Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"You Must Remember This"

Some nights ago I was out in my capacity as Volunteer Luminaria-lighter for my block, finally getting the knack of lighting the tips of little candlewicks ensconced in the sand at the bottom of the white paper bags. As I glanced back at the neat rows of light trailing off into the distance I recalled reading from Jeff Kisseloff's marvelous oral history of Manhattan, "You Must Remember This" an old woman's childhood recollection of watching the lamplighter come down her street to illuminate the evening on the Upper West Side of Manhattan circa 1899.
Olga Marx was born in 1894 and would have been roundabout 90 when Kisseloff interviewed her in the mid-1980's:

"When the lamplighter came in the summer, that usually meant it was bedtime. I loved to wait for him on the stoop (of her home on 77th St. and Columbus Ave.) On mild evenings you'd bring down a chair and sit out there, although my mother thought it a little vulgar to visit back and forth between neighbors.
One mild evening she said to me, 'Instead of just sitting on the stoop before you go to bed, I want to show you something.' She told me to look up and there was a sky full of stars. It was the first time I had consciously seen just a lot of wonderful stars."

An oral history of Manhattan is going to be singular because so much change would have been witnessed by those around long enough to have seen it and yet enough of the old buildings, streets, parks and so forth remain to aid the imagination in transporting us back in time.

Following the "sky" thread somewhat, here another recollection from Olga:

"We also loved to play on the meteors which were then out in front of the Museum of Natural History (on the edge of Central Park)
I remember saying to my fraulein, (her German nanny) 'Look, I'm standing on a star.' But she was so prissy, and she said, 'Get down immediately. I can see your panties.'"

Olga Marx, who later graduated from Barnard and became a poet and writer, was obviously from the "better-offs" but Kisseloff also interviewed Bullets Brennan who, though he also lived on the Upper West Side not too far off from Olga, came from from a poorer Italian immigrant family and lived out much of his childhood on the streets.
"In the summertime, we never wore shoes, Most times we went barefoot. We'd be jumpin' around the rocks near the river in bare feet. When there wasn't any work (school not being an option), so many kids just hung around the corners or in the park, or went swimming off the dock at 75th Street, Bare-Ass Beach."
Like many kids on the street Bullets became adept at stickball - baseball's street-worthy cousin.
"A guy like Howard Cook, who was a big gambler, he'd buy the balls, and he'd watch. They all went for that. Sometimes they'd bet cash on the games. They might play for a barrel of beer."

Kisseloff (the full title of his book is "You Must Remember This: An oral history of Manhattan from the 1890's to World War II") covers all of the major neighborhoods of Manhattan in his interviews from the Lower East Side and Chelsea up to Harlem and points north.
He manages to find surviving witnesses to the Triangle Fire, sheep meadows in Central Park, the old New York Giant baseball games at the Polo Grounds, and Fats Waller at the piano in Harlem.
I found the reminiscences of the Dakota Apartments on the West Side intriguing. Bullets Brennan recalls his ragamuffin pals serenading the high class occupants at Thanksgiving. The Dakota was home to well-to-do music publishers like the Schirmers and parties were held there with literary guests like Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane as well as musical luminaries from Tchaikovsky, to -later on-
Gershwin gazing out at Central Park.
By the way, my friend Steve Hinders notifies me that our modern-day luminary, John Lennon, chose residence at the Dakota because the architecture reminded him of places in Liverpool.

Skating in Central Park with the Dakota as background circa 1890's

Anyway, I highly recommend "You Must Remember This" by Jeff Kisseloff for those who admire oral histories. It is on a par with Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times" and any number of the Studs Terkel books.

* a note on the meteors Olga Marx played on in front of the Museum of Natural History.
Quite possibly, one of these was the famous 15.5 ton Willamette meteor (from the Willamette Valley in Oregon) purchased by heiress Mrs. William Dodge for a tidy sum around 1904 from it's owners and turned over to the Museum. The meteor was held to be sacred by the Clackamas Indians of Oregon who referred to the meteor as a "being" called Tomanowos who arrived from the moon. I'm sure that little Olga would've loved to know that.


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for this post, Tom. I just requested this book from interlibrary loan.

persephone2u said...

That is an AMAZING photograph of people ice skating in the 1890s. Just imagine, all of those people once had lives, dreams, friends and family and are now gone.

I love history and will see if this book is available at one of the local libraries here.

The story about the lamplighter reminded me of a lovely poem from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses:

The Lamplighter

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Michael - As I watch our library's hard copy holdings shrink to make way for multiple bestellers and digital access, my sympathy goes out to anyone using interlibrary loan - this too shall narrow....

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Persephone -
That photo also holds a fascination for me; a moment of play frozen in time. Actually I was wishing I could use one of the photos included in the book (I have no scanner) - it also shows skaters in the park with the Dakota in the background, but fewer and more intimate and close-up, one of the men is smoking a cigarette as he skates...which, though i don't smoke OR skate, seems to make sense in cold weather.

The Stevenson poem certainly underlines the bygone childhood attraction to lamplighters and the pleasure in giving light as well.
The first poem I ever memorized as a kid was Stevenson's "Home from the Sea" (? "the sailor is home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill")

Booktender said...

Doggone if I'm not going to put it on my reading list, too! Thx Anne C.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Hey Anne!

Paz said...

Wow! How very interesting! Wonderful post. I'm going to look for this book. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'd love to see your painting when you're done. I think it's really cool that you'd like to do a painting.


Tom the Piper's Son said...

Paz - thanks for the thumbs up!
I'd like to let my friends know about your photos - via the your link to your wonderful blogsite on New York and also the "About New York" site of Elizabeth's at

Elizabeth said...

Anyone who like Robertson Davies is a mental friend of mine.
Thank you for visiting the NY blog. I have such fun with it- -and yours looks fascinating and to be delved into in depth.
I too am a history buff and a reader.........
Paz is a great chum of mine.
Happy 2009

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Ha! The first person I've met who's even known who Davies' was/is? I'm looking forward to reading your books as well.

ps. i used to tell my daughter a very shortened version of the first part of The Fifth Business as a kind of nightime long drive story...up to magnus' emergence as a magician and the former magicians relegation to circus geek.

Anonymous said...

is this the only point of contact?
-missing in maine

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Sarah is that you? - I'm still on myspace and leftyodoul32@yahoo.com
....miss you, and your pictures warmed my heart.

Matthew H Camp said...

Tomanowos will soon return and restore Manhattan to its former glory as a Lunarian Colony.

Anonymous said...

many gaze upon the skies in that hope

jeff said...

Thanks for remember my friend Olga, who died just a month before the book came out. I still miss her


Tom the Piper's Son said...

Jeff - I'ts an honor (if you are "Mr. K")!!! I loved getting to know Olga through the book. Her "introductory" poem was something else.....
I see that you wrote "Who is Baseball's greatest Pitcher?" and I'm looking forward to reading it.
My votes go to Christy Mathewson (I love anything to do with the Polo Grounds) and Sandy Koufax....
but i've got to put the 2 Johnson's up there as well especially Walter who did so much time with a crappy team.

jeff said...

sorry it took a while to get back to you, yes, I'm that jeff. I'm glad you liked the poem, which was the subject of much contention. The editor did not like it at all but I loved it and thought it basically summed up the point of the book.

Olga died just before the book was published, which was terribly sad, but she knew it was coming out and had great fun doing the interviews. I still miss her.

as for the pitchers if pressed, I'd go with walter. his numbers were just too good.

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