Thursday, October 29, 2015



Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thursday, October 22, 2015



Daylight Saving Time will end the week after next. Don't forget to turn your clocks back when the time comes to do so.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Photographing Poverty In America

Lining the stone wall outside the grounds of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights, on the 110th Street side, is a gallery of a dozen photos, all of them in black and white, that were taken by photographer Matt Black. Between each group of three photos is a plaque with a quotation from an impoverished person from one of the towns visited by Black, like this quote from a worker in the strawberry fields of Santa Maria, California, in Santa Barbara County: "I had no shoes when I worked in the fields. I used to sleep by a tree. I barely made money for food." (Ten thousand people work in the strawberry fields of Santa Maria, earning $1.25 per box picked.)

These photos are reminiscent of those taken by famed photographer Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression.

Called "Geography of Poverty," Black, a native Californian, allows passersby to "see not only what America looks like to the 45 million living in poverty," notes the mission statement  posted on  the wall at the beginning and end of the photo exhibition,"but also that poverty is inextricable from issues of migration, land use, industry, and the environment."

"Geography of Poverty" is a project that Black and the cable news channel MSNBC have collaborated on. Most of the photos on display outside the church were taken in California, while the rest document poverty in such places as Hosmer, South Dakota;York, Pennsylvania; and El Paso, Texas.

One photo that was striking is of a long black arm wrinkled by age. Attached to it is a hand clutching the top of what looks like a sawed off telephone pole or tree. What really intrigued me is where the caption said the photo was taken--Allensworth, California, in Tulare County. I first learned of this town in a Washington Post article published more than twenty years ago.The article revealed that Allensworth was founded in the early twentieth century by African Americans, some of whom were teachers, doctors, and other professionals.(This is a part of California history I was never told about when I attended school in Los Angeles and its suburb Compton.) Today, according to the caption, the population is 451 and 54 percent of its inhabitants are living below the poverty level.

It is very fitting that these photos are on display where they are. Just a few feet away are a group of mostly homeless Hispanic men, who have formed a camp along the side of the church.

Also worth noting is the church's construction of two 15-story residential towers on its 113th Street side.The new buildings will have 320 luxury apartments and only 80 affordable ones; the church's first residential building was built about six years ago and faces Morningside Park, at 110th Street and Morningside Drive.

In 2012, plans to construct the two buildings sparked a neighborhood controversy and a petition drive* was started by area residents who feared that the buildings would block their view of the cathedral. Apparently the church administrators took heed. The buildings are now situated so that the cathedral, which is a tourist attraction, on the 113th Street side, can be viewed between them. Not a perfect solution, but better than not being able to see that side of the cathedral at all.

Could it be that the church administrators have self-consciously mounted this photo exhibition to remind their critics of their awareness of and concern for the poor, especially those who are literally at the church's doorstep each night?

*Disclosure: I live near the cathedral and signed a petition opposing the new construction.

Note: This is the full text of the previously abbreviated version.
Matt Black's photos can be viewed at

Monday, October 19, 2015

Looking For Work Via Television

On city-owned WNYE/Channel 25 in New York, there was a weekly program called Job Hunt that aired right after the 2008 financial crisis that caused mass layoffs and housing foreclosures across the country.

Each week different guests would discuss a particular job-search topic and critique the job-search strategy of that week's job seeker who was someone the New York Daily News had profiled in its Monday career section.

As the job seeker spoke of his or her job search goals, they would appear on-camera from different angles. This approach reminded me of the time my mother went on TV seeking employment as a domestic worker. This was in the early 1960s when we were living in Los Angeles.

She went on the John J. Anthony Show, which was an advice show broadcast from a studio at 1313 North Vine Street in Hollywood. I think the show was on Channel 9, KHJ-TV. As I sat in the studio, I could see her image on the black-and-white monitors. They wouldn't show her whole face, unlike the Job Hunt broadcasts. The camera would focus on her hands, her mouth, maybe a side view as she was being interviewed by John J. Anthony's wife. Mrs. Anthony was so short that she had to sit on a telephone book behind a large desk.

In a far corner of the studio was the psychic Criswell, who might have been a regular feature of the show. His famous line before each prediction was "I predict...." Years later when I saw the biopic Ed Wood, about the world's worst film director, and starring Johnny Depp as Wood, the actor portraying Criswell brought me back to the time I saw him in the flesh.

After my mother's TV appearance, I vaguely recall her receiving a few job offers. You could say that John J. Anthony (1902-1970) whose real name was Lester Kroll and who at one time had been an actor, was doing back then a forerunner to today's video resume.

I often wonder if that particular show was recorded and if so, does it exist in some vault somewhere? For all I know, it might be on YouTube, like everything else these days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Village Voice Is 60

The Village Voice celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. The weekly New York-based alternative newspaper, which was once the editorial home of such notables as political columnists Nat Hentoff and Alexander Cockburn, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, film critic Andrew Sarris, and others, was co-founded in 1955 by Norman Mailer.

Disclosure: I worked there as a freelance proofreader in 1980 and again from 1982 to 1983.

When I worked at the Village Voice, a reader could buy it at a newsstand. Today, it's available for free every Wednesday in large red plastic curbside boxes all around the city. (In Harlem, I have often seen these boxes turned on their sides and used as seats by neighborhood men.)

Happy 60th anniversary, Village Voice! May you continue publishing for another sixty years.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Nigerian Short Story Heard On The Radio

I heard the Nigerian writer Teju Cole's short story, "Modern Girls," read on public radio's Selected Shorts via New York's WNYC on September 13, 2015. It is set in a school for girls in Nigeria during the early 1970s, around the time of the Biafran war. The quality of Cole's writing is so good that I want to read the story myself  as well as his other work, both fiction and nonfiction.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Lena Horne, Cosmetics Entrepreneur

I was cleaning out some old suitcases that once belonged to my late mother and I found two or three cosmetics bottles with Lena Horne's name on each of  the beige and cream-colored labels.

Lena Horne, a major African-American star of stage, screen, and records, had her own cosmetics line in the 1950s and/or 1960s long before current celebrities like Halle Berry and Beyonce ever did. No other black entertainers of that time, as far as I know, had products produced using their name. The one exception that comes to mind would be boxer Archie Moore whose name and likeness appeared on half-gallon milk containers.

I don't know if her cosmetics line is mentioned in any Horne biographies but it would be fascinating to learn how this business came to be and whether or not she was influenced by Madame C.J. Walker, the African-American hair care products entrepreneur. It's the sort of story that should be of interest to a national publication like Black Enterprise or Essence for its historical significance if nothing else.

In the meantime, I'm saving the bottles as collector's items.