A light dusting of snow danced in swirling eddies across the sidewalk as we waited for the rumbling old elevator to arrive and admit us into its dark, wood-paneled interior. The operator nodded wordlessly to us, slid the door closed, and threw the lever that sent us upward in that creaking, moaning, shaking box. After what seemed an impossibly long and precarious ascent, the lift finally stopped and, just as wordlessly as he’d greeted us, the elevator operator bid us adieu and left us standing in a foyer lit by the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs. A row of wooden telephone booths lined one wall, and the sound of a little big band working their way through a Kay Kyser tune drifted to us on wisps of blue smoke coming from somewhere down a dark hallway.
Kentuckians grow up with Stephen Foster. He wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” our state song, and The Stephen Foster Story has been playing at My Old Kentucky Home State Park for over fifty years. Although “America’s first composer” was born in Pennsylvania and later lived in Ohio (albeit in Cincinnati, which is just across the river from Kentucky), he is by right of his music an honorary Kentucky boy and a part of the fabric of the state. I’d been taught his songs since I was old enough to learn — “My Old Kentucky Home,” of course, but also “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” They’re what we learned in elementary school music class when we weren’t mangling “Greensleeves” in accompaniment to a classmate awkwardly tooting it out on a recorder. I had no idea until recently that he lived — and died — just a stone’s throw from where I work now in New York City, on a block that is packed with New York history both glamorous and sordid.
New York is one of the oldest cities in the United States, and its most populous. So it’s no surprise that among our eight million residents are more than a few ghosts. Our ancient (well, for America) brownstones and Revolutionary War mansions, our cobblestone (or potholed to the point of seeming cobblestone) streets, and our occasional nightmarish gambrel rooftops host a number of spooks and specters, many of them famous in life, some famous only in death. From the ghost of a Ziegfeld Follies girl to Mark Twain’s House of Death, here are some of my favorite New York haunts.
If you brave the tourist-chocked nightmare that is the Penn Station/Madison Square Garden area of Manhattan and manage to push your way through the throngs of dazed people waiting for the budget Bolt Bus lined up along 33rd Street, and look for the small sign next to the larger signs for psychics and porno videos, you will find 421 7th Ave — Fantasma Magic. Through the nondescript office building lobby, on the 3rd floor, you will find a phantasmagorically decorated hallway lined with posters and reflective wallpaper that leads you to Fantasma’s small but absorbing Houdini Museum of New York. Inside, clerks and local magicians hang out with visitors at the counter, showing off and sometimes even exposing the secret behind sleight of hand magic tricks. Lining the walls is a small wealth of Houdini memorabilia. More is stored in a couple glass display cases. And the far wall showcases, among other things, some of the props from Houdini’s greatest escapes and even includes an animatronic Houdini that will escape from a straight jacket for you.
This past weekend offered a rare respite from our recent rainy weather. And speaking of rare, we got the rare opportunity to visit one of the jewels of off-limits subway lore: the abandoned City Hall station in Lower Manhattan. The station was the first station on New York’s brand new subway line. As such, it was designed to be particularly showy. Designed by Rafael Guastavino, the station opened on October 27, 1904 as the southern terminus of the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit). It boasted Guastavino tile, skylights, stained glass, and brass chandeliers. Unfortunately some years later, transit passengers began to favor the much larger, nearby Brooklyn Bridge station. Because the City Hall station was built as a loop, it could not be easily expanded to compensate for larger crowds or extended to serve Brooklyn. And the curved track left a precarious gap between the train and the platform. Use of the station declined, until it was finally closed on December 31, 1945.
On Memorial Day Weekend 2013, we had the chance to go on one of the many neighborhood walking tours conducted by the NYC Tenement Museum. It was a cold and sporadically rainy day, but that didn’t stop every tour that day from selling out — something I gather is the case pretty much every weekend, so if you want to go on one, book ahead. We chose The Lower East Side: Then and Now, which focused on the ways in which the architecture and ethnic make-up of the neighborhood has changed over the years. It was a fantastic walk despite the weather, and well worth the price of admission.
It was a gorgeous day today, so it seemed a good opportunity to take the camera out on my lunch break and snap a few shots of the gargoyles hanging out around my office at Astor Place in Manhattan. So I wandered up and down Lafayette and Broadway between Great Jones and the south end of Union Square to see what I could find.
I am a huge fan of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Well, I am a huge fan of the first three books, tolerate the fourth, and consider the fifth one of the worst books I’ve ever read — but I am still qualifying myself as a huge fan since I am looking forward to the rest of the series regardless of my displeasure with A Dance with Dragons. But I am also cheap and slow, so I have yet to watch any but the first episode of HBO’s adaptation, A Game of Thrones. I keep meaning to, but then I just end up watching another season of Starz’ Spartacus instead. But when HBO and local villain Time-Warner Cable announced an exhibit of props from the show as part of the push for the new season, I was interested enough to go. Unfortunately, so was most of the rest of New York.
This is the first of what will be many random summaries of wandering and day-to-day adventures. I tend to get bogged down in research and endless expansion of scope when it comes to writing about the strange and entertaining sights across which I stumble (or deliberately seek out) throughout the week, which results in articles never actually getting posted. These frolic write-ups are summaries, really, with minimal background information or historical context. Some of them will be expanded upon later, and others don’t really afford much expansion. But they will be presented here so that we may, together, enjoy frequent romps through whichever city, town, or wilderness in which we happen to be wandering.
February 21′s Good Spirits represents the second Edible magazine event I’ve had the chance to attend, the fourth time they’e done this particular event, and for my money they put on one of the best and best-organized food and drink events in the city. This year’s event was held at 82 Mercer, and only twice in my preparation did I pause and stupidly ask myself what their address was. It’s a nice space with two cavernous rooms which, for this event, were lined with tables staffed by some of New York’s most interesting food, spirits, and cocktail makers. It’s almost overwhelming the amount of food and drink available for the sampling, but Edible organizes their events in such a way that, even with a large crowd and a lot of vendors, it’s easy to both gauge what you want and actually get to it. A lot of food and drink events are circus disasters, oversold, jammed too full of attendees, and impossible to move around during. Not so here. I know talking about crowd control and logistics isn’t terribly exciting, but when you’ve been to enough events that don’t have these things down, you suddenly realize how important it is and how much more enjoyable it makes an event.