Saturday, October 17, 2009

JOHN BROWN’S BODY LIES A-MOLDERING IN UPSTATE NEW YORK

Who knew?

Who knew that the final resting place of John Brown, who earned fame and infamy in Kansas and Virginia, was the rocky soil of North Elba, New York, an Adirondack hamlet just outside Lake Placid?

I didn't. I assumed he was buried in Virginia, where he was hung after his trial and conviction on charges of murder, treason and conspiracy for the raid he led on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry on October 16, 1859, a hundred and fifty years ago. Brown had other plans, though. He didn't want to be buried in Virginia because he didn't want to be buried in a coffin made by slaves. So after his December 2nd execution, Brown's wife shipped his body north, first to New York City, where she engaged a Brooklyn undertaker named Jacob Hopper to prepare it for burial. Hopper's receipt itemizes his services: keeping corpse on ice, washing and soaping corpse out, etc. Then the body was transported to North Elba, where Brown had owned a small spread since 1849. And by the way, although Brown is always depicted with a flowing white beard (as he is in the tableaux at the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry), by the time of the raid it had been trimmed to less Biblical proportions.

How do I know all this? Because the extremely knowledgeable and practiced docents at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, which my wife and I visited in August, told me. It's a marvel they are so practiced because the John Brown Farm is not easy to find. En route, we saw not a single sign pointing the way or even noting the place's existence. We just noodled in and around Lake Placid in search, until we suddenly found ourselves on John Brown Road, which ends in a cul-de-sac, beside which are the house itself, a barn and the little graveyard where Brown and other members of the Harpers Ferry raiding party, including several of Brown's numerous sons, are interred. Close by and towering over the surroundings is a peculiar-looking structure that turns out to be a ski-jump.

It's a haunting place. The house is small and unexceptional except that, as one of the guides mentioned several times, "We are standing on the same floorboards John Brown stood on." There are a few artifacts, including Mr. Hopper's receipt and the Browns' bed, which looks too small for an adult to recline on, which turns out to have been the point. At the time, sleeping upright was thought to prevent, or at least discourage, consumption.

It's no accident that John Brown ended up in the Adirondacks. He bought his land (for a dollar an acre) from a wealthy abolitionist named Gerrit Smith who had established a land grant program for free blacks in hopes of establishing a black community in the Adirondacks called Timbuktoo. Brown moved to the area to provide guidance and help to the settlers, although he spent much of the 1850's in and out of Kansas. Adirondack soil is rocky and the growing season is about eight weeks long. Most of the newcomers Gerrit Smith staked moved on. Timbuktoo faded away.

John Brown, on the other hand, looms ever larger in the national psyche, either a great martyr to a just and necessary cause, or our first domestic terrorist. He is still so controversial that Todd Bolton, director of the Harpers Ferry Museum and organizer of "John Brown Remembered," the Museum's anniversary program of events, noted carefully in the Washington Post that, "We're not celebrating Brown. We're commemorating an important chapter in American history."

The Museum is not alone in this. Last Friday morning, some three hundred history enthusiasts started from Dargan, Md. to follow in the footsteps of the original raiding party of twenty-one. There was an observance on Friday in Torrington, Connecticut, where he was born and there's another planned in Akron, Ohio, where he lived for a while. At the end of the month, Yale hosts a conference on John Brown and his legacy.

For such a dramatic figure, John Brown has never fit well on screen or stage. Johnny Cash played him in the 80's television special North and South and looked like a man with a fake beard. Raymond Massey played him twice, first in Santa Fe Trail (You may well wonder why a movie about Bleeding Kansas is called Santa Fe Trail, and despite having seen it, I cannot begin to explain), and fifteen years later in Seven Angry Men, an excerpt of which can be seen on YouTube, where it was posted by a devotee of the film's costar, Debra Paget. Massey was also in the Broadway production of Stephen Vincent Benet's epic poem John Brown's Body in 1953. Raymond Massie was a great actor, but the great John Brown drama, stage or screen, remains to be created.

Help may be on the way. Both Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcese have expressed interest in doing movies about John Brown. Tarantino is no doubt disappointed that the victims of the notorious Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas numbered only five, but cheered that they were hacked to death with broadswords. With or without a good new movie version, John Brown's truth--or his legend, or his aura, or what Benet in his poem called "The pure elixir, the American thing"--will almost certainly go marching on.

Friday, August 21, 2009


THY NEIGHBOR’S ASS

Last month marked the twentieth anniversary of my family’s move to our current address, so I’ve been thinking about my neighborhood and the whole idea of neighborhood, at no time more strongly than a couple of Saturday morning’s ago, when I was walking home with George from his off-leash hour in Prospect Park. At the top of the block I noticed one of my neighbors, a man who lives eight or ten houses up from me, retrieving his garbage can from between two parked cars, where it had been left by the sanitation guys. My neighbor was wearing a t-shirt and the hand that was not holding the garbage can, which he cupped demurely over his front bits. He wore nothing else, naught, nada, zip, gornisht – a backside outside in the morning breeze. It’s only witnesses besides me seemed to be the fellow’s wife, who stood in a bathrobe at the top of their stoop, smiling, and the petite lady of the house next door, who was sweeping the sidewalk in front of her house, her eyes fiercely focused on her broom. George and I walked by, and I said “Quite a way to begin the day,” with perhaps a shade too much pep. She nodded as she swept.

It’s things like the unexpected appearance of my neighbor’s ass that remind me that no matter how gentrified Park Slope gets, it’s still Brooklyn.. Manhattan may have the flash, the glamor and location, location, location, but for deep dish, dyed in the wool eccentricity, you’ve got to come to Brooklyn.

I speak as a long-time resident, though hardly a pioneer. By 1989, Park Slope was widely thought to be Over, the bargains gone, the discreet charms of the neighborhood growing more bourgeois by the minute. The main drag, Seventh Avenue, had a Benetton and two restaurants with tablecloths – but it also had shoe repair shops, butchers, bodegas and dark bars specializing in shots and beers for a hardscrabble, beefily forearmed clientele. The bars had names like Mooney’s, Minsky’s and Snooky’s; some of them had no names at all.

We’ve come a long way since then. There are no cobblers or butchers on Seventh anymore, and your best bet for a boiler-maker is probably Farrell’s in Windsor Terrace. On the other hand, if by “brewski” you mean coffee, Seventh Avenue can accommodate you many times over, likewise if you’re looking for a new cell phone, a manicure or a refi.

Not that the path of gentrification has been smooth or direct. For a while, there was a store around the corner that sold fried ravioli – just fried ravioli. The place didn’t make it, but not for lack of free samples; indeed, the samples may have been part of the problem. Still, the ravioli place lasted longer than the Benetton did. Today, someone sells custom-made makeup out of the same space. When the white tablecloth restaurant that replaced Snooky’s closed recently, there were local murmurs about retribution and karma. There is resistance to the nabe getting too high-toned.

I don’t think there’s much to worry about, not so long as we have folks like my drawer-dropping neighbor, or the Cat Lady across the street or the Sweeper or Opera Man, a plumpish gent who strolls the streets giving forth with song in a manner reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s SNL character, only not so charming. There’s no telling when Opera Man’s countertenor stylings will assail the ear: perhaps when you’re trying to read the paper, perhaps when you’re in bed waiting for the Ambien to kick in. My wife believes he must be a professional singer, whereas I think he’s simply a lunatic with pipes. If I’m walking George and we pass Opera Man in mid-aria, he – that is, George – growls, because he knows passive aggression when he smells it. I sympathize, but hold the leash tightly. After all, it’s his nabe too, I assume. This is Brooklyn, where the weirdos are more than part of the passing parade; they live here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

THE WAY OF THE NOTARY

Yesterday we discovered that a document Toby needed for his return to college in a couple of weeks needed to be notarized. We soon learned that, despite the vast number of establishments of drug stores and real estate offices that have signs in their windows advertising the presence of a notary, a notary is hard to find when you need one.

Of course, that isn't very often, but when you need one, you need one. And therein lies the germ of my next act. I'm going to become a free-lance, part-time notary.

How much training can be required? From what I can tell so far, not much. It's not like going back to school for that Phd or even learning to drive a manual. This retraining has, I'm happy to say, not yet terrified and depressed, though I haven't actually begun it so it may be too early to tell.

Soon as I put out my shingle, foks will be dropping by with stuff they need notarized. What a pleasant break in the roiling tedium of creation that is the general mood here in my office. I'll get out my little stamp and collect a fee. The fellow Helen and Toby finally tracked down this morning charged $4 for his imprimatur. I'm sure I can do better, especially if I make house calls and find ways to persuade people they need more documents notarized. I wonder if I can mess with the ink I'll use for the official stamp. Different colors? Metallics?

This could be the part-time gig I've dreamed of.

Monday, June 29, 2009

MEANWHILE, BACK AT HUFFPO...

I'm blogging there too. Check it out.

Monday, June 01, 2009

PIP HELIX EXPLAINED

If you exit the Palisades Parkway South to cross the George Washington Bridge, immediately before merging onto the Bridge traffic, you pass beneath a pedestrian overpass from which hangs an unadorned green sign with white lettering that says Pip Helix.

I noticed this sign for the first time two Saturdays ago, after what must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of passages under it, depending on how long it’s been hanging there. I assume the strange words identify something in the immediate area, but what? The pedestrian overpass? The merge ramp? A Native American ley line?

Google yielded tantalizing leads:
– A band called Pip Helix put out an album in 1996.
– One or more individuals calling themselves Pip Helix are occasional posters on a couple of Websites called, respectively, USASexguide.com and Cute Overload.
– Pip Helix is mentioned in Jennys Blogg, which is otherwise in Swedish.
– Pip Helix (The band? The Swede? The sex guide aficionado?) is a project of Simco Engineering.
Tantalizing yes, helpful, no. Pip Helix remained a puzzlement.

After a day or two of deep thought, my wife and I recalled that the ramp that goes from the toll area to the GW proper is spiral-shaped – not unlike a helix, you might say, if you’d ever heard the word helix used to describe anything other than a strand of DNA, which I certainly have not. Even though the sign is at the very end of the entrance, arguably not on the ramp at all but rather the merge lane, our best guess was that Pip Helix referred to the on-ramp because it’s the only thing around that’s, you know, helical (surprising adjectival form, no?).

Now only one question remained: Pourqui Pip?

More googling and much too much time pottering around the New Jersey Website were both to no avail. I told myself all would be revealed eventually, but first I’d have to let it go, stop thinking about, just as I did some time ago, when I couldn’t recall the name of the actor who’d played Ishmael in John Huston’s Moby Dick and less than an hour after I’d vowed to stop thinking about the damn movie, which wasn’t really that good to begin with, I suddenly realized it was Richard Basehart.

Finally I called my friend John, who has lived in New Jersey for twenty years or so and who I hoped might have some knowledge of local lore. No dice. He suggested Google, of course, and Mapquest, which I had already tried too. Something came over his intercom at that moment and he said he’d call me back. When he did he was strangely quiet.

“I know what it is but I’m reluctant to say. I think you’ll be embarrassed.”
“Tell me!” I yelled. Yelling works more often then one would think.
“Palisades Interstate Parkway.”
“Oh.”
“Yes.”
“Is that what everyone calls it in New Jersey? Have you ever called the Parkway the Pip?”
“Not before today.”
“How did you figure it out?”
“It’s an Enn-jay thing, baby.”

Saturday, May 30, 2009

DEAR GAIL,

Thanks for mentioning my millennial list in your hilarious column. The Milennium Book, as you recall, was published in 1991; just think of the '90s bad ideas we didn't get to include. The living hell that was the dial-up Internet connection – a rotten idea that could very well have made the list, had we but known.

In fact, re-reading it in the harsh light of the present, not to mention your Early Bird Edition of our new millennium’s worst ideas (and I couldn’t agree with you more about reality television, btw; nothing against schadenfreude, but it's just not enough), I’d say the list needs some tweaking.

I’ll stand by Chamberlain’s appeasement, trial by fire or water (can we include water-boarding here?), foot binding, flagellants, the ontological proof of the existence of god, trench warfare and scientific creationism. They were and, imho, still are, a bunch of bad, bad ideas.

But wine in a box need not be bad at all, especially if you’re willing to pay more than you think you ought to pay for wine in a box. I don’t like the fact that you can’t see how much wine is left in the box you're drinking from, which can lead to drinking more than one thought one might, followed by suddenly and horribly running out of wine. Still, there are worse things in the world: hazelnut flavored coffee, for instance, or Bud Light Lime, or all flavored coffees and light beers, for that matter. And I’m only considering beverages.

And what's sociology doing on the list? What was I thinking?

Finally, my view of French mime has undergone turbulence and, finally, a sea change, especially since last week’s auction of items from Marcel Marceau’s estate, the proceeds from which from which went to retire the considerable debt Marceau left at the time of his death in 2007 -- as if anyone need further proof that mime is not an easy gig.

But in an age in which political correctness and fear of violent revenge have rendered the traditional targets of ridicule and abuse -- people weaker, poorer, or sometimes simply different from ourselves -- strictly off limits, mime has been there for us all.

No matter your color, creed or station in life, everyone can make fun of mimes. And many do. And do, and do again. And that's a good thing.

And yet.

Without mime, Shields and Yarnell would’ve had to retrain and Bill Irwin probably wouldn’t be so slim.

Besides, how annoying is mime, really? Compared to, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals or Quentin Tarantino movies, it’s not even close.

Mimes of the world, pardonez-moi.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

MOVE OVER, DAKOTA

I love New York's titled apartment buildings. I'm not talking about those enormous, turn of the (last) century piles like the Dakota, Apthorp or Belnord, massive structures which contain some of the city's grandest apartments and toniest residents. I mean the innumerable smaller buildings around town, modestly ornamented and sometimes downright shabby, whose names conjure a grandeur utterly belied by their appearance. Sometimes the names are classically august, sometimes they seem to be tributes to some forgotten builder's wife or daughter or mother (I've never seen a building with a man's name) and sometimes they're horrendous puns. Here are some of my faves:




Monday, January 05, 2009

ASSHOLE FOR JESUS
“His friends and adversaries recall the time in the 1970s when the musical “Hair” first came to this city, and Mr. Riner, upset by its nudity, quietly interrupted the show by climbing on stage, a Bible in hand.” – “Lawmaker in Kentucky Mixes Piety and Politics” NYT 1/3/09

Do we think he reimbursed the audience? Or did he deem his quiet display of superior rectitude sufficient recompense?

My nerves.