Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th street
by Todd Webb (April 23, 1948)
Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th street
by Todd Webb (April 23, 1948)
Eli Miller, 79, New York City’s senior seltzer man, hoisted crate after crate of seltzer — weighing 70 pounds apiece — into his van and then draped himself over them.
“I’m running on fumes — the reason I work is, I just can’t stay home,” said Mr. Miller, who has been delivering seltzer in Brooklyn for more than a half-century.
He can afford to retire, but that would mean his customers, many of whom have been with him for decades, might have to resort to store-bought seltzer.
“I don’t want them to have to drink that dreck you buy in the supermarket,” he said, using the Yiddish term for dirt. “So I guess I’ll retire when Gabriel blows his horn.”
I love this. I wonder how much spaghetti you got for a quarter? A bowl, a plate? And how much for seconds?
[Photograph by Ida Wyman]
Snow! Holy Cow, gettothestoregetfoodhurryhurry. Do you think we’ll make it?
Eh, it’s iffy. In the meantime, I saw this picture over at the always great site, Kottke. Like the shot, especially because it was taken in father’s old neighborhood.
A driver I know named David is worried. David and I used to moan cab stories to each other when I was on the night line. Now he keeps asking me when I’m coming to work. After four years of driving a cab, he can’t believe interviewing people is work. David is only a dissertation away from a Ph.D. in philosophy, which makes him intelligent enough to figure out that job openings for philosophers are zilch this year. The only position his prodigious education has been able to land him was a $25-a-night, one-night-a-week gig teaching ethics to rookie cops. David worked his way through college driving a cab. It was a good job for that, easy to arrange around things that were important. Now he has quit school in disgust and he arranges the rest of his life around cab-driving. He has been offered a job in a warehouse for which he’d make $225 a week and never have to pick up another person carrying a crowbar, but he’s not going to take it. At least when you’re zooming around the city, there’s an illusion of mobility. The turnover at the garage (Dover has over 500 employees for the 105 taxis; it hires between five and ten new people a week) makes it easy to convince yourself this is only temporary. Working in a factory is like surrender, like defeat, like death; drudging nine to five doesn’t fit in with a self-conception molded on marches to Washington. Now David’s been at Dover for the past two years and he’s beginning to think cab freedom is just another myth. “I’ll tell you when I started to get scared,” David says. “I’m driving down Flatbush and I see a lady hailing, so I did what I normally do, cut across three lanes of traffic and slam on the brakes right in front of her. I wait for her to get in, and she looks at me like I’m crazy. It was only then I realized I was driving my own car, not the cab.”
David has the Big Fear. It doesn’t take a cabdriver too long to realize that once you leave the joy of shape-up and start uptown on Hudson Street, you’re fair game. You’re at the mercy of the Fear Variables, which are (not necessarily in order): the traffic, which will be in your way; the other cabdrivers, who want to take your business; the police, who want to give you tickets; the people in your cab, lunatics who will peck you with nudges and dent you with knives; and your car, which is capable of killing you at any time. Throw in your bosses and the back inspectors and you begin to realize that a good night is not when you make a living wage. That’s a great night. A good night is when you survive to tell your stories at tomorrow’s shape-up. But all the Fear Variables are garbage compared with the Big Fear. The Big Fear is that times will get so hard that you’ll have to drive five or six nights a week instead of three. The Big Fear is that your play, the one that’s only one draft away from a possible show-case will stay in your drawer. The Big Fear is thinking about all the poor stiff civil servants who have been sorting letters at the post office every since the last Depression and all the great plays they could have produced. The Big Fear is that, after twenty years of schooling, they’ll put you on the day shift. The Big Fear is you’re becoming a cabdriver.
The typical Big Fear cabdriver is not to be confused with the archetypal Cabby. The Cabby is a genuine New York City romantic hero. He’s what every out-of-towner who’s never been to New York but has seen James Cagney movies thinks every Big Apple driver is like. A Cabby “owns his own,” which means the car he drives is his, not owned by some garage boss (58 per cent of New York’s 11,787 taxis are owned by “fleets” like Dover which employ the stiffs and the slobs of the industry; the rest are operated by “owner-drivers”). The Cabby hated Lind-say even before the snowfalls, has dreams about blowing up gypsy cabs, knows where all the hookers are (even in Brooklyn), slurps coffee and downs Danish at the Belmore Cafeteria, tells his life story to everyone who gets into the cab, and makes a ferocious amount of money. But mostly, he loves his work. There aren’t too many of them around anymore. The Dover driver just doesn’t fit the mold. He probably would have voted for Lindsay twice if he had had the chance. He doesn’t care about gypsies; if they want the Bronx, let them have it. He knows only about the hookers on Lexington Avenue. He has been to the Belmore maybe once and had a stomach ache the rest of the night. He speaks as little as possible, and barely makes enough to get by. He also hates his work.
Dig this New Yorker ”Talk of the Town” item (May 1, 1943) by Joseph Mitchell.
It’s a perfect miniature of his work–a poem, really–his book of revelations:
An air-raid warden we know, a young woman who holds down the desk in her sector headquarters in Greenwich Village twice a week from nine to midnight, is occasionally visited by the policeman on the beat. This policeman, who is elderly and talkative, dropped in the other night, sat down, grunted, placed his cap and nightstick on the desk, and said, “I’m a man that believes in looking ahead, and I been walking around tonight thinking over the biggest police problem this great city will ever have; namely, the day the war ends. I got it all figured out. I know exactly what’ll happen. Half an hour after the news gets out there won’t be a thing left in the saloons but the bare walls. Then the people will tear down the doors on the liquor stores and take what they want, a bottle of this, a bottle of that. Then they’ll go to work on the breweries; they’ll be swimming in the vats. Old ladies will be howling drunk that day. Preachers won’t even bother to drink in secret; they’ll be climbing lampposts and quoting the Bible on the way up. And some young fellow will trot up to the Central Park Zoo and break the locks. The elephants will be marching down Fifth Avenue, and the lions and the tigers, two by two; we’ll be six weeks getting the monkeys out of the trees. And they’ll ring all the church bells until they crack; they’ll jerk the bells right out of the steeples. And you know that big sireen in Rockefeller Center; somebody will get hold of that, and he won’t be torn loose until they shoot him loose. And they’ll unscrew the hydrants all over town; the water will be knee-deep. And people will be running around with their shoes off, wading in the water and singing songs. I can see the whole scene. And the ferryboat captains will give one toot on their whistles and run the ferryboats right up on dry land, and the bus drivers will run the buses right into the water. And the passengers will take charge of the subway trains, and they’ll run them right up into the open air. You’ll hear a racket and a roar, and you’ll look around, and here’ll come a subway train shooting right through the pavement. And husbands will be so happy they’ll beat their wives, and wives will beat their husbands, and the tellers in banks will gang up and beat the bank presidents, and and the ordinary citizens will tear down big buildings just so they’ll have some bricks to throw.” The policeman laughed and slapped his knee. “What a day of rejoicing!” he said. “What a police problem! I hope to God I live to see it!”
I had a cousin who visited New York when he was a teenager and was determined to win at three card monty. I didn’t understand. Those were games you just couldn’t win. And even if you did win you’d get jumped rounding the corner so what was the pernt?
He lost, of course, and then played again. Lost again.
Don’t see those games around too much anymore.
Drawing by Will Eisner.
This was my father’s favorite midtown delicatessen. And now, the Stage Deli has closed. According to the New York Times:
Paul Zolenge, who owned the Stage Deli with Steve Auerbach, said the closing was “devastating, the end of an era, something I never thought would happen.”
Mr. Zolenge, who became a co-owner in 1986, blamed the sagging economy, a spiraling rent and a forthcoming rent increase expected when his lease at 834 Seventh Avenue ends in a few months. “It’s not a great season for Broadway, either,” he said.
“After the shows would break, we would see a lot of Playbills walking in,” he said of his post-theater customers. “And that, well — it had declined.”
In the full-fat firmament of Midtown, revered old-timers have been keeling over one by one. Two blocks to the south on 52nd Street, Gallagher’s, the 85-year-old steakhouse, a Runyonesque shrine to show business pillars and prizefighters, filed a closing notice in October pending purchase by the restaurateur Dean Poll. In June, the 30-year-old steakhouse Ben Benson’s, also on 52nd Street, shuttered when its landlord would not renew the lease. And in November, Sarge’s Delicatessen on Third Avenue near East 37th Street was ravaged by a blaze battled by 150 firefighters.
The news about the Stage Deli brought agita to its peers. “We’re sorry to hear they closed — all of us are definitely becoming dinosaurs,” said Conrad Strohl, owner of the Edison Cafe, in the Edison Hotel on West 47th Street — nicknamed the “Polish Tearoom” by its habitués. “Theater prices are getting higher, and for many, eating out is a luxury, even though we’re reasonably priced,” Mr. Strohl said. “We’re getting nervous.”
Oy and Veh.
[Featured Image Via The Jewish Daily Forward]
Check out this story by André Aciman (New York Review of Books, 12/18/1997):
I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past. I wanted to rescue things everywhere, as though by restoring them here I might restore them elsewhere as well. In seeing one Greek restaurant disappear or an old Italian cobbler’s turn into a bodega, I was once again reminded that something was being taken away from the city and, therefore, from me—that even if I don’t disappear from a place, places disappear from me.
I wanted everything to remain the same. Because this too is typical of people who have lost everything, including their roots or their ability to grow new ones. They may be mobile, scattered, nomadic, dislodged, but in their jittery state of transience they are thoroughly stationary. It is precisely because you have no roots that you don’t budge, that you fear change, that you’ll build on anything, rather than look for land. An exile is not just someone who has lost his home; it is someone who can’t find another, who can’t think of another. Some no longer even know what home means. They reinvent the concept with what they’ve got, the way we reinvent love with what’s left of it each time. Some people bring exile with them the way they bring it upon themselves wherever they go.
I hate it when stores change names, the way I hate any change of season, not because I like winter more than spring, or because I like old store X better than new store Y, but because, like all foreigners who settle here and who always have the sense that their time warp is not perfectly aligned to the city’s, and that they’ve docked, as it were, a few minutes ahead or a few minutes behind Earth time, any change reminds me of how imperfectly I’ve connected to it. It reminds me of the thing I fear most: that my feet are never quite solidly on the ground, but also that the soil under me is equally weak, that the graft didn’t take. In the disappearance of small things, I read the tokens of my own dislocation, of my own transiency. An exile reads change the way he reads time, memory, self, love, fear, beauty: in the key of loss.
[Photo Credit: Nathan Gendzier]