Friday, August 11, 2017


It was particular hot but clear that Tuesday in early July in Chelsea.. I was walking back from a client meeting on West 22nd Street. It wasn't quite noon. The heat wave was in its fourth day. The heat from the baked sidewalk almost burnt through the soles of my shoes in the mere half block I had walked since leaving my clients brownstone. Walking east in hours before the sun had bent to the west forced me to shade my eyes from the sun as I counted off the lines in the sidewalk. There was a woman coming the other way silhouetted by the sun, a big black woman dressed in eggplant hospital garb. Her heritage allowed her to completely ignore the heat. She almost bounced down the street her cellphone attached to her ear.  You only get that momentary breeze created by the movement of air the air we leave in our wakes and sucked in every degree of cooled air as she passed. In that fleeting second as she passed by I caught a floating speck of her conversation, "I touched myself and oh my god..." and she was past and out of earshot.

The heat of July did a slow spiral up from the baked subway tracks below. Manhattan tests your metal and grades you by the perspiration stains that darken in the arcs under your arms and make maps of Africa on the back of your cotton long-sleeve dress shirt. He was different.
The heat of the thirty-fourth street station was unable to penetrate his gait. It was crisp yet his appeal went way beyond his walk. It's not uncommon in New York for many of us to wear our personalities through the clothes we chose to pull from our closets on any given day. There are the uniforms of business and the ladies who lunch but the man briskly moving through the waves of heat in the stifling subway was anything but business or lunch meat.
From head to toe he was a mélange, a history of fashion throughout the decades. It all started with his two-toned wingtips in cordovan and white with a hint of multi-colored anklets peeking out over the rims. His bony knees were exposed just under this madras Bermuda short in shades of blood red, deep aquamarine and golden yellow the colors of the earth and sky. He wore a stripped short-sleeve dress shirt neatly pressed and stainless buttoned up to the collar and tied with blue deco bowtie he had tied himself. His glasses were the thick black-rimmed kind a geeky nerd would wear but he capped the whole look off with the current height of fashion - a man bun. He'd hit every decade and every style over the past sixty years and achieved his goal of making all of us walking in the opposite direction melting like ice cubes into the coolest of smiles

The bus from the airport to the subway was packed. Luggage littered the aisles as each of us tugged and pulled our own bags over and around those already seated trying to find an empty seat or claim enough standing space for our feet and our bags away from the heat outside the bus. I was the last on before all the seats at the on the bus were snatched. A family of three: mother, daughter and son were just ahead of me. They scurried into the remaining seats at the very back of the bus where the heat of the air-conditioning system toasted the leather and fought off any touch of freshness. As they tried to adjust there luggage and themselves they'd temporarily used an additional seat for their bags. People continued to squeeze into space that didn't exist as those desperate get on forced out the air between us. We were stuck together in a single mass glued by our own perspiration. Sensing the claustrophobia of the mass the mother pulled their bags to the floor between her feet and moved her daughter over opening up a single space for me to sit. I sat down using my knees as a vice to hold my carry-on from rolling into the person standing in front of me. The bus closed its doors with still another dozen or so travelers left outside having to wait in desert conditions outside for the next bus to come. The mother smiled at me and then tapped her daughter on the shoulder and pointed to a middle-aged woman standing just in front of me. Her daughter, I'm guessing to be around ten years old, got up and offered her seat to the woman. The woman declined saying "Oh thanks dear but I'm going to have to sit for a long flight, standing will do me good right now."
The little girl sat back down and pulled a book out of her backpack, a large size paperback the kind a school would hand out. She began thumbing through until she came to a page she'd earmarked. Her thumb started a journey down the page, her eyes following and her forehead crinkling into a question.
"Mother" not mom or mommy, "How can I figure out how many valence electrons get transferred from a nitrogen atom to a potassium atom when they try to combine?"
Her mother while bouncing her younger child in her lap continued the conversation in the same way my mother would have tried to describe how to tie a shoe to one of my sisters. It was nonchalant and every day, an activity so familiar to them there wasn't a hint of abnormality to it.
The conversation went on until the child with her mother's coaxing was able to figure out the answer for the formation of the compound potassium nitride, the answer being zero valence electrons. Dah. Frightening yet exhilarating. Seems science is safe in the hands of mothers and daughters.

Manhattan From the Brooklyn Promenade, 1954
Louis Stettner, photographer
Represented by Benrubi Gallery, NYC

Friday, August 4, 2017


I think ever since I've been in New York there's always been a sign at the entrance to the Woolworth building saying "No Visitors". Being a fan of the building and aware of its beautiful lobby this was very discouraging.
What I recently learned is now there is a tour organization connected to the building offering tours for 30, 60 or 90 minutes costing from $20 to $45 per person, and let me tell you I jumped at the opportunity and it's well worth the expense.
You need to reserve your space on the tour before showing up no walk-ins are allowed and let me tell you anyone trying to walk in is abruptly turned away. The guide has a list and he works it like a bouncer at the Met Gala.
Despite his regimental attitude toward interlopers our guide was engaging, well informed and very very funny.
I only did the 30-minute tour that gets you only into the main lobby but the only thing we missed was the basement vault and walk around the balcony. The lobby is by far the best visual jewel of the building anyway since the upper floors and tower are off limits.
Here's what I learned from our engaging guide. Woolworth was a self-made man, a retail genius and an egomaniac.
He started out with his only retail experience being playing "store" with his younger brother. At 16 he talked his way into a retail job where he was paid nothing and discovered he had no aptitude for selling but learned he was great at display. By 1878 he opened his first "Five and Dime". By 1911 he had 586 stores.
The Woolworth Building was built in a short three years in 1913 at a cost of $13.5 million that he paid for in cash. Translate that into 2017 dollars and you'll see this is no tiny penny. He built it as the tallest building in New York City, a tribute to his ego.
The building was designed by Cass Gilbert and this is the main reason for my fascination with it. Cass Gilbert was a noted architect having designed the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. and the state capitols of Minnesota, Arkansas and West Virginia.
He also designed a building on West 30th Street that bears his name. It's been turned into a condominium and we were lucky enough to be among the first residents.
It was one of our favorite addresses and let me tell you we've had a few places we've called home in several of the boroughs that make up New York City.
Before the tours became an option I thought that by showing a utility bill with the name of the Woolworth's architect on it that would somehow get me a golden ticket to get inside but that plan never worked out.
So I was very excited about finally getting a chance to at least stand in the lobby of the Woolworth building.
The lobby is a host of mixed messages with architectural details representing its predominately Gothic Revivalism with touches of
Moorish, Medieval, French, English, Italian
and Early Christian styles.
The lobby was originally ringed with a host of retail stores
that faced in servicing the people who worked there.
Shortly after the building opened a German restaurant opened in the basement but with poor timing. Within a few years when World War One broke out the restaurant went the way of Germany and closed.

If you look at the corbels framing the arched staircases you'll see tribute being paid to the people who were important to the construction of the building.
There's Cass Gilbert holding a miniature version of the building
and then there's F.W. himself counting nickels and dimes. Woolworth, a diminutive man in real life, had his visage depicted in a muscle shirt with guns worthy of massive gym rat. Vanity can be cruel.
One of the first tenants of the building was the Irving Trust Company and their basement vault is still intact in the basement of the building although you'll have to pay for one of the longer tours to go down and look at it.
The building also had its own subway station. The platform still exists but the trains no longer stop there.
I'd always thought the stained glass ceiling in the lobby was a Tiffany creation but I was wrong.
The stained glass was designed and built by Heinigke and Bowen
The art of commerce and labor are also highlighted in arched murals appearing at both ends of the lobby
The building today continues to function as an office building on its lower half
while the upper floors are currently being turned into condominiums with the top of the tower being transformed into single penthouse currently on the market for a mere $120 million. Who's ready for a down payment although I'll assume that the eventual purchaser will do a Woolworth and buy it for cash.
The Woolworth Building at Night
Photographer unidentified
Available for purchase through