Clothes Make the Man-Child (concluded)

NBP Guest Post

Because my school had outlawed sweatpants, to Macy’s we ventured for an all-new wardrobe for an all-new person. My mom and I had to compromise every time we shopped, from the first to the fiftieth time. We had a semi-amicable and fair shopping policy in place: we agreed that we would buy only those things that we both found acceptable. It was democratic, equal votes and equal veto rights. But things were much harder in practice particularly since I had rigid ideas about what was acceptable. The collar couldn’t be too big because that was girly! No shoulder pads either. The buttons couldn’t have any designs on them. And there definitely couldn’t be darts where boobs were supposed to go. No flair on the bottoms either. And the sleeves couldn’t be too short. If crossed by a stitch, hue, or cut that I perceived as too feminine, my jaw would set, my eyes would narrow, and a tiny piercing laser of death would shoot from my black raging pupils.

My mother, of course, had her own opinions, and was operating at a disadvantage since she was under the misconception that she was shopping for a girl, even though she acknowledged that I wasn’t a girly girl. While she tried to be sensitive to my stringent dressing restrictions, we still headed for the girls’ department where I headed straight for the boy-type clothes especially the collared polo shirts and sweatpants that I had become so fond of. But the girl version had more embellishments and gewgaws, was form-fitting, and was just plain stupid! Not only were we in the girls’ department, but my mom also wanted me to buy clothing that fit me (imagine!). I wanted to buy clothes that fit Andre the Giant. They were far more comfortable, and didn’t reveal the body underneath.

So we battled. I didn’t have eye-beams, but I sure mastered that piercing death ray. My mom, though, had her own weapons that rivaled mine (plus she was bigger and had the credit cards). If I was Cyclops, she was Banshee. My mother was keeper of “The Voice,” as I endearingly nicknamed it. Faster than a .223 Winchester, more powerful than the Acela, and able to leap the Freedom Tower in a single bound, it was not a sonic boom, scream or yell; quite the opposite. It was terse-to-kill, at a volume slightly elevated, but very eerily controlled. It is my Kryptonite, but when used against others for my protection, it was the ultimate in awesomeness! In Macy’s, though, it was deadly.

During much of the shopping experience, my mom, trying to be helpful, kept adding to the stack of things for me to try on. As she saw my eyes narrow and knew I was trying to vaporize her choices, the pitch of her voice lowered into the caustic zone. Meep! To the fitting room we went, loaded with all sorts of clothes that I loathed to try on. But on they went. I will admit, some were not as bad as I thought they would be, but on the other hand, some incited tears. This exercise was entirely too stressful. The main problem was that girls’ clothes—even clothes for little pre-pubescent girls—were cut to fit girls’ bodies, so even if they didn’t look overtly girly, they still whispered, “Girl, girl, girl!”

I wanted out of the fitting room like a lion wants out of his cage, but I was trapped in there until we found enough acceptable clothing that we wouldn’t have to endure this shopping nightmare for at least a few more months. When we finally got to the register, I was so happy not to be in the fitting room that I cared less about what we ultimately bought, than simply getting the hell outta there.

We were both battered and bruised and emotionally exhausted by the time we got home. Once the car ride was over, we could escape to our own corners to lick our wounds and calm our nerves. My go-to was obviously TV and Twinkies, and my mom’s was probably Tanqueray and a cigarette. So my mom and I went through these sparring rounds every season and every year, each hoping that the next trip would be a real mother-daughter bonding time, and each time realizing that we’d have to bond some other way.But there was one time when my mom was the clothes angel. For one agonizing celebratory event, my school actually mandated that all girls wear a skirt. Now. If shopping for regular every-day clothes was a boxing match, then shopping for dress-up clothes was an all-out UFC battle. For events such as these I had usually gotten away with wearing black pants and a kind of girlish silk blouse (ick, yes, I said the word “blouse,” but at least it had a collar, even though it probably also had shoulder pads), and some shoes that were clunky black flats that made me look like a ’90s doughty secretary. That wasn’t going to work for this one. I just couldn’t imagine myself in a dress or a skirt; it was an impossibility and went against every fiber of my being. To wear such clothes would have affirmed that I was a real girl. In my still mixed-up view of myself, I figured I could be a boy in a dress, but not a girl in a dress. My mother somehow understood this and came to the rescue.

This is the one and only time this phrase will ever make sense: culottes were the answer. Yes, I repeat, culottes, essentially giant shorts that can pass for skirts, but they do include that little cloth separation between the legs that makes all the difference. I could almost pretend that I was wearing uber baggy shorts. I wore them with my white silk blouse (still ick) and my ugly secretary shoes and advertised to anyone who would listen that I was NOT wearing a skirt. So while I was sort of trying to fit in as a girl, I essentially kept announcing, “I am NOT a girl, NOT a girl, but I guess I am a girl.”

            Clothing was, thus, the outward manifestation of my identity and gender struggle. In my Lands’ End uniform I got to camouflage myself as a little boy who was in fact a little girl. Post-uniform, I started to care about fitting in (pardon the pun)—that my quintessentially feminine name should match my clothing and appearance slightly more, but I still couldn’t stand wearing that clothing. I still had a lot of work to do in order to make a bespoke suit for whoever I was.

Clothes Make the Man-Child

NBP Guest Post

As a little kid, I was always partial to boys’ clothes. My parents were fairly fashion liberal from the start and let me off the hook from forcing me to wear the uberest of girlish clothes…for the most part. Upon ability to communicate (which, as you know, was rather delayed), I made it clear that pink was not my color. Before I had any say in it, though, I did wear dresses—even pink frilly ones with tights (barf). There are even photographs of me in dresses (gross). But my hatred of dresses literally reared its ugly head at a very early age. I couldn’t have been more than three when a “lovely velvet smocked dress” arrived as a gift from one of my mother’s friends. “Just try it,” my mom cajoled. I acquiesced enough to let her place the dreaded garment over my head. The contorted face that emerged from the neck hole disturbed her so much that the devil-made garment was immediately ripped off me. My face relaxed and the dress photos became a thing of the past. Soon after there was nary a ruffle nor a hint of pink in sight.

I was then allowed to dress in little shirts with stripes and collars and matching running shorts or T-shirts, button-downs, and even sweater vests (think, like, total ‘80s). When I played dress-up, I wore my father’s clothes. I required only a button-down shirt and a vest—maybe a baseball cap to top it off. I liked to play dress-up so much that eventually I received my own little red tie that I would don to feel dapper. It was pre-tied and went around my neck with an elastic band. I wore that tie as much as possible until the elastic wore out.

By the time I was in school my mom and I had arrived at a uniform that was acceptable to us both. No more girly surprises for me and no more wretched faces for my mom. My uniform consisted of a striped rugby shirt and matching sweatpants. I had multiple sets in a range of primary colors. When I had worn out or outgrown one set, we could just open to the corresponding pages in the latest Lands’ End catalogue (in the boys’ section no less!) and pick out my new colors and sizes. On any given day, I could be seen sporting green sweatpants with a green and black striped rugby shirt or perhaps blue sweatpants with a blue and red rugby shirt or perhaps even red sweatpants with a red and yellow top! Oh, I was so eclectic and fashion-forward!

In these clothes, I could pass for a real boy (Pinocchio, eat your heart out!). But looking like a real boy had its own problems. The image I presented to strangers was of a little boy, but my name was clearly that of a little girl. Strangers—waiters, teachers, shopkeepers—all thought I was a boy…until they heard my name. Then sometimes they’d ask for confirmation. Their eyes surely didn’t deceive them. I did. They judged this book by its cover, and were oh so right, but technically oh so wrong.

My hairstyle added to this confusion. In kindergarten and early elementary school, it was cut short. I paid very little attention to it. It was there on my head, but it didn’t look girly, and it existed easily without being combed or brushed. It was perfect!

Those awful mandatory school pictures where each kid is individually posed sitting at a desk reveal the evolution of my hair. It’s boy-short in the styling of Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory in kindergarten and then gets progressively longer, so that by second grade I have become Kenneth Parcell of 30 Rock. By third grade it is longer still, mostly in the back. I won’t make you read between the lines. I was unwittingly cultivating a mullet (eeek and oops!). All I knew was that longer hair meant girl and shorter meant boy. My unconscious solution, I guess, was to have both. The mullet marked the beginning of gender conformity. It was the perfect allegory for me: I needed to be part male to match how I felt on the inside, but part female to match my anatomy outside and my name. Unfortunately, as most of you know, mullets should never be the solution. Sigh, I was trying so hard to live on both sides of the fence.

Biology though dictated that I was on the girls’ team whether I liked it or not. If I were to be truly accepted, I would need to act…and look like…a girl person, and this was going to require a conscious and concerted effort. In the early years, I had tried to dress in a way that would help me disappear into the woodwork. But those rugby shirts and sweatpants made me look like a nerdy little boy. Unfortunately, I realize now that particular outfit highlighted the fact that I was the weird girl who looked like a boy. I clearly had not yet learned the subtle art of tailoring the appropriate suit. And now, I had to; the school outlawed sweatpants! How could they?!? Change was coming, but it wasn’t going to be easy.

(concluded January 17)

Snippets

My sneeze was delayed by a yawn. Did I have a snawn or was it a yeeze?

I would like to hear one of those religious athletes say, “I was playing a great game until God made me fumble.”

If the flower shop is robbed at gunpoint, you probably have a petrified florist.

I liked Chicago when I lived there. I have enjoyed visiting there. It is a city that has much to offer except for one thing: Deep dish “pizza.”

Watching television on Sunday, I once again had that question: How much do televangelists spend on hair care?

An ad beseeched me to send $5 or $10 to a political candidate. The candidate told me that it was essential so that he could fight to restore Donald Trump’s majority. I thought: Define “restore” and “majority.”

The Nonbinary Progeny is often more perspicacious than the spouse. The spouse spied some schmutz on my shirt and asked, “Is that blood?” I assured her it was not. I had not changed the clothing when a few hours later, the NBP asked, “Is that chocolate?” Hershey’s Special Dark Syrup to be more exact.

I watched the first half of the college football playoff game, but not caring about the outcome, I turned it off. I find more and more in my sports viewing, I don’t pull for a team to win. Instead, I increasingly find that there is a host of teams I don’t like, and I want them to lose no matter their opponent, but that often leads to situations where I want both to be defeated. There is something wrong with “college” football where coaches get paid up to $10 million, and I pull against all the big college football programs. I wanted both teams on Monday night to lose.

“I give the same halftime speech over and over. It works best when my players are better than the other coach’s players.” Chuck Mills

I might feel better if the officials and announcers for college football games cut out the redundancies such as “false start, offense,” and “true freshman.”

Jose was born in the Dominican Republic, but he was quick to say that his family roots were in Barcelona. Recently another person told me that he was born in the Dominican Republic but stressed that his family’s roots were in Italy. The many Puerto Ricans I have known have just said they were from PR and haven’t stated where their forebears were from before coming to the Western Hemisphere.

I met a couple on a trip.  He was six feet ten.  She was shy of five feet even.  What questions would you have liked to ask?

His Honor’s House (continued)

          The first act of a drama that involved our house was reported in the December 4, 1888, Brooklyn Eagle. The widow Mrs. Addie M. Palmer had pleaded not guilty to a charge of petty larceny that morning. A store detective testified that Palmer had shoplifted a “cheap pocketbook” from Loeser’s dry goods store and went on to say that the store had been “annoyed by female shoplifters who have a practice of stealing anything that they could conveniently conceal.” Detective Butler said that he observed Mrs. Palmer in the store several times but noticed that she seldom bought anything. Hiding behind a pillar, he watched her put the pocketbook in her bag. When Butler confronted her, she said that she had intended to pay for it. “Then she asked me if the matter could not be settled and stated plainly that money would be provided if required.” The store, however, referred the matter to the police.

          The article continued that Mrs. Palmer “is about 45 years old and dresses in black. Her relatives occupy a most respectable place in society, and she herself has never been suspected of doing anything wrong before and regards her arrest as a gross outrage, as do her friends.” It said that she lived with her relative Charles Glatz at our address. Mr. Glatz told the court that a representative of Loeser & Co. had indicated that the store was willing to drop the matter, but the judge “replied that he had not been consulted in the matter,” and the case was continued. The news report concluded, “It is extremely improbable that the case will be pressed.” That prediction was wrong.

          On December 19, 1888, a headline on the three o’clock edition of the Eagle blared: “Found Guilty. Mrs. Addie H. Palmer convicted of petty theft. Although well to do and most respectably connected she stooped to steal a forty-nine cent pocketbook. Many witnesses testify to her previous good character.”

The article indicated that she did not live with Glatz, who was her brother-in-law and who had bailed her out when she was arrested, but several blocks away at 109 South Oxford Street where she boarded after coming from Stamford, Connecticut, about a year earlier. The reporter concluded that the matter went to trial because “Mrs. Palmer was naturally animated by a desire to protect her character, and the firm equally desirous of protecting themselves against a civil suit.”

Again, she dressed in black, but this time she came with an entourage: “She was accompanied by her son, a young man of 18 or 20, her lawyer, two or three relatives and a dozen friends all bearing the stamp of the utmost respectability. Mrs. Palmer was remarkably self-possessed.”

The store detective added to his testimony from two weeks earlier that he had seen Mrs. Palmer at least 100 times in the store. Several other store employees testified to the interaction between the detective and Palmer. The clerks stated that Palmer was asked twice why she took the pocketbook and replied, “I don’t know.”

Mrs. Palmer took the stand and testified that she had intended to pay for the item. At least six character witnesses testified on her behalf including her sister Kate Anna Glatz, of our address, and Charles Glatz, “a dealer in watches” who said, “I have known Mrs. Palmer for thirty-seven years. Her reputation is of the best and she goes about doing good as her Master did.”

The defense attorney, a well-known figure, said that Mrs. Palmer was “a most respectable” woman and “the intention of stealing the pocketbook was never in her mind. The truth was the detective had made a mistake.” The prosecuting attorney, specially hired for the case, said that the defendant knew the store well and knew where to pay for the item. He stressed that when arrested Palmer wrongly said that she had lived at our address, as had been highlighted in a pressing cross-examination: “If she were the honest Christian lady she claimed to be she would not have told an untruth in giving her residence, and afterward have sought to defend the action by saying she was not on oath at the time.” The attorney concluded by addressing the class issue: “If she had come to court in rags not a single person who had heard the evidence would have had any doubt about her guilt.”

Judge Walsh, who tried the case without a jury as New York law then required, said, “The question of respectability does not affect me, for I pass on the cold facts alone. I should like my conscience to allow me to believe that this woman is not guilty, but it will not do so. There is nothing left me but to convict the prisoner—which I do.” The judge set December 28 for sentencing and required $200 bond for Mrs. Palmer’s appearance. “Mr. Glatz furnished the bail and Mrs. Palmer, who was moved scarcely at all, went away with her friends.”

I could find no further mention of Addie Palmer’s shoplifting. I assume some sort of deal was worked out with Loeser’s,* and the charges were dropped. If there were other acts to this drama, I don’t know them, but I wondered what Susan Glaspell could have made of this trifling court tragedy.

However, while our house was mentioned prominently and Palmer’s unexplained listing of it as her address may have affected the verdict, it and its owners only played a peripheral role in the case. Charles and Kate Glatz appear to have been solid citizens, with, perhaps, an unstable relative (who does not have one?), but my research has found nothing particularly notable about them. Indeed, the only prominent owner of our house was its builder Samuel Booth, a mayor of Brooklyn. Soon we will return to him and his many accomplishments on this blog.

__________________________________________________________________________

          *The Frederick Loeser & Co. store was an attraction much like a new suburban mall was twenty years ago. Loeser started with a lace and notions business in 1860 and in 1870 opened a department store near Brooklyn City Hall, which today is Brooklyn Borough Hall. In March 1887, Loeser opened a new building five blocks to the east. It was massive for the time, five stories tall taking up an entire large city block. The bottom three floors were for shopping; administrative offices took up the fourth floor; and the top floor had restrooms and ladies’ fitting rooms. Various sources say that the store had “all modern conveniences including electric lights, telephone service, elevators, restrooms, fitting rooms, and luxury duplex escalators.” Other sources state that Frederick Loeser & Co. “was long known as the favorite of the carriage trade.” The store was about a mile from our house, and Addie Palmer’s residence was a couple blocks closer.

          The business went bankrupt in 1952, and the store closed. The building still stands, and the closest subway stop still has a stained-glass insignia of Loeser’s, which showed passengers the closest exit to the store. For years I regularly used that subway stop and walked past that insignia thousands of times without paying it any attention.

His Honor’s House (continued)

My newspaper research into the history of our house was haphazard. On occasion, when I was through with some project on the computer and I had nothing else I needed or wanted to do, I would log on to a newspaper data base, put our address into the query box, and enter a time frame. Things came up that held some interest or amusement for me. For example: On February 20, 1951, Mrs. Mildred Thompson, 63, of our address was hit by a car crossing a nearby street. Then while being taken to a hospital, her ambulance collided with a car. I could find no subsequent report of how Mildred fared from the two accidents. While this made me think of dark jokes or a children’s book, I was finding nothing that gave me any new meaningful insight into the house or its inhabitants, nothing that inspired me to undertake some sort of sustained research that would inspire my next book. On the other hand, I found a couple entries that I thought could be the seeds for some old-fashioned short stories, if I had any ability to write such a thing.

For example, there was a longish obituary of Mortimer L. Goff published on October 11, 1896, that stated that “twenty-five years ago the deceased was one of the only seven professional tea tasters in the United States” and that all the large tea importers sought his opinion. Although he was living elsewhere when he died, the Brooklyn Eagle reported, “Mr. Goff built a residence at (our address), and his garden in front of his home was of special interest to Brooklynites by reason of its choice plants and flowers, among which was the only tea plant imported from China up to that date.” I went to the front window and tried to visualize this, but it was hard. Although the tiny space between the house and the sidewalk once had four square feet of soil where a tree grew, a luxuriant garden was hard to imagine. There always had to have been access to the door under the stoop leaving only a small planting space that would not have gotten sunlight after midday. But the thought of a rare tea plant outside the door was intriguing.

I thought, however, that Goff’s jactation could place him in a humorous short story. He seems to have taken credit, unsupported by anything more than his word, for both the founding of a great commercial empire and for innovative military tactics. The obit said that as a young man, Goff was about to open “an extensive retail tea and coffee establishment” but it was destroyed in a widespread fire before it opened. Goff said that the nascent business was uninsured and never got underway because of the losses. However, according to him, several years later he told “a New York capitalist” about his ideas for a chain of coffee and tea stores and this led to the formation of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Furthermore, Goff took credit for the origination of Thea-Nector package tea, a signature product of the early A & P company. However, no corroboration for these claims was given, and while I have only done minor research on the founding of A & P, I could not find even the merest mention of Mortimer.

  Goff also said that during Civil War, he wrote to General McClellan about using balloons to bomb troops in battle “but received no reply.” However, within a week of mailing his letter, Goff stated that news reports indicated that balloons had been used by Union troops in a “decided victory.” The obituary stated: “The deceased Brooklynite had maintained up to the day of his death that he was the first person to suggest this application of the balloon.”

While I find humor in the unconfirmed boasting, perhaps it was really just sad. Goff apparently had some sort of mental illness. The obit stated that although Goff had only been recently confined to his home on Prospect Park a mile or two from my house, he had been an invalid for the last nineteen years. “His long ill health and final death (at 65) are indirectly attributed to a nervous disorder brought on by sampling tea.” Sampling tea made him an invalid? I don’t think Lipton wants to hear about this. But come on, that is at least sort of funny. Perhaps a reincarnated James Thurber could make something of this.

The story, however, also revealed to me some of the problems of being an amateur, very part-time historian. The obituary gave the present address of our house, but an obituary from thirty years earlier on January 7, 1864, reported the death of Susan Goff, whom I assume was a relative of Mortimer’s. It said the funeral would be at her residence and gave the address of our house. However, even if Goff did build a house with our address, it’s clear that Samuel Booth built ours in the 1870s. Confused, I did some digging and found that Brooklyn street numberings changed several times in that era. Goff’s residence and ours are not the same building.

However, Charles Glatz did own our building, and he was a supporting character in a drama that could have made a story or play.

(continued January 10)

His Honor’s House (continued)

Pamphlets on how to research the history of a Brooklyn home mostly gave advice on tracing the chain of title. Searching for deeds and mortgages brought back unpleasant memories of my worst grade in law school in the first- year Property course, and so I had little inclination to do that research even if I had the time. But as the years went by, more newspapers put back issues online, and these could be easily searched by computer. Occasionally, I would put the address of the house into the query box and find some bygone social news, such as this in 1896: “A cake and candy sale under the auspices of the Brooklyn Women’s Dumb Animal Aid association for the benefit of the Foundation fund was held from 4 to 10 P.M.” at the house.

Sometimes a story indicated the changing nature of urban life and services. An 1877 story reported on city hearings about garbage collection. No name was given, but a resident of the house testified, “Our ashes have been taken regularly for some time, but we have lost all faith in the swill man and burn our garbage.” The Landmark’s report had indicated that Samuel Booth owned the house until 1883, so presumably that person dissatisfied with the swill collector was a Booth or connected to one.

That report said Booth sold the house to Charles and Kate Glatz in 1883, and the Glatz family lived there for more than a decade. A report on March 16, 1893, said that their daughter, Henriette Caroline Glatz, was married, but it seems that something happened to the Glatz family soon afterward. A newspaper auction notice appeared April 28,1896. It did not mention Charles Glatz but did say that the house for sale was the “former residence of ex-Mayor Booth” and full particulars could be had from one Wilson Powell of Wall Street, attorney for the plaintiff, or with Benjamin Wright of Park Row, “attorney for some defendants.” Plaintiffs and defendants indicated some sort of dispute, but I could not find anything that indicated the nature of the legal matter that caused the auction or even whether the bidding happened. The painful memories of my law school property course continued to torment me, so I never traced the deeds to find the next owner. However, it is clear that others expected the auction to happen. In the “Positions Wanted” portion of the newspaper at the time of the sale notice, cooks and maids working and living at the house were advertising for new employment.

From the Landmark’s report, I know the first two owners of the house—Booth and Glatz—and the last two—us and the couple we bought it from, but I don’t know who any of the other owners were in the intervening seventy-five years. Perhaps, however, it was John Griffin who bought the house at the auction or shortly afterwards. A New York Times listing of deaths on April 30, 1904, said: “John Griffin, a sailmaker who was well known in yachting circles, died on Thursday at his home (our address). Mr. Griffin was seventy-two years old. He was one of the oldest sailmakers in this city. Wilson & Griffin, the firm of which he was a member, having been in business in South Street since 1862. The firm has made sails for a number of the defenders of the America’s Cup. Mr. Griffin has been retired from active business for several years. Two daughters and two sons survive him.” This brought some thoughts. The notice said that he had been retired, but being a typical New Yorker, I wondered how he had commuted from our house to South Street on lower Manhattan’s east waterfront in the days before subways. (One of the present advantages of our location is that many subway lines stop near the house.) Were there nearby horse-drawn omnibuses or trolleys that took him to the waterfront to catch a ferry over the East River? Did he regularly walk the three miles going over the Brooklyn Bridge, which had been open for twenty years? And, if Griffin was the owner, what happened to the house after his death? I don’t know.

A few short newspaper entries from the 1920s also had me wondering. A position wanted ad on September 7, 1921, stated, “Chauffeur, mechanic, Japanese, 35, married, 14 years constant experience. . . . Write Sadao” at our house’s address. Not many Japanese people lived in Brooklyn at that time. How did Sadao get here? To whom was he married? Why was he looking for a job? Where did he live in the house? Did he continue to live in Brooklyn decades later during World War II?

A brief report stated that on September 22, 1925, a marriage license was issued to Frank Caccaro, 25, and Mildred Bottomley, 21. What caught my eye is that both gave an address of our house. Hmmm. Did they meet and fall in love in the house? Did they openly live together before marriage? Did they continue to live in the house after the nuptials?

Perhaps Sadao, Frank, and Mildred were connected to the owner of the house, and, of course, they may have been servants. However, they also might have been roomers. Many of the houses in the neighborhood were broken up into rooming houses during World War II. We are not far from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During WWII the Yard was booming and workers poured into it, many of whom wanted a nearby place to lodge. Investors and speculators bought once-stately homes and chopped them up to make rooming houses with the result that many nineteenth-century details—marble fireplace mantels, ceiling moldings, massive doors—were lost or damaged.

Well before homes were bastardized to accommodate war industry workers, however, it was common for owners of Brooklyn homes to let rooms. Newspapers had regular listings of such offerings. Our address along with many others appeared frequently from the 1890s to the 1940s. For example, on May 18, 1902: “Large, cool rooms, handsomely furnished; two large closets; house has all improvements, first class board; terms moderate; reference.” The house was not a rooming house, but it had roomers. And I wonder what happened to those closets because I could never find them.

(continued January 7)

His Honor’s House

          The house was livable when we bought it forty-three years ago. The roof did not leak (much). The wall and floor joists were solid. Toilets flushed. Sparks seldom flew when appliances were plugged in. But the one-hundred-year-old house needed work. We, however, did not have the money for improvements. The spouse was transitioning to a post-doc in neurobiology having just obtained her doctorate, a position that was rich in remunerations in every way other than dollars, and I was working for the New York City Legal Aid Society, an employer not known (correctly) for lavish pay.

          We could only afford the mortgages, taxes, and utilities if we rented out two floors of the four-story building, and because of our new-found religion. We prayed earnestly that nothing serious would go wrong in our new home because we could not afford to pay someone to fix anything. Our beseeching was successful. Desired improvements would have to be done by us, which meant primarily, but not always, by me. Some projects were more successful than others—the floor refinishing stood the test of time, a new closet was ok, but the self-installed windows, not so much.

          These efforts often brought glimpses of a previous house and its inhabitants. We found remnants of what was probably an original painted frieze that ornamented the parlor ceiling molding. The same colors were discovered on the ceiling medallions. These indicated colorful paint jobs appropriate for the Victorian era but seldom considered tasteful afterwards. Seeing these decorating choices, I wondered what other owners had done that I would now discover. Some of them were puzzling indeed. As I stripped black paint off eight-foot, solid walnut doors, I wondered why anyone would cover such beautiful wood. What were they thinking? We also uncovered a backyard cistern; when was it last used? A postcard from Providence was found in a wainscotting gap. Was there a story behind that? Why was a fragile, but beautiful, stained glass window pushed off into a crawl space next to some abandoned sinks? Andirons rested with ashes in a covered fireplace that surely had not been used in a half-century. Why were they not carted off?

          I started to think that it might be fun to research the history of the house. This seemed especially worthwhile because we were told when we bought it that ours was a uniquely historic house. “This home is known by locals as the Mayor’s House. It was built by the last mayor of Brooklyn, and the story says that, as impressive as it was, it was not grand enough so he built the house across the street [half again as wide as ours] and moved there.” (Brooklyn was a separate city until 1898 when it became part of a consolidated New York City, and the last mayor was the one in office when the consolidation occurred.)

          I had known none of this honorable connection when we signed the house contract. In fact, I knew little about our new home’s neighborhood other than that it had been recently landmarked. I got the Landmark Commission’s report, which stated that farms were subdivided into building lots starting in the 1840s and that after the Civil War “wealthy merchants, lawyers, stockbrokers, and businessmen, who mostly commuted to Manhattan, began to build homes in what is now called Fort Greene. The brief history stated that “it remained a quiet and prosperous community for many years,” but in the middle of the twentieth century, “many of the middle-class residents left the area for the suburbs,” and “the poor moved into this old urban neighborhood.” Fifteen years before we bought our house, a newspaper referred to the area as “squalid,” but the Landmark report was upbeat. At the time we were moving in, it said that the “Fort Greene area is being revitalized as many rediscover the advantages of urban life. The buildings, many of which had been turned into rooming houses, again are becoming much sought-after private residences and today Fort Greene is a viable and vibrant community.”

          We did not buy the house because of the neighborhood. Almost no one  agreed with the real-estate gushiness of the Landmark’s report. Few, if any, applied “sought-after” and “vibrant community” to the area. Instead, many people avoided Fort Greene and felt fear when they did encounter it. We bought anyway. The house, which retained much of its nineteenth-century grandeur, appealed to us, we could (barely) afford it, and we had lived in what others referred to as high-crime neighborhoods before.

          The bulk of the Landmark report is not as promotional as its history section and consists of one-paragraph descriptions of the buildings in the landmarked area. It says that our house was “erected by real estate speculator and former Brooklyn mayor Samuel Booth sometime between 1872 when he acquired the land and 1883 when he sold it to Charles and Kate Glatz.” So the story we were told about the mayor’s house did have a smidgeon of truth. It was built by a person who had been a Brooklyn mayor, but a little research revealed that Booth was not the last Brooklyn mayor. Booth had held the office thirty years earlier, shortly after the Civil War. And the story that His Honor had not found our house grand enough so he built a bigger one across the street was, according to the report, not true either. It says that the larger house was built in the late 1860s. Thus, its construction preceded that of our house. But still, our house was built by a Brooklyn mayor.

I had not heard of Samuel Booth, and I wondered who he might be and what, if any, was his historical significance. I also realized that there were more than a century of owners and inhabitants who preceded us. Were their stories worth learning and recounting? I found some pamphlets on how to research the history of a Brooklyn brownstone, but at the time I had other things to do, including not only my paid job but also such things as floor sanding and faucet-washer replacements. Historical research would have to wait, which it did for a long time.

(continued January 5)

Resolutions

I resolve not to lend my comb to a Labradoodle again.

Since I find the French word amusing, I resolve to use pamplemousse more often.

I resolve to try meditation even though it may give me inner peace.

Even if I do it at the lowest speed, I resolve to never again run the blender with the top off even just to make graham cracker crumbs.

I resolve not to lie more than three—ok, seven—times a day.

I resolve to do something nice for someone else every day. Ok, every week.

I resolve not to be (less) annoyed by vegans.

I resolve to accept that I will not get down to the weight I want.

I resolve to smile more.

I resolve to be less of a wiseass. (Oops. That conflicts with above.)

I resolve to learn the words to the second stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner.

I resolve never to sing the second stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner.

I resolve to produce less polluting waste.

I resolve not to learn how to play mah-jongg. (Sorry, spouse.)

I resolve to make fewer typographicul errorrs.

I resolve to at least in some small way make our politics better.

I resolve to have an open mind about religion.

I resolve to figure out why that when I resolve something I have not made a resolvolution.

I resolve to remember the words of Benjamin Disraeli in Sybil or the Two Nations: “To be conscious you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.”

I resolve to remember the words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh in A Gift from the Sea: “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.”

I resolve to deepen my sense of wonder.

Snippets

The decision to be unvaccinated is not just an exercise of personal autonomy or religious beliefs, but one that affects general society by unnecessarily increasing the spread of COVID. We should have vaccine mandates. How, then, should I react when I read something like this, as I did last week? “State Senator Doug Ericksen, a Republican who led efforts to oppose Washington State’s Covid-19 emergency orders and vaccine mandates, has died after his own battle with the illness. He was 52.”

Conservatives point out that Biden’s disapproval numbers are higher than his approval ones. These statistics are cited gleefully with the suggestions that Biden is not truly accepted as president, that he could not be elected again, or that somehow he is not the legitimate president. However, Trump’s approval-disapproval poll numbers were almost always worse than Biden’s are now. And yet the majority of Republicans think that somehow Trump was elected in 2020 and should be elected again.

After watching The Power of the Dog,I have been wondering what friends call Benedict Cumberbatch. Benedict seems mighty formal for pals, but he is British so maybe that is it. Ben seems possible. I don’t want it to be Bennie. That seems too disrespectful. Perhaps BC, but I really hope it is Batch. “How you doin’, Batch?” Nice ring.

“It’s a hard winter, when one wolf eats another.” Old Russian Proverb. Ben Mezrich, Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder.

How are the food serving sizes determined that appear on package labels? The recently purchased, but quickly discarded, snack imported from Korea contains only Korean writing except for the “Nutrition Facts,” where I learned that it contained 1.7 servings. What are you supposed to do with a point seven serving? (The product was quickly discarded because it had a pasted-on label warning me that eating the contents could expose me “to chemicals including Acrylamide, which is are [sic] known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” This, too, mystified me because the ingredients section of the nutrition label said it contained only corn, sugar, and baking soda. But better safe than sorry—and the handful I ate was not very good.)

Henry has been coming around to clean up the debris around the front of our urban house for maybe twenty years. He does other odd jobs around the neighborhood and at his church which is nearby. Henry is old now and has difficulty walking, but he stops by every now and again to say hello and maybe to get a little money for old time’s sake. I thought he might be stopping by around Christmastime so I saved for him the Christmas card that we received from the White House. Now. I have no idea why we received a Christmas card from the White House. We gave some money to the Democratic Party, but certainly not enough to warrant a White House missive. Nevertheless, there it was–a beautiful rendering of the White House on the front and signed inside by Joe and Jill with the signatures looking realer than real. Henry showed up the Sunday after Christmas, driven over from his church by one of his friends. I showed him the card, and while I ducked inside to retrieve a few dollars, he looked it over. When I returned to the door, he handed me the card, and I said, No, it was for him to keep. He looked as though I had just handed him a check for a thousand dollars. It was as if I had anointed him with greatness. I said that I didn’t know why we’d gotten the card, we must have received it because we gave some money to the Democratic Party. Henry said solemnly, “And he was grateful for that.” It was clear that the card was worth a great deal more than the money I gave him. After Henry got back into the car, he and the driver sat for maybe five minutes as, I’m sure, Henry showed his friend the touch of wonder that he held in his hands. I wish Joe had sent him a Christmas card. It would have meant the world to him. (Guest snippet from the spouse.)

First Sentences

“He could see it now: they were a little mad, the Booths, though each in a different way.” David Stacton, The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel about John Wilkes Booth.

“When Elizabeth Blackwell decided to become the first woman doctor, in many ways she wasn’t actually the first.” Olivia Campbell, Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine.

“Lexa McCaskill ran both hands through her coppery hair, adding up appetites.” Ivan Doig, Mountain Time.

“The adventure that changed the course of George Bird Grinnell’s life began with a train, and the path of the train, as it crossed the plains in the summer of 1870, was blocked by buffalo.” Michael Punke, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West.

“One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds.” Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita.

“Her sister’s drawing room was already crowded when Marie-Madeline Fourcade arrived.” Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler.

“In early spring, everything had been so different.” Serena Kent, Death in Provence.

“At seventy-three, with his wartime career as president of the Naval Consulting Board behind him, Edison tried to make sense of a new intellectual order that challenged everything he had learned of Newtonian theory.” Edmund Morris, Edison.

“Some years ago, on a sunny Friday in early May, still vivid to crime buffs, a bold new age commenced, or the visible part of it anyway, when Romo Malbonum, the Deckled Don, talked himself into a life sentence to be served in a maximum-security federal prison.” Jethro K. Lieberman, Everything is Jake.

“For sixty-five days, the Mayflower had blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water onto her passengers’ devoted heads.” Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea.

“The Pacific is the loneliest of oceans, and travelers across that rolling desert begin to feel that their ship is lost in an eternity of sky.” Earl Derr Biggers, The Black Camel.

“At the slow beat of approaching rotor blades, black birds rose into the sky, scattering over the frozen meadows and the pearly knots of creeks and ponds facing the Pripyat Basin.” Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster.