Sunday, January 31, 2016

217. Mystery Buildings of New York

      New York City is full of mystery buildings, buildings that pique your curiosity but at first elude you.   A prime example is – or rather was – a little one-story brick building near the corner of West 11th and West 4th Streets in the West Village, but a block from where I live.  I passed it for years, always wondered what it was and who, if anyone, lived there or, more likely, who used it as an office or studio.  One-story buildings are rare in the city, where real estate is so valuable, so it must have been an old structure dating back many years.  It had a skylight, suggesting its use as an artist’s studio, but the taller buildings around it would have robbed it of much of the light.  Always firmly shut, its door was flanked by a window on either side, but the whole façade was covered with a thick growth of ivy that all but masked both windows.  I never saw anyone go in or out, nor did I ever see a mailman delivering mail. 

     This went on for years, but then, last year, scaffolding suddenly sprang up around the little building and the three-story brick building next door on the corner, which only added to the mystery.  But occasionally a door in the scaffolding was left wide open and I could glance inside, where I saw the little brick building more than half demolished and obviously destined for complete demolition.  Since then the scaffolding has remained, as the neighboring structure at 282 West 4th Street, combined with another building at 280 West 4th Street, is being converted into a huge single-family residence – luxury housing with a vengeance.  The little mystery building, evidently a part of the 282 West 4th Street property, is gone forever, and I will never know its story.  Of all my mystery buildings, this is the one that haunted me the longest, but it never yielded its secrets. 

File:District Council 9 Building 45 West 14th Street.jpg
Beyond My Ken

     Another mystery building was one on West 14th Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, that caught my attention as I rode past it many times on the bus.  The five-story structure flew two large flags, one the American flag and the other a mystery, on poles projecting from the third story, and boasted a façade such as I had never seen anywhere in the city, seemingly all metal with not a brick in sight.  Curved roofs stuck out above the windows like arched eyebrows over gaping eyes, and poles ran vertically from top to bottom with no apparent function other than to further clutter up the façade.  I categorized it as Art Deco on steroids, or maybe Cast Iron run wild.  It startled me but didn’t repel me; it simply made me curious.  Since the bus always zipped past it, I could never get the address or acquire any other information about it.  Finally, while doing errands in the neighborhood, I made a detour to see the building up close, and in so doing learned the address -- 45 West 14th – and the identity of the ground-floor occupant: District Council 9, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, whose name appears on the mystery flag displayed alongside Old Glory.

     Even armed with this information, I had trouble learning the history of the structure, finding only scraps of information here and there.  It was evidently built as a townhouse in 1875, and in 1960 underwent a radical transformation that produced the present façade, which has been described as a modern interpretation of the historic cast iron buildings on the street.  Maybe, but the cast iron buildings I’m familiar with have simple lines and never give the impression of clutter, as this one does – interesting clutter, highly original, but clutter nonetheless.  The current AIA Guide to New York City describes it thus:  "Bronze and glass, paper and trash.  In 1967, this Guide said:  'Hopefully, this witty and elegant refacing of a tired façade will inspire its neighbors to follow.'  They didn’t."  Which is why the building stands out today.

File:874 Broadway MacIntyre Building top from south.jpg
Beyond My Ken

      Another mystery building that I have glimpsed repeatedly from a 14th-street bus towers impressively just north of Union Square, its summit a spire-topped golden sphere that shone radiantly in the sun.  It was that splash of gold that caught my eye, for it made the structure stand out from other tall buildings in the neighborhood.  Finally, one day when I was visiting the Union Square greenmarket, I walked up busy Broadway to no. 874, on the corner of East 18th Street, where I discovered, to my surprise, that the building in question wasn’t a tower, but simply one section, the westernmost, of a massive twelve-story Neo-Gothic structure of brick and stone, richly adorned with rows of rounded arches framing the windows, its summit – the “tower” I had  seen from the bus – bristling with spiky little spires, one of them crowning a gold sphere that caught the rays of the sun.  I stood there for quite a while, dodging the bustling passers-by while gaping like a tourist.  The ground-floor level on Broadway is occupied by Sleepy’s, the Mattress Professional, with a sign outside:


     Online research informed me that the building was built in 1892, financed by a chemist and apothecary named Ewen McIntyre.  While laying the ornate tile floor in the Broadway lobby, the craftsmen mistakenly added  an A to his name, so that the building became known as the MacIntyre.  Today it survives as a co-op with 25 apartments, 4 of which are currently up for sale at a median price of $840,000, and none of them available for rent.  In 2000 the resident owners had the façade cleaned of a century’s grit and grime, which may explain why its radiant patch of gold caught my distant eye. 

     Another mystery building, a recent construction at Spring and West Streets by the Hudson River on the edge of trendy Tribeca, baffles passing motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.  A gray hunk of faceted concrete five stories high, a box with a huge door, windowless, it is massive by day, its slanted walls looming out over the sidewalks menacingly, while at night those same walls have been likened to huge chunks of ice breaking off from the edge of a glacier.  Unique, obviously, but what is it? 

File:Spring Street salt shed 2015-11 jeh.JPG

     It is city’s new $20 million salt shed, whose door, 34 feet high and 25 feet wide, opens into a vast interior where 5,000 tons of de-icing salt will be stored, to be used on streets sheathed in wintry ice.  Unlike most of the city’s salt sheds, which are little more than shacks, it was designed by architects to be a singular sculptural object, and in this they have hugely succeeded.  Gray to some, it is described by others as glacially blue, which helps it enhance the neighborhood.  This last concern is no small matter, for local residents opposed its construction, fearing more gentrification, while luxury apartment developers opposed it, fearing less.  The developers predicted that the value of property in the neighborhood would plunge, only to see it soar.  Once again, gentrification triumphs, though in this instance it would be hard not to applaud.

     But this marvel of a salt shed is only half the story, for just across Spring Street is another architectural wonder also vehemently opposed by neighborhood residents, who once christened it the Tower o’ Garbage: a massive garage where sanitation trucks can be parked, fueled, repaired, and cleaned, but where garbage will most definitely not be deposited.  A five-story, block-long structure costing $250 million, it is masked by a sound-blocking glass curtain wall masked in turn by 2,600 custom-made perforated metal panels designed to reduce heat and glare, and oblige finicky neighbors by blocking views of the trucks inside.  Thanks to the finlike panels, the garage has the appearance of a shiny, sleek machine.  The upper glassed-in stories sit atop a dark-brick ground floor that is set slightly back, making the garage seem to almost float on its base.  (An effect I have yet to check out personally, which I hope to do.)  A green, sloped roof not open to the public catches rain water to clean the trucks.  Illuminated at night, with “DSNY” (Department of Sanitation, New York) in huge letters on the side facing the river, the structure then acquires a magic all its own.


     Never were two utilitarian edifices designed and executed with such care and flair.  The once critical neighbors should celebrate their recent opening, and be glad that no towering luxury high-rise blocks their view of the Hudson River flowing majestically just beyond West Street.

     Finally, a cluster of mystery buildings that I have only recently learned of and that I will probably never see: structures in an advanced state of ruin, covered with graffiti and hemmed in, even strangled, by thick vegetation that is slowly and relentlessly reclaiming a remote forested site where humans once imposed the geometry of architecture now long since abandoned and forgotten.  Here and there in the greenery – or among the wintry skeletons of trees – façades loom like ancient mausoleums or untenanted pagan temples, their interiors desolate and often littered with debris and the bristling splintered boards of collapsing walls and ceilings, not to mention banisters at crazy angles and gaping elevator shafts.  Suggestive of  pre-Columbian ruins strangled by jungle, this Surrealist site weirdly mixes architecture and vegetation, the hand of man and the hand of nature.  And all this within the bounds of New York City.

     These ruins were once the Farm Colony of Staten Island, a 96-acre site that officially is a part of the New York City Farm Colony-Seaview Hospital Historic District, which in itself is proof enough that being part of a historic district does not necessarily ward off graffiti artists, vandals, decay, and neglect.  The Farm Colony was originally founded in 1829 as the Richmond County Poor Farm, an asylum for the elderly who were looked after with dignity by nurses and attendants, and who were required to work on a vegetable farm to earn their board – a requirement eliminated in 1925, in view of the residents’ frailty.  The last residents were moved out in 1975, and neglect and decay then followed.
      The Farm Colony achieved notoriety of a kind when Eddie Lynch, an orderly in wards 27 and 31 in the late 1940s, turned out to be Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber, who for several years following a 1947 prison break found refuge at this remote location and worked quietly there, professing a love for the colony and its residents.  Willie endeared himself to posterity by answering the question “Why do you rob banks?” with the simple response, “Because that’s where the money is!”

     If the long-forgotten Farm Colony now claims my attention, it’s because it is newsworthy again: the City Council has approved a plan to sell 45 acres to a Staten Island developer who will renovate five buildings, demolish five others, and preserve a 112-year-old men’s dormitory as a stabilized ruin.  He will also build three six-story apartment buildings and fourteen multiple-unit townhouses for a total of 344 condominiums.  Units will be available only to applicants 55 and older, with some units reserved for those with incomes of $130,000 to $155,000, which by today’s standards rate as modest, not affluent.  All in all, a satisfying resolution involving rehabilitation of a dangerous property, housing for older adults, renovation of several historic buildings, creation of 17 acres of landscaped open space, and construction of new roads and utilities.  For these mystery buildings – at least some of them – a happy ending.

     Coming soon:  Women of Mystery: Wise Ones, psychics, healers, and frauds of yesterday and today.  Before paying to have your fortune told, read this.  Likewise, read this before dismissing with scorn the claims of female healers; you may be surprised. 

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder


Sunday, January 10, 2016

214. Fraudster, or the Immigrant's Dream Come True?

     At 6 a.m. on Thursday, December 18 --  an hour when, at this time of year, the city is still shrouded in darkness -- F.B.I. agents arrested Martin Shkreli, a flamboyant and controversial pharmaceutical company CEO and former hedge fund manager, at his Murray Hill apartment in midtown Manhattan and bundled him off to be arraigned in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn on securities fraud and wire fraud charges.  One might assume that this suspect was a seasoned Wall Street executive, plump in the tummy and wallet, but photos of the arrest show a dark-haired young man in a gray hoodie being herded along by husky, grim-faced agents.  Mr. Shkreli, though a veteran of many financial adventures and misadventures, is all of 32 and very much, if not a paragon, at least an exemplar of the millennial generation.

His famous smile (before the arrest).

     Martin Shkreli was no stranger to the news.  As CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals he had acquired Daraprim, a decades-old drug used to treat an infection highly toxic for babies, and overnight hiked the price up from $13.50 a pill – a price that already would raise my hackles – to an astronomical $750.  This ungenerous gesture immediately provoked rabid criticism – he was labeled a “morally bankrupt sociopath,” and worse – criticism that he rejected with a jeering response both in news media interviews and on Twitter (oh yes, he tweets), apparently reveling in his newfound notoriety as a symbol of pharmaceutical greed.  Inevitably, in this year of pre-election brouhaha, his and other drug companies have reaped vibrant denunciations from consumers, lawmakers, and our valiant crop of presidential wannabes.  All of which the target in questions seems – or until now seemed – to shrug off with aplomb.  Mr. Shkreli is nothing if not self-confident and immune to virulent attack.  Which makes him interesting, and all the more so, given his young years. 

     And what are the charges against him?  They hark back to his hedge fund days – he has gone through an amazing series of metamorphoses in his short career in business – when he informed investors that his fund, MSMB Capital Management,

·      had an auditor
·      had posted a 36 percent return since its inception
·      had $35 million in assets under management

Alas, according to federal authorities, none of this was true.  What, then, was the truth?  The fund had losses of some 18 percent, and by 2011 had less than $1,000 in its bank account, with no auditor in sight.  Which would seem to make Mr. Shkreli, for all his big talk and defiance, a rather small-time fraudster.  Perhaps, but I find him fascinating by virtue of his astonishing derring-do, his breathtaking appetite for risk. 

     Arraigned on Thursday afternoon in a packed courtroom, Mr. Shkreli pleaded not guilty and was released on $5 million bail secured by a bank account and guaranteed by his father and brother.  Wearing dark sunglasses, he left the court in a pouring rain and refused to speak to journalists.  But two days later, defying the usual advice of attorneys to clients under arrest, he did just that, telling the Wall Street Journal that the authorities were out to get him because of his drug price hikes – not an indictable offense – and his attention-getting public persona.  And of course he's innocent until proven guilty.  Be that as it may, let’s take a quick glance at his career, as presented by the authorities.

     From 2006 to 2007 he managed a small hedge fund, Elea Capital Management, and in so doing lost tons of money in a disastrous  speculation.

     But Mr. Shkreli, if not his enterprises, had a way of rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of a previous venture, for in 2009 he and a colleague founded MSMB Capital Management, another hedge fund, of which he became manager, and as such lied shamelessly to its investors, hence the charges against him.  He lost $7 million on a bad bet on a small drug company, owed his broker, Merrill Lynch, that amount, and got off with paying Merrill a mere $1.35 million. 

     And where did he get that $1.35 million?  From Retrophin, a biopharmaceutical company that he started in 2011, assuring his hedge fund investors that they would be compensated with cash or a combination of cash and Retrophin shares.  With him as CEO, Retrophin quickly became notorious for acquiring old, neglected drugs for rare diseases and hiking their prices astronomically.  A rising star in finance, in December 2012 Mr. Shkreli was hailed by Forbes magazine, which added his name to its list of “30 under 30 in Finance,” lionizing him as an activist “battling billionaires and entrenched drug industry executives” through his spiels on social media.  With such backing, no wonder he was able to launch a third hedge fund, MSMB Healthcare, attracting investors with blatant misrepresentations of his previous financial undertakings.

     In 2014 the Retrophin board ousted Mr. Shkreli for using the company as a personal piggy bank to pay off his hedge fund investors by hiring some of them for fake consulting jobs, and by using company funds to pay off others who were threatening to sue.  He was, in effect, running a kind of Ponzi scheme, milking each new enterprise to reimburse creditors from the previous one.  

     His inelegant exit from Retrophin might have discouraged some, or seasoned them with a minimum of caution, but not Martin Shkreli, who in August 2015 raised $90 million – from whom? one wonders – in a first round of financing for Turing Pharmaceuticals, following which he bought the American rights for Daraprim, a 62-year-old drug, and raised the price by 5,000 percent.  In the outcry that followed, he evinced not a trace of regret, and in November acquired yet another drug company, KaloBios, and announced plans to elevate the price of one of its drugs as well.  Meanwhile he was heaping scorn on his foes on Twitter, enjoying the adulation of young fans, and buying a rare album of music for $2 million.  Only his arrest  interrupted these ongoing grandiose adventures. 

     So who is Martin Shkleri?  When activists picketed the offices of Turing Pharmaceuticals last October, they brandished signs proclaiming THE FACE OF GREED with an image of him smiling smugly.  When not multi-tasking in his office, he tweets endlessly on Twitter, defending his transactions vigorously, and in an interview insisted that the media brouhaha over his drug pricing was "the best possible way to get girls."  In an hours-long live stream on YouTube he appears as a good-looking, boyish young man lolling about in a T-shirt who proclaims himself “the world’s most eligible bachelor ” and announces plans to dominate the rap industry.  Seeking an intelligent and handsome girlfriend online, he has described himself as “endlessly entertaining, providing comedic relief and artistic thought in one convenient package.  What a catch!”  But when a young woman asked online for a date, he informed her that she’d have to “get in a long, long line.”  After his arrest he resumed live streaming, showing himself, unshaven, playing online chess and guitar, and continues live streaming to this day.  As for the bachelor assertion, there’s no doubt that he’s a handsome specimen, the kind who, with a day’s growth of beard, looks even sexier.

     Oddly enough, his career has been, until now, the immigrant's dream of making it big in America.  He grew up in a crowded apartment on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, the son of Albanian and Croatian immigrants who did janitorial and other jobs to support him and his three siblings.  Admitted to Hunter College High School, an elite public school in Manhattan for gifted students, he was remarkably uncommitted to intellectual success.  Former classmates remember him as shy, often found in the school’s hallways playing chess or guitar, or studying stock prices in a newspaper.  Finally he stopped attending classes altogether and was booted out before his senior year.  After that he attended City-As-School High School, an alternative public school where students did internships for credit.  Becoming an intern at age 17 at a Wall Street hedge fund, he came into his own, and in 2004 got a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Baruch College.  Business administration and maladministration were his preoccupation from then on, with a predilection for selling biotech stocks short and launching one risky enterprise after another, as chronicled above.

     Following his arrest, Mr. Shkreli resigned as CEO of Turing, and newly acquired KaloBios fired him as CEO and promptly filed for bankruptcy.  Meanwhile another problem arose.  In March 2015 he had donated $1 million to Hunter College High School – the largest gift in its history – even though he had been kicked out for poor grades and poor attendance.  Former classmates remember him as willing to pay for nights out during their college years, as if to show that the onetime academic flop had become an astounding success – motivation that surely explains the million-dollar donation as well.  And three days before his arrest, he chatted online with a female Hunter student  during a live stream on You Tube – a performance that many Hunter students, alerted by messages on social media, forsook their homework to watch.  The result: a lively debate among Hunter students and administrators as to whether they should return the donation and have no more to do with the donor, a debate that is still under way.

     What is one to make of this guy?  Is he a minor-league Carl Icahn, the shark of Wall Street, or a Donald Trump writ small?  He shares Trump’s flamboyance, his self-promotion, his disregard for the truth, his blithe ability to bounce back from multiple failures in business, his love (until recently, at least) of even bad publicity, though unlike Trump, he rose up from humble beginnings and clawed his way to the top.  But to the top of what?  Wealth?  He pretends to $200 million, but any figures emanating from such a source are suspect.  (He later secured his bond with a brokerage account valued at $45 million, which isn’t exactly peanuts.)  To the top as regards celebrity?  Yes, of a kind, since he’s all over the media and social media, almost inescapable.  Success?  Hardly, with prosecution looming.  Narcissism?  Yes, certainly; just look at his endless live streams, his self-indulgent videos. 

     Martin Shkleri merits attention by virtue of his chutzpah, his intelligence, his energy, his insatiable infatuation with risk.  He reminds me of the remark of a Wall Street speculator of long ago:  “Aim for the stars, you get chorus girls.  Aim for chorus girls, you get nothing.”  Shkleri has aimed for the stars, but what he’ll finally get is in doubt.  His is a dark energy; it seems to have led him astray.

     Finally, let’s take note that this presumed whiz kid of Wall Street isn’t the only hedge fund manager in trouble, though he may be the only one threatened with prison.  The year 2015 has not been kind to hedge fund biggies, those alleged financial wizards whose talents are available only to the moneyed few.  The moneyed few are in fact up in arms at their wizards’ deplorable results.  Consider:

·      William A. Ackman’s Pershing Square Management, up 40% in 2014, is down 19.5% as of December 22, a performance he will have to explain to disgruntled investors when they meet in the hallowed halls of the New York Public Library this  January.
·      Likewise in January, David Einhorn, the founder of Greenlight Capital, will host his investors at the American Museum of History over cocktails and dinner under a 94-foot blue whale in the Milstein Hall, but even this lavish setting may not make up for the fund’s 20% loss in 2015.
·      Larry Robbins of Glenview Capital Management, down 17% this year, will similarly have an awkward time consoling investors when next they gather.
·      Claren Road Asset Management suffered $3 billion in redemptions this year as disabused investors jumped ship, probably reducing the firm’s assets to just over a paltry $1 billion, compared with the $8 billion it once managed.

     Not all hedge funds have had a bad year, but those that did have exploded the myth of hedge fund success, the fantasy of unending profits and glory.  To be sure, in 2015 the number of out-and-out closures, when lousy performance forces the fund to shut down completely, is still below 2014’s grievous total of 731.  But some pension funds are beginning to question what value hedge funds add to their portfolio, given the funds’ substantial fee of 2% of assets under management, and a hefty 20% of performance.  Obviously, even if investors weep bitter tears, the managers are scooping up millions in profits.  But to judge by the opening days of 2016, this year is going to be a mite rougher than last.  So it goes in the Wall Street la-la land.  As for Mr. Shkreli, that sexy millennial in a black T-shirt, jeans, and a hoodie, we shall watch his unfolding saga with the greatest interest.

     Prediction fulfilled:  One of my predictions for 2016 in the previous post has proven, alas, disastrously right: the stock market is in free fall.  As for the other predictions, it will be months before we learn if I'm right.

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder

Sunday, January 3, 2016

213. Fear of Falling

     We humans take for granted our erect position, perched high up on our legs like stilts, even though the rest of God’s creatures swim in the sea, fly in the air, or slither or creep on land.  We think it normal to have our feet grounded and our head aloft.  This posture gives us pretensions, a feeling of dominance and control, of being above earthy things, of being close to heaven.  But gravity dictates that things high up will come crashing down.  Maybe not right now, this minute, but sooner or later, hence our fear of falling.

Were you ever tempted to walk on stilts?
If so, you have little fear of heights.

     I have no special fear of heights, no acrophobia.  When visiting the medieval cathedrals of Europe, I thought nothing of huffing and puffing up circular stone stairs in a tower to an edifice’s superstructure, where I could see gargoyles barely visible from below, and enjoy a wide view of the city.  And when my friend Bill and I visited pre-Columbian sites in Mexico and clambered up the steep steps of pyramids to the very top, I found the whole experience thrilling.  And when I clambered back down again and looked back and saw Bill still way up near the top, frozen in fear, I realized he had a fear of heights that to me was alien.  He did get down again, but slowly, one step at a time.

File:George Washington Bridge, HAER NY-129-68.jpg
The George Washington Bridge, with a view from one of the towers --
a view I've never had and never will, thank God.
     Am I ever afraid of heights and of falling?  Of course.  When I walk across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey, and pause midway and look down at the river far below, my knees go limp and I feel a momentary dizziness; the thought of plummeting all that way to the water, as many suicides have done, tenses me with fear.  Back in my opera-going days, when I went down to a seat in the front row of the Family Circle of the old Met (the Metropolitan Opera), I was only too aware of the steep descent before me, with only a low rail at the balcony’s edge separating me from the gaping emptiness of the theater’s vast interior, and the main floor far below.  And when today I visit the new MOMA – the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street – with its wide glass walls and plunging perspectives, I get nervous and move quickly to enter rooms with solid floors, relieved to be boxed in with thick walls adorned with works of art and not with views of empty space.


An inside view at MOMA.  No thanks.
Colin Chia 

     Once, long ago, I had surgery in my right knee and after weeks of bed rest had to learn to walk again and regain, slowly, slowly, the use of my right leg, which at first bent only a little at the knee.  In the hospital I went from wheel chair to walker, and by the time I left there I was walking with a cane.  The cane gave me support for many weeks and lessened my fear of falling, which was acute at the top of stairs, or when stepping off a high curb, of which there were many in those days, before the city lowered the curbs at intersections.  My fear of falling when stepping off a curb was so persistent that I carried the cane for weeks after I no longer really needed it; it reassured me, gave me confidence.  Then, once my leg muscles had toughened and my knee could bend to a right angle or more, letting me walk normally, I relinquished the cane and no longer nursed a fear of falling.

     Until recently, that is.  Now, on the cusp of my dynamic maturity, that fear has returned.  Not a fierce, nagging fear, just a sly, subtle one that from time to time flares up.  When?  When clambering down stairs and stepping off a curb.  Fortunately, most stairs – even those with only two or three steps – have a firm railing at hand, so negotiating them is no problem.  Stepping off a high curb is another matter, but as I step down I put blind faith in the muscles of my leg, which so far have seen me through.  But when I pass an open sidewalk entrance to the basement stairs of a store or an apartment building --  entrances usually marked with orange cones signaling danger – I get just a wee bit nervous, for the thought of plunging down into that darkness is unsettling.  I used to be fascinated by those stairs leading down into darkness, as if into some underworld of mystery, some Hades of the damned, but now I shrink from them in fear, or at least with a good dose of caution.

File:Burg Rotenhan 10.jpg
Even in an old castle -- or especially there -- scary.
Dark Avenger-commonswiki 

File:Hinomisaki-Todai Inside stairs001.JPG
Inside a lighthouse is no better.   And barefoot?
hashi photo
     During the last two winters, when the city was beset for days at a time with ice and snow and slush, I prudently clung to my hearth, and was assured by nurses and therapists, when they came to see my partner Bob, that I was wise to do so, since the hospitals were full of weather-related fractures and sprains.  Once, when I did venture out a very short distance to get a newspaper, I slipped on a thin sheet of ice and fell with a thump.  So it had finally happened, the thing I perennially feared.  Was I hurt?  No, not a scratch or a bruise.  So I just slid over the ice a few feet to a spot that seemed safer, laboriously got up, and tiptoed on. 

     Nothing is more threatening to us fragile humans, whether elderly or not, than the public transportation of the city of New York.  Our buses and subway trains lurch and screech and jolt.  If I don’t get a seat, I hold on to the nearest pole with one or both hands, preferably both, and when getting off, I wait until the bus or train stops with its inevitable jolt, and then, and only then, do I rise from my seat or let go of a pole to exit.  But caution is never enough.  Recently, when a bus lurched away from a stop, it caught a  bunch of us with only a tenuous grip on a pole.  We all toppled, three or four or five, but the others managed to grab hold of something and right themselves, whereas I inelegantly went all the way to the floor.  Gasps of “Oh!” erupted, and five hands stretched out to help me up.  Get up I did, clumsily, laboriously, but when others asked if I was hurt, I could announce grandly, “Not a scratch!”  “You fell just right,” said one witness, and it was true enough; in spite of my fear of falling, I seem to fall just right and bounce back up without a bruise or a scratch. 

File:R44 Interior.jpg
Poles aplenty here, but I have never, never ridden in a subway car this empty.
     Still, that fear persists, even to the point of making me hesitate to return to one of my favorite local restaurants where, as you exit, you have to descend two steps without a railing or any other form of support.  To fall there would be catastrophic, since there are outside tables near those steps, and anyone falling would crash down on a table and disrupt someone’s genteel lunching – for me, the worst outcome of all, worse than a fracture or sprain.  What could one then say?  “Excuse me, dear people, I didn’t mean to smash up your tacos and enchiladas.”  Embarrassment, shame, guilt.  Could I ever show my face in that restaurant again?  Probably not.

     My fear of falling is justified.  Statistics tell us that one third of those over 60 fall each year, and over half of those over 80.  And those who do fall are two to three times more likely to fall again.  And to make this cheery prospect even cheerier, we are told that these figures are an understatement, since many falls go unreported.  By way of confirmation of all this, my partner Bob’s nurses and therapists have told us horror stories of seniors living alone in the city who refuse to have a home care aide, and one day are found lying on the floor in a pool of blood.  So welcome to the Golden Years, that sweet retirement we have all been working toward and dreaming of, as we toil laboriously on through our lives.

     And to top the matter off, the December 2015 AARP Bulletin, which targets seniors, reports a growing but barely noticed epidemic of falls because people are living longer, and the aging Baby Boomers are joining the ranks of the vulnerable.  Older adults fall when inside, younger ones when outside.  Examples:

·      A 58-year-old man tripped over a dog leash while camping outdoors with his wife, bruised his spinal cord, spent three months in hospitals and rehab, and has now regained bowel and bladder function, but can’t walk or shower without help.
·      A woman of 67 lost her balance while carrying a small table down the stairs to her basement, was found by family unconscious on the concrete floor, suffered brain injury, and has now improved, but still has time talking in complete sentences.
·      Ex-President George H.W. Bush, 91, fell at his home in Maine, breaking a bone in his neck. 

My advice:  Don’t go camping with a dog, and don’t carry small tables up or down stairs.  AARP warns also of invisible ice on driveways, slippery bathroom floors, loose rugs, and high heels.  Personally, I’m not too worried about the first or the last, but the middle two are a concern, as well as clutter in the apartment.

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A 1764 edition printed and sold by
Benjamin Franklin.
File:New england primer.PNG 

    Achieving heights and plummeting down from them are ingrained in the myths and traditions of the West.  “In Adam’s fall / We sinned all” is how The New England Primer, the most successful textbook published in the American colonies in the eighteenth century, introduced tender young minds to the letter A, presumably pronouncing “sinned” as two syllables to make the second verse have the requisite eight.  Adam’s fall, of course, was metaphorical, since it involved eating a forbidden apple at the prompting of mischievous Eve and the nefarious serpent (thanks to whom snakes have a bad press to this day), the serpent being none other than the wicked Tempter in disguise.  Far from plummeting, Adam and his guilty bedmate were driven from the paradisial Garden of Eden out into the hard, cruel world where we have all been laboring ever since, with death our inevitable end on this toilsome earth. 

The expulsion from Eden, with and without fig leaves.  Masaccio,
1426-28; a 1980 restoration removed the fig leaves, a 1680 addition.

     But the real Fall affecting and afflicting our universe was the Fall of Satan, up till then known as Lucifer, and his rebellious cohorts, following their revolt against God, who smote them mightily and sent them plummeting down from heaven to the smoky regions of hell.  This grandiose myth is retold vividly in Milton’s Paradise Lost, though Milton, himself a rebel against the majesty of Charles I of England,  couldn’t help but make Satan and his allies more interesting than God and his Son, and hell a far more fascinating bit of real estate than the vague and airy regions of heaven.  But the Fall of that arch rebel foreshadowed that of Adam and precipitated it since, in Milton’s telling, it was Satan’s desire for revenge that led him to investigate this new creation, Earth, and wheedle Eve into wheedling Adam into the guilty act of eating an apple.  (Fortunately, apples, unlike serpents, haven’t had a bad press ever since, New York State being rich in them -- apples, that is -- and apples a favorite fruit of us all; I gobble one daily.)  Satan’s Fall has haunted us down through the ages, and inspired Gustave Doré’s magnificent illustrations of Milton’s work, showing Satan and the fallen angels dramatically en route to hell.

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Satan and his legions smitten down to hell by the Archangel Michael.
Gustave Doré, 1866.

     For all our fear of falling, we humans – some of us – are obsessed with climbing, with achieving perilous heights.  On my many hikes in an upstate wilderness, sometimes I would come across a rustic bridge or a shelter with a plaque commemorating a son who had fallen to his death while climbing rocks, perhaps near the very spot where I was standing; in his memory, the grieving parents donated funds for the bridge or the shelter. 

     We’ve all heard reports of mountain climbers scaling icy peaks in Nepal, and of avalanches sweeping them to their death.  These adventurers are obsessed with heights and the need to conquer them, no matter what the risk: an obsession that few of us share, an obsession that we admire from a safe remove, and that we admit baffles us.  Every summer there are reports of teen-age boys who, clad in light summer clothing, scale precipitous peaks, reach a ledge, look down at the ground far below, and panic; going down seems more perilous than climbing up.  Trapped up there, they often spend the night, shudder through the cold, are found by rescuers the following morning.  In one case one of the two boys was dead, and the other, close to death, whispered plaintively, “Please help me, I don’t want to die”; within minutes he too was dead. 

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Andy Beecroft

     The supreme fear of falling may come in a waking dream or a nightmare, often toward 4 a.m., when the night is longest and dawn seems far away, and the body’s numbed metabolism counterfeits death.  In this dream we plummet through eons of time and infinitudes of space, down, down, down  into the ultimate doom of extinction.  No wonder we have a dread of falling.  And yet, there is a sport known as skydiving, whose enthusiasts relish plummeting for a few delirious moments through the air before opening a parachute that brings them gently to earth. 

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The ultimate thrill … for some.
Arteaga Douglas
     My predictions for 2016:  If I'm wrong on any or all of these, I'll chuckle along with everyone else.

  • The election: Hillary will be the Democratic candidate, and Rubio the Republican.  She will win in a close election.
  • The weather: This winter will be less severe than the two preceding winters.
  • Our foreign wars: No matter who wins the election, we'll still be mired down in the Middle East.
  • The stock market: It will undergo a serious decline.

     Coming soon: Martin Shkreli: The American dream or a fraudster?  Or, robbing Peter to pay Paul, or Retrophin to pay MSMB.  Confused already?  Just wait.  I defy you to unravel this tangle of alleged fraud.  But even so, he's sexy.

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder