People seemed interested in my previous recollection of Brooklyn. Here is the first part of a continuation when my family made the move to Manhattan in 1937.
New York City before World War II was quite a different place from today. The Hispanic influence was relatively minor. There was still heavy prejudice against Blacks and Jews. Elevated trains in Manhattan, known as “the el” ran along Second Avenue, Third Avenue and Sixth Avenue supported by extremely filthy huge steel structures which shaded the streets in the manner of an Arab souk where sunlight penetrated to the street in bright bar patterns of the tracks above. The street itself was paved with cobblestones and streetcar tracks ran underneath the el structure on Third Avenue. Passengers on the el trains could see into the apartments of the houses that lined the streets. A streetcar line also ran cross-town on 42nd Street. When an el train rolled by overhead the thunder of its passage suppressed all street conversation and bright blue sparks frequently flashed down along with an occasional flake of spalled blue steel from the train wheels that rained down on pedestrians and cars alike. The stations had an air of the late 19th century with carved wood decorations. Passengers had to climb a long stairway to the stations which had benches inside the enclosed station where the station agent changed bills into coins that could be used to activate the wooden turnstiles. In the center of each station was a small Franklin stove to keep the place warm in the winter. People would wait there in cold weather until a train arrived when they could go outside to the platform alongside the tracks to board the train. Up until the middle 1940’s the price was a nickel – five cents. As inflation gradually decreased the value of money various special tokens costing more were purchased from the agent’s booth. Each time the price of a ride increased a newly designed brass token was issued costing more.
New York was as distressingly hot in summer then as it is today so that molten tar from the asphalt paving frequently percolated out in thick black streams near the street curbs. The city ran streetcars with open sides to permit a breeze to cool the riders. Air conditioning didn’t exist for the average person and on hot summer nights people would sleep on the steel fire escapes or the roofs of apartment houses known as “tar beach” as people would lay out blankets during the day to sun themselves.
In those days, as today, New York was a cultural jewel but there is a profound difference between then and now. Back then every resident, whatever his or her income level, enjoyed this marvelous community heritage without cost. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Natural History, the zoos in Manhattan, The Bronx, and Brooklyn, the Aquarium at the southern tip of Manhattan, were all a subway ride away on the IRT, the BMT, and the Independent Line for only five cents. And there is a significant difference in being able to wander into a treasure filled museum for a quick refreshing glance at a single masterpiece and walk out again without a thought that the hefty price of entrance requires today that at least a whole afternoon must be invested to compensate for the cost of entrance. I accept that museums and many public institutions no longer receive the type of donations from wealthy industrialists that they had in the past but the loss of considering mere residence in the city as a blessing that extended one’s living room into the fantastic resources of all of mankind’s history is a sorry loss for community culture.
The Aquarium was a special treasure. It was constructed in the converted circular fort called The Battery that donated its name to that section of Manhattan below Wall Street. Around the internal periphery on the ground floor were huge glass walled tanks containing both pointy nosed sharks and weird hammerheads, some of which were nine or ten feet long, large sea turtles, octopi, and amongst other wonders, a huge black grouper with a Buddha stare for the people who stared back. It was always a wonder for me to see the ray fish “fly” through the water like alien birds. The balcony above displayed many gaudy smaller fish, sea horses, and wonderful sea anemones with waving hungry arms. Separate open circular pools on the floor contained seals and walruses, alligators or crocodiles, and a herd of horseshoe crabs like lumpy seagoing flying saucers with tails.
The streets along Fifth Avenue regularly changed their clever displays every weekend and a walk from 14th Street Union Square to 59th street was a weekly tour of the ingenuity of the very clever window decorators. In the wintertime a stop off at the central walkway in Rockefeller Center permitted one to spend time admiring the professional and amateur figure skaters showing their stuff in the sunken rink dominated by the golden stature of Prometheus bringing fire to mankind and Christmas time brought out extra efforts both there and in other major stores on the avenue.
In the summertime Central Park was our destination at 59th Street where the ducks and swans and Canadian geese eagerly gathered to receive our bags of pieces of old bread. Occasionally the lake there quartered a flock of Canada geese and once a pair of white pelicans opened their beaks and hissed at my approach. Further north was the small zoo with elephants, giraffes, lions and tigers and tropical birds and a sea lion pool where people gathered to watch them catch fish at feeding time.
A bit north was the large artificial pond where people sailed their large beautiful model sailboats and more north still was the huge Metropolitan Museum of Art with many art masterpieces, a wonderful collection of ancient sculpture, a special section of fantastically carved and incised huge black stone Egyptian sarcophaguses and a simulated burial vault to be walked through. Another large room contained many wonderfully worked suits of mail and armor with several full armored figures on armored horses while the walls were hung with medieval tapestries and decorations. And, of course the marvelous collection of French, Dutch, German and Italian masters and other paintings.
On he west side of the park past a small castle and a lake was the Museum of Natural History where the bones of dinosaurs stood in skeletal majesty to demonstrate that mankind had very strange forebears indeed. This museum matched the Metropolitan in size in different kinds of wonder. Before the entrance was a huge iron meteorite black and pockmarked from its fiery descent through the atmosphere. Inside was a very long canoe with American Indian figures mounted in costume paddling to, perhaps, conquest or in search of sustenance.
The immediate interior room contained more American Indian figures and a colorful collection of costumes, implements and large totem poles.
And there was that wonderful sculpture of Masai hunters at the final moment of the hunt for a lion.
Further in there was a large dark room on a platform mounted with troop of elephants in the center. Around the walls were many dioramas containing mounted specimens from Africa realistically placed in accurately simulated environments with beautifully painted backgrounds. Also there was a series of dioramas devoted to undersea life with mounted huge sharks, a giant sunfish and many others. Although there were many other fascinating exhibits (including a life sized model whale suspended from the ceiling) the most intriguing room for me contained glass and wax models of microscopic animals such as diatoms and protozoa made huge and the intricacy and beauty of these models easily matched the most beautiful abstract sculptures ever shown anywhere.
One exhibit that I also found very impressive was an accurate model of a mosquito about six feet long.
The upper floor was where I made acquaintance with the massive ancient dinosaurs that captures every kid’s imagination.
To one side of the museum was the original Hayden Planetarium where visitors were seated under a domed ceiling which became the projection surface for a Zeiss machine that projected the stars once the theater was darkened. Here lecturers could roll time backwards and forwards to illustrate how the universe changes and could transport the audience throughout the solar system and beyond to see how the stars appeared from different positions. Once the program started the illusion of being outside under the night sky was perfect.
That planetarium has now been replaced by a newer version in a spherical theater but I have never experienced that show. The original was something of a miracle for a kid my age.
If I entwined my hair with flashing light,
Inscribed my forehead bright with fire red
Diagrams of curves and clouds to bring to sight
The cavorting shapes moving in my head;
If I dyed my ears blue, drew a banana on my nose,
Placed between my lips a round glass eye,
Hung each armpit with a yellow rose,
Strung glass bells inside my thigh
To titillate my genitals and tinkle
On arousal, wound ribbons out of gold
Around my calves to curl and crinkle
As I strolled into the subway crowd, bold
In all my manic glory, perhaps a face or two
Might glance my way, dismiss this clown
And return to puzzle out the clue
For ten across, maybe six down.