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The Great Roy DeCarava


Tree and subway entrance, 1979

On December 4, 1964, New York state Senator-elect ROBERT F. KENNEDY


See also Mom Slothrop’s Letter to Ambassador Kennedy and the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.


Equine Brooklyn, 1826

The Season. Hay has been sold in some parts of the United States, within a few weeks past, at nearly as much per lb as superfine wheat flour; and oats have risen almost as high per bushel as wheat! The latter is recommended to be freely used, as being more economical than either hay or oats for the for food of horses— and many horses are chiefly fed with it! The crop of oats, of the present season, has been nearly destroyed by the drought— the hay crop will be a very short one indeed; that of rye will be deficient, and that of wheat will be small compared with the sheer quantity of land cultivated. Garden products, and other vegetables for table use, are very scarce, and consequently very dear; their quality, also, is inferior. Hay has been sold at 30 and 40, and in some few places, by report, at 50 dollars per ton!— when flour did not command more than about 4 1/2 dollars per barrel.

A correspondent of a Brooklyn paper says— “I observed, in your paper of Saturday last, that flour is used in Philadelphia for horse feed, on account the low price. Will you be so good as to inform our brethren of that brotherly city, that a baker in this village keeps my horse at 12 dollars per month, and feeds him on light wheat bread, made from the same flour that he serves his biped customers with, when made into excellent bread. He says it is less expensive than oats for feed.”

Niles Weekly Register, Baltimore, July 1, 1826

What did William Gaddis know about horses? Quite a bit, actually.

What did Ronald Shannon Jackson know about horses? He often wore boots.

What did Ray Price know about horses? Heck, he raised ‘em!


Brooklyn, Irregardless

On Second Avenue, a girl in a south-bound bus (her surname appeared 963 times in the Bronx directory) said, —But he don’t even know my name.  —Who don’t? —The lipstick man, he was in today. I found out he’s single. —Is he hansome? —He’s not really handsome, he’s more what you might say inneresting looking. With my hair and my complexion he says I ought to wear teeshans red. My favorite movie star…

On First Avenue, a girl in a north-bound bus (who used the same lipstick as her favorite movie star) said, —My doctor told me to ride this bus, he says maybe that’ll bring it on.

In a Lexington Avenue bar, a man in Santa Clause suit said, —Hey Barney, let’s have one here, first one today. The bartender was saying— It’s just the same as Brooklyn, irregardless… —That’s what I say, if you serve food you gotta have a rest room for the ladies as well as men. A woman said, —Where do you come from? —Out on Long Island, Jamaica. —Jewmaica you mean. —Yeh? So where do you come from. —Never mind. —Yeh, never mind, I know where, it’s nothing but a bunch of Portuguese and Syssirians where you come from up there.

—William Gaddis, from The Recognitions (1955)

see also: No Tiene Nada Gowanus

On August 4, 2006— the second of Louis Armstrong’s two birthdays that year and every year (Pops believed he was born on July 4, but his posthumously discovered baptismal record said otherwise)— Marshall was in the spirit! The coincident occasion was my writing about Louis’ recording of a Schaefer Beer commercial. And for anyone who might doubt a Bronx boy’s deep Brooklyn’s lore…—b


Dear B—

Wonderful!  Was Louis A himself author of that jingle? Is there a version of him singing it somewhere?  (Phil Schapp & fellow jazz scholars @WKCR might know.)  How delicious!

My mother’s father, Max Schur, was a teamster, driving a truck of huge beer barrels led by a team of horses.  There were 10 or 12 breweries on Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront in early 20c. I forget which one he worked for–name started w A, co eventually moved to St Louis. There’s a wonderful photo of him w his horses & barrels–my sister might have the pic.  But one spring noon, in midst of lunchtime crowd, at Flatbush & Atlantic Aves–fateful location!–the harness broke, the horses went out of control & surged into the crowd.  Max leaped on top of the horses, to keep them from trampling the crowd, but got trampled himself.  Horses were taken to stables, but he lay on the street for several hrs & bled & bled.  He lived another 10 yrs, but cd never work normally again, & weighed 70 when he died.  My mom’s fam, which had started the day as the relatively comfortable fam of a skilled worker, instantly lost all its cash income (no pension, insurance, or worker’s comp–Hey! wasn’t this supposed to be what workmen’s comp was for?), & plunged down–it was (was this Etta James’ song, or Freda Payne’s?) a long way down.

Shalom!  M

PS–I’ve had this story in my head since I was 10–I can remember when my mom told it to me–but I never wrote it down till now.  Chilling, ain’t it?


Robert Christgau‘s excellent euology of his friend Marshall has now been posted at Dissent. Also, a younger person, Ben Serby, recalls an encounter with Marshall at Columbia last year for the U.S. Intellectual History blog.

Second in a series of tributes to my friend, Marshall. In the last week, I’ve been pleasantly amused by Patell and Waterman’s History of New York account of Marshall’s intermittent computer woes (I knew them well); appreciated the range of appreciations Dissent has offered, illustrated by the priceless photo of Marshall with his doppelganger, a sculpture of himself by John Ahearn; and urge anyone who hasn’t already done so to read Robert Christgau’s original March 16, 1982 Village Voice review of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which begins:

“What’s most important about Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is that it’s a good read…”

Still is too but it’s hardly Marshall’s only good read— far from it! Do you know M.’s piece on I.B. Singer?

“Readers who grew up as I did on American films noirs may notice that Singer’s many hot-but-doomed couples sound amazingly like Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, or Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once.  At first the similarity seemed bizarre to me:  Could I be imagining this?  But then I realized that many of the best American noirs were made at exactly the same historical moment as Singer’s, by Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder and all sorts of other people who were Jewish refugees like Singer himself…”

— Brian Berger


Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it. Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.
—Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)

London is drowning, I live by the river.
—The Clash, “London Calling” (1979)

You know that nice park in the South Bronx? . . .
the block is burning down on one side of the street,
and the kids are trying to build something on the other.
—Grace Paley, “Somewhere Else” (1985)

When I was a child in the Bronx more than half a century ago, New York’s publicly owned radio station WNYC used to make this announcement every hour on the hour, all through the day and night: “This is Station WNYC, New York City, where seven million people”—at some point in the early 1960s it became eight million—“live in peace and harmony, and enjoy the benefits of democracy.” I was thrilled by this language. Later on I learned that it was a gift of the New Deal and the Popular Front. By the time I arrived, historians seem to think, these movements were exhausted, worn out. But their language sounded fresh and alive to me.

What did those big ideas mean? They meant that New York was full of grand material structures—the Harbor (still thriving all through my childhood), the Statue of Liberty, great buildings, Times Square, Penn and Grand Central Stations, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, and many more; we should learn to love them but also to understand their human costs. Our family weekends often featured structures. From the deck of a ferry or a skyscraper, we would exclaim, “Wow!” (I’m still happy to exclaim it.) Then my mother would say something like, “Isn’t it beautiful? And don’t forget, you can get here on the subway.” And my father would say something like, “And don’t forget who built this.” Who? I would ask. Before long I caught on and knew the answer: “People we never heard of, who worked themselves to death.” It was only later on that I realized they meant people like them who worked themselves to death. (My mother was valedictorian of her high school but never had a chance to go to college. When I went, and learned about “alienated labor,” she was delighted, and used the phrase for the rest of her life.) But they were proud of the city that anonymous, exploited, alienated people like them had built. The bad deals they had got in their lives were mitigated by their pride in being part of what they loved to say was “the greatest city in the world.” The message on the air was a melody they could dance to. The New York they hoped to pass on to us was a real community, a place where the sadness of individual lives—and there was plenty—could be overcome by the glory and harmony of the whole.

When I left New York at the start of the 1960s to go to graduate school in England, I could hear the message till my ship, the SS United States, was well out on the sea. When I came back at the end of the ’60s to teach at City College, part of the City University of New York, the message was gone. No one could remember when it went, or why. (I wrote to WNYC, and its Public Affairs Department said it would get back to me, but it never did.) I asked people, and many people told me, “Don’t ask!” It took me awhile to read their melancholy. What they meant was that New York as an ideal- ized beloved community was gone with the wind, and nothing could bring it back.

I wouldn’t accept this. I had come back here for New York’s very special form of peace, harmony, and democracy, and I was determined to enjoy them. Forty years later, I’m still determined. But honestly, I had no idea then how far my city of dreams had unraveled, and how much more it was still going to come apart.

Yet New Yorkers have a wonderful capacity to live through disintegration, to build up even while they are burning down. And in fact, day after day, year after year, all through the latter part of the twentieth century, we were bombarded by visions of our city coming apart and falling down. “The disintegration of New York” became a media cliché, but it was rooted in something real. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were the climax of a long wave—that’s what historians call these things, “long waves”—that had been breaking and crashing against us for years. A year or so later, Bruce Springsteen released a beautiful album, The Rising. The album begins with a heartrending dirge, “My City of Ruins.” “The Rising” says about cities what Springsteen has always said about men and women: the trauma of falling into ruins offers us a post-traumatic chance to rise, to rebuild ourselves in a better way. We didn’t ask for the trauma, and we don’t want it, yet if we look it in the face and live with it, we can become more than we are.

Before my story starts, I need to make a point about New York’s story. It is a story as rich in ironies as it is in skyscrapers. One of the things that made the late twentieth century so bitter here is one of the things that has always made New York so sweet: its intense and vibrant street life. Our nineteenth-century street system, built for pedestrians to walk around in, and our early-twentieth-century mass-transit system, built to move streets full of people en bloc, constitute public space of a breadth and depth undreamt of in the rest of the U.S. (and possibly unmatched in the rest of the world). A random walk in the street or ride on the train can give us a splendid view of the abundance, diversity, and color of New York life. All of our people’s energy and beauty are there to see, hear, feel in the street. But this means that our strains and rages are out in the street as well. Openness of being is one thing that makes New York a thrill. But openness may lead our tensions and struggles—between classes, between races and ethnic groups, between men and women, between generations—to boil over openly, in front of everybody. The New York street strips us naked, some- times in the midst of people we may not want to be naked with. But it strips them naked, too…

— Marshall Berman, from “Introduction” to New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007)

My friend and collaborator, Marshall Berman, died of a heart attack on Wednesday September 11 while at the Metrto Diner, near his long time home on the Upper West Side; he was 72. Corey Robin, Todd Gitlin for The Tablet and the editors of Dissent have all offered their thoughts but in lieu— for now— of my own memories of the sometimes intense and always rewarding time we spent together (on the phone, in e-mail, in his apartment, at restaurants, in bookstores and auditoriums, in subway stations, etc), I’d like to share a few of Marshall’s own words.

The time is mid-January 2006. The recipient is me. The subject was… somewhat ridiculous but, in brief, one of the writers I’d hired for New York Calling was on a rampage because his essay had— after no small amount of editorial cajoling, suggestion and encouragement— been politely rejected, both for reasons of content (I explained this) and the great likelihood it would not get substantially better (I kept this thought to myself).

No matter. Whatever I said, the writer got angrier and angrier until, in fury, he made myriad threats— legal and personal— which do not bear repeating. I did, however, have to tell my publisher, Reaktion Books, and my co-editor,  Marshall, that we had a disgruntled former contributor on our hands and… I suspect he’s coming for you next.

Which he did but, rather than regret his involvement with such unpleasantries, Marshall sent me a couple of cheering notes replete with his singular warmth, enthusiasm and fortitude, which I reproduce below: abbreviations, TITLES, ellipses, dashes– the works. Shalom, Marshall!

— Brian Berger, Brooklyn, 13 September 2013


January 15, 2006

Dear B,

You have to escape, at least temporarily, from this mishugas.

We just rented a classic film noir, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS–they were fighting over ownership for 50 yrs, so there was never a video till now–NYC landscape is gorgeous, Gene Tierney is delicious, movie really swings.  I bet there’s a good video place in Wmsbg that will have it–check it out!

Something made me think you hadn’t read that much Classic Jewish American Lit. How about Philip Roth 1960, GOODBYE COLUMBUS?  How about Roth 1986, THE COUNTERLIFE?  They’re v diff, but both “bad”, sexy & exciting….

Speaking of Williamsburg, do you know Daniel Fuchs’ WILLIAMSBURG TRILOGY?

How about–I just excavated a tape, unplayed for yrs but super–DUSTY IN MEMPHIS/SAM COOKE AT [Miami] HARLEM SQUARE. I made them both, God knows fr what.  Shall I copy for you?  Both sides shd make you feel good.

I just asked my family for more feelgood suggestions for you.  Shellie: FLIRTING WITH DISASTER.  Danny:  SOME LIKE IT HOT.   I’d go to the wall for both.



January 16, 2006

Dear B,

So glad yr feeling better!

One imp feature of so many portrayals of Bklyn: BRIDGES.  (This goes back at least to Whitman’s “Crossing Bklyn Ferry”, where daily commute=metaphysical transfiguration.W’s poem written bef there was a Br, but used as propaganda to get NYers to spend $ to build one.)  Beautifully realized in that movie we saw the other night, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS.  But central in so many diff works.

Wmsbg  Br a major character in A TREE GROWS IN BKLYN–both bk & movie–& also in Dassin’s NAKED CITY (greatest police movie ever, ironically by a lifelong Commie).  But Verrazano (then new) portrayed w equal complexity & depth in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Might be fun for you to think abt diff visions of  Bridges, & to work out yr own.  (I’m not telling you what to do, OK? I’m just suggesting something that cd be fun.)

Do you know Jim Saunders, CELLULOID SKYLINE: NY & THE MOVIES (2003)? Something else to treat yrself to.

Love, M

Fifteenth Evening

Another Vexation of Kleiner the Elder’s

Beethoven’s Fidelio is being performed.

Not a word is spoken in the orchestra. The eyes of all true artists are aglow, those of ordinary musicians remain open, those of blockheads are shit from time to time. Tamberlik* has been engaged by our manager for a few performances and sings Florestan. He electrifies the house with his prison song. The pistol quartet drives the audience wild with enthusiasm.

After the grand finale, Kleiner the Elder exclaims: “That music sets your insides on fire. I feel as if I’d swallowed fifteen glasses of brandy. I’m going to the cage and get a—”

“There aren’t any left,” breaks in Dimsky; “I just saw Tamberlik getting the last one; he’s certainly earned it.”

Kleiner goes off muttering.

* Enrico Tamberlik (1820-89), a famous Italian tenor

—from Evenings With The Orchestra by Hector Berlioz, translated, with an introduction and notes, by Jacques Barzun (Alfred A. Knopf, 1956)

Riot, quiet, and surfeit are the consequence of sexual madness. Ten boars can easily tread a hundred sows, but this knowledge inflames the mind instead of pacifying the flagitous imaginations of men. The criminal joys if human beings are unknown to birds. There is no counterpart of Tiberius or of lascivious Messalina in the feathered races.

The great eagle has an iris of amber, and in appearace he is as vitreous as the topaz; this favorite of Jupiter was as regal and predatory as Heliogabalus, and the only difference between the bird and the emperor of Zeus is that the former will never touch carrion. The two Agrippinas, mothers of Nero and Caligula, were said to have had unnatural births, coming out of the womb feet first.

We go to the manners of birds, insects, quadrupeds, reptiles to comprehend mortals. Birds only couple in one way which has seldom been the ration of man. Ford Madox Ford, now among the woeful shades, rejoiced because swifts copulate on the wing. Every savant is a lewd goat or a sparrow of Venus.

— Edward Dahlberg, from The Sorrows of Priapus (New Directions, 1957)

— Véronique Gens “Ogni vento ch’al porto la spinga,” from G.F. Handel Agrippina (c. 1709-10)


Terra tuum spinis obducat, lena, sepulcram,
et tua, quod non vis, sentiat umbra sitim;
nec sedeant cineri Manes, et Cerebrus altor
turpio iciuno terreaat ossa sono!

May the earth cover thy tomb with thorns, thou bawd, and may thy shade be parched with thirst, for thirst thou hatest. May thy ghost find no rest among thine ashes, and my vengeful Cerebrus fright thy dishonoured bones with hungry howl.

—from The Elegies of Propertius, Book 4, translated by H.E. Butler (Loeb Classical Library, 1912)


“‘Hi glamorpuss,’ Slothrop said. Her name was Cynthia. He managed to get a telephone number before she was waving ta-ta, borne again into the rush hour crowds.”

—from Thomas Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow (Viking Press, 1973)


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