A Cartoonist Goes to Town

Roz Chast didn’t realize how splendid life could be until she moved to Manhattan

Roz Chast in her home studio
Roz Chast in her home studio                                                PHOTO: BILL HAYES

Updated Oct. 20, 2016 10:33 p.m. ET

With no disrespect to Brooklyn, where she grew up, the cartoonist Roz Chast didn’t realize how splendid life could be until she moved to Manhattan.

Now known for her work in The New Yorker and her award-winning memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” just published in paperback, Ms. Chast moved to West 73rd Street after college.
“I have no nostalgia for Brooklyn, I really don’t,” she said when we got together at the Broadway office of her publisher, Bloomsbury. “It sounds enormously corny, but moving to the Upper West Side when I was 23 was really the first time I thought my life would not be a complete f— disaster.”

The year was 1978 and the rent was $250 a month. “My apartment did not have a stove,” Ms. Chast said. “I cooked on a hot plate.”

She lived there until 1987, then returned to Brooklyn with her husband, the humor writer Bill Franzen, while pregnant with their first child. They stayed until they were priced out of Park Slope, then moved to Ridgefield, Conn.

But Ms. Chast’s ties to the big city remained strong, inspiring her new project, a homage called “Going Into Town.” “Town” was how her family referred to Manhattan, and the book’s cover will feature a photo of her when she was around 4 years old.

“We’re in front of a token booth,” she said. “I have memories of the subway. I remember the rattan seats.”

“Going Into Town” began as an urban guidebook when Ms. Chast’s child, raised in Connecticut, was preparing to move to Manhattan to attend the School of Visual Arts.

“We sat down, and I said, ‘Most of New York is laid out like a grid,’ ” Ms. Chast said. “I said, ‘It’s very easy. If you’re on 43rd Street and you want to walk to 47th Street, you walk four blocks uptown.’ And she said to me, and maybe she was pulling my leg: ‘What’s a block?’ ”

Ms. Chast realized a pocket-size map might come in handy. She embellished it with neighborhood descriptions and, knowing her, more than a little humor. “She gave it back to me at the end of four years, and she said, ‘This has been really helpful,’ ” Ms. Chast said.

The cartoonist sent it to her agent, who also thought it was funny. “The heart of it is still this guidebook, but it’s also about my relationship with the city and how much I love Manhattan,” she said.

Ms. Chast, as anyone familiar with her work in The New Yorker can attest, has a talent for identifying our collective neuroses, both large and small, and rendering them if not harmless, at least manageable.

Self-deprecation seems baked into her genes. She said she suspected she had a sense of humor early on—“it was very internalized”—but her anxiety spoke to her just as deeply.
Despite her success, Ms. Chast seems to have no problem summoning those demons. While she breathed a sigh of relief whenever she arrived at Grand Central Terminal from the suburbs, and welcomed her weekly visits to The New Yorker, she doesn’t miss the face-to-face meetings with the cartoon editor. These days she submits her work by email.

“Why would I want to be there on purpose?” Ms. Chast said. “It’s so embarrassing on both sides. You are looking at my stuff. And I’m sitting there with my needy little face.”

She never lost her love for the city, nor for the subway. “It’s fast, and I like to look at the people,” she said.

When we parted, Ms. Chast boarded the uptown train to a studio apartment she recently bought on West 71st Street. “It’s amazingly unchanged since ’78,” she said of the area. “It’s like coming back home for me.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

West Village Speakeasy-Turned-Pub Starts a New Chapter

Chumley’s, a bar beloved by the city’s literati, will reopen after nine years

Archivist James DiPaola stands among author portraits and book jackets at Chumley’s, which reopens Tuesday after nine years. The bar’s patrons have included such literary greats as Willa Cather, Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck.
Archivist James DiPaola stands among author portraits and book jackets at Chumley’s, which reopens Tuesday after nine years. The bar’s patrons have included such literary greats as Willa Cather, Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Oct. 12, 2016 8:55 p.m. ET

A man walked up to the famously unmarked door at 86 Bedford St., which happened to be unlocked.


The big day is Tuesday, when the West Village speakeasy-turned-pub Chumley’s reopens after a chimney collapse forced it to close nine years ago. The bar is beloved by New York City’s literati—its patrons over the years have included Willa Cather, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac.

To be honest, I didn’t realize Chumley’s had made it into this century. I don’t think I had visited since the 1980s.

But part of its charm, its casual grace, was that it took only one visit to make it feel your own. Subsequent trips were like returning home.

A wall at Chumley’s in the West Village.
A wall at Chumley’s in the West Village. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

And if one aspired to be a writer, or a creative type of any description, the walls lined with book jackets couldn’t help but encourage your dreams.

Best of all was the unmarked entrance around the corner on Barrow Street, accessed through a courtyard, which made you feel like an insider before you even stepped in. Unfortunately, that is one detail missing from the new Chumley’s.

I was prepared to assign blame to Alessandro Borgognone, its new owner, but when we met, he explained that the problem is with the neighboring building, which owns the courtyard.

“The buildings alongside are residential,” he said. “That’s their entrance.”

I protested at the unfairness. The courtyard was sacred space. It ought to be on the National Register of Historic Places.

The unmarked door of the bar
Mr. Borgognone, who at 37 years old never set foot in the old Chumley’s, shrugged.

“It was before my time,” he said. “You make the best of the things you have.”
I’m reluctant to admit it, but he’s done a pretty good job bringing it back to life. While the new space is plusher, he seems to have captured the spirit and intimacy of the old pub.

The book jackets on the walls are back, including what appears to be the original 1939 edition of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Photographs of writers, also framed and mounted, bolster the literary effect.

In addition, the restaurant is now filled with comfortable banquettes made of distressed leather. “The old ones were made of wood,” Mr. Borgognone reminded me, tabletops etched so deeply with patrons’ initials as to be cultural artifacts in their own right.

A dog statue

Mr. Borgognone, who also owns Sushi Nakazawa, a Commerce Street restaurant whose rear window faces Chumley’s, seems to appreciate the sacramental aspects, that his burgers will taste better served with a side of history.

There is a working fireplace and above it a framed photograph of Leland Chumley, the activist who opened the place as a speakeasy in the Prohibition-era 1920s.

Mr. Borgognone assured me that the pub would be much better stocked than in the days when one of my college friends tended bar. “They were limited,” he said. “I think it was a bottle of vodka and gin and the beer.”

It turns out the old tabletops still exist. James DiPaola, a historian who has been working with Mr. Borgognone to get the details right, produced one, prompting both memories and flashbacks on my part.

I suggested they be put to use. Mr. DiPaola thought I meant as art.

“If we can find a place to mount it,” he said. “Several of these have survived.”

I meant to dine on.

“No one wants to eat off that,” Mr. Borgognone said.

You’d be surprised.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Photographer’s Focus Captures a City

Larry Silver puts his concentration on display in show at New-York Historical Society

‘Macy's Parade’ (1951) is one of 45 works in ‘Photographs by Larry Silver, 1949-1955’ at the New-York Historical Society.ENLARGE
‘Macy’s Parade’ (1951) is one of 45 works in ‘Photographs by Larry Silver, 1949-1955’ at the New-York Historical Society.
July 25, 2016 6:59 p.m. ET

Larry Silver was taking pictures of beachgoers at an outdoor shower in Westport, Conn., not long ago when he was approached by police officers. Apparently, a man objected to his girlfriend being photographed and had called law enforcement.

“The cop took my camera and looked through the images and finally gave me the camera back,” Mr. Silver said. “This happens a lot to photographers now. We don’t have the freedom we had.”

It helped that a woman watching the exchange came to his defense. She went over to the officers, Mr. Silver recalled, “and said, ‘I know this man. He has a show at the New-York Historical Society. He’s a reputable photographer.’”

The show, “Photographs by Larry Silver, 1949-1955,” vividly shows the artistic benefits of what Mr. Silver describes as lingering. The 45 photographs are of everyday New Yorkers amid sights such as the newly completed United Nations Secretariat Building, the old Penn Station and subway cars. The exhibition opened this month and runs through Dec. 4.

There’s something about the black-and-white images, a meditative quality, that captures that era. You get the sense that whether it was children rafting at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx or even the bright lights of Times Square, the city wasn’t the frenetic place that it is today.

‘Boy on Rooftop’ (1951) ENLARGE
“A lot of people were moving to the suburbs,” explained Marilyn Satin Kushner, the show’s curator and the head of the society’s Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections. “These are the people and the city they left behind.”
Much of the exhibition’s power comes from Mr. Silver’s sense of mood and composition. I’ve seen those famous photographs of light slanting through the steel framework of the original Pennsylvania Station, demolished in 1963. But the sense of loss really hits home in an image of a man with two children stepping out from under the station’s stately colonnade onto Seventh Avenue with Gimbels department store in the distance.

These days, that location is the entrance to a hole in the ground that is the only Penn Station most of us know.

“I design my pictures a lot,” Mr. Silver said. “I usually crop with the camera, not in the darkroom. Every single print here I made myself.”

I felt a personal connection to a good number of the photographs since they were taken around the time I was born and capture what I realize in retrospect was the innocence of that era. (I suppose, though, any era seems innocent compared to subsequent ones.)

Mr. Silver looks at his work in a gallery. ENLARGE
Mr. Silver looks at his work in a gallery. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
There’s a 1950 image of three children bundled up against the cold and ogling the toys in a store window. And a photograph of a dog in a coat doing pretty much the same thing at a D’Agostino Brothers grocery store. He appears motivated by the weekly flier—“Families can’t be wrong!—advertising bargains, including halibut at 69 cents a pound.

“You were interested in humanizing the New York City landscape,” Ms. Kushner said. Mr. Silver agreed. “I used the people and their surroundings.”

Like any self-respecting artist, the photographer remembers the moments that got away as vividly as the ones he captured. There’s a photograph of a woman, her head resting but her face hidden but her head resting against the sill of an apartment window. Mr. Silver took it at eye level from a subway platform in the Bronx.

“It started to snow and she let the flakes of snow hit her face,” he remembered. “I waited for that shot to come again and it never did.”

Mr. Silver’s claim that photographers today don’t have the freedom they once had rings strange in the age of the iPhone, Instagram and Snapchat.


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But an image of a man in the waiting room at Grand Central Terminal taken in 1952 makes the photographer’s point. The man is engrossed in his newspaper. Whether or not he realizes he is being photographed, he doesn’t acknowledge the camera; it poses no threat.

“People’s attitude now is they’re leery of photography,” Mr. Silver explained. “People are taking pictures and putting them on the internet.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

For Times Square Characters, a New Reality

Tighter rules hamper moneymaking opportunities

A tourist poses with cartoon characters in one of Times Square's new ‘designated activity zones.’
A tourist poses with cartoon characters in one of Times Square’s new ‘designated activity zones.’ PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Updated July 24, 2016 7:38 p.m. ET

It has been about a month since the city started corralling Times Square’s self-assertive Elmos, Spider-Men and desnudas into “designated activity zones.”

So how’s it working out? “All my friends is no good in this area,” said a costumed Mickey Mouse. He was referring to several other Mickey and Minnie Mouses nearby, as well as a large bird with an orange beak and black buttons I had trouble recognizing from Saturday mornings. “They harass us. No like.”

That was the extent of our conversation. I might have chalked it up to a language barrier, but it was more likely the imperatives of making a fast buck. Apparently, opportunities have dwindled now that their ability to roam has been restricted. “They’re complaining; there’s less of them,” said a police officer.

“Nobody is happy in this spot,” explained Josh Barillas, a former costumed character who had dropped by to visit his buddies. Mr. Barillas recalled the halcyon era, several months back, when he said could make $200 a day.

One performer apparently feeling little pain is the Naked Cowboy, Robert Burck. “I’m out here every day and have been for 18 years,” he said. “I was the first one here and I’ll be the last one here. It hasn’t affected my business in any way.”
I’d previously spotted the Naked Cowboy, as have most who have enjoyed the mixed blessing of traversing Times Square. But I was never inclined to make conversation. Since we were doing so now, I asked him how he maintains his superhero bod.

By the way, while the city’s creation of the designated activity zones may have inhibited some of the cartoon characters’ earning power, I’d like politely to suggest another reason may be that many of their physiques and personalities seem to fall short of the comic-hero ideal.

Iron Man, as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the movie franchise, is a can-do, life-affirming sort. The Iron Man I encountered in the designated zone was a sullen individual whom no child with an ounce of common sense would mistake for the Marvel Comics genius playboy.

“Sorry, I’m busy right now,” Iron Man said when I tried to have a word. His costume looked less like powered armor than something assembled from the Great Pacific garbage patch. “I need looking for customers.”

One more suggestion: It doesn’t enhance the superhero effect when you have a clear vinyl nametag holder hanging from your gut that says “I work for tips please.”

It’s understood you work for tips. Antoinette, a tourist from Pennsylvania who declined to give her last name, knew that was the deal when she was swarmed by characters after she asked to have a photo taken. Each had his or her hand fully extended.

“We like taking the pictures with them, but they do beg for money,” Antoinette conceded.

Here’s some stuff you may not know about the Naked Cowboy: He lives in Queens with his wife, the Naked Cowgirl—or, rather, one of Times Square’s naked cowgirls. He swims an hour at Jones Beach on Tuesday, his day off, and he goes to the gym twice a week whether he needs to or not. “Right now I’m so thin and lean I don’t have to do much to look like this,” he said, without sounding especially self-congratulatory.

He also attributes his success in part to free parking at a nearby garage. To him that’s a much bigger deal than whether he gets to parade his underpants inside or outside the box. “Without the parking I wouldn’t be able to do this job,” he confessed.

My final stop, at the recommendation of a police officer, was Sandy Kane, a former stripper of a certain age and perhaps Times Square’s most senior Naked Cowgirl.

Ms. Kane is instantly recognizable as much for her habit of veering outside the designated activity zones as for her lush head of purple hair and signature middle-finger gesture.

She complained she was surrounded by cops last week and escorted to one of the zones where she was forced to share space with obnoxious Elmos and CD salesmen she claimed were selling blanks.

“They said, ‘We’ll walk you over there,’” she recalled, adding, “I don’t like the sun.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Pokémon Go (and other columns)

It’s hard to battle Pinsirs and Rattatas while at the same time avoiding falling into a manhole

July 17, 2016 10:15 p.m. ET

Pokémon Go Adds Another Wacky Layer to New York City LifeJust when you think New York City’s streets can’t get any more chaotic—amid the clueless tourists, walking-dead texters and people who feel the most advantageous time to check their email is on crowded subway stairs—now comes Pokémon Go.
I took the app out for a spin last week and I’m back to report that Pokémon Go is a menace to society. An amusing, even occasionally captivating menace, but a menace nonetheless.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

The average citizen, and I include myself in that demographic, finds it challenging enough to hold one idea simultaneously.

The warning that springs up on Pokémon Go’s opening window asks you to be alert to your surroundings at all times. The sentiment is well taken. Except that it’s hard to battle Pinsirs, a mashup of a stag beetle and a samurai warrior, and Rattatas, basically a really obnoxious rodent (as if Metropolis doesn’t already host enough of them) while at the same time avoiding falling into a manhole.
Anticipating the challenge to my motor skills I tested the app for the first time not in some congested thoroughfare such as Times Square, which has more than enough oddballs without piling on augmented reality game characters, but in Central Park.
However, I wasn’t more than a few feet into the park when confronted with my first distracting challenge: Pokémon Go asked me to pick a name for myself.

My first 10 choices unavailable, I drew inspiration from the LED traffic message board in front of me and knighted myself “Yield to pedestrians.”

Too long.

So now and forever after, fellow Pokémoners, I’m just “Yieldto,” which actually has a nice ring to it.

I’ve read that hordes of Pokémon Go-playing fanatics are risking arrest trespassing onto people’s property, or bodily harm in stampedes in pursuit of elusive characters, such as a Vaporeon spotted in Central Park.
I encountered only one fellow player on my journey across the park on a sunny afternoon last week. Then again, I wasn’t seeking companionship.

Indeed, the game’s saving grace is that so many New Yorkers are staring at their cellphone screens at any given moment that Pokémon Go players blend right in. I was able to avoid any mortification beyond what I’d experienced downloading the app in the first place.

The name of my fellow Pokémoner, if that’s the correct moniker, was Kaisha Diaz. She’s 25 years old and from Yonkers. I recognized her as a fellow gamer because I eventually realized she was moving at the same lethargic pace that I was, and was too engaged running up her score to become concerned that a middle-aged man was marching in her footsteps.

“All my friends are doing it,” she explained when she’d ground to a halt in response to some screen challenge. “It’s competitive.”

I’ll say. It took me, on average, five tosses of my Pokéball to vanquish the typical leaping Pinsir. Then again, I also have trouble accessing my phone’s flashlight.
The app also has intriguing, swirling Oz-like structures called Poké gyms. I encountered one in the approximate vicinity of the Majestic Apartments on Central Park West, another leaving Grand Central Station.

“Come back when you’ve reached level 5!” my Pokémon trainer, or whatever that dude calling the shots is named, told me.

Shouldn’t I be the one to decide whether I’m ready to bench press a Ponyta, an equine with a mane of fire, or whatever goes on at a Pokémon gym? Risking a hernia is my own business.


While I suspect I won’t be playing Pokémon Go long enough to make it to level five, the app does have its charms. Among them spinning markers signifying points of interest, or Pokéstops. Those I encountered included Bethesda Fountain, the much-larger-than-life Daniel Webster statue on the West Drive at 72nd Street, and the Strawberry Fields area.

I suspect it will cause those who never took the time to appreciate the charms of New York City’s landmarks to start doing so. If only because Pokéstops apparently harbor awards for players, such as additional Pokéballs.

“Our monuments are getting swarmed,” reported Jonathan Kuhn, the New York City Parks Department director of art and antiquities.


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Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Baseball Cards Steal the Show

Exhibition features greats including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle

Babe Ruth, New York Americans, American Caramel Company,1921-22. Ruth’s contract was sold to the Americans, also known as the Yankees, in 1920; here, he’s still wearing his Boston uniform.
William Ewing, New York, Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, 1888. William ‘Buck’ Ewing was one of the best players of the 19th century. He played on the Gothams, which became the Giants and then moved to San Francisco.
Albert John ‘Doc’ Bushong, Brooklyn, Goodwin & Company, 1888. This card was meant to be displayed like a framed picture. Because of the limits of photography at the time, many of the pictures on these cards were taken in a studio. The players had to act out their positions.
Thomas P. ‘Oyster’ Burns, Brooklyn, Goodwin & Company, 1888. The shortstop played on the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, a team that later became the Trolley Dodgers and then the Dodgers. Fans actually had to dodge trolleys to get to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
Ed Willett, Detroit, American Tobacco Company, 1909-1911. The pitcher appears here in a series of cards known as the White Borders series, which was particularly popular because of its aesthetics.
Willie Keeler, New York, American Tobacco Company, 1909-1911. The Yankees changed names many times. When this right fielder played on the team, it was called the Highlanders in part because its ballpark was on an elevated area in Manhattan.
Mordecai Brown, Chicago, American Tobacco Company, 1911. Early on, cards like this came in cigarette packages. Candy companies later followed suit.
Walter Johnson, Washington Senators, American Tobacco Company, 1911. The pitcher is featured in the American Tobacco Company’s Gold Borders series, the first series of cards that included player autographs.
Joe Jackson, Cleveland, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein, 1914-15. Before getting caught up in the Black Sox betting scandal, ‘Shoeless Joe’ appeared on this Cracker Jack prize.
Ed Sweeney, New York, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein, 1914-1915.
Babe Ruth, New York Americans, American Caramel Company,1921-22. Ruth’s contract was sold to the Americans, also known as the Yankees, in 1920; here, he’s still wearing his Boston uniform.
William Ewing, New York, Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, 1888. William ‘Buck’ Ewing was one of the best players of the 19th century. He played on the Gothams, which became the Giants and then moved to San Francisco.
1 of 10fullscreen

By this time in the baseball season the New York Mets are often many games out of first place. It took Allison Rudnick, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to inform me that’s not the case this year.

“The Mets are doing really well,” she said.

Ms. Rudnick’s expertise can be traced to two sources. She comes from a Mets family. “I was born in ’87, the year after they won the Series,” she said. “I think that accounts for it.”

And she’s the curator of “The Old Ball Game: New York Baseball, 1887-1977,” a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that features almost 400 baseball cards, and runs through Oct. 20.

“I learned about the sport, but the real thrill has been learning more about the history of the game,” Ms. Rudnick told me as we walked through the exhibition in the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art.
“I hear that a lot,” the curator acknowledged. “People of a certain generation, when I tell them about the show,” they say, “‘My mother threw out my cards.’”

She was at a loss to explain the sad phenomenon. However, one baseball fan whose collection managed to avoid the trash heap was Jefferson R. Burdick, who assembled one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of cards in private hands. Between 1943 and 1963 Mr. Burdick, an electrician by profession, gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art 300,000 items including 30,000 baseball cards, even though they balked the first time he offered, according to Ms. Rudnick. “Burdick came back and the Met said, ‘Sure, but there are hundreds of thousands of cards?’

“Burdick spent from the 1940s to two months before his death in 1963 putting the cards in albums,” and also developing a cataloging system that remains in use today.

Needless to say, given the soaring value of baseball cards, the Met is now delighted it accepted the collector’s donation.

While the collection includes a Honus Wagner, the Holy Grail of baseball cards, it isn’t on display in the current exhibition. “He never played for a New York team,” Ms. Rudnick explained. “It goes on view every few years.”


Have something to say about an article in Greater New York? Email us, along with your contact information, at gnyltrs@wsj.com. Letters will be edited for brevity and clarity. Please include your city and state.

The show starts in the 1880s when baseball cards were used as a marketing tool by tobacco companies. They were typically colorful illustrations of players against bucolic backgrounds.

There were also large photo cards meant to be displayed in living-room cabinets and that featured such old-time sluggers as Roger Connor, the home run king prior to Babe Ruth, and legendary catcher William “Buck” Ewing.

It wasn’t until the 1920s and ’30s that chewing-gum companies came onboard, prompting Ms. Rudnick to speculate that one reason for the rarity of certain cards may be that children “were more interested in the bubble gum. They take the gum and throw out the cards.”

I’m not sure I agree. Any child whose first priority was candy—and I include myself in that category—quickly realized a Nestlé’s Crunch bar, or even a pack of Mini Chiclets, was a shrewder investment than a pack of baseball cards that included one meager stick of gum.

Babe Ruth is represented by several cards. “You can vaguely make out that his uniform says the Red Sox,” Ms. Rudnick said about a card that was part of the American Caramel Baseball Card Series—even though “The Babe” had joined the Yankees by the time the card was issued in 1922.

Other luminaries in the show include Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that baseball cards developed the format we recognize today in a series of cards issued by Topps Chewing Gum. “It was the first time you see the team logo, and the player’s autograph became a consistent feature of the cards,” Ms. Rudnick explained.

The final series of cards isn’t part of the Burdick Collection. They feature New York players from the 1970s, including the Yankees’ Jim “Catfish” Hunter and the Mets’ Jerry Grote and Jerry Koosman.
“I thought it was important to give a nod to what happens after two of the three major teams move to the West Coast,” Ms. Rudnick said.

And it’s also important for a Mets fan, whose team replaced the Dodgers and the Giants in the affections of some New Yorkers.

A Dream You Can Taste

Helped by the Dream Big Foundation, the Jimenez sisters realize theirs
Diana, Ionna and Melissa Jimenez at 3 Black Cats Café and Cakery in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. ENLARGE
Diana, Ionna and Melissa Jimenez at 3 Black Cats Café and Cakery in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Diana, Ionna and Melissa Jimenez at 3 Black Cats Café and Cakery in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Diana, Ionna and Melissa Jimenez at 3 Black Cats Café and Cakery in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

July 5, 2016 7:07 p.m. ET
Do the three Jimenez sisters fight? It seems that all siblings do, and that opening a cafe with your sisters might be a recipe for disaster.

“We just had a fight before you got here,” said Ionna, at 34 years the oldest.

“We didn’t even know we were fighting,” shrugged Diana, the youngest. She’s 30. “She’s just annoying.”

The trio is rounded out by Melissa, 32.

With the help of the Dream Big Foundation, a nonprofit that funds and mentors entrepreneurs, the Jimenez sisters are up to something impressive: They’re opening a bakery and cafe in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn, an area that has thus far defied the gentrification sweeping through other parts of the borough.

“Harlem is already gentrified,” explained Pernell S. Brice III, Dream Big’s executive director. “Bed-Stuy is getting there. Brownsville has the highest concentration of [public-housing] projects in the nation. Because of these projects, it’s slowed down the gentrification process.”
The sisters grew up in the neighborhood. “When I was younger,” Diana remembered, “there used to be drive-by shootings every day. We had a time to be in the house.”

However, they also remember when Belmont Avenue—where their bakery, 3 Black Cats Café and Cakery, opens soon (they’re awaiting a visit from the NYC Department of Health)—was a thriving commercial zone. “We used to shop here,” Diana recalled. “The avenue was packed with stores and they started closing down.”

“The girls really want to be on this block,” Mr. Brice explained. “They wanted to be part of the new narrative for Belmont.”

Though each sister has her baking specialties, Diana is the true chef in the family. Self-taught, she started a baking business with a couple of high-school friends a few years ago.

“Our dreams weren’t the same,” she said. “We had a falling out.”

But she continued to bake on her own. Not just her signature cherry-cheese tarts, but also elaborate special-occasion cakes.

“She still kept up with her customers,” Ionna explained. “As sisters we saw this is something she was extremely passionate about. We decided to all pitch in.”

They came to the attention of Robert LoCascio, the tech entrepreneur who founded the Dream Big Foundation, and Mr. Brice, who were fishing around for a project to support in the neighborhood.

The connection was made through the Brownsville Community Justice Center. The philanthropists also discovered an aspect of local culture they were unfamiliar with: elaborate children’s birthday cakes that could put many Manhattan bakeries to shame.

“These cakes are very expensive,” Mr. Brice said. “Like $300. It takes time to shape the fondant.”

Diana admits that finding backing for her dream, and more than just her own dream, has been slightly disorienting. The bakery is intended to double as a community center, and has booths and designer furniture as well as chalkboards (“Rob wanted the community to be engaged,” Mr. Brice said) and a professional kitchen in the basement with walk-in refrigerators.

“We thought, ‘Is it for real?’” Diana remembered. “Even going to designing meetings was surreal.”

Those were at Mapos, a Bowery architecture and design firm that has done work for LivePerson, Mr. LoCascio’s tech company. “We shared our vision,” Diana explained. “They helped us come up with different sketches.”

Despite the challenges of the neighborhood there are no plans for security. “It was something we thought about,” Diana said. “We don’t want it to be that barrier at the door, like we think something is going to happen. We just want everyone to behave.”

Mr. Brice added: “Brownsville has gangs. But what we learned at the outset is that it’s more about protection. Brownsville has a number of beautiful murals. Not one has been tagged or defaced. If you do something good for the neighborhood the community is going to support it.”

Diana admits to some nerves as she awaits her bakery’s opening. “But we can’t wait to have that line outside,” she said.

Besides, she knows her sisters have her back.

The name for the bakery came from a bedtime story their mother used to read them.

“We grew up on the nursery rhyme ‘Three little kittens that lost their mittens,’” Diana explained. “The three little kittens were so naughty. But at the end the mother rewarded them with pie. We feel we’ve really been rewarded with the pie.”

U.S. Open Hopes Dashed for Aspiring Ball Boy

For Ralph Gardner Jr., his best wasn’t quite good enough

Ball boys at the 2015 U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows.ENLARGE
Ball boys at the 2015 U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows. PHOTO: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Ball boys at the 2015 U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows. ENLARGE
Ball boys at the 2015 U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows. PHOTO: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Updated June 28, 2016 6:03 p.m. ET
Add to my list of disappointments the failure to qualify as a ball boy at this summer’s U.S. Open. The rejection came on an overcast morning last week when several hundred hopefuls reported to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, to try out for this year’s Open. The tournament starts Aug. 29.

I might have had a better shot in 2015.

“Last year you had a lot of older people,” explained Cathie Delaney, the tournament’s assistant director of ballpersons, “because the Open started later and so many people had to go back to school.”

The tournament didn’t end until Sept. 13 with Novak Djokovic’s four-set defeat of Roger Federer in the finals. Older people, with no academic demands on their time, were golden; even if their speed and ball handling capabilities may not have been what they once were.

“Most of the people doing this older in life, they tend to be in the backcourt,” as opposed to the net, where foot speed is more essential, Ms. Delaney said gently. “Their stamina is a little less than an 18-year-old.”

Make that a lot less.

If I were truly serious about wanting to hang out under the center-court lights, feeding Federer balls and hand towels, I suppose I should have upped my workouts beyond my once-a-week revolution of the Central Park reservoir. Or cleaning the gutters on my home.

Once you reach a certain age it’s amazing the number of activities you decide qualify as exercise.

I knew I was in trouble when I got winded during my initial attempt to snag a tennis ball on the run—our first challenge consisted of impersonating a statue, then bursting into a sprint, retrieving the ball, rushing to the other side of the court and returning to a state of suspended animation.

I don’t think I did that bad. I might have bobbled the ball once or twice. But I never fell or broke my leg. OK, so maybe I’m not center-court material. But some of the ball boys and girls I’ve seen working the outside courts in years past don’t seem in any particular rush either.

The next challenge—as Ms. Delaney stood over her clipboard taking notes like some sporty version of Nurse Ratched—required throwing a ball from one end of the court to the other.

Ralph Gardner Jr. puts his best feet forward at the U.S. Open’s ball person tryouts  PHOTOS: CATHIE DELANEY
It took me a couple of throws to find my range. But I thought I did a fine job considering I’ve been having solemn discussions with my orthopedist about shoulder surgery.

But I realize that’s no excuse.

I’m willing to concede that fans who pay good money for box seats to a quarterfinal nail-biter, especially those on their fourth Heineken, would have little patience for a balding ball boy whose last three attempts to lob the ball cross-court landed in the net.

As mine did during the tryouts.

Ms. Delaney didn’t pull any punches when I returned to her side to see how well I’d scored.

“I don’t think your arm is strong enough,” she said.

I politely disagreed. I launched the projectile with appropriate violence. The problem was my aim, not my velocity.

“You need a little more speed in the net position,” she added.

Let’s see how fast she runs with chronic tendinitis. Once I resume my stretching exercises I’ll do fine.

Besides, I was also impeded by Ms. Delaney’s admonition to grab the ball with two hands. What self-respecting Major League shortstop does that, let alone a seasoned ball person?

I’m not suggesting that ball people should be held to the same genius-level physical standards as Novak, Roger or Andy Murray. But the fans deserve a little style from every person, no matter how lowly their station, who steps onto that sacred DecoTurf surface.

Laray Fowler comforted me that her tryout in 1998 didn’t go especially well either. “I was nervous,” she remembered. “I fell.”

At 31 years old, she’s regularly assigned to Serena Williams’s matches. “I know what she likes,” Ms. Fowler explained. “I know she wants water, a box of tissues on the chair, extra towels.”

Extra towels are something I’d be good at.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Another Condo-Conversion Casualty

The Waldorf Astoria is going the lamentable way of the Plaza

The Waldorf’s Park Avenue entrance.
The Waldorf’s Park Avenue entrance. PHOTO: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

July 4, 2016 7:04 p.m. ET

There oughta be a law! To prevent our grand hotels from being turned into condos, that is.

News of the latest victim came from my colleague Craig Karmin, who reported last week in The Wall Street Journal that China’s Anbang Insurance Group, which owns the Waldorf Astoria, is planning to close the hotel for up to three years. When it reopens, the majority of the rooms will be condos. The current 1,413-room hotel will shrink to between 300 and 500 guest rooms.

While math was never my forte, by my count this leaves New York with zero crown jewels—in the classic sense of the Savoy in London or the Ritz in Paris.

There were at least two in recent memory. The other hotel that deserved that designation was the Plaza. But have you visited the Plaza lately? The landmark interiors are as they always were, but something is missing.

Energy. An energy peculiar to a palatial five-star hotel, where architecture and design, pomp and circumstance, meet to create live theater; the players are each of us—from guests to staff to rubberneckers—who cross its threshold.

A Waldorf corridor c. 1933.
A Waldorf corridor c. 1933. PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

“The lobby, the Palm Court, the Oak Room all became landmarks,” explained Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the city’s architecturally significant buildings. “Even though there is a store in the Edwardian Room, the store can come out without damaging anything.”
That’s excellent news, I suppose. The problem is that the Edwardian Room—with its soaring ceilings, huge windows overlooking Central Park South and Grand Army Plaza, and stenciled woodwork—is a store at all. The one and only time I visited recently the view was obscured by cabinets filled with high-end men’s furnishings.

I recall the excitement of being taken there for lunch as a child by my father and trying my first Shirley Temple as horse-drawn carriages loitered by the sidewalk. You didn’t need to be an architecture critic to know you were someplace august.

As a teenager, Trader Vic’s in the Plaza’s basement—with its tiki bar, Mai Tai’s and pu pu platters—stirred similar excitement. The hotel specialized in generating instant memories.

If there’s a definition of an iconic urban space—at least one of its definitions—perhaps it’s a destination that casts a straight line from past to present to future. Walking down Fifth Avenue, as much as it’s changed over the years, you feel a connection to the crowds that filled that boulevard in the 1930s and ’40s and hopefully will a hundred years from now.

The Waldorf, seen here in 1953, is being partly converted to condos.
The Waldorf, seen here in 1953, is being partly converted to condos. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

You have a similar feeling entering the Waldorf Astoria from Park Avenue and mounting the stairs to the lobby, with its famous ornate central clock. You may as well have stepped into a movie set. Turn a corner and you half expect to bump into such former guests and residents as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter and Princess Grace.

The effect is even more profound at the Plaza, its walls breathing history—F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald partying there in the Roaring Twenties; the Beatles’ first visit in 1964 with hordes of hysterical fans straining against police barricades; Truman Capote’s 1966 “Black and White Ball” in the Grand Ballroom.

These days, the Plaza feels like the victim of some genteel version of a neutron bomb—the property remains intact but the people are largely missing. “You look at the side of the Plaza where the condos are; you don’t see a lot of light,” at night, Ms. Breen acknowledged.

Her advice is that the public make noise, such as it did with the Plaza: Let the Anbang Group know how important the Waldorf’s interior public spaces, which aren’t landmarked, even though the exterior is, are to New Yorkers. “I hope if they realize how beautiful the public spaces are, the collective memories they hold for New Yorkers,” they’ll embrace landmark designation, she said. “It’s crucial to who we are as a city.”

But interior landmark designation is still a Pyrrhic victory as far as I’m concerned. The only way truly to protect the hotel is for it to remain a hotel, all of it. “Landmarks doesn’t really control use,” Ms. Breen told me.

Aren’t there enough shiny new billionaire condo developments rising along 57th Street and Central Park South to satisfy demand? Must we squander our inheritance?

While I’m a believer in private property, especially my own, over time some private property becomes communal property. If Paris and London can cherish their grand hotels, why can’t we?

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Desperately Seeking a Necktie to Love

For this New Yorker, the best were innocuous and many of the rest downright ugly


June 30, 2016 6:19 p.m. ET

The 1990s was probably the last time I purchased a necktie. There are several reasons for the spending drought, among them that I seem to have less and less need for one. But perhaps the biggest reason is that I haven’t spotted a necktie I’ve really wanted for ages.

Nothing has approached the last necktie I bought in terms of beauty and wit. The fabric is olive-green silk, the pattern one of satisfied-looking brown pelicans, their pouches bulging with fresh catch.

It was made by Sulka, a luxury menswear brand and the zenith of high-end neckwear. Unfortunately, the company went out of business shortly after I bought my tie.

What prompted the urge to return to the marketplace was the realization that selecting a necktie from my closet no longer sparks the anticipation that picking a great necktie that matches your mood can as you loop it around your neck and tighten the knot.

Also, I had a $100 Saks Fifth Avenue gift card burning a hole in my pocket.

The last time I was in the market for a necktie, a hundred bucks was a lot of money.

It also happened to be sale season and the department store had dozens of discounted ties. However, the only one that aroused my interest was a woven Charvet blue silk that wasn’t on sale and that a salesperson told me probably wouldn’t be during my lifetime.

The cost: $245. Doing some quick math, I realized I’d be deep in the hole even with my gift card.

And while the Charvet tie was beautiful, it wasn’t unique. It didn’t do what ties, at peak performance, should do. And that’s subtly to inform the world that while you’re as good as the next guy at appearing corporate, inside you burns an artist, a paradigm-shifting personality, a threat to the status quo.

I realize that’s a heavy burden to place on a piece of fabric. But my Sulka tie proved it could be done.

So I set out on a quest for a remarkable necktie along Madison and Fifth avenues, confident I’d know it when I saw it.

Among the stores I visited were Paul Stuart, Charles Tyrwhitt, Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, Etro, Emilio Pucci and Camicissima, an Italian company that was selling ties three for $69.90.

But first a question that struck me as I perused the selection at Paul Stuart: Who came up with the idea of paisley and who decided those amoeba-shaped forms were attractive?

Indeed, my expedition led me to the conclusion that we’re wallowing in a dark age as far as neckties are concerned. The best were innocuous, many of the rest downright ugly.

I suspect the grimness of the selection has something to do with risk-averse sartorial standards or deterioration in taste on a grand scale. I’m often appalled by the necktie choices I spot among TV anchormen. But I suppose any tie is better than an open-neck shirt.

My ultimate destination was Hermès, the store I’ve been led to believe is the gold standard in neckties these days. Indeed, my pelican necktie could pass for an Hermès, an abnormally interesting Hermès.


I never made it to Hermès’s flagship store, but I didn’t need to. Bergdorf carried a wide selection, as did Brioni, Salvatore Ferragamo and Ermenegildo Zegna among others. Many of the ties were lovely, but none sparked the intellect. They looked made to fit in rather than stand out.

I shared my concerns with a Bergdorf saleswoman and wistfully mentioned Sulka. “That was the master,” she agreed.

While Etro didn’t have what I was looking for either, some selections were in the ballpark. One, of giraffes grazing among the high leaves of acacia trees, was interesting—just not interesting enough.

I realized that’s what some of the most interesting neckties have in common, or once did: They tell a story. Something is happening that sparks the observer’s imagination. Neckties should be a form of performance art.

My final stop was Pucci, which once rivaled Sulka in tie innovation and proved long ago that real men could pull off pinks and purples. (Ah, to be back in the 70s!)

A saleswoman informed me that Pucci no longer makes neckties. She offered to show me a pair of swimming trunks instead.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com