Monday, April 3, 2017

Down and Out in Indianapolis


By Raanan Geberer

Back in the early ‘80s, when I accepted a one-year job as an editor at a weekly Jewish newspaper in Indianapolis to get much-needed journalism experience, I didn’t have a place to live when I first got into town. So I thought I’d stay at the local YMCA until I got my bearings and found an apartment. I’d briefly stayed at a YMCA in San Francisco three years beforehand, so I knew what to expect.

The place was on the west side of town, on the fringe of the African-American area. In fact, it was near Crispus Attucks High School, the school that had produced “The Big O,” basketball star Oscar Robertson, in the 1950s. The Y itself was surrounded by empty lots, and there just wasn’t much around there.

There were no cooking facilities, and no supermarkets in the area either – not even a small grocery store. However, there was a convenience store attached to a nearby gas station, so I bought stuff like crackers, cheese, soda and canned sardines. Thank God that there were places to eat lunch near my office – especially Wendy’s which hadn’t yet made inroads back in New York, where I came from. Wendy’s was a step up from Burger King and McDonald’s, I thought, pleased. My newspaper was in an old industrial building in the semi-seedy downtown area –an area surrounded by junk shops-- but even that neighborhood was better than the one near the Y.

There were no laundry facilities near the Y either, so I took to washing my clothes in the sink with powdered detergent, then letting them dry. This gave my clothes a gray, wrinkled appearance. It also made them smell. “Hey, Ron,” Mr. Goldberg, the elderly publisher of the paper, said one day, taking me aside, “people are saying that you stink. You sure you take showers?”Mr. Goldberg, a tough-talking former boxer and Prohibition-era bootlegger, was not known for his sensitivity.

By and by, I got to know the people in the Y’s residence hall. There was a young, blond, long-haired guy who was recovering from meth and alcohol addiction. “You know,” he said in a semi-Midwestern, semi-Southern accent, “I used to sell my blood to get money to get high, but now, I’m really into the Scriptures. I’m really into meditation, too! I just like to sit back and meditate to Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, Molly Hatchet!” What ever one thought of those groups, it was very hard to think of them as background music for meditation.

There was also an old guy who would leave the door of his room open and just look straight ahead with a bottle of beer in his hand. “You may think he’s a nice old guy,” Consuela, the middle-aged front-desk clerk said to me one night, “but he used to be a cop! If you met him 20 years ago and he stopped you and asked for your driver’s license, you wouldn’t think he’s so nice!” While there were often allegations of police brutality back in New York, I got the feeling that here in Indianapolis, the cops could get away with doing whatever they wanted – especially if you were Hispanic, like Phyllis, or black.

One day, walking down the hall in the Y, a tall, thin guy with brown hair and a beard who looked like he was about the same age as me introduced himself. “Hi! I’m Vince Grimaldi,” he said. He invited me into his room. It was filled with heavy-duty radical books – Marx, Trotsky, Kropotkin, Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, Thorsten Veblen. “Right now, I’m organizing for the Citizens Party. It’s a new party, founded by Barry Commoner. We need a party that’s not dominated by conglomorate business."

“Wait a minute,” I objected. “Third parties have always come to failure, at least on the national level. Look at the Populist Party in the 1980s, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, the LaFollette party in 1924...” We had a lively discussion, and I started visiting him every night after work.

We talked a lot about Indianapolis and how conservative it was. I remarked on how all the businessmen I saw downtown wore gray suits. “What if one wore a brown or blue suit?” I asked. “They’d think he was from out of town,” Vince answered. We both laughed.

I wondered what Vince was doing here. One night, he wasn’t there. I opened the door and there he was, passed out on the bed, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. Now I knew what he was doing here.
On the weekends, I started looking for apartments. “Just walk up and down Meridian Street,” one of the secretaries at the newspaper said, referring to the main street of the town. “There are vacant apartments in every building!” I expected these buildings to be full of young, single people, but in Indianapolis, most of the young single people either lived with their parents or in one of the newer condos on the edge of town. “Most of our tenants here are elderly,” the manager of a once-elegant 1920s apartment building told me, looking at me with hostility. “We also have some mental patients who are placed here by a social service agency.” I passed.

As the weeks went on, I began to despair of whether I would ever find a place. “You look homesick,” Mr. Goldberg said. “Why don’t I order you some Hebrew National pastrami, corned beef, salami? We get it air-mailed from Chicago....”

On the fourth Saturday, I found an apartment in an Art-Deco-style apartment building a little further to the north, in a more “respectable” area at 39th Street and North Meridian. The owners, a middle-aged couple, were happy to have me as a tenant and rented it to me at half the price it would have gotten in New York, There was a Chinese restaurant a block away, a bar across the street, and best of all a Laundromat in the building. The next Monday, I talked to Mr. Goldberg, who knew a furniture-store owner who helped me rent some furniture. Now, all I needed was a car. On my last day at the Y, I packed my bags and promised Vince that I’d stay in touch.

Next weekend, I went shopping in the nearest supermarket. Walking down the wide aisles, examining the huge variety of food, it occurred to me that the last time I’d even been in a supermarket was a month and a half ago. After the way I’d been living for the past month, Just being there seemed like an untold luxury to me. Welcome back to the world, I thought.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Gang's All Here

By Raanan Geberer

Larry’s English-language summer course, “Sociology of Israel,” at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at Mount Scopus, was supposed to be an introduction to the people of Israel, but it was basically a joke. The only people in the month-long intensive were Americans, Canadians and British, and the class didn’t meet any Israelis except for a few guest speakers. It only included three field trips—a weekend in Tel Aviv and one-day trips to an archaeological site and to a kibbutz.
The professor was a jovial, bearded American immigrant, or oleh, who had three pet topics. The first was the once-privileged position of Egged bus drivers, and how that was now fading away.  The second was that nothing gets done in Israel without protectzia, or political influence. The third was the kibbutz way of life and the diet prevalent in the kibbutzim—yogurt, white cheese, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, eggs, olives and pita.
He didn’t talk much about the conflicts between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Jews and Arabs, secular and Orthodox – the very things that interested Larry deeply. The only good thing Larry saw coming out of this class was the fact that the three course credits would be transferred to his own college, the State University of New York at Binghamton, that September, the September of 1972.
Larry began exploring Jerusalem on his own, including the Old City, where he saw an Arab vendor selling T-shirts with the legend, “Don’t Worry America, Israel Is Behind You.” He wondered how the guy could sell shirts whose message he almost certainly disagreed with. On the same trip, he also saw a guy with an outdoor schwarma stand who was oblivious to the flies buzzing around the meat.  Didn’t he know there was something wrong?
In the New City, Larry spent a lot of time in Richie’s New York City Pizza, famous for its bulletin board where American teenagers left messages for each other. The pizza would never have passed muster in New York itself.  The European-style cafes on Jaffa Road, like the Cafe Alaska, looked enticing, but Larry didn’t feel he belonged there. Despite several attempts to learn the language, he couldn’t get the knack of speaking and understanding Hebrew.
 He did go to falafel places a few times, but some of the items on the menu confused him. He knew falafel and he knew kebab, but what was “chicken schnitzel?” Was that a cutlet? If, so, why the hell couldn’t they just say cutlet? It was clear that the Israelis’ frame of reference, at least that of the older generation, was European, not American.
Of course, Larry also went to the Wall, and to the Military Cemetery on Mount Herzl to visit the grave of his uncle, Nathan, who was killed during the War of Independence in 1948. His father insisted on that. The irony was that Nathan had been a member of a left-wing Zionist group, Hashomer Hatzair, that had believed in Jewish-Arab cooperation. But once the fighting started, of course, all bets were off.
Although most of Larry’s classmates were his age or a little older, in their early twenties, Robert, a balding, overweight man with thick glasses in his thirties, was assigned to be Larry’s roommate. Robert, a social studies teacher in an inner-city high school in Brooklyn, loved to talk about the music he grew up with in Brownsville – doo-wop.
Larry himself was a closet doo-wop fan (closet because most people his age either ignored or belittled the music). Back home, he listened to radio oldies shows. He bombarded Robert with questions about the music.
“There were lots of group collectors in the old days,” Robert patiently explained in his deep voice, which no doubt was an asset in the classroom. “They listened to everything on the radio—Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Elvis—but they only bought songs by the groups.”
“Who was your favorite group?”
“The Harptones! They lasted a long time, and their songs came out on a million different labels.”
 “Do you remember any songs that didn’t become hits, but were personal favorites of yours?”
“One of them was `Three Kinds of People in the World’ by the Vocaltones.” Larry had heard “Two Kinds of People in the World” by Little Anthony and the Imperials, but “Three Kinds of People” was a new one for him. He’d have to give it a listen.
“Yeah,” Robert told Larry the next day, “I really loved those old ‘50s songs. “Earth Angel,” “In the Still of the Night,” “A Thousand Miles Away,” “Can I Come Over Tonight” by the Velours, “Walk Away Renee” by the Left Banke….” Robert’s memory was playing tricks on him, Larry thought. Not only was “Walk Away Renee” from the mid-‘60s, it had a totally different sound than the 50s songs he’d just mentioned. Larry let it go.
When Robert wasn’t talking about music, he was talking about his experiences as a teacher. Unfortunately, like many of his generation, the experience of the 1968 teachers’ strike, which pitted the largely white teachers’ union against a black school district, left him with a bitter attitude toward black people in general.
“Half of these kids, they don’t want to learn, and there’s no way you can get them to speak good English,” Robert said. “I be doin’ this, I be doin’ that—and last term, one of the kids told me that a friend of his was called Jewboy.”
“Did you ask him why?” Larry asked.
“No, I didn’t bother to do that. If I did, he’d probably just say, `Because that’s his name.’”
Robert told Larry about a job interview he’d had with a black principal, whom he accused of anti-white and anti-Semitic bias. “Yes,” he remembered the principal saying, “We want a good mix of teachers here, some male, some female, some black, some white…” Larry couldn’t see how that could possibly be construed as anti-white. Instead of arguing with Robert, he asked him why, if he felt the way he did, he didn’t transfer to a school in a more middle-class area. It turned out that Robert had several disciplinary write-ups on his record that worked against him.
In the dormitory as a whole, the summer English-language students spent most of their time in each other’s rooms. They had hour-long bull sessions, fueled by endless bottles of Maccabee Israeli beer and occasional hits of Arab hashish. The Canadian students loved to criticize America because of the Vietnam War.
“There are two words that define America—arrogance and pride!” said Steve, a kid from Toronto with shoulder-length reddish hair. Although Larry was opposed to the Vietnam War, he still felt hurt by these remarks. There was more to America than just Nixon and Vietnam, Larry protested inwardly.
Two of the Canadian guys were Orthodox, wouldn’t turn on the lights on Shabbat and wore tzitzit under their shirts. Still, their religious beliefs didn’t prevent them from getting hold of a watermelon and carving it into the shape of a female breast, to the amusement of the other guys.
Indeed, other than classwork, the students’ main activity seemed to be trying to pair up with members of the opposite sex. Since guys outnumbered girls by two to one, this wasn’t an easy task. Only two couples got together. In the first, Al, a smooth-talking guy in his mid-twenties with mid-length blond hair and a goatee, took up with Gigi, a thin, nervous, olive-skinned girl.
When he wasn’t with Gigi, Al sometimes talked about the sexual experiences he’d had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria. “You sit down at a table in a cafe, and Nigerian girls come up to you, and you talk to them and then say, `Let’s get it on.’ Most of them have never been with a white guy before, and to them, it’s a new thrill,” he said.
The other couple consisted of Marc, a tall British guy of 19 who was already starting to lose his hair, and Olivia, a 32-year-old New Yorker who was one of the few non-Jews in the bunch. Everyone was shocked because of the difference in their ages, but Steve, the guy from Toronto, wasn’t surprised. “It’s that suave English accent of his that gets her,” he explained. These two couples were often seen together in the campus snack bar.
Larry did come close to being in a relationship, or at least he thought so. But the encounter was still-born. One day, while Larry was walking around Zion Square after class, an American girl around his age approached him. She had long brown curly hair and was wearing jeans, a peasant blouse and sandals. She walked up to him:
“Hi! I wonder if you can help me. I was going to fly back to Seattle on Sunday, but I left my bag on an Egged bus, with my passport, money, everything. I need a place to stay while I contact the American Embassy and get everything sorted out. And I need to get back there soon—I have a kidney infection.”
Larry was a little suspicious of her story, but she seemed open and honest. But his room was so small. And what would Robert think about this? Would he be angry? Then there was the matter of her kidney infection. Could that be contagious in some way? He wasn’t sure, since biology wasn’t his strong point. Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no….
“Um, I don’t think I can help you. I live in a tiny room in a dormitory and I share it with another student.”
A few days later, Larry saw the same girl on Ben-Yehuda Street. She was smiling. “I met a man with an apartment here, a journalist. He has a big apartment, and he’s helping me,” she said. Mazel Tov, Larry thought enviously.
As the semester neared its end, Steve said, “There’s a lot of positive energy in this country. Remember the weekend we all went to Tel Aviv? I went to Haifa the next weekend, and I visited my cousins in Netanya on the way back.”
“Did you hitchhike?” Larry asked. “Professor Brodsky said…”
“Listen, I know what Professor Brodsky said, that everybody hitchhikes, and that might have been true six, seven years ago. But the last few years, since the ’67 war, things have changed. There have been some incidents. Everyone’s more security conscious.”
“I can see that.” Larry, who had gone on anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at home, found it hard to take the sight of Israeli soldiers, most of them his own age or a little older, casually carrying their submachine guns in public.
“As far as this semester is concerned,” Steve continued, “forget about it! I didn’t find any girlfriends whatsoever! What’s the last time you heard of a 19-year-old taking a vacation and not finding a girl?”
Larry laughed. “Would you ever consider living here?” he asked Steve. He thought of his own parents, who, as Labor Zionists, lived in Israel for two years, from 1949 to 1951.
“I don’t know, Larry! I very well might retire here. But I don’t think I’d spend my productive years in Israel.” Larry was unsure, so he just nodded.
On the last day of class, he said goodbye to Robert in his room
“I envy that guy Al, the one who used to be a Peace Corps volunteer, the one who’s hooked up with that shy, nervous chick,” Robert said. “He travels all over the world, and no matter where he goes, he seems to have a great fuckin’ time!”
“Uh, what about you?” Larry asked. “At home, I mean. You have a girlfriend?”
Robert sighed. “No, haven’t had a girlfriend in a few years. I go to a lot of Jewish singles socials and dances, you know, like Temple Beth El in Great Neck. But I can’t seem to meet anybody.”
Maybe if he lost about 50 pounds he’d be in a better situation to find someone, Larry thought. Robert sensed that both of them were uncomfortable with this topic and started discussing music again.
“Did I tell you,” Robert asked, “that when I was a student in Thomas Jefferson High School in the ‘50s, the Italian guys were so much into rock and roll that they formed little groups in the lunchroom, just like the Black kids did? Yeah, you’d see a group of Italian kids singing at one of the tables, with a lead singer, a falsetto and a bass….”
Since they both lived in New York, Larry and Robert exchanged numbers. But Larry knew they wouldn’t see each other again. Robert was 32, or 12 years older than Larry. There was the Generation Gap to consider. When Robert was Larry’s age, people over the age of 18 didn’t wear T-shirts or jeans in the street unless they were “beatniks,” girls were supposed to wait until they were married before having sex, young adults were expected to live with their parents until marriage, and if you even mentioned the word “socialism,” you were suspected of being a communist. A whole different world.
A few days later, Larry waited for his flight at Lod Airport. The place was jammed with hundreds of kids—kids going back to New York, to Philly, to Montreal, to Chicago, to Los Angeles and to a hundred other places.
Two young women with too much makeup and too-tight blouses and jeans were approaching anyone their age in a state of near panic. They had bought bottles of arrack, an Israeli liquor, for all their friends, but they belatedly found out that they could only take a few with them before they had to start paying a tax. They were looking for someone who could take the remaining bottles in their luggage, then meet them at JFK Airport and give them back. Larry just steered clear of them. Why look for trouble?

He was wandering around the terminal absent-mindedly when he heard his flight called. Clutching his bag, he walked toward the gate, back to his family in the Bronx, back to a summer job waiting for him in a local supermarket, back to friends old and new -- back to America.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Windermere Revives in Manhattan

First Published in Straus News chain, July 2016

By Raanan Geberer

The once-elegant Windermere apartment house on West 57th Street and Ninth Avenue, for years an empty, deteriorating hulk, is coming back to life. Through construction netting, one can see a refurbished brick exterior, newly installed windows, and once-again prominent architectural details that had been obscured for decades.
In between its construction in 1880-81 and now, the building has had several incarnations, including as one of the city’s most upscale, elegant residences; housing for independent “bachelor girls”; and a down-and-dirty SRO.
The Windermere was probably named after Lake Windermere in the English Lake District. At eight stories, it was one of the first large apartment houses in the city. Not only did it have three elevators, rare enough in the early 1880s, but it had telephone service, which is extraordinary when you consider the fact that the city’s first telephone exchange was established just two years beforehand. Each apartment had five or six bedrooms, and the building boasted uniformed servants and marble fireplaces.
Still the building was soon overshadowed by larger, grander and more modern apartment buildings such as the Chelsea Hotel and the Dakota. In addition, a series of fires plagued the Windermere in its first decade.
Around 1890, the building’s policy changed, in part due to the hiring of superintendent Henry Stirling Goodale, described as “a man of artistic tastes,” and the father of two young women who wrote poetry. Goodale began to rent rooms within the suites to respectable young, single, employed women, as well as a smaller number of young single men. By 1900, the U.S. Census reported only four families in the building.
After Goodale’s departure, more men and families began to move in once again. Many families took in “roomers.” Census records of the building’s occupants in the first few decades of the 20th century, according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, reveal a somewhat mixed tenant body, including stenographers, clerks, a railroad conductor, a nurse, a detective, medical students, a plumber, a doctor, a dressmaker, actors, and several chauffeurs and waiters.
The Windermere, from its earliest days, also had a reputation for housing artists. During the 20th century, some of these included Quinto Manganini, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his opera “The Argonauts”; sculptor, painter and photographer May Mott-Smith; and photographer Alonzo Hanagan, known as “Lon of New York,” whose semi-erotic photos of male bodybuilders often got him in trouble with the law.
By the 1960s and early 70s, the Windermere was basically a rundown SRO. Among those who lived there when they were first starting out were actors Steve McQueen and Yaphet Kotto. In 1970, Kotto told The New York Times in 2002, he was filming “Across 110th Street” when he heard a knock on his trailer door. There stood his old landlord from the Windermere saying “McQueen owes me money.” Kotto paid the landlord several hundred dollars. He told the Times that one of the happiest days of his life was when he left the Windermere.
The Windermere’s worst days were still to come. In 1980, Alan B. Weissman took over. According to court papers and testimony, tenants’ rooms were ransacked, doors ripped out, and prostitutes deliberately moved into the building, presumably in an effort to empty the building. The Times wrote that several of Weissman’s building managers went to jail, and Weissman himself, earned a spot in the Village Voice’s “New York’s Worst Landlords” series in 1985.
By the early 2000s, only about half a dozen residents were left. I remember walking by the building and encountering one of these residents, who was having a sidewalk sale. Almost all the windows were covered with aluminum sheeting, and the former stores on the ground floor had been boarded up long before. By this time, the Windermere was owned by a Japanese company, Toa Construction.
In 2005, the city designated the building as a landmark, but that didn’t help conditions there. Two years later, the Fire Department evacuated remaining residents, saying the building was unsafe. Toa Construction had to pay nearly $4 million in penalties and lawsuits related to the building’s condition, The Times reported in 2007.
In 2009, Mark Tress bought the building for $13 million, announcing that he would convert it to an upscale hotel, with some affordable housing and stores on the ground floor also included.
Hell’s Kitchen has become fashionable again, and the Windermere is finally going along with it.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The 9th Avenue El--the 19th Century's High Line

By Raanan Geberer--originally published in Chelsea-Clinton News/Our Town/West Side Spirit

Ninth Avenue in Chelsea is a pleasant street, with restaurants, bakeries, several important housing developments, a supermarket, the Church of the Holy Apostles, two diners directly across from each other. Further up the avenue, north of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the avenue is filled with young people going to bars and restaurants.
Now, picture the same avenue with a noisy elevated train line overhead. Hard to do? That was the reality of Ninth Avenue for seven decades, when the Ninth Avenue El was as much a part of people’s day-to-day reality as Penn South, Gristedes and the Rail Line Diner are today.
In the mid-19th century, horse-drawn street traffic in Manhattan was becoming unbearable. Charles T. Harvey, in 1866, formed a “West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company” and in 1868 finished construction on an overhead line from Dey Street to 29th Street along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue. The line was powered by a cable-car mechanism.
According to “The New York Elevated” by Robert C. Reed (A.S Barnes & Co., 1978), Harvey planned to connect his el to the Hudson River Railroad’s (the ancestor of today’s MetroNorth Hudson Line) old terminal at West 30th Street. But malfunctions of the cable mechanism and lawsuits doomed the scheme. In 1870, the el was bought by new investors, who soon replaced the cable mechanism with steam engines pulling wooden cars.
By 1880, the el stretched from South Ferry to 155th Street. Other els sprung up along Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. Indeed, the Sixth Avenue line eventually swung west on 53rd Street and linked up with the Ninth Avenue El. By 1903, all four Manhattan els were absorbed into the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which was then building the city’s first subway. In 1918, the Ninth Avenue line was extended into the southwest Bronx, where it joined with the IRT’s Lexington-Jerome Avenue line at 167th Street.
From the very beginning, the els were highly criticized, especially by newspapers. Critics said they blocked sunlight from the street, created noise, frightened horses and made buildings shake. Cinders from their steam engines, they said, fell on pedestrians and blackened the fa├žade of nearby buildings. When the steam engines were replaced by electric power after the turn of the century, things improved — a little.
The worst disaster in the history of the Manhattan els involved the 9th Avenue line on Sept. 11, 1905. According to Wikipedia, a downtown Ninth Avenue train mistakenly switched onto the curve for the Sixth Avenue line. The train was going 30 mph, nearly 20 mph faster than recommended for that portion of the track. The motorman realized his error and slammed on the brakes, throwing the second car down to the street. The third car came to rest against the front of a nearby apartment building, and some of the passengers were able to escape through the windows. Thirteen people were killed, with 48 seriously injured.
What was it like to ride on the Ninth Avenue El? The “classic” el cars were 19th century century wooden “gate cars.” They had open platforms at both ends, protected by gates. At each station, a conductor had to open and close the gates for the passengers. In the early 1920s, some of these cars were retrofitted with enclosed vestibules and sliding doors. The stations were built in Victorian, “gingerbread” style. And in the winter, they were heated by pot-bellied stoves.
For years, civic reformers had sought the removal of the Manhattan els – both to give nearby residents a break and to raise property values along the avenues, according to the “Encyclopedia of New York City.” When the city’s own Eighth Avenue subway opened a block away from the Ninth Avenue El in 1932, the writing was on the wall. The City of New York purchased the IRT in June 1940 and ended service on the el. A small section from 155th Street to the Bronx was preserved as the ‘Polo Grounds Shuttle,” but that, too, was discontinued after the baseball Giants left the Polo Grounds for San Francisco.

A masterful depiction of the Ninth Avenue El can be found in Henry Roth’s novel “A Diving Rock on the Hudson” (St. Martin’s Press, 1996), based on his experiences as a high school student and college freshman in the ‘20s. Taking the el uptown to his friend’s house near Yankee Stadium, Roth and his friend daringly stood on the outside platform at the rear of the last car, which was “windier than windy.” The two chums had “their fedoras jammed down on their heads, topcoats buttoned up to the collar” as they strained to talk to each other above the howling wind and as the train clattered up the West Side. Rest in peace, Ninth Avenue El.

The Other Halves--a Short Story

“Where to?” asked the overweight, T shirt-wearing and balding cab driver, as we prepared to go to the retreat center in the Hudson Valley. I usually rented a car when we went away on weekends in the tri-state area, but my wife insisted that we experiment with taking a Trailways bus this time. So we got off the bus in New Paltz and took a cab.
The cab trip took about 15 minutes. As we proceeded through the mainly rural area, the driver, who introduced himself as Ronnie, turned down his country-music radio station and started talking about himself. “I’ve never had the advantage of an education like you city people,” he said, with a slight Southern accent. “I’ve done everything. I worked in a factory, I drove trucks, I’ve been a salesman – sold stuff out of the trunk of my car – and now, a cab driver. So, we’ll see how this works out.”
“Have you always lived around here?” my wife asked.
“No, I’m from Florida, originally,” he answered, lighting up a cigarette, “but I moved around a lot.” He briefly looked back at us and smiled, then turned his attention back to the road. “I was married twice, but that didn’t last. When I get to a new place, I find a few rooms above a store, buy a few broken-down pieces of furniture, fix ‘em up, and it’s home!” After we passed a large mock-log cabin bar-roadhouse with lots of pickup trucks and SUVs parked outside, he made a turn and went up a hill.
A question kept popping up in my mind, and I finally couldn’t help but ask it. “If almost everybody has cars around here,” he said, “how does the cab company stay in business?”
He turned back for a second, put out his cigarette, then kept driving. “Well,” he said, “You see that bar we passed? Lots of people go there on at night, but they’re in no condition to drive home because they had a few drinks. So we take them home.” We passed a fishing bait-and-tackle shop.
“Then, the next morning,” he continued, “they call us again, and we drive them to their cars. Some of these old boys, they call us two, three times week. This Saturday, there’s going to be a band playing, so there’s gonna be a lot of action!” He turned up the radio again.
Somehow, I knew the band had to be country and western. I decided to change the subject and bring up something I’d heard from a friend who’d grown up around here. “I heard the police chief in Accord races cars himself in the stock-car races there.”
“Yep,” Ronnie said, smiling. “He’s always there with his car, just like everybody else. I really enjoy goin’ to the raceway—when I can afford it! Oh, here we are. Hey, let me help you take your bags out of the trunk. And when you decide to leave, here’s my card. Just call this number.” He turned around and waved goodbye.
·        * *
After the retreat weekend was over and Ronnie drove us back to the bus stop, we found ourselves on a spacious, new bus headed back to the city. My wife and I marveled about how comfortable it was --- not like the cramped buses I used to take back and forth to the State University at Binghamton way back when.
Apparently the people in back of us had similar thoughts. “That was a wonderful idea for an experiment, to take the bus,” I heard a man with a British accent say. “It’s very clean, very spacious, very punctual, very convenient.” I sneaked a look back. The man was gray-haired, in his fifties or sixties. He was with a dark-haired heavy-set woman who was slightly younger, maybe in her late 40s or early 50s. She was wearing a silk blouse and a pearl necklace; he was wearing a white shirt with a light-blue tie and an expensive watch.
“I’m definitely finding it quite satisfactory,” the woman answered. She was definitely American, but she had an upper-crust, private-school accent, a little like Margaret Dumont in the old Marx Brothers movies. “And I engaged that cab driver, Ronnie, to do some work in my house.” Hey—that was the same cab driver we had, I realized with a smile.
“So,” the man asked, “do you want to talk about the weekend?”
“Well, unfortunately, the deal fell through. A pity—it was such a lovely house, right on the edge of the woods and near a lake. And, I was telling you before, it was a million-dollar deal.”
“You know, that reminds me about my son. He built a vacation rental property in the south of Spain, then, with the proceeds from that property, he built six condos. You’ve got to have that stream of income coming in!”
Wow, I thought. These guys are the antithesis of Ronnie!
“Now, for pleasanter things,” the woman continued. “I took along something for us to eat during the trip. It’s a salad of root vegetables with fresh Swiss chard and goat cheese in a balsamic vinegar and truffle-oil dressing. It’s in this plastic container. I brought these two forks.”
There was a brief silence, and then the man said, “Delicious!” The bus rolled through Newburgh.
“I’m glad you liked it! I’ll put it away so we can have the rest later,” the woman replied.
“I think I’ll do some reading. I’ll take a look at the Wall Street Journal.”
“And I’ll have a copy of Distaff.” I reflected, how, years ago, I worked for an energy technology magazine published by the same magazine group that put out “Distaff.” My editor at the tech publication had told me that “Distaff” was a high fashion and lifestyle magazine geared to wealthy, middle-aged women. Sounds about right, I thought.
The bus proceeded through one New Jersey town after another. My wife took out her copy of  the New York Times Book Review, while I looked out the window, observing the red, yellow and brown leaves on the trees. I used to get a kick out of going through Paramus because it was home to the Paramus Roller Staking Rink—something I remembered passing numerous times during my college bus trips to Binghamton. But this time, I didn’t see it. Must have gone out of business, I thought. I dozed off to sleep.
I was awoken by the bright lights of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Behind me, the older couple began to speak again. “Where would you like to eat tonight? Something Italian?”
“Sounds marvelous!”
“I know a wonderful Italian restaurant, the Tuscan Villa, on the Upper East Side. It’s highly rated by Zagat -- It’s worth going to just for the wine list!” They both laughed. I wasn’t looking forward to going back to work at the newspaper the next day, but I put that out of my mind. I dozed off to sleep.
The driver opened the doors, and people started grabbing their bags and moving up to the front, trying to get to the head of the line. Outside the bus, many people waited for friends or loved ones. My wife and I went to the baggage compartment on the side and waited for the driver to open the door. Suddenly, we heard a loud crash.
“How terrible!” I recognized the voice of the Englishman who had been sitting in back of us.
“A catastrophe! Oh, I’m terribly sorry!”
And there, with passengers carefully avoiding it, were the remains of a salad of root vegetables with fresh Swiss chard and goat cheese, splattered on the bus terminal’s concrete floor.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The History of the High Line

Originally published in Chelsea News/Our Town/West Side Spirit

The High Line is certainly the most popular attraction in west Chelsea today, attracting 5 million visitors annually. Most local residents know that the High Line itself was originally a freight railroad. But its history goes back well before the elevated structure was even constructed. Where tourists now walk, cowboys once rode on horseback.
In the 1840s, the Hudson River Railroad, the ancestor of today’s MetroNorth Hudson Line, built a street-level railroad with tracks on 10th and 11th avenues. After the line was merged into the New York Central in 1869, most passenger trains were re-routed into Grand Central. A local train known as the “Dolly Varden” provided passenger service to the West Side until around 1930, but in the main, the route became a freight line.
But even in horse-and-carriage days, operating a street-level railroad was dangerous. In 1852, a law was passed stating that a mounted “cowboy” had to ride in front of the trains to alert pedestrians and vehicles. That still wasn’t enough. According to the rail fan website www.kinglyheirs.com, in 1908, the city’s Bureau of Municipal Research reported that since 1852, the trains had killed 436 people. Both 10th and 11th avenues became known as “Death Avenue.”
Protests were mounted, plans were made, but it wasn’t until 1929 that the city agreed to build the High Line to replace the street-level freight tracks below 34th Street (the northern portion of the former freight line is now used by Amtrak trains heading to Albany and Buffalo). A brochure from 1934, celebrating the New York Central’s opening of the High Line, describes the original terminal on Spring Street, which had eight tracks and 14 elevators, and gives the names of the freight customers (such as Nabisco, whose building is now the Chelsea Market).
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the High Line was the fact that it went right through many of the buildings that it served, off-loading goods inside these openings. One of these openings can still be seen at the former Bell Laboratories building between Bank and Bethune streets, now the Westbeth residential complex. Some street-level rail traffic persisted for years, possibly to serve customers that the High Line couldn’t access. The last street train ran in 1941, according to the New York Times, and that trip’s “cowboy,” George Hayden, wore a 10-gallon hat to celebrate.
 The High Line prospered for many years, serving the Meatpacking and Printing districts. But beginning in the 1950s, truck traffic began to eat into its volume. The freight terminal and the line south of Bank Street in Greenwich Village were abandoned in the 1960s. When the line was taken over by Conrail, which was created by the government to run bankrupt freight lines, the writing was on the wall. The last train, which carried three cars of frozen turkeys, ran in 1982.
In 1984, rail fan Peter Obltetz, described by the Times as an “eccentric neighborhood visionary,” bought the line for $10, but after owners of businesses underneath the structure, who favored demolition, mobilized against him, the federal government reversed the sale. In 1991, the Times reported, another section of the line, between Bank and Gansevoort streets, was sold for real estate development. Meanwhile, the line continued to deteriorate, attracting vandals, prostitutes and arsonists.
In 1999, two Chelsea residents, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, had the idea of making the unused structure into an elevated park and formed Friends of the High Line. Around 2001, this writer attended a debate at a local political club between the Friends, who displayed their plans for the park, and the Chelsea Property Owners Group, who complained of debris falling from the line and a lack of drainage that meant that “when it rained, it poured.”
Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, like the property owners, wanted the line demolished, but the Friends had the advantage of celebrity. A 2004 fundraiser covered by the Times was headlined by Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick and Edward Albee, among others. In 2005, the Bloomberg administration assumed control of the former rail line, and ground was broken in 2006. The High Line Park opened in sections, in 2009, 2011 and 2014.
Today, on the High Line, visitors can experience t’ai chi, walking tours, meditation, comedy, music, gardening and even boxing. But there’s two things they won’t see. The first is a freight locomotive—and the second is a cowboy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Whatever Happened to Student Power?

From Tikkun Magazine

What will the high school of the future be like? Different. It will surely be freer; students will be more independent. High school students of today haven’t reached any peak of possible maturity. The students of tomorrow will be more mature than we are. Just as administrations have already become more liberal about dress codes, so tomorrow they will become more liberal about studies. And `formal education’ will become less formal.
These words from the anthology “Our Time Is Now,” circa 1970, edited by John Birmingham, call attention to a part of history that is all but forgotten: the student power movement in American high schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The stereotype is that all the action as far as demonstrations were concerned took place in the universities, and that if it did spread to high schools, those younger students were copying their elders. Another stereotype is that students were mainly protesting the “big” issues, like civil rights and the war in Vietnam.
Maybe that’s how the protest era started, but once it did, students, especially high school students, were also seeking reform of their schools, demanding a bigger voice for students in how these schools were run. In my own high school, circa 1969 or 1970, a group of radical students issued a list of “10 demands.” The only two I remember – the right to go out for lunch and the right to have soda machines in the schools – seem laughable today.
But these demands, and others like them across the country, were part of a movement that was called “student power.” This movement is barely remembered today and has very little counterpart in today’s high schools.
The 1960s was an age of protest, and many young people began to look at themselves as a vanguard of change. Inevitably, kids began to make connections between the hierarchical nature of American society and that of their high schools. Faculty and administrators usually had the right to overrule student governments and censor student newspapers, unilaterally impose behavior and dress codes on the students and, in some cases, inspect students’ lockers without permission. As a student at the Bronx High School of Science during that era, even during a “free” period, I couldn’t go from the study hall to the library without showing my program card.
An essay by Mike Fox, then a student at John Bowne High in Flushing, N.Y., that was first printed in an underground newspaper and then anthologized in “Our Time Is Now,” compared life in the school to his experiences working on a farm during the summer. “The farmer doesn’t give a damn about his cows,” Fox wrote.
“The only time farmer X—- (presumably the school principal) cases about us is when it involves out production. We produce marks and grades instead of milk. We are also bred for further production outside of Bowne. When a farmer notices that a cow isn’t producing well enough, he calls her out and sells her to the slaughter house. In the same way, we are called out after Bowne, into college, or remain with the herd or into the army to be slaughtered.”
As we’ve mentioned, many of these mini-revolts were at least partially instigated by things that we might consider trivial today, but at the time were considered important parts of young people’s identity. In Young Activists: American High School Students in the Age of Protest by Gale Graham, Graham mentions how some school districts forbade long hair and facial hair not only for male students, but also for male teachers. She quotes Geoff Burkman, who was a student at a Cincinnati high school in the late ’60s, as saying, “We pushed things as far to the limits as we could …. For instance, if the code said no sideburns below the bottom of the ear,
then we all made sure we grew our sideburns right down to that line.” Pants for girls were
another battleground. Graham recounts how female students at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn organized, risked being sent home, and called for days when they all wore pants to school.
In time, the rebellious mood spread even to schools where students weren’t really political. Jean Schaffer, who taught in Boston and New York City schools for thirty years, in the late ’60s was teaching at East Boston High School, which served a conservative, working-class neighborhood. Toward the end of the year, the freshmen, sophomores and juniors were required to stay in their home-room classes for several days so they wouldn’t interfere with the seniors’ rehearsals for graduation. One student, says Schaffer, started to loudly object, and the others joined in. Schaffer encouraged them to write down their dissatisfactions. They soon turned their writings into an underground newspaper, with Schaffer as advisor, which they distributed off-campus because of school rules.
As Graham points out, many of the gains students made during this era were the result of lawsuits and court decisions, often involving the American Civil Liberties Union and its state affiliates. The ACLU backed the Tinker vs. Des Moines case, in which students successfully sought the right to wear black armbands to mourn the dead in Vietnam, and the Goss vs. Lopez case, in which students in Cleveland who were punished with suspensions won the right to due process. In 1968, the organization issued a Guide to Student Rights for young people.
What happened to student power? Just like the overall protest movement, it may have been a victim of Kent State, the recession of the 1970s, the increasing competition to get into colleges, the higher cost of college education and resultant student debt, the conservatism of the Reagan era or all of the above. Many of the situations that the high school rebels of the ’60s objected to, like cops in the school and dress codes, are still in place.
Frank M., who taught high school studies in Suffolk County, N.Y., from 1999 to 2013, says that
at his school, there was little censorship of the student newspaper. Students had a voice when
issues like dress codes or electives were being discussed, but the school board had the last word. Told about the “60s students” demands that current issues be discussed in the classroom, he said, “They are discussed in some classes, but overall, there are other outlets for that, like the Model U.N. Club.” Overall, he said, students who view themselves as a revolutionary force or part of a vanguard are “very few and far between.”
Julia Judge, who graduated from Onteora High School in Woodstock, N.Y., in 2011, recalls, “From what I understand, everything publicly organized at my school had to be approved by a higher up, either a teacher or a principal or someone otherwise employed by the school.” She does remember a student petition for a “senior lounge” in the basement of the school, but that was shot down by the administration. “A lot of the small changes that occurred over the years, dress code included, seemed to be more because of pressure from parents than students.”
Jean Schaffer, who moved from Boston to New York City in the ’70s and taught there, remember that in the ’90s, many students in her school became very active in a “Stop the Violence” club, but the impetus for the club came from the principal, not the students themselves.
Will a new student power movement emerge? In today’s increasingly competitive world, students often look on high school as a mere way station to college and career. In these circumstances, it doesn’t seem likely. Still, the student power movement touched untold thousands of lives and, in this way, made a lasting contribution to society.