Terry Teachout, 1956-2022

Teachout in NYC just before the opening of “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” March 4, 2014

I read with shock and sadness this morning of the death of cultural critic Terry Teachout. I sent the news to someone this morning who emailed a few minutes later saying the he was about to send me the news when my own missive came through. I never understood why Teachout was not better known than he was. His output was prolific and his intellectual interests vast. He also had a generosity of spirit, liked artists, and wanted to see them and their work succeed creatively and financially. Among other things he gave us biographies of H.L. Mencken, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. There is also a fine anthology assembled in 2004 entitled simply “A Terry Teachout Reader.” He also wrote the successful one-man play “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” This barely touches the surface of his career. He wrote on a number of topics about which I have little interest, like the theater. Still, I almost always found myself reading until the end because the prose was so tight his wit so sharp. He suffered a great blow several years ago when his wife died. Both were too young to leave when they did. I can hardly believe we now live in a world with Terry Teachout not in it.

Boxing Day 2021

 Zoological exhibition, London 1879 / image via British Library

Good morning, all. It is a beautiful day after the light rain and overcast Christmas we had yesterday. The weather gave a nice ambiance to the day. It is less pronounced because December 26 this year has fallen on a Sunday but I have never understood why Boxing Day is not observed in the United States. Don’t get me wrong; I understand the historical reasons why it is observed in the Commonwealth and not here, but culturally it has always seemed to me a holiday we should have here. Whatever you do and wherever you are, enjoy your day.

When the NY Chamber of Commerce turned 115

“Some were eating turtle soup out of quaintly decorated bowls.” — NYT, 12/5/1883

I came across the quote and image you see above when working on a small project related to George Washington that will hopefully see the light of day soon. This extraordinary item went up for sale at auction some time recently and apparently had been in a private collection in Pennsylvania. The New York Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1768 during the colonial period. This luncheon preceded a dinner held by the Sons of the Revolution held in the same place later that very evening on what was the centennial of General Washington’s farewell in Fraunces Tavern’s Long Room.

Armistice Day 1921

image via Korean American Digital Archive East Asian Library, University of Southern California

This incredible photograph was taken one hundred years ago today on November 11, 1921. There were a number of Korean and Korean-American communities in the West in the early decades of the twentieth century and this photograph almost certainly was taken in one of those communities, probably in California. I did a shallow dive trying to learn more based on the few kernels in the image’s metadata but unfortunately could not establish anything truly definitive beyond the few nuggets already there. In the few hours remaining please do stop for a few moments and remember Armistice Day.

Why do family history?

Chapman Brothers Lithographers, Chicago 1888 / via Library of Congress

Back in mid July someone in the family, knowing that I have become something of the unofficial clan historian, emailed me asking for some details about one of our ancestors. I have been doing our genealogy for ~20 years now, my involvement often waxing and waning depending on how busy I am at work, the status of different projects, and just life in general. Recently I had gotten away from it for the better part of two years, essentially since just prior to the pandemic. Thankfully I had the answer to the question he was looking for. His query sent me down a rabbit hole and for about 7-10 days I dug further into the family history, finding things I never knew before. Genealogy is a lot of detail work in which one leaves a lot on the fall because one is not entirely certain if the piece of data is correct. When in doubt, leave it out.

I noticed on the family tree back in July that my great-grandmother was born on October 28, 1896, 125 years ago today. That was one week before the first William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan presidential election. She died on October 29, 1986, one day after her ninetieth birthday. If you are keeping track, that is 35 years ago tomorrow. When I noticed that three months ago I jotted it down in my daily planner and told myself I would email 5-6 people in the immediate and extended family with this information. Early this morning I did just that. My own father repeatedly told us when his health began to fail that he did not expect or want us to dwell exceedingly about him once he left this world. He emphasized that life was for the living and that we should live ours while we still can. I have taken that to heart. Still, I carry his legacy, as well as those like my great-grandmother, who I faintly remember, with me. If you have not done any of your own family history, I would encourage you to do so. What is more, I would start as soon as possible before those who might remember important details are gone. It is later than you think. Today my own work paid off when I was able to share the life and memory of someone a few of us remember from an earlier time in our own lives.

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.