My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before, in Reflections on a New York City Christmas, Own a Small Piece of Vanishing New York – Vintage 1970s, and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
Howard Clothes was a name I heard throughout my childhood, as my dad regaled us with tales of his youth. However, I never took the time to learn more until recently, which proved quite a challenge. My 92-year-old dad has a spectacular memory, but I was seeking concrete information on this rather obscure clothing company that has seemingly been lost to history. The first Howard Clothes store opened in New York in 1924 and was founded by Samuel Kappel, Joseph Langerman, and Henry Marks – named after Langerman’s son Howard. A corporation was subsequently organized in New York in 1925 under the name Howard Clothes Inc. and was later changed to Howard Stores Corporation. The company operated a massive factory in Brooklyn, just on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge, in the neighborhood now known as Dumbo. They sponsored a radio show called Howard Dandies, broadcast on WABC. Their line was limited to men’s clothing, with a major competitor being Bond Stores. Bond operated numerous retail outlets across the U.S., with a factory in Rochester, N.Y. and a flagship store at 372 Fifth Avenue at 35th Street in NYC. Although Bond was primarily a men’s clothier, by the mid-1950s some stores carried women’s clothing, and in their heyday, like Howard Clothes, they also had around 150 stores.
My paternal grandfather Abraham immigrated by himself to America in 1905, leaving behind my grandmother Nettie to fend for herself with their firstborn infant, my Aunt Ella, in a small village near Lomza, Poland. Once my grandfather settled in NYC, he worked in the garment industry as an embroiderer – the trade he learned in the old country. He returned to Poland in late 1911, already a U.S. citizen – Jacob (my Uncle Jack) was born in 1912 and when Abraham left again for America later that year, he was unaware that my grandmother was pregnant with Dora (my Aunt Dottie), who was born in 1913. When World War I broke out, he was separated once again from his family, this time for even longer. He returned to Poland in 1919, moved the family temporarily to Lomza, and worked towards the goal of immigration for his family. Abraham, Nettie, and the three children stepped foot on Ellis Island on April 9, 1921, after sailing from Southampton on the Aquitania. My dad Sam was the only member of his immediate family to be born in America, in September 1923.
I consider myself an eBay pioneer, with a seller account going back to the e-commerce Stone Age – or January 1997, to be precise. In the beginning, eBay was a fantastic place to sell genuine antiques with provenance and vintage collectibles like footless Pez. In the last decade or so, things have drastically changed as the massive marketplace has become flooded with fake designer purses, huge lots of genuine Gillette blades that fell off a truck (wink-wink), and countless other new merchandise. While vintage and antique merchandise still can sell, it is a spin of the roulette wheel compared to the early days – with more than 700 million items listed on any given day. I have experienced my share of non-paying bidders, kooks, and insults and so have family members – providing amusement and provoking more than a few f-bombs. I have often wondered if people are compulsive bidders in the same way others are compulsive gamblers. My faith in humanity was restored about 11 years ago when I heard from the sister of a buyer who never paid for an antique purse. I’ve heard every story in the book, but this one was heartwarming and true. The buyer had been hit by a car and was in intensive care for two months. She was slowly recovering, and finally cognizant enough to tell her sister about outstanding commitments. It astonished me that despite facing rehab and what had to be horrific hospital bills, she cared enough to tell her sister to pay off eBay sellers!
A few days ago, I posted an ad of a backyard roller coaster on a Facebook page dedicated to advertisements from the 1960’s-1970’s. This ad and another photo were shared by a reader on my Toys from the 1960s-1970s blog. I know nostalgia strikes a chord with many people, but that blog has elicited far more comments and views than anything else I have ever written. Published in December 2013, the blog still generates a good deal of interest. What is even more amazing is that the Facebook post has evoked a torrent of comments, some of which I will share further on in this blog. Reader Robert Jaye shared information about this backyard roller coaster in June 2014: We had a backyard roller coaster set from Montgomery Ward. It was little more than a tubular slide set. The tubes slipped over one another and one climbed to the top of the slide, and sat on a cart with wheels that were molded to ride the tubes. You pushed a release and down you went, all of five or six feet at a gentle slide angle. You rolled on for another five feet before encountering two small bumps that slowed you down before you rolled off into the grass.
“The work she produced in her short life is 100 times better than anything you have created or could ever create!” Those were the cruel, harsh words that were hurled at me from my 20-year-old daughter’s insolent lips in 2007. The occasion was a visit to the Tate Modern in London and the discovery of an Artist’s Room dedicated to Francesca Woodman. It was hard to process everything I was feeling when I saw those photographs. Difficult because my daughter’s post-teenage angst overshadowed what became a trip from hell, but also because I had somehow forgotten about Francesca in the context of my four years at RISD. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to write about this – perhaps I needed the distance and perspective of the passage of time. Or the sheer volume of online content could have dissuaded me – 567,000 Google hits on Francesca as of April 2015, and counting.
Although certain candies bring back really sweet memories of childhood, I’ve been thinking lately about some of the bath and beauty products from my youth. These items are associated with vivid memories of a simpler time, devoid of all the gadgets and high tech products kids have today. Some of them, like unopened feminine products from yesteryear, are actually collected now for their nostalgic factor – I have personally sold a few on Ebay. If you have any products you used in your youth that bring back memories, whether fond or angst-ridden, please share. Procter & Gamble introduced Prell shampoo in 1947. Growing up, the clear green concentrate packaged in a tube was my family’s shampoo of choice. The color really looked radioactive, but the plastic tube was ingenious – lightweight and no risk of breaking a glass bottle. Although Prell was also available in a plastic bottle, the tube is what I associate with its iconic image. According to the website, in 1955 Prell was marketed for “women who wanted their hair to have that radiantly alive look”. Honestly, I cannot remember if the shampoo was good for our hair, but thinking about it brings back a host of memories. Procter & Gamble sold Prell to Prestige Brands International in November 1999. Prestige sold Prell, along with its other two shampoo brands (Denorex and Zincon) to Ultimark Products in October 2009 in order to focus on other product areas. Much to my surprise, the tubes are available for purchase on Amazon.
There have been many short articles about celebrities who also happen to dabble in the visual arts. But I have to say, with the risk of sounding like an art critic, that many of these folks are not very good visual artists. Come to think of it, some of them are considered mediocre at their primary pursuit – whether politics (guess who?) or acting, while others are considered pure genius. In either case, the best of their fine art would be considered the work of somewhat talented amateur hobbyists by anyone who is a trained fine artist or art critic. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful for anyone to pursue the visual arts – what I object to is when famous people who are art hacks gain renown for mediocre work simply because of their celebrity status. The purpose of this article is to shed light on a few special celebrities who have not been heralded as much for their visual art, but in my opinion, deserve to be. Viggo Mortensen This strikingly handsome actor who made many hearts melt as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite the Renaissance man. In 2002, Viggo Mortensen founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. In addition to being a talented actor, Mortensen is a gifted photographer, painter, jazz musician, and poet. As far as I can ascertain, he is self-trained in the fine arts. This site has a lovely description of his visual art talents.
I rarely write travelogue pieces, but a September 2014 2-day trip to John Water’s hometown of Baltimore warrants this for the oddities and wonders encountered. My daughter and I took a BoltBus from NYC to Baltimore in mid-September, heading to the Natural Products Expo East. It was with a little trepidation that I booked the bus trip – the reviews on Bolt, Peter Pan, Greyhound, and Megabus leave you wishing you had a fast Porsche instead. In retrospect, glad we didn’t take a Megabus – quite a few accidents in the last months. Hopping in a cab near my daughter’s West Village apartment, we got snarled up in Chelsea traffic along 10th Avenue. We finally made it to the rather odd location for our journey – 33rd Street between 11 and 12th Avenues. The bus trip there was not half as bad as some of the Yelp reviews, but nevertheless, I found myself wondering how the heck anyone over 5” 3” could possibly fit his or her legs into this cramped space. We mainly listened to our iPods and I found myself fascinated looking straight into the faces of truck drivers who were at my eye level for the first time, trying to snap photos of them at the right moment. The highlight was crossing the pretty Delaware River, as I summoned images of George Washington doing so in 1776, or to be more accurate, the painting by Emauel Leutze depicting this valiant event.
I have been experiencing a wave of nostalgia – it comes with age and recent losses of dear friends and our beloved little kitty Pepper. For me, the holidays seem to inspire reflections on the past – thinking back to how much New York City used to mean to me at Christmas. I have been digging up wonderful Christmas-related NYC photos from the Library of Congress and decided to delve into my own archives to see what I could find. When I was a child and up through about 2004, my parents would visit NYC every December for an annual psychiatric meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. While my dad was attending lectures, my mom would go window shopping with some of her friends. As children, my sisters and I always looked forward to my parents coming home with intriguing presents. My dad would also visit Russ & Daughters and purchase obscene amounts of candy that he had shipped home. Chocolate covered coffee beans, pastel chocolate mint lentils, and chocolate covered raspberry rings are the candies that I remember most. He would tell me stories about buying pretzels and roasted chestnuts from street vendors, shopping at B. Altman, Gimbels, and other now defunct stores; telling me tales that made it sound so magical.