An unexpected smile

November 26, 2008

I was crossing Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue when I glanced down and saw the lid from a coffee cup lying in the gutter. It seemed to be smiling up at up me. I hope that you find some unexpected smiles in your day, too.

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A Brooklyn Smörgåsbord

November 23, 2008

It is time once again for the Christmas Fair at the Danish Seamen’s Church in Brooklyn Heights. The enormously popular annual holiday celebration features Danish arts, crafts, culture, food and drink.

Some people come to the fair to buy Bing & Grondahl porcelain or Dansko clogs at bargain prices, or to stock up on Danish treats like salted licorice or blue cheese. For many of those who flock to the little church tucked in the old brownstone house, however, the highlight of the fair is the smörgåsbord.

Over the years, the sale of these traditional Scandinavian open faced sandwiches has grown so popular that the church can longer accommodate the crowds. These days, the smörgåsbord is held a block away at the historic Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church, where crowds from far and near buy platters full and happily wash them down with icy cold Danish beer.

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A volunteer scoops up a sandwich

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A fully loaded tray awaits customers

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Shrimp sandwich topped with mayonnaise and lemon

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Meat adorned with tomato and white asparagus

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Meat topped with prunes and oranges

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Salami crowned with tomato and fried onions

Christmas Fair at “Little Denmark in the Big Apple”
Danish Seaman’s Church (Den Danske Sømandskirke)
Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church
Nordic Recipe Archive: Smörgåsbord
Royal Copenhagen: Bing & Grondahl
Dansko Clogs


Public Prayer Booths

November 13, 2008

On an excursion to the Upper East Side, I noticed what appeared to be — from a distance — a telephone booth. Sort of. But something about the booth seemed a little bit “off.”

I went closer to investigate and saw that it wasn’t a phone booth at all. A sign posted on the nearby fence explained that this was a sculpture called Public Prayer Booth by artist Dylan Mortimer and said that, “According to the artist, this work is meant to spark dialogue about how private faith functions within the public realm.” Constructed of aluminum, plastic and vinyl, it combines the ideas of a telephone booth and a prayer station and includes a padded, blue flip-down kneeler.

The Kansas City-based artist says, “My goal is to spark dialogue about a topic often avoided, and often treated cynically by the contemporary art world. I employ the visual language of signage and public information systems, using them as a contemporary form of older religious communication systems: stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, church furniture, etc. I balance humor and seriousness, sarcasm and sincerity, in a way that bridges a subject matter that is often presented as heavy or difficult.”

Two Prayer Booths are on display in Tramway Plaza (near the entrance to the Roosevelt Island Tram) until the end of this month.

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Booth near the entrance to the Roosevelt Island Tram

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The sign on the fence explains the work

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Instructions for using the kneeler

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Someone has slapped stickers on this booth

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Most people don’t seem to notice the booths

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation: Dylan Mortimer
Dylan Mortimer


90 Years After The War to End All Wars

November 11, 2008

It started on June 28, 1914. While traveling through the streets of Sarajevo in an open car, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was shot and killed by a Serbian assassin. One month later, in retaliation, the Austro-Hungarian government declared war on Serbia.

That declaration marked the beginning of World War I. The scope and reach of the conflict was unprecedented: more than 65 million men battled around the globe for four years, resulting in the death of more than nine million soldiers.

This was the first war to employ advanced technology such as airplanes, tanks and submarines, the first time that governments achieved wholesale killing with automatic weapons and poisonous gasses. The slaughter continued until the morning of November 11, 1918. It was close to dawn of that day when British, French and German officials gathered in a railway carriage to the north of Paris and signed the Armistice – the cease fire – that brought about the end of the fighting.

At the time, it was widely believed that when society saw the horrors and costs of modern warfare, no nation would ever again be tempted to fight, and led to the conflict being described as The War To End All Wars. Sadly, of course, it wasn’t; in fact, there have been more than 150 wars in the 90 years since the Armistice was signed.

If you visit Sarajevo, you’ll have a hard time locating the place where it all started. The spot where Franz Ferdinand was shot is marked by a small bronze plaque set in the pavement. If you don’t search closely, you could easily miss the obscure memorial.

In contrast, the memory of WWI’s fallen troops is preserved by countless monuments and markers, including this one, which stands on Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Street outside post No. 5195 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.

On the base of the statue is a plaque that says, “Red Hook Memorial Doughboy. Erected in honor of those men and women of the Third Assembly District who served in the World War and in remembrance of those of their number who lost their lives and whose names ware here inscribed.”

Below the bronze plaque is a list of more than 90 names; schoolmates, friends and neighbors, all lost from a small, working class area in a remote corner of Brooklyn.

Chances are, no one alive today remembers those boys. Their parents, sweethearts, wives and children –  those who were touched by their lives and deaths — may have vanished into the mists of time, but today, on the 90th anniversary of the end of “The War to End All Wars,” we should all pause and remember.

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Red Hook Memorial Doughboy

The Heritage of the Great War
First World War
BBC: WW I
The Great War Society
The Western Front Association
National World War I Museum
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States


Yes, We Did

November 4, 2008

Election day. A long day. I worked at the polls, rising at 4:00 am so that I’d be able to help get the machines set up, the signs hung and the documents and forms organized in time for voting to begin promptly at 6:00.

There was a record turnout, and voters stood patiently, sometimes for as long as two hours, in the tiny school gymnasium. While there was no doubt about the outcome in this overwhelmingly Democratic borough, we anxiously awaited word about how the rest of the country voted. Workers, supervisors, voters and police officers texted friends and googled news reports, eager to learn what non-Brooklynites were doing.

After 15 hours we closed the doors, shut down the machinery and hand-counted every vote. Then the crew shuffled out the door and headed home. I was too tired to stay up and wait for the official announcements, so I didn’t bother to look at reports. I thought I’d wait and find out in the morning.

We expected it to be a close race. It wasn’t. We thought we’d have to wait all night for the results. We didn’t. At exactly 11:00, a scream, then a shout, sounded in the street. Horns began honking, people yelling, and above the din arose a chant: O-Ba-Ma! O-B-Ma! O-Ba-Ma!

The race was over. America had voted for change and put the wheels in motion to set out on a new course. Amazing, said many of us. Never thought we live to see the day, we said. But the people had spoken and Barack Obama was chosen as our new President-Elect. The American people did it. Yes, we did.

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Barack Obama


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