2005_10_robwalker.jpgAge: 36
Occupation: Journalist
Where you live: Jersey City - the sixth borough, some have said

This past summer, you published a book, "Letters from New Orleans," which is a collection of letters to your friends describing your "big huge crush" on the city when you there between 2000 and 2003. Tell us more about your book. And how have you been dealing with seeing what's happened since Hurricane Katrina?
The short version is that at the end of 1999, I'd been in New York for eight years, my girlfriend (now wife) E had been in New York for six years; we were looking for a change so we quit our jobs and moved to New Orleans; and I started writing these dispatches to friends about what happened after that. We didn't really have a good reason for picking New Orleans, neither of us had lived there and we had no real connections there. So it probably seemed like kind of a strange decision. Many people think of Bourbon Street as the basic representation of what New Orleans is all about, but the reality is it's an extremely interesting city to explore. I didn't have any interest in writing about the kids who tap dance in the French Quarter or whatever, and I didn't think anybody I knew would have any interest in reading about that. So I was writing these letters describing some of the less obvious aspects of the place, like why people hang out under this one section of Interstate 10, or about going to a church in the Lower Ninth Ward. There's a fair amount about Mardi Gras -- or Carnival -- in the book, but not so much about the more familiar way it's represented on the evening news (again: Bourbon Street). But there's also a chapter about a housing project. Anyway, I think we got over the "crush" phase and learned to see some of the city's flaws, but loved it anyway.

The letters were also a way for me to do a kind of writing that nobody would pay me to do. I think there was also an element just trying to explain myself, and as an indirect result of that some themes emerged -- the line between identity and persona, and so on.

G.K. Darby, who runs Garrett County Press [http://www.gcpress.com/], thought it could work as a book. (We added in a few New Orleans-related pieces that I wrote for magazines.) He also lived in New Orleans, and happened to move away not long before Katrina; somebody asked him how he was dealing with Katrina and its aftermath from afar, and he said, "One drink at a time." I think that's pretty much how we feel about it. My reactions for the first month or so after the storm were emotional rather than professional, and among other things I had absolutely no interest in promoting the book. But I guess in retrospect -- obviously it wasn't planned this way -- Letters ends up being a kind of portrait of the city before Katrina. An idiosyncratic portrait, I guess, but it's an idiosyncratic place. When I thought about it like that, I was glad to have done the book.

You're donating 100% of author proceeds from the book to Hurricane Katrina charities. Based on what you've heard from friends there, what are some other ways you'd recommend New Yorkers to help out?
I didn't want to feel like I was indirectly profiting off human tragedy if it turned out that more people were interested in the book because of the hurricane, so, that's what that decision was about. I never actually expected to make any money off the project anyway, so it seems like whatever comes in should go to people in greater need. I just got the first payment for books that have been sold so far and am trying to figure out exactly where that money (which is not exactly a staggering sum, but still) should go. I'm personally most interested in more long-term-focused efforts. I haven't made the final decisions yet.

The most impressive individual response I've seen is actually from my friend Josh Neufeld, who lives up here (in Brooklyn) and who recently headed south as a Red Cross volunteer. That's certainly more than I've done.

Do you think other cities are going to take hurricane preparedness seriously? Do you think it's impossible to plan, or do you think even the most prepared city will have obstacles to overcome? Perhaps speak to Jersey City and NYC's plans...
Well, consider how this recent "specific terror threat" against the subways episode just played out. Privileged people supposedly got an early head's up. Local and federal officials undercut each other with conflicting versions of what was happening and what might happen. The general population didn't seem to take any of it seriously. Before it was even over, various factions tried to spin the whole thing for political gain. Then everyone got tired of trying to sort through all the differing versions of the (non) event, and moved onto the next topic. I think people are always pretty good at preparing for whatever happened yesterday, and not so good at preparing for what could happen tomorrow. I expect that will continue.

You also have a Flickr page with photographs of MLK Boulevard in New Orleans. What are you trying to with them?
This is my new hobby, I guess. I took some pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in New Orleans when I lived there. Some of them are in the book. I have a fantasy of Flickr group pool with shots of various MLK boulevards and avenues and streets all over the country. I'm sure you're aware that frequently (but not always) MLKs have high concentrations of liquor stores and abandoned buildings and so on. (If nothing else, many people seem to remember Chris Rock making a joke about this in an HBO special years ago.)

One of the pieces in the book is a long essay about the song "St. James Infirmary," and the version that's in the book was greatly influenced by all the feedback I got from people who read the first draft online and sent me tips and thoughts and so on. I still get about an email a week about that piece, from all over the world, from people who happen to google the song title and find the old version of the essay on an out-dated version of my site. So that was a nice experience that couldn't have happened without the Web, but that wasn't *about* the Web. That's the general spirit of this new thing, although I'm trying to make this one *more* open-ended, exercising much *less* control over where it leads. But in a way, that's a problem -- I don't have some specific point that I'm trying to make, I just think it would be cool. Particularly if I could figure out how to get, for instance, inner-city students to contribute. I'm presently in the process of figuring out how to "get the word out," with some help from my friend Jim Gaddy. We're open to suggestion.

You write the Consumed column for the NY Times Magazine, covering Ugly Dolls, Gwen Stefani's fashion brand, and Critical Mass. How do you decide on a topic? What enters into your thinking when a product/trend makes the cut?
The most basic threshold is that it has to be something people are consuming (in the most flexible sense of the word) -- that is, something that's actually out there in the marketplace in one way or another, and has a constituency. I'm not trying to predict what people will be buying next season, or what next year's hottest trend will be. Ideally I'm writing about something that will end up having some staying power, but even that isn't vital.

I always say the column is not about me, in the sense that I'm not a critic and I'm not saying whether I think something is better or worse, or cooler or kitschier, or whatever, than anything else. I try to maintain a very neutral tone, and I'm not in any way using the column to advance a particular aesthetic. The goal is not to tell the reader what they should think, but to bring something interesting to the reader's attention, maybe put it in a surprising context, and let the
reader take it from there. I guess this is an almost old-school approach, in the sense that I'm not really giving a "take" or a "lesson," but it's also my version of interactivity: I put something out there and it's up to the reader to determine what it ultimately means, to come up with their own take. And I've found that there are readers who really appreciate this approach. But a few still don't get it, and think that if I'm writing about something, I must be either endorsing it or attacking it; sometimes I almost wish I could end every column with, "Draw your own conclusions."

At the same time, the column is *completely* about me, because basically what I'm interested in -- or what I find surprising or strange or funny -- is almost the only thing that binds it all together. That is, if I feel like it's worth thinking about something -- whether it's a supposed anti-aging drink, a Stop Snitchin' T-shirt, or even the non-existent objects that some computer-game players will pay real money for -- then that's what I write about. Friends and readers (and of course publicists) suggest things to me all the time that meet some of the basic criteria I noted above, but I just don't feel like I have anything different or interesting to say, so I don't.


Are people too obsessed with consumption?
I guess a direct response would contradict what I just said about neutrality, but I suspect that the mere existence of the column suggests one answer to that question.

New Yorkers are notorious conspicuous consumers. What's the most intriguing adoption of a trend/product you've seen work your way into the city zeitgeist? What's a trend that you've seen across the country that you can't imagine coming the NYC? Or will NYC succumb to everything (there is that Build A Bear store)?
Pretty early in the life of the column I wrote about "Memory Maker" bracelets, which are sort of an offshoot of scrapbooking culture, which is very middle American, and something I'm sure that the coolest New Yorkers would dismiss as kitsch. More recently I came upon a references to the Smoy Photobracelet being celebrated as a cool design that's apparently acceptable to trend-hound NYC types. So that's an example of how the difference between the big-city coastal consumers and everyone else is maybe murkier than it seems.

On New York:
What's the best way to get into the city?
From where I live, the Path train. The Grove Street station is a couple of blocks from home.

What's your favorite subway line?
The least bothersome of the NYC lines is the 2/3. At various times I commuted on the F and on the 4/5 and grew to despise both. The L is sort of interesting because I'm on it so rarely, and over time it's gotten to where it looks like there might actually be a casting director involved in selecting the passengers. And of course it's always a thrill to take the G, since you can get a whole car to yourself.


How is Jersey City a lot like New York? And how is it not?
I was categorically opposed to living in Jersey City at first, but I actually have ended up liking it, sort of. The residential architecture around our neighborhood is pretty Brooklyn-ish. And the basic setup and vibe and amenities are much like a typical outer-borough neighborhood.

It's generally mellower than NYC, less crowded, the sidewalks are wider, etc. Unfortunately, Jersey City still really hasn't figured out the good, mid-priced restaurant thing. In some ways it's gentrifying quite a bit, but I still see a lot more open drug-dealing on my block than I ever saw when I lived in New York. I still get a surprising amount of pleasure from riding the Path at night and seeing what the kids are wearing. Jersey City is interesting because it's so close to Manhattan, and yet so far. There's definitely no casting director involved on the Path, but that's what makes it interesting -- I actually think the Jersey kids are a lot more original, in their way. They're less of a herd.

Having said all that, I'm not out trying to recruit for Jersey City. It's definitely not for everybody, and I don't think it will ever be the coolest (or hottest) neighborhood in the bi-state area.

Do you have a car? Do you drive it into the city and get cursed out by NYC drivers?
Yes.

It's rarely worth he hassle of driving into the city, not because of getting cursed out (though I do imagine everyone hating me for the Jersey plates and all that) but because of parking and just general traffic.

In "Letters," you write from the perspective of a resident tourist. Do you have favorite books about NYC?
When I first moved to New York I felt obliged to read North Toward Home -- it was sort of mandatory for Texans coming up here, because Willie Morris had been at the Daily Texan and all that. I know I enjoyed it, but probably for naive reasons. In the late 1990s I read Balzac's Lost Illusions on the strong recommendation of my friend Marisa, and although that's about Paris in the 19th century, I think it really captures the essence of contemporary New York (particularly from the point of view of a rube from the provinces, which is something I understand). That might be a pretentious-sounding answer. But anything else I could suggest here would be too obvious.

What's better for consuming, malls or city streets with stores?
On a personal level, most of my consuming is of music and books, and I do almost all of that shopping via the Internet. More generally, I guess it's pretty hard to defend malls. I definitely go to malls, and sometimes get interesting ideas by visiting malls, but I suppose that on balance city streets are better because at least some of the time you're actually on the street, in the weather, outside of the controlled retail environment. I would say you're "in the real world," but maybe malls are the real world, if you look at it a certain way.

Draw your own conclusions.

Rob Walker has a website, robwalker.net. The author proceeds for Letters from New Orleans will go to Hurricane Katrina relief organizations. His Consumed columns appear in the New York Times Magazine on Sundays.