Thursday, December 28, 2006

In memoriam 2 (Say it loud: We'll miss you, James Brown!)

Photos taken outside the Apollo Theatre in Manhattan's Harlem, where James Brown's body lay in repose Thursday afternoon. As you've read by now, there was a massive throng of fans who waited hours to pay their respects. These are faces from that crowd.

In memoriam

Country road at dawn, Iidaka district, Sosa City (formerly Yokaichiba), Chiba Prefecture, Japan, April 1998, by Michael

I just learned today that a blog friend in India has died.
Anu was a very talented and creative young woman whose poetry reflected her transcendence of the acute renal failure that changed but did not detract from her life.
I won't say that she suffered from her condition, because she didn't. She was an avid student of aikido and a person of boundless optimism. Her medical situation was an annoyance, what with the constant dialysis treatments, but not an obstacle to enjoying her life to its fullest. This was an inspiration to me and to all the other friends she made through her blog.
In a cruel irony, it wasn't renal failure that claimed her but an automobile accident Dec. 12, according to a posting on her blog by a friend.
I hadn't been in contact with her recently. But I'm reposting this photo from February because she commented that she enjoyed it.

Photo courtesy Aikido of Bombay

UPDATE: It's now Friday afternoon, and I found the memorial page posted on the Web site of the Mumbai aikido dojo where Anu (Anita) studied.
It features a beautiful photo of Anu, giving me the chance to see her face for the first time. Far more importantly, I got to see her spirit through her blog, and through her always generous comments on mine.
She will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Grandfather and granddaughter


The picture within the picture

Pike Street

A friend and fellow photographer with a far more discerning and disciplined eye than mine suggested I look at the photo in the preceding post in a different way.
My friend -- who also is my mentor -- spotted within my composition a more compelling one that suggests a sumi-e, or Japanese brush painting.
And so here it is, with my deepest thanks to Bill.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy holidays!

Kyoto, Japan, December 1995, by Michael

I wish you all happy holidays and with them peace and love, wherever you may be.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ghosts from a cold-water flat

I peeled back layers of time Sunday in ways I never thought possible.
I can't count the number of times I've passed the six-story apartment house where my father was born on Sept. 12, 1907, on East Sixth Street in the East Village.
I never thought I would get the chance to enter the building -- much less set foot in the room where he was delivered by midwife.

409 E. 6th St.
East Village

I met my cousin in midtown Manhattan for brunch. The talk turned to our shared history. She had never seen this building where my father and his siblings grew up, and where his younger sister -- my cousin's grandmother -- was born in 1911, also delivered by midwife, as was the custom of the day.

I knew my dad was born in Apartment 18 and that it was on the fifth floor. My cousin and I wondered if the apartment faced out onto Sixth Street, or had a view of the brick wall of the building to the rear.
We peered through the glass of the front door just as a tenant was leaving. My cousin suggested I tell this man the link the building had with our family's past. Coincidentally, the tenant was especially interested because he had just returned from the West Coast, where he had a similar experience of coming face to face with his parents' past.

My dad in front of the building, circa 1912. Photo taken by itinerant photographer

He asked us which apartment our kin had lived in. Then he scanned the list of names running down alongside the doorbells. He knew the current occupant. "If this guy's home, he probably wouldn't have a problem with you peeking in, considering the connection," he said. "And if he isn't home, at least you get to see the inside of the building."

The occupant was home, and after explaining my cousin's and my interest, we were invited inside: two small, spartan rooms, a bathroom and a tiny kitchen added almost as an afterthought. The bathroom was installed after my dad and his family moved out before World War I. When they lived there, there was one shared bath per floor in the hallway.


My cousin at window in room in which my dad and her grandmother were born

Front room, looking out onto Sixth Street

In these tiny quarters, my father's father, a janitor, and his mother, a housewife and seamstress, raised a son and daughter. Another sister would be born when the family moved uptown to the Bronx to escape this cramped, noisy, dingy neighborhood where ethnic gangs ruled the streets.

Looking into the room that must've been my grandparents' bedroom -- it was set back from the street and would have been farther from street noise -- I felt time stop and then reverse.

Room in which my father (Sept. 12, 1907) and aunt (1911) were born

View from window in that room. The biggest change to the skyline is the absence of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, which dominated the vista until Sept. 11, 2001 -- one day shy of what would have been my dad's 94th birthday.

I could hear the midwife deliver the birth slap, hear the first cries of life and consciousness, hear the congratulations on the birth of a son and, four years later, a daughter.

These sounds oozed from the walls.
I've never felt so deeply, thoroughly connected to history.

Stairway to sixth (top) floor

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Skylight for Magritte*

East Village

*This building -- on Seventh Street between First Avenue and Avenue A -- was renovated in such a way that the area behind part of the facade was "hollowed out" and left open to the sky. It creates a very interesting, somewhat jarring effect. I've yet to see anything else like it in Manhattan.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A fraction of a person

Group portrait, circa 1870s

Regular visitors to my blog know that among my interests are vintage photography and U.S. history, both focused on the 19th century.
In my collection is this 1870s photograph of five people taken outside a cabin of some kind, perhaps a cookhouse or living quarters, presumably down South. I picked it up years ago at a flea market. I think I paid a buck or two for it.

When this country was in its infancy, Northern and Southern states vied with each other over how they would be represented in the House of Representatives and over the tax burden their residents would bear.
Whichever region held sway in Congress stood a better chance of pushing through its agenda, so this fight over representation was a critical, contentious issue.

The North wanted only free whites to be tallied. The South wanted its slaves to be counted, even though they were barred from voting (among many other things).

Eventually, a middle ground was reached and a deal was struck in 1787.
For representation and taxation purposes, each black would be counted as three-fifths of a person -- a free white person. This agreement was called the Three-fifths Compromise.
It was written into the Constitution and would be the law of the land until after the Civil War.

Rendering a human being into three-fifths is a difficult concept for me to visualize, not to mention that it is absurd.
So this photograph helps me to understand quite graphically the mindset of the free, white, well-to-do men who molded this nation.

Five people posing in their Sunday best. But all their hopes, fears, victories and setbacks distilled into just three people in the minds of many, as matter-of-factly as the simple act of taking this photograph.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Pearl Harbor Day

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
I remember that day as the catalyst for the entry of the United States into World War II.
I remember it for the millions of people destroyed by that war.
I remember it for setting mankind on the road toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And I remember it because of an eccentric English professor I had as an undergrad.

Dr. X was fond of giving us surprise quizzes, which he called "Pearl Harbors."
He was 6 foot 4, 250 pounds, from the Deep South and with the accent to prove it.
He was the human incarnation of Foghorn Leghorn, the wisecracking cartoon rooster with the Southern drawl.
Fittingly, Dr. X was born on a poultry farm, we would later learn.

Copyright Warner Bros.-Sever Arts

He would stride into class, pause before his desk a moment and then say with a smile, "Y'all ready for a Pearl Harbor? Shoot, what'chy'all know?"
And that was just the opening volley of his singular approach to education.

He usually spoke to us with eyes squinted shut. But he had the uncanny ability to know precisely what was going on in his classroom, always.
He could detect anyone who violated his cardinal rule against chewing gum -- he called it "spearmint," regardless of the flavor -- even if the offender sat far in the back corner of the class and chewed in complete silence.
"Get that spearmint out yo' mouth," he would yell. "You can shoot drugs in my class, you can have sex in the aisles. But you better get rid of that spearmint."

Dr. X was exacting. Our answers to questions about literature had to be completely correct and unambiguous, and opinions had to be backed up.
Otherwise, we paid the price.
"Y'all are waltzin' to a rock-and-roll song," he would sputter like a Roman candle. "Y'all are talkin' baby talk. Ah goo goo goo. Y'all are drivin' holes in my brain! Holy water! Holy water!"

In one class, we were discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown." Dr. X asked me some question, now forgotten, about some element of the tale. He didn't like my answer.
"Your intellectual cargo has capsized," he said with a smirk, eyes closed. "Your intellectual cargo was not too heavily laden. You're reachin' for the life preserver!"

His repertoire was as varied as it was creative.
One day, the class had been particularly diligent in our homework and the string of correct answers we gave earned rare praise. "Y'all are poppin' out ideas like pancakes from the griddle of yo' mind," he said.

The man was crazy like a fox.
He could recite entire Shakespeare soliloquies from memory. He was a yoga devotee who, despite his large frame, often sat atop his desk in the full-lotus position, eyes shut but all-seeing. Sometimes, he would stand on his head in front of his desk while lecturing.

I wonder what happened to him. I know he retired quite a few years back -- I took his class nearly 26 years ago -- but it's as if he fell off the face of the Earth. I've Googled him to no avail.
He was fond of visiting Manhattan to attend the opera and, rumor had it, to visit the porn shops in Times Square. Someone told me he may have moved to New York City.

Dr. X may offer all the wrong reasons to remember Pearl Harbor.
But he declared war on our literary misconceptions, and his X-isms are engraved in my mind.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Where'd you say that was?

An overseas visitor to my blog pointed out that I mention several Big Apple neighborhoods in my posts, but that to people unfamiliar with Manhattan the names have little meaning or context.
Excellent point.
So here's a map of Manhattan's neighborhoods. Now you can tell the East Village from the West, and SoHo from Chelsea.
Just click on the map to enlarge it.
Likewise, you can enlarge my photos by clicking on them.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Bass slappin', toe tappin' and bare-bones rappin'

Singer/bass player Jason Stuart,
Washington Square
West Village

Self-portrait Sunday

East Village

It was as if I were there

It was a vision from the bowels of hell.
A fast-moving wall of fire raced through the building's upper floors, incinerating everyone and everything in its path.
Screaming workers trying to flee found that the elevator was knocked out.
Smoke and flames filled the stairway.
Exit doors had been chained shut for security reasons.
Workers kicked out windows and jumped to their deaths on the street below rather than be burnt alive.
A scene from the Sept. 11 attack on the Twin Towers?

The former Asch Building, home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in 1911

It was March 25, 1911.
A fire of undetermined origin broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory, which occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on Washington Place, just east of Washington Square in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
By the time the fire was put out, 146 garment workers -- girls and young women mostly of Eastern European origin -- had perished.
It had no parallel in New York City until the terrorist attacks of 90 years later.

Engine Company 33, just blocks from the scene, was among the New York Fire Department units that rushed to the blaze. But their ladders weren't long enough to reach the workers trapped on the ninth floor.

My living link to this tragedy was my maternal grandmother, who was 15 at the time. Like all New Yorkers who were alive then and old enough to realize what had happened, it was forever etched in her memory. Twenty-five years ago, I interviewed her on audiocasette about her memories of the fire for a college history course.
So many young girls were killed that day, she recalled.
I still have the tape.

The building was repaired after the fire and was eventually donated by its owner to New York University, whose campus surrounds it. Now called the Brown Building after the former owner, it houses research labs.

After the fire
(courtesy of Wikipedia)

Except for the bronze historical markers affixed to the side of the building, you would never know what happened there.
Most people are unaware of the horror that occurred nearly 96 years ago.
On Saturday I tried to get up to the eighth floor, where the fire started, and the ninth floor, where the workers were trapped.
The security guard was adamant: No entry without ID.

But looking up at the ninth floor from the sidewalk, it was easy for my mind's eye to reconstruct the scene. I heard the screams of the women, heard the thud of their bodies smacking onto the pavement. I smelled the burning textiles and burning flesh. I knew what it was like for bystanders on that early spring day to gaze up at the unfolding disaster powerless to do something, anything, about it.

Before walking away, I asked a student if he was familiar with the building's history. I explained that a long time ago, there was a big industrial fire.
"Oh," he said. "Was anyone hurt?"