Category Archives: my city and neighborhood

New Yorkers

 

 

I was on a bus in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago.

My eyes strayed to a seat across from me, and I saw that a young woman was smiling at me.

Beaming.

She had a five or six or year old boy in her lap. It was a bit different than holding a toddler in one’s lap. The boy was restless. But the mother and her son and seemed to be totally in sync.

“Is he going to school. Or he is too young for that?” I asked.

“No, he’s going to school,” she said, still smiling.

Then, I got off the bus. She waved at me and wished me a good day. It was as if we had been glad to meet.

This little encounter — unanticipated, most would say totally inconsequential — set me up for the rest of the day. It was as if somehow I had made her morning pleasurable. She certainly did that for me.

A reason I am writing about this is because this sort of thing happens to me very often in New York. I doubt such encounters would be as likely in the suburbs. (Certainly not if one were driving to work or an appointment.) Rubbing shoulders with others as a matter of course is something I love about living in NYC.

When I first moved to New York as a young man, everyone seemed to in a hurry, and the City seemed cold and impersonal.

It’s exactly the opposite. Many New Yorkers have told me that their experience has been the same.

 

 

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In his poem “Mannahatta,” Walt Whitman said something very similar:

 

Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and
steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender,
strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies, …
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d,
beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the
shops and shows,
A million people–manners free and superb–open voices–
hospitality–the most courageous and friendly young
men,

 

 

Roger W. Smith

December 2018

Sixth Avenue on a rainy afternoon; Herman Melville

 

 

 

Sixth Avenue 4-23 a.m. 11-30-2018

Sixth Avenue, New York City; Friday afternoon, November 30, 2018

 

 

I took this photo of Sixth Avenue on my way home on Friday afternoon.

It’s been raining a lot in the City this week.

Rain can be a slight inconvenience, like other weather phenomena, but I never really minded it. It can be “nice.”

When I was very young, my mother took me once to my eye doctor, Dr. Johnson, in Boston on a weekday. We went by subway.

The appointment lasted a long time. Going home in the late afternoon, it was dark and rainy. I didn’t mind. I loved having my mother all to myself. When we got home, she put me to bed. She was so kind. She kept saying that I was cold and wet and that I must be very tired: it had been such a long day and we got home late.

Re this photo of Sixth Avenue, this street scene, it reminds me of Herman Melville’s words (in Moby-Dick): “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

Thanks to the Good Lord that it came upon me once when I was first living in NYC to read Moby-Dick, in a library copy. What a book!

THE Great American Novel.

 

 

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Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; CHAPTER 1. “Loomings.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shorakkopoch

 

 

 

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Shorakkopoch (also spelled Shorakopok) stone; Inwood Hill Park, New York City

 

 

 

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SHORAKKOPOCH

 

According to legend, on this site of the principal Manhattan Indian village, Peter Minuit in 1626, purchased Manhattan Island for trinkets and beads then worth about 60 guilders.

This boulder also marks the spot where a tulip tree (Liriodendron Tulipiera) grew to a height of 165 feet and a girth of 20 feet. It was until its death in 1938 at the age of 280 years. the last living link with the Reckgawawanc Indians who lived here.

Dedicated as part of New York City’s 300th anniversary celebration by the Peter Minuit post 1247, American Legion January 1954.

 

 

 

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This marker is in Inwood Hill Park in Upper Manhattan, where I was walking yesterday. It’s a beautiful spot, and I can imagine what it was like for the Indians who lived there (sadly, once, no more).

The stone is easy to miss. It’s on one of the paths in the forested area of the park.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  November 28, 2018

 

New York sunlight (and New York joys)

 

 

 

“The grass that grows by absorbing the life-giving energy of the sun becomes [in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass] a metaphor of ‘the ceaseless springing forth of life from death.’” — David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman: A Cultural Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pg. 240

 

 

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My longtime friend Bill Dalzell, who for many years lived in New York City, introduced me to so many things when I first came to New York in the late 1960’s.

Among other things, Bill introduced me to cinema and art. We made several trips together to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bill, a New York transplant from a suburb of Pittsburgh, where he grew up, was — like many having adopted New York City as their home, including myself — an enthusiast of all New York had to offer. He knew all the inexpensive, interesting things to see and do in the City.

Bill used to say: “Would you care to hear me sing the praises of New York?” He used to marvel at the fact that so many people of all races and nationalities lived cheek by jowl in harmony. At the richness of culture. At the convenience of things such as getting around. At how much the City had to offer at what were then modest prices.

Admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was free. The main branch of the New York Public Library was open 365 days a year. The subway and bus fares were 20 cents. So was the Staten Island ferry, one of the fun, vivifying, and inexpensive things he enjoyed doing. (We would get off on the Staten Island side, walk around a bit, have a cup of coffee, and take the ferry back to Manhattan.) A meal of wholesome, plain food at the Automat (where Bill used to love to sit and drink coffee while lost in thought) could be had for less than a dollar. A glass of beer in a bar was 20 cents, and usually every third beer was on the house. Films cost less than two dollars. Rents were cheap. Bill paid twenty-nine dollars a month for a one-bedroom apartment on East 5th Street.

 

 

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Bill introduced me to the paintings of Edward Hopper, one of his favorite painters. (Hopper’s paintings are, for the most part, exhibited in New York museums.) Bill and I, at his suggestion, made a one-day excursion to Nyack, NY to view Hopper’s birthplace.

During our museum trips, he pointed out how Hopper made use of light.

“The light is different in America,” Bill would say. (He had traveled practically everywhere in the world on a limited budget.) By “different,” Bill meant brighter. More brilliant. Yes. Brilliant light. An observation which I do believe to be true. I have observed and thought about this often.

I have come over the years to be myself fascinated by light. Early morning light, daylight, late afternoon light. The light hitting the grass. Different shades of light and degrees of brightness. Summer light. Autumn light. Winter light.

While I would and could never aspire to be an artist — I have no innate talent and only a limited appreciation of the visual arts — I have been taking photographs in the City in parks, on the shorelines, and of houses and streets on my walks, I have posted below some photographs of mine in which an appreciation of sunlight as viewed from ground level is expressed in the photo. I am fascinated by the quality of sunlight in different seasons and at different times of the day.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2018

 

 

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Addendum:

 

Some relevant information about Edward Hopper.

Most of Hopper’s figure paintings focus on the subtle interaction of human beings with their environment-–carried out with solo figures, couples, or groups. His primary emotional themes are solitude, loneliness, regret, boredom, and resignation. He expresses the emotions in various environments, including the office, in public places, in apartments, on the road, or on vacation. … In many Hopper paintings, the interaction is minimal.

The effective use of light and shadow to create mood is central to Hopper’s methods. Bright sunlight (as an emblem of insight or revelation), and the shadows it casts, also play symbolically powerful roles in Hopper paintings such as Early Sunday Morning (1930), Summertime (1943), Seven A.M. (1948), and Sun in an Empty Room (1963).

Hopper always said that his favorite thing was “painting sunlight on the side of a house.”

Although critics and viewers interpret meaning and mood in his cityscapes, Hopper insisted “I was more interested in the sunlight on the buildings and on the figures than any symbolism.” As if to prove the point, his late painting Sun in an Empty Room (1963) is a pure study of sunlight.

 

“Edward Hopper,” Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hopper

 

It should be noted that the American landscape painter Winslow Homer did similar things with sunlight in his remarkable paintings.

 

 

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photographs by Roger W. Smith

 

 

1 - Woodside, Queens

Woodside, Queens

 

 

2 - Murray Hill

Murray Hill

 

 

3- Madison Square Park

Madison Square Park

 

 

Madison Square Park 2-23 p.m. 7-27-2018

Madison Square Park

 

 

4 - Central Park

Central Park

 

 

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Central Park

 

 

5 - Riverside Park

Riverside Park

 

6 - Inwood Hill Park

Inwood Hill Park

 

7 - Inwood Hill Park

Inwood Hill Park

 

 

 

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Isham Park

 

 

All of these photos were taken in New York City.

 

 

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Posted here below are some famous paintings of Edward Hopper that show his preoccupation with light and his mastery of representing it visually.

 

 

1-hopper-early-sunday2 - Cape Cod3 - stoop, summertime4- Cape Cod evening5- seven am6 - house by sea

 

 

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Edward Hopper’s birthplace

 

 

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Edward Hopper birthplace, Nyack, NY

some of my best friends …

 

 

 

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

“A watched pot never boils.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

“A stitch in time saves nine.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

 

AND

“Some of my best friends …”

 

 

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I grew up with these sayings, all of them except the last one.

These commonplaces are not indicators of stupidity or poverty of thought. There is much wisdom in them. Many of them were used by my mother.

 

 

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What about some of my best friends …?

First of all, it’s not an adage. It’s a cliché.

In the online Urban Dictionary, some of my best friends are … is defined as follows:

Something prejudiced people say when they’re called out on their prejudice. Smacks of tokenism and hypocrisy.

Person A: You can’t trust those goddamn crackers.

Person B: Don’t be prejudiced against white people.

Person A: Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are crackers.

It’s an oft ridiculed line, perhaps justly so.

But I would be inclined to take — at least in my own case (from which I would be inclined to generalize) — a contrarian view.

I would not be inclined to trot out the phrase. But, like the adages I quoted above, the phrase seems to contain some truth in it as a reflection of the actual experience of many people.

Which is to say.

Everyone has prejudices; no one is perfect. One can still hold — buried within oneself — prejudices toward certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups. Anyone who is honest about human nature will admit that they are hard to overcome.

It is true in my case, though people would not call me prejudiced or racist.

What I have found is that if one is honest about self-examination and introspective, one can find prejudices that one harbors. That’s where one might find oneself having a “some of my best friends” experience, though, in my case, I would be embarrassed to use the term; not inclined to do so for fear of being ridiculed.

 

 

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You may have limited experience of certain religious or ethnic groups. I did. I grew up in New England. Practically everyone was Christian, Protestant or Catholic; there was one black student, as I recall, in my high school; I had one Jewish friend (not a close friend); and I probably did not even know what the term Hispanic meant, having never met as I recall someone whose ethnicity was so designated.

I live in New York City now. I went to a liberal college with a majority of Jewish students. I have experienced ethnic diversity in the workplace and my adopted city.

Still, I harbor prejudices. And, my experience of some religious and ethnic groups has been limited.

But then you or I meet someone from one of these groups and the two of you have immediate rapport. The buried prejudices, old thoughts that you never quite dealt with, don’t matter. Experience for the moment has trumped old animosities, fears, resentments buried within you and directed toward an amorphous group, not toward individuals.

 

 

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A final thought. It doesn’t involve friendships, but it seems pertinent.

I love the ethnic diversity of New York City: the mixture of races and creeds and of the native and foreign born.

I often experience positive interactions with strangers. I can’t get over how helpful and nice people are in this big, supposedly impersonal city, where everyone is supposed to have little time for one another.

I try to — and in fact do — respond in kind.

These positive experiences — most often with people who are not of the same race, class, religious or national origins, and so forth — are incredibly edifying. And, what’s most significant, from the point of view of this post, is that they trump any need to address prejudice issues on an abstract level.

Abstractions become irrelevant. It’s the personal interaction in the here and now that matters, and one experiences a wonderful feeling of common humanity.

A dimension of actual lived experience I love. Because, as William Blake said: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer. …”

Translation (or should I say extrapolation): You will never be able to overcome prejudice in the abstract; you will — society will, can — on the individual and personal level.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

 

when a man is tired of New York …

 

 

“I suggested a doubt, that if I were to reside in London, the exquisite zest with which I relished it in occasional visits might go off, and I might grow tired of it. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ ”

— James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

 

 

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Does repetition imply, mean, or equate to: Boredom? Weariness? Dullness?

By which I mean repeated experiences under known circumstances, such as what one experiences when one lives somewhere for a long time, or a lifetime.

Some people think that variety is the sine qua non. (“Been there, done that.”) They are constantly seeking excitement in new venues.

This is not necessarily, or not always, wrong.

But consider the following reflections of mine, based upon my own experience in New York City, where I have lived for nearly fifty years.

 

 

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I have my favorite haunts: the New York Public Library (the research library) at 42nd and Fifth; Central Park; the Staten Island Ferry; the Strand Bookstore; Grand Central Station; Carnegie Hall. I discovered these places — and also discovered how much I liked them over time — through word of mouth though my own peregrinations and repeated visits.

I know the best routes to walk. Just which ones produce the most pleasant “jaunting experience.” Which Manhattan avenue to take, for example, depending upon my mood and other circumstances. The best ways to get from Queens or Brooklyn to Manhattan by foot, with the most pleasant (and, conversely, least pleasant) avenues, neighborhoods, or bridges to walk on or through.

I know who are the most helpful reference librarians at the New York Public Library. I know that the main reading room is the place for me and have a favorite place to sit there. I know which entrance is best to use and where the elevators are.

I know the best items to choose on the menu at one of my and my wife’s favorite restaurants (which, of course, reflects my own preferences).

I know how often and at what times Staten Island ferries run.

I have other favorite places and establishments. Continually going to them works for me, and it will work for you.

 

 

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I first met my lifelong friend Bill Dalzell, who recently passed away, in the late 1960’s when I was employed in Manhattan. I was new to the City, and it was one of my first jobs.

Bill, like most Manhattanites, had been born and raised elsewhere. He had come to New York City in the 1950’s, at around the same age as I was when we met.

Bill absolutely loved New York. (He did, at a later age, move elsewhere.) He was always singing its praises.

The things that appealed to him about the City also appealed to me. The sense of freedom — no one watching you and (possibly) expressing disapproval of your activities; the fact that you could live alone or be alone — that it would not be considered abnormal* and you could find plenty of things to do alone and keep you interested even if you had no one else to do them with; the walkable streets; the awesome cultural resources (films, theaters, museums, and libraries).

Bill had his favorite haunts: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Thalia and Elgin movie houses, the Staten Island ferry, the automat. Years later, having lived in New York almost continuously since then, I have my own favorite places and things to do.

Bill loved to go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art on weekends. Admission was free back then. Upon arrival, he would go to the cafeteria and sit there for a couple of hours with a cup of coffee, in contemplation. Then he would visit his favorite exhibits. He said that the museum seemed like a cathedral to him and that going there was his equivalent of going to church.

He exulted over the fact that the New York Public Library’s main branch was open (then) 365 days a year, even on Christmas Day!

 

 

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Inner peace. Contemplation. That’s what you experience when you are comfortable somewhere (such as the Met Museum cafeteria or some other place, such as a park bench or an automat), as was the case with Bill musing over his cup of coffee; when you feel you belong. Being comfortable with the externals, from repeated experience, you can relax and not worry about them. And, in New York one often gets this feeling: that you belong there as much as anyone else. Besides a feeling of belonging, the comfort comes from knowing what to expect. And being able to anticipate pleasure, which is almost a given.

What is it about such places that makes one want to return again and again?

One thing I would assert is that it’s an automatic thing — sort of like (to use a buzzword) being on autopilot. Once you start going someplace a lot, you feel, naturally, at home there. You know how to get the most out of it. You know just what things about it you like best and how to savor and enjoy to the fullest those things.

Let’s say it’s the library. You will have your favorite divisions and rooms (in a large library like the main branch of the New York Public). You may know of certain staffers who are particularly helpful. You may like certain places to sit or even certain corridors and stairwells to use.

Say it’s the Oyster Bar Restaurant in Grand Central Station. You know which entrees you like the most and which of the available draft beers, and what they cost. You have your favorite waiters. You know where and in which room you like to be seated, and whether at a table or a counter (and then, which counter? there are more than one). You know which point of entry from the labyrinthine Grand Central Station is most convenient.

In Central Park, there are certain walkways and paths I like to take.

I know which points along the Brooklyn Bridge I like the best (the boardwalk, for example); the best ways to approach it as a pedestrian walking in Manhattan; the most fun things to do (talk with people or just observe them having a good time, which one can enjoy vicariously; take pictures; sit on a bench on the boardwalk, etc.).

The Strand Bookstore? I know where I want to browse. I know when it is open. I know how the books are arranged and in what sections.

The New York City subways? (I didn’t mention them before). I know the best routes which involve the least hassle, the stations and lines to avoid and those that I prefer.

So, FAMILIARITY is a big factor.

As is REPETITION.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

 

 

* Regarding the delicious sense of anonymity associated with living in New York — of being part of a crowd but not singled out — an experience I once had when living elsewhere seems relevant. I worked for about a year and a half at a psychiatric hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, a city not far from New York. One spring day, when walking home from work, I stopped in a park that was on my route. I sat there for a while — I think it was on a park bench — in contemplation. It was a leisurely walk home. The park was not crowded, as a New York City park usually would be, but it was not empty by any means.

A couple of days later, the head nurse on my ward said to me, “I saw you in the park the other day.” The park was about a half mile from the hospital and she had probably passed it on the way home. I could tell that her remark amounted to mild “disapproval.” She felt it was odd to see me sitting by myself in a park. If I had been with a friend or coworker, she would not have had thought anything unusual.

in a towered city, far from the busy hum of men

 

 

 

 

First Avenue 3-5-2018

First Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, looking north

 

 

I had an appointment in the City this afternoon. Having been remiss about walking lately, I decided to walk home. It takes me about two and a half hours.

Walking is an excellent antidote for depression. I was depressed over two deaths that have deeply affected me: of a dear lifelong friend and of a relative my age. And I have experienced unpleasantness lately in interpersonal relationships.

The early evening, dusk, is such a peaceful time. Walking eastward on East 48th Street and northward on First Avenue, I felt this. A serenity came over me. The few people out looked unhurried and peaceful themselves. The mean-spirited persons I know seemed irrelevant, a feeling that was welcome.

One often feels a sense of excitement and pulse of unrelenting activity in Manhattan. But at other times, one almost feels a stillness akin to being far removed from what the poet Milton called “the busy hum of men.” It’s like being in the eye of a hurricane.

Don’t go on a cruise or to a remote tourist spot to escape your problems and tormentors. You’ll be walled in like a patient in an asylum. Go instead to a city, get lost in it, and walk it in the early morning or evening.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    March 2018