Bridging the Generation Gap With Chess

Zachary Targoff started an intergenerational chess program with his bar mitzvah money

Herman Bomze, 91 years old, plays chess with Mason Sklar, 13, during an afternoon of intergenerational chess at Dorot, a Jewish social services organization on the Upper West Side. ENLARGE
Herman Bomze, 91 years old, plays chess with Mason Sklar, 13, during an afternoon of intergenerational chess at Dorot, a Jewish social services organization on the Upper West Side. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Zachary Targoff is a better man than I am. I doubt I’d have used all my bar mitzvah money to do what Zach did with his nest egg.

He started a chess program a year ago in April at Dorot, a Jewish social services organization on the Upper West Side that works to make older adults less socially isolated. To that end, and with the support of Zach and his parents, Dorot brings together teenagers and seniors to play chess.

“We used the money I got from my bar mitzvah to fund this program,” the 14-year-old Zach said as he looked around the room where the young and old were hunched over chess boards. His donation paid for staff, refreshments, transportation for the seniors, and chess equipment and training.

“I’m thrilled you’re teaching me chess,” Florence Chasen, 97, told the teenager as she moved her knight two spaces rather than the customary three.

“The knight goes two spaces and then one space,” Zach explained patiently.

A more dangerous opponent was 91-year-old Herman Bomze, who was engaged in a match on the other side of the room and who helped inspire the program. Zach and Mr. Bomze have been playing against each other since before Zach’s bar mitzvah in November 2013.

Zachary Targoff, the 14-year-old who started the program with his bar mitzvah money.ENLARGE
Zachary Targoff, the 14-year-old who started the program with his bar mitzvah money. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I was nervous the first time,” Zach recalled of his formidable opponent. “I expected we’d talk for five minutes about normal things. I knew once we started playing that the game would speak for itself.”

So who wins?

“When I first started playing with him, we would be splitting games,” said Zach, an eighth-grader at the Trinity School. “I thought I’d have to be giving up games.

“As people get older things happen,” he added, choosing his words carefully. “He’ll still win games.”

The players meet weekly during the school year. The timing is different during the summer, explained Judith Turner, Dorot’s director of volunteer services.

“Teens go to seniors’ homes and bring the chessboard with them,” Ms. Turner said. “We were so amazed by the outpouring of interest.”

Zach and Mr. Bomze ended up talking about more than chess. The nonagenarian shared some of his personal history with the boy.

“He told me a lot about his family,” Zach said. “How they came over from Europe. He showed me pictures of his family.”

And as a bar mitzvah gift, Mr. Bomze gave Zach the chess set his father, who didn’t survive the Holocaust, had given him.

“Unfortunately, his father couldn’t get a visa to America,” Zach explained as Ms. Chasen moved one of her pawns straight ahead—a move that would be acceptable in checkers but not in chess. “He was forced to stay in Europe and killed during the war.”

“Remember the pawns capture diagonally,” Zach reminded her.

I thought it best to let Ms. Chasen and Zach finish their game without further interruption and made my way to Mr. Bomze, who was in a spirited contest with 13-year-old Mason Sklar, a student at Hunter College High School.

“Technically I’m winning,” Mason explained. “But I’m in a bad situation.”

Since Mr. Bomze apparently had his hands full, his daughter, Bracha Nechama Bomze, a poet who accompanied him to the program, shared a bit of her father’s story.

“He fled the Nazis in 1939,” she said. “He was 15. But his father was deported to Buchenwald.”

Ms. Bomze said her dad had learned to play chess when he was 6, on the set he gave Zach. By the time he was 8, he was beating his father.

“I said, ‘Why not use this set, Dad?’ ” Ms. Bomze recalled of Zach’s visits to their home. He wouldn’t “because it was so emotionally laden.”

There were discussions about whether to give the set to Zach as a bar mitzvah gift. It could just as easily have gone to a member of the younger generation of Mr. Bomze’s family.

“He was touching it with such sensitivity,” Ms. Bomze recalled of Zach and the hand-carved pieces. “Caressing it actually. Herman and his sister agreed Zach would be the most appropriate recipient of this precious heirloom.”

Ms. Bomze tried to ask her father a question regarding the chess set. “I’m in the middle of chess,” he told her.

He was simultaneously eating a piece of cake.

I should mention this was the last session of the school year; to celebrate the occasion, a chess-themed cake was rolled out. Between the cake and the chess, Mr. Bomze had little bandwidth for extraneous conversation with his daughter or with me.

“It takes precedence, I guess,” his daughter said.

She went on to explain that her father, a retired structural engineer—“I still am a structural engineer,” he stated briefly, correcting us—had suffered a near fatal heart attack in December.

“So this whole relationship is amazing,” she said of the program in general and her father’s relationship with Zach, in particular. “When he’s playing chess, he’s at his best.”

“He won,” Mason announced.

“It was a big struggle, though,” Mr. Bomze admitted.

Zach dropped by after his game, or more accurately after the free lesson he gave to Ms. Chasen.

“Do you want to play?” he asked Mr. Bomze.

The question wasn’t a difficult one: “I’ll play again,” Mr. Bomze said.

A Place for Child’s Play and So Much More

Coming to grips with losing the Fifth Avenue FAO Schwarz

An employee dressed as a toy soldier salutes passersby outside FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue in New York.ENLARGE
An employee dressed as a toy soldier salutes passersby outside FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue in New York. PHOTO: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

There are few constants in the life of this shape-shifting city. But since time immemorial, or close enough as we of mere flesh and blood need to be concerned, FAO Schwarz has been at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street.

I realize the store isn’t technically on the corner, but for kids of all ages, the anticipation starts at the corner—if not at that even vaster crossroads, the mind’s eye.

For those who don’t follow the news—and I can’t blame you because it’s often terrifying—the cherry on this sad sundae, and perhaps also the whipped cream and nuts, came last week when Toys “R” Us Inc. announced that it is closing FAO Schwarz in mid-July.

I’m not sure how to describe my reaction, since this is one of those situations where the poverty of language is all too pronounced: grief, shock, incredulity, anger, disbelief? I’m aware that incredulity and disbelief are synonyms, but that’s how severe my puzzlement and surprise was.

I’ve been an FAO Schwarz customer for well over a half-century. Indeed, I suspect that when I came home from the hospital in a baby blanket my bassinet was stocked with rattles or stuffed animals from that Shangri-La of kids’ stuff.

In more recent years, I’ve been visiting FAO Schweetz on the ground floor at regular intervals to stock up on overpriced penny candy. The selection is no different or better than at dozens of other places across the city. But passing through the store’s portals, after exchanging pleasantries with that toy soldier doorman or whatever he is, I experienced the narcotic neocortal exhilaration, the remnants of fairy dust on the forest floor of my distant childhood.

I’m still not doing the place justice. Because, in the life of many New Yorkers, it was actually much more than a store. It served as the realization of a type of impossible dream.

My mother, who remains very much in touch with her inner child into her 10th decade, raised us on the Burl Ives rendition of “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

The chorus:

Oh the buzzin’ of the bees in the cigarette trees

The soda water fountain where the lemonade springs

And the bluebird sings in that Big Rock Candy Mountain

It’s actually a disturbing Depression-era ballad if you pay close attention to the words. But my mother, as is her way, chose to focus only on the confectionary parts.

In fact, the song inspired her to commission a lollipop tree that served as the centerpiece of her four children’s birthday parties for many a year.

But such a world doesn’t exist in real life, does it?

Yes, it does. FAO Schwarz was the fruition of a kid’s vision of paradise. So what if over the years it became a wanton exercise in branding and movie, TV show and videogame cross-promotion. That’s the American way. In my day, it was Howdy Doody and the Lone Ranger.

The point was that the store carved out a small, magical corner of an otherwise potentially hostile universe where children were king and free to indulge in a sort-of aspirational gluttony.

Of course, nobody, except visiting Saudi sheiks, could afford the prices. Which I suppose partly explains the store’s demise. The rent apparently became too high and Toys “R” Us is searching for a less extravagant location, but I wouldn’t hold my breath; besides what made FAO Schwarz special was precisely its location, a peer to the likes of Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman.

But you didn’t even need to visit the store, which was at the southeast corner of 58th and Fifth when I was growing up. The FAO Schwarz catalog was as rich and fertile territory as anything in J.K. Rowling’s imagination.

Of course, you knew you’d never be able to afford the tree house with trap door and rope ladder, and where would you put it in a Manhattan apartment, anyway? But being able to picture the world from that strategic height, probably armed with your six-shooters, was good enough.

And when you had kids of your own you knew you’d be taking them there, just as surely as you would to the park. That was part of the calculus of raising children in the city.

One of my proudest moments as a father came when my daughter, Lucy, played hooky from school just so I could accompany her to FAO Schwarz to meet her heroes at the time, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. No purchase necessary. It’s a milestone she remembers to this day.

Who knows what will replace it? A bank probably. But if it isn’t another over-the-top, wooden-toys-be-damned, children’s Eden, who cares?

This city has an astonishing ability to build bigger and debatably better. But I can’t help but fear that the lives of my children’s children will be slightly less charmed, though they’ll be none the wiser, because FAO Schwarz is no longer there.

Riding the Rails, Without Seeing a Train

John Sanderson’s photography celebrates the romance of train travel

John Sanderson’s ‘Railroad Landscapes’ is on view at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn.ENLARGE
John Sanderson’s ‘Railroad Landscapes’ is on view at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Given the tragic derailment in Philadelphia just days ago, this might not seem the ideal moment to celebrate the romance of train travel. But “Railroad Landscapes,” a photography exhibition by John Sanderson at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, does so with quiet eloquence. And without showing a single train.

“It goes back to the feeling of traveling through the American landscape, the quality of absence of showing the tracks without the trains in them,” Mr. Sanderson explained last week as we surveyed his work at the 1936 IND subway station-turned-museum. “That kind of quiet melancholy seen in Edward Hopper paintings influenced me greatly.”

I get the quiet melancholy/Edward Hopper influence. But Mr. Sanderson’s large-format photographs also capture, as subtly as any I’ve seen, another aspect of train appreciation. It’s the reason I volunteer to pick up visitors, my daughters in particular, when they arrive for the weekend at the beautifully restored train station upstate in Hudson, N.Y.

As you hear the whistle blowing, and then spot the Amtrak train coming around a bend, there’s a palpable sense of excitement. It’s somehow different, more elemental than anything associated with air travel.

“There’s a ceremony to it, in a way,” Mr. Sanderson said. “Just showing the tracks and the environment is part of that experience.”

Railroad crossings convey similar mystery. While you may not be able to see beyond the next curve, it isn’t hard to imagine those tracks traveling infinitely in either direction. Connecting New York or New England to the Midwest, and from there to the mountains and deserts of the West, before the journey terminates at the Pacific Ocean. It isn’t exaggeration to suggest that tracks evoke a sort of patriotism; they’re a visceral symbol of national grandeur.

Photographer John SandersonENLARGE
Photographer John Sanderson PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I’ll confess to being somewhat biased about Mr. Sanderson’s work because much of his subject matter concerns the Hudson Valley and the trip along the river that I take frequently. For example, there’s 2011’s “Hudson Line, near Croton, New York,” which shows snow-covered tracks, the icy river and clouds at sunset streaked with the vapor trails of jets.

Planes flying overhead at 40,000 feet also provoke wanderlust. But from the ground you somehow feel left behind. Trains, perhaps because they’re terrestrial, feel rife with freedom and possibility. They summon a bit of the hobo in everybody.

Mr. Sanderson, 31 years old, grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and started taking pictures while he was a student at City-As-School High School in lower Manhattan. But his interest in trains began as a boy when his father, a train buff, took the family on excursions to Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa.

“From an early age, I remember exploring these industrial sites,” he recalled. “I’ve always been drawn to the visual qualities of the American landscape.”

Many of the images are beautiful, for example, another snowy track scene, this one in black-and-white along the Hudson River at Storm King, N.Y. But there’s even beauty to be found in ostensibly unattractive subject matter: “Park Avenue Tunnel Cut, New York City” (2012) shows a row of tenements overlooking the 19th-century graffiti-strewn walls where Grand Central trains emerge into the open air at Park Avenue and 97th Street.

But most evocative of all are the rust-colored tracks that run past the wall, with their intimation of more charmed landscapes beyond the picture frame.

“I mostly drive to the locations,” Mr. Sanderson said of the freight rails along the Hudson’s east bank and the passenger train tracks on the west side. “I feel fortunate I live so close to the Hudson Valley.”

The photographer’s show also provided an opportunity to visit the New York Transit Museum for the first time. The highlight is undoubtedly the 19 restored subway cars, complete with vintage advertising, that range from those dating back more than a century to cars from the 1960s and 1970s.

If you grew up in New York City, you can try to remember your first subway ride and what the cars looked like back then. I seem to recall upholstered seats, such as those on the museum’s R-12 IRT train built in 1948 by the American Car and Foundry Co.

One thing the equipment, including an assortment of turnstiles, seems to establish is that the gentility of subway travel has gone steadily downhill—unless you’re a fan of fiberglass seats too small for the average human posterior—since Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.

Then again, there’s something to be said for air conditioning, public-address announcements and LCD displays informing you where you are.

And the Transit Museum’s store is probably worth a trip all alone. If you find beauty in NYC subway maps and nomenclature—those colorful, circle-enclosed route numbers and letters—you may well max out your credit card on mugs, magnets, oven mitts, aprons, socks, T-shirts and baseball caps. There’s even fine jewelry, such as cuff links, made from brass tokens of yesteryear.

I picked up an articulated toy 34th Street crosstown bus for $13.50 and have been admiring it ever since.

Enlightened by an Unexpected Trip Off the Grid

Without a smartphone, a man must rely on his wits and the kindness of strangers

ENLARGE
ILLUSTRATION: TIM BOWER

When was the last time you tried to find a public phone in Midtown Manhattan? It isn’t easy.

The challenge presented itself last week after my cellphone perished.

My woes began the previous weekend after the phone followed me into a swimming pool. This wasn’t a case of spontaneously deciding to take a dip with my clothes on. Rather, I was walking around the edge of the pool doing a little spring-cleaning when some of the surrounding flagstones—unbeknownst to me they had loosened over the winter—gave way, sending me into the frigid water.

The primary victims were my pride and my device. My older daughter, something of a techie, suggested drawing out the moisture by immersing the phone in rice for 12 to 24 hours. Unfortunately, nobody told the phone this was supposed to restore it to life, and the operation failed.

It’s one thing to know intuitively that you’ve grown dependent on your smartphone, quite another to be forced to survive without its benefits.

The awareness of my dependency probably peaked after I’d left the office Tuesday evening having forgotten to call my wife about our dinner plans—by dinner plans I mean should I pick up something on the way home?—and realized this once-simple operation would now require locating a public phone.

But there were other exercises I wanted to perform that had now also become insurmountable obstacles. Along with thoughts of dinner came questions about dessert. That brought to mind Myzel’s, a chocolate shop in the vicinity, whose hours of operation I wanted to check since it was past 7 p.m. and the shop was probably closed.

The query could have been addressed with a few clicks on my cellphone, but its answer was now as inaccessible as the papyrus scrolls at the ancient library at Alexandria.

The urge for quality chocolate hit at approximately the 72-hour mark of phonelessness. The previous afternoon I was reporting a story at the NYC Transit Museum. Normally, I’d have employed the phone to find the fastest subway route there, and then emerging at Borough Hall in Brooklyn, have it point me in the right direction.

Instead, I was dependent on the kindness of strangers for directions.

Also, being without a phone prevented my staying on top of emails. This shouldn’t be a big deal since 90% of them are encouraging me to do things I have no interest in—for example, taking out a second mortgage—and the other 10% can wait. But I’m one of those pathetic types who checks his email messages when forced to wait at stop lights, as if the White House might be trying to contact me for advice on negotiating with Iran.

The evening my new, improved cellphone arrived and life returned to normal, I attended the movie Ex Machina with my brother. It’s about a female robot who’s easy to fall in love with. However, the larger lesson is about the perils of having the machines supersede us.

I’ve never been especially concerned about the triumph of artificial intelligence—unlike, say, physicist Stephen Hawking—assuming that rather than enslave us we’ll become inseparable and indistinguishable, a happy synergy equal parts human and nanotechnology. Plus, I probably won’t be around to see the day.

In that regard, the cellphone or Apple watch will be looked back upon as an example of rudimentary integration.

But what happens when we become wireless devices ourselves? And fall into swimming pools, real or metaphorical, and short-circuit? Will that become the definition of death? Will our families lower us into giant vats of rice with tears in their eyes and fingers crossed?

So as I stood rather helplessly outside the Warwick Hotel on 54th Street wondering what to do next—I’d visited assuming the venerable institution, built by William Randolph Hearst in 1926, might still have a public pay phone or two; it doesn’t—it occurred to me that as a matter of personal, and perhaps even national security, one should be required to go technology-free a day or two a month just to sharpen our survival skills. It would be the equivalent of Cold War children doing duck-and-cover drills.

It increasingly looks as if the next World War will be fought in cyberspace. Those least tethered to technology—who can read a map, grow a head of lettuce and whose ego isn’t dependent on how many people are trying to get in touch with him or her at any particular moment—will emerge as kings.

I eventually found a public phone. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, I believe.

I sidled up to it, feeling as if I were entering a time warp, and deposited a quarter. Miraculously it worked, connecting me to home.

My wife informed me she already had her dinner and I was on my own. As I walked away I enjoyed the anachronistic satisfaction of a quarter well spent and the anticipation of a journey home through the park, disconnected from everything except the trees and the setting sun.

Glimpsing the Past, by Way of Ellis Island

Ralph Gardner Jr. visits the place that millions of immigrants passed through on their way to America

The Great Hall, also known as the Registry Room, in the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Newly arrived immigrants waited here to be inspected and registered by immigration officers. ENLARGE
The Great Hall, also known as the Registry Room, in the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Newly arrived immigrants waited here to be inspected and registered by immigration officers. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Come approximately 6 p.m. on any one of the remarkable spring evenings we’ve been having lately, my body sends an unmistakable message: It wants me to be outdoors with a drink in my hand. Preferably over water.

I accomplished at least the outdoors part on a trip to Ellis Island one balmy afternoon last week, though embarking later than the 1 p.m. departure time suggested by the National Park Service left me insufficient time to fully see the place, or score refreshments.

So the only sensible solution would have been to take the entire afternoon off.

There’s a name for people with the flexibility to pursue this bold directive. They’re called tourists. Several hundred of whom were on my boat that first stopped at Liberty Island, dropping most of them off, before continuing on to Ellis Island.

“There are more foreign tourists here,” explained Stephen Briganti,president of the State of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, as we waited for them to disembark at Liberty Island. “More Americans at Ellis.”

This was my first visit to the historic portal of U.S. immigration, after having lived in New York City my whole life.

I have a reasonable excuse, however. Ellis Island didn’t open to the public—except for the millions who passed through as arriving immigrants from 1892 through 1954—until 1990.

By that time, I was far too old to join a school group and too young and jaded to engage in local tourism that was unironic.

Indeed, as our ferry pulled away from Battery Park and into New York Harbor I tried to recall how many times I’ve visited the Statue of Liberty. I could only come up with one for certain.

The experience on this particular afternoon felt sufficiently exotic—abetted by summerlike breezes and the half dozen or so languages being spoken by my fellow passengers as they jockeyed for photos of the lower Manhattan skyline—that one could have imagined about being on the Grand Canal or the Bosporus.

Which ought to be reason enough to play hooky from work.

“Forty percent of the population of the United States can trace their roots to America,” through Ellis Island, Mr. Briganti told me.

I may be one of them, though I can’t say for sure, since my ancestors who might have come through this way stopped sharing personal information long ago.

That’s the problem with the dead. By the time you’ve developed the perspicacity to start asking questions they’re no longer around to answer them.

However, one story I’ve heard over the years from my mother related to her grandmother, whom I knew and hear tell had a great sense of humor. However, I’m also told she arrived through California shortly before World War II started, rather than Ellis Island. And she was apparently at her most ferociously funny in Yiddish, a language I don’t speak.

When she appeared for her citizenship test, the judge asked her, “What happens when the president dies?”

One of the reasons we were on our way to Ellis Island was to preview “The Peopling of America Center,” a new permanent exhibition that opens May 20. It’s devoted to the complete span of American immigration—from the 1500s to the present day, rather than just the Ellis Island years.

The Citizenship Gallery at Ellis Island examines the history, meaning and requirements for immigrants to become U.S. citizens. ENLARGE
The Citizenship Gallery at Ellis Island examines the history, meaning and requirements for immigrants to become U.S. citizens. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Among the many neat displays is an interactive citizenship test that invites visitors to try their hand at the questions immigrants face when they apply for citizenship, and at which my great-grandmother would have scored an “F”.

“They bury him,” was her answer to the question regarding the presidential line of succession.

The judge decided to give it another try.

“And what happens when the vice president dies?” The correct answer is that the speaker of the House takes over.

My great grandmother’s answer was more practical: “They’re not going to all die at once,” she growled.

The apparently lenient judge decided to grant her citizenship anyway.

“The purpose of Ellis Island was to control immigration and diseases,” Mr. Briganti explained. “The only people who came to Ellis Island came steerage class, which means they came at the bottom of the boat.

“Most people got through, but about 2% didn’t get through,” Mr. Briganti went on, explaining that medical staff patrolled the stairs we were ascending at that moment, and weeded out the profoundly sick and contagious, returning them to wherever they came from.

“They were careful about the people they brought,” he said of the shipping companies, “because they didn’t want to take them back.”

We made our way to the island’s Great Hall with its arching Guastavino tile ceiling. “Every immigrant was in this room,” Mr. Briganti explained. “You can hear the voices. I think of my mother as an infant from Italy.”

I can’t say I heard the voices quite as loudly. But as we boarded the boat back to Manhattan I appreciated the efforts and risks my family took to get here, whether in steerage or a slightly more elevated compartment, and gave silent thanks for open-minded judges.

Pondering Pizza Pies, From Near and Far

Ralph Gardner Jr. says best pizza comes from Italy; Neapolitan Express founder Max Crespo disagrees

Scarlett Clawson, center, and Marie Leon inside the Neapolitan Express pizza truck.ENLARGE
Scarlett Clawson, center, and Marie Leon inside the Neapolitan Express pizza truck.PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Max Crespo, founder of pizza company Neapolitan Express, and I were having a polite pizza disagreement ahead of this weekend’s Harlem EatUp! festival. With the help of Citigroup, Mr. Crespo was promoting the event by giving away free pizza on the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard last Thursday at lunchtime.

My point of view was informed by an unappealing combination of arrogance, snobbishness and an under-informed palate. His by education, experience and hard work.

I still think I’m right.

My belief is that pizza tastes better in Italy. Not all of it, but the everyday best there beats the best here. I’m not saying the setting doesn’t have something to do with it. It just seems that the combination of fresh ingredients—mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce baked on a crispy crust—can’t be matched.

Mr. Crespo disagreed. “We have the best pizza maker in the world,” he said, referring to Giulio Adriani, his pizza maker. “He was the world pizza champion several times. He’s where pizza is going.”

I neglected to ask where pizza was going. However, he wasn’t through: “We use the best quality ingredients—San Marzano tomatoes, Caputo double zero flour, the Ferrari of flours, fresh mozzarella.”

I won’t deny that I was impressed by his passion and self-confidence. But obviously, I’d have to withhold judgment until I got my hands on one of his pies.

And I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long. My job was to drizzle Mike’s Hot Honey on their Diavolo pizza, which more than lived up to its name, the contents including fresh jalapeños, spicy Soppressata salami, extra virgin olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano. (I doubt any self-respecting Italian would add honey to pizza, but my job wasn’t to question why, only to don one of the company’s trademark fedoras and get to work as the line of hungry passersby started to form.)

But here’s the thing. Mr. Crespo wasn’t even talking about making pizza at his 40 Wall Street brick-and-mortar restaurant. He meant on his truck—one of 12 locally and 25 nationally that comprise the Neapolitan Express fleet.

The Neapolitan Express truck, with help from Citigroup, gives out pizza to promote the Harlem EatUp! festival. ENLARGE
The Neapolitan Express truck, with help from Citigroup, gives out pizza to promote the Harlem EatUp! festival. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

And the truck’s pizza ovens aren’t even wood burning, though I can understand why, since wood, pizza and gasoline might be an even less fortuitous combination than tuna on pizza.

No, his trucks are environmentally friendly. They’re fueled by natural gas, the ovens by electricity. “He who stands in front of progress tends to fail,” Mr. Crespo proclaimed as we boarded the gleaming vehicle. The walls were handsome stainless steel, the windows big and wide.

“Wood-burning ovens is a 16th century technology,” he claimed. “I have two ovens that are working at 900 degrees. It makes pizza in 90 seconds.”

I had a revelation recently that I’d like to share with you: Just because some technology is outmoded, even driven to extinction, doesn’t mean it wasn’t great, and perhaps even unimproveable.

Harlem EatUp! celebrates food, culture, art and music across four days of free and ticketed events. Net proceeds will benefit Citymeals-On-Wheels and Harlem Park to Park, entrepreneurs committed to community development in Central Harlem.

“This will attract people who might not have otherwise come to Harlem,” explained Dermot Boden, Citigroup’s chief brand officer for global public affairs.

Mr. Crespo is himself a Harlem boy—“232 East 111th street,” he told me proudly—and added that his green trucks aren’t aimed only at producing world-class pizza but also at reducing pollution. “Asthma and lung-cancer rates in East Harlem are the highest in all five boroughs,” he said.

It all sounded great…but about that pizza. There were two varieties—the Diavolo and the classic Margherita. “People said it was impossible to get the char without the wood burning,” Mr. Crespo boasted while handing me a Diavolo slice as burnished as anything I’d gotten in Italy. “Heat is heat.”

The Diavolo was plenty spicy. I like my Diavolo piccante, just spicy enough to create the conceit that you rank among life’s risk takers without ever having to put yourself in harm’s way. But this slice evoked visions of hospital emergency rooms.

A Margherita pizza.ENLARGE
A Margherita pizza. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Margherita was good, though my taste buds had trouble discerning much of anything after encountering the Diavolo.

“Someone was trying to order a large sausage,” reported Jamie Cacace,Neapolitan Express’s commissary operation manager, and one of several Neapolitan Express and Citi workers taking orders.

That wasn’t going to happen.

We served for about an hour, hundreds of slices, me taking perverse satisfaction in drizzling extra honey on each one, seeing it as a way of recouping decades of Citi service fees.

When the event was over Mr. Crespo crafted an outrageous pizza using buffalo mozzarella, organic cremini mushrooms, organic arugula, shaved parmigiana and truffle oil.

It was pretty amazing. But it would have tasted even better in Italy.

Frederic Church’s Olana Gets Contemporary With New Art Exhibit

Olana State Historic Site overlooks the Hudson Valley.ENLARGE
Olana State Historic Site overlooks the Hudson Valley. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The painting would have been shocking under any conditions: A beautiful landscape—at least it looks like it might once have been beautiful—is under attack by a crow-sized woodpecker, the bird boring giant holes in the picture and its frame, as if in search of carpenter ants. Landscape painting taken literally.

But what made the image even more arresting is its location. It hangs in the dining room at Olana, that palace to art and nature built by Hudson River School painter Frederic Church on the banks of America’s Rhine two hours north of New York City.

The work, “Table and Chair with Pileated Woodpecker,” is by Valerie Hegarty. It’s part of “River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home,” a new exhibition at the Olana State Historic Site and theThomas Cole National Historic Site, just across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge on the west side of the river.

A work  by Will Cotton, at left, on display at Olana on May 1.ENLARGE
A work by Will Cotton, at left, on display at Olana on May 1. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

There are any number of questions to which the image might give rise, but perhaps the first is: What would Frederic Church have thought? Church was famous for his monumental landscapes, among them the Metropolitan Museum’s “Heart of the Andes” from 1859, but his birds tended to be docile 19th-century creatures, more than happy to pose rather than exact Hitchcockian vengeance.

However, Stephen Hannock, an American luminist painter who curated the show with Jason Rosenfeld and who was showing me around, contended Church would have appreciated the work, especially given the parlor where it is located.

“This room was Church’s tongue-in-cheek room,” Mr. Hannock explained. He described some of the works hanging on the walls as “faux old master paintings. He frequently painted over these things.”

‘River Crossings’ curator Stephen Hannock contemplates ‘Question’ by Martin Puryear.ENLARGE
‘River Crossings’ curator Stephen Hannock contemplates ‘Question’ by Martin Puryear. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ms. Hegarty’s contribution to the show may be the only one that trafficks in destruction. Indeed, Olana has never looked better. Part of the reason is that the encroaching landscape has been pushed back over the past few years to look the way it did in Church’s time: The artist considered the fields, ponds, and forests he plowed, dug and planted as much an aesthetic composition as any of his paintings or the Moorish fantasy pile he built atop a hill overlooking the river.

Another reason is that the art on display—the show runs through Nov. 1—sparkles against Olana’s Persian décor. It builds on Church’s accomplishment, breathing fresh air, and revitalizing the connection between indoors and outdoors, between art and nature.

Just a few examples: In the East Parlor, there are two photographs byLynn Davis that would have been dear to Church’s heart. One is of an iceberg, the other of Horseshoe Falls, two of his most famous subjects.

While the pictures are undoubtedly meant as homage, there’s something stark and utterly contemporary about the silver gelatin prints; you can almost feel the spray from the falls.

‘Self Portrait (Yellow Raincoat)’ by Chuck Close is on display at Olana. ENLARGE
‘Self Portrait (Yellow Raincoat)’ by Chuck Close is on display at Olana. PHOTO:RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In the next room, is a Maya Lin work, “Silver River—Hudson,” where the artist explores the underlying grain and elegance of nature. In this case, her subject is the river that meanders past Olana, given portrait treatment as a quicksilver streak that wends its way down from upstate, emptying into New York Harbor.

“She’s never seen her piece pop like this,” Mr. Hannock said. “It’s always on these white walls. She flipped.”

There’s also an immense Chuck Close self-portrait tapestry on the hall staircase, the yellow on the artist’s windbreaker picking up the amber light from a huge Moorish window just beyond. It’s hard to say which flatters the other more.

‘River Crossings’ curator Stephen Hannock stands before a work by Rashaad Newsome ‘King of Queens’ on display at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, N.Y.ENLARGE
‘River Crossings’ curator Stephen Hannock stands before a work by Rashaad Newsome ‘King of Queens’ on display at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, N.Y. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The show continues across the river at the home of Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, Church’s mentor and painting partner. The residence is more modest than Church’s—not withstanding the three-seater outhouse—which creates a more intimate viewing experience.

But the art is just as strong. Alongside personal objects, such as Cole’s writing desk and an affectionate sketch of his wife, are works by Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Duncan Hannah and Mr. Hannock, whose “The Oxbow, Flooded, for Frank Moore and Dan Hodermarsky,” is part autobiography, part homage to one of Thomas Cole’s and American landscape’s most famous paintings, “The Oxbow.”

Untitled works by Cindy Sherman are displayed above the original fireplace at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.ENLARGE
Untitled works by Cindy Sherman are displayed above the original fireplace at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

And what would a contemporary art show be without a video installation? This one includes artist Angie Keefer’s “Fountain,” which gathers information from commodity-futures indexes around the world.

“When the market is up, the falls go forward,” explained Betsy Jacks,director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. “And when the market goes down, the falls” go backward.

However, the majesty of a waterfall, whether coming through a 19th-century American master turning oil paints into magic, or a 21st-century one employing a transparent rear projection screen, is that no back story is required.

That’s especially true when you’re surrounded on all four sides by the natural inspiration behind the work.

A view from Olana in Hudson, N.Y.ENLARGE
A view from Olana in Hudson, N.Y. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Wasting No Time to Move Today’s Youth

Eduardo de Castro instructs Ralph Gardner Jr. on what it takes to build a high-end watch.
Eduardo de Castro instructs Ralph Gardner Jr. on what it takes to build a high-end watch. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Eduardo de Castro assisted me in assembling and disassembling a watch one afternoon at the Madison Avenue showroom of Vacheron Constantin, the centuries-old Swiss watchmaker.

For aficionados of fine, manual timepieces, I probably should note that what I put together and took apart wasn’t one of Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art Skeleton watches, which retail for about $69,000.

It was some sort of large, hopefully worthless pocketwatch-type mechanism that nobody much cared whether I destroyed and which I seemed to be doing a pretty thorough job of, as I attempted to unthread minuscule screws while gazing through a jeweler’s loupe.

Tweezers are used to pick out the balance of a watch from its movement. ENLARGE
Tweezers are used to pick out the balance of a watch from its movement. PHOTO:CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

There was only one reason to submit to such frustration—two reasons actually: It occurred to me that while I’ve been wearing watches my whole life, I really have no idea how they work. More important, I couldn’t make it to the Vacheron Constantin kiddie party.

That would be the watchmaking workshop that the store had thrown a few days earlier for the junior crowd. Youngsters from 2 to 15 learned how to build their own timepieces.

Besides snacks, a fruit bowl and a take-home plastic clock, goody bags included the children’s story “A Trip Back In Time.” The slender volume traced the history of watchmaking, starting with the sun dial and ending pretty much with the present day—an illustration shows a child gazing through a watchmaker’s front window, perhaps Vacheron Constantin’s in Geneva, daydreaming of the moment he inherits his dad’s limited-edition chronograph.

There was also a jigsaw puzzle of the company’s Traditionnelle World Time watch, which lets you calculate the hour in 37 time zones. It also boasts a nifty feature that tracks the sun’s movement around the globe.

“We just had a price adjustment,” a salesman told me, as he scurried to get up-to-date information, perhaps mistaking me for a serious customer. “It’s $48,000.”

The kiddie party ran from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a Saturday and was deemed a success. “We had over 38 kids show up,” I was told. “It was exhausting.”

While the event was free to the public—the 260-year-old watchmaker’s goal to share its traditions, which it seems to take seriously—the parents who showed up with their kids sounded a fairly rarefied crowd.

A plastic toy clock built by children who came to an event hosted by Vacheron Constantin for its customers. ENLARGE
A plastic toy clock built by children who came to an event hosted by Vacheron Constantin for its customers. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Many of our collectors found it so exciting they could bring their children and show them what they’re passionate about,” explained Dorit Engel, the company’s retail director.

As much as I appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of a fine timepiece, I suspect there are things I could find to bond over with my daughters in a more modest price range.

Then again, I remember the satisfaction my father took in replacing the alligator strap on his Patek Philippe every couple of years, with me in tow.

I own the timepiece today and wear it on occasion, the connection to my father, who passed away a decade ago, pleasantly visceral.

What I can’t really understand is spending tens of thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, on a watch. One of the models I was shown—the Traditionnelle Platinum Excellence, which tells time not just the old-fashioned way but also through charming little chimes—retails for $736,000.

I mean, I can understand. Because there is no upper limit when it comes to the pursuit of status symbols. But I was among those foolish enough to believe that when Timex, among others, produced a battery-operated watch in the ’60s that kept virtually perfect time, the days of the windup wristwatch were numbered.

Indeed, I recall my delight as a child coveting the watches as they rotated on the plastic carousel at Weiner Chemists on West 72nd Street and knowing that at a retail price of $10 or less, these were serious birthday-present possibilities and perhaps even within my own budget.

I also loved the luminous glow-in-the-dark dial and the claim on the watchcase that it was waterproof, shockproof and who knew what other kinds of proof, even though I typically hastened its demise by testing those claims.

Ralph Gardner Jr. at work on a timepiece.ENLARGE
Ralph Gardner Jr. at work on a timepiece. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

But what desperate calculations must be going through the minds of today’s youth if their appetites have been whet for watches that start at nearly $20,000?

It’s probably just sour grapes on my part. I must confess that the Métiers d’Art Skeleton watch that Mr. de Castro showed me was a thing of beauty. It included 127 parts, a balance wheel that moves at 28,800 vibrations an hour—whatever that signifies—and had a 65-hour power reserve. Most important, its case was transparent, allowing the wearer, when he or she had nothing better to do, to spend endless hours transfixed by the moving parts.

Mr. de Castro confirmed some of what I already knew: that you should wind a fine timepiece only until it tightens, always move the hands forward rather than backward and resist the temptation to take it swimming.

Even though he assured me, though not precisely in those words, that it will take a licking and keep on ticking.

ralph.gardner@wsj.com

The Work and Passions of Jeff Koons

Ralph Gardner Jr. visits with the artist and his wife at his studio

Jeff Koons and his wife Justine will receive the Champion for Children Award from the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children.ENLARGE
Jeff Koons and his wife Justine will receive the Champion for Children Award from the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. PHOTO: KEITH BEDFORD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

My favorite part of visiting the artist Jeff Koons and his wife, Justine, last week came when he offered me a tour of his studio on far West 29th Street, though studio doesn’t quite do the space justice.

It more closely resembled an efficient German automotive factory, where in one division dedicated workers were casting knockoffs of some of the greatest sculptures in the history of art.

The finishing touch comes when each white plaster piece is embellished with a mirrored, vivid-blue ball. They’re part of the artist’s “Gazing Ball” series.

I hadn’t come to interview Mr. Koons about his art, but about the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, which is honoring him and his wife with the Champion for Children Award at its inaugural gala on Thursday.

In the 1990s Mr. Koons had what he describes as a heart-wrenching experience trying to reunite with his child. It began when he and his first wife, Ilona Staller—a porn star turned Italian member of parliament, who is also known as La Cicciolina—separated after the birth of their son, Ludwig. Ms. Staller left for Italy with the boy when he was 2 years old.

Mr. Koons spent several years and millions of dollars in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to bring his child back to the U.S.

In 2007, he and Justine, an artist and former assistant in Mr. Koons studio, started the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children’s research arm, the Koons Family Institute on International Law and Policy.

In fact, the couple told me that the artist’s famous balloon animals were inspired, at least in part, by Ludwig. “Jeff wanted him to realize he was thinking about him and trying to get him back,” Justine explained.

Jeff agreed. “It was a way to be communicating with my son,” he said. “When he looks back now,” he knows, “I was thinking of him.”

Perhaps it wasn’t a fair question—I admit it wasn’t a fair question—but I felt obliged to ask it anyway: Had the artist ever considered that a porn star might not be an ideal parenting partner?

One may recall the artist’s graphic “Made In Heaven” series, which turned the couple’s love life into very much a spectator sport. Then again, I’m confident some porn stars make great parents, and many nonperformers paltry ones.

“It’s not about somebody’s profession,” Mr. Koons said. “It’s about stability.”

Justine added: “Also, when you’re in love, you’re not thinking about those things.”

The couple have six children together, the oldest 13. They leave the city for Pennsylvania Friday afternoon—the artist bought the farmhouse that once belonged to his grandparents—sometimes not returning until Monday morning when the kids have to be in school.

“Nature is very important to me,” 60-year-old Mr. Koons says, but the way it was for Picasso, a role model of his. Bending it to his will, or at least giving it every opportunity to circuit freely through him. He told me he works out with a personal trainer five days a week and can dead lift 342 pounds.

“Jeff’s in good shape,” Justine testified. “Picasso influenced that sense of making work as he’s getting older and older.”

“I want to keep going,” her husband said. “I felt his work got better and better.”

Then again, Picasso was a sole practitioner. Mr. Koons has an army of assistants to do his heavy lifting. After the sculpture studio, he escorted me to the painting studio where artists were producing excellent copies of works such as Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.”

“These are masterpieces I’m incorporating into my own word work,” he explained without saying more.

“I still have a solitude in creating context,” he went on. “Pursuing my ideas and structuring my ideas. I also like being in the real world. I like being with people.”

“At a certain point you can become bored with yourself,” he added. “When you go outward it’s a journey to the acceptance of others.”

His experience trying to gain custody of his son and his work with the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children has offered the benefit of taking him outside himself, of participating in a larger community. “And caring about other people the same way you’d care about your own,” he said.

Ludwig, now 22, was in the city recently for 10 days and the family is optimistic he’ll move here.

“We went to Brooklyn and showed him where other young people live in New York City,” Mr. Koons reported.

“We went to see a Yankees game,” he added. “We walked around Manhattan quite a bit. We went to Washington and took him to the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum.”

In other words, the kind of things he might have done with his son when he was 10, if he’d been around.

They also went to the New Museum on the Bowery. “He has such an aesthetic response to things,” Mr. Koons said proudly. “He has an eye.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Urban Gardner: How a Barber Is Making Life Better for Others

Anthony Barton of Anthony’s Barbershop in White Plains is teaching his skills to those struggling to find their way

Gregory Brown takes a little off the top for Bill Carter; Mr. Brown now is working at a women’s salon. ENLARGE
Gregory Brown takes a little off the top for Bill Carter; Mr. Brown now is working at a women’s salon. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Haircuts are free Mondays and Wednesdays at the Theodore Young Community Center in the town of Greenburgh.

Since November, barber Anthony Barton has been sharing his skills with some of the men in the community. Some were fresh out of prison, struggling to find their way. Then, the barber put a pair of clippers in their hands.

“A lot of people couldn’t find a job coming out of prison,” Mr. Barton explained as he watched one of his students cut the hair of Bill Carter,Greenburgh’s commissioner for community resources.

The student, 25-year-old Gregory Brown, returned not long ago after serving time for robbery. “I saw him on the street,” Mr. Barton recalled of Mr. Brown, who had been a customer. “I asked him what is he doing for himself. He said, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ ”

Before he knew it, Mr. Brown was cutting hair at the community center and learning the art of shaving on a balloon, which served as a stand-in for a face.

“He threw me a curve one day and told me to make shapes,” Mr. Brown said of his mentor, testing his proficiency with a razor. “Squares, triangles. He walked us through every step of the way.”

“Part of my success has been the towel shave,” said Mr. Barton, who has been a barber for more than 30 years and has his own place, Anthony’s Barbershop in White Plains, N.Y. “It’s a lost art I’m teaching these kids on the balloons. We have a lot of towel talks in the class.”

Because of his new skills, Mr. Brown now has a job at Crea’cions Salon & Day Spa by Candace and Terry, where he’s the only barber. “Because I want to build my clientele,” he said, while engaging in a bit of extemporaneous self-promotion; he’s charging only $15 for a $20 haircut. A “fade,” where the hair is cut different lengths, will cost you extra, though.

“He’s in a salon with women,” Mr. Barton stated with satisfaction. “It’s more of a family environment.”

“I don’t have to worry about negative people being around,” Mr. Brown explained. “I’m at peace with myself.”

To be honest, I don’t know whether I’d let Mr. Brown cut my hair. Just yet.

Mr. Gregory tends to Paul Feiner, Greenburgh’s supervisor, as barber Anthony Barton supervises.ENLARGE
Mr. Gregory tends to Paul Feiner, Greenburgh’s supervisor, as barber Anthony Barton supervises. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Carter’s head, for example, didn’t pose the steep challenges mine would. For starters, he seemed to have all his hair. On the other hand, Paul Feiner, Greenburgh’s supervisor, has a head of hair not unlike my own. He’s missing significant amounts of it.

“I was one of his first customers,” Mr. Feiner said of Mr. Barton and his students. “And my wife decided to stay married to me.”

Mr. Barton said part of his motivation for introducing the training, which he pays for out of his own pocket, is a dearth of barbers and very few accredited barber schools in New York state. “There’s no resources for barbers,” he said.

After training with Mr. Barton, students must pass a written exam and then be an apprentice for two years with a master barber. “What I’m trying to do is get people the proper paperwork and the proper fundamentals,” the barber said.

Daniel Rodriguez, a 32-year-old student of Mr. Barton’s, passed the test and is now the barber’s apprentice. “He was working side jobs,” Mr. Barton said. “Now he’s fully employed.”

Joan Whitley’s 17-year-old high schooler William Batts is another of Mr. Barton’s students; she applauded the barber’s efforts.

Ms. Whitley bought a pair of $75 clippers for her son, confident the family will soon realize a return on its investment—if only by giving relatives complimentary haircuts and shaves. “Being his grandparents are in nursing homes,” Ms. Whitley explained, and his grandfather, “always likes to have his hair cut.”

Mr. Barton’s own background makes it easy for him to empathize with his students and the challenges they face. “I was raised by a cocaine-addicted mother and a heroin-addicted father,” the barber said, and he spent part of his youth at A.R.D.C., the Adolescent Reception and Detention Center on Rikers Island.

By the time Mr. Barton was 17, he was doing time for robbery at Coxsackie prison. “Mario Cuomo had a whole bunch of programs in prison,” he remembered of the late governor. “I was able to benefit from the barber program. Which leads me here 31 years later.”

The next customer, Silas Crockett, took his seat in the barber chair. “I am really nervous,” he confessed.

There was no reason. Mr. Barton supervised the hair cut, taking over the clippers himself to remove strands of loose hair the student had missed.

“When guys walk out of here, I want them to look like they had a professional haircut,” he explained.

He also shared his motto: “Trying to change the world, one haircut at a time.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com