A. J. Liebling, “The Jollity Building” (1962)

The Jollity Building by the journalist A. J. Liebling is a fascinating examination of New York City’s history from below, by looking at one community between Forty-second street and fifty-second street in Manhattan known as the Telephone Booth Indians, a population of hucksters (“in what my Marxian friends would call a state of pre-primary acquisition”). The emphasis on “telephone booth” comes from the necessity of each member to have access to public phones for their lives. “The Telephone Booth Indians are nomads who have no attained the stage of culture in which they carry their own shelter. Like the hermit crab, the Telephone Booth Indian, before beginning operations, must find a habitation abandoned by some other creature, and in his case this is always a telephone booth.” (412)

jollity

The Jollity Building really seems to read like a history from way, way below, or perhaps what we can call a history from the gutter. It almost required a journalist to tell this story. Historians, focused on documents and official narratives, would tend to miss people like the mobile Telephone Booth Indians. But they seem to us, through Leibling’s account, to be entirely necessary to a full understanding of how the city worked politically, economically, and socially.

The book is made up of four stories. The first is about Izzy Yereshevsky, from Jewish peasant blood, who owned a cigar store on Forty-ninth street. Now, while Izzy himself seems legitimate (even refusing to drink and working all day), he is surrounded by a large population of more marginal people who are absolutely dependent on the cigar store as a center of their lives. Izzy offers credit (by accepting bad checks), helps book bets, and provides a neighborhood center of sorts. “The I. & Y. is also a free employment agency for hat-check and cigarette girls who meet concessionaries there. On winter nights, too, a few bedraggled ladies without escort come in to warm their feet.” (418) Places like Izzy’s cigar shop are the most important institutions for the working poor of the city.

The next story called “Tummler” is about Hymie Katz, a more suspicious figure from the neighborhood. He runs horse race betting establishments, clubs, whiskey wholesaling and other businesses crucial to the area but unlike Izzy lacked some of the legitimacy, partially because he constantly changed what he was doing. One club he ran made $250,000 in fourteen months. His social life is no more stable. As an unmarried man, Hymie is free to focus on his entrepreneurial activities. His clubs suggest a sort of capitalism from below, they are even capitalized from the gutter, so to speak. “All Hymie needs to open a night club is an idea and a loan of fifty dollars.” (421)

The next story is a closer look at the “Jollity Building” itself and the Telephone Booth Indian schemers. “A Telephone Booth Indian on the hunt often tells a prospective investor to call him at a certain hour in the afternoon, giving the victim the number of the phone in one of the booths. The Indian implies, of course, that it is a private line. Then the Indian has to hang in the booth until the fellow calls. To hang, in Indian language, means to loiter.” (432) This scheme requires them to sit all day in the lobbies so they become a conspicuous part of the neighborhood life. Inside the building there is a rich cultural life as well, as many tenants teach singing or dancing lessons, while others promote entertainers. The “Jollity Building” is really a history of entrepreneurial capitalism from below.

The final part of this short book, called “Yea Verily” moves our gaze up a bit, but we still find ourselves in the realm of scheming. It is about “Colonel John R. Stingo” who wrote articles for the New York Enquirer. He is a con-artist on a slightly larger scale than the Telephone Booth Indians. Liebling wrote about him in another work (The Honest Rainmaker). We see in some of Liebling’s other works (most notably The Press) that he was suspicious of journalism, but in this work it is hard to know for sure if Liebling is not playing a con on us (I suspect all journalism is the same, despite its desire for objectivity). Liebling had a history of falsifying names in stories himself. Stingo wrote on horse racing. Bear in mind, all of these stories were written and published separately before coming together in The Jollity Building. I think he wanted us to see the Telephone Booth Indians and Stingo as playing similar games. However, it ends with a rather interesting perspective on the role of truth in journalism (or any writing). “So I think the story is essentially, or in its entails, true, which is what counts.” (552) In this, Liebling suggests that the journalism may often replace deeper truths with banal truths.

stingo

Another theme of the work is that the institutions that matter to the people are not the institutions that are typically deemed important. A building lobby, a cigar store, the pub, a night club, a gossip-laden newspaper all played important roles for the people Liebling looked at in this work, perhaps much more important roles than the police stations, schools, or government offices that tend to be the center of attention of newspaper writers.

 

Henry Adams, “Esther: A Novel”

Esther is Adams’ second and final novel.  The plot concerns a freethinking young woman’s encounter, through artistic pursuits, with a church, an experienced artist, and a orphan woman from the West.  As Esther incorporates herself into this world, she agrees to marry the preacher, Mr. Hazard.  She is all but an atheist.  Her close friend, George, is a paleontologist and agnostic.  Her father uses religion only for its moral influence on society, not out of any true believe.  Esther is never quite able to resolve her conflict between her love for Mr. Hazard (admitted in the final line of the novel) and her disgust with her finance’s beliefs and practices.  The idea of being a church wife, attending services and putting on the face of a devoted believer disgusts her.

Henry Adams

The world of Esther is a world in change.  We can foreshadow the “dynamo and the Virgin” in Esther.  The rise of the new woman, professional, educated, assertive, and in the public, runs in conflict with expectations about the role of women.  Listen to Hazard’s expectations of the woman he eventually courts.  “The next morning he looked about the church and was disappointed at not seeing her there.  This young man was used to flattery; he had been sickened with it, especially by the women of his congregation; he thought there was nothing of this nature against which he was not proof; yet he resented Esther Dudley’s neglect to flatter him by coming to his sermon.” And later on that same page, this is contrasted with his opinion of Catherine Brooke.  “Her innocent eagerness to submit was charming, and the tyrants gloated over the fresh and radiant victim who was eager to be their slave.  They lured her on, by assumed gentleness, in the path of bric-a-brac and sermons.” (214)  The transition to new ideas is clearly represented in the characters of Hazard and George Strong, the scientist.  The artist, Wharton, and his failed marriage also suggest the coming of a new era where traditional arrangements break down.  That these modern figures (Esther and Wharton) are hired to paint portraits for the church provides yet another dichotomy between tradition and modernity.   Catherine Brooke as an orphan from the West brought to New York City, suggests the conquest of the frontier and the end of that epoch of American history.

An atheist reader (like me) will be tempted to cheer on Esther as she allows her modern mind to prevent what could only be a disastrous marriage.  We are not entirely sure until the very end what Esther sees in Hazard.  He struck me as too authoritarian, too traditional, and too patriarchal for a women like Esther.  Yet the final confession, that she loved Hazard, reminds us of the danger of allowing the mind to overcome the heart.  Indeed, the conflict between faith and science, between tradition and modernity is not more of a problem than many other things that divide couples (monogamy/non-monogamy, politics, cultural differences).  To assume that faith is the irreconcilable barrier is rather irrational and peculate and boring.  This realization does not make one like Hazard any more, but it makes one dislike Esther a bit.  Without idealizing the concept of “romantic love” (full of capitalist logic, which I can have the chance to discuss in a later post), we can appreciate that Esther threw away an opportunity for happiness, friendship, and community through Hazard.  She simultaneously throws away the advances of George who loved Esther from the beginning of the novel.  (This time the problem is not intellectual, but a lack of feeling.)    These are the mistakes of youth and in my experience common enough.