Friday, January 13, 2017

Visible at all strata of society

Playing in the Spun Chairs in the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Friday, January 13, 2016. Friday the 13th. Both my sisters were born on Friday the 13th, six years apart. (And in the same month.) So I’ve never thought of it as being anything but a lucky day.

It got a lot warmer yesterday in New York.  After Tuesday and Tuesday night’s temps around 12 and 20. Yesterday midday, the temp rose to the mid-60s. The rains of the day and night before had cleaned the streets and swept the sidewalks. People went out without (mainly) their winter garb; a lighter jacket, a sweater, an open coat. The mood got lighter. The Sun came out in the early afternoon. By mid-afternoon, the long yellow school buses, the big black Escalades, etc. were crowding the lanes, lining the blocks double parked, waiting for the classes to let out. This was the weather at a nice time of day – mid-afternoon, and the terrace door was open so in the distance all I could hear was the cacophonous sound of children and young people’s voices, lifting the atmosphere of metropolis.
Otherwise it would have had a bit of the feel of a dull grey January day. For me it entails many things to think about and many things to read. Snowless winters are still odd to me. I didn’t miss them when I lived in California for all those years, although I loved driving east on Santa Monica Boulevard where I could see the snowcapped San Gabriels in the midwinter purple distance.  But in my lifetime, this time of year meant snowtime. Not occasional flurries or blizzards, but a white winter. We still get some snow, I know, but it’s a lot less, and I miss it. Dark grey New England afternoons where it was cold  and grey and white outside, and warm enough to be cozy inside, were inspiring to this kid’s optimism (which was then entirely my imagination). Also there was always ice skating at the rink down behind the high school.
I found this quote awhile ago in one my Diary notes. I came upon it when I was reading something about Bucky Fuller, a brilliant character in our cavalcade who always impressed me with his artful inventions and his artful way of thinking – which of course are one in the same.

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trimtab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trimtab.  Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trimtab.” – R. Buckminster Fuller.
In the same set of notes, I also found this quote. I don’t know who wrote it. It might possibly have been me since it’s not attributed. It might not, however. I say that because I like it, and share much of the same impressions.

This is the era of the bully. It is visible at all strata of society. It has been enhanced by the technology, namely the cellphone and the communication called Text. Deep cowardice is built into the equation, a kind of helplessness, a nihilist’s pox on the heart. What a half century ago was looked upon as progress and prosperity is now emerging as a civilization out of control. This is not true of all of us but it appears to be true of many who hold positions of leadership and power on all levels everywhere. The bully is angry, beyond measure; and usually, almost entirely, mindless.”

And these ...

Marie Helene de Rothschild & Baron Guy de Rothschild.
“Who are we? Where did we come from, and where are we going?” – Gauguin

“Barely 50 years have passed, and that world has toppled into oblivion.” Guy de Rothschild recalling his youth (teenage years) circa 1935, writing in 1985, talking about the manners and mores of young males and females in relationship to each other.

“It’s better to feel remorse than regret.”

“How can one be an objective witness to oneself when one is but a tiny cog in a gigantic machine gone mad?”

And this was another “note”:

“Edgar Allan Poe
lived around the corner from where Jeff and Danielle first lived, on West End and 85th. Poe lived in a house known as the Brennan Homestead in the area of 84th and Broadway. Mount Tom in Riverside Park, at 83rd Street was where he got his inspiration for The Raven. He named it the rock outcropping after the son of the family who owned the farm.”

I love looking at neighborhoods in terms of their origin.
The Brennan house in 1879. The staircase leads down to what is now 84th Street.
Crawford Doyle, the bookstore on Madison Avenue and 81st Street closed on Tuesday, for good. I went over there on Monday and bought three books, mainly as a gesture of respect for their work (as well as another excuse to buy books – and they were all 40% off). I bought a book I hadn’t known about it:  “Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote; With the Lost Photographs of David Attie” (The Little Bookroom, publishers).
As you can see there is a wonderful black & white photo of a very young (20s) and slender Truman leaning against a banister on a porch covered with vines. That’s the house where he was a boarder, on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights. This a slender book, almost a sliver of a book. Before opening it I wondered how such a short book could be ... interesting. Except I’ve always loved Capote’s writing. It was originally an article for Holiday magazine, a really wonderful American travel magazine started in 1946 and put out by Curtis Publishing (Saturday Evening Post, etc.) the likes of which does not exist anymore. It was very classy and employed great writers of the time like Capote, Graham Greene, Jack Kerouac, Arthur C. Clarke. In its heyday it had one million subscribers.
Click to order “Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote; With the Lost Photographs of David Attie.”
The piece was titled “A House on the Heights” circa 1955. The house was a 28 room, kind of boardinghouse owned by Oliver Smith, the Broadway set designer and a major arts and culture figure in New York. This was where Truman at that time in his life was working on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and occupying a tiny two room apartment in the basement (back when basements had windows). 
In the piece Truman takes us on a walking tour of the neighborhood in those days. Neighborhoods such as the Heights were reflections of an era before the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge were built. It was a geographically a separate community across the water from Manhattan. Over time it, because of its proximity to the harbor, it became more and more industrial, and many of the early residential neighborhoods were replaced by factories and warehouses. Then, eventually over more time even that took on another face of decay.

The residential neighborhood  that still had allure for this Southern boy in the 1950s – the Heights –  is full of characters and stories. The author takes you on his walks and you see the world, meet the people, hear their voices and get their personalities through his eyes. His prose often has a hushed elegance to his descriptons, and the rascal putting them down can easily interrupt them with a tweaking to ease his own envy.
As much as I read, I tend to approach a new book with some doubt. Will I have time? Is it too long? Will it keep me interested, will I learn, feel, know, etc. And I’ve read Capote and have even thrilled to some of his sentences (and stories). So I wasn’t sure, but the book was so thin, and it wouldn’t take me that much time ... I loved it. It’s like a novella told as a true story.

Holiday also hired David Attie to cover Truman’s tour with his camera. He took those walking trips too, as well as photographing the house on Willow Street with its early 19th century grandeur.
Attie’s photographs are the neighborhoods they visited but rarely include Truman. They show you neighborhoods at odds with themselves as the world changes. Most, of these photographs were not used in the final edit. The editors kept on the track of something warm and lovely – like the  house. The decay of change is not a pretty picture, but Attie captures the ingenuity of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, even the children who could happily make the most of it and find something to do.

This book is a pleasure and a reminder of many things that often go unnoticed in the early 21st century New York.  The decaying areas in David Attie’s photographs are now an area near the Bridge called DUMBO Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Hardly decaying, at least from a real estate point of view. You’re in New York, all phases and sizes of it.

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