Greenpoint, October, 2015

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Serious Ladies of Staten Island - Part III

... fresh sprung from Ohio, conquering New York and knowing everything as I never have since, I was asked by a fair young man in the office next to mine if I would care to go walking Saturday on Staten Island.
      "I've always wanted to," I cried, never having heard of the place.

Staten Island seems an unlikely locale for Dawn Powell, who satirized the mid-century artistic milieu of  New York so well in A Time to be Born, The Locusts Have No King, The Golden Spur, and other novels. In fact, in a late novel, The Wicked Pavillion, Staten Island plays a small but critical role in the story of Marius, one of the three painters whose cafe society lives the book relates. (Excellent reference on DP's life here.)

Powell's first trip to Staten Island in 1920 and subsequent ones are recounted in a short piece she wrote for Esquire in 1965 called, "Staten Island I Love You!" The "fair young man..., who shall be and indeed was called Joe," became her husband. Staten Island became a favored tramping ground of theirs.

Powell is quick to recognize the eccentricities of the Island's inhabitants, for example, that "nobody can give directions because they don't know where they are themselves":

Hunting for a map-starred beach somewhere in mid-island, we asked the only person we could find on the road where the ocean was.
    "I don't know," he said, I just came out of the house.
St. George Theatre
She describes another encounter, when they asked a man coming out of a movie house whether Meurot's really was the best place to eat in St. George:

He looked around him cautiously as if he had been wrongly accused. 
     "Listen, folks, he said pleadingly, "I only been to the Black Lagoon," and away he scurried.

The Meurot Club was a large restaurant and catering hall around the corner from the St. George Theatre. It was used for all varieties of social and political events. There are listings for events at the club through the early 1950s; at some point, it was torn down and replaced by a parking lot. The St. George Theatre, established in 1929, has been restored and is used for concerts and events.
(Photo: Muller Family Connections)
Powell delights in Staten Island's notoriety as an excellent place to hide. No one there pays attention to the world outside the Island; and no one outside the island pays any attention to it: 

You wouldn't, for instance, find James bond heading for a five-cent ferry to track down an international spy holed up in Sailor's Sung Harbor, even if all the clues pointed that way.

Some did take a one-way ferry ride: "Carlos Tresca, the anarchist leader held by the police, managed to slip away on the ferry to vacation with his friends on South Beach while the Manhattan detectives thrashed through less obvious territory." And, much earlier, "Garibaldi took refuge on Staten Island in Rosebank in 1851. His neighbors knew him as an amiable candlemaker; his past and future plans as a revolutionary were of no interest to them, nor would they have understood the implications." (Setting an example, perhaps, for O'Donovan-Rossa, another revolutionary who chose Staten Island for his last years.)

My greatest pleasure from the piece is picturing Powell and Joe wandering all over the island, by foot, bus, and trolley not finding the places they are looking for or even finding the ones where they've already been, like the "Four Corners beer garden with a huge stuffed bear in the yard--was it in Annandale?"

Schaffer's Tavern (Dec. 2013)
I suppose the beer garden could have been at the original Schaffer's Tavern, a German restaurant opened in 1930 at Jewett Avenue and Victory Boulevard (now site of a Burger King), just down the hill from the Four Corners (now known as Castleton Corners). A few years later, Shaffer's moved a block further on, from where, happily, it still operates (but no sign of a stuffed bear).

Powell ends the piece with a question: "Does the Verrazano-narrows Bridge know the wonderland it is opening up or will, alas, the wonders vanish at the first breeze from the real world?"

Sadly, I think her question has been answered. And yet... glimmers, traces, clues...

1 comment:

  1. A lovely piece on an interesting writer and person, David.

    One might perhaps think of this blog of yours as a sustained and earnest effort to answer Dawn's final question in something other than the all too obvious cynical fashion.