys. What, if anything, inspired DEAD MAN’S PARTY? Or are you two just sick, dark bastards?

Scott: That’s actually two separate questions, right?

Jeff: I don’t know, that second part sounds a little rhetorical. It’s like Duane already KNOWS.

Scott: The answer to that part is yes. Yes, we are.

Jeff: So there.

Scott: {laughs} Jeff and I have known each other for years and have spoken often about collaborating on something, but until DEAD MAN’S PARTY, nothing quite stuck. Then one day about a year ago, he e-mailed me and once more suggested a collaboration, quite coincidentally, ONE day after I came up with an idea about a hitman who puts a hit on himself.

Jeff: Scott pitches that and I about hit the floor because I’ve had the SAME idea in my head for, oh, fifteen years or so! It all started as a movie that rolls in my head whenever the titular Oingo Boingo song plays.  Can’t explain it, it just happens. This ever gets made into a movie, that song is SO going to be in the soundtrack.

Scott:Jeff added the concept for the ‘party’ as a tradition in the assassin community. Then we mashed our disparate ideas together and came up with this series.

Jeff: We both dig spies, hitmen and cloak and dagger movies and TV shows, so all of that helped shaped our story.

Continue reading “Welcome to the Party, Pal”

Journey to the Quilombo of Quartel do Indaiá, Part 2

When my boyfriend’s housemate, Nadia, invited me to accompany her, and a colleague, Sílvio, on a trip to visit Quartel do Indaiá, a quilombola community 50 km from Diamantina, I jumped at the chance.

As I explained in Part 1 of this post, quilombo is a term of Bantu origin that is used to refer to autonomous communities founded by runaway slaves during colonial times in Brazil.

[pullquote] Quartel do Indaiá is just one among the more than 1,500 officially recognized comunidades quilombolas. [/pullquote]

Quartel do Indaiá is just one among the more than 1,500 officially recognized comunidades quilombolas. Its 100 residents are descendants of several quilombos that date back to the 1740s and to the beginning of diamond mining in the region surrounding Diamantina.

Indaiá is a species of native palm that bears an onion-sized edible fruit of the same name. As Nadia took Sílvio and me around the village and along dirt trails that led to a red-bottomed river, the shaggy palms were everywhere. Indaiá fibers covered the roofs of many of Quartel’s simple houses and were also used to make intricately woven fences that separated gardens and kept chickens from roaming too far.

The residents of Quartel were delighted to see Nadia. As we made our way down the main path, which was lined with the majority of the community’s 25 houses, we stopped and chatted with a dozen, most of whom were taking shelter in the shade or gazing out their windows from cool interiors. In tones languorous and hospitable, they invited us into their gardens to pick ripe limes and tangerines, and insisted that we take refuge from the noonday sun inside their homes, where we were plied with hot coffee and refreshing passion fruit juice, and treated to local gossip.

A few residents talked to Nadia about practical matters: medical ailments, legal issues, visits by “outsiders” interested in purchasing their land. Although diamonds can still be found in these parts, there is a growing interest in the region’s potential as a rich source of manganese and iron. At the same time, chunks of the surrounding area have recently been designated as state and national conservation parks, a decision which forbids citizens of Quartel from hunting small game and gathering wild fruits, items that for centuries have served as supplementary food sources. The conversations hit home how truly isolated Quartel’s residents continue to be, despite the fact that the 18th century has morphed into the 21st.

Most of Quartel’s inhabitants are illiterate and/or semi-literate and live off subsistence agriculture; aside from raising chickens, locals grow their own coffee, beans, sugar cane, and corn as well as fruit. Those considered well-off are elderly residents who earn a government pension equivalent to the monthly minimum wage of R$622 a month (around $330).

Quartel has no post office or medical center (the closest hospital is 50km/90 minutes away in Diamantina). There is no public phone because the phone company will only install phones in settlements of more than 100 people; a sizable chunk of Quartel’s 100-person population consists of children, whom apparently don’t count as people. Quartel is also off the grid in terms of cell phone and Internet coverage. Although a few residents own horses, nobody owns a car. The nearest bus is in São João da Chapada, 9 km away.

Accessing “civilization” means traveling up and down the red dirt road for hours to reach São João. We encountered several residents at various stages of this journey, including a trio of women, with towering sacks balanced upon their heads. They had traveled to São João in the hope of selling locally cultivated indaiá fruits and urucum (an ocher colored spice used to season many local dishes). They make the 18km journey every day, and often return home without have sold anything.

I was struck by how abandoned and isolated these quilombolas were – and also how kind they were. We had lunch – galinha caipira (a delicious chicken stew made from a freshly throttled chicken), feijão (beans), rice, and salad — at the home of Sineca, whose kitchen is in an adobe shack whose walls are covered with pots and pans and whose center is dominated by an enormous woodburning stove.

In his 80s, Sineca’s father, Seu Pedro, is a former diamond miner and one of the oldest living residents of Quartel, which these days is populated mostly by the elderly, children, and women (most men live in towns and cities where they can find employment). He is also one of few remaining guardians of vissungos, traditional chants that have been passed down through generations from African ancestors.

While many comunidades quilombolas in Brazil have retained vestiges of African languages in both their speech and songs, in most cases, the language in question is Yoruba. What’s incredibly rare about the vissungos sung in Quartel is that the verses are in a mixture of Bantu languages (one of the most prominent being Kimbundo).

Rarer still is to find people that know how to sing vissungos, songs that were chanted by groups of slaves under extreme duress; usually while toiling away in the diamond mines or while transporting their dead for miles, along rugged paths, in order to give them a proper cemetery burial in the nearest town.

These days, mining, if done it all, is carried out solo. Meanwhile, the creation of roads and increased access to transportation solutions means it’s no longer essential to carry the dead manually. As a result, the contexts in which vissungos were historically chanted are disappearing.

(That said, if you want to hear Seu Pedro mourning the death of his friend João Batista, during the funeral procession in which the defunct was carried from Quartel to São João, try to get your hands on Terra Deu, Terra Come a 2010 documentary by Rodrigo Siqueira that won top prize at Brazil’s prestigious “É Tudo Verdade” (“It’s All True”) documentary film festival).

We were only planning to spend a half-day in Quartel, but by the time we finally hit the dirt road that led back to São João, the sun was pouring golden light across the mountains and clouds were glowing pink. By the time, we got back to Diamantina, it felt as if we’d been gone for much longer than a day and much further than 50 km.

[button link=”/2012/04/journey-to-the-quilombo-of-quartel-do-indaia-part-1/” style=”light”]Read the previous part of this article.[/button]

The Lowdown on Up Tight

This essay was originally published at Ebony.com

By all cultural accounts, 1968 was a hellish year for America. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy helped spark the “burn baby burn” sensibility ignited in the streets. It was also during this turbulent period that Paramount Pictures reluctantly agreed to finance Jules Dassin’s remake of the classic film The Informer into militant action film Up Tight.

Moving the action from the streets of Ireland to the ghettos of Ohio, Dassin’s bleak exploration into the world of sharp-dressed Black revolutionaries introduced the Blaxploitation aesthetics that later influenced a crop of Black action films including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft (197), Super Fly (1972) and others.

In addition, the film stars an ensemble of actors that would a few years later become major stars including Ruby Dee (American Gangster), Raymond St. Jacques (Cotton Comes to Harlem), Max Julian (The Mack), Janet MacLachlan (Sounder), Juanita Moore (The Mack), Roscoe Lee Browne (Uptown Saturday Night), James McEachin (Buck and the Preacher) and Dick Anthony Williams.

Best known for his role as the sharp-tongued pimp Pretty Tony in The Mack, this was the film debut for Chicago native Williams. Playing Corbin with the heated coolness of hot ice, his performance was brilliant.

Continue reading “The Lowdown on Up Tight”

Start Reading Fifteen Digits by Nick Santora

Prologue

The problem with all you lawyers,” Mauro lectured Spade, “is you think the support staff ’s nothing but replaceable parts—just warm bodies in blue blazers running your files up and down the floors whenever you snap your fingers. You guys treat us like we’re invisible.”

Rich Mauro sat back in the booth and took a pull on his beer. Spade studied him for a moment, then smiled a disconcerting grin— a Cheshire Cat That Ate the Canary kind of thing.

“And that’s why you’re where you are and I’m where I am,” Spade pointed out smugly. “Where you see problems, I see opportunities.”

Jason Spade leaned across the table, over the half-finished Harp’s and the untouched onion rings. In the crowded bar, between the blare of the Smithereens on the jukebox and the howl of drunk Irish electricians toasting some dead union brother, there was no need to whisper, but Jason Spade’s was the kind of idea that demanded secretive tones. Even if whispers weren’t required by the environment, they were called for by the very nature of what he was about to propose.

“The benefit of being invisible,” Jason whispered, looking straight into Mauro’s eyes, “is that people don’t see you when you’re robbing them blind…now, how ’bout you and I get rich, Rich?”

And with that simple question, a chain of events began that changed, destroyed, and ended lives. People would be maimed, tortured, and killed. Millions of dollars would be stolen, then stolen away from the thieves themselves.

It was a question that would eventually make Rich Mauro, Jason Spade, Vicellous “Vice” Green, Dylan Rodriguez, and Eddie Pisorchek suffer beyond measure. Some of them would die because of it.

After it all went down, to the ill informed, it appeared that it happened because of money. But to those who were involved in it, to the guys who were so deep in the mess that it covered their mouths and pushed up into their nostrils, they understood that it all happened for love—love that was pure and real or love that had never been there to begin with, but love nonetheless.

And all of it—every cry of agony, every drop of blood—it all began with that conversation between Rich Mauro and Jason Spade, a conversation that lasted less than fifteen minutes, on a summer night, over a couple of beers in a graffiti-stricken booth in the back of McMahon’s Pub.

Nick Santora was a lawyer before his first screenplay won Best Screenplay of the Competition at the 2001 New York International Independent Film Festival. A co-creator, executive producer, and writer for the hit A&E show Breakout Kings and former writer and co-executive producer of Prison Break, Nick Santora lives in Los Angeles, California.

FIFTEEN DIGITS is available in bookstores everywhere.

Exploring NYC Area Hiking Trails with Skip Card

1. Many people don’t associate New York City with the outdoors—are there really places to hike close by?

New York is such an interesting city that many residents rarely leave. So most New Yorkers don’t know about the many preserves and state parks that exist not far beyond the city limits. Preservation efforts began many years ago, as people saw the area’s population booming and undeveloped land becoming scarce. Today, thousands of acres of scenic or historic land are within easy reach of New York City, and virtually all have well-maintained foot trails just waiting to be explored.

2. What should beginners be wary of before a hiking trip?

On most trails, you’ll have to take precautions against poison ivy, which sometimes grows on the edges of the paths. To protect their skin, many experienced hikers wear long pants, and often a long-sleeve shirt. Mosquitoes and ticks are also founds in the woods. I always carry bug spray, and I give myself a “tick check” before I shower to make sure a tick hasn’t latched onto my body. I’ve had to use tweezers to pull off ticks, I’ve gotten rashes from poison ivy, and I’ve had many mosquito bites. But these are minor and avoidable nuisances, and they don’t keep me from hiking.

3. How can you reach good hiking trails without owning a car?

Some of the most avid hikers I know don’t own a car. Instead, they use the excellent network of public transportation that serves the greater New York area. Trains and buses often stop close to the trailheads I describe in my guidebook. To reach even more remote trails, folks often use local taxis. Once you start to study the train and bus maps, you’ll quickly realize there are few places you can’t reach. Using public transportation also lets hikers start in one area and finish in another, something you can’t easily do if you have to loop back to your car.

4. Does it feel safe in the woods?

New Yorkers frequently ask this. Personally, I often feel safer hiking in the woods than I do walking around the city — and, frankly, I feel quite safe in the city. Whether hiking in the woods or walking through Times Square, I use common sense and take basic precautions. My guidebook has a thorough introduction that tells beginners what supplies they should bring in their packs to stay comfortable and safe, and what medical supplies they should carry to cope with common minor emergencies.

5. Many beginners worry about getting lost. How do hikers stay on the trail?

Fear of getting lost is another common worry. But virtually all hiking trails in the region are very well marked and well maintained. My guidebook explains how trails are marked in “blazes,” color-coded plastic squares or dabs of paint placed on trees, rocks or posts. Blazes are found every 100 feet or so on marked trails. As long as you see the blazes, and carry a trail map showing what they mean, getting lost is rarely a problem.

6. In New York City, maps and guidebooks are only for tourists—can I skip them?

In the woods, only beginners don’t carry trail maps. It’s probably the one piece of equipment I never leave home without. My guidebook has basic maps showing the trail routes, but hikers should also carry detailed trail maps that show all the paths and all the landmarks in a particular region. Good maps are sold at many hiking stores. Or you can go to the web site of the New York New Jersey Trail Conference, the nonprofit organization that maps and maintains most of the trails in the area.

7. Breakneck Ridge is a common hiking destination—should beginners start there?

Breakneck Ridge north of the town of Cold Spring is one of the most popular hikes in the region, but it’s also very dangerous because it is steep and rocky. Many hikers I’ve seen on that trail should not be there, in my view. I’d suggest beginners start hiking somewhere else. Nearby Bull Hill, also called Mount Taurus, offers similar views but doesn’t force hikers to use hands and feet as they scramble up a steep ridge. After you’ve got some trail experience, come back and tackle Breakneck Ridge. You’ll have a much better time.

8. Are dogs suitable companions for hiking?

In most cases, the answer is yes — so long as you keep your pet on a leash. But some preserves don’t allow dogs. My guidebook lists which trails are dog friendly, and which aren’t.

9. Should hikers bring along their children?

Some trails are quite suitable for kids. A number are listed in my book. I’ve got a young daughter, and she often goes hiking with me. But I take care to choose a trail that fits her abilities. And we talk before we hit the trail, so she knows what to expect and what I expect of her. I also bring lots of kid-friendly trail snacks, to sweeten the deal.

10. What climate should visiting hikers expect and prepare for?

New York’s weather varies dramatically with the four seasons. Tough hikers even head out in the dead of winter, when blazes on trees are the only signs of the trail. But for most of us, hiking is a spring-summer-fall sport. In spring and fall, temperatures can vary greatly, so pack extra clothes. Summer is often humid, hazy and hot, with temperatures regularly in the 80s or 90s. Wear lightweight fabrics, and always carry extra water. In all seasons carry a rain jacket, since brief but heavy downpours can sweep in with little warning.

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