Thursday, November 12, 2009


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 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.


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.


Ed said...

Payphones are better than cell phones simply because they are a designated place for people to call. Now people have basically turned the sidewalks into giant phone booths, which are bad for people trying to use the sidewalks for other things, like walking.

Land lines have clearer connections than cell phone lines, its harder to tap into them, and are less likely to give you brain cancer. And you can take some change (what the use of change anymore?) and use them instead of having to pay each month for your own private plan!

While I think the metrocard gets a bad rap, I agree about the tokens. It wasn't too inconvenient to use a roll of tokens for multiple trips. I wish the MTA had just adapted the existing technology, which worked well. Also when I use a metrocard, I often have to swipe it extremely slowly or several times. The readers seem to be wearing out at the busier stations.

Disagree about the phone books which were (are) simply way to bulky. I like the smaller neighborhood books. There is a problem, though, with a reference book that you just can't hold in your hand and flip through, its big enough that it requires its own surface. Also the small type is a problem.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

I'm going to miss payphones not just for their function, but they made a phone call seem important. To make a call out on the street, outside the private home, you had to do it in public where everyone could hear. You also needed the money and, oh, those moments when the operator would interrupt and say the call was being disconnected unless more money was inserted, but there were no more coins in the pocket...such urgency!

I'll miss phone books too. As a kid I loved looking up everyone I knew and seeing their address and number...I found some 'antique' phone books in a library recently and looked up my great-grandparents. There they were, name and number, right there in front of me as if I could just ring them up and say hello. Phone books provided a permanent accessibility to strangers - everyone in that book was part of the community and just a rotary dial away.

ShatteredMonocle said...

Wait til they put in the Oyster card. If it's implemented like it is in London, you will have to swipe to get out of the station as well. Of course that makes it easier for them to track your movements.

Jeremiah Moss said...

with the vanishing use of payphones also goes the abuse--the angry outburst, where you slam the receiver, signaling to all onlookers you've been wronged.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

True - there's nothing so satisfying as slamming down the phone!

JakeGould said...

Walk/Don’t Walk Signs with timers on them seriously panic me. I actually find the audible crosswalk sounds around 23rd Street and 6th Avenue to be far less invasive and a better adaptation.

Anonymous said...

All these suburban/mid westerners who wait at the corner for the "Walk/Dont Walk" sign to change are a bunch of Pavlovian pussies. Particularly when there's no traffic coming. It drives me bonkers.

Hey numbnuts. This is New York. Instead of being controlled by a flashing sign, try using your wits and self awareness to decide when it's time to cross the street.

Ed said...

I agree with anonymous 12;47, but its actually worse. Since drivers -with taxi drivers being the worst exception- decided they could make sharp turns into crosswalks without slowing down, its actually dangerous to cross the street at some corners with the light. You just get blindsided by a speeding car. There have been some Midtown streets where I wait through the green light for all the cars to make their sharp turns into the street I'm trying to cross, wait until the light turns red, check to see if there is no traffic, then cross. Its often safer that way.

The midwesterners/ suburbanites have gotten pretty good at finding the exact spot to stand in the intersection where you can't get out of the way of a speeding vehicle. I'm really starting to wonder if this is deliberate.

BrontosaurusEmC said...

Because you know so much about Zelmo Zzzzzip you are my hero. I can't believe you actually called him! Seriously, reading this has made my day and many more to come.

laura said...

did it occur to the writer, that the walking man w/the big hand (or no walk man) is there because many people in new york cant read english! hello! we have millions of 3rd worlders here.