Mary the Typhoid Terrorist

balld-of-tyhI read The Ballad of Typhoid Mary around 1990, before The Alienist, which it strongly resembles. The book evokes the mood perfectly for old New York; creepy alleys, unlit streets, sounds of champagne parties flowing into dark streets were criminals lurk. Into all this come a teenage girl named Mary Mallon, who bewitches men into taking her in, only to have them die mysteriously. She’s  proud of her cooking, and relishes any job that taxes her skills in the kitchen. Nobody can resist her exquisite cooking, nor can they resist the bacteria she gives them with their meal. At least they meet their maker with full bellies, assuming they don’t vomit it all up before they go.

We know this book is fictional. Mary Mallon was from Ireland, not Switzerland. The part about her relationship with an anarchist named Chris Kramer has got to be fictional, but the rest is based on Mary’s real life. It also illustrates the situation for a single woman in 1890’s New York; there weren’t a lot of jobs for a woman who didn’t fancy prostitution, so the best an Irish woman could hope to get was cook or governess.

Typhoid Mary is portrayed as a rather lonely character, friendless  and for the most part alone, only her work to keep her going. Unlike The Alienist, the main character never eats in nice restaurants, never moves in circles of influential people. There aren’t any famous people in this book, just regular rich folks and their servant, who is largely invisible. But it was typical of the era; casual sex didn’t exist, and women didn’t have boyfriends like they do now. If she had her own place, she couldn’t have had her man stay over or the landlord would’ve had her arrested.

It’s a shame this book is out of print. The author made a great effort that works for the most part.


E.B. White’s New York in the 1940’s: Spot the Difference!

eb-whiteE.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) wrote Here Is New York as a long essay or a very short book, whichever you prefer. It’s 1948, and the first thing he notices about the city is the loneliness, despite all the crowds. I bet every foreigner in a major city feels the same way. George Orwell felt the same way about Paris (Down and Out in Paris and London) and so did every other American or Englishman who visited that city. There’s no “small town” feeling of intimacy in a city like New York, so maybe it’s an urban thing? The second thing White notes in his book is something I’ve written about in all my other reviews; everyone here is a newcomer. In Wags, the Bowery winos were all from outside the city. In Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, none of the musicians were from New York. Willa Cather (author of My Antonia) stayed in the same area as the author, “to write about people from Nebraska.” Thomas Wolfe was another writer transplanted from out of state (discussed in The Village by John Strausbaugh) and so was Bat Masterson, Allan Ginsberg, Jeanette Walls, and just about every other famous New York writer (with the exception of Priri Thomas, Elizabeth Wurtzel and The Marx Brothers) so with the exception of a select minority, relatively few New Yorkers are “lifelong residents.”

He ponders the vast water brought in from upstate and pumped to the top floors, and then ponders the food. There’s not a single farm in the city, so how do they bring in all the grub? He notes that only tourists, and never the residents, visit the Statue of Liberty. He writes about the people that work here-office men, secretaries, laborers-who never explore the city. Too bad he didn’t talk to or about the NYU and Columbia students while he was here. The colleges, though they existed at the time, were nowhere near as vast then as they are now.

E.B. White refused the publisher’s urge to update this essay every time it was printed. “Let the reader discover,” he used to say. I say to myself, why should anything in this book be updates? As far as I can see, nothing in this city has changed!

Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings

vampires-drgms-egyptnAccording to this book, youth gangs got worse after World War Two. The famous “white flight” to the new suburbs had left inner city neighborhoods derelict, and they filled up with migrants from Puerto Rico and the deep south. The Italians and Irish who were left behind were the ones that could not or would not leave. They were usually the dysfunctional families with an alcoholic parent.

The book could be better if there were more case studies included. The one about Salvatore Agron (The Capeman) isn’t enough. There were obviously others, but the author tends to concentrate on philosophy rather than narrative. I bet there are some retired cops and social workers who have a few good stories to use. First person accounts always add weight.

This is a well-written book, don’t get me wrong on that. But I would also recommend reading Down These Mean Streets and Bobby’s Book, or perhaps Manchild in the Promised Land. They’re autobiographies of street kids from the old days of New York, but they have different outcomes and backgrounds. Piri Thomas, author of Down These Mean Streets,  was a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, born 1928, grew up in Harlem, left jail and stayed clean since. Bobby, the subject of Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang photos, was different. He was an Irish American kid from south Brooklyn, had parents who were alcoholics (and may have been born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) and was on heroin for decades.

Regardless of race or color, life in New York City could be great or horrible. The bottom line is, no matter how great the book, you always need first-person accounts.

The Westies: A Gang That Shot Themselves in the Foot

westiesA NYC cop finds a dead body in a hotel basement, along with a shell casing and a signed birthday card. He’s sure it’s a false clue to throw the cops off the trail. Nobody could be stupid enough to leave a fingerprint and a handwriting specimen at a murder scene. Well guess what, the killer was that stupid. Not only that, but they botch  a massive job; while their boss is meeting with the Italian Mafia, they’re told to drop in to check on him if he doesn’t call in one hour. During that time, they forget to check on him.

T.J. English (author of Born to Kill) has crafted this well-written and perfectly researched historical narrative about the Westies. For those of you unfamiliar, they were the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen, and for those of you who call it “Clinton,” it was the part of Manhattan west of Broadway. Much of it is gone, replaced by Lincoln Center and post-1980 apartments. But in the 1960’s, it was full of Irish gangs, but like most inner-city neighborhoods, it was changing. Puerto Ricans were moving in and most of the Irish were moving out. T.J. captures the mood of those who didn’t move out until the 80’s, an era when Times Square theatres and Madison Square Garden provided the labor.

One of the best things about The Westies is the historical value of the book. T.J. English makes it very clear that NYC, like all others, was changing after WW2. White people were leaving in droves, and in the case of Hell’s Kitchen, moving to the new Irish neighborhoods in the East Bronx, Flatbush, Queens, New Jersey, Levittown. With Kennedy in the White House, Tip O’Neal in Congress, High Carey in Albany, nobody cared for the few Irish Americans left in the inner cities. English suggests that the better-off Irish American families in the Bronx were embarrassed by the ones in Hell’s kitchen. But that’s not surprising, when you consider that by the 1950’s, the Lower East Side was Jewish-owned, but no Jew lived there, and none would visit at night.

The main characters are Jimmy Coonan, and his henchman- whom I believe the author sanitizes too much-Mickey Featherstone. Now Featherstone, he doesn’t come off as frightening, but just crazy. He was a deranged Vietnam veteran, a kid from an abusive Hell’s Kitchen home who got worse in the army. He becomes a feared killer for the mob, while at the same time playing the hardworking husband and father. If you were a loan shark, all you had to do was drop the name Featherstone and the borrower paid up. Like a whole lot of mobsters, he turned state’s evidence after he was (in his view) wrongly convicted and abandoned by the other gangsters.

The Westies were obviously big on muscle, but small on the brain. They sought out the Italians to create a partnership, and they were accepted, but they ended up being used by the Italians. Freelance thugs were all the Italians wanted them for, and they never got any real respect from the Mafia families. They had none of the organizational skills of the Italian Mafia, which is why most of them ended up in jail, in the witness protection program, in the bottle, or on drugs. By the time the movie State of Grace was filmed, the Irish in Hell’s Kitchen were all gone. The area was already gentrified, and the only Irish presence were the pubs. The part you see in the movie West Side Story is gone too, demolished to make way for Lincoln Center.

The Westies, with their lack of intelligence, did not survive a changing city.

Ghosts That Don’t Scare are Just a Nuisance (Especially in a Book)

If there’s anything about this book that frightens me, it’s the fact that I’m still tempted to read books like these every year, right before Halloween. Each chapter is about some charming NYC landmark, with a lame ghost story tacked on. For each historic house, we get two or three “unseen phenomena” that either move the pictures, pet the cats, or steal pints of beer. Why not just write about the damn houses? The part about McSorley’s Ale House, now there’s history involved in that one, and I bet the owner and patrons all have stories to tell. The old bars in the Village, they’ve been around since the 1800’s. Why waste such a great opportunity on a boring ghost story?

The Merchant’s House Museum-who cares about the ghosts, what about the tunnel underneath? Hart Island and the Brother Islands-why not just write about their histories? We know that Hart Island is many things; cemetery for the unclaimed dead, site of an old Nike missile base, resting place for the old Ebbet’s Field bleacher seats, to name a few. North Brother Island was an isolation zone for Typhoid Mary, and later an institution for teenage junkies. Do we need the paranormal stuff too? The “true” stories of these islands are far more interesting.

Haunted theatres? Big deal. Lots of theatres from here to England are said to be haunted. The author did manage to pull up some interesting (and fun) facts about the theatres that have NOTHING to do with ghosts. For starters, never wear green or yellow on stage, the limelight cancels it out. Never whistle in the theatre, because the stagehands were ex-sailors and they’d signal each other by whistling. Whistle the wrong tune, and the curtain might drop at the wrong time. Oh, and did you know that green and yellow are considered bad luck on stage? They used to be the colors of the devil in old plays. Never let the theatre go pitch black, because the spirits will run amok.

Here’s the bottom line; the ghosts don’t interest me at all, but the historical facts do. This book would’ve done much better as a series of articles in Time Out NY.

Bridging Two Dynasties

If you want an example of a how NYC changed over the years, look at the New York Yankees and The Brooklyn Dodgers. The stories of those teams are all about workers’ rights, labor unions, racial integration, social classes, declining inner-city neighborhoods, urban renewal, gentrification, and more. The most vicious hoodlum kept their fists to themselves in Yankee Stadium and Ebbet’s Field, and the mob wouldn’t carry out any hits in there. New York’s baseball parks were hallowed ground, where people of all classes came to cheer their favorite team. There is no greater symbol of New York’s history.

The 1950’s (and earlier) were a time when they had “morals clauses” in baseball, where a player could get in trouble for his private life. Babe Ruth’s boozing and brothel-raiding were either tolerated or the commission hated him for it, but some players were not so lucky. Leo Durocher’s drinking and gambling got him in trouble with Keenesaw Landis, the infamous right-wing, racist, Jew-hating judge, brought in after the Boston Red Sox scandal to be commissioner of the sport. It’s not clear why Landis suspended him. Some say his behavior scared off the Catholic Youth League. Others say his gambling and mob ties put the team in danger. Either way, the players were under heavy scrutiny by Landis. I have to wonder sometimes, would these guys have survived in the age of television? In radio and newsreels, they came off as the big heroes, but nowadays I bet they’d a tabloid fodder. Then again, we’ve come to accept outrageous behavior from athletes, so perhaps Babe’s antics wouldn’t have ruined his career.

Aside from the fact that “my private life is my business” did not exist in baseball, there was also the issue of binding. Players couldn’t just go out there and find a team; they were the property of their team owner, and they could be traded at any time. There weren’t any free agents yet in the sport, and in some ways, integration put an end to the practice. The Black players thought that being bound to their team was no different from slavery, and it led to the formation of professional baseball unions.

I have to hand it to editors who compiled this book. They located biographies from different writers, each with their own perspective. There are bios on the players, announcers, managers, and just about everyone involved in New York’s baseball teams at the time. It’s a great addition to other well-known books on the topic, and anyone who loved Ken Burns’ Baseball series will definitely love this.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

love-goes-to-buildings-on-fireNew York City in the 70’s is always great to write about. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1993, nobody really cared about the decade, but since 2000 it’s been the subject of books, documentaries, movies, fashion trends, and just about everything you can license for profit. So why do we have such a fascination with that decade? Perhaps it was because all the peace & love stuff of the 1960’s were over, and the nation’s confidence was scarred by Vietnam? Or was it the riots here at home? Jimi and Janice were dead, the Beatles had broken up, and whatever feeling we all got from Woodstock was ruined at Altamont. Peace & love, they’d say? Well peace my ass! The feeling was rough, and who could illustrate it best? Bruce Springsteen, the great working-class balladeer! The author Will Hermes describes how Springsteen walked into Max’s Kansas City and felt “out of his element,” but the audience loved it! They weren’t flower children in that audience, but Warhol Superstars. The kind of bands that the Warhol crowd went to see weren’t the Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young types, with fringe jackets and love beads; the New York audiences liked the cross-dressing New York Dolls. It was a sleazefest they wanted! Springsteen’s rough look and rough subjects were perfect for the occasion.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (long title, very punk rock of the author) doesn’t gloss anything, and why would it, given that in the 1970’s, gloss couldn’t even stick. If it did, then it would’ve been spray painted over and ended up looking like a subway car. One of the best parts is the chapter Invent Yourself, where Abe Beam (the mayor, in case you don’t know your history) says “I want to be the matchmaker that brings us together.” The author says “well mazel tov, sorta, the city was bankrupt and everybody knew it.” In strides Patti Smith, with her thrift store duds and unfeminine stick figure. She certainly wasn’t a babe, and come to think of it, she looked like a vampire. Her boyfriend (if they were intimate, which I doubt) was an equally skinny artist named Robert Maplethorpe, who everyone must’ve known was gay. This was no hippy chick in a floor-length embroidered gypsy dress with a flower in her hair-that was San Francisco shit, and this was 1973 New York City. Mayor Beam wanted to be a peacemaker, and it obviously didn’t work. Everyone saw him as a silly little accountant in a silly little suit. He was way out of his depth, over his head, and with the rough look of the time, way more “out of his element” than Bruce Springsteen in a club full of cross-dressers!

I’d better remind everyone here, 90% of the characters in this story weren’t even from New York. Patti Smith was from New Jersey, Iggy Pop was from Detroit, Lou Reed was from Nassau County, the Ramones were from Queens, Warhol was from Pittsburg, etc. Manhattan always attracts outsiders from all over the USA (E.B. White said the same thing in his essay Here Is New York.) Perhaps that’s why the “noo-yawk” accent has vanished, except in Staten Island. But after their careers were established, a lot of these people left the city. Patti Smith moved to Michigan, several Warhol superstars went to other cities (Billy Name went upstate, Viva got kicked out of the Chelsea Hotel and moved to LA), and countless artists and musicians moved elsewhere. Manhattan, bankrupt and derelict, was perfect for men and women who didn’t mind it rough, but it wasn’t a place to raise kids. The schools were crap, the food was lousy, and when you want to have a family, safety becomes paramount.

Those of you who watched the documentary NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell know that NYC in the 70’s wasn’t a place to raise kids, find happiness, drop out, find free love. It was for people who liked it rough. Punk rock, hip-hop, Latin pop, it could only happen in the most non-judgmental city in America, where high fashion meant dirty clothes, and torn jeans couldn’t keep you down. If transvestites could be accepted, then who wouldn’t be?