A Journal of the Plague Year 2022—chapter 278

January 11

At Rockefeller Center.

We’re back in New York City, taking care of various business. After lunch with a friend today, I went to a Chase Bank location to visit my safe deposit box and remove various stuff. The box said it was lonely—that I hadn’t visited since 2017. So I closed the account and took everything away. Inside were a variety of “important” documents that should provide a full day’s worth of memories…whenever I get around to examining them. (I immediately noticed a letter from my mother, probably written in the 1980s, regarding her pre-paid cemetery plot.)

Institutions in the city seem to fall into two extreme categories: 1) wow, that place hasn’t changed a bit, and 2) that joint has undergone a radical transformation.

So far, I have visited Zabar’s, the legendary upper west side food and kitchen-implements store (an absolute category 1); Astor Liquors (a near category 1); the former McGraw-Hill Building (category 2, right down to its no-nonsense new name of 1221 Avenue of the Americas); the Strand Bookstore (a category 2, for sure: where it once mostly sold used books, its wares today are generally the same spanking-new editions you’d find at Barnes & Noble); Grand Central Terminal (cleaned-up and tourist-ready, but otherwise a category 1); the mezzanine floor of the building adjacent to Grand Central (category 2, since every one of its once-bustling restaurants is now gone); and Joe’s Pizza, 14th Street location (brand-new to me, and so a category 2).

I walked back from Astor Liquors, past the Public Theater, Cooper Union, a building still bearing the name “Amalgamated Insurance,” and the Mud Coffee stand. The experience made me realize that, yes, I have experienced some history right here in lower Manhattan. 

Sitting out-of-doors with my Mud Coffee cappuccino, I began to puzzle just which building had once been the headquarters of the radical-ish District 65 labor union. Oh yeah, it’s the building next to the one that long ago housed a Wanamaker’s department store—and where the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union lived when I was briefly on staff back in the early 1980s. 

I can recall going to meetings at District 65 and listening that that union’s second-in-command, Cleveland Robinson, denounce some injustice (South Africa, maybe?) in his profoundly resonant, Caribbean-accented voice. I attended performances of the Mabou Mines theater troupe–featuring my college friend Ellen McElduff–at the Public Theater.

Another memory: No sooner had I taken a job, in 1980, with the Amalgamated than I found myself on strike against the union! So, there we were, the 20-odd members of the union’s “professional staff,” marching around in a small picket-line circle outside of the Wanamaker Building. They left us out there for two weeks, just to teach us who was boss, then giving us a small pay hike to bring everyone back inside.

I attended socialist meetings at NYU and Cooper Union—and of course the occasional demonstration at Union Square.

Memories seem to be particularly haunting me during this trip. I’m sure I will come up with more.

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