Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Of Time and the Blizzard

Snowy day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The day before my father died last March, I moved in close to his right ear and asked him a few questions. 

“Do you remember Primrose Avenue?” I said.

That’s the name of a street near the house where we lived when my brother and I were growing up in Mt. Vernon, N. Y. 

Primroses are small colorful old-fashioned flowers. Primrose the street was pretty, too. It began in a vale (an appropriately antiquated word) near the business district, then meandered along, past a small park with lilac bushes and a few benches.  As it climbed a hill, the street widened with grand houses on either side, some with marble steps at the curb.  These had been used for carriages in the 1890s.  

Primrose Avenue postcard, around 1905

Now it is 2018 and a big storm has swirled into New York City.  Down on the street, you can hear the snow crashing into the wind.  I remember this sound from my childhood when snowstorms occurred routinely from November to March.  We trudged to school through banks, drifts and slush.  Sometimes the driving snow stung our eyes.

During the winter of 1970, a blizzard socked the New York metropolitan area. It lasted a few days.  I can still conjure that wonderful sense of being stuck inside.  Even if one had an appointment, it would be impossible to get there.  Everything was closed; only our homes were open for business. 

One night, the snow finally stopped.  Looking out the window, we saw a few flakes trickling down.  My father and I decided to take a walk.  In boots and layers of sweaters coats scarves hats gloves, we stepped outside.

We started around the block and came to Primrose Avenue.  The last foot of snow had not been plowed and we couldn’t find the sidewalk, so we walked up the middle of the street. 

I remember a pink glow, which must have been the snow reflecting the streetlight.  Also the crunch, crunch of our boots.  I also recall, dimly, our conversation.

My father reading to me (left) and my brother (right), early 1960s

My father was a talented writer and editor who worked largely with dry bureaucratic prose.  At heart, though, he had a true literary sensibility.  Because of him, there were volumes of Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Housman, and Keats in the house; also such novels as The Naked and the Dead, Of Human Bondage, and Johnny Got His Gun.  My mother recommended King’s Row and anything by John O’Hara, but he urged on me Lolita and You Can’t Go Home Again.

After his death, I found notes for the book reviews that he wrote during his years as a newspaper reporter.  It was a good way to make extra money and get free books. In 1947, for example, his reviews included All the King's Men and a thriller called The Big Clock.

Who knows why he also was reviewing Boswell’s Life of Johnson (published in 1791), but of it he noted simply: “Had to choke this one down.”

Back to Primrose Avenue. 

As we walked through the pink light and dwindling snowflakes, he imparted something magical to me.  I believe it involved the exhilarating connection between literature and experience.  The scene, the shadow, the words and characters – you could always return to them, or call them up.  And of course, what he said turned out to be true.

That’s why I’m glad that New York is finally getting a snowstorm, this snowstorm, the first one since his death.  It feels like I’ve crossed a continent to get back to Primrose Avenue and he’s there with me, talking and walking in the unplowed world.

Throughout his life, my father jotted down the titles
and authors of books he wanted to read.

Met photo by Claudia Keenan
See posts November 16, 2016 and November 8, 2017.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Snow and Ice

"It was a lithographer's dream of winter"
(from Letting Go by Philip Roth, 1962)

Photo by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Laugh Died on Her Lips

Socializing in the Tenderloin District, 1900s
(still from a film by Thomas A. Edison)

At dawn they spilled onto the narrow sidewalk outside an opium den.  It was the winter of 1908.  The three women and their younger male companions had begun the evening carousing in Manhattan’s Tenderloin district, a treacherous neighborhood filled with thieves and slummers drawn like moths to saloons, brothels, and gambling parlors.

Now, as the clock struck 5:30, drunk and stoned out of their heads, they staggered along Bayard Street in Chinatown, clinging to each other and veering away from the alleys where hooligans lurked.  They made their way toward the elevated train, heading uptown.

No one was looking out for anyone else. 

The women were Annie Conning, who worked as a maid at the Chelsea Hotel, Rose McGuire, and Mabel Cuzzie.  The three men would remain unidentified.    

Convergence of elevated lines, Chatham Square, 1900s

Once on the train, they passed around an open bottle of champagne while yelling, laughing and taunting the other passengers, who were laborers trying to grab some sleep on the way to work.

One of the group, a man who sported a gray coat, dozed off.  While he was sleeping, the others took his watch, chain and tie pin. When he awoke and realized his watch was gone, he leaped toward Mabel and grabbed at the muff she wore on her hands. 

Then a gun went off and Annie, who had risen from her seat, dropped dead on the floor, shot through the heart.

A pistol fell from the muff.  The man in the gray coat picked it up, slipped it into his pocket, and swiftly left the train with the other two men.

Meanwhile, the motorman and conductor seized Rose and Mabel.  The police booked them and learned that Annie Conning went by the name “Queenie.”  Of the three women, the cops reported, Queenie was the “oldest and the handsomest.”  

Mabel had met Queenie and the man in the gray coat, whose name was Ed, the previous night in a bar on 26th Street.

The next day, the denizens of the Tenderloin flocked downtown to the morgue.  Queenie’s employer, Mrs. Callahan of the Chelsea Hotel, identified Annie Conning and explained that she came from a wealthy Delaware family and had a husband out there somewhere.

The police detained Rose McGuire and sent Mabel Cuzzie to the Tombs, Manhattan’s notoriously grim prison.

Postcard of the horrible Tombs, 1900s

A letter carrier named Samuel Lipschitz who had been a passenger on the train and observed the “antics of the party” (in the words of the police) swore that the killing was unintentional.  Still, while the inquest may have vindicated both women, Rose and Mabel paid a price whereas the three men just disappeared into the workday.    

The conduct of the group typifies antisocial behavior among working-class New Yorkers during the early twentieth century, with the Tenderloin playing a big part.  After the 1863 draft riots, the areas populated by immigrants stabilized, if uneasily.  But the Tenderloin never quite returned to a neighborhood of peaceable Irish Catholics.  In 1900, it saw another race riot while crime and prostitution increased.*

It’s not surprising that the group of six began their evening in the Tenderloin.  Nothing good could ever come of it.  

An opium den in Chinatown, New York City,
early twentieth century (possibly staged)

*The diarist George Templeton Strong called the Tenderloin a “noctivagous strumpetocracy.” It’s an odd phrase, evocative of Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism,” which means night-walking (noctivagous) prostitutes (strumpets) in control of the government.

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