A Red, Red Rose for Valentines Day

red rose

My luv is like a red, red rose

     That’s newly sprung in June:

My luv is like the melody

     That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

     So deep in love am I:

And I will luv thee still, my dear,

     Til a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

     And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:

And I will luv thee still, my dear,

     While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only love,

     And fare thee weel a while!

And I will come again, my luv,

     Thou’ it were ten thousand mile.

              Robert Burns, 1794


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Time Changes Everything—Sometimes for the Better


Recently while sorting through research notes for the book I wrote about the 19th century home of the Tredwell family, I ran across an interesting diary entry made by Samuel, the youngest son. When he was a teenager he dutifully noted he had borrowed five cents from his little sister so he could go see the “fat lady.” Apparently he didn’t have quite enough for the 25 cent admission fee to the American Museum on Broadway where the fat lady was on exhibit.

The American Museum

The American Museum

Founded by the flamboyant showman, P.T. Barnum, the museum was one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions from the time of its founding in 1842 until 1865 when a spectacular fire completely destroyed it.

It was a combination zoo, aquarium, wax works, and theater. Barnum filled his museum with all manner of curiosities including an exhibit of “freaks.”—persons who suffered rare and strange deformities and disabilities: among them Jo-Jo the dog faced boy, who had a th-1genetic disorder that caused him to have abnormal amounts of body hair; William Henry Johnson, a mentally defective African American who assumed the role of a man/animal, and ran around growling; Chang and Eng, the conjoined Siamese twins; Tom Thumb, largethe famous dwarf,—and of course the fat lady.
The freak show at Barnum’s museum was the forerunner of the sideshow, a component of carnivals and circuses throughout the country well into the 20th century. Gradually, however, thanks to the advances of medical science, an increased understanding of genetic disorders and mental illness developed. Many th-6conditions can now be successfully treated; even conjoined twins can sometimes be surgically separated (thank you, Dr. Carson). And with support and the proper assistance, the severely handicapped can live peaceful, sometimes productive lives. Legislation protects the Josephine-Myrtle-Corbin-4-gamberights of the disabled, and private non profits provide assistance for every type of disability and rare disease. Today the he word “freak” applies to accidents, not people.

We can certainly point to many examples of the debasement of our popular culture from the twerking of Miley Cyrus to the foul language that sometimes seems to be the staple of ordinary conversation. But it is no longer acceptable for the malformed and handicapped to be the object of voyeuristic curiosity. In that respect, at least, we can say we are wiser, more sensitive, more compassionate than our 19th century counterparts.



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What Did They Do All Day?


It’s a question often asked by visitors to the Merchant’s House Museum, a 19th century home where four unmarried sisters and their widowed mother lived.

No children, no job, no electricity, no telephone, and four Irish servants to do the housework and cooking—so what filled their days?

They Wrote letters and notes by the dozens with a dip pen. They  fussed with their clothes. They read the Bible and  books (mostly non fiction) with tiny type and small black and white woodcuts. They shopped on Broadway and called on their friends. And their friends called on them. They filled the pages of albums with samples of seaweed they collected from the Jersey shore. And they spent hours on other popular 19th century craft projects like converting lobster claws to  toothpick holders.

Yet there were long dark winter afternoons when spirits must have drooped for want of amusement.

And that is why the 19th century home so often counted among its residents a songbird, most often a canary. Did the Tredwells own a canary? Probably. We know that their young neighbor, John Skidmore, did. On New Years Eve,1858, he recorded in his pocket diary that he had bought a “canary, cage, and fixings” for $5.00.

My Canary Bird

Did we count great, O soul to penetrate the
themes of mighty books,
Absorbing deep and full from thoughts, plays,
But now from thee to me, caged bird, to feel
the joyous warble
Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long
Is it not just as great, O soul?
Walt Whitman


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From Omnibus to Uber—How We Get and Got— Around in NYC

Way to Go!

Way to Go!

The next time I make a list of reasons I love New York City, UBER will be at the top of the list. Activate the app—in as little as three minutes a late model, clean car with a courteous driver (who knows how to drive)  appears at the door. And when you get to where you’re going, you just get out. No need to mess with money; the fare is automatically charged to your credit card. A little more expensive than a cab, a lot more than a bus or a subway, but well worth it in my opinion.

Our mayor, however, is not as enthusiastic as I am. He attempted to limit the number of cars in the fleet last summer, but the proposal was met with such fierce public opposition that the City Council refused to take it up.  A subsequent $2 million study to determine whether the cars were the cause of increased traffic congestion showed that in fact, other factors were responsible. Face it, Mr. Mayor. Uber is here to stay. Part of the gig economy, the five-year old company with a global reach is the world’s most highly valued private company because it provides a service people want and need. On an average day, Uber takes New Yorkers on 100,000 trips.


photo_omnibusFirst there were the omnibuses that traveled a designated route, stopping to let people on and off. Then in 1832 came the horse cars, pulled by horses along smooth steel rails. They could carry more passengers than an omnibus and go faster, reaching speeds of five miles an hour!  Next were the dramatically faster elevated trains that propelled passengers 30 feet above ground toward Harlem, spitting cinders all the way. And finally, in 1904, the first subway line,the Interborough Rapid Transit Line, opened. Today we have a complex subway system that serves around six million riders on any weekday.  And of course, there are yellow cabs and buses, which are about as slow as their omnibus ancestors.


As for Uber, Travis Kalanik, the CEO, when questioned by a Wall Street Journal reporter recently, confirmed that Uber is aggressively researching the use of driverless cars. How soon would this become a reality? He wasn’t specific, but said only, “This technology is coming. So then the question for us is, does Uber want to be a part of the future or are we going to resist the future like maybe the taxi industry before us?”

As unlikely as it seems, I’m pretty sure it will happen because I can remember when the idea of everybody walking around with their own phones seemed just as ridiculous.




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Now Maybe We Can All Get Back To Normal

Last night—January 5—marked the evening before Epiphany when the Biblical Kings reached the newborn Christ Child.

thIn medieval and Tudor England, Twelfth night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve or as we know it, Halloween. Now we don’t exactly celebrate a winter festival, but that period between Halloween and tonight is generally referred to as “the holidays.”

There’s a lot to love about “the holidays” : It’s a time of parties, parades, and family get togethers and gifting and big meals on fine china— a time of spiritual renewal, of counting our blessings, of communicating with old friends, of charitable impulse.But let’s face it; in many ways it is exhausting.

They used to indulge in raucous merrymaking on Twelfth Night. Most of us don’t feel quite up to that. But  if you had a Christmas tree and haven’t already done so, now’s the time to take it down.






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January 4, 2016 · 8:04 pm

Tonight’s the Night! Time Again for the Times Square Time Ball

The 2016 Time Ball

The 2016 Time Ball with its 288 new “Gift of Wonder” Waterford crystal panels.

Tonight a million people will squeeze themselves into Times Square  to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, and a billion more around the globe are expected to watch the event on television.  The focus of their merriment will be an 11,785 pound  ball of iron sheathed in Waterford Crystal mounted on a pole at the top of the building at 1 Times Square.   A million voices in unison will count down the seconds before midnight as the ball descends the pole.

This year security will be tighter than ever.  A newly formed counter terrorism unit of 500 policemen will be deployed along with over 5000 other officers (that’s right: 5000). There’ll be cameras, radiation and chemical detectors, dogs, cops in uniform, cops in plain clothes, cops on horseback, and cops on rooftops with long guns.

People will be guided through 14 access points to one of the 65 “spectator pens.” Once there, you can’t leave or you will lose your spot. Temperature will be around 43 degrees. Many people arrive hours and hours ahead of the official 6 p.m. start time for the beginning of the festivities.

Does this sound like fun to you?

For years I wondered how this custom ever got started. So last year, I looked it up and posted the history of the time ball. For those of you who missed it or want to read it again, here it is:

Once upon a time, time balls were prosaic navigational tools:  wooden balls mounted on poles sitting atop a high point observable by ship captains peering through their telescopes.

The time ball at the Greenwich Observatory, London. Established 1833

The time ball at the Greenwich Observatory, London. Established 1833

Their purpose—to notify seamen of the exact time so that they could set their chronometers. The first time balls were located on top of observatories where exact time was determined by celestial observation.

Here’s how it worked: A few minutes before one o’clock in the afternoon (12 noon in the United States), the ball was raised halfway up the pole. Then two or three minutes later the ball was raised all the way to the top. On the exact hour, the ball started its descent. The beginning of the drop signaled that it was now 1 p.m. (or noon). After the invention of the telegraph, a time signal could be sent to points distant and time balls were installed on the highest building in many cities and towns to enable people to set their watches. After the introduction of the radio, of course, time balls were no longer necessary.

So How Did a Time Ball Get to Times Square?

In 1904, Adolph Ochs , publisher of The New York Times, bought the building at what is now 1 Times Square. (At the time it was called Longacre Square, but Ochs convinced the City to rename it.) And to celebrate the New Year, he decided to have a fireworks display launched from the top of the building. That went on for three  years, and a good time was had by all, but in 1907 the City banned the fireworks. Rather than give up the celebration, Ochs had the brilliant idea of installing a time ball that would designate exactly when the New Year arrived, and give revelers a reason to continue to celebrate in front of his building.

To maximize the merriment, the customary procedure of designating the time from the beginning of the descent was turned on its head. Now revelers began the countdown to midnight as the ball dropped. When it reached the bottom—the midnight hour had arrived and the New Year was born.

The 1955 Time Ball had 180 lights

The 1955 Time Ball had 180 lights.

That first Times time ball was studded with 100 incandescent light bulbs. When the magic hour arrived, four electric signs—one on each side of the building—flashed “1908” in numerals six feet high. Since then, the ball has been modified many times. In 2000, to mark the millennnium, the Waterford Crystal ball was introduced. Today LED lighting technology makes possible a wide variety of spectacular effects.

Few time balls still exist; two of them are in the U.S.: one at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C and the other at the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse at the South Street Seaport in New York City.

The Greenwich observatory time ball in London and the one at the Naval  Observatory are operational; they still drop at the designated hour every day. The Times Square ball, on the other hand, has never served as a daily indicator of the time. It drops only once a year.

Tonight’s the night!


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