Circumstances have smiled upon me and I found myself with new and more gainful employment. I made the move from journalism to “the dark side” of public relations. My days are still filled trying to understand the minutia of financial terms and technological jargon, I’m just writing for a different audience.
The new job is a shorter commute and is in the Flatiron district of New York. It’s less than two blocks from Madison Square Park and only one block away from the 6 train. The office is in a small building on 24th Street. It’s convenient to both a 7-Eleven and a deli, and near a Baruch College building.
The new office is also only a few doors down from some kind of halfway house or rehab center. There’s no sign on the building indicating this, and a cursory web search of the address revealed nothing about its current use. You can tell what it is by the people who congregate outside and can be seen coming and going. Even before I discovered its location, I knew there was some sort of facility in the area because of the skels I would see on the street.
Skel is an antiquated term meaning street criminal but it’s a catch-all word that is used to include any kind of troubled sort given to criminality, and the homeless and mentally ill seemingly fit into this category.
It’s easy to pick out the skels on the street. They are dirty and wrinkled. They are not homeless-level dirty and don’t have the mile-away stink that typical street bums do. They do not carry around excessive luggage or tons of crap in shopping carts; they have a place to live. But street people have a way of standing out, at least in today’s less crime-ridden city. Twenty years ago things were different and many parts of the city were blanketed with homeless and other skels. Today Manhattan does not have too many poverty pastures. There’s still plenty of poor people in New York, but the space allowed for skels has diminished significantly.
When I worked in the lower part of midtown Manhattan about 12 years ago, the area was populated with a lot of street people. There was a methadone clinic across the street from the building where I worked and some kind of halfway house was not far either. One time I was on my way out of a Duane Reade drug store after buying a few things when a man and woman rushed up to the counter. The man was holding a $10 bill.
“I need change right away! I have to pay the taxi!”
“They’re going to send him to jail if he doesn’t pay!” his female companion said.
The clerks behind the counter shook their heads lazily.
There was no cab outside with an angry driver waiting.
Another time I was walking around on my lunch break and I saw a two men approach a man from behind, one flashed a badge and the two plainclothes cops took the man by the arms and pinned him against the building where I worked.
“Where’s the weed?” one of the cops asked him. I didn’t bother to stick around to see how this encounter ended. When I returned from my lunch break, they were gone.
There is both a Taco Bell and a White Castle on that block of 8th Ave. and 36th Street, which is heavenly unless you are so poor you really can’t afford either. I was coming off of more than a year of unemployment and I was so poor that my lunch sometimes consisted of the free snacks that the failing company offered. Still, the kinds of human abominations that frequented the area were seemingly from a different era. A woman complained to her friends about not getting what she needed from the methadone clinic. Random skels shouted their opinions for the world to hear.
Despite the improved conditions in the Big Apple over the last 20-plus years, New York is still famous for its seedy element. Before it was populated with fancy hotels and trendy restaurants, The Bowery was famous for its many flop houses, where people paid low rent to live in rooms no bigger than a jail cell. It was a world-famous refuge for drunks, drug addicts and criminals and there are still some homeless charities left on The Bowery, which is also known for its stores that providing lighting and restaurant supplies.
The residents of the nearby halfway house are easy to spot. They are dirty and disheveled. But even if you cleaned them up and dressed them in tuxedos and ball gowns, they would still stand out because they’ve acquired such gaunt features and acquired the mannerisms of the permanently destitute.
People often wear their desperation outwardly, and for the lifelong criminal and drug addict these are impossible to hide. Despite all of their efforts, you can hear the junkie quavering in their voice, sense the hurting shiftiness in their eyes, and know to avoid them.
Sometimes you can get fooled, but not for long. One time a man in a suit waved to me and held out his hand to shake mine. He looked a lot like someone I knew so I assumed I knew him and that I had forgotten his name, which I do all the time. Once he started talking though, he started blathering on about his wife being somewhere and he needed money for a cab etc. Damn, I got suckered into listening to a panhandler. I didn’t give him any money but felt like a sucker anyway.
No matter how real or sincerely someone may seem, you’re a damn fool if you give one cent to a panhandler. Even the most bleeding-hearted skel lover admits that the overwhelming majority of money you give to panhandlers goes to purchasing drugs and/or alcohol.
For some reason we allow people to live worse than animals on the streets and subways. If a dog looked and smelled like that, they’d be taken away and given shelter. Somehow it’s deemed liberating to watch people wallow in their own filth, but there’s nothing progressive or enlightening about it at all.
Eventually gentrification will continue and the city and private charities will realize they can generate more revenue for their cause by selling the valuable real estate they hold in Manhattan and move their services to less expensive neighborhoods.
There’s a belief among many artists and poets that the destitute and poor some kind of unique insight or soulful legitimacy. Since they are not blessed with American success they are not cursed by it, or so the logic goes. But you’ll find that most bums on the street are just that: bums. They’re every bit as shallow and ignorant as the douchebag financier or the fashionable hipsters we love to hate.
The world will never be rid of street people. New York’s dwindling clans of them are still around, but their roaming grounds have been sharply reduced and can’t support as large a population.
Years ago, when I worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport, I would sometimes encounter celebrities that would come through my line. The first one I remembered was Joan Collins. People I mentioned this too asked me if I remembered what her actual birth date was from looking at her passport, but I didn’t pay it much mind. She was very well dressed and seemed very polite and proper.
Among the other celebrities I has pass through my line were Sting, Geoffrey Rush, George Clinton, Sally Jesse Rafael and Brian Cox. I also met the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who were very nice. When I told Graham “Suggs” McPherson, singer of the band Madness, that I liked his music, he replied, “You have a good memory.”
But by far and away the best celebrity encounter I had at JFK Airport was the actor Geoffrey Holder.
Working at JFK Airport was actually a big drag. Things changed a lot after the September 11 attacks, so I can’t attest to what the job is like today. But the pre-September 11 era was a miserable place where inspectors often worked seven days straight and could be held for mandatory overtime with no notice given.
I was so unhappy working at JFK that I lived in a state of near permanent miserable anger. Any sign of other people’s happiness made me immediately angry and resentful.
I was coming to tend of my day at the old T.W.A. terminal, thinking that the most recent flight was done processing and I could prepare to go home. I was still in my booth when I noticed people from the airline wheeling a passenger in a wheelchair directly towards my booth. The passenger was singing.
‘What kind of horrible freak are they bringing me,’ I thought to myself—indeed, my resentment of all things happy even extended to the elderly and disabled.
The airline escort wheeled the passenger into my booth and he put his paperwork on my counter. He was a green card holder from Trinidad and once I saw his name I knew exactly who he was: Geoffrey Holder.
Geoffrey Holder spent most of his long entertainment career on stage as a dancer, actor and director. He was one of the lead actors in the first all-black production of ‘Waiting for Godot,’ a choreographer for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, a Tony-Award winning costume designer and successful painter. He was the bodyguard Punjab in the 1982 version of ‘Annie’ and may be best known for 7-Up commercials he made in the 1980s. He was characterized by his height (he was six-foot-six) and his deep, Caribbean voice.
Geoffrey Holder was also one of the best James Bond villains in history, playing Baron Semedi in the 1973 Bond film ‘Live and Let Die.’ Being a Bond villain counts as movie royalty in my book.
“Are you the actor?” I asked him.
“Well it’s very nice to meet you. I’ve very much enjoyed your work.”
“Thank you. And thank you for paying my rent,” he said, and then let out a big and sincere booming laugh that I couldn’t help but share with him.
Our business together was finished quickly. I stamped his documents and handed them back to him or the airline employee who was escorting him. He thanked me, said, “God bless you.” And then was on his way. It was an encounter that changed my mood and brightened my whole day, and is one of the fondest memories I have of working at the airport.
Geoffrey Holder passed away recently from complications attributed to pneumonia. He was 84 years old. He was remembered for his many contributions to the stage and screen; Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in his memory.
New York is packed with celebrities, and the cool thing to do is pretend to not notice them and then tell all your friends about seeing them later. I had many New York celebrity sightings before and since, but Geoffrey Holder will always be my favorite and best.
The once-celebrated East Village bar the Yaffa Café announced that it is closing its doors for good. It was initially shut down in September by the Department of Health for health violations. The coverage sent up its standard lament; another “iconic” landmark crushed by cruel fate.
It’s a familiar pattern now. A well-known music venue, bar or restaurant announced its closing and there’s a chorus of objection to it, a scolding clucking about how shameful it is and how the city isn’t what it used to be. But this is a pattern that’s been going on since the 1600s.
Many friends and colleagues are correct when they say that small businesses closing represents a danger to the soul of New York. But let’s also remember that constant change and reinvention is also a part of the soul of New York.
While we ought to make sure small businesses have a fighting chance, we also must be careful not to fall victim to the poison of excessive nostalgia.
Nostalgia is deadly because it leaves people to believe that the best part of their lives are behind them. I don’t care if your eight or 80, if you’re not looking forward to something in the future, you’re not really living life. The promise of something in the future is what keeps people alive.
If any place can’t maintain its relevance for its ever-changing clientele, then it’s simply running on the fumes of nostalgia. The fumes of nostalgia may start off smelling sweet, but are composed of an underlying rot.
New York exists in its current form today because it is unforgiving and values nostalgia very little. The constant churn of commerce is always inquiring: ‘What have you done for me lately?’
I was among the chorus of voices that bemoaned the loss of CBGB’s seven years ago. The famous club helped birth punk rock and when I played there with Blackout Shoppers at our very first show in 2004, it was a dream come true. I saw many great shows there and had many good times and memories. But CBGB had not kept up with the times or even lived up to its own history. Bands who got their start there chose not to return and played other clubs in the area. The Ramones played their last New York shoes at a venue called Coney Island High, also long gone, which was a few blocks away from CBGB. The throngs of people who crowded into the club during its last days were curiosity seekers and tourists, people seeking to tap into nostalgia for its own sake, darkening its doors during its death throes so they could boast that they had been there.
So let it be with the Yaffa Café. I went there once when I was younger and I thought the place was overwrought and pretentious, and this was a time in my life when I was happy to put on airs as a hopeful young writer and therefore had a higher threshold for overwrought pretension.
Places like the Yaffa Café attract people who don’t so much want to live the life of a writer or artist as much as they want to play-act being a writer or artist. Ernest Hemingway went to the cafes of Paris because he was dead-broke and those cafes were dirt-cheap. Hemingway is celebrated today not for the time he spent time at a café but because of the time he spent at his typewriter.
I enjoy sidewalk cafes to a certain point, but squeezing my overweight frame into a tiny, crowded space so I can imagine I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald is a ridiculous idea. A writer or artist is too busy writing or making art to invest a lot of time on nostalgia.
The White Castle in Williamsburg has done a greater public good than the Yaffa Café in my opinion. Its demise is the one that ought to be mourned. I’ll indeed miss filling up on delicious White Castle burgers when I am in Williamsburg, but I can’t begrudge the decision by the owners to sell the place. They knew that they’d make more money selling the land to condo developers than they’d make selling burgers, and it followed that it made more sense. It’s a for-profit business; they weren’t giving away burgers for free.
I’m sure the Yaffa Café had its strong points. If I remember correctly the coffee wasn’t half bad. But the past is littered with better businesses that could not stand the test of time. Let them all rest in peace.
About twelve years ago I was coming to the end of a long spell of unemployment. I had a job as a reporter/editor at an Internet publication that was on its last days. The publication’s offices were in a building in Hell’s Kitchen that also housed garment district sweatshops and offshore Internet gambling companies. There was a methadone clinic across the street.
I had to do a phone interview for a job with an editor on the West Coast. Since I didn’t want to be interviewing for another job right at my desk at my current job, I had to go find a pay phone. I finally found a pay phone and called in from a busy Manhattan street.
Making a phone call in late 2002 outside your home in New York without a cell phone meant going on a search for a pay phone and then praying that it worked. I would sometimes search blocks and blocks for a phone only to find one that was destroyed by vandalism or had one number button that didn’t work
I had to raise my voice at times to be heard over the many sounds of New York on a busy afternoon. It was December and my hands were numb from dialing the phone, which I couldn’t do with gloves on. I had to continuously dial the phone because they were somehow set to disconnect every few minutes, despite the fact that I was using a calling card and had plenty of time.
I vowed that if I got the job, one of the first things I would do would be to spend whatever money it took to buy a cell phone. I was one of the last of my circle of family and friends to buy one, but I’ve not been without once since.
About seven months into being the proud owner of a cell phone, that cell phone was relatively useless during the Northeastern blackout of 2003. Cell phone towers became overloaded by the surge in users trying to use their phones in the emergency. It was the last time I saw people lined up on the sidewalks to use pay phones.
Today pay phones are an even greater rarity. I’ve kept up with technology and have used smart phones for nearly four years now, though was still proudly among the last among my friends to get one.
I haven’t tried to use a payphone in well over a decade, but the blackout of 2003 showed us that pay phones are still needed. We need to have reliable payphones simply from a public safety standpoint. Not just if there is a large disaster that causes cell phone towers to be overloaded, but for crime victims and others involved in emergencies who need to call for help. Not everyone has a working cell phone on them at all times, and if someone is robbed, you bet that their cell phone is among items stolen.
There are 8,931 working payphones within the five boroughs as of the end of this past June, according to the New York City government. Most of those (5,205) are in Manhattan (Staten Island has only 63!).
But these numbers are still declining fast. There were more than 11,200 payphones still working in January 2013. We’re losing more than 1,000 working public telephones every year.
And while pay phones may seem to our more plugged-in generations like antique reminders of times past akin to gas lamps or horse-drawn carriages. There are still people (at least 25% of the world’s population) who can’t afford or don’t have cell phones. And from a safety standpoint, you should know where the nearest payphone is in case of an emergency, just like you should know where the nearest fire exit is.
So let’s begin an effort to take note of places where working pay phones still exist. Leave a comment (with a photo if possible) of a pay phone you know that works.
A few months ago I discovered a working payphone on the second floor of the Aretsky’s Patroon Townhouse restaurant on East 46th Street between Lexington Ave. and 3rd Ave. in Manhattan. It is even set in an old-style booth with borough-specific phone books set into an adjoining wooden counter. Classy.