NYC: December 2004 Archives

Peter Hujar Susan Sontag [1974-1975]

Susan Sontag died on Tuesday.

Beginning almost twenty years ago I had included her as a part of the homeland I had just adopted and which she had acquired at birth. Because of my profound general "otherness" and two nearly-profound early family dislocations, while it may not strictly fit the meaning of the German das Heimat, my New York City home had come to mean everything for me.

In this Manhattan Heimat Susan Sontag was my neighbor. Physically she really was my neighbor, since she owned an apartment just two blocks away from mine. For years I saw her everywhere in the city, although we never met. Her mind and what she was doing with it had already ensured that she would mean much more to me than an ordinary neighbor normally could. And then one evening I walked through the aura with which I had surrounded her.

I had already seen Edgar Reitz's monumental first "Heimat," (most sections twice) when I eagerly subscribed to the first American screening of the thirteen episodes of "Zweite Heimat" at the Public Theater almost twelve years ago.

After arranging myself in the first row for a double feature of two episodes, I noticed that she was only a few seats to my left. Only by coincidence, I had brought her new book, "The Volcano Lover," with me to keep me occupied while waiting for the lights to go down. I think it was during the break that I gathered the courage to speak to her and ask if she might sign my copy.

I must have mumbled a few words, I hope not too gushing, about how much I admired both her writing and her bold social and political activism, and then we exchanged a few thoughts about the film, all of which escape me now, except that we discovered that we were both enormous fans of both epics. She signed the book, "for Barry and Jim - Susan Sontag 'Heimat 6&7' 7 July 1993."

On every other day I spotted her in the audience she was totally absorbed in conversations with various companions. I was saved from embarassing myself, but I seriously regret the lost opportunities. Gosh, I wish I could have gone with her to Sarajevo, but Barry has written from the heart about how much she became a part of our New York experience, of our own shared Heimat.

She will certainly be greatly missed by many.

It's late Tuesday night as I'm writing this. The death toll for all the shores around the Indian Ocean, the work of one wave over only a few hours, has now exceeded that of the U.S. military alone in Vietnam over a period of ten years. I'm already recalling Sontag's unassailable morality, her creative curiosity and her courageous voice as I think about the individual and community tragedies millions of people in southern Asia are enduring at this moment. What would Sontag say about our government's lame response? Colin Powell is absolutely wrong. We are stingy, very stingy, and we have been for decades.*

*The United States initially offered $15 million in relief to cover all of the nations affected (what we spend on the Iraq war every hour, and a fraction of the estimated cost of Bush's January 20 Nuremberg rally). Oh sure, after being ridiculed by people in a number of other countries, we've now apparently upped our commitment by another $20 million, although that figure is marked as a loan.

Radically contrary to popular U.S. opinion, the amount of our foreign aid, in terms of percentage of gross national product (approximately one tenth of one percent), is the lowest of any industrialized nation in the world. Incidently, Norway's contribution is proportionately almost ten times that of ours.

[image from Matthew Marks via artnet]


A lot has changed in 65 years. The country which built this great skyscraper now seems to have decided it can do so much better without wisdom or knowledge; we're in for a very bumpy ride.

I took the photograph at dusk, while walking across town on Monday. The image is of Lee Lawrie's sculpture relief above the front entrance of the RCA Building (today sometimes thoughtlessly referred to as the GE Building) on Rockefeller Plaza. According to the Rockefeller Center Visitor's Guide, the William Blake-inspired figure represents Wisdom, who rules over man's knowledge and interprets the laws of nature. The compass points to the light and sound waves of the cast glass screen below. The inscription is based on Isaiah 33:6

Solstice lights

Only now that my birthday has passed (even when quite old, late-December children sometimes remain pretty sensitive about their personal nativity celebratory rites) I can start to think about the pagan Saturnalia, the forest peoples' Yule or any of the other defiantly-non-commercial celebrations of the return of the sun. I think Festivus could well be included among those observances and entertainments.

I took the image above on this very cold, windy afternoon. It's a deliberately fuzzy representation of one of the most prominent modern manifestations of hoary early-winter tradition, the fully-lighted Rockefeller Center tree. (I prefer to think that any connection between it and Christian worship is pure invention). It's a pretty neat sight if you could forget almost everything around it right now. I couldn't, so I decided the shot had to be fuzzy - and dark. This huge dead tree's penultimate resting-place environment is not a pretty thing one week before Christmas.

Of course the deco buildings are pretty fabulous, but the several rows of security barricades set up around the tree (they're gaily painted red and green) and the offensive, vulgarly-omnipresent NBC visual promotions (even during the hours when their storefront studio lies empty) have at least temporarily erased the charm once associated, even in the last weeks of the year, with this wonderful midtown oasis. Cranky tourists and pushy shoppers (and big Christmas tchotchkes in the terraced Channel Gardens) only added to the ugliness today.

I haven't even mentioned the scary over-amplified "holiday music," which seems to be stressing out even the normally-unflappable pigeons around St. Patrick's and the Olympic Tower.

Alright, I'm now back home in my warm cave, so maybe I should be quiet and think lovely thoughts. Happy Solstice everyone, and many happy returns!

my own rather lame sign, as seen somewhere in the system this afternoon

(the sign on the guy's left reads, "I'm here on a research grant from Al Queda")

this sign became a moving beacon for today's odyssey (the stylized font reads, "TERRORISTS UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT")

The second time around it had already seemed a little routine. Some of the wonder and energy which had accompanied the first MTA photo ban zap was missing this afternoon, but I have to admit there were a few sassy-sarcastic signs this time, and there was even something resembling an information handout.

We're getting better at broadcasting the issue, but actually I'd be very happy if we never had to do this thing again. Will the MTA come to its senses?

Perhaps not, if some of the sentiments of subway users overheard today mean anything. One woman, although a little sympathetic to our argument, was seriously worried about the threat cameras pose to the privacy of riders. While she was speaking to me, standing on the subway platform, I snapped the picture below and pointed out what had attracted my attention. She had nothing more to say.


[image at the top of this post from]

REMINDER: Don't miss being a part of the photographers' 'Flash Mob' subway ride protest against the MTA proposal to ban all cameras from the entire transit system. The organizers' plan is to meet tomorrow, Saturday, at 1 o'clock in the awesome Main Concourse inside Grand Central Terminal. Don't forget your metro card and your camera. Bring a sign with a creative message, even a small one.

The magnificent Concourse is worth a picture even without the addition of hundreds of concerned young camera fanatics, and if the MTA has its way, this will be one of your last chances to record its spendors.

But at least they're finally looking around. The NYTimes may hope to redeem itself for sitting out the Bernard Kerik story in its first weeks. The paper's news and editorial departments had totally ignored the developing stories about Kerik's shady background until after he withdrew his name from consideration as Homeland Security secretary.

Maybe they're trying to get up to speed now by cutting to the quick. This morning the Times devotes 40 column inches to the questions surrounding the mysterious nanny whose immigration and tax status was used as the reason for Kerik's withdrawal.

Included among those questions is the fundamental one I posed early this past Sunday, whether in fact there ever was a nanny in the first place.

Last night, Mr. Kerik was told that skeptics in city government circles were questioning the very existence of the nanny, and he was pressed to provide any kind of evidence to document that she was real. But after taking time to consider the request, Mr. Kerik again decided to remain silent on the subject.
Why do I care so much about this story? It starts with the embarassment I feel for my city that Giuliani and Kerik have at least until recently been successful in conspiring with the opportunists in Washington to ensure that two locally-notorious goons came to represent or embody 9/11 and New York. The fire of my outrage about the choice of Kerik was stoked by the uninhibited enthusiasm for the nomination expressed by New York's Democratic politicians Hillary Clinton and Charles Shumer - and the irresponsible, uncritical reporting of my hometown's largest paper.

The lights are going out, the doors are all closing; where will we look for truth, honesty and integrity now?

the immediate, threatened neighborhood

As incredible as it may seem to idealistic small-d democrats who, however discouraged by national or state politics, may still think we have a say in what happens to our own city, we do not.

A corporate football stadium is about to be dropped into the middle of Manhattan by interests which are completely dismissive of democratic process. Everything has been decided inside corporate board rooms, the mayor's office and the darker lobbies in Albany. The ordinary people of this city and of the neighborhood it will impact and destroy, the people who will pay - in every conceivable way - for this boondoggle and environmental disaster have been told they have absolutely no say in it. Like so much that impacts New York City even the City Council is powerless to stop it, in spite of the overwhelming numbers of the members who oppose it.

But there may still be a chance to lay down in front of this heavily-bankrolled steamroller if the press can be encouraged to take notice of the strength of the opposition.

Come to the only public hearing scheduled about the Jets stadium, this Thursday afternoon at the Javits Center. The hearing begins at 4:00 at 35th St. and 11th Ave., but it's suggested that people arrive at 3:00 to sign in, meet their neighbors and get a good seat.

The communtiy organization which has been fighting this thing from the beginning, the Hell's Kitchen/Hudson Yards Alliance, promises, "We'll have volunteers at the Javits Center showing everyone where to go; all you need to do is show up, sign in, and speak out against the stadium, or cheer loudly for your neighbors who do."

[image of the neighborhood obtained from Hell's Kitchen/Hudson Yards Alliance]

Ward Sutton KARL ROVE SUMS IT UP FOR LIBERALS 2004 syndicated cartoon detail

See the entire 16-box Ward Sutton cartoon on The Village Voice site. My personal favorite/horror has got to be, "WE USED 9/11 AND NEW YORK CITY LIKE A CHEAP WHORE."

[image from The Village Voice]

Kerik complex.jpg
but what kind of complex?

Anyone who is familiar with the basics of his career knows that Bernard Kerik's nanny story is a red herring, but is there any evidence that there even was a nanny, or at least a nanny whose immigration status would have been problematic for Kerik?

I think not, but I'm sure we'll find out soon.

[ugly image of an ugly sign citing an ugly man for an ugly career, found on the New York City Department of Corrections site; the illustration is from an archived story on the re-naming of the Manhattan Detention Complex, just three months after September 11, while Kerik was still Police Commissioner]


They're still trying!

Trying, that is, to outlaw photography in the New York transit system. Last June I wrote about a fantastic zap I had participated in called by "The Photographers Rights campaign." That same group has called another zap for December 18th in response to the MTA's continued ill-conceived intention to remove cameras from users of the system in the name of security.

Remember that token clerks have already been removed from many stations altogether, and more will eliminated in the future, ultimately abandoning the platforms to Metrocard machines and the public's own devices for ensuring their safety. There are also plans to ultimately remove conductors, and eventually drivers as well, from every train, removing all MTA employee presence from the public areas where millions of New Yorkers find themselves confined every day.

The removal of cameras will have precisely the opposite effect of security from terrorism. Anywhere else they call them "security cameras," for Pete's sake!

From the group's site:

Many of us are determined to not let this go by unnoticed and without protest; Join us, plan on taking your camera out for a day of photography that won't ever be forgotten, with a flash mob photo session that will even make the MTA board want to be there with cameras. It'll be one of those “Only in New York” things you've been hearing about...
Meet December 18th on the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal, and bring your photo apparatus of course. It shouldn't be hard to spot all the other people with cameras, especially with the even larger crowds expected this time.

Oh, yes, and this time let's wear signs. People should be able to see the point.

On a related note, the same officials who want a photo ban also want to make it impossible to move from one subway car to another. Think about that one the next time you read about someone going berserk inside a moving train.

Talk to or write your Councilmember about both these issues.

[image from my June 6, 2004, post]

view of the upward reaches of the Library room inside the building of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, including detail of a faux-marble pillar and the ironwork which supports the huge skylight with its gilt-decorated opening mechanisms.

Bill Dobbs got me out of the apartment earlier than usual on Sunday. The incentive was the 17th annual Independent & Small Press Book Fair and, probably no less important, its venue, the century-old building occupied by the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. The Society itself was founded in 1785, the library in 1820, although those 184 years still make it only the second oldest "private" library in New York. That title goes to the New York Society Library, organized in 1754.

It was great fun, and the fact that I left with my wallet only a little lighter than when I entered these wonderful spaces is no measure of the temptations available. It does say something about the event's attractions for the impecunious reader. I'll be back next year and I'll try to bring other small-bookies.

A small, random selection of some sightings:

Susanna Cuyler's delightful little books (I bought a few items off her table, including "La Derniere Fleur," an illustrated very short story of James Thurber, translated by Albert Camus)

A new illustrated New York subway book from Israelowitz Publishing

Many children's books, but the table which stood out from all the others included "It's Just a Plant: a children's story of marijuana," from

Some great vintage images, postcard size, next to the Paris Review table (I bought the one which shows George Plimpton with some friends at a sidewalk cafe, fifteen saucers stacked in front of him, looking all of fifteen himself)

"The Itinerary of Benjamin Tudela: Travels in the Middle Ages," a twelfth-century journal of the travels of a Spanish rabbi through Europe, Asia and Africa, in a faithful translation from the Hebrew. I took this beautiful book home, but it was only one of at least a dozen on the table of Italica Press which will still tempt me. Oh yes, their address would amuse almost anyone: 595 Main Street, New York, NY. My own puzzlement disappeared when it was explained that New York's Main Street is on Roosevelt Island

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