Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cozy Studio

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 pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis!
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.

Radio Schizo

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 made 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 her 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 double-talk! 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.

East Side Story

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.

Speaker's Corner

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.

The Gay Nineties

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.

Monday, March 24, 2008

19th Century Spy System

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 on Centre Street 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. Details of suspicious activity could be examined directly on screens made of translucent mica with the aid of magnifying glasses. A small team of deaf mutes was hired to lip read conversations - when justified by a legally obtained warrant, of course!

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.

[where: Broome St. and Centre St. New York City, NY]

A Day Lost To History

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 anninger, 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 theater 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.

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."

Ghost Club

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, once supplied the electricity - they have since 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 even more morbid momenti mori.

Here is Katie J. Wall's left hand, cut off after her grisly death by taxi - still wearing the fabulous 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 Millie 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 had 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?

Higher Education

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.

What Hath God Wrought?

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".

Monday, February 05, 2007

When Beer was King

In the late 19th century, America, and to a greater extent, New York City, was a beer drinking nation. Beer was safer than the water of the time, and many apartments had micro breweries where today they have laundry rooms. Brewing was also a main source of income in Yorkville, and the breweries had company run beer halls to keep the staff from wandering away during lunch.

The long-removed First Avenue El train had custom spurs to the breweries of the Upper East Side, which stocked the second-to-the last cars - the Raines law 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 labeled "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 when it was being demolished in the late 90s.

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 Rupperts and the Piels 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.

Saturday, December 30, 2006


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.