I just read my first illustrated book, an idiosyncratic history of New York City, Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York by Julia Wertz. The genre is “comics,” but the New York Times gave it such a glowing review, and since my love of NYC – where I grew up and lived as a young adult --- is so deep, I couldn’t resist owning this fetching coffee table book. It’s easy to read and a candy feast for the eyes for an old New Yorker, although as a kid I grew up in Queens, but that still counts!
Obviously, it can’t be a comprehensive history. Wertz takes bits and pieces of the city’s history – the ones that particularly appeal to her -- and weaves them together in a graphic time machine of sorts, frequently juxtaposing the “then” and “now” scenes. Just a glance at the “Table of Contents” underscores the eclectic nature of the history:
She tends to focus on those aspects that are not touristy. It reaches across generations. She’s young enough to be my daughter or perhaps even granddaughter. As she is not a New Yorker by birth, and no longer lives there, she sees the city in a way a native New Yorker might not, in the way that I do. I took all those sites for granted and it makes more of an impression in retrospect than it did then.
I enjoyed her journey through parts of NYC I’ve known and other parts I did not know. Also I appreciated her quirky selection of topics such as the origins and “formula” for the “egg cream” which took me back to my childhood at a local luncheonette in Richmond Hill, Queens, 107th Street and Jamaica Avenue, called Freers.
In fact, if there is one disappointment in the book, it is that she tends to give short shrift to Queens, as opposed to Brooklyn where she lived in Greenpoint during her NY years. Missing are iconic scenes of my youth and I think of the confluence of Myrtle, Hillside, and Jamaica Avenues as ground zero where Jahn’s, the RKO Keiths, and the Triangle Hofbrau still live large in my memory!. All gone now.
Those figured prominently in my teenage years whereas during grammar school days other beloved places were in South Richmond Hill, 107th St near Atlantic Avenue. One of the first Carvel’s was there or some days we’d bike over to Jamaica, Queens where there was a Wonder Bread factory where workers would give us hot bread from their oven. There was also a slaughter house not too far away and we’d peer through knotholes to see chickens dancing around without their heads before we were chased away. Also on Atlantic was a park on 106th St. where we played stickball, punch ball, handball, any kind of game you could play with a Spaldeen.
Along Jamaica Avenue I remember the Gebhardts bakery off of 111th street whose crumb cake was divine. Also there was a fish store around 112th where they also cooked greasy French fries and served them wrapped in newspaper. We got our school supplies from Lipchitz or Woolworths. Right near Lipchitz was the Richmond Hill Savings bank where my mother encouraged me to open an account to save my pennies, and I always felt I was entering a church when I went there with my junior savings account.
Overhead was the Jamaica Avenue El which on rare occasions was our escape into NYC, a great adventure as a kid, but I usually took it early Sat morning to go to the Van Wyck Lanes where I could bowl a few games for 15 cents each if I got there before 9.00 am with my own ball (I once bowled a 227).
We’d play ball until dark, a round sewer top for home plate, or stoop ball, eat dinner and then wait for the ring of the Bungalow Bar Man, begging our parents for a 10 cent chocolate pop. The games we played. Anything to stay out of the house. Steal the bacon, Ringolevio, yo-yo duels, card games like war, flipping baseball cards, dodge ball and the list goes on.
Forest Park was a draw, with a carousel and later in my teenage years, a walk along the railroad tracks with friends, putting pennies on the rail and then running back to see them after a freight train had passed. The Park was also a great place to build a secret fort. Or for sledding. And for playing baseball at Victory Field.
On Halloween we would get apples, popcorn or crackerjacks, just take a handful, no need to worry back then that there would be a razor blade in the apple or the popcorn poisoned. And on Thanksgiving our parents would blacken our faces with burnt cork, dressing us as bums, and we would go around the neighborhood asking "anything for Thanksgiving?" I think we normally received a few pennies. Into the bank account!
We got around on our Schwinn bikes, clothes-pinning playing cards to the wheel frames so the spokes would make a racket. As teenagers we sought out older kids to cruise Queens Blvd (preferably in a 55’ Ford such as this one I saw recently at an antique car show –
strange to be looking at “antiques” that were just part of my life) or hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach where we would work hard to get a tan, but usually left with a blistering sunburn (my Dermatologist now thanks me for my stupidity). Also part of our teenage years was spent at the Hillside Rollerdrome Skating Rink on Metropolitan Avenue.
I could go on and on. But I see I am digressing into reveries, none of which I could criticize our author, Julia Wertz, for not including in her “unconventional history.” It would have been nice though to include the institution that was Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor! I’m also sorry she failed to carrry the Brooklyn Paramount in her illustrations of iconic NY theaters, which as you can see here is now one of the gymnasiums belonging to LIU.
Her writing this history has naturally given rise to these memories and her work is a “must have” for an incurable (albeit former) New Yorker. Plus there are a number of scenes which struck home in the book, but I’ll mention only a few. The first is her illustration of Max’s Kansas City, a joint, restaurant, theatre which I used to go to with other colleagues on special occasions from the publishing company I worked for in the mid 1960s. We always had to have one of their iconic Bloody Mary’s. Sometimes they would have an experimental theater production on the second floor, the kind you’d see at Café La MaMa in the East Village.
But the illustration that really hit home is coincidentally both on the cover and at the end of the book, a stroll down the Bowery. I kept looking at it and said I know this illustration for some reason. Well, when researching the history of my family photography business, Hagelstein Brothers, I found the building my great grandfather and great uncle bought in 1866 to begin a business which would survive 120 years in NYC. That building was 142 Bowery and there it was in Wertz’s book as well as her selection for the cover. Here’s her illustration and a picture of it today. So, I found that sort of thrilling.
She’s also irreverent, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way, but very respectfully. She’s downright funny, as this illustration of “subway etiquette” illustrates:
As well as her quip about “micro-living” this, as she points out, is a trumped up idea of justifying astronomical rental fees for small spaces:
She can also be very philosophical as one illustration has her on one of her “long city walks” saying to a friend, “I’m, perpetually fantasizing about a time I never experienced, and imagining a life I’ll never live.” I might know a little more about the former but we’re in the same boat regarding the latter.
Most of all, I am regretful that I didn’t take more careful notice of everything when I was roaming NYC, having lived in Queens, Brooklyn (Park Slope and Downtown), the East Village (only briefly with a friend), and then the upper West Side. See this entry for fuller information on that. And, not only regretful because of that, but my encroaching old age makes only an occasional return to the city possible now, never to live there again.
While I was reading and enjoying Wertz’s “comic” table top book, I was also engrossed in another work by a New Yorker, the great writer, particularly known for his professional writing on baseball, Roger Angell. But he is so much more than a baseball writer, and I’m closer in age to him (he’s turning 98 and still writing!) than I am to Julia Wertz. They actually have The New Yorker magazine in common, Wertz contributing cartoons and Angell a long, long established writer for them.
This Old Man: All in Pieces is a potpourri of memories, the consequences of what it means to be the last man standing, the losses, and homage to NYC. I feel that I’m right behind him on the journey, the realization that my much operated on body is moving into the category of “this old man” as well; I feel it.
The title of the collection is derived from his essay which appeared in The New Yorker in 2013. It is a must read and it gives one an appreciation of his writing talents, so effortless and natural.
It includes “farewells, letters, and tributes” to those he has known , “our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. I would like to think of mine as fellow voyagers…Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.”
His tribute, “Over the Wall “ to his late wife, Carol, written only months after her death starts with Carol doesn't know that President Obama won reelection last Tuesday, carrying Ohio and Pennsylvania and Colorado, and compiling more than three hundred electoral votes. She doesn't know anything about Hurricane Sandy. She doesn't know that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, in a sweep over the Tigers. More important, perhaps, she doesn't know that her granddaughter Clara is really enjoying her first weeks of nursery school and is beginning to make progress with her slight speech impediment. Carol died early last April….
What the dead don't know piles up, though we don't notice it at first. They don't know how we're getting along without them, of course, dealing with the hours and days that now accrue so quickly, and, unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don't know that we don't want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls and going to the bank, all this stepping along, because we don't want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in mind. But they're in a hurry, too, or so it seems. Because nothing is happening with them, they are flying away, over that wall, while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather and the iPhone, to the hurricane and the election…..
There are scores of writers he worked with and befriended, one in particular, John Updike, who comes up again and again in these essays, bringing the writer to life with personal quips. He also recognizes the genius of Updike’s writing:
Updike's writing is light and springy, the tone unforced; often happiness is almost in view, despite age or disappointments. He is not mawkish or insistently gloomy. Death is frequently mentioned but for the time being is postponed. Time itself is bendable in these stories; the characters are aware of themselves at many stages. This is Updike country: intelligent and Eastern, mostly Protestant, more or less moneyed.
Angell relates an anecdote regarding how Updike accidentally got to see and write about Ted Williams’ final at bat of his career at Fenway Park, hitting a home run. Updike was in the area to meet a woman at her place on Beacon Hill and was stood him up! So he made his way to Fenway and was there to witness the consecrated moment and famously wrote about it in a piece for The New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” Here is the confluence of literature and baseball, a legend elevated into a literary masterpiece:
Fisher threw [a] third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. [Center fielder Jackie} Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished. Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs-hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.
In accepting the J.G, Taylor Spink Award at the American Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. Angell acknowledged his debt to baseball:
My gratitude always goes back to baseball itself, which turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting, so easy-looking and so heart-breakingly difficult that it filled up my notebooks and seasons in a rush. A pastime indeed. Fans know about this too. Nowadays we have all sports available, every sport all day long, but we're hanging on to this game of outs, knowing how lucky we are.
Roger, I know what you mean! In this crazy world baseball remains essentially unchanged except for the amusement park nature of many of today’s fields. I liked it more in the days of no mascots, flashing scoreboards, fireworks, enclosed stadiums, constant “music.” Let ‘em play ball!
Tying these two books together may be a stretch, but there is also Roger Angell the inveterate New Yorker. In a letter to Tom Beller who was researching a book about J.D. Salinger, Angell imagines what Madison Avenue was like when he probably passed “Jerry” as he refers to J.D., both unaware of the other….
I'm pretty sure that Jerry Salinger would have walked toward Madison, not Lex, in search of that pack of cigarettes. He could have tried at the little Schmidt's Drugstore, two doors north of 91st Street on the NE corner of Park, but probably that was still a pure drugstore. It had one of the pharmacist's vases of mauve water hanging in the window…. Madison then was nothing like Madison now. The gentrification began in the 1980s, I believe. It was a businesslike avenue before that, and in Jerry's time, with two- way trolley tracks in the middle. All traffic was two-way. It had newsstands, a Gristede's (on the NE corner of 92nd); a liquor store or two; a plumber's store, with a bathtub in the window (mid 91st-92nd, on the east side of the avenue); a florist's (J. D. Flessas, on the SW corner of 91st); numerous drugstores (including Cantor's on NE or SE corner of Mad and 93rd, depending on which year we're talking about, and, maybe a bit earlier, a nearby Liggett's); plus shoeshine and shoe repair shops, hardware stores (probably Feldman's, even then), etc., etc. The Hotel Wales was already there, east side of the avenue between 92nd and 93rd, but much seedier then.
Lexington was much the same, also with trolleys-the trolley cars on the two lines were not identical in appearance-and with the same stores, maybe more groceries or butcher shops, but all of them cheaper and with a slightly less affluent clientele. More laundries; more of those basement ice, coal & wood places. Maybe some deli's but they weren't called deli's then. Lexington and I think 93rd had a Lucky Lindy coffee shop. But neither of the two avenues felt affluent; they were useful. Almost all the buildings along them were four-story brownstones. Madison, as you noted, was on the same geographical level as Park; Lex was downhill from Park. There was some construction going on in these blocks all through this time, depression or no depression.
Salinger and the younger me probably passed each other more than once on the street back then, all unknowing. We each knew that the wind was from the east on gray mornings when we woke up with the smell of hops in the air, blown from the huge Ruppert's Brewery, which lay east of Third and north from 90th Street.
Two entirely different generations, but dealing with life in the Big Apple, then and now.