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)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Holy Innocents Church: Discovering Constantino Brumidi, Eugene O'Neill, Joyce Kilmer and Russell Chambers 

In a city with many houses of worship some of architectural and historical importance the Church of the Holy Innocents, in the heart of the Fashion Center, is not on most people’s list of places to visit.

Tourists stream to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of the world’s largest churches, or to admire the beauty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or the magnificence of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Few outsiders visit Holy Innocents.

This Roman Catholic Church on West 37 Street, between Times and Herald Squares, has a medium-sized diverse congregation of immigrants, midtown business people, commuters and shoppers. It shares the street with wholesale clothing stores and fashion showrooms.

Built in 1870 Holy Innocents, one of the oldest buildings in midtown, is a link to a vanished past. In the mid-eighteen hundreds the city’s theater and entertainment district centered on 14th street. As the city-expanded north, the district moved to an area stretching from 23rd and 42nd streets. It became the Tenderloin, a red light district with saloons, brothels, dance halls, casinos, and thugs.

Originally established in 1866 on the site of an Episcopal Chapel on 37th and Broadway, the parish preceded the Tenderloin. A densely populated, crime-ridden area had a large immigrant population, mostly Irish, but also other groups including African American, living in rooming houses and tenements. It also preceded Times Square (then called Longacre), the Broadway theater district and the Garment Center, America’s hub for clothing manufacturing and now mainly design and headquarters for fashion companies.

In 1883 the Metropolitan Opera opened a few blocks from the church. One of America’s great playwrights, Eugene O’Neill, who lived a few blocks away, was baptized at Holy Innocent’s, and then known as the Actor’s Church.

Architect Patrick C. Keely designed Holy Innocents and nearly six hundred churches including cathedrals in Chicago and Boston.  With seating on two levels this Gothic  style church has a white marble main altar and over 70 stained glass windows.
Above the altar is a three-story fresco, the Crucifixion, painted by Constantino Brumidi.

Born in Italy in 1805, Brumidi grew up in Rome. He painted frescoes for the Vatican. Imprisoned for stealing church artwork, which he moved for safekeeping during the revolution of 1848-49, Brumidi came to America after his pardon. He spent 25 years, 1854 to 1879, painting frescoes in the Capitol.

His masterpiece the “Apotheosis of George Washington” covers the canopy of the Capitol’s dome and the President’s room, the Senate reception and committee rooms. The capitol’s north corridor is known as “Brumidi’s corridor.” room, the Senate reception and committee rooms.

St. Stephen Church on East 28th has 42 of his works including the “Martyrdom of St. Stephen.”
Brumidi died in 1880 in Washington D.C.

In the dimly lit northwest corner of Holy Innocent is another noteworthy work “The Return” 
by Charles Bosseron Chambers. Less than three foot high, posted to a column, it is not visible as you enter the church.

Born in St. Louis in 1882, Chambers, known for his figurative art, mostly portraits with religious themes, studied in Berlin. He moved to New York in 1916 and settled at the Carnegie Studios at Carnegie Hall.

One evening, Chambers who worshipped here, saw a solder huddled before the cross. The man sought repentance for his licentious life, days before leaving to join the French Army in WWI. Inspired by the site of the man kneeling illuminated by the lights from a few candles on a votive Chambers made a sketch and invited the soldier to pose for him in his studio.

He also did  “Light of the World”, a portrait of the infant Jesus one of the most popular religious paintings of the day.

The crucifix which still stands at Holy Innocents also affected the life of Joyce Kilmer, a major poet of the early twentieth century.
Kilmer, born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1886, authored three books of poetry including his renowned Trees. He wrote for the New York Times located nearby. Kilmer prayed at this crucifix for months for his daughter afflicted with infantile paralysis. He later converted to Catholicism.

In 1917 Kilmer volunteered for WWI and joined the 165th Infantry Rainbow Division. Killed the following year at 31, Kilmer received the French Croix de Guerre. He wrote his poem Rouge Bouquet on the battlefield in France where he is buried.

                                        ROUGE BOUQUET

                                 There is on earth no worthier grave
                                 To hold the bodies of the brave
                                 Than this place of pain and pride
                                 Where they nobly fought and nobly died.

For info see Holy Innocent. Located at 128 West 37th Street - 212-279-5861.