The Internet of Old Things

It’s a good way to shed light on family antiques

A 1910 children's coloring book, one of several antiques the Internet helped shed light on.
A 1910 children’s coloring book, one of several antiques the Internet helped shed light on. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

You’ve no doubt heard of public television’s “Antiques Road Show.” I’ve come up with a home version of the show. All it takes is access to the Internet, a few tchotchkes lying around the house, and a mildly curious nature.

It’s also preferable if you have acquisitive ancestors and possess a certain degree of avarice yourself. In other words, that you’re interested in what your crap is worth, if anything.

I discovered this rainy-day diversion while rooting around our basement upstate. Though I confess that our house, inherited from my grandparents, who had a peripheral relationship to the antiques business, is more laden with random treasure than the typical homestead.

For example, it’s not unusual to open a drawer and find not one but a hundred cherub heads. I have no idea about their intended purpose. But 40 years after my grandparents passed on I’m still discovering drawers and cabinets filled with strange objects.

And the beauty of technology—as worrisome as it can occasionally be—is that no matter how seemingly obscure your possession, you can probably find information about it online, not to mention its value, with a few keystrokes.

A miniature working pistol from Austria, probably from the 1930s, valued online at $600.ENLARGE
A miniature working pistol from Austria, probably from the 1930s, valued online at $600. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

One of the things I happened across in our basement, in the toy category, was a pencil sharpener in the shape of a globe. I could tell it was old because it identified places such as “The Chinese Empire,” “Congo State,” and “Formosa.”

I almost immediately found the pencil sharpener on Etsy, the accompanying description revealing that it was manufactured in Germany, circa 1914. It had been sold, but a similar one on eBay went for $49.99 last year.

In the same box as the globe were a bunch of children’s books, including “Animals to Paint,” a coloring book from 1910, its lions, giraffes and hippos filled in with watercolors in the haphazard hand of a child. I know the publication date because I unearthed the book in the collection of the Huntington Digital Library.

I have no intention of selling any of this stuff. After I discover its provenance, I print out the information and store it with the object. In case my children or their children care.

The house also boasts more adult, even military, fare. For example, a pair of periscope-looking 10×50 Zeiss binoculars that I recall my father telling me came from a German U-boat and that he must have liberated during World War II.

A pair of Zeiss 10x50 binoculars used by the German military during World War II. ENLARGE
A pair of Zeiss 10×50 binoculars used by the German military during World War II.PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

I sent a couple of photos of the device to Nicholas Brawer, who owns a sporting-antiques store on East 72nd. While not offering a value, Mr. Brawer responded that they were manufactured in the 1930s and were “recommended for use with coastal artillery cannon.”

A smaller, much smaller, piece of hardware discovered in my father’s bedroom was a miniature pistol, not much larger than a quarter and marked “Austria.” It was selling online for almost $600. In the same drawer was a jewel-like oval souvenir box with a picture of a tiny island marked “Helgoland” and inscribed, “Aunt Elizabeth from G.B. Nov. 17th, 1879.

I’d never heard of Helgoland, Elizabeth or G.B. But a brief Internet search revealed that Helgoland is a German Island in the North Sea that was popular with upper-class tourists during the 19th century.

Among the most edifying objects I’ve found in our basement are antique baby photos, one of them marked “William Parmer Fuller 3rd, age of 10 months, March 1889.”

Though he was no relative of mine (beats me how or why they ended up in our cellar), an Internet search of the name revealed that the infant was a member of an illustrious San Francisco family with connections to Stanford University.

A 19th-century souvenir from Helgoland, a German island in the North Sea, and its contents.ENLARGE
A 19th-century souvenir from Helgoland, a German island in the North Sea, and its contents. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

One William Parmer Fuller Jr., Class of 1910 and a future president of its board of trustees, wrote in “Stanford Mosaic,” a 1962 book about the school, “I was suspended twice, expelled once, and ordered out of the editorship of the Daily Palo Alto, and graduated with my class. What more could anyone ask?”

I even tracked down and exchanged emails with family members, including Parmer Fuller, a composer and professor at the University of Southern California, through Mr. Fuller’s 1981 wedding announcement in the New York Times.

His sister Kit Fuller, the family genealogist, informed me that William Parmer Fuller Jr. and William Parmer III were one and the same, and their grandfather.

I’m looking forward to returning the baby pictures to the people who rightfully own them.

A Timely Gut Check

At the American Museum of Natural History, meet your microbiome

Helicobacter pylori, one of the one of the few bacteria that can thrive in the human stomach.
Helicobacter pylori, one of the one of the few bacteria that can thrive in the human stomach. PHOTO: AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Robert DeSalle may have given me the most unusual compliment I’ve ever received. “You’d be a good candidate” as a donor for somebody requiring a fecal transplant, “because your gut microbiome appears to be very healthy and normal,” he said.

Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. Starting with how we alighted on the subject in the first place.

We happened to be sitting in the American Museum of Natural History, near the entrance to “The Secret World Inside You.” It’s an exhibition about the human microbiome: the universe of microbes—bacteria, fungi, viruses—that live in us and on us. The exhibition runs through Aug. 14.

Fecal transplants are performed to replace good bacteria that have been killed or suppressed, usually by antibiotics. That causes bad bacteria to overpopulate the colon, potentially causing fatal diarrhea. Ahead of visiting the show, I had my microbiome analyzed by a company called uBiome. That I am an excellent fecal-donor candidate came as good news.

That’s because an analysis of my microbiome showed it is less diverse than that of 52% of the population. When I shared the results with my daughter Lucy—who, by the way, works at the AMNH—her reaction was “What did you expect?” Or words to that effect.

A 14-foot projection of a pregnant woman's body is part of an interactive table that highlights ways that microbes impact human health at ‘The Secret World Inside You.’ ENLARGE
A 14-foot projection of a pregnant woman’s body is part of an interactive table that highlights ways that microbes impact human health at ‘The Secret World Inside You.’ PHOTO: D. FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

She was commenting on my diet, which favors cupcakes over kale.

“Anything green is good,” acknowledged Dr. DeSalle, a co-curator of the exhibition with Susan Perkins, and a scientist in the museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology and the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. “Anything white is not.”

We’d just met, so Dr. DeSalle couldn’t say why, despite my eating habits, my gut remains relatively robust. But I have a theory involving beer, which he confirmed.

I tend to have the occasional bottle. So does he. “Beer is what you call a probiotic,” he explained. “It’s cultivated from a living organism—yeast—but the yeast is dead.”

I’d come to see the show and talk science. Nonetheless, the opportunity to converse with an expert, perhaps not just of genomics but also of fermentation, prompted me to ask the name of his favorite beer.

“I’m really getting into Knee Deep,” he told me, referring to a California craft brewery. He finds it at a place called Alphabet City Beer Co. on Avenue C.

But back to my microbiome. While my diet might not be the healthiest, I’ve always been a big believer in germs—or rather the ability of the human immune system to handle them.

Dr. DeSalle agreed. “The old paradigm of thinking about microbes is they’re a bad thing,” he said. “But the new paradigm is that 99.9% of them don’t make us sick.”

In fact, they’re integral to the proper functioning of our digestive and immune systems. Without them, Dr. DeSalle added, “we’d probably die quickly.”

As vital as they may be, turning organisms that tiny into a museum exhibition must have been a challenge. But the institution seems to have risen to the occasion with exhibits, such as one devoted to athlete’s foot, where in a highly magnified model, rod-shaped bacteria are engaged in battle with green filaments of fungus.

There’s also a live-theater presentation where a museum staffer invites you to contemplate your navel—literally. “Our belly buttons are filled with microbes,” he explained. “We don’t wash out belly buttons. It remains moist; it’s protected.”

Here are some other thoughts Dr. DeSalle shared for the care and maintenance of your microbiome: Kissing, especially frequent French kissing, facilitates the swapping of microbes. Households with dogs have a more varied microbiome than those without.

“Children raised on farms often have less allergies, because they’re exposed to a more variable environment,” Dr. DeSalle said.

I would have thought the best way to bolster your microbiome might be to ride the L train to Brooklyn. But the scientist suggested a walk in the woods instead. Trees and grass and forest animals are littered with microbes.

“You don’t see a lot of that in the city,” he said.

While AMNH scientists are known for their far-flung field trips, Dr. DeSalle sounded not the least abashed that most of his research involves number-crunching on a computer. The study of the microbiome stands on the frontier of science.

Colleagues who study dinosaurs, fish or insects are “finding new variations on a theme,” Dr. DeSalle said. Those studying the microbiome “are finding whole new themes. If you’re an explorer, microbes is where it’s at. It’s not dinosaurs.”

“I walked into Central Park once,” he added, “and collected pond water and found a bunch of new species. We’re trying to name them right now.”

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at

To Be, or Not to Be—a Writer, That Is

Salman Rushdie talks Shakespeare while teaching a class for exceptional high-school writing students

Author Salman Rushdie in October 2015.ENLARGE
Author Salman Rushdie in October 2015. PHOTO: ELOY ALSONSO/REUTERS

As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it might seem that all the questions regarding the Bard and his work have been asked, if not answered.

But here’s one I hadn’t heard before: “Do you think Shakespeare knew he was Shakespeare? Did he know he was that good?”

The question arose during a master class that Salman Rushdie was teaching four exceptional high-school writing students. The two juniors and the two seniors met with the author of “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses” through YoungArts New York, a regional program organized by the National YoungArts Foundation that every year brings together talented students to learn and collaborate with luminaries from the performing and visual arts and literature.

There is no requirement in literature to be nice. Everybody wants to be liked. It’s not always the best way to get where you want to go.

—Salman Rushdie

“My view,” Mr. Rushdie said, “is that it’s impossible to write that good and not know it’s that good. If you don’t know it’s that good, you’re not good enough to write it.”

The hour that the author spent fielding questions from the students wasn’t really about how to write. But about what it takes to be a writer. The room, at Pearl Studios on Broadway, was bare bones. Nothing more than a few chairs around a folding table under bright florescent lights.

But the experience was moving nonetheless, as Mr. Rushdie offered a sense of the price of admission to a career as a writer, whether of fiction or nonfiction.

“There is no requirement in literature to be nice,” he said. “Everybody wants to be liked. It’s not always the best way to get where you want to go.”

That might qualify as understatement coming from a writer who lived under police protection after a fatwa was issued against him in 1989 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran.

But neither that episode nor any other aspects of Mr. Rushdie’s celebrity came up during the meeting a couple of weeks ago.

“Whatever form,” the author continued, “the subject is truth. That’s what it’s about: trying to find a way getting as much truth on the page as you can.”

Mr. Rushdie also gave the teenagers an impromptu literature course—from Ovid and Franz Kafka to Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Joseph Heller. “Most writers I know are also very big readers,” he explained. “There’s a part of writing that comes out of how you see the world. But also whatever writers inspire you.”

At the same time, Mr. Rushdie warned against the perils of “overinfluence.” “There are writers that are very infectious,” he said, citing Hemingway.

And how easy it looks, yet how hard it actually is, to create Hemingway’s distilled prose. “Towards the end of his life, neither could he,” Mr. Rushdie joked.

Writing about “the things you know best” goes only so far, he observed. Sometimes you’re required to go find a story, as Truman Capote did in his nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood.”

Or Joseph Conrad, he said, who “didn’t start writing until he was over 40. He took the precaution of having an interesting life first.”

And while it’s useful to look at lots of different kinds of writing when you’re starting out, “there comes a moment when you’re more sure of yourself.”

For some writers—he mentioned Zadie Smith and Martin Amis—that moment comes earlier than others.

Mr. Rushdie recalled receiving 100 pages of what would become “White Teeth” from Ms. Smith a year after he met her when she was a college student. “I called a friend of mine and said, ‘I suggest you read this tonight and sign this girl up tomorrow morning.’ A week later, there was a six-figure contract. The talent was so huge and so obvious.”

But it took Mr. Rushdie a lot longer to hit his own stride. Indeed, he recalled the moment it happened. He shared his depression at having written three books “two not published.” “Midnight’s Children,” the novel that would catapult him to fame, seemed to heading in the same direction, when he decided to let his main character tell his story in his own voice. The book involves a child born with special powers at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, as India gains its independence.

“This thing came out of me,” he marveled. “It was obviously the best paragraph I’d written in my life because it was not my voice. It was his voice. I’ve always thought of that day as the day I learned how to be a writer. I was doing something I hadn’t understood I could do.”

At 34, a Facebook Elder Statesman

You can thank Soleio Cuervo for the ‘Like’ button

Soleio Cuervo, designer of Facebook's ‘Like’ button, at the company’s New York offices.ENLARGE
Soleio Cuervo, designer of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, at the company’s New York offices. PHOTO: ANDREW LAMBERSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Soleio Cuervo isn’t resentful that Facebook expanded its menu of emotions beyond the “Like” button. Now there are emojis to tell your friends that you’re sad, angry, laughing, surprised, or that you really love something. As opposed to just liking it.

Mr. Cuervo, who went to work for the social-media juggernaut in 2005 as employee No. 30 and one of its first designers, is credited for bringing the world that now ubiquitous “Like” icon.

“Disrespected?” he asked as we sat in Facebook’s offices, on Ninth Street off Broadway. “Not at all. If there’s one thing about Facebook, we’ve never been sentimental about its past.”

“If you don’t evolve yourself,” he added, citing the company’s ethos, “outside forces will evolve you.”

Mr. Cuervo left Facebook in 2011, becoming chief designer at Dropbox, the cloud-storage company. He’s currently an investor and adviser to early-stage tech firms.

He’s also a graduate of New Jersey SEEDS, a Newark-based educational nonprofit that prepares and helps place high-achieving students from low-income families in selective private day schools, boarding schools and colleges.

In 1995, Mr. Cuervo graduated from one of SEEDS’s earliest programs. Last week, he flew in from Los Altos, Calif., where he lives, to address one of the organization’s alumni events about cultivating diversity in tech.

I got the sense that, at 34 years old, he’s treated as something of an elder statesman on his occasional NYC Facebook visits, even though he worked out of the company’s California headquarters.

And while there’s no such thing as a gold-plated lifetime building pass, “I don’t have too much trouble getting into the building,” he stated modestly.

I couldn’t resist asking Mr. Cuervo what he thought of “The Social Network,” the Oscar-winning 2010 movie about Facebook’s origins and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

“When they depicted the 1 million-user party, the office they showed looked something like this,” he said, motioning to the sprawling office outside the glassed-in conference room where we met. (It was filled with appropriately fashion-backward programmers, free snacks and a sign quoting Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”) “It was just a bunch of guys sitting around a table. It felt wrong somebody would own our story.”

He also took issue with the movie’s depiction of Mr. Zuckerberg. “Early Facebook attracted highly competitive personalities,” Mr. Cuervo remembered. “A lot was the culture Zuck created around his drive to win. But it never came from a hostile place.”

Mr. Cuervo, a first-generation American whose family was from Bogotá, Colombia, traces his own success to an amiable fifth-grade bully in Piscataway, N.J., where he grew up. “He said, ‘Dude, you keep getting ‘A’s.’ You should skip a grade.”

That planted the seed, no pun intended, in Mr. Cuervo’s mind that led him to SEEDS, St. Andrews boarding school in Delaware, and Duke University.

“It was like Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts,” he remembered of St. Andrews. “Up to that point I hadn’t been exposed to kids who were highly motivated from accomplished families.”

He said he was no longer “a top student just by showing up.”

Nonetheless, his design talent was quickly recognized by a teacher who was so impressed with the newsletter Mr. Cuervo produced for the boarding school’s indoor soccer league that he enlisted him to work during the summer in St. Andrews’s communications office.

And when he went to Duke in 1999 he quickly made a name for himself designing websites for college rock bands and faculty members. That is when he had another epiphany, realizing that there was code behind the clunky desktop publishing software he was using.

“Why the hell was I monkeying around?” he recalled. “I could just write the code. It’s like discovering there’s an engine in a car. All that work ultimately brought me to San Francisco. It kicked off my career as a developer.”

I use Facebook’s “Like” button sparingly, if at all. Seeing it as shorthand, even a substitute, for communication, rather than the real thing. A dumbing down of culture.

Mr. Cuervo didn’t take the criticism personally, though he politely disagreed, backed up by data. “There was a lot of concern that we’d cannibalize engagement,” he recalled of the period when “Like” was in the testing phase. “The fear was that people were going to stop leaving comments and just click a button.”

What happened instead was the universe of opinion sharing—on everything from cat videos to presidential candidates—we inhabit today.

“Actually, it acted like a social lubricant,” said Mr. Cuervo. “Because we radically lowered the cost of engagement, we increased the likelihood.”

Making the Case in Moot Court

The Columbia Law School students impressed a roomful of observers—and Justice Samuel Alito

Judge José A. Cabranes, Justice Samuel Alito, center, and Judge Cheryl Ann Krause listen to arguments.ENLARGE
Judge José A. Cabranes, Justice Samuel Alito, center, and Judge Cheryl Ann Krause listen to arguments. PHOTO: BRUCE GILBERT/COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL

Columbia University’s moot court competition gave me flashbacks. I recalled my one and only moot court appearance. It occurred in Prof. Murray Dry’s feared constitutional law class at Middlebury College, circa 1974.

I don’t remember the case. I do my grade: An “A” for presentation, a “C” for substance, the latter being the only one that counted.

Needless to say, the four Columbia Law School students who gave final arguments in this year’s Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court Competition—Mr. Stone was a 1898 Columbia Law School graduate and sat on the U.S. Supreme Court for 20 years—were far better prepared than I was.

In fact, having made the finals on April 7 constituted no small triumph. Alexander Ely, Timothy Kim, Logan Gowdey and Aaron Michael Macris, all members of the Class of 2016, were the survivors in a three-round elimination competition that started in the fall semester with 47 students.

But their hardest work lay ahead: appearing before a three-judge panel.

The names of the judges may be familiar: Samuel Alito, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; José A. Cabranes, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; and Cheryl Ann Krause, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The case was conceived and written by Sarah Mac Dougall and Sydney Egnasko, both also in the Class of 2016. It involved a fictitious app called myDoc, which allows users to consult physicians. myDoc sued the Earhartington Ethics Commission, also a fictional entity, alleging that requiring disclosure of its grass roots lobbying expenditures was an unconstitutional restraint on free speech under the First Amendment.

While wholly made up, the case addresses an increasingly relevant question: Can states constitutionally require disclosure of so-called “AstroTurf” lobbying, where a company encourages its users to contact their legislators on their own initiative.

The proceedings began with the arrival, in the back of the amphitheater classroom, of the three judges flanked by U.S. Marshals—Justice Alito was walking in the middle—and the shout of “All Rise.”

After the jurists had taken their seats at the front came the call of “Oyez, oyez, the court is now in session.”

My apologies to moot court watchers if I’m getting any of the details wrong. Recording devices were prohibited. One reason why, suggested Prof. Philip Genty, the competition’s faculty director, is to prevent a leak of Justice Alito’s comments. If the comments of a Supreme Court justice were to get out, even in a fictional case, they could be construed in a way that might indicate how the justice “would rule on a similar case in the future.”

Each counsel had 20 minutes to make his presentation. And while there were justifiable nerves, none of the difficult, sometimes off-the-cuff questions asked by the judges—Judge Cabranes later referred to them as “madmen questions” that “came out of nowhere”—seemed to trip up the lawyers-to-be.

Perhaps the most intense moments came in the back-and-forth between the judges and the defense over questions about how broadly the definition of lobbying could be interpreted.

When the arguments ended, the auditorium burst into applause and the judges retired to deliberate.

Alexander Ely received the prize for best oral presentation.
Alexander Ely received the prize for best oral presentation. PHOTO: BRUCE GILBERT/COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL

About 20 minutes later, they returned. Justice Alito praised the students’ performance before getting around to awarding the prize for best oral presentation to Alexander Ely and the prize for best final brief to Aaron Michael Macris. The judges weren’t asked to rule in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant.

Justice Alito praised the students for exceeding “some really good attorneys that appear before our courts.”

By the way, the case was 110 fictional pages long and the judges seemed to have read it thoroughly.

Mr. Ely, who represented myDoc, the plaintiff appellant, attributed his winning performance to having argued both sides of the case earlier in the competition. But he added, “No amount of work can prepare you for some of the questions. It’s difficult to anticipate the hypotheticals.”

A high point? “Having an exchange with a sitting Supreme Court justice while you’re still a law student—I’ll always remember that.”

How to Order Breakfast and Not Be Disappointed

Ralph Gardner Jr. goes to a restaurant with breakfast-book author Lee Schrager

Amitzur Mor, left, and Lee Schrager at the book launch party for “America's Best Breakfasts,” which Mr. Schrager wrote with Adeena Sussman.ENLARGE
Amitzur Mor, left, and Lee Schrager at the book launch party for “America’s Best Breakfasts,” which Mr. Schrager wrote with Adeena Sussman. PHOTO: MATTEO PRANDONI/BFA

Breakfast last week with Lee Schrager, the author with Adeena Sussman of “America’s Best Breakfasts” (Potter) was an opportunity to discuss his choices for New York City’s best breakfast spots and also, hopefully, to solicit his moral support.

My breakfast-ordering habits, typically filled with qualifiers, are just one of the many reasons my family has to be embarrassed about me.

I suppose I could be like everybody else, ask for scrambled eggs and bacon and take whatever comes. But what came would probably be eggs approximately the consistency of concrete and bacon dripping fat.

In a world poised to disappoint, it seems simple common sense to minimize misunderstanding and heartbreak whenever possible. One way to do that is by ordering breakfast the way you like it. In my case that means soft—to the point of runny—scrambled eggs and crisp bacon. And I appreciate my toast to arrive buttered.

A better person would have no problem applying a pat of frozen butter to a tepid piece of toast. Wasting precious moments while the rest of his breakfast idled, growing frigid, too.

But I’m not that person. And if I have to mortify my family in the process, tough kumquats.

“Everyone has an opinion on breakfast,” Mr. Schrager observed when we met at the Regency Hotel, home of the “power breakfast.” “I worked my way through college as a waiter. Breakfast is the hardest meal of the day to serve.”

He embarked on the litany of options. “Do you want coffee, tea, cappuccino, skim latte? Do you want your eggs over easy, poached, scrambled? It’s 50 questions with breakfast.”

There was no daylight between us when it came bacon. “Bacon you have to hear the crunch,” he said.

Where we disagreed was in his preparation of scrambled eggs. Or so I thought. There’s a tutorial in the back of his book for allegedly perfect soft scrambled. It involves stirring the eggs constantly in the skillet “until they start becoming custard-like.”

Becoming muck is more like it, if you ask me.

“You like to let it sit?” Mr. Schrager surmised.

Indeed, I do. Not forever. Just long enough to lock in the moisture before I fold them over.

“I didn’t do the tutorial,” said Mr. Schrager, the founder of the Food Network South Beach and New York City Wine & Food Festival. He pointed the finger at Ms. Sussman. “I like to whisk it only a minute or two, fresh chives, crème fraîche and it’s done.”

Still sounded a bit hoity-toity to me.

I made the mistake of reading “America’s Best Breakfasts” early one morning. The temptation was to board the subway and go straight to Russ & Daughters Cafe on Orchard Street. The book includes their recipe for potato latkes along with an appetizing photograph of the crisp latkes together with small bowls of pink salmon caviar pearls and crème fraîche.

Indeed, I’m growing despondent with hunger just writing about the dish.

Another appealing recipe, for coconut pancakes with fresh berries, comes from Miss Lily’s, a Jamaican restaurant on West Houston and Sullivan Street.

There’s also a page devoted to the Regency Hotel’s power breakfast, though by the time I arrived around 9:30 a.m. any recognizable power brokers had departed.

I placed my scrambled-eggs-and-bacon order, which arrived exactly the way I requested. Plus, a glass of orange juice. Without orange juice—preferably fresh squeezed—breakfast, and life in general, would be a less cheerful experience.

The author launched into a story about a religious glass of orange juice he recently had, of all places, in business class on Turkish Airlines. Apparently, they’re famous for their orange juice. “They squeeze 15,000 oranges daily,” Mr. Schrager reported.


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

But the food maven surprised me, after all that talk about eggs, by ordering oatmeal.

“No bananas,” Mr. Schrager instructed the waiter. “Just berries. I don’t like bananas.”

I hate oatmeal. But I can’t be objective. I was forced to eat it every morning as a child.

“I don’t eat it because I love it,” Mr. Schrager confessed. “It’s probably the healthiest of anything I’d eat.”

On a more uplifting and highly perceptive note, he added that the beauty of breakfast—a perfectly crafted omelette, for example—is that “you can eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And you can wear your bathrobe without feeling guilty.”

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at

Community Spirit Lives in the Bowery

All are welcome at University Settlement’s Houston Street Center

Judy Sarmento, left, and Deborah Lee volunteer at University Settlement’s Houston Street Center.
Judy Sarmento, left, and Deborah Lee volunteer at University Settlement’s Houston Street Center. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A fort in Indian country was the analogy that came to mind as I sat in a conference room at University Settlement’s Houston Street Center on the Bowery and listened to Melissa Aase, the organization’s executive director, discussing the onslaught of gentrification.

Though “gilding” may be a more apt description for the luxury transformation of a neighborhood once known as the city’s Skid Row.

“We used to be able to see the sky from here,” Ms. Aase lamented as she looked out the window of the center’s conference room. It was blocked by a new condo-hotel rising next door. “This was our only daylight.”

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to describe University Settlement, one of the city’s oldest and largest social-service providers, as a bulwark against the forces of gentrification. Rather, it’s a place where every element of the community—from wealthy, to middle class, to poor, many of them immigrants—can congregate.

“It’s accessible to the whole community,” Ms. Aase said, referring to the Houston Street Center. “It makes the place a much richer place, vibrant and inclusive.”

University Settlement started in 1886 as a haven for the flood of impoverished immigrants arriving on the Lower East Side. The Houston Street Center, celebrating its 10th anniversary, is a few blocks from the group’s headquarters on Eldridge Street. And were further proof required of the forces of change, it shares the ground floor of the apartment building where it’s located with a Whole Foods.

“We know a little bit about the neighborhood,” Ms. Aase explained. “We just turned 130. We’ve seen so many changes.”

The community spirit is on display nowhere as much as in the gym and swimming pool that the Houston Street Center shares with the Chinatown YMCA. On a recent afternoon, it was a beehive of activity.

“It’s a 50/50 partnership with the ‘Y’,” Ms. Aase explained as neighborhood residents ran on treadmills that overlooked the pool.

The two groups even divide the pool. “The Y has a certain amount of lanes and we have a certain amount of lanes,” she said. “In the summertime you have to reserve two weeks in advance. There are so many people who want to swim.”

But the gym and pool constitute only a fraction of the Houston Street Center’s offerings. They include family yoga, English conversation, housing assistance, job training, drama courses, child care, knitting, and zumba. There’s also free afterschool and summer programs for middle schoolers.

Swimming lessons at University Settlement’s Houston Street Center.ENLARGE
Swimming lessons at University Settlement’s Houston Street Center. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Judy Sarmento, 78 years old, comes from Jackson Heights three days a week. “I have a lot of friends here,” she explained. “You have to go to a place where you’re welcome.”

And did I mention the Excel programs? They provide children and adults with special needs with everything from art and cooking to computer-skills classes.

Deborah Lee, 29, is among them.

Indeed, Ms. Lee who takes hip hop dancing classes—in addition to drama, sewing, and the ancient Chinese breathing technique of Qi Gong—recently testified before the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in an effort to help secure funding for University Settlement.

“Before I wrote down some notes,” she recalled of her appearance. “It was a very nice experience. I went with my mom and other parents and friends. I spoke in a microphone.”

The effort paid off. The LMDC awarded the organization $1.1 million.


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“Nowhere else would we feel like family,” said Wai Lan Lee, Deborah’s mother, who goes by Michelle. She was speaking in Chinese as Eva Wong, the Houston Street Center’s director of programs and engagement, translated.

The family lives in the neighborhood and Deborah and her mother can walk to the building. While Deborah was taking those hip hop classes her mother was learning how to swim. Though she said she can’t float. So I don’t know how that works.

“We really need this place,” she said.

Ms. Aase grew passionate while discussing the symbolic importance of losing that conference-room view. “This is the kind of space that brings people together and creates a sense of belonging,” she said of University Settlement. “When people are pushed out of their neighborhood and feel displaced you’re pushing back against all those things.”

She nodded in the direction of the swimming pool. “And having fun.”

A Harvest Devoted to Sustaining New York City’s Hungry

City Harvest is a nonprofit that collects food donations for New Yorkers in need

Driver Ron Maldonado, in red hairnet, loads baked goods onto the new truck.ENLARGE
Driver Ron Maldonado, in red hairnet, loads baked goods onto the new truck. PHOTO:RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The mistake was in not having lunch before I joined the maiden voyage of City Harvest’s new 26-foot truck.

It may sound counterintuitive to be standing famished in a 45,000-square-foot warehouse in Long Island City, filled with everything from donated Tropicana orange juice to spaghetti squash from Arizona and Yoplait yogurt from Pennsylvania. But all that food was destined for soup kitchens, food pantries and other community feeding programs. City Harvest will collect about 55 million pounds of excess food this year to help feed nearly 1.4 million hungry New Yorkers.

Nonetheless, I didn’t think the group would miss one 15-ounce bottle of “Naked,” an almond-milk juice smoothie that Tropicana had donated along with the orange juice. After all, there were dozens of cases of it.

“It’s like working in a bank with $100 bills,” said Lex Wilder, City Harvest’s food operations liaison. “It’s tempting, but you don’t do it.”

There are exceptions, like fresh produce. More than half of what City Harvest collects is fruits and vegetables.

Rolls fresh from the oven at Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City.ENLARGE
Rolls fresh from the oven at Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“When we get canary melons from Florida, we’ll cut one open to test the quality,” said Miguel Bido, the nonprofit’s senior director of transportation and warehouse operations.

I was under the impression that most of City Harvest’s collections are leftovers from Manhattan restaurants, some of them fancy. That’s not altogether wrong. Restaurants that make donations include Per Se, The Capital Grille and Le Bernardin, which has a refrigerator dedicated for City Harvest pickups.

“Mostly it’s produce, and some of the fish,” Mr. Wilder said.

But the majority of the contributions, about 38 million pounds a year, come from local farms and major food manufacturers, according to Mr. Bido. Another 18 million pounds come from local bakeries, restaurants and the like.

Our route was to take us for pickups at Tom Cat Bakery and Fresh Direct, both also in Long Island City, and then make a delivery to a food pantry farther into Queens, one run by Project Hope Charities in Jamaica.

Along the way to Tom Cat Bakery, driver Ron Maldonado explained that a typical day starts in the early morning at Hunts Point Market, whose vendors last year contributed 3 million pounds of food, mainly produce and meat.

Visitors to a food pantry sometimes time their trips to the truck’s arrival. “On distribution day, soup kitchens will have given out everything they have and the crowd knows a City Harvest truck is coming,” Mr. Maldonado said. “They’ll wait around to see what extra stuff we have. They definitely appreciate it.”

When we arrived at Tom Cat Bakery, huge bags of fresh rolls and bread awaited us, made all the more enticing by the fragrance of baking bread.

“We have lots of rejects,” said James Rath, Tom Cat Bakery’s vice president of operations. “But they’re not rejected for anything.”

For example, an order for a top restaurant may include rolls that measure 3 inches long. If one batch comes out of the oven a bit longer or shorter, Mr. Rath said, “they go into the City Harvest bag. But it still tastes great.”

Apparently observing my ravenous expression, Mr. Rath supplied us with a bag of tasty pretzel and Parker House rolls.

Our next stop was Fresh Direct’s Long Island City center, which proved even more challenging to a lunch-deprived reporter. The boxes for pickup were topped off with a roasted turkey-and-Swiss sandwich and a large toasted almond frangipane tart.

“I spend a lot of time with our growers and fishermen,” said David McInerney, a co-founder of Fresh Direct. “To see how much goes into growing the food, it crushes us if we have to waste anything.”

Mr. McInerney gave the example of milk that the online grocer guarantees to be fresh to the customer for seven days. “We get down to six days,” and while the milk is still good, it doesn’t meet Fresh Direct’s promise to customers. “What’s better than taking that food and making sure people are eating it?”

I never made it to Project Hope Charities because I had to get back to Manhattan for another appointment. But I was told the delivery was a success.

Besides the contributions from Tom Cat Bakery and Fresh Direct, the load included cheese, canary and honeydew melons, and butternut squash.

When I emerged from the subway, I was forced to make do with a hot dog at Papaya King.

Spitters, Walking Zombies and Others Who Need to Be Stopped

Ralph Gardner Jr. has a few ideas for a public-service campaign

The scourge of sidewalk gum.
The scourge of sidewalk gum. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/INGRAM PUBLISHING

A rare and wonderful opportunity has come my way. So rare and wonderful that I am paralyzed with indecision.

The opportunity: Work with Kathy Delaney, global chief creative officer of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, to come up with ideas for a public-service campaign addressing an issue vital to New Yorkers. The problem: There are so many things about this burg that leave room for improvement—as frequently joyous as the experience of living here can be—that I don’t know where to start.

That is a bit of an exaggeration. I do have a few ideas, but I feel it best to limit myself to peeves that might fall into the public-nuisance category, ones that might be attacked with a therapeutic helping of humor, and leave the life-or-death issues to others.

So here are my top candidates that seem ripe for storyboard treatment, which I believe to be the first step in creating a PSA:

Spitters: Who are these people? Where were they raised and by whom? And why do they apparently find nothing off-putting, let alone antisocial, about launching a projectile of saliva in the path of fellow pedestrians? This issue resonated with Ms. Delaney, who recalled dodging a Molotov cocktail of phlegm on the very morning of our meeting.

Chewing-gum abusers: You might not realize it, but those marks on the sidewalk that make the city look like it has chickenpox, or blackheads, are the result of chewing gum being ground into the pavement. Why do people feel compelled to share their masticated Dentyne or Juicy Fruit with the world? Can’t they continue chewing until they reach the next trash receptacle?

Clueless drivers: When I threw open the PSA challenge to my family, they reminded me of my fury whenever I’m stuck behind a motorist going 45 mph in the left-hand lane—seemingly oblivious not only to the law and driving etiquette, but to humanity in general. Maybe there needs to be explicit signage addressing this scourge, or better yet cops as quick to ticket slowpokes as speed demons.

An unhappy baby.ENLARGE
An unhappy baby. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Crying babies: This was my wife’s idea. She doesn’t blame the children. She blames their noise pollution on bad parenting. Her belief is that infants can be persuaded to stop wailing and return to their adorable selves if moms and dads possessed the minimal instincts it takes to address whatever compelling issues are causing their little ones to cry.

Walking zombies: The problem of pedestrian weavers, veerers and full-stop texters constitutes an epidemic yet to peak. Sometimes it feels like “Night of the Living Dead” out there. People seem utterly oblivious to their surroundings. Might you good people find it in your benevolence to take that all-important call from your mom somewhere other than the steps descending to the 6 train?

Manspreading and other incivilities. Not all males do it, though they seem to represent the vast majority of miscreants. I’ll do anything short of shimmying up a subway pole to avoid physical contact. But the issue does touch on something more fundamental: an utter indifference to the social contract. Maybe we need to start posting the social contract in prominent locations, similar to those Heimlich maneuver how-to signs in restaurants.

This ought to give Ms. Delaney and me something to start with. What’s our next step? A soundtrack and a celebrity spokesperson?

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at

Requiem for a Writer

Friends and family of the late Robert Bingham are remembering him this week


The author’s family: mother Joan Bingham, widow Vanessa Lilly, and sister Clara Bingham.ENLARGE
The author’s family: mother Joan Bingham, widow Vanessa Lilly, and sister Clara Bingham. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Joan Bingham’s motherly instincts kicked in when I joked that her son, Robert Bingham, had attended a less selective college than his wife, Vanessa Chase Lilly. Ms. Lilly attended Harvard. Mr. Bingham, Brown.

“He was wait-listed at Harvard,” Ms. Lilly noted.

“He could have gone if he took off a year,” Ms. Bingham added, a tiny bit defensively.

The two women, as well as Mr. Bingham’s older sister Clara Bingham,were talking as if he was in the next room and might be eavesdropping on their conversation.

He wasn’t. Mr. Bingham, a writer of promise—who published stories in the New Yorker, as well as a novel, “Lightning on The Sun” and a collection of short stories, “Pure Slaughter Value”—died of a heroin overdose in 1999 at the age of 33.

Mr. Bingham in 1999.ENLARGE
Mr. Bingham in 1999. PHOTO: BINGHAM FAMILY

His relatives had gathered at Ms. Lilly’s Upper East Side apartment late Monday afternoon to reminisce about him ahead of the 10th anniversary of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.

The award is given to a writer, much like Mr. Bingham himself, whose first work—a novel or collection of short stories—exhibits literary distinction but who could use some encouragement to complete a follow-up work of fiction. The award, which carries a $25,000 check, will be announced at the New School Auditorium on Monday evening.

“Every writer has a novel in them,” noted Clara Bingham, an author herself. “It’s the second act, with the pressure and expectations.”

It’s a pressure her brother, an heir to the Bingham newspaper-publishing fortune, apparently felt after the success of his short-story collection and while working on “Lightning on The Sun,” a novel that drew on his experience working in Phnom Penh for two years as a reporter for Cambodia Daily.

The book was published in May 2000, not long after his death. “It was agonizing,” his sister remembered. “He missed out on the glory. It was a beautifully written book and it got great reviews.”

Louise Erdrich presents Shawn Vestal with the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for his collection of short stories, ‘Godforsaken Idaho,’ in 2014.ENLARGE
Louise Erdrich presents Shawn Vestal with the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for his collection of short stories, ‘Godforsaken Idaho,’ in 2014. PHOTO: BEOWULF SHEEHAN

His mother, an executive editor at Grove/Atlantic, added that “ Michiko Kakutani reviewed it in the Times. It was one of those reviews that tells the story and there weren’t any good pull quotes.”

One might assume it painful for his family to discuss a death as tragic as Mr. Bingham’s. “He wasn’t a regular junkie,” his sister explained. “He was an occasional user. And when mixed with alcohol it’s deadly. It was a total shock.”

But there seemed something therapeutic, even joyful about rousing his memory—the way he supported literary friends through “Open City,” a publication he joined in the early ’90s to showcase new writers; his all-round zest for life.

Mr. Bingham was born in Kentucky, where the family newspaper empire was centered. But his father, Worth, died in a freak accident when Robert was only three months old, and when he was two his mother moved the family to New York City and an attic apartment at the Dakota.

His writing, which bears the influence of Hemingway, Fitzgerald andGraham Greene—with perhaps a smattering of Jay McInerney andWhit Stillman thrown in—always seems to have one eye trained on the abyss.

“Tell about Dylan Thomas,” Clara Bingham instructed her mother.

“On Christmas Eve,” as a child, “Robert would always get up and recite ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’” Joan Bingham said. “He’d learn a new stanza every year.”

But there was also the side of his personality that flirted with risk and danger. “There was a gonzo element to him,” his sister admitted. “He owned many BB guns.”

Ms. Lilly, an architectural historian who remarried and has two children with her second husband, John Lilly, recalled the excitement Robert felt the summer they rented a house in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and the owner encouraged him to shoot the pesky geese on his pond.

Indeed, his second New Yorker fiction piece, “The Target Audience,” is based on a true story involving a girl who got shot by a BB gun at Groton, where Robert attended boarding school.

“He was not the shooter,” attested Ms. Lilly who attended Groton at the same time her husband did.

This year’s candidates for the Bingham Prize were scheduled to read at the KGB bar in the East Village on Sunday night. But the annual event also doubles as an excuse for Robert’s old friends to gather.

“We get them all together,” Clara Bingham explained. “This gives us a structure to remember him.”

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at