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A Rainy Sunday Afternoon at McSorley’s

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So I was in NY this past weekend for a reprieve from my daily routine, I try to do this once or twice a year and as usual spent most of my time in the East and West Village. If you’ve ever been to the East Village you’ve also likely been to McSorley’s Old Ale House on 7th. I’m drawn to such places not because it is a tourist attraction but because of its history. Indeed, any day after 5pm you’ll find the place packed with tourists from around the globe and also drunken college kids. During this time I feel as though I am in a sort of bar version of Times Square; a Disney bar. This said, early in the afternoon you’ll find it still attracts locals and feels like the corner tavern it once was. This was the case when I was walking in the pouring rain this past Sunday afternoon and went in for a respite from the weather.

Standing there at the bar while the place is nearly empty truly is a sort of time travel experience. There are no televisions and there is no music playing. Just people talking, that’s it. The silence seems to encourage people to talk to one other.

McSorley’s was opened in 1854 by an Irish immigrant named John McSorley. It has been operating as a bar nonstop ever since. It didn’t close for prohibition like most other bars and instead sold what they called “near beer.” 1 Throughout it’s history there have been a list of notables who’ve bellied up to the bar, including presidents such as Abe Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Teddy Roosevelt. 2 But like most places that sell libations, McSorley’s also drew creatives as well. One of the more notable ones was the poet EE Cummings, who wrote his now famous poem there, as a sort of ode to the place, I Was Sitting in McSorley’s. 3

McSorley’s was also a holdout as a men’s only bar until 1970 (personally, I find this odd as I like to be in the company of women when I am enjoying a drink). After being sued, they begrudgingly allowed women, and the first to walk through the doors was Barbara Shaum, who knew the proprietor and most of the employees because she herself was a business owner and ran a leather goods store just a few steps away. 4 Though they did not install a separate women’s bathroom until 1986. 5

Anyhow, this is what I was thinking as I stood on a rainy day leaning against the bar in the East village. The history is palpable and I could feel the presence of those who leaned on the same bar before me. I wanted to take a photo but not without permission, so I asked the bartender. He responded that if it was alright with everyone else it was okay with him. The only people I did not ask were the single table of tourists from Arizona to the left in the picture. Not in the frame are three older guys who live nearby and have come here for years in the afternoon, “before the kids show up,” one mentioned. They were to my right and did not want to be in the be in the photo so I took one step forward and aimed the camera as to honor their request.

I don’t always think this but in some photos I do, that in some instances a photograph is really capturing time, and that’s what this is. For a split second it stopped time. Other than the modern dress of the few patrons this photo could be any time. After snapping the photo the bartender (who turned his back to the lens) asked me if I got what I wanted. I did, I told him. Then I slugged the last of my beer and stepped out into a full downpour on a Sunday New York afternoon.

 This photo was shot a couple years ago

2 ibid

The Piano Man of Washington Square Park

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This is Colin Huggins, AKA the Piano Man of Washington Square Park. A classically trained pianist, and originally from Georgia, he has been busking in NYC parks with full-sized pianos for more than a decade. He began in Father Demo Square in the West Village, then moved on to Union Square but was asked to stop by local residents because of the crowds he drew. At one point he was fined $6000 (source: Wikipedia). These days one can find him in Washington Square Park nearly every weekend; he’s there every time I visit the city, even in the cold moths. I’ve posted on him in the past because one of the things he does–or allows–is for people to crawl under his piano and lay there on mats (which he provides) to get a full concert sound. Anyhow, this photo was shot last night while he was playing his last song of the evening. Another thing that I think is pretty cool is the phrase which he has on both sides of his piano and is visible in this photo. It’s the same phrase that Woody Guthrie scrawled on his guitar…This Machine Kills Fascists.

This is Joseph…

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This is Joseph, we met on a subway train yesterday evening. I heard him before seeing him though. I was standing at the far end of a crowded car when he got on at the other end announcing himself, “Hello good people of New York, my name is Joseph.” I’ve sort of given up on giving money to street people for a few reasons, one is that I myself have very little of it these days but also I’ve become overwhelmed, especially in a city like NY. But Joseph was different, he wasn’t asking for a lot, just pennies or whatever change we could spare. He held a small plastic baggie with some coins in it as he swayed through the car telling his story. He hears voices, he bellowed, this is why it is difficult for him to keep a job. At first he thought they were real—that everyone could hear them—but then people told him they were not.  Imagine, he suggested to us, the sound of all these voices you hear in this car right now were in your head but you were in a room alone, and they were talking to you directly. As he swayed through the moving car a few people put money in his plastic baggie, but no one seemed to look at him. I thought my stop would arrive before he would get to me but it didn’t. When he approached I reached into my pocket and found a quarter and a penny, 26 cents, and felt a little foolish as I offered it to him and apologized, saying that was all that I had. “No worries,” he relied, “74 more cents and I’ll have a dollar.” I told him my name was Joseph as well, and asked if I could take his photo, that I like to document people I meet. He got a big grin on his face and struck a pose. After the shutter clicked he told me to put his face on CNN. We fist bumped and as he parted I said, “Good luck, Joseph.” And as he exited the car he turned and replied, “I’ll be alright, every day is a gift from God. If you believe that, which I do, how bad can things be.” With that he exited into a sea of humanity. Thank you Joseph, I needed to hear that. I often forget and you reminded me. This photo cost me 26 cents, but it is worth so much more. Everyone has a story, today I heard a small part of Joseph’s and my life is better because of it.

Sister Spring…

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Sister Spring
you’ve been gone so long
i didn’t think you’d arrive
but you did
you slipped in unannounced
when winter wasn’t watching
your rain falling like tears
blessing everything
cold winds
turning warmer
you bring life
rebirth
and make me remember

The Greatest Thing(s)…

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It was raining this morning so rather than riding a bike to church I used Lyft as I didn’t want to arrive soaking wet. As I left church it was still raining and I snapped this photo just outside the door. It always amazes me when I see buds bursting open after a long winter. How do they know just when to do it? Though it was raining I walked home and it felt good to be in the elements (I also had an umbrella). And as I walked in the rain I thought about a few things. One was how fragile life is; we are here for such an incredibly short time. And also in the end it doesn’t matter how much money we have or things that we’ve acquired. What matters is how we treat each other, right now in this life. If we are made in the image of the creator then how we treat each other reflects on how we treat the one who created us. And this is what I thought about while I walked home in the rain on a chilly Palm Sunday in April…

And then he was questioned by those in power. Taunting him, hoping he would slip up. They asked him: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” ~Matthew 22:36-40

 

M. Steffan’s Sons, Inc

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This is Linda Steffan, fifth generation owner of M. Steffan’s Sons, she inherited the shop from her father in 1993. In the above photo she is holding one of the two leather camera straps she just made for me. Her business card states, in addition to her name, number, etc: Wholesalers and Retailers of Leather and Findings; Shoe Shiner and Leather Craft Supplies.

It’s interesting, I have lived in the neighborhood of this store for many years and have probably walked or biked past it literally thousands of times and often wondered about it, and also questioned whether it was still open. It is very much so.

Unhappy with a strap I had for my camera and wanting one specific, I thought I would stop by so I Googled the place for its hours and came across this recent article about her in the Buffalo News. When I went there a couple weeks ago on my lunch break it was like stepping back in time. I showed her my current strap and what I would like and questioned if she could make one for me, “Sure, why not,” is what she said.

While chatting with her and shooing away her tiny dog that kept nipping at my ankles I told her I read that she had ghosts in the basement which she kept at bay with salt on the stairs. “That’s right,” she said a matter-of-factly, “and there’s also a crucifix as well.” When I requested to see them she declined.

Over the course of three visits in the past couple weeks I was surprised how many customers came in. There was someone with a large leather chair having it repaired, someone purchasing strips of leather, and today a guy was picking up his shoes which he has shined there. In retrospect, I remember chatting with a late neighbor, who was repairing his own leather chair, who told be he purchased the leather their as it was the only place he could find in the city.

It really is an interesting experience doing business with Linda. Not only are you doing business with the owner—which is becoming a rarity these days—but she is polite and cheerful and the place is packed floor-to-ceiling with all sorts of tools and merchandise. What you won’t find are any loud or glaring screens, in fact I didn’t see any electronics at all. My receipt is hand written.

Yesterday when I got the call that my straps were ready I told her I would stop by the next day on my lunch hour, which was Wednesday. She mentioned that she was only open until 12:00 or 1:00pm on Wednesdays so I made sure to be on time. When I arrived, we fitted one of my cameras with a strap to make sure it fit correctly—it did—and then she punched a couple more holes in the leather to make it a bit more adjustable.

Thanking her for her work, before leaving I asked why she closed early on Wednesdays. She smiled replied simply, “Because I can.” Thank you Linda for such a pleasurable experience, I felt like an actual person and not just another customer while doing business with you. 

Urban Simplicity.

Things That Can be Carried on a Bike (No. 736)…

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On the bike, or at least being pulled behind the bike…$167 in groceries. (Note to self…don’t stop at the grocery store for “just a couple things” with an empty stomach).

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