Sunday, October 25, 2020

483. Spook Time in New York


                  SPOOK TIME IN NEW YORK

Yes, it’s late October and almost Halloween.  I shan’t go into the history of that holiday.which I deal with in chapter 38, "Of Spooks and Ghouls," in my book No Place for Normal: New York: Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World.  I shall merely note its presence, in the form of looming beanpole spooks and strands of stringy white stuff — probably meant to suggest spiderwebs and spiders) — fronting many residences in my slice of the city, Greenwich Village.  Probably these homes have children, which excuses these indulgences, though my door will be shut and locked against Trick or Treaters, when the day comes.  But even my podiatrist’s office has stuffed witches on the counter, which shows how far the mania has spread, though the witches did gladden up the place, balancing out the signs advocating masks and distancing, and co-pays  immediately due.

Crossing Abingdon Square Park while doing errands two days ao, I saw a low, thick pyramid of seasonal debris: the biggest pumpkins and other monster veggies I have ever seen — some of them up to two or three feet long — plus a grinning skeleton, a bundle of corn stalks, and enthroned on top, the brittle white bones of another grinning skeleton.  Hopefully this display will cheer, and not frighten, the horde of little kids soon due for the annual Halloween festival, when a horse-drawn wagon offers kids a ride around the block.  This is probably the only time city kids see a real live horse — two, in fact, with all the earthy smells that come with them.

Impressive, but the display in Sheridan Square Park goes it one better.  Recently, en route to my podiatrist and being ahead of time, I stopped off in the park.  There a young Latino in dazzling white tennis shoes, his dark hair pulled back in a short ponytail, was photographing the two life-size status of gay men, assisted at times by an older sister or aunt in a colorful dress, while the mother sat patiently, or perhaps resignedly, nearby.

This was show enough, by way of people-watching, but then the young man went to the back of the park and posed grandly, while the sister/aunt took several photos of him, with a trio of looming spooks in the background.  Until this point, I hadn't noticed the spooks.  The Latino family then left, and I went to the back of the park to get a better look.

There were three spooks, each one set up on a pole with a flimsy gown that fluttered in the breeze.  Dominating the scene was the middle one, the tallest: a female in a lavender dress with a tangle of thick white hair, shark teeth, and white-ringed eyes that seemed to fix you with their stare.  When her lavender dress rippled in the breeze, she became startlingly alive.

On the right of the white-haired female was another spook in orange, and on the left, a male with a long orange tie, and on his head a tiny top hat, tilted, ludicrously small.  The tophatted one evoked a smile or two, but the dominant female looked like she had risen from the dead — just the kind of spook to haunt your dreams and make you wake up in a sweat.

When I left the park, I saw General Sheridan in the very back, his sculpted figure looming solemnly on its pedestal, a Northern hero of our Civil War who has seen a lot in his park, little of it easy to adapt to.  First, the Stonewall riots of 1969, launching the gay pride movement and, in time, the erection (no pun intended) of the four life-size statues: two gay males, obviously lovers, with a Lesbian couple seated nearby.  

And if this foursome, now a standard tourist attraction, wasn’t enough, there is the annual brouhaha of the Gay Pride Parade marching down Chritopher Street past the now legendary Stonewall Inn, just across from the park.  Then, more recently, the whole site was designated a national monument, bringing even more tourists.  And now a trio of spooks, the wild-eyed female rendering memorably our horror of, and fascination with, the dead.  A lot for a Civil War hero to absorb.  But there he stands in martial dignity, unruffled, perhaps wondering why a park named for him should come to this.  Time, for us all, has many surprises.

Coming soon: The ever announced, and ever postponed, post on what's sexy and what isn't.

©  2020  Clifford Browder

Sunday, October 18, 2020

482. Church, a Cigar, Karaoke, and a Bulletproof Vest


I am now attempting to promote online my latest nonfiction title, New Yorkers: A Feisty People Who Will Unsettle, Madden, Amuse and Astonish You.  This involves such esoterica as CTRs (click-through rates), ePub files, ARCs (advance review copies), and tweets to a 250k audience.  So far, frustration and a waste of gobs of time.  (You will find the book on my website.)

                 Church, a Cigar, Karaoke,   

                     and a Bulletproof Vest 

I love the diversity of New York,  the vast number of people and their interests, many of them --  both people and interests -- so different from me and mine.  An example: Hawk Newsome, 43, a 300-pound bearded African American, cofounder and chairman of Black Lives Matter Greater New York.  A formidable presence, he can easily be imagined leading marches in the streets, which he in fact does do.  He lives with his sister, cofounder of the group, and with his mother and his 18-year-old son in the South Bronx, but has marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Minneapolis and New York.  His three-year-old daughter lives with her mother elsewhere.

His day, as told to a New York Times journalist:

  • He wakes up, opens his Bible to see what the Scripture of the day is.
  • Next, he checks his social media messages and phone calls.
  • Next, he smokes a cigar, "my only vice."
  • Next, he kisses his son on the forehead, and if the son says he's hungry, he gets his breakfast.
  • He does a form of yoga.
  • Back in bed, he makes the necessary phone calls.
  • He chats with his sister, the only person he can "vent" to. 
  • On Sunday mornings he goes to church in Harlem, and in the evening attends a "rock 'n' roll karaoke church" full of young people, where a preacher preaches in skinny jeans.
  • If there's an early rally, he showers, dresses, puts on his bulletproof vest, and being too big to fit in a car, drives a truck to the rally.
  • In the early afternoon he meets his team and they say a prayer and march to the rally.
  • They march at the back of the protesters, the last line between them and the police, who follow in cars.
  • They check in at the rally, do security sweeps, and give their speeches. 
  • When it gets dark, they drop out of the march as a unit.
  • They go by truck to a vegan restaurant in Harlem and eat out of the trucks, while reviewing the day's events.
  • Still outside, he answers e-mails and texts, including repeated phone calls from his mother, who wants him to order eats for her.
  • Back home, he calls his daughter and sings her songs, then puts on a mask when his son comes home, so they can wrestle.

Quite a day.  And this is only a local rally, maybe involving 2,000 people.  Though he doesn't mention it, presumably he squeezes in breakfast and lunch.

Source note:  This post was inspired by the article "Hawk Newsome," in the Metropolitan section of the New York Times of Sunday, October 4, 2020, and derives most of its content from it.

Coming soon:  Are book contests a fraud?

©  2020  Clifford Browder

Sunday, October 4, 2020

481. Autumn


We are now into autumn, which means shorter days and longer nights.  If winter is night, autumn is the onset of evening.  This depresses some people, but not me.  Nudging toward depression is a line in Rilke's poem Herbsttag (Autumn Day), which I translate like this:

Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben.

Whoever is now alone shall long remain so.

This line has long haunted me with its suggestion not just of solitude but of long-enduring loneliness, defeat, and despair.

But I am more of Keats's mind, who in his poem "To Autumn" hailed the season as one "of mists and mellow fruitfulness," with apples, gourds, and hazel nuts, as well as serenades by singing crickets, a whistling red-breast, and twittering swallows.  My greenmarket is now rich in apples that will have a special sharp taste for the next two months at most, while they are freshly picked, and my supermarket has bins full of autumn gourds and mini pumpkins.

What do I look forward to in autumn?  Lots:

  • walnuts in the shell;
  • roasted chestnuts sold by sidewalk vendors (perhaps unlikely here; that's how I got them in France and Italy long ago);
  • mild, sunny days, not too hot and not too cold;
  • fall foliage: yellow and brown elm leaves; red maple leaves; red, orange, yellow, and brown oak leaves;
  • a special Thanksgiving meal: maybe have the main course delivered, but provide appetizer and dessert myself (a problem: lately I've had little appetite!);
  • the last thing blooming: witch hazel, its unflowery-looking flowers blooming as late as November;
  • if it rains a lot, mushrooms, which I used to spy out in wild places, taking samples only for identification;
  • bald eagles, which I have seen soaring over the Hudson (rare here at other times of year);
  • post-election calm, after the electoral bouhaha (not certain; the brouhaha may continue through the end of the year);
  • books to read: currently, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which I read long ago, and to keep up with current trends, Elena Ferrante (in, alas, translation);
  • the first snow, maybe this side of the winter solstice and maybe after it, when flurries of tiny flakes ping your nose and vanish.

Aside from occasional hurricanes, autumn here is a gentle season; welcome it, savor it, enjoy it.  Preceding it is the muggy heat of summer that saps your energy, and after it, the rigors of winter.

Coming soon:  What's Sexy and What Isn't.  Ratings of God, Batman, wisdom, spike heels, potatoes, and sharks.

©.  2020.  Clifford Browder

Sunday, September 27, 2020

480. Trees


I grew up in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, and we had trees galore.  Though a nerdy little bookworm from an early age, I still climbed trees.  Climbing them was a challenge, a proof of manhood, fun, and an adventure.

File:Trees in silhouette - - 1041566.jpg
                                                                                Stanley Howe

The low willow trees along a nearby canal were easy climbing.  A great oak nearby was more challenging; I and my friends climbed it, but not all the way to the top.  Also good for climbing were the apple trees in the back yards our neighbors, but they were fenced off, so we could only breathe the sweet smell of their flowers in the spring, and in autumn the cidery aroma of the apples that fell and lay mashed on the ground, soon abuzz with feeding wasps.

Towering above our house was a giant cottonwood, and every June it set adrift on any breeze its tufts of cottony seeds, to which I was fiercely allergic.  Out of presumed loyalty to his little brother, but really because his brain reeked mischief, my older brother would set fire to the thin blanket of cottony white seeds covering the ground and watch the flames with delight.  Luckily, he didn't set fire to the neighborhood.

On drowsy summer afternoons I would go out on a level bit of rooftop adjoining our sleeping porch and sunbathe.  High above me loomed the cottonwood, its green leaves flashing silver when rippled by a breeze.  The rustling sound of the rippled leaves, and the sight of the dancing dots of silver, entranced me.

At times it occurred to me that if the giant cottonwood ever fell in our direction, it would crash down on the sleeping porch where my brother and I slept on summer nights.  That my beloved tree might take me with it in its dying was exciting.  But of course it never happened.

Years later I learned more about trees: above all, how they communicate with one another, help one another, and don't steal
one another's light.  We need trees.  They 
  • anchor the soil
  • give shade
  • host birds
  • block wind
  • filter pollutants from the air

When a freak storm devastated one corner of Central Park a few years ago and felled many trees, I mourned.  And right now, in California, Oregon, and Washington, trees as well as homes are being destroyed by raging fires.  

Given these losses, we need to plant trees.  Living in an apartment, I can't plant trees myself, so I donate to the Nebraska-based Arbor Day Foundation, so they can plant trees for me.  They do it in the U.S. and all over the world.  Which is life-supporting and essential.  The more trees we have, the better off we will be.  More power to the Arbor Day Foundation and anyone who plants a tree.

Coming soon: Autumn.

©   2020   Clifford Browder

Sunday, September 13, 2020

478. Let's Have a Laugh: American Humor


Four down and four to go.  That's the score for publishing my books, fiction and nonfiction.  Or maybe 3 1/2 to go, since Forbidden Brownstones has a publisher, is in progress, and will certainly be published. 


Which leaves three, all of them completed and in need of a publisher.

  • Lady of the Chameleons, about a fictional French actress (modeled in part on Sarah Bernhardt) who comes to these shores for a nationwide tour (she would like to meet General Custer, or failing that, Mr. Sitting Bull).
  • Dinner of Dreams, about a glib-tongued operator who offers nineteenth-century Americans whatever they want, or think they want: salvation, gold mining stocks, town lots in Western towns that don't quite exist, stock in a railroad that has yet to lay track, health and well-being.
  • Metropolis, a huge, sprawling novel ranging in time from 1830 to 1880.  Kaleidoscopic, it follows a large cast of characters -- the Wall Street speculator Daniel Drew and the abortionist Madame Restell prominent among them -- through four sections, each a book in itself: Go Ahead, War, Flash, and Bust.
I'll be lucky if even one of these gets published in my lifetime.  The last one, being four books in one, is especially problematic, unless I self-publish it.  But it provides the epic setting for all the other novels, and in some cases the origins or final outcome of a number of recurring characters.  Only when set against it do the other novels acquire their full significance. 

So much for me and my books.  It's time for some humor.


What's supposed be funny often isn't.  Back in my childhood, how often I and my family listened to comedians on the radio.  At appropriate intervals, blasts of recorded laughter ("audience enhancement") would assail our ears, while we sat there deadpan, unamused.  Did we lack a sense of humor?  Not at all.  A lot of the funny stuff on radio just wasn't funny.  Then, occasionally, it was, and we laughed.

Humor is perishable.  What one generation finds funny, another generation may not.  And it can be regional, inciting laughter in one region and falling flat in another.  Please keep this in mind, as I offer examples of American humor from the past.

When I used to vacation with relatives in rural Brown County, Indiana,  I heard that Eleanor Roosevelt, the President's wife, had once visited  the area and was shocked to see what passed for an outhouse in rural areas without running water: a board with a hole cut in it.  She started a movement to have such crude contrivances replaced by real toilets, even though there would be no running water.  The local name for this improvement: the Eleanor.  Local humor or a gesture of gratitude?  You decide.

Here now are some examples of American humor from an even earlier time.

  • A sign at the Laughing Gas filling station in the 1920s in Salome, Arizona (pop. 100): SMILE  --  YOU DON'T HAVE TO STAY HERE, BUT WE DO.
  • An improvised charcoal sign in Congress Hollow, Ohio, where, sometime before 1842, Henry Clay and a group of Congressmen were spilled from their stage:  HERE  CONGRESS  FELL  ON ITS  ASS.

Nineteenth-century tavern guest registers -- huge calfbound books with spaces for each traveler's name, residence, destination, and remarks -- attracted colorful comments in the "remarks" column.  A prime example is from an Indianapolis inn on the National Road, a major gateway to the West before the coming of railroads.  Many visitors just identified themselves as "Stranger," and a fancy Easterner put" "C.H., from any place but this."  Another patron identified himself as "a genuine dealer in counterfeit money," and another remarked, "Still causing women to weep."  And when one traveler put "Stranger and wife," another added, "or some other old whore."

Place names in the West were often a mix of grim humor and grim reality.  California boasted such locales as

  • Hell's Delight
  • Jackass Gulch
  • Last Chance
  • Puke Ravine
  • Skunk Gulch
  • Loafer's Retreat
  • Quack Hill
  • Chicken-Thief Flat
  • Murderer's Bar
  • Skinflint
  • Chucklehead Diggings
  • Poverty Hill
  • Lousy Ravine
Rest assured, there was a story behind each name.

Calvin Coolidge was our president from 1923 to 1929.  As Harding's Vice President he served out Harding's term when Harding died, then was elected for a full four-year term himself.  Quiet and somber, he was the proverbial reticent New Englander.  A woman once came up to him and said, "Oh Mr. Coolidge, you're such a reticent man.  I just bet a friend five dollars I can make you say more than two words."  Coolidge's reply: "You lose."

And of course there was Mae West, as American as they come.  

A friend: "Goodness, Mae, where did you get all those diamonds?"                  Mae: "Goodness had nothin' to do with it."  

But without hearing her intonation, you get only half the humor.

And Eartha Kitt singing, 

    "I'm just an old-fashioned girl,
    I want an old-fashioned house
    With an old-fashioned sink
    And an old-fashioned millionaire."

And in film, the Marx Brothers.  "Who are you going to believe?" asks Chico.  "Me or your own eyes?"

And there is ethnic humor:  "Help!  Help!" cries the Jewish lady in Miami Beach.  "My son the doctor is drowning!"

Which is just a sample of modern American humor, more sophisticated than the humor of nineteenth-century rural America.  

So there it is: American humor at a glance.  Only a glance.  I haven't even mentioned Mark Twain.

Coming soon: A Queens neighborhood where 167 languages are spoken.  Can you guess its name?

©  2020.  Clifford Browder

Sunday, September 6, 2020

479. 167 Languages, "Hot Beds," a Gay Pride Parade, and a Sundae for Eight.

          167 Languages, "Hot Beds,"  

             a Gay Parade Parade, 

            and a Sundae for Eight

A neighborhood barely half the size of Central Park, with 180,000 residents speaking 167 languages.

Signs in Spanish, Bengali, Urdu, and Hindi, the most interesting ones from tiny shops on the second floor, facing the elevated subway tracks.

A building with a Turkish owner, a Greek super, and Indian, Pakistani, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Muslim, and Uzbek tenants, plus some former Soviet Jews.

Romanticos, taxi dance halls where lonely Latino males go to dance with Latinas in short skirts.  They chat, they show each other photos of their families back in the Dominican Republic or Mexico, they coo over each other's kids, and they dance.  For a few dollars exchanged, they all feel less lonely.

Undocumented immigrants who are allowed to rent an apartment or get a job without a Social Security card, which lets them pay the rent and send money back home to their families.

Gentrification: Big garden apartments that once cost $300,000 now go for close to $1 million, forcing more and more immigrants into basement apartments, some of them fire traps, and some with cubicles  called "hot beds," shared by people in shifts.

Right smack in a neighborhood with very conservative religious communities -- Bangladeshi Muslims and Latino Catholics -- a thriving Latino LGBTQ bar scene, and once a year, the second biggest Gay Pride parade in the city.

A Methodist church where Scrabble was invented, and where services are now offered in Urdu, Bahasa, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish.

A neighborhood where you can come from anywhere without papers, start at the bottom, and work your way up.

The promise of America: a legendary ice-cream store offering a punch-bowl size Kitchen Sink Sundae for eight.

Such is this New York neighborhood.  Can you guess what it is and where?

Source note:  To come.

Coming soon:  Trees.

©.  2020.  Clifford Browder

Thursday, September 3, 2020

477. Wall Street Is Not Main Street


I have often commented on the industry that thrives by selling products and services to aspiring writers.  Skeptical as I can be, I'm not immune to their appeal.  Recently I bought a roll of 100 gold seals proclaiming NOTABLE BOOK, BlueInk Review.  BlueInk assured me that I was one of the lucky few -- 5 percent of their authors -- who qualify for this offer.  It was their favorable review of New Yorkers that made it possible.  The cost of the seals?  $25.00, plus shipping $9.95 (those seals must weigh a lot), for a total of $34.95.  


So why have I shelled out this sum for a bunch of seals?  Because exhibiting at book fairs taught me that any little gimmick like this makes a book more attractive to attendees.  They may never have heard of BlueInk Review,  but that little gold seal is impressive.  Of course, with the pandemic eliminating book fairs for the moment, those seals will only adorn the books (currently 12) in my apartment.  But someday, hopefully, those books will appear at a book release party or a fair, or be displayed in my living room, if I have guests.  Someday...  But oh, how those little gold seals catch the eye!  

One final thought:  Where on the cover will I put the seal?  It won't be easy finding a spot that won't interfere with my name, the title, or the illustration.  I hadn't thought about this until now.  Hmm...

               Wall Street Is Not Main Street

"Wall Street is not Main Street."  So spoke Mr. Thomas DiNapoli in a recent radio interview.  And who is Mr. DiNapoli, that I should quote him here?  He is the New York State Comptroller, an elected office he has held since 2007.  I met him briefly once at the greenmarket, and delighted him by saying that, in the opinion of at least one voter -- me --  his elected office, upstaged by the governor and lieutenant governor in elections, is highly significant.  He is the state's chief fiscal officer, responsible for seeing that the state and local governments use taxpayers' money --  our "donations" -- effectively.  A watchdog, necessary because who really trusts the government -- especially our dear state government up in the cesspool that is Albany -- to do things right?  (If I deplore Congress as a swamp, I have always described our state government in Albany as a cesspool, and am still of this opinion.) So what prompted Mr. DiNapoli's comment on Wall Street?

The stock market hit a new all-time high in February and then, as COVID-19 assailed the economy, it plummeted to a low in March, and since then has recovered and is now again hitting all-time highs.  Certainly this was a bust followed by a boom, and it all happened in record time; instead of taking months or even years, the plunge and recovery were scrunched up into one single month.  Unprecedented.  

So if the market is sky high, isn't that good?  For investors, yes.  For stockholders of Apple (the stock I love to love), Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and a few other tech biggies, the leaders in this rally, things are peachy keen.  But meanwhile vast numbers of people are out of work and desperate financially, small businesses are failing, and the general economy is devastated.  So as Mr. DiNapoli observed, Wall Street is not Main Street -- far from it.

Long ago in a pre-pandemic age I published post #410, "High Buildings, High Markets, High Debt.  How Soon the Bust?"  The date was May 26, 2019.  I commented on the megatowers surging skyward all over the city, and wondered if and when those skinny colossi -- or at least the ruthless optimism that inspired them -- might collapse, taking the stock market with it.  My premise: anything that goes up up up has to come down down down, the big question being when? And one might add, why and how?  And today the big question is: Has it happened already?  The answer: it would seem so, yes.

Even before the pandemic struck, developers in Long Island City and Greenpoint, two of the busiest real estate markets outside of Manhattan, were troubled by a softening market.  As of early July of this year, nearly 60 percent of the condos completed in Long Island City remained unsold.  

As for Manhattan, the pandemic brought a sharp drop in sales as well.  In June of this year a full-floor condominium on the 88th floor of One57, a 90-story tower at 157 West 57th Street on what has come to be called "billionaires' row," was sold to a Chinese conglomerate for $28 million, a 41 percent discount from the original purchase price.  Which is nice for Chinese conglomerates and foreign billionaires desiring a little pied-à-terre in Manhattan, but not too relevant for most of us.

More to the point: people are fleeing Manhattan, leaving a lot of apartments unoccupied, bringing rents down 10 or 12 percent, maybe more.  For renters, this is good news, if they want Manhattan.  But lots of New York fugitives are now paying extraordinary sums for houses in the suburbs, sometimes even buying them unseen.  So for now New York, one of the priciest real estate markets in the country, is beginning to look like a bargain -- a pricey bargain, but a bargain nonetheless; all is relative.  Whether this will continue is anyone's guess.  Ask the virus.

So the bust did indeed come, but in a way no one predicted.  Who could have anticipated a pandemic? And even if the stock market is surging to new all-time highs, Main Street -- meaning most people -- is suffering.  And that suffering may last a long, long time.

On this cheery note, I'll conclude.  What goes up up up does indeed come down down down, but in record time it can go back up up up again.  There's something about this that doesn't feel quite right, but that's how it is for now.  Tomorrow, who knows?  Meanwhile, just talking about it makes my head a bit dizzy.

Coming soon:  American humor.  Let's have a laugh.

©  2020  Clifford Browder