Scenes from the Naked City

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Taxi driver. Photo: JH.

Tuesday night, East End Avenue. Rain-Rain-Rain has been in the forecasts for the past few days, although we haven’t had much in the daytime except to wash some of the dust off the cars on the streets and avenues. And warm but nice, mid-70s and quite a bit of sunshine.

I tend to stay in the city on the weekends. First of all, after a regular week of covering the scene in New York, the thought of nothing to do has great allure. Really great. Second of all, the Hamptons is not a quiet place. Unless you have your own beach house where you can lock the door and turn off the phone. And I don’t happen to have that, nor do I foresee that, at least not in the near future. And house-guesting is a better idea than experience for those with a taste for the reclusive. No matter how great the host or hostess.

The Naked City, Eight million stories: So, I stood at home, as they say. Saturday night I went down to the Village to have dinner with an old friend (to a restaurant on 9th Street). Returning back uptown, we took the East Side Drive which is a beautiful ride because of the lights of the city, the bridge (59th Street), Queens and Brooklyn. It’s magic time just watching the white and red ribbons of tail and headlights snaking along the periphery of Manhattan.

A view of Long Island City from the FDR.

We got off the Drive at 61st Street, turned right onto York Avenue going north, and stopped for the light at 63rd Street. Cars filled the lanes both uptown and down.

In the car next to my cab, also waiting for the light, but headed in the other direction, was a young man and woman who looked to be in their late 20s, early 30s. Nicely dressed, as if out for the evening. Late model compact. Talking about something. He talking, she listening, both looking out the windshield. Their windows were up, probably because of the a/c. But then all of the sudden in what looked like a conversation (or him talking, her listening), his right hand swooped from out of nowhere and he slammed the back of her head with the inside of his hand. Hard. Real hard, so that she flew forward into the dashboard.

And then the light changed and they were gone.

It made my blood curdle. Hearing about abuse, let alone seeing abuse, makes me very angry, even irrationally so. Angry at the perp. I am reminded of my own experience with it as a child, and the terror and the danger.

My cab driver had seen it too. He was confounded. He was a man probably in his late thirties, a Pakistani man with eight brothers. His father, he said, always treated his mother with respect, and thus so did he with his wife and his eight brothers with theirs. He couldn’t comprehend.

I was thinking about the woman and how she was going escape that madness. I couldn’t get the moment out of my mind. She hadn’t even been talking as I was observing so whatever the motivation he had to slam her came from something other than her words. So she’s stuck. Stuck unless she knows about Safe Horizon, or some organization like that, and knows to call the hotline. Because that moron, that idiot, that fool, behind the wheel who was smacking her around, in public, is probably even more dangerous in the privacy of their/her/his home.

You wouldn’t have known from the looks of him, watching his mouth, behind the glass, moving as he looked at the road and talking.  Almost baby faced, dark blonde crewcut; big guy, maybe a high school athlete. Except a touch of belligerence on his face. Nice looking but … the belligerence, like something leftover from a troubled adolescence.

Cleaning up around the house I came across a New York Times cover story from 2007 (!) titled The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age. Charity and Skills Justify It All, Tycoons Say. The article was about wealth and the American rich, namely businessmen who’ve made a bundle in this lifetime. It was accompanied by Sanford Weill, the man who put together the present Citicorp, standing in the auditorium of Carnegie Hall which some of his millions restored. On the upper right corner of the article was a picture of the original donor, Andrew Carnegie (who was inspired to build the hall by his new wife, Louise, who sang with the Oratorio Society of New York).

56-year-old John D. Rockefeller in 1907.

The piece carried some interesting facts. John D. Rockefeller was the richest of them all, right up to Mr. Musk and Bezos. Old John D. and his Standard Oil wealth was 1.6% of the national economy in 1918. His wealth back then (90 years ago) amounted to $192 billion. And that is probably a very conservative estimate.

Second on the list was Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the statue of whom presides over the Park Avenue South ramp that leads to the peripheral roads around Grand Central Station. Mr. Vanderbilt’s wealth at the time of his death in 1877 was calculated at $143 billion (and his son William H. doubled it within ten years of his father’s death). Both the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts had a lot of progeny, although the Vanderbilts far outnumbered the Rockefellers.

A century later, the Rockefellers now outnumber the Vanderbilts in terms of sheer wealth. The Vanderbilts were less vigilant about maintaining their wealth, or just downright careless. Or just didn’t give a damn, which is not so bad except that people like to think it is.

The Rockefellers also, beginning with old John D. started giving it away fairly early. Evidently the very religious John D. had a preacher/advisor who warned about that business of a camel getting through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man, etc., and he took it to heart.

The Rockefellers, now five-generations later, are still setting the good example in myriad ways and with myriad personalities. The philanthropy of that family has been profound and with a breadth that exceeds any and all other philanthropic individuals. It’s one of the great wonders of the American system. That is not to say the Rockefellers didn’t use their wealth for other less philanthropic and more craven objectives, because, as they say, “c’est la vie.” And, as Brooke Astor once reminded: wealth does foster arrogance quite naturally.

The Vanderbilts, while we’re making comparisons, built the biggest houses and lots of them, and lived like kings until the cupboard was bare. Although feel sorry not for them: there are still lots of rich Vanderbilts around. Not rich like Bill Gates, of course, or Warren B. or Sandy W. or a whole private jetload, but well-fixed just the same.

The Times article in identifying this age with the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain, reveals that certain new possessors of great wealth see the term with a kind of fondness for the “specialness” of their personal wealth acquisition. This is not surprising and also comes with the territory. Great wealth begets admiration and awe in this society of ours and so has it always been (as far as I know).

Mark Twain, however, it should be noted, thought of the term with less than admiration and awe, but more with irony, than the Times’ subjects. In his preface to the book by that name published 134 years ago in 1873, he wrote (about the book):

It will be seen that it deals with an entirely ideal state of society; and the chief embarrassment of the writers in this realm of the imagination has been the want of illustrative examples. In a State where there is no fever of speculation, no inflamed desire for sudden wealth, where the poor are all simple-minded and contented, and the rich are all honest and generous, where society is in a condition of primitive purity and politics is the occupation of only the capable and the patriotic, there are necessarily no materials for such a history as we have constructed out of an ideal commonwealth.

It should also be noted that the author himself also partook of a number of deals (then referred to as “schemes”) for getting rich quick. Or quicker. Or at all. None of these deals ever really worked out for him and he always had to rely on his day job, the fruits of which of course outlasted him and his schemes and his dreams far longer than he might ever have imagined. More than a century later, his irony has become quite a shiny button for the wearer.

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