Archive for May, 2013
by Bob Schneider
Read “Part I”
But first I had to get past the parentals.
The grunts in the Nam spoke of home as back in the world. The Lower East Side was my back in the world. And there I had been a latchkey kid. I fully expected to be so on Mongo as well. Womb and seed had a different idea. But after a lot of breath-holding and blue-turning, they relented and so, on a lazy Shabbos afternoon, they gave me a key and laid down a pair of categorical imperatives before releasing me into the wild: I was not to talk to strangers, and I must not conduct my cloacal business anywhere but home base—529 Ninth Ave.
As I left the house that afternoon, I was super-excited. In my hyperbolic mind I was Rob-it Magellan about to map my Brave New World.
One day in the twilight of the sixties, my Friend-the-Film-Critic and I were strolling the Deuce trying to decide between a blaxploitation double feature or a pair of spaghetti westerns, when we noticed that Freaks was headlining a theater on the north side of the street, closer to Seventh over by the porno Bijou and the Ilse-She-Wolf/Olga’s-House-of Fleapit. J waxed rhapsodic: Do you realize that Freaks has been showing non-stop on this street for the past forty years?
While what J said was not literally true, he totally nailed the it-ness and that-ness of Times Square: Freaks and the Deuce were made for each other, like Barnum and Bailey, like Martin and Lewis, like the turkey and the axe.
I stepped out of the house, turned the corner on Ninth Ave., walked a block north, crossed the street, entered the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I walked east past the Food Fair, past the Book Bar and Leisure Time Bowling, past the massive bank of elevators and the always-busy ticket windows, and past the vast newsstand opposite Walgreens. There I took an escalator down into the bowels of the 42nd St. station of the IND. I headed north toward the uptown turnstiles, past the umbrella and sundries kiosk and the Latin Music emporium; opposite Cushman’s—where I would later discover that the best chocolate-cream-covered devil’s food cupcake on earth could be had for a mere ten cents—I walked up the stairs and through the pocket penny arcade. The mechanical howling from the Shoot the Bear games served as soundtrack as I climbed the exit steps. Finally, I emerged again into the light and saw for the first time the tack-tastic grandeur of Times Square.
Thousands of miles away, Disneyland-ia, Walt’s wet dream, built on the bones of an ancient orange orchard, was under construction. He envisioned it as the final frontier of fantasy, where kids of all ages could enjoy risk-free adventure; could experience Tío Walt’s bucolic vision of tomorrow, today. But here, on Mongo, the theme park of the Hell Planet was up and running, kitschy and crowded, as vibrant as the neon lights that shone everywhere, and all the time.
The street teemed—there were people on the stroll and people on the go; there were people gobbling fast food, people gabbing to and past each other, people who looked as late and loony as the Mad Hatter. There were movie houses, ten of them all told, on both sides of the street, all claiming to be Cooled by Refrigeration. If it were a 50s Sci-Fi movie I had found myself in (I was on Mongo, after all), it would have been titled The Cinemas That Conquered the World.
Between the theaters were businesses, but like this nabe’s butcherias, they were heretofore unimaginable variations on the ones I was familiar with. Back in the world I went to restaurants—I had three delis that I frequented, the one on Rutgers for their French fries, the one on East Broadway for their pastrami and corned beef, and Isaac Gellis on Essex for their franks. If it was milchidigs or pareve I craved, there was always the immortal, much mourned Garden Cafeteria, where I would invariably get my ticket punched for a vegetable plate—mashed potatoes, baked beans, and creamed corn—and wash it down with unlimited seltzer from the communal fountain, a stainless steel tub affixed with U-shaped push taps beneath the spouts. Here on Mongo, things were very, very different. Bizarro delis like the Grand Luncheonette and Grant’s had flat-griddle franks, but they also had onions (onions?), cheeseburgers, and malteds. Grant’s even had beer on tap! There was the incontrovertibly treyf—a diner on the northeast corner of 42nd and Eighth was named Ham and Eggs! Flame Steaks smelled like char, Worcestershire, and A-1, and Romeo’s Spaghetti Kitchen had a vat of boiling water just inside the window from which pasta was pulled and sauced non-stop: it was meta-entertainment—an action set-piece, framed for viewing, on the grindhouse strip.
There was Hubert’s Flea Circus and Museum of Freaks, admission 25 cents, closed Tuesdays, (its denizens documented for posterity by Diane Arbus who said: Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats), and nearby, Fascination, a penny arcade whose back wall was Skee-Ball alley. Across the street were two stores whose inventory consisted solely of gravity knives, R&B 45s and 33s, and Holocaust porn—paperbacks with titles like Auschwitz and Treblinka—a couple hundred pages each of black-and-white atrocity photos.
© 2013 Bob Schneider
by Bob Schneider
1954 in The Naked City: You could lay down 15¢ for a subway token, take the AA or the CC to 49th Street, flash your G.O. card and pay just four bits for a side-balcony seat at an NBA doubleheader or a Rangers game; 15¢ was the going price for a slice of pizza or an order of fries—always fresh, never frozen; a quarter got you a frank, mustard-and-sauerkraut; a chocolate malted and a pair of pretzel rods would set you back 20¢, cherry lime rickeys were a dime, a 6-1/2 oz. Coke was 6¢ with a two-cent deposit (sodas were a nickel in subway vending machines); and who ate Hershey’s when you could get a Chunky, a Knickerbocker Bar or one of Hollander’s sublime full-sour pickles for the same price—5¢?
Although I lived in a tenement on Suffolk between Grand and Broome, and my family might be (generously) described as lower middle class, I always had enough gelt in my pocket to get anything I wanted—candy bars, cartoon marathons, comic books.
In 1954, the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile, and in the World Series that year (The Jints swept the Tribe), there was The Catch—the Say Hey Kid chasing down a blast off the bat of Vic Wertz in deep centerfield, snagging it over his shoulder, his back to the batter, cap flying as he spun round, firing the ball back to the infield—a mindboggler even when viewed on a twelve-inch DuMont console.
In Creature Feature news, Gog was a killer robot, Them were giant ants; The Creature from the Black Lagoon surfaced, carrying a damsel in distress, while Gojira roared out of Tokyo Bay to claim the title “King of Monsters.”
My favorite adult-type TV show, which I watched on my DuMont with the religious fervor appropriate for a kid starting the second grade in yeshiva (Jew parochial school), was I Led Three Lives, in which Herbert Philbrick (Richard Carlson) found commies lurking like zombies ’round every corner. I rooted for him all the way, because in 1954 I was also quite concerned with the Soviet threat to our way of life.
And even though it wouldn’t impact me in a big way for a bar mitzvah’s worth of years later, I would have been very upset, very gung-ho, had I known that in 1954 Vietnam had been partitioned North and South along the 17th parallel after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which signaled the end of French colonial rule in Indochina; and that it was also the year in which the domino theory, the conceptual foundation for our tragic, mass-murderous, military intervention in Vietnam (and the cause of my Indochinese tzurris those many years later), was first floated.
I was a proud member of the tribe, and a bull-goose Zionist as well, and I surely would have been out-of-my-mind pissed had I understood the significance attached to the fact that Nasser had beaten back the Muslim Brotherhood and grabbed the reins of power in Egypt, or that Alfredo Stroessner had taken over Paraguay and made that country safe for Nazi war criminals including Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death.
But what I knew all too well was that in 1954, the father-mother (see Creation of the Humanoids, 1962) moved the mishpuchah from our edenic shtetl on Suffolk Street to Hell’s Kitchen, so that we might live above the store which made possible for us that day, and all other days, our daily babka. It was our own melting-pot Downton Abbey, and I was little Lord Rob-it. We even had a pair of tenants. There was an enclosed kiosk attached to the side of the building where a jovial ginger named Red, of course, shined shoes, and an extension at the rear of the building with a barber shop presided over by Lenny the Tonsorial Artiste, where I had my first experience with the joy and majesty that was the tittie magazine.
All we had done to get there that muggy summer morning was take the D to West 4th and there change for the A to 42nd Street. But the moment I stepped out of the Port Authority, with its cavalcade of belching buses, it seemed more like we had boarded a Stratosled with Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov, and landed on the Planet Mongo.
The legendary Bosco Brother Butchers—where sixteen years later Peter Kubelka bought numerous haunches of lamb, schlepped them up to the Southern Tier, and cooked All Through the Night an unforgettable feast for a cadre of enthralled avant-garde film acolytes who had already been captivated by his masterwork Unsere Afrikareise (Our African Trip, 1966)—was first among a brace of butcher shops that dotted the nabe, unlike any I had ever experienced in the kosher precincts of the Lower East Side. These places overflowed with offal and other exotic cuts—chunks of fatback covered in crystallized salt, oxtails, whatever the hell they were; bloody pans overflowed with livers and kidneys and brains and sweetbreads from lambs, pigs, cows and calves. And hearts, hearts! They didn’t let anything go to waste. There were cows’ hooves and pig trotters; dead, furry rabbits hung from hooks by their little lucky feet, big floppy ears pointing straight down; outsized rounds of cheese hung right beside them. One had a pie slice cut out of it, had black flecks all through it. I asked my father what they were.
“Maggots, Rob-it, maggots. The Telainishe like maggots in their cheese, dey say it makes the cheese taste better.” (Many, many years later, I learned that the cheese was provolone, the specks were black peppercorns, and they were dee-lish.)
I subsequently learned that the Telainische were part of the Bad Element, which included anyone who wasn’t a member of the tribe, all of whom, in times of deep economic or military crisis, would show their true, genocidal colors and scapegoat the chosen people at the behest of some latter day Führer, whose coming they await with as much conviction as we do that of Moshiach (Messiah to you members of the Bad Element).
I had been programmed to never forget the six million from the time I was a zygote. Now I found myself living on Mongo among the Bad Element who were itching to add the nukes and me to the body count. I had no friends, nor did I have the prospect of any; I was a displaced person on an alien planet. Is it no wonder my survival instinct kicked in and I became determined to get the lay of the land I had been dropped into? And so I went exploring.
© 2013 Bob Schneider
On May 1, the 125th anniversary of the campaign for the eight-hour work day, WGAE led a march in New York City to Atlas Media, a nonfiction TV company known as a flagrant union buster and violator of overtime and labor law. Convening at Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, WGAE members and staffers joined ranks with hundreds of other union members to protest Atlas and other companies who are trying to suppress the fundamental right to organize and who are committing wage theft.
The rise of Nonfiction and Reality Television has been dramatic in New York City. While profits are being made hand over fist, many thousands of employees in the industry — part of the new freelance economy — are obligated to work 50, 60, sometimes 70 hours a week without overtime pay, healthcare, pensions, vacation, sick days or any basic protections. Atlas Media is one of the biggest offenders, with a notorious reputation as a postmodern digital sweatshop.
Atlas Media is well-known throughout the television industry as one of the worst places for producers and associate producers to work. That reputation has been earned from a history of overtime violations, low pay, lack of benefits or any basic protections — and a general disrespect towards employees. Moreover, to this rap sheet Atlas has added union busting as they have recently flouted labor law to suppress union-organizing efforts by their producers and associate producers.
“As the hundreds of activists made clear rallying outside Atlas’ offices, wage theft is wrong, it’s a crime, and New Yorkers will not tolerate it,” said Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of WGAE. “The company needs to stop exploiting its employees and it needs to respect their right to negotiate improvements in their benefits and working conditions.”