Saturday, April 25, 2015

History Watch: As Dr. Henry Chickenkisser* said so famously, "History is just one damned thing after another"


"For more on Robert Grossman's should-be-legendary character Dr. Henry Chickenkisser and his should-be-legendary quote, check out this April 2007 post.

by Ken

I've mentioned before the free writing workshop for seniors offered on Wednesday afternoons by the New York Transit Museum in association with the New York Writers Coalition, and I couldn't resist the new session in the spring-summer program calendar," which started this week. Hey, it beats most anything else I could be doing these Wednesday afternoons. Like sitting at my desk, to pick a not-quite-random example.

(So far for spring it's a small group, so there's still room for newcomers for the session, which runs seven more weeks, through June 10, at the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn. If you're interested, call Elyse at the Transit Museum, 718-694-1867. You can tell her Ken suggested you call, but she'll be just as nice to you if you don't. And if you have questions about how the Transit Museum is defining "senior," talk to Elyse. The thing is, it really is free, no strings attached. And the writing doesn't have to be transit-themed. The museum itself is there to inspire us if we choose to be so inspired -- we usually write in an ancient IRT car with wicker seats which is part of the museum's collection.)

For the first session Eileen, our instructor from the NY Writers Coalition, in keeping with the transit theme, passed around a bunch of photos from the 1964-65 World's Fair, and invited us to take off from that in any way we wished -- or, if we preferred, to ignore the prompt altogether. As it happens, with last summer marking the 75th anniversary of the 1939-40 fair and the 50th anniversary of the 1964-65 one, over this past year I've done a scad of tours looking at what's left of the two fairs, trying to conjure up what was once there, and of course exploring Flushing Meadows Corona Park itself. So that was my point of departure for this half-hour meditation, I guess, on history.

Since I had to type the thing up anyway, I could hardly resist the temptation to make a few tiny improvements and some amplifications, but this is pretty much what I wrote in pencil on Wedneday. (We're not allowed to use pens in the irreplaceable subway cars housed at the Transit Museum.) I realize this is kind of like posting the thing on my refrigerator, but I don't have any refrigerator magnets anyway.
Everything could have been different

Maybe if I had gotten to the World's Fair, everything that came after would have been different. No, not the 1939-40 fair -- how old do you think I am? Yes, I know that the 1964-65 one wasn't really a world's fair. It wasn't sanctioned by whichever sanctioning body sanctions world's fairs (say, I wonder how you get a job on one of those commissions; that sounds like an easy enough gig), and the Soviet-bloc countries steered clear, and so, I think, did most of the Third World ones. Still, that's the fair I could have gone to, the 1964-65 one, if it hadn't been such a long schlepp from Brooklyn. That excuse got me through the summer of 1964, and by 1965 I didn't need an excuse to not do anything.

I have, however, paid multiple visits to the site today, in the world of 2015, which you'd think would be the "World of Tomorrow" that was celebrated in 1964-65. It isn't, though -- either onsite or in the world at large. Even Shea Stadium, which was built at the same time as the home of the New York Mets, is no longer part of the World of Tomorrow. We have Citi Field instead, and that's just as good, I guess. Soon, if the developers have their way, we'll have a shopping mall -- right there on land that's actually part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park (as was Shea Stadium and as is Citi Field). Yessiree, a shopping mall on NYC parkland -- is that the World of Today or what? Will it also be the World of Tomorrow? Care to guess?

The old Corona Ash Dump
Of course, the fact that we have Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a truly great park, is owing to the 1939-40 fair -- the real world's fair. That's when Robert Moses, who presided over both fairs, cleared the giant ash heap that we all remember from The Great Gatsby, drained and filled a lot of marshland, and did much other rejiggering of the landscape and waterways, with a view to leaving a big new park behind when the fair was done. That was the good side of Robert Moses, who wore, among his dozens of hats, that of NYC parks commissioner. Both the good and the bad sides of Robert Moses played a crucial role in shaping the real World of Today, not to be confused with the World of Tomorrow from back in the day.

No, we're not so good at predicting the future. But I read just recently a piece that argued that we're not much good either at predicting the present based on the past, which the piece argued is what historians do. Even having all that past laid out for them, and knowing how it all turned out, at least so far, historians can't agree on why it all happened or what might have changed those outcomes.

So I feel perfectly entitled to speculate that everything would have been different for me if I'd gotten to the 1964-65 fair. I'll bet I would have enjoyed those Belgian waffles that were the runaway hit of the show, which are certainly part of the World of Today, thank goodness. I would have enjoyed them, that is, provided the lines weren't too bad. I don't remember what I've heard about lines at the 1939 or 1964 fair, but we know that there were especially popular pavilions, and I expect that they involved pretty substantial lines. How many things are there that are really worth enduring long lines for? I mean, apart from the things where you have no choice -- like the truly horrible old days of the Department of Motor Vehicles, where doing a routine license renewal could be an all-day project.

The DMV has actually fixed that, though, with License X-Press. It's not nearly so bad now; it can be almost easy. That's a World of Tomorrow we can believe in. But, even knowing that transportation was a favorite subject at the 1964-65 fair, and that given Mr. Moses's predilections, "transportation" meant cars, when it wasn't planes or other flying craft, I'm doubtful that there was an exhibit devoted to a revolutionary new way, in the World of Tomorrow, to renew your driver's license.

Now, addressing the world of 2065, I can say confidently, how the heck would I know? I wish I were more optimistic, but maybe there are people working now, or people who will come along soon, to make the prospects look less grim. One thing I know is that I could go for one of those Belgian waffles.

In April 2014, former Staten Islander Martha Flynn Winecki e-mailed this photo of herself eating a Belgian waffle at the 1964 New York World's Fair to the Staten Island Advance from Cambridge, England.

No, not the actual posting

After we'd read and commented on our writings -- always supportively, focusing on "what's working for us" -- we had 15 minutes left in the session, so Eileen suggested a five-minute effort taking off from a posting she'd seen somewhere around town by a 60-ish gentleman, with a suitably unglamorous picture, who declared himself "Looking for Love," which had touched her with its apparent sincerity in declaring a wish to eschew games and blah-blah-blah -- you know, all the things that are said by people who post postings purporting to be looking for love. As always, we could take this any way we liked, including perhaps just a list of words that were suggested to us by it, or write something else entirely.

Not all of us were as touched as Eileen by the plea from our gentleman poster, to whom she had given the name "Albert." What I wrote. It got a couple of laughs. Here it is.
Yeah, Albert, we're all looking for something. Only we don't all deface public property as part of our quest. Or were you planning to remove those goddamn postings yourself? As for love, you appear to have been around the block once or twice, at least. Am I guessing correctly that in all this time nobody has stepped up to the plate yet? Is there maybe a lesson in that? Thanks for sharing.

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