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.

Loops & Booms

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  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.