The plan was this: be on the corner of 36th and Madison at 10am to meet the guy from Dead Apple Tours. We were to be loaded into a 1954 hearse and driven about the locations of famous deaths for a couple of hours. After that we were taking the train out to Coney Island, and then wrapping the day watching the Brooklyn Cyclones (a feeder team for the Mets) play the Yankees (a feeder team for the obvious.)
Got on the subway. A Mexican guy was at the end of the carriage strumming his guitar and checking himself out in the dented steel of the carriage wall. A skinny fifty-something guy with a tamoshanter and a John Waters moustache was attempting to give directions to a mother and child who spoke little English, while occasionally upending a bag of Skittles into his mouth.
This whole country seems to run on the diet I wanted when I was five.
We got south, exited, wound up near the Empire State Building looking for breakfast. Teams of men in high-vis vests were outside the entrance with flyers and programmes. A big dude asks us "Goin’ up? Goin’ up?" Looks like they all work for different tour companies, all trying to get business. Two guys from the same company – one black guy, one Indian guy – are having an argument that sounds like it could escalate to blows if they weren’t careful. The black guy was accusing the Indian guy of taking his corner. Indian guy was denying it, outraged. Black guy countering with "No, no. You lie. You’re a Muslim and Muslim’s lie." Indian guy, affronted, counters with "I am no Muslim!" And so it goes.
So we wind up settling for something easy for breakfast and get to the corner. A guy is there: obviously the guy from the tour if the black t-shirt, black shades and porkpie hat are any indication. He is a torrent of apologies. The pump in the hearse blew yesterday and it’s in the shop. They’re outta business for two weeks, but he says he’ll honour the purchase for the next year etc etc. In the end he realises that’s useless to us and forks over a refund. Tries to smooth it over by offering up stories about the JP Morgan Library, which we’re standing right outside of. Unfortunately rufus worked there for a year and knows the rumour about an underground subway leading from the library basement to Morgan’s old office on 5th street is bunk. There’s lanyrinthine basements down there, used to store the hundreds of priceless items JP Morgan just went out into the world and bought, but there’s no subway.
"I’ll buy it."
So he counters with the little-known fact that the New York Public Library – which holds a Gutenberg bible, among many other treasures – has vaults also. But what few know is they stretch out and away from the library,so that they’re actually under Bryant Park. In prepping to get his business off the ground he spent weeks in the library researching and came up with all sorts of little-known facts. If I get the chance when we return from Louisville I might see if I can get in on a tour.
We had intended to go to the JP Morgan Library the day before, but flaked out. Given we were here we decided to check that out instead.
We got inside and discovered the McKim Room – the massive, decadent and ornate central library built as a repository for Morgan’s massive collection of priceless artifacts once his office could no longer contain them – was closed til October for refurbishment.
Some things were on display, and they were interesting, but the film we saw in the theatre had people going on about Mozart and Beethoven original pieces, Dylan pieces, two Gutenberg bibles, a piece of the True Cross (supposedly), a 2000 year-old missal, old masters, original manuscripts from Mark Twain, the sole surviving of ‘Paradise Lost’, Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, stuff from Byron, Steinbeck… the list goes on and we could see none of it. Later I thought I could buy the catalogue at least. Turns out they sold out and wont have any more until next year.
Also, I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside so anything I can show you comes from stock sources.
"Fun has been cancelled. We’re having it refurbished."
I did manage to see the original, winning plan for the layout of Central Park, the original of Alexander Pope’s ‘Epistle to the Earl of Burlington’, Wordsworth’s hand-drawn plans for a winter garden at Coleorton Hall for his patron Sir George Beaumont. There was an original handwritten page from Ruskin’s ‘Of Modern Landscape.’ Feint-lined paper, ink pen. Not always legible. Speaks of the origin of the then-modern Romantic notion of pursuing beauty in the countryside, as a reaction to the buildup of the industrial age.
I remembered something ‘Blue Z’ Drew told me the night we had dinner: NY has a law stating that it’s illegal to do anything in an elevator other than face forward with your arms folded. You can be arrested, technically, if you don’t.
The ‘Palladio and the Project’ room was fantastic. Doodles and informal sketches and plans of places long-vanished. Reminded me of Ade’s "Lost Villages of Sussex" book he had lying around. Places that once existed, then depopulated for one reason or another, and either became ghost towns that rotted away, existing now only as anomalous entries in ancient censuses, or were otherwise subsumed into some other settlement. The idea that places that once had lives and politics and histories could be so erased I’ve always found really intriguing.
The whole thing filled me with an urge to see Highgate Cemetary again, of all things.
I was fascinated by shots in the film we saw of the difference between a Mozart piece of handwritten music (neat and precise), and a Beethoven piece (furious penmanship, so many things scrawled out in a blaze of ink). Would have loved to have seen those myself.
Came away wanting to learn more about Akkadian and Guti cultures. 2334-2100 BC I think. The round stone seals they made, designed to be rolled over wax I think, still produce absolutely exquisite detail.
Assyrian script is fascinating. Looks like a collection of thorns.
They also had a collection of Durer drawings, woodblocks and prints. Fasinating to see up close. I’ve got to come back when the McKim Library is open.
We got to Herald Square, caught the train over Williamsburg Bridge. Flashing through the windows of trains passing us as we crossed the Hudson, and through the girders and guidewires of the Brooklyn Bridge downriver, I caught my first (and possibly only) fleeting, flickering glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.
After about an hour we got to Coney Island. It’s fine during the day, but at night it goes batshit so the plan was to leave straight after the ball game that night. The train itself was packed with families toting carts of gear, umbrellas, cookers, the whole thing.
Outside the Nathan’s Hot Dog HQ-thing people were erecting the scaffolding for tomorrow’s Competitive Eating Competition. Massive signage nearby counted down the 22 hours remaining until it was to kick off. Six cops were milling around it while they set it up. Phone booths had walls made up with advertisements for 1800-COPSHOT offering a $10,000 reward for info leading to the capture and conviction of anyone responsible for shooting a police officer.
We walked to the end of the street, got onto the boards,rufus got changed to spend 15 minutes in the ocean and I spent the time taking pictures. The UV was way too high and there was no way on Earth I was getting involved with the crowds between me and the water. A Muslim woman found a patch of shade near the change rooms and kneeled to face Mecca. It meant she was actually facing about 1000 mostly-naked people while she did it. So damn tempted to get a shot of that, but didn’t.
Here’s some pics.
The tower in the background is the Parachute Jump.
We checked out the Coney Island museum (99c to get in.) A few artifacts, a pleasant-faced bald lady at the door and an endless loop of a doco made about its heyday. Judging from the state of it (and the relative youth of Eli Wallach) I’d say it was put together in the early 80s.
BUT, holy crap, this place was amazing before WWI. The Blowhole Theatre. Steeplechase Park. Luna Park. Dreamland. Midget City (a built-to-scale city for 300 midgets who lived there year-round). They smuggled in small tribes of Amazonian and Indonesian natives, Inuit, Africans… all as exhibits. Elephants on water slides. 450 films screening constantly. Papers called it The City of Fire. Water rides. The world’s largest Ferris Wheel. The Trip to the Moon. Biblical exhibits like The End of the World and Hell Gate.
The Blowhole Theatre was when the owners realised people liked exhibits, but liked watching people more. User-generated content.
Steeplechase Park was where they realised that people like anything that gives guys an excuse to hug girls, and girls an excuse to be hugged.
Steeplechase Park came first, then Luna Park tried to one-up them. Luna Park was started by two men: one an alcoholic and the other a shifty business-type from memory. They sunk everything into it, and the 250,000 electric lights that blew people away when they turned it all on. No one knew what it was. But by the time it opened they had eleven dollars left. They had to scour the boardwalk for change for the ticket sellers. But by the end of the first season they had more money than they should ever have been able to spend.
Dreamland came last. I think that was the one with the biblical exhibits. One night as they prepped the Hell Gate for the next day’s crowds someone tipped a tar bucket, it caught alight, and the entire park burned to the ground. Burning animals fled out onto the avenues. The next day the owner charged 10c to anyone wanting to walk the wreckage.
I think Steeplechase suffered a similar fate. WWI hit and Luna went bankrupt. People lost interest in erected disaster.
I remember flying into New York, looking out the window, and at any point I could see 5-10 baseball diamonds. So I’m glad rufus got us tickets to this. The Brooklyn Cyclones are the home team, playing on home turf. They’re also in the middle of a losing streak, I think. rufus got us good seats behind home plate, Pepsi gave us free barbecue tools, we settled down as the afternoon cooled off and waited for it to start.
While we were inside, Coney Island was working itself up to going bugfuck. The streets were choked with people, strangers were yelling at strangers, a strung out woman was holding a payphone receiver at waist height and yelling "You dumb fuck… you dumb fuck…" while her 8-year-old daughter tried to get her attention. Inside the train station two middle-class kids were having a very grown-up domestic: wild-eyes, gritted teeth, lost in the narrow tunnel of two-way pain. I remember the guy saying "Feel this! Feel this!" while she tried to crush his hands screaming the same thing through perfect white clenched teeth. Her hair was still wet from the ocean, a towel over her shoulder.
Hot, tired people were cramming onto trains with trolleys of sand-caked gear, kids were passing out on benches.
Coney Island gets a lot of gang violence. After dark it’s a great place to get shot.
When we finally got back, an air bed never felt so good. Great day though. From the sublime to the ridiculous and all points in between. Glad I got to see a ball game, very glad to have seen Coney.
And all the sets of my travels are collected here.