When I had a key to the old Mercantile Library on 47th St, I used to wander through the diamond district every day before sitting down to write. I ate lunch in the upstairs canteens where the traders and cutters ordered food. Eventually I started interviewing people, showing up to events in the Diamond Trader’s Club, visiting cutting rooms, jewelers, scrap dealers, elite traders in colored diamonds. When The New Yorker’s Jeremy Keehn asked me to write about the Lesedi la Rona, the world’s largest diamond, I found that Ronnie VanderLinden, a stalwart of the district who I knew pretty well, a classic old school cutter and trader, had been brought in to assess it. Just a bit of the material I gathered, but a good story:
The World’s Largest Diamond
An interview with Aleksandar Hemon
I first heard of Sasha Hemon from my old friend Tina, his sister, when I was living in Sarajevo in the 1990s. Sasha was just starting to publish versions of the stories that would become The Question of Bruno. When I came back to the US many years later, Colum McCann asked me to interview a writer for a class at Hunter. I was lucky to choose Hemon, who has ready answers for anything, and speaks in deliberate, sophisticated paragraphs. We talked about the politics of the US and the Balkans (this was before Trump), about selfhood, cognition, and other delusions.
There Is No Real Life
Marcy Houses has Jay-Z; Queensbridge has Nas and Mobb Deep; the most famous former resident of Todt Hill is Drita D’Avanzo, a daughter of Albanian immigrants who grew up in the Houses. This February MC Drita hosted “Louder than Love: Freestyle Valentine’s Ball” in Nassau County, but she is best known as a star of the VH1 reality show “Mob Wives.” Her husband Lee D’Avanzo was arrested under “Operation Turkey Shoot” while breaking into the Richmond County Savings Bank in 2009. He is widely considered the leader of a farm team for the Bonanno and Colombo crime family. Drita defied her parents to marry Lee, but she was with her mother visiting Todt Hill this March. She dropped in on old friends and had her picture taken with a young girl who recognized her. “What are you doing here?” the girl asked. “I was born in this building and lived here for fifteen years.”
The Houses have also been home to Earn EZ, who dodges frog splashes in Staten Island’s upstart DIY pro-wrestling organization Warriors of Wrestling; YouTube rapper Vicki Vicious (“Time’s ticking so I put my life between my bars and sentences”); and Timothy Gardner, currently building what he hopes will be the largest ball of rubber bands in history. Gardner began the ball, which now weighs 420 pounds and is on display at the Snug Harbor Museum, while living in Todt Hill Houses as an 11 year-old.
The full story
With Lale Müldür in Istanbul
While I was pregnant—before I knew I was pregnant—I had a vivid vision. It’s the most vivid vision I ever had. The man I was going out with was reading a book near me, and I said “Something strange is happening to me”…I talked to him throughout the vision. At first I saw V shapes in front of me, green or orange…I was flying, by standing on the V. And I was enjoying myself flying. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed myself that much in any other part of my story. It was a lovely feeling. And I wasn’t making any great effort to fly but I was flying. According to my friend I was there in the room, but I was flying in my mind—if you will—and suddenly…I saw Jesus and his twin…very beautiful, a very beautiful guy. I didn’t understand the twin for many years, until a friend of mine told me that according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus does have a twin! But Jesus didn’t smile at me, he just looked at me very distantly…And then I saw Muhammad. He had black hair to his shoulders and white skin, a beautiful man still, but not as beautiful as Jesus Christ [another burst of laughter]. He talked to me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He gave me an empty flowerpot, and he was smiling at me, so I felt better.…So it was Muhammad that made me happy, obviously. And then suddenly I came down….And I said ‘Why? Why am I here again?’ [laughter] ‘I was so happy up there,’ I said.
The full story: