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January 12 2014


Bridge and Tunnel Kid, Part Five

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 9.35.11 PM

The phrase "during the war" played an out-sized role in my suburban New York upbringing, and it meant only one conflict - not the Vietnam War, which raged for my entire childhood, producing casualty counts nightly on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, waning only in adolescence; not the Korean War, which produced several veterans who became parents of my school mates; not even the Great War, during which my grandfather flew planes that were little more than canvas kites with machine guns strapped to them.

No, "the war" invariably meant the big one itself, the Second World War, which transformed society at almost every level, made the United States into a superpower, and scattered American culture to the far ends of the Earth, where it took root, for good and bad. World War II was New York's war, of course - directed by a New Yorker who traced his roots to Dutch immigrant Claes van Rosenvelt, whose farm covered the portion of midtown Manhattan now occupied by the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, and Macy's. It was the center of shipping, the terminus for railroads and troop trains. the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 10,000 men and plenty of women too, and it produced both the USS Missouri upon which the Empire of Japan surrendered to Douglas MacArthur, former commandant of West Point who served at St. Mihiel with my grandfather in the previous war, and wood-planked PT 109, which turned a gangly Massachusetts lieutenant, whose family lived in Riverdale and Bronxville while the patriarch raked in millions in the city, into a national hero and future President.

Pre-war and post-war in New York are generally real estate descriptors, or at least they were before the latest building boom or two. The war changed the landscape. It made New York a world capital, center of post-war American commerce, headquarters to the United Nations, financial capital of the global conflict's sole undamaged victor. Public housing exploded, and slum clearance accelerated. Robert Moses really became the Power Broker under unofficial war powers - the Throgs Neck and the Whitestone bridges went up with war looming; with victory won, Moses had virtually cart blanche to build highways through the 1960s.

My own arrival in the post-war world was 17 years after Hitler's suicide and the dual atomic bombs, incubated as they were at 270 Broadway, with technical facilities at Columbia, tested in the western deserts, and immortalized as the Manhattan Project. In our suburban precincts, the war in the 60s meant either Europe or the South Pacific. My grandfather, a fighter pilot in the Great War in France, trained new fliers in the rural south, ruining what remained of his tenuous health. Four uncles wore the uniform in World War Two. His oldest son Thomas Quinlan, my Godather, served a Stateside Army stint. Gus Ryan was a tanker in Western Europe, and I remember the old dud shells used as door-stoppers and the German field glasses on the porch at Lake Mahopac. Lou Dermako out of the coal fields on Pennsylvania was a front line Marine officer fighting island to island in the Pacific, and George Quinlan a Navy petty officer driving LSTs to the those same bloody beaches. They met on a homebound troop ship after the war, future brothers in law.  None of them talked about the details of the war very much. 

In the 1980s, I interviewed a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He lived with his wife on Tibbett Avenue in Kingsbridge, just north of West 231 Street in the Bronx. It was a neat little apartment and family photographs covered one of the tables in the living room where we sat for an hour of so. He'd been assigned to the Army Air Corps base at Wheeler Airfield near Honolulu, and when the Japanese attacked, he helped to get a small contingent of fighter planes into the air despite the devastation on the ground. At Wheeler on December 7th, 33 were killed and more than 70 wounded and much of the air wing destroyed on the ground. He returned to work for the Transit Authority in maintenance for forty years. He told me the interview was the first time he'd talked about Pearl Harbor in any detail, not even to his children. I asked him why he's risked his life to run across the tarmac to get the few remaining planes into the air and his answer has stayed with me since that afternoon in Kingsbridge. "They were killing my friends. What else could I do? They were killing my friends."

During that same period in Riverdale, writing stories for The Press, I got to know Stuart Elenko, a history teacher at the Bronx High School of Science and founder of the Holocaust Studies Center there. Stuart had assembled an important collection of artifacts from the European cauldron, including uniforms, propaganda, posters, Nazi insignia, and Jewish stars. He taught a generation of students to remember the brutality of the past and its grave lessons of man's inhumanity to man. I joined the Board of Directors of the Center and did what I could to promote its mission. During the time, I met quite a few residents of the apartment towers and garden homes of Riverdale and Kingsbridge who still carried tattooed numbers on their arms. One day, I asked Stuart (who was a child during the war) why he spent so much of his life creating the collection, building the center, and working with young people to understand the horrors of Nazi Europe, and Stuart's answer was so similar to the Pearl Harbor survivor's - "they killed my people."

Yet there was also a sense of glamor about "the war" in the New York I grew up in. Part of that related to popular culture and recent memories - Sinatra and the bobby soxers, the Stage Door Canteen, war bond rallies, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army, and VE and VJ Day celebrations in Times Square. And part of that living memory in New York was related to World War Two's permanent status as "the good war" in a era of decidedly bad U.S. military policy. As "the war" receded in actuality, replaced by gauzy memories in black and white, it competed with New York's Vietnam era protests, book-ended by the take over of Columbia's campus by militant students and  the infamous Hard Hat Riot of 1970 in lower Manhattan, in which two hundred construction workers armed with pipes and wrenches and other tools of their trade set upon a thousand or so high school and college kids protesting the war, callow bridge and tunnel kids mainly, carring signs and chanting against Nixon. Later, of course, I covered all manner of anti-war protests as a journalist - most were pretty tame and you came to know the familiar lefty faces - and finally marched on my own against the Bush Administration's disastrous and brutal adventurism in Iraq.

Despite its popular caricature as a hotbed of liberalism, New York is not anti-military. Quite the contrary. New York loves the American armed forces, celebrates the service of men and women in uniform, and - speaking in the kind generality that get sociologists in trouble - I think it's far to say that in part, New Yorkers love the U.S. military because of its reputation as a meritocracy, a leg up for those newly arrived or living below the poverty line. This quality was not always there, of course, and I remember well interviewing Roscoe Brown as a reporter for The Riverdale Press. Dr. Brown was then the president of Bronx Community College and one the borough's most respected public figures, but as a 21-year-old college kid he became a pilot in the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He told the story of becoming the first American pilot to shoot down one of Germany's advanced jet fighters, in a battle for the skies over the Ploesti oil fields. Years later as a consultant, I worked with my friend Karen Davis on a campaign to raise funds and awareness to preserve Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama as a national monument. 

There are World War Two monuments all around New York, but they seem muted compared to the statues from the 1820s and the Civil War and up through the Great War. One of the most moving is the memorial to the Merchant Marine service, in Battery Park looking out toward the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. On spring days when I worked on down Broad Street, I'd sometimes wander over to eat lunch in the sun by the water, near the bronze figures created by sculptor Marisol Escobar on the rebuilt stone breakwater. To my eye, they seemed to be looking out to see for brothers who would never return from the waves. 

In most office pre-war buildings in midtown, there's a simple bronze plaque dedicated to those who died in the conflict. A few years ago when I was working in the old Daily News Building - also known as the Daily Planet in the first Superman movie; that's Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent coming through the revolving doors on East 42nd Street - and I stopped to look at the memorial on the wall next to the newsstand. The lobby is famous for the huge, slowly turning globe set in the floor with lines on the floor running to imaginary points around the world. There's also an anemograph that displays wind speed and direction from instruments on the roof. When the tabloid's founder, the ultra-conservative Colonel  Joseph Medill Patterson, heard about plans for the weather station, he famously scoffed at the designers: "Weather charts! What the people want are murder charts - some kind of map of the metropolitan area where the latest crimes could be chalked up." I enjoyed walking through that lobby almost every day I worked in the building, and the plaque itself was contrast to the ambitions of a newsaper's bold public space (a newspaper, I might add, that had long since moved to the far West Side and a drab box near the highway). There were the names of typesetters, and copy editors, and ad salesmen, and compositors like my father. I imagined the returning Daily News veterans stopping to look at that simple memorial and remember as they picked up cigarettes at the newsstand. And I thought that it was these returning veterans who really built the post-war New York that was so familiar to me.

They were all men of course, but their impact on the landscape - physical, intellectual, political - can't be understated. Anthony Dominick Benedetto, later known as a Tony Bennett, whose Central Park painting studio aerie Steve Manzi and I visited one morning during a campaign to create a new public high school for the performing arts in Queens, was a member of the 63rd Infantry Division in France and Germany. Hugh Carey, 51st Governor of New York and the man who saved New York City during its fiscal crisis in the 1970s, an enlisted man who rose to rank of Colonel in Europe, who I got to know late in life through his generous and whipsmart daughter Susan Carey Dempsey, long my colleague and co-conspirator. Lew Rudin, head of one of New York's famed real estate families, who I met several times through his son Bill (our landlord at 55 Broad Street), a real builder of the city who led a coalition to partner with Gov. Carey and avoid the city's financial ruin, was a returning U.S. Army sergeant. David Dinkins, the most gentlemanly of the Mayors of New York City that I've known and interviewed, a returning U.S. Marine who refused to let racial quotes block his way into war-time service. 

These were men who didn't focus on "the war" very much. Like my uncles, they quickly moved to build new lives. But that service, that war, was still just there, right along the pavement, one of the largest communal enterprises in the nation's history, and focusing event for a huge city emerging from the Great Depression. It threatened death and destruction, and killed tens of millions; but in the American story it also offered opportunity and enforced discipline and a sense of common purpose in a generation of young men and women. That created the New York landscape I grew up in, a landscape that began to crumble in the 1970s to be sure, but one that retained a permanent outline sketched by the war years.

One aspect of those times that David Weiner's Mad Men captures so well (despite its other faults) is that restlessness of those veterans to build and to move and to create something different. When Roger Sterling talks about "the war" he could easily slide into a dinner conversation at my grandmother's house in Yonkers. Thirty years on, with another war raging, it was still a presence. Just like like the black and white photographs of men in uniform on some of the walls, the old Army Air Corps major's cap that hung on a corner of my grandmother's bed.

December 15 2013


Bridge and Tunnel Kid, Part Four

Union square

In his 1946 essay Why I Write, George Orwell fused a writer's development with his personal experiences, and in particular, the times he has lived in.

I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.

Orwell was only partly right, of course. Not only should a writer not seek to escape all early influences - it is impossible do so, shy of serious brain injury. The energy used in attemping to flee the past (and I speak of childhood, family, friends, and places) is wasted, and the writing is flat and little more than advertising copy. That kind of forced detachment simply denies too much; it denies biology and experience and living memory, and it denies faces and smells and visions and dreams. It flattens the landscape. It ruins the work.

No writer doggedly spending decades in New York committing millions of words to paper, Linotype machines, newsprint, and various hard drives and blogging platforms can hope to achieve anything while annuling the past. In New York, the past may be the remnants of meal consumed at dawn that has been spectacularly regurgitated upon the downtown subway platform at Union Square. Or it can be the spot just up on the street corner above the station, where the body of President Abraham Lincoln passed in review down Broadway, as young Theodore Roosevelt watched from a window in his grandfather's house just above the procession. In my wanderings in that same vicinity, the deli at 213 Park Avenue South offers more than a quick meal - it's the former Max's Kansas City, headquarters for stripped down rock and bands that never made it big, but certainly made it loud three decades ago. That pungent memory, which may still grip the staircase on the left side as you face the building, cannot be detached from the rows of Snapples and chips. After all, the great Cheetah Chrome once sat slumped on the curb right there.

Around the corner to the west on Broadway is the giant home goods emporium, ABC Carpet and Home, where my wife worked for many years in the antique furniture department and where the Santa Claus who patroled the first floor in those early years wore a regal and very real Yuletide beard. During her time on those wide old factory floorboards, she worked with a team of brilliant Polish carpenters, canny antiquties importers, and decoraters to the stars. And sometimes the stars themselves: DeNiro, Springsteen, and Streisand all darkened her door. Down the block on 18th Street is the Old Town Bar, where I passed an enjoyable evening just last week with journalists and labor organizers, taking a lively discussion organized by the Sidney Hillman Foundation to a tavern that opened in 1892, when Teddy Roosevelt was a civil service commissioner. The too-youthful ghosts of regulars Frank McCourt and Seamus Heaney lingered nearby: "between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests."

This is a neighborhood of regulars: well-worn native paths and favored spots at the bar or in the dining room. On 16th Street just in from Broadway is the Union Square Cafe, the mid-80s reinvention of New York cuisine by Danny Meyers. It remains an unfussy and crisply professional restaurant with the best ingredients served simply, and in the far corner table by the front window is the spot one those regulars, a place where I have met Andrew Rasiej for quite a few lunches. Andrew is a restless autodidact, an entrepreneur who is drawn to civic engagement and driven by his own curiosity. In classic New York terms, he is a good man to know because he knows everyone and remembers his friends. Not long after my father died, we sat in that corner table discussing our particular stage in life and the pain of losing a family member and he said something I've thought of often since, just simple advice quickly dispensed but also wise: "It never goes away, Tom, not really. Just carry it forward and keep it with you." And so I have.

Union square 3Like me though in more prominent fashion, Andrew has had several discrete New York chapters - founding companies and nonprofits, running for public office, and serving as a public intellectual - and we've known each other since the mid-90s and the time when the city's technology sector grew from a few tiny scattered digital seeds. But in an earlier era, he ran Irving Plaza, the former Polish-American veterans hall across the park at Irving Place and 15th Street that became a rock venue in the late 1970s. In 1981, I was standing outside on the line to get in, when the evening's headline act walked down the block greeting the waiting kids. Jim Carroll was tall, thin, and had the lean and austere cheeks and penetrating eyes of an aschetic poet from central casting - which, in many ways, he was. The author of the The Basketball Diaries, his tale of playing ball and hustling in an earlier uptown Manhattan, Carroll had formed the Jim Carroll Band the year before at the suggestion of Patti Smith, and cut Catholic Boy, a truly classic album of verse set to a driving rock beat. Its big hit was People Who Died, the tale of picaresque New York characters who'd passed on, in mostly violent ways. So here came Carroll walking along the line of fans, a semi-reluctant rock star and a punk hero to all the Catholic books lined up in black jeans and sneakers. In the words of his editor Gerry Howard: "Tall, slim, athletic, pale, and spectral as many ex-junkies are, Jim was a vivid presence in any setting. He was a classic and now vanishing New York type: the smart (and smartass) Irish kid with style, street savvy, and whatever the Gaelic word for chutzpah is."

When Carroll died in 2009 from a sudden heart attack at age 60, still productive but worn down by the hard years, I wrote a remembrance that his editors kindly included on his website: "For a bridge and tunnel kid in 1980 New York...check that...for a Catholic bridge and tunnel kid in 1980 New York, Jim Carroll's Catholic Boy was canonical, a bass-charged liturgy of the word - if the word descended from the Beats and Allen Ginsberg, its bearer transfigured into a poetry-pouting punk rocker with an angry hit record. ... Jim Carroll Band shows always brought out the punk royalty, from Patti Smith to Stiv Bators to Richard Hell. At least in my (somewhat gauze-wrapped) memory, they were real events and Carroll - who couldn't really sing per se, but still knew how to sell the story - was treated like an archbishop. And based on that one record, it didn't seem too much to bend and kiss the ring." Thinking about these New York paths and those who have traveled them, I looked into Carroll's verses again recently and was struck by these lines from New York City Variations:

I have walked these streets so often I could
forge the shadows of skyscrapers as they fall
to rest between the sculptured air of midtown.

I feel that way on these blocks, and there on Irving Place where I shook Jim Carroll's slim hand as a young Catholic boy ("Redeemed through pain/And not through joy") the shadows are long ones, even if the building heights are more modest than in midtown a few blocks north. Greatest among those is the Knickerbocker himself, Washington Irving, for whom the short avenue between 14th Street and Gramercy Park was named in the 1830s by developer Samuel Bulkley Ruggles (who drew up plans for the entire neighborhood, including Union Square, which he owned) while the famed author, perhaps New York's most revered personage, was still living. Ruggles is one of the great forgotten New Yorkers. He was born in 1800 in Connecticut, went to Yale, and made a successful law career in New York, working as a developer and part-time politician and serving in the State Assembly, as a trustee of Columbia, and on the Canal Commission governing the Erie Canal. He was a friend of Irving's, as well as philanthropic industrialist Peter Cooper, and it is Ruggles who is responsible for the keys that govern entrance to the still private Gramercy Park, but also the trees and paths of Union Square. He was the Robert Moses of an earlier century, blending public interest with his own Whig politics, proclaiming, "Come what will, our open squares will remain forever imperishable. Buildings, towers, palaces, may moulder and crumble beneath the touch of time; but space - free, glorious, open space - will remain to bless the City forever."

Union square 2The Irving Place environs had a literary pedigree from the start. While Irving himself never lived there, his nephew did and he certainly trod its cobblestones. Up on Gramery Park, the Players Club was founded by a group of glitterati headed up Mark Twain and Edwin Booth, with a promise to promote "social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts." Later in the century, the prominent lesbian power couple of actress-author Elsie de Wolfe and theater agent Elisabeth Marbury - dubbed "The Bachelors" by catty scribes down on Park Row - hosted a literary salon on 17h Street that attracted regulars like George Bernard Shaw, Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore and Oscar Wilde.

Next door, my good friend the journalist Pamela Parker hosted her own salon in a postage stamp apartment with a huge terrace festooned with whimsical gargoyles overlooking Irving Place in the early 2000s. At one gathering thick with bloggers and techno geeks, Jason Chervokas and I used the music sharing service Napster to dial in a virtual mix that was heavy on old school R&B, 70s soul, and sides by the Ramone and Beastie Boys, who used to hang out at Carmelita's Reception House, a former bridal reception house turned hipster bar, around the corner at Third Avenue and 14th Street just above the Disco Donut. I met Pamela when I was an adjunct professor at the Columbia J-School and she was a student, and she later worked for Chervokas and me as a skilled and prolific assistant editor for @ny, our Internet startup in the 90s. When she met a young Scottish lad named Michael Caird she thought was a keeper, I snarkily wagered that if they married, I'd wear a kilt to the wedding. Happily, I lost the bet and donned the tartan.

Just down the block after the turn of the 20th century, former banker William Sydney Porter of North Carolina built a new persona after a five-year stretch for embezzlement in Ohio. He wrote under the name O. Henry, lived at 55 Irving Place and (perhaps apocryphally) wrote his best-known short story The Gift of the Magi in a booth at Kenealy's bar, later known as Pete's Tavern, one of New York's oldest watering holes and the spot where my lifelong friend Doug Tween had his bachelor dinner in an upstairs room two decades ago and more. Porter was a drinking man (he drank himself to death) but he liked company and not darkened empty streets. “Pull up the shades so I can see New York," he wrote. "I don't want to go home in the dark.”

The oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States, The Nation, a bastion of the American left, is published on Irving Place these days, across the street from Washington Irving High School. The redoudtable editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel looks down on Ruggles's old lane, carrying - if she will forgive me for observing - a name that would slide with ease and authenticity into the Knickerbocker tales of the street's literary namesake. In Irving's time, two bedrock institutions graced the southern terminus of the block. Tammany Hall opened in 1868 on East 14th Street, the home of New York's regular Democratic organization, a post Civil War successor to the old downtown Tammany and controller of city elections until Jimmy Walker was forced to resign the Mayoralty in 1932. Across the street was the Academy of Music, a grand opera hall that seated 4,000 people in its heyday and later scandalized the city's upper crust with the "French balls" held by the Cercle Française de l'Harmonie, which featured partially clad courtesans mingling rather closely with men in Victorian dinner dress. The opera house gave way to a large movie theater under the same name, and that Academy of Music was later renamed the Palladium, which became a prime venue for rock and roll, where I saw sold out shows by Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Squeeze, and others.

"Hey where’d you get that beat?" asked Sylvain Sylvain on his eponymous post New York Dolls record in 1979. "I got that beat on 14th Street." That Sylvain should pen the anthem to the street, which crosses Manhattan at its widest part - from Stuyvesant Cove on East River to the Hudson sixteen long blocks west - is somehow fitting. Born to Egyptian Jewish parents, Sylvain Mizrahi fled anti-Semitism and arrived in New York City via Buffalo in the 1950s. He formed the New York Dolls with David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Billy Murcia and Arthur Kane in 1971 and when the Dolls went the way of all flesh and most rock bands in 1977, he became a solo act as well as the omnipresent raconteur of the city's homegrown rock scene. Sylvain's 14th Street Beat opened with the squealing sound of the subway train under Union Square, to this day perhaps the loudest stretch of underground track in New York, where a curve in the Lexington Avenue line forces a grinding of wheels and brakes that makes platform denizens hold their ears to stave off the pain.

IMG_20131215_161629Union Square itself is not named for either the labor movement or the American republic of states, though it has served as both a headquarters for labor rallies and blue-backed Union troops in its history. The name actually has more rural origins, from the days when urban New York lay well to its south and walls and fields and the occasional house and hostelry graced the neighborhood. It is merely the intersection - the union - of two main roads, the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) and Bowery Road (now Park Avenue South and Fourth Avenue). The public square part came from Sam Ruggles, who also foresaw the real estate benefits of building elegant houses around the parkland. The layout these days owes its landscape architectural bones to the work of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s, when Union Square lay a block east of Ladies Mile and featured some of the city's most expensive homes on its edges.

In the late 1970s when I first ventured through its paths, drawn to the music scene at Max's and other venues, Union Square Park was something of an outdoor drug supermarket, in the evenings a place of occasional menace or opportunity (depending on your viewpoint or habit), very much like Washington Square Park to the south and Bryant Park to the north. The northeast corner was a biker hangout in summer, with rows of motorcycles lining the pavement. That block between Park Avenue South - the former Fourth Avenue, renamed by value-seeking real estate boosters after the Second World War - and Broadway to the west should carry some recognition for the artist who walked it often. Between The Factory in the Decker Building near Broadway and the back room at Max's on the east side Park Avenue, Andy Warhol trod between salons of his own creation and influence.

"Sometimes the little times you don't think are anything while they're happening turn out to be what marks a whole period of your life," wrote Warhol in 1975, and I believe that's true. A small episode in the Union Square Barnes & Noble, next door to the old Factory headquarters, has stayed with me this last decade or more. In 1999, I went to see the great author Patrick O'Brian read from his latest novel Blue at the Mizzen at the Union Square store. To me, O'Brian was no more a nautical writer than Jane Austen was a society writer. Like Austen, his literary hero, O'Brian worked in human relationships. That those relationshops are set amid a constrained, regimented social order - British warships in the age of sail - was his greatest homage to Austen, who also set her stories within a tight social order. At their heart, O'Brian's volumes in the 20-part Aubrey-Maturin series chronicle a deep friendship, one that is not the cartoonish type usually found in historical series, but a detailed, nuanced, portrait - to my mind, one of the finest in English literature.

O'Brian's rapidly-expanding popularity in the last decade of his life, and the posthumous depiction of his characters in a raucous Hollywood epic, may lead the unitiated to relegate his work to that of the pulp paperback writer or the creator of historical pageantry. It is not to insult those genres to say he was neither. Indeed, when I briefly met O'Brian before his last public appearance in New York, browsing quietly amidst the ground-floor shelves in Union Square before the reading, it felt to me like shaking hands with Charles Dickens. O'Brian had a strong sense of time and the nearness of history, of the paths and routes traveled only very recently but seen by contemporaries as very old. "The tale or narrative set in the past may have its particular time-free value," he wrote in one of his introductions, "and the candid reader will not misunderstand me, will not suppose that I intend any preposterous comparison, when I observe that Homer was farther removed in time from Troy than I am from the Napoleonic wars; yet he spoke to the Greeks for 2,000 years and more.” 

Union square 4And we are closer to the culturally formative Knickerbocker days of Irving than we feel, more proximate to the great political rallies of organized labor and radicals and Fenians in Union Square than we think, and nearer to the art scene of Warhol and the punks at Max's than we realize. And much, much nearer to the massive missing persons bulletins of September, 2001 that grew along Union Square's southern edge in the aftermath of horror when much of the city south of 14th Street was closed off for recovery of the dead. Union Square was the closest large public space still open, and the statue of George Washington - the first erected by New Yorker since the one depicting George III was toppled in 1777 - became a locus for missing persons flyers bearing the faces of New Yorkers who would never return home. Those posters quickly grew into a spontaneous memorial of flowers and candles and home-made art of the kind that now graces every public tragedy. I remember both the concentration of grief at that site, and the unity of those brief times, when "New Yorker" became a badge defiantly worn. Never has the communitarian impulse that binds millions to live so closely together been more evident to me.

Last year, I was walking to the subway station after teaching my class at New York University's graduate school of fundraising and philanthropy with Marcia Stepanek and Howard Greenstein, and saw the crowd across 14th Street. I walked across and worked my way through the crowd. In my reporting days, I carried a press pass issued by the NYPD allowing me to "cross police and fire lines wherever formed." But now I was merely an intinerant blogger, consultant, and part-time professor seeing what was going on - scoping the latest in the legacy of protest that constitutes so much of Union Square's political and cultural history. As I turned and shifted through the hundreds pressed in tightly by the park's south end, I recognized the woman holding a microphone, which was plugged into a portable loudspeaker. It was Trayvon Martin's mother. "My son did not deserve to die," said Sybrina Fulton.  "Our son is your son."

I was transported along the pathways and karmic lanes to the mourners of a decade earler. Orwell was right; we are determined by the age we live in, and if we writing, that work is not detached but rooted in fields ploughed by others, along ways worn down by our younger footsteps. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York, where so many come to find their way, make their case, write their story, sing their song, find their justice.

"My heart is in pain," said Travyon Martin's mother into the microphone. And the crowd responded in solemn unison amid the ghosts of this city.

"You are not alone."

December 07 2013


Bridge and Tunnel Kid, Part III

Columbia divest

Columbia University has for years used 854-1754 as its main telephone number, and it is the line that shows up when student volunteers call alumni to seek donations during the dinner hour. It is, I suppose, a clever reminder that Columbia was founded  in 1754, twenty-two years before American independence, as King's College in what was then still a relatively young British colony. It is the fifth oldest university in the United States, one of the original nine chartered colonial colleges and it has achieved a global aura of prestige and exclusivity that could never have been imagined by anyone who attended Columbia College in the 1970s and early 80s, when it had no endowment and some of its facilities were ramshackle wooden death traps (Baker Field, several miles north of the main campus in Inwood on the nothern tip of Manhattan, in particular).

Outside of the lecture hall that bears his name, there is a statue of Alexander Hamilton, the bastard son of a Scottish laird born in Nevis, West Indies and the first self-made immigrant to the United States, a King's College man and the first Treasury Secretary, a liberal Federalist who created the central government that has endured for two hundred years and constitutes the largest economic and political enterprise ever created by human beings.

On a rainy night in 1983, I raced past the statue and around the corner of Hamilton Hall toward College Walk and the gate on Amsterdam Avenue. An all-night Strat-o-matic baseball tournament raged around the table upstairs in Livingston, and I'd drawn the assignment of meeting the delivery man from Hunan Balcony. The campus was partly closed, heavily circled with police and campus security because of a series of large-scale protests organized by students to protest the University's continued investment in funds that did business with the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. It wasn't exactly 1968, Vietnam and Mark Rudd, but the crowds had been sufficiently boisterous - and University officials talked vaguely of trouble-making "outsiders." 

It was dark and chilly, and I jogged around Hamilton and ran directly into one of those feared outside agitators, who I immediately recognized. "Hey, hold up," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was carrying a megaphone at the head of a dripping contingent of perhaps a hundred protesters. The weather had clearly held down attendance. There seemed to be more cops than activists. The crowd moved toward Amsterdam Avenue and I moved with it. The signs demanded that Columbia divest itself of all South African investments, in order to stem the flow of capital to the white ruled country and pressure the Apartheid regime to give up its racist hold on power.

Divestment began as a liberal strategy to pressure South Africa as far back as 1962, but it came of age in the early 1980s and Columbia became the first hotbed of university action (which was ironic, given its paltry endowment at the time). Divestment extended the Sullivan Principles, developed by a minister who was also a board member of General Motors, which demanded racial fairness in corporate dealings. The pressure point was institutional investors, particularly universities, municipal bond issuers, and public pension funds. At Columbia, the Committee Against Investment in South Africa grew rapidly, and included the great student leaders of my time, Danny Armstrong and Stuart Garcia, as well as a young Hawaiian transfer student named Barry Obama. 

There is no ex post facto case for my own activism in the divestment cause (I was no leader), but I did attend several rallies after that night and I did walk around campus a few times with signs, mainly because I liked the people who were involved. Stuart Garcia had been my partner in the lab section of a behavioral psychology course taught by Eugene Galanter, who was a protege of B.F. Skinner, and we had a gas locking each other up in the Skinner boxes and tallying reactions to stimuli the experiments demanded. I met Stuart in 1980 at freshman orientation, and introduced the young Texan and a few other out-of-towners to the wonders of Max's Kansas City, Danceteria, and the Peppermint Lounge in partnership with my native bridge and tunnel tribesmen, Doug Tween and the two Toms, Kissane and FitzSimmons. As I've written before, Stuart was one of the early casualties of AIDS, dying only two years after graduation, in 1986. He was a natural politician, had the common touch. Short, friendly, with a shock of thick straight hair that levitated when he walked. There is no doubt in my mind that he'd be a figure in American politics had he lived, either in his native Texas or somewhere else. He was open, not shy, a friend to all - my opposite, in those years, really. And he was 23 when he died. But in 1983 he was gloriously alive and marching, and some of those he marched with carried signs with pictures of Nelson Mandela on them.

To those of us who frequented New York's musical clubs in that era, Mandela came to us in song as well as image. The Specials were a great British ska band with a sound that moved, they played all the clubs in New York when they were in town, and ska ran second only to over-driven punk rock (and vintage Motown, if truth be told) on the big jukebox downstairs at Max's. As Columbia students marched, the Specials released a protest song with a hook so damned big you couldn't help but sing Nelson Mandela's name all day long. Free-ee-ee-ee Nelson Mandela. At the time, of course, Mandela was still in prison for this efforts to overthrow Apartheid; he'd serve another six years for a total of more than 27 years. His body abused, but his mind is still free. You're so blind that you cannot see. The song was everywhere. And the Specials were cool.

A few years ago, I found myself chatting briefly with Illinois Senator Barack Obama in the receving line at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Dressed uncomfortably in rented white tie and tails - required get-up for the dais at the annual Al Smith Dinner - Obama stood next to Cardinal Egan, who in turn stood next to Senator John McCain and his wife Cindy, in the traditional show of bi-partisanship and Catholic elan that defines the famous occasion during Presidential election years. Obama looked tired and not entirely comfortable, but I waded in anyway. We talked a little bit about Columbia days and sitting on the steps in front of Low Library in warm weather. And then I told him I knew he'd been in the divestment marches, part of that movement. "It was formative," he said, in that professorial tone we've all come to know, with the clipped mid-western "r" he uses. We shook hands and I moved on, somewhat concerned that I'd left the impression that I was a college rabble-rouser and not the campus Strat-o-matic champion.

A year later, in the same Waldorf setting, I found myself standing next to Steve van Zandt, the Bruce Springsteen sideman and Sopranos actor, at another charity dinner. Strangely enough, the subject of Apartheid came up again, and I praised his work in the effort. Van Zandt had led a coalition of musicians in the recording of Sun City in 1985, a year after I left Columbia. The song called on artists no to play the Sun City resort, then a whites only casino enclave for wealthy South Africans. In addition to Springsteen, Van Zandt had rounded up the likes of Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Joey Ramone to take part. Twenty-three million can't vote because they're black. We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back. It was another great song that stuck with you.

Obama was right. It was a formative time, and the figure of Nelson Mandela and twenty-three million countrymen denied basic human rights did tend to stick. The divestment battle and the rallies to push the United States to do the right thing in South Africa made a different. Winning victories, says my friend Al Giordano, an organizer with a Vince Lombardi mindset, is what drives real citizens movements: "Mandela will always be one of history’s great role models in the art of building public opinion to win victory, instead of suffering defeat after defeat."

On that rainy night on Morningside Heights, I did finally find the delivery man on Amsterdam Avenue. But I think I found something more as well, and it was linked to man in a jail cell thousands of miles away. I had no role in that struggle at all, but I saw the art of building public first hand, the power of the story in the cause. And the protest songs had big hooks, besides.

December 05 2013


Bridge and Tunnel Kid, Part II

Gct tw

Of all of New York's public buildings, the one I have spent the most time in by far is connected to bridges and tunnels to the north, from the Bronx all the way to the rural Harlem Valley in the east and Franklin Roosevelt's Dutchess County duchy to the west. The passenger railroad lines that end in Grand Central Terminal - that's terminal, not "station" for all you bumpkins - carry nearly 300,000 riders every weekday, spilling men in gray flannel still, and commuters of every shape and background into one of the world's finest public spaces.

Grand Central opened in 1913 replacing the smaller station on the same spot, built by the New York Central Railroad during the days when train travel in America still involved helping to build the fortunes of transportation barons. E.B. White's "unexpungeable odor of the long past" in New York certainly covers the vast spaces in Grand Central, competing perhaps with the simmering vats of chowder in the Oyster Bar, the fresh bakery counter at Zaro's, or the less savory smells of lost people sleeping on benches or floors in any given decade of my experience there.

Before we walk along the platform, through the sliding green doors to the great, open concourse of North American imagination and commercial energy - tracing in reverse the footsteps of Cary Grant in North By Northwest - let's take a moment to consider the start of the journey less than twenty miles away (about thirty minutes on a rush hour express) because that's where the story begins. I was born across the street from the commuter rail station in Bronxville, arriving in Lawrence Hospital during another February snowstorm in a month of February snowstorms that year, the day after John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. My grandfather bought a new camera for the occasion, launching a productive late life avocation that eventually earned him an international photography prize for his portrait of the Matterhorn.

In truth, I was born into what became a central hub for my life, a quintessential patch of near suburbia that still attracts movie location scouts and investment bankers. I still see the hospital where I was born every time I take the train into Manhattan. I also see the former offices of William H. Watson Real Estate, which stood next to Bob's Cup and Saucer on the ground floor of the Station Park Building on Parkway Road, directly opposite the southbound platform. Just to the south is the block where the filling station once managed by my uncle Augustine J. Ryan stood, just around the corner from the little bowling alley where my brother and I rolled many a game on the earnings from a neighborhood snow shoveling business up the hill in Yonkers.

The Bronxville station house was opened in 1916 and its distinctive Spanish architecture matched the glamor of the Gramatan Hotel, which sat on the village's highest downtown hill, and opened in 1905 as the vision of real estate developer William Van Duzer Lawrence, whose planned suburban community created some of the sprawling Norman and Tudor mansions that aim to emulate the charm of a Europe before the apocalypse of the first half of the 20th century. The most important event in the history of the grand Gramatan took place in 1958, when my parents celebrated their wedding in its ballroom. The hotel came down, sadly, in the 1970s and was replaced by condos now showing their age, but a lower row of storefronts along Sagamore Road survives and includes the barber shop that cares for my thinning pate and the Mexican restaurant that welcomes some of our largest birthday fiestas which giant sombrero and a blast of the Beatles' Birthday. Down Kraft Avenue on the northbound side of the rail line is the movie theater, once a single screen where I remember feeling the terror of Kirk Douglas's performance in Jules Verne's bizarre pirate tale The Light at the End of the World, fronted by several Mr. Magoo shorts, somewhere around 1971. Some years later, I had the opportunity to inquire about that film to an older Kirk Douglas in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton; he nodded pleasantly and signed a book to my father, who attended Bronxville High School and hiked with its Scout troop.

Bronxville was and is a fairly wealthy place, perhaps the archetype of the tony Westchester villages that grew up around railroad stations and sent their mainly male white collar workforce into Grand Central on a daily basis. We were not wealthy, and aren't still, but the orientation of a Yonkers family toward the planned village of the Lawrence clan was partly a cultural nod to its leafy and less urban ways, as well as the product of family commerce and geography. When I was a child of school age - grammar school to young Catholics of that time - my mother drove the same route down Palmer Road, through Bronxville, up Tanglewylde Hill (where we'd almost always point out the pocket manse of Candid Camera announcer Durwood Kerby - now there's a star for you), along to White Plains Road and on to the Immaculate Conception School in Tuckahoe, where my mother taught and we collected catechisms, writing skills, and lifelong friends. The reverse commute back to Yonkers meant stops in Bronxville for important errands: the WPA-built post office with its distinctive mural by John French Sloan (The Arrival of the First Mail in Bronxville, looking more like a scene from a cinematic adaptation of Dickens, which fits Bronxville to a tee, if you know Bronxville), Woolworths, and the A&P, where the big thrill was pulling the level on the grinding machines churning Eight O'Clock coffee beans into aromatic grist for the percolator on my grandmother's stove.

For me, as well as being a hub of family activity - the funeral home has seen its share of related wakes, I said my first Hail Mary on my knees in St. Joseph's Church, and enjoyed my first book signing in Womrath's bookshop - Bronxville has long been the stepping off point for "the city." The train took adolescents to Madison Square Garden for The Who, the Allman Brothers, Springsteen marathons, and the No Nukes shows and to the clubs of the Lower East Side, and then later to college on Morningside Heights. Still later, a decade of daily commutation from the same platform, stomping out the cold on dawning winter mornings and fighting for a seat, while wearing a suit and tie. 

And every single time, after each short sprint down the Harlem Line, Grand Central itself was a wonder. Yes, buildings can thrill and this one did and does through the sheer space it creates and the life that teems through that space and the light of its tall windows every day. With Pennsylvania Station demolished in my childhood, the 1970's citizens campaign to preserve Grand Central leveraged its most glamorous partner in the public interest Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (the Kennedys had once commuted from Bronxville, too) to successfully defeat a plan for more slab-sided towers above the concourse. The effort preserved a work of genius, and a keystone to what makes New York.

Built by the Vanderbilts, designed by the firms of Warren and Wetmore, and Reed and Stem in the Beaux Arts style, Grand Central is perhaps the most beautiful railway station in the world. Yet what makes Grand Central such a marvel isn't just its soaring stand-alone beauty, but in how it connected and inspired the midtown Manhattan that grew up around it - from the creation of Park Avenue to the north, to its surrounding necklace of archictural gemstones with great diamond of the Chrysler Building at the center. They're all there because Grand Central is there, because of the path of millions of people through that hall and through those doors decade after decade. When you stand on an Atlantic beach and look out at the ocean, its vastness and timelessness make you feel small and humble, but at the same time, part of something much greater than yourself, much longer than the confines of your life. In New York, only Grand Central Terminal can evoke those feelings - and it has for me as I walked the same paths as millions of others, through the many years.

Where those doors lead, inside and outside the terminal, down the streets of New York, into the subway tunnels, and through those many years - we'll see where it goes.

December 04 2013


Bridge and Tunnel Kid

YonkersThere is a spot in Yonkers near a curve on Palmer Road, just up from the intersection of Mile Square Road, high on the hill above the Dunwoodie Golf Course, where on a relatively clear day you can peer from the red Chevrolet station wagon and glimpse the towers of midtown Manhattan about 16 miles to the south.

"Look, there's the city!"

And the city it was to my brother and my sister and me, and our parents too, a postcard of a foreign land of skyscrapers and lights, like the distant backdrop of our movie set lives in the near suburbs. Of course, we lived in a city - two hundred thousand people with its own hardscrabble downtown where my father worked in the composition department of the daily newspaper. The Herald Statesman was founded in the middle of the Civil War as the Yonkers Statesman, later merging with the Yonkers Herald to form the afternoon paper where Dad worked. He took the bus down Palmer Road past the golf course every day, and must have looked south to the Empire State Building a thousand times from that bend in the road.

And unquestionably, he thought to himself: "Hey, there's the city."

I am past the curve in the road at the top of my own life , and I can see "the city" now from a different vantage point. New York was an exotic and little-visited neighbor in childhood, but it became a furtive destination in adolescence, the backdrop for college and my early journalism career, headquarters for a couple of business concerns, one end of the daily commute for two decades, and my intellectual and spiritual home forever. I have never lived any place else, nor have I ever really wanted to.

Looking back through my dirty life and times (to borrow a line from Warren Zevon, the muse of a very different American city across the continent) means looking back through my New York, a phrase I don't employ lightly, tapping these words as I am only a mile or so from the childhood home of E.B. White here in Mount Vernon - another of those small cities ringing the big one, urban places like New Rochelle, Yonkers, Union City, and Hoboken where people stood along river banks or high on a hill and said, "look, there's the city."

"New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact area the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant," wrote White in 1949. "It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings."

Those queer people and undertakings reverberate for me now but unlike White, I don't feel the need to say "here is New York" but rather, "here was New York" - at least over the past four decades, a time when the city shifted, and leaned, and heaved, and groaned, and suffered, fell and rose and bronzed in the sun of forty summers - and changed. New Yorkers often bemoan the changes. We can be a sentimental lot. The past in New York always seems more vital, more real, more alive - even in black and white - than the present in this town. There's too much building, too much of the municipal eraser at work scrubbing away the past, tearing down and building something shinier. But it's been that way since they filled the public cess pit just north of the old northern walls and built City Hall back in the 1820s. Yet I think that in this New York, with its vast unbridgeable distances between the wealthy and everybody else, and the limiting of actual residency in the middle class to the very edges of Manhattan and the swelling, refurbished outer borough hubs, there is a sense of something lost.

It wasn't that way when I was the skinny bridge and tunnel kid in green sneakers, tight Lee jeans and an old dungaree jacket skulking past the door at Max's Kansas City or CBGB, or gaping at the massive public festival of lewdness that was Times Square three decades ago, or splitting fries in the old railroad diner near the West Side Highway before taking that bridge back to the suburbs at night. That was famously grimy time, now celebrated in custome exhibitions underwritten by billionaires at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - itself a secret palace of the people, where my artist true love and I paid a suggested admission of a buck apiece for the privelege of browing Winslow Homer and Cezanne before a cozy cup of coffee and a shared danish in gorgeous the Greek court cafeteria that once defined the classiest place in New York to eat lunch off a plastic tray. All gone, of course. The Met now has a spiffy new public dining concourse in the basement with myriad ethnic food stations and an endless array of niche bottled beverages; it could be Peoria.

A few years ago, I looked up at the ceiling above the bar at McSorley's Old Ale House down on 7th Street and saw perhaps a century and a half of accumlated filth, stuck stubbornly to the little artifacts and items the bar keeps up there. In some city bureaucrat's office, there must be a waiver. Along with Houdini's handcuffs, there are dusty wishbones up there that may carry the teeth marks of Melville and Whitman. That kind of layered grime, like the bacteria-infused growth rings of New York's massive family tree, is rare in today's city. Does that melancholic nostalgia touch me in middle age? Yes, I find it does. "Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon," wrote Melville. "Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries."

We're still fixed in those reveries, even if New York's docks are generally limited to tourist boats and commuter ferries. While everyone else on this continent looks toward New York at one time or another, we lose ourselves in thoughts of elsewhere - and it's not merely reveries that drives those without seven figures in their investment portfolios away from the city. It's the reality of economics. Thence by Whitehall northward brings you past Bowling Green to lower Broadway, and two years ago that route led to the encampment of a leaderless protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street. There were minstrels in that camp. It was entertainment and street threater and urban camping, an ad hoc committee of this generation's bridge and tunnel kids, white middle class young people in the main, staging small dramas and forced marches, sometimes rather bravely in the face of police truncheons, pepper spray and plexiglass shields, against cops who were unions members acting against their own economic and social interests to please the bosses in the towers that overlooked Zuccotti Park.

There were ghosts there as well, souls from the towers that once overlooked that park and almost every public space for miles. And I felt those ghosts keenly during those times when I walked through the rag taggy Occupy troops and sampled their rhetorical wares. They were the ghosts of office workers, and cops, and firefighters who left New York in the blaze of one blue morning when I too was at work in a New York office building.

These were all stories to be told, and since those early days at my father's side in visits to the Larkin Plaza newspaper offices just up from the old pier in Yonkers, visits I remember best by the smell of melted wax used for paste-up and the crush of my father's big hand, I have felt the urge to tell those stories under my own name, in a place where other people might read them. A few weeks ago, I spoke to a class of Syracuse University writing students under the able tutelage of my old blogging buddy Lance Mannion, and one them asked "why do you blog?" 

Because I'm compelled to, almost by obsession. And by blog, I mean write. So this is a start to a circumambulation of my New York, a journey I may need to capture for myself with stops in Yonkers, Flushing, the Lower East Side, Morningside Heights, Riverdale, Broad Street, GrayBar, and in watering holes all around the town. We'll see.

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