New York Diaries Redux

I really enjoyed the selection and arrangement of diary excerpts in New York Diaries: 1609-2009 (Modern Library, 2012)Read my post on the book here. I particularly like how the segments capture the environment of New York depending on the period: the colonists’ arrival, the boom and squalor of the nineteenth century, the sparkle and click of beads in the 1920s, the living off of Chinese in a paper box in a dark room vibe, of , well, pretty much any period of New York history.

I moved into New York City proper in 2005, and while my journalling habits have given way to blogging, research writing, and fiction, I was curious to see how my own New York entries held up against those selected for the text. In comparison, I wondered at the volume of diaries created today. Do people write for themselves as much? Or have they replaced it with lesser notions of privacy and revealing all to others online? What is Facebook but one lengthy diary, with commentary? In perusing my own journals, I find a lot about the routines of my life, and less of the texture of the city. It’s as soon as I got here, there was too much life here to write about. Alas. I’ll see if they look any better 25 years from now. Here are a few excerpts:

Photo: Tookapic [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

28 August 2005: Threw out more junk yesterday. Great chat with Maggie N. She’s been a tai chi and nihon buyo [Japanese classical dance] instructor for over 40 years. Back in the day, she had a studio in Chinatown that was a Chinese gang battleground.  One day they torched it & Maggie had to slither out the window ledge & down a construction rope to save her life. Gone were all her possessions, kimono, & wigs.

2 January 2006: MOMA in the rain, with some party evidently occurring. Gave a foreigner the wrong directions to Penn Station. Well, he’ll be closer than he would have been.

8 April 2006: On the M15 Limited. Two nearby hipsters remarking how the Limited is “hot” and like a “stretch Hummer.”

13 October 2011: I found the NYPL menu transcribing project. What struck me first was the explosion of menus in their collection from around 1900, and how they all basically have the same thing on them (not necessarily true, but “Cold Meats.” rang a bell for me as a  short story title). It is everywhere. I love how you order pickles and relishes separately, 10c. Breakfast wines upon request.

14 October 2011: 1pm. Goofy trip to D’agastinos, where we were accosted by a scammer with a Planned Parentood shirt on, only to ask for a credit card number on the street. More Roth, more Food and Wine, poking at newspaper ads, watching [Star Trek] Voyager and eating mushroom soup.  It will be too soupy for hiking tomorrow, and I have a terrible time trying to chill out.



Scenes from a Manhattan Apartment Hunt

No, we aren’t looking to move! But I was flipping through a book in which I kept notes about my apartment hunt in 2005. I had 54 apartments on my list and looked at 30 of them – yep, 30 different one room apartments at the bottom of the market on the Upper East Side. Here are a few notes from that experience – I’ve substituted “#” for the street numbers.

9/5/2005 ### East 95th: Scummy.

9/12/2005 ### East 89th St. Apt 2D: Big but serious fixer upper.

9/12/2005 ### East 90th. Apt 1B: Garden access meant crawl through window onto someone else’s patio. The agent thought they wouldn’t mind.

9/12/2005 ### East 75th. Apt 3D: Kitchen cabinet door fell off in my face.

9/13/2005 ### East 78th Street Apt. 2: Window opened on a brick wall.

9/20/2005 ### East 90th Street Apt. 3A: Dumpy building again. 80s kitchen, small bath.


By Jacob Riis (How the other Half Lives (1890) [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pigeon Pie.

We have some pigeons who decided to make a nest on our window sill. I found them too late – when I knocked on the window to get the hen to move on, I realized she’d already laid her eggs.

Photo: Depositphotos.

From The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, 1747.

To make a Pigeon Pie.

Make a puff-paste crust, cover your dish, let your pigeons be very nicely picked and cleaned, season them with pepper and salt, and put a good piece of fine fresh butter, with pepper and salt, in their bellies: lay them in your pan; the necks gizzards, livers, pinions, and hearts, lay between with the yolk of a hard egg and a beef-steak in the middle; put as much water as will almost fill the dish, lay on the top crust, and bake it well. This is the best way to make a pigeon-pie; but the French fill the pigeons with a very high force-meat, and lay force-meat balls round the inside, with asparagus tops, artichoke bottoms, mushrooms, truffles, and morels, and season high; but that is according to different palates. 


Wanderlust Wednesday: Florida

My memories of my one visit to Florida in 1998 weren’t warming me up (ha) for my recent trip. The weather was like an electric blanket I couldn’t get away from. One of my host’s friends was attacked by fire ants while she stood talking in the street. The area seemed like one car ride after another to Walmart and other chain stores. I couldn’t see the appeal.

Mr. V’s family lives on the opposite side of the state, on the Atlantic coast.  Beaches, suburbia, and hot weather don’t do much for me.  But I was pleasantly surprised by finding a lot of local character still preserved (as well as a good amount of Obama bumper stickers, to balance the local Republican flavor) and allowed myself to watch rustling palm trees, wiggle my toes in the sand, and chill (in the heat). South of Indiatlantic, the condos petered out, leaving a rather rural road with  quiet beaches.

Redfish with crab/shrimp cake at Squid Lips. I think they should have used a spoon on the mashed potatoes, rather than an ice cream scoop. The pineapple coconut bread is kind of weird, but fresh.

I didn’t get a photograph of the Cuban meal my mother-in-law and sister-in-law prepared for our visit: marinated steaks, black beans and rice, malanga fritters (a root vegetable shredded, mixed with egg and salt and fried) and a huge, dense flan (food that makes Mr. V very happy). I noticed that many houses had these huge steel constructs over their backyards that made them look like prison compounds – however – they were incredible to sit within: no bugs, no leaves in the pool, and no gators. I suggested to Mr. V that we might consider a career change.


Breakfast heaven at The Blueberry Muffin in Indiatlantic. I put aside my concerns about carbon offsets and enjoyed their Maine-sourced blueberries. I don’t care much about muffins generally, but these muffins and pancakes were the best. Plus, there were no “We Built That” signs blazoned all over the restaurant, unlike the first breakfast place we attempted to enter.

Transit Tuesday: More Griping about Penn Station

Inari sushi – sweetened deep fried tofu skin stuffed with rice dressed with rice vinegar, salt, and sugar. Photo by miwa_in_oz

There is one redeeming thing about the current New York Penn Station – it’s Penn Sushi. They have great inari sushi. I always stop in to see the very friendly staff and pick up sushi whenever I travel by train. As for the rail station, it’s a joke.

The large photographs of the original New York Penn Station posted around today’s Main Concourse just baffle me. One shows the original Main Concourse, with its steel and glass vaulted ceiling, the stairways down to the tracks portals to adventure. Another shows the entry hall off of Seventh Avenue. I wonder whose decision it was to place those photos there, and what were they thinking. Was the idea to undo the destruction, to remind people that they should consider themselves in a place of great architectural history – but so sorry we let it go? The demolition of Penn Station in 1963 was known at the time to be an irretrievable loss to the fabric of New York, and it paved the way for the preservation of Grand Central Terminal (which rail building would you have rather saved?). How long did it take for  the modernism of the new train station to lose its sheen? Are those photographs supposed to make us feel better about our temporary rat-like existence in the current building bearing the name Penn Station?

RL Fifield 2012.

Eighteenth Century for the Weekend

RL Fifield, 2012.

Last weekend, The Brigade of the American Revolution hosted an Authenticity Event at Don Carpentier’s Eastfield Village. A collection of two taverns, a store, a church, a doctor’s office, an assortment of shops, and a handful of houses were saved from demolition by Mr. Carpentier and assembled on the east field of the family’s farm. Long the site of an esteemed historic trades workshop series, the village is the perfect site for Authenticity Weekend.

Stitching. Photo: J McMillan.

Mr. V isn’t a reenactor – you’ve heard of football widows – I have a reenacting widower.  So I assumed the role of the Widow Fifield, a small town milliner and landlady to an esteemed couple in order to support myself in my reduced circumstances. While I did ply my needle a good bit last weekend, I also enjoyed working in my two room house with a small kitchen in the back, complete with a stone sink that emptied out the wall into the backyard.





The true value of the experience was negotiating my modern self within an eighteenth century physical routine. I rose as early as decent to make a fire. I slept on top of my clothing so that it would be warm when I put it on in the morning, in a room that was about 45 degrees. Beyond logistical matters, I considered the role of a widow within a small town (different from the crape draped recluse of the 19th century). I wondered what it would be like to possibly live without literacy.

And of course, there are other, practical matters.

Upper Tavern Privy. RL Fifield, 2012.


Halloween Comes to Downton Abbey

I predicted in this post from April that people would be hot to trot for Downton Abbey influenced costumes this Halloween. True to form, a lot of readers have been finding my blog by searching on “downton abbey halloween costumes.”

I’m thinking that there will be quite a few Annas & Mr. Bateses, some Lord & Lady Granthams, and quite a few Marys & Matthews.  And I’m sure there will be a few Dowager Countesses chortling it up. (Anyone going as that tasty Turk?)

But a Halloween costume that evokes the grandeur of the early 20th century isn’t as easy to come by as googling for a French Maid outfit. Cheap cotton, polyester lace, and too short skirts aren’t going to help the gal who aspires to “Go Downton” this Halloween. If you enjoyed the detail and glamour of the costumes ported in the PBS series, then some smashed tawdry outfit out of a plastic bag just isn’t going to cut it.

To see what sort of success my readers were having by searching for Downton Halloween costumes, I googled “downton abbey halloween costumes” myself. The offerings were pretty slim, with only one site offering some passable possibilities. Rentals are probably going to get you the closest to that Downton look, but are pricey. Even if you are familiar with constructing historic reproductions, putting something together worth sewing will cost you in materials, even if you can find the vintage baubles to take that gown to the next level. Read this fun interview from Susannah Buxton, costume designer for the series, here (note: as a museum professional, I do cringe at the use of historic elements in theatrical costumes).

I think if I were going to attempt making my Downton Abbey outfit with a month to go, I’d probably scare up a copy of Patterns of Fashion 2, mix it with a little Past Patterns and their helpful period construction techniques notes (especially if I don’t have time to look at originals), and review some museum collections online and some period magazines for inspiration.

Alas, all that will have to wait for a crash course on period corsetry! I’ll take the eighteenth century any day.

A little early, but it’s a start. Callot Souers, 1914. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.1193.

Museum Monday: A Questionable Practice – Museums Charging for Collections Research Time

I am a museum collection manager with over twenty years working with museum collections. I started cataloging costume objects when I was sixteen during my summer tour guide job at the Carroll County Farm Museum. I recently approached a local history collection (which will remain nameless, for the time being) for a photograph of an object to use in a Powerpoint presentation. I was impressed that they spelled out their collections access policy. It’s great to have a policy, and to make it visible to your constituents.

When I went to look at their research request form (which I  think is very useful for preparing the museum for your visit), I noticed that this institution charges $25 an hour ($15 for members!) for access to collections. The average morning visit would cost nearly $75. As a museum professional and an independent researcher, I was shocked.

The relationship between museum and researcher is hardly ever exclusively a one way street – there’s an exchange of information, and that information provided by the researcher, such as mentioning comparative objects or relevant primary sources, can often become part of the permanent object file. The museum and subsequent researchers can then build upon that research as they plan exhibitions, write publications, and take that research to the next level. It hardly seems correct to charge an outside researcher that may possibly assist the museum in better understanding the object.

Museums must figure out how to generate donations and to cope with declining government support while striving to meet higher standards of preservation and access to collections.  I expect to pay when I make lots of photocopies, or use an institution’s image in a publication. As a museum professional, I think also about the reciprocal relationship between museums involved in special exhibition loans. Some museums charge loan fees, beyond the actual costs of preparing and shipping an object to a borrowing institution.  While a borrowing institution clearly pays for shipping, insurance, courier fees, required conservation, and packing and shipping, some museums place an additional fee on top, just for the privilege of borrowing the works. Many museums believe this is not in good faith, and begins to capitalize on the educational mission of museums.

Certainly, there are a lot of hard to capture costs when it comes to preparing loans, but getting out some collection objects for a visitor is one of the easiest things I can do. It is why I am there. I work with the researcher before their visit so we don’t waste time during the visit.

So I ask that museum charging $25 an hour for access to collections, where are your priorities? Every true museum holds collections in the public trust. You should be seeking contributors that you can energize about collection care to support you, rather than resulting to the extortion of your researchers. Visit Connecting to Collections to see a great Webinar on raising funds for collection care. It can be done.

Library Find: How To Manage Without A Maid

I’ve mentioned my adoration for the New York Society Library (April 19, click here). The stack section of the library covers 12 floors – I can enter any of them and find the quirky gem. While not a find of great literary import, I did have to chuckle over finding How to manage Without A Maid by Lita Price and Harriet Bonnet (1942). The book outlines not one, but two foreign lives: one of handling the household by keeping help, the other, a life  without career except for household management. The book outlines that modern technology frees the modern woman from dealing with difficult servants and the intrusions into a family’s privacy their presence necessarily creates.

“Maid service is getting harder and harder to find at any price and only too often, even if you pay top wages, you will have to put up with help which is unskilled, unwilling and seldom permanent. Usually as soon as a house worker can find another type of employment, she will leave you flat and you have still another maid to break in.” (p. 26)

Here’s the suggested workday for the reader, enabled by time management, lists, and modern technology:

Suggested Timing Budget for Forty Hours a Week of Housework (yes! a full time job worth of housework!)

Six hours each Weekday (that would include Saturday, ladies!)

Breakfast prep ……………………………………………….20 min
Menu planning, kitchen work, straightening….…..40 min
Bedrooms………………………………………………….….30 min
Weekly cleaning task or laundry………………………2 hours
Light lunch prep……………………………………………15 min
Kitchen work and partial dinner prep………………45 min
Extras around the house………………………………..30 min
Dinner prep…………………………………………………..30 min
Kitchen work……………………………………………….30 min

Four hours on Sundays (get to it!)

Breakfast prep…………………………………………………..20 min
Kitchen work and straightening……………………….…30 min
Cleaning up……………………………………………………..30 min
Partial dinner prep…………………………………………….30 min

I’m all for handwork, but I guess the point of this image is not to show the woman who might have been interested in ham radio or political rallies in the evening.

Straightening and bedmaking…………………………….30 min
Dinner prep……………………………………………..………30 min
Kitchen and partial supper prep………………………….25 min
Supper prep……………………………………………………..30 min
Kitchen work……………………………………………….…..15 min


Wanderlust Wednesday: Vancouver

RL Fifield 2011.

Mountains. The Canadian version of Seattle. West coast cool.  I’d heard so much about it, and while the mountains are thrilling, I expected something more. So much of the town consists of modern apartment buildings set back from the street – indeed, my hotel room was a full apartment twice the size of my own in New York (but that’s not an uncommon occurrence). The scrubby old Gastown made me think I found something unique to Vancouver, but then found the stores full of tourist trinkets. I did make my way via transit to the Granville Island markets and art workshops, overlooking the rivers and bridges into the central city.

I ended up needing to escape, and hooked a bus out to the incredible Stanley Park. Sports fields, gathering places, manicured gardens, wildernesses, and swamps all sit within city limits. I hiked for hours and didn’t meet the edge of the park.

Madonna of the Hot Dog. RL Fifield 2011.

The hot dog stand is everywhere! I did have a Japadog while I was there: a hot dog garnished with spicy mayonnaise, teriyaki sauce, onions, and seaweed threads. I did benefit from the staggering plentitude of izakaya in Vancouver, and wish that trend would take a stronger hold on New York. Izakaya menus titilate with their variety of morsels. Marinated whelk or potato salad with seaweed and salmon roe anyone? I found Guu Kobachi Izakaya in a part of town I wish I had more time to discover and ate way too much mackerel before boarding my red eye back to NYC.

RL Fifield 2011.