Tuesday, May 22, 2007

In praise of incompetence

Why is it no one has anything nice to say about incompetence?

Bertrand Russell praises idleness, Adam Bellow praises nepotism, free-market economists praise greed... those working on third-world development even praise corruptive greed. Incompetence seems to be the one vice -- it doesn't even have the dignity of vicehood -- that no one anywhere appears to like.

Below is my homage to the unpracticed, the ignorant, the careless, the naive. I made it a little more than a year ago without knowing the first thing about photoshop; I had no idea what the tools were or how to manipulate them properly -- and you know what, I kinda like it.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Who is Jack Gasnick?

A real character, it would seem: A quick web search uncovered a 1994 Times profile that starts with the angling in the basement adventure. (Funny the folks at the Times couldn't find anything more about this in their archives.)

The article locates "the pickerel" escapade in the basement of a hardware store at 992 2nd Avenue sometime in 1955 and clearly identifies post-hurricane flooding as the precipitating cause. But, amazingly, it turns out that this guy's brush with subterranean sea-life is not all he's famous for. Jack Gasnick wrote letters to editors all over town, in which, by turns, he told stories about Marilyn Monroe, Kathrine Hepburn and Irving Berlin ("the stingiest man I ever saw"), all of whom regularly partonized his East Side hardware store.

[Photo by Berenice Abbott-1936 via NYPL Digital Archive]

In the early 1970's -- unbelievably, given how influential Gordon Matta-Clark has become in the last few years -- Gasnick began buying and collecting "gutterspace," or small slivers of land left over from zoning or surveying errors. He said that after a little while he couldn't stop: "It's like collecting stamps; once you've got the fever, you've got the fever."

He bought a slice in Corona just behind Louis Armstrong's house, a piece near Jamaica Bay where he once filled a pale with sea-horses, and yet another adjacent to the Fresh Kills landfill where he claims an abandoned sea Captain's house still stood... On the weekends, he would sometimes drive out to the tiny parcels and help the milkweed and laurel grow, tend to the turtles, and sit down for a picnic. "This jump of mine from flower pot to apple tree bears witness to the fact that it doesn't cost much for an apartment-living guy to get a share of the good environment," he wrote in 1974. To be exact, it cost between $50 and $250. But the taxes he had to pay were enough of a hassle that he gave away (or otherwise lost track of) all the pieces by 1977.

And believe it or not that's not all. According to the Wikipedia entry on the longest-lasting lightbulb, the very same Jack Gasnick -- owner of Ganisck Supply at 53rd Street and 2nd Avenue -- was also the owner of the third oldest, continually running lightbulb on the planet. Apparently, though, it's a distinction he vehemently protested. In 1981, the entry says, he wrote Dear Abby and denounced the oldest, or "alleged" oldest, running bulb in Livermore, California as a fraud.

Could he be the fraud? The lightbulb thing appears to check out: according to both Wikipedia and Roadside America, he holds third place for a lightbulb that ran continually from 1912 until 2003, when his building was demolished to make way for a tower of luxury condos. But another letter-to-
the-editor in 1981 might cause you to think he's prone to exageration:

"When I used to talk to Marilyn Monroe on those Thursday nights over the six-foot bar at Bill Chan's Gold Coin, she once mentioned The Seven Year Itch. I have good friends like Sidney Skolsky, Earl Wilson, Humphrey Bogart and Billy Wilder,' I recall her saying, 'but the nicest is Tom Ewell, gentle, kind and worried.' And here is Miss Monroe's tribute to Jack Lemmon, for she added that it was a tossup when Billy Wilder in 1954 chose Ewell over Lemmon for the lead."

Then again, maybe he was just a good talker. Jack, if you're still around, here's to you.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A lively subterranean riverlet

Continuing with the basement fishing phenomenon... Over at Empire Zone they found a letter to the editor titled "a manhattan reminiscence" published in the Times on Aug. 22, 1971. It sounds like an older man, and reads like something Stephen Crane might have written.

"...We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and up-on its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.

"With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed up-wards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.

"One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.

[Photo by Berenice Abbott-1936 via NYPL Digital Archive]

"Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother..."

That's the gist of it anyway. Over at EZ, they found an expert who says carp are not fit to live in cave-like waters for very long, unless they're kept alive by artificial means. The author (one Jack Gasnick) mentions hurricane Diana at the beginning of his reminiscence but says that was fifteen years earlier. So who knows.

Fishing in basements

The point? This is a comment I recently found on Empire Zone and it just about sums it up:

"Anybody know if people are still fishing in Manhattan basements in buildings constructed over still flowing streams? Recall a story about that in the NYT some 30-35 years ago."

Ah, yes. Fishing in basements. Canal Street in Lower Manhattan was a hand-dug canal before it was a street. Who knows how many other canals, ditches, friths, rivers (and whatever else) have been covered up and built upon in the last two centuries of development. We've all heard about the "sink-holes" -- created by leaking pipes and runoff-- that can open up out of nowhere in Brooklyn asphalt. And just the other day i toured an early 19th century clapboard house that had a sealed-up well in the basement floor. So, obviously, there are underground rivers too, or were.

The one thing i don't understand is how the water continues to flow in and out of the basement, and how the fish get in...

I'll be back after i find out more.

In the meantime, here is a fun map of Manhattan's original waterways; the dark green denotes marshland.
"Topographical map of the City of New York : showing original water courses and made land / prepared under the direction of Egbert L. Vielé, topographical engineer" (from The Library of Congress, Geography and Maps Division).