Notes of a Footnote – Part One – Down Around B’toon
LITTLE RED IN SPALDEEN CITY
On September 1st 1942 my parents and I moved into an apartment comprising the entire second floor of 29 Bethune Street, on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, a block and a half east of the Hudson River. I was 79 days old at the time and it was my second Greenwich Village address. Prior to my arrival in New York City I had resided for most of my life at 6631 North Sioux Avenue in the Edgebrook section of Chicago. Even by American standards of restless peregrination this was precocious mobility in someone not quite three months old. I couldn’t keep it up. I continued to live at 29 Bethune Street until my late teens. At that time, being a fully qualified high school dropout, and secure in a $75-a-week job as a dye transfer photographic technician, I moved into a dingy brownstone tenement on Fifty-first Street west of Eighth Avenue where the single room I occupied was decorated in the style my mother described as Early Salvation Army.
My first New York home was in the Hampton. Despite its name – which suggests a toney hotel or the resort towns of Long Island – this Hampton is a double-fronted apartment building in the French Renaissance manner erected in 1887 and still standing at 80-82 Perry Street. The reason for our family’s six-week sojourn at the Hampton was to be found in my father’s highly individual methods in dealing with all mundane practical problems. Early in 1942 – he and my mother having decided to move permanently to New York City from their native Chicago – my father began work as a scriptwriter and announcer with NBC Radio’s Overseas Service. Although well known for his artistic and philosophic temper my father was not so dreamily unworldly as to be unaware that adequate accommodation would be required for a family recently expanded by 50%. In the event he was delighted at the opportunity to sub-let from a colleague an ideally located Greenwich Village apartment with large airy rooms and what P.G. Wodehouse (a later professional acquaintance of my father’s) would have called “all the usual domestic offices.” The flat’s only drawback – cogently pointed out at first sight by my mother – was the circumstance of its being a fifth floor walk-up.
The American Midwest in the late spring and early summer of 1942 was ferociously hot and humid and, showing an instinct for knowing when I was well off that, sadly, has not developed with the years, I stayed out of the Chicago heat for a full three weeks beyond the predicted term of my mother’s pregnancy. As well as having earned the pre-natal nickname of Ethelred the Unready, I was in consequence a fairly hefty baby. (“He has a jowl on him like a Bishop,” was my maternal grandfather’s first-sight comment.) The idea of hauling this Falstaffian infant up and down five flights of stairs several times a day did not appeal, even to someone as generally accommodating as my mother, and she applied for urgent relocation.
Bethune Street was named sometime during the 1820s for Johanna Graham Bethune, a landowning educator and philanthropist who founded the first “school for young ladies” in New York City. Numbers 19 thru 29 are the surviving part of a row of Greek Revival townhouses built as “an uptown speculation” in 1836-37 by Henry S. Foreman and Alexander Douglass. When built 29 would have been a desirable suburban residence, attractive to those wishing to move north from a less salubrious, often unhealthy Lower Manhattan. It is a flat-front, four-storey building with a medium-pitch stoop featuring notable wrought-iron railings, a small iron-fenced areaway and fire escape. When I last saw it in 2005 the house looked – and had done for some years past – better than it had during the 1960s and ‘70s. Its bricks, for a period painted a disagreeable dirty mustard colour, had been restored to their original russet orange and the door frame, window sills, reveals, iron work and stamped tin cornice had all been freshly painted black. The large front door had been stripped and stained and its brass furniture, including the eagle knocker, was clean and bright. The house looked much as it did when I was a child. It has, in several stages, been much altered internally since our time of residence. In those days it consisted of a half-below-street-level basement, a first floor at top-of-stoop-level, a second floor above this where we lived, and a third floor with a stairway to the attic.
The house was owned in 1942 by Margaret O’Connor, a retired nurse. The rent was $32-a-month. I remember Miss O’Connor (to my knowledge she had never married) as a kindly, white-haired woman who sometimes looked after me. Her only fault in my eyes was her idea that because I was fond of corn – either on the cob or mixed with frozen peas – I would also like the creamed variety that I, in fact, loathed. She lived in the top floor and attic apartment and had a lodger named Eddie in a spare room. He was, we always gathered, a semi-patient of hers as well as a friend.
In 1946 Miss O’Connor offered to sell the house to my parents. The asking price was $8,000. However, with my father only just discharged from the Army, our family was in no position financially to take up this opportunity. Consequently the house was sold in the same year to a family named Duffy.
The Duffys were not onerous as landlords, although they could be trying as neighbours. My clearest memory of them concerns one Christmas Eve when a fuse blew and all the lights in the house went out. This particular Yuletide occurred when I was eleven years old, and near the beginning of what was to be an eleven-year separation between my parents, and my mother and I were on our own. After sitting in darkness for some time I ventured downstairs to the Duffys’ apartment in the basement. There I found both adult Duffys totally incapacitated from an excess of holiday cheer. Ten minutes of groping around in the pitch-dark cellar with a drunken Mr. Duffy did nothing toward restoring the power, and I went back upstairs where my mother and I celebrated as best we could by the quasi-Dickensian light of a couple of candles and a small coal fire.
In 1954 the house was bought for $24,000 by a successful Downtown shipping magnate who purchased it as both a home and an investment for his daughter and son-in-law.
In 1961 the house was again sold, this time to a literary agent named Perry Knowleton for a reported $60,000. One of Mr. Knowleton’s clients at the time was Svetlana Stalin who had recently defected to the West and published her memoirs. The book was a best seller that my father always referred to as “My Heart Belongs to Daddy, or whatever-the-hell-it’s-called.” The new owner wished to reconvert the house to single occupancy and my family were consequently now scattered to three separate Manhattan addresses. I had already left for West Fifty-first Street. My father was living in a London Terrace studio apartment on West Twenty-third Street, and my mother took an apartment on Thirteenth Street, just east of Fifth Avenue.
I believe the present owners of 29 Bethune Street to be a business entity called Pushkin Enterprises. A recently-visited website informs me that the building – described as a “..1836 mint-condition Greek Revival Townhouse” – was completely gutted and renovated top-to-bottom in 2012. It is apparently owner-occupied although the 3rd floor of the property – a “Fantastic Upper Duplex” – is advertised as available for rent as a Condo. The accompanying copy describes the renovation in glowing terms as very high-end, and well it might, the rent required being $8,750-a- month. That monthly sum being a bit more than the purchase price for the entire building as offered in 1946. (Further piling on the agony, I’ve learned just recently – August 2015 – via my younger son who has been visiting New York, that the lower three floors of 29 Bethune are presently on the market as a triplex apartment at a rent of $17,500 a month.)
When we lived there our apartment consisted of two large rooms, a small room, a kitchen and bathroom and a short passage-cum-storage space that connected the two large rooms. The door to the living room opened onto a landing at the top of a curving staircase. The kitchen was to the left as one entered. To the right were two large windows overlooking the backyard and, to the right of these, the door leading to the bathroom, which was on a line with the landing. The topography was repeated in the street side of the apartment, the double-windowed bedroom having a smaller room off it, corresponding with the bathroom. This was my room and its window opened onto the fire escape. The room was about ten foot by seven. It had a built-in bed opposite the window, a roll-top desk of the kind commonly used by sheriffs in B-westerns, and on the floor a midden of toys, clothes and child’s sundries that varied in depth from six inches to three feet, depending on when the last maternally enforced clean-up had taken place.
As well as commanding a view of the backyard (garden would be a misnomer: tenants of the first floor/basement of 29 in our time there were not generally inclined to horticulture) the living room windows of the apartment afforded sight of the backyards running away to the east, and of those at the rear of the houses facing on Bank Street, the next street to the south. For a time during the 1950s, one of the Bank Street houses was inhabited by the entertainer Pearl Bailey and her husband. Less verdant were the back wall of the Chin & Lee Chinese food factory, also on Bank Street, and the side-wall and windows of 31 next door to the right, a brick and brownstone tenement building of a somewhat later vintage – probably c. 1910 – than 29. Once, when I was a little over a year old and at the stage between crawling and walking when I could move about on two feet with the aid of furniture, my mother left me alone in the living room for a few moments. In that brief period I contrived to climb up on the sill of one of the windows. My mother came to the edge of the passageway, catty-corner from the window, to see me facing outwards on hands and knees with nothing but West Village air between me and a thirty-foot drop to a concrete patio. The necessarily silent walk across the room was, my mother told me later, the longest she ever made. She finally reached the window, snatched me from the sill and naturally proceeded to relieve her stress by screaming at me, thus ensuring hysteria all round. On another later occasion – the only time my mother ever hit me (a light slap on the bottom) – I retaliated by biting her on the hip whereupon we collapsed into one another’s arms crying mutual tears of contrition.
Other early emotional Bethune Street moments involving my mother included an occasion when I was not quite three years old. The impression I retain is my puzzlement as to why my mother should be sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed and crying while the radio played in the background. I was subsequently told the newsreader had just announced the death of President Roosevelt. I was a year or so older when my father came home from work to find my mother huddled on the same corner of the same bed in a state of extreme agitation. At first completely incoherent, my mother finally indicated that the problem had involved seeing a mouse in the bathroom while bathing me. Knowing that his wife harboured a pathological aversion to rodents ever since having had a dead rat on a string swung in her face as an infant, my father soothed her and said he would take care of it. Going into the bathroom at the other end of the apartment, he found the floor soaking-wet; the result of my having been snatched from the bath. He also found, in the corner behind the still full, freestanding bathtub, the mouse. It was bolt upright on its hind legs, stone dead from shock and fright at my mother’s screams.
This episode occurred before our household began to host cats. The first of our two cats was a huge grey tiger that calmly strolled into the apartment one summer evening, looked around for a few minutes and decided to move in. My parents, both great theatre-goers, named him George after George Spelvin, a name given in old theatre programmes to those playing walk-on parts. After a while George simply disappeared. Six months later he ambled back in, looking slightly thinner and showing signs of having been scrapping, and immediately made himself at home again. George died young, the family thought from the cats’ equivalent of cirrhosis of the liver, or some similar complaint consequent on hard living. George’s successor was a potbellied Siamese named Eve – she’d had a brother named Adam. She had been raised on chopped calves’ liver and yeast. In our house she got Puss-in-Boots and liked it. We never could, however, break her of the habit of using the bathtub as a toilet. Eve was an indifferent mouser. On the few occasions when she was presented with a rodent she would regard the beast with mild curiosity for a minute or two and then go back to sleep. Eve didn’t do much except sleep, eat and throw up, the result of the enormous hairballs that formed in her stomach. After my father’s departure Eve was coolly tolerated by my mother but her attentions to the cat didn’t run to brushing her regularly. In contrast to George, Eve lived to seventeen.
Personal and family history aside, I suppose the most dramatic event of our Bethune Street sojourn was the fire. I was about twelve, and at the time my mother and I, when she got home from work, would routinely go out to have our dinner in the large luncheonette that used to be on the east side of Abingdon Square, where Eighth Avenue begins. One evening we returned from our meal to see fire engines in front of the house. It turned out that a frayed radio wire had ignited a couch cover and in the space of our forty-minute absence the apartment had been gutted. The time needed to repair the damage meant that my mother and I had to spend several weeks living in the Earle (now the Washington Square) Hotel on Waverly Place. This was my first experience of hotel living and I quite enjoyed it. The Earle in those days was a pleasantly seedy-genteel establishment, and its later decline into a welfare hotel had not yet set in. The Earle was “…that crummy hotel on Washington Square” invoked by Joan Baez in her song Diamonds and Rust. It was also for a time prior to WWI tenented by the aforementioned P.G. Wodehouse. Following our stay at the Earle we spent another few weeks camping out on the first floor of 29 before finally moving back upstairs to our own apartment. The ramifications of that fire were still felt over 40 years later. While making arrangements in the autumn of 1996 to bring my mother over to England, I was reluctantly constrained to sell the entire library accumulated by my parents over the years. If many of the books had not been damaged in that fire, the collection would have fetched at least a thousand dollars more than it did.
I did not see much at all of Bethune Street during the 1960s. The early part of the decade coincided with my Broadway period, during which I lived, worked and mainly hung out around Midtown. When I drifted back to the Village in ’63-’64, I tended to the MacDougal Street area and points east. I moved to Ireland in February 1965 and did not return to the States for five years. During my subsequent visits I would stay in the apartment at 44 West Tenth Street into which I helped my by-then-reunited parents move in time for Christmas 1964. I have habitually wandered over to the Bethune Street neighbourhood whenever in New York (my wife and I stayed in a house on Abingdon Square during our last visit in the spring of 2005) but I found it more changed in the ten years up to 1970 than at any time before or since.
When, after one of my longest-ever absences, I first looked west from the Abingdon Square end I was amazed to see how truncated the three blocks of Bethune Street had become. It is a venerable and fully matured cliché that the places we knew as children always look smaller to us when we revisit them as adults but in this case the street had a positively Toytown aspect. I quickly realized that this extreme foreshortening effect had been caused by the demolition of both the West Side Highway and the high, dark pier sheds and warehouses that used to line the Hudson River waterfront. The view now stretched uninterrupted all the way to Hoboken. After a walk that, though leisurely, seemed shorter than I remembered, I came finally to the water’s edge and gazed over the mile-wide dirty, sluggish, grey-green Hudson at the New Jersey riverside townscapes that I had never seen before from this precise vantage point. I looked particularly at the washed-out green shell of the old Erie-Lackawanna ferry terminal. It reminded me of the times just before and after the end of World War II when my mother would take me back and forth on the Weehawken Ferry that used to dock at the foot of Christopher Street. The purpose of these expeditions (apart from keeping me amused and occupied) was to buy cigarettes, which at that time were cheaper and more plentifully available in New Jersey than in New York; cheap enough to leave a significant saving even after paying for the ferry rides. (Incidentally, if you ever want to test someone’s knowledge of Lower Manhattan geography, ask if they know where Weehawken Street is.)
Even then – over 40 years ago – an effort of memory was required to re-picture that stretch of waterfront as it existed during my childhood. To emerge in imaginative recollection from the shadow of the elevated roadway and see again the tall, gloomy buildings with their corrugated iron awnings, broken windows and peeling green paint. To walk the few blocks north to the site of the old Gansevoort Street pier that was my most frequent access point to the river. From the pier in those days old people would fish and neighbourhood kids swim. The fishing never produced much beyond tomcod and the harbour eels that managed to thrive in even the most polluted water. The swimming, of course, was strictly taboo. Oddly, the most common cautionary tale that grown-ups told in warning us about the perils of swimming in the river didn’t concern the genuine risk we ran of typhoid but rather regaled us with the story of The Boy Who Dove into the River and Got His Head Stuck in a Milk Can and Drowned. Like most urban myths this one probably had its origin in an actual event – dating perhaps from the period of Fernando Wood’s mayoralty – but if all the boys that we were told about who drowned with their heads stuck in milk cans are actually at the bottom of the city’s rivers there can’t be much room left for the shipwrecks and gangsters in cement galoshes.
One genuinely dangerous activity indulged in by some of the neighbourhood kids was the practice of jumping or diving into the river from the roofs of the waterfront warehouses. These building were four and five stories high and rose fifty to sixty feet above the water that was not deep near the shore. And worse, younger kids were sometimes inveigled up on the roofs and then, as a form of initiation ritual, forced to either jump or be beaten up and thrown off. I remember seeing one child of eleven or so, skinny and pale against the sky, with his back to the roof-edge, facing a semicircle of older youths slowly closing in and cutting off any retreat but one. The boy finally turned and jumped. He hit the water awkwardly and did not surface for what seemed an age but was probably less than a minute. When he did come up it was obvious that he was in difficulties and some other boys dived in and dragged him through the water to and up the slimy wooden piles of the pier.
Another riverside incident related to me by some of the kids involved sticks in my memory as my first exposure to the realities of city police procedures. Early one summer evening – as it was told to me – a bunch of kids were down by the river near Morton Street. A couple of youngsters were swimming near the wharf and one suddenly seemed to be in distress. At that moment a patrolman from the 6th Precinct came along, took in the situation and plunged off the pier to rescue the struggling one. Perhaps because he was encumbered by his uniform and accoutrements, or maybe because he just a lousy swimmer, the cop himself soon got into all kinds of grief in the water. Both cop and kid were disappearing under the water when three of the older boys jumped in and managed to pull them to safety. The leading lifesaver was a notorious local tearaway named Billy Hughes who had been in and out of trouble with the police for most of his sixteen years. When every one was ashore a squad car arrived and the rescuers, dripping and shivering, were piled into the car and the witnesses ordered to go straight to the 6th Precinct Police Station on Charles Street. During the next two hours all the kids were “interviewed” separately by a couple of officers in the classic “good cop/bad cop” manner. None of the kids had much to say, a kind of low-level neighbourhood omerta operating, and all were finally told to go home and stay the hell away from the river. It was only afterwards, when comparing notes, that the kids found that they had each been offered both threats and inducements by the police to testify that Billy Hughes had pushed the kid who needed rescuing into the river in the first place. Nobody had any illusions about Billy Hughes, or thought him incapable of such an act; he was known to have cracked someone’s skull by banging the victim’s head against a cast-iron pavement rim and then throwing him through a plate glass window. But street solidarity and endemic distrust of the cops (plus a healthy desire not to get on the wrong side of Billy’s temper) kept everyone discreet, with integrities unsullied by police bribes. My personal relations with the local police were more positive. The best experience was going, in cowboy outfit, age six or seven, around to the Mounted Police stables on Twelfth Street, between Washington and West Streets and being led up and down the street on horseback by the resident policemen.
Having on that 1970s visit repopulated in my imagination the now-barren waterfront with these generation-past pictures, I walked back toward Abingdon Square and began – as I have often done during subsequent rambles – to mentally catalogue the changes that have taken place in and around Bethune Street since my childhood.
Beginning at the eastern end, the first and most drastic had been the gutting and rebuilding of the structure that takes up the entire square block bounded by Hudson, Bethune, Bank and Greenwich Streets. This space was now occupied by a supermarket, apartments and a restaurant. In my childhood and youth it had been the site of a factory/office/warehouse occupied by the General Electric Company. The only time I can recall ever having been inside that building was at the age of twelve, the visit being in connection with research for a singularly unimaginative school science research project involving light bulb filaments. The exterior, however, provided extensive recreational, social and cultural facilities. We swung from its fire escapes, played stoopball off its steps and window-sills, and one of its Greenwich Street loading bays was the scene of the first political debate in which I can remember being involved. This occurred on Election Day 1948. It being a school holiday there was a heavy-duty roller hockey game in progress on Greenwich Street between Bethune and Bank. At six years old I was too young to play, and some other non-skaters and I fell to discussing the election. My companions, staunch little Tammany Democrats and thus Truman supporters, were appalled to hear me say that we – meaning my family and I – were strong for Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party. This revelation, along with my attendance at the Little Red Schoolhouse (where all us little Reds went) subjected me to a kind of street corner McCarthyism that lasted into my adolescence.
The apartment building on the west side of Greenwich Street between Bethune and Bank Streets was erected circa 1950. The houses that had been there previously were razed in 1939. There is a painting of the demolition done by Ben Shann who for a time had a studio at 23 Bethune Street. In the intervening years the space was a parking lot and repair yard for trucks and trailers. On one occasion when the lot was still there my mother and I were in a laundromat on Bleecker Street and, in my capacity as Mother’s Little Helper, I managed to open one of the washing machines before the cycle had finished and the place was flooded. Lacking at six or seven sufficient social polish to pass off the situation with poise and sang-froid, I ran like hell. I was subsequently discovered on the roof of one of the semi-trailers parked in the lot, planning my escape to the Territories.
The building at the northwest corner of Bethune and Greenwich Streets – now also a supermarket – was in my childhood a foundry and warehouse for various types of structural steel used in the construction industry. It was a place, I recall, where youthful trespassers received no good-natured indulgence whatsoever: “No, you can’t have your goddamn ball back. Get the hell outta here!” Apart from this change the stretch of Bethune Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets – my old block – had not, in a physical sense, altered radically since my time. It was and remained a pleasant Village street: humanly scaled, quiet and sunny, especially on late afternoons and evenings in summer. During my childhood it housed a fairly tranquil mix containing several subtle gradations of the autochthonous, predominantly Irish working-class, and a variety of the semi-bohemian incomer middle-class. “They never wash their windows,” the former would say of the latter. The born-and-bred Irish pronounced the name of the street as “B’toon”, and they always said Greenwich as “Green Witch”. Many of them had work connected with the docks and as these became idle the old Irish population thinned out rapidly. The street was now, it appeared, entirely middle-class. It had that aura, common to many Village streets nowadays, that arises when communities are replaced by, at best, Block Association-ism. The most palpable atmospheric changes were more and more mature trees, less dilapidation, less traffic, fewer pedestrians and far fewer children. The changes in the block from commercial to residential use were unobtrusive. This was most striking in the case of the building at number 33-37 that for many years housed the industrial premises of a cardboard box manufacturer styling itself the Pickwick Paper Company and is now, as Pickwick House, is divided into a number of condo apartments. Indeed, so restrained were the outward signs of this change that I passed the building several times without noticing it had taken place, thinking only that the firm had smartened up their frontage somewhat. This may be taken as a singular failure of observation as that façade was in almost constant use during my childhood as a games wall.
When I was last in New York in the spring of 2005 my wife and I passed the Pickwick building as a young couple emerged with a toddler in a pushchair. We stopped, said good morning, smiled at the infant and I mentioned that many years before I had lived a few doors away. As we walked away toward the river I remarked to my wife that if the young people could afford to live in the West Village and have children they must be doing reasonably well.
In February 2014 the fine actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was sadly found dead in one of the Pickwick House apartments.
The building opposite the Pickwick is a single-storey structure that used to be a garage, run, as far as I recall by the same people who had the truck repair lot at the east end of the block. Its lowness was an inconvenience to us because during our various games so many balls would bounce onto its roof, and they could only be recovered at some peril. The house next door, number 32, was at that time the westernmost residential building on the north side of the street. It is one of those curious survivals almost unique in New York to Greenwich Village, having once been a stable mews converted early in the 20th century into apartments. It was entered by way of a green metal gate surrounded by wire fencing and topped by an impressive fan of long, curved, claw-like iron spikes. I remember that when I was quite small a boy from next door at 31 broke his arm while trying to climb over this gate. The more usual method of ball recovery in my time though was to press the bell of one of the rear apartments, nip through the gate when the buzzer sounded (people were less paranoid and home security less sophisticated in those days), tiptoe quickly up the metal stairs leading to the top-front apartment and then negotiate one of the two three-foot-by-six-inch iron girders that secured the staircase to the wall of the garage. Once over the parapet of the garage roof you were safe from everything but the disturbed tenant’s invective. One long-time resident of 32, a Spanish Civil War veteran named Moe Fishman, did not allow his friendship with my parents to keep him from loud disapproval of my juvenile trespassing. For many years my mother and father would encounter Moe at the annual Abraham Lincoln Brigade vets’ dinner and he often recalled what a pest I was.
The Washington Street end of the block was not greatly altered apart from the rebuilding of No. 39 with a less-than-convincing period frontage and the conversion of the large building at the northeast corner of Bethune and Washington. This, for as long as I can remember, was a commercial garage and parking complex In more recent years it had become a business premises and at one time the showrooms of a clothing firm called Industria.
Number 41 was the building on the block apart from 29 that I knew best. It housed in those days a number of single working women, all of whom were friendly with my parents. One of them, a talented and subsequently successful artist named Madeleine Harrison, was my regular babysitter. On Friday evenings my parents would normally go out for dinner and then to the theatre. Madeleine would arrive and give me my dinner – invariably consisting of cold ham, peas and corn (not the creamed variety!). She would then sit and read while I listened to the radio, tuning in to WJZ at 7:29, in time to hear the Life Saver commercial that always followed Elmer Davis’s fifteen-minute commentary slot. I then got consecutively The Lone Ranger, Ozzie & Harriet, Richard Diamond – Private Detective (with Dick Powell), followed by The Fat Man – ”Tipping the scales at 380 pounds – Fortune: Danger!”
On other occasions Madeleine would take me on outings to places like Coney Island and Central Park. I still have photos that she took of me, aged ten, in fringed buckskin and brandishing a toy carbine. When I was about twelve Madeleine married a pleasant young man named Hy Novlotsky and they subsequently moved upstate to Albany. On the day of the wedding, I remember being taken aside by the couple and assured that just because Madeleine was now married I wasn’t to feel jealous or that she was any less fond of me. I was puzzled and rather embarrassed by this as, while I in turn was very fond of Madeleine, who had always been kind and affectionate to me, I hadn’t (as far as I was aware) ever thought of her in the light they seemed to be suggesting, and felt nothing but a wish that they should be happy. Some years ago I brought from my parents’ old apartment two of Madeleine’s paintings. One is of me (the only colour portrait of which I’ve ever been the subject) aged about eight or nine, and the other a very delicate floral study. On the whole I prefer the flowers.
The building that runs from 43 Bethune Street to the corner of Washington was, and when I last saw it, a restaurant premises. In my time it was a routine greasy spoon luncheonette, run by a cranky white-haired man with a hunchback. Following several years of being (surprisingly?) derelict after a previous incarnation as a Chinese restaurant, imaginatively called The Wok, when I last passed it had reopened, again as a Chinese bistro called The Baby Buddha.
The last block of Bethune, between Washington and West Streets, also remained much the same physically but now differed hugely in character. The most dramatic alteration had been the conversion of the old Bell Telephone Laboratories into the Westbeth complex. The statute of limitations must be out on the windows I broke in the Bell Labs building while playing lob-pitch hardball from the capacious parking lot of the John Swift Printing Company across the street. In any case, I doubt if there can be many survivors among the superannuated technicians who would be inclined to prosecute. The characteristic atmosphere of Bethune Street is now so somnolent that it is difficult to picture the hundreds of people who streamed past our house every morning, noon and evening on the way to and from their jobs in the Bell Labs. Long before the painters and writers and sundry artistic types took up residence this block-square, blond brick building with a railway trestle cut through its profile was the scene of much invention. (The trestle has recently become part of the horticultural/recreational development called The High Line.) Originally built in 1899 – on land previously occupied by a lumberyard and Budd’s Whiting & Putty works – as a telephone manufacturing plant for the Western Electric Company, it came eventually to be devoted entirely to research and development. Pioneering commercial radio broadcasts ‘emanated’ from it in 1922. The first successful demonstration of television in America took place there. I’m told the Labs also contained the sound stage where “The Jazz Singer” was filmed, and many other early developments in the communications technology revolution took place within its walls.
My own relationship with the Bell Lab workers went through several phases. As a baby, toddler and small boy in the 1940s I was something of a pet and local landmark, much waved to, smiled at and cooed over by the Bell people. Later on, when I became known primarily as the propellant of pink rubber balls and friction-tape hockey pucks, my popularity waned. Nor were all of these hard-working pedestrians thrilled to find themselves cast at the end of a hard day over the cathodes as the baddies in various re-enactments of the latest Rocky Lane or Wild Bill Elliot movie I had seen. The only retrospective consolation I can offer is that I was never allowed a BB gun.
Most of my ambuscades were made from the fire escape outside my bedroom window, directly above the front door of 29. It has often been quietly pleasant to me to go and sit on the stoop opposite and contemplate that window. The same stoop was almost constantly occupied during my childhood by the resident, a man whose name I’ve forgotten but who always wore a Yankees’ cap and who kept a pet bulldog. Such contemplation brings back to me an image of the sun disappearing behind the dockside buildings, and the memory of lying in bed at night and listening to the transportation: the tugboat horns from the river; the trains of freight and refrigerator cars shuttling along the tracks at the end of the block; the heavy trailers rolling under my window on their way to the West Side Highway, their passing endlessly changing the shadows cast by the street lamp two doors away. I often remember the silhouette of a woman who lived directly across the street and whom I thought was a witch. I don’t recollect that woman in any other context, although there are others whom I do recall.
There were a number of the working-class Irish families who lived in 31, and the rather more ‘lace curtain’ Mr. O’Dwyer who lived at 25. He was elderly, ruddy, white-haired, rotund and invariably irascible towards us kids. As well as Pearl Bailey around the corner on Bank Street, Bethune Street notables included the jazz critic Barry Ulanov at 19, and the dancer Anita Alvarez who created the role of the mute Susan The Silent in the original Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow, and who lived at 21.
The first floor apartment of our house was occupied for a time by the alcoholic ex-wife of a well-known actor who subsequently married the film star widow of an even more legendary Hollywood luminary. On one occasion this thesp (known to take a drink himself) showed up at three o’clock in the morning and stood on the sidewalk screaming at his ex-wife. When my mother stuck her head out the window and remonstrated with him in her usual mild manner he began giving out dog’s abuse to her as well. So much so that I was constrained to run downstairs and apply cloture to the debate with the aid of a baseball bat.
Our immediate neighbour at 27 for some years was the late Knox Burger who, prior to becoming a highly successful literary agent, had been fiction editor and a colleague of my father’s at Collier’s Magazine. I often encountered Knox during my periodic visits to New York, usually in the late lamented Lion’s Head bar on Christopher Street and he was the only person from my Bethune Street days who I would see again in later life.
Depending on my route the first or last building I would pass when visiting Bethune Street was No. 2, a grimy brick tenement with a small porched entrance that rose above the restaurant site at the northwest corner of Bethune and Hudson Streets. This was now occupied by a semi-posh eatery called The Bus Stop Café, but for many years it was a greasy spoon that my mother always referred to as “Joe’s Good Eats”, that had a notable and highly individual smell and in which I doubt I ever set foot more than twice. Among those who did use it regularly were the drivers on the Eighth and Ninth Avenue bus routes for whom Abingdon Square was a terminus. One of my friends from that period was the elder and disabled son of an Armenian family that ran a delicatessen on Hudson near Twelfth Street, next door to what used to be the Laura Spellman YWCA and later became the Village Nursing Home. The bus drivers used the delicatessen as well and would give my friend transfers from the Fiftieth-street cross-town buses that we used to get free rides home from Rangers and Knicks games at Madison Square Garden. On its west side No. 2 sat above a commercial premises that had become a Korean deli but in those days was divided between an old fashioned, wonderfully leather-smelling Italian shoe mender’s shop and a candy store run by a family who my normally tolerant mother regarded as the definition of ‘white trash’.
Another good friend of mine, Bobby Behan, lived in No. 2, and was almost the only kid around the block who could be said to have had a touch of glamour. Bobby was a well-set-up youth, a year or so older than myself. He was good looking in the manner of a certain red haired, freckled Irish type and was far and away the best athlete in the neighbourhood. He played baseball, football, basketball and hockey with equal facility, and his only shortcoming in my eyes was his being a Giant fan. Like many New York left-liberal baseball enthusiasts of that period I rooted hard for the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers. As is often the case with natural leader types, Bobby’s doorway and the steps and window-sills of the G.E. building opposite his house were a sporting/social focal point for kids from around the block. When we took a break from our various stoop- and stickball games we would hang out, adolescent fashion, around or near Bobby’s and discuss matters. Sports in their seasons; girls in theirs; and questions of general public interest such as the appalling rumour that Governor Dewey was planning to introduce a six day school week. We even sang occasionally. We were just being kids and there were a lot of us. There did seem to be more kids around the neighbourhood than there were in the 1970s and ‘80s but most of those I’d seen more recently were pre-teen and they were relentlessly supervised. They were certainly not ‘neighbourhood kids’ in the old sense. When I was a child we regarded the streets as our exclusive domain and playground. What my younger son, reared in North London, called “playin’ out” was our way of life. Of course, that was then and this is now. Then was when I was allowed from the age of ten to go by myself on Saturday mornings to the old Laff Movie on Forty-second Street.
The popular resort for local children and their minders appeared to be the little park at the V-junction of Bleecker and Hudson Streets. This park did not exist when I was a child. On the site were a warehouse that took up the short block on the south side of Bank Street and, opposite this, a curious circular one-storey, pale stone structure known locally as the White House. This for most of my childhood was a public toilet (usually shut) and it served as a graffito medium and as the second-choice stoopball field in the vicinity. (The premier stoopball strike was the plinth supporting the bronze doughboy in Abingdon Square.)
Less than a hundred yards from the present park is the White Horse Tavern. Dating from 1883 it is almost the only a place in the immediate area that still carried on the same function now that it did when I was young. I was there one afternoon in the ’80s and I happened to mention the White House to the bartender. An elderly man of an unmistakable old West Side Irish type that had all but disappeared turned to me and said: “Jesus Christ, I ain’t heard anybody mention the goddamn White House in 25 fuckin’ years.” He went on to tell me that during his childhood in the 1920s the White House had been a café of sorts and that on Sunday evenings concert bands would play under a canopy on its flat roof. He also told me he had grown up on Van Dam Street, regarding anywhere above Houston Street as uptown. Trips as far north as the White House constituted expeditions.
I enjoyed listening to the old Lower West Sider’s recollections. Some of these featured men he had known in his youth whose own memories stretched back to the days of the Hudson Dusters, and they awakened many of my own. This enjoyment dimmed slowly when I reflected that when I reached my companion’s age (an event that grows nearer at present writing) I would be unlikely to encounter anyone who was growing up in the neighbourhood now who would ever have any sense of it as anything but the area where the house they lived in happened to be.