Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bill Toledo, Navajo Code Talker, 
Tells His Story in the East Village
Everyone knew the moment he entered Cooper’s Craft  Kitchen in the East Village.  The words “he’s here,” passed from one person to the next. Even the weekly Thursday night football gang, with beer mugs in hand, watching ESPN on the television intently, turned to the entrance where Bill Henry Toledo stood.

Bill Toledo, a World War ll veteran and a Navajo Code Talker came to New York City as part of LaSalle’s Academy’s, an all-boy’s high school on East 6th Street, annual Veteran’s Day celebration.  Mr.Toledo, joined by several other Code Talkers, visited the school earlier that day and shared their remarkable story with the students. The next day, November 11th, the Code Talkers marched in the city’s annual Veteran’s Day parade.

The 87-year-old Toledo, wearing a red garrison military cap with yellow braids and adorned with USMC insignias, wore a turquoise, black onyx necktie pendant. He stood straight, with shoulders back as he greeted well-wishers with a firm hand shake. Personable, sharp-minded and energetic Mr. Toledo looked younger than his years. 

“Early in the war the Japanese broke every code we had,” Toledo said. “This gave them a huge advantage.”

Most codes dated back to the Civil War. Armed with many fluent English speakers the Japanese cracked all codes and even used the information gathered against the Allies. The U.S. military devised intricate codes, which often took an hour or more to decipher a simple message.

Philip Johnston, a son of a Protestant Missionary, grew up on a Navajo reservation. He played with Navajo children and spoke the language fluently.

Later Johnston became an engineer for the city of Los Angeles. When he read a story about the military working with Native Americans to develop a new code he went to Camp Elliot, near San Diego to suggest the Navajo language. His selling points: it is an unwritten language, extremely complex with no alphabet, no symbols and is spoken only among the Navajo in the Southwest. Less than 30 non-Navajos spoke the language.

The Navajo had no translation for words like radar, hand grenade, and tank. Johnston’s suggested using Navajo words. For example radar became - owl, potato - hand grenade, turtle - tank. The code contained 200 terms initially but grew to 600. Navajo code talkers translated code quickly and effectively. At Iwo Jima six coders worked around the clock receiving and sending over 800 messages without one mistake.

In early 1942 the Marine Corps created a special code unit and recruited 29 men from the Navajo reservation, reverently known as the “original 29.”
At 18, living on the Navajo reservation near Albuquerque, New Mexico and a member of the Ta’neezabnii Clan meaning the Tangled People, Toledo part of the second wave of code talkers, enlisted in October 1942 with his cousin Preston and his uncle Frank.

Toledo did boot camp at Camp Elliott and studied code at Camp Pendleton. He went to Guadalcanal with the Third Marine Division for jungle training and first saw action with the invasion of Bougainville, Philippines in November 1943.

 “Our mission was highly confidential. Except for the officers no one knew why we were there,” Toledo said.

On Bougainville a fellow Marine mistook Toledo for a Japanese soldier. “He poked me with his rifle. He marched me back to our commander in camp,” Toledo said. “He told him he captured a prisoner. The commander was real mad and assigned me a bodyguard although I did not find out that was his job until after the war.”

Toledo took part in the battles on Guam and Iwo Jima where over 1700 and 6000 Americans died respectively. He almost became a statistic. One night on Guam, after an attack destroyed his company’s communications system, Toledo ran messages from headquarters to the front line. “A sniper took shots at me,” Toledo said. “Snipers picked off several Marines that day.”

Another time Toledo found himself in the middle of a minefield. Aided by other soldiers he retraced his steps and escaped unharmed.
Toledo and his 3rd Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima, just eight square miles in size, two days after the first Marines landed. “We thought things would go okay. It took 36 days of tough fighting. The Japanese built tunnels connecting the entire island,” Toledo said.

A machine gun fortification atop a hill, killed many Marines unable to take cover in the barren landscape destroyed by earlier bombing runs. Given a message by his commander Toledo quickly translated the message. Minutes later a marine artillery unit wiped it out.
“This was the last hill before we reached the end of the island,” he said.

On Iwo Jima a commander tapped Frank and five other servicemen to raise the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi. Summoned for coding, Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, replaced Frank, in what became the war's most memorable photo.

With their still mission highly classified, the code talkers returned home from the war prohibited from speaking about their heroics. “I told my family and friends nothing about my work,” Toledo said.

In 1968 the government declassified the operation. In 2000, the original 29 received Congressional Gold Medals. The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2007 awarded medals to all code talkers.
Bill Toledo and the code talkers travel the country telling their story. The Navajo Code Talker Foundation is building a museum to preserve and document the Code Talker’s huge war contributions.

“We volunteered and we wanted to help our country. Our efforts put the Navajo on the map of our country’s history,” Toledo said. “Of the 420 code talkers who served less than 50 are still alive. The museum will keep their memory alive for future generations.”

To learn more about the Navajo Code Talkers or to help with the building of the Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Veteran Center see info below:
The Navajo Code Talkers Foundation, Inc. P.O. Box 1266, Window Rock, AZ 86515; email:  

Photo of Bill Toledo by Rudi Papiri

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Daffodil Project 9/11 Memorial: 
One Dutchman's Gift of Hope, 
Renewal, and Beauty 

This year Mother Nature played the biggest Halloween trick of all. The calendar said autumn. The weather screamed winter. A freak storm dumped 30 inches of snow on parts of North Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire two days before Halloween. New York City lucked out. Only 2.9 inches of snow fell on Central Park, the first time since1869 the city had more than an inch in October and thousands of residents lost power. The storm damaged almost 1000 trees in Central Park. 

Amid the snow, slush and downed trees spring has indeed arrived. Thanks to city’s “The Daffodil Project” the weary spirits of thousands of volunteers from several hundred-community groups have perked up some.

Founded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorists attacks, the project is an ongoing memorial honoring the lives of those who died and adds beauty and color to the city, often where there is very little. Four million daffodils bloom in parks, community gardens, along highways and in front of schools, and libraries each spring.

The project began immediately following 9/11 with Hans van Waardenburg of B&K Fowerbulbs, a major tulip bulb supplier in Holland, his way of lending emotional support.

Devastated by what he saw on television he contacted his friend Lynden B. Miller, a public garden designer in New York City and director of The Conservatory Garden in Central Park. He wanted the help and wanted to know what could he do. She asked if he had any extra bulbs. He did. He shipped 500,000 right away. In addition he got the city of Rotterdam and its Port Authority to donate 500,000 daffodils and 90,000 yellow tulip bulbs. That year the city received 1.5 million bulbs from local and other international donors.

Weeks after 9/11 the parks department and the Partnership for Parks organized a planting day. Ten thousand volunteers planted 250,000 bulbs that first day in late October.

Why Daffodils? Miller and van Waardenburg choose daffodils instead of tulips, a symbol of Holland, because squirrels eat tulips. Daffodils are recurring flowers and their vibrant colors embrace renewal and spring. They are well suited for the tough city landscape. They are resilient. They split off to form new flowers and require minimal care. And they are pollution resistant, a key point for congested city streets.

The Daffodil Project impacts all five boroughs. Groups from McCarren Park in Greenpoint Brooklyn, to Curtis High School on Staten Island, the Soundview Community Center in the Bronx, the Long Island City Community Garden in Queens, and the tree pits of the West 55th Block Association in Manhattan have all taken advantage of this free program.

A few years after van Waardenburg sent his first shipment of bulbs, Joseph Temeczko, a Polish immigrant and Minnesotan handyman, followed with his own generous gift. He willed his entire estate of $1.4 million to New York City. The city spruced up Columbus Park in Chinatown and other public spaces in lower Manhattan and set aside $300,000 for the Daffodil  Project. Mr. Temeczko, a Nazi prisoner of war survivor, died a month after 9/ll while tending his garden.

Van Waardenburg continues to donate bulbs – almost four million to date – shipped by Con Edison. Other corporate sponsors have stepped in to help.

This year New Yorkers for Parks distributed bulbs on October 16 at Union Square Park. From mid-October to mid-November volunteers will plop bulbs – 250 allotted to each group - into their gardens and community spaces and look forward to April or May when they bloom and the daffodils blanket the city.

In 2007 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg named the daffodil the city’s official flower.
For more information go to: New Yorker For Parks

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Garden Hardware: A Family Shop is the Nuts and Bolts of Hell's Kitchen 

When Bob Orgel moved his store, Garden Hardware, from Eighth to Tenth Avenue in October 2005, it marked another change to hell's Kitchen ever-shifting landscape.

Garden Hardware, founded by his grandfather Nathan Mandell and his father Bertram, opened in 1955.

His family’s presence on Eighth Avenue dates back even before ten. His grandmother Fay, a sharp businesswoman, bought the three-story building near 48th Street, which housed the business, in the early 1940's. She also owned a brownstone at 306 West 48th Street. The backyard abutted the store, and housed the popular Swiss restaurant Mont Blanc, which has since moved across the street.

She opened Fay's corset shop. It closed shortly after World War II when this accoutrement went out of fashion. The store remained vacant for a couple of years before the family converted it to a hardware store.

Hell’s Kitchen has had several "rows" or themed blocks. Two of the city's most popular venues, Restaurant and Theater Rows are still thriving. Eighth Avenue had its own unofficial "mini row" featuring hardware stores. This ended when Orgel moved his business.

At one time at least six hardware stores operated on Eighth Avenue or its side streets. Each one had carved its own niche. W.H. Silver near 50th Street specialized in the movie and film trade; West End Hardware, located just off Eighth on 48th served industrial customers; Longacre, located at the current site of the Food Emporium, at 49th, supplied the old Madison Square Garden, then across the avenue at what is now World Wide Plaza; Silver and Sons, near West 45th catered to the Broadway theaters; and Times Square Hardware on the northwest corner of 42nd, which housed a bank for many years, now a 24/7 Duane Reade.

His grandfather and father carried specialty products for the hospital, hotel and restaurant industries. They also had a large client base of midtown office workers and westside residents.

Different businesses often require specific types of hardware. "The businesses we supplied though different had similar needs. We handled plumbing, electrical supplies plus pieces for doors, tables, bathrooms and so forth. You name it. We had it. We carried the oddball stuff they could only find here. After all, "What is a restaurant? It is a glorified hotel," Orgel said.

Garden Hardware has built a solid reputation over the years. Among their clients are top tier restaurants like Le Bernardin and The Four Seasons. It also supplied the famous Mama Leone's, once the busiest eatery in the country. It closed in the early 90's. Garden still supplies the parent company Restaurant Associates.

In the mid-90's, with the demise of Silver & Sons, Garden Hardware added the Broadway theaters to its list of clients.
When asked which shows and theaters have accounts with him Orgel said, "All of them. We do every single Broadway show, several off-Broadway and some TV and movie productions." He cites Le Miz and Phantom as his first shows.

The late Mickey Fox, a theatrical carpenter and stagehand, gave Orgel his entree to Broadway.
"One day Mickey called and said he needed a few things and that I should start stacking supplies for stagehands," Orgel said.  "Shortly after that Mickey faxed over his list. It turned out to be forty pages long. The pages kept coming and coming. Many of the things he needed I had never heard of before. And at that time I had twenty years in the business. The theatrical industry calls it by their name, and we in hardware had a different term for it.
"For example they call a cable clamp a Crosby. We say eye bolt, they say shoulder eye bolt, which actually is a much higher rated item," he added.

Orgel began working at the store part-time at 18. He made deliveries and got to know the neighborhood. His mother had lived on West 49th Street and had attended P.S. 17 just around the corner from the store. When Orgel, who grew up in Queens and Nassau County, finished college at the New York Institute of Technology, he began working full-time. Although he studied architecture for a time and then advertising he felt destined for the business.

Garden is an old-fashioned city hardware store filled with nuts, bolts, wrenches, screwdrivers, locks, paints and all the important things needed to maintain, repair or build your home or business. It is not the place where you walk around with a shopping basket. The aisles are cluttered with merchandise. The ceiling high shelves are packed with thousands of items. It is the place to go when you cannot find what you want anywhere else, or where you should have gone to in the first place.

Orgel’s knowledge in hardware supplies and repair is impressive. He is soft-spoken and humble but he knows-it-all and readily dispenses advice and the steps to complete a project, big or small, when asked. He is Hell’s Kitchen’s answer to WNYC radio “how-to home repair” gurus Al and Larry Ubell.

A slim 40-story glass tower now fills the old Garden Hardware site. The building remains unoccupied and has never housed a tenant. After all it is difficult to replace the Orgel family and their business.

Garden Hardware and Supply Company: 701 Tenth Avenue New York 10036;  212-247-2889; opened Mon-Sat.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Farley Post Office: Neither Snow, nor Rain can Age a McKim, Mead, White Classic
Photo taken from the 31st side of the Farley Post Office facing north.

When you emerge from the crowded gloomy subterranean world of Pennsylvania Station at 33rd Street, relieved you survived its madness, you cannot help notice the grandeur of the James A. Farley Post Office building across Eighth Avenue.

Completed in 1913 and built on eight acres of land over the Pennsylvania (now Amtrak) rail tracks, this impressive beaux-arts style building features a two-block long staircase, extending almost its entire length.

From street level you climb thirty-one steps to reach twenty 53-foot high fluted columns topped off with lavish capitals.  The columns line the top step and form the world’s longest Corinthian colonnade. Behind them are intricately designed steel-laced grills just above the entrances. This leads to the two-block long service lobby parallel to Eighth Avenue with small rotundas at each end. The layered beauty of its slightly arched coffered ceilings and rich marble floors create a visual escape when waiting on long postal lines.

Designed by McKim, Mead and White who also built one of this country’s great buildings, the late Pennsylvania Station and preceded the train station at the same location. It had the same classic Roman style and enormity, but smaller columns.
The firm succeeded in creating a Roman Forum setting in midtown. Both buildings stretched from 31st to 33rd Streets; Penn Station from Eighth to Seventh Avenues, and Penn Terminal, its original name until 1918 when it became the General Post Office, from Eighth mid block to Ninth Avenue.

Surrounded by a moat on the south and north sides that allowed natural lighting for the workers on the lower level, the post office doubled in size in 1934 reaching Ninth Avenue. Now underutilized it once housed thousands of postal employees. It also had a medical office, gym, photo studio, cafeteria and a jail.  Future plans call for converting to a rail and retail hub for Amtrak and called the Daniel Patrick Moynihan station.
Named the James A. Farley Post Office in 1982, after the 53rd Postmaster General, it has a small Post Office museum and an Operation Santa post during the holidays. Made famous in the 1947 movie “Miracle on 34th Street” the Farley building had 24/7 service windows until a few years ago now closed due to postal cutbacks.  On tax day, usually April 15, thousands of last-minute filers fill the lobby and the steps waiting to post their tax returns,

Prominently inscribed on the front of the building above the columns are the words
 “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Suggested by a McKim architect it is often mistaken as the official U.S. postal motto, though it derives from “Herodotus’ Histories” about the Greeks expedition against the Persians about 500 B.C.

It is listed on the National Register of Historical Places and it is a New York City Landmark.
(This is the third and last segment of  NYC buildings to visit part of my Elk Hotel alternatives)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

5 Madison Avenue: A Venetian Classic Graces Madison Square Park

5 Madison Avenue and North Annex (Credit Swisse) from 23rd and 5th Ave.

Casting a watchful eye over the serenity and beauty of Madison Square Park and its lush green lawns, colorful landscaping flowers, cherished monuments, European styled walkways and lamp posts, and magnificent century old trees, is the Metropolitan Life Tower. 

Designed by Pierre L. LeBrun of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons, the tower built in 1909, now known as Five Madison Avenue, is often over shadowed by its more famous neighbor, the Flat Iron building, on the Fifth Avenue side of the park.

Modeled after the campanile of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the 52-story tower, at 700 feet and one inch, dwarfs its 325-foot Italian counterpart. The tallest structure in the world until 1913, when surpassed by the Woolworth building, it served as the world headquarters for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company until 2005. The tower is an add-on to the company’s block long 15 story “East Wing” built in 1893.

Part of the tower’s beauty is its sense of scale. It does not overwhelm Madison Square Park or its surroundings. With its stately clean design it feels as it rises from the park.  Only when you stand within a half block of it do you realize how tall it really is.

Built in the Renaissance style dolphin head balustrades and lion heads once decorated the tower. It lost much of its ornamental detailing during its 1964 renovation including its Tuckahoe marble façade replaced with limestone.
Used in the building of many older city structures including the Federal Building on Wall Street and the Washington Arch in the Village, Tuckahoe is a white marble of high quality found in deposits along the Bronx River in Westchester County. 

The tower still retains many distinct features. The most notable are the clocks, one on each of its four sides, located on floors 25 to 27. They measure 26.5 feet in diameter and are larger than London’s Big Ben. The clocks are inlaid with white and blue mosaic. The minute hands weigh half a ton and the numbers are four feet long.

Each floor contains three bays with three windows. This alignment graces the tower’s four sides and are bracketed by layered textured corners. This pattern extends to the arcaded loggia on the 31st floor. Above the loggia is a pyramid style roof with small rounded English windows. A gilded cupola tops off the tower. It has what is often referred to as “an eternal light” since it remains lit even after the rest of the building’s outer lights go dark.

A three-year restoration project completed in 2002, added a multi-colored lighting system. Much like the Empire State building the tower is draped in different colors depending on holidays and special events.

The original Met Life complex also included a north annex, a 32-story building one block north. The insurance giant had initially planned a 100-story building for that site but canceled plans due to the depression. Credit Suisse occupies it today.
Future plans for the tower have varied between luxury residences and a boutique hotel.

Five Madison Avenue is a National Historic and a New York City landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
*Second part of a three part story: Elk Hotel alternatives.
Location: Five Madison Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Cooper Union: Lincoln, Roosevelt, 
Clinton and Obama Spoke Here

Main entrance of Cooper Union on the building's south side. 

Fasincating” is not how I would describe the Elk, a dive hotel on West 42nd Street in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City. When a friend planned her trip to the city she searched the Internet looking for things to do. And she found the Elk, a grungy hotel (see related story in this blog) on the corner of 42nd and Ninth Avenue.

After reading Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York and Shooting New York blogs she sent me the following email,  “I find it fascinating that this hotel has remained unchanged for over a hundred years.” Immediately I thought if 100 is the magic number then she is coming to the right city. New York has many important old buildings.

If she had asked me to name three alternate choices without giving it much thought I would suggest the following. (P.S. none are are on any tourist guide’s A-list of must-see places.) They are essential to the fabric of New York, all architecturally, culturally and historically noteworthy, and I like them. The buildings and their ages are: Cooper Union, 152; Met Life Tower, 101; James Farley Post Office, although only 98 years old, work began on it in 1910. 

Cooper Union Foundation Building: Founded in 1859, by industrialist Peter Cooper in 1859, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, is tuition-free private college renowned for its three schools of architecture, art and engineering. Cooper, along with Samuel Morse, laid the first transatlantic cable. He built America’s first steam railroad engine the Tom Thumb.

With its Italianate designed facade Cooper Union is often described as a “high-rise brownstone.”
Built in a style popular with cast-iron builders it is the oldest standing steel beam framed building in America. Cooper, an iron maker as well, used rolled-iron I beams for structural support in the building.

Presidents Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton and most recently Barack Obama have given major addresses in the historic 900-seat Great Hall, located in the basement. Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln gave his “Might is Right” speech on February 27, 1860. Attended by many luminaries including Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, Lincoln received rave reviews, which paved his way to the presidency.

Thomas Edison, World Trade Center architect Daniel Libeskind, sculptor George Segal studied here. Felix Frankfurter spent hours in the library. The NAACP and the Red Cross began here. It is a U.S. Historic Landmark and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
**MY ELK HOTEL ALTERNATIVES...what one should see in NYC besides the ELK HOTEL (see Elk article in my blog). First of a three part story of 100 year-old buildings to check out.
Cooper Union is located at 7 East 7th Street between 3 & 4th Avenues, steps away from funky St. Mark’s Place between 3rd and Avenue A.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Elk Hotel: 42nd Street Dive Survives 
Changing Landscape & Gains Fans

If you had only 36 hours to spend in New York City what would you see?
The Empire State building, Statue of Liberty, 9/11 Memorial, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and the Elk Hotel are possibilities. Wait a minute! The ELK! Hugh! He means the Plaza or the Waldorf Astoria! NO! I did say the Elk. This is what my friend wanted to see on her first 
trip to the city

What is the Elk?
Stand on the corner of Eighth Avenue and forty deuce and look west. What you see are about seven luxury apartment buildings dotting 42nd all the way to the Hudson River. Four are taller than fifty stories including two at sixty.

What you do not see is the Elk Hotel at the corner of 42nd and Ninth Avenue. It overlooks an intersection clogged with buses, taxis, and trucks heading to the Lincoln Tunnel, West Side Highway or points south. Scores of people fill its sidewalks.

The Elk stands in sharp contrast to these sleek towers with multi-million dollar apartments. It is a vermin, roach-infested four-story single room occupancy hotel, dating back to the late eighteen hundreds and a Ninth Avenue of horse drawn carriages, the elevated train and Paddy’s Market. It rubs shoulders with the 54-story Orion condominium complete with doorman, concierge and a 29th floor health club with pool.
Musty smelling drab halls, no frill rooms with fluorescent ceiling lights, sagging beds, filthy windows with ripped blinds or sullied curtains and cheap rates attracts tourists. It also draws a tough street crowd.

 One morning I saw a  “lady” exit the Elk. She wore white shoes with six-inch stiletto heels that matched her body-hugging terry cloth micro mini skirt and bosom-popping skimpy top. She strutted her substantial backside, which would have made Jennifer Lopez envious, with such a sassy sway that cried out, “I know you want this.”

Honest working people with limited means have lived here over the years. Jimmy one-leg who lost his limb in a subway accident and an elderly lady who attended mass daily at Holy Cross Church, both from Hell’s Kitchen, lived here. A friend’s late mother remembered when a Madame conducted business from her second floor brothel back in the forties.
I knew the man who ran the old-style cigar, candy newsstand in the corner store. He lived upstairs for years.

So did Marshall. A movie buff, he spent hours watching double features, at the old 42nd street movie houses in the days before Disney, Madame Tussauds, B.B. King and legitimate theater revived the strip. He had a lanky build, sunken eyes, scraggy Afro and large square jaw. When he spoke his lower lip and jaw moved while his upper lip and face remained still – like a puppet. He had a heavy hard voice. 

He talked movies - classic, Indies, blockbusters - whenever he stopped into the wine shop across the street from the Elk where I worked. Except one night, after buying a liter of vodka, Marshall said “this is for the poker game upstairs. And if that motherf_ _ _ _ er shoots his mouth again, I’ll blow his head off.”

My co-worker laughed and asked “Are you going to spray him with vodka?” Marshall reached into a pouch tucked inside his sweat pants and pulled out a pistol and said, “No motherf_ _ _ _ er I plan to use this. You object.”

My friend discovered the Elk while searching the Internet for information on Times Square. She feasted on two blogs: Nick Carr’s Scouting New York and Jeremiah Moss’s comment-filled Vanishing New York

I understood her interest with the Elk. It is one of the last flophouses in midtown. All her emails dwelled on it. “Ridiculous,” I thought. Every city has run-down dives.

I pass the Elk almost everyday. It is a hellhole. On hot days the windows open wide not to rooms but to dark dungeon-like spaces. Water bottles, coffee cups, soda cans, toiletries line the window ledges. I have seen minimally clad women, flashing a breast or two, poking their heads out the windows. I often see the outline of an elderly man in his second floor room people-watching from his window which is slightly ajar. Whenever our eyes meet we stare at one other as I cross the street. Mostly the building looks lifeless. Papaya Dog and Villa Café 99cent pizza, two of its street level stores, both open 24/7, are bustling with customers.

In an email my friend said, “Maybe I can get them to let me take a tour. I find it fascinating that this hotel has remained unchanged for over a hundred years!” I thought this isn’t Arizona. There are many 100 year-old buildings of historical and architectural importance, built long before Arizona gained statehood. (related story to follow).

In the end no Elk, no New York - she postponed her trip. She has since rescheduled her visit but her fascination with the Elk has faded. Instead the grungy hotel has seduced me. I scan and study every window intently like a child watching puppies at play whenever I pass it.

*To follow: ELK HOTEL alternatives - buildings of note in NYC, 100 years and older:  
5 Madison Avenue, Farley Main Post Office, Cooper Union. Three stories about three important  buildings. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Larry Cole Eubanks
The Bard of Atlantic City

I did not see Snooki, The Situation or JWoww on the beach at Atlantic City near the southern end of the Jersey Shore. 
I saw no signs they had partied anywhere near where I walked in late August. The playground for these loud-mouthed heavily muscled guidos and their sassy big-haired guidettes lies further north in Seaside Heights.

Instead on my stretch of the Atlantic City beach, between the Tropicana, The Chelsea and Hilton Hotels, I met a poet disguised as an ice cream vendor.

Tall, wiry and athletic dressed in army boots, tan cargo pants and a military fatigue cap wearing black framed orange lens sunglasses Cole Larry Eubanks moves across the hot sands, weaving past scores of colorful beach umbrellas and matching chairs with a steady graceful rhythm. He covers this ten-block radius many times over hauling his mini trunk sized hot icebox strapped over his shoulder. He sells ice cream cones, sandwiches, ices, Oreo-cream sticks, snicker bars and more. As a bonus he dispenses his poems for free but not to everyone.

Eubanks, 61, is personable, articulate and tireless considering now many times he treks back-and-forth with his wares. Engage him in conversation beyond the usual “what do you sell,” and he reveals he is a poet.  Ask him what he writes about he replies “would you like to hear one?” Of course you shrug a shoulder and mutter, “okay” expecting a light-hearted Good Humor or Mister Softie type jingle. After he recites two lines you know this is special.

Eubanks speaks with clarity and passion. His is serious and intent. You roll with his every word hoping you grasp his message.

Forever the educator he is not looking to impress his audience with fancy rhymes or puffery. He is serious about sharing his convictions and educating as well. He achieves this by connecting past with present. His words nullify the sound of waves breaking on the surf. They pierce the laughter and screams of children playing nearby and slip through the whistling wind bouncing off the rough waters of the Atlantic. He finishes. You regret this is a one-time deal as he wanders away, especially when his next words  are “ice cream, frozen ices”

Eubanks, 61, called The Professor, by an Atlantic City Weekly columnist, taught in the Philadelphia and Atlantic City school systems for 28 years. The former high school teacher retired in 2005. He has read his works at a Buddhist monastery, at Apiary Magazine events, on the Café Improve television show, local radio, Tunes against Turmoil rock concert, and books stores in south Jersey and Philadelphia. In 2008 “Poets against War” honored Eubanks and several international poets for their works.
He has conducted workshops at the Teen Arts Center Festival at Stockton College and has read at the Atlantic Cape Community College, both in south Jersey.

Eubanks writes about the brutalities of war, slavery and social injustice. In his biographical Clenched he describes his childhood with an abusive father. 

He joins historical events with current ones.
in Playing Softball in America he begins with “my American daughter playing softball, unwinds at why her trying to-be-american dad has frozen….to his memory of the horror experienced by girls in under Taliban rule.”

In Angel From Harper’s Ferry (see below) he describes a dream-like jail cell encounter between abolitionist, John Brown and Dr. Martin Luther King, JR. Brown, in prison for leading an armed insurrection to end slavery was tried and hanged for treason in Virginia. Dr. Martin Luther King, JR., arrested for his planned non-violent protest against racial segregation, wrote his powerful “Letter from Birmingham jail” during his incarceration in that city. Speaking in the first person Brown counsels King and discusses the burden of slavery and King’s place in this fight.

Eubank is the current “Poet of the Year” for the Literacy Volunteers of America Atlantic/Cape May. His work is featured in “E Pluribus Unum: An Anthology of Diverse Voices produced by The Light of Unity at Philadelphia’s Moonstone Arts Center. 

Angel From Harper’s Ferry
On December 2, 1859, my neck snapped
and I pendulumed in the Charlestown sun.
swinging, completely at ease,
the breeze whispered a divine mission.
many would fine that iconic
with kansas blood still on my hands,
but I was always God-guided.

now a spirit, i am back in a cell not unlike
the one I just vacated in virginia 109 years ago.
in the room sleeps a small black man
while he rests, a century of history flashes
between us.
it seems shortly after my death,
america went to war just as I did as an individual
over the same stain…slavery
and 600,000 died.
coincidentally, the assassin of the president
was at my execution…
i think they killed the wrong man.
while the prisoner slept, i fed him dreams
in preparation for our visit.
gently, i commanded him…awake.
first, we talked about working for
 a similar cause with dissimilar means.
he wanted to know about frederick d.
i told him i hid out at his house for three weeks
and that they were two of a kind…
same sharp mind, same resolution.

he told me local clergymen
were warning him…slow down
and wondered if he was moving too quickly.
i said if God wanted him to be more moderate
the last one he would have sent was john brown.
martin laughed so hard the guard came,
but all he saw was my new friend.
i loved seeing him relax.
he said before you go…one question…
how do you plan projects not
knowing when you are going to die?
i said, martin no one knows that,
but your case is an exception…
you have four years and twelve days.
then he took out a pen and wrote his letter
from a birmingham jail…

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Salvatore Licitra, 43, Hailed as the 
Next Pavarotti, Dies

Photo from Licitra's CD, The Debut, released by SONY 2002
Salvatore Licitra, often called the heir to Luciano Pavarotti, died on September 5 in Catania, Sicily, after nine days in a coma, from injuries sustained in a motor-scooter. He was 43.

A cerebral hemorrhage may have caused him to lose control of his Vespa, according to his website
He suffered severe head and chest injuries. His girlfriend who rode with him was unharmed.

Born in Bern Switzerland of Sicilian parents on Aug. 10, 1968, Licitra grew up in Milan. At 18 he worked as a graphic artist for Italian Vogue in Milan. A year later, at the urging of his mother, he enrolled at the Parma Conservatory. Later he studied with tenor Carlo Bergonzi and continued working at the graphics shop he founded with his brother.

Licitra made his stage debut in 1998 in a student production of Un Ballo in Maschera in Parma. An impressive performance in Un Ballo in Verona earned him an audition with Ricardo Muti, currently the music director of the Chicago Symphony. This led to the role of Alvaro, in La Forza del Destino at Milan’s La Scala in 1999 and Tosca in 2000. He made his United States debut at the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Opera Gala as a guest soloist in 2001 in New York.

Licitra came to New York in May 2002 as an eleventh hour replacement for the ailing Pavarotti, in Puccini’s Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera.

Pavarotti had agreed to do two farewell performances but missed the first one due to illness. His understudy performed adequately. Fearing another fiasco and seeking a stronger back up the Met contacted Licitra in Milan.

Licitra took the Concorde from London to New York and arrived in the city at 9 a.m. That day he spent 12 hours rehearsing and studying videos before retiring to his Central Park South hotel suite not knowing if Pavarotti would sing the following night.

The next day Licitra walked around Central Park to ease his tension. When he arrived at the Met he reviewed more tapes still unaware of Pavarotti's status. One hour before curtain he learned Pavaroti would not perform. He met conductor James Levine, for the first time, thirty minutes before the opening.

Before a packed house with seats going for as much as $1875, plus a few thousand people watching on a large screen on the Lincoln Center Plaza, Licitra wowed the audience. They responded by giving him lengthy ovations at the conclusion of arias,  “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle” and a three-minute ovation at the end. The Washington Post reported critics applauded Licitra for his “powerful impression," “long lyrical arcs,” “exciting voice,” in a “star-is-born performance.”

In his passing Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, called Licitra one of the greatest natural talents of his generation.

Inconsistent performances throughout his career attributed to vocal strain and poor technique left many wondering if he would ever fulfill his potential of becoming the “fourth tenor” (joining Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras. Although he never reached their level Licitra played important roles in all the major houses including Paris, London, Vienna, San Francisco and Chicago.
Under the Sony label he recorded The Debut, Duetto with Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez, and Forbidden LoveHe sang the soundtrack for The Man Who Cried which starred Cate Blanchett and Johnny Depp.

While dining at a favorite haunt of Met singers after his Met debut Licitra was asked “How is this night different from others.” He replied “Tonight I sit at the maestro’s table. Before I used to sit in the back.”

His parents and brother survive him.

Tenor Salvatore Licitra sing's Mario Cavaradossi's act I aria from Puccini's Tosca from a 2000 La Scala Production, conducted by Carlo Muti. The Sacrestan is played by Alfredo Mariotti. (Ed.note: Licitra at his best)