LAST CALL FOR EDWARD

Sun.  Sea Spray.  Hull smashing through rows of swells.  The ship’s deck heaving from and dropping into an endless parade of oncoming waves.  Turn your face towards the sun and catch a million dancing reflections on the water glistening back at you.

If you’re on a sailboat, there is no engine noise, just the sound of wind blowing through your hair.

Both Olcott brothers were watermen, even though they were descendants of the landlocked Dzūkija region of Lithuania.  I am a waterman too, raised on many afternoons of sailing on Shinnecock Bay, Long Island during my young summers in the 1960s with my Dad.

However, by the age of twelve, I had discovered a simple way to elevate the pleasure and excitement of wind, sea, and waves.  Instead of being on a boat in the water, how about doing away with the boat?  Watch sets of giant waves roll in while at sea level, exactly.  Body surfing.  Maximum exposure.  If you could time and catch them right, you could slide down a crystal slope while the tube of water breaks above and behind you.  The payoff is maybe eight seconds of pure exhilaration that seems to last perhaps up to half an hour.  You’ll never forget the view of giant slopes of water marching towards you, with the last wave looming higher over the others.  That last one, with the face of the sun sparkling back at you, will be the wave you want.  And sometimes, it will take a fair amount of courage to try to pick off that last wave, the king of the set.

But this was me in the water, maybe 30-50 yards away from the shore.  Both my Dad and his Brother crossed the oceans – what about seeing rogue waves 3,000 miles offshore?  I shudder to think what they must have gone through.

THE FACES OF THE CROSS

Traveling throughout Lithuania, one cannot help but notice the graceful tendrils that inhabit many rural intersections, hilltops, byways, and of course church tops.  Whereas in my country, we had a mysterious person named Johnny Appleseed who planted apple trees everywhere, in Lithuania, teams of anonymous craftsmen traveled far and wide to plant ornamental crosses everywhere (like the one above).

You cannot help but notice them here and there, like ghostly roadside shrines in Mexico.  Every cross, called kryžius in Lithuanian, is different, just like a snowflake.

Adorned with these threadlike appendages, they seem to vibrate in the air or undulate under water like sea anemones. Like the statues that inhabit the fairy palace in George MacDonald’s Phantastes, you have the impression of faint movement when your back is turned.  But when you fix your gaze on them, they suddenly stiffen and still themselves.  They are as numerous as mushrooms on a damp forest floor.  So many, that they become ubiquitous in the landscape and render the Lithuanian paysage as a sort of fairyland.

SOVIET MINDERS AND TOILETS

It had been an eventful drive from Vilnius to Varena that sun-drenched spring morning in May 1985.

First was being pulled over by the USSR highway patrol.  It looks fearsome just to see it here in writing on the Bernard Olcott story.  But Boris the driver managed not to collect S&H green stamps from the patrolboy.

Second was a stop at a World War II massacre site to learn a lesson about oppression.  A moment of irony in the USSR.

Next up was our ostensible destination, the town of Varena, Dzūkija region, in Southeastern Lithuania.   My Dad’s cousin Eugenija lived there with her husband in the old part of town.  Their broom-swept house turned out to be at the top of a T intersection, a few feet away from an ominous looking empty small guard tower.  Asleep in the tall grass at the base was a disheveled drunk, who was quickly roused and sent away.

HANGING PORK

(WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS CONTENT BORROWED FROM GOP DEBATES.  PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY GOP DEBATE CONTENT!)

Back home in America, the highway traffic stop is probably the greatest display of power a state like New York, New Jersey, Hawai’i (or any of the 47 others and 1 district) can exert over an unfortunate traveler.  There is an additional risk of nastiness if you happen to be driving while intoxicated, black, or as an American in the backroads of the USSR.  I fell solidly in the last two categories.

Back home, the cop car that pulls you over on I-95 (or H-1) is typically a blazing high performance Ford Crown Victoria festooned with the great seal of the state under whose laws, you, the hapless driver have apparently transgressed.  You get the whole show, complete with stylized hat, jack boots, ribboned trousers, shoulder brushes, leather pistol holster, handcuffs, the works.  Every state has its own variant of this uniform.  Be a very wary bear.

Dancing Bears cropped

Russian bears do dance, but these ain’t Russian!

Wrapped in the aforementioned trappings of authority, US States perform traffic stops with overdone celebratory unctuousness.  But everyone considers Connecticut or Alaska or the District to be relatively toothless.  We know, for example, that Connecticut is not going to build a wall around itself or deport everyone of Rhode Island descent. Not that there aren’t criminals from Providence stealing algae from the Connecticut River.  But I digress.  The states flash a lot of power by way of shiny patrol cars and uniform embellishments (big bark), but rank low on the holocaust scale (little dick).

IN DEMAND, AND THEN NOT

Huntington Hartford and Andy Warhol.  Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair.

A couple of weeks ago, one Sunday evening, I was driving back to my home in New York City from Hunter Mountain in upstate New York.  Most of my drive home was spent on the New York State Thruway, the major vehicular artery connecting the city to the state capital, Albany, and then on to Montréal via a continuation called the Northway.

As I approached the New Jersey border (please see my post WHAT’S IN A BORDER) driving southbound, I passed by Schunemunk Mountain on my right and then a succession of some small hills and valleys.  I also drove under a pedestrian overpass where I used to play a silly game with my children; the object of the game was to cross directly over the path of an oncoming car and get ‘run over’ (except, of course, you are on the overpass above).  Small children love this game – the direct opposite of “don’t play in traffic” – as well as parents with the mind of a small child.

Before crossing the border, I passed through a small dreary rural town called Hillburn.  After crossing, the sprawl of suburbanization was immediately palpable.

The last 20 miles took me through the northwest corner of New Jersey.  One of my favorite stops is a well-stocked A&P Supermarket in Allendale.  Not only does it feature a great selection of grocery items at low prices, but also has an unexpectedly good selection of wines.  Like 10 year old Pauillacs, perfect for drinking, which cannot be found in Manhattan (at least not 10 year old ones – damn wine bitches teefed all the good stuff).

To my surprise, I pulled up to see that the familiar A&P moniker that used to grace the façade above the front doors had been replaced by the new name ACME.  A&P, a retail business since 1859, alas, was now defunct.

It reminded me of a strange business investment solicitation my Dad received in the early 1980s.  In this case, I was not the wingman, but the paddleman.  Let me explain.

THE PROVENANCE OF DILIGENCE

The scenes featuring Gloria in “The Lost Weekend” are said to be shot in PJ Clarke’s bar, still at the corner of Third and 55th, but no longer under the shadow of the El.

It was not “New York’s New Yorkiest” joint, however, as declared by Walter Winchell, the leading radio personality of the 1940s and 1950s. That honor fell squarely on The Stork Club.

Unlike PJ Clarke’s unfortunately, nothing is left today of The Stork. Owner Sherman Billingsley was arguably one of New York’s greatest celebrities from the 1940s and 1950s. Where he once fought union pickets and sabotage, while throwing customers out (who dared to patronize the rival Harwyn club), a peaceful pocket park marks the former location of the famous glitzy eatery and bar.

There aren’t that many relics of old New York left. Probably one of the best “New Yorkiest” venues still in existence is the storied Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. It’s a puzzling institution in that many New Yorkers don’t seem to know about it. When I asked my Dad where he went to college, he told me proudly “Cooper Union” and when he noticed my quizzical look, proceeded to tell me about it.

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?”

THE END OF THE LINE

Arnold Eagle (1909-1992), Under the Third Avenue El, North of 27th St., New York, 1939, (480.1987)

Today, it’s just about impossible to find any trace whatsoever of the Third Avenue El.  The whole structure has been removed in its entirety.  The former support columns, formerly grounded in the roadway itself, have been paved over many times over.  The neighborhood surrounding Third Avenue and 55th Street, where PJ Clarke’s still exists today, is not recognizable from the 1940s-era photographs.

Union leader (and former Communist Party member) Michael J. Quill led a losing struggle to save the El, first in public hearings, then finally by picketing.  “In the last war there was an extensive mass transportation system to handle those who needed to use such facility because of the necessary curtailment of private transportation because of fuel shortages.  Will we have such facilities next time?” he argued in vain.  Postponed a few times, the last train ran on May 12, 1955, and the dismantling of the overhead trestles began in earnest.

“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:

THE LOST LINE, PART 1

Built in the 1870s, the Third Avenue IRT was the above ground cousin of the Lexington Avenue IRT subway that runs completely underneath the sidewalks in Manhattan.  Towards the end of its days in the 1960s, the remnant of the Third Avenue line in the Bronx was finally designated as the 8 train.  However, back in the 1950s, the last decade of service on Third Avenue in Manhattan, the trains were only marked by destination – southbound to City Hall, northbound to The Bronx (Bronx Park or 241th Street).

Vintage elevated lines are a disappearing breed of mass transit.  The Third Avenue El was derided as a noisy eye-sore and was hurriedly demolished to placate real estate developers who were eager to rebuild Midtown East.  The stated intention was to replace it with the new Second Avenue subway which, unfortunately, was delayed more than 60 years and is still not yet in service today!