The pandemic has prompted me to revive a boyhood hobby of stamp collecting, as I’ve shared in my new blog on lifelong learning and adult education (here and here). It has been an enjoyable and relaxing pastime, and I’m sure I’ll be sticking with it for the longer run.
Among other things, I’m creating an album of postal covers and postcards that represent places and themes of my life. Toward that end, I’ve been searching eBay for old postcards of Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater) and New York University (my law school alma mater), and I’ve scored several good deals averaging a few dollars a piece.
One postcard pictures VU’s Lembke Hall, opened in 1902 as a dormitory. By the time I arrived in 1977, it housed faculty offices, including those of the political science professors, my major. Perhaps my memory exaggerates, but I recall it as being quite the ramshackle building, a model of what real estate folks and contractors might call deferred maintenance. It felt like the whole thing might simply collapse. I don’t know when VU tore it down, but the equivalent of a strong wind may have been sufficient.
Anyway, this postcard is especially cool because it is postally used. The back reveals a quick little note penned by one Elsie to her friend Edith in Pennsylvania. It was postmarked from Valparaiso on August 7, 1910. What a neat snapshot of everyday life over a century ago!
Below is a postcard depicting the Hotel Holley on Washington Square West, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. There’s no date on it, but from the automobiles in the illustration and its overall design, it’s clearly from the early 1900s. Also pictured is the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. Alas, this postcard was never used, so I can only imagine who purchased it and why.
In the early fifties, NYU would buy the hotel and convert it to a residence hall for law students. It was designed to complement the opening of Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building occupying the southwest corner of the Square. The new dorm was named Hayden Hall. Some 30 years later, I would live in it during my first year at NYU. The rooms were quite plain, shared with a roommate. But each room had a bathroom, and most had small study nooks to enable an early riser or a night owl to work without disturbing their roommate. Hayden Hall also had a cafeteria and group TV room on the ground floor, and it is via gatherings there with my classmates that I made many new friends.
Unless I win the lottery, Hayden Hall also happened to be the fanciest address that I will ever claim: 33 Washington Square West. (The ghost of Henry James must approve!) Here’s a shot of the building from one of my NYC visits several years ago.
It struck me the other day that during the pandemic, I have returned to a hobby that allows me to travel over distance and time. My years at both VU and NYU yielded many good memories and planted seeds of future endeavors, cultural interests, and lifelong friendships. I’m glad that I can capture some of these memories in a stamp album.
A greater appreciation for the cultural amenities of my home town of Boston and its surroundings has been an unintended but welcomed benefit of this otherwise awful pandemic. Yesterday this manifested in a short visit to the city’s venerable Museum of Fine Arts, which reopened for visitors earlier this year.
I spent most of my time at a special exhibition celebrating the work of impressionist painter Claude Monet. Among my favorites was his 1900 oil painting of the Charing Cross bridge in London. You can check out the photo above and the story behind the painting below.
It was an exceedingly pleasant visit, including lunch at one of the museum’s cafés and a stop in its bookshop. I’ll be back for more visits during the months to come. Among other things, later this year, MFA is reopening its redesigned galleries covering Ancient Greece and Rome, two historical periods of interest to me.
Monet’s Charing Cross painting triggered a bout of nostalgia, for London has long been one of my favorite cities, a huge yet walkable metropolis steeped in history, tradition, culture, and entertainment. I first discovered it during my 1981 semester overseas as part of Valparaiso University’s Cambridge, England study abroad program. My grainy, first-ever photo of London is below.
That semester would draw me to city life forever. No doubt those days spent in London would pave the way for my decision to go to law school at New York University, located in the heart of Manhattan.
When I began teaching in the 1990s, a week-long, spring break visit to London was made affordable by $300 round trip tickets from the East Coast. My fascination with the city and the relative affordability of traveling there made for some great visits during my younger days. I haven’t been to London in some time, but it’s definitely on my bucket list for a return trip.
(I will save for another writing the explanation behind the once extremely unlikely prospect that I would ever write with affection about a visit to an art museum. For now, let me say that the backstory also traces its origins to my semester abroad and what was, by far, my lowest grade in any college course!)
“Have I not enough without your mountains?”
In 1801, Charles Lamb, essayist, poet, and lifelong Londoner, declined an invitation from friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth to visit him in England’s northwest countryside, explaining:
The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes – London itself a pantomime and a masquerade – all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much life.
Ultimately, Lamb asked, “Have I not enough without your mountains?” (You may read the full letter here).
Now, unlike Charles Lamb, I’m not so totally stuck on cities that I cannot appreciate a beautiful countryside. But I get where he’s coming from in terms of being stimulated by city life. I’ve lived in cities my whole adult life, first New York (1982-94), then Boston (1994-present). And if New York has been my stateside London, then Greater Boston has been my stateside version of the historic university city of Cambridge (UK variety).
In short, I’ll probably be a city dweller for the duration.
A Foggy Day
Because I’ll use any excuse to listen to Sinatra, I will close with his perfect rendition of Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” Enjoy.
My childhood years overlapped with an era that a twisted nutritionist might call the Golden Age of Processed Foods. Convenience was the touchstone, and frozen, canned, and packaged food containers helped to deliver the product. (During this time, the organic and natural food gods apparently were being held hostage, perhaps in the basement restroom of a remote General Foods plant.)
Many moms of America’s burgeoning middle class, including my dear mom, were quick to take advantage of these easy-to-prepare meals. My favorites were TV dinners, like the Swanson Salisbury steak dinner pictured above. Mom was a much better cook than she ever gave herself credit for being, but when she’d announce to my brother and me that we were having Swanson frozen dinners for our evening meal, it was cause for small celebration.
I don’t know why I was so happy to be served a TV dinner. But there was something about those tin foil containers of food, typically featuring a good-sized chunk of some sort of meat, as well as a nice little dessert to wrap up the feast, that appealed to me.
Of course, I wasn’t looking at food labels back then. So I was blissfully unaware that each TV dinner tended to contain, oh, about a month’s recommended intake of salt, as well as a list of chemicals that rivaled the periodic table. But seriously, something had to be added to those foods to keep them “freezer fresh” for months on end.
While my food intake is hardly ideal today, I am happy to report that I’ve moved on from TV dinners. I must confess, however, that if a Swanson dinner suddenly popped up in my freezer, I’d be inclined to heat it up and give it a try.
I’m taking a short break from my Pandemic Chronicles entries to indulge in some deep nostalgia, prompted by a Facebook ad touting the online revival of Tower Records, the one-time brick & mortar retail shrine for music lovers. The announcement immediately set me off on a time travel journey going back some 38 years.
Tower’s massive store on 4th Street and Broadway in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village appeared in 1983. In the early 1980s, Broadway was the dividing line between the Village proper and the “frontier” of the East Village. I was a law student at New York University back then, and the law school’s Mercer Street residence hall happened to be only a few minutes walk from Tower. Even though discretionary spending under my tight budget was mainly devoted to exploring New York’s many wonderful bookstores, Tower became a draw as well.
Of course, back then I had no real music set-up, not even a boom box. Throughout law school, my cassette Walkman was my stereo system. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me from periodic visits to Tower in search of music bargains. I was in awe of the selection. Imagine the endless rows of cassette tapes in every musical category!
I was hardly alone in recognizing Tower’s significance. In a 2016 piece for Medium, “When Tower Records was Church,” David Chiu waxed nostalgic about visits to Tower in the Village:
When you walked into the Tower Records store in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood back in the day, you just didn’t go in there to buy an album and then rush off to leave. To me, going to Tower was like visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art or attending a baseball game — it required a certain investment of time.
Sometimes it was the overall experience of being inside the store that mattered more than the purchases: the act of walking through the aisles and aisles of music, finding out what the new releases displayed out front, and hoping to meet an musician who was doing an in-store appearance. There was always a sense of anticipation as you went through Tower’s revolving doors underneath the the large sign displaying its distinctive italicized logo because you just didn’t know what you’d discover.
Sigh. The new Tower is online, and even though the variety may well exceed what the brick-and-mortar stores had to offer, it’s not the same. Similar to how I’m feeling about online booksellers and music & video streaming these days, what’s missing now is that wondrous sense of anticipation that came with entering a record store, bookstore, or video store, and making new discoveries. I can’t say that I’d trade in the vast warehouse of popular culture available to us today in return for that on-the-ground retail experience, but it’s a closer call than first meets the eye.
I had a feeling it might be this way. Back in March and April, when people in the know started sharing possible timelines for coronavirus treatments and vaccines, it quickly became obvious to me that we might be in this stay-at-home mode through the calendar year and perhaps going into 2021.
For many of us in higher education, this fall means teaching online. Last spring, when my university decided to teach remotely for the rest of the semester, we quickly had to adapt to this online environment, right as the emerging pandemic began to swirl around us.
Commencing an academic year in an online modality is a different kind of experience. There’s no opportunity to establish a face-to-face rapport, so we must do our best to create a positive classroom vibe with our faces on the screen. I’m very happy to report that my students have been engaged and interested in our Zoom classes so far, and that says a lot about their ability to adapt and to make the best of the situation.
Missing is the normal ritual of how the start of a school year parallels the shift from summer to fall. With the exception of my six years of full-time legal practice and an interim year between finishing college and entering law school, I’ve been living on a school or academic calendar continuously since kindergarten. I still keep my schedule and appointments in a hard copy annual planner that runs from July through June.
This fall will be different, however. Although the New England weather is already showing signs of cooling down, the fall will be more observed than experienced, because of the pandemic. As I’ve written in previous entries, Massachusetts (and Boston especially) has been a brutal hotspot for COVID-19, and it has taken a lot of self-discipline and painful sacrifice to bring down our infection rates. To avoid a recurrence of what we experienced during the spring, we will have to limit the degree to which we re-open.
All of which triggers a bit of soggy nostalgia for me. Thinking of grade school and childhood anticipation of the fall holidays, especially Halloween. And then there’s football (American, that is), with all the pageantry of the college game, and Sundays and Monday nights featuring the NFL. Add to that memories of fall semesters in college and law school, wondering what the coming year would bring. All of these memories are fueled by living in parts of the country — the Midwest and Northeast — where we have seasonal weather changes.
I’m grateful for technologies that allow for live interaction on the screen. This is truly “space age” stuff when viewed from my grade school days and our visions of what the future might bring. Nonetheless, it’s not the same. I do hope that next fall will be more reminiscent of days gone by.
A couple of weeks ago, our study abroad group from college met for a Zoom-enabled happy hour/mini-reunion. It was the latest gathering of our spring 1981 semester abroad cohort from Valparaiso University’s program in Cambridge, England.
I can think of no other chapter in my life that so instantly flips on my personal nostalgia channel. I’ve written about that special semester many times on this blog (such as here, “First-time sojourn across the pond”). Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:
I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.
One of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities. Right now, it’s highly questionable whether their main campuses will even be open for residential classes in the fall, much less offering study abroad options. Even when those possibilities begin manifesting themselves again, a lot of students (and their parents) may understandably be hesitant to take the plunge.
I dearly hope that a combination of smart public health practices and new developments in medicine will control the ravages of this virus sooner than later. Saving lives, preserving health, and re-opening our economic and civic society are, of course, our main priorities. The return of life-changing opportunities to spend meaningful time in other parts of the world would be welcomed, too, along with a renewed sense of adventure to take advantage of them.
I know I’m hardly alone in spending more time watching television during this public health crisis. As I wrote a couple of a weeks ago, I’ve sharply reduced my watching of TV news, and that decision has held. Instead, I’ve been spending time with assorted series, especially highly-regarded police procedurals and historical dramas. Last night, however, I checked out the first episode of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part ESPN documentary series about the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, centering around the final championship season (1997-98) of its iconic, superstar guard, Michael Jordan.
The series is being televised in weekly installments, rather than being released in its entirety. That said, I already understand why “The Last Dance” is drawing accolades from sports writers and fans desperate to feed the beast while professional and college leagues are shut down due to the pandemic. (As further evidence, the just-completed National Football League annual draft of collegiate standouts earned its highest-ever ratings.) It’s a basketball junkie’s delight. If you’re a sports fan, and especially if you followed the great 1990s Bulls teams, then you’re in for a treat.
For me, “The Last Dance” is prompting a major nostalgia trip. The Jordan-era Bulls teams overlapped with important events and transitions in my life. Jordan first joined the Bulls for the 1984-85 season, which happened to cover my final year of law school at New York University. Even in New York, the sometimes snobby sports intelligentsia knew that this guy in Chicago was something special. Jordan immediately became one of the league’s best players. I began closely following his career and the fortunes of the Bulls from afar.
Alas, Jordan had joined a team in a deep state of mediocrity. The Bulls of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a pretty sad bunch. It would take several years of key player acquisitions and coaching changes — most notably star swingman Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson — before the team became a serious playoff contender. In fact, not until 1991 would the Bulls win their first NBA championship, the first of six during the halcyon 90s.
By then, I had been practicing law for six years in New York City, first as a Legal Aid lawyer, then as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State. But in 1991, my career was about to shift. I had accepted an appointment as an entry-level instructor in NYU’s Lawyering Program, an innovative legal skills curriculum for first-year law students, starting that fall. I was tremendously excited to be returning to my legal alma mater,as a faculty member, no less! I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of an academic career.
I would decamp from New York to Boston in 1994 to accept a tenure-track position at Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve remained since. My devotion to the Bulls followed me, and watching the team’s successes provided welcomed breaks from the demanding workload of a new assistant professor.
The academic calendar would provide greater flexibility in my own schedule, with added opportunities for travel. My fond memories of that team include visits to home in Indiana. My mom, of all folks, had become an ardent Bulls as well. We would watch games together in the TV room, cheering on what would become one of the sport’s legendary dynasties.
As a lifelong Chicago sports fan who puts those great Bulls teams on a pedestal, I look forward to watching the rest of “The Last Dance.” I’m sure it will continue to inspire nostalgic episodes as well. It’s all good, as we comb the memories of our lives during this challenging time.
At my go-to karaoke place in Boston, the main stage DJ is fond of playing clips of late 70s pop music in between numbers selected for performance. When things are a bit slow, he’ll even get up and croon a tune himself, and often he chooses songs from the late 70s. For me, naturally, this music sets off immediate bouts of nostalgia — in this case zeroing in on the year 1979.
Why 1979? Maybe it’s simply easy to think in terms of 20/30/40 years ago. But for me it’s more than that. Until recently, I never regarded that year as being a particularly momentous one in my life. Forty summers ago, I was a rising junior at Valparaiso University. Much of that summer was spent working as a retail clerk for a local drugstore chain, unloading trucks and stocking shelves with merchandise. In keeping with my proclaimed career goal of entering politics, I was very active in student government and local political campaigns. My plan was to finish up my B.A. (political science major, of course) and then to go to law school, a tried-and-true path to a political career.
Well, I would graduate with that poli sci major and head off to law school, but another set of significant experiences would come into play as well. In the spring of 1979, I interviewed for and obtained a departmental editor position with The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. Starting in the fall, I would be the paper’s academic affairs editor, responsible for the internal higher education beat at the university. That meant writing my own news and opinion articles, as well as assigning and editing articles for staff reporters.
I’ve actually saved the summer 1979 letter that our editor-in-chief sent to incoming department editors and staffers, in anticipation of our work that fall. A snapshot of it appears below. There’s a reason why I’ve held onto it for so long, and it’s not simply my pack rat mentality. You see, I vividly recall how much I was looking forward to that experience. I had never before worked on a student newspaper, but I had the writing bug. The Torch was a very good undergraduate student newspaper and was taken seriously by the faculty and administration. I was psyched to be a part of it.
Working on The Torch turned out to be a great, immersive experience, intellectually and personally. To the degree that I write clearly and cogently today, I credit the many dozens of articles I wrote and edited as helping to build that foundation. I spent many hours in the newspaper’s offices, and that time helped to forge a cadre of lifelong friendships. In addition, I now realize how covering VU’s higher ed scene helped to plant the seeds for my eventual pursuit of an academic career.
And of course, whether in The Torch offices or driving around in my beat-up 1968 Buick, the a.m. radio played those Top 40 pop songs, over and again. So yes, they do a number on me. In fact, I’m now feeding the nostalgia beast, having assembled a little play list of some of those songs from 1979 for my iPad. They’re like musical time machines.
Two years ago, I wrote a retrospective essay looking back at my college years for The Cresset, Valparaiso University’s journal of the arts, humanities, and public affairs. Titled “Homecoming at Middle Age,” you may freely access it here.
This weekend marks the closing of Durgin-Park, a Boston restaurant featuring classic Yankee-style cooking that has been around for over 190 years. In explaining their decision to close, owners cited the rising cost of doing business and competition from newer, trendier restaurants.
Durgin-Park is located in Faneuil Hall, a popular tourist location with shops, restaurants, and pubs. During Boston’s early history, this was a commercial seaport, market, and meeting place, and Durgin-Park served up many meals to those who toiled hard to make a living. Between Faneuil Hall’s period of commerce and its 1970s reincarnation as a tourist site, Durgin-Park continued on as a favorite local eatery.
The closing of Durgin-Park has been big news here in Boston, with much of the coverage sharing nostalgic reminiscing over meals, family gatherings, and visits to the city. Here’s the lede from a piece by Shannon Dooling of WBUR public radio:
Durgin-Park, the Faneuil Hall restaurant that dates back to the early 19th century, is slated to close its doors Saturday. Known for its traditional New England fare, and at times surly wait staff, patrons have been coming out in droves to show support, share memories and enjoy a final meal at the Boston institution.
Durgin-Park is part of my Boston history as well. In the spring of 1994, when I traveled from New York to Boston to search for an apartment in anticipation of my move later that summer, my long-time friends Don and Sharon Driscoll drove out from their home (then in Connecticut) to add a bit of sightseeing to the trip. Sharon was familiar with Durgin-Park from a childhood visit to Boston, and so we made it my first bonafide New England restaurant meal as a soon-to-be Bostonian.
Since then, I’ve taken many guests there, including friends and families visiting Boston on a vacation, as well as groups from academic conferences. The food was always hearty, plentiful, and delicious.
Some of the news reports about Durgin-Park’s closing allude to the possibility of a buyer stepping in to save the restaurant. I have no idea if this is simply wishful thinking. I do know that great cities make room for the new without jettisoning the best of the old. Durgin-Park certainly qualifies as the latter. If it is to serve its last meal this weekend, then it will be missed for years to come.
Tara Isabella Burton, in a feature for The Economist’s 1843 magazine last year, serves up a human interest story on an iconic Manhattan institution, the 24-hour diner:
Londoners have their pubs. Parisians have their cafés. New Yorkers have diners – altars to cheap coffee and mayo-spackled pastrami, where you can order a mug at dawn and stay until dusk, where you can hurl invective at the waiters and where they’ll hurl them right back. New Yorkers may be brusque, but at the diner counter, they’ll tell you every one of their secrets before the second cup of coffee.
. . . The diner, after all, is at once the result of New York’s loneliness and its solution. It’s a place where social rules among strangers – no eye contact, no smiling, especially no conversation – are suspended. The greatest diners, like Chelsea Square, are the 24-hour ones that cater to morning workers and midnight drunks, and to the people who find themselves in those sunrise spaces in between.
Yeah, it’s something of a clichéd piece, characterizing the NYC diner as a refuge for loners and eccentrics in a sort of romanticized, 1940s kind of way. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it, because it pushes my nostalgia buttons: The 24-hour diner ranks high among the institutions I miss most about living in New York City, where I lived from 1982 to 1994.
During that time, two such places were regular stops for me, the Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street and 6th Avenue, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway and Astor Place. It’s no accident that both are in the heart of Greenwich Village, near the buildings of New York University, where I went to law school. The Washington Square Diner was a short walk from Hayden Hall, then the primary dorm for first-year law students. The Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger was close to the Mercer Street residence hall, where most second and third year law students lived.
When I visit New York, a meal at the Cozy is a required pilgrimage. I usually order the same thing: A cup of their incredible split pea soup with croutons and a delicious turkey burger. Some of the same guys who worked behind the counter in the 1980s are still there. I also make occasional visits to the Washington Square Diner, where their challah bread french toast remains one of my favorites.
For most of my life I have been a night owl type. Coming from northwest Indiana, the 24-hour city diner was a revelation to me. Good, basic comfort food at decent prices, available around the clock. Awesome!
I’ve been in Boston for some 24 years. While NYC is the city that never sleeps, Boston tends to go to bed early. Although there are many things I like about Boston, how wonderful it would be to see a bunch of 24-hour diners pop up. After all, sometimes a burger or plate of eggs at 2 a.m. just hits the spot.