A Final Bow From Ralph Gardner

For his last Urban Gardner piece, columnist reflects on his adventures and the pleasures of his craft

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PHOTO: ROB SHEPPERSON

After more than 1,000 Urban Gardner columns, this is my final one.

I was planning to write about Mary Arnold Toys, an Upper East Side toy store that dates back to 1931. Then I realized a toy store is an apt metaphor for the pleasures of composing this column four days a week for the past six years.

When I visited last week, Judy Ishayik, who runs the store with her father, Ezra, told me she started out as a teacher but decided to work at Mary Arnold Toys after trying it out for a couple of months.

“What’s great about this place,” she said, “is that everybody leaves happy. The kids have something new. A grandma has a perfect present.”

Likewise, this column has been a gift from day one, April 26, 2010, when I wrote about perfecting one’s MetroCard swiping technique.

For the record, I have yet to do so.

Some of the columns that stand out in my mind involve achieving great heights—physical if not necessarily literary ones.

Hovering high over Central Park in an NYPD helicopter piloted by the department’s first woman qualified to command one of its bigger helicopters.

Climbing to the top of the George Washington Bridge to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its aviation beacon.

Clinging to the side of the Empire State Building on a visit to its 103rd floor catwalk, where nothing separates you from the hereafter but a modest railing.

While those experiences put me at little physical risk, others did, or at least felt that way. Rock-climbing in the Shawangunks, though I doubt I ever got more than 10 feet off the ground. Flying over the Coney Island boardwalk on a Scream Zone ride. Facing off against tennis great Rafael Nadal across a Ping-Pong table.

I also appreciated being invited, though it sometimes required a little persuasion, to tell the stories of fellow New Yorkers.

Ezra Ishayik, who bought Mary Arnold Toys in 1982, said he fled Iran in the 1960s. “We were Jewish,” he said. “We couldn’t get passports, couldn’t get jobs. We had to get away. Thank God we did.”

James Fucile, a shoe repairman, told me upon his retirement, after 60 years on the Upper East Side, that his job had been “a gift from God.”

He loved his customers. He loved giving away shoes to the needy.

“God gave everybody a gift to love one another,” he said, beginning to choke up, “and once you learn to love each other as brother and sister, it is great. You can’t explain.”

I’m often asked which was my favorite column. I have no favorites. The best part of this job has been the opportunity to wake up each morning, pound out a story, turn it in around 2 p.m., and then head out across the five boroughs to do more reporting.

Another frequent question is where my story ideas come from. When New York City is your terrain, you don’t have to look very hard.

It’s rare in any medium but especially journalism these days, given the challenging economics, to be granted the privilege to wax poetic about the pleasures of a perfectly fresh Mallomar; to share the terror of the Taconic State Parkway; to write perhaps one too manycolumns about bird-watching.

I’m indebted to The Wall Street Journal for indulging me, I suspect occasionally against its better judgment.

Mr. Ishayik told me a prominent lawyer asked him if he was interested in selling his store.

“I said, ‘You’re on TV all the time,’” Mr. Ishayik recalled. “He said, ‘People come to me crying: “I’m going to prison. My wife is divorcing me.” I can have fun here.’”

This column has been immense fun. Proof, at least to myself, that middle age can feel closer to the beginning of one’s career than the end.

The Ishayiks are right. Stepping into their store produces a gentle euphoria, but it has little, if anything, to do with reliving one’s childhood.

It’s all about the present.

Perhaps that’s been the greatest joy of writing Urban Gardner. I got to live in the moment five and sometimes seven days a week.

The challenge now, and one I’m cautiously optimistic about, is finding ways to perpetuate that daily delight. This job has certainly provided enough momentum.

Home Is Where the Bird Feeders Are

Jim Schatz designs works of art that help keep our feathered friends nourished

A sumac red egg-shaped bird feeder is a creation of Jim Schatz.
A sumac red egg-shaped bird feeder is a creation of Jim Schatz. PHOTO: J SCHATZ

Ask me about my best recent investment, and I will tell you without hesitation that it’s bird feed. No other purchase under $20 provides a fraction of the pleasure that a 40-pound bag of black oil sunflower seed does.

It turns one’s home into a perpetual house party whose guest list includes sociable chickadees, eye-grabbing cardinals, tweeting titmice and an assortment of hammering woodpeckers.

And while they frequent all 12 of my feeders, the one they seem most attracted to for its easy perching and, I have to believe, aesthetic grace is a ceramic feeder in the shape of a brightly colored egg.

It is manufactured by Jim Schatz, a designer I have been eager to meet for years, who happened to be in town a couple of weekends ago. I requested an audience for no other reason than to express my gratitude that somebody finally had the temerity to make a seed dispenser that is a thing of beauty.

The typical cylindrical feeder—I have a bunch of those—does the job but in a dour way that denies the basic instinct driving those of us who birdwatch: because it’s fun.

Jim Schatz ENLARGE
Jim Schatz PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Not the same sort of fun as riding a zip line across a gorge, perhaps, but fun nonetheless.

I knew virtually nothing about Mr. Schatz, other than the photograph ofhim and his partner, Peter Souza, in the J Schatz catalog. When we met, Mr. Schatz told me he is 46 years old, grew up in North Dakota and attended college at San Francisco State University. He moved to New York City in the late 90s; these days, he and Mr. Souza live in Providence, R.I.

In some ways I felt I already knew him, our connection thriving whenever I filled my two artfully designed egg-shaped feeders—one sumac red, the other a limited-edition jacaranda purple. It’s a process that requires a certain amount of care, especially in winter when your hands are freezing, and at $165 each, dropping and shattering one, which I’ve done, constitutes a major disappointment.

Mr. Schatz said his business began, perhaps unsurprisingly, over his obsession with eggs as objects.

An antiestablishment member of San Francisco’s arts scene, Mr. Schatz initially resisted a friend’s suggestion that he turn his interest toward the functional; in New York, he was eventually persuaded that it was possible to make something both beautiful and useful without selling out.

Mr. Schatz’s egg-shaped, midnight-blue night light.ENLARGE
Mr. Schatz’s egg-shaped, midnight-blue night light. PHOTO: J SCHATZ

Mr. Schatz’s first product was an egg-shaped, midnight-blue night light, the light projecting through tiny holes on the egg. The effect was as if he figured out a way to bottle the evening sky.

He moved to upstate New York, where his fascination for birds grew, as did his frustration at the unavailability of attractive feeders.

On a return visit to the city, the source of all good ideas, it was suggested that he make a feeder in the shape of an egg. “You’re the egg man,” Mr. Schatz was reminded.

So he did, the result named by Fortune as one of the 25 best products of 2004. So many orders poured in that he had to install a second kiln. Today his business operates six and sell thousands of feeders a year, as well as lamps and stoneware.

The one thing Mr. Schatz hasn’t managed yet is a squirrel-proof feeder, though he insists that hanging his from a 3-foot wire works magic, the wily rodents uncomfortable about jumping the divide.

My experience says otherwise. I have one of his feeders hung between two trees, maybe 10 feet apart, and squirrels still manage to crash-land on it. My solution has been to hang an LP from the vinyl-coated wire that connects the feeder to the branch, so that the critters have to reach around it.

They can still get to the seeds, but they can’t tip over the whole thing for friends and family.

Of course, that undermines the beauty of Mr. Schatz’s creation and his meticulous attention to detail. Even the holes that the rods slide through are egg-shaped.

“We’re prototyping an untraditional birdbath,” Mr. Schatz told me.

I wasn’t in the market for a birdbath. Until now.

It’s the Height of Envy for a Collection of Building Models

Ralph Gardner Jr. admires (and covets) Paul Goldberger’s impressive collection of souvenir building models

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger with some of the pieces from his souvenir building collection.
Architecture critic Paul Goldberger with some of the pieces from his souvenir building collection.                      PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A spirited discussion about Manhattan building heights isn’t for everybody. But it can be fun when you run into a fellow nerd, such asPaul Goldberger, the architecture critic and Joseph Urban professor of design at Parsons School of Design.

We met last week at Mr. Goldberger’s apartment at the Beresford on Central Park West for an even nerdier reason—so I could admire his impressive collection of souvenir building models.

I invited myself over after I learned during an interview with television production designer Peter Baran that Mr. Goldberger owned dozens, perhaps hundreds of models.

My own collection—the most notable pieces are the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Twin Towers, the Eiffel Tower and the Jefferson Memorial—is relatively modest. Nonetheless, it gives me inexplicable pleasure every time I glance at my mantelpiece.

Trying to fathom why I gather such happiness from my tiny structures may have been a subconscious reason for wanting to compare notes with Mr. Goldberger.

A few of the building models in the vast collection of Mr. Goldberger.ENLARGE
A few of the building models in the vast collection of Mr. Goldberger. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I suspected my collection was unworthy, the prophecy proving true as soon as Mr. Goldberger, the former architecture critic for The New Yorker and the New York Times, ushered me into his study.

He seems not to have counted the objects, at least not lately, probably because there are so many. And include everything from some of the same models on my shelves (though in multiples, many of them antiques) to Gaudi’s Sagrada Família confection of a church in Barcelona, Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília, and the Dakota and the San Remo, two buildings on Central Park West where he lived before the Beresford.

I particularly coveted his model of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum (now the Met Breuer) and Jean Nouvel’s 1,050-foot 53W53, often called the MoMA Tower. Mr. Goldberger wasn’t boasting, but he explained the model was a gift from the building’s developer.

Nonetheless, the majority of his collection came from scouring flea markets and airport gift shops. He said his obsession, though it has quieted lately, began innocently enough.

He was renting an apartment at Hotel Des Artistes on West 67th Street “when normal people could afford such things.” The apartment included two small niches, probably meant for flowers.

Mr. GoldbergerENLARGE
Mr. Goldberger PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I was a single guy,” he remembered. “Almost as a joke, I bought an Empire State Building and a Statue of Liberty and plunked one in each niche.”

The collection grew from there; Mr. Goldberger joined organizations such as the Souvenir Building Collectors Society, swapping, buying and selling tiny Sears Towers, or whatever, with fellow collectors.

His wife, Susan Solomon, co-founder and chief executive of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, even encouraged him, suggesting a spot for his models when they moved into the San Remo.

“I think she had no idea things would get out of hand with both buildings and books,” he said.

Mr. Goldberger added that his wife remains reasonably supportive. Which is more than I can say for my own spouse, who recently relocated my Golden Gate Bridge without consulting me.

“She wants to make sure they do not migrate out of this room,” Mr. Goldberger said of Ms. Solomon. “She’s not a great fan of clutter.”

Mr. Goldberger and Ms. Solomon didn’t, for the record, move from the San Remo to the Beresford to accommodate his collection. She wanted a park view.

And she got it, as well as an unobstructed view of 432 Park Ave., the soaring Midtown condo that looms above the trees outside their apartment window.

Mr. Goldberger and I were both able to conjure the building’s height from memory—1,396 feet—because that’s something souvenir building nerds tend to be able to do, the talent typically dating back to childhood. (To the best of either of our knowledge, a model of 432 Park doesn’t yet exist and would probably look rather monotonous if it did.)

“Nine hundred eighty-four feet,” he said of the Eiffel Tower. “I remember the Chrysler Building was 1,084.”

I thought the Eiffel Tower was 988 feet, but he’s right. I checked.

A Cartoonist Goes to Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

West Village Speakeasy-Turned-Pub Starts a New Chapter

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

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

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
Oct. 12, 2016 8:55 p.m. ET

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unmarked door of the bar
The unmarked door of the bar PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mr. Borgognone, who at 37 years old never set foot in the old Chumley’s, shrugged.

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

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

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

A dog statue
A dog statue PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

I meant to dine on.

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

You’d be surprised.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Photographer’s Focus Captures a City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE URBAN GARDNER

Not the Happiest Place on Earth July 24, 2016
A Chocolate Lover Works to Support Cacao Farmers July 20, 2016
Reviving History, a Summer Project July 19, 2016
But an image of a man in the waiting room at Grand Central Terminal taken in 1952 makes the photographer’s point. The man is engrossed in his newspaper. Whether or not he realizes he is being photographed, he doesn’t acknowledge the camera; it poses no threat.

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

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

For Times Square Characters, a New Reality

Tighter rules hamper moneymaking opportunities

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

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
Updated July 24, 2016 7:38 p.m. ET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Pokémon Go (and other columns)

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

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
July 17, 2016 10:15 p.m. ET

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

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

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

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

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

Too long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

MORE URBAN GARDNER

A Chocolate Lover Works to Support Cacao Farmers July 20, 201
Reviving History, a Summer Project July 19, 2016
A Mother Honors Her Late Son by Helping Addicts Have a Little Fun July 18, 2016
Where James Cagney Is Still a Player July 12, 2016

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

Baseball Cards Steal the Show

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

Babe Ruth, New York Americans, American Caramel Company,1921-22. Ruth’s contract was sold to the Americans, also known as the Yankees, in 1920; here, he’s still wearing his Boston uniform.
William Ewing, New York, Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, 1888. William ‘Buck’ Ewing was one of the best players of the 19th century. He played on the Gothams, which became the Giants and then moved to San Francisco.
Albert John ‘Doc’ Bushong, Brooklyn, Goodwin & Company, 1888. This card was meant to be displayed like a framed picture. Because of the limits of photography at the time, many of the pictures on these cards were taken in a studio. The players had to act out their positions.
Thomas P. ‘Oyster’ Burns, Brooklyn, Goodwin & Company, 1888. The shortstop played on the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, a team that later became the Trolley Dodgers and then the Dodgers. Fans actually had to dodge trolleys to get to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
Ed Willett, Detroit, American Tobacco Company, 1909-1911. The pitcher appears here in a series of cards known as the White Borders series, which was particularly popular because of its aesthetics.
Willie Keeler, New York, American Tobacco Company, 1909-1911. The Yankees changed names many times. When this right fielder played on the team, it was called the Highlanders in part because its ballpark was on an elevated area in Manhattan.
Mordecai Brown, Chicago, American Tobacco Company, 1911. Early on, cards like this came in cigarette packages. Candy companies later followed suit.
Walter Johnson, Washington Senators, American Tobacco Company, 1911. The pitcher is featured in the American Tobacco Company’s Gold Borders series, the first series of cards that included player autographs.
Joe Jackson, Cleveland, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein, 1914-15. Before getting caught up in the Black Sox betting scandal, ‘Shoeless Joe’ appeared on this Cracker Jack prize.
Ed Sweeney, New York, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein, 1914-1915.
Babe Ruth, New York Americans, American Caramel Company,1921-22. Ruth’s contract was sold to the Americans, also known as the Yankees, in 1920; here, he’s still wearing his Boston uniform.
William Ewing, New York, Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, 1888. William ‘Buck’ Ewing was one of the best players of the 19th century. He played on the Gothams, which became the Giants and then moved to San Francisco.
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By this time in the baseball season the New York Mets are often many games out of first place. It took Allison Rudnick, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to inform me that’s not the case this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dream You Can Taste

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

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

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

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

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

The trio is rounded out by Melissa, 32.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, she knows her sisters have her back.

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

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