New York in the Forties


Warmer, but not enough. Cloudy, but not oppressively so. Windy, but it had those slight muted notes of spring that give you such hope when you’re a kid – goes along with the frozen sheets of ice on the sidewalk you can crack with your heel, letting the melted water beneath flow out. There is no greater ice-sheet demolitionist than a young child with a good boot. Pity we didn’t have time for that today; the bus was lumbering down the street as we left the house. Yesterday we played Ice Ball Soccer, kicking around a chunk of compacted snow until it dissolved. I let her score. Ice Ball Sogger Chambion of the Wuuuurrrrld!

Yes, my dear. I didn’t want to point out that there were probably competing leagues that did not recognize her victory – I mean I could have, and gave her hope for a unification bout, but the bus was already pulling up.

Worked at home today. Wednesdays are like that. Nice. Quiet. After I uploaded all the work to the UberServers at StribCo, I decided to get the Ricky Gervais season 2 podcasts. I’ve heard five, and they were hiliarious. Only caught the last five, so I missed how the show gradually stopped being the Ricky Gervais show and became The Ricky Gervais Taunting Karl Pilkington Show, until it became the Ricky Gervais Simply Laughs at Karl Pilkington show. The particular incarnation doesn’t matter; they’re hilarious.  And now they’re the first podcasts I’ve ever paid money to hear. Four dollars for the entire first season; two bucks a throw for subsequent episodes.

Gives a man ideas, it does. No, don’t worry, I won’t charge for the Diner. Not the plan.

As for the end of ACME: it’s not really over; I’m just ending the weekly updates. I also ran out of material, for the time being.  I had a few more to go, but they were Times Square pictures, and I do have a large, repetitive Times Square site already. So I scanned and resized for that site. Here’s a smaller version.


Then I looked a bit more closely, and saw something I hadn’t noticed before: 



You know, Charles Brade. Interesting biography on the fellow, inasmuch as he never existed and was thus unlikely to make any movie. Let alone one called “Limelight” in 1952, the year this picture was taken. Let’s zoom in a bit more:



I looked at the actual picture again, and this time I saw the paint. Usually the retouching is pretty obvious, but this was rather deft; I had to hold the picture slantwise against the light to see the difference between the glossy stock and the dull paint. The entire area retouched is about 3/4 of an inch wide, so you can excuse the deficiencies in the B, or the R’s little flirtation with serif status. The marquee below is a bit sloppier –



but that’s about half an inch wide. He didn’t bother to do the front of the marquee. Even in the original it’s tiny, and by the time it made it in a newspaper, no one would notice. But you can make out the name on the left, once you know what you’re looking for; you can see the C that starts the name, and the gap between the P and the L.



Don’t feel bad if you don’t. The name you’re looking for is “Chaplin.” As in Charlie, the star, author, and director of “Limelight.”  As in Charlie Chaplin, who’d been denied a re-entry permit to the US after he left for the London premier of “Limelight,” a month before this picture was taken.

So they took his name out. Charlie down the memory hole. Did the paper do it, or the wire service? I can’t imagine the wire service individually doctoring each photo, but it’s possible. More info: the photo moved for a story on the glories of Times Square, which, according to the wire-service copy attached to the back of the photo, “Takes on a new, thrilling beat” as Broadway “metaphorphosis (sic) into an electric and neon brilliance that never fails to awe the visitor ad even the hard-crusted Manhattanite himself.”

The cutline pasted on the back from the Star or Tribune says the photo was used on July 1, 1956, as part of a package called “’Tawdry’ Times Square.”  (Oh, just wait, fellas.) So perhaps the alteration was made in ’56, when Chaplin was in even worse odor. I’ll check the paper’s archives tomorrow, and see what I can find.

I don’t think the big jet is advertising “The Four Poster,” a Rex Harrison comedy-drama; it’s either left over from the last movie or about to herald the next. Which movie it is, I’ve no idea – I searched imdb’s 1952 listings for “jet,”  “plane,”  “pilot,” and “thrusting ramjets” (well, it is Times Square) and nothing shows up. 

Okay, the foodie explanation. First of all: most of my crankiness had to do with the word itself, which just bugs me. It sounds infantile, but perhaps that’s just because I’ve been living with a very small human for the past half-decade and regard that –ie or –y suffix as necessarily diminutive. “Gourmet” has been debased by overuse – gourmet jelly beans, gourmet coffee, gourmet popcorn, gourmet salt,  etc. At the grocery store a few years ago I saw “gourmet dog food,” which had pictures of dogs standing upright in tuxes with diamond-tipped walking canes, limos in the background. God almighty. Whatever happened to “epicure?” It has fine old Roman connotations to boot. Epicure or Foodie? Better the short vowels than the long ones.

Second, I’d just finished reading some tangentially related material, and had the blood all angered up. One was a chapter in Claire Berlinski’s excellent “Menace in Europe,” concerning Jose Bove, the French food activist. While she has sympathies for the movement to make food better and healthier, she has no sympathies for opportunistic mystics like Bove. She did a tidy job of demonstrating how the language of the Bovians has a quasi-religious cast, what with all its talk about the spirituality of the soil and the roots and the time-honored rituals of honest corn-shucking, etc. That was the backstory playing in my simple, easily-impressed brain, and I should have mentioned the context.

The second wad ‘o material came from the crunchycon blog, which I had been reading with ever-vaulting amounts of exasperation; as Jonah Goldberg put it in his remarks about the idea – not so much of an evisceration as a mummification, because the Egyptian doctors pulled the brain out through the nose – I don’t know what the hell they are talking about. Crunchyism is everything and nothing and this and that, and mostly what they like; at the end of reading two weeks of entries I concluded it was nonsense on stilts – and hand-made, locally-produced, organic wood stilts at that. The author is a smart guy and a truly decent fellow. He interviewed me for the book, I think – I mean, I know he interviewed me on the topic of living in the city in an Arts and Crafts home, but I don’t know if it was for the book. In any case, I didn’t make it, perhaps because Jasperwood is not an apt example of the Small House movement. As I may have noted before, the peculiarity of the lot – mostly hill – and the foresight of Father Walnetto to buy the adjacent small lot in 1921 added up to a ginormous lot that’s anomalous for in the city. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. But this does not mean I have turned my back on community or shared obligations or the need to patronize merchants when I want a hammer.

Anyway. They go on and on about the virtues of organic and the communitarian values of food. I am agnostic on the former point and largely sympathetic to the second, but in the end it’s just dinner. It’s not A FRICKIN’ REQUIEM. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating good food; there’s nothing wrong with devoting your spare time to learning how to make your tongue happier. Delight in your skills; enrich your suppers, and you’ll get no argument from me that you’re better off than a Bluto cramming Gros Macs in his slobbering maw every day. But it is not inherently spiritual. That is an attribute we invest in squash; it does not contain it on its own. It’s not a Bruckner symphony, which was conceived as a spiritual thing, and remains so even if it falls on deaf ears.

Well, matter of degree, you’d say; matter of opinion. Perhaps. But. Food is memory; our most powerful associations (I’m sounding like THEM now, eh? Heh) are formed as children, and we associate food with comfort and joy. Me, I have a deep bond with French Toast. Particularly the sort served at Perkins in Fargo in 1971: thin, overdone, sprinkled with powdered sugar, drenched in Twinberry syrup. Not good food, but it evokes powerful memories as strong as the acrid smell of candles in church. Neither means anything, alone; it’s what we add. So invest meaning in food all you like; it’s a way of enriching your life and continuing traditions. But in my opinion, you’re putting something in, not taking something out, and that’s the difference; that’s what makes it neutral. Food is nothing without you. There are no carrots in the fields yearning to make your life complete.

I could go further and say it’s actually a form of autophagy, that the act of knowing good food and consuming good food is mere self-flattery, but no. I whipped up a fantastic “Indian” Butter Chicken on Basmati rice tonight.  Everyone swooned, but the meal wasn’t any reflection on me at all. Thank generations of Indian chefs. Thank Vishnu!

Note: Epicureans actually have a philosophy on their side. Me, I side with the Stoics. But I’d dine at the Epicurians’ clubhouse.

And now to the weekly Firefly. See you tomorrow!


c. 2005 j. lileks. Email, if you wish, may be sent to "first name at last name dot com."