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.