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".