Friday, August 31, 2012

It's about time: Sebastian Laws, a man who fixes time

Watch the video AND read the story on

Sixth in a series, It's about time: Conversations with New Yorkers about time, looks at a man who fixes time. Sebastian Laws, the proprietor of Sutton Clocks on Manhattan's Upper East Side, fixes clocks, talks about time, and his "customers". Soon, Sutton Clocks at its present location will be a thing of the past: with its lease up at the end of 2012, Laws, a second generation horologist, is looking for new space.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mayor Bloomberg, please. May I have another piece of cake? It’s my birthday!

            I see Mayor Bloomberg each time I reach for my fork.
            Today was my birthday and my vanilla butter cream cake commemorating this fateful day, resplendent with colorful red and blue butter cream balloons, sat in front of me like a wobbly crown of infinite calories. One small but healthy slice slithered onto my fork and down my throat before I picked drops of icing from my sleeve. As my grandmother says, delirious!
           “Go on, have another piece,” my friends urged.
So I said to myself, “Why stop now? “
Reaching for the knife and plunging it deeply into layers of sugar with the confidence of a skilled surgeon, my utensil moved with frightening accuracy to the heart of the cake box.  Another slice leaped onto my plate with wild abandon.
As I picked up my fork again, I gasped. An all-too familiar face glared up at me from my dish of fine china.
I sighed and pleaded.
“Mayor Bloomberg, please. May I have another piece of cake? It’s my birthday!”
His frown reminded me that one slice was enough.
            I put my fork down.
           But ever since our leader of Gotham unwrapped a decree from his political lunchbox and declared that large sodas should be outlawed, I’ve tried to be on my best behavior.
            Mayor Bloomberg pointed out the excess in our diets. And as we all know but sometimes forget, anything in excess is not good for us.  While his motivation may have been fatherly, he did forget a couple of things. As well intentioned as our Mayor may be, some people don’t want to be told what to do. His demanding tone combined with butting into my kitchen fell flat as a pancake. If he had taken his message of gulping less and brought us the same information in a more palatable way, he would have closed more mouths. That’s a lot to swallow.
            I’ve put my fork down for now.
People will do as they please, including me.
            So what’s on your plate? 
            Mayor Bloomberg wants to know.

Big Gulp, Anyone?

If large soft drinks are banned, beware the likely rise of the Soft Drink Dealer.

Credits: Shot on location in Inwood, upper Manhattan, New York. 
One of my brave neighbors serves as the model. The cake is a stand-in for the original which was not as photogenic as the one sold by the C-town on Broadway and 207. Party favors (crown, hats, and noisemakers) were purchased from the 99 cents and up store on 207 Street and Broadway. Mike (but no Ike) candy purchased from Fidel Gourmet Grocery, Broadway at the corner of 204. The local 7-Eleven on Dyckman Street and Vermilyea Avenue supplied the cups. Big Gulp, anyone?

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Monday, August 27, 2012

If it's not one thing, it's another: The Subject is Papasito

New York City isn’t a quiet place, filled with blasting, blaring, banging, beeping, barking, revving, rumbling, rattling, honking, clomping, yelling, shouting, shooting, laughing, screaming, squealing, stomping, smashing, screeching, slamming, and trilling.
Once in a while the night is so filled without noise that the only sound is the a capella crescendo of high heels on sidewalks.
            New Yorkers expect, and are part of, a certain amount of cacophony during the day. But when beats of music, revving of cars and motorcycles, and cackles from gaggles of people underneath your bedroom windows leave you counting sheep and carrots (some of us are vegetarians), then the sounds of the city become an intrusion.
Several restaurants in Inwood have rattled neighbors since they opened. In one two-block radius, five restaurants and one bar are thriving (the diner is closed for renovations and five small storefronts are empty), serving food and drink indoors and outdoors. La Marina at the far end of Dyckman Street brings its own issues of traffic congestion, crowds, parking, and fire hydrants blocked by parked cars.
Business is booming and that’s the problem. The influx of diners means crowds gather outside of the restaurants during the day, in the evening, and early morning hours while each eatery plays music, sometimes emphatic enough to be heard across the street and up the hill.
            People travel out of their own neighborhoods and into others to dine out, and upper Manhattan is now a destination. Dyckman Street used to be shabby and quiet. Some liked it that way. But when restaurants inhabited quiet streets and vacant storefronts, the unique topography of the street—a quiet hum of parkland sitting across the road and little or no street traffic that could serve as background noise—combined with elbow to elbow outdoor seating underneath large apartment buildings, changed the dynamics and annoyed the neighbors.
            Inwood’s restaurant row is filled with diners eating and drinking, coming and going, and sidewalk space allocated for outdoor seating has been calculated by the Department of Consumer Affairs as being adequate for the width of the street. But what is adequate on paper is a mechanical computation, and restaurants seemed to have forgotten that people make their homes above them and an unpalatable sensory takeover has been added to their menus.
 A sound meter measures the loudness of music—whether it’s Elvis Martinez or Elvis Presley, Frankie Ruiz or Frankie Valli, Barry Manilow or Barry White, Ella Fitzgerald or El Chombo, Bob Marley or Barbra Streisand, Milly Quezada or Millie Small—not how it travels, its effect on people and how it attracts an audience, and how it’s supplemented by the sounds of couples and groups of people conversing as they wait in line or walking on by, others congregating outside and across the street.
     Neighbors are circulating a petition advocating that the liquor license of one of these restaurants, Papasito Mexican Grill and Agave Bar, not be renewed by the New York State Liquor Authority because of the loudness of music, crowds, lack of crowd control, fights, public urination, and dancing in violation of its liquor license. According to Papasito, its bar is open until three in the morning during the week and on Saturdays and until two in the morning on Sundays. The other restaurants say they close earlier. Neighbors complain that Papasito stays open past its legal closing time. Sunday, which was once considered a day of rest, seems to be the busiest day of the week. Papasito  is countering back with its own petition and now has signs posted  “no dancing allowed.”  A wiggle of the hips in the uptown version of Footloose and witnessed by an investigator with the State Liquor Authority is a serious violation and could close the restaurant.
            But removing Papasito’s liquor license means that it will likely close. Perhaps the removal of its liquor license is sending a message. But this seems severe, and throwing people out of work in this economic climate is not something to toast. There’s no guarantee of what business would replace it and the level of respect this new venture may have for the neighbors upstairs. And then the dance begins all over again.
Why not work with what you have? Not every patron who is loud and boisterous (and not everyone is) on Dyckman Street is dining or drinking at Papasito. On the few nights during the week I passed by at different times, the outdoor scene was relaxed and comfortable with no music or music playing very low. It’s the late nights/early morning hours on the weekends when the temperatures rise to a boil.
            The issue of noise is a contentious one and a middle ground of dialogue would benefits both sides of the dinner table, if you will. If Papasito and any other restaurant that is part of the Inwood diaspora expects to be a part of the community, perhaps they could cut back restaurant and bar hours to midnight and open an hour earlier; lower music and remove the bass to a level that is amenable to the neighbors; install soundproof windows in apartments of those living above and nearby; cut outdoor seating by a third; offer a 20% discount to neighbors living above and nearby; organize and expedite a BID (Business Improvement District); participate in the community by contributing to or establishing a fund to improve nearby parks; hire confident and friendly managers and private security to move people and their vehicles in, out, around, and along; remind customers to use safe and reliable public transportation whenever possible; and meet regularly as a group of business owners and neighbors to discuss situations and concerns and work with a professional mediator to resolve the issues. And for the community, could there be an acceptance of the fact that there will be some noise from restaurants and patrons and that the businesses are part of the community?
Somehow, both sides—restaurants and neighbors—must find a way to connect and follow the spirit of the law and of community to find a middle ground. Everyone in New York City isn’t going to be happy, which is why chefs fiddle with menus and adapt them to their customers and why, when New York City changes, it never stays the same.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It's about time - Ann Pringle Harris

Fifth in a series of conversations with New Yorkers about time, journalist Ann Pringle Harris talks about the mystery of time, working as a copy girl for the New York Sun, her newspaper and magazine writing career, and offers writing tips.


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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

If it's not one thing, it's another: What’s in Your Bag? A Tale from Subterranea

I can tell when the warm weather is here to stay because those long tables set up by the NYPD to search our bags in the subway stations are gone and so are the gaggles of women holding religious tracts at the 207th Street stop of the A train. It’s just too darn hot to proselytize and stop and inspect the perspiring masses when temperatures on subway platforms and stations reach triple digits. But I have discovered a theory as to why women’s bags aren’t searched as often as the ones belonging to their male counterparts.
            My theory is that men are selected because they travel lighter. Let’s face it. A wallet and a small bag get you in and out and off to your destination quickly. My handbag/suitcase weights 27 pounds. I know. I weighed it myself. A heavy bag, by the way, also serves as a deterrent to a purse-snatcher. He just might trip over it, and it requires some measure of dexterity to remove the bag from my shoulder; this involves a shoulder roll followed by a twist and drop.
Sometimes I find things that I can’t recall even placing in my handbag, including a desiccated banana, a flat but still edible Devil Dog and a crumpled bag of dark chocolate Raisinets, pennies picked up from the street, and many pens lurking at the bottom. I once emptied my bag of a typewriter, a pair of shoes, two bottles of Yoo-Hoo and three Kit-Kats, plus a toothbrush, wallet, telephone, makeup kit, keys, tissues, a book about cemeteries in the city, and someone else’s umbrella.  It would take a good 40 minutes to empty my bag. And then everything has to get pushed and shoved back in and organized. What police officer has the time for that? And if there’s a quota system, I’ve just disrupted the numbers.  
And, I’m one of those compelled to explain my belongings and purchases and everything else. You know the type.
“I’ve had this keychain since the sixth grade, Officer.”
“Remember Starsky and Hutch?”
“No, you don’t look like either one, but I was just wondering.”
“ I don’t have a dog but let me explain why I have a squeaky dog toy in my bag… “
“Do you shop at Lord & Taylor? What do you think of this blouse?”
“The wallet? That was a gift for my last birthday. I like all of the compartments.”
“No, that’s not for bullets, that’s a toothbrush holder.”
“THAT’S personal.”
“My driver’s license photo makes me look like one of the Muppets.  Do you think I should have it redone?”
“Pardon me, but those are Tic-Tacs.”
“Oh, look. Here are photographs from my vacation. Check this out.”
“Do you think $249 is too much to spend on a sweater?.”
“And What do you think  of these blue shoes? They match my eyes.”
“No, you can’t borrow them.”
“Very funny. This doesn’t belong to Alex Rodriguez. These are my knitting needles.”
“That’s just my phone barking."
Now just imagine the same man shedding his civil service role and crossing over to the other side, returning home after seven hours of examining the miscellaneous contents of bags belonging to my fellow travelers and me as we trek below ground, and dropping wearily onto a recliner, eyes closed, and then his wife bursts through the door.
“Guess what I found on sale!?”

The contents of my handbag: one typewriter, a bacon cheeseburger with french fries and a pickle from Piper's Kilt, a package of Devil Dogs, one bottle of Yoo-Hoo and a bottle of water, a drink coaster, one umbrella, one shoe, toothpaste and a toothbrush, a book of the writings of the journalist Marie Colvin, my wallet, telephone, a bag of pens, 32 cents in loose change. .  .(houseplant for decorative purposes only and not included in the handbag)

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Three Carnations

There’s a body buried in the Carver Houses

The George Washington Carver Houses belong to the New York City Housing Authority, a city agency which houses New Yorkers and their families in sometimes tired and worn down but solid, singular-looking buildings throughout the five boroughs. 

Like the pigeons that used to nest in coops on top of apartment buildings, rumors have flown for years that Mount Sinai Hospital has plans to take over the Carver Houses and use the apartments as housing for their medical residents. I heard these rumors 10 years ago; I still hear them today.

But the Carver Houses are still here and so is the body. Three weary pink carnations mark the spot underneath a windowsill, lying on the dirt grounds of a housing project named after a peanut farmer. As with all gifts of flowers, there’s a story behind these, too. 

Wrapped in plastic, the corpse lies buried in the soil beneath a thousand heartaches of working people. I passed by the other day, and there were the ghosts of Pepè and Margo, who lived a long time ago in a small apartment on the seventh floor. 

Pepè and Margo were two of the original residents of the Carver Houses, trading one island for another when they moved from Puerto Rico to New York City in 1955. They met in a mental hospital where she cared for patients and he worked in the fields. When they arrived here, he worked as a laborer in factories and she worked as an aide in nursing homes.

He was small and thin, she was tall and plump and they were married for more than 50 years. 

“She used the black magic on me,” he explained. “And it’s still working!” 

They lived together for 15 years before they married and the only reason they married was to obtain their apartment as a legal couple. She called him viejo or old man and he called her “ma.”

“I feel very happy in this country,” he said. “We’ve been living in this country 40 or so years. But Puerto Rico is beautiful. I miss the wind, the sun. I was born in Puerto Rico and I am going to die here.”

Margo wanted to remain in Puerto Rico, feeling locked inside of the apartment.

 “I want to go back. I miss everything. I miss the outdoors.”

They spoke for each other. 

“Here she feels trapped inside,” Pepè said, “You can’t just go out. We go to the yard and look at the flowers. I plant here and the next day it’s dead. You can’t have plants here unless you have a house or you live on the first floor. And outside they are savages. It’s very noisy and they don’t respect.”

The death occurred at a time when the city was overrun with drug dealers sitting on benches, destroying the life and genealogy of the neighborhood. Pepè rode the subway on most days even as an old man, before the subways became more egalitarian. As a young man, he was scrutinized for his color and his pedigree along the subterranean trail beneath the surface and soul of the city. 

Pepè was small but feisty enough to hold his own against the neighborhood toughs. He and Margo lived in an apartment overlooking green wooden benches some cop told me were made in a prison. To the left is a noisy playground and straight ahead is Madison Avenue. It isn’t exactly a straight path to Madison and then to Fifth; sometimes there’s a stop at another island called Riker’s.

“We raised our children in this building,” Pepè said. “We worked. We had the control to raise our kids with responsibilities. Why can’t the others do the same thing?”

The view from apartment windows and from their peephole was better than their old black-and-white television with rabbit-ear antennas. Outside, a young man came to the aid of a woman being pummeled by a man. He tried to help her, she ran away and he got stabbed. A woman was killed when she went to answer her doorbell. She was shot looking through the door and her daughter was killed in the street. Pepè said the killers were looking for a man because he sold drugs.

He looked out of the window at a police car pulling up on the sidewalk. 

“For me, the Police Department, they are wonderful. I never have problems. They try to do their job the best they can. If they tell me to move, I do.”

“There is no better neighborhood than this one,” Pepè declared. “It’s not too great, but I don’t care. It’s home. We have people in this neighborhood who don’t want to live clean. And at night, the teenagers don’t work. During the day, they sleep. Sometimes you have to blame the parents. We need more cops here. This morning, barking, barking and barking. I said enough with the barking dog. There is urine sprayed all over the elevator. Where are you going to stand?,” he asked. “The office takes good care of the building. People here don’t take care of it.”

In the overheated apartment of Pepè and Margo, there were no doors on their closets; contents were hidden by curtains whose bulging contents created large lumps. Their kitchen was small and crowded with the pots and pans of people who ate at home and didn’t bother going to restaurants. 

“I used to leave the door open when I cleaned the house,” Margo recalled. “No one used to bother us.”

Tiny, their chihuauha, slept in their bed. He was the only companion in the house; Pepè and Margo’s two sons were married with children who had their own children. Pepè carried him everywhere, tucked under his arm like a football. Tiny’s legs were spindly and arthritic, his head large and oversized, his eyes too large and brown and partially unseeing, his ears hard of hearing—the four-legged version of Pepè. Once, I took a photograph of these doppelgangers and presented it to Pepè. He carried it everywhere. He trimmed the edges to a small square and that creased black-and-white portrait remained proof that they were a pair.

“Sometimes you don’t remember,” Pepè said of his age, which was 85. “Once I put my shoe in the refrigerator and I put my keys in the freezer.”

Tiny was the first to go, dying in the winter. Pepè slept with the photograph tucked inside of his pajama top. He wrapped Tiny in plastic wrap and gingerly placed him in the freezer for the winter, alongside the forgotten shoe and keys, ice cube trays and chickens. When spring came and the ground thawed, he enlisted his oldest son and the two of them shoveled the earth and buried the dog in the middle of the night under a hazy street lamp below his window. There were no cops around.

Pepè seemed smaller each time I visited him and he knew that old age and time were happening to him. On my last visit to see him, Margo said she had taken him to the hospital three times that month.

“I don’t like to leave him,” she said.

No one really knows why he did it but Pepè jumped, photograph in hand, out of the window, landing on Tiny’s grave seven floors below.

Pepè didn’t make the news. Maybe he would have by jumping from the George Washington Bridge or the Empire State Building, and his life, well, really his death, might be recalled and archived, even for a few lines. He was carried away in a black plastic body bag. That was his end.

I was the one who left the flowers, a small memorial to a life remembered. And, as I said, gifts of flowers have a story.

(Originally published on December 30, 2010; edited slightly)

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