I pride myself on being a native New Yorker, born and raised. I’ve never lived anywhere else and, what’s more, I don’t even have an accent. Ask anyone ;)
But my Aunt Betty, now she outdoes me as a real native New Yorker by a mile. I was reminded of that after talking to her the other day. She’s 90 years old and lives on the top floor of a three-story walk-up in Manhattan, three flights that she climbs every day once a day. I can’t reveal the exact address of course but it’s down on the Bowery. And I can also tell you she is rent controlled (not stabilized) because she moved into that building on November 14, 1939. Yeah, you read that right!! 1939! She has lived in the same building for 64 years. I don’t know if this is a record but the floor is open to challengers.
Suffice it to say that Aunt Betty has seen a lot of things come and go over the years, lost pieces of New York like the old Third Avenue Elevated Train line. You young-uns probably don’t even know this but there once was something called the Third Avenue El — an elevated subway line — that rattled through Manhattan from the Battery along Third Avenue and up to the Bronx. It used to run right by Aunt Betty’s building but the Manhattan portion of the line was torn down in 1955 as real estate became more and more valuable.
I actually rode the Bronx section of that El on E. 149th Street. I have vague memories of the straw seats and overhead fans that you can only see now at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn.
Aunt Betty has a much better memory than me. She remembers the day she moved in, the day the El came down in 1955 and the day in 1929 — July 4th — when a relative was killed by a horse and buggy.
The Bowery used to be the place where all the flop-houses existed in New York and even I remember having to step over the alcoholics — we routinely called them ‘bums’ — who were all over the place in the 1960s. Then came the beginning of the modern era when CBGB’s reigned supreme and drew large crowds every Saturday night. Now of course, the Bowery is hip with coffee shops and restaurants, hotels and million dollar co-ops.
I find it interesting that one of my favorite books about old and future New York — “Winter’s Tale” — is now being turned into a movie this very moment. The filmmakers are shooting all over New York but I think maybe they should just talk to Aunt Betty for their historical research.
With Thanksgiving behind us, we’ve officially began “the crazy season,” the time of year when religious holidays usher in a month-long celebration of crass commercialism.
Hardly a new or insightful thought but there it is. We recognize this season for what it is, moan about it and yet, take part in it each and every year. As my children have grown, it’s gotten a bit easier to avoid the ‘must-have’ Christmas toys and accompanying materialistic madness. The days of “Tickle Me Elmo” (which I guess means something totally different now that the official Elmo puppeteer has resigned in the wake of accusations he’s had underage sex with at least two young teenage boys) are over. Now it’s more like, “Dad, tickle my wallet.”
Which I do but I also balance that by buying my kids (really, no pun intended) a goat or a sheep or even a llama. I don’t really give them an animal but I make the donation in our family name to Heifer International which gives said animals to poor communities around the globe where it really makes a difference.
But of course, that’s not enough. As high-minded as my intentions are, I still find myself giving commercial gifts. Part of it is pure human nature — it feels good to give a present to someone you love or like. But I’ve realized that giving presents forces us to consider why we give presents….we begin to think kindly of one another and that alone is something that’s different from the rest of the year, at least for most of us. It may not be as heavy as ‘love one another’ but sometimes ‘like one another’ is good enough.
So the crazy season is upon us and, much as we hate to admit it, it serves a purpose — we think of one another in a way that is more balanced and less judgmental. It may be the one time of year when that happens and that’s sad but, you know what, at least it happens once a year and for that, I’ll put up with all the crass commercialism in the world.
For what it’s worth, one of my favorite Christmas songs has a very similar sentiment. It’s The Flaming Lips’ “A Change at Christmas (Say It Ain’t So).”
And the world embraces peace and love and mercy
Instead of power and fear
And as sure as I’m standing here
I swear it really does appear that a change comes over us
Yes, some kind of change comes over us
And it’s glimpsed for one shining moment
And this change feels like a change that’s real
But then it passes along with the season
And then we just go back to the way we were
Yes, we just go back to the way we were
Oh and if you really want to give a great present, there’s always my memoir, full of great stories about NYC :)
Anonymous asked: I grew up in Monroe Projests . What building did you live in? Do you remember the rooms on the first floor where residents shared that stored baby carriages and bicycles?A peddler went from door to door selling dry goods named Mr Silverman?
I do remember the carriage room. I grew up in 1790 story avenue and later 800 Soundview. It was cool for a long time and then it wasn’t …..
For my job as a producer for the CBS News magazine “48 Hours,” I meet a lot people in the middle of unspeakable tragedies, families whose loved ones have been murdered. Working on a story about Canada’s “Highway of Tears” — where dozens of women have gone missing or have been murdered over the past 40 years — I met many such families.
But here’s the thing — as sad as these stories are, I am always amazed at incredible dignity displayed by these families. They soldier on with their lives, often express no bitterness, and draw on an inner strength that seems beyond the bounds of human behavior. It’s hard for me not to think of these families as the best people in the world. Life has hit them hard but they stand up to it.
Consider the Highway of Tears story I helped produce for this week’s (11/17) “48 Hours” (you can always watch it online after Saturday at cbsnews.com).
— Dawn & Eldon Scott whose 20-year-old daughter Maddy disappeared from a campsite in May 2011. They’re devastated of course but they marshaled their resources to offer a $100,000 reward for information regarding Maddy’s disappearance.
— Doug Leslie whose 15-year-old blind daughter was killed by a 20-year-old alleged serial killer, now up on charges of killing four women. Doug started the Loren Donn Leslie Foundation in honor of his daughter.
— Matilda Wilson and Tom Chipman have been dealing with the murders or disappearances of their daughters for years and yet both have that quiet dignity I’m talking about. Same with Claudia Williams who was with her sister Alberta when she disappeared in 1989.
It’s a very tough road these folks have to plow but they’re doing it….somehow and they are remarkable.
I haven’t read my memoir in awhile in public (of course I read it every night in private in front of a mirror….not really) but next Wednesday, November 14th, I’ll be reading at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute and it’s totally free.
Here are the details: The Institute is in midtown at 25 W. 43rd St., 17th floor
212-642-2094. They’d like you to RSVP if you’re coming. I’ll be reading a chapter or two, speaking about why I wrote my memoir and answering questions so please come if you can. Also, copies of the book will be for sale.
I hope to see you there.
As a small token for my fellow New Yorkers — affected by Hurricane Sandy or not — I’m making my the e-book version of my memoir “Leaving Story Avenue” available for free on Amazon today!
It’s about New York in the ’60s and ’70s and might take your mind off our current troubles for awhile…also good diversion from this week’s impending rainstorm. Enjoy!