Wednesday, May 28, 2014

128b. More Eccentrics.

     One of the followers of this blog sent this comment, after viewing post #128 on Village Eccentrics.  It is too charming not to be included in a post, albeit a short one, a sort of postscript to #128.

In the mid-Sixties, I experienced an interesting period at WBAI that began when my secretary handed me an old-fashioned calling card introducing an imposing, smartly dressed septuagenarian who called himself Lord Rosti, and claimed to be the Grand Maître de la Cour for his Serene Highness, Prince Robert de Rohan Courtenay, Grand Duke Sebassto of the Byzantines. WBAI attracted many memorable people in those early years, but these two gentlemen—who played their roles to the fullest and had apparently been doing so since the 1920s—were the most interesting of the self-generated variety.

They came to me in 1966 for help in meeting certain requirements for a seriously overdue coronation. These included fifty Vestal Virgins and a rather large number of rare flamingoes from Japan's Imperial Gardens. We were unable to help meet those specific needs, but we did the next best thing by staging a coronation at Cheetah, New York's first discotheque. The year was 1966 and the actual crowning was performed by Andy Warhol, with incidental music by an obscure Tiny Tim, writhing by a barely clad lady and her boa constrictor, and the title ape from "Gorilla Queen: swinging from the rafters. I wish we had thought of taking photos, but we were a radio station and we didn't even broadcast it.

     This brings to mind another eccentric whom I almost met back in the 1970s.  His name was, I believe, Maurice, and he professed to be the founder and chief celebrant of the Old Catholic Church of Brooklyn.  I never met him, but heard of him through friends, and once visited his apartment with mutual friends in his absence.  My partner Bob recalls a grandiose painting of him in full ecclesiastical garb, a long robe that reached to the floor.  What I myself distinctly recall is a framed letter on official Vatican stationery acknowledging with gratitude the receipt of a letter of consolation from the Old Catholic Church of Brooklyn following the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963.  Was this concoction a joke, a sort of hobby, or a deep plunge into the misty realms of fantasy?  I have no idea.  I never met him, but Bob did, and he assures me that he was no nut, but a very sophisticated person.  The Internet informs me that there is indeed an Old Catholic Church that has split off from Roman Catholicism, but I suspect that the Old Catholic Church of Brooklyn had nothing to do with it, being the private fantasy of its founder. 

     Coming soon:  As announced, more ethnic groups, with prayer flags, burqas or the lack of them, and workers walking narrow girders at perilous heights.  In the offing: The Gentle Art of Pickpocketing: An Old New York Tradition.  And another remarkable woman: Ayn Rand.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, May 25, 2014

128. Village Eccentrics: Joe Gould and the Baroness

       New York has always been a mecca for hustlers, and Greenwich Village, in its bohemian glory days before gentrification, was certainly a magnet for eccentrics.  This post is about two Village eccentrics of yore.  The high-rent West Village of today has an eccentric or two, but they pale in comparison with those of the early twentieth century, when the Village was still a low-rent district that attracted wannabe artists and writers and agitators, usually penniless, and the tourists who flocked there to live just a little bit dangerously by observing the scruffy inhabitants in their bars and cafés and getting just a little bit – or maybe more than a little bit – drunk.  So here are two inhabitants who would not have disappointed the visitors.

Joe Gould

    He called himself Professor Sea Gull and Hot Shot Poet from Poetville, and the Village bartenders who served him, when he could cough up the price of a drink or, more likely, get someone else to pay for it, called him the Mongoose and other things as well.  Only 5 foot 4 in height and weighing less than a hundred pounds, he knocked around the Village for decades with a wild, bushy beard and rumpled clothing, his balding pate topped by a beret or a yachting cap, his mouth graced with an ivory cigarette holder.  Born to an old Boston family in 1889, he was a Harvard graduate who had come to New York in 1917 to work as a journalist, but soon learned that he could not or would not hold a steady job and succumbed to the charms of bohemia.  Long before the Beatniks made dropping out fashionable, he professed to despise the automobile, the radio, zippers, money, and writers and reviewers, and dismissed skyscrapers and steamships as “needless bric-a-brac.” 

     Perennially penniless and sometimes homeless, Gould slept in flophouses or on benches in parks, and in diners wolfed down free ketchup by the spoonful.  Turning up at Village parties to gobble snacks and gulp down cocktails, he would jump up on tables to give lectures with impossibly long titles, or deliver his poem “The Sea Gull” by leaping about, flapping his arms, and screaming, “Scree-eek!  Scree-eek!”  Or he recited his two-line “religious” poem: “In the winter I’m a Buddhist, / In the summer I’m a nudist.”  He was charming, he was silly, he was close-lipped with the aura of a brooding genius, and he was always – or was always trying to be – entertaining.

     But Joe Gould was more than just a clown and an eccentric; he was, the Villagers believed, a genius in the rough, a writer.  Not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill writer – the Village was full of them – but a very special kind of writer.  Scribbling in longhand in dime-store composition books (he scorned the typewriter), he was writing a huge work-in-progress, “An Oral History of Our Time,” consisting of life histories told him by others that he had written down with the help of total recall, the chapters having titles like “The Good Men Are Dying like Flies” and “Why I Am Unable to Adjust to Civilization, Such As It Is.”  He insisted that the nine-million-word Oral History weighed more than he did, and that later generations would hail him as the most brilliant historian of the twentieth century, his writing destined to last as long as the English language.  Impressed, local poets, artists, shopkeepers, and restaurant owners gave him handouts of money or food to speed the project on its way.  Starting in 1944 he was subsidized by a patron who worked through an intermediary and insisted on remaining anonymous, thanks to whose largesse he was lodged in a clean, comfortable room in a rooming house in Chelsea.  Gould was obsessed at first with learning the identity of his benefactor, but never did.  The subsidy was terminated abruptly in 1947, without explanation, and Gould soon ended up in yet another Bowery flophouse.  The patron later turned out to be a Chicago heiress named Muriel Gardiner.  Why she suddenly cut Gould off remains a mystery.

     Not everyone, I suspect, treasured Joe Gould’s less than subtle sense of humor.  Not everyone welcomed his barging into their party to gobble viands and make like a sea gull or recite – yet again! – his two-line poem.  His repertoire was admittedly limited.  And not everyone believed in his oral history, since its nine million words were nowhere in evidence, the manuscript being allegedly stashed for safekeeping at various sites in New York and New Jersey.  Certainly he was a clown; was he a con man as well?

     No, said journalist Joseph Mitchell, who met Gould in 1942, talked with him at length, and published a profile of him, “Professor Sea Gull,” in the New Yorker.  Though he had never seen the manuscript, Mitchell believed in its existence, and his article made Gould a media event and tourist attraction.  Reporters flocked to him, strangers bought poems from him, photographers found in him a willing subject, and there was even a Joe Gould Club in postwar Manila.  Yet when Mitchell put Gould in touch with several New York publishers interested in publishing excerpts of his opus, nothing came of it.  Gradually, Mitchell came to the belief that Gould was indeed a con man, and that the manuscript was a colossal hoax. 

     Meanwhile Gould’s health was fast deteriorating.  He suffered dizzy spells, then confusion and disorientation, and collapsed on the street in 1952.  Hospitalized in the psychiatric division of Bellevue Hospital, he was transferred to Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, where he died of arteriosclerosis and senility in 1957.  He is buried in an unmarked grave in Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester.  In 1964 Mitchell published another profile in the New Yorker, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” revealing that the “Oral History” didn’t exist.

     But that’s not quite the end of the story.  In 2000 The Village Voice reported the discovery, in the archives of New York University, of eleven composition books constituting an 1100-page diary in Gould’s near-illegible scrawl, meticulously recording his daily life from 1943 to 1947, a work evidently unknown to Mitchell, who died in 1996.  Gould had given them to an artist friend who, failing to find a publisher, later sold them to an archivist who sold them in turn to NYU.  Was Gould then a literary genius after all?  Alas, the diary simply recorded baths taken (for Gould, an event), meals eaten, dollars bummed, with the focus always on himself.  His comment on V-J day and the end of the war?  “There were a few bedbugs.  So I slept poorly.  Also there was a lot of noise.”  Hardly material to enrich posterity.  Yes, Joe Gould was a con man, but at least he was an interesting one, and the money he got by it was trivial; let’s not begrudge him that.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

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In all her glory.
      She burst into Greenwich Village in 1913, Dada incarnate with a bit of Surrealism thrown in, and was soon the most gossiped about, wondered about, photographed and sketched and painted, and praised and reviled character on the scene.  Her outfits, like her art, consisted of objets trouvés (found objects) that she scavenged from trash on the city’s sidewalks.  She showed up at the office of the avant-garde Little Review, which had published some of her incoherent poetry, in a bolero jacket, kilt, spats, and dime-store bracelets (she was definitely not in the chips), with tea balls hanging from her breasts.  Her morals were as eccentric as her dress, for on that first visit the light-fingered visitor filched five dollars in stamps.  And since she needed more than found objects for her art, she shoplifted art supplies from department stores and was arrested more than once, becoming intimately acquainted with the Jefferson Courthouse jail.

     An instant legend, her startling presence became a fixture at Village romps and revels, where she appeared with teaspoons or matchboxes as earrings, a bra composed of tomato cans, a birdcage around her neck with a live canary inside, false eyelashes made of parrot feathers or porcupine quills, and hats made from peach baskets or wastepaper baskets.  She marched into a reception for the British coloratura Marguerite d’Alvarez with a peacock fan, one side of her face adorned with a canceled U.S. postage stamp, her lips painted black, her face powder yellow, with the top of a coal scuttle for a hat.  What the singer thought of this is hard to say. 

     She lived in a tenement on West 14th Street amid squalor that visitors did not find picturesque, with stray cats and dogs poking about in the clutter of scavenged objects; by all accounts the place simply stank.  On her forays from there she carried small dogs and large sculpted penises, these last a significant icon since she was aggressive in pursuit of men.  When she made a pass at Wallace Stevens, he refused to set foot below 14th Street lest he encounter her again.  And a Russian painter, when he turned on the light in his apartment one night, was startled to see her crawl out naked from under his bed.  Alarmed, he fled to a neighbor across the hall, but the intruder refused to leave the premises until the painter agreed to follow her up to her own apartment.

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William Carlos Williams, a 1921 passport photo.
     In his autobiography William Carlos Williams tells of seeing a sculpture of hers that looked like chicken guts in wax and, hearing that she loved his poetry, decided to look her up – not easy, since she was in jail for stealing an umbrella.  So he met her on her release, a fiftyish woman with a lean, masculine figure and a strong German accent, and took her to lunch.  He was attracted to her, and on a later occasion she informed him that what he needed to make him great was to contract syphilis from her and thus free his mind for serious art – a suggestion that he chose to ignore.  She pursued him for months, and when he proved to be uncooperative, hit him on the neck with all her strength.  So Williams bought a small punching bag and began practicing his jabs.  The result: when she attacked him again one evening on Park Avenue, he flattened her with a stiff punch to the mouth.  He then had her arrested, and from behind bars she promised not to bother him again.  Heartbroken by this rejection, she is said to have shaved her head and lacquered it vermilion, then stole the black crepe from the door of a house in mourning and made a dress of it.  Always an artist, always unpredictable.

     As for her poetry, it bristled with phrases like “spinsterlollypops” and “Phalluspistol.”  But what should one make of this?

                           (He is dead)
                           Ildrich mitzdonja-----astatootch
                           Ninj-----iffe kniek-----
                           Ninj-----iffe kniek!


                           HYEEEEEE PRUSH
                           HEE HEE HEEEEEEAAA

I leave it to equinophiles to decide to what extent this conveys the neighing of a horse. 

     When printed in The Little Review alongside chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses, her effusions elicited two responses: some readers hailed her as an avant-garde genius, while others begged the Review to stop printing gibberish.  The latter view has since prevailed, but feminist scholars have hailed her as a pioneering woman and neglected artist who exerted a significant influence on the Dada movement, and seen in her the first American performance artist.  In 2011 her mostly unpublished poetry was published posthumously as Body Sweats, which caused the New York Times to salute her as a “furiously witty and aggressively erotic experimental writer,” though I haven’t had the courage to look into it.

     Was she really a baroness?  By marriage, yes.  But who really was she?  Recent scholarship has given us some clues.  She was born Else Plötz in Swinemünde in Pomerania, Germany, in 1874, her father a mason who abused her in her childhood.  Escaping young in 1892, she became an actress and vaudeville performer and, sexually hungry from an early age, mingled limbs and loins with artists in Berlin, Munich, and Italy.  Tall, slender, and handsome, in 1901 she married August Endell, a renowned Berlin Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architect, but soon became involved with a friend of his, poet and translator Felix Paul Greve, thus initiated a merry ménage à trois that for a while bounced around the continent together.  She and Endell divorced in 1906.  Greve meanwhile was convicted of fraud and served a year in prison, his reputation shattered, though he used his time inside to write a roman à clef recounting Elsa’s sexual escapades.  After his release she and Greve lived in voluntary exile in Switzerland and then in France, and were married in Berlin in 1907. 

     Greve was soon in deep financial trouble again, so in 1909 with Elsa’s help he faked his own suicide and sailed for Canada, then relocated to Pittsburgh, where his wife joined him in 1910.  The couple briefly ran a farm in Kentucky, though the idea of Elsa on a farm anywhere is both ludicrous and enigmatic, but she wasn’t there for long.  Greve left her in 1911 and moved to Canada, where he remarried without bothering to divorce Elsa, and took the name Frederick Philip Grove and became a well-known Canadian novelist.  Deserted in rural Kentucky and with only a limited command of English, to support herself Elsa modeled for artists in Cincinnati and finally ended up in New York where, in 1913, though technically still married to Greve, she married the impecunious German-born Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven, thus acquiring the title of baroness.  Little is known of the Baron, but when World War I broke out in 1914, he set sail for Germany to join in the war effort, but was captured by the British en route and interned; later he committed suicide, leaving her nothing but her title. 

     To support herself in New York, the Baroness worked in a cigarette factory and posed as a model for various artists, including Man Ray.  When Dada reached these shores, she was celebrated as its epitome, as one who dressed it, loved it, lived it.  One of her more memorable “ready made” sculptures, often attributed to another artist, was a plumbing pipe she titled “God.”  She may also have helped inspire Marcel Duchamp’s controversial sculpture “Fountain,” an upturned urinal; her love for him was apparently obsessive.  She even starred in a short film by Duchamp and Man Ray entitled “The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair,” beside which Andy Warhol’s later efforts seem to verge on timidity.

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"God."  But does it really belong
in a museum?
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Duchamp's "Fontaine."  It probably
upstaged "God."

     When the war ended, many of her friends decamped for Paris, and she longed to follow them.  With help from her Dadaist acquaintances, in 1923 she went back to Berlin, hoping for better opportunities there, but instead found an economy devastated by World War I.  She remained there, impoverished and mentally unstable, immune to the decadent charm conveyed by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, reduced to selling newspapers on the street.  A letter to Djuna Barnes describes the ensemble she wore to the French consulate, hoping to get a visa that would let her go to Paris: ropes of dried figs around her neck, postage stamps as beauty spots on her emerald-painted cheeks, and topping her head a sugar-coated birthday cake with fifty flaming candles.  The consulate officials probably decided that Paris had enough nuts already and didn’t need another; she didn’t get the visa.  Meanwhile she was bombarding friends, acquaintances, and ex-lovers with letters and letter/poems pleading for money.

     In 1926 an inheritance let her at last get to Paris, where Djuna Barnes paid the rent on her apartment, and she resumed modeling and tried to market her poetry to the few exile journals publishing in English.  In 1927, at age 53, she died of asphyxiation in her apartment, when the gas was left on overnight.  Suicide or an accident?  It isn’t clear.  She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

     Artistic genius before her time, pioneer feminist, sexual adventuress, exhibitionist, obsessive narcissist, and nut – she has been called all these, and more.  Certainly, when she came to New York, she crossed the vague line separating charming eccentricity and self-expression from out-and-out weirdness, but that was just what the Dadaists wanted.  Dada raged for a few brief years in Paris and Germany, but to judge by photographs the Dadaists there dressed more or less normally and put weirdness into their art; she was unique.  And yet, in her later years at least, she seems to have been mentally unstable.  As for her death, maybe it really was suicide; being perpetually onstage and perpetually broke may have worn her out.  And if she is celebrated by feminists today, I suggest that posthumous celebration from a safe remove is quite different from dealing with such a phenomenon in the flesh.  Given her brazen advances and grotesque behavior, even in such an enlightened age as ours some people might be perversely tempted, taking inspiration from William Carlos Williams, to punch her in the mouth.

This is New York

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Schuyler Shepherd

     Coming soon:  More immigrants: yak meat and momos, and why prayer flags flutter in the breeze; getting free of the burqa in an alien land; and how a people who revere the earth came to work high in the sky.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, May 18, 2014

127. Ethnic New York: Sherpas, Basques, Gypsies, Sikhs

     Immigrants are an integral part of New York City; we couldn’t do without them.  My partner Bob’s doctor is Norwegian, his home-care aides are Haitian and Russian, his Visiting Nurse is Cambodian, and her most recent substitute was Filipino.  And on Saturdays I buy bread, scones, and apples from Tibetans in the Abingdon Square Greenmarket.

     This post is about certain groups of immigrants, often ignored by the rest of us, who live here and contribute to the city’s patchwork of diversity.  Especially, it is about the most exotic, most alien groups, their customs and beliefs so different from mainstream America’s, and about how and why these peoples came to New York.


     Sherpas in New York City?  That very special ethnic group in Nepal who guide climbers to the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, sixteen of whom perished in a killer avalanche, causing some Sherpa guides to quit for the season and many to protest the conditions of their work?  Here, so far from the Himalayas?  Yes, here, a mere handful first coming in the mid-1980s and more thereafter, so that there are now some 2,500 or more of them, mostly in the ethnically diverse Elmhurst section of Queens, the biggest Sherpa community in the country.  And they are grieving for their comrades who died on the mountain.

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A Sherpa guide.  Wouldn't you rather drive a taxi?
Pem Dorjee Sherpa

     Why are they here?  Because some of them realized the risks of their traditional profession of guiding wealthy foreigners to dangerous mountaintops, so those intrepid thrill-seekers could bask in the glory of accomplishment and see their names in newspapers, followed laconically by “and six Sherpa guides.”  Because, if they renounced that profession, they could find no other work as lucrative in Nepal.  Because a lengthy civil war in Nepal scared mountain-climbing tourists away, depriving the guides of a livelihood.  Because they want to transition to another way of life.  Because in New York they can make good money.

    “Climbing was in my blood,” says one.  But after getting married and starting a family, he stopped climbing for his own safety.  And what does he do for a living here?  What many of them do: he drives a cab.  A “good, bad, ugly job,” he calls it, working twelve-hour shifts six nights a week.  His chief complaint: people having sex in his car. 

     Are the Sherpas here, good Buddhists for the most part, adapting to life in hectic America?  Perhaps it can best be summed up by two links posted on the United Sherpa Association website: “Nepal Sherpa Guide” and “Sherpa Computer Services.”  So it goes when one comes down from the mountains and plunges into the canyons and labyrinths of New York City.


     They first came to this country lured by the gold rush in California, taking the long trip by sea around the southern tip of South America into the Pacific and up to San Francisco, where so many dreams came to dust, though not the dust of the goldfields.  But who were they, coming such a long distance from the homeland where they had lived since prehistoric times?

    The Basques are a people living in north central Spain and southwestern  France, straddling the Pyrenees.  Their origins are a mystery, since their language is unrelated to Indo-European languages and probably predates the arrival in Europe of the Indo-European peoples.  Basque tribes are mentioned by Roman writers and were probably remnants of early inhabitants of Western Europe.  In recent times the Basques have been featured in the news because of their desire for greater autonomy in Spain, with the organization ETA advocating outright independence and committing acts of terrorism, but in 2010 the group declared a permanent ceasefire that is still in effect.

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A Basque festival in Spain.
     Today, reflecting their initial influx in the mid-nineteenth century, there are large Basque communities in the Western states.  In New York City the first Basques began arriving after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  Departing from Bordeaux or Le Havre, some, having worked as dock workers, came to work in the harbor, whereas others planned to move on west by railroad, but ended up staying in New York, where they found work in the ports of New York and New Jersey.  For those from rural areas the city was overwhelming, but others were energized by it.  The first Basque community took hold at the foot of the Brooklyn bridge along Cherry and Water Streets in Manhattan.  There were Basque groceries and restaurants, Basque delivery services, and Basque wine and beer distributors, and most of the Basques attended Mass at the nearby Catholic churches, one of which even had a Basque priest.

     It was to this small but growing community that a young Basque named Valentín Aguirre came to work as a tugboat stoker in the harbor, and then on the city’s boats and ferries, before opening a Basque boardinghouse in 1917, the Casa Vizcaína on Cherry Street, that catered exclusively to Basques.  He married here, and his Basque wife helped run the boardinghouse.  When they were old enough to drive, he sent his young sons to meet incoming ships at the docks and call out, “Euskaldunak emen badira?” (“Are there any Basques here?”).  Arriving Basques would shout back in relief and joy, “Bai, bai!  Ni euskalduna naiz!”  Of course they lodged at the boardinghouse, by then renamed the Santa Lucia Hotel and located at 82 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, which functioned as a travel agency as well, getting train tickets and information about jobs for those bound for the West, and seeing them off with bundles of food for the long train trip ahead.

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A Basque magazine.

     In 1913 Valentín Aquirre and other Basques formed the Centro Vasco-Americano, originally as a mutual-aid society to help members financially if in need.  The organization continued through the years, and in 1973 it bought a building at 307 Eckford Street in Brooklyn, where, with the name in English of New York Basque Club, they are still located today, though the Basques in the city now are scattered throughout the five boroughs.  In October 2013 they celebrated their centennial with lectures, concerts, dancing and singing, plus participation in the annual Columbus Day Parade.  Among the many activities they offer are lessons in Euskara, the language of the Basques, the only one predating the Indo-Europeans that is still extant in Europe today: a reminder of the mysterious origins of this persisting people.

Romani or Gypsies

      In France they have been accused of shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, criminal acts and rioting, and prostitution, and thousands have been expelled and their illegal camps dismantled; one camp was even set on fire by a mob.  Greek and Irish authorities have suspected them of abducting children.  Italy has announced a “nomad problem” and initiated forced evictions.  A Czech town tried to build a wall between its wealthy neighborhood and their ghetto, and some  schools in Eastern Europe have posted signs “WHITES  ONLY.”  Many of these people are unemployed, most live in poverty, and the temptation to crime is admittedly strong.

     Such is the plight of the Gypsies, also called Romani or Rom or Roma, in Europe today.  Is it any wonder that they want to come over here, where the prejudice against them, however strong, is less than in the Old World where they have lived for centuries?  But just as with the Basques, one has to ask, Who are they?

     A people presumably of Indian origin who arrived in Europe at least a thousand years ago, the Romani are widely dispersed, many living in various parts of Europe and, since the nineteenth century, in the Americas, with a million now in the U.S.  The name “gypsy” derives from “Egyptian,” reflecting the common medieval belief that the Romani, with their swarthy complexion, had come from Egypt.  Their language, Romani, is Indo-European, but variations of it are so different that seven of them are considered separate languages.

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Croatian Gypsy women with their children, 1941.  Just the kind of image that reinforced
European prejudice against them.
German Federal Archives

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An old print showing Gypsies
kidnapping a child.
     Over the centuries the Romani have been persecuted in Europe as unassimilated, rootless nomads, allegedly ungodly, lazy, and given to petty theft and the kidnapping of children.  Viewed by the Nazis as an inferior race, between 500,000 and 1.5 million died in the holocaust.  Yet in literature and art they have often been romanticized as well, with supposed powers of fortunetelling, a passionate temperament, and a love of freedom.  (Think of Bizet’s Carmen.

     Romani from Serbia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia began emigrating to the U.S. in the 1880s, until the outbreak of war in 1914 and the tightening of immigration restrictions in 1917 halted this early influx.  Some were coppersmiths, others were fortunetellers.  Musicians and singers from Russia settled in New York, and in 1904 a group recently arrived from England were living in a camp of wagons with curtained windows in a meadow near Broadway and 211th Street in Manhattan, and making their living as horse traders and fortunetellers.  Other Romani from Bosnia who worked as animal trainers and showmen settled in a village of homemade shacks in the Maspeth section of Queens from about 1925 to 1939, when their shacks were razed. 

     The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 led to a renewed flow of Romani emigration to the U.S.  Here in New York City they often live in small communities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens that keep to themselves.  They are by no means homogeneous; those from Hungary may have little in common with those from Slovakia; some may be Christian and others Muslim; some speak one dialect of the Romani language, while others  speak another.  In the neighborhood north of Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, some 350 families of Macedonian Romani live in a tight-knit Muslim community content to be viewed by others as Italian or Greek.  Why did they come here?  To find work for themselves and educational opportunities for their children that they couldn’t find in Europe.

     In this country the Romani have escaped the overt persecution that still plagues them in Europe, but not the stereotypical image of them as irresponsible migrants and cunning thieves, an image reinforced by their tendency to hold themselves apart so as to avoid contamination by the larger society surrounding them.  Yet today they are in many ways assimilated into the mainstream culture, while clinging to their traditional customs.  They may speak to ghosts, but gobble hamburgers at McDonalds.  They marry their daughters off in arranged marriages in their early teens, but work as car salesmen or jazz musicians, and one is an electrician who coaches soccer for Romani boys.  But once they achieve a degree of success, to escape any chance of prejudice they often stop referring to themselves as Romani and identify themselves as Slovakian or Romanian or whatever their country of origin may be.  Many of the most recent arrivals are undocumented, have no English, and consequently have trouble finding work.  

     Often preferring to be invisible, and with many differences – cultural, linguistic, and religious – among them, Romani communities here, unlike many immigrant groups, have failed to create statewide or nationwide organizations to promote and defend their culture.  But recently this has begun to change.  In September and October 2013 the Ninth Annual New York Gypsy Festival was held in New York, with jazz, swing, folk, hip-hop, and funk concerts by performers from India, Turkey, Macedonia, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and the U.S.  Here, finally, was a bold attempt to publicize the Romani culture through music both traditional and modern, and to break down age-old prejudices and celebrate “the Gypsy spirit.”   A tenth festival is planned for 2014.

     Who has been the most famous Romani?  Would you guess Charlie Chaplin?  Chaplin always claimed to have been born in London, but had no birth certificate to confirm it.  In 2011 it was reported that a letter written to him in 1971 and only recently discovered states that he was born in a caravan in a gypsy community in the West Midlands that was ruled by a gypsy queen, the writer’s aunt.  Perhaps wanting to conceal his gypsy origins, Chaplin kept the letter locked in a writing desk in his bedroom.  The desk was inherited by his daughter Victoria, who, finding this one drawer locked, hired a locksmith to force the drawer open.  Now his family is trying to confirm the story.


Prabhjot Singh was attacked by teens
Dr. Prabhjot Singh
     On the evening of September 21, 2013, Columbia University professor Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a practicing physician, was attacked by a gang of 25 to 30 black youths near 110th Street and Lenox Avenue.  They yelled “Get him!” and “Osama!” and “Terrorist!” and grabbed his beard and punched his face repeatedly, knocking him to the ground.  Before bystanders could come to his aid, he sustained injuries to his lip and jaw that required hospitalization.  His offense: wearing a turban; he is a Sikh.  In a press conference later Dr. Singh expressed no anger or desire for revenge, but the hope that his assailants would engage and learn in some other way.  He had no intention of leaving Harlem, where he lived with his wife and infant son, and planned to return at once to treating his patients.  A gentle man, a gentle religion.

     Sikhs are believers in Sikhism, a monotheistic religion founded in the Punjab region of India in the fifteenth century.  Early in the twentieth century many Sikhs emigrated to the U.S. and found jobs on farms in California, in lumber mills in Oregon, and in railroad construction throughout the West.  Their presence reinforced the racism already prevalent in the area, which was directed especially at the Chinese, and as a result Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, which banned immigration from India and other regions, thus halting Sikh immigration for the next thirty years.  Immigration quotas were established by legislation in 1946, but it was the Immigration Act of 1965 that made a difference, giving visa preference to applicants whose skills were needed; more Sikhs entered the country, mostly highly educated professionals who gravitated toward cities like New York, and many became citizens.  Prominent Sikhs today include writers and lecturers, physicians like Dr. Prabhjot Singh, businessmen, scientists, and politicians.  New York’s largest Sikh community is in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, where a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, opened in 1972.

     Sikhs are required to wear a kirpan, or short sword, and when one of them was arrested for doing so on a New York subway in 1987, the case was dismissed when it was learned that this was a religious custom.  April of the following year saw the first Sikh Day Parade in New York, with thousands of initiated males wearing their long hair and beards unshorn, topped by the mandatory turban, and Sikh women, some of them in brightly colored saris, and all of them with head scarves.  The parade is still held annually in Manhattan, with free vegetarian food and nonalcoholic drinks available to everyone.

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A kirpan.
Hari Singh
     The 9/11 attacks initiated a new phase in the history of Sikhism in New York and the U.S., for people often take the turban-wearing Sikhs for Arabs or Muslims, blame them for the attacks, and commit hate crimes against them.  That an assault like the one on Dr. Prabhjot Singh could occur in supposedly liberal and enlightened New York alarmed many, myself included.  Unfortunately, wearing the mandatory turban seems to make Sikhs a target for assault.  This is all the more reprehensible, given the very nature of Sikhism, which strikes me as surprisingly modern, enlightened, and tolerant.  Just consider these aspects of it:

·      It makes no claim of exclusivity, but respects all monotheistic faiths. 
·      It believes in the equality of all humans, including equality of the sexes, and abhors the Hindu caste system.
·      It shuns not just alcohol, smoking, and drugs, but also superstition, ritual, fasting, pilgrimages, and idolatry, and has no priests.
·      It honors honest work and charitable actions and sharing.
·      It has no quarrel with science.
·      It advocates a simple vegetarian diet.

Obviously, this is not a religion for bigots, male chauvinists, playboys and the idle rich.  Nor, I suspect, would it be appropriate for hedge fund managers or dealers in derivatives.  And carnivores might have a problem, too.

     That such a religion, now the fifth largest in the world, suffers from the ignorance and intolerance of other Americans is a scandal, and even more so, given Sikhism’s commitment to tolerance and love.  We should be honored to have Sikhs among us.

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A Sikh parade celebrating the Sikh New Year.
Joel Friesen

     Death notice:  In an earlier post I reported that I had signed a contract with Brown & Sons, a small new press (very small and very new), to publish a selection of posts from this blog; congratulations poured in from friends and acquaintances.  Over the following months I then toiled diligently with the publisher to determine which posts would be published, and how arranged.  But last Sunday I received this e-mail:

We regret to inform our authors that Brown and Sons Publishing must close its doors, due to understaffing, underfunding, and high volume of work. We will be restructuring and planning tentatively for a re-opening in late 2014. We must, necessarily, release all authors from their contracts. We will notify you in late 2014 of our plans. We encourage you to submit your manuscripts to other publishers and we wish you the very best in your endeavors.

     As two witnesses can confirm, my reaction to this epistle was not teary regret, resentment, or astonishment, but hoots of laughter.  While I wished this publisher well, I never quite believed in them.  Somehow, their operation seemed too vague, too flimsy, and certainly too optimistic.  So beat the drums slowly and play the fife lowly, as yet another small press is laid to rest.  Of course there may be a resurrection later in the year, but let’s not count on Brown & Sons (“Life-impacting books by newsworthy authors”) rising from its ashes like the phoenix.  Meanwhile, requiescat in pace.  Ci-gît Brown et fils.  (The “& Sons” always bothered me, as no sons were ever in evidence.  But no matter.)  So it goes in the world of publishing.

This is New York

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Patrick Kwan

     Coming soon:  Village Eccentrics of Yore.  A bum who graduated from Harvard, slept in flophouses, and claimed to understand the language of seagulls; and a Baroness who wore a bra composed of tomato cans, eyelashes made of parrot feathers, and a birthday cake for a hat with fifty lighted candles.  And here’s a line from her poetry: “Narin-----Tzarissamanili.”  Of course that’s plucked from its context; I’ll give more next time, so readers can grasp the full beauty and meaning of the poem.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder