Sunday, February 21, 2016

220. The New York Historical Society: A Batmobile and Wide-Screen Wonders

     Buzzes, roars, and drones of little locomotives hauling cars through tunnels or in frenzied circles, while cloud-skirting toy aircraft zoom through stretches of sky.  My eye is captivated by a toy warship bristling with guns, a toy ocean liner flying a French flag beside a dock, toy horse-drawn ambulances, toy engines, biplanes, zeppelins, and even a miniature railway station awaiting the arrival of miniature trains.

      Such is Holiday Express, a ground-floor exhibit at the New York Historical Society that greets you as you enter and immerses you in movement and sound from large multimedia screens, as well as striking effects from theatrical lighting, and dozens of toy trains and other objects on display from the renowned Jerni Collection, now owned by the Society.  Special lighting effects, an audio soundscape, an “immersive experience” – this isn’t the museum that I last visited some years back, a quiet little old-fashioned place with passive exhibits that just sat there and let you take them in, an island of calm and culture in the midst of the urban hurly-burly, quaint perhaps, but charming.  Gone is that quaintness, that quiet, that charm, replaced by cutting-edge, state-of-the-art multimedia effects, dazzling theatricality, absorbing wonderlands such as only the latest technology can produce.  Don’t go for charm and quiet; go for magic, go for wonder.


     While I was immersed in this wonderland, I noticed off in the distance, in a prime location right in front of large windows, a long, dark vehicle that I assumed was part of the show, maybe a vintage Packard or Cadillac, or better still, a Pierce Arrow, that vanished luxury limousine of the Roaring Twenties that died in the Depression, along with the fortunes of those who once would have bought it and promenaded regally in its grandiose 1920s elegance.

     A foolish notion, of course, for this was not a toy.  Or was it?  Approaching, I discovered that the vehicle on proud display was Batmobile no. 3, dating from 1966 and destined for the TV series of Batman, that batlike superhero of yore – “yore” being the late 1930s and early 1940s, when I was feasting on the comic books of the day.  The Batmobile was long, dark, and sleek, with tail fins, and on its flank in red, a small batlike silhouette, the logo of Batman, that nemesis of miscreants and criminals.  Outsized though it was, it seated only two: Batman, I assumed, and his young novice and sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder.  And why was it here, in this place of prominence?  To proclaim to visitors the existence of another exhibit on the second floor: Superheroes in Gotham, artifacts and illustrations of that pantheon of comic-book heroes of another age: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider Man, Captain America, and others.  Which was one of the reasons why I had decided to grace the museum with my presence on this particular day.

     A friend on the museum staff had urged me to come see the Superheroes, and so I came.  They were installed on the second floor, where I encountered, properly enshrined in a glass case, the Royal portable typewriter of Jerry Siegel, one of the creators of Superman, on which he had typed out text that would in time, with the collaboration of an illustrator, become the comic book hero of enduring fame.  Just looking at it flashed me back to the year 1940, when I entered junior high school and was given a typewriter so I could learn to type – in those days, an essential skill.  And what did my family give me?  A Royal portable matching in every detail the typewriter of Jerry Siegel!  But on mine, no superhero was forthcoming, just reports for school and, in time, a rather inept history of the war in Europe gathered from newspaper sources, an attempt that would ultimately teach me how little of the real story is available at the time of the events.  But the typewriter went with me to college, then to Europe, and finally to New York; it served me loyally for forty years.

     The exhibit informed me that Superman first appeared in Detective Comics in June 1938, Batman in the same publication in May 1939, and Wonder Woman in December 1941.  The first two came just in time to immerse me in their doings, which I reveled in without paying a cent, since I inherited all the comic books of my older brother, who bought them by the dozen.  This infatuation didn’t last long, for I would soon graduate to more serious fare appropriate for a bookworm in junior high school, but while it lasted I was plunged into the superhuman feats of Superman and Batman.  And surveying the exhibit’s displays and printed info, I was plunged into them again, especially when invited to sample a stack of comic book collections, each featuring one of the superheroes, with the sole stipulation that, when done, I should replace it on the stand, so others could also partake of the latter-day feast.

Superman, as depicted by artist Alex Ross.

     Superman, that red-caped muscular marvel in red Jockey shorts over blue tights with a big serpentine S on his chest, thought nothing of leaping tall buildings or hoisting a car aloft so he could crush villains under the weight of it, and performing other exploits no mere mortal could accomplish, not being a native, as he was, of the planet Krypton and endowed with miraculous powers.  Of course when off duty he was the mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent, enamored of luscious Lois Lane, who didn’t know his true identity and therefore was unaware of what a hunk of manhood had come her way.  But when need arose, wimpy Clark darted into a nearby phone booth – one was always available – to shed his humdrum daily clothes and suit up in his Superman outfit.  Thus attired, he would zoom off – “It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s Superman!” -- to undo yet another band of miscreants preying upon the fair city of Metropolis.  (Have you ever tried to change clothes in a phone booth?  Only an alien from Krypton could have pulled it off.)

      Superman was sexy, but he paled beside Batman.  By day a wealthy industrialist named Bruce Wayne, by night he donned the requisite Jockey shorts – dark blue in this case – over blue tights, and a mask with what looked like pointed ears, and a long blue scallop-hemmed cape that, when expanded, gave him the look of a supersized bat.  Unlike Superman, he was an earthling without miraculous powers, but he must have worked out plenty in a gym, for he bulged with muscles and in pursuit of malefactors raced nimbly over the rooftops of Gotham City, swung with a rope between ledges of skyscrapers, and with the help of suction pads on his hands, knees, and feet, climbed up their vertical façades.  No question, this guy was sexy; in my budding pre-teen psyche, sexier by far than Superman. 

File:Comic Art - Batman by Jim Lee (2002).png
Batman as depicted by artist Jim Lee.

     And maybe he was even sexier when, after solo appearances in a few issues, he teamed up with his junior sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, who, similarly attired (though without the batlike silhouette), joined him in his nightly forays to bring to vigorous justice the malefactors of Gotham.  Because if Superman, in the persona of Clark Kent, was discreetly enamored of Lois Lane, Batman, to my recollection, was less emotionally encumbered, prompting naughty thoughts about his relationship with the Boy Wonder.  Honni soit qui mal y pense, but one does wonder about him and the Wonder.  But such ruminations are surely beside the point, since the superheroes were too busy fighting evil to have time for dalliances of whatever persuasion.  When the fate of the city, the nation, and the world depend on one’s vigilant prowess, who has time for sex?

     Wonder Woman never impinged on my pre-teen psyche, for when she appeared in All Star Comics in December 1941 – an event as earth-shaking in some minds as the almost simultaneous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- I had left the world of comic books behind and would soon be chronicling on my Royal portable the very real worldwide conflict at hand.  But if Superman and Batman were sexy in their skin-tight togs, they were also fully clothed, whereas Wonder Woman – as the exhibit makes clear – was egregiously semi-naked, flaunting bare arms and legs in what must have been a shock to the mores of the time.  The Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall and the starlets of Hollywood were no match for this dark-haired Amazon.  What her impact on my burgeoning sexuality might have been, unformed as it was at the time, I cannot imagine, had our paths ever crossed.

Wonder Woman as drawn by artist Alex Ross.

     The other superheroes of the exhibit left no mark on me, coming as they did after I matured into other fantasies and longings, but the exhibit informed me of reams of data hitherto unknown to me.  Most of the young creators of these superheroes were Jewish, and often, to sidestep the racism they might have encountered, shed their Jewish names for monikers resolutely Wasp – a sad situation indeed, but characteristic of the time. 

     If by now you’re wondering what the link is between the superheroes and New York, the answer is clear and simple: the fictional Metropolis of Superman and the Gotham City of Batman are barely disguised replicas of the Big Apple, whose monumental skyscrapers and bridges, and the concrete canyons of its streets, seemed the perfect setting for their feats of derring-do.  And where but in New York, where prosecutor Thomas Dewey had just taken on organized crime, could you find such a clutch of evildoers, thwarting whom could keep any superhero busy full time?  Besides, many of the artists creating the superheroes were New Yorkers born and bred, and soon they were situating their characters, the successors to Superman and Batman, in a very real New York. 

     The time when I was frequenting the world of superheroes was, in some sense, a preliminary or archaic one, for in time many of the heroes leaped off the pages of comic books into radio, film, and television, becoming integral to American culture, and the property of adults here and abroad, and not just the fantasy heroes of preadolescents like myself on the tremulous verge of acknowledged sexuality.  And their mindset became more nuanced, more tolerant of ambiguities, whereas the superheroes of my acquaintance had a simplistic view of the world: there were good guys and bad guys, and never the twain did mix; it was their job to eliminate the bad.

     How those comic books have enriched our vocabulary!  From their panels came a bevy of vital expressions:  POW! and WHAM! and ZOOM!  Just citing them, I can see the heroes’ fists smiting malefactors and mincing them to mush, or discern their agile forms darting across the rooftops of the city, or leaping from ledge to ledge, or streaking through the sky.  Ah, those were the days!  May today’s youngsters bask in the warmth of memory – not their memory, but ours – and learn what marvelous champions this city once begot.

     The Superheroes are a tough act to follow, but upon leaving them behind I attended a showing of the 18-minute multimedia film New York Story, shown every half hour on the ground floor, and was overwhelmed.  Free with admission, the film is a historical once-over-lightly, providing a quick survey of the city’s rise from a remote New World trading outpost to a metropolis that boasts of being the center of the world.  Old maps and prints, often enlarged to show fascinating detail, are used to convey the city’s story through the 17th and 18th centuries, but with the 19th century photography is enlisted, and for the 20th and 21st, film that, shown on a wide screen, yields stunning results.  Montages juxtapose the top-hatted plutocrats of the Golden Age with the degraded lives of the poor captured in Jacob Riis’s memorable photographs.  A quick glance at the Jazz Age reveals scantily clad cuties dancing wildly, and black jazz musicians pounding out hot music, only to be supplanted by headlines announcing the Great Crash of 1929, and the dreary Depression years that followed. 

The Lady, a symbol of the city, appears frequently in the film.

     The end of World War II is chronicled, with the city’s postwar preeminence and subsequent decline (and the Daily News’s famous headline chronicling President Ford's refusal to help the city, FORD TO CITY / DROP DEAD), but the film ends on a triumphant note of reassurance and hope, with marvelous close-ups of congested traffic and surging pedestrians, and breathtaking aerial views of the city by day and night, including scary views from overhead straight down to the roofs of buildings, and breathtaking panoramas at night of the city all aglitter with lights.  Seeing the closing views of the city, it is hard not to quote Carl Sandburg, “Nothing like us ever was,” and to crystalized the film’s closing message in these electric words:  Come to us and be dazzled.  For New York City, in good times and bad alike, is dazzling.

     This I can’t top, so in closing I’ll simply mention the last exhibit I visited: the Children’s History Museum in the basement, an interactive display inviting kids to press buttons and hear messages; to witness George Washington’s first inauguration (right here in New York); to see the evolution of selected locales over time through a series of photographs; to vote; and to try to collect taxes from reluctant citizens.  The tiny tots and not-so-tiny older kids I saw there were wholly immersed in the activities, though some of the watchful mothers looked just slightly tired.

    My closing advice:  If you have even a faint interest in superheroes, if you have kids craving a novel fun experience that is also educational, if you’ve never seen a Batmobile up close, and if, for all its faults, you love this city, want to know more about it, and want to have your sense of wonder at its magnificence renewed, don’t walk, rush – via bus and subway – to the New York Historical Society at 77th Street and Central Park West.  If your senses are alive and your mind is alert and curious, you won’t be disappointed.  The rejuvenated NYHS is one of the best-kept secrets in this museum- and gallery-crammed city.

     The book:  It is still available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

There is still, of course, that other book, the naughty novel The Pleasuring of Men with a cover that has proven irresistible to a certain contingent of males and to some  susceptible females as well.  It is now visible on the Facebook page of the publisher, Gival Press.  If morbid curiosity prompts you, go there and you'll see what I mean; click on the truncated version of the photo to get the whole thing.  Who the sexy guy on the cover is and where he came from, I have no idea, though there could well be a story there; credit goes to my canny and resourceful publisher.

     Good-bye:  This is the last post for this blog, which I am suspending indefinitely. Doing the blog has been an adventure, and in the process I have learned a lot about this city, but the novelty has worn off and it has become a chore.  Many thanks to all those who have followed it; I hope it renewed and sustained your interest in this exhausting but fascinating city, which I still celebrate as the most exciting city in the world.  For a sampling of the blog, there is always the book mentioned above.  Good-bye all, and good luck in all your hopes and endeavors.

     ©  2016   Clifford Browder



Sunday, February 14, 2016

219. Rats

      I have most often seen them down on the subway tracks while waiting for a train.  It is strictly taboo to throw trash down there, since it gives them food, but trash does get down there, and from time to time one will see a plump dark form scurry from shadow to shadow, one of the city’s two million – some would say millions more – rats.

      Rattus norvegicus is the scientific name, though why Norway should be blamed for them escapes me.  The popular names say a lot about this pest: common rat, street rat, sewer rat, wharf rat, and of course – to add insult to injury for the Norwegians – Norway rat, brown Norway rat, and Norwegian rat.  Brown or gray in color, he (out of gallantry, I shall use only the masculine pronoun) can be up to 16 inches long, with a tail of the same length, though some are even bigger.  Originating in northern China, he has spread all over the globe, appearing on all continents except Antarctica.  No lover of wilderness and wide open spaces, he lives wherever humans live, and especially in cities.  

File:Rattus norvegicus 2.jpg

     While the term “rat” is hardly a compliment when applied to humans, Rattus norvegicus is a shrewd operator: a good digger, he swims well, has acute hearing and a good sniffer, and emits a high-pitched chirp that humans cannot hear, but that has been likened to laughter.  Yet I would hardly call him handsome.  Mice – pests though they are in the home – look cuddly and cute; rats look fat, menacing, and to most eyes, ugly.  Rats have been blamed for the spread of bubonic plague in Europe, but the culprit in question wasn’t the brown rat but his cousin, Rattus rattus, the black rat, though even he has been absolved by recent research, which says the true culprit was a giant gerbil.  Be that as it may, rats have always had a bad press and no doubt always will.

     So what’s with rats in the city?  First of all, there are an awful lot of them which is not surprising, since the females can bear five litters a year.  And they aren’t just in the subway; every park at one time or another has signs warning that the area has been treated with rat poison.  And they aren’t just in the parks either, since New York City is the perfect habitat for them, a densely populated site with aging infrastructure and abundant trash.  Especially trash: they love it.  A study of their diet concluded that they prefer scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and cooked corn kernels, but they will eat anything and everything, and have a chance to do so, since New Yorkers deposit trash on the sidewalk to await collection, and garbage cans often lack a lid. 

File:Rats in the NYC Subway 2 vc.jpg
Paul Lowry

     Rats are social creatures, groupies; they live in colonies of 40 to 50 wherever they can burrow, in dirt or anything crumbly, close to a steady source of food, which usually means our trash.  In the colony they groom each other, wrestle with each other, nuzzle each other, and huddle and sleep together, perhaps to conserve heat.  But there is a hierarchy, and each rat has its place within it, with some dominant over others; scraps over dominance result.  Encountering a strange rat, an interloper, they defend their turf, fluffing up their hair, hissing, squealing, and wagging their tails. 

     Rats love to burrow, creating many levels of tunnels in their mound-like homes and more than one exit the size of a silver dollar.  The burrow is a safe, warm nesting site, a place to store food, and a refuge from a perceived threat such as a loud noise or the approach of an intruder, which of course could be us; they’d just as soon not meet Homo sapiens sapiens, that hostile towering monster, face to face.  Far from roaming the city, they confine themselves to familiar, well-worn paths, and in their one-year life span rarely range more than 600 feet from their birthplace. 

     If you go looking for rats (but who would, except students of the species?), you may spot their lumpy mounds in parks or playgrounds or other open areas, often under a bush or near a trash can.  Rats are nocturnal feeders, but with patience you may see one emerge in the daylight and approach any accessible bit of trash, especially discarded cooked food.  If you see one scouting about and snapping up a loose crumb or morsel here or there, it’s probably an old one looking for scraps that younger, more successful ones have overlooked or discarded. 

     Fortunately, rats differ from mice in preferring to forage outside, and if they do invade a building, they usually remain in the basement and rarely venture upstairs.  But if you find droppings bigger than coffee beans near the fridge or the stove, you’ve got a problem: it’s time to summon an exterminator.  Killing them isn’t easy, since if one dies quickly from poison, or in a snap trap that isn’t promptly removed, his buddies get wise and avoid the bate or the traps.  Don’t ever confront them; if cornered, they can bite. To keep them away, avoid clutter, get rid of garbage promptly, put food in tight containers, seal all cracks and holes … and pray.

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Dead rats on display in an exterminator's window in Paris.  An international problem.
Doc Searls

     Needless to say, the city authorities have little love for these residents who go looking for free eats everywhere and don’t pay taxes, and who carry disease-causing pathogens in their system, as well as fleas, lice, and mites rich in bacteria causing bubonic plague, typhus, and spotted fever.  Mayor after mayor has declared war on rats, another of those wars that Americans love to declare (on cancer, drugs, poverty, etc.) but rarely win.  Rats can bite and, being rife with pests, they can spread disease, but getting rid of them isn’t easy, as their discreet presence in the millions attests.  There have been accounts of rats biting babies, and in 1979 a pack of rats reportedly attacked a woman in a Lower Manhattan alley, provoking Mayor Ed Koch to address the crisis.  Years later Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, hearing constant complaints about rats at town hall meetings, created a “rodent task force” to deal with the problem; it still meets every week. 

     Mayor de Blasio’s administration today is no exception.  In June 2015 the city passed a budget that included $2.9 million dedicated to reducing  unwanted rodents.  Subsequently, teams began ranging the city looking for signs of their presence: compressed grass, and, about an inch above the ground on walls beside sidewalks, marks left by an oil from their hair that rubs off and darkens the walls as they go feeling the walls with their whiskers.  Then what?  “Integrated pest management” comes into play.  In suspect neighborhoods labeled “rat reservoirs,” rat sterilization products go into sidewalk cracks, under sewer grates, into tree hollows, and deep into thickets in parks.  Traps are also set, and rodent-resistant trash cans installed. 

     Meanwhile a group of citizen vigilantes are setting out at night with terriers to attack the rats, a project that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) denounces as a blood sport masquerading as rat control, and illegal.  These hunts have been recorded on video, with scenes of dogs gnashing captured rats viciously.  The beaming smiles of the onlooking hunters do indeed suggest that PETA just might have a point.  In New York City, nothing is ever simple.

     Should Rattus norvegicus tremble in his burrows?  Maybe.  But in the words of one rodentologist, he is “diabolically clever,” “an opportunist, and not fussy.”  Quite so.  He’s happy to find a crumb or two from a pizza, an apple core, a discarded sandwich, a bit of wienie, since an ounce of food and water a day will sustain him.  So yet another war on rats unfolds, and alas, rat complaints from citizens are soaring.  But we have one ally in the fight: the red-tailed hawks that soar majestically high up in the sky; they are the greatest predator of rats.  So three cheers for Buteo jamaicensis, an old friend of mine whom I have often seen soaring, or perched in trees in parks.  We need all the help we can get.

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Don DeBold

     But the phenomena of nature are rarely simple, and there are rats and rats.  In July 2015 rats began appearing in a median between the West Side Highway and an exit lane onto West 57th Street, across from a Sanitation Department garage.  First there were just a handful, then more, still more, until five hundred were scurrying about in the underbrush.  How they got there is still a mystery.  And these weren’t just plain old ordinary rats; these were albinos, white with pink eyes, cuddly little unratlike creatures that people adopt as pets or, more sinisterly, experiment with in labs or raise to feed to snakes. 

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Could you resist these little dears?  New Yorkers couldn't.
Inge Habex

     There was no food or water for the rats on this little manmade island, so many of them, even though albino rats are mostly blind, ran out onto the ten-lane highway, making for the nearby Hudson River, and came to a grisly end.  But “pity runneth soone in gentil herte” (Chaucer).  When an article was published in which a biologist announced that the albinos were doomed, the good citizens of Gotham sprang to the rescue, coming at night with boxes and buckets and cat carriers to snatch up all the little rats they could. 

     But the story doesn’t end there, for the next day the Health Department, citing risks to public safety, set out poison; the rats indeed were doomed.  But rat rescuers, furious at this injustice, rushed back again to scoop up still more of the critters, which are reputedly smarter than hamsters and guinea pigs, and quicker to bond with their keepers.  A love fest followed in scores of apartments and homes citywide, as the good Samaritans bonded with their newfound pets who, when relaxed and happy, grind their incisors endearingly and bug their eyes rapidly in and out.  One of the albinos even made it big, getting a role in a hit on Broadway.  

     This is a nice note to end on, but I’ll add one more happy thought.  Some scientists believe that, in the next mass extinction of life on the planet, rats will be among the few animal species to survive.  Let’s hope that, if any of them could ever write a memoir, at least a few of them would record some happy memories of vanished Homo sapiens sapiens. 

     Source note:  For information on Rattus norvegicus in the city, I am indebted to various articles in the New York Times, especially one by Andy Newman on rescued albinos in the issue of January 24, 2016.

     The book: Still available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

There is, of course, that other book, the naughty novel The Pleasuring of Men with a cover that has proven irresistible to a certain contingent of males and to some  susceptible females as well.  It is now visible on the Facebook page of the publisher, Gival Press.  If morbid curiosity prompts you, go there and you'll see what I mean; click on the truncated version of the photo to get the whole thing.  Who the sexy guy on the cover is and where he came from, I have no idea, though there could well be a story there; credit goes to my canny and resourceful publisher.

     Coming soon:  Toy locomotives and cloud-skirting aircraft, my Royal portable typewriter, Batman racing nimbly over the rooftops of Gotham, and wide-screen panoramic day and night views of New York to utterly inspire and dazzle -- all this and more in one of the best-kept secrets in the city.

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder

Sunday, February 7, 2016

218. Women of Mystery

     Imagine a short, stout, forceful woman with unruly dark hair, strong arms, large eyes, a grave expression, and several chins, her ample form wrapped in a loose robe, her fingers adorned with rings.  A chain-smoking woman who talked incessantly in a guttural voice with a bit of Russian accent, sometimes wittily and sometimes crudely, a persuasive storyteller who could fascinate others.  A welcoming and unpretentious woman, but capricious, noisy, impulsive, perhaps a bit scandalous, and above all firm in her own opinions and indifferent to those of others.  A woman who, when it came to sex, claimed to be glacially cold, never having slept with her estranged husband, but who professed to have a volcano in constant eruption in her brain.   

     And out of that volcanic brain came stories.  A woman said to have smoked hashish with the Universal Mystic Brotherhood in Cairo, studied voodoo in New Orleans, discovered a lost Incan treasure in South America, performed as a concert pianist in England, visited the Mormons in Salt Lake City, and fought beside Garibaldi in Italy and been wounded and left for dead.  A woman who had reputedly survived two sea disasters, had an affair with an Italian opera singer (in spite of glacial coldness!), discovered an ancient language, and studied with a group of Masters of the Ancient Wisdom in Tibet who practiced clairvoyance and telepathy, and could dematerialize and rematerialize physical objects, and project their astral bodies.

File:Portrait of Madame Blavatsky2.jpg

     A woman who obviously – or purportedly – got around, and who after experiencing all these adventures and misadventures throughout the world, at age forty-two is known for certain to have arrived by ship on July 7, 1873, in New York City.  Here, after a sojourn in a women’s housing cooperative on the Lower East Side, she lived simply in furnished rooms at the corner of West 47th Street and Eighth Avenue amid stuffed animals and images of spiritual figures, and from there set forth her beliefs about the spiritual structure of the universe, soon to be expressed in print.  An eccentric and unique woman who was soon, in the America of that time, to splash big and become all the rage.

     Meet Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, occultist, spirit medium, and cofounder in New York City in 1875 of the Theosophical Society, whose esoteric ideas she expounded thereafter, acquiring international fame … and notoriety.  If ever there was a mystery woman of New York, it was, for a few short years in the 1870s, Madame Blavatsky.

     Her life before coming to New York is a mix of fact and fiction that even today cannot be untangled.  Born to an aristocratic Russian-German family in the Ukraine in 1831, in her childhood she traveled widely with her family throughout the Russian Empire, and from an early age developed an interest in Western esotericism.  In 1849 she married a vice-governor but soon deserted him and then, by her own account, at age eighteen began traveling the world, perhaps financed by her father.  She seems to have visited Constantinople, Egypt, and various countries in Europe, and may have visited Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and the Andes, before returning to Europe, following which she allegedly revisited the U.S. and then regained India via Japan, and succeeded in reaching Tibet.  In the course of these wanderings she claimed to have encountered magicians, Mesmerists, swamis, shamans, Buddhist monks, and a mysterious Hindu who urged her to visit Tibet, all of them encouraging her in her pursuit of esoteric wisdom. 

     The America she came to was – in certain intellectual circles, at least -- impatient with scientific materialism and mainstream Christianity and deep into spiritualism, into séances and speaking with the dead.  In this adventurous and somewhat soupy environment she thrived.  How could she not, when she professed to be reviving an “Ancient Wisdom” underlying all the world’s religions, and to herself possess mysterious powers that caused strange rappings and creakings in her presence, and made furniture move of its own volition.  Joining forces with journalist and lawyer Henry Steel Olcott, in 1875 she cofounded the Theosophical Society, where she expounded her beliefs in a universal religion of wisdom, an occult guide to the cosmos, nature, and human life, a secret doctrine known to Plato, the ancient Hindu sages, and the adepts of Hermeticism, a doctrine from which all religions derive, and which would become the future religion of the world.  When she advanced these ideas in her first book, Isis Unveiled, published in New York in 1877, the work attracted negative reviews but became a bestseller, the initial printing of a thousand copies selling out in a week.

File:Hours with the ghosts, or, Nineteenth century witchcraft - illustrated investigations into the phenomena of spiritualism and theosophy (1897) (14591793778).jpg
Madame in later life.

     Despite this success and her becoming a U.S. citizen in 1878, Madame was not happy in this hotbed of materialism.  Sensing a kinship with certain Hindu thinkers, she and Olcott sold off their possessions and, with a phonograph given them by its inventor, Thomas Edison, set sail in 1879 for England on the first leg of their journey to India.  In that British colony they met various swamis, championed Hinduism and thus antagonized both the British government and Christian missionaries, stayed at one point in a maharajah’s palace, and converted to Buddhism in Ceylon.  Deteriorating health in time forced her to return to Europe, where the Theosophical Society now had numerous branches, and where a disaffected follower alleged that Blavatsky’s paranormal abilities were fraudulent, an assertion that garnered international attention, despite the accuser’s own apparent history of crime and extortion.  More travels and more controversies followed, and more books expounding her ideas.  She died of influenza in London in 1891.

     What is one to make of this woman today, a woman who was vibrantly New Agey decades before New Agey became a frothy fad and a serious commitment?  Many of her claims, including the visit to Tibet, have been questioned, but there is little doubt that some of her travels were authentic, the problem being to know which ones.  The same ambiguity besets her claims to paranormal powers, some observers dismissing them completely, and others registering a more nuanced opinion.  What one finally thinks of her inevitably reflects one’s own opinions: if you reject the paranormal, you will label her a fake; if you don’t, you will cautiously concede that some of her assertions merit consideration.  The Theosophical Society still exists and can be accessed on the Internet.  One thing is certain: she was indeed a woman of mystery, the like of which few will ever match.  And since she appeared on the scene, the world hasn’t been the same.

     Now we will fast forward to 2016 and have a glimpse at a sorceress in a black velvet cape, her straggly dark hair hanging to her waist, her eyebrows black crescents over narrow eyes, her lips with not a trace of lipstick: a woman of distinctive – I would almost say haunting – appearance.  She awaits her clients in a dimly lit conjuring room on the third floor of a tenement at 365 West 48th Street, but a few blocks from Times Square.  The walls of the room are red, the curtains green velvet, and one entire wall is lined with shelves of books of arcane knowledge.  Into this hushed sanctum come visitors paying $65 or more to watch her read cards, perform sleight of hand, and command spirits of the dead.

     A contemporary Madame Blavatsky, exhibiting her paranormal powers?  Not at all.  A run-of-the-mill medium or clairvoyant or fortuneteller with a dash of flair?  Wrong again.  The sorceress is Belinda Sinclair, a magician giving a performance entitled “A Magicienne Among the Spirits,” which is also a kind of history seminar on women and magic, and on the female mediums, clairvoyants, and psychic healers – some of them out-and-out frauds – who flourished in nineteenth-century New York in apartments much like hers.  Crammed in that apartment are more than 3,000 pieces of “female magician ephemera,” which constitutes only a part of her collection.

     “Women, in one way or another,” she explains, “have been the quintessential Magi forever.”  Nineteenth-century New York witnessed séances and trance demonstrations in concert halls and private parlors, magazines on spiritualism were widely read, and some scientists opined that the spiritualists’ conjurings – some of them, at least – were legitimate.  The Spiritual Register of 1861 listed dozens of mediums in the city, and there were certainly many more who preferred to remain clandestine … and not pay taxes.  Some were certainly charlatans, but some, according to the press of the time, actually exerted a good influence on their neighborhood, dispensing advice much as a priest or confessor might.  This world, invoked so vividly by Belinda Sinclair, is the one into which Madame Blavatsky burst with such command of spiritual authority and such a bag of tricks (if tricks they were).  According to Ms. Sinclair, they were indeed tricks, for she declares that “the whole room was rigged” – an opinion not fully shared by historians today. 

     A magician since the age of nine, Ms. Sinclair, who grew up in Chelsea, is also an ordained minister and certified paramedic, has studied herbology, homeopathy, and hypnosis and has traveled widely.  She has been building her collection of female magician ephemera for over 30 years.  Comprising documents, apparatus, spiritualists’ memoirs and how-to books, it is, according to her, the largest library in the world of female magician ephemera, and one she would like to turn into a traveling museum exhibition.  Also in her sanctum, though well concealed, are the switches and wires that cause things to move or explode, and make books fall off shelves, thus enlivening her act.  Her goal is not to hoax people, but to simulate the hoaxes of the past, which she does with skill and flair.  She proclaims her act “a lost art,” one that makes people feel better about themselves – a goal that Madame Blavatsky herself, whether authentic or not, surely shared.

     Whether a woman is a Wise One and a true gateway to the Unknown may well depend on the observer, who projects these qualities onto a likely subject, with her complicity or not.  In a subway car I once saw a woman in a black dress who immediately grabbed my attention and fascinated me as a study in silver and black.  She was in her forties with long black hair, thin black eyebrows over eyes with long dark lashes, a prominent nose, full lips with dark red lipstick, and a slight double chin.  Silver earrings with tiny red stones dangled from her ears, she wore a silver chain around her neck and silver rings on her fingers, and her black dress was edged around the bosom with silver.  In addition, she had silver fingernails and, visible in her open-towed sandals, silver toenails.  She looked exotic, though her ethnic origin was unclear. 

     So striking was this woman’s appearance that I scribbled a description of her and so, years later, can bring her vividly to mind.  I took her for a fortuneteller, though this was only a guess.  I could well imagine her sitting in some shadowy den here in the West Village or Chelsea or Soho, waiting for a customer seeking reassurance, guidance, or a glimpse into the future.  These women are still all about, and she could well have been one of them.  I never saw her again, so I’ll never know.  But she was clearly a woman of mystery, and dressed for the part.

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     I have never consulted fortuneteller, though a friend of mine did.  A third-generation Italian American, Tony, a devout but lapsed Catholic (yes, one can be both simultaneously), was all impulse and intuition, and indifferent to reason.  Always scant of funds, if he came into a bit of money, he might blow it on perfumes or clothes.  On a rare visit to New York, he told me he had consulted a fortuneteller here and her answers had decided him: he was returning at once to California.  That he could make up his mind in such a way, and so suddenly, so impulsively, baffled me, but off he went.  I suspect that he is the type – or one of the types – that fortunetellers attract.  And back in California he had a guru, too.

     Once, long ago, briefly, I overheard a fortuneteller reading a customer’s palm.  She was a genial older woman sitting in on a Friday night dance at the Y, and without intentionally eavesdropping, I heard her say calmly to the girl consulting her, “You want something very much, but be prepared: you won’t get it.”  The girl blanched, nodded, looked wounded, but recovered her composure.  I marveled at the fortuneteller’s astuteness; she had perceived accurately or guessed right, and the girl reacted accordingly.  And in this case the fortuneteller wasn’t smoothing the client’s feathers, she was ruffling them.  A good fortuneteller, I suspect, is skilled in perceiving a client’s needs and fears, and proceeds accordingly. 

     I once knew a healer named Lilith (a marvelous name for a woman of mystery), a woman who in midlife, with her children grown, had left her husband to go a bit New Agey and become a healer, treating patients apparently beyond the help of orthodox medicine.  Learning of a famous female Zapotec healer in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, she went there to learn from her, even though she knew neither Zapotec nor Spanish.  Something clicked immediately between them, and the healer agreed to teach her.  Their sessions at first required two translators, one to translate from Zapotec to Spanish, and another to translate from Spanish to English.  But after three sessions the two women had intuitively reached such an understanding that they could dismiss the translators and communicate on their own.  As the native people of the area learned that she was being instructed by the Zapotec woman, they began following Lilith about, begging her to treat them, which she did not feel  capable of doing.  But she learned much from the healer and returned to this country to pursue her new occupation.  Though not a New Yorker, she occasionally passed through the city, and I met her more than once for dinner.

     Lilith had a soft, soothing manner that surely went over well with patients.  A nomad, she went from place to place, offering her skills.  I first met her on Monhegan, the little island off midcoast Maine where I and my partner often vacationed.  Lilith was perceptive, intuitional, not governed by common sense or reason, which put some people off but attracted others.  I never needed her services, but the moment she arrived on the island, she had a list of calls to make: people with aches and ills who, once she treated them with a blend of talk and massage, felt noticeably better.  A Wise Woman, for sure, and a forager who knew which mushrooms were safe to eat and which were poisonous, and who once, for an impromptu meal with several of us, simply went down to the beach and harvested some edible seaweed that she cooked, creating a delicious dish for the party.  After a week or two on the island, she was off again – to a remote town in distant Chiapas, in southern Mexico hard by Guatemala – a town that I myself had once visited, one situated near remote villages of native peoples not yet corrupted by hordes of tourists and the ravages of modern civilization.  I’ve never known anyone quite like Lilith, a healer, a forager, a nomad, and certainly a woman of mystery.

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Gypsy Fortune Teller, a 1616 painting by Bartolomeo Manfredi.  A favorite subject of artists.

     Is this world of strange healings and the paranormal, is there room for fraud?  Unfortunately, yes.  Recently a former fortuneteller named Priscilla Kelly Delmaro was released in a Manhattan courtroom after serving eight months in jail, with four years of probation under the terms of a plea agreement.  Her crime?  Fleecing a 33-year-old online entrepreneur of over $550,000 for promising to reunite him with a woman named Michelle who had rejected his advances, a promise to be fulfilled with the help of crystal balls, a time machine, and an 80-mile bridge made of gold.  When the victim learned that Michelle had died, Ms. Delmaro promised to reincarnate her spirit in another body, and even identified the woman the victim was now dating as the new Michelle.  The psychic even convinced her victim that, to help him, she had sacrificed her business, home, and car, had $100,000 of credit card debt, and had been living in a church for six months. 

     An audacious fraud, certainly, and deserving more than eight months in the slammer.  Ah, but here’s the rub: she and her victim had sex on one occasion, so that the extorted sums might be viewed as gifts to an inamorata – a fact that undermined his credibility as a witness.  The lady in question has no aura of the weird or paranormal; indeed, a buxom 26 with long blond hair (but not down to her waist), she looks like a young suburban mom, which she is, having children 4, 6, and 8 years of age.  But as an extortionist she surely had exceptional skill.  The absent victim was indignant at the case’s resolution and has vowed to start a website exposing psychic scams.  His story is ample testimony to what delusions our feelings can expose us, and to what grandiose and preposterous frauds.  Lovers, beware!

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder