Sunday, May 1, 2016

228. The Judson City Public Library: Scandals and Irregularities Galore

     Here at last is a brief account of the Judson City Public Library, not the library of today, which is functioning smoothly and serving the public well, but the library of yore, back before computers and the Internet, when readers smudged their fingers turning the pages of real books, and a series of library directors who failed to engage with the staff encouraged certain deficiencies and even made room for small scandals.  (Don’t look for Judson City on a map; the name is invented, since I have no wish to taint the reputation of today’s library, located in a city in this general area.)

      Among the staff of that era were Mrs. Blaustein, whose lipstick preceded her through doorways, and whose ample bosom was agleam with jewelry; she worked in Circulation and was one of the more functioning employees.

     Mr. Wu, a Chinese American, had been shunted to the Catalog Department because his English was a flow of gibberish that no one could understand.  Years later he was still in Catalog and his English was still gibberish.

     Mr. Stevenson was a gentle, roundish man of some years who, sometimes, presided over the Local History Room, whose stately albeit somewhat musty confines were rarely penetrated by patrons.  On the wall above his desk, squeezed in incongruously among formal portraits of governors and mayors, was a photograph of his mother, who smiled benignly down upon him as he toiled minimally.  I say “minimally” because, alas, he was a bit too fond of the grape and struggled manfully to get through the day, never really drunk but not quite sober.  One Monday morning at five of nine, as other staff members strode briskly toward the entrance of the monumental library building, Mr. Stevenson was seen looking at the entrance with a wan, worn look.  Slowly he shook his head and sadly turned about and retraced his steps toward home.  He didn’t last much longer at the library.

     Amanda was a lady of middle years whose job was to sort out material to be sent to the branches, but much of her time was devoted to caring for stray cats that she plucked from the alleyways and gutters of the city.  With a caring heart and no authorization whatsoever she nested them in boxes in unvisited nooks and crannies in the stacks, feeding them generously and supplying them with ample amounts of kitty litter.  These activities might have gone unnoticed, had not a subtle scent of cat food and kitty poop spread throughout the stacks, provoking objections from coworkers.  Adamant in defending her strays, she defied orders from superiors and continued to clutter up the stacks.   Finally, one day when she was home nursing a cold, her supervisor recruited a team of coworkers to restore the strays to the street, clean out the cans of stacked cat food and litter boxes, and purify the air with scents.  When Amanda returned a few days later, she registered utter shock and dismay, and defiantly began reaccumulating strays and cat food and litter boxes.  So formidable was her compassion for felines that the staff gave up the fight in despair, and strange odors continued to pervade the stacks.

     The geography of the library building is of interest, ranging as it did, vertically, from the sodden depths of the basement to the airy heights of the Eaves.  The basement was the domain of the maintenance men, and a merry bunch they were.  Rarely seen above ground, where they appeared reluctantly at times for repair work, they found those depths congenial, for few of the upstairs staff ventured down there.  Stored in the basement stacks were government documents, tons of them – full Congressional records and quantities of statistics from various bureaucracies – which practically no one ever felt the need to consult.  So there the documents sat, year after year.  Then one summer a torrential rain flooded the basement, soaking some of the documents, which from then on emitted, instead  of a musty, dry odor, a soggy one  further spiced by a subtle hint of alcohol, since the maintenance men, in their splendid isolation, found frequent opportunities to imbibe.

     Meanwhile up in the celestial heights of the Eaves, the very top floor of the structure, two genteel elderly ladies toiled diligently, pursuing some noble project, though no one below quite knew what.  It was a special program funded by some benign foundation, perhaps to give useful employment and a sense of purpose to seniors, and it somehow involved archives; the two ladies, as sweet and silent as can be, sat at a table up there, quite alone, diligently copying or recording something.  So it went for days, their gentle presence barely discernible to those below.  Then one day one of them was absent, and the other toiled on in solitude.  Toward the end of the day the staff realized that they hadn’t seen or heard her all day and went to investigate.  They found her lying on the floor, no one knew for how long, pen clasped tight in her fingers, but quite unconscious, a victim of some medical mishap.  An ambulance was called and she was rushed to a hospital, though word never came of her ultimate fate.  The other daytime occupant of the Eaves, hearing of her companion’s fate, was so disheartened that she declined to continue the project, following which the lofty Eaves remained vacant for years.  

     A new note was struck in the library with the arrival of Maisie, the supervisors’ new secretary, who got the job through some obscure political connection.  She was young, vibrant, outgoing, her make-up a bit too bold, her skirts a bit too short, and from the moment she appeared, she added to the library atmosphere the one element missing: sex.  The females of the staff eyed her with suspicion, while the males – especially the younger ones – were smitten from the start.  Though she proved to be an excellent secretary, she was also an excellent gossip; with her on hand, few of the staff’s secrets remained secret.  Be that as it may, everything about her – her expression, her clothes, the way she walked – was just plain flat-out sexy.  Yet Maisie was no wanton: she tempted, but never delivered; she enticed subtly, but remained maddeningly elusive.  The high point of her brief library career came at the annual winter holiday party, where she did a wild dance to savage music (recorded) that elicited from the maintenance men wild outbursts of cheers and applause.  Soon after that she left the library, no doubt in quest of further conquests elsewhere.

     Without Maisie things were dull for a while, but the Judson City Public Library system was never devoid of scandal, and if not the hard core of it, at least a gentle whiff.  No, I can’t offer the director deserting his wife to run off with the assistant director – nothing so spectacular; but scandal nonetheless, inspired by murky doings at the Foster Street branch.

     Presiding over the Foster Street branch was Wendy Paterson, a diligent but slightly erratic librarian who served the public adequately at the front desk in the rooms open to the public.  But the library truck was parked nearby a little too often, sparking rumors about what went on in the back room of the library.  The truck driver, a stud named Joe, was charged with transporting books to and from the branches, but in the course of these duties he found time for extracurricular activities, especially at the Foster Street branch. 

     Hearing the rumors, the branch supervisor visited the branch, found all in front quite proper, but investigated the back room where the public never penetrated.  There, among the scant furnishings, was a large couch with plump pillows, and in the air the faintest trace of Ms. Paterson’s vibrant perfume.  On that couch, christened the Couch of Passion by gossipers, Wendy Paterson and Joe the truck driver were said to have tangled rapturously on many an occasion.  Of this there was no evidence, only the persistent rumors.  And in the very back of the room in question, there was a door leading to the basement.  When the supervisor opened it, he saw a stairway leading down into darkness, but made out, on the floor below, a teeming, writhing mass of waterbugs, outsized roaches so repellent in appearance, so shocking, so frightening, that the supervisor shut the door at once, locked it, and departed.  Rarely, before then or after, was the door opened, for the staff knew too well what lay behind it.  The supervisor had confirmed, insofar as possible, that in the nether back reaches of the Foster Street branch there was indeed a surfeit of biology, human and otherwise, but there was nothing to be done about it.

     A lighter, albeit sadder note was provided annually by Amelia Hudson, a spinsterish librarian who served diligently but cheerlessly throughout the year, and at the annual holiday party in December, by popular demand that became a little less fervent each year, did her legendary comic performance of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.”  Throwing herself into the role of a grieving woman pleading with her estranged boyfriend to return, Miss Hudson pulled out all the stops, a little more each year, ending up kneeling on the floor, arms outstretched, pleading with tearful resonance. Though she hammed it up outrageously, hilarious laughter followed, tempered with the embarrassed realization, a little more poignant every year, that this was her one chance to let go a bit, to express a surge of bottled-up emotions, to do what she had longed all her life to do: to be passionately human.

     So much for the annals of the Judson City Public Library, proof indeed that life in a library can be anything but dull.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The book:  My selection of posts from this blog has won first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards.  Sheri Hoyte, in the accompanying review, calls the book "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City….  I highly recommend it to all fans of entertaining short stories and lovers of New York City.  It would also make an interesting travel guide for people who just want to learn more about the city that never sleeps."  (The full review is also included in post #223 of March 27, 2016.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  

     Coming soon:  Computers Are Stupid.  Also possible: little shops of New York; New York graffiti; construction in New York: ubiquitous and maddening, and won't it ever stop?

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder

Sunday, April 24, 2016

227. The Looks of Desire, of Crime, of Spiritual Energy

     What’s in a look? Everything!  Here are my random thoughts on the subject.

The look of desire

Every woman and every gay guy knows this look, though straight guys are often so busy looking at women that they forget that women may be looking at them.  Once, back in my young youth years ago at Nantucket, where I arrived just before a hurricane, I was sitting at a counter in a restaurant, when the good-looking older man sitting next to me, whom I knew vaguely from a quick introduction the night before, reached over and took off my glasses.

     “Hey!” I exclaimed in mild protest, but he refused to return them, looking instead at me with the look of desire.  But his look was not burning hot; it was detached, as if filing me away for future use.  He looked in silence for a minute or two, and I returned his look without a word, not registering interest but noncommittal calm.  Finally he returned the glasses and I put them back on.  All this without a word between us.  A curious little game, new to me.

     The beginning of a torrid romance?  Not at all.  His action had surprised me, annoyed me, and flattered me; it was like a gentle rape.  But I wasn’t about to get involved, for I had been told that his usual breakfast was a string of gins, and that I wasn’t going to sign on for.  Instead, I ended up in a short-term relationship with a habitual liar whose lies reached the point where I had to break it off, and abruptly.  Maybe the gin drinker would have been a better bet.

    That look of desire had no guilt in it.  On other occasions I got look of desire that was direct, searing, and guilt-ridden, usually from a guy from the Bible Belt for whom a same-sex attraction was the ultimate in sin; sad.  And in my first year at Columbia as a grad student, I found myself on the fifteenth floor, the top, where no less than a third to a half of the residents were gay.  Pure coincidence, though we joked about it.  One of my neighbors, Walter, was friendly and full of good humor, but we all noticed that he had a look that was almost savage in its intensity, even when he wasn’t looking at his friends with desire.  Was he too from the Bible Belt?  I don’t know, but maybe so; certainly he was apt at citing the Bible, with hilarious effect.

     So much for looks of desire.  We all have a story or two to tell on the subject.

The criminal look

     My father was a corporation lawyer whose specialty was the intricacies of law regarding railroads.  But he told me once how, in law school, one of his professors insisted that there was a certain hardened look that characterized veteran criminals – a look that could not be used as evidence in court, which he thought unfortunate.  He insisted that you could recognize a criminal by this look, though the arguments against such use are obvious.

     Once I encountered this look.  It was in a Village bar on Bleecker Street long ago, a bar where gay men and women of all ages rubbed elbows with adventurous straights, a sprinkling of tourists, and real and pseudo bohemians – a racy mix much to my liking.  One evening I saw a man perhaps in his thirties who seemed to know some of the regulars, and from the talk around me I learned that he was fresh out of prison, incarcerated for what offense I do not know.  I caught his glance once or twice and yes, there was a hardened look that I had never seen before – surely the hardened look described by the law professor.  I can’t explain or analyze it; all I know is, it said to me DANGER  KEEP  AWAY.  Needless to say, I did.

The look of spiritual energy

     This look I have never experienced, but I know that it exists.  Gurus – the real ones – and healers have it, and no doubt saints and saints-to-be.  A Catholic student of mine once went to Italy to meet the Padre Pio, a Capuchin  friar whom he was certain would be posthumously canonized.  He did indeed meet him, and while he didn’t describe the man’s look, he said that, at once glance, the Padre knew that he, the student, was not in a state of grace, which he wasn’t.  Certainly the Padre had remarkably powers of insight.  And my student was right; the Padre, who died soon after this incident, was canonized in 2002.

     A friend of mine named Gary told me how he had heard the Dalai Lama speak during a visit to New York.  Asked if he could love even the Chinese Communists who had even threatened his life, the Dalai Lama replied, “It is very difficult, but … I love them.”  This reply so impressed Gary that he resolved to save up all he could so he could go to India to thank the Dalai Lama in person for this feat of love and forgiveness.  He did get there and did meet the Dalai Lama and chat with him, but that is not the point of this story.  Before going to the Dalai Lama’s residence-in-exile, he attended a large gathering to hear a famous Indian guru speak.  There were thousands there, and foreigners were seated in a special section.  When the guru arrived, he walked down an aisle right beside the section for foreigners, and for the briefest instant Gary’s eyes met his.  Instantly Gary felt spiritual energy pass from the guru’s eyes into his – a unique experience that he could attest to without being able to explain it. 

     Though I myself have never experienced it, I have no doubt that such energy exists and that it can be transmitted from one person to another.  Westerners may scoff, since this cannot be verified scientifically at present, but I suspect that someday science will catch up with the wisdom of Eastern traditions of spirituality and healing.  Whether it is in my lifetime or not, I hope that it will happen.

     So much for these three varieties of looks.  There are many more, I’m sure.  Tell me if you have experienced any; I’m eager to hear.

     Modern Art Strikes Again:  Never underestimate the ability of great art to take us to a new place, to reveal exciting fresh dimensions of human experience.  The Guggenheim Museum is installing a sculptural masterpiece by Maurizio Cattelan in a small room devoted to quiet meditation and other modes of experience: a functioning solid-gold toilet that will meet the needs of visitors while also commenting acerbly on today’s art market.  Visitors will no doubt form long lines awaiting admission – singly, I assume – to view and utilize this break-through innovation and in the process, I hope, achieve new insights into art and the human experience.  I trust that it uses a minimum of water in flushing.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

    The book:  My selection of posts from this blog has won first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards, which can be accessed here.  Sheri Hoyte, in the accompanying review, calls the book "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City….  I highly recommend it to all fans of entertaining short stories and lovers of New York City.  It would also make an interesting travel guide for people who just want to learn more about the city that never sleeps."  (The full review is also included in post #223 of March 27, 2016.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  

     Coming soon:  Annals of the Judson City Public Library: Dark Deeds Revealed, Things the Public Never Knew.  The whole scandalous story at last exposed.  

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder

Sunday, April 17, 2016

226. Kitty Genovese Remembered

     Long ago, in a 2012 vignette about horrors that I had seen from my apartment window, I recounted briefly, as a kind of prelude, the 1964 murder in Queens of a young woman named Kitty Genovese.  Her tragic story has come again to mind, fifty-two years later, for reasons explained below.  But first, here is my account of the murder, excerpted from vignette #13 (also found on pp. 138-40 in chapter 18 of my book No Place for Normal: New York):

     Kitty Genovese was a young woman who, returning late one winter night from work, was attacked while approaching her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens. The assailant stabbed her twice, she screamed for help, he fled. She then managed to stagger into a back hallway of her building, where she collapsed. The attacker, eager (as he confessed later) "to kill a woman," returned, searched for her, found her in the hallway, stabbed her many more times, raped her, robbed her, and fled. Summoned by a neighbor, the police now finally arrived; she died in an ambulance en route to a hospital. Some days later, a New York Times article reported that 38 neighbors had witnessed the attack, heard her screams, done nothing. The story spread throughout the media as an example of the callousness and apathy of New Yorkers, their refusal to "get involved." The occupants of her building were so vilified that some of them moved out. The Times's account has been repeated ever since in psychology textbooks and other print media, on TV, and even in song.
     But is it true? As regards the indifferent witnesses, the answer is no; surprisingly, the Times article was based more on hearsay than fact. The police interviewed about a dozen witnesses, but not 38; where that number came from no one seems to know. It was a cold winter night; many neighbors had their windows shut, didn't hear the screams; those who did, saw the attacker leaving or a young woman, possibly drunk, staggering toward the building. No one witnessed the second attack, which occurred in a back hallway. Those who heard a disturbance dismissed it as a lovers' quarrel or drunken brawl. Some neighbors even insisted that they did indeed call the police, but with no result. And contrary to legend, no one drew a chair up to their window so as to watch in comfort the horrors being perpetrated below. Shocking as the murder was, the story about the witnesses -- still lodged today in most people's minds -- was far more myth than fact. The assailant was arrested subsequently on other charges, confessed to this and two other murders, was declared "medically insane," and is now serving an indeterminate term in prison, having been repeatedly denied parole. The Times has never issued a retraction, but many sources now challenge the accuracy of its original article. To which I'll add this personal note: out-of-towners don't always realize the daily noise level of the city and how New Yorkers have to tune it out. If I hear a shout in the street, that in itself means nothing. If I hear what seems to be a cry for help, I have to investigate, since I may have been mistaken, or it may be a bunch of kids just fooling around. On the other hand, a repeated cry for help has to be taken seriously and in my experience usually is.
     Some good did come of the Genovese tragedy. The Police Department reformed inefficiencies in its telephone reporting system; some communities organized Neighborhood Watch programs to help people in distress; and psychologists and sociologists investigated the so-called bystander effect or Genovese syndrome. To which I'll add the contents of an e-mail reply that I received when I asked several friends if the name Kitty Genovese meant anything to them. All the present or former residents of the city remembered her and the story of the neighbors' alleged indifference. And one replied: "Kitty Genovese is the reason I stopped the car at two in the morning in a bad neighborhood to help a woman who was screaming for help in the middle of the street while being wrestled to the ground by a very large and angry man. He could have been armed, but I could never have forgiven myself if I hadn't intervened. He backed off when I stopped, and I took her to the police station." For which, I think, a medal should be given….

*                   *                   *                  *                  *                 *

     Kitty Genovese’s story has come to mind again because her assailant, Winston Moseley, died in New York State’s maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility, in Dannemora, N.Y., far upstate near the Canadian border, on March 28, 2016, at the age of 81.  To my knowledge, the New York Times never formally retracted the original article on the murder, replete with errors though it was, but in its obituary of Moseley on April 5 it did so by implication, citing the article as “flawed” and “erroneous.”  In addition to acquitting the neighbors of callous indifference to the crime, it even added a telling detail that belies the earlier account: at considerable risk to herself, a seventy-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until the police finally arrived. 

     The original story of 38 witnesses ignoring the victim’s cries for help did indeed, as the obit states, take on a life of its own, shocking the national conscience and provoking a flood of academic studies of what was termed the “Kitty Genovese syndrome.”  And Kitty Genovese, who was gay and living with a partner, has become a part of the folklore of Queens.  The current residents of Kew Gardens, the site of the attack, are well aware of the story, and the older ones who were there in 1964 still nurse a resentment at the damage done to the neighborhood’s reputation. 

     And Moseley?  Soft-spoken and intelligent, with no criminal record at the time of the assault, he hardly fit the image of a serial killer and psychopath, still less so as a married man and father of two.  But his wife’s working a night shift as a nurse left him free to prowl at night in search of victims, while his mother looked after the kids.  Captured five days later while committing a burglary, he confessed to having killed three women in all, raped eight, and committed 30 or 40 burglaries.  At his trial he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.  In 1967 the Court of Appeals sentenced him to life imprisonment on the grounds that the trial court had erred in disallowing evidence of his mental condition.  In 1968 he escaped and during a five-day escapade took five hostages and raped a woman, before being recaptured.  In 1977 he earned a degree in sociology, and in an article published by the Times expressed regret for the murder and claimed to be a changed man.  Later appeals for parole were denied, and at the time of his death he was one of the state’s longest-serving inmates.  But for me, the untold story isn’t Moseley and his motivation, but his family: how did they react, when they learned of his arrest?  An untold story that remains untold, and rightly so: their privacy should be respected.

     Note on the New York primary:  With the primary here coming up next Tuesday, April 19, three of the contenders -- Hillary, Bernie, and the Donald -- are trying to convince voters that they are true New Yorkers.  (Cruz from Texas isn't even trying, though he's actually said good things about the state recently, belying numerous other comments.)  So the Times had a true New Yorker, 27-year-old Matt Flegenheimer, a campaign reporter, to assess these claims.  Here is some of what he found.  (For the complete report, see the Times of April 16.)

     Accent:  Trump has some of it, but Bernie (no pun intended) trumps them all.  In this regard Illinois-born Hillary (my home state, as it happens) is no New Yorker, which probably helps her elsewhere.

     Residency:  Trump wins, even if he lives in the sumptuous Trump Tower on snazzy Fifth Avenue.  Bernie deserted the city for Vermont long ago, and Hillary's mansion in affluent Chappaqua in Westchester County, with its five bedrooms and formidable security, isn't exactly a modest brownstone in Brooklyn or the West Village.

     Travel:  Bernie thought the subway still uses tokens, and the Donald gads about in a private jet and limousines.  Hillary tried to ride the subway, albeit with difficulty making the Metrocard work, so she wins.

     Finally, my own guidance for voting next Tuesday and in November: I won't vote for anyone who

  • Won't release his/her tax returns.  (Obama just did.)
  • Owns more than two homes.
  • Has more than two wives.
  • Has assets stashed away abroad in some place I can't even find on a map.
  • Gets less than $200,000 for giving a talk to Goldman Sachs.
  • Eats wienies.
  • Screams.
That last one is tough.  Will I even vote?  Probably, having compared the decibels.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

    The book:  My selection of posts from this blog has won first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards, which can be accessed here.  Sheri Hoyte, in the accompanying review, calls the book "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City….  I highly recommend it to all fans of entertaining short stories and lovers of New York City.  It would also make an interesting travel guide for people who just want to learn more about the city that never sleeps."  (The full review is also included in post #223 of March 27, 2016.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  

     Coming soon:  Something, I don't know what.  I have several ideas cooking.

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder