This has been a month when we have all been absorbed by the passing of the famous, the powerful, and in my case the personal - the death of my firefighter nephew, John McNamara who died as a direct result of breathing in the toxins at Ground Zero as he worked to save the lives of those buried in the rubble during and after 9/11.. Maybe its grief, or overload, but there are so many subjects that need discussion these days -- some of them more scandals than subjects -- that I have been negligent about getting to them in my occasional postings here. They range from the abominable treatment of the Ground Zero workers by the city of New York and the cover up by the Fire Department, to the proposed building of a needle skyscraper on a side street near the Museum of Modern Art, to the neglect of a great novel by the New York Times...and its trashing of J.C. Penney. Here's my take on this grab-bag of scandals.
1.) The workers at Ground Zero, firemen, police, and sanitation continue to be shafted by the authorities who refuse to recognize the severity of their illnesses, thus avoiding any compensation for those illnesses that might help them and their struggling families get through this difficult period of their lives. It is a continuation of the abominable behavior exhibited by the Bush era's pusillanimous Christie Todd Whitman who assured one and all that no danger existed to those workers from the toxic fumes of the smoldering World Trade Center. Hundreds, possibly thousands have fallen victim to the toxic environment at Ground Zero, breathing in its carcinogens for hundreds of hours without proper protection. Now the Fire Department refuses to release the data which will prove that so many otherwise young and healthy fire-fighters, working at Ground Zero, came down with cancers and other life threatening conditions as a direct result of that work, and are regulars at the cancer clinics of Sloan Kettering and other facilities. Why? Fear of costs? Fear of Lawsuits? Fear of angering the city and state where the budgets are stretched thin in this recession? Or fear of decency?
2.) Yesterday I had an opportunity to speak with an ailing fire-fighter at Sloan Kettering who has been fighting his life threatening illness - thyroid cancer - almost unknown among young men. He was in his early forties like my late nephew - perfectly healthy before the catastrophe of 9/11, and he is being given no help by the government. The civil rights advocate Norman Siegel, a man with a long history of service to New Yorkers is running for Public Advocate, and he is one of the few who has taken up the cause of these heroic men and women suffering from their life threatening diseases. He has my vote this year and I hope that of every caring New Yorker. Mayor Bloomberg, as ever, turns his raptor eyes away from the misfortunes of those who gave their lives for this city, unless it is a good photo-opportunity that requires an arm around a fireman. Bloomberg, a sometimes good man with an unsteady moral compass is now drowning in the swamp of his own ego, abetted by the fact that great wealth can still buy big prizes - such as the Mayoralty - and allow him to ignore the sufferings of those who have given their lives in the service of this city and country.
3.) Another scandal. There is a building planned in NYC that will use the air rights of St.Thomas's church on West 53rd and 54th Streets, a skyscraper that will stab this neighborhood through its heart with its elegant stiletto design. It is a tall, needle shaped glass tower, an icicle of a building, allegedly designed for multipurpose use - to add more space for the Museum of Modern Art, and provide funds for the church to restore its aging stained glass windows. This building, one of the tallest in New York, not only violates the existing building code, forbidding such structures on the side streets, but will complete the ruination of West 53rd and 54th Streets as a neighborhood in which real people live real lives. Years before its current renovation, the old Museum of Modern Art was one of the cities glories - small in scale and delightful in all its particulars, it was a refuge for those who loved great modern art and fine old movies. In its lust for expansion it gave way to a fashionable architect's glass abomination in which it was easier to see fellow museum visitors wandering about in search of exhibitions and shops than study the paintings on view. I used to visit that museum twice a month for its spiritual nourishment. I went once when it opened. I have not been back to hunt for paintings hidden behind tourists, and seek exhibitions only to find more MOMA shops and expensive eating places. Now, more glass towers are proposed to allow for the exhibition of more paintings. Bigger is not better here and if the Landmarks Commission permits this needle skyscraper to be built, it will invalidate their very purpose of protecting the city from just such an architectural outrage.
As Assemblyman Gottfried wrote in opposition to such towers: "The zoning text is clear; there must be a preservation plan that benefits the landmark without adding burden on the community. Fifty-Third Street is characterized by low-rise mixed use development. The Tower plan is inconsistent with and degrades this character." Degrade is the right word here. The church and the museum by placing their own expansionist interests above that of the neighborhood they serve must be stopped from such misadventures in real estate that will have a long lasting, negative effect upon the city. The ill considered growth of NYU and Columbia University have been appalling examples of once benevolent institutions destroying the neighborhoods that surround them in their never-ending search for "more" - displacing those who made their homes in these neighborhoods, and eliminating the small shops and diners that gave the streets their character. Jane Jacobs would be churning in her grave.
4.) A long time ago a novelist named Christopher (Kit) Davis wrote a non fiction book about a musical production in which I was involved as a librettist. I hated the book and didn't feel so good about Kit. I felt that he did not give me the credit due for my heroic efforts to create a fine libretto from a difficult subject so when he sent me his latest novel forty years later I was prepared to cast a cold eye on it. Well, damn me, I couldn't. It's called "Blue Sky" and it is a brilliant tale of a prison break in the nineteen-seventies by some men on death row. I have never read a book which so deeply and truthfully enters into the hearts and minds of murderers, showing both their innate depravity and their innate humanity. It is a masterpiece about prison life, and criminal acts that tells a whopping good story, right up there, if not beyond Capote's "In Cold Blood." The St. Louis Globe noted "Davis's brilliance is to keep the writing precise and sharp, and to terrify with irony and exactness." The irony for me is that Davis, a prize winning author, was forced to self publish his masterpiece. I'm sure it can be purchased on Amazon, or through www.iuniverse.com. This failure of a commercial publisher to publish a great book speaks to the ageism of publishing today (Davis is 80) and the sad condition of an industry flailing about for best sellers from the notorious. Bernie Madoff's mistress gets a publisher, the smallest droppings from the life of Michael Jackson get volumes, but a splendid writer is rejected. Because it is self-published it will not be reviewed in The New York Times. And that's a scandal in itself.
5.) Speaking of the Times, what was that trashing of J.C Penny, my bespoke tailor, all about? Clearly the times they are a changing but The Times isn't. Get with it. The thousand dollar shirts and ten thousand dollar skirts you gush over, and the mass market clothes you condemn in your style section show just how out of touch you are with the real world these days. It won't only be the internet that kills newspapers but the paper's refusal to take a hard look at lives beyond the Hamptons where people shop for decent but inexpensive school clothes for their kids, and aren't insulted and put down by modest price-tags or larger sizes. More scandals to come. One thing is sure: there is an inexhaustible supply of them in our lovely but imperfect world. For example - why I can't bring myself to see Ingloreous Basteards or however the hell it spells itself. Am I wrong or is it a bloody romp through a Nazi-fantasyland by a morally challenged ego driven director which creates an alternative universe about the Holocaust? If so it is more than a scandal - it's a celluloid abomination.