Fifth and Madison Avenues around 47th Street in the late 1960s were chock a block with small tawdry electronics stores. Many of these shops still exist today in midtown. Now however half of their shelves are filled with NYC tourist gimcrack like tee shirts, license plates, and miniature statuettes of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.
But back then, they almost always showcased a device in the window touted to be a “Pocket TV.” To me it was the Holy Grail of futurism – a television you could keep in your pocket. As you can see in the above picture, it was about half the size of carton of cigarettes, a little wider. So technically, it was a completely portable TV, as long as you had a huge-ass pocket and an extra long extension cord. Another drawback was the teeny screen, about 1½ inches in diameter. The engineers who designed the thing affixed a magnifying lens to present a bigger image to the eye. But it should be readily apparent that the tech recipe was overcooked any which way you looked at it. I’m willing to bet that nobody got rich designing and manufacturing this thing.
At the time, I couldn’t care less about these shortcomings. Every time we passed by any electronics shop on the way to the Automat or Bohack’s, I could immediately spot one in the window. I would stop and point at it, just like an Irish Setter at a duck in a pond, and Dad would jolt me out of it, lugging me on towards our destination. As explained in my post IS NOTHING SACRED?, I was helplessly attracted to any aspect of futurism. It was in my DNA.One day, we were walking along and passed the ubiquitous electronics store. I did my Irish Setter thing. “I just want to look at it,” I said, trying to get my hands on the device. Dad stopped, probably fatigued as hell with having to stop every time at what were, in his view, annoying stores. “Can’t we just look?” I pleaded. He paused and for once didn’t tug me past. “Alright,” he said ominously, “you’ll see what happens in these places.” I was giddy with glee; finally I could touch the sacred object! Obviously, there was nothing to worry about so I instantly tossed Dad’s warning to the wayside.
We walked in and the salesman at the counter instantly became incredibly attentive. To his surprise, I chirped up to ask to look at the pocket TV. He fetched one out of the back and presented the box on the counter with a flourish of pride. His hands shaking ecstatically, he hurriedly opened it up, and immediately the counter was awash with the smell of fresh electronics, a mix between plastic and popcorn. He unwrapped the device, plugged it in, and soon I was watching channel 5. It had a small television tube inside and probably weighed about 5 pounds. Neat gadget. The price? Only $100 (in 1968 dollars — in today’s money $693). “Too much!” Dad said dismissively. Oh well, at least I had a chance to look at it. We turned to walk out.
The salesman became very animated. “Wait!” he said, “For you, I can do $95.” Seeing as my Dad had turned to walk out the door, I followed his lead. The salesman suddenly jumped from behind the counter, spooking me in the process. “No thanks,” said Dad, as we purposefully strode for the exit. “We were just looking,” I said helpfully. The salesman ignored me and attempted to block the door. “DON’T LEAVE!!! I CAN SELL IT TO YOU FOR $89!!” Dad and I blithely sidestepped him. However, being chased out a store was new territory for me. The salesman actually made an effort to grab my Dad’s arm to prevent him for leaving. Dad deftly evaded his reach. We stepped out nimbly and Lord help me, the salesman appeared to be following us down the street, arms upraised. Instinctively we picked up the pace and turned a corner to lose our tail.
We walked in silence for a while. I felt like an ass.
Not long afterwards in the same summer, we were walking in the same neighborhood, Madison Avenue in the lower 40s, and all of a sudden, a strange man sauntered over and unexpectedly joined us. He ingratiatingly complimented us as a father and son pair. It was weird how he just walked up and I thought for a moment maybe Dad knew him somehow. He didn’t. Suddenly, Dad held his umbrella handle to the man’s face and snarled, “Get out of here, you goddamned bum!” I was very alarmed as to me, this came out of nowhere. The man backed off slowly while shouting curses, gesturing wildly. Our pace picked up and we turned a corner again to lose yet another unwanted “friend.” “What was all that about?” I asked after we were well out of earshot of the man. “He wanted money,” Dad explained.
The city of my birth could sure be a quirky place in the late 1960s. The two events described above were minor of course compared to some of the other drug fueled crimes sweeping over the city. Just about all of my friends had their bus passes pinched on the way to school. Stories of muggings in broad daylight was sadly too common. There were always rough parts of town in the 1940s and 1950s, too, to be sure. Buddy Guy relates in his biography “When I Left Home,” that many club goers of the era were carrying, even the women folk.
The author with Buddy Guy around 1999. (Author on the left).
Dad didn’t carry, of course. Even though he was captain of the Riflery Club, I never saw him shoot a gun. All the same, while walking around with him in New York City, I never had any reason to be concerned for my safety. Driving was a different matter. He may have admired Barney Oldfield, but he sure as hell didn’t drive like him.
Of our hometown, he taught the rhyme above, the title of this post. Apparently, it is an expression that arose during the 1900s. He used to ask me how to spell New York. And I would blindly start, “En, Ee, double-u,” and he would interrupt, “N-N-N-N-No! A Knife and a fork in a bottle with a cork, that spells New York!”
He also used to sing me a funny song called “Who Owns New York.” Here’s a version sung by the Columbia University Glee Club so you can catch the melody:
The Bernard Olcott version offered the following two stanzas:
Who owns New York?
Oh who owns New York?
Oh who owns New York, the people say?!
I own New York! (with gusto)
Oh I own New York! (with gusto)
Oh I own New York, the people say! (with gusto)
Who sweeps the streets?
Oh who sweeps the streets?
Oh who sweeps the streets, the people say?!
You [or insert name here] sweeps the streets! (with gusto)
Oh you sweep the streets! (with gusto)
Oh you sweep the streets, the people say! (with gusto)
You see, Dad had always told me that New York City was the greatest city in the world for as long as I could remember. As such, it was his — OUR! — place. Aggressive salesmen or panhandlers notwithstanding, I took him at his word and I thought of this decree as inviolate.
As I was to learn, it wasn’t.