Monday, April 29, 2013

A Police Story: Bushwick Burning

In May, 1975, I became a Patrolman again when I was evicted from Police Headquarters in Manhattan, transferred to the 83rd Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The occasion was Operation All Out, aptly named for the filling of empty police cars in Precincts all over the City as 5,000 patrolmen were laid off by a City facing bankruptcy. Rigged budgets, the flight or collapse of neighborhood-based manufacturing, and reluctance of Mayors to say no to the pay and benefit demands of Civil Service unions were some reasons. Then one day in February, 1975, the banks refused to lend another dollar, to underwrite another bond sale, as the City sank beneath a debt in the billions. State Civil Service law dictated: Last in, first out. Spared by eight years seniority, I got my blues out of mothballs, said goodbye to the Police Legal Bureau, and motored over the Williamsburg Bridge and four miles up Broadway to the Eight-Three Precinct on Wilson and DeKalb Avenues, to take up the lance again.

Bushwick was predominantly Puerto Rican, alongside an older Sicilian section along Knickerbocker Avenue, a main commercial street, bordering Ridgewood, Queens in the north. A block away sat the 83rd Precinct Station House, a Victorian-era stone structure, turreted, with a corner tower and crenellated parapets, a medieval castle or fort. Instead of a moat, it had six steep stone steps leading up to a pair of massive oak doors barring entry. (In six years at the Eight-Three, I would participate in repelling all manner of invaders on those very steps: gypsy cabdrivers outraged at vigorous enforcement of traffic laws, local gangs seeking to spring their arrested hermanos inside, hordes of community agitators demanding entry for one thing or another.) In the 1960s, the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx took to calling itself “Fort Apache” but it couldn’t hold a candle to the Eight-Three which had more crime at the time than any other precinct in central Brooklyn. Impressive for a neighborhood that was just 24 blocks long by not quite as many blocks wide. The Precinct had 130 cops assigned, now including me.

And it was being burned out by its residents, block by block. Most of the houses were made of wood, covered in asphalt siding that burns fast and hot. Most were “old law” structures with air shafts over the toilets and stairwells, efficient chimneys for fires that burned like furnaces. There were three types of arsonists: landlords, for insurance or to clear a building of undesirable tenants; tenants themselves, looking to relocate at the expense of the City Welfare Department; and rejected paramours who’d start a fire in the first floor stairwell to show her. Of course, I didn’t know all this when I arrived in May, 1975, but I saw whole streets that were virtually vacant lots except for the burnt-out hulks of buildings, reminiscent of the city of Dresden. Then, shortly after arrival, I logged my first line-of-duty injury, getting struck over the head with my own nightstick, waking up in a bed in Wyckoff Heights Hospital.

It was like this. My partner, newly arrived from the Community Relations Division, and myself were sitting in an RMP in front of St. Barbara’s Church on Central Avenue. St. Barbara’s is Cathedreal-size, but you needed a ticket to get inside on Christmas Eve. It was Sunday morning and Mass was letting out when we noticed two males, a father and son as it turned out, rolling around in a bear hug in the middle of the street, god-damning (and worse) each other, not twenty yards from us and the church-goers. Despite having patrolman’s reflexes that had atrophied some during my peaceful years inside (likewise for my partner, it turned out), I leaped into action. I had detached dad from his son and as I succeeded in pining him underneath me as I fumbled with my handcuffs, son picked up my ‘nightstick’ (a 2-1/2-foot long club made of ‘cocubola’ wood from a Jamaican forest) and clobbered me over the head. End of story; also for my assailant who was apprehended a short distance away and occupied a bed in the prisoner’s wing on the floor below. I vowed there and then never to let go of my nightstick again, and, in future, to give rather than receive.

In the next few years, the cop reflexes returned and sharpened. I owe my renaissance to a Sergeant (call him Fred) and his ‘Precinct Conditions Car’. Fred and I had been patrolmen together in the 9th Precinct on East 5th Street, in Manhattan’s East Village in 1968 and ’69 before I went to SPRING 3100. We had been neighbors, dressing next to each other in the Precinct Locker Room on the top floor. In the way of things in the NYPD, Fred added me to his Conditions Car roster in December, 1976. ‘Conditions Car’ was a bit of a euphemism. His squad of three patrolmen and himself patrolled the Precinct, in uniform in an old ‘unmarked’ brown Plymouth—locking up drug dealers, gunmen, extortionate gang members, counterfeiters, and arsonists, of course, and raiding ‘chop shops’ (auto yards specializing in selling off stolen cars in pieces). The Conditions men, bemedalled, experienced cops, accepted me as one of them since “Sarge” had vouched for me.

And I did bring something to the table: I had just graduated with a J.D. degree from Fordham University Law School (Evening Division). I would be drafting their Search Warrants on an old Underwood in the Unit’s cubicle. Arrests came from reliable information, spelled ‘registered confidential informants’ (CIs). Conditions had a dozen CIs: men and women arrested in the past and now ‘working off’ their prospective sentences in the street where they could do themselves the most good. Their fingerprints and pedigree and status were on file with the NYPD. The Brooklyn District Attorney was on board, too, with the proviso that we would not bother Him with inconvenient details. (He needn’t have worried about that.) I drafted all our Search Warrants, bypassing the young assistant district attorneys at Night Court, going direct to the Judge, with my informant in tow to swear to the truth of his affidavit (a/k/a ‘probable cause’). I always tried to go to that same Judge in Night Court.

Even today, I remember our two most memorable CIs, code-names ‘Primo’ and ‘Blue Hat’. Primo, a canny old Puerto Rican, owned an auto yard off Flushing Avenue in the industrial section of Bushwick. He delighted in giving up his erstwhile competitors, and would, on occasion, throw in as added bonus the names and addresses of gun-sellers, counterfeiters and wanted fugitives. Whether a life of crime was truly in Primo’s past, we tactfully never enquired further. ‘Blue Hat’ was our go-to gal for drugs. Yes, a woman. And a bold one. She’d be on the ‘set’ at a street drug spot and go into her act—gesticulating wildly with her hands while dancing a little merengue for her audience, thereby telling us, watching with field glasses, by a prearranged signal like doffing her blue hat that the dealer was holding. Primo and Blue Hat went way beyond the call of duty, you might say. Because they enjoyed feeling like The Man, I believe, being a valued member of an informal civilian auxiliary Force. I remember them fondly.

Robert Knightly

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Some Time Among the Analysts

So I spent my weekend in a room listening to people speak of hate, rage and vengeance. Was I at some obscure mystery conference? Was I hanging out with the United States Congress?

No, I was at a psychoanalytic symposium. The cases being discussed had definite elements of noir. I should have been in heaven. Alas, I was frequently bored and my mind wandered. The tellers of tales at these symposia are very smart people and I’m sure they’re well aware of the drama inherent in these stories, but they read their papers and the drama is blunted by psychoanalytic lingo.

Never am I so aware of how badly most people read aloud. Of course, it’s hard to make phrases like “intrapsychic, interpersonal revitalization” and “dissociated, internalized introjects” come trippingly off the tongue. Sir Kenneth Branagh might manage to make the words sing but he’s busy rehearsing Macbeth.

The cases presented are works in progress so it is impossible to know if any of these tales will have a noir ending. People who can afford analysis several times a week are rarely standing on life’s margins (“Though he had won Nobel prizes in several disciplines he felt empty.”). If analysts can't alway achieve happy endings, they can at least aim for what Freud called "common unhappiness."

I go to these conferences on a yearly basis and always bring along a genuine piece of noir as an antidote to the obfuscating language and flat reading. This year’s selection was Cornell Woolrich’s Fright. I have the Hard Case Crime edition with a deliciously lurid cover. In Fright our schmuck is a young man who is being blackmailed by a woman he slept with after a night of drinking. He is engaged to a young woman with money and on his wedding day his one night stand comes for what she says will be her final payment. He murders her but gets to the church on time.

Married now and overwhelmed with guilt, he thinks he is being pursued by a plainclothes detective. His wife might find out. The law might close in. I'm betting on his superego to bring him down.

Stephanie Patterson

Friday, April 26, 2013

Facebook and Me

First of all, let me say that my birthday is not listed in Facebook. I notice that many of my friends list their birthdays on Facebook. Happy birthday to them, but I think it's a bad idea, like announcing your vacation plans on Facebook. Or mentioning your mother's maiden name, or your high school mascot, or the name of your first pet. Or your Social Security number.

Having said that, and revealed (or perhaps only hinted at) the depths of my personal paranoia, I will now say something nice about Facebook. Facebook will sell you absolutely the cheapest ads imaginable.

Yes, I bought an ad on Facebook last week. I was delighted with it. I ran it for two days at ten dollars a day. It was by way of announcing that I had successfully published Monkeystorm on CreateSpace as a paperback.

That was pretty much all I did the week before last, prepare the book for publication and make a cover. As I have surely mentioned to you until you're sick of hearing it, Monkeystorm went up as a Kindle a couple of weeks ago. But some of my friends complained that they had no Kindle, that they in fact detested reading on an electronic device and wanted a paper book.

How hard could that be? I asked myself. Not all that hard, as it turned out, given that the folks at CreateSpace were willing to work with a docx file. Formatting text is for me a little like cutting a movie together. It's satisfying in almost the same way. Word has a command for drop caps! I could put drop caps at the beginning of each chapter! Elegant! In the end I was able to use Word to submit the whole thing, even the cover, which has to be a PDF. I did the cover art with GIMP and inserted it as a picture file. All you have to do is set the margins to zero.

But enough of this technical jargon. The point of the story is that I made an actual book out of my virtual book, which CreateSpace now offers for sale. I set the price at $8.99, as cheap as I could make it and still see a tiny little royalty. Now to get the word out, I said to myself.

So I made an announcement on my Facebook page, with an image of the cover, the angry gorilla face. Facebook said, this could be an ad, Kate Gallison. I said, yes.

They give you options of whom to show your ad to. By age. By sex. By geographical location. By education level. By interest (everybody has entered their interests, right?) By whether or not they already know you. They say, okay, you have chosen a universe of 75,483,221. These people will see your ad. (Actually not all of them will see your ad. Some of them will see your ad.) You tell them, run the ad for two days at ten dollars a day. Within those parameters, they charge by the click. A Facebook patron clicks on your ad, and Facebook charges you, up to ten dollars a day. So now I am a predator instead of the preyed upon. I have bought into their business plan, that of selling their patrons.

Here are my ultimate statistics, according to Facebook:

5,196 people saw the Facebook post that was the ad.

57 people clicked on it.

31 people liked it. Perfect strangers, most of them.

One guy in Utah (Say, I wonder if he knows my nephew Tim) left me a comment.

Of course, nobody bought the book. But, hey. You can't have everything. When I mount my campaign to sell Bucker Dudley I'll have a handle on how running an ad on Facebook works, and I'll try it again.

Kate Gallison

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Drink with the Hollywood Production Code

Sheila York writes the Lauren Atwill mystery series. Her amateur sleuth is a screenwriter in post-war Hollywood, chasing killers in the last hurrah of the Great Golden Age of Film. Lauren’s latest adventure is Death in Her Face.

I’m excited and flattered to have been invited to be a regular player on this team. And maybe a bit nervous. Where to start? How about at the beginning?

I came to crime writing early and late.

I was an extremely shy child, a condition not improved by my family’s frequent moves. My father was a career army officer, and we moved 6 times before I was 10. My solace was books, and I thought the best job in the world would be Writer: independence, recognition and something I could do in solitude. I thought maybe I had some talent for it, too, as I two-fingered my way around my portable Royal, a candy cigarette dangling from my lips because I’d seen a picture of Lillian Hellman in Life magazine.

Sheila York
But unlike Lillian, my instinct was to write crime. For every creative-writing assignment in junior high and high school, I crafted mysteries, often romantic mysteries. But, of course, teachers back then weren’t looking for those. They were looking for feints at literature. This was, after all, ‘college prep’. Along the way, my insecurity and the dissuasion of my instinctive efforts convinced me that whatever skill I possessed must be no more than an average example of students in my town, which at the time had fewer people than the closing credits in The Hobbit.

It took a few decades before I finally asked, “If not now, when?” Then with the determination only possible in someone clueless about publishing, I decided to set a mystery in 1940s Los Angeles. Even after people warned me it was risky territory, I persevered. If there’s a characteristic I share most deeply with my heroine, Lauren, it’s stubbornness.

From the beginning, there was never any doubt in my mind that my sleuth would be an amateur and a woman, that she would meet a private detective with a troubled past, that he would be the love of her life. And she would be the one who ultimately caught the killers. But how does a woman in the 1940s find scandal, corruption, betrayal, greed, sex, and murder?

No brainer. She had to work in Hollywood.

And I love movies. From all decades, but I’m a particular fan of the 1940s, when some of the best films ever made were produced. Part of what I admire about them is the ability to tell a good tale while navigating the severe restrictions of the Production Code, the set of rules that controlled the morals of American movie content from 1934 till 1968 when the Code was replaced by an early version of our ratings system. The studios agreed to be ruled by the Code in part to pacify local censor boards and religious groups who found films of the silent era and the early 1930s too sexual and violent, a threat to family life, and a bad influence on youth.

Every script and every film’s final cut had to be approved by the PCA (the Production Code Administration). Its primary rule was “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

Wow, how exactly do you assure that? By adopting the most conservative values in America.

Today, I thought I’d share a bit about three things I know well: The Production Code, movies and drinking. Okay, that didn’t come out right. The Production Code, movies and drinking in the movies. Although, full disclosure, I’m quite fond of a glass — or two or three — of wine. (You can always find the hotel bar at a writers convention. Just follow the game trail in the lobby carpet.)

The Code spends most of its efforts on sex and crime — and ensuring neither one looks appealing — but it also makes clear how studios should treat booze. “The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.”

This makes it kind of hard to throw a party. Or run a bar.

So let’s visit briefly the most famous bar in the movies: Rick’s CafĂ© AmĂ©ricain in Casablanca, which does a fine business for a place where alcohol is rarely actually consumed. In a movie that takes place almost entirely in bars, drinks are constantly ordered, poured, carried, deposited, picked up, held and raised to the lips, but you can count on your fingers and toes the number of times characters swallow. Let’s see how many swallows make a movie.

His heart breaking after seeing his lost love again, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) sits alone in the darkened club getting drunk, a nearly empty bottle beside him, and delivers one of the most quoted lines in movie history — “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”. How much does he drink in his misery? Three swallows. Three. In that whole classic, world-famous scene.

Earlier, when Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and underground hero Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) first come to Rick’s, four rounds of drinks are ordered, three at their table and one when Victor goes to the bar to meet a contact. Glasses move to lips, but how many swallows do you see? One, and that’s a paltry sip.

In Death in Her Face, when a sultry starlet with a mysterious past vanishes and her gangster boyfriend turns up dead, my sleuth, Lauren, is hired to rewrite the script for another actress should the starlet turn out to be a killer in more than looks. (Of course, Lauren is neck deep in the investigation within 24 hours.)

Besides prohibitions on liquor, here are just a few of the rules Lauren has to keep in mind:

  • The guilty must be punished. Don’t create sympathy for criminals.
  • Keep marriage sacred. Adultery should not be excused or justified (Casablanca also slips around this one very neatly).
  • No mocking of religion or those who minister in it (who also can never be villains unless they are historical characters).
  • No prostitutes (women who plied the trade in novels ended up as taxi dancers in the film version).
  • And my personal favorite: No representation of anything that would look like advice to criminals. A thief couldn’t tell another, “Hey, put some gloves on before you touch that.”

The next time you’re watching a film from the Great Golden Age, you might think a little about these restrictions and the creative artistry required to tackle adult themes and occasionally make magic.

Sheila York

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Green-Wood: Where the Dead Go in Brooklyn

Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn occupies the highest point in that famed borough and the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Brooklyn.  From the grounds, one can see the Statue of Liberty in the harbor to the west.  Now a National Historic Landmark and on the Registry of Historic Places, Green-Wood was founded in 1838 by Henry Evelyn Pierrepont, a Brooklyn social leader. Among the first subscribers was the Van Ness family, who were descended from very early Dutch settlers and were the ancestors of my beloved mother-in-law, Ruth Van Ness Clark.  Ruth’s remains now repose among those beautiful rolling hills.

A tourist attraction for more than 150 years, Green-Wood now draws half a million visitors a year.  It boasts a magnificent chapel designed by Warren and Wetmore, who also designed Grand Central Terminal.  Many of the most famous and infamous New Yorkers are buried there, including Boss Tweed, Theodore Roosevelt Sr, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Leonard Bernstein.  At this moment in spring, it is glorious with blossoming trees and still gorgeous despite the devastation wrecked by Hurricane Sandy.  Here are photos taken this past Monday, when I played hooky and went on a delightful jaunt there with my friend Jay and left some spring flowers for Ruth.

Grave of Louis Moreau Gottschalk
Here is a movement from one of Gottschalk's symphonies in case you need an introduction to his music.

A Van Ness family mausoleum.  Not from our branch of the family.

Ruth is buried somewhere among those small tombstones in the background. Not so ritzy a place, but also not so cosmologically confused.
Memorial to the Battle of Brooklyn

Very simple grave marker for Leonard Bernstein and here is a clip of his music to go with the red white and blue.

Now just some random shots to show you how lovely and interesting Green-Wood is:

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Police Story: Diary of a Dirty Cop

I had worked the four-by-twelve tour the night before. Early afternoon on October 21, 1971, I awake in my apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, alone and hung-over. The four-to-midnight tour always extends till 4 a.m., the last four hours spent in Cal’s Bar on East Fifth Street, next door to the 9th Precinct (The Nine, as we say) where I’m assigned as a Patrolman. I punch on the TV for the news and there is my Police Academy classmate, my buddy, Eddie Droge. He’s in the witness stand testifying before the Knapp Commission, which has been investigating corruption in the New York City Police Department for the past year. I’m transfixed. Eddie still has that youthful appearance, he’s in his mid-20’s. The only addition to the baby-face is a pencil-thin mustache above his lip.

Four years earlier, Eddie and I were rookie cops in training at the New York City Police Academy on East 20th Street. The off-whiteish-colored building, built in the early-60’s, looked like it was undercover as a four-story parking garage. We had been sworn in as Probationary Patrolmen on May 15, 1967: me, Eddie and 250 other young men. No women (Their Day had yet to come). Eddie and I were assigned to ‘Company 67-17,’ our class designation, like a Home Room in high school. We were 43 boys from Brooklyn: seven blacks (Nobody was ‘African-American’ in those days), seventeen Italians, six Irish, three Jews, two Poles, two Germans, one Puerto Rican, and five of indeterminate European extraction.

There were four other companies, their complements of recruits also assigned by their Boroughs of residence. We were all young, nobody older than 30 and most younger. I was probably typical, at age 26. Eddie Droge was atypical at age 20. In fact, while we entered the Academy together, he was not sworn in till he reached the minimum age of 21, three days after we’d all taken the oath. Many of us had served in the military before joining the Department. It was 1967, Vietnam in full swing. Becoming a cop pretty much guaranteed you a waiver from the Draft. Eddie had not been in the Service, had a wife and three children, and had come straight from a job with Bell Telephone.

The Police Academy curriculum and intensive drill in the use of the ‘Baton’ (the Nightstick) and the Use of Deadly Force (the Gun) was supposed to last six months. It didn’t. On June 15, after four weeks of training, we all went to field commands throughout the City, having been hastily “qualified” with the Service Revolver—the City anticipated a “hot summer” (riots), a thing it anticipated with regularity in those days.

Eddie Droge and I ended up in the old 90th Precinct in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to a large enclave of the Satmar sect of the Hasidim. I came to know Eddie as we patrolled in RMPs or walked adjacent foot-posts on Lee and Bedford Avenues, the main commercial streets around which the Hasidic residences clustered. We referred to the Hasids as “Beards” and believed without question the rumor that we had been sent to Williamsburg to save the Beards from their black and Hispanic neighbors: who, at sundown on Shabbos, would swoop down on bicycles and snatch the hats off the heads of Hasid males as they walked to Synagogue. Long fur hats of mink and fox tail—Spodiks—that cost about $1,000.

These were my thoughts as I watched Eddie testifying before the Knapp Commission. I learned later that he had been caught red-handed taking a $300 bribe to deep-six the case of a drug dealer he’d arrested earlier that year on the streets of Crown Heights. Unbeknownst to Eddie that day, in the Men’s Room at the Brooklyn Criminal Courts on Schermerhorn Street, their conversation was being recorded. Knapp investigators had persuaded the dealer to wear a wire. Eddie was allowed to resign from the NYPD without criminal prosecution in return for his depiction of the systemic, from-the-bottom-up corruption within the ranks of the NYPD. By Eddie’s account, his partners in the 80th Precinct spent a lot of their time chasing down gamblers and dealers to shake them down for protection money (known as “putting them on the pad”).

Back then when Eddie and I were rookies, it was not unheard of for street cops to take money. Hell, everybody took money. For most of us, it was a $5 tip for both you and your partner from a City Marshal to keep the peace at the scene of an eviction. A ‘pound’ and free meal for standing a fixed post in front of Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant on Second Avenue because the Precinct Captain had a ‘contract’ with the owner. A sawbuck apiece to accompany the manager of the Fillmore East to the bank with the nightly take. It was viewed as a Gentlemen’s Agreement: a gratuity offered and bad manners to refuse. Of course, it did get out of hand; witness Eddie Droge. Eddie did what he had to do to avoid jail. Cops don’t ‘jail’ well.

Happy ending, though. Eddie became a teacher, got his PhD from Harvard, published his autobiography, “Patrolman: A Cop’s Story.” Lives in Massachusetts now.

Maybe I’ll give him a shout, talk about the Good Times.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Danger in the Depths of Manhattan

Could the Killer Be the Mud?

The limos and cabs picked up and deposited their fur-clad passengers over on Park Avenue, local dwellers headed for Bergdorf, Tiffany's, the Colony Club and the glitzy bars downtown.

Nannies walked their charges in elegant strollers that cost more than their own modest housing rentals in the burbs.

Dogs of every breed, color and size ran in orderly, well-fed packs, with handlers from the elite high schools cheering them on to the next rest spot, in front of smiling doormen.

Little did they know that only a few blocks east, a fifty-one year-old construction worker from Lyndhurst, New Jersey, was fighting for his life, a struggle so death-threatening the New York Fire Department brought a chaplain to the man, trying to ease his agony, if he had to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The worker was stuck waist deep, almost 100 feet beneath Second Avenue, where frigid water and mud were churning into a "slushy tomb" to take him to his death.

The worker had lost his footing in a tunnel near 95th Street, less than four blocks away from the tony life on Park Avenue!

While the richbitches went about their safe, cozy lives, the hypothermic subway construction worker's life was touch and go in the thick and viscous mud below the ground, that threatened the best resources of the New York Fire Department, the anxious crews of paramedics, the chaplain and the scores of valiant subway workers.

They pulled in every known resource of the great urbanopolis—a pulley system, a backhoe, a manual griphoist machine—and the sweat and courage of over 150 firefighters, who "crouched in the slop to dig him out by hand."

Terrified not only of drowning, but of being swallowed whole by clay and mud, the man was finally rescued after his four hours of hell, accompanied by several firefighters who also suffered injuries in the same mud.

One of the main improvisations of the rescuers was to set up an intravenous tube in the mess and find a way to warm the victim.

Veterans of subway construction beneath New York's streets and waterways are always alert to the dangers that face workers underground.

But rarely had an urban rescue involved such ferocious enemies as mud, muck, man-made caverns, mattings, plywood, concrete, wall-bracing bars, ropes and suction.

But it was the mud that they recalled most. "As soon as I started walking down there, it felt like your boot was going to rip off your foot," a fire fighter said.

The muck had such a grip on the worker that as the firefighters finally pulled him free of the muck it pulled a bunch of his ligaments.

Reports that the New Jersey worker is on the road to recovery show crime does not always pay, even if the criminal is the underbelly of nature.

Perhaps one of my colleagues who writes those wonderful novels about man versus nature, like WABC's Bill Evans, will take on this story!

Maybe even YOU, my dear reader!

Thelma Straw( who lives two blocks away from the evil mud!)

Friday, April 19, 2013

What do you want to be when you grow up?

A nice lady interviewed me the other day and wanted to know what I might have liked to be if I weren't a writer. When I was ten years old, I said, I wanted to be a ballerina. And there are a number of other choices I feel I would like to have made, now that I'm grown up: opera singer, movie director. But I have no noticeable physical grace, no voice, and no Hollywood connections.

The one thing I never wanted to grow up to do was anything that involved making a lot of money. I don't know why that is. I like spending money; I like having money. But there always seemed to me to be something nasty about making money.

Being a ballerina is the anti-rich person choice. Dancers have even less chance than writers of ever making a buck. All the dancers I ever knew were broke all the time. But I tell you what. A great dancer, or even a moderately good dancer, has something that no amount of money can ever buy, and that's the ability to create fantastic, ephemeral beauty just by showing up and moving around. Mere rich people can't do that. It's not even a gift. It's an ability dearly bought with hours of arduous daily practice.

Some years ago Harold and I attended Celtic Week at the Ashokan music camp in the wild woods of New York State. He took his famous Irish fiddle, of course, and I brought my English concertina, which I play about as clumsily as I dance. There was dancing. There were serious dancers. Several of them put on a show on the last evening. I was particularly struck by one, a dark-haired girl doing charming things with a red chiffon scarf. She looked like the queen of the world.

Next day I ran into her in the parking lot as we were packing up to go. We chatted, and she revealed that she had no way to get home to New York City and no money for a cab. I was stunned. "I could never do that," I said, by which I meant go somewhere for the sake of art and create ecstatic beauty with no way to get home again.

She thought I was criticizing her for her lifestyle, but it wasn't that at all. I was dumb with admiration. Dancers. They're like butterflies. Seriously, would you sooner be a dancer or a hedge fund manager?

And speaking of ephemeral beauty, Amazon is offering the first episode of BUCKER DUDLEY, which I put up on Kindle this week, for free to Kindle owners. If you don't have a Kindle, leave a halfway cogent comment on this or another of my blog posts over the next couple of weeks and I'll put your name in the hat for the drawing. I'm going to be giving away a Kindle.

Kate Gallison

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Photo Essay: Evita's Clothes

Deadline for Strange Gods: May 1.  I am going to make it.  So with no time to spare, I present some photos, many taken at the Evita Museum in Buenos Aires while researching Blood Tango.  BT launches on June 25th and features Evita, her dressmaker, and her body double.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Police Story: Spring 3100

I was a New York City policeman for 20 years: from 1967 to 1987, seminal years in the modern history of the NYPD, during which I rose from Probationary Patrolman to Lieutenant of Police. When I look back on that time, see again the faces and events, I remember how a writer-friend once described my career as “intersections with history.” Maybe, he had a point.

It was August, 1969 and I’d been a New York City Patrolman just two years and three months. I was working nine-to-five in a suit, Monday to Friday, with an occasional Saturday substituting for one of the weekdays (my choice). I was assigned as a reporter/writer on SPRING 3100, the official Magazine of the New York City Police Department, which boasted on its masthead that it was The Magazine Written For And By Patrolmen. That was true: the Editor who brought me on was a Patrolman who’d spent his career on the Magazine; there were two other writers like myself and the Art Director who laid out the magazine and handled production—all of us lowly Patrolmen, except for the old photographer who’d been there even longer than the Editor and somehow had managed to rise up one rung to Detective 3rd Grade, the lowest of the detective ranks, without having ever detected anything except a good photo ‘opp’. (In the NYPD, like Life, it was who you knew.)

SPRING 3100 was a choice assignment, a secret closely guarded and not spoken of outside ‘the City Room’, what we called the large open room that accommodated our desks, the Art department and files, on the top floor of 400 Broome Street, a/k/a The Police Annex. Police Headquarters then was just across Broome at 240 Centre Street in a grand old building done in the monumental Beaux Arts style with a Dome, pediments and marble columns over the entrance facing on Grand Street. I once believed that I’d gotten to SPRING 3100 by pure chance, but don’t any longer.

I was a beat cop walking foot posts by myself (the custom then) in the 9th Precinct on East 5th Street in the East Village. As a rookie with just fifteen months on the Job, I was usually assigned to patrol on the down-and-out Bowery or on the battleground streets of ‘Alphabet City’ (Avenues ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’) when I read in SPRING 3100 that there were openings on staff for Patrolmen-Reporters. I applied, out of curiosity, although I was still caught up in the romance of being The Man on the Mean Streets of the City. I had been a professional reporter and editor for business magazines for the three years prior to taking the Police Test. I applied and The Editor of SPRING hired me on the spot, thinking he’d gotten a bargain in me, I’m sure, although he was to learn over the next three years that I was definitely a mixed bag.

240 Centre Street
My first assignment as roving reporter was to do a feature piece on the Police Aviation Unit that was celebrating its 40th Year in the air in 1969. I drove out to the Base in Floyd Bennett Field at the ass-end of Brooklyn in an “unmarked” Department car (That’s what we called the Chevys and big-ass Plymouths that were garaged in the basement of 400 Broome. We’d just call ahead and the car was gassed up and waiting.) My partner on the assignment was Charlie (I’ll call him that), the new photographer, my age. At the Base, they took us up in a Bell Jetranger helicopter. Flying over all the boroughs of the City, under the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges, up and down the East River out to the Harbor, I sat in the copilot’s seat behind the glass nose of the copter so that passing over the Statue of Liberty I felt that if I stepped out and down I’d set foot on Her Torch.

Spring 3100 was a 50-page, 8-1/2x11-inch, professionally-written—abundantly illustrated with photos, occasional art and a dab of color on the front cover—slick magazine that had come out every month since 1929. Its size was purposeful: folded lengthways, it fit snugly in the rear back pocket of its readership, the uniform cop on the street. Distribution was a stroke of genius: bundles delivered by Motor Pool trucks to every Precinct, Headquarters and Administrative Command in the City. Every cop paid $1.80 per month for the magazine which was included in “House Tax,” a small sum he had to kick in monthly at his Precinct, that also underwrote the shoe shine machine and store of polish available to him in the Muster Room. If the New York Journal-American had had a setup like ours, it might have survived.

I earned my spurs with ‘Cops In the Blue’, the Aviation story, one of the longest SPRING had ever run, dramatic photo spreads showcasing the old biplanes and their heroic pilots. I’d researched the hell out of the story for a month; the photos came out of the magazine’s archives or The New York Daily News’s morgue. In recognition, the Editor assigned me to write ‘All In the Day’s Work’, a dramatic log of street heroics by cops all over the City—starring rescued animals, people, and perpetrators’ arrests ripped from the pages of the daily papers, illustrated by photos from their morgues, written from an omniscient third-person point of view with commentary (mine). Each month, I’d open the column with an apt quotation, like: “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.—Amelia Earhart Putnam.”

My other assignment was the column, “The Retired Ring In” (‘Ring In’ is a term of art referring to the foot patrolman’s duty to call in to the Precinct Switchboard from a Police Call Box on the street at a designated time each hour). Retired cops living in places all over the country would “ring in” their doings with ample photographic documentation. And sprinkled throughout: news of the Departmnent’s doings with plenty of headshots of the Top Command (Bosses loved SPRING where their Over-Bosses would see their pictures and, hopefully remember they existed), a Law column, an Inquiring Photographer, a Cop Captions Contest, Obituaries, Want Ads, and the clincher, ‘Looking Them Over’—reports of arrests, personal foibles, meaty tales (the doer’s name in boldface type) by the Precinct Reporter, a Patrolman in that Precinct, in every Precinct in the City. Liberally illustrated with photos, of course. Pure genius.

Then, one day our Patrolman-Editor retired (frustrated that after all those years he’d never been promoted to Detective 3rd Grade), a tone-deaf Sergeant replaced him and the clock ran out on the rest of us.

© 2013 Robert Knightly
all rights reserved

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Common Reader

Over the years writers have heard and read about the importance of reaching that phantom held fast in the minds of publishers, agents and booksellers: the average reader. You know the guy (I always think of the average reader as male though statistics suggest otherwise). He needs to be captured by the first sentence and must be propelled effortlessly through a compelling narrative. The writer must not linger too long over any detail as the average reader has many bids on his attention and needs to get on with it.

I never imagined that such a person existed. If such a person did exist, I thought, I certainly wouldn’t want to be in his company.

Reader, I married him.

An exchange about a book marked our first date.

“Have you read Julian Jaynes?” Bob asked.

“Do you mean The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind?”

The rest is domestic history.

But our discovery of each other’s literary tastes was not all skittles and beer. Early in our marriage I presented Bob with a mystery I had enjoyed very much, Robert Goddard’s Into the Blue. A while later, I found Bob reading. I don’t remember what it was but it wasn’t the Goddard.

“You didn’t like it?”

“Two pages of introspection and not a thing happened.”

I felt a cold chill. Could I have married a man who didn’t like mysteries?

I continued to buy the books I liked (my library is vast) and I watched what Bob picked out. I discovered that my husband is a great re-reader and he goes over favorite passages in a way I do not.

His favorites?

Dick Francis. Bob likes the way every word seems to serve to drive the plot forward. I’m tempted to say something here about galloping to the end but am resisting. Above all Francis does not blather. Mr. Francis was also a great favorite of Robin Hathaway’s and Bob and Robin enjoyed discussing their favorites. (Robin’s was Nerve; Bob has not committed to a favorite.)

Georges Simenon (the Maigret novels). Bob notes that Maigret is smart about people and focuses attention on those whose lives have largely been failures. He eschews forensics and relies on conversation. I like the fact that Maigret’s job allows him to spend a lot of time dropping into bars and drinking Calvados. Simenon does not blather.

Carl Hiaasen. You get a good mystery and serious issues are raised, but you’re laughing so hard you may not notice. Hiaasen’s madcap plots tend to blend together for me, but Bob actually remembers in which novel a particular plot twist or bit of business occurred. Hiaasen does not blather.

Elizabeth Peters (the Amelia Peabody mysteries). Bob once worked as an archaeologist and he admires Peters’ knowledge of Egypt and archaeological practices. He also enjoys her humor. I used to come home from mystery conferences with books set in the ancient world and Bob would say, “You get me these things, but they don’t really grab me.” I’ve pointed out to Bob that Peters, while she does not blather, is a touch more discursive than his usual favorites.

“Well, everybody goes on about something; you just have to like what they go on about.”

As I type, Bob is reading The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell. This is most uncharacteristic as Bob is not much for Scandanavian brooding. “I do tolerate a lot in the Wallander novels that I wouldn’t normally put up with in other books,” he says.

So, what lessons should you draw from all of this?

They’re isn’t an average reader no matter what publishers, agents and booksellers imagine. But don’t blather unless you’re very funny or Swedish.

© 2013 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, April 12, 2013

The King's Men

On Tuesday evening of this week St. Andrew's, Lambertville, was host to a concert by a subset of the renowned King's College Choir. Once known as the Collegium Regale, the group now call themselves the King's Men. Having them come to our modest little church, which seats fewer than 200, was as surprising and delicious as a visitation of angels.

Choral scholars at the college, undergraduates, they sing a capella. They rehearse for three hours every day. Their ensemble is exquisite, crisp, precise. St. Andrews was built in the late nineteenth century, before electronic amplification, and designed on purpose to have excellent acoustics. It's a wonderful place to sing, even for those of us who don't sing all that well.

"From Byrd to the Beatles," their program was called, and it ranged from fifteenth century sacred music to charming arrangements of pop hits. Between numbers they clowned a little, being fun-loving young fellows. An organist came with them but did not accompany them. He played a couple of numbers by himself, brilliantly. They were all brilliant. I wish I could tell you their names. I wish I had counted them. There must have been about fifteen. There were no printed programs, and I was too stupefied by the beauty of the experience to take any notes.

Still I wanted to tell you about it in my incoherent way. They were so beautiful! They were so young! And the group was so ephemeral. Although the choir was founded during the reign of Henry VI, the young men who sing in it will graduate and be off doing other things in a very short time. Others will take their places. All the while I was listening to them I was thinking, this will never happen again in quite this way. There's no way to capture it, no way to hang onto it.

Nevertheless I offer you this YouTube recording, made in another church a couple of years ago, of some of them singing Tutti Venite Armati, which they also sang in the program at Saint Andrews. A pale shadow.

Kate Gallison

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Historian Sleuth

Triss Stein, multi-talented mystery author, is a bright star in the firmament of mystery writing. A former native of Watertown, New York, after degrees at Brandeis and Columbia in history, classical studies and library science, she embarked on a fascinating career that would provide material and talent for future exciting novels, including consulting for McKinsey and Company, children's librarian, and staffs of publishers DC Comics and Conde Nast.

Her successful novels,
Murder at the Class Reunion and Digging Up Death, paved the way for her current popular novel, published by Poisoned Pen Press, Brooklyn Bones.

Active in MWA-NY and SinC, Triss recently managed the SinC research study on mystery readers.

We are delighted to welcome this gifted, creative New York writer here today!

Thelma Straw

I have a confession to make. I might be the only woman mystery writer in the US who never liked Nancy Drew. My interest in mysteries did not come from my childhood fiction reading at all, but I am beginning to suspect that it might have come from my interest in history and archaeology.

Think about it. The historian or the archeologist digs down through the facts, documents and artifacts to arrive at the truth. Or anyway, “A” truth. Or at least a narrative. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The PBS program, History Detectives, shows us how they do it, and naturally I adore the show. Of course I know that in the show they take a few short cuts, but that’s television. And I have on my desk a 1968 book called The Historian as Detective: Essays as Evidence, edited by Robin Winks, who was all of the following: a distinguished Yale history professor, a mystery fan and an Edgar winner for Best Critical Work.

Real history is full of real unsolved crimes. What did happen to those princes in the Tower? Did Robert Dudley’s wife fall down the stairs or was she pushed, and how much did Queen Elizabeth I know? Poe’s lost last days? Meriwether Lewis’ questionable demise? And who can forget Judge Crater?

In fact, I started Brooklyn Bones not with a sleuth but with a crime—old bones in an old house—and a historian came to mind as the right person to solve it. I made her an urban historian so she would naturally be interested in the context—the time and place—of the crime. I gave her a partly-written dissertation about the dynamics of neighborhood change in Brooklyn because I live in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, so does she (not coincidentally, the same one), and the old house with the bones is hers. I gave her a child, because I wanted to write about being a parent. I gave her a teen-age child because—well, conflict is good for plotting!

As she came alive in my mind and started talking to me, I realized I had found my perfect heroine. She’s younger than I am, has a completely different background, she’s a lot more impulsive, a lot less worldly, a lot more street smart. But I know what drives her and I can send her to research life in the past in a way that smashes right into conflicts of life in the present. The mini-mansion mausoleums of historic Green-Wood cemetery? The Jewish gangsters of Brownsville? The Brooklyn Navy Yard when it was operating around the clock to help save the world? The lost and found freed slave community of Weeksville? Erica is never going to run out of old Brooklyn stories to research. And because there are more than bones in those mausoleums, Brownsville still has gangs, and the later fate of the Navy Yard, a large piece of waterside real estate, was much debated, I am never going to run out of modern crimes.

Asking questions. Digging up answers. Understanding what happened then and how it affects now. A historian sleuth makes a lot of sense to me.

Triss Stein

Friday, April 5, 2013

Everybody's Corrupt

You may not know that Theodore Roosevelt once served as police commissioner for the City of New York. As a student of muckraker Lincoln Steffens and a life-long fan of T.R. I knew a little about it. I knew he had trouble with the police culture of New York, the corrupt Democratic machine, and the way things were generally done in the city. But I didn't know the details, or how badly things went for him, until I read Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, by Richard Zacks.

It was the Protestant preachers, in particular the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, who first cast the light of general scrutiny on the sin that New York loved: prostitution, drink, and gambling. Parkhurst went out one night with a flash fellow of his acquaintance and took a tour of the low places of the city in order to denounce them from the pulpit. He was so horrified that he went out again the next night, and the night after. He soon roused the respectable people of the city, which is to say, the Republicans, to demand that the city be cleansed of sin. No illegal activity could take place without the complicity of the police. The Lexow commission hearings revealed them to be on the take, a great public scandal.

The aroused citizens voted out the Tammany mayor. The new mayor appointed the high-minded Theodore Roosevelt to the Police Commission to clean up the town. He started by creeping through the bad neighborhoods at night in disguise, getting the dirt on all the negligent cops he saw there. They began to shape up and look sharp. He forced them to raid all the brothels. No one was safe. He decreed that snitches were no longer to be paid for information, since they were criminals themselves and didn't deserve it. No undeserving person was to have a break. Homeless? Get a job. No longer would the homeless be allowed to sleep in the basements of police stations, on bare planks. They must report to the homeless shelter run by Protestant clergymen, where they would be forced to chop wood for three hours for their night's lodging.

Roosevelt closed all the bars on Sundays, because that was the law, handed down by the Republican legislators in Albany. Now in those days Sunday was the working man's only day off, his only solace a drink of beer. New Yorkers began to yearn for the return of Tammany. But Theodore Roosevelt was stiff-necked. Political expediency was never a part of his vocabulary. Right was right, and the law was the law. In vain did thirsty newspaper writers point out that the rich folks could drink at home on Sundays, or in their pricey hotels.

Then the wife of a prominent and powerful citizen was robbed of her jewels.

Without a stable of underworld informers to ferret out the thief, the police were helpless. Now it became apparent that virtue didn't work, not in New York City, perhaps not anywhere. Everyone, high and low, benefitted from the slimy network of corruption and bribery that the city ran on in ordinary times, and they wanted it back again. The rest is history. Roosevelt went on to become President of the United States, but that's a story for another day.

Kate Gallison