1.29.2007

into the window (with Joseph Mitchell)


If I come across a particularly vivid old photograph, especially if it's a New York street scene, I find it thrilling--as though I've uncovered a bit of treasure. I find I can pore over it so intently, get drawn in so completely, that, if I allow myself, I can almost —almost—fantasize being in the image. It's sort of embarrassing.

To the extent that a photographic image, the rectangle, is a metaphorical window, its frame blocks the rest of the world that continues just beyond those edges. The "glass" is immovable, the "window" shut. I wonder, though, about
what is to the left or the right. Or what connection there might be, in that photo of yesterday, to what I know today. The photographs here are part of a series of modern reprints I found in a drawer at Bowne. I believe they are a set of tax ID photographs taken in January and February of 1928 of the South Street area – in other words scenes right around Bowne. It shouldn't have been a surprise to see that the relatively tidy retail mall of today was rough, ragged-edged and tired-looking in the light of that day 79 years ago.


The dirtiness of the street, the worn and dusty clothes on the worker in the cap (click the details above for very large view), a horse drinking from a stone watering trough, the bundles of rags and paper scraps: the 19th century is palpable. Here, "the modern" is foreign. Seventeen years after these images were taken, Joseph Mitchell described these streets in Up in the Old Hotel:
I could distinguish the reek of the ancient fish and oyster houses, and the exhalations of the harbor. And I could distinguish the smell of tar, a smell that came from an attic on South Street, the net loft of a fishing-boat supply house, where trawler nets that have been dipped in tar vats are hung beside open windows to drain and dry. And I could distinguish the oak woody smell of smoke from the stack of a loft on Beekman street in which finnan haddies are cured; the furnace of this loft burns white oak and hickory shavings and sawdust. And tangled in these smells were still other smells— the acrid smoke from the stacks of the row of coffee-roasting plants on Front Street, and the pungent smoke from the stack of the Purity Spice Mill on Dover Street, and the smell of rawhides from The Swamp, the tannery district, which adjoins the market on the north.
After rereading more of the book, I discovered that the building above, left, in my photograph, 92 South Street, is the "Old Hotel." By the time Mitchell hung around the docks, the restaurant at 92 was called Sloppy Louie's (It was
still John Barbagelata's place in 1928) and the locals stopped in for breakfast specialties like a shad-roe omelet or sea scallops and bacon. (The South Street Seaport of today does not say "sea" or "port" or "shad-roe" or anything marine to me at all, unfortunately...)

The Romantic-era philosopher and essayist Johann Gottfried von Herder created the term Einf├╝hlung, which is often translated as "empathy." Not that I know very much about Herder (as I've said before I know a little about a lot of things, just enough to be annoying) but when I first came across this word I recognized it and identified with it as putting a name to a complicated, elusive and for me, enjoyable, state of mind.
... a "feeling into," [Einfuhlung is] projecting one’s mind into the object of one’s contemplation, of seeing and thinking and experiencing from its perspective and so coming to understand it better, of turning it into a subject and oneself into the object of its gaze.– Robert Daly (SUNY Buffalo)
Herder's intent may be different from my reading of it, but I'm satisfied to have it defined in my own mind.

When I look at these photographs above, I think about being on those streets with
horse-drawn wagons and automobiles and the last shadows of the 19th century, and then I think of Flappers and the Chrysler building, Hollywood and Art Deco, and I can almost see it happening at the same time, just beyond the frame.

1.19.2007

zugzwang!* schlimmbesserung!*


This isn't an actual photo of my old television, but
almost: the rounded corners, the double- decker dials, the on/off/volume knob are all spot-on. It had a small sticker in back that said "manufactured: March, 1987" and it might possibly have been one of the last appliances made with the gesture of faux walnut cabinetry. Over the years I spray painted the cabinet, first gold metallic, more recently white. People would say, "Wow, a B/W tv?!" but it was actually a full fifteen inches of glorious cathode ray color. That recent glossy white coat actually gave it an almost Verner Pantonesque flair, like set decoration for a *Wallpaper shoot. I never really had any problem with it, or with reception (it had a rabbit ears antenna) and the image was just fine until the very end. I finally replaced it, with a new flat screen, shortly after its 19th birthday.

In researching for my next tv purchase I had been told that new(er) television sets were more "sensitive." Sleek, sliver-like, highly attuned, they picked up ambient interference, electromagnetic fluctuations and the like that the old(er) sets, stolid and workmanlike, did not.
No longer could I just plug the thing into the wall and go-- I would need cable. I was enabling a neurasthenic intelligentsia to take over from the lumpen proletariat.

{eight ensuing months}

As I began this post, a gossamer sprinkling of snow glittered in the street lights outside, but my flat screen remains dark. The cable box flashes an insistent 7:15, but it is after 9. My friends in cable repair are coming to visit again!
But I need to wait 3 days.

*zugzwang-- (from chess) A position where one is forced to make an undesirable move.
*schlimmbesserung - literally means, "an improvement which makes things worse."

1.03.2007

four things i can do without this year

No, this is not some vow of self-abnegation. This is some time-honored peevish blogging!

1.
deer heads
It pains me to say because I'm partial to all things surreal and macabre-- and these started out as such. But they've gone cute. Some heads and horns out there are still appealing, though. This one from local Brooklyn design emporium Matter has a nice Baroque kitsch sensibility, but the formerly (and formally) wonderful ceramic antler chandelier, also at Matter, has been tainted by the rest of the herd. They are still proliferating, like here and here, but the deer-head-as-coat-rack is dead.

2.
public privates
This makes me positively shiver with hatred. To what depths of mindless
skank has this country sunk? We're down at (warning: link NSFW) crotch level documenting a rash of "celebrity" front bottom airings.
3.
ornamental kale
They have been sprouting in patches of bare dirt
in front of countless office buildings like alien mold spores. There is just no reason for this.

4. lists
"What do you mean?" I hear you think, "isn't this, right here, a list?" Well, yes. (I could have just updated my beloved opinion circle.) But listmaking has become some knee-jerk, dumbed-down, commercially manipulable, ADD-oriented excuse for content. Ten years ago, during my time at sidewalk.com (the antecedent to citysearch), someone on staff introduced a new feature, something like "Weekend Top Ten." It was a list of the top grossing films of the weekend and how much they made. I remember thinking, "what is that? why on earth would someone be interested in that? That's going nowhere..." Quaint, huh?

1.01.2007

reading old postcards

I'm experiencing some unfortunate blogger technical difficulties so my 'special New Years post' is not ready for viewing. So here's an evergreen from the pipeline:
I collect postcards sporadically. Most of my favorites are peculiar Christmas cards or those of the highly sentimental "pleasant thoughts for a dear friend" sort, the more sugary the better. Some people will buy only blank, unused cards. When I can I'd rather have the entire, completed journey: chosen, written, sent, postmarked, and, implicitly, saved. Some cards may not, on first view, be all that compelling visually, but reveal themselves on closer consideration. Many of the cards showcase abysmal grammar skills: "Best Wishes to yous all," "we are well. Hoping you and your husband is the same." That aside, reading the cards can pay off with some important (well, in a relative sense) tidbits. This Venice scene, postmarked August, 1906, is certainly pretty but hardly extraordinary. But the inscription at top caught my eye. It reads, in part, "... it is very hot at mid day but cool at night. The girls are "crazy about it" as they say..." "Crazy about it" was put in quotation marks. Significant because it indicates the phrase was new as an expression or was considered kids' slang, but yet it had to have been common enough that the author was confident that the reader would understand. Kind of like if I were to write my Aunt Helen saying, oh, 'the "bitches are down with it."' Obviously "bitches" (as a term of, uh, bonhomie) and "down with it" have been around for quite a while in Black slang, not as long in general slang. Still my Aunt Helen might get what I'm saying because the phrases have had currency long enough already for someone like me to write them. So when my American Slang Dictionary puts its citation for "crazy about it" at 1914, I just happen to know, from my 50¢ postcard, it must have been kicking around a fair bit earlier.

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