Sunday, April 28, 2019

406. Banks: Spiky Shafts and Swimming Pools Today


For the first review of The Eye That Never Sleeps, go here and scroll down.  A five-star review by jetangen.

Countdown:  As of 7:30 a.m. today, 4 days, 1 hour, 30 minutes until the release of The Eye That Never Sleeps, at which point all pre-ordered books will be shipped. (Assuming the publisher starts shipping at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.  But he may have started already.)  And the giveaway of 100 e-books continues: when I last checked, 198 people had signed up.  It ends May 8.

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him For more about this and my other books, go here.  

Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books.  Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC."  For the whole review, click on US Review.

              THE  PALATIAL  BANKS  OF  YORE
                          SPIKY  SHAFTS  AND  
                    SWIMMING  POOLS  TODAY

         The Sunday Times Real Estate section is rarely visited by me, for what do I know or care about real estate?  But the Real Estate section of the Times of April 21, 2019, caught my eye, for there on the front page was a big picture of the corner of West 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, where I tread almost daily.  Featured in the photo were two landmarked corner buildings: on the southwest corner, the new Museum of Illusions, and across the street on the northwest corner, a CVS pharmacy.  Both buildings are in the classical style, their columned façades vaguely reminiscent of the Parthenon, a style not particularly appropriate for a modern museum or a CVS.  As one might guess, they were once banks – the New York County National Savings Bank and the New York Savings Bank.  That was back when banking was a boring business, prudent and sedate, that preferred Greek-temple-like façades that oozed dignity and respect.  Ah, those good old days!

         So why are these buildings on the front page of the Real Estate section?  Because, in their modest way, they show how the bank buildings of yore are being put to new uses.  “Vaulting Ambition” says the article’s caption.  “New developments citywide are repurposing opulent bank spaces where New Yorkers once deposited their savings.”  But these two corner structures give hardly a hint of the grandiose buildings elsewhere being transformed.

         More to the point is the palatial Dime Savings Bank in downtown Brooklyn.  A wedge-shaped building built in 1906-1908 at the intersection of DeKalb Avenue and Fleet Street, it has a narrow but impressive classical façade with four tall columns topped by a sculpted pediment.  Its sides are adorned with long rows of columns, and topping the whole structure is a soaring dome.  Seeing photos of it for the first time, I marveled at its monumental grandeur, reminiscent of the old Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan that tragically succumbed to the wrecking ball.  They don’t build buildings like the Dime today, classical monuments of dazzling majesty, their vast ornamental spaces ill adapted to the needs of today.

File:Dime Savings Bank - Brooklyn, NY - DSC07874.JPG
The Dime before renovations.

        And that is just the exterior.  Online photos in color reveal the breathtaking beauty of the interior: a high ceiling decorated with ornate hexagons, from which hang chandeliers; a rotunda of twelve Corinthian columns of Greek marble inlaid with silver dimes and topped by a dome; marble benches; and inscribed in marble,


And in the center of the rotunda is a large copper clock that visitors used to flock around.

File:Dime Savings Bank 2.jpg
The rotunda.
Glenda Altarejos

File:Dime Savings Bank Copper Clock Tower.jpg
The copper clock.
Steven Bornholtz

         When first setting foot in such an atmosphere, customers must have felt awed, humbled, and overwhelmed, though with time they surely adjusted to grandeur and learned to do their banking unmindful of the splendor around them.  Just as hurrying travelers, myself among them, ignored the soaring majesty of the old Penn Station in Manhattan, as they rushed to catch their train.

         To create a home of such magnificence, the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn must have evolved from its humble beginnings in 1859, when it announced that one could open a savings account with a dime.  As the city of Brooklyn grew and flourished, so did the bank.  By 1884 it had over 40,000 customers depositing more than $12 million.  Which explains why, in the next century, it could expand into the vast, dazzling, and totally impractical magnificence of its final home.

         So what brought it to its lowly status today?  By 2016, ATMs and digital banking had done this palace in, and since then its landmarked Beaux-Arts interior has sat idle.  Meanwhile its new owner, Chase, moved into a lowly storefront across the street, a tenth the size of the abandoned Dime, and sold the building to a developer.  Today, palatial and grandiose are out; practical and dinky are in.

         So it would seem, but not quite, for the spacious and imposing Dime is being reborn as part of 9 DeKalb, Brooklyn’s tallest skyscraper, a 1,066-foot, 73-floor luxury apartment building now under construction with retail at its base.  The bank's splendid Beaux-Arts interior will become a flagship store topped by a roof with an outdoor lounge plus swimming pool wrapped around an ornate dome.  The bank’s marble and pink granite façade will be joined on one side in unholy matrimony to a skinny glass-and-steel tower housing 425 rentals and 150 condo apartments.  A Manhattanite, I have never laid eyes on the Dime, but a photo shows a skinny penile erection jabbing into the stratosphere, dwarfing a domed structure huddled at its base.  Once grand and imposing, as a part of 9 DeKalb the Dime now looks puny and squat.

The beginning of construction, but as yet no tower.
         And what is behind these conversions?  The bank's being ornate, seemingly so passé, so nineteenth-century, doesn’t hurt.  As one developer observes, if you’re seen as a big, bad developer barging into a gentrifying neighborhood, monumental architecture can appeal to the richies moving in.  Being close to a subway station or two also helps.  And then there’s the matter of air rights.  These old banks were built before changes in zone allowed for greater height and density.  So right there above a bank is a lot of empty air just begging to be used.  By buying the unused air rights above a bank, and the lot adjacent to it, a developer can build bigger or taller or both on the adjacent lot.  So once again, in this age of sprouting high-rises, the sky’s the limit.

         Other such developments are transforming the old banking palaces of Brooklyn, but Manhattan is not exempt.  Metro Life, a development company that has completed 14 conversions, is doing another one at 20 Broad Street.  “Wait a minute,” says the history buff in me, “isn’t 20 Broad Street the address of the New York Stock Exchange?”  Indeed it is, but also the address of a 29-story tower housing the Exchange’s offices that is right smack next to the Greek-temple-like façade of the Stock Exchange itself.  (American money seems to have had an unnatural affinity for Greek temples.)  But surely the Stock Exchange, that Beaux-Arts Parthenon dedicated to the worship of money, isn’t up for grabs?  That building, and all it stands for, is to America what Notre Dame de Paris is to la belle France.  But that tower no longer serves the Exchange.  Last September it opened in its new persona as a residential tower with 533 luxury apartments starting at $2,685 a month.  And below street level are two vaults once used to store stocks and bonds; one will now hold electrical equipment, and the other will become a lounge for residents.

         So it goes.  In banking, grand and magnificent have yielded to plain and practical.  But the remnants of grand and magnificent have a new life joined to the spiky shafts of modernity, and the de luxe amenities offered to the rich.

Coming soon:  Maybe something about agents and me.  Maybe something about the Museum of Illusions, Filipino martial arts, Soapology, and Rolfing.

©  2019   Clifford Browder

Sunday, April 21, 2019

405. Monster among Monsters: The Shed


Countdown:  As of 7:15 a.m. today, 1 week, 4 days, 1 hour, 45 minutes until the release of The Eye That Never Sleeps, at which point all pre-ordered books will be shipped. (Assuming the publisher starts shipping at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.)  And the giveaway of 100 e-books is in full swing: when I last checked, 168 people had signed up.

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him For more about this and my other books, go here.  

Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books.  Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC."  For the whole review, click on US Review.

SMALL TALK: My Five Essentials, things I cannot do without.

In no particular order:

  1.  Bread
  2.  Trees
  3.  Books
  4.  Sleep
  5.  Hope

1. My mainstay in the morning.  Needn't be gluten-free, since I'm not allergic to gluten.

2.  Since childhood, when I climbed riverbank willows and stared in fascination at the giant cottonwood overlooking our house.  Would it ever topple and crush us?  But it rippled in the noon breeze, flashing spots of silver.

3.  I was a bookworm from an early age, and it cost me jeers and insults, and the nickname "Glasses."

4.  Even in the City That Never Sleeps, I've got to have my eight hours daily.

5.  The past is horrors, and the present, problematic; but tomorrow ... 

Do you have five things you absolutely cannot do without? What are they?

                              Monster among Monsters:

                            The Shed

         The New York Times is Shed-obsessed.  By “the Shed,” of course, I mean the Shed in Hudson Yards, the multi-million-dollar 28-acre real-estate development on the West Side of Manhattan between West 41st and 30th Streets.  Built on a platform covering a storage yard used by trains of the Long Island Rail Road, the site sends soaring glass and steel boxes skyward so they can house luxurious residential units and office space for the world’s ruling class.  By way of contrast, the low-rise Shed itself huddles among these heaven-scratching Titans, though "huddle” may suggest some squat architectural monstrosity, which hardly describes this hulking structure, a monster among monsters.  The huge bulk of it, to judge from photographs, rises above mere tourist mortals like a Mongolian yurt, or better still, a quilted sleeping bag for an outsized mammoth.  And if the sheer size of it says money, the towering glass and steel giants in its proximity fairly scream it.  Hudson Yards is all about money.  Big money for a big project in a city that celebrates BIG.

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File:Hudson Yards Plaza March 2019 32.jpg

        I have yet to visit the site, but photographs and articles convey a lot.  I say the Times is Shed-obsessed because it can’t get enough of it.  The thing rated an article by Ginia Bellafante in the Metropolitan section of the Sunday Times of April 7, 2019, entitled “The Shed as Dispensation From Capital Sin,” with “Capital” used in the sense of – you guessed it – money.   And in the same issue of the Times, on the first page of the Real Estate section (which I rarely read), is C.J. Hughes’s article “Giants Within A City of Giants,” comparing Hudson Yards to another huge development, Battery Park City.  And in the Travel section, Sebastian Modak's article "New, Strange and Familiar, It's Still New York," recounts his attempt to walk the whole twelve-mile length of Manhattan in a single day (he got as far as Harlem).  En route, he took a look at Hudson Yards and the Vessel (a $200 million stairway to nowhere, mentioned below), and concluded that Hudson Yards is New York trying to be Dubai.

          And that's just the Times of April 7.  All this on top of Zachary Woolfe’s article, “A Shed Is Born,” starting on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday Times of March 31, 2019, whose inside pages also offered Michael Cooper’s article “Can the Shed Redeem Hudson Yards?”  Given the words “Dispensation,” “Capital Sin," and “Redeem,” one gathers that some gross offense has been committed, with the Shed as a possible gesture of redemption.  What gives?  The whole saga of Hudson Yards, it would seem.

         The best place to begin is Michael Cooper’s article, with the subtitle “How an arts center grew amid a Dubai-like development,” supplemented at times by details from that indispensable and infallible source, Wikipedia.

         It all began under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, when New York’s failure to get the Olympics left it with a rezoned district on the West Side and a rather vague plan to build some kind of cultural institution on a small parcel of city-owned land.  Brainstorming sessions with artists and others influential in the arts came up with the idea of a flexible project that would let artists, dancers, musicians, and theater people all work together.  So architectural firms were asked to design an undefined cultural entity that would be flexible.  They came up with an eye-catching feature, a sliding shell, and began referring to the structure as the Culture Shed.  In 2013 the mayor tossed in $75 million of city money and later added $75 million of his own.  It was all still undefined – a nice word for "vague" – and skeptics scoffed, while other biggies in the arts world, fighting to keep their own projects afloat in difficult times, seethed with jealousy. 

         In 2014 an artistic director was finally named: Alex Poots (rhyming with “snoots”), the British-born founder of the Manchester International Festival, who as artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory had made that venerable institution a hot new venue for must-see, cutting-edge art.  He declined the job at first, but then, having imposed certain conditions, accepted it and began making drastic changes:

·      The name was changed from “Culture Shed” to “Shed.”
·      Seating capacity was increased.
·      Better soundproofing was installed.
·      The building was reoriented, so that it faced east instead of north.
·      The Vessel, a shiny stairway to nowhere beloved of selfie-takers, was added to the north side.
·      A tower was added to the structure, its first ten floors providing back offices and storage spaces for the Shed.

File:Hudson Yards Plaza March 2019 14.jpg
The Plaza, with the Vessel, like a stack of pretzels, on the left.

         Clearly, Mr. Poots too is thinking BIG, and that means BIG money is needed.  So far, the Shed has raised $529 million, but it still needs more and will have to compete with rival cultural institutions for philanthropic support, a matter that its supporters are reluctant to discuss in detail.  And it needs to define itself.  Is it the northernmost part of the popular High Line, the elevated park built over a stretch of abandoned railroad tracks?  Or is it a part of Hudson Yards, that glossy, much-ballyhooed clutch of towers and condos that includes a seven-story mall where a haircut can cost $800?  Which brings us back to sin and redemption.

File:Hudson Yards in February 2019.jpg

         Those soaring towers sprouted by the Hudson Yards are doing anything to stand out, to be different: some rise at an angle, some curve.  Why?  Because every corporate tenant wants to “have brand.”  And who are those tenants?  Coach, L’Oréal, Neiman Marcus, KKR, Warner Media, Wells Fargo Securities, and DNB, for a start.  And if some of these names are unfamiliar, it means that you’re not “on trend,” you aren’t “in the know,” your knowledge of the upscale, whether corporate or retail, is deficient.  (As mine is, by the way.)  If you google “Hudson Yards” on the Internet, you’ll be immersed in flashy images that pop your eyes from their sockets.  It’s all luxury apartments, fancy restaurants, gourmet groceries, glitz.  Hudson Yards welcomes the trendy and the moneyed.  Especially the latter, because without moolah you’ll feel out of place.  But money, as we all know from both tradition and experience, is dirty; $ = sin.  And that’s where the Shed, which has just opened to the public, comes in.  It appears like a knight in armor, a radiant redeemer, a haloed savior … it is hoped.

         Those towers twist and curve and soar; the Shed crouches.  Its appeal isn’t to the trendy – at least, not to the moneyed trendy, but to ordinary, selfie-prone visitors on a budget.  Tickets to events there are priced as low as $10, restaurants are reasonable, and the lobby is oriented not toward grandeur but utility.  And the theater offerings include “Art and Civil Disobedience” and a woman-centered celebration of radical art entitled “Powerplay,” both of them in conjunction with DIS OBEY, a program for high school students from underserved communities that focuses on social protest through poetry.  Like the multi-level structure itself, theater in the Shed is thumbing its nose at the rest of Hudson Yards and the elite who come there to shop or reside.

         So will this venture redeem Hudson Yards from capital sin?  It’s too soon to tell.  But there are complications and ambiguities.  The Ginia Bellafante article points out that one theater in the Shed is named for its benefactor, Kenneth C. Griffin, a hedge-fund manager.  Recently Mr. Griffin bought a penthouse on Central Park South for $238 million, the most ever paid for a residence in this country.  The Shed, Ginia Bellafante concludes, is like a generous birthday gift from the rich man who stole your wife.

         Meanwhile Hudson Yards, aglow with dazzle, is still being built.  The anticipated completion date: 2026.  Well, what's the hurry?  We can wait.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

404. Oceanscapes Like You've Never Seen: Michael McLaughlin

  •                                             GIVEAWAY
  •                             100       100       100       100       100   
  •                                                  e-books 
  •                                                       of

  •  The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

  • This Goodreads giveaway is open for entries from April 12 to May 8, 2019.  If you want an e-book, here's your chance; the winners will be announced after May 8.  So far, 118 people have signed up, but plenty more will do so in the next 24 days.  But if you want a real print book, one you can touch and sniff and read voraciously, or put on a shelf to be looked at and gather dust, pre-order it now for delivery on the print book release date, May 2.

  •      Oceanscapes Like You've Never Seen:
  •                    Michael McLaughlin

  •          It had been a long time since I had attended gallery opening,  but what could be more New York?  It wouldn’t be a big gala affair studded with celebrities, for the Robin Rice Gallery at 325 West 11th Street – just two and a half blocks from my building – is a small gallery featuring photography and open only certain hours on certain days of the week.  I had already mentioned this gallery in my blog, briefly in post #365 and more substantially in post #401.  It was near me, and I had glimpsed the photographer’s work the previous Sunday and wanted to see it again, together with whatever kind of a crowd the opening might draw.  And I might even meet the photographer himself, whose name appeared in an e-mail that the gallery had sent me, along with the title of the show:

    Michael McLaughlin
    41 Degrees Latitude
    April 10-June 12, 2019

    The opening was scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10, so on that day, having had a light snack at home, I went.

             My first discovery – really a rediscovery -- upon arriving at the gallery: openings aren’t for serious displays of art; they are gabfests.  The small gallery was crowded with people, including one scampering child and one infant in arms, who seemed to all know each other.  Standing with their backs to the walls and the photos, and holding a small plastic cup of wine, they were fiercely jabbering away.  The photos themselves, thirteen of them and large, hung on the walls, unobserved, except for me and a Chinese lady, who maneuvered as best we could, so as to get clear of the jabberers and see the photos themselves.

             Ah, the photos!  Large.  Portrait style, meaning vertical, and not horizontal like a landscape.  Devoid of people and objects, and almost devoid of color.  Oceanscapes, so the gallery had informed me, taken by the photographer while standing in water at a beach in Rhode Island moments before dusk or dawn, and using long exposures.  At first glance the previous Sunday I had taken them for abstractions, but now I knew better.  Expanses of dark and light gray, or sometimes a misty vague bluish white, with a trace of light at the horizon.  In two of them a curl of foam could be seen, but otherwise one could barely make out the sea.  And two of them were so uniformly dark blue as to blur the scene completely.  Challenging, notable for what they left out, unique.  At first glance the previous Sunday, when I was the only viewer, I had thought at once: Whistler.  For he had done landscapes that were a study in color and little else.

             At the far end of the gallery was a heavyset man in his fifties, wearing a scarf and glasses like me, surrounded by friends and acquaintances who kept him busy with hugs and chatter: Michael McLaughlin, the photographer.  Since he had a broad, toothy smile that seemed cordial and welcoming, I inched closer, and when he said good-bye to young couple with their infant in arms, I addressed him.

             “They’re painterly,” I said.  “When I first saw them last Sunday, without the gabfest, I thought: Whistler.”
             This sparked his interest at once: a stranger who had actually looked at his photographs!  I went on.
             “I’ve never seen anything like them.  They’re unique.”
             “I’m glad to hear you say that,” he replied.  “That’s what I was aiming at.”
             I then told him about my blog and said I would do a post on the opening and his photographs; he was delighted.
             “I’m Mike,” he said.
             “I’m Cliff.”
             We exchanged cards, and I identified myself as a transplanted Midwesterner who was now a committed New Yorker, incapable of living anywhere else.

             “I’ve just been out there” he said.  “In Nebraska and Indiana.”

             I told him I had relatives in Indiana, and we agreed that Midwesterners are good people, friendly, laid back, genuine, quite the opposite of intense, fast-paced New Yorkers.  But he too, Brooklyn-born, identified himself as a New Yorker, even though he travels a lot and did these photographs in Rhode Island.  And we agreed that New York was not for everyone; you lived here because you couldn’t live anywhere else.

             On this note we parted, and after a last lingering glance at some of the photos – those that weren’t blocked by the gabbers – I departed. 

             Why the title: 41 Degrees Latitude?  Because that is the latitude of the beaches in Rhode Island where the photos were taken.  And the prices?  Either $2500 or $3000.  For everyone to look at, but not for everyone to buy.  But I wish Mr. McLaughlin well.  His opening – his sixth at that gallery -- had been a good experience, a real New York affair, a discovery, an adventure. 

  • Coming soon:  Monster among Monsters: The Shed
  • ©   2019   Clifford Browder
  • Sunday, April 7, 2019

    403. Breaking the Law


    Countdown:  As of 7 a.m. today, 3 weeks, 4 days, 2 hours, 3 minutes until the release of The Eye That Never Sleeps, at which point all pre-ordered books will be shipped. (Assuming the publisher starts shipping at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.)

     The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

    A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him For more about this and my other books, go here.  

    Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books.  Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC."  For the whole review, click on US Review.

                                            Breaking the Law

             This post is all about lawbreaking and those who do it, and why.  But first, I should explain that I’m taking “law” to mean, not just statute law, but any rule or regulation put forth by authority.   As for lawbreakers, I’ll start with myself.

             Years ago, when I was still hiking in city parks and beyond, I went to Pelham Bay Park to hike and pick raspberries that grew there in brambles all over the park.  As I was picking them, a park vehicle stopped nearby, and three park employees came rushing over, two young Latinos and an older woman.”
             “Picking berries is forbidden,” announced the woman.
             “Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said in all honesty.
             “Yes, it is.  Just leave them for the birds.”
             “I will,” I said.  “I honestly didn’t know.”
             It was agreed that I could keep what I had already picked, but no more.  That settled, the trio returned to their vehicle and drove off.  Why all  three of them had to come running over, when a quiet reprimand from one would have sufficed, escaped me.  Nor had I ever seen birds eating wild raspberries; mulberries, yes, but never raspberries.

    File:Rubus pedatus.JPG
    What got me in trouble.

             Later that day, having traipsed about the park, I was leaving, when I saw a motor vehicle of the Parks Department mowing a growth of grass and weeds.  Near the edge of the park was a stand of chicories, a common summer roadside wildflower, a lovely sky-blue in color.  Though the chicories were not blocking any path or other feature of the park, the vehicle, driven by another park employee, quickly mowed them down. 

             This angered me.  Since the park people were so insensitive to the beauty of wildflowers, I vowed then and there that I would pick raspberries to my heart’s content.  But not in plain sight, and not near a path that could accommodate park vehicles.  Since the park is large, and there are many narrow paths where vehicles can never go, this was easy, for the stalwart guardians of the park were wholly motorized and never left their vehicles to patrol on foot.  So I became one of a multitude of park visitors who harvested wild raspberries in the month of July.  And since my fellow law breakers came on weekends and harvested every ripe berry in sight, I learned to come on Thursday or Friday, by which time another crop of berries would have ripened.  My diet was enriched for several weeks with fresh wild berries, nor was I robbing the birds of a feast, since I never saw one in the brambles.

    Here am I, breaking the laws of a vegan diet.
    Gooey goodies are verboten.

             This was not the only time that park employees proved overzealous.  In 1986 the Parks Commissioner took exception to Steve “Wildman” Brill leading groups on foraging expeditions in the city’s parks.  Brill, a bespectacled, bearded ecologist who on these tours usually wore a pith helmet, was teaching people how to forage, that is, to find free food growing in the parks.  So on Saturday, March 29, two undercover park rangers signed up for a trek, paid Brill in marked bills, and tagged along as he invaded Central Park, taking photos of him as he foraged.  At the end of the tour the two minions of order radioed for help, and two uniformed park police arrived, arrested Brill for criminal mischief, handcuffed him, and whisked the desperado off to the Central Park station house, where he was fingerprinted and given a summons to appear in court April 18. 

    Steve Brill, eating something wild.
    Photo courtesy of Steve Brill.

             Interviewed by the press, Brill confessed to picking and eating dandelions and other weeds in the park.  That a man had been arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park was widely reported, but the public, instead of sharing the Parks Commissioner’s indignation, gasped in disbelief and then erupted in laughter.  Of all the crimes to be arrested for – eating a dandelion in Central Park!  Both radio and press went wild.

    Parks Muzzle Weed Maven
    The Man Who Ate Manhattan

    Planted Decoys Nab Foraging Botanist
    The Man Who Ate Manhattan was nabbed in mid-bite.

              The charges were soon dropped, and since he knew the parks’ edible plants better than anyone, the miscreant was hired by the Parks and Recreation Department to lead foraging tours in the parks, but to limit his attention to plentiful species.  Sometime after that I went with Brill twice, once in Central Park and once in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and can testify that he had always harvested only plentiful species that grew abundantly in certain locations year after year.  
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    File:Dandelions in grass close up photo (42392901081).jpg
    What got Steve Brill in trouble.
    Tony Webster
    And on those tours he recounted gleefully how he had once been arrested for the heinous crime of picking and eating a dandelion in Central Park.  That was years ago, but to my knowledge he is still leading groups on foraging tours in the city and elsewhere.  And I on occasion, while hiking alone in Pelham Bay Park, have at times picked, not only raspberries, but also in late summer a bunch of mugwort, an aromatic plant that grows there abundantly to the point of choking out other species; I use it to give a tang to my salads.

    File:Artemisia vulgaris SCA-6367.jpg
    R. A. Nonenmacher

             I have broken other laws as well.  In years of drought, the state has often closed its trails to  hikers, for fear of fires.  But hikers’ associations have protested, arguing that seasoned hikers build no fires in drought-stricken areas, and would be useful scouts for reporting problems along the trails.  Once, not knowing of the closure, I went to hike along the Palisades and found the trail shut off.  I hesitate, undecided, and along came a runner who had been running along the trail.  If he can, I can, I decided, and I’m not about to start any fires.  So off I went.

             This reminds how, when the solons of Washington managed to shut down the government a few years ago, friends of mine who loved to hike in Acadia National Park in Maine found the park closed.  Insisting that they, as tax-paying citizens, owned the parks, they found a way in and hiked the trails like always.  And they weren’t the only ones; there were dozens of other patriotic intruders doing the same.

             So far, these lawbreakers, myself included, can justify their actions, which were a reaction to arbitrary and unreasonable authority.  Now let’s take it a step further.  Back in the 1970s, when you entered the subway system by inserting a token in the turnstile, a friend of mine admits to having used slugs instead.  The slugs were flat metal disks about the size of a token and thus let you ride the subway free.  Did she feel guilt?  Not at all.  This was back when a rebellious young generation embraced the motto “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”  Being under thirty, she considered herself a member of the counter culture, and the MTA – the Metropolitan Transportation authority, which ran the subways – was clearly the establishment.  The trains were old, without air-conditioning, and filthy, and muggings on the platforms were only too common.  She got the idea of substituting slugs for tokens from a Vietnam vet who came back from there very angry.  She finally stopped using slugs when the girlfriend of someone she knew, who wore a fur coat and had an executive position at Exxon, got arrested by the subway cops.  My friend still has one of the slugs and is proud of her act of subversion.

             For me, her story is problematic.  I’m not a born rebel, got along well in school without breaking rules as my older brother did, thus often getting himself in trouble.  Not that I’m a blind conformist, just one who can usually fulfill himself without breaking rules or wanting to.  When, occasionally, I’ve seen someone jump over a subway turnstile without paying, it annoys me, since I’ve always paid my way.  So it becomes a question of when can you justify breaking the law, and how do you avoid the implication of self-interest.  My friend knew why she did it.  What justification did the executive in the fur coat have?  Nothing convincing, I suspect.

             Once, to avoid jury duty, I lied.  Jury duty is always a chore, but I had done it many times, sometimes at a cost to myself, since I was a freelance editor working on my own, with no employer to continue paying me while I served.  But one day, when I was in a second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue, some people came in who had just been to the jury duty office downtown.  They were livid with rage, having been treated nastily, and had to tell their story to others so as to recover a bit of sanity.  Their story so angered me in turn that I decided to dodge jury duty.  When next summoned, I wrote a short note saying I had left the city and moved to Illinois.  I forwarded the pre-addressed, sealed note to my mother in Evanston, Illinois, and asked her to mail it.  She did, so it arrived with an Illinois postmark and I was not summoned for jury duty.  Then, in time, when jury duty conditions had been improved, I decided to move back to the city and be a dutiful citizen; when summoned next, I served.  And served and served, until age finally made me exempt.  Did I feel guilty about my deceit?  Remembering the story of those people, I did not.  But having absented myself for a while, honesty finally won out, and I resumed serving until legally exempt.

             Now here’s another story about lawbreaking that raises a key issue.  While corresponding with a gay inmate in North Carolina, I encouraged him to write his memoir, which, sometimes with great pain, he did.  In the course of it he told me of working as a camp counselor in a boys’ camp in North Carolina, where a boy of about sixteen told him in confidence a story.  The boy – let’s call him Don – lived in a small town with his parents and younger brother.  One day he heard from the other boys his age that a man had moved into town and was having sex with the boys.  The sex was consensual, and the kids liked it.  So Don connected with the man, liked him, and had great sex.  Then his younger brother likewise connected with the man and had sex.  Then one day the police turned up at Don’s house.  Having heard rumors about the man having sex with underage boys, they had arrested him and needed a witness to testify in court.  The man was a threat to the community, they insisted, and had to be locked up in prison.  Under great pressure, Don agreed, though he said nothing of his younger brother’s involvement.

             So on the day of the trial Don and his father went to court.  When Don was called to testify, he saw the man in detention and reflected.  He liked the man and the sex, and he didn’t think the man had harmed him or anyone.  So he admitted that he knew the man, but denied that they had had sex.  This threw the whole courtroom into an uproar, with prosecution and defense shouting at each other, and the judge pounding his gavel for order.  The judge ordered a brief recess so the prosecution could confer with the witness, and Don and his father met with a social worker in a side room.  The social worker, a formidable older woman, told Don that he had to testify, so they could lock the man up and put an end to his criminal behavior.  But Don didn’t think the man had ever harmed anyone or posed a threat to society.
             “Lady,” he said, “right now I’m more scared of you than I am of him.”
             The woman’s jaw dropped in astonishment.
             “If you don’t mind,” said Don’s father, “I’m taking my son home.”
             So Don and his father went home, and for want of a witness, the charges had to be dropped.  Don’s father kept Don at home for the next few days, until the man moved away.  So ended Don’s story.

             Hearing this story gave me cause for reflection.  Being under oath, Don had committed perjury, but I felt he was justified, for he was being forced to do something that he thought was wrong.  I then reached a conclusion that has stayed with me to this day:  It’s not enough to tell the truth.  You must tell the truth for the right reason.

             Do I then advocate perjury?  Only in very special circumstances, as was the case with Don.  But there are times when the standard rules don’t hold, and we have to recognize this and act accordingly.  But these exceptions are rare; usually the rules hold up.

             None of the people mentioned so far were lawbreakers in the usual sense of the term; they were not habitual offenders posing a serious threat to society.  Have I ever encountered a true lawbreaker?  Once, in a case involving a drug addict, but not even then, for he was to be pitied. 

             One other incident comes to mind.  Once, in the subway, I did encounter a man who struck me as dangerous.  He was sitting across from me, talking with a strange fervor to the woman with him.  Something about his intensity alarmed me.  He and the woman got off at the same stop where I did, and I could see them hurrying ahead of me.  As they passed a newsstand on the platform, the man reached out and grabbed a newspaper without slowing his pace for a moment, and the two of them then disappeared in the crowd.  He seized the paper so quickly that I knew he had done it before and thought nothing of it.  I was sure he was some sort of habitual criminal, and dangerous.  No hard evidence, just a gut feeling of my own, but I have a hunch I was right.

    Billy the Kid (1859-1881).  Born in New York City!

             Americans have always had a tendency to admire outlaws: Jesse James, Billy the Kid, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde.  There is something romantic about these people, and their image is only enhanced by their violent deaths.  We don’t want to be them, but we envy their living dangerously, their rejection of conventionality and routine.  This lax attitude is balanced out in our psyche by our judgmental streak, our relish at the downfall of the great, our need to find and prosecute villains – spies, Communists, child molesters, terrorists, Muslims – in short, our need of witch hunts.  Woven into our lives are lawbreakers, whether we fear them or admire them, or both.  Either way, we can’t get free of them; they’re a part of us.

    File:Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Wanted Poster of John Dillinger - NARA - 306713 (page 1).gif
    An FBI poster, 1934.  He sure got attention.

    Coming soon:  ???