Tag Archives: New York City


We’re at a rest area somewhere in upstate New York. The landscape is flat. I just heard a train whistle. The traffic whines past on the nearby interstate.

A bright yellow Volkswagen an, dating from about 1970, just drove out of the rest area.Bicycles on the back, a man and a woman in the front. She had an expressive face, was wearing purple pants, and had frizzy hair. He was obvously the calm, conservative one in the relationship, and was wearing a ball cap, a dark t-shirt, and conservative shorts, like a lawyer on vacation. I’ll bet the Volkswagen van belongs to her. He was also the only black man in the rest area.

Carol guesses that they are from New York City, headed out of the city for some time off.

Grace Paley

Mother’s Day sermons can get pretty saccharin, so this year when I was looking for readings for Mother’s Day, I turned to Grace Paley. No one could write about motherhood with less sentimentality, or with more humanity, than Grace Paley. Nobody could write about people with such a depth of humanity. I love her stories. Nothing happens in them, but they sound like real life to me. The characters are people I know, and they do things I can imagine doing myself. I can’t think of any other short story writer whom I like as much.

She died on Wednesday, at age 84. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” If there were an afterlife (which she and I doubt very much), she would organize protests in the afterlife, just as her characters organize protests and political action in her stories….

A group of mothers from our neighborhood went downtown to the Board of Estimate Hearing and sang a song. They had contributed the facts and the tunes, but the idea for that kind of political action came from the clever head of a media man floating on the ebbtide of our lower west side culture because of the housing shortage. He was from the far middle plains and loved our well-known tribal organization. He said it was the coming thing. Oh, how he loved our old moldy pot New York.

…The first mother stood up… when the clerk called her name. She smiled, said excuse me, jammed past the knees of her neighbors and walked proudly down the aisle of the hearing room. Then she sang, according to some sad melody learned in her mother’s kitchen, the following lament requesting better playground facilities….

will someone please put a high fence up
around the children’s playground
they are playing a game and have only
one more year of childhood. won’t the city come…
to keep the bums and
the tramps out of the yard they are too
little now to have the old men … feeling their
knees … can’t the cardinal
keep all these creeps out

She bowed her head and stepped back modestly to allow the recitative for which all the women rose, wherever in the hearing room they happened to be. They said a lovely statement in chorus:

The junkies with smiles can be stopped by intelligent reorganization of government functions….

from Grace Paley’s story “Politics”

The best way to remember Grace Paley would be to engage in that kind of cooperative creative political action, of a combatively pacifist nature.

Walking in the big city

Today’s New York Times carries a story about one reporter’s six-day walking trip around Staten Island. In the story, “A Journey around Staten Island Gives a Glimpse of the City’s Wild Side,” Andy Newman reports on walking through landscapes and meeting people you wouldn’t quite expect to find in New York City:

Heading west, Richmond Terrace becomes the main street of several working class neighborhoods before petering out as a winding, rural-industrial lane. At its very end stands a lone country house with a barn and a chicken coop and a yard that merged into the marshy shore of the Kill Van Kull.

The door was answered by Tara Alleyne, a city employee and inhabitant of what was once a soap-factory town called Port Ivory. “I’m the only resident of Port Ivory,” she said proudly. “I’m on Mapquest.”

Newman even brings a tent and manages to find a few places to camp out a couple of nights. Those of us who love walking in the city and the suburbs can only hope for more such hikers, and more good writing about their adventures.

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon (Boston: MFA Publications, 1997).

Unfortunately, I was introduced to the artist Joseph Cornell by Rick, foundrymaster at the college where I worked as factotum for the fine arts department for a year. Rick’s take on Joseph Cornell was that he was this guy who lived with his mother in a house in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, and he had a workshop in the basement filled with all kinds of junk and found objects, and he would hire young women as nude models and after he drew them he would try to sleep with them. The sculptors I hung out with at that time liked to dwell on the odd personalities and sexual proclivities of famous artists.

Nina, a Chicago socialite whom I got to know at college and who went to work for one of the New York galleries before moving back to Chicago and opening her own sculpture gallery, was the one who introduced me to Cornell’s art work. She invited me to visit her in the New York gallery where she worked. I dropped in on one of my weekly trips to the city, and there stood a bunch of Cornell’s boxes in one of the back rooms. I remember I actually got to touch one or two, but I no longer remember which boxes I saw. Nina’s Chicago gallery lasted a few years, then she dropped out of the art world entirely, opting to work in the “hospitality industry” — which is to say she began working for one of the big hotel chains.

Since then, I’ve grown fond of Cornell’s assemblages and collages. I was never particularly interested in Cornell’s life, but when I ran across Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, I idly read a few pages and was instantly hooked:– Cornell led a far stranger life than I could have imagined from Rick the foundrmaster’s distorted account.

Idle facts about the artist Joseph Cornell:

(1) He couldn’t draw. Late in life he audited a life drawing class at Queens College of the CUNY system, taught by Mary Frank…

…Cornell attended her class five or six times, and apparently made an effort at drawing. He would sit on a stool at the side of the classroom with a sketchbook in hand — “the kind you buy in Woolworth’s,” Frank said, “smaller and cheaper than everyone else’s.” As students passed the session sketching from a male or female model, Cornell appeared to do the same. However, when Frank glanced at his page one day, there was nothing inscribed on it beyond “a curving line that crossed over itself.” Cornell insisted she keep the drawing as a gift.

(2) In the latter part of his life, he appeared to subsist entirely on sweets: those cheap supermarket cakes with the thick heavy frosting, bags of cookies, boxes of glazed doughnuts, etc. Solomon reports that “in later life, he was rumored to subsist on nothing but doughnuts.”

(3) Despite what Rick the foundrymaster told me, Cornell did not engage in sexual intercourse with the young women whom he cultivated. Solomon said one of those young women, Leila Hadley, was willing to have sex with Cornell, but he wouldn’t:

…[He offered] a rather quaint reason for his abstinence from intercourse. “He felt he would lose his ability to be an artist if he had sex,” she said, adding that he made this remark to her several times.


The oddness of Cornell’s life seems to have had something to do with the way he perceived reality. In letters, he described the back yard of his house in Flushing as a sort of pastoral haven where he could sit under a quince tree and watch the birds. But, Solomon reports, the back yard does not look so idyllic in photographs taken in 1971…

It [the back yard] looks scruffier than one had imagined: an empty patch of grass enclosed by a chain-link fence, with an ugly apartment complex rising up behind it. Tacky garden statues — a squirrel, a frog, and a rabbit accompanied by four little bunnies — rest on the lawn. How many hours had Cornell spent here daydreaming?

It might be safe to say that Cornell’s pastoral idyll in his back yard was more a result of his imaginative and spiritual journeyings than any reflection of reality. Part of his gift was that Cornell managed to find something transcendent in the ordinary hum-drum life of Flushing. Writing about Cornell’s experimental movies made in the 1950’s, Solomon says:

There are a dozen movies from the fifties altogether. They tend to be short, from three to ten minutes in duration, and most are set in the streets and parks of New York. If they share a theme, it is the yearning for transcendence played off against the grubbiness of city life.

If that’s true, I differ from Cornell in looking for transcendence in everyday life, rather than seeing them as separate. Or you might argue that the fact that Cornell made physical art objects meant that he remained involved with the physical world — perhaps so, but I’d have to say that his involvement was a fairly strange involvement.