Friday, September 25, 2009

Post-weekend smatterings: Hotels and old photos

This Times article recounts the endearing tale of Abe Lincoln's 1860 visit to NYC and his stay at the Astor House Hotel. I love the story of how the Illinois senator seemed so ill-at-ease in his countrified garb... until he started speaking.

And my new favorite website is, from whence this view of the NY harbor circa 1901 was taken. Scroll through their amazing photo archives for hours of fun and inspiration.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Medical London: A Self-Guided Walking Tour

Nobody is healthy in London; nobody can be.

I mentioned this before,
here. (Since I've waited an awfully long time to blog about it, you are forgiven if you don't immediately recall.) Designed by the good people at Strange Attractor, and published by the Wellcome Collection and Trust, Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures, is a portmanteau, part map, part history, part walking-tour guide, stuffed with beautifully illustrated full-color prints of such points of interest as Bedlam Insane Asylum and Thomas Crapper's water-closet manufactory. This wondrous cabinet of endless delights promises to "guide its readers on their own journey through the city’s streets and landmarks, and resurrect the vanished traces of its past."

Indeed it does, though I wonder if these sites aren't best enjoyed in the imagination. It's always terribly disappointing to go somewhere you've been dying to go for ages, where you've built up a mythology in your mind, only to find it's been turned into a McDonald's or something. The book is rich and seductive, promising such untold delights as a walk through the footsteps of Daniel Defoe in the plague year, "pox and pleasure" in Soho by night, and perhpas most wonderfully of all, a walk entitled "Gallows, Ghosts and Golden Boys: A day in the life of an eighteenth century medical student" ("Round off your day with a visit to the haunted house on Cock Lane.... can you keep up with the hectic life of a London medical student at the dawn of the Enlightenment?").

The six walking tours, organized thematically, are briefly outlined in the fold-out maps, and supplemented by a corresponding guidebook that presents the themes geographically (sound confusing? it is, at first, then you realize each walk is organized twice, once by theme and then again by location... and they don't line up quite exactly but presumably this all makes sense when you're walking the streets of London as opposed to lying in bed in Brooklyn).

The accompanying booklet, Sick Sity, is written by an actual doctor, so you know it's good for you, and divided into chapters with titles like City of Multitudes, City of Money, City of Madness, etc. City of Madness is my favorite, because where else would I read about "railway spine" and other neurotic diseases of the 19th century?
Dr. Richard Barnett has a flair with his pen and phrases like this, in City of Pleasure, are thoroughly entertaining:

"Classical theories of medicine, based around the four humors, stressed the importance of a balanced existence as the key to good health. A little of what you fancy might do you good; reckless intemperance on the other hand, would lead to decline, disspiation and even death -- most of all through the spread of venereal diseases such as gonorrhea and the dreaded syphilis, a chilling apotheosis of pleasure's private agonies."

There are lots of fun facts in this book, like did you know that medical students made life-sized plaster casts of dead criminals and even nicknamed some of them? My favorite: Smugglerius, the cast of a dead smuggler. And the suggestions for further reading are fairly mind-boggling: how can I not read Jonathan Swift after this description of a city shower:

"Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts and blood, drowned puppies, stinking sprats all drenched in mud, dead cats and turnips-tops come tumbling down the flood."

And now the final question: why hasn't someone written a book called Medical New York?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Fog: Or, Betty Draper Approaches Horror-Movie Levels of Weirdness

I've been fascinated by Betty in Mad Men ever since "Shoot" in Season 1 (you know, the one
where she shoots the neighbor's pigeons). She is tragic, she is insipid, she is repressed (but she's remarkably dressed) she's the gorgeous blonde caged bird who's been clearly nuts from the start but hasn't yet totally boiled over. Season 3 is her time. Each year she becomes more and more insane. At first, it was just a little harmless couch time. Then it was drinking in bedraggled party dresses at ten in the morning and porking strangers during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But now, with last night's episode, our neurotic housewife and tattered WASP princess approaches horror-movie levels of madness.

The birth/birthing trope is a staple of the genre, from Dead Ringers to the Brood to Rosemary's Baby. There's nothing quite as terrifying as birth -- where else can so much go so monumentally wrong? -- and we've all seen enough Bad Seeds to know that the horror doesn't stopped once you've pooped them out your lady-chute. Procreation is a mine-field of potential disasters as children have the unique ability to shatter marriages and destroy a mother's delicate mental health with their shrill cries and constant demands. So it's no wonder Betty's birthing episode is the catalyst for the breakdown we've been waiting for these past two years.

The episode begins with Betty in Sally's classroom, hearing about her offspring's latest mischief from an earnestly idiotic third grade pedagogue. She gets up to pee, saying, "I can't control this." Her body is this THING she can't deal with, see? Flash forward to the birth. Betty's unnatural calm is in evidence, as usual, but begins to break down when she notices her "father" sweeping up in the hospital hallway. Note this is before Betty takes any drugs. Once she gets her "twilight sleep" on, there's no stopping her. Fabulous Lynchian hallucinations alternate with psychotic episodes in which Betty screams obscenities at her nurses, until finally, she hallucinates a conversation with her father. (Her mother -- and Medgar Evars -- are also present in the land of the dead.) Her father tells her: "You're a housecat. Very important with not much to do." Then she wakes up and names the baby Eugene.

A few minutes later, we see Betty standing at the window of her hospital room, holding the baby and waving at her family on the street, smiling serenely. For the rest of the episode she appears preternaturally calm and serene; when she arrives home she smilingly assures her friend the birth was nothing ("You know, it was all a fog") and that she'll make do just fine without any hired help. Meanwhile, we see Don and Sally have a conversation about the baby sleeping in Grandpa Gene's room ("It's not Grandpa Gene's room, it's the baby's room," Don reminds her) and since the apple doesn't fall far from the crazy tree, I'll be keeping my eye on that Sally kid, too.

The episode ends, naturally, with baby crying. Betty gets out of bed and walks down the hallway. Throughout her hallucinations we have been treated to several shots of the back of her perfectly-coiffed blonde head. This parting shot mimics that sense of unreality, as we watch her walk down the hall from behind. She stops, and steels herself before she enters the baby's room.

That moment where she has to physically steel herself to go into the room of that squalling infant, born amid clouds of paternal guilt, living in the dead father's room, named after him for goodness' sake, is, I believe, the most disturbing in a long list of disturbing Betty moments. What mother has to steel herself before entering her newborn baby's room, I ask you? No good will come of this ghost baby, or Betty's twilight sleep, I tell you.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Update! With boats!

So apparently no one cares about this thing, but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed Harbor Day. The bluest of blue September skies, sunlight sparkling on the water, and this coming at me out of the narrows:

That's right, it's the replica of the Half Moon! I stood on the Battery and watched it moved through the Upper Bay on its way up the Hudson.

All right, so it's lame. It's lame to be kind of awed by the exact same view you would have had 400 years ago. But tell that to the over-excitable Cypriot who captained my (free!) water taxi right this afternoon as we sailed up the Hudson among the flotilla of Dutch naval craft both modern and antique! George freaked out when we saw the replica of the Onrust dock at the Intrepid ("Onrust means restless, I just learned that today"). But we won't believe you.

Maybe you're too cool (or hate Robert Moses too much) to be awed by the sight of the graceful Verrazano Bridge spanning the narrows on your left while the GWB soars across to the sheer cliffsides of the New Jersey palisades on your right, but I'm not, and George is definitely not. Our tour guide, after handing out junior captain's badges and launching into the occasional spontaneous Billy Joel song, pointed madly as we sailed downriver, the Half Moon still partially in our sights, and excitedly screamed into the mic, "We're in the flotilla! We're in the flotilla!"

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11: St. Paul's Chapel and The Half Moon

You know how they say there's something about autumn in New York? Well, perhaps there is a little something unusual about this season in our coastal city. Events of great significance seem to happen in lower Manhattan in early September, leading me to wonder if there isn't some sort of geographical and temporal convergence here on the Eastern seaboard at a latitude of 40.74°N.

Now, not to get silly, but there are certain places around this town with a little more presence than others. I'm not talking about the gaping hole in the ground where everyone is gathered today. I am talking about a small, pretty structure that lives right next door: St. Paul's Chapel.

St. Paul's has its back to Broadway; its entrance faces west onto its own compact churchyard, giving it an air of separateness from the city. There is a distinct feeling of peace in that churchyard, and the long-standing building, the oldest in lower Manhattan, is unique for having survived the many disasters that felled its Colonial neighbors. Inside it looks more like a baroque drawing room than a Protestant church, all pale blues and pastels and crystal chandeliers -- you wouldn't be surprised to see Cupids cavorting on the ceiling -- giving it a light, airy, and distinctly non-oppressive, non-denominational feel. In other words, you are not overwhelmed with religiosity. Now a surviving Colonial building may not seem like much unless you know what has happened in lower Manhattan over the years - for instance, a great fire in 1835 destroyed nearly everything. (Trinity Church, in contrast, has been destroyed and rebuilt twice.) And St. Paul's location right next to the twin towers is positively astonishing -- the towers turned into huge columns of ash and St. Paul's survived with nary a crystal of its chandeliers shattered. Only its pipe organ was damaged by dust, rendered unplayable, and a single tree -- one tree -- was felled.

The chapel now is the most vivid and moving memorial to 9-11 that exists in this city; simple displays of the cots used to shelter rescue workers as they sifted through the wreckage are still set up in the aisles, accompanied by handwritten notes of thanks. Somehow, between the strange, quiet, steady peacefulness of the church and churchyard, and these simple monuments to thanks and grace, St. Paul's gave me pause in a way that few other places in New York ever have. There is a steadiness to this place, an uninterrupted steadfastness, that quietly yet firmly whispers to you as you walk through, "This is our church. And our city. And no one will disturb it." Gazing at the front of the building from the strangely silent churchyard (where did all that street noise go?) you can believe the chapel is sternly warning you, daring you to touch it or its island's inhabitants. It's almost intimidating. This tiny, unostentatious chapel will not be moved. You don't see a lot a buildings so obstinate. St. Paul's, I think, will always watch out for this city.

Another important September 11, of course, was 1609. History nerds will be celebrating the voyage of the Half Moon today, without which New York would never have been colonized and we wouldn't have all those charming Dutch names peppering our streets and lexicons (Bowery, stoop). I'm rather fond of Henry Hudson myself, the strange man who overtaxed his crew in this relentless search for the Northwest Passage until they finally mutinied and dumped him in the freezing waters of Hudson Bay. I have to admire that kind of singlemindedness, and of course the tragic eloquence of all those explorers who searched desperately for passages that were never found, and died before the world was fully mapped. What can I say, I love stories of human failure. But wait -- a kind of posthumous vindication may have finally come to the captain of the Half Moon. Today on the cover of the New York Times I read the following headline: Arctic Shortcut, Long a Dream, Beckons Shippers as Ice Thaws.

See Henry? All you had to do was wait for the ice to melt. Now you know what would be really ironic? All that sea ice washing over our little archipelago and swallowing us whole. But that won't happen for many Septembers, I think.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Best September Ever?


Just look at the myriad fun activities blessing our fair city this month:

Harbor Day! Celebrate the quadricentennial in style with a fitting, watery tribute to Henry Hudson. If you can't make it to one of the four Hudson River Rambles, or the Half Moon Annual Voyage of Discovery (Voyage of Discovery!), at least make it to Harbor Day for free bikes, boat rides and all the oysters you can eat (though I think you have to pay for the oysters).

Too dorky? Nuts to you. But maybe NY Craft Beer week would be more your speed. Any event involving a beer passport sounds just jim dandy to me.

But what's that you say? You don't like beer? Strange. Well, what about wine? The Bohemian Hall will serve up Moravian wines as part of their Vinobrani festival on Sept. 12th and 13th. I'm not sure what Vinobrani is, but they say it "kicks off the start of harvest season" and that's all right by me. While I'm only "meh" about wine, I'm very excited about the promise of the "delicious pastries," they mention in their ad.

Yup, harbors and harvest festivals. That's what it's all about this month. And if you can't find joy in that then I can't help you.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The City Concealed

I've been watching these videos and getting a mild kick out of them, especially the dour Newton Creek episode. I especially like all the old maps and clippings ... but what about this story I've heard told, that the creek caught on fire at one point in the '80s? That wasn't in the video. Maybe it was the Gowanus Canal? I know Newton had a massive oil spill, but I'm sure *something* caught fire. Off to research now... or possibly just wait til one of my more astute readers writes in and schools me (please? it's so much easier then Googling things for myself).