If you missed parts one and two, with epic pier fires, dreams of Hudson River ice floes, hours of breaking glass and nights tripping across the city, I encourage you to backtrack. This part coming is where everything starts to make sense…I hope. Have fun.
Long before the Javits Center got built, before the site was cleared, we discovered the New York Central cut and the Williams Building. A sub-cellar room held the building super’s workshop with his tools. One whole floor held a full chemistry lab with beakers and flasks and all manor of Pyrex glassware. Who knows what heavy metals were coating the mortar and pestle my friend probably still has on his shelf? An entire floor, maybe two, were filled with steel file cabinets holding the entire paper archives of the New York Central Railroad, with photos of every bridge, small and large. One section had old leases signed by Cornelius Vanderbilt and engraver’s plates of streamlined Henry Dreyfuss-designed locomotives, used for the in-house employees newspaper. I kept a book of glossy black-and-white photos of the Penn Yards with black lines marked over the images showing what would become the 1920s viaducts over the tracks. Old diners, still there in the 70s, were lost to clear the way for the construction of the Javits Center. At one point I contacted a college professor of mine who studied Human Geography and American Railroads, with a mind to save all this from destruction but he could find nobody who wanted the stuff, so the wrecking ball had at it and nothing was saved but for our hauled-away archival keepsakes of youthful urban exploration.
We learned about the famed cowboys who rode horseback down West Street with flags to shoo people away from the freight trains. My wife and other friends remember when trains still ran on the High Line, when the idea of a public-private park partnership was preposterous. Back then it was a place to take your girl, an innocent weed and rust glade, just Corten steel, weathered concrete and a million furry-leafed mullion weeds. It was an unself-conscious ruin gone to seed and there were no tourists. We could hop a fence on 16th Street and walk to the 30s. We walked amongst the freight cars in the West 30s, one time petting a tiger through the bars of his Barnum & Bailey rolling stock cage. I have a very early painting of Steve’s of the circus train there, circa 1975. Still walking uptown, we’d curve around past the Williams building and descend into the dark spooky cut, under the cross streets of Hell’s Kitchen. We walked a black-as-night dead end spur that ran to nearly under the river. We went up and down the main cut, once emerging from a sidewalk grating on the corner lot of a car dealership on 10th Avenue and West 59th Street. Another time we were in the West 60s yard watching a lone switch engine bumping the cars around, back when they still brought rolls of paper down the West Side to print the NY Times. And, speaking of which, this was when they still printed the paper in Midtown and you could run into the Times Building on 43rd Street at about 7pm or so and get a very early copy of the next day’s paper from the bear trap coin-op machine in the lobby. Talk about hot off the presses! We learned about Longacre Square and how the Allied Chemical Building, of New Years ball drop fame, under all that ugly cladding, was really the Times Tower, and of the owls in Herald Square, and of the big Daily Planet globe in the lobby of Hood’s News Building on East 42nd. Clark Kent had to have been there someplace.
Back then it was a place to take your girl, an innocent weed and rust glade, just Corten steel, weathered concrete and a million furry-leafed mullion weeds.
Grand Central Station was cool. There were staircases that generally went down to the platforms, but if you went up (and up and up), you’d find yourself on a marble balustrade or across some steel window-wall catwalk gazing over the swarming crowds in the great open central hall with the starry ceiling not too far overhead. At one point the Commodore Hotel was closing and they were selling everything from the towels and sheets down to the bare floors so we roamed that place pretty good too.
Rockefeller Center and The RCA Building had a lot of meaning, with Nelson, Room 5600 (the family offices) and the skating rink. One Halloween we all dressed up and made trouble. I was in green coveralls and a helmet stenciled “Contaminated Edison”. When a red-faced cop told us in no uncertain terms to beat it from Rockefeller Center, Steve lifted his mask to flash another visage, his face done in clown white, and with an exaggerated innocent falsetto, said “but it’s only me officer.” Once on a cold twilight after Thanksgiving the tree was in the plaza being wired for light by crews of riggers and electricians, union guys. It was snowing and dusk and the guys were inside the huge tree, invisible amongst the dark gray needles and the light gray flakes. Maybe six or eight guys were singing carols in their loudest blue-collar accents. It was a perfect musical New York moment. Another time I stood outside on the RCA observation deck, below the radome, in a blistering wind with the temperature down in the teens and, when I couldn’t take it any more, I’d go to the men’s room and run the hot air hand dryer and turn the nozzle to blow right into the sleeves of my parka. Then I’d go back outside for more punishment but I was full of hot air and I could see the sun setting over New Jersey and that was the whole point. On the other side of the thermal swing pendulum was the day of Peter and Nina’s wedding, when we’d been sweltering uptown in St. Paul’s chapel at Columbia and got whisked to the icy conditioned glitz of the Rainbow Room, looking down on the tiny sweating people below.
Years later, on 14th Street, before they bricked-up our lot-line bedroom windows and before we moved to Gowanus, my older son Forrest used to have conversations with the old Con Edison tower on Irving Place. To him, at the time, it was a living being.
The NY Central Building was a fun one. By this time I was doing real research, and we were armed with bona fides in the form of a letter from Peter’s father, then the dean of architecture at Columbia University. We had a fair bit of success with building managers and never abused the bit of legit academic cred. The NY Central Building was the original iconic tower spanning Park Avenue, straddling the tracks, overlooking Grand Central Terminal and with a ballsy blueblood chutzpah, ignoring the street grid. That was before the Pan Am Building screwed things up by jumping on the bandwagon.
Let’s be very clear about nomenclature for a minute. The big 1960s building over the tracks is the Pan Am building, not one of the Met Life Buildings. Those, as I said before, both original and north, are on Madison Square. The GE Building with its fabulous stone tower tracery and bronze arms holding lightening bolts, is on Lex and 52nd, not in Rockefeller Center. The largest tower there is of course the RCA Building. After the NYCRR went bust, in the age of Conrail and Amtrak, they renamed The NY Central Building and called it the New York General Building. Some clever bean counter hit upon a name that brought with it the lowest cost. They only needed to change two letters on the façade. The building manager there was a lean old Irishman named Brian McCarthy or something close to that. He was agreeable and yelled “Kevin, take ’em up to the top” So we were escorted to the summit by this fellow Kevin, not much older than us, and the low man on the building totem pole. He entertained us with stories of the May 1977 NY Airways Pan Am Building helicopter crash. September 11th 2001 was not the first time I was confronted with thoughts and stories of body parts raining down from and onto New York rooftops. And there, at the tip top of the tower, scratched into the copper, was the name of the current building manager, “Brian McCarthy April 26, 1929.”
In the end, that letter got us to the top of 70 Pine, the Cities Service Building. It had an amazing glass room up top with a terrazzo floor and a big globe of the earth as the centerpiece. I barely remember a flashing neon CITGO / Cities Service Sign on the Brooklyn waterfront, but I can’t seem to find anything more about it.
That letter also got us up to the triangular windows in the Chrysler Building, near where the Cloud Club had been, and to the boardroom at the top of the GE building. For most of the other buildings we just walked in, acting like we owned the place, with at most a shimmy or a clamber over some pitiful gate. As I’ve said, the city was unguarded, as if put out for us on a plate and we ate from it and inhaled it and savored the tastes and the smells and the views and the stories.
For most of the other buildings we just walked in, acting like we owned the place, with at most a shimmy or a clamber over some pitiful gate.
Our apartment on 9th Avenue was down the block from Capeman Park of Salvador Agron infamy. There were stories of the Westies gang throwing guys out the windows of the just-built Manhattan Plaza. Poseidon Pastry was a big thing. My pal John there only just died a few years ago. The Film Center Café was a bar where an old drunk looked at us, blinked and shook his head, asking “What is this, a fuckin’ furrrr f-f-factory?” Mrs. Vogel lived across the hall, ‘till she died. When no relatives came for her stuff for a year we went in and cherry picked. Toby got a start to what would become a serious baseball stadium postcard collection there, with a card of the old Polo Grounds, and I still have a nice pair of her wooden chairs.
One night a rat crawled up the waste lines to the 4th floor and came out our toilet! Another day we tried to get rid of a water bug with firecrackers. It was good times.
At night in the summer you could take the Staten Island Ferry and walk to Lyons Pool and climb over the fence and go skinny-dipping. One night some girls were there, but I missed it.
Other times we’d just walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and end up at Junior’s on Flatbush and DeKalb, eating strawberry cheesecake at midnight. There were so many epic walks. When Park Avenue South was skanky, I slammed my shinbone into a blind steel rod sticking up out of a hole where a fire hydrant should’ve been. Wincing and doubled over in pain, all I heard were the sympathetic calls of the hookers chiming in: “Sue the city! Sue the city!” That was near the old Belmore Cafeteria where all the cabbies worshipped at the shrine of caffeine. Another time, transecting Washington Square on foot, I was asked: “Don’t I know you from central booking?” Please take my word, he didn’t.
We’d eat falafel at Mamoun’s or we’d get slices at Ray’s Pizza (no not that one, the other one, yeah that one). We went to Manganaro’s and to Ralph’s pizza on 55th Street and to Delphi on Chambers Street and to The Magic Carpet on Carmine or we’d get spanakopita at Poseidon’s or cherry cheese strudel or Shah of Iran pistachios, or Galaktoboureko with its name invoking the Milky Way. Sometimes we’d go to Yonah Shimmel on Houston Street or we’d get steamed pork buns in Chinatown when I still ate meat or lotus seed or black bean cakes, or we would go to Szechuan Taste on Bleecker, where Steve’s folks introduced me to sesame noodles and moo shu pancakes, or to V&Ts on Amsterdam and 111th where I swear half the wait staff has not changed in forty years! That was next to the Hungarian Pastry Shop where you can still get round things called Ischlers. Sometimes we got torcidos on Amsterdam though the Jewish ones at Grossinger’s on Columbus were better.
Adam Purple, may he rest in peace, was biking around Central Park collecting horse shit and giving out newsletters to the kids on Frisbee Hill. Along with the Yippies, he was spreading the Phone-Phreaked credit card codes so you could make free calls and charge them to Exxon. In his purple printed handouts the xx in Exxon was replaced by a pair of swastikas. I remember making free calls from the payphone at the band shell, a phone that simply had to have been bugged. The newsletter 2100 was around (I still have the first issue) when Phone Phreaks were becoming the first computer hackers. Later World War 3 Illustrated was around. Seth and Peter, the artists and editors, contributed some work to our own rag and zine, Apocalypso. That was in 1984, as the 70s were drawing to a close. Thirty-five years later, WW3 Illustrated is still fighting the good fight.
On my eighteenth birthday we woke early, and walked down from the West Village to the Battery. We then wandered our way the full length of our island, this wonderful city Manahatta where you can walk for seventeen miles without even really seeing the one and only interstate highway you ford, the Cross Bronx Expressway. A long distance trucker who picked me up out west once told me that truckers called the Cross Bronx the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but I digress. On this walk of walks we met, sitting on the Broadway median benches, an old woman, engaging everyone who passed. “You know George Carlin, the hippy-dippy weatherman? That’s my son!” We were on Carlin’s home turf at that moment so never doubted it was really her. We ended that day alone in an unlocked and unguarded glass pavilion of the Bronx Botanical Garden conservatory, hanging out in the dark under the palms and cycads.
We then wandered our way the full length of our island, this wonderful city Manahatta where you can walk for seventeen miles without even really seeing the one and only interstate highway
I went to the top of the San Remo, which held a holy place with the Eldorado and the Beresford, with the Century and the Majestic, topping the Central Park West escarpment.
We explored All Angels Church before it was destroyed for a lifeless residential tower. We salvaged carved woodwork and stone, and an amber cast glass cherub by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
I need to add a note here on policing. Again, it was a more innocent time. Even when the cops were at their worst, they wore blue and white motorcycle helmets not black tactical gear. They clubbed people but they didn’t light them up with electric tasers, phasers or lasers. They maybe tear gassed whole crowds, but they didn’t walk up to young girls or middle-aged women and casually spray chemical weapons directly in their eyes. Even when they stone cold executed people, like say Black Panther Fred Hampton, in Chicago, they behaved like lumpen thugs but not like a deployed militarized force. That behavior maybe got going big-time with the helicopter firebombing of the Move occupation in Philly, which casually incinerated even the children of the activists rather than treating them like young innocents or hostages, but again, don’t get me started. Suffice to say I always felt like the NY cops were somewhat better than most. Admittedly, me and my friends were mostly white, and I know that’s beyond huge. But my point is that while the city was rife with crime and violence, it was also in an aberrant bubble of peace given the forces that seemed to be in play. Maybe the cops weren’t escalating the violence because they just wanted to do nothing. They didn’t expect to control anything, let alone everything. When we were caught emerging from a hole in a blocked up window on 37th and 11th, we told the squad car cops “hey we didn’t make that hole, and the real crooks already took everything in there that wasn’t nailed down.” They knew we truly weren’t bad guys and they just wanted to coop by the river with the Daily News and coffee, so they made no issue of it. Another time in the alley on Bond Street (now private property god-dammit!) when a pair of strolling beat cops walked by not ten feet from us, I had a joint literally in my mouth, match in mid flare-up at the tip of the joint, when I saw them out of the corner of my eye. At that point I figured it would be an insult to their intelligence to even try to stop or cover up what I was doing, so I didn’t. They never even broke stride and went right past the alley, saying over their shoulders, “don’ worry fellas we don’ give a fuck.” They didn’t and they kept going. We stayed and got high. Now, even the idea of cops on the beat seems old fashioned.
They called Riverside the Church of the father, the son, and John D the 3rd. It was a skyscraper church, home of the WRVR radio studios and quirky jazz disc jockey Ed Beach, aka Peregrine Crustacean. Above him was a carillon with the world’s largest tuned bells. I always wished someone had gotten Sun Ra up there at those wood pedals and keys and stops. Above the carillon was a walkway around the top of the tower and a short ladder covered by a sort of lockable box to cover the rungs and keep it off limits. For a teenage boy this presented no obstacle to sitting at the very top, again with nothing but radio antenna and aircraft navigation lights above you. To the west was the river, to the north the GWB and maybe the Tappan Zee visible beyond. To the south, the Masters Building with it’s Roerich paintings and all of the rest. At one point I stood outside the church as the Rockefeller family prepared to bury John D. Rockefeller III. I was 20 and felt obliged to yell “Attica!” at them, which from a social standpoint was unforgivably rude but, politically, was really what was called for. They heard me. I’m not sure if that was before or after sitting Vice President Walter Mondale came to the 9th Avenue Festival and I had the chance to shake his hand and say “Trilaterlist pig.” I may have been young, rude and stupid, but I wasn’t really wrong. The amazing thing now in all these stories is the utter lack of security. Compared to these post 9-11 days, the city was dewy with innocence. And compared to today’s Republican goons, the Rockefellers, not to mention the Mondales and such, seem almost like card-carrying lefties. How far we have come as a nation, eh?
The 9th Avenue Festival was memorable in the first years. A boy from the block was hoping someone would take a sniper shot at his notion of a local politico – in this case the non-existent “May-ya Como.” There was a sexy dancing white trash junkie chick down around 37th street by all those big cardboard pails of paprika and turmeric and at the end of the day, the loud dancing drumming finger-cymbal jangling and chanting of dozens and dozens of fervent Hare Krishnas was followed directly by the flashing yipyapping cop cars ushering in the Department of Sanitation jam band, phalanxes of city workers with stiff brooms, then those classic three wheeled street sweeper trucks came bringing up the rear.
Walking to the end of a pier in the 30s and seeing sunspots with my naked eyes through the red ash cloud particulate skies after Mt. St. Helens erupted, I was thinking of Kerouac and the last passage of On The Road: “So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it…” The Beats were very important to us. We heard Gary Snyder read in a church in Hell’s Kitchen, Allen Ginsburg at St. Marks on 2nd Avenue and again at the Whitney Museum.
We lived with our parents in built-like-tanks pre-war elevator apartment buildings and on our own in old and new law tenements. We lived on Amsterdam and 106th, and 9th Avenue and 46th Street, we lived on Suffolk Street and in the West 30s and on East 10th across from the baths, and on Bethune Street and West 12th and by the inside corner of Bedford and Barrow and Commerce. We lived in lofts and like idiots we chipped our landlord’s walls to the brick.
Not that it was always shit and giggles. Someone sledgehammered through the wall of our 9th Avenue railroad apartment. Someone kicked our door in on 106th Street. Someone punched out one of Peter’s front teeth under the Radiator Building tower south of Bryant Park. They broke Steve’s nose on 12th Street. Cops walked a classmate around the Central Park reservoir handcuffed to a police horse. I saw a young girl at an anti-war march, flattened by a can of paint thrown from on high, crumpled on the ground, dying. A bottle was tossed at us from above as we walked tripping through the Williamsburg night, glass shards shattering our calm and bouncing off our sneakers. That might’ve been the night that ended with a pale blue dawn row around Central Park Lake in a lost wooden boat. Or was it the night we stood at dawn reading the bronze plaques on the Brooklyn Bridge to find it was May 24th, the bridge’s birthday? People we knew overdosed. Someone held up a pot dealer at gunpoint, people had to leave the apartment naked and glad to be alive. But I missed that one, never got mugged and never got busted. I must have been some good combination of smart, crazy, cautious and lucky.
Worst of all by far, in a god-awful class by itself, during the summer of 1975 a friend and classmate was clubbed down in Central Park in broad daylight. Michele Godbout was murdered for a bicycle. Toby got a letter from her after she’d been killed. That death alone should really negate all the rest of the fun here, but somehow it doesn’t. Maybe I was just enough removed. Maybe life then was just too unstoppable for the rest of us. I have no answer. We were young. Life mostly went on. Not so, I’m sure, for her family.
The next time random New York death would reach out and touch me, it would be on a grand scale, much closer and much more powerful, so even there, the pain of one senseless murder seems sadly quaint or innocent, with what we’ve since been through here.
The next time random New York death would reach out and touch me, it would be on a grand scale, much closer and much more powerful
Musing about the advances in steel and engineering, a 1938 WPA Federal Writer’s Project guide to the city called the skyscrapers “The Children of the Bridges.” We ourselves were maybe the children of the skyscrapers and of the bridges, the streets and the piers, and it was a time of glory and abandonment, of innocence amidst decay, of pattern and culture and history and always of endless possibilities. Lewis Mumford said “Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.” We didn’t learn to drive like other American teens, but we talked and we laughed and we explored and we walked. In the Jane Jacobs urban streets, we tried to live the Life and Death of a Great American City. I think we succeeded.
More than anything though, we walked.
Gowanus, Brooklyn – 2016
Copyright 2016 by Rick Weisfeld
All photos by RW