Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Last Candy Store

I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago -- near 60th Street and Western Avenue. About five blocks away was an old candy store with a long glass case near the front window -- one of those old, plate glass windows that never stayed clean. When I was a kid, we used to walk to the candy store and pick out the sweetest, hardest, chewiest candies, all for a nickel or a dime each. "In my day," my dad said, "it really was a penny. And you could get it fresh, all for a penny."

That's inflation for you. My favorites were the little wax bottles filled with purple, red, yellow, or green liquid. It was sweet water or something like it -- really disgusting and good for the neighborhood dentists. (I must have had a cavity in every molar.) You bit off the top (looked like a Coke cap) and squirted the liquid down your throat. You could chug it or enjoy it drop by drop. Then you'd finish off the treat with something called a snowball -- a powder blue candy with a malted-milk center, covered with sugary, white coconut sprinkles. Those were so beautiful -- as dreamy as the wax bottles were south side.

The candy shop also sold multicolored sugar buttons on long strips of paper (5 cents a tear), whips (red and black Twizzlers), packaged sweets like Junior Mints, Milk Duds, Charleston Chews, and individual candies. Besides the Coke bottles, there were fireballs, chocolate drops, lemon drops covered with powdered sugar, twists of powdered stuff wrapped in white paper that tasted like Sweet-Tarts but different. That long glass case was full of every treat imaginable.

The rest of the store was so empty. The old owner put our purchases into white bags and rang up the sale on an old black cash register, where the numbers popped up on little tags in the window. He sold newspapers, magazines, coffee, sandwiches. I think he lived in the back, behind a thin, flowered curtain. He sold cigarettes to the retirees and I remember that they used to sit around and read the paper and smoke all afternoon.

Did the shop have a name? Don't know. It was just the candy store on 55th. Don't know how long it lasted -- certainly, it must have closed up long before I moved to New York. I'd love to find out what happened to it and what is there now.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Halloween Pumpkin After-Party

Here are a few candlelit memories of Halloween 2009. It was a wonderful holiday ...

screamingly spooky ...

a hearty party ...

and a happy time for all, big and small!

Thanks to Floyd Smith Sanford, III, for these illuminating photos. And a huge shout-out to the brilliant artist who carved all of these fabulous faces. Next year, take a stroll down West 74th Street between Columbus and Central Park West after dark. You might just stumble onto another party!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Ghost Stories on the Radio - Updated 10/31

I told ghost stories on WFUV-FM radio (90.7FM) this Saturday morning, Oct. 31, at 7:30 a.m. WFUV-FM is the station of Fordham University. If you missed the show, (it WAS a bit early), you can hear it on the podcast. Click on: http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast.php?id=510086 and then click on Halloween Show.... You can can also find the show at http://www.wfuv.org/audio/archive/index.html after Nov. 9, 2009.

Had a great, final ghost tour of the season today in Central Park. I'm always happy to see familiar faces and meet new people from all over the country. Hope to see you soon!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Glorious, Spooky Autumn Day

I can't believe I haven't posted to this blog since Labor Day! I thought autumn was slowly chugging along.

Today, I led my ghost tour of the Upper West Side. The morning was rainy, a bit foggy -- perfect spectral weather! Sandy Sanford, my charming husband and (ta-da!) lovely assistant, told a great story about crime in the Majestic Apartments and things got spookier as we went along. We explored Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, the Naumberg bandshell, a stand of ancient American Elm trees, statues, and a series of story-book carvings by Jacob Wrey Mould. (You can see some of these images on my Facebook page, "Dering Walking Tours.") Later, we wound our way through a hushed and eerie part of the Ramble. I ended the tour across from the New-York Historical Society Library with a favorite story of a bookish ghost.

Witch Designed by Mould
Photo by Maria Dering

Eerie moans and screams were provided by the haunted house that was part of the Pumpkin Festival at Bethesda Terrace -- saw lots of families carving pumpkins, Park Rangers displaying giant papier-mache spiders (or maybe they weren't just paper ...), children having their faces painted, and everyone enjoying Central Park.

Next week is my final public ghost tour of the season: 11 a.m. on Hallowe'en! I hope everyone is enjoying a wonderful autumn!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day

I am glad it's Labor Day. I am not a fan of summer, never have been. Too hot, too many mosquitoes, too boring and too little work. Several years ago, I saw a commercial on Lifetime TV where the tag line was "waiting for summer." Beautiful scrapbook-size photos eased their way across the screen: the seashore, a family digging in the sand -- bucolic bliss. Must exist for some, but not for me.

I'm up early, laboring on labor day; you can read the results at my new blog, http://ghostly-ghosts.blogspot.com Now we enter the season of light and sound and color, the start of everything. Stay tuned for more posts that I promise will be less cynical.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Why does it smell like Fall at the end of July?

Are there ghosts in the gingko trees, combing out the last bits of summer?

Has August come and gone, scattering her glow on the tip of a match?

Missed the eclipse, but I hear the sound of the boxcars on Damen Avenue, the whistle in the night, a rumble of light through trees in the open window. A long yesterday ago.

Summer night -- no stars -- only the light from the toy shop where they are working late.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tango and the End of Civilization

This evening I heard Hector del Curto's Eternal Tango Quintet at the Main Squeeze Accordion Festival in Riverside Park.

Photo by Maria A. Dering

The program was arranged beautifully, a mix of classic and new tangos, starting and ending with driving arrangements of merciless Astor Piazzolla compositions. Listening to these pieces made me think of fin de siecle Vienna, Gustav Mahler, all the doomed heroes of Thomas Mann, Evita Peron, and the dark corners of history. Especially in the 1920s and 1930s, tango seemed to be a harbinger of the end of civilization ...

Photo by Maria A. Dering

Saved by music??

To hear clips of del Curto's group, visit http://www.hectordelcurto.com/eternaltango_project.html

Take heart!

Saturday, July 4, 2009


I had a great time watching the fireworks over the Hudson River tonight. However, my photos look like fireworms.

Photo by Maria A. Dering

Happy Independence Day to one and all, and good night.

Independence Day 2009

Today I spent a wonderful afternoon at the New-York Historical Society, located on Central Park West between 76-77th Streets. To celebrate the 4th of July, the N-YHS offered a full day of free exhibitions, storytelling, re-enactor drills and conversation, popcorn, pretzels, chips, and icy cold beverages.

When I saw these two re-enactors, I imagined that they were soldiers from the American Revolution who were wondering what would happen when the fighting was over. Which way would the winds of war blow?

* * * * *
On my way to the event, I passed several buildings with interesting pseudo-heraldic decorations over the doorways and along an outside wall. I've always wondered about these, as they appear on so many apartment and public buildings in Manhattan. Are these symbols designed to evoke majesty, royalty, wealth, and stability? Did the builders copy symbols from European buildings? Did the architect think they lent a certain something to a developing neighborhood? Whatever the reason, these figures make a walk on the West Side interesting and entertaining.

Here are a few examples. I wonder whose crown this is.

In the next item, the rearing lion appears on a shield that is pierced through from left to right by an arrow or spear. Look closely in the upper right hand corner of the image and you'll see the tip of the weapon.

Sorry the next photo is so blurry! See the keys and stars on the curiously-shaped shield? Looks like an eagle or mythological beast is holding the shield. This sculpture is on the outside of the American Museum of Natural History.

And now, my favorite. He looks like the personification of the North Wind or a wicked king. I wonder who the model was?

All photos in this post by Maria A. Dering.
May be copied with permission of the writer/photographer.

I hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful Independence Day. Time to go to the fireworks!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Life Turns Ten - Part 5

(continued from April 29, 2009)

“A girl – your Madonna -- was stabbed near the East River last year. They took her to Bellevue, but she walked out of there and hasn’t been seen since. I can’t believe that she survived. But folks on Second Avenue say they’ve seen her every now and then. And you saw someone like her in the Depot this afternoon?”

“Yes, and again tonight. She asked me for money. I offered to drive her to the women’s home. But then I looked around and couldn’t find her.”

“Sounds like you saw a ghost, Frank.”

“A ghost with skin, with blood? I drew her – look!” Howarth took out a small sketch pad from his suit coat and showed the portrait to Silas. “Mmm ... that’s a beauty!” Silas whispered.

“Do you think she could have followed me from the Depot over to Sardi’s? Maybe she waited for me. God, Silas, I feel like a stupid chump. That girl was probably waiting for someone to roll me when I took out my change purse.”

“Well, maybe,” Silas replied. “But maybe you did see a ghost!”

Howarth laughed and yawned at the same time. “I need sleep! I’ve got to get back to work. Lots of deadlines ... Mind if I sleep here?”

Silas steered Howarth to the guest bedroom. Many hours later, Howarth work to the delicious smell of strong coffee, bacon, eggs, and toast. After wolfing down his breakfast, Howarth asked Silas, “So what do you think now, in the clear light of day?”

“Still the same, Frank. I think you saw a ghost.”

Over more coffee, Silas scanned the three papers he read every day. Howarth caught the headline on the first page of a tabloid. “Blonde Beauty Drowned!” the headline screamed. “Mystery Bellevue Run-Away Dead/East River Body Sophia Randolph/Hailed from Croton, New York.”

“Look at this," Howarth said, "It’s got to be the same girl! She asked for my help -- she disappeared. She knew the Depot from her trips to Croton. No where to go ... no one here.”

“Perhaps she was already dead,” Silas murmured, “But, look, you have that sketch.”

Howarth took out the sketch again, made a note on the back, and wrote down the details of her short life. Sophia Randolph. A nice name, Howarth thought, a gentle name. A runaway from Croton, up the glistening river. A fallen girl. An angel.

In a few hours, Howarth headed home, thinking of the dinner, thinking of Sophia. Not someone who would ever be drawn by Gibson now. She needed F.M’s coins for her trip to the East River. She was much too tired to walk.

A Final Word

Photo courtesy of Floyd Smith Sanford, III

Franklin Morris Howarth drew cartoons for Lippincott’s, Life, American Puck, The Hearst Syndicate (most notably, the Chicago Tribune). He died of pneumonia at the age of 44. He left two daughters and a widow in Philadelphia.

Howarth’s cartoons are in the collections of the New-York Historical Society in their original editions, collected in bound volumes. The menu of the Sardi's dinner still exists, but Howarth would not want me to tell you where it is.

Who was the inquisitive boy who captured Howarth’s attention in Grand Central Depot? Will we ever know? He was mischievous, rebellious, and didn’t care much for grammar. But if he ever saw Howarth’s published cartoons, perhaps he remembered the man in the Depot who drew the portrait of an angel.

Friday, May 22, 2009


I took a lot of digital photos on Wed., May 20, during the Fleet Week "Parade of Ships" on the Hudson River. For some reason, this is my favorite shot.

Where did they go, the ospreys?

Friday, May 15, 2009

George Braziller Blog

Exciting news! I was interviewed for the George Braziller Blog recently. You can read the interview here: http://georgebrazillerblog.blogspot.com/ I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Life Turns Ten -- Part 5

Stay tuned for the end of the story. I will post it soon, along with a photo of F.M. Howarth.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Life Turns Ten - Part 4

(continued from April 13, 2009)

The young woman stepped into the ring of lamplight. Howarth remembered where he had seen her before: sleeping in the Depot as if waiting to catch a train. She would have been thrown out if she’d tried to beg for a few coins. "I just need a little food, sir. Can you help me?”

She was tracing-paper pale, a good Madonna. She wore no gloves, no shawl on her head. Her curly hair floated against the night sky. She wore broken-down old black shoes, but her eyes and lips were young.

“Miss, I do not live in town. I can give you a few coins, but that is all I can do. Perhaps I can help you to a women’s home? There is one not far from here.”

“Oh, no, sir, they don’t want me.”
“They will take anyone in need, miss.”

She thought about it for a few moments, biting her lower lip. She rubbed her eyes with a small hand and replied, “All right, sir, will you show me where it is?”

Howarth immediately felt he might have made a mistake. Maybe she was just the lure for a thug. He’d been taken in by this girl twice now, captivated by her in the Depot and here, on Second Avenue.

“Miss, let me flag down a hansom. There are still a few out.” He turned back, not finding a cab. The girl was gone. “Miss?” he called, and then louder, “MISS?” There was no sign of her. He began to look in doorways. Perhaps she was too shy to go with him. Perhaps she returned to her confederates. He did not want to get mixed up in that, and he had to get to his friend’s house.

Mr. E.Z. Mark by F.M. Howarth -- and what he did not want to be. Public domain.

A policeman saw Howarth standing on the corner. “Sir, may I help you?” Howarth mentioned the girl. “Who?” said the policeman. Howarth described her. The policeman turned pale. “You saw her here?” he asked. “Yes, just here, a moment ago. But earlier today, I’m sure I saw her in the Depot. I even started to sketch her.”

The policeman flagged down a hansom and put Howarth into it. “Go straight to your friend and stay there until morning,” the policeman ordered. “You shouldn’t be walking alone at night. Go home!”

Howarth thanked the patrolman and soon arrived at his friend's house. “Frank!” Silas cried. “Where have you been? I was expecting you hours ago!” They sat in the parlor sipping hot cider as Howarth told Silas about his day. “That’s enough commotion for a whole week,” Silas said. Howarth finally got around to his Madonna on Second Avenue. Silas sucked in his breath. “You haven’t read the New York papers lately, have you?”

(to be continued)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lower East Side

I led a tour today of Manhattan's Lower East Side, one of the most densely-populated places in America in the late nineteenth century. Tides of immigrants stopped here, lived here, and most moved on. Others came to take their place.

There are so many ghosts thick in the air that the streets take on a life of their own. You can't distinguish the shade from the sunlight. A few parents roll baby carriages down the street. An old woman sits with her attendant on the sunny bench in front of the Abrons Art Center. Two men head to their synagogue. A Chinese baby naps in her stroller. It is so quiet. Everyone seems to be waiting, watching.

It is still Passover.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Life Turns Ten - Part 3

(continued from March 30, 2009)

F.M. Howarth got to Sardi’s just as the other illustrators were arriving. He had never met most of them and they were the stars of their day. Gibson was a household word; someday, for a brief time, Howarth would be, too. His “Funny Folk” and “Lulu and Leander” strips became well known and his witty captions once made people rock with laughter.

His hands trembled as he handed his heavy topcoat to the coat check attendant at the entrance to Sardi’s. He took the paper ticket and shoved it into the breast pocket of his suit coat as he walked into the bar. “Come and meet the other guests!” Van said. Howarth felt as though he were slowly pushing forward through a mist. Cigar smoke filled the air; men talked loudly, laughed, and whooped after hearing a good story. No women allowed. Van continued, “Fellows, this is young Franklin. He’s just started working for us. Watch your hides, boys! This one’s got real talent!”

Franklin blushed and the tremor in his hands grew stronger. He took a deep breath as Gibson chimed in. “Franklin drew the cartoons for the menu tonight.” “Oh my word,” Franklin replied. “You mean you printed those? They were just doodles, just ...”

“My boy, you know anything left on a sketchpad is fair game. I grabbed ‘em and we printed them on the menu. You’ll see ... .”

Howarth was elated but cautious. His quiet nature prevented him from saying much in the presence of the older illustrators. He moved along the bar to get a glass of Scotch. He soaked in the gaiety, conversation, the smell of men in suits and evening clothes. Since Howarth did not own an evening suit, he wore his Sunday best, which was good enough. No one seemed to care; in this crowd, only Gibson and Van were dressed for the opera. The other men came from business or their studios after cleaning up.

Several artists spoke with Howarth about his work, his models, where he lived, what he hoped to do in the future. The Great Gibson, as Howarth called him later, deigned to say hello and compliment the younger man on his wit. Soon they went into dinner and Howarth gasped when he saw the menu. With a cover drawn by Van, the menu placed Howarth’s sketches in the best possible company. All the tiny men and women that lived in his pen were on the elegant menu printed on thick, ecru card. The other illustrators signed his menu at the end of the evening, avoiding the splot of beef gravy that landed on it before dessert. Howarth held the menu in his hand carefully, as he put on his topcoat and prepared to leave. Tonight he would stay with his friend Silas Drew over in Turtle Bay – a close walk on a starry night.

Franklin gave a jaunty little wave as he left Sardi’s. He turned east and walked all the way to Second Avenue along 42nd Street. It was late, almost midnight, and only the bravest walkers were out on the street. Howarth turned up his collar and pulled his hat down more carefully onto his round head. In the light from the gas lamps, he picked his way through the leftover Christmas snow, moving quickly in the direction of Drew’s home.

As he prepared to cross Second Avenue and turn north, he saw someone coming up on his left side. When he turned, no one was there. “Must be the port,” he thought to himself. “Probably had a bit too much to drink. I won’t have anything with Silas. Just want to go to sleep when I get there ... .” Howarth kept moving along, peering into a window full of old clocks, a particular interest of his. In the glass, he caught sight of a someone standing behind him, a few steps away. A slight form, probably a woman or a tall child. Probably a streetwalker. He watched her as she watched him. He took a step away and she followed, hesitatingly. “Mister?” she said quietly. “Not interested, miss,” he replied. “No, no mister, it’s not like that. Mister, I’m hungry.”

Didn’t she know it was dangerous out here at night, all alone? Even her friends were huddled in their small rooms by now and the foot patrol had already passed this way an hour ago. The gas lamps did not cast much light, and the moon had become obscured by large clouds. Tomorrow, it would snow, Howarth thought. Tomorrow he would return to Philadelphia.

“Mister, please, can you help me? You seem like a gentleman.”

The young woman stepped into the ring of light cast by the streetlamp. Howarth remembered where he had seen her before. Of course – in the Depot. She was sleeping there today as if waiting to catch a train. She would have been thrown out if she’d tried to beg for a few coins. So here she was, on the street, all alone. “I just need a little food, sir. Can you spare a dime?”

(to be continued)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Life Turns Ten - Part 2

(continued from March 15)

Howarth turned back to his drawing. The girl had moved her head slightly, throwing off the angle from which Howarth viewed her a few minutes ago. He erased a few lines and continued. Soon he had a complete drawing of the young woman’s head and neck. He started to put away the pad. She slept on. “Hey, mister,” the young boy whispered.

“What? ... Say, aren’t you supposed to be back there on the bench with your mother?”

“She’s tending to the baby. She don’t know I’m here.”

Howarth was irritated by the boy’s question. He liked to work alone in his studio in Philadelphia.

* * *
He based his comic characters on himself and his family. His daughter, Edna, was a model -- a Philadelphia beauty at the age of 18. Here she is with Howarth’s granddaughter, Sara-Elizabeth, some years later. Edna has her father's eyes.

Photo courtesy of Floyd Smith Sanford. All rights reserved.

Exaggerated, dark eyes and bulbous noses on the men were Howarth’s trademarks. (He was kinder to women). His captions were witty but dated, reflecting the prejudices of Howarth’s era.

* * *
“You get right back there, young man. I don’t think she wants you to talk to strangers.”
“Oh, come on, mister, just lemme see that picture you did, the one of the lady.”
Howarth flipped open his drawing tablet and showed the sketch to the boy.

“Golly! It looks just like her!”
“Thank you,” Howarth replied.
“Can you draw me?” the boy asked.
“Oh, no, I don’t think so. Your mama wants you back on the bench, I’ll bet.” Howarth looked across the aisle to see the boy’s mother glaring. She came toward them with the baby in her arms.

“William, you come back here and stop bothering that man!”
“Aw, ma –"
“Come back and sit here with us. Don’t go bothering people!” She turned to Howarth. He could see how tired she was. “He’s just a curious boy, mister.”
“It’s all right, ma’am. He wanted to see what I was doing.”

Howarth showed her the drawing of the young woman. “Oh, my,” the boy’s mother breathed out in a sigh. “It’s her likeness!"
“I earn my living by making drawings that are printed in magazines.”
“You do? They pay you to make drawings?”
“Oh, yes, and they sell the copies at the newsstands. Like that one over there.”
“My, my, what people won’t buy! But that sure is a good picture, sir!”
“Why, thank you, ma’am.”

Howarth saw a group developing: the woman with the babe in her arms and the young boy grabbing her around the knees. “Ma’am, would you allow me to draw you and your children? I’ll give you the drawing – for free,” Howarth said.

“Sir, I never had my picture done. Don’t know if I should or not.”
“Why not? Let me just take a few minutes. Just stand there, just as you are. Now, don’t anyone move. Stay still now ...”

Howarth went on soothingly as he did a quick sketch of the outline of the little family group. The baby stirred. William tried to see what Howarth was doing, but his mother tugged on his collar as if to cement the boy to her knee. “Just a little while longer,” Howarth said. “Just a bit more here – “ he shaded with the edge of his pencil. “And there – “ he added some detail to the woman’s face. “And here – and it’s done!”

Howarth showed the drawing to the woman. She stood still and quiet, examining the picture. “Oh, my, sir, it’s all of us! Here we are, baby, and William, and me! The baby began to cry and William was getting restless. “Sir, thank you so very much. William, get our things or we’ll miss our train! We’re going to visit my mother. She paid for our tickets!”

“Madam, I hope you enjoy the drawing. William, thank you for being such a good subject,” Howarth said. He watched the woman roll the drawing carefully and tuck it into the bottom of one of her bags. “I’ll keep it clean like that,” she said. “That’s fine,” Howarth replied. “By the way, I signed my name on the bottom so you will remember me. There it is: F.M. Howarth.” “Howarth,” the woman repeated. “I don’t read too good, but I will remember your name. “So will I,” William chimed in. “I hope I see you again sometime.”

“I hope so, too, William,” the artist replied. The family walked toward the track and a porter helped the mother with her overstuffed bags. As Howarth watched them move on, he noticed from the clock in the reception hall that it was nearly 5:45. Time to get across town to his dinner! He noticed that the young woman was gone – too bad. That William was an inquisitive boy!

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Life Turns Ten

Franklin Morris Howarth was 29 years old when Life Magazine marked its tenth anniversary in 1893. The editors hosted a party at Sardi’s and all the major illustrators were there: Charles Dana Gibson, “Van,” A.B. Wenzell, “Chip.” Howarth, one of the youngest, also attended. He was yet to draw his most famous work for the Chicago Tribune and American Puck.

On an early January morning, Howarth set out for the dinner. He boarded a train in Buffalo after a weekend visit, knowing he would arrive hours early in Manhattan. He planned to spend his spare time sketching in Grand Central Depot. This was not the station of today; Howarth would not live to see it. (The white palace now on East 42nd Street has been there since 1913, a creation of the architects Carrere & Hastings and Stanford White.)

Grand Central Depot, in the public domain.

Tall, dark brick turrets marked the corners of Vanderbilt’s 1893 depot. A glass dome spanned the wide pedestrian walkways and alcoves. It was Vanderbilt’s pride and joy, the terminus of the New York Central Railway and the other smaller lines that the Commodore drew into his empire and from which he made his fortune. It was one of Howarth’s favorite places.

He found a seat in the grand waiting area on a polished wooden bench. All around him were women with small children, some sleeping, others crying. Several families were eating sandwiches out of a large sack; one young woman tipped her head back, eyes closed. She looked tired, thin, hungry. At least she was napping now. Perhaps she had worked all day as a typist or shop clerk. Howarth studied her face, her lips, her chin, her cheeks, and her curly dark brown hair. She stirred slightly, dreaming.

Howarth took a small white tablet and soft pencil from the pocket of his topcoat. It was cold, but the station was warmer than the streets. He began to draw the outline of the girl's face with loose strokes, shading a little here and there.

One of the children became fascinated by what Howarth was doing. He looked shyly over the artist’s shoulder. Deep in thought, Howarth didn’t even realize the boy was there until he said, “Hey, mister, whatcha doin’?” Howard said, “Sshhh! I’m drawing that lady, over there.” The boy asked why.

“She is very pretty. I like to draw people.” “Why don’t she wake up?” the boy pressed on. “I think she is very tired from working hard all day,” Howarth answered. “Do you think she is going home now?” the boy asked. “I don’t know,” replied Howarth. “Would you like to sit here while I finish my drawing?” “I have to ask my mama,” the boy replied, and ran off to the opposite bench. The woman looked over at Howarth suspiciously and forced the boy down on the bench next to her.

Howarth turned back to his drawing. The girl had moved her head slightly, throwing off the angle from which Howarth viewed her a few minutes ago. He erased a few lines and continued. Soon he had a complete drawing of the young woman’s head and neck. He started to put away the pad. She slept on. “Hey, mister,” the young boy whispered.

“What? ... Say, aren’t you supposed to be back there on the bench with your mother?”

“She’s tending to the baby. She don’t know I’m here.”

(to be continued)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Life before Video

Today I went to 31 Chambers Street to search for a probated will. Business done, I took time to look again at the incredible architecture of this building, used often for "Law and Order" interior shots. The monumental open staircases, sweeping marble banisters, intricate metal ornamentation, and complex murals make this a feast for the eyes. One can only look -- no photographs allowed in the lobby.

Behind the video monitor outside the door of the Municipal Archives is a fascinating dark space. Look in -- it's as if all but the corner of a curtain had been dropped to the floor. In the dimness, I saw ceiling vaults decorated with peacock blue-green mosaic tiles, splashed up on the walls like vines, cordoned off into the darkness.

Take a look sometime, behind the video monitor. Something will draw you there.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Out of Joint

I hate the time change! Whether we lose or gain an hour, everything is thrown off for days. How can I convince myself that it's "really" ten a.m. when the clock says eleven, or vice versa? Our departed cats never adjusted; they ran on feline time.

I wonder what the folks who live in the golden land on the other side of the moon think about this. Perhaps they are laughing at our foolish attempts to reset the moon and stars for our own ends. I'm sure all the cats in heaven can't be bothered to scoff at our silliness. It's time for a nap.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Rising Up

Meet the Beresford - 81st Street and Central Park West.

One Spring day, I was taking black and white photos on my old Nikon FG and came up with a few startling shots, stark and overexposed. Much has been written about the Beresford and two other Upper West Side monuments: the Dakota and the San Remo. This building, however, seems the most imposing.

That's some kind of power cable splitting the frame, trying to cut the Beresford down to size.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Paul Harvey: Ave atque vale

The great radio broadcaster Paul Harvey died last night at the age of 90+. The airwaves are full of tributes today, and many obituaries can be found on the Internet. I will post later about my memories of his broadcasts and invite you to comment here with yours.

I hope he filled your ears with great stories, as he did mine.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Last night, I attended an interesting talk on the book Distracted by Maggie Jackson at the New York Society Library, a centuries-old institution on East 79th Street in Manhattan. Toward the end of the talk, a warm golden glow captivated me, shining out from the tall windows of the apartment house across the street. The lights of the Library bounced back, creating a nimbus around the window frames.

A vignette from long ago: Gaslight streams from windows in an expensive flat. The family sits down to dinner now that Father is home from business. The older children dine with their parents as servants bring the courses, one at a time. Mother is still young and beautiful, her hair in a Gibson. Night moves in. A baby cries, cranky and colicky. The meal continues as Mother becomes alarmed about the ferocity of the baby's cries. Then, silence -- the nursemaid must have calmed the fretful child. Mother speaks in a low voice about nothing much; father replies; the baby cries again, louder.

Now Father is restless, unnerved by the noise. The older children watch him and then turn to Mother as she rises from the table. "I'll go tend to Baby," mother says. "Perhaps she is feverish." Custard is served but Baby's cries become stronger. "Fetch Dr. Clark," Mother says as she rushes back into the room. "Fetch the doctor now." Father runs out the door as the older children sit still and silent. "Hurry," Mother says.

Oh, the street was full of ghosts last night.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mixed-up Pies

This evening, I searched for the perfect dessert for tomorrow's Oscar night party -- Feb. 22. Why did I find only one cherry pie but stacks of pumpkin at my local market? Is everyone celebrating Washington's birthday this year? Or are the bakers planning for an early Thanksgiving?

Come to think of it, I haven't seen one Oscar-nominated movie! I have indeed fallen behind the times.

A Riot of Snowdrops

Found on a stroll through Central Park earlier this week. What a wonderful surprise! Photo: M.A. Dering.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Better than Breadcrumbs

If you're lost in Central Park, head for the nearest lamp post.

Chances are, it will look like one of these: The first pair of numbers indicates the closest cross-street; the last two digits are Park serial numbers.

The old lamp post on the left tells you that you're near 71st Street; the newer, less gracious, model on the right shows that you're closer to 72nd Street. With that in mind, you can find a landmark (skyscrapers, statues, ball fields), head west into the sunset, or follow the traffic on the foot path if it's rush hour. Odds are, you'll reach either Fifth Avenue or Central Park West and can move on from there. The Park is also full of good maps and helpful pedestrians, so don't be shy.

Here's a helpful landmark. He towers above the Park and can be seen from a distance. If you see Daniel Webster's face, you'll know you're pointed west toward 72nd Street.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rockefeller Center Revisited

Here is the entire array of fourteen heraldic shields above the entrance to 20 West 51st Street. My thanks to John Shannon, Chairman of the Heraldry Committee, NYG&B, for this photo. See yesterday's post for the full story.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Medieval Art Deco

Last May, I led a walking tour of Rockefeller Center, focusing on its heraldry. In addition to the traditional (though subdued) English and French coats of arms, I found an intriguing heraldic grouping above the West 51st Street entrance to the International Building. Designed by Depression-era artist Lee Lawrie, fourteen shields had been originally designed to carry the arms of specific countries. However, along the way, Lawrie was instructed to make them more abstract and generalized: the colors were muted to fit the Art Deco palette of Rockefeller Center, the individual elements became starker, and none of the fourteen shields represented any country or family.

In her excellent book The Art of Rockefeller Center (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), Christine Roussel explains: “The 20 West Fifty-first Street entrance required embellishment to maintain consistency with the rest of the Center, but to endow it with specific elements seemed too explicit and might limit the rental market.” The final rendering of the shields, completed in 1937, implied “history and internationalism without being explicitly devoted to one part of the world or any one country.”

What do you think of these designs? If you’re new to the study of heraldry, you might find the following website interesting: Glossary of Heraldic Terms . In my opinion, the shields pictured here, courtesy of heraldist Paul Campbell, are the most compelling of the group. But see for yourself the next time you’re in Rockefeller Center.

P.S. My tour was co-sponsored by the Committee on Heraldry of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society and the College of Arms Foundation, Inc. If you’d like information on heraldic activities in New York, post a comment below with your email address and we’ll return your message post-haste.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cheap but Cute

When I lived in Morningside Heights, I asked the landlord to paint my kitchen walls yellow. Bam! The paint was so bright that my roommates and I decided to tone it down by covering it up. We created a giant collage from wine bottle labels, all kinds, bright, dull, some with pictures of grapes or gorgeous sunlit landscapes. Some lured the eye with beautiful script while others were plain and square.

Once a month, we invited guests to a Sunday night dinner and asked them to bring wine. We carefully steamed off the labels, pasted them onto a giant piece of poster board, and remounted it on the wall next to the tall white metal cabinet. That collage was as beautiful as a japonaise box of costume jewelry I discovered when I was six.

Bright spots in a difficult world.

Queen of Hearts

I will never, ever read the cards again. An old Bulgarian woman passed down the secret to her granddaughter, who taught it to me. For a while, it was fun -- love, money, promotions, inheritances -- no fortune was bad.

I agreed to read the cards again on a lovely spring night. A few friends and their friends stopped in for an after-dinner drink. We talked about summer vacations, parties on Long Island, where to get the best food. Then someone announced that I read cards. All right -- I did it once or twice, then called it quits. But, Manhattan being Manhattan, "no more" was not an answer. I dealt one more array, three rows of three ordinary playing cards, for a young woman. She was there with her fiance, a handsome young man standing near the door.

Take a breath. Last time tonight. I lit the pyramid candle, sat down on the floor, and dealt the cards. The young woman sat across from me, cross-legged, twisting a lock of hair. "Now clear your mind and watch as I turn up three more cards," I said. She obeyed. I told her a few frivolous things and then asked her to think of a question. "Something you'd like to know ... anything at all." The young woman closed her eyes. In an instant, the room grew larger, the door taller. I fell into dark water. "I'm so sorry that your parents are getting divorced," I said.

Utter silence. Utter sadness. We said good-night and everyone wandered into the April evening, a Pandora's box, blossoms on the wind but storm clouds on the horizon.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Very Persistent Child

Every now and then, I collect a ghost story. This one is from the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Thirty years ago, a newly-married woman -- let's call her Prim -- moved into a spanking new apartment building on the Upper West Side. Her study windows faced a much older building, the Dakota, a gem from the 1880s. The problem with the bright new building was that it had a very old, not-so-pleasant ghost.

Eating toast in her kitchen one morning, Prim smelled smoke. She ran into the living room where she saw the cut-crystal cigarette lighter shooting flames into the air. Prim ran to the coffee table, snapped the lighter shut, and opened the window. The faint sound of children playing calmed her down, and she continued on with her day.

The next afternoon, Prim heard her bicycle bell ringing. The bike was upended and stored in the hall closet, surrounded by the usual clutter. The tinkling stopped as soon as Prim opened the door. After that, the tiny bell would ring again and again, usually in the morning.

Finally, Prim decided to move. On her way to look for packing boxes, she stopped for coffee in a long-gone pastry shop. One of her friends asked what was wrong -- poor Prim must have looked spectral herself. She told her friend about the fire, the bell, and strange knocking sounds in the living room. "Time to move," she said. "My husband never hears these things, and he thinks I'm going crazy."

Her friend stared. "Wait a minute, don't you live near the Dakota?" "Why, yes," Prim replied. "You know that." "But you didn't tell me that you were so close!" "Uh, no, why would that matter?"

"Because, silly, your apartment must be on the spot where the playground was! I've heard about this before -- the children in the Dakota were very upset when they lost it."

"Maybe so," Prim answered, "but this child is beyond upset. He's getting malicious!"

"It's the little girl," the friend said. "She tripped and fell over some bricks and hit her head when the new building went up. I don't think she ever was the same afterwards. Her parents took her away, upstate, and I think she died in Syracuse."

"Well, what's she ... I mean, her ghost ... doing back down here?" Prim replied.

"Probably wants to go out and play."

"So what do I do?"

Her friend smiled. "You need to ask her, politely, to leave you alone. Perhaps she'll respond to kindness. Maybe you need to tell her that you didn't take her playground away."

Prim still lives in that building. Every now and then, she hears the faint sounds of children playing from somewhere deep in the alleyway between the buildings.