Friday, July 28, 2006

Third Avenue, Brooklyn, June 2006

This is the quintessential New York take-out coffee cup: blue and white, with a Greek motif, bearing the words "We are happy to serve you" (whether they really were or not).

I read an article once lamenting the rise of Starbucks and other coffee chains, and speculating that their popularity would eventually mean the demise of this cup. It's so strongly identified with New York that Hollywood props departments order them by the thousands for use in movies.

The cup design has a name - the "Anthora," a corruption of the Greek word amphora. It dates from 1963 or so, and the Greek design was meant to appeal to the many Greek deli and restaurant owners in the city. It's made by the Sherri Cup Co. in Connecticut. There's even a Web site where you can read about its history and buy a ceramic version.

I don't think the Anthora - or its many imitators - is in any danger of going away. I still see them by the thousands in trash cans, on sidewalks, or just abandoned like this one on any convenient flat surface.

(Readers: I will be away from my computer for a few days, so posting will stop until next Wednesday. My apologies, and I'll see you then!)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Space Aliens, July 2006

I'm continually fascinated by graffiti that seems to depict space aliens. This one was just off Irving Place near Union Square. I like his weepy look.

And this big one is in Long Island City, Queens.

What's interesting is the consistent features these aliens have - the bald oval heads, the rays coming from the neck, the big saucer-like eyes. Is there a cultural source for this image, a specific movie or TV show? Or maybe this is just what we all assume an alien would look like. I remember the aliens in "Close Encounters" looking vaguely like this, but that was eons ago in pop culture terms...

At the risk of turning this into an episode of "In Search Of," you can see two more aliens here and here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Amsterdam Avenue, July 2006

This isn't a particularly artistic photo, but I think it's a good example of the little surprises that lurk throughout the city. I was walking on Amsterdam Avenue near 100th Street when I saw a chain link fence on a corner, covered with netting to make it opaque. Like any good nosey person, I wondered what was behind the fence. So I found a tiny hole someone had torn in the netting and peered through. Here's the answer: A perfect, litter-free field of Queen Anne's Lace.

Encyclopedia Clutteria

The population of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was 431,296 in 1965.

How do I know this obscure fact?

The same way I know who Elizabeth Jane Coatsworth was, and the dimensions of Africa’s Lake Chad (6,300 square miles), and the location of Ceylon. It’s all right there in black and white in my New Standard Encyclopedia.

Of course, my encyclopedias were published in 1971. That’s why they don’t say that Lake Chad has largely dried up in recent decades, or that Ceylon has changed its name to Sri Lanka, or that Kinshasa’s population has ballooned to more than 6.5 million people.

The 14 volumes are full of mid-century military officers, statesmen and obscure figures like Coatsworth, an author of children’s books best known for “The Cat Who Went to Heaven” (1931). These people may or may not be included in today’s more modern encyclopedias. Coatsworth, at least, attained a few sentences on Wikipedia.

My books are designed to explain what’s what, quickly and efficiently. They don’t drone on ad nauseam like my mother’s early-’60s edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which we always joked told us far more than we ever needed to know.

But admittedly, they’re hopelessly out of date.

Still, despite the fact that I live in a tiny studio apartment, I can’t get rid of them. My parents bought these encyclopedias for me in the early 1970s, when they were a very lightly used set, and they were at my side through every homework assignment I ever did that required research.

The other day, I discovered I’m not alone.

My coworker, who is winnowing some of her accumulated stuff from a storage unit, said she has a set of Brittanicas that she can’t throw out, because her children used them in school. She remembers the sadness she felt after she lost her own set of childhood Brittanicas.

My boss said she too had a set of childhood encyclopedias that she clung to for years. She finally allowed her husband to give them to the Salvation Army, but was annoyed when he donated only some of the volumes, breaking up the set. (She took the remainders to the same shop, hoping to reunite them, but couldn’t bring herself to wait around, in case the first batch had already been tossed as incomplete. She didn’t want to know.)

It seems crazy to cling to a big stack of books full of outdated information. But I feel incredible affection for my encyclopedias. They’re full of traces of my childhood.

Over the picture of Yale University, I wrote, “Let me go to Yale, mommy.” (Alas, mommy couldn’t have done much to get me in, given the educational and personal lassitude that dragged down my GPA in middle and high school.)

On the map of South Carolina, I checked off every county, probably for a geography report I remember writing in the fourth grade.

The fact that all three of us in my small office feel a sentimental attachment to our old encyclopedias suggests that it may be a widespread condition. How many American households harbor beloved but outdated stacks of reference books (not to mention their accompanying bookcases and yearly updates, in the case of the Brittanica)?

And are today’s kids going to bond with their CD-Rom or online encyclopedias?

Somehow I doubt it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sunnyside, Queens, July 2006

A detail from a wall mural by Shiro near the intersection of Greenpoint Avenue and 42nd Street. Sunnyside is one of the Queens neighborhoods left without power by the electrical cable failures last week. I visited my friends Dan and Jimmy there over the weekend, and their electricity was flowing at about 80 percent.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

E. 26th Street, June 2006

I liked the big orange splotch on this otherwise grey facade!

I think this is a city maintenance garage or something. When I took this photo, a guy in a city truck pulled up next to me and said, protectively, "Can I ask you why you're taking a picture of that door?" I told him I liked it, and thought it was interesting. He said, "OK. I just had to ask." As I walked away, I turned back and saw him, still sitting in his truck, examining the door.

What, is there a nuclear reactor in there?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

East River, May 2006

"Labyrinth" is a maze created by students at the UN International School, and painted on the pavement of a small park on the East River, just south of the very end of E. 23rd Street. I'm not sure exactly what the message is, but it seems to be ecological. The maze is divided into four colors for different habitats, with creatures from birds to crabs to mice stenciled in.

It all ends (or maybe it begins?) here, with handprints at the branches (or roots?) of the maze. I interpret it to mean that we're caretakers of all the other creatures, but maybe it means we're the pinnacle of evolution. Who knows?

Friday, July 21, 2006

W. 28th Street, Chelsea, July 2006

God bless the grass that grows through the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights towards the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground, it reaches for the air,
And after a while it’s growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It's green and it's tender and it's easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that's gentle and low,
The roots they are deep and the will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man's door,
And God bless the grass.

- Malvina Reynolds, 1964
(Sung by Pete Seeger)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

SoHo, May 2006

This was taken on Jersey Street, a secluded little alley that runs for just two short blocks between Crosby and Mulberry. In fact, this may be the only building with a Jersey Street address. The sign next to the door says, "Please: No pissing or shitting. People live here."

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Fifth Avenue and Broadway, July 2006

At about 8:30 a.m., the spired Metropolitan Life tower casts a distinctive shadow on the Flatiron Building, across Madison Square Park.

Last night, I went with my friends Jan and Narda to hear the New York Philharmonic play in Central Park. This annual tradition draws thousands of picnickers, who spread their blankets and have wine and cheese as the orchestra plays. Well, this year it turned into a sort of comedy of errors, at least for me.

First, we were going to go to the performance last week, but it was rained out. Then, last night, we found that we couldn't hear much music over all the frat-boy conversation going on around us. The people sitting next to us kept saying "Shhhh!" to the large group sitting next to them, which provoked only sarcastic retorts. Things got a bit tense from time to time. We were just too many baboons in one cage.

Of course, it's not like a concert hall - you don't expect to hear every note, and you're there mostly for atmosphere. But the first two pieces, John Adams' Foxtrot for Orchestra and Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, were pretty much lost on us. Then the grand finale, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, was cut short because a rainstorm was on its way. The fireworks that always conclude the show were behind a tree.

And sure enough, as I moved with the herds on the narrow pathways out of Central Park, it began to pour. Almost none of us had an umbrella. But here's the funny thing about rain: Once you stop resisting it, and just accept the fact that you're going to be drenched, it becomes a lot of fun. Yesterday was so hot that the downpour was just refreshing. I rode home on the subway surrounded by hundreds of people, all soaked to the skin and laughing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Upper East Side, June 2006

There were actually several people in this pocket park, at E. 80th Street and First Avenue, when I took this photo. They were all sitting behind that pinkish wall!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Rockaway Beach, Queens, July 2006

On Saturday, my adventurous friend Rob and I decided to go out to Rockaway Beach, at the farthest end of the longest subway line in the New York system. It took about two hours to get out there, partly because we had to navigate a couple of train changes toward the end of the line. We accidentally took the train east to Far Rockaway, and had to backtrack to get the shuttle to Rockaway Beach. When we finally got there, we found the boardwalk (above).

Although the paper said it was going to be "partly cloudy," it was, in fact, totally cloudy. The beach was still busy, though, and I walked on the grayish sand for a bit, photographing these worn pilings, coated with algae and thick clumps of mussels.

Rockaway Beach has a distinctly down-at-the-heels feel, and a kind of Soviet bleakness, with huge apartment blocks and characterless buildings. It felt like a depressed resort on the Black Sea. (The beachgoers weren't Russians, though - they live farther west, in Brighton Beach.) Many older buildings are boarded up. I liked the frieze on this retirement home, with seagulls perched above the waves.

The bus shelters were painted with elaborate murals of divers, ocean creatures and, in this case, surfers.

It was interesting to check out the "end of the line," in subway terms, and view the city skyline, hazy and distant, across Jamaica Bay and Brooklyn. But surprisingly, given that it's beachfront property, Rockaway is a fairly desolate place.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Chinatown, May 2006

This building had great window grates - like these two, showing a star and a rising sun. As I recall, there were also grates with a crescent moon and a full moon.

I like the neatness of this composition. I have no idea what the signs or graffiti say. (If anyone else does, let me know!)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Upper West Side, May 2006

This wall is on W. 72nd Street, near Broadway. Love those tiles!

Last night, as I passed through Grand Central Terminal on my way home from work - a route I don't normally take - I saw a bunch of ads for German economic investment. They featured an apparently nude Claudia Schiffer, wrapped and draped in the German flag. Can you imagine the uproar in the United States if someone here did a similar ad campaign with an American flag? Why are some Americans so obsessed with our flag?

When I got home, the new Crate & Barrel catalog was in my mailbox, and I was amused to see a collage on the front featuring Buddha heads. Turns out, you can get an orange ceramic Buddha head for $14.95, or a silver one for $19.95. Or an Andy Warhol-style Buddha silkscreen in a variety of colors for $9.95. I had no idea Buddha was such a popular decorating accessory. I only hope he brings a bit of dharma into all those homes!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Second Street, East Village, July 2006

This type of vine is in every garden and planter during the summer, and it's such an electric shade of green - in this case, a nice contrast with the darker green wall.

I tried to imagine this photo without the graffiti: nice and sterile, boring as a shopping mall.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Wooster Street, SoHo, May 2006

A couple of months ago I came across this building, plastered with street art. No wonder the Wooster Collective is named after Wooster Street!

The lightning bolt looks like it might be neon. I wonder if it ever lights up? And who's the dewy-eyed Hollywood starlet?

Here is some text art by Elbow-Toe, whose work I've been seeing more and more around town lately. (Maybe I'm just paying closer attention.)

By the way, if you want to see more detail, you can click on any of my photos for a slightly larger version.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, June 2006

The front steps of an empty house on Halsey Street. This may seem like urban decay, but it's actually urban renewal - the house was being renovated.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sixth Avenue, SoHo, July 2006

The Moondance Diner, on Sixth Avenue at Canal Street, is where Kirsten Dunst's character worked in the first "Spider-Man" movie. On Sunday I decided to get lunch there.

The building is very long and narrow - Citysearch says it used to be a railroad car, which seems possible. And it's a little flimsy looking. As you can see, the windows aren't quite straight in the brick facade! (View the entire building here.)

The tiny men's room was plastered with graffiti - even on the ceiling.

But enough quibbling - what about the food? Well, I can only say that the Moondance is average. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't worth walking across town for. My waiter was definitely no relation to Kirsten Dunst.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Gansevoort Street, July 2006

Stencil art is very popular on the walls of New York City. I especially liked this skateboarder, who seems to be soaring.

There's a common belief that Americans don't care about the World Cup. But let me tell you, as I was walking through SoHo and the East Village yesterday, I passed pub after pub filled with cheering throngs of people. I happened to be near one when Italy scored, and the sound was deafening. Americans may not care, but New Yorkers sure do.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Lower East Side, June 2006

A mural on Stanton Street.

Of Charlton Heston and Sharon Tate

I almost never buy movies. I live in a tiny studio apartment where space is at a premium, and I hate clutter. So I’m a serial renter.

But last week, I bought two new DVDs. Which means I really, really like these movies.

Both are better for their camp qualities than their cinematic virtues. Both have the same director: Mark Robson. One figures prominently in my childhood; the other, as I tell friends, is so bad, it’s art.

The first is “Earthquake,” the 1974 disaster epic in which Los Angeles is destroyed by an earthquake and a dam break, and Victoria Principal runs around in Big Hair. Charlton Heston growls through angry banter with screen wife Ava Gardner, and Genevieve Bujold plays Heston’s hottie-on-the-side. And then there’s Lorne Greene, George Kennedy and Marjoe Gortner. What’s not to love?

“Earthquake” is one of the first non-Disney movies I ever saw in a theater. I went with my Dad and my younger brother to see it at University Square Mall in Tampa, Fla. My brother was about five at the time - I can’t imagine what Dad was thinking - and he got so scared we had to leave the theater just before the end. (After already sitting through two hours of collapsing buildings, explosions and too many deaths to count.)

I needn’t have worried that I’d never find out how it ended. “Earthquake” made a reliable appearance on network TV fairly frequently through the ‘70s, sometimes spread over two nights. I watched it every time. I memorized lines and scenes. I know just when Corry is going to fall off the pedestrian bridge on his bicycle, when Barbara is going to get shoved out of the doomed elevator, and when Wilson Plaza is going to collapse on the survivors.

Ah, nostalgia.

The second movie begins with these words: “You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.” Thus we are introduced to the zany, pill-popping and badly acted world of Anne, Neely and Jennifer.

“Valley of the Dolls” was, of course, Jacqueline Susann’s blockbuster novel from 1966 - the year I was born. Let me just say the movie doesn’t hold a candle to the book, which is actually quite good, in its trashy way. The movie is terrible. I repeat: terrible.

But it’s also wonderful in its terribleness. The clothes, music and styling are mid-’60s groovy. Sharon Tate is remarkably beautiful and remarkably wooden as Jennifer, the starlet loved more for her body than her talent. Patty Duke is explosively unstable as Neely. (The best casting agent in the world worked this film.)

Barbara Parkins is the unsung gem, as the cool beauty Anne. Parkins’ career never quite blossomed - perhaps this outing killed it - but she literally saves “Valley of the Dolls.” Without her as a redeeming anchor, it would be unwatchable.

There are so many great moments: Neely’s catfight with Helen Lawson, played by a bewigged Susan Hayward; Anne rolling in the Malibu waves in a drug-induced stupor; Jennifer struggling on the steps with her collapsing, fatally ill husband Tony. (Actual dialogue: ”Jen!” “Tony!” “Jen!” “Tony!” “Jen!”)

Even Jacqueline Susann, who is said to have hated the movie, makes a cameo appearance.

“Valley of the Dolls” just came out on DVD last month. My only question is, what took so long? Didn’t they know I was waiting?

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Third Avenue, June 2006

This wall is in the East 20s. I like the nice curve of the cable against all the straight lines.

Friday, July 7, 2006

Grand Concourse, Bronx, July 2006

The West Bronx is second only to Miami Beach as the place in America with the largest concentration of Art Deco and Art Moderne apartment buildings. Built between 1927 and 1942, these buildings were meant to house a growing urban middle class. In more recent years, some have fallen into disrepair - a few quite badly - but taking a walk along the Grand Concourse is still interesting.

I went on the Fourth of July, and my main goal was to see the "fish building." This 1936 apartment house has an elaborate mosaic of sea life surrounding its main entrance. As you can see, I found it. I was a bit disappointed, though, because the entry way was covered by a massive scaffold, making it impossible to photograph the mosaic in its entirety and to see the Art Moderne brickwork around the door. Oh well.

The mosaic itself is pretty great, featuring two huge angelfish and an assortment of anemones and little jellyfish-like critters. (What ARE those things?)

These are very shiny tiles. Even though I was under a dark canopy and didn't use a flash, I picked up a bit of a sheen, as you can see.

You can see the entire "fish building" mosaic here.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Sag Harbor, N.Y., July 2006

While I was in Southampton over the weekend, I went with my friend Pam and her daughter to a playground in Sag Harbor, a quaint bayfront town on Long Island's south fork. Then we took a walk through downtown.

These shells were lined up on a windowsill in an alley off the main street. They seemed forlorn - bleached, brittle and out of their element.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Southampton, N.Y., July 2006

A collection of shells on a shelf at my friend Pam's house. Seems to capture the spirit of a holiday weekend, right?

I went to see "Superman Returns” yesterday. Despite the laughably outdated idea of a caped “man of steel” who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, it was good. The preternaturally beautiful Brandon Routh does a capable job, and I certainly never felt like he had too much screen time. (He could just stand there, and I’d pay money to watch.) Kevin Spacey chews the scenery as the psycho-villainous Lex Luthor, and Parker Posey is a standout as his moll with a heart. All in all, worth my $10.50.

Last night, I went down to the corner and watched the fireworks over the East River. I'm on Third Avenue, so I couldn't see them unobstructed, but I actually liked watching them blossom in the sky beyond the buildings of the city. There were little knots of people on the corner and on rooftops, and it was neat to share the festivities with everyone.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Yorkville, June 2006

De la Vega is an artist whose chalk drawings frequently appear overnight on the sidewalks of the Upper East Side. When I lived on 90th Street I’d pass them every morning on my way to the subway, little chalk fish exhorting me to “live my dreams” and jump from my confining goldfish bowl into the wide ocean.

Last month I found a mural by de la Vega on East 95th Street, a massive thing including portraits of children and teeming schools of his little fish. I particularly liked these two, bearing the flags of the U.S. and Mexico.

This seems like the perfect image for the Fourth of July, when we’re in the middle of an ugly national debate about immigration. I started to write a long tirade about the xenophobia that I think lurks behind this debate, and how our American spirit of generosity should prevail - how walling off Mexico is not the answer.

But actually, I think de la Vega said it better.

¡Feliz Dia de la Independencia!

Monday, July 3, 2006

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Southampton, N.Y., October 2005

This photo is from last fall, but I'm posting it today because I'm in Southampton this weekend, visiting my friends Pam and Bryan and their daughter Amanda. This building was in downtown Southampton, apparently awaiting renovation. It has a kind of "Grey Gardens" feel, don't you think?

Last night we had a barbecue with some of Pam's friends. The cocktail for the evening was straight tequila, sipped alternately with "sangrita," a mixture of Clamato, fresh orange juice and some spices. I've seen Clamato on store shelves and always wondered what the heck a person would do with such a bizarre product. Now I know! I'm not particularly a tequila fan, but they were interesting drinks.

This morning I sat out on the deck behind Pam and Bryan's house, watching huge blue jays swoop and argue through the wind-whipped oaks.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Hell's Kitchen, June 2006

I think this was on West 50th Street. I like the ethereal glow, and the delicacy of the trellis.