Thanks, But What Kind of Prayer Books Were Those?

September 23, 2014

The holiest days in the Jewish year are fast approaching.

This sign, hanging in the window of a day care center on Brooklyn’s Montague Street, advertises services available to the observant during the next two weeks.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the Hebrew used in their prayer books, but they might want to double-check the Engligh.

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Chabad of Brooklyn Heights
Congregation B’nai Avraham

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The Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival

August 21, 2010

Each summer, the NY Writers Coalition offers an outdoor creative writing workshop for young people. At the end of the six-week sessions, the students join accomplished poets and writers and present their work at the Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival.

This year’s Festival included six notable poets who have participated in Jamaica’s Calabash International Literary Festival and Colin Channer, the founder of Calabash. After the reading, posing and hugging in the park, the writers met their fans and signed autographs at the nearby Greenlight Bookstore.

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Reading from the Calabash Anthology

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Patricia Smith

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Kwame Dawes

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Willie Perdomo

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A delighted audience

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Colin Channer

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Captured by poetry

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Two generations of writers

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The writers assembled

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Johnny Temple of Akashic Books

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Aaron Zimmerman and friends

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Reading in the Greenlight Bookstore

So Much Things to Say: Anthology of the Calabash International Literary Festival
NY Writers Coalition: Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival
NY Times: Summer Literary Festival Hits Fort Greene Park
Calabash International Literary Festival
Greenlight Bookstore


Fannie’s book finds a new home

June 15, 2009

A few months ago I was walking past a thrift store when I noticed several cartons full of books piled on the sidewalk. The shop was emptying their shelves for a special event and giving away the items they deemed unsalable.

It was starting to rain, so I glanced through the books, selected three that appeared interesting, stuffed them into my bag, and hurried home. When I got inside I gave them a closer look. One of the books was about classical music (I gave it to a musician friend), another was about vitamins (it turned out to be too wet to save).

The third book, however, was something else entirely: dark, small and slim, in rather poor condition with the words “Album of Love” embossed on the cover. I picked it up, flipped it open, saw a name, Fannie C. Ashmore, written inside the cover and an illustration on the first page followed by quite a few blank pages.

I assumed that it was a fancy old blank notebook or an empty photo album, but when I looked further, I saw that some of the pages did have writing — spidery words formed with an old-fashioned fountain pen. The inscriptions (mostly poetry) were by several different hands, but all of the messages were addressed to Fannie, and I realized that it was some sort of autograph or friendship book.

A few items were tucked between the pages: a scrap of paper with Fannie’s name and town, Trenton, New Jersey, one of her calling cards, a bit of a dried fern and two newspaper clippings concerning the death of Alexander B. Green of the Fourteenth New Jersey Volunteers, who lived in Ewing and died in the battle of Monocacy Junction “in his youth, away from home … in the fierceness of battle.”

One of the inscriptions in the book was to Fannie from her “coz, Alex G,” and with a bit of online research I learned that Alexander B. Green of the Fourteenth New Jersey Volunteers died July 5, 1864 and is buried near Trenton at the Ewing Church Cemetery.

I couldn’t imagine how the book that was once so important to Fannie wound up in a thrift store, or why it was discarded, or even how it managed to make its way to this city, but I thought that the little Civil War era book would be of value to someone. Unfortunately, I don’t know who, or where, or how to find them.

Over the past few months, I’ve tried to locate an historical society, museum, or similar instituation where the book would be appreciated, but the places I contacted never seemed to be quite the right fit. A couple of people offered to “take it off my hands,” but I didn’t want the recipient to act as though they were doing me a big favor — I wanted it to go to someone who’d be happy to have it.

Finally, it occurred to me to offer the book to the library in Trenton, Fannie’s hometown. I had a long conversation with a librarian who told me that similar books were a fad among the girls who attended the Normal School (a teacher’s college) in Trenton around the time of the American Civil War. She was delighted to accept my offer and will be giving Fannie’s little book a safe and secure new home in the Research Department’s Trentoniana Collection. She also expressed her hope that somehow, someday, a descendant will walk into the library and ask to see Fannie’s little book.

Perhaps, someday, they will. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

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Front cover

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Fannie C. Ashmore

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Beauty

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Album of Love

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Autographs

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To Fannie from “your affectionate cousin”

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“The clear, cold question chills to frozen doubt …”

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“Your sincere friend, Mary F. Sheppard”

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The Mountain Sprite

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Dried fern

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To Fannie from J.J.S.

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“To Fannie, Trenton, April 14th 1861”

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Light of the Harem

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“Ever your loving cousin, CMG”

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“Remember me when far away …”

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“A despatch, received from Alexander B. Green, of Ewing, by his wife, on Saturday night …”

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From the State Gazette, lines of the death of Sergeant A.G.

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“Still think of Alex G”

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Fannie C. Ashmore, Trenton, New Jersey

Trenton Free Public Library
14th New Jersey Volunteer Regiment
New Jersey Civil War History Association: History of the 14th Regiment
National Park Service: Monocacy National Battlefield
Friends of the William Green Farmhouse: Alexander B. Green
Report of State Normal School, Trenton, 1864


A Sign With a Picture of a Doorway

March 29, 2009

Sometimes I must leave the city, and this was one of those days. I headed to Pennsylvania Station to take a train but, due to a delay on the subway, I arrived a few minutes after it departed. With nearly an hour to wait until the next train, I passed the time exploring the enormous maze of floors and passageways.

While walking through one of the lower levels, I noticed a doorway crisscrossed with yards of yellow tape ominously marked “Police Line Do Not Cross.” I stepped closer and saw two paper notices fastened on and near the tape.

The both bore the same message: a notice to Amtrak employees telling them that the entryway was closed (apparently, the yards of tape weren’t enough of an indication) and that they should use another entrance. And, in case any Amtrak employees weren’t sure what an entrance was, both notices were helpfully illustrated with photographs of doorways. A pair of uniformed Amtrak workers strolled by while I was reading the signs, and we joked about management’s assessment of their intelligence (“I guess they figured if they didn’t put up a sign, we’d just walk through the tape.”).

I unpacked my camera and began to photograph the doorway. Suddenly, my lens was dark. I looked up and saw a large, red-faced man in a dark jacket who’d placed himself between the doorway and the camera. He demanded to know why I was taking a picture.

New York, as you probably know, has no shortage of crazies. I deal with them all the time, usually simply by putting as much distance between us as quickly as possible. This fellow, however, was already close enough to touch me. I felt I’d better say something, so I asked whether he had a problem with me taking pictures. He did, he said. I told him to get over it and, wanting to avoid a confrontation even more than I wanted the photo, I quickly walked away.

A few minutes later, I heard an announcement that my train was ready for boarding. I ran down the stairway, jumped on board, settled into a seat and began to read a magazine. Suddenly, I was aware that someone was standing over me.

I looked up and saw two police officers. They told me that they’d received a report and that I fit the description of the person involved. “Were you taking pictures in the station?,” asked one of the men. Yes, I was. “Can you tell me what compelled you take pictures?,” he asked.

Compelled? I didn’t feel compelled, I explained, I just thought it would make a good picture. I thought it was funny. They asked me to describe what happened and I did. They exchanged looks, then asked why I’d left the scene rather than talk to the man who’d approached me.

A horrible thought occurred to me. “Was he a cop?,” I asked. “He didn’t identify himself as a cop.” “No, he was no cop,” said the officer. “He works for Amtrak.” I explained that I’d left because thought he was a nut. Why would I stick around to talk to an angry nut?

The policemen asked more questions: why do I take photographs? What do I do with them? Just then, one of the officers glanced down at the magazine in my hands. It was a thick, glossy issue of Art in America. “Are you an artist?,” asked the policeman. I thought a moment, and decided that even though it is not the occupation I list on my tax returns, my photos are a kind of art. “Yes,” I replied.

“An artist,” he said. He turned to his partner and repeated the words. “An artist.” They both nodded. “Oh, well, you were taking the pictures for your art,” said the policeman. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

They told me that the man who’d blocked my view should have identified himself, but since he had called the authorities and reported me, they were obligated to follow up and investigate.

We began to discuss art, photography and Brooklyn when we heard a signal — the train was about to depart. The officers hurriedly gave me their names, shook my hand, and, repeating the words, “You didn’t do anything wrong,” stepped onto the platform just before the doors slid shut.

Thanks, NYPD. Thanks, Art in America.

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The doorway

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The sign on the tape

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The sign beside the doorway

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Art in America magazine

Art in America
The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station
New York Architecture: Penn Station
Amtrak: Penn Station


The Hidden Chorus

January 27, 2009

An essay I wrote has been published in an anthology from the NY Writers Coalition. Tonight I will be reading it at Community Bookstore, 143 Seventh Avenue, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. If you are in the neighborhood, please stop by.

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The Hidden Chorus: Poetry and Fiction from NY Writers Coalition
NY Writers Coalition
Community Book Store
New York Magazine: Community Book Store


Collected Poems

October 27, 2008

One of the most honored poets in the United States, John Ashbery has won nearly every major American poetry award. He has been compared to T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens and remains, at the age of 81, both creative and controversial.

The Library of America has just published the first volume of Ashbery’s Collected Poems and tonight he read from the volume at the 92nd Street Y. Anyone who thinks Americans don’t appreciate poetry would have been proved wrong tonight, as the sellout crowd swarmed from the packed auditorium to the lobby, where they snatched up books of Ashbery’s works, then stood on line for hours, patiently waiting for the old poet to inscribe them.

My Erotic Double

He says he doesn’t feel like working today.
It’s just as well. Here in the shade
Behind the house, protected from street noises,
One can go over all kinds of old feeling,
Throw some away, keep others.
The wordplay
Between us gets very intense when there are
Fewer feelings around to confuse things.
Another go-round? No, but the last things
You always find to say are charming, and rescue me
Before the night does. We are afloat
On our dreams as on a barge made of ice,
Shot through with questions and fissures of starlight
That keep us awake, thinking about the dreams
As they are happening. Some occurrence. You said it.

I said it but I can hide it. But I choose not to.
Thank you. You are a very pleasant person.
Thank you. You are too.
Copyright (c) 1981, 2005, John Ashbery, all rights reserved.

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Ashbery onstage

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Signing books for fans

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Ashbury autographs his book

Collected Poems, 1956-1987
Poets: John Ashbery
Wikipedia: John Ashbery
Ashbery Resource Center
92nd Street Y


A Writer Reflects on Brooklyn

October 21, 2008

In a recent issue celebrating its 40th anniversary, New York magazine asked some of its past contributors to reflect on the city they love and the changes they’ve seen over the last 40 years. Here is what Brooklyn-born author Pete Hamill had to say.

In Brooklyn, the visitor, whether native son or total stranger, can experience a very special sense of beauty. Much of it derives from a simple fact: Manhattan is a vertical city, and Brooklyn is horizontal. In a preface to a collection of his short stories, John Cheever once talked about Manhattan when it “was still filled with a river light … and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Hats are making a minor comeback, but in Manhattan, the river light is gone forever.

The reason: the soaring scale of most Manhattan buildings blocks the light. But Brooklyn is still the wide, low borough of light, bouncing off the harbor and the ocean (out by Coney Island), a place of big skies, a place where you can see weather, not simply defend against it. Clouds move swiftly, driven by the wind, or hang in lazy stupor. Storms can be tracked visually, as the immense dark clouds make their tours.

At dawn the sun begins to pass over Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, then all the way to the Verrazano Bridge, the start of its long day’s journey into the New Jersey night. The light is immanent, muted, a promise. Along the way, every neighborhood is given fresh clarity, every building assumes the kind of volume that depends upon shade as well as light.

In Brooklyn, most building is on a human scale and so the sun can do its work of gilding every surface. You walk for the morning paper, and total strangers say, “Beautiful day.” And you must assent.

I think he’s right, and that his words are too good not to share.

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Pete Hamill in Brooklyn, September 2008

New York Magazine: Brooklyn Revisited


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