Archive | February, 2012

Bedford Avenue & Broadway

28 Feb

I’d like to add to B.C. Smith’s recent and wonderfully appropriate description of a large cross section of us to include this: those who don’t own cars. Sure, it doesn’t sound as poetic as all that, but think of all the poetic possibilities it opens up. I mean what it literally, physically, opens us up to, what it puts us in front of, or next to, or behind, or inside of, in our attempts to get from here to there. I know getting around can be a pain in the ass, but it means we can’t take anything for granted and you have to figure that we’re somewhat better people for it. Really, isn’t it great that we have to think about the weather, that we have to notice if it’s sunny or raining or snowing and actually take that into account? I’m not kidding here! We’re not farmers, sure, but at least we pay some kind of attention; we react with some engagement to each day. There’s something nice in that. And yes, all right, I am going to admit, I have been blatantly paraphrasing my girlfriend here. Though wait a minute, nobody knows that except her. So actually, never mind, disregard what I’m saying. But not what she’s saying, through me. Hmmm. Makes sense? No? Okay, wait, I’m gonna talk about Flaubert now; that one might throw her off our trail.

But no, it probably won’t, because you know Flaubert, he digs it too. In the beginning of his little book November the narrator speaks about the autumn, about returning from his long and daily walk through the frozen fields and meadows. He steps over ice-filled ditches. He jumps over snow-drifts in one leap.  The crazy bastard even sits down on the ground. All right, now I don’t care if this isn’t his best book, I still find some inspiration there. Go take a walk, in any weather. You’ll find some landscape that reflects your own. And even better if you have to take that walk to get somewhere, cause there you go — that takes care of motivation. You’re going outside anyway! Look at some building that you pass each day, and then look at it again.

For me it’s the Kings County Savings Bank, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Broadway. I bike by this every time I ride into the city. It’s no longer a bank but now houses the not for profit Williamsburg Art and Historical Center. Which means it’s open to the public, as both an art gallery and a performance space. The second and third floor are each one large, open room. The first floor supposedly retains its original gas chandeliers and carved woodwork, though that one isn’t open to the masses for corroboration. Still, it’s the exterior that really makes the place. The bank was completed in 1867, in a French Second Empire style, at a time when overt displays of wealth were all the norm. Hence this bank built in the model of a millionaires house. But that makes total sense, doesn’t it? I can just picture looking out that round window in the mansard roof, surveying your estate, your manicured grounds and frozen meadows. Anyone up for taking a walk? Or at least a ride in the phaeton? Nah, I think I’ll stick around here and whip my servant instead.

Although this is the Second Empire we’re talking about, not the ancien regime. Maybe there was less whipping going on by then. Flaubert would know; he wrote his best books during the Empire’s heydey. We’re talking Napoleon III here people, you know, uh, rockin and rollin. Send the Hapsburg prince Maximillian to Mexico in an attempted coup, as part of a grand scheme to reintroduce monarchical rule to Central and South America? Yeah, sure, sounds good. Start a disastrous war with Prussia that ends in utter defeat and exile in England? Um, whatever. Napoleon II must be rolling over in his grave! But I don’t know. Old number three probably wasn’t that bad. He did spend some time in New York in the 1830s, again as an exile, this time before he became emperor, when his name was simply Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. What did he get up to while he was here? Nobody knows. He probably walked around a lot. Maybe he noticed the lack of Second Empire architecture. I gotta do something about that, he said.

(Originally posted Feb. 6th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

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Eldridge Street & Division Street

17 Feb

No one really talks about the Manhattan Bridge that much, the fourth and last of the major bridges built to span the East River, and that’s because it’s ugly. Even its approach off of Canal Street, with its granite arch and flanking columns, doesn’t do it for me. Can you believe that! I guess I won’t try to reclaim absolutely everything in this world for beauty. Not yet at least. I mean a guy’s got to eat at some point right? Speaking of which, you gonna finish that? No, no that’s fine, I don’t mind mayonnaise.

The bridge does serve some purpose though, besides not being water, and that’s its role as aerial walkway above the ever expanding Chinatown. I’ve often thought that it’s a perfect place to first approach the neighborhood, where the good smells rise up above the rest of them. One of my favorite spots is on the northern walkway, as you approach Manhattan, looking at the intersection of Eldridge and Division Street. That skinny building in the center reminds me of a truncated and tenemented Flat Iron Building. It makes the short list of apartments I would like to live in. My girlfriend can’t believe it, but you know what it is: that turret-like corner with its windows really does it for me. And they all face south, which can be especially important in the wintertime. It’s something like the feeling I get when I see an airplane flying west at sunset, catching the complete and final last rays of the sun. I’d like to spend some time up there. I also like the non-stop produce market across the street, beneath the bridge. It’s the kind of market where you feel like you have to be angry and shouting the entire time you’re buying food. Something Shakespearean maybe, or at least like Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets.” Yeah, I really like that kind of thing. Reminds me of the oft-maligned Paul McCartney, “and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.”

We are, aren’t we? Let’s have some fun with it. I think of the times in my life I’ve been allowed back on a bus while totally intoxicated. It’s like acting almost! In Australia they’ll ask you when you get on, wait a minute, now wait a minute son, are you pissed? But no, you’ll say, no, no, I’m actually quite happy.

(Originally posted Jan. 30th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

5th Avenue & 25th Street (Brooklyn)

16 Feb

I’m not one to think about death too often. Are you surprised? Call it a product of my environment — I don’t exactly live a life out on the front lines. I’m more of a burrower myself. Although I’ve always thought that I would make a fine man for reconnaissance. Because I’m pretty good at hiding, and I can run away real fast. I’m speaking literally here: just try and catch me. Metaphorically it’s not like that at all. Metaphorically you can run, and you should run, a shit load, but you can’t run away from anything. It’s just no fun. Try running towards some stuff instead. Same goes for hiding. You got a tree of troubles? Don’t go get lost in there — you got to turn around and nip it in the bud. Just nip it in the bud old friends! Only healthy shit grows. You can pretty much ignore the rest of it.

Alright, alright, it grows and then it dies, and so it’s left for someone else to think about it; someone who’s living. I find that I’m someone who’s living. I actually find that all the time. And so I think about it — I think of all the things amongst us that have died. I mean the cultural, the physical, the remnants of these other worlds now gone that have some echo, still, within our own. You see some 19th century mausoleum built in the style of a Roman shrine whose deity fell out of human mind’s two thousand years ago. Or shit, you just watch Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.” These feelings are all around us.

On 5th Avenue and 25th Street, in Brooklyn, you’ll find the entry gates to Green-Wood Cemetery. It’s an arresting spot, especially if you happen to go by it in that purple, snow-lit hour before total dark. It’s great how snow can pad the air itself and color what we otherwise would think of as an empty space. It changes the acoustics of perception. You know what I’m saying, all you winter haters? Where else you gonna find something like that? But yes, I will admit, it does make things pretty slippery. I was skidding and sliding all over the place! And sure, I certainly was drunk as well; that didn’t help things any. But really, how could you not be?

These gates were built in 1861 in a Gothic Revival style, although the cemetery itself has been around since 1838. A colony of monk parakeets live in the center spire. The story goes that they escaped from Idlewild Airport in the 1960s, sometime before it changed its name to JFK. Green-Wood Cemetery was very popular as a walking park and picnic spot all through the 1850s, and it was influential as a model and an inspiration for the creation of Central Park, around the time when people decided that they didn’t want to hang out in graveyards anymore. Eating lunch amongst the tombstones — surely there’s some significance in that. Though I suppose in a certain sense we’re still doing that exact same thing today.

The other evening I was waiting for the subway and from somewhere down the platform I could hear a lone trumpeter playing the theme from “The Godfather.” And it was like that all over again. I wasn’t sure just where my own life started, new, separate from everything I have inherited. I didn’t want to know. I felt just then I was in love the way they must have been back in the early 60s: Dylan hopping on the A train with his guitar case in his hand. One other time I took a train alone to the ruins of an ancient Greek colony in Italy, and when I got out at the station I was the only person there — walking down the long dirt path, with those giant gates laid out in front of me. It was the morning and the summer and I felt just like the Greeks must have when they decided to invent the world. There was something there inside me. It was me, and it was something else, and it was something else entirely. And yeah, I thought, all right my friend, I think I’ll call you Zeus.  We’re gonna do this thing together.

(Originally posted Jan. 23rd, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Greenwich Street & Charles Street

14 Feb

Due to the existence of high pressure systems, low pressure systems, wind, and probably Canada, it’s really fucking cold outside. Oh yeah, and the whole Northern hemisphere tilting away from the sun thing. I guess that plays its part as well. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up hope. Call me an optimist, but I think we’re already at the time of year when we can start looking forward. Each step taken is that much closer to warm weather. Let’s call it warm-er weather at least. So I say bring it on! If I can have fun when it’s fifteen degrees out just imagine what I’ll be doing when it’s ninety. I don’t know. Probably pretty much the same thing — except in a t-shirt. A t-shirt people!

I imagine there are those who’d say the city is a particularly pointless place to be in the winter time. Something to the effect of getting all of the negatives with none of the positives — barring those who go ice-skating at Wollman Rink or Rockefeller Center. It might be better to spend winter at some farmhouse, cross country skiing every day. I would want mine to have huge windows facing the sunshine. My grandma could live there. She’d make me hot chocolate. Not real hot chocolate mind you – this isn’t the old country I’m talking about. Just that shit out of the bag. It doesn’t matter; it’s still delicious. But what about a farmhouse in the city? Can we agree that might be some kind of perfect compromise? Some insane fantasy?

Guess what? It’s real. There is a free standing farmhouse in the city, in the West Village nonetheless, at 121 Charles, by Greenwich Street. It’s surrounded by a high brick wall, with a driveway and a front lawn. The house is about 200 years old and actually originally stood in the rear lot at 71st St. and York Ave. It was moved here in its entirety in 1967. I guess its biggest claim to fame is that Margaret Wyse Brown lived in it in the 1940s. She’s the woman who wrote Goodnight Moon, and you know, thinking back to that book, the aesthetic of a farmhouse in Manhattan seems to fit just right. It supposedly even has its own name: Cobble Court. How many people these days live in a house that has a name? Especially in this city?

Although you know what, nix that. A lot of apartment buildings in New York have names. Just across Greenwich Street from Cobble Court in fact, at 135 Charles, is Le Gendarme apartments. Those are housed in what used to be this precinct’s police station, erected in 1897. You can still see signs of it all over the facade. It might just be the name, but Le Gendarme puts me in a European mood. Forget the farmhouse; maybe I’d rather spend my winters over there. I’m picturing a window that opens up onto a courtyard. I don’t care if it’s gray and rainy. In fact I think that’s perfect. I could live in a garret — like all the poor young writers used to. Are you kidding, a guy like me? I’d love a garret! My grandma could live downstairs and rent out some of the other rooms. She’d make me hot chocolate. What kind do I mean? I don’t know, whatever kind she wants — she’s an old lady. She’s my grandma. But wait a minute, grandma, hey grandma, can you at least just throw some marshmallows in there?

(Originally posted Jan. 16th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

5th Avenue & 53rd Street

13 Feb

I seem to recall Speed Levitch talking about midtown Manhattan in the documentary The Cruise and saying something along the lines of, it’s a “20th century creation. Civilization has never looked like this before.” Maybe that’s why I’m unable to ever fully get my head around the place. It’s probably just the sheer number of buildings and the fact that they all contain a story. And the way it’s laid out in a grid, seemingly so tantalizingly straight forward – this street connects to this one, and so on, making me think that I could somehow take it all in, systematically. But then it’s tough to even go one block without wanting to linger, without feeling positive I’ve missed something. And I have missed something. So I linger; I run back and forth; I tilt my head sideways; I mutter to myself. You should see me inside an art museum.

I get hung up even on office buildings. I start imagining what it would be like to have a corner cubicle in one of those spaces, so you could see outside and watch the street each hour. I’d work in an office for that. I would get paid, right? As a child I always liked the notion of a little home just directly above the madness – peeking out of the curtains at the world below. There might be some kind of philosophy in that. The closest thing I’ve found to it in midtown is going inside a church. From the madness into something else entirely, just like that. I like to pretend that I’m invoking the old medieval right of sanctuary when I go in there. It’s amazing to me that all their doors are still left open.

If you’re looking for sanctuary on 53rd and 5th then head in to Saint Thomas Church, on the northwest corner. Don’t worry about the Rolex Building or the former Tishman Building across the way at 666 5th Avenue (although the lobby there does contain some sculpture by Noguchi, the same dude who has the small museum in Long Island City). The current St. Thomas Church was completed at this location in 1914 and designed in a French High Gothic style, or as the architects put it, “as medievally as possible.” All right guys, you did a good job. You know, people are always going to Europe to look at churches, but hey, we got churches right here! And leave it to those Catholic-emulating Episcopalians to build a really pretty one. The reredos looks like what Dante must have felt ascending into heaven. That’s right, reredos – what do you call one of them things?

In keeping with the medieval theme, there is a tiny wooden door on the 53rd St. side of the church. It’s really perfect. No steps, no entryway, no distance from the street at all – this shit ain’t modern. We don’t do it like that anymore, especially in this city. I mean sure, the door is locked, but just staring at it takes me somewhere else. When I was in Venice, at night, I kept imagining there would be assassins behind every narrow corner that I passed – you know, caped men wielding knives. Does that make any sense? I guess I mean even entering a doorway might have meant something different back in the day. Collectively different. That was when churches might have markets inside their naves and apses – a constant crowd with dogs and people napping. Now am I for public napping? You’re damn straight I am! Dogs? Whatever! Using the past as metaphor and lesson for my own emotions? Yes, yes, yes! But I will say this about the present: it’s right now, and I’m alive in it. You gotta respect something like that. Oh yeah, and we have baseball too.

(Originally posted Jan. 9th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Clermont Avenue & Lafayette Avenue

10 Feb

Alright, alright, so books are great – I’m sure you understand that all by now. To quote Mark Twain, “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” And let me tell you something, this is the ideal life! This one we’re living in right now. You got another one you can compare it with? I especially like how Twain mentions the “sleepy conscience” part. That sounds just right really – it’s good to keep things loose around the edges. You keep in mind tomorrow’s gonna come no matter what, and then you’re somewhere new. And you always follow your thirst. Now sometimes that thirst gets mighty big; a lot of times that happens. And so you have to satisfy it. You know what I’m saying? I’m saying, get this man a drink!

That doesn’t mean you still don’t pay attention though. As Mr. Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen sings, “I’ve got my hands full, most of the time.” And that is pretty awesome. And it really doesn’t matter what you fill them with. I saw those guys the other night at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. Alright, I thought ahead of time, alright, what is the story behind this place? And always more importantly: in learning that, in learning something new, what tangent and what thought dream will this send my mind upon? That’s something to look forward to.

1070px-Brooklyn_Masonic_Temple_from_west

The Temple was constructed for the Masons of Brooklyn, starting in 1907, when the cornerstone was first laid at Clermont and Lafayette Avenue – apparently as an exact replica of King Solomon’s Temple. You know, that King Solomon’s temple, the one he built in Jerusalem about 3,000 years ago, the one that was then destroyed by the Babylonians. The one in Brooklyn was constructed to great architectural reviews, for a lot of reasons that I don’t understand, including its innovative use of terra cotta columns and its color scheme. The thing is – the building hardly looks like anything remarkable today. It looks like what it is – a giant utilitarian space that serves a lot of different functions for the community. It’s still owned by the Masons’ Empire State Grand Council, and still used as their meeting space as well.

Alright, so who are the Masons? That’s not for me to say really, though honestly, I don’t think it’s as dark or mysterious as has sometimes been assumed. I do like this description though, “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” That sounds like something most humans in our neck of the world don’t have so much these days. A collective well-spring; shared images that actually signify. Masons aspire to be master builders – in the metaphorical and spiritual sense – and so King Solomon’s Temple represents to them the acme of the builder’s art. It’s what they all aspire towards. Okay sure, they share that aspiration in rooms with linoleum floors, and fluorescent lights, with coffee served in large urns – and the Shriners at least are always driving those little cars around, wearing fezzes (incidentally the full name of that sub-sect of Masonry is called the “Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine” – those dudes who drive the little cars around). But still, there’s something to be said about remembering today a temple so old it was destroyed by Babylonians. I guess religions do that kind of thing most pretty regular. Myself though, I’d take it to heart in a different fashion – to help me hold on to my sleepy conscience; to keep one bit of wakefulness upon the walking dream. This world is changing, sure, just like it did back then. The circumstances may be different, but it’s the act of changing that always stays the same. And Babylon was just a way that people thought.

(Originally posted Dec. 19th, 2008 on Takethehandle.com)

Jefferson Market

9 Feb

It’s freezing cold, or else it rains, and so us types are driven all indoors – forced to express a different kind of satisfaction. And you know: there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean there has to be a winter sometimes. It’s good that we have large and external reasons for our moods. It makes a difference. Have you ever been exuberantly happy when it’s 25 degrees out? Sure you have! But it’s not the kind of happiness that makes you want to jump into a river. And that kind of happiness is pretty great.

But wait, there’s this! You go down to the library, where it’s warm and dry and you stick around awhile. You go down, “with the fine quiet of the scholar which is nearest of all things to heavenly peace,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald so nicely put it and you walk around and you look. You walk around real quiet like and you touch a lot of books and you whisper to yourself their names, until it becomes a sort of catechism. I mean we’re talking heavenly peace here! And if you find a library that already sort of looks like some cathedral, well holy shit, that’s even better.

For my tastes you can’t beat the Jefferson Market Branch (except maybe the scaffolding), built on part of the triangle between Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street. It’s housed in the old Jefferson Market Courthouse, completed in 1877 and voted the fifth most beautiful building in the United States by a panel of architects in the 1880s. And it really is! It’s the last building standing out of a number to have graced this spot since Jefferson Market started in 1832. For years it was one of the principal food markets in the city, distinguished by its large wooden fire-lookout tower. The tower actually burned down some years later, replaced by the courthouse’s brick tower that we see today.  A co-ed jail went up around the same time. Mae West spent a night here in 1927 as part of her ten day sentence for corrupting the morals of youth with her Broadway play Sex. Crazy stuff. But that was in those wild roaring twenties – with the Sixth Avenue elevated railway line running nearby this joint was a hopping spot. The market and jail were torn down in 1929; the elevated ten years later, and in 1932 the only Art Deco prison in the world was built here – The New York Women’s House of Detention. Art Deco or not that one was still not much to look at. But hey, it was a prison, so what can you expect? That stuck around until 1973, when it was replaced by the community garden that still stands today.

The courthouse itself was completely abandoned by 1959. Community leaders saved the day in the sixties: preventing in from being demolished and facilitating the opening of a library branch, which was achieved in 1967. So now the old Civil Court houses the Adult Reading Room on the second floor, and the old Police Court the Children’s Reading Room on the first. You walk up the spiral staircase of the tower to get between them. It was in this courthouse that Stephen Crane famously defended a woman accused of prostitution – he had been with her in the Tenderloin neighborhood north of there at the time of her arrest, as he claimed, “studying human nature.” He was already well known at the time for The Red Badge of Courage; his testimonial got her charges dropped and Crane was praised in the nation’s newspapers for his chivalry. At the same time the scandal nearly ruined his reputation. But just over a month later, en route to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War, his ship sank and he spent a day and a half at sea in a ten foot dinghy. And just like that his reputation was restored. He wrote a story about it called “The Open Boat.” And no one can ever know how much of it is really true. That’s not a bad thing. Hemingway wrote years later, “The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers.” Well Hemingway wasn’t so bad himself. Although I bet you he wished he’d spent a few days in a dinghy on the open sea. He seems the type who could have appreciated a thing like that. But then I guess, as with so many things, it all depends on how you tell yourself the story after.

(Originally posted Dec. 12th, 2008 on Takethehandle.com)