Archive for ‘New York’

June 27, 2011

the carousel

by Megan Abbott

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for a magazine about Forest Hills, my neighborhood in Queens.  In the first draft, though, I lost the thread and started writing about something else entirely—about Forest Hills, yes, but also my own hometown, and the way many of us move from place to place but, like the well-worn chestnut, “wherever you go, there you are.”

After moving to New York City16 years ago, I gave little conscious thought to my hometown, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But, for reasons still unclear, I ended up setting my new book, The End of Everything, in a barely fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe. And, in talking about the book in recent weeks (a recipe for unbearable self-absorption!), I’ve had this puzzling new access to its continuing resonance for me. The way, for better and worse, it shaped me, and lingers with me.

Eventually, I scrapped that first draft and ended up writing about my favorite Queens wig shop (truly!). What appears below—none of it ended in the final piece other than a few phrases. But I guess I kind of wanted to put the piece somewhere because I wonder how many of us feel the same strange tug of our hometowns? And if we remain in them, does that tug become more about a past time rather than a place?

*                *                *

It’s a time machine. That’s what it is. Dusty afternoons, dew-struck mornings, I can jump on my bike, pedal a few blocks deeper into the heart ofForest Hills,Queens, and I am transported back. Many years later and a half a country away. I’m age ten again, with a ten year old’s wonder and restlessness, riding my ten-speed through the soundless streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a time and place trapped in amber, tripped to life again here.

When I was 22 years old, I fled my serene suburban homestead with the desperate urgency of one exiting a burning building. Also the hometown of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who set Virgin Suicides here, Grosse Pointe is a place of lovely stasis. The historic home of auto barons, it remains seemingly untouched by the woes of the Motor City on whose back those barons built the magnificent Georgian and colonial homes that still strut along Lake St. Clair. A lake large enough to seem an ocean, its white Yacht Club tower seeming to pierce the sky.

It is a place once known, in ways staggering to my bored adolescent self, as the Paris of the Midwest. (Alas, my family lived near the freeway, the number of digits in our address the key social indicator—we were three digits away from the Lake, and therefore, three digits too far.)

courtesy of Grosse Pointe Historical Society

At age 22, I moved to my dream locale, New York City. The vision in my head was plucked straight from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and I imagined eating Chinese food and watching Marx Brothers’s movies in bed with Woody, the cityscape glittering from our penthouse window. And it was (is) nearly as wondrous as I expected. I do not, often, find myself strolling the East River at dawn, the cityscape glowing miraculously in the background (and a penthouse does not lie in my future). But I do enough.

Six years ago, however, in need of more space, I found myself living in Forest Hills, Queens, a tidy neighborhood in an outerborough, famed as the former site, until 1977, of the United States Open, which took place at the West Side Tennis Club.

Situated a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare of delicious tackiness—dollar stores, nail salons, wig shops—lies Forest Hills Gardens, the most exclusive part of Forest Hills proper. Designed in 1908 by Fredrick Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for Central Park, the Gardens were patterned after a traditional English Village, in Tudor and Georgian style. Each house was built from standardized pre-cast “nailecrete” panels, fabricated off-site and lifted into place by crane—as if an elaborate dollhouse, model train set. Sometimes, it even feels as though it’s a stage set constructed precisely for me. To propel me back.

Two years ago, I bought a bike—my first in two decades. Riding under the heavy oak and hawthorn trees, I’ve come to know the Gardens well. The wrought iron streetlights, the exposed timbers and sloping gables of the homes, straight out of a fairytale.

Soon enough, riding past all these sights, I’m in Grosse Pointe again, its sugar maples and pin oaks draping above me. It’s the classic Freudian “uncanny”—utterly familiar yet marked by some element, some tiny thing, that renders it not. If I turn that corner ahead, maybe I’ll pass the Witts’s bright white house, or see the cherry blossoms carpeting Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Orl come upon my own gabled childhood home, which I haven’t set eyes on in 13 years.

Riding, there comes upon me that uncanny feeling that if I pedal far enough, in just the right way, I’ll find myself not only in Michigan but also 10 years old. that everything is the same. The one thing that’s not—the uncanny element—is me. Like dreaming your way back into your childhood, it’s the same, only different. Or you are. And that’s everything.

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April 21, 2011

Steffie can’t do much of anything: teen prostitutes, great clothes, and boredom

by Sara Gran
The Facts of Life (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

In an earlier post I wrote about how, despite growing up in one of the book capitols of the universe, going to a fancy private school, and living with parents who may be the only people I know who own more books than me, few books, shows, or movies made quite such an impact on me as trashy stories of kids who moved to New York City and fell into trouble. And that trouble was usually prostitution, drugs, or both. But it was prostitution that was the biggest threat–you could go to rehab for drugs, but you could never wash off the stain of having sold yourself. Iris in Taxi DriverChristiane F. Angel. A dozen after-school-specials. Tootie’s encounter with a teen prostitute on The Facts of LIfe (thanks, google!). Dawn, Portrait of a Teenaged Runaway. Go Ask AliceMary Ellen Mark‘s haunting Streetwise. Thousands of made-for-tv movies, hundreds of paperbacks, a million low-budget exploitive/educational flicks. From 1976-84 (somewhat arbitrarily), teen hookers seemed to be taking over the world. Or at least New York City.

What was the late seventies/early eighties obsession with hookers, especially young ones, all about? Let me be clear here that I am in no way talking about the lives of real prostitutes (of course, most street prostitutes have short life spans and come from a history of physical and sexual abuse and poverty and few options, while a small minority of working girls choose prostitution willingly as their chosen career). I am instead talking about the mythologized prostitutes, especially children, who came to us through popular culture (and also not-so-popular culture). It wasn’t just trashy runaways in Times Square–look at Louis Malle‘s Pretty Baby, for example.

To paraphrase something Megan said the other day, what were the eighties trying to tell us with these stories? I just re-read Steffie Can’t Come Out To Play, one YA teen-hooker tale that has kept with me all these years. I read this book entirely too young, maybe ten or eleven. A Publisher’s Weekly blurb inside the cover gives you a hint about the teen-hooker obseesion of the era:

“Let’s hope it won’t be banned where so many cautionary tales are, right where they could do the most good–in small towns where girls of Steffie’s age [14!], hardly more than children, leave home in droves for reasons like hers and fall into the same sordid trap.”

Really? 14-year-olds were leaving respectable small-town homes in droves to become Times Square hookers? I don’t think the statistics exactly bear that out.  I think there was a big dose of denial in this child-hooker hysteria–a denial of the reality that there were children who were indeed prostituting themselves, not because they felt like leaving their happy home on a whim, but because life had dealt them a very raw and unfair hand. There are now a lot of homeless children and teenagers in the Bay Area, where I live. Almost everyone I know denounces these kids as “fake,” whatever that means. It causes us pain when we see people in need and don’t help, so we make up elaborate stories to counteract that pain–those young homeless prostitutes have all kinds of options, they’re just spoiled brats!

But then, why the media obsession? Let’s look at  Steffie: Steffie is from Clairton, PA, apparantly the worst place in the world. “Clairton, Pennsylvania is a black-and-gray town. Even though most of the steel mills are closed now, you still can’t get rid of the black and gray.” Stephanie takes care of her parents, her pregnant sister, and her little brother, cooking, cleaning, and constantly wiping soot off the walls, with no end in sight. Who’d want to stay? I wouldn’t. She dreams, absurdly, of being a model, so she gets on a bus and goes to New York City. In NYC, she is almost immediately picked up by a pimp named Favor. Favor is insanely wealthy–three Cadillacs with custom-made hood ornaments, fur coats, giant apartment, gold jewelry, cash falling out of his pockets. Steffie and Favor have a whirlwind courtship (“I just kept shaking my head, imagining how lucky I was, running into this beautiful man so quickly, as soon as I got here!”) after which, you guessed it, there’s a price: “‘It’s not a free ride for you, baby,’ he said, shaking his head slowly. ‘You want a whole lot of nice things … you have to earn them. Everybody does…'”

We will set aside  how oddly reminiscent this line is of Debbie Allen’s famous bon mots from Fame, the TV show (“Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying–IN SWEAT.” And of course Cocoa in Fame, the movie, had her own teen-porn storyline.) So, Steffie becomes a prostitute. Which basically means a few yucky minutes a day and the best outfits EVER. Sex in this story, as in many teen hooker stories, is glossed over to the point of not existing. By the end of the book you get the impression that being a teen hooker is more about having the best clothes than about actually having sex. There’s usually a few sordid moments that highlight the young lady’s extreme desirability (the girl in question is almost always a top earner, not just any old hooker) and maybe one or two scenes of erotic and interesting kink, but rarely any actual sex (the “dirtiest” scene in Steffie involves the highly attractive and eroticized Favor watching her get dressed).

But listen to Steffie describe a shopping trip with Favor, a reward for her first trick (which she’s entirely forgotten, hazy as it was to begin with): “It was lovely and fun!…He bought me French jeans. They were skintight and looked wonderful. And he bought me a short skirt that looked like it was made of leopard skin and felt like it, too. And shorts the same material. And another skirt and another pair of jeans in a different color and a pair of high silver boots that came all the way up to my knees practically. They were the most fabulous things I’d ever seen. And they had high heels, too.”

Dipping back in, I’m struck that these books and media made being a teen hooker seem like basically the best life in the world. Lots of cash, attractive pimps, glamorous lifestyle, and all those clothes.  Hot pants and high heels, halter tops, miniskirts, spandex.  Can I still apply for this job? And is it possible what we thought was a sexual fixation was really a clothing fixation? Later, Steffie meets a hooker even younger than her in a jail cell and they compare boots. Even Christiane F., who was an actual child prostitute, devotes pages of her autobiography to her tight jeans, slit skirts, garter belts, and, of course, boots.

Another focal point of teen-prostitution stories seems to be the interactions among the girls themselves. Christiane F. devotes page after hypnotic page to gossiping about her cohorts. Angel, if I remember right, is on a mission to avenge the death of a friend. And Steffie’s downfall, ultimately, is not the grown men she has sex with, it’s the other hookers, who don’t like her. The teen hooker is in many of these scenarios in danger of being cut, scratched, pinched, or otherwise unkindly invaded by older prostitutes. I think there is something very telling in there about our relationships with our mothers, aunts, sisters and teachers–especially the way they can sometimes force entry into our very own bodies.

But back to Steffie. Steffie pisses off the other hookers for being younger and prettier (none of us have ever experienced THAT, right ladies?), a cop takes an interest in her and beats up her pimp Favor, and she’s thrown out of the stable with, tellingly, only the suitcase of awful clothes she brought with her from Pennsylvania: “Nothing else. None of my new jewelry, none of my new coats or jackets, nothing. The only new things I had were what I was wearing: jeans, a blouse, sandals. Even my pairs of boots weren’t there, Just my old clothes … my old Clairton clothes. My blue dress for Anita’s wedding … my old pumps…” (All these ellipses, by the way, are in the book.)  A cop points her toward a Convenant-House type place (minus the pedophiles, we hope) and the kind if frightful people there help her get home.

“There wasn’t any other place in the world for me to go. I really didn’t have any choice. But oh, I wanted to put it off. Just picturing actually being there … in my own house … made my stomach turn over.” Well, the thought of Steffie back in Clairton wiping soot off the walls kind of makes my stomach turn over too. Being a hooker didn’t work out for her, but don’t we have some better options? Couldn’t she, I don’t know, go to college? Learn a new skill? Go on an adventure?

And I think that might, ultimately, be the point. Life in the seventies and eighties was often grim.  Us girls didn’t have all the options we have  now. (And I’m not saying things were so great or even any better for boys–you had and have your own set of problems, but that’s for you to write about.) I can’t think of a single female writer we read in school other than Jane Austin and maybe a little Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’ve written before about my obsession with Three’s Company, where the pretty women bordered on deaf-mute (and we’re not even going to talk about the horrifying specter of Mrs. Roper). Being pretty and smart was not on the program and niether of those options, frankly, was too appealing to being with. You could be the smart girl and spend you life buried in books and never have sex or you could be the pretty girl and be the deaf-mute object of desire, but at least you got to leave the house. The teen hookers in books and film were well-dressed and glamorous and tough and worldly and experienced and (Steffie aside) smart. They were no dummy like Chrissy or Farrah, and they weren’t boring like Janet or Sabrina. They wore bright colors. They had fun. They had sex. They knew things.

In the end, I think these mythologized child prostitutes were a spot our culture found to release the pressure of seventies grimness and limited choices and find something new–a new way of looking at girls, a new way of being in the world, and most of all, maybe, a new way of dressing–that is, a new way of describing ourselves, as women and girls, and showing ourselves to the world. I think our teen hooker obsession–mine personally and ours culturally–isn’t really about sex. I think it’s about clothes and how women treat each other and what we do with our lives  and how we make choices and the perilous times and good outfits that await us when we deviate from the plan and “run away from home.” We are often faced with a choice in life: safe, or interesting. I think our mythology of teen hookers is a mythology of choosing “interesting,” and I think the mythology tells us that we may not come out so clean and pure, but we can still come out of it wearing our favorite boots. And that’s pretty good, I think.

April 14, 2011

On William Harrington: My Uncle the Thriller Author

by stonafitch

I’ve been thinking lately about a writer I can pretty much guarantee none of you have ever heard of – William Harrington. He wrote or ghostwrote twenty-five novels, including many of the Washington thrillers of presidential spawn Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt, novelizations of the “Columbo” series, several Harold Robbins novels, and his own thrillers. In the New York Times, Anatoyle Broyard praised his clean writing and research.

Like a lot of dead writers, Bill Harrington is pretty much forgotten. But he was my uncle and the only writer I knew when I was growing up, so he holds a special place in my pantheon. His story proves that writers make terrible relatives and worse role models. You’ll see why soon enough.


I remember Uncle Bill as a demi-god of 1970s New York City, a manly man who flew his own plane into Teterboro for long lunches at La Grenouille with his agent and Terry Southern. Velvety suits with wide lapels, plates of duck a l’orange and flaming crepes for dessert. Plenty of Chablis all around. Bordeaux from the fine 1970 vintage. Nights with Peter Falk at the Playboy Club on East 59th.

I’m making most of this up, of course. But that’s probably the life he had in mind – like Hef, Harold Robbins, Burt Reynolds, and Esquire men.

The real Uncle Bill was often charming and occasionally mean but it was excusable because he was a writer, and so, insecure and deeply flawed. He looked like a pocket-sized Norman Mailer, without as much genius or popularity but with an extra dose of street smarts. Bill inspired a kind of fearful awe in our family because he was pretty much always half-drunk and prone to conversational bullying.

Bill took great delight in turning any family occasion into a debacle, which I appreciated, kind of:

Florida, 1968–Family vacation. We climb a tower at a scenic overlook. When everyone else is climbing down, Bill grabs me by the ankles and hangs my scrawny, seven-year-old ass, Pip-like, above the Everglades. When I scream and squirm like a psychotic shrimp, he tells me now you know what if feels like to be scared.

Cincinnati, 1974–Thanksgiving Dinner. Uncle Bill waves me forward from across the table. But instead of asking me to pass the sweet potatoes, he says Have you tasted your own sperm yet? He gives a wan smile as if a special treat awaits me. Then snorts into his Scotch.

Columbus, 1977–Some college bar. The place is empty and no one else in our family is drinking since it’s about noon. But Uncle Bill is marinating in Scotch. To shock us, he’s going on about homosexuality. He says he might suck a cock but definitely wouldn’t let someone fuck him up the ass. As if. By then he looked like Larry Flynt, with a big muff of smokebush hair waving over his gray eyes and a potbelly that begged for luggage wheels.

Each Christmas, like a pulp fiction Unibomber, Uncle Bill would sign his latest hardcover and mailed it to my straight-arrow father, who hid Bill’s books in the Siberian reaches of the knotty-pine bookshelves of our den. Unbeautiful and chunky, Bill’s books were hyper-commercial and smelled of cheap paper and ink, like gun catalogs. Mister Target. An English Lady (his hit). The Search for Elizabeth Brandt (not sure what that one’s about). Virus (a computer thriller before anyone owned a computer). Trial (an early legal thriller).

Left alone at home, I would pull over a chair and climb up to retrieve one of Uncle Bill’s reputedly dirty novels, seduced by their inky perfume. When I was about ten, I turned to a scene about a devious pervert who had gathered up a thin gay junkie and a busty young whore – and forced them to wear scuba suits while having sex for his amusement. Then, much to their surprise (and definitely to mine), the devious pervert plugged in a hidden cable connected to electrodes in the scuba suits and ffffssssstttt.

They were electrocuted via their smoke-spewing pudendum!

I closed the book. This was sex, which everyone seemed to want to do? Where was I going to find a scuba suit? And what about those devious perverts and their electric cables?

My worldview was twisted forever.

Lest you think he was just a garden-variety sick pup, Uncle Bill was a technology savant if not a literary giant. He was a successful attorney and avid pilot. He wrote provocative editorials and orchestrated media confrontations. He co-developed the pioneering LEXIS database, which evolved into an information service that lawyers rely on every day.

That said, he was also a very sick pup.

I had dinner with Bill spring of my senior year in college, hoping for advice for a young writer about to venture out into the marketplace. What I got instead was an evening-long, soul-killing rant about his huge book advances, celebrities he knew, and how bad most other writers (Harold Robbins!) were.

Harold Robbins and friends

After dinner, which included drinking most of the red wine in southern Connecticut, my ursine uncle padded off to his study to write. I could barely walk but Uncle Bill was writing, or appeared to be. My last memory of that night? His puffy face and glittering eyes lit green by the screen of his expensive PC, the first I had ever seen.

There goes a pro, I thought at the time, too young to recognize a drinker with a writing problem. After that, I lost touch with Uncle Bill on purpose, trying to avoid contagion from the palpable bitterness that pumped through him like central air.

Then in 2000, Uncle Bill walked out the front door of his Greenwich mini-mansion and blew his brains out with his fancy German pistol. “William G. Harrington, a mystery novelist with a long career as a collaborator with celebrity authors, died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut,” the Times obit duly recorded. “The police said he apparently committed suicide, writing his own obituary before he died. His writing career spanned 37 years.” They didn’t run the obit he wrote, of course.

I have to assume that it wasn’t drinking that killed Uncle Bill, or divorce, or declining talent. It was corrosive disappointment. I see his sad but not necessarily tragic life as a cautionary tale for writers – of serious money earned and respect denied, talent accrued and squandered, very good deals followed by deals with the Devil, novels thick with cops and soldiers that led to a final tale of a Luger in his own pale, shaking hand.

Writing is a decathlon of disappointment, even for writers who do well at it. Talk to most writers and they’ll tell you about the major film interest that almost happened but didn’t, the deal with Knopf that went south, the novel that never found a publisher, the foreign rights that floundered. Writers collect disappointment like normal people collect lint.

When my father died a few years ago I took his stack of Uncle Bill’s novels to Goodwill in Montgomery, Ohio and dropped them off with the other debris from the basement. It took three or four trips from the Buick. I never even thought about keeping one of his books. They were bad voodoo, tainted by Bill’s Scotch-scented paw. If I had thought about it, I probably would have burned the books just in case. Their dense, heavily foxed pages would have made a nice blaze in the woodstove for an evening.

A jumble of thousands of books lines the walls of our house – writers I revere or not, books that serve as beacons of brilliance or warning lights, novels I don’t particularly like written by friends I do. When it comes to books, we’re non-denominational. So why didn’t I just put Bill’s up in the outer reaches like my father used to, as a top-shelf memorial to the other writer in the family?

Because they were reminders of something few writers (or people, generally) want to know: Most of our big plans for ourselves probably won’t happen.

Still life with bunnies

Even for Uncle Bill. Trolling through louche 1970s New York City, getting hired to write for big money, living in his Cos Cob mini-mansion with a fluffy dog named Easy (for easy lay; the dog was a slut and Bill sexualized everything) – it all never quite added up to what he had in mind. So he wound up dead. And not happy dead, surrounded by loved ones in a hospice or slipping off at 92 in his sleep. He died alone on his doorstep, brains on the lawn, Luger in his hand, as two-dimensional an ending as any he ever penned.

Writers create people out of words. So why shouldn’t we create expectations out of some version of talent, the occasional break, and bits of praise? The trajectory leads ever upward. Except when its doesn’t. How we deal with the inevitable disappointments seems to make all the difference between a writing life and a bitter end.

A couple of weeks ago I made some truly half-assed attempts to track down Uncle Bill’s agent, lawyer, and other remaining cohorts. But when I heard their tired voices on my voicemail I didn’t have the heart to call them back and dredge up what I’m certain would have been mixed memories of the late William Harrington, American novelist.

I could have called my aunt, who plays piano bars down in Florida, or my cousin in Arkansas. But we’ve been out of touch for years and pestering them about their dead husband/father didn’t seem like a particularly kind way to get reacquainted.

So I didn’t make the calls or do the legwork. I cared but not that much. I already know what I need to about Uncle Bill. And now so do you. Bill Harrington was a writer who fooled himself until he couldn’t anymore. He was a good father and a perverse uncle. He lived high and died low. He was incredibly smart and sharp. He wrote and published twenty-five books.

We should all be so lucky. Right?

For an intro to Stona, click here.

February 26, 2011

Contested Space

by Sara Gran
Times Square, New York City / 20091121.7D.0041...

Image by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML via Flickr

A substantial part of the book I’m writing now–the second in the Claire DeWitt series–takes place in Brooklyn in the mid-eighties.  As many of you know, I grew up in Brooklyn, and Claire’s life is loosely based on mine (but infinitely more interesting). So I’ve been watching a lot of movies, fiction and non-, set in that time period to jog my memory. One thing that comes up over and over again when researching this period is the arguments over public space in New York. I watched a short doc shot by a man who lived in Times Square in the late eighties and early nineties. In a special feature after the film, the filmmaker said he was happy with the changes made to Times Square. He said he lived there with his wife and baby girl and didn’t want his kid growing up among the crime and prostitution. He wasn’t sorry at all to see the undesirables go and Disney come in.

This fascinates me on a number of levels. The obvious fascination, of course, is with what kind of a stupid fuck moves to Times Square to raise a baby in middle-class respectability when they have other choices (the people in the famous welfare hotels of Times Square didn’t have that choice, obviously).  There is a type–usually, but not always, white, middle-class and from the suburbs–who thinks that if they move to a neighborhood, that neighborhood should conform with their social norms. Why their standards are superior to anyone else’s is never examined; it just goes without saying.  I think those people should stay in  the suburbs, and not to move to cities, but I lost that argument long ago.

One reason why I didn’t want to live in cities anymore–I now live in a tiny hippie town in North California–was because of these battles: wars over what I call contested territory; those little pocket of urban areas that different groups each think they can call their own. In the case of Times Square, by the eighties, the Square had been “taken over” (funny how that phrase always comes up in these arguments) by hookers, pimps, pickpockets and the homeless. I don’t think that’s a good thing. But I don’t think handing the Square over to Disney was a good thing either.

I don’t buy that anyone, anywhere, has a right to any urban neighborhood. The nature of cities is change and immigration–if they’re lucky, ’cause otherwise they die (see: Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, although each of those is now enjoying (or about to enjoy) a revival). I would never argue that New York in the eighties was how things ought to be.  But I feel strongly that those of us who enjoy a way of life that others perceive as “not family friendly”–what is sometimes called the sporting life or just the Life–have as much right to public space as anyone else, just not to the exclusion of others. Likewise, moms with strollers worth more than my car have a right to public space as well–but again, not at the exclusion of others (attention Park Slope: I was born there and I’m not going to stop visiting just because you think I’m going to contaminate your baby if I smile at it). I think the key the cities without frustration is to realize that you never really do have a neighborhood. No group can ever claim ownership of a city without killing it.

Here’s what Times Square could have been: a meeting point for the different cultures, classes, races, and choices of New York City. A place where tourists can come and eat real New York food–Nathan’s, Katz’s and Sylvia’s in my book, although I’m sure everyone would have their own picks–and hear real New York music–hip hop and punk to me, but name your poison. There could be nightclubs for the grown-ups to do grown up things at night and a kids’ theater (one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of our  amazing local theaters) for the stroller crowd during the day. A place that was safe for tourists but not only for tourists, where they could learn about us and we could learn about them, those corn-fed others who walk so slowly.

Instead, I actually get dizzy on the rare occasions when I go to Times Square. I like spectacle and phantasmagoria as much as the next lady, but something about the overwhelming presence of cameras–from tourists, from people with cell-phone-cams, from the “security” videocameras–combined with the proliferation of monitors running adds for coke or whatever makes me deeply uncomfortable in a way I can’t put my finger on. In fact, I feel that way about New York in general now but how NYC turned into a less-interesting version of Blade Runner–well that, friends, is a post for another day.

February 8, 2011

Eight Million Stories in the Naked City

by Sara Gran
weegee_phonebooth

Megan wrote a few posts about photographs had inspired her writing. They have for me, too–in particular, Weegee‘s photos were a big inspiration when I wrote Dope. Weegee was a photographer who took pictures mostly in New York City–his peak production was the thirties through the late fifties. He started off as a photojournalist, using a police scanner to get to crime scenes and the like to get the first pics, and then developed renown as a more general photographer.

The other night I saw NAKED CITY, the Jules Dassin movie, for probably the third time. Naked City is at least in part based on Weegee’s photos–many of the scenes are directly modeled on his photographs. Yet I’ve forgotten the relationship between the photographer and the film–if they optioned his book (also called Naked City) or just “borrowed” his ideas. Weegee’s name wasn’t in any the credits or even in the special features. But many scenes in the movie actually begin as reconstructions of his photos, even duplicating his lighting, which then come to life. If you know the photographs it’s kind of amazing. I’m guessing there’s some kind of legal monkey business at work here, though, because Weegee’s name seems to have been erased from the history of the film. Anyone know the story here?

And, of course, the later TV show was inspired by the film. This was on TV about 3 a.m. throughout most of my adolescence and I watched it almost nightly. That and Ben Casey. What a world I thought adults lived in!

I haven’t seen many Jules Dassin films, but the two I’ve seen–Night and the City and Naked City–are tops. By the way, all the consonants in his name are hard–DASS-in isn’t French, as I’d always assumed, but an American who moved to France and made some films there after got blacklisted. Combined with the name, everyone apparently jumps to same conclusion I did.

January 5, 2011

Miniatures, Models, and Queens

by Sara Gran

Speaking of movies, I saw IRON MAN 2 last night. There were two interesting things in this movie. One was the great multi-layered use of miniatures/architectural models and the great NYC locations. For mysterious reasons Iron Man has a big exhibition/show/whatever-he-does in Flushing, Queens, home to both the 1939 & 1964  World’s Fairs–you may  know it as the place with the giant open-sided steel globe (the Unisphere). Now, the interesting part is that there was a sub-plot about Iron Man’s father (who as it turns out is Roger Sterling!), in which Father built a giant scale model of the whole Flushing World’s Fair complex (!!) and made a short LOST/Dharma-Initiative-ish film with the scale model as a prime feature (!!). As if that wasn’t cool enough, it turns out this scale model, when rearranged, holds the key to saving Iron Man’s life, or something like that! (And proves that Roger Sterling really loved him after all, but who cares?)

Now this is especially interesting because although they didn’t mention it in the film (at least not that I noticed), Flushing is home to its own outstanding model/miniature–a nearly 10,000 square foot building-by-building model of all of New York City, called the New York Panorama, made by a family of insane people to re-enact famous New York crime scenes with mice, kittens, and puppies in costume. No, not really (but wouldn’t that be cool?)–it was built for the 1964 World’s Fair, held in the same location (I just break in at night and do the kitten thing for fun). I went there with none other than Megan Abbott a few years back, and we had lots of fun pointing out places where we’d lived, gone to school, etc.  They’ve even got the Roosevelt Island tram up and running! It is truly extraordinary. The Panorama is housed in the Queens Museum, a nice place in its own right. So there’s some fun little layers here in an otherwise not-too-fascinating film.

The other interesting thing about IRON MAN 2 was that the women were less stupid and whorish than in Iron Man 1. Did people complain about that or something?

December 29, 2010

The Gods Of New York City

by Sara Gran
Santeria Temple_Cuba 173

Image by hoyasmeg via Flickr

I recently saw The Gods of Times Square, a surprisingly cheerful documentary about days gone by–when street preachers, people who thought

they were Jesus and religious white-, black-, and probably other supremacists tried to convert the confused in Times Square. This as central a feature of the area as the pornography and the prostitution, although far less documented. Filmed in the eighties, what makes this movie wonderful is that the filmmaker himself lived in Time Square, was a part of this community, and has a deep and honest respect for and curiosity about the people he speaks to. Although he sometimes questions and prods, he doesn’t invalidate anyone’s idea of reality and gives everyone’s ideas a fair shake.

New York City back then was kind of a spiritual wonderland. Growing up, it seemed perfectly normal to me that corner stores sold religious candles to folk saints and half the people on the bus crossed themselves when we passed a church. Within walking distance spiritual supply stores catered to practitioners of Santeria and Haitian Voudun (Voodoo), where I overcame my initial fears to ask a few timid questions; a short subway ride away you could find yourself in a Hasidic or otherwise-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood; a Rastafarian enclave; a Wiccan witchcraft shop.

Of course,t his wasn’t the New York City my atheist parents and rationalist private school thought they were raising me in, but luckily, it’s the one I grew up in. In every city there are dozens, hundreds of cities, all occupying the same space and time but entirely different. I’m lucky I found the one I needed, and not the one I was given.

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