FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 2

I continue from last week’s post FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1 with Bill’s very unexpected description of my Grandmother, Margaux Alain, at work in her salon.  Notice the use of the Prussian Frau Landlady as a foil:

The French dressmaker was a constant revelation to Frau Landlady. In the coldest days of winter, the dressmaker would be bitching up a storm about the lack of heat when the landlady would come tramping down the stairs lit by a fifteen-watt bulb, her body covered with heavy wooly underwear and layers of sweaters, bearing a huge thermometer in her fist to prove to the French madame that there was ample heat. When the landlady would tap at the door, she always got the shock of her life to find the French madame running around on ten-degree-cold days with just a bra and panties. She couldn’t design fully clothed; she found inspiration only flowed to her fingers when she was almost naked. Of course, the landlady would hit the ceiling, wildly screaming, scaring my customers out of their wits.

I remember my Grandmother at her sewing machine, cigarette in mouth, wearing a bathrobe with, I guess, nothing else on but just a bra and panties. Now I know that she didn’t bother to wear that bathrobe when I wasn’t around.

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FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1

Just because I was a schmo working at Polo Ralph Lauren who sold twenty fugly ties to Elton John (and pants to Carl Sagan) didn’t make me a fashion genius. Sure, I could match neckties to shirts, but look at what I was working with – Mr. Lauren made it easy!

No one in my family had any significant interactions with Ralph (my inconsequential meeting aside). But we did enjoy a relationship with someone at Ralph’s level. And by this I am referring to my maternal Grandmother Marguerite Alain and her lifetime friend, Bill Cunningham.

An iconic New Yorker through and through, Bill was a soft-spoken milliner who shared a commercial studio adjacent to my Grandmother’s Design Studio in the 1950s. They both loved flamboyant styles and clothing that made a statement. When hats went flat in 1960, Bill emerged as a fashion reporter for Women’s Wear Daily and then for the New York Times, where he was often seen riding his girl’s bike around midtown, stopping to take pictures of well-dressed women on the street.  Up through 2016!

84TH STREET STATION, 3RD AVE EL

With great sadness, I regret to inform my readers of the passing on September 29, 2016 of Kit Davidson, Director and Producer of “3RD AVE EL.”  I find myself fortunate to have interviewed him for this blog a few months before his death.  Please see my post above for a review of his film; I compared it to Roshomon!  This news was sent along to me by Mr. Joseph Frank, former police officer, who found my stories about THE LOST LINE.

You see, Joe grew up by the 3rd Avenue El and recently found my web site due to his interest in elevated trains.  Specifically, he is from the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan — where I live — which is an old German and Hungarian enclave from the 20th century.

DEATH IN HONOLULU

There is a good reason why the Bernard Olcott Story, every so once in a while, makes a reference to the Aloha State.

On a late July 1977 morning, a slight man woke up in his modest efficiency apartment near Waikiki, the tourist district of Honolulu.  He was 61 years old, somewhat gaunt, barely five foot seven.  Wrinkles of a hard life lined his face as he switched on the radio after leaving his bed.  The weather forecast came on, as if it were the news.  For Honolulu it isn’t, since the weather is always the same, day in, day out.  Highs will be in the low 80s, lows in the middle 70s.  Winds are “trade.”  Winds are always trade in Hawai’i (unless a cyclone comes to visit, of course.)

The weathered man had lived some thirty years previous at 3169 Alika Avenue in the Nu’uana – Punchbowl neighborhood, an up country residential district.  The previous week, he had decided to travel from his current home in Exeter, New Hampshire to come back here to retrace his steps as a young naval officer and maybe plumb his soul.  It’s about the longest trip you can make in the USA and still remain in the land of the free.

He found himself later that morning on Ala Moana Boulevard wandering alone in the sunshine on Wednesday, the 26th of July in 1977.  As Honolulu is the southern-most metropolis in the nation, at these latitudes, the sun can cause a bad sunburn in as little as 15 minutes.  The fair skin of a new arrival from Northern New England is at particular risk.

The man stopped in his tracks, his pace suddenly unsteady.  As he wiped the sweat off his forehead, the traffic swirled around him and he became disoriented.  It wasn’t the bright sun that had gotten to him, but a sharp pain in his upper chest.  He gripped himself, but could only stagger forward and reach out vainly with his free arm.  When he dropped to the pavement, he cut his face on the sidewalk.  His last sight on this planet was the passing traffic – buses, trucks, cars – from ant level.

As the dying man went down, passersby unknown took advantage of his incapacity, rapidly relieving him of his wallet, cash, and watch.  By the time help arrived, the corpse on the sidewalk could no longer identify himself.

The Honolulu County Medical Examiner later that day fingerprinted “John Doe.”  A match came back the next day – from military records.

The man’s name was

MY DAD INVENTED THE INTERNET

Well, not exactly.  But he did, in the 1950s, come up with the idea under which a majority of equity and debt trades today are effected in current financial markets.  Not that the markets followed his proposal at the time.  Far from it.  But with this idea, my Dad did actually see around the corner.  Let me explain.

Dad was essentially an inventor at heart.  This is what engineers do, conceive of new things. As People’s Exhibit No. 1, consider the following work:

Motor Design Cover

This is the cover of a treatise entitled “Motor Design.” It was his final project for his first year at Cooper Union.  Dated May 18, 1938, it concerns engines for boats.  Of course boats!  What else would a waterman write about?

LOOKING BACK AT THE FILM NOIR 1940s

“The Lost Weekend,” as previously noted in my post of the same name, was the Academy Award best picture of 1945.  It not only reveals Gotham of yesterday by way of moving images, like the main actor stumbling haggardly under the Third Avenue El in search of a drink, but also by way of the language and the accents of the era.  Unlike the 1960 classic “Butterfield 8,” the personalities in “The Lost Weekend” engage with each other directly, with a minimum of game playing or social charades.  It was the 1940s way.

Significantly, as it relates to The Bernard Olcott Story, it’s about a writer!  There’s even a reference to my distant cousin James Thurber (on my mother’s side) in the first few minutes.

What can you say about the film noir world of the 1940s, the formative decade for my Dad?  Well, for one thing, there were a HELL of a lot of barber shops.  Everywhere!

However, the first thing I noticed were the strong New York accents, most notably as spoken by the bartender Nat.  He routinely addresses the main character, Don Birnham, as “Mr. Boy-nam.”  This brings me back to working at Olcott International in Weehawken in the late 1970s and afterwards, please see my post “GOODBYE 212, HELLO 201?”

“3rd AVE. EL”

(This post is also known as “THE LOST LINE, PART 2.” Next week, Part 3!)

The Third Avenue El in New York City was dismantled in 1955, so… it’s gone.  Forever.  It only today exists in our memories, collective consciousness, photographs, moving pictures, and really strange blogs (know any?).

Cosmologists explain that, from a multi-dimensional point of view, time can exist as a distinct physical address.  So, if you were to be a sentient being that exists in, say, 5, 6, or more dimensions, you could easily wander to the following spatial coordinates as if you walked from one house to another:

  1. Longitude: Third Avenue,
  2. Latitude: 53rd Street,
  3. Altitude: street-level, and
  4. Time (CE): 12 Noon, August 22, 1943 (the date of Bernard Olcott’s mother passing).

Just go to that location right now and look up!  You’ll be looking at the 53rd Street Elevated Station!

Given such liberty, it would be possible go anywhere in time, forwards and backwards, as if these were all reachable places.  Logically, all times past and future exist NOW; it’s just that they are inaccessible to us mortals.¹

The Bernard Olcott Story blog, unfortunately, cannot literally take the dear reader to the past (or future).  But what it can do is to present a brilliant short art house film that brings the Third Avenue El back to life, in sight and sound (complete with a harpsichord accompaniment).  It’s about eleven minutes long and follows four passengers as they journey uptown and downtown.  Click the Read More link right here to see the film: