The last installment was all about exploring abandoned piers, following fire trucks, seeing Sun Ra and sneaking up to the summit of the Woolworth Building. In this part things proceed accordingly…enjoy.
My first job in the city was bike messengering in Midtown. Originally I worked for Can Carrier – with the iconic blue bags. Mobil Messenger had red. These were the original Globe Canvas messenger bags from Mr. DiMartino and his daughter in their little basement factory on Mott Street. I would’ve called it a sweatshop but the only ones sweating were the proprietors so I don’t think that counts. He also made bags for the fire department. Mostly I rode for Choice Messenger Service. I can’t imagine how many NYC buildings I went into and out of during those years. What a window into the city! The crisp spark of an early winter afternoon when night in the city is coming on and everything is possible. I used to think of bike messengering as being akin to whitewater canoeing, except the rocks were yellow, and they moved, and the cabbies that drove them wanted to kill you. It was an amazing adrenaline rush when things went well and, beyond that, anything could happen.
I used to think of bike messengering as being akin to whitewater canoeing, except the rocks were yellow, and they moved, and the cabbies that drove them wanted to kill you.
Personally, I was never “doored,” never knocked down, never ended up spread-eagled across anyone’s windshield in Herald Square but I did end up using my sawed-short pool cue to fend off a crazed cabbie on West 57th Street who was trying to use his coin dispensing gadget as brass knuckles on my head and I was menaced by a psychotic fellow rider wielding a knife in an elevator. There was also the time a carload of unmarked cops of some sort took offense and seemed hell-bent on beating the crap out of me. I ended up running into a Lexington Avenue clothing store, carrying my bike, figuring they’d have to be willing to beat me at the counter in front of the sales gals if they were going to do it. They’d jumped out of their car and followed me onto the sidewalk but they weren’t and they didn’t.
There was also one spooky moment when I was being pulled along, accelerating, by some passing car. Was it an invisible hook or super magnet on a piano wire, a tractor beam, a malevolent force field? I never knew but just before I felt I’d be pulled right off my wheels and dragged bleeding through the streets, the spell and pull broke and I was free. To this day I have no idea what that was about, none whatsoever. Then there was the time I found a three-foot-tall painted plaster Jesus and strapped it to my shoulder bag, riding up Tenth Avenue in the dark, watching the shadows of his raised arms dancing forward and back on the pavement below me as streetlights came and went. Puerto Rican men were crossing themselves and muttering “Ay Dios mio” as I passed. Or the night a bunch of us were biking down 9th Avenue past Manganaro’s in thick snow, fishtailing and barely staying upright. Biking in the city was a blast, and I was faster than fast. The sense of speed, power, invincibility and freedom was intoxicating and joyous, and we were usually getting paid for it.
I delivered to the Paramount Building, with its stepped tower sides and glass ball summit, where Frank Sinatra drew throngs of screaming girls to the sidewalk outside the Paramount Theater long before Beatlemania. We delivered proofs of the New York Post to their advertisers. We went to the Ford Model Agency on East 59th where clots of good-looking skinny girls sat bored as we picked up their “books” -heavy leather-bound portfolios, and biked them down to Ruder and Finn, Kenyon and Eckhart or Ogilvy and Mather. I went to the Graybar Building and dug those rats climbing the awning support rods, trying to board ship. Across Lexington was a building where the awning supports were held up by the curled trunks of statuary elephants. That wonderful bit of architectural whimsy was largely ruined in subsequent decades when a new glass awning was installed. I went to the Toy Center off Madison Square and dug those bridges across the streets like the other ones on 15th and 11th, or on 33rd street off 7th.
I came to love all the copper, the cornices, the water towers, the loading docks, and the freight elevators, like the one at the great full-block Starrett Lehigh building on West 26th where you got off the passenger car at the 22nd floor only to see a full 18-wheeler unloading! The stone, the tile, the bronze, the colored glazed terra cotta decorations, the hollow Pyrobar gyp-block shaft walls. There was the Bush Terminal tower on Forty-Deuce and Bush Terminal in Brooklyn. The Fred F. French Building on 5th Avenue. The Salmon Tower. Five Hundred Fifth. The warrens of subterranean mailrooms and locker rooms, the altars to baseball, to company picnics, to Ganesh and Jesus and JFK, to Marilyn Monroe, Sinatra and the Pope, the Met Lumber altar to Jimi and Jerry, and the shrines of Post headlines with yellowing tape and the stench of old cigarettes. The break rooms for 32B and 32J, the guys who could run their manual service elevators and stop on a dime every single time, and the guys who couldn’t and leveled back and forth, up and down, the rent-a-cops and the closed-circuit TV screens, the pigeons, the smells, the unexpected views, the windows into lives of the rich and famous, the lives of the workaday hopeless, the paycheck-to-paycheck White Castle hamburger lunch crowd, the faces of the Million Dollar Movie trailer, the black and the white, the litter blowing down the gutters, the receptionists getting off work, the swing shift getting in, the million billion cups of coffee, the curbside stacks of empty gray cardboard egg crates where every coffee shop sold how many eggs every morning before it even turned nine? The two eggs any style toast coffee and orange juice breakfast specials for a dollar eighty-nine, the tobacco and magazine stands in the terrazzo lobbies, the banks of phone booths (when there were still phone booths) with their folding doors and fans and lights, those buildings with their own subway entrances that came up inside the lobbies, the setback roofs and the fire stairs.
Eventually the fax machine and subsequent electronic modes decimated most of the messengering industry but when I was in it, we were the electrons, bouncing endlessly and nearly instantly from point-to-point, from node-to-node, the sweat-powered embodiment of the signals amidst the noise. Hell, in the summers I would weigh myself and, in the course of a shift, I’d have lost seven pounds. That was when you could buy a quart of Tropicana for twenty-nine cents and down the whole thing in a few gulps to recharge.
Eventually the fax machine and subsequent electronic modes decimated most of the messengering industry but when I was in it, we were the electrons
Toby was less cyclically inclined and for a time he had a gig as a foot messenger for a florist. I loved the fact that every time he had a big bouquet to deliver, he’d boost a choice flower and find a pretty girl on the street to give it to.
There was a lot of great skyscraper art: Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of the Shelton Hotel, the turn-of-the-century photos of the Flatiron by Stieglitz and Steichen, Margaret Burke White’s pictures of the Chrysler gargoyles, Lewis Hines’s shots of ironworkers building the Empire State, which was designed and built in just twenty-two months! How amazing is that? And then there were artist Hugh Ferris’s visionary charcoal hive cities of the future – buzzing layers of roadway and setback.
By 1977 I was also pouring through the stacks at the library, reading every article I could find about the skyscrapers in Engineering News Record. They would have detailed structural steel drawings and articles by the engineers who designed the things.
Trinity Church. The Park Row Building. Ernest Flagg’s Singer Tower, knocked down for the U.S. Steel building before my time. Met Life. Woolworth, 40 Wall Tower, Chrysler, and the Empire State. These were the successive holders of great height records. I learned about steel framing, the advent of the elevator by Otis, airship mooring masts, the duel between 40 Wall and Chrysler and the trickery with that iconic stainless spire. That story has been told elsewhere but it is one of the great urban architectural dramas and I suggest you chase it down.
It’s like there was The Heroic Age of New York Skyscrapers. I paid a lot of attention to the architects in general. There was Louis Sullivan and his only NYC creation, the Bayard Building on Bleecker Street. There was McKim, Mead and White, right? As I’ve mentioned there was Cass Gilbert – not to be confused with C.P.H. Gilbert. I spoke of Ernest Flagg’s long gone Singer Tower but his L-shaped Singer Building on Broadway and Prince remains there still. Raymond Hood designed the Tribune Tower in Chicago and the beautiful black and gold Radiator Building on 40th Street, but by the time he did the McGraw Hill and even more the News building, his work seemed more like his quote that architecture was the business of manufacturing shelter, which didn’t really move me. I dug Emery Roth, if nothing else than for his prolific output, and also Warren and Wetmore, Harvey Wiley Corbett, Ralph Walker, and others. I loved the brickwork on the various telco buildings like Barclay Vesey and Western Union. There was the wonderful photo of the stars of their day, architects at a ball wearing costumes of their buildings, William Van Allen stealing the show dressed as the Chrysler Building. And there were the bridge engineers, starting with the Roeblings, who else, and Gustav Lindenthal, and Othmar Ammann, who designed the George Washington, Throgs Neck, Whitestone, Verrazano-Narrows and Bayonne bridges, and who got snubbed by Robert Moses without so much as a mention at the opening ceremonies for the Verrazano. I learned that Gustav Eiffel designed the steel structure inside the Statue of Liberty and that the statue’s arm, torch of freedom held aloft, spent a few years as a disembodied fund raising attraction in Madison Square Park.
I learned that a B-29 bomber hit the Empire State and what few know, about another time a lost plane flew into a New York skyscraper, 40 Wall Tower.
Tribeca, now the wealthiest zip code in town, was empty. Nobody lived there. We’d hang in Duane Park, in front of the New York Egg Auction near Staple Street and the old Mercantile Exchange. There was and still is a bridge over Staple Street. At night those blocks were empty. Dead. Somewhere I have a small metal Cream-O-Land stamp for imprinting blocks of butter, that came from one of those buildings. Independence Plaza had just been built but was empty, unfinished, unlocked and unguarded.
The Municipal Building was where Toby and Peter summited, and where the late great Steve Post (after leaving WBAI and coming inside to WNYC) got locked out during a broadcast while his music played and wandered the ledges trying to get back in before the record ended, and where Beck and I got married with the next groom in line as our witness. It has been described physically as being of the Wedding Cake School of Architecture, which is fitting given the multitudes who’ve tied their knots there. There was the golden goddess of the AT&T Building and the Cunard Building where they used to hang colored lanterns to communicate with the tugs in the harbor, before radios were common. McAllister and Moran tugboats worked the river. Some friends caught a lift across the bay on one.
The Manhattan Bridge was probably the nuttiest of our achievements with those balls 320 feet above the river! We were at our most dare-devilish. You probably hopped some low fence on the walkway, but who remembers? From there it was a ladder up a couple of stories, through and past the truss-stiffened roadway and a bit further. There might have been some stairs. Then you were on the open steel tower, where you climbed a single unbroken ladder that was probably 125 feet tall. This brought you inside a steel room with another ladder that took you to a narrow “walkway” between the huge steel balls. As we stood there in the New York night you know we felt like we had huge steel balls of our own. A joint was surely smoked up there as a ritual celebratory offering to the crowning Glory Gods Of Urban Mischief.
The Manhattan Bridge was probably the nuttiest of our achievements with those balls 320 feet above the river!
We also climbed the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge, but couldn’t quite get all the way up and out onto the top of the tower. Michael took to calling it the Billburg after that, which seemed perfect. I guess once you’ve looked down the cables of a suspension bridge, you don’t need to stand on formality.
Imagine, if you will, a Cheechish and Chongish voice saying, “Oh wow man, the space between the Twin Towers is just as tall as the buildings.” Well that’s how it seemed one night with a bit of mescaline powder, after Patti Smith appeared out of nowhere on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson just moments after we’d proclaimed her very non-existence while looking at her face on ragged street posters. After that a building off Washington Square started breathing, I swear to you.
Warren and Wetmore’s trippy NY Yacht Club was a favorite low-rise building, with its frigate stern facing out onto West 44th Street between those rival hotel tribes the Algonquin and Iroquois. We learned about the Algonquin Round Table where Harpo Marx, George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker played cards and held court.
Maybe I need to stop for a note on drugs. I’ll say though, that we hardly drank at all, and we didn’t really drive cars. This of course made drunk driving very difficult and probably all by itself made us a far milder public menace than many American teenagers. We did like to get high. We favored weed. Back then there was hash. We dabbled in psychedelics – mushrooms, mescaline and LSD. Peyote was disgusting and I couldn’t really make it work despite trying. We never did speed or downers or pills of any kind. If I had to describe our behavior, I’d call it responsible transgression or insanity in moderation. We tended to shy away from anything made by men in lab coats though not entirely. We figured if you couldn’t make it to class or work on time in the morning, you were probably doing something wrong. We never got busted and, being bottom feeders and commies rather than sharks, I don’t think any of us ever dealt or sold drugs. We generally had fun while keeping it together. Our attitudes, altered though they may have often been, were on straight. Less was (and still remains) more.
If I had to describe our behavior, I’d call it responsible transgression or insanity in moderation.
At one point in ‘79 Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Washington Square Arch. After, when some workers unwrapped it, the door was left open. Peter and I took turns going up to the little room in the top while one of us waited at the bottom with his beagle Pooch.
Westbeth was the old Bell Labs building that converted to subsidized artist residences in the ‘60s. Beck and I found a way up to the very top and watched boats pass on the Hudson.
Coming up in Part 3: The High Line, Adam Purple, George Carlin’s mother, Ray’s Pizza, Mamoun’s, more long walks, random senseless death and maybe, just maybe, what it all means…stick around and see.
Copyright 2016 by Rick Weisfeld
All photos by RW