Sunday, May 29, 2016

232. Scavengers of New York

     I use the term “scavengers,” since “ragpickers” seems inappropriate; they’re after cans and other recyclables much more than rags.  These are the guys – usually men, occasionally women – whom you see prowling the sidewalks and streets and gutters, poking into trash cans and other refuse in search of cans that can be returned for a nickel, and other stuff that somewhere can be returned for a small sum.  Who are they, and where do they go to turn in their spoils?  Busy New Yorkers pay little attention, while hoping that these self-appointed collectors help keep the city somewhat clean. 

     Having researched nineteenth-century New York, I have a better idea of the scavengers of that era than I do of the ones today.  Back then they were above all women, usually German, Irish, and Italian immigrants who trudged the streets in all kinds of weather, dodging the rushing carts and stages not yet impeded by the installation of stop signs and red lights.  Often they had a district where they claimed priority, fighting off any intruders who dared to invade their territory; nasty hair-pulling and face-scratching fights resulted, with other women cheering on one or both participants. 

     These ragpickers scavenged all kinds of clothing and rags, bits of metal, discarded clocks, busted parasols, cracked chamber pots, lumps of coal, buckles, hatpins, and bones, and sometimes even crouched at the mouths of sewers and reached past unmentionable wastes, or even the remains of an aborted embryo, for anything that glinted, hoping for rings but often as not getting spoons.  Having sorted out their spoils and washed their rags in their tenement quarters, they then sold them to the rag man, the bone man, or the junk man, earning a few pennies that might get them two days’ rent in their room crammed in with other women, and some boiled beans and a penny of rum.

     And today?  The supermarkets grudgingly receive recyclable cans and bottles, but restrict the hours and the amounts they will receive; one often sees the scavengers with their bulging plastic bags of recyclables gathering near the entrance at the appointed time.  But there are redemption centers as well, and scavengers flock to them with their spoils, even though raiding trash cans for recyclables is against the law, since it undermines the city’s own recycling efforts.  And not all the scavengers are trudging on foot with pushcarts; some arrive in automobiles laden with cans, bottles, appliances, bits of metal, whatever.

     Last week I encountered a true mystery: a huge heap of plastic bags jammed with recyclables, a heap some ten feet high and possibly piled on top of a cart that was hidden beneath it, at the curb next to the little park across the street from my building.  Next to the heap, in a steady rain, a man in a brown jacket with a hood was sorting items.  In addition to the big heap, he had at least four small carts or bundles that he was looking after.  I had never seen him there before.

     The next morning, when I went out on an errand on the second day of rain, his stuff was still there, and on one of the park benches there was another heap under a big white blanket: presumably, the scavenger trying to get some sleep in the rain.  So he was probably homeless.  But how one man by himself could manage all those bundles baffled me.

     On the third day, when it was still drizzling, I went out to get a paper and saw an older man, an African American, sitting in a shop doorway out of the rain, with a few small bundles beside him, staring sullenly out from under his brown hood: surely, I thought, the scavenger who had accumulated all those other piles of bulging plastic bags.  Coming back with the paper, on an impulse I flashed the friendliest of smiles his way and asked, cheerily, with a gesture toward the heap across the street, “Is all that stuff yours?”  -- a query that  he answered with a dismissive gesture and a shout, “Get away from me!”  So savage was his look that I did exactly that, surmising that many rejections and orders from the police to “Move on!” had probably rendered him aggressively defensive and leery of any stranger who approached him.  Obviously, his was not a happy life, least of all in the rain.

     The next day I saw him sleeping again under the big white blanket on a bench, though the rain had finally stopped.  Why he lingered there with all his accumulated booty I still couldn’t figure out.  Then, the next day, he and all his stuff had vanished, whether by his own choice, somehow transporting all those bundles to another location, or because the police had ordered him away, I will never know.

     I thought the story had ended, but I was wrong.  Three days later he and his mountain of  spoils reappeared in the park in exactly the same spot as before, sticking out into the street.  And there he was in his hooded brown coat, sorting things out, or slumbering under the white blanket on a nearby bench.  Why can’t he get rid of his stuff and maybe even realize a modest profit?  Why does he linger here day after day, married – or maybe chained – to his gleanings?  The mystery deepens yet again.  After that I saw him once again, with all his stuff, on West 11th Street, not far from my building, but after that he vanished once again, though I dare not say forever, since he has a way of popping up when least expected.

     My Tale of a Tub:  Two weeks ago I had a novel adventure.  It was 4 a.m. and I went to the bathroom to relieve the bladder imperative, and having done so, I suddenly lost my balance and fell into the bathtub, where I sat, momentarily stunned, with both legs dangling over the side of the tub.  It took me a moment to grasp what had happened and the situation I now found myself in, so ludicrous that, once I realized I wasn’t the slightest bit injured, I started to laugh.  How had it happened?  Two possibilities.  Maybe I experienced a momentary dizziness that caused me to lose my balance and fall, pushing away the little black bathroom rug as I did so.  Or maybe the rug slipped out from under one foot, causing me to fall.  Having experienced no dizziness since then, I incline toward the second explanation.

     Whatever the cause of it, there I was, sitting crosswise in the tub with my feet dangling over the side.  How was I to get out of this ridiculous position?  The tub was dry, so I had no soggy bottom to deal with, but the solution to the problem was not immediately apparent.  Intuition was no help; I had to rely on that glory of homo sapiens sapiens, the ability to reason.  First of all, I had to pull my legs into the tub so I could lie there lengthwise, as God and the maker of bathtubs intended.  I did so, but then found myself seated with  the faucets poking into my back, likewise not the position that bathtubs are meant to accommodate.  So I dangled my legs over the side once again and maneuvered, within the narrow confines of the tub, so as to reverse my position, which in that cramped space wasn’t easy.  So far, so good: I was now seated facing the faucets, resting my back on the sloping surface meant  for just that purpose.  But I was still a prisoner of the tub, since my hands couldn’t gain the leverage needed to lift me out.  What to do? 

     Reason once again redeemed me: I must turn myself over, renounce the sitting position and get on all fours, as if ready to crawl.  Achieving this meant more strenuous maneuvering in a space not meant for such efforts, but achieve it I finally did.  Now, on all fours, I was able to place my hands on the tub’s sides, gain leverage, and lift myself majestically – or maybe not so majestically – up to a standing position, and then with no difficulty step out of the tub.

     Viewers are probably by now as tired of this narrative as I was of being stuck in the tub, but I see my Tale of a Tub (to borrow a title from Swift) as demonstrating the superior status of homo sapiens sapiens who, when trapped in an unforeseen predicament, uses his native smarts to rescue himself and resume the noble stature of the species. 

   The book:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards.  (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon:  The Forbidden Island.  Why is it forbidden?  Who is allowed to go there?  What scandals have erupted concerning it?

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder


Sunday, May 22, 2016

231. Graffiti

     You see them everywhere – on sidewalks, on fences, on mailboxes, wherever there is space and a chance to be seen by passersby.  On the pavement of the Union Square greenmarket on March 23, 2016, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels:


We gon
be alright

     On the Horatio Street sidewalk recently near an entrance to Jackson Square Park, just south of West 14th Street:

I was caged
but I fought back

In white chalk, so I thought, but it must have been white paint, since it has since survived several days of rain.  Under the words were two crudely drawn chickens, or maybe two squawking ducks; the artist’s skills were limited.

     On a mail storage box on West 13th Street recently, squeezed in with a host of scribblings and crazy art:


Some are problematic, as for instance, on the sidewalk at an intersection:


Good advice, but for whom?  Similarly, on East 4th Street:


And on Eighth Avenue near Jane Street:


And on the scaffolding masking renovation of a building on West 4th Street:


when there was no alley in sight.  Just as enigmatic, also on East 4th Street:


     You rarely know who the graffiti artists are, but in some cases I assume young teen-age males, known for their blatant candor, as in these two instances, seen by me long ago, though I don’t know where:

If Satan gets my balls we’ll play tennis

farts are healthy

And in the Union Square greenmarket, scrawled on the pavement in fading chalk trampled by busy New Yorkers who paid no heed:

R  U

     Some show signs of sophistication, as for instance this one, scrawled on the wall of a men’s room on the Columbia University campus eons ago, which was much quoted and became legendary:

God = mc2

For the knowing few, of course, this was a take-off of Einstein’s renowned physics equation, E = mc2, meaning that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light, squared. 

     But my favorite graffito (yes, that’s the singular) was one I glimpsed, I don’t know where, back in the rebellious 1960s:

Jesus saves
but Moses invests

     This post will not attempt a history of New York graffiti, least of all their evolution from crude sidewalk scribbles to the exuberant multicolored art of minority youth spray-painting the sides of the city’s subway cars in the 1970s, until in the 1980s the authorities with great effort eliminated the art – and art it was, in my opinion, however misplaced – and scrubbed the cars ruthlessly clean.  For some, the graffiti-ridden cars symbolized the city’s moral and physical decline, which goes to show that one man’s art is another’s vandalism.  And the debate continues today, when an alleged resurgence of graffiti art has inspired tours in certain neighborhoods to view it, while the New York Post declares that the city must beat the “cancer of graffiti.”

     One graffiti artist who announces himself is Hans (“Ace”) Honschar, age 42, whose colored chalk snippets appear all over the Upper West Side, and who briefly about a year ago invaded the West Village – my turf – and left messages on the sidewalk outside the D’Agostino supermarket that I patronize.  His messages – at least, the ones that I have seen – are relentlessly upbeat:

the two most
joyous times
of the year
are Christmas
morning and
the end of

find ur talent
& fulfill your
for you are
the embodiment
of infinite

I saw that
my life was
a vast, glowing
empty page
and I could do

What he does, of course, is fill every empty space he sees with his multicolored bits of wisdom.  In the process he even makes a buck or two, for shop owners pay him to leave an inscription in front of their shop, and passersby pay him to take their picture for five dollars or, for double that, to have their picture taken with him.

     Fulfilling his destiny, alas, has led to a tangle or two with the police, since graffiti are technically forbidden, but like a good New Yorker he persists.  Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to a strict religious family that attended a Pentecostal church, he grew up in Florida and migrated all over Canada before landing in New York where, like so many, he knew he had to stay, with a special fondness for the Upper West Side.

I wake up
every morning
and I say
to myself
‘Well, I’m still
in New York,
thank you God’

No matter what the outcome of his skirmishes with the police, he will continue to fulfill his chalky, polychrome destiny.

    Graffiti have always been with us and always will be.  They have been found in the ruins of ancient Egypt and Pompeii and surely go back eons, probably to the dawn of writing.  I can well imagine some enterprising young caveman sneaking a few raw squiggles onto the walls of a cave otherwise adorned with marvelous drawings of the animals hunted by our ancestors in prehistoric times.  Graffiti are usually anonymous, often irreverent, often bawdy, but sometimes uplifting and inspiring.  And by their very nature subversive.  No city has contributed more to their fame and notoriety than New York.

    The book:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards.  (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon:  Mysteries of New York: Scavengers.  Who are they and what are they up to?

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder

Sunday, May 15, 2016

230. 14th Street Shops: Everything You Need for Basic Living

     When I asked a new acquaintance from Kokomo, in northern Indiana, for her impressions of New York on this, her visit to the city, she immediately came up with three:

·      The vastness of Central Park.  She had never seen a park so large and so impressive.
·      The courtesy and helpfulness of New Yorkers.  And no, she didn’t find them rude or abrupt.
·      The array of charming little shops in the West Village, which she had just encountered after a walk all the way down from Central Park.

Yes, the West Village – and many other New York neighborhoods – abound in charming little shops, more now than ever.  They give a unique flavor to much of the city, lend it a charm that alleviates the city’s impression of bigness and intensity and hurry.  For these little shops invite you to come in, browse, and linger; no hurry here, no pressure.

     For a sample of their diversity, come with me on a bus ride along 14th Street, a street that separates the West Village from Chelsea, and that refuses to be gentrified.  14th Street, East and West, is determinedly commercial, not primarily big-time commercial, but above all small-time commercial, meaning lots of small shops whose juxtapositions are often delightful.  For instance:

·      Chelsea Bagel & CafĂ© next to Bunga’s Den next to Gemini 14 next to Satori Laser next to Desco Vacuum, right across the street from  the looming Art Deco headquarters of the Salvation Army, with its grotto-like entrance with paired stairways leading into what mysterious  recesses I cannot imagine.  Desco Vacuum is known to me, since I have purchased vacuum cleaner parts and accessories there, and Satori Laser offers laser hair removal, but Bunga’s Den and Gemini 14 at first baffled me.  But not for long, thanks to the Internet, which informs me that Bunga’s Den is a “relaxed, funky neighborhood joint offering a number of beers on tap, plus pub eats & comedy nights.”  It features cushioned booths and a handmade wooden bar, but who Bunga is remains for me a mystery.  And Gemini 14?  It proves to be “a color bar salon dedicated to perfection.”  But what is that?  It dyes and styles your hair, even to the point of “magic wand” hair extensions “personally crafted to your needs.”  One good session here and you’re bound to make a hit at Bunga’s.

·      Edible Arrangements next to Smoke Shop next to Yo Yo Spa next to a pharmacy.  Which is clear enough.

·      Bling Lash above Auntie Guan’s Kitchen next to Urgent Medical Care (“open 7 days”).  Auntie Guan’s is, as I assumed, a Chinese restaurant, no doubt presided over by a motherly Chinese lady who is in love with food and her customers.  It offers northern Chinese food, including braised beef noodle soup and dried tofu noodles “with pepper lunch special.”  Sounds good, I’ll admit.  And Bling Lash?  It claims to be “NYC’s Best Eyelash Extensions and Nail Art Spa.”  So here too, a session should set you up for a glamorous entrance in Auntie Guan’s.  On 14th Street, all is possible.  And if northern Chinese cuisine doesn’t suit your system, Urgent Medical Care is right nearby.

·      Brick Oven Pizza next to We Buy Gold and Diamonds / We Pawn.  No mystery here.

·      El Paraiso Spanish/Chinese Food above City Eyebrows Threading Salon next to Framing, and over Framing, a driving school named Defensive.

·      ezPawn Corp next to Jupioca, a “vibrant outpost for blended fruit juices, protein shakes, tapioca drinks, smoothies & more.”

·      Toosh next to Electronics – but what, oh what, is Toosh?  A shoe store, it turns out.

·      Dragon Tattoos over Cigarville next to 24hr Parking (clearance 6’8”).

·      Potbelly Sandwich Shop next to Sprint next to Wigs Plus next to Lighting and Beyond, which offers lamps and electrical appliances.  Sprint baffled me at first, but now, thanks again to the Internet, I know that it is a “provider of wireless plans, cell phones, accessories & more.”  Wigs Plus, never a mystery to me, has a collection of “gorgeous wigs, extensions and hair pieces … something for every occasion.  Shop today!”

     Let there be no doubt, on 14th Street you can satisfy every conceivable need – not luxury needs, but the basics.  You can spruce up your appearance, pawn something if necessary, and buy cigars, smoothies, wigs, pizza, cell phones, and vacuum cleaners, and have a good meal at Auntie Guan’s and a beer at Bunga’s.  And if these material delights aren’t enough, and Urgent Medical Care can’t help, there’s always the Salvation Army.

     To round things out, let’s have a quick glance at the Union Square greenmarket, which is often the destination of my eastbound Wednesday morning bus rides on 14th Street.  Most of the stands there are familiar to me, but recently I discovered two new ones.  The John D. Madura Farm of Orange County offers a variety of mushrooms at its stand, one of which was completely new to me: the maitake mushroom.  Native to both this country and Japan, it is also known as hen-of-the-woods.  It’s a big brown thing the width of your hand with the fingers outstretched – for a mushroom, plenty big.  Being a cluster of curled or spoon-shaped caps, it looks like an out-of-control growth, but the stand assures us that the maitake has a woody flavor suitable for everything from soups to salads.  It’s weird in appearance, fascinating, but I have yet to give it a try.

     Near the maitake stand is a stand with a sign that caught my eye:

growing   malting   mashing
distilling   aging   bottling
Orange County Distillery

Yes, from Orange County come some more novel products that should appeal to locavores: vodka, gin, bourbon, and corn whiskey – farm-to-bottle spirits produced in that county’s fertile Black Dirt Region.  So there you have it: one quick visit to the greenmarket, and you can gobble a woody-tasting maitake washed down with a shot or two of genuine New York State-produced bourbon.  No need, then, to patronized Auntie Guan, though in this richly diverse city there’s certainly room for all. 

     The book:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards.  (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon:  New York Graffiti.  And then, Mysteries of New York (there are many).

©   2016   Clifford Browder