Sunday, December 29, 2013

106. Inanities of the 1960s and Now

      This post is about inanities.  I am drawing its content from my Inanities File, which I began in the 1960s and continued into the mid-1980s, at which point I lost interest in it.  Maybe the world’s inanities so overwhelmed me that I couldn’t keep up.  At any rate, I stopped collecting inanities, though every three years or so I would get out the file, peruse its contents, and chuckle, or shake my head in disbelief, or get indignant or angry.  And now I am publishing a selection of the file’s contents, for viewers to react as they wish.  They may find these items inane, or they may not; it’s a matter of personal perspective.  And one’s reaction to an inanity can vary widely, from laughter to scorn to indignation to fury to bafflement.

     But what is an inanity?  Obviously, something that is inane.  But what does “inane” mean?  Off the top of my head, I would say “supremely silly.”  But to firm up my own definition, I have consulted that authority of authorities, Webster’s International Dictionary, 2nd ed., a ponderous tome that sits on my desk gathering dust, since it requires such an effort to access it.  Its definition of inane: “Without contents; empty; esp., void of sense or intelligence; silly; characterless.”  I have no quarrel with this, but I especially emphasize “silly.”

Inanities from my file

     So here are some items from my Inanities File, taken from newspapers and magazines of the time, items in my mail, a concert program, a wrapping from airline food, whatever.  Some are peculiar to the 1960s or a bit thereafter, others could be of any age. 

·      From the East Village Other of Nov. 15-21, 1968, a statement by poet and ex-convict John Sinclair, manager of a guerrilla rock band and founder of Trans Love Energies, an artists’ commune:  “… Our program is cultural revolution through a total assault on the culture which makes use of every tool, every energy and every media we can get our collective hands on….  We are free mother country madmen in charge of our own lives and we are taking this freedom to the kids of America … and … these kids are READY! …  BE FREE, goddammit, and fuck all them old dudes, is what we tell them, and they see that we mean it. …  We demand total freedom for everybody!  And we will not be stopped until we get it.  We are bad….  WE ARE THE SOLUTION.” Following this long tirade comes a program that includes the end of money; free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care – free everything; and finally, since leaders suck, all power to the people!

·      From the New York Times of October 22, 1970:  “The ordinary white bread that most Americans eat every day was described by a scientist here as being so low in nutritional value that laboratory rats living on it for 90 days died of malnutrition.”

File:White bread.jpg
If it can starve rats, what will it do to you?ElinorD

·      From the New York Times of May 29, 1976, accompanying a photo of a hefty senior manipulating a hula hoop:  “Young at heart: Belle Sommers competing in the Hula Hoop competition during the Senior Citizens Olympics at Piedmont Park in Atlanta Thursday.  Other events included an ugly-face-making contest and a balloon race.”

·      From The Village Voice of January 3, 1977, citing reviews of a new album of the Ramones, four leather-jacketed youths looking very macho and very tough in the accompanying photo:  “Ramones is a classic” – Rutgers Daily Targum; “El Stinko garbage of the worst kind” – Dayton Journal Herald; “The last time I was insulted by something as bad as the Ramones was when Mary Hartman shot her husband in the crotch with a bow and arrow” – The Drummer, Philadelphia; “Indeed awesome.” – Performance Magazine; “The worst of New York punk bands.” – Washington Post; “Music to sniff glue by.” – Marty Packin, Asbury Park Press; and many more.

·      From a book review in the New York Times Book Review of March 14, 1976, quoting from the work in question: “his cadaverous – but not unhandsome – visage.”


File:Escudo de Villanueva de los Infantes (Ciudad Real).svg


       From the New York Times of March 3, 1969, dateline Philadelphia, March 22:  “Bubble gum has blown up into big business in the United States.  Americans are chewing about $100-million worth of it each year, according to Edward L. Fenimore, president of the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corporation of nearby Havertown.  Sales and consumption have more than quintupled in the last 10 years, and there is no sign of a let-up, Mr. Fenimore says.”

·      The list of ingredients on a 1-ounce package of Rachel’s Cookies, presumably acquired during air travel, date uncertain: “Bleached and unbleached wheat flour, chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, dextrose, lecithin), high fructose corn syrup, vegetable shortening (partially hydrogenated) soybean and cottonseed oils with mono- and diglycerides added), sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, soybean oil, molasses, natural and artificial flavors, whey, dried whole eggs, food starch-modified, baking soda, salt, lecithin, baking powder (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, corn starch, monocalcium phosphate), enzymes.”

·      From an article on the Committee on Public Doublespeak’s awards in The New York Times of November 28, 1974: the award for Educationese, given to Donald Jay Willower, professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, for the following: “Yet, the most basic problems that arise in connection with knowledge utilization may be those that stem from the social and organizational character of educational institutions.  A few university adaptations already have been highlighted.  Public schools display a myriad of normative and other regulatory structures that promote predictability, as well as a host of adaptive mechanisms that reduce external uncertainties.”

·      From the same source, a doublespeak award to Colonel David E. Opfer, former air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Pnom Penh, Cambodia, for his complaint to reporters: “You always write it’s bombing, bombing, bombing.  It’s not bombing.  It’s air support.”

·      From a Pete Hamill column about New York State Senator Seymour  Thaler, inspecting Knickerbocker Hospital with an NBC TV film crew in tow, in the New York Post of May 13, 1967:   “We ended up visiting the ward, and with the TV crews gone, Thaler’s indignation was waning.  He went into a room and stared at a strange totem-like device that resembled a large parking meter.  It was used for washing bedpans.  ‘Does this thing work?’ Thaler asked, pulling the handle.  It flushed all over the front of his suit.”

·      From a letter signed by Timothy Leary and delivered to the Los Angeles Free Press, reprinted in The Phoenix, a Boston weekly, of September 26, 1970:  “Brothers and sisters, this is a war for survival…. Ask the wild free animals, they know it…. You are either part of the death apparatus, or you belong to the network of free life…. Listen, Americans, your government is an instrument of total lethal evil.  Remember the buffalo and the Iroquois!... Resist privately; guerilla invisibility…. Resist biologically; be healthy … breed.  Arm yourself and shoot to live…. To shoot a robot genocidal policeman is a sacred act….  Total war is upon us.  Fight to live or you will die.  Freedom will live.  Timothy Leary.  WARNING: I am armed and should be considered dangerous to anyone who threatens my life and freedom.”

·      From an article about a Frenchman who won the lottery in France and was beset by a horde of money-seekers, in The New York Times Magazine of May 7, 1967:  “The prizewinner for sheer inventiveness or bizarre misfortune … was an elderly fellow who asked for a loan to pay his legal fees, for he had fired a joyous shotgun blast in the air during a wedding celebration and unfortunately had slain one of the bride’s relatives.”

·      From a summary of the plot of Mascagni’s opera Iris, in a program for I don’t know what concert by Licia Albanese:  “The action … takes place in Japan.  Iris, the beautiful young daughter of the blind Cieco, is abducted to a place of pleasure by Kyoto, a procurer, and Osaka, a wealthy rake.  She is driven mad by the experience and throws herself from the window into a sewer.  Halfway between life and death, she bemoans her own sad destiny, asking why … why?  … The rising Sun greets the dying Iris, and she hails her only salvation, the God of Day.  She sinks into a field of blossoms and becomes one with the flowers.”

·      From a 1985 brochure that came in the mail:  “Once again the Mystery School calls us to take the Journey of Transformation in which we leave behind our little local life for a time and pursue Great Life and Great Time.  We train to become stewards of the process by  which evolution enters into time and the wasteland is greened…. I welcome you to the Once and Future School.   Jean Houston

·      From an article, dateline Rajneeshpuram, Ore., Sept. 21, in the New York Times of September 22, 1985: “The desert commune here that recruited homeless people from around the country last year, in what some local residents said was an effort to stack the voting in local elections, is once again in turmoil.  A key leader has departed, and a string of allegations against her is being investigated by six law-enforcement agencies.  Indicative of the tremors that have rocked the community was an offer last night by its spiritual leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, to give all but one of his 90 Rolls-Royces to his 5,000 disciples as a gesture of appreciation.”


Timothy Leary, arrested in 1972.
Not armed enough, it would seem.
     Some of the above items require no comment; others do.  Sometimes the writer is aware of the inanity, and sometimes not.  The first one by John Sinclair and the letter by Timothy Leary are examples of the raw, violent edge of the late 1960s and early 1970s:  We are wild, we are free, we are bad, we are good, we are the solution, join us or you are part of the problem, and down with everything and everyone one else!  This attitude, characteristic of fiery twentysomethings, lacks compassion and understanding, and above all it lacks any appreciation of ambiguity.  If you don’t grasp at least a little bit the significance of ambiguity, you will never understand the world we live in, its complexities, its inconsistencies.  As for Leary (1920-1996), his advocacy of psychedelic drugs earned him repeated confrontations with U.S. authorities and landed him in jail more than once.  His life was too complicated, too turbulent, to summarize here.

     At the time of the statement I knew nothing of John Sinclair and Trans Love Energies.  I now learn that he had been serving a 9½ to 10-year sentence in Michigan for possession of two joints of marijuana (his third offense), but was released by a court ruling in 1971, coincidentally just after a gigantic concert on his behalf that included speeches by such stellar activists as Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono.  The statement itself expressed the credo of Sinclair’s White Panther Party, an imitation of the Black Panther Party. 

File:John Sinclair08100.jpg
                                                            Wayne Dabney
     And today?  John Sinclair is now an old dude himself and looks like someone’s grandpa.  He is still affiliated with Trans Love Energies, now a medical marijuana dispensary in Detroit, one of many such outlets open in Michigan despite a legal challenge to their operations.  I suspect that he has softened and found ways to work within the system, which, for better or for worse, persists in spite of his and others’ youthful ravings.  As proof of my surmise, I note that as far back as 1979 he donated his papers to the Michigan Historical Collections of the University of Michigan, where they are available for research, which is a kind of consecration. 

     In perusing the ingredients of Rachel’s Cookies, I find no less than seven mentions of sugar in one form or another.  But I’m no nutritionist.  How many do you find?  Also four chemicals that I know nothing about.  Which is why, after reading enough of these labels, I stopped eating airline food.

     The Educationese example of Public Doublespeak reminds me of an education manuscript I once edited that referred to “the young verbal beings”; I changed this to “the kids.” 

     The last two items are examples of the soft, gooey edge of the 1960s and later – the New Age side of it.  The program of the first involved nine sessions and a tuition of $2,000.  Jean Houston, Ph.D., is a New Age high priestess, a “pioneer in work as a behavioral scientist emphasizing latent human capacities.”  A photo shows a woman in her forties with long dark straggly hair wearing a tunic with a sash, her arms extended, her head bent, with a very intense look.  I had heard her on station WBAI and was struck by her remark, “We’ve got to make peace sexy.”  Like it or not, war, with all its horrors, is sexy, so she made sense to me.  Result: a poem entitled “Peace” that I sent to her.  She liked it, read it to her followers, and invited me to come do the same at one of her lectures.  Since I would have had to pay a hefty admission fee, I chose not to.  As for Transformation in nine sessions at $2,000, that too I declined to undertake.  But cursory online research shows that she’s a native of Brooklyn, still alive and active, with many books to her credit.

     The last item, on the commune in Oregon, is a reminder that lofty ideals don’t always work out (ambiguities again).  The commune, by the way, was located on a 64,000-acre property, and its disciples enjoyed a 12-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week work pace, for which they got $10 a week plus room and board.  To reduce the threat of AIDS, kissing was forbidden among members, though they could dance in the disco into the wee hours.  The guru accused the departed leader of trying to poison him and his doctor, dentist, and housekeeper (that’s a lot of poison!).  Flanked by two machine gun-toting guards, he was reported to be sharing his revelations with followers, and later took a spin in one of his Rolls-Royces, while a security helicopter hovered overhead. 

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His red-robed followers greet the guru as he drives by in the ashram.
Samvado Gunnar Kossatz

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The guru's mug shot, 1985.
Oregon Department of Corrections
     The preceding was all I knew about the guru and his ashram when I read the news item; it hardly suggested life in an idyllic setting, and made me marvel at what seekers of truth and enlightenment will put up with.  Now, preparing this post, I learn that soon afterward the commune collapsed, allegations of serious crimes by the guru and his followers surfaced, and Rajneesh fled.  When his jet refueled in North Carolina, he was arrested and tried back in Portland on charges of immigration fraud, which resulted in his deportation.  What became of his 90 (some say 93) Rolls-Royces I have yet to ascertain.

Inanities today

     They abound.  For Doublespeak, how about these:

·      the Patriot Act
·      collateral damage (unintended civilian casualties caused by military action)
·      Operation Just Cause (our 1989 invasion of Panama)
·      Operation Enduring Freedom (our 2001 invasion of Afghanistan)
·      Operation Iraqi Freedom (our 2004 invasion of Iraq)

Admittedly, the word “patriot” turns me off, not because of its meaning but because of the way it is used or misused, and because of those who use it.  And what a lot of operations we have launched, presumably for self-protection!  But why labor the obvious?

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Operation Iraqi Freedom

     For me, the supreme inanity of recent memory occurred off San Diego on May 1, 2003, when our forty-third president landed in a jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which had just returned from combat operations in the Persian Gulf.  With TV cameras rolling, he emerged in a flight suit and posed for photos with the ship’s crew.  Later, having doffed the flight suit to appear in presidential garb, he addressed the crew and announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, with a sign MISSION ACCOMPLISHED clearly visible.  All of which was too stagy, not to say premature, since years of guerrilla warfare lay ahead. 

File:George W. Bush walks with Ryan Phillips to Navy One.jpg
No. 43 in a flight suit.  Contrary to the belief of
some, he didn't pilot the plane.

     Another recent inanity: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s  comment on the wave of looting that erupted in Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, looting that U.S. troops did nothing to stop: “Stuff happens.”  In war, indeed it does.

     On a more modest note, I must state that the inanity of Rachel’s Cookies – if “inanity” is the right word – is repeated endlessly in processed foods today.  This becomes a problem for me in the holiday season, since Bob and I get gifts of chocolates and other goodies that have a long paragraph in tiny print of ingredients that include the same toxic mix of sugar under various names and numerous chemicals with long, unpronounceable names – the very stuff that I emphatically don’t want in my body.  And these are well-meant gifts from the nicest people.  What to do?  Once, not without a few pangs of guilt, we simply discarded a box of high-quality chocolates without devouring a single one.  More often we compromise, eating only one or two of the delicious but suspect items a day.  But this year we have received a rare bounty of these goodies and have yet to decide how to cope.  Will strength of will win out, or will we succumb to temptation?  All of which brings us far from inanities, I confess.  But maybe the ingredients in chocolates and other delicacies don’t really constitute inanities at all.  Maybe today I wouldn’t classify them as such.  Temptation, yes, and a risk to one’s health and well-being, but maybe not inanities at all.

Sujit kumar

     And how about gurus and ashrams today?  At my health food store I found a glossy brochure advertising courses by various persons under the auspices of the Integral Yoga Institutes, founded by His Holiness Sri Swami Satchidanandaji Maharaj, whose photo shows a benign-looking white-bearded guru reminiscent, alas, of Rajneesh.  And, to heighten the parallel, he has a “dynamic Yoga community” named Yogaville in Virginia.  Is this a replay of the Rajneesh misadventure?  Well, the courses offered range in price from $25 to $80, which seems reasonable.  And I can’t dismiss cavalierly their content: Yoga (I do it myself), health, nutrition, laughter meditation, detoxification, and the like.  So I’ve looked into the matter a bit.

     Online research tells me that Satchidananda (1914-2002) was an Indian spiritual master who gained fame and followers in the West during his time here in New York, where he settled and became a U.S. citizen.  He was the opening speaker at the famous Woodstock festival of 1969 and included Allen Ginsberg among his disciples.  He believed that we all should realize our spiritual unity and live together harmoniously through optimal health, disciplined mind and senses, a sharp intellect, a strong will (so useful in resisting chocolates), a heart full of love, and a life of peace, joy, and bliss.  So who could argue with that?  No inanity here.  And there’s no mention of Rolls-Royces, not even one.  Yes, my health food store, which breathes the spirit of his teachings, is out to net some coin, but I don’t begrudge them that, no, not even if pies that I could get for $15 in the greenmarket were going there, on Christmas Eve, for $19.  (They were on sale at half price the day after Christmas.)  After all, the West Village is a high-rent district.  So I’ll continue to shop there, though the courses and the promised delights of Yogaville don’t tempt me.

     Coming soon:  Famous New York Murders; Andy Warhol: Genius or Fraud?; the hierarchy of thieves in nineteenth-century New York.  Sounds a bit lurid, doesn’t it?  Not intended.

     Happy New Year to all!  May 2014 bring you joy and fulfillment, with or without gurus, with or without inanities, and with or without chocolates.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder

Sunday, December 22, 2013

105. New York Mosaic: The Neighborhoods

     This post is about neighborhoods in New York City, some big and some small, some ethnic, some commercial, some residential, and many often a mix of two of these or all three.  I couldn’t begin to mention all these neighborhoods, which abound in every borough, so I’ll focus on a few in Manhattan that I have encountered personally.  They are well worth looking at, as they give color and verve and to the city.

The Diamond District


So read the signs in the store windows or hanging around the necks of solicitors in the street (though posted signs warn consumers not to deal with the latter).  In the windows are lavish displays of scores, if not hundreds, of twinkling diamonds.  In the stores and on the street are numerous Orthodox Jews, all black hatted with black suits and shoes, and white shirts devoid of a tie, all but the young ones bearded, with ample sideburns or long side curls in front of the ears. 

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     A shopkeeper, seeing a woman eyeing a gold necklace in his window, darts out to address her, “If you like something, ask me, gorgeous.”  Other salesmen accost other passersby, waving them in and promising a superlative deal. 

      This is the Diamond District on West 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, a busy little strip of Manhattan avoided by some because of the never ending hustle, but savored by others more tolerant of the hustle or simply in search of a necklace or ring at a reasonable price.  The district came into being from 1941 on, when dealers began moving uptown from an old district, still in existence, near Canal Street and the Bowery, close by Chinatown.  With the threat of Nazi Germany looming over them, thousands of Orthodox Jews had already fled the diamond centers of Amsterdam and Antwerp to find shelter here, and most of them remained here after the end of World War II. 
Ultra-orthodox Jews joke in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem
     I have often passed through this district, usually going to or rom the now deceased and much lamented Gotham Book Mart, a legendary bookstore that happened also to be on this block.  I was never hassled by salesmen, but always encountered black-garbed Orthodox Jews talking excitedly or striding down the street.  Though not all the shopkeepers are Orthodox, most if not all are Jewish, and the Orthodox impart a distinct and dominant flavor to the street.  I have also seen them waiting at the curb along Fifth Avenue and wondered why, until late one afternoon I saw a bus full of Orthodox Jews pull up to the curb and take on the waiting passengers, who were then whisked off to some Orthodox enclave elsewhere, probably Crown Heights or Borough Park in Brooklyn. 

Bleecker Street

     Here is an example of how neighborhoods change.  Bleecker Street in the West Village, which I can see from my windows, living as I do at the corner of West 11th and Bleecker, used to have restaurants, antique stores, and bookshops.  But all that began to change when the upscale clothing designer Marc Jacobs opened a store across the street from us, its windows featuring fancy with-it clothing draped on faceless, soulless female manikins in odd postures.   That was the beginning.  Soon other designer clothing stores appeared, rents soared, and the restaurants and antique stores, faced with a tripling of their rent, moved out.  Now the street is all upscale clothing stores from Bank Street to West 10th Street, though not beyond.  People flock and look in the windows, and I suppose that some of them buy.  But these displays don’t interest me, whereas I could always feast my eyes on the antique store displays, and Bob and I loved a Thai restaurant that has long vanished from our neighborhood. 

Marc by Marc Jacobs Women's
The Marc Jacobs store at Bleecker and West 11th Street.

     Yes, Jacobs has opened a bookstore, Bookmarc, across the street from us, diagonally opposite the clothing store, but when I ventured inside once, I found not a single title that interested me; the books too are all very “with-it,” very “in,” very upscale – whatever all that means.  I’ve just checked a few reviews of the store online.  One raves about the “cute little knickknacks” available there; another mentions “hip and cool titles that fashion types might read”; another, “a mix of (overpriced) humorous, kitschy items”; another, “fun stuff,” including books that are “pretty modern and chic.”  But here’s the one that really got my attention: “This is the type of place I like to visit when I’m in the mood to have twenty people pressed against me, elbowing my back, blocking my path, and whacking me with their purses.  Which is never.”  All of which confirms my initial reaction: too upscale, too trendy, too “fun stuff” for a confirmed fuddy-duddy like me.

     There was once an interesting biography bookstore on that corner, but it too, alas, is gone.  New York is constantly in flux, not always for the better.  At least the Magnolia Bakery is still downstairs from our apartment.  I don’t buy their sugary concoctions, and yes, they too are trendy and crowded, but I like their still being there, and those cupcakes in the window – real works of art – don’t turn me off.

File:Magnolia Bakery, 401 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014, USA - Jan 2013 O.jpg
 The stairs in the lower right are well known to me, as I have descended there a number of times, usually banging my forehead on the way, to clear out the Magnolia's clutter of cartons, so Con 
Ed could read our meter.                 

File:Magnolia Bakery, 401 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014, USA - Jan 2013 A.JPG
People have sold their soul for these.


     SoHo (from South of Houston) is a neighborhood bounded by Houston Street on the north, Canal Street on the south, Lafayette and Centre Streets on the east, and West Broadway on the west.  Today it is known for artists’ lofts, art galleries, and boutiques – another “trendy” location, but this is only the latest phase of its development.  In the nineteenth century the district housed residences, theaters, and fancy stores, not to mention brothels on the side streets off Broadway, but the growing commercial tone of the area drove middle-class citizens farther uptown, and small factories, lumberyards, locksmiths, and book publishers moved in, often into buildings with cast-iron façades.  By the 1880s and 1890s large manufacturers came there, and SoHo became the wholesale dry-goods trade center of New York. 

     After World War II the textile industry decamped for the South, drawn there by lower wages and the lack of strong unions.  The large cast-iron buildings they abandoned became small factories, sweatshops, warehouses, and printing plants, or were demolished to make way for filling stations, auto repair shops, parking lots, and garages.  Firefighters christened the district “Hell’s Hundred Acres” because of the frequent fires in half-abandoned warehouses, perhaps not unrelated to insurance claims. 

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Cast-iron buildings on Greene Street, SoHo.
Andreas Praefcke

     Then, in the 1960s, artists began discovering these empty buildings with low-rent lofts offering large spaces, high ceilings, and large windows admitting natural light, and saw their possibilities as a combined residence and studio.  Even though the lofts were not zoned for residential use, they moved in and began adapting them.  The city tried to stop the movement, but under pressure yielded, amending the zoning regulations in 1971 to allow artists to reside and work in the lofts.  Two years later SoHo was made a historical district, further enhancing its status.  Already, in 1968, the name “SoHo” had been coined.

     I witnessed this development when two friends of mine, an artist and his banker partner residing in Brooklyn Heights, bought and moved into a loft occupying two-thirds of the fourth floor of an old building on Wooster Street.  For a New Yorker like myself, used to cramped studio apartments, the loft was magnificent: wide spaces, lofty ceilings, and huge windows looking out on the street.  Urban homesteaders of the twentieth century, my friends had to hire electricians and plumbers and carpenters to make the place livable, but the result was impressive: a bedroom, two bathrooms, an ample kitchen, a living area adorned with chinoiserie from the banker’s childhood abroad, a spacious indoor garden, and a vast area for the artist’s studio.  All this occurred before the city relaxed its zoning regulations, but they were confident that the city would not expel “squatters” who were doing such positive work to upgrade a neglected district – an assumption that proved correct.  So a desolate industrial area was transformed into an artists’ residential area -- further proof that the city’s neighborhoods are in constant flux.

     But that wasn’t the end of the transformation of SoHo.  From the 1980s on the district was enhanced or afflicted – depending on your point of view --  by a phenomenon known as gentrification.  More affluent residents began moving in, attracted by the area’s spacious lofts, interesting architecture, and “hip” reputation.  Lots of the artists remained, including my friends, but many galleries moved to Chelsea, just north of the West Village.  Trendy boutiques, restaurants, and fashionable clothing stores became the norm, tourists flocked, and real estate values soared.  Vibrant it certainly is, but trendy vibrant, money-driven, posh with a few rough edges.

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A SoHo boutique.


     Chinatown stretches from Delancey Street on the north, where it rubs elbows with Little Italy, to Chambers Street on the south, and from Broadway on the west to East Broadway on the east.  For most visitors, it means an array of signs in a strange language; groceries exhibiting exotic foodstuffs such as jasmine rice, oolong tea, lotus root, lichee nuts, shark fins, bamboo shoots, black duck eggs, and water chestnuts, few of which I could recognize or identify; souvenir shops with gaudy junk, fine chinaware and jade, and benign little Buddhas; and above all, restaurants. 

Derek Jensen

Martin Dürrschnabel

   It was always for the restaurants that my partner Bob and I went there.  We had a fixed routine.  First we would stop at Esther Eng’s Restaurant on Pell Street and settle in to a front table in a nook beside the entrance, have a drink there, and watch people pass by on the street.  We knew that she was a successful businesswoman and, rare for Chinatown, an avowed lesbian, but only now, researching this post a bit, have I learned that in the 1930s, before she went into the restaurant business, she had a distinguished career directing and producing Chinese-language films – another first for a Chinese American woman – in both Hollywood and Hong Kong.  She died in 1970.

     Leaving Esther Eng’s, we would go to the Port Arthur, a venerable Chinese restaurant founded in 1897 occupying the second and third floors of 7-9 Mott Street.  We dined on the second floor, at mahogany tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, on a white-tile floor under red lanterns, in a room adorned with ornate carved wood panels and ivory-colored silk screens embroidered with blue peacocks and other birds.  The food was Cantonese, not superb but reliably good, and reasonably priced.  On warm summer nights the French doors leading to a balcony with tables overlooking the street were opened, and all the sounds of Mott Street – bells and the babble of people passing on the street -- flowed into the restaurant.  We never dined on the third floor, which was reserved for private parties and banquets, but once we were shown its even more sumptuous setting, with many more ornate carved panels as well as screens, lanterns, chandeliers, inlaid tables, and teakwood chairs.  I doubt if any restaurant in Chinatown had more elaborate and dazzling furnishings.  Today, alas, it is no more, its site occupied by a supermarket.  Dining in the restaurant next door, through a window Bob once saw the Port Arthur’s ornate carved panels and other décor being taken out and loaded on a truck, bound for what destination we never learned: a sad farewell to a very special restaurant, unique, irreplaceable.  We still have one of its menus with a red cover adorned with a handsome peacock in blue.

Postcard circa 1940s (on Mott St. facing north). Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ng, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.
The Port Arthur restaurant (seen in the center), in a postcard from the 1940s.

     Of course there are still many fine restaurants – and many not so fine – in Chinatown, but if we’ve gone there less and less over the years, it’s because Chinatown has come to us; there are good and not-so-good Chinese restaurants all over town.  But not long ago Bob’s brother Bill, on a visit from Maine, went to Chinatown with his daughter and dined in a restaurant recommended by a friend of hers.  For most of the time they were lunching there, they were the only Caucasians present.  Dining among the chopstick-wielding Chinese, Bill says he enjoyed some of the best Chinese food he’s ever had.  They started with soup dumplings, eating which is evidently something of a ritual.  You put one on a soup spoon, pinch a small hole in it, thus releasing soup into the spoon, after which you eat the dumpling and then the soup.  Sounds complicated.  Good luck!

The restaurant Bill Lagerstrom discovered.
Bill Lagerstrom

      Chinatown has a long and colorful history; I can only touch on it here.  Perhaps the first Chinaman to come to the New York City area was Ah Ken, a Cantonese merchant who claimed to have arrived in the 1840s, and who came to the city around 1858 and opened a cigar store on Park Row.  The discovery of gold in California in 1849 brought an influx of Chinese immigrants, lured like countless Americans by dreams of elusive wealth, and many of them were later hired to work on the Central Pacific Railroad, dynamiting obstructions in the Sierra Nevada Mountains so the railroad could be pushed east onto the flats of Nevada and meet up with the Union Pacific in Utah in 1869.  Faced with growing discrimination in California, many of them came east via the new transcontinental railroad and settled in New York.  When the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers, there were some 2,000 residents in Chinatown. 

     At first these early Chinatown residents were mostly men, since only the most prosperous merchants could afford to go back to China, find a suitable bride, pay her family the bride price, and bring her back to New York.  These few wives were rarely seen; when they did go out, it was in a carriage with drawn blinds, depriving the frustrated bachelors of Chinatown of even the briefest glimpse of a woman of their race.  The solution of some of these lonely males was to marry Irish girls, though others found solace in brothels whose inmates were Caucasian, some of them under age; in gambling parlors where losers, having bet all they had and lost, departed clothed only in a barrel; and in opium dens where shadowy figures reclined in bunks, sucking on long bamboo pipes held over the tiny flame of a lamp. 

     In New York too the early Chinese immigrants faced discrimination.  Dressed in broad-sleeved jackets and baggy pants, and wearing cork-soled shoes and the long  queue that the Emperor required as a sign of loyalty, they stood out, provoking curiosity and sometimes suspicion and hostility, even though they were for the most part decent, hard-working, and quiet.  Indeed, vastly outnumbered and surrounded by those whom they sometimes referred to as Big Noses or Round Eyes, they might well ask, when insulted and attacked by thugs in the street, who were the barbarians and who the truly civilized. 

     Slowly the number of women in Chinatown increased, as did the population, though even in the twentieth century many of the women rarely, if ever, strayed beyond the bounds of Chinatown.  In time Chinatown became a tourist attraction offering innumerable restaurants, and souvenir shops with wares ranging from the cheapest gimcracks to the finest chinaware and jade.  As for the 1882 exclusion law, it was not repealed until 1943, when China was our ally in the war against Japan.  Today the population of Chinatown is estimated at from 90,000 to 100,000, and Chinatown itself has long since spread north of Canal Street into what was once Little Italy.

Canal Street today, traditionally the border between Chinatown and Little Italy.  But as the Chinese
signs indicate, Chinatown is creeping north into the Italian district.

Derek Jensen

      My war with the creepies:  Yes, I am at war -- at violent, unremitting war -- with the creepies, my name for the bugs, ranging in size from infinitesimal specks to creatures about a third of an inch long, that have invaded my apartment.  They crawl over my toothbrush, creep into my empty coffee mug (used for tea), crawl into the straws we use to sip beverages, and have even been found in a large box containing Bob's medical supplies in the living room.  These aren't bedbugs or roaches, but their presence is reprehensible, since they don't pay rent.  They approach my food even while I'm eating (and often pay the price), and flee of the oven, one of their favorite nests, if I'm baking or roasting.  But mostly they are night feeders, and I discover them when, heeding the bladder imperative, I get up at night and suddenly turn on the light in the bathroom, and after that in the kitchen, which sends them scurrying in all directions.

     To keep these invaders in check, I have various stratagems.  I have cleaned them out of a nest in Bob's medicines, emptying the box and then dumping them out on the kitchen table, where I could massacre half of them -- about forty -- while the other half escaped.  My weapon: an empty pill bottle, held upside down, so that the cap, when slammed down on a flat surface, mashes anything organic underneath.  I also leave glue traps about in strategic locations in the kitchen, where they slowly accumulate dozens of victims.  One trap has now enticed some forty of the bigger ones, and so many little ones that I couldn't count them.  Also, since they seem to have a predilection for my coffee mug, I heave it half full of water and in the morning often find one or more floating on the surface, drowned.  R.I.P.

     But the real confrontation -- the true battle of battles -- occurs when I turn on a light at night and find a slew of them ranging about the bathroom or kitchen.  For best results, I leave most of the kitchen table free of objects, so as to create a broad killing field where I have a better chance of mashing them; other killing fields include the sink and stove top, and the wash basin and bathtub in the bathroom.  Against these white, smooth surfaces their dark bodies appear in sharp contrast, which gives me a further advantage.  Not that I massacre all the wee beasties so discovered; since they scurry in different directions and there's only one of me, half of them, and sometimes more,  escape.  Escape to where?  Any crack or crevice within reach, the undersurface of the table and sink, the dark, infernal depths of our ancient (circa 1930) stove, or any bit of clutter where they hide.  The little ones -- the specks -- can't run fast, so I get most of them, but the big ones are very quick indeed.  If, out of three of these, I slaughter two or (rarely) three, I feel great satisfaction and  deep glee.

     Browder a hunter?  Those who know me well would scoff at the very thought.  Long ago my father, a true hunter and fisherman, told me that hunting is an instinct, stronger in some people than in others.  And his younger son, a bookworm, possessed this instinct not at all.  I hated the recoil of a discharged shotgun, which made my shoulder ache, and had no desire to slaughter rabbits or blackbirds, the intended targets of my father's forays.  As for lake fishing -- the only fishing available in our midwestern setting --  I hated the long, hot hours in a boat waiting for something to happen; hated the sight of our bait, a squirming worm transfixed by a hook; and hated the rare spectacle of a fish thrashing about the floor of the boat in a frenzied panic.  So if I derive satisfaction from slaughtering the invaders of my apartment, it is much less the thrill of a hunter than the vigilance of a human defending his hearth against dark forces conspiring against it, invading it, polluting it by their very presence. 

     As I fight the good fight, a literary quotation comes to mind.  No, not Blake's line, "For everything that lives is holy," since I deny holiness to cockroaches, mosquitoes, and creepies.  No, it is a line from King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport" (iv.1.37-38).  This line is spoken by Gloucester as he wanders the heath, blinded, questioning if there is justice in the universe.  Is this how I appear to the wee beasties, assuming they have a modicum of intelligence?  "Why does this looming monster hate us so?" they may well ask, "when all we're doing is finding a little sustenance?  He has plenty; why not share it?  Isn't there enough for all?"  And if they wax philosophic, they might ponder the arbitrariness of doom.  When the towering monster strikes, some are pounded to a mash, while others escape.  Is this all simply a game of chance, or is there some underlying principle, some cosmic law that escapes their finite minds, but may be clear to a higher, perhaps divine, intelligence?  Ah, deep thoughts provoked by my slaughter of the beasties, but thoughts to be pursued with caution, if pursued at all.  For are we humans to higher beings as the creepies are to us, or as flies to wanton boys?  I dare not push this further; it's too unsettling, or maybe too ridiculous.  I kill the creepies to keep them out of my toothbrush, my mug, my meals.  Enough said; I conclude.

     Coming soon: Inanities of the 1960s, as recorded by me in an Inanities File, with thoughts about the inanities of today.  Another deep probing, leading I'm not sure where.

    ©  2013  Clifford Browder