This writing was inspired by Bruce McCall's fine pictorial essay NEW YORK, ONCE UPON A TIME, reprinted in the 1982 collection ZANY AFTERNOONS (Knopf). These are the articles which I wrote in ECHO's New York Conference, Item #301. There are more articles like this in that item which I didn't write.
I also drew the illustrations which go with these stories.
The long-removed First Avenue El train also had custom spurs to the Breweries of the Upper East Side, which stocked the second-to-the last cars - the Raines lunch cars - with fresh suds. Naturally, this played havoc with the schedule, but who the hell cared!
There was a beer pipeline - paid for with public funds -that ran from the Upper East Side breweries to all the Yorkville beerhalls: taps in the washrooms of the time were labelled "Hot", "Cold", "Lager" and "Bock". You could still see separate oaken beer towers next to the water towers on the Deutsche Turnverein building on East 83rd street, which was recently demolished.
As immigration patterns changed, there was race to build a pipeline extension across the East River to Astoria. The two spurs put out by the Ruppert's and the Piel's were dug by some 6,000 sandhogs, many actually working double shifts for both companies just to get the fabulous perks of the job - "all the brew you could spew". However, the resultant drop in pressure cut down the supply to the usual clientele, and the anticipated Austro-Hungarian exodus to Queens never came to pass; the breweries closed up and the rest is stale beer.
Nevertheless, while digging test tunnels for the Second Avenue Subway, a working pipeline was uncovered which was still connected to an underground ice chamber with a mostly filled copper vessel of Bayrische Brau, STILL POTABLE AFTER 80 YEARS to the great delight of the workers. And now you know the real reason that that great civic project has been stalled for so long.
If you look near the tops of some of the older surviving buildings downtown, you might still see cast iron brackets with pieces of mirrors at about the third floor level with the letters "NYV" worked into the bracket's design. This was a remnant of an experiment in surveillance from Police Chief Louis P. Booker who took over the department a few years after the police riots. The idea was to replace policemen walking the beat with a system of mirrors and telescopes. The letters NYV stood for New York Vigilance. Radiating from the old police building and carefully aligned in their brackets, views of all major "crime ridden" intersections were projected into a darkened observation room deep in the center of the building.
Unfortunately, the mirrors were an easy target for schoolboys, who took to heaving newly laid Belgian blocks at the precisely placed mirrors. And speaking of "newly laid," the observation room was drawn into scandal as muckraking journalists revealed its secondary purpose as a trysting spot.
A picture of an extant NYV bracket
Who could deny the fond feelings turn-of-the-century New Yorkers have for the true toast of the town: the fabled Egg Cream! The Egg Cream as perfected on the Lower East Side was an unadulterated concoction, but over in the Tenderloin district, the taste of syrup and soda water was augmented by another ingredient guaranteed to get satisfaction and repeat customers: heroin. Heroin was once sold over the counter as a cold remedy, and then as now, it was remarkably cheap to manufacture. So in periods of good health, the there was an excess supply over at Dr. Lakehurst's factory building on 10th avenue and 25th street. Since the good doctor also was a frequent patron of the area's gambling parlors, sometimes he paid off his debts in overstock. Because the powder would be easily detected in the elaborate mixed drinks in the saloons associated with these gambling resorts, the powder was mixed into some of the more innocuous drinks instead.
Dr. Lakehurst's factory sometimes had to rent space from the bakery next door, and on at least two occasions he paid his rents in a similar way. At the time a certain chocolate sandwich cookie was being developed and one of the original ingredients was again the habit-forming opiate. The cookie went on to great success, but now the recipe has changed - so they say - and it remains popular today.
For many long years, the Tammany Tiger held sway over the growing city's vast coffers of public funds and patronage jobs. And much of the kickbacks and bribes were funnelled into private celebrations in the local party headquarters in the various lower-class neighborhoods which provided the muscle work which kept them in power. Contemporary accounts of these night-long revels concentrate on the drinking, the feasting and debauchery - while ignoring a significant social side-effect. While the "bhoys" were out guzzling themselves into a stupor, the "ghals" were having their own clandestine gatherings - dressed in loose lacy finery or their errant husbands' trousers, they'd go off to "sewing circles" with names like "The Three Needles", "Sappho's Seamstresses", and "The Linen Sisterhood". When morning came, the men were flat broke, passed out in pools of their own vomit, while the women arose with lazy, groggy smiles in each others' arms. Fueled by passion, the circles grew and grew - always keeping their special secret from the easily fooled oafish men, one of them eventually becoming the Triangle Shirtwaist Sorority, which was sadly bought out, renamed and relocated to Washington Square where it gained immortality as as the site of one of this city's most tragic fires.
A picture for The Gay Nineties
The call is going out for deregulation and privatization of public services these days - but it is probably good to recall the situation from the times before consolidation and regulation. Not only were there fights between rival police forces and fire companies, even the lowly lamplighters got into the fray! The gas company lugs went around in gangs knocking over rival lamps - usually without even turning off their gas and poisoning whole neighborhoods. Some corners had several lamps of different height and design on the same stretch of sidewalk - weakening it and eventually causing it to collapse or explode. The spaghetti of tubing under the street rivals that of today's Cable TV.
When the bomb went off in the garage of the World Trade Center in February of 1993, thousands of office workers for the first time walked through the fire access doors in that massive building - and were shocked at what they could make out through the clouds of black smoke! For underneath skin of the justly maligned building, the contours of a much grander structure were dimly seen: an architectural pastiche, upgraded in 70s technology, of the Woolworth Building and the long vanished Singer Tower - TURNED INSIDE OUT!.
It turns out that disgruntled construction workers, disgusted by the ugliness of the Towers' designs, secretly went to work after hours - crafting a delightful and creative outlet for their frustrations. Apparently, no plans for these remarkable inner facades were provided, for each of the craftsmen were obsessive fans of that grand architectural style.
Smartass wags say General Grant and Mrs. Grant - but they are only partially right. During the recent renovations of the site, under the steps leading up to the tomb, a plain set of wooden doors were discovered. These doors lead down to a closet-sized room where a thick coat of dust and grime concealed a third, much smaller coffer made of gold and draped with the rotted remnants of a nineteenth century flag. Excited workers Ivan Petric and Douglas K. Mumsie eagerly brought the box to supervisor Denise J. Winters, who finally succeeded in opening it with her nail file. But on opening the box, she fainted away in horror - and the two men ran off screaming for help at the sight of what was revealed: the mummified, mutilated head of assassinated president Abraham Lincoln! Also found in the box were a number of masonic medallions and nineteenth century tobacco shreds. Expert historians suspect that after the president's body was sent up to New York for its famous funeral parade, expert forensic pathologists removed the head for further study, substituting a wax replica provided by P.T. Barnum. The head was supposed to rejoin the body on its trip back to Springfield, but was waylaid by mysterious cultists and passed from safe house to safe house for decades - no doubt central to some odd initiation rites . When the Tomb was being constructed, the head was secreted in an old but handsome humidor, draped with a cheap novelty flag and placed in the utility room under the steps. It had remained there ever since.
New York in the 1870s was a bustling beehive of activity - much of it fueled by the communications revolution of the telegraph. Railroad, shipping, and stock information was pecked out over wires strung like cobwebs throughout the downtown business area. But it was not all business! Period photos show that "pirate" lines were also put in up to the rooming houses in the 20s and over to the fancy digs on lower 5th Avenue. It seems that, for a slight fee, you could telegraph a billet-doux to a special team of hostesses who would telegraph back their amorous activities. Phrases like ".. . .-.. ..... . . ... . -- .. .. .- -. -.- - ." (I EXPOSE MY ANKLE) and ". .. .- ..... - ..- . .. ." (RAPTURE) would "do the trick" for the nerdy "wire- wankers" of the day. For a higher fee, a boy would be sent up the pole to cross wires and provide a primitive "chat-line". All this was swept away with the blizzard of '88, after which the lines were moved underground and out of the hands of the amateur "hacker".
New York City has a rather notorious educational system. On one hand are the daily tales of student disorder, overcrowded classrooms, teacher turmoil and obit pages in the high school newspapers. On the other hand are the high reputations of NYC's special magnet schools: Stuyvesant High, Bronx Science, Performing Arts and others specializing in industrial arts and even two for specialized finance. I'm referring to the High School for Creative Accounting and the High School of Legitimate Business Practices.
HSCA was housed on Park Row in a building subsumed by the J&R Records empire. Popularly known as Junk Bond High, it was started shortly after New York's financial crisis in 1976, and was closed down after the crash of '87. The idea was to train an army of young accountants for civil service, but of course they all went to build fortunes for themselves on Wall Street.
The lavishly appointed campus of HSLBP was not physically in New York City - it was housed in a mansion on Long Island, with a limo shuttle service to each of the students' homes. It seems certain family businessmen, worried that their progeny were not interested in continuing their companies and relationships, reached out to the city to attract new blood into their organizations. Unlike other high schools, HSLBP had uncrowded classrooms, plenty of practical training, and a sumptuous school lunch program, concentrating on Italian cuisine. Because of generous private funding, it's entirely off the books of the New York City budget. This school may still be operating - it has a tendency to change its name from time to time.
A quick peek in the phone book reveals more than 30 locations claiming to be Ray's Pizza, Original Ray's or SOME Palazzo of Pies owned or inspired by the spirit of the mythical Ray. A little more research through older phone books, city directories and tax records show an unbroken chain of pizza parlors - earlier, "ethnic bakeries" - named after or run by a someone named "Ray" or "Raymondo" stretching back through the entire written history of New York. There are indications that Peter Minuit treated the Canarsee Indians to the traditional circular foodstuff as a sort of a down payment on Manhattan, but history does not recall the name of the baker.
But what of the pre-literate history? Tomatoes were not known in Europe before the American Conquest, but recent excavations in Flushing Meadow Park by archeologist Heather McHugh McLaughlin of CUNY's Anthropology Department, have proved it the site of an ancient Norse landing party. Among the rune-covered rocks (with phrases like "This is Vik's Place" chipped into the stone) was a large, thin, flat rock, the remains of what could only be a crude pizza oven. What? Norwegian Pizza? Well - it's not so far fetched - the Vikings were readily familiar with cheeses, even though in this case it was caribou cheese - and their propensity for toppings persists today in their renowned "smorgasbords". What clinches McLaughlin's theory is that the flat stone is scribed with the image of the sun - proving that the "rays" actually predated the pizza.
The next time you're in the 190st street A train's elevator - if you're alone and have some time to kill and have a flashlight on hand - wait for the doors to close and press both the up and down buttons. The cab will go only go halfway up the shaft and pause for 30 seconds. If you hit the up button twice - like a double click - the doors will open and you will find yourself in a short hall. There is no lighting, so trust me: to your left is the coat check room. To your right is the reception area. The door has rotted off its hinges and has been replaced with a heavy velvet curtain since the fifties. As you go into the L-shaped corridor, light is faintly sensed through a series of small glass blocks - you may feel the breeze and sense the presence of a huge acoustic space. You are in the legendary Monastery, an almost completely untouched and unmolested speakeasy from the twenties. In the dim light you can see that the ceiling goes up for 30 feet, and part of the dance floor is still there. The last time the Monastery was booked was for a cast party for OH! CALCUTTA's third anniversary, so you may not think of it as being so ancient, but the last time before that was for a smoker for JFK. It's very inconvenient to get there, and the Cloisters, to which it also connects via a dumbwaiter, supplies the electricity - they have cautiously removed the fuses for that electric line.
But the real reason for its unpopularity - and the key to its preservation - lies in the grisly reliquaries on view in the dusty glass cases lining the western wall - where they would be gradually illumined at dawn's light. Taken from overstock in the Rockefellers' (Cloister's) collections, the saintly bones were unceremoniously dumped out and the bejeweled, golden coffers were filled with remnants of departed partygoers as an even more morbid momento mori.
Here is Katie J. Wall's left hand, cut off after her grisly death by taxi - still wearing the fabuolous emerald bracelet given to her by her unlucky suitor Terrence Bickinger, publisher of The Weekly Doings, the private newsletter of "the most upper crust."
Here is the razor which comedian Bill "Papa" Banes used to cut his throat.
Here are a few teeth and a broken pair of eyeglasses: reminders of Louis van de Brossel's violent end in a fatal Belgian knockover.
Here, a hank of long blonde hair - dark at the roots - that was the last remnant of Millie Riggs, retained by her loyal friend Patsy deBeers who was holding it as Mille despondently jumped out the window of the Easton Terrace Hotel.
And here, little Jojo, the toy poodle she loved and landed on, now revealing the hasty taxidermy job performed by her devoted dresser, Nina Golden, who was later married to Herschel Bernardi for a week.
But pass these exhibits and come to the saddest of them all: the glass tombs of Rachel de la Croix, who seems not to have aged a day since she was sealed up almost sixty years ago. Rachel, who was imported from Brussels for a limited dance tour in 1922, stuck around in town for years, entertaining the Belgian dives in the 180's (the "upper eighties"). The poor dear choked herself on an improvised cocktail olive, and nobody noticed until the next day. Rather than reveal the location of her demise, she was pickled on the spot in a a pair of handy Jeroboams - for Rachel was a dwarf, only 18 inches tall!
Say, isn't the flashlight battery starting to go dead?
A picture of a Ghost Club Reliquary
Saturday, May 17th, 1913. Easy to write, but just try to look it up. You'll find nothing. In fact, even the papers on the 18th are mighty thin and in them you'll find no explanations of the previous day's immense distraction. Here's the story as related to me by my great uncle, who was interviewing at Columbia at the time.
On the evening of Friday the 16th, two songwriters, Davis Hogan and Meyer Tanninger, were messing around with a couple of lyrics in their poorly insulated office on 28th street. Sometime around 9 PM, they stumbled onto the mother of all lost chords and came up with 12 bars of sheer infectious madness. They were possessed by the little ditty and they repeated it over and over, gradually infecting first their floor, then their building - for it was deep in the heart of Tin Pan Alley - and the entire block.
Their little upright was hauled out on the street and placed in the back of an open cart, drawn by their amazed and mesmerized rivals in song. Soon other pianos joined theirs in an impromptu parade both up and down Broadway.
Before long, the joyous tumult was overflowing the bounds of the 20's, and by midnight it struck the partygoers at the uptown restaurants and rooftop frolics, and with them, the members of the press. As the theatre critics rushed to write their reviews, the copyboys and pressmen were already joining in in raucous song, echoed throughout the streets by the wakened populace. Nannies in nighties, sober old vestrymen, ragtag school brats, tugging their pugs and kits, cartwheeled and danced while the horses were taken from their stables, stamping their hooves in rhythm. Streaming from Central Park and a thousand sewers, ranks of rats wheeled about in formation in a surreal march down Seventh Avenue. Soon, waiters were parading on the streets, their pastry carts loaded with bottles of bubbly, sloshing the joyous - yet nonviolent - crowds with free champagne. Candy butchers raced back to their shops, doling out sweeties to the milling tots and acting as surrogate day-care (or night care in this case).
The largest concentrations of revelry were concentrated on Broadway, and soon the entire length of the famed avenue was covered in a spontaneous singing parade. The commotion only intensified by dawn. The tune started to infect the neighboring boroughs and parts of Hudson County (New Jersey).
That Saturday was remembered - if it was remembered at all - as a blurry delirious romp. But it was followed by a painful sobering up period that Sunday. Errant clergymen, not one of whom was excluded from the previous day's hedonistic activity, prudently omitted reference to this vision of earthly paradise and stuck to the traditional message of pie in the sky. Hogan and Tanninger ended up in Belleview. The meetings of the WCTU were filled with repentant tipplers. Although the papers missed a day, the whole incident was hushed up.
Many years later, fantasy author Fritz Leiber updated this incident to the beatnik era in his amusing story "Rum Titty Titty Tum Tah Tee."
I was taking the Avenue of the Americas El train and was thinking - what a pleasant trip this is! Sure, it's noisy and lowers property values - the part near Bryant Park is a haven for drug dealers - the big turn on 50th street toward 9th avenue makes a horrendous squeal - and the heat is really sporadic in the winter - but you feel like Superman flying over the traffic at 50 mph! It's about time they got new cars - during the fiscal crisis they were seriously thinking of tearing it down! I think the one I was in today dated from about 1976 because it still had the little Bicentennial medals on the door shields.
But what really gets me riled is Pennsylvania Station. I had to wait around in there for a few hours because my train-to-the-plane was delayed (because of increased terrorism fears). This old hulk, which has been blocking some prime airspace since 1903 is falling apart like the Williamsburg Bridge and depressing to wait around in. It's dark and dangerous and full of bums! Why not tear it down once and for all and build - oh - someplace where we can see good Monster Truck shows in Manhattan? I'm tired of going out to Ebbetts' Field for this kind of activity!
One third of the world's gold reserves are held in physical storage at the Federal Reserve Building downtown. Security cameras are mounted on the outside walls of the building, which is modelled after a Florentine fortress. Inside, cadres of guards protect the mountains of bullion and supervise the somewhat bizarre procedure of shuttling ingots from one area to another in accordance with the fluctuations of world trade. For example, during the 70s oil crisis, the only real thing that happened was that a quantity of metal was moved from one side of a room to the other.
In fact, so much gold was moved over to the Saudi corner that there was physically no room for it. To alleviate the problem, an extension to the secured basement was planned to be excavated out under Liberty Street and even further into the general downtown area. However, test tunnels revealed the usual NYC underground situation of forgotten foundations, revolutionary-era septic tanks, orphan's graveyards, pneumatic message tubes and rat holes. Not wishing to offend our staunch arabic allies, a convenient ruse was thought up. Just to the east of the Fed, on Maiden Lane, was a boring triangle of land. As the Bicentennial was approaching, the land was to be redeveloped into a park dedicated to the superannuated modern sculptress Louise Nevelson. As part of the '70s aesthetic, the Park was paved over with large bricks. The Fed went through elaborate motions of digging the extension, while they really slipped the ingots into dozens of hollowed-out bricks and paved the pocket park with them! As the the crisis subsided and the gold was to be put back into storage, as many as thirty of the bricks turned out to be empty! Someone had noticed this scheme and done the classic three-card monte swapperoo on the Fed! The missing gold was quietly replenished from the Soviet stockpile, which was ironically also kept in storage there.
The year was 1979, and I was in town for a job interview at a major drug company. After that somewhat disappointing and depressing experience, I stopped in at a small east side coffee shop for a little coffee and cake. Looking up at the waitress, something about her looked familiar. "You're Veronica Lake, aren't you?" Even without her trademark peek-a-boo bangs and twenty or more years of screen hackwork, the famous screen sex idol still had something of her charisma left. As she handed me a menu, she acknowledged that it was true - she made some remark about being between jobs and filling in for a friend. I ordered a slice of carrot cake and watched her as she went back to the kitchen. As I did, I was again startled when I recognized the woman at the cash register as Giulietta Masina, the "female Chaplin" and wife of the brilliant Italian director Federico Fellini. "Gelsomina!" or "Cabiria!" I wanted to cry out. But she was sitting there, intent on reading the New York Post. No doubt filling in for a friend also. I was still waiting for my carrot cake, when I overheard another staffer talking in a high pitched Hindi over the phone. The face was unfamiliar, but the voice was unmistakable: Lata Mangeshkar, perhaps the world's most recorded songstress, featured in literally thousands of Indian Musicals. She put down the phone dejectedly, took up the mop and pail by her side and walked back into the kitchen. Must be filling in for a friend. Veronica returned with a pathetic slice of carrot cake, and left, without even asking if I wanted a cup of coffee. As I was picking at the frosting, which has an actual lump of Crisco poking out of it, I put down my fork and turned to the people in the neighboring booth - Sylvia Miles and Quentin Crisp, of course. I asked them, "What the hell is the story with this place?" "Congratulations!" said Mr. Crisp, "You are now one of the beautiful people!" Ms. Miles smiled and purposefully fondled her perilously supported bust.
Readers of Caro's THE POWER BROKER will recall the tale of how Robert Moses' plan to build a bridge through Battery Park over to Brooklyn was scrapped by a ruse from the War Department. Ah - but this anecdote was concocted by Moses himself as a slur against Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR, and "goo-goos" he hated so much. The real story can now be told - and a sizable piece of NYC history as well.
The route of the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge had to make a pit stop over on Governor's Island because the bridge was too darn long. One little problem with that: Governor's Island is not an island. It is, in fact, a raft. A Pre-Revolutionary War raft, in fact, built in secret, with an impressively painted but completely phony Fort Hamilton placed on it like a scarecrow to "defend the harbor".
Of course, it didn't fool them at all and New York fell to the British forces and remained a British colony until it was won back in the War of 1812.
- - - - - -
Smug New Yorkers who revel in California's frequent natural disasters should be reminded that we too are liable to get a few shakes of our own. For there is a long dormant fault running down the Hudson Valley, which gives off a wiggle from time to time as practice, perhaps for the "Big Show." Nonsense, you say, there is no Ring of Fire here! But there is - and the evidence is right in New York Harbor: Governor's Island. What seems to be a flat bit of rock, topped by a swanky Coast Guard station is actually the sleeping caldera of an admittedly tiny volcano, Mauna Guvna. The Coast Guard station is completely heated by geothermal means.
Other seismic phenomena refuse to be repressed by urbanization: case in point, "Old Reliable," a fumerole just recently capped on 20th street and 5th Avenues, whose regular belches of steam was often put to good use by the many photographers in the area. The tragic Con Ed explosion near Gramercy Park a few years ago was another sign of terrestrial indigestion. And the stress which the fault puts on the streets of New York forces the city to pave and repave them over and over.
New York got paved in order to implement the famous Alternate Side of the Street Regulations, which predated actual streets by almost a decade. The rule, as it was formulated in the early 1800's, specified that whoever paved a piece of the city's grid could bid for towing privileges on that strip (as an incentive for paving the streets). Regulations changed from block to block and there was a continuous movement of carriages throughout the day! Eventually, the city got paved and the text of the laws was changed to refer to street cleaning operations instead. Even later, this free-market approach was changed to our more sensible Alternate Side Of The Street regulations in effect today.
The Yankees, the Giants, the Dodgers, the Mets and... the Blue Sox??? Oh yes... When it looked like the old Academy of Music was going to be abandoned after burning out, the upper classes were seriously thinking of tossing the whole opera biz and going for a refined sort of baseball instead. The same fancy boxes, protocols and engraved invitations, an especially thrilling seventh inning stretch and opening song-concert were to be integrated into the game, with a controversal designated soprano rule. But it was not to be. After a few tryouts, the Bluestockings found that they had difficulty finding teams to play against. Blaming themselves, they went on strike and the owners went and founded the Metropolitan Opera, thus spawning both a new top quality concert venue and an uneven team based in Flushing Queens.
Union Square is now renowned for its Greenmarket and the subway station with the prerecorded paternoster:
"Attention all passengers! Please stand clear of the moving platform as trains enter and leave the station. Thank you!"
But in earlier days, it was the focal point for demonstrations and soap-box speeches. It was also the theatrical district, so there were always plenty of crowds to preach to ; the same situation pertains in Times Square today.
As time went on and the crowds increased, being heard over the throng was a considerable challenge. Stepping in to remedy this problem was Allard Ochsenberg, an Alsatian clockmaker, who invented a solution for this: the pay megaphone! You'd put a penny in and get 15 minutes of megaphone use before a felt shutter deep in the device would cut you off. The megaphones were made of cast iron, mounted on gimbals so the voice could be directed at passing shoppers. Similar devices, with binoculars, are used for sightseeing to this day!
A battery of eight of these megaphones were installed on the west side of Union Square, where today used books are sold. When all stations were occupied, the peculiar acoustic properties of the devices made it seem like tuning through a dense patch of talk-radio programs!
The pay megaphones were removed during the Second World War and symbolically sold as scrap.
Before such conveniences as the Second Avenue Elevated, New York was laced with trolley lines - trolleys drawn by strong teams of horses. As the automobile started to take over, horse-powered trolleys were among the last to disappear. The trolley that ran up First Avenue from Jones' Wood, up the Harlem River Speedway to Marble Hill and back was drawn by a pair of horses, one of which made the run several times a day for 13 years. This horse's name was Old Chester, and he was a great favorite with the passengers and all the various merchants and laborers which he passed several times a day. Chester was a brown horse with a distinctive silhouette-shaped black patch on his side. He often showed up in political cartoons during election season, usually with the silhouette altered to whomever the opponent would be, and (taking more artistic license) with the patch moved tailward. The captions for these cartoons would say "Chester's Choice," "Horse Sense," or "The Steed of Victory?"
When the old line was finally shut down in 1915, Chester was given a great send off. On his last run, he was feted with sugar gumdrops, marzipan, and lots and lots of beer. Yet, the next morning, Chester impatiently stomped around the stall, kicked open the door and went off down his familiar route, where the delighted crowds again showered him with sweets and brew. Chester was getting to like this. He would caper and spin in the street - both showing off and trying to avoid the traffic.
Willie Hammerstein knew a good thing when he saw it and booked Chester into the Victoria on 42nd and Broadway. The act took advantage of his well-known patch, as comic "quick-draw" artist Kevin W. Cruise with charcoal in hand would transform the spot into recognizable caricatures. A stoplight was put onstage so Chester would not walk off or do tricks during this time. The act ran for a couple of months, and made a lot of money for all concerned. Chester even went across the street to the Ziegfeld Follies for a walk-on cameo in Will Rogers' act. Plans were being made for a national tour when Chester died in his sleep on October 18, 1916.
Near the end of the last century it was common for formerly isolated ethnic groups to come into contact with each other. Usually, they realized that they were all recent immigrants and shed their Old World prejudices, but there were two neighboring ethnic groups which for some reason just couldn't stop fighting each other. The Belgians, brought over to lay the Belgian blocks and to tend the Brussels Sprouts farms - in what is now East Harlem - were the bitter rivals of the Welsh, who were imported to cook their fabled rarebits and to dig the still unfinished East Side subway lines.
The Welsh formed gangs which could be seen marching in the streets with leeks on pikes, singing songs of solidarity in their consonant filled native tongue, while the Belgians strutted around with ferocious white Scotty dogs at their sides, puffing themselves up with quilted jackets, which gave rise to their nickname: the hot-air Walloons. The spirited turf wars between these two ethnic groups, which left the streets filled with shredded vegetables, were looked on with exasperated puzzlement by their more accommodating neighbors, the Bavarians, the Tuscans and the Icelanders.
Ah! But love will find a way: a young Welsh miss, Gwynyth Pother and a Belgian lad, Andrian Mecke found each other over a bowl of cock-a-leekie and woke the next morning to a breakfast of Belgian Waffles. The rival families were furious. The Belgians built a roadblock in the middle of 101st street with their Belgian blocks, while the Welsh marched around playing their bagpipes and crwths hoping to break down the walls Jericho-style. Gwynyth and Andrian simply ran off to the Village, where their somewhat dim-witted kinsmen never thought to look for them.
Hostilities continued for several more weeks until the two rivals buried the hatchet and concentrated on ousting a new immigrant group: the Maltese, who came over with their recipes for Malted Milk.
The year was 1939, and radio was hot, hot, hot! It burned up years of Vaudeville material in a matter of weeks, forcing the industry to look for more stable situations - continuing comedies and soap operas, larded with variety show antics. And for a small number of specialists, it was an especially hectic time - because they were often required to be in two or three different studios at the same time, or nearly so.
Case in point: Andy McCorkle, who had invented a bagpipe-based sound effects machine, which he called the Whatsit. Actually, there were two Whatsits: the Grand Whatsit, which could produce the sound of a collapsing elephant, force 3 hurricane, Army mess hall, gushing oil well or inflating Zeppelin, while the Wee Whatsit mad the sound of a snoring aardvark, a baby hiccough, galoshes or Cream Of Wheat (that last one paid most of the bills). Andy had special cases built for the Whatsits which fit exactly on the jump seats of the old Checker cabs, God bless 'em. And they were put to good use as he sped around town from job to job during radio prime time.
Another case: Elly Polonya, "The Goo Goo Girl," who could play any baby voice part from 5 down to preemie convincingly. Elly always carried a bottle of kraut juice with here to help constrict her larynx before a job. Her baby impressions of world political figures could always be counted on to stop a show dead.
And Paul Cotton, a negro performer, popped up on several shows with his distinctive catch phrase "Not Mee!!," in a high, whispery, resigned and pleading voice which could not be imitated. On a good night you could hear him say it on five different shows across the dial!
Not to mention Luisa Verdejo, born Louise Greenberg, whose act consisted of spectacular singing in swing triple-time Spanish doubletalk! Doctoral students at Julliard are still studying old V-Disks of her act in amazement. Her nickname was "The Singing Castanet(te)."
It just so happened that one night, all four of these troupers showed up together in two different skits in two different shows!
Show number 1: at 7:30PM, "A Date with Dolores [ed.: Franco, now forgotten],", where Luisa had a secondary role as Dolores' dotty cousin Clara. In this episode, Dolores is babysitting for Baby Maria (Elly P.) when Clara comes in singing an insane lullaby "Cuando Las Cucarachas No Pueden Salir" - which has the perverse effect of attracting a small army of dance crazy roaches (The Wee Whatsit). The women stand on chairs screaming for help, and Henry, the super (Paul C.) pops in and says, "Not Meeee!" Baby Maria eats the roaches and all is well!
An hour later, the four were working together again in "Harmony Hall," with Eddie Doucet as Jud, the dim-witted but good-natured head of the Fraternal Order of the Celestial Harmonies, whose frog-like speaking voice masked a surprising ability to croon. In this episode, Jud mischievously takes his nephew, Percy (Elly P.) out to the burlycue show to keep him from becoming a "nancy boy." Luisa, playing the star of the show, explains that her specialty will be a sinuous dance ending with a dive into a giant bowl of flan (The Grand Whatsit). After her spectacular dive, she starts to drown in the sweet Spanish custard. The call for help goes out ("Not Mee!" says Henry, the stage manager (Paul C.)), but Percy saves the day by eating the flan.
Pictures of those performers!
With the removal of so many Fire Alarm Boxes by the Giuliani administration goes one of the more dangerous but fun-spirited rituals of ghetto boyhood: the Alarm Box Relay. Here, the youthful contestant races the clock, the police and the fire department in a set course all around the neighborhood, pausing just long enough before the alarm box to yank down the handle and summon aid. Good races were bet upon, and each box was monitored by a lookout so that no one would cheat by using conferates with beepers. After the sirens died down, another heat could be run!
You'd think this was a waste of time and city funds, but it well complemented the another big ghetto sport - the arson race.
Recently while in the Museum of the City of New York, I was looking for pictures of memorial bunting and other ephemeral state decorations in an effort to track some of them down. And sure enough, I not only found some dandy pictures, but a big trunk with the early 19th century decorations for the West Wing of City Hall! These were the decorations used in the ceremonial unveiling of the famous Comissioner's Plan of 1811, which established Manhattan's characteristic gridded street pattern.
Inside this trunk, buried under the ceremonial bunting, was a smaller box. I carefully removed the cloth and lifted out this box, which had the city seal carved into it and the year 1811 underneath that. It had been locked shut, but luckily the wood had cracked and I was able to open it. There was the smell of 180-year old oysters.
Here before me was a silver tray, engraved with a plan of Manhattan - a plan radically different from the one the Commisioners had presented. This Manhattan retained the existing city nearly up to the present day Union Square, had a small grid system above that, but the rest was to remain undeveloped in perpetuity - kept "as a nature and gaming preserve." A canal was to be cut near what is now 23rd street further to isolate the developed from the undeveloped sections of the island. Drawn on the plan of the preserve were tiny figures - naked satyrs and nymphs, and a few Greek-revival gazebos and temples. The new island was to be called Atlantis.
This suppressed Comissioner's plan was clearly influenced by the Masons and the republican fervor of this nation's youth. However it must have been quashed by the powerful landlord and lunch cart interests.
In New York City, Real Estate is an emotion more powerful than Love - ask any number of pitiful split-up couples who are still living together. Here you peruse the Classified section and watch as real estate agents with the demeanor of piranhas battle for a percentage of your meager rent.
The Classifieds are written in a strange language of abbreviations and some have been influenced by a peculiar version of "product placement." For years, Mayor Edward I. Koch made discreet payments so that all apartments with Eat In Kitchens had the initials "EIK" in the ad. Defunct Radio Station WBFP, a lite-rock 70's monstrosity, similarly paid for its call letters to be displayed for apartments with wood burning fireplaces. But there were other abuses of the English language, and the prime offenses are the codewords "Luxury" and "Cozy." Luxury should mean it has a working elevator to the wine cellar and at least two maids' rooms. It actually means "recently painted, but still overpriced." "Cozy," which brings to mind a little bungalow-by-the-sea, fresh scones and cocker spaniels, actually means "tiny."
How tiny? Let's look at this little number on Thompson Street. After walking up three floors (watch the banister), the agent unlocks the four locks, and pulls the door ("Watch It!") suddenly. A Murphy bed leans out of the doorway and comes to rest with a two inch clearance in the hall. On a little recessed shelf: a hotplate, a chamber pot and a seltzer bottle. Cozy!
Or look at this one, around the corner on Sullivan St. A brisk stumble down the basement stairs and over some piled-up two-by-fours to a rough hewn door, guarded by a Master lock. Inside, a matress is sprawled on a coal pile. A few empty cans of Sterno are strewn about. Cozy! But watch out for the pneumonoultramicroscpicsilicovolcanoconiosis!
So, when I got to this one, an attic on 24th street in a former stable, I took it. Though accessible only from a trap door, it was relatively spacious. My diminished stature and habit of going shoeless was an advantage because of the six-foot-nothing ceiling. The window gave me a view and smell of the refuse strewn backyard of an Indian restaurant. But it was worth it because it measured nearly 1000 square feet. Or would have been if there weren't so many old trunks and wallpaper rolls. But it was cozy.
As I pulled out the futon for my first night's rest, I found that I had to move some of these old remnants aside. The natural tilt to the building aided me in this effort! There were a great number of noises - both muffled and clear - which seemed to be coming from the ghosts of the horses in the long-empty stable. I could hear the creak of the Third Avenue El train, which was torn down in 1953. With a mighty lurch, one of the rolls went off by itself, indicating that the tilt in the floor had shifted! New, more close at hand noises put me in a state of unease. Making a quick decision as to which of my three cats I would carry out, kick downstairs or leave to their fate, I ran out of the rickety building, which, in a matter of minutes collapsed into the street.
Manhattan Island was bought for $24 dollars worth of junk jewelry. Or so we're told. But first of all, $24 went a lot further back then. And secondly...
When Robert Moses moved a bit of the Bronx to Manhattan to straighten the Harlem river by Inwood Hill Park, his workers unearthed an old Indian burial ground. Nowadays, that would have stopped the work dead, but we're talking Moses here. All the workers were under strict orders not to report any findings and hush money was handed about to insure this. Nevertheless, Lennie P. Tansey, one of the workers on the project took to squirreling away the little arrowheads and a few scraps of fur, preserved in the anaerobic mud. And five plump hide sachels.
Over the next few weeks, Lennie periodically went down to the diamond district. He carried a small velvet sack (taken from a novelty liquor bottle) and on each visit, this hand laborer would be ushered into a carefully shielded back room. On one visit, he drew out of the sack a perfect star opal, with a very slight violet tinge. On another, a curious matched pair of bowtie-shaped pearls. On another, a thick gold ring with the initials "P.M." on it. As Lennie was showing a broken inch-wide metal bracelet to the appraisers, they were startled as more than a dozen jewels broke out of its hollow interior.
After each visit, Lennie would leave with an empty sack and a substantial certified check. Then he'd go back to his workshop at home in the Bronx and polish up the remaining jewelry. In a lot of cases, he'd removed the cheaper mountings from the flawless gems, cleaned up the rocks and melted down the metal and recast it into more salable ingots. Afterwards, the stones and ingots were hidden under a layer of cigars in a big pile of cigar boxes.
All this time, he continued working on the Inwood Hill project. This was part of Tansey's cover plan. He wanted to finish the job, cash out and blow town. But unfortuantely, he was caught in a premature explosion while cutting through the last part of the isthmus. He lost his sight and hearing, and died a few weeks later in the hospital, raving about cigar boxes. All his effects were burned by his grief stricken wife, who had no knowledge of his incredible scheme but was happy to receive $5,000 from Mr. Moses himself.
Let's put these tales to rest, shall we?
Greenwich Village: the home of the Beats, the Beatniks and the Boppers: the Artists, the Models, the Poets, the Bohemians and Professor Seagull - and an incredible sham, put up but unscrupulous landlords in the early 20th century to force the large Negro population uptown to San Juan Hill. The Village was once all peaceful farmland, tended by freed slaves and West Indian immigrants. But incoming Italians - many of which came from operatic and theatrical backgrounds, stealthily put up flats in the dead of night to convince the residents that there was major urban development going on. The peaceful, rural folk, fearing the evils of a big city, moved up to San Juan Hill en masse, leaving the land to be turned into coffee houses, pizza joints and Social Clubs.
I'm sure you've all seen the little piles of glass pebbles on the sidewalks of New York, and though, "Oh God, there's the evidence of yet another car robbery!" But, in fact, car theft has gone to zero over the past year, due to overzealous policing. Those little piles of glass are, in fact, proof that there are supernatural beings cohabiting with us in the Naked City. They are Fairy droppings.
Yes, New York is famed for its pace of life, its hapless baseball teams, its surly pedestrians and also for its aggressive Poop Scoop Law. But no one thought to curb the increasing Wee Folk Population Explosion, brought about by the easy availability of bean sprouts and other organic vegetables at the Greenmarket and other health-conscious venues. Fairies, Brownies, Sprites, Goblins, Gremlins, Poltergeists and other tiny spirits were attracted into this ecological niche as their native habitats were replaced with Wal-Marts.
Don't believe me? Well, scoop up some of those shards and weigh them. You'll note their feathery weight - and combining them with honey and nectar transforms them into a sweet smelling pudding which is known to rid roaches and other crawling vermin from the vicinity.
Henry Lowengard, jhhl-at-panix.com /61 Prospect St. / New Paltz 12561
© 1999 Henry Lowengard