As a kid (and teen…and adult…), I dreamed of one day being a member of the Explorers Club. I mean, it only seemed natural they would want me. I’d done a pretty good job of exploring the hundred acres of undeveloped woods and caves comprising my grandfather’s property back in the day. Even still, with knowledge of the internal strife and mismanagement that has caused the glory to fade a bit, I still harbor images of reading accounts of the expedition of the Beagle whilst seated in an overstuffed leather chair surrounded by the artifacts of past adventures, occasionally interrupted by a mustachioed, pipe-smoking blowhard known only as “The Colonel” who will not shut up about the Yanomami. This summer, I got about as close as I’ll probably ever get to membership in the storied Club when I got to take a tour of their headquarters at 46 E 70th St. And while there was no The Colonel, and while crested blazers have given way to polo shirts, there was still a wonderfully cluttered array of random artifacts from past expeditions, many of them just sitting there — some of them still in common use — despite their historical provenance.
2015 marks Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Over on Alcohol Professor, I’ve chosen to commemorate The Chairman of the Board’s centennial with The Chairman, The Poet, and The Dancer, looking at the history of Jilly’s Saloon, the joint Sinatra used as his home base whenever he was in New York City and owned by Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra’s right hand man. When he retired and sold the restaurant, it passed into the hands of a trio of Russians — including a Nobel Prize winning poet and the most famous ballet dancer in the world — who turned it into a hotspot for Russian ex-pats, intellectuals, and artists. Oh, and Johnny Carson was almost assassinated there by an angry Mob boss. Because of its length, it’s being posted in two parts. Part two is available here.
Over on The Alcohol Professor, I’m writing about that time George Washington bro-hugged his generals and bid them farewell with tankards of ale and bowls of turtle soup. The Bar that Birthed America celebrates the storied history of New York City’s Fraunces Tavern. From the Sons of Liberty to George Washington’s party, from nearly becoming a parking lot to getting blown up by terrorists, it’s a stunning slice of American history and a lovely place to have a drink.
Another stroll through some of (but by no means all of) my favorite places in New York City, this time spread out across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and The Bronx (we’ll get to you, Queens; as for Staten Island, I’ll see what I can do). Another of the many things I like about this city — and really, about most places — is that it’s basically one big, open-air museum. Between free exhibits and things that are just on the street there to be witnessed, you can take in a tremendous amount of history, both mainstream and obscure, simply by doing a little research and walking down the block.
I have a new Frolic Afield up at my usual corner on Alcohol Professor. In a rare moment of timeliness, The Bar that Launched Pride is a look at the history of the Stonewall Inn and how a scummy shithole of a bar that blackmailed its gay customers became the rallying point for and birthplace of the LGBT rights movement in America.
I walk a lot. Because I am cheap, and because New York is a city that rewards the walker. I walk a lot and take a lot of pictures, because this is also a city that changes with a breathless, frighteningly rapid pace. Sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worse, but either way what once was probably won’t be for long, so you can always stick around for the next iteration if you don’t like what you see today. So here’s thirty scenes, photographed with no particular skill on my part, in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
My introduction to New York’s underground film scene came in the form of the “cinema of transgression,” as movement figurehead (eh, more or less) Nick Zedd dubbed it. Specifically, it came in the form of Richard Kern, whose crude, short films and videos were widely circulated on VHS in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was the work of Kern and Zedd that almost entirely formed my opinion of the movement, because that was basically all you could get. Film Threat magazine had taken an interest in Kern and released a number of his films on VHS. And so when it came to New York’s underground cinema, I knew what he and Zedd had done, which was sloppy, nihilistic, destructive, ridiculous, angry, and absurd. It wasn’t until I moved to New York some years later that I discovered the depth of my ignorance, that Kern, Zedd, and the Cinema of Transgression were the second wave of the New York film underground, that they had grown from a whole group of films and filmmakers who have preceded them in the late 1970s.
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.