Monday, January 29, 2007

In pursuit of speakeasies.

Stanley Walker's The Night Club Era was published in 1933, and according to its content, it probably was completed just before Prohibition was repealed. Walker was a journalist, and while he conveyed facts as a journalist should, his style and tone is definitely of the era. That is, conversational, snappy, and droll, with the fedora brim tilted just so. I imagined the text as a script from one long radio show. And since he was a journalist, immersed in the culture and politics of the day, the man name-dropped like a name-dropping fiend. I could only pick up a small percentage of the bigger names, like Al Smith and Jimmy Walker, but the rest, I had to take his word for it that they were who they were. Still a surprisingly fun read, though. His description of the NYPD and its men was pretty much spot-on, and it still applies today. A choice observation:

It is true in Chicago, as it is true in New York, that the average citizen wants to trust the police, but he can't do it. The administration usually is shot through with politics of the worst sort; if not politics, then sheer incompetence. Most policemen are brave fellows, with a savage hatred of crooks, but they are members of a system which often handcuffs them.

I loved the way the author took you right down into the speakeasies, even gave their names and addresses if he could. You could tell that he loved this city, every inch of it. I guess he reminded me of Pete Hamill in that way, because he always balanced the good with the bad, giving equal attention to both, reminding the reader that all of it made up the essence of New York.

I think what impressed me most about this book was that Walker singled out Florence Mills in a section all her own, as one of the top good things to come out of this era. Today, hardly anybody knows about her anymore. But in her day, she was big enough and bright enough for him to dedicate a few pages to her in his book. He praised her. He praised Harlem and its people's love for her. He was reverent when writing about her death, the way her passing brought out thousands of mourners into the streets.

The last chapter is just Walker jotting down his thoughts from the past decade, chock-full of names and places and snarky recollections about politicians and socialites and gangsters. They're microscopic vignettes, fragments separated by ellipses, and they read like writing prompts. And sometimes even if you have no idea who he's talking about, it'll still make you smile.

What did I miss?

The 7th episode of Ric Burns's documentary New York depressed me like you wouldn't believe. I actually saw it a couple weekends ago, but I didn't write about it because I was too emotional. And it's not even the episode about 9/11. This ep focused on the end of Fiorello LaGuardia's reign as mayor (he kicked a lot of ass), and Robert Moses's rise to power.

Under LaGuardia, Moses built a lot of useful things, like bridges and highways. But one of the commentators related an anecdote: one of LaGuardia's friends saw him in a restaurant, looking so down and sad, and he asked him what was wrong. "Moses has too much power," said LaGuardia. "But who gave him the power?" implied the friend. "Yeah," said LaGuardia, "but I could control him."

And that made the bottom of my stomach fall out. Over the next couple of decades, Moses destroyed a lot of old New York. And I mean destroyed. Sure, he built the United Nations, sure, he built bridges connecting all the boroughs, sure, he did this and that and the other. But it was all at the cost of people's livelihoods. Poor people, people who had no voice. The cross-Bronx expressway was a straight line that ripped right through the heart of an old, tight-knit community of Jewish, Irish, and black residents. When the old Pennsylvania Station was put on the list to be demolished...I had to turn the DVD off. I just had to. I couldn't take it any more. I was crying and I felt sick. I'd spent the entire documentary living through the history of this city and now I was watching everything being ripped up and torn apart. I still get dizzy just thinking about how much was lost.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oh Brooklyn, never stop.

Did you know that Legs Diamond's widow was found shot in the head in her home right in my neighborhood? Well, maybe not exactly my neighborhood, but a brief bus ride along the very same avenue.

So. Yeah.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cravat is a stupid word.

Last night I watched Somewhere in the Night. Pretty good piece of noir! All the right clues in all the right places, the kind of mystery I would love to be able to write. It's about a guy who returns from combat in World War II with amnesia, having taken a blow from a grenade. He has no idea who he is, apart from the name everyone's been calling him, George Taylor. The only clues he has to his identity are an angry letter in his wallet, and a briefcase left in storage for the 3 years he'd been gone containing a gun and a note about a $4,000 deposit, signed by "Larry Cravat." What an annoying name. But it's the only name he's got, and so he goes looking for the guy. Whenever he brings the name up to people around town, they give him strange looks and act like he's bad news. The name is bad news, as on his first night he gets trailed by shady-looking people, chased, kidnapped, and beaten up. The only person he can trust is a nightclub singer/pianist, Christy, who helps him by getting her friends, an entrepreneur and a police detective, to try to shed some light on the situation.

One thing I really liked about it is that the characters often made in-jokes about other movies of this kind. For instance, Christy told the detective (who had a very Chicagoan-New Yorkish accent even though the setting was L.A.) that he was the first detective she'd ever seen who never wore a hat. And he replied, "Yeah, I wonder why people think all detectives wear hats? Must be the movies." Very nice. I wanted her to ask why all detectives have Chicagoan-New Yorkish accents. And then there was the mysterious bad guy (I suppose he was the bad guy), who spoke with a sort of thick Hungarian accent. Him: "Pheelees! Hhhow nize uf yoo to zhjoin us!" Phyllis: "Oh, stop talking like Bela Lugosi." Ha! I love a good Bela Lugosi joke.

There's also some catty innuendo between Christy and Phyllis, too, and you know that's always fun.

The biggest problem I had with the movie was that the leading man's head was shaped kinda funny. I know, I know, very superficial, but it was distracting. He also had a bad mustache. And there's nothing worse than a leading man with a funny-shaped head and a bad mustache. Maybe if he'd shaved off the mustache he wouldn't have looked so bad. ...Oops. The actor died while shaving.