Sunday, July 15, 2018

364. Con Men, Cheats, and Thieves



GIVEAWAY:  No  Place for Normal: New York

What you get:

The first three people who sign up will get a free print copy of my award-winning stories No place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (summary and review below).  U.S. residents only.  Previous winners not eligible.  Winners should be new to me and this blog.  Offer runs until 9 p.m. EST Saturday, July 21, or as soon as three people have signed up.  More giveaways will follow.  To subscribe, use the sign-up form in the sidebar on the right.

All subscribers will get announcements of my weekly posts for this blog, which is about anything and everything New York.  Also, word of new releases, like Fascinating New Yorkers (see in BROWDERBOOKS below), to be released July 26.





No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018.

Review 


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way.  A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Con Men, Cheats, and Thieves


     Once, long ago, when my brother met me at an airport to give me a lift to the family apartment, he said with a canny look, “Let me tell you about my new scam.”   His “scam” was simply a plan to redeem hundreds of coupons in newspapers, so as to acquire a lifetime supply of whatever at a reduced price.  Being in the newspaper distribution business, he had access to reams of unsold papers and so had a free hand in clipping reams of coupons.  There was nothing illegal about this; he was simply taking advantage of his position to buy things cheap.  Years later, when I came back to bury him, I found the apartment crammed with his spoils: a lifetime supply of deodorants, ditto of detergent, car repair equipment that only a grease monkey could appreciate, and I don’t recall what else; it took me weeks to clear it all out.  But what I still remember most vividly, was that look on his face when he announced his so-called scam: canny, shrewd, knowing, worthy of Wily Coyote, the trickster of many Native American legends.  It was indeed the look of an operator about to put something over on others – in other words, the look of a con man.

     New York, like any big city, is a mecca for con men, cheats, and thieves.  An African American cruising the streets in a fancy limousine stuffed with clothing once asked with a winning smile if I’d like to buy some clothes; I declined, convinced that they were stolen items.  He was surely a thief or a fence.

File:BernardMadoff.jpg
The mug shot of Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme
was the biggest fraud in U.S. history.

     On another occasion when I found myself at night in midtown, I saw a man trying to sell some paper dolls to some sailors.  Aligned side by side, the dolls were dancing on the sidewalk as if by magic.  It was an old trick still being played. But the sailors weren’t fooled; they were looking for the hidden strings that propelled the dolls.  Seeing this, another man standing nearby announced in a resonant voice, “It’s show time!”  He repeated his warning a second time, and the vendor of the dolls packed them up and moved on down the street.  “I knew there was a hidden string,” said one sailor, “and here it is.”  Looking closely, he had detected the almost invisible string.

File:Charles Ponzi.jpg
Charles Ponzi, who was so successful a swindler in the 1920s that he has given his name to the fraud  where the con man promises investors fabulous returns, then uses the money from later investors to pay the earlier investors.

     Another scam that used to be practiced in the city involved a man entering into conversation with a stranger outside a bank and telling him that banks were frauds, they took your money but wouldn’t give it back.  He would repeat this assertion so consistently, so smugly, that the other man would wax indignant and tell him he was crazy.  “Go ahead, just try,” the first man would dare him, “try to withdraw a sizable sum, and you’ll see that I am right.”  So the dupe would do just that, and it was just a matter of time before he and his money were separated.  How could anyone fall for such an obvious scam, you and I and almost everyone would wonder, and the victim, once disabused, would wonder the same.  But at the time, he fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and – to mix metaphors – got royally fleeced.

     Today the cheats take advantage of the Internet to reach you in your home.  Once, out of nowhere, I got an e-mail: “Aloha!  I’d like to get to know you.  From your profile I think we have lots in common.”  The sender seemed to be a pleasant young woman. Surprised and charmed, I was tempted to respond, but some good spirit deep within me, some demon of skepticism, held me back, and I quickly realized that this was probably a scam, bait to entice you to interact and yield personal information useful to the scammer.  Like all such greetings since, I deleted it.

     On another occasion I got an e-mail purporting to be from my publisher, saying that on the spur of the moment he had taken a trip abroad – I think he said to the Philippines – was in trouble there and needed money; if I could send him several hundred, he’d repay me as soon as he got back.  This smelled fishy, so I asked for more information.  The appeal was repeated urgently, but it seemed fishier than ever, so I asked how he knew me, what was the connection?  No answer came.  I then e-mailed the publisher and got an immediate reply: an account of his had been hacked, and this appeal was going out to many of his authors and acquaintances whose e-mail addresses had been discovered; he was now closing the account and opening another with a different password. Beware of sudden e-mail appeals.  With hindsight, I realize that I shouldn’t even have answered the first appeal before contacting him for verification.

     And of course we’re constantly assaulted by ads that make glowing vague promises.  I once encountered this one:

     WOULD  YOU  LIKE  TO  BE  A MILLIONAIRE? 

Amused, I answered by mail as instructed: “Yes, please tell me how to become a millionaire!”  The reply was simply a run-of-the-mill invitation to invest in something or other, an offer so drab and uninspired that it wasn’t worth messing with, even to chuckle or debunk it. 

     I’m not always so canny.  Recently I got an envelope labeled Social Security & Medicare, personal statement enclosed, and in bold red ink, EXPIRATION  NOTICE.  At the very thought of my Social Security and Medicare expiring, I almost panicked and hurriedly opened the envelope.  So what did I discover?  It was an appeal from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, urging me to renew my membership – in other words, give them more money. Looking closely at the envelope, I now saw that the words “National Committee to Preserve” were indeed there, but in small print.  They had tricked me into opening the envelope. But this so annoyed me that I vowed never to give them money again – not exactly the dénouement they intended.

     There are trivial tricks and scams, but serious ones perpetrated by real artists of the trade abound.  The AARP Bulletin, distributed widely to golden oldie, often has articles about online scams practiced on the elderly.  For instance:

·      Notifications by e-mail claiming that the U.S. Post Office or some other entity has a delivery for you; click on the link and you get malware.
·      Rogue retailers offering bargain prices that you find on social media or through search engine results; they want your credit card number or will sell you inferior goods (or maybe nothing at all).
·      Charity cons claiming to benefit police, firefighters, veterans, sick or needy children, or victims of natural disasters; again, they want your credit card number.
·      Gotcha giveaways offering free merchandise or free vacations, likewise hoping to get your credit card or other sensitive information.

Not to mention scams that relieve some oldsters of their life’s savings, or induce them to send money to rescue a grandchild who is reportedly in some kind of unforeseen trouble. 

     Being a bit of a tightwad and suspicious by nature, I’ve never fallen for any of these cons, but long ago a friend of mine was outrageously conned by a master of the trade.  My friend Kevin, a natty, sophisticated New Yorker, told me he had just met an interesting visitor from South America (I forget which country) named Vergilio and was quite taken with him.  The next thing I knew, Kevin had arranged with a friend who was going away on vacation to let Vergilio move into her place temporarily. Kevin’s praise of Vergilio grew ever more intense, and finally I met this paragon when Kevin invited me over for cocktails. Vergilio was a good-looking young man of about thirty, no kid, well-groomed and well-mannered, with a soft, pleasing voice and a gracious smile.  Good enough, but everything about him, while pleasing, seemed strangely vague.  He was right there in the present, but he seemed to have no past and no discoverable future – a mysteriousness that made him that more interesting to Kevin.   

     “What is it about this guy that so gets to you?” I asked Kevin later.

     Kevin flashed a look of intensity.  “I’ve never known anyone like him.  He’s fascinating.  He has glamour!”

     Glamour – a word I associate with Hollywood brouhaha – was something I had never hankered for, but it was clear that it appealed to some need deep in Kevin’s psyche.  But I was worried.  For me, Vergilio, who had appeared out of nowhere, was a smile over a cocktail glass, nothing more.

     In the weeks that followed, Kevin began evincing alarm: Vergilio's health was not all it should be.  Then he informed me that Vergilio was going to consult a doctor on the doctor's yacht, which struck me as an odd site for a consultation.  Next I got a phone call from Kevin, with anguish in his voice: "Vergilio is dying!"  His friend had informed him that he was suffering from a long-term fatal ailment, its exact nature undisclosed, that required treatment in Europe; he would be leaving soon.  So Vergilio left; Kevin moped about, waited for news, worried.  Postcards came from Paris, Monte Carlo, Nice, with only the briefest message and no news about his treatment.


     Three weeks later he was back, well-groomed and urbane as ever, the same soft voice, the same smile over a cocktail glass.  He showed Kevin and me a series of photographs from his trip, every one featuring a smiling and handsome Vergilio in a well-appointed residence, his host unidentified: photos of a narcissist.  By now even Kevin sensed something amiss, but his need of glamour locked him into the spell.

     Vergilio now informed Kevin that he had to return to Europe for an operation that might or might not save his life, probably not; professing embarrassment, he confessed he needed money for the trip.  Why he had to turn to a new friend, and not to old friends and family, went unexplained.  Kevin at once gave forth of his own meager savings, then phoned any number of friends, entreating them to loan him what they could.  Some did, some didn't.  I myself, unable and unwilling to label Vergilio a liar or a fraud without convincing evidence, promised five hundred dollars but then, common sense prevailing, gently but firmly declined.  "I don't believe in it," I explained.  Kevin’s response: "I feel like I've been kicked in the teeth.”

     Vergilio departed once again for Europe, and I heard no more of him, for Kevin and I were now estranged.  Finally I phoned a mutual friend, asking how he was.  "He's learning what he has to learn," she said, but refrained from saying more.  Months passed; other matters claimed me, but I thought often of Kevin.  Finally he phoned and invited me over.  He looked worn and wan, but got to it right away: "If I ever see him again, I'll say to him, 'What?  You're not dead? But that's why I gave you all that money and sent you back to Europe. Dead -- you should be dead!'"  A hard look came over him that I had never seen before.

     To my knowledge, Vergilio never reappeared in New York; if he did, it was at a far remove from Kevin.  Kevin never mentioned his name again.  Since his finances were habitually precarious, I doubt if he ever repaid any of his friends.  But of one thing I am sure: Vergilio was off somewhere, on this continent or another, smiling over a cocktail glass and enlisting the sympathy and generosity of friends. New friends; to the old ones he wouldn't dare show his face.

     Vergilio was a classic example of the con man, and Kevin a classic example of the dupe.  (Note my insisting on “con man” and never “con woman” or “con person”; it seems to be a males-only game.)   It has been argued that we humans are born to be conned, that the true con artist makes us feel good about ourselves, makes us think he’s giving us just what we deserve.  The victim is always swept up in a narrative that at the time seems absolutely compelling. 

      So it was with Kevin.  He had a deep need to experience glamour, and Vergilio satisfied that need marvelously, to the point that Kevin ignored all the danger signs: the vagueness of Vergilio’s ailment, and his obvious good health; Vergilio’s inability to get help from old friends and family; Vergilio’s trip to Europe supposedly to get medical aid, a trip memorialized in photos of Vergilio in luxury settings that belied the very purpose of the trip.  Kevin was a sophisticated New Yorker, but he fell for the con that a shrewd operator offered him, and his awakening was harsh.  The wound was long in healing, if it ever did heal completely.


Coming soon: Something about a spotted pig, the deplorable Chupi, a pulsing river, a Beaux Arts masterpiece, Korean marvels, and an art-filled john.  All in one short walk.


BROWDERBOOKS
  


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.


1.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


browder-cover-9781681143057-perfect-2

Reviews

"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


2.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

"... I enjoyed reading Dark Knowledge and Clifford Browder definitely managed to recreate the vibe and feel of that era so that I could almost smell the salty sea air and feel myself transported to that period. The characters are very well drawn, and in addition to Chris and Sal, who are fantastic, all of the other family members, former ship captains, etc. also have their own flavor and personalities. Sal is shown to be a smart and capable woman which I appreciated. But most of all, this is Chris’s story and Clifford Browder succeeds in highlighting the horrors of slavery through this book. This is great read!"  Five-star Readers' Favorite review by Gisela Dixon.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


3.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)







Reviews

"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

4.  Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies (Black Rose Writing, 2018).  A collection of posts from this blog.  Short biographical sketches of people, some remembered and some forgotten, who lived or died in New York.  All kinds of wild stuff, plus some stuff that isn't quite wild but fascinating.  New York is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, some likable and some horrible, but they are never boring.



Fascinating NYers eimage.jpg


Review

"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there." Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

To be published July 26.  You can order it here from the publisher and get a discounted price (plus postage), but it won't be shipped before that date. Also available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, minus the discount but with the delay.  A few signed copies are available now from the author (i.e., me) for $20.00 (plus postage, if needed).  


Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


©   2018   Clifford Browder

Sunday, July 8, 2018

363. New York Hodgepodge

GIVEAWAY:  BILL HOPE   

The giveaway is over.

What you get:

The first five people who sign up using the sign-up form in the sidebar on the right, will get a free print copy of my novel Bill Hope: His Story (summary and reviews below).  U.S. residents only.  Winners should be new to me and this blog.  Offer runs until 9 p.m. EST Saturday, July 14, or as soon as five people have signed up.  More giveaways will follow.

All subscribers will get announcements of my weekly posts for this blog, which is about anything and everything New York, the city where anything goes.  Also, word of new releases, like Fascinating New Yorkers (see in BROWDERBOOKS below), to be released July 26.


browder-cover-9781681143057-perfect-2


Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. Driving him throughout is a hate of bullies and snitches, and a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.  Historical fiction, action/adventure.


Reviews

"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.


Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


For my other books, see BROWDERBOOKS below.


New York Hodgepodge


This is a hodgepodge of New York experiences, real and otherwise.  Don’t look for a unifying theme; there isn’t any, except the wonders and horrors, the quirks and surprises of the city.

New York jokes

         These aren’t meant to amuse you; you’ve probably heard them a dozen or a hundred times.  But they say something about the New York mentality.

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

·      Tourist:  Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?
             (No recorded response.)

·                               A young man from the provinces arrives in New York, sets his  suitcase down, and announces, “Look out, New York!  I’m here to conquer you!”  Then he looks down: his suitcase is gone.


A New York myth: alligators in the sewers

         Snowbirds returning north from Florida supposedly bring back cute little baby alligators as pets.  Then, as the pets get bigger and bigger, they panic and flush them down the toilet.  Result: Alligators ranging in the sewers.  (But hard confirmation is lacking.)


Wildlife in the city

         Speaking of alligators, there is plenty of confirmed wildlife in the city.  No, I don’t mean roaches, mice, and rats, our ubiquitous fellow residents, or the wood ticks that show up in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and elsewhere in the spring, or even the magnificent peregrine falcons that nest on tall buildings and make precipitous plunges to seize their mammalian prey.  I mean unexpected and surprising creatures, as for instance:

·      The muskrats I’ve seen in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

·      The little brown bat that zipped past me once in the North End of Central Park.

·      The red fox once reported in Van Cortland Park, though I myself never saw it.

·      The raccoon I saw high in a tree in Central Park.
File:Coyote.jpg
Has this guy been in your 
garbage lately?
    
       In addition to the above, coyotes have been seen in the suburbs north of here and in the city as well, on the streets of Harlem, near Columbia University, and in Central Park, though I have yet to spot one.  I thought coyotes were a Western critter, but it seems that there is an Eastern coyote who is common upstate but has adapted to urban settings, since in them he finds all his favorite foods: rabbits, squirrels, cats, small dogs, and garbage.  People often mistake coyotes for dogs.  Coyotes have long, thick fur, a bushy tail usually pointed down, and erect, pointed ears.
   
        Of course I've saved the best till last: copperheads inhabit the Jersey Palisades, just across the river from New York.  They and other creatures lurk in the hollows and crevices under the Giant Stairs, a jumble of huge fallen boulders on the Shore Path of the Palisades, a path that I have often walked, scrambling over the boulders, some of which teeter slightly as you scramble.  A rough forty-five-minute trek through a unique landscape that you wouldn’t expect here in the East.  Copperheads are poisonous, but like most snakes they keep away from humans, so in my noisy scrambles over the Giant Stairs I have never seen one.  Also inhabiting the Palisades are raccoons, red foxes, skunks, chipmunks, shrews, moles, and rabbits – all this, just across from the cement and asphalt density, the traffic and the ruckus, of the city.

A copperhead: beautiful, if seen from a distance.  Look close
and you'll see a black snake as well.  Tad Arensmeier

Street cries of long ago

         Our streets are noisy with traffic sounds and jackhammer screeches, but street cries of vendors are rare, maybe because they wouldn’t be heard over all that racket.  But the early 1800s were different.  Here are some of the street cries from that period, uttered by wandering vendors, some with carts, some without:

Here’s your beauties of oysters, your fine fat briny oysters!

Butter mil-leck!  Butter mil-leck!

Here’s white sand, choice sand, here’s your lily white sand, here’s your Rockaway beach sand!  (Often strewn on floors of taverns.)

Glass put eeen!  Glass put eeen!

Sweep ho!  From the bottom to the top, without a ladder or a rope!  Sweep ho!  Sweep ho! 

Morburre

          Chimney sweeps were common on the streets of nineteenth-century New York, as in Victorian England.  Usually a master and his young apprentice roamed the streets together, the master calling out his cry to alert the householders in need of his services.  The boy would climb up the chimney with a brush to loosen the soot, and then climb down again to bag and remove it.  If he didn't climb properly, he might get stuck in there and not come out alive.  Only much later did machines replace climbing boys.

The velocipede craze

         In 1869 a new craze from France suddenly swept New York: the velocipede.  This was a crude forerunner of the bicycle, though at the time everyone thought it the very latest in personal transportation and amusement.  Academies and rinks for teaching and riding the velocipede sprang up all  over the city, and hardy young males flocked to them to master this new skill.  The wheels were of iron and the saddle rigid, which discouraged long excursions, so most of the riding was done in indoor rinks.  Accidents were frequent; the victims could display their wounds in much the same way that today's high school football players show their scars and bruises, heroic mementos of a noble sport.



The spite house

         Years ago passersby were puzzled by a four-story row house at East 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue that was only five feet wide.  There was of course a story behind it.

         In 1882 a clothier named Hyman Sarner who owned several lots on East 82nd Street decided to build an apartment house on his property, which extended almost to Lexington Avenue.  Along Lexington Avenue was a narrow strip of land, valueless, he thought, unless joined to the land he already owned, so he set out to acquire it.

         Learning that the land belonged to one Joseph Richardson, he offered the gentleman a thousand dollars for the land.  But Richardson demanded five thousand, which Sarner thought outrageous.  When Sarner refused, Richardson called him a tightwad and showed him to the door.  So Sarner built his four-story apartment house anyway, with side windows looking out on Lexington Avenue. 

         Now came Richardson’s revenge: he would build a narrow four-story building on his strip of land smack against Sarner’s building, thus cutting off the view from Sarner’s windows.  A building only five feet wide?  His wife and daughter thought he was crazy, but Richardson’s spite was not to be denied; he would live there himself – obesity was not his problem – and rent to skinny tenants.

         Within a year the house was built, cutting off the view and light from Sarner’s windows.  There were two suites to a floor, each with three rooms and a bath, and stairs between floors so narrow that only one person could use them at a time.  To pass each other in the halls, one person had to duck into one of the rooms so as to let the other one pass.  Richardson and his wife moved into a ground-floor suite and, amazingly, found narrow tenants who moved in with narrow furniture. 


         The house quickly became a local legend, inspiring articles and jokes.  But when a journalist of pronounced rotundity came to interview Richardson and was told that the owner was up on the roof overseeing workmen doing repairs, he started up the stairs and at once got perilously stuck; alas, the more he wiggled to get free, the more he got wedged in.  A tenant from the ground floor tried to help by pushing from below, and a tenant from above who wanted to reach the street began pushing in the opposite direction.  Mauled simultaneously from above and below, the journalist finally got the two tenants to desist, then took off his outer clothes and wiggled free, and so proceeded up to the roof in his underwear to conduct an airy interview. 

         Don’t go to Lexington and East 82nd Street to see this anomaly; it and Sarner’s adjoining building were torn down in 1915 – long after Richardson had died – to make room for a much larger apartment building that could accommodate tenants of whatever proportions.

          Footnote:  As my partner Bob has reminded me, there is a house in Greenwich Village only nine and a half feet wide, now the narrowest in the city.  It is a three-story red-brick house on Bedford Street off Seventh Avenue, built in 1873.  Edna St. Vincent Millay lived there in 1923-24.  It was evidently squeezed in between two adjoining buildings where there was once a carriage entranceway leading to stables in the rear; no spite was involved.

The offal boat

         In the old days of horsepower, before the internal combustion engine, the city’s transportation was mostly horse-drawn, which meant that the city’s streets were often encumbered with dead horses, not to mention cows, and the pigs that ran about freely, scavenging the streets and thus saving their owners the cost of feed.  So what happened to all those smelly carcasses, so offensive to eye and nostril?  The answer: the offal boat.

         Departing a dock at 34th Street in the North (Hudson) River regularly in the 1860s was a small sloop piled high with the carcasses of horses, cows, pigs, dogs, and cats, plus barrels, tubs, tanks, and hogsheads of blood and entrails.  Its destination: a bone-boiling plant up the river that would receive this smelly cargo and use it to produce leather, bone (for buttons, etc.), manure, soap, fat, and other products.  In one week the sloop disposed of 50 horses, 9 cows, 135 small animals, and 3,100 barrels of offal.  The city’s butchers delivered blood and offal from the slaughterhouses; the rest was brought in ten carts by a contractor.  In this way the streets were delivered of an odorous impediment that was actually turned into a variety of useful products. 

         Which prompts me to ask what happens today to all those junked cars and other abandoned contraptions that we would like to make disappear.  Where are they, and what becomes of them?  Will archeologists eons hence discover the remains of vast automobile graveyards and wonder what strange civilization could have produced such a huge array of junk?  Or will all that have crumbled away, leaving only little plastic thingamabobs?  I wonder.


Open graves covered with plywood.
Photo courtesy of Ian Ference,
The Kingston Lounge.  



Hart Island

          And what becomes of humans -- the unclaimed bodies 
that turn up in every big city -- one may also ask.  The answer in New York is that, since 1869, they are taken to Hart Island, a quiet, grassy island only about a mile long and a quarter mile wide in Long Island Sound near City Island in the Bronx.  This now uninhabited island, at various times the site of a lunatic asylum, a sanatorium, a boys' workhouse, and a drug facility, is the city's potter's field, the final resting place of some 800,000 anonymous, indigent, and forgotten persons who are buried in closely packed pine coffins in common graves, three coffins deep for adults, and five for babies.  Some 1500 bodies arrive yearly, about half of them stillbirths and infants who are interred in small pine coffins.  "Baby Morales, age 5 minutes," says the paperwork on one; "Unknown male, white, found floating on the Hudson at 254th Street," says another.  Burials are done quickly and routinely without funeral rites, unless some spontaneous prayer from a gravedigger. 

          Note:  I have often wondered where the phrase "potter's field" comes from.  It is Biblical, saying what the chief priests did with Judas's thirty pieces of silver when, repenting of his betrayal of Jesus, he flung them down on the floor of the temple and went and hanged himself: "And they took counsel, and bought the potter's field, to bury strangers in" (Matthew 27:7).  A field used for extracting potter’s clay was useless for agriculture and so was available for burials.

          And who are those gravediggers?  Inmates from Riker's Island who arrive by boat handcuffed, but then climb down into the trenches to work unmanacled, most of them glad to be away from prison and out in the open air, working in the flat, calm solitude of the island.  They are paid all of fifty cents an hour, as is typical of our prison/industrial complex.  But they are not insensitive.  "Respect, guys, respect!" they caution one another, as they lower the coffins into the graves and then cover them with dirt.

          Hart Island is not open to the general public, most of whom have probably never even heard of it, and trespassers face a stiff fine.  But family members able to  prove their relatives are buried there can arrange visits.  This is no easy task, since one has to navigate numerous city agencies to obtain the necessary information.  The coffins have no individual markings, but each grave corresponds to an entry in a ledger.  If successful, the family members can then arrange to have the remains disinterred and removed for burial elsewhere.  But most of the remains are unclaimed.


          What is it like on the island?  The few who are allowed to visit have different impressions.  One visitor, seeing the crumbling vestiges of earlier installations, called it a dilapidated ghost town; another found it surprisingly peaceful, surrounded on sunny days by an expanse of scintillating water, and serenaded by the distant clanging buoys of Long Island Sound.  One hopes, for this last resting place of the unknown and forgotten, that the latter impression is more accurate.  But those crumbling vestiges have a haunting beauty that photography reveals: the beauty of abandonment and desolation.  I shall never be able to visit this forbidden island, but everything about it breathes mystery.



Coming soon: No idea.



BROWDERBOOKS  


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018.

Review 


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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



2.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:


New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


3.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the frst novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)







Reviews

"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.


Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


4.  Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies (Black Rose Writing, 2018).  A collection of posts from this blog.  Short biographical sketches of people, some remembered and some forgotten, who lived or died in New York.  All kinds of wild stuff, plus some stuff that isn't quite wild but fascinating.  New York is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, some likable and some horrible, but they are never boring.



Fascinating NYers eimage.jpg


Review

"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there." Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

To be published July 26.  You can order it here from the publisher and get a discounted price (plus postage), but it won't be shipped before that date. Also available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, minus the discount but with the delay.  Signed copies are available now from the author (i.e., me) for $20.00 (plus postage, if needed), though in limited numbers.  


©   2018   Clifford Browder