Posts tagged ‘New York’

 

The Space Merchants

 

In 1944, I was an Army Air Corps weatherman attached to the 456th Bomb Group (Heavy) at its base near the tiny town of Stornara, Italy. For years the group had survived with a total weather complement of two, one major and one sergeant, but then at last the weather training school at Chanute Field, Illinois, had been able to put a force of several hundred trained weathermen onto a troop transport headed for Italy. The 456th got eight of that shipment, and one of them was me.

With all those weathermen, none of us had to work very hard. When a mission was on there was a flurry of pre-dawn activity until the B-24s began to rumble and waddle down the runways to get airborne, then not a lot to do until they, or the survivors among them, came (often limping) back. And of course if the weather was bad not even that much happened. Then everybody had most of the day off.

For those reasons I had a lot of free time on my hands. Much of it I spent exploring the nearby Italian towns and the just as nearby Adriatic Sea beaches. But I was also a little homesick for my beloved city of New York, and what I decided to do about that was to write something about it. That something became a novel, not science fiction, set in the city and concerning what seemed to me one of New York’s most interesting manifestations, the advertising business.

So for a while. on days when I was not otherwise occupied. I would carry the lavender Remington No. 5 portable typewriter that my mother had given me on my twelfth birthday (and that I lugged with me throughout World War II) to the Enlisted Men’s Club, where I added a few more pages to a novel entitled For Some We Loved. (The title comes from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, to which I had been addicted as a teenager.) And I did, in fact, after some couple of hundred pages, type “The End” on the last page and pack it into the bottom of my duffel bag to await better times.

Then time passed. The war ended. Better times did come, and I was a civilian again with a neat little apartment and attached roof garden at 28 Grove Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. And one of the first things I did after moving in was to pull that manuscript out and read it over.

It was not a joyous experience. I quickly realized that the story had an incapacitating flaw. It was about the advertising business, which was a subject I knew nothing about. It showed.

After some thought, however, I could see a possible way of remedying that. I picked up a copy of the Sunday Times, turned to the Help Wanted pages and found three ads for advertising copywriters. I answered all three. One of them was the tiny Mad Ave. advertising agency of Thwing and Altman. They specialized in book accounts, including the Merriam-Webster dictionaries and Doubleday’s Dollar Book Clubs, and when I showed them the house ads I had written as an editor at Popular Publications, they took me on.

And that was the beginning of a few prosperous years spent in the advertising biz. (Not very much of that period was spent at T & A, however. They didn’t pay much. On months with only four Fridays my take-home pay was not quite enough to cover the month’s rent on that nice Village apartment, and I felt that I’d really like to have a few more dollars coming in to spend on food, clothes, cigarettes and science-fiction magazines. So when I decided to stay on for a while with this advertising racket, I went looking for, and found, a better job, which was on the payroll of the advertising and editorial departments of the Popular Science Publishing Company.

At some time a couple of years into my new career, I had rented a summer place high up over the great Ashokan Reservoir, maybe a hundred miles out of New York. One of the things I liked best about the large house that came with it was the big flagstone fireplace on its second floor.

And there, one Saturday evening, I once more pulled out that manuscript from my 456th Bomb Group days and read it over. As I read it, I perceived that it had another flaw I had not previously noted. Considered on its merits as a novel it was — what’s the word I should use? — well, lousy.

So as I read the manuscript, I fed it page by page into the fire. And when I was through, there I was, now with some notions about advertising that just begged to be put into a novel, and no novel to put them into.

I did have some sketchy notions, however, and so I wrote a few pages of an opening, but didn’t like it very much.

 
To be continued. . . .

 

When I say I grew up in Brooklyn, those who are aware that Brooklyn is nothing grander than just one of the five boroughs of the megalopolis called New York are likely to have a mental picture of a six-year-old dodging trolleys for his life and never seeing a tree leaf out in the springtime.

It wasn’t like that. Oh, sure the traffic and the trolleys were only steps away on Flatbush Avenue. I rarely tried to cross Flatbush Avenue, though. Didn’t care for all that traffic, and in the side streets where people lived it wasn’t so bad. And gigantic, wonderful Prospect Park was only a ten-minute walk away, and if I wanted real National Park-type open space there were huge chunks of that a lot closer than you might imagine.

My grandparents came from the same little town in Germany but didn’t meet until they had independently immigrated to the States. There they lived in Broad Channel, in a house my grandfather, a carpenter by trade in Germany, had built himself for his bride and their expected flock of German-American kids, of whom my father was the seventh and last.

That little house at 1404 Cross Bay Boulevard had an unusual distinction Its front door was in Queens, another of NYC’s flock of boroughs. The back door, though, opened onto Jamaica Bay, an integral part of the one and only one of the America’s National Parks (20,000 acres broad and offering populations of more than 300 species of birds and similar populations of marine animals and vegetation) that you can get to on the subway. If you wanted more technology than that, the Bay was bracketed at one end by Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s first city-owned airport, and at the other by no less than JFK itself, with the big jets screaming every few minutes as they depart for destinations in America, Europe, Africa, Australia — for the world.

 

When I say I grew up in Brooklyn, those who are aware that Brooklyn is nothing grander than just one of the five boroughs of the megalopolis called New York are likely to have a mental picture of a six-year-old dodging trolleys for his life and never seeing a tree leaf out in the springtime.

It wasn’t like that. Oh, sure the traffic and the trolleys were only steps away on Flatbush Avenue. I rarely tried to cross Flatbush Avenue, though. Didn’t care for all that traffic, and in the side streets where people lived it wasn’t so bad. And gigantic, wonderful Prospect Park was only a ten-minute walk away, and if I wanted real National Park-type open space there were huge chunks of that a lot closer than you might imagine.

My grandparents came from the same little town in Germany but didn’t meet until they had independently immigrated to the States. There they lived in Broad Channel, in a house my grandfather, a carpenter by trade in Germany, had built himself for his bride and their expected flock of German-American kids, of whom my father was the seventh and last. That little house at 1404 Cross Bay Boulevard had an unusual distinction Its front door was in Queens, another of NYC’s flock of boroughs.

The back door, though, opened onto Jamaica Bay, an integral part of the one and only one of the America’s National Parks (20,000 acres broad and offering populations of more than 300 species of birds and similar populations of marine animals and vegetation) that you can get to on the subway.

If you want more technology than that, the Bay is bracketed at one end by Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s first city-owned airport, and at the other by no less than JFK itself, with the big jets screaming every few minutes as they depart for destinations in America, Europe, Africa, Australia — for the world.

Amazing-June 1936

 

The development of a professional writer is marked by a number of stages, each identified by a particular event. My own development was accelerated by the fact that by the time I was 14 or so I had come to know people — Johnny Michel and Don Wollheim — who had actually sold works to professional science-fiction magazines.

(Well, “sold” is putting it a bit strong, since neither of them had really been paid for their work. In fact, that’ s why they had come to Geegee Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League in the first place; to put pressure on Hugo Gernsback to pay the writers for his Wonder Stories by denouncing him to his most loyal fans, the ones who had joined his club.)

Anyway, I listened to them reverently, and in fact learned a great deal. One of things I learned was that, surprisingly, the editors of science-fiction magazines were in some ways indistinguishable from ordinary human beings. They went to offices to work — well, I knew that because I had discovered on my own the existence of writers’ magazines that actually gave addresses for those offices. I had even experimentally tried mailing one or two of my early stories to one or two of those sf markets. What I learned additionally from Donald and Johnny was that you could go in person to some of those offices, and that some of those editors, sometimes, would actually talk to you.

That particular nugget of information was worth actual cash to me. As I had learned from my study of Writers Digest, I could mail in my stories — and had done so. The catch to that was that I was required to enclose postage for the return trip in the (likely) event of rejection. That had amounted, in the last story I had submitted by mail, to 9¢ in stamps each way, total 18¢. While the cost, if I delivered them in person, would be only a nickel each way for the subway. (Plus, of course, whatever price could be put on my time for the 45 minutes each way it would take for me to do it — but, then, nobody else was offering to buy any of my time at any price.)

That represented a nearly 50-percent reduction in my cost of doing business, or even more — much, much more! — if I had enough stories to submit to make a continuing process out of it. I could, say, take the subway to editor A’s office to pick up rejected story X and at the same time submit new story Y, then walk (no cost for walking) to the office of editor B to try story X on him. And there was no reason for me to limit myself to a single story each way at each office.

The only thing that could prevent me from working at that much greater volume was that I hadn’ t written enough stories to make such economies of scale pay off, and that, boys and girls, is how I became a literary agent.

 
Continue reading ‘Early Editors’ »

Brooklyn Central Library, 1939.

Brooklyn's Central Library, under construction in 1939.

The Great Depression is thought of to have begun with the stock-market crash in October, 1929. Not for us, though. My father didn’t lose his money then. He had pretty much already lost it all — whatever he and my mother had saved and whatever he was getting from whatever kind of job he had had — the year before. We had to leave the semi-detached house we had been renting at 2758 East 26th Street in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Where we wound up was in a tiny apartment in a tall and (then) very modern apartment building. But that was more than my mother and I could afford, so we dropped from the top of what is now called Park Slope to then 509 Dean Street, a cold-water railroad flat at the very bottom of Park Slope (“cold-water” meaning that the building wasn’t heated, although there was indeed hot water to wash with; “railroad flat” meaning that all the rooms were laid out in a single line, so to get from the living room where you entered to the third bedroom, you had to pass successively through the kitchen and the dining room and then the little hallway which preserved decency by allowing the bathroom to be private, and finally, in order, the three small bedrooms). It was, of course, a four-story walk-up apartment. Our apartment, of course, was on the fourth floor.

We stayed there through the tail-end of one bone-chilling winter and up to the late fall of the next. (That year was 1932. I can swear to this, because that fall was the first time I voted in a presidential election. To be sure, I was, at twelve, far too young for the franchise, but my father took me into the booth with him and let me pull the levers. For Herbert Hoover, of course. Till the day of his death my father was unswervingly Republican.)

That wasn’t quite the last time my father was with us, but it was the beginning of the end.

At some time that year my mother must have gone to work, for Mr. Abramson, real estate lawyer in the Chanin Building in Manhattan across from Grand Central and the new sky-scratching Chrysler Building. From then on my mother and I were increasingly solvent, or at least getting by.

Before long we began the long climb back up Park Slope.

Our first stop was two blocks higher up the slope. This was St. Marks Place, where for the two of us we rented what was called a “parlor floor and basement,” the bottom two stories in a four-story building owned by an inventor who occupied the top two floors by himself. He was childless, in fact, I suppose unmarried, but he had a pretty good idea of what ten-year-old boys might like and provided some of it for me. He gave me some easy lessons in inventing by explaining some plumbing difficulties to me and criticizing my attempts at solutions.

And when the Brooklyn Academy of Music, no more than a mile away, celebrated the coming of warm weather by encouraging all their members to come and set up their own telescopes on its roof, he took me there. That was pretty wonderful. I don’t suppose I had ever looked through a telescope before, and I saw Mars and Jupiter and the Moon as independent solar bodies, and not just as real estate for the heroes in Wonder Stories to fire rayguns at each other on.

Then the moves continued, in addresses like 349 St. John’s Place and finally 280 St. John’s Place, where we remained for several years. That was not at all a slum. It was a steam-heated three bedroom apartment in a very nice neighborhood with P.S. 9 (the school I would matriculate from to begin high school) not much more than a block away and a small neighborhood of the essential stores — drugstore, grocery, soda fountain — even nearer than that.

The IRT Seventh Avenue subway was a block or so away in one direction, the BMT Brighton line about the same distance in the other. A few blocks farther was bustling Flatbush Avenue, with every kind of neighborhood store you could imagine. I doubt that the storekeepers were prospering greatly — the Depression was beginning to ease up a little, but there still a few panhandlers on the streets. But they, too, were more or less getting by.

And, talk about culture! Our little cul de sac was steps from the tail end of busy Eastern Parkway. Cross the street, all four lanes of it, and you were looking at the vast, beautifully designed building that, when finished, would be Brooklyn’s Central Library, competing on equal terms with Manhattan’s companion on 5th and 42nd Street. (That didn’t happen, though, until after the war, when we had long moved on.) Walk a few blocks farther and you’re at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, acres and acres of lovely plants and odd ones and greenhouses. Two blocks more, and you are about to enter the Brooklyn Museum, a somewhat, but not much, smaller amalgam of the Fifth Avenue’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park West’s American Museum of Natural History.

I loved it all — well, all but The Botanic Gardens which charged something like a dime or a quarter to get in, with the result that I never entered it except after dark, and over the fence. Didn’t need to, really. Prospect Park was far huger, almost equally well tended and free.

I have never lived in a neighborhood with more graces — except possibly the year I spent, waiting for the Army to take me in, just a block or so off the theaters and restaurants of Times Square. Or maybe the semester we lived just off the Edgeware Road, near Marble Arch in London. Or —

But no, all those other places were for just a few months, this neighborhood was mine for eight or ten years I had no idea how lucky I was until I left it.

The Man Who Gave Me His Wife

Carol Metcalf Ulf Stanton Pohl, 1966.

Carol Metcalf Ulf
Stanton Pohl, 1966.

During World War II, Jay Stanton signed on as radioman with several convoys on the Murmansk run. This was one of the most dangerous jobs there were but Stanton survived. After the war he settled for some years in the largely sf community in Manhattan.

I didn’t really discriminate Jay from others in the community until he married a tall, blonde, very good-looking woman named Carol Metcalf Ulf. (At the time I admit I thought Jay might be running a little luckier than he deserved.) The two settled down in a small apartment in Chelsea. Jay took a job as an assistant to John Campbell on the stumbling science magazine Air Trails and Science Frontiers, and began showing up in evening sessions with his guitar, accompanying anybody who wanted to be accompanied in anything they wanted to sing.

Often his wife, Carol, was singing with him; she had an untrained but quite good soprano voice. However, what she preferred to do, most evenings, was walk over to the Village and sit in one of the bars for a few hours, listening to music and chatting with the musicians.

The most outstanding character of Jay Stanton, you need to realize at once, is that in some ways he was an almost pathologically kind and generous man. Many a husband would prefer to have his bride stay home at night instead of inhabiting Greenwich gin mills without him. Jay apparently accepted it with calm. If this woman he wanted to make happy preferred the gin mills he let it be so. Of course, most people would begin to suspect that this sort of thing was warning of a marriage in trouble.

Most people would be right, too. I wasn’t very surprised when one night I came home to Red Bank — Judy hadn’t thrown me out of the house yet — and discovered 386 West Front Street had a new boarder. Apparently Carol had applied to Judy for shelter and Judy had been generous. It did have one, I believe, unanticipated result, though. Carol and I became friends. It started, if I remember, one morning when Judy wasn’t around and I was out on that grand porch singing to the river, and the next thing I knew we were singing duets. Singing them pretty well, too.

And it went on from there. It went on sufficiently well that, a few months later, when Judy did at last kick me out and I moved into a tiny flat in New York’s East Village, Carol moved with me.

That was not the most amazing thing, though. The most amazing thing was that Jay accepted the changed circumstances with good grace, and, actually, tangible help in moving into and furnishing the flat.

Does that strike you as odd?

Most people would say yes, for abandoned husbands do not commonly behave as amiably and kindly as Jay was wont to do, But Jay was a far kinder organism than the rest of homo sapiens. If there were any areas of greed, or rage, or regret anywhere in his soul I never saw them betray themselves in acts.