Sunday, October 11, 2015

201. Bedford Street: Greek Revivals and the CIA, and a badass granny selling Egyptian chandeliers.

     Recently I walked the whole length of Bedford Street, a quiet, tree-lined street in the West Village, part residential and part commercial, that runs in a southeasterly direction from Christopher Street to Sixth Avenue.  Walking it,  I discovered wonders great and small, though mostly small.  Let’s repeat that walk now and see what we can find.

     We’ll begin at the end, where Bedford  meets Christopher Street (yes, that Christopher Street) just opposite the Lucille Lortel Theater, a theater whose name invokes in me frustration and annoyance, as well as memories of leaving one of its very serious avant-garde productions convulsed in uncontrollable laughter, but that’s another story – really two stories -- unrelated to our walk today.  And by the way, why “Bedford”?  Presumably it is named for a Bedford Street in London, but no one knows quite why.

     The first stretch of Bedford Street, walking southeast from Christopher toward Seventh Avenue, is mostly residential.  At no. 113 on the right or south side of the street is a handsome Greek Revival house with a plaque telling us that it was built in 1843 for George Harrison, the saloon keeper at the nearby Northern Hotel.  (Saloon keepers in those days must have made good money.)  The plaque describes the house’s architecture, noting such features as the recessed doorway flanked by pilasters, which is typical of the Greek Revival style.  I love Greek Revival, its clean lines and elegant simplicity: a nice beginning for our walk.  And inside this handsome façade, an online real estate website informs me, the house even today, despite much renovation, retains its original custom wood, copper, and iron work, which is nothing short of miraculous, since landmarking preserves exteriors, but not interiors, of old buildings.  And what was its last listed price?  $5,950,000.  Which reminds us that charming homes on this tranquil street don’t go for chump change today.

     A little farther on, at the corner of Bedford and Grove Street, is a handsome old three-story frame house, a rarity today because the construction of new frame houses, seen as a fire hazard, was banned in 1866.  White with red shutters framing the windows, it was built in 1822 for William F. Hyde, a window sash maker, whose shop was located just across a yard in another old frame building, now a private residence, at 100 Bedford Street.  Mr. Hyde must have done well, for the city was growing rapidly, and demand for sashes for double-hung windows surely must have been in constant demand; also, the value of his property soared.  Originally a two-story house, in 1870 it added a third story and probably the Italianate-style cornice, typical of Greek Revival and brownstone houses.  I love coming this way at Christmastime, for each of the house’s 14 street-facing windows is adorned with a green wreath with a red ribbon, and if you peek in a ground-floor window on Grove Street, you can see a lighted Tiffany lamp that suggests a sumptuous interior.  I call this the Christmas House.  Whoever lives there lives in style.

    (An aside: Not everyone knows what a window sash is.  A window sash is the framed part of a window that holds the sheets of glass in place.  A double-hung window – the commonest kind of window today – has an upper sash positioned above a lower sash; the lower sash can slide upward until it is almost parallel with the upper sash.  The windows are operated with a series of counterweights in panels on either side of the window.  If the cords or chains holding the counterweights break, the sash they operate will come crashing down.  I know, because it happened to me.  On two separate occasions, single-handed, I actually replaced a broken cord with a chain, which involved removing the window from the wall, installing the chain, and replacing the window in the wall – an epic feat that I wouldn’t want ever to repeat.  Should you need to do this repair, don’t try to do it yourself; pay a professional whatever it costs and watch in wonder as they do it for you.)

     Just past Grove Street, at no. 95 Bedford, is an old four-story building with a ground-floor brownstone façade featuring what appears to be two wide-arched coach house entrances with double doors, and a smaller arched doorway originally leading, so I’ve learned, to the upper floors.  Above the two wide entrances are the engraved words J. GOEBEL & CO., and under that, EST. 1865.  And over those words there is a crest with what seem to be three crucibles flanked by ornamental curlicues.  (Not that I’m sure what crucibles are, or why anyone would need them.  Maybe I encountered them in a high-school chemistry class, but certainly not since, which injects a note of mystery.)  The façade above the ground floor is brick, rising to a boldly projecting cornice.  The building is an eye-catcher, but what is all this about?

     Accounts differ.  Account #1:  J. Goebel & Co., founded here in 1865,  manufactured crucibles, tongs, furnaces, and casting equipment, with the ground floor housing a stable.  But others tell it differently.  Account #2:  Herman Schade, a prosperous merchant in the plumbing business, built no. 95 as his stable in 1894, and perhaps leased the upper floors to tenants.   Julius Goebel arrived in this country from Germany around 1865 and, far downtown at 129 Maiden Lane, established a firm that imported a heat-resistant clay from Germany and used it to make crucibles.  Only in 1927 did the firm, now run by Goebel’s son, move into Schade’s stable, at which point the molded insignia was installed over the arched entrances.  The Goebel firm evidently used the lower floors for warehousing, shipping, and office facilities, while renting out the upper floors to tenants.

     So which version is to be believed?  The building dates from 1865 or 1894?  And the insignia from 1865 or 1927?  Various guides to the city present a conflicting jumble of facts, some even calling the building a former winery or brewery, and interpreting the insignia not as crucibles but as wine vats, and the curlicues of the crest as grape-vine tendrils, which is fanciful indeed.  So we’re on our own.

      I want to go with #1, because the insignia looks so charmingly old, so quaint.  And since you can’t really know a building unless you know the lives of the occupants, I imagine Herr Goebels to be a hard-working Teuton, beefy with a bushy mustache, who six days a week supervises his workmen making crucibles, quantities of which are dispatched from the ground-floor stable by wagons to satisfy a crying need for these mysterious items throughout the city.  Then, on Sunday, he takes his abundant family to a beer garden, where they spend the day feasting on Wiener schnitzel or Sauerbraten, clinking frothy mugs of nose-tingling lager beer, and, teary-eyed, singing sentimental songs of the Fatherland.  Not a bad life, all in all.

     Alas, it doesn’t hold up.  #2 is so well documented, so rich in detail, that I have to regretfully accept it, with the insignia dating only from 1927.  And plumbing instead of crucibles – what a comedown!  But either way, the building catches your eye.

     In 1945 poet Delmore Schwartz moved into a cold-water flat at no. 91, only a few doors away from Chumley’s, where he was soon immersing himself in alcohol.  Acclaimed early as a poet, he was haunted by the thought that he had peaked and was now in decline, which in some ways he was.  Drink and drugs would coarsen him, bloat him, and finally destroy him, a story that was repeated all too often among artists and writers in the Village.

File:Chumleys 86 Bedford St cloudy morn jeh.jpg
Chumley's today, alas.
     Chumley’s at no. 86, near the corner of Bedford and Barrow, was a famous speakeasy of the 1920s with two unmarked entrances, a front one with a peephole in Pamela Court, off Barrow, and a back one at no. 86, available if patrons, fearing a raid, needed to make a quick exit.  (Legend has it this is the origin of the expression to “86 it,” meaning to beat it in a hurry.)  In the bar restaurant’s rustic and woody atmosphere the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) might be holding a meeting upstairs, planning nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism, while Edna St. Vincent Millay read her poetry downstairs.  Surviving Prohibition, Chumley’s, still unmarked by a sign, became a popular literary hangout frequented by the likes of Dreiser, Cather, O’Neill, Cummings, Mailer, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, the very thought of whom, all crammed together in one place, sends chills and thrills down the spine.  (It’s just as well it surely never happened; mayhem both literary and physical might have erupted.) 

     As the years passed, Chumley’s evolved yet again, becoming a meeting place for young professionals.  When my partner Bob and a friend visited it in the 1960s, it still had its two entrances, and they entered by the back door because, flanked by garbage cans though it was, they thought it “more picturesque.”  The interior still had its woody atmosphere, featured beer, not wine, and was frequented by a neighborhood crowd seasoned with a few visiting college kids.  In 2007 one of the interior walls collapsed, forcing the bar to close for a lengthy reconstruction.  Now it is finally about to reopen, but neighbors have brought suit to prevent it, feeling that their quiet residential neighborhood is already threatened by booze-dispensing enterprises, and fearing that Chumley’s reopening will attract “unwanted business.” 

     So here again, this time on Bedford Street, the familiar conflict looms: gentrification vs. commerce, tranquility vs. history, with the final decision not yet clear.  But one battle has already been lost: the renovated Chumley’s, following Landmarks Conservancy directives, has an arched door with a transom flanked by sidelights, set in a false stone-block stucco façade – all of it totally unrelated to the Chumley’s of history, architecturally inconsistent with the neighborhood, and to my eye just plain ugly.  Let’s hope that the interior still retains its rustic, woody charm.

     No. 81, an ordinary-looking residential building, has a unique and sinister history, for in 1953 CIA agent George White, a chubby, balding tough-guy veteran of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, rented an apartment here and, using a CIA bank account and a fake identity as an artist, outfitted the place with a two-way mirror, recording equipment, Toulouse Lautrec posters, and a well-stocked liquor cabinet.  His mission: “to develop drugs that would enable the CIA to discredit friends and foes alike, and that could be delivered clandestinely and kill without a trace.”  White was a curious choice for this assignment, being alcoholic and into kinky sex (he liked to be punished by women in stiletto heels), and also, with the full cooperation of his wife, into orgies, but he had worked for the OSS, the CIA’s forerunner, and had distributed marijuana-laced cigarettes to suspected enemy agents in New York during World War II, in hopes of getting them to talk. 

     Having set up his fake artist’s pad, over the next two years White lured unsuspecting victims – or should we say “subjects”? – to his apartment: aspiring actresses, young “hip” couples, even hoodlums, as well as men hooked by hookers whom he paid $100 a night for their service.  He then served his guests drinks laced with LSD and observed their reaction through a two-way mirror that let him view the guests without their knowing it.   “Gloria gets horrors … Janet sky high,” he noted in his diary.  Whether these experiments constituted legitimate research or simply let White enjoy himself sadistically at the expense of others isn’t clear.  In 1955 White and his operation were moved to San Francisco, permitting Bedford Street to resume its customary veneer of gentility.  Years later, reflecting on his career, White remarked:  "I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun.  Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?"  Let’s move on before I register disgust.

     Between Seventh and Sixth Avenues the street, hitherto primarily residential, becomes a mix of residential and commercial.  At no. 75½  is the narrowest building in the village, a three-story brick structure only 9½ feet wide built in 1873 on what was once the carriage entrance to stables in the rear.  Edna St. Vincent Millay lived here briefly in 1923-24, but before one conjures up visions of her penning her flaming sonnets there whenever she could steal time from her many lovers, one should take note that she lived there with her newly acquired husband, a middle-aged Dutch businessman and playboy.  Yes, it was an open marriage, but she and her complaisant husband weren’t there very much, since for their honeymoon they took a two-year trip around the world and then bought a farm upstate.  And what did the building sell for in 2013?  Only $3.25 million.

     Just beyond the skinny building is a row of six handsome Greek Revival  houses.  Behind the 1830s façade at no. 75, so a current real estate listing informs us, is a light-filled artist’s residence with a glass and steel room with an 18-foot ceiling and a limestone floor, a stainless-steel state-of-the-art kitchen, a dining room with a Japanese dining table “perfect for hosting either a Thanksgiving dinner or a Japanese tea ceremony,” and on the top floor a sky-lit artist’s studio.  Just the thing for a struggling young artist today.

Liza Sherman's antique store.

     Now we enter a stretch that I find less interesting, much of it commercial.  But at no. 37A, just beyond Carmine Street, we come to Liza Sherman’s antique store, with an outsized neon star in the window, and an article reporting that it had caused a sensation among her affluent clients.  Just why it should, I couldn’t imagine; to me it looked big and ugly – and useless too, since it would weigh down any Christmas tree it crowned, with the possible exception of the gigantic one in Rockefeller Center.  Peering through the window and open doorway, I saw a shop cluttered with chandeliers, furniture, and any number of objects I couldn’t even describe or identify.  Online research revealed some of the items on sale there:

·      Set of chairs made from washing machines, $660 per item
·      Cast-iron cage light with ribbed glass, $1,100
·      Polish multicolored bench, $1,200
·      Pygmy suit, $2,600
·      Venetian marble-top table, $2,900
·      French leather club chair, $4,600
·      Egyptian hand-blown chandelier with turquoise bell-shaped glass $7,800
·      19th century samurai warrior’s vest, price upon request

Very high prices indeed, and in the most unlikely, most unchic locale.

     When I lingered outside the shop, the octogenarian proprietor was nowhere to be seen, and maybe it’s just as well, given the Yelp reviews that I later found online.  Here, for a human touch this post has so far perhaps lacked, is a sampling of those reviews:

·      Liza the owner is an old snobby witch who will nickel and dime you when she snobbily thinks she's got great stuff -- when really it is just overrated and overpriced.  Oh it's also very moldy-smelling in the store.  I should have listened to my nose….  I have never been treated so badly in a store.

·      Avoid this store!  I thought I had stumbled upon a great little gem, but I actually found a rude proprietor and a lot of overpriced furniture.

·      Buy with caution!  I purchased a lamp for $1200 and found the exact same lamp online for $275.  I thought I bought an antique and not a mass produced lamp.  When I complained via email, Liza ignored me.

·      Do NOT buy from this woman!  She's rude, capricious, unresponsive, and her pricing is out of a control.  We purchased a very expensive Egyptian chandelier from her a couple of years ago that has never worked properly….  Let celebrities keep wasting their money here if they want to -- I'm out.

·      Rude, arrogant, snotty hag of an owner, who rolled her eyes and said condescendingly, "NOT cheap, my dear" when I inquired about the price of a lamp.  What a way to shoot yourself in the foot, lady.  The other reviews were right: it's a whole lot of reproduction stuff sprinkled with a few true antiques, but the woman is such a high-falutin' snot I'd never do a dime of business with her.

Spite makes for keen writing; it sharpens our wit, equips us with an armory of barbs.  I’ve never met the lady in question, but Yelp offers not one positive review.  I suspect that, having a devoted affluent clientele, she doesn’t need walk-ins from the street.  And to attract that clientele, she must radiate some kind of charm, or at least an aura of exclusiveness, of offering things rare and special, whether they really are or not.

     Online one finds a 2011 article with illustrations of Grandma's home, Grandma being the lady herself, seen in one photo dressed stylishly in black, white-haired, and surrounded by a rich clutter of objects.  The whole house (location unspecified) is richly cluttered with brightly colored antiques: signs, rows of mirrors, an inlaid chest, a chair suspended from a ceiling, clocks, a handblown glass chandelier, a furry bench at the foot of a queen-size bed, and very modern-looking chairs on a yellow-painted floor.  Commentary by what appears to be a granddaughter labels the house "a junk shop with a lot of cool junk," and says of Grandma's smiling photo, "she's pretty badass."  A cool granddaughter too, it would seem, and not exactly fawning.  The comments by others that follow the article range from "AWESOME!!!" to "Yuk," with remarks like "not a pastel in sight," "a fun person," "yah for granny balls," and, if the writer owned the house, "that whole mess of crap would go out and STAY OUT."  My final thought: I wouldn't want to deal with Granny personally, but she's her own thing, knows who she is and what she likes, and lives accordingly.  Bland she ain't.  And that I have to applaud.

     Next door to Liza’s shop we encounter a bold sign PSYCHIC and, dangling in the breeze, a smaller sign announcing SPECIAL READING / $10; in the window are crystals and what looks like a god of ancient Egypt.  So if you can’t afford Liza’s prices, right smack next to her you can get an insight into “past/present/future” for a mere ten bucks.

      Finally, and anticlimactically, we arrive at the very beginning of Bedford Street, where it meets roaring traffic at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and West Houston Street.  There’s a small Greenstreets park there, but it’s scant  consolation.  The last building on the south or downtown side of Bedford is a big brick box of an apartment building, with a skimpy side area guarded, on the top of a brick wall, by a row of menacing prongs curved outward to ward off possible marauders.  With this picturesque touch, we know that our tour of quiet, tree-lined Bedford Street has come to an end.

     Source note:  For information on Bedford Street I have consulted many sources online.  But I am especially indebted, once again, to John Strausbaugh’s The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the Village. 

     Yogi Berra:  This legendary Yankee baseball player died recently at the age of 90.  He was famous for his nonsensical utterances, which he insisted were said in all seriousness.  Here are some of my favorites:

·      When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
·      It’s déjà vu all over again.
·      Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.
·      Never answer an anonymous letter.
·      90% of the game is half mental.
·      No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.
·      Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.

Lurking behind each of these is some intended meaning, but Yogi never quite managed to achieve it.  But this one, I insist, does have meaning as stated:

·      It ain’t over till it’s over.

And with this bit of wisdom, this post too is almost over.

     The Goodreads giveaway of a copy of my selection of posts from this blog, No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, ends on Monday, October 12.  So far, 201 people have signed up for the giveaway, and 82 have marked the book "to read."  If I do another giveaway, I’ll announce it.

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

     Coming soon:  Hate: four shootings and a riot, and why I wish my music teacher had been buried in quicksand.  And after that, The Next Big Thing.  Suggestions as to what it might be are welcome, as are reviews of the book on Amazon.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder


Sunday, October 4, 2015

200. New York Humor

     Is there a sense of humor peculiar to New York?  Let’s explore the subject and see.  Since the New Yorker presents itself as quintessential New York, we’ll have a look at some of their cartoons (minus the cartoons themselves, alas).  Not the cartoons of recent years, which I don’t find that amusing, but vintage cartoons from the past.  Then as now, they often show a middle-aged couple in their living room, with one of them addressing the other. 

    In one cartoon that I still find amusing, the husband says to the wife, “Well how would you feel, if someone called you ‘spry’?”  Of course this assumes that the reader catches the nuances of “spry,” which most Americans would; it’s used of the elderly and meant in a complimentary but somewhat condescending way.  Right off one notices that New Yorker cartoons have a context, require a certain amount of prior knowledge.

     A famous New Yorker cartoon shows a householder retrieving the Sunday New York Times that has been delivered to his doorstep.  When he picks it up, under it he finds a dog squashed flat.  No New Yorker requires an explanation, but other readers might not fully “get” it, unless they know just how thick and heavy a Sunday Times can be.

    Still another cartoon: a matronly woman is showing a bunch of tiny tots around a museum that could well be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The kids are eyeing a painting reminiscent of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), showing two very clothed gentlemen and two very unclothed ladies lunching in a rural setting.  Says the matron, somewhat taken aback, “It’s … a picnic.”

File:Édouard Manet - Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe.jpg
Some picnic.

     Still another very New York-centered cartoon is a cover illustration of the New Yorker showing a crowded rush-hour subway car and, holding onto a strap and unmistakable, Osama bin Laden.  But the tired commuters either have their nose in a book or newspaper, or stare vacantly into space; no one recognizes the man most wanted by the U.S. authorities in the wake of 9/11.  I sent this to a friend in North Carolina with a brief explanation of New York commuters and the boredom of the commute; without that explanation, he confessed he wouldn’t have “got” it.

     Finally, I’ll mention my favorite New Yorker cartoon, dating from years ago but fresh in my mind because our downstairs neighbor has it posted on his bathroom wall.  Speeding in a roadster are a middle-aged couple, the wife in an abundance of furs and an outlandish hat that looks like an inverted funnel, and the husband sporting dark glasses, with a cigar planted firmly in his teeth.  Everything about them says filthy rich, and nouveau riche at that.  The wife says to the husband, “Remember that Christmas you sold your watch to buy me a comb, and I sold my hair to buy you a watch fob?”  Mildly funny to begin with, but much funnier if you recognize the famous O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi,” that inspired it.  In the story a young husband and wife with scant resources want to give each other a really nice Christmas present, so he sells his watch to buy her accessories for her hair, and she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain.  They then discover that their gifts have been rendered useless, but they appreciate the intent behind them and therefore feel rewarded.  The O. Henry story has a dose of sentiment, but the cartoon has none.  Once again, for full appreciation the New Yorker cartoon requires prior knowledge on the part of the viewer.

     What do I conclude so far?  Yes, there is a New York sense of humor, urban, sophisticated, and devoid of sentiment, and it assumes a certain knowledge and awareness.  Here now are two time-honored New York jokes, so time-honored that no New Yorker will waste a laugh on them, but that show a New York sensibility:

     Tourist to New Yorker: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
     New Yorker: “Practice, practice, practice.”

Again, there’s a context: you have to know the significance of Carnegie Hall.

     The second joke: A young man arrives for the first time in the city and sets his luggage down.  “Look out, New York,” he announces, “I’m here to conquer you!”  But when he looks down, his luggage is gone.  (More relevant in the 1960s and 1970s, when New Yorkers were obsessed with crime.)

     Further conclusion, based on these two jokes: New Yorkers consider themselves insiders, and everyone else outsiders.  But the club is not exclusive.  Anyone can join it by moving to New York, or by visiting often enough to get to know the New York temperament.

     So what do New Yorkers laugh at today?  Here are some examples:

·      Larry Craig, a Republican senator from Idaho, was arrested in 2007 for alleged lewd conduct in an airport men’s room.  He claimed it was all a misunderstanding, to be explained in part by his “wide stance” when sitting on the john.  Late-night comedians had a field day with this, and New Yorkers joined heartily in.

·      “Wildman” Steve Brill, a forager who leads people on foraging tours in city parks, was arrested in 1986 for picking and eating a dandelion in Central Park.  When the media reported a man arrested for eating a dandelion and described him as “nabbed 

Wildman Devours Japanese Knotweed
Here he's putting the bite on Japanese knotweed.

     in mid-bite,” gales of hilarity erupted, and the charges were dropped before the case could be laughed out of court.  (I celebrate the Wildman in post #23.)

·      In 1997, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a committed law-and-order type, appeared in public in drag, sporting a blond wig, jewelry, and a frilly pink gown, New Yorkers were at first incredulous.  When the story proved true, they roared with laughter and came close to forgiving Mr. Get-Tough-on-Crime his many misdeeds as mayor.

·      In the 1990s I did volunteer work for the Whole Foods Project, a nonprofit advocating a nutrition-based approach to AIDS and cancer. At one of the Project’s Sunday suppers a young woman performer, an enthusiastic supporter of the organization, introduced a number of her own by telling how she approached a new neighbor, a young woman from Memphis, and inviting her over for cocktails so they could get to know each other.  “Oh no,” the neighbor replied, “I couldn’t do that.”  “Why not?”  The singer then launched into her song, “Jesus loves me but he can’t stand you!”  It brought the house down.  The woman minister of the church, in whose recreation hall  the event was taking place, happened to be present and laughed so hard she nearly fell out of her chair.  The occasion is vivid in my mind to this day.

     The last example might not work outside New York, depending on the audience, but it suited the city’s sense of humor completely.  Urban and sophisticated, New York humor tends also to be secular, and leery of anything claiming to be sacred.

File:Jubilee-jim-fisk.jpg     What New Yorkers do and don’t find funny in a public figure can be seen in the career of Jim Fisk, the bouncy Vermonter whose antics put Wall Street in a frenzy more than once, and whose grandiose style of living while managing and mismanaging the Erie Railway earned him the name Prince Erie.  To replenish Erie’s near-empty coffers, he and his pal Jay Gould brought suit against Commodore Vanderbilt, the richest man in the country, whom they had already diddled once but hoped to diddle again.  Appearing in court, Fisk testified in a whimsical manner that repeatedly elicited laughter.  Describing an interview he had had with Vanderbilt, he said, “It was pretty warm -- not the interview but the weather.”  (Laughter.)  “I remember, because the Commodore was a bit profane about it.”  (Great laughter.)  “It shocked me to hear him talk like that.”  (Laughter.) 

     Fisk further remembered that, while he and Vanderbilt talked, he had noticed the great man’s shoes.  “They had four buckles.  I thought to myself, if men like this have shoes like them, I must get me a pair.”  (Hilarious laughter.)  So convulsed in mirth was the courtroom, that the judge himself was wiping tears from his eyes.

     And when Fisk and Gould tried to corner gold and almost succeeded, convulsing markets on both sides of the ocean, they were summoned to Washington to testify before a Congressional committee investigating the tumultuous events of September 24, 1869, Black Friday.  Had Mr. Fisk tried to corner gold?  Certainly not.  The committee chairman was baffled; millions had been at stake that day, yet no one admitted to a profit. 

     “Mr. Fisk,” he asked, “where did all that money go?

     Replied Fisk, “It went where the woodbine twineth.”

     Silence.  Then titters, followed by mounting gales of laughter. 

     New Yorkers couldn’t help but like a rascal who disarmed courtrooms and even a Congressional committee with mirth.  But then there came a change.  Scandal-hungry elements of the press began reporting on Prince Erie’s deteriorating relationship with his lavishly kept inamorata, Miss Helen Josephine Mansfield, who was said to be dispensing her charms to a certain Ned Stokes, a dapper young man about town.  Quarrels followed and Miss Mansfield, in a gesture of fiery farewell, hurled Fisk’s galoshes into the street.  When a cartoon appeared in the press, showing Prince Erie bedewing his galoshes with tears, Gotham roared.
     But for Prince Erie, worse was to come.  In July 1871, when Fisk’s Ninth Regiment of the National Guard was protecting a march of Ulstermen against threats of violence from Irish Catholics, shots rang out, causing panicky spectators to stampede across the line of march, leaving the toppled colonel with a dislocated ankle.  To avoid mobs of hostile Irish, he hobbled down back alleyways, hid his uniform under a coat given him by a sympathetic householder, took a taxi to the docks, boarded a steamboat, and ended up nursing his swollen ankle on the veranda of a hotel in Long Branch, New Jersey, a resort where he was persona most grata. 

     Getting wind of Colonel Fisk’s strategic retreat all the way to New Jersey, the press turned viciously on him, reporting rumors of his “wounded (?) ankle,” his backyard flight past ash cans and privies, his alleged fainting from terror, his fleeing the state in an old lady’s bonnet and dress.  All the dailies sneered.

     When the ailing Colonel finally retuned to New York, he faced lawsuits by Stokes and Josie attempting to squeeze thousands of dollars out of him.  He who had once reveled in attention from the press now fled reporters hounding him daily for more juicy scraps of gossip.  And he who had always been a joke-spewing mixer, a “people person,” kept more and more to himself, holed up in his brownstone with his valet, wrenched from the rumpus of his life.  Yet the press showed him no mercy, and the town continued to titter and guffaw.  Like most Americans, New Yorkers suck joy from the fall of the mighty.

     When Ned Stokes, enraged by defeats in court, shot Fisk on a hotel stairway on January 6, 1872, and Fisk died the following day, the city reappraised him.  Still hostile to Prince Erie were Wall Street, the bluebloods, and the pious, who viewed him as an upstart, a publicity-hogging parvenu, a disrupter of markets, a cheat, and a wanton.  Those who sincerely mourned him included bellhops, messenger boys, dancers and chorus girls, his office staff and his adoring National Guard regiment, Erie Railway bruisers (his bodyguard), and recipients of his random acts of charity. 

     What made half the town idolize this rascal?  He had tweaked noses with a wink of merriment, punctured pretensions, tipped generously, and laughed heartily at himself; above all, he was fun.  When, as colonel of the Ninth, he got a military funeral with all the frills involved, multitudes watched in tears, as his coffin was borne away to the sound of muffled drums, with six colonels and a general in black-draped, solemn pomp – the biggest sendoff seen in the city since Lincoln’s casket had passed though en route to Illinois, a comparison that some thought obscene.  Prince Erie had been a rascal, but at least a merry one; they would miss his bustle and shine.

     Further conclusions: New Yorkers love a sense of humor, scorn weakness, relish scandal, hate pretension, esteem those who can laugh at themselves.

     A personal note regarding this last:  The only president of my time that I disliked personally was Richard Nixon.  There was something about him that put me off: his total lack of humor, his vindictiveness, his vulnerabilities masked by spite and rage.  My dislike began when, during Eisenhower's presidency, Nixon, the Vice President, was photographed in a church praying for Eisenhower's recovery from a heart attack; the photo had obviously been carefully planned, with the photographer positioned in the pew in front of him, so as to get a good full-length shot from the front.  On the other hand, though I disliked almost all his policies, I rather liked George Bush Jr.  When the Washington Press Club confronted him with a list of his utterances that made little or no sense, he laughed and said he hadn’t the slightest idea what he had meant to say.  This won me over completely.

     When it comes to four-letter words and irreverence, New Yorkers are an easygoing bunch, vastly more tolerant than many.  But that doesn’t include the authorities, as seen in the Lenny Bruce obscenity trial of 1964.  A stand-up comedian already notorious for his loose language and numerous arrests, Bruce was appearing at the Café Au Go Go on Bleecker Street in (where else?) Greenwich Village, where his performance on March 31, 1964, included a bevy of blunt sexual references such as “jack me off,” “motherfucker,” and “go come in a chicken”; the observation that “Eleanor Roosevelt has the nicest tits of any lady in office”; familiar monologs of his like “Pissing in the sink” and “To is a preposition.  Come is a verb”; and the statement that men are oversexed animals willing to have quick sex with anything that moves, including a chicken.  Sitting in the audience was a city license inspector who scribbled notes furiously.  On April 3 plainclothesmen arrested Bruce and the club’s owner on charges of presenting “obscene, immoral, and impure … entertainment … which would tend to the corruption of the morals of youth and others” – charges bringing a maximum of three years in prison.  (And charges that, come to think of it, echo the charges against Socrates in ancient Athens.)

File:Lenny Bruce arrest.jpg
One of his many arrests, this one in 1961.
     News of Bruce’s arrest provoked protests from prominent writers and entertainers of the day – Allen Ginsberg, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Woody Allen, and others -- guaranteeing that the trial in June 1964 before a three-judge panel would be well attended and well reported.  Bruce’s attorney thought he faced prosecution not for his use of dirty words, but for his attacks on religion and public figures.  The prosecutor, on the other hand, viewed Bruce’s show as a series of “nauseating word pictures” seasoned with offensive words spewed at the audience, unredeemed by any artistry or cogent social criticism.  Testimony by the license inspector and policemen who had attended performances took three days.  The defense called expert witnesses who testified that Bruce’s routine was not sexually arousing, did not offend local community standards, and was socially significant.  The prosecution then complained that it had trouble finding expert witnesses to counter these arguments, because the experts didn’t want to come off as “squares.”  So there it was: the hip vs. the square, easygoing New York vs. the prudes or, to be kinder, vs. traditional morality.

     The decision wasn’t announced until November 4, 1964: guilty.  Bruce’s act, said the presiding judge, appealed to prurient interest, was patently offensive to the average person in the community, and lacked redeeming social importance.  One of the three judges dissented.

     At a later date Bruce was sentenced to four months in the workhouse but was free on bail.  He never served time, for he died of a morphine overdose in California on August 3, 1966.  One of the New York assistant prosecutors later expressed regret for his role in the case, stating that they had used the  law to kill him.

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Lenny Bruce's grave in Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills, California.
Paul Neugass
     I suspect that the presiding judge was right in asserting that Bruce’s act was offensive to the community, for that community was not confined to the East and West Village, but extended to all five boroughs.  (But were all five boroughs in the audience that night?)  Whether or not the act appealed to prurient interest, I can’t say, not having witnessed the performance; I doubt if it would have fired me up.  On the other hand, I’m not sure if I would have found it funny or socially significant.  This was the late Lenny Bruce, drug-ridden, unfocused, obsessed with his drug busts and obscenity arrests – not Lenny at the peak of his career.  But there is something very moving in his appeal to the judges, just prior to sentencing, to see his act just once.

     Today New York City and State derive scant satisfaction from the prosecution of Lenny Bruce.  In 2003 a group of prominent lawyers, scholars, and entertainers sent a letter to Governor George Pataki asking that he issue a posthumous pardon of Bruce to show the state’s commitment to free speech, free press, and free thinking.  And the governor granted it – the first posthumous pardon in the state’s history.  So the last laugh is Lenny’s after all.

     Those who defended Bruce at the time of his arrest, and who argued for a posthumous pardon, are a good indicator as to who define and shape the New York sense of humor.  They include:
  • Live-wire activists who write letters and sign petitions
  • The “in” people, the “with-it” crowd, the hip (or those who think they are)
  • The young in spirit (if not in years)
  • Manhattan professionals (who often commute from the other boroughs)
  • People who spend little time in churches, synagogues, or temples
  • People who read the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and  Mother Jones
  • People who spend time in museums and galleries, but give little attention to sports
  • Hardy souls who think of themselves as unshockable (until some event proves them wrong)
Needless to say, this leaves out a lot of New Yorkers who do spend time in  churches, synagogues, and temples, who do follow sports, and have never heard of Mother Jones.  But they don’t define New York humor.

     Goodreads giveaway:  I have listed one copy of No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World as a giveaway on Goodreads, the website for people who like to read books.  The free copy will be given to one of those who sign up for it; Goodreads will pick the winner.  So far, 124 people have entered their names.  In addition, 53 people have marked the book as "to read," though I know from experience that this doesn't mean that all 53 are going to read it.  (A confession: Long ago I marked three books as "to read," but still haven't found the time to read them.)

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

     Coming soon:  Bedford Street: Edna St. Vincent and the Wobblies, an old witch selling Egyptian chandeliers, and drinks laced with LSD, courtesy of the CIA.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder