Sunday, March 3, 2013

49. 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.

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! 


          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.  (See the illustration below.)  Only much later did machines replace climbing boys.

How they worked: the one on the left is in the
proper position; the one on the right is jammed
and will have to be pulled out, or the chimney
broken into so as to retrieve the body.
Clem Rytter

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.

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

          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.

Southern entrance to the Pavilion, once a
women's prison, later a drug rehab facility.
Photo courtesy of Ian Ference,
The Kingston Lounge.

          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.

Second floor of the Pavilion.
Photo courtesy of Ian Ference,
The Kingston Lounge.

Interior of the asylum's hospital.
Photo courtesy of Ian Ference,
The Kingston Lounge.

Unused pine coffins in the hospital.
Photo courtesy of Ian Ference,
The Kingston Lounge.

         Source note and invitation:  These photos of Hart Island are from Ian Ference’s website, The Kingston Lounge.  I urge viewers to access that website and then, under NYC Waterfront, click on Hart Island to see all his haunting photos of the island's crumbling structures. 

         Next week: New York and Water, the Hudson.  After that, Monumental New York.  Then steamboats, another hodgepodge, and who knows what.

(c) 2013  Clifford Browder

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