Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Bad Case of "The City," Part II

I apologize for the lack of images. Since giving up my work-supplied G5 Macintosh, working on pictures has been almost impossible. I'm not sure when I will be able to deal with the pictures that are piling up, much less make the beautiful picture-based posts that I've been planning. Consequently, I've decided that a single post without pictures is far better than a thousand "I'll get to it someday" posts with pictures. I'll try to add photos back in when I get a chance!

When my grandparents died in 1986, my family stopped visiting New York every year. Still, we'd come once in a while. We would stay in a hotel, with my Aunt Portia in Midtown, or with my Aunt Libby in Suffolk County, way out on Long Island. During the late-eighties and early nineties, my father became a little braver about visiting the city. We would walk all around (during the day, of course), and would even, occasionally, catch a show or go to a Midtown restaurant after dark.

My Aunt Portia was somewhat responsible for this change. She had lived in New York since the sixties, and often bragged that the only place she'd been mugged was outside Union Station in Washington D.C. Without even realizing it, she coaxed my father further and further out of his comfort zone, simply by being brave enough to wander around after nightfall.

In these days, my father's assessment of New York's crime became more specific. Danger was no longer something endemic to "The City," but rather to "parts of The City." As long as we avoided those dangerous parts, we would be safe. I first discovered this in the late eighties, when we ventured north from DC to meet with one of Dad's publishers, see a show, and attend my cousin's baptism. My father told me that I could set the agenda for the visit, and that he would take me anywhere that I wanted to go. The only caveat was that we had to visit the Strand. This wasn't much of a hardship, as I was a hard-core book junkie, and a few hours wandering the stacks in the Strand was pretty much my idea of heaven.

I had spent years compiling a list of places that I wanted to visit, so I led dad all over the city. I was beginning my flirtation with special effects makeup, so we went to various sculpture houses and stage makeup suppliers. I also dragged him to Hammacher-Schlemmer, an expensive executive doohickey store, and the Sadigh Gallery, which specialized in bargain-basement antiquities. We visited novelty stores and galleries, bookstores and candy makers, generally having a great time. Finally, though, we hit the last place on my list: Maxilla and Mandible.

Maxilla and Mandible was a bone store that was located in the high seventies on Columbus Avenue on the upper West side. This is hardly the wilderness; in fact, it is only a couple of blocks from Zabar's, scourge of Jewish waistlines and almost the textbook definition of a civilized grocery store (actually, this is an overstatement: Zabar's can get a little cutthroat, especially if you happen to be blocking access to the knish window, or take too long ordering cold cuts. Those babushkas can get nasty). Still, when my father caught on that we were travelling north of 60th Street, he immediately tensed up. When we found our way to the store, he had to circle the block a few times until he found a parking space that enabled him to watch the car from inside the store. Our precautions were exhaustive, suggesting to me that we were about to visit a heroin dealer in the most isolated part of Harlem, not a boutique in one of Manhattan's most expensive neighborhoods.

I've since gone back to Maxilla and Mandible. It's still a great store, with tons of animal skulls, bizarre medical instruments, posters, fossils, and various ephemera. When I first went there, though, it was a wonderland. In the eighties, India was a liberal exporter of human bones. I've since heard that they fished corpses out of the Ganges, which they cleaned and sold at rock-bottom prices. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that, before India put a ban on bone sales, it was possible to buy a human humerus for $30. Skulls were in the $100s, and hands were in the $80's. The store even had candy jars filled with loose teeth, which they sold for a few cents each. Within a few minutes, my father was even distracted enough to drag his eyes away from the front window, where he was staring at the car.

We left about an hour later and a few hundred dollars poorer. The car was still there.

When I took my wife and daughter to Maxilla and Mandible this spring, I was a little apprehensive. After all, my father had seemed terrified to be travelling so far into the wilds of northern Manhattan, so I was convinced that the store must be in a skeevy neighborhood. My wife laughed at my nervousness, pointing out that we were only a few blocks from the Museum of Natural History, the Dakota, and Central Park. By the time we got to the store, twilight had fallen, and we spent about a half hour inside (it's still cool, but the de-legalization of the bone trade has really taken a bite out of their inventory). Afterward, we wandered around the neighborhood for about an hour. Darkness had fallen, but it was a safe and well-lit place, and we passed a lot of other people who were pushing strollers.

Labels: , , ,


  • You must have written this in anticipation of Halloween. One of the beauties of The City is how much it can change, and what it offers. And the food! I will never be slim and svelte, and The City made a contribution to that.

    By Blogger The CEO, At October 29, 2007 at 12:26 AM  

  • I wander about Manhattan with absolutely no clue where the "bad" neighborhoods might be. I've never had any scary experiences. Now DC on the other hand gives me the willies sometimes.

    Good to see you're up and writing again here! Linking now!

    By Anonymous Franki, At October 29, 2007 at 12:27 PM  

  • CEO-
    There seems to be no limit to what the city offers. Or, to put it another way, the limiting factor seems to be what You're willing to accept!

    I think bad is relative. There are still dangerous places in Manhattan, but I have yet to be hassled in New York.

    By Blogger Crankster, At October 29, 2007 at 2:07 PM  

  • I remember in the late 70's going into the City with my grandma. She showed me how to dress like a bag lady and sling my purse over my shoulder to make it harder to steal. The subway was graffitied, smoking, stinky and "bums" were everywhere. Mind you, I had just moved from Minneapolis to Herndon (farm country). I was no expert on the City. But it left a serious impression on me. To this day, I either don't carry a purse or carry one over my shoulder.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 29, 2007 at 10:59 PM  

  • You lived in Herndon? I was almost arrested in Herndon once.

    I hate Herndon.

    Sounds like your grandma really gave you the grand tour. I have to admit, I'm a little envious!

    By Blogger Crankster, At October 30, 2007 at 2:07 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home