All Day

    Liza Jessie Peterson is a broke unsuccessful model turned poet, who in the spirit of most unsuccessful artists in New York, turns to education for a living. Her assignment – The Island School, where the youth of Riker’s Island are educated. Wait, scrap that, it’s where they are dumped during the daytime. She’s with them all day long, no switching from math to science to social studies classes, and as a former suspension site teacher, I can tell this is going to be the teaching job from hell. While some of the boys are hard-core offenders, almost all of them behave like rude children (well what  do you expect, they don’t want to be there anyway) and they will test her, mess up the room, and do silly things.

Peterson faces a problem of many “teaching artists” who go from afterschool programs into full time education. While the afterschool programs are easier because the kids want to be there, full-time teaching is always difficult because of the kids who DON’T want to be there. If you think that’s a problem in a regular high school, imagine what it’s like in Riker’s Island, arguably the worst jail in the USA. It’s not like you can call the kid’s mother (there’s nothing she can do) or send him to the principal (there isn’t one) or expel him (there nowhere to go, this is the end of the line.)

Here’s a horrible irony about teaching at The Island School, which I figured out on my own. You know how the worst kids will probably come to school late and miss your class? Well not at this school, because they’re physically forced to go at gunpoint! Do you remember the kids in public school who never disturb your class because they spend all their time in the bathroom? Well not at this school, because bathroom breaks are restricted! You’re stuck all day long with the kind of kids who you’d rather play hookey all day.

Peterson does get some info about how the boys got there, but I doubt they’re all truthful. Some of them are definitely guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, while others were in the wrong place at the wrong time (like riding in the back of a car when the driver was carrying a gun and had just shot someone.) Some are in there because their parents can’t afford a non-refundable $2000 bail bondsman’s fee, others are foster kids whose legal guardians probably don’t care.

An advantage that the boys have in going to school is that they can hang out with their friends instead of getting stuck all day with the nasty correction officers. They don’t fight much in the classroom, mostly just tossing ball of paper at each other. Maybe the school is the only place where they can still be kids.

Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD

    Brice Chadwick’s is less about the NYPD and more about what a mess New York City was in the 1800’s. The author prefaces the book by telling us that crime levels in pre-Civil War NYC were six times what they are today, even more at the time than London and Paris (not sure I agree with that one.) Regardless, the city was known for bad behavior, and the chance of getting robbed and murdered was high. There wasn’t much in the way of law & order, and the police were never much help.

Chadwick’s first chapter discusses the constant rioting in downtown New York (well there wasn’t much of an “uptown” yet) and the Black churches, schools, and homes were a favorite target. The first great riot of the city was not the famous Draft Riot of the Civil War, but the Summer Riot of 1834 (seems like the trouble in this city is always worse in the summer) where the abolitionist meetings were attacked. The few police available did try to stop the riots, but with no results. There wasn’t much that ten cops (with limited armament) could do against 300 violent men, especially when those men had no qualms about killing the police. Maybe those cops just weren’t willing to risk their lives for the miniscule pay they got.

Riots in New York City happened every time the poor got mad, whether it was the use of unclaimed bodies in medical schools (the Doctor’s Riot) or the high price of flour, or the killing of stray dogs, or the impounding of stray pigs. In one forgotten 1833 incident, stonemasons stormed a workshop and smashed the place, because the contractor was using cheap marble from Sing-Sing. Apparently, NYU couldn’t afford the craftsmen’s price, so they opted to use cheaper stonework made by convict labor (NYU always seems to piss everyone off when they build a new wing.) As for the police, they were driven away by the stonemasons (leave it to your imagination who was physically stronger) and the militia had to be called in. That alone almost caused another riot; ever since the American Revolution 50 years earlier, nobody wanted to see armed troops in the city.

I will hand it to Bruce Chadwick for mining some unbelievable resources for this book. In the chapter on the Hellen Jewett murder, he brings to light some old first-person accounts of the city in the 1830’s, most of which I’d never heard of. Some were written by professional writers who toured the city, others are scholarly academic studies on crime. According to the sources, prostitution was rampant (not surprising, as the respectable classes did not engage in casual sex) and some women found it more respectable than being a domestic servant.

Chadwick credits Fernando Wood with improving things. He was trusted and respected by the police captains, and he appointed the ones who could gain the trust of the rank-and-file. As long as there was no dissent within the ranks, the police would at least be unified. Unfortunately, there was no way for patrolmen to communicate with HQ (radios not invented yet) and few would risk their lives by going into certain areas (no way to call for backup.) When the old Metropolitan Police were scrapped and reorganized, the city had the Police Riot, where the old cops and new cops battled each other in the street.

The anti-crime reformers clashed with the police as well as the crowds, because the reformers all came from the same class and school as the abolitionists. Lydia Child, for instance, was a Conservative educated Bostoner, and John McDowall was a divinity student from Princeton. They both criticized the police for the prostitution problem, since the madams were paying off the police captains for every brothel they opened (a fact that the Lexow Committee would concur 60 years later.) Lydia Child found the perfect cause when Amelia Norma murdered a client. The reason – he reneged on a promise to marry her – was used by Child to prove her point; men could do whatever they wanted to the women and face no consequence.

The author does find one positive thing about the early NYPD, and that is the use of the photograph. When cameras first became available, the NYPD seized the opportunity, creating the world’s first “rogue’s gallery” with detailed descriptions. Other departments followed suit, as did the FBI and the CIA. Reorganizing the police didn’t help that much, and things would still be unsafe in the city. Conflict between the abolitionists and pro-slavery New Yorkers continued, leading to the Draft Riots of the Civil War then the labor union riots, then conflict between the Irish and Italians, and so on.

Tearing down the Five Points slum and the old Gotham Court may have helped. It’s harder to attack a cop in a dark alley if there are no alleys anymore.

A Bintel Brief

This is a wonderful book on the advice column of the Yiddish paper The Forward (now English language) where New York’s Jews could piss and moan about everything. The author uses simple drawings to illustrate the problems people wrote about, along with the events of the times. Keep in mind that Bintel Brief was from a time when the Jews of New York lived in poverty and couldn’t afford therapy; writing to the advice columnist was the only way to talk about your problems. The Forward had its own building on the Lower East Side, but the neighborhood that is now hip and expensive used to be a dirty slum. It was a terrible neighborhood, crowded, polluted, and filthy. Families were very large, so the mothers were worn out from repeated pregnancies, and of course they had to work to feed all those kids. There was no public welfare at the time; you worked, or you went hungry. Therapy was unaffordable to most families, so this was the only alternative to talking to your clergyperson. The writers of this column were usually better educated than most Rabbis, so the advice would be a little more practical.
A lot of the problems written about in Bintel Brief had to do with marriage. There wasn’t any casual dating in those days, and a lot of Jewish New Yorkers had arranged marriages. Some of the letters were from women whose husbands were not as wealthy as they claimed; some were from women whose children were in love with non-Jews. You can learn a lot about how people lived in those days, before the safety net of food stamps and social security.
There have been other books on the Bintel Brief column, which ended in the 1970’s, but I think the last book was published in 1990. This fresh and vibrant comic about the column will keep the memory alive for years, in an era when few Jews still speak Yiddish. As for The Forward, it’s also a bit of an irony that the building is now high class apartments; by the 1930’s, the Jews had fled the Lower East Side in droves, and by the 1950’s it was not safe at night. My mother used to visit the building in the early 60’s, when they had a renowned kosher cafeteria in the basement, and she has fond memories of the place. But you couldn’t be there at night, even in the 50’s, because of all the junkies that came out of the woodwork. The paper itself is now in English, but not as much fun to read. It no longer celebrates Jewish life the way it used to, now relying on stories about Israel’s bombings, or who’s donating the most money to UJA. Perhaps when people have real problems in their lives, they’re more concerned with reading about good things? The Jewish community weren’t always financially successful in this country; there was a time when a lot of us lived in the “low income” area.

Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops

   Charles Camisi sounds like he had a great time as the head of the NYPD internal affairs. His career spanned almost 40 years and 4 police commissioners, starting at the worst time for New York, and ending in one of our best times. The Internal Affairs division, where he worked for most of his career, investigates police corruption, so basically he was policing other cops. As for the corrupt police that he busted, they range from Sergeants who sexually harass female subordinates to Inspectors who steal huge loads of cash.

There aren’t a lot of surprises in this book; police officers start feeling invincible, and they take greater and greater risks, then they start robbing drug dealers (happens a lot in this book) and their crimes get so bold that they become visible to the authorities. Some of them have sex with female drug addicts who they use for informers, which opens them up to blackmail. The drug robberies are usually in collusion with small-time dealers that they know. Sometimes the police will simply do a drug raid, confiscate five figures in cash, and not voucher a few thousands. It ranges from pennies to hundred dollar bills.

Some of Campisi’s cases involve peace officers using their badges to extort money, and they’re the easiest ones to deal with. Few cases involve brutality or excessive force, because that’s harder to prove in court thanks to “sovereign immunity.” Financial crimes, however, are easier to prove, and Campisi prefers when corrupt cops agree to be informants. If one bent cop is caught stealing a thousand dollars, he’s likely to know some that are taking even more, and that increases the chance that they’ll all end up implicating each other. The best chance of a conviction always rests on the witness testifying in court.

One of the main obstacles covered in this book is the concept of “compelled statements.” If a police officer is told “give a sworn statement or face dismissal,” then any admission of guilt can’t be used against him in court. That makes the Internal Affairs detectives reluctant to question rogue cops. Aside from the basic report of events, Campisi couldn’t ask outright if they’d planted a gun, robbed a drug dealer, or dealt drugs. Instead, there would be a lot of work involved, watching the officer’s movements, finding out how many houses and cars he owned, watching what he did in his leisure time, and more. The advantage, however, is that some cops are apt to work for Internal Affairs if they want to move up. If you do a certain amount of full-time undercover work, then you get a detective’s shield.

One of the most entertaining cases was that of Jose Ramos, which began when someone (probably a jealous ex-girlfriend) phoned and said “he has barbershops that are fronts for drug dealing.” Sure enough, Officer Ramos owned several barbershops that he hadn’t told the NYPD about (strike one) and rented space in the store to pirate CD vendors (strike two) and hadn’t reported the income on his tax return (strike three.) It would’ve been enough to fire him, but why not go for something bigger? He spent a lot of time with a known drug dealer, let the guy drive his car, and let him live in an apartment that he rented. Eventually the NYPD arrested the dealers her worked with, and they all gave evidence. After ending up in Rikers, Ramos tried to hire another prisoner to assassinate an informant, and got extra time on his sentence. It was the Ramos case that led to the ticket-fixing scandal.

I’m going to give this book top marks. The author doesn’t try to make himself look like a big hero, and he doesn’t have any great prejudice against anyone. He makes things clear from the beginning, if you’re a cop with ten years on the force and you decide to ruin it by stealing, then you deserve your misery. I knew of some of his cases before this book came out, and I admit that they didn’t look like a big deal to me. But after reading this book, I see exactly how bad some of these cops really were.

Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson

bopBack in the 1990’s, before the tech boom started, it wasn’t unusual for a recent college grad to work in a bookstore (or wait tables) while deciding what to do next. Years earlier it was unheard of, but in the Clinton era it was the norm. It all changed after 1997 with all the internet companies sprouting up, and 20 years later, it’s the norm again.

 

I read Box Office Poison way back in 1995 when it was a photocopied mini comic in the $1-box at Jim Hanley’s. From the minute I opened it I knew it was going to be a classic; the story was great, the artwork was perfect, and the author didn’t take himself seriously. I could relate to Sherman, the cranky protagonist who works in a bookstore, shares a Brooklyn apartment (with a very 1990’s couple), and likes weird girls. I loved the way the characters were all imperfect; the girls are short and lanky haired, and the guys are fat and shlumpy. It was quite a contrast to Spider-Man, where every character looks gorgeous (even some of the villains look hot.) You won’t see any bulging muscles, perfect 38DD boobs, or $100 hairstyles. This isn’t a Todd McFarland Spiderman comic, and you won’t see Spiderman’s steroid-freak muscles, nor Mary Jane Parker’s supermodel fashion. The protagonist is lanky and sexless, and his girl is 5’5, short-haired, and wears dark clothing.

 

The story begins with Sherman and his friend Ed moving his stuff into his new room. The two of them make for a funny pair; Sherman is tall, slim, and neatly groomed, while Ed is short, fat, goateed, and shaves his head (reminds you a little of Laurel & Hardy or Mutt & Jeff.) Then comes the new girlfriend, Dorothy Lestrade (yes, it is a reference to Sherlock Holmes) a woman with a shady past, who (to the reader and unfortunately not to Sherman) is obviously mentally unbalanced. The new apartment is in Carol Gardens, and keep in mind that this was before the “hipster” era, so you didn’t have all the great restaurants, theatres, stores, and whatnot. Whenever the characters go to a restaurant, it’s usually a diner or a basic Italian eatery. All the good restaurants were in Manhattan, and even as late as 2004, I remember Carol Gardens being sort of dull. I’m definitely going to assign this book if I’m teaching a class on New York history!

 

Alex Robinson crafted the perfect story of being young in the 1990’s, at a time when young people were “finding” Brooklyn, opting to cohabitate instead of getting married, and most important for this book, starting to appreciate comics that did not involve men in tights! As for the artwork, it’s all black and white line drawings, with a great use of shadows. After a childhood of comics with muscle-freaks leaping around in pantyhose, I was glad to find comics set in the real world. The only non-superhero comic we had at the time was Archie, and he was NEVER a realistic depiction of being a teen (nobody in that comic was short, overweight, sloppy, pimpled, gay, lesbian, alcoholic, addicted to drugs, homeless, etc.) We had Maus (thank heavens) and Tintin (even that falls short) but when Box Office Poison came out, I couldn’t get enough.

 

Unlike Archie, Sherman Davies has to pay his own bills, and unlike Veronica, his girlfriend has issues, and they can be scary! If Archie and Jughead were out of the house and living in shared apartments on a shoestring budget, this is probably how it would end up. As for the mini-comic I picked up almost 20 years ago, I still have it, and I’m not giving it up!

The Alienist

the-alienist    The advertisement for this book was shocking enough, a bunch of boy prostitutes turn up dead in Old New York, then Teddy Roosevelt enters the case, along with a criminal profiling psychologist named Kreizler. Couple that with the sleaze and vice of the era, and you know it’s going to be disturbing. The book’s famous cover, with the lone cloaked figure walking in the snow, makes things look eerie. Who is he, I wonder, and why does he appear so confident? When I first saw this book I got a feeling that this would be New York’s Jack-The-Ripper, and I was right. As for the term “alienist,” that’s what psychologists were called in those days. Even the title sounds creepy.

Caleb Carr weaves a creepy historical thriller set in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. In a creative turn of revisionism, Carr makes Gilded Age New York look like a three-ring circus with a lot of creepy sideshows. Young girls and boys are lured into prostitution, all of them are addicted to morphine, and the police are corrupt. An alcoholic gambling reporter gets an invite from Teddy Roosevelt (his Harvard classmate) and a Hungarian-born psychologist (also a former classmate) to catch a serial killer. The victims aren’t the kind of people anybody would miss; they’re all boy prostitutes from immigrant families, turning up dead near the river, and the families make little effort to know their whereabouts. The only reason that Roosevelt wants to stop the killer is that the media may soon catch on, and as Police Commissioner, the bad publicity would ruin his career. There are others who want to avoid bad publicity, but their way involves squashing the story.

Carr inserts plenty of historical characters in here, making most of them look bad. Anthony Comstock appears in all his evil glory, along with evil Archbishops and a patronizing racist photographer named Jacob Riis. My apologies to those of you who put him on a pedestal, but I loved Carr’s portrayal of the guy. He makes the famous “social reformer” look like a nasty, stuck up, racist prima donna, who has his own preconceived ideas about how people should all behave. Roosevelt isn’t made out to be such a great guy either; he’s portrayed as a pompous blowhard, and a bit of a bully too. The funniest characters are the Isaacson Brothers, fat Jewish intellectuals who Roosevelt has brought in to be detectives. Though they’re totally unsuited for police work, they do have amazing detection skills.

In the past decade, we’ve had so much nostalgia for the old New York. Old movies that portray the 1970’s grit and sleaze are more popular than ever, and people reminisce about the old East Village punk rock scene. What people often ignore is that New York City was always rough and dirty, even in the 1890’s. When I read this book, I really got a sense of being in a creepy, dark place, where the street lights are dim and trouble lurks behind every corner.

The Alienist was published way back in the 1990’s, and still read today. I read it in 1999, back when I was living in the city in my first apartment, before New York nostalgia was all the rage. Unlike today, you didn’t have all the amateur historians with their blogs about Old New York, so the information on the city’s past life was limited to the few books here and there, and they all got the facts different. This book was like a murder mystery, horror movie, and museum display all rolled into one.

Boy Detective

51erxatebvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Roger Rosenblatt breaks the E.B. White rule of the New York writer, by being born and raised in New York City. Yet unlike the recent memoir Trying to Float, this New York born and raised writer has a terrible book. There are few, if any, strong anecdotes and no surprises. He was born to privilege in Gramercy Park, occasionally passed Washington Irving High School (rough, even in the 1960’s), and didn’t seem to observe much about the area. He mentions a little about St. Marks Place, and the Sleepy Hollow Bookstore on Irving Place, now a cheese store and Japanese restaurant. Other than that, nothing.

To sum up, this book stinks.