Monday, December 30, 2013

@ Patchin Place


Patchin Place, 2013
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In New York City near the intersection of West 10th Street and 6th Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) are two little glimpses into mid-19th Century life. Milligan Place, entered through a narrow gap between two buildings on 6th Avenue, and Patchin Place, which runs off West 10th Street, are both small gated residential enclaves. They’re extremely desirable and expensive addresses in today’s real estate market because of their location, quietness and quaintness.
But it wasn’t always that way. Milligan Place and Patchin Place were both built around 1850 to house servants—mostly Basque immigrants—working at a nearby hotel. 
Throughout much of the 1900s, Greenwich Village was a hive of creative and bohemian life. The apartments at Patchin Place were popular with artists and writers, including Theodore Dreiser, Djuna Barnes and John Reed. (Today, Patchin Place is famous for the number of psychotherapists who live there.)
A close family friend of my parents when I was growing up, the painter, illustrator and author Shane Miller, lived for many years with his wife at Patchin Place. Shane Miller was an easy-going self-described elf of an Irishman. In his lifetime, Shane pursued many spiritual paths, and along the way also illustrated cartoons for Warner Brothers (where composer Hoagy Carmichael was his creative partner), painted portraits and wrote and illustrated books about the history of New York City, Rome and Athens. Shane was serious when it came to his work. But as a friend he had a wonderful humor and a smile that warmed all who knew him.
Everyone, that is, except for his Patchin Place neighbor, the poet e.e.cummings, with whom Shane and his wife shared a fire escape that was also the passageway used to take their garbage down to the street.
For most of us, e.e. cummings is best known as a poet whose work is immediately identifiable by its exclusive use of lower case letters. As a neighbor in Patchin Place during the 1940s and 1950s, though, cummings was best known for his hard drinking and general crankiness, which is saying something considering that just about everyone living at Patchin Place in those days was known for his or her excessive and idiosyncratic behavior.
e.e. cummings didn’t have much to do with his neighbors at Patchin Place. He and Shane never shared a social drink, a nibble of food, a war story or complained about publishers.
The only time cummings ever spoke to Shane occurred late one night when the two men found themselves taking out the trash at the same time. Shane greeted his neighbor on the way down the fire escape, but got no response. On the way back up, cummings paused only long enough to touch Shane’s shoulder and tell him, “Your wife’s sure got a big ass.”

Monday, December 2, 2013

Of Thee I Sing Sing

 Welcome to Sing Sing, 2013
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In the pursuit of physical fitness, something interesting to photograph and the opportunity to take my daughter’s dog for a walk, I have once again run afoul of the local constabulary. Only where in the past it’s been US Navy sentries in gummy boats racing across the harbor to keep me from photographing submarines or Homeland Security agents stopping me from photographing scenes that hundreds of tourists photograph every day, this time it was the screws at Sing Sing prison.
We spent the Thanksgiving holiday with new friends and family who live in a historic neighborhood on the edge of Ossining, New York. (If that name rings a bell, it might be because the fictitious Don and Betty Draper of Man Men lived in Ossining.)
You can’t be in this area and not know there’s a big prison in the center of town. And not just a big prison, but a famous one. Sing Sing, if you haven’t heard of it, is a maximum-security prison just north of New York City. It was built (much of it by inmates, presumably under careful supervision) during the early 1800s. Sing Sing's so famous in American correctional lore that, as the historical market at the entrance proclaims, it's the place that inspired terms like “up the river,” “big house” and “last mile.”
Even by the serious standards of prison architecture, Sing Sing’s a pretty bleak place. It’s gray stone and brick buildings ramble from the top of a bluff down to the Hudson River shoreline. The cement wall that surrounds the prison is tall and as intimidating on the outside as it must be on the inside.

No Parking. No Escape. 2013

My crime, such as it was, was that Hope (the dog) and I didn’t realize that as we walked purposely down Hudson Street through a quiet residential neighborhood we’d unwittingly, and without any warning or further ado, stepped onto the prison grounds.
I photographed the historic plaques mounted outside the prison wall and walked a good mile or so around the eastern perimeter of the prison, stopping occasionally to photograph guard towers or interesting textures in the prison wall. It wasn’t until I’d gotten around to the northern side of the prison that a guard stepped out of a watchtower and yelled down to me to stop taking pictures.
Under normal circumstances I might have protested that I was standing on a public street photographing a scene that is visible from dozens of neighboring homes and two or three major local streets. But the guard was standing thirty feet or so above me and had a shotgun in his hand. All I had was a camera and a dog.
And as it turns out, I wasn’t even standing on a public street any more.
A more observant guy would have noticed that there were several signs posted at the entrance to the prison grounds indicating that it’s illegal to make unauthorized photographs on the prison grounds. I, on the other hand, was too focused on some of the famous people—e.g. mobsters “Lucky” Luciano and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Ruth Snyder, Willie Sutton and “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz—who’ve resided on the other side of the wall.
Let’s just say I put the cap on my camera lens and walked back to the house by another route. Wouldn’t have been any fun to get tossed in the big house. 
The Illusion of an Escape Route, 2013