Fall cleaning

Pullman Company ticket, circa 1927

I have been cleaning the house in preparation for the coming fall weather. Part of this has included thinning the home library of some books I no longer need, usually titles I bought second-hand for past projects. One must move on and make room for the new. I always skim through a book to make sure I haven’t left anything inside. Yesterday I did just that to one old title and out fell what you see above. It is a Pullman ticket from back in the day. In and of itself there is nothing unusual about it. The ticket is just a piece of the everyday detritus of life, something one would purchase for one’s trip and then discard upon reaching the destination much in the way I discarded my Metro-North ticket last Saturday at Grand Central upon returning from Connecticut after a day trip. Millions of others do it daily as well. It is the Pullman part that makes it interesting. Our long-lost friend used his ticket for a bookmark, which yesterday I found nearly a century later. I have it magnetted to the refrigerator.

Unfortunately the handwriting is so bad that I cannot make out the destination or even the date. The book from which it fell was published in 1927, so I assume it is from around that time. I am guessing that this was not a sleeper car. The fare was $.75, which indicates it was more of a commuter trip than long-distance journey. I plugged that amount into an inflation calculator and the fare would be the equivalent in today’s dollars to ~$10-12. Certainly an overnight ride cost more than that, but I really don’t know. The railroads were hugely important in American society until as recently as the late 1950s and early 1960s, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things. It was the airplane, the automobile, and the Highway Act of 1956 that dealt the fatal blows. Yesterday like an autumn leaf a little reminder of that old world fell on the living room floor.

Just in time for fall

I took a day trip yesterday and on the train leaving the city one of my friends was telling me about some work she had recently had done on an old leather bag. The craftsman who had repaired it had done a good job mending the vintage item, now strong enough for many more years of use but with the patina and old scuffs that give such items character and make them worth restoring in the first place. It was an interesting conversation about the longterm value of Well Made Things. I noted that just the day before, on Friday, I had received a phone call from the cobbler that my Red Wing boots were ready to pick up. I wore these things hard throughout the pandemic, in large part because shops were closed for so long that I could not get to a store to buy any other walking shoes. Made in Minnesota, these boots are as tough as they look and took the beating well. Still, the heels and soles inevitably gave out, as they should after years of service. The need for the boots became less immediate when I finally bought two pairs of hiking shoes in June. The boots then sat around all summer until I dropped them off last week in preparation for the cooler weather. Today I ventured out in the light rain to pick then up. Here are the results.


The first Sunday of autumn

New York Marble Cemetery

Friends and I could not have had a more beautiful day to visit New York Marble Cemetery in the East Village. I had always wanted to visit this historic cemetery, the first non-denominational resting place built in New York City, but it is normally closed to the public. The cemetery was built primarily to bury victims of the yellow fever pandemic of the early 1830s. As we can see, it is more utilitarian than the garden cemeteries built in the United States beginning in this same period. The cemtery’s founders used marble to entomb the dead because they believed that using that stone would prevent the transmission of the yellow fever disease.

For more than two decades I had walked past the closed gates on Second Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets and wondered what it looked like inside. Had I visited in the late 1990s it would have looked quite different. What you see here are the results of two decades of hard work by the people, many the descendants of individuals interred here, who have cleaned up and maintained this special place. Until gentrification this area was notoriously crime- and drug-ridden. Inhabitants of the then ubiquitous flophouse were notorious for throwing trash of all types out the windows in the grounds here. In the early 2000s they began the clean-up and the planting of the landscaping one sees here. They have also done extensive genealogy work and tracked down the descendants of many of the cemetery residents. It is amazing what even a few individuals working with purpose can accomplish.

Labor Day ’21

A. Philip Randolph memorial, Union Station

I was passing through Union Station this morning and saw one of my favorite memorials for the first time in ages, this rendering of A. Philip Randolph that stands near the gates to the train platforms. It is strange how some figures become institutionalized in our public memory and others get forgotten. Randolph has been overlooked in our civic culture, which is a tragedy. Perhaps in Randolph’s case it is because he does not fit into any neat category, but instead exists in a grey area between union leader and civil right activist. Or perhaps it is because railroads just don’t play the role in our society that they once did, and so we fail to see his significance. Among other things Randolph founded The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, a labor union comprised almost exclusively of African-American men who worked in various capacities on the railroads that then criss-crossed the entirety of the United States. I’m far from an expert on Randolph but as I understand it he had a somewhat contentious relationship with W.E.B. DuBois. Others, like Fiorello La Guardia, offered their support over the years. In 1941 he had a tense stand-off with the Roosevelt Administration over a March on Washington that Randolph wanted to organize in protest against job discrimination in the defense industry. Randolph eventually backed down but that event took place in 1963.

Sunday morning coffee, tropical storm edition

We are riding the storm out here, so far fortunate that we have not lost power or anything worse. We’ll see what the next thirty-six hours brings.

Joe Galloway in San Fransisco, 2017 / photograph by Christopher Michel

Someone texted me the other day that Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway died earlier this week. In the texting thread that ensued I pointed out that given the events of our current moment it seemed appropriate in a bitterly ironic way that the chronicler of that conflict died when he did. Galloway’s death comes seven months after Neal Sheehan’s passing this past January. We were fortunate that Lynn Novick, Ken Burns and their team were able to get the two journalist’s on film for their 2017 documentary “The Vietnam War.” In the winter of their lives they added further nuance to our understanding of the war and the era. Galloway in particular was ubiquitous on the promotional circuit during and immediately after the film’s release, talking with Burns and others at symposia and other public events. Sheehan it seems was too infirm by that point to contribute in such a manner.

1967 Mercury Records promotional image of Tom T. Hall

Galloway was not the only figure from the era who died this week. A second was Tom T. Hall. Known as The Storyteller, Hall was born in Kentucky in 1936. Historian Bill C. Malone tells us in his important book “Country Music, U.S.A.” that one of Hall’s greatest inspirations as a songwriter was Hemingway. One can see that in the succinctness and brevity of Hall’s lyrics. The songs are short, and the language crisp and clear. Hall told you the story and then quickly wrapped it up. Just like Hemingway. That is a much more difficult thing to pull off than the reader or listener realizes. That one does not see the effort and deliberation that went into it means the creator succeeded. I must say that as much as I admire Tom T. Hall’s imagination and proficiency I never entirely warmed up to his catalogue. His songs, at least to me, never quite had the depth of expression found in the work of Kris Kristofferson, Vern Gosdin, Townes Van Zandt, and others. I don’t find myself going back to Hall’s work regularly the way I do with others. Listening to Merle Haggard or Bob Dylan at twenty-five is not the same as listening to them at forty, and again at fifty as one’s own life and circumstances evolve. Once you have heard a Tom T. Hall song, you basically know what it is. The figure he reminds me the most of is Buck Owens, another supremely talented, deeply intelligent figure whose oeuvre never quite plumbed the depths that it could have. Still it’s hard to argue with a song like “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Hall’s 1968 classic sung by Jeannie C. Riley skewering the hypocrisy inflicted upon a single mother by her “betters” in the small town in which she lives as she’s trying to get by. We are fortunate we had Joe Galloway and Tom T. Hall while we did.

Placentia Bay, August 1941

Earlier this week I had an early morning dentist appointment in midtown Manhattan and afterward went looking for Chartwell Booksellers, an independent bookstore founded in 1983 dedicated to selling books and ephemera related to Winston Churchill. I was only “vaguely” looking for the shop, knowing it was in the general area but not all that worried should I not see it. It did not appear and so I stopped for a quick coffee & croissant before moving on with my day. I next stopped in the public area of a skyscraper to wash my hands when, lo and behold, there was Chartwell Booksellers in the lobby. I did not buy anything but intend to go back. I took a few photographs of the shop windows and texted them to a friend in another state who has a similar interest in the period. This led to a back-and-forth text discussion of the merits and demerits of Churchill and Roosevelt. Needless to say, both men were extremely gifted and flawed individuals whose successes and failures run parallel and still resonate today. Entirely coincidentally my quick visit to the bookstore fell on the eightieth anniversary of the Placentia Bay conference in Newfoundland at which the president and prime minister discussed the war in Europe. It was less than two months after Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, their ally of nearly the previous two years. The United States was still technically neutral in the war, though earlier in the year in his January 6 address to Congress Roosevelt had laid out his idea of the Lend-Lease project in what is now known as the Four Freedoms speech.

Leslie MacDonald Gill map / via Cornell University Library

The relationship between the United States and Great Britain during the Second World War was more fraught and complicated than most people realize even today. Hiding the fissures is what good diplomacy does. Churchill, Roosevelt, and scores of military and civilian leaders hashed out various logistics from August 9-12. On August 14 the two leaders issued the Atlantic Charter, a basic framework of principles for what both war and peace might look like. In the coming years the Atlantic Charter was often more honored in the breach than in reality. It’s not that surprising given the complexity and fluidity of a war that took the lives of sixty million people and wounded and displaced millions more. Three quarters of a century later it is still impossible to wrap one’s mind around it. Above is an extraordinary piece of material culture: a 1942 map created by cartographer and graphic designer Leslie MacDonald Gill for the British magazine “Time and Tide” with the text of the Atlantic Charter and a map of the natural resources of the “United Nations” that by then were fighting the Axis Powers. The map struck a chord with the British and American publics, so much so that the London Geographical Institute and Denoyer-Geppert Science Company of Chicago mass produced it in poster form in 1943 and sold it by the thousands. In the ensuing decades the “Time and Tide” map of the Atlantic Charter has appeared in museum exhibitions and at trade shows in London, Miami, and elsewhere. One thing I find striking is how colorful it is. I was talking to someone a few weeks ago about how we interpret the World Wars as having been in black-and-white because almost all of the photographs and moving images are such. The people of the time literally saw it differently.

Baseball enters the Roaring Twenties

Forbes Field, circa 1910. Harold Arlin broadcast the first MLB radio broadcast here on August 5, 1921. / Library of Congress

About six weeks ago I was visiting a historic site with a friend when we had the opportunity to meet someone affiliated with the institution. We had no idea upon arriving that this would happen and were pleased as punch that it did. Back in the day our host had spent thirty years doing radio in the Midwest before changing careers. Hearing his mellifluous voice and gift of gab, I immediately understood why he would have been drawn to that calling. I have no doubt either that the was very good at it. The uses and misuses of communications technology have justifiably been in the news a lot lately. Today, August 5, 2021, however marks a technology anniversary of a happier note: it was one hundred years ago today that the first Major League Baseball game was broadcast on the radio. To say it was an experiment would be an understatement. Harold Arlin of Pittsburgh’s KDKA purchased a ticket like every other attendee that afternoon at Forbes Field, set himself up along the first base line, and called the play-by-play into what radio men referred to at the time as “the tomato can,” a reference to the unwieldy microphones in use at the time. The Pirates defeated the Phillies 8-5.

No one knew how the broadcast would would go. Westinghouse, which owned KDKA, certainly had nothing to lose in what was very much an experiment. It all makes sense though. If you manufacture and sell radios for a living you have to show people why they might want to buy a radio and what they might do with it. How many of us knew that we “needed” a smart phone or tablet until Steve Jobs and others convinced us fifteen or so years ago that we did? Westinghouse was naturally determined to see what radio might do. The previous fall KDKA had scored another first when on November 2, 1920 it transmitted the first commercial broadcast, of the presidential election that put Harding in the White House. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the losing vice-residential candidate but certainly grasped where the future was heading. Then again Mussolini and Hitler soon understood radio’s possibilities as well.

Fred C. Reed of the Smithsonian holds the “tomato can” microphone used by Harold Arlin to broadcast the results of the November 2, 1920 election between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. Arlin used a similar device the following year when broadcasting the first-ever Major League Baseball radio transmission. Westinghouse/KDKA donated this microphone to the Smithsonian in 1938, when this image was taken. / Library of Congress

The retired radio man I was describing at the top of this post has been over 270 major and minor league ballparks across the decades and had the memorabilia scattered across his apartment to show for it. Our conversation could not help but go to baseball and we agreed that the game is best consumed via the wireless as opposed to the telly. For one thing the ball is in play so little in baseball, allowing for conversation in a way not possible over the airwaves in hockey, basketball, and other sports. The best radio men–Bob Uecker, thankfully still going strong at 87 comes to mind–weave a narrative as they bring you each pitch and at bat. They tell a story, which itself gets bigger as the games pass and the season moves along.

How did I learn that today was the one hundredth anniversary of Harold Arlin’s KDKA radio broadcast? I was listening to the Mets-Marlins game on the MLB App earlier this afternoon when the radio guys started talking about.

“He leaves a widow, two children, his mother . . .”

Lieutenant Dean N. Jenks tablet, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn

This morning I met a friend in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. In theory we were there to discuss potential assignments and strategies for when we again co-teach our placed-based learning class in Spring 2022. More than that though it was a just a beautiful day to hang out, have some good conversation, and take in the day. Our meanderings included a walk down Eastern Parkway near the public library, botanic garden, and Brooklyn Museum. Among other places we were promenading on the median in between the north and south lanes of Eastern Parkway, a place I had not been in probably more than two years given the pandemic and everything else. The city has clearly done a lot of work on Eastern Parkway, planting young trees and improving the general infrastructure. It is a beautiful spot. The rehab work seemingly also included the re-setting of dozens of markers placed around Brooklyn a century ago after the Great War to commemorate men from the borough who had died in that conflict. I wrote about this twice several years back. Apparently someone in the Parks Department during the renovations had the foresight to save and then position these markers beside the newly-planted trees along the parkway. I can’t tell you how thankful I am that this is the case.

Lieutenant Jenks’s obituary, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 29, 1918

We stopped at several of them along our walk when I took the image you see above of the tablet for Lieutenant Dean N. Jenks. I told me friend I would do at least a shallow dive on Lieutenant Jenks when I got home. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle search pulled up this obituary. Jenks was already in his thirties when America entered the war and was living in Colorado with his wife and two children. His mother lived on Eastern Parkway. Either Jenks grew up in Brooklyn and moved out West, or vice versa. I suspect the former. It’s more likely that he as a young man made his way to the Centennial State than that his mother left there and moved to the borough of Brooklyn. Plus, Jenks’s father was a sea captain, which means the family likely lived on the East Coast near the Atlantic Ocean as opposed to land-locked Colorado.

In New York and elsewhere we walk past such things every day without giving them a second thought. That is entirely natural given the pressures of daily life and everything we have to get done in the course of a day. Pausing even for a few minutes when we can however gives us an opportunity to recognize men like Lieutenant Dean Jenks, who was killed in far-off France in July 1918 and left behind a young wife, two kids, and an already-widowed mother.