Mantis sighting in Rome

Coliseum AlienHow’s this for eerie? I was in Rome recently indulging in wine, cheese and gelato and scouting locations for one of the Mantis sequels. One of the places I checked out was the Colosseum. While walking around the upper gallery, I was debating in my head whether or not to set a particular sequence in the ruins of the ancient amphitheater. In the midst of my hemming and hawing I turned my head and saw this stone Mantis face. So yeah, maybe the Colosseum will find its way into one of the novels.

Here I am outside the Colosseum, before the Mantis sighting.

Donald Cowper at the Coliseum


The best half-song in the world

I’m sure I’m like a lot of writers who, after finishing their novel, start dreaming about the film adaptation—casting it in their heads, picking out songs for the soundtrack. I’ve run the film of Mantis a few times in my head, and one of the songs that features heavily in it is the last half of “The Friends of Mr. Cairo” by Jon and Vangelis. It’s the most haunting, unearthly and heartbreaking piece of music I’ve ever heard.

I first heard it back in 1981 when it came out. My older brother had the record and I would lie by the stereo listening to the second half of the song over and over again. I’d keep picking up the needle and dropping it at the midway mark. Sorry, bro, for wrecking your record, but I never cared much for the first half of the song, even though that’s all the radio stations would ever play.

When my brother moved out, he took his record with him and I never heard the song again till I picked up the CD a few years ago. I’m not sure what had made me think of the song after so many years, but a few of its soaring lines were ringing in my head one day, and so I ran down to the music store. My partner had never heard the song, so I played it for her late one night while driving home together. We played it over and again, just like I used to, driving around the neighborhood—the two of us feeling like something had touched the insides of our souls.

A couple of days ago, I found this video on YouTube—a half-cut of the song with an accompanying video by Ezekielepharcelis. The video is beautiful and it floors me how much—with its darkened city streets, its ’40s-era feel, its lamplights, fedoras and strange lights in the sky—it evokes something quite close to Mantis.

Enjoy… and have tissues handy.


The boy who haunts me

Cover of “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout. Broadway Books, New York, 2005.

Cover of “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout. Broadway Books, New York, 2005.

One of the first times I recall seeing one was in the park down the street from my house. He was a boy, about my age—around ten at the time. I was crouched at the edge of the park, near the slope of a ravine. He came walking toward me. I had never seen him before. He asked me what I was doing and I pointed to a baby bird that was standing in the grass, stunned from presumably having fallen from its nest in the tree above. I told the boy I would watch it while he got some water and some grownups to help.

He ignored my suggestion and stared at the bird with a look in his eyes that made my skin crawl. It was an inhuman look, like the stare of a wild predator, a wolf or a panther. He then said in a cool tone that the bird needed to be put out of its misery. It was weak, he said, and a dog or cat would get it soon if we didn’t take care of it. I was confused by his statements and then I sensed danger radiating from him and my heart began to pound. He stepped toward the bird. I started to move in front of the animal, but I was too slow. His foot was already flying through air. I screamed as he kicked the bird hard, flinging it into the ravine.

I burst into tears. When I looked up at the boy he was laughing. A sick, evil laugh, and then he walked off. Shaken, I scurried down the slope in search of the bird, begging that it would somehow still be alive. It took me an eternity to find it and when I did, it was dead. I picked it up and carried it home, sobbing, and buried it behind my house.

In the weeks after this incident, two things haunted me. One, the guilt that I could have done more to save the bird. And two, the memory of the boy who killed the bird. The wolfish look in his eyes and that evil laugh.

During that summer I would see him once in a while in the park, laughing and playing ball with some friends. The sight of him made me sweat and pant and I stayed clear. I would eventually learn from another neighborhood boy that his name was Chris. I would continue to think about him a lot and worry about all the other birds or animals he was probably killing. He was different, different from me and any other boy I knew.   

Some years later I would figure out that what made Chris different was that he had no conscience, that he felt absolutely no remorse for killing that bird. In fact, it gave him pleasure.

He was a sociopath.

He eventually moved out of the neighborhood, but every few years I would get wind of where he was, what high school he attended, what university he went to. A few years ago I learned through an old childhood friend that Chris had become an investment advisor and that he was charged with defrauding his clients out of millions of dollars. I later learned that he’d fled the country and was probably living somewhere in the Caribbean.

I have long wondered if Chris would ever end up murdering someone. Maybe he has, or still might someday, but—so I’ve learned in my reading on sociopathy—it’s equally possible that he’s not homicidal. Not all sociopaths or psychopaths are. But all of them are predators in some form, whether that means they steal someone’s business idea, emotionally torture a coworker, or parasitically live off a partner.

The more extreme and powerful psychopaths are the ruthless corporate sharks, the Ponzi schemers, the corrupt politicians, the mass murderers, the evil dictators that plague our world. They are the ones who make war, who sponsor genocides, who build the systems that separate the rich from the poor.

According to experts like Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, one out of every 25 of us is a sociopath. While people like you and me far outnumber them, the sad truth is that this tiny minority is largely responsible—directly or indirectly—for making life on this planet at times painful, intolerable, unbearable, or impossible.

I recently read a Scott Adams quote—from The Dilbert Principlethat nailed this truth: “We’re a planet of nearly six billion ninnies living in a civilization that was created by a few thousand amazingly smart deviants.”

The sociopath has not only created the world we live in. They’ve written our entire history—our long history of oppressive regimes, of ceaseless war, of torture, persecutions, inquisitions.

I still frequently recall the look in Chris’s eyes as he worked out his plan to kill the bird. Every time I picture that psychopathic stare I get a shiver. That haunting image is one of the reasons why I’ve long struggled with the question of why the human race includes the sociopath. It’s also one of the major questions I’ve tried to explore in the Mantis trilogy, which features various antagonists including the Nazis of WWII, a cauldron of sociopathy.

Milk toast

Cover of “The Great Crash 1929” by John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin  Company, New York, 1954.

Cover of “The Great Crash 1929” by John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin
Company, New York, 1954.

“We lived on milk toast. It was all we had to eat.”

This is what my father would tell me and my siblings to get us to finish our dinner. It worked for me, too well, unfortunately. Terrified that a time would come when all there would be to eat was milk toast, I stocked up, real good. I would eventually shed my protection gut, but for much of my adolescence I was a chubby kid that worried about the Depression. While that might have been a temporary downside to having an older father and taking his stories to heart, a huge upside was learning from someone whose life stories covered so much history—the Great Depression and World War II included. No doubt his many personal tales of those periods have a lot to do with my setting Mantis in 1940, at the crossroads between the Depression and the war.

In my search for a deeper understanding of what my father and the characters in Mantis would have lived through, I turned to The Great Crash 1929, by economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The book covers the origins and the fallout of the stock market crash of October 1929. Sixteen months earlier my grandmother gave birth to my dad. She and my grandfather would have then been enjoying the Roaring Twenties and must have thought they were bringing their child into a wonderful world. A world that would only get better and better. For, as Galbraith reveals, that was the Zeitgeist of the time— the stock market would go up and up forever and everyone was going to get rich….Hmmmm, kinda reminds me of a few years ago when property values could only go up and everyone was going to get rich…..

In the ’20s the wonderful world ended on October 29, 1929—aka Black Tuesday—when people realized that stocks wouldn’t go up forever. The panicked selling was so furious that day that the stock tickers fell behind by several hours. People who swarmed around the tickers all over the country were left to imagine how much they had lost and, fearing the worst, continued to sell. They would find out later that evening that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen almost 12% that day.

The fall would go on and on until 1932 when shares hit 10% of their former values. In the US unemployment would rise to 25%. Six thousand banks would go out of business. Two million people would become homeless. Middle class families who used to enjoy feasts in fancy restaurants would sup on milk toast in dingy quarters. Living the high life was no longer a possibility. People just wanted to get jobs, to eat properly, to find shelter. This was the world that my father grew up in, and the world that Lucas, the hero of Mantis, finds himself in when he travels from 2012 to 1940.

Below is an excerpt from Mantis—taken from the day Lucas arrives in 1940 and discovers a Manhattan still reeling from a crash that happened more than a decade earlier:

At the end of one block I came across a few dozen hangdog men lining up for a help wanted sign at a restaurant—fry cook wanted—and it dawns on me that for the last eleven years all of these people have endured the fear and hardship of the Great Depression. They’re desperate for security and safety and the last thing they want is to go to war, but by year’s end, many of them—as well as their fathers, sons and brothers—will start dying on the other side of the world.

I’m feeling more adrift with every block I pass and the sun is fading. When I reach Madison Square Park, the park I walk through on my way home from work during the summers, I seize on the hope that a few blocks away my apartment building is actually there and that I’ll be able to walk inside and take the elevator up to my floor, walk down the hall and step inside my apartment, putting an end to this experience.

I hurry east along the wide blocks of 23rd Street. It’s a long journey and by the time the corner of First Avenue comes into view the sun has set, darkening the sparsely lit street with a gloom I’ve never experienced before in Manhattan. I quicken my pace, but as soon as I turn the corner I freeze, all the air going from my lungs. Colossal gas tanks several stories tall stand where my middle-class housing development will eventually be built.

This is not a world I will awaken from.

My hand goes to my pocket, finds my dad’s keys and wraps around them, tight. When I eventually take in air I gasp at the odor of gasoline mixed with putrefying garbage and animal dung. I want a cab now, I want to get to my father’s place, but few cars pass on the road and none of them are taxis.

I start walking quickly along the sidewalk, past worn-down storefronts, notices pasted to their windows. Victims of the Depression. For a while I’m under the impression the street is deserted but soon I manage to pick out figures lurking in the shadows of recessed doorways, their faces lit briefly by the strike of a match or the glowing ember of a cigarette. Farther down the block I find a homeless man, gaunt and tattered, lying on the curb in a pool of weak lamplight. He looks up at me with vagabond eyes and asks in a voice dry as sandpaper if I can spare some change. He smells like a dead cat soaked in vinegar. I hold my breath, bend down and stuff a couple of dollars into his tin cup, then keep going.

In a few short blocks I pass enough rubbies and hobos to go broke, but I ignore them. I’ve got less than a hundred dollars left and I don’t know how long it will last, how long I will need it to last. I don’t want to think about my future, about possibly having to join these men on the street, so I don’t.

On the Cusp of Change: Rebecca Lepkoff takes you back to the Lower East Side of the ’40s

Cover of “Life on the Lower East Side” Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950. Text by Peter E. Dans and Suzanne Wasserman. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2006.

From November 11, 2012, till January 4, 2013, you can go back in time and see what it was like to live in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the ’40s—thanks to photographer Rebecca Lepkoff and the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy.

“On the Cusp of Change: The LES, 1935-1975”—an exhibit of Lepkoff’s photographs—is held at the conservancy’s Visitor Center at 400 Grand Street in Manhattan.

I found out about the exhibit recently when I reached out to Ms. Lepkoff to express my gratitude her for book, Life on the Lower East Side, which I drew heavily on as a research source for Mantis. In it, she brilliantly captured life on the Lower East Side during the middle of the last century—a place where, as her camera reveals, pushcarts full of fruit and vegetables crowded the streets, kids of every background played catch, shoe shine boys and butchers and cobblers plied their trades, laundry hung in wide festoons and seagulls flocked fish market stalls.

I should add that the exhibit was originally scheduled to open a week earlier on the 4th of November, but was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately the Conservancy was able to open the exhibit this week. It’s a piece of good news for a part of the world where so many suffered tragic losses. My thoughts are with them and with all who are still struggling to recover their lives.

I encourage anyone interested in Manhattan’s history or photography to attend the exhibit and view this artist’s beautiful work. Below is a short interview with Lepkoff—produced by Jim Epstein—that features some of her startling duotones.

*The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy accepts donations which support their ability to preserve and honor the Lower East Side’s history, as they are doing with Lepkoff’s exhibit. (Please check their website for information on how to donate.)

And now a brief excerpt from Mantis inspired by Lepkoff’s work. Here the hero, Lucas, wakes up in the new home he inherited from his father, and heads out into an area of the Lower East Side between the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, now buried by a housing development, but fortunately preserved in Lepkoff’s photos as it would have appeared then.

Light. Cold air. Faraway voices. The clatter of a wheel over cobblestones. I open my eyes. I’m in a small sunlit room with an old radio on the floor, a chair, a coffee table, a standing lamp. I have no idea where I am. My legs hang over the arm of a couch. I’ve woken up inside a dream. This is what I think until I see the sketch of a giant man with one ear and realize where I am, that this dream is my new reality.

I look at my watch, my dad’s watch. Six thirty. I don’t know what time Olivia gets to the office, but I want to speak to her as soon as possible. I want to know what she knows and I want to get on the trail of the Beast while it’s still warm.

In my dad’s bedroom I pull out a toiletry case and a shopping bag from Ohrbach’s that I saw in the armoire last night. There are some new clothes in the bag, including a few plain white undershirts, some underwear—Jockey shorts—and socks. Good.

In the bathroom I wash up as best I can at the sink and then with a straight razor I attempt a quick shave. I manage to remove most of my stubble but my face is a bloody mess. Once I’m dressed I fold the contents of my father’s file folder and stuff them inside my jacket, lock up and rush downstairs, out into a street that barely resembles the street from last night. People are everywhere—men in work clothes spill out of the facades, lunch boxes in hand, women wearing kerchiefs lean out of windows talking to each other, and ragamuffin children sit on stoops and fire escape landings. No thin man in a black suit.

The smell of fish is thick in the air as I march down the street, shivering against the morning chill. People look at me, tilt their heads. I’m a stranger in the neighborhood, but somehow vaguely familiar. There’s a pushcart at the curb selling bags of pistachios, Hershey’s Kisses, fruit, bagels, pickles in a barrel. I haven’t eaten since 2012 but I’ve got no appetite. I hurry around the corner past a fenced-in lot, a razed tenement, where a pack of dogs scurries around in rubble and litter. At the end of the lot there’s a stretch of hoarding plastered with movie posters, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford. Just beyond that, I find a set of steps that take me down into a subway station.


Blame your parents when the monsters get you

Cover of “Entangled Minds” by Dean Radin. Paraview Pocket Books, New York, 2006.

When I was a kid, I saw little monsters in my bedroom. No one seemed to react when I said as much, though. Most kids see monsters. Actually, it’s probably a little weird for a kid not to see scary stuff in the dark. But if you do, your parents simply tell you what you’re seeing is not real. They might have to keep telling you for a few weeks, months, maybe years, but eventually you’ll stop seeing them, and you’ll grow up to be a normal adult. You’ll go to school, get a job, get married, have kids and tell those kids the little monsters they see aren’t real. If you don’t keep the cycle going, your kids could grow up to be adults who see monsters, and adults who see monsters don’t have it easy when it comes to things like getting a job and finding a partner. So this continual process—this shaping of consensual reality—is good and healthy. Except for one potential little problem—if there ever are real monsters, we won’t be able to see them. We’d be blind to them—not eye blind, but brain blind. And that’s the problem Lucas, the hero of Mantis, has. Even though he can see everything that’s in plain sight—which, as we saw in the previous post, is actually a remarkable genius—he still only sees what his brain accepts as part of consensual reality. It’s this weakness—a weakness that all well-adapted humans possess—that the enemies in Mantis prey upon.

Dean Radin, an award winning scientist who has devoted his career to the study of psychic phenomenon, covers how this brain blindness happens in his bestselling book Entangled Minds. The phenomenon at work is something called latent inhibition, which, as Radin puts it, “refers to an unconscious brain process that degrades our ability to pay attention to stimuli that have had no consequences in the past.” He goes on:

Imagine, for example, that Pavlov’s dogs were exposed to ringing bells without being fed. The dogs will quickly learn to ignore ringing bells because those sounds had no meaningful consequence (i.e. no association with food). Now, Pavlov decides to train the same dogs to salivate whenever they hear a bell by ringing the bells and feeding them. Unfortunately, these dogs had already learned to ignore bells, so they’re going to have a hard time unlearning the old association. Dogs that hadn’t previously heard the irrelevant bells will quickly learn to salivate. This “hard time unlearning” is due to latent inhibition.

That’s what Lucas is up against in Mantis—unlearning the reality he’s been taught all his life to believe in. And that’s no easy feat.

The phenomenon of latent inhibition strikes Lucas hard after he lands in Lisbon just as the Nazis storm through Belgium. In the excerpt below, Lucas, who has just seen the Black Suits kidnap his P. I. partner Olivia, seeks the help of Nick Cap, a Frenchman who seems to know the way to help Lucas.

Half a mile up the slope, I spot a sign for the Hotel Baleia hanging on a slim building tucked between two restaurants. I charge through the lobby, huffing, and ask the concierge for Nick Cap. He calls Nick, says a few words in a foreign language and then hangs up and tells me in broken English Nick’s room number.

Seconds later, I’m standing in a dingy hallway, banging on Nick’s door. He opens it swiftly, a pile of clothes balanced on his palm.

“The Black Suits just kidnapped Olivia,” I say.

“Oh, Lucas, I am sorry.” He steps inside his tiny room and places the clothes into an open suitcase on his bed.

“Are they going to kill her?”

“Explain what happened.”

After I relay the story, he says, “I do not know, Lucas. They could have killed her on the street. They did not. That is good—for now. They only kill if they have to, so it depends if they decide in the end that her death is necessary or not.”

“Where are they taking her?”

“I imagine they will take her to their closest headquarters.”

“Where’s that?”

“I do not know.” He closes the halves of his suitcase together. “If I knew, I would go there.”

“You have to help me find it.”

He lifts his suitcase off the bed onto the floor beside him. “Lucas, I was just about to leave for Casablanca to find the Black Suits.”

“We have to find Olivia first.”

He stares at me with his good eye. “Tell me, Lucas, when your father went missing, what did you think happened?”

“Nick, we don’t have time for this now—I need your help fast.”

“I need you to answer the question first.”

“I had no idea what happened.”

“But there were books, your grandfather’s books that pointed to the answer—is that not so?”

“Nick, please—”

“You saw the books, didn’t you?”

“I saw the books, yes.”

“But you never considered the possibility of other worlds, other dimensions.”

I let out a breath. The clock is ticking. “No sane person does.”

“It is not a question of sanity, Lucas. It is a question of what is real, what is truth. When you think of sanity, you miss things. You missed where your father went. You miss who these Black Suits are. You think you can fight them with a gun and regular bullets. You discovered the truth the hard way—you lost Olivia because of your closed mind.”

My teeth crunch together. “You asked for my father’s watch for some magic bullets, what the hell was I supposed to think?”

“You were supposed to open your mind. I am not, what you call, a snake-oil salesman. I offered you a necessary bargain. The universe works by balance, by bargain, by trade—like the laws of thermodynamics, but at the deepest, metaphysical level. Your grandfather knew about that. There is no… what you call free lunch in this world, or any world, Lucas. Your father’s watch for the method to kill your father’s killer—that was the trade. Without it, even my gold bullets would be no better than what you shot from your gun today.”

“I should have listened to you, yes. I’m sorry. I want to trade for those gold bullets now.”

“You need more than my bullets, Lucas. You need to open your mind. You possess a certain genius—a great memory with extraordinary powers of perception, just like your father and your grandfather. But you are blind, still—by certain prejudices, by certain preconceived notions of the world.”

“I saw my bullets disappear into that bastard’s face. My mind is open now.”

“It is not. And until it is, you’re not ready. You want to rush, Lucas. I understand, but that won’t help you get Olivia back. Your father rushed too. ’e did not wait for me to teach him all I know. He went to the Perisphere without me. He was too impatient. Maybe I could have done more to warn your father, but I will not let you make the same mistake.”

“Then help me get ready, help me open my mind.”

“Okay, Lucas, describe the Black Suit’s face.”

“Gaunt. Sunken pale cheeks. Small dark eyes.”

He shakes his head. “That is what a closed mind sees. You must first understand that as human beings, we perceive everything through five senses. Personally, I believe we have other senses. But whatever you believe, it is true we always filter out a large portion of what we perceive. There is simply too much data. As a Nomi, you, fortunately, do not have this particular limitation. Your brain has the capability to cope with a great deal of information. ’owever, you suffer, as most humans do, from another factor. And that, Lucas, is that we tend to accept only information which conforms to our preconceived notions of the world, shaped by science, by culture, by fear. Children see all manner of strange things—ghosts and so on—and when they report these things to adults we tell them they’re not real. We shape the reality of the child to the acceptable norms. In time, the child learns to filter out whatever does not fit the norms. You must rid yourself of the prejudices you have, of what you expect to see when you see a Black Suit.”

“What should I have seen?”

He pulls a piece of paper from an inside pocket of his jacket and unfolds it on the bed. It’s a pen-and-ink rendition of a revolting monster, a black creature oozing slime that looks partly humanoid and partly like a praying mantis. It has claw-like appendages like Olivia described and its triangular head, with two massive hypnotically dark eyes, tapers to a terrifying chaos of saw-edged mandibles.

“This is what the Black Suits really are, Lucas,” Nick is saying. “Dictyoptera—a unique, supernatural species. Like other creatures in the order of dictyoptera, such as the praying mantis, camouflage is their defense mechanism, but with these dictyoptera, the camouflage is super advanced. A technology unknown to man. It is bullet-proof also—against normal bullets.”

I look at Nick, can’t speak. I can tell he sees the recognition on my face.

“You see something familiar here, don’t you?”

I hesitate before saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this. But I’ve seen hundreds of black mantises in these visions I get at night. I’ve had them for years back in my world and a few here too. Some of the insects are regular sized, some larger.”

Nick’s eyes light up—finally he is getting somewhere with me. “At night when you dream, Lucas, your mind is open. It shows you the deeper reality of the world, things your conscious mind has filtered out. Your subconscious mind must have detected these dictyoptera somewhere and then shown you in your dreams a representation of what they really are with images of mantises. That makes sense, because a mantis insect is the closest norm you have for these dictyoptera. It is a good sign that you’ve had these dreams, Lucas. It gives me hope that your mind could be opened.”

Your Brain is Conspiring Against You: the reality it won’t let you see

Lucas, the hero of Mantis, possesses a unique genius—the ability to see everything that is in plain sight. If you don’t think that’s a special ability, spend the next minute taking this test:

If you missed the obvious, you’ve got lots of company. About half the people who take this test miss what’s right there in plain sight. Those who do see the obvious often miscount the number of passes. If you counted the passes correctly and saw the gorilla, you’re pretty special, but chances are you would probably still fail the much more complicated version of the test that Lucas takes in the opening of Mantis—excerpted a few paragraphs below.

The video test above is known as The Invisible Gorilla and was conducted by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University. Inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness are the terms used to describe our failure to notice some stimulus that is in plain sight.

As the Invisible Gorilla test shows, our brains simply won’t let us perceive everything before our eyes. We either focus on the reality of the passes or the reality of the gorilla. We can’t do both—something’s gotta go. The implication, of course, is that in the midst of everything we do—driving to work, walking through the mall, eating dinner at a restaurant—huge chunks of reality are passing straight through us, completely unnoticed.

But are we only missing commonly accepted reality? We all accept—though for some of us only during the second viewing—that someone dressed in a gorilla suit did indeed really walk through the basketball players. But is it possible we’re still missing something? Not just in this video, but wherever we are. Are we constantly missing things our brain refuses to accept no matter where we apply our focus or our attention? In Mantis these are questions that Lucas is forced to reckon with as his race to rescue his beloved takes him deeper and deeper into strangeness. More on this in a future blog. For now, an excerpt from when Lucas takes the perception test:

At nine o’clock I’m sitting beside Nathan at a long table with ten other account managers in a dark boardroom watching a video clip designed to test our leadership abilities. On a large HD wall screen, two teams—red shirts and white shirts—scramble around a soccer field. Each team is passing a ball between its members—fast passes, long ones, short ones, looping ones. We’re supposed to count the number of passes the red team makes. While I’m trying to do that, Nathan’s leg is vibrating spastically beside me, not just because the test is difficult, but because just prior to it, our instructor announced that due to a restructuring plan only one director position is now available. The others around the table, chewing fingernails and shifting endlessly in their seats, aren’t any less terrified they might fail to advance up the corporate ladder.

A minute into the video, something strange happens on screen. I watch it while continuing to count the passes. A little while later, the scene stops, freezing both balls in mid pass.

Our instructor—a bald and muscular overpaid consultant sheathed indecently in a snug turtleneck—flips the lights back on, retracts the blinds. We all narrow our eyes at the sudden rush of sunlight flooding into the room. The instructor takes a seat at the head of the table and asks us to enter the number of completed passes we counted on the electronic tablets in front of us. Nathan enters thirty-three. I enter thirty-six and kick him under the table. He glances over, copies my answer. I clear my tablet and re-enter twenty-eight before submitting it. Nathan sees what I’m doing and kicks me back, but it’s too late.

The instructor tells us the correct answer, thirty-six, and that only two people in the room got it right. Nathan shoots a confused glance in my direction.

“But,” the instructor says, “that’s not what this test is really about.” He wants to know if we saw anything out of the ordinary happen on the field.

Around the table, heads jerk back, swivel around. I tap out fox on the touch-screen keypad and let Nathan see. In my periphery, I catch his eyes bulging. I give him another kick. With a hesitant hand he copies my entry. Again I erase my answer, press enter, submitting a blank.

After our answers or non-answers are in, the instructor checks his screen, where our data is compiled. His brow knots up, and he looks over at Nathan, squints at him. Then he stands and tells us we just went through a variation on a standard psychology experiment that tests perceptual blindness—the human tendency to miss things. In today’s version, which is intentionally harder than the usual tests, often only one person in ten sees the strange occurrence, frequently no one does. Today, two people saw what everyone else missed. The instructor then reruns the video at a slower speed and this time no one misses a fox running into the middle of the field. Gasps of incredulity and nervous laughter erupt around the room as the fox weaves between the players’ legs, running past the ball at one point, before trotting off.

“I know it’s impossible to believe that most of you missed this, but you did. And in business,” the instructor says, “you need to keep your eye on the ball, but you also need to see the fox sneaking into your marketplace. We’re looking for a leader with that ability.” He then explains that one of the people who saw the fox missed a number of the passes, which is typical. “If your eye’s not on the ball,” he says, “it’s a little easier to spot the fox.” He further explains that what isn’t typical for this test is the ability to count the passes accurately and see the fox, because attention to the task is what causes the blindness. Of the thousands who have been tested, only three people have ever demonstrated that ability. Today, a fourth person enters that elite group. Everyone looks around the room with jealous eyes wondering who he’s talking about. Then the instructor asks everybody to leave, except Nathan.

I tap Nathan on the back as I get to my feet. He looks up at me, sheepish, speechless, his mouth hanging open. “You deserve it, bud,” I say. As I file out of the room with the rest of my peers, I’m struck by the irony of our instructor’s own perceptual blindness, his inability to spot our cheating right under his nose. But it never would have occurred to a man like him that in the competition for a promotion one candidate might sacrifice himself for another.



Old-School Time Machine


Cover of the hardcover edition (2010) of “Over Here!: New York City During World War II” by Lorraine B. Diehl, from Smithsonian Books, HarperCollins.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”—L.P. Hartley

I needed a time machine. It was the middle of the winter 2011 and I was sitting in a coffee shop staring out over a snow-covered Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village, working out the story for Mantis. I had decided I wanted my hero to find himself catapulted from Manhattan in the spring of 2012 to Manhattan in the spring of 1940, where he would become a secret agent trying to rescue a Jewish refugee from a clandestine group known as the Black Suits, a group that would at first appear to be involved in a Nazi plot. Though all the characters would be imagined and the paranormal would feature as a growing theme throughout the trilogy, I wanted to stay as true as possible to history where I could. Problem was—all the research I had done to date on the history of this time period hadn’t given me the kind of clear picture I wanted of what it was like in Manhattan at the time.

I knew the spring of 1940 would have been unique for the city. On September the 3rd of the year before, Britain and France declared war against Germany. But the States wouldn’t join the allies till Pearl Harbor, more than a year into the future. While the world war brewed across the sea, the American government would have been preparing for a war it might not be able to avoid, and the people would have been wondering if—and hoping that—they could pull themselves out of the Great Depression. But what exactly would it be like for a Jewish refugee in the city? What were New Yorkers thinking and doing about Nazis—German and American? Those, and a hundred other similar questions, roiled through my mind as I sipped my coffee across from the park.

With great luck, on my way back to my hotel, I found the time machine I needed in the Strand bookstore, one of my favorite places in the world. The book was Lorraine Diehl’s Over Here: New York City During World War II. Later that night, while a blizzard buried the city, I began poring through the book and finding answer after answer to my many questions. As Diehl explains, New York had an odd bifurcation through the ‘30s—while Jewish refugees flooded into the Upper West Side, members of the Bund—a German American pro-Nazi organization—would flaunt the Nazi flag during parades in Yorkville’s Germantown in the Upper East Side and rallies in Madison Square Garden. Stores in Yorkville would openly display Nazi paraphernalia. Anti-Nazi rallies would rage, but the American Nazis fought hard to win support. The mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, half Jewish, deplored—as much of the city did—the American Nazis and had pursued their demise. As news of German Nazi atrocities spread through New York, anti-Nazi sentiment mounted. Finally in ‘39 LaGuardia succeeded in arresting the Bund’s despicable leader, effectively quashing the New York Nazi movement. So, by the time the spring of 1940 would roll around and my hero would arrive, New Yorkers were suspicious of German spies and on guard for anything Nazi, fearing a fifth column.

Below is an excerpt from Mantis, in which Lucas finds himself on 1940s Manhattan’s streets in a Guns N’ Roses concert T-shirt:

“It’s not safe out there for you, Lucas.”

I step into a narrow hallway where chips in the walls expose multiple layers of paint, variations on the theme of off white. I shamble along a worn runner to the head of a staircase. Kay is waddling down the hall after me, the floor groaning under his weight. I lean into a handrail and hobble down the stairs. The movement causes blood to flow and my legs get steadier with each step. By the time I get to the bottom I’m walking almost normally. I head through a tiny vestibule and out onto the sidewalk.

The sun hits me straight in the face, bright and hot. I squint and put a hand out, feel a cooling breeze on my skin. I take a breath, inhaling the smells carried on the air from the park—of flowers and cut grass. Other smells follow in their wake, of bitter exhaust and fresh paint. I turn. A workman crouches at the bottom of a ladder, stabilizing it for someone standing on the top step painting a storefront sign: Carlo’s Butcher Shop. Someone opens the door beneath the sign releasing a cloud of spicy, redolent sausage. Its odor is tantalizing, real.

On the other side of the butcher’s is a luncheonette spot offering fountain service, a big red Coca-Cola sign projecting overhead. Beyond that, there’s an ice cream parlor selling orange drinks for five cents, a photo shop, cigar store. A newsstand sits on the street corner, above it the cross street signs read E 10th Street and Avenue A. This is Tompkins Square Park. I’m nowhere near the Daniels Museum. And this isn’t the gentrified park I know it to be. It appears to be working class.

I feel a hand on my back. “Lucas—” Kay nods to the doorway. “You’re in danger out in public, dressed the way you are. Let’s go back inside.”

I take a step forward, away from Kay. I look around. Kids are swinging from monkey bars in a play area in the park. A woman pushes a squeaky stroller along a paved path. A young boy with a cap polishes the shoes of a businessman sitting in a chair reading a paper. I shake my head. All so real, all so impossible.

A boy on a bicycle clatters past me just under my nose. He continues for a few more seconds then sticks his foot out and screeches to a halt. He swivels around to face me and stares, mouth agape, at my T-shirt.

Kay steps back into the doorway. “Now, please, Lucas, come back inside. Your undershirt. It looks like a death’s-head—the symbol of the Nazi SS.”

But I stay rooted in my spot. The boy stabs a finger at me and starts hollering. He’s looking down the street and I turn to follow his gaze.

A policeman, the same policeman I saw in the subway, is strolling down the sidewalk about thirty yards away. He looks to the boy, then to me.

From the doorway, Kay gestures frantically for me to hurry inside.

I spin around, trying to assess whether I should run, and which way—across the road to the park, or down the street. The cop is closing in.

“Lucas, listen to me, you’ll get caught out there. You have no papers. Manhattan has no sympathy for Nazis now. They’ll send you to Sing Sing and you’ll be stuck there forever. You’ll die there.”

I glance at the cop, who’s running now, hand hovering over his holster. I dash back into the building. Kay tells me to run, hurry, go change into some of my father’s clothes from the closet.

Within seconds, I’m up the stairs and back in the office, undressing. I’m standing by the closet tugging down the sleeves of my father’s wide-lapelled double-breasted brown jacket by the time Kay enters, wheezing.

I’m fully dressed except for socks and shoes. I ask Kay for those, but he waves a hand. “Don’t worry,” he gasps. “Just get behind the desk.”

He closes the door just before the shadow of the cop falls across the frosted glass. Kay grabs one of the fedoras from the nearby coat rack and deftly—for a stocky man—twirls it through the air at me like a Frisbee. I put it on, lower the brim then sit down and flip open one of the files on the desk, pretending to work. The smell of my father wafts from the clothes. It’s his scent minus the fifteen years of dust. My throat thickens.

The cop raps on the door frame, rattling the glass. “Police. Open up.”

Kay opens the door and invites the officer inside. “How can I help you?” he says in a bright, cheery voice.

Heavy shoes thump on hardwood as the cop steps into the room. He’s huffing and in a breathy voice introduces himself as Officer Brian O’Keefe, says he’s looking for a young man dressed in dungarees, some kind of odd footwear and an undershirt that bears a Nazi death’s-head.

“Good Lord,” Kay says. “A Nazi. But no, I haven’t seen him.”

“And you, sir?” O’Keefe calls out.

With my face still turned to the desk I shake my head.

“Nobody’s come in here all day,” Kay says. “It’s just been the two of us working.”

“Right.” O’Keefe’s shoes sound on the floor. He’s walking around, gradually making his way toward me.

“It’s terrible,” Kay says, “these Nazis, they’re all over Manhattan now, aren’t they?”

O’Keefe’s shadow darkens my desk. I’m flipping through pages in the file folder, keeping my head down.

He moves to the edge of the desk and I pray he can’t hear the thundering of my heart in my chest. A thick, calloused palm appears before my downturned eyes. “Your papers, sir.”


On the Waterfront: Or, the Time I Got Arrested at the NY Harbor

Cover of the hardcover edition (2010) of “Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront” by Nathan Ward, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Oh, the things I’ve done for the sake of Mantis.

A couple days before 2011 began, my girlfriend and I braved the snowbanked sidewalks and trudged through Manhattan’s West Side neighborhoods edging the Hudson—known as the North River during the ‘40s, the time that Lucas is thrown back to.

It was near midnight, and I wanted to get a feel for what the harbor looked and felt like at night. I’ve always been fascinated by harbors—the caw of birds, water lapping against pilings, horns blaring, ships coming and going, from and to strange and mysterious places. Escape, adventure, promise….

But also, danger. Especially in the 1940s. Ships would leave the harbor to face storms, pirates, torpedoes that could put an end—an eternal one—to the adventures of their passengers. A yearning lover might  wait at the harbor for their beloved’s ship to come in and find themselves waiting forever. Refugees fleeing Nazi-threatened or occupied countries might arrive at the dock and be refused entry, turned away, if they didn’t have the right papers. Or anyone who offended the wrong person on the waterfront might be fitted with cement shoes and sent to the river’s weedy bottom.

All of these dangers feature in some way in Mantis, so I really needed to get a handle on Manhattan’s harbor. But there was one danger that hadn’t figured in my mind as I leaned out with my camera over a railing near Pier 93, the quay used by the RMS Queen Mary, the luxury liner that ran between England and New York in the late 30s. Later, in the war, like other liners, it was repurposed as a troopship.

From behind me, the cold wind carried a loud holler, “You, stop right there.” I froze and my cold hands just about dropped my camera in the water. Footsteps closed in on us and a deep voice ordered us both to turn around. Two men, one dressed in a uniform, began to interrogate us, wanting to know what we were doing there, why we were taking pictures.

After listening to our story and checking our camera, and satisfying themselves that they were indeed talking to a harmless writer and his girlfriend, the two men informed us they were acting on behalf of Homeland Security, that the harbor was some kind of priority zone and that we should vacate immediately.

As we shirked across the street, in the shadow of a Hustler club, I considered how different the harbor must have been seventy years ago, long before the law enforced its powers.

To help me discover the harbor of the past, the harbor my hero would haunt, I turned to my usual tactic—scouring Manhattan’s bookstores. At 192 Books in Chelsea, I found Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront by Nathan Ward. It proved to be a beautifully written book and a perfect eye into the waterfront during the ‘40s—a time when gangsters like “Cockeye” Dunn ruled the harbor with rackets, extortion and violence. Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront, based on Arthur Miller’s play, would help provide visuals—a waterfront sans the gentrified neighborhoods and the trolling Homeland Security guards. A waterfront that includes the now-razed West Side Elevated Highway. I’m grateful to both works for helping fill in the gaps.

Below is a brief excerpt from Mantis—when Lucas learns that the woman he’s been trying to rescue, the woman of his dreams, might have run into one of the harbor’s notorious dangers.

I stand at the edge of a pier on the Hudson, the waterway they’re calling the North River, in my father’s trench coat, shaking inside and trying not to retch.

The sky is overcast and a light drizzle falls, puddling on the cement quay. A few feet away from me, Olivia, wearing a turquoise raincoat, shivers under an umbrella. Beside her Conti yells orders at a couple of men in oilskins operating a dredging barge that bobs in the water below. They’ve been looking for Elsa’s body all morning.

The reek of dead fish and diesel rises off the dark, murky water. Vessels of all types—tugs and ferries, barges loaded with railway containers, lighters piled high with garbage—pack the river. Some float languidly on the surface, others chug headlong through the water, blowing horns and sirens that rattle my nerves.

Nearby, several longshoremen, grappling hooks hanging from their back pockets, sling a giant crate off a steamer. When it lands with an exploding thud on the cement dock, I clasp my hands over my stomach.

Olivia turns to me. “You okay?”

I struggle to appear together. She stares at me till I nod that I’m fine, then turns to Conti. Raising her voice to speak over the racket from the boats and the dockers and the seagulls cawing overhead, she says, “Maybe she’s not in there.”

Conti turns. “Oh, she’s in there somewhere,” he says.

“And you’re sure she was alone?” I ask, wondering whether it was indeed a suicide, and not murder at the hands of the Beast. “Nobody was with her?”

“She was alone. We got a reliable witness says he saw her leap from the top of that container—” Conti points to a large metal shipping container sitting near us “—and smack her head right there—” he aims a finger at the crusty edge of the pier “—before she goes in the water. See the blood stains?”

Nausea rolls through me at the sight of the blood, possibly Elsa’s blood. I hold my breath till it subsides. Once I’ve steeled myself, I say, “That could be fish blood,” my voice cracking despite my efforts.



Finding a home in Manhattan 1940

A current view of a street ‘between the bridges’ near Lucas’s 1940 apartment

Finding my hero a home in Manhattan 1940 became a little bit of an obsession for me. I had a sense of it in my head—more my gut—a gritty tenement somewhere, a street where footsteps echo loudly, with dark alleys nearby, a railroad floor plan, a rickety floor…. There had to be thousands of these places in Manhattan back then, but where? Where exactly would my hero lay his head once he slipped through time, from 2012 to a New York decades before gentrification transformed large swaths of the island?

I would spend many hours on a few research trips to NYC hunting Lower Manhattan—circling the blocks around Greenwich Village, SoHo, Tompkins Square Park, the Williamsburg Bridge, trying to conjure up what they might have looked like decades earlier and praying that my instincts would tell me I was getting warmer, closer to something I could only vaguely identify as a feeling I expected to get. But that feeling never hit me, until—on a later trip—I trekked through the neighborhoods between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. That’s when I felt that pull inside me, that rush that told me Lucas’s home would have been here—but here was no longer there. Here—in 2011 as I researched the book—stood the Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing project built in the 50s. But still, somehow, I felt strongly that Lucas, and his father Lorne before him, would have lived in this neighbourhood.

I badly wanted, needed, to know what the area looked like, smelled like, who lived in it—before the development. On foot, I started to scour used bookstores—dragging along my very patient girlfriend. After ransacking many a dusty shelf, I hit the jackpot on a bottom shelf in Alabaster Bookshop. The find: Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs By Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950. Lepkoff, a brilliant young photographer at the time, made it a personal project to capture life in the area between the bridges. The book contains more than a hundred duotone photos—tenements festooned with laundry, razed lots surrounded by hoarding, laborers with grappling hooks, men hiding in the shadows under the El (now dismantled), seagulls swarming crates by the nearby Fulton Street Fish Market (now moved to the Bronx).

Lepkoff’s work was the key to finding Lucas’s home. As an homage, I named one of my characters after her.

I ended up locating Lucas’s home on the third floor of a cold-water flat on Olson Street, a fictitious street in the neighborhood now buried by the housing project.

Below is a brief excerpt from Mantis—when Lucas comes upon the street where he finds the home he is to inherit from his father:

I’m hoping the neighborhoods will improve as I get nearer Olson, but they don’t, and when I turn onto my father’s street, a narrow cobblestone road flanked by shabby tenements, my throat thickens. I can barely process the thought of my father living in this area, an area so decrepit that the city will soon tear it down, just like the blocks of gas tanks, to make room for a housing development. Did he not make any money working for Kay? Is this the best he could do? I touch his keys again and search the buildings for a number. The odds are on the south side, and his building must be midway down the block.

Slowly I cross the street, a street that reeks of putrid garbage as much as any I’ve walked along tonight. As I step onto the sidewalk, a geyser of steam whooshes out of a nearby manhole. Afterward, there’s an eerie silence, just my footsteps and the faint thump of cars on the bridges a few blocks either side of me. Some windows are lit, but not many, and I see nobody around.

I’m a couple of buildings away from my father’s when I detect another set of footsteps from somewhere behind me, just barely out of synch with mine. I turn, but see no one. I stand and wait, my eyes probing the bands of darkness between the reaches of the street lamps. I scan tenement facades on both sides of the street, searching doorways, every crevice within view. I start to stamp my heels on the sidewalk, mimicking the sound of me walking again. Within seconds, my eye catches on some movement, a shift of darkness under an archway across the street, a few apartment buildings down. I squint to get a better look and feel a sudden jolt when I detect a sliver of a dark jacket and the tip of a hat brim.