Here's how it all went down, using the magic of PRESENT TENSE so it feels like you're right there with us!
Friday, 12:45 a.m.
In e-mails sent a day before the tour, recipients are instructed to bring pants, a bathing suit, a picnic dinner, and a specific mystery item. (Mystery items include a box of toothpicks, a bag of rubber bands, a bag of plastic straws, a box of paperclips, Cheerios, Skittles, Diet Coke, cucumbers, apples, grapes, lemons, and pineapples.)
Saturday, 9:30 a.m.
Thirty-one bold adventurers meet at the new Flux Factory HQ to sign waivers and hop on VROOM (the Vehicle for Radical Organizing and Other Madness), a vegetable oil-powered converted school bus owned and operated by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a radical marching band and dance troupe.
En route to our first destination, Matt and I introduce the theme of our trip: The Quest for Immortality! We initiate a time capsule with an empty paint can, an instant camera (Fujifilm Instax 200), and a notebook. Adventurers are instructed to pass the time capsule around, recording their thoughts and impressions from the day to be left behind at our final destination.
First stop: Jamaica, Queens. We walk halfway around the block of Thomas A. Edison Vocational and Technical High School, leaving room on the sidewalk for the occasional skinny European running towards us.
Matt gathers the group and reads the first few paragraphs of "Run Like Fire Once More" from Harper's Magazine, which slowly reveals the staggering Self-Transcendence 3100, the longest foot race in the world. Founded by Sri Chinmoy, a late guru who taught self-transcendence through feats of strength and endurance, the Self-Transcendence 3100 has runners circle the same city block 5649 times - 3100 miles - over the course of six to eight weeks. Participants run every day from 6 a.m. to midnight and must complete at least 50 miles a day or risk disqualification.
We walk to the base camp to visit the support staff. Rupantar Larusso, the race director, greets us and tells us about their strategies to combat weight loss (eat lots of sugars and fats on the run), blisters (cut the toes out of shoes), and quickly disintegrating soles (replace some of the sole with tire rubber). Chinmoy's disciples are just as excited to meet us as we are to meet them! (Read their thoughts on the Sri Chinmoy Centre website, the Self-Transcendence 3100 blog, and Perfection Journey, another blog about the race.)
I really cherish that our first stop is something that is impossible to communicate with images. To the eye, it's just a dozen people running some laps!
We gather in the school's parking lot and meet Ashrita Furman, who has set 242 Guinness World Records and currently holds 98.
Ashrita's records include fastest time to skip a marathon (6 hours), fastest mile while balancing a milk bottle on head (8 minutes), longest continuous distance to somersault (12 miles), longest time to hula hoop under water (2.5 minutes), fastest time to peel and eat a lemon (11 seconds), most t-shirts torn in half in one minute (14), most cloves of garlic eaten in one minute (22), most vinyl records smashed in thirty seconds (32), most cucumbers snapped in one minute (87), most eggs crushed with head in 30 seconds (53), and most apples sliced in mid-air with a samurai sword (29).
Also a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, Ashrita travels the world setting records and talking about transcendental meditation. Ashrita admits he was never very athletic in his youth; his quest began when he entered a 24-hour bike ride and Chinmoy's expectations for how many miles Ashrita would ride pushed Ashrita well past his own expectations. (He ended up riding over 400 miles.) Now in his fifties, Ashrita is in exceptional shape.
Ashrita demonstrates his record for most apples sliced in mid-air by a samurai sword and most chocolate malt balls (Maltesers) thrown from 15 feet away caught in one's mouth in one minute. (Ashrita already holds the Malteser record, but is attempting to best it.) Then we all skip around the parking lot while Ashrita runs around with us, balancing a milk jug on his head. "You can't help but smile when you're skipping," Ashrita notes.
Adventurers are instructed to retrieve their mystery items from the bus and bring them back to the parking lot. With the mystery items assembled, we introduce the Universal Record Database:
There's a high barrier for setting a Guinness-verified world record, including proposing a new record ahead of time and receiving press coverage. An alternative is the Universal Record Database, which is a more grassroots record-keeping website that only requires a witness and documentation. (URDB began at Burning Man as the Playa Book of Records.)
The URDB philosophy is that everyone in the world can and should be the best at something. I love that! During our research, Matt and I went to a couple of the URDB Record Appreciation Nights, met the founders, and set our own record.
The assembled mystery items are materials for setting new world records! I have a video camera in tow and am ready to tape anyone's record attempt. Jean (Artistic Director at Flux Factory) suggests the entire group simultaneously floss their teeth with a single piece of dental floss. So we do! A new world record!
In smaller groups, adventurers put the most toothpicks in a cucumber, put the most rubber bands around their head in one minute, and get the most people simultaneously drinking from a pineapple with straws, and more! (Good Morning America attempts to break our pineapple-drinking record a couple weeks later.)
Lunch time! We walk a couple blocks to Annam Brahma (translation: "food is God"), which is owned and staffed by more disciples of Sri Chinmoy. The restaurant hosts some of Chinmoy's 16 million Soul Bird drawings, two of his 200,000 paintings, a selection of his 1500 books, and photographs of Chinmoy lifting weights and people. (Over the course of two decades, Chinmoy lifted more than 8300 individuals - "Heads of State, diplomats, spiritual and religious leaders of many faiths, distinguished achievers in the arts and in literature, Nobel laureates, and world class athletes" - to encourage, inspire, and show appreciation for their achievements.)
We plow into the Indian curry buffet, served by a smiling staff in saris. Pranika offers us copper water, tells us about witnessing Chinmoy's record-breaking lift, and introduces "The Spirit of a Runner", a lovely half-hour documentary about Suprabha Beckjord, the only person to finish every Self-Transcendence race and the only female competitor in the history of the race.
Stuffed, we hop on the bus and head to Bay Ridge. We unload at the Crete Wonder Garden, where 81-year-old George Kortsolakis has been building a monument to his home island of Crete in his back yard for seven years. George dreams about the Wonder Garden every night and brings his visions to fruition the next morning with pebbles, shells, and figurines.
The island's mountains are constructed from broken concrete and Liquid Nails, the surrounding ocean a pool of blue pebbles. Miniature olive trees and street lamps line the streets, populated by Alexander the Great's mermaid sister, wild goats, Ithacus (post-ocean plunge), and of course George's own home, all housed beneath an elaborate plexiglass shed.
We cross the Verrazano Bridge into Staten Island and pull into a Pathmark parking lot in Rossville. Time to change into pants! We warn everyone that we will be engaging in minor trespassing and that anyone uncomfortable with this is welcome to wait at the bus for us to return. No one stays behind (including our driver, Marcus).
We cross the street and head into the woods. A quarter mile later, we emerge at the base of one of two abandoned liquid natural gas towers that stand about 150 feet tall. These LNG towers have never been used because before they were put into operation, an explosion at an LNG tower further north in Bloomfield claimed 37 lives, energizing local opposition to keep the pair of tanks in Rossville from being filled. As a result, the tanks have remained untouched and unused for more than three decades.
In two groups we climb the north tank, which offers a spectacular view of a ship graveyard and the Fresh Kills cell where the remains of the World Trade Center are interred. We are on top of the world.
The bus pulls into Lemon Creek Park on the South Shore of Staten Island. Swimsuit time! We walk along a quarter-mile stretch of beach lined with rock cairns, then meet their creator, Douglas Schwartz, who has been building and maintaining the cairns for ten years. Doug is a zookeeper at the Staten Island zoo, and he cares for (and houses!) Chuck the Groundhog (who recently bit Mayor Bloomberg).
Doug has transformed how people treat the once rundown, garbage-strewn beach. The project started when Doug began collecting trash on the beach and grouping it in separate piles based on color. Beachgoers left his piles largely untouched, and Doug realized that the deliberateness of the piles kept most people from interfering. So he started stacking rocks. Initially they were knocked down by, presumably, ne'er-do-well kids, but every Friday morning, Doug would reassemble what had been toppled and begin constructing more. Eventually, beachgoers realized the cairns weren't going anywhere and accepted them as part of the landscape. (Sure, they're still knocked down occasionally - once by a co-worker of Doug's who assumed they were part of some satanic ritual - but not with the frequency they once were.) The existence of the cairns, I posit, gives the space structure and focus, a visual reminder of the steady attention the beach receives. The cairns are not authoritarian or imposing; they're affirming: someone cares about this space, and you should, too!
To be able to change a space for the better (irrefutably!) through sheer dedicated artistic labor, while completely avoiding the absurd bureaucracy that often surrounds such public projects, is an incredible, inspiring coup.
After ten years, Doug has a real intimacy with the rocks. He points to one stone that he says had been missing for a couple years before recently turning up in the water again. He also notices when neighbors "borrow" the cairns for lawn decoration. We were able to get in touch with Doug through James Curcuru, who wrote a profile of Doug, "The Rock Artist", for Gelf Magazine and joined us on the tour!
As the sunlight wanes, we eat dinner, pass drinks, watch the sunset, swim in the ocean, then run back to the bus as the bugs start biting, leaving the time capsule behind with the camera, dozens of photos, and our log. It's at 40.510969,-74.210256 behind a fence post, if you want to find it.