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Thread: New York City Anecdotes

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    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Default New York City Anecdotes

    A place to collect stories, reminiscences and whatnot, both your own and those of others, that don't quite fit anywhere else on WNY.
    Last edited by Merry; January 16th, 2010 at 10:07 PM.

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    January 17, 2010

    In a City of Renters, the Theater of Life on a 27-Minute Cycle


    At the laundromat, irregular things happen. People square off over washers — mine; no, mine. They sit on the counters where you were planning to fold T-shirts. Women conveniently forget a negligee in a dryer so you’ll find it and marry them. Street people try to sell utterly unnecessary things. Pesky process servers visit bearing summonses. People stare without mercy.

    Charles Johnson has a 10-second rule. Mr. Johnson is 44, an occasional personal trainer with loose hours, and was juggling three loads one Wednesday afternoon at the Clean Rite Center in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. He insists on doing the wash for his family (wife, two kids) “because I do it better, not because I have to.”

    He does the cleaning too. In eight years, he said his wife has touched a mop perhaps twice. She cooks.

    “In a laundromat you get a lot of eye drama,” he said. “That’s when someone may or may not like you and they look at you and you look at them and then you try not to look at them. So my rule is if you stare at me more than 10 seconds, I’ll talk to you and find out why you’re staring at me.”

    One guy passed muster. They spoke about the pyramids and a lot else.

    With another, Mr. Johnson ended up doing calisthenics in the park.

    Sixty-one Speed Queen washers and 62 dryers gush and rumble 24 hours at the 5,000-square-foot Clean Rite at Putnam Avenue and Fulton Street, commingling with soft blather from flat screens hung on the wall. On a weekday, 75 to 100 people clean their clothes here; on weekends it can reach 250. Those frenzied Saturday and Sunday afternoons, people park laundry bags next to the taken machines, marking their place in line.

    Attendants troop around, booming out commands to keep things moving: “Washer 21, last call. Dryer 14, empty this baby.”

    The Clean Rite sits in one of those working-class to middle-class neighborhoods that not many years ago was not a very good one — too many drugs, hookers — and is transitioning into a better one. The blue and gold corner laundromat arrived six years ago, not happily for some smaller, less clean laundries that have since vanished.

    For many in this city of renters stacked on top of one another in diminutive spaces, the laundromat is a vital necessity. In older apartment buildings, personal washing equipment is often prohibited; the basement laundries that do exist are frequently unattractive or unwelcoming — or nonfunctioning.

    New York City has 2,654 laundries — self-service ones like Clean Rite and dry cleaners who take in bags for fluff ’n’ fold. That is one for every 3,151 people. They do much more than scrub out dirt. The Clean Rite is an ad hoc theater, where people flirt, debate, gossip, argue, break up, discover love, loiter, do business and just about anything else that can be squeezed into 27-minute heavy-soil cycles.

    An assertion in the back gathered attention.

    “Mister, you’re not folding the towel properly,” the wife said.

    “There you go being anal again,” the husband said. “We are talking about a towel.”

    “We are talking about my towel. Next we are going to be talking about folding your head.”

    Discussion gravitated to personal hygiene, the cellphone use of a daughter, the disappearance of a banana yogurt. It got brutal, got vulgar.
    People buried their eyes in their clothes.

    Crude washing machines go back to the 1800s, but it was the introduction of the automatic washer by Bendix in 1937 that led to the self-service laundry. They began to multiply in the mid-1940s. In those primitive days, users had to make reservations. Coin slots and meter mechanisms were notoriously unreliable. People overloaded washers. Smoke poured out.

    Clean Rite began in 1996 in Springfield Gardens, Queens. Alex Weiss, who was returning from Hong Kong, where he owned a trading business, started the company with his father, Mark, who ran basement laundries in city apartment buildings. The son liked the fact that there was no inventory and customers did the labor. Today there are 40 Clean Rites across the city, and Alex Weiss’s company, Laundry Capital, controls about 150 laundromats around the country.

    Coins are irrelevant inside the Clinton Hill Clean Rite; washers fill swipe cards at refill stations near the entrance. The cards discourage robberies and, as Alex Weiss put it, “You don’t have to get arthritis from putting the coins in the little slots.”

    Laundromats have always been recession-resistant, clothes getting dirty independent of stock indexes. But the recent economic turbulence has seen people let more time lapse between washes, stuff more clothes into machines, do it themselves rather than drop it off with the attendants, even do the wash in their bathtubs.

    Lydia Vega, 49, is a small, rosy woman, eyes in frequent motion. As the manager of the Clean Rite, she sees things. Above all, she sees that an astonishing number of people do not know how to do laundry.

    “They’ll say, this machine is good, but this one doesn’t have enough water,” she said. “Well, you have nightgowns in one and towels in another. Heavy clothes will absorb more water. They don’t know what cycle. What clothes to put with what. They will put in way too much soap. If I see a washer and it’s got 14 minutes left and there’s too much soap, I’ll put in fabric softener, which will cut it.”

    When not rescuing clueless customers, she does wash and fold for drop-off customers.

    She knows the regulars, rarely by name but by washing habits. Like the retired couple who insist on machines No. 1 and 2 because of their proximity to the front windows. They like to watch the passing humanity as their clothes spin.

    People leave all sorts of things in their laundry: iPods, keys, crayons, remote controls. “Once a woman called me over and said the washer was on fire,” Ms. Vega recalled. “I rushed over and it was a flashlight that had turned on.”

    The attendants give advice on both laundry and life.

    Graham Holley, 39, studying to be a stand-up comic, was debating which comic character to choose for a class assignment. Beverly Edwards, who has been working at the Clean Rite for five years, said use the country bumpkin one, it reminded her of Gomer Pyle. He used it. The teacher said it was great, it reminded him of Gomer Pyle.

    Someone asked Ms. Vega for tennis balls. The way to dry a comforter is with a couple of tennis balls: they keep it fluffy. People bring their own balls, but Ms. Vega tries to keep some on hand. People don’t always return them.

    John Fuller, 51, bounced in with a merry smile: Anybody need him? He’s the animated neighborhood handyman, available for any and all odd jobs. The laundromat is his unofficial office.

    He had been overhauling a bathroom at the deli across the street, and popped in to see if fresh work loomed. Actually, a man with a busted pipe had just been in looking for him. He knew you go to the Clean Rite and find John Fuller.

    Mr. Fuller has his own washer and dryer, but twice a week washes his work clothes here to spare his machines the layers of grime.

    The characters come with regularity, people with some interest in washing clothes but not necessarily very much interest.

    Richard Orange sat near the side door one Thursday afternoon. He wore a saturnine expression and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, no soiled clothes in sight. Mr. Orange, 65, said he was a retired subway booth clerk who lived nearby with his uncle’s family.

    He studied a sheaf of papers, awaiting a spark of inspiration. Much of his time at the laundry is spent scribbling fastidiously in notebooks. He is writing a book. He has slaved at it for seven years. He described it as a “very important” work cautioning about humankind’s destruction of Earth.

    The framework for it is three children who visit another solar system, whose leaders tell them to return home and warn civilization about its malevolent ways.

    “The theme of my book is man needs to stop kidding himself and get his act together,” he said.

    The working title is “The Final Spiritual Cosmic Link.”

    One of the more mysterious visitors is the lost soul who parks a shopping cart outside brimming with bottles. She gets on the pay phone, calling 311 to complain vigorously about transgressions against her, mainly about flawed tenants in houses she says she owns.

    Her name is Christine Alfayed. She is 55 and homeless — by choice, as she tells it. “I am an upper-upper-class person,” she said. “I know I look like a vagrant. That is so people don’t bother me.”

    She said she is married to Donald J. Trump, that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is her adopted uncle, that she owns the Pathmark at the Atlantic Terminal mall nearby, that she is bidding on a penthouse in Manhattan, that she used to be a physician’s assistant and that since the summer of 2007 she has lived on the street.

    By redeeming bottles and cans, she said, she makes enough to eat and to do her laundry once a month. “I have no financial problems, none.”

    She wheeled off, paused at a garbage bin, reached in.

    The dead of night, the witching hours. The noise tapered off. A few washers going, sloshing loads. Who does the wash on the graveyard shift?

    Alex Sherba and Rebecca Stabile, both 25. Last September, they moved here from Rhode Island, where work opportunities were invisible. He’s a musician. She teaches theater.

    Why come to the Clean Rite at 1 a.m.? “We procrastinate a lot,” Mr. Sherba said.

    Ms. Stabile said, “We often do it late because we can’t find a time when we can both come. We do it together because we have to carry the laundry down the block.”

    They had two large, stuffed, rolling suitcases.

    While they waited, they played cards: Uno and rummy. He was ahead. Then she was, stomping him.

    An aisle over was Henry Kelly, 45, a welfare investigator. He is single, lives in the East Village, drives nearly five miles to the Clean Rite. “The machinery is very reliable,” he said.

    On that Friday, he said, “I got home early from work and took a nap. Then I was up and I had a million and one things to do this weekend, so I said I’ll do the laundry.”

    Every other Saturday, Carlene James climbs into bed at 10 and sets her alarm for 2:30 a.m. She rises without rousing her husband and four kids. By 3, she is at the Clean Rite. She chooses this moment to do her linens. She requires three super-giant washers, and there are exactly three. At this ungodly hour, competition is zero.

    She is 36, a school office manager. Her apartment building has its own laundry room, but it’s too slow there. “I’m very fussy with my clothes,” she said. “I put soap in during both cycles. I’m always here when they’re done so no one touches my clothes. I once got in an argument with a guy who said I was taking too many dryers. That’s why it’s good to come at 3 a.m.”

    Cleavie Jordan, 47, the midnight-to-8 a.m. attendant, said perhaps a dozen customers came in during the shift, sluggish for his taste. Occasionally, though, the small crimes of the city enliven the night. A month or so ago, three guys beat up someone outside. A continuing issue is deadbeats wanting to use the bathroom to do drugs. “I can tell by looking at them,” Mr. Jordan said. “I tell them no and they curse me out.”

    Since virtually the only money the laundromat keeps around is sealed in the swipe-card machines, which themselves are embedded in the wall, and an ATM, there is low motivation for robberies. Which does not mean they never happen.

    One recent evening, an attendant dashed out for a sandwich. In a New York half-minute, a street character stole behind the front desk and snatched all the detergent and fabric softener and bleach he could hold. The soap thief.

    People sell things at the laundromat: DVDs, pots, knife sets, socks, sneakers; don’t ask where they came from. One evening a man was selling steaks, to undetectable interest. A regular who hawks movies circulated with a portable player to preview selections. Someone took “Precious.”

    Someone took “Nine.” $5 each. Another man was offering a silver flashlight: $3. Two minutes later: $2.

    On it went: smelly clothes, soap, chatter, life.

    A woman wearing a sweatshirt inscribed with “Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body” put $10 on her swipe card. A sinewy woman in relaxed-fit jeans studied a manual to become a court security guard. A man with pocked skin was fixated on a talk show where a woman discussed her habit of eating toilet paper.

    Henry Fernandez, 57, moseyed in with his wife, Yaya, a couple of loads to do. He had no legitimate reason to be at the Clean Rite. A washer and dryer sit in the basement of his house a few blocks away. He comes to socialize.

    He’s well-known in the neighborhood. His mother is famous for cooking meals and bestowing them on the needy. Her name is Felicia Smith, and people know her as “Mrs. Smith, the Puerto Rican woman.”

    He was talking now, to this man, that woman. “It’s pleasant here,” he said. “You never know who you’ll run into. What can I say, I really like the laundromat.”

  3. #3
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    January 17, 2010

    On East 95th, Lodger Was Last of the Line


    The landlord from his old building was on the phone.

    Peter Wertz listened.

    “I’m calling to let you know,” the landlord said, “that James Brooks died.”

    Peter thanked him and hung up.

    That was Monday morning last week. Nearly 79 years ago, Mr. Wertz’s parents had moved into a six-story walkup on East 95th Street in Manhattan. They were separated for many of those decades from my family’s home by an alleyway and clotheslines of flapping laundry. Mr. Brooks, a sweet, simple man, was not a blood relation to any of the Wertzes, but had been living in their apartment as a kind of surrogate son for at least 15 years. They had taken him in when he was on the street. He wound up being the last of their line on 95th Street.

    A moment, then, to chart the shoreline not of a tiny pocket of Manhattan, but of a vanished continent.

    George Wertz sailed from France in 1923 as the sauce chef on an ocean liner, and lost an eye on the journey, sparring on the ship with a professional boxer whose glove came untied. The lace lashed across his face. He jumped ship in New York. Eventually, he brought a wife, Jean Anne, to New York.

    In 1931, the Wertzes moved with their first son to 57 East 95th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues. It was one of three identical buildings, each with 18 apartments, all of them renting at prices within the means of families living on civil service wages. The buildings were never much to look at, but for those of us who grew up there in the decades after the war, that hardly mattered; what counted was how the world looked when the buildings turned themselves inside out.

    Kids spilled onto the sidewalk. The block shimmered with street games: ring-o-levio, running bases, stick ball, box ball, hot-peas-and-butter, stoop-ball, red-rover, and, most of all — or so it seems now — touch football. The downs were run in between bursts of traffic. And the games continued for hours after the sun had set, so that the long bomb passes thrown by the girl with a great arm winked in and out of sight, flying from the arc of one streetlight to the next.

    An adult who saw someone else’s kids getting into trouble on the street would tap on the kitchen steam pipe with a fork, a signal that carried through the building for all hands to look out the window and yell.

    There were ordinary heartaches: broken families, too much drink, not enough work. Two sons of the street were killed in car crashes; another was stabbed in a mugging, and one boy fell six stories from a construction site. Early illness took two girls.

    And then there were the human jewels packed inside these plain brown wrappers of buildings. The Wertzes were chefs, and ran a series of businesses — gourmet shops, newspaper stand/delicatessens, and small restaurants — on the Upper East Side. Their food was unthinkable to the palate of this young Celt, snails and foie gras and cheese that smelled. But they were soft touches, like the brie they sold.

    Trays of Wertz food arrived for weeks at apartments where there had been a death. Peter Wertz’s brother, George, married Olga, and in their restaurant, Chez Olga, she would show a street person how to set a table while George fixed a plate. They ran tabs, fixed Thanksgiving dinners for 500 at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, and never met a stray, animal or human, for whom they could not spare some hospitality.

    Cathy Wertz, the daughter of George and Olga, worked in a pet store and discovered that a co-worker had lost a wife and a home. His name was James Brooks, and he had a child’s grasp of the world. Olga Wertz gave him a room in their apartment. He stayed on after George died of bone cancer, and Cathy died of diabetes, and Olga had closed the restaurant. He left for a job in Brooklyn at 4:30 in the morning with a ham and cheese sandwich packed by Olga, and came home to eat a dinner she had cooked.

    Weary, Olga sat down one day in November at home and did not get up.

    That left her lodger, James Brooks, at 50, with no one to take care of him.

    “We were trying to work out a way for him to stay on,” said Peter Wertz, who lives in New Jersey. “Then I got the call on Monday.”

    It was two months to the day since Olga died, 79 years since the family arrived on the block. Let this count not as lamentation, but remembrance.

  4. #4
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Oct 2002


    Fixture of Avenue A Faces the Threat of a Padlock


    Opposite Tompkins Square Park, the usual sort of post-midnight gathering was taking place on a recent evening inside a cramped storefront with tile floors and a worn blue counter.

    Kevin Mag Fhloinn was there, talking about a probability system he invented, which makes a spin of the roulette wheel so inviting it barely feels like a bet. Mitch Green told how he once tried to interest Rocky Graziano in buying a neon sign. And there was a smiling man who introduced himself as Thrilly-D; he plunked a large order of Belgian fries onto the counter, and, with beery breath, invited his new comrades to dig in.

    “This is one of the first spots I came to when I got to New York,” said Mr. Mag Fhloinn, 49. “The character of the place keeps me coming back, you know?”

    Their chosen gathering spot, Ray’s Candy Store, has been open 24 hours a day for nearly 40 years — a beacon of stability in a part of New York that has gone through various stages of upheaval. But the proprietor, Ray Alvarez, 76, is two months behind on the rent, and the landlord’s agent has issued a few ultimatums.

    “If they terminate this store, my life will be terminated, too.” Mr. Alvarez said. “I like to be around people, and if I can’t be here it’s going to be sad, depressing.”

    There is no shortage of places in the area to find a plate of fries or a cup of coffee, Ray’s patrons say, but there are not many where they feel like members of a community instead of mere consumers, and where they are welcome at all hours.

    “Ray is the inheritor of a tradition,” Mr. Green, 55, said. “He’s like the rabbi, the friend, the father, the person in the neighborhood who is there no matter what.”

    So sidewalk poets, insomniacs, midnight tipplers and members of the lobster shift assemble nightly at the shop to converse, argue, float theories and bear witness to life on Avenue A.

    Mr. Alvarez said he moved to New York in 1964 after 10 years aboard a Turkish navy destroyer that sailed the Indian Ocean. He worked for another decade as a dishwasher in New York then paid $30,000 for the candy store in 1974.

    Mr. Alvarez handles the overnight, which begins around 6 p.m. and ends at 10 o’clock the next morning. He has witnessed two citywide blackouts from behind the counter, as well as a few large-scale civil disturbances. His shop remained open on the notorious night of Aug. 6, 1988, while the police battled protesters in what came to be known as the Tompkins Square riot.

    He stayed open, he explained, because all the combatants were his customers.

    His rent difficulties began in 2000, he said, when his landlord, Ajal L.P., shifted him to a month-to-month lease and raised his monthly rate to $3,500 from $800. For an additional $650 per month, Mr. Alvarez rents a one-bedroom apartment upstairs.

    He said that two weeks ago, a man working for the landlord’s agent, Barbara Chupa, told him that the shop would be padlocked if he did not come up with the back rent.

    “He owes rent and I asked him for it and he says he doesn’t have it.” Ms. Chupa said by telephone, adding that she had no desire to oust Mr. Alvarez, but could not overlook overdue payments.

    Over the past few months, some have tried to help defray Mr. Alvarez’s expenses. The inhabitants of C-Squat, a homesteaded tenement on Avenue C, raised about $500. A young woman named Lilly O’Donnell organized a musical fund-raiser at a bar called Otto’s Shrunken Head and came up with about $350.

    Mr. Alvarez has been unable to collect Social Security benefits in part because he has been paying taxes since the 1960s under a name different from the one on his green card.

    A spokesman for the Social Security Administration, John Shallman, said that cases involving people using more than one name could be difficult, but not impossible, to straighten out.

    “Before we will pay benefits to anyone, we have to be 100 percent sure of their identity,” he said.

    It was just past two in the morning and steel gates rattled on Avenue A as neighboring stores locked up for the night. Mr. Alvarez peered through a window as a police car sped past. And Mr. Green reminisced about the neighborhood in the mid-1970s, when the streets were so desolate that you couldn’t find a cab.

    “When there was nothing else around,” he said, “Ray was around.”

  5. #5
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    Oct 2002


    Tower Tech-Nerds? Late, Lamented Record Store Hosts Punk Nostalgists

    By Leon Neyfakh

    On Friday, Jan. 15, the old Tower Records building on Broadway and Fourth Street was the site of a big, funny party celebrating the opening of a music-themed art show organized by No Longer Empty, a group of curators who mount exhibitions of contemporary art in vacant storefronts around the city.

    The centerpiece of the show, on view at 692 Broadway till Feb. 13, is an installation repurposing the space as a cartoonish simulation of a bustling, pre-Internet music store called “Never Records.” Taken together, the sprawling, mixed-media exhibition is meant to function as a monument to the glory days of music retail, complete with racks of vinyl for browsing, band posters on the walls and a stage for in-store appearances.

    The line to get into the opening on Friday snaked around the block, even after the organizers ran out of the low-calorie, electrolyte-enhanced vodka drink they were promoting on behalf of their liquor sponsor.

    Inside, a guy was going around giving out flyers to a fictional concert at CBGB, and NLE curator Manon Slome’s husband, Ian, a South African-born financier, talked about how much better everything used to be before the Internet came along and spoiled it all. Although Mr. Slome admitted that he never did much shopping at record stores, he had a lot to say about how great they were.

    “At least for me, it's a mourning of the fact that technology has taken away the record store as a place where people gather to socialize, to mix, to share their passion,” he said. “The Internet is nice, but you can only share the passion virtually, not with a face-to-face emotional connection.

    My personal feeling is, I connect with people much more intimately, on a deeper level, when we're both looking at each other eye to eye.”

    Such sentiment was flowing freely as attendees lamented a time before computers, when everyone hung out at record stores with their friends, and New Yorkers knew how to really have fun. Indeed, though conceived by its organizers as a testament to the vibrancy of the underground art scene in recession-era New York, “Never Can Say Goodbye” seemed instead to be inspiring a nostalgia for the city’s past that was overpowering any other message the show's curators might have had in mind.

    Arturo Vega, who served for 20 years as official sidekick and creative director to the Ramones, held forth about what the kids today, with their downloading and their iPods, are missing.

    “They’re missing a lot,” Mr. Vega said. “But then, you know, it’s like, life changes. I don’t like it, but I’m not going to complain about it. Personally I like the proximity—I like having a record in my hands. I love looking at the artwork. Downloading something is so impersonal. You don’t touch it, you know? I guess that’s old-fashioned. But millions of people are going to be old-fashioned that way-- they're going to miss touching it.”

    As for the real youngsters, who came along post-touching: “They’re probably going to turn into seaweed or something,” Mr. Vega said. “Given enough time, God knows where evolution is going to lead for them.”

    Later in the evening, Mr. Vega would raise a glass and toast the evening's organizers, saying that he hadn't seen an event like “Never Can Say Goodbye” since the 1980s, “in the days of Jean-Michel.” (Basquiat.)

    What was up with all this retrograde sentimentality, the Transom wondered? Wasn’t it kind of counter to the whole spirit of contemporary art?

    As luck would have it, the artist-critic Svetlana Boym, author of the book The Future of Nostalgia, was in the house to explain. It was Ms. Boym’s view that for the people gathered that evening at Tower, the “record store” was serving as a stand-in for some broader cultural paradigm.

    “I think it's not a nostalgia for record stores but a nostalgia for a kind of New York culture, perhaps from the '70s, that was less commercial, when everybody got together to hang out,” Ms. Boym said. “Probably drinks were stronger.”
    Artist and punk musician Ted Riederer, meanwhile, who composed the Never Records installation, said he was sick of hearing everyone saying that New York used to be better.

    “I just think it’s so ****ed up,” he said. “I always have talks with the older artists who lived in the downtown area, who always lament about how New York will never be the same—and yet, out in Bushwick, or for a very brief time here, it is happening. It’s still a cool place. I love Arturo, but I've got news for anybody who says they miss the old New York. If they want to find the crazy artists and bohemian life, they just have to leave Manhattan.”

    Those who want to stay should know that the Tower Records space, owned by the Vornado Realty Trust, is available for lease from retail brokerage Robert K. Futterman and Associates. The area is safe, conveniently located near the N-R-W train, and in spitting distance from a real, live record store—as opposed to a reenactment of one-- called Other Music.

    Ms. Slome actually went over there the other day, she said, to give the employees some flyers and tell them what she and her team were up to.
    “I popped in there, but I didn't get much reaction,” she said. “I gave them a flyer and told them this was happening and they were like, ‘O.K., great.’”

  6. #6
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    Oct 2002


    A Tenement Transformed Tells the Lives of Its Squatters


    (see article for slide show)

    When Andrew Castrucci moved into a tenement on East 3rd Street in 1986, he arrived not with a real estate agent and a new set of keys but with two accomplices who stood watch as he used a 10-pound sledgehammer to smash through cinder blocks filling a rear door to the derelict building.

    Property records said that the abandoned structure, between Avenue C and Avenue D, belonged to the City of New York. But a handful of squatters, including Mr. Castrucci, assumed practical ownership. They cleared out thousands of pounds of rubble, repaired the roof, replaced broken water pipes and lighted the rooms with pirated electricity. They called the place Bullet Space, after the name stamped on bags of heroin sold on the block.

    Last spring, the Bullet Space residents became the first of their generation of East Village squatters to officially become ex-squatters, when they completed work on their building and received the deed to the structure. Now, the sledgehammer that unlocked the building — along with the ragged guitar case used to transport it –- is the centerpiece of an art exhibit on the ground floor of Bullet Space.

    “This is kind of an end of an era,” Mr. Castrucci said the other day as he stood in the gallery. “Life is changing, and it’s a good time to look back.”

    The show, “The Perfect Crime,” featuring more than 200 artists and 300 works, is up through this weekend. It is part retrospective of the experience of squatting and part history of the building and the people it has housed, including both squatters and unknown inhabitants from previous centuries who left traces of their lives hidden behind walls or buried in the ground outside. Mr. Castrucci, the show’s organizer, said he was motivated by a desire to document what had in many ways been a secret existence.

    There are pieces of art created by squatters, like the stacks of oversize art books – titled “Your House is Mine” – with welded metal covers that Mr. Castrucci and others created in the early 1990s, then sold or donated to the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the New York Public Library.

    And there are symbols of political resistance, like a large metal sign of the sort that squatters affixed to the front of buildings to warn away speculators that identified the premises as “Property of the People of the Lower East Side” and, for good measure, “Not for Sale.”

    The pieces with the most visceral impact are simple, even mundane, tools that attain significance because their utility reflects a way of life that no longer exists in the neighborhood.

    The sledgehammer that crashed a path into the building. A razor blade that partly melted while squatters were using it to steal electricity from a manhole. A length of copper pipe that burst one winter and formed a shape like a shouting mouth. And a series of wood-burning stoves welded by artists and blacksmiths Robert Parker and Tovey Hallek out of old steel water heaters, including one that the squatters called “the big pig” because of its squat, barrel-shaped silhouette and the ferocity with which it consumed fuel.

    “I would go under the Brooklyn Bridge and pick up driftwood from the East River,” Mr. Castrucci said. “And when that ran out we’d take wooden pallets off the street in Chinatown.”

    Other artifacts in the show predated Mr. Castrucci and his comrades. For instance, under a piece of glass in the main room of the gallery are a tattered Jewish prayer book, believed to be from the early 1900s, and a wooden clapper that the squatters found hidden in an old ceiling. And in the backyard of the building Mr. Castrucci and a young man named Austin Shull have been excavating an old well lined with stones and mortar and unearthing fragments of clay pipes and a few coins that date back to the 1800s.

    For years, public officials condemned the squatters of the East Village, calling them outlaws, freeloaders and worse. Helmeted police officers with battering rams and armored cars executed early morning raids, forcing squatters from the empty city-owned tenements they had taken over.

    In 2002 the sides reached a somewhat surprising détente, with the city turning the titles to 11 surviving squatter buildings over to a nonprofit advocacy group, which oversaw the buildings until the inhabitants brought them fully up to code.

    As Mr. Castrucci sifted through the unearthed relics he began reflecting on how his building has changed during the near quarter-century since he broke in. The streets are safer, and he no longer watches sidewalk dope swaps from his window, which he counts as a blessing. He’s married and has a 4-year-old son, and the building is heated these days by a boiler rather than scavenged pallets.

    By many measures life is now less arduous, Mr. Castrucci said, but he still relishes the independence and freedom he and others found in the pre-gentrified days of the East Village, when it seemed for a while that the future could be written by anybody bold enough to act.

    “We were a mixture of volunteers and dropouts from society” he said. “And I still haven’t figured out what category I was in.”

  7. #7
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    Oct 2002


    I found someone's purse on a path in a park one day and posted it back to the owner who was very grateful, so it's heartening to know I'm not the only one .

    Lost and Found: A New York Story

    Life's rough. We all know this. But once in a great while something happens that breaks through the everyday grind and makes one realize that, hey, wow, it's not just a world of hurt. There are angels walking among us.

    I had set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, January 27th. It was my last day at the Sundance Film Festival, where I was working as a publicist on two films. I had been there six days and was looking very much forward to sleeping in my own bed that night. We had an early live radio interview for one of the filmmakers that morning and had to be at the studio by 5:30. Afterwards I came back to the condo we had rented and finished packing and got to the airport in plenty of time for my 1 p.m. flight.

    The plane left Salt Lake City late and by the time we landed in Chicago, half the passengers were panicked about making their next connection. As it turned out the weather in Chicago was bad (quel surprise) and many of the connecting flights were pushed back. I made the connection to LaGuardia, but we sat on the tarmac for another good chunk of time while they de-iced the plane and fixed one of the commodes.

    Suffice it to say that when I finally landed in New York that night it was about two hours later than scheduled. I'm sure you know this feeling. I was pretty much running on empty at this point from my early start in the day, the cumulative effect of several long days in a row without enough sleep, and the sucker punch to the equilibrium that modern day air travel seems to deliver handily.

    And of course my suitcase did not rumble down the baggage carousel.

    Because, well, it had missed the flight somehow. I blearily punched in my name and address to a kiosk to have it delivered to my apartment when it turned up (I didn't dare entertain the conjunctive if). The bag, as it turned out, arrived later that night and was delivered to my building early the next morning.

    I stumbled out to the sidewalk and threw myself into the back of a cab, directing the driver to my apartment on the Upper West Side. When we arrived, I pulled my purse out of my carry on bag, carefully placed my housekeys in my pocket, took out my credit card to pay the driver, and pocketed my card and receipt and went upstairs. A few minutes later I discovered to my great horror that my purse was gone. Instead of putting it back in my bag I had dropped it on the floor of the cab.

    It's the worst feeling in the world. I kept retracing my steps. I went down to the lobby of my building and even checked the sidewalk in case I had dropped it there and not in the cab. I couldn't conceive that I had not put the purse back in my bag. I felt violated, punched, shaken and stirred. Of course I called 311. They unhelpfully told me that the TLC was closed for the day and all they could do was make a report, but until they opened at 8 a.m. the next morning I had no other option. Later I found out this was not entirely true, that the cab could still have been traced with the medallion number at 11 p.m.

    I tried to go to sleep but by now I had passed the point of exhaustion. I felt off-kilter, off balance, severely and totally freaked out. The next morning I called the TLC; they gave me the phone number of the cab company, where a nice woman took my name and number and said once the driver woke up she'd see if he found anything in the cab. Dead end, there was nothing.

    One of the items in the purse (along with my eclectically populated iPod Nano and some cash and receipts from my trip) was my out of state driver's license, which I hadn't yet changed to New York State. I got in touch with my friends who lived at the address on the license just to let them know it had been lost and tell them I was applying for a duplicate so I could finally change it to a New York license. And that, I thought, was that.

    Not so.

    A couple of days later my friends emailed me that they had received a package addressed to me at their address. No one in the world would associate that address with me -- unless they found my license. I told them to open the package, and they did. The purse was in there, with everything -- even the cash -- intact. There was a lovely note from a woman who got into the cab at 11 p.m. that Wednesday night. She felt terrible, she wrote me, and hoped the purse reached me. And she hoped that I had a good time on my visit, assuming of course from my license that I lived in southern California.

    The purse made its way back to me via the magic of FedEx. I was truly, truly blessed with the great good luck that the person who got into the cab that night after me was a human being with a conscience who found that purse and went the extra mile to return it. And it happened in New York City, a place that I think somewhat undeservedly has a very bad rap for being unfriendly and cold.

    The moral of the story? Be awake and aware and don't drop important things even when you're tired, of course. But the bigger moral is that there are angels of mercy walking among us and you may be lucky enough to find one, as I did.

  8. #8
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    Oct 2002


    Scribner's Bookstore

    In the words of Patti Smith from her book Just Kids:

    "I needed to get another job. My friend Janet Hamill had been hired at Scribner's Bookstore, and she found a way of giving me a helping hand by sharing her good fortune. She spoke to her superiors, and they offered me a position. It seemed like a dream job, working in the retail store of the prestigious publisher, home to writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Where the Rothschilds bought their books, where paintings by Maxfield Parrish hung in the stairwell."

    via Princeton Library

    "Scribner's was housed in a beautiful landmark building at 597 Fifth Avenue. The glass-fronted Beaux Arts-style exterior had been designed by Ernest Flagg in 1913. There was a two-and-a-half-story space behind a lavish expanse of glass and iron, under a vaulted ceiling lined with clerestory windows.

    Each day I rose, dutifully dressed and made the three subway changes to Rockefeller Center. My uniform for Scribner's was taken from Anna Karina in Bande à part: dark sweater, plaid skirt, black tights and flats. I was positioned at the phone desk, which was manned by the kindhearted and supportive Faith Cross. I felt lucky to be associated with such a historic bookstore. My salary was higher, and I had Janet as a confidante. I was rarely bored, and when I got restless, I wrote on the back of Scribner's stationery, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, scribbling poems on the inside of cardboard boxes."

    via Princeton Library

    I like imagining the young Patti Smith going up and down those grand staircases, rarely bored at her little phone desk, maybe shelving the occasional book, climbing a rolling ladder in her plaid skirt.

    It's difficult to imagine anyone in New York today providing such an opulent setting in which to sell books. We tend to house our products according to the value we put on them.

    /* Photo removed on copyright owners request */

    Scribner's bookstore announced its closure in 1988. It was, said the Times, "part of the only landmark building in New York City originally designed to house a bookstore."

    Many tried to save the shop, including Leonard Riggio, head of Barnes & Noble, who said, "There could never be enough good bookstores on Fifth Avenue. It's so important to keep that open." The 76-year-old shop closed in 1989. As you can see in the photo above, the specter of a Barnes & Noble across the avenue is reflected in Scribner's glass.

    For awhile, the location continued to house a bookshop. Brentano's moved in. Founded in 1853, by the time it arrived at this location, Brentano's was owned by the K-Mart Corporation.

    Today, it's a Sephora cosmetics store. That "lavish expanse of glass and iron, under a vaulted ceiling lined with clerestory windows," so beloved by Patti Smith and many other bibliophiles, is now dedicated to eyebrow tamers and lash enhancers, to lipsticks in "pouty pinks" and "just-bitten berries."

    In a weirdly prescient moment, this "overheard" snippet appeared in a 1932 New Yorker Talk of the Town:

    They have it now.

  9. #9
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    Oct 2002


    Triumph of the Egg


    Yes you can. Kind of. A little.

    The tuna was our fallback.

    Even if we proved unable to fry an egg on the sidewalk on the hottest day in the city since 2001, we hoped we could at least sear a piece of sashimi. And so, armed only with a pan, utensils and some of our favorite proteins and lipids, City Room took to the streets.

    12:42 p.m. Times Square. The sun beats down from its perch atop the Nasdaq MarketSite tower. We set our pan (Emeril brand, medium-gauge, nonstick) on a metal sewer-hole cover just into the crosswalk at the southwest corner of Broadway and West 43rd Street, next to the police station.

    12:47. The pat of butter (melting point: about 95 degrees) oozes out of its tinfoil wrapper. We place a thin slice of tuna in the puddle of grease.

    12:52. The translucent red flesh shades toward opacity. High fives all around.

    12:56. Just as we’re about to flip the tuna, Benedicta Torres, a retired factory worker, home attendant and dog walker, rolls her granny cart up to our alfresco kitchen. “You’re frying an egg?” she asks. “Where’s the steak?” Here, actually.

    1:00. The exact midpoint of the solar day. The mercury rings the century bell. The miniature tuna steak meets Ms. Torres’s lips. “It’s good,” she pronounces. “And it’s hot. It’s a little overcooked, actually.” Well done.

    1:07. We crack one large egg into the pan. A slight breeze ripples the lake of albumen. We await the telltale whitening. “Good luck with that,” a woman passer-by says.

    1:12. Nothing. Ms. Torres, 77 and a great-grandmother 10 times over, is unfazed. “This is how I’m going to get to 109 years old,” she says. “By being patient. It’s going to work. I’m going to taste that egg.”

    1:16. “What are you doing here?” asks a uniformed police officer. As if it’s not evident. We tell him, and ask if we’re violating the law. “Well, technically,” he says, “if someone runs you over, it’s on you, O.K.?” O.K.

    1:21. Beneath the blinking ads for space-age chewing gum, soft drinks and electronics, a small crowd is forming. “Cool!” says Jenissa, 8, of Lancaster, Pa. A somewhat embarrassed photographer for USA Today clicks a few frames. Flop sweat forms on our brows and drips into our eyes, but the egg is not getting the message. We erect a reflecting wall of tinfoil around the pan. Ms. Torres, who lives in housing for the elderly on West 43rd Street and had just stopped by for a moment on her way to go grocery shopping, coos encouragement. “Negatism is something I cannot deal with,” she says.

    1:24. We accidentally kneel on the manhole cover. It is definitely burning hot. But according to the Library of Congress, eggs require a sustained temperature of 158 degrees to cook. Human flesh, on the other hand, can sustain second-degree burns by touching a 130-degree surface for as little as three or four seconds, says Palmer Bessey, associate director of the William Randolph Hearst Burn Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

    1:27. We notice for the first time that even hotter air is coming out of some of the little round holes in the sewer cover, the result of some perhaps-unspeakable exothermic process. We have been cheating. It doesn’t help. We try scrambling the egg.

    1:30. A few bubbles form around the edge of the goo. “Yes, yes, yes!” Ms. Torres exclaims.

    1:34. The sun dips behind the building. We relocate to the north side of 43rd and place the pan on a subway grate outside the Armed Forces recruiting station. A light skin has formed on the pan; the white is thickening ever so slightly. Ms. Torres takes over scrambling duty. “You’ve got to expect when you go to fry an egg on the sidewalk, it will take longer than on the stove,” she explains. “We have to depend on Mr. Sun. He takes his sweet time.”

    1:44. The egg is not done, but we are. The undauntable Ms. Torres (“I’m not afraid, because sickness is in your head”) scoops up a runny forkful.

    “It tastes like in between medium-cooked and medium-raw egg,” she reports. “It’s a good taste.” We’re unable to bring ourselves to confirm her finding, but we offer to recommend her for a cooking show. “Rachael Ray, move over,” she says. “Here I come.”

    Bon appetit, Ms. Torres.


    1. July 6, 2010 5:44 pm
    Real street food.
    — Grate story.
    2. July 6, 2010 5:58 pm
    Brings to mind the last line of a song Steve Martin used to sing back when he was doing stand-up:
    “…but the most amazing to me is,
    I get paid,
    for doing this.”
    — DewNC
    3. July 6, 2010 6:04 pm
    This is the kind of groundbreaking journalism I will be willing to pay for next year.
    — Ahoy
    4. July 6, 2010 6:17 pm
    you’re supposed to fry the egg ON the sidewalk. not in a PAN. wussies.
    — cityrat
    5. July 6, 2010 6:21 pm
    I know humidity and urban heat island effect are big factors there, but in much of the country cracking 100 degrees is a fairly common affair. I bet you could fry that egg, or make some killer frittatas, on the dashboard of a parked, closed vehicle. Heck, you could probably bake brownies.
    — Q
    6. July 6, 2010 6:33 pm
    >> ask if we’re violating the law. “Well, technically,” he says, “if someone runs you over, it’s on you, O.K.?”<<
    New York. Gotta love it. No other place like it!
    JimF from SJersey
    — jim f. from sewell, nj
    7. July 6, 2010 6:42 pm
    What we need on the sidewalk and on our streets is the non existence of chewing gum scum. It makes Manhattan oh so undesirable compared to some European cities!
    — Chris Desouza
    8. July 6, 2010 6:51 pm
    ya gotta crack the egg directly on to the sidewalk…
    — Tell
    9. July 6, 2010 7:26 pm
    you’re supposed to fry the egg ON the sidewalk. not in a PAN. wussies.
    — cityrat
    I agree. This was a germophobic yuppie experiment.
    I’d expect no less of the New York Times. “Relentless good taste” is your real motto.
    — Terence Hughes
    10. July 6, 2010 7:27 pm
    During the midwest heat wave of 1977, I was sent to interview the employees of an ice-making company. But even then my editors thought the “egg on the sidewalk” gimmick was too hokey.
    — Anne
    11. July 6, 2010 7:38 pm
    It doesn’t work on the sidewalk either! I tried it. As one of the commenters notes on my post ( you need 140 degrees farenheit just for the whites, and 150 degrees for the yolk.
    It’s fun trying, though!
    — carolita
    12. July 6, 2010 7:41 pm
    I would’ve thought that after the tuna article, the entire NY Times staff would’ve sworn off tuna…
    OK, I can’t really claim that I’ve forsworn it myself, but that was a very thought-provoking read.
    — Bonnie
    13. July 6, 2010 7:41 pm
    Contrary to popular belief, the hottest part of the day is not noon, but the hour between 3 and 4 pm. The dashboard of a parked car can also reach 130 degrees sitting under the sun.
    — Gavin
    14. July 6, 2010 8:09 pm
    cityrat is absolutely right and if you needed to heat the air another 20 degrees or so, you could have borrowed a few of those editorial scribes.
    — wgara
    15. July 6, 2010 8:13 pm
    if you crack an egg on the roof of a black car that’s been in the sun for a few hours i would think it would work, though they do have reflector cookers made for just such a purpose…
    — union square
    16. July 6, 2010 8:40 pm
    I’ve seen this experiment performed in the Daily News, and The Mirror fifty years ago when times were really hot.
    I’ll go along with # 4
    It’s a wonder that you didn’t get yourselves locked up for running an outdoor restaurant without a license!
    — Perley J. Thibodeau
    17. July 6, 2010 9:14 pm
    I agree with cityrat. I thought the whole point was that you do it ON the actual sidewalk! But don’t ask me, I’m the girl who once set fire to a not-insignificant portion of her parents yard while trying to use a magnifying glass to solar-zap worms, so.
    — katiebakes
    18. July 6, 2010 9:47 pm
    you have kept a great new york/journalistic tradition alive into a new century
    — bob in NY

  10. #10
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    Author Whose Bookstore Is the No. 2 (or 4, or 5)


    Randy Kearse stepped onto a southbound No. 2 train in Harlem and scanned the crowd, trying to figure out who might be in a buying mood. He strode across the car, pressed his back against the steel doors and cleared his throat: Showtime.

    “Excuse me, ladies and gentleman,” he called out.

    “I am not begging, borrowing or asking for your food. I don’t represent the homeless, I’m not selling candy or selling bootleg DVDs,” he said, then paused. “I write books.”

    A few passengers looked on curiously. Others stared at their hands, at their shoes or at nothing in particular, just not up at Mr. Kearse. He could practically read their minds: Uh-oh — here we go again.

    But in a city weary of the relentless, and illegal, subway pitch for money — the emotional spiel, the hand or cup offered from seat to seat — Mr. Kearse is something of a subway sales impresario.

    With little or no marketing muscle behind him, Mr. Kearse said he had sold some 14,000 copies of his self-published books in the last three years, at $10 each, mostly through hand-to-hand sales. He has also sold about 4,000 copies of a 750-page, 10,000-entry dictionary of urban slang terms, “Street Talk,” through Barricade Books of Fort Lee, N.J., the publisher said.

    Most novice authors would be lucky to sell that many books through traditional and online stores. Mr. Kearse seems to have reached those numbers largely on his own hustle.
    “My quota is 35 books a day,” Mr. Kearse said. “If I don’t hit that number, I’m staying out until I do. Overtime.”

    Mr. Kearse does it with a well-designed pitch and a salesman’s instinct for closing the deal. But he also has a product that people seem to want.

    “This book is about my life, my experiences, the lessons that I’ve learned from the mistakes that I’ve made,” he said, “mistakes that sent me to prison for 13 and a half years.”

    Mr. Kearse, 45, went from hustling crack cocaine as head of a multistate crew, to federal prison, to author and urban self-help guru who not only writes books about his experiences but also mentors children, crooks, prisoners and their families on the perils of the criminal life. Or as one of his titles suggests, he has gone from “Incarceration to Incorporation.”

    Plenty of authors have emerged from prison with manuscripts. Some even get them published. But instead of fictional tales of sex, money and murder — the stuff of the booming “street lit” genre — Mr. Kearse has assembled step-by-step guides to going legit, or “Changin’ Your Game Plan: How to Use Incarceration as a Stepping Stone for Success” — another of his titles.

    That book, and his overall message of redemption, landed him on “The Colbert Report” in 2007, where he held his own in banter with the host over whether inmates should ever be returned to society.

    The market for his message is the subway system, the trains that run through Harlem and the South Bronx. His target demographics, he said, are black and Hispanic passengers from the neighborhoods he once flooded with drugs.

    On one recent outing, in an hour Mr. Kearse sold about 10 books. Two buyers asked that he autograph the books for a brother or boyfriend in prison. Another bought a copy for a grandson. One young man gripped Mr. Kearse’s hand tightly, said that he had read the book and thanked him.

    “What I’m doing now is the same thing, same concept, as when I was hustling; it was just illegal business that I was doing then,” Mr. Kearse said. (New York City Transit also prohibits selling or panhandling on the subway.)

    “I try to show people how to use your natural instincts, the same grind,” he said.

    Over lunch in Harlem, he described the science of the subway sale:
    A sparsely populated train is better than a packed one; it’s easier to work the crowd.

    The cars on the No. 3 train are too loud; you’ll have to yell; it’s very unprofessional.

    The A and J trains are too big, with too much ground to cover; intimacy is important.

    The Nos. 2, 5 and 4 trains through Harlem are the best: the right audience, smaller cars, and long relatively quiet stretches to make his pitch.
    Mr. Kearse said the sales provided him with enough income to cover his bills and pay the rent on his apartment in the Bronx, as well as to help out his five children, ages 20 to 23.

    But he said what really motivated him to roll his bag of books around every day was the chance to influence lives.

    “A guy wrote me a while back and asked, in respect to all the damage that I’ve done, that I’ve left behind, if I think doing good things now changes any of that,” Mr. Kearse said. “You know, I don’t know if I have an answer for that.”

    Mr. Kearse, a 10th-grade dropout, said he had built a name for himself on the streets, first locking down the drug trade in a public housing complex in the city, then in North Carolina by setting up a crew of 40 to 50 workers that distributed for him in five cities.

    He was indicted on charges of moving more than 50 kilograms of cocaine over two years, he said — allegations he does not dispute.

    Since he left prison in 2005, his record has been clean.

    “The difference in what I’m doing now is there’s no stress as far as worrying about what the future’s going to be like. Am I going to jail one minute? Am I going to be killed another minute?” he said. “I can stand behind what I’m doing and not feel like I have to hide things.”

    One afternoon, arms stretched wide and a book in each hand, he waited for at least a few passengers on a No. 2 train to smile and nod, buying into what he was trying to sell. Thirteen down, 22 books to go.

  11. #11
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    Oct 2002


    The Six-Room Scrapbook


    Marcia Young Cantarella lives among books, artwork and photos, including one of her father,
    Whitney M. Young Jr., with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.

    slide show

    THE Upper West Side apartment that is home to Marcia Young Cantarella, a longtime educator and a onetime dean at Princeton University, is rich with the presence of the two men who have loomed largest in her life.

    One is her father, the civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr., who served as the executive director of the National Urban League through the turbulence and triumphs of the 1960s. The other is her husband, a corporate public affairs executive named Francesco Cantarella, who played a major role in two of the city’s most celebratory events, the centennial of the Statue of Liberty and the 100th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge.

    Mr. Young died in a swimming accident in Nigeria in 1971, at 49. Mr. Cantarella died of an aneurism in 2001, at 69. But the lives of both men are powerfully on display in the mazy apartment on West 86th Street where Dr. Cantarella has lived for three decades.

    A rent-stabilized Classic 6 in a prewar building, the apartment is exactly what you imagine when you picture the quintessential Upper West Side residence. Built-in bookshelves line nearly every wall and are crammed with thousands of volumes ranging from leather-bound classics to the latest paperbacks. Framed family photographs, including pictures of five grandchildren from the Cantarellas’ first marriages, share space with works of art by an array of gifted friends.

    The Cantarellas moved to this apartment in 1980, the year they were married. The rent today is just under $2,000 a month, and if Dr. Cantarella has her wish, she will stay forever.

    “I know the neighborhood has changed a lot,” she said one rainy morning, gazing out the living room window at the gray streetscape below. “But there’s still something about the West Side that feels very democratic. Our housekeeper lives two blocks away. There’s still socioeconomic diversity. Not as much as there used to be, but it’s still here. I value that.”

    On the hunter green wall in the living room, her father and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (whom Dr. Cantarella knew as a child), their hands on their hearts, gaze somberly out of a photograph taken at the 1963 March on Washington. Nearby sits a framed image of Dr. Cantarella, Bryn Mawr ’68, draping an academic hood over her father’s head just before he spoke at her college graduation. “And here’s Daddy in his office,” she said, gesturing toward an image of her father at his desk, a cigarette between his fingers.

    An entire stretch of bookshelves houses works about Mr. Young, a child of Jim Crow Kentucky, and the political events in which he figured so crucially. The hefty assortment includes multiple biographies along with the two books he wrote, “To Be Equal” and “Beyond Racism: Building an Open Society.”

    Dr. Cantarella’s husband came from a very different background. His father was an Italian immigrant and his mother was French-Canadian. His forebears are vividly evoked by way of fading black-and-white photographs. Here is his maternal grandmother around the turn of the last century, her hands hidden in a large muff. Here are his mother and one of her brothers as children, standing primly beneath a white parasol. On a bookshelf sits the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1920s, which contains entries by Mr. Cantarella’s father, a member of the Italian department at Smith College.

    The bedroom the Cantarellas shared is dominated by posters for the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge celebrations, a reminder of Mr. Cantarella’s involvement in publicizing the extravaganzas during his time as a spokesman for Abraham & Straus, a sponsor of both events.

    A short stretch of hallway that Dr. Cantarella describes as the “credentials corner” features his-and-hers arrangements of diplomas and awards received for various good works.

    “Fewer for me,” she said. “My side isn’t quite as distinguished.” In fact, she is being modest. Her side includes her diploma for her doctorate in American studies from New York University, along with tributes tracing nearly four decades of involvement in civic and educational causes.

    Despite the heavy shadow cast by past lives, this apartment is no mausoleum. In her office, Dr. Cantarella works for organizations like the Eagle Academy for Young Men, devoted to the education of low-income youth. She also entertains prodigiously, a task facilitated by a generously proportioned dining room and a collection of china, silver and glassware seemingly large enough to equip a good-sized restaurant.

    Although her mother, a well-known children’s book author named Margaret B. Young, is no longer alive, Dr. Cantarella is reminded of her every time she pours a cup of tea or arranges a place setting. In the center of the room stands her mother’s mahogany dining table, which comfortably seats 10. Guests dine by the light of her mother’s crystal and wrought-iron chandelier, though not by her mother-in-law’s candelabra, studded with fat white candles that Dr. Cantarella never lights.

    There is silver from her aunt Ersa along with dozens of red, turquoise and clear wine glasses and goblets from various relatives. “Francesco loved glasses,” Dr. Cantarella says. Many of these items are displayed in the open cabinets that line the dining room walls. Others, including a fetching set of dishes from the 1930s, hand-painted with little boats topped with yellow sails, occupy her mother-in-law’s breakfront.

    On the rare occasions when Dr. Cantarella has time to spare, lest even an hour not be put to good use, she embroiders crewelwork pillows. The fruits of her labors are piled on chairs, sofas and the old church pew in the foyer.

    Her rooms are also packed with original works of art, virtually every one of which has personal meaning. A tapestry of blues and grays by Romare Bearden, depicting laundry strung against brick walls, hangs in the living room. Mr. Bearden was a friend of Dr. Cantarella’s mother, and the painting was a wedding gift from the labor leader Theodore Kheel. The artist Ralph Fasanella was also a family friend; a limited-edition print of his painting “Bread and Roses — Lawrence, 1912” is inscribed “To Marcia and Francesco.”

    The other day, with an anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11 looming, Dr. Cantarella reminisced about another creation heavy with personal history.

    “Francesco died on Sept. 30 of that year,” she said, “and after his death, I realized that over the years he had taken photographs of an incredible number of flags. He found them everywhere.”

    There were so many, she made them into a calendar for family and friends. Though the calendar is dated 2003, her homage to her late husband feels as current as the day it was made.

  12. #12
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    Oct 2002


    Death of a Fulton Fish Market Fixture


    Known as Annie, she was a fixture for decades of the Fulton Fish Market.
    Few knew her real name, Gloria Wasserman, or of her past.

    THE fish men see her still, their Annie, in the hide-and-seek shadows of South Street. She’s telling her dirty jokes and doing anything for a buck: hustling newspapers, untaxed cigarettes, favors, those pairs of irregular socks she’d buy cheap on Canal. She’s submitting to the elements, calling out “Yoo-hoo” to the snow and the rain and her boys.

    For several decades, Annie was the profane mother of the old Fulton Fish Market, that pungent Lower Manhattan place fast becoming a mirage of memory. Making her rounds, running errands, holding her own in the blue banter, she was as much a part of this gruff place as the waxed fish boxes, the forklift-rocking cobblestones, and the cocktail aroma of gasoline, cigarettes and the sea.

    Some ridiculed and abused her; others honored and protected her. Young men new to the market were occasionally advised to make acquaintance with Annie’s prodigious breasts; kiss them for good luck. And the veterans, young men once, often slipped her a dollar, maybe five, for a copy of a fresh tabloid; pay her for good luck.

    Young and old, they all had heard that the faded color photograph on display at Steve DeLuca’s coffee truck — of a striking young woman, a raven-haired knockout in a two-piece bathing suit, running barefoot against a glorious sky — was of Annie in her younger days, decades before her dark fish-market terminus. But some could not see the coffee-truck goddess in this bent woman at shadow’s edge, clutching the handle of the shopping cart she used to hold wares and provide balance, wearing a baseball cap, layers of sweaters, and men’s pants, navy blue, into which she had sewn deep, leg-long pockets to keep safe her hard-earned rolls of bills.

    The supposed link between pinup and bag lady sounded too much like an O. Henry tale of Old New York, and begged too many questions.

    Who are you, really, Annie? How did you wind up here, at the fish market, receiving your boys, their taunts, the slaps of the East River winds? Where does all your money go? What is the larger meaning of your life’s arc?

    Never asked; never answered.

    Annie was just there, always, as rooted to the market as the cobblestones.

    Five years ago, when the city pried the 175-year-old fish market from Lower Manhattan and moved it to Hunts Point in the Bronx, Annie came with it, at first, often paying for a ride from her home, somewhere in Manhattan. She was in her 80s by then, and she struggled to find warmth in the new market’s chilled air. The men would sometimes see her in a corner, huddled against herself, sleeping.

    So maybe it was for the best when the city regulators at Hunts Point told Annie she could no longer hawk her best seller, her untaxed cigarettes — an order that would have been laughable in the old market’s wide-open days. Soon the raucous market chorus, of curses and price calls and forklift beeps, was missing the occasional, punctuating “Yoo-hoo.”

    Then again, maybe the market was her life’s oxygen. A few weeks ago, word spread among the fishmongers: South Street Annie, also known as Shopping Cart Annie, also known as their Annie, had died. She was 85. Her given name was Gloria Wasserman. And the larger meaning of her journey’s arc was this: Life is a wondrous gray.

    WHEN someone dies, the rest of us cobble together old photographs, faint remembrances and snippets of things once said to make sense of the life lived. It is folly, but it is what we do. So here is Annie, incomplete, partially hidden still in the market’s eternal dusk cast by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive above.

    According to one of her two daughters, Barbara Fleck, Gloria Wasserman’s parents were Polish immigrants who tried to make a living as egg farmers in rural New Jersey before settling in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The father, Pincus, found work as a tailor; the mother, Sadie, was a homemaker. Together they fretted over their only daughter.

    “She was almost too beautiful, which caused her to — well,” Ms. Fleck said. “She had a lively spirit, which was almost frightening for these poor Jewish immigrants. Very beautiful and very spunky.”

    A portrait from the mid-1940s shows Ms. Wasserman in pearls, her dark hair swept up and sculpted, her expression that of a confident starlet waiting to be discovered. “I think in her heart she would have wanted to have been an actress,” Ms. Fleck said. “She didn’t make it to the screen, but she acted in real life.”

    While working in Manhattan’s jewelry district, Ms. Wasserman met an ex-soldier named Fred Fleck, who planned to bicycle to Alaska, where he would attend college on the G. I. Bill. He suggested that she accompany him. “And she did,” Ms. Fleck said. “A free-spirited woman.”

    The front page of the Sept. 5, 1947, edition of The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner featured an article with the headline: “ ‘Bike-Hikers’ Reach City 83 Days Out of New York.”

    “Clad in clean white duck slacks, faded colored wool shirts and moccasins, the young couple, deeply tanned, looked as though they had been on an afternoon’s jaunt. Gloria’s nut-brown shoulder-length hair glistened in the sun. ... Glowing with enthusiasm, Gloria left her job as a manufacturer’s model and amateur entertainer, bought a bicycle, and came along. She plans to get a job in Fairbanks, possibly as an entertainer.”

    She was 22.

    After that, details get blurry. Ms. Wasserman married Mr. Fleck, gave birth to Barbara in 1950, and broke up with Mr. Fleck. She lived a bicoastal life, it seems, working in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest — running a bar, then a record store — but returning to New York often to visit and provide financial support for her widowed mother, who by now was raising Barbara.

    “She had a knack,” Ms. Fleck said. “She could make money.”

    Ms. Wasserman married a second time, to a man named Grinols, and gave birth to two sons. Then, after this marriage broke down, she had a relationship that produced another daughter, Robin, in 1964. During these years, and in the many that followed, Ms. Fleck often had no idea what her mother did for a living.

    “I don’t know how you could put it nicely,” said Ms. Fleck, who lives in Los Angeles. “But she had a flamboyant life.”

    At some point, Ms. Wasserman returned to New York for good. And, at some point, she assumed the role of Annie and began appearing at the Fulton Fish Market, selling her wares and, her close friends at the market gently say, herself. Exactly when is lost to time, but far enough in the past that it seemed as though she was as permanent as the skyscrapers, as permanent as the river, calling out to the late-night fishmongers and early morning Wall Street suits. When Frank Minio, an erudite, reflective man, joined the market in 1978, she was already a fixture.

    No matter the weather, he said, “She was always there.”

    WHAT a brutal way to live. She cleaned the market’s offices and locker rooms and bathrooms. She collected the men’s “fish clothes” on Friday and had them washed and ready for Monday. She ran errands for Mr. DeLuca, known as Stevie Coffee Truck, hustling to Chinatown to pick up, say, some ginseng tea. She accepted the early morning delivery of bagels. She tried to anticipate the men’s needs — towels, bandannas, candy — and had these items available for sale.

    “If the Brooklyn Bridge could fit in her shopping cart, she would have sold it,” Ms. Fleck said.

    Since all this hustling meant carrying around a lot of cash, she tucked away wads of bills in those deep-pocketed pants and other hiding places, including her brassiere. “She tried to look shabby so people wouldn’t give her a hard time” when she left the market, recalled one of her protectors, Joe Centrone, better known as Joe Tuna. “But she was regularly robbed.”

    Away from the market, Annie lived as Gloria Wasserman, in the East Village, in a city-owned apartment building that later became part of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association. She found joy in her family — a grandson, Travis, in California, and a granddaughter, Chelsea, in New Hampshire — but also sorrow. One of her sons, Kenneth Grinols, died in a fire while squatting in a building in the city. The other, Karl Grinols, struggling with drugs, moved into her apartment at one point, while she slept in a room at the market — “between the mackerel and the salmon,” Ms. Fleck said. But he died young, too, hit by a car in the East Village.

    All the while, Annie kept working, rarely missing a day, and gave nearly everything she had to others.

    Barbara Grinols, Karl’s ex-wife, who lives in New Hampshire, said that Ms. Wasserman often sent as much as $4,000 a month, usually through money orders, to her relations on both coasts. She also routinely sent along boxes of used clothing that she had culled from places like the Catholic Worker’s Mary House, on East Third Street, where she was known as that rare visitor who searched for items that fit others, and who had a gift for using humor and kindness to deflate the tensions arising from hardship.

    “She became like a grandmother to dozens of women on the street who had nobody,” said Felton Davis, a full-time Catholic Worker volunteer. Sensing the lack of esteem in a woman beside her, he said, “She would say: `I have just the shirt that you need. I’ll get it for you.’ ”

    Meanwhile, up in New Hampshire, the clothes kept coming. “The boxes would be opened, and it would be like: `Who wants this T-shirt?’ ‘Who wants this sweatshirt?’ ” Ms. Grinols recalled. “So many people in this area got gifts from her.”

    In 1999, Ms. Wasserman decided to retire as Annie, telling the men at the fish market that she had health problems — circulation problems in her legs, Ms. Fleck said, related to years of working in the wet and cold. Joe Tuna and Stevie Coffee Truck raised $3,000 for her by hitting up all the hardened fishmongers. Off she went, to live with her daughter Robin in California, and then with Ms. Grinols and Chelsea in New Hampshire. After nine months in the country, though, Annie was back at the market, calling yoo-hoo and forcing Joe Tuna and Stevie Coffee Truck to do some explaining.

    WITH the money she earned by working in all weather, in the hours when the rest of us slept, Annie bought Chelsea a used Toyota Tercel. She paid for Chelsea’s tuition at the University of New Hampshire, and provided financial support to a ballet school in Los Angeles. Whatever money she took in, she sent out, while owning little more than a bed and a radio. Her relatives, in turn, regularly visited her in New York, where she would always tell them, “If we see anyone, I’m Annie.” They called her often, sent her gifts that she probably gave away, and constantly begged her to retire from a job whose parameters were left vague, but whose pull for her was undeniable. “She would always say, ‘We’ll see,’ ” Chelsea recalled. “She never wanted to leave New York and stop doing what she was doing.”

    About 10 years ago, Joe Tuna and Stevie Coffee Truck heard that Annie had been hospitalized. They went to New York Downtown Hospital and asked to see — actually, they didn’t know whom to ask for. “Annie?” they volunteered. “Shopping Cart Annie?”
    “Gloria Wasserman,” the clerk said, and directed them to her room, where their tough, tough Annie now seemed so vulnerable.

    “That was the first time I ever saw her with her hair down,” Joe Tuna said. “You could see the remnants of a beautiful woman.”

    Then Annie got out of the hospital, and went back to work. She continued to flash her breasts, more for the shock and a laugh than for anything else. She sold her goods, ripped into those who owed her money, accepted a hot cup of coffee when offered, and slipped away now and then to read from one of the books she always carried, like a stage actress resting between scenes.

    She also continued her other life, as Gloria Wasserman, traveling to New Hampshire to attend Chelsea’s wedding, in 2006. There she is in the photographs, smiling with the bride and groom, a proud, beloved grandmother.

    For the last year of her life, the reluctantly retired Gloria Wasserman spent her days charming the East Village and her nights sharing dinner at Mary House. In spirit, she remained defiantly independent. In truth, she needed help: with her hygiene, with her apartment, with climbing the stairs.

    She suffered a stroke in the brutal August heat and was admitted to Bellevue Hospital Center, where Mr. Davis, from the Catholic Worker, visited nearly every day. She was released after a month, spent a couple of weeks in New Hampshire, and then a couple more in California, with her daughter Barbara. But she refused to eat or to take her medication, and died in her sleep, 2,800 miles from the fish market.

    “New York was her life,” her daughter said. “Work was her life.”

    Word of Annie’s death gave pause to the fish men. Mr. Minio reflected on that space between black and white where all of us reside. And Joe Tuna has discovered that whenever someone in a crowd calls out, “Yoo-hoo,” his head jerks up and he is instantly back on South Street, amid the beds of glassine ice, and the dead-eyed fish, and here she comes.

    The impressions and old photographs that Ms. Wasserman left behind are, in the end, only impressions and old photographs. In fact, whenever reporters, including this one, referred to her in a news story, she would always complain that they had failed to capture her “essence” — which may, again, be true.

  13. #13
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2002


    Another nice lost and found story.

    A Wallet Lost 40 Years Ago Now Is Found


    Rudolph R. Resta, 77, walked out of a wintry rain recently, through the revolving door of a largely empty Times Square office building, and into his distant past.

    He found his two sons, now in their 40s, when they were small enough to fit into the same lawn chair, side by side. He found his wife, Angela, posing before a knife-sharp Pontiac Grand Prix in Prospect Park, looking very sultry in a jaguar stole; “real jaguar,” he said, “not the stuff they have today.” He found a picture of his father, Nicola, that he once worried he would never see again. He found a Social Security card issued by the Federal Security Agency (the office hasn’t existed since 1953) and an American Express card so old that it wasn’t green, it was purple and white. (Member Since 64.)

    In fact, Mr. Resta found just about everything with which a well-stocked wallet would have bulged in 1970. Except, of course, the cash he carried on the day he carelessly left the wallet in a jacket pocket in an unattended coat closet on the second floor of The New York Times headquarters at 229 West 43rd Street, where he worked as an art director in the promotion department.

    When Mr. Resta went to fetch his jacket at lunchtime on that long-ago day, the wallet was gone. He wasn’t to see it again for 40 years. The reunion was made possible by José Cisneros, 46, a security guard who works in the former Times building, now called the Times Square Building. He came across the wallet last fall when he was investigating a void between an old unused window on the second floor and the masonry seal behind it.

    The wallet had apparently been stashed there after a thief found it in the coat closet and pulled out the cash.

    Here’s what Mr. Cisneros did. Recognizing that the wallet would surely have value to someone, he turned it over to Rafael Rodriguez, 38, the fire safety director at the Times Square Building. Because the wallet held several pieces of Times-related identification — including Mr. Resta’s membership card in The New York Times Employees’ Blood Bank — the two knew immediately that it had belonged to someone who had once worked in the building. “This is very good,” Mr. Rodriguez recalled saying to Mr. Cisneros. “We could give it back to him or his family. That would be a fantastic satisfaction.”

    But how, exactly, does one make such a connection? Mr. Rodriguez tried calling The Times, but was stymied by the message: “To reach a particular department or person directly, press 0, then speak the name when prompted. For all other requests, please select from the following — ”

    “To return a stolen wallet to a retired employee, press 9,” was not among the options. (We closed that division years ago as an economy measure.)

    Enter — literally — Gordon T. Thompson, formerly the manager of Internet services for The Times. One night, waiting for a movie to begin in a nearby theater, Mr. Thompson wandered into the renovated lobby of the Times Square Building, where he’d spent many years. He explained who he was and asked if he could look at some architectural renderings that were on display.

    Mr. Rodriguez happened to be on duty at the security desk and seized his opportunity. He showed the wallet to Mr. Thompson. Mr. Thompson called this reporter, who’s something of a Times historian. This reporter called Mr. Resta, who retired in 1999 but still lives in New York. Mr. Resta, laying aside his understandable suspicions, agreed to meet all of us at 229 West 43rd Street, share some memories and get his wallet back.

    When Mr. Cisneros handed the wallet to him, Mr. Resta opened it gingerly and turned away for a moment, overcome by the tide of memory. After composing himself, he gave Mr. Cisneros a grateful kiss. And he didn’t lose a moment showing off the glamor-puss shot of Mrs. Resta from 1963. “She still is glamorous,” he said, with evident pride and pleasure.

    Before coming into Manhattan on the morning of our meeting in November, Mr. Resta told his wife that he knew he’d find a clipping in the wallet from 1968 — Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s eulogy for his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Mr. Resta can still recite the phrase that meant so much to him: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

    The clipping was indeed in the wallet, as were pictures of two boys squirming in a lawn chair and gamboling on the lawn at their old home on Avenue J in Brooklyn. Christopher is now 47 and deals in stock options. Paul, 42, repairs and sells bicycles. He has two children of his own. Both Christopher and Paul live in Belle Harbor, Queens, not far from where their parents now live.

    Nicola Resta, the very picture of Old World probity, has been dead 45 years. He came to the United States from Bernalda, in southern Italy, where he knew Francis Ford Coppola’s father. The elder Mr. Resta transferred his skills as a cabinetmaker to an industrial setting, becoming a pattern-maker for the Sperry Gyroscope Company. “My father always said, ‘Stick with a company,’ ” Mr. Resta recalled, which certainly turns out to be sensible advice if you’re going to lose your wallet for 40 years.

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