Friday, July 23, 2004

Big Pond


Part of the reason why I've been so inattentive to this website lately is that my writing energy has been going toward a big project, which is almost done. I've written a book about New York City. Half of it is the story of the big town, adapted from the Manhattan tours I've conducted by bus and boat. The other half is a memoir, about my life as a tour guide. I really like it. It's called Big Pond: Adventures of a Little Fish, and it'll be done soon. Soon, you'll even be able to buy a copy of it right here on this website! Imagine!

So that's the main reason why I've been so negligent of the blog.

I've been assembling the actual pages of the book, and I've spent the last week rounding up the illustrations I need. I've drawn portraits of some of the key figures from New York City history. There will also be about fifty photographs, many of which I've taken in the last couple of weeks. So I thought I'd share a few of them.


 
This picture shows the ruins of the old smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island. Built in 1856, it replaced a series of wooden shacks, where smallpox victims had previously been quarantined. These more luxurious digs were designed by James Renwick, whose resume also includes St. Patrick's Cathedral. There's a stylistic similarity.
 
Smallpox was the plague of the time. Thousands of people died in this building. Today, all that remains is its empty shell. You can see right through it. This is the only official New York City landmark that's in ruins. The above view was taken from the east side of Roosevelt Island. I find it particularly haunting, with the modern skyline of the East Side rising up beyond the ruins.




 
The ongoing antiwar protest that is Union Square.



 
Looking east from the corner of 38th Street and Seventh Avenue, you can still see the fading, painted advertisement for the Horn & Hardart Automat. The Automat, like the Hippodrome or the Brooklyn Dodgers, is one of the city’s great lost landmarks. Once a chain, these inexpensive cafeterias offered hot food dispensed by a coin-operated vending system. The last Automat closed down in the 1990s, a casualty of the increased prominence in Manhattan of the usual American fast food giants.



 
In 1916, the young playwright Eugene O'Neill arrived in Greenwich Village from Cape Cod, along with his company, the Provincetown Players. O'Neill spent a great deal of his time at an infamously seedy bar on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 4th Street. Everyone referred to it as the Hellhole, and it became the inspiration for The Iceman Cometh. The bar is gone, but the public garden which now occupies the site has recently been named in honor of the Hellhole's actual name, the Golden Swan.



 
This really sent chills down my spine when I first saw it. I was doing a boat tour, and the captain decided to vary the route a little bit by taking the long way around the harbor. Just east of Governors Island, docked among the shipping containers piled on the Brooklyn waterfront, I saw this ghost ship. It's clearly a ramshackle old Staten Island Ferry, though the text, and most of the paint, has chipped away. I've never seen one of the ferries in this state before. Something about the image really scares me.




This beautiful French statue is a symbol of the fact that all people should be welcomed into this city and this country.

 
I'm off to bed. I hope you enjoyed the pictures. I'll write more soon, and I'll have more information about Big Pond, too.
 
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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

One Nation, Dr. Pepper


Today I heard someone say that there was a special edition Pepsi can which had the Pledge of Allegiance printed on it -- without the words "under God." I was pretty impressed with the thought that a corporate behemoth like Pepsi would be so bold. That's amazing, I said to myself, maybe things really are turning around! Two years ago, you could hardly even point out the drool on Bush's lip, and now, not only does Michael Moore have the number one movie -- but Pepsi has made the grand gesture! The deletion of "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance is something our government doesn't have the strength to carry out -- and now here's Pepsi with the vision?

I did a little reading, and learned that what I'd heard was a little off. At pepsiworld.com, under the heading "FALSE RUMOR ALERT," the public is informed that "Pepsi has not created any packaging containing an edited version of America's Pledge of Allegiance."

What? What is Pepsi talking about? Surely they are aware that the Pledge of Allegiance American schoolchildren recite is an edited version of the Pledge, which did not contain the phrase "under God" until 1954. They were added by Congress, and they certainly did reflect the bigoted, fanatical, fascist qualities of the McCarthy era. Apparently Pepsi doesn't know its history very well.

Their explanation continues: "A patriotic package used in 2001 by Dr. Pepper (which is not a part of PepsiCo) was inappropriately linked to this rumor. Dr. Pepper's position is very clearly articulated at: http://www.dpsu.com/drpepper_can.html."

This was becoming a wild goose chase. Did you know that if you're on Pepsi's website, and you click on an outside link, you're taken to a big red headline that says "STOP! YOU ARE LEAVING PEPSI WORLD!" and a lengthy disclaimer about how PepsiCo is not responsible for any scandalous thing you hear out there, far from the safe borders of Pepsi World? Knowing I was about to encounter non-Pepsi-approved content, I became a little uneasy.

At the Dr. Pepper page, I learned the truth. Apparently, in the aftermath of 9/11, Dr. Pepper did switch to a "patriotic" can, which was discontinued in February of 2002. This star-spangled can featured a picture of the Statue of Liberty -- that beautiful French statue which symbolizes the fact that all people are welcome in this country. Above the statue, it says "ONE NATION...INDIVISIBLE." (See the can here.)

So it wasn't really what I thought it was going to be. Much to their credit, though, the people at Dr. Pepper offer a graceful disclaimer, without any obnoxious groveling about how they didn't mean to offend religious extremists. The fact that the disclaimer, or the rumor I heard, exist today is because some group of people, some medieval zealots among us, must have actually complained that a Dr. Pepper can which said "ONE NATION...INDIVISIBLE" was an assault on their faith.

Can you imagine if those people were given the product they apparently wanted -- a can of Dr. Pepper which says "ONE NATION, UNDER GOD?" Haw haw haw haw haw! Yet the Urban Legends Reference Pages at snopes.com offer this page, where there actually is a letter from an outraged fundamentalist demanding just that.

A can of soda, politically, is just not that important. There's not much they could print on a can of soda that would get me particularly riled up. My feelings had taken this turn when I realized that the Pledge of Allegiance isn't very important, either. When I was in school, I usually refused to say it, because I just didn't like it. Partly it was the "under God" bit, but the very idea of pledging my allegiance to a flag seemed silly. And a room full of kids doing it in unison, with their hands on their hearts, seemed scary. I grew up to be an adult who, shall we say, believes strongly in the separation of church and state. I share John Lennon's hope for a world of peace, "and no religion too." (Consider: A song with that lyric was number one in the U.S.!) But even I have usually found it hard to get too upset about the content of the Pledge of Allegiance, whatever it may be, because it's such a meaningless issue, compared to some of the others.

And yet, I now think, it has symbolic relevance. In a way, the Pledge of Allegiance issue is to the separation of church and state what stem cell research is to abortion rights. There are obvious differences -- stem cell research could save lives, whereas the Pledge of Allegiance could only annoy people. But given the history of the Pledge, and the weight of those two words, and the ongoing attempt by the far right to obliterate the Constitution of this great secular Democracy, it is kind of important.

According to "The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History," by Dr. John W. Baer, the Pledge was written in 1892 by one Francis Bellamy, who was both a Baptist minister and a Socialist. He wrote the Pledge as a piece to be recited by schoolchildren in a Columbus Day pageant, and it was subsequently published in a magazine. And it went like this: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Dr. Baer asserts that Bellamy objected to the replacement of "my Flag" with "the Flag of the United States of America," when the recitation of the Pledge became an official part of the American public school experience. Of course he did! I like this Bellamy, this Baptist Socialist, and I like his Pledge. I have decided that I am a Francis Bellamy purist, as far as the Pledge of Allegiance is concerned. It is a truly democratic composition, really, because in it the reciter pledges allegiance to "my Flag," his or her flag, whatever flag it might be. I can get into that.

I wouldn't even mind reading it on a soda can.

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