Anna Jane Grossman will be discussing her book Obsolete at Word Bookshop in Greenpoint tonight at 7:30. Click over to Word for all the info.
I asked Anna, who grew up in Manhattan throughout the 80s and 90s, what she will miss the most of the things disappearing from the city. She mentioned chalk drawings on the street, seeing garment workers at their sewing machines from her bedroom window, and the nondescript businesses that have vanished.
As for a list of the top few, she writes the following:
Here are a few of the things that I'd like my future self to remember--objects that are either fading or don't exist. They made up the landscape of a city that wasn't necessarily better or worse...it just was a city that felt a little more like it was mine.
They stood tall on many a city block for decades. Quite a few remain, but today they are an example of an obsolete object that continues to exist only because it can be used for ad space. Pay phones give the ads an air of purpose; otherwise, they'd just be stand-alone billboards conspicuously demanding our attention like signs on the side of the highway.
With cell phones as omnipresent as they are, few people today ever have a need to use a pay phone. There's no denying that cell phones are more convenient (when they're charged, at least), but I'd argue that they pull us out of the world: we become so engrossed in our phone conversations that we are constantly bumping into people or talking so loudly in public that everyone else avoids us. Pay phones were more communal; each one could be a set for a million dramas a day. I remember which one I was at when I learned of my nephew's birth (57th and 5th street) or the one where, at 19, I called the first guy who ever broke my heart and cried into the phone (inside Reebok Sports Club on the Upper West Side). Surprisingly, this didn't win him back.
Today, we can fit all of Proust--translated into thirty languages, no less--on a flash drive the size of my fingernail. Pretty amazing. Also amazing: the way that the White Pages contained the name of every single person in New York! Or at least, almost. Even amazing-er? There were pages and pages of people named Grossman. Also, Lipschitz.
Not only were all these people located in one book, but also, all these people most likely owned the book as well. If you said, "I'm in the book," everyone knew what you meant. I few times as a kid, I recall calling the guy who was last in the phone book. His name was Zelmo Zzzzzip, and his answering machine said, "Hello, this is Zelmo."
While researching Obsolete, I tracked down Mr. Zzzzzip, whose real name is Ed Saxon. Saxon also had the pseudonym Aaron A-aaaba, and apparently he and another A-lover silently fought year after year, adding extra A's to their names and then hoping they were first when the book fell on their doorsteps. He set up the Zelmo answering machine just because he thought it'd be funny to listen to the messages from dumb kids like me! Now, Saxon lives in LA...and he told me he hadn't used a phone book in years.
Tokens were fazed out a few years ago; on some turnstiles you can see where the coin slot was patched over. Tokens were straight-forward objects. If you had a token on you, you had a token on you. If you didn't, you didn't. Today, I'm constantly thinking I have subway or bus fare only to find that my card has just $0.43 or some weird amount on it. Tokens didn't fool around like that. You either had a whole one or you had none at all. The first token I remember using had a big Y on it. Actually, it said NYC, but the Y was the letter that took center stage. In 1986 they introduced one that looked like a bull's eye with a magnetic, pearly center. I used to pop out the middle using a nail and a hammer and then would turn them into necklaces. Lastly there were small silver ones with pentagons cut out of their centers. When MetroCards were introduced, they were blue with yellow writing. I keep thinking this yellow card thing is just a fad.
WALK/DON'T WALK SIGNS
We're a rather literary city. A few writers have lived here. Did you know Shakespeare was actually a New Yorker? We're also a busy city. Your average New Yorker, however, used to know that he'd get to read at least two words a day: Walk and Don't Walk. When, about ten years ago, they replaced these signs with the little walking man and the huge red hand (I say "huge" because it's the same size as the man), I felt that our intelligence was insulted. Made our corners look like every other city's. Their little LED bulbs just don't have the same grit as the back-lit signs used to have. Now, some of them are even equipped with timers: apparently, we are slow in addition to being illiterate. But you know, whatever: New York pedestrians have no fear. Traffic signs are for sissies.