Walking and Remembering in New York City

Thursday, November 07, 2013

This interview originally aired live on the Brian Lehrer Show on November 7, 2013. An edited version was included in a best-of show on December 24, but you can hear the original audio here. 

In his new book The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood, Roger Rosenblatt, reflects on his childhood in Gramercy Park and returning to the neighborhood in an evening walk many years later.

Excerpt: The Boy Detective by Roger Rosenblatt

IT WAS ICE, pal, I don’t mind telling you. The revolver was ice. Since nine-year-olds didn’t wear suit jackets, I had to carry it in a jury-rigged shoulder holster under my polo shirt, and the cap gun was ice against my chest. The look was that of a kid who had just snitched a mango from a fruit stand and was trying to conceal it. Nonetheless, I managed to maintain a grim, professional demeanor, lest my suspects spot any weakness and get the upper hand. I trailed them among the secret stores and wholesale houses of the neither-here-nor-there neighborhoods of downtown New York. Most of them hung around the Met Life Building, which looked innocuous enough, but clearly was teeming with crime. The businessmen under my surveillance also looked harmless, to anyone but me. I trailed them at short distances—called “rough shadowing” in the trade—making it easy for them to notice me, because if the killer did not know he was being followed, no one else would either. I saw myself as acting simultaneously in real time and in a film noir, so I was both tracking my quarry and watching myself do it. For his part, the killer, sensing danger, would turn around from time to time, confused and annoyed at being pursued by a kid with a mango in his shirt.

WHICH LEADS ME, as you might expect, to the unpleasantness at Vercessi’s Hardware. Mr. Vercessi was trussed up with electrical wire and gagged with a kitchen sponge. He rolled this way and that on the floor of his store at Twenty-third. The two robbers took all they could carry. Every so often they emerged from the store bearing ball-peen hammers, drill bits, and torque wrenches, which they dumped in the back of a small red pickup, double-parked with the engine running. Mr. Vercessi had only $18 in his cash register. The robbers were so angry; they could have killed him then and there. We can take some stuff, they said. We’ll get something for the stuff. It was two forty-five in the morning, and they had been at it since nine. Mr. Vercessi, about to close up for the night, had been alone in the store when the two men shouldered their way inside—one with a skeletal face white as chalk, the other speaking half in German, half in Japanese. The skeleton knocked Mr. Vercessi down with his fists. The bilingual one tied him up and shoved the sponge in his mouth. Then followed the enraged reaction to the cash, and the taking of the hardware. The skeleton considered clubbing Mr. Vercessi on the head with a length of pipe, but the bilingual one persuaded him not to. Of course, I made all that up, but I had so little to go on, and the police, ever uncooperative, told me nothing as usual, treating me like a child. The following morning, I examined the scene of the crime while two cops in plainclothes asked questions of Mr. Vercessi. I was practiced dealing with cases like that, so I scoured the sidewalk for clues and found a matchbook with handwriting on the inside cover, which I took home for further study under my magnifying glass. I did not mention it that night at dinner, when we sat as we always did—my parents, my brother, and I—saying not a word.

ONCE I WILLED a sequence of dreams in which I was an owl detective, both an owl and a detective. Nothing much happened in the dream. I remember hailing a taxi and telling the driver to “Follow that car” through the downtown streets, without ever catching “that car.” As a largish owl, I had some difficulty stuffing my feathers into the taxi. But I was so happy with the experience when I woke up, that the following night, through sheer force of will, I had the same exact dream. And the night after that as well. And the night after that. Four nights in a row as an owl detective getting into a taxi and following a car into the impenetrable dark. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov observes an aged swan, heavy and powerless, failing in its attempt to board a moored boat. He knows that the scene contains significance for him, but it is obscure—akin to moments in dreams when a finger is pressed against one’s lips, and the finger points to an explanation that the dreamer has no time to receive before he awakens.

A MOMENT SUCH as now, in fact. That moment on a winter’s day when the streetlights click on all at once, and you cannot help but smile. You might think that an awareness of the dark, just a moment before, would make you sad, half-sad at least. But the exuberant insistence of light, the brass of it, drives off gloom with a snap. Here I walk with the others of my city, heads high, backs straight. Let the cannon topple from the parapets. Let the owl fall into its feathers. Let the dreams begin and end. Big lights. Don’t you love it? A penny for your thoughts. For no reason at all, I think of Europe at this hour. And of the movie, Foreign Correspondent—“Hang on to your lights, America. They’re the only lights left in the world.” The streetlights of London, Brussels, Prague, Budapest, lamps bowing from the neck like deacons. I don’t know. They seem like ancient annotated texts, yet delve no deeper than the streetlights here, overlooking you and me. Somewhere in the city, your love lies sleeping in the curl of the night, and you proceed along Twenty-eighth Street gathering light like tulips, to bring to her bedside. She greets light in her dreams. The street where lovers lost sight of each other was much like this one. And the street where villains with long knives stalked the waitress from the pub. Everyone walking from one pool of light toward another. Clumsily I jump a patch of old snow stuck to a square in the sidewalk. Old snow, abandoned after the plows have cleared the streets. It hangs tough before it liquefies, clinging to the cornerstones, the bases of fountains, the knuckles of the statuary, in a last-man-standing gesture of self-assertion. Like the person who says “by the way” at the end of a conversation, introducing the subject he’s wanted to speak of all along. The most important thing on his mind. Crusty, sooty detritus. A cold declension, but alive. Light falls on old snow. Are you with me, pal?

From the book The Boy Detective. Copyright (c) 2013 by Roger Rosenblatt . Reprinted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved.





Roger Rosenblatt

Comments [14]

john samuels from Staten Island

I heard Mr. Rosenblatt recall the women's prison. I also remember as a youngster yelling up to those unseen women and being surprised when one would answer you. When I would take friends(not nycer's)past the prison I could make up all kinds of stories then have them yell up and get some kind of response.I was born in Harlem, did most of my growing up in the Bronx and then Staten Island.I agree with Mr. Rosenblatt that New York is bigger than any one Mayor and I've seen many now (b.1950). I love this City and always will.

Dec. 24 2013 12:19 PM
Angela L Muriel from Crown Heights in Brooklyn

I love this segment, I grew up in "Alphabet City" (as it use to be called) in the Lillian Wald Housing on 6th Street and Avenue D.
My childhood friend and I would wander all over the city. I loved the independence it gave me, I took advantage of any complimentary tickets we got as High School students and attended art openings, off off B'dway theater, films, etc.
Beginning in my teen years I met (and still meet) people from all over the world in NYC and I feel this planted within me a sense of being a citizen of the world.

Dec. 24 2013 11:47 AM
Alex from Upper East Side

I grew up on the Upper East Side in the 1980s/90s and have recently returned to the area regularly for the first time since moving out almost 5 years ago. I find that the built fabric, outside of some places like 86th street, was largely built out and has not changed much. But the stores have changed. I was on the tail end of the nickel and dime store era and fondly remember the Woolworth's and Lamstons(sp?) on second and first avenues respectively. There were also not as many, but more of a variety of, banks before all of those mergers produced the super banks we see today. I'm glad to see the area is getting foodier after Agata and Valentina and Citarella started and Fairway and Whole Foods have continued.
Also because the area was so economically developed, it was already expensive when the rest of the city started changing, which made it difficult for culinary or otherwise programmatic innovation. But now that the area is ironically amongst the cheapest in the city (to rent) due to the rise of more centrally located Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods, more edgy 'foody' and craft beer places are popping up where they hadn't had the chance to do so before.

Nov. 07 2013 12:21 PM
Ann from for L.I.C.

I did not grow up with "genteel poverty" (or whatever Roger Rosenblatt called it). I grew up on the border between Astoria and L.I.C.,on a middle-class block, and I went to elementary school with the low-income, largely black and Puerto Rican population from the Queensbridge Projects (where, coincidentally, Warren Lehrer's new novel is set). Back in the day, this neighborhood was a far cry from hip. (And I bet that Queensbridge is still far from hip, psychologically, if not geographically.) There was racial tension during the late '60s (remember the NYC Teachers' strike anyone?). A lot of the schools and classes were segregated. (I.G.C., classes for so-called intellectually gifted children) provided tracking. My school, P.S. 76, did not have I.G.C. classes, so a lot of the white, middle-class families moved their kids out of P.S. 76 to P.S. 111. For those of us who stayed in P.S. 76, it was hard to be one of the few white kids. And for the kids from the projects, well, so much of their existence must have been so hard. When I was in high school or college, I ran into one of my classmates from the projects. Her belly was huge: she was pregnant with her third child.

Nov. 07 2013 12:11 PM
Mike from Gramercy Park

In the 1950's NYC high schools had rifle teams. I team members would carry their rifles on the city bus or subway to school and carry them from class to class. There are still closed off ranges in the basements of many schools.

Nov. 07 2013 11:57 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

What I remember, and often try to forget, is fear of trying to dare walk around the block around the Van Dyke housing projects. I remember being trapped inside a housing projects between the ages of 7-13 until we got the heck out of there. Why do you get an upper middle class guy like Rosenblattto talk about a dream neighborhood like Gramercy Park? Talk about growing up in East New York and Brownsville.

Nov. 07 2013 11:47 AM

What world is Mr Rosenblatt living in? Blacks still don't go to school with whites in most parts of this country and this city. Also as he pointed out, people of mixed income no longer live near each other and share schools, shops and even housing. Mr. Rosenblatt also said that there's nothing a mayor can do about it. I guess that's why most of us don't bother to vote anymore.

Nov. 07 2013 11:45 AM
Robert from NYC

I grew up in the 50s and I was going to school with blacks and hispanics and irish and germans and poles and other italians so what are you talking about. Yes it was a conservative time but it was a good time and leaves good personal memories. Yes, a racist time and not all was good except in our own person lives. Some of us have those happy memories and unfortunately some of us have unhappy ones. But that doesn't change our own individual experiences. In retrospect you should not put down a happy time that was THEN a happy time.
I miss seeing kids playing on the streets as we did, stickball, hand ball, box ball, touch football, ringaleeveeo [sp], hide and seek, Johnny on the pony, remember those?

Nov. 07 2013 11:43 AM
Tisha from NJ

And did he read, I wonder, Louise Fitzhugh's very wonderful Harriet the Spy. I loved that book as a child. Still do. Still pay attention to everything around me. And still eat tomato sandwiches.

Nov. 07 2013 11:41 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Big fan of the very wise & civilized human being named Roger Rosenblatt, since his days doing video essays on the PBS NewsHour.

Miss those!

Nov. 07 2013 11:39 AM
Native from New York

Was enjoying the reminiscing UNTIL he mentioned race "whites didn't go to school with Blacks" WHY mention this....that wasn't my experience, we went to school with ALL races.

Nov. 07 2013 11:39 AM
khadija from brooklyn

Grew up in Rabat, Morocco. Consider myself a New Yorker (Brooklynite.) Our city (NYC) being a microcosm of the world, I often am drawn to my childhood in Maroc, mostly through scent: jasmin or sandalwood incense, a waft of orange blossom water from a young person walking to our near-by College; & sound: Mr. J.S. New Sounds program.
PS: Absolutely revere Mr. Rosenblatt. kindest regards. k

Nov. 07 2013 11:38 AM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

Chow Mein on a bun is a pleasant memory for that caller? * vomit *

Nov. 07 2013 11:37 AM
antonio from baySide

I grew up in Hell's Kitchen. When I go back, it feels very much like I am in a scene in 'Blade Runner.' There are no flying cars...and it's definitely not seedy anymore; But I think the frenetic pulse it has today, makes me feel so foreign...

Nov. 07 2013 11:36 AM

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