May 10, 2011
In the world of Landlord/Tenant law, at least in NYC, there is a saying, “the worst landlords are tenants.” When a tenant sublets their apartment, the opportunity has proven ripe to act like a desperate know-it-all dumbass. In the L/T law office where Campus Whits has labored, we have had some obnoxious cases. In one instance, a friend of the landlord’s young daughter was given a sweet deal on an apartment in the West Village, only to abuse the favor by then secretly subletting the place at a much higher rent. It wasn’t secret for long, the woman was a total spoiled knucklehead, and matters settled in Housing Court, where she flirted with attorneys. Anyhow, the first crime committed was that of the landlord’s unctuous nepotism… In another case, a deadbeat tenant was living in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment. The ex had since moved overseas and abandoned the place. Our office moved to evict the deadbeat, who was advised of the date when the eviction would occur. The city marshal showed up and found a new tenant just moved in. It turned out that the deadbeat had sublet the place and hightailed it out of there before the eviction date. The new tenant was clueless and flipped-out, but at least now has a great New York story to tell friends and family.
Campus Whits has lived in many NYC apartments over the last 14 years, and can vouch the basic human law that sublets usually end ugly. Sometimes, as a doubledecker bus tour guide, dealing with tenants who think they are landlords is like dealing with passengers who think they are tour guides. An example is this past Sunday. On the Uptown Loop, which bowls through the Upper West and East Sides and Harlem betwixt, a Cuban family boarded the bus. I didn’t know the family was Cuban until later, but would not have otherwise altered the schpiel.
On the corner of 125th St. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. stands Hotel Theresa, a commanding white-bricked building designed in 1913 by architects trained in Paris, as was the trend in those pre-WWI years, and which proof is Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and the James Farley Post Office on 33rd and 8th Ave. As the Uptown Loop turns the corner, I tell the story of when Fidel Castro stayed at Hotel Theresa with his Cuban delegation in 1960, and how the story goes Castro was rejected from hotels in midtown because his entourage included 20 concubines and 50 live chickens. Castro was paranoid his meals might be poisoned, and so traveled with live cluckers to trust his food. “And we can only guess why the concubines, aha ha ha….”
When the Cuban family disembarked the bus, the father turned tour guide. He was a striking guy, in casual clothes, a hairless head, stocky like a deep-sea diver, and looked liked he could be one of The Expendables. Without a buck in the tip box, he gave another tip, that I had my facts wrong. His voice was booming and swift. He thought it was disrespectful to portray Castro as one who kept concubines and chickens as luggage, and the real story was that the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel originally rejected the delegation because its members included Cuban blacks. As a result, Castro was invited to Harlem. I tried to tell the guy that I knew the point was that the newspapers invented the story, but he only repeated his own schpiel, with utmost lack of humor, while his composed teenage son tried to pull him away, like any kid embarrassed by dad going off. The family headed out in the direction of F.A.O Schwartz before I could inform the patriarch I wanted to take his tour of Havana when next I was in town.
It wasn’t the Waldorf where Castro was rebuffed but the Hotel Shelburne. The Shelburne might have been racist. It was 1960 and much blood would be splattered before blacks could vote in the South without rednecks with bats and guns guarding the polls. According to The Secret Fidel Castro, by Servando González, the Hotel Theresa was a strategic locale for Castro, who sought to cast his cause as an incendiary kinship with black nationalism. Down the street “was Lewis Michaux’s African Memorial Book Store, the biggest black nationalist book store in the country. Around the corner was the Harlem Labor Center, a black militant organization.” The Cubans claimed the Hotel Shelburne was shaking them down for prohibitive hotel rates, like the way the Mafia exploits capitalism. Read about it here and here.
The story about the chickens and concubines was concocted by squibby journalists to humiliate Castro, or maybe to welcome the communist revolutionary to the vainglorious roil of the New York press. When Campus Whits makes it in the New York Post, it can only be hoped the story is extravagant bullshit. Wrong facts make a right tour – they are the scotched and blitzed ectoplasm of good stories. One cannot please everybody. Two years ago, a passenger from Alabama similarly questioned my historical accuracy. After I pointed out Grant’s Tomb as the resting place of the Northern general who won the Civil War, the Alabama man, in vintage twang, told me I got it all wrong. “The South didn’t lose the Civil War.”
Like Castro, my success as a leader, of people two hours on a tour bus ahem, relies on provocation and new ideas. Just the CIA never tried to poison my cigars so that my beard falls off.
March 30, 2011
My work with the James Forman Library is ongoing, and involves a term new to my vocabulary, “bio-bibliography,” which is the study of a person by way of their book reading, and the traces of their life’s work that can be found in the books they left, beginning with jottings, underlines, inscriptions, bookmarks, to get happy on the trust that these aims are true, painted from memory.
I have found several things so far that support the living interpretation of the collection, as in a signed copy of Toward Soviet America (1932) by William Z. Foster, a Communist leader in the 1920s who ran for President in the Jazz Age; and a copy of River of No Return, by Cleveland Sellers, a memoir of SNCC, and lengthily inscribed to Forman.
My focus is Forman’s collection of FBI reports – giant stacks of manila-backed papers compiled by J. Edgar Hoover’s crew-cut knights on SNCC, James Forman himself, and mid-20th century mob bosses like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Forman was a prolific chronicler of his own times, and studied the FBI reports as alternative, authoritarian versions of history – on which versions Forman called bluff.
Here is a page from Forman’s FBI Report, 1967, where Forman is introduced in terms of Hoover’s informant:
Here the G-Man assesses Forman’s psycho-political predicament:
Forman’s actions are cast in the mold of a master spy:
The FBI moves forward to make their subject an inFormant:
To study the “marginalia” of a reader’s book collection, one can never be sure whose marginalia it is. Avid bookbuyers often get the bug for the musty majesty of used bookstores, which are cheap and bountiful. A working survey of James Forman’s library, written last semester by QC bibliographist David Gary, finds that “most of the books were acquired second hand by Forman at used bookshops in Detroit, New York, Ithaca, and Washington,” and that he “also bought books that were sold by public libraries after weeding.” To authenticate the notations, one might get familiar with the subject’s reading, writing, thinking habits. Otherwise you could hire someone like Joe Nickell, an investigator of mysteries. Judging by several books in the personal collection of Campus Whits which have previous owners’ markings, it seems most readers stop underlining by page 20, especially if the volume was once assigned on the syllabus.
I worked at a used and rare book shop for five years in downtown Manhattan – the type of place James Forman might buy books. But in the used book market, marked-up copies lessen the value of the “piece.” When our shop bought the library of historian and fervent diarist Edward Ellis, alot of good books were sold cheaply because Ellis had a habit of highlighting passages with a yellow fluorescent pen. If anything, it would tell the bio-bibliographer how Ellis compiled his research, how and what information he valued as writer of history and as a prodigious jotter of his own times – and also that Ellis had little aesthetic for marginalia, since a yellow highlighter is about the most offputting of penscript.
One time, the shop had a copy of a rare Timothy Leary book, published in the heyday, which a curious browser was interested in but only because he liked how its former owner marked it up, with doodlings induced by a state of mind brightly bewizened by the brown acid. But we priced-up the book, at a bookdealer’s number, and the curious browser put it back. If it was five bucks we would have had a sale, but the book’s rarity outweighed any doodle depreciation. In both these cases, with the books of Edward Ellis and Timothy Leary, the value and lack of value of each book had equally nothing to do with its contents.
The writer Edmund Wilson, in 1926 (The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties), takes bookdealers to task for what he sees as their exsanguination of books. They are “the most blighting influence on the book shops,” who “traffic in first editions and other rarities.” Wilson is acrimonious in recognizing that “there are book galleries just as there are art galleries,” which are staffed by “old gentlemen with eyeglasses and ragged mustaches, who seem to live in a state of morose trepidation for fear somebody will ask them for a copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
If the biobibliographer of the year 2111 found my copy of Gaming: The Future’s Language (1974, Richard D. Duke), they might have been turned on to the hermeneutics of finding this clipping I recently found stuck in the pages of the book, for some reason:
As a NYC tour guide for Gray Line Bus Tours, I like to tell passengers that the city is not just the Big Apple, but also The Big Book, since while you’re here you get a story. So it was encouraging to find this Gray Line brochure from 2001, which trademarks the sentiment:
This book I found in the QC Special Collections room, which allows a peer into the third eye of design by which the QC campus has come to life:
December 12, 2010
The other day, while I walked along Worth Square, across Fifth Avenue from Madison Square Park, highly canvassed with European walking tours and lunch hour foot traffic in and out of the local outdoor bazaar, an old black man with a cigarette hanging from his lips coasted slowly on his bike through a crowd of streetwalkers. I saw him in my periphery wobbling over the walkway through the slow amblers, and suddenly he was addressing me, without swerving, “Watch where you’re walking homo boy, watch where you’re walking homo boy,” he taunted. Homo boy? I thought. I’ve been called a “homo” before, and “fruity,” and my former 80 year-old landlady once called me a “fairy bitch,” so the precedent of insult no longer regards my actual sexual preference, but others’ perception of my comportment as a styly guy. I did take offense though of being called a “boy,” and not a man, unless I am to extrapolate the homo part as Latin. The biker’s slow wheel scraped the heel of my shoe, doing no damage. He thought he could mimic the horsemanship of General Worth. Anyway, you can’t take seriously someone who smokes and bikes at the same time.
It is easy to cast a moral light on a subject in order to dispel the exploration of its stickier recesses. At the urge of Mayor Bloomberg, bike riding in NYC has increased, with miles of new bike lanes, hundreds of bike racks. It is part of the Mayor’s environmental initiatives, supporting the health of the air and of traffic. It is a good thing, surely, to get rid of garbage on river barges rather than trucks, or to ban smoking in restaurants (though eating in New York diners has never been the same without lighting up over a black coffee). But the right of bikers is also used by some to plow by pedestrians as if they have the right of way, since they don’t, and they shout like a berzerker’s warwhoop because they want everyone to know they aren’t going to stop. The bigger a thing becomes, the lower goes its IQ, like Disco or the American version of The Office. Thus the incident last year in Times Square when Critical Mass came riding down Broadway, and a uniform cop picked a harmless biker to brutalize. What better place to demonstrate the paradoxes of the mass mind than Times Square! A tourist happened to video the assault, which showed that indeed the harassment was unprovoked, and action was taken against the cop. Didn’t the cop know that Times Square is the most visually captured area on the planet? It is not only the Entertainment District, where New York City can gaze at itself basking in the lights and screens which are never turned off and the tourists aim cameras everywhere – but it is also the Information District.
At One Times Square, where the New Years Eve Ball is dropped and which is vacant but for Walgreen’s on the first floor, billboard rents command up to a quarter million cabbages per month, and the State of New York advertises its need of your gambling revenue at the “Racino:”
The New York Times were once headquarted in One Times Square, and the newspaper lent the square its name. The Times still reside off the Great White Way, which might inform a passage of The Gray Lady’s recent November election coverage:
“Overall, however, voters did not express any clear policy preferences that might help direct lawmakers…. They indiscriminately ousted Democratic incumbents who loyally supported Mr. Obama’s agenda… as well as lawmakers who carved their own path by voting against the president and the party leadership…. A number of ousted incumbents were centrists… leaving the Democratic caucuses not only diminished but more liberal.“
Tourism is up in the city, but not as many of them are riding the buses. Rockefeller Center, Times Sq. and Herald Sq. are all jampacked with people wired in to shop and gawk. Gray Line Bus Tours is losing steam. The new rumor is that they will not renew the lease on the headquarters at 777 Eighth Ave, and tour guides will have no theater in which to caucus and eat lunch. Tips are down. Tourists are getting harassed by the Evil Elmo.
I worked with a new driver who told me that, because of his prison record, he couldn’t get a job at Coach USA, a bus co. which like Gray Line is part of Twin America LLC. I asked him about it but he didn’t elaborate. He isn’t the only Gray Line employee who might have served time in jail, and there may be charitable light cast upon Gray Line – however dim – in its lack of discrimination in hiring ex-cons. I think Michael Milken works in Payroll.
Last month, Old Town Bar, on 18th Street between Broadway and Park Ave, celebrated the 100th birthday of its mens room urinals. As a recurrent drinker at Old Town Bar many times (it is featured in the classic New York movie, The Last Days of Disco) and have admired these historical artifacts, where Tammany wardheelers might have once made room for more beer.
As a countersignature to the supersonic land use of Times Square, it was a relief to read that Obama signed the CALM Act, which forbids wily advertisers to raise the volume of TV commercials above the volume of the broadcast program. Such subterfuge against the senses should never have been legal, and now saves one the trouble of hitting the mute button during cocktail breaks for Mad Men.
September 28, 2010
I started an internship last week at the Brooklyn Historical Society. I am not getting paid, and most likely not receiving credit towards my degree, but the internship is a currency worth more in value to my future than a paycheck. I am gaining my first experience in the archival world. I hadn’t been this nervous before a “first day” since taking the microphone and standing atop the red doubledecker bus for my first Downtown Loop, in 2004. Those jitters resulted from having to stand in front of an audience of 54 bus passengers for 3 hours, and come up with stuff to say about New York City along the route. It had nothing to do with any investment in a future career (in Western Europe, one must go to school in order to become a tour guide, but at Gray Line, one must simply have a pulse, which is what gives the job character).
Much has been made recently in the pop discourse about young people maturing later in life than they might have been expected to in previous generations, from cover articles in the New York Times Magazine to the subtext in the movie Cyrus. Baby Boomers have done a punchy job of stalling old age, like indulging youth-oriented market branding and co-opting the identities of subcultures. Boomers are as ubiquitous on Facebook as are 18 years olds. Anyhow, I am going back to school in my 30s in order to get “a real job.” And it is to impugn one’s good intentions to use the post-Bailout era as a justification to take an unpaid internship. As said, this is currency of delicate value to my livelihood. And the Brooklyn Historical Society building, built in 1881, is an inspired place to spend a Friday, good for the constitution. A magnificent Mauve Years terracotta emblazoned high-windowed Queen Anne monolith: antiquarian, resonant, invigorating, and itself archival. And even if I won the Lotto tomorrow, I would still give bus tours at Gray Line on the weekends.
Robert Shaddy, Professor and Chief Librarian at Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, made a guest appearance in class last week while our professor was off on some archival swashbuckling in South America. Dr. Shaddy was encouraging and eye-opening in his breakdown of the Special Collections at Rosenthal. I was especially piqued when he mentioned a potential new acquisition of materials to the Library’s theater collection: apparently the estate of Dom DeLuise, the portly and snide and nuanced comedian of the 1970s & 80s, wants to donate the actor’s theatrical materials to the College. Dom DeLuise was Burt Reynolds’ sidekick in the Cannonball Run movies, a Mel Brooks stock actor, and a regular zinger-slinger on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. Besides the scholarship of historical documents and the exegesis of rarefied information, this is the sort of thing that bolsters my decision to have entered library school.
I was not on campus when the tornado hit Sept. 16th. I stood on the 17th floor of the Croisic Building on 26th & Fifth Avenue, and watched from the window as the apocalyptic dark clouds rolled east over Manhattan. Dr. Ben Alexander, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Queens College Libraries, is requesting submissions of images of the campus that were captured during and after the storm. Contact Dr. Alexander at Benjamin.Alexander@qc.cuny.edu. I drove to a wedding in the Hamptons the next day, and saw all the fallen trees along the Long Island Expressway. Guests at the wedding who drove out the day before told stories of driving through the storm on the L.I.E., sharing lanes with maniac Queens drivers dodging tree trunks at 50 miles an hour. My neighborhood in Brooklyn, Clinton Hill, got lambasted by the storm – vans buried under uprooted umbrage and streets closed off – but I didn’t take any pictures.