June 5th, 2007

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New York, New York

In the interests of research, I've been reading a book lent to me by the wonderful vschanoes when I went to Philadelphia to talk to her class tin April. It's called You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan From the 1890's to World War II, edited (compiled, organized, orchestrated) by one Jeff Kisseloff, published by HBJ in 1989, and it's the oddest book I've read in a long time.

What he did was interview a large bunch of people. Rich people, poor people, beggar-men, thieves. Socialites, working women, women with servants and women who were servants. Jews, Italians, Germans, WASPS, Irish, Hungarians, African Americans, Latinos, Chinese. And then he wove the interviews together into roughly chronological meditations on the major neighborhoods of New York. So you've got an West Side Jewish girl from a nice family talking about how her mother told her that her husband would explain where babies come from when she was married segueing into a Columbus Avenue tough talking about the whores living on Central Park West. And a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire talking about how she got out, and a girl who survived the General Slocum Steamboat disaster talking about how she and her mother was rescued, but her mother died six days later of burns and water in her lungs.

Some of it is harrowing and some of it is funny and it's utterly fascinating. Did you know that the Dakota got its name because it was so far away from civilization that it might as well have been in the northern territories? Or that the Hotel Ansonia had its own grocery store and restaurant and dry cleaners and the servants had apartments of their own on the top floors? Or that tradesmen had to pay protection money for their horses, and when they didn't pay, the horses were poisoned and left in the streets to rot? Or that the Park Avenue ladies used to go to Ellis Island to pick up a new scullery maid or a furnace man? Me neither.

I'll give back the book, of course. But not until I've tracked down and ordered one of my own. This one's a keeper. Big time.