Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday Morning in Greenpoint: The Grand Opening of Washington Mutual Bank's Manhattan Avenue Financial Center

(Photo courtesy of the Flickr photostream of the very talented Steph Goralnick)
ironically, the new manhattan ave branch opened TODAY
After teaching our writing classes at a great metropolitan university this morning, we headed home to celebrate the grand opening of Washington Mutual's Manhattan Avenue Financial Center right in the heart of beautiful overbanked Greenpoint.

We first opened our first WaMu account while living in Fort Lauderdale back in late 2003, when we were working as the director of the academic resource program at Nova Southeastern University Law School. Jonathan, the assistant facilities director who was about to ship off to Iraq, told us about its free checking accounts and how wonderful the bank was compared to most depository institutions.

We realized that sooner or later we were going to have to declare personal bankruptcy again, and that the bank where we then had our checking account might not take too kindly to that, considering that it had supplied us with three of the 32 Visas and MasterCards that were coming close to reaching their maximum credit limits.

(For the record, that was Bank of America, which was formerly NationsBank, which was formerly NCNB, which was formerly Citizens & Southern, which was formerly Landmark Bank of Fort Lauderdale, the town's biggest bank where we parked our money when first moving there to teach at Broward Community College back in 1981.)

(For the record, our Visa affinity cards with BofA were from US Air, America West - now the same airline - and Alaska Airlines.)

So we did open our account at the Washington Mutual Plantation Banking Center on University Drive by Broward Boulevard. And we finally did go bankrupt in 2005, with our hearing before the bankruptcy trustee (341 creditors' meeting) in late June, just four days before we left Florida to move to Arizona. It was the second time around for us and we knew what to expect. (Florida, by the way, is truly debtors' paradise since its homestead exemption allows you to keep your house or condo, as we could keep ours in Sunrise Golf Village.)

But leaving the federal courthouse on Broward Boulevard that morning, we vowed then and there never to have another credit card again.

(You can read about our first experience with credit cards in "You've Got to Give Me Credit," which appeared in the November 1988 issue of the San Francisco slick magazine Processed World.)

Once we mended our profligate ways, we started accumulating some savings. But to open up a WaMu online savings account at our Phoenix address, we had to open up a second checking account because Washington Mutual's east coast and west coast systems weren't in sync.

So by the time we left Arizona to move back to Brooklyn for at least part of the year, we had three WaMu accounts, and we opened up a fourth one, a new IRA, this past April at income tax time. (We cannot close the IRA for another two years, on the day we turn 59 and 1/2. Fifty-nine and a half? How did the government come up with that regulation?)

Of course, we can be tri-coastal or whatever and always find a WaMu branch there. As our friend Tao Lin titled one of his poems in his bestselling collection, You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I Am, "Washington Mutual Is A Bank That Is Everywhere":

...I mean, look

at this poem. Where are you. I love life. November. Wonderful. The sun. A cloud

just said something. I don’t know what it said.

I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t care.

We were talking on the phone Thursday night with our BFF and Williamsburg landlady Nina about the financial crisis (she is a real estate agent on Long Island, so she knows more about it than we do) and saying that our dad in Arizona was telling us to take out our money from WaMu now.

Dad had asked if we remembered that his father-in-law, Herb Sarrett, would always tell the story of how, in 1932, he was depositing his last paycheck before being laid off from his job as a foreman in a ladies' panties factory in a bank on Church Avenue. "The teller was looking at me funny," Grandpa Herb would say. "She was trying to tell me something with her eyes, like 'Don't do this.' But it was Friday afternoon and the bank was going to close and I wanted to get home. On Monday the bank failed and I lost all the money in my last paycheck."

There was no FDIC back then. Grandpa Herb always would say that he had to "break up his home" and move his family back with his parents. Eventually his married sister and brother and all their kids moved into Bubbe and Zayde's house on East 42nd Street and Linden Boulevard along with his younger unmarried brother and sister. They all stayed there awhile.

Grandpa Herb made up a lot of stories, but Great-Aunt Minnie, who is still alive, confirms this story was true. Everyone stayed in the East 42nd Street house until the Depression abated. Later Minnie and her husband Uncle Irving became millionaires.

We remember their Gatsbyesque house on the water in Great Neck. As a 9-year-old, we'd go through it, counting the 24 different rooms, including 7 bathrooms. Still later they lost everything and moved into a little house in Kings Point whose owner of record was Grandpa Herb. Aunt Minnie's been doing okay for years.

People get rich and go broke. Banks expand and they fail. (See our 1988 story "I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp,"originally published in the Lower East Side mag Between C and D, available in the Dumbo Books collection Highly Irregular Stories. In it, a financial crisis leads to a punk rock singer becoming Fed chairman.)

We told Nina on Thursday night that we expected Washington Mutual to fail by the end of the year, but that taking our money out of the bank would only cause it to fail faster.

Then we got off the phone and turned on the TV and heard the news, oh boy. The feds had seized WaMu - seized! - and sold its assets to JP Morgan Chase.

We like to go to Diamondbacks games at Chase Field in Phoenix with Dad and our brothers. The stadium is enclosed so the Arizona summer heat can't get in. Chase Field used to be Bank One Ballpark. What will happen to the WaMu Theater in Madison Square Garden?

But right now, it's Monday morning in America, and we're in Greenpoint and the new WaMu branch - not quite as close to Dumbo Books HQ as its Bushwick Financial Center on Graham and Grand, but there's no Duane Reade and no Starbucks there, as there is near the intersection of Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues. Also no signs saying "Mowimy po polsku."

As a kid, we were enthralled by the bank exploits of our Great-Aunt Tillie (Minnie and Grandpa Herb's sister) and her husband Uncle Morris and our barber George and his wife Anna, who ran the beauty parlor in the back of his barber shop on Church and Troy Avenues.

In the 1950s this daring quartet didn't rob banks like Bonnie and Clyde and their gang; instead, they roamed the city on the opening days of bank branches, when they'd get free toasters and radios and savings bonds when they'd open new accounts.

It was thrilling for them, and for us to hear about it, to get free gifts just for moving their money around. They seemed to open up one new account every couple of weeks and Aunt Tillie had more toasters than anyone I knew.

Today WaMu's Manhattan Avenue Financial Center is offering no free gifts.

Entering the bank, we pass the ladder out front with workmen doing something or other and the celebratory shiny balloons in the window.

At the reception desk, there's a welcome sign in English and one saying "dzień dobry." Monika, one of the personal financial representatives, says hi and tells us about their promotional 13-month certificate of deposit with a 5% interest rate. We ask about the minimum balance, and she has a little trouble finding it. She explains that she is new, but finally sees it's only $1,000. That sounds good to us, and we tell her we're in.

Since we decline her offer of coffee or a donut (only two Dunkin Donuts are left in the box by the time we get there, and they look a little forlorn), Monika takes us back to another personal financial representative, Slawomir, who's sitting at a desk next to the desk of Karen, the assistant manager. Carlos, the branch manager, is doing stuff around the floor and outside. The third ATM apparently isn't working.

Like most of the new WaMu branches and postmodern banks, the Greenpoint financial center has no tellers' cages inside, just individual posts where the p.f.r.'s can do transactions for you. It's sleek and cool.

People seem a little startled that we are actually opening an account. Slawomir said it's been kind of busy, but we are the first CD he's going to process. We slide our west coast WaMu card but it's not turning up our personal info. (The west coast bank is Washington Mutual Bank on our checks; the east coast bank is Washington Mutual Bank, FA, which we assume means "Federal Association" though it could mean "Financial Adversity.")

Karen says we need our east coast account so we swipe that card. Everything comes up. Nothing needs to be updated but our employer: it still has Nova Southeastern, which we left in June 2005.

Slawomir asks if we want a beneficiary, so we name our dad - Dad himself banks at Chase since it took over Bank One - and he enters the info with Karen's assistance. He explains that he's been in training for three months, but this is his first day on the job. We wonder what it feels like to get a job with a bank that has just failed.

He gets together a nice little folder for us, has us verify the info for the account, which will mature on October 29, 2009. Eighty years before that, October 29, 1929, was Black Tuesday, notorious for being the worst day in the U.S. stock market.

We go over to one of the posts where people can do transactions and transfer the money from our west coast online savings to our new east coast CD. We're done.

More comfortable, we broach the subject of the bank's condition with Karen before we go. "Um, so how is the transition going to work?" is how we put it. It's like talking about someone's father's funeral arrangements.

Karen says that nothing will change for about six months. The bank will still be WaMu, and of course, thanks to FDR's FDIC, the money is totally safe. We knew that and we tell Karen that's why we resisted our dad's telling us to take out the money.

She says the bank was doing okay until people took out something like fifteen billion in deposits over a couple of weeks. If no one panics, everything's going to be okay.

At least with checking and savings accounts and CDs and banks. At least if you have well under $100,000, as we do.

We're told that maybe after six months, they'll "eliminate redundancies." There's a Chase branch just up Manhattan Avenue so maybe they'll come over to this new branch or they'll go there. We said we're glad they opened up and that we'll be back.

Our first bank account, opened back in 1956 as a student in Mrs. Eisenstein's Class 1-1 at P.S. 244 in East Flatbush, was part of a program established between the school and the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn. The Dime has been Washington Mutual for years now.

Over the years, we have had accounts at many banks that have died: Anchor Savings Bank (our branch, at Ralph and Avenue N, is now WaMu), Manny Hanny (now Chase), Chemical (now Chase), First Union (now Wachovia...oops, just saw the news, we mean Citibank), Florida National Bank (see our story about it), First Nationwide Savings, CrossLand Savings (in Gainesville, Florida and Montague Street, Brooklyn), California Federal, First Atlanta, Republic National Bank, Goldome (our branch was on the corner of 86th and Broadway), Marine Midland, Jamaica Savings Bank, and more we can't remember...

We walk home to see if the financial rescue package has passed the House.

Our prayer for our new bank branch comes from St. Augustine: Lord, make it Chase - but not yet.

Photo courtesy of billyhc's Flickr photo gallery of Greenpoint)

Wasn't the New Deal wonderful! Aren't we glad it's coming back?


UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2009: This branch closed on February 9, 2009. Depositors were told to take their business to WaMu's Bushwick branch on the corner of Graham and Grand Avenues.

UPDATE, APRIL 2011: Above is a notice we got in the mail about the WaMu bankruptcy case in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thursday Evening at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum Bookstore: Launch Party for "From Kingsbridge to Canarsie: Reflections by 8 NYC Girls"

We were only able to stop in briefly this evening at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street (where our father and grandfather used to have many customers for the men's slacks and jeans they manufactured).

(We'd say something nice about the Tenement Museum, but to us they are better known for their mistreatment and oppression of their workers than anything else.)

We wanted to celebrate, if just for a few moments, at the New York Writers Coalition's launch party for this great organization's latest publication, From Kingsbridge to Canarsie: Reflections by 8 NYC Girls. So we had time only to say hi to some of the teenage authors of the book, all of whom are students at Urban Academy High School.

We'd gotten the book in the mail earlier this week through the kindness of Aaron Zimmerman, the dynamic founder and executive director of the NYWC, which provides free and low-cost creative writing workshops throughout the city for New Yorkers from groups that have been historically deprived of voice in our society.

NYWC is one of the partners in the New York City Neighborhood Story Project, a documentary book project replicating the highly successful and innovative New Orleans-based Neighborhood Story Project.

As the NYWC website notes,
Through writing, interviews, and photography, neighborhood writers create portraits of New York City, then edit the stories with the neighborhoods to ensure authenticity. We publish the book and have block parties to celebrate. The first group of New York City writers comes from the innovative Urban Academy High School.

The 18 month project at Urban Academy began in February 2007, and engaged young people from throughout New York City in intensive instruction in creative writing, oral history, urban anthropology and photography. The students honed their skills through participating in creative writing workshops led by NY Writers Coalition, by conducting interviews with the support of instructors from StoryCorps, and meeting the young authors of the New Orleans Neighborhood Story Project books.

We loved From Kingsbridge to Canarsie: Reflections by 8 NYC Girls and will be using it, tomorrow evening in fact, with our own Borough of Manhattan Community College creative writing workshop students at the Brooklyn College campus. Some of them come from the same places -- Kingsbridge, Millbrook Projects, Inwood, Harlem, Upper West Side, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Lower East Side and Canarsie -- that the book's authors do.

(Hey, so do we. Sort of. The Philadelphia Inquirer review of And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street began by saying, "Richard Grayson is a funny guy from Canarsie, Brooklyn" - though we actually hail from just across the border in Flatlands - and during the second year of our MFA program at Brooklyn College, we worked as a delivery boy for Canarsie Laundry, driving loads of once-dirty duds all over the neighborhood.)

Anyway, a book like From Kingsbridge to Canarsie - edited by Kesha Young, the NYC Neighborhood Story Project's director - can tell you what these neighborhoods are really like.

Julianne Reynoso, for example, takes you on a tour of her part of the The Bronx, Kingsbridge Heights, and can tell you about neighborhood hangouts like Delis and Breakfasts, which
also known as just "Peter's," is a small store right next to Middle School 143. A most-of-the-time-grumpy Asian man named Peter owns it. All of the students from OLA [Our Ladies of Angels] and 143 go there, and he locks all the doors to the drinks and makes sure that if you want to buy something, one of his employees gets it for you so you don't forget to pay. We would always buy the giant baked cookies or blue slushies after school before heading out across the street.

Zaira Simone tells you more about the real Brooklyn than you'll read about in hipster blogs:
When my brother moved to Seaview in Canarsie and I needed a break from the crazy people in my mother's neighborhood, I would get right on the bus. These rides are about an hour long, but I needed relief from the Pratt Institute yuppies and the Lafayette Garden people. . .

Pratt yuppies are the new residents who have established cafes, bistros, and boutiques. They are the artsy, youthful class of gentrifiers who attend Pratt Institute. I have seen them buying marijuana from the local drug dealers and playing craps in front of their apartments. Some members of the community, predominately landlords, accept their presence. However, they refuse to assimilate into the community or communicate with others on a personal level. Even their favorite hangout, "Sputnik," is exclusive and rejects the people who live in the projects. Throughout the past two years, there has been only one Latino working in there. . .

The neighborhood that I once knew was changing, and I didn't fit. . .

Seaview is very diverse. Many of the residents in the neighborhood are working-class families. The majority of residents are Italian, Jewish, West Indian, and Asian. The neighborhood is also now integrated, whereas in the early '70s it was not. Between the early '70s and late '90s, it was hard for many Black families to move into the area because it was occupied by many Italian families, who, in some ways, had the power to choose who moved into the neighborhood. During this time, not much real estate in Canarsie was being sold to Blacks and other minorities. However, many Jewish real-estate owners began to rent to Black families, specifically people coming from the Caribbean. many of these owners believed that they would gain much revenue from renting to new immigrant families, because many were refusing to move into federal housing.

Seaview is green and quiet. The architecture almost seems to replicate that of Colonial times. There are houses painted in yellow and cream, with huge lawns of cedar trees and beautiful flowers. There are Black people who drive SUVs or classic Porsches. Beautiful Grenadian construction men reside there, bickering about the World Cup while renovating their stairs.

As someone who still misses the Seaview Theatre and the great charbroiled burgers with Spanish onions from the old Seaview Diner next door on Pennsylvania Avenue, we can tell you that Zaira's descriptions are as accurate as they are compelling.

In another section of the book, Upper West Sider (we lived there too!) Faith Harris interviews her Aunt Dee:
You said you lived in Spike Lee's brownstone. Did you know him personally?

Yes, I met Spike. That's when he was attending NYU, and he was doing his first film. I think it was Joe's Barbershop [Jose's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads]. I used to talk to his father, who's a musician. I got the apartment because at the time, I was working as a paralegal in Bed-Stuy for an attorney, whose name I would rather not mention. I was also going to Brooklyn College. It made more sense for me to live in Brooklyn than to live in Manhattan, so I rented from Spike's dad for about a year. It was a brownstone with a really nice apartment.

How does it feel to live where there are a lot of gangs?

When I was growing up on 116th Street, heroin was number one. My neighborhood was the hot spot in the whole country for heroin. Living on 116th Street was not a big transition because I was used to living in a very rough neighborhood. I was just not comfortable with a lot of gang activity.

Who do you live with now?

I live with my daughter, Nayo, and I have a kitten named Brooklyn.

What are some of the hotspots in the neighborhood where you like to go?

I like to hang out in Harlem. If I hang out in the neighborhood, I go to a little Italian restaurant on 91st Street. I know the owner; he's really nice, very friendly. The food is great; the prices are reasonable. It has a nice atmosphere. That restaurant has lasted more than any other, so he's doing something right. You know, we like to go to Tex-Mex every now and then.

Yeah, I also I like the Italian restaurant with the virgin Shirley Temple.

We not only like this book - we love it. The other five authors - Jennifer Arzu of Millbrook Projects in the Bronx, Noelle Tannen from Inwood, Sofija Kulikauskas in Harlem, Bed-Stuy's Alyssa La Caille and Makeda Gaillard-Bennett - also have gems on every page. Muchas gracias, New York Writers Coalition, NYC Neighborhood Story Project, Urban Academy, and everyone connected with this book.

We can't resist ending this post with Sofija's poem "Back at Ya, Boys":
Stud muffin
Hey fella!
What's up sexy?
He's so fresh
Ay papi chulo
Yo cutie!!
Ayo sexi!
What a stud!
Que gaupo papi
He's a hottie!
What a hunk.

What a book. Get a copy of From Kingsbridge to Canarsie: Reflections by 8 NYC Girls and you won't be sorry. It's really wonderful.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wednesday Evening in Cobble Hill: BookCourt's Launch Party for "The Alcoholic" by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

When the greatest economist of the twentieth century married the most famous Russian ballerina of her day, Londoners marveled
Was there ever such a union of beauty and brains
As when Lydia Lopkovka married John Maynard Keynes?

This evening at the fabulous BookCourt in Cobble Hall, we got to see a similarly spectacular coming together of two great American talents, Brooklynites Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel, who've produced a graphic novel, The Alcoholic, of which Kirkus Reviews has said, "Rarely does a collaboration produce a graphic novel of such literary and artistic merit" and which The Los Angeles Times has called "a scabby and subversive masterpiece."

We are big fans of both these guys - in our 2006 review of Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs in The American Book Review, we called Ames "perhaps the wittiest writer of his generation." We also loved Haspiel's artwork in collaboration with our old acquaintance Harvey Pekar on American Splendor and The Quitter and his other comics, not least of which his 1980s drawing of Richard Grayson.

So we got to Cobble Hill early and were in BookCourt's back room at least 15 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. reading/discussion with the author and artist. But we were out of luck: all the chairs were already taken or saved. But we figured Ames and Haspiel were worth standing for.

What we didn't know, and would find out only when we tried to leave, that there were over 100 people standing outside the inner room and even some on the street in front of the store. So we were lucky to have a great view and to be able to clearly hear Jonathan's trademark "hairy call" opening and closing.

We've experienced the three "hairy calls" before, most recently at last spring's PEN Awards ceremony at Lincoln Center, where our seatmates, the poet Kate Gale and writer Mark E. Cull of Red Hen Press, publishers of many great books and also our Silicon Valley Diet, were kind of surprised by Ames's thrilling trilling. To be honest, we thought until just looking it up that they were actually "Harry calls" because we don't associate Jonathan Ames with hair.

To us, Ames's copies of his male pattern baldness, which he passed out to the crowd to remind us that he knows he's losing (um, lost) his hair, were also old news. And he really needs to update it because, like the Arctic ice cap, his follicles have continued to disappear.

The event began a bit late because of the overflow crowd, but it was a terrific evening. Both Ames and Haspiel are big supporters of BookCourt, which has been a great resource for Brooklyn booklovers since 1981 (see The Written Nerd's excellent report on the store), and so the celebration of The Alcoholic had a neighborhood feel - as well as lots of cups of red wine passed around so the audience could better identify with the novel's hero, Jonathan A.

The novel's author, who may or may not be the model for the book's protagonist, read his hilarious essay "I Shit My Pants in the South of France," which The Signal described quite well:
It was a piece Ames penned when he was a columnist for the New York Press during the mid-'90s, which he included in his collection of essays What's Not To Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer. It chronicles his visit to a strange doctor in SoHo for his first colonic - a water enema incurred for the purpose of cleansing the beleaguered colon - and the aftermath, noting that it was "completely autobiographical, however embarrassing that is."

As he had a lubricated tube inserted into him, which Ames said conjured images of Laurence Olivier in "Spartacus," he recounted an adventure from 1983 when he spent the summer taking classes in the South of France.

After drunkenly buying a rank tuna sandwich from a dirty gentleman outside a café, Ames was overtaken by wrenching stomach cramps that ended with an "(explosion of) diarrhea like a ruptured sewer main."

Following this exercise in scatological participatory journalism - we are of the half of humanity who loves scatological humor and can't get enough of that shit - Jonathan and Dean took questions.

The first two asked them about their favorite comedians and boxers (Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Patton Oswalt) and then someone asked about the collaborative process in creating a graphic novel. The author and artist said that no drawing was done until things were written. Jonathan showed Dean old photos of himself, since the book is "semi-autobiographical," so that Dean could know, for instance, what Jonathan looked like in kindergrarten.

Dean said that he always focuses on one aspect of a character, and Jonathan's obviously was his prominent nose. Jonathan explained that DC had sent him material about how writers work on graphic novels: with each page, he wrote out the number of panels and then described the captions and dialogue to go within each.

Sometimes Dean would change a word or discuss his ideas for the story but they rarely disagreed - except at one point Jonathan felt his character was leering where he should have looked sweeter. Mostly, every two weeks, ten pages would go back and forth. Dean would pencil them and then ink them.

The creators of The Alcoholic said the work involved "lots of kismet," as they'd "traveled lateral roads" of drinking and drugs in their lives, albeit in very different ways. In response to a question about how they met, Dean said that as an admirer of Jonathan's classic essays in The New York Press, he saw him one day at the Fall Cafe on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens (our aside: we love the place too and have gone to great poetry readings there) and introduced himself.

What Jonathan said was particularly amazing was that Dean would often draw scenes from his life, like a childhood basketball court, exactly how it looked in real life. And he admired Dean's devotion to realism: to get drawings of Asbury Park right, Dean downloaded and studied dozens of photos from the Internet.

We were going to ask Dean how collaborating with Jonathan was different than working with Harvey Pekar but someone beat us to it. Dean said that "Jonathan is a writer; Harvey is a savant," that Jonathan "thinks about narrative structure" whereas Harvey "doesn't care what you draw" and might be happy if it were just his own head talking in every panel. Jonathan said he tried to make things interesting for his friend Dean so was conscious of putting in fight scenes and pretty girls into the narrative.

Someone asked Jonathan about his current projects, and he mentioned the HBO pilot of Bored to Death in which Jason Schwartzman will be playing his alter ego (rather than play himself as he did on Showtime's What's Not to Love?). Next summer Jonathan's new book, a collection of fiction and non-fiction The Double Life is Twice as Good, will be published.

We asked Dean about his projects, and he mentioned Fear, My Dear, the second installment of his Billy Dogma trilogy

and another book just coming out this month, but "for four-year-olds," entitled Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever.

After some more interesting questions about the constraints of writing graphic novels (Jonathan said he was forced to be concise, though he felt he usually was anyway) and how their friendship was affected by the collaboration (Dean said that from their first meeting, the two men hit it off, though Jonathan kept refusing his invitations to hang out and do stuff with Dean and his friends; Jonathan said that at the time he'd been in a relationship with a woman who didn't allow him to go out), the creators of The Alcoholic wrapped things up around 8 p.m. and many in the huge crowd went to get their copies of the book signed.

We stayed up too late reading The Alcoholic but we aren't sorry. As the L.A. Times said, the humor and a truly wicked honesty kept the pages turning.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thursday Evening in Williamsburg: 9/11 Prayer Service at the Conselyea Street/Graham Avenue Memorial

Just before 7 p.m. we walk down to Conselyea Street and Graham Avenue – the street sign here also says Via Vespucci – by the side of Ralph's Famous Ices. At the southwest corner, a plaque honors the eleven local residents lost on 9/11.

Around seventy people – at 57, we are one of the youngest in this Williamsburg crowd – are gathered by the southwest corner. A microphone is set up in front of the memorial, and there’s a little table with a CD player/radio. A couple of people are passing out the lyrics to the songs and the words to the Knights of Columbus World Day of Prayer for Peace prayer that Pope Benedict XVI said at Ground Zero this past April. Most everyone is taking white plastic cups with little candles in them, and a man is lighting the wicks.

The Grand Knight of the local Don Bosco Council of Knights of Columbus, Frank DeVito, acts as master of ceremonies. Someone turns on a CD of “America the Beautiful” and we sing along, with the more professional voices in front of the mic. Then someone holds up the flag on the corner and we pledge allegiance to it.

Frank DeVito talks about the familiar pledge and how it was first recited in the Columbus Day celebration in 1892, the 400th anniversary of his landing in the New World, how the Knights of Columbus in the early 1950s led the successful campaign to add the words “under God” to the pledge.

Then past Grand Knight Jerry Cardinale comes to the mic and reads the names of the 9/11 dead from our neighborhood:
Sandra Conaty Brace
Lt. John Crisci
Carl Beni
Stephen Johnson
Debbie Mannetta
Luke Rambosek
Joseph Calandrillo
Cono Gallo
Lt. John Napolitano
Thomas Sabella
Firefighter Carl Bedigah
Lt. Andrew Desperito
Catherine Fagan
David Barkway
Paul Ortiz, Jr.
Joseph Graffagnino
Glen Wilkienson
Louis Monefere
Robert Beddia

Then he adds: All servicemen and –women who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Father Tony of St. Francis of Padua Roman Catholic Church up the block - his lilting Haitian accent is somehow comforting - leads us in prayer.

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol speaks briefly, noting that there are many in the crowd with “my hair color” – white – and says it’s dependent upon those of us who are old-timers to make the younger generation understand what happened on 9/11 and to make sure that those who died and those heroes won’t be forgotten.

Lentol says those in our community who died in the twin towers died like soldiers in a war. He talks about World War II, which “the real old-timers” remember: how the world was saved for democracy and freedom against dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. (We thought Stalin was on our side in WWII, but never mind.)

Tony DeVito talks about another Jerry, whose last name begins with G but which we didn’t quite catch, who was among the people standing on this corner seven years ago watching when the twin towers fell.

Jerry was instrumental in creating the memorial here, but he’s recuperating from dialysis today and can’t be here, so a certificate of appreciation to Jerry is given to his brother-in-law and sister, who says a few words.

We begin our candlelight procession to the church two blocks down. Most people here have lived in this neighborhood all their lives.

Six years ago we were living in the small Ozarks town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. As our friend Debbie, who walked over to tell us the news that morning, used to say, it was town where people came to hide out or to heal.

We had no TV and our radio couldn’t pick up the NPR station in Fayetteville so in the mornings we could listen only to Christian and country music stations; on one, a DJ mourned, "They were Yankees – but they were our Yankees."

One of the radio stations somehow ran the feed from CBS and we listened to it all that night, the same things over and over again. We’d sleep for half an hour, wake up, sleep for another half-hour, wake up and listen to Dan Rather say the same things about the towers we’d heard three or four times before.

In the morning, when we went to Eureka's Victorian touristy downtown, our familiar waitress at the café told us that our iced tea was free. “The boss decided to give thanks for our regular customers today.” We left Sheryl a bigger-than-usual tip.

It was November 2001 when we finally visited New York, staying on Long Island. Though our friends said they couldn’t bear to join us, we did go to Ground Zero on a blustery day. There wasn’t all that much to see and we didn’t like seeing all the peddlers selling memorial stuff.

We like the homey little memorial on our Williamsburg corner better. Thanks to Jerry and the Knights of Columbus and everyone who made it possible.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wednesday Evening at the Brooklyn Historical Society: Opening Reception for "Counter/Culture: The Disappearing Face of Brooklyn's Storefronts"

This evening we went to Brooklyn Heights to the opening reception for the great new exhibit of photographs by James and Karla Murray, "Counter/Culture: The Disappearing Face of Brooklyn's Storefronts" at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

A trip to the Historical Society is always a treat, and last evening when we arrived around 6 p.m. there were literal treats: several tables of finger food and drinks. Since this is the 19th anniversary of us losing nearly 50 pounds (though we are prouder of having kept all but 10 pounds off in the ensuing years; for our obsessive secrets, see The Silicon Valley Diet), we limited ourselves to a plain little breadstick.

Kate Fermoile, the BHS vice president for exhibits and education, came to the microphone as most of us got into seats. She explained that "Counter/Culture" is the first in the 2008-09 series of exhibits in the Public Perspectives series in the Independence Community Gallery downstairs.

Every April there's an open call for proposals for exhibits, and three proposals are selected by a panel of cultural and community representatives. The winners receive an honorarium and technical assistance from the BHS in developing and mounting the exhibit.

(Future exhibits in this year's round are "From Hand to Eye: Drawn Views of Brooklyn," starting next January, and "Brooklyn and the History of Chinese Immigration," which will open next May.)

Then James and Karla Murray came up and discussed their exhibit and how they started their photographic exploration of Brooklyn's old mom-and-pop storefronts began in the late 1990s and how the project evolved to include the interviews in the current exhibit. (You can actually hear this in the Murrays' own words in their podcast on the BHS website.)

Jim and Karla were documenting graffiti art in far-flung New York City neighborhoods. Since graffiti is somewhat ephemeral as it's written over, they made repeated visits to places and started noticing that the old mom-and-pop stores were disappearing, in some cases, surprisingly fast.

Like many of us, the Murrays loved the old store signs and the way they were made, and after they began photographing the storefronts, they were interested in finding about the stores. So instead of just asking for permission, they did interviews asking about when the stores were founded and how they involved.

Most of the stores are now run by second- or third-generation family members from the original people who started the businesses, including many college-educated professionals like teachers or police officers, who left their positions to carry on their family tradition when their parents died or retired.

These mom-and-pop stores, as we all know, are often endangered by gentrification, redevelopment, skyrocketing rents (the luckier storeowners also own their buildings and thus are not at the mercy of landlords) and the lack of a younger family who will take over when people get too old or too sick to keep up the long hours.

Often storeowners spend as much as 80 hours at work. Jim mentioned the exhibit's title, "Counter/Culture," is based on the waist-high counters at the family-owned stores, which act as homelike kitchen tables in contrast to the shoulder-high counters at modern chains like Duane Reade, which are more impersonal. People hang out at mom-and-pop stores and they serve as de facto neighborhood community centers.

This great exhibit made us wish that we'd taken a photo of our great-great-grandparents' candy store on Stone Avenue (now Mother Cabrini Boulevard) in Brownsville, which Sam and Sylvia Shapiro started in the 1920s. As a kid, when we'd drive by with our grandfather, Herb Sarrett, he'd point out that his grandparents-in-law's storefront still looked exactly the same although a new family took over in the late 1930s. The store suddenly disappeared in the 1960s when the block was razed for the Tilden projects.

We do have pics of two Brooklyn family stores where we toiled in our retail youth. Starting when we were 14, we worked with Grandpa Herb and Carlos and Joe and Marty downtown at The Slack Bar on Fulton Street long before it became a pedestrian mall.

The store was owned by our Uncle Matt, Grandpa Herb's son, (we wrote a little about our experiences in "The Boy Who Could Draw Dr. King"), who also owned with our father and three other men - Syd Siegel of the Sid's Pants chain (the yellow-signed Sid's Pants were ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s) and his two brothers-in-law, Jack Lubel of Jack's Slacks on 86th Street in Bensonhurst and Jimmy Saracino of Jay's Slacks in Flushing - a bunch of stores called The Pants Set.

The Pants Set began around 1964, when women started wearing slacks more and more (when we were kids, girls were not allowed to wear anything but skirts to public high schools unless the temperature was below 20 degrees), and they had a store in Bensonhurst on 86th Street between Bay Parkway and 21st Avenue, where we worked occasionally. (We can recall saying "Huh?" to our psychologist Dr. Bob Wolk when he asked us if we ever wanted to try on the women's clothes - not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Anyway, we're glad to say we have pics of that Pants Set store and also the one on Fordham Road in the Bronx and the second Slack Bar store on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, though we worked at them only when they opened. Both family-owned stores closed decades ago; the 22-store Pants Set chain, mostly in malls like Kings Plaza, was sold to the national chain G&G, and we don't think G&G exists anymore either. Our mom worked in Kings Plaza, our stepcousin Merryl worked in Green Acres in Valley Stream, and various other relatives of the families that owned the stores worked elsewhere.

There were other old-time stores owned by friends or relatives that we loved, like the candy store/luncheonette on the corner of Church Avenue and East 43rd Street owned by our great-great-uncle's sister, Mrs. Mogg, where we hung out for hours - stores whose facades we wish were preserved in images as skillful as those of James and Karla Murray (whose Burning New York Burning is also one amazing book of groundbreaking photography and interviews).

The Murrays' photographs of storefronts were done "old school," like the stores themselves, not with digital photography. The ones in the exhibit (as opposed to some pictured here) have no cars or people in the foreground: just pure storefront, giving viewers the perspective as if they were standing right in front of the stores.

Their most amazing works are block-long sequences of stores, done with the aid of computers, like the stretch of stores on Bedford Avenue between North 7th and North 8th Streets. Some of those stores, like others of those in the exhibit, are gone just two or three years after the photos were taken.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the exhibit, lending resonance to the beauty of the visuals are the skillful video interviews with second-generation Brooklyn storeowners like Gennaro Aliperti of Emily's Pork Store on Graham Avenue in Williamsburg (just a few blocks away from Dumbo Books HQ; he almost makes us want to stop being vegetarians) and Giovanni Lanzo of Luigi's Pizza in Greenwood Heights:
Counter/Culture- The Disappearing Face Of Brooklyn's Storefronts by James and Karla Murray
really connects our past and present and fulfills the Brooklyn Historical Society's mission of making Brooklyn history vibrant and relevant. Until the Murrays' book of mom-and-pop storefronts in all five boroughs is finally published, this is your only chance to see these amazing photographs. "Counter/Culture" runs until December 28. For more information, see the BHS website.