Monday, July 27, 2015


Evening is coming fast, and the great city is blazing there in your vision in its terrific frontal sweep and curtain of star-flung towers, now sown with the diamond pollen of a million lights, and the sun has set behind them, and the red light of fading day is painted upon the river - and you see the boats, the tugs, the barges passing, and the winglike swoop of bridges with exultant joy - and night has some and there are ships there - there are ships - and a wild intolerable longing in you that you cannot utter.

(from the short story No Door by Thomas Wolfe)

This excerpt from No Door seems to take place at a home in Brooklyn Heights on the palisade that faces the old docks on the East River and the skyline of lower Manhattan.  It’s the place where photographers take those panoramic photos of Manhattan for postcards and posters.  There’s a park with a wide sidewalk with benches.  You saw it in the movie Moonstruck when the grandfather took his dogs to howl at the moon. Nannies take children there in strollers and prams during the day.  Lovers patrol at night.

Of course, at the time Wolfe was describing the East River docks, there was still a great deal of manufacturing in Brooklyn, and the waterfront was much different.  There were many ships moving in and out of the docks with longshoremen on the wharves loading and unloading goods stored in the warehouses that are now renovated into condominiums.  

While he was writing the novel, Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe lived at 5 Montague Terrace, directly across the street from the houses that line the palisade (W.H. Auden lived two doors away at 1 Montague Terrace).  These houses were built by Wall Street tycoons who thought it more convenient to take the ferry to the Manhattan Battery in the morning than to drive down to Lower Manhattan from a house on Fifth Avenue. After the 1929 crash, many of the houses were abandoned, boarded up.  Brooklyn itself fell into a decrepit state and didn't recover until the 1980s.

But Wolfe was not living in Brooklyn Heights when he wrote No Door.  At that time Wolfe was living in the basement of a house at 40 Verandah Place.  The area was referred to as South Brooklyn then.  Modern realtors renamed it Cobble Hill.  Here’s what Thomas Wolfe wrote about his basement apartment on Verandah Place:

Well, you say, living alone in South Brooklyn has its drawbacks.  The place you live in is shaped just like a Pullman car, except it is not so long and has only one window at each end.  There are bars over the front window that your landlady has put there to keep the thugs in that sweet neighborhood from breaking in; in the winter the place is cold and dark, and sweats with clammy water; in the summer you do all the sweating yourself, but you do plenty of it, quite enough for anyone; the place gets hot as hell.  (from No Door)

In the photograph, you can see that the basement windows on the homes on Veranda Place are about 8 inches tall.  One hopes that the ceilings are higher because Wolfe was 6’5” and liked to stand as he wrote, using the top of his refrigerator as a desk top.

Thomas Wolfe captured New York more passionately than any writer I can imagine, describing mundane places, like the subway, with such accurate intensity that it can be felt as well as imagined:

Thus we streamed down from the free night into the tunnel’s stale and fetid air again, we swarmed and hurried across the floors of gray cement, we rushed and pushed our way along as furiously as if we ran a race with time, as if some great reward were to be won if we could save two minutes or as if we were hastening onward, as fast as we could go toward some glorious meeting, some happy and fortunate event, some goal of beauty, wealth, or love… (from Death the Proud Brother)

Thus, he engages us in the frenetic pace of the city.

The Parks Department gives literary walking tours about Brooklyn.  You can find more about the tours here:

post by Alana Cash

Saturday, July 18, 2015


In the summer, the Parks Dept. of New York offers all kinds of free entertainment – Central Park offers Shakespeare in the Park, concerts and a one-day Jazz Festival among other events.  I went to one concert in Central Park.  It was too much like going to a baseball game with people milling around, coming and going all the time – hardly worth the effort or expense.

I much preferred the Celebrate Brooklyn! concerts at the Bandshell in Prospect Park partly because I’m lazy – this being closer to home – and mainly because this was a smaller venue. Also FREE. The Bandshell was located at 9th Street and Prospect Park West, almost directly on the other side of the park from where I lived.  The days are really long in New York in the summer, so it was still light out when the concerts started and I rode my bike around Circle Drive to listen to the concerts from the road.  And it was perfectly safe to ride the bike back around Circle Drive when I was ready to go home

The Bandshell always had really fine artists performing [blue grass musician Rhiannon Giddens and Willy Nelson are a couple of the performers this summer] so it was really enjoyable.  The park personnel set up folding chairs roped off from the cheap seats (the grass).  They even had a seating chart, which I found amusing.    Generally the seats were filled, and there were loads of picnickers around them on blankets on the grass.  

None of the picnickers had a bottle of wine, like you might find at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, because it is illegal in New York to have an open container outside.  This includes your front porch, a backyard party, or hanging out of your own window.  Incredible as that seems, I learned about it when I got a “Summons” (a traffic ticket) once for riding my bike the wrong way on Circle Drive on a weekday at a time when the gates had been blocked so cars could not drive inside the park (Circle Drive is a one-way street surrounding the park).  At any rate, I had to appear at a special court to “answer” the Summons. 

A group of us were told to enter a room where a cop asked us if we wanted to pay the fine or go upstairs for a lecture and not pay the fine.  Those of us who were not in a hurry – which was almost everyone – chose to go upstairs.  When we were upstairs, another cop asked us what we had done to receive a Summons.  Everyone except me had violated the open container law.  One man stated he was on the sidewalk leaning on his own car.  Another said that he was at a party in a friend’s back yard and a neighbor had called the police about the noise.  When the police arrived, they told everyone to quiet down and they had to choose one person to get the Summons for the open container violation since they were drinking outside in the back yard.  I was astonished.

Here’s the best part – when the cop asked me to say what I had done and I said, “I was riding my bike going the wrong way in Prospect Park,” he said, “WHAT!”  Then, he dismissed my Summons (and everyone else’s too) and we all went home.  

Back to the summer concerts.  There were also concerts in Coney Island on Thursdays at an outdoor venue near the Cyclones Stadium.  They usually had vintage R&B bands and people actually danced.  I was only there once after spending time at the beach, and I don’t think they have those concerts in Coney Island anymore.

What they do have now at Coney Island is “Burlesque at the Beach.”  Folks take classes to learn how to perform burlesque with big feathery fans and whatnot, then at the end of their class, they perform at a sideshow on the boardwalk.  

You can find more about that here:

post by Alana Cash 

Monday, July 13, 2015


For me, the best festivals in New York are held at Italian churches – the Giglio Festival in Williamsburg, 
Brooklyn  (July) and the festival of San Genarro in Little Italy, Manhattan (September).  By far, the most exciting is the Giglio Festival which has been going on for almost 130 years.   The festival centers around a 72-foot statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that rests on a four-ton steel frame (more about this later).

I’m not Catholic, but this is the closest to an “Old New York” festival that I can imagine and I went to it every year.  First of all, an entire block of the street in front of the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel gets blocked off and then lined with booths selling all kinds of food and souvenirs.  Songs by Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Mario Lanza play all the time, except when a live band plays or during the “parade” of the Giglio.   

People who grew up in the neighborhood come from all over for a reunion with their neighbors.  In talking to them, I get a sense of what this part of Williamsburg was like fifty and sixty years before.  I heard about stickball games and who was a two-sewer hitter or even three-sewer hitter (hitting the ball past 2 or 3 manhole covers – which were 90 feet apart).  They talked about doo-wop street corner groups, some talked about the Dodgers and the Giants, others about how safe and clean it used to be.  You feel a loyalty, a sadness, a loss.

There’s a look to the people – a lot of the women have big hair and tight clothes, the men wear square-hemmed shirts that are not tucked in, and their hair is greased and combed back over their scalps.  One year I was there, a man dressed in soft yellow casual clothes stepped out of a black Mercedes.  People gathered around him, the men shaking his hand.  He was important.  Maybe a politician, maybe a community leader.  I imagined him as the don of the mafia that controlled that area.  I didn’t ask.  Why ruin a fantasy?

Every half hour, the statue is “paraded.”  A priest and a full band climb onto the steel frame.  The priest gives a blessing to the crowd.  Then a host of men surround the statue and pick up that four-ton frame on their shoulders to sally it down the block, grunting and straining.  The first time I was at the festival was the first time I heard someone say “Madon’ (a mild Italian curse that’s short for “Madonna”).  The rest of the crowd cheers them on.  The men parade the Giglio until they just about collapse – maybe 25 feet or so.  The next half hour when it’s time to carry the statue, a new group of men jump in to do it.

The festival lasts for several days, and I totally recommend going on the days or nights that the statue will be paraded.

More information here:

post by Alana Cash

Saturday, July 4, 2015


When I realized that Revolutionary War battles were fought on the same ground that I walked every day, and seeing the Statue of Liberty every time I took the subway over the Manhattan Bridge into Chinatown, Independence Day took on a new meaning.  To celebrate, I liked to stroll through Prospect Park where General Sullivan battled the British back while George Washington escaped across the East River into Manhattan.

The park streets are closed to traffic on holidays and weekends and instead are filled with bike riders (some of them travelling at Tour de France speed), as well as families with kids and strollers.  Some people liked to get out on the lake in paddle boats and canoes.  Some fished from the lakeshore – although I can’t imagine eating anything out of that lake.  The Prospect Park drum circle was active.  Extended families and their friends from all over Brooklyn arrived with barbecues and cooked from morning till the park closed at dusk.  

Down at Coney Island, the birth of our country is celebrated each year with the Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Championship.  The winners generally eat over 60 dogs, which is difficult to imagine unless you actually see it happen.  Hotdog eaters have to qualify to enter.  There are 12 cities around the country that have preliminary contests (mostly in June) and those winners go to New York for the national championship.  It’s a big deal.  There’s even a Hall of Fame.

Starting a bit before 10 pm, for the second year, there’s a fireworks display at Coney Island specially for 4th of July (there are regular fireworks displays every Friday on the beach at Coney Island during the summer, which is a great treat if you happen to be at Cyclone’s Stadium for a ballgame).  But I preferred to stand on the window seat in my apartment and watch the fireworks launched over the East River.

After the major (and legal) displays, fireworks continued to go off in the neighborhood until the early morning hours.  Some of them were possibly cars backfiring and some possibly gunshots judging by the constant sirens during the night.  But eventually, about 3 am, things got quiet enough to sleep.

post by Alana Cash