Sunday, February 23, 2014

114. Freedom, Fakery, and Freaks: Coney Island

Luna Park

     Smoke suddenly poured out of the four-story building’s upper stories, and flames engulfed the roof and shot out the windows.  Fire trucks clanged and clattered, firemen shot long streams of water upward and mounted tall ladders toward the upper stories where, as crowds gaped from the sidewalks below, terrified men and women leaped out of windows into the safety nets stretched out far below. 

     Soaring towers and minarets, spires, domes, flags, golden arches, lagoons, dazzling by day but entrancing by night, when every tower, spike, and dome, every bit of ornamental architecture, was defined by strings of light bulbs, and the whole storybook Baghdad became something even more idyllic, festive, magical.


     Day or night, the streets of Delhi featured gilded chariots, prancing horses, soldiers, dancing girls, and elephants you could ride upon, while an airship crammed with passengers left earth, plunged into darkness, survived thunder and pounding rain, traversed a calm night of stars, and in the pink light of dawn approached the moon’s surface, a breathtaking experience seasoned curiously by singing moon men holding green cheese.

     There were parading camels, a Venice-like city with gondoliers, an Eskimo village, elephants shooting the chute, acrobats, trained bears, a cakewalking pony, and a mountain torrent you could zoom through to splash in a glacier lake.  You could, on one occasion, watch an elephant being electrocuted, and if that bothered you, and you sat on a chair that tilted over and dumped you on the ground, for consolation you could go to a delicatessen and devour a sausage, or pork chops, or liver pudding, or sweet potatoes, or deviled crabs, or plum pudding, or any number of other offerings, all of them made entirely of candy.   

     Such was Luna Park, one of the three great amusement parks at Coney Island in the early years of the twentieth century: 722 acres of splendors, surprises, and horrors that cost its inspired creator, showman Frederic W. Thompson, a million dollars, but whose wonders were available to the public at ten cents a head.  Yes, the buildings were all of plaster, and the structure engulfed in flames survived to burn again and again: fakery, but fakery raised to the point of sublimity.  Luna Park was a gigantic stage set such as had never been seen before, flamboyant, dynamic, and extravagant, a dream world with laughs and surprises, and at times a nightmare world as well.  Above all, it couldn’t be drab or dull, since the multitudes Thompson hoped to entertain had enough drabness and dullness in their everyday lives.  They came to Coney Island to escape.  “What is presented to them,” he insisted, “must have life, action, motion, sensation, surprise, shock, swiftness or else comedy.”  In Luna Park he gave them all that, and more.  It was bizarre, it was crazy, it was fun.

Sand, surf, and Sodom

     Luna Park flourished in the heyday of Coney Island, but Coney Island already had a  long history as a place of entertainment.  But first: why “Coney” and why “Island”?  As for “Coney,” there are several explanations offered, the most commonly accepted one being that rabbits, or conies, once inhabited the area.  (Konijn = “rabbit” in Dutch.)  And Coney Island is not a true island but an “almost island,” or peninsula, 5 miles long and ¾ of a mile in width, separated from Brooklyn at its western end by Coney Island Creek.  There was once talk of extending the creek eastward to Sheepshead Bay and turning it into a navigable canal, which would have made Coney a true island, but this never happened and part of the creek was filled in; but the name “Coney Island” has stuck.

Seen from the air, Coney does seem almost an island.

     For years Coney Island was a barren stretch of windswept sand far removed from the settled part of Brooklyn, but its all-day exposure to the sun destined it for something better.  That something began in 1829, with the construction of the first road accessing it and the appearance of the first beach hotel, the Coney Island House, which soon became a renowned summer vacation hotel.  People liked being near the open ocean and its breezes in at least the milder part of the year, and soon began dipping their well-clothed limbs in the chilly water and feeling the force of the waves, the tickly froth of the surf.  A strange new sport, sun and surf bathing, was coming into being, a sport that involved a modest display of flesh and therefore constituted, for Victorians, was a rather daring adventure. 

     By the 1860s hotels, bathhouses, and beer halls were springing up, and a steamboat began making regular trips from Manhattan to a long pier sticking out far into the ocean.  But Coney now offered more than sun and surf, as pavilions sprang up housing games, carousels, gypsy fortunetellers, vaudeville, and melodrama.  Not that gentility universally prevailed, since Coney, being outside the jurisdiction of the Manhattan and Brooklyn authorities, also drew prostitutes, pickpockets, and gamblers, not so many of them as to spoil the place as a fashionable middle-class resort, but just enough to give it a tangy edge and let moralists denounce it as Sodom by the Sea. 

The birth of an atrocity

     How appropriate it was, in my opinion, that Sodom should produce a contribution to American life – popular, inescapable, and horrible – that is predicted to last as long as the Republic itself.  In 1867 (though some say later) a young German immigrant named Charles Feltman, who made a living selling pies to Coney visitors, stuck a Vienna sausage into a kaiser roll, tasted it, added mustard, tasted it again, and so created a new food that he christened a “red hot.”  It caught on at once, garnered attention and jealousy as well, and when a newspaper article suggested that it might involve dog meat, the new food became known as the “hot dog.” 


     In a previous post I have recorded my antipathy, my utter loathing, for this ludicrously phallic concoction, a loathing that dates from an occasion at college when, in the school lunch line, I was given a wienie still encased in its wrapping, on which were printed its ingredients: meat scraps that no red-blooded American would knowingly ingest, but that are sneaked into this most pernicious and popular of foods.  I would like to record that Feltman died of an overdose of wienies (an imagined forerunner of today’s annual wienie-eating contest at Nathan’s), but alas, he became rich overnight, founded a lavish hotel that was fabulously successful, its restaurant the biggest and best on Coney Island.  Diners dined in beautiful gardens to soft music, but the hot dog was nowhere to be seen, for Feltman, having come to his senses, realized the impropriety of serving so lowly a food in the most elegant hotel on the Island.  The hot dog was relegated to the stands oppressively present all over Coney, though it would later achieve fame as the featured attraction of Nathan’s Famous at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues, an eatery still flourishing today.

     Insanity can be contagious.  My partner Bob’s Haitian home-care aide assures me that hot dogs are known and devoured in Haiti.  And Bob’s Norwegian doctor has told of eating them in the beautifully landscaped Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen, and has described a popular Norse variation: a hot dog with shrimp salad added, wrapped in a potato pancake.  Even in France, that bastion of culinary elegance, I recall seeing signs CHIENS CHAUDS.  And the foul things must exist in China as well, since I have seen a photo of them there.  Maybe they have yet to penetrate the unexplored wilds of New Guinea, but it’s only a matter of time.

Steeplechase and Dreamland

     A new era for Coney began in the 1890s, when the entrepreneur George C. Tilyou, a Coney native who had already installed an immensely successful Ferris wheel, decided that, if he built an amusement park and enclosed it so as to keep out undesirables, he could attract a free-spending middle-class clientele.  The result, in 1897, was Steeplechase Park, the first of the three great Coney amusement parks, featuring a simulated horse race where people mounted horses one or two at a time (giving couples a chance for a good long hug) and raced off on an undulating curved metal track.

File:Steeplechase ride LC-USZ62-78291.jpg
The Steeplechase Ride.

File:Steeplechase jack 1905.jpg     But Steeplechase offered much more than that, since Tilyou knew that change and variety were required, to keep the crowds coming season after season.  And he knew that they wanted more than just to gaze at marvels and catastrophes; they wanted interaction, they wanted to be jostled and tossed and whirled and tumbled, as long as no one got hurt and it was all in fun.  Presiding over the park was the Steeplechase Man, whose hideous grinning face greeted visitors high over the entrance for decades, and grinned at them from tickets for the rides inside, foretokening the giddy fun to be had.  And inside were Venetian canals, an elephant ride, a Human Roulette Wheel that flung riders out to its periphery, a Pavilion of Fun with indoor rides that jarred and tumbled participants, a swimming pool, a sunken garden, a merry-go-round, and countless other devices producing thrills, chills, and spills.  When the park burned down in 1907, Tilyou promptly rebuilt it and promised more and better features and delivered them; his park would go on for years.

     Luna Park opened in 1903, and Dreamland just one year later.  Dreamland, launched not by showmen but a consortium of politicians investing in real estate, was a lavish imitation of Luna, which it tried to outdo in every way.  Its buildings were pure white, with massive arches and columns, and its dominating Beacon Tower soared 375 feet into the sky, its light at night visible for miles out at sea.  There were lion and leopard tamers, a huge ballroom on a pier, and a Midget City with a population of three hundred and its own midget fire department.  Visitors could tour a Pennsylvania coal mine, ride a scenic railroad through the mountains of Switzerland, and take a simulated airplane ride over the Atlantic and a submarine ride under it.  Or witness the Fall of Pompeii where, as Vesuvius erupted in colored fire, toga-clad inhabitants ran about in panic, and a whole city disappeared in torrents of blazing magnesium powder.  It was all spectacular and yet, lacking a showman’s expert touch, never quite matched the spark and spice of Luna.  But the spectacle to top all spectacles came very early on the morning of May 27, 1911, when some hot tar caught fire, the flames spread, the great tower toppled, and most of Dreamland became a nighttime conflagration that left only smoking ruins by morning.  Some animals died screaming in their cages; one lion escaped into the street and had to be shot.  Already in financial difficulties, Dreamland was never rebuilt; its site is now occupied by the New York Aquarium.

File:Dreamland tower 1907.jpg
The Dreamland tower and lagoon.

     What inspired the creators of these three stellar amusement parks, and what were those parks really about?  The forerunners were many: Barnum and the traveling circus; Edison’s illumination of Manhattan, showing what marvels electricity could create; splashy Broadway musicals whose backstage machinery could produce spectacular effects; and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, with its dazzling blend of grandiose buildings, canals, and lagoons, plus a separate amusement area.  People wanted to be dazzled, surprised, shocked, and jostled, and would pay to experience it.  They didn’t want lectures and uplift; they wanted amazement and fun.  And at Coney they got it.

     Perhaps the abiding spirit of Coney, both the parks and the other entertainments and the beach, is best expressed by a photo showing a quintet of grinning girls in bathing costumes, raising their skirts to show their well-clad derrières.  Respectable young ladies, one suspects, who out at Coney, far removed from the constraints of family, school, job, and church, could for a moment be deliciously, collectively naughty.  If Victorian propriety was showing cracks in the city, out at Coney it was fast disintegrating.  Coney was lots of things, among them delicious and collective naughtiness.  And who, by the way, was the photographer?  A boyfriend?  A stranger?  Who?  If we knew, it would tell us just that much more about Coney. 

The later Coney

     In 1920 the subway reached Coney Island, so that vast numbers of city residents could taste its marvels for only a fare of a nickel.  The whole atmosphere of Coney changed, as the era of huge amusement parks gave way to sideshows with screaming barkers, hot dog stands, blaring music, noisy shooting galleries, roaring roller coasters, and a sun-drenched beach jammed with people.  There was still life aplenty, but it was more raucous, more garish, and maybe just a bit sleazy.  Frederic Thompson, the creator of Luna Park, lapsed into alcoholism and debt, declared bankruptcy, left his park to the management of others, and died in 1919.  Luna survived, but without inspired leadership it lost its innovative character and saw its revenues steadily decline.  George Tilyou died in 1914, but his family continued to manage Steeplechase, which by the 1920s was losing out to radio and movies, those new entertainers of millions, in a world where Victorian morality had crumbled, so that Coney seemed less special, less naughty, less unique.  People came in ever greater numbers, but the experience wasn’t quite the same.  When Luna, with declining revenues, succumbed to fire in 1946 and became a parking lot, of the trio of great amusement parks only Steeplechase remained.

     It was to Steeplechase Park that my partner Bob came for the first time one afternoon in 1951, at the impressionable age of fourteen.  Having long heard of Coney Island, he came from Jersey City with his friend Henry and was immediately struck by the many concessions all jammed together, the looming, screeching roller coasters, the Parachute Jump, the freak shows with barkers, the famous boardwalk, and the crowded beach.  Entering Steeplechase Park, he and Henry mounted one of the iron horses of the Steeplechase Ride and embarked on the raucous race.  Then, to leave the ride, you had to exit across a stage where women’s skirts were suddenly blown up by blasts of air, and midgets with electric rods poked you and gave you a mild shock, while an audience roared with laughter.  Having been buzzed by the midgets, Bob and Henry then joined the audience and laughed as others crossing the stage suffered the same fate.  After that they sampled the Whirlpool, other rides, and a Spook Tunnel, and Bob knew that he would be back, and back many times, in winter as well as in summer, so as to undertake the more challenging charms of the Wonder Wheel, the roller coasters, and the Parachute Jump.  Coming from Jersey City, where he perceived a sameness in everyone and a lack of imagination, he discovered two things above all in Coney Island: freedom and imagination.  Which is exactly what the genteel crowds flocking to Luna and the other parks had discovered in the distant era of Coney’s heyday.

     After that, in the 1950s Bob went to Coney Island many times, with Henry or other friends or alone.  He always began his visit by eating a half dozen clams at Nathan’s, plus a hot dog and beer.  Then he was off to his favorite amusements: first seat in the Cyclone roller coaster, costing only a quarter; the Steeplechase Ride and other rides; the Wonder Wheel; walking the boardwalk from one end to the other as he and Henry talked; walking to the end of the pier for a view of the crowded beach; and the freak shows, where the barkers’ ballyhoo delighted him, and the freaks, though mostly fake, helped him appreciate people who are different.  But he did the Parachute Jump only once, for this enthusiastic roller coaster fan found the Jump frightening.  With a roller coaster, after all, there was solid track beneath you; with the Parachute Jump, only a flimsy seat and a chasm of empty space.

     Bob also went in winter, starting as always with clams at Nathan’s, which was open all year.  And what did he find?  The rides all covered up, the boardwalk devoid of crowds, the beach almost empty so he could walk on it, and, hovering all around him, the ghosts of the summer people.  Coney then seemed wild and desolate, truly an island apart, and he loved it.  And always, vast and moody, there was the gray Atlantic.

 Coney today

    The amusement zone of the Coney Island of today, much shrunken, has survived many assaults.  In the 1940s the heavy hand of master builder Robert Moses (see post #78) demolished many structures to make room for the Aquarium, an ice skating rink, and public housing.  Steeplechase Park finally closed in 1964, and the property was sold to developer Fred Trump, the father of Donald Trump, who, convinced that the amusement area would now die a natural death, fought in court for years to get it rezoned, so he could build luxury housing; he failed, and the property remained vacant.  Since then there have been other plans to revitalize Coney, with developers, residents, and the city squabbling endlessly, as the claims of recreation are pitted against those of commercial interests and public housing.  Even now the brouhaha continues, and I wouldn’t presume to predict how all these controversies will finally, if ever, end.

File:Coney Island beach July4.jpg
The beach today: July 4, 2006.
Jaime Haire

     Symbolic of Coney’s glorious past and dubious present was the Thunderbolt roller coaster, a wooden structure whose curving, mounting, plunging track loomed over Coney along 15th Street, operating from 1925 until 1982.  Having ridden it many times, Bob recalled the mild beginning, the steeper drops that followed, and the final stretch when the coaster plunged almost to the ground, like a mighty beast suddenly revealing its jaws and teeth, before delivering riders safely to the loading station.  He remembered too the coaster’s last days many years later, the horrid sounds as the trains negotiated the poorly maintained track, the peeling paint, the missing lights, the loose nuts and bolts, the seat that fell off its springs and had to be pushed back into place, the sense of impending danger, but also the feeling that an old friend was telling him it still had integrity and excitement in its aged bones.  After the coaster closed, it sat huge and silent in an abandoned lot that grew rich in sumac and weeds, a sight that Bob and I viewed many times as we walked the boardwalk from the Aquarium to Gargiulo’s, our favorite Italian restaurant. 

The abandoned Thunderbolt, 1995.

     Under the Thunderbolt was a little house that had once, long before, been a hotel.  Later the coaster’s owner had lived there with his mother, and then also with his lady friend, who stayed on for years after he died.  In the winter it was quiet, almost rural, she said, but in the summer, as the coaster roared by overhead, things occasionally broke and her pictures hung slanted.  Passers-by had no idea that anyone lived there, and that was how she wanted it. Finally, at her family’s insistence, after some forty years she moved out.

     There were those who wanted to save the Thunderbolt, but early one morning in 2000 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, without notice to anyone, sent bulldozers to demolish it, probably because it blocked the view for a baseball stadium already under construction: a decisive but probably illegal act.  But famous names die hard: in 2013 word came that a new steel roller coaster would be built on Coney Island; its name: the Thunderbolt.  And a new Luna Park opened in 2010.  Coney’s death as an amusement zone has been predicted more than once, but somehow it always manages to survive.

                                                                                              David Shankbone

     Me and roller coasters:  My partner Bob loves them, says each one has its own personality, subscribes to a magazine called RollerCoaster, has ridden many, making a trip once to Pittsburgh just to ride the famous Thunderbolt there.  And me?  No way!  As a teenager I once rode a coaster at Riverview Park in Chicago, and will never forget that first climb up, up, up, and then -- whoosh! – the hurtling plunge down, down, down, holding fast to the rail in front of me and wondering if I would survive the ride or end up mangled flesh in a jumble of wreckage.  Yes, I survived, but I had had my fill of roller coasters.  The gentle charm of the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island, yes.  The Parachute Jump, likewise.  But a roller coaster, there or anywhere, never.  Call me a spoilsport, a namby-pamby, a wimp.  I’ll gladly accept all those epithets and worse, if it frees me from any pressure to ride a roller coaster ever again.  I’d rather face a bayonet charge, hungry lions, a tsunami.  But one of those hurtling, twisting, roaring monsters full of screaming occupants, never.

     Free at last:  My inmate buddy Joe, whose story inspired post #43, Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo (still the most visited of all my posts by far), has just been released, after 20 years (minus 3 months) in prison.  He now begins another life entirely.  Over the last 13 years or so, he and I have exchanged over 500 letters, so I know a lot about him and his  story.  In time, he will tell that story, and quite a story it is.

     Coming soon:  Greenwich Village, Bohemians, Pfaff’s, Walt Whitman and how gay was he?

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, February 16, 2014

113. The Sacred in Secular New York

     This post is about the sacred in New York – a bizarre notion, given the invincibly secular nature of the city.  Maybe there is no sacred here, and yet maybe, just maybe, there is.  We’ll see.  I’ll go at it in three parts.

The Sacredness of Water

File:Vandana shiva 20070610.jpg
                                                                                       Elke Wetzig
     On the radio recently I heard an interview with Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist and author who is fighting against the privatization of water in her country.  “For us,” she said, “water is sacred.”  She also noted how Indians see the Ganges as their mother.  She then described how Coca-Cola had come to a small village in the state of Kerala in southern India and opened a bottling plant there.  This might sound like progress and was no doubt presented as such, but the plant consumed all the water in the area, forcing the women to walk miles to obtain water for their households.  Outraged by this, one of the older women organized the others and launched a campaign to get rid of the plant.  As a result of their efforts the village council refused to renew the plant’s license, causing the plant to shut down.  “What shall I tell them back in Delhi?” Vandana Shiva asked the leader of the struggle, Delhi being the capital, where the government was making deals with foreign companies like Coca-Cola.  The leader replied, “Tell them they drink the blood of my people.”

File:Holy Bathe in Ganges - Chhath Puja Ceremony - Ramkrishnapur Ghat - Howrah 2013-11-09 4101.JPG
Bathing in the Ganges.
Biswarup Ganguly

File:Coca Cola building.jpg
A formidable foe, bigger than life.
Paul Arrington
     This interview and all that Vandana Shiva said impressed me greatly, above all her emphasis on the sacredness of water.  Primal peoples and traditional societies all over the globe believe in this, just as they see the earth as their mother, but we in the developed societies, being obsessed with science, find this notion strange.  Water is certainly necessary, precious, essential, but … sacred?  No, to our ears that sounds strange.  Yet it inspired the village women to take on the mighty Coca-Cola Company and, against all odds, defeat it.  To view water as sacred may be a tough sell in a city like New York, the victim recently of two powerful hurricanes whose flooding caused vast damage, but the water we’re talking about is of course fresh water, not salt.  And I do think that we should give this idea consideration: the sacredness of water.  In some strange way it reaches to my depths, it resonates.

     As I have often said before, New York City came into existence because of water, salt and fresh, and could not exist without it.  Its large harbor, and its location at the mouth of a navigable river, the Hudson, stretching deep into the interior of the continent, predestined it to flourish as a trading post and port, then as a  metropolis, then a money center, and then a cultural center, too.  Where there is commerce, money will accumulate, and where there is money, culture and the arts will follow.  But it all began with water, and the city’s fate will always be linked to water.

File:Pete Seeger 2011.jpg
Pete Seeger in 2011.
Jim, the Photographer
     But will that water be clean?  We don’t think of water as sacred.  We have thought of it in the past as something to be used, to be exploited, and the result has been pollution.  Finally, after the pollution reached alarming levels, we began to be aware of the problem.  The late Pete Seeger was a pioneer in the fight against pollution in the Hudson.  Though he was born and died in the city, he lived most of his life in Beacon, a river town about midway between New York and Albany.  In the 1940s he acquired land there and built a one-room log cabin on a hillside overlooking the Hudson, hewing the wood and laying the stone foundation himself, and later adding a bedroom for his wife.  In time he became aware of the river’s pollution, which was so bad that wooden boats from the Caribbean would sail up the river, so its poisons would kill the worms and other parasites that were boring into their hulls.  Loving the river, Seeger launched a campaign to clean it up.

File:Sloop Clearwater3 - Photo by Anthony Pepitone.jpg
The Clearwater sailing on the Hudson.


     In the late 1960s Seeger raised money to build the 106-foot river sloop Clearwater, modeled on the Hudson River sloops of yore; its name proclaimed his goal: to clean up the Hudson’s dirty water.  To get the sloop built, he and his allies had to go all the way to Friendship, Maine, to find a shipyard capable of the task.  Launched in 1969, the sloop has plied the  Hudson ever since, educating people about the river’s pollution and the dangers it imposes.  Seeger even sailed the Clearwater down to Washington to serenade members of Congress and, in so doing, educate them as well.  As a result of his and others’ efforts, Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972.

File:General Electric logo.svg
Another formidable foe.
     To pass a law is one thing; to enforce it is another.  There was still plenty of pollution in the Hudson, so the Clearwater sailed up and down the river, stopping at river towns along the way to tell schoolchildren and adults about pollution, and posting the names  of the greatest polluters, with General Electric’s at the top of the list.  For years GE’s facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, about 50 miles north of Albany, had been dumping tons of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the river, contaminating the entire river and its fish, as well as humans who drank that water or ate the fish.  In the course of my hiking in the Hudson Valley, I encountered the sloop more than once, and on one occasion enjoyed a short sail on it and talked with the crew.  I even volunteered to do a stint on it, but cancer reared its ugly head and I had to give that up and have surgery (successful) instead. 

     In 1977, thanks to the Clearwater’s efforts and others, PCBs were banned in the United States.  But what about the PCBs  already in the river?  In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared a 200-mile stretch of the river, from Hudson Falls to New York City, to be a Superfund site requiring cleanup, but GE started the necessary dredging only in 2009.  What was happening in the meantime?  Faced with dredging costs of an estimated $460 million, GE, like any U.S. corporation worthy of its name, fought the cleanup tooth and nail.  It lobbied Congress, attacked the Superfund law in court, and funded a media campaign to spread disinformation about the usefulness of the cleanup, alleging that dredging the river would in fact stir up PCBs.  Finally, in 2002, a landmark decision by the EPA ordered GE to create a plan to remove the PCBs from the river.  After further delaying tactics, GE finally began dredging, a process that is still under way.  Given its past maneuverings, GE requires close supervision throughout.  As the kids said in the 1960s, “Corporations have no souls.”

File:Hudson river from bear mountain bridge.jpg
The Hudson, looking north from Bear Mountain Bridge.
Can we fish in it?  Can we swim in it?

Rolf Müller

     So even if we today don’t think of water as sacred, we at least appreciate its importance and campaign long and hard – inspired by the likes of Pete Seeger – to keep it pure and clean.  His motto: “Think globally, act locally.”  And that is what he did.

The Idea of the Holy

     Pete Seeger’s songs were often pacifist and contemplative in nature, even spiritual.  Was he religious?  In the conventional sense, perhaps not.  But one can be spiritual without being overtly religious.  “I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods,” he told an interviewer.  “I feel a part of nature….   I used to say I was an atheist.  Now, I say, it’s all according to your definition of God.  According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist.  Because I think God is everything.  Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God.  Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”  Saying this, he speaks for many Americans today.

     Personally I think that anyone who sees a night sky filled with stars, or a sunrise or sunset, will experience some hint of the spiritual, even of the sacred or holy.  But in the city one rarely has the full experience of these things.  Can a city resident experience the sacred or holy anyway?

     In his book The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige, 1917), the German author Rudolf Otto examined the nature of the holy.  He saw the experience of the holy as involving three things: a feeling of awe, of something weird or uncanny, yet fascinating; a feeling of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming might; and an awareness of tremendous energy.  Deep in all of us, Otto insists, is an irrational yearning, a need of the overabounding and unutterable. 

     Let’s face it, to experience such feelings in a noisy, congested city ain’t easy.  The Hebrew prophets forsook the settled areas of Palestine and went out into the wilderness to get clean with God and hear his commands, then returned to civilization to preach and proclaim and inveigh.  To experience the holy requires silence, and in the city there isn’t much of it.  Yes, a believer can take refuge in a church or temple or synagogue, but how many of us today are true believers?  We need silence, for in silence the spirit speaks.  But where can we find that silence?  Pete Seeger points the way, for even in the city or near it, we can find places of sanctuary and silence, places where we can be alone and experience something at least a little bit akin to the holy.  In my experience I can name five.  They won’t work for everyone, but they have worked – modestly – for me.

My Five Secret Spots

     Of course they aren’t really secret; they are there for all to see, but most people ignore them or pass them quickly by.  I have mentioned some of them before in different contexts.  Here they are.

Tanner’s Spring

     Well known to bird watchers and photographers, but to almost no one else, Tanner’s Spring is a small pool of water in a wooded area on the west side of Central Park near the park’s 81st Street entrance, accessed by either of two short paths of wood chips.  One of two natural springs in the park, it is named for Dr. Henry S. Tanner, an advocate of therapeutic fasting, who in the summer of 1880 fasted for forty days and nights, drinking only water from this spring.  Since he survived, it was thought that the spring must have magically concentrated nutrients, but this seems doubtful; it is simply a spot where migrating birds often gather to drink and bathe.  I have seen warblers and tanagers and sparrows there, but even when it is barren of birds, it is a quiet spot where you can sit quietly on a stone bench, relax, reflect, and feel a bit of what Pete Seeger felt in the woods: something spiritual, maybe even, in the woods all around you, God.  In silence the spirit speaks.  And a spring gives forth water, which means it gives forth life.  Again, the sacredness of water.

The Wildflower Meadow

File:Rudbeckia laciniata10.jpg
Green-headed coneflower, eating up the sun.
     Another special spot for me is the Wildflower Meadow at the North End of Central Park, especially in late August, when many of the flowers achieve full growth.  We think of wildflowers as dainty little earth-hugging plants flaunting charming bits of color, but here, towering above us, are tall coreopsis and cup plant and green-headed coneflower, hardy composites rising to nine or ten or twelve or rarely even fifteen feet above the ground, thrusting their greedy yellow light-gobbling flowers at the sun.  They are dazzling, and for us lowly earth-bound mortals, humbling. 

     Here I always get a hint of what visitors feel upon viewing the giant sequoias of California: awe at the mightiness of nature, its ability to humble us, to put us in our place.  In other words, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming might, one of the feelings that Rudolph Otto associates with the experience of the holy.  But only a hint.  To my knowledge, no one was ever won over to God or the gods by looking at a wildflower, not even one that towers far above us. 

The Meadow at Pelham Bay Park

     Here is another meadow, quite open to the public and quite ignored by them, which makes it just that much more interesting for me.  It is accessed from the picnic area at Orchard Beach, but only if you know which path to take, since there are several false starts leading nowhere.  After failing to find the right path and giving up on the Meadow many times, I finally learned to watch for a threesome of trees, two of them sycamores, and to get my bearings from the location of several distant buildings.  Doing this, I then found the one right path and followed it into some underbrush, zigging and zagging a bit over dry ground, and emerged in an open weedy area where the noise of picnickers and the more distant bathers faded, and I had the whole place to myself, with the occasional exception of a nude male sunbather, another initiate whom I could easily avoid. 

File:Staghorn Sumac fruit.jpg
Fruit of the staghorn sumac.

     What I found in the Meadow were the hairy bright red fruit of the staghorn sumac, and  early goldenrod and mountain mint and other wildflowers, and silence.  Above all, silence.  Sitting on a smooth outcropping of rock, watching puffy white clouds drift across a clean blue sky, I was immersed in silence, in the gentle fullness of summer, and maybe, just maybe, in God. 

File:Fluffy white cloud on deep blue sky.jpg
Silence, for sure.  Something more?  It depends on the observer.

     There’s lots to ponder here.  A public space, found only by the knowing few.  False starts, and then a secret path: seek, and ye shall find.  Silence, calm, peace.  

The Groin of Summer

     I have described this spot before, a low, wet area on Staten Island’s Red Trail that I have often visited on a hot, muggy day in August, and that I have never had to share, even briefly, with another passing hiker.  There, thriving in the rich, moist soil, are a bunch of thirsty wildflowers: boneset, its hairy stem with paired veiny leaves thrusting clusters of white flowers; Pennsylvania smartweed, with tight spikes of tiny pink flowers; and above all, rising to seven feet, a thick growth of  New York ironweed luring bumblebees and cabbage butterflies and swallowtails to its flat-topped clusters of flowers of a bold purple hue.  I have christened this spot the Groin of Summer because it seems the very essence of the season, secret, fertile, moist, hot, and sensual.  Before hiking on to higher, drier ground with different flowers, I have always lingered there, reluctant to leave a very special spot that I won’t see for another year.

File:Vernonia noveboracensis 2.JPG
New York ironweed.  One of the boldest purples I have found in nature.

File:Umapati (Shiva, the Primeval Father God, and Uma, the Great Mother Goddess) LACMA M.72.53.2 (8 of 16).jpg
Uma, the Mother Goddess, consort of Shiva.
She comes in many forms.
     Yes, the Groin is profoundly sensual.  Far from hinting of the spiritual and sacred, it seems to suggest the very opposite: the Slut of Sluts, Eve, Big Mama, the vegetation goddess whom so many pagan religions and primal societies the world over have worshipped under many names, and who has haunted my psyche, emerging in poetry and even a previous post (#59) of this blog.  

As Eve the Temptress she was shunned and abhorred by the male-dominated early Christian Church, until pressure from below – from the people – forced the male hierarchy to acknowledge her, to accept and embrace her as the pure and compassionate Virgin, the spiritual face and persona of the many-faced, inevitable, and inescapable Great Mother.  So the Temptress became the Pure One, Madonna, the Goddess who pleads for us all on the Day of Judgment.  And boy, let’s hope she’ll do a good job of it because, if you go that route, most of us are going to need some help.

File:Raffael 052.jpg
Eve tempting Adam.  Here, the serpent too is female: a double threat.
A Raffael mural at the Vatican.

The Virgin Mary, by Nikolaos Doxaras, ca.1700.
Eve redeemed; nothing sensual here.

 The Giant Stairs

     The last of my special spots is the Giant Stairs, a huge jumble of rocks and boulders that over the years, even centuries, have fallen down from the Palisades, that towering wall of dark gray rock stretching for miles along the Jersey side of the Hudson River.  The Shore Path of the Palisades brings you to this stretch, which I have clambered over several times, rarely meeting another hiker along the way.  To hike this quarter-mile stretch always took me forty-five minutes, since you hike up, down, and around the fallen boulders, some of which teeter under your feet.  Lizards, small mammals, venomous copperheads, and other creatures lurk in the dark tunnels and caves and crevices beneath the boulders, but you never encounter them, since your noisy clambering gives them plenty of warning to get out of the way.  The hiker treks the sun-drenched face of the boulders; the creatures keep to the depths. 

     So what is there of the spiritual or sacred here?  A reminder of the power – seemingly capricious and unpredictable – of Nature, or whatever force underlies or inspires Nature’s doings.  I have told elsewhere (post #104) how, on May 12, 2012, a huge face of rock came crashing down from the cliffs, dumping a fresh layer of boulders onto the Stairs and sweeping a whole growth of trees into the river.  Because the slide occurred in the evening, the Stairs were clear of hikers and no one was injured.  But like any sudden and unexpected manifestation of Nature’s power, it was alarming and humbling, worthy of the savage God, jealous and unpitying, of the Old Testament.  Skeptics will scoff at the suggestion of a divine intervention, but deep down in most of us lurks the fear, irrational and unavowed, of just such a God-wrought calamity.  Reason has its limits; even the most secular aren’t always sober and sane.

     My five spots are all gateways to silence, portals of dream.  They invite quiet and reflection, provoke fantasies of Big Mama or Yahweh, some awe-inspiring Other that we aspire to or might want to avoid.  My fantasies, of course, no one else’s.  Another hiker might get no hint of the sensual Eve in the Groin, no thought of a punishing God while scrambling over the Giant Stairs.  Maybe we find what we already know and contain within us; maybe we seek because we have found.

     The silence of my special spots points me back to another German scholar, Max Picard, and his work The World of Silence (Die Welt des Schweigen, 1948).  Picard’s silence, which is mine as well (see post #55), is all around us, embracing our little universe of noise.  We come from it, we in the end go back to it.  It is a complete world in itself, uncreated and everlasting, distant, yet close.  When we talk to one another, it is always there, listening.  It reveals itself in the dawn, in the aspiration of trees toward the sky, in the descent of night, in the change of seasons, but above all in the silence of our inner selves.  Art can convey it.  Cathedrals were built around silence, are reservoirs of it.  Today the marble statues of Greek gods lie embedded like white islands of silence amid the noise of our world.  The cities of that world are reservoirs of noise.  As for the radio (Picard was writing before the advent of television), one can imagine what he thinks of its incessant babble.  But in sleep, if it is deep and soothing, we can return to the great silence of the universe.  And beyond that silence is Being, the Creator. 

File:Babisnauer pappel morgen.JPG
                                                                                                                                                                                Henry Mühlpfordt

     Even in the babble and bustle of New York, then, one can experience a silence that leads us back to the spiritual, the Other, the Creator.  Maybe most of us will settle for that silence, or a slice of it, and proceed no further, so as not to discombobulate our snug and comfy secular self.  But if we look quietly at some bit of nature like my special spots, we will find that silence.  Or in a museum.  In the South Asian galleries of the Met, I never fail to marvel at the sinuous, twisting body of a bejeweled, limbless, full-breasted dancer who seems the very embodiment of the sensual, and am awed by Shiva, delicately poised on one foot in his cosmic dance, and by the sublime calm of a nearby Jain seated in meditation.  

File:India semi-devine attendant Dancing Celestial.jpg

These images too convey silence, rich, meaningful, profound.  How can that silence, even when tinged with eroticism, not be spiritual as well?  And in Shiva and the Jain, as in Buddhas anywhere, the sacred shines forth; how can we not acknowledge it, revere it?  Without some form of the sacred, our lives would be incomplete.

File:Jain Svetambara Tirthankara in Meditation Seated on a Throne Cushion, Solanki period, Metropolitan Museum of Art.jpg

       Two strikes on WBAI:  Tired as I am of station WBAI's endless appeals for donations, one fund drive coming hot on the heels of another, I did decide a week ago to make another modest contribution.  Since the opera program early Sunday morning probably has only a small audience, I like to contribute as one of their supporters.  But when I tried a week ago, the volunteer answering the phone didn't know the program and advised me to phone back when I knew its name.  Alas, the program's host never mentioned the name.  Strike one.  Today I tried again, knowing the name -- Through the Opera Glass -- and got a recorded message: "The extension you dialed is not available at this time."  This, in the midst of a fund drive with desperate appeals for money.  Strike two.

      Two phoenixes come to New York:  Two phoenixes, one male and one female,  made of shovels, hard hats, pliers, saws, screwdrivers, plastic tubing, drills, and other salvaged construction debris from China -- the creations of Chinese artist Xu Bing -- now hover overhead in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights.  No, I haven't seen them, only photos of them in the New York Times, but they look epic in proportions, monumental.  Weighing over 12 tons together, the huge birds required over 30 hoists and 140 feet of trussing to lift them into place, one in front of the other, so they seem to soar.  A curious addition (for about a year) in a magnificent Gothic-style church, bearing an implied message about modern industry and labor, though in their present setting the artist sees them as having a sacred quality.  And so, once again, the sacred in New York.

      Coming soon:  Freedom, Fakery, and Freaks: Coney Island.  After that, who knows?

      ©  2014  Clifford Browder