Thursday, February 24, 2005

Nobody asked me, but . . . (2/24/05)


Brighten the corner where you are. This advice comes from a 1913 hymn written by Ina Mae Ogdon, with music by Charles H. Gabriel. It aptly describes a sentiment in some quarters in Ossining for the restoration of a decorative fountain and trough that supplied water for horses at a busy village corner. But restoring it to its original location would present problems. To give horses easy access to it, in 1891 the village allowed it to be erected right smack in Main Street at what was then called Pleasant Square. (Before Ossining was Sing Sing, it had been named Mount Pleasant.) Horses hauling wagons loaded with coal or other commodities from the waterfront up the steep slopes of Main Street, or up the flanks of North and South Highland Avenues needed water, especially in hot weather.

A prime mover in the fight for animal rights, Mary Eliza Dusenberry was one of the founders and secretary of the Sing Sing branch of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Through her efforts, the round fountain was erected and presented to the village in 1891, supplying spring-fed fresh water to village animals--and to humans--for many years. Its rim bore the inscription, "In Memory of Henry Bergh, The Friend of Animals" in capital letters.

Born in 1811, Bergh inherited a fortune from his shipbuilder father, whose shipyard was at on the East River. He was the founder in 1866 of the ASPCA and later a similar organization for the protection of abused children. Concerned about animal rights, Bergh was not above taking sticks or whips away from drivers beating their animals and using them on the offenders. He died at his home on Fifth Avenue day after the great March 1888 blizzard struck.

At first the village's Bergh memorial was merely a round water trough; later a gas lamppost was erected in its center and later extended as a tall, graceful electric light. But illumination could not protect the awkwardly sited fountain when the automobile displaced the horse. Cars and especially motor trucks began to sideswipe it as they chugged up curving Main Street to be suddenly confronted with this unexpected obstacle. The record does not show when it was removed.

Storm tossed. Of the 20 fastest-growing counties in the U.S., 17 are located on the east or west coasts.

Critique. Secure behind my newly acquired Hemingwayesque beard, I made a pilgrimage to Central Park to experience the installation called "The Gates." Central Park has a long history. Itself a great work of art, this 840-acre centerpiece of Manhattan began as "a pestilential spot where miasmic odors taint every breath of fresh air," according to one early report. Land for the park was acquired in 1856 for $5.5 million. Squatters' shacks and their free-ranging hogs and goats were forcibly removed, and swamps were drained. The city's Board of Park Commissioners decided to hold a competition to determine the park's design. A total of 33 designs were submitted. "Greensward," the simple plan of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, won out. It called for a picturesque landscape of rocks and rills spanned by stone bridges and meadows criss-crossed by footpaths, carriage drives and bridle paths. The latter were curved to prevent racing.

Construction began in 1858 as a work relief project to alleviate the unemployment caused by the financial panic of 1857. It took twenty years, during which the tough micaceous Manhattan schist was blasted, and ten million wagon loads of stone and soil were moved to create this precious piece of countryside in New York. From the outset, Olmsted and Vaux firmly opposed moves to introduce art into the park. Their Greensward Plan conceded that while it would be possible to add structures to their park, they insisted that "nothing artificial should be obtruded on the view."

For a quarter century, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude (only French cinema stars should have single names) badgered the city unsuccessfully to allow them to construct 7,500 metal and plastic frames from which would hang acres of saffron-colored cloth curtains. To do the actual construction, they conned hundreds of volunteers to contribute their time and labor without remuneration. Call their project "The Gates," they asserted that "gates" was what Olmsted and Vaux had called the 20 pedestrian entrances to their park. Not so.

The idea of calling these entrances "gates" (Inventors' Gate, Boys' Gate, Merchants' Gate, etc.) came not from Olmsted and Vaux but from a committee on which neither was a member. Anxious to please the hotel, tourist and entertainment industries, a compliant Mayor Bloomberg caved in, rationalizing his decision with specious reasoning to mislead the public: The artists were paying $20 million for its construction and removal out of their own pockets. Using that argument, the city can hardly refuse a graffiti artist's request to paint elaborate designs on public buildings--so long as the paint is later removed by the artist.

I refuse to fall into the trap of trying to define art or to defend art for art's sake. "The Gates," which stretches over 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park is a desecration of a scenic landmark, however temporary. Manhattan Island is 14 miles long; the artists could just as easily erected their "gates" along the sidewalks of Broadway from the Battery to Kingsbridge. Writer Lloyd Rose's earlier comment about "our plastic, violent culture, with its philistine tastes and hunger for novelty" says it all. "Bread and circuses" was what the ancient Romans gave a restive populace. Little more than an enormous fashion statement, this garish concoction would have been more appropriate in Las Vegas than Central Park. As for the claim that the ugly frames and flapping saffron hangings caused people become more friendly, any dog owner will tell you, "For that all you need is a dog."

Bum rap. On his way to the courthouse for jury selection in his trial, Michael Jackson suddenly became ill last week and was taken to the nearest hospital. Members of his entourage have denied that he asked to be taken to the nearest children's hospital.

Anniversary. Exactly one year ago, "Nobody asked me, but . . ." joined the "Postscripts" roster, a pot pourri of local history, personal opinion, churlish complaints, practical wisdom and public service items that goes wherever event and fancy takes it. There have been no rules other than the exclusion of any humor beginning with "A guy walks into a bar." This week's column marks the 18th in the "Nobody" series.

The other columns that also appear under the rubric of "Postscripts" began in November of 1995. Their broad range of feature articles included every aspect of the rich history of the lower Hudson Valley from its aboriginal inhabitants to modern personalities, with side excursions into topics that would eventually expand into whole series--ten pieces on local brickmaking, sixteen essays on the artists and writers who made up Croton's Bohemia, and a dozen--but soon to be fifteen--accounts of the railroads of the lower Hudson Valley. The total number of columns has now reached 163 individual pieces--a dizzying ride for me and, I hope, a pleasurable experience for readers of every stripe.


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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (2/17/05)


On the side of the angels? Why do some local political candidates feel obliged to list their church affiliation as part of their credentials for public office?

La grande dame. You have driven past her so many times that you no longer notice her. Nearing the century mark, she sits proudly at the corner she has always occupied. Now a dowdy dowager, she will soon have a face lift of sorts. But it will take a skilled internist to figure out how to mend her ravaged innards. She is Ossining's highly visible Bank for Savings building. Now owned by the village of Ossining and a candidate for restoration, it shares with the First Baptist Church a triangular-shaped plot at a major intersection of the village. As the many architectural walking tours in Manhattan and Brooklyn attest, the idea of seeing architecture as works of art is coming into its own as a pastime.

Ossining is yet to have an architectural walking tour. If it did, the Bank for Savings building would be one of the stars of the show. At the time it was built--it opened in 1908--the Beaux Arts style was at the height of its popularity. In New York City, two grand examples of that style, Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library, were both under construction, and it came as no surprise that architect Lansing C. Holden selected that style for his Bank for Savings. Exteriorly, the Bank for Savings building abounds in classical details, a virtual textbook of the academic Beaux Arts style, lacking only its massive figural sculptures.

In addition to a commanding location at Route 9 and Main Street, among the architectural elements that make this creamy white limestone building notable are its symmetrical massing of strongly geometrical forms, the pairs of tall Ionic columns flanking each large window opening, and the carved stylized elements of the triangular pediments over the smaller windows at ground level. Architectural historian Frank E. Sanchis has called the cartouches, the elaborate scrolls under the cornice at the building's four corners, "particularly well executed and without parallel in the county." The entablature, the upper section of the building, also deserves praise, particularly the finely detailed cornice.

The architect. Information about Lansing Colton Holden and his work is not easy to come by. He was born in 1858 in Rome, N.Y., the son of William R. and Ann Elizabeth Davis Holden and attended schools in Utica and Buffalo. Biographies say that following graduation from the College of Wooster in Ohio, he began practice as an architect. However, College of Wooster records show that he never received a baccalaureate degree from that institution. In 1903, he received an honorary Master of Arts degree from the College of Wooster, at which his brother, Louis E. Holden, was then its fourth president. He had been wooed to the College of Wooster from the presidency of Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he had been a successful fund raiser. A great fire destroyed the college's principal building, named "Old Main," on Dec. 11, 1901. Lansing C. Holden, then a successful architect drew up plans for a series of buildings in the English Collegiate Gothic style. Exactly one year later, in the place of Old Main stood the handsome new Kauke Hall. Three other buildings by him also opened on that same day, a remarkable feat of design and building.

Although not large, his output included several interesting examples now on the National Register of Historic Places. Extant buildings include Brooklyn's Greene Avenue Baptist Church, now the Antioch Baptist Church (1887-1892) designed in association with Paul F. Higgs in a mixed Romanesque Revival/Queen Anne style; in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the Scranton Electric Building (1896) in modified Beaux Arts style, at eight stories that city's first "skyscraper," the Oppenheim Building (1897), originally a dry goods store and recently restored as an office building; the imposing State Armory (1901), also in Romanesque Revival style. His residential buildings included the Watkins-Maxey House (1896), later the Hebrew Day School in Scranton, and the Everett N. Blanke House (1909) in Rowayton, Conn. The former was demolished and removed from the National Register of Historic Places; the latter was recently on the market and has been sold.

In New Jersey, the Bayonne Trust Company commissioned Holden to design a headquarters building for them. His 1912 bank building is an interesting variation on his Ossining Bank for Savings. He also designed a number of purely industrial buildings. Notable among these were portions of the huge complex of five- and six-story warehouses that occupy the block bounded by Gansevoort and Horatio streets between Washington and West streets. These once housed the Gansevoort Freezing and Cold Storage Company, an enormous cold storage facility operated by the Manhattan Refrigerating Company. Through a series of brine-filled pipes leading from these buildings, the meat wholesaling establishments of the district were able to keep meat cold.

In 1984, this building complex was converted to apartments and named The West Coast. Two smaller warehouse buildings at 173 and 175 Christopher Street in the West Village were designed for the Carbondale New York Company. Family legend has it that he also designed many textile mill buildings in New England; no record of these has been found.

Lansing C. Holden was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and was largely responsible for the adoption of the institute's code of ethics. From 1908 until his death he was president of the Bronx Refrigerating Company and of the Tri-Boro Refrigerating Company. Lansing C. Holden died at his summer home at Kent Cliffs, near Carmel, N.Y., on May 15, 1930.

Did you know? The U.S. leads all other countries as the No. 1 exporter of cigarettes.

Who steals my name. Within the space of one week recently, I received email messages purporting to originate from eBay, Washington Mutual, Smith Barney and Citizens Bank, an online bank. They all reported that personal information had been lost, and my account was in jeopardy. The problem is, I have no accounts with any of these entities. On the Internet, it's called "phishing" (pronounced "fishing"), and that's what it is--using false email messages to induce recipients to furnish personal information.

What they urgently wanted from me was sensitive information: Social Security number, driver's license number, date of birth, credit and debit card numbers, bank account numbers, pin numbers, passwords, mother's maiden name--the kind of data that could be useful to someone who is up to no good. What I was experiencing was the first stage of what is known as "identity theft." Businesses refer to these as "spoofs," but that term is too innocuous when compared to the seriousness of the crime. With their extensive back-up systems for information storage, however, it is unlikely that any business would lose your records, nor would they ask that such information be repeated over the Internet.

Remarkably, the messages all bore the earmarks of genuine communications from the respective businesses: logos and copyright notices, even the padlock indicating a secure site. It turns out that these features can easily be appropriated from legitimate sites by "phishers." One clue to spotting counterfeit messages is the presence of grammatical errors or curious phraseology. The purported Smith Barney email read: "Technical Services of the Smith Barney [italics added] are carrying out a planned upgrade." These lead authorities to suspect that the scams originate overseas.

Prevent identity theft. To avoid being victimized, computer security experts advise Internet users to do the following:
+ Do not respond to emails with urgent requests for personal financial information. Instead, notify the purported sender that you have received such an email.
+ Do not use links in suspicious emails to reach other Web pages, especially if you think the message may not be authentic.
+ If you believe you have entered personal financial information into a fraudulent site, contact your bank and credit card companies immediately.
+ Regularly check your bank and credit/debit card statements to verify that the transactions shown are legitimate.

Stop press bulletin: As this was being written, I received a message purporting to come from Visa, the credit card company, asking for personal information for my protection. I do have a Visa card, but what made their message suspect was that it spelled "security department" as security departamen and "choice" as choise.

Did you know? Since 1998, the minimum number of children killed as a result of being left in locked cars is 219.

Far from the madding war. U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan collect an extra $7.50 a day, or about $225 a month, for facing roadside bombs and RPGs. Instead of "combat pay," the military now calls this Imminent Danger Pay (IDP). The cognomen is misleading. Even though they are hundreds of miles from combat, soldiers in such humdrum jobs as supply clerks at a warehouse in Kuwait or as swimming pool lifeguards at an Army installation in Qatar are paid the same imminent danger bonus as the grunts kicking in doors in the Sunni Triangle. Army bases in Qatar are considered so safe that soldiers stationed there are not even allowed to carry weapons. World War II soldiers in combat in Europe or the Pacific received a munificent 30 cents a day over and above their Army pay. Taking inflation into account, however, 30 cents was proportionally more than today's combat pay.

Bumper sticker spotted at ShopRite. "Support our troops. Bring them home."

Time's winged chariot. Write down your age in years. Divide that number by three. The result is the approximate time you've spent in dreamland. Think about it. That's one-third of your life. Sleep researchers have discovered that the need for the traditional eight hours of sleep is not an inherited trait of the human species. Despite these findings, respected medical organizations in their literature advise everyone to get eight hours of sleep every night. The popular wisdom is that we need that much sleep for health and well-being, and the segment of the population that gets less (or more) sleep than this artificial standard believes they have reason to be worried.

Many of history's leaders have been short sleepers. Modern political figures, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson were all short sleepers, although Churchill also took daytime naps. But perhaps the best-known figure was American inventor Thomas A. Edison, who averaged between four and five hours of sleep a night and died when he was well over 84, at a time when life expectancy at birth was half that number.
Among contemporary personalities, Martha Stewart, Madonna, Jay Leno, actress Cloris Leachman and stand-up comic David Brenner all need little sleep. Many-talented comedian Jackie Gleason also got along on little sleep, as did prolific writer Isaac Asimov, author of some 500 books. He explained that he accomplished so much because he slept for only five or six hours. "I hate sleep," Asimov told an interviewer. "It wastes time." Shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and insurance millionaire John D. MacArthur attributed their fortunes to their habit of sleeping only a few hours a night.

Consider these statistics: If you are an eight-hour sleeper and sleep only one hour less each night, in the course of a year you will have gained more than two weeks of wakeful life. Sleep six hours a night, and this becomes a month, and two months if you sleep only four hours each night. If you reduce the hours you sleep from eight to seven at age 20, by the time you are 70, you will have achieved more than two extra years of wakefulness. The number jumps to four years if you sleep six hours. Sleep only four hours each night for 50 years, and you will have gained more than eight years of extra time. Stay awake, sleepy head! Your first million awaits you.


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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (2/03/05)


I remember Roger. Prolific author, TV commentator on nature, and the voice of the Westminster Kennel Club's annual Madison Square Garden dog show, Roger Caras was a good friend. He began his career in the movie industry publicizing films for Columbia Pictures. Later he became an author of animal books. I came to know him when I was a book club editorial director and selected some of his titles for my clubs. Later, as a publisher of outdoor books, I had Roger put together a book of wisdom and advice titled The Dog Owner's Bible.

Just before Roger came to my office to discuss the book's contents, I happened to read Preminger on Preminger, the just-published autobiography of movie director Otto Preminger. I've always been a movie buff; in college I organized a film club with the high-toned name of Cinema Arts Society to show classic films. In his book, the director mentioned that he was in New Orleans on November 22, 1963, promoting his film The Cardinal when publicist Roger Caras rushed up to report that President Kennedy had been shot. Before discussing the projected book, Roger and I began by talking about old times.

Always fascinated by the gullibility of victims of bunko schemes, instead of telling him about the book, I decided to try an experiment. "You know, Roger," I began, "we Scots are supposed have the gift of clairvoyance." "I've heard that about a lot of nationalities, but I don't believe it," he said. "How about letting me have a go at resurrecting something from your past?" I suggested. His curiosity was piqued. "Why not? How shall we start?" I proposed, "Pick a date, and I'll tell you where you were that day."

Everything hinged on his choosing the day of the Kennedy assassination. I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't decided on that day. I began with what I thought would be appropriate behavior for a mentalist, massaging each side of my forehead with my fingertips, I then closed my eyes and said, "Let's see, the place is in the United States." He smiled, as if to say, "That was easy." Closing my eyes again, after a longer pause, I said, "It's somewhere in the South," and looked at him. The smile had disappeared, replaced by a quizzical look. "It's not a small town or even a small city--it's a big city," I offered.

His eyes were growing wider. "It's a city on the Mississippi River." He was staring at me with an incredulous expression. I was on a roll. "It had something to do with a movie. You were not shooting one; you were there to promote one." Building to what Variety calls "a boffo finish," I milked the pauses for all they were worth. "It wasn't St. Louis. (pause) It wasn't Memphis. (pause) I see a very low place. (long pause) I've got it! You were in New Orleans when you learned of the shooting," I announced triumphantly. I was tempted to name the film he was publicizing but decided not to press my luck.

Roger was amazed. "That's the most astonishing demonstration I have ever seen," he exclaimed. "I can't believe what I just witnessed." Poor Roger, at that point I could have sold him the Brooklyn Bridge. After savoring the moment, I relented and confessed that I had just used one of the oldest tricks of mentalists--prior knowledge about the victim. He took my spoof with good grace, and we had a good laugh over the incident.

From 1991 to 1999, Roger was president of the ASPCA. A fighter against euthanizing healthy pets, in retirement Roger and his wife, Jill, lived on a farm in Freeland, Md., with four retired greyhounds, seven other dogs, nine cats, three horses, two cows, a llama and an alpaca. My friend Roger Caras died Feb. 18, 2001, at age 73, after a heart attack. I miss him and miss his booming baritone at the Garden every February. He was one of those people so filled with a love of life and concern for animals that you cannot imagine them not being here any longer. One of Roger's sayings deserves a place in books of quotations: "There are only three sins--causing pain, causing fear, and causing anguish. The rest is window dressing."

Croton Point Park a hunting ground? Early-morning dog walkers recently discovered that a deer had been shot and brazenly butchered in Croton Point Park. They were led to the discarded remains of the animal by their dogs. Discharging a firearm anywhere in the village of Croton, of course, is forbidden. This incident--believed to have taken place on Christmas Day--now raises concerns about the safety of the park for people and animals. Ironically, the group of dog walkers who made the discovery usually walks on the Old Croton Aqueduct, starting from Croton Gorge Park. But the Aqueduct trail abuts private lands on which hunting is permitted, so the group switches to the presumed safety of Croton Point Park during the hunting season. Obviously, it is not any safer.

Discredi experts. ted After leaving office, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani set up Giuliani Partners, to peddle security advice to business and government, but the firm's credentials are problematical, to say the least. As mayor, Giuliani had insisted that the city's $13 million command bunker be located on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center, a 47-story high-rise, with no back-up site. He also had a 6,000-gallon diesel fuel tank for emergency generators installed at ground level, close to several elevators. Experts questioned the security of an above-ground command center and warned that the placement of the fuel tank posed a serious fire hazard.

Following a stint as Giuliani's chauffeur and bodyguard, Bernard Kerik, a former third-grade detective, was given a series of political appointments as a reward for his unswerving loyalty and subservience. His rapid rise culminated in the top position in the Police Department. The mayor's treatment of the Fire Department was even worse. For Fire Commissioner, Giuliani chose Thomas Von Essen, president of the firefighters union, using him to purge the top ranks of the department's uniformed leadership with privileged information Von Essen had gained as a union leader to settle old scores. Neither commissioner saw anything wrong with the Mayor's "bunker in the sky" or the unusual location of the fuel tank.

Then came 9/11, and 7 World Trade Center, along with the mayor's bunker, went up in flames fueled by the monster tank. Messrs. Giuliani, Kerik and Von Essen, an inept trio of newly minted security "experts" on whose watch police and fire department radios were unable to communicate with one another, became principals in Giuliani Partners. Nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security and embarrassed by mounting scandals, Kerik withdrew his name. Next he fell on his sword and resigned from Giuliani's firm, taking the heat off Giuliani and his presidential aspirations. Insiders say Bernie was pushed out. Rudy--who basks in the title of "America's Mayor"--has little chance of being nominated, in part because of his own equally messy personal history. The other reason is the evangelical right has such a stranglehold on the party, it's unlikely that a pro-choice Republican presidential candidate will be named in the foreseeable future.


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