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I took my first-ever course in letterpress a part of a (very, very late) modified Assignment #5, Andrew Huff’s “take a course at Columbia College’s Center for Book & Paper Arts“. Andrew is one of those people who probably doesn’t sleep, instead staying up for weeks at a time creating things like this & this & these. He also has amazing muttonchops, endearing him to man & animal alike. He’s great. Andrew was also the first person to ever trust me as a printable writer, so you can either thank him for that or spit in his eye, depending on who you are. Anyway, Andrew was quite alright with me finding a NY substitute for Columbia College, & after some thorough searching we agreed on The Arm.

I went with the class at The Arm because it was:

1) an independent establishment
2) close by, &
3) hundreds of dollars less than a class at the New York Center for Book Arts.

Part art studio, part letterpress studio, The Arm is a big, beautiful, incredibly drafty shop located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though a big part of me felt like it would have fit just as well in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, or Portland, Oregon, or any place artsy & laid-back & filled with people who really want to make nice, pretty things but don’t have the money to make them.

img_0347 It was a small class, with only seven students (myself included) & our Fearless Leader, Dan Morris. Dan owns, operates & lives in The Arm (which, just so you know, is a very large studio with beautiful French doors. I say this just so you don’t get the wrong impression that Dan is curling up beneath a Vandercook press every night – though if the image amuses you as much as it amuses me, then, by all means), which features six fully-functioning presses (& a couple of less than fully preses as well). The back room is filled with drawers of type, & the walls are papered with old posters for Japanther, printers’ conferences fliers & one giant letter from two British designers who were interested in taking a letterpress class. It is all old, & it is all beautiful.

The class catered to every skill set, taking us through the basic functions & capabilities of first the Vandercook press (which is the big-un you would use to make band posters & such), then allowing students to run free & sample the C&P Pilot press, as well as the various types, inks & papers available throughout. Every person got as much or as little one-on-one attention as they desired, which was great because I am really needy when it comes to relationships learning environments.

img_03264We broke for lunch late in the day. Everyone sat around on the musty couch in the front of the shop, drinking coffee & talking. There was a couple there who wanted to start their own letterpress card company; another woman was making custom wedding invitations for as a gift for an engaged friend. Dan told us he’d gotten started in letterpress when he was a kid – his grandfather had been a printer & when it was clear that the family trade was dying Dan took up printing himself, learning to repair all the broken presses he bought for his studio. He’d selected the space at 281 North 7th Street because of its street level access, but the huge window storefront proved to make it a great gallery space – something Dan had also been looking for. He now puts on irregular shows, moving things about the space as needed, even constructing new walls so that each exhibit is displayed in a brand new, fully functional environment. It’s incredibly inspiring, just sitting & listening to his ideas, & seeing the way they’ve been so beautifully executed.

There wasn’t much time left after the break, so everyone got straight to work on their final projects – for me, that meant working with the Vandercook one-on-one. I had struggled with the larger machines throughout the day & decided that, if I was really going to be getting something out of this, I owed it to myself to navigate as much of the machinery as I could. Dan paired me up with a Vandercook SP-15 which had been broken over the Thanksgiving holiday, making the crank more than a little stiff. Because I am generally incapable on normal, functioning machinery, this made me very nervous. I wound up applying too much ink (because I kept dicking around with colors: “Yellow green? Blue green? Soylent green?”), which left my first letterpress poster looking like this:

mess

which was not exactly what I was going for. Dan was really kind about showing me how to clean everything up & fix the machine, & after a few goes I finally had something that resembled a real, live letterpress poster!

img_0362

Ok. So it’s not the most technically complex design ever concocted. & the letters spill off the page in parts. & the ink is sparse on some tiles. & the photo is blurry & my nailpolish is chipped & blah blah blah but I made it & goshdangit, I’m damn proud I did.

Now that I’m trained on the machines, I’m able to rent out time at The Arm to complete future project as I wish. It’s pretty cheap – $15 (compare this to the New York Center for Book Arts, which charges $25/hr, not including costs of inks & papers) & Dan is usually around to supervise, should you be as generally inept as I. This assignment was definitely one of the best I’ve undertaken thus far, & it’s been very helpful in the “what shall I make everyone for Christmas?” department. Hope y’all got frames!

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It’s suddenly autumn here, & for cruel, inexplicable reasons the air now smells of coffee & doughnuts every morning. I had planned on making english muffins with peanut butter & apples for breakfast Saturday morning, but after discovering that every single apple I had bought was laced through with brownish veins, I scrapped the initial plan & ran out for a box of plain instant oatmeal ($1.99/8 packets) & a bag of frozen mixed berries ($4.09 – ouch). Add in the box of tea I snagged ($1.99/36 packets of ‘orange pekoe’ tea) & tax, & my weekly tab was up to $41.09. Not the most promising tally.

The soymilk was gone by Saturday night, & when faced with the cost of replacing it, I got a 79 cent can of garbanzo beans instead, blending them with a tablespoon of my peanut butter, some spices & olive oil to make hummus (it should be noted that, since the spices & olive oil had already been in my cabinet for some time, I felt free to use them rather than buy new things & add that to my weekly tally). As I ate my hummus I stared longingly at a recipe for Bill Granger’s corn fritters, wondering how much a bag of rice flour would set me back. Fact: staring at a screen of deliciousness will not bring it to life. Fact: on a lonely Saturday afternoon, this truth did nothing to stop my prayers, and I stared at those fritters with catatonic intensity, breaking my tantric pose only when the screen, wobbling slightly, grew damp with my own slobber. Fact: Applecare does not cover water damage.

By Monday the english muffins were gone, as was most of the peanut butter & all the vegetables (though they were sad & few to begin with). I had my oatmeal & berries for breakfast, but was hungry within an hour so I – again – turned to my boss’s plentiful supply of biscuits & tea. I purchased a quarter pound of pasta salad from C-Town later that afternoon for $1.67 which, along with the dregs of the yogurt & the last of the berries, provided me with a weird, vaguely plastic-y & mostly indigestible lunch. Starving by seven, my dinner was kindly provided for me, a wondrous gesture as my cohabitants have been very helpful in my sticking with this cockamamie scheme. (aside: how much do I love calling my life a cockamamie scheme?)

I woke this morning with $4.24 to make it through the day. Cabinets empty & schedule tight, I held out until 1pm when I made my way to a Park Slope bodega offering pb&j on raisin bread for a staggering $3.25, eating my high-priced delicacy on the F back to Manhattan.

I sit here now, Tuesday night, the last night of my hunger challenge, sipping tea & jangling change in my pocket, wondering how I might have done this differently. Could I have stretched my $47 better? How do other people make it work? How do other people make it work for entire families? I realize that “supplemental” is the key word here – the food stipend offered by the government is not intended to provide complete coverage of an individual’s food supply. Still, with the other costs of living, it is an amount that many heavily rely upon. With 99 cents & no food left at the end of the challenge, I do not envy those who do.

The hunger challenge truly lived up to its name, pushing me in economic, physical and psychological ways. The real question, though, is did it live up to my personal purpose: did this exercise work to make me more empathetic to those living on supplemental government aid? Well, yes & no. Yes, I can now appreciate the challenges of a fixed income in a way that, prior to this experiment, I could not. Yes, I realize the difficulties of eating well, or just eating healthfully, on such a restricted stipend, one which is accepted only at specific locations. At the same time, however, I could have quit this experiment any time I wished. Were I to have used up all of my funds & food within the first, say, day, I could easily abandoned the hunger challenge & run out for more groceries. Good groceries, too – I would not have been limited to shop only at those locations accepting food stamps/SNAP debit cards.

Ultimately, I’m glad I carried out the experiment. I realize that I will never wholly remove myself from my own world, regardless of how deeply I immerse myself in this challenge or that. This is, however, no reason to not at least try. With so many ships sailing around these seas, it’s helpful to know where some of them are sailing from.

Wednesday snuck up on me this week, & I was surprised to find myself beginning the Hunger Challenge: Round 2. I’d spent the prior few days playing around, so when I opened the fridge in search of breakfast I was unpleasantly surprised to find a whole bunch of condiments (which weren’t mine) & half a carton of soymilk (which, though mine, I am not all that fond of, but it’s 49 cents cheaper than cow’s milk). I shut the door & resolved to go grocery shopping after work.

Because my lunches are provided for at work (thanks, boss!), I have one less meal to worry about on the two days a week that I am at an on-site gig. Minus these two & Wednesday’s neglected breakfast, I left work faced with 18 meals (& whatever snacking possibilities I might come upon) left to provide for myself on $6.71 a day.

Grocery shopping happened on Thursday morning, cash in hand & responsible, pre-planned list in tow. The supermarket closest to my apartment (which is less a supermarket than an over priced, organic hyper-bodega) did not accept food stamps (which, actually, are being phased out due to negative stigma. An electronic debit card is now being implemented in their stead), so I walked a few blocks to the nearest C-Town Food Store. Fun fact: C-Town’s website features “Recipes for Every Occasion”, including dishes such as “Lobster Mashed Potatoes”, “Actually Delicious Turkey Burgers”, and my personal favorite, “Triple Bypasses”. I am not making this up.

I shopped carefully, selecting generic goods when possible/not repulsed. Some items, like the granola I normally put on my yogurt, were nixed, the cheapest bag coming in at $5.99/13oz. Other items which I don’t usually consider were appealingly affordable – like the 3lb bag of Empire apples for $2.99. I had been buying my apples two or three at a time at the Union Square farmer’s market, a four-day-a-week emporium of locally grown foods featuring all the free samples of organic goat cheese I can swallow. It’s easily my favorite thing in all of New York City. It also does not accept food stamps. So the sketchy-looking 3lb bag it was.

I approached the check out line & stood patiently, watching my items beep! past a red laser beam & wondering how much a bag of almond M&M’s would set me back when the heavily mascara’d checkout girl announced my total:

“Forty-two sixty-two,” she said.

Though I was not gasping directly at her per sey, this fine young employee of C-Town, like any sound-minded individual, reacted poorly to my very audible reaction. She informed me that if I was unable to afford my total, I was welcome to return some items to the shelves, an offer I accepted. I turned &, with a heavy heart (& empty stomach), returned to the shelves one carton of orange juice, a tub of margarine, a bag of bagels & a tub of whipped cream cheese. I returned &, satisfied with my new, reduced total, I bagged up & took off.

After triage, my total goods were as follows:

  • V8 (46oz) ————————–$2.99
  • Jif peanut butter ——————$2.69
  • Cannelloni beans(15oz) ———-$0.79
  • Thomas’ English muffins ———-$2.29
  • Chotani Greek yogurt (17.6oz)——$5.09
  • Tomatoes (2) ———————$1.31
  • Baking potato ———————$1.03
  • Bag of carrots ———————-$0.69
  • Bagged salad ———————–$2.99
  • Button mushrooms —————–$2.99
  • Bagged apples ———————-$2.99
  • Silk soymilk (qt) ——————–$2.79

Total (with tax):$32.06

Though I would rather not have spent over half of my weekly allotment ($47) in one fell swoop, I felt that these few staples, though not particularly exciting, would tide me over the better portion of my week. With a little less than fifteen dollars left to keep me going for the next five days, they better.

Back in college, Hannah Schell was a professor who’s zen-like knowledge could be, at times, a little overwhelming. When I received her assignment (Make an effort to see all creatures as suffering and desiring happiness), I sort of relegated it to the back of my mind & figured I would devote proper time & effort to it when the time came (not unlike how I handled most of Hannah’s class assignments). After toying with a number of ideas, I pressed for further instruction, hoping that maybe she would have something more specific &, well, less contrived than the few possibilities that I’d cooked up.

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