Around Town

The One with the Shirtwaist

Among the people walking through Washington Square Park in Manhattan on March 25, 1911, was a reporter for the United Press news agency. William Gunn Shepherd followed the sound of women screaming, volunteer firemen sloshing buckets of water and windows shattering. As he reached the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, he saw what the commotion was about – a mushroom of smoke billowed into the sky and fire raged from the Asch Building.

March 25 was a Saturday. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, it was the shortest day of the workweek — 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., with a 45-minute break for lunch. Five hundred workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, took the freight elevators to the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, the top three floors of the building.  They were part of the largest blouse making operation in New York, shipping more than 2,000 garments per day. Owners Max Blanck and Issac Harris, immigrants coming from abject poverty themselves, were finally living the good life; receipts at Triangle totaled one million dollars a year (in today’s dollars).

There were 240 sewing machines installed on each side of eight long tables spanning the length of the room. The most skilled job was that of a draper, who turned the designer’s vision into the actual garment. Esther Harris was a draper and one of the highest paid workers at Triangle, making $22 per week. Not far behind on the pay scale were the cutters whose job it was to place the patterns on the fabric with maximum efficiency. Perhaps it was one of those cutters, closest to the scrap bins filled with tissue paper patterns and fabric, who tossed a lit cigarette in her rush to head home. It was 4:42 p.m., and the end of a long work week.

The fire quickly grew from the scrap bin and licked at the hanging patterns. As the patterns dropped onto the tables, they ignited the fabric that had been left for Monday morning. The 180 women who worked on the eighth floor were already lined up at the Greene Street elevators, where they had to wait at wooden partitions to be inspected for theft. Panic rippled through the women as they noticed the smoke and flames beginning in the corner of the room. There was a firestorm effect where small pieces of burning fabric flew in tornado-like funnels around the room, catching everything in their path on fire. Some of the women rushed the partition and shouted. Some sprinted to the Washington Place exit. Some ran to the fire escape, and some tried to put the fire out with water pails. But the flames just got stronger.

There were dozens of little details that piled on top of each other and turned a terrible situation into a catastrophe. Dinah Lipschitz, a manager on the eighth floor, called the tenth floor to alert them to the fire. But then the switchboard operator dropped the call before she could connect them to the ninth floor. The doors to the stairwell opened inward instead of outward. The crush of people prevented them from opening the doors.  Ida Cohen was one of those women. “All the girls were falling on me and they squeezed me to the door.” Finally Louis Brown was able to push the women away from the door, but it was locked. He rushed to find a key.

As the eighth floor darkened with smoke and the heat rose, manager Samuel Bernstein got the fire hose. It was supposed to be connected to a large tank on the roof, but it wasn’t. He lost three to four minutes of precious time while he tried to get water to come out. Only five to six minutes after coming to life, the fire had consumed most of the eighth floor – more than 9,000 sq. ft.

For the women who had run to the fire escape, the route down was terrifying. The landings and sloping stairs were wide enough for only one woman at a time. The fire escape ended over a basement skylight in an airshaft enclosed on all sides by the three buildings that occupied the city block. Realizing this, one woman opened the sixth floor shutters and broke through the window. Women followed her lead and ran to the stairwell on that floor only to find the doors locked. But they were the lucky ones. They were later rescued by a police officer who heard them pounding on the door. The fire escape soon collapsed taking dozens of women with it.

Outside, a crowd had gathered on Greene Street. Flames rising from the eighth floor windows were being sucked into those on the ninth floor and from there they lapped at the top floor. As the first horse-drawn fire carriages arrived, women appeared in the windows of the eighth and ninth floors, craning for fresh air and for a ladder that would never come.  The fire captain ordered the longest ladders drawn up to the building, but fully extended, they reached only the sixth floor as did the stream of water from fire hoses. A team of firefighters entered the building and reported that the treads of the stairwell were cracking in the heat. The smoke was so intense they couldn’t stand to face it. They lay on their bellies  and opened the hoses.

Then the bystanders saw something large and dark fall from one of the windows. “He’s [owner Max Blanck] trying to save his best cloth,” said a voice in the crowd. When the next bundle began to fall, they realized it was a human being.  “I learned a new sound,” reporter William Gunn Shepherd would write later, “a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.”

In only eighteen minutes, the three top floors of the Asch Building were engulfed and 146 (nearly all) women, average age 20, perished.  As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, I wanted to recognize these mostly anonymous women in some way. Their deaths brought forth great change — new legislation for safer working conditions, such as sprinkler systems, unlocked doors during business hours, clear pathways to clearly marked stairwells, and fire escapes that exit to the street — a direct result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

A segment from CBS Sunday Morning with photos of some of the women and details of the sweeping workplace reform that occurred as result of the fire.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One with My Commute

One of the great things about using public transportation on my daily commute is the walk from home to the subway station. Along my half-mile route, I really get the opportunity to be part of the neighborhood, to be aware of my surroundings in a way that isn’t possible zipping by in a car at 50 miles per hour.  I love looking at  the details in the building facades and thinking about all the people who’ve walked these sidewalks before me. Maybe it’s the writerly side of me coming out!

My neighborhood, a historic brownstone district, was developed mainly between 1860-1880. Even though I walk this route every day, I’m amazed by how often I find something interesting to catch my eye.  Come along with me on my daily walk to the subway.

I love this glass canopy.

I love this glass canopy.



The Montauk Club was built as a replica of the Ca d'Oro in Venice.

The Montauk Club was built as an homage to the Ca d’Oro in Venice, Italy. (See images below.)



The Montauk Club

Another shot of the Montauk Club.
The HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” films here regularly.



Ca'_d'Oro_facciata

Ca’ d’Oro on the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy.



Cool pattern in this door window inlay

Isn’t this a cool pattern inlaid on this window? Reminds me of a speakeasy.



Walk 6

The different patterns and line on the front of this building always get my attention.



Walk 7

Did you notice the little envelope slots at the bottom of the door?



Walk 8

This street lamp has a cool Moroccan feel.



Grotesques.

I always feel like…somebody’s watching me… I think this is known as a grotesque.
Anyone know?



Walk 10

Traditional Brooklyn brownstones typical of my neighborhood



Walk 11

Reggie loves this magnet, which is attached to the street lamp on our corner.



Walk 12

My favorite parts of this building are the rounded window atop the turret and the steel “arm” holding the chimney to the roof.



Walk 11

Indeed.


What is your commute like? Do you pass any interesting sights along the way?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

The One with the Aerobed

There are two irrefutable facts about living in New York City:

  1. It is easier (and probably more life-affirming) to get to the summit of Mount Everest, than to get across town in Manhattan. To achieve the latter, you will need a minimum of three subway transfers, a pocketful of dollar bills (don’t ask), this guidebook listing all the food carts en route, a small flask and a first-aid kit with extra bandages.
  2. No matter where you’re going, whatever you’re carrying will only get heavier by the time you reach your destination, seemingly defying the laws of physics.

While I make every effort to avoid going cross town (“You mean you want me to go from the West Side Highway to Alphabet City for a personal meeting with George Clooney? Damn, I don’t have any dollar bills on me.”), sometimes carrying heavy, awkwardly sized objects is unavoidable.

Take the Aerobed incident.

Years ago, I bought a new sofa, the kind that discourages house guests. (“Oh, what a shame. My sofa is soooo uncomfortable. And don’t you have problems with your sciatica?”) This plan worked well for a while until I learned family members were coming to town, and despite my feeble protests, they would not be persuaded to stay elsewhere. (For example, the Comfort Inn in Brooklyn Heights.) (I jest.) (Not really.)

That is how I found myself at a Big Box Mega Super Ultra Store in urgent need of an inflatable mattress. Perhaps brainwashed by my surroundings, I decided to buy the diva deluxe model: a queen-sized, pillow-topped, motorized, elevated Aerobed. This was the Aretha Franklin of inflatable mattresses. R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Exactly how long are you staying??

Exactly how long are you staying??

For those of you living in a car culture, your story would end here. You’d wheel your purchase to your car in a shopping cart, deposit the box in your trunk and drive away. My adventure was just beginning. In the store, the Aerobed seemed manageable, light even. A cab from point A to B would have cost about $50, which I didn’t really have, so I planned to take the subway home. The sales clerk attached fantastic plastic handles to the cardboard box, necessity being the mother of invention in a city where everyone has to carry everything. The subway station was a mere two blocks.

Beyond the revolving doors the Aerobed immediately gained thirty pounds. I’d barely made it to the sidewalk before I had to stop to rest, panting and heaving like an emphysema patient. I switched the box from my right hand to my left. I tried carrying it like a bag of groceries, and I tried hoisting it on my back, sherpa-style. I even contemplated balancing it on my head, similar to these women. The Aerobed just kept getting heavier and heavier so that by the time I reached the corner, I was using the plastic handles to drag the box along the sidewalk. Then, of course, the plastic handles broke.

They make it look so easy.

They make it look so easy.

At the entrance to the subway station and the long flight of stairs underground, I gave up. I may have been incoherently mumbling phone numbers to nearby hotels which my relatives could use after they found my body, keeled over from the exertion. Sweating profusely I perched the Aerobed on the edge of the stairs and gave it a swift kick. The box tumbled, flipped and skidded to the first landing. I did it again (Take that, you stupid Aerobed) to the bottom of the stairs.

The next hurdle was a literal hurdle: the turnstiles. How would I negotiate them with a box that now weighed nearly as much as a baby elephant? Then a hero came along. A burly man, who looked like he burrowed holes in the ground for a living, had been watching me. “Can I help you?”

My motto usually is I got this, but on this day, sweat dripping down my face and back, I nodded yes. In the name of all that is good and right in the world, yes! At that moment it was the kindest offer anyone could have made. He carried the Aerobed through the turnstiles and all the way to the platform like it was a box of toothpicks. I watched him with my heart full of longing and admiration, wondering if it would be asking too much to have him come home with me to help on the other end getting the box up the subway stairs. Then with a nod of his head, he wordlessly turned and headed along the platform to another train line. I always remember that small act of kindness when I think about how a simple gesture can make someone’s day, but William Blake said it best: “He who would do good to another man must do it in Minute Particulars.” Meaning, it’s less about the grand gestures and more about everyday acts of kindness.

By the time I got the Aerobed home, another good Samaritan helping me up the subway stairs, the bottom of the box was in shreds from having been pushed along the sidewalk for blocks. As I opened the box, I noticed in small print on the side the weight of the Aerobed: forty pounds.

If you’re ever in New York City and you’re in need of a place to stay, I know of a great Comfort Inn in Brooklyn Heights. (I jest.) (Not really.)

Have you purchased something and immediately regretted it?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

The One with Washington’s Face

Despite living within spitting distance of a dozen world-class museums, I haven’t stepped foot inside any of them in a long, long time. Problem is, once you live here for a while you tend to, well, live here. There are errands to run and clothes to wash and the little thing my friend V likes to call The Grind. This week, I decided to visit one of the perhaps lesser known museums in New York City: the Morgan Library.

The museum began as financier Pierpont Morgan’s personal library. He had this building constructed between 1902-06 in one of Manhattan’s toniest spots. Just to be clear, Morgan spent millions of (today’s) dollars using the finest of materials from around the world–to house his books.  Just to be crystal clear, my apartment would fit comfortably inside the east wing.

The Morgan Library

The inside is even more opulent. If Mr. Morgan entered through this portico, he would have been greeted by this inlaid marble and gold rotunda.

Morgan Library Rotunda

To the left of the foyer was Mr. Morgan’s study. (Sorry for the grainy photo. (It was quite dark inside with all the red damask lining the walls.) I could spend days in there and not see all the objects on display.

Morgan's study

Mr. Morgan was an avid collector of literature, historical documents and art in nearly every medium,. This was one of his favorite works.

Running Eros

Mr. Morgan wanted to have this statue “constantly in sight.” This statue of Eros was excavated from the ruins of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

All of it was lovely, but not the reason I went to the Morgan Library. Book nerds, hold onto your keyboards.

Morgan Library

Do you think they use the Dewey decimal system? (East wall)

Morgan Library

West wall

Three stories of books! This is my idea of utopia. Many of these volumes are first or rare editions, like the Darwin book below. There are two hidden staircases behind the walls to get to the upper shelves.

Darwin's Origin of Species

In addition to the books and artwork, Mr. Morgan also collected rare documents.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I –John Hancock must have taken note of her signature.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln.
How amazing to see Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting.
“The conflict will be a severe one…”

Beatrix Potter.

Beatrix Potter.
“My rabbit Peter is so lazy…”

Anyone who has been around this blog for a while knows that seeing the document below brought me such joy.

Henry David Thoreau. A page from Thoreau's journal, dated July 5, 1845, Walden Pond. "Yesterday I came here to live..."

Henry David Thoreau.
A page from Thoreau’s journal, dated July 5, 1845, Walden Pond. “Yesterday I came here to live…”

One last document. We go from the sublime…

George Washington

George Washington’s letter to James Madison, dated May 20, 1792 from Mount Vernon.

to the creepy…

A cast of George Washington's face. This is sure to give me nightmares.

A cast of George Washington’s face. This is sure to give me nightmares.


 

Great American Fiction Best short stories

 

 

Side note: I’m happy to say that one of my short stories, “Secrets of a Seamstress,” was selected in the Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest. The story appears in a new anthology, available on Kindle.

 

 

 

 


Have you been to a museum lately? Any cool or creepy findings? 

Have a great weekend everyone! 

The One with Space Mountain

Sometimes people don’t know how to stay out of trouble until they get a swift reality check by, say, ending up in jail. Enter my high school friend Toby. He was a pimply, freckle-faced kid with hair leaning more toward strawberry than blond, prompting a lot of discussion among the girls in my class.

Toby was on the periphery of my social group and another social group. In the Venn diagram of high school cliques, straddling two groups put one in a kind of teenage wasteland. (The Who, anyone?) Not a good thing when you’re seventeen and trying desperately to fit in. Toby did the only thing he could do in that situation: he resorted to hijinks. The class clowns were a group all their own, equally liked, but not respected by, the jocks, the nerds, the basket cases, the potheads, the drama geeks and the princesses. Everyone that is except the Goths (never the Goths).

Toby had to resort to bigger and bolder shenanigans to get the same laughs. His was a world of depreciating returns.  In the spirit of go-big-or-go-home, he decided his craziest stunt would take place during our senior class trip.

Our trip was so hyped it was nearly a rite of passage. Every senior class had gone to the same place since the beginning of time (or the 1960s, which to us was the same thing). Older brothers and sisters had returned with tales that shocked and amazed. We were going to Disney World, where, for one night, they would close the Magic Kingdom to the general public. Graduating seniors from around the region would converge on the park from dusk to dawn. It would be our first of many all-nighters.

My friends and I made a beeline for Space Mountain in the Tomorrowland section of the park. Unsure which group he should cling to, Toby tagged along with us. We tried to shake him, stopping at the bathroom and concession stand. But, to his credit, he wouldn’t be deterred. The more daring maneuvers we used to escape, the more he amped up his side show. It was the only quality he could rely on. He goofed around by spilling ketchup on the floor and then slipping in it. He let the swinging doors of a saloon in Frontierland hit him in the face, which led to a nasty bruise. He gave his jacket to Pluto and stuffed wads of napkins in his pockets. Sleeping Beauty wouldn’t come near him. How were we going to attract the Shaun Cassidys of the senior class if Jack Tripper wouldn’t leave us alone? 

After waiting on line at Space Mountain for 900 hours (about five minutes in adult time), we boarded our “space capsule.” What made this roller coaster unique was that the ride unfolded mostly in the dark, except for a section with illuminated strips on the walls to serve the illusion that we were going faster than we really were.

Imagine a simulated space soundtrack "shpew, shpew, shpew"

Traveling through the space / time continuum. Image via Wikicommons

Meanwhile all of Toby’s social frustrations were bubbling to the surface. He’d worked so hard to be the talk of the school to no avail.  Toby decided to carpe diem (probably having watched Dead Poet’s Society one too many times). He was going to stand up and be noticed.  So he decided to literally stand up. In the capsule. In middle of the ride.

I can imagine how the breeze blew through his strawberry curls while he was fist pumping the air a la John Bender from The Breakfast Club — for a full two seconds. That was how long it took for the ride to whiplash us to a halt and the lights to flick on inside the vast caldron that was Space Mountain. Because, while none of his friends were able to see him carpe diem, all of the Disney night-vision monitors were.

There's nowhere to run, Toby.

There’s nowhere to run, Toby.

The ride was temporarily closed while the Disney workers hurried along the catwalks next to the tracks to apprehend Toby. We muttered at him under our breaths and shook our heads in disgust. They carted him off to Disney jail, located in the vast network of tunnels underneath Cinderella’s castle. At the end of the evening, Toby was released on his own recognizance for the long ride home. He sat at the front of the bus with the teachers and chaperones, his social death knell.  When I caught a glimpse of him in the driver’s rear view mirror, I saw him smiling.

“Why did you do it?” I asked him the following week, after he’d served two days of suspension from school. “You could have gotten hurt, and worse, you ruined the ride for all of us.”

He shrugged with his dopey grin. “Now you’ll have a cool story to tell about me.”

All these years later, I guess he was right.

 

Have you ever done something unusual to get noticed? Have a great weekend, everyone!