New York Stories

Other than supermarket socialism and fictional histories, what else do we talk about in the New York Conference? Well, there's lots of lively and informative conversation. As I write this, for example, a heated discussion is taking place on the precise volume of cream cheese on a "bagel with a schmear." And frequently, we're treated to some evocative images of Life in the Big City:

160 Varick
The unique patter of a New York cabbie
Whatever happened to BUtterfield-8?
Brooklyn Epiphanies
Reports from an outer borough
From L.A.
How a long-distance operator convinces one woman to pack her bags
The Old Saint of Greenwich Village
Maurice was king of the neighborhood eccentrics
I Fuckin' LOVE This Town
A euphoric appreciation of downtown life

160 Varick

I had this amazing cab ride and I had to transcribe the cabbie's patter. So here it is:

160 Varick? Fifteen minutes I get you there.
43rd and 2nd to Houston and Varick. Less than
15 minutes.... Oh I made a mistake. Where
all these cars come from? Everyone make a
mistake coming here. C'mon, lezgo, lezgo,
lezgo.... After this sign that say 33rd
Street, the traffic clear up forever.
Forever and forever. Amen.... Dee-sul! Dat
truck run on dee-sul. Dee-sul.... Look at
that taxi there. Brand new Ford. Beautiful.
My company changes cars every three years.
We have some arrangement with a dealer.
There's this place in Queens that change
their cars every year. Believe that?... Hey
where do you think you're going? Don't hit
this car. Fucking Indian. Don't fuck with
me! I'll get out and beat your ass. I don't
care. I don't care who you are, I'll beat
your ass. Even a cop, I'll beat his ass...
Fucking Indian bastard... Hey, you don't know
how to drive. Don't drive, you don't know
how to drive. Take a bus. Or let me drive
you.... Dee-sul! Dee-sul bus. Dat bus run
on dee-sul. Dee-sul... I'm a professional.
Not everyone know this way. Watch this...
Boom! 160 Varick, left-hand side. 14
minutes. Have a good day.

- Rikki Stikki Taffi
From Item 283 ("I Fuckin' LOVE This Town")


Whatever happened to TELEPHONE EXCHANGES? When I was a kid, my phone number was Murray Hill 7-2458. Everyone in New York -- as well as the rest of America, of course -- had local exchanges with names. Then came the infamous A.D.D.: All Digit Dialing, in the mid sixties, and that was the end of eighty years' worth of history. Though every city had them, New York's exchanges seemed particularly resonant: PLaza 5, ALgonquin 3, YUkon 6, and of course, BUtterfield 8. Other ones that c ome to mind in no particular order are: CAnal, UNiversity, KLondike, DEfender. Of course, many of the exchanges still exist, and are just hidden. All you downtown 226 folks are actually CAnal 6, and to this day, I believe, if you look up the number of t he Hotel Pennsylvania, it's 736-5000, which is, of course, "Pennsylvania 6-5000" as in the old Glenn Miller song (written in the hotel, natch). If you have an older number, you can often puzzle out what the exhcange used to be. Anyway, I would love to h ear some other old exchanges that people remember.

I have a nice story about the DEfender exchange. My father ran a manufacturing business in Woodside, Queens for 35 years. The phone number was DEfender 5-5000. As it happens, part of the DEfender exchange was in Manhattan, and DEfender 5-3000 was the g eneral number for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. On the very first day my father was in business, in 1946, the plant was ready, and they waited around to get an order. At the very end of the day, the phone rang. The first order! My mother, who was working the phones, picked it up. The man said, "I'd like to speak to General MacArthur!" (MacArthur, having come back victorious from the Pacific, was living in the Waldorf Towers). They managed to stay in business, anyway.

- James Sanders
From Item 56 ("Whatever Happened To...")

Brooklyn Epiphanies

Brooklyn Epiphanies...#1 of a semi-continuing series....Riding in a dollar van going north on Flatbush...smells, as they all do, of synthetic cherries, tobacco and curry powder...the windows are all tinted to protect riders from the "tropical" sun...Buju Banton slamming out of the speakers at mega-decibel level...everybody half-asleep in this faux caribeean womb of shag carpets, plastic upholstery covers and dark glass. If only I weren't wearing a winter coat and boots, I could dream I was in Trinidad. We reach the circle...I raise the pitch of my voice so it carries over Buju...EH, EH EH! At the corner, Man!!! Swerves madly to corner. I climb over three ladies and work my way out the door, which slides shut like a knive blade behind me. Ejected from paradise...

Report from Clarkson Avenue...when I first moved out here, during the Koch administration, this street had more potholes than Port Au Prince. A residential street, narrow, that some idiot at the MTA decided should be the last leg of the route of the B12 bus...riding home in a taxi was an adventure in shock neighbors, accustomed to the indifference of imperial power, suffered the municipal neglect in silence. Our street remained untouched by new asphalt for nearly five years. Then Dinkins got elected, and -- as if by magic -- trucks and rollers appeared. Our humble little street got repaved THREE times!

When Giuliani won, I figured we'd sink back into potholes and obscurity, a West Indian neighborhood that wouldn't matter unless we got rambunctious ...but ohhhh no...Three weeks ago the caterpillar trucks and bulldozers started arriving. They start digging, tearing, grinding, every morning at 7 am, even on Saturdays. They've completely ripped up our street, torn apart the underground pipes, exhumed burial mound piles of earth so high I can no longer wave to my neighbor across the street. The exact reasons for this destruction of my street remain mysterious...and there seems to be no end in sight. I now long for the languid potholed Koch years, and yearn for colonial invisibility...

- Daisann McLane
From Item 7 ("Brooklyn")

From L.A.

I decided to come to NY when I was one semester out of high school in L.A. and had to kill 8 months until college began, so I went to work for the telephone company as a long distance operator. We were allowed to say only 6 sentences, even if the building was burning down, and we were monitored by a matron for every 4 operators. 1) "operator" 2) "What number are you calling?" 3) "I have a collect call for so and so, will you accept the charges?" etc. No way you were allowed to say anything else or they pulled you off the board and chastised you.

Well, to call overseas in those days you had to call the overseas operator in New York, and everytime I did, she's say something like, "Oh God, hold on honey, I've got one hell of a mess here." I was enchanted. I was dazzled. I thought, "She says anything she wants!" and I thought "She called me Honey. She likes me!"

Hating Los Angeles beyond belief, always feeling left out, left behind, as though there was a great party somewhere and I didn't know the address, I swore to visit that town where the telephone operators said anything they wanted and where they called you "Honey." So I did, a few years later. And for the first time I could remember, I stopped feeling nervous and felt calm. I felt like I was at the party. Even when I was up in my apartment.

I love this shithole.

- Barbara Lynn
From Item 180 ("How I Ended Up in New York")

The Old Saint of Greenwich Village

...Adam once received a strange phone call from a woman who wanted to interview Adam Purple. How she got our number I'll never know, but we politely told her how to find the other Adam. My Adam's quote on the subject of NYC's downtown nuts: "It's more important to talk about Maurice."

Maurice, "the old saint of Greenwich Village." He died several years ago. Master junk collector, salvager of trash, especially books, walking MacDougal Street with his wheelie and that long, pristine white beard. Local restaurants fed him. He gathered discarded flowers from the floral district, and gave them to girls. And he was singlehandedly responsible for the elimination of subway station lockers! His history was remarkable; in his younger days, he was a photographers' agent, and worked with Steicken, Steiglitz, and others. When his alcoholic fiancee committed suicide, he lost interest in his business, and became a bibliophilic scavenger. He sold newspapers by hand, and stored his vast book collection in his home; after suffering a fire, his genuinely amazing collection of books was lost never to be regained, but that didn't stop him from trying.

That's when he started using the subway lockers, and any space anyone would offer him. He was a sort of mascot to the early Village Voice. When a change of management resulted in his not being invited to the annual Christmas party, he swore never to go back. Some years later his Voice friends convinced him to attend the party once again. When he showed up he was accompanied by a date...Odetta!

- mrs. hippie queen
From Item 117 ("Hidden New York")

I Fuckin' LOVE This Town

New York occasionally picks you up in its petrochemical arms and carries you so high.

The girlie at the overpriced coffee bar where I spend $30 a week during the week, smiles at me with a smile that could start a fire in the desert...we talk about music and bands and Antoine Doinel and film. She says:

I'm in band, we've got a gig at the Mercury Lounge. I think....yup probably another buncha shoe gazing guitar thrashers, but music keeps me I pencil it in.

I show up early and suck down a pint of Bass to calm the ulcers having a block party in my belly. I get a good seat with a clear view. The engineer is playing a brilliant cd of multi-layered guitar grooves..turns out it's Swervedriver and I'm seriously worried that the riffs will not clear my head in time for Jennifer's band. I strike up a conversation with the sound engineer. He's approachable...we talk music tech. weenie for a while.

I check out the gear on stage, in the hopes of giving me an indication of where their sound is heading. Clean drum kit, not too many tom toms (no 12 minute drum solo), Upright bass, Vox AC 30 for the Gibson semi acoustic (with original machine heads, not Schallers or Grovers) and an accordion.

They start and within seconds I feel euphoric tingles down my spine. They can PLAY, they are TIGHT, they are INTERESTING, and then Jennifer comes out. Skin tight black dress, heels, and lips enlarged by perfect red, she slides into the first song and I'm amazed. She can really sing, and she is transformed from the espresso puller in grubby jeans to a kitten cat seemingly lost in the narcotic addiction of love and allnight sex.

I'm stunned, thrilled and delighted. THIS is the city at its finest. This is when the city picks you up and takes you to another place without an area code. This is why we come here; this is why we stay.

Five bux man, five bux.

- Simon Egleton
From Item 283 ("I Fuckin' LOVE This Town")

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