Monday, February 6, 2012

Entering another dimension

Building entrance at 85th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, February 6, 2012. Yesterday was cold – in the 40s – and very sunny in New York. On this day sixty years ago, King George VI of England died and his eldest daughter Princess Elizabeth became Queen. On this same day of that year, 1952, Ronald Reagan the movie actor marked his 41st birthday.

Reagan had had a moderately successful career although by 1952, with the coming of television and the anti-trust acts that separated the theater owners from the producers (suppliers), the film industry was entering a new phase. Ronald Reagan’s career was on the decline. He was lucky, as well as a natural hustler for work. He signed on to host a Sunday night show called General Electric Theater. That job kept him above water financially and kept him “out there” career-wise. The State House in California came after that. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote “there are no second acts in American lives.” He didn’t know Ronald Reagan.
The coronation of the Queen in 1953.
I’m still reading Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of Elizabeth The Queen. I put it aside to read two other books including Full Service, the Scotty Bowers memoir which I wrote about last week. Smith’s book is my first biography of the Queen so I am learning most things for the first time. She is a remarkable woman. Something she shared with Reagan, or he with her, is the ability to play the role. Both individuals have and had the brilliance to stick to the image whence all comes.

The Queen presented by Smith is a very impressive character living in an odd place among us, but completely human. Like all people who live in privilege and with its natural powers, her knowledge is skewed.

Click to order Elizabeth The Queen or buy immediately at Archivia, 72nd Street and Lexington Avenue.
Queen Elizabeth II, however, unlike most people who live in privilege, etc., is always learning. It is evident that she sees this as part of her job – and it is a job. It is said that she knows more people in England than any other individual. She’s made it her business to.

The monarchy itself is an antiquated tradition. Yet the Queen conducts it in such a way as to give stability to the political system of her country. An actual leader who has no set political power. That does not suggest that we start instituting monarchies among ourselves – although I’m sure a lot of people would like the idea. The problem with monarchies is that most people when they become Numero Uno tend to believe they should be by dint of their refreshed and distended ego. This is human nature. Queen Elizabeth II, however, knows who she is and has a firm idea as to what that means. It seems to have come naturally to her. A natural leader, perhaps?

When I was lunching with Sally Smith and talking about Her Majesty, good old Lillibet to her husband Philip, sister PM, mother, Mum, etc., Sally recounted a conversation Princess Michael of Kent was said to have once had with her son who asked her “What is the difference between the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher?” Thatcher then being the Prime Minister.

“The Queen is your Mother,” Princess Michael explained to her son, adding: “Mrs. Thatcher is your school mistress.”

Perfectly put. Hail to the Queen, the mother of us all. Would that she were.
Queen Elizabeth and President Reagan while telling a joke at a state dinner hosted by the Reagans in San Francisco. Photograph by Diana Walker, 1983.
I’ve written before about this guy and his confreres – those entrepreneurs who are picking up scrap, as it used to be called, right on the city’s streets and turning it into cash. He was back at the location on East End Avenue on Friday afternoon, as all the trash from the building on the other side of the avenue from me was being put out for collection.

He’s very organized. Obviously the building’s staff knows what he is doing. Refining the sanitation, as it were. I can’t help thinking, if all the world were like this guy, we’d be all right. Because he is self-reliant, making industry out of his time – the true meaning of capitalism – and doing it efficiently. He’s demonstrating that he knows more about it than a lot of men and women pulling down big bucks wearing titles like CEO, CFO, etc.
I took this series of pictures to show his method. It’s efficient and fast. There were dozens of those full plastic bags set out on the pavement about four in the afternoon. The bottles and cans on one side, the rest of the trash on the other.

He is stationed in the middle of a large pile of bags, each of which he quickly and methodically goes through – plastic bottles in one bag, aluminum cans in the other. Everything needed is close by, so he can move fast. He was there for about 20 minutes. When he was finished, everything was left as he found it, except for his temporary assets. And he was off, up the avenue and around the corner for the next stop wherever that may be.
He moved quickly, like a young man. Maybe 40/45 at the very most but probably younger. He had a lot of energy in his gait, pulling his “freight” behind him. His movements in gathering were organized and confident. No one and nothing had knocked the air out of his self-image. You could see it in his movements. Watching this man doing his work, plying his opportunities in what is clearly a final choice that some would call desperate, I see optimism and I see hope, not only for him, but for us. That man is a leader, somewhere, somehow, and his leadership is to do something  and get it done, whatever that may be under the circumstances of hardship. He may not know that, but you can see it.

At the same time, there was another man of this growing profession working on the bags of trash on the other side of the avenue. He came into the picture when he crossed the road to see my main man gathering his assets. This second man cast a different light on my idea of entrepreneurship. His movements were slower, even halted and uncertain. The refuse he was going through was less than across the road from him, and sparse. Nevertheless, he moved slowly and found a few cans and bottles which he put in a small cart which contained a crate like box, But nothing like the abundance the other guy had acquired. Two approaches to the same possibility.
A reader in Santa Fe who was divesting herself of what must have been a large collection of books, asked if I’d be interested in her collection of George Templeton Strong’s Diaries, as well as Philip Hone’s diaries. Naturally I jumped. If you didn’t know, both men were ardent and committed diarists here in New York in the middle of the 19th century.

Hone, who was a generation older than Strong (born in 1780) was once Mayor and was a successful businessman and a prominent member of the society of the community. Strong was a lawyer, well-bred, in the terms of the city at the time, and very much involved -- even if at times only emotionally or intellectually -- in the community that was New York then.

Philip Hone, diarist and one-time Mayor of New York.
Strong principally was my “inspiration” for the Social Diary when I first launched it in Quest Magazine 18 years ago. It would have been impossible to do what he or Hone did because my Diary is public, and theirs were private. Strong’s Diaries remained out of the public eye for more than 50 years after his death for that reason.

I’ve kept a journal fairly steadily since the late 1960s. I lost a lot of the first four years when it was hauled away in the back of a car going for repair. I didn’t have high notions for it. It was an outlet for all of my obsessive thoughts and the opportunity to express them as pitifully and pitiably as came to mind. My objective was to “free” myself to write honestly. That’s a lot harder than it sounds when you’re starting out. And for many of us it is always difficult.

George Templeton Strong was further along as a Diarist than I was. He started earlier. No doubt they were an “outlet” for him as they were and still are, in another way, for me. He was what people would call “serious,” upright, right thinking, community-minded. Where my personal entries might be a harangue about myself or how my life was going or not going (this was a full decade before I became a “professional” writer). I had pages and pages of private complaints, negotiations with the self in getting off some subject of obsession. Strong’s were outer directed, about the business of his life in the world, his community, his family, his friends. Because of that, we the readers, 160 years later can get an idea of what New York life was like (for some people, specifically through the eyes of the privileged elite).

The differences between now and then, as well as the writers now and then, are notable in the way people thought and saw things. The republic was still a noble experiment, only sixty and seventy years after the American Revolution. There were still many people alive who knew the people who participated and who knew the principals. The principals of the Constitution were deeply imbedded in the nation’s collective psyche. These were still generations who lived close to and off the land.

George Templeton Strong c. 1870.
The society that made up the elite of New York was different from today’s. By leaps and bounds. The city was booming and bustling but far far from full development, and with a population still well under a million. The elite was composed of families, many of whom knew each other for generations. New York was, comparatively, like a small town.

Here is Strong’s entry for early January, 1860. (he was 40 years old, married, a father and a successful lawyer). This is the New York he was used to. There is not one of us today who could relate to their social life (except in a technological sense of relating).

“.... Monday the second was kept for New Year’s Day. It was a fine specimen of crisp frosty weather, with a serene sky and a cutting wind from the northwest. I set forth at eleven o’clock in my own particular hack, en grand seigneur; and effected more than twenty calls, beginning with Mrs. Samuel Whitlock in 37th Street. My lowest south latitude was Dr. Berrian’s and the Lydigs’. There were no incidents. Bishop Potter’s drawing-room was perhaps the dullest place I visited. The Bishop is always kindly and cordial, but nature has given him no organ for the secretion of the small talk appropriate to a five minutes’ call. He feels the deficiency and is nervous and uncomfortable. Very nice at Mrs. George F Jones’s, and at Mrs. William Schermerhorn’s. At Mrs. Peter A. Schermerhorn’s, in University Place, I discovered the mamma and Miss Ellen, both very gracious. At Mrs. William Astor’s (ed. note: now known as the Mrs. Astor and her 400 List), Miss Ward (the granddaughter of the house; Sam Ward’s daughter by his first wife) talked of her friend Miss Annie Leavenworth .... Mrs. Edgar was charming in her little bit of a house, the “Petit Trianon.” Poor Mrs. Douglas Cruger seems growing old, is less vivacious and less garrulous. At Mrs. Serena Fearing’s, I was honored with a revelation of the baby that was produced last summer. Pleasant visit to Mrs. Christine Griffin, nee Kean ... etc.”

142 years later, with access to communication unknown, even unimaginable in those times, the idea today of people “calling on” (dropping in like open house) their friends and neighbors, is anathema and nothing less. 37th Street was “way uptown” for a lot of people. Mrs. Astor had not yet even moved to their massive brownstone on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue (which she deserted thirty years later for Fifth Avenue and 65th Street.

Comments? Contact DPC here.