Monday, November 22, 2010

OUTCASTS THRIFT SHOP: A Miracle on Tenth Avenue

When Outcasts Thrift shop first opened on Tenth Avenue in the nineties few shoppers ventured west of Ninth Avenue. After all Hell’s Kitchen's main street always had character. It is a haven for good eating thanks to the annual Ninth Avenue International Food Festival, its many restaurants, ethnic gourmet stores and mom-and-pop shops. Tenth, always the poor-cousin, lacked an identity.

Back then empty or dingy looking stores, auto part shops, gas stations, parking lots, a crime-plagued park, and run down tenements filled the avenue.

Outcasts gave people a reason to visit Tenth. Run by St. Clements Church at 423 West 46th Street, Outcasts first operated from the church before moving to Tenth. It quickly became a popular stop for area residents looking for bargains even though it resembled a Bowery rummage sale.

In time due to the efforts of co-managers Peter Valentyne and Keith Benedict (both have since left) Outcasts evolved into “The Miracle of Tenth Avenue.”
“We are a place of resurrectible goods,” Valentyne said. “We give one a reason to feel good and gain from other people’s castoffs.”

These efforts have worked.  Customers agree.
“It is a magical place. I remember things I did not buy,”
Kathy Lynwood said. Lynwood, who shops here often, added “This is a place for all seasons. It lifts one’s mood on those somber days even if you leave without buying a thing.”

Both Valentyne, a poet from Michigan, and Benedict, an actor, painter and native of Wales shared a passion and vision for Outcasts. Together they created a warm and inviting place.  It is a boutique minus the pretentiousness and high prices a some of the nicer looking shops in the city. It’s a place for people with and without money.

People come here not only to browse but chat with the personable Messrs. Valentyne and Benedict. Both have worked at Outcasts for about eleven years. People bask in the store’s soothing visual displays, aromatic smells and eclectic music before leaving with a bag of goodies or that one terrific find.

The small storefront window is hard to miss. Its theme- oriented setups contain eye-catching displays. Stylishly dressed mannequins in full makeup offer a glimpse of what to expect inside.
Despite its cozy size Outcasts is not cluttered, “We position things and layer colors to give it a life of its own,” Valentyne said. 
Browsing the racks as I did I found silk jackets, men and women’s suits, sport jackets, Italian mohair and cashmere sweaters, evening and casual dresses by Willi Smith, Barney’s NY, Liz Claiborne, Jones Street, Anne Klein and Sag Harbor.

Outcasts sells decorative lamps, hand painted vases, framed paintings and photographs, ornaments, jewelry, tableware and much more. There is a huge CD, DVD and book collection.  The two-dollar “Mystery Brown Bag” is popular and filled with Valentyne’s handpicked “curiosities .”

St Clement’s uses the monies earned here for its ministries: a volunteer vet clinic,  food pantry, homeless outreach, and assisting needy neighbors. It also has a highly regarded theater ministry.
Founded in 1830, St. Clement’s Episcopal Church has long advocated social activism. Its ministry has included women, gays and people of diverse backgrounds for years.  In 1962 St. Clement’s reconfigured its church to include a theater, which is it calls the second oldest Off Broadway house.

Outcasts customers are from Hell’s Kitchen, actors and set designers from local theaters and Broadway, and tourists from the cruise ships docking at Westside piers.  Once actor Alec Baldwin, after admiring the front window, popped in and bought all their snow globes and alarm clocks.

Katherine Consuelo-Johnson, a Texas native and a St. Clement’s congregant, is the new manager. She has ten years of experience with antiques and online auctions. She first learned of Outcasts as a shopper. when she bought a television after moving to New York.

Major changes are underway. St. Clement's board sought change as controversy existed with the prior management.  But Outcasts under Consuelo-Johnson's leadership and with her energy and ideas the shop has blossomed and is thriving. “We want to make it more accessible for the elderly and women with strollers. We plan to sell more items from boxes and sell personal goods that will suit the tastes of our visitors,” Consuelo-Johnson said. “We need more volunteers. Eileen cannot do it alone.”

“This is a very neighborly place,” Eileen Hardy said. A Hell’s Kitchen resident and a volunteer of several years Hardy added “What makes it special and fun is we get new things everyday. When someone finds that one-of-a-kind piece that cannot be found anywhere else then we all smile.”

Even with change Outcasts is a treasure chest filled with wonderful things.
OUTCASTS is at 660 Tenth Avenue between 46 & 47th Streets. Hours: 
Mon - Sat 10:30-6pm; 212-974-0121 Donations accepted.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


It has been 49 years since Montford Merrill “Monte” Irvin last played for the New York Giants but “Jints” fans have not forgotten him.

Neither the passage of time or the team’s heart-breaking move to San Francisco blurred the sweet memories of his fans.

Monte, a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, was the New York Giants Baseball Historical Society’s guest of honor at the 50th anniversary celebration of the New York Giants 1954 World Series victory, a four-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians. The event, held in early September (2004) at Forlini’s restaurant in downtown Manhattan, saw a number of fans wearing NY Giants uniform tops and caps.

Monte’s popularity had not waned at all. When he reached for the microphone 60 fans greeted him with a hearty standing ovation and chanted “Monty, Monty.”
Irvin leaned on his cane and placed a thigh against the table and shifted his weight slightly from side to side as if settling into an imaginary batters box ready to stare down Big Don Newcombe, the mighty Brooklyn Dodger ace, Warren Spahn, baseball's all-time winning left-hander or “The Big Chief” Allie Reynolds, the Yankee ace.
Instead Monte smiled and said, “Thank you. I am elated. I am amazed at how you have kept up this feeling for so many years. This is very special. I will never forget this.” Fans mingled with Monte and discovered he exudes star power off the field as well as on. He is dignified, gracious, pensive, a wonderful storyteller, and enjoys talking baseball. For thirty minutes he captivated his audience with his tales.

“Leo was the best manager ever. He was dynamic. He knew precisely what he wanted to do. He argued a lot but with a purpose. He did not argue for the play at hand instead he argued for the next one.”
Monte divulged an old Leo trick. “Leo ate a lot of garlic and loved getting into the umpires faces,” he said. “Leo was exceptional. Many managers came out of his fold - Bill Rigney, Whitey Lockman, Al Dark, Eddie Stanky, Wes Westrum - and they copied him. Leo was a case study complete with a baseball PH.D.”

Regarding the miracle 1951 season capped by Bobby Thomson's "shot heard around the world, which propelled the Giants to the World Series over their arch rivals the Dodgers, Monte said, “During our run Leo did not pressure us. He just said, ‘Let’s see how good we can do. Let’s try our best.’”
Every time the Giants won a game he said “Let’s do it again tomorrow.” Leo was supportive throughout the comeback but he was also tough. Once in St. Louis he let everyone, except Hank Thompson, stay out until 5 am. Thompson went out anyway and when he returned, Leo was waiting for him in his room.

The fun began after Mays came up to the majors in 1951. Monte was his mentor and taught Mays about life off the field. “Willie was a natural. He was the real thing. He had great speed. He hit the ball hard but I never thought he would become a great hitter with power.”

According to Monte’s calculations Willie lost about 50 home runs at the Polo Grounds due to the deep centerfield (roughly 485 feet from home plate) and probably 100 in Candlestick with its infamous winds swirling around the field.

In the 1951 drive the Giants got help from an unexpected source - the Dodgers. After Brooklyn swept them in a double-header the team was down. Monte and his mates heard the Dodgers whooping it up after the game from their clubhouse. One of the Dodgers yelled out “Eat your heart out Leo you S.O.B.”
“That fired us up,” he said. “We knew we were good. We had talent. We had experience and we felt we could win,” Monte said.

He also talked about October 3, 1951. “Newk blinded us for eight innings. We went down to the wire, and in the ninth inning when Bobby swung we leaned out of the dugout to see if it would clear the wall. He hit it good,” Monte said. “No cheapy shot. He hit it hard. “Before Bobby reached home we lifted him up. He didn’t touch the plate but no umpire in the world would call him out.

“The fans followed us from home plate to the clubhouse. They hugged us and patted us on the back,” he added. “They were delirious. They would have carried us on their shoulders if we let them.”
And what about stolen signs? Monte responded quickly. “Sal Yvars was full of baloney. HBO and others made too big of the issue. Everyone stole signs. If we stole signs why were we losing,” he said. “Besides you have to hit the ball.”

After that dramatic game the Giants sailed into the series and beat the Yankees and Allie Reynolds in the first game 5 - 1. Monte stole home and had four hits. “The Yankees were both good and lucky,” Monte said. “If it didn’t rain after game 3 and if Don Mueller did not get hurt things could have turned out differently.”

Mantle and Berra scored the headlines during their team’s string of championships in that period but Monte attributed the Yankees’ success to Bauer and Woodling. “They were the secret weapon and the reason why the Yankees were so good,” he said.

In game one Monte stole home in the first inning. Monte told Leo, who coached third, he thought he could steal home. Leo gave him the okay. “It was a high pitch. I beat the tag. Yogi jumped up and yelled ‘No, No, No.’ I said ‘Yes, Yes, Yes’ and told him to stop crying and check the newspapers the next day,” Monte said. “When I saw Yogi for the first time many years later he comes over to me and said ‘You safe, Jackie out,’” Monte laughed.

An all-state player in four sports at East Orange High School in New Jersey, Monte, who declined a football scholarship to Michigan, quickly developed into a major league star. He played for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, under an assumed name, Jimmy Nelson, while attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he majored in political science. Blessed with speed, power and a great throwing arm Monte left school after two years and became a Negro league star. His success led him to the majors. Monte and Hank Thompson became the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.

Monte had a career average of .293 including a high of .329. In 2500 at bats Monte hit 99 home runs and 97 doubles. In 1951, his second full season in the majors he hit 24 home runs and led the league with 121 runs batted. (The first African American player to lead the league). He batted .312 and finished third in the MVP ballot. Many think to this day he should have won it. He hit an astounding.458 in the 1951 World Series. In the spring of 1952 Monte broke his ankle in an exhibition game against the Indians. That year he played in just 46 games. The following year Monte suffered another injury further affecting his play.

Baseball’s color barrier deprived Monte from joining the Giants until 1949 at the age of 30. When asked about baseball’s injustice he said, “My ambition was always to play good baseball. I did. I feel fortunate. I played in the Negro Leagues for 10 years. I played with Willie Wells, Leon Day and the greatest hitter no one knows anything about, Josh Gibson. He was as strong as two men. He always led the league in homers and rarely struck out. I was happy when Jackie succeeded. I knew it was just a matter of time before others were selected.”

Initially Branch Rickey wanted Monte to break the color barrier. “I wanted to be the first,” Monte said. “I had been in the army for three years and I was not ready with my game at that point.” Rickey did not want to buy Monte’s contract from the Newark Eagles. Two years later the Giants paid $5000 for his contract. In 1949 Monte and P. Ford Smith became the first black players signed by Giants.

Today the Giants play in beautiful AT&T Park. All that remains of the Polo Grounds is a commemorative plaque on the site (now a NYC housing project) where the storied stadium once stood and the John Brush stairwell on Coogan’s Bluff. But for one day 60 diehard Giant relished in the legacy of a great franchise and the summers of Mays, Thomson, Hubell, Ott, Terry, Mathewson, McGraw and Irvin.

On this day NY Giant baseball returned to the city. One of our own came home. On this day Monte Irvin transported his fans back to 1954, to a time when the Giants, not the Yankees, nor the Cardinals, nor the Red Sox, nor their arch rivals the Dodgers, ruled baseball.

Photo: John Barr, Monte Irvin and Stuart Leeds; photo by Rudi Papiri

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Polo Grounds Walking Tour: STEPPING BACK INTO TIME

Forget Ebbets Field. Forget PeeWee, Newk and The Duke. Forget Campy and Jackie too. The Boys of Summer returned home and no one wore Dodger Blue. Instead orange and black, the colors du jour, dotted Yankee Stadium during one three game series in early June when the San Francisco Giants faced the American League Champion New York Yankees.

While thousands cheered the new "Sultan of Swat," Barry Bonds, many diehard fans came to pay homage to baseball's past and New York City's forgotten team, the New York Giants and swap cherished memories of Willie, Bobby, The Barber, Dusty, Monte, and King Carl.

The San Francisco Giants, formerly of New York, once owned the city and played in the Polo Grounds a subway stop south of Yankee Stadium and a five minute walk across the McCombs Dam Bridge or the 155th Street bridge which spands the Harlem River. In fact the Yankees played at the Polo Grounds until their landlord, the Giants, gave them the boot after the 1922 season, when both teams met in the World Series.

The scripted orange letters on the visiting team's caps read SF but for New York Giant fans this did not matter. The Giants returned to the stadium for the first time since they played the Yankees in the 1962 World Series. To celebrate this event The New York Giants Baseball Historical Society organized an outing to Yankee Stadium combined with a walking tour of the old Polo Grounds site.

On Sunday, June 9, a beautiful sunny day, members began meeting at 10 a.m. outside the subway entrance at 155th and Eighth Avenue. As you exit the subway you see a large sign which reads "Polo Ground Houses." A city housing project replaced the hallowed field, the site of numerous championships in baseball, football and boxing.

Several members stood quietly flipping back 50, 60 years in time when this street was home turf for one of baseball's storied franchises, when an eighty-plus-year old man named Edward ambled over and broke the silence. Looking at Steve Rothschild, who wore a cap with the NY insignia, Giants wristbands and uniform top with 24, the number of his hero Willie Mays, he said "They are not playing here today. You might want to head there," he said pointing to Yankee Stadium on the other side of the river."
Edward, who has lived at the Colonial Houses, located across the street, north of the Polo Grounds housing since the early 1950s, added "I used to hear the crowd from my apartment. I knew when the Giants scored by how loud the people yelled. They were special times."
At 10:40, after thirty minutes of pre-tour chitchat Donald O'Sullivan, Steve Rothschild, Allan Abrams, Ann and Jim Nurum, Stuart Leeds and this reporter began their tour. Ed Fernandez, a maintenance man at the project said "You gotta see the plaque" and without asking lead the way.

Following him we took the first right and passed a public elementary school's fenced-in utility lot. As we continued along the walkway a spacious concrete yard with basketball hoops appeared on the right. On our left we saw a large stone oval and fountain in the middle of a plaza-like setting bounded by the two other buildings. Later we figured we may have walked within twenty to thirty feet of the site of one of baseball's greatest plays - Willie Mays mythical over-the-head catch of Vic Wertz's 455-foot drive in the 1954 World Series. Instead of seeing number 24 racing with his back to home plate we spotted a young girl pushing a child in a stroller as two boys followed behind on scooters.

Halfway around the oval we found the plaque on one of the concrete columns supporting the western most building of the project, less than100 feet in front of the steep rocky tree-covered hill known as Coogan's Bluff. This large bronze plaque, now tarnished and smudged, designates the approximate location of home plate.

"It was not a pretentious place. It was an easy place for a fan to navigate and watch a game," Dan O'Sullivan said.

As a kid Allan Abrams walked to the Polo Grounds from his Bronx neighborhood. He called it a stadium of contrasts. "It was shaped like a rectangle. Seats down the lines were close to the field but the bleachers were far away," he said.
"But the beauty of the place was that the clubhouse was in centerfield. The players walked the length of the field coming in and out of games," he added. "I once gave Wes Westrum a pin with his face on it. He wore it under his chest protector."

From home plate we walked north, towards left field, and traced the path of Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." We ended up on a pebble strewn side-street which probably looks no different from when the Giants last played here in 1957. Jim Norum said "I remember this street. We used to line up here with the P.A.L. waiting to get into the games."

Stone steps cut into the lower portion of the bluff and lead us up to the Harlem River Drive. From there we walked to Edgecombe Avenue which stretches along Highbridge Park roughly thirty stories above the old playing field. Hidden from view by the park's thick brush and tall trees we find the only relic remaining from the franchise's New York Days - a stairway descending from Edgecombe Avenue to the Harlem River Drive.

Inscribed on one landing are the words "John T. Brush Stairs Presented by The New York Giants." Brush owned the Giants in the early part of the last century.

Norum said "They may play in San Francisco but the last time they won the World Series was 1954 when they played here."

We stood silent for a about a minute studying the grounds below. We did not see four high rise buildings instead we saw of field of storied memories. We remained this way until Abrams slapped his hands together and said "Let's go Giants."

From there we walked across the McComb's Dam Bridge to see the San Francisco Giants play at Yankee Stadium.

Photo Caption: l to r: Donald O'Sullivan, Steve Rothschild, Allan Abrams, Jim and Ann Nurum, Stuart Leeds.
Game June 2004